The Garsal are relentless in their desire to conquer Frontier. Once again Shanna and her starcats are on the front-line. Then tragedy strikes, and all of Shanna’s resolve is tested. There is even more at stake than she and her fellow cadets ever believed could be possible, and as the Garsal attacks intensify, Frontier’s future seems increasingly uncertain.
Wonderfully imagined - C Scott
Starcats rock! - PauNic
Beautifully written - a must read! - Brenda
Loved it!!! - Matthew Carey
A spectacular adventure with wonderful 'companions'- Lisa H
Starcats are the Best! - Joyce Paige
I love this book & can't wait for the next one - Lynne L
Great characters and a fascinating new world - David Watson
A Captivating Story with Complelling Characters make Frontier Incursion a great read - Chuck Gallagher
4.9 out of 5 stars Amazon.com
Terrific world building with great characters ... can I have a Starcat?
Christina - Ensconced in YA
Five out of five - an amazing 'be absorbed by this world' book ... I am so happy there is a sequel coming out and I really look forward to reading it. It takes a very good author to do that to you.
Janis Hill - author of Bonnie's Story - A Blonde's Guide to Mathematics
SHANNA felt slow tears slide down her cheeks as she stood with her friends and their starcats in a circle on the small hill, a short distance from the Starlyne habitation.
A soft breeze stirred the trees, and the early morning shadows danced and flickered as Spiron’s sombre voice echoed in her ears, its tones heavy with sorrow. A small pile of Challon’s possessions sat forlornly at Spiron’s feet. A half-finished starcat harness topped the pile, its leather carved with Dipper’s name. Shanna felt a sob tear its way free of her throat.
“Let us take a moment to remember Challon and Dipper.” As Spiron spoke, his eyes wandered around the assembled group, pausing one by one on the six cadets. He bent and placed a wreath formed of pungo leaves and plybrush flowers on the pack. The entwined scents spoke eloquently of a Scout’s days. Haven and risk, braided together in life and now part of his memory.
“He was our friend, and a fine Scout,” Spiron said, straightening back up, “and his actions in opening those doors on the spacecraft saved us all. Who would like to speak first?”
There was a brief silence as the pungo scent washed over them, comforting, then Amma took a step forwards, lifting her face to address them. “Challon was a Scout of amazing skill. But more importantly he was kind and helpful. He was so patient with me when I was learning how to move in the bush.” She smiled sadly in remembrance. “I will miss both him and Dipper.” Spider’s tidemarks dimmed slightly as Amma’s voice cracked on the last word and as she stepped back into the circle, her hand touched her starcat’s head for comfort.
Karri took her place. “When I met my first slider swarm it was Challon who kept me calm. He saved my life. Without him I wouldn’t be here.” Shanna’s throat tightened, aching until she felt as if she almost couldn’t breathe. Two more spoke. Finally, she swallowed convulsively, and with her hands on her starcats, buffered by their love, she stepped forwards herself.
“Wounded, Challon still managed to open the door of the Garsal spacecraft to save us. And Dipper …” she paused, remembering their escape, Dipper’s form shimmering past her in a blur, the cat a spitting, shrieking fury of destruction heedless of his own safety. “Dipper …” she tried again, then shook her head, unable to continue. “I miss them both.” Tears fell furiously then, and around her she could hear muffled sounds of grief echoed by sad starcat hums. Their tidemarks dimmed in sorrow.
One by one the other Scouts and cadets spoke of Challon and Dipper, memories and thoughts shared in joined sadness. As the stories rolled over her, Shanna felt the grief recede slightly, become a little more bearable, and then diminish slowly to a background ache. She knew, deep in her bones, that Challon’s death was only one of the first in the war against the alien invaders. For the moment though it was close and immediate, and there was time, however brief, to express the grief and cherish the memories.
“Because of the Garsal we live in uncertain times,” Spiron said finally, as Shanna brushed the last tears from her face. The Patrol First was sombre. “The hope that our ancestors had, that eventually we would be found and rescued by the Federation has turned out to be fruitless, as we now know that the Federation has been destroyed by the Garsal. Yet in Challon’s death we see a different hope. He died helping to protect our people, and we must honour his death by our future actions. I remind you that Keeper died believing the same things, protecting our shared people because he saw a hope for the future if we could learn to work together. None of us know what might lie ahead, but we have always been a people of hope, always a people who strive to make things better, and we have a great purpose ahead of us. We,” and he gestured around the circle, “will be the spearhead that frees our people from the threat that now faces us. Today we remember Challon and Dipper, thankful for the time we had with them, but in their memory, I ask all of you to pledge to fight on, no matter how hard it becomes.”
Bending, Spiron pulled a pungo leaf from the wreath, and crushing it, smeared it across his chest. Its pungent scent filled the air. “Use the scent of pungo to remind you of our purpose, and of Challon’s sacrifice.” He placed his hand on Allad’s shoulder beside him, allowing the crushed leaf to drop to join the forest litter beneath his feet. A heartbeat later, Barron, on the other side of the circle, mirrored him, and then the rest followed suit.
There was a lump in Shanna’s throat as she smeared the crushed pungo leaf across her chest. The scent, that so often meant safety Below filled her nostrils, and she knew she’d never smell it again without remembering this moment. They remained like that for a moment then, one by one, they turned and returned to the habitation, but now Shanna knew that their resolve was stronger than ever.
The Matriarch inclined her head graciously as one of her seniors placed the list of initiates on the polished desktop in front of her. It was shorter than she had hoped for, but they were all well schooled, and among the most skilled in the next generation of females on the colony ship. A small frisson of fear rippled through her as she contemplated the task ahead. The secret had always weighed on her, but the full weight of the actions she must take to fulfil her duty now felt like a mountain upon her.
Laretai returned with a plate of sliced fruits, and the Matriarch took one with a manipulator arm, savouring the exotic tastes of this new world. Her faceted eyes met those of her closest confidant. “We will need to inform the seniors as soon as possible. Set up a secure room for the meeting and notify them in secret. Set the meeting for this evening.”
Laretai inclined her head in assent.
“I have rechecked the pattern again, and set a watching tap on the Overlord’s communications with Trooper Hoth. There is no doubt that it matches our records of the Great Enemy. I will be alerted immediately if anything further is detected. Do you require anything more Matriarch?”
The Matriarch pondered her response, faceted eyes distant, as memories of her own initiation played through her thoughts. “One more thing,” she said finally. “You are to prepare a list of those who are suitable, but not yet initiated.”
“Are you sure Matriarch? Is it wise at this time?”
“I am certain. There are many tasks to perform, and although the risks are very high, this may well be our crowning achievement. We must ensure that all who can be, are with us.” There were other considerations as well, but this was not the time to air them with Laretai, newly cut off from the rest of the galaxy as they were by the human raid on their ship. For a moment she thought that her assistant might argue, but the habits of long years overcame Laretai’s hesitation, and she bowed her head in acquiescence before departing in a flutter of filmy robes.
Alone, the Matriarch stared at the windowless walls sightlessly as the mountain leaned more heavily upon her, and the list was forgotten again at the enormity of her task. If she failed, she wondered if anyone would ever know.
Shanna scrubbed at the tear marks on her face as she entered the communal room in the Starlyne habitation, the pungent scent of the crushed pungo still surrounding them. The trip back to the plateau after destroying the Garsal communications systems had been remarkably smooth, and much faster than their trek south. There had been no pursuit and they’d arrived at the habitation well after midnight last night. For a moment, the memory of the destruction she and the others had visited upon their pursuers tapped a torrent of guilt, but she pushed it away as she’d learned to during the long trek back. It was war, and the future of her people was at stake. Guilt could wait until her people were safe.
A few moments later, as they sat, plates on laps and cats eating from bowls on the perimeter, Spiron spoke again. “I thought we’d be returning to the plateau after this mission, but it appears that a number of things have changed in our absence. The Garsal have attacked Watchtower.”
There was a flurry of voices, all asking questions at once, and Spiron was forced to raise his voice. “I have few details yet,” the hubbub quieted, “but some of those aircraft that were searching for us, have apparently damaged a substantial portion of Watchtower. The population has dispersed to the old storm shelters, but Scout HQ was largely unharmed, and our command structure is intact.” He looked briefly around the group and continued. “Our Starlyne hosts tell me that Master Peron is on his way with one of the older Scouts, and I’ll be suggesting that we continue as one larger Patrol rather than detaching the cadets.”
