Hellfire Excerpt

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“The Past is nothing more than a story we tell to each other. It is not meant for mere mortal hands to erase or sever…though it is not immutable. In fact, it can be changed, if only by God and madmeioas. To all others, it is indeed written in stone.

“Shakespeare once said, ‘What’s past is prologue,’ but you must understand that this is true only because the story never ends. Yes, you had a beginning in your birth, and yes, you will have an ending in your death, but the story itself never ends. Still, each segment is preserved in one shining moment, a granite tome held up to the light of the universe so that it can be revealed in all its horrors and all its glories…and thus preserved forever. But only in the Past.

“Eventually, even the slowest of readers will come to that last line, and must turn the story to a new page.”


September 23, 2495 Terran Standard
The Tower, Terran United Planets Space Force Headquarters
Earth, Sol System

The voices kept impinging on her senses, distracting her from her search. Ia wished they would shut up.

“What about Lieutenant Second Class Brad Arstoll? She served in Basic Training with him,” a middle-aged woman offered.

“Yes, he’s just finished his Marines Academy training. But that means he’s still a new officer. Can we really risk the 2nd Platoon being led by a raw cadet?” an elderly man countered.

Their voices blended together, male and female, middle-aged and older, like the babbling of a brook in the background of her awareness.

Physically, Ia stood in one of the research rooms used by the Department of Innovations, a chamber filled with banks of workstations ringing an oval table scattered with datapads and stacks of personnel printouts. The walls themselves were mostly datascreens broken by a trio of doors. Each screen displayed a larger-than-life face and the bare-bones stats of the Service record belonging to each profiled solider, flickering and shifting with each new suggestion.

Mentally, Ia stood on the grassy banks of Time itself, a rolling plain crisscrossed by the tangled streams of millions of lives. They formed a complex tapestry where major events, which would normally stir the waters out of their banks, were actually overshadowed by the tiniest of ripples. Changes that she had to track down.

“Arstoll may be a new officer, but he is Field Commissioned, so he does have some combat leadership experience,” a second, older woman pointed out. “Plus he’s somewhat familiar with the captain, even if they haven’t seen each other in years. Not to mention their compatibility charts look pretty good.”

“Familiarity doesn’t really come into it,” another male argued. “She needs a competent, combat-trained officer. I still say Lieutenant Dostoyervski is the best match—he should be her second in command.”

Something was rippling the waters of Time, disturbing her carefully laid plans like a deep, unseen current. If she didn’t track it down, it could erode the bank out from under her feet. That would be bad.

“His DoI file is sticky with bigger recommendations than the other candidates have,” the first male agreed. “And his psych profile does match in both compatibility and contra-compatibility measurements with Captain Ia, here. It looks like he’d get along with the other officers, too…well, maybe not Helstead, if she decides to be headstrong. But that’s a problem for their CO to sort out. Learning to manage strong personalities could be a good lesson.”

She had already dismissed Dostoyervski. He wouldn’t do at all, not when her own considerations took into account several variables not even the DoI could foresee. Their voices were annoying her with trivial details. “Shhh…”

They didn’t pay much attention to her, other than to speak a little more quietly. The men and women of the Department of Innovations were a different breed from the standard soldier. Most of them were Career, with the average number of years in the various branches of Service rarely being less than fifteen, and usually above twenty. In fact, many of them were technically retirees from active duty, able to bring those years of long-term military experience to the task of figuring out who out there had the skills to be promoted and fast-tracked, or stalled and even demoted. Most had training in psychology and xenopsychology, tactics and long-term strategy. All of them were expert data miners.

In a unified military composed of roughly two billion soldiers, they were the best at knowing who was who in the Terran United Planets Space Force, and where that person should probably go. It was their job to debate who should be one of the three Platoon Lieutenants Ia needed. Their job to select the best soldiers for a particular set of tasks. Their job to make the final decision, normally.

Normally, someone in Ia’s situation wouldn’t even be here, let alone have much say in the process. If the psychological filtration programs and the best judgments of the DoI members came up with matches too close to call, they might contact a superior officer to solicit their opinion, yes, but that officer never came to the physical headquarters of the DoI, or even to one of its many branch offices scattered through Terran space.

