I. An Unlikely Recruit

Two armored alien soldiers stood in a dim hangar and surveyed three Trident warships. Each of the Tridents had three long wands extending from its tail section in a T-shaped configuration.

The soldiers looked like knights with only their eyes showing through their helmets. One had two red stripes on his arm indicating the rank of major. The other had a gray shield with strange symbols affixed to his arm. He was an enlisted soldier named Tsig.

Tsig warned, “I don’t think we should trust her, Major.”

Major Duowd replied, “Nonsense. Once Cherenka has obtained the remaining components for the Tridents’ secret weapon, then no one will be able to stop us!”

**********

The Luna C glided majestically through the long steel tunnel leading into the transport bay to its dock. Its hull looked new after repairs and resurfacing of its outer sheath.

Will and Jack approached the dock, anxiously eying the dart-shaped craft as it approached. Will wore a black, hooded cloak over a cream-colored shirt and black pants. His sword and scabbard was strapped to his waist, half-hidden by the cloak. He walked with the aid of a wooden cane.

Jack wore tight, brown, leather pants, a loose-fitting white shirt and black boots. A bandage covered his left temple. Six stitches marred his chin. His light brown hair was tied back in a small ponytail.

“They’ve been gone quite a while, almost two months I think,” Will remarked.

“Yeah, I wondered if Maya would ever come back. This was her chance to leave me if she wanted to.”

“I’m sure there’s an interesting reason for her delay.”

“I’ll bet there is,” Jack agreed.

They watched anxiously as the ship’s hatch hissed and squealed. When the noise subsided, the hatch opened slowly. Maya ducked through the ship’s door followed by a tall, dark-skinned female officer.

The sight of the officer stunned Jack and Will.

“It’s not too late to run,” Jack suggested.

“I can’t run, you fool,” Will chided. “That’s why I have a cane.”

“Oh, this is gonna’ suck.”

Maya called to them excitedly, “Hey, guys, look who I brought!”

Will and Jack were speechless as they gawked at Imperial General Furey, the officer behind Maya. Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun. Her uniform fit snugly against her figure. Her stare was imposing and unemotional.

During Jack’s short stint in the Fleet, the two had several run-ins. Furey eagerly signed Jack’s separation papers to personally ensure she was rid of him. Now she stopped in front of him with cold eyes.

“Well, Jack Fleming, “it’s been a long time,” she said, in a cynical tone.

“Did you miss me, dear?” Jack asked with obvious sarcasm.

“Should I have?” Furey turned her attention to Will.

“Welcome, General. Lieutenant Saris, at your service.”

Maya chuckled at Will’s formality.

Furey smiled at Will and ribbed, “You don’t look dressed for service, and your hair does seem a bit long to be regulation.”

Will’s eyes dropped to the ground in embarrassment. He hid the cane behind his back and said humbly, “I … I didn’t know you were coming.”

Imperial General Furey inspected Will from head to toe. She noticed the sword and scabbard under his cloak. She clutched the hilt of the sword and slid it halfway out. The cross and roses on the hilt had caught her eye. She studied the hilt more closely and noticed the skull. “Interesting. So you take this pirate business seriously?”

“Excuse me, ma’am?” Will replied nervously.

“Relax, Will. Maya told me everything.”

“Why don’t we all go up to the hall and have a little talk?” Maya suggested.

Will gestured for the ladies to lead the way up the granite stairs.

Imperial General Furey looked back at Will and nodded in appreciation of the courtesy. Her eyes widened in surprise when she noticed the huge ship behind the Luna C. “What in the world is that?” she asked, her voice anxious.

“It’s the Leviathan – the only remaining destroyer built by the Attradeans,” Will answered proudly.

“My, you are good. I heard they were all destroyed on Ramses-3.”

“Officially, they were.”

“I’d love to see her sometime.”

“That can be arranged,” Will answered with a smile.

When they reached the top of the stairs, Will took the lead and hobbled along the beautiful marble corridor to the main hall. He opened the oak doors and stood aside for the women to enter.

Maya and Imperial General Furey took seats at the first glass table inside the ornate room.

Will and Jack hesitated in the doorway and glanced at each other suspiciously. “What do we do now?” Jack whispered.

“I have no idea. Of all people, why would Maya bring her back here?”

“Furey said she’d always be my worst nightmare. She wasn’t kidding,” Jack complained.

Reluctantly, they entered the hall and sat down with the women.

Maya announced proudly, “Steele is joining our group.”

“Steele? Who’s Steele?” Jack asked, confused.

Imperial General Furey answered, “I am.”

“What kind of name is Steele?”

“It’s the name I was given at birth. Is there something wrong with that?”

Maya kicked Jack’s shin under the table.

Jack’s face turned red with embarrassment. “Sorry, but you don’t look like a Steele.”

Furey ignored him and turned her attention toWill. “Maya warned me that the Weevil have infiltrated Galactic Security Services and possibly the Fleet itself. I’ve noticed strange behavior in some of my cabinet members and I’ve been able to trip up a few of them with decoy questions.”

“Isn’t there any way for you to weed them out?”

“I’ll be honest with you; they have too much of a head start. Corruption is rampant in the Fleet and, apparently, so are the Weevil.”

