Wing Commander Freedom Flight Chapter One

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Chapter One
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Book Wing Commander Freedom Flight
Parts 2
Next Chapter Two
Pages 1-22

Dramatis Personae


Part One

     The interrogator’s lip curled in a contemptuous snarl. “The traitor is silent. He cannot even speak in his own defense! This is not a highborn lord of Kilrah; this is a carrion-eater!”

     Standing before the interrogator, Lord Ralgha nar Hhallas stared bleakly at his enemy. A green haze fogged Ralgha’s eyes, the mist of rage. He fought to contain it, forcing his fur to lie flat, his ears to remain erect, his eyes to remain wide open and without visible guile. He won the battle with his instincts and emotions, as he had won the eight eights of similar battles during the past few hours. His vision came clear again, and the urge to tear out the throats of his enemies—any enemies—subsided. He knew from the posture of the burly guards watching him that he had not betrayed himself by so much as a tail twitch.

     He could not falter, could not show fear, even for an instant. In this test of loyalties, any sign of weakness would be instant proof of treason . . . a true Kilrathi would be upheld and strengthened by his Honor, impervious to pain or fear. No torture would break him, no threats would touch his spirit. If Ralgha showed no fear, if he remained calm and steadfast throughout this ordeal, then he could not be a traitor.

     So does age and experience deceive youth and vigor.

     Had he been in charge of this interrogation, he would have had his captive wired and monitored. Perhaps he should be glad that someone like him was not in charge. But blood would tell, and breeding; that was a truism. Breeding would carry him through this. He had to believe that.

     A whisper of sound from the shadow-shrouded figure seated at the end of the room. “Can he be trusted, Kalrahr?”

     Ralgha nar Hhallas stiffened to attention, the hair of his ruff and spine rising despite his efforts to make it lie flat, uncertain whether he was going to survive the next few moments. He had seen this shadowy room before, and had walked through the carved stone corridors of Imperial Intelligence Headquarters on Ghorah Khar many times, but always as Lord Ralgha nar Hhallas, commanding officer of the Ras Nik’hra, a Fralthi-class cruiser that had fought in many battles for the glory of the Emperor of Kilrah.

     Now, for the first time, he saw these walls through other eyes . . . as a prisoner. An interesting experience—if he lived through it.

     Ralgha had stood in the center of this room for over five hours now, answering every question placed to him, patiently managing to keep his temper despite the taunts of the interrogators. That was their job, after all; to make him lose his temper, to prove that he was a traitor by angry word or action. They dared not lay paw to him; he was too high of rank for lerkrath, interrogation by drugs, or kalbrath, interrogation by torture. Only the Emperor himself could decree questioning a Thrak’hra lord by needle or knife. But they could deliberately try to provoke him, to invoke the killing-rage that lay close to the surface of every Kilrathi’s mind—and if he lost control even for an instant, if he neglected to remain in the military-submissive posture, if he forgot that he was, temporarily, the lowest-ranked Kilrathi in the room, he would prove that he was a traitor. Even now, the two burly Imperial guards watched him carefully, in case he should try to make any kind of movement—either to escape or harm Jahkai, the Kalrahr of Imperial Security, or to make an attempt on the life of the other, even more important Kilrathi in this room, the one seated in the shadows.

     Jahkai was watching him with eyes narrowed to slits with his concentration. As well he might. There was more to this than the questioning of a possible traitor; more than a conflict between two male Kilrathi. Ralgha had hated Jahkai since they had first met years ago.

     The lowborn brute had pretended to noble airs at a troop review, bringing shame on the highborn present, that he had dared to imitate his betters. And there was no hiding the fact that Jahkai was lowborn; one merely had to look at him, and see the mottled, mingled colors of his coarse fur marking him as Kilra’hra, a commoner. So very unlike Ralgha’s own sleek pelt, bright with the colours and sharply distinct patterns of one of the highest-born families in the Empire. Even the blunt shape of Jahkai’s muzzle, the flatness of his head, and the blunted teeth of one who was not a hunter showed his lowborn breeding.

     Ralgha had repaid that shame by shaming Jahkai in his turn, making a mockery of him, then laughing in his face, not realizing then that Jahkai was Kalrahr of Imperial Security for the entire planetary system of Ghorah Khar . . .

