Chapter Two: Wyann

“Your insights into the inner workings of the Dominion have been invaluable, Wyann. The crew may not know it, but they owe you a great debt. We all do. If the rebellion succeeds, the rest of the known universe will as well.” The captain and I stood as our meeting came to an end.

“I owe the universe a debt already, for the things I’ve done. If our rebellion is successful, I’ll consider us even.”

Dejar came around his minimal metal desk and clapped me on the shoulder with a strong golden hand. He fixed his glittering golden eyes on me sternly, but there was also warmth in his expression.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. All of us have ended up on the Rogue Star through one misadventure or another. None of us are innocent.” He smiled mischievously and lowered his voice. “Even most of the human women have stories of some mishap or disaster that led them to that desolate base at the edge of their galaxy. From what Kalyn tells me, it was not a desirable post.”

“I’m sure, sir.” I smiled and nodded, though his assurances did little to lift my spirit.

He leaned back against his desk. “I still say that the rest of the ship leadership and the crew would be more forgiving than you think. They’re not the type to hold grudges, at least not against those who have repented, and especially not against a man willing to risk everything to right his wrongs. I know I’ve said it before, but I really think you ought to give them a chance.”

“With all due respect, sir, I’d just as soon forget about the past. The only reason I’m willing to discuss it with you is for strategic benefit. Otherwise, I prefer not to think about it at all.” I regarded him coolly, hoping that he wouldn’t press the issue further.

He raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips, but nodded his acceptance. “Very well. I do appreciate your willingness to delve back into what must be an unpleasant trough of memories. As always, what has been discussed here will remain between us alone. Well, the source of it, anyway.” He smiled his charming, easy smile. “Of course, the information itself will be relayed to the relevant parties for implementation into our operations.”

“Of course. Thank you, sir, I appreciate your discretion. Is that all?”

“I believe so. You have your orders, yes?”

“I do, sir. As soon as I leave here I’m heading to my station to start the verification process for the false identities Emmery created. The one’s for Zadden’s team are first priority, and they’ll be delivered to Zadden’s people as soon as they’re done. Shouldn’t be more than an hour or two.”

“Excellent. Best get to it, then.”

“Very good, sir.” I turned to leave, but Dejar caught me before I was out the door.

“Actually hold on, Wyann. There is one more thing.” He paced over to me and put his arm around my shoulders.

“Sir?”

“Try to lighten up some, huh?” He patted me on the chest good-naturedly, smiling at me warmly. “For instance, I appreciate your respect and discipline and all that, but you really don’t need to call me ‘sir’ every time you address me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I mind the reverence or anything. It’s just, I want my crew to feel comfortable. I like to think of us more as a family than a hierarchy. Of course, there has to be a chain of command. But I like the crew to have a certain sense of autonomy, as well. You understand?”

“I think so, sir.”

He gave me a puzzled look, then laughed. “Was that a joke, Wyann? Did you just make a joke?”

It was my turn to look puzzled. “No, sir. Was there something amusing?”

He stopped laughing abruptly and gave me a serious look, searching my face. He clapped me on the back, shaking his head and smiling to himself.

“You’re a funny guy, Wyann, whether you realize it or not. I’ve decided I do have another order for you.”

“Sir?” I raised my eyebrows in question, awaiting my directive.

“This is your new objective. After you’ve delivered the verified false I.D.’s to Zadden and his team, I want you to engage in a minimum of thirty minutes of leisure activity.”

“Leisure activity, sir?” I tilted my head at him, unsure of his meaning.

“Yes, leisure activity.” He smiled wide, growing animated. “That means that after Zadden’s team is ready to go, you’re to find something to do that is completely unrelated to work.” He held up a finger, struck by a thought. “And eating doesn’t count. Neither does using the bathroom. It has to be a non-essential activity that serves no purpose other than your own enjoyment. Think you can handle that?” He smiled at me broadly, apparently amused by his own brilliance.

“Uhm, I’m not sure I understand the purpose of that, sir.”

His face went stern and he responded with a raised, authoritative voice. “Your role is not to understand the purpose, soldier. Your role is to get the job done. No matter the cost. Do you understand?”

“Are you being funny, sir?” I tried to read his face, but his expression was serious and betrayed nothing.

“This is a direct order from your Captain. Do you intend to disobey?”

“No, sir.”

“Good.” His face relaxed and he shot me an easy smile. “Then please, enjoy yourself. I expect a full report detailing the type of leisure activity, the inclusion of any affiliated parties, and confirmation of the duration of the engagement on my desk by the end of the day.”

“All right, sir. I’ll uh, get it done. I guess.”

“Wyann, I’m kidding about the written report, you know.”

“Of course, sir.”

I turned and ambled out of Dejar’s office, a little confused about the directive. I decided to focus on what I did understand, for now, which was verifying the false I.D.’s for Zadden’s team.

I headed back toward my work station, going over my conversation with Dejar as I went. He was right about my intimate familiarity with the least savory portions of the Dominion being immensely useful to our current noble objectives, but that did little to comfort me about the skeletons in my closet.

My time working espionage for the Dominion had left scars on my soul. The things I saw, the things I did in order to complete my missions, they still flooded back to me on occasion when I closed my eyes for sleep shift. I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken in the night so drenched in sweat that I had to recycle the sheets and get fresh ones out of the closet.

Dejar had tried to ease my guilt, reasoning that everything I’ve done has led me to this point, so it was all for a greater purpose in the end. It’s a pretty thought, but the faces of the dead still haunt my dreams. Besides, the Dominion used the ‘greater purpose’ argument to justify scores of atrocious deeds.

I slipped into my room and waved on the console, bringing up Emmery’s falsified identities and clearing my mind of the past. Working always proved the best medicine. Whatever troubles ate at me, I could always focus on a clear task.

I scanned through the I.D.’s for Zadden’s team, checking and rechecking them for continuity errors. I ran each one through a dummy Dominion security program. None of them got flagged for inspection or tripped any security threat alerts. Emmery had done a thorough job.

The false records should be plenty to keep their small team from drawing unwanted attention. As long as no automated alerts were tripped, no one should give them a second look. The only way they could be detected would be a physical inspection, but without a computer-generated alert there would be little chance of that.

I thought back to Dejar’s comment about some of the human women having questionable pasts. It would seem he was right about that, given Emmery’s skill at digital forgery. Her past transgressions were proving useful, like mine. I couldn’t help but wonder if hers had hurt people, though.

Did her past haunt her sleep as mine did?

I shook off the thoughts, turning back to my work. I waved the verified I.D.’s onto Zadden’s console. My own unit dinged, confirming their delivery and acceptance. I was about to begin verifying the rest of Emmery’s forgeries, when I remembered Dejar’s second order.

I had no idea what to do for leisure on this ship. There was so much to be done, it seemed like an inefficient use of time. I could always work out, but I suspected that was not what the Captain had in mind. I headed to the mess hall to scare up some food while I chewed over the issue.

I shoveled down some flavored gruel, accompanied by an augmented synth-juice that some of the other crew said came very close to passing for real eureka fruit from Tajra. I took their word for it, having never been there, but it was decent nonetheless. I dumped my tray and glass in the recycler and wandered down the hall.

I drifted toward one of the common areas to see if anyone was hanging around. I couldn’t remember the last time I had played a game of tact-sim, but I thought I remembered hearing a few of the crew mention there was a unit somewhere onboard.

I had probably been a boy when I last played, but that could be a tolerable way to waste half an hour. Dejar would be satisfied, and I could justify it to myself in that it was a game meant to exercise military engagement tactics. So not a complete waste of time.

Before I reached the common area, however, a soft, delicate sound drifted to my ears.

A woman’s voice, singing an unfamiliar melody that somehow struck me and called to mind my boyhood.

Transfixed, I followed the sound, and found myself in front of a half-open door.

Chapter One: Paila

“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, men were deceivers ever.”

I paused for effect as I looked around the room. My pose held steady so that I could slip back into the reading without breaking character, not that it seemed to matter much to those gathered. “One foot in sea, and one on shore, to one thing constant never.”

Silence met me as I turned to my “audience” once more.

I could see the confusion etched into the fine lines of their faces, my words nothing but a slight annoyance to them as they tried to enjoy their evening. It didn’t really bother me that they thought me strange, or that the words I spoke meant little to them, it was simply a way for me to flex my acting muscles once more.

For some their passion lay in captaining a ship… or say, leading a rebellion… but for others among our group, it was about navigating life’s struggles beyond the battles.