Jack taunted, “How could this happen under your command? Shame on you.”

Steele remained oblivious to Jack’s gests and continued, “There have been numerous security leaks in the Fleet’s upper echelon. We secretly moved our headquarters to Earth in the Solar System.

Somehow, the Boromeans were there, waiting to pounce on us. If you hadn’t destroyed their armada, things would have been disastrous. I owe you my sincere thanks.”

Will nodded politely. “You’re welcome, ma’am.”

“How did you pull off such a stunt with a single ship?”

“Tactical flying, strategic targeting, and the element of surprise.”

“I suspected someone from the Fleet had to be behind the feat. There’s no way anyone else would be brazen enough to attack the Boromeans, particularly through the Fleet’s own portals. I just couldn’t understand how it could be done with an Attradean ship. That made no sense at all.”

“That was the whole point. No one would have reason expect it,” Will said.

“When Maya mentioned that a contingent of renegade pirates was helping her, I knew something was up.”

Will explained, “We didn’t want to break code and use a Fleet ship for an unauthorized mission so I hijacked the Attradean battle cruiser. When we made our attack on the Boromeans, they thought it was Tenemon. He’s had his hands full ever since.”

“Would you mind having me as a member of your crew?” Steele asked politely.

Will was stunned. “Not at all, General.”

Jack coughed several times to indicate his displeasure.

“Please, call me Steele. I’m one of you, now.”

“Then Steele it is,” Will said.

“When is your next mission?”

“Tomorrow morning. Our target is a Ceratoan supply base in the fifth quadrant.”

“I’d like to come if you don’t mind.”

“It could be dangerous,” Will warned.

“I assure you I can hold my own.”

Jack taunted, “I’ll bet you can.”

Maya slapped the back of Jack’s head and chided, “Behave already, will you?”

Steele was amused. “That’s okay, Jack. I can give it back, too, but without regard for protocol now. Just be careful what you start, you may not like how it ends.”

Jack laughed cynically.

Maya answered meekly, “Don’t mind Jack. He’s been alone for too long.”

“I suspected as much.”

Jack frowned at them.

“Maya can show you to your quarters if you’d like to settle in,” Will suggested.

“Thank you, Will. I would like to change into something less official.”

Maya winked at Jack and Will as she and Steele left the table.

Will waited until they were out of sight and remarked unhappily, “What a surprise this is.” Jack grumbled, “I’d love to know what Maya was thinking.”

Shanna and Celine entered the hall. Shanna wore her long blond hair in five braided pigtails. Her mid-length dress was light blue.

Celine wore black slacks and a V-neck lavender sweater. Her hair was tied back in a stiff ponytail standing nearly upright.

Shanna exclaimed cheerfully, “There’s my handsome prince!”

“I’m gonna’ gag,” Jack said subtlely.

“Cool it. She’ll hear you,” Will whispered.

The girls sat at the table next to Will and Jack. Shanna kissed Will’s cheek and said, “Hi, baby.”

Will placed an arm around her and said somberly, “Hi, Shanna.”

“I see you boys have a new friend,” Celine kidded.

The men frowned at her without a response.

“What’s she doing here anyway?” Shanna asked curiously.

“It seems she needs a job and wants to work with us,” Jack answered, his tone mocking.

“She’s just your type, Jack, Celine teased. As a matter of fact, I believe you and Steele have a little history between you.”

“Oh, bite me, Celine.”

She snarled playfully at him and bared her teeth.

“I’m glad you find this amusing, Celine,” Will remarked sourly.

“This is really awkward for us,” Jack said.

“Why, because she threw your ass out of the Fleet?”

“Yeah, and the fact that what we are doing is illegal. Maybe it’s a setup.”

In contrast to Jack’s irritation, Will was calm. “This is a bigger problem than we thought since the Fleet is the only line of defense for the human worlds against the aliens. If it crumbles, the worlds will fall, one by one.”

“I hope this responsibility doesn’t fall on us,” Celine complained.

“Then whose responsibility is it?” Will asked.

“It should be the Fleet’s.”

“You’ve got a point but what can we do about it?” Jack asked.

“I think we’ll need to step up our attacks on the supply centers,” Will suggested. “That’s one way I know to slow down the aliens.”

“Bastille is close to completing the new cloaking device for the Leviathan,” Celine said. “Once he’s finished, we could take her out for a test run against the alien forces.”

Will suddenly leaned against the table awkwardly. His face grew ashen.

Shanna placed an arm around him for support. “I think you need to rest, my love.”

Will agreed and said feebly, “You’ll have to excuse me. We’ll talk later.”

Jack was worried. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah. Just a little tired.”

“Take care of him Shanna. He doesn’t look well,” Celine advised.

“I’m trying. It’s not easy with Will.” She escorted him out of the hall.

“How long has he been like this?” Celine asked Jack.

“Since Tenemon wounded him. Arasthmus thinks it’s a residual effect from the Weevil poison, though.”

“Can’t he do anything for him?”

“No. Arasthmus gave him a full physical and couldn’t find anything wrong. It’s not unusual for him to have spells like these two or three times a day.”

“Something is definitely wrong with him.”

“Maybe you should take it up with Arasthmus. He’s the doctor.”

