"Damaged?" Scout Captain Ian Fieran scowled at the screen scrolling statistics on the Gen'gineer data'bot. "How badly damaged?" He rubbed at his eyes, closer to red with bloodshot than their natural gray‑green. His jet black, short-cropped curls were gray with dust and dirt, ground in over several straight days of little water and no rest.
Finding a still-whole data'bot was the first stroke of blinding good luck his team had run into during the whole ugly cleanup operation. Below ground, their command post was dark and damp and dirty - above ground, the once-flourishing colony world of Reveleer was a burned-out wreck, the colonists tortured in the name of 'improving' the Human genome.
Finding one piece of equipment the Gen'gineers hadn't destroyed before the Commonwealth's military arrived would almost repay the devastating losses suffered by the colonists, the Fleet and the Scouts. Almost. But if the renegade data'bot was damaged, flying out of orbit at that moment, what were the chances they could retrieve anything that would help in the battle against the Gen'gineers?
He had to hope. Hope was the only thing that let him sleep at night, lately.
"Impulse jets are out of control and trajectory is the only function sending in reliable readings," Tech Lieutenant Oralii Horn said. She glanced up from her own screen, filled with twice as much data as her commander's, and smiled. "The Gen'gineers aren't going to retrieve this one or blow it up before we can get to it."
Around them, the dark, damp hole of an underground command station glistened with operations lights sparkling on the spilled guts of half‑dismantled machinery. This operation was to have ended nearly two weeks ago. Ian and his team of top‑flight Scouts were still pulling all the pieces together. This rescue had turned into a major disaster, nearly wiping out four complete squads of Scouts and seriously decimating three more. Ian's team had lost a trainee technician; a boy fresh from Basic, with too much life ahead of him, not to mention the brilliant potential. One life lost was one loss too many.
The Gen'gineers had decimated an entire first generation colony, including over one hundred children, along with all their livestock and over eighty percent of the plant life on the planet, indigenous as well as imported. Simply because the colonists had 'defective genetics', and the Gen'gineers had taken it on themselves to 'improve' the Human race.
Trying to change the Human genome for the better had brought on the Downfall Wars, centuries ago. The Commonwealth was still picking itself up from that disaster, which had taken civilization back to the era of knives and tribal warfare. Despite all the work of the Commonwealth Upper University and the Order of Kilvordi, pockets of Humanity still suffered the fear of mutations that had spawned monstrosities and pathetic wrecks. All thanks to Humanity's arrogance.
"One out of how many data'bots?" Ian met Oralii's gaze and forced a smile into his fatigue‑stiffened face. "Just think of the damage we could do to their morale alone if we captured one whole. Forget about the crater we could put in their operations if we could get some coordinates and records that weren't scrambled by a self-destruct program."
"At least this time we caught them by surprise." No sparkle of humor touched her amber‑colored eyes. She raked her long, talon‑tipped fingers through her chocolate mop of short curls, and slouched down in her chair.
"Who's out there and near enough to do a snatch-and-grab?" Ian watched her slam the query into her control board. He glared once more at his overview of the data on the cleanup. "All right, people," he said, turning around from his station to face the rest of his team. "Theories? Any data that would tell us where that data'bot might be heading? Rendezvous with a mother-ship that slipped past us, or heading out to another nest?"
"Lots of traffic along the general path," Nobi Cole, Ian's cousin and the team's advisor offered. "Spacers as well as Leapers pass through there on a regular basis. If it gets caught in a Leaper's field or latches onto a Spacer before one of our Darts or the Fleet's retrieval net catches it..." He shrugged, ducking his platinum-haired head for a moment.
"I've been wracking my brains to explain that much distance in such a short time," Coreen Aylash said. The silvery‑pale, wraithlike Psych Tech frowned, genuinely puzzled. Ian smiled, feeling a chuckle threaten deep in his chest. It was a rare day when she showed any emotion; especially one so weak as confusion. "It's using up too much fuel for such a fast burn. Unless it plans to just go dead and hang there in space until someone comes along to retrieve it."
"Where's it headed for now?" Rifler Shane asked from the corner where he and the rest of the Shadows on the team still stripped off the last of their impervious outdoor gear.
"Doesn't matter," Oralii said, turning in her seat to grin in triumph at them. "That hot-shot from Thorn Squad caught it. Transport Twenty-One is closest. Have them load it on and head back to base?"
"And tell them if I don't hear about the data they get from it before the Commonwealth Council gets their report--"
"They're going to hear from Cousin Bain," Nobi interrupted. He gave Ian an innocent look, which earned a few battle-weary grins and chuckles from the rest of their team.
