Empire's_rift_cover_final

Steve Rzasa has written numerous novels of speculative fiction, and was first published in 2009. His work includes four space opera and two steampunk tales through Enclave Publishing, including The Word Endangered, and a sci-fi murder mystery set with Castalia House. He has self-published a fantasy novel, The Bloodheart, and a science-fiction tale, For Us Humans.

His debut novel, The Word Reclaimed, was a finalist for the American Christian Fiction Writers award for Best Speculative Fiction in 2010. His third novel, Broken Sight, won this award in 2012. His short story In the Bag, set in the world of his steampunk novels Crosswind and Sandstorm, won the 2012 flash fiction contest for the Denver Chapter of ACFW.

Steve received his bachelor's degree in journalism from Boston University, and worked for eight years at newspapers in Maine and Wyoming. He's been a librarian since 2008, and received his Library Support Staff Certification from the American Library Association in 2014—one of only 100 graduates nationwide and four in Wyoming.

He is the technical services librarian in Buffalo, Wyoming, where he lives with his wife and two boys. Steve's a fan of all things science-fiction and superhero, and is also a student of history.

Empire's Rift by Steven Rzasa

The Naplian Empire's war of expansion against the Grand Alliance has taken a turn for the worse.

With vital serjaum fuel reserves wiped out by a surprise attack, Admiral Daviont of the III Corps makes a long, desperate journey to the fringes of Terran space for a massive undeveloped source of serjaum—the Baedecker Star System. But his action does not go unnoticed. Their mortal enemies, the Briddarri, send their own task force to intercept.

At Baedecker Four, starfighter pilot and governor's son Taggart "Tag" Wester has his hands full steering clear of his wing commander's wrath. When an emergency call unearths a dangerous foe from the past, he's put to a test unlike any he's ever faced—one of courage, and leadership. The time for bucking the rules and chasing the horizon has come to an end.

Elden Selva is on a mission to restore power to the defeated Northern Alliance, by retrieving the remains of Truppen cybernetic soldiers. He has only his father's legacy as consul to drive him in his deceit, but the bond with a friend he thought he'd never see again complicates his motivations. What he finds on the dusty plains of Baedecker Four is far more than he anticipated, and the ensuing conflict changes both him and the woman he loves.

For the Truppen are not gone. The last remnants of the Northern Alliance await reactivation, quiet in the depths of space, and their release will trigger a new kind of conflict.

The invaders and defenders collide in a struggle that will not only shape their lives, but have dire consequences for the entire galaxy.

Empires will conquer, and kingdoms will fall. Heroes will rise and nightmares will be forged.

It all begins at Baedecker.

CURATOR'S NOTE

WordFire Press joined with the Takamo Universe online game to develop a series of novels, and Steve Rzasa was the first author they suggested we use. I didn't know Steve before we started working with him, but he is enthusiastic and a real trooper. We love this book and are happy to bring it to a wider StoryBundle audience. – Kevin J. Anderson

 

REVIEWS

  • For the first novel inspired by an obscure (but immensely playable) Indie game, Empires Rift is both fun and informative.'Rift' is the first novel offering background detail and history for the Takamo Universe game, which has been running in one form or anther since the early '80s. Steve does an excellent job of bringing the universe to life, and, as a player and a sci-fi fan, I found it hard to put the book down....every turn of the page brought me closer to the final conflict, and it was compelling. I highly recommend this book for die-hard sci-fi fans, and PBeM gamers, in general.

    – Amazon Review
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

Baedecker Four

May 2768, Terran Calendar

1st Lieutenant Taggart "Tag" Wester banked through a scudding row of cumulus clouds, shredding them with the wing-mounted engines of his fighter. Though the AF-32G "Raider" fighter-bomber was equally at home in the vacuum of space as it was in the atmosphere of a planet, using a pair of sublight ionic fusion engines, Tag was convinced she flew better with air streaming against her fuselage.

Engines roared as his craft dropped low over the broad Luran Plains, a desert plateau stretching for dozens of kilometers between the spire-studded capital city of Vossberg and the jagged gray peaks of the Koth Mountains. It was as barren an expanse as any, devoid of all but the hardiest scrub plants and made all the more desolate by the detritus of the late Second Consular War. Craters gouged otherwise smooth hills. Battered remnants of ships and armor were manmade landforms half covered by dirt and sand.