“Maybe I will,” she declared.

**********

Shanna helped Will into his cabin onboard the Phantom and sat him on the bed. She took his cane from him and set it in a corner.

Will reached for her hand and squeezed it. He said weakly, “Thanks, Shanna. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Are you gonna’ be okay?”

“I’ll be fine. I just need to rest for a bit.”

Shanna couldn’t sense his feelings or read his thoughts anymore. Since she had performed the Rite of the Dead on Will, they enjoyed a special telepathic bond, but something happened recently that ended that bond.

“Will, you aren’t telepathic anymore, are you?” she asked apprehensively.

“I’m not sure.” He laid down on the bed and fell asleep.

Shanna nestled against him. She felt helpless to comfort him, not knowing what was wrong. More so, she fretted that he was blocking her from reading his thoughts, perhaps to hide something from her.

Will rested for several hours until he gasped in his sleep. He awoke, startled, with sweat beaded on his forehead.

Shanna sat on the bed and watched worriedly.

“What’s wrong, Will?” Shanna asked.

“Nothing. I’m fine.” he replied feebly.

Shanna looked at him suspiciously. His eyes were glazed and distant. “I’d feel better if I could share your thoughts and feelings again. At least then I’d know what’s going on inside you.”

“I would, too. I don’t understand what’s happening to me.”

She cradled him in her arms and they both drifted back to sleep.

Later, when they awoke, Shanna noticed that the color in Will’s face was much better than before.

Will kissed her again and gazed at her as she smiled at him. He grinned coyly at her until she asked defensively, “What’s so funny?”

“You are.”

“Why?”

“Because one little kiss from me means so much to you.”

“Of course it does. You mean so much to me.” She kissed him lovingly. Will felt renewed vigor and pulled Shanna on top of him. They kissed passionately for several moments until Will sat up and gazed into her eyes.

“Now what?” asked Shanna.

“Now I know why I’m tired. You’re wearing me out.”

“Do you want me to stop?”

“Hell, no!” Will kissed her but she pushed him away.

“Come on, Will, we have to get up. It’s dinnertime.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You have to eat. Maybe that’s part of your problem.” She took him by the hand and led him from the cabin.

**********

When Will and Shanna entered the hall, everyone paused and looked up expectantly. They sat at the head table with Mariel, Breel and Laneia. Celine and Bastille sat one table in front of them.

Steele sat at another table with Jack, Maya, Mynx and Neva.

Steele stared at the Galactic Security Services girls and inquired, “I know you, don’t I?” Mynx replied, “Yes, you do. What a small universe it is.”

“Who are you?”

I’m Mynx Falon. My partner is Neva Hirsch. We’re former GSS agents who helped you with some of your problems a while back.”

Steele shook their hands and said, “Fancy meeting you here. It seems Will has quite an assortment of friends working with him.”

“We’re all the best at what we do,” Neva said, with pride in her voice.

“I realized that when I saw the Leviathan in the transport bay. What a coup that must have been.”

“It was a masterpiece,” Mynx said, as proudly as Neva.

“You say you are former agents for GSS?”

Neva replied bitterly, “Yeah. Those SOBs tried to kill us, and then they tried to stiff us on the reward money.”

“I see they have their priorities,” Steele kidded.

“That’s okay.We taught them a valuable lesson. Besides, we’re in a much better situation working with Will,” Neva said.

“Boy, I’m jealous. Until recently, I always thought I had the best job in the universe as Imperial General of the Fleet. I’m really looking forward to working with this group of yours.” Servants brought in trays of food and ewers of wine. They poured glasses and set them before each person.

Will asked Maya curiously, “How did you get Steele away from the Fleet? I can’t imagine they would let you just walk off with the Fleet commander without an explanation.”

“I had to hide her inside a crate with our supplies.”

Will turned to Steele and asked, “What do you think the Fleet will do when they discover you’re missing?”

“I don’t know. It would be an opportunity for them to replace me with a Weevil, though.”

“It will be more interesting to see if they don’t replace you.”

Maya looked at Will with heightened interest. “What do you mean by that?”

Will sipped from his glass and picked at his food.

“Perhaps it works in their best interest not to replace her. If the Weevil are in control, then whomever they appoint will immediately arouse suspicion should you return.”

“I see you think everything through,” Steele remarked.

“The keys to success are tact and knowing your opponent. Since we don’t always have the luxury of knowing our opponent, tact is very important.”

Steele was anxious to learn more about Will and his band of renegades. She continued to probe with questions. “So, what’s this I hear about a coronation and a wedding, Will?”

Will paused between bites and answered, “Shanna and I are to be married in four pogs, ten earth days. Immediately after the wedding, we’re to be ordained King and Queen of Yord.”

“Wow! How did that happen?”

Will pointed to Mariel. “This is Mariel, the head priestess on Yord. She can explain it much better than I can.”

Mariel nodded to Steele and asked, “Have we met before?”

“I don’t believe so, Mariel.”

Will continued, “Mariel, this is Steele Furey. She is or was the Imperial General of the Space Fleet.”

Mariel looked suspiciously at Steele and remarked coldly, “How interesting.”

Steele extended her hand in friendship to Mariel and said, “It’s nice to meet you.”

