Approaching the clearing silently had not been especially difficult. No sentries in sight, no surveillance devices detectable by her data sleeve, no heat seekers randomly zigzagging among the towering vegetation.
Still, Captain Nova Whiteside moved cautiously, her physical senses as alert as those of her mechanical aides. She skirted the clearing where at least ten or twelve heavily armed people, most of them dressed in sweat-stained fatigues, guarded a small group of captives. The prisoners sat on the ground, arms bound behind their backs, unresponsive to their captors. There was a sullen silence about them and no one bothered to speak with them to change that.
Nova glanced at the forest duff beneath her feet, avoiding anything that would rustle or snap under her boots. The planet's light gravity was deceptive and she took no chances. Taking her time, she reached down to check the setting of her gun by touch.
She watched two men and a woman, all of them Human, group nearby to discuss something but could make out no more than a low murmur. A Centauri joined them, pointing to the data unit in his hands, then at some of the captives. Her eyes shifted to one of the armed men sitting nearby on a supply crate.
It was him. She exhaled slowly to calm the urge to burst from the tangled foliage. His gun leaned on the box beside him and she knew well that his reflexes were honed by years of field experience. He had removed his jacket and she saw the thick blue braid hang over his back. As she watched he poured water onto a bandanna and lifted the braid to wipe the back of his neck. She wished for some of that; the day was dangerously hot even here among the trees. Her tough combat trousers worked against any relief she had found by stripping down to her sleeveless grey undershirt.
The habitable planets of this binary system were either covered in desert or in jungle so densely populated by leeches and reptiles and other things that slithered, bit or sucked blood that most interplanetary visitors declined to settle here. It was precisely the reason it made Phi Six a perfect location for a rebel outpost.
The Delphian picked up his gun and came to his feet, unfolding himself to an impressive height common among the males of his species. She saw his sharp profile when he turned to call something to his compatriots. When he walked to the edge of the clearing she withdrew deeper into the ferns to follow him at a safe distance.
He moved slowly, his posture telling her that he, too, was alert to what may lurk in the jungle, whether some native predator or an enemy. Trees were not to be found on this planet but the towering ferns and broadleaf plants closed over their heads much like the forests of Delphi or Feyd or Magra, blocking sunlight and trapping humid air. She kept to the shadows until he reached an abandoned shelter, doorless, its roof sagging and smothered in thick growth. He did a perimeter check and then surveyed the inside of the building.
Nova crept noiselessly to the side of the hovel. She peered around it to see him crouched, examining something on the ground by the door. She grinned and stepped into the open, her gun ready.
At this precise moment the Delphian flung himself up and forward, catching her in midriff to throw both of them across the small open space in front of the cottage. The planet's low gravity hurled them a considerable distance before they landed and she grunted when her breath was knocked out of her. A rock or root or something dug painfully into her back. The blue-haired giant quickly straddled her waist and pinned her arms with his knees.
"Today's lesson: Humans think if they can't be seen or heard they're invisible," he said. He yanked the gun from her hand and tossed it aside. The camouflage wrap around her hair had come loose and he pulled it away, spilling the long red strands around her. He twisted it in his hands as if to fashion it into a rope or gag.
She looked up at him, struggling to catch her breath. "Today's second lesson: Delphians expect a clean fight."
He yelped when the ring on her finger made contact with his thigh and a bolt of pain radiated through his body. When he flung himself away from her she followed quickly, soon reversing their position to sit astride him.
Tychon, Air Command Major and commander of Vanguard Seven, was half-laughing and half-groaning as he waited for the pain to subside. "Definitely not fair, Nova!" he protested. "I can't believe you did that."
"Glad I can still surprise you," she said, shaking her hand which had gone numb. The device was imperfect and she had paid the price for using it.
His smile slowly faded. "Come here," he said and tugged on a loose strand of her hair. She leaned down and let him draw her into his arms to kiss her gently. "I've missed you."
She stretched out on his long body. "A few weeks in the field and missed me already?"
He kissed her again, less gently, and rolled her onto her back.
"How about we go in there and I show you how much I missed you, Major," she said with a glance at the dilapidated hovel.
"How about we get back to the others and help process those rebels, Captain. Are you here on your own or did you come with the pickup team?"
"Borrowed a cruiser. Colonel Everett wants us back on Targon on the double, so I volunteered to pick you up. Isn't that sweet of me?"
"Hmm, do we have time to stop on Delphi? I haven't seen Cyann in so long."
"Oh, that's just fine! You don't have ten minutes to fool around, but you can't wait to run home to your daughter."
"Ten minutes!" he said in mock outrage. "I'll show you 'ten minutes' when we get on that ship."
She let her fingers wander to his thigh. "It's a long flight..."
Both of them looked up when someone's feet appeared beside them. Major Bowie Haddad, Commander of Vanguard Two, his fists propped on broad hips, stood looking down at them.
"Captain Whiteside. I was wondering why your cruiser came down without a pilot in sight."
Nova grinned up at him. "Hey, Bowie."
"That's Major to you, Imp." Haddad watched them extricate themselves and come to their feet. He now had to crane his neck to look up at the Delphian. "I have a certain admiration for the way you manage your subordinate officers, Ty."
Tychon pulled a leaf out of Nova's tangled hair. "Not my subordinate right now," he said. "I'm between assignments. I think I'll rest and relax on Delphi for a while. Tracking these rebels has been a chore. You can take them from here."
Haddad nodded. "Casualties?"
"None for us. A couple of Feydans escaped last night, though. They jumped the gate to Pelion before we caught up with them. Not worth the coolant to follow them out there. We found an interesting communications hub. Want to see it?"
