Both moons hung low in the sky as Corlis’ plane came in for a landing. At first glance, Walkara airfield didn’t look like much. Criss-crossed runways carved out of what had once been farmland, a taxiway to a cluster of buildings pressed into service as dormitories, offices, and a command post, the latter with a nest of antennas, radar domes, and a mismatched control tower spoiling its lines. A few prefab hangars were big enough for a dozen planes, plus the fuel trucks and crash wagons currently standing by outside.

The transport touched down and taxied toward the maintenance hanger. Ground crews were already attaching refuelling lines by the time Corlis made his way down the rickety metal stairs. A single young officer was waiting for him, wearing a Lieutenant’s pins. A pale-faced Drosan, which only made sense, Corlis reasoned, Walkara being on Drosan land. Corlis stepped off the stairs and snapped to attention, or as close as he could manage with his duffel still slung over one shoulder. “Flight Officer Lin Corlis, reporting in.”

“Welcome to Walkara, Officer Corlis,” chirped the Drosan Lieutenant. “I’m Lieutenant Bremer. At ease,” he waved away Corlis’ salute with a half-hearted one of his own. “We don’t really stand on ceremony out here.” He looked past Corlis. “You’re the only one coming, huh?”

“Yes, sir.”

Bremer shrugged. “Well, it is what it is. You’ll want to report in to Lieutenant Colonel Fara; he’s in his office, I’ll walk you over.”

The walk took them past the service hangars, and Corlis glanced in as they passed. The ground crew (all coveralls, no proper uniforms or pressure-suits in sight) were as multi-ethnic as flight school had been. He spotted more Drosans, but also a few darker-skinned fellow Wericans, though one had the mask-like facial tattoos of a Nagirri, a Northerner who would have been out of place back home in Tesek. There was even a Chiko, tall and lanky, who must have escaped the Gallisi invasion of that continent.

The planes they were maintaining were DAC M-7s, and Corlis reflexively recalled their specs; (weight), top speed of 230 Leagues per hour, flight ceiling of 27,000 daks, armed with two timed guns, a 720 Plv engine, and a streamlined canopy-plate that had to be installed after the pilot was seated. Far from the best fighter plane the Alliance had available, but in line with what Corlis was already coming to expect here.

The command building was a recent construction; not a repurposed farmhouse, but a brick-walled suite of offices that couldn’t have been more than a few decades old. Probably built right after the end of the First Thule War. Only the tower and antenna masts were new, reflecting the hasty upgrade from a service field to a working base.

Lieutenant Colonel Fara’s office was up two flights of stairs, with a pair of tall windows looking out at the field. The room smelled vaguely of dust and wood polish. Corlis waited while Fara skimmed over his personnel file. The Colonel was another Drosan, and when he spoke, his voice came in a dry rasp. “Flight Officer Lin Corlis,” he said. “Graduated top of your class, proficient on all current craft.” He looked up from the file, fixing Corlis with a stare. “You’re probably curious why you were sent here. Is that right?”

“I serve at the Army’s discretion, sir,” he said. The proper, textbook, response. He knew full well why he was here, of course, just as he knew it must have been recorded in that file Fara was reading, with words like “insubordinate” or “antisocial,” or whatever they called someone who’d refused to lie about his loyalties. And so, they’d sent him here, as far from his people as they could. This wasn’t a posting, it was an exile.

Fara tossed the file onto his desk as he stepped around it, moving to one of the windows. “Tell me, Pilot; what do you think of the Alliance?”

The question wasn’t the one Corlis was expecting, and he had to formulate an answer. “I believe it’s a necessity, sir.”

Fara was looking down at the activity on the tarmac. Corlis held himself at ease as he’d been bidden, but he could hear the distant sputter of the transport plane’s engine as it prepared to take off on the next leg of its circuit.

“History is a lot like that plane,” Fara said, out of nowhere. He glanced back, fast enough to catch Corlis’ eyes before he could look away. “It only moves forward. Even if you were to try to double back, you’ll never end up exactly where you were.” He walked back to the desk. “There was a time when xenophobia – when the fear of Outsiders was a survival advantage. Strangers could bring disease, or betrayal. A small tribe or even a kingdom had to be constantly alert, and they had to have faith in their king. It’s all different now, thought. That same advantage is now a detriment. If you’re going to serve at this base, Pilot,” and now the husky voice suddenly covered in iron. “You’re going to get over it.”

#

Fara led Corlis to what Corlis at first assumed was the building’s basement, but turned out to be a much larger structure, carved out of the bedrock.

“You weren’t sent here as punishment, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Fara said as they descended a flight of steps. “We’re looped into Decalis’ cadet rankings; Captain Helly has wanted you on her squadron for weeks.”

As they descended, Corlis got a look at what was being assembled in the chamber, and had to slow as his eyes took in the sleek new machines. Fara caught his look. “These are CA-28s. They were designed elsewhere, and the parts shipped here for assembly. They’re the Alliance’s latest.”

Even at a glance, Corlis could tell these planes were built for speed. Single-winged, with a closed canopy, and a single rear-mounted propellor. “A push-plane?” Corlis asked, and Fara nodded.

“It’s more stable at high speeds, since the wash doesn’t buffet the fuselage. The biggest problem was the cooling system, which we think we’ve licked.”

“We’re still feeling our way,” chimed in a voice from below, as Fara and Corlis approached the last flight of steps. Corlis craned his neck to see over the railing and nearly stumbled at the sight of a Thule.

The insect’s mask-like face swivelled to follow them, fixing them with unblinking, goggle-like eyes. Its feathery antenna were pulled back by a headband, and its mandibles clicked over its tongue as it spoke. “My people were united until we got into space and started building habitats,” the voice sounded vaguely female, but with a raspy buzz as if afflicted with some throat disease. “We’ve never actually fought a large scale air-war. We know infantry, naval, and space tactics, but not aircraft. Trying to shepherd you through an industrial revolution is turning out harder than we expected.”