Mariel shook Steele’s hand delicately. She explained, “Will and Shanna are of royal blood. The women of Yord descend primarily from both their races, thus making the two of them the perfect candidates to rule Yord.”

Steele was surprised. “I never realized Will was of royal blood.”

“He’s also Firenghian,” Mariel said.

“Wow,” Steele said, impressed.

Will asked Steele, “Did you know that Mariel was once a member of the Fleet?”

“No, I didn’t. Then what are you doing here, Mariel? The Fleet never lets good people get away.”

Jack covered his mouth and faked a cough, saying, “Bullshit!”

Steele taunted, “I said good people Jack.”

Mariel explained, “I was banished here by the Fleet when they learned I was Firenghian. We are a race of shape-shifters you know?”

“I don’t get it. Why would they do that to you?”

“They did that to any female that was different or deemed a threat.”

“You didn’t know about this?” Will asked curiously.

“No, I didn’t. This is the first I’ve heard of such a practice.”

Maya added, “If they found out I was Firenghian, I would have been banished here as well. I was lucky enough not to be caught.”

“All of the women here were banished by the Fleet,” Will pointed out.

“By whose orders?”

Mariel answered stoically, “Yours.”

Steele was stunned and embarrassed. “I never gave those orders! I swear to you.”

Jack sniped, “Obviously someone did.”

“I guess I was blind to this. I never imagined the Fleet was so vulnerable to this kind of corruption.”

“If the Weevil were behind this, then the Fleet has been compromised for quite some time,” Will declared.

“There must be a reason the Weevil wanted these women banished,” Maya said.

Will thought for a moment and asked, “Has anyone ever seen a female Weevil?”

Everyone pondered his question.

“All the Weevil at Eve’s were male,” Shanna said.

“Nestor and his partner were males, too.” Mynx added.

“Maybe I’ll consult with Arasthmus,” Will suggested. “There may be more to this.” He and Shanna stood and excused themselves.

Steele turned her attention to Celine, smiled, and asked, “How can I forget you, Celine? You and your hair make a distinct impression.”

“Why, thank you Imperial General,” Celine answered pleasantly. She proudly pressed her hair down in the back.

“Please, call me Steele. I’m not the Imperial General anymore.”

“You will be again, someday.”

“Thank you. That means a lot.”

Maya introduced Breel and Laneia to Steele. “Breel and Laneia are Attradean,” she said. “They helped Will commandeer the Phantom and escape Attrades.”

“No kidding? I’m sure King Tenemon longs for the day he repays you for that ruse.”

“Laneia is Tenemon’s daughter,” Maya added.

Steele blurted out, “No way!”

“Yes I am, although I’m not proud of it,” Laneia told her.

“How in the world did Will manage to get you, Tenemon’s own daughter, to join him in the fight against Tenemon?” Steele asked.

“Will is a good and caring person. He freed Breel from my father’s prison. We couldn’t stay there so Will offered us a place with him. We’ve been friends ever since.”

“This is truly extraordinary.”

**********

Arasthmus and Regent played chess in the main quarters of the Phantom. Keira sat next to Regent and watched the match.

When Will and Shanna entered the ship, Will promptly interrupted them, “Arasthmus, I need your help.”

“Not now, Will. This is a pivotal point of the match.”

“It’s important, Arasthmus.”

“We can take a break, Arasthmus.” Regent offered. “I don’t mind.”

Arasthmu ssighed and tapped his fingers on the table. “Alright, what is it, Will?”

Will and Shanna sat down next to Arasthmus. Will asked, “What possible reason would the Weevil have for banishing women to Yord?”

“I didn’t realize the Weevil were behind their banishment.”

“Let’s assume they were, hypothetically speaking. Why these women?”

“I’m not sure.”

“We suspect this was done by Weevil posing as Fleet officers but what would they gain from such a thing?”

“Maybe they all had some degree of telepathic powers,” Arasthmus suggested.

“Yes, but so did the males. Anything else?”

“Not that I can think of. Why?”

“The Weevil apparently have only mimicked men, so far as we know. All these women were banished here supposedly by the Fleet Commander’s orders but she never gave those orders. Someone else did.”

“So you think the Weevil purposely banished these women because they posed a threat to them?”

“Yes I do.”

“I’m not sure why a female’s powers would be any different than a male’s.”

“Is it their powers or perhaps something else about them?” Regent asked.

“I’d bet on something else. Give me some time to think about it.”

“Thanks, Arasthmus.”

Will stood up and studied the chessboard briefly. He remarked, “Knight takes rook, Regent.”

“Get out of here, you brat!” Arasthmus bellowed as a friendly smile creased his face. Shanna slapped Will’s arm in dismay.

“Only kidding. See you later,” Will replied playfully.

Will and Shanna left the ship. As they walked slowly across the dock to the stairs, Shanna chided, “That was mean, Will. You know they take their chess seriously.”

“That’s the fun of it. So, what do you think of all this? Any ideas?”

Shanna pondered for a moment and suggested, “What if there is something in the female chemistry that threatens the Weevil?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. If we understood more about how they impersonate males, we might have a clue.” They returned to the hall and sat at Maya’s table.