Tag descended below a thousand meters. His fighter-bomber whipped up dust devils in its wake, scouring the ochre and sienna sands along with the deteriorating wreckage.

"I don't think that's what the wing commander had in mind when she assigned us refit testing, Tag." The voice echoing in his helmet's intercom belonged to Ichiro "Scrape" Sakawa, his radar intercept officer seated just behind him.

"Seriously? I remember something in her orders about 'stress tolerance.' Like this." Tag dropped the fighter-bomber with a suddenness that made his stomach lurch, and tipped her on her port wing. The plains below were a yellow and brown blur, interspersed with the shadows of bone dry gullies.

Proximity alerts flashed red and screeched throughout the cockpit. "I think we're good. That should do," Scrape said.

"Targeting sensors happy?"

"Of course. I've calibrated them three times since we left base."

Tag put the nose up and powered skyward at full thrust. There were few clouds, save for the one he'd just cut through; the rest of the view above was a rich blue with tinges of violet. Nothing like the home sky. "Three? You're a heck of a lot more efficient on this run."

"Not really, Tag, when you consider we've been out here half an hour on what was supposed to be a fifteen-minute test run."

Tag shook his head. "That's the problem with bureaucracies and the chain of command, Scrape. There's always somebody holding on to the other end of the chain. What's the last thing up on our checklist?"

"We dry-fired the bomb mounts and ran through the simulated missile launches. That just leaves the railguns."

Tag grinned. "I thought so. Line me up something nice to shatter."

"Hang on … here you go. There's a sandstone cairn, two klicks south by southeast, on that ridge you used to tear our belly paint off."

"Come on, it wasn't that close." A map of their immediate surroundings ghosted over the inside of Tag's helmet visor. The heads-up display showed the fighter-bomber as a green star at the center. Scrape's target rock formation was bracketed with a red diamond with a double outline.

"We'll let the maintenance techs back at the hangar decide that. Okay. Range is one point four klicks and closing. Railgun charge is green."

"Standby." In atmospheric flight mode, the Raider's primary controls were mounted on a simple joystick. Tag flipped the cover off the top, and poised his thumb over the red circle. Funny how over centuries of human diaspora from ancient Earth, some things about aerial combat had never changed. "Firing."

The railgun rattled the Raider, sending a shimmy through its starboard side that Tag, through countless hours of practice, compensated for. White flashes of light erupted from the starboard fuselage, just under the canard wings on the nose cone. The electromagnets lining the barrel of the railgun accelerated tungsten projectiles coated with artificial diamond at hypervelocities. Tag's shots pummeled the stone cairn. It exploded in a ball of dust and rock. Tag swept by, and the Raider's exhaust blew the cloud of debris left over into the wind.

Tag whooped and spun the Raider twice over before steadying onto an eastward course. The Baedecker suns, one a small orange-yellow disc and the other a red circle half its size, shone brilliant above, and the Raider's green and gray fuselage gleamed in the light.

"Target eliminated," Scrape said.

"That's it? We won!"

"Hardly a fair fight, Tag."

"Doesn't matter to me if it's fair. If we win, it's all good. You think we beat the rebels five years ago by fighting fair? We fought better. That's it."

"I'll leave that for the historians." An incessant beep echoed in the cockpit. "Meantime, Lieutenant, there's an urgent signal from Base. Wing Commander Dillon."

Tag groaned.

"You really think she'd let us get this far off?"

"Being the governor's son has to have some perks." Tag switched over to receive the signal and put a fake cheer into his voice. "DeeDee! Is there a problem, Commander?"

"The problem, Wester, is that the only thing keeping me from slapping you in restraints and turning you over to the MPs is your training scores." Diana "DeeDee" Dillon sounded as if she'd gargled with the rock shards Tag had just blown off the Luran Plains. "Get back to base, on the double. You're way outside our planetside operational range and you know it."

"Yes, Ma'am, but you see, my dear sister's getting married soon, and she'd be absolutely heartbroken if I didn't swing by for a visit." Tag had already lined up the Raider on a new course that took it over the Iwa Valley to the east, and curved sharply over the mountain peaks back toward the only spot of color between there and Vossberg—the Baedecker governor's compound. From his current position it was a tiny patch of brilliant green speckled with whites. Beyond that, another 20 kilometers out, was Vossberg City itself.

