• Kriqua was surprised to find a stranger in the briefing room. There was something off about the young man—perhaps it was the aura of pain he carried. Just who was he, and what was he doing here? He didn’t look like an Ayarthan.
    “Alright,” Mark said. “Everyone’s here, so let’s get the meeting started. First of all, what do we do with this little hacker?”
    “Hacker?” Kriqua echoed.
    “His name is Triidxuq, and whatever he is, he managed to cut off your signal and open up his own communications with me.”
    “That was no great trick,” Kriqua said, shaking her head. “All he did was change the frequency. I couldn’t re-establish communication because I couldn’t risk opening the wrong channel and alerting Nithril.”
    “The trick was that this kid was standing next to Nithril while he was talking with us. And he didn’t know.”
    Kriqua stared at the kid. Was he a Taquan? He was too young to have an implant… Even younger than her. But she reached for his mind anyway to see if there was a computer piece in his head.
    As soon as she touched his mind, she fell to her knees in pain, clutching her head. She immediately cut off the connection. Her vision was blurred, and her head throbbed so much that she couldn’t feel the rest of her body. She stood back up, barely noticing Dociluas helping her. Her head ached, but she just stared at Triidxuq for a moment. He was looking at her in fear.
    “You—stay out of my head!”
    Kriqua was too surprised to notice his fear, though. “How… How can you contain that much information?”
    Triidxuq’s voice trembled. “What did you see?”
    “Nothing I could make sense of.” Then she finally noticed his fear. “Nithril gave you that implant, didn’t he?”
    After a moment, Triidxuq nodded.
    “And he didn’t teach you how to defend yourself.”
    “He only taught me enough to be used as an information-gatherer.”
    “Why didn’t he pick someone older?”
    “Because I’m the only one—” He clasped his hand over his mouth, and his eyes widened.
    “Say it,” Mark said.
    Triidxuq only shook his head.
    “Listen, Taquan, do I have to—”
    “Why didn’t you listen to Kriqua?”
    Mark blinked, surprised at the sudden outburst.
    “Kriqua knew it would be a bad idea to go underwater after Nithril. Do you realize how stupid you were when you told her to remain silent about her orders?”
    “We can’t just let him find the IGM!”
    “So you think his single ship can take on a whole fleet?”
    “He only took one ship because he knows that the IGM won’t be willing to fight in a position where thousands of innocents can be killed.”
    “If they’re not willing to fight underwater, what makes you think they’d be underwater?”
    This caused Mark to pause.
    “The video that led Nithril into the ocean was fake, wasn’t it?” Dociluas asked.
    “It was meant to look fake. The video showed the IGM getting shot down without even firing back. That would be too easy; Nithril knew it wasn’t real. So when he saw the splashes in the ocean, he assumed that was a patch that they had neglected in their hurry when they hacked into the camera feed. So he went underwater to search for them, while they were getting further into space.”
    “But what about the blockade?” Thyu asked, perplexed.
    “The blockade is rigged, remember? They only went where their own robots were. The IGM is headed back toward Taqua.”
    Kriqua felt a surge of hope rush through her, and she knew Dociluas would feel the same. Their home was being saved!
    Triidxuq was quick to change the topic, though. “What was with you when you met Nithril? Why were you acting so dumb?”
    Juyrl stepped forward, but Mark stopped him with a hand signal. “What was with you? Why did you lead us into that gas chamber?”
    “Just because I’m used for information doesn’t mean I know everything. Nithril has surprises all over his ship, I imagine. It doesn’t help that you faked coughing and passing out.”
    “Listen, kid, you should watch the way you talk. You’re a prisoner of war, and you are facing a full commando squad. You’d be foolish to start swinging insults.”
    “Nithril will kill me anyway. He has something attached to my implant that will kill me whenever he wants it to.”
    Kriqua raised an eyebrow. “That’s what he told you, huh?”
    Triidxuq blinked. “What are you saying?”
    “I set a ship in ‘self-destruct’ to get my enemies to run around like chickens with their heads cut off. I wonder how long it took them to realize that there was no self-destruct sequence?”
    “You’re saying that there’s nothing in my head?”
    “With all of the information going into your mind, you obviously have an abnormally large implant. Even with a regular one, there isn’t room left to attach any kind of lethal device. But if you’re still unsure, we can scan your head.”
    “Then I’m free…”
    “Far from that, chum,” Mark said. “You’re under our custody now, and you will answer our questions and be silent otherwise.”
    “Or what? You can torture me all you want, but you don’t know pain.”
    “So you had a rough childhood. Cry me a river.”
    “You don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
    Dociluas interrupted. “How many hours were you rolling around on the ground in pain when you started listening to that stream of information? How long did it take you to even comprehend the simplest part of it?” Triidxuq was cringing now. “Do you want us to alleviate that pain? Ah, your face tells me everything. It still hurts. It’s not getting any better. You’re getting used to the pain, but only because you don’t know how to turn it off.”
