• Since this had been an important mission, the commando group reported directly to the highest IGM authority. Coordinator Marie was the leader of the entire movement. An Earthling, she was the first one to have started an investigation on Mark’s story, and it was she who had supported Mark after learning the truth. Although Mark had essentially started the resistance, Marie was the one who had begun organizing it, and was given the title of Coordinator. In the beginning of the war, she’d had a council of one person from nearly every inhabited planet, with the title of Grand Admiral, but now, most of them had died. The IGM had fallen lower and lower until they were just a rebellion confined to a small corner of the universe. The only Grand Admirals left were Lliahm Wele of Ayarth, Yjeyd of Ryeao, and Voisloid Goft of Taqua. Although the Coordinator was an Earthling, she did not officially represent Earth—the Grand Admiral who had represented Earth had been assassinated—along with his two successors. Earth was deep in civil war, and it had become too dangerous to promote any Earthlings besides Marie to a position of power. The fact that she was still alive was largely because her identity was unknown to anyone who didn’t report directly to her. The Grand Admirals knew her first name, as did the commandos and her personal guards, but everyone else simply knew her as “the Coordinator.” No one knew her surname.
    The situation on Earth was probably worse than any other inhabited planet, save Ryeao. They had already been at war because of the dispute of land. It wasn’t technically a civil war, as it was between different countries, but people from other planets had a tendency to call it a civil war, and eventually, it just stuck. When the war finally looked like it would end, UNO came along, and the war began anew. One side, represented by Australia, the Americas, and some of Europe, had joined the IGM. The other side, represented by parts of Asia, Europe, and the polar colonies, had sided with UNO. Although the NWA, or New World Alliance, had been winning the war, their enemies, the ARK, or Ancient Rights of the Kingdom movement, had become one nation under UNO and struck with renewed fury. However, both sides faced dissention. The dissention was so great that “peaceful protests” no longer existed, and were replaced by rioting, terrorism, and open rebellion. The only safe places on the world were in Africa, because most of that continent’s nations had wisely avoided the war. Even so, Africa still wasn’t an easy place to live in. The neutral nations of Africa were forced to abandon much of their technology for the sake of nurturing nature. If they hadn’t taken this responsibility upon themselves, the Earth would have become too polluted by the war to live on.
    Despite all of this, most of the IGM’s forces were Earthlings. Perhaps they felt that holding a gun felt safer than hiding behind closed doors. But in reality, the war wasn’t any less fierce out in space.
    With Mark in the hospital, it was Thyu’s responsibility to report in his stead. He had talked with the others about the details of the mission, and they all agreed that it had gone horribly. He hoped that Kriqua wouldn’t be punished too badly for her multiple failures—she was punishing herself enough.
    “The mission was a failure,” he said to his superiors. “Nithril escaped, and Veyia died.”
    “We thought you were all dead,” the Coordinator, Marie, said to him, “and you report failure? The success is that most of you are alive. It was our fault that Nithril escaped—we jumped to action too quickly. If we had waited, we could’ve ambushed his shuttle.”
    Thyu found it odd that she could be so compassionate. Her kindness was rare in the universe, especially in military positions such as hers. But there was more to report. “There’s something else that you may want to hear.”
    “We met an Ayarthan who claimed to be on an espionage mission. He was captured by Nithril’s forces, but he said that his mission was a partial success. ‘Misunderstood.’ He also gave us two codes. The first one is 1PH2NEIU.”
    It was an Ayarthan code; Thyu knew that much. The 1 preceded the topic, and the 2 was followed by the specific message. But unless you could figure out the topic, the message was impossible to decipher. 1PH could be just about anything. The letters could even be replacing numbers, which would mean that the topic had nothing to do with a P or an H.
    Before Thyu could say the second code, the room seemed to explode with energy. Grand Admiral Yjeyd shouted “That’s impossible! How did he arrive at such a ridiculous conclusion?”
    “He wouldn’t send that message unless he was absolutely sure,” Grand Admiral Lliahm Wele reasoned. “The question is what evidence he based this off of.”
    “Simple,” Grand Admiral Voisloid Goft commented. “He must be—”
    “Quiet!” Coordinator Marie shouted. “We must hear the second code.”