Shanna sighed with relief, exchanging quick glances with her fellow cadets. Despite the strength of her longing to see her family, one of her major fears was the possibility of being sidelined as ‘just a cadet’ again. “Do you think we’ll hear anything about our families?” she whispered to Amma beside her.
“I hope so. I just hope they weren’t at Watchtower when it was attacked.”
Cold struck suddenly deep into Shanna’s bones and her hand holding the plate trembled. The possibility of injury or death of any of her family members hadn’t crossed her mind. Now, almost numbed by fear, she remembered Kaidan’s last farewell as he headed back to the plateau, and wondered if he’d left Watchtower for the safety of Hillview before the aircraft had struck. He’d have been back on the plateau for several months by now, by her calculations, but she’d lost track of just how long it had been since the battle with the Garsal vehicles. Dimly, she realised that Spiron was still speaking.
“I can’t give you details of dead and injured yet. Our communications are relayed through the Starlyne network, and there are higher priorities.” There was a slightly angry murmur. “I know, I know, and I don’t like not knowing either. But personal fears aside, we must remember that there are more essential communications that must take priority. We’ll find out soon enough.” His face was grim, and Shanna noticed that there were more lines etched into his brow than she remembered from their first meeting. “In the meantime empty your packs, wash your clothes, and take it easy today. We’ll be working hard tomorrow as it’s now imperative that we figure out what you lot did when you dropped that cliff on the Garsal.” He frowned in mock exasperation at the cadets.
They resumed eating in a very subdued mood, and again the cadets grouped themselves together, starcats sprawled about them. “And now we’ll be wondering about our families,” Verren said. His tone was resigned, and his face was solemn. There were nods, and a few sighs.
“It’s going to be a long few days” said Taya, “until Master Peron brings us information. Surely he will.”
Zandany nodded. “I certainly hope so.” They sat there together in silence, for a few more moments, and then Ragar pushed himself to his feet.
“I’m going to take our esteemed leader’s advice and spend today cleaning my pack. And then, if I finish that before midnight, I’m going to sleep.” He held out a hand to Taya and she nodded and he pulled her to her feet. “Coming?” The group placed their empty plates on the table and together headed to their sleeping room. Shanna was glad of the distraction. There were too many thoughts buzzing around in her head for her to want to sit quietly, but she did sigh when she thought about what might be in her pack. Storm hummed as he paced next to her, and she fancied that he sounded amused. Twister simply swiped her leg so vigorously that she was momentarily off balanced, and had to grab at him to stay upright.
“All right you two,” she grumbled, “you can help.” As she spoke, a gentle feeling of violet and blue tinged amusement trickled into her mind, and she looked at her two cats, slightly surprised, but there was nothing further. Pondering on the communication that seemed to deepen with every day, she followed the other cadets into their room.
She sniffed at her clothes with disgust as Storm and Twister flowed into the room with pleased hums.
“Guys, look!” Taya’s voice was almost reverent as she pointed to the pile of clean clothing that had been placed on the foot of each bed. It was obvious that each pile had been freshly made up during the memorial service. “I can’t remember when I last wore clean clothes!”
“And I’m not touching them until I’ve had a bath. I should have had one last night but I was too exhausted,” Ragar’s voice came from the bathing room. There was a splash, and Amma made a disgusted noise.
“You’re a selfish monster Ragar!” The curly haired girl upended her pack onto the floor and stared down at its contents, her hands on her hips.
“Well, you might think so,” replied Verren with a grin, “But I think he’s got the right idea.” He scooped some clean clothes off his bed with an easy motion, and vanished after Ragar. Taya shrugged helplessly as Zandany grinned and followed.
“Anyone need a hand detangling hair while we wait?” Taya asked.
“Now that’s a good idea,” replied Shanna, running her hand over the wisps of greasy hair sticking out of her braids. None of the girls had felt up to washing their hair last night. “Although I’m not entirely sure that mine will ever detangle again. Are you sure you want to touch it though? There could be anything in there.”
Taya laughed, and Shanna was again struck by the change in the other girl. Her confession, which now seemed so long ago, and her sure skills with mechanical equipment, seemed to have worked an amazing change within her, and the six cadets were now truly a united group. “I’m game, but only if you agree to do mine.”
Shanna’s hair was so filthy she was almost itching. And now, with the prospect of hot, clean water and clean clothes so close, she could hardly wait for her own soak. The three girls perched themselves cross legged on the floor in a triangle and began the long task of removing the tangles and debris from each others’ hair. Their cats sprawled in utter relaxation on the spongy flooring, although when there was a particularly large splash from the bathing room, all four sets of ears would prick, and the flickering and glowing of tidemarks could only be described as anticipatory.
“I wonder how our families are?” asked Amma again as she began to pick pieces of twigs out of Taya’s hair. Shanna felt Taya’s hands pause for a moment, before she resumed the slow unpicking of her braids in the suddenly uncomfortable silence.
“It seems ages since I’ve seen Mum, Dad and Kaidan,” Shanna said eventually. “Do you reckon we’ll get to see them now we’re back? Or will we just have to stay Below, until we figure out how we did what we did?” She worried a stick out of Amma’s hair.
“I hope they’re all right,” replied Amma, and her voice was filled with all the sadness that Shanna felt in her own heart, and her throat was suddenly so tight that she had to force the words out.
“I’m not sure if Dad will want to see me.” Taya’s hands were steady on Shanna’s hair, but Shanna could feel her tension. She kept her head still as Taya undid the last of her braids and ran her hands carefully through the greasy strands to separate them.
“Tay, who knows if our families were even in Watchtower when the aircraft attacked?” replied Amma carefully. “And by now our families must know a fair amount of what we’ve been doing. Maybe your Dad will be proud of you instead.” Taya’s hands stopped again as the last strands separated with a slight pull.
“Sorry Shan,” she ran her hands through Shanna’s hair again, and a small shower of fine twigs fell out of it, “That’s just revolting.” She turned around to look at Amma. “I hope so, but I’m not so sure.” With a small shake, she pushed herself upright and walked over to the door and banged on it loudly, while Amma and Shanna exchanged uncomfortable glances. “Hurry up you lot!” There were muffled noises from the other side of the door, and Taya banged on it again. “Maybe they’ll get a move on now. I’m so filthy I can smell myself.”
Neither of the other girls were fooled by the sudden change of subject, but Shanna didn’t know what to say. She missed her family so much it was an almost physical pain, but she knew, surely and completely, that there was no chance that they’d have disowned her, no matter what she might have done. As she and Amma sat there in awkward silence, Spinner rose gracefully to his feet and thrust his large head under Taya’s hand, humming gently. She looked down at him, and one tear slid its way down her cheek and she bent and hugged the cat strongly to her chest. He leaned into the hug, and his purring was deafening. Standing up, Taya wiped the tear from her face with the back of her hand, inadvertently smearing the grime even more. “I’m proud of me, anyway,” she said defiantly.
And then suddenly the three of them and their four cats were together. When they finally separated Shanna looked Taya in the eye. “I’m proud of you as well,” Shanna told her. “Without you, we wouldn’t have killed their communications, or got through the ring of sentinels.” Amma nodded in agreement.
“But without you, they’d have found us before we got in,” said Taya, “And without Amma we wouldn’t have found them at all.”
There was a giggle from Amma, and the other two looked at her, surprised.
“And not that long ago the two of you wouldn’t have exchanged the time of day.” She snorted slightly. “And I would have been stuck in the middle.”
Shanna looked at her curly headed friend and then back to Taya. Taya’s expression was startled, but then softened to a smile. “True. But now you know all of my secrets, and you could say that we’re all freaks really ….” She broke off again and smiled, and the three of them shared another hug, and then broke apart, laughing, as the door to the bathing room opened and the others bounced into the room.
“Wow! You three stink! I’m sure we weren’t that gross!” exclaimed Ragar. “Mind you, I think I left half my skin in the pool, I scrubbed so hard.”
“I hope the water’s had time to clear then, I don’t fancy bathing in skin soup!” The other two girls joined her and the three of them shed their clothes as fast as possible. Shanna was almost quivering with the desire to be clean, and had to restrain herself from diving headfirst into the clear water.
Her two cats had no such inhibitions however, and launched themselves gleefully into the hot water, creating two huge splashes and a wave that lurched over the edge of the pool. Shanna grabbed her clean clothes just before the wave reached them. “Storm, Twister!” she called, “No more jumping!” There were happy, but slightly disappointed hums, and then there were four cats paddling around in the water, rolling and revelling as they soaked themselves. No more tidal waves eventuated, but the water lapped over the edge, spilling small puddles onto the floor with some regularity. With a thankful sigh, Shanna slid into the water and dropped under the surface, feeling her filthy hair float around her. The water was hot and relaxing and she held her breath for a minute or so, enjoying the feel of its softness on her limbs and then pushed herself to the surface.