"Bain's going to hear from me," Ian said, and let out a gusting breath that could have been a curse before he simply ran out of energy. "Going topside. Ask how soon we can lift from this place. I have a wedding to go to, and if we're late, we'll have half the Leapers in the Commonwealth snarked at us. If we haven't earned a good month's rest leave and hot food and hot baths, there's no justice in the universe."
"That's what Scouts are for," Droban Gilmore, the team Medic muttered.
Ian nodded, then climbed up out of their command post, to the opening in the burned‑out maze of charcoal and ash that once was a lush, thriving forest. The Gen'gineers had done that, following their usual spoilsport tactics of destroying what they weren't able to control. After weeks of this, he was able to block out the devastation from his conscious thoughts.
Ian smiled wearily, thinking about the wedding he and Nobi would soon attend. Captain Jaklyn K'veer of the Leaper ship Estal'es'cai, was a cousin, just as Commander General Chobainian Kern of the Scout Corps was a cousin, all descended from two sisters who had married the two men who established the Scout Corps: Chobainian Kern and Gorgi Cole. Sometimes, it paid to have relatives in influential, powerful places.
Ian usually chose to keep as far from his illustrious cousin's red tape and scheming as he could manage. He wasn't above throwing his weight around when he needed it, though. Nobi wasn't above nudging him to use his connections. When it came to Gen'gineers, the Kerns, Fierans and Coles used whatever it took to stop them.
* * * * *
Twenty hours later, the Estal'es'cai came into orbit around Reveleer. Ian's Scouts waited to board their shuttle up to the last two transports left orbiting the planet. They were packed and cleaned up and working on over‑tired nerves, with stiffened fingers, aching muscles and reddened eyes. They had gone into overdrive since the Leap ship Mourning came into orbit to gather all the Scout ships into the Leap field and transfer through to Drasti, the planet given wholly over to the Scouts and Rangers as their base of operations.
Regular ships, even the super-powered Star Class, could only reach near-light speed. Journeys between star systems took months if the pilot was lucky enough to latch onto an unpredictable and unreliable Slip Field; years at the best of times; sometimes generations if the ship couldn't quite reach near-light.
Spacers were pilots with the genetic 'tweak' that let them find and use Knaught Points--warped spots in the fabric of space and time--to turn journeys of years into moments. They were limited to the locations of the Knaught Points, and where each opened into known space. Spacers had made colonizing and supporting the Commonwealth's network of worlds possible. The first Scouts were all Spacers, and Spacers still worked closely with the Corps, piloting their ships to provide speedy handling of emergencies and disasters throughout the Commonwealth. Still, journeys remained tedious and dangerous in the long distances of space between the Knaught Points.
Then the Leapers had found the Commonwealth's universe. Or rather, re-discovered it. Leapers had descended from Downfall refugees, fleeing an existence as slaves. The government of First Civ had classed them as non-Human, to take advantage of their unique genetics and all the potential that lay in them.
Leaper captains had the ability to link with their ships' computer brains and slide from one layer of reality to another, freeing them from the positions and destinations of Knaught Points, which limited Spacers. They were only limited by their own code of ethics, the strength of their captains, and the civilized behavior of the universes they visited and traded with. If anyone harmed a Leaper, whether crew or captain or family, all Leapers boycotted contact with that particular government, planet or planetary system. No more transport services, no more trade of culture and science. No one wanted to alienate Leapers. The damage and loss was too great, both to economy and culture.
Even without the influence of the Estal'es'cai and the captain's blood ties to the Scouts, Leapers supported the Scouts. They provided transport so the elite military teams could deal immediately with problems at all levels, no matter how far the colony or station might lie from the center of the Commonwealth.
For two Leaper ships to appear when only one was needed at the end of a cleanup operation was highly significant. For Ian and Nobi, the ship itself meant much more than that. The captain of the Estal'es'cai was family, and Jaklyn had been taking advantage of her own brand of influence with powerful relatives.
"Getting nervous, do you think?" Nobi muttered as he and Ian piloted a Dart craft up to the ship.
"Let her have her fun. How often does she get to show off?" Ian resisted the urge to jab Nobi, sitting behind him, with his elbow. He wasn't fourteen, taking his first solo run in a shuttle.
That didn't mean anything, though, as he stared at the flagship of the Leaper fleet. Ian felt like a little boy again. All the promise of adventure, the mystery, the allure of Leapers washed over him, making him tremble. Not all could be blamed on his body's screaming need for sleep and a good dozen hot meals.
The elongated, tapered tube of the Leaper ship filled his lozenge‑shaped view port, silvery‑gray against the black and star‑shot brilliance of space. The ship sat in the shadow of the planet. Ian wished for a fleeting moment that he could have seen the ship reflecting the sun's glory. Then he chuckled, knowing the brilliance in his eyes would have doubled his thudding headache.
