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Reaver’s Quest: Chapter Two

Dakath

“You will regret this.” 

The wind ripped away the words as Klov said them, but it did not matter.

I did not need to hear the menace in his voice to know it was there, as present as the brightening glow of the morning sun, still heavy against the ridgeline.

His claws wrapped around my throat was proof enough as wings locked, we plummeted through the air towards the floor of the battle arena. “Stop fighting now, and I will forgive this disloyalty.”

Swinging my arms quickly upwards I broke away, then kicked out, using his chest as a springboard to gain distance between us. “I will never regret fighting for the aerie,” I answered.

With strong wing strokes I gained height, circling.

Klov kept pace with me, but more slowly, age slowing him down.

“You serve the aerie as I command,” he spat.

A circle of warriors kept pace with us, long ritual staffs held crossways, their presence both forming the boundaries of the arena and marking witness to the outcome.

I dove towards Klov, then with a wing-wrenching turn changed directions, snapping my staff hard into his left side.

“You have been Warleader long enough.” I jerked my staff to free it, but his heavy arm had trapped it to his side, locking me to him once more.

Thrak it all!

Before I could pull it away, a strange buzzing noise filled my ears.

I looked around sharply, but no one else seemed to hear it.

No one but Klov.

“I’m not done being Warleader, Dakath.” A nasty smirk split his face, displaying his worn, yellowed fangs.

“And I’m not done using you. Not yet.”

The buzzing grew louder as his ritual staff arced towards me.

And then there was nothing but pain, and falling.

***

“You all witnessed his crimes. Now hear his punishment.”

Despite the buzzing still echoing in my head, aching in my ribs and the strain in my arms from being tethered behind me around one of the supporting columns on the cavern, I was alive.

But given Klov’s purr of contentment, I was not certain if this was a good thing.

Forcing my eyes to open, I looked around the torch lit chamber.

Years ago, before I had earned my place as a warrior, this had been the Council room.

Now, Klov alone ruled.

He sat at ease, half sprawling in the large chair he’d claimed for his own use.

The rest of the clan had gathered, lining the walls,

It was easy to pick out Klov’s supporters by their smug grins, the torchlight glinting off the metal braided into their hair.

His hand-picked guardsmen ranged on either side of the throne, Evrik, their leader, watching as intently as a starving serkit.

The rest, less favored warriors, as well as the older men who had survived long enough to retire from battle and serve the aerie in other ways, kept their eyes downcast.

“What do you want?” I croaked.

Klov rose to his feet. “You claim to serve the aerie, to fight for our clan,” he said, pacing towards me, arms outstretched, wings spreading behind him. “I’m giving you one more chance to do so.”

Narrowed eyes belied the easy, almost friendly words.

“I need an errand run. Something that surely would be no trouble for a warrior of your caliber.”

“Your errands serve no one but yourself.”

“So quick to condemn,” Klov shrugged, his mild expression only infuriating me more.

“What do you want?”

“Our aerie’s warriors are strong,” Klov started, answered by a roar of approval by his cronies. “And yet our gifts from the ancients are fading. Failing.”

As much as I hated to admit it, in this at least he spoke the truth.

“When you challenged me you claimed to be strong. Strong enough to be warlord.”

I had. 

And I was, I knew it. 

I should have won that fight.

“And it would take the strength and skill and cunning of a warlord to retrieve a new artifact, would it not?”

My head shot up as a murmur ran through the crowd.

Klov ignored it.

“Go to one of the dead cities. Retrieve an artifact.”

His smile sickened me, even as the thought of such a mission stirred something in my blood.

“And if it is of sufficient value to the aerie you may return to our fold.” He turned his back to me, resumed his throne. “If not? Well, no one survives on their own in the wastes forever.”

***

Exiled.

Klov’s guard surrounded me, led me from the Council chamber, past the cold stares of the rest of the warriors.

I might as well be dead already.

By failing my challenge, I’d ostracized myself.

I’d been left my dagger, the insult clear that even armed I was no threat.

The eight of them kept silence as we worked our way up through the mountain, finally emerging at a jagged ledge near the top, looking out to the rocky valley below.

From behind a pile of rocks, Evrik pulled out my nakav, tossing it lightly in one hand.

They had been prepared, my weapon placed here in readiness.

Klov had known I would accept his quest, despite it being nothing more than a delayed death sentence.

I reached for my nakav, but Fred yanked it back.

“Don’t try anything foolish,” he taunted, then tossed it towards me.

I snatched it from the air, fingers curling around the haft of the bladed staff, years of training guiding my hands into the first defensive position without even thought.

Evrik snorted, hand resting lightly on his own weapon.

“Although, if you were to decide to try to avenge your honor against all of us, we wouldn’t mind.”

Of course they wouldn’t.

I could only imagine it would make Klov pleased to have me dead, victim of nothing but my own temper.

“Who wants trouble?” I flexed my wings, stepping to the edge, letting the clean mountain air wash over me. “I’ve got an errand to complete. Remember?”

Springing away from them, my wings stretched out as I glided away, then with strong beats drove myself further across the valley.

The weak light of the winter day stretched reddish fingers across the jagged terrain below.

Despite the aches of my body and the bitterness of defeat, I could not deny the exhilaration that coursed through my veins.

To be free of the poisoned atmosphere that had permeated the aerie.

Even knowing the mission was doomed to failure, it had been far too long since I’d have felt any purpose other than the destruction of Klov.

A pair of cyloks screamed in the air above me, circling and diving but pulling up well away from the reach of my weapon.

Stupid raptors did not live long, not here on Thaxos.

Distracted by the raptors’ antics, I was unprepared for the blast of light that blazed across my eyes.

Pulling up sharply I searched the landscape below.

There it was again.

A flash of sunlight on metal, flickering back-and-forth.

“Fools,” I muttered, but couldn’t keep the pleased grin from my face as I dove towards the outcropping.

As I approached, I wasn’t surprised to find that Stelkar had stood in the sunlight, using the blade of his own nakav to catch my attention.

Rothva stood beside him, leaning casually against the rough stone, relaxed shoulders giving no hint of the deadly temper within.

“You weren’t planning to leave without us, did you?” Stelkar asked.

“As a matter of fact, I hadn’t planned this part at all.”

“Idiot,” Stelkar said, then grasped my forearm with his own. “The moment you challenged Klov, he made sure we were sent as far as possible to guard the far pass,” he added.

“He may be a decaying piece of bawet meat, but he’s not stupid,” Rothva said. 

“That’s part of the problem,” I dropped down to my haunches, hand rubbing at my temples where the faint echo of the buzzing noise still echoed.

“He’s smart. So you’ll need to be twice as smart. Stay out of his way until we do have a better plan.”

“That’ll be easy,” Stelkar said. “We’re going with you. Can’t get much more out of the way than that.”

It was tempting.

Past raids on the cities had come with a high casualty count. 

Best friends at my side, lethal warriors both, might mean the difference between success and death.

But still…

“I need you here,” I decided. “We can’t be the only ones in the clan who see how wrong Klov’s rule has become. Find allies for us, find a weakness we can use.”

“What good are allies going to do if you don’t return it all?” Rothva asked, eyes narrowed.

“I’ll return,” I said. “And with an artifact.” I rose to my feet. “But Klov will live to regret what he asked for.”

Reaver’s Quest: Chapter One

Sarah

“No touching, please,” I ground out from between my teeth as I twirled away from the blue tentacle that had wrapped around my hip.

Eww.

Sticky.

Keeping my professional smile plastered on my face I twirled and shimmed my way back up and down the long T-shaped platform.

Just think of the payout, I reminded myself. No more student loans, no more fitting two jobs in between classes, just as soon as this hell cruise was over.

A purple Shendairan, looking like a cross between a praying mantis and a cat, clicked its mandibles at me.

“Not bad, for a flesh bag of cookies.”

At least, that’s what the translator implant said.

The consortium of Loliax who owned this cut-rate interstellar cruise had provided all of us poor Earthlings with them, but back in the dorm deck, we’d been comparing notes.

Every night of the three weeks since we’d come on board had provided at least one terrible, hysterical mis-translation. 

Either the devices were shoddy, or whoever had programmed in basic Terran hadn’t really understood what pancakes were.

One song blaring out of the speakers shifted to another, and Masie, the second girl on this shift in the Starlight Lounge, stumbled slightly.

She was actually a talented dancer, not that it did us much good here.

“That’s a terrible transition,” she muttered under her breath as we passed each other. 

She was right.

Cyndi Lauper should probably never be played in the same mixtape as Ministry, and following it with Nirvana made my head hurt.

Only having a best friend in high school who had been fascinated by vintage musical styles let me know the difference.

But the Loliax, probably like most humans, thought all late 20th Human music was the same.

Thankfully we didn’t have to pretend to be sexy, as few of the sentients in the room were even vaguely humanoid.

As dancers, we were less like strippers, and more like animals at a zoo.

Which was good.

My flannel shirt was considerably warmer than tassels would’ve been, and I certainly wasn’t coordinated enough to manage that whole pole dancing routine without breaking my neck.

Another twirl and a dip, bringing my arms down in a sweep towards the floor, risking a glance at my comm bangle.

Ten minutes until our shift was over.

Thank all the gods of chocolate and coffee.

As I pranced back down the stage, my gaze swept out across the darkened lounge, filled with every kind of alien I could imagine. 

More than I ever had imagined, really, even though Earth had been contacted by the Galactic Alliance forty years ago.

My bestie Hanna probably could identify everyone, but she had dreams of being a xenobiologist.

I was simply a humble historian.

At least, I would be, once I could afford tuition again.

Three minutes left.

My cheeks ached from smiling.

Someone had told the Loliax that a smiling human was a happy human.

No exceptions.

Therefore all twenty of us that had hired onto the Sramiks Dream needed to keep a smile fixed to our faces, or risk endless rounds of customer complaints.

The customers had been promised happy, content primitives, to entertain and amuse them on their cruise.

And that was what they were going to get, no matter how any of us were actually feeling.

Two minutes left.

Hrrrnnngg!  Hrrrnngg!  Hrrrnngg!

The light snapped on in the room, large stripes along the corners quickly rotating through the rainbow in time with the blaring din.

Maisie and I froze mid-shimmy.

We’d seen the emergency beacon once, in our orientation on boarding.

This didn’t feel like a drill.

“Attention honored guests. Unexpected solar activity has been detected. Shielding has been raised. There is no cause for alarm, but for your safety and comfort, we ask all guests to retire to their quarters.”

Maisie grasped my hand. “Should we just go to our quarters too? They didn’t say anything about us?”

They hadn’t, but if it wasn’t safe for the guests, it wasn’t safe for us.