"Wester! Get your carcass back here before I pull you from the flight roster!"

"Relax, DeeDee. My duty shift is up in three hours. I'll touch down on the tarmac with whole seconds to spare, I promise." Tag killed the signal, cutting of a screech of protest from Dillon.

Scrape chuckled. "Got to say, I wouldn't mind being able to fly around wherever and whenever I wanted without fear of repercussions."

"Oh, there'll be repercussions. DeeDee will add another tart reprimand to my profile, and send Fighter Command a copy, which will no doubt get to Father." Tag glanced out the canopy. Far below, the Guralve River wound through the Koth Mountains like a cobalt snake. Pale green hills formed a boundary between the slate peaks and the twisting water. Other shapes, too—tiny black and white ones. Possibly machinery. The monks, no doubt, with their fanatical excavations. He shifted the Raider's course and shed altitude.

"Oh, no. You leave them be this time."

Tag made a face but heeded the advice of his RIO. The Raider climbed up and turned back toward the plains. "What's the deal with them, anyway? You deny a guy his fun buzzing the crazy monks, the least you can do is back it up."

"The Aparatics have never done anyone harm," Scrape said. "Their teachings are honorable—who else would vouch for the sanctity of all life? So sue me if I admire their ethic. Just let them be. Whatever they hope to find in their excavations, it's for the benefit of all."

"Okay, if you say so. I've got a better final target in mind anyway." He lined up the nose of the Raider with the governor's compound, still 15 kilometers out on the horizon.

Scrape magnified the compound with the targeting sensors, giving Tag an exquisite 3-D render of a huge octagon packed full with artificial streams flowing from a central oasis, clusters of dark green leafed bole trees, and emerald gardens blossoming with a rainbow's worth of flower colors. "You're a brave son. And a pain."

"I am indeed both. Let's make sure the good governor of Baedecker is awake." Tag poured on the speed, afterburners blazing. His only regret was not being able to see his father's outrage when he blew the leaves off every one of those stupid trees at Mach 3.

* * *

As it was, he managed to defoliate a half dozen bole trees. A pair of groundskeepers shouted skyward, tiny figures shaking microscopic fists, flanked by trimming robots that looked like small metallic samurai wielding blades.

Tag brought the Raider in for a swift landing at the quik-crete circle farthest from the gubernatorial mansion, and nearest the main gate. By the time he popped the canopy and climbed out, a trio of Colonial Police sprinted over. Each one wore black body armor and helmets with opaque visors that concealed their identities. They also lugged M36 rifles, standard issue for the Colonial Defense Forces and its attendant police branch.

Their formidable appearance would cow any sane civilian, but Tag, fully outfitted in the white flight suit with black trim of the Astro Enforcement Section, wasn't the least bit impressed. He doffed his helmet and grinned. "'Morning, boys. First Lieutenant Taggart Wester, AES Seventh Wing, Bronze Squadron. Don't tell me Father sent you over as an escort for his youngest."

"Sir, you are not authorized to land that craft here." The cop in front had a deep voice that buzzed through his face mask. "You need to return to your craft and depart immediately."

Tag glanced back at Scrape. His RIO watched, face impassive, dark eyed and olive skinned, with raven hair cropped close to his scalp. "Sorry, I think you're misinformed. We're AES, and as such rank a step or two above you all in the CDF chain of command. Make that three steps, right? Plus, Father doesn't like to keep guests waiting. So why don't you hose down the Raider for me—she's got a fair amount of dust caked around the pylons."

Tag sauntered off the tarmac onto the broad walkway made of quartz that bisected the compound. Shrubs lined the walk, and the boles cast comfortable shadows from the glare of the morning sun.

"I don't think they enjoyed you pulling rank," Scrape said.

"They're not supposed to. But I did."

"What do you think they're telling their supervisors?"

"Really couldn't care less." He nudged Scrape. "Check that out. Father has high priority guests."

Two more shuttles were parked at the pad opposite theirs, partially obscured by trees. It was long, and flat, with a beveled nose. One was of civilian design, painted pearly white. The five blue stripes and pale blue sphere of the Baedecker colonial flag were painted on one flank, right under silver registry numbers printed on a black bar. Six more police in body armor patrolled nearby.