Fara introduced the alien. “Flight Officer Lin Corlis, this is Doctor Daha Re’Dahit. She’s the one who designed these planes.”

“Corlis,” the Thule rasped. “You must be Helly-tse’s new pilot.”

He nodded. “Yes, M– Doctor.” He finished, trying to recall what he’d been taught of the aliens. They’d arrived over 50 years before, and had manipulated the Empire of Gallis to conquer much of the world, while forming the surviving nations into the Free Alliance. The unblinking eyes hadn’t moved, if they even could. “I’m surprised to meet a Thule here,” he finally said.

Daha grunted. “Not all of us renegades were wiped out,” she said. “The Treaty of Varalia ended the last war, but it did so by recognizing the conflict between the Alliance and Gallis as an internal matter. As long as Governess Firini thinks we’re all dead, the colonial fleet can’t intervene.”

“We’re lucky,” added Fara. “The fleet still wants the planet intact.”

Daha nodded in what appeared to be a universal gesture. “Almost as much as Firini wants to avoid drawing the Empress’ undivided attention. As long as she can sell the idea that the Great Work is proceeding on schedule, she can rule the Kebnalis Hive in peace.”

Another pilot approached, a tan-skinned Drosan woman. She’d evidently been listening in on the conversation as she checked the production list she now carried under one arm. “The Thule can afford to stay uninvolved,” she said. “They have space superiority, which means that none of our planes could even hurt them.”

Now that the woman was closer, Corlis picked out the Captain’s bars on her shoulders, and snapped to a salute. “Captain Helly; Flight Officer Lin Corlis, reporting.”

Helly’s return salute was casual. “Glad to have you aboard, pilot.” She handed the clipboard to Daha, who produced a pen and started double-checking figures.

“If the Thule can’t intervene,” Corlis couldn’t help but ask. “Then why can the Doctor still be here?”

Daha didn’t look up. “Because the fleet doesn’t know that many of us survived the war. The Dahit line will be dead soon anyway; all of our males were killed, and we can’t exactly buy more from Kebnalis.”

“Your males?” Corlis asked. “I thought the Thule only had females.”

“A common misconception.” Daha finished with the clipboard, signed it, and passed it to Fara. “Our males are smaller and non intelligent.”

“Livestock, basically.” Helly contributed, seeming amused, and Daha nodded again.

“Right. No males means my sisters and I will be extinct in another few years,” she said. “I’m almost 60; by our standards, that’s already on borrowed time.” Fara finished skimming the clipboard, nodded, and gave the group a salute, dismissing himself. Daha ignored him as he headed upstairs with the report. “You’ll all be on your own then, assuming you live that long.”

“I still think you should be with them instead of here,” Helly said, and Corlis was surprised to hear the softness in her voice directed toward an alien.

“I appreciate the thought, Helly-tse, but I’m more useful here. Our sisterhood isn’t like your sisterhood.”

“Your actual sisters?” Corlis asked. “I thought you just meant your comrades.”

“For us it’s the same thing,” she said. “Thule don’t have nation-states or ethnicities like you do, we just have Hives – families. My mother was the one who rebelled from the Re-Kebnalis Hive, taking her thirty-seven daughters with her. I’m pretty sure there are only five or six of us left.”

“Thirty-seven?” Corlis boggled at the image.

“A moderate-sized brood, by colonial standards,” Daha supplied. “But unheard of on Homeworld. Population control is a central tenet of the Imperium. Which also means economic and social control. Getting away from that is one of the main reasons for these colonies.”

Corlis realized that he should say something sympathetic. “I’m sorry for your losses.”

“Appreciated,” Daha said. “But unneccessary. We knew we’d be dying when we followed mother. There is an old saying: Our lives and our souls belong to the Hive.”

#

Fara found Daha outside, watching from the ground as Helly and Corlis put the CA-28s through their paces. “You know,” he said as he approached. “You can get better data from the tower.”

“I know,” she replied. “I wanted to feel the wind.”

Above them, the lead plane twisted through a turn, then a spiral, then a near-vertical climb. The second plane followed, matching the leader move for move, and Fara had to admire them. There was no comparing them to the planes he’d flown just two decades earlier; fragile constructions of silk and linen stretched over wooden frames. Of course, even those had been miraculous to him when he’d first laid eyes on them. Drosa had experimented with sky-boats, held aloft by balloons, but powered flight had been a gift from the Thule. A gift at first intended for Gallis, until the renegade faction reached out to Drosa to try to level the playing field.

Within a single generation, the world had transformed. Drosa’s once-great trading fleets were gone now, the world made smaller as mysterious foreign lands became well-known allies or enemies. He himself had seen the stars go from the realm of gods to distant suns shining down on other worlds. He knew there were protests back home, and probably in Werec and even Gallis itself, that the breakneck pace of their advancement was unnatural, an abomination against tradition. There were times when it gave him pause as well, but he had seen firsthand what the Thule were capable of; slowing down, or even going back was simply not an option.

“Are you at all concerned,” he asked Daha. “About observation from overhead?” The wispy clouds were not enough to obscure the blue sky, and he knew that the fleet in orbit would be able to see them clearly, even if their Gallisi allies could not.

“It is a risk,” she allowed. “But there’s no other way to get actual flight data. We’ll just have to hope our toys aren’t enough to intimidate Aunt Firini’s boot-lickers.”

#

Corlis followed Helly through another pattern of manoeuvres, what she’d called a “flying tow-si.” The term came from her homeland which, he’d learned, was not Drosa as he’d assumed, but a smaller neighbouring kingdom called Honj. The people from there may have looked Drosan, but there were apparently subtleties that his eyes couldn’t detect, even after weeks among the base’s multi-racial personnel.

