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The Last Defense

Tel was in the middle of a lecture on the causes and consequences of the Third Ahjari War when every communications device in the classroom went off simultaneously. One or two she might have dismissed as her students failing to obey her charge to turn off all personal devices at the start of each class. Every single one, including her own? That meant emergency override.

"Well," she said, interrupting her own words while looking at the sea of frightened faces in the hoverdesks filling the classroom. "Let's see what the government thinks is more important than the Third Ahjari War, shall we?"

That got a few subdued giggles, but those quickly faded as everyone turned to the emergency message blazoned across their communicators.

Principal Minister Goran regrets to announce that we of the Yinara system are officially at war with the Rimalja system. Effective immediately, no travel will be permitted between the two systems. All Rimaljans in our system are asked to report to their local embassy; all Yinarans in the Rimalja system must do likewise. For now, we ask the people of Yinara to stay calm and wait for further developments. Thank you.

So much for the official report. Tel had been expecting this as tensions had risen between the two systems for many tides now. What interested her more were the personal messages beneath the official one—messages that should not have made it onto her private device. The one from Admiral Karan was easily explained: if the government could override personal security codes for emergency messages, the military could do the same. The one underneath that meant Dag was up to his old hacking tricks again.

From Admiral Karan: General Ames, please contact me as soon as possible. We need your expertise. Things are in dire straits here, the Rimaljans could attack at any moment. Diplomacy has failed us. We are not prepared for another war. Please, even if you only come in as a consultant, we need you, Tel.

Tel shelved that to think about later. She went on to the next message.

It's war, General. We in or out?

The smile that crinkled the corners of Tel's eyes didn't quite make it to her lips. That was Dag, all right. And if Dag was contacting her, that meant the others soon would be, too. Likely the Admiral had sent desperate messages to all of them as well.

She couldn't think about her response yet. She had a classroom of students to tend at the moment.

War. The word spread around the room, a murmur first, growing to an angry shout. Daniel, a brown-skinned male who could trace his ancestors back to an ancient line on Old Earth, slammed a fist down on his desk, sending the hover unit skittering around the room, bouncing off other desks and causing a wave of chaos. Some students began to cry, some to shout, others to argue. One began to scream.

Tel didn't need to raise her voice or clap her hands to gain control of a mob. Rather, she wished she had her laser pistol with her—nothing could stop a crowd in its tracks like a bolt of killing light fired into the ceiling—but it was locked into the vault in her house on Yinara Prime, along with her sword and insignia. She did still carry a vibroknife in her boot and her command rod in her bag, but she didn't want to actually injure any of her students, only calm them down.

She touched the control panel on her desk, bringing all the hover units down to the floor and dimming the lights. After a few startled yelps, the students quieted.

"Done panicking?" Tel asked, inserting an edge of contempt she didn't actually feel into her voice. "Good." She brought the lights back up to normal and met the gazes of her wide-eyed, silent students. Tel perched on the edge of her solid wood desk. "Let's talk. Reasonably."

"What happens now, Professor?" blurted Tatiana, who at twenty-two turns and the mother of one was a good bit older than the rest of the class, and still seemed like a baby herself to Tel's eyes.

Tel toyed with the idea of telling them that now they returned to the Third Ahjari War, but dismissed the idea as both impractical and cruel. These young people were all about to become adults rapidly, as rapidly as she and her peers had done in the last war. They didn't need coddling or patronizing; they needed someone to be honest with them.

"I'm not entirely sure." The last war had begun when the Yinarans tried to leave the Rimaljan Imperium. Diplomatic channels had failed, and finally the Yinarans began a rebellion, which led to war. Nobody had expected them to win—one small system of only three habitable planets—but their rebellion sparked other systems to fight for their independence as well, and the Imperium, being unable to fight on all its fronts, was forced to make peace. They were left with only their original system and a handful of colonies, and the Yinarans and the others had begun to establish their own independent governments.

