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Free Sampler: Uncatchable (A Space Adventure)

UNCATCHABLE
a space adventure
by Marco Guarda

Copyright 2015 by Marco Guarda

http://www.worldofcredence.com

All rights are reserved. No part of this novel may be used or reproduced in any manner without prior written consent of the author.

This novel is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places and incidents are product of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be held as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely incidental.

The font GetVoIP Grotesque is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0. http://getvoip/library/grotesque-font

Free sampler – 1st part of 4

CONTENTS

 

Cover

Back

Copyright notice

UNCATCHABLE

Other works by Marco Guarda

 

PROLOGUE

The Electromagnetic Anomaly

The Peace Delegation

The Summer Harvest

Fleet Command

 

PART I

 

1. JIM STREAMER

A Few Words About Me

2. FRANK’S SHOP

The Neutron Hound 21

Billy, Stella… and Vance

King of the Hill

3. THE RECRUITMENT CENTER

On the Fly Hound to Cedric

False Impersonation

Doctor West

Doctor Broyle

The SAVAB Test

The Infantry Simulation

The Space Simulator

Major Shepherd

4. AN EMPTY HOUSE

The Trip Back

The Uncatchable

Mom

My Bedroom

The Stranger

5. A NARROW ESCAPE

Cedric Spaceport

The Icepick

Almost Airborne

6. MEETING ORION

The Rendezvous Point

The Picture of the Black Ship

A Brush with the Special Team

Eh bana tul,

Eh bana sila-ne,

Eh bana kana-ne.

I come in peace,

I come as a friend,

I come as a brother.

PROLOGUE

THE ELECTROMAGNETIC ANOMALY

The constant drone of the Virulent Mk-II had been ringing in Captain Streamer’s ears for almost twenty-four hours. He hated the soothing effect that noise had on his nervous system and fought against the torpor to stay awake; drowsiness was a sneaky enemy for a pilot—yielding to it could mean his undoing. He took a sip of water from the canteen next to his seat and drew a deep breath. This would chase away the ever-lingering spell of sleep for a little more.

Again, Captain Streamer stared at the black emptiness of space, trying to make out the electromagnetic anomaly he’d been sent to find, but he saw nothing—just billions of stars with nothing in between. That region of space was a long way from Earth, the longest a human had ever traveled; the Virulent Mk-II set a new record with every click it made. Even if Captain Streamer was used to long missions, this was the first time he had pushed himself so far from any support ship. If there was a mechanical breakdown, he would be on his own. If there was a failure in the life-support module, he would die out there. It was that simple. He could count on his decennial experience as a pilot of the Terran Fleet, on a nit-picky preparation of the mission, and on his trusted comrades. As for the rest… well, he was in God’s hands.

Captain Streamer looked out his cockpit at the three silvery dots moving along with him—his squadron followed in tight formation.

To his right was Lieutenant Dieter Halvorson, a hulking Danish bloke with blond hair and the finest brain in the whole fleet. Other than being an excellent pilot, he was the appointed avionics and communications expert for the mission. He’d cut his teeth upgrading the software on the old Fennec A-71 to make it compliant with the new standards of the latest ships of the fleet, and he knew how to deal with computer tantrums.

To the captain’s left was Sub-lieutenant Thomas Morris. A Galway Irishman, he was brawny, surly, and quick-tempered. You wouldn’t want to be anywhere nearby him in a bar, because trouble would follow him. But on a fighter? Well, that was a different thing. Morris knew most weapon systems by heart and could rig or defuse a bomb in thirty seconds. That made him a valuable member of the mission.

Lieutenant Benjamin Daniels brought up the rear. Born a Kentucky farmer, he’d spent the better part of his youth sticking his nose in the night air, at the stars he loved, when he realized he wanted to build spaceships’ engines instead of tilling soil. A nuclear engineer and a pilot, he had enlisted in the space program, moving from project to project until he’d landed a job to design and test the engine system for the Virulent Mk-II.

Halvorson, Morris, and Daniels were the best pilots Captain Streamer knew. He had handpicked them for the mission, and they had accepted gladly.

The radio crackled. “The more I look out there,” Morris said, “the less I see. My scopes are dead. I wonder if Fleet Command gave us the right coordinates, after all.

I feel your frustration, Morris,” Halvorson’s cavernous voice said. “The eggheads back home should know better than to trust hearsay. This thing we’re supposed to find, this anomaly, is too good to be true—it’s impossible it exists. If it did, we could kiss these jalopies good-bye.

“Jalopies? You’d better watch your mouth, Morris,” Captain Streamer said. “It doesn’t go down too well with Daniels when someone badmouths his baby.”

Well, his baby is making my ass square…

If only Fleet Command gave us more details,” Halvorson said. “This need-to-know basis is plain bullshit to me.

What is it we’re supposed to see?” Daniels asked.

“I wish to God I knew,” Captain Streamer said. “Just keep your eyes open. If it’s as big as they say, we won’t miss it.”

The existence of a massive electromagnetic anomaly in that remote region of space was a guess of the military intelligence, based on the data mined in the last twenty years from the remains of the alien battleship Kematian left at Congara. The intelligence believed the aliens had access to a vast network of electromagnetic anomalies which allowed them to travel from one point of the galaxy to the other within minutes. If such a network existed, the benefit of securing it would’ve been enormous. But nobody had found it yet. The speculations may be wrong, and this could be a wild-goose chase. If the squadron didn’t find anything in the next six hours, their orders were to return to the Summer Harvest.

Captain Streamer stifled a yawn, when the long-range radar in front of him beeped frantically.

I’ve got a reading,” Halvorson radioed in.

Me too,” Morris said, alert.

Is it our anomaly?” Daniels asked.

Captain Streamer double-checked his radar. “I don’t think so. It’s exceptionally small to be an electromagnetic anomaly, and it’s damn fast—I’ve got a readout of SL-4 here.”

Hey, that’s twice as fast as we are!” Daniels cried.

It doesn’t look like an anomaly to me,” Halvorson said.

Then what is it?” Morris asked.

Visual contact in ten seconds,” Daniels said.

Captain Streamer kept his eyes glued on the red dot tearing through the radar display, headed toward them—and was overcome with the sudden realization of impending danger. “Everybody split!” he shouted.

He reached out for the Virulent Mk-II’s control wheel and pushed hard, at the same time pulling the thrust handle all the way back. The fighter jerked to life. The dull noise of its hydrogen engines climbed to an earsplitting howl inside the cockpit as they overpowered. On the radar, the four silvery dots fanned out, away from the incoming object, which changed its course accordingly, moving in on the fighter farther behind. “It’s on you, Daniels!” Captain Streamer said.

I can’t shake it off! I can’t—

In Streamer’s windshield, Daniel’s fighter went off with a small flare. “Daniels? Daniels!” Streamer called, but nobody answered him. He saw the familiar dot that had been the lieutenant’s fighter disappear from the radar. At the same time, the red dot made a wide loop.

He’s ready for another pass!” Halvorson said. “Let’s turn around and arm our torpedoes!

He’s too fast for torpedoes!” Morris said.

A great calm descended on Captain Streamer as he focused on his enemy. He felt like being swept twenty years back in time, when he’d first received his baptism of fire—at Congara. “Use your plasma guns,” he said. “Let’s force him into a corridor. Set your torpedoes to blast off at one click, around and at the end of the corridor!”

Aye, Captain!” Morris said.

Switching over to plasma guns!” Halvorson said.

Captain Streamer pulled the control wheel toward him until the Virulent Mk-II headed back and then rolled to the side, facing the unknown enemy. “Here he comes,” he said. “Open fire!”

The three pilots pelted the point where the enemy was with rounds, unable to see it with their eyes, using their radar for guidance—the plasma lit up in a spiraling tunnel, trapping for a moment something darker than the darkness surrounding it.

“Torpedoes away!” Captain Streamer shouted.

The torpedoes shot out from the Terran fighters, traced a feeble wake of gold, and then exploded in a firework of engulfing fire at the end of the plasma tunnel.

Captain Streamer’s computer magnified the explosion on his monitor, trying to locate the mysterious object within, when the black ship flung itself past the flaming barrier—an ominous mass, unscathed, shiny as polished obsidian. “Morris!” Streamer said. “He’s coming for you!”

Never before had the three pilots dealt with so fast an enemy. Morris kept shooting, but the obsidian ship evaded easily. It passed so close to the sub-lieutenant’s fighter it almost collided with it, then speared it with one bright shot—the Terran fighter went up in a ball of fire. The black ship inverted its course once again, this time making for Halvorson.

“Dive, Halvorson! Dive-dive-dive!” Captain Streamer shouted. He joined Halvorson at targeting the enemy ship, and they depleted their ammo on it, but the black ship emerged from the blast untouched. It shot a deadly dart at Halvorson—his fighter blew up.

Feeling the cold sweat trickle down his forehead, Captain Streamer pushed the control wheel all the way forward, trying to crash into the enemy—they sped into each other, but the black ship rocked just enough to move out of his way. It fired back, catching the left wing of the Virulent Mk-II, shredding it to pieces.

The fighter spun out of control, disappearing in the endless stretch of darkness.

The control panel in front of him blaring with hull-breach and failure alarms, Captain Streamer fought with the control wheel to level the Virulent Mk-II, but there was nothing he could do. He checked the long-range radar for hints on the whereabouts of the enemy ship, but it was gone—its pilot knew that the Terran fighter was done for. Streamer heard the hiss of the oxygen draining through the fissured hull. His eyes blurring, he took one last glance at the radar… and was amazed at seeing something on it. Something small and steady, smaller than a planet—a moon, maybe. Feeling his strength desert him, he nudged the control wheel toward it.

The computer performed a spectrographic analysis of the celestial body and rattled off a stream of data: even if the moon was a desert, it was surrounded by a thin atmosphere that made it suitable for life. The irony, Captain Streamer thought. What was the chance of finding a habitable moon in that godforsaken region of space—one in a billion? Well, he had found it. The irony was that despite his unbelievable luck, he would crash on it.

He steered the Virulent Mk-II past the outer layers of the moon—they went by in a blur, exposing the hot and quickly approaching surface. Seeing the rises and the dips sweep past the fighter’s hull, Captain Streamer pulled the control wheel to himself, squeezing the last ounce of thrust from the wheezing engines in a final nose-up. As he skipped over the dunes and rolled along them, his helmet slamming like a punch ball, a dreadful thought came over him—that he would never again see his beloved wife and his adolescent son. Not this time. Not this far.

Only a few hours had passed from the impact.

Captain Streamer opened his eyes to a blinding brightness and to absolute silence. His aching body lay in the sand, some yards away from the totaled Virulent Mk-II. He propped himself on his arm, and discovered that he couldn’t move his legs. He removed his helmet and threw it away, feeling half of his face swell and bleed from a deep gash. He was happy and sad at the same time; happy to be still alive, and sad because he would soon die. He closed his eyes under the scorching sun, waiting for Death to ease him from pain.

Half an hour later he was still alive, hanging to life by a thread. He opened only one eye; the other was a lump of blood and flesh. He wondered if Death had lost its way, when he saw the stranger. He came closer and loomed over him. Every inch of his body was covered—even his face was concealed inside a hood.

If that was Death, it didn’t look very intimidating, Captain Streamer thought, when a revolting gurgle interrupted him. He looked to his left to see a squat and black salamander, five feet tall and twenty feet long, including its ridged tail. Her red tongue flicked in and out her mouth, sensing him like a snake would. Captain Streamer grimaced. “I’m raving already…”

The stranger glanced with suspicion at the smoldering heap of metal that had been the Virulent Mk-II, but ultimately decided that whatever the threat it had posed it was now gone. The stranger climbed from his ride. Keeping his face shielded from the heat of the sun, he drew closer to the man fallen from the sky. He prodded his stick at the captain’s ripped spacesuit, then spoke in a raspy and cackling voice. “Ka kud karrak, einee? Ka kud?” he said.

Captain Streamer jerked upright. He lunged for the cloak wrapped around the stranger and bared his face. The captain studied the black, wide eyes of the alien, happy to see he was real. He wasn’t Death, he wasn’t a ghost, and this wasn’t a dream, after all. “Water…” he croaked.

The bluish alien stood looking at him. He shook his head and shrugged, incapable of understanding. “Wattar? Eh anbar nee, einee.

“I need water…” the captain said.

Eh anbar nee, einee—wattar,” the alien repeated.

Captain Streamer rolled his eyes and grumbled. “Man, I really hope the delegation is doing better than this…” he said. In the last sparkle of consciousness, depleted of energies, he eased his head on the sand and fainted.

THE PEACE DELEGATION

Mrs. Trent studied the cup in her hands. Fashioned out of clay, it was primitive and refined at the same time. Its deliberate roughness enhanced the tactile experience of its holder, and yet the cup was also extremely thin, a sign of the superior technique employed to produce it. Whoever created that simple object belonged to an advanced culture, conscious both of its roots and of its place in the future. She moved her fingers around the cup, enjoying the pleasure of touch. She was amazed at the amount of information she could infer from and object as simple and common as that. The Ancient Arts and Crafts course she had taken back at college hadn’t been a waste of time—it complemented her skills as an anthropologist.

Mrs. Trent glanced at the room she sat in. It was a weird living room, so different from those she was used to back on Earth, and yet as cozy. Its walls, its floor, and its ceiling didn’t meet at a right angle. In Keiana’s house there were hardly any sharp angles—the polished clay of the floor unwound flat, but then, in proximity of a wall, it would curl up and merge into it. That happened about the ceiling as well, so that the whole room flowed and rolled like a cloth folded on itself. The modernity of it all was striking.

Mrs. Trent turned her head and spotted more traditional-looking technological devices like computer monitors, call screens, or small control panels poking out from the clay sockets where they had been embedded with mastery. She glanced at the sofa she sat on, moving her fingers through the thick treads of the wool spread covering it. She found it incredibly sensual and warm. Mrs. Trent knew a dozen women back on Earth who would’ve paid a fortune to have a living room like that. She herself could’ve spent the whole week at her disposal on the colony just scouring for alien furniture, but she reminded herself that she had come for a more important matter than interior design.

The recurring thought that she may not be up to the task the Institute of Anthropology had entrusted onto her troubled Mrs. Trent, but she shook it from her mind. She had had the confirmation that she was the right woman for the job when she had set foot on the Sar-dak colony of Lia Nala. By using her frankness, her matter-of-fact attitude, and by properly addressing her interlocutors, she had managed to win the favor of even the most suspicious members of the colony. A certain cultural affinity with the most influential one, the Sar-dak superintendent, had sealed the success of the diplomatic mission. It was a baby step, but it had worked. Soon, Earth’s government would’ve followed up with official moves, dispelling the fears of the Terrans and securing everlasting peace between the two races.

Mrs. Trent returned her eyes to the cup in her hands. She peered at the greenish liquid inside it, sniffed its aroma, and then sipped some. “It has an exceptional taste,” she said. “Like tea. At first it’s strong, too strong, I thought. But then that feeling vanished, and I was left with a subtle, lingering aroma of berries, herbs, and some roots I couldn’t recognize. It’s good. Exceptionally good.” She lifted her eyes from her cup and met the unusually wide ones of her guest—Keiana Nuara.

The colony superintendent of Lia Nala sat behind another masterpiece of alien craftsmanship, a low table overflowing with papers and documents. Keiana was a beautiful Sar-dak woman. She had a slender frame, a long neck, and egg-sized eyes. They shone like black opals in the soft light coming in through the Rorschach-inkblot-shaped window of the living room. Tiny beams of sunlight made their way through the opening to the translucent stones Keiana carried at her wrists and at her neck, smashing in rainbows on her damp skin.

Keiana batted her eyelids for a moment, and then, using the delicate slit nostrils in her small and flat nose, she sniffed the aroma exhaling from her cup. She sipped some tea, receiving from it the same pleasure as her Terran interlocutor. Her wrist jingled as she gestured toward the irregular window. An entire city made from clay unwound beyond it, alive and bustling, and moreover, crops—ripening crops as far the eye could see. “I’m glad you like it,” Keiana said. “We gr-row it in the plains.” It was clear from her defective pronunciation she wasn’t yet fully accustomed to the weird Terran language so full of long words, but she had made enormous progresses.

Keiana spoke in a hushed tone; she didn’t want to deprive herself or her guest of the pleasant sound of a flute coming in through the window. “We have so much in common, Ser-renity,” she said. “The similarities between our r-races outweigh by far our differ-rences. I am sure we can work together most proficiently.” She put down her cup and smiled. “In my capacity as superintendent for the Sar-dak colony of Lia Nala, I’m happy to inform you that your letter of intents has been transmitted and accepted by our Council, at Pardo. This letter from the Institute of Anthropology represents an important step and a sign of good will from your people. However, had it come from your government, it would’ve borne a more binding significance.”

“I know,” Mrs. Trent said. “Your acceptance is good news. As soon as I’m back to Earth, I’ll put pressure on Minister Eduardo through the Institute to obtain formal recognition for the Sar-daks. But after the deplorable facts that happened in the past, there are still many who work against this understanding. They need to be taken by the hand and shown that the universe is wide enough for both races to live in peace.”

The mesmerizing notes of the flute drifted in from the open window, and both women listened to them.

“It’s a beautiful sound…” Mrs. Trent said. She stood. She approached the window and looked out, but she couldn’t see any player—the notes came from behind a latticework overflowing with blossoming climbers. Pleased with Mrs. Trent’s interest in music, Keiana stood as well. She invited the woman to the door at the end of the living room, and they both stepped out.

They found themselves in a lush garden ripe with flowers Mrs. Trent had never seen, bright, fresh, and inebriating. They followed the notes to a quiet widening, where a smaller and younger version of Keiana sat on a bench, playing a hardwood flute. The melody was so captivating, that when the Sar-dak player finished, Mrs. Trent felt compelled to clap her hands, causing the girl to jump and turn around in surprise. “You’re extremely talented,” Mrs. Trent told her.

Keiana walked over to the girl and put her arm around her shoulders. “This is Sand-na,” she said. “She’s my only daughter.” She turned to the girl. “Uh-te unna Tr-rent, Sand-na.

Sand-na bowed her head to Mrs. Trent, and the anthropologist bowed back.

“We are proud of her,” Keiana confided. “The community cherishes and honors the new blood; our offspring are our only hope—ours is a dying race.” Keiana looked upon her daughter, who stared at Mrs. Trent. The girl was a bit uneasy in front of the woman. “You know, Sand-na is very bright and curious,” Keiana said to Mrs. Trent. “She wanted me to share with her the secrets of your language. You can speak to her.”

“I too have a daughter,” Mrs. Trent said, trying to win Sand-na’s diffidence. “She’s down in the nursery school with Old Nardal. I’m sure she will be happy to be friends with you, when she’s back.”

The little Sand-na smiled timidly from behind her big black eyes, and gripped her flute with both hands. Maybe the aliens who called themselves “humans” weren’t as terrible as she’d been told, she reflected.

The three women remained in that secluded corner of paradise for a long moment. When the bomb fell on the colony it caught them in that picture-perfect still. The bomb descended from the sky like a little sun, beautiful and bright. It was only when it hit the ground that its true nature was revealed. The burst of fire dilated with a bedazzling glow, devouring the crops in the distance, the city, Keiana’s clay house, its gorgeous garden—and the three unaware women inside it.

THE SUMMER HARVEST

Captain Herbert Grier lifted his head from his journal entry. Out of nowhere, at 11:37 in the morning, his heart sank as if something had shattered. He didn’t know why. His late mother believed in premonition; she always said it was in her blood and that, by extension, her son must have it also. But Grier was a captain of the Terran Fleet with more than fifteen years of honorable service. As such, he was only allowed to believe what he could explain rationally. However, the bad omen persisted.

Captain Grier couldn’t explain what it was, since everything was going according to plans. The delegation sent over from the Institute of Anthropology had safely landed on Lia Nala twenty-four hours before, and it had been welcomed as expected. No, this couldn’t be it, he thought, it must be something else. Maybe he wasn’t well; maybe an early medical checkup was in order. Yes, he decided. He would see the doctor later on, to make sure everything was in the norm—that he too was ship-shape. He picked up his stylus, about to finish his entry, when the intercom in the corner of his desk buzzed.

Captain Grier, sir?” a voice said. “This is Lieutenant Anderson, reporting from Communications. All contacts with the Sar-dak colony of Lia Nala have broken off at 11:37.

“Broken off?” Grier said. “What do you mean, broken off? Did the goddamn satellite shut off again? It’s the third time in less than twenty hours it happens. You don’t need to consult me to drop a repair team, Anderson—just do it. Tell them they had better fix it for good, or I’ll send them back to training with a reprimand.”

Captain Grier sighed. He was annoyed that Communications couldn’t handle the matter on their own. He liked Anderson, he was young and hardworking, but he lacked the backbone a soldier of the Space Army needed. Grier took a mental note. He would bring the subject to the attention of Fleet Command in his next report. Even if the Summer Harvest was a mere frigate, not a destroyer, it could give you a big headache all the same if the crew didn’t behave. “Are you still there, Anderson?”

All communications from the colony are dead, sir,” the lieutenant brooded. “Even the beacon reserved for the military is down.

Captain Grier blinked, processing the information. “Did you check the solar activity forecast?”

Yes, sir—it’s normal.

“How long until we have a visual?”

Fifteen minutes, sir.

“I’ll be right over,” Captain Grier said, and clicked off.

He stared at the intercom as if it was a portable oracle he could query. Why would the colony become mute at once? he would ask. He racked his brain for a rational solution, but he didn’t find any. The answers his subconscious presented him with were all disturbing, and he rejected them forcefully. He could only hope that the delegation was safe. He had carried the anthropologist, her daughter, and the other five members of the Institute through the trillions of miles separating Earth from Lia Nala for mankind’s most important mission, and he didn’t want anything bad to happen to them. He had provided them with the regular escort, but they were in an alien environment, and he must brace for anything.

