Part I: Best Laid Plans

Grace Anders let the dice slide off her palm and held her breath. The twin silver cubes tumbled across the grimy metallic table, their black pips dancing as if to gloat over the power they now held. She’d bet more than she could afford to lose, and decision that might literally cost her the shirt off her back, and these three perverts she was on guard with would be all too keen to drool over what lay beneath it.

The rolling cubes came to a sudden halt. Double sixes. “Sorry boys,” she cooed, raking in the mountain of chips on the table. “No titties for you tonight.”

The groans from her male compatriots were half-hearted and teasing. “You know, Anders, you could probably make twice your week’s salary taking the stage at the club two blocks down. I know I’d tip your ass.”

Anders had prepped a biting retort to the soldier, but it was interrupted by their ranking officer. “Stow that shit, private. Playing a game is one thing, soliciting your comrades is another. Let’s at least pretend to keep it half-ass professional.”

The private dipped his head, flushing slightly. “Yes sir, Sergeant. I’m sorry, Anders.”

“No harm done,” Anders replied. Truthfully, she doubted the private had the cash to make good on his solicitation anyway. At this point in the war, they were all strapped for cash. Gaian commissions were three lunar rotations behind, and the military supply shipments weren’t much better. Too many citizens in the rebel systems had been reduced to far worse than stripping to make ends meet.

Her gloomy introspection was interrupted by a droning sensor alert. The lights in the room dimmed, and all four soldiers at the table surged their feet and pulled their side arms.

“Are we expecting any company tonight?” the sergeant asked. Grace and the other two privates glanced at each other, each shaking their heads in the negative. That meant this was either an unscheduled appointment, or someone had given up the location to the safe house. Grace was pretty sure it wasn’t the latter, but what else would explain their unexpected visitors?

As one, the contingent stowed their side arms and grabbed standard-issue Solarian Repeaters before forming up on the door. Each rifle was pointed directly at the door as the sergeant gently keyed the security panel. A holographic display popped into existence before the corrugated metal door, showcasing three figures cloaked in shadow. One of the silhouetted forms wore a black tricorn hat with faintly glistening gold trim.

Grace’s breath caught. It couldn’t be.

The sergeant issued the challenge: “None ought to be caught under these stars. Not on a night like this.”

A deep baritone sounded out the countersign. “The stars are the same no matter which arm of the galaxy we find ourselves in. Tonight’s view signals good omens.”

Damn. That was right. Either the trio of interlopers was with the rebellion, or they were a band of assassins who’d managed to get the correct passphrase. In the latter case, Grace and the others were about to be riddled with projectiles or plasma burns.

The sergeant hesitated for three heartbeats before issuing a quick series of taps against the security panel. The metal door hissed open, and Grace was buffet by a sudden gust of wind and rain from outside. The trio stepped through the portal, and the lead man—the one in the tricorn hat—scanned a card key against a nearby terminal. The door slammed shut, and the lights returned to normal levels.

Grace and her fellow soldiers lowered their rifles and snapped up as one into quick solutes. “General Jax,” the sergeant acknowledged. “It is an honor, sir.”

Jax returned the solute. “At ease, all of you. Apologies for the unannounced visit. The previous venue for this rendezvous was unexpectedly compromised. I trust you are in a position to host a brief conference?”

“Of course, sir. The secured sub-level is at your disposal.”

“Thank you, soldier.” Even though his remark was addressed at the sergeant, he scanned each member of their little quartet. Grace Anders’ heart skipped a beat as his eyes met hers.

General Garret Jax: the man, the myth, the legend, and the face of the thus-far ill-fated Gaian Rebellion. He was taller than Grace had expected, with dark skin only slightly warmer than his black hat, cloak, and dress uniform. The golden trim on his attire paired surprisingly well with the glint of silver that peaked through his skin—evidence of his cybernetic augmentations.

Without another word, the General and his two companions pressed past them and to the door on the far end of the small room. With another swipe of his card, the hidden elevator opened, and the trio of black-cloaked figures stepped inside. Moments later, they disappeared behind the shuttering doors.

Uncertain whispers slipped from her fellow soldiers as soon as they heard the low whine of the descending lift.

“The General? Why is he here?”

“Who were those other two?”

“Does this mean the Solarians are attacking Prudence?”

“I heard they took all of New Gaia two lunars ago.”

Grace remained silent, instead reaching to the small of her back. With a single, trembling finger, she sunk the nail of her index finger into the flesh of her lower back.

When she’d had the mod installed, she’d never thought she’d actually need it. Now, however, was the very type of situation it’d been issued to her. She had to stifle a sudden intake of breath as her senses became alight with a flood of new information. Her heart throbbed, only half convinced the tech would work.

Yet, it did. Grace now found herself tapped directly into the facility’s security system. She had no use for her companion’s idle speculation at this point. She was going to get answers straight from the source.

She focused on the hidden audiovisual devices secreted in the supposedly “secure” room beneath their feet. Then, she began to listen.