Unperturbed by the echoing of awkwardly cleared throats, I pressed onwards. “Then sigh not so, but let them go, and be you blithe and bonny, converting all your sounds of woe into hey nonny, nonny.”

My delivery was as clear as ever, my voice carrying all about the mess hall so that everyone, no matter how much they tried to cover their ears, could hear me. In truth, I could have recited any old rubbish at them and they’d have reacted in the same way — this night was about coming together, through whatever means, to make Friday night a little less dull.

I was cheating with my Much Ado About Nothing piece in truth, seeing as it wasn’t my own to improvise with in the first place. But my thinking was that William Shakespeare wouldn’t be giving my stealing of his work much thought, what with being dead and all. He hailed from the same town that I had lived in for much of my life, and from an early age I had fancied myself living in the wrong era.

A small giggle broke through my lips and escaped, its tittering sound hanging in the air between myself and the others, all their faces a tapestry of bewilderment. They couldn’t tell if I was laughing because what I’d said was funny or if I’d decided to go mad halfway through my reading; their uncertainty made me giggle all the more.

With my mind struggling to place the next few lines — something about ditties and the fraud of men, or words to that effect — I skipped ahead to one of the other characters. To better suit the next set of lines, I altered my speech so as to sound more noble, just as a fictional prince should when addressing those in his company.

“By my troth, a good song.” No sooner had I spoken my lines than I was flitting back to my original character, his voice much deeper and gruff. “And an ill singer, my lord.” I went back and forth like this for several verses, a lot of those who’d gathered to watch laughing as I switched from one to the other. They were slowly coming to expect outlandish when it came to me.

The mood was light, it was cheerful, it was exactly what we needed with such an arduous task ahead of us.

Waving my hand in the air while giving a curtsey, my pressed locks stiff in their movement as I lapped up the cheers and clapping, I felt the picture perfect. Just like the stars of old.

None of them knew what they were clapping for, however it was good of them to feign being as pleased with my performance as I truly was. Giving one final wave, I sashayed away to rejoin the audience, the next “performer” already taking to the head of the room to begin their act.

I longed to already be back up there in front of them all, the star of the show, everybody’s attention focused on me. But I knew it was greedy ambition that made me crave it, the same way my cravings had me pining for the life of celebrity.

It wasn’t even the title of celebrity that had me so enamored with that lifestyle, it was the good I could do with it. Far too many today used their fame for nothing more than a way to pitch themselves to the public — they primped and preened, but they never tried to help the little people to see what was truly going on behind the closed doors of government. It was easier to pretend all was well.

This was what needed to change. And I had wanted to be the one to do it.

Everyone aboard had already done so much to get us into such a prime position, the Dominion desperate to stay our tongues for fear of what we might say next, and still it wasn’t enough.

There was more we could do, that we needed to do, that I wanted to do.

I was a chameleon, able to be part of a scene, undetectable because of how effortlessly I blended in. Then, within an instant, I could strike, revealing myself to be more than I what I’d appeared. It was a gift, one I’d begun fine tuning the moment I’d decided my passion project for life would be acting. As cliche as it sounded, the world truly was my stage no matter where I found myself, even in times like this when hurling about through space, our destinations always decided upon by more than the whims of fancy. A metal bird though the Rogue Star might be, it was one I’d use as a platform to get myself to where I wanted to be, my ambition unable to be sated by anything less than my desired end goal.

A deep sigh ran through me.

Maybe I overthought everything. Maybe my accent was different from the Common Dialect tones and words used by the rest of the crew. I was Shakespearean. I was British. And one day I would get my chance to be an actress.

My role currently was a small one, hardly anything worthy of note if you were skimming through the credits; my life had been changed, and the ones who had saved me had made waves all throughout the universe, for good or ill, but it wasn’t me who people remembered. When I’d spoken in front of the cameras with Jial, my testimony being sent out to cast a blinding light of truth upon the heinous acts of what our so-called benevolent leaders were doing, it had felt incredible.

There’d been no glitz and glamour, nobody running around making me up like a starlet of Old Hollywood, there had just been my words between Jial, myself, and the camera. Connected to hundreds of thousands of viewers.

In that moment I’d touched the lives of everyone watching, had been able to give my two cents about what the Dominion should be doing compared to what they were actually doing.

Within that small window of time, I’d been in control of my life instead of an unbending authority unwilling to hear the pleas of their people — I’d been so very free.

I’d give anything to be back in that position again.

Realizing that another performance had finished, my hands absentmindedly clapped in praise, although I had no clue for what or who I was clapping. It had sounded wordy, much like my own, it had been delivered gracefully, though not as polished as mine, and they’d plucked up the courage to do it in the first place. They deserved to be applauded.

Before long we’d be thrown into chaos again, and while done in a bid to liberate us from the bondage of the Dominion, to give us a regime dedicated to truth and not sinister secrecy, it would be a hard, grueling task. Not all us would make it. I was willing to take that risk, as were all others aboard the Rogue Star, even if they weren’t aware of their dedication; where some directly shape the tides, others indirectly propel us forwards. Such is the nature of life, and, unfortunately, of war.

The commotion of the mess hall began to fill my head too much, the pressure it was exerting only adding to the growing boredom I felt. Similar to a niggling headache, the way certain sounds rose and fell in my ears only worsened how I felt the longer I sat there.

It was fun when I’d been captivated by the shows alongside everyone else, but now that my interest was waning, I felt the room was too lifeless. My soul longed for more tangible pleasures. I wanted to be adorned with colors so vivid that my eyes couldn’t be torn away from the image…

I smiled.

I knew what I had to do.

Bowing out of the mess hall quietly, so as not to disturb the slapstick comedy underway — awfully executed, might I add — I headed to my own personal hideaway, one of the few this ship offered. It wasn’t that the vessel was small, there were a lot of us craving out an existence on it after all, but it was more that so many of the rooms failed to give you enough privacy. Despite my love of being in the public eye, so overjoyed to be the center of attention, I also savored the moments when I could tuck away and be alone with myself.

Slipping through the crack in the door, so that from the outside it looked undisturbed, I went about unpacking the stacked boxes of pots, their glass chinking as I handled them. It was a soft sound, one that already started to soothe me back to my normal self, the boredom ebbing away as I busied myself with all sorts of whimsical ideas.

Chapter Three: Emmery

“How’s it going?” Xyla asked, poking her head into the small room Dejar had assigned me.

Near the engine room, it was so tiny I could almost touch opposite walls if I stretched my arms.

My guess was that it had been some kind of janitorial closet, but Dejar had it converted into a one-woman workshop: someone had miraculously managed to place a small desk inside the room, and six computer monitors had been bolted to the wall.

It wasn’t exactly the most comfortable of places, but I didn’t really mind it. I’d certainly worked in worse.

Just as long as my fingers were flying over the keyboard and I was in the zone, my surroundings were meaningless.

Except, of course, my fingers were not flying over the keyboard and I was definitely not in the zone.

“I’m so damn bored.”  I leaned back on my seat and propped my feet up on the desk. The cup I had sitting by the keyboard wobbled slightly, but it stopped before my coffee became a puddle on the floor. “I feel like ripping my eyes out. Do you have a spoon I can do it with?”

“Wow,” Xyla laughed. “You’re in a good mood, aren’t you?”

“I was.” Lacing my fingers behind my head, I glanced at the small army of computer screens in front of me and sighed, the information plastered there reminding me of the brewing headache between my eyes.

Getting into the Dominion identification systems had been surprisingly easy.

I’d been practicing, learning the new, alien information architecture, coding paths, all of it, the entire time we’d been on board the Rogue Star.

It made the autotutor modules worthwhile, even if I wasn’t really planning on doing anything with it.

And mindless scrubbing during the day gave me plenty of time to memorize command structures, how script loops were called here.

It was like my first mentor had always said. As long as you can make yourself think like the computers do, understand how the databases interact, learning a specific programming language is just a detail.

Too bad she’d never know the extremes to which I’d taken her philosophy.

I had made it look as if my point of access was somewhere in the Dominion, masked my virtual ID, and then it was only a matter of hacking my way into government databases.

All with the help of the best translation software I had managed to find. I had gotten all the information I needed to forge new identities for the team Dejar had assembled, but now I was struggling.

“Seriously, I need an assistant or something. I have all the information we need, now it’s only a matter of going through the motions and crafting these IDs. A well-trained monkey could do this part of the job.”

“I don’t remember seeing any monkeys around these parts except for Qal’s pet,” Xyla said kindly, but I found myself frowning all the same.