There had been no formal declaration of war back then, no warnings for enemy peoples to get to their embassies—presumably to be shipped home, though Tel cynically wondered if they wouldn't be used as hostages instead—no calm requests for citizens to wait for further developments. It had been bloody, brutal, and swift. This neat and tidy announcement turned her stomach. War shouldn't be presented in such a sanitized fashion; nothing else about it was tidy or orderly.

"What does it mean about Rimaljans reporting to the embassy?" asked another student. Tel had to scramble for his name—Hessa, that was it. He had the distinctive coppery green tone to his skin that the dwellers of the moon Crethsona, in the Rimaljan system, had developed over the last few thousand years. "My mother is Rimaljan—or was—what's going to happen to her? What about my siblings and me?"

"You'll be treated as the traitors you are," snarled a student from the back.

"I will not tolerate talk like that in my classroom," Tel said, her voice low and dangerous.

"We're at war, Professor!" protested someone else.

For stars' sake, she knew war better than any of these children could imagine. Tel reminded herself that the reason she had changed her surname when she took this job was because she didn't want to be identified as General Teleria Ames anymore. She'd inhabited the role of Professor Tela Rushton for nearly forty years; she could hardly complain if her students didn't realize their history professor was a celebrated hero of the war for freedom.

"Our system is at war with another system," she answered. "That does not mean that we will start battling individuals here in this classroom. In here, everyone is treated on his, her, or its own merits. At the moment, I am far more inclined to sympathize with an individual fearing for his family than one slinging around nasty names and accusations without stopping to think about them."

The mouthy student stood up. Ah, Jeanne de Frâme. Tel should have known. The girl was not exactly renowned throughout the university for her restraint and ability to reason. "My Great-Uncle Albert fought in the war for freedom!" she declared.

Indeed, Tel remembered him well. A snotty-nosed private determined to be a hero, who caused the death of nearly his entire unit through his arrogant idiocy. He'd have been court-martialed if they hadn't been so desperate for troops. Tel would have court-martialed him anyway, but she was overruled and he was given a promotion instead.

"He says that we were weak and cowardly to accept the peace terms with the Imperium, that we should have crushed them, back when we had a chance! He knew that they'd come after us again. He knew they'd never be content to let us live as free beings! Every Rimaljan is part of their plot, he says. He says—"

Tel held up her hand. She couldn't listen to any more of that drivel. Before she could speak, though, Daniel interrupted.

"What a load of rubbish! The only reason the former Imperium has begun this war is because of how badly damaged the freedom wars left them. With all the independent systems trading with each other and refusing to trade with Rimalja, their economy was destroyed. All their young people had been conscripted and killed, or else left to find work or marriage on other systems, like Hessa's mother. If we are at war again, it is our own fault!"

Tel had heard that sort of statement before, usually from someone too young to know anything about the realities of war. Perhaps the economic sanctions against the former Imperium had been too harsh, but what Daniel didn't seem to realize was that all the newly independent systems had also lost their best and brightest during the war, and were struggling even more to build their governments and economies from the ground up. They could not be concerned for what the sanctions against Rimalja might mean for that system when it took all they had merely to survive.

The debate heated up, with Jeanne leading one side and Daniel the other, and students like Tatiana and Hessa sitting silently and looking more and more afraid.

Tel usually relished and even encouraged these sorts of ethical debates, but right now it was making her tired. It was no longer theoretical. These students would in a few short months, maybe even weeks, be enmeshed in the realities of war. Many of them would be soldiers, and even those who chose not to fight would endure hardships on the home front. And who knew how it would end? Could Yinara stand against Rimalja? According to Admiral Karan, there was considerable doubt. What would happen to these young people if Rimalja won? Tel put a hand to her head, pushing back some wandering gray hairs.

She was too old for this. She'd taken this job to do something positive after all the death and destruction she had dealt out during the war. She wanted to contribute to Yinara's future, to pour into future generations. Now it seemed it was all for naught.

