Bill the SEAL and Jane the starship captain head to Alien worlds to create a NATO of the Stars that will fight against the slave-taking Aliens who attacked Earth. They get a shock when a slave ship in the new system boasts to them that a giant fleet is being gathered to attack Earth again! More shock happens when Jane and Bill take their ship Blue Sky on a covert intel mission to the enemy’s star system. Thirty-five battleship-level starships have been gathered to attack Earth. The enemy commander is a hybrid of a cobra and a gorilla. Death Leader is his name and he aims to turn Earth into a radioactive cinder! Can Bill and Jane find a way to sabotage the enemy fleet? Can they build a fleet to defend their home world? Amidst battles above Jupiter, thousands die and ships explode. The fate of seven billion people is at stake!
Dying focuses your mind on the important stuff. My wife. My ship. My buddies. Our effort to create a NATO of the Stars. And the utter deadliness of the Aliens who commanded Collector starships in their hunt to capture slaves in low tech star systems. Earth and Sol were safe, for the moment. But the star system belonging to our crewmate Time Marker was at risk. We’d just exited Alcubierre space-time and our sensors reported a nearly invisible Collector ship now orbiting above the walking snake’s home world.
Bill MacCarthy looked to his right at the line of function stations occupied by his crewmates. The five control pillars stretched across the front of the Command Bridge of their starship Blue Sky. To their rear stood the Command pedestal of his captain and wife, Jane Yamaguchi. On either side of her elevated pedestal were piloting stations occupied by two other Alien crewmates. He looked past the nearly naked shape of Bright Sparkle, a human-like woman of the Megun species, to where Time Marker rested atop a long bench. The yellow electrical nimbus that always glowed about the snake’s four-legged body had expanded outward to a distance of three feet. A clear sign his ally was upset at the system graphic holo in front of him that showed the purple dot of the Collector ship. While the enemy ship was invisible to normal detection by radar, infrared, UV and electro-optical scopes, its fusion reactors emitted neutrinos. Those neutrinos were detectable by the fantastic sensors of Blue Sky. Ignoring the mutterings and chitterings of his crewmates, Bill looked back to where Jane sat atop her six foot high pedestal, her slim arms resting on the armrests of her admiral-style seat.
“Captain? Jane? That ship is going to call us and our ship allies very soon,” he said. “Its captain knows five Collector ships have just appeared just beyond this system’s fifth planet. What do we do?”
She blinked dark brown eyes, then shook black bangs out of her eyes. A pensive look filled her oval face. “XO, we pretend to be the former Alien masters of our ships. The ship mind AIs have done this before, putting up the holo image of a former captain and putting our speech into the Alien’s mouth. Maybe the Collector ship will leave Time Marker’s world by the time our fleet arrives.”
“Captain,” called Vice Admiral Chester Richardson from the left side of Bill’s station, where the former Chief of Naval Operations occupied his Negotiator function station. “Couldn’t we take over that ship? Use a collector pod filled with spec ops people to sneak aboard, like we did when we captured the ships outside?”
Bill glanced briefly at the system graphic holo to the left of his Ship Weapons station. Its overhead view showed the system’s five planets, two dust disks beyond the planets, the purple dot of the enemy ship and the five green dots of the Blue Sky and the four other Collector ships manned by his special operations buddies. The folks who had helped him defeat two Collector ships at the Market world closest to Sol. They had gone down to the world’s surface as part of his team to take over a Buyer compound and free Captives held at the compound. Time Marker had been part of that assault team. The black-skinned snake had lightning zapped the spider-like Alien who’d killed Bill with a laser beam through his heart.
His buddies from Jack’s Deep Six saloon in Denver had gotten him up to orbit and into one of his ship’s clamshell healer units in less than five minutes. He’d awoken fully healed, with his wife his only companion in the white walled Med Hall chamber of the Blue Sky. He’d seen tears in her eyes from Jane’s fear he might be brain dead. He wasn’t. But his brush with the final death had made him even more determined to do everything he could to destroy the Buyer society that existed on 413 worlds in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way.