"Please." Haddad turned to Nova. "Help get the detainees out to the pickup point, Whiteside. The shuttles should be there any moment."
She nodded and bent to pick up her gun and did not resist an urge to throw a salacious glance at Tychon before the men walked away. He pretended not to notice.
When Nova returned to the clearing where the others waited, several more rebels had been rounded up and made to sit on the ground with the others. They huddled uncomfortably, their eyes on the heavy boots of the Union soldiers walking far too close to them. Occasionally, one of the guards prodded at a prisoner with his gun.
"Is that necessary?" Nova said to the Lieutenant.
"She called me a Rhuwac's uncle."
Nova did not mention that he was translating the word incorrectly. It probably would not help the rebel if he knew what she had really said. "Leave them be. They have enough problems. Get some water. It's a million degrees here."
He saluted with a striking lack of military crispness and wandered off to follow her order.
Nova looked over the detainees. Centauri, mostly, judging by their glossy black hair and violet eyes. Some Humans among them and three or four of the red-skinned, white-haired Bellacs. A usual assortment captured in raids like these. She walked away to find shade when one of the rebels caught her eye.
"Gods!" she breathed and hurried over to a woman sitting a little apart from the others. Smaller than most Bellac females, she seemed weakened by the weather and whatever rough treatment she had suffered at the hands of the Union's Air Command soldiers. A rash of scratches marked her forehead and cheek and her multiple white braids were a tangled mess. "Medic," Nova called over her shoulder.
"Hello, Nova," the Bellac said with a crooked smile.
Nova looked around and crouched down beside her. "Shh, Acie. Careful."
"Sorry," the woman whispered loudly.
Nova reached up to take a damp cloth and disinfectant from the medic along with a bag of water and waved him away. "I've got this." She considered the other soldiers nearby. Without the two Majors in sight, some of them were bound to take out their boredom on the captives. "Get those people over there down to the shuttle. Yoshida, you will see to it that they'll have not so much as an extra scratch before they get there." She glanced at two particularly large Centauri prisoners that looked like they might not be as cowed by Air Command presence here as their compatriots. "Unless they ask for it," she warned them. "Are we clear on that, Lieutenant?"
Nova turned back to the Bellac to dab at the scratches on her skin. "What are you doing out here?" she whispered.
Acie took a few deep gulps from the water bag. "Wasn't really my idea. I thought we were going to Feron to pick up some acids. They're always selling us the wrong crap so it's just easier if I can test it there. But we ended up here. And then your boyfriend came down on us. Blew my lab to bits, too. Not that it was much of a lab."
Nova sighed. "Well, that's his job." She smiled and then looked around again to make sure no one had seen. "How did you know he was mine?"
"You two aren't exactly a big secret in my circles." Acie grinned, flashing white teeth contrasting prettily with her deep red skin. "He's a handsome Delphi, I have to say. What shoulders! Those eyes could cut glass. No wonder you fell for him. And you had a baby! How is that even possible! I'm a scientist and as sure as I'm sitting here know that you can't interbreed Humans and Delphians."
"This isn't really the time to discuss biology!" It was not the first time that Nova was stumped by the peculiar wanderings of Acie's otherwise brilliant mind.
"Well, if you'd visit once in a while I wouldn't have to be dying of curiosity, if not of dehydration. We haven't seen you since you were on leave from Ud Mrak. Years ago!"
Nova gestured for her to take another drink. "You know I can't visit, Acie. Too many eyes on me."
"I guess so. So how did you do it? Were those your gametes?"
"Yeah, she's ours. I... hmm... it's kind of a long story. Some cellular modification that we don't really understand. Between the doctors on Targon and the Shantirs on Delphi, everyone's been shaking their heads for three years over this." She smiled. "Doesn't matter. Cyann is a pretty little thing. You should see her. Blue hair, like Ty, blue blue eyes like all Delphians. And so smart!"
"And so you called her Cyann. That's so cute!"
"Well, for now. Delphians change their names by the week. No doubt her clan will want a proper Delphian name for her at some point. She's growing up so fast."
"And yet you're out here, beating up rebels. How can you stand to be away from her?" Acie looked up at two soldiers standing nearby. "Where are they taking us?"
"Zera, for now, and then to Targon," Nova said, naming the Union's primary military base in the Trans-Targon sector.
"Can't you get me out of this?" Acie said. Her expression changed to one of dread, as if she only now realized her predicament. "I wasn't even meant to be here."
"You know I can't."
"I'm scared, Nova. I've been arrested before. They're not... pleasant."
"No one will hurt you," Nova said.
"Could you send a message to Vincent? Let him know what happened? He knows how to find Seth."
Nova sat back on her heels when Acie mentioned that name. "Seth..."
"You've not heard from him?"
"Not in years! Saw a report a while ago that tied him to some smuggling thing off Pelion. Do you think he can cut you loose?"
"Don't know. Can you contact Vincent? Please? He's still on Magra. The temple at Naos."
"I know the place. I'll try to send a message. Can you hang in there until then?"Acie nodded with pinched lips in some attempt to look brave. Nova wished she could hug the tiny woman or offer some assurance that everything would be all right. She could not. Instead, she grasped her arms to pull her to her feet. "Take her," she said and shoved Acie toward one of the female soldiers. "She's not well. Let's not make her worse."
Nova watched as the little Bellac was led away, worried. Quickly, she organized the remainder of the raiding party to gather up equipment and prisoners for the short march to the waiting shuttles. Majors Haddad and Tychon had still not rejoined the group by the time the planes were loaded and ready for takeoff. She cleared the launch, leaving only her own small cruiser and Haddad's Eagle class ship on the ground. She waved to Haddad's two crew members, Vanguard officers like herself, and boarded her plane.