Hugo-nominated editor Bryan Thomas Schmidt won Honorable Mention on BarnesandNoble.com's Year's Best Science Fiction Releases alongside books by Ben Bova, Robert J. Sawyer, Jack Campbell, Ernest Cline, and more with his debut novel, The Worker Prince, which more effectively captures the feel of the original Star Wars than any other recent series. In 2015, WordFire Press released a revised and expanded Author's Definitive Edition of that book. Now, Schmidt returns to the Saga of Davi Rhii with a revised, expanded book two, The Returning: Author's Definitive Edition.
Davi Rhii helped his enslaved people fight for their freedom and earn equality, but now that they are equal, they've found freedom and acceptance don't necessarily go hand-in-hand. When assassins begin killing and terrorizing Vertullians, even Davi's family and friends, they face a renewal of old enmity all over again. Davi, Farien and Yao reunite to investigate the murders, finding their lives and friendships threatened by what they discover.
Meanwhile, while Xalivar is back seeking revenge on Davi and all those who defied him, the new High Lord Councilor, Tarkanius, Lord Aron, and Davi find themselves fighting all over again to preserve the unity of the Borali Alliance, while even many of their allies and friends work against them to tear it apart. Suddenly, the future of the entire system is at stake, unless they can find those responsible and bring them to justice.
I was introduced to Bryan Thomas Schmidt through his publishers, and boy am I glad that happened. A Hugo-nominated editor and prolific storyteller, Schmidt writes extremely entertaining fiction. In his first book of the series, THE WORKER PRINCE, we're introduced to Davi Rhii, the child of slaves, raised as a prince. Where his debut novel was a kind of Moses story in space, THE RETURNING would be the Exodus. It's a heroic tale, much more of a thriller and page-turner, and one that feels refreshingly bright amidst the gritty, brooding, and pessimistic tones of modern science fiction. – Martin Kee
"The Returning has romance, assassins, tension, both modern and classic science fiction notions, and very smooth writing. What more could you want? Bryan Thomas Schmidt keeps improving. As good as The Worker Prince was, The Returning is better."– Mike Resnick, Author, Starship series, The Buntline Special
"The Returning blends themes of faith with classic space opera tropes and the result is a page-turning story that takes off like a rocket."– Paul S. Kemp, NY Times Bestselling Author: Star Wars Old Republic: Deceived, Star Wars: Riptide
"A fun space opera romp, complete with intrigues, treachery, dastardly villains, and flawed but moral heroes."– Howard Andrew Jones, Author, Pathfinder: Plague of Shadows, The Desert of Souls
Either his eyes were failing or the shadows were alive. Dru blinked as he listened to his fellow cadets snoring around him. He lay at the center of a row of seven bunks with seven more lining the opposite wall. All twenty-eight were occupied and no one else seemed to be stirring.
As he lifted his head, he saw a dark shape like a shadow, slinking down the center aisle. The figure moved quickly, sliding between the bunks on the opposite wall and leaning over one of them. He saw a sharp movement. Did the shadow have four arms? A Lhamor here? Who could it be? His mind raced for answers. His clothes stuck to his body, an odd feeling. He never sweated at night. There was a gargling, then he watched as the shadow shot upright and ran back the way it had come.
Dru heard wheezing coming from the bunk and sat up, planting his feet on the floor. What was happening with Cadet Kowl? He jumped up. "Kowl, are you okay?"
No sign of the shadow. A metallic smell filled his nostrils. Others stirred around him. Reflector pads flicked on overhead with a click.
Dru gasped and stepped back as he stared down at Cadet Kowl. The cadet's slashed throat drained blood in two pools on either side of his bunk on the floor. He shivered, a sudden chill coming over him.
"Gods! He's dead!" The cadet behind him shrieked, sounding as shocked as Dru felt. Cadet Walz was it? Dru couldn't remember. Then chaos erupted as someone pulled the alarm and he was shoved aside by arriving instructors.
* * *
As his VS28 fighter squadron flew in formation around him, Captain Davi Rhii's thoughts turned to his fiancée, Tela Tabansi. It had been love at first sight for Davi, and he'd had to work hard to win Tela over. She'd actually never dreamed of finding a mate like Davi had, and yet once she fell in love, she'd committed to it wholly.
