The Honour of the Knights (Second Edition)

The Battle for the Solar System : Book One

- Three chapter excerpt -

Copyright 2011, Stephen J Sweeney

All Rights Reserved

This is an excerpt from THE HONOUR OF THE KNIGHTS (Second Edition), by Stephen J Sweeney. The complete novel is available as an eBook for Amazon Kindle, Apple iBookstore, Barnes and Noble Nook, Sony eBookstore, Kobo Books and Diesel Books.

ISBN-10 : 0955856183

ISBN-13 : 9780955856181

£1.99 / $3.99 USD / €1.99


An excerpt from A GIFT FROM THE GODS
By Kelly Taylor

How It All Began

For some of you reading this it may seem as though I am describing a universe and a time that never existed, or that I am decorating an already unbelievable tale with frivolous, extravagant and ornate fables of my own, in order to create unnecessary hyperbole. I assure you, however, that everything that follows is true. It is historically accurate, and based on actual events, people and places.

It is important to understand that the galaxy wasn't always how it is today. You should be familiar with present-day galactic states, chief among them the Helios Confederation, once known as the Helios League, and more commonly referred to simply as The Confederation. You will also be familiar with the Independent nations, who are, much like the rest of us, at the time of writing, in the process of attempting to rebuild their shattered worlds and cultures following the end of the Pandoran War.

But one nation you may not know a lot about is the Mitikas Empire. It is worth knowing about this galactic state, as it was there that a falling-out between the reigning emperor and his advisers erupted into a civil war, one that boiled over into a galaxy-spanning conflict that pushed the human race to the brink of extinction.

The story of the galaxy's collapse from a great number of prosperous star systems to the small handful of populated planets we have today is a long one. But, as Natalia Grace said one very revealing day in late 2617, it would be best if I start from the beginning.

* * *

In the early autumn of 2608, in the 11th year of his reign, Crown Emperor Adam Lorenzo III gathered together an assembly of his highest aides for what was to become a historic moment in the Mitikas Empire's history. With the delegates and representatives seated and listening, and his words being broadcast across a great number of worlds for his subjects to hear, he delivered the news that many had long expected. He was to grant independent status to two of the empire's star systems.

The decision had long been rumoured, but today it had been made fact, and his words were greeted with rapturous applause and jubilation throughout many a city street. The star systems in question, Tigris and Sampi-Persei VII, were part of a number that had been swallowed up during the early days of the empire's expansion; their absorption into the swelling Imperial regime either a result of military force, political pressure, or other questionable coercions. None had joined willingly. For many years, the peoples of these worlds had campaigned for freedom and independence. Not because the empire was a cruel and dangerous state – it was far from these things – but because of the desire to return to being the republics they once had been, and for the chance to shape their own futures.

And today, their wishes had been granted.

The celebrations began immediately, with the citizens of Tigris and Sampi-Persei VII dancing and singing in the streets, waving flags and crying tears of joy. Even those not directly affected by the move wore great smiles, for this would only make the emperor more popular and show galactic neighbours, the existing Independent worlds and nations, and the Confederacy, that they were a powerful, yet permissive and tolerant society.

But there were those who didn't agree with the emperor, their faces dour as they sat before him. As the applause rang and the cameras flashed, a number of nay-sayers throughout the conference hall began voicing their dissatisfaction.

Having opposed what they saw as the beginnings of devolution, the Imperial Senate were unhappy with the day's decision, and the Senior Magistrate, Maximilian Tyler-Brett, rose to confront the emperor over it. Broadcasting his feelings directly after Lorenzo's speech, he accused the emperor of undermining the great nation's foundations, preparing to pull the rug out from under its feet. This move, he said, wouldn't make them appear stronger and more liberal to their enemies, but quite the opposite. It would make them appear foolish and weak. It was the Senate's position that the emperor was preparing to dismantle, brick by brick, the empire for which his predecessors had spilt blood, sweat and tears to build.

There were mumbles and murmurs of agreement, though they weren't as strong as the cheers and celebrations that had preceded them.

But Emperor Adam was untroubled by the Senate's opposition, and very sedately called for calm. Nonsense, he smiled, the Senate's fears were both overblown and misplaced. There was nothing to worry about, no cause for alarm. He had heard such objections since the very first day he had entertained the delegates of the worlds he was about to set free. He knew he could not please everybody, he could only ever make so many people happy. Besides, he reassured the Senate, the peoples he was to set free had already agreed to work side by side with the empire, trading, researching and working exclusively with them, indefinitely. The only change was that they would no longer be governed by his rule, no longer subject to Imperial laws and statutes. Other than that, they remained as loyal as ever.

The Senior Magistrate grumbled his further objections, but the emperor waved away his concerns. The declaration was signed, hands were shaken and that afternoon two star systems were set free; two new nations were born.

Tyler-Brett missed all of it, turning his back on the further proceedings. “We'll never forgive this,” he said, as he walked out.

* * *

A few days later, a messenger arrived at the palace, bearing bad tidings. The Senate had abandoned the Forum and taken leave of Kethlan. Lead by the Senior Magistrate, they had departed for and settled within Krasst, a star system in the southern quarter of Mitikas. This, they said they had done, in opposition to the emperor.

Lorenzo was stunned by the news and immediately sent an envoy to Hyanik, the planet where the Senate had reconvened the Forum, to bid them return. The messenger returned barely a day later, with the news that the call had been rejected. The emperor then sent out another envoy, this time demanding their return, by express order of the Crown Emperor of the Mitikas Empire. The envoy was never seen nor heard from again.

* * *

A month passed, when the emperor was woken one night by terrible news. It seemed that Tigris, the star system he had freed not five weeks earlier, had been attacked, an act for which the Senate claimed full responsibility. The messenger showed him imagery of colonies that had suffered terrible orbital bombardments, reducing many to nothing but a smouldering memory.

Of those that had survived, so terrible was the attack that the smoke and flames that ravaged the towns and cities were visible from space. Racked by grief, the emperor ordered aid to be sent immediately, though he discovered some time later that there had been few survivors.

* * *

Weeks passed, but still the Senate refused to meet or entertain the emperor, or any of his delegates, despite Lorenzo's repeated attempts to initiate dialogue.

Then the day came when they made an attempt on his life.

One evening, while Lorenzo was at dinner, one of the serving staff removed the cover of a silver platter he had set down before the emperor, only to snatch up a dagger that had been hidden there. The emperor succeeded in avoiding the slash that had been intended for his throat, deflecting a second with a scalding hot plate. The assassin was brought down by Lorenzo's bodyguards, before he was able to try again.

Following the incident, Margaret, the emperor's wife, closest friend and mother of his three sons, implored him to take direct action against the Senate. It was clearly the only language they would understand, she said.

Lorenzo refused. Men should solve their problems with words, not bombs. And against all advice, the emperor chose to travel to Krasst for a face-to-face dialogue with the tenacious Tyler-Brett and the fifty-four other members of the Senate.

He made his preparations that same evening and his private shuttle was readied.

* * *

A few days after he intended to make the journey, the emperor awoke with little memory of the time before. He found himself in a hospital bed, his arm in a sling, his chest and face bandaged. He was told how a bomb had been discovered on his shuttle, and that his team had only just managed to evacuate him before it had gone off. Even so, he had suffered life-threatening injuries.

Where is my wife? Where is Maggie?” Lorenzo asked, for she had offered to accompany him to his meeting with the Senate. The doctor's eyes turned to the floor and he spoke the sad news – she hadn't made it. She had already been settled onboard the shuttle when the threat had been discovered.

The emperor wept. Had he listened to his wife, she would still be alive today. He would listen to her now. Violence truly was the only language that the Senate understood. And so, in his rage and despair, he summoned Jason Zackaria, the Fleet Admiral of the Imperial Naval Forces. His orders were simple – destroy the Senate. Wipe them out.

The admiral spoke his understanding, and in the days and weeks that followed, the emperor viewed reports, videos and imagery of the result of his orders. The Senate's forces and followers were overwhelmed. Against the full might of the Imperial navy, they stood little chance. They were being crushed.

But that saddened the emperor. He couldn't wipe them out completely, it wasn't within his nature.

It was therefore as the INF surrounded Hyanik that the emperor called a ceasefire, before once again sending an envoy to meet the Senate. It seemed that his wife had been right, for this time they accepted the envoy, and conceded to the emperor's demands that they relent and surrender to his rule. The battle ended, the INF withdrew, and work began rebuilding the colonies of Tigris.

* * *

Some months later, as the emperor was finalizing details to grant independence to more of the empire's star systems, reports flooded in that the Senate had risen once again and had resumed committing acts of terror.

How could this be?” the emperor asked. The Senate and their followers had been defeated, they had repented and surrendered. Tyler-Brett had been tried and incarcerated for his many acts of treason. How was it that they could be on the move once again?

At first, Lorenzo believed this to be the work of dissidents, nothing more than a splinter group. He soon discovered otherwise. A number of the empire's core star systems had been attacked, and hit hard. Totally sacked, this wasn't the work of a minor faction.

And as he watched the video feeds of the plights of the affected systems, a fear gripped him. This wasn't the Senate that he remembered, this was something else. Across battlefields he saw soldiers, clad in black suits and black helmets, with eyes that shone ruby-red in the dark, racing forward and attacking with inhuman speed, efficiency and ferocity. Flags and standards billowed over their heads, depicting a symbol of the like he had never seen before – the outline of a man clutching a spear, a long sash issuing from the tip and curling around his body.

At that moment, as he viewed footage of the battles on the ground, in the skies and in space, he knew something was very wrong. He again summoned Fleet Admiral Jason Zackaria and Commodore Julian Rissard, ordering them to confront these mysterious adversaries and drive them back from where they had come, before they sacked the whole imperium.