“Come on, let’s go,” I nodded, then pulled her behind me.

As the customers muttered and filed out of the lounge we slipped behind the stage, into the gray dingy room that none of the guests would ever see.

None of the other girls were there.

“They must’ve already started down,” I said to Maisie’s questioning look.

Sweet girl. Good dancer. Not terribly bright.

We ran through the service corridors, then down the lift to our deck.

But when we arrived at the dorms, no one else was running around.

Instead they’d gathered in a crowd around Kyla, who was pulling up screen after screen on the terminal.

“What’s going on?” I asked, sliding into place next to Hannah.

“We’ve got more to worry about than just solar flares,” Kyla answered me without looking behind her. “Before the alarm went off, I was poking around the Loli’s bridge systems.”

Of course she had been. Her shifts at the lounge were just a distraction from her real interest — learning everything possible about Galactic computer systems. 

“They’re not just raising the shielding, they’re preparing to disengage the passenger disc,” she continued.

“Wait, what?” I blurted as Hannah hand gripped mine. 

“They’re leaving us?” Masie asked at the same moment.

All of us looked at each other in horror.

I mean sure, we knew The Sramiks Dream was designed to separate in case of extreme emergencies, the disk that held the bridge and the passenger cabins having its own, smaller jump drive.

But surely they wouldn’t do something like that just for a solar flare, right? I mean, even old Earth could handle something like that. 

“They can’t do that,” another voice broke through my shock, and then the room was filled with the sound of all twenty of us talking at once.

Which wasn’t going to do any of us any good.

“All right!” I shouted, hands over my head. “We can argue all day about what they can or can’t do, but it looks like they’re doing it anyway.”

Kayla glanced at the screen, nodded. “Separation will be complete in five minutes.”

“So let’s focus on what we can do.” Not that I knew what that was.

“Escape pods,” Hannah announced. “We need to get into them now.”

“They’re not going to leave us,” Allison argued, arms crossed over her chest. “We have a contract with them. How do we even know that Kayla is reading those screens right?”

“Make you a deal,” I said. “Thirty minutes in the pods, just in case. And if Kayla’s wrong, and we’re all over reacting, I’ll take your shifts for the rest of the cruise.”

Allison rolled her eyes. “I’m not that much of a bitch.” Her lips twisted into a half-smile. “Fine, I’ll get into my pod. But I reserve the right to tease you all until we’re back on Earth.”

“Four minutes,” Kayla said.

“But where do we go, if…” Masie’s lips were pressed into a thin line.

Hannah looked at the circle of faces that gathered around us. “Once they’re deployed, the pods will automatically search for a planet that matches the biological needs of the sentient inside, remember?” Her smile looked forced, even to me. “And if it’s a long way off, we’ll just sleep for the ride.”

“Not going to happen,” Allison insisted. “They’re not going to abandon us.”

Kayla turned back to the screens. “I’m piping the external cameras to the view screens in each pod. We’ll know soon enough what happens, or doesn’t.”

“Anyone have a better plan?” I asked. “Then let’s go. Thirty minutes. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Dashing to our cabin, Hannah and I grabbed the first things we thought of.

“CheezE puffs and your tablet,” she teased, even as she tossed her own tablet into a bag.

I shrugged as I pulled the blanket off my bunk. “If Allison is right and nothing happens, I’ll get a reading break. And if not…”

Ice balled in my stomach as the panic I’d been pushing away ever since the first alarm sounded washed over me.

Hannah hugged me tightly. “If not, we’ll find each other, and figure it out from there, right?”

“Right.” Swallowing hard, I steadied my legs, and pulled it together. “Let’s go enjoy that break.”

Each cabin had two pods set into the outer hull, not much more than tubes, barely large enough for me to raise my arms over my head.

As the hatch sealed behind me, the small screen filled with the view from the external cameras from our section of the ship, just as Kayla had promised. The long body of the Dream stretched before us, ending in a massive domed disc.

“See, they’re not going anywhere,” Allison’s voice was tiny through the pod-to-pod comms. “I’m taking a nap.”

“Everything is going to be fine,” I murmured, clutching the blanket to my chest. “This is just a false alarm. A weird day. A story to laugh about later.”

And then a jolt shook the pod, and nothing was fine at all.

Slowly, the disc moved further away from us, until a thin crescent of black was visible between the two parts of the ship.

Then a white hot flare circled around the disc. 

“Guys, that’s the jump drive powering up,” Kayla’s voice sounded distant.

No one answered her. 

We all watched, locked into our pods, as the light moved faster and faster until it was a single burning loop of fire.

Then a flash of gold filled the screens, and the Dream didn’t jump.

It exploded.

The pods deployed.

And as the sleeping gas filled my lungs a last thought wandered through my mind.

I guess we’re in for a ride after all…

Alien’s Treasure: Chapter Two

Kyla

All my life, I’d been plagued by anxious dreams, the type where you arrive at a classroom naked or have to sit down to take a test you’d never prepared for.

Or, after I grew up a little, I used to dream of returning to a hated job and having to log into a computer system where you didn’t know the password and were under a time crunch, stuff like that.

The thing about those dreams? Some part of me always knew they weren’t real. It was always a relief to wake up and escape them, but not a surprise.

This time… This time was different.

Not only was I unsure what was real and what wasn’t, but the dreams also seemed to stretch on and on. It felt like I’d drifted in and out for weeks… but that couldn’t be possible.

In my dreams, I’d worked my real-life job as an assistant in a small publishing house.

Being a grunt meant I got to do all the dirty work. That meant going through the slush pile — an industry term for reading through manuscripts submitted by hopeful writers. It would seem like a dream, especially for someone like me, who loves to read.

But the dirty little secret was that most of the hopeful authors submitted incorrectly formatted work with… extremely questionable uses of the English language. That was if they hadn’t mailed outright insane manifestoes. I got my share of those, too.

And sometimes the cover letter was written in crayon.

The way my particular publishing house worked was I received a cut of every good selling book that’d made it up the ranks. It was a great idea in theory, but a bad one in execution.

Not only did I have to find a worthwhile story in a literary pile of crap, but if it didn’t sell well on the market, I’d also be out some much-needed money.

In my dreams—or were they reality? I couldn’t tell anymore. My memory seemed to fade in and out, punctuated by things which couldn’t be real.

Anyway, in my dreams, I went through one manuscript after the other, frantically searching, searching, searching for any hint of something that could be pounded into publishable shape.

Did this person submit their manuscript in wingdings?

I blinked and looked outside. The San Francisco skyline had gone as dark as it did every evening with the bright city lights illuminating the foggy air. I blinked my tired eyes, then reached up to rub the bridge of my nose.

Was it ten o’clock already? I could’ve sworn it was only six a couple of minutes ago, and I’d just thought about taking a break. But then I became obsessed with finding that one good manuscript…

I had to get home. My office was okay, but I didn’t want to make the trip home too late at night.

Shoving the thick pile of manuscripts into my huge tote bag, I packed up and headed home.

Even then, I couldn’t help myself and plucked out a manuscript at random to read on the bus ride back to my cramped little studio apartment.

The best I’d say about this one was that it was written in English.

But… it appeared to be a philosophical tome about herding cows, when we were a romance publishing company.

“Yee haw,” I muttered to myself, slipping the manuscript to the bottom of the bag.

Once I got home, I made myself some cereal — the dinner of champions— as well as a mug of hot tea. Then I changed into my pajamas and sat beside the lamp at my desk to continue reading through the pile. My muted, forgotten TV provided the only other illumination.

That part of the dream seemed normal. Almost like a memory that I’d had a long time ago.

It even included the part where I fell asleep at my desk. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. I liked to consider myself a work-hard, play-hard type of girl.

But also unfortunately, the only thing I’d done recently was work hard.

The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back, still in my pajamas, surrounded by little green aliens.

That part… had to be a dream. Maybe Close Encounters of the Third Kind had been on my TV, or those little green beings had popped out of some broken part of my psyche. 

I’d experienced sleep paralysis before and although I was “awake”, I couldn’t move, couldn’t even scream. In the spirit of every nightmarish alien abduction story, the little green aliens seemed completely uncaring about my terror and discomfort. They were the classic ones you saw on TV: dark forest green skin, big heads, and large black pupilless eyes.

And they’d poked and prodded my pajama clad body with various instruments.

I squeezed my eyes shut, wanting it to end.

And that’s when I felt the pressure on my head, right on the side of my skull. My eyes flew open and I let out a scream that came out as a grunt as one of the aliens stuck something straight into my brain which looked far too much like a syringe for my liking. And it hurt!

This is a dream… This is just a dream… I told myself, hoping, praying, trying to convince myself that if I fell asleep, I’d wake up back at my desk, or better yet, safe in my bed.

But no, instead everything went fuzzy again. The next thing I knew, I was being shoved along, hazy and confused, still in my little pajama pants with the cute teddy bears on them and shuffling in my fuzzy bunny slippers.

There was a… Well, it kind of looked like one of those delivery tubes that old-style banks used to collect checks and stuff from drive-up windows, the ones that were vacuum powered. Only this one was easily six feet high and I was about to be the contents of it.  

It was some kind of pod. They loaded me in, and I turned around just as the glasslike substance sealed around me. Gas hissed and I felt my eyes grow heavy.

What’d felt like a long, long time later, I was vaguely aware something was going on around me. I heard yelling and screaming… But it was far away and in my exhausted, dazed state, I couldn’t find it in myself to care.

The world shattered and jolted around. I felt like I was on a carnival ride, flipped end over end. Or maybe a washing machine on the spin cycle.

Then it finally ended.

The next thing I knew, I blinked my eyes open.

My first thought was: Finally. Those terrible dreams, nightmares, hallucinations, whatever were finally over with. I’d wake up and see everything was okay.

What was that smell?

It wasn’t bad. It was a lot like dead vegetation. Not terrible, but unusual considering my apartment didn’t have so much as a potted plant. I had a black thumb and learned long ago I’d kill anything I tried to grow. 

The air was stiflingly warm, too, and humid, way too humid for San Francisco. Yes, it got foggy, but it hardly ever got hot and foggy.

My eyelids seemed to weigh a million pounds apiece. I cracked them open and focused my vision.

A cat stared down at me.

No. Not a cat. A man in a catsuit. No, a furry?

No… If that was a catsuit, it was the best I’d ever seen. It — he? Maybe? — was covered in gold fur with brown tabby markings over him.

He. Definitely a he, if those broad shoulders and narrow waist were anything to go by.

Despite the fur, he had a square jaw and beautiful green eyes. The rest of him was very human-like from his sharp nose to his pointed pricked ears that came up from his skull. He also wore a khaki-colored shirt, a bandolier with a number of tools, and pants.