She shook herself out of her gloom as her communications device pinged again. She glanced down. Another unsigned message, again most likely from Dag.

Rimaljans have invaded the outer moons without warning, including the university. General, tell me you aren't still at that light-forsaken school?

Tel swallowed. Suddenly the question of what they were going to do next was much more immediate and much less academic.

No time for introspection now. Ways of thinking Tel had long since put behind her snapped into place as easily and smoothly as breathing. She switched her communicator over to verbal and put a call in to the president's office.

"Yes, what is it now, Professor?" asked the harassed secretary. "If your students are having a collective meltdown, you'll have to get in line. So is every other class."

"It isn't that," Tel said, one eye on the students now swiveling their heads to pay attention to her conversation. "I have just received word that the Rimaljans have invaded this moon, among others. I suggest immediate emergency evacuation."

There was a startled silence, both in the classroom and on the other end of the device.

"Impossible!" snapped the secretary, his voice nonetheless sounding shaken. "The university is neutral ground. They wouldn't dare invade here."

"It is also where a large portion of the best-trained minds in Yinara are gathered," Tel pointed out. "If the Imperium—sorry, the Rimaljans—can capture or wipe out the students here, they'll take out our future military leaders as well as crushing the hearts of Yinarans back on the mainworld."

One of the students started to whimper. The people sitting near him hissed for silence, hanging on the secretary's response.

"How do you know this?" the secretary asked.

Tel hesitated. If she revealed herself as General Ames, there wouldn't be any more argument, but was she ready to do that? Dag's earlier question nagged at her. We in or out? She'd already fought one war. She wasn't sure she could do another.

The important thing right now was to get the students and faculty to safety. Her desire for anonymity meant nothing beside that urgent need. "I am—" she began, when Jeanne screamed and pointed to the transparent wall of windows lining one side of the classroom. Every head followed the direction of her finger.

Three short-range fighters, their blade-shaped silhouette that of the distinctive Rimaljan aerials, screamed past the window, flew in a circle, and landed on the sports field.

"I have visual confirmation of Rimaljan forces!" Tel snapped at the secretary. "They are on the playing fields. Tell the President to sound the alarm, get everyone to the tunnels and the evacuation ships, now!"

Before the secretary could answer, Tel switched back to written communication and responded to first Dag and then the admiral.

At university, have to hold off Rimaljans on the ground long enough to let civilians escape. Send backup. Even if Dag couldn't get here himself, he would know where to dig up some help.

To Admiral Karan, she wrote: Rimaljans have landed at the university. Am organizing evacuation, but ships have no weapons. Send fighter escorts to protect against aerials and destroyers. Will answer your other question if we survive. That ought to get her at least a flight, if not an entire squadron.

Then, and only then, Tel faced her students, now frozen at the window, watching troopers pour out of the aerials.

"Do you all remember the evacuation drills?" she said.

Tatiana turned at once. "Yes, ma'am!"

"Good, then get started. I expect the alarm to go off—"

Right on cue, the air filled with the wail of the evacuation alarm. Tel had never been so thankful that the founders of the university had been paranoid nit-pickers who insisted on a way for the entire population to get off the moon in case of disaster. There were entrances to the tunnels from every building, and each one led to the ancient ships that were still maintained and in running order.

The entire class fled for the door. Only Daniel hung back, watching her.

"Aren't you coming, Professor?"

It was going to take a long time to get every classroom, every dormitory, all the outbuildings and staff houses emptied. Not to mention getting people through the tunnels and into the ships, and getting the ships out of the caverns and into the air, where she hoped Admiral Karan would have protection waiting. Too long. The Rimaljans would be on them before the last stragglers got through, and might even find the tunnels themselves. Somebody had to fight a rearguard action.

Tel smiled and nodded at Daniel. "Don't worry about me. You get the rest of the class to the nearest tunnel. I'll be along when I can."