The other shuttle was blocky, squat, and bulging with four railgun emplacements. Its fuselage was a digital camouflage pattern of browns, and the Colonial Defense Force emblem of a moon rising over a planet's horizon with six spheres interspersed. Four CDF soldiers stood at the points of the compass, ignoring the wandering of their police counterparts. They lugged considerably greater firepower: RG-18 Saar railguns, the Overwatch man-portable series.

"Well. Busy indeed. That white ship's an ExoTerse. Maybe a Mod Six or Seven? They aren't cheap," Scrape said.

"Someone from the Legislature."

"Really?"

Tag snorted. "Who else on Baedecker has enough money to afford one? Between that and the assault shuttle, I'd say Father's playing host to a CDF officer, too. Let's go see what's spinning."

"Ah, I don't think we can barge into your father's office."

"I think we can. And barge is such a harsh word. I prefer, surprise my Father with my charming presence and likely get the download on whatever he's up to."

Halfway up the walk they rounded the main fountain, a huge marble and metal edifice spraying water up in three columns from a statue of a Terran soldier. Tag smirked. What was it about his father's vanity that insisted on carving his likeness into the soldier's face? It was difficult to spot unless, of course, you were a Wester. The soldier's boot stood atop the ruined form of a Truppen cybernetic warrior, the bent body skillfully recreated in marble.

Let them keep their war. Tag wanted to fly, and if he had to keep up on his weaponry skills to occasionally chase pirates, so be it.

They were passing by a slew of white stone outbuildings used both as private residences and storage units, when a young woman with auburn hair came running out from a set of benches set behind the shrubs. "Tag! What a great surprise!"

"Marney!" Tag grabbed her and spun her around. She hugged him about the neck. Her laughter bubbled up, contagious to the point that Tag joined her.

"It's been months! Are you so busy with the glamorous life of a space pilot that you can no longer visit your best sister?" She smiled at him. Marney looked just like Mother when she smiled—well, except for the freckles, which she inherited from father. The blue eyes were the same brilliant shade as Tag's, but his hair was a dark brown, far less radiant than hers. She had on an elegant blue dress with floral patterns embroidered up one side and a matching vest over top of a silken, cream-colored blouse.

"Not at all! I missed you and signaled you notes every week."

"I got them, of course, and treasured them."

"Yours were lovely. My fellow aviators think—scratch that, know—I'm related to the most gorgeous woman on all the Baedecker worlds."

The tips of Marney's ears went crimson, and a flush spread up into her neck. She poked Tag in the side. "You're teasing."

"Not at all." He put an arm around Scrape's shoulders. "My RIO, 2nd Lieutenant Ichiro Sakawa, can verify."

"It's nice to meet you, Lieutenant."

Scrape bowed at the waist, and kissed the knuckles of Marney's left hand. "Miss Wester. It is an honor to finally meet you in person. Tag did not exaggerate."

She giggled. "Oh, you two. Come on, now. Father's in a meeting. I'll take you to get some refreshments."

"Negative, my lady. I've got to drop in on the old man."

"I wouldn't. He's got General Wood and Speaker Zhatkowskii arguing something."

Well now. The head of CDF on Baedecker Four and the Speaker of the Colonial Legislature? "That is interesting."

The whine of ion engines announced the arrival of yet another craft, this one a simple, wedge-shaped civilian model. Marney's smile broadened. "Ah, the caterers! Sorry, Tag, you can have someone on the staff get you drinks, can't you? Between the caterers and the florists, it will be a miracle if I get in to my dress before the wedding ceremony."

"You'll lock them all down faster than a tractor beam set on max." Tag kissed her on the cheek. "Go have fun. We'll get dinner later, alright? You and your Navy fiancé."

He hurried off, Scrape hot on his heels. "What do you think?"

"I think, Tag, that you're only partially interested in what the general and the Secretary have to say."

"Father's likely to bore me with the details anyway. I'm skipping a step is all."

"Tag? Be careful!" Marney's voice echoed from farther down the walk. "You know how Father hates being interrupted."

Tag smothered a grin. He did indeed.