Captain Grier reminded himself that his ship had no offensive power if something went wrong. Fleet Admiral Bellamy had been final about it—this was going to be a peace mission, and carrying weapons would be a sign of mistrust toward the Sar-daks. Grier would entrust Bellamy with his very life, so he had accepted. The fleet admiral had chosen him because he wasn’t biased as many in the fleet against the aliens. After Congara, most officers considered the Sar-daks but treacherous rattlesnakes. As far as he was concerned, he shared in Bellamy’s view that peace was not only desirable, but possible and at reach. The journey to Lia Nala had been long but devoid of incidents, and the Summer Harvest would put her bow back to space in a few days. If everything was fine and if the talks were successful, why on earth would the colony shut up like that?

Captain Grier stood. If the boat was going to rock, he had better be on deck to face it. He stepped to the mirror and checked his uniform. Satisfied with his looks, he reached out for his hat, put it under his arm, and swept out of his cabin. He strode down the many passageways of the Summer Harvest. Not even once he gave to his subordinates the feeling that he was in a hurry—a captain of the fleet would be in control of himself and of everything else in every situation.

When Captain Grier set foot on the bridge, he didn’t find the usual quiet bustle. That late morning, he sensed the tension had risen; it had turned into a tangible presence. The officers on deck turned briefly toward their captain, saluted him, and then returned their eyes to the huge screen wall at the end of the bridge. Anderson approached Grier, leapt to attention, and waited for his superior to make himself comfortable on his chair. “It should be anytime now, sir,” he said.

Captain Grier glanced at the screen wall, trying to see through the black stretch of space it contained. As the seconds went by, a bright disc filled the bottom of the screen. The curved outline of the planet called Lia Nala came into view—it presented itself as an immense and flat desert punctured with verdant areas. The scopes of the Summer Harvest pierced the planet’s clear atmosphere and focused on the largest oasis. When the computer had pulled enough data, it magnified the view until the city of Lia Nala was seen—rather, what was left of it.

A towering column of smoke rose from the rubble of still burning buildings and public squares. Here and there, the streets, the alleys, and the yards were scattered with the blackened and shriveled bodies of dead Sar-daks. The sight sent a chill up the spines of the officers.

“Christ,” Grier croaked. “What happened there?” Nobody answered him. He looked at Anderson. “Any news from the delegation?”

“None,” the lieutenant said. “We’ve been trying to contact the colony to no avail for twenty minutes, sir.”

Captain Grier turned to one of the officers. “Martinez, what are the sensors reading?”

“Surface radioactivity levels are off-scale, sir. The area is now heavily radioactive.”

“Did something blow up from within?”

“No, sir. The radioactivity map suggests an explosion above the ground.”

“A bomb?”

“It looks so, sir.”

Who would be so crazy to drop a bomb on the delegation, and why? Captain Grier wondered. But it was no time for speculations—someone may still be alive down there. “We must send a rescue team,” he said.

“The area is not safe, sir,” Martinez replied.

Captain Grier looked at Anderson. He was staring at something that had just appeared in the sector of space above Lia Nala—a huge battleship. “That’s the Urdaka, sir,” the lieutenant croaked.

“Good. We’ll send a joint rescue team.” Grier motioned the Communication Officer to establish a contact with the alien warship. In moments, half of the screen wall filled with the bluish face of the Sar-dak captain, Erd Rushil. The alien made no attempt at hiding his horror and indignation for what had just happened.

“Captain Rushil, thank God, you’re here,” Grier begun. “We must immediately send a rescue team on the planet and provide the survivors with all the help they need. I hope—”

You will not deviate from your current course,” Captain Rushil hissed. “You will surrender your ship and deliver yourself and your crew to the Urdaka, until an investigation on your ignoble attack on the defenseless Lia Nala is completed.”

Captain Grier blinked, disbelieving his ears. “What? Do you really think my ship is behind the slaughter of Lia Nala? We had our delegation down there, including our men! Do you think we would be so foolish to kill them?”

You will surrender your ship now, Captain Grier, and shall wait for the finds of the investigation!” Rushil said.

Grier opened his mouth, shocked at the ridiculous allegations. “This ship is under Terran rule alone!” he said. “I’m willing to cooperate in a rescue mission, but I will not surrender this vessel to anyone without a direct order from Fleet Command!”

You will surrender your ship now, Grier, or you and your crew will suffer the consequences of your insane act.

Captain Grier swallowed hard, feeling that he couldn’t control the events anymore. “This vessel is unarmed, and you will not touch it!” he said. He turned to the First Engineer and nodded to him.

At the touch of the officer on his console, the Summer Harvest set into motion. With a thrum and a shiver, it inched away from the Urdaka, gaining speed. On the screen wall, a Sar-dak aide muttered something in Captain Rushil’s ear, informing him of the status of the Terran ship. With a grunt, Rushil barked an order to an off-screen officer. The Urdaka fired a warning salvo, which blasted away close to the Summer Harvest’s bow, shaking the ship and sending Anderson tumbling.

“Our job here is done,” Captain Grier said. “Let’s pull out of this mess—full back!”

“Full back!” the Engineer Officer repeated. Again, his fingers tapped his console.

With a high-pitched whir, the broadside of the Summer Harvest began sweeping around. On the screen wall, Rushil’s feature tensed. The Sar-dak captain was torn between following his orders and letting the Terran ship go. He’d been sent into the sector with the purpose of keeping Lia Nala safe, and he had failed. The least he could do was deliver to justice the Terrans who had destroyed the colony. No, he would never let them go. Captain Rushil barked another order, and the Urdaka glittered with the many shots fired—they pelted the stern of the Summer Harvest, exploding in a series of shock waves that made her quiver and moan under the structural strain.

She didn’t stop, though. Ever so slowly, she was leaving the sector. The Summer Harvest completed her rotation and put her bow to space, leaving behind her the ill-fated Sar-dak colony.

The Urdaka didn’t move from her position, as if she was too slow, or unwilling to pursue the Terran ship, but she was not. When she fired her main cannons, the gloomy blackness of space lit up. The warheads drew straight lines to the stern engine of the Summer Harvest, setting off a chain of explosions. The gunnery stations of the Urdaka blazed again, piercing the second engine of the Terran ship. The Summer Harvest slowed down, veered off course, and went off like a small star.

FLEET COMMAND

Rear Admiral Forcum Scabious outstretched his arms and upturned his palms like a messiah of sort. Barely forty, tall, fit, commanding, with hardly any streak of gray in his hair, he stepped to the center of the Fleet Council Hall. He spun around and made sure each of the hundreds of bystanders: the commanders, the captains, the commodores, the various admirals—in a word whoever had a say in the matter and management of the fleet—saw his face. He spoke with the assuredness of a consumed orator, weaving his words in a spell of velvet that ensnared the assembly.

“Congara,” he said. “Forever that name will haunt us. Forever that place will remain in history, proof of the brutality of the Sar-dak people. The burial plates which pave this very hall are engraved with the names of the many who fell fighting for freedom and for a safer future. They urge us from the beyond not to forget the crime that was perpetrated on them. We didn’t have a proper fleet back then, just a couple of ships we were able to scrape together from the haphazard junk of forsaken orbital stations and space rubble. Congara was the christening of fire for most of us—it brought out the best of us. We fought bravely and staved off the alien threat. The heroes of the Apexia will be forever remembered and honored.” Forcum Scabious dropped his head in mourning.

“Twenty years have gone by,” he went on. “But we haven’t been basking in the glory of our victory. We have learned. We have improved. We have developed groundbreaking weapon systems, stronger hulls, fast and reliable engines. Today, our fleet is a hundred and fifty vessels strong. We have at our disposal a powerful space army that doesn’t just match the Sar-dak one—it overshadows it!” The rear admiral let his words sink in, stirring and swelling the pride inside the hearts of his listeners.

“But what is it of such technological marvel? Instead of boasting our achievement, we keep it hidden, we don’t mention it. As if securing peace in our system were someone else’s business. Peace is a very delicate flower; it takes little for parasites to infest and to destroy it—before you know it, its beauty is tarnished. The flower withers. It dies. That’s why it needs constant vigilance.” Forcum Scabious looked at the center of the assembly.

“Captains. Commodores. Admirals. I appeal to your experience and to your common sense. I demand that our proud fleet, which has been relegated to the frigid and forgotten world of Triton, is moved at least to Kuma, in the Sirius system. For there is only one way to secure peace.”

Scabious was silent for a moment. He had been careful not to use the word “war” in his last sentence. There were many who hadn’t yet made up their minds as to where their allegiance stood, with him or with the old admiral. He didn’t want to alienate them in this delicate moment; he didn’t want them to think that he was a warmonger, only that war was a choice.

Forcum Scabious was about to resume his speech, when he was interrupted by a voice coming from the highest chair of all, that of the fleet admiral himself. George Bellamy was imposing, with deep eyes of steel, and a broad forehead framed by locks of white hair. In the endless geography of wrinkles that covered his face, was etched the experience of a man who had seen both sides of being a soldier—not just what shone on the spotless front of the Space Army uniform, but also the filth that may hide beneath it. Contrary to Scabious’s bombastic voice, Bellamy’s was far less pretending and dramatic, and, for this, more human and down-to-earth.

“We have listened to you repeatedly on this point, Forcum,” Bellamy said. “I thank you for bringing it to our attention once more. We must, however, be careful in deploying our fleet so far. There is still much we don’t know about the Sar-dak people. The simple act of moving our ships to such an advanced position as Kuma could be regarded with suspicion by the Sar-daks and result in distrust. As of this moment there are other forces in motion, besides battleships, trying to secure an everlasting peace with the Sar-dak nation. We must give those forces time enough to plant their seed.”

Scabious curled his lips in a hideous grimace and pointed his accusing finger at Bellamy. “See? Instead of being alert as befits a soldier, we waste precious time in useless talks. We send delegations. We send civilians to negotiate in our place, trying to coax from the aliens something that is foreign to their nature. Whenever such delegation even succeeded in its task, what would the significance of a piece of paper be? I wonder. Nothing!”

“And yet,” Bellamy said, “it’s thanks to the work of so many civilians if we had twenty years of peace instead of war.”

“And you call this peace? A helpless watch, in the hope that our enemy doesn’t turn against us? As always, you are clever, Bellamy—too clever. It must be hard work extricating yourself from the issues of the fleet, at the same time dealing with the pressing demands of the civilians. How long do you think you can keep your foot in both camps? What would happen to you if either camp were to desert you? Does it ever occur to you that your only allegiance is to the uniform you don?”

“I have no such worries, Forcum,” the admiral said. “For it is the civilians I’ve sworn to protect and to defend.”

The statement stirred a warm applause from the assembly. Scabious noticed, and flared. “You’d do them a far better service if you allowed us to move the fleet to Kuma,” he said. “It would be a living warning for the Sar-daks of our strength. There are many in this assembly who, unlike you, think there is a lesson to be learned from Congara—the Sar-daks cannot be trusted! We must be ready for anything!”

At Scabious’s words, the majority of the bystanders roared. The spirits fired up, and the moderator had a hard time bringing back the order.

“Yes. Twenty years have passed since Congara,” Bellamy said. “And yet, we still know little about the Sar-daks. We don’t know the reaches of their nation. We have no idea of their number, of their weapons, of their technology. It would be rash to see for ourselves, at our expenses, with an untimely deployment of the fleet!”

“There won’t be another Congara, Bellamy! It won’t happen again! We’ll see to it!” Scabious shouted. He strode across the hall supported by a loud applause, coming to Bellamy’s chair.

“You seem eager to fight, Forcum,” the admiral said.

“If that’s our destiny, than be it! You have already heard the voices of those who back me!”

Bellamy sighed. “As usual, your motion will be taken in due account. But I must remind you it is I who have the final decision over this matter.”

“That’s true, Bellamy, you are the appointed Fleet Commander. But how long are you going to last, when the Council is with me?” Scabious raised his arms to the bystanders, calling out to them, and they answered to him with an uproar.

Bellamy sank in his chair. He shook his head, disbelieving the amount of approval the rear admiral had gained in the last few months. He wondered if this change of tide was going to sweep him away. He mustn’t fear, he decided—the delegation was at a good point. He would soon receive confirmation that the first step toward an everlasting peace between the two races had been made.

Admiral Bellamy’s train of thought was interrupted by the prompt arrival of his aide, a stalwart lieutenant whose uniform nametag read MILLARD ROSS. Ross bowed in respect to his superior, handing over the first dispatch of the two he carried. “Captain Streamer failed to contact us in the agreed time-frame, sir,” he said. “As of this moment, his whereabouts are unknown.”

“I wouldn’t fret about it; it’s happened before,” Bellamy said. “Richard is a resourceful man—he’ll be fine. What about the other message?”

Ross turned ashen. “It’s the delegation, I’m afraid.”

Bellamy snatched the second dispatch for himself, opened it, and read it. When he finished, he swept his hand over his face in shock. “Then all is lost…” he said. He glanced at the center of the Council Hall, where Forcum Scabious soaked in his ovation.

PART I

JIM STREAMER

A FEW WORDS ABOUT ME

Turbofans are pretty much automotive mainstream, nowadays. They have replaced the old turbojets because they are faster, lighter, cheaper, more compact, and more durable. Well, unless you slide off the road and ram into a boulder; in this case they turn into instant junk. You can wreck a lot of things in a flycar crash: the frame, the body, the windshield—you name it. But turbofans are the first to come off. Lick them even just a little, and you can throw them away. I know, driving a flycar gives you the thrills, I’m the first to admit it. People go crazy over flycars, but they often forget that a flycar isn’t a car. Flycars can be tricky beasts to handle properly. It takes a firm hand on the control wheel and a bit of swagger to make it clean out of certain situations. That’s why a flying license shouldn’t be handed out lightly—not everybody has what it takes to drive these beauties.

Why am I so hung up on flycars? Because at summer, when school is over and everybody is on vacation, I earn a few extra bucks fixing them in a repair shop, that’s why. But before I go on, let me tell you a bit about my hometown. Derrick Creek is a small dot on the interstate between the cities of August and Cedric. Don’t bother to look them up on a map or on the net, there’s nothing worthy about them. They’re a bunch of high-rise buildings sticking out in the middle of the country, and the people who live there are just farmers who made it big, which is saying a lot. This place was born ten years ago, when August and Cedric were first listed as touristic places of the state. It’s just a hundred and fifty miles between the two cities, and it takes twenty minutes to go from one to the other on a flycar. The interstate looks as straight as an arrow, so straight you’d think you may as well switch to autopilot and take a nap, but you’d be mighty wrong. At some point in the road there is, in fact, one tiny crook. Derrick Creek is mostly open countryside, except for the Derrick Hills, the only relief of note for miles. A couple of bends is all it takes to get them out of the way, but at night, if you’re tired or if you’re distracted, you may miss them. That so.

It’s thanks to that turn in the road and to the drivers who didn’t see it, if Derrick Creek ever came into existence. And it was a broke man with a smattering of mechanics who started the first business in this town. At first, it was only a flycar repair shop. But not all customers wanted their totaled cars repaired, so that man would buy them for a dime, fix them up, and sell them back to more unwary tourists in exchange for more junk—that’s how a business is born. The man was Frank Miles, the shop is his, and—you guessed it—I work for him.

The shop sits at the foot of the Derrick Hills, just behind the infamous bend, perched on a small rise, and you have to climb a ramp to get up here. The shop’s front yard is right on top of the ramp; that’s where Frank puts on display his latest buys and refurbished beauties. You can find a couple of decent deals amidst the crap: an Outrego ‘77, and a Tlaxaco Touring. They both have a few years on their backs, but they’re still in shape, and they look good. You can take my word for it, since I fixed them personally. And I have a nifty little touch when it comes to flycar engines, especially for turbofans.

Frank’s office is behind the yard, inside a small building with a large shed in the back. It’s in the shed that the flycars are stored, fixed and cleaned, and that’s where I work. It’s quiet, and I can check the front yard with a glance. At the moment, I’m busy with this guy’s sports flycar. I can’t tell you his name for privacy reasons, suffice it to say that he’s some Richie Richmond from the big cities on the east coast—he’s one stuffed with money. Two days ago, he buys a jewel of a Neutron Hound 21, a flycar you can’t park unattended, because kids would drool all over it. Nobody right in his head would dare to push such technological prowess to the limit the moment he buys it. He’d wait to learn its moves first, how it reacts to his hand. But this guy thinks he’s smart, and that the general rule of being careful with new buys doesn’t apply to him. He thinks the N-21 is like a pair of shoes or a suit—you put them on and off you go. The N-21 is a beaut, the more you push it, the more it runs. It’s docile, it makes you think you’re in control, it goads you to go faster and faster. But the infamous bend lays in wait a couple of miles ahead. And when the road is gone, you find yourself hurtling across rocks and dust, wondering what went wrong, until you ram into a boulder. The N-21 takes most of the beating, the guy only breaks a rib, but history repeats itself: it’s up to me to fix the N-21. Thank God, I’m almost finished. I only need to tighten a couple of bolts, run the diagnostics, and then off to the car wash.

That’s how I earn my living at summertime, when the school is closed, and the tourists are on the move. But this is neither the story of Frank’s shop, nor a sociological digression on the origins of the rat hole that Derrick Creek is. My name is James Streamer, and this is my story. I have big plans for my future, but they don’t contemplate working for Frank. Times have changed. This isn’t the shut-in world of our grandfathers anymore. Mankind has opened up to space, we have traveled across the solar system, and we have discovered we’re not alone in the universe. Twenty years ago, we found a different race than our own. Diplomats, politicians, and scientists call them Sar-daks. I call them—blueskins.

The blueskins have taken advantage of the epochal event of the first contact with man to attack and to kill us. Many heroes fought to drive them back, but that wasn’t enough. After two decades of guarded peace and countless talks, the blueskins are again on the warpath. Yes, a war is brewing. The Space Army is in turmoil. Tomorrow, the Morning Star will leave Earth for the depths of space in the attempt to prevent the alien invasion.

Every night, I look out of my bedroom window and see the tiny trails of gold rising from Cedric spaceport, bringing more and more soldiers aboard the spaceships orbiting Earth. Everybody craves to give his contribution, and everybody wants to become a hero, but only the adults can enlist. You’d think that rules me out, since I’m just sixteen, but you’d be wrong. I have a surefire plan that will allow me to climb aboard the Morning Star despite my young age. Why am I breaking the law and embarking myself on such a dangerous enterprise? For two reasons. The first is that when I’ll be eighteen, this war will be long over; whatever its outcome, I’ll miss my one chance at fighting and at distinguishing myself above the others. The second reason? Why, because I’m the worthy son of my father.

FRANK’S SHOP

THE NEUTRON HOUND 21

Bad news,” the radio blares. “As if the temperatures of this scorching summer, the drought, and a stagnating economy weren’t depressing news enough, yesterday a frigate of the Terran Fleet on a diplomatic mission on the Sar-dak colony of Lia Nala has been destroyed by enemy fire. Minister of Defense Felipe Eduardo has sent an investigation team, but it will take time to ascertain what really happened. Rear Admiral Forcum Scabious believes an investigation is a waste of time, and that the attack is just the first of many. Scabious demands that retaliatory measures be taken now, before it is too late, and that the fleet stationed on Triton be moved to the frontier. Does this mean that a war is brewing? Fleet Admiral George Bellamy pours oil on troubled waters and calls what happened ‘a regrettable incident,’ but it’s a week now that the recruitment centers all over the country have opened their doors. This is a very delicate moment for peace, and it takes a great effort for everybody not to lose it. Stay tuned. We’ll be back with more breaking news for the lunch edition—

I reach out to the radio selector of the N-21 and tune in to some station playing ancient rock music. The notes drift through the air, overlapping a sploshing coming from the background. I grab a sponge from a bucket and slap it on the hood of the flycar. My hand moves in circles, rubbing the dirt from the metal, it leaves the hood for the side of the N-21, and then slides toward the large intakes of its turbofans. With each pass the filth comes away, bringing out the pristine beauty of this jewel, which glimmers in the sunlight. I stroke the curves of the N-21, sensing the tension radiating from them—it’s like touching a racing horse, feeling the tendons and the muscles underneath yearning to release the packed energy.

I keep rubbing it until even the last smears of oil and grease vanish, then I step back and contemplate my job. The beating the N-21 received is just a memory—now it’s ready to take off again. I climb on it. As I switch it on, the turbofans let out a scream, an angry snort so loud it covers the racket of the radio. The tripods under the N-21 lift off the ground, and the flycar leaps up, ready to tear through the air. But it’ll have to wait—I’m too young to drive a flycar. Frank only allows me to move them from the shed in the back to the washing area, to the front yard, that’s all.

I jerk back the control wheel, and the N-21 rears its back, trying to buck me off. I let go of the wheel, and the N-21 follows docilely the moves of my wrist, hovering toward the rows of other vehicles parked on the front yard. I turn the N-21 around and slide it in one of the free spaces, revving its engine one last time, enjoying its bellow, then I switch it off. The flycar lands on its pads with a soft jolt. Its turbofans die out, only leaving silence.

I hop from the N-21 rubbing one last speckle of stubborn dirt from its body, then look at myself in the side mirror. I’m five-foot nine-inches tall, I have short hair, smart eyes, and my skin is tanned from the long hours I spend working outside. Now that the radio is off, the cicadas and the jelly coats take over, foreboding another stifling-hot day. I look up at the blue sky and at the Derrick Hills rising behind the shop with their crown of pine trees. When I come to work in the morning it’s easy to spot deer and squirrels buzzing around the trash cans, looking for something different to eat. But as the day wears on, they go back to the safety and to the relative cool of the hills.

Looking for a little breeze, I walk to the lip of the ramp and take in the view of Derrick Creek. On the interstate, the occasional flycar and flytruck whoosh by in the lazy summer traffic. Beyond it, lay the flat and irrelevant town center, and, moreover eastward, the hazy outline of Cedric. I focus my eyes to where the spaceport should be, too bad I can’t spot any spaceship taking off, not even a tiny shuttle. I groan, when a flycar pulls off the interstate, climbing toward the shop. I shield my eyes and look over, wondering if it’s Billy, but as the vehicle draws closer, I realize it’s not. It’s a sleek corporate flycar, a Gazelle or a Slingmaster—it lets out an odd wheeze, as if there’s something wrong with its engine.