The plane’s radio hissed, and Helly’s distorted voice crackled into his ear. “Not bad Two, but tighten up that roll coming out of the weave; you’re taking too long to zero out.” In the air, her voice was different; clipped and sharp, as though her words were punching their way through the radio. After a week, he’d caught himself adopting the same manner of speech, adapting for the distorted and unreliable transmitters, just as the rest of the squadron had already learned.

“Copy, lead.” He replied in kind. “Following you to start point.”

Another voice broke in, clearer, backed by more transmitting power than their tiny radios. “Tower to tow-si One and Two. Tower to tow-si One and Two. Balloon at 39-12-16. Authentication confirmed as friendly. Requesting visual check and RTB. Over.”

Corlis’ eyes swept the indicated coordinates as Helly acknowledged. The direction was to the North, to where the distant Reshtu mountain range joined the equally-distant horizon. He spotted the Drosan war balloon – a tiny hot-air blimp, with a rowboat-sized basket with a prop engine and rudder mounted behind it. A single pilot stood with one hand on the tiller.

“Tower, Two. Visual confirmed,” he reported. “But I don’t see any flags. Looks like a civilian craft. Over.”

“Acknowledged, Two. Authentication indicates code Feather. Over.” Corlis’ brows rose; Code Feather meant military intelligence.

“Tower, One. Code Feather acknowledged. RTB.” Helly’s reply was terse, and her plane immediately turned back toward the runways. Corlis didn’t need to be told to follow. On the tarmac, he knew, crews were already rolling out tarps to cover the CA-28s. Nobody trusted a spy, even one of their own.

#

That evening, the whole squadron was called in for a briefing. Fara dimmed the lights and projected recon images of what looked like an urban seaport, with two big Gallisi airships docked side-by-side. “These photographs were taken yesterday, at Monbahn,” he said. Corlis recognized the name; an out-of-the-way port not far from Gallis’ local command hub, close enough to the front to serve as a staging area, but sheltered enough to be easily defended.

“Take a close look at those airships,” Fara ordered, and Corlis tried to see what was unusual. Both were the same common Gallisi design, armoured shells over the gas-filled envelope, flaring like a serpent’s hood.

Bremer was the first to point out the difference: “What’s that between them?” Corlis looked closer and spotted the extra gondola sitting on the tarmac. “Are they swapping out the gondolas?”

“Not exactly,” Fara explained. “What you’re looking at is a Gallisi project that we’re calling Stormcloud. It’s an airborne aircraft carrier, probably backed by Thule antigravity technology in addition to the balloons.”

Concerned murmurs spread across the room, and Fara continued. “These photographs were taken yesterday, and we’ve already couriered them to Carsentaris. They’ve dispatched a flotilla to try to take out Stormcloud, but they won’t make it.” The secretary manning the projector put up another image; this one a map of the Hadaros continent, with the border between Drosa and Gallis clearly marked, and Werec just visible beyond the ocean.

Corlis was insulted; Carsentaris, the Alliance’s high command, was based on the West coast of Werec, and was staffed by Werec’s finest. His dismay must have shown on his face, for Helly, standing beside Fara and Daha at the front of the room, answered his unspoken thoughts.

“Ships won’t get there in time, and even with drop-tanks, Carsentaris’ planes will be running on fumes by the time they arrive. The bombers could make it,” she allowed. “But their escorts won’t be able to dogfight Thule-designed fighters.”

Fara took up the briefing. “We haven’t had time to clear it with command, but Captain Helly and Doctor Daha think they have a plan that has a better chance. Doctor?”

The secretary switched plates again, this time showing a pilot wrapped in some sort of masked deep-diving suit. “One of the projects we’ve been working on,” Daha said. “Is this. It’s a new respirator system designed for the CA-28s. It should allow them to fly higher than anything on Tarembris not made by the Thule.”

The projection switched back to the map, and Helly pointed to the border. “Gallis knows about this airfield, but they aren’t worried about us because they believe the Reshtu mountains are impassable. Neither side has been able to control them.” Murmurs again spread around the room as realization sank in.

Daha chimed in. “The CA-28s have a theoretical flight ceiling of about 29,000 daks. Most of the Reshtu range is 28,500. You’ll have to dodge the peaks, but you should be able to cross the range, in theory,” she stressed.

“We’ll use the navy’s attack as a distraction,” Fara said. The secretary placed another transparent plate over the map, arrows showing flight routes and ship courses. “Our tactical bomber and escorts will be fitted with drop tanks and lifter balloons. The balloons will carry you to the foothills, and the drop tanks should get you over the mountains. Deliver the ordnance to the target, climb out of range, and RTB.”

Helly took over. “There will be some dogfighting, but we should try to keep it to a minimum; best-case scenario is that we’ll have enough fuel to come home, barely. If this turns into a protracted battle, we may be forced to head down the coast. Plan B is to rendezvous with the Carsentaris fleet, which we should be able to sight at the end of this cape.” She pointed to Cape Ferren, the last echoes of the Reshtu range vanishing into the sea, becoming a string of ever-smaller islands and, not incidentally, providing one end of the natural cove that protected Monbahn. “If we do not sight the fleet,” Helly continued, her voice becoming grim. “Plan C is to ditch and scuttle our fighters, regroup on the ground, and travel overland towards the border.”

The pilots shared grim looks of their own. All Alliance pilots were trained in survival and land navigation, but they also knew the odds of getting away clean. Plan C effectively meant a suicide mission.

#

Helly found Daha in the grass behind the main buildings, staring up at the stars, and the slowly moving ships overhead. “Aren’t you worried they’ll see you?” Helly asked.

“Everyone keeps asking me that question,” Daha responded, and as she drew closer Helly could see the bottle in her hand, similar to the one Helly herself carried. “From low orbit, a single Thule at night has pretty much the same thermal signature as a vetris.” She used the name Helly’s species had given themselves; Vetria Sofisa, “Intelligent Tool-users” in the Gallisi language. Other Thule called them Tarembryans, giving them the name of their planet, but Daha never did.

