Second Chance at the Stars

Chapter One

“Lady Mother,” Adena whispered, lips barely moving. “I don’t think I can do this.” She knelt in front of the wooden altar set into the long wall of the parlor, the cold creeping in through her thin shift as her gaze passed the blocky form of the All Father, to rest her eyes and hopes on the slender figure of the Lady. “Let there be another option. And please, while I’m away, take care of Matilde. Don’t let—”

The door exploded inward, and her eyes flew open as her cousin Matilde shrieked in surprise.

“They’re here!” The baker’s son Brant, small and slight for his ten years, stood at the door. Shock paled his face; his breathing came in gasps, eyes staring.

Adena hurried over to him. “Sit down. Put your head between your knees and take deep breaths.”

She guided the child to a stool by the stout oak table, avoiding her cousin’s eyes. She didn’t want to see the worry she knew would be there, the fear reflecting her own heart. She sent a healing wave through her hand into the boy’s chest, doing little more than comforting, easing his lungs. The boy took three gasping breaths then sat up, eyes focused now. “On the hill to the north of town… the old pasture we cleared…”

Matilde poured the boy a glass of water from the stoneware pitcher. “The strangers arrived? Wasn’t that what we’d expected?”

Adena shot her a sharp glance. For all her cousin’s mild manner and cheerful disposition, she held precious little patience for people repeating the obvious. Even when badly frightened. “Expecting it and seeing it are two different things.”

The boy shook his head. “It’s… I don’t know what it is. We placed that box that arrived from the capital in the middle of the field yesterday, and stayed all night to make sure to keep all the sheep far back. This morning… it was there.” He stared at Adena. “Is everything like that away from Crucible? Are they really demons?”

Adena forced a smile. “I don’t think the Council would have asked for help from demons, do you?” She ruffled his hair, glad to see the color returning to his cheeks. “They’re different than us, that’s all. We’ll keep to our ways, and they’ll be gone and away soon enough.”

Matilde rested her hand on Adena’s shoulder. “Speaking of gone and away….”

Adena closed her eyes. “Let’s start getting me ready.”

They sent the boy back to his mother with an apple and began the process of dressing. A long white chemise with lace at the cuffs and around the gathered neckline was covered by a full, deep blue skirt of fine wool. Adena began lacing the front of the bodice, but curls of black hair escaped her braid to twist through the laces.

Matilde laughed and took over. “How are you going to manage on your own?” Her fingers stopped their work and she gazed straight into Adena’s eyes. “You should take me with you.”

Adena’s heart ached. To have her cousin and closest friend with her would make anything bearable. Except they’d both be there. With them. She shook her head. “I need you here, safe. Besides, your father would never allow it.”

Matilde pressed her lips together. “I’m not so sure.”

Adena squeezed her cousin’s hand. It was true. Beric had changed over the last year. He’d always been a proud man, but now it seemed his ambitions grew with no thought of the consequences. And both she and Matilde knew where to lay the blame.

As if summoned by their thoughts, Phaylle drifted in. A rare beauty with her long pale hair and violet eyes, the effect was spoiled by the petulant set of her mouth. Two years ago the young widow arrived in town and quickly set her cap at the newly widowed mayor.

Neither Matilde nor Adena had known more than a moments of peace since.

“Aren’t you ready yet?”

Adena kept her face carefully neutral as Phaylle wandered through the house, picking up and putting down small items. She returned to the door, not bothering to help Matilde and Adena as they tugged sleeves on over the chemise and tied them to the bodice at the shoulders.

“You don’t have to do this,” Matilde whispered fiercely. “We can go to Aunt Vania’s. She’ll take us in.”

Adena shook her head. They’d been over this so many times, there was no need for words. Their mothers’ eldest sister had trained as a healer and was well respected in her own village, a day’s walk to the east. But Beric had more influence with the Council. Involving Vania would only prolong the inevitable and get more people hurt.

Matilde smoothed her hair back. “You tell those people I’ll kill them if they hurt you.”

Adena smiled at the thought of her small sparrow of a cousin flying against the warriors from the stars. Demons.

“Love you.” She rested her forehead against Matilde’s.

A deep sigh from the door pushed them apart. “I’m waiting.”

Adena stooped to pick up her bag, moving the ginger tomcat who claimed it as his napping spot. She scratched behind his ears. “You take care of her, hear me?”

On the threshold Adena looked back at Matilde, clutching the cat to her chest and silently crying.

I won’t let this happen to you. No matter what.

***

“I wish I had better news.”

The viewscreen flickered, but not enough for Nic to miss the worry that flashed across the red, pebbled skin of his friend’s broad face.

“There’s not much you can do. Either they’ll decide to proceed with the court martial…” Nic’s throat tightened, the shame and disgust burning in his stomach.

“Or they’ll pull their heads out of their asses and see what a cluster that entire siege was.” Skran offered.

“In all the years we’ve served as Enforcers, how often have we seen that particular miracle?” Nic grinned at Skran. Leaders of different Units, they’d been created for one thing – fight the battles of the Fifth Great Solian Alliance. Nic remembered the first time they had teamed their Units in battle, over a hundred cycles ago. And to have it end like this…

Nic’s commlink chimed. “Gotta go, briefing.”

“You going to tell them?”

Nic shook his head. “There’s enough for everyone to deal with now. New day, new mission.”