It speeds past me, parking on the front yard. Its doors open to reveal a cunning-looking man in his forties, wearing a suit, and an eye-catching brunette. As soon as she puts her feet on the ground, she waves and winks at me flirtatiously, but she does that as a general rule—the focus of her interest is the other man, not me.

“Frank,” I say. “Mrs. Fullick.”

The buxom woman shoots me a smile and shushes me, embarrassed. “Don’t call me that, Jim,” she says. “Here, I’m just Gabrielle.”

Frank’s hawk eyes don’t miss the N-21. He walks over to it and touches it as if to make sure it’s real. Impressed with my job, he nods his head in appreciation. When Frank is satisfied with something I do, he just nods. He never says, “Nice work, Jim,” or “You’ve outdone yourself, Jim.” He probably thinks I’d be entitled to a raise if he openly admitted my skills.

Frank goes back to Mrs. Fullick and to her curves. He puts his hands around her, about to kiss her, but Mrs. Fullick pulls back. “Not here,” she whispers, shooting a glance at my address. “There’s the boy…”

Frank nods in understanding, curbing his high spirits. He lifts his hand and throws “the boy” something tinkling—I snatch from the air the keys of the wheezing corporate flycar. “It’s got a bad injector somewhere, on the left turbofan,” Frank says. “Ollie wonders if you can take a look at it.”

“Sure,” I say.

“I’ll be in my office,” Frank says. “I don’t want to be bothered, if you know what I mean.”

I sure know what Frank means. And I wonder what would be of his smug face if Mr. Fullick, too, knew about the quick trips his wife makes to the shop all Wednesday mornings, between 11:00 and 11:40. Frank may not be the best flycar dealer in the world, but he knows damn well how to enliven a dull summer day. Frank holds out his hand, Mrs. Fullick takes it, and they sweep into the shop looking over their shoulders.

As most people, they mind their own business—they don’t care if there’s a war. They will bother when a bomb falls on their heads, but then it’ll be too late to worry. I shake my head. This sums up my situation pretty well. Frank inside with the chick, and I stuck here, fixing flycars I can never drive. But, as I told you, I have this little plan of mine, thanks to which I’ll shoot off to space and to my place in history. I look over to the ramp, wondering where the heck Billy is—he should’ve been here an hour ago.

A bit downhearted, I go back to the corporate flycar. I’m about to bring it into the shed and start the tedious process of disassembling the turbofan’s outer shell, when a familiar noise cuts off the jelly coats tapping in the trees. It’s yet another flycar, but this one I know.

BILLY, STELLAAND VANCE

Billy’s flycar is a rusty and battered open-top Camard. It’s possibly one of the first flycar models ever made, and has the heavy and cumbersome look of a lead ingot. I fixed it so many times, I know every nut and bolt of that hunk of junk—boy, when is Billy going to trade it in for something better? His flycar rattles up the ramp and pulls by the back shed, out of Frank’s sight. Although the Camard is straight out from the age of the dinosaurs, its passengers are not—they’re about my age.

Billy and his girlfriend Stella are my friends. They’re always pleased with the world and with themselves like a couple of tourists on a permanent vacation. Even now, they coo at each other, merrily swinging their heads to the notes from their radio—the worst news couldn’t unsettle them or their love, God bless them. Billy turns the radio off, shoots a glance at the N-21, and whistles in awe. “Wow, look at that,” he says. “Now that’s a real flycar. Did you fix it?”

“I just finished with it,” I say.

“You’re good at this, man. You’re cut for this job.” Billy lifts his eyes to the shop. “Frank in? I bet he’s with a chick; that pig.”

I nod, but I’m not interested in Billy’s chit-chat. “Did you make it? Do you have it?” I ask. “I’m going to Cedric first thing tomorrow morning!”

A smug grin paints on Billy’s face. “Of course I have it.” My friend fishes out from his pocket what looks like a plain credit card, and gives it to me.

I study it. There’s my picture on it, but my name is all wrong. “Jeremy Royce,” I read. “Born on April 1st, 2235—Jeremy Royce?” I say.

Billy snatches back the fake ID. “Don’t worry about your name or the day of your birthday,” he says. “This tiny number here is what matters.” He flicks his thumb at the year printed on the document. “You’re of age now, Jimmy dear. Now you can do as you please, like a real adult.”

I stare at the fake ID like an idiot—I’m looking at the key that will open the doors to my dreams. “That’s neat, pal!”

Billy grins, proud of his hacking skills. “Not even the police would tell the difference from official credentials,” he says. “Father has been swamped with work all week, and I couldn’t use his computer whenever I wanted. That’s why I took so long to hack into the county computer and to build a profile from scratch. I had to bustle about a bit, but I made it. You owe me one, Jim.”

“You’re the man!” I say.

Billy and I have known each other for ten years. We first met at school, after my family moved to Derrick Creek. We’re friends, as I am friends with Stella, but while Billy and I are on the same wavelength, his girlfriend is often tuned to a different range. Stella looks at me and snorts. “Oh, I’d pay gold to see your sorry faces when the police find out and bust your ass!” She crosses her arms and turns her head in outrage.

I look at Billy, afraid that Stella is going to rat us out.

“Don’t worry about her,” he reassures me. “Stella hates this thing. She’s persuaded it’s illegal, which technically it is, but she knows it’s to help a friend. She won’t tell anybody.”

Stella jerks her head at me. “What about your mother? I bet she doesn’t even know!”

“Of course she doesn’t know!” protests Billy.

“I’m gonna tell her when I’ll be away,” I say, trying to reassure Stella, but she throws up her arms.

“I really don’t understand you, Jim,” she says. “Why would you want to do a thing like this? This is so stupid. Why don’t you let the adults fight this war? Are you tired of life already?”

Billy rolls his eyes. “Don’t even start.”

I glance at Stella and sigh. “I already told you why I’m doing this. I won’t go over it once again.”

It’s an introspective moment for all of us. Billy could end up in jail for what he’s done. Stella knows it, but they set out to help me with my plan from the beginning; their friendship is more important than anything else. As for me, now that my documents are in order and that my dream has the chance of becoming true, I’m not so sure anymore I want to do it—but there is no going back. And then the inflexible side of Stella yields, and she goes back to being the girl I know. “I really hope you’ll get away with it, Jim,” she says. “And that you will be far from this town when they find out.”

I reach out my hand, about to take the fake ID card from Billy’s hands, when I hear the whoosh of a third flycar—what is this, rush hour already? This time, it’s a gaudy fly pickup truck, painted blue and yellow like a surfboard, pulling up the ramp. It passes behind Billy’s Camard, turns around, and stops on the other side, so that I’m caught between both drivers.

There’s only one vehicle like that—Vance’s. Billy and Stella snort at seeing him and Drew, his inseparable partner in crime, guffawing and poking at each other. You couldn’t get a whole functioning brain between the two of them. Vance and Drew are basically idiots, but they have one little advantage over me and my friends: they have turned eighteen a couple of months ago. They can do what adults do now, like driving a damn flycar. Too bad the law doesn’t provide for mental checks before handing out driving licenses, or Vance and Drew would never have gotten theirs.

Vance pokes his head out of his fly pickup window and laughs, which is odd. He hates working with his father at the swine farm, that’s why he’s grumpy most the time. But today, Vance is in a good mood, and I wonder about the reason. Braggart as he is, he won’t take long to tell us, I’m sure. “What is this, a retards’ meeting?” Vance says.

“And now we’re a full house,” Stella mutters.

Even if Vance’s brain isn’t any good, his cauliflower ears can hear all right. Vance lunges out of the pickup’s cabin, misses me by an inch, and grabs Billy’s throat. “Is anything wrong with your woman, William?” he hisses.

Billy attempts at wiggling free, but Vance is too strong. Stella realizes and slaps Vance, but she can’t release Billy, either. “Just leave him, you overgrown monkey!” she shouts. Stella sinks her teeth in Vance’s wrist. That does it—Vance groans in pain and withdraws his hand. He squints at Stella, livid at her.

“You’d better teach your woman some respect,” Vance says to Billy, “before someone else does.” He pokes Drew in the ribs, and both laugh their asses off. Only when Vance has affirmed his brute-force superiority does he turn to me. “And what do we have here?” he says. “Our stranded hero, of course, still scrubbing rust from junk flycars’ afterburners. What a bright future you have in front of you, Jimmy boy. You keep looking after Frank’s shop and, maybe in twenty years, you’ll turn out just like him—selling old crap for new, trying to get a life making out with your customers’ wives. How is that for a future?” Vance turns to Drew and cracks up. The little dipshit knows how to hurt people.

I clench my teeth and ball my fists, but I stand where I am. Vance is twice as big as me; he would kick my ass if I tackled him. “What about you?” I say. “Everybody in Derrick Creek knows you’re such a smart ass. I bet you, unlike me, have found a way to get away from that perfume factory of your father’s.”

Billy and Stella laugh at the joke. Even Vance realizes I’m mocking him, but he doesn’t flinch and keeps smiling—today, he doesn’t feel like fighting. “You bet I did,” he says. Stella teases him: “Can you look after the chicken now?” But Vance ignores her. He puffs up like a peacock, plunges his hand in his pants, and retrieves something. He flicks it at me, and I snatch it from the air.

As I look at the small regimental brooch in my hand, my heart skips a beat. The brooch is nothing fancy, it’s just a recruit brass number. It’s not the number I’m impressed with, but the small insignia encasing it. I can make out the dot, the star, and the circle around it—that’s the insignia of the Morning Star. That tiny detail is worth the world. It means that, somehow, Vance is effective aboard the spaceship. I’m struck.

“We’ll leave tomorrow,” Vance says, proud. “After boot camp, they’ll send the best of us to the front. Someone must save the country, and we can’t wait for you brats to grow up—we’ll do the dirty job for you.”

Billy and Stella exchange glances, startled by Vance’s outspoken confession. Even I am touched by the spirit of it all, but Vance is the last person on Earth who can teach a lesson on patriotism, civic sense, and respect. Silence falls on us at the grim implications of a war—for a moment, even the braggart Vance is overwhelmed and stops jesting.

Vance takes back his brooch and puts it away, when he sees the fake ID card in Billy’s hands. Puzzled, Vance leans out the pickup window and snatches it. He’s so quick, Billy and I are caught off guard. We try to get it back, but we aren’t fast enough. “And what is this?” Vance asks, studying the card. I almost hear his brain squeak. As it register what it is, Vance roars with laughter and stares at me. “You’re more stupid than I thought, boy. Are you so eager to go to jail? I’d better keep it, so you don’t get weird ideas, huh? So long, brats!” Vance slips the fake ID card between his teeth; with a sneer to Drew, he starts his fly pickup and revs it like mad. As he lets go of the control wheel, the truck jerks onward, disappearing down the ramp in a cloud of dust.

Billy waves his arms and shouts. “The jerk took your identification! I don’t have a replacement!”

“Move over!” I say. I open the door of the Camard and throw myself in. I seize the controls, about to switch the engine on, but no matter how I try, I can’t start it. Billy groans. “Damn clunker!” he swears. I slam my fists on the dashboard in frustration, when I see in the rearview mirror the vision of the N-21 parked on the front yard. The keys are still in my pocket—what am I waiting for?

I fling myself out of Billy’s car, run to the N-21, and leap on it. I start it, turn it around, and chase Vance down the ramp, leaving Billy and Stella to stare after me from their dead flycar. “You can’t drive!” they shout at me, but I’m already gone, and I can’t hear them.

KING OF THE HILL

Driving the N-21 on a real road sends a thrill of excitement up my spine. The wind whooshes in my ears and rumples my hair. In the breeze caused by speed, even the heat of the day is a memory. Being at the wheel of the N-21 gives me a feeling of total freedom I’ve only experienced on Father’s Fennec A-71, the few times he agreed to give me a ride, at the air shows at the military base. No doubt I share with him the same love for velocity—it must be something in our blood. The fact that I’m borrowing the N-21, that Frank doesn’t know about it, and that there’ll be hell to pay if I bring it back with as little as a scratch makes it all the more thrilling. I hope Mrs. Fullick keeps Frank busy until I recover my card, but that may take a while.

From the noise Vance’s pickup made leaving the shop, he’s headed east. He’s going to brag about his brooch at Jonas’, an unsavory bar outside town, where rugged people gather. Or maybe he’s just made a trip to the gas station to refill his kerosene-guzzling trap. I drive the N-21 on the interstate, praying I’m not running into the cops. I turn east, glance past the windshield at the few flycars and fly lorries trudging on the road, but Vance is nowhere to be seen. I push the control wheel all the way down, giving the drowsy drivers the wake as I pass them with a roar. I keep going for another mile, when I glimpse the unmistakable outline of Vance’s pickup, cruising along. The N-21 gains on it, and, soon, I’m tagging behind it—Vance has no chance to flee. I honk and signal him to pull over. I surely don’t expect him to pay attention to me, but he does instead. Vance slows down and stops on the side of the road. I come alongside him. “The card!” I shout. “Give it back!”

Vance confabulates with Drew, as if he’s cooking up something, then he turns to me. “I’ll give it back to you,” he offers. “But you have to outrun my SR-34 in a regular race. What do you say?”

“You know you’ll never beat the N-21,” I say. “More, I have no time to play games. I have to go back to the shop, or I’ll be hearing from Frank!”

“No pain, no gain,” Vance pontificates. “You either race me, or you forget your card.”

“I already caught up with you!” I protest.

“Not here,” Vance says. “I don’t want to be arrested for reckless driving the day before embarking on the Morning Star—it wouldn’t look good on my resume. We’ll race somewhere else.”

“Where?” I say.

Vance flicks his thumb at the hill across the interstate. “What about there?” he says. “The first who gets on top of Derrick Hill keeps the card, huh? Seems fair to me.” Without waiting for my answer, Vance pushes hard the control wheel—his pickup bellows and rears like a bull, then flings itself onto the interstate. Vance makes a U-turn, veers up a dirt road to the right, and disappears into the pine trees.

Where the heck does he think he’s going? We both know his pickup is no match for the N-21. Or is it? I have a sudden doubt: what if Vance’s pickup is favored uphill? The N-21 hasn’t been designed for dirt roads or steep tracks. Its refined engine and its intakes have been fine-tuned for a more civilized environment, not to roam the country like a bronco. I groan and curse, hating being involved in Vance’s dirty tricks, but I have no choice—I had better get a move on if I want to catch up with him.

I push down the control wheel, and the N-21 drones onward. I cross the interstate and pull into the dirt road. It’s more a track than a road, really. It runs straight for a while, then it starts to climb, weaving around the hill. I can see now why Vance has chosen it; the craggy terrain is not a problem for his pickup—its powerful if slower engine crunches onward, steamrolling over the grit, the snapped branches, and the occasional snake caught in the middle of the road. Being ahead of me, Vance gets clean air in his intakes, leaving the N-21 to suck on the dust. Damn, when I get back to the shop I’ll have to wash it all over.

From the wheezing noise the N-21 makes, it’s clear its turbofans struggle in the dust. I have to keep some distance from Vance, or I’ll clog the intakes, but that slows me down, and without the momentum of speed, the N-21 loses ground uphill. More, this track is narrow; it’s almost impossible to pass Vance’s cumbersome pickup. To get on top of the hill before him, I had better think of something. I glimpse from the corner of my eye the creek which gives the name to the town—it runs to my left, six feet lower than the road, following it in its bends. I have an idea so crazy that I discard it at first, but then I realize that if it panned out I could kill two birds with one stone: win the race and wash the N-21 at the same time. The brook is about as large as the flycar, its bed plain, free from obstacles that could hinder the ascent of the N-21.

No sooner said than done, I steer the N-21 off the road and dive into the creek. The driver’s seat disappears from under me, and I follow suit with a yelp as I’m sucked down the bank along with the flycar. In less than a second, the brook replaces the dirt road. The N-21 sploshes upward like a trout, leaving a trail of vapor behind it. Since the brook runs in a hollow, to see where Vance is I have to stand on my feet and crane my neck above the road: the N-21 is gaining ground fast on the SR-34. As I push the turbofans to the limit, the needle in the dashboard rev counter sways in the red area. I peek at the road again to see that I’ve already come to level with Vance.

Vance searches the trail, looking for me. He grins at realizing I’m not on the road anymore, but then does a double take at seeing I’m in the creek, speeding onward like a speedboat. Aghast, he squeezes the last ounce of power from his SR-34.

Only a few hundred yards remain before the road ends into a clearing, on top of the hill—that’s the finish line. Vance focuses on the race, and then, out of nowhere, he sneers at me. I wonder why—when I glimpse the gigantic boulder rising in the middle of the brook. I gasp. I tilt the control wheel, scrambling for the dirt road, but the bank is too steep for the N-21 to climb onto. I panic as I see the rock enlarge in front of me at breakneck speed; a few more seconds, and the N-21 is going to blow up in a cloud of debris. I reach out to the turbofan alignment lever and turn it down—the afterburners tilt downward, spraying water everywhere, fighting to lift the vehicle out of the creek. With a howl, the N-21 leaps up and touches ground a few yards before the clearing, right in front of the SR-34. Vance ducks his head, steering away from the N-21 not to smash into it. The N-21 hovers into the clearing, winning the race, but Vance has now lost the control of his pickup—it cartwheels in the dirt, until it crashes into a pine tree.

The engine of the SR-34 catches fire. Vance and Drew jump out, snatch a pair of fire extinguishers from the flatbed, and douse the flames. When they’re finished, the SR-34 is but a charred skeleton of metal. The N-21 is shiny and clean, instead. It looks it just came out from a car wash.

I drive around the remains of the SR-34, stop in front of Vance, and reach out my hand. “The card,” I say.

Vance, beside himself with rage for losing both the race and his snazzy SR-34 on the same day, rolls his sleeves and balls his fists. “Look what you’ve done—I’m gonna kill you!” He plods toward me, meaning to punch me in the face, but I stand my ground. This time, I have him by the balls.

“On the contrary, Vance,” I say. “You’ll be a good boy and do as told. You’ll keep your mouth shut and hand over my card now. If it goes around that you destroyed your pickup in an illegal race it’ll be hell to pay for everybody, not just me. And you don’t want to miss your appointment with the Morning Star because you’re under arrest for reckless driving, do you? It wouldn’t look good on your resume. At all.”

Vance takes a while to consider. He bites his lip, flushes, fumes, but in the end he swallows his pride. It’s Drew, unexpectedly, who takes action. He comes over to me and grabs me by my throat, about to choke me, but Vance lifts his hand. “Leave him alone, Drew,” he grumbles.

“But he’s crashed your—oh, all right. If you say so.” Drew steps aside.

To his surprise, Vance fishes out from his pocket the stolen ID card and gives it to me. It costs him all his pride to do this, and, somehow, I know he’s not going to forget this for a long time. “I warn you, you little bastard,” Vance says. “Next time we meet, I’ll beat the living daylights out of you, mark my words.”

“Sure, Vance,” I say. “Until then—so long.” I look at my ID card. Satisfied, I clench it in my teeth. I give the control wheel a nudge, and the N-21 slides away as smooth as silk. Lulled in the sweet whisper of its turbofans, I couldn’t be happier.

THE RECRUITMENT CENTER

ON THE FLY HOUND TO CEDRIC

In the end, I returned the N-21 to the shop without a scratch. Frank was still in his office with Mrs. Fullick—he never even had a clue of my caper up Derrick Hill. Billy and Stella were relieved to see me, but after I told them what happened to Vance’s fly pickup, I had to promise them I’d be more careful in the future. I set to work on Billy’s dead Camard right away. The fuel line was clogged, that’s why the engine wouldn’t start. I urged Billy to get himself another vehicle, before this one breaks down for good and leaves him in the lurch. As soon as I was done with the Camard, Billy and Stella wished me good luck with my plan and left.

Half an hour later, Mrs. Fullick came out from the office with Frank, behaving just like a customer interested in a buy. Since I had started taking apart Ollie’s flycar, Frank had to pick up the N-21 to accompany her home. Ollie’s car took me most of the afternoon to get it done, but I ultimately found the problematic injector and replaced it. When Frank returned to close the shop, in the evening, I told him I’d be away the following day, and he didn’t object.

Mother didn’t object either, when I told her I was going to Cedric. This morning, she was gone before I woke up. I ate a quick breakfast, slammed the door behind me, and hurried to the fly hound stop.

There is no railway between August and Cedric. To get to Cedric, you either get a lift from someone, or take one of the fly coaches commuting between the two cities. They stop at Derrick Creek as well, and they’re a nice, quick way to get to Cedric. This early in the morning, the fly coach is almost empty. As it buzzes on, I curl in my seat and look out the window. Staring at the flat and monotone countryside makes me drowsy, so I switch on the monitor embedded in the seat in front of me and search for the news.

At 03:30 hours this morning,” the newsreader says, “Rear Admiral Forcum Scabious obtained from the fleet admiral the long-coveted authorization to move the ships to Kuma. We remind you that Fleet Council has put Admiral Bellamy under inquiry, since he might have overlooked the danger of sending the Summer Harvest straight into Sar-dak territory. Without enough protection, there was little the frigate alone could do to survive an attack…

As the newsreader keeps talking, the small monitor plays a fragment of the distress signal video sent by the Summer Harvest. It shows the Sar-dak battleship, the Urdaka, and her captain, Erd Rushil. The images are filled with static from the long distance traveled. Even so, it’s shocking seeing the Sar-dak artillery hit the helpless Terran ship—the faces of the appalled officers aboard say it all. The video stops with the explosion of the Summer Harvest.

While the investigation of the destruction of the Summer Harvest is still under way, many blame Bellamy of incompetence. The responsibility for losing the frigate and her crew may, in fact, be only his. As it turns out, Admiral Bellamy overlooked the warnings of many counselors who were against the mission—

I switch off the monitor. There doesn’t seem to be much room for peace anymore.