    “Get out of my head!” Triidxuq screamed.
    “I’m not in your head. There’s too much going on in there anyway. I’m lucky enough not to have the implant. My method of mind-reading is completely different, and its painless. All I have to do is watch your face. I’m better than you at gathering information, and I didn’t even have to put my life at risk. It’s especially easy to read minds when people are in pain. I can just rattle on about the noise inside your head—all the static and—”
    “What do you want?”
    “And now you’re in the phase where you’re mentally breaking down and will go at great lengths to make me shut up. Good! Now you know that we do have efficient ways of torturing you.”
    “Where do you get your information?” Mark asked.
    “Everywhere! I’m constantly getting information from every obscure location in the universe! Every machine, every computer, every robot… They all have to supply my sources with information. Even the Taquans’ minds—I can read a random person’s mind on Taqua right now.”
    “Read Juxa Zivango’s mind.”
    “Juxa Zivango?”
    “Yes, Juxa. The one who we left stranded in space.”
    “She’s… Well… She’s planning her revenge.”
    “That’s to be expected. Of course we made her mad—”
    “Not you! The only one she wants is Kriqua.”
    Kriqua suppressed her shudder. It wasn’t a surprise to hear that, but it still worried her. Juxa was much more experienced than her, and she had a stronger will. Plus, Juxa had already been in her mind. She knew the layout, and humans could never be as predictable as robots.
    “And where is she?” Mark was asking.
    “She’s hiding near Taqua, waiting for you to show up.”
    “Well, she’s a fool if she thinks we’re going to Taqua any time soon.”
    “I wouldn’t be so sure. It won’t take long for Nithril to realize he’s been tricked.”
    “And what makes you think he’ll be able to leave?”
    “You’re a fool if you think he can’t.”
    “I see you’ve recovered from your shock enough to get your attitude back,” Mark said menacingly.
    “Anything else you wish me to tell you, sir? Perhaps you would like me to point out all of the possible things that can go wrong…”
    “What are you trying to say?”
    “Come on! It’s not that hard to figure out. Not even UNO will leave robots unauthorized. They’re dumb. They can be tricked so easily.”
    “Then we’ll follow Nithril ourselves.”
    “You won’t succeed.”
    There was a pause. “You don’t even know who we are.”
    “I know you all better than you know yourselves. I’ve seen you fight. I know your strengths. I also know your weaknesses. Some of you have seen so many battles that you can’t remember what makes you better than UNO.” His eyes bore into Mark’s.
    “You need to understand something,” Mark said through his teeth. The empire is—”
    “Trust me, I know. I gather information from everywhere in the universe every second. I know much more than you. When I say you won’t succeed, you’d better believe it.”
    “We will succeed—”
    “Wait,” Kriqua said.
    “Excuse me?”
    Kriqua ignored Mark and walked up to Triidxuq. “Why won’t we succeed?”
    Mark was furious. “Are you suggesting that he’s right?”
    Triidxuq looked back at Mark and pointed at him. “That is why. If you fight fire with fire, you become that which you hate. You hate greed, and war against it, but you have become greedy for revenge. You hate the emperor because of his power, yet you’ve become your own little emperor. You hate Nithril, yet you’re just as terrible as your image of him.”
    Mark lunged at the Taquan, but Juyrl grabbed him mid-leap and pulled him back.
    “And,” Triidxuq continued, “you’ve been hurt by reality, so you hide from the truth. You can’t stay hidden forever—when you’re exposed, it will be the most vulnerable moment you will ever have. Would you rather have that in front of your friends, or your enemies? Will you sacrifice your pride, or your life?”
    Kriqua glanced at Dociluas. His face was passive, but his eyes showed deep thoughts. She could tell that Dociluas had already known all of this—but what truth was Mark hiding from? Mark was struggling against Juyrl, letting his anger take control completely. But suddenly Kriqua realized that the purpose of the anger was to mask the guilt he felt at the ring of truth in Triidxuq’s words. What was Mark hiding?
    Thyu walked over and shoved Triidxuq to the ground. “We are not against you, Mark. We are with you.”
    Mark stopped struggling, but the fire never left his eyes.
    “Thyu,” Triidxuq said without bothering to get up, “you can ‘make it better’ all you want, but those who aren’t willing to face the consequences have the biggest troubles.”
    Thyu kicked his stomach to shut him up. Triidxuq curled up on the floor in pain. Still, he continued in a choked voice. “Listen, Mark, Juyrl gave up his mission to save you. Which is more important, the death of an enemy, or the life of a friend? Even the Ryeaoan, who lived on a planet completely focused on survival, got the right answer. But can you?”
    This time no one dared to move. Triidxuq posed a difficult question for all of them, and they didn’t know the right answer. Which was more important—their mission, or their survival?