     Now the situation was very different. A word from Jahkai could condemn Ralgha to death, lowborn or not. If the other Kilrathi in this room decided that the word was justified. It had all come down to this; the word of an enemy, the record of his achievements, and the judgment of a superior.

     This was the most dangerous moment of his life. Nothing else had ever put him into such peril, not even during the battle against the humans for the Vega Sector.

     He remembered that conflict with a small warmth of pride, pride he cherished against the anger that sought to consume him. He concentrated on his memories of the hours of maneuvering against the Terran ship, waves of fighter assaults, culminating in the glorious explosion of the Waterloo-class ship, the blossoming fireball and drifting debris. The ship had been named the Leningrad, he had learned later, and over five hundred humans had died when it had been destroyed. Five hundred enemies. Five hundred gifts to Sivar, the War God.

     He remembered one moment of fear in that battle, seeing a tiny Terran fighter diving toward his ship, knowing that half of their forward cannons were disabled and there was nothing he or his crew could do to stop it . . .

     . . . then the wing of Imperial Jalthi fighters had banked in sharply and destroyed the human ship with a well-aimed volley.

     Now Ralgha felt that same paralyzing fear, watching his fate being decided before him, and knowing that there was nothing he could do about it at all.

     Again, the purring whisper. “I am waiting for your answer, Jahkai.”

     Kalrahr Jahkai turned and spoke to the shadowed figure seated in the corner of the room. “My lord, I cannot say. In five hours, we have neither seen nor heard a single hint of treason from Lord Ralgha. But . . .”

     Ralgha stood silently, muscles locked in the rigidity of submissive fear, and wished with all his heart that he was back in the battle for the Vega Sector, commanding the crew of the Ras Nik’hra against the Terran fleet. At least then, he had an obvious opponent to fight. Not this shadow-war of loyalties and treason, where a single gesture could result in his immediate death. They would not even grant him the honor of death in combat . . . he could die in this room, shot like a coward or a prisoner of war, and no one would ever know . . .

     “Enough.” The tall Kilrathi rose from his chair in the corner of the room, striding forward to face Ralgha. Prince Thrakhath, Heir to the Throne of Kilrah, stared into his eyes, thoughtful and calculating. Gold rings glistened in Thrakhath’s ears, bright against his red-brown fur and his red cloak. The spicy musk of one who dallied often with females wafted to Ralgha’s nostrils, but Ralgha refused to be distracted by it. “Tell me, Ralgha . . . who do you serve?”

     “The glory of the Emperor and the Empire of Kilrah,” Ralgha said, stiffly. “I am yours to command, my Prince.”

     “Yes.” The Prince spoke quietly, his voice low and resonant in the small room. “I believe you are, Ralgha. You will do well.” The Prince turned to the intelligence officer. “Enough of this farce, Jahkai. I had suspected a personal animosity when you brought me your suspicions; now I am certain of it. We are finished here. I will return to K’Tithrak Mang tonight. You will give up this grudge of yours. And to ensure that there will be no repetition of this—scene—I require that you bring me concrete proof of deceit before you make any further accusations.”

     Jahkai flattened his ears and lowered his muzzle submissively; his tail dragged on the ground, completely limp. Though his eyes were still full of hate when he looked at Ralgha, the Thrak’hra lord was certain that he would not dare disobey the Prince’s orders. He held his rank on sufferance alone, and many hated him. They would be glad to see him fell.

     The Prince glared down at Jahkai. “The Lord Ralgha may return to his usual duties.” The Prince glanced at Ralgha. “What are your standing orders, Lord Ralgha?”

     Ralgha brought his head up, at full attention. “My ship leaves for the N’Tanya System tonight, my lord,” Ralgha said. “We are to join the strike force departing for the Terran frontier.”

     The Prince nodded. “You will bring honor to your hrai, I am certain of it. Fight well, Ralgha.”

     “My lord.” Ralgha bowed his head, his tail curled down in a gesture of respect and submission; careful not to spoil his show of appropriate behavior by displaying the shock the Prince’s last statement had given him. He cannot know, Ralgha thought. All of my hrai, down to my littlest sibling . . . dead now, these last five years. I have no family now, no way to share the honors I have won in combat. No one, nothing worth living for . . .

     My only joy has been fighting the humans. Killing as many of them as I can, for the glory of the Empire. Taunting them in battle, ignoring them as they call us “kitten” or “cat” . . . I wonder what a cat is? . . . and then rejoicing in my victory, hearing their death-screams. Winning honor for my hrai, for my family name.