    They waited for a second. “And…?”
    Now Thyu was very confused. “And what?”
    “What was the rest of the code?”
    Suddenly Thyu realized what had happened. The spy had been shot before he could finish telling them the code. “That was all he was able to say before he was killed.”
    “Are you sure? No S? No R?”
    “None.” Thyu had a flash of intuition—the second NM meant “need more”. But none of them knew what it needed more of.
    After a long moment of silence, Marie said “We will need Team Orphan again. Mark’s injury is unfortunate, but we can’t let it slow us down. Thyu, until he recovers, I’m promoting you to a temporary position of—”
    “With all due respect, Coordinator, I cannot do what Mark does. I cannot lead a commando group with his wisdom, nor can I utilize our unique abilities with his expertise. Our group cannot be expected to achieve our usual results without our leader.”
    Another long silence. Then Marie nodded. “Then I will temporarily merge Team Orphan with Team Alpha. Their leader is an Earthling named Ryan Lionhart. He will be given detailed descriptions of the currently able commandos in your group. Three days from now, I will brief your entire group and you will depart—be ready for that. Bring everything you’re taking with you here to the briefing. I will see to transportation and food supply. Go now and tell Kriqua, Dociluas, and Juyrl to prepare. The full report on your recent mission can wait.”
    * * *
    “You can’t possibly believe that!”
    Marie had listened to this argument long enough. “Whether or not we are to believe it, we need more evidence.”
    “If only we knew the last part of the code,” Lliahm mused. “One simple letter would’ve sufficed. Do we need more spies? More force? More time?”
    “Since we don’t know,” Marie clarified, “we must assume that he meant more effort. We have to try harder. If we need more of something, then the safest thing to assume is that we need more of everything. That’s part of the reason I’m fusing our two best commando groups.”
    “We need to focus on more immediate issues for now,” Yjeyd said plainly, as tired of the argument as Marie was. “By all accounts, the only reason Nithril ever retreats is that he’s planning something bigger. Do you really believe he’ll make an exception for Taqua?”
    The Coordinator knew that this was true. She tried to figure out a way to say the words she’d hoped she wouldn’t have to. “It is unfortunate that Nithril came here. Our resistance is too small now, and Nithril’s talents are legendary. There’s no way we can withstand a full assault. We need to leave soon.”
    Desperation appeared suddenly on the Taquan Grand Admiral’s face. “Taqua is the IGM’s greatest stronghold,” Voisloid reasoned. “We have endless weaponry and technology here, plus millions who would die for the IGM’s cause. If you decide to abandon this place, you’re dooming the IGM and Taqua.”
    “Listen,” Marie said softly. “When we started this war, we had aroused a force that stretched across the universe. Nearly every inhabited planet supported our cause. We thought we could win by simple uprising, but for twenty years they continued to thwart us. The only reason our resistance has stayed strong here is because of how unique the nearby planets are. We have the Taquans, the Ryeaoans, and the Ayarthans—each group has abilities that the Emperor doesn’t know how to face. But now everything has died down. Now this is all we have left, and for the last three years the Emperor has not taken us seriously. We’ve had skirmishes, and Nithril has been assigned more subtle tasks against us, but now that we’ve struck at Nithril directly, we are once again a threat. This is the same empire that has driven us into this distant galaxy; the same empire that destroyed us everywhere but here. What makes you think we can survive much longer? It’s a fight we cannot win with brute force, but UNO does not yet know who the leaders of IGM are. If we leave a decoy here—”
    “And let others die for us?” Yjeyd accused.
    “—then we can lead UNO to believe that they have destroyed the IGM. They will be after the Coordinator of IGM, and the emperor will believe that enough of a show of force will discourage anyone else from taking charge.”
    “And who do you suppose would take your place in the execution?” Lliahm asked skeptically.
    “I will.” All eyes turned to Voisloid. “I will not abandon my home as you seek to. Taqua is one of merely four planets that is not under complete control of UNO, and Earth is getting closer to falling each day. I will not be driven into hiding. I will fight until my last breath to save Taqua.”