Outside the window, the country dies out, yielding to Cedric’s outskirts. I glimpse the spaceport in the distance and, hidden in the morning mist, the ominous juggernauts of the Space Army. But it’s a fleeting sight, swallowed by more buildings. A few bus stops later, there it is Cedric Recruitment Center. The building is nondescript, big, squat, and quiet—you can tell it’s the recruitment center from the long queue outside. The fly coach lands fifty yards from its entrance. I pick up my backpack, leap onto the sidewalk, and move to the end of the line, where I wait for my turn.

My fellows of civic duty are people from all manners of backgrounds, age, build, and sex. Most of them are only a few years older than me; some look even younger, and I find hard to believe they aren’t underage rogues trying to sneak into the recruitment center illegally. The recruits-to-be are watchful, tense, and talk very little. This sure isn’t the dull, self-indulgent routine of Derrick Creek—everybody here knows that the threat of a war is real. I wait. The line crawls forward. Before entering the recruitment center, all candidates have to stop at counter where their documents are checked. Soon, it’ll be my turn. I hope Billy’s done a good job at faking my ID card, or else the next time I’m gonna hear from Mother will be from the police station. The girl in front of me is done; she picks up her things and enters the building. Lucky her!

“Next!” a voice barks. It belongs to the Corporal Recruiter sitting behind the counter, a stubby and curt fellow who stares at me with cold eyes. He extends his muscled arm and opens his hand, but it’s not to shake. “May I see your identification, son,” he growls, “or do I have to search you myself?”

“Uh. Of course,” I say. I snap out of it and produce Billy’s badge. I hand it over to the corporal, who slides it into a card reader. It takes little to ascertain my false identity, but to me it’s the longest second in my life.

The corporal returns my ID. “Follow the others, Jeremy,” he says. “Wherever your destiny lies, good luck, my boy.” A smile curls the lips of the NCO, and I realize that his gruffness is only apparent. The corporal shifts uncomfortably in his chair. He strains to keep his back straight, as if an old wound forced him to crook, but I have no time to investigate. At once, the corporal looks more an old parent worried he won’t see all his children again than a merciless soldier.

I smile back at him, then sweep into the recruitment center in silence—Billy has outdone himself.

FALSE IMPERSONATION

The recruitment center is a vast hall lined with doors. As we enter, two corporals hand over to each of us a semi-transparent acetate sheet to take at every test, where our performance will be registered. When there are enough candidates in the hall, a lieutenant stands from his desk in the corner and addresses us.

“Welcome to Cedric Space Army Recruitment Center,” he says. “I am Lieutenant Cicero, and I will guide you through the steps of the recruitment process. Today’s schedule is divided in two sets of tests—the psychophysical assessment, and the analysis of your behavior in a simulated environment. You will undergo a physical analysis, a psychological profiling, and a general knowledge test. You’ll be then required to take part in two simulations—an infantry one and a space-flight one. This will give us the rough idea if you are fit to become soldiers of the Space Army.

“However, before we go on, let me remind you of something. I know that some of you guys would do anything to end up on a battleship. I tell you—don’t. You’re not smarter than us, and we’ll catch you at it. False impersonation and forgery are crimes under the law of this state. If you’re caught at it, you may end up doing from sixteen months to three years in jail, including paying a fine up to ten thousand credits—for each crime. This goes without counting possible accessory charges that will raise the tally. You’ll go to jail, and your criminal record will be smeared. You may not give a damn about it now, but you may regret it in the future. While a clean criminal record is not mandatory to be enlisted as a soldier of the Space Army, previous convictions may cut short your career as officers. So, don’t be stupid, don’t get yourself into trouble. If you’re underage, and if you managed to fool the computer outside, give up yourself of your own accord—at least you’ll be eligible to apply for extenuating circumstances.” The lieutenant nods to a couple of grim-looking sergeants waiting at the end of the hall. They walk among the candidates, trying to scare the possible interlopers into giving themselves up.

One of the sergeants stops in front of a girl, asking for her identification. The girl produces her documents and answers the pressing questions of the sergeant. But the more the questions he asks, the more the girl gets nervous. In the end, she starts shaking. The sergeant realizes, and waves to two MP guards, who come over and escort the sobbing girl away. The second sergeant approaches a man looking suspiciously young and starts questioning him, too. Seeing what happened to the girl, the boy loses it. He bolts to the entrance doors, trying to flee from the recruitment center, but he’s intercepted by the MP guards. A squabble ensues, until the young man is wrestled to the ground and brought away as well.

The sergeants resume their hunt for felons. One of them checks the end of my line, walking up to where I am. I duck my head and turn my back on him, trying to look inconspicuous. Slowly, the candidates are called into the many doors surrounding the hall for the psychophysical evaluation. I look over my shoulder, seeing the sergeant approach me. He shoots a glance at me, sensing another quarry. He quickens his step. But when he’s over me, a voice from the door across says, “Next!” and I fling myself in.

DOCTOR WEST

Doctor West sits at his desk, intent on jotting down a few last notes from the previous candidate. He wears a white coverall, his nametag pinned on the front. Without looking at me, he shows me to a corner of his office where there are a scale, a height rod, and an optotype—the eye chart. He then stands and measures my weight, my height, and my sight, registering everything in my acetate sheet. He motions me to a cot, and I sit down. Doctor West writes down my pressure, straps me with an ECG harness, and checks my heart as well. Last, he pricks my index finger and collects a droplet of my blood. He puts the sample in a vial and shuts it into an analyzer. The machine only takes a minute to scan it for odd values; it stops with a beep, giving its response—I’m fit as a fiddle. As far as my insight of the recruiting process goes, from my blood sample will also be extracted my DNA, which will be matched against police criminal records. I have none yet, but someone suspicious about my identity could go through the public records, and find out that Jeremy Royce is no other than James Streamer. But when that happens, I’ll be far off, in space.

“I’m now going to ask you a few questions to complete your medical record,” Doctor West says. “Are you subject to dizziness or vertigo, Jeremy?”

“No,” I say.

“Are you aware of madness in your family?”

“No,” I say.

“Are you aware of recurring illnesses in your family?”

“No.”

“Are you diabetic?”

“No.”

“Are you hemophiliac?”

“No.”

“Are you subject to seizures?”

“No.”

“Have you ever contracted yellow fever?”

Are there any more places in the world where you can catch it? “No,” I say.

“Are you asthmatic?”

I had asthma attacks at four. Not anymore. “No.”

“Are you allergic to pollen, dust, or mites?”

“No,” I say.

“Are you lactose intolerant?”

“No,” and I love blue cheese.

“Are you allergic to gluten?”

What is this, a diet test? “No,” I say.

“Have you ever had trouble with your knees?”

“Never.”

“With your cartilages?”

“No.”

“With your joints in general?”

“Nope.”

“Ever break a bone?”

“No.”

“Are you aware of any other impairments that could be a liability to your service in the Space Army?” Doctor West asks.

Despite me being sixteen? “Nope,” I say.

“You drink alcohol?”

A beer or two, when I’m with my friends. Who doesn’t? “No,” I say.

“Good. Now sit in that cubicle. It’s for the audiometric reaction test. Put on the headphones you’ll find there. Whenever you hear a sound, press the red button.”

I drop in the armchair inside the soundproofed cubicle, and Doctor West closes the door behind me. He lifts his thumb, and then he turns to a nearby console. I focus on the faint noises ringing in my ears, punching the button in front of me every time I hear them. I go on for a couple of minutes, when Doctor West informs me through a microphone that the test is over. I remove my earphones and get out of the cubicle.

“You’re done here,” Doctor West says. “You may now line up for the psychological profiling, Jeremy.”

“How did I do?”

“I’ve seen worse,” Doctor West says with an indecipherable smile. Mumbling, I put my clothes back on and step out of the doctor’s office—one down, four to go.

DOCTOR BROYLE

Doctor Broyle chews on a candy bar as if it was the last thing he’ll ever eat in his life. He’s the appointed recruitment center shrink, but it’s hard to believe he’s not sitting on this side of the desk himself. He puts an open book under my nose, showing me a mirrored inkblot. I groan at realizing these days someone still uses the Rorschach test.

“What does this image suggest to you?” Doctor Broyle says. “What do you see?”

I glance at the inkblot. “A butterfly,” I say.

Doctor Broyle turns the page. “What about this?”

“A butterfly… with larger wings?”

Doctor Broyle flips the page. “What about this?”

“An inverted butterfly,” I say.

Doctor Broyle looks at me, then turns the page. “This?”

“Another butterfly?”

“You have to try harder, Jeremy,” the shrink says, spluttering me with chocolate.

“A mushroom?” I say.

Doctor Broyle grunts and turns the page. “This?”

“A bug.”

“This?”

“A praying mantis.”

“A what?” Doctor Broyle says.

“A praying mantis,” I say. “You know, that insect with long forelimbs?” I pull my elbows up, dangling my forearms to mimic the typical stance of the mantis.

Doctor Broyle’s eyes widen. He thinks I’m badly in need of help already, when something lights up in the back of his mind, and he has a vague clue of what I’m talking about. “Oh, that horrible thing,” he says. He wipes his forehead and munches some more chocolate to take heart. “Don’t let the shape of the blots fool you, Jeremy,” he says. “Get beyond what you see. What about this?”

“It looks like a two-headed giraffe to me,” I say.

Doctor Broyle glares at me.

I try again. “An ant head?”

“That’s better. This?”

“A skull.”

Doctor Boyle stops chewing and lifts his eyebrows in marvel at the significance of my vision. He turns the book upside down and studies the inkblot for a long time, trying to make out the cranium. In the end he nods to himself—he has seen it, too. Doctor Broyle scribbles something on my acetate sheet, then puts away the Rorschach test book.

“Did I say something wrong?” I say.

Doctor Broyle ignores me. He opens his desk drawer and reaches out for another candy bar. He unwraps it and chews on it. “You’re in the Savannah,” he says. “There’s a thicket. In the thicket there’s a tent. You walk into the tent. Inside the tent there’s a crib. There’s a baby in the crib. A lion enters the tent—it’s hungry. What do you do, Jeremy? Don’t think it over, tell me the first thing that crosses your mind.”

“I lure the lion away from the baby,” I say.

The shrink jots down my answer. “Same tent. The baby is gone. There’s a blue alien in its place now. When the lion comes in, what do you do?”

It’s clear that the alien is a damn Sar-dak. “I wound him,” I say, “and then I run.”

“Nice answer,” Doctor Broyle says. “Last question. The alien is gone. The crib is back in the tent. When the lion comes in, you run for the crib. But there’s no baby inside it. There’s a cub instead—a blue alien cub. What do you do?”

I blink, my brain in a short circuit.

Doctor Broyle presses on. “What do you do? Quickly, the lion is coming! What do you do?”

“I—I save the baby,” I say. And the moment I say it, I realize I made a terrible mistake.

As I walk out the shrink’s office, I wonder why on earth I had to save the baby. It’s a damn alien, and we’re waging war against those bastard. They don’t deserve to be saved—they should all be destroyed, don’t they? Boy, I really hope that Doctor Broyle ignores my stupid answer; the last thing the Space Army wants is a softhearted idiot for a soldier. I try to wipe from my mind the image of the baby in danger, but I can’t. I would never have thought that the shrink session would trouble me this much.

THE SAVAB TEST

After seeing the doctor and the shrink, the candidates mix again and converge inside a capacious lecture hall, where we all sit. A lieutenant stands on the podium, waiting for the bustle to die down. Only then she speaks.

“In a few minutes,” she says, “you will be administered the Space Army Vocational Aptitude Battery or SAVAB. The test has evolved throughout the years from the first Army ASVAB test, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, more than two hundred years ago. It’s basically the same thing, updated with questions relevant to our days. The first half of the test hasn’t changed much; you will have to pick from multiple-choice answers to questions regarding your knowledge of mathematics and language. The second part of the test will have to do with specific fields; currently, the chosen fields of interests are general science including physics, astrophysics, cybernetic information, and chemistry. You will have three hours at your disposal to complete the test. Use them wisely.”

At the touch of the lieutenant’s finger to her lectern, the flat, continuous desk in front of each candidate splits and flips up. It shows a monitor screen, a message across it reading:

WELCOME TO ARITHMETIC REASONING VERSION 14-22. YOU ARE ALLOWED TO USE THE SIDE CALCULATOR. YOU ARE ALLOWED TO USE THE STYLUS ON THE RIGHT FOR HAND CALCULUS. TOUCH THE SCREEN TO START THE TESTTOTAL TIME REMAINING: 3:00 HOURS. TIME LEFT TO COMPLETE THIS SECTION: 39 MINUTES.

As I touch the monitor, the first question flashes on it:

Planet Mars has a polar radius of 3,376.2 km and a mass of 6,417.4 × 1020 kg. What’s the escape velocity from the planet? Remember that the gravitational constant is:

A) 3 km/s

B) 4 km/s

C) 5 km/s

D) 6 km/s

The formula for the escape velocity is:

Replacing the various elements above, we have:

The answer is C. Next question.

If the escape velocity from Planet Mars were equal the speed of light, that would make Mars a black hole. In this case, what would its radius (also called event horizon radius or Schwarzschild radius) be?

A) 0.651 mm

B) 0.751 mm

C) 0.851 mm

D) 0.951 mm

Let’s go back to the escape velocity formula, and replace ve with c, the speed of light.

Now, let’s find the Schwarzschild radius:

And replace G and M:

So, the answer is D.

The test goes on and on. Three hours later, when I’m done, between numbers and formulas, I’m dazzled. I probably got some messed up. For lack of time I called the Golgi apparatus a Mitochondrion. I chose copper over magnesium for the basis of the chlorophyll molecule. I chose 23° as Pluto’s orbit inclination instead of 17°, and I’m afraid to think of the other mistakes I did.

Heck, I’m not applying for a particle physicist job in the Space Army, after all. I’m just shooting down the damn blueskins—I don’t need a scientist’s brain to squeeze a trigger.

THE INFANTRY SIMULATION

At the exit of the lecture room, we’re welcomed by another lieutenant. He collects our acetate sheets and directs us to the laser tag armory, down a corridor. Each of us is given a bulletproof vest rigged with hit sensors, a helmet complete with a visor and a radio, and an old, disabled SC-22 assault rifle rigged with a harmless laser beam. The rest of the gear consists in a bandoleer, containing electronic grenades, and various knee and elbow pads. After being divided in teams of five, we enter a room with black walls, where we sit for a while, until the simulator is ready. My four comrades are a tall, ill-at-ease redheaded fellow, two boys smeared with camo paint looking like a commando team out of a movie—where the hell did they get the paint, anyway?—and a badass girl with a pony tail casually leaning her rifle on her hip, looking forward for some action.

“I wish they didn’t just throw us in,” the redheaded boy complains, feeling sick already. “What are we supposed to do? I could use some instructions.”

“What for?” the girl says. “Shoot anything that has a target slapped on it, and get your ass to the other side of the simulator. That’s all you need to know.”

The camo boys grunt in agreement with the girl, impressed with her down-to-earth attitude.

“Don’t you think we should introduce ourselves?” the redheaded boy insists. “I mean, we’re a team, after all. Shouldn’t we think of a common strategy?”

One of the camo boys rolls his eyes. “Listen,” he says. “Don’t rack your brain over nothing—it’s just a stupid simulation. Nobody is going to give you extra points for strategy to begin with.”

“I’m Eric, by the way,” the redheaded boy says, putting up his best smile. He reaches out his hand, but the boys ignore him.

“I’m Jeremy,” I say, waving at him.

The girl winks. “I’m Rita.”

Eric swallows hard. He looks like a fish out of water, as if he’d rather be anywhere but here. I wonder why, since enlisting in the Space Army is on a voluntary basis, at least until now. Someone or something compels him to be here this morning, despite himself, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is. Eric opens his mouth, about to say something, when the lights in the waiting room go out, and we’re left in the dimness. A miniature map shines on the top right corner of our visors: it displays a green square at the bottom, a blue triangle on the top, and three possible routes to get across, marked with red dots.

Welcome to your mission, infantrymen,” a computer voice blares in our helmets. “Your team is expected to follow any of the proposed routes from entry point A, across enemy territory, to extraction point B. Disable any weapons and enemy stations you will find on your way, avoiding being hit. Good luck!

The wall to our right swings up like a tank hatch, revealing a dark and smoky environment. As soon as we climb down, the hatch shuts behind us, delivering us into the simulator. The smoke curtain thins out, revealing the wrecked buildings of an unknown city. It lies in heaps of rubble around us in the gloomy aftermath of some bombardment. The deafening racket of firearms, whistles, and ensuing explosions rings in our ears, as if the city was still under siege. We hit the ground and crawl behind a blackened wall—all except Eric. Too dazed to move, he stands there like an idiot, looking around him. “Everything looks so real…” I hear him say, when a drill grenade explodes next to him, momentarily blinding him, causing his vest to light up and beep.

“Will you get your head down?!” I shout at him.

This gets Eric’s attention. Realizing that he has to take cover, he ducks and sidles up with us. “So? What are we going to do now?” he asks.

For an answer, the camo boys fling themselves in the open. They take the path to the left, braving the gunfire of the invisible enemy.

Eric turns to me and Rita, expecting some collaboration, but the girl glances at the fleeing boys. “I’m sorry,” Rita says, “but I hate to be left behind. So long.” She runs alongside a low wall, coming out on the other side. She takes the route to the right, more intricate but more sheltered than the one to the left, and, hurtling like a ferret, she disappears in the mayhem.

I look at the camo boys to the left, then at Rita on the right, and realize that if I want to cut them off, I must take the last route, the one straight across the public square. It’s the fastest, but it’s also the most exposed and dangerous. “Let’s get a move on!” I say to Eric.

Eric nods and follows me. We zigzag amidst upturned and squashed vehicles. According to the map shining on our visors, our goal is inside a tall, imposing building at the end of the public square—the city hall. The virtual map also portrays all enemy stations surrounding us. Eric and I take turns maneuvering around the obstacles. Thank God, at least Eric has a smattering of tactical movement. I wonder where he learned it, given his overall clumsiness, but it comes in handy. Moving in sync, we cover each other, aiming at the roofs of the buildings facing the square, taking out the electronic snipers hiding up there. We’re so fast and effective, that we start gaining on Rita and the boys. We’re almost to the town hall now, where everybody is converging—if Eric and I make it through the last fifty yards, we’ll get there first.

We stop behind one last wall. “You ready?” I ask Eric, getting my breath back.

“I’m ready,” he says.

I grin, sure we’re going to make it, then dive into the open. I get halfway the distance. I look over my shoulder, expecting to see Eric behind me, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Darn! I have no time to babysit him, and I certainly won’t wait for him. I’m about to hurtle into the city hall and win the simulation, when I glimpse him—Eric’s splayed on the ground, fifteen yards behind me, next to an obliterated truck. He’s twitching as if he’s just been shot. I look again, wondering if my visor is playing tricks on my eyes or what. These weapons aren’t real, no way could Eric possibly get hit. Why is he twitching like that, then?

I glance ahead of me to see the camo boys and Rita enter the city hall—I can say good-bye to my dreams of victory. I could still get a handful of points if I ran inside now, but I can’t leave Eric alone. Forgetting the damn simulation, I hurry back to him.

Eric is still shuddering. I kneel at his side, ripping open his vest and looking for a wound, but I can’t find any. I call him, but he doesn’t hear me. He’s shut off from the rest of the world, his gaze is lost in the far, his mouth dribbling and foaming. And then realization hits me—he’s not hit, he’s having a seizure! I brace myself, trying to remember the basics of the first-aid course we took at school. I remove his helmet, free his throat, then I take off my vest, fold it, and put in under his head, cushioning the spasms. All the flashing and the rattle of the simulation must have short-circuited his brain. I talk to him, hoping that this will calm him, but he takes some time to snap out of it. When Eric looks up at me, he has no idea of what happened. “Did we make it?” he asks me, expectant.

I groan, shake my head, and peer disconsolately at the town hall. Eric glances around him, until it dawns on him why he’s on the ground. He slaps his forehead. “What a dolt I am. I forgot to take my medication,” he says. He searches his pockets, fishes out a small tube, removes a pink pill, and gulps it down. “It’ll go away in a minute.”

I scowl and shut up—my face says it all.

“I’m so sorry,” Eric says.

“Sure. Take it easy.”

The lights in the simulator flick on. Every noise ceases, the smoke stops, and a loudspeaker blares, “The simulation is over. Please get out of the simulator. The simulation—

I’m about to stand, when Eric grabs my arm. “You’re not telling anyone, are you?”

“Maybe I should,” I say. “For your safety.”

“Please, don’t!” he says.

I read in Eric’s eyes the agony and the fear of rejection. “It’s not the end of the world if the Space Army doesn’t take you, you know?” I say. “Not everybody can expect to get in.”

Eric stares at me. “It’s easy for you to say, and for everybody else here—you’re all perfect! I have this curse on me, but I have the same right as you to get on a spaceship, and fight! In the ruckus of this morning, it just slipped my mind to take my medication, that’s all.”

“What if you forget your pills in a battle?” I say.

“It won’t happen ever again, I promise!”

I sigh and shake my head, when a sergeant approaches and plants himself in front of us. “Haven’t you heard the loudspeaker?” he barks. “The simulation is over. Why are you still here?” He sees my vest under Eric’s head. “What’s the matter with him?” he asks.

Eric looks at me, pleading for me not to rat him out, and I’m caught in a quandary. If I tell the sergeant that Eric is subject to seizures, he’ll probably end up in an office and will never see a spaceship. On the other hand, if I shut up, Eric may become an infantryman all right, but what if he’s a liability to his team? At first, I think it’s best being frank with the sergeant—but then I realize that Eric is in the same situation as mine. He wants to give his contribution to his country against the war and the blueskins. Who am I to thwart his efforts and his good intentions? What if the fortunes of the oncoming war depended on the bravery of one soldier alone? What if Eric was that soldier? “He stumbled and hit his head,” I say.

The sergeant stares at Eric, suspicious. “Is that so?”

Beaming, Eric nods.

“You’d better watch your step, son, then,” the NCO says.

I help Eric to his feet, recover his helmet and my vest, and we both walk out of the infantry simulator under the puzzled eyes of the sergeant.