     Now that is meaningless. Without my hrai . . .

     Prince Thrakhath nodded once to Jahkai, and left the room. Ralgha began to follow him, but was stopped by a guard’s claws on shoulder.

     “You may not leave yet, Ralgha,” Jahkai hissed in a low voice.

     Had the lowborn learned nothing? If Ralgha had been younger, more given to impulse, Jahkai would have been dead at that moment. The chemicals of anger and fear still sang in his blood, and made his ears ring. “I am not one of your hirelings, Jahkai, or a human slave. Do not presume to give me orders. I am a lord of the Empire. Hinder me, and . . .” Ralgha smiled, showing teeth. “And I will rip out your throat, Kilra’hra scum.”

     “Fine words from a suspected traitor,” Jahkai spat.

     “Dangerous words from a lowborn Kilrathi. Now that the Prince has cleared me of suspicion, you might wish to remember that I outrank you, fool.” He narrowed his eyes, and allowed his neck-ruff to rise. “You are too unworthy to challenge. Would you like to spend some time in your own stockade? It is not very comfortable, as I have learned in these last days.”

     Jahkai gestured sharply, and the guards stepped back. Ralgha smiled again, the full smile of the victor, all fangs exposed, and walked into the hallway. A few moments later, he was out in the street, breathing deeply of the clean air. He had been locked in a dark, damp cell for ten days, and in that time had not seen the warm sunlight on the leaves of the birha trees. They were blossoming now, large red flowers filling the air with a sweet scent. This street was lined with the trees, a sharp contrast to the stone buildings and grey-paved streets, the white-capped mountains overlooking the Old City. It reminded him of home, of his native planet of Hhallas, where he had lived his childhood, before spending his years in officer’s training on Kilrah. Many Kilrathi said they admired the metallic splendor of Kilrah, the silver walls and tall towers of the Imperial planet. Not Ralgha . . . even after all these years he still yearned for the wild mountains and untamed wilderness of his home planet.

     The sun was setting behind the icy peaks, bright against the snow. Ralgha began to walk quickly. There was not much time left before he had to board his ship and order his crew for their departure.

     He walked through the winding streets, stepping over an unconscious kilra’hra that was thoroughly intoxicated on arakh leaves, walking past a group of slaves laboring in the street. At the next street, he turned into the open market, smelling the rich scents of fresh meat and fish displayed on carts and tables. The market was not too crowded at this hour, as the shopkeepers and carters had already sold most of their wares.

     A young female human with very short dark head-fur and dressed in a plain brown shift decorated with the sigil of Sivar looked up at Ralgha for a long moment as he strode past. A slave of the Priestesses of the Warrior-God, he guessed. He glanced back at the next corner, to see her only a few feet behind him. Following him, yes. He walked down the street, pausing in a doorway to let the female catch up with him. “What do you want, girl?” he asked gruffly.

     “Eight eights of pardons, my lord,” the girl said in heavily accented Kilrathi. “Lady Hassa would speak with you, my lord. If you would please to follow me, I will take you to her now.”

     He nodded and followed her down the shadowed street. She moved with surprising grace for a human. Ralgha had not had much experience with humans, except for a few slaves and, of course, captured enemy pilots, and those only for a few moments before they were taken away by Imperial Intelligence. He had heard many strange things about humans. The oddest was that the Terrans actually chose their leaders, like one would choose a fine cut of meat in the market. Just the thought of a leader chosen by his followers made Ralgha’s tail twitch. Though what he did now, that was perilously close to what the humans did . . . selecting a leader.

     As he had expected, the girl was leading him to the local Temple of Sivar, an amphitheatre set into the side of the mountain. He followed her down the stone steps, to where a tall Kilrathi woman, wearing the ceremonial cloak of a Priestess of Sivar, awaited him.

     “Ralgha.” Hassa moved toward him. In a gesture that he remembered from their childhood on Hhallas, she ran her claws through his mane, smoothing down the thick fur. “You are well?”

     He twitched his shoulders, deprecatingly. “As well as can be expected. They questioned me for days, Hassa.”

     Hassa nodded and turned to the slave girl. “Esther, go fetch drink and arakh leaves for Lord Ralgha. Go now, quickly.”

     The human girl bowed and ran up the steps.

