Scattered spotlights broke the gloom inside the mine's central shaft. Wherever I looked, the stone walls were shrouded in darkness. The scalding air inside the tunnel made me feel like I was baking, perhaps as a meal for some unseen terror.
I jumped at my father's touch.
"It's the old fear, son," he said. "Everyone feels it their first day."
Motioning for me to follow, he led me down a narrow corridor. Tendrils of shining metal laced through the stone, branches of the lode I'd come to blast from the walls with explosives. My father stood straight, his gait steady and confident, unlike many who'd spent their years in these depths. Crisscrossed scars on his gray, pebbled skin seemed the only evidence he'd ever felt pain or suffered injury.
"The priests tell us Jum sculpted us from the bones of the dead, forming new life with pressure, heat, and His breath," he continued.
"And the Silicates rose from the rock," I finished. "I know the teachings."
"Yes, but what the priests don't tell you is that our ancestors were cowards." The sound of my father's laughter echoed through the corridor. "They huddled, safe from predators in their primordial mud, and lived pointless, fearful lives."
"How do you know?" I asked in a quiet voice.
As my father entered a widening chamber, he turned to face me. "Because sometimes down here you can hear our ancestors wailing inside of you if you really listen."
The chamber went dark.
"Father?" I failed to hide the panic in my voice. "What's happening?"
A sound, faint at first but growing in volume, made me want to run. Voices shrieked and moaned around me.
Abruptly the voices turned to laughter. I blinked as lights blazed around me, revealing a room filled with equipment and a dozen miners with grins on their faces.
A foreman I'd met earlier clapped my shoulder. "Your dad tells a doozy of a ghost story," he said.
A loud bang reverberated in the distance, and I turned, sure that it was another prank. The stone under my feet trembled. I caught my father's gaze and saw something I never expected to see. Fear. Then the ceiling came crashing down.
Life may have risen from stone, but the rocks falling around me seemed intent on taking it back. By chance, or the hand of God , I survived in a small pocket between boulders. Wedged between the crags, I could not fully inhale. Between my gasping breaths, I could hear the groans of those dying around me. Light filtered through gaps between boulders.
The spotlights gave out well before the air did. Trapped in the darkness, I had no hope of rescue. As my final act, I resolved to sleep and dream, and to rise only when Jum called me home.
But God, it seemed, had other plans.
I dreamed of the minute, limestone entombed creatures who were the Silicates' genetic ancestors and of the microbes that combined with the creatures to form new life. Borrowing from those simple life forms, bacteria had repurposed their material to make our bones, flesh, and skin. Yet the microbes could not eradicate the old fear of creatures that had once been prey. And in my dreams, I heard them wail, just as my father said I would.
Grasping at the fragments of ancient memory within my psyche, I sought a source of strength and found something else. Predators had been trapped in the limestone, too. And in my dreams, I embraced those hunters who were also my kin and asked Jum to take the parts of me that were weak or fearful. In those moments between life and death, I was transformed.
I awoke in a hospital. Murmured conversations around me spoke of the mining accident that was no accident and of sabotage by off-world agents.
A doctor appeared beside me. "How are you feeling, Mr. Kivi?"
"That is not who I am," I said. Not anymore.
The doctor frowned, glancing at a data-pad in her hands. "You were identified as Armaa Kivi. Can you tell me your name?"
The doctor's eyes widened at the word.
"I am Vengeance," I repeated.
When my mother came to visit me in the hospital, I chose to be Armaa one last time as I embraced her and consoled her over the loss of my father. It seemed cruel to explain that she had also lost her son.
When I had recovered my health, I was offered a comfortable office position by mine officials. I thanked them for their generosity and enlisted in the military instead.
I did not yet know the target of my vengeance, but I did know that I lacked the training I'd need to exact my revenge. Where I had once used a laser cutter, I trained with a laser rifle, instead. And when the officers discovered my familiarity with explosives, I learned to shatter fortifications instead of mine walls.