Taya handed her a handful of soapleaves and she began to lather her hair, grimacing as the normally white froth clouded with dirt as she scrubbed. “I think I’m even dirtier than I first thought,” she groaned.
“Who cares?” replied Amma. “All I can think of is being clean, smelling nice, and putting on a clean set of clothes. Can’t you just imagine it? Clean socks!” The three laughed again and resumed scrubbing, and the clouds of dirty water were sucked into the filtration system to return clean and clear and hot, from jets on the floor of the pool.
Two hours later, exhausted but clean, and with her backpack and its contents washed and hanging up to dry, Shanna toppled tiredly back into bed, Storm and Twister draping their weights around her. The relief of being back near her people was tempered by the fear that her family had been injured or killed by the Garsal.
SHANNA felt a shock run through her body as she saw who had arrived at the Starlyne habitat. The three days since they’d returned had been spent recovering. None of them had realised how tired they were, and all of them had found themselves feeling slow and fatigued when they trained. Spiron halted the Patrol with a hand signal as Master Cerren hurried forwards, accompanied by Socks.
Cerren looked tired and drawn, and was flanked by Master Perron and an old Scout who Shanna didn’t know, but who, judging from the nods around her, was well known to the Scouts of Patrol Ten. Shanna’s eyes hunted behind them, hoping desperately that she might catch a glimpse of her family, despite the rational part of her mind telling her that it would be ridiculous to expect them. “Welcome home, Patrol Ten. We have much to discuss.” Cerren turned on his heel as the old Scout gestured peremptorily to them to follow. The Scout’s starcat cast her gaze over them with an unmistakable command, and Shanna felt mild surprise from her two. She shrugged, exchanged a quizzical glance with Verren next to her, and followed the others as they filed silently through the entrance and back into the Starlyne habitat.
Shanna fretted at the possibility of bad news from home. She wasn’t the only one. Close knit as they’d become, Shanna easily read the emotion of her friends in the way they stood, and the tightening of their mouths. She held onto the hope of evacuation, despite the fear that gnawed at her insides. Surely Kaidan was all right, and her parents, and Amma’s family, and Verren’s, and...” She tried to stop the train of thought that said that none of her loved ones lived, crushing it ruthlessly as she tried to concentrate on Master Cerren’s words.
“I’m sure you have many questions for me,” said Master Cerren. “I will be speaking with each of you individually over the next day or so, but firstly I need to thank you all for the task you have just undertaken. You’ve given us a breathing space to prepare. We can only hope that the Garsal did not send a message requesting reinforcements before you disabled their offworld communications. Our Starlyne friends are of the opinion that we’d already be under attack if they had requested help, so it appears that for the moment at least, the only invaders we must battle are the ones already here.”
He paused for a moment, and ran both hands over what was left of his greying hair. Shanna had never seen him look so old. No, not old, tired. So tired that deep lines curved around his mouth, and there was no sign of his normally buoyant nature. Socks brushed him gently with her head and he went on, taking a deep breath. “For now, the important points are simple. The Garsal have killed a significant number of our people.” Shanna felt her heart pause in her chest at the abrupt tone. “Tamazine is dead, along with a large portion of the Starfall Council and several of Watchtower’ s councillors, and there were significant casualties among those who remained in Watchtower. Fortunately most of the children were already gone, and we were able to evacuate most of our key personnel. As it currently stands, I am Tamazine’s successor.”
There was a quiet buzz, and Master Cerren raised one hand. “In the interim, it has been decided that I will direct our people in their campaign against the Garsal, with the assistance of the newly elected Council. For now, Cally has the list of the dead and injured, as I am sure that you must wish to know about your families and your friends. Please see Peron or myself if you need some privacy, and when you have had time to eat and drink and look at Cally’s list, we will talk again. Spiron, if I could see you for a moment.” He looked even more fatigued than ever, and Shanna felt a stab of compassion for him as she joined the queue in front of Cally. It momentarily overcame her anxiety about her own family. She watched as he spoke quietly to the Patrol leader, one hand unconsciously stroking Sock’s head as he did. The grey starcat’s blue tidemarks flowed in soft waves of love and Cerren paused to stare down at her violet eyes.
“Shanna,” Master Peron’s quiet voice cut through her thoughts, and she turned towards her mentor, who was standing off to one side with his part grown starcat cub.
“Yes, Master Peron?” He beckoned, and she cast one more look at the line in front of her. Anxiety was evident in every face, and already she could see that at the head of the queue, Kalli’s shoulders had suddenly slumped. Resignedly she left the line and joined Peron.
“There’s no need for you to line up, Shanna, I was talking to your father only yesterday.” A flood of relief hit Shanna like a tidal wave, and she almost crumbled at the knees.
“You did? And Mum? And Kaidan?” It was almost too difficult to get the words out through the relief.
“They’re all fine. Your parents have returned to Hillview with the breeding cats and Josen and his family.” His mouth quirked briefly, but Shanna was too distracted to wonder why, “and your brother and Anjo are currently acting as messengers for us. Their base is with your parents, but they move around frequently.”
“When can I see them?” the words burst from her.
Master Peron looked slightly uncomfortable. “That’s a question I really can’t answer, Shanna. It will depend on our decisions of the next few days. Unfortunately the fifteen of you here are absolutely essential to our defence and we can’t have you haring off on family business in all directions.” Shanna nodded in resigned understanding. At least her family were alive.
“They’re well? No-one’s injured? And the cats?”
“There are a few bumps and scratches among them, but nothing serious, and the cats are fine. And Anjo has a starcat – one of Josen’s actually. Ember.”
“He does?” Shanna was intrigued. She was about to ask another question, when she heard a muffled sob and spun on the spot.
“Taya?” The dark haired girl was standing a short distance away, face stricken, and tears once again tracking down her face. Spinner had wrapped himself around her, tidemarks pulsing in ruby tones. Shanna took three steps to Taya’s side and her cats joined Spinner, bright tidemarks muted for once.
“He’s gone, Shan. I’ll never see him again. Never be able to tell him I still love him...” her shoulders shook, and Shanna awkwardly put an arm around her and drew her to a chair.
The other girl nodded, tears dripping off her chin. “And Mum as well.”
Shanna’s throat closed tightly with a painful ache, her relief of the moment before subsumed in shared grief as the other girl shook in her arms, and once again, tears welled in her own eyes. She felt suddenly selfish, as the pain that Taya was experiencing dropped her abruptly from her cloud of relief into the harsh wasteland of reality. She felt horribly inadequate as she hugged Taya’s shaking form to her. Storm and Twister flanked Spinner, and then Ragar was there as well on Taya’s other side, joined shortly after by the other cadets. There were traces of tears on Verren’s cheeks, and a stunned look in Zandany’s eyes.
“One of my brothers,” said Verren, rubbing at his cheeks. “He was pulling people from the rubble, and an aircraft blew it apart. Everyone else is all right, but Jamber’s gone. And Zandany’s Aunt and Uncle were working in one of the destroyed buildings.” He gestured helplessly.
The six cadets stood together again, cats around them, sharing each other’s sadness. Words were so inadequate, thought Shanna sadly. A few moments ago she’d been overjoyed at her family’s survival. Now, she was devastated at the losses suffered by her friends, and as she looked around, she could see that there were tears on more than just the cadets’ faces. The Garsal invaders had struck deeply into all of their lives. Challon had indeed been the first of them, but his death was not the only one. Their shared promise seemed even more important now. Amongst the grief, Shanna began to feel the hot spark of anger deep in her heart and mind. She remembered her fear of becoming a monster, after they had dropped a cliff face on the pursuing aliens, but now she felt as if that was the least of what she could have done, had they been nearby right then.
There was a hum from Storm, and she saw that his tidemarks had begun to cycle in brighter tones as he picked up her emotion. Twister growled, almost inaudibly, but the vibration of his anger where he pressed against her side, hardened her determination to do her utmost to remove the Garsal from her planet. An image of the Garsal slaves, long suppressed, rose to the surface of her mind as well, and she clenched her jaw, firming her arm around Taya. “It’s not OK Taya, none of this is OK, but you know we’re with you, and you too, Verren, Zandany. We’re together, and together we’re strong.”