     “You may speak freely now, my lord.” Hassa sat on a stone bench. “What happened in there?”

     Ralgha sat beside her, looking down at the plain grey stone. Too like the plain gray stone of his cell. “It was difficult, but not as bad as I thought it might be. Questions, day and night. They often would not allow me to sleep, but otherwise did not harm me.”

     “I was very worried, when I heard that you had been arrested.” Hassa’s eyes were dark and unreadable, all pupil. “We were afraid that you would reveal what you know of the rebellion.”

     He bristled at the implication of weakness. “Never! Even if they had tortured me, I would have revealed nothing!”

     “So they set you free.” Hassa’s claws extended and retracted nervously. “They set you free . . . why?”

     In a way, that puzzled him too. “I assume, because they could not find anything, nor trick me into giving them information. Because they believe that I am loyal to the Emperor. Because I am Thrak’hra, and a decorated ship’s captain. Prince Thrakhath himself attended my final interrogation, and ordered them to release me.”

     “I see.” Hassa was silent for a long moment, and then spoke. “The Council met last night, Ralgha, while we were still uncertain as to your fate. They decided that if you survived the interrogation, they would have a task for you.”

     He flushed with the heat of excitement; his fur itched. After all this time—they had something they wanted him to do.

     “We must gain help for this rebellion against the Emperor, if it is to succeed,” she continued. “You will be our envoy, our ambassador . . . you will go to the humans and demand their assistance for us. We will be their allies, but they must send us troops, weapons, starships. You will surrender your ship, the Ras Nik’hra, to them as a gesture of good faith.”

     “Surrender . . . my ship?” Ralgha stared at her, so stunned with shock, he felt like a tiny merdha must, when the teeth of the hunter met in its neck. “Give it to the humans? My ship? How can you ask this of me?”

     Hassa’s face was fiercely adamant; he knew there would be no moving her. Though she cared for him as an old friend and beloved, the rebellion was something like an offspring to her. As a mother would abandon mate to fight for the life of a cub, she would give all to her cause. “You must! If you do not, Ralgha nar Hhallas, you are an oath breaker. You swore an oath to the Council that you would aid us in overthrowing the Emperor . . . can you be forsworn now?”

     He shook his head. “But the humans would destroy us on sight—”

     She cut him off with a gesture. “We have communicated with the Terrans . . . there will be a ship waiting for you in the Firekka System, the Tiger’s Claw. You will give the Ras Nik’hra to them, and tell them of our rebellion.”

     Silence hung between them for a long time, as Ralgha fought his emotions again, and considered what she had said in as dispassionate a light as he could manage under the circumstances. “I will do this,” Ralgha said slowly. “I must. I will not be forsworn. But I know what it means . . . I will never be able to return. I will never see you, or my home of Hhallas again.” He looked up at the mountain above them, the first stars beginning to appear in the night sky. “Sometimes I wonder if we should ever have left our planet, Hassa. We were so happy there as children, we could have stayed there . . . perhaps I should have claimed you as my mate and bearer of my children when I had the chance. Years ago, before politics and soldiering claimed my life, and the Lord Sivar claimed yours.”

     Hassa touched his face hesitantly. “Do you think we would have been happy, Ralgha? Living out our lives in the mountains of Hhallas? A life without honor, without a future? I think not. Better to burn brightly, if only for a short time, than never to have truly lived at all. I have no regrets.” She glanced up at the entrance of the amphitheatre. “Where is that human child? She only had to cross the street to the house, not run across the entire city!”

     Hassa climbed the steps, looking out into the street. She turned back to Ralgha, too slowly to be casual, and walked down to where he waited.

     “There are Imperial soldiers outside my house,” she said quietly. “Ralgha, you must go. They will doubtless search here next, when they realize I am not in my home. Something must have gone wrong.”

     Fear for her, and anger, made his voice into a growl; his claws extended, and his neck-ruff rose. “But what of you, Hassa?”

     She raised head and tail proudly. “I am a priestess of Sivar, sworn to his glory. I will not run away or hide, there is no honor or courage in that.” She touched the ritual knife sheathed at her belt. “If they come for me, I will be ready.”

     He could say nothing; his instinct urged him to stay and fight at her side; his duty told him to go.