    “People die in wars,” Thyu said. “It’s something we all have to expect.”
    “Even the empire uses robots to limit human casualties! So then, who’s more honorable, the empire, or you? There is no greater issue than life and death.”
    Suddenly Dociluas spoke up. “And how do you view the IGM?”
    “They are fighting for freedom. What are you fighting for?”
    Kriqua had to rethink everything Triidxuq had said. He hadn’t been comparing the IGM to UNO, he had been comparing the commando group to UNO. Did he consider Team Orphan an entirely different power? If so, then he had a lot more respect for them than what he admitted.
    Mark had regained his composure. “While we’re wasting time listening to the twisted words of a boy—”
    “I’m not a boy! I’m twenty-four.”
    “—who doesn’t know anything about war, Nithril’s getting away. Let’s get moving.”
    * * *
    “So,” Melanie said. “The rebels are coming here.”
    “Yes,” Juxa said, “which means Nithril will follow them.”
    “And the commandos will follow him.”
    “And everything will have lined up without us moving.”
    Melanie looked at Juxa. “Do our helpers know?”
    “Yes. I’ve convinced them that IGM is coming only because they’re in desperate need of help, and that they’ll abandon Taqua again once they see fit.”
    “That’s probably true anyway.”
    Juxa nodded.
    “And how will you make sure there aren’t any traitors?”
    “I’ve received much more in-depth training than even most Taquans have heard of. I prefer not to reveal my secrets.”
    “Fine. Just keep everyone in line.”
    “You don’t trust me?”
    Melanie didn’t see it, but Juxa merely smiled in response. Juxa was toying with her mind, gaining ground little by little. She could get into more than just mechanical minds.
    Juxa had taken the grand admiral’s words to heart. She had said to use the human part of her brain as well as the mechanical part. If she could master that, then she could control humans as well as machines. Juxa was thankful for the advice, but she owed the UNO officer nothing. Regardless of the IGM’s betrayal, UNO was still an evil dictatorship. She would have her way, and Taqua would thank her for it.
    * * *
    Nithril was madly scanning the video again. It did show that they went into the ocean, and that they tried to cover it up with a false input. The splashes could not be anything else. Unless… unless the splashes were more false input.
    Nithril smiled despite his frustration. Well done, Coordinator Marie. This is the first time I can remember being deceived.
    He launched a specialized missile ahead of him, then turned around and flew in the other direction.
    * * *
    “Where is Nithril now?” Mark asked over the communication device.
    “He’s almost directly west of your position,” the thinking robot responded, “several hundred miles.”
    Mark narrowed his eyes. His gut feeling told him that the thinking robots had been tricked. He opened communication with the rest of his team. “We’re going east.”
    * * *
    Triidxuq blinked in surprise. Mark’s actually using his brain, he thought. Maybe he did listen to some of what I said.
    * * *
    Dociluas turned around in surprise when he heard footsteps. “Thyu?”
    “I put my ship on strict autopilot directions,” Thyu responded, “and I’ve set up a remote controller just in case.”
    “Why so secretive?”
    “Because Triidxuq can hear anything we say over a communication device.”
    “And you want to hear my thoughts on him.”
    “No, not on him. On what he said.”
    “The fact that you’ve come here tells me that you’ve reached the same conclusion I have.”
    “And that is?”
    Dociluas gave a slight smile. “You’re testing me, to see if I really am as observant as I’m supposed to be.”
    “You passed the test, then.”
    “He’s right.”
    Thyu blinked. “What?”
    “You already know. Your instinct tells you, as does the amount of time you’ve known Mark. I watched everyone’s reactions to what was going on, and yours told me that you know too. Mark’s hiding something from his past. Something that could jeopardize us. But you can’t say that to Mark.”
    “What were the others thinking?”
    “Even Juyrl was surprised at the display of emotions Mark showed. Kriqua wanted to believe in Mark, but she also felt empathetic toward Triidxuq after she brushed his mind.”
    “And Triidxuq?”
    “Every word was truth, but he didn’t understand it any more than we did. It was just something he saw in Mark’s encounter with Nithril. He doesn’t know what it is Mark’s hiding either.”
    “So what’s Mark hiding?”
    Dociluas paused. “That’s a dangerous question. If I answer it, right or wrong, it could do more harm than good.”
    “Tell me.”
    “He had a past with Nithril. That’s all I can say for sure.”
    “Do you think that’s where he got his scars?”
    “It could be. Whatever happened, Mark wants revenge. But whatever was burned so deeply in Mark’s mind missed Nithril’s. Nithril either doesn’t remember or doesn’t care.”
    “And what do you think happened?”
    Dociluas looked straight into Thyu’s eyes, giving a warning look. “I can read faces, but even I can’t see the past that easily.”
    “But you have a guess.”
    There was a long moment of silence. “You play a dangerous game, Thyu. I’ve already said more than I should. I will not say more, for fear of the consequences.”