* * *

The mansion was a sprawling, three story structure done in white stone, with several rooms both paneled and floored in polished planks of bole wood. The entry hall was a wide avenue lined with potted roses and red carpets that matched the shade of the petals. It led up to a towering staircase through the dead center of the mansion, stopping at a landing in front of a tall picture window that offered a breathtaking view of the Luran Plains and the distant snowpack-topped Koth Mountains.

Scrape had a dazed appearance, as if he'd had a round too many at the officer's club the night before. "Your house is, ah, big."

"This isn't my house. It's the Baedecker governor's official residence." Tag turned away from the opulence, aiming instead for a side door to the left. "My home's the barracks at Voss Flats Base."

Through the door was an anteroom, with brass coat hooks tucked in one corner and an antique end table on the other side. The door before them was shut. Muffled voices came from the other side. Tag grinned. Jackpot.

"—man's a traitor. Don't expect me to think anything less."

"General, he was on the wrong side of the Consular War. But he's as loyal now to the Terran government as my own daughter."

"Selva's a hereditary consul of the Northern Alliance! Don't matter a micrometeorite what he says he's doin' now. He's got the blood of our enemies in his veins and the blood of our fallen men on his hands!"

"Hold on, you know he never fought in the war. Blast it all, Troy, we're here to discuss security for my daughter's wedding, not Elden Selva!"

Tag sucked in a breath. Elden Selva? The man was off serving the regional Northern Alliance government underneath Terran oversight. What did that have to do with Marney's wedding? They'd pined for each other since—well, forever—but they weren't lovesick teens anymore.

"What's wrong?" Scrape whispered.

Tag shushed him. He squared his shoulders and opened the door.

Father's study was a sedate, calming place, with bore wood floors and white stone walls. Twin shelves bordered the room, one stocked full of old, worn books and the other bearing relics from the ancient conflict with Mars. A desk of glass and black metal was centered below a long window that looked out into the fruit gardens, where ripe pears hung from rows of trees.

Governor Antiny Wester sat in a cluster of three brown leather chairs, smoking a cigar. He was thickset, with a gut that bulged against the perfectly tailored lines of a charcoal gray suit. His hair was an auburn shade much lighter than Marney's, what little there was left of his, and his moustache was precisely trimmed. Bright green eyes narrowed as they locked onto the two targets entering the private meeting. "Taggart. I thought I heard you make an entrance."

"Father." Tag strolled to the mini bar beneath the row of relics. He popped the lid from a decanter and sniffed. "Crown & Scepter? You brought out the best rum for your guests."

Father frowned. "Gentlemen, my son, Taggart Wester. He's a lieutenant with AES. This is his associate, Lieutenant Sakawa. Fighter jocks."

The two men seated around Father appeared to Tag as polar opposites. Lieutenant General Troy Jarvis Wood was tall, lean, and dressed in rumpled fatigues of the same camouflaged pattern as the assault shuttle parked outside. His black boots were sheathed in dust and dirt. When he stood, Tag and Scrape instantly saluted.

"At ease, boys." Wood smiled. His skin was a dark toffee, and his hair was thick and black, save where it had turned white above his ears. "Tag Wester, right? Heard some of the boys in Recon grousing about you. Sounds like you played chicken with a training flight of hoppers out of Weyland Bay way down south last month."

"Yes, sir. We were testing the acquisition rate for our targeting sensors. I thought we could use some slow contacts for practice."

"Worked well enough. Give DeeDee my regards, if she doesn't lock you in the brig first."

"So you're familiar with General Wood." Father indicated the man on his right. "This is Andrej Zhatkowskii, Speaker of the Colonial Legislature."

"And the only man to put up with the Governor's demands. Of which I have heard many." Zhatkowskii was short, stocky, and pale-skinned. Hazel eyes watched Tag with the intensity of an eagle on the hunt. He had curly black hair and a thick beard and moustache that obscured his mouth even when he spoke, which was in a deep, sonorous mumble. "You men are interrupting a private meeting."

"Are we? Thought it was about Marney's wedding security." Tag poured a half glass of Crown & Scepter. "Scrape?"

"No thank you." Poor Scrape stood as far away from the general as he could, seeming much more in awe by the six-pointed star and crossed railgun insignia of Wood's rank.

