Mike Christopher, an artificial Human spurned and abused by much of Earth society, left Earth to become a Galactic explorer.
Now, 25 years later, he returns to battle the Jenregar, an alien enemy he's fought before.
But the key to defeating the alien threat also presents a soul-crushing moral dilemma!
All human things are subject to decay, and when fate summons, monarchs must obey.
— John Dryden
As he squeezed his way through the hole blasted into the crippled Jenregar starcraft, Mike Christopher thought, All right, so this is the last place I want to be — but a Human's apparently a captive in here, so it's worth the risk. A quick glance behind him — the Earth Unity light cruiser Admiral Susan Kojima was boosting away from the Jenregar craft, a shadow in motion against a spray of stars.
Mike lowered himself carefully through the jagged tear in the Jenregar ship's skin, being especially careful of the small propulsion unit on his back.
The first thing Mike saw in the narrow corridor was the body of a Jenregar individual. It was missing an arm, and bodily fluid leaked from the hard carapace of its body. Its small eyes, which for the Jenregar were secondary sensory organs, stared, unseeing. The slender antennae extending from its forehead, which were smell receptors, hung limply. If the energy bolt from the Kojima didn't kill it, Mike thought, the sudden vacuum would have.
With the height of an average Jenregar being a bit less than a meter, Mike couldn't quite stand upright in the corridor. He glimpsed movement down the hallway and pulled his disruptor. Two Jenregar, each of them wearing lifesuits, came around a corner, each carrying a different piece of equipment. They ignored Mike as they passed him and began working on the hole in the side of the ship. One instrument, it seemed, created a mesh over the hole. The other emitted a beam that caused the hole itself to smooth over at its rough edges and begin filling itself in.
Can't allow that, Mike thought, and aimed his disruptor at the Jenregar. A couple of pops from it, and they fell to the floor.
A voice over his datalink was loud enough to make him wince. "Mike — we read disruptor fire from over there. Are you all right?"
That was the voice of Kelda Lee, the captain of the Kojima, which had punched the hole in the Jenregar ship. She'd "borrowed" him from the exploratory craft Asaph Hall just for this mission.
"Don't worry, Captain," Mike said. "Just making sure my escape route wasn't about to be blocked."
Mike could hear the relief in Captain Lee's voice. "Thanks, Mike. Find out what you can, but be careful."
I will, Mike thought as he checked his wrist sensor. The Human on board was located somewhere toward the front of the ship. Mike headed in that direction. The Jenregar craft was a small one, barely twenty-five meters long, with a crew of only 27. It was part of a swarm of such craft that had been detected out past the orbit of Neptune, headed directly for Earth.
Mike knew the Unity was probably correct in its assessment that the Jenregar was about to attack the Earth ("Was," because the Jenregar possessed only a single hive mind, with individuals acting only by hard-wired programming and coded chemical messages).
The corridor took a turn, and Mike found himself before an energy field, presumably one that had closed off most of the ship from the part now open to space. I wonder, does the shield also recognize pheromonal cues? He reached out a finger toward the field, and sure enough, it passed through easily. Damn, he thought, I'll take being lucky over being good any day. But as he stepped through the energy field, his first thought was, Maybe not so lucky after all.
A dozen Jenregar stood within a small room, several of them operating ship's systems, others just standing around. Looks like the bridge, or at least some sort of command center, Mike thought. But pretty crowded. I'd guess some of these Jenregar were evacuated from the damaged parts of the ship.
The Jenregar recognized one another and imparted information to one another by smell, so Mike's lifesuit had been infused with what he hoped were the appropriate scents that would allow him to pass as a member of the Jenregar crew. I would have to be one of the few Humans to have made contact with the Jenregar, he thought. Unfortunately, I'm probably the best person qualified for this mission. The alternative was shooting our way in with some Unity Marines and likely getting this Human killed.
Too bad all of my effort is for an ungrateful Earth.
So far none of the Jenregar took notice of him — in the same manner, Humans didn't normally recognize one another by scent. Another glance at his wrist sensor, and Mike realized he was quite close to the other Human on board, who was probably just down a short corridor to his right. Mike headed that way —
— And found himself nearly face-to-face with that other Human.
The man sat at the end of the short corridor, his head in his hands as if in despair. I can't blame him, Mike thought. Captured who-knows-where, brought aboard this Jenregar ship, which then comes under attack, with no hope of rescue as far as he knows.