Helly lowered herself onto the ground beside her friend, reclining back against the hill formed from the base’s foundation, back when it had been a farmhouse.

Daha took another drink. She had explained once how the alcohol on Tarembris affected Thule more strongly than native vetris. Something to do with the Thule respiratory system, though Helly couldn’t recall specifics. She was a pilot, not a biologist. She knew to seek Daha out on nights like this, though. When the work had to stop and the waiting set in, and she knew her friend couldn’t find a way to distract herself from the ghosts.

“When the Imperium first formed,” Daha suddenly said. “Hive Rewatis were brought to the court as seers and prophets.” She had spoken of the Rewatis before; a lineage whose branches were represented in the Swarm’s dozens of colony-fleets, and Daha’s own ancestors. “Everyone believed the Rewatis bloodline to be magic, but that was just legend and superstition,” she said. “Prophecy is easy. No magic required; it’s just a matter of knowing history and psychology, and recognizing patterns as they repeat.”

She drew a breath through the spiracles on her face and chest. “In another hundred years, or less, the Imperium will collapse.” The words were delivered flatly, as though in a trance – or shell-shocked. “It’s probably already started, further out on the frontier. The Hives that were repressed on Eth-Tol-Ammun are getting their first taste of real independence. There’ll be a population boom, probably larger and faster than what the colony can safely withstand. The Swarm Wardens will try to clamp down and enforce their idea of the Just Order, and the colonies will resist. Eventually the cracks will reach Homeworld, and the whole regime will crumble.”

“The colonies will be left in isolation, the Great Work abandoned. Without the Swarm’s infrastructure to connect them, many colonies will die aborning. Others will prosper, but they won’t really be ‘Thule’ anymore, just pockets of thule-descended civilizations scattered across the quadrant.” Helly understood the phrasing; the Thule were both a species and a nation. Without their Empress, the cast-off colonies would be thule, but not Thule.

As usual, Helly tried to cheer her friend up. “A hundred years, huh? We just have to hold out until then.”

Daha shook her head, a gesture she’d learned from Helly. “The Alliance is going to lose this war.” As Helly pulled in a breath to reply, Daha bulled on. “An early industrial society against an interstellar one – one who can breed like we can? There is only one realistic outcome.”

“Why bother fighting then?” Helly asked, struggling to sound insistent but not accusatory. “If you’re so convinced we’re doomed, why are you helping us?”

“What are the alternatives?” Daha sighed. “Surrender? Death? Besides,” she half-rolled, turning away from the stars to face Helly directly. “Fighting a war isn’t about winning it -nobody wins wars, they just come out of them in a more or less advantageous position than they went in. War is about turning civilization off and then on again like an engine, hoping for a better outcome.”

She raised her mostly-empty bottle, gesturing in the vague direction of the Drosa peninsula, and Werec beyond the ocean. “Look at what the Alliance is. Not just Werec and Drosa, but Farenis, and the Enda Islands, and Polis – the Alliance is a synthesis. Gallis is just. . . Gallis, writ large. The Gallisi believe that strength comes from purity and order, as the Swarm does, but history shows that purity only leads to brittleness.”

“Gallis may be able to destroy the Alliance government, but by then a new generation will have grown up thinking that the Alliance is normal. When the Swarm falls, Gallis will turn on the fleet. They won’t have a choice. The treaty will be broken, and the ships overhead will bomb Gallis into oblivion. The Alliance doesn’t have to win, it just has to survive .”

#

The sun rose over Walkara at 0645. Ten minutes later, daylight reached the Carsentaris fleet’s anchorage, and they proceeded at full steam toward Monbahn. Even as the navy ships were heaving into motion, Walkara was a hive of activity.

Ground crews and lab techs had spent the night fitting drop tanks and lift balloons, and installing the new pressure suits and respirators into the CA-28s. The tactical bomber, an aging T-4 Sledghammer, had provided more of a complication; without the built-in tech of the 28s, the Sledghammer needed to carry a pressurizer and generator to run the crew’s suits. Between that and the added weight of a full drop tank, the bomber only had the capacity for three warheads. Enough to take out the Stormcloud, but only if it could be done in one run.

Daha was on the tarmac as Helly finished briefing her pilots and climbed into her fighter. “Come to see me off?” Helly asked.

“I don’t suppose there’s any way to talk you out of this.” Daha said. Her voice was coarse, which Helly chalked up to the drink last night. A ground crewer approached to help seal Helly into her respirator, but Daha waved them off and took over the task herself “You know this is a suicide mission.”

“No more so than any other sortie I’ve flown. We have about a 57% chance of getting home, those are good odds for a pilot. And besides,” Helly pressed. “You said yourself that the cause outweighs the life of any one person.” She attached the mask, designed to fit a vetris face, but never a Thule. Daha’s mandibles moved, saying something that Helly couldn’t hear through the mask, helmet, and roars of engines spinning up.

And then Daha was standing aside, as she had to. Helly ignited the engine, got visual confirmation that the prop was spinning, and signalled to the ground crew to cut her loose.

The planes had been tied down to prevent the balloons from carrying them away; rather than try to taxi, the ground crew simply released the straps. The planes rose gracefully, already oriented to face away from the wind. Helly pushed the throttle, enough to get a purchase on the air, relying on the balloon’s lift.

One-by-one, the other pilots followed; three fighters, then the bomber, then the remaining three fighters. The six CA-28s were all that were airworthy, and three pilots needed to fly the bomber, leaving three stay-behinds, to defend the base in their rickety M-7s if it came to that.

Thule eyes do not lend themselves to tears, but Daha stood on the tarmac for a very long time after the fighters had disappeared toward the horizon.

