XXVIII

Trifmara sat on the walkway that ran all along the wall of Saisanai's largest docking bay, playing with her hair. In the low gravity, thin strands of the ginger stuff floated up around her; as she let her mind dwell over disjointed, half-formed thoughts, she tried to arrange her hair to float out from her head in every direction. Foremost among her musings was curiosity about Casey's whereabouts, and she made a vague resolution to contact him later.

"I kinda wish I could stay," she heard Falnec say from further along the walkway. He sat next to Fox, but Trifmara had tuned out on their conversation earlier when they started talking about girls. "I mean, I know I should go back—my family probably think I'm dead, so I should go back to them, and I'll probably be needed to fight."

"The Alliance really is screwed if they need to use Cadets," Trifmara muttered, abandoning her attempt to mould her hair. It was difficult to be light-hearted at the mention of war.

"Third Years have always been used as reserves," Falnec replied with a hint of annoyance.

"You could just contact your family, let them know you're alive, and then stay here," Fox said.

"No." Falnec shook his head. "I should go back. I'm in the Carreneid Space Force, and that's where I belong."

"Suit yourself," Trifmara said, "but stop whining about it."

The sound of someone approaching obstructed Falnec's planned retort. Trifmara glanced over her shoulder and saw a tall redhead walking towards them. "Which of you's Falnec Ñeomirren?" he asked.

"Me."

"Shuttle's ready to leave."

"Okay."

Falnec stood up and slung his small bag over his shoulder. Turning to Fox, who had also got up, he said, "It was good to see you. Good luck with whatever you do here."

"Yeah, you too," Fox said, smiling.

Trifmara pushed herself up a bit too strongly on purpose, allowing herself a grin as she floated towards Falnec for a few seconds before her feet touched metal.

"Good to meet you, too," he said.

"Even though you don't trust me?"

He shrugged. "Trust takes time." Then, leaning forwards, he kissed her softly on the lips. "See you around."

"Yeah."

She and Fox watched as Falnec followed the redhead inside a nearby shuttle. A short while later, guidance systems carried it to the bay doors, which cracked open just wide enough to admit the ovoid craft into the glittery maw of space. Force fields contained the atmosphere within Saisanai and held the vacuum out.

"Well, that was unexpected," Trifmara said, touching her lips, as the bay doors shut.

"He thinks you're hot."

"That's nice." Though she didn't quite know what to think about Falnec's sudden show of affection, she did know that she still found Wil far more attractive. And incalculably more unobtainable, she thought with a quirk of her mouth.

Footfalls behind them drew the pair's attention, and they turned around to see Ben Karàlüpiàth stop a few paces away. "We have intelligence about the location of the amplifiers."

"The what?" Trifmara asked.

Continuing without answering her question, Ben said, "There's a mission briefing in fifteen minutes. Some of us from Saisanai will be helping the Alliance destroy the amplifiers. You two are perfectly suited for this mission."

"What are the amplifiers?"

"Follow me."

-oOo-

A holographic representation of Mimas hung in the centre of the tactics room, casting a pale glow on the faces of the eighty people assembled. The bowl-shaped floor afforded them all a perfect view, even those who, like Trifmara and Fox, stood at the very back.

At the centre stood Ben, Louka and three other people. Aaliyah sat in a silver chair next to them, undersized legs crossed in front of her.

"The amplifier is located in the northern hemisphere," said one of the other people in the centre, a dark-skinned man who had earlier identified himself as Ost Ginwe. The hologram focused on a point in the hemisphere that looked no different to the endless ice around it. "This image is from a high-focus spy satellite the Alliance managed to slip into the system. Heat traces, though faint, do confirm a presence here, as does evidence of signal traffic." In succession, two different images of the same spot appeared—the first showing weak smudges of heat amidst the frozen expanse and the second a tangle of green lines that Trifmara assumed represented signals.

"I won't go into details," Louka said, "but the intelligence that located all four amplifiers followed signal traces. Importantly, we can see a three-dimensional representation of the signal traffic, which gives us an initial indication of the layout in there."