The man seemed to sense Mike's presence and looked up. He was in his thirties, with pale skin, curly hair, and a wide-eyed expression. Mike knew that in return, the man saw his unusual features that reflected all of Humanity's origins — light brown skin, tightly curled, nearly nappy hair, bright blue eyes.
But Mike's next thought was, Did the Jenregar torture this man? He had a series of cuts all around his eyes, and his left eye in particular was swollen, as if he'd been beaten. His clothing seemed to sag around him, as if he'd started out as a much bigger man.
"Thank God," the man said. "Are you here to bring me out?"
"That's my intention," Mike said.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm glad you're here — but why am I so important?"
"We need to to find out what the hell the Jenregar are up to."
"That's what I was going to ask you!"
Mike took another step forward, but the other man stood, almost bumping his head on the ceiling, and motioned for him to stop.
"Don't get any closer. If I try to take more than about four steps from this corner, I guess some kind of alarm goes off. The Jenregar come after me."
"I don't see anything," Mike said. "But I'd guess there's some kind of pheromonal barrier on the floor or the walls." He looked at the other man. "What's your name?"
"Jeremy Sheffield — have you heard anything about my wife?"
"I'm Mike Christopher — no, we didn't know anything about you until a few hours ago. There aren't any other Humans on this ship other than the two of us."
"Oh, God — Julia! We were on holiday — it was supposed to be a time we reconnected." Then Jeremy looked up at Mike. "Your name sounds familiar."
Mike couldn't be concerned about that right now. Over his datalink, he said, "Captain Lee, I've made contact. I'm about to get him out of here."
"Heard and understood," Captain Lee said. "Make it fast as you can. It looks like they've got automatic systems repairing their stardrive. You don't want to take a trip with them."
"Shit," Mike muttered. "You've got that right."
Jeremy asked, "Who were you talking to? What's wrong?"
"Unity warcraft — the Susan Kojima. They're the ones punched the hole in this ship and disabled it."
"Warcraft? Oh, dear Lord, has it come to that?"
"That's part of what we're trying to find out. Listen, Jeremy — we've got to get you out of here. Do you still have your lifesuit tech?"
"Yes, thank goodness."
"I'm going to risk reaching my arm past that barrier." Mike pulled a small tube from a wrist pocket. "I'm going to want you to activate your suit, then take this tube and smash it over the top of it."
"I think I get it — Jenregar pheromones?"
"It'll be as if you transformed into a Jenregar right in front of them. Ready?"
"Ready," Jeremy said, and pressed his left middle finger into his palm. His lifesuit formed itself around him, Mike handed him the tube, and Jeremy smashed it over the top of his helmet.
"Com'on," Mike said. "We've got to get ourselves into the Jenregar population where they won't notice us."
Mike watched as Jeremy took a deep breath, then took that step. Mike put his hand on his disruptor, looked all around. The Jenregar took no notice of either of them. He told Jeremy, "Let's get you back to Humanity," and he led the way back down the short corridor.
"I'm ready for that," Jeremy said. "You won't believe how long I've been in there, how many times they've knocked me unconscious." He shook his head. "This is like being inside a virt, only not as much fun."
Great, Mike thought. A virt enthusiast. Well, maybe a dose of reality will do him good. They reached the command center. But as Mike started to hurry through the crowded room, he sensed Jeremy wasn't right behind him. A look back, and he saw the man standing stock still in the middle of the room. Goddam it, he thought, and made his way over to Jeremy as quickly as he could, trying not to run right into any of the Jenregar.
He grabbed Jeremy's arm. "Com'on," he said. "This is no time to lose your nerve."
Jeremy's features behind his helmet faceplate were a study in fear. "This is exactly the time," He said.
Mike eased his way past a couple of Jenregar, got behind Jeremy, and pushed, hard. "Go," Mike said.
As they approached the energy field that led back to the damaged part of the Jenregar craft, Captain Lee spoke up again. "You've got to hurry, Mike — our sensors show their stardrive spinning up."
"We're getting there as quickly as we can."
"You may not have a chance to — "
A tearing, rending sound broke off Captain Lee's words — Is this what a stardrive jump for a Jenregar ship normally sounds like? Mike wondered.
Mike didn't even have a chance to get through the energy shield before every nerve in his body felt as if it had caught fire and he screamed in agony as he slumped to the floor.