Oh and also, he looked really, really pissed.

“Warxle blag fand sthreb.” Something stuttered and sparked in my head. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demanded, the words now suddenly all in English. “That was the worst flight I’ve ever seen in my life. Did you come down blind?”

I opened my mouth, but had no words. There was a cat-man… yelling at me.

And he had a lot more to say.

“Why in all of the seven hellish planets did you have to crash your escape pod on the one part of the planet that actually matters?”

I screamed.

My shriek of fear cut through his tirade, and he stepped back long enough for me to scramble out of the tube and stare around. I was in a jungle. The rainforest?

Where in the world was the closest rainforest to San Francisco? Was I in Central America?

The trees and leaves all around me were broad and… giant in a way I’d never seen before. One of the heart-shaped leaves was blue and purple and just about as wide as I was tall.

That wasn’t normal. And of course, I hadn’t forgotten about my friend, the cat.

He spoke English, even though I was in Central America or somewhere. That wasn’t right, was it?

None of this was right.

When I turned to him, my mouth opened to ask questions. However, he’d looked away, scowling at…some sort of broken object. It seemed to be a pillar of some sort, now lying in pieces on the ground. It looked like it had taken down a few trees when it fell.

I followed the line of sight from the shattered pillar to a few skid marks ending at the tube-like thing I’d been encased in.

I’d seen it before — in my dreams. 

“What happened?” I asked.

He whipped around to me. “You tell me, human!”

“What are you?” I whispered.

He seemed to be too angry to hear me. “What is one of you doing all the way out here? No, don’t answer that, I don’t care. Why’d you feel the need to fly your pod right into the one artificial structure on this entire continent?”

He looked just about angry enough to want to tear his hair out. 

“I didn’t fly anything!” I yelled.

“No, that’s obvious. You just fell out of the sky. There was no flying about it.”

I’d had enough of this.

Maybe I was still dreaming.

Maybe I’d hit my head on something.

But either way, I was done being yelled at.

“Well? What’ll you do about this?” he demanded.

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” I snapped.

“The obelisk, my treasure!” 

It was a weird dream and I’d had enough of it.

With a sniff, I turned from him and stomped away in the opposite direction. Maybe there was a road or something somewhere.

I only took a few steps before I looked down and sighed.

I was still in my pajamas and bunny slippers.

This was going to be a very, very weird day.

Alien’s Treasure: Chapter One

Gir

Tightening my muscles, I sprang through the jungle from branch to branch. My occupation as a treasure hunter had brought me to many different worlds, but this was definitely not one of my favorites.

Not that in general I had a problem with a planet full of outlaws, rogues and criminals, but at the moment my plans didn’t involve dealing with anyone else.

Call me greedy.

Part of that whole ‘treasure hunter’ deal, I’m sure.

This uninhabited section of the continent was hot and humid, and it seemed as though bugs wanted to burrow under my fur, straight into my flesh.y

I landed on a thick branch and flicked my ears to dislodge a particularly annoying stinging insect.

Reaching for my belt, I toggled a small personal force field. This particular force field was one I’d picked up in a marketplace two hunts ago. It was small and had a low yield – not strong enough to stop a fast-moving object like a ballistic weapon that some of the primitive planets wielded, and it might’ve only turned away a glancing blow of a blade.

No, this force field’s most important and valuable function was the ability to repel insects.

I pressed it and a low hum filled my ears. Slightly annoying, but something I’d learn to dismiss after a few minutes. The batteries didn’t last long and I’d have to turn it off and allow the device to recharge once night came.

However, the days here were long. If luck was with me, I wouldn’t be on this planet come nightfall.

A low-key ding rang between my ears, then through my implant came the professionally concerned voice of my AI.

“Is everything okay, Gir?”

“Yes, of course it is.”

My AI was relentless. “I’ve detected the activation of your personal force field. Are you in any danger?”

“You’re my AI, not my mother.”

I rolled my eyes.

I once had a partner who’d called my AI the equivalent of a nanny bot. It wasn’t a direct translation from his species, but close enough.

I’d always reduce the settings so the AI wouldn’t be as annoyingly worried about me. That way, it wouldn’t have the ability to check in on me at random times. But it was nice to pretend somebody else cared, even if it was annoying and was actually a computer function only following its programming.

I’d been lonely for a long time. I’d learned to deal with it.

 “I’m fine,” I repeated, annoyed but secretly pleased, then aggravated at myself all over again. I shouldn’t have to rely on an AI computer system to check in on me.

Wasn’t that the duty of one’s mate?

Ah, but in order to acquire a mate, I’d first have to slow down enough to court one. I was busy and although I’d had some relationships, nothing had been serious. My constant travel wasn’t appealing to a potential mate from my species.

I glanced up at the sky. The thick jungle had an overabundance of chlorophyll, which seemed to permeate the air. As a result, the sky held a greenish cast to it, interacting oddly with the blueish sun.

I squinted, looking up in vain for the slight glimmer that’d indicate my ship. It was parked in a stationary orbit and should’ve been directly overhead, but try as I might, I couldn’t see it.

Perhaps it was something to do with the many moons.

“What’s going on up there?” I asked, knowing the force field wasn’t the sole reason why the AI had reached out to me.

“The designated orbital shift will occur in ten galactic minutes,” the AI said. Was it my imagination, or had it actually sounded a bit frustrated I’d forgotten about that?

No, it had to be my imagination.

I cursed under my breath.

In ten minutes, my ship would break out of its geosynchronous orbit and fly off under the AI’s direction. Then it’d pass behind the sun, seemingly on a path that’d take it out of the solar system altogether.

The reason why it would do so was threefold: First and most importantly, it’d throw any competing treasure hunters off my trail. It’d give the appearance I’d searched the planet, found nothing, and moved on. Anyone following me would be led away.

I’d grown quite a reputation for myself over my last few scores. I knew for a fact there were less successful hunters watching my moves closely.

The second reason was because having your ship stay stationary in space was like waving a giant flag for any scavenger looking to add your ship to their collection.

A moving ship was much harder to locate and capture. They wouldn’t realize it was completely empty and they’d assume I was on board, ready to fight for my ship and my freedom. Most of the time, it just wasn’t worth the effort.

And third, I really, really didn’t want anyone else on the planet getting curious as to what I was doing down here.

“Of course, I hadn’t forgotten,” I lied irritably to the AI.

The AI paused for a few galactic seconds. I didn’t think I’d read into it too much. It’d definitely displayed its disbelief. “Then are you close to finding the obelisk?”

I growled under my breath and reached into my pocket to pull out a round pendant. It wasn’t large – the size of a timepiece my father, who loved old-fashioned things, used to carry in his pocket.

The pendant was a dark jet-black stone and etched on it was a representation of the obelisk I was searching for.

“I’ll locate it soon enough.”

The AI’s reply was crisp. “Do you need assistance?”

“It depends. Have you verified the that latest scans show the starting point?”

“Affirmative.”

I shrugged. “Then there’s nothing more you need to do. Searching for this obelisk is just a matter of following the dots, easy as falling off a Prolixian log.”

Again, the AI paused for an extended period of time. I was just about to check the connection before it spoke again.

“Your ship is due to break orbit in T minus 2.56 galactic minutes.”

“Well, don’t wait around on my account.”

“Once the ship leaves orbit, you’ll be out of communication range or assistance, should you need it.”

I rolled my eyes. “Keep my ship safe. I’ll do my part here on the surface. When you return, I’ll have the treasure in hand.”

“Then tradition dictates I wish you good luck.”

“Thanks.”

Seriously, I knew perfectly well that the AI had only responded as programmed.

Its actual conversations were formed from a tree of programmed responses.

But still, I couldn’t help but feel good about it.

I really needed to get out more.

“Good luck to you and keep my ship safe for my return.”

“Affirmative,” the AI responded.

I cut off the communication, ignoring the pang of regret.

After all was said and done, I had to seriously look into making some new friends.

The only real conversation I’d had in weeks was with my own AI system. That was sad.

Shaking my head, I ran along the length of the branch and jumped into the air.

My species were natural climbers and jumpers. I’d be able to cross more of a distance in one leap than most could sprint in the same number of seconds.

I hit the trunk of the next massive tree, digging my claws in, and scaled up to the next large branch. When I got there, I ran along its length, using it as a sturdy pathway.

I wasn’t afraid of heights, knowing that when my people fell, we always landed on our feet.

Thanks to the force field, the bugs had finally left me alone. But there wasn’t anything I could do about the heat and humidity, that made my fur itch.

After an hour of hard running, pausing only to check the dots on the map, I found what I was looking for.

There it was: the obelisk, rising from the jungle floor.

I’d traversed this section of the jungle for some time, and it was the first created artifact I’d seen.

It was as jet-black as my pendant, rising straight and true nearly twenty meters from the jungle floor. Vegetation had been cleared around it in a large circle, and some aspect of the obelisk kept it from growing back.

Interesting.

From this vantage point, looking down at the obelisk, I identified several markings on it. I stared for a moment, cocking my head in consideration. From that angle, I couldn’t read the markings, not even enough to tell what language they were in.

There were plenty to choose. I wasn’t fluent in all of them – you’d have to be an AI. But after a lifetime of hunting, I could recognize most.

The jungle was silent, with no hint that I’d been followed, so far.

I took a step, intending to drop off the side of the branch and fall all the way down to the forest floor. A ping from a sixth sense made me stop in place.

I whipped around, my ears swiveling back and forth trying to identify sounds, the hair along my spine rising as my instincts screamed at me that something wasn’t right.

Finally, my mind caught what my senses had been trying to tell me. There was a high-pitched whistling noise in the air, and it’d only grown louder.

Once I became aware of it, I was able to pinpoint it. I looked up to see a burning streak — a meteor?

No. As the object drew closer, I realized it wasn’t a meteor, not even ship debris. It was too regular, and oval shaped.

An escape pod?

I barely had time to come to that conclusion before I realized the pod had dropped from the sky and was headed straight toward me.

Of all the bad luck!

Immediately, I jumped to the next branch, then the next, trying to get out of the trajectory of the descending pod.

But it fell shockingly fast. And I realized with horror it wouldn’t land on me at all.

No, in fact, it was aimed straight for the obelisk.

“No!” I yelled, but completely powerless to do anything about it.

The sound of the descending out-of-control pod grew into a scream of air as a plume of fire lit from behind it.

It crashed straight into the obelisk, sending it toppling over into pieces on the ground.

Bought: Chapter Four

Serra

As I led the way out of the gallery and to the Gold Room, my thoughts whirled.

Who was this visitor?