"Suit yourself." Tag savored the burn in his throat and the sweet, smooth flavor. "So, Father—Marney is safe, I take it?"

"Of course. General Wood himself will be here, and I'll have enough police in and around the compound that a man won't be able to sneeze without having the DNA tested."

"I'll be glad to see it."

"You are coming, aren't you?" Father raised an eyebrow. "Assuming you're not on report for whatever this is."

"This?"

"Your little flyover stunt, and unauthorized landing."

Tag shrugged. "I got my invitation, and Marney has the RSVP. As I'm sure you already know. So tell me, will I get to see Elden Selva again?"

Father's lips pinched together. When he spoke again, it was through his teeth. "Spying outside my door?"

"Soundproof your doors if it's that big a security concern." Tag downed the rest of his rum.

"Elden Selva is coming to Baedecker Four. His transport is due in later today. He's a member of the Northern Alliance Assembly and is assigned the task of retrieving identity tags from the Battle of Luran Plains."

"Don't believe a word of it," Wood grumbled. "I don't care what the Terran Graves Department says: Selva's a consul and we can't trust him."

"He's coming here as our guest, and as someone whom my family has always respected," Father said firmly. "I'll not treat him as a criminal."

"The Reittians will not be pleased when they hear of it," Zhatkowskii said. "Is no secret that they made Selva's family disappear into their gulags after the war."

"Gotta love allies like those," Tag said.

"The Reittians were critical supporters of the Terran government against the consular rebels," Father snapped. "And with respect, Mr. Speaker, it isn't a Reittian world anymore. It was ceded to our control at the end of the war."

"Tell that to the Reittians." Zhatkowskii sipped from his own glass of rum.

"They can't possibly want Baedecker back," Scrape said. "They gave it up because they said it had no strategic value. So say the political journals. Why change that?"

Father and Zhatkowskii glanced down at their laps. Wood rubbed at the back of the neck. "Geological surveys turned up some interesting finds. They reported to the Legislature last month that there may be serjaum deposits in the system."

Scrape's eyes widened.

"Serjaum? Here?" Tag wanted another drink to help him digest that bit of news, but he had to fly back to base.

"Definitely on Baedecker Two, and possibly on Three." Father tapped his cigar against the tray. Ashes rained down, and smoke swirled. "But this is classified, Taggart. You two keep it close. We don't know if the Reittians suspect, but they've definitely made inquiries about Elden. In fact, I have some diplomats on my agenda for tomorrow—in the midst of wrangling the wedding plans."

"Don't fuss about it," Wood said. "We've got the wedding security under control. Screw the Reittians. Selva's no true Terran, but I'm sure not advocating we turn him over to be tortured. Locked up, sure. But you can't trust a Reittian."

Father nodded. "My sentiments exactly. Taggart, if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to have you and Lieutenant Sakawa meet with Elden when he arrives."

"Us?" Tag frowned. "Surely you've got cops for that."

"I do, but word is the Reittians may have agents already here, preparing to take Elden when he arrives. They'd spot police a kilometer away. You and your friend have a more—relaxed approach that should throw them off."

"The Reittian presence is confirmed," Zhatkowskii said. "Intelligence knows of at least five men and women on Baedecker Four under their employ. It is possible they have some of their own people, too, but only a close-up bioscan would reveal them."

"There, you see?" Father smiled, a taut expression.

Tag didn't return the friendly gesture. "I'm not your errand boy, Father. Find someone else."

Father rose. He was a few centimeters shorter than Tag, but his commanding presence made Tag instinctively stiffen. "I'll see to it you comply. If you don't have anything else for me, you should leave."

Tag sneered. It was as if the man were just another commanding officer, albeit one lacking respect. "Mother would enjoy our family interludes, wouldn't she?"

"Don't you ever speak of her, not in my presence." Father stabbed his cigar. "Leave."

Tag saluted General Wood. "Sir." He nodded to Zhatkowskii. Scrape already had the door open.

Out in the main hall, Scrape cleared his throat. "I suppose we'll have to report your father's request to Commander Dillon."

"We won't have to," Tag said. "If it's as big a deal as he makes it out, DeeDee will get a signal from him before we're even airborne."