#

Helly tried to put Daha’s goodbye out of her mind as they flew. She’d meant what she’d said; whatever Daha’s prognosis of the war – or even because of it – Helly was prepared to live and die for the Alliance. She’d made that decision long ago, when her parents had sent her to the Academy. A girl-child was useless to poor farmers; unfit to inherit, expensive to marry off, but the Alliance hadn’t cared. They’d taught her to read, to navigate, showed her the world beyond the borders of the Hadik’s land, that her family -ever-faithful tenants – had worked for generations. They had taught her, literally, how to fly. Let her brother inherit the mud; she had the sky.

By now, they were approaching the foothills, and it was time to transition to stage two. “All pilots, this is Raid Leader,” she said for the radio. “Formation abreast. Formation abreast.”

One by one, voices acknowledged, calling “te-tet,” like Akhre hunters in the bush. The bomber and escorts arranged themselves in a ragged line side-by-side. It didn’t need to be perfect, they just needed to be out of each others’ way.

“Level off, and all engines to full throttle,” she moved a slider and the whine of the engine behind her grew louder. Loud enough to raise her voice. “Balloons clear in 3. . . 2. . . 1- clear!” As she spoke, she pulled the handle mounted on the console. A series of near-simultaneous clicks as the wires sprang loose, and the looming shadow of the lift balloon vanished, ripped away by the plane’s acceleration.

The Drosans hadn’t known it at the time, but the war balloons they’d invented had once been the most advanced aircraft on the planet. Then the Thule arrived, and chose to bestow their favour on Gallis. The alien technology might as well have been magic, catapulting Gallis to what Daha had called a Superpower. Drosan ingenuity rendered obsolete in moments, as quick as Helly’s squadron had abandoned their own re-purposed balloons.

A quick check to her right confirmed that Tuuhla and Corlis had ditched their balloons successfully. To her left, the bomber slid behind her, then reappeared, slower to accelerate, but faster at speed. Its own balloons were gone as if by magic, vanished while it was out of her sight. Beyond it, she saw Bremer’s plane going clean, and –

“Seka! Seka!” called a voice, sounding the international code for a vessel in distress, just as Bremer reported “Problem on Six. Cable will not release.”

Six was Juny’s plane, and she managed to sound calm as she reported in. “Partial release. Cable four is a bust. Trying to recover-” Helly could already see Juny’s fighter rolling, caught in the uneven drag.

“Throttle down, Six,” she ordered, too late. The roll turned into a death spiral, the plane inverting at a speed that would have made it suicide to eject. The cable finally snapped, releasing the now-shredded balloon, but Juny was too low – she tried in vain to stabilize, but her wing clipped the ground and the plane spun along a line of hills like a thrown toy.

Bremer was yelling something that the radio distorted into nonsense, but it was too late to go back and check. “All pilots,” Helly called in her command voice. “Climb to mission ceiling and resume formation. Raid Boss,” she continued, before anyone could interrupt. “Signal search and rescue. Now, before we clear the ridge.”

“Copy Lead,” came Emba’s voice from the bomber. Clearer again, thanks to the bomber’s transmitter, strong enough to reach all the way back to base.

Putting Juny out of their minds, the squadron realigned as they ascended. Bremer – Raid Two – would take point, while Helly herself hung back to cover the rear, with the rest of the squadron strung out single-file. Mission ceiling had been set at 28,500 daks, low enough to keep them mostly hidden as they passed through the mountains, but also low enough that the mountains themselves made the mission an obstacle course.

“Lead, Five,” came Tuuhla’s voice. “I’m seeing signs of habitation in the mountains. Should we be worried?”

Helly rolled slightly, looking down, and spotted what Tuuhla must have seen; a line of flags strung between two small huts, with a flock of woolly zennis scattered around, grazing on mountain scrub.

“Negative, Three,” she said. “It looks like a Pava camp. They live up here. They refuse to fight because of their religion, and they’re so poor Gallis doesn’t press the issue.”

Within seconds, the Pava huts were lost behind them, their flight carrying them into the unclaimed reaches, and over the wall of mountains that divided Hadaros. The clouds fell behind them as they flew, and Helly was grateful that the sun would be overhead and safely out of eye-level by the time they made contact.

Emba’s voice broke into her thoughts: “Lead, Boss; I’m getting some buzz.” Helly was immediately alert. “Buzz” meant that the bomber’s more sensitive radio had picked up the interference of an active radar sensor – another of the Thules’ gifts to Gallis. She looked down, and saw the dish, blooming like a metallic mushroom from a lonely red-brick shack. A dirt road zigzagged through the mountains, but Helly knew there would be communication wires too fine to see from this altitude, carrying the news faster than any rider.

“Lead, squadron,” she said over the group frequency. “Stay tight; enemy knows we’re coming.” She adjusted her own hands on the controls, flexing, then tightening. They’d prepared for this, but that didn’t stop the frisson of dread up her spine.

“Horizon in ten,” Bremer reported, “going clean.” Acknowledgements rolled in, drop-tanks made their hollow clunks as they disengaged and fell free, and suddenly Monbahn was coming into view as they crested one last peak.

Traces of the town’s Drosan architecture still remained from before its conquest; a few outskirts still showing the orderly grid lines of a Drosan residential district. The town’s centre had been razed, rebuilt, and expanded with Gallisi stoneworks, ringed with the fluted columns and raptor-topped steles they so loved. Monbahn had been conquered early in Gallis’ campaign of expansion, when the Gallisi religion had had more influence than it did now, and a temple complex had been built opposite the governor’s palace. Beyond the city lay a walled-in harbour, and beyond that the open sea.

The picket fleet was over the horizon by now, and the few gunships left behind were still out by the sea wall. For a moment, Helly saw the half-assembled Stormcloud completely exposed and vulnerable, but Gallisi planes were already lifting into the air, and the fight had begun.