THE SPACE SIMULATOR

Since my chance at scoring decent points with the infantry simulator has gone down the drain, I’m not so sure anymore my plan is going to work. Not even Eric’s apologies will change the abysmal result of my last test, and I can only hope I’ll do better with the space simulator. After returning our infantry gear to the armory, everybody is given a break for lunch in a separate building. What we’re served is neither good nor memorable, but we’re not here to fill our bellies.

After lunch, we’re herded to another wing of the recruitment center, where the space simulator room is. It reminds me of an advanced arcade, divided as it is in multiple cubicles containing one simulator each. Since the standard Space Army air squadron is made of four pilots, every simulator features four cramped cockpits, fanned out like a star. Following our instructor’s directives, we man the available stations one by one.

Now that the bulk of the tests are behind us, the tension that accompanied us since early morning begins to wear off, and everybody is more relaxed. I briefly acknowledge the other members of my squadron—Wes, Norman, and Steve. I have to say that we look more a bunch of inveterate gamers joining a LAN party than straight-laced recruits-to-be.

Military-grade space simulators are very similar to home computer or console simulation games, so it’s customary for dudes who want to give the Space Army a try to do some serious training on their own computer. You can find some excellent space simulators on the net: Blasteroid, Total Fighter, or Blockade Buster can do for starters, but there are many which recreate the same experience of being aboard the notorious fighters of the Space Army. Obviously, we won’t be tested over our knowledge of real spacecraft, but we’ll be measured our coordination, our reflexes, and our attitude at working as a team.

Alas, there’s no more time for chatter. As soon as the instructor leaves, the lights dim, and the test begins.

Welcome aboard the EFS Glaucopis, ensigns,” the computer says. “We are approaching quadrant XVII in the Epsilon Eridani system, where we have been alerted to the presence of the enemy flagship Mardalis. Fleet Command has appointed us with the mission of capturing the Mardalis intact for analysis and reverse engineering. The warship Patroclus is on its way to escort her out of the sector, but it may take a while for it to arrive. Until then, we’ll have to make do. Since the Glaucopis hasn’t enough firepower to take on the Mardalis alone, your duty as wing fighter pilots will be to keep the enemy at bay. The mission has three main objectives and a secondary one. Your priority is to wipe out all enemy wings, destroy the Mardalis’s main engines, and her beam cannon. Your secondary goal is to keep her communication subsystem within five percent of its functionality. Do not destroy the ship—she must be captured alive. When the Patroclus arrives, it shall relieve you of your duties, and you may return to the Glaucopis. Failure in completing any of the above objectives will result in the failure of the mission. Choose your fighters, pilots!

The monitors in front of us switch on, showing different fighters along with different sets of weapons. Each spacecraft has a specific purpose, and we spend a couple of minutes evaluating which best fit our mission.

“My brother took the test last week,” Steve whispers to us. “He told me three of us should pick the A-71—it’s far handier than the R-44 or the X-15, and carries a lot more missiles than the latter. The fourth should take the B-99 bomber, and everybody should get a boatload of FAF.” FAF is military jargon. It stands for “Fire and Forget,” a class of heat-seeking missiles more effective than most point-blank range weapon.

“I’ll get a fighter,” Wes says.

“I’ll get one, too,” Steve says.

“Me too,” Norman says.

I’m stuck with the B-99. Bombardiers are a pain in the ass to pilot, since they’re slower than fighters, but they are heavily armed, and that accounts for a lot. When one of their pills goes off in the right place, everybody sits back and enjoys the pyrotechnics—they are a feast for the eyes. Bombers are a huge asset for a wing of fighters, that’s why your squadron mates will do anything to keep you alive, on a clear path, and locked on your target. So, I’m not complaining much for my forced choice.

We tinker with the controls, loading our spacecraft with the ammunition Steve’s brother suggested.

“Ready, everybody?” Steve says.

“Ready!” we all say.

“All right, let’s begin!” Steve says, and then he pushes the START MISSION button.

Immediately, our monitors switch to a barren region of space shrouded in mists. Soon, the humongous outline of the Mardalis, the stranded alien ship we are supposed to capture, comes into view. However, before we set to disable her, our monitors blare with a series of proximity alerts and fill with red dots—an enemy wing is closing in in tight formation.

“I’m locking in on the first target,” Steve says. “You lock onto the remaining ones.”

“Locking in on the second,” Wes says.

“Locking on the third,” Norman says.

“I’ll get the fourth,” I say.

We dive into the enemy fighters as fast as lightning. We work hard at the control wheel, busy chasing away and shooting down enemies, equalizing the power to our shields and avoiding being hit in general. We do a nice job, for the first wave is soon staved off. But our elation is short-lived. As we converge on the Mardalis, a second wave of fighters moves in.

“Don’t lose your head and stay in formation,” Steve prompts us. “Pick your objectives one at a time—it’ll be a piece of cake.”

We tear through space engaging our targets, taking them out one by one, until there are none left. Now our crosshairs switch automatically from the fighters to the Mardalis. The enemy flagship is a hell of a spaceship, half a mile long, with hundreds of systems and subsystems. She’s not just a stranded juggernaut sitting there idly—her flak turrets have peppered us with rounds from the beginning. We swoop along her massive broadsides, headed astern. Once there, we aim at her reactors. Two of the busters I carry are enough to obliterate them with a huge explosion that rouses the cheers from my comrades. But even if the Mardalis can’t move, her communication subsystem is still intact. She could send a distress signal and call for reinforcements, that’s why it’s critical that we take it down quickly.

One by one, we destroy her flak turrets, her beam cannon, and her navigation subsystem. We also shoot the communication subsystem down to the required five percent of its functionality—the Mardalis is now disabled.

“Good job, mates!” Steve says. “Now we only have to wait for the Patroclus to show up and our mission will be over.”

We circle the Mardalis, keeping an eye on our long-range radar for the allied destroyer to appear. The region of space in front of us flickers and tears apart, revealing a spaceship coming out from a wormhole.

“There it is!” Wes says, glad to see it.

But as soon as the bow of the ship emerges from the blue shroud of the electromagnetic field, it’s clear from its blotched livery it isn’t the ship we expected.

“Hey, that’s not the Patroclus,” Wes says, growing restless. “That’s another enemy cruiser! What are we gonna do now? Where’s the damn Patroclus? I’m out of ammo!”

“Relax, Wes,” Steve says, taking over as usual. “It’s just a lesser ship. We’ll take care of it in moments. Jeremy? How many busters are you left with?”

“I have two more,” I say.

“It’s all yours,” Steve says. “Follow behind us and drop your load on my cue. Do you read me?”

“I read you,” I say. “I’m right behind you.”

Our squadron makes for the new ship. Steve, Wes, and Norman take care of its artillery batteries, giving me the time to shoot my last two heavy-duty bombs. They are more than enough to maim the cruiser, which blows up in a ball of fire that jolts our spacecraft. However, the waves of enemy fighters start to come in once again. They seem to appear from thin air like buzzards sensing a prey, targeting and picking on us. We renew our efforts, but we’re depleting our ammunition fast.

Wes is in panic. “I’m out of ammo! My shields are too low! A couple more hits, and I’ll be done for!”

“Call the support ship,” Steve says, “and stay out of the way while you reload.”

“All right, guys—I’m sorry to go.” Wes breaks away from our wing. He’ll take a while to rearm.

We’re only three left now, and surviving requires more skills than ever. I come up at the end of a roll, when my HUD frames the Mardalis—and I realize that her communication subsystem is still active, as if they were repairing it! I blink in amazement; how can it be? I dive into another pass to make sure I didn’t misread my HUD indicator, but I didn’t. The enemy flagship’s communication subsystem is at seven percent—eight now, and keeps growing. That’s no good.

“Jeremy?” Steve calls. “We need your help here!”

“The communication subsystem of the Mardalis is up again!” I say. “I’m taking it down!”

“Forget the goddamn ship and come help us!” Steve says. “We won’t hold out any longer!”

For the third time today, I’m caught in a dilemma. I’m torn between going back to help my squadron, or complete the mission objective despite the fate in store for my comrades. What am I going to do? What would Father do in a situation like this? I wonder. Dad always says that the mission comes first, no matter what—and who am I to disprove a war hero? Ignoring the complaints of Steve and Norman, I pull back the control wheel, and shoot at the Mardalis’s subsystem until it goes back to the expected five percent of its functionality and stays there.

“Jeremy, where the hell are you?!” Steve snarls. “They have surrounded us! Wes?”

“I’m still rearming!” Wes says.

“Hang on, I’m on my way!” I say. I push the throttle all the way forward, but it takes a while to return to my formation, and by the time I get there, my fighter is overcast with two dazzling explosions. Steve and Norman swear loudly, disbelieving they’re out of the game.

Wes joins me, and we brace for the impossible task of taking over a dozen enemy fighters. But the moment before we’re wiped out, the space continuum tears up again. With the sound of a bugle, the long-craved-for Patroclus makes its grand entrance on the battlefield. It takes control of both the quadrant and of the Mardalis, destroying the fighters and putting an end to our mission.

We let go of our control sticks and sit back—it’s been a hell of a ride, and we’re all covered in sweat.

“There,” Steve says, beside himself with anger. “We bustled for nothing! We failed the damn mission because of you!” He slams his fists on the control panel and shoots a nasty look at me.

But then the computer voice speaks. “Congratulations, ensigns!” it says. “You managed to accomplish the mission in all of its parts. You earned your first medal! Here’s to many more to come!

We all exchange dumbfounded glances at seeing the lavish golden disc revolving on our monitors. We take a while to realize it was my last sally on the Mardalis that has won us the medal.

Steve scratches his head and turns to me, apologetic. “I’m glad you didn’t listen to me, Jeremy,” he says. “I was too busy fighting my ass off to remember my mission objectives. Well done!” He grins, and we all laugh.

MAJOR SHEPHERD

Lieutenant Cicero turns about the acetate sheet in his hands, getting an idea of my overall performance. I grip the edge of my chair, awaiting his verdict, but the silence is too much for me to bear, and I feel the urge to speak in my defense. “If I could just repeat the infantry test, sir,” I start, “I’m sure I could do better than—”

“Than this?” the lieutenant says, pointing at the acetate sheet. “I’d say you did pretty well.”

I can’t believe my ears. “But, sir, I didn’t even make the goal!”

Lieutenant Cicero looks at me. “Getting to the other end of the simulator is just one of the parameters we evaluate the candidates with,” he says. “There are many others. I won’t go into the details, but you forgo your goal to help a comrade in need. That’s a commendable deed, and goes a long way revealing your true colors, Jeremy. All in all, your performance was outstanding.”

“Outstanding, sir? Do you mean I’m enlisted?”

“The fleet will make good use of your skills. Congratulations, Jeremy.” My heart skips a beat at seeing the lieutenant open his desk drawer. He takes out a familiar regimental brass brooch. It’s not the number I’m impressed with, but the small emblem enclosing it: a star and a dot in a circle—the Morning Star insignia! It gleams like a gold nugget in Lieutenant Cicero’s hands. “What you went through today were just tests,” he says, twirling the brooch in his fingers. “Your real training will start as soon as you embark. The Morning Star is leaving Earth this evening at hours 08:00, so mind you don’t miss her. We’re happy to have you with us, Jeremy.”

“Why, thank you, sir!” I say, on cloud nine that my plan has panned out in spite of the difficulties.

Lieutenant Cicero extends his fingers, about to give me my long-yearned-for recruit number—when someone knocks at the door. The lieutenant shuts his hand on the brooch and jumps to his feet to salute the newcomer. A quiet officer of about sixty walks in. According to the rank and to the nametag appointed on his chest, he’s Major Shepherd. There’s nothing special about him, but from the deferential treatment Lieutenant Cicero gives him, he must be a celebrity around here.

“How’s the boy doing, Karl?” the major asks.

“He’s first-class material,” the lieutenant says. “I was just giving him his number to embark on the Star.”

“May I have a couple of words with him?”

“He’s all yours, Major. I’ll go get some coffee.” Lieutenant Cicero nods to his superior and, to my utter dismay, leaves with my brooch in his pocket.

Major shepherd makes himself comfortable in Cicero’s chair. He doesn’t say anything for a while; he just studies my resume, impressed with it. When he’s finished, his eyes bore into mine as if they didn’t miss anything about me. “I’m glad to see you’ve obtained excellent results in the aptitude battery,” he says. “There is no wonder. You truly are your father’s son. Very much like him, you have no respect for the rules. But you also show the same great instinct as him, a ready mind, a strong sense of duty—and the same humanity.”

I don’t understand. Who is this soldier I’ve never met in my life? “Do you know my father, sir?” I ask.

“I’ve known him since he was a hotshot a few years older than you, when I first taught him everything about the Fennec A-71. I usually put little stock in reckless cadets who can’t stand discipline, but your father wasn’t just the best pilot in his course, he’s still the best pilot I’ve ever met. You look very much like him, Jeremy. Or should I say—Jim?”

I’m lost for a moment. “How do you know?” I say.

“Before your father left for his mission, he asked me to keep an eye on you. He knew you were up to something.”

Of all the questions flooding in my mind, there’s only one thing I care to know. “Where is my father, sir?”

Shepherd draws a long sigh and his face darkens. “He’s away on some classified mission, but I don’t know what it is, or where he is. It’s best if we leave him at it. With all the commotion ensuing the Lia Nala bombing, I’m sure he’s working with the intelligence to see through it.”

“It’s six months Mother waits for him,” I say. “It’s hard for her, and it’s hard for me, too.”

“Yes. A soldier’s family shares and endures the same hardship as the soldier. It is only natural. As difficult as it may be, the only thing that we can do is to wait for him to return. However, it’s not your father I’m concerned with—it’s you, Jim.”

“Me, sir? Why, the lieutenant said I’m effective aboard the Morning Star!”

“Forget about it, Jim. False impersonation and forgery are serious crimes. The last thing you want at your age is messing with the law.” Major Shepherd stands and steps to the door. “Come quietly, and I’ll try to explain to Lieutenant Cicero what you’ve done. Maybe he’ll close an eye for you.”

I’ve never been so close to embarking a ship of the Terran Fleet, and yet it’s over. I drop my shoulders and swear, but in the end I get to my feet and follow the mayor out of Lieutenant Cicero’s office.

AN EMPTY HOUSE

THE TRIP BACK

I got away from Lieutenant Cicero with a reprimand, and I had to promise that I won’t try to sneak into the recruitment center for at least another two years, when I’ll be of age. But that wasn’t reassurance enough for Major Shepherd. As it often happens with soldiers, he’s taken Father’s request to keep his eyes on me to the letter, and he insisted to accompany me back home in person.

As he drives his rock-solid Mercury Wake down the interstate, there’s no allowance for pointless chatter or distracting music—even driving a flycar is a strict business with Major Shepherd. But that’s fine with me, too—I’m not in the mood for speeches. Embittered, I look in the rearview mirror at the sun setting behind Cedric Spaceport, when a streak of sparkles rises into the evening sky. It’s another shuttle taking off, bringing men and supplies to the battleships waiting just outside Earth’s atmosphere. It’s hard to tell which in the sky are the stars and which are the spaceships, but even if I can’t see her, the Morning Star is up there, about to leave for the alien frontier. Too bad, unlike Vance, I won’t be aboard.

I return my eyes to the road unwinding in front of me to see the wart in the plain that is Derrick Creek. It’s approaching fast. Like a self-sufficient unit, Major Shepherd steers his Mercury Wake off the interstate without turning to me for directions. If I ever needed confirmation that he’s been around here before, he extricates himself from the maze of alleys of the suburban residential area with the ease of someone who knows it like the back of his hand. He drives past endless rows of identical two-storied houses, each of them with their own too-small front garden, their too-big garage, and their walls too thin to keep out the heat in summer and to keep it in in winter.

Major Shepherd touches the control wheel of his Mercury Wake with no wasted movements, pulling over to the front porch of one of the dozen houses in the street—mine—then he switches off the engine. After a considerable pause, he turns to me. “Today you were lucky enough to get away with a warning,” he says. “Your mother has a lot to think about already, that’s why I won’t tell her what happened, but next time I won’t be so forgiving.”

The major and I listen to the crickets and the cicadas. Since I’ve been surly and grumpy all the trip from Cedric, the major puts in a kind word, trying to cheer me up. “I may not look it,” he says, “but I too was young, a long time ago. I have always been eager to put myself to the test, to step in shoes that were too big for me, and do everything as quickly as possible, as if life was a race. Well, I’ll tell you something—I should have bid my time. I remember little of my youth. I ran away from it so fast and was involved in so many things at once that when I stopped to look back, I was already a man. I burned through all the steps instead of cherishing every single moment of my life. I feel like I never had a proper youth—I always was a soldier. If I could go back, I would do a lot of things in a different way, believe me.”

The major makes a pause, letting his words sink in.

“Don’t be angry, Jim,” he says. “Don’t be too eager to rush the future. Enjoy what you are and the little you have, while you have it—it’ll be gone sooner than you think, and you’ll never have it back. Your time will come, when you will have to take life-changing decisions, when you will have to run for real, and hustle, and fend for yourself. If a war breaks loose, you may be sucked into adulthood before you realize it. Your mother loves you, Jim, think of her. She already misses your father, don’t let her miss you as well—take care of her.”

I sigh, saying nothing, my heart heavy with frustration. I open the flycar door, climb from it, and shuffle up the walkway to my house. Only when I’m on the doorstep, do I turn back.

Major Shepherd attempts at a smile. He knows how hard it is to be a teenager like me, fighting for his place in the adult world, with its steadfast rules. He nods his farewell, then he ignites his Mercury Wake, and swoops away in the dark, leaving me at square one—all my efforts were for nothing. Grumbling, I shuffle past the door and shut it behind me.

THE UNCATCHABLE

I walk into the living room and drop to the sofa. Even if Mom will be home soon, this place has been empty all day. Home is silent, shrouded in the dimness, but I don’t need to turn on the light; there is enough coming in from the street lamp outside—it splashes in through the window, stirring glints from the memorabilia scattered around me. The pictures of a charming rascal wearing the uniform of the fleet who could pass for my older brother stare at me from the walls, the counters, and the shelves.

Father is blissful in every picture, as if the marvels of the world had just opened up for him. As if to get everything he ever wished for, he only needed to reach out. Pictures of an older him. Pictures of him with Mother. Dozens of medals, badges, flags, citations, trophies, ribbons, and awards. They send shivers of light at my address, as if mocking me.

But let me show you something truly unique. It’s here, on the coffee table in the middle of the living room, inside a square velvet case half an inch tall. As most possessions which have great value, they don’t look much. I’ll open it for you. There. You see it? I told you, you wouldn’t shell out a dime for it—it’s just an empty brass hexagon, with a ribbon attached to it, isn’t it? This, my friends, is the most sought-after trinket in the whole fleet. Droves of pilots would part with their right hand to have one of these locked away in their vaults. This is the Uncatchable.

Its hexagonal shape is taken from the HUD of the old Seaman F-91, the first single-pilot fighter ever put to space. The empty viewfinder signifies a pilot’s superior skill and adroitness at evading the enemy. Only Fleet Admiral himself awards it to the rare ace who excels and distinguishes himself in battle. I can’t remember how many times I’ve looked at it, spit-shined it, and treasured it.

Yes, the whole house is a damn shrine devoted to Fleet Captain Richard Streamer. There is so much in this room to overwhelm even a long-course veteran, go figure a young boy. All this junk haunted me since I was three, a ubiquitous, monster yardstick for me to measure up to every day. That’s how I grew up, with the realization that I’d never be able to achieve not even a fragment of what my father has accomplished. I remember wondrous tales about his escape from home when he was thirteen, the haphazard occupations he’d taken on to earn a living, the enlistment in the Space Army, the endless training, and, finally—Congara! Even now, while I repeat that name in my mind, I can’t help but feel the shiver of thrill and the call of adventure. But, as I grew older, this house has become a cemetery full of memories, a relic in which I’m stuck, like this horrible town. I’m always waiting for my chance to leave and to distinguish myself as Father did, but nothing ever happens, and I’m afraid that every dull day is a gloomy foretell of my future.

I throw my head back to glimpse the stars through the slates of the window blinds. How ironic and unfair is it, that an idiotic good for nothing like Vance Mason is gone with the Morning Star, and I, who did great at the recruitment center, am bound to stay behind? Goddamn!

I brood in a peeved daze for a while, until I hear a whoosh in the alley. A flycar door opens. A woman’s voice says a few words of farewell. The door shuts, then the whoosh starts again and fades away into the night.

MOM

A key turns in the lock, opening the entrance door. The lights turn on, revealing an aged version of the beaming woman posing with Father in the pictures on the wall. Mom’s still beautiful, but she doesn’t smile much anymore; now a touch of sadness has fallen over her eyes. Without seeing me, she drops her purse and carries a bag of groceries over to the kitchen. In one uninterrupted motion, she washes her hands and tinkers with pans and food, fixing dinner. I stand from the sofa and join her.

“My man!” Mom says, turning and pecking my cheek. “How did it go at Cedric? Have you met your friends?”

As you can imagine, I didn’t tell her I was going to the recruitment center. “Sure,” I say.

“Frank called,” Mom throws in.

“Is something wrong at the shop?”

“Not that I know of,” Mom says. “We just talked about you. Frank sang me your praises; he told me you’re so good at work. He mentioned that, one day, you could be his associate. How is that for a business offer—wouldn’t that be great? I mean, finding yourself a nice job here at Derrick, close to home, without going to Cedric?”

Have Frank as my boss? Permanently? God forbids!

“Of course, you have another year ahead of you to decide what’s best for you, so no pressure. I just think that you’re lucky to have someone like Frank, backing you. He’s a good guy. He’s always been kind to you, and to me, since your father left.” Mother stops chopping vegetables to think. “Frank is such a gentleman. He offered to take me out to dinner, you know. I was wondering if it would be entirely proper for me to accept, since—”

I feel my skin crawl at hearing Mother’s words. “Just stay away from Frank,” I say.