However, this situation was not normal. Ia was already inside the Tower, the nickname for the sprawling, administrative heart of the Space Force on Earth. This particular branch of the DoI was located no more than a kilometer or so from the office of her new commanding officer, Admiral John Genibes of the Branch Special Forces. She was already operating under special dispensation for other reasons, including a form of carte blanche—albeit one with a very strict double-indemnity clause—so Ia had arranged to visit this data-crammed room in person.

All she wanted to do was to select the perfect-for-her crew, comparing their potential actions to the needs of the right future, the one that would save their descendants from a massive calamity three centuries away. Unfortunately, the men and women around her were trying to help her select the perfect crew. She didn’t need perfect, as if the soldiers in question were diamonds, pre-polished and cut. She needed raw material, flexible and bold, obedient yet innovative, men and women capable of doing truly great things under her command, yet very carefully not needed elsewhere. Carbon fibers, not jewels.

Those who would be needed elsewhere had to remain elsewhere. What she needed were the nobodies, the throwaways whose lives wouldn’t make a palpable difference anywhere else. Straw soldiers who, under her guidance, could be spun into threads of pure gold for the tapestry she needed to weave.

It should have been easy for her to sort through the many possibilities lining the path she needed the future to follow. Easy to pluck out the names, the personalities, the faces of everyone she needed. But something was wrong.

This isn’t getting me anywhere. Working at her usual perception level, a woman standing on a low-rolling prairie crisscrossed by life-streams, she couldn’t see where the subtle problems all began. So either it’s macro-scale measurements, or micro-scale. Micro would be more accurate, but I don’t even know where to start, and there’s too much out there to just drop into the waters of some life-stream randomly… So, macro it is.

Visualization was usually a psychic’s best friend. Grounding and centering exercises helped stabilize the mind, and mental bubble-shields walled out unwanted influences. Most of the time, exercising these abilities was analogous to humming a tune for background noise, or carrying an object; once a psi learned how, it didn’t take much effort. It did, however, take time. Ia had spent the last eight years of her life training her mind to carry the weight of Time itself.

Instead of standing on a vast field, she shrunk the timeplains down to a brocaded tapestry. Life-rivers became threads as the rolling grass and rippling waters vanished. They ran in ways contrary to the normal warp and weft, more like a complex skein than a formal weave, but the analogy wasn’t meant to be perfect. Lifting it up with mental hands, she peered along the edge of Time, checking for anomalies in the fabric.

She couldn’t hear the voices of the others anymore, couldn’t see them at the periphery of her vision. Focused on the nearly two-dimensional image held in her mind, Ia spotted the first slub a few years down from the moment of Now in the pale golden tapestry stretched out before her. It was subtle indeed, visible only as a metaphor, but the beige thread was palpably thicker than the others.

It was also not alone. Now that she could see the first one, others here and there caught her attention. They were noticeable because they were just a little bit thicker than they should have been. Narrowing her attention to a close knot of those thickened life-threads, Ia queried her precognitive abilities.

Whose lives are these? What do they have in common?

Visualization was the key. Her vast abilities knew what was going on, but only on a subconscious level at best. Subconsciously, she sensed a hint of danger in the timeplains, just enough to prick at her instincts. Her conscious mind was still mortal, though; her intellect, smart as she was, couldn’t yet sort out the differences. A merging of the two, instinct and thought, might help. So, what parts of these threads are in common with each other, and what bits are distinct?

Color seeped into the threads, delineating each life and its impact on the others around it. Not just the ones she saw, but new ones, extra slubs of undue influence. Lifting herself above the tapestry, Ia could see the colors, plural. More than one influenced the timestream-threads…but the later ones seemed to come into play only after the first one, a purple hue not too far off from the petals of an iris flower, had wreaked most of the initial damage over a dozen key lives.

Zooming in close, mentally floating above the weave, she examined the wisps of thread-fibers where the purple taint in the slub came close to an aquamarine one. The tiniest threads connected the two. So tiny, they looked…silver.


Cursing, Ia backed up—and flinched instinctively out of the timestreams, left hand snapping up, mind snapping out. Opening her eyes, she stared at the frightened sergeant dangling centimeters from her grip and centimeters off the floor, caught in her telekinetic grip. If she had lingered in there one moment more, the middle-aged woman might have actually touched her.

That would have been bad.

“Y…You…” the greying brunette panted, eyes wide. “You…”

“I said,” Ia stated, as gently as she could, “that I did not want to be touched.” Carefully, she lowered the older woman back to her feet. “I apologize for my instinctive reaction just now—and I’m grateful I didn’t hurt you with my combat reflexes—but it was either grab you with my mind, or let you injure your mind precognitively. Now, did you want something?”