But for all their efforts, Zackaria and Rissard could not. The relentless spread of the black-clad soldiers continued, growing stronger with each passing day. Petty squabbles throughout the empire were forgotten, as the nation drew together to fight the menace that threatened its existence. But the days soon turned to weeks; the weeks, months; and the months, years; and in all that time, the emperor and his forces were powerless to prevent the advancement of the Enemy who left nothing but death and destruction behind them.

* * *

And that is how, five years later, naval pilot Jacques Chalmers came to find himself crammed alongside several others into a small briefing room aboard the Imperial starfighter carrier Centaur, as they prepared to make a last stand against an enemy he had seen tear the empire apart.

A pilot stood next to him had asked him if he thought they were going to be okay. Chalmers had turned to Julie Drummford, a long-term friend and wingmate, seeing the fear in her eyes. Yes, he had told her. Don't worry, we're going to win. Even as he spoke, he knew he was doing a poor show of concealing his own terror. His heart was pounding in his ears, his hands sweating profusely inside his gloves, as he awaited the order to head to the flight deck and board his fighter.

Already, he had seen friends depart as their names were called out. He had watched them as they had scrambled into cockpits, pulling on helmets and performing last-minute safety checks. Though most hid it well, he was convinced they were all as scared as he was, knowing they could only be speeding to their deaths. As he had watched his friends' fighters hurtle down the catapult, his commanding officer had addressed the briefing room's remaining occupants for one last time.

He had told them that this was where they needed to make their stand, that the Enemy couldn't be allowed to advance any further. Tonight they would fight the battle for Kethlan, the battle for the imperium, the battle for their very survival. Tens of millions of lives were depending on their actions here tonight. They should do the imperium proud.

Tens of millions? Chalmers had thought. Was that really all that was left of the empire? Had billions of lives already been lost? Surely it was a mistake. But no, this day had crept ever closer as city after city, planet after planet, and then entire star systems had fallen to the Enemy, to “the Senate's Mistake”, to those damned Pandorans. How many of his friends had he lost over these last few horrifying months?

Chalmers recalled again the terrible images he had seen broadcast around the imperium in the months gone by, of seemingly unstoppable soldiers marching through the streets of the cities they had claimed, banners, flags and standards of a near-naked man hanging from buildings and held aloft over their heads. Row upon row of men and women trooped in their thousands, dressed entirely in black, except for two contrasting features – a white emblem that resided on their right arm and left breast, and two piercing red eyes, set into an all-encompassing black helmet that sat upon their heads, its smooth form hiding all facial features.

A loud voice snapped him back to reality. The CO was calling out names, reeling them off quickly. Feet moved and Chalmers felt his stomach lurch. He heard Drummford's name called and, with one last look at him, she was gone from the room, running to get to her starfighter.

Running to her doom.

His name would be called soon. He felt a sense of dread. If the empire couldn't stop the Enemy before, what hope did they have now? Their adversary's power had grown exponentially and they had crushed everything in their path with harrowingly little effort. He was forced to accept the truth – this was a battle that couldn't be won. Not now, not ever.

Chalmers!” came the call.

Despite everything that he knew, he had felt himself move, albeit robotically, as if his limbs were no longer his own to control; that he was nothing but a casual observer to the action.

He ran to the waiting starfighter, threw on his flight helmet and began ascending the ladder to the cockpit. Zombie-like he sank down into the seat, still watching as if from outside his body as his hands buckled himself in, and his fingers began flipping switches, pressing buttons, and acknowledging questions and confirmations on the screens before him. Not before long, his craft was taxied to the catapult, and soon after he'd found himself out in space and in the thick of battle. At that moment, his worst fears had not only been realised, but far exceeded.

Though Chalmers intended to fight for all his worth, he knew from the moment he had cleared Centaur that this was where it all ended. The scene that had greeted his departure brought him no comfort. A wall of starfighters, hundreds, if not thousands, swarmed about like locusts, driving forward the Enemy's frontline. Behind them loomed a host of capital ships, so many that he could never hope to count them.

In the minutes that followed, he discovered his radar to be useless. Somehow blocked by his enemies, the screen had become an indecipherable mass of friendly markers. Not long after, he had witnessed Julie Drummford's death, and the last symbol of the Imperial navy's might, INF Minotaur, had begun to broadcast an SOS as she was overwhelmed. Even as far away as he was, Chalmers could make out the explosions ripping across her hull, blooming loudly before dissipating. Minotaur's cannons were firing indiscriminatingly in all directions, failing to hit targets, whilst volleys of return fire struck its own surface, the battleship's shielding all but destroyed.

Chalmers had made an effort to assist, changing his heading, raising his velocity to maximum and speeding towards it. But he never made it. His fighter had been struck by a missile that he had been unable to see coming, and his Jackal had fallen into a spin. His hand had flown to the ejection handle, his fingers curling around it, but not completing the action. His fighter had turned over and over, the screens and sirens screaming at him to eject, but he had paid them no attention. Instead, he had gazed with sorrow upon the form of Minotaur, hanging high above Kethlan, the former Seat of the Emperor, the place where Chalmers himself had been born.

Escape pods could be seen jettisoning themselves from the once-mighty ship, their occupants doing nothing but prolonging the inevitable – prisoners would not be taken, lives would not be spared. Bright green bolts of plasma flew in every direction. Thick red, yellow and blue pulsing lines of various beam weapons swept around elsewhere. Trails from missiles curled throughout the chaos as they hunted down their targets. Fighter craft still circled Minotaur, continuing to open fire on the stricken vessel and each other. Soon after, Minotaur's cannons fell silent, the running lights extinguishing. It wouldn't be long until it was completely destroyed.

Chalmers had looked to the one other ship that he could see – INF Chimera. He knew that up there, at the front of the bridge, stood Fleet Admiral Zackaria. He would be watching the last moments of Minotaur's service and the impending fall of Kethlan, unmoved. Neither would bring him any sadness or regret. He would seek a new battleship, one that wasn't so fragile, one that reflected the majesty of the imperium, one that would help them to complete the Mission.

Chalmers' comms had crackled weakly, as Minotaur's final fleeting requests had broadcast out to the overwhelmed Imperial forces. His fighter's screens had continued to flash their suggested course of action, but Chalmers knew there was no point in ejecting – he was dead already. There was nowhere to run, his back was against a wall. Not that running had ever been an option. From this enemy one could never run and could never hide. They would always catch up eventually. Maybe not in one year, nor five, nor six. Maybe not even in ten. But they would, no matter what you did. It was only a matter of time.

Mitikas was gone. The rest of the galaxy would soon follow.

Chalmers accepted his death, let his fear subside. He would soon be at peace, soon be with his friends. And with that thought he released his grip on the ejection handle and waited, letting tears trickle down his face.


An Uninvited Guest —

Simon Dodds met the eyes of Marshal Ryder, as the Judge Advocate re-entered the courtroom. Ryder sat down and eyed Simon for a short while, giving him that same withering look he had upon his initial address, only hours earlier.

Would the accused please stand,” Ryder said.

The time had come. Simon felt himself get to his feet automatically, and, although he had prepared himself mentally for the conclusion of the trial, knowing that there could only ever be one outcome, his legs still felt somewhat weak and unsupportive beneath him. He resisted the urge to turn his head to his team-mates, who he knew were still sat behind him. He didn't want to risk meeting their sorrowful eyes. Nor did he wish to risk meeting the eyes of his victims' families, a number of which, he could be certain, would be filled only with malice. Here, at the front, he need only face forward.

The judge considered him for a few moments longer, before turning to the formally dressed men and women seated to his left. “Has the jury reached a verdict?” he asked.

Yes, your honour,” a woman said, as she rose from her seat.

And what say you?”

On the charge of the manslaughter of Stefan Pitt, by gross negligence whilst in possession of a firearm, and furthering from a result of the failure to obey the orders of his commanding officers, we find the accused ...”

The woman paused. Dodds swallowed. He didn't want to hear the single word he knew was coming.

... guilty.”

The silence that followed was almost deafening. The verdict seemed to leap from the woman's mouth and strike him hard in the chest. Already, he felt winded and tense, his stomach tight and his lungs empty.

The woman went on, “On the charge of the manslaughter of Poppy Castro, by gross negligence whilst in possession of a firearm, and furthering from a result of the failure to obey the orders of his commanding officers, we find the accused ...”

Another pause.

... guilty.”

Simon didn't like the way she provided an intermission before delivering the verdict. He would have pleaded guilty to the charges if he hadn't been virtually ordered not to by his lawyer, and hearing someone declare what he himself already believed to be true somehow made it feel ten times worse.

You monster,” he heard from somewhere behind him. Again, he resisted the urge to turn his head. He recognised the voice. It belonged to the mother of Poppy Castro, the young research assistant that he'd killed during a crucial naval operation, the action for which he now stood trial.

My poor little girl,” Poppy's mother continued. “I hope you burn in hell,” she added, before she began to sob.

Simon's eyes flickered across the three men sat alongside Judge Advocate Ryder. Fleet Admiral David Turner had fixed him with a hard stare, one that said that he deserved no less. Commodore Elliott Parks' expression was much the same, though it was coupled with disappointment. Commodore Anthony Hawke's was the most unsympathetic of the three. Despite being on show for all the court to see, the expression was one of glee, of satisfaction that Second Lieutenant Simon Dodds had been found guilty of manslaughter, that he would finally be expelled from the navy, thrown into prison and be out of Hawke's hair forever. Hawke was gloating, as he always did at times like these. Simon was confident that if Hawke had been given the chance to verbally vent his contentment about the decision, he wouldn't have hesitated to do so. But for now, all he was allowed was that sneer.

Thank you, officer,” the judge said, and motioned for the spokeswoman to sit back down. To Simon, he said, “Lieutenant Simon Dodds, it is the decision of this court that you are guilty of disobeying direct orders, of gross negligence whilst in possession of a firearm around civilians, and of the manslaughters of Stefan Pitt and Poppy Castro, as a result of said actions. The evidence against you is overwhelming and I am left with no choice but to apply sentence as I see fit.”