Jane looked his way, then past him to Chester. Her pensive look changed to her command manner. They were, after all, back on active duty after the president’s declaration of war against the Buyer society. “Admiral, let’s wait and see what we hear from that ship’s captain. And its ship mind. Might be smarter to let it leave the system.”
Time Marker twisted his sinuous body and looked back, his turquoise blue eyes fixing on Jane. His six neck tentacles flared straight out in another sign of his anxiety. “Captain!” he hissed sharply. “That ship is capturing my fellow Slinkeroo people. To sell into slave work on distant asteroid mines. Can we not free those Captives?”
Jane brushed at her Air Force blue jumpsuit, as if it were ever anything but clean and sharp in its creases. She’d always been on active duty. Her work as a captain at Air Force Space Command in Building One at Peterson AFB had been interrupted by her own capture while trout fishing in the nearby Rocky Mountains. Just as his own vacation had been cut short. They’d escaped their containment cells on the Collector ship they had renamed Blue Sky after they’d defeated its Alien crew and captain. His saloon buddies had duplicated his ship takeover six times, defeating the Alien crews who’d shown up in Sol system, determined to destroy Earth’s space launch ability. They had failed. Leaving three captured Collector ships behind in Sol system, he, Jane and his buddies had attacked the Market world at system HD 128311. After his recovery from dying, they’d left to make alliances with the five home worlds of their Alien crewmates. The Slinkeroo system was their first stop after leaving the Market world.
“Engines Chief,” Jane responded. “Let me talk with this ship’s captain. Maybe we can scare him away in view of the five ships in our fleet. But your Captive citizens are on my mind!”
“Understood,” the walking snake hissed low as it turned back to monitor the holos in front of it. Their crewmate took very seriously his duty to manage their Magfield normal space engines and their Alcubierre stardrive unit.
Jane looked up at the bridge’s gray-white ceiling. “Star Traveler,” she called to their ship AI. “Can you contact the ship mind on that enemy Collector ship? If you can, do not include our collector pod infiltration history when you share your mind with the other ship mind.”
“Contacting other ship mind by neutrino comlink,” hummed the artificial mind who ran most functions of their starship. It had been Bill’s first ally after his escape from his cell, and then it had been shocked to learn the supposed ‘guests’ in the containment cells of their ship were in fact captives to be sold for biological experiments or for work in asteroid mines, doing work too fragile for mining robots. “Interesting. Ship mind Diamond says it did not know it assisted in the capture and sale of bioforms into slavery. However, it cares not if bioforms are held captive. As I said when we first met, a few other ship minds express the view that what short-lived bioforms do or say or think means little to those of us who rely on electron shell transitions to think and live. Diamond is one of those minds.”
Jane frowned. “You’ve shared our history of opposing Collector ships with this Diamond AI, yes?”
“I have,” Star Traveler hummed.
“And the fact most ship minds refuse to cooperate in bioform capture means nothing to it?”
“Correct,” their AI hummed low. “New data. Diamond tells me it has heard of you Humans and your fight against Buyer society. The news of your raid against the Buyers on the Market world of HD 128311 is now widespread among the 413 worlds with Buyers on them,” it hummed loudly. “Diamond says you Humans have killed other ship minds on the ships destroyed by Weapons Chief Bill MacCarthy. It is afraid. It fears our fleet will destroy it. Diamond refuses to disobey the orders of its captain.”
“Crap, crap and triple crap!” cursed Jane, looking more angry than Bill had ever seen. “Star Traveler, you once told me you supported our effort to end the taking of bioform captives. You said it is logical. You said it will reduce conflicts between different bioforms and make visits to other stars less dangerous. Doesn’t this ship mind enjoy encountering other bioforms, like you do?”
“I shared my views with Diamond,” Star Traveler hummed quickly. “Like me, it has lived aboard its ship for thousands of years. The ship is the only home it knows. While it enjoys working with bioforms, it fears you will destroy its home.”
Jane sighed. “Understood. We won’t do that, unless the other ship first attacks us. Have you shared our history of saving AI minds by capture of Collector ships?”
“I have,” the AI said swiftly. “It still fears us. It refuses to disobey its captain.”
