Through the canopy window of her shuttle, she saw nothing but clear blue sky with thin wispy clouds and the sun shining bright overhead. White, snow-covered landscape stretched all the way to the distant horizon.
“Computer,” Anna said. “Target enlargement.”
The smartglass on her window magnified a small square, zooming in on another shuttle with sleek, curving wings. The men on board that ship had come to Earth to meet with a Saudi Arabian terrorist who specialized in chemical weapons. Usually Keepers worried about the dangers of Leyrian technology finding its way to Earth, but the reverse could be just as disastrous.
Anna scrunched up her face, shaking her head. “Not today, my friends,” she said, tapping a button on her console. “Shuttle Calesa, this is Agent Leana Lenai of the Justice Keepers. You are ordered to land, or I will open fire.”
The other ship veered up and to the right.
Anna pulled back on her flightstick, reorienting herself until she had the other ship dead centre in her window. A targeting reticle lit up once she had them in her sights, and she pulled the trigger.
White tracers exploded from her wings, converging in twin lines on the other ship. A flare of flickering light told her she had punched through the shields, and alarms blared to tell she had scored a hit.
The Calesa turned in a quick yaw to the right, pointing its nose at her. Those alarms became harsh screeches that said she was being targeted. Anna thumbed the hat-switch on her flightstick.
Her shuttle slid downward.
White tracers flew over her canopy window, each one hitting nothing but air. Anna reoriented the nose of her shuttle, taking aim once again. She fired and did some damage to the Calesa's belly.
The other ship lurched forward.
It flew over her shuttle in a steep nose dive that would take it back to the surface. Anxiety seized Anna's heart with icy fingers. These people were trying to flee the solar system. Why would they turn?
She stepped on the pedal.
Her ship yawed around until she was staring at the snow-covered fields of southern Ohio, the Calesa a gray blur in the magnified square. “Okay, you can fly,” a man's voice said in her speakers. “But can you catch up in time to stop me from turning those farms down there into piles of scorched rubble?”
Anna felt her jaw drop.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she tossed her head about. “Computer,” she ordered. “Use geographic data and display all human settlements.”
Several bright red dots appeared against the landscape, and sure enough, the Calesa was following a swooping course that would take it right over one of them. A quick check of her readouts confirmed that its weapons were active.
“Your call, Lenai,” the man went on. “I'm gonna fire in three…two…”
She broke off pursuit.
On her instruments, she watched the Calesa level off and head back toward the upper atmosphere, gunning its engines to full speed. She could pursue, of course, but her readouts said its weapons were still armed. If she tried to subdue them while inside the atmosphere, they would fire. Continuing this little skirmish wasn't an option. As it stood, there was only one death on her conscience – a young pilot named Dex Aron – and she had no intention of adding more.
“Anna,” Jack said over the speaker. “You okay?”
Baring her teeth with a hiss, Anna winced. The heat in her face could have melted ice. “Yeah, I'm fine,” she growled. “Forward me your telemetry; I'll go after him once he clears the atmosphere.”
“You're too late,” Jack insisted. “He's gonna hit escape velocity in less than fifteen seconds. We've got ships trying to converge, but they won't make it in time.”
Traveling at FTL speeds was a tricky business; the closer you got to a major source of gravity, the harder it was to form a warp field. Most ships couldn't do it until they put some distance between themselves and the planet in question.
Anna spread her hands over the touchscreen display, bringing up the navigational systems. She tapped in a course that would take her to the upper atmosphere. Finding her prey would be easy enough once she hit vacuum.
Closing her eyes, Anna took a deep breath through her nose. “I'm going after those bastards,” she said with a nod. “Have your ships form a blockade in the outer system. I'll herd them into the net.”
At times like this, she reminded herself of the several dozen New Year's resolutions she had made to control her temper. Very few things pushed Anna to the point where she started growling, but personal failure was one of them. She wasn't going to let these men slip through her fingers. They had pulled a dirty trick, but there were no innocents for them to threaten in space.
The blue sky in her window faded to swirling mists that parted to reveal a vast expanse of stars twinkling in the blackness. She powered the ship's gravitational drives, accelerating to a speed that would let her break orbit in seconds.
Anna checked her instruments.
A ship at warp left a ripple in SlipSpace that was detectable at great distances. Her opponents were headed toward Jupiter. So…They intended to perform a maneuver called “Edge-Dancing.”
They would hover in orbit at the very spot where gravity became too strong to form a warp field, hoping to lure her in. The idea was to pull away quickly while your pursuer flew in a mad dash toward the planet. After that, you could spend several minutes at FTL speeds while your opponent struggled to climb out of the gravity well, and the further you got from the planet, the faster you could go.