Mother turns, surprised and a little embarrassed at my sharp reaction. “Well, maybe you’re right,” she says. “I guess it would look bad, with your father away and all—this town is always blabbering. Maybe I shouldn’t. It’s just, sometimes, I think I should do something different, like getting out. God knows I need it, and Frank was so—”

“Forget Frank, Mom!” I say.

“All right, don’t be so angry. I’ll call it off.” Mother is clearly disappointed; she was counting on Frank’s invitation, but in the end she gives up. “What would you like for supper?” she says. “You choose—we’ve got chicken, steak, or potatoes. Or we could go out and have pizza, if you say.”

“I’m not hungry, Mom. I’ll go straight to bed.”

“Is anything the matter, Jim?”

“I’m just not hungry.”

“Oh, well. I’ll leave something for you in the oven, in case you changed your mind, okay?”

I nod my head and walk out of the kitchen.

I feel Mother’s worried stare pinned on my back as I climb upstairs. I’m sure she’s still musing over Frank’s offer, but if she knew what I know about him, she wouldn’t be so sorry. I bet right now she’s ruminating about all the damn difficult teenagers of the world who pretend to know more than their parents, but in this case I do know more than her.

MY BEDROOM

I throw myself on my bed, folding my arms under my head. My bedroom is in the back of the first floor, its one window looking toward Cedric. When the sky is clear, it’s perfect for stargazing. I’ve spent most summer nights of my youth up, waiting for this or that constellation or planet to show up, exploring the mysterious blackness of space. I always wondered what it was like being out there, in the dangerous and exotic places forbidden to the other mortals Father went.

I stare at the dozens of fighter and spaceship models hanging from the ceiling, recalling the moments when Father and I assembled them. One of them is the Fennec A-71, the spacecraft which made my father famous. It’s the first fighter equipped with a K-class heavy-duty bomb and Astra engines, and the first ever to employ an electromagnetic shield—even if it could only be activated on the bow of the fighter, and shortly. Next to the Fennec A-71, hangs the model of the world-renown Apexia, the warship commandeered by the then almost unknown Captain George Bellamy.

The Apexia fought the blueskins at Congara in the tragic event of mankind’s first contact with another race. Congara, a deuterium-mining installation orbiting Titan—Saturn’s largest moon—was inexplicably attacked by the Kematian, a Sar-dak battleship, on September 13, 2233, right after emerging from a nearby wormhole. While it was never quite ascertained how an alien warship could possibly make it to our solar system undetected, the blueskins didn’t lose time, and put Congara to fire and sword—in a few hours, the aliens butchered mercilessly the more than three hundred miners lodged in the base. Only the station’s close circuit cameras witnessed the abomination of the blueskins and the helplessness of the miners. The videos are still classified material, but a few leaked to the public—it’s hard after seeing those bloodcurdling images not to feel revulsion and a deep hatred for the blueskins. Anyway, the Apexia was able to intercept and destroy the Kematian only twenty-four hours after the base sent its distress signal. Those days, speeding under hibernation at eighty gees for a whole day to cover the billion miles from Earth to Congara, accelerating to one-tenth the speed of light, was a mind-blowing technological feat.

At Congara, pilots like my father received their baptism of fire. Many brave soldiers died in the attempt of warding off the enemy threat and securing the alien wormhole, but they succeeded at last. The few blueskins captured alive were rounded up for questioning, but whatever information was extracted from them, it also went in a classified folder the public still doesn’t know anything about. As much as I wanted to learn about the Congara slaughter from the most credited hero of all—my father—he always gave me rough summaries purged of all gore. For some reason, the tragic event which made him a hero cut so deep into him to the point that he hates to speak about it.

After Congara, the two races kept at large from each other. Only now, twenty years later, a new awareness is taking foot, and sporadic attempts at restoring the lost relationship are being made. Until now, the undertakings have been from small independent groups rather than from the establishment, but two months ago, the government budged from its official position of refusal of further contact with the Sar-daks and agreed to send the Summer Harvest to Lia Nala as a sign of goodwill toward the blueskins. After the destruction of our frigate, it doesn’t seem there will be any more efforts. The blueskins aren’t ready for peace yet—the only thing they will ever respect is being confronted with the same brutality as them.

I think of my distant father. I wonder where he is now, if he’s safe, and if he misses his family on Earth. Sometimes I wish he had forgone all the glory and the military luster just to have him back. If he were a clerk, he would be home at five and eat regular meals with Mom and me.

I shift my eyes to a dark corner of the room, where a black drone model hangs like a giant moth. The more I look at this room where I enjoyed growing up, the more I realize all this belongs to my past. It’s a kid’s bedroom, a room full of toys. This room, which once appeared to me as huge as a warehouse full of unexplored nooks and crannies, at some point began to shrink, becoming smaller and smaller, until it has turned into a suffocating prison to get out from. So many memories sweep over me, that I fall in torpor—when the phone on the nightstand rings.

I reach out and pick up. Billy’s earnest voice speaks from the other end. “So? Did my card work?” he says.

“Yep, man, your card worked like a charm,” I say. “You’re the king of hackers.”

You don’t sound too happy. Did you make it?

“Not really.”

What do you mean, not really? What happened?

“A major, some true-blue friend of Father’s, acknowledged me. He only took a second to realize I was trying to sneak in.”

Rotten luck.

“You said it.”

Why don’t you come over, pal? You’re always welcome here—we’ll talk.

“Thanks, Billy, but I don’t want to butt in.”

Stella and I aren’t always making out, you know? Occasionally, we do other things. We speak. Once in a while, we even eat. Before I called you, we were planning on taking a couple of weeks off and go camping on the mountains out north or something. Why don’t you join us? I’m afraid you’ll have to bring your own tent, though—Stella is so hung up over our privacy.

There’s an awkward pause, then we both break into laughter. “Yeah, I get it, Billy,” I say. “Don’t worry.”

Stella wonders why you don’t find yourself a nice girl. She thinks you’re quite handsome; nothing like me, but still passable. A girlfriend would help you relax. This town isn’t the backyard of hell, after all—there are a lot of funny things to do and to see even here.

“I’ll think it over,” I say.

I really have to go now. Even if it’s a damn hot summer, my services are still in high demand. Stella says hello to you as well.

“Bye,” I say. Billy hangs up a moment later.

For a reason or another, it has been a hectic day, and I look forward to the replenishing slumber. But the moment before I fall asleep, someone knocks at the entrance door on the floor below.

I sit up in alarm.

Wondering who can possibly be at this late hour, I pick myself up and shuffle out of my bedroom, coming to the window on the landing, the one overlooking the driveway. In the dark, I move the curtain aside and peek into the alley, where a flycar is parked—is Father back, all of a sudden? It’s like him to come home in the dead of the night, but that’s not his flycar. Maybe it isn’t Dad, after all. What if it’s Frank? I swear to God if he’s come over to make a pass at Mom, I’m going to kill him. But it can’t be him, either—he would’ve come with the N-21 just to make an impression. It must be someone else. Who is the coy guest who chooses darkness over sunlight to pay his visit? I wonder. Why does he knock, instead of ringing the doorbell? I hear the latch being thrown. The door opens, someone talks briefly, then the door shuts again—the stranger just got into the house. I prick my ears for any squeals of rapture from Mother, but I don’t hear anything, ergo that’s not Father.

I lean over the top landing with my senses heightened, looking below, but the living room is dark and quiet. Mom and the stranger must be in the kitchen. Without turning on the lights, I grope my way downstairs, paying attention not to put my feet on the creaking step, then cock my head, and glance into the kitchen.

THE STRANGER

The stranger sits at the kitchen table with Mom. Even if he keeps away from the light, trying to conceal his features, I can glimpse him all right. He’s about thirty, tall, sporting the haircut and the measured countenance of the military, but his drawn face betrays he’s under a great strain. He wears a flight jacket, its lapels turned up despite the heat, and keeps shooting side glances at the corners of the house, as if he was afraid of being watched. He looks like one of the secretive men from the Space Army Intelligence Father often mingles with, and I wonder if he’s got news from him. I cup my hands around my ears in the attempt of catching what I can of the ongoing conversation—it seems that I’m wrong.

“I’m afraid I don’t know where Richard is,” Mom says. “You would have better luck asking the intelligence.”

“His whereabouts are classified information,” the stranger says, his voice deep and slow. “They wouldn’t tell me. I thought they would make an exception for you, Carol, his wife.”

“I wish they did,” Mom says in frustration. “But they never tell me anything—sometimes, I feel I’m like a widow.”

The stranger presses on. “It is imperative that I talk to him, Carol,” he says. “He may contact you outside the official channels, to reassure you he’s well.”

“Oh,” Mom says. “Richard is so strict about orders. If his superiors told him to keep quiet, he won’t call no matter what.”

The stranger lifts his hand to his throat in disappointment, and gasps as if he lacked air.

“Are you okay?” Mother says. “Do you want some water? There’s still a lot of dust from the harvest hanging in the air—it bothers me as well.”

“That would be very kind of you,” the stranger says.

Mom stands to pour a glass of water. She gives it to the stranger, who gulps it. “You speak as if you knew Richard,” she says. “But I don’t recall ever seeing you before.”

The stranger returns his glass and stares intensely at Mother. “Everything is going down the drain, Carol. A war is brewing. What’s most terrible, everybody seems to accept the idea as if it was the most natural and agreeable thing that could happen to them.”

“History repeats itself,” Mom says, sitting again.

“This time, the result could be different,” the stranger says. “This time, war may not affect a small region of space—it may affect us all. Look what happened to Lia Nala.”

“There’s an investigation under way. I’m sure a culprit will be found, and that a war won’t be necessary.”

The stranger gasps in disgust. “The investigation is just smoke in the eyes of the public, Carol. It’s only giving more time to Ministry Eduardo to take a decision. But someone else has already decided for him.”

“If you know something we don’t, then speak up,” Mom says. “Nobody wants a war, if it can be avoided—”

At this point, I lean too much forward, and the damn floorboard creaks spookily under my weight! The stranger jerks his head in my direction, in alarm. As fast as lightning, he reaches into his pocket, about to draw something. I freeze, my hair standing on ends, praying that the darkness is enough to hide me. It’s a tense moment—somehow, I’ve got the feeling that the stranger is going to shoot me next.

“It’s just an old house,” Mother then says, reassuring him. “It does that all the time.”

The stranger exhales, uncertain, and I breathe again. For a while, he scans the darkness for threats, then he wipes his brow and puts his hand back on the table.

“You’re nervous,” Mom says.

“You too would be, Carol, if you knew what I’ve been through to get here.”

“Why are you looking for Richard?”

“I need his expertise on some evidence I put my hands on,” the stranger says.

“I’m sorry.” Mom says, “I haven’t seen Richard since December. I called the intelligence headquarters at least a hundred times; I even called the Moon Base. I pleaded them, I threatened them, but I feel like I’m speaking to the wind—I couldn’t get them to tell me anything. The government can be a hard wall to break through, when classified information is involved. I fought for a while, but now I’ve resigned to waiting.”

Mom and the stranger pore over their troubles in silence. At last, the stranger fishes out a plastic card from his pocket, and hands it to Mom. “I won’t stay long on Earth. If you happen to hear from Richard, please give him this. He’ll find me at this address. It’s extremely urgent, mind you.”

“If I ever see him, I’ll give it to him. Oh, it’s all so complicated—I really hope that everything turns out for the best.”

“I too, Carol. I too,” the stranger says.

Mom sniffs, dabbing at a tear, then she stands with the stranger, and they both move to the entrance door. Again, the stranger scans the darkness wrapping the living room, not entirely sure the wood creaked on its own accord.

“I hope you’ll find Richard, and that you’ll show him that evidence of yours,” Mom says. “But you haven’t told me your name, yet. If Richard comes back, he’ll want to know who you are.”

The stranger curls his lips in a weird smile. “Tell him I’m—Orion.”

“Very well, Mr. Orion. I look forward to relaying your message.” Mom opens the entrance door. With a wary glance at the alley, the stranger called Orion sweeps out of the house. Mom watches him climb in his flycar, turn it on, and leave in a whoosh. She squints at the shrinking wake of light behind Orion’s vehicle, and then she locks the door. She leans against it, thinking about the odd encounter, then returns to the kitchen, and puts Orion’s note on the table. She switches off the lights, climbs upstairs, and disappears in her bedroom.

At long last, I can slip out from my hideout. I run to the kitchen, turn on the light, and read Orion’s card. It says: CEDRIC SPACEPORT, CIVILIAN FLIGHTS SECTION. DOCK NUMBER R71-598-4478.

I wonder if my chance has come.

A NARROW ESCAPE

CEDRIC SPACEPORT

Thinking of Orion’s card, I couldn’t sleep all night. The pier number printed on it means there’s a ship docked at Cedric Spaceport, waiting for him, but it remains to be seen what kind of transport it is. If Orion came to Earth on an interplanetary shuttle, I can’t possibly board it without buying an expensive ticket. On the other hand, if Orion owned the ship, maybe I could talk him into taking me along; I’d do almost anything just to leave Earth, even be the ship’s boy. It wouldn’t be the same thing as embarking on the Morning Star—that chance has long gone—but it would spring me from Earth all the same, and once I’m in space, anything can happen. If Orion’s evidence has anything to do with the war, I may be involved in it without enlisting in the Space Army, and that tempts me.

I’ve been going over my new plan since Orion left, and now that the first light of day pokes in through the blinds, I can hear Mom stir and climb down. She’ll be gone in less than twenty minutes. When the entrance door shuts, I run downstairs and fling myself into the kitchen, praying God that Mom didn’t take Orion’s card—but the small plastic rectangle is still there, on the table. I have to carry it with me as proof that Orion was at my house.

The first thing I do is to leave a message on Frank’s answering machine: I have things to do at Cedric for school, and I need another day off. This will take care of Frank. Mom won’t be back until late in the evening, so I’m all set. I glance at the clock on the wall—I only have five minutes to catch the next fly coach to Cedric. I grab my backpack, cram a handful of cookies in my mouth for breakfast, and off I go to the bus station, slamming the door behind me.

I make it there just on time to see the fly hound pull over. I hurry on it and drop on the back seat. I mean to go over my plan and finesse it during the trip to Cedric, but I fall asleep in the attempt.

When I open my eyes again, it’s about time I should see the spaceport—there it is, in fact, half hidden in the morning mist. I make out what look like tall and ominous buildings, but they’re not—they’re cargoes, supply ships, and smaller cruisers, light and handy enough to go back and forth from Earth to space. It’s something the Morning Star could never do; she’s so huge and heavy, she would collapse under her own weight if she tried to land—she’s a space creature.

The fly coach makes a first stop at the spaceport entrance reserved for military personnel, letting out a handful of soldiers. I’m too busy peeking, through the gaps of the gate, at the flurry of activity within to pay attention to them. Every conceivable vehicle and servo-aided machinery occupies the side of the spaceport’s landing bay. It’s all equipment awaiting to be brought aboard the other spaceships about to leave. Before the fly coach takes off again, I glance at the corner of the spaceport, where young men and women march in orderly arrays, about to embark. It’s a dreadful vision, and yet there doesn’t seem to be an alternative to fighting the blueskins.

The fly coach speeds onward, coming one minute later to the entrance reserved for the civilians. This time, I line up with the rest of us headed to the terminus. As the coach whooshes away, we find ourselves in front of the spaceport, and I walk in with the commuters.

The terminus for the civilians is decidedly more relaxed than its military counterpart. The people here behave as usual, lulling themselves in the feeling of false security that even if a war is going to pass, it will never reach the safe harbor of Earth.

Behaving like a commuter for the Moon or Mars, I move around keeping my eyes on the dock entrance. While the spaceport’s main hall is open to everyone, for security reasons, the access to the docks is limited, and you can only get past by showing your documents and your boarding pass. Since I have neither, that’s a problem—I can’t just show them Orion’s card. I could have the information desk call him, but I don’t want to do that yet. What if Orion is in cahoots with Major Shepherd? I may not get away with it as easily this time.

At the boarding gate, a couple of guards—a paunchy geezer and his rookie partner—check papers. They don’t look much of a threat, but the rifles slung at their sides do. It’s best if I find a way around them. I scan the bustling crowd in front of me, looking for a way in, when I glimpse the janitor’s trailer cart—it’s the same cart that also services the docks. I could sneak into the trailer like that, but the cart is parked in the opposite direction than the gate, meaning it probably just came out of there. If only I had gotten here earlier!

As I despair to get in undetected, I catch a movement from the corner of my eye. The janitor flings a bag of trash into the trailer, and then he climbs back on the cart. He starts it, seemingly headed to a side exit, but then, to my surprise, he makes an about-turn, and speeds toward the docks! This is the chance I was waiting for.

I move in after the cart, walking quickly enough to catch up with it, but not so fast to give the guards the feeling that I’m running. Timing the precise speed of the cart, I grab the side of the trailer, and vault over—landing face first in the trash I completely forgot of. The janitor realizes the trailer gave a jolt, but after a negative check behind him, he goes back to driving.

The janitor stops at the boarding gate, where the rookie checks the trailer and the trash it contains. He pokes his rifle into my ribs, but I’m hidden, and he can’t see me. Using the muzzle of his rifle, he fishes out an empty juice carton. He stares at it like an idiot, then he peels it off disgustedly with his fingers, and motions for the janitor to keep going. The gate slides open, allowing the janitor and the cart to move on without a fuss. While I lie in the back of the trailer with a sore rib and an offended nose, I glimpse the rookie sniffing the tip of his smelly rifle under the rolling eyes of his superior.

Fifty yards later, the janitor stops again to pick up more trash. I take advantage to sneak out from the trailer and to hide behind some crates. When the janitor leaves, I come out from my hideout and dust myself off, but there isn’t much that I can do for the bad smell sticking to me. Never mind—I’m in, that’s all that matters to me.

I stroll along the piers crammed with every kind of spacecraft—not just the commuter’s shuttles, but the private space yachts, the recreational cruisers, the charters, and the schooners. Extremely large, plush, small, short, old-fashioned, ugly, majestic, or stylish, they all share the same peculiar feature: at the simple touch of a button, they’ll shrug off the heavy robe of gravity and will fling themselves at amazing speed into the eternal stretch of space.

I find pier number 4478 at the end of the docks, but as far and wide as I search, the powerful cruiser I expected to see isn’t there. I wonder if Orion has already taken off—when I realize there actually is a spacecraft docked to the pier. It’s so small, at first I didn’t even see it.

THE ICEPICK

The Icepick—I’ll call that Orion’s ship because that’s what it resembles, tapered as it is in the bow and bulky in the stern—is the smallest ship I’ve ever seen; smaller even than the fly coach I climbed on to come to Cedric. With its carbon and metal finish, its squat profile, and its stubby wings, it looks more like a fighter, and yet it shows none of the appendages fighters have to secure their missiles onto. Usually, ships this small have trouble coming through Earth’s atmosphere without burning, but the bow of the Icepick isn’t blackened or scratched—it’s just as smooth and clean as if it came out of the assembly line a moment ago. Clearly, the Icepick is capable of deploying a shield of sorts, and that means that whoever built it has access to a lot of technology.

Little by little, I have the feeling that the Icepick is no common ship. Its inconspicuous and unobtrusive semblance is deliberate. Once you look at it long enough, you sense there’s something powerful, fast, and dangerous about it. Its blind cockpit, its wide intakes, and its bulging stern have the same nervous design as Ollie’s N-21.

The Icepick calls out at me magnetically. I draw closer to it, and I can’t refrain myself from stroking its hull—my fingers slide on its shiny surface, which reacts in a weird way to my touch: it gets warm under my fingers, and, soon, it prickles them. What kind of finish is this? I wonder. And then, the bulwark section in front of me opens up, and I find myself staring at two charming black eyes.

A peeved girl about my age climbs down from the Icepick and plants herself in front of me. She stares at me in defiance, despite being a good foot shorter than me. “Hey, hotshot,” she says. “Get your paws off my ship! This is private property, scoot off, before I call security. You hear me? We don’t want nosy people around here! Go away, I said!”

I retrieve Orion’s card and show it to her. “Orion gave me this,” I say, leaving it at that.

The girl snatches the plastic rectangle from my hands and squints at it. She blinks, then looks at me again in disbelief. “You’re Streamer—the pilot?!”

If she believes that, I’m all for it. Let’s see how this pans out; at the worst, she’ll kick me out of the spaceport. I nod and shrug.

The scowl of the girl turns into a large smile. “Christ, you should’ve told me right away!” she says. “You don’t know the millions of miles we traveled to meet you—Richard! I’m sorry for the harsh welcome, but the last thing Orion wants is publicity, and this place is choke-full of snoopers. I’m Kayla, by the way, Orion’s engineer and partner in business.” Kayla extends her hand, and we shake. She studies me some more, not entirely sure about me. “You know, you look quite young for a professional of your caliber—I expected someone older.”

“And I expected something bigger,” I say, turning to the Icepick and changing the subject. “So we’re square, huh?”

Kayla grins. “Fair enough,” she says. She checks her wristwatch. “Orion is away for a couple more hours, so I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for him to return.”

“Here?” I say, looking over Kayla’s shoulder and peeking into the Icepick. “What about we wait for him inside?”

But Kayla doesn’t budge. “Orion told me to keep the strangers away from the ship.”

“But I’m not exactly a stranger, am I?”

“I’d rather you waited for him all the same.”

“Well,” I say, pushing my luck. “In our line of business, trust is everything. If Orion doesn’t trust me, then there’s no point for me to work with him. So long.” I turn on my heels in affront, about to leave, when Kayla, torn between her orders and Orion’s mission, calls me back.

“Wait up!” she says. “All right, I’ll show you around—but don’t touch anything!”

“May I die if I do,” I say.

Grudgingly, Kayla motions me after her, and we climb aboard the Icepick.

Orion’s ship is so cramped, there’s hardly any room to move inside. Kayla backpedals in the nook behind the main hatch, lets me pass, and then follows me to the bow.

The cockpit window looks blind from the outside, but inside it’s perfectly transparent—I can see the pier from here. The cockpit is fitted with two seats, the pilot’s and the copilot’s. I point at the copilot’s, and Kayla nods to me that I can try it. I lower myself into it. The seat is long, padded, and comfortable. As I sit back, it activates, shutting around me like a clam.