Licking her lips, the woman clutched her portable workstation in her dark brown arms and nodded. “Uh, yes, sir. We’ve completed your roster for you, Captain. All it needs is your…your… I can’t believe I’m saying this,” the reservist master sergeant muttered, her shock fading, replaced by a touch of startlement-induced anger. “This whole situation is highly irregular! We decide who gets promoted and where they go, particularly when it’s a transfer into the Special Forces.”

“I know it’s irregular, Narine,” Ia told her, making the woman blink. Only her last name, Plimstaad, was visible on the name patch fixed to the pocket of her brown Dress jacket. “I know that very little of this is according to standard procedure. But it’s necessary. As for that list of names, do not send it yet. It’s still incomplete.”

“The list is complete, sir,” she argued. “All you needed was a competent lieutenant for your 2nd Platoon. You have a first officer and three Platoon lieutenants. You have a Company and three Platoon sergeants, you have a full roster of enlisted and have claimed one of the best full-care doctors in the Space Force. You may be missing all of your squad sergeants, but you have every single person you requested. Dostoyervski has been selected for you, since you were taking so long in making up your mind. Standing there like a statue, no less,” the DoI sergeant muttered. “Sir.”

“Dostoyervski won’t work for me, Sergeant,” Ia dismissed. “I’ll need to find someone else.”

She shrugged and tapped something on her workpad. “Fine. Arstoll it is, then. Sign it with your thumbprint, Captain, and have a nice day.”

Ia shook her head. “I won’t sign that, Sergeant. I’ve found an anomaly—a huge anomaly—and I have to track down the right way to fix it, first.”

What anomaly, Captain?”

The impatient question came from the oldest man in the room, and the only soldier whose rank matched her own. The main differences between them were that he wore brown stripes on his black uniform, and that his brass eagle did not carry the rockets in its claws that hers did, making her a ship’s captain and him a lieutenant colonel. As dark-skinned as the sergeant, but with three times as many wrinkles and none of the hair, Lt. Colonel Luu-Smith flicked his hand irritably.

“You’ve already taken up hours of our time this morning with a task normally left to the experts, Captain Ia. What anomaly could possibly throw everything we’ve done out the window at this point in time?” he demanded. “I thought you said you were some sort of massive precog. Shouldn’t you have already foreseen it?”

“With respect, Colonel,” Ia returned, “I am not the only being who can see into the future, and that means I’m not the only one who can act to change the things they foresee.” At his skeptical look, she rolled her eyes. After several years of playing her cards close to her chest, ingrained habit had kept her from revealing what she apparently needed to reveal. “…The Feyori are now involved? They cannot see as far as me, but they can see, and they will interfere, if they think it will somehow promote their own positions in their gods-be-stupid Game.

“Unfortunately, some of them are now considering me a threat. It’s incredibly short-sighted of them, because I’m not their enemy, but there it is. Now if you’ll just be a little more patient, please, I was in the middle of tracking down where the anomalies started when I was interrupted.” She glanced briefly at Sergeant Plimstaad. “And I did mean it when I said do not touch me. You do not want to see what is inside my head; I’m dealing with scales that most people aren’t prepared to deal with, at speeds which would give you a raging migraine.

“I do thank you for your efforts on my behalf,” Ia added. “I’ll try to be quick about this, but there are a lot of lives at stake. More than you know.”

Closing her eyes, Ia breathed deep and let it out, then did it again, calming and centering her mind. A flip of her thoughts landed her in the grass next to the waters of her own life. From there, it didn’t take much effort to condense Time back into a thin, interwoven sheet, though she did have to spend a few moments re-finding the slub-nodes of Feyori influence in the future. Once she had her mental metaphor adjusted so that her conscious mind could comprehend it, she stained the lead one purple again, and followed it up-thread into the past, trying to find the moment where the anonymous Meddler in question had decided to begin interfering.

The recent past, she discovered with an unpleasant jolt. Ah, slag… The initial slip in the streams took place just thirteen days ago. That was the day I left the Solarican Warstation Nnying Yanh. More precisely, this is the Feyori whose presence I uncovered and threw off the Warstation. The same day I was tested and my father’s legacy had to be revealed, explaining the strengths of my psychic powers.