I had a talent for breaking things, and it became a game of sorts for me. Engineers brought me designs for their fortresses, and I found the flaws that would bring them crashing down. My insight earned me both enmity and respect. And one day it earned me a promotion.
My day began the same as it always did over the last few months: with an angry man screaming his opinion of our platoon. Most days, the sergeant threatened to fire bolts into our heads. This day, his disappointment was such that he wondered aloud if he should aim his rifle at his own head.
"Kosto," he said, pointing at me. "No breakfast."
My platoon mates' eyes gleamed, no doubt imagining other punishments awaiting me for whatever infraction I had committed.
"Five minutes. Dress uniform. No gear," the sergeant continued. "You're meeting someone."
Shortly after changing, I sat on an orbital shuttle as it lifted from the planet. An ensign, who could not keep the boredom from her voice, recited a litany of inflight regulations. I ignored her speech, fighting waves of nausea, while the ship bucked in the planet's atmosphere.
When I departed the shuttle, half an hour later, I gawked at my birth world shining below me. The planet was visible through a port on the orbital defense base on which I now stood. Personnel in Fleet uniforms rushed around me, and it was all I could do to avoid colliding with someone.
Guiding me down a corridor, the ensign stopped before a hatch and punched the comm. "He's here," she said before leaving.
A woman in a commander's uniform stepped out. "You're the guy?"
"I'm Commander Tavat."
Studying my uniform, she shook her head. "You won't get within ten meters of the Commodore. Undress." I hesitated. She barked, "That's an order!" Tavat disappeared back through the hatch.
Just as I was struggling to pull my pants over my boots, she returned with another uniform. As I stumbled, she steadied me. Her touch sent my heart racing. A growl I could not repress burst from the hunter inside me.
She stepped away, staring. "Who are you?" she asked in a quiet voice.
Uncertain how to respond, I looked into her eyes and saw something I recognized: another hunter.
Nodding, she handed me the new uniform. "Put this on." Then, leaning close, she whispered, "I'm Raivo." Rage.
Her breath felt hot against my neck, and my pulse quickened at the thrill of meeting another like myself.
Dressed as a lieutenant-commander, I stepped onto the orbital fort's bridge. Captains ringed a small figure in a commodore's uniform staring at a tactical display. Medals covered his chest, though most were what my sergeant dubbed participation awards. They were the sort of commendations received when automated defenses blew a stray comet out of space.
But the tactical display wasn't showing a comet today. It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing: three unidentified battleships and a screen of cruisers emerging from deep space to threaten our system's jump gate.
Studying the scans for a moment, Tavat said, "This is wrong," to no one in particular. The Commodore and his entourage did not respond to her comment, so I asked instead. "What do you mean?"
"Those ships are antiques and from half-a-dozen different navies," she explained. "The armor on each is strong enough. We could bounce rounds off their hulls for hours. But their weapons systems are obsolete. Even with all that tonnage, they're no threat." She pointed to a blip on the screen. "And why are they engaging a base they could have easily bypassed?"
"When Jum sends us fools to fight," came the Commodore's voice, "why question our good fortune? Is this the specialist you spoke of, Commander?"
"Hardly seems worth the effort to bring him here, does it?" Motioning to a console, he said, "Well, as long as he's here, let's see what he can do."
Tavat seized my arm and steered me to a chair.
"What does he want?" I asked her.
"Do what you do," she said into my ear. "Find a weakness we can exploit. Don't you dare screw me on this."
I started to protest. I knew ground fortifications, not starships. But as I scrolled through structural scans, I realized that ships of the wall were little more than mobile fortresses.
Unfortunately, our forces were positioned so they could only engage the battleships head on, where their armor was the strongest and an attack on their flanks would be absorbed by the cruiser screen. The distant base had focused all its fire on the battleship tagged as the enemy's flagship but had inflicted minimal damage.