    Thyu’s voice rose. “You’re afraid of punishment?”
    “Not for myself. I’m afraid of what you’ll get yourself into.”
    “Let me worry about myself!”
    “You’re too valuable to our team for me to allow you to do as you wish.”
    Thyu stormed out of the room. In case Triidxuq had been listening through the cameras, Dociluas had already set the cameras to randomly switch the languages every second, and English and Taquan weren’t on the list. Even a computer translator would get overwhelmed by the task.
    Ayarthans always put logic before emotion, Dociluas thought. And yet Thyu is… He has known Mark for a long time now. I suppose the idea that Mark could be hiding something is a shock to him.
    * * *
    “Justice.” The word broke the silence in such a way that even the speaker was surprised for a moment. Kriqua wasn’t sure if she had intended to say it out loud. She turned around to see Triidxuq raising an eyebrow. “Oh come on. You can read my thoughts, can’t you?”
    “I could.”
    “I fight for justice.”
    “Ah.” There was a pause. “And who are you to decide what justice is? Isn’t that God’s job?”
    “Perhaps I don’t believe in a god.”
    “Perhaps I don’t believe in you. That doesn’t change your existence.”
    “Which side of this war would you choose?” Kriqua asked, changing the subject.
    “I would choose the side that helps people.”
    “Don’t we?”
    “That depends. Who’s ‘we’? What group are you putting yourself in?”
    “The IGM.”
    “You certainly think you’re helping, but you’re not. As a Taquan, you should understand that.”
    “But they’re going back to Taqua!”
    “And they’re making it a target once again. Many people have their own agenda for Taqua. UNO and IGM are just the obvious ones. Take Nithril for example—I wish he was a Taquan so that I could read his mind, but he has a much different long-term goal than the Emperor does. What that is, I don’t know, but he’s keeping you alive for some reason. My guess would be that his goal is to take the throne for himself, and perhaps he needs the IGM to survive for that. But even I can’t understand his intentions. Black and white blurs out Grand Admiral Melanie Moreno, Juxa Zivango, Nithril, and countless people on Taqua who want countless different things. Taqua is on the verge of civil war. For dozens of years it has been the only peaceful single-government planet, and now that’s falling apart. Different political parties and secretive groups are making alliances with each other and gathering supplies. They’re getting ready for war. It’s like they’re already separate nations. And this is all because of the IGM.”
    “And Coordinator Marie,” Kriqua asked, “what do you think she wants?”
    “She doesn’t fight for the universe, she fights for her planet.”
    “And she’ll fight to save Earth, but—”
    “I don’t think she’s an Earthling. Her reaction when the planet Earth is spoken of is not as it should be for one native to that planet. I don’t know where, but she’s from somewhere else. Perhaps somewhere on the other side of the universe, which would explain her determination to keep the IGM alive.”
    That produced a stunned silence. For a while, they were both silent. However, Kriqua was not done asking questions. “If you were the Coordinator, what would you do?”
    “I would lay down my position for someone else to take up. That way someone more concerned for the IGM would be in command, and I would take charge of the liberation of my own planet. What would you do?”
    Kriqua couldn’t answer. After a moment, she changed the topic. “What specifically is Juxa planning?”
    “To ensnare your group as well as Nithril in a trap using Taqua as the bait.”
    “Is that the civil war you were talking about?”
    “Yes. Juxa is rallying allies for herself against both the IGM and the empire, but even her ‘partner’ Melanie doesn’t know the extent of her plans.”
    “But you do.”
    “Most of it.”
    “And what can we do?”
    “That’s easy. Don’t spring the trap. Don’t go to Taqua, and their trap will work against themselves. Let the IGM and Nithril work against each other—as soon as you set foot on Taqua, the planet will be turned against itself, and everything will come to ruin. I don’t mean the commandos, Kriqua, I mean you. You’re the one Juxa wants.”
    * * *
    Despite Juyrl’s best efforts to stay focused, his mind kept wandering back to what had happened on Nithril’s ship. Mark had acted… strange. There wasn’t a better word for it. When they had met Nithril, Mark had acted like one trying to get something when he doesn’t know what he wants. Clearly, he had a past with Nithril. One didn’t need to be as observant as Dociluas to see that. But Nithril had shrugged off the encounter. Whatever the issue was, Nithril didn’t even seem to remember it.
    What could’ve happened though? And how could it be so bad that even the young Taquan, Triidxuq, had been able to twist his arm like that? But that wasn’t the only thing on Juyrl’s mind…
    How did he do that? Electricity had still been coursing through his body from earlier—he had never fully recovered. Even now, he still felt tremors in his skin. When Nithril’s gun electrocuted him, he couldn’t handle it anymore. He had turned his battle to within his own body, fighting the electricity instead of what was outside. It was foolish, he knew, but in the excitement of that very short moment, he had abandoned Mark.