“Well?” Maya asked,

“Nothing,” Will told her. “Arasthmus is stumped, too.”

Steele changed the topic and asked, “What’s happening on the surface of the planet, Will?”/

“Yord used to be a great economic power in the alliance,” Will told her.

“I recall that very well. It was a great time for peace and prosperity.”

“The Attradeans put an end to that. That’s why this operation we run underground has to remain a secret. Once we establish a government, we’ll be able to enlist allies to protect us.”

“Why do you need allies? Can’t you protect yourself?”

“Because the Leviathan and the Phantom are a secret. As far as everyone knows, we are rebuilding Yord for peaceful purposes and nothing more. Our alternative operation will enable us to build an economic metropolis on Yord by keeping our enemies at a disadvantage. Everyone must feel safe in coming here for Yord to thrive.”

“Where did you learn to develop such bold strategies?”

“At the Academy: American History on Earth � the Colonial Period.”

“I may have to refresh myself,” Steele confessed. “Obviously, I overlooked some very important lessons there.”

Will held up his wine glass. “I propose a toast to our newest member, Steele Furey.”

They raised their glasses and chanted, “To Steele.”

Jack raised his glass halfway and coughed. Maya smacked him on the back of his head again. “Ouch!”

“Jack, behave or else,” she warned him.

“Or else what?”

She whispered in his ear and Jack frowned.

“Thank you, everyone. I’m grateful to be here with you,” Steele told them.

She asked Will, “What do you think about forming a new alliance to replace the Fleet? You seem to have the right plans to build a competent union.”

Will sipped from his glass and replied, “Why a new alliance?”

“I don’t think we can salvage what we have.”

“Perhaps it’s too early to make that decision.”

“Maybe. But maybe not,” Steele conceded.

“I’m concerned about the Boromeans,” Will said. “The Weevil work closely with Tenemon and the Attradeans for now. If the Attradeans were taken out, what would the Boromeans do? I think they’re letting the Attradeans fight their battles. Whoever wins will be in a weakened state. The Boromeans could come in and clean up the leftovers and take over the alien alliance.”

“I don’t put it past them.”

“I also think we need to take a crack at the Fleet’s upper echelon. We’ve got to know how far the Weevil penetration has gone.”

“What good would that do?” Steele asked.

“We’ll need to salvage whatever resources we can. Even if the Fleet fails, there are a lot of ships and crewmen out there. We need them on our side.”

“And how would you do that without tipping off the Weevil?”

“There’s got to be a way. We just haven’t thought of it.” Will became light-headed and tilted helplessly against Shanna’s shoulder.

She put an arm around him. “It’s time for Will to rest. He’s recovering from a serious injury.”

“Why don’t we all get a good night’s rest? It sounds like we have a big day tomorrow,” Maya suggested.

Shanna bade them goodnight.

“I’ll help you with Will,” Mariel offered.

Will breathed heavily and broke into a cold sweat. He said weakly, “I’ll be alright. It’s just a little warm in here.”

“Just be quiet and let us help you,” Shanna scolded him.

Shanna and Mariel escorted Will back to the Phantom. They helped him sit down on the edge of his bed.

“Are you sure you’re alright, Will?” Mariel asked.

“I don’t know. One minute I’m fine and the next I feel all messed up.”

The women laid him on his back and removed his boots.

“It only happens a few times a day.”

“That’s a few times too many and it’s getting worse,” Shanna complained.

“What do you think of Steele, Mariel?” Will asked, his voice weak.

“I don’t trust her.”

“Why not?” Shanna asked. “She seems okay.”

“There’s something about her that’s not right.” Mariel shivered.

“Do you think she’s Weevil?” Will asked.

“No. But I think she’s something else. I just can’t put my finger on it.”

“We could keep an eye on her in case she’s up to something,” Shanna suggested.

Will placed his hands over his face and uttered sadly, “Oh this is getting old.”

Mariel asked Shanna, “How come you don’t get these spells?”

“Should I?”

“If it’s a result of the Weevil poisoning, you should get them too.”

“But I feel fine.”

“And that’s what makes it odd.”

“I’ll be okay, Mariel. Just give me time,” Will promised.

Mariel’s look was grave. “Why don’t I believe you?” She left them and closed the door behind her.

Shanna undressed Will and covered him. He fell asleep quickly. She undressed and lay next to him.

**********

The next morning, everyone met at the hall for breakfast. Steele entered wearing tight blue jeans and a white blouse. She wore her hair down upon her shoulders.

Will and Jack couldn’t help but notice how attractive she was out of uniform.

Shanna poked Will in the ribs and said, “Hey, I’m over here.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t believe that’s the same person who wore a uniform and a scowl for all those years.”

“Yeah, there really was a woman under all that misery,” Jack agreed.

Maya frowned at him.

Jack kissed her cheek. “Don’t be jealous, Maya. I still love you.”

“I certainly hope so. If not, I’ll take you back to your space station, if there’s anything left of it.”

Will and Shanna burst into laughter and Shanna high-fived Maya.

Jack complained to Will, “Thanks for the support, buddy.”

“Sorry, Jack.”

Steele sat at their table and said pleasantly, “Good morning, everyone.”

“Good morning, Steele,” Maya greeted her.