It was a pity Angie wasn't here. Tel could use her booby-traps right about now.

While she was wishing, she might as well wish for the entire command team. Dag, her hacker; Angie, her demolitions expert; Felix, who was a better fighter hand-to-hand than most were with weapons; mistress of disguise Elanna; intelligence operative Prthna; and Lucky, who could pilot anything.

Alas: Lucky was dead, killed in the last days of the war. Felix had passed away a few years ago, a peaceful death. Angie was a grandmother, and the rest were scattered across the system. They had tried to keep up with each other for the first few years after the war ended, but eventually it became too difficult. Reliving the past was no way to move into the future. Tel suspected the rest of them resented her decision to leave the military after the war ended. She had told them they could stay, but without her, the team had no glue to hold them together. Most of them had operated so far outside the boundaries under her command that they wouldn't have been able to fit in under any other leader. That held true for her entire brigade. Misfit Brigade, they'd been named, the smallest brigade and most rag-tag unit in the army.

But they'd gotten the job done, and she'd kept more of her people alive doing it than any other officer. Tel was fiercely proud of her people, even as she strove to move past the things they had done. The things she had commanded them to do. Their deeds and misdeeds were on her conscience, not on theirs. None of them could understand how desperate she had been to lighten that load with positive actions. With every student she sent into the galaxy, she felt that weight tip a little more toward a balance. Only now, it seemed the universe demanded something else of her.

Without the Misfits, she'd have to do the best she could on her own. General Ames's last stand? She supposed she might go down in history that way. Perhaps someday, a hundred years or more in the future, another professor might stand in this exact classroom and lecture students on the opening days of the Second Yinaran-Rimaljan War, and the heroic sacrifice of General Teleria Ames to get the entire university population to safety.

More likely, she'd go down in a footnote somewhere as an anonymous teacher who tried to hold off the invaders with some small measure of success.

Tel had gotten enough glory to choke on it in the last war. She'd thrown out all her medals the same day she'd locked away her weapons. If she could ensure even one more student got to the ships who wouldn't have otherwise, that was as good a way to go as any. If she was lucky, she might be able to hold out long enough for Dag's reinforcements to arrive.

With the last of the students out the door, Tel reached into her bag and pulled out the rod given her when she'd made brigadier general. With a snap of her wrist, Tel extended the rod to twice its length. Her thumb pressed the slight indentation on the bottom, and hardened armor plates slid around the entire length save for where her hand gripped. She twisted the handle, and spikes popped out along the armor seams on the top half. Tel's fierce grin showed her teeth. Now it was a proper Misfit's weapon.

She hadn't realized she still had an audience. She looked up from her modifications to see Jeanne hanging in the doorway, goggling at her.

"What's that, Professor?"

Tel gave her a glare that should have withered the girl in her tracks. "None of your business," she said. "I told you to get to the tunnels!"

"You're going to fight them, aren't you? I want to help!"

"Under no circumstances."

"There's three aerials that we saw, which means sixty soldiers, and probably more that landed elsewhere," Jeanne said. "Even with your nifty ... thing ... you can't possibly hope to beat them all."

"I don't need to beat them," Tel said. "Only slow them down. And the longer you stay here, the less chance I have."

Jeanne shook her head. "I'm with you."

"So am I," said Daniel, moving out from behind Jeanne, jaw set.

"I thought you disapproved of this war," Tel said, exasperation bubbling up in her.

"I do, but that doesn't mean I want to see my fellow students get killed," he said.

"I'm in, too," said the third member of this rebellious trio of classmates. Tatiana joined the other two.

"No," Tel said. "Absolutely not. You have a daughter to return to."

"And I want her to have a safe galaxy to grow up in!"

Tel opened her mouth to argue with them all. This was no place for these students. Then she closed it.