    Yet Mark hadn’t been afraid. Something had pushed him to fight against the pain and shock. Somehow, Mark had stepped forward when he should’ve fallen backward. Juyrl had seen it, and he instantly knew he needed to help. He gave up his inward battle and charged to back up Mark. Mark had grabbed Nithril’s forearms, and the electricity channeled through them both. But Nithril released the trigger to aim at Juyrl, and Mark collapsed. It couldn’t have been that the pain was too much—if that was the case, it would’ve been a gradual slip into unconsciousness. Juyrl didn’t know much about medical treatments, but he guessed that it was the electricity’s effect on his heart that caused him to drop. But the point was that not even the pain could make Mark stop. In that way, Mark was stronger than a Ryeaoan.
    But what was it that had kept him going? It certainly wasn’t desperation. If it was mere determination, his emotions wouldn’t have lashed like that. And no one had willpower that strong with nothing else to back it up. No, Juyrl understood perfectly. It was anger and hatred pushing him forward.
    What can we do to stop this? Most Ryeaoans thought that hatred and anger were good traits, because they strengthened you. Juyrl, however, had been in war long enough to know better. Anger was like a visor—it focused your vision on that one thing, but you’re blinded to everything else. When you lose sight of your surroundings, you die. Anger had killed his brother, Veyia. Hate, though, was far worse. Hate fights fire with fire. Yes, you can kill your enemies with it, but only in the physical battle. It was much more than that. When you let hate rule you, you become that which you hate. If you hate a murderer, and your goal is to kill him, you will never sway from that goal. Which means you will crush anyone who stands in your way. In that way, you have become the murderer that you hate.
    Mark had to be stopped before he became that which he hated. But how was that possible unless they knew what it was that he hated? He hated Nithril, of course, but for what? It was obviously more than the war. He couldn’t let his friend become what he hated. Death would be preferable. But Mark didn’t understand the situation.
    Mark would have to speak, but no one could force him to.
    * * *
    The commandos were stopped in orbit at Mark’s command. And they waited. The others didn’t understand why they were waiting—only Mark and Triidxuq knew. But they waited without question or comment, facing the direction they had come.
    Mark was watching for something very specific. He guessed that Nithril had put his ship’s ID on an otherwise useless object and thrown it somewhere to draw the IGM’s robot agents away. Which meant that an unidentified object would appear on his radar soon. That was his target. And if he was wrong, the robots would take care of Nithril anyway.
    Then the moment he was waiting for came. The blip appeared on his radar. The exact size and shape of Nithril’s ship, but there was no ID. He opened the communication with his team as he simultaneously launched his long-ranged missiles. “Fire at that ship!”
    * * *
    Large blips suddenly appeared on Nithril’s radar. Fortunately, his computer was once again working at one-hundred percent. The marks on the screen were identified as friendly, but Nithril was willing to bet anything that it was the commando group. This was confirmed when the missiles were launched. “Computer,” he said, “neutralize those missiles.”
    Within seconds, he watched as the ship locked onto each of the missiles and fired a single bullet to stop each one of them. The ships in the distance started coming closer.
    “Put up firewalls to prevent the Taquans from taking control. Randomly modify the firewalls every two seconds.”
    * * *
    “Don’t try, Kriqua,” Triidxuq said. “He put up firewalls that randomly change every two seconds.”
    “You’re an observer, but I’m a hacker. I know what I can and can’t do.”
    “You can’t get in there,” he insisted indifferently.
    “Not alone.”
    Triidxuq felt a sinking feeling. He knew exactly what she meant.
    * * *
    This conflict was entirely in the mind. The physical world was practically forgotten as the battle raged across the technological plane. Triidxuq was connected to Nithril’s computer through his ICR’s and observing its movements. Since he was inside the computer, even the randomizer was predictable to him, because he could see its binary codes moving. And all he had to do was warn Kriqua of the changes before they happened, and she would break through the firewall.
    She dashed past defense after defense, not even bothering to challenge any of them. Whenever she reached an impassible wall, she would just wait for the randomizer to switch it up, and then she would continue. There were a few times when the randomizer forced her to backtrack and try again, but she got through before the ships were in firing range of each other.
    She reached the ship’s control systems and familiarized herself with them. She studied the gun systems inside the ship, considering the possibilities. She watched Nithril, standing there, helpless against the concealed gun that he couldn’t possibly expect to turn against him.
    No, she told herself. I will not kill him when there’s a possibility of capturing him. I cannot let myself become that which I hate.
    Instead, she found the controller for the ship’s energy-flow, and pushed all power to a single engine.
    * * *
    Nithril heard an explosion in the distance, and he felt his ship turning slightly. Nothing had hit him—the data on the screen in front of him told him that the computer had changed the power-flow for a second in order to sabotage the engine. Then the power-flow had returned to normal.