    “You’re doing a very noble thing, Grand Admiral Goft,” Marie commended, “and I can see in your eyes that I will not change your mind. I wish you luck, then, and know that we will leave within a week, but ninety percent of the forces stationed here will remain here. We will retreat to Ayarth.”
    Lliahm winced, but nodded. It was the only reasonable place to go. Earth was being torn apart by the war, and terrorist attempts were the norm. Ryeao was free of UNO, but it was incredibly unsafe, and very few specialized ships could get onto Ryeao with a forty percent chance of landing safely, and only ten percent of those ever made it off of the planet. Therefore, the best place to run to was Ayarth, where UNO had some strongholds, but the strongholds were all surrounded by IGM’s military force.
    * * *
    “You have failed.” The hologram’s face was twisted into shock.
    Nithril bowed his head apologetically. “It does appear that way, doesn’t it?”
    “Don’t play your word games with me, Nithril. You should’ve learned years ago that they won’t work.”
    Nithril struggled not to grin. His “word games” worked very efficiently. Although, Nithril found it depressing that he still didn’t know the President’s name, and he had long ago begun to wonder if he even had a name.
    “If they don’t work, what have you to fear from them?” Nithril asked cockily.
    “Get to the point.”
    “Very well. I didn’t fail. This was a reconnaissance mission after all. I now have new knowledge of the IGM. I know the strengths and weaknesses of some of their commandos, for one thing. And I now know that the Taquans who fight us are not just IGM rebels. The entire Taquan government is against us.”
    “We must destroy them immediately.”
    “With all due respect, sir, it would be wiser to gather our forces first. Taqua is perhaps the greatest force arrayed against us, so it would be wise to take full advantage of the size of our fleet.”
    “Do as you see fit, but do not fail. You still have use to me, but that could change if your skills prove to be diminishing.”
    Funny, Nithril thought. When I was a boy, he pretended to care about me.
    Too late, Nithril realized that he was doing it again. Thinking on the past. And he couldn’t stop quickly enough to avoid a flashback.
    * * *
    The darkness of the alleyway was frightening, but somehow familiar… He had no memory of ever being in any alleyway at night, but although his brain was empty of information, his body seemed to recognize it. He had an inexplicable urge to dig through the garbage can for food. He found himself evaluating the nearby buildings, examining them to find where the rich people lived. He felt like… like a street rat. Had he been homeless once? He couldn’t remember.
    The ten-year-old Nithril looked up to the only person he knew. The President. But I don’t even know his name! he thought frantically. He had asked several times, but the President just laughed at the question every time.
    “My name is unimportant. What I care about is you, my boy. Now isn’t the time to hesitate. We must get going.”
    Nithril looked out at all the other children. They seemed… familiar, somehow. But they all cowered in fear, some running to hide, others pointing and sneering at Nithril and the President as they walked by.
    “Excuse me, sir, but have I… have I been here before?”
    “What, in these filthy streets? No, of course not. You belong in a much nicer place than this.”

    * * *
    When Nithril awoke in the present again, the hologram was off. The President had given the order, and there was nothing more to say. But Nithril’s thoughts were elsewhere.
    He told me I had never been in those streets. Even then, I knew it was a lie. It was too familiar, but I couldn’t quite remember. But why did he lie? He was lying to me since the day… What was that day? My very first memory is of looking at the President.
    Something spoke in the back of his mind. The President is evil. The same thing it always said. But whose voice was it? It wasn’t his voice. Was he crazy? The President is evil. But he’s all I know.
    * * *
    Mark slowly awakened. He felt numb. With an effort, he opened his eyes. The ceiling was blank and white. He sat up.
    “Please lie down, sir.” He tilted his head slightly and saw a medical robot. “You are not supposed to be awake yet.”
    “It’s impossible to keep me out. That’s why they put me in charge of a commando group.”
    “Whatever you say, sir, but I am the one with medical expertise. Please lie down.”
    “And I’m the one who knows my body better than anyone else.”
    “Sir, I beg to differ—”
    “I woke up before you anticipated. So obviously you don’t know my body very well.”
    The robot hesitated. Clearly, it did not know how to argue. He could imagine “DOES NOT COMPUTE” running through the metallic skull. Robots were built to follow their programming, not to think.