“Yes!” Ragar’s voice echoed her determination, and she could see glints of anger in his eyes. Taya’s sobs continued, but she lifted her head, and Shanna could see the defiance rising inside her. Verren’s face was set, despite the tears on his face. Amma’s normally serene face mirrored the anger Shanna could feel fanning to a flame inside herself, and Zandany’s face had hardened to determination.
“We are together,” said Taya, voice unsteady, and eyes red. “And the Garsal have no idea what we’re capable of.” A small snort, slightly incongruous under the circumstances, came from Amma’s direction, and they all turned towards her, surprised despite their grief.
“And neither do we,” she said. “Not really, anyway. But, you know? I’m pretty keen to find out now.” Her expression turned grim. “And I never thought I’d say that.” She closed her eyes briefly, and then looked up at the others. “That’s our priority now isn’t it?”
“It is,” replied Ragar.
“It is,” echoed Allad and the cadets turned towards him. “For all of us. There is no time to waste. The seven of us need to figure out how we did what we did, and then we need to find out what else we can do. And whether others can too.” Beside him, Satin hummed quietly. Her emerald tidemarks brightened to an intensity Shanna had never seen before, and there was an answering hum from all of the cats in the room. Spiron stepped up from behind Allad.
“Well, Master Cerren,” he said, “As Allad has said, there is no time to waste. There is grief now, and there will be more grief to come, but we’re ready to do what needs to be done.”
Master Cerren nodded slowly, looking around at the cadets and Patrol Ten. He still looked tired, Shanna noted, but something had changed. For a moment she wondered what it was, and then she realised, their determination seemed to have re-energised him. Socks’ tidemarks were as intense as Satin’s, glowing jewel bright and pulsing in steadfast tones, tones that were overshadowed with the brightness of renewed hope.
The Overlord sent an eating utensil flying off the table with an enraged snarl. Zoash stepped to one side to avoid its path, and spread his manipulator arms in a posture of apology. Apology that did not include subservience, the Overlord noted with displeasure. He regretted his momentary lack of control briefly, but decided to maintain his own posture of overt anger. “How many have we lost now?”
“Last night’s missing sentry brings the total to seven,” he replied. The Overlord deliberately folded his manipulator arms and tucked them into his thorax.
“Seven.” His tone was flat.
“This time there is no trace of a body.”
“The sentries are in pairs every night?”
“Then how can one be ‘missing’ without the other knowing?”
“We are unable to explain it other than to say that I believe it to be the feline. The one we saw briefly when the humans exited the ship.”
“Then we need to find it and kill it.”
“But it appears to be invisible, Overlord. We’ve spent every night scanning with our equipment, and with extra sentries on patrol. Some nights nothing happens, but every now and then, another guard goes missing. It’s likely we’ll find this body sometime in the next few days.”
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s invisible or not – I want it dead and gone! Morale is plummeting. The humans have penetrated to the most secure areas of our ship, leaving destruction in their wake – and now this. We need to catch and kill it. Soon.” His tone moved to cruel amusement. “It is your task alone. And I will be informing the Matriarch so this afternoon.” He saw a momentary blanching of his hatching sib’s carapace before he managed to control his emotions. Good. Let the threat of no offspring spur him to greater efforts. He cursed the chance that had landed him on this planet. Recently he had begun to feel small stings of doubt prick away at the shell of arrogance he’d encased himself in. With a brisk motion he dismissed Zoash and then he deliberately pushed the doubts aside. He was Garsal, he reminded himself, and recited the mantra to himself. “We hold, we stay, we breed.” It would be all right. There would be offspring. He reminded himself again of the news that he would take to the Matriarch that very afternoon. The female quarters were nearing completion in the new hive. Very soon, she and her females would be ensconced in all of the comfort and luxury that he could muster. This world was his, and he would hold it, and from here he would launch his own empire. There was nothing else. He knew that it was right, and good, and his due.
Several hours later, with a sigh of pure relief, Shanna sat down and began to unlace her boots. She was a bit like her boots now, she mused. Slightly scuffed, a bit the worse for wear, but well broken in and very much fitting the task at hand. There was a feeling of amusement from her cats, and Storm hummed gently at her, great violet eyes soft, as the blue of his ear tip tidemarks twinkled in what she liked to think of as a starcat smile. She ran her hands over his head and scratched his cheek, and he leaned into her hand, purring. With her left foot she gently rubbed her toes up and down Twister’s belly. He was warm, and his purring rumbled through her foot as his eyelids lowered to half-mast and he relaxed into her touch. Just as well I have feet as well as hands, she thought with an inward smile. For a moment she allowed herself to treasure the knowledge that her family was safe, and then pushed the thought away firmly and sat thinking about what might happen next.
She expected that it would still be some time until she saw her parents and Kaidan again. Master Cerren had sympathetically but firmly explained that the population was now being relocated to the old storm shelters and various Starlyne habitations. Each storm shelter was under the command of one or two of the retired Scouts, now recalled to duty, and Watchtower’s militia had small squads stationed at each of the habitations. Many of the shelters had Starlynes stationed in them, allowing instantaneous communication in the case of enemy attack. Apparently both Starfall and Northaven were reorganising into similar structures. The farmers would continue to farm, but they were heavily guarded, and roving Scout Patrols worked overlapping patterns around the settlements. Shanna had been amazed at the amount of reorganisation that had occurred since she and the others had left the plateau. But then remembering the description of devastation visited on Watchtower by just three enemy aircraft, she knew that the incentive for change had come at a high cost.
And fortunately three of the Garsal’s aircraft had been pursuing her and her friends at the time of the attack on Watchtower. She shuddered to think of what might have happened if all six had attacked Watchtower at once. Her throat tightened in remembered sorrow as she contemplated her friends’ grief. She wondered how her old school friends had fared – friends that now seemed as far away as the once distant stars. Always ahead of her peers, her friends from school had dropped away one by one after she entered Scout training. They’d shared little enough at school, and the little they’d had in common had disappeared once she’d chosen her career. The intensity of cadetship had left little time for socialising, and Shanna realised with a shock that she knew nothing of her former friends’ lives. Her world seemed to have shrunk and expanded at the same time. Shrunk to the life of a cadet Scout and her training, but expanding to encompass Below, and indeed the whole galaxy.
She finished with her boots and pushed them wearily away, absently looking at her socked feet, both now cushioned on Twister. There was a small hole in one toe, and she pulled them off and decided that she needed a bath before bed. With a sigh, she pushed herself to her feet and began to investigate her belongings. “Want another bath boys?” she queried as she pulled clean underwear out. Twister rolled over and cocked his head, and Storm glanced at his brother. He stretched luxuriously, and pointedly made his way over to the bed and climbed onto it, one paw at a time, and then lay down comfortably, tucking his tail around so that it cushioned his nose. He looked up at Shanna, and closed one eye, watching to see what she did. She snorted slightly, gathered a clean towel to add to the underwear, and left the two cats to their sleep.
THE Overlord pondered the information scrolling across the screen. He tapped it to pause the flow briefly, studying the estimates from the engineering section. No matter how he fiddled with the figures, they remained the same. The five aircraft would be all he had for some months. Despite the raw materials now available, some of the smaller components would take time to manufacture, time in fact, to manufacture the equipment needed to begin constructing the specialised parts. He was frustrated at his inability to take the fight immediately to the humans. The primitive weaponry that they’d used to bring down the aircraft had been ridiculously effective, whatever it was. At every turn they’d surprised him. Accustomed to easy victory, the Overlord now quietly admitted to himself that he’d underestimated his opponents. If he had access to more aircraft it would be easy to overwhelm the technologically primitive humans – but he didn’t, and it was a source of major frustration to him. He jabbed at the screen with a manipulator arm again, and it resumed its scrolling. The Communications Chief had not changed his time estimates – another source of frustration. He closed the messages, and sat back, tapping the desktop irritably. He brooded over the lack of progress, and the devastation that the humans had wreaked upon his ship.
Most of all, he brooded on the slowly rising death toll from the feline still prowling within the defensive perimeter around the ship. Eight troopers were now dead or missing. He assumed that they were dead. The feline was a silent and deadly killer, leaving no trace of its presence. He leaned forwards again and tapped the screen several times. The images of the human beings in the comms room replayed themselves in an endless loop. An empty lift, followed by sudden chaos, then the abrupt appearance of several human beings and the huge felines who accompanied them. Again he pulled up the sensor readings for the felines. Nothing. None of them registered at all, or at least, not in a pattern that any of his experts had been able to determine.