I was having to juggle a mountain of databases—I had to insert the information from these new identities in every official Dominion database, as I didn’t know which they would use during a particular ID check—and there was so much minutia to input, check and double check, that I no longer felt like a hacker.

More like a glorified data-entry assistant.

“Really funny, Xyla,” I told her as I pulled my feet from the desk and sat straight once more. “When I volunteered I didn’t know I’d be stuck in a broom closet, you know? This is a rebellion, right? It should be dangerous and exciting and—”

“And you’re safe in here.”

“We’re trying to overthrow the Dominion. That’s not the definition of safe, at least last time I checked,” I argued. “Besides, it’s not like I’m asking to be sent to the frontlines. Trust me, I rather be behind a keyboard than facing the Dominion soldiers. I just want to start working on the more interesting parts.” I sank my head into my hands, resting my aching eyeballs.

“I’ve laid the groundwork on these fake identities, and while there’s still some work to be done, I want to move on and start doing what I’m good at. I want to get into the Dominion central.”

“I’m sure that’s part of Dejar’s plan. You’ll just have to be patient and keep at it.”

“Are you sure?” Drumming my fingers against the desk, I eyed the computer screens again and sighed. “I don’t really know what Dejar plans are, to be honest. He keeps things close to his chest, and it’s not like I’m part of the inner circle. Unlike a certain someone I know, a smart and persuasive woman who could—”

“No way.” Raising both her hands up, almost as if I was pointing a hand at her, Xyla took one step back. She was already opening her mouth to say that she wouldn’t help me under any circumstance, but I was faster than she was.

“C’mon,” I insisted. “All I’m asking is for you to put a word in my behalf. Hell, Dejar might not even know I can hack into the Dominion central. All you have to do is remind him of that, and maybe I can finally start helping the rebellion.”

“You are helping the rebellion,” she sighed. “These fake IDs are essential.”

“I know but—”

“And are you even sure you can hack into the central?”

“Now you’ve offended me.”

“Alright, fine.” She shook her head and, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, finally gave me a nod. “I’ll talk to Dejar and remind him of what you can do for us. God, you’re impossible.”

“You know me.” Jumping out from my seat, I closed the space between us and kissed her cheek. “Thanks, Xyla, I really appreciate you doing this. I’m dying of boredom in here.”

“I’m going to try,” she said. “No promises.”

“That was all I was asking.”

***

The next few hours were a slog.

I spent them hunched over my keyboard, furiously typing away endless lines of code and trying to create real persons out of the information Dejar had given me.

Although some parts of the job were interesting—especially when it involved sneaking in and out of databases to insert the information—others were so boring I was actually surprised I hadn’t fallen asleep at the desk.

Still, I kept at it.

Even though I had complained to Xyla, this sure was better than just being sent around to clean random things. 

And it was definitely more agreeable than being the designated tech person on a station like Persephone. I snorted at that thought. I didn’t know who had thought to call that shithole a station—probably Kalyn’s mother—but I had thought of slapping that person countless times, were I ever to meet her.

Located on the fringes of the solar system, Persephone was one of the places Terrans used to send their pariahs. People just like me. I still remembered the day the judge banged his gavel and told me I was being sentenced to five years of service at the Persephone station for my “antisocial behavior and criminal tendencies.”

In truth, while my social manners were sometimes lacking, I had never been a criminal. Sure, I had hacked into highly secured systems and accessed confidential information, but I hadn’t done it out of malice. I did it out of boredom.

Mostly.

“Alright, I’m done here,” I sighed, pushing my chair back. I hadn’t eaten anything since morning, and it was already time for dinner. I secured all the information on the terminal, ensuring no one would be able to retrace my steps, and then turned on security on my computer.

No one but me could access it.

I narrowed my eyes into slits as I stepped out of the room, the bright lights of the Rogue Star’s corridors a stark contrast to the darkness I kept in my new office, and made my way toward the crew mess at a lazy pace.

Xyla sat by herself in one of the corner tables, and I made my way toward her before picking up any food.

Dinner could wait a few more minutes.

I took over the seat across her and she raised her head to face me.

“Emmery.” She kept on chewing her sandwich as she spoke, and she looked as if she had been lost in thought before I sat down. “Are you done for the day?”

“I think so,” I shrugged. “Maybe I’ll head back to check on some more stuff, but I don’t plan on working late tonight. Why? Does Dejar need me? Have you talked with him?”

“Alright, slow your horses,” she sighed, wiping the corner of her mouth with a napkin. “I did go and talk to Dejar—”

“And?”

“And he told me he wants you to focus on those fakes IDs. He’ll give you the final details for the identities once the whole team has been assembled.”

“Are you serious?” Raking one head over my face, I did my best not to raise my voice. “I mean, there’s so much we could do if we hacked into the Dominion central. Just imagine, we could start messing with—”

“Look, I get it,” she cut me short. “I understand that hacking into their central would be a major victory for us, and I think Dejar understands that as well. Thing is, the priority right now is to have those fake identities sorted out. Once you’re through with that, maybe Dejar will start thinking of more stuff for you to do.”

“What am I supposed to do in the meanwhile?”

“Have you been listening to me? You have to get those IDs done, Emmery. So that’s what you’re going to do while you wait for your dream job.”

Shrugging, she then offered me a smile as way of apology. “You’ll be out of that broom closet soon enough, I’m sure.”

“I don’t mind the closet,” I admitted. “I just want to help out.”

“You’ll have your chance,” she shrugged. “And maybe sooner than you think.”

“How’s it going?” Xyla asked, poking her head into the small room Dejar had assigned me.

Near the engine room, it was so tiny I could almost touch opposite walls if I stretched my arms. My guess was that it had been some kind of janitorial closet, but Dejar had it converted into a one-woman workshop: someone had miraculously managed to place a small desk inside the room, and six computer monitors had been bolted to the wall.

It wasn’t exactly the most comfortable of places, but I didn’t mind it.

Just as long as my fingers were flying over the keyboard and I was in the zone, my surroundings were meaningless.

Except, of course, my fingers were not flying over the keyboard and I was definitely not in the zone.

“I’m so damn bored,” I said out loud, leaning back on my seat and propping my feet up on the desk. The cup I had sitting by the keyboard wobbled slightly, but it stopped before my coffee became a puddle on the floor. “I feel like ripping my eyes out. Do you have a spoon I can do it with?”

“Wow,” Xyla laughed. “You’re in a good mood, aren’t you?”

“I was.” Lacing my fingers behind my head, I glanced at the small army of computer screens in front of me and sighed, the information plastered there reminding me of the brewing headache between my eyes.

Getting into the Dominion system had been easy. I had made it look as if my point of access was somewhere in the Dominion, masked my virtual ID, and then it was only a matter of hacking my way into government databases.

All with the help of the best translation software I had managed to find. I had gotten all the information I needed to forge new identities for the team Dejar had assembled, but now I was struggling with that information.

“Seriously, I need an assistant or something. I have all the information we need, now it’s only a matter of going through the motions and crafting these IDs. A well-trained monkey could do this part of the job.”

“I don’t remember seeing any monkeys around these parts except for Qal’s pet,” Xyla said kindly, but I found myself frowning all the same. I was having to juggle a mountain of databases—I had to insert the information from these new identities in every official Dominion database, as I didn’t know which they would use during a particular ID check—and there was so much minutia to input that I no longer felt like a hacker.

I felt like a glorified data-entry assistant.

“Really funny, Xyla,” I told her as I pulled my feet from the desk and sat straight once more. “When I volunteered I didn’t know I’d be stuck in a broom closet, you know? This is a rebellion, right? It should be dangerous and exciting and—”

“And you’re safe in here.”

“Are any of us really safe?” I asked her. “We’re trying to overthrow the Dominion. That’s not the definition of safe, at least last time time I checked. Besides, it’s not like I’m asking to be sent to the frontlines. Trust me, I rather be behind a keyboard than facing the Dominion soldiers. I just want to start working on the more interesting parts. I’ve laid the groundwork on these fake identities, and while there’s still some work to be done, I want to move on and start doing what I’m good at. I want to get into the Dominion central.”

“I’m sure that’s part of Dejar’s plan. You’ll just have to be patient and keep at it.”

“Are you sure?” Drumming my fingers against the desk, I eyed the computer screens again and sighed. “I don’t really know what Dejar plans are, to be honest. He keeps things close to his chest, and it’s not like I’m part of the inner circle. Unlike a certain someone I know, a smart and persuasive woman who could—”

“No way.” Raising both her hands up, almost as if I was pointing a hand at her, Xyla took one step back. She was already opening her mouth to say that she wouldn’t help me under any circumstance, but I was faster than she was.