    Finally, it said “Please lie down sir. You are not supposed to be awake yet.”
    Mark rolled his eyes. The robot hadn’t known how to continue, so it reset, erasing the conversation from its mind. He hadn’t expected the robot to be that stupid.
    Ignoring the robot’s advice, he stood up, feeling his body tingle in response. He was still numb, but gaining some feeling. He looked down at the mat he had been lying on and saw a large bloodstain. Looking down at himself, memory began to come back to him. His shirt was missing, and his midsection was wrapped in large bandages. He had felt a sharp pain in his side before he’d lost consciousness… he had been shot. And, clearly, he had been drugged with pain-killers. He hated to have drugs messing with his body, even if they were helping.
    Soreness began to return to him, just a twinge at a time. “Sir, if you don’t lie down, I’m going to have to forcefully restrain you.”
    “Out of my way,” Mark grumbled. He gave the robot a light shove, but the metallic hands grasped his forearms. Mark glared. “Do you really want to mess with a commando who at the moment feels no pain?”
    The robot stood motionless for a moment. It probably didn’t even understand that it had been threatened. “Your health is of the utmost importance. Please lie down.”
    “You have other patients to take care of, and you won’t be in any condition to take care of them if you mess with me.”
    “Error. Contradiction in programming. Memory wipe needed. Processing…”
    Great, Mark thought. That didn’t work. Yanking his arms out of the robot’s grip, he stormed past it into the hall beyond, stopping only to put on his shirt. He ignored the robot’s protests behind him.
    * * *
    Thyu was getting ready for the briefing. He had already packed everything he would take, which wasn’t much, and all that was left was departure to… to where?
    He decided it didn’t matter. He would find out when he was briefed. A knock on the door surprised him. He reached over to cover up his latest project. “Come—”
    The visitor hadn’t waited for a response, he realized too late. He turned around, and, to his surprise, saw Mark.
    “What’s that, Thyu?”
    “The codes that we were given.”
    “What do they mean?”
    Thyu hesitated. How much should he reveal? He eventually decided that it wasn’t necessary to reveal guesswork. “I don’t know,” he answered. It was an honest answer, but he did have a few guesses.
    “That I doubt. It’s an Ayarthan code.”
    “Even so, I would need to know the exact subject that the code is based on to decipher it.”
    Mark nodded. Thyu realized that he had revealed enough for Mark to know that Thyu had not been assigned the task of deciphering it… but he had not been given orders against it, either. That was enough for Mark—he would keep the subject a secret until his orders or his situation demanded otherwise.
    “You should be resting.”
    “Don’t pretend not to know me,” Mark retorted.
    Thyu nodded. That was as far as the argument would get. “I’m going to a briefing with the Coordinator.”
    “Is the rest of our team going?”
    Thyu hesitated. “Yes, but…”
    “I’m going too.”
    “That may not be wise.”
    “Wisdom is for the people in charge. Charisma and courage are how I got to where I am now.”
    Thyu knew he should argue further, but he also knew that Mark had a point. He did not know how to proceed. The point was not entirely reasonable, but Mark would hold onto any point at all. “They did not invite you.”
    “They expect you to lead the team, I presume?”
    Thyu didn’t answer. Mark would assume that it was true, but Thyu would not directly say it. There was no point in lying.
    Mark must have realized the thoughts in Thyu’s head, though, for he said “They don’t. The only other explanation is that you’re to be merged with another commando team.”
    Charisma and courage were supposedly Mark’s main virtues, but intuition seemed to be the strongest one. Again, there was no need for an answer.
    “How do you do that? Are you psychic?” Thyu’s wrist comm. beeped. “One moment, sir.” He pressed the “answer” button.
    “There’s been a change of plans,” a female voice announced. Thyu did not know her name, but it wasn’t terribly important to him. She was a communication officer. “When you depart, you are to take Mark with you on the ship. He is to rest in the medical bay.”
    Thyu looked at Mark, surprised. “That can be arranged quite easily. Shall I also take him to the briefing room?”
    “Yes, if he is able.”