He certainly wasn’t the scruffy freelance operative I’d taken him for.

Well, at least not just that.

He knew far too many things.

Andrea worked with any number of operatives to gather her collection.

Specialists who trawled through archives, archaeologists more than ready to place the treasures they found into good hands.

Occasionally treasure hunters, scoundrels and rogues who against all the odds had found some hidden hoard and now were looking for a way to offload it, quickly and quietly.

I glanced at one of the mirrors that backed the small niches along the corridor, glancing at our visitor’s reflection.

I definitely would have put him on the rogue and scoundrel list.

But the reverent tone in his voice when he’d recognized the Lewis Queen had been something far different than base greed.

Almost the sound of a scholar.

But no scholar I had ever met could have moved as quickly as he had.

My heart still pounded in my ears, imagining what would’ve happened if the coronation axe had fallen on me.

Why had the force shield on that shelf failed so easily?

I’d start a list of maintenance tasks to go over with Annie first thing tomorrow.

“Maybe castle wasn’t the right word,” the visitor commented as we wound deeper into the building. “How do you feel about palace?”

“That might be closer,” I admitted as I waved open the door leading to the Gold Room.

And there was another interesting item to consider.

How many people in this day and age knew the difference between those two words?

Who was this mysterious Jenke?

After the collection hall, this was one of my favorite chambers.

It could easily have been called the Green Room, I supposed.

The domed ceiling and circular walls were painted in shades of celadon and jade, the arches framing the niches all around traced in gold that curved away into lush arabesques, covering the background in a tracery of vines and exuberant blooms.

At the far side, framed in one of the niches as if a piece of art herself, sat Andrea.

Well, at least her avatar.

“If we were going to be doing this by holo, couldn’t we have had this meeting earlier?” Jenke asked.

Andrea’s projection rippled slightly as she shrugged.

“If you’re looking for information, then you’ll have to put up with an old lady’s whims.”

“Won’t be the first time,” he grumbled.

“Your message said you were looking into contracts for some of my employees,” Andrea continued as if she hadn’t heard him.

It was a skill she had, to disregard what she didn’t feel was important, but I knew she’d missed nothing.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific. I have any number of employees,” she clarified.

“That might be a little difficult,” Jenke said. “All I know is that three years ago Chairman Denau of Exatek commented on some mercs you had hired. Tried to acquire them, but you wouldn’t sell the contracts. Ring any bells?”

Andrea’s hand fluttered.

“I must tell you that anything to do with that terrible man, I did my best to forget as quickly as possible.” She raised one eyebrow. “I did hear there had been a change in leadership at Exatek. Perhaps I should reach out again.”

“Please do that,” Jenke answered, only the faintest trace of frustration in his voice. “The kid’s not bad. However, that doesn’t get me any closer to what I’m here for.”

“I’m not sure how I can help you unless you can be more specific,” Andrea explained patiently. “Names, perhaps? Dates of contracts?”

His hands twitched at his sides.

“I don’t know what name they would’ve used,” Jenke admitted. “A lot of us well,” he trailed off, and I caught myself as I started to step towards him.

Whatever he was asking about, whoever these men were, that had been a genuine note of pain in his voice.

I glanced at Andrea’s avatar, and she nodded slightly.

“Why don’t you give me names they might’ve used, and I’ll start searching my records,” she said, the flippancy gone, at least for now.

“Thank you,” he nodded. “I appreciate it.” He took a deep breath, the names rolling out like a litany. “Sten. Ulf. Dimir. Yenik. Bjorn. Kane.”

He frowned. “Might’ve used something to do with Daedalus, or Wolf,” he admitted.

His shoulders slumped. “It’s not much to go on, is it?”

“I can certainly begin searching,” Andrea reassured him.

He nodded. “I appreciate it. If it helps, they’d look like me. Well, sort of.”

She shook her head. “You’re not really a wealth of information, are you?”

“I can assist with the search,” I suggested quickly.

Anything that got this disturbing guest away from here as quickly as possible, I decided.

That was the only reason.

Really.

He didn’t belong here, not in this quiet refuge I had found.

“That will be quite all right,” Andrea shook her head. “I’ve already set up subroutines tracking the information.” Her silver eyes flashed against the dark skin of the avatar. “You wouldn’t be able to get out anything any faster.”

“When do you think you might have anything?” Jenke asked, his voice still sounding strained.

“It’s hard to say,” Andrea answered. “In the morning, perhaps?”

He nodded. “I can wait in my ship. No reason to put you out any more.”

“Don’t be silly,” she retorted. “Just because we do not have guests often does not mean we are unprepared, or inhospitable.” She smiled, and for just a moment I could see her. The real her. “Serra can show you to the guest quarters. I’m sure she’d like some company. It’ll be a nice change in her routine.”

What?

No, it wouldn’t!

“Actually, I was planning to finish cataloging the rest of this week’s shipment tonight,” I argued.

“Nonsense. Most of those things have waited decades, if not centuries, to find their way here. Another night or two before they’re shelved won’t do them any harm.”

I stepped back, my throat tight.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’ll let you know when I have anything to tell you,” Andrea told Jenke, then flicked off, her avatar’s frame now blank, empty.

“Don’t mind me,” Jenke said gruffly. “Got plenty of supplies on my ship and a comfortable enough berth. I’m not going to take any more of your time.”

“Nonsense,” I echoed Andrea’s words. “If she’d like you to stay here, you should stay here.”

“But what would you like?” he asked softly, those dark eyes boring into mine.

“For you to stay here, of course,” I lied through my teeth.

Well, not entirely.

I had to admit, Jenke was interesting.

And while his very presence unsettled me, I still remembered the feeling of his strong arm pulling me close, the strange spicy scent of him.

“Let’s find a chamber for you.”

I took a sharp right out of the Gold Room towards the lifts that ran through the center of the building.

“The guest wing is this way,” I said.

But for once, Jenke didn’t follow me.

“Why do you even have a guest wing? I haven’t seen any other people here, unless you want to count the bots.”

My fingers found the edge of my belt, pleating the fabric into a fan, then releasing it.

“Once upon a time, Andrea was famous for her house parties. Chairman Transaman, I mean.”

He smiled, moved to my side as we wound deeper into the complex.

“What kind of house parties?” he asked as we reached the lift. “Sounds like something from a historical vid.”

“People from all over the sector,” I answered. “Heads of corps, celebrities, entertainers, scholars, and musicians.”

The lift door slid open and I stepped inside. “A little bit of everything, a living collection I suppose, a pretty close mirror to that in the gallery.”

He followed me in, and even though he made an effort to press himself into the far corner, the lift seemed very cramped.

“It must have been something to see.”

I shook my head. “I’d think so, but I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t here then. I’ve just heard the stories.”

A moment later, the lift opened to the guest wing.

“Since the house parties are a thing of the past, you have your choice of any of the suites.”

I waved open the door to the first chamber.

“Would this suit you?”

Jenke stood in the entrance way, blinking.

“I can sleep anywhere,” he said flatly. “Even here.”

I tried to fight down my giggle, but failed.

This room had always struck me as a little ostentatious, even for Andrea.

Floor to ceiling, every furnishing, every textile, dripped gold.

The effect was almost blinding.

“I’m sure we have something else,” I reassured him.

A quick whoosh of relief slid out of his massive frame. “That would be great. Really. I don’t mean to put you to any trouble, but that was…”

“Yeah,” I agreed. It was a little much.

I had a particular suite in mind that I thought would suit him. But I couldn’t resist teasing him a little more.

“Perhaps this would be more to your taste?”

Bright blue and pink neon pulsated from the wall hangings, and acid green pillows covered an oversized bed.

This time, he actually covered his eyes.

“I’ll take the first one,” he said, “if these are my choices. Or I’ll just sleep in the hall. You’ll never even notice.”

“Can’t happen,” I shook my head. “The housekeeping bots will run over you during their routines,” I argued as I led him towards the next room.

“Besides, even if they avoided you, I’m none too awake in the mornings. I couldn’t be held accountable if I tripped on you.”

He frowned. “Your quarters are here as well?”

“It was easiest,” I explained.

Well, not exactly an explanation. But as much as he needed to know.

“All right, what about this one?”

Quiet, muted shades of gray and tan, plain and functional.

It would have been my choice if I hadn’t found my own little wood-paneled room with the cozy reading corner.

He stepped forward, surveying the suite. “Still a little plusher than I’m used to, but this will do just fine. And it doesn’t feel like somebody’s sticking a knife into my eyeballs. “

“Added bonus.” I watched him as he paced around the room. “Do you want me to have one of the bots retrieve your luggage from your ship?”

He turned around, and I nearly gasped.

The smile that broke through the heavy beard wasn’t nearly as bright as the glint of humor in his eyes.

“I’d almost like to see them try. Don’t worry about it, I can get it myself before I hit the rack.”

Well, that was interesting.

His response, I reminded myself.

Nothing to do with how he looked, or the sudden flare of heat that coiled in my chest.

Of course not.

My stomach rumbled, reminding me of the time.

“Are you hungry?” I asked hurriedly, my cheeks heating in embarrassment.

“Usually, I just take a tray in my room, but Mrs. B would be happy to see the dining room used, I continued.

“I can pretty much always stand to eat,” Jenke answered as we stepped back into the hall. “Are you sure it’s not going to aggravate your Mrs. B to have an extra guest?”

I laughed as we headed back down to the dining room. “She seldom gets upset. I rather expect she’ll be thrilled.”

As we stepped into the dining room, I smiled, letting the beauty wash over me.

Really, I should take more meals down here.

Like so much of the complex, it seemed a waste to have no one enjoy this beauty.

White-barked trees sprouted throughout the hall, their branches spreading above us, shimmering lights strewn across the ceiling giving the illusion of dining under the stars.

Tiny, heart-shaped leaves rustled against each other as we passed.

The windows looked over a turquoise pool of water, jets of water playing up and down, catching the light from tiny lanterns set around it in a circle, each drop glittering like a jewel.

Except for one table set against the glass, with the expansive view of the parklands beyond, the dining room was empty.

“How many people did she have at those house parties of hers?”

“Hundreds,” I said, then froze as Jenke quickly stepped around me, pulling out the chair I’d been heading towards.

He stood there, waiting as if that was a perfectly normal thing to do.

A very strange unexpected guest indeed.

I seated myself and waited for him to join me.

“Is there anything you’re allergic to?” I asked as one of Mrs. B’s auxiliaries rolled towards us.

“I’d be very surprised,” he said.

“Good. Because it’s really just for the best to let her bring us whatever she has in mind.”

“So lovely to see you!” the bot exclaimed as it reached our table. “And a guest! I was so excited when I heard the news from the gardeners that I began rereading all of my recipe books, coming up with ideas.”