He reached for his gavel and held it above the sound block. There was a noticeable pause before he gave the sentence, as though he was still unsure exactly what it should be. He glanced momentarily in the direction of the fleet admiral, before focusing on Simon. “Effective immediately, you will begin a six month suspension from service. You are to collect all your personal effects and depart Fort Dyas, without delay.”

Simon waited for the rest. It never came.

That is all,” the judge said. “Guardsman, take him away.” He struck his gavel once on the spherical block.

That was it? After everything he'd been through and all the charges and evidence brought against him, the court-martial had sentenced him to nothing more than a six month suspension from service? He could hardly beli—

WHAT?” a cry came from behind. “He just gets to walk away?”

This time Simon turned, seeing the Pitt and Castro families on their feet, looks of total horror on their faces. It was Poppy's mother who had spoken again. Her husband was trying to calm her. “That bastard murdered my daughter and you suspend him from service? Knowing you lot, he'll be back on duty and continuing his killing spree within three months!”

Simon caught the looks of surprise on his team-mates' faces – Estelle de Winter, Enrique Todd, Kelly Taylor and Jonathan Wells all looked to be struggling to understand the sentence themselves.

BANG! BANG! BANG! Ryder struck the sound block a number of times as the noise in the court increased, calling for silence.

You're handing out a licence to murder, Judge Ryder!” Mrs Castro cried, over the strikes. “You're an insult to those robes!” Her cries were joined by random shouts from other members of the two attending families.

Judge Advocate Ryder's brow was creased with thunderous anger. Hawke looked to be reeling slightly, himself. He clearly hadn't expected this; as, it seemed, had any of them. Simon noticed that, oddly, Turner and Parks remained somewhat impassive, as if this came as no surprise to them at all.

The gavel struck down hard several times. Ryder raised his voice. “Mrs Castro, I have warned you once already today! If you continue to speak to me in such a manner, then I will—”


Simon heard the commotion of someone moving close by and looked back around to the court attendees in time to see one of the family members launching themselves towards him. The man struck him full on, knocking him awkwardly into the table he had sat at, before the two toppled over and onto the floor in a tangled heap.

Order! Order!” shouted Ryder.

A fist struck Simon twice in the face, and through his dizzying world he became aware of security personnel drawing weapons and moving in to deal with his attacker, all the while hearing the gavel striking the sound block over and over.


* * *

Simon awoke in his old bedroom in his parents' home. The bedsheets were coiled tightly around him, as if he had been struggling against them. He had been dreaming. He hadn't really been back in that courtroom, reliving some of the worst hours of his life. That had been five months ago. None of the repetition had been real.

He heard the thuds again. Bang! Bang! Bang!

Someone or something was thumping on the porch door at the front of the house. It seemed that the thuds of the judge's hammer had been real. This must have been what had roused him. At first, he considered the three loud thuds to be a result of front door being left unlocked, and banging in the wind. With his bedroom located at the front of the house, more or less directly above the porch, being woken like this wasn't all that uncommon. Glancing out of his bedroom window, however, he saw the many branches of the apple trees of the orchard standing peaceful and serene in the bright moonlight of a cloudless sky.

After a moment, he figured it was nothing. Maybe Socks had been causing a commotion whilst chasing a rat. Ignoring the disturbance, he turned over to catch some more sleep.

Bang! Bang!

He opened his eyes again as another two thuds came from below, followed by the unmistakable sound of a man's voice, crying out for attention. It sounded hugely distressed. It was followed by the noise of loud, uneven footsteps clumping down the porch steps, before scraping up the well-worn dirt track leading away from the house.

Now more or less awake, Simon took a look at his bedside clock. Just past four-thirty in the morning. Too early for any of the orchard's hired help to be turning up. With great reluctance, he threw back the covers and pulled himself out of bed, making his way to the window. He shoved it all the way open and leaned out to investigate the source of the noise, which had stopped. No sooner had he stuck his head out the window then he spotted a figure sprawled out on the ground, halfway up the track.

A bloody drunk! He thought they didn't come around here anymore. Not since the last time, when they had been chased out of the gate and down the road by “that crazy old farmer”, wielding a shovel and smacking them over the backs of their heads. His father had been given a police caution for that one.

Simon leaned further out and took a quick look around the surrounding area, to see if anyone else was about. No one; just the body. He drew back inside, turned around and gave a start. Standing behind him was his father, Gregory. Seemingly the disturbance had also woken him, and he had wandered into Simon's bedroom to take a look for himself. Simon noticed that he clutched a shotgun in one hand, no doubt in preparation to deal with whoever it was he believed was attempting to break into their property. It wouldn't have been the first time. His father had already activated the weapon, a digital counter towards the rear of the gun gently illuminating his chest with a soft blue light.

What is it?” Gregory asked.

There's someone outside,” Simon said. “I think it's either another drunk or a homeless guy.”


Halfway up the track, face down in the dirt.”

Gregory shoved past to see for himself, leaning out the window just as Simon had done, in order to see if there was anyone else about.

We'll go and take a look,” Gregory said, drawing back into the room. “I'll have your mother get ready to call the police. I'm not putting up with anything like the last time.”

Simon nodded in agreement. “Let me take that,” he said, reaching out to take the shotgun from his father. Gregory pulled back quickly, pushing Simon's hand away from the weapon.

You've got to be joking,” Gregory said, with a deeply distrustful look.

I'm not going to shoot you by accident, Dad,” Simon said.

Just put some clothes on,” Gregory answered, before returning to his own bedroom.

Who is it?” Simon heard his mother ask, as he began to pick the previous day's clothes off a chair and pull them on.

Not sure,” Gregory said. “Me and Simon are going to take a look.”

Be careful.”

Simon laced up a pair of old boots, before joining his father on the upstairs landing. Now ready, the pair made their way down the stairs and out the front door.

* * *

The figure in the dirt remained motionless as Simon and Gregory left the house, and, leaving his father to guard the front door, Simon hurried up the track to the body.

Hey, you okay?” he said, kneeling down next to the man and giving him a gentle shake about the shoulder. The man let out a groan, but gave no other response. For a moment, Simon considered that he had staggered up to the house searching for a place to settle down and sleep. Finding none, he had given up and walked only a few paces back up the track, before vomiting all over himself and passing out cold. Prat. Either that, or he was covered in beer. Hopefully it wasn't urine. Simon then discovered that the unpleasant, sticky wetness he felt on his hand was neither vomit or alcohol – it was blood.

Well?” Gregory called, starting forward.

He's hurt!” Simon called back, looking at the blood and dirt that clung to his fingers. His father quickened his step, joining Simon by the body. It was only then that Simon became aware of what the man was wearing - a flight suit. Simon carefully rolled the man over onto his back, discovering the front of the suit to be torn and bloody.

What's the matter with him?” Gregory said, kneeling down.

Looks like he's been shot,” Simon said. Even though it was still before sunrise, he was able to make out the dark patches of blood glistening on the suit. He assumed that they marked gunshot wounds; the suit wasn't lacerated in a way that would suggest it had been slashed with a blade. The wounded man's eyes fluttered open and his gaze fell upon the two that knelt over him. He opened his mouth to speak, though he gave little more than a throaty whisper.

What's that he's wearing?” Gregory asked.

It's ... a flight suit,” Simon said, equally mystified. “Hey, you okay?” he tried once more, aware of its inadequacy, but unsure what else to ask. Still, the man said nothing, his eyes starting to close again.

Can you stand?” Gregory asked.

No reply.

Right,” Gregory turned to Simon, “let's get him inside.” He trotted back up the worn track to relieve himself of the shotgun, before returning to Simon's side. “Ready?”


Simon lifted the man under the arms, his father taking his legs, and between them the two began to carry their unexpected guest inside, ignoring the groans and general sounds of discomfort that followed. They made it back to the house, Simon noticing for the first time the dark red bloodstains on the outside of the door, where the man had thumped on the white painted wood.

Oh God!” Simon's mother breathed as they struggled in through the front door and into the living room. She had pulled on a thin dressing gown over her night dress.

Let's put him on the couch,” Gregory suggested.

As he shuffled over, Simon saw Socks lift her head. The cat had been inside the whole time, enjoying a blissful doze on a chair. At the sight of the stranger in the men's arms, she got to her feet and shrank back, before jumping down from her resting place and darting out the room, the bell on her collar tinkling as she went. Simon heard her jangling all the way up the stairs, and wished it really had been her that had been causing the noise.

Sally, shotgun's just inside the porch, could you fetch it inside?” Gregory said.

What's happened to him?” Sally asked, bringing the shotgun inside and propping it up against a wall in the hallway.

He's been shot,” Simon said, as he and his father set the heavily breathing man down.

You're going to get blood all over the couch,” Sally said.

Well, we can't exactly just dump him on the floor,” Gregory said. “We need to get him comfortable.”

Simon noted a couple of splotches of blood on the wooden slats and edges of the rugs. A small trail was leading from the couch, back out the front door.

Who is he?” Sally said.

We don't know,” Simon said. “I think he's with the navy. That's definitely a naval flight suit he's wearing.”

The navy?” Sally said, sounding perplexed. “But where did he come from?”

Simon hesitated. Good point. Where had this man come from? Drunk and homeless people could be accounted for – they just wandered the road. But a naval pilot? One thing was for sure – they weren't going to get any answers by standing around and asking each other. “Mum, do you know where the first-aid kit is?” he asked.

Hello? Can you hear me? What's your name?” Gregory was still trying to get a response.

Simon looked over the man once more, spotting the grey-boxed, yellow lettering on the left breast, beneath the squadron logo. “Apparently, it's Dean,” he said, pointing to the emblem. “But that might not be his suit.”

We'll just have to assume it is,” Gregory said, before continuing to try to wake the man. “Dean? Hello?”

Mum, first-aid?” Simon prompted his mother, who was still staring at the injured man. “He's bleeding pretty badly.”