The hologram changed again, showing the green lines in a 3D matrix.

"This has allowed us to pinpoint what we think are defensive points within the subterranean structure," Louka continued. "A Carreneid special operations team will enter the complex ahead of us and determine the exact layout, and hopefully neutralise as many of the enemy as possible. Then an Alliance team, supplemented by some of us, will arrive with the big guns to finish it off."

"Guess the Alliance like to use us 'cuz we're more expendable than their people," Trifmara muttered to Fox, smiling humourlessly.

Once again the hologram changed, showing Teñeli.

Ost and Louka ran through the basics for each of the invaded worlds, then read out the names of who would be taking part at each location. Both Trifmara and Fox had been assigned to the Mimas mission, and were called along with almost twenty others to Louka for a more detailed brief.

"First of all, we are not being used as cannon fodder," Louka said once she'd led them into an adjoining room. "You nineteen will provide valuable support to the Alliance forces—every one of you has a Combat Rating of five."

All 'lancers were hired for particular jobs on the basis of their rating in that field, with five being the highest attainable. They had to retake the rating tests annually if they wanted potential employers to respect their grade. Fox had taken the combat test for the first time less than a day ago, easily earning a five. There were moments he moved so fast I could barely follow him, Trifmara remembered. Really should see if he'll fight me. Reckon I could learn a few moves off him.

"Snow storms almost permanently cloak the northern hemisphere at this time of year, affording us a measure of cover. Along with the Alliance team, we'll be divided into nine Rocs—Carreneid transport crafts with decent attack and defence capabilities—so any anti-air defences near the amplifier will have more to aim at…"

The briefing continued for about half an hour as Louka ran through what seemed a sound plan, after which she answered any questions.

"We leave in an hour," the woman said at the end. "Get some energy in you and meet me at launch ramp 7M."

-oOo-

Chatting amiably or waiting in silence, the group of nineteen men and women stood on the metal walkway in a smaller docking bay. Light blue lettering behind them read '7M' and a sleek black craft, shaped like an angular bird, waited alongside the ramp stretching out into the cavern.

Moving fluidly in the low gravity, Louka approached them, did a quick head count and said, "Ready? Let's go."

A sleek, pale grey battlesuit covered Louka's body from the tops of her white boots to her neck. Trifmara recognised the material as exoweave, and not for the first time wished she could afford some for herself. With a semiautomatic holstered on each hip, and a compact helmet tucked under her arm, Louka looked ready for battle. Trifmara felt underdressed next to her. But with her wider arsenal and Aria abilities, the girl was confident she would fare well.

She boarded the sleek craft behind Louka and the others. They strapped themselves into the seats and, minutes later, felt a slight sensation of motion as the craft moved towards the bay doors.

A brief journey later, they connected to a small orbital station and disembarked. A dark-skinned man waited for them within. He introduced himself as Captain Jerrel and told them to follow him.

Through uniform grey corridors they walked, soon reaching a docking bay that contained nine crafts. Rocs, Trifmara remembered Louka calling them: a similar basic design as fighters, but bulkier, large enough to carry a small unit of thirty or so troops and equipped with powerful weaponry. "You're all clear on what happens once we reach Mimas?" Louka asked the small group. Nods all round answered her question. "Good. Keep fighting strong." Inclining her head to Jerrel, she let him take over. He split the 'lancers into pairs or threes and directed them to a Roc.

"Good luck," Fox said to Trifmara just before they separated.

"You too. See you at the amplifier."

Alongside another 'lancer, Trifmara approached her assigned craft at a brisk pace and stepped through the open hatch on its side. She found herself in the troop compartment, with soldiers strapped in on both sides. Wearing exoweave unigarments and their helmets, they appeared so similar that Trifmara couldn't see any obvious distinguishing features besides height.

Their commanding officer stood up, helmet tucked under her long arm. "Captain Liss," she said by way of greeting. "I assume you know what you're doing?"

"Yeah," Trifmara said, while the other 'lancer nodded.

Liss' eyes narrowed. "That's 'Yes, Sir' or 'Yes, Captain' while you're working with me. You don't get special treatment because you're not Space Force."