He switched files as his annoyance grew, and in frustration reviewed the images captured from both the interior and exterior of the ship as the humans effected their escape. The feline now harassing his troopers must be wounded. He watched again as it erupted into a snarling spitting rage, tackling two of his troopers at once, but then blurring away, demonstrating an astonishing turn of speed despite its obvious injuries. Perhaps it might die of its wounds, he thought, but it had already been many days since the humans had escaped, and the hope was probably futile. He wondered why it remained in the area. It was only a beast, with no capacity for revenge. Perhaps it liked the taste of Garsal flesh. The thought chilled him to his vitals. Nothing preyed on the Garsal, they were the ultimate top order predator as they had proved time after time. Anger replaced the chill, and he tapped the console again. A frontal assault was out of the question right now, but he still had Trooper Hoth on the plateau, and raiding had always been a favourite pastime of the Garsal.
His mind turned the idea over. Fast hit and run attacks might well demoralise the humans. Prolonged attacks might be more satisfying but they carried higher risks, which in his previous arrogance he had neglected to consider. He tapped decisively at his screen again. “Zoash! I will meet with the senior commanders tonight.” His hatching sib sent an acknowledgment.
“I will set the meeting for after your tour of the new hive with the Matriarch, Overlord.”
The Overlord folded his manipulator arms, satisfied. There were ways to hurt the humans still, hurt them until he was ready to enslave them completely. It was time they began to understand who their new masters would be.
The Matriarch left the female section of the ship without a backwards glance. Her regal bearing was carefully calculated, and she kept her stately progress to a deliberate cadence. In her wake, her senior attendants maintained the same measured pace. They were well versed in the formalities, and she knew that there would be no hint of compromise in their postures.
Not so the four juniors included in her entourage for the first time. The four had been suggested as the most suitable for initiation by Laretai, and she had decided to include them in today’s procession so that she could observe them herself. They were trying hard to maintain the composure of the seniors, but their inexperience showed itself in small ways; the slightly awkward drape of their robes, and the uneven spacing as they struggled to maintain the measured pace. By her side, the Overlord gestured towards the entrance to the new hive. The archway was well-formed, she noted, and the sentries on either side of it moved promptly to positions of respect, shouldering their weapons in a display of devotion as she passed.
The hive was well lit, and she inclined her head to the Overlord as she passed one of the inset lighting units. The slight reddish cast to the light was easy to the multifaceted Garsal eye, and enhanced the colour of the female contingent’s robes. The clever paving smoothed the way underfoot, and the Matriarch’s group moved easily down the gentle incline. “Please, the left hand entrance, Matriarch.” The Overlord’s obsequious voice grated in the Matriarch’s ears, but she quelled her irritation. He knew no better, being only a product of his upbringing and culture. She took the indicated entrance, graciously nodding at the door attendants as she passed. Their slave garb was clean but colourless, their flat human faces downcast. She wanted to stop, to query them about their origins, to try and better understand the invaders who had been so close to her quarters when they made their way through the ship.
There were few humans in the female section of the ship, and most were too cowed to reply to any queries from a Garsal. She wished she could question the young female with the green eyes and the feline companions, a human who was not a slave – a rarity she’d never encountered. She turned her attention back to the job at hand, and entered the antechamber of what was clearly the female section of the hive. There was a small flurry of hastily suppressed surprise from behind her. Laretai would describe the potential initiates in detail for her later, but she motioned for them to step forwards with her as she paused to appreciate the details now pointed out by the Overlord.
Presentation trays sat on decorative pillars of native stone at the front of the antechamber, and neatly curtained alcoves lined each sidewall. An impressive doorway hinted at more luxuries deeper inside the hive. With the four juniors now in clear view of herself, the Matriarch decided that the Overlord had earned a few words from Laretai. She gave her attendant a coded arm motion.
“The Matriarch wishes me to indicate her satisfaction with the antechamber. It is tastefully done.”
The Matriarch watched the four juniors. Two of them stood impassively, but the other two had the air of a lesson learned. She was pleased to see them grasp the careful nature of her compliment. Voiced by Laretai, it only hinted of offspring. The same words voiced by herself would have been close to a declaration. It was not lost on either the Overlord, or the two juniors. The other two? She decided to watch and wait.
“You have more to show?” she asked the Overlord, careful to keep her voice imperious.
“Please,” he motioned to the doorway at the far end. The door slaves rushed to open the heavy metal doors. Engraved and embossed decorative panels were cleverly recessed into its heavy metal. The Matriarch was impressed, despite her irritation with the Overlord. Passing through the heavy doors, the Overlord directed them through a well-planned series of tastefully decorated rooms. Themes from many different worlds featured in the furnishings, and not for the first time, the Matriarch wondered at the many contradictions of her people. A capacity for beauty that was almost as unsurpassed as their capacity for destruction. The female quarters were everything any Matriarch could have hoped for. Individual accommodation spaces were interspersed with shared accommodations for the junior females. Technology was discreetly built into each room, always present but never jarringly so.
As the tour drew to an end, the Overlord stood to one side of an irised doorway. He gestured, and the Matriarch stepped through. It was a hatching suite. Her mood darkened abruptly. As beautiful as the female quarters were, the Overlord’s presumption angered her beyond belief.
“You overstep your rights, Overlord.” Her voice was cold and calculating. “Offspring approval has not yet been given to any male.” She felt and saw the startled reactions of the juniors. Her seniors knew better; at her first words they had closed ranks behind her, and they now faced him with her, displeasure in their bearing. She heard the shuffle as the juniors followed suit. She waited until the last one had ceased moving.
“We return to the ship now. You will remove this – immediately! No hatching suite is to be constructed until the first approval has been ratified.” She stalked from the room, her entourage moving in lockstep behind her. Laretai’s familiar step just behind her sounded outraged, and she knew that her attendant was mirroring her thoughts. The arrogance of the Overlord was insupportable, and stiffened her resolve.
As they walked, she mused on the four juniors. The tour and its aftermath would prove instructive for them. She looked forwards to interviewing them one by one; their reactions would be revealing, and help her to ensure that if any of them was unready for initiation it would be easy to weed them out. Yes, today’s indignity would be put to good use.
The Overlord fumed as he paced. The Matriarch had left in a fury, followed by her attendants. Her departure had been precipitous, and any who had encountered her party as they stalked back to the female quarters would know that the hive tour had not gone well. The slaves would say nothing, because they knew that their lives depended on their silence, but some of his underlings were not as reliable. Some would hope that his disgrace would lead to their elevation and the chance of their own offspring. Others might hope that the Matriarch might demand a change of commander. The hatching suite had been a monumental miscalculation on his part.
He paused and allowed his manipulator arms to tuck themselves back around his thorax. The nonfunctional communication equipment might yet be a blessing in disguise. There was no way that the Matriarch could communicate offworld to demand his demotion. He relaxed slightly, and the speed of his pacing slowed as he began to plan again. Rationality reasserted itself as he changed direction and strode towards the elevator to the equipment hangar. As he walked, he thought. Before he entered the elevator, he gestured to one of the slaves labouring away at a cleaning task. “Send word to the Architect. I will consult with him in the hangar.” The slave dropped his eyes and bowed, and then hurried off.
The Overlord pondered as the elevator descended to the hangar level. The hatching suite must be made unrecognisable, but what to turn it into? Perhaps the Architect would have an appropriate suggestion for him. In the meantime, he needed to take stock of the resources at his command.
The elevator doors opened and he stalked out into the hangar. One of his technicians hurried towards him, head bowed in respect. Obviously word of the Matriarch’s displeasure had not yet reached this level. He put the dilemma behind him as they walked down the neat rows of vehicles. He paused at the aircraft and surveyed them. The five of them sat there, sleek and shining, with their pilots arrayed in ranks before them. He had plenty of pilots. The thought left a sour taste in his mind.
“How long until we are able to manufacture more aircraft?” The technician consulted his tablet, manipulator arms flashing across its surface. The pause was probably unnecessary, he thought; the technician was most likely arranging his words carefully.
“The frames are easily constructed, Sir,” he said, “but some of the internal control components will take significantly longer. We have some spares in storage, but as this was a colony ship bound for an uninhabited world … the manifest was not designed with conquest in mind, consequently -”
“I know all of that!” hissed the Overlord. He was tired of platitudes, and underlings who bowed and scraped but were not forthcoming with the information he needed. “I need real figures, and real time estimates! You will provide them now, unless you wish demotion to follow very rapidly.” He watched the import of his words strike home in the underling, watched the internal struggle, mirrored by his posture, and waited.