“C’mon,” I insisted. “All I’m asking is for you to put a word in my behalf. Hell, Dejar might not even know I can hack into the Dominion central. All you have to do is remind him of that, and maybe I can finally start helping the rebellion.”

“You are helping the rebellion,” she sighed. “These fake IDs are essential.”

“I know but—”

“And are you even sure you can hack into the central?”

“Now you’ve offended me.”

“Alright, fine.” She shook her head and, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, finally gave me a nod. “I’ll talk to Dejar and remind him of what you can do for us. God, you’re impossible.”

“You know me.” Jumping out from my seat, I closed the space between us and kissed her cheek. “Thanks, Xyla, I really appreciate you doing this. I’m dying of boredom in here.”

“I’m going to try,” she said. “No promises.”

“That was all I was asking.”

***

The next few hours were a slog.

I spent them hunched over my keyboard, furiously typing away endless lines of code and trying to create real persons out of the information Dejar had given me. Although some parts of the job were interesting—especially when it involved sneaking in and out of databases to insert the information—others were so boring I was actually surprised I hadn’t fallen asleep at the desk. Still, I kept at it.

Even though I had complained to Xyla, this sure was better than just being sent around to clean random things.  And it was definitely more agreeable than being the designated tech person on a station like Persephone. I snorted at that thought. I didn’t know who had thought to call that shithole a station—probably Kalyn’s mother—but I had thought of slapping that person countless times, were I ever to meet her.

Located on the fringes of the solar system, Persephone was one of the places Terrans used to send their pariahs. People just like me. I still remembered the day the judge banged his gavel and told me I was being sentenced to five years of service at the Persephone station for my “antisocial behavior and criminal tendencies.”

In truth, while my social manners were sometimes lacking, I had never been a criminal. Sure, I had hacked into highly secured systems and accessed confidential information, but I hadn’t done it out of malice. I did it out of boredom. And while I understood that was a lame excuse to give in a court of law, I still didn’t think the punishment fit the crime. The travel to Persephone could’ve cost my life, for God’s sake.

“Alright, I’m done here,” I sighed, pushing my chair back. I hadn’t eaten anything since morning, and it was already time for dinner. I secured all the information on the terminal, ensuring no one would be able to retrace my steps, and then turned on security on my computer. No one but me could access it.

I narrowed my eyes into slits as I stepped out of the room, the bright lights of the Rogue Star’s corridors a stark contrast to the darkness I kept in my new office, and made my way toward the crew mess at a lazy pace. I spotted Xyla sitting by herself in one of the corner tables, and I made my way toward her before picking up any food. Dinner could wait a few more minutes.

I took over the seat across her and she raised her head to face me. “Emmery.” She kept on chewing her sandwich as she spoke, and she looked as if she had been lost in thought before I sat down. “Are you done for the day?”

“I think so,” I shrugged. “Maybe I’ll head back to check on some more stuff, but I don’t plan on working late tonight. Why? Does Dejar need me? Have you talked with him?”

“Alright, slow your horses,” she sighed, wiping the corner of her mouth with a napkin. “I did go and talk to Dejar—”

“And?”

“And he told me he wants you to focus on those fakes IDs. He’ll give you the final details for the identities once the whole team has been assembled.”

“Are you serious?” Raking one head over my face, I did my best not to raise my voice. “I mean, there’s so much we could do if we hacked into the Dominion central. Just imagine, we could start messing with—”

“Look, I get it,” she cut me short. “I understand that hacking into their central would be a major victory for us, and I think Dejar understands that as well. Thing is, the priority right now is to have those fake identities sorted out. Once you’re through with that, maybe Dejar will start thinking of more stuff for you to do.”

“What am I supposed to do in the meanwhile?”

“Have you been listening to me? You have to get those IDs done, Emmery. So that’s what you’re going to do while you wait for your dream job.” Shrugging, she then offered me a smile as way of apology. “You’ll be out of that broom closet soon enough, you’ll see.”

“I don’t mind the closet,” I admitted. “I just want to help out.”

“You’ll have your chance,” she smiled. “And maybe sooner than you think.”

Chapter Two: Zadden

I’d been a bit surprised when none of the crew decided to leave after the meeting in the park.

After the events of the past year, there had been some talk about leaving the Rogue Star, finding another ship.

While everyone had been prepared to fix some paperwork, do a little bit of a song and dance to get around customs, even deal with pirates if needed, this was different.

From the moment we jumped into the Terran station, working on the Rogue Star had become something different.

More dangerous.

But not a single member of the crew took the opportunity to leave.

I wasn’t too surprised.

We’d seen too much of what the Dominion was willing to do to maintain power.

We were all ready for a fight.

Which was great, but personally, a bit of a hassle.

I’d already come up with new duty rotations and a list of potential security issues in anticipation of losing nearly quarter of the crew.

Wasted time. Wasted effort.

Ah, well.

The meeting was long since over, but people were still milling around, making plans, speaking with the Captain and Chief, volunteering their services or asking for clarification of things.

The usual chaos.

As for myself, I went back to my duties.

I had been hired on three years ago as part of the security team.

I did my job, did it well.

But really, I’d been looking for something else.

Something with fewer ghosts.

The small crew roster on the Rogue Star allowed for cross training. Before the women came on board, it’d been almost mandatory. Too many jobs, never quite enough hands.

I’d worked my way around the ship, looking for something that clicked.

To my surprise, I’d finally ended up spending most of my time in the kitchen when I wasn’t on security detail.

Cooking was relaxing. An intricate dish required a level of planning, of focus, that could match the most complex of ops.

The reward was the pleased smiles of the crew. And if something didn’t turn out quite right, you could match it with another ingredient, savage the dish, start again.

Nobody died.

Relaxing.

I was in the process of prepping the night’s dinner with Sars when Dejar popped his golden head through the doorway.

“Zadden?”

I looked up from my station where I was preparing the fish. “What can I do for you, Captain? Special request for dinner tonight? We’re having braised nodon with a citrus broth.”

He gave me a brief nod of approval before responding. “That actually sounds very good. Where are you getting the nodon?”

“Right here in town,” I answered. “Apparently, nodon is a very prominent fish on this planet.”

“Did not know that,” he said. “But, to get back on topic, I was really looking for you. Can we talk? In private?”

I motioned Rassic to take over preparing the finicky fish for me. It couldn’t be left sitting for too long or it just wouldn’t cook right.

After giving Rassic some quick instructions and wiping my hands clean, I followed the Captain. He led me to a small room near the mess hall, holding the door open for me.

I was a bit apprehensive, but walked into the room and took a seat in one of the two chairs inside.

The room was sparsely decorated with the two chairs, a small desk, and a couple of pictures on the walls.

When we’d redecorated months ago, planning for more passengers, legitimate clients, this was meant to be a private dining area.

We hadn’t gotten the table in here before everything went sideways. The Haven had a lot of things, but not spare dining tables.

“I know you’re getting ready for dinner service,” Dejar started. “The timing isn’t the best, and I apologize for that.”

That was certainly odd. While Dejar had never been the most restrictive person around, he didn’t apologize often, unless it was truly warranted. Even after the women became part of the crew and Dejar connected with Kalyn, he still didn’t apologize, at least not where I could hear.

He was still talking. “I know you came here to try to slow your life down a bit,” he said as he sat in the other chair. “And, if I’m not exceedingly mistaken, you’ve been happy to be a part of the crew. Correct?”

“I have been, sir,” I answered. Then, with the slightest of shrugs, “The last year has certainly cancelled the slow monotony of things.”

He laughed. “True, very true. This past year has certainly been much different than any of us could have anticipated.” He cocked his head to the side. “But you decided to stay.”

I nodded. “There’s too much at stake, and if this rebellion does get off the ground, it’s going to turn into a war that’s going to suck everyone in anyway.” I leaned back slightly. “Figured that I might as well stay right here in the middle of things.”

He rubbed his hands together as he leaned back in his chair. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m assuming you heard everything at the meeting in the park, as well as earlier?”

I nodded.

“Good. Then I need a favor. The power core that we need for the shields that the Gaed have created, I want you to be the one to get it.”

I’d known this was a possibility.

All those ops.

All those moving parts.

They’d need everyone who had this sort of background.

And even as I protested about coming out of retirement, a small part of me sat up excitedly.

I’d been good at this. I couldn’t deny it.

Maybe it was time to stop relaxing.

Still, I had questions.

“Why me for this job?” I asked. “If you don’t mind my asking,” I quickly added.