"Yes, Sir," said the other 'lancer, and Trifmara grudgingly followed suit a moment later.

With a wordless nod, Liss picked a pair of whitish-blue unigarments and helmets from her seat and passed them to the pair. "Thermal wear and battle suit all in one," the Captain explained, seeing the questioning looks on their faces. "We don't know what temperature the complex will be and you'll definitely need it if you're outside for whatever reason."

Uncomfortably aware of many anonymous eyes, partially concealed behind the helmets' visors, aimed in her direction, Trifmara shed her arsenal and boots and pulled the unigarment over her clothes. It shifted to fit her form perfectly and allowed complete freedom of movement. From those soldiers nearby she detected curious gazes directed at her viblade but none of them spoke.

Her helmet's webbing held her tight bun in place and the filmy visor slid over her face to protect it from the elements. A shiver snaked through Trifmara at the alien sensation of having her head totally encased, but she repressed her discomfort. If she got caught outside on Mimas for whatever reason, she would need it.

When the two 'lancers had donned their gear, Liss gestured at two empty seats and said, "Get yourselves strapped in. Your neighbours will give you a hand if you have any difficulties. We deploy in two minutes."

Vast ice fields rushed past as the Roc sped north. The moon looked still, lifeless, but Trifmara knew that somewhere ahead waited a subterranean Krak'vi fortification, and elsewhere on the world Krak'vi forces were consolidating their hold while the remnants of the world's Space Force began guerrilla operations. The amplifiers' remote location prohibited local help, but when the time came to reclaim the moon Trifmara expected the guerrilla forces would prove critical or at least useful.

"Six minutes ETA," announced the pilot. "Just got a comm from the Strike Team—they sent a detailed layout, including the key defensive positions and suggestions for where we might want to create hold points, as well as routes for each unit. Images coming through now."

Holographic projections shimmered to life in the centre of the troop compartment. "Okay, guys, take a good look at these," Liss said. "They'll be available in your helmet's visual feed but let's get as acquainted as possible now."

Trifmara listened attentively while the Captain ran through the images, highlighting their route and where they would likely encounter resistance.

"One minute ETA. So far no sign of— Shit!"

Despite the Roc's velocity diffusers, everyone felt the motion of the pilot's evasive manoeuvres. The straps in their seats tightened, holding them secure against the cushioned walls. Her position granted Trifmara a view into the comcen, allowing her to see the approaching missiles on a subscreen. They pursued the Roc like a swarm of moskies, following it whichever way it turned and frequently darting in to strike. Almost unaware of what she was doing, Trifmara tightly gripped the edge of her seat in anticipation of a successful hit.

The pilot had a few tricks up his sleeve: several EMP cannons for all ranges and attack lasers to pick off those that made it to close proximity, not to mention a highly reinforced exterior, accompanied his skilled flying. After several minutes Trifmara felt herself relax marginally, then she saw the increased number of missiles approaching and felt dread well up within her.

"EMP those bastards and attack the source!" Liss shouted.

"Doing that!" the pilot shouted back, but he didn't act quickly enough. Thirty missiles circled around the Roc and attacked all at once. Though Trifmara couldn't see the subscreens clearly enough, it looked like the craft's defence systems managed to destroy twenty-nine.

One was enough.

It tore through a weakened spot in the Roc's hull and exploded, sending tongues of flame and whipping debris through the interior. Trifmara threw her arms up to shield her face, an instinct the visor's protection didn't negate. Fire-extinguishing liquid sprayed from all directions and autofix gel tried to cover the gaping hole, but the Roc was definitely going down. The pilot's dead body slumped over the shrapnel-punctured console attested to that. Trifmara could do nothing more than brace for the inevitable impact.

Force slammed into her, bruising where the restraints held her safely in place but otherwise doing no harm. A moment later, everything went still. The only noises were the engine whirring down, cracks and groans from the ice and the craft as they absorbed the crash's force and the sound of water, melted by the impact, dripping through the ragged hole.