Which was also the day I stupidly didn’t check to see what effects his abrupt exposure would have on the timelines, she castigated herself, wincing.

She didn’t have to touch that thread to know the Feyori in question would be upset enough to try to counterfaction her. The energy-based beings converted themselves into matter-based beings so that they could meddle with her fellow sentients’ lives. They did not like it when the pawns in their great Game started playing by different rules, and they really didn’t like it when a pawn ousted a player.

Sometimes their interference was for a Right of Breeding, which was how Ia herself had come into existence. Such things infused most of the known sentient races with psychic abilities. Sometimes their interference was less direct; the Meddlers could manipulate the thoughts of their targets via telepathy, create complex hallucinations via a combination of holokinesis and clairvoyancy, even physically change a person through massive biokinesis. Most of the reasons why they did such things gave Ia a headache trying to figure them out.

As much as she wanted to avoid crossing factions with the Feyori, her own stupid lack of foresight almost two weeks ago had dumped this problem into her lap. Which means almost half my roster is now rendered void and useless. This purple-Meddler looks like he will have picked up…twelve, thirteen…fifteen or so faction-members to help counterfaction my efforts by the time I’ll need all the Feyori to swear faction to me. Slag…

She quickly checked the chronology of the timelines. It seems he’s quite clever, too. His first real interference-node will happen six Terran years and one Terran day after I bartered with that ‘Doctor Silverstone’ Feyori for a Right of Simmerings. And it won’t be anywhere near where I am, so it’ll be difficult for me to counter it face to face. Most of these slubs are truly subtle interferences, probably just telepathic suggestions…but they are enough to throw off the weft and warp of the pathways I need. Which means it’s time to rewrite the whole roster…and…ah, hell. I’ll need…

Ugh. I’ll probably need to accept Belini’s offer to faction me in exchange for far-ranging prophecies. The Meddlers can see a little way into Time, and that means I have to plan dozens of steps in advance, limiting as many of their counterfaction options as I can. If I’m not careful, it’ll really shift the balance of power down through the centuries, ruining plans I’ve already laid.

At least I’ve already considered her offer as a Plan B to extend my Right of Simmerings, so I don’t have to break completely new ground in the timestreams…

I hope I don’t have to use it, though I won’t hold my breath. I’d rather get three Feyori to admit I am the foreseen Prophet, and have the right to rearrange theirGame. She double-checked the timestream paths and winced mentally. I won’t have many chances to do that, though. Miklinn technically isn’t interfering or counterfactioning by raising the point that I “really should manifest before being accepted” as one of them…and damn him for the legality of it. And damn myself for my carelessness. Slag.

Okay, Time, she ordered silently, rippling the sheet-like weave, doubling over the threads and turning them translucent. She knew how to handle her Right of Simmerings, which would buy her more time to sway the Feyori to her side. For the contingencies where some of the Feyori were stubborn about wanting to counterfaction her, she needed a different crew. Show me which changes in personnel I will need, starting with Chaplain Benjamin, Doctor Mishka, and my choice of first officer, Lieutenant Brateanu…

The pathways she needed to check were fairly easy, like two transparencies laid one over the other. The first layer was the Feyori-altered path at the bottom, with her current roster selections. The second layer belonged to the path she had already marked out for the future, the one which led to the one shot she had at saving the galaxy from annihilation three hundred years away.

Deviations were quicker to see this way, but it only worked because she already had both source-paths to trace and compare. Until she had found the problem—Feyori interference—she couldn’t have made these comparisons. Good, good… Bennie’s still my chaplain; I like her. And the good doctor will still be grumpy about her reassignment to my team, but she’ll still work out fine. As for…ah, slag, Ia cursed, wincing. Brateanu is right out.

She needed an engineer, someone so good, so creative, they could scavenge or craft parts on the fly, since there would be too many times when her ship and crew would not have the time to stop and make repairs at an actual dry-dock facility.

Her 1st Platoon lieutenant had to be Rico, a man with a brilliant analytical mind and the ability to read and think in Sallhash, even if pronouncing it was physiologically difficult for Humans. He couldn’t be replaced. She also needed Helstead as her 3rd Platoon leader. The woman was not only the most deadly soldier on Ia’s crew roster, she could teach those skills to the people under her. Helstead came with more tricks up her sleeve than a hundred stage magicians, and Ia would need most of them in the near future.