“It will be moon cycles, Overlord, many cycles, at least more than five for the aircraft.” He shuffled uncomfortably, hesitated slightly, and then went on. “There are enough spares for two aircraft, but if we use them and something happens to our five remaining craft, then there will be no repairs.” He waited in silence as the Overlord quelled his rising frustration again.
“And the land vehicles? The climbers and crawlers?”
“We have more latitude there, Overlord. A colony world is expected to use their land vehicles hard, but again, early losses have us well over the estimated damage rate. The loss of four crawlers so soon after landing has set us back, and then the issues with the cliff face collapse have left us shorter of spares than we would like at this stage. We have more manufacturing capacity, but it will be at least two cycles until we are at full production.” He stopped speaking again and allowed his arms to flicker across the tablet. There was hesitation in his voice again as he spoke. “If we turn our resources to manufacturing land craft, we will have to divert some of our hive construction workers. We will be well behind schedule there within two cycles.”
The Overlord was tempted to break the wretched technician’s neck then and there, but at least the fool had been courageous enough to speak the truth, so he arrested the impulse before it translated to action. The technician looked at him, fear obvious in his stance, but still standing his ground. “Your name, technician?”
“I am Hath, Overlord.” The name piqued the Overlord’s interest.
“You were hatching sibs with Trooper Hoth?”
“Yes, Overlord.” The connection between hatching sibs was often strong, but it was unusual to have two in one colony ship.
“Are there more of your hatching on this planet?”
“No, Overlord. Many of our hatching have perished in the wars of conquest.”
The Overlord was oddly disappointed. Both Hoth and Hath had demonstrated more fortitude than most of his underlings. “You will advance a grade to Senior Tech and oversee the manufacturing process. You will have the hive construction workers within one cycle. There is construction work that must be completed first.” If he was to ever have any chance of offspring. “Your tablet?” Senior Technician Hath proffered the tablet with reverence, and the Overlord tapped rapidly, authorising the grade rise. Hath was his now. He could see it in the other’s posture. “You will continue to speak the truth to me when I ask.”
“I will, Overlord.”
“You will commence this task immediately. You will find that your orders have you reporting directly to Zoash, who will report to me. I will expect a report every five days.”
“Yes, Overlord.” Hath bowed himself with proper respect and departed on his new task, evidence of pride in every step.
The Overlord surveyed the aircraft and beckoned to the Senior Pilot.
“You will plan a raid. Three craft, in seven days time. The plan is to be lodged before sunset today.” The pilot bowed in acquiescence and returned to the ranks. The Overlord stood for a few more moments and then began to inspect the ranks of ground vehicles. For the moment, he dismissed the crawlers. Until there was easier access to the plateau, they were effectively useless for assaulting the humans.
The climbers, however... He beckoned to the Climber Squadron Commander.
“You have Hoth’s updates?”
“You will plan a variety of assault scenarios for the plateau. Do not include aerial support in your estimates. I will see the early simulations in one moon cycle, and we will finalise the planning within two. Include casualty estimates and the likelihood of damage to machinery. You will also contact Hoth. He should bring us at least one human specimen to study. Tell him to obtain it as soon as possible.” He turned away from the squadron commander and stalked towards the elevator again.
‘Where was the Architect?’ he wondered. ‘Surely the slave had summoned him promptly.’ The elevator doors hissed open and the Architect, as if reading his thoughts, hurried out. His posture was deferential, but there was a hint of arrogance underlying it. The creature had advised against the hatching suite, and was no doubt wishing to capitalise upon the Overlord’s discomfort. The knowledge of his fall from grace with the Matriarch was likely to be common knowledge by now. He would have to be on guard against the ambitions of those, like the Architect, who had enough rank to have their own schemes for offspring and advancement. He went on the offensive immediately.
“The hive has flaws that displease the Matriarch. You will rectify them. The hatching suite design is not up to her standards, so you will restructure it into something more pleasing that bears no resemblance to what it was. She wishes no reminders of its poor workmanship.” There, the blame was laid firmly upon the Architect, and the Overlord could see several technicians listening avidly while pretending to be diligently assessing the machinery nearby. “She will notify us of her requirements in time. At that point, and only at that point, will a suite be constructed.”
There was a glint of enmity in the Architect’s eyes as he bowed, and there was still a hint of arrogance in his posture as he departed without speaking. He hadn’t been fooled by the Overlord’s prevarications. The Overlord watched him dispassionately. Trooper Hoth’s martial skills might well become useful on his return, should the Architect overstep his bounds. He knew he deserved offspring – they were his right.
SHANNA eyed Cally with some trepidation. The old Scout looked her up and down, then took her time inspecting Storm and Twister. Old Mirror prowled around them in a fashion that reminded Shanna of their first encounter with Satin, except that this time, Satin had been subject to precisely the same inspection. She’d been hard pressed to avoid giggling at the emerald toned cat’s slightly indignant expression. Mirror’s ruby tidemarks had flickered in patterns that Shanna had never seen before as she paced around Satin. Then the two starcats had spent some time staring at each other. Satin had finally ducked her head briefly, before fixing Mirror with her unblinking stare once more. The old starcat had returned her stare levelly, then with an amused hum brushed herself up against Satin in a greeting of equals. The green tidemarked cat had hummed in reply, then watched with narrowed eyes as Mirror began her inspection of the other starcats.
Cally and Mirror finished their respective inspections, then as Shanna stood there trying to ignore the feeling that she was in trouble again, the two turned their attention to the other cadets and Allad. Allad was only the Scout with them at the moment as the others were at a strategy meeting with Peron and Cerren. Apparently Cally had coopted the Starlyne training facilities for herself and was there to help find out how they’d done what they did.
“You’ve done some good things with your cats, I hear,” Cally drawledy, “so let’s see if you’re as good as I’ve been told. Follow me.” The group stood bemused for a moment, until Mirror hummed impatiently, and followed her partner. Storm and Twister both flicked anxious eyes towards Shanna, and with a slightly nervous snicker she took a step forwards.
“Coming?” she asked the others. There was a general shuffle – even Allad had been caught slightly off balance by Cally – and they all followed Shanna down the tunnel out of the habitation.
Two hours later, Shanna collapsed on the ground, dirtier and sweatier than she’d been since returning from Below. The Starlyne obstacle course had been revamped in their absence and it had been a revealing test of partnership between starcat and human. Cally and Mirror had insisted that they work together in a group, and not as individual pairings. Skills developed Below had helped, but Shanna knew that Cally had revealed some previously undiscovered cracks in their teamwork, particularly when they had to work with someone else’s cat. Storm plonked himself on the ground next to her with a sigh, and she groaned slightly as Twister laid his head on her chest and the weight of it interfered with her puffing.
“You’re heavy, cat!”
There was a slightly plaintive grumble from Twister, but he moved his head slightly, and Shanna took a deeper breath, starting to relax.
“Up you get,” came Cally’s imperative voice. “Go and get clean, and we’ll talk.” With that, she turned and vanished down the hallway to the common room, Mirror pacing by her side.
“I don’t think I can get up,” Zandany sighed. “And I thought I was fit.”
“I thought I was too,” replied Taya, “but apparently I was wrong.”
“I ache,” said Ragar.
“And me,” Amma’s voice was an exhausted sigh, and Shanna opened her mouth to add her own comment, when Allad’s voice interrupted them.
“And if we want to eat, I’d suggest we get moving. Cally’s well known for her unusual approaches to teaching. If we’re not back there shortly, clean, neat and tidy, it’s entirely possible she’ll cancel dinner.” Even Allad sounded tired, mused Shanna. She was tempted to stay lying on the soft ground, but her stomach rumbled, and the thought of missing her meal spurred her to movement. It was hard to roll over, and even harder to push herself upright, but she did, sighing as her joints creaked.
A bath and food later, and the seven of them were clustered around Cally’s small table in her private quarters. ‘And just how had the old Scout managed that?’ wondered Shanna. The six of them were still sharing the one room, and Patrol Ten’s arrangement was still the same. Cally pushed a small bowl of nuts across the table, and then sat back in her chair, propping her feet on the edge of the table. “Your cats are quite well trained, but I think we can improve upon your teamwork. And Master Cerren’s briefing has told me that there are other things you’re able to do as well.”
“You know about the spark of course?” Allad said.