She had been fifteen when she participated in her first battle. She'd had as little idea of what she was getting into then as they did now. She'd been thrilled to think of fighting for independence, of glory and honor, to strike a blow for Yinara. She'd been far naiver than any of them, even Jeanne. They weren't children, as young and innocent as they seemed to her. And they deserved a chance to do what their hearts told them was right.

"Very well," she said. "But you must promise to obey my orders, no questions or arguments. This is not the classroom, and debates have no place here. If you can't do that, you'll get us all killed. Understand?"

"Who are you?" Daniel muttered under his breath, but all he said aloud, along with the two girls, was, "Agreed."

"Then find something to use as a weapon and follow me." Tel shouldered past them. She stopped in the hallway, almost emptied of students and teachers, and looked back. "Don't worry if you can't kill. In fact, I'd rather you not, for your own sakes. Injure or knock unconscious, take them out of the fight however you can. It's harder than you might think to end another being's life, however much you feel it deserves it. That's not weakness. It's what makes us human."

Jeanne tossed her long, light-brown hair behind one shoulder in a practiced gesture. "That's what sets us apart from those Rimaljan scum!"

"No," Tel said, eyes bright and voice hard. "They are human, too. Once you forget that, once you start 'other-ing' them, that's when you become the very monster you accuse them of being. Mark me well, Jeanne. We're all only human, doing the best we can from where we stand. It just happens that we're standing on opposite sides of the matter." She doubted her words would have much impact on the girl's preconceived notions, but maybe someday, should Jeanne survive past this fight, they would sink in and make a difference. "Let's go."

Even while talking and arguing with the students, Tel had been running a plan of the building through her mind—old habits die hard, and she'd memorized the layout of the entire university in her first week as a professor there. There was a defensible staircase down the hall from here, across from and above the main doorway into the building. With a blaster cannon or even her phase rifle she could have held off sixty soldiers for hours at the top of the staircase, protected by its curve, aiming downward at the door through which soldiers could come through only a few at a time. With nothing but her rod and her students' makeshift weapons, they'd have to put more effort into it.

"I don't suppose anyone has a gun?"

"They're not allowed at the university," Daniel said.

"They're here now," Tel said. She stopped at the staircase. "Right, here's the plan." She looked out the window at the soldiers approaching. More aerials had landed elsewhere on the campus, meaning soldiers were converging on the other buildings, but she couldn't worry about that now. Fight this battle, she reminded herself, not the next one.

The moon was small, its sole continent even smaller, but even so the university was too sprawling for one person or even a dozen to cover the entire grounds. She had to hope that most people would make it to the tunnels in time, and that once word went out through the Rimaljan troops of a defense in one of the buildings, more soldiers would converge on them here, giving the others a greater chance to reach the evacuation ships.

"I'll catch them by the door," she said. She glanced over her three troopers, assessing their battle-readiness. "Jeanne, any that get past me, catch at the first curve on the stairs. Don't worry if you can't stop them all. Daniel, take the next curve, stop the ones that Jeanne can't. Tatiana, you're at the landing, our last line of defense. The soldiers that get by the rest of us are your responsibility. You'll all be protected by the stairs from laser blasts, but don't leave the stairs or you'll be an open target. If we get a break in action, collect the weapons they leave behind, get them up to Tatiana. And remember, toss them off the stairs, break their kneecaps, knock them out, but try not to kill. I'll do that part. Any questions?"

Tatiana hefted a wooden leg she'd smashed off an antique chair in the hallway. Her eyes were drowning in fear, but she licked her lips and took up a stance at the head of the stairs.

Daniel had pulled two heavy wooden spheres out of a sporting display case and linked them together with wires pulled from somewhere, making a kind of crude, handle-less flail-and-chain. His chin jutted out in ferocious determination as he gave her a short, sharp nod and took his place.