As I struggled to find a weakness in the capital ship's defenses, I could feel the Commodore's impatience grow. Tavat offered me an encouraging pat on the shoulder, and when the Commodore looked away, she gouged her fingers into my skin.
"They're breaking off the attack, sir" said a captain.
The display showed the enemy fleet starting to bend away from the fortress.
Tavat's shoulders slumped. I'd failed her. Shifting my attention to the lighter units, I looked for anything I could find to salvage her faith in me. Then I saw it--a flaw that was little more than a smudge on a structural scan. I leapt from my seat and shouted, "Concentrate all fire on the starboard nacelle of cruiser alpha one!"
The collective glare of the Commodore's entourage made it clear I'd committed a faux pas. Nevertheless, the Commodore waved his hand, and the order was given.
When the display showed the heavy cruiser shattering into a ball of light, the entourage offered a halfhearted cheer. But an instant later they gasped, as the shockwave from the explosion sent an adjacent battleship wobbling in space, its port side shields down and exposed.
The distant base needed no further orders as it stabbed energy beams and missiles into the battleship's wounded side. The massive vessel's hull bulged then erupted in a fountain of plasma. The captains cheered.
The tight formation of the retreating fleet fragmented as cruisers crashed against one another in an attempt to avoid the battleship's death throes. One unlucky warship was flattened against the hull of the flagship. The capital ship's velocity dropped by half, the tactical display indicating massive damage inflicted by the collision.
"How did you know?" asked Tavat.
"I didn't. I saw a flaw and made it bigger."
My job done, I stood away from the others as the Commodore issued orders to system forces. Beside me, Tavat took my hand, and now we stood, shoulder to shoulder, fingers entwined, enjoying the contact.
I yelped at the sudden pressure of her grip.
"Fool!" said Tavat, far louder than she should have--the entourage glanced our way.
The Commodore had ordered system forces to destroy a disabled enemy cruiser rather than pursue the flagship's limping retreat.
"The Commodore could have caught them and killed them," continued Tavat. "Now they'll escape."
I pried my fingers from her hand. It was clear to me why she'd named herself Rage.
"It's the old fear," I said to her. "Threaten our home, and we'll fight as fiercely as any, but ask us to leave our place of refuge and we may waver."
That same day, I found myself standing outside the Captain's quarters of the heavy cruiser Lohikarme, and I felt afraid for the first time since my transformation.
The bored ensign who had brought me to the base had informed me of my promotion to the rank of Commander. My new billet was as Executive Officer onboard the cruiser.
When I protested that I'd never even set foot on a starship before, the ensign had said, "It's probably less paperwork to promote you than to execute you for impersonating an officer." She offered a lazy salute. "Sir."
The Captain's door chimed, then opened, and I stepped through. Tavat waited inside. She'd earned a promotion of her own.
"Don't worry, Kosto," she said, grinning. "You tell me where to shoot, and I'll teach you how to do the rest. Just follow my orders."
She stepped close and I could feel the heat radiating from her body. "Take off your uniform," she said.
"Is that an order, Captain?"
She shook her head. "Call me Raivo."
As it turned out, Raivo's promotion was not the prize she had thought. Her orders, straight from the Commodore, were to pursue the wounded flagship and its allies, exactly as she had blurted on the bridge. And she was to do it alone: a single cruiser against a fleet.
"Apparently I'm the fool," she said, bitterly. "He's sending us to die."
I ground my fist into my palm, but my anger was not directed at the injustice of our orders. Tavat had explained that our unidentified enemies were suspected of the sabotage that had killed my father. God had given me their scent. Now it was time to hunt.
"You find that fleet," I said. "I'll figure out how to kill them."
The Commodore had done us few favors, but he'd given Raivo one of the Fleet's newest cruisers. Her skill at identifying personnel with special talents like mine had paid off almost immediately.
One member of her handpicked crew, who'd bragged he could track a hiiri in a storm, had followed a scattering of neutrinos to an uninhabited system.