I raised my hand quickly. “Nothing too complicated, we don’t need a dozen courses, I promise.”

I looked over at Jenke again, and considered his size.

“Or if you make a dozen courses, just make them for him, alright?”

“Of course, Curator Serra,” the bot chirped. “Have no worries. You can trust me.”

As it rolled away, the smile broke through Jenke’s beard again. “Mrs. B is a bot, too?”

I shook my head. “No, she’s the housekeeping AI. The bots are her hands and eyes.”

“So, it’s just you and the old lady?”

I stiffened in my chair. “It is Chairman Transaman’s home. She is not ‘the old lady’.”

He held his hands up as if to ward off my words. “Where I’m from, old ladies don’t have any limitations on them, trust me. There’s two in my orbit, and they’re the fiercest, toughest people I’d ever want to mix it up with.”

I settled down. Slightly. “Most people don’t feel that way. They think old ladies aren’t worth much anymore.”

Jenke snorted. “Then they haven’t met Doc or Granny Z.”

Before I could ask for details, another of the bots rolled up with two delicately fluted glasses balanced on a mid-second-Empire palladium tray.

“Cocktails?” it chirped.

After a moment’s hesitation, I took one.

Jenke followed suit, and the bot trundled away.

“Now I really want to know what those parties were like,” he said as he sniffed his glass.

“There are vids around somewhere,” I answered as the ice-cold liquid bubbled over my tongue, exploding in sharp notes of citrus. “I can find them for you later, if you’d like.”

I bit my lip.

What was I saying?

He was here for a single purpose.

Find those people he was looking for.

Andrea would have his information in the morning.

And he would be gone.

The first course was a light salad, reddish leaves shredded thin, some fruit or vegetable I didn’t recognize chopped and mixed throughout

“The gardeners handle all of this, as well?” Jenke asked.

“Andrea doesn’t just collect art and artifacts,” I said. “Plants from all over the sector are in the gardens. Further, if she can get them.”

His eyebrows rose but he didn’t say anything.

The Atretis Sector was supposed to be closed off.

But Andrea had never particularly liked playing by the rules.

And really, why should she?

There were far too many interesting periods of history for us to explore to bother being stuck here.

The salad was followed by a frittata and what looked like a delectable pasta of some sort, but I waved my plate away.

“If I eat that, I’ll never have room for dessert,” I told the bot. “And I refuse to miss that.”

Jenke’s eyes narrowed. “It smells good,” he said. “Sure you don’t want any?”

“Just because I’m saying no, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat.” I pushed my hands out in front of me. “It seems a safe bet that you require considerably more fuel than I do. But I would love a kaf,” I said, turning to the bot.

Jenke waited until a steaming cup of rich brown goodness had been placed in front of me before touching his fork.

“Don’t let it get cold, you’ll hurt Mrs. B’s feelings.”

“Void knows I wouldn’t want to upset the AI,” he muttered, and took a bite of the pasta.

“This really is good,” he said, his eyes wide. Lifting a coiled noodle from his plate with his spoon, he offered it to me. “Try one bite.”

It did smell good, really, really good.

Apparently, Mrs. B was going all out for the sheer joy of finally having someone who could appreciate her cooking, and vast quantities of it.

“Oh, all right.”

And somehow, something in my brain must’ve short circuited because, instead of reaching for his spoon like a normal, sane person, I opened my mouth.

Something flashed in his eyes and he slowly brought the morsel to my lips.

Oh.

That was good.

The sauce had some smoky, almost bitter undernotes running through it, but with a creamy texture that mellowed the flavor, finishing with just a hint of sweetness.

A soft moan of appreciation escaped my lips, and Jenke’s eyes narrowed, his nostrils flaring just a bit.

Embarrassed again, I slid back in my chair, warming my hands on my kaf.

“Thank you,” I managed to say, my tongue clumsy. “I think one bite will be enough for me.”

He nodded jerkily, and thankfully didn’t offer anything else.

As the fountain played on past the windows, the bot brought more food until finally, one arrived with two small covered dishes.

“Would you care for more kaf with your dessert, Curator Serra?”

“Yes, please.” I nodded towards Jenke. “And for you?”

“Can I just have the kaf without the dessert?”

“You can’t miss dessert,” I replied, dumbfounded. “Dessert is the entire reason for eating. Because afterwards you get to have dessert.”

He eyed the covered dishes warily.

“How about I take a bite, like you had a bite of the pasta, and I’ll decide from there?”

“One bite will be enough to convince you,” I announced as a second bot appeared with two fresh cups of kaf.

After the bot placed the cups by our hands, the first leaned forward and dramatically pulled both covers off the bowls at the same time.

A cloud of frozen smoke rolled into the air, revealing a bright blue globe beneath.

“What is it?” Jenke glared at dessert as if it were a bomb, about to go off at any moment.

“I have no idea,” I admitted. “But I’m dying to find out.”

With the back of my spoon, I dealt a swift blow to the top of the globe, thrilled to watch it crackle and shatter into tiny pieces, revealing the soft center.

“You look like you enjoyed that,” Jenke commented. “Here, why don’t you do mine, too.”

“You are missing all the fun things,” I argued, but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to do that again.

Reaching across the table, I whacked at his dessert, laughing in delight as it shattered.

“All right, take your bite and tell me how fantastic it is.”

My own spoon hovering over my bowl, I watched as he took the tiniest sample from the edge of the filling.

“That doesn’t really count as a bite,” I fussed.

“Sure, it does,” he answered, then quickly popped the spoon into his mouth, shoulders braced as if for something terrible.

His eyes widened, and his forehead wrinkled in confusion. “It’s good.”

“I told you it would be”

I laughed, and dug into my own portion.

A froth of bitter chocolate, layered over denser tort and the fragments of the blue shell cutting through any cloying sweetness with an almost puckering tartness, blessed my tongue.

“You really should trust me, at least about dessert,” I said as I took my second bite.

His lips twitched, but he didn’t answer.

Just took his own second and then third bites.

We finished at the same time, laying our spoons down with satisfaction.

“I will trust you about dessert,” he said. “But now, I should get my bag and let you retire for the night.”

He stood, waiting by his chair for me to rise. “Unless you’d care to come with me?”

I looked past the fountain, across the shadowed estate.

Normally at this time of night, I would have long finished my own solitary meal and be flicking through my tablet, wondering what treasures tomorrow would hold, dreaming of new ways to arrange the collection.

But tonight…

“Yes, I’d like that.”

Bought: Chapter Three

Jenke

Even the air here smelled like it was made out of credits.

How much water did it take to keep this vast park growing? And for what purpose?

With an almost disjointed gracefulness, a bot came over the hill towards us.

I stiffened, watching its movements, but the woman in front of me didn’t give it a second glance.

She was worth looking at, though.

Tiny little thing. Afraid of something, that was clear.

But with enough steel in her spine to not back down,

Curly black hair swung past her shoulders, the last rays of the sun casting red highlights through the thick waves.

The rich brown of her skin was warmed by the unembellished yellow top tucked into full black pants, with thin flat slippers on her feet.

Her only jewelry was a thin rectangular pendant of silver, hanging from a fine chain.

Plain. Functional. But somehow, I didn’t think the woman herself was quite so uninteresting.

“How long have you worked for this Transaman lady?” I asked.

She didn’t pause, simply kept up her stiff march back across the endless lawn.

“Chairman Transaman will see you as soon as she is able.”

“That’s not exactly an answer to my question.”

Her hand flicked out to the side as if my words were nothing more than an annoying insect.

“I don’t see how the information is any of your business or pertinent to your errand here.”

I couldn’t help grinning. “Just making conversation, being polite.”

“Please don’t bother.”

We rounded a grove of silver and purple trees and for a moment, I froze.

I’d seen the building from the air, but somehow hadn’t recognized it for what it was.

“Your boss lives in a castle?”

My guide kept walking. “My boss lives in her home,” the woman answered as we reached a door set into the massive wall of glass that stretched the length of this wing.

I lingered for a moment, studying the façade.

From up close, you could tell that the stonework was replicated. The mortar was too even, too perfect.

Colored plexi instead of old-style glass filled the narrow, pointed windows.

And the faint iridescent shimmer across the cone-shaped roof of the central tower indicated solar panels rather than slate shingles.

But still.

“Would you prefer to wait on the grounds?” The woman had finally turned back, her arched eyebrows raised as she stood in the open doorway. “I can request that one of the gardeners finds you when Chairman Transaman is ready.”

“Not at all,” I said, passing by her to enter the room beyond. “Just appreciating the building.”

And then whatever else I had planned to say was lost within the far reaches of the room.

Fan vaulted ceilings covered an immense space, all filled with row after row of shelves and pedestals, each filled to bursting.

“What is this place?”

The woman closed the door and walked past me.

“Please don’t touch anything,” she answered, again not bothering to answer. “This way, please.”

Another bot, this one small and running on treads, with a screen taking up most of its chest, rolled forward to greet her.

“Curator Serra, I have located those documents. Should I put them in the queue for closer examination?”

“Yes, please, Annie,”

Serra.

I followed as she led the way through the labyrinth of artifacts.

Odd.

She was still nervous, that was clear.

But here, back in what was clearly her own domain, some of the rigidity had left her.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a small, carved figure, the ivory yellowed and stained, of something barely recognizable as a seated woman, one hand pressed to her cheek, draped in heavy robes, a lumpy hat on her head.

“Not in all the zones of the Void,” I muttered, stepping closer to it.

In an instant, Serra was at my side.

“Did you not hear me? Please do not touch anything. The artifacts here are extremely delicate.”

She gave a tiny sniff. “Besides, you don’t even know what that is.”

“That’s the Queen from the Lewis Chess Set,” I answered, unable to rip my eyes away from it. “Do you have any of the others? How did you even get this one?”

Silence answered me.

I turned back, to see Serra’s golden brown eyes were wide, her mouth slightly open in shock.

“How would you recognize that?” She shook her head. “How do you know what it is? It’s not exactly the largest or flashiest of our artifacts.”

“You’ve got your boss, I’ve got…”

My voice failed.

Doc wasn’t exactly our boss. I knew the others thought of her as something closer to a mother.

“I have a trainer who’s particularly interested in games of strategy. And history. And, well, a lot of other things. You’d be surprised what I know.”

Somehow, she didn’t look convinced.

But she didn’t say anything, rather turned and led me further into the warehouse.

That wasn’t quite right.

A warehouse implied items in boxes, stacked away, out of sight.

This room had obviously been carefully designed to show off the items gathered within.

As the last light of day faded from the high windows, pinpricks of the lights set into the fan vaulting above began to glow, creating a map of unknown constellations above us.