“I know what you’re capable of,” he answered. “I ran an in-depth background check on you when you first came to me.” A half-smile twisted his lips. “I know about your past, at least enough of it to know that you’re more than capable of doing this and that I can trust you.”

I kept my face as impassive as I could.

I was never sure how far back into my history he had been able to dive. There were some things I had done that were not terribly nice, or even remotely ethical.

As a matter of fact, there were a couple of jobs I pulled when I was younger that very nearly had me on the ‘Wanted’ lists for at least nine sectors, maybe more.

But whatever he’d found, didn’t seem to give him concern.

I nodded, slowly. “How many people involved?”

“I’ll leave it up to you,” he answered. “But, I would say no more than six or seven.”

“Do we know where this power core is?”

“A small rocky moon near Karben.”

I spent a few brief moments thinking about it, weighing the options. “And I get to pick the team?”

He nodded.

“Okay,” I answered. “I’m in.”

“Thank you,” Dejar said. The heaviness in his voice pulled my eyes to him, studying him closely.

He looked older than he was. Older than he’d seemed even a few weeks ago.

This potential rebellion was weighing on him. He looked as though he hadn’t gotten much sleep for a long time.

This was not what he had wanted either, I was positive of that.

He had been much like me, looking for something to keep the boredom away but also not tied to a daily threat of death beyond the normal ones associated with space travel.

There was a difference between worrying about whether or not the ship was going to hold together through normal usage, and whether or not the next ship you saw was going to shoot you down.

“How long before I go?” I asked.

“That depends on how long it takes Emmery to make false identities for everyone. If you’re caught in Dominion Space, we need to make sure you’re not discovered as part of this crew.”

Emmery.

An entirely different part of me started paying attention.

Dejar got up and stretched, holding his lower back as he did.

“As soon as she’s done making identities that we’re confident in, we’ll get you a small ship and send you and your team out.”

I hadn’t known that about her. And now I wanted to know everything.

I kept my voice level. “Reasable plan. I’ll keep you posted on my choices.”

“Save me some of that nodon,” he called back as he reentered the mess hall, leaving me to my own thoughts.

I had given up the mercenary life.

I had given up the stress of private security.

This time, I would be working for something that was worthwhile.

But Emmery was involved.

Nothing relaxing about that.

Nothing at all.

Chapter One: Emmery

All personnel report to the crew mess,” a disembodied voice said through the speakers. “I repeat, all personnel report to the crew mess.”

The klaxons weren’t blaring, and there was no urgency to that voice, so I stretched my back lazily and only then swung my feet off the bed. I had no idea what was going on, but I wasn’t in a hurry to find out either. These days there was always something happening.

I stood in front of the small mirror I had hung right beside the bed, finger-combed my hair before deciding to tie it into a bun, and only then punched the panel that unlocked the door. I stepped out of my cramped quarters to see an ocean of people walking down the corridors and toward the crew mess, and I joined them without thinking twice about it.

 “Any idea what’s going on?” I asked Xyla as she appeared beside me, a spring to her step.

“I have an idea, yes,” she said with a wink.

She used to have such a closed off character, one that I had grown used to, but the past few weeks had changed her. And all because of Gallus, a bronze Shein that acted as one of the ship’s engineers. The two had grown…intimate. At least the sounds coming out of her quarters seemed to point at that.

She wasn’t the first one to change because of the Rogue Star crew and, unless I was mistaken, she wouldn’t be the last either. There was something about this race of burly aliens, the ones in command of the ship I now called home, that attracted the female members of the crew.

To be honest, I didn’t really know what to make of it. While some were nice, I had never really developed a close relationship with any of them. The way I saw it, they were nothing but my co-workers. Although, to be fair, co-workers weren’t supposed to drag your ass halfway across the galaxy and put you on a warpath with one of the most powerful forces in the universe.

“Does this have anything to do with the Gaed?” I asked Xyla, but she merely looked back at me over her shoulder to offer me a sly smile.

I would get nothing out of her.

Still, I was pretty sure that this prospective Gaed rebellion was the reason behind this ship-wide meeting.

Either that or the Dominion had found us and were en route, which I thought to be a pretty unlikely scenario. Even they wouldn’t be so stupid to threaten war with an independent system like the Ya-sin.

Probably.

To be honest, ever since the crew wide meeting in the park, my mind had been spinning.

Ever since Persephone Station, I’d stayed back. Didn’t want to risk getting involved.

But maybe that wasn’t an option anymore.

When Xyla and I finally got to the crew mess, we found the place completely packed. The entire crew of the Rogue Star had answered the call, it seemed.

At the center of the room were Kalyn, the woman that used to be our commander back at Persephone station, and Dejar, the Rogue Star’s captain. Chief Aavat stood close to them.

“Please, don’t tell me we’ll have to go on the run again,” I muttered under my breath.

Xyla said nothing, but she laid one hand on my shoulder and squeezed it softly. Then, to my surprise, she started walking toward Kalyn and Dejar.

“Thank you all for being here,” she started to say, addressing the whole room. “A few of you have your suspicious about the reason behind this meeting, so let me be straightforward with you: if you thought you’d be coming here because of the Gaed rebellion…then you’re absolutely right.”

Damn, I knew it.

Running one hand through my hair, I considered my next move.

As a programmer and hacker, I had the know-how when it came to network systems.

I’d been better than good. I’d been amazing.

The only reason I was caught and sent to Persephone Station was a client rolled on me. Gave my name up in return for a better deal.

I hadn’t had the opportunity to try, but I’d bet I could infiltrate the Dominion systems.

Create those false identities for the teams we’d send in these covert-ops everyone had been talking about, that Xyla and the others were laying out in more detail.

But I barely listened, wrestling with myself.

When we first came on board the Rogue Star, I’d kept my head down.

Didn’t volunteer any information.

Even if it might have helped, the Shein were aliens. Strangers.

Chief Aavat had put me on to scrubbing pipes.

Boring, but safe.

Now we were all in danger. And the crew weren’t strangers anymore.

These were my friends.

Maybe, maybe this was worth standing up for.

It’d be a lot of work, but what the hell.

“Alright,” I said, taking a step forward. “I’m in. Even if I regret it.”

All personnel report to the crew mess,” a disembodied voice said through the speakers. “I repeat, all personnel report to the crew mess.”

The klaxons weren’t blaring, and there was no urgency to that voice, so I stretched my back lazily and only then swung my feet off the bed. I had no idea what was going on, but I wasn’t in a hurry to find out either. These days there was always something happening.

I stood in front of the small mirror I had hung right beside the bed, finger-combed my hair before deciding to tie it into a bun, and only then punched the panel that unlocked the door. I stepped out of my cramped quarters to see an ocean of people walking down the corridors and toward the crew mess, and I joined them without thinking twice about it.

 “Any idea what’s going on?” I asked Xyla as she appeared beside me, a spring to her step.

“I have an idea, yes,” she said with a wink.

She used to have such a closed off character, one that I had grown used to, but the past few weeks had changed her. And all because of Gallus, a bronze Shein that acted as one of the ship’s engineers. The two had grown…intimate. At least the sounds coming out of her quarters seemed to point at that.

She wasn’t the first one to change because of the Rogue Star crew and, unless I was mistaken, she wouldn’t be the last either. There was something about this race of burly aliens, the ones in command of the ship I now called home, that attracted the female members of the crew.

To be honest, I didn’t really know what to make of it. While some were nice, I had never really developed a close relationship with any of them. The way I saw it, they were nothing but my co-workers. Although, to be fair, co-workers weren’t supposed to drag your ass halfway across the galaxy and put you on a warpath with one of the most powerful forces in the universe.

“Does this have anything to do with the Gaed?” I asked Xyla, but she merely looked back at me over her shoulder to offer me a sly smile. I would get nothing out of her. Still, I was pretty sure that this prospective Gaed rebellion was the reason behind this ship-wide meeting. Either that or the Dominion had found us and were en route, which I thought to be a pretty unlikely scenario. Even them wouldn’t be so stupid to threaten war with an independent system like the Ya-sin.

When Xyla and I finally got to the crew mess, we found the place completely packed. The entire crew of the Rogue Star had answered the call, it seemed. At the center of the room were Kalyn, the woman that used to be our commander back in Persephone station, and Dejar, the Rogue Star’s captain. Aavat, the Rogue Star’s first mate, stood close to them.

“Please, don’t tell me we’ll have to go on the run again,” I muttered under my breath. Xyla said nothing, but she laid one hand on my shoulder and squeezed it softly. Then, to my surprise, she started walking toward Kalyn and Dejar.