"Then we'll be off flight duty for a while." Scrape shook his head. "Sometimes I wonder why I don't transfer out to a different unit than stay on your six."

"Because then your service record wouldn't have nearly as many commendations."

"Offset by the reprimands."

Tag smirked. "Reittians. Elden Selva. The man may be a tyrant and have a heart of ice, but Father's never dull."

* * *

Abbot Damal Jeopar shielded his eyes against the sun. Even with his long-brimmed hat, it near-blinded him. No doubt his ancestors from the deep sands of the Saudi peninsula on ancient Earth would be amused at his discomfort.

Jeopar wore the tan cloak over white robe of the Hirrenhausen Monastery, adorned with blood-red stripes on either shoulder that denoted him as the head abbot. He sat on a grassy hillock, overlooking the Guralve River. A pair of all-terrain transport trucks, each one with six wheels, were parked in the midst of the dirt track below. A dozen monks were spread out along both sides of the track, some holding scanners that projected holograms of whatever objects they found beneath the surface. Most were involved with the grunt work of digging.

"Do you know that the Aparatic Church believes even the souls of Truppen are welcome to the gates of Heaven?" Jeopar said to the man standing behind him. "It is a matter of faith. Those who believe and accept are forgiven. Why then cannot a Truppen's cerebral matrix do likewise? There is, of course, considerable debate as to whether or not the Truppen have a soul."

The man said nothing in reply. Jeopar listened to the sparrows tweet as they zoomed by, banking hard as the fighter-bomber he'd seen patrolling the skies. He felt the grass and dirt between his fingers, and smelled the pine sap redolent in the forests clinging to the mountain slopes. How did this man perceive those things?

"Erich, this is not a test. I merely wanted your opinion."

"It isn't for me to say, Abbot." Erich's voice was flat, with little intonation. "I believe, of course, but how do I know it's real? How do I know it isn't just programmed in?"

"There's more than just your memories and mind functions that make you human, Erich."

He sat beside Jeopar. Erich's skin was a uniform khaki hue, without blemish. Brown eyes were perfect. Not a strand of black hair was out of place. When he stared at Jeopar, he blinked once every ten seconds, precisely. "I'm not human, Abbot. Can't even tell you when I last was. I spent forty years as a Truppen warrior, and the past year in an android body. I've broken my oath. Might as well be a dead man."

"Nonsense. You have new life—both for the body and the soul. What better gift can we bring to your brothers?"

"I hope they accept it like I did."

"They will. Think of how many we have helped already. How many have been saved."

"They've only been gifted a cybernetic Purgatory. Their headpieces are active, but they're dormant—waiting for their Truppen forms." Erich pinched his ersatz flesh. "This? To them it's an abomination. I can't be revealed to them."

"You don't have to. You can lead a new life." Jeopar put his hand on Erich's shoulder. "Let me tell them of our success, when the time is right."

"If it ever is right."

A shout from below drew Jeopar's attention. A pair of young monks in brown robes wrested something from the ground. One of them handed the object, which from a distance appeared to be nothing more than a rock, to Abbot Sissok, a younger man with blond hair and a thin beard. He hurried up the hill. "Abbot Jeopar! We have found another."

Jeopar and Erich met the man halfway up the hill. Jeopar stretched out his hands.

"Beautiful," Jeopar murmured as he brushed dirt away. Silver shone beneath. "Such an elegant design, and yet for all its technical ingenuity, the real miracle is that a soul still resides inside."

He finished cleaning off the encrusted soil. The sharp-edged, armored visage of a Truppen cybernetic warrior stared back, impassive. The optical ports were a flat, smoky gray.

Erich reached behind the armor, toward the bottom of the neck. He poked his fingers between severed data connectors and power couplings. "Should be … right … there."

Something clicked. At first, nothing happened, and Jeopar wondered if, as in several dozen instances, this one had been left hidden too long.

Then a dull red glow appeared, deep inside the optical ports.

"He's alive. I'll catalog this as five hundred eighty-nine." Erich handed the headpiece back to Abbot Sissok. "Put it in the storage units."

"Of course."

With Sissok gone, Jeopar patted Erich's shoulder again. "Thank the Lord. Another for the restored host of multitudes."

Erich nodded. "Here's hoping the Northern Alliance is just as happy to see them."