Anna looked up with a flat expression, blinking through the window. “Not gonna work on me,” she said, shaking her head. “You boys are dealing with a lady who spent the last three years learning your tricks.”
She activated the warp drive.
Tiny stars converged in her window, forming a single point of light far off in the distance. Switching to SlipSpace frequencies, she called Station Twelve. “Jack,” she said. “If those bastards double back, have your people converge on them.”
“Anna, what are you-”
“Just trust me, would you?”
There was silence for a moment, and she thought she heard Director Morane's soft voice on the line. “Okay,” Jack said. “We've got your back. The Nemesis and the Noroko are headed to the outer system. I've got the Sentinel standing by to follow you.”
When she dropped out of warp, that single point of light split apart into millions of stars that spread out in all directions. The course she had set had taken her past Jupiter by several dozen light-seconds. You didn't want to get too close to a planet like that. The gravity well could trap a ship easily.
She turned her ship and saw a thin crescent of beige and red against the blackness of space. Jupiter in the light of the distant sun. For a brief moment, she wondered how something so beautiful could be so deadly.
It wasn't gravity itself that prevented a ship from going to warp; rather it was the thing that caused gravity. Massive stellar bodies changed the curvature of space-time – all matter did, really – and this was the source of the problem.
You might say that each planet exerted its own natural Bending, and since a warp field was also an attempt to change the shape of space-time, any ship trying to fly at FTL speeds had to compete with the curvature imposed by neighbouring objects. That was why ships flew faster in deep space than they did within the confines of a solar system.
Her console beeped.
“That can't be right…” She mopped sweat-slick bangs away from her forehead. “Jack, my instruments are detecting power readings on Ganymede.”
Crossing her arms, Anna frowned down at herself. “The one and only,” she said with a touch of exasperation in her voice. “That shouldn't be possible. My people have never set up a base anywhere else in your-”
The readings vanished.
She performed another scan and detected no energy readings on Ganymede. Was it just a glitch? Even the best equipment could be finicky sometimes. Anna would fly in for a closer look but for the fact that she was otherwise engaged.
Her navigational computer picked up another warp trail, this one originating from a point on the other side of the planet. By the size and shape of it, there was no doubt in her mind that this was the Calesa. They must have concluded that she wasn't about to fall for their little ruse.
Sadly, space was vast, and when a ship's crew decided to run for it, they could fly off on any vector. Calesa wasn't heading back to Earth, and it wasn't trying to pass her either. Instead, it was following a course that – from her perspective – appeared to be up and to the right.
Once again, the stars in her window clumped together to form a single impossibly bright point of light. In roughly three seconds, she would be ready to intercept her prey. Anna steeled herself.
She dropped out of warp.
Slamming a hand down on the console, she triggered a SlipPulse that would disrupt the other ship's warp field. Alarms blared and told her that she had successfully forced her enemies back to sub-light speed.
A tiny square in the window expanded, providing a magnified image of the other shuttle in green wireframe. She switched to particle beam weapons – much more useful in a vacuum – and fired.
Twin bolts of bright orange plasma converged on her opponent and knocked the ship off course. Her instruments said that she had damaged Calesa's shield emitters, and that one more hit would destroy them.
The moment of weakness allowed her opponents to jump to warp once again. They were gone in a flash, flying toward the edge of the solar system at several times the speed of light.
Anna was about to give chase, but her instruments picked up two other warp trails converging on the Calesa. Those were Phoenix-Class cruisers! The Nemesis and Noroko, if she recalled correctly.
Boxed in by three enemies, the terrorists did the only thing they could. Their warp trail vanished, and they powered down their weapons. “All right,” the man's voice said over her speakers. “You win.”
She breathed a sigh of relief.
It was over.
“Why are the shields up?”
The young lieutenant who sat hunched over his console in Central Ops started to tremble and shake. Sweat stains on his blue uniform made the fabric cling to his skin, and his hair practically glistened.
Colonel Brax Elis – a man with a thick gray goatee and silver hair that he wore slicked back – looked up to squint at the fool. “I asked you a question, Lieutenant,” he said, striding forward. “Why are the shields up?”
Central Ops was a large room with control stations arrayed in a semicircle in front of a window that looked out on the surface of Ganymede. Right then, the field of stars that should have been twinkling overhead was obscured of by a flickering dome of white electrostatic energy.
Brax stood with hands folded behind his back, pacing to the edge of a small dais that overlooked his officers. “Lieutenant!” he screamed. “I asked you a question! Lower the shields now!”
The young woman who sat at the neighbouring console stood and quickly pushed Lieutenant Corlan out of his seat. He dropped to the floor with a thump, still trembling in obvious terror.
Brax could only see the end of Risa Torala's dark brown ponytail – the rest of her hair was hidden beneath a cap – but she took over Corlan's console and began keying in commands with the fury of a nest of wasps.