The underside of each shelf held its own set of lights, spotlighting the artifacts that rested below.

“Who has all of this?” I murmured. “Who would even want it all?”

This was just crazy.

At first glance, it looked like things were stored higgledy-piggledy, without any rhyme or reason.

Expensive looking items that I guessed were pieces of art next to weapons.

Roughly carved, half broken pieces of pottery next to priceless antique books.

A twisted ring of metal, one section standing upright to display the intricately worked surface, the blazing lights of jewels embedded throughout, rested on a red velvet cushion.

“Is that…” I trailed off.

A crown of some sort. That was obvious.

I needed more information, a reference book or two.

But I wondered if Emperor Vandalar knew what was here.

“None of your business,” my guide answered.

“Are you always so informative when giving people a tour of this place?”

She turned, her head tilted slightly to the side.

“I’m not giving you a tour,” she explained patiently. “You’re here to meet with Chairman Transaman. I’m simply babysitting you until she’s ready to see you.”

It was hard not to laugh. “It’s been a long time since I’ve needed a babysitter.”

“I’m surprised,” she called back over her shoulder. “It looks as if you could use one.”

I scratched at the heavy beard I’d allowed to grow. Maybe she had a point.

We finally reached a wide wooden table, with silver cubed boxes arrayed down the center.

“I have work to do,” Serra announced. “Chairman Transaman will let you know when she’s available.”

She stepped towards the closest of the boxes, the eager expression on her face certainly more friendly than anything she’d shown me.

“Can I help?”

“I very much doubt it,” she answered dismissively.

I moved off to examine the contents of a nearby shelf. “Please don’t touch anything,” she sighed.

“Hands are behind my back, I promise,” I answered.

She got back to work, and surreptitiously, I rounded the corner to where I could watch her.

Don’t get me wrong. The collection of weavings was unusual and all that.

But somehow the spitfire of a curator was the most interesting thing in the room.

As the top of the packing crate retracted before her, each of the cube’s four sides folded down to form four pyramids.

Serra tapped the top of one, then winced. The tangy scent of her blood filled the air, pulling a growl from deep in my chest.

With two quick steps, I was at her side. “I told you I would help. And now you’ve hurt yourself.”

She looked up at me from the corner of her eye. “No, the packaging has taken a sample of my blood, and matched my DNA to open the lock.”

She held up her index finger, slightly reddened, but not the open gash I had somehow expected. “My job doesn’t require getting hurt on a regular basis, believe me.”

The corner of her lip twisted up, the flicker of a smile. “But thank you for your concern, all the same.”

I glared at the long line of crates down the table, waiting for her attention.

“Is every one of those boxes going to require the same thing?”

“Identification that the correct person is opening the statis fields?” She shrugged. “I would certainly hope so.”

She detached what had been the base of the pyramid from the shipping cube, examining what it held, then glanced up at me, a glint of mischief in her eyes.

“You’ve been full of surprises. What do you think this one is?”

I studied the thing.

A small dark gray box, with silver specks along the rough surface catching the light.

It could be a weapon.

It could be anything.

“No idea,” I admitted. “Obviously my trainer left some gaps.”

“How are we in section Granite 48?” Serra asked the bot, whose silent presence I’d nearly forgotten about.

“It’s clear,” the tinny voice answered. “At least that decision makes sense.”

“Beginnings and endings, Annie.” Serra lifted the panel from the table, shifted its weight slightly in her arms.

“Why don’t you let me carry it?”

“Because it’s my job,” she answered crisply. “And if it’s beyond my capacity, Annie here’s always happy to help out.”

I was pretty sure that the AI controlling the bot wasn’t advanced enough to actually give a little sniff of disapproval as it rolled past me.

Mostly sure.

Still, I followed the two of them as they made their way through the labyrinth of shelves.

“Beginnings and ends?” I asked, trying to make sense of the items before me.

“Something like that,” Serra said.

“Annie, move the Borjillian blaster down to the middle of the third shelf, would you?”

I tensed, uneasily watching the bot lift the panel that held the antique blaster.

Surely it wasn’t functional.

No one would be reckless enough to keep such a thing around, would they?

Serra stretched up on her toes to slide the panel into the vacated space.

“Do you require assistance, Curator Serra?” The bot rolled closer.

“No, thank you, I think I have it.”

She probably would have.

Except, as she stretched towards the higher shelf, the bot rolled even closer and its curved treads bumped into the base of the shelves.

The smallest tremor ran through the shelves, and as Serra reached to steady them, the panel in her hand slipped away.

Annie’s arms shot upwards, telescoping out to grab the strange item, but missed, instead knocking against the head of the antique axe that stretched across the entire shelf above.

“But…” the bot said.

Serra’s attention was split between balancing the shelf and the new item.

“Curator Serra.”

“Just a moment,” Serra said, trying to slide the new item back onto the shelf.

But whatever retaining field had been holding the axe in suspension flickered, then finally fell.

“Void take it,” I snarled, leaping forward.

Wrapping one arm around Serra’s waist, I pulled her tightly against me, curving my shoulders over her.

“What are you doing?” she gasped

Then she saw that axe in my other hand.

“Oh.”

For a moment, the fight deserted her and she sagged against my arm, just for the span of a breath, then she straightened herself, pushing away.

“Thank you,” she said warily. “That would have been unpleasant.”

I hefted the pole weapon in my grip.

Whoever had designed it was either having a bad day or really enjoyed dicing up their enemies.

Maybe both.

The head came to a sharp point, one side flaring to a massive curved blade, tapering down to a series of jutting hooks.

I didn’t feel the need to test them.

I was certain, just from the way they glinted in the light, they would be wickedly sharp.

“What’s this thing, anyway?” I asked, placing it back on its shelf.

“Coronation axe of the first Rothian kingdom,” Serra answered, her voice trembling just a bit. “One of the first systems to break away from the early Empire.”

“And that’s connected to that box, how?” I pointed to the small gray cube she still clutched.

“These are the memorial ashes of their last king.” She took a deep breath, and pushed the panel with the remains back onto its dedicated shelf, the trembling in her hands barely noticeable. “The Empire was not pleased about dissenters.”

“Never have been,” I grumbled. “But now I’m curious. Let’s go see what else is in that crate.”

“I’m afraid that will have to wait,” the AI interrupted. “Chairman Transaman has requested that you bring Mr. Jenke to the Gold Room.”

Serra blinked rapidly, as if surprised, then nodded.

“Please let her know that we are on our way.”

Finally.

I’d get some answers out of this place.

I glanced down at Serra.

Well. At least some of them.

Now I had a new list of questions, none of which had anything to do with my missing brothers.

Bought: Chapter Two

Serra

“What lovely things do we have here?” I murmured as I entered the code into the square shipping box before me.

I could have checked the manifest. But that would ruin half the fun of this job. Like peeking at a present before it’s time for the grand opening.

The silver top retracted, the sides unfolding down to form the bases of four perfectly even pyramids.

“Let’s start with you,” I picked one at random, tapped the peak of one of the pyramids, winced slightly at the sharp prick at my fingertip.

Not one of my favorite parts of the job, but necessary.

As the tiny droplet of blood was processed and accepted as a match, the four sides of the pyramid shimmered, dissolving to reveal the artifact contained within.

“Look at this,” I breathed. “Where should we put this beautiful thing?”

“Accessing gallery files.”

I didn’t pay attention.

Annie, the collections assistant, while useful, never had and never would feel the same way I did about these treasures.

Before me was a tiny sculpture, no bigger than my fist, silver and grey metals twisting around bright colored jewels, the fine filigree at its core making the entire sculpture appear as if it could float.

“The first recorded sculpture by the artist Son Ronsut,” the collection assistant’s voice burbled out. “Primary metal is palladium. Would you prefer it to be housed with other sculptures by artists of contemporaneous eras, artists by location, or by material?”

“None of those,” I murmured as I detached the shipping panel from its base, carrying it before me to the other side of the massive hall that housed my employer’s collection.

“Is there an opening on shelf Magna 36?”

The assistant trundled beside me, the parallel tracks that propelled her clicking almost silently over the creamy stone floor.

“There should be sufficient space to house this item,” she answered. “However, I do not understand your reasons for placing it there.”

“I know, Annie.” I tried to explain. “But see how this twists, how the jewels are red and orange, burning against the silver?”

“Nothing is currently on fire, Curator Serra.”

I sighed.

“I know, but it reminds me of fire. And all of these,” I nodded to the massive shelf in front of us. “They make me think of fire too. So this is where this piece belongs.”

I let my eyes wander across the shelves, holographic paintings of other worlds, handwoven textiles, even the recording of a long forgotten song.

Well, forgotten by everyone but my employer.

“Here,” I said as I slid the panel into place, tapping the code that would lock it onto the shelf.

Annie extended a telescoping limb from the top of her domed head, handing me a small tablet.

I tapped it twice to activate the display, then set it at the base of the panel.

The sculpture’s tag flickered to life, then displayed its name, cycling through information about its creator, its history, and then back again.

“None of those things are on fire,” she repeated. “Atmospheric systems would have been activated long before now.”

If Annie had been a person, and not an artificial intelligence assistant, I would’ve thought she was miffed at the nonsense of it all.

“Which is a good thing,” I agreed with her. “But that’s just as much of my job as unpacking whatever treasures our employer finds out there. Making them make sense for humans. Which unfortunately, isn’t always the logical choice.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent the same way.

Just as the majority of my days were spent.

Unpacking, sorting, arranging and rearranging the collection.

Each item was a thing of beauty.

Perhaps not all in the most traditional sense.

Some were crude, some ancient and clumsy.

But every one had a story, a significance.

And that gave them value all of their own.

The late afternoon sun stretched across the high arched windows lining the gallery.

“Time for a break, Annie,” I told her. “We’ve done good work for the day.”

I made myself a cup of tea, my fingers gently tracing the delicate porcelain, the painted and gilded flowers dancing just below the rim, colors still as vibrant as they had been centuries ago when this was created.

Every time I touched it, my heart leapt into my throat.

My employer was insistent. Things that were made to be used, should be used, no matter how fragile.

And honestly, despite my terror that one of these days I would drop it, this small thing of beauty in my hands made my soul soar every time I touched it.

“Serra,” a different voice emerged from Annie’s chest.

“How are you doing today?” I asked.

“I’m almost 200 years old now,” the thin voice made the strangled coughing sound that I knew was her laugh. “I’m feeling as well as I’m going to feel. What did you think of the last batch? Show me where you put them.”

Annie and I walked around the room, the screen set in her chest now filled with the thin dark face of the one person in the entire universe I cared for as much as this collection.