    Those Taquans are better than I thought, Nithril realized. He mentally analyzed the situation. They’re chasing me out into space, and with one of my starboard engines out, I can’t outrun them. If I turn to fight them, I’ll be facing the planet’s star. That won’t affect my ship’s systems, but it might hinder my ability to observe the battle. Mark, whoever you are, you’ve set your trap well. What’s more, the Taquans still have control over my computer.
    “Backup computer, activate Plan B. Send repair robots to fix the engine. Until it’s fully repaired, cease using the matching port engine. The rest of the engines are sufficient to get us where we need to go, even though it may not be as quick.”
    As he spoke, sparks appeared on the computer, destroying it as a hidden compartment opened with an identical computer.
    * * *
    “I told you we could do it,” Kriqua said. “We’re inside.”
    “Why did you hit the engine?”
    “Because he’s more valuable alive than dead.”
    Triidxuq stared hard at her. “There’s more to it than that,” he said. “You just don’t want to tell me what you—”
    Suddenly an electrical shockwave went through their heads, and both of them collapsed with a cry of pain. The computer in front of them lit up with sparks, but the light couldn’t penetrate the darkness that closed in on them.
    * * *
    Kriqua’s ship stopped moving. Thyu couldn’t afford to slow down, but he opened up communications. “Kriqua, report your status. Why have you stopped?”
    There was no answer. Kriqua’s communication device was directly attached to her Taquan implant, so if she was conscious, she should’ve responded in less than a second. So the fact that she didn’t respond meant that something had happened.
    He opened another communication. “Mark, something’s wrong with Kriqua. We have to stop.”
    “No. We have to get Nithril. There’s something wrong with his engine, so now’s our chance.”
    Thyu was shocked. He didn’t even think about why the engine blew? “We can’t leave her unprotected. Not in an unresponsive state.”
    “Fine. You stop. Everyone else will continue to follow me.”
    Triidxuq was right, Thyu couldn’t stop himself from thinking.
    * * *
    One ship stopped moving to protect the Taquan, Nithril thought. Now there are only three coming toward me. This is going to be easy.
    The ships came toward him, taking up more and more of his field of vision. The starlight isn’t an issue anymore, but now they’re close enough that it doesn’t matter to them whether or not I’m blind. One ship came to his left, one to his right, each one pointed slightly downward. It would’ve been a good strategy for the third to go up, so that they surrounded him in a triangular position. But the middle one just went straight toward him. From the transmissions he had picked up, he knew it was Mark headed for him like that. Who is he? Why is he so determined to get me that he’s blinded to his team? And if I know him, then why can’t I remember him?
    As they got closer, they began firing. Nithril fired back, but he was waiting for the perfect time before he could unleash his full arsenal. He nosed down to go in between the three ships, but he turned slowly in a way that looked like he was trying to turn around. It would appear to be the perfect opportunity to surround his ship, and then—
    What is he doing!? Nithril thought in the brief confusion. Mark had pulled down also. Did Mark intend to ram him? That fool. Then again, his foolishness had forced Nithril to change his plans. “Computer, simulate a crash between that ship and the Reckless Wanderer.”
    As the ships moved across the screen, something struck Nithril. He’s using Melanie’s ship, the Empire’s Fist. I wonder what could’ve happened to her?
    The simulation played out—if they crashed head on, Nithril would survive, and Mark wouldn’t. That was what Nithril had guessed. However, the state of his ship afterward wasn’t a pretty sight, and he would immediately after have to face two other ships. Normally he would take the risk, knowing his skill would bring him out on top. But something in his gut told him that he couldn’t afford to underestimate these commandos any longer. And if something happened to Mark, his subordinates were likely to react very violently.
    That means I can’t let Mark get hurt—not like this, anyway. So Nithril put his ship in a sharp turn, facing the enemy and concentrating his ship’s power on the reverse-thrusters. Nithril began moving away from Mark, but his ship was smaller and had all of its engines working. Nithril had no hope of escape—he had to disable Mark’s ship before it reached him.
    “Focus all offensive firepower on the center ship,” he told his computer.
    Missiles, bullets, and lasers struck Mark’s ship, but it didn’t slow down. It kept gradually gaining speed as the engines pushed against the frictionless space. Mark’s bullets and lasers struck Nithril’s ship in non-strategic spots, but the missiles were destroyed before they could reach him. The lasers were practically useless against the Reckless Wanderer’s hull—Mark would have to focus them all on one spot and hit the spot with something else—but Mark didn’t seem to know or care. The bullets were somewhat more effective, but it would still take much more time than they had to break through. The missiles were the only weapons that could be effective, and none of them could get near before being destroyed by the Reckless Wanderer’s defensive system. On the other hand, Nithril’s lasers targeted sensory systems on the Empire’s Fist to block them, the missiles made holes in the hull, and the bullets struck areas within the holes, widening them and causing damage inside. Nithril appeared to have every advantage.
