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The Hostile Stars

I. Paperwork

There were signs of rank, but you had to be familiar with them to notice.

The cramped stateroom was barely more than a cubicle. Almost three quarters of the space in the room was taken up by a gray plastic desk covered with controls and displays. Boxes were jammed into the remaining space. A small porthole looked out directly through the hull, and a portion of the dusky brown gas giant the Rhylanor was orbiting was just visible in the upper right hand corner. The room would barely have passed as a engineering crewman's bunk on a merchant ship; but it was priceless space on an Imperial battle cruiser.

Anton Darrell leaned forward over the desk and spoke into it: "Display readiness factor for the last sixteen weeks three-dimensionally, x-time, y-unit, z-readiness. Rotate. Stop. Overlay readiness predictions. Highlight shortfall, red, 6.75 percent. Display coordinate grid. Highlight, uh, 163, 82, 41. Display, left sidebar, readiness report. Right, C platoon all got that skin disease before we jumped in system. All right computer, close display. Tag report approved, lock it, voice code following: Darrell, Anton V., Brigadier Commanding, Task Force Zed Alpha Tau...add appropriate and route to Fleet." He sighed and glanced at the door. His friend, Captain Dealos Moak, commander of the Rhylanor was standing in the doorway, watching with his usual half-amused grin as the colored displays had resolved themselves in midair. "Finishing your readiness reports, I see," Moak said.

"Just now. Who would have thought there would be so much paperwork in a war?" said Darrell. He opened a drawer in his desk and took out a small flask. "Care to join me? Or are you on duty?"

"No. I just got back from the wedding party."

"I would have stayed longer, but you can see I was swamped under."

"I'm sure Lieutenant Enshuggli didn't mind." Moak stepped into the room and sat down on a crate across from Darrell.

"I'm on duty for another fifteen minutes, but if the Imperium can survive three years of war, it can survive one shot of Regina Royale." They both took a drink from their paper cups. They made a strange contrast, sitting in their nearly identical black, high-collared dress uniforms: Captain Moak, tall and lithe, with graceful fingers and a constant wry, lopsided grin on his face; and Darrell, solid, formidably built, with a severe set to his face. Both looked youthful-the products of anti-aging drugs that kept their bodies as fit as they looked-but Darrell showed his age more, especially since he had stopped taking the drugs and his buzz-cut hair had suddenly come in gray. He was nearly fifty standard years old, after all.

Moak reached into his tunic and took out a deck of cards. "Care for a game?"

Darrell looked at him suspiciously. "My choice? I don't want to play any weird Vilani games, or that Aslan poker variation we tried last time."

"How about gin?"

"What? Yes, fine."

"I haven't played that regularly for ages. Not since the Academy. Always seemed too simple, actually."

"I hadn't thought about it."

"Yes, too simple...why don't we make it interesting? Say, a credit a point?"

"Make it a centicredit. I won't get paid til we return to the main fleet."

"All right." Moak shuffled the cards rapidly and dealt each of them a hand. "That may take a little while longer, you know."

"What? I thought the relief fleet was on its way."

"Yes, but the Trin was recalled. High Command needs it on the battle line. So, looks like we may have to stay."

"You're holding hearts, eh? Hell of a thing to do, if you ask me." Darrell glowered at his cards for a moment, then put them face down on the desk. "Look, Moak, I'll be honest. We've known each other since the Academy. I've enjoyed serving with you again. But I want a chance to get back into the war before it's over."

"And patrolling gas giants isn't hot enough for you."

"Exactly. I mean, I know you helped get me this command, and I thank you. For a while, I didn't think I'd ever get one again. But I need to be at the front."

"I understand, Anton. Better than you might know..." Moak gazed for a while out the porthole. "But it's necesssary work, you understand. If we can hold firm just a few more weeks, the siege will be over.

"There are plenty of Zhodani ships still here in the Rhylanor system. And just about as many as want to can join them at any time. But they can't jump out. Without the oceans or the gas giants, they can't get the fuel. If they bring tankers, it's worse: we blast the tankers out of space, and strand the rest of the squadron.

"They're desperate, now. Fleet reports that several breakout attempts have taken place. But even if they punch through the line, they'll run into the System Defense Boats in the planetoid belt. And then us. Whatever's left won't be able to take on a Planet-class Battle Cruiser and the rest of the squadron. The siege is almost over, Anton. We won't be here longer than a few more weeks."

"The war could be over in a few weeks."

"The war could be over already." Moak grinned. "Couriers don't like to jump insystem. It's still too hot."

"Speaking of which, you've taken three hands from me already."

"Four. Gin. How much do you owe me?"


"Let's roll it over to next week." Moak leaned to his left and placed his face against the porthole. "That's strange," he said.


"There's nothing going on in the gas giant."


"Wasn't the snowball supposed to hit?"

"Maybe it hit the other side."

"You'd still see some storm activity...quite a lot, actually." Moak stood up. "I'm going down to sensors. Care to join me?"

"All right." Darrell shrugged into his tunic as he stood up. "Next time we'll play a really simple game. Night baseball."

"Don't you need a bat?"

"Oh, for Bog's sake let's go."

Next: II. The Snowball