Andrea Transaman.

My employer, and the official owner of the collection.

I’ve never been entirely certain if she loved the items more, or the hunt for them.

“Oh good choice, good choice,” the thin voice crooned when she saw where I’d placed the pair of ceremonial daggers acquired from the ruins of the failed colony at Radomski Seven.

They framed a light tapestry woven by the descendents of one of the exiles who’d escaped from that doomed anthropological experiment.

The bright shimmering colors shone like a flag of defiance against the man-made apocalypse that had claimed half the weaver’s ancestors.

One by one I showed her the new acquisitions, discussing possible alternate arrangements, speculating about dream items that would fill out the shelves, let us tell new, different stories.

“Now darling,” Andrea started as we made our way back to the broad tables that dotted the length of the collection room after reviewing the day’s placements.

“We’re going to have a visitor. Possibly an important one.”

“I’ll set up the conference room. Do you know what their holo requirements are?” I answered.

Preparing for Andrea’s meetings wasn’t an uncommon task on my list. Usually she ‘met’ with investors and clients every month or so.

I mentally ran over her calendar. Nothing had been scheduled for today.

Something must have come up. Not a huge surprise. Andrea had her fingers in corps spread throughout the sector.

“No need for that,” she answered. “He’s coming in person. He’ll be at the landing pad shortly, actually.”

I froze.

“A visitor? In person?”I repeated dumbly. “We don’t have visitors.”

“But today we do,” she insisted.

I brought the cup to my lips, the tea inside cold and bitter now, then placed it down quickly on the table, my hand shaking.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to attend to him for some time, so you’ll have to be my representative for a bit,” Andrea continued.

“Why isn’t he doing his business over the screens, like a normal person?” I protested, my voice sounding whiny, even to my own ears.

She made the laughing cough again, then it quickly turned into a real cough, dry and hacking. “Because I suspect he’s not a normal person.”

Well. That didn’t sound encouraging.

But I knew better than to keep arguing.

Andrea was sweet. Indulgent even.

But she was still my employer, and her word was law.

“I’ll let you know when I’m ready to see him.” The screen flicked back to black, and now only Annie was in the room with me.

“Would you like me to accompany you, Curator Serra?”

Yes. I would like that more than anything.

And that was completely ridiculous.

“No. Keep searching the corporate archives for any traces of those Imperial letters Chairman Transaman has been after.” I brushed on my clothes, wondering if I should go change.

No. Whoever this guest was, he wasn’t here to see me. Wouldn’t care in the slightest what I was wearing.

Besides, I straightened my shoulders. I didn’t care either.

All I had to do was go, retrieve the visitor, and wait for Andrea to be ready to see him.

Easy.

At the door leading out of the immense collections room, my hand stopped.

Come on Serra, I chided myself.

I looked through the tall plexi window at the rolling blue and green lawn beyond.

Bright flowers from all over the sector formed winding beds, making patterns that only made sense in Andrea’s mind.

It was pretty enough to watch from my favorite chair. Inside.

I didn’t go out much. Too many lovely things inside to keep my attention. But the gardens were lovely too, and as much of a collection as what was on the shelves.

Step one, I murmured. Open the door.

Step two: start walking.

The warm air was a shock after the coolness of the collections room.

Quickly I shut the door behind me, mindful of the careful atmospheric balance I’d always maintained for the artifacts sake.

Now I was out.

Step three: get to the landing pad.

The bands around my chest only tightened as I crossed the lush estate, spoiling my usual pleasure at the wonderland.

A gardener descended from a grove of thick silver barked staria trees,

“Greetings, Curator Serra,” it chirped. “Do you require additional blooms?”

I shook my head. “No thank you. This morning’s arrangements are still sufficient.”

All of the gardeners were built to the same design, cylindrical bodies with long expandable arms, ending in three long multi-jointed fingers and a thumb.

Telescopic legs to bring them low to the ground for weeding or high into the trees, smoothly rounded chest and head units, cameras clicking as they rotated between lenses.

They all looked the same, and as far as I knew, all shared the same memory banks.

Every morning Annie and I collected bowls of fresh cut flowers that ornamented the gallery and Andrea’s personal chambers.

Occasionally I varied the orders, but in general let the gardeners bring me what they thought was best, based on whatever their programming decreed.

“Very well then.” The gardener’s legs lengthened until he was lost again in the branches above, pruning the canopy.

More gardeners worked through the estate, weeding, pruning, planting. All the hundreds of little tasks required to keep this paradise in bloom.

In only a few more minutes I stood at the top of the hill, staring down into the basin which held the landing pad.

Pausing, I studied the awkward, blocky ship that sat there.

Some kind of shuttle, maybe?

It didn’t look like anything special. Certainly nothing worthy of Andrea’s personal attention.

Motion caught my eye and I froze, watching as a man strolled from behind the ship.

This was her important guest?

A dark blue jumpsuit covered his form, as much as the shaggy black hair and thick beard covered half his face.

He looked wild, feral.

I tightened my lips together.

Probably yet another freelance explorer, come to sell Andrea on the dream of some long lost artifact.

They messaged from time to time, with wild tales of a treasure she couldn’t miss, a sure thing.

Just as soon as she invested some vast fortune in their expedition.

It seldom took more than the most casual of questions to expose their scams.

I took a deep breath.

He wouldn’t be here for long.

As I marched down the hill, I realized I’d misjudged something.

Two somethings, actually.

The ship was much larger than I’d realized.

Not a personal shuttle after all.

And the man that leaned against the hall, arms crossed over his chest, watching me approach was far bigger than I’d imagined as well.

I glanced around, reassured by the glints of metal at the top of the hill.

He might be big, but the gardeners were everywhere.

Swallowing hard, I took another deep breath, tried to convince myself all was well.

I was safe.

Before I was ready, I was at the edge of the landing pad, looking up at the giant.

“Would you follow me?”

“You this Andrea Transaman?” His voice was a low rumble, almost rough as if he didn’t bother to speak often.

“No. But if you’d like to speak with her, you should come with me.”

I turned back towards the house without waiting for an answer.

Whoever this person was, whatever he wanted, the sooner Andrea saw him and got him out of our lives, the better.

Bought: Chapter One

Jenke

“Hey Mister.”

I turned around, searching for the source of the voice.

This particular back alleyway of the Under was dimly lit.

Void. They were all dimly lit, apparently it added to the mystique of the place.

But the more trafficked areas of the Under held shops, food stalls, red flickering curtains separating off theaters of the absurd.

Crowds of people laughing, on their way to whatever indulgence they had in mind.

But this section was fairly empty.

Little more than a maintenance path, winding behind the makeshift stalls and stands that were the beating heart of this chaotic body.

There. 

That patch of darkness moved.

“Hey Mister!”

I snapped my arm out, hauling forward a small wriggling bundle of clothes.

My nose wrinkled.

Girl, boy, whatever it was needed a bath.

“Whispering at people in the dark isn’t best manners,” I growled.

The child’s eyes widened until I could see an entire circle of white.

“I didn’t mean any harm. Never mind. Let me go.”

Dammit.

“You wanted to find me for a reason. What was it?

I wasn’t any good at this. Probably should have partnered with one of the other members of the Pack that had been here longer.

Knew this space station called Orem that seemed to be our home now.

Knew these people that lived here. 

With us.

Like it was normal or something.

But I wasn’t going to be out on patrol with anyone. 

Not anymore.

“I’m sorry, I thought you were one of the others. Are you? I thought you were. You moved like it. But…”

“But the others are nicer,” I finished with a sigh and then dropped down to a crouch.

“Even if I am not nice, I am not going to eat you. What did you want to tell me?”

“There’s something going on, down at Dock 45.” He swallowed hard. “Something bad I think. There’s a bunch of women. Some of them are crying, some of them just look well, not really awake.”

Dock 45. 

I didn’t know this place well, didn’t know its people.

But a map. That was something I could study.

Had learned, refusing to be trapped by my ignorance.

I slipped a credit chip from my pouch, handed it to the child.

“Good job telling me,” I said as its grimy paw grasped the chip. “You should go, get something to eat.”

I released the child and rose to my feet.

“And for the next little while you should stay far away from Dock 45.”

The child’s serious nod had only half finished when I began to run.

My path winding between the revelers, the working people of the Under. Through the flickering lights and the darker corners.

My hand reached towards the comm unit.

I should call for backup.

I knew that.

This was probably some sort of trap. It usually was.

An old man, trundling past me with a cart of limp looking green vegetables yelped as I leapt over him,

I didn’t bother glancing back.

My brothers had been in control of the space station for long enough that all of the denizens, whether in the rarefied heights of the Uppers, the bazaar of the Lowers or the flickering world of the Under were all aware of who, and what patrolled the streets.

All except for a reckless few who insisted on not understanding that Orem wasn’t their hunting ground anymore.

Once upon a time docks were wooden structures, jutting out into the ocean, granting the mariners of old, long forgotten earth, access to their fragile ships.

Here wood was too precious to be used for flooring. Water, a valuable commodity to be recycled over and over again.

Here in the Under of Orem the docks were sections of a vast circle, stacked above and below each other at the periphery of the station.

Despite the vast differences in their operations, I can only assume that the docks of the ancient days were just as busy as ours were.

People coming and going, hauling goods from one land to the next.

At least as busy as ours should be.

Except this section was far quieter, far emptier than expected.

I glanced at the berth number.

40.

Slipping into the shadows I realized it was time to make a decision.

With a sigh I triggered my column.

“I’ve been told something’s going down at Dock 45,” I murmured. “I’m going to go check it out.”

“The hell you are,” Ronan snapped at the other end of the comm. “You’ll wait for backup.”

“There’s no time to wait,” I said flatly as I flitted to the next dock.

“Then maybe you should have considered patrolling with a partner,” Ronan snapped back.

Maybe. I admitted, if only to myself. But it still wasn’t going to happen.

“Get eyes on the situation, but do not, I repeat do not engage until Quinn and Xander are there. Five minutes ETA.”

It doesn’t count as lying if I don’t actually agree to the plan, right?

I didn’t say anything.

“I mean it, Jenke,” Ronan growled.

I snapped my comm off.

Because here was Dock 45. And the kid had been right.

There was something going on. And nothing good.

A battered shuttle filled the dock, laser scorched sides giving interesting hints to its history.

Approximately thirty women and girls were huddled together, forced into a tight knot by the gang of men who kept their blasters pointed at them.

“Getting ready to board!” A man checking a tablet in his hands called out. With a slow hiss the side of the shuttle retracted and a boarding ramp unfolded.

The women who were awake enough tried to back away, but were prodded forward by the barrels of the lasers pointed against them.