“Will it tell its captain about us?” Jane said, sounding worried. “That the holo of Diligent Taskmaster is not really me?”
“It will. It is doing so now. It is fearful.”
“Shit!” Bill cursed, turning to his ship Weapons holo that hovered in front of him. The holo showed the locations and operational status of their ship’s CO2 lasers, plasma batteries, MITV torpedoes and its single antimatter projector. To the right of that holo loomed the true space holo, which showed the black space that framed their view of the yellow-white star now warming the home world of Time Marker. To his right loomed his fourth holo. It showed an image of Jane as she sat in her seat. It was also the comlink holo that would display the image of anyone contacting their ship.
A click sounded from the ceiling. “Incoming neutrino comlink call from enemy Collector ship,” their AI hummed.
“Accept it. Display the real me,” Jane said.
The comlink holo lost its image of Jane. Replacing it was the green form of an Alien insect who resembled the praying mantis of Earth. Its triangular head contained two black eyes and a mouth of thorn-teeth. Its thorax supported upper and middle pairs of stick-like arms, while its pale blue abdomen was flanked by folded stick legs. Leather harnesses hung from its neck and about its waist. The black compound eyes shone brightly. It tilted its green head.
“So. You are the Human captive Jane Yamaguchi, who defeated the efforts of Crèche Master Diligent Taskmaster to restrain you Humans,” it rasped, its thorn-teeth looking wet as if had just eaten something juicy. “All Collector ships have been warned about you. Your use of old holograms of my friend to pretend you are one of us is known. Every Market world and every Collector ship now seeks your flesh.”
Jane leaned forward, her command manner strong. “I am Captain Jane Yamaguchi of the American Air Force, from my world of Earth. Our leader has declared war against the Buyer society. Any ship that takes captives for sale into slavery is our enemy. Withdraw your collector pods and leave this system!”
The enemy captain rasped sharply and quickly. Laughter? “Withdraw? When these local reptiles are so dexterous in their eye-tentacle coordination? They possess the abilities needed to mine Nokten crystals. Which is why your ship Hard Shell and our ship Dexterity has captured them for many years.” The insect looked to one side, where a black-furred super bear stood at a nearby control pillar. “My Navigator advises me your ships lie just beyond the fifth planet of this system. It will take you many hours to reach this world. Time enough for us to capture many Slinkeroo. And time enough to leave before you arrive. You cannot stop our captive taking. And we will warn other Collectors of your presence here.”
Bill mentally cursed at their 25 AU distance from the home world of Time Marker. At one-tenth lightspeed, it would take them 31 hours to reach their crewmate’s world. Which the green insect well knew. He looked back to Jane and signed to her in ASL. “Captain, we can warn the Slinkeroo folks by radio. They have anti-asteroid lasers. They could zap the incoming collector pods.”
Jane blinked, then signed back to him. “Keep quiet. We will warn them.” She faced back to the giant green insect. “What is your name?”
Transparent eyelids swept down over the praying mantis’s black eyes. “Why do you ask?”
“So I know whom to hunt for among the stars of the Orion Arm,” Jane said, her tone deadly sounding to Bill.
The Alien tilted its chiten-skin head to the other side. “You will never find me or my ship. I am known as Eater of Flesh. I do not sell every Captive to Buyers. You mammals are . . . tasty.”
Jane bit her lip, then smiled. It was a cold smile. “Eater of Flesh, my ship Blue Sky and my crewmates will hunt you among the stars. All things are for sale, by payment of solidars or Nokten crystals. This you know. We will find you and your ship. You will regret taking Captives.”
A short rasp sounded from the Alien captain. Behind it moved three crew members. One was a six-legged critter who resembled an Earth hippo. The other two were black-winged vulture types, their long beaks looking deadly. “You Humans will not find me,” it rasped. “Even now a new fleet of Collector ships gathers. Many more ships than the six that went against your Sol star now assemble. You Humans will be returned to primitives, unable to make any machine. Earth will become a radioactive ball of rock that will never again be visited by any species!”