That left either the lieutenant for the 2nd Platoon, or her first officer. One of the two had to be good at handling combat chaos, the other had to be an outstanding engineer. Rico and Helstead were both good enough to handle combat, though one was more of a military analyst and the other a military assassin by training.

By preference, she would rather make the combat officer a platoon lieutenant, so that all three groups of soldiers would be led by someone competent in directing battle. The problem was, of the combat-competent leaders among the hundreds of millions of junior officers out there, most would be needed exactly where they were.

Head hurting, Ia eased out of the timeplains. She lifted her hand to her forehead, trying to massage away the tension caused by her dilemma; physically, she had only spent a couple minutes standing there, but psychically, she had spent several. Such accelerated concentration came at a cost.

One of the middle-aged DoI sergeants spotted the movement and sighed. “Well, Captain?” the man asked her. “Have you spotted a solution to your little anomaly?”

“All I can do is plan for a greater level of flexibility, Sergeant,” Ia muttered back. “They’re Feyori. They’re shakking unpredictable as well as powerful, they cannot be killed or swept aside, and the only kind who could hope to back one down when a Feyori feels it’s been offended and counterfactioned is anoth…”

She trailed off mid-word. Blinking, Ia stared sightlessly across the room. A moment from the past played through her mind—not a moment dipped from the timestreams, but one from her own memories. Snippets of that conversation came back to her, key phrases that now reassembled themselves in her mind.

You’re going to Antarctica…or will be…to steal schematics for something…the Vault of Time…

The Vault of Time. Wincing at the irony, she covered her face with one hand. Oh, god, Meyun…you were more accurate than you could’ve known. The only thing that can stand up to a Feyori is another Feyori…so it looks like I will have to raid the Immortal’s Vault on Earth. Slagging hell. That’s going to be tricky.

Drawing in a deep breath, she steeled herself for her new task. This time, she dove back in without hesitation; this time, she had an idea of who and what to look for. Working quickly, she plucked out the life-threads of a half-dozen potential-possible engineering candidates. A full dozen, flicking through their transparent life-streams, overlaid on the path she needed to take. A score.

Too many of them had problems. Little ones, big ones, convoluted ones, butterfly ones where the tiniest flap of wings created massive hurricanes down the road… Head aching, heart hurting, Ia finally plucked out the thread belonging to her one failed relationship and laid it over the future.

Not everything was visible; Meyun Harper was still grey-misty in several spots, key moments where her own emotions toward him would make it difficult to decide what to do. But unlike the dangerously wandering life-paths of the others, most of which started as small variants before veering wildly away from the most useful course, his consistently came back to the paths she would need.

Absolutely wonderful. Irony of ironies. Slagging, shakking hell. God certainly has a sense of humor, doesn’t she? Ia’s Impending Doom, thy name is both Meyun and Miklinn…and such a lovely-sounding pair of names for an impending pair of pains in my path.

Dropping back into her body, Ia struggled not to roll her eyes. Meeting the somewhat impatient stares of the others, she shook her head.

“Change of plans, meioas. If I’m going up against the Feyori, I’m going to need several more psychics in each Platoon. I’ll get you their names in a moment, but first things first. My second-in-command,” she had to take a breath before continuing, “is going to have to be Lieutenant First Class Meyun Harper.”

Lt. Colonel Luu-Smith eyed her skeptically as one of the sergeants next to him put Harper’s personnel file up on a couple of the screens. “The same one you went through the Academy with? If I recall your and his files correctly, there was a note about you having a fling with the man, post-graduation.”

“It was just a few days long, hardly worth mentioning,” Ia stated dryly. “It also happened between assignments, and we parted company as friends, nothing more. Since then, we’ve barely spoken to each other, so Fatality Forty-Nine: Fraternization does not in any way apply. I am picking him because I will need his skills in adaptive engineering.

“There are ways to deal with the Feyori, certain energy frequencies they find unpleasant, but creating them will take a logistics officer who is clever and resourceful. I know he doesn’t have nearly as much combat command experience as Brateanu, but the fact that Harper roomed with and studied beside me for a year while we were in the Academy will lend itself to ensuring there is a quick rapport of trust and understanding in the top of our cadre,” she stated.

One of the middle-aged women seated around the table snorted under her breath, muttering something uncomplimentary about Harper having known his roommate all too well. Ia narrowed her eyes, but did nothing more. It was one of the men next to the woman who smacked his hand lightly up the backside of the woman’s head, wordlessly chastising his fellow soldier.