    Yet it wasn’t enough. The Empire’s Fist was falling apart, but it was still closing the gap between itself and the Reckless Wanderer. And meanwhile, the other two ships were still firing.
    I was hoping to keep this a secret, but I guess I no longer have a choice. Nithril tried to think of another option, but nothing came to mind. He couldn’t eject his cockpit again; the other two ships would either capture or kill him. He couldn’t let Mark hit him; the other two ships would easily take advantage of his weakened state. So he had to play a card that he had kept in his sleeve…
    * * *
    We have him, Mark thought. Finally, I’ll tear him to pieces, even if it means I die too. No more tricks this time, Nithril.
    Dociluas, Juyrl, and Thyu were all trying to reach him over the communication system, but he ignored them all. Nothing could stop him now.
    A long strip of metal opened up from the top of Nithril’s ship. It covered most of the length of the ship itself. The metal strip eased out of the hull with hundreds of metal rods supporting it. There were metal rings and cords all down its length, as if to prevent it from falling apart. Suddenly Mark realized that it was some kind of rail gun. It started glowing yellow, like the eye of a predator. The glow became brighter and brighter. Whatever it was, Mark knew he had to keep it from firing.
    Sudden fear gripped him as he redirected all of his weapons at the barrel of the rail gun. He couldn’t let anything stop him from getting to Nithril. Not after getting this far.
    The glow became brighter. Cracks began to appear in the barrel of the gun. Cracks that weren’t from Mark’s weapons. Slivers of yellow light shone from the cracks as it continued to grow brighter. Mark’s eyes burned from looking through the tinted screen, yet it still grew brighter, as though he was next to a star. Then it finally fired—the beam of light was twenty feet in diameter. Yet it wasn’t light. It was too slow to be light. It was too fast for anything to avoid it, but it wasn’t quite light speed. What was it?
    Still, even with how much slower than light it was, Mark only had a split second to register in his mind that the rail gun seemed to disappear completely as the beam of light traversed it. Then the beam hit his ship and passed through. Mark felt a huge jolt as he changed direction. The lights went out. The artificial gravity was gone. He felt frost forming on his skin. The air was hard to breath. He reached for his mask and forced it to his face, and then he was floating in blackness. He thought he was unconscious, but then he started to notice stars. Then he saw pieces of his ship. The biggest piece still intact was only the size of a tool shed. And they were scattered as far as he could see, no matter which way he turned his head. There were even pieces of his ship stuck in the hulls of the other ships, and many of the pieces were flaming meteorites headed toward Ayarth’s surface.
    Then he blacked out.
    * * *
    Dociluas and Juyrl had both reacted quickly. Dociluas had turned his ship and was rushing to intercept Mark before he flew into the atmosphere and burned up. Thyu didn’t even understand how Dociluas had found Mark so quickly.
    Juyrl, on the other hand, was firing all of his weapons at the new scar in Nithril’s ship. It was obvious that Nithril had done damage to even his own ship with that weapon. The support pillars were now holding nothing, and there was a gap where the weapon had been.
    But how? Thyu asked himself in awe and shock. How did the entire weapon disappear? I can’t even see any of the rubble—it just faded out of existence! And Mark’s ship! There’s rubble, yes, but not as much as there should be. And the pieces I do see are disfigured and not even recognizable as pieces of a ship.
    The beam of light had passed straight through Mark’s ship. It had shrunk a couple feet in diameter, but it was still going. It had narrowly missed Thyu’s ship, and had gone off into space. He switched his computer screen to show him what was going on behind him, and saw the beam of light still sinking further into space. Suddenly, though, Thyu realized that it was headed straight for one of Ayarth’s moons. He panicked. Sending full power to the engines, he turned his ship around as fast as he could. He watched as the beam of light struck the moon. It barely collided, but it knocked tons of debris into space and knocked the remnant of the moon off balance. Thyu was instantly able to assess that it would fall slowly toward the planet below.
    Thyu’s ship raced toward the moon, but it wasn’t enough. Thyu gave the computer commands that every pilot had been warned against—he activated the emergency power on top of the primary power and sent that energy toward the engines. The ship’s alarms screamed warnings, but he had no choice. He couldn’t let the moon hit the planet.
    The moon started moving faster as it captured the planet’s gravity in a way it never had before. Thyu’s ship wasn’t moving fast enough. He felt the air in his ship getting gradually warmer as the engines began the meltdown process. Still, it wasn’t enough. He turned off nearly all of the systems of the ship. No artificial gravity, no lights, no life support… and he sent one final message. Then he locked down the computer, giving the power nowhere to go except for the engines. Thyu prepared himself for the end as the explosions rang through the ship, knowing that he was dying to save his entire planet.
    * * *
    The message reached everyone within a certain range. It was on every bandwidth and frequency that radios were able to pick up. Everyone on Ayarth with a television, radio, or communication device nearby heard it. And they knew they were in danger, and had to act immediately.