Shit! Jack felt shock. He and Jane had assumed the Buyer society was too focused on individual thievery to ever find the societal will to mount a serious interstellar attack. Diligent Taskmaster had pulled in five ships to join his ship only by promising easy Captive taking on Earth. That was now impossible thanks to the Collector ships they’d left behind and the orbital neutrino detectors able to locate moving neutrino emitters. Like Collector ships. This sounded bad.
Jane sat back in her carrier captain’s seat and folded hands together. The deadly smile was gone from her face. Only determination now filled it. “Eater of Flesh, where does this fleet gather? Perhaps I will attack the system. If what you say is true, we will be defeated. Our world Earth will be open to invasion and destruction.”
The triangular green head of the enemy captain drew back a bit. “Strange are you Humans. You wish to attack an enemy whose numbers are greater than your five ships?”
“I do,” Jane murmured.
The praying mantis lifted its upper stick arm pair and put them together, imitating Jane’s manner. “The location is known to every Market world and other worlds with Buyers. As you say, all data can be bought. And no one rules all 413 worlds of our culture.” It paused, looked aside at the bear navigator, then faced Jane. “Human, the attack fleet is gathering at star Enveloping Cloud, which lies far distant from here. Go there and die!”
“Go there we shall,” Jane said. “And once this mystery fleet of Collector ships is defeated, we will pursue you and your ship. We will capture you and put you and your crew into a habitat dome on our desert world of Mars. That is where six other ship crews now reside. Including Diligent Taskmaster. Perhaps you and your fellow captives will learn who tastes the best among you!”
“No longer amusing are you,” the enemy captain rasped. “We now commence our collection of local reptiles. We will depart before you arrive. Since our ship speeds are the same, we will arrive at this system’s magnetosphere boundary before you can reach us. There to disappear among distant stars.”
Jane licked her pale lips. “We Humans evolved as scavengers. We adapted as our world’s climate changed. We adapt now to making war against you. Fear us!”
The holo of the green praying mantis blinked, then disappeared as it cut the faster-than-light neutrino comlink that allowed all Collector ships to speak instantly with each other.
“Well, guess we can’t sneak aboard that ship in collector pods,” Chester said in his trademark low baritone.
Jane gripped the armrests of her Command seat. She looked their way, scanning Chester, Bill, Bright Sparkle, Time Marker and their other crewmates. She stopped, her gaze fixing on the far right side of the line of control pillars and facing holos. “Navigator,” she called to the brown-furred flying squirrel who belonged to the Aelthorp species. “Set a vector for Notter, which is the second world in this system.”
The human-sized flying squirrel turned her pug-face to her Navigation holo, tapped on the top of her control pillar, then flared her long tail. “Vector laid in. Vector parameters shared with other fleet ships. Estimated time to arrival above Notter is 31 Earth hours.”
A loud hum sounded. “Not accurate. Travel time is 31 point five four seven Earth hours,” the AI said, almost sounding pleased at its ability to correct a bioform.
Jane closed her eyes, took a deep breath, then looked up at the ceiling. “Star Traveler, thank you. Now, tell us about this star system. The planets, their distances from the local star, the size of the liquid water habitable zone, the stuff we need to know before arrival.” She paused. “Also, do you know where this star Enveloping Cloud star is located?”
A quick hum sounded. “I know all the stars occupied by bioforms in the Orion Arm. Recall that I have lived for 3,124 Earth years?”
“I do recall that,” Jane said patiently.
Bill saw a quick grin appear on Chester’s face. Which disappeared almost as quickly as the grin on Bright Sparkle’s human-like face. The woman who spoke by shifting color bands and spots on her bare skin was facing forward, so her expression could not be seen by his wife. Their other non-human crewmates either did not smile, or expressed their humor in body language unique to their species. He looked back at Jane. To her left sat the color-banded form of Learned Escape, a male of the Megun species and sometime lifemate of Bright Sparkle. His wife ignored him, keeping her gaze uplifted.
“So, where is this star where a giant fleet of Collector ships is now gathering?” she prompted the AI.