Garret Jax listened as his friend and fellow general, Ernest James, unleashed his tirade. “We need to abandon this foolhardy endeavor immediately, Garret. If they’ve already seized the command center on Prudence, that means they know we’re planning something.”

Colonel Constance Nest seemed less fatalistic but hardly less melancholy. “Sir,” she began, “respectfully, that is why we have facilities like this one. We have planned for the contingency that our primary command centers might be compromised.”

“So, what?” Ernest snapped. “Just because we had a place to run and hide doesn’t mean we should move forward with our plans. What if the location of our command center wasn’t the only thing leaked to the enemy?”

His jaw set, Garret leaned over the conference table. “You forget, General, the true stakes of this operation. Perhaps it is appropriate that I remind you.” Upon his ominous proclamation, Garret inserted his ring finger into the universal port on the table. A microscopic needle pierced his flesh so subtly he might not have noticed it at all had he not been expecting it. When his neurolace implants notified him that a connection had been established, he willed a diagram into existence using the holoprojectors stationed above the table.

The display showcased the New Gaian system, decorated by dots corresponding to the latest data from the IFF relay. There were far more enemies, represented by red icons, than friendlies, marked in blue. “The Theracite offensive has been far more catastrophic than even previous reports have indicated. Those forces that aren’t busy running for their lives are hardly in a position to form a suitable counter-offensive. Our most effective regimens have been reduced to futile bug-hunt operations, identifying enemy terror cells where they’ve entrenched themselves at remote outposts along our supply lines.”

Garret looked around. This information was hardly new to his two companions, but this stark presentation of it has the desired chilling effect. Ernest rubbed a hand over his pasty bald pate. “Is it useless, then? Has New Gaia fallen?”

“No.” Garret used his free hand to expand the view on the largest planet in the system. “Our hopes can be restored if we handle the occupation of Ourea. Our military assets are largely unscathed in the northern continent. We simply can’t deploy them because the Theracites have taken control of the primary transport center here.”

At a thought, the vast central metropolis on the continent glowed yellow. The crimson IFF markers all over the sprawling urban landscape were thick enough to paint the hologram a sickly orange upon first glance.

Jax continued. “We have one hope: if we can get orbital reinforcements to the fighters on Ourea within two weeks, we can break the siege and deploy a counter-offensive to retake both Brontes and Steropes. If we do not, the Theracite and Solarian units on the twin inner planets will move in to take Arges. If Arges falls, the Solarians will have total control over the flow of energy across the entire system. Then, my friends, we will have lost New Gaia—permanently.”

Removing his finger from the table, Garret looked to his two fellow officers. Ernest stared vacantly at the space where the hologram had been. Constance cleared her throat, turning watery eyes Garret’s way.

“What’s the plan, General?” she asked.


Grace Anders severed her connection to the hidden observation cameras the second the three commanding officers stepped back into the elevator. Her companions, stiff with anxiety and desperate attempts to appear vigilant, had been silent for a long time. To a man, they nearly jumped out of their skins when the sound of the approaching elevator reached them.

Garret Jax stepped out of the lift, looking every bit the war hero the Gaian propaganda vids made him out to be. “Sergeant Hanks,” he spoke.

“Yes sir,” replied Grace’s commanding officer.

“You and your team are to seal up this safe house, erase all data records, and disperse. Tomorrow, you will report to the southern port to receive new assignments. More details will be provided upon your arrival.”

Sergeant Hanks didn’t miss a beat. “Yes sir.” He snapped a crisp salute. With a nod from General Jax, the three cloaked figures departed from the safe house.

“You heard the man,” said the sergeant. “Initiate burn protocol. I’ll see you all tomorrow morning at the southern port.”

Grace went about her assigned task in silence, as did the other members of her team. When they had finished, however, she did not immediately embark for the shitty apartment she’d been residing in for the duration of this posting.

Instead, she buffeted herself against the continuing rainstorm and went along a path deeper into the inner city labyrinth. In an alley that was so abandoned of outer lighting that Grace had been forced to switch her sight to night vision, she found a seam in an unremarkable plasteel wall. She inserted her ring finger into the hidden port, and a concealed door hissed opened.

She entered into a chamber that was completely barren and unremarkable save for its purpose. It was one of the only places on the planet where she could access a secure ansible line back to her employers.

Not the ones funding the Gaian Rebellion, but the mercenaries that currently occupied most of the the New Gaia system.

The holodisk in her palm lit up. After a moment of buffering, an image shimmered into existence above the device. Even rendered in blue wife frame, the appearance of the Theracite general invoked utterly unnerving. Fleshy tendrils from where the creature’s mouth might have been, the glow from its singular, cybernetic eye glowing beneath the dome of its helmet.

“Report,” it growled.

Grace stiffened her back, forcing her words to come. “It is as your previous intelligence suggested,” she said. “They are planning an offensive against Ourea. They plan to retake the starport.”

The Theracite’s laughter was somewhere between a rumble, a wheeze, and a sickening squelching sound. “With what army?”

“Three ships, departing in two days.”

Another sick, moist burst of laughter. “Very well,” the alien croaked. “Let them come. We will be waiting.”