Ia gave him a brief, wordless dip of her head before addressing the rest. “…More to the point, gentlemeioas, Harper has known of my precognitive abilities for just over two years now, yet has not told a soul. His sense of discretion and secrecy will be invaluable for the position of first officer on board my particular ship. I would rather have had Brateanu, but there are key decisions my first officer will have to make while I am busy dealing with these Feyori interlopers, and thanks to their future interference, I can see now that she would make the wrong ones when dealing with them.”

“You’re calling them the interlopers,” one of the younger males snorted. “But if you really are some sort of massive precog, aren’t you just as bad a Meddler as them?”

A chiming from one of the workstations interrupted her reply. The soft alarm cut off as the oldest of the DoI sergeants sat forward, examining her hand-held screen. A few taps of the keys projected a familiar face onto the monitors lining the walls. His head had been shaved bald at some point, but she knew his scarred, broken nose, ring-edged ears and gamine grin. Seeing First Sergeant Glen Spyder’s personnel file was a much more pleasant surprise for Ia than Harper had been.

Sergeant Plimstaad glanced over the images of Spyder projected on the wall screens, then looked back at Ia. The search parameters used by the DoI apparently included flagging and popping up any file whose subject had interacted with Ia at one time or another. “Well, Captain. It seems one of your old friends has just been flagged with a Field Commission. Did you know this was coming, sir?”

Ia shrugged. “I knew it was a possibility, but it was only a thirty-two percent chance at most, Sergeant, given his current combat situation. Given those odds, I honestly thought I’d have to pick someone else. As it is, this is relatively convenient. He’ll have his commanding officers rescued from their troubles in…twenty-nine hours, thirty minutes, give or take a few minutes, which means his Company will be out of its jam and back to its assigned Battle Platform in about fifty hours from now.”

The lieutenant colonel snorted again. “And what would you like the DoI to do about him, as if we couldn’t guess?”

She didn’t have to close her eyes, just unfocus them enough to pluck out the thread of Spyder’s future probabilities and compare them to the path she needed. She had already considered this possibility earlier, though she had set it aside with that less-than-likely one third of a probability. “The DoI needs to approve him for full Field Honors once he’s out of the frying pan, then transfer and drop him into my 2nd Platoon as a Lieutenant Second Class, instead of selecting Lieutenant Arstoll. I know Glen Spyder can follow my battle plans and still think on his feet in the midst of chaos, so he’ll do just fine.”

“He’ll need to go to an Academy, first,” Luu-Smith pointed out. “His intelligence charts suggest he’d be quick enough for a fast-track class, but you’ll still need a 2nd Platoon leader for the first year.”

“I’d rather not delay his presence, sir. Just drop him into my Company as is. He can complete his officer’s training via on-the-job work and correspondence school where needed,” Ia countered. At their skeptical looks, she shook her head. “I don’t need him to advance up the ranks, meioas. I need him to help lead my troops into battle. He can do that right now, as is, so I’ll take him exactly as he is today. Or will be, in a few hours. The rest can be taught either on the job or via correspondence courses.

“Now, let me get you the rest of the roster changes,” she said, closing her eyes once more. “I’ll need a couple more Troubleshooters, maybe a few Sharpshooters, as well as the extra psis—no one vital to the rest of the Space Force’s needs will be swapped in, I promise. My Prophetic Stamp on that.”

“Your so-called prophetic stamp’s only worth the price of a ground-bound physical letter at this point, Captain,” Lt. Colonel Luu-Smith grunted. “A stamp I wouldn’t even bother to scan into the mailing system, right now.”

“That’s fine. You don’t have to believe me, right now. You will learn the strength of my word in due time, meioas,” she murmured. Ia quickly double-checked the future paths of Lieutenants Rico and Helstead with Spyder dropped in their midst, then turned her attention to the non-commissioned officers and the enlisted in her crew. “Now, let’s see how many of the Damned I can salvage in this Meddler-made mess…”


“I think, by the end of this interview, I’m going to be very hoarse—thank you for your patience with me, by the way. I know this is a lot of material to cover, and I’m insisting on doing it more or less chronologically, but really there’s no better way to organize all the events that have happened so far. And yes, I know that statement is ironic, coming from me.