     She gave him a long, searching look, as if trying to memorize his face. “Go now, and quickly. Deliver our message and your ship to the humans, Ralgha.” She pointed to the other exit of the amphitheatre, a small doorway that led into the twisting warren of the streets of the Old City. A moment more, as conflicting urges warred within him, then duty won. He turned to go.

     The door opened on silent hinges and Ralgha slipped through. Beyond the vine-covered alcove, the street was deserted. Ralgha strode away from the amphitheatre as a squad of soldiers, dressed in uniforms with the black sigil of Imperial Security, marched past him toward the main entrance to the Temple of Sivar.

     Ralgha walked quickly through the darkened streets, never once looking back.

Part Two

     On the bridge of the Ras Nik’hra, Kirha checked the weapons list one more time. “More heat-seeking missiles,” he said, tapping his claw on the offending item. “At least twice as many heat-seeking missiles. Do you want our pilots to run out of missiles when they’re flying against the humans?”

     Did you think I was so young and inexperienced that I would overlook that mistake? Kirha thought with contempt. No, I have studied with the finest officer in the Emperor’s service, and Lord Ralgha nar Hhallas would never let his pilots go into combat with less than the ordnance they require. “Attend to this immediately,” Kirha said aloud.

     The Ordnance Officer bowed to him, walking away. “And do it quickly, we are supposed to depart within the hour!” Kirha called after him, putting an edge of anger into his voice. The officer doubled his pace as he hurried off the bridge.

     Kirha subvocalized a growl, and prowled the bridge. “Has anyone seen Lord Ralgha?” he asked the under-officers taking their places and making their pre-flight checks. “He should have been here by now.”

     The Pilot Officer bared his teeth as Kirha moved past him. “Perhaps they haven’t let him out of prison yet,” he said, a hint of something Kirha could not read in his voice.

     Kirha spun, his claws at the Pilot Officer’s throat before the other officer could react. He could feel the other’s pulse beneath his pad-tips, beating very quickly. “Do not speak so of Lord Ralgha if you expect to survive this expedition,” Kirha hissed. “He has been mistakenly accused; he will be acquitted of this false stain upon his honor. He will be here in time. I know he will.” He released the officer’s throat, leaving several welling points of bright red blood on the other Kilrathi’s brown fur. “Attend to your duties, officer.”

     “Of course, sir.” The Pilot Officer bowed, rather unsteadily, and turned back to his computer console for his pre-flight checks.

     Where is Lord Ralgha? Kirha asked himself, his stomach stretched tight and hard with tension, looking around at the flurry of activity aboard the crowded bridge. He must be here soon, he must

     The lift doors opened, and Lord Ralgha nar Hhallas strode onto the bridge, his cloak fluttering behind him. Immediately, Kirha felt his stomach relax. The commanding officer was here; all was well. The world was now proceeding as it should.

     “Khantahr on the bridge!” Kirha called, and immediately knelt before his superior officer. The other officers knelt as well, as Ralgha surveyed the bridge. “Who is the new Pilot Officer?” Lord Ralgha asked Kirha.

     “Drakj’khai nar Ghorah Khar, my lord,” Kirha said quietly. The other officers stood and returned to their duties, but the Pilot Officer still knelt before the Khantahr. “He replaces Rakti, who still has not recovered completely from his honorable wounds received when fighting the humans in the Vega Sector.”

     “Are you oathsworn to another Khantahr, Drakj’khai?” Lord Ralgha inquired mildly.

     The Pilot Officer looked up at Lord Ralgha, and there was mingled fear and respect in his expression and posture. Kirha was pleased. The Thrak’hra lord was an imposing enough Kilrathi to demand anyone’s respect. “My previous kalrahr released me from my oath when I was transferred to the Ras Nik’hra, my lord.”

     “Swear fealty to me now,” the lord said, pointedly ignoring the spots of blood on the Pilot Officer’s throat.

     Kirha stood at attention as the Ghorah Kharran spoke the ceremonial words, binding his life to that of his lord. A small thread of blood trickled down Drakj’khai’s neck as he recited the ritual speech and completed it by baring his throat to the Thrak’hra’s claws. Ralgha’s claw-tips rested lightly on the blood-spots where Kirha’s claws had been; then he let the Pilot Officer rise.

     “I accept your oath,” Ralgha said, and turned to Kirha. “Your report, Kirha?”