Cally nodded, and for a moment, there was a ball of light floating just above her palm. It was smaller than Spiron’s, but well-formed and bright.
Allad nodded back at the aged Scout. “Shanna, show Cally, please, and then the rest of you one by one.”
Shanna concentrated, and faded. She felt the others fade one by one. She dropped the fade, explained briefly about seeing through her cats’ eyes, and then watched as Taya made the walls mirror her hair, and Ragar and Zandany balanced flames on their fingertips and described their fireballs. (She was rather glad that they had decided description was better than demonstration.) Allad picked up the table rather casually, so that the bowl of nuts nearly fell off one edge, and then Cally turned her eyes on Amma and Verren.
“And what do the two of you do?”
“I fly, and always know what the weather’s doing,” said Amma quietly.
“And I always know where I am,” said Verren. His voice wobbled slightly, and then he went on. “And apparently I can sense sliders.”
Cally’s eyebrows disappeared into her hairline and Allad took the opportunity to explain the multiple talents of a few of them. He finished by describing the assault on the Garsal ship and the subsequent dropping of the cliff face on top of their pursuers.
Finally, Cally turned her eyes on Shanna. “And that picture in the Starlyne images – the one of you and your cats? What’s that about?”
Shanna shrugged uncomfortably, and dropped her eyes briefly before replying.
“I’m not sure, really. I can do most of the things the others can, but some of my skills aren’t as good as theirs – take Taya’s ability to stop stuff, for example. I can do it, and I’m better when the boys are helping, but I don’t have her finesse. And I can sort of sense the sliders, but not like Verren can. I can fly, though, and I’m fairly good at knowing where I am.” She stopped.
“Hmmph.” Cally’s tone was thoughtful. “Well, while you’re here, I’ll think on it. Tomorrow you can all show me what you can do. There’s somewhere near here you can fly from?” She dropped her feet off the table as Allad nodded, and pushed her chair back. “In the meantime, I’d suggest you get to bed early. We’ll be busy tomorrow, and I have much to discuss with Spiron and Barron.” With that, she left the room, limping for the first few steps before her gait smoothed out into the gliding walk of the experienced Scout.
“Well, you heard her,” said Allad. “I’m tired now, and it’s a sure thing that we’ll be even more tired after tomorrow.” His mobile eyebrows wriggled expressively, and Satin added a hum that sounded suspiciously amused.
Lying in her soft bed a little later, Shanna ran a hand idly down Twister’s soft flank. Storm had laid his head on her middle, and the weight of it was comfortingly warm.
“So, what do you think the Garsal are going to do next?” asked Amma.
“I’d like to know what we’re going to do next,” replied Taya. “Look, I know we’ll learn heaps from Cally, but really, aren’t we meant to be the planet’s first line of defence?” She sounded frustrated, and Shanna lifted her head in surprise and looked across the room. Taya had her chin propped on one hand, and was staring into space, her face fixed in unhappy lines. Shanna reminded herself that the other girl had just lost the majority of her family, and had more right to be angry than any of them.
“I know, Tay,” said Amma, “but if we’re still uncertain about how we do what we do, then how can we be the first line of defence? What if it doesn’t work again?”
Shanna rolled onto her side, eliciting a slightly annoyed hum from Storm, to watch the other two girls.
“I know, Amma, but if we were out there doing the defence, I’m sure we’d figure it out.” Taya let out a frustrated sigh. Shanna sympathised with Taya; she wanted more than anything to be doing something. Something that seemed more productive than training, even if it was training with one of the legends of the Scout Corps. It seemed stupidly anticlimactic.
“Maybe we’ll learn more from Cally than we think,” she said, hoping that was true. “I’m sure we’ll be out there soon, doing more. There has to be some reason that Master Cerren wants us to work here with Cally.”
“I know,” replied Taya with a sigh, “it’s just...you know.” She broke off, and Shanna knew. She’d heard the other girl crying quietly at night. They’d all tried their best to help, but what did you say to someone who’d lost so much so suddenly, except to be there? Taya dimmed the lights and lay back on her bed, and as the light faded, Shanna deliberately closed her eyes.
She wondered when she’d see the three Starlynes who’d travelled with them again. She missed their friendly presence and was curious what they were doing. She hadn’t realised how used she’d become to their silent conversation and insightful comments. And she wondered when she’d finally meet Fractus’ daughter, the young Starlyne of the vision.
Thoughts and images danced in her mind as she lay there in the dark, and once more, she felt that the weight of the world rested on her shoulders. What was it about her and her cats that the Starlynes felt was so important? There was no doubt that her ability to fade was unsurpassed, and her multiple skills with ‘the spark’ were in a greater quantity than anyone else’s. But she’d spent hours thinking about whether that made her, Storm and Twister more powerful, or clever, or prepared than anyone else, and she couldn’t see how. In fact, she could imagine being stuck trying to decide what she’d do with so many skills at her fingertips. She could see it clearly in her imagination. Hundreds of Garsal pouring towards the plateau as she stood on the edge trying to figure out what to do. It wasn’t as if she could fade the whole plateau, or make the Garsal vanish in one enormous fireball. There were limits to her abilities. She might have many, but her skills were surest when she faded, or when she flew, but even then, Amma was a better flyer.
Shanna rolled over restlessly and punched her pillow into a better shape. She could see the muted tidemarks of the cats in the darkness. Close by, Storm and Twister were a puddle of blue and violet on her bed, with Spider not far away, and Spinner glowed faintly, like a partially banked fire. The boys’ cats’ marks reflected faintly on the far wall.
Shanna wriggled, trying to get comfortable. Her pillow seemed to be developing lumps, or maybe it was just that she’d slept for so long without a pillow that she was struggling with it. No, it hadn’t bothered her at all the first few nights. She was forced to realise that despite her fatigue, she was in for a restless night. There was a quiet hum from the bed, and Storm’s tidemarks brightened slightly. “Sorry boys,” she whispered, and the tidemarks dimmed again. What was it that was so special about the three of them? Shanna ran the images through her mind again. Her, her two starcats, and then a myriad of others in the background. Her memory refused to show them clearly, no matter how much she reran the image. Finally, she heaved a frustrated sigh, deliberately closed her eyes and began to count her breaths. It was rare that she had a restless night, but when she did, counting her breaths usually helped.
The next morning, Shanna felt scratchy eyed, tired, and unaccustomedly grumpy. Cally had dragged them out of bed unconscionably early, even by Scout standards, pointed them at the breakfast table and then herded them out to the bluff where they’d had their initial flights. She’d had Verren show her precisely where they were on the map every kilometre or so. Then, when they’d struck a bare patch of rock, she’d asked Ragar and Zandany to toss a fireball or two, before requesting Allad pick up the largest rock he could. Shanna had been rather impressed at the size of it – almost as big as a horgal wagon. As the echoes of the rock hitting the ground died away, Shanna had wondered if perhaps the Starlynes had made an error about her. She could imagine Allad mowing down hundreds of Garsal with a rock that size if he managed to toss it far enough. And then she remembered how tired everyone became if they use their abilities for any length of time; even Allad wasn’t exempt. The Starlynes had replenished the energy patches, but they’d cautioned them all against overusing them. It appeared that they were difficult to manufacture, and required a number of specialised ingredients that were hard to find.
By the time they’d climbed the small spire, some of the cobwebs had cleared from her mind. There was a light breeze, and the flying conditions looked perfect. As she, Amma and Allad removed their wingsuits from their packs, Cally and Mirror watched intently. Verren, Ragar, Taya and Zandany assisted with the final checks and the three flyers prepared themselves to launch.
“We may as well use the flight for a recon,” Allad said. “We’ll sweep in three directions – Amma, you take due south, Shanna you’ll head southeast, and I’ll take the southwest. Look for anything unusual. For Cally’s benefit, we’ll fly in formation for a few minutes, normal arrowhead, Amma in front, and then we’ll separate on Amma’s signal. Half an hour out, and half back.” Shanna and Amma nodded. Shanna readied herself as Amma leaped into the air, dropping carefully into that odd vision that allowed her to ‘see’ the air currents.
She leaped in turn, allowing the cool air rushing past her face to blow out the last of the grumpiness. She dropped neatly in behind Amma, admiring as ever, the effortless way the other girl flew. Allad flew much as he moved – gracefully, but purposefully – and as he joined Shanna behind Amma, the three of them flew in careful formation in a rising spiral. Amma took them past the top of the spire several times at various altitudes, and then directly over the top of it and arrowed south. At Amma’s wing waggle, the three separated, and Shanna headed southeast.