“Bandits in the air,” Bremer reported. “Looks like four Predators so far, approaching from south.”

“I’m more worried about the six forward,” Corlis responded. The bandits ahead were rising vertically from the tarmac beside the Stormcloud, obviously using Thule-made antigravity technology. They were an unfamiliar design; squat and barrel-shaped, with three sets of stubby wings. Obviously not designed for speed, but for manoeuvrability, relying on technology to cheat themselves into the air.

Helly sized up the situation instantly. “Ten bandits confirmed. Flight one; priority targets ahead. Flight two; coverage. Boss; we’re only going to get one shot, so start your run now.”

As acknowledgements rolled in, Helly reviewed what she knew about antigrav tech. The enemy fighters didn’t need to worry about aerodynamics, but they wouldn’t be able to fly too high, either. The Thule may have helped Gallis build its weapons, but they taught them to build weapons that could never threaten the Thule themselves – then, like fools, they had removed any reason for the renegade faction to limit themselves the same way. The Alliance’s planes were simply better.

The Alliance fighters still had an altitude advantage, and Helly didn’t have to tell them to use it to hit hard.

The bomber’s engines roared as it angled into a powerdive. “Two, take my wing,” Helly called. “Three, Four, stay on Boss.” She and Bremer nosed down, allowing gravity to accelerate them ahead of the bomber. They would be the points of the spear. Corlis and Dav stayed near the bomber, ready to reinforce whichever lead plane drew fire first.

Beside her, Bremer’s plane tipped further into a spiral. His favourite tactic; even if an enemy didn’t fall for his “out of control” act, the wild twisting made it harder for anyone to draw a bead on him.

The lead plane didn’t take the bait, ignoring Bremer’s weaving and angling straight toward Helly. She fired the moment she was in range – too quick on the trigger for the slower plane to beat. “Scratch one,” she called as the barrel-shaped Gallisi plane exploded. Another weakness of its antigravity technology; the drive pod radiated so much heat that any puncture to a fuel line became an explosive hazard.

That plane had been a decoy, a sacrificial lamb meant to create an opening. Its wingmate tried a weave of its own – only to be chewed up by Bremer as he suddenly pulled out of his death-spiral. “Scratch two,” Bremer reported as the enemy plane spiralled away, trailing smoke before finally bursting into flames.

“Scratch three,” Alic’s voice chimed in faintly, and Helly spotted the column of smoke to the south, where Flight Two had engaged the Predators.

Bremer angled toward another attacker, which broke off its own charge, intent on leading Bremer away. “Stay on him, Two,” Helly called as she pulled up fractionally, alert for the attacker’s wingmate. It didn’t have one, and Helly realized why as soon as Corlis’ voice broke in.

“Anti-air! Anti-air!” Instinctively, Helly jerked the stick, immediately spotting the lines of fire streaking up – two guns, one near the sea port, and another on a rooftop near the government complex. There must have been others, but the element of surprise was obviously still in their favour. It wouldn’t make a difference, though, if any of them caught the bomber.

“Boss, stay on target,” Helly ordered. “Three–”

“Clearing a path,” Corlis interrupted, anticipating the order – the only logical one she could’ve given – as he streaked past, powerdiving ahead of the bomber.

Where was Dav? Helly looked up to see the number Four plane sticking with the bomber, pulling ahead on the bomber’s course.

“Four, follow your wing,” she called.

“Negative, Lead.” Dav’s voice was sure. “Blocking–” His voice broke up as a line of cannonfire – meant for the bomber – speared the 28’s fuselage.

In the distance, Nida called “Scratch four” just as Alic cried out and dissolved in static. “Seven is down. Eight is damaged and withdrawing.”

Corlis’ dive took him near-vertical before leveling out at near rooftop-level far behind the approaching bomber’s path. The swoop left him a fraction of a second before he swept past the anti-air tower, and he couldn’t tell if his spray of fire was enough to silence it. The cannon at the pier was an easier target, exploding in flame and shrapnel under his guns. A second waterfront gun was just swiveling into place by the time he completed his loop and killed it as well.

Above, Helly and Bremer had engaged the last of the antigravity fighters. Somewhere, a voice called out “Scratch five,” but Helly had her own hands full. She mimicked a Bremer spiral, staying evasive until the enemy plane slipped past, then recovering and slotting herself into the “kill cone” behind her target.

Below, Corlis cleared the docks on his return loop, and saw that his attack on the tower had failed – fire streaked upward, and he saw the bomber wreathed in bursts of smoke and shrapnel.

“Seka!” Emba’s voice crackled. “Damage to starboard engines. Recovering.”

Corlis climbed again, then angled down toward the tower, buying altitude, then trading it for speed. The gunners fired another round just as he did, and the boom of the anti-air gun’s magazine going up took off the top floor of the tower.

The tower’s final blast had struck the bomber amidships; knocking its dive off-course. Emba’s voice was pained and shot through with static, but eerily calm. “Seka. Dead stick. Dead stick. Boss is off-target and cannot correct.”

Helly pulled in a breath, but couldn’t find non-useless words before the bomber plowed into a warehouse building like a meteorite. Bomber, crew, and building vanished in a fireball.

Bremer swore, and Helly finally found her voice. “All pilots, it’s on us. Somebody turn guns on the target.”

“I have a line,” Bremer immediately answered. “Someone scratch my back.”

“Coming up,” As Bremer descended, Corlis rose, sending a chain of gunfire into the Gallisi fighter that had been trailing Bremer.

The remaining antigrav fighter executed a roll, neatly evading Corlis’ line of fire, angling toward Bremer. Helly dove to intercept, knowing as she did that she was turning her back on her own dance partners.

She was able to call “Scratch seven” before the gunfire from behind hit her. The first few rounds sounded like hail on a metal rooftop as they cut through her plane’s wings. Instinctively, she pulled up on the stick, then twisted – the textbook moves to break a lock, though her plane had gone sluggish.