“Dabbling in Time as I do, I have had to juggle not just the needs of the present, but double- and triple-check them against the needs of the future. It’s like juggling many, many balls all at once. I think the known galactic record for juggling in Standard Gravity is…what…twenty-six balls by a Gatsugi? Of course, they get to cheat a little, having four arms. But that’s just juggling toys. If you drop one, it bounces across the floor. You do have to chase after it, but usually it doesn’t break, and usually it can be tossed back up into the air again. I’m juggling countless septillion lives, and sometimes a detail or two can slip past my fingers.

“Unfortunately for me, ‘dropping the ball’ has an entirely different meaning and a very unpleasant outcome if I drop it badly. Every day, I tried my damnedest to get it right. But, to quote Dickens, ‘I am mortal, and liable to fall.’ Or to use another quote, ‘Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,’ …which is one of the reasons why I nicknamed my Company what I did.”


October 24, 2495 T.S.
TUPSF Secured Shipyards
Triton Orbit, Neptune, Sol System

Ia stopped in front of the door to the briefing boardroom. She paused a moment to draw two deep breaths, then squared her shoulders. I can do this…I can do it… I have done it, and done it well.

The only problem is, the moment I stride across that stage, I’m spotlight center for everything that follows. Everything I say and do will be scrutinized by the Command Staff, the Department of Innovations, and most importantly, by my entire crew.

It was a disturbingly large responsibility. Up until now, Ia’s task had been to take shelter behind the rules and regulations, and break them only when no one was looking. Now, everyone would be looking and she had to start breaking a lot of those rules and regs. Not to mention, from here on out, I won’t have a true moment of peace. Not if I want to do everything I need to get done.

Mindful of the weight of the medals pinned to her newly issued set of Dress Blacks, of the impression she would make in wearing all of them, Ia touched the main button on the controls. The panel slid open with a faint hiss of hydraulics. Noise escaped through the opening, the sounds of one hundred sixty men and women chatting quietly among themselves as they waited in idle boredom.

She knew the layout of the briefing room, shaped like a lecture hall with projection screens on all the walls, and hosting tiers of padded chairs which could double as acceleration couches. Those chairs faced a curved table reserved for the six officers and four sergeants seated on either side of the empty chair waiting at the center.

The captain’s seat.

Her seat.

The door Ia used wasn’t one of the double-wide ones at the back of the hall, above the riser seats. Hers opened onto a short corridor leading to the platform holding that table. It gave her a good view of the ten Humans seated behind that table, though not of the rest of the room; she could hear the others occupying the hall, but that was it. The dim lighting of that little entry hall also hid her arrival from all but one of the sentients in the room. Specifically, the petite redhead who sat at the near end of the table, with her back to Ia’s door.

The other woman’s eyes may have been occupied with the task of using a tiny stiletto to trim her nails, but her other senses were just as sharp and ready to be used. Between one breath and the next, the knife was shoved back into one of the sheaths doubling as hairpins that held her coronet of braid in place. Instead, the woman scrambled to her feet, standing on the seat of her chair so that everyone could see as well as hear her. All without even a single glance behind her.

Officer on deck!” she snapped, her voice as much a command as a warning. With that said, she dropped to the platform floor and stood At Attention. Other bodies rose around the table at her call, some more quickly than others, and the rustling of dozens more could be heard from around the corner.

Shoulders squared, chin level, Ia strode onto the platform hosting the table and the men and women now on their feet. As she came into view, first the officers and sergeants at the table lifted their hands to their brows, then the soldiers up into the tiers.

Clad as she was in both Dress Blacks and her Dress cap, saluting was mandatory. Ia did not return any of them, however. Instead, she moved to the open chair at the center of the table, nudged the seat back on its track so that she could stand in front of it, and faced the bulk of her crew. Unbuttoning her left cuff, she flipped open the screen of her command bracer and brought the boardroom monitors to life.

Official orders scrolled onto the main viewscreens positioned on the wall behind her, the two side walls, and suspended over the heads of the crew, so that wherever one looked, the topic being discussed could be seen. The right and left secondary screens remained blank for now, as did the long tertiary screen above them. Another touch activated the headset discreetly hooked over her ear. The thin wire alongside her cheek picked up her voice and projected it around the room just loud enough to be heard.