It was hard to concentrate on the task at hand as the sheer joy of flying overtook her. It had been weeks since she’d been in the air, and Shanna was pleased to note that none of her hard won skill seemed to have left her. She scanned the ground conscientiously, noting the varicoloured vegetation of Below in all its deadly, beautiful majesty. She ‘felt’ carefully for Twister and Storm, waiting on the spire with the others, making sure she knew precisely where they were in relation to her position. Her direction sense, although not as good as Verren’s, told her that she would be shortly nearing the site of the battle with the four Garsal vehicles. She estimated how long she’d been flying, and figured she had another ten minutes or so before she needed to turn around.
She soared contentedly, enjoying the sensation of flight, watching Below unroll before her. She could see the miniature plateau where they’d first made contact with the Garsal and her stomach roiled momentarily as she recalled the astounded amazement at encountering aliens, here, on her home world. Below was a place that repeatedly called her to explore, and she longed for a return to the peaceful days she’d envisaged when she first joined the Scouts. Days spiced with the adventure of exploration and study. She’d seen Below from the edge of the plateau all those months ago when they’d found the Garsal ship, but now, from high above it, she was struck all over again by its deadly mystery. The deep green of the vegetation touched a buried longing that she was almost unable to explain, and she repressed an urge to keep on flying just to see what she might find.
In her head, the time ticked by. She flew southeast steadily, trying to estimate exactly how far over Below she was. She could ‘feel’ Storm and Twister like anchors behind her, steadfast in their waiting, and decided to gain a little more height before turning back towards them. She was halfway through her turn when she was buffeted suddenly by an air current she hadn’t ‘seen,’ and a thundering boom. It tumbled her over in the air, and she was completely disoriented, not knowing whether she was up or down, her arms and legs quivering with the strain of a tumbling, turbulent patch of air. Her head spun, and she blinked her eyes furiously, trying to figure out what was happening, when she realised that she was dropping rapidly towards Below. Panicked, she forced her arms and legs into position, shaking with the strain, and slowly began to level out, checking the downward plummet. Her sense of her two cats was the only thing that kept her mind to even a semblance of rational thought.
Finally, she gained control, feeling one of her shoulders aching fiercely, and looked around to estimate her height. The ground was way too close, and she searched the air currents frantically for one that would take her higher, and with a thankful sigh, angled sideways into a rising thermal. It sucked her high into the air, and she looked around to see what might have caused the boom and her tumble. Perhaps there were air currents invisible even to her enhanced vision. She spiralled higher, scanning, and to the northeast of her, spied a glint of metal, flying high in the sky. Her heart sank. At least one Garsal aircraft was in the vicinity.
Shanna was torn. Should she chase the aircraft? Should she head straight back to the spire? What was the best plan of action? She had no idea what the best choice would be, and worst of all, she could feel her shoulder beginning to throb more intensely second by second. It was 30 minutes flying time back to the bluff where Storm and Twister waited, and in that time, who knew where the aircraft might end up? At the speed it had passed her, it would probably be near the plateau in a few minutes. She took a deep breath, and began to consider her options. The aircraft would be at its destination before she could arrive. Her arrival would make no difference to the outcome, except to separate her from her cats and her team. She could ‘feel’ Storm and Twister in her mind, now drawing her back to the spire and she deliberately turned in the air towards them and began to speed as fast as possible towards them. She imagined she could hear sounds on the wind, awful sounds of destruction, but she kept her eyes towards her starcats.
Fifteen minutes later, she could see the spire and a speck that was either Allad or Amma mirroring her path. She concentrated on flying as well as she could for the next ten minutes and carefully gauged the wind direction as she headed in for a landing. As her feet touched the rock, she gasped her news even before she’d lowered her arms.
Cally’s seamed face hardened “Verren, go straight back to the Starlyne habitation and pass the message. We’ll wait here in case Amma and Allad have further information.”
Shanna’s shoulder throbbed dully, and she realised that Ragar was busily unsealing the wingsuit, and she began to shrug out of it, automatically telescoping the extensions as she folded it into her pack. There was a crunch, and Amma landed neatly, having apparently dropped vertically the last half metre. She was undoing her wingsuit almost before she landed.
“The message is on its way,” replied Cally. Taya and Ragar helped Amma stow her suit as fast as possible, and then they began the wait for Allad. Remembering her own tumble, and near fall, Shanna shivered slightly, and looked at Satin. The green toned cat sat completely composed on the edge of the spire. She wasn’t the least bit worried as far as Shanna could see, so she decided that Allad must be all right.
“Did you have any trouble, Amma?” she asked.
“It nearly scared the living daylights out of me,” replied Amma, “It came so close it knocked me all over the sky. Took me quite a while to sort myself out, and for a moment I thought I was about to die.” She shook her head.
“Me too. I think I’ve wrenched my shoulder as well.” Shanna wriggled her shoulder. It was uncomfortable no matter where she put it, but not nastily so. Just enough to be annoying. There was a shout from Zandany, who was perched on a rock.
“I can see Allad. Looks like he’s in a hurry!” Allad’s form neared the spire at full speed, turned into the wind, and landed with a thud. Sweat covered his face, and he dropped his arms with a sigh of relief.
“The message is sent,” said Cally. “but I need the three of you to tell me where you were when you saw the ship, and what direction it was going in.” They crouched over the map, and Shanna put her finger on her estimated position.
“It was heading towards Watchtower as far as I can tell.”
Allad’s face blanched. “I must have seen a different one in that case. Mine was heading northwest – in a pretty direct line towards the coastal settlements if it overflies the plateau.” Amma’s finger shook slightly.
“The one I saw was moving due north.”
“So,” Allad said, “We have three aircraft going in three different directions. And no idea where they’re going, except for a compass heading.”
“Well, they’re certainly not on a sightseeing tour,” replied Cally, her voice dry, and her expression hard. “I’d say they’ve embarked on a guerilla campaign. I suspect it’ll be a hit and run type raid – the maximum amount of destruction in the shortest amount of time. Ideal for spreading fear and damage. They hope to panic us.”
There was silence as they all contemplated the implications. Shanna’s mind imagined the destruction that just one of those ships could be visiting upon some of the small settlements on the plateau right then.
“Come on,” Cally said. “We need to be back at the habitation. The Starlynes will send a representative immediately I’d guess, and there’ll be planning to do. Dependent on what happens, our tasks may change, so we’ve little time to work on the things we need to.” She nodded grimly at their surprised expressions. “Cerren knows the value of the things I can teach you. He’ll leave you here if he can, but our time will be short.” She stomped off down the spire, and the three flyers and other cadets followed in her wake.
Shanna’s mind began to worry about her family again. They had been safe. Surely they still were. They had to be. And then she felt guilty, why should her family be safe when so many others probably weren’t? It was selfish, but she still clung to the thought. Kaidan would be somewhere carrying messages – he’d be all right. She pushed the worry about her parents down, and followed Cally. She wondered what the rest of Patrol Ten might have been doing. It seemed odd that Spiron wasn’t demonstrating his flying skills along with the rest of them.
Growing up in Western Australia, Leonie was an avid reader from an early age. Her mother vividly recalls her stating “I can read faster with my eyes than you can with your mouth, Mum…” at around the age of six. Her parents and great aunt encouraged her interest in literature, providing her with books of many different genres, and . She began writing during high school, placing in the Western Australian Young Writers Award in 1980, and she fondly remembers several of her English teachers, who encouraged her to write, both fiction and poetry.
Leonie trained at Curtin University as a physiotherapist and moved to the remote north west of Western Australia, as a new graduate, in late 1986. She continued to write poetry for herself and for friends. Living in the remote northwest, she had the opportunity to work with camels, fight fires as a volunteer fire fighter, and develop vertical rescue and cyclone operation skills with the State Emergency Service.
After relocating to NSW with her husband and two children, Leonie continued to work as a physiotherapist, while still dabbling with writing. Finally deciding to stop procrastinating, Leonie decided to write the novel she’d had sitting in the back of her head for the last twenty years. Her husband and two teenage children have been extremely tolerant of the amount of time she has devoted to writing in the last few years.
For more information visit Leonie's Facebook page.
Book 3 of the FRONTIER series
The moral rights of Leonie Rogers to be identified as the author of this work have been asserted.
Copyright © 2016 Hague Publishing
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher.
Cover Art: Frontier Defiant by Jade Zivanovic
Cover Layout by Ross MacLennan of Book Covers Australia
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