     “The seventh engine has failed its preliminary testing. The technicians are working on that now,” Kirha recited. “We are awaiting a complete shipment of heat-seeking missiles; the shipment we received is only half of what we need. Two of the crew are not yet aboard the ship and Security has been unable to find them in the Old City.”

     Lord Ralgha nodded. “Send a message to Security that if our missing crewmen do not appear by our departure time, they are to be housed in detention until our return. Also, tell the Navigation Officer to make certain that we have the most current starmaps for the Firekka System before we depart.”


     “But, sir—” Kirha began, as Lord Ralgha walked to the lift.

     Ralgha spoke over his shoulder.” I will be inspecting the ship for the next hour. You have my comlink number if you need to consult with me about anything, Kirha.”

     We are not supposed to so to Firekka!

     Ralgha did not even slow his steps.

     Kirha glanced around the crowded bridge, knowing that he still had tasks to complete here, but . . . he had to know. He ducked around two technicians working on the weapons control console, leaping into the lift with Lord Ralgha just before the doors closed. The lift silently descended toward the Launch Bays.

     “What is it, little cub?” Ralgha asked, a hint of amusement in his voice. “Do you wish to inspect the ship as well?”

     “My lord.” Kirha bowed before him, his hands raised with claws retracted. “I would not question your orders, but . . . are we not to depart for the N’Tanya System, not Firekka? I saw our orders as they came in from K’Tithrak Mang . . . why do we need starmaps for the Firekka System?”

     Ralgha leaned against the wall of the lift. He looked very tired, Kirha thought. “Kirha, our . . . our orders have been changed. Tonight we leave for Firekka.”

     “But those orders did not arrive with the Imperial courier, my lord. How did we receive these new orders?” Kirha asked hesitantly.

     Lord Ralgha reached out and pulled the switch that locked the lift in mid-transit. Kirha froze as it hissed to a halt. “Kirha . . . I must have one person that I can speak freely with aboard this ship. I have always trusted you. Can I trust you now?”

     Kirha looked at him, completely bewildered by the strange words, then knelt before him, raising his chin to present his throat. “I am oathsworn to you, my lord. My life is yours. Do you not remember the day that my father delivered me to your service? I was only a tiny cub, but that day will always burn brightly in my memory. My family has served your hrai for over ten generations; I serve you now, as my offspring will serve as well. You can trust me with your life and your honor, my lord.” He rose to his feet, standing at attention before his lord.

     Lord Ralgha considered that for a moment before speaking. “You are correct, Kirha, our orders are to report to the Fleet Kalrahr in the N’Tanya System, to join with a strike force departing for Deneb Sector. But my honor requires that we go to the Firekka System.”

     Kirha tried not to look like a lowborn country-cub, with his jaw gaping in shock at everything he saw. But it was hard not to gape, with mingled surprise and confusion. “But why, sir?”

     Ralgha huffed out a sigh. It sounded melancholy. Kirha had never heard his lord sound melancholy before. “What do you know of my hrai, Kirha?”

     Kirha looked at him uncertainly. “All of your hrai were killed on that ship on Hhallas, several years ago. Most of my family, their retainers, died that day as well. Only you survived, as you were fighting the humans at the time. I would have died as well, if I had been aboard that ship rather than defending the estates from the humans.”

     But he knows all this

     “Why did they die?” Ralgha continued, inexorably, although Kirha thought that he detected pain in his lord’s voice now, a pain that he shared. He did not want to think of this. He did not want to remember it.

     But his lord demanded it of him.

     “It was . . . it was an accident.” he said with difficulty, his voice low and hoarse. “The local kalrahr thought it was one of the human ships, and fired on the ship before confirming the identification code. But you know this, my lord!” he said, with growing desperation. “Why do you ask me of it now?”

     But Ralgha was not through. “And what did you feel, cubling,” he asked, in a voice flat and dull, “when you learned of the accident?”

     Kirha clenched his fists, remembering the rage he had felt that day, the rage that still chilled him inside. “I wanted to kill humans. It was because of the humans that everyone of your hrai died, that my parents and siblings were killed as well. That was when I asked you to take me with you, to serve you here aboard the Ras Nik’hra, to let me fight against the humans.”

     “And was there any honor in my hrai’s deaths?” his lord said quietly.