“Thank you all for being here,” she started to say, addressing the whole room. “A few of you have your suspicious about the reason behind this meeting, so let me be straightforward with you: if you thought you’d be coming here because of the Gaed rebellion…then you’re absolutely right.”

Damn, I knew it.

Running one hand through my hair, I considered my next move. As a programmer and hacker, I had the know-how when it came to network systems, and I could easily infiltrate the Dominion system and create false identities for the teams we’d send in these covert-ops.

When we first came on board the Rogue Star, I’d kept my head down.

Didn’t volunteer any information.

Even if it might have helped, the Shein were aliens. Strangers.

Chief Aavat had put me on to scrubbing pipes. Boring, but safe.

Now we were all in danger. And the crew weren’t strangers anymore.

These were my friends.

Maybe, maybe this was worth standing up for.

It’d be a lot of work, but what the hell.

“Alright,” I said, taking a step forward. “I’m in. Even if I regret it.”

Chapter Three: Gallus

Xyla stared at the screen, watching the unidentified vessels. “Who are they?”

Aavat and Dejar were busy at the comms, talking with whoever they were.

“I wish I knew, but I’m sure that the captain is dealing with it,” I answered.

“You can be sure, but I’m not,” she waved me off. “Where are they going to board?”

Well, if that wasn’t rude, I don’t know the definition of the word.

“Most likely going to be in the primary cargo hold. I’m assuming that their captain will come over and speak with our captain.” Before I could thank her for her help, again, and ask her if there was anything I might be able to help her with, she looked at me with narrowed, appraising eyes.

“I’m gonna go. You coming?”

I reached out for her but stopped short of touching her as she glared at me. “I don’t think that would be the greatest of ideas. This is a meeting between ship leaders.”

Over her shoulder, I could see the ship come up next to us. Within moments, the docking tubes had extended and we were connected to one another.

“I’m not going to interrupt the meeting, I just want to see who we’re dealing with,” she said as she watched our two ships connect. “I’m going.”

“I wouldn’t recommend that,” I tried again.

She stopped, and snapped around, pointing at me. “I’m sick and tired of being held back on this ship,” she snarled. She stomped towards me and stuck that finger into my chest. “I know I can do things to help but I never get the chance.” Her glare seemed to soften from pure anger and hatred to sheer determination. “I’m done being forgotten. I’m done being left behind. I’m doing what I want, and right now, I want to see who the hell just saved us from those Dominion bastards.”

With that, she spun around and stalked away.

I knew my job was to stop her and to take her somewhere safe, just in case, but, if I had to be honest, that fire?

Sexy as all hell.

I shook my head in wonder as I started to follow her. The problem was she wasn’t just filled with passion, she was angry as well.

That kind of anger, if not dealt with, would lead to something not smart, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be around when that ‘not smart’ thing happened.

Then again, I wasn’t sure I that I didn’t want to be around to stop her from doing something stupid.

Maybe the fumes were mildly toxic to Shein as well. Or maybe it was just her presence that scrambled my brain.

When it came down to it, she did have a point.

I was just a little curious myself as to who saved us, so I followed her to the cargo bay.

She was standing in the open, in one of the doorways, watching as our new friends—at least, I hoped they were friends—made their way down the docking tunnel.

I tapped her on the shoulder. “Hi,” I whispered.

She rolled her eyes slightly. “Guess you’re interested too, huh?” she whispered back.

I nodded, not a bit ashamed. “We should probably get out of sight, though,” I said quietly, motioning towards some nearby crates.

She huffed. “Really? Are you going to tell me that I ‘need to be safe,’ too?” It was apparent that she wasn’t happy with my suggestion.

So, I decided to try a different tactic. “No,” I said with a shake of my head. “I’m just being cautious. If this turns into a fight, we’ll already be behind cover. But, if you want to be out in the open where they can see you and shoot you, be my guest.” I turned and took a few steps away. I stopped and looked back. “Then again, what if these guys are looking for you ladies and they do worse to humans than the Dominion does?” I walked behind a stack of crates and leaned myself against them, grateful that they were heavy and didn’t move when I did.

As the door to the cargo bay opened, I could see Xyla struggling with her indecision, then in what I assumed to be angry resignation, she blew out a large breath of air and joined me behind the crates.

Our new friends were something I had never seen before. They were slim, athletic looking people with green-black skin that looked to be absurdly smooth.

They walked with effortless grace, looking as though they simply floated across the floor. I had to look at their legs to make sure they were moving, that’s how smooth they flowed.

Captain Dejar, Aavat, and Kovor were waiting. As our new friends approached, Dejar stepped forward and extended a hand in the universal greeting. The apparent leader, I assumed it was male, stepped forward and returned the greeting, reaching forward and grasping Dejar’s forearm as Dejar grasped his.

“Welcome aboard the Rogue Star,” Dejar said. “I thank you for your assistance against the Dominion. It is highly appreciated.”

“We are happy to have been of assistance, Captain,” the beautiful man answered, his voice almost musical. “My name is Phezn. We,” he started, waiving his arm to include his small entourage, which consisted of two males and two females, both of which were difficult to keep my eyes off of. “We are the Gaed. We are not of the Dominion, nor are we friends of the Dominion.”

“Well, as you could see, neither are we,” Dejar said.

“Yes. However, you must understand, while we are not friends of the Dominion, we are also not enemies. We have a polite agreement to leave one another alone,” Phezn explained.

“I see. Then, if you don’t mind my asking, why did you come to our rescue?”

Phezn tilted his head a bit, as if he was a bit amused by the question. “As I said, we are not friends with the Dominion. You had folded to the edge of our system, then drifted in. They were in our system without permission, so we escorted them away.”

Dejar nodded.

It didn’t make sense to me, though. There had to be more reason behind it. If they weren’t friends, but also weren’t enemies, then wouldn’t the smart thing for the Gaed to do be simply turn us over in order to keep their relationship ambivalent?

“Well, I thank you again,” Dejar said. “Now, you said something about wanting to speak.”

“Correct.”

“Okay, what about?”

Phezn looked back at his people, and at their nod, he turned back to Dejar. “We wish to offer you, your crew, and your ship a safe haven in which to stay away from the Dominion.”

I was blown away, and I guessed that Xyla was as well, she had let out a small gasp. One of the Gaed looked in our direction, a small smile on her face, before turning her attention back to Dejar and Phezn.

“Well, I am obviously very grateful for your offer,” Dejar said as he turned to Aavat and Kovor. They looked almost as surprised as I was. “But, and I don’t mean to be rude in any manner, I must ask why you would offer this to us.”

Phezn nodded in understanding. “I understand your hesitation. After your infiltration of the Dominion facility and the subsequent broadcast of their secret actions, our leaders felt that you and your people were worth helping if you ever needed it.”

“Thank you,” Dejar said, flabbergasted. “But, won’t this put you in bad graces in your somewhat neutral relationship?”

“It is possible,” Phezn said flatly. “But it is a decision we agreed was worth the risk. Currently, the Dominion cannot risk attacking us, not with their newfound troubles from all around and within, all thanks to what you and your crew have done.”

Before Dejar could say anything, Aavat stepped forward. “This is a tremendous offer; can we speak about it for just a moment?”

“Why would you hesitate?” Phezn asked, turning his attention away from Dejar.

Aavat shrugged. “Think about it. We thought the Dominion could be trusted and we were betrayed. We thought a few others could be trusted, and they were involved in this, as well. I think we’ve earned the right to hesitate a moment.”

“You make a compelling argument. Very well,” Phezn said with a graceful nod. He then turned around and went back to his group as Dejar, Aavat, and Kovor talked.

It wasn’t that long of a conversation, and I could imagine it consisted mostly of the captains just trying to weigh the risks of staying versus trying to run.

Dejar turned back to Phezn, meeting him once again in the middle of the cargo bay. “We accept your gracious offer,” Dejar said, his hand extended.

Phezn accepted the extended hand with a smile. “It is an honor to begin a friendship with all of you.”

Xyla looked up at me, her eyes wide, but not in wonder.

That was more anger.

Scro.

Chapter Two: Xyla

After everything that’s happened to us in the past few months, I could honestly say that nothing surprised me anymore.

When the Dominion fleet descended upon us, I wasn’t even shocked.

If I had more time to think about it, I might’ve realized how messed up that was.

A life-threatening situation should get some kind of rise out of me.

But honestly?

I was annoyed more than anything. 

My reaction had to be some kind of coping mechanism. Or worse, I’d become too used to being in incredibly dangerous situations. There could be worse things.