“I see everyone is having a good time.”

“Hardly,” Jack quipped.

Maya hugged him and said, “Come on, Jack. I thought you were tougher than that.”

He grimaced.

Steele asked, “What’s the game plan for this morning?” She looked at Will.

“Maya and Saphoro will cover us in the Luna C in �cloak’ mode. Celine and Bastille will pilot the Phantom and handle forward firing control. Jack and I will work the turrets until we’re on the ground. Then, we’ll enter the supply depot. Shanna, Breel and Laneia will assist me on the ground.”

“And what about me?”

“Do you want to go on the Luna C and monitor our operation?”

“I’d much prefer to be in on the action.”

“Then you’ll go with us on the Phantom. Jack will make sure you have a weapon when we hit the ground.”

“What about the Leviathan?”

“No Leviathan. It’s not supposed to exist, remember.”

“Ah, that’s right. You made a hefty sum of credits from the Fleet for destroying her.”

Jack mocked her, “Capitalism is a beautiful thing.”

“Jack will open a non-alliance account for you. Whatever we make, we split up among the team,” Will informed her.

“So that’s why my officers couldn’t find you. They watched every alliance account, particularly since we suspected a member of the Fleet was behind the job.”

Will patted Jack on the back and responded, “Jack did a masterful job of arranging things.”

Jack interrupted, “Let’s go, everyone. It’s show time.” He sounded bitter.

Will was amused at Jack’s behavior as they departed the hall and boarded the two ships.

**********

Will gave Steele a tour of the Phantom as they flew toward their target. She was particularly interested in the cannons. She climbed into the turret and felt the controls.

Will asked from the bottom of the ladder, “Have you ever fired before?”

“Yes I did. I flew on the Luna C’s last combat mission before she was refitted for clandestine surveillance. I shoot very well.”

“Perhaps you’ll have a chance to show us.”

As Steele climbed down from the turret she said, “Let me make one thing clear, Will. I don’t like to lose. What’s happened to the Fleet under my watch is hard for me to swallow. I will fight to the end if that’s what it takes to exact my revenge on the Weevil.”

“Just remember, Steele, the key to our success has been tact. We have to be smart to be successful.

I hate the Boromeans more than anything, especially since they killed my parents, but I have to pick my battles with them. You will, too.”

“Were you aware that if Maya hadn’t requested to take you from the academy, you would have been with your parents that fateful trip? You would have been killed too.”

Will asked Steele suspiciously, “Whose idea was it to send me to pick them up?”

“One of my officers arranged it. I didn’t think much of it, although he was very persistent. Maya convinced me her mission was critical and that it was more important for her to meet with you secretly at the graduation. I never imagined your parents would be killed.”

“So you think it was a conspiracy to kill me and my parents?”

“It could have been. Is there a reason the Weevil would want them dead?”

“Not that I know. I did learn that the Fleet never searched for them. They held out for quite some time before the Boromeans got to them.”

“I’m sorry. I feel responsible for everything that’s happened under my command.”

“Well, all we can do now is make them pay.”

“And that they will.”

Bastille announced over the page, “We’ll be landing soon. Man the turrets and happy hunting, friends.”

Will climbed the short ladder into the turret. As he leaned into his seat, he became light-headed and tumbled to the floor, unconscious.

Steele heard the thud and shouted, “Will, are you okay?”

There was no answer.

“Will!” she shouted again. She hurried down the ladder from her turret and found Will lying unconscious on the floor. She quickly sat him up and called for help.

Shanna and Laneia rushed into the bay. Shanna saw Will and was devastated. “What happened to him?” she asked.

“He was in the turret when I left him. Then he collapsed and fell to the floor.”

Shanna hugged Will and said soothingly, “I’m here for you, Will. Please be alright.”

Steele instructed the girls, “I’ll take the turret. You take care of Will.”

Shanna and Laneia lifted Will to his feet and helped him to his cabin. Shanna felt his head and became more concerned. He burned up with fever.

“Shanna, why don’t you stay with him?” Laneia said. “We’ll take care of the depot.”

“Thank you, Laneia.”

Laneia left them and returned to the main quarters.

Jack handed pulse pistols to everyone. He noticed Will and Shanna were missing. “Hey, can someone beckon the lovebirds?” He kidded.

“Will is hurting again. Shanna’s staying with him,” Laneia explained. “Where’s Steele?”

“She’s in the turret.”

“That’s just great � a rookie in the turret. Get ready for a fun landing.”

Jack hurried to the turrets. He stopped at the ladder to Steele’s and shouted, “You know what you’re doing up there?”

“Just watch me.”

Jack reached up the ladder and handed her a pulse pistol.

“You’ll need this when we land.”

“Thanks, Jack.”

He noticed she smiled at him for once. He replied cautiously, “You’re welcome. Good luck.”

For a moment, he considered that maybe there was a side to her he could learn to like. But he recalled their past and thought cynically to himself, “Nah, that’s impossible.” He climbed the ladder to the other turret and strapped himself in.

The Phantom glided toward the Ceratoan depot, just above ground level. At such close proximity to the ground, the automated firing system was inoperative and all firing had to be done manually.

Jack and Steele spotted several armed vehicles. Jack fired three shots and took out the lead one.