Better if we call an ambulance,” Sally said, “they'll be able to handle this sort of thing better than we can.”

Good point,” Gregory said. “In that case, Simon, can you call someone in the navy? There's got to be a number for this sort of thing, right?”

N ... No! Don't!”

The three jumped at the voice. Dean's eyes were once again open and the man was looking around desperately for who had just spoken.

Don't?” Gregory asked.

Please ... don't.” Dean repeated. He looked frantic.

Why don't you want us to call an ambulance?” Simon said.

Simon, ignore him,” Sally said. “He's probably in shock. We have to get him to a hospital, or at least a doctor.” She began hunting about the living room. “Where's the handset?”

The handset?” Gregory said.

For the phone.”

I don't know. It's probably fallen down the back of the couch again. Just use the video screen in the hall.”

No ... no doctors! No navy!” Dean continued. “Let ... me stay ... here. Please!” He tried to haul himself off the couch, but seemingly couldn't draw on the strength necessary.

Look, don't move,” Gregory said, gently pushing Dean back down. He then swore as he saw the amount of blood that had seeped from unseen wounds in the man's chest. “Sally, hurry up and get that first-aid kit! Simon, call the ambulance. I'll say here with him.”

Sally nodded and headed off towards the kitchen, Simon making his way into the hall to where the video phone hung on the wall. He tapped on the display to wake the device up, the screen filling with a number of colourful images. He located the emergency services icon at the bottom of the screen and the system began connecting the call.

What service do you require?” said the headset-wearing woman who answered.

Ambulance,” Simon said, “we've got a man here suffering from gunshot wounds,” he hastened to add.

What's his condition?” the woman said, her fingers tapping away at some unseen device.

He's talkative, but bleeding quite heavily. I'm not sure how many times he was shot, but he can't walk or move a great deal. We had to carry him into the living room from outside the house.”

Are the wounds the result of a projectile or energy weapon?”

Simon paused to think. He couldn't remember seeing any burn marks on the flight suit, a sure sign that Dean had been hit by laser or plasma fire. Neither could he smell burnt clothes or wounds. It wasn't an odour one quickly forgot.

Bullets,” Simon said.

Okay, thank you,” the operator said. “Where exactly are the wounds located?”

His torso; the chest, it looks like.”

Thank you. If you wait a moment, I'll get this down and have it assigned.”

Simon thought about the man on the couch. “Dean”, the flight suit said his name was. The name didn't ring any bells. He didn't know any Deans. He wasn't even sure that he'd ever even met one during his ten years of naval service. He became aware that his father was hovering halfway out the living room doorway. He met his eyes and saw that, although he appeared patient, he was probably wishing they could act quicker to get this ordeal over with.

Has your mother found that kit yet?”

Simon glanced down the hall towards the kitchen, seeing numerous cupboard doors swinging open. “Doesn't look like it,” he said.

Does the man have a name?” the operator asked.

We're not sure,” Simon said, glancing at his father. “We think it's Dean.”

The operator nodded and continued tapping for a moment, before she abruptly stopped. Something she was looking at had caught her attention, there was a curious expression on her face.

Could you hold the line for a moment, please?” she said. “Thank you.”

Is—” Simon began, but the woman disappeared from the screen before he had a chance to speak, her image replaced by the words Please Hold.

Simon, what's happening?” Gregory asked, looking back in on the man lying on the couch. “Are they sending someone?”

She's just put me on hold,” Simon said.

On hold?” Gregory squinted at the screen. He looked ready to come over and investigate, when the operator reappeared.

I'm sorry about that,” she said. “Could you confirm your name and address for me, please?”

Simon did so.

Good, someone will be with you soon. Now listen carefully – please don't move the victim, since you could cause him additional trauma. The bullets may have missed vital organs, so we don't want to do anything that could result in further injury. The biggest risk to his life will come from loss of blood. If you are able, dress the wounds and try to stem the flow. It could make the difference between life and death. Don't move him from the house or attempt to bring him to us yourself. Do you understand?”

Got it,” Simon said.

Good. We're dispatching someone now. Just remember to remain calm.”

How long before they get here?” Simon asked. Ten or fifteen minutes, he hoped.

They should be with you within the next thirty or forty minutes,” the operator said, quite nonchalantly.

Forty minutes!” Simon exclaimed. Dean could die in that time!

I'm sorry, sir, but we're very busy tonight. Please just try to keep him calm, make him as comfortable as possible, and dress the wounds as I have advised.”

Simon spoke his understanding and then ended the call.

What's wrong?” Gregory asked, as Simon re-entered the living room.

They're not going to be here for another thirty minutes, at least,” Simon said.

Thirty minutes?” Gregory said, horrified.

At least!

Gregory looked to the man on the couch, whose breathing was becoming more laboured. “We'll have to take him ourselves,” he concluded.

No, they said not to move him; it could make things worse,” Simon said. “We're going to have to do the best we can for him until they get here.”

They then heard Sally swearing in the kitchen, cupboard doors slamming. She shortly re-entered the living room, looking quite frustrated.

I can't find the bloody first-aid kit anywhere,” she said, unable to take her eyes off Dean. “What did the ambulance say?”

Simon told her and she grew even more agitated.

What are we going to do?” she said. “Simon, can you call the navy? Get them to take care of him?”

Simon hesitated. Something didn't seem right. As if to compound his thoughts, Dean turned his head in his direction. The man said nothing, but his eyes seemed to implore Simon not to. Almost begging him.

Simon?” Sally prompted.

No,” Simon said, shaking his head. “I don't think that's a good idea.”

His mother stared at him in disbelief. “Simon—”

No, we can't. He asked us not to contact them.”

Then I'll do it!” Sally snapped.

No, Mum! Didn't you hear him? He told us not to!”

Simon, don't talk to your mother that way,” Gregory said, a scowl on his face.

I'm ... I'm just doing as I was asked, Dad,” Simon said.

Gregory glared at him. “Oh, so now you decide that it's time to start doing as you're told—”

I always do as I'm told.”

You could've fooled me—”

Oh for God's sake, stop it you two, just stop it!” Sally said. “Don't start having that conversation again, especially not now! I've heard it every day for the last five months!”

I'm just trying to do the right thing,” Simon said.

And why couldn't you have done the right thing then?”

It was an accident, Mum! I didn't do it on purpose!”

But now you're just going to let it happen here, instead,” Sally said, choking back tears. “Greg, help me find the box,” she said, before pushing past Simon and leaving the living room and three men behind her.

Simon watched her return to the kitchen to resume pulling things out of cupboards. He felt worse now than before. Carrying Dean into the house had been bad enough. His mind had played tricks on him, dragging him away from Earth and back to Peri, where he had watched two soldiers carrying the bodies of a young woman and a middle-aged man into an APC. He had wanted to help back then, but his assistance had been unwanted. His hands had been in cuffs.

He shook the thoughts from his head. Or, at least, as far away as they would go. They'd never truly leave him. He began after his distressed mother. She was right – he had to help her find the first-aid kits.

Simon, wait there a moment,” his father called.

Simon turned back to the scene in the living room, watching his father undo Dean's flight suit to try to get a better look at his injuries. The extent of the damage was clear even before the white vest Dean wore beneath the suit was pulled up. Two dark holes were prominent in the man's chest, blood still seeping out with each breath.

Gregory swore quietly, then stood and walked over to Simon. “Any idea why this guy doesn't want us to call anyone?” he asked.

Simon shrugged. “It's possible that he's involved in some kind of covert operation.”

Covert?” Gregory said, sounding a little bemused. “You mean he's meant to be doing something in secret?”

Could be,” Simon shrugged, “or with very little exposure. Whatever it is, he doesn't want certain people within the military finding out about it. Sometimes we do things that aren't meant to become common knowledge, even within the service itself.” He looked at Dean, who was still drawing in ragged gasps of air. “Totally under the radar. What you don't know, doesn't hurt you. That sort of thing.”

Well, what does he expect us to do with him?” Gregory asked, in somewhat accusing tones.

Maybe he's waiting for someone else to pick him up?”

Gregory studied the man for a moment, then turned back to Simon. “Do you know him?”

No,” Simon shook his head. “I've never seen him before in my life. Honest,” he added, seeing the unconvinced look his father gave him. They returned to Dean and knelt down next to the couch.

Looks like he's been shot in the chest and shoulders. He's lucky to still be alive. You stay here with him. I'll help your mother find some bandages and something to plug up the wounds.”

Dean was staring up at the ceiling, struggling to take each breath. Simon decided to try to discover what had happened while he still could.

Don't worry, Dean, everything's going to be okay,” he said. “You'll just have a few scars to show your friends.”

Patrick,” Dean managed.

Ah, so finally we have a full name. Patrick Dean. It was a start, at least. Simon noted the emblem of a cartoonesque golden retriever, tongue lolling from its mouth, on the outside of Dean's flight suit. The squadron itself was named below. Yellow Dogs, huh? I'm in the service myself at the moment, though it's a little complicated right now.” And given the circumstances, Simon thought, Dean probably didn't need to hear about that.

Not a word from Dean.

Dogs, Dogs ... Never heard of you guys,” Simon continued, trying to remain chatty and upbeat. “The Silent Kings, Drunken Bakers and Frozen Banshees, sure, but never the Yellow Dogs. I usually fly with the White Knights, myself.”

At his words, Dean turned his head to look at Simon, his eyes filled with anguish. “A ... TAF ...” was all that Simon caught.

What?” Simon drew closer. “Say that again.” If Dean was going to say everything so quietly, then it was going to be difficult to understand anything over the sound of his mother's distressed voice, carrying in through from the kitchen.

“—you don't know who's done this to him,” she was saying, “they could come around here, looking for him!”

We didn't see anyone else outside,” Gregory said.

But how did he get here? Did he drive? Where's his car?”

He's a pilot. Maybe he parachuted?”