Bremer approached the carrier from its stern, and stitched a line of bullets along the long axis of an airbag before arcing out over the water. He craned his neck as he came about, to see the target virtually unscathed. “Slugs aren’t going to do it,” he reported. “We need to bring fire.”

Above, Corlis was angling on Helly’s attacker. His flurry of shots wasn’t enough for a kill, but left the Gallisi plane trailing smoke as it descended, sailing for the ground before its drive failed.

“Fire won’t be a problem,” Helly reported. Fuel spilled from her wing tank; barely a trickle before the foam-filled tank sealed itself, but enough to cause her engine to hiccup. Daha had taken great care to prevent any failure mode that could lead to the plane turning into a firebomb, but there were limits to even her genius, and Helly knew all of them.

The last antigrav fighter was still above and behind her. “Two, assist Three.”

Bremer’s plane nosed up, already following her orders even as he asked “What will you be doing?”

“Accomplishing the mission,” she answered, unplugging her helmet pickup before he could protest. “To the hive,” she whispered. Daha would understand.

She wrestled the sluggish stick around, then released the safety bulkheads, as she would’ve done when the tanks needed maintenance.

Corlis and the last surviving Gallisi plane were weaving spirals around each other as Bremer approached. The 28s were faster, but the stubby antigrav plane could turn much tighter; the attacker was hanging back, peppering Corlis with fire no matter how hard he jinked. His distraction made him easy prey for Bremer.

Bremer spared a look back to see the carrier go up. A bloom of flame and smoke roiled from one envelope, igniting the second and slagging the superstructure between and below them.

Gallis would build more carriers, of course, but the Stormcloud‘s death would buy them time. Time for the wheel of history to grind on. Time for the delicate balance of the war to change and shift one way or another.

“This is Two,” Bremer called. “Mission complete. Sitrep and disengage.”

“Three, scopes dead. Flying by dead reckoning.” As they passed, Bremer could see the bulletholes in Corlis’ fighter. Daha’s armoured hull had done its work; the engine, pilot, and control surfaces were clearly still functioning. Everything else was a luxury.

Tuuhla’s voice cut through the haze of distance-static. “Five, intact. Remaining bandit damaged and disengaging.”

Nida was the last to report, her voice strained. “Eight, clearing area. Engine dying. Following coastline. Estimate fifteen ’til ditch.”

“Copy that, Eight. Will remember.” Bremer tried to recall the map of the coastline. Eight should be able to reach the Harlab wetlands. Still on the Gallisi side of Cape Ferren, but not a well-patrolled area. He made a note to reach out to local Alliance forces to alert their advance scouts for recovery, then turned his attention to those he could help. “Three, take eyes on me. Five, do you have a bearing?”

“Te-tet, Two. RTB. Estimate recovery positive.” Somehow Tuuhla had come through both undamaged and with enough fuel to make it back home. To be expected of the pilot whose island nation home called her “The Daughter of Luck.”

“Copy, Five. In that case, you take point. V-formation.” Flying in formation would take the load off him and Corlis, helping to stretch their own fuel; a necessity, as they once more had to climb over the mountains.

#

Their ragged formation managed to clear the Reshtus before Corlis’ fuel gauge finally hit zero, which, in this case, meant that there was enough fuel in the tank to land safely, if Corlis was quick about it.

Bremer had been scanning the terrain ahead all through their flight, and had already picked out a likely landing site when Corlis called him. There was no level ground ahead, but the smooth incline of the foothills – graded decades ago as grazing pasture for local farms – should be even enough for a belly landing. The foothills were still 600 daks away, but the last fumes of Corlis’ fuel and the high altitude would give him just enough gliding range.

Bremer and Tuuhla pulled ahead almost immediately; they should’ve at least been able to get a few hundred daks closer to Walkara. There was no need to risk their lives going down with him.

Corlis switched off his engine at 1,000 daks, gliding to what Daha had called a dead stick landing. Daha, in her foresight, had planned for this too. There were three levers beside his seat; the largest was the “eject” switch, which would automatically trip the other two in sequence if he pulled it. What he wanted now was the second lever.

With a muffled bang, an explosive charge separated the engine head, dropping the propeller away from the plane. This destroyed the engine, but there was little chance of it surviving a hard landing anyway, and getting rid of it made it less likely that an ejecting pilot would be cut to ribbons.

The fuel tanks went next, dropping clear out of the plane; the better to avoid any stray fumes that could ignite. Lighter by the weight of an engine and empty tanks, there was nothing left to do but glide.

With the engine silenced, the inside of the cockpit became eerily silent. The thunderous impact with the ground was almost a relief. Corlis heard the bang under his seat as the plane’s belly caved in, but the slight upturn of the 28’s nose was enough to keep the nose from digging in and flipping, and the straight curves from nose to wingtips made a roll unlikely.

After what seemed like minutes, the violent shaking and bouncing lessened, and the wrecked fuselage finally came to rest. Without moving, Corlis could already tell the plane was totalled, but that, as designed, the pilot had survived with only bruises. He tore at the web of straps around his head, freeing himself from the respirator mask and goggles, and swivelled his head as much as possible, searching with eyes and ears and nose for any signs of fire.

Having assured himself that he was in no immediate danger, Corlis took his time extricating himself from the wreck. The braided cord for his suit and radio came free with a tug. The straps that held him in his seat were actually part of his ejection system; the seatback and cushion – and the survival gear they carried – were intended to come with him if he’d left in a hurry, but he didn’t need their weight now. He heaved himself free of the cockpit and felt ground underneath him again.

Another quick look around, straining to hear past the ringing in his ears and the gasping of his lungs trying to reinflate. No sign of any enemies or hostile wildlife in the area. For a moment, it felt as if the world had forgotten him. Assuming it had ever really been aware of him at all.