The force-field vanished.
Once again, Brax could see stars through the window. He would have breathed a sigh of relief if not for the fact that shuttles that had chosen today of all days to fly out to his corner of the solar system had probably already detected this installation.
Pressing a fist to his mouth, Brax felt his face redden. He coughed several times in quick succession. “Lieutenant Corlan,” he said. “Perhaps you could explain this hideous lapse in judgment.”
The man stood.
He turned around to face the dais with hands pressed to his sides, head hanging in shame. Tall and slim, Rayse Corlan had smooth copper skin and dark brown hair. “I had to do it, sir,” he insisted. “The ship.”
Corlan looked up to blink at him, tears glistening on the man's cheeks. “That big Leyrian cruiser,” he insisted. “It was powering weapons. A moment more and it would have carved a hole right through us!”
Brax crossed his arms with a heavy sigh, shaking his head ever so slowly. “There was no ship in orbit, Lieutenant,” he said. “Check your instruments. Two Leyrian ships flew by five minutes ago on a course that took them to the outer system.”
He descended the steps that led up to the dais, fury boiling in his belly. This young fool had probably ruined years of work that had gone into keeping this place a secret. If the bloody Keepers decided to start poking around…
Corlan stood at attention with his head held high, blinking tears away. “There was a ship,” he whispered. “I saw it on my instruments; you can check for yourself! The damn thing had its main guns powered.”
Brax seized his shirt.
Clenching his teeth, he hissed and leaned in close with spittle flying from his lips. Good. Let the young fool suffer the indignity! “There was no ship,” he growled. “We will check the instruments right now.”
Torala swiveled around to face them, her face as smooth as a block of ice. “I have already done so, sir,” she began. “The logs confirm that there was no ship in orbit. I'm afraid Lieutenant Corlan is incorrect.”
“But-” Corlan stammered.
Brax stepped away.
He turned his back on the other man and strode over to the wall, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Think about it, Lieutenant,” he muttered. “If you use that brain the Gods gave you, you'll see what happened.”
“She did this to you.”
In the silence that followed, Brax could hear the various beeps and clicks that came from the control stations. No one wanted to speak. Better for them that they didn't. Red-hot fury dimmed to a cold rage that settled into his chest. That woman had done this to one of his officers.
Corlan was not entirely exempt from his anger. The idiot boy had allowed it. Swaying a person's thoughts was a slow process, which meant Corlan had spent considerable time in her presence.
Brax rounded on him.
The other man frowned, turning his head to look at the wall. “I don't see how she could have, sir,” he muttered. “It's not like I go down there. I have never once set foot inside the cell-block.”
“That's not true, sir.”
Risa Torala sat with hands folded in her lap, a disgusted frown on her face. “The logs indicate that Lieutenant Corlan has used his security code to access the cell-block several dozen times in the last few months.”
“For what purpose, Lieutenant?”
The man went beet red, bowing his head to avoid eye contact. He trembled with some hidden anxiety, barely able to remain upright. “Sir, I'd rather not say,” he began. “I can assure you that I have not-”
Brax felt his face crumple. “Never mind. I don't even care,” he muttered. “You are dismissed from duty and placed under house arrest for the remainder of this mission.”
Closing his eyes, Brax tilted his head back and took a deep breath. “Captain Torala, have this man removed from Central Ops,” he said. “I think it's time I went down to pay a visit to our guest.”
And when he was through with her, she would be far, far more compliant. Pain was a truly wonderful motivator even when the subject wasn't human.
A dart landed in the bullseye with a nice thump, wobbling in a blur for a moment before it stilled. Seconds later, two others joined it, one on the left and one on the right. “Oh, yes!” Anna cheered.
Four brick walls surrounded this little Irish pub, three of which were lined with booths. On her left, the bar counter was operated by a tall man with graying hair and a thick goatee.
The dartboard was in the corner, right next to the fire exit, leaving them with plenty of room to play. As hangouts went, this place was pretty nice. It had taken a few months, but she was finally getting used to life here on Earth.
Anna stood with her hands at her sides, smiling down at the floor. “Well then,” she said with a shrug. “I guess I win again. Which means my next drink is coming out of your pocket, Tanaben Loranai.”
Ben stood next to her with arms folded, scowling at the dartboard. “That's not even remotely fair,” he said, shaking his head. “You've got those enhanced Keeper senses that give you perfect aim.”
“Not perfect,” she said. “But good.”
Anna spun on her heel and made her way over to a booth, dressed in a pair of dark blue jeans and a light green t-shirt. As usual, she kept her short strawberry-blonde hair up in a ponytail.
She found Jack sitting with his hands folded on the table, grinning as he trembled with silent laughter. “Are you done humiliating him?” he asked. “Because you know he'll be itching for a rematch.”