     Kirha stared at him, as if he had suddenly turned into an alien creature. No honor? But

     “I will tell you what you do not know,” Ralgha continued. “The humans attacked Hhallas in retaliation for our destruction of several of their colonies, which we attacked after some failed battle, trying to capture more human territory . . .” His voice trailed off, and he shook his shoulders, sadly. “Can you not see it, Kirha? The futility of it all? There was no honor in the deaths of my hrai, or your family. They were nothing more than game pieces, and they meant nothing to the players of either side. Their deaths served no purpose, Kirha.”

     Kirha felt as if he was balancing on the edge of a void, his lord’s words battering against all that he had believed in. His claws extended, as if to keep him from falling into the lightless depths.

     “The humans are the first alien race we have encountered that we have not conquered outright,” Ralgha continued. “We have fought against them for many years now, and there is no end to this war in sight. And all that we do—all—is to trade conquered territories. We are no closer to winning this war than we were when we began it.”

     Kirha shook his head, trying to understand, and feeling his stomach tense again with unhappiness. “But the humans are inferior to us, a prey-species! We have not won this war yet, but Kilrah will be triumphant! You know that we will conquer them eventually!”

     “Will we?” Ralgha bared his teeth, and Kirha drew back at the burning look in his Khantahr’s eyes. “What if we cannot? How many lives have we spent in this war, with no true victory? We win a system, and lose another. What do we gain by this? And what does it cost us, this exercise in futility?”

     “But we must fight them!” Kirha protested. “That is our destiny! What are we if we are not warriors?”

     Lord Ralgha nodded grimly. “I do not know. But it would be interesting to find out, eh?”

     “I—I don’t understand, my lord.” He felt very small, smaller than a cub, and as helpless as a prey-beast in a corner.

     “I doubt it will happen in your lifetime, Kirha.” He paced the short width of the lift. “Only a few among our people have seen the truth, that this war is a pointless exchange of territories. There is no honor in it, or victory, because both sides will lose more than they can gain. If we could truly conquer the humans . . . then, perhaps, there would be glory for us. But without any hope of victory, what is the purpose of this war? There is only death. Meaningless death, with no honor or glory in it. And for what? The glory of the Emperor? That useless fool whose backside warms the Throne of Kilrah, who has not fought for decades, who does not realize the price of this war?”

     “My lord, you speak . . . you speak treason,” Kirha said slowly, the shock of his master’s words reverberating through him. “Treason against the Emperor . . .”

     Ralgha glanced at him. “Yes, cubling. Now you know the truth. For two years now, I have been working with the rebels on Ghorah Khar, attempting to overthrow the Empire. That is why I was arrested, though they could not prove my connection to the rebels, and that is why we now must go to the Firekka System. Where I will contact the humans and . . . and surrender this ship to them.”

     The void had opened beneath Kirha’s feet, and he fell into it. Shock held him rigid. “S-surrender the ship? My lord, you cannot! What of yourself, and the crew?”

     “We will become prisoners of war.” Ralgha’s mouth tightened so that the tips of his fangs showed against the taut skin. “If they do not kill us outright. So, Kirha? Do you still obey me, cubling?”

     “You are my liege lord, and I am yours to kill or command,” Kirha said automatically, finding some comfort in the ritual words. “I will always obey your orders, my lord. But I do not wish to be a prisoner of war. Let me kill myself instead.” Here was a way out of his confusion, and he raised his head in hope. “Can you allow me this, Lord Ralgha?”

     Ralgha’s lips curled back in something like a smile. “Perhaps I can find some alternative for you, Kirha. Trust me in this, I will not compromise your honor if I can. You have served me too loyally for that.” He pushed the lever of the lift, which lurched back into motion, descending to the Launch Bay. “Now, you have duties to attend to, cubling. I will return shortly to the Bridge for a complete report.”

     Kirha went numb, taking refuge in duty. “As you wish, my lord,” he said automatically.

     The lord stepped out of the lift as the doors opened to the huge Launch Bay, the Jalthi and Dralthi fighters assembled in neat rows like soldiers for his review.

     Kirha closed his eyes and leaned against the curved wall of the lift as the doors closed again. How can my lord do this? he asked himself. How can he ask me to follow him into dishonor, and surrender to the humans?

     I am sworn to him, the last of his hrai, as he is the last of mine. I will not disobey him. He is my liege lord, and my lord Ralgha, and I will not fail him.

     But I do not wish to surrender to the humans. I would rather die . . . I would rather die