I glance in front of me, where the control panel unfolds along with a deluge of switches, levers and knobs, but neither the pilot’s seat nor does the copilot’s have a visible control wheel to steer the ship. The Icepick looks more a production model than a prototype—there’s nothing off, dangling, or insecurely attached. I bend forward, and the seat pads move away from my body, releasing me from their embrace with a quiet buzz. I stand again.

I follow Kayla astern of the ship, where the crew’s quarters are—it’s a small compartment with two collapsible bunks, and a door to a minuscule shower and to a toilet. All the same, the space doesn’t add up; if the Icepick is fitted with a standard hydrogen-fusion engine, there should be room for at least another compartment here, but there isn’t. How so? “What’s behind the crew’s quarters?” I ask.

“The ship’s engine bay,” Kayla says.

“C’mon, it can’t be that big,” I say. “The engine of the Virulent Mk-I takes half as much.”

“We have a larger engine, because we need to go very fast. That’s all,” Kayla says.

I blink. “Fast? How fast?”

“So far, we only tested the ship to point five the speed of light. But Orion reckons she can top even that.”

My jaw drops. Only the ships the tonnage of the Morning Star can store the massive engines needed to achieving speeds the same magnitude as light’s. Even so, the Morning Star can travel at one-fourth the speed of light at flanking speed only. “You must’ve gotten your numbers wrong,” I say. “How can this bucket of bolts go faster than the Morning Star? It’s impossible.”

“Orion and I took about twenty-four hours from Pluto to Earth, and he wasn’t even pushing it, so my numbers are right.”

I shake my head in disbelief. “Can I take a look at the engine bay?” I say. “Just a peek?”

Kayla groans at my request, but then she resigns with a sigh. “I guess so…” She precedes me to the main hatch, and we’re back to the pier.

Kayla makes for the stern of the Icepick, and gropes around the hull for a hidden switch. I’m curious to see the engine that can produce such amazing thrust. While hanging around an active hydrogen-fusion engine can kill you, when it’s off it’s safe to handle, and can be disassembled with ease with the proper wrench. “Oh, here it is,” Kayla says, pushing the switch.

We both step back. With a subdued buzz, the Icepick’s stern section folds back, revealing a sphere of bedazzling white, glowing like plasma, about ten feet wide. It revolves on itself as if it were alive, contained in the blue wrap of an electromagnetic confinement system.

I swallow hard and balk. “That thing doesn’t look like a hydrogen-fusion engine to me…”

“Hydrogen-fusion isn’t fast enough,” Kayla says, her face cast in the throbbing glow, mesmerized by it.

“For God’s sake—what is, then?”

Kayla shrugs. “Why, compressed antimatter.”

“Antimatter?” I say. “Are you out of your mind?! Which planet have you been living on in the last ten years? Don’t you know that antimatter is banned on Earth? After Spacemotive Industry Technologies blew up in the desert, leaving a hole as wide as the Grand Canyon, possession and production of antimatter on the planet are forbidden!” I fling myself to the engine bay and search for the hidden switch, trying to shut the damn thing, if it’s any use. “Help me close it!” I say. “Before the spaceport scanners detect it!”

“Don’t fret over nothing,” she says. “Scanners can’t detect shielded antimatter!”

I roll my eyes at Kayla’s naiveté. “But they can detect the darned magnetic field, it’s so strong!”

“Oh,” she says. She hurries to the hull, and we both comb it for the lost switch. But we can’t find it, and the antimatter bauble glows brighter than ever.

“Where is it?” I say.

“It was here a moment ago!” Kayla says.

“You lost it? I thought you said you were Orion’s engineer! How can you not know where the switch is?”

“Because it’s small, that’s why, and because we don’t open the engine bay so often—and don’t you dare shouting at me!”

“Shouting? Who’s shouting?” I double my efforts, but the switch seems to be vanished. I pray that we find it before long, and that we tuck away the gleaming bauble—when many things happen at once.

An earsplitting alarm goes off in the distance, activating the huge doors at the end of the pier. They set into motion with a quaking groan, about to lock us in. More, five armed guards appear at the boarding gate, hurrying toward us. “Stay where you are!” one of them shouts, aiming his rifle at us.

I glare at Kayla. “This can’t be happening—it’s not even my fault!”

“Hey, don’t try to put the blame on me now!” Kayla says. “It was you who asked me to open the bay!”

“Because I never thought I’d find a million megaton bomb inside it! What planet did you say you come from again?”

“I didn’t say! Do you wanna fight, perhaps?”

I bite my tongue. I’d better get hold of myself, or I’m going to kill her.

Kayla swallows hard, in fright; her hands are shaking now—no way she can find the switch like that. “I can’t shut it!” she screams. “What are we gonna do?”

“What are we gonna do? What are you gonna do! This ship is yours! I’m outta here, girl, I don’t want to go to jail because of you—see you around!” Kayla blinks in disbelief as I run. I know that leaving Kayla in the lurch isn’t exactly being brave, but I won’t get tangled in any this. If Orion was foolish enough to carry an antimatter-powered ship on Earth, that’s his business.

A couple of guards break off from the group to chase me, but I shake them off hiding behind some crates and barrels. The guards fan out searching the premises, but I sneak behind a huge forklift, where they can’t find me. Soon, they forget about me and converge on Kayla.

I look back at the boarding gate. With the guards gone, it’ll be a piece of cake for me to mingle with the passengers and leave the spaceport. I’m about to put my plan into action—when I feel the pangs of guilt. I glance at Kayla. She’s still by the open engine bay of the Icepick, her brain shorted out. Scared to death, her tiny figure encased in the surreal light of antimatter, she’s unable to move.

The guards close in on her—in a moment, they are going to surround her. Orion will have to answer a lot of questions when he’s back. I’m sorry for him, but the least the guards are going to do is confiscate the Icepick. I can kiss good-bye my one-way ticket to space, but a ticking bomb isn’t exactly my idea of a means of transport.

The guards are almost on Kayla. They train their weapons on her, and she puts up her arms in surrender. It’s over. This is the perfect chance for me to leave, but, somehow, I’m still here. I slam my fists on the forklift, aware that a good deal of the blame is mine. I can’t just run like a coward—I have to help Kayla.

Feeling the rush of adrenaline in my veins, I leap on the forklift, get behind the wheel, and step on the accelerator. With a squeal of tires, the forklift lurches forward and around. It speeds toward Kayla, scattering the guards like bowling pins. I pull the handbrake, and the side loader fishtails ninety degrees, screeching to a halt, a steel barrier between the guards and Kayla. I leap on the ground, reach out for her hand, and pull her along.

Keeping low, we bolt into the Icepick under the firearm rounds ricocheting all around us. I tinker with the hatch’s control panel, until I manage to shut it, then turn to a wide-eyed Kayla.

“What next?” she asks.

ALMOST AIRBORNE

Kayla points to the hangar’s closing doors—there are only a few yards left between them, before we’re trapped for good. “We can’t go anywhere!” she says. “They shut us in!”

“Not yet! Do as I say, and we’ll get the hell out of here!” I beckon Kayla after me into the cockpit. I drop in the pilot’s seat, and she in the copilot’s. The seats activate, wrapping us in. “How does this thing turn on?” I say.

“Don’t you know? I thought you were a pilot!” she says.

“Don’t start again! I can’t possibly know all ships in the damn universe. More, this one I’ve never seen before. So, are you gonna tell me, or you rather go back out there?”

“Orion is going to kill me.” Kayla protests.

“Not if we manage to save his ship! C’mon!”

Kayla throws up her arms, cursing the very moment she met me, then reaches out for one of the many levers. At once, a section in my seat flips up between my knees, revealing the control wheel I was looking for. As I touch it, the Icepick comes to life with a faint hiss. Kayla throws another switch, and the bolts securing the Icepick to the pier unscrew, freeing the ship, which floats a few inches off the ground.

The guards surround us and shout at us, but we can’t hear them. They level their rifles, about to open fire, when Kayla presses a yellow button, popping off a round of chaff countermeasures. The guards duck and hide, fearing an attack, but the tiny sparkling tinfoil strips set on them like snow, without harm.

I clutch the control wheel as I would do with Ollie’s N-21, and nudge it forward. The Icepick ignites its subsonic engines, leaps up from the pier, and automatically folds the engine bay, sealing in the bauble of antimatter. Orion’s ship inches out of the pier, gaining speed—but the hangar doors are almost shut now.

The guards gather along the dock and stare at us, dumbfounded, expecting the Icepick to ram into the thick metal in a moment.

“We’ll never make it!” Kayla squeals. “Let’s just surrender! The opening is too narrow already for the ship—I don’t wanna die crashing into it!”

I’m too focused to speak. I time the speed of the accelerating Icepick against the speed of the closing doors. Not even thinking what would be of Cedric if I missed, I push the control wheel all the way forward. Kayla covers her eyes, afraid to look. The gap sure is too narrow for the Icepick’s beam, but there’s just enough room to make it sideways. At the very last moment, I bank the ship at a right angle, and the world in front of us spins the other way—the vertical slit between the closing doors becomes a horizontal line as we dash toward it.

The guards gasp at seeing the Icepick sweeping through the gates with less than an inch’s clearance on both sides—the doors jam together with a loud clang, sealing them in instead.

Once outside, the sunlight blinds me. I slow down immediately, level the Icepick, and wait for my eyes to accustom to the light. I glance left and right, looking for a free runway to take off from, when Kayla points ahead of her, screaming at the top of her lungs. “Watch out!”

I pull back the control wheel just in time to stop clear of a landing shuttle. It rumbles past us in a wake of dust, disappearing to our right. Wiping my forehead at the close call, I wait for the dust to settle—

When a formidable dark shape plows out of it, twenty times taller than the Icepick, revealing a fearsome cruiser of the Space Army. It has been summoned from the near military detachment of the spaceport, in the attempt of intercepting us. It towers above us, displaying a military insignia I’ve never seen before—a rattlesnake coiling around two crossed knives.

A voice rings in the radio of the Icepick: “This is the EFS Machete. Flight C-4478-73, do you copy? You have no authorization to take off. Repeat. You have no authorization to take off. Land immediately and surrender your ship. You are in violation of—

Kayla switches off the radio. She looks at me, urging me to take action. I glance at the control panel, where the huge throttle lever of the primary propulsion is. I throw it, expecting the Icepick to soar into the sky and leave Cedric behind us, but nothing happens. I throw it again, but the main engine doesn’t seem to catch. “It doesn’t catch!” I say.

“Of course it doesn’t catch!” Kayla says. “It won’t catch without the antimatter thresher!”

“And where’s the antimatter thresher? Please do tell.”

“The thresher sent off vibrations at high speed. Orion removed it and went to fix it, that’s why he’s been gone!”

“And why didn’t you tell me?” I say in despair.

“I didn’t know you wanted to commandeer the ship!”

“Commandeer the ship! I’m just saving your ass!”

“My ass didn’t need saving, before I met you!”

I roll my eyes and shake my head, trying to get hold of myself. “How are we supposed to leave the spaceport now?” I say. “This is a spaceship! We can’t just pull into the interstate—hey, wait a minute, maybe we can; after all, this ship isn’t any bigger than a fly coach!”

“What! Are you crazy? You’ll get us killed!” Kayla says.

I glimpse the spaceport parking lot on the left; only a chain link fence separates it from the runway. Resorting to the subsonic engines, I steer the Icepick that way. With a whoosh, it hovers one foot above the tarmac, headed toward the fence—it tears through it like butter. Once in the parking lot, we mingle with the other vehicles, making for the exit.

The clerk in his booth glances at us in shock as we crash past the lowered exit bar. But it’s nothing compared to the face he makes at seeing the monumental Machete crunching after the Icepick, running over everything on its way. The clerk shouts and waves, but there’s nothing he can do to stop the cruiser—he throws himself out of the booth one second before the juggernaut flattens it.

I simply turn right, and find myself in the everyday traffic just like a normal vehicle, without even stirring the interest of the pedestrians. But the hulking Machete can’t turn as easily—it steamrolls straight past the street, almost running over flycars and terrified passersby. It barely manages to grind to a stop inches away from the windows of the megastore across.

Laughing to myself, I dutifully stay under the speed limit and stop at every pedestrian crossing, until the Icepick makes it to the interstate. I look in the rearview monitor, but the Machete is still stuck in the traffic. Kayla stares at the commuters and at the families of vacationers surrounding us. She blinks and waves at the thrilled kids in the flycars, forgetting that they can’t see her.

They Icepick crawls underneath a large road sign reading DOWNTOWN to the right, and RIVIERA to the left.

“Where now?” Kayla says. “What about the Riviera? At least, we’ll be in the open.”

I think it over, but in the country the Icepick would be more vulnerable. “I say we go downtown. The Machete won’t be able to chase us there.”

“What about prowlers?” Kayla says, pointing.

Darn. Here and there, in the traffic behind us and on the opposite lane, regular police flycars converge on us flashing their lights.

“Time to get out of the gridlock,” I say. I push the control wheel forward, slowly, until the Icepick touches the fender of the preceding vehicle. I increase the thrust until the hissing of the subsonic engines turns into an earsplitting howl. The Icepick rams aside the vehicles stuck in the traffic to the protests of their drivers, pushing its way onto the interstate.

I turn right and merge with the traffic going downtown. Following behind a couple of fly coaches filled with tourists who rack their brains trying to deciphering what kind of vehicle the Icepick is, we finally come to the mile-high buildings of Cedric. As the fly coaches keep going, I pull into a secondary alley. I comb it for some place to hide the Icepick in, before we are surrounded with prowlers, but I can’t find any.

“This ship is just too big!” Kayla says. “We can’t hide it anywhere!”

I’m about to get back to the interstate, when I glimpse the universal P sign for “parking.” I steer the Icepick to the parking building and choose the entrance for the fly hounds. To my relief, the Icepick slides in without a scratch, hovering in front of the ticket dispenser. I motion for Kayla to open the ship’s main hatch and to get one for us, then I drive down the spiraling ramp to the lowest level, stopping in the darkest corner.

As I switch off the subsonic engines, the control wheel disappears into the seat. “Well, I guess you’ll have to wait for Orion to return, now,” I tell Kayla. “Without the thresher, you can’t go anywhere.”

“I’ll have to hear from him,” she says. She punches a button on the communication panel, taps a message, and then waits for an answer to appear on the monitor. She writes some more, until a second message flashes. But I can’t read it—it’s gibberish to me, and I wonder if it’s an encrypted code only Orion and Kayla know.

“What does he say?” I ask.

“He’s given me a rendezvous point. An address here, in the city,” Kayla says.

We both pick up our things and climb down from the Icepick. Even from up close, it looks more a motor home than a proper spaceship. Kayla locks the hatch.

“Well, I guess this is it,” I say, about to go.

Kayla looks at me in surprise. “Why, I thought you and Orion had an agreement. Don’t you want to meet him anymore?”

“I’m not Richard, Kayla,” I confess. “I’m no pilot. I’m just a boy like many who wants to give his contribution to his country by fighting in the war. I thought Orion could help me get away from Earth, but I’m not setting foot on that ticking bomb ever again.”

Kayla is confused. “But—you had his note.”

“Orion gave the note to my mother for my father,” I explain to her. “But nobody knows where Father is. I’m not Richard—I’m his son, Jim.”

Kayla’s eyes become cold at once. “You mean we nearly died for a stupid whim of yours?”

“Yep. I’m sorry,” I say. “But your ship is safe now.” I turn on my heels, meaning to leave the underground parking for good, when a beam of light blasts, heating up the concrete floor between my legs to a white-hot circle. I stop where I am and turn my head to see Kayla holding a weird gun.

“You aren’t going anywhere, Jim,” she says, her voice hard. “You’ll go with me at the rendezvous point. And when Orion is back, you will explain to him the meaning of this skit.”

“Listen, I don’t have the time to—”

Kayla lifts her gun at me. “I mean it,” she says.

I swallow hard, at a loss for words. “Where to?” I say.

MEETING ORION

THE RENDEZVOUS POINT

So, the rendezvous point is this small apartment. Well, it’s more a pigsty than an apartment. It’s situated in the old part of Cedric, atop one of the decrepit buildings there. However, the secludedness, the relative quiet, and the magnificent sight of the city one could enjoy from the window have a huge drawback: the roof is a sieve—through the gaps in the ancient rafters I glimpse the blue sky. The downpours of early spring left dark streaks on the yellowing plaster of most walls, and I don’t dare think what will be of this place come fall. From the cobwebs and the droppings I see around, I take it this place has given shelter to all kinds of critters, besides the roaches infesting it.

I’d gladly do something else, rather than stare at this shack. If I weren’t tied to the damn chair, I’d run. If I weren’t gagged, I’d shout for help. I attempt at wringing my hands free, but Kayla has bound them too tight. All I can do, is groan and tilt my head, trying to stretch my body from this uncomfortable position. It’s at least twenty minutes the water has been running in the next room, but it’s not Kayla who needed to take a shower—it’s me. My dive in the trash cart has left me reeking. In the bustle ensuing our escape from the spaceport, I forgot about it, but now that the tension is momentarily gone, I have to say that I stink horribly.

I wonder how long the water will be running, when it shuts off. Kayla walks out of the bathroom wearing a couple of towels around her body and her hair. She sits on the couch in front of me, displaying the most fantastic pair of legs I’ve ever seen. Now that her trousers and jacket are gone, her concealed beauty blossoms out, and Kayla shines in all her sensual glory. My eyes drift from the line of her neck to her shoulders, to her waist, to her knees, and to her ankles. I swallow hard as much as the gag in my mouth allows me. No, I’m not insensible to the charm of a girl—if I’m out of a girlfriend, it has nothing to do with this. I just have had a lot on my hands in the last few months, and, with the prospect of a war, this doesn’t seem the best time of my life to establish a relationship.

I mumble.

“What?” Kayla says.

I keep grumbling, until the noise I make is so annoying, that Kayla stands with a groan and removes my gag. She’s so close to me, that I can smell the delicate scent of her damp skin. I look up, taking a cursory peek at the little cleavage showing, and find myself staring at her big dark eyes. I swallow hard. Am I overwhelmed by her? I wonder.

“Come again?” Kayla says, returning to the sofa and going back to drying her hair.

“You’re not really an engineer, are you?” I say.

“Of course I am. I told you I am.”

“No, you’re not. If you were, you would’ve known about the antimatter ban. You would’ve known how to shut the engine bay, and you would’ve known that Orion’s ship couldn’t put to space without the antimatter thresher—ergo, you lied to me.”

“May I remind you it is I who showed you how to operate the console?” Kayla says.

“That wasn’t difficult. You just saw Orion’s moves.”

Kayla doesn’t say anything. Clearly, I guessed right. And if she isn’t an engineer, the reason she’s aboard the Icepick is another, and I wonder what it is. “Don’t you have a family, somewhere?” I say. “Do they know that you travel sitting on an antimatter bomb that could go off anytime, tagging along with a raving lunatic who—”

“Orion is not a lunatic!” Kayla says in outrage. “If you knew him, you wouldn’t call him that. He’s risking his life coming looking for your father!”

“If he’s so good, what does he need my father for?”

“That’s because—” Kayla begins, but then she stops and bites her tongue. She’s dying to spill the whole story, but something prevents her. “It’s none of your business,” she says at last, looking away. This settles it. Kayla goes back to drying herself, until my bad smell fills the room. She realizes, and wrinkles her nose in disgust. “I thought I smelled bad,” she says. “But it’s you!”

“I wash regularly, I swear,” I say. “I fell in the trash trying to get past the spaceport boarding gate unnoticed. Do I get to use the shower, too, or am I expected to rot here?”

“Only if you promise you won’t run.”

“Run? How, through the holes in the roof? I’m not a bird!” Kayla glares at me, and I can only sigh. “I promise,” I say.

Kayla grabs her pistol, unties me, and motions me to the next room. “Don’t try anything, or I’ll shoot you.”

I enter the small bathroom shutting the door behind me. I look around, but the only way out is through a small window on top of the wall. Propping on the toilet, I climb up and stick my head out, but it’s a hell of a drop to the balcony below. I go back in and head for the shower. With a shrug, I start undressing.

It’s a pleasure feeling the water run on my body; it’s warm and washes away the fatigue. But neither the water nor Kayla’s nice smell can wipe from my mind the vision of the gleaming bauble of antimatter in the Icepick’s engine bay. Who would be so crazy to use for fuel a thing as dangerous as antimatter? Someone desperate enough, or, maybe, someone who had mastered that technology. Kayla is right—Orion doesn’t look like a raving lunatic. Back home, when he was talking to Mom, he knew very well what he was doing: he was focused and alert. Orion is pushing his luck for sure, but that doesn’t make him a fool—rather an enterprising man. If the Icepick can really cover the four and a half billion miles separating Pluto from Earth in as little as twenty-four hours without blowing up in the attempt, it means that the project it’s based on is good. Its antimatter engine has not only been properly tested, but is fully functional. The minor setback of a slight vibration in the antimatter thresher is a sign of its successful design. Orion knew it was safe to berth the Icepick at Cedric despite the antimatter ban—hadn’t I meddled with his plans, he would’ve never been discovered. But who is behind such extensive project? I wonder. A huge corporation would have a hard time financing it. Only someone at government level would be involved in the development of an experimental ship. The Space Army would be a good guess, but Orion came to Earth looking for my father, ergo his department was deliberately left in the dark about Father’s whereabouts—and I don’t see why, if it had been trusted with the development of the ship in the first place. Or maybe Orion is in the dark because he doesn’t belong in the Army at all. In that case, the only way he could get his hands on the ship was if he stole it. But if the project was secret, how would he know about it? Was he a spy? Come on. Also, if he’d stolen it, he’d never come to one of Earth’s spaceports, or else he would’ve given himself away. And then there’s Kayla, who doesn’t fit anywhere. She lied about being an engineer, and yet she rides along with Orion. Who is she, really? If Orion counts on Kayla to the point of handing the Icepick over to her, the two must be in good relations. But as far as I rack my brain, I can’t find a convincing answer to my questions—

“Are you still there?” Kayla shouts, banging her hand on the door. “Just don’t take all day!”