Steele fired two shots and took out the next two.

Jack fired once into the driver’s cab of a personnel carrier and it burst into flames. Steele fired at the next carrier, which also burst into flames.

A friendly rivalry developed between them as they targeted each vehicle. Jack was impressed with Steele’s accuracy on the cannons, particularly at long range. He wondered how much previous experience she could have had on the cannons with her rank.

As they drew closer, they spotted anti-aircraft cannons near the depot but the cannons couldn’t target them accurately so long as the ship stayed close to the ground. Jack and Steele peppered the guns with cannon fire and destroyed all six with ease.

The Phantom landed a short distance from a long, cinderblock warehouse. As soon as the hatch opened, Breel rushed out and took cover behind a crate.

Three Ceratoan soldiers rushed toward the ship.

Breel fired at them. Two fell to the ground, dead. The third ducked behind drums of chemicals and returned fire. Breel crept across the grounds toward a small tool shack near the warehouse entrance. The soldier fired several shots at him but missed.

Laneia raced out of the hatch and disappeared among several crates. She crept up on the soldier from behind and snapped his neck in one fluid motion. With a wave of her clawed hand, she signaled to Jack at the hatch that it was clear.

Jack and Steele rushed to the warehouse doors and joined Breel. Jack slowly pushed the hinged, aluminum doors open and scanned the area inside. There wasn’t anyone in sight.

Jack and Steele quickly slipped inside and parted in opposite directions, leaving Breel to guard the doors.

A dozen soldiers appeared from a side entrance and spread out behind boxes and forklifts. They pinned Jack and Steele down with gunfire.

Breel slinked toward the outside corner of the warehouse and motioned for Laneia to join him.

They climbed a ladder to the roof and perched over a large window. Breel quietly lifted the window and latched it open. He and Laneia then targeted the soldiers below and picked them off, one by one, until their pistols required charging time.

Three more soldiers rushed across the open floor of the warehouse, but Steele quickly gunned them down. For the moment, the coast was clear.

Jack was impressed and met Steele in the middle of the floor. “Damn, you’re deadly Steele.”

“Years of practice and lousy men will do that to a woman.”

“What else does it do?”

“Come on, Jack. Was I that tough on you?”

“Why do you think I left?”

“I booted you out, remember? You didn’t volunteer to leave.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Can you drive a forklift?”

Steele asked disappointedly, “That’s it? End of argument?”

“Maybe we’ll pick it up another time.”

She sighed and said, “Fine. I’ll drive the forklift.”

“I’ll point out the crates we want. Drop them inside the hatch so Bastille, Breel and Laneia can lower them into the cargo bay.”

“No problem.” Steele manned the forklift and followed Jack.

Jack broke open several crates of bottled water. He pointed to them and moved on to inspect other crates.

Steele picked up the crates one by one and delivered them inside the hatch.

Laneia and Breel scurried down the ladder from the roof to the ground. They rushed to the ship and stepped inside the hatch. Breel operated the lift and lowered the crates to the cargo bay below.

Jack pointed to two more crates. As Steele picked up the first one, she spotted a soldier creeping up behind Jack. She backed the forklift slowly and aimed her pulse pistol at the soldier’s head.

As the soldier targeted Jack, Steele fired first, striking the soldier between the eyes. He fell to the ground dead.

Steel’s shot had passed precariously close to Jack’s head. He felt the searing heat from the shot on his ear and was startled. When he saw the soldier on the ground behind him, he glared at Steele. She smiled, gave him a thumbs-up, and drove the crate to the ship.

Jack found two large crates with vaults in them. He broke the crates apart and examined the vaults. Steele returned with the forklift and awaited instructions. Jack directed her to put the safes inside the hatch too.

“What are they?” she asked.

“I don’t know but they look official enough.”

Steele took the vaults to the ship. Jack walked behind the forklift, searching carefully for shooters.

**********

Maya and her co-pilot, Saphoro, studied the monitor as a convoy of assault vehicles approached the depot. “Looks like we’ve got company, Saph,” Maya said.

Saphoro replied anxiously, “I’ll take care of them.”

She programmed four torpedoes and pressed a button on the armament control panel to fire them.

Four fiery balls darted from the Luna C and struck several of the vehicles, sending up multiple plumes of smoke and bright explosive bursts.

“That should slow them down some,” Saphoro said proudly.

“Nice work, Saph.”

“I’ve been practicing on the weapons systems.”

“How so?”

“Oh, Bastille made a program which works like a simulator.”

“No kidding.”

“He said they use them on Earth. They’re like video games.”

“That man is full of surprises.”

**********

The forklift halted in front of the hatch.

Breel guided Steele to the hatch and she set the vaults just far enough inside the hatch so they could close it. Breel lowered the platform to the deck below where the cargo would be moved and stored by automated equipment.

Fireworks lit up the sky from a short distance away, catching their attention.

Let’s step it up, Jack,” Steele advised. “Looks like we’ve got company nearby.”

“Nag. Nag. Nag.”

Jack carried a knapsack across the warehouse to a row of crates out of site from the hatch. He took out a package of explosives and set the electronic detonating device.

Steele helped Laneia and Breel load the last supplies and boarded the ship. Jack hadn’t returned so she hurried back inside the warehouse to search for him.