Lately, they fought more often than they ever had. And over the kind of things that left Davi scratching his head.
They'd fought the night before when Tela complained about command keeping her off this patrol. Technically, she was part of the squadron, but now that her relationship with Davi was public, some members of command had decided to enforce the rules about couples not being allowed to fly together. And more and more, Tela had found herself grounded while her squadron mates went off to their duty.
This did not sit well with her, a person who was born to fly and loved every minute of it. And Davi was totally sympathetic, but she seemed to be holding him responsible unfairly.
"Stand up for me," she insisted. "Tell them I deserve to be up there."
"I have," Davi said, attempting to rest his hands gently on her shoulders but she shook them off and frowned, pulling away.
"Not hard enough! You're their prince, for God's sake. Use your influence!"
Davi sighed. "You know I can't do that."
"Can't or won't?" she said, jamming her hands in and out of her flight suit pockets and whirling as she stopped pacing and stared accusingly in his direction.
"You've heard me speak up for you," Davi said, ignoring the question. "I am not prince anymore, and it wouldn't be right for me to use that to try and influence command. I never have. You know that. You used to be impressed by it, respect it."
Tela's face reddened, her hands jerking as she motioned. "Oh, now I don't respect you? They don't respect me! How am I supposed to feel?"
Davi softened his eyes with sympathy and tried once more to put a hand on her arm in comfort.
"No!" she pulled away again, shaking her head. "You could make an exception. You know how much it means to me, how unfair it is."
"I have turned down patrol multiple times and turned over leadership to you, but I have to lead sometimes," Davi said.
"If I can't go, why don't they just reassign me or transfer me?" Tela's shoulders sank as she settled again, leaning against a nearby wall.
"I can suggest you be put in another squadron," Davi offered. "I didn't want you to be mad at me."
Tela scoffed. "How's that working for you?"
Despite the tension, Davi had laughed. And that turned out to just irritate her more.
"Wonder what Dru's doing right now?" Davi's cousin Nila's voice crackled over the comm, breaking his reverie.
"Whatever he's doing, it's a lot better than sitting out here babysitting transports and going through the motions," Virun groused as the other VS28 fighters slid back into formation and continued along the course of their routine patrol.
"Keep the chatter down so Farien and Brie can give their report." Davi fought back a laugh. He'd long ago grown used to the boredom of patrol. So what if Nila and her friends were always chattering during patrols? It lightened the mood and kept them alert. Besides, Dru's reassignment couldn't help but fascinate his friends. Especially since their current patrol route passed Eleni 1, the Legallian moon which Presimion Academy called home.
Dru and the others had trained together, then fought for freedom against their enslavers with the Worker's Freedom Resistance. It was a huge honor having one of their own be one of the first ex-workers admitted to the most prestigious military school in the system, and they beamed with pride when they mentioned his name.
"A junked freighter." Brie interrupted his thoughts as she began her report.
"Class Seven, Tertullian made," Farien added. "A ghost."
"What? They just leave them out here abandoned?" Jorek's voice dripped with disgust.
"Kinda big to just park somewhere on the ground," Farien answered. "Especially when there are plenty of pirates and scavengers around to do the work for them."
"And plenty of empty space." Davi glanced across the formation toward his old friend and grinned. As liaison, Farien functioned as a member of the squad, working alongside Davi to ensure the pilots were treated like every other pilot for the Boralian Alliance, from training to uniforms to schedules, befitting their new status as full citizens, not former rebels and slaves. Having his old friend around to compare notes with lightened Davi's load, and Farien, for his part, seemed pleased to be working with Davi again. The promotion hadn't hurt his self-esteem either. Farien acted more confident and positive than Davi had ever seen him.
"What if it floats off into a planet or someone crashes into it?" Jorek was a fount of never-ending questions.
Farien snorted. "Then the legal people and politicians get to do what they love and argue, and someone else gets to have a funeral."
Davi winced. Farien still needed to learn some tact.
"Exactly," Jorek said, as if he'd proved his point.
"There have been very few incidents of ghost ships colliding with other ships," Davi interjected. "And none of collisions with planets. This one is outside the shipping lanes anyway, and we have to prioritize."