Trifmara realised she was shaking. She unclasped the straps and dropped to the floor, treading carefully as the water made it slippery. Where the missile had torn through the Roc there were no soldiers; splashes of red and scraps of material told their fate. In the middle of the compartment she saw pieces of men and women, severed arms and torsos and other parts, some still bleeding and others cauterised by the explosion's heat. Fighting back shivers, she turned her gaze to those near her. Large pieces of shrapnel had killed two, while three others slumped forwards, motionless, in their straps. Liss was one of them. Attempts to rouse them proved futile, though she did find strong pulses on their throats. The other 'lancer was dead, and she dimly thought she hadn't even known his name. It occurred to her that she had only retained consciousness because she was so much smaller than the man next to her; he had acted as a shield protecting her from the worst of the explosion.

"Right," she whispered, speaking more for the comfort of a human voice than anything else. She crouched down and looked under the seats, and after a short search found several thermal blankets. Snow was beginning to fall heavily through the hole and she could hear a howling wind outside. The storm. We must have crashed in a lull. A glance through the comcen screen saw snow falling in a curtain, obscuring more than a metre's view.

After draping the blankets over the survivors, she climbed into the comcen and examined the console. It looked pretty inactive, and she had no idea what panel or icons constituted the comm. "Fuck." Her voice carried less reassurance than before. She glanced back at the survivors, wondering if she could rouse one of them. Again, her lack of knowledge impeded action. She found a medikit but, aside from recognising healing salve and bandage and painkillers, had no idea what the rest did. "Couldn't just stick a label on them saying 'This'll wake 'em up', could they?" she muttered, running her gaze over the assorted drugs. "Adrenalin. Would that wake them up? And what the fuck is that?" Even though she didn't know the unconscious soldiers, she didn't feel like experimenting on them. Not yet, anyway.

She couldn't remain still for long. Carefully putting aside the medikit, she walked back through the Roc to the hole. A view of swirling snow greeted her, and she could feel the strong wind pressing against her even though the unigarment protected her from its icy bite. For all I know, there's an automatic distress signal already being sent. What would I find out there? A magic doorway? Ha!

She jumped down to the snow anyway, filled with a need to be doing something, anything. Her feet sank several centimetres but beneath the surface coat it felt firm. Evidently the low temperature froze the snow before it formed large drifts. Taking careful steps away from the Roc, she quickly found herself buffeted on all sides by powerful gusts and questioned the wisdom of her action. Better than sitting on my arse doing nothing, she thought, and kept walking.

The crashed craft soon disappeared from sight but the thermal readout on the helmet's visor kept her aware of its location. Groans still sounded from the ice, the only suggestion of anything else on the moon beyond herself. Mimas was a bleak world from the little of it she saw, and after a while she decided to head back.

As she turned around, the ice under her feet gave a groaning shudder and fell away.

Shock froze screams in her throat. She fell in a small shower of ice and snow, with just enough time for terror to shoot through her veins, before her fall was broken by a resounding crack in her leg, a jarring thud that knocked the air from her lungs and sudden, pain-free blackness.

The snow continued to fall.

-oOo-

Blood trickled over his visor, momentarily blinding Fox. Wiping it away, he spared a brief glance for the remains of Krak'vi soldiers caught in the explosion before charging forwards with the rest of the Carreneid unit. Adrenalin surged through him in resurgent waves and in the moments he didn't have to shoot or defend himself, he was filled with a sense of belonging; working with the soldiers reminded him of his childhood desire to join the Carreneid Space Force. Maybe once this shit is over. He quickly pushed the thought aside as the unit came under fire from overhead turrets.

"Turn left at the next intersection," spoke a voice through the comm in his helmet, and through the comms of every man and woman in the unit. "Deploy EMPs to destroy the Shields—there are several of them with remote generators, and you'll need to destroy them all—and you'll be at the amplifier. We've eliminated the resistance inside."

The Strike Team member's words earned an enthusiastic chorus of cheers from the soldiers, and over them the unit commander shouted, "Let's go!"

Rounding the corner, they faced an array of turrets that made the previous section's defence look paltry. At the end of the corridor, a series of Shields protected a reinforced door.