“Acting under the direct orders of Admiral John Genibes of the Terran United Planets Space Force, Branch Special Forces, I, Ship’s Captain Ia, hereby take command of the 1st Company, 1st Legion, 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade, 1st Division…9th Cordon,” she added, pausing slightly for emphasis, “and with it, take command of the Harasser-Class battleship, TUPSF Hellfire, docked at the TUPSF Secured Shipyards of Triton, Neptune, Sol System.”

She pronounced the acronym tup-siff, keeping her words as crisp and distinct as she could manage, since these were official transfer orders, recorded for legality as well as posterity.

“This action is now logged and filed as an official transfer of command, as of time-stamp 22:45, October 24th, 2495 Terran Standard time…mark,” Ia finished, watching the chrono built into her arm unit.

The orders on the two main screens flashed, sealed with the indicated timestamp. Only then did she lift her hand to her own temple, returning the crisp salute of the soldiers around her. As soon as she lowered her arm again, they lowered theirs. They continued to stand At Attention, however, awaiting orders.

Satisfied she had their attention, Ia tapped in another code on her bracer. The orders detailing her acceptance of command over ship and crew were replaced with the TUPSF logo. The soothing, sapphire blue background and familiar, oval map-projection of the major continents of the Human Motherworld filled the screen; instead of the normal gold hues used by the other Branches, however, the map had been drawn with the pale silver of the Special Forces.

Onto the two secondary screens flanking those mains, Ia posted the unclassified portions of her personnel file, including enlarged, rotating images of her face, with its asian features, light tan, amber eyes, and chin-length, snow-white locks. Minus her Dress cap, of course.

Matching reality to that image, Ia removed her cap and set it on the table. Then tucked her headset, which the cap had dislodged, back into place over her right ear. The headset was necessary to project her voice to the headsets of the one hundred sixty men and women around her, particularly the privates standing at the back of the hall. She kept her Dress jacket on, keeping some of the formality of the moment, but unbuttoned it for comfort.

Somewhat for comfort, that was; with all of her medals pinned across the black gabardine, it was still quite heavy. It was a tangible reminder of the weight of her position.

“At Ease, meioas, and sit down. We have a lot to get through, so please pay attention. Most of this you will learn in greater detail by studying your Company Bibles,” Ia stated, meaning the manual of procedures most combat officers gave to their soldiers.

Much of it was standardized to the Space Force’s requirements, but they also often included little quirks and preferences tailored to each Company’s patrol or combat needs. Hers were tailored all the way down to the individual. They would see that for themselves, shortly.

“For the moment, there are a few things I’d like to go over with you at the very start—please do be seated,” she added as some hesitated. “I don’t do the nonsense that says the lower ranks have to remain standing if their CO hasn’t sat down first. I’m staying on my feet as a reminder to me to be as brief as I can, given how much I need to say.”

Those few older soldiers who were still on their feet, including her fellow officers, settled into their chairs. Ia nodded.

“Thank you. Most of you received your transfer orders with very little explanation as to why you were being transferred,” she said, acknowledging in her opening words the confusion she could see lurking in the expressions of the men and women studying her. “You may think you have been selected at random. You may be wondering why you are here, and not someone supposedly better qualified. I say to you that you are the right men and women for the jobs that lie ahead of us. I have painstakingly hand-selected each and every one one of you, based upon the foreknowledge that each and every one of you can and will get your tasks done, and get them done right.

“What those tasks are will have wait to for another day. Our ship is still in dry…” she paused as a rumbling noise transferred through the deckplates for a moment, then finished her sentence, “…in dry-dock, undergoing the last of the interior fittings. We ourselves will be splitting our time between this ship, the dock station, and even some land-based maneuvers over the next two months as we give this crew a shakedown to get you used to your upcoming multiple responsibilities. Then we will be taking this ship out for its shakedown run as well.

“But first, an introduction of your command staff, starting with myself. My name is Ia, pronounced EE-yah, not Eye-yah or Lah, and it is my first, last, and only name. You may therefore call me Captain, Captain Ia, or even just Ia in those moments when we are being informal. For those few of you already familiar with my military nickname, my first name is not ‘Mary’ and I will not respond to it on its own. You may, however, call me by my full nickname, Bloody Mary,” she allowed, meeting the gaze of a man here, a woman there, “but you will say it with respect. I have formed a very bad habit throughout my military career of flooding the deckplates in my enemies’ blood, and I have no intention of breaking that habit in the years to come.”

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