    Thyu pressed the “end” button and stared at Mark, who had a satisfied smile on his face.
    “You may ‘take me’ to the briefing room now.”
    * * *
    Coordinator Marie briefed them personally. This was an important mission. She looked at the assembled group—Team Orphan and Team Alpha. “There is a reason I am sending both of your teams together. This mission is of utmost urgency, and I cannot have you fail. Mark, Ryan, you two will need to hold cooperative command over the team, to be sure that you utilize each individual’s abilities in an efficient manner. Ryan, you will be the one officially in charge, but do not make any decisions without consulting Mark, if it is at all possible to include him. Mark, please accept Thyu’s assistance. I know you are capable of fighting the pain, but even you have your limits.
    “Now then, let me briefly introduce everyone. I will start with Team Orphan. Mark is an Earthling soldier commando, with an assault rifle and electrical ammunition. Thyu is an Ayarthan hand-to-hand combat specialist, with an electo-crystal dagger. Kriqua is a Taquan hacker, with a Taquan implant and a pistol remotely linked to it. Dociluas is another Taquan hacker, without the implant. His skill for observation and his technological expertise are what got him on the team. He wields two pistols. Juyrl is a Ryeaoan hand-to-hand combat specialist, normally using no weapons.
    Next is Team Alpha. Ryan Lionhart is an Earthling heavy-trooper, who normally uses a chain gun, but also carries a rocket launcher. Inen is a Ryeaoan combat specialist, who ranges from hand-to-hand combat to sniping. Juxa Zivango is a Taquan hacker, with an implant, who uses two pistols and a THO, a Taquan Hover Orb, with small guns and numerous tools equipped. Peyb is a Ryeaoan spy, who carries no weapons, but various gadgets.
    “The rest of the details you can discuss later. For now, let me explain the mission. You are to go ahead to the planet Vigs, and investigate there to find out where Nithril is. Track him down. Use whatever methods necessary. If he is going somewhere for war, find out where he will be after the war. Do not engage in a full-scale battle! You are all too valuable to lose that way. You need to stick to espionage for now. Once you have found out where he is or will be, discuss a plan to capture him. I want a plan that leaves you all in agreement. Do not attempt to contact IGM until your mission is complete.
    “While in the ship, Juxa is to pilot, and Kriqua will be the copilot. Dociluas will control the weaponry if necessary. You are all dismissed. I advice that you meet with each other when you can. Your ship will leave in two local hours. Mark, you are to rest. That is not a suggestion. Go to the ship in hangar number 32 and report to the medical bay. The rest of your team will join you in the ship shortly.”
    With that, she turned her back, and the commandos left the room.
    * * *
    “You don’t feel threatened by her, do you?”
    Kriqua glanced at Dociluas, surprised. “Who? Juxa?”
    “You saw the look she gave you just as well as I did. She thinks she’s better than you. And the Coordinator put her in charge of—”
    Kriqua scowled. Yes, she saw the look. Yes, she knew Dociluas would have noticed. But she had thought that Dociluas would be mature enough to keep quiet. “Yes, she thinks she’s better than me. She could very well be better than me. She’s certainly older. You have to remember that I’m not yet thirty, so the implant I have is technically illegal. I’m not surprised that she showed a bit of scorn. If she thinks she’s better than me, she’s probably right. And we want the best people we can get. We’re all fighting for the same team, so why would I feel threatened?”
    “But with that look she gave you—”
    “We are on the same team, Fitov.” Fitov is a Taquan title for beginners, most closely translated as “newcomer”. However, it was somewhat more offensive in the Taquan language. “You would do well to remember that.”
    * * *
    “You’re a handsome one,” Inen told him in her native language. Female Ryeaoans were not usually seen off of their home world, so Inen’s presence was a surprise. However, Juyrl was not interested.
    “Now is not a good time,” Juyrl warned her. He responded in English, letting her know that he was not moving as a Ryeaoan, but as a member of the IGM. The language painted a clearer picture than his choice of words. Really, no time was a good time, but now was particularly bad. Her black hair had patches of a few different colors, making it look like ash. Her narrow—but strong—features were appealing… but mating was not high on Juyrl’s list of things to do at the moment. Or ever. There were more important things than making inhabitants for the future generation, such as making sure there would be a place for that generation to live in when it came. Until UNO was overthrown, he would not even have a thought in his mind about a relationship.