So where was his parachute? Where did his plane or whatever it was come down?”

I don't know, Sal.”

We don't even know if he is who he says he is. For all we know, he could be one of those terrorists from the non-aligned nations. You know how it starts – they come over here one by one, don't get along, and then start blowing each other up.”

There was a clatter and then a heavy crash, followed by swearing from his mother. Simon never often heard her swear, only ever in extenuating circumstances.

That man is going to die unless he gets to a hospital!”

Simon forced himself to filter out the rest, intent on discovering what had happened to Dean and how he had come to be here tonight.

The wounded Dean reached out and placed a limp hand on his shoulder. “A ... T ... AF ... ject ...”

You ejected from your TAF?” Simon said. What Dean was saying wasn't making sense. If he'd ejected from his TAF, then how did he get all those bullet wounds? Had someone managed to shoot him whilst he was in the cockpit? Surely that wasn't possible. Bullets would have a hard time getting through the toughened canopy, let alone the energy shields surrounding the fighter. But there was a thought – if he'd ejected, where was his TAF?

Where did you come down?” Simon pressed.

Dean started coughing and took another deep breath. “Imperial war ... wrong ... all over ...”

Simon didn't know what he was talking about. The Imperial civil war was wrong? Of course it was. Lots of people had lost their lives in that unending conflict. Whatever Dean was trying to tell him, Simon hoped it wasn't important.

Right, Simon, give me a hand here,” Simon heard his father say, as he reappeared in the living room. With him he carried a small first-aid box and a much larger medical kit.

You found them,” Simon said.

They weren't in the kitchen,” his father said, “they were still outside, from after we had the school around and that girl fell out of the tree.”

He dumped them both on the floor at the foot of the couch and together the pair did their best to bandage Dean, though it was clear from the outset that he would soon die unless proper medical attention arrived soon.

As Simon bandaged the bullet wounds in the man's chest, in a futile attempt to stem the flow of blood, he noticed his mother standing in the doorway. He could make out the tears sliding down her face. He appreciated what she might have been thinking. One day it might be her son in the same position, being patched up by friends or strangers, as they did their best to prolong his life, for what might well prove to be only a few minutes. He smiled back at her, to let her know it would be okay. Dean couldn't have been much older than himself, something which had most likely only made it seem ever the more possible in her eyes. She'd never liked that Simon had joined the military, a life spent flirting with death.

Simon caught Dean's eye as he continued to bandage.

Sudarberg,” Dean said all of a sudden.

What did he say?” Gregory asked, both he and Simon stopping their messy bandaging to listen.

Sudarberg?” Simon asked.

Y ... yes. Stay ... a ... way.”

Where's Sudarberg?” Gregory asked.

I don't know, I've never heard of it. Where's Sudarberg? What's Sudarberg? Why should I stay away from it?”

Dean didn't answer. He was struggling to swallow. A thin film of blood had started to coat his lips. He was coughing up blood.

This isn't going well, Simon,” Gregory remarked under his breath, with a shake of his head.

Simon looked over their efforts to preserve the man's life, the result of their attempts far poorer than what he had originally envisioned. Whilst the medical kits contained a number of dressings and bandages, and solutions designed to stimulate and promote rapid blood coagulation, they simply weren't enough to contend with Dean's kinds of injuries, nor his sustained blood loss.

The two persevered for a while longer, until Gregory threw in the towel. “Right, Simon, call your friends at the navy,” he said. “We've been at this long enough now and that ambulance could still take its time getting here. The navy might be far quicker. Whatever this guy is worried about, I'm not sure it's worth dying over.”

Simon conceded to what his father was saying and placed the call. There were no further objections from Dean. Either he no longer had it in him to fight back, or he was unaware of what was happening around him. Following the call, Simon sat with the man, attempting to get what little information out of him that he still could.

But Dean was done talking, and less than twenty minutes later he was dead.

* * *

Where exactly did you find him?” a representative of the Naval Investigation Services was asking the Dodds family.

It was late in the morning, and several men and women were carrying out final investigations of the perimeter of the family home. The ambulance that Simon had called had never arrived. Instead, a military medical transport had showed up in its place, a number of heavily armed personnel accompanying the medical team into the house. In addition, a large area around the house and orchards had been sealed off; the workers arriving that morning were turned away.

He was lying there, face down in the dirt,” Gregory said, pointing at the spot where they had found Dean. “How much longer is this going to take? You've been here for bloody hours. I've got pickers and harvesters waiting to get to work.”

I just need to ensure I have all the details down, Mr Dodds,” the representative said, tapping away with a stylus at some sort of PDA-like device. “After you found him, what did you do next?”

Oh, for the love of God!” Gregory glowered. “Are you deaf? You've asked me that twice already!”

Dad, don't worry, I'll deal with this,” Simon said, seeing the last lingering thread of his father's patience about to snap. “Go and check that they're not destroying the entire house.” Simon watched as his grumbling father departed with his mother, and then turned back to the representative. “We brought him inside and called for an ambulance. The medical services told us it would be over half an hour before they could get to us, so we attempted to patch him up ourselves.”

The man nodded and tapped some more. “According to your phone records, you waited a good twenty-five minutes after that before placing the call to the nearest military hospital about Lieutenant Commander Dean's condition. Why did you wait so long?” He kept the device in his hand held up. Simon suspected it was recording everything that was being said.

I considered that he may have been taking part in a classified mission and I needed to be sure I wouldn't be putting the operation or its participants at risk, by drawing attention to his presence.” Simon stopped short of telling him about Dean's objection to the call for an ambulance or other medical assistance.

The representative, however, seemed satisfied. “Okay, that's fine. I can appreciate that it was a difficult position you found yourself in. You made the right decision, though.”

Simon exhaled a little. For a moment it had felt like he was back in court.

Am I right in believing that you're currently in the service of the Confederation Stellar Navy yourself?” the representative said.

That's right,” Simon said.

Could you please state your full name and rank?”

Second Lieutenant Simon Dodds.”

The man tapped away at the digital assistant in his hand and waited for it to retrieve the information he was after. “Hmm. Says here that you have served for just under ten years and been a part of the White Knights squadron for quite some time.” Another tap. “It also says that you're currently on suspension from active service. Reinstatement not due for at least another six to seven weeks, pending the outcome of further hearings.”

Yep,” Simon said, hoping the NIS representative would finish there. He didn't, and there was more tapping at the device, followed by a whistle.

Court-martialled back at the beginning of December, on two counts of involuntary manslaughter, as well as disobeying orders during—”

Yes, yes, we get the picture,” Simon interrupted, testily.

So, this all correct?”

Yes,” Simon said, trying not to glare.

May I ask where you've been and what you've been doing for the last four-and-a-half months?”

I've been working here.”

Doing what, exactly?”

Simon looked at the man with disdain. What kind of stupid question was that? “What the hell do you think? I've been picking apples!”

Cool it, Lieutenant. I'm just trying to get all the facts here.” More tapping. “You've not been anywhere else? Not left the country or the planet?”

No. That's actually part of the conditions of my suspension.”

Fine,” the representative said. “Did Dean speak much before his death?”

Only to tell me that he had ejected from his Tactical Assault Fighter, though I never heard it come down. It's pretty quiet around here, so I'm sure it would have woken me up. He didn't manage to tell me how he got all those bullet wounds, either.”

The TAF has been taken care of,” the man stated bluntly, without raising his eyes from the digital assistant.

It has? Simon felt a little puzzled. “Where did it come down?” he asked, turning about. He half-expected to see a plume of smoke rising from somewhere in the distance. “Not in one of the orchards?” If the TAF had come down, wouldn't there be some sign of its crash? And come to think of it, where was Dean's parachute? That was another thing unaccounted for.

There's no need to be concerned about that, Lieutenant. As I said, it's been taken care of.” The man raised his eyes from his PDA. “Now, you're sure he didn't say anything else?”

Simon felt as though the man was suggesting that he might be trying to hide something. “I'm sure.”

A further, seemingly intentional, pause from the NIS representative.

Simon remained silent. He wasn't about to add anything.

Very well,” the rep said, before powering down the PDA and putting it away. “Thank you for your cooperation, Lieutenant. You can let your family know that we will shortly be departing.”

Simon went to rejoin his mother and father, whilst the representative fiddled with a device attached to his ear and spoke to confirm he was finished. Simon saw that his parents were hovering by the porch, trying to see inside the house. The navy had brought a great deal of equipment with them and Simon hoped that they weren't causing any damage. He imagined that his father would lose his mind if anything more were to happen.

Have you seen Socks?” Simon's mother asked him. “She must be absolutely terrified.”

Didn't she go upstairs? Maybe she's hiding under one of the beds—”

Oh! Excuse me, Lieutenant,” the NIS representative called out, interrupting him. “Just one thing before I go ...” He joined the three by the porch and made one last point clear – no one had come to the house that night and none of the Dodds family had ever heard of a man named Patrick Dean. Once they had confirmed they understood and agreed with what he had told them, he informed them – in rather chatty and pleasant tones – that they would have their ruined couch replaced later that day, or early the next. Their living room had also been thoroughly cleaned, leaving no trace of the incident. It would be as if nothing had ever happened.

* * *

Bloody pain in the arse,” Gregory grumbled as he and Simon tried to organise the orchard workers who had returned, following the navy's departure. Sally was attempting to coax Socks down from a tree that the cat had fled into. “Let's hope that it's at least another ten years before we see that lot again, eh?”

Simon said nothing. Given everything that had happened that morning, he wasn't entirely sure he could promise his father that.


An Unwelcome Visitor —

Simon stared down at the small sheet of paper on the desk in front of him, aware that he had been doing little else for a good thirty minutes now. In all that time, he had managed to write just five words.

Dear Mr and Mrs Castro,

After that, he hadn't known how to proceed. And how exactly did you, when you were writing a letter to the parents of a daughter you had killed?