Jeanne had raided the same display case as Daniel. She'd pulled out a heavy angled trophy with sharp edges along the bend to use as a knife substitute, and in her other hand she carried a bat. She seemed as cool and calm as she ever did in class as she crouched at the first curve. Tel had to admit that the girl had more gumption than her great-uncle.

Tel positioned herself beside the main door. She closed her eyes and settled herself. Fighting mode came back more quickly than she would have believed possible, though there was a tremor in her hands she'd never had before.

Then the door burst open and there was no more time to think.

Tel swung without looking and felt the rod slam into the stomach of the first soldier through the entrance. Even as she disengaged, she lifted her leg and kicked the one next to him in the knee, driving him backward into the next two soldiers approaching. She whirled on instinct, dodging a laser blast that lifted the hair on the back of her neck, and smashed the spiked end of the rod into another soldier's face. That one dropped the phase rifle she was holding. Tel snatched it out of midair, switching her rod to her left hand and whacking another soldier in the back of the head as she did so. Then the rifle was secure in the crook of her arm, and she sprayed the doorway with indiscriminate fire.

A few had slipped past her; she heard Jeanne and Daniel engaged in battle. If Tatiana was fighting, she was silent as she did so.

The phase rifle sputtered and died, the curse of those effective but short-lived weapons. Tel threw it in the face of a Rimaljan sergeant and went back to work with the rod. The Rimaljans were scattering, caught off-guard. They clearly hadn't been expecting any kind of organized defense, especially not one this ferocious. A less experienced individual might have hoped to take advantage of that to win, but Tel knew doing so would only prolong the fight. Eventually numbers would tell, the students would falter, or her age would get the best of her, and the Rimaljans would get past them.

That was all right. She wasn't here to win. This was a delaying action, that was all. There was always a chance that Dag's reinforcements would get here in time, but she couldn't count on that. All she could think of now was that each second they held the soldiers off was another chance for the rest of the school to get to the ships. After that, their fate was in their pilots' and Admiral Karan's hands.

Another soldier fell at her feet. Tel couldn't even remember killing this one. The young woman held a laser pistol in her death grip.

"Here! Professor! Toss me the gun!" Jeanne shouted.

Tel slid on one knee, broke the pistol free with a practiced twist, and risked a glance over her shoulder to place the toss. Jeanne waved a hand over the curve, and Tel arced the gun to land in her palm. The spat-pat-pat of laser pistol fire filled the air behind her. She hoped Jeanne was an experienced enough shot to not nail her in the back.

A big soldier loomed before her, and Tel slammed the rod toward his head. He dodged, caught the rod in one hand, and ripped it from her grip. Tel cursed between her teeth. Old age! Thirty years ago no brute could have wrenched her weapon from her. Never mind, she had other defenses.

The soldier wasn't expecting an old woman to press a hand-to-hand attack. She used all his weight and strength against him, grabbing his hand, twisting his arm, using his own momentum to swing him around and throw him into the oncoming soldiers. He vanished into the dogpile, but her rod was gone, too. Tel wiped a smear of blood from her upper lip—her own or someone else's, she couldn't tell—and pulled her vibroknife from her boot. She hated close-quarters weapons like these, but they were better than nothing.

"Tati, one got past me!" shouted Daniel, followed by a thump as Tatiana threw that one off the landing. "Jeanne, on your left!" Splat-scream as Jeanne shot the soldier. Good. She'd suspected Daniel, with his eye for detail, would be a good one for that middle post. Jeanne, the ferocious one, stemmed the tide of whatever Tel let through, Daniel could watch the entire battle and still work a defense, and Tatiana was their last bastion as well as having the best chance of surviving and escaping, for her daughter's sake, whenever Tel at last was overwhelmed.

So far adrenaline and experience were on her side, but she could feel herself slowing. More and more were getting past her; more and more frequently she escaped being shot, stabbed, or smacked by the barest moment. It couldn't last. She really was too old for war. We're out, Dag, she thought wryly, dodging another flying fist and tripping its owner neatly, stabbing downward as he fell. We're definitely out.