A few paces away from the plane, he sank to the ground, taking a moment to rest and do a quick inventory. The small knife, ration bars, and the flasks containing the medical and survival kits were in pockets on his vest. The water survival kit, wrapped in the collapsible raft and compressed-air canister, formed the entirety of the seat cushion he’d just left behind. Everything else was in the seatback pack; the flares, the survival pack containing rope, stakes, matches, sewing kit, magnifying lens, scale-oil and brush, toothbrush, tape, flashlight, the weighted teiku short-sword, and a handful of high-denomination coins from Gallis and Drosa. The pack itself was fireproof, to protect its contents from a potential engine fire, and could be unfolded into a half-tent using the rope and wooden stakes.

Corlis gauged the position of the sun and decided that he’d be safest making camp here for the night, and setting out in the morning to start covering the eighteen leagues or so back to Walkara.

#

Night was setting in just as Corlis finished making camp. One moon cleared the horizon, trading places with the setting sun. The other moon was an hour away from rising. In another few months, they would be at opposite ends of the sky, and winter would begin. With it would come the Werican new year, as the two lovers, Reos and Afira, embodied in the moons were slowly driven together by the chill of their loneliness. Together, they would return warmth and life to the world, as well as the seasonal storms – the arguments that would drive them apart, beginning the year’s cycle once more.

The Gallisi had a different calendar, marking the beginning of the year from the point when the moons were closest, likening them to the flags mounted over a Gallisi altar, separated to begin their worship, then brought together to end it. The Alliance had placed them all on a similar calendar (to fight the Gallisi, it was necessary to understand them), and it occurred to Corlis that he had no idea how the Drosans marked out the year. Their confusing hierarchy of gods and spirits and divine emperors seemed to work on a pattern all its own, heedless of the moons and sun.

Dav would have been able to explain. Or Juny, or Helly, or any of the others who had died today, probably. Alic, and Emba, Feir, and Ewoh, aboard the bomber. Bremer and Tuuhla would have reported in by now. Doctor Daha would be disconsolate, he realized, and wondered if Helly had ever known how the Thule felt about her, or if she’d been too close, or perhaps simply in denial.

The thought would have disgusted him once, and had when he’d first heard it from Dav, his bunkmate, both of them awake and shivering before the bugle played First Hour (Dav had had the worst of it; his Chiko heritage had left him ill-prepared for the Drosan cold). Many things had disgusted him then, he recalled. His own squadron-mates had been foreigners to him then, but at least they had been vetris. The thought of an alien developing feelings for one of them was worthy of mockery, revulsion. . . and then acceptance.

Perhaps it was normal after all, he reasoned as he settled into his half-tent, both ends open so he could watch the valley and the mountain at the same time. The thin slices of sky gave him only a glimpse of the stars, and his exhausted brain could imagine them as lanterns visible through a plane’s canopy. Dizzyingly, the tent, ground, and world around him became the hull and frame of a ship, wheeling briefly though a world with no up or down.

His initial disregard for his fellows had left him, as had his blanket hatred for the Thule, once he had come to understand the history that had driven them to this. Even Gallis, he realized, were no monsters or devils; just people trying to prosper in an uncaring universe, making mistakes and suffering the consequences.

The thought struck him how little he knew about them. What had been taught in his Alliance-established school was just enough to fight them: the basics of their history, the continental empire that had first attracted the Thule’s attention. He tried to hang on to the thought, but he could feel his concentration dissolving, eroded by some combination of physical and emotional exhaustion.

Corlis again felt his own nonexistence, as if he was removed from the world. What would it matter if he didn’t exist? What would it matter if nobody existed? The Great Wheel would keep turning, whether or not anyone was there to see it, whether or not any witness thought to share or commemorate what they knew. All anyone could get was a brief and partial glimpse of a tiny fragment of the whole.

Unsure whether he was even still awake or asleep and dreaming, Lin Corlis realized he wasn’t, in fact, ready to die. Without any hatred for Gallis, or the Thule, but equally without Helly’s dedication to the Alliance and its future. So what did he want?

The thin slice of sky beyond the tent beckoned to him again, and he saw himself outside, the sky enfolding him, the world set out beneath him as his ancestors must have pictured it; a strip of continent between two oceans that stretched to infinity. A small, flat world. The Drosans, Gallisi and countless others must have seen similar worlds, flat maps laid out on floors and tables.

That’s what he wanted, he realized. To take those fragments and stitch them together. To see the world as the Thule saw it; an interconnected whole, itself one among infinite others. He wanted to understand the face of history, to understand how the wheel turns, and how the fragments fit together.

#

Corlis awoke, as usual, shivering. The sun was cresting the mountains, chasing fog past him into the valley. The distiller he’d set up last night had collected enough dew to brew a cup of tea, and he ate a ration bar as he waited for it to boil.

Daylight made it clearer where he’d landed; suspended above the valley, but below a cleft in the mountains that narrowed into a path. Halfway between the ground and the sky.

Most of the squadron was dead. The survivors, he knew, would be absorbed into a new unit. Walkara would be evacuated as soon as possible. It might even be happening now. Gallis now knew the airfield was a threat.

It occurred to him that his death would make no difference to the war. He could just disappear. The crew at Walkara would probably just assume he hadn’t made it in time for the evacuation. Not AWOL, but MIA in contested territory.

The path above him beckoned. He could’ve made it into the mountains, sought out the Pava, lived among them. It was unlikely any retrieval team would make more then a cursory check.

He finished his meal and tea, settled his kit, and spent a great deal of time looking back and forth. Between the mountain and the valley, the ground and the sky. The predictable path of history, or the unexpected path that would come from abandoning everything he knew.

Finally, Flight Officer Lin Corlis of the Tarembryan Free Alliance left a note in his pilot’s logbook, and his log with the wreck, for any retrieval team. He settled his kit, and set out.