"Fire the EMPs! Everyone else, destroy those turrets!"

At first they had to back away from the deluge of bullets, allowing grenades to take the edge off before several of the best shooters leaned around the corner to snipe at the turrets. As the inundation lessened they partially stepped into the corridor, allowing Fox and the others to add their firepower to the attack. The three men wielding EMP blasters began taking out the Shields, one by one.

By means of attrition the Carreneid team forced their way through, until they stood in front of the reinforced metal door. In the entire assault, they had lost four of their number and suffered no serious casualties. "We're through," the unit commander said, and seconds later the door swung open. Three grey-clad men stood beyond it: members of the Strike Team.

They nodded a greeting and beckoned the unit inside. Two units already waited within, attaching explosive charges to the massive device in the centre. The amplifier, Fox thought as his gaze roved over the large structure. Protrusions and wires meant nothing to him, but its deadly purpose was fixed firmly in his mind.

Dead men lay in small piles around the room, their dark grey unigarments stained with blood and other fluids. Fox saw only one Strike Team member among the fallen; they certainly lived up to their reputation.

A group of men and women stood at one side of the amplifier, examining its innards. Panels of metal casing lay behind them, edges burnt from where a laser had been used to cut them off. The softer figures of the group belied their non-combatant nature; scientists, Fox assumed. He managed to catch a glimpse inside the machine as his unit approached it; with a deep sense of shock he noticed blue fluid running through clear pipes and, in places where they had been ruptured, over the scientists' hands. He knew that colour.

Not requiring a command, a pair of soldiers at the rear of their unit approached the amplifier and began fastening their share of the explosives to it. Only a third of the explosives carried by the nine units was required to destroy the subterranean complex; nonetheless, when a fourth unit reached the core room they didn't hesitate to utilise their charges. Good thing we brought too much, Fox thought, remembering that three Rocs had been destroyed before reaching the base.

As they took up defensive positions in case of a counterattack, Fox searched for Trifmara but saw no hint of her small form. He did see Louka, though, as she approached his unit with her usual strong gait. "Did Suman fall?" she asked, referring to the other 'lancer in the unit.

"Yes."

Louka nodded. "Thank you for helping us. It's really appreciated."

"No problem. I want to do anything to stop Nakem." Before she could move on, he said, "Um, Louka, do you know if Trifmara's Roc made it to the base?"

"Trifmara? The little redhead with the viblade, right?"

"Yes."

The woman's golden gaze slid out of focus as she consulted data on her visor screen. A careful set to her angular features told Fox the answer before she spoke.

"Hers went down. A support team has already canvassed the area for survivors and found three. She wasn't one of them; wasn't on the craft, either, so maybe she's still alive, but she couldn't be found."

Maybe she ran, a darker part of Fox's mind thought. Her reluctance to join the fight had been as obvious as if she'd placed a flashing sign above her head. Though I don't know how she'd have managed it without outside help…

While the sixth surviving unit positioned their explosives, the other units began barricading all the room's entrances but one. Confident that any survivors wouldn't be able to get through to the bombs in time—and even if they did, diffusing them would present a whole new level of difficulty even to the highly experienced—the combined team made its exit.

They traversed the battle-stained corridors, meeting only feeble pockets of resistance, and were joined on the way by several more Strike Team members from other passageways. The men and women moved like liquid metal, every movement an exemplary demonstration of control, and communicated mostly by hand signals. Fox watched them with a mixture of admiration and envy.

Finally reaching the exterior, they waited almost no time before the battered Rocs swooped down from the stormy sky. Another had fallen while battling the base's exterior defences—a position deemed safer than remaining within the complex where they might have been overrun—so the men and women had to squeeze slightly to fit inside. They did so without any complaint, and in minutes were away.

As the Rocs sped away from the moon, Fox looked back at the icy terrain as if a small figure would start waving. He saw nothing, though, and soon the white of Mimas was replaced by the white of thread-space.