"Look out, Professor!" came the cry from Daniel, but too late. Tel half-turned, taking the blast meant for her heart in her upper arm instead. It was enough. Pain and exhaustion flooded her in an instant, shocking in their intensity. She lost her grip on the vibroknife, staggered backward, and was nearly overwhelmed by the sudden rush of soldiers. So this was how she'd go. She only hoped the students would be sensible and flee.

Instead, she heard a banshee wail, followed by the thwack-whack of Daniel's flailing spheres and firing of Jeanne's pistol as the students rushed down the staircase toward her instead of away. Two hands slid beneath her armpits.

"I've got her!" Tatiana shouted. "Cover us!"

Tel tried to tell them to leave her, to run for it, but her mouth wasn't working properly, and the idiots wouldn't have listened anyway. They wanted to be heroes, they had seen her fight, they believed in her. They wouldn't fail her, because they had faith she couldn't fail them. They were fools. They were children. They were beautiful.

Tati got her up to the landing. Daniel and Jeanne, both now armed with rifles and pistols alike, followed, flinging themselves down on their stomachs at the top of the stairs to fire down and keep the Rimaljans at bay. Slowly, life returned to Tel as Tati bound her arm with a strip torn from a university flag on display down the hall.

"I'm sorry there's nothing better," she said. "No emergency medical kits along the hall."

Tel struggled to a sitting position. "Listen to me," she said. "You three need to go, now. You've done all you can. We slowed them down, now it's time to run."

They looked at each other briefly, before Jeanne and Daniel returned to shooting. "What about you?" Jeanne asked.

Tel shook her head. "I can't run. Too old, too tired. Leave me the guns. I'll buy you time."

"No," said Tati.

Tel closed her eyes. She didn't have time for this. They didn't have time. "You promised to follow my orders."

"Not stupid ones," Tatiana said. "Not ones that are you sacrificing yourself for us. We're in this together, Professor, all four of us. Or should that be General?"

Tel opened her eyes to stare at the bright, determined face.

"You are General Teleria Ames, aren't you?" Tati demanded. "I recognized the rod. Grandmother told me about it. Told me that you could always know when General Ames and the Misfits were around because, one, you'd always see that altered rod thumping away at the enemy, and two, they always pulled off the impossible. And I saw the way you fought."

There didn't seem to be any point in denying it. "Your grandmother was in the war?"

Tati nodded. "Not in your brigade. She fought under General Mason."

Mason had been a good man, a good leader and a cunning warrior. Dead now, like so many others. "Listen to me," Tel said. "I'm not a legend. I'm a person. One person. Even if half the stories they tell about me were true, that's the past. I can't fight like that anymore. I can't pull off a miracle. I'm telling you now to run, because I can't save you if you don't."

"Then we'll save you, Prof—General," Jeanne said. She tilted her head back long enough to grin at Tel. "General Ames, huh? My great-uncle hated you, always said your reputation was exaggerated. I can't wait to tell him how wrong he was."

"We're not leaving you behind, General," Daniel said. "Isn't that one of the mottoes of your brigade? Never leave a person behind?"

That was one of the false rumors. They'd had to cut their losses many a time, leave too many people to die in order to get the job done. Tel had felt every betrayal like a stab in her gut.

"Actually," she said. "We were generally too busy to come up with any mottoes."

"Well, that's our motto," Tati said. "No professor left behind. Jeanne, hand me one of those guns."

Tel felt tears prick her eyes as Tati joined the other two. They could hold off the Rimaljans for a while, but what happened when the phase rifles ran out? The laser pistols would only be effective for so long before the Rimaljans overwhelmed the stairs with sheer weight of numbers. There had to be something she could do, some plan to fulfill their faith in her ... but what? She was out of resources, and out of ideas.