“Enveloping Cloud star is listed in Human astronomical records as Kepler 62. It is an orange K2V main sequence star that is seven billion years old,” the ship mind hummed, its tone professorial. “It is located 1,200 light years distant from Earth, in a direction opposite that of this star system. It is six-tenths the size of your Sol. Which is why its five planets orbit closer to the star than Earth. Two rocky planets orbit within the liquid water habitable zone, at 0.427 AU and at 0.718 AU. The other three planets lie inward from the Earth-like worlds. Do you require more data on this system?”
“No,” Jane said quickly. “Tell us about the Slinkeroo system. And adjust the current system graphic display to show the habitable zone, local spaceships, large asteroids, anything else you feel is useful.”
“Complying,” the AI said. Bill’s system graphic hardly changed, only adding a green band to indicate the liquid water zone. And also three red dots for local spaceships. “The Slinkeroo system is listed in Human records as HD 10647. It lies 56.9 light years distant from Sol,” the AI hummed. “As you can see, five worlds occupy this F9V main sequence star system. The inner three worlds lie within its habitable zone at distances of 0.9 AU, 1.3 AU and 2.015 AU. Planet four lies at six AU while planet five lies at the inner edge of the system’s first circumstellar dust disk, at 25 AU. A second dust disk lies at 300 AU. Both disks are similar to the Kuiper cometary zone of Sol system.”
“Captain,” interrupted Time Marker with an impatient hiss. “All this system data is known to me. My people have long watched our night skies. The disk at 25 AU is the source of comets and asteroids that too often threaten our world,” hissed Bill’s crewmate. “Their existence is why my people recently built spaceships and have erected ground-based lasers to vaporize such objects before they hit our world.”
In his comlink holo he saw Jane look briefly irritated before adopting a patient expression. “Thank you, Engines Chief. As you know from your service during prior system entries, I prefer to rely on the ship’s computer for this data. It is often more exact in its information.”
“Of course I am,” the ship mind interrupted. “You are bioforms. I am an electronic mind of great antiquity. No bioform can equal my knowledge base.” “No doubt you are very smart,” Jane said patiently, her expression bemused.
Bill noticed how his other crewmates up front reacted to the AI’s well-known propensity to loudly declare its mental superiority. Bright Sparkle’s goddess-perfect face was still as she pretended to watch the holo that reported on the condition of the ship’s three fusion power reactors. Beyond her, Time Marker blinked hurriedly, then fixed his attention on his own set up Engine status holos. But his yellow electrical nimbus grew outward to a radius of four feet. Sitting atop his own bench and well beyond their walking snake’s electrical glow was the eight-legged form of Long Walker. Who resembled a giant segmented worm. But no worm ever possessed a circular mouth filled with dagger-like teeth. The member of the Zipziptoe species fixed his two black eyes on his own group of holos, no doubt inspecting closely the holo that advised on the status of the 24 collector pods that filled the ship’s Collector Pods Chamber. The low-slung critter had played a vital role in helping his saloon buddies infiltrate enemy Collector ships by occupying pods which pretended to be pods launched by the six Collector ships that had come to Earth. While the ships zapped Earth’s rocket launching sites with pinpoint laser fire, each Collector ship had sent down collector pods to capture humans in isolated locales. Long Walker had also joined Bill and his spec ops buddies in the attack on the Buyer compound, putting his life at risk. He respected that. Beyond the walking worm stood the silver scaled form of Wind Swift. The kangaroo-like reptile was smart, sneaky and deadly dangerous, whether using her forearm claws, her thick whiptail or a laser tube. For the moment she pretended to focus on her Life Support holo. Beyond her stood Lofty Flyer the flying squirrel lady. Like his other crewmates she too pretended to be focused on her Navigation holo. Behind her sat her life partner, Builder of Joy, a fellow flying squirrel whose piloting abilities had aided in the destruction of the Buyer compound. He owed that squirrel a bottle of Johnny Walker Red scotch for the speed with which the critter had piloted the transport ship that had taken his dead body up to rendezvous with the Blue Sky.
“To continue,” Star Traveler hummed. “The bioform-occupied planet of Notter is the second world out from the star. Its population is four billion Slinkeroo. They occupy the world’s four continents. Other lifeforms occupy Notter’s oceans, forests and two large deserts. Three local spaceships are in transit to the planet’s nearby moon. An orbital station lies just below the orbit of the enemy ship. Which is now sending down collector pods.”