“We’ve got a quota to meet,” the man with the tablet said flatly. “Which is why we grabbed a few extras. It’s not gonna mess with my numbers if we leave a few of you bleeding out on the deck.”

The women fell silent.

I counted the men. 

Thirty five. Maybe closer to forty.

Two more appeared at the top of the gangway.

Workable. Probably.

I rolled my shoulders, preparing to spring when a ripple of the movement from the center of the women began to spiral out.

“Fuck you and your quota!”

A dark-haired woman dashed to the edge of the crowd, and from the tiniest blaster I had ever seen began picking off the guards.

With a shout of panic the remaining women began to scatter, some stumbling, still under the effects of whatever drugs they’d been given, the others helping them to their feet, searching desperately for cover.

The woman dove and rolled, then popped up behind a pillar to pick off another one of the abductors.

I tapped my comm once.

“Going in.”

Then cut it off before I could hear Ronan’s bellow.

I rose from my hiding place, picking off the men.

Three, four, five.

The woman took down another one.

The guards at the top of the landing ramp boarding ramp withdrew, to the safety of their ship, triggering the retraction of the ramp.

Good.

Two less to worry about.

Eight, nine, 10.

“Shit!”

It was the woman’s voice, and if anything, she sounded angrier.

I glanced over and snarled.

One of the bastards had gotten the drop on her, the muzzle of his blaster pressed against her head.

“Bring her to me please,” the man with the tablet called out. “She’s just earned some extra payments to work off.”

Her captor knocked the blaster from her hands, marched her forwards.

“You should come out too,” the ringleader shouted in my direction. “Unless you want to watch your partner die.”

Void.

I’ve never seen this stupid woman before.

Not stupid, I corrected myself. Just human.

Slow.

Careless.

With a sigh I rose from behind the pillar, hands over my head.

“Hand your blaster to my man,” the leader of the kidnappers instructed me.

I did so.

“Thought you’d be so clever,” the idiot who took the blaster from me smirked. “Thought you could take us on by yourself and one woman?”

It wasn’t worth answering.

I walked over to stand next to the woman.

“You’ve made a mistake,” I told the man with the tablet. “Actually, a couple of them.”

“Oh?” Half the remaining guards were regathering the escaping women, while the others circled us.

“She’s not my partner. Never met her before in my life.”

The man’s lips flickered up in something almost like a smile. “So you just happened to be here, and she just happened to be armed?”

“Crazy universe,” I shrugged. “Weird shit happens all the time.”

“Do you have anything to say about this?” he turned to the woman.

She stayed silent, her chin high, but if her eyes were weapons, he would have been sliced into a thousand pieces.

“Nevermind, she’ll be screaming soon enough. I don’t usually deal in fighters,” the man said as he tapped his screen. “But there’s always a market for gladiatorial pits. Never goes out of style.”

“Never going to happen,” I said. “You forgot about your other mistake.”

He looked up, almost bored. “Like what?” His gaze swept over the circle of guards surrounding us. “You have no weapons. You’re surrounded. What do you think you’re going to do about it?”

I grinned.

“This.”

And I reached out, my claws ripping his throat out.

By the time his body hit the deck I’d spun to the closest guard, snapping his neck and taking his blaster.

After a fraction of a second of hesitation I tossed it to the woman, dispatching the next guard and taking his weapon for myself.

We’d almost finished by the time Xander and Quinn caught up.

In seconds it was over.

Quinn looked at the blood streaked room, shaking his head slowly.

“Is there a reason that you constantly want to keep Ronan pissed off?” 

I shrugged. “Seems to come natural.” 

I turned to check on the woman, but she’d already returned to the group of women, talking to them softly.

“You need anything?” I called over to her.

The annoyance in her eyes was slightly less lethal than what she turned onto the slaver. But only slightly.

“It would be nice if you did a better job keeping our people from being abducted,” she snapped. “If you can’t manage that, leave us alone.”

She turned her back.

“You’re just not very good with people, are you?” Xander sighed, then went over to try to get some more information from her.

I wiped my bloodied hands on my pants, handed the acquired blaster to Quinn.

“You may as well take care of the rest of this. I suspect Ronan’s gonna want to have a few words with me.”

He raised one eyebrow, surveying the chaos surrounding us.

“Thanks. I’ll return the favor someday.”

As I headed to the control room, the same questions that plagued me every day bounced through my skull.

What was I doing here? Was the wall between me and my brothers ever going to fall?

Could I let it? 

Did I even want to?

Entering the control room I should have been paying more attention to Ronan’s glower, but someone else demanded my attention first.

“What on earth happened to you?” Yasmin blurted, springing up from the low grey chair to rush over towards me.

“Are you injured? I mean I know not for long, but still, should somebody see to this?” 

Okay. I didn’t dislike Yasmin.

Maybe I should have at least washed my hands before coming in, so she wasn’t worried.

I’m fine,” I told her brusquely. “Everybody’s fine. Well, everyone who should be fine is fine. Everyone else is dead.”

She put a hand over her eyes. “It would make sense if Torik was feral. He was stuck in an ice cave, slaughtering those snow beasts for three years.” She lowered her hands, shaking her head. “You are just getting worse every day.”

I shrugged. “Remember, I spent those years dealing with the corps and their games.” I flashed a grin at her. “Tell me again how they’re different from wild beasts?”

“If I did not have more pressing business, we would have this out,” Ronan growled. “I can’t have you disobeying orders.  I can’t have anyone doing that.”

I should shut up. 

Arguing with Ronan when he was like this never ended well.

But somehow, ever since I’d been back in the welcoming arms of the Pack, my better sense had been on vacation.

Instead I shrugged. “Take it up with Doc. She’s the one who made us like this.”

Ronan twitched, visibly fighting to control the lunge that would take him over the desk.

Yasmin stood her ground next to me.

Smart lady.

Even if Ronan and I had it out one day, it would never be where she could potentially be injured.

She knew that. And I knew that too.

“So what’s more important?” I asked, heading towards one of the chairs.

“Don’t you dare sit down in that right now?” Yasmin snapped. “Lean against something that’s easier to clean.”

She walked over to Ronan’s desk while I took up a station by the wall.

“May I?”

“Maybe you should,” Ronan growled, then took his own chair, arms crossed over his chest.

“I’ve asked my brother to do some digging. Every corp he has contact with, everyone he talks to. The rest of your squad has to be out there somewhere.”

Her words fell like blows on my chest.

“Did he…” I swallowed hard. “What did he find?”

She shrugged, then threw a projection upon the wall, looked like personal notes, in a hand I didn’t recognize.

“I’m not sure. But I think it’s something. He’s been going back through Uncle’s,” she stopped herself, her face turning to a mask of ice. “Ran Denau’s records.”

I didn’t blame her for catching herself, for deciding not to claim family ties with that mad asshole. Her uncle had raised her and her twin, but only after killing her father to take control of the corporation. 

And then had nearly killed her.

He was a manipulative, overbearing, egocentric bastard.

I should know. I had a contract with him for two years.

Yasmin regained control of her voice.

There was a corp. that Denau did business with occasionally, very occasionally,” she clarified. 

“The main reason he logged anything in his personal notes was that the woman who ran it had a group of guards under contract.” She met my eyes. “He wanted them badly, but she wouldn’t sell the contract. Not for any price.

“And you think it’s the rest of them?” I asked.

She threw her hands up, walked away and back again.

“I don’t know! I don’t know what else would make sense.” 

She narrowed her eyes, tapping the screen.

“But whatever else he was, Denau wasn’t stupid. If you were already working with him, he would’ve recognized your brothers. I’m sure of it. And he would’ve wanted them.”

I pushed away from the wall.

“Where is this corp? Who do I talk to?”

“Hold up,” Ronan said. “You know the most about the Atretis system than any of us. But I don’t know if I can trust you.”

The words stung, more than they should have.

“Since you’ve been back you’ve changed,” Ronan said, eyes narrowed. “We’re a pack. You are insisting on being a lone wolf.

His jaw tensed. “Trust me. We’re not built for it.”

“I need to go and see if it is them.” I argued.

And,” I took a deep breath. “When I come back, I’ll see Doc. See if there’s something wrong with me.”

Ronan’s eyes didn’t leave mine for long minutes.

“Go. Get information.” His face softened and he stood. “The last few years have taken a toll. We can’t afford to lose any more of us. And we can’t afford to fracture from within.”

I nodded sharply. He was right. I just wasn’t sure what I could do about it.

Yasmin came to my side.

“Since you’re going to be heading out, I was wondering if you’d like to take on another errand on the way?” 

I smiled at her. “Need something picked up from back home?”

She shook her head, eyes bright.

“No, but Hakon and I have been working on a little project.”

***

 We took the lift down to the hanger level where The Queen was berthed.

“Don’t tell me you’ve made any modifications to Granny Z’s ship?” I wondered.

Yasmin’s eyes widened. “Do I look stupid? Because messing with the favorite toy of a legendary pirate queen would be pretty stupid.”

She glanced up at me from the corner of her eye. “But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been taking some notes.”

We passed that hanger, moved to the next.

Yasmin placed her hand against the panel, leaned closer for an iris scan. With a soft beep the door slid open.

“This looks like more than taking notes,” I said quietly as I followed her into the room.

Not as sleek as The Queen. Not as curved and slender, a silver needle ready to dart through the stars.

Which honestly was a fine thing.

I’ve been out on her for a single mission in that thing and had to hold my breath the entire way.

Too small for someone my size.

The craft in front of me was blocky, nothing in particular to write home about, I would’ve guessed.

That is, only if you ignored Yasmin bouncing up and down on her toes, her grin getting only broader as we approached it.

“I think, I really think we’ve figured out The Queen’s engines,” she breathed. “Possibly made a few other modifications, using that fuel from Alcyon.”

I snorted. “Since when have you started working with Desyk?”

She shrugged. “As soon as I realized they weren’t really the enemy it got a lot easier. Besides, I really wanted to play with that fuel.”

“Honey, we’re home!”

After a moment Haakon leaned out of the hatch. “Good. You found a victim. Volunteer. Whatever.”

I could feel my face freeze into a mask and cursed myself.

I liked Hakon. At least, as much as I liked anyone these days.

And yet…

“That sounds exciting,” I answered. “Do I get more details or should I just randomly push buttons and tell you what happens?”

The Vixen isn’t going to blow up,” Yasmin protested as Hakon swung her up into the hatch. “At least, she hasn’t blown up yet.”

I jumped inside the ship. “This fills me with confidence. Please, tell me more.”

The Queen is all well and good for stealth missions,” Haakon said. “But really, what we need is that engine in more ships.”

“Or at least