As a sniper, Asala had grown accustomed to relying on herself. She’d spent hours, sometimes days, in Khayyam’s petty internecine battles, lying prone while insects crawled over her and bit or stung any exposed flesh, miserable beneath the unrelenting sun and praying the dust wouldn’t foul her equipment. In her head, she kept a tally of every person she’d ever assassinated, alone or as part of a team. As a Gandesian poet had said, The stars may be numberless, but we number our dead.
Even so, as a sniper, she hadn’t been completely alone. At first, the rest of her unit had made remarks on how the stuck-up clannie was keeping to herself. Then she’d been reassigned to Captain Ekrem’s company. She hadn’t trusted him, exactly; she’d learned the hard way as a refugee that kindness or consideration often carried the bite of condescension. But Ekrem had made a point of treating her as a competent member of his company—he’d been quick to grasp how good she was with a rifle—and she still remembered how he’d brought her an approximation of a Hypatian sweetcake to congratulate her when she made corporal. The cake had tasted too sweet, and crumbled too readily, without the characteristic delicate fragrance of the flowers used to flavor the genuine article. But in all her years on Khayyam, only Ekrem had thought of such a gesture. And gradually, because of his leadership, Asala had learned that she could trust her comrades.
Here, she had no such surety. After all the years she’d relied upon Ekrem, he’d betrayed her faith in him. She did not know what she would do if she had to face him in combat. It wouldn’t be the first time a Khayyami president had taken to the field; most of them came from the military for a reason. With any luck it wouldn’t come to that, but she knew that there was no such thing as good luck in a battle. Not the kind you could rely on, anyway.
The silence of the racing dart’s cockpit was a dangerous deception. For all her skills as a pilot, Asala had never fully adapted to combat in space. The ships’ walls and the dark distance between you and death made it too easy to believe in the illusion of your own safety, to forget your soft and bloody body in that bloodless expanse. As a sniper, Asala knew that just because you couldn’t see danger didn’t mean it wasn’t about to shoot you in the head.
She started the preflight checks, forcing herself to pay attention to every guttering light on the displays. That wasn’t reassuring, but since this was the ship she had, this was the ship she had. No sense wasting energy cursing the situation. Better to take reasonable precautions and move on.
Time to see if the comms channel worked. In theory it should be encrypted, but whether the protocols would keep Gandesian forces from listening in was an open question. “This is Agent Asala, in command of Camp Ghala defense forces,” she said. “All pilots, check in by roster number.”
She began reading off the numbers. The gabbling chaos that followed didn’t surprise her but did made her appreciate the work of people like Soraya—or Ekrem, back in her army days—all the more. She had to raise her voice more than once over the scrum. Pilot Two’s proposed trajectory was going to take him right into the path of Pilot Twenty-Three, which she hadn’t thought possible. Standard operating procedure required they at least file their initial launch paths with Station Control, but Station Control was distracted by the coming dissolution of Camp Ghala.
Soraya had promised her thirty-eight spaceworthy starships and volunteer pilots. Asala had her suspicions about just how “volunteer” they were, but no matter. Either they would survive the battle to come, or they wouldn’t. All she had to do was hold off the Gandesians long enough for Uzochi’s ships and their wormhole-generating cubes to arrive from planetside.
Asala didn’t have experience with space command beyond what she’d picked up from other mercenaries or, less reliably, the space pirate shows that people on Khayyam were so fond of. But she did remember a few essentials: the sheer terrifying emptiness of space, and the fact that motion happened in three dimensions. Terrain wasn’t a matter of ridges or mountains, but gravity wells and libration points and, in this case, the constant reminder that Gan-De’s orbital defenses stood ready to shoot them all down.
“Agent Asala to Station Control,” she said. “Requesting permission for the defense force to launch.” She didn’t have a better name for it, had never been good at naming things—that had been Dayo’s gift.
At first there was no response, and Asala kept from biting the inside of her mouth in...