Raivo parked the Lohikarme beyond the blue star's heliopause. She sent a masterchief, who operated his own stealthed-skiff, which he only used for sightseeing, hand to Jum, to take a closer look.
Listening to the chief's report when he returned, my gut went cold and Raivo muttered, "I knew it."
The fleet we sought orbited a gas giant's moon, but the fleet wasn't alone. A dozen hulks of armor and weapons floated in tight formation around a shipyard, with eight more of the massive vessels berthed in its bays.
"Vilicus dreadnaughts," I said.
"And they aren't antiques," said Raivo. "With twenty ships of the wall, they could seize one of our jump gates and send an entire fleet into the heart of our territory."
Studying the scans the chief had retrieved, I noticed a boneyard of derelict ships orbiting the opposite side of the gas giant. It must have been the source of the older ships.
"Why'd they bother with those other ships if they had dreadnaughts?" I wondered aloud.
"To get us to light up our defensive arrays. Now they know exactly where we're strong--"
"And where we're weak," I finished. "I take it the Lohikarme wouldn't stand a chance against that kind of tonnage."
"We'd could empty our missile racks and we'd barely scratch their paint. Can you blow up the moon they're orbiting? Send pieces of it into that fleet?"
I shook my head. "It'd take an incredible amount of power to shatter that moon. Maybe if we had an equivalent amount of antimatter or we hit it with something really big, moving really fast."
"So we're screwed?"
I started to agree, but then the idea hit me. I bared my teeth in a feral grin.
"What is it?" asked Raivo.
"You're not going to like it."
"You want to bury my ship in a ball of garbage?" Raivo asked, incredulous, when I'd told her my idea.
"I said you wouldn't like it."
Hiding behind a ball of ice, borrowed from the system's Kuiper region, the powered-down Lohikarme took a month just to get close enough to the gas giant moons. It took another week for us to reach the boneyard of old ships. And then, for five hours and forty-one minutes every day, while the giant hid us from the Vilicus's sensors, we carried out my plan. The crew spent precious minutes attaching carbon fiber grapple lines to floating wrecks. An ensign, with a fisherman's touch, inched them closer to the Lohikarme. Even with the derelicts lashed against us, shifting gravitaional eddies banged the junked vessels into our hull with clangs sounding like blows from a giant's hammer.
We were very selective with our trash. Warships only, the more armor the better, and those with functional engines and inertial dampers preferred. Our engineers spent days away from the Lohikarme repairing power conduits and relays on the alien vessels.
The great prize of our trash pile was the very same flagship I'd help cripple, slingshotted around the planet to us by the Vilicus who had not detected our presence. They'd likely found the old vessel too costly to repair, and though the Vilicus had gutted its weapons, the battleship's engines and compensators remained intact.
The operation went smoothly, and each member of the crew knew his or her task and served without complaint. All except one.
"Kosto, you're doing it again," came Raivo's voice on my helmet comm.
When I'd resolved to feel no fear, I hadn't imagined myself attaching missile warheads to a shifting mountain of trash. I had to accomplish a procedure requiring a surgeon's skill while wearing a vaccum suit. Apparently, I reacted to stress by unleashing unconscious tirades of profanity.
"Sorry," I said. "That's the last charge. We're ready."
Raivo met me at the airlock and took my hand in hers, leading me to her quarters. Regulations or not, we'd made no attempt to hide our relationship from the crew.
"Lohikarme, this is your Captain," she announced over comms. "The operation will commence in two hours. Do what you want for the next hour."
Raivo and I wasted little time.
Afterwards, we lay side by side, facing one another. With the hour waning, I asked her the question that had lingered in my mind since the day we met.
"How did you come by your name?"
I had told Raivo of my transformation, but she'd never spoken of hers. Now, she sighed and squeezed her eyes shut.
"It was an off-world operation," she said. "Black-ops. My squad was captured." She turned away in the bed. "We were... interrogated. One by one, the others broke. But not me."