He had mulled over several opening lines – “I am writing to you to express my deepest sympathies ...” No, that wasn't right. “I want to tell you how sorry I am that ...” That what? That I killed your daughter? No matter how many times he went over it in his head, he simply couldn't find the right way to convey his feelings. He wanted to write to the families of both Poppy Castro and Stefan Pitt, and tell them how truly sorry he was for what had happened. He wanted to let them know that, if he could do so, he would give anything to turn back time and set things right. He had said as much in the courtroom, already. Even so, from their reaction he was very certain that they hadn't been willing to accept his apologies.

He thought of that day in the courtroom. The dream he had experienced two weeks ago hadn't been wholly accurate – more a muddled amalgamation of the events of that day, combined with his own feelings of guilt. Twelve years at a penal colony was what the Judge Advocate had really sentenced him to. Some had called it too lenient; some, too harsh. Simon felt it was fair. The reaction of his victim's families had been an invention of his own imagination. They weren't aware of what had really happened, of how he had actually been driven to a starport, handed a bag of his personal possessions and told to pick out a destination for which he would spend the next six months on suspension. Commodore Elliott Parks had been there to see him off, but had offered little in the way of an explanation. No one had told the Castros or the Pitts. For all they knew, he was behind bars on some desolate waste of a planet, counting down the months and years until the day he would be free. Eleven years, seven months.

He looked around the small study of his parents' house. Much like the rest of the family home, it was decorated in a late twentieth century style. The floors were wooden, and a number of bookcases, stacked high with numerous novels, hardback reference manuals and photo albums, gave off an air of maturity. Colourful paintings and decorative plates hung on the walls and occupied other shelves, side-by-side with ornamental statues. A couple of candelabra-styled lights hung down from the ceiling. A clock, set upon the mantelpiece of the hearth, ticked quietly away.

All these things were in place to promote a traditional, old-school look-and-feel to visitors and investors in the Dodds' Orchard. As he was running an organic farm, Simon's father had wanted his home to be in-tune with and reflect the philosophy of their business. Of course, many of the modern workings of the house were in existence, though they were carefully hidden behind the fittings and fixtures.

Simon gazed at the furnishings of the room, hoping they might bring about some sort of inspiration for how he should write his letter. When they failed to do so, he turned on the radio. Maybe the lyrics of a good song would help.

... no let-up in the civil unrest, with fierce fighting continuing throughout much of the empire. Charlie Brunswick sent us this report –

The bombs continued to rain down on the capitals this week, as the emperor's forces attempted to flush out the Senate's loyalists and drive them away from inhabited planets. The scenes of Imperial warships facing off against one another, as we have already witnessed countless times over the past months, are looking unlikely to ease any time soon. The war is now close to entering its fifth year and there doesn't seem to be any end in sight to the fighting. The picture is looking ever more bleak for the civilians caught up in this political strife as, just last night, the truce negotiations between Fleet Admiral Zackaria and the Ministerial Envoy Extraordinaire broke down, with both sides once again failing to reach an agreement. The negotiations, which began earlier last week, were thought to be going well. But it seems that the Senate are unwilling to in any way alter, let alone abandon the stance they hold that—”

Simon clicked off the radio. No, news of the unending conflict within Mitikas certainly wasn't helping. If anything, it was making it even more difficult to write. He twirled the pen in his hand, drummed his fingers, sighed and then gave up. Maybe he should try drafting it on the computer, first ...


Or, maybe he could even ask his mother for help. “Yes?” he called back.

Where are you?”

In the study.”

His mother poked her head around the door. “What are you doing in here?”

Simon hesitated. Actually, he didn't really want his mother to know what he was doing. He wasn't meant to contact the families, either. “Just ... trying to write a letter,” he said.

To Estelle? Or Enrique, or another of your team?”

No,” Simon said, turning the sheet of paper over. “To someone else.”

Have you seen what's happening out front?”


Looks like someone from the navy might be here to see you. Dad's not happy.”

Simon heard the sound of his father's angry voice coming from somewhere beyond the front of the house. Great. It seemed like the letter would have to wait for another day. He rose from his chair and headed outside to see what was happening.

* * *

If the Confederation Stellar Navy's reappearance at the household was meant to have been discreet, then Simon's father had well and truly blown their cover. Gregory Dodds was cursing at the top of his voice and striding with great displeasure towards the naval transport craft that had landed close to the house. From the looks of things, it had touched down in one of the more spacious orchards, most likely damaging the valuable crop planted there, thus sending his father into this rage.

A representative from the shuttle was making his way up the track towards the house, removing what looked like a white envelope from within his jacket. He was wearing a formal uniform and sported a pair of dark glasses. If he was dressed to impress, then it'd had little impact on Gregory, who strode past him without a second glance, caring little for what he had to say and only for what was happening to his field.

Second Lieutenant Simon Dodds?” the representative asked, as Simon hurried after his father.

That's me,” Simon said, as they both began following Gregory down the track, in the direction of the transport.

This request came in from CSN HQ for you today. I should advise you that it is urgent.”

Simon took the envelope from the man and removed the single slip of folded paper from within. The letter was brief, but the message was clear – it called for his immediate return to duty.

His suspension was over. He couldn't believe it. Already? But why? He had only served five months of the six he had been handed. Odd. If anything, he would've expected his suspension to have run for far longer, whilst the CSN considered his reinstatement. Stranger still was that the request to return to duty had been presented in the form of a personal letter. A phone call would've been far easier and more appropriate. And why hand-deliver it? Was it really that urgent?

Do I have to leave right now?” Simon said.

No,” the man shook his head. “But I'd suggest you be prepared to do so early tomorrow morning.”

Was the request made on behalf of anyone in particular?” Simon said, turning the piece of paper over a few times.

I believe it was Commodore Parks,” the delegate confirmed. “Excuse me for a moment, Lieutenant.”

Simon turned again to the letter, looking back over the request and trying to find some kind of explanation.

I can assure you, sir, that a CSN investigator, and maybe even a government inspector if need be, will be dispatched to assess the possible damage,” he vaguely heard the messenger saying to his father, assuring him that the family business would be compensated for any untoward damage to his field.

No, that's not good enough!” Gregory bellowed back. “That's an organic field! We don't use chemicals or machinery to pick the produce. We do everything by hand, and you have gone and contaminated the entire region with your blatant stupidity! I can see you did your research before showing up! Another great example of military intelligence!”

Simon noted that workers handling various pieces of farming equipment and clutching baskets brimming with apples were looking from their employer to the naval delegate. His father really did know how to make a scene.

As I said, sir,” the officer continued, “I am sorry for any damage that we may have caused—”

And yet you are still not shutting off those damn engines!” Gregory said, throwing his hands up in the air in disbelief.

The shuttle's engines were slowly cooking the grass beneath it, and Simon could only guess at the long-term effects it might have on the crop and the subsequent impact to the business. The Dodds family owned several orchards and were proud to be one of the few upscale organic farms remaining in Ireland. Much of the produce was sold to be used in premium organic juices. The rest worked their way into stores throughout Western Europe.

As impressive as it was, Simon had had quite enough of apples for the time being. And right now, there were more important things he needed to be doing with his life.

* * *

Simon spent the afternoon stuffing clothes into a bag, in preparation for his departure. Before departing, the delegate had informed him that, should he choose to respond to the request, he should be ready to leave first thing the following morning.

If he chose to.

Simon wasn't actually too sure about that last bit. He was pretty certain that option was actually something of a fallacy.

His father's voice had drifted up the stairs to his room as he had packed. From what he caught, Simon could tell that he was expectant of not only a very large cheque from the CSN, but also an even bigger apology. The true extent of the damage had become clear once the CSN had departed, and it didn't make for pleasant viewing.

His father was still seething over the visit when Simon joined his parents at the dinner table. He shot Simon a dark look as he settled into his chair, leaving him in no doubt that his father was holding him at least partly responsible for the events of the past couple of weeks.

You know they probably only want you to come back and sign something so they can get shot of you,” Gregory muttered.

I doubt that,” Simon said, taking a sip of orange juice.

His father tutted. “Well, even if they don't, you should give it up, anyway. Get yourself a proper job.”

You don't have to go, you know,” his mother commented, as she deposited three plates of chicken, rice and salad on the table. “You could just stay here.”

Your mother's right,” Gregory muttered again, not giving Simon a chance to speak. “You should've just worked here, instead of joining the navy. You wouldn't have to worry about promotions, gruelling exercises, crap food or even chances of getting killed. You could be giving out the orders, instead of taking them. Other people would be doing all the work. I've been there myself, Simon. It's not worth it.”

Simon paused in the process of cutting into his chicken and set his knife and fork back down on the table. “Dad, you were never in the navy,” he said. “You worked as a finance trader for a bank in London. You spent a good twelve years doing that, mostly in the same office.”

Gregory waved his glass of red wine dismissively, but said nothing.

And the request is urgent,” Simon reminded him, not touching his food until he could gain some sort of support for his decision.

You'll be back here in a few days,” his father said, sipping the wine and reaching for a small granary roll.

In truth, his father wasn't being negative about Simon's ability or intentions to continue his career within the navy. He had just become used to having Simon around for the last few months. Simon had been in the service of the Confederation Stellar Navy for close to ten years, and his mother and father had missed seeing him grow into an adult.

Or at least that's what his mother had told him as she stood at his bedroom door that night, after his father had turned in. At that time, a small part of Simon didn't want to leave, having become comfortable back at the orchard, with his family close by. It was true – he could have a life here, make new friends and quite easily start over. And from the way some of the workers took a shine to him, he'd not be lonely for female company, either.

But a bigger part of him was set in the decision to return to service. Even his father's attempt at emotional blackmail couldn't dissuade him from responding to the CSN's request. Though he could just as well have refused it and then terminated his service, he didn't. He owed it to himself to put things right. He owed it to the families of those he had killed.

He rubbed at his wrists where the cuffs had been, even though there were no marks there. No visible one, anyway.