"Just a matter of time," Virun said, taking his best friend's side. "Somebody's nav system could malfunction." Jorek and Virun were two of the smartest pilots Davi knew, right up there with Tela. They reminded him of his own academy days with Yao and Farien: rarely seen apart; inseparable to all who knew them; top of the class in training, despite a propensity to let passion rule over reason.
"Well, back at base, you two can write up a nice report requesting an official salvage ship, okay?" Farien sent the images he and Brie had captured to the entire squadron via his ship's computer. "It will be one of many."
"Ech. Paperwork. No thanks." Davi could almost hear Virun's frown.
Sensors beeped in alarm, sending a familiar tingle up Davi's arms. Davi looked down and typed a command into his computer, sliding forward in his seat to force blood flow into his drowsy limbs and keep him alert.
"Incoming ship of unknown origin." Brie's speed impressed him. On the surface, she was the antithesis of a pilot: a short, cute blonde with girl-next-door looks, prone to using her wiles to get what she wanted by playing the weak female in need. She'd once been considered most likely to fail among his student pilots, along with Nila and Dru. But somehow they'd struggled through and become real pilots, equal to everyone else on the squad.
Almost even equal to Tela. He closed his eyes recalling the sparkle in her eyes when she smiled, the soft warmth of her hand holding his.
"Wish you could fly as fast as you type," Jorek teased, the banter breaking Davi out of his thoughts and back to the moment.
"Funny how you're usually the one chasing me," Brie teased. Nila and Brie's laughter filled the comm channel.
"Save the flirting for your dates," Davi instructed. "What are we looking at?" His eyes darted back and forth between the computer screen and the view out his blastshield as his scanners evaluated the target's course and position, firepower, shield strength and other factors.
"What the—?" Jorek's fighter suddenly dove and Brie darted right. A black shape raced through the space where they'd just been. Davi leaned forward, eyes straining to identify it.
"Shields!" Farien ordered.
"The computer says its components may be Lhamorian," Nila reported as Davi's own computer returned the same results. "A two seater similar to a kind formerly used as interplanetary shuttles."
"Offensive formation," Davi ordered, hand tightening on his joystick. "Let's go give her a look." Shuttles could be armed or unarmed, best to be ready. But what was a shuttle doing so far out?
The fighter's engines vibrated his cockpit as Davi accelerated. Circling back together, the pilots remained in tight formation. Davi took a moment to shift in his formfitting seat, bracing himself for possible engagement.
"Heads up," Farien called. "There he is."
Davi sighed. The mystery ship accelerated away from Eleni 1, far too fast for a casual visitor, and so dark it was almost hidden by the starfield until the fighters moved in to surround it. Sleek starfighters with snub noses and three wings—two longer wings out of each side, and a third shorter wing extending vertically above the fighter's four engines—VS28s were dark black, but spotting each other was simple enough despite the gray, transparent blastshield. The squadron insignia on their sides helped, of course.
Their mystery opponent, however, was tricky to see. The ship appeared designed that way. Line-of-sight stealth made little sense in space where radar was relied upon to identify and track other craft, which meant the stealth was intended for something else. Plus the craft was unusually small, almost fighter-sized, yet appeared to have a passenger compartment behind the cockpit built to carry multiple passengers. Add to that the computer's dearth of more specific information on its origins and that brought only two uses to mind: spying and smuggling. But spying on Eleni 1 made little sense.
Davi punched commands into the computer and the reports came up on his screen. "Sensors read one occupant. No weapons."
"The sensors didn't even find her until she was right up on us," Brie answered, her voice rising anxiously in pitch with the tension.
"We didn't see him either," Jorek barked, angry from the near miss.
"Whoever he is, he's not expecting trouble from us," Farien responded. At least there's one voice of calm here.
"Unless that's what he wants us to think," Nila added.
Davi smiled, pleased with his cousin. Her perceptiveness had developed with her flight skills. Davi had the same suspicion, and he knew Farien and others would, too, after hearing her voice it. Switching comm channels to hailing frequencies, he initiated another scan of the target. "Defensive formation." Davi switched his comm to a hailing channel. "This is Captain Davi Rhii of the Borali Alliance, identify yourself immediately."