THE PICTURE OF THE BLACK SHIP

As I step out of the bathroom, I find Orion in front of me, but he’s not there to greet me. He grabs me around my shirt and slams me into the opposite wall with a crunching noise—everything happens so fast, that the world whirls around me, and I’m left wheezing from pain. I blink, staring at Orion’s livid features. He snarls at me so close to my face I can smell his leathery breath. “I’m gonna ask you a few questions,” he says. “And if I’m not satisfied with your answers, I’ll cut your throat. Did I make myself clear?”

“I’ll do my best, sir,” I croak.

“First question,” Orion says. “Why isn’t my ship at the spaceport anymore?”

“Huh,” I say. “A series of most unfortunate events escalated out of our hands and—”

“Our hands?” Kayla shouts from her chair. “Don’t pull me into this! It’s not my fault if we’re in this mess!”

I turn my head, about to respond in kind to her, but Orion wrings my shirt so hard I’m forced to look back at him. “Hey, take it easy,” I say. “I just handed to Kayla the note you gave my mother. Kayla mistook me for my father and agreed to show me the ship. But when she opened the engine bay, all hell broke loose.”

Orion shoots Kayla a nasty glance, causing her to flush wildly, then he focuses on me. “Second question,” he says. “How did you manage to get my ship out of the spaceport without crashing it?”

“Kayla showed me how to start it,” I say. “As for driving it, I have some practice with flycars.”

“You mean you’re no pilot?” Orion says. “That you have no formal training? That you got out of the spaceport by sheer luck?” Orion rolls his eyes at my shrug. “Third question. Where is my ship now?”

“I hid it in an underground parking,” I say. “I swear it’s safe—nobody saw us get in. You just need to pay the parking fee and retrieve the Icepick like a normal vehicle.”

“The Icepick?” Orion asks, oblivious. “What is it?”

“Every respectable ship should have a name,” I say. “I thought ‘Icepick’ would fit yours.”

“Icepick,” Orion repeats to himself. Then he resumes his questions. “How many people know about this?”

“Nobody,” I say. “I kept my mouth shut.”

Orion is uncertain, but after some thought he lifts me off my feet and hurls me into the couch. He regains his composure and sits at the table with Kayla. He studies me for a while, deciding what to do with me. He seems more eager to retrieve the Icepick than beating me, and I have the idea that his display of brute force was just to scare me into telling him the truth. Orion, in fact, is strangely calm. “So, you’re Richard’s son,” he says at last.

“And I have no idea where he is,” I say. “Why are you looking for him?”

But Orion ignores my question. “What do you know about the Sar-daks, Jim?” he asks.

“What everybody knows,” I say. “The blueskins come from the core of the galaxy. Their anatomy is similar to ours, but they’re more sinewy, and they live in colonies like ants. They’re warm-blooded creatures, and they have large eyes which allow them to see in the dark. They are a savage and vicious race, but, this time, we’re going to teach them a lesson they won’t forget.”

Kayla is disgusted at my words, but I can’t tell if it’s because of the subject, or because of my bias against the blueskins.

“Do you know anything about the Sar-dak culture, Jim?” Orion says. “Do you know anything about their arts?”

“Arts? How do you mean?”

“Does it ever occur to you,” he says, “that a people capable of building and using spaceships would also be capable of developing ways to entertain themselves and to enlighten their spirit—that they may not be ‘savages’ at all, but a technological and refined race?”

“Don’t you know,” Kayla butts in, “that the Sar-daks have a heptatonic musical scale very similar to our own? That they have musical instruments as we have? That they love gardening and sculpting? Their arts are at least as developed as ours.”

I wonder where Orion and Kayla are getting at. “So what?” I say. “I judge the blueskins by their deeds, not by their back gardens. They’re bloodthirsty bastards. They attacked us at Congara, and they destroyed the Summer Harvest on a whim—what other proof could you possibly want about their hostile nature?”

“Do you really think the Sar-daks destroyed the Summer Harvest on a whim?” Orion asks.

“We know that for a fact, don’t we?” I say. “You’ve seen it in the videos. The Urdaka opened fire on a harmless ship of the Terran Fleet.”

Kayla snorts. “Captain Grier refused to hand over his ship—it’s as if he had openly admitted his guilt. If he had surrendered in the first place, he’d be still alive.”

“Why should he have surrendered?” I say. “He didn’t bomb Lia Nala! It’s the blueskins who want war, because they crave our solar system!”

Kayla glares at me. “Comparative analysis of the types of ships the Sar-daks built and of the refined materials their hulls are made of, tells us that the Sar-daks aren’t just used to traveling through space, but that they travel very long distances as well. Computer simulations, based on the trajectories that our probes have been able to pick up from their ships, suggest that the Sar-daks have a foothold on at least seventeen planetary systems. What would they need our meager resources for? They’ve got the whole universe at their disposal—they don’t need to bother with the solar system!”

“All your beautiful words,” I say, “won’t change the fact that they have attacked us at Congara, and that they did it again at Lia Nala. If they were a peaceful race as you seem to imply, why would they do that?”

Kayla flushes to the tip of her ears. She takes a deep breath, about to lash out at me, but Orion lifts his hand. “That’s enough,” he says. Kayla snorts, crosses her arms, and shuts herself in a peeved silence. Orion removes from his pocket a small black-and-white printout and hands it to me. “Tell me what you see,” he says.

I squint and watch the picture from up close. Even then, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to see—against what looks like a scatter of stars, I make out a black disk, but the image has been magnified so many times its grainy. The blurred edge of the disk blends into the background to the point that I doubt it’s even there. I shrug. “Maybe it’s a black disk. What is it?”

“That image,” Orion says, “was captured by one of our far-away probes thirty minutes after the bombing of Lia Nala, a million mile away from the colony. That black disk may be the ship which attacked Lia Nala.”

I shake my head in disbelief. “That would be the fastest spacecraft I’ve ever heard of. Even so, the sensors of either the Summer Harvest or the Urdaka should’ve picked up its signature. That thing could be an asteroid, a celestial body, or even a trick of the light.”

Orion takes back the picture and stares at it.

“Is that why you wanted to see my father?” I ask. “To show it to him? What for?”

“Richard has worked with the Naval Secret Service for over fifteen years,” Orion says, “developing and testing experimental spacecraft. He could tell us if he’s ever seen anything like this.”

“Why don’t you show the picture to the Ministry of Defense?” I say. “They have plenty of experts there, besides Father, who could tell you what that thing is.”

“The Space Army already has a copy of the image. They ruled out it’s a ship.”

“But you’re not convinced.”

Orion shakes his head. “No, I’m not. The fleet admiral would never send the peace delegation with the secret purpose of destroying Lia Nala. And the captain of the Urdaka would never bomb the outpost he’d been entrusted to defend. I think someone else bombed Lia Nala. Someone with a ship so advanced that it could go back and forth from the colony undetected—with the sole purpose of stopping the talks and putting both races on the verge of a war. Your father could tell us if the Army has been working on a project similar to the black ship.”

“You think the Army is involved?”

“Not necessarily. But your father has the experience to tell us more about it.”

“Father is away,” I say. “What are you gonna do?”

Orion sits back. All of a sudden, the tension of the long waking hours and the responsibility of his mission take their toll, squashing him. “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe this war can’t be avoided, after all.”

“We must talk to Bellamy,” Kayla says. “He’s the one left we can trust.”

“Bellamy has lost the support of Fleet Council,” Orion says. “As of an hour ago, Ministry Eduardo has disclosed to the public the finds of his investigation. Bellamy has been deemed liable of negligence for sending the Summer Harvest in Sar-dak territory without an adequate escort. He’s been removed from his office and put on probation, waiting for the verdict of the martial court.”

“The martial court!” I say. “We aren’t in a war, yet!”

“I’m afraid we are already. Ministry Eduardo has declared war on the Sar-daks soon after his report. Effective from today, recruitment centers all over the planet are drafting men and women from age eighteen up.”

I blink in disbelief. Even if everybody expected it, everything is so sudden. I thought we still had a few weeks before a conflict broke out. How is everybody going to get a proper training on such little notice?

“We need to talk to Bellamy all the same,” Kayla insists. “He’s wise. He’ll know what to do.”

Orion thinks it over. “Then we must hurry. Time is running short—the more we wait, the smallest the hope that we can stop this nonsense. Everything hangs onto the picture I showed you and on the expert who will examine it.”

“Where is Bellamy?” I ask.

“At Kuma, with the rest of the fleet,” Orion says.

“Well,” I say. “Now that we’ve straightened out things between us, I suppose I can leave.”

“I don’t think so,” Orion says. “You have to help us retrieve the Icepick.”

A BRUSH WITH THE SPECIAL TEAM

Since it was my idea to hide the Icepick in the underground parking in the first place, Orion decided I should be the first to get back there. If the route was clear, Kayla would follow suite, and then Orion would bring up the rear with the rectified antimatter thresher. Only if he’d be able to retrieve the Icepick without damage, would he let me go. At least, that’s what Orion promised me.

As I head toward the parking building, I blend with the passersby, trying to look as much inconspicuous as possible, a harmless teenager going about his business. I peek behind the corners for cops, plainclothes cops, or fly prowlers, but there are none. I keep walking, until I see from the distance the familiar P sign of the parking building—it’s now or never. Crossing my fingers for luck, I leave the alley, sweep inside the parking, and approach the pay station. I slide in Kayla’s ticket, pay the due fee, and retrieve the exit receipt. I enter the elevator, which brings me to the bottom level.

When the elevator stops and its doors open, I find myself in the dark. I perk my ears for suspicious noises, but the floor is silent. I glimpse in the far corner the familiar carbon-and-metal streamlined shape of the Icepick—thank God, it’s still there. I move past the few other parked vehicles, approaching Orion’s ship. I check it, but it doesn’t seem anything bad happened to it during our leave; the Icepick’s been sitting here ever since, same old as ever. I step close to the wall, away from the light, and wait.

After a couple of minutes, the elevator doors open again, releasing a girl about my age. She hurries to the Icepick looking over her shoulder.

“Did you see any police?” I ask her, but Kayla shakes her head. She shushes me, pulling me in the shadows, and we go back to waiting.

A few moments later, the elevator opens a third time to reveal Orion, his right hand in his jacket’s pocket, looking wary and ready for anything. A backpack hangs across his shoulder, from which something long and shiny protrudes—it’s the antimatter thresher. Orion scans the floor for telltale signs that something is cooking up, but he finds nothing. In the end, he too moves toward the Icepick and joins Kayla and me.

Orion inspects his ship for damage, but the Icepick is whole—nobody has touched it. Working quickly and in silence, Orion removes from his backpack the antimatter thresher: it’s a long and silvery funnel-shaped shaft. It looks extremely light despite its size, but I have no idea what material it’s made of, probably some special alloy. As Orion turns it around in his hands, it gleams in a strange way under the dim lights of the parking level. Orion pushes a hidden switch on the Icepick’s bulwark, and the lower hull folds up, revealing an empty slot. He feeds the thresher into it, which is delivered with a whir into its working position, back into the engine. Orion shuts the hull, then turns to Kayla and me, motioning us to get out from the dark. “The ship is fine,” he says.

“It wasn’t a trap, after all,” I say. “Can I go now?”

Orion opens his mouth, about to dismiss me, when we hear the faint but unmistakable noise of a truck climbing down the spiral ramp. At first, it sounds like a normal truck coming down to park, but then a second noise, and then a third add to the first. To our amazement, three heavy-armored vans roar down the ramp, taking position at its end with a screech of tires. Before we can react, the van doors slam open, and a police’s special team of about fifteen men leaps out with a stomping of boots and a clacking of firearms. The team fans out taking cover behind the vans and the concrete pillars of the level, training their weapons on us. As the whole floor is cast in the bedazzling flare of floodlights, the special team captain grabs his loudspeaker.

Freeze!” he barks. “You’re under the threat of firearms. Comply, or you’ll be shot on place. Your ship is confiscated. You’re under arrest for attack on public security, for attack on security of public transports, for infringement of federal rules on transports, for refusing at obeying police orders, for damage to private and public property, for reckless flying, and for flying an illegal spacecraft. Further charges will be added as your ship is taken into custody, thoroughly inspected, and dismantled. Surrender immediately!”

Kayla and I turn to Orion for directives, but he just stands there—when, suddenly, he runs for the Icepick.

Shoot him!” the special team captain shouts.

The spotlights go off, and the special team opens fire. As the whole level echoes with ricocheting rounds, Kayla and I hit the ground and duck our heads. The mayhem goes on for about ten seconds, when, as if a switch had been thrown, every sound is removed. I look up in amazement to see the special team standing behind a blue throbbing barrier; it surrounds the Icepick like a wall of energy, shutting us in, deflecting or encasing with concentric ripples the bullets meant for us.

“Quickly! Get in!” Orion says from the open hatch of the Icepick.

I come around, get to my feet, and help Kayla on hers. We both hurry into the hatch and then into the cockpit.

Orion drops in the pilot’s seat, I take the copilot’s, and Kayla flings herself in a collapsible seat behind us. Everybody straps in. Orion’s fingers are a blur as they reach out here and there, activating the control panel of the Icepick, checking the ship’s status, and getting all subsystems ready to go. With a whoosh, the subsonic engines of the Icepick lower into position, lifting off the ship with its energy shield. The Icepick turns around, pointing toward the exit ramp. As it moves on, its shield follows like a mobile wall, sweeping aside the cops in more advanced position.

The special team captain swears. He turns to the armored vehicles, shouting at their drivers. Light turrets appear on top of the vans and blast away at the Icepick, but they’re no match for its shield. Soon, the heavier bullets are deflected all around the place, forcing the cops to duck for their lives.

Orion nudges the control wheel forward—the force field inches ahead, connecting with the first van, shoving it up the ramp. The van slams into the second van, and then into the third. The more the vehicles that pile up, the more the pressure that Orion applies to the control wheel, until the subsonic engines howl from the effort. The vans’ huge tires skid over the concrete. As the momentum of the shield increases, the plates of the armored vehicles curl up and crumple like tinfoil. The helpless team captain lowers his loudspeaker and signals to his men to stop shooting and to take cover, disbelieving what’s happening to their special equipment.

The Icepick keeps shoving the vans up the spiral ramp—they recede out of control, uprooting the safeguard railing. The special team drivers jump from their vehicles one moment before they fall off the ramp, crashing in a heap around the dumbfounded cops below.

I trade thrilled glances with Kayla as the Icepick, now free, speeds up the many turns of the ramp, finally emerging from the parking building into the sunlight. It slams into a few backup fly prowlers sitting on the curb, pushing its way into the alley.

Orion pulls back the main engine lever. The stern of the Icepick folds up, exposing a glimpse of the gleaming bauble within. The thresher funnel at its end trickles a few antimatter atoms: they sparkle in their descent through the thresher, until they connect with the open air—the sudden annihilation causes a massive blast that propels the Icepick further up in the sky. Orion dips the control wheel, and the few antimatter atoms in the thresher become a steady thread, providing more thrust. Soon, we’re hovering high above the business towers of downtown Cedric.

I look out the cockpit window, disbelieving that the Icepick has taken off after so many setbacks and false starts. Kayla beams, too, and even Orion’s features ease up at the sight of the clear blue sky.

But instead of pushing the control wheel all the way forward and make for space, Orion banks to the right and flies over the flat rooftop of one of the skyscrapers beneath us. He puts the Icepick on idle, then pushes a button on his console. The main hatch opens onto the thicket of antennas and satellite dishes sticking out from the roof. “Well, this is it,” he says, turning to me. “We recovered the ship. As I promised you, you’re free to go now.”

Suddenly, I’m not so sure anymore that I want to leave the Icepick. I look at Orion and Kayla, who will be off to space in moments, trying to put an end to this war; whatever the outcome of their mission, they’ll be actively pursuing their goal. As for me, I’ll be back to a scorching-hot summer and to a dull job; this is my last chance at getting involved in something bigger than me, and at putting myself to the test to see if I have what it takes. Realizing there isn’t much left for me on Earth, I make up my mind. “I’m coming with you,” I say.

Kayla rolls her eyes. “What?! You said that Orion’s ship was a ticking bomb. That you’d never set foot on it!”

“It looks like the Icepick is safer than I thought,” I say.

“Are you sure, Jim?” Orion says. “This we’re embarking on may turn out into the most dangerous mission we ever made. We may not return. We may die.”

“I don’t care,” I say. “I want to come all the same.”

“Hey, ace, hold your horses,” Kayla says. “When your mother sees you’re gone, she’ll call the police. They’ll put a reward on our heads and turn every stone in the universe until they get us.”

“Give me just a minute,” I say. “I’ll call her.”

I leap on the rooftop, getting away from the blast of the Icepick. I take out my cell phone and dial a number—Billy’s. He’s the one who can cover up for me, at least for a while. The phone rings on the other end, until he picks up.

Jim? Is that you?” he says.

“Yep, it’s me, pal—” I say, but Billy cuts me off, filling me in with the last news.

Did you hear Ministry Eduardo?” he says. “We’re in a goddamn war! They’re sending out thousands of draft notices! Stella’s brother, Mark, just received his. Good God, he can’t believe he has to enlist. You know Mark, he’s more the pacifist type than the thickheaded grunt—he hates all this. It’s terribly hard on him and on his family; Stella and her mother have been crying all morning.

“What about your plan?” I say. “Are you still going up north, camping in the mountains?”

With all that’s happening? No, we’ve scratched that. We’re staying home with Stella’s parents.

I sigh, hating to force this on Billy. “I need a favor, bro. A huge one, this time.”

What is it?

“I’ve found my transport,” I say.

Really? That’s great. What ship are you leaving on?

“You don’t want to know, Billy. The less you know, the less you’re gonna tell if they question you.”

You sound so mysterious… what can I do for you?

“You should stick to your original plan and go up north, today, if possible. I’ll call Mother after I’m done talking to you. I’ll tell her that I’m going to take a couple of weeks off and relax somewhere with you and Stella. I’ll be in space, of course. You should cover up for me as long as you can, Billy.”

But Stella wanted to stay with her brother…

“Then I can’t go,” I say. I leave it at that, praying that Billy reconsiders. I know I’m imposing on him without shame, and I feel like vermin as I wait for my friend’s sense of guilt to do its job, but there isn’t anything else that I can do.

Oh, all right. I’ll have to talk to Stella, then.

“I owe you another, Billy. You saved me,” I say.

You sure you’ll be all right?”

“I hope so, Billy, I really hope so. I have to go now. Say hello to Stella from me, will you?”

I will, Jim. Take care.” Billy hangs up.

I stare at the phone. And then call Mom at work.

Four Seasons Cafeteria?” a female voice says.

“Hi, Mom,” I say. “You have a moment?”

Is anything the matter?

“Billy planned a couple of trekking weeks on the mountains up north with Stella. He asked me if I would join him, and I thought that maybe I should.”

That’s very nice of him. When are you leaving?

“We’re leaving in a few hours,” I say. “I guess I won’t be calling for a while.”

All right. If you say so.” Mother listens on, and I feel a lump in my throat, thinking that this could be the last time I hear from her. “Jim? Are you still there?

I come to and swallow hard. “Can you tell Frank I won’t be at the shop?”

Sure. I’ll tell him.

“But don’t go out with him,” I say.

No, I won’t!” Mother says, exasperated.

“Thanks, Mom. I’ll see you in a few weeks.”

Have fun, and don’t get yourself into trouble!

I hang up. I glance at Cedric unwinding before my eyes, and at the dot in the distance that is Derrick Creek. My heart feels heavy, but there’s no looking back now. Taking a deep breath, I climb on the Icepick and make myself comfortable in the copilot’s seat. “I’m done,” I say.

Kayla realizes that a bond is being severed, and puts a reassuring hand over my shoulder.

“Well,” Orion says. “This is it. Fasten your seat belt—we’ll be out of here in a second.”

As I strap myself in, Orion shuts the main hatch. He then reaches out to the control wheel—with a howl, the Icepick lifts off the skyscraper’s roof and turns around, putting its bow to the sky. Orion throws another switch, and the stern of the Icepick folds up again. This time, the antimatter thresher releases a steady stream of silver—it blasts away behind us burying us in our seats, flinging the Icepick at amazing speed above Cedric and out of Earth’s atmosphere.

UNCATCHABLE (A Space Adventure)

Jim is only sixteen, but he’s got a lot going on in his life already. When the news that his pilot father is reported missing in action, and that a war has finally broken out between Terrans and Sar-daks disrupt the quiet hot summer of Derrick Creek, Jim decides it’s time for him to take action, and to prove to the world that he, too, can follow in the glorious steps of his father.

It’s a military space opera of about 150,000 words.

Keep reading… on Shakespir


Free Sampler: Uncatchable (A Space Adventure)

This free sampler contains the first part of Uncatchable: A Space Adventure. Jim is only sixteen, but he’s got a lot going on in his life already. When the news that his pilot father is reported missing in action, and that a war has finally broken out between Terrans and Sar-daks disrupt the quiet hot summer of Derrick Creek, Jim decides it’s time for him to take action and to prove to the world that he, too, can follow in the glorious steps of his father. When the adults volunteer to fight for their country and get ready to board the last few ships leaving Earth for the depth of space, Jim comes up with a plan that will allow him to enlist despite his young age. But that’s only the beginning of his space adventure, and nothing ever really goes as one hopes for. Jim doesn’t even imagine the epic journey in store for him, and what a terrible curse a soldier’s duty can be. But he’ll learn along the way. He’ll learn that, at times, things can be different from what they look on the surface—and that a trustworthy friend can always be found, wherever you least expect it. It’s a military space opera of about 150,000 words.

  • ISBN: 9781370205950
  • Author: Marco Guarda
  • Published: 2017-02-07 10:50:21
  • Words: 37324
Free Sampler: Uncatchable (A Space Adventure) Free Sampler: Uncatchable (A Space Adventure)