* * *

Simon made his goodbyes and left first thing the next morning, the shuttle that had come to collect him waiting further down the road this time. The interior of the transport was like that of a small private jet, if not quite as luxurious. A small screen, fixed to the left side of his seat, displayed their planned route, overlaid across a map of the known galaxy. A great number of inhabited and uninhabited star systems were dotted all over the chart.

The Helios Confederacy, home to Earth, lay on the right-hand side, its systems grouped quite closely together, though there were a few stragglers here and there. The Mitikas Empire, to the far left, comprised a far greater number of systems, all snuggled together like fish that had been dragged up in a net. Then there were the Independent worlds and states, running between the two huge nations like a gulf or a river, keeping them apart and acting as a buffer of sorts. Here and there throughout the declared Independent space, star systems were marked as being members of the Mitikas Empire, having been captured and integrated into the empire during the latter days of its expansion.

Simon's eyes lingered on a few of the systems that were labelled in a larger type than others – Sol and Gabriel, his former post, two of the more prominent members of the Confederation; Alba, one of the more powerful and prosperous of the Independents; Krasst and Kethlan of Mitikas, their lettering and stars rendered in red hues. For some reason, today the colour looked a little ominous compared to the whites and blues of the Independent and Confederate systems. He turned his mind to other things.

The captain of the shuttle had informed him of their destination once he had boarded, and he had been surprised to discover that he had been summoned not to a location within Sol, but to Indigo, another star system entirely. With the knowledge that the system he was travelling to was several hundred light years from Earth, Simon was confident that his reinstatement was assured. It was a long way to bring someone only to tell them that their services to the navy were no longer required. And, surely the only reason they were bringing him all the way out there was because they needed him back as soon as possible?

Despite this, Simon found himself considering his father's alternate explanation for his summons back to duty. What if he really was going to be discharged? It was possible that the committee and top brass needed him to come all the way out there so they could discharge him in the correct manner, being too busy to travel themselves? An absurd notion, yes, what with the possibilities of delegation, but he could never be entirely sure of how these things really worked.

Or perhaps what they're going to do is lock you away, like they should've done to start with.

Simon looked out at the stars as his transport craft awaited clearance to commence the jump from Sol to Indigo, and thought back upon the events that had led him to where he was now.

* * *

It was while flying with his own wing, the White Knights, and under the command of Anthony Hawke, a man whom he had failed to see eye to eye with since they first met, that Simon had disobeyed a direct order. It had had disastrous consequences.

A large separatist faction from an Independent world state had hidden themselves on the tiny Confederate world Peri, a planet barely any larger than Sol's own Pluto. Despite knowing the planet to be home to many planetary explorers and non-aligned research groups, the Confederation had allowed the faction to do so, intending to strike once its members were all together, thus bringing an end to their repeated acts of aggression. When the time came, the Confederation's armed forces had initiated Operation Clean Sweep, with the intention of simultaneously evacuating the explorers and eliminating the enemy. As night had fallen, landers had touched down, ground troops and vehicles streaming out. Large dropships had broken the atmosphere and deployed fighter craft, Simon and the White Knights amongst them.

Though it had started well, the operation had run into difficulties when reinforcement enemy fighter craft had made an unexpected appearance in the conflict zone. Following their arrival, Hawke had ordered the air support to pull back, concerned that the additional aerial combat would have a detrimental effect on the success of the mission, endangering the ground teams as the risk of fire to and from the surface increased.

As the squadrons had pulled back, Simon had witnessed two of his wingmates being brought down and, frustrated with the way things were going, had looped back around to try to prevent further losses. His efforts had resulted in his own fighter sustaining heavy damage and dropping from the sky. To his credit, and against all odds given the state of his craft, he had managed a rough ditch not far from a rescue point. In the confusion – and with the desire to get away from the advancing enemy lines as quickly as possible – Simon had retrieved a weapon from a downed soldier and headed towards the extraction zone.

It was at that point that he made his terrible mistake.

Whilst fleeing, he had been surprised by a group of men and women who had run into him. His survival instinct had kicked in immediately, causing him to open fire. It was only after blood had splattered the ground, soaking into the dark sand, colouring small rocks and pebbles, and covering the bodies of his victims, that he realised who he was shooting at.

For the unlawful killings of Poppy Castro and Stefan Pitt, the blatant disregard of orders, and the avoidable loss of a Tactical Assault Fighter, the court-martial had sentenced him to twelve years in prison. However, unofficially, he had only been suspended from duty for six months. Despite this, Simon had returned to Earth a broken man, not sure if he could ever face combat ever again.

Less than five months later, however, it looked as if he was being made to do so, whether he liked it or not.

* * *

After several hours travel, his transport arrived in the Indigo system, and not long after docked at Xalan Orbital Station, where he was to meet with Commodore Parks. Simon picked up his belongings and started out, readying himself to be known once again as ‘Dodds’. An attendant met him as he exited the shuttle and led him from the landing deck to a lift. Various corridors, doors and security checkpoints followed, the escort rushing him along, giving him no chance or place to stow his bag, which he lugged along behind him.

Second Lieutenant Simon Dodds to see the admiral,” the escort informed one of the two security guards standing outside the meeting room.


The message was communicated to someone standing within, after which the door was opened.

Fleet Admiral Turner is waiting for you inside,” one of the women guarding the door said, gesturing for him to proceed.

Admiral Turner?” Simon repeated, feeling his mouth go dry.

Yes, sir. Fleet Admiral Turner.”

Great. Yet another thing they'd neglected to put into the letter. Simon realised that his jaw had become slack. He shut his mouth and cleared his throat. “Thank you,” he said, and entered.

* * *

Dodds strode up to the front of the room, halting before the three men seated behind a long, well-polished wooden table. The door he'd come through clicked shut behind him as he set his bag down and removed his cap.

Second Lieutenant Simon Dodds reporting as requested, sir,” he presented himself, saluting. He stood in full naval dress – a pair of dark blue trousers and blazer, with gold trims and buttons. On his feet he wore a pair of gleaming black shoes, of which, for some reason, he had suddenly become quite conscious. Perhaps it was because of the clamorous clopping sound they made as he walked, announcing his arrival far more than he would've liked.

There was no response from any of the men behind the table. The admiral, seated in the middle, glanced briefly at him, before he continued to leaf through a number of sheets of paper in front of him, with seeming deliberate slowness.

Behind the desk, a window that made up the entire back wall permitted a view of the twinkling stars outside. Dodds forced himself not to be distracted by the sight. His eyes tracked over the three men in front of him. Elliot Parks and Anthony Hawke sat either side of Turner, both waiting patiently for the admiral to begin. Aside from the three senior officers, only two other people occupied the room – both armed security personnel, guarding the closed door at the other end, rifles drawn but pointed down. Dodds started to get the impression that what was about to be discussed was confidential. After some time, Turner gathered together the papers and looked up, clasping his hands together on the desk before him.

Before we begin, Lieutenant Dodds, I have a question,” Turner said.

Yes, sir.”

Tell me – what does the name ‘Lieutenant Commander Patrick Dean’ mean to you?”

He was a TAF pilot, sir. He flew with the Yellow Dogs and was recently fatally injured in the line of duty,” Dodds said earnestly, recalling the events of the day he had encountered the wounded man.

Wrong answer, Dodds,” Turner said, with clear false patience. “I'll ask you again – who is Lieutenant Commander Patrick Dean?”

Dodds noticed that all three men behind the desk were watching him carefully, and he felt his grip nervously tighten on the cap that he held by his side. He grasped where the admiral's question was leading him, remembering what he had been told the morning of Dean's death. “I don't know, sir. I've never heard of him.”

Excellent,” Turner said, “neither have I.” He sat up straight, appearing satisfied with the point he had made.

What is it about Dean? Dodds wondered. So many questions.

Shall we get this underway, then?” the admiral asked of Parks and Hawke, before turning back to Dodds. “There are three reasons why you have been brought out here today, Lieutenant; none of which should be allowed to go to your head.

First and foremost – it is after considerable discussion that we have decided that your suspension from duty has been sufficient. You should have had adequate time during that period to reflect upon your actions and realise just how serious and costly your mistakes were.”

Yes, sir,” Dodds said, straightening. “During my suspension, I spent a lot of time—”

Secondly,” Turner continued, raising his voice and hinting for Dodds to silence his own, “human naval resources are at an all-time low, and we need every man and woman we can get. You may be aware of the on-going problems we are facing securing Confederation interests against increasing insurgency, as well as the not so insubstantial threat posed by the Mitikas civil war. The war is now causing unrest in a number of Independent star systems; unrest and disturbance that could eventually spill over into Confederation-controlled space. Should that happen, we can be assured that immigrants will pour into our own systems, bringing refugees, criminals, bounty hunters and even more insurgents along with them. There is potential for rising anarchy in some of our less well-defended systems, and so, in order to pre-empt such an event, we need to increase naval presence along our borders.”

Dodds saw the map he had studied for the last few hours once more in his head, and focused on the former Independent worlds that had been swallowed up by the empire. He couldn't quite imagine the reverse happening, the Confederacy fragmenting and becoming a cluster of unrelated independent nations, as Turner seemed to be suggesting. He might not know a great deal about the history of the galaxy, but he assumed that the Confederation was more stable than most other places, and considerably more so than some of the Independents. The image evaporated as Turner continued speaking.

This is a point that needs to be understood by all naval personnel – the relationship between the Imperial Senate and the emperor is now strained beyond repair. As such, the Confederacy has begun the recall of all diplomatic staff, as have a number of Independent nations. You may hear talk of parts of the empire having been almost entirely annihilated, but despite this the Confederation will not be sending forces into any part of the region in an attempt to bring about stability.”

Dodds had heard a lot about the issues plaguing the empire, the events now a regular feature of many news broadcasts. The trouble was that since it had become such a common item, he had almost stopped paying attention to it altogether. It had become background noise to him.