The radio remained silent for what seemed like forever.
"Weapons range, Captain," Virun reported as Davi watched his sensors flash the alert.
"I repeat. Identify yourself. This is Captain Davi Rhii of the Borali Alliance." So much for unsweaty cockpits.
"'ello, Capt'in, my ship's transpond'r 's malfuncti'ning." It was the same accent Davi had heard in the market on Vertullis many times. The accent of Itolis, a Lhamor. A Lhamor on Eleni 1? It had to be a merchant, but why was the ship so far out of regular shipping lanes?
"Slow down immediately and maintain course," Davi ordered the stranger. "Identify. Who are you running from?"
The mystery ship slowed onto a steady course as the fighters slid in to surround her.
"Not runn'ng. 'erchant, Capt'in. Negotiat'r f'r Minist'y of Trade. I mean no h'rm. I he'd for X'nthis Depot for rep'irs."
Davi muted the channel and keyed the private squadron channel. "Ministry of Trade, right? He's a smuggler for sure." Nothing else made sense. The computer showed no record of a flight plan or any registration.
"Legallis Depot is closer," Farien responded.
"It's also expensive. He's probably trying to save some bucks, if his story's even true."
"You don't think it's a spy ship?" Jorek asked.
"What's there to spy on Eleni 1?" Nila sounded amused.
"The Academy. Military tactics, weaponry …"
"There are easier ways to gather that data," Nila responded.
"Prepare to lock tractor beams," Farien ordered as Davi automatically keyed a code into his computer.
"What about the big agro firms?" Virun asked.
"They send spies for agriculture?" Brie sounded surprised.
"It's a competitive field," Virun responded. "Some firms have secrets."
The questions rained like a storm. Davi winced. Let's focus and get some answers. He keyed the hailing channel again. "Why Xanthis? The Depot on Legallis is closer."
"My boss h's a contr'ct with X'nthis. Leg'llis 's very expensive."
"By protocol, we should detain him," Brie said over the squadron channel.
"I say we do it for almost killing us," Jorek answered.
"If his employer is the trade minister, he'll raise hell." Farien wasn't arguing, but his tone made it clear he wanted to let the ship go. "Let's just check his papers."
"He could be a spy!" Jorek and Virun clearly wanted to take this to the next level.
"You heard his accent. Why would Lhamors want to spy on the Academy?"
"Who knows why Lhamors do anything?" Virun answered. "They're not like humans. Not even very smart in my experience."
"It's a small transport, probably an interplanetary shuttle. He's unarmed. He's made no aggressive moves toward us. Is it worth risking bad blood toward Vertullian pilots if it becomes an incident?"
Farien had a point. With the acceptance of Vertullians amongst their ranks still new to Boralian military personnel, they didn't want to do anything to draw attention to themselves as troublemakers or overreacting. Because the Vertullians once had just as much history as oppressors as the Boralians, and the source of their enslavement had been so many Boralians holding onto those memories long past the deaths of anyone who'd experienced those days.
Davi keyed the hailing channel and ran a deep scan of the ship's holds and passenger compartment. "Do you carry any cargo?"
"Jus' mys'lf, Capt'in. C'me to negoti'te."
There wasn't enough to hold him without risk of elevating something minor into a major incident, and that was the last thing Davi and his squadron needed to get involved with. The scanner beeped—nothing beyond basic provisions and supplies. The VS28s matched the mystery ship's speed and heading, forming a reverse cone around it.
Davi chose caution. Protocol aside, the guy seemed harmless and they had better things to do than hassle innocent merchants. "My squadron will escort you to the next sector. Our companions there can see you safely to Xanthis."
"Th'nk you, Capt'in for your kindn'ss."
"We're gonna let him go?" Brie sounded as frustrated as Jorek and Virun.
"We're going to see he's escorted the whole way to Xanthis," Davi answered. "If he behaves, he won't be bothered. Virun, radio ahead to the patrol in Sector Omega and fill them in on our friend here. We'll meet them at the border in a direct line to Xanthis."
"Yes, sir," Virun replied, followed by a click on the channel as he switched to another frequency.
Davi sighed and slid back in his seat again, his tension evaporating. "Maintain formation, squad. Let's see our friend here to the border."