When she entered, two Ceratoan soldiers were beating Jack. Steele tapped the first one on the shoulder. When he turned around, she blasted his face off with a close-range blast from her pulse pistol.

The second one turned around poised to fire but Steele kicked the gun from his leathery hand and stuck the barrel of her gun in his fanged mouth. She asked cynically, “Any last words?”

The soldier mumbled something incoherent.

Steele laughed at him and said, “Sorry, pal. It’s not your day.” She pulled the trigger and blew out the back of the soldier’s head and neck. He fell to the ground, lifeless.

Steele helped Jack to his feet. His face was swollen and his lips were bloody. His eyebrow was cut and the stitches in his chin burst open.

“Are you okay?” she asked sympathetically.

Jack straightened his shirt and muttered, “Sure. I had everything under control.”

“Of course you did.”

“But thank you, just the same. I may have been at a slight disadvantage.”

Steele picked up the electronic detonating device and programmed the timer for three minutes. She set the package between two crates and walked away.

“Cutting it a little close, aren’t we?” Jack asked.

“You said you were fine. Show me.”

“Women. Why me?”

They hustled back to the ship. Once inside, Steele closed the hatch and sealed it.

Jack shouted into the page, “We’re in, Celine. Get us out of here!”

“Roger, Jack.”

The depot exploded in a fiery mass.

When the ship rocked violently, Jack fell on his ass, much to Steele’s amusement. She gripped the handles on a cabinet tightly for support.

The area surrounding the depot burst into flames as well. Gunfire from ground batteries rocked the Phantom as it raced away.

Celine’s voice sounded sarcastically from the page, “Nice, Jack! Blow us up next time.”

Jack glared at Steele again and said humbly, “Sorry, Celine. We cut that one a little close.”

“A little? The engine temperature jumped seven degrees from that blast.”

Jack remarked sullenly, “Thanks, Steele. I’m sure I’ll get all the flak for this.”

“You were too slow. Next time, run faster.”

She offered him a hand and helped him to his feet. Jack patted her on the back. “Nice work. Oh, and thanks for saving my ass earlier, although it took you long enough.”

“My pleasure. Even for you.”

They laughed together.

“I’m going to check on Will. I’ll be back in a while,” Jack said.

“I’ll help your friends with the supplies.”

Jack hobbled down the hall and entered Will’s cabin. When he arrived, Shanna was in tears. Will’s face was ashen and he was soaked in sweat. Jack asked nervously, “What happened, Shanna?”

“He was convulsing. I couldn’t stop him, Jack, and now he’s unconcious.”

Jack examined Will and felt his pulse. “His heart is still beating.”

“No kidding!” Shanna yelled. “That doesn’t help.”

“Sorry. I’m not a doctor.”

Jack listened to Will’s breathing. It was steady and strong. “It seems like he’s okay now. I’ll tell Celine to get us back to Yord ASAP.”

Shanna sobbed and hugged Will. “I’m really worried about him, Jack.”

“Believe me, Shanna, I am, too.”

Jack was shaken at the sight of Will lying helpless. He somberly returned to the cargo area.

Steele knelt in front of the first vault and studied the locking device.

“Any ideas?” Jack asked.

“This looks similar to a device we use to protect secret information. If you tamper with the locking device, the contents of the vault will be destroyed.”

“So you think these vaults hold important information?”

“I’m sure of it. Vaults like these are very expensive. Why don’t you take a break? You took quite a beating back there.”

“I’ve had worse.”

“Oh, Jack. You don’t need to play the strong warrior part with me,” she kidded.

“That’s it. I’m leaving.”

“Have fun.”

Jack limped to the other side of the cargo bay and inspected the crates and cases they took from the depot.

Breel and Laneia stacked some of the new supplies in cabinets and closets.

Jack quipped, “Not bad. Huh, kids?”

“Nice haul, Jack. You and Steele did good.” Breel said.

“Thanks. I never thought I’d hear that from anyone.”

**********

The Phantom returned to the base on Yord and glided into its berth.

Mariel sat with Arasthmus at a table in a small room at the end of the corridor. They discussed medicine and healing arts.

Jack rushed in and interrupted, “Will needs help, Arasthmus. He’s unconscious.”

“What happened?”

“He blacked out. Shanna said he was having convulsions.”

“Damn that boy! I’ll be down to check on him.” He quickly left the atrium.

“Could Will have eaten anything that might cause these lingering problems?” Mariel asked Jack.

“He and I eat about the same.”

“There’s got to be an explanation for this.”

“I wonder if the Weevil poison really does have something to do with this. Maybe he isn’t fully cured.”

Arasthmus returned with a leather bag in his hand. “What’s this about the Weevil poison?”

“Are we sure it was poison the Weevil injected into Will?” Mariel asked.

“What else could it be?”

“You’re the doctor. You tell us,” Jack retorted.

“Maybe we’ll need to look at this from a different direction,” Arasthmus said.

Jack suggested, “Maybe this could be the key to why the Weevil are attracted to men only.”

“Don’t jump to any conclusions until we understand what’s going on with Will’s body,” Arasthmus cautioned.

They proceeded to the Phantom.