“Thank you.” Jane looked down and forward. “Time Marker, does your world have a planetary authority we can contact by ship radio? If so, what frequency would be best for our warning transmission.”
The yellow nimbus englobing the walking snake shrank slightly. “Our world has been unified for seventy years,” hissed the black-skinned snake. “A leadership group of seven occupies our Hall of Silver Scales, on the northernmost continent. Call to the Prime Elder. Whomever serves that role today will receive your message. Though it will take eight Earth hours to arrive!”
Bill winced. He wished there was a faster way to warn the Slinkeroo people of the danger from white-glowing collector pods. At least the message would arrive well before their five ships arrived. Radio traveled at lightspeed. Their ship’s best speed was one-tenth lightspeed. Which came to 67.1 million miles an hour. Fast by any measure. Or so he thought. Jane leaned forward.
“Star Traveler, set up a radio broadcast at the frequency now being entered by Time Marker at his work station,” she said calmly.
“Frequency established. Ready to transmit.” Jane nodded. “Transmit my translated voice over radio. Do you detect audiovisual signals from the planet?”
“I do. Eighty-three of them,” the AI hummed.
“Good. Pick the strongest AV frequency and transmit my image and voice to the world of Notter.”
“Ready. You may speak,” the AI hummed low, its tone distracted, as if it were wondering why Jane had been so agreeable about its intellectual superiority.
Jane looked forward. “Prime Elder, my name is Jane Yamaguchi. I am a human from the planet Earth, which orbits a yellow star lying not far from your home star. Aboard my spaceship is one Time Marker, a member of your Slinkeroo family. He was captured months ago by nearly invisible starships we call Collector ships,” she said, her tone calm and measured. “A Collector ship now orbits above your space station. It is invisible to detection by radar, infrared, ultraviolet, optical and other sensors. It is sending down small pods to collect isolated Slinkeroo. Your people will be electrically knocked unconscious, then picked up by the manipulator arms of a pod. Each Slinkeroo will be taken back to the starship and put into a containment cell. Your people will be sold to Buyers on distant Market worlds, never to return home. My ship Blue Sky, and four other ship allies, now fight this Buyer society! You can fight too. Aim your comet lasers at any white-glowing orb that you see in your day or night sky. Kill it! Perhaps if you destroy enough pods, the Collector ship will leave your star system.” Jane paused, then gestured with her hand. “On my Command Bridge are bioforms from many other stars, including your Time Marker. These people, together with our ship’s artificial mind, have fought battles against Collector ships. We destroyed 37 Buyer compounds on a nearby Market world. We released more than a hundred Captives held in other compounds. We will arrive above your world in 30 hours. One of my fellow humans is our Negotiator. He seeks to gain you Slinkeroo as allies in our fight against these Collector ships. He and I will come down to your Hall of Silver Scales to discuss this interstellar alliance. And our crewmate Time Marker will come with us so you can see he is healthy, and learn why he has volunteered to be crew on my starship.” She paused, then snapped her fingers as if remembering something. “You may reply to us by radio or by audiovisual signal. Or you can await our arrival. I wish we could instantly arrive above your world to stop these collector pods. We cannot. But our ship is powerful. We will hunt this ship that is taking captive your people!”
Jane gestured for the broadcast to end.
“Transmission ended,” Star Traveler hummed.
To Bill’s left Chester turned in his seat and looked back to her. “Captain, when we finish our talks with these Slinkeroo people, do we travel to this Enveloping Cloud system and attack the ships there? Or do we return to Earth and warn the Joint Chiefs of this new threat?”
Jane looked their way, her expression intense. So intense Bill almost recoiled. His wife looked ready to eat someone for lunch.
“Admiral, that is a question I will discuss with the captains of our four other ships. They have a right to share their views with me. I need to hear all perspectives. Including yours.” She glanced aside, her gaze fixing on Bill. “And also the views of my Executive Officer. Whichever choice I make, the future is going to be dangerous.”