I could’ve become too used to lounging on the beach all day.

Thankfully, I was as fit as I was the day the Persephone station was blown to bits and I got sucked into this mess. While the rest of the crew enjoyed the sun and sand, I devoted much of my spare time to exercise.

I didn’t like to stay still.

Once, years ago, a doctor instructed me to channel all of my extra anger into physical energy to be burnt off through exercise.

While he was a smug bastard, and it had been tempting to punch him, his advice had always worked for me.

I’d freely admit that when I was holed up in the cargo hold with the others, unable to walk around or do anything, my temper took on a life of its own. It stayed alive and fiery until I had the entire stretch of beach to run along.

Having the beach at my disposal served me well as I sprinted down the main entry corridor of the Rogue Star.

The ship tilted hard to the right. Manda, running a few paces ahead of me, stumbled and fell with a crash.

The Rogue Star banked so hard the left wall was where the floor ought to be. I grabbed some of the exposed piping and held fast. I sure hoped I wasn’t grabbing something important.

The last thing we needed was for a pipe to burst.

Memories of noxious gas fogging up the hallways came to mind, tightening my throat. When that horrible demon-eyed princess chick double-crossed us, she tried to gas us all.

That was the last time I truly felt afraid. And I shoved that back down, burning away the fear, the worry with anger

Always worked. No reason to stop now.

The ship pitched again, this time in the opposite direction. Manda fell from one side of the corridor to the other with a grunt.

“Grab hold of something!” I shouted to her.

“I’m trying!” She yelled back. She was holding one of her arms at an odd angle. I half-crawled, half-climbed down the corridor until I reached her.

“Find an alcove,” I instructed. “Tuck yourself somewhere safe until we smooth out.”

“I don’t think I can move. I landed hard on my arm. I think it’s sprained,” Manda whimpered.

From where I was, I could see swelling in her wrist. First aid wasn’t my strongest suit, even if it was there wasn’t anything nearby that I could use. With a hint of bitterness, I recalled a time on the Persephone station a few years back when I requested to be trained on medical duty. Lynna said I didn’t have good bedside manner, as if politeness had anything to do with saving someone’s life.

I pushed the thought away to better focus on the issue at hand. But maybe, just maybe, I’d remind her that it wouldn’t hurt for all of us to have some basic training, cheerful little daisies or not.

“Hold on to me,” I instructed just as the Rogue Star leveled out. Manda and I crashed down onto the floor, which was once again in its proper place.

“I think I just sprained my other wrist,” Manda grumbled.

“I think you just bruised my rib,” I groaned. “So much for good intentions.”

“I appreciate that you tried to help me,” Manda’s eyes grew wide with sincerity. “I’m surprised-” She seemed to catch herself and clamped her mouth shut.

“What’s surprising?” I asked.

“Nothing, I don’t know what I was trying to say,” she laughed awkwardly.

I knew exactly what she was going to say.

She was going to say that she was surprised I’d go out of my way to help her. I know I don’t have the friendliest reputation.

It’s no secret that I wasn’t a fan of Commander Kalyn or anything she’d lead us into ever since Persephone Station blew.

But the fact that Manda thought I’d stoop so low as to refuse to help one of my crewmates hurt a bit.

More than a bit.

Clearly, I needed to work on my image.

But later. One of the Dominion ships hunting us fired some kind of explosive. The shockwave reverberated through the ship, making me stumble. Now was not the time to worry about my image.

The red alarm light flared to life over our heads. That last blast did something to the Rogue Star.

“Get somewhere where you won’t get thrown around again,” I told Manda before taking off down the corridor.

I needed answers, and there was one place closer than the bridge that might have them.

I burst into Qal’s room where he was frantically trying to maneuver the Rogue Star.

“What’s going on?” I demanded.

“What do you think?” He shouted back. “I’m trying to dodge the blasts of an entire fleet. The ummba Dominion ships followed us through the fold.”

“The emergency alarm is blaring. Do you know where the issue is?”

Qal cast a quick glance at the detailed schematic on display to his right. From where I stood, I could see a red dot on the display, but I couldn’t tell where it was.

“The room under the bridge.”

“Crap.” I bolted out of the room.

If the engine room was the heart of the Rogue Star then the room under the bridge was like the brain. It was likely that someone else was already headed down there, someone more qualified than me, but I didn’t know what else to do.

Some of the crew had emergency stations to report to. I was one of the many who didn’t.

In situations like these, those who didn’t have an emergency station were required to hide themselves away in the cargo hold until the danger passed.

I hated the cargo hold.

I hated not having a proper job.

I hated that the idea of me being helpful was such a surprise to others.

I passed many of my crewmates as I made my way to the room beneath the bridge. They were so frantic that no one noticed I was heading in the exact opposite direction of the cargo hold.

When I got to the room, I wasn’t alone.

A Shein male stood at the far end, bent down trying to patch one of the pipes.

The odd smell in the air told me that it was some kind of coolant leak. It wouldn’t cause the ship to burst into flames, which was good.

However, all of the circuits and machinery in this room needed to be kept cool. If they overheated, they would automatically shut down. The environmental regulars could go down. Qal’s navigations systems could go down.

“You shouldn’t be down here!” The Shein called over his shoulder when he spotted me. I recognized him, though his name escaped me at the moment.

“You need help!” I shouted back.

There were three other fractures in the coolant piping. He could only block one at a time. “Tell me what to do.”

At least he wasn’t stupid enough to turn away a set of helping hands.

“See that tub there?” He jerked his chin toward a medium sized tub filled with something shiny and pitch black. “Take a scoop and cover the crack.”

I did as I was told without hesitation. Whatever the sticky, tar-like material was, it did the trick patching the pipes.

 But it wasn’t made to be handled by human hands.

“It burns,” I gasped. I immediately tried to wipe it off on the rest of the pipe. “Is it supposed to burn?”

“Here.” The Shein male pushed a damp cloth into my hand. The coolness of it soothed the burning sensation enough so that I could continue the patch job. I fell into a system. Handle the black gunk until the burning was too much, wipe, and repeat.

“You don’t have to keep going if it hurts you,” the Shein male said.

“We have to get this done,” I called back. “I’ve only got one more left to do anyway.” I smeared the black gunk over the last crack. The Shein male came up behind me with some kind of spray gun. Over the patched piping, he sprayed what looked like pure liquid metal until the pipe looked perfect once more.

“Don’t breathe that in,” he warned.

I lifted my hand to cover my mouth and nose.

“You could have said that before you sprayed it,” I replied. The skin on my face started to burn. I immediately covered my face with the cloth.

“You’re probably right.” He had the nerve to smile at me. “You might need a quick trip to the med bay when this is over regardless.”

“What?” I cried.

“Apparently, the pipe sealer is mildly toxic to humans,” the Shein male shrugged.

“The one time I’m helpful it comes back to bite me,” I rolled my eyes. Above our heads, the red emergency alarm stopped flashing.

“That’s one crisis averted,” the Shein male said. “We should see if there’s anything else we can do.”

“We?”

“If you’re helpful a second time, it might not bite you,” the Shein male said.

“What’s one more chemical burn or lung irritant?” I shrugged and followed him out of the room.

“I’m Gallus, by the way,” he said as we walked.

“I know,” I said, even though I didn’t. We’d spoken once or twice before. I should’ve known his name.

“No, you don’t,” Gallus smirked. “I never told you my name. I appreciate that you tried to pretend that you did, though.”

“Any time,” I winced. “I’m Xyla.”

“I know.”

“But I never told you,” I fed his own line back to him.

“No, you didn’t. But that doesn’t mean I don’t pay attention.”

Not many people had the ability to put me off my stride, but it took me a moment to untangle my words.

“You’re awfully chipper considering we’re under attack,” I diverted the subject.

“Between you and me, I like the excitement,” he admitted, a kinda cute half-smile lifting a corner of his mouth. 

Before I could say anything, we arrived on the bridge. Aavat was there, giving orders and monitoring the Dominion fleet on our tail.

“Anything needing attention?” Gallus asked.

“Aside from the government organization trying to kill us?” Aavat snapped.

I liked it when everyone was under pressure like this.

They showed their true colors instead of pretending to be nicer than they were.

At least Aavat wasn’t one to put on a mask in the first place. He was a rude, arrogant bastard, and didn’t try to pass himself off as anything different.

It was a refreshing change.

I could do without the constant threat of death, though.

Another explosion went off somewhere in the space around us. My arms shot out to balance myself and I accidentally latched on to Gallus’s arm. I retracted my hands as soon as I regained my balance.