Then a familiar howl filled her ears. For a moment, Tel thought she was hallucinating. It came again, and this time she knew it was true. Perhaps she wasn't out of resources after all. Dag had come through.

The other three heard it as well. Their gunfire slackened as they hesitated, looking around.

"What is it, Professor?" Daniel asked. "Rimaljan weapons?"

"No," said Tel, unashamed of the tears now streaking her cheeks. "It's the Misfits."

Prthna had started the howl, the traditional war cry her people had used for generations. The rest had picked it up, and it had become a way for them to announce themselves on the field of battle. Tel looked out the window. Here they came, pouring out of an old, battered troop ship, Dag and Prthna at their head. Gray-haired, balding, hands speckled with liver spots, faces lined, some of them half deaf or blind, many of them missing limbs from the war. Grandmothers, grandfathers, and those who never had a chance to become either because of the hidden wounds the war had dealt. If Tel squinted she could almost see Lucky, Felix, and the rest of the ghosts of the past running alongside them.

The Rimaljans didn't have a chance. The Misfits hit them like an ocean wave and kept on going, flowing into the building while Daniel, Jeanne, and Tati stood up and cheered.

"Dag, I meant divert a squadron here, not come yourself," Tel said, wiping her eyes with her good hand while her faithful old friend fussed over her other arm.

"Couldn't leave our general in a bind," he said gruffly. "Prthna and I and the rest here had already come together to talk over our plans for the war when your message came through. Lucky Prthna settled on a planet so close to the university moon, eh?"

"We can't stay, General," Prthna said. "We took care of this lot, but there's more Rimaljans on the other side of the university. We're an extraction team, not a planetary defense."

"The evacuation ships just broke orbit, with some of our fighters guarding them," Dag said, checking his wrist tracker. "There's nothing left to protect here, General. Save you, and these three. New recruits?"

"Yes, sir." Jeanne grinned.

"By all means, let's get out of here," Tel said.

Prthna threw one arm around Tel's waist and with Dag supporting her other side, they staggered down the stairs and toward the transport. Out of the corner of her eye, Tel saw Tati stop and grab something from the mass of dead soldiers, but she couldn't take the time to worry about it.

Strapped into a seat, an aged medic fussing over her arm, Tel still didn't breathe properly until they broke orbit and, after trading a few token shots with the Rimaljan destroyer, entered deep space. Then and only then did she lean her head back and let the tension flow out of her muscles.

Tatiana unstrapped and came to squat next to her. "I found this, General," she said. "I thought you might want it back." She held out the white rod, a little battered now, but still functional. Tel took it in her good hand. She pulled in the spikes, retracted the armor, and shrank it back down to what it had begun life as: a mere symbol.

"So," said Dag, perching on the other arm of her seat. He nodded at the rod. "We in, or was this one last hurrah?"

Tel found the path ahead clear. She looked at her old team and new, and she knew there was only one choice. Whatever weight she still carried from her deeds in the past, she couldn't continue to hold onto it. She had enjoyed being Professor Tela Rushton, but the galaxy needed General Teleria Ames. It was time to let go of her guilt and do whatever it took to keep this generation alive. After all, that was what she'd wanted in teaching, wasn't it? To give these students the best life possible? The definition of a best life had shifted the moment this war began, but her goals had not. She clenched her fist around the rod.

"We're in, Dag. We're all in."

About the Author
E.L. Bates is a writer living on Massachusetts' north shore. A storyteller from the time she could talk, as soon as she learned to write she began putting her stories on paper and inflicting them on the general public. Stories of magic and derring-do have been her favorites from almost as young, followed shortly by space opera and other science fiction. She is a firm believer in Lloyd Alexander's maxim that "fantasy is not an escape from reality; it is a way of understanding reality." It's also a lot of fun both to write and to read. With two children at home, most of her days are spent writing living epistles, but when she gets the chance she enjoys reading, knitting, and ice skating. You can find her online at stardancepress.com.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link