    Every single government that was in a position to see the moon targeted it with their long-ranged missiles, and within minutes they had talked with each other to coordinate themselves and planned to launch as one.
    Millions of people took time out of their day to watch as Thyu’s ship struck the moon at an angle. The ship was already tearing itself apart, but Thyu’s command had forced it to keep the engines running even after it had crashed. The explosions that soon followed slowed the decent of the moon, giving the governments of the planet a window of a few minutes to save themselves. Billions would remember the name of Thyu, and trillions would read about the story of how he sacrificed himself.
    The missiles launched, the further ones first, so that they all struck the moon at once. Half of the moon shattered, and the chunk of rock that remained was knocked away from the planet Ayarth. Slowly at first, it started circling close to the planet’s star, where it would no longer cause problems.
    * * *
    It worked, Nithril thought. I knew it would work, but I didn’t know it would work that well. Nithril stood in awe at what he had created. He had known what it would do—it tore Mark’s ship to tiny pieces, as he expected. But he had thought it would stop there. He thought that the energy would seep through Mark’s ship, but instead, it passed straight through it. It had kept going even after it had struck the moon, although it was a small sliver. He wondered if it would shrink into nothingness before it caused damage in some unknown sector.
    And as he had expected yet hoped against, the weapon had destroyed itself. Now just one ship was attacking the spot where the massive gun had been, taking advantage of the opening. Which would do him no good. The hull was just as strong inside of the opening as the rest of the hull was—which was much stronger than the hulls of most ships.
    He could get over the psychological shock—it was the physical shock that was making it hard to breath. He had felt the vibrations building as the weapon charged, but the entire ship had shaken like a drum when the weapon fired. He slowly raised himself to his feet, trying not to think about the way his head was pounding. His voice shook as he told his computer: “Target that ship’s engines with the missiles. Blind its optical sensors with the lasers.”
    Almost immediately after his enemy’s ship lost an engine, Nithril got an alert that his own engine had been successfully repaired. Nithril knew that meant it was recommended not to use it, but his robots had been programmed never to tell him what was recommended. It drove him nuts when they did.
    * * *
    It’s not working, Juyrl realized quickly. My ship is being torn apart when it should have no flaws, and his is withstanding my weapons when it should be in a weakened state. No wonder Mark was trying to ram him—that might be the only way to break the hull. There’s nothing else I can think of—not with his defensive system destroying all of my missiles before they reach him.
    Suddenly Nithril’s main engines came on and he started turning away toward empty space. Why is he running? He could tear my ship apart right now. Gaining a sudden idea, Juyrl ceased firing all weapons. Taking a few seconds, he carefully targeted the guns of the defensive systems with his lasers and fired them. Then he launched all of his missiles at once. The defensive guns tried to target the missiles, and a few were successful, but overall they were confused by the number of missiles and by the lasers blocking their sensors.
    The missiles all struck relatively the same spot on the Reckless Wanderer’s hull, and a small hole was opened up in the back. And out of that hole came a swarm of robots, all launching missiles at Juyrl’s ship. The missiles were small and ineffective, but his ship was damaged already, and he couldn’t afford to sustain more damage. So his focus was diverted from Nithril long enough for him to escape once again.
    Juyrl silently assessed the situation as he destroyed the small robots, desperately trying to find a bright side. But he found nothing. Mark’s and Thyu’s ships were destroyed, Kriqua and Triidxuq were unresponsive, and they had failed their mission again.
    * * *
    “Assess damage,” Nithril ordered his computer. The hole Juyrl had put in his ship was a robot storage room—the small bit of military robots he lost were inconsequential. What upset him was that he had been forced to reveal his secret weapon, the Disintegrator. He had designed the weapon himself, and to date, it was his third greatest weapon, the second greatest being the Reckless Wanderer itself, and the very greatest being Replica.
    Suddenly Nithril began laughing. “The Ayarthans must feel pretty confident after stopping a whole moon from crashing into them. Well, President Borobom? Do you really think you’re safe? Computer, activate plan O6E.” He turned to a camera feed from an orbital satellite, even though he didn’t need to watch to know what was happening. The green and brown continent of Owstahl turned bright orange as entire cities were destroyed by the explosions his robots had set.
    The robots had been a different design—a model emphasizing stealth, so that they wouldn’t be found by the Ayarthan governments. They, however, self-destructed along with the bombs, to add to the power and range of the explosions.
    The bombs didn’t just wreck the surface—there were also explosives in key positions underground, causing the collapse of the tunnel system entirely. What was left of the continent fell to the depths of the planet, and would be covered entirely by the ocean.
    Unfortunately, Nithril knew, an entire continent sinking into the depths would drastically raise the sea level, causing flooding on a massive scale across the whole planet.
    It’s unfortunate that so many have to die, Nithril thought, but with this, I regain the president’s trust.