On arrival at the orbital station above Carrenei, from which the assault had been launched, the 'lancers split off from the soldiers and Strike Team after a brief show of gratitude for each other's contribution. Fox barely paid attention; his thoughts dwelled on Trifmara's disappearance, allowing him only the most basic outside observations.

She can't be dead, he thought as the depleted team of 'lancers returned to Saisanai. She just can't. Though he couldn't quite define what he felt for the girl, he knew he didn't want her to be dead.

Awaiting them in the docking bay at Saisanai stood Aaliyah, the other leaders and Ben. Louka crossed to them immediately and gave her report, dismissing the 'lancers in the middle of a sentence as she remembered their presence. As Fox headed towards a tunnel, Ben stepped away from the leaders and asked, "Where's Trifmara?"

"She didn't make it."

An unclear mass of emotions crossed the man's face. "Louka, what happened to Trifmara?" he asked as soon as the woman finished her report.

Her gaze flitted between Ben and Fox with obvious curiosity for their particular concern. "The Roc she was in got shot down. When the support team searched the crash site for survivors, they didn't find her. If she was stupid enough to wander out into the storm alone, anything could have happened."

She's not that stupid, Fox thought. …Is she? The more he considered it, the more he could see Trifmara stepping out of the craft's safety. It would explain her absence when the support team arrived.

"We need to go back for her," Ben stated.

"For one person?" Louka shook her head. "Absolutely out of the question. Why do you care so much about this girl anyway?"

Fox watched Ben's face as closely as Louka but the former General revealed nothing, stalking away without another word. "She's my friend," Fox told Louka, "but I don't know why he cares."

"Mmm."

"What?" Louka's tone had suggested some knowledge.

"I don't know. But one thing's for sure: we're not going back for her. I'm sorry."

Though he didn't like it, Fox nodded. "I understand."

"Thanks again for your help."

Her words were addressed to Fox's back as he too headed into the tunnel. Of course he knew why they couldn't go back, but he hated the thought of Trifmara freezing slowly to death somewhere on Mimas. Because that's probably what happened, he thought, if she didn't run or get obliterated in the crash.

When he arrived at his quarters he treated himself to a long shower, glad to wash away the sweat of combat. He carried a few residual aches from wounds gained on Nhkotai and Mey, but the assault on Mimas had added nothing serious to his collection—no more than a few bruises thanks to the superior Carreneid Space Force gear. We've taken a step towards defeating Nakem, he thought, and a smile tugged at his lips despite Trifmara's fate. The many injustices perpetrated by Nakem and his cohorts aside, Fox had a personal reason for hating the Emperor: the deaths of his immediate family had all been orchestrated by the man. Practicality had never given consideration of vengeance much weight, but he savoured the notion of the Emperor losing the war. Surely he'll be killed this time.

A chime interrupted his thoughts. He switched off the shower and wrapped a towel around his waist, and crossed to main door to his quarters. Out of habit he picked up his handgun on the way, but found the move un-necessary when he opened the door.

"Sorry to interrupt," Ben said. "Do you mind if I come in?"

"Uh, sure." Grabbing up clean clothes, he walked through to the bathroom to dress. "What do you want to talk about?" he asked while towelling his hair dry.

"Trifmara."

Fox stepped back into the bedroom. "You want to go back for her." A simple nod confirmed his guess. "Why? Surely not just because she helped get you out of the slavecamp on Mey?"

"No. I'm afraid I can't explain why. Not yet, anyway." The man's features were carefully arranged to reveal nothing of his thoughts, sparking infuriation with Fox.

Why the hell does he care so much about her? What the hell is going on?

"A man is willing to sell me a small craft that I intend to fly to Mimas. I would like you to come with me. Trust me when I say that this is not a suicide mission; the base and its defences should be no more than a crater now."

Much as it pained him to voice the thought, common sense demanded that he ask, "And what if Trifmara's remains are in that crater too? She can't have fallen far from the base."

Ben shook his head, sending golden hair into small eddies in the low gravity. "We must look."

With a resigned sigh Fox realised that he was going to go with the man, no matter how fruitless he suspected the mission would be. "Okay. Let's go."