Simon glanced at Parks and Hawke. Each looked straight at him, as Turner did, their faces impassive. They were both in their forties and of similar height, although Parks appeared somewhat thinner than Hawke, both in the body and face. Strands of silvery grey were quite prominent throughout Parks' thinning black hair, though absent from Hawke's. Dodds also noticed how Parks seemed to have aged dramatically in the few short months since he had last seen him. Parks now looked older than Hawke, despite being a good six or seven years younger. In strange contrast, Hawke appeared much healthier. Fresh-faced, the man was positively glowing. Turner was the eldest of the three. Dodds was sure Turner was somewhere in his early sixties, close to retirement.

And finally, Lieutenant,” Turner went on, “it is my privilege to inform you—

Dodds detected a hint of sarcasm in the admiral's voice.

“—that you have been recommended and subsequently selected for participation in the CSN's latest technological endeavour. It's not a decision that I can say I entirely agree with—”

Parks turned his head only a minute amount to acknowledge the somewhat reproachful look he was given by Turner.

“—but your flight profile, along with your usual ability to work well within a team, meant you fit the bill.”

Thank you, sir,” Dodds said. “It will be a privilege to take part.”

Turner gave what sounded like an unconvinced snort, then said, “Tell me, Lieutenant, has anyone discussed with you anything about the ATAF project?”

ATAF, sir?”

Advanced Tactical Assault Fighter.”

No, sir. I don't think anyone has ever mentioned it to me.”

As it should be,” Turner said. “The project is strictly on a need-to-know basis and, as of this moment, you are not to discuss it with anyone not directly involved in the test evaluations. To do so would result in a punishment far worse than a mere suspension from service. Am I making myself clear?”

Yes, sir.”

Good. That is all I wish to say,” Turner concluded, sliding the papers in front of him back into their folder. “I didn't intend for this to be a long meeting, so I will wrap things up here. So, unless there is anything else that needs to be added ...”

I'm sorry, Admiral, but I must once again reiterate my objection to this man's reinstatement into active service!” Hawke suddenly spat, not leaving Turner's question hanging for long. “He is cocky, arrogant, and insubordinate, a danger to himself, his squadron and the navy's very reputation. The suspension he received for his offences was far too lenient a punishment. He should rightly be spending the rest of his life behind bars.”

Dodds sighed inwardly. The moment he had entered the meeting room and seen Hawke seated alongside Turner and Parks, he'd known there would be problems.

I do not doubt for even one second that this man will continue to mock the chain of command if back in service,” Hawke went on, glaring at Dodds. “If his services to the navy truly are required, then it would be better if he were reassigned to logistics, where he—”

That will do, Commodore. I am fully aware of your objections,” interrupted Turner, waving him down. “There is no need for the repetition of your original statement; I read it carefully when you submitted it. Now, aside from that, is there anything else you wish to add?”

Hawke looked back to Dodds, a dark scowl across his face. “No, Admiral, I have nothing further to add.”

Dodds felt a small sense of relief swell within him. How Hawke loved to gloat. Should Turner have agreed with the man's suggestion, Hawke's eyes would have been filled with malicious satisfaction, the very same pleasure that Simon had seen register during his court-martial, the moment the guilty verdict had been brought against him. But thankfully not now. Hawke had been denied such delight today. He'd have to find it at another time, in another place. Preferably with someone else.

Dodds' eyes were drawn to a crimson mark that had appeared just above Hawke's top lip, and noticed that his nose had started to bleed. Hawke, too, became aware of the flow and rummaged around in a pocket, producing a lily-white handkerchief just as a drop of blood slid down from his nose and splattered soundlessly onto the table in front of him. The man placed the handkerchief under his nose and tipped his head forward, waiting for the bleeding to stop, keeping his eyes on Dodds as he did so. It wasn't as though his nose was gushing, but it was obvious that it was more than a few drops.

Dodds found it strange how, even though Parks and Turner looked over to Hawke to see what the cause of his sudden discomfort was, they gave his abrupt nosebleed no more than a common courtesy, before refocusing their attention on Dodds.

We must press on, gentlemen,” Turner said. “Time is not a commodity we can currently afford to waste. Lieutenant Dodds, I am hereby reinstating you in active duty. Commodore Parks will brief you shortly.” He gestured to one of the guards standing by the door, who promptly strode forward to Dodds' side. “Mr Sears here will escort you to a suitable waiting room, where the commodore will meet you. Should you need anything in the meantime, please inform him. You are dismissed, Lieutenant.”

Thank you, sir,” Dodds said, replacing his cap and saluting, before picking up his bag of meagre belongings and making to leave.

Lieutenant Dodds,” the admiral's voice called to him as he crossed the room.


With regard to the statement that Commodore Hawke gave – while the CSN does indeed need every good pilot it can get, I will have absolutely no qualms whatsoever with immediately dismissing from duty anyone whose actions put the lives of other service personnel at risk. Or whose reckless actions result in critical mission failures, directly or indirectly.” He pointed a stiff finger, as though speaking to a dissident schoolboy. “Do not let your selection into the ATAF project and the early end to your suspension make you believe you are invincible, Lieutenant. The day you do a good job, I will be the one to let you know. Do you understand that?”

Yes, sir. Fully, sir,” Dodds saluted once more, before continuing out.

* * *

Dodds jumped to his feet as he heard the door of his assigned waiting room open, almost spilling the glass of water he held, and stood to attention as Parks entered.

At ease, Lieutenant,” Parks said, allowing him to drop his salute. “Welcome back, Dodds. And welcome to the Indigo system, I might add.”

The room granted its occupants an impressive view of the planet below them, a view Dodds had spent the last half-hour staring out at. He often made a habit of looking out at the stars, sometimes just in appreciation, but most of the time because it helped him to think. He found the frequently tranquil views to be rather therapeutic.

I trust you had a good journey here,” Parks said.

Uneventful,” Dodds shrugged.

You spent your entire suspension on Earth?”

Yes, sir. With my parents. I was giving them a hand with the business. I felt it would do me some good to focus my mind on other things for a while.”

Parks nodded, but said nothing. There probably really wasn't much to say to that. His eyes gave Dodds a once-over. “Good to see you didn't come back soft and out of shape after all that time away. Too many do so after only a few weeks of leave.” He came to stand with Dodds by the window. “Xalan,” he nodded to the planet below, “where you will be spending the next three weeks training for the ATAF project. Both Admiral Turner and I will also be stationed there during that period, to oversee your progress.”

Who else will be there?” Dodds asked, figuring that he wouldn't be the sole participant in the training program. He had a hunch that his former wingmates were on the surface.

Aside from yourself and your former squadron, there will be two other teams of five undergoing the evaluations. At the end of the three-week period, the team which has successfully completed all the evaluations and passed the final examination will be the one we select to pilot the ATAFs.”

Can I ask what the overall purpose of the evaluations is, sir?” It was a slightly different approach to the usual test-piloting that Dodds was familiar with. It seemed to imply a greater intention.

I'm afraid that's classified, Dodds,” Parks said, “and I should also remind you that this isn't an individual exercise, either. Your success or failure during these tests will be governed by your ability to work as a team and follow orders.”

Dodds could feel Parks' stare boring into him, even before he turned to meet it.

Don't screw this up, Dodds,” Parks said, his mood suddenly quite serious.

I won't, sir,” Dodds said earnestly. Though he enjoyed a good relationship with Parks – or maybe it was that Parks just tolerated him better than most others – he knew that the commodore was only prepared to cut him so much slack.

I sure hope you mean that, Lieutenant,” Parks said, walking towards the door.

Sir, if I may ask another question?”

Go ahead.”

Why the suspension? Why not prison?” After all, didn't he at least now deserve an explanation?

Parks paused for a moment, as if mulling over his answer. “I'll give you the same answer now as I did then – it's complicated. The best I can tell you is that we thought that putting you in prison wasn't the way we wished to respond to the incident, and that suspending you from duty was more appropriate.”

The questions remained; more were being added. Still no answers. An explanation for why he had spent five months on Earth was apparently unimportant. Dodds felt he was no closer to getting closure on the topic that continued to haunt him. He was sure his disappointment was showing, but Parks didn't seem in any way bothered. “I—” he started.

Now,” Parks said, as if not hearing him, “whilst you're here, you may as well attend a medical examination before leaving for Xalan. Your squadron arrived a few days ago, so they will be able to show you around. de Winter will also introduce you to your new team-mate.”

New team-mate?” Dodds said, starting after Parks. “Who quit?”

No one, Dodds. Wells is dead.”

Dodds halted. “Jon's dead?”

Parks nodded.

What happened?”

The Ray he was flying suffered a mid-air collision with another, which had suffered an engine failure. Wells blew his canopy, but didn't manage to get out before the craft hit the ground. Both he and his co-pilot, your own replacement, were killed instantly in the impact.”

Dodds swore.

The cause of the failure is still being investigated, but it is thought to be an isolated incident. I'm surprised you didn't know.”

I've being deliberately staying disconnected from anything to do with naval events,” Dodds responded, now he was wishing that he hadn't.

Well, I'm sorry that you had to find out this way. As I said, de Winter will introduce you to your new team-mate when you arrive at your assigned housing block.”

Dodds said nothing, he was still reeling from the news. Jon was dead; he'd never see him again. He'd known him for years. As he did with Enrique, Estelle and Kelly, he felt as if the man was part of his extended family.

Come on, Lieutenant,” Parks said, hovering in the doorway, “we have a lot to get through before we leave.”

Dodds picked up his bag and followed the commodore out, his head swimming with thoughts. He got the feeling that a lot had happened while he had been away, and suspected that this wouldn't be the only stirring news that he would be receiving. The deaths within his flight group had hit home particularly hard. The casual way Parks had delivered the news, acting as if there were far more pressing concerns than keeping pilots alive, had done anything but soften the blow.

He wondered what other important pieces of information Parks might be holding back.