I risked a glance at Gallus to see if he noticed but his focus was directed on the monitors.

“Aavat, what are those?” He asked.

I followed his gaze to the live feed of the starboard side of the ship. Another fleet of ships was fast approaching. My stomach sank.

If those were more Dominion ships, we wouldn’t survive much longer.

“I don’t know,” Aavat replied. “I don’t recognize the ship model. The scanners can’t figure out what they are either.”

We watched the fleet of mystery ships swoop closer.

Lights flared all around us as their cannons fired, and I braced myself.

But the unknown ships flitted around us, engaging the Dominion cruisers.

Nimbly, the smaller, faster ships soon divided up the Dominion fleet, driving them away until one by one our attackers folded away.

Eventually, the void outside fell silent.

The mystery fleet circled around us.

“This is either really good or really bad,” I muttered under my breath. Gallus gave an uneasy laugh.

“Hopefully it’s good,” Aavat looked over his shoulder at us. “They’re requesting permission to board us.” 

Chapter One: Gallus

“Gallus?”

It was Maris, Orrin’s mate and my pseudo-replacement as Second Engineer.

I wasn’t angry about it.

I still held the official title, so when I eventually ended up with my own ship, that would work for me.

If you had asked me a year ago where we would be as a crew and an operation, I certainly wouldn’t have said that we would be hiding out at a pirate sanctuary with a bunch of human women now part of the crew.

I most definitely would not have said that some of our own would end up falling in love with those same human women, or that the crew would have come to count the women as family.

What we ended up discovering, and blurted out to the entire galaxy, was that Dominion was involved in some back-door negotiations with several dozen governments, promising them inclusion into the Dominion if they paid with a selection of females that were to be tested.

The Dominion was looking for specific genetic markers that could be used to essentially create the “perfect” race.

We broadcast their own conversations with the humans from their own secret hiding place, which really put a bit of a crimp in their plans, and their popularity.

Now, because of us, they weren’t the supreme all-mighty governing body anymore.

Now, they were facing numerous public disputes, their reputation had taken a hit, there were suddenly more non-Dominion governments popping up, and some of the places that had surrendered their women in order to join the Dominion were facing serious political issues.

In the two months we’d stayed here at Sanctuary, I’d picked up on several reports of full-blown government turnover or rebellion in some of the sectors that paid the Dominion’s price.

And through all of it, we made a legitimate family with the human women, found a friend and benefactor in Itair, and gained some allies that we hadn’t had before.

So, if you were to have asked me a year ago where I thought we would be as a ship and crew, I wouldn’t have dreamt of any of this.

“What did you need, Maris?” I asked, sitting up from my lounge chair.

I was enjoying a day off, one of the few that I had actually taken here, and had found a place by the beach where the breeze was blocked just enough to let me still feel it, but not be bothered by it.

The purple ocean lapped at the beach while numerous birds squawked in the trees above.

Qal’s little blue friend chittered nearby. I must have woken her  up from her nap. “Sorry, Neela.” I said to her before turning my attention back to Maris.

“Orrin was wondering if you finished running the maintenance check on the new damper discs,” she said as she took a seat on a big rock next to me. When we had first met, she was—as the women said—a bitch. She was always angry about something and doing what she could to prove to us that she was smart and competent, even if that meant disobeying orders and going behind Orrin’s back.

I liked her from the start.

Her attitude and determination shut Orrin up and stopped him from being the pretentious ass that he was before all this happened.

Now, he and I were legitimate friends, and I liked that. I nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Finished them bright and early this morning, left the report on Orrin’s tablet. Why?”

She had been smiling until my question. “Because they’re off balance, again.”

“Again? Seriously? Kout,” I swore.

The umbba dampers that we had recently installed were giving me fits. When they worked, our output was phenomenal, but they liked to slip out of balance which screwed up our engines.

I thought I had fixed it and had conducted four tests on them to make sure. They had held up. “Any idea what caused it this time?”

“I’d lay money we can put the blame at the sticky feet of one of those damn little lizards that Shenna has been ‘adopting’,” she said with air quotes.

I should have known. Aavat, one of the members of the ships leadership,  had fallen for a young lady with a fabulous attitude, and a terrible sense of how much damage her kouting zoo was creating for all of us.

I let out an long sigh, dropped my head, and resisted the urge hit my head on one of the lush trees.

“Okay,” I said, about as dejected as I could possibly be. “I’ll go fix it. But,” I said, staring Maris in the face and putting on my most I’m-not-putting-up-with-this-scro-anymore expression. “You’re telling her to keep her goddamn animals out of the engine compartment, or I’m eating the bastards.”

Neela chittered loudly from behind me and jumped on my shoulder, smacking me in the back of the head.

I laughed. “No, not you Neela. You’re safe, promise,” I chuckled. That seemed to pacify the little blue…thing.

“Yeah,” Maris chuckled. “Like she’ll listen to me. You’ve used that threat before and haven’t followed through on it.”

I shrugged, stood up, and started heading towards the Star, Neela still sitting comfortably on my shoulder, her little tail wrapped around me to help her keep her balance.

“I’ll bring it up with her though,” Maris said as she came up next to me. “She needs to understand that those pets of hers are gonna get us killed if they keep messing with the engines.”

I nodded. I was trying to resign myself to the next three hours of work that it would take to balance the kouting discs again. I was not happy.

The next three hours were stressful. So much so that I was cursing every umbba creature on board this ship except for the cat, Persephone, and Neela. At least those two stayed out of trouble. I hated that little puff-ball that Shenna had stolen from Itair. It always made me wonder why he never confronted her about it. He had seen it roaming around the ship.

Bringing my mind back to the task at hand, I finished setting the discs to the proper balance and started running my maintenance checks.

I was into my third check when the alarms sounded. “RED ALERT! RED ALERT! DOMINION SHIPS INBOUND!” Qal’s voice blared over the ship-wide system, and if I knew Qal, he was also blaring it out over the outboard speakers as well.

I quickly brought up video and watched in horror as six Dominion ships of various sizes tore through the atmosphere. “Holy kout!” I swore.

I rushed to the primary engineering station and quickly started the process to the engines back online.

“Engineering!” It was Kovor’s voice, our third captain.

“Here, Captain,” I called back.

“Are those engines up yet?”

“Getting them online now. Activating shields and repositioning them above us,” I yelled back.

“Good. Make sure we’re ready to get in the air as soon as possible,” he called back and clicked off communication.

As if I would have done anything different. Maris and Orrin burst into the engine room, taking positions to help.

“The discs ready?” Orrin asked.

I nodded as the ship shook. I looked at the screen to see one of the Dominion ships firing.

Then, as quickly as the shooting started, it was answered.

Dozens of small ships launched from the surface while a barrage of laser cannon shots exploded on and around the Dominion ship that had fired.

It broke apart and began falling to the surface in dozens of little burning fireballs of debris.

Seriously?

We’d been here two months, and I’d never had a clue about the defenses around this place.

Not a surprise, when I had the chance to think about it.

A pirate haven was likely to be fortified, but I had not anticipated the pirates here to be so prepared and heavily defended.

It was a sight to behold.

Or would have been, if I’d been able to pay attention.

Instead I watched out of the corner of my eye as I worked with Maris and Orrin to finish getting the engines ready for launch and break atmo.

Tiny little puffs of exploding ordinance filled the sky in the screen as the Dominion ships fired in return.

We were rocked as several shots hit our shields.

“How much longer do I have?” I yelled into the comm unit.

“Twenty seconds,” Qal yelled back.

I could do it. I started counting down from fifteen, just in case. At eight, Kovor ordered us to fly and the engines fired to life as Qal started getting us into the air.

It was a harrying escape, our lift-off slightly hampered by the sand of the beach being as loose as it was, slowing down our ascent as the engines didn’t have a solid surface to push against.

Once in the air, however, the damper discs did their job and our engine kicked on hard. I lost my balance as the engines catapulted us forward and was forced to grab a nearby wall sconce.

Looking at Orrin and Maris, we watched the screen to see if we were being followed. As soon as we were clear of the planet’s gravitational field, the next call rang through the ship.

“Prepare for fold,” came the order from above. Scro. I hated folding. The queasiness I always felt kept me wanting to vomit for hours afterwards.

Something grabbed my leg.

Double Scro.

I looked down, spotted Neela, and called her up.

“Sorry, girl. Guess you get to see the stars after all.”

She jumped up to my chest and I held her close as the fold-engine kicked in and hurtled us away from Sanctuary and the Dominion ships.