    “I understand,” Inen crooned, again in Ryeaoan. “Losing a brother is not an easy thing.”
    Juyrl growled fiercely, showing his sharp teeth and glaring. He switched to Ryeaoan, but in a way that was intended to intimidate her. “It does us no good to think about the dead. Do not distract me with the past, and do not even try to distract me with your body. I’m above that. No, the issue is that there are things to do, things much more important than you finding a man.”
    Ryeaoan women survived primarily through relationships and attachments. That being said, they cared more about sentimental things, and had longer memories. Their memories carried friendships, however few there might be, and enemies. There were always plenty of enemies. And Juyrl saw in her eyes that she would have her revenge.
    Juyrl felt no fear, no regret, no guilt, nor any other emotions regarding her as he walked away. She was a partner, and she had her uses, and that was it. There were only two people in the universe he had any emotional connection to—Mark, and his late brother, Veyia. He would not give Inen the satisfaction of seeing those emotions, though.
    * * *
    “So you’re Thyu.”
    He nodded, even though there was no need for a response. They were all introduced, so it was quite redundant. Why do Earthlings do that?
    Ryan nodded back, while Juxa and Peyb just stood behind him, as if protecting him. Ryan’s head was shaved, and he had green eyes that appeared angry. Thyu briefly wondered if he was trying to be intimidating.
    “With Mark out of commission, you’re the best, right?”
    Thyu glared. “First of all, Mark is not out of commission. The best thing for him right now is to rest, but if we were attacked this very instant, he would be leading the defense. Second, there is no best. We each have our unique abilities, and each of us is the ‘best’ in a certain situation. We need to work together, not claw our way to the top. If you don’t know that, then you’re a horrible leader.”
    “But you need to know who takes charge if you fall,” Ryan responded coolly. “The next best will—”
    “Being a leader does not make you the best! Is your team a group of people or a group of robots, that you have no emotion for them?”
    Ryan’s face was full of outrage. Peyb’s face was of anger, but Thyu supposed that it always was. Ryeaoans—at least the men—seemed to always look angry. On Juxa’s face, though, he read something different. She pretended to be offended, but her eyes held a glint of new admiration for Thyu. She looked much like an older version of Kriqua.
    “Shall we settle this?” Ryan asked.
    Thyu wondered why it was always about fighting with Earthlings. The Ryeaoans were the only ones worse, and they had good reason. While Ryeaoans fought to survive, the Earthlings just seemed to enjoy violence. Suddenly, he wondered if the Ayarthans had been the same before violence had destroyed their bones.
    “Only you can settle what’s on your mind,” Thyu responded. “I’m afraid I can’t help you if you’re too incompetent to help yourself.”
    Ryan swung his fist, but, as he predicted, Thyu didn’t even have to move. The fist stopped inches away from his face. Thyu had trapped him. If they had fought each other, Ryan could’ve claimed that Thyu had assaulted him. But if Ryan fought someone who wouldn’t defend himself, there was no lie he could make up to cover his mistake. Since he was smart enough to realize this, he would just have to live with the humiliation.
    Thyu’s thoughts fluttered back to a passage he had read in the Bible about turning the other cheek. Apparently it worked.
    * * *
    Mark boarded the ship named Silent Thunder. He was fine with medical attention, as long as he was doing something helpful at the same time.
    “Good evening, sir. It is a pleasure to see you again, as well as it is a pleasure to accept your cooperation this time.”
    Suddenly, Mark changed his mind. He wasn’t fine with medical attention anymore. Any robot would be fine except this one. Did the memory wipe fail?
    * * *
    Mark’s group and Ryan’s boarded the Silent Thunder as it prepared for the long journey through space. There was tension—Inen longed for revenge against Juyrl, Ryan had been humiliated by Thyu, and Juxa despised Kriqua.
    Dociluas saw the tension in everyone’s eyes. Kriqua, Juyrl, and the others could ignore it all they wanted, but Dociluas would be prepared for anything.