"Did you ever wish..." Nobi sighed, the sound turning into a groan Ian's body echoed deep in his muscles and bones.
Ian knew what Nobi meant. Leap talent only ran to the female side of the family. All the Kerns, Fierans and Coles had sons. Herin K'veer, who had married Gorgi Cole, had one daughter and her descendants inherited the Estal'es'cai.
Then the communications board whistled and lit up, and coding scrolled across the horizontal screen as the Dart received docking instructions from Watcher, the ship's brain. Ian acknowledged, turned the Dart's controls over to Watcher and settled back in his seat to enjoy the view and the ride.
Petra Hayne, Executive Officer, met Ian and Nobi in the docking bay. She laughed when both men stopped short and stared, looking her over from head to foot twice, just to make sure what they saw.
"Something wrong, Cousins?"
"Since when don't you wear uniforms when non-Leapers are on board?" Nobi asked.
Ian wouldn't have phrased it quite that baldly. Still, he wasn't used to seeing any Leaper in civilian clothes. Especially the hot pink singleton and loose overtunic that only accented Petra's sapphire eyes and dusky skin. He knew they had ordinary clothes they wore when not on duty--or on display, as Captain Herin had said often--but Leapers usually wore uniforms as protection. No one wanted to hurt or offend Leapers, so it was only polite to warn of their presence.
"Since when do you count as non-Leapers?" Jaklyn said, stepping through the hatch.
She wore a flowing gown of iridescent blue. Her jet-black hair was pulled back in a topknot that cascaded down her back, nearly to her waist, with three tiny braids hanging from each temple, glittering with silver and blue beads. As always, Ian looked for some similarity between Jaklyn and Nobi. Maybe the snub nose - shape, not size. And the stubborn chin. The long-fingered hands, yes. But nothing else.
Nobi didn't waste time. He opened his arms wide and gathered the captain up in a hug, turning her around twice before setting her down. Ian settled for a less exuberant embrace, which let him see the triple-strand bracelet on Jaklyn's wrist.
"Now I believe it." He caught her hand, lifting it and turning the younger woman so Nobi could see her wrist. "Finally let Edrori catch you?"
"You've kept that boy dangling for too long," Nobi added.
"He's not a boy, and he kept me dangling just as long." Jaklyn's false pique died in a wide grin and a blush. "Come on. I promised Bain you two would hit Rejuv before we hit Drasti to pick him up." She started toward the hatch. "If I pick him up."
"Still demanding the right to give you away?" Ian guessed.
"Still." She led them down the passageway from the docking area. Lights sparkled in the sensor dots, allowing Watcher to follow their progress and have a lift car waiting. "Do you think we'll ever kick some sense into Bain's skull? No, forget sense. How about some manners?"
"When he knows--or thinks he knows--something is right, he sticks to it. It's genetic with the Kerns. That's how the Corps got formed in the first place," Nobi said with a grin.
Ian decided to keep quiet and avoid the regular complaint. He looked forward to a stint in the medical bay's Rejuv tank, to wash away all the fatigue poisons and alien bacteria that might have settled in his body, and get his first real stretch of uninterrupted sleep in months.
He watched Jaklyn. She glowed with happiness. Well, why wouldn't she? Edrori, the son of another Leaper captain, had known her since Jaklyn was born. Despite the hazards inherent in space travel, life on a Leap ship was a luxury cruise compared to that of any other space-faring career. Especially that of a Scout.
Ian shook his head and grimaced. He could almost hear his father's sigh of frustration mixed with amusement. Ian had been born a Spacer. He grew up thinking the life of a Spacer was what he wanted, until his parents were killed in a spaceport battle and he went to live with the Kern side of the family. He was only fourteen, full of hormones, rage and angst and whatever else made teenage boys turn into raving lunatics. When his fury and hunger for revenge began to fade, he decided the Scout life was exactly to his liking. He could make a difference in the universe.
Life as a Scout wasn't what his father would have chosen, but Ian had long ago accepted that it was in his blood, and he wasn't his father.
People could and did marry and raise families within the Scout Corps. He just couldn't see himself leaving his wife and children behind every time he went away on a mission, not knowing if he would return to them. How could he put someone he loved through that kind of uncertainty? Even if he married another Scout, how could they do that to their children? Yet he knew plenty of Scouts who raised children on the edge of dangerous territories, and they were happy. Most of the children became valuable members of the Scout Corps in their own turn.
Ian just couldn't see himself doing it. He had seen too much destruction, too many innocent mothers and fathers and children killed for the crime of loving the wrong father or mother, wife or husband. Scouts made enemies, and as the leader of a notoriously successful, elite Scout team, Ian had more enemies than he could count.