"And that's how you transformed? Because you wouldn't break?"
She turned back to me, tears in her eyes. "Everyone breaks."
We dressed in silence, then made our way to the bridge. Settling in her command chair, Raivo made one more shipwide announcement.
"Crew, this is your Captain. We have not served together long, but it has been an honor." She smiled. "Now get off my ship. That's an order."
The crew had made their protests weeks ago only to have them dismissed by their Captain. And though there were no cowards onboard the cruiser, the urge to seek safety was very strong among them. Now, as the bridge crew filed out, each offered Raivo one last salute before joining their shipmates evacuating to a nearby restored freighter.
Once the last of the crew was clear, Raivo moved to the navigator's station and lit the Lohikarme's engines. I took my place at arms control. Synched to our ship's computer, the derelicts with working engines lit theirs, too. Raivo silenced an alarm warning that we were red-lining our compensators.
Working in conjunction with the derelicts, Raivo slowly, slowly pushed my trashball away from the boneyard.
It required a delicate touch to move our mass fast enough to keep ourselves off Vilicus sensors while maintaining the integrity of our heap. The carbon filament lashings were so strong that our hull would give way before they did.
Raivo added to the momentum of our orbit around the planet, but also bent us toward its northern axis.
"Prey animals have eyes set wide on their heads," I'd explained weeks ago, "so they can spot predators approaching from the side. But they very rarely look up, and that's how we'll strike."
"By dumping garbage on their heads?"
I shrugged. "They dropped rocks on mine."
As the ship's velocity approached .1 C, its hull began to shudder and my heart thudded in my chest.
"We need to go faster," I said.
Raivo pushed the Lohikarme's engines harder, and our velocity crept close to .2 C. Suddenly the cruiser rocked and bucked, then stabilized.
"We lost a piece of the pile," she said.
Our display showed us nearing the giant's axis. On its surface, vast storms twisted within its bands of gas. The Lohikarme streaked up and over its pole at .25 C and continued accelerating.
The Vilicus would be able to see us at any moment. I jammed my thumb on a button and sent a burst transmission toward the enemy fleet. With any luck, the computer worm the resourceful masterchief had implanted into the Vilicus's data feed would blind their sensors for twenty minutes.
Raivo sent a magnified view to the ship's screens. Just as before, a dozen dreadnaughts floated in tight formation near a shipyard housing several others.
Our velocity hit .4 C while we watched the warships loom.
"They've spotted us," I said, observing lights wink to life on the massive ships.
"Is it time?" asked Raivo.
She sighed. "I really liked this ship."
The E in the old equation E=MC2 stands for energy. I'd thrown a hell of a lot of mass at my enemy, and I'd thrown it at half the speed of light. Throw one rock at someone, and unless they're really stupid, they'll get out of its path. But throw a thousand rocks, moving that fast, and there's nowhere to run.
The Lohikarme and all the ordinance I'd hidden in my ball of garbage detonated simultaneously. Carefully crafted explosions sent half the debris toward the finished dreadnaughts, and the other half toward the shipyard. Fragments of warship armor, made from some of the toughest substances known, rained down on vessels too big to miss.
The amount of energy released by the collisions blinded me momentarily as Raivo and I watched from the masterchief's skiff. Plasma fires raged across the enemy fleet. Vilicus soldiers, sucked into the vaccum through holed hulls, floated like dust around their former ships. Secondary explosions, as power cores detonated, sent dreadnaughts crashing into the moon's surface or hurtling toward the gas giant's clouds.
Fear is a part of life, and for Silicates, the old fear is engraved in our very souls. But fear should not dictate who we are. Watching my enemies burn, I thought to myself that life is far better as the predator than the prey, and once again, I promised Jum I'd live my remaining years without fear.
But God, it seemed, had other plans.
"Kosto..." Raivo took my hand. "I'm pregnant."