Skran looked doubtful. “Your Unit, but be careful.”

“Aren’t we always?”

Skran laughed. “No, we’re Enforcers. Careful isn’t part of the design, is it?” He punched out and the viewscreen disappeared.

Nic looked around his quarters. Plain, grey, quiet. A place to sleep, to file reports, to plan. A row of carved figures no larger than his fist lined the back of his desk. Each one a memory, an assignment, a battlefield, a planet. Talin-4. Braktos’ second moon. His eyes fell on a half-finished piece, the shell of the transor carved, but the rest of the body still hidden by the wood. Carthak. His bile rose, and when the chime came again, he turned away from the desk gladly.

The knot in his stomach had only tightened during the trip down the transport to the ready room.

The rest of the unit had already assembled. Designed by a single team of engineers and grown from the same batch, they had been crafted with different abilities and different appearances. Kennet had pulled up a number of screens and flicked through them. Thin and tall, the dark charcoal streaks on the sides of his face and down his arms on his grey skin elongated him further. His white hair was pulled back at the nape of his neck, spilling over the collar of his shirt.  Kennet looked engrossed in his work, but Nic had a suspicion the pale analyst was trying to ignore the berserker sprawled in the giant chair beside him. As tall as Kennet, and with shoulders almost twice the width, Gavin’s copper skin and tawny hair eclipsed his surroundings. Next to the bulk of Gavin, Jormoi’s slight frame appeared deceptively small. Close cut auburn hair revealed bright blue eyes. Nic shook his head. From the look on Jormoi’s face, he was planning something. Gavin was the usual target of his humor, and Nic normally wouldn’t care, but today wasn’t the time.

Nic took his own seat. “We dematerialize in less than a cycle. Kennet, what do the latest scans show?”

“That this is still a stupid assignment.” Gavin joked.

“What, exactly, is your problem?” Nic grit his teeth. Too many balls in the air for Gavin to have a tantrum. More like too many bombs.

Gavin shrugged. “Some religious fanatics can’t run their colony—what does that have to do with us?”

Kennet cut in. “It’s our assignment. That’s what is has to do with us. And it may be more interesting than that.” He snapped one of the scans to the center of the table, where it expanded to fill the center of the desk. They all leaned in.

“Look at that mountain range on the largest continent.” The map zoomed. “The colonists settled to the south, where the soil was better for farming.”

Jormoi uncurled. “They’re neo-Zorians, right? No replicators. No tech at all, to speak of. They’d care about soil.”

Nic pulled his own records. “The government suspects some of their people have gone rogue, are hiding in the mountains.”

“And that’s the problem.” Kennet panned the area. “That range, and the lands to the north, are rich in Acetanium.”

Gavin grinned. “So that’s why we’re here.”

Nic nodded. “The Alliance wouldn’t mind getting their hands on that.”

“Of course. A stable element that can be converted to a fuel source with minor processing?” Kennet dropped the map. “However, it does make it difficult to get valid readings in that area.”

Jormoi stretched. “So, I’ll be busy. I’m fine with that.”

Nic rose. “This should be simple. Get in, figure out what’s going on, reopen this planet for assimilation by the Alliance.”

And hope by Xantar’s Rings a successful mission is enough to save our skins, he thought.

***

Adena didn’t look behind her, didn’t look at Phaylle as she crossed the threshold of the house she’d visited for her entire life and lived in for the last three years. While Matilde’s mother had been alive love and laughter filled the house. No more.

She climbed into the cart next to Beric, put her bag at her feet and stared ahead, said nothing as he clicked to start the team. The silence continued as the mules trudged through the edges of town. Tidy white washed homes, thatched roofs and gardens out front. So normal for such an abnormal day. Children’s faces peered at her from windows, to be snatched away by mothers, worried that her fate could be somehow catching.

“This didn’t have to be the way things went. It’s your own fault you’re not in your own home and married.” He didn’t turn towards her as he spoke. She looked at him from the corner of her eye. Straight brown hair, sun reddened skin showing from behind a full beard. For years she thought she’d loved him, been a part of his home.

She looked away. “I was heartbroken when Kaylyn died, was glad to come home and help Mathilde keep house. I missed you all so much. I trusted you.” A slow drizzle started, seeping into her cloak, chilling her to the bone.

He snorted. “You were a jumped up little miss, over filled with your own importance. Needed to be taken in hand.”

Adena shook her head. Phaylle’s poisoned words, whispered over and over into Beric’s ears, until he thought them his own. The road grew steeper as they turned to go through the woods.

“What will you do to Matilde?”

He frowned. “Why should anything happen to her? She’s a good girl, does as she’s told.”

The forest fell quiet around them. “If,” she swallowed. “If she can’t stay at home, for whatever reason, please send her to Vania. Please. You promised if I did this, didn’t argue, you’d leave her alone.”

“None of your concern. If you wanted to stay a part of her life, you should have taken the path you were offered.”

Offered. She closed her eyes and shuddered. She snapped them open at his gasp. They’d broken clear of the trees and for the first time she could see what had so terrified the boy.

The high broad hill had been burned bare, as instructed. Nothing remained. And now, out of nowhere, against all reason, a black mountain appeared, tall and gleaming like a gash of night against the sky.

Adena shivered with more than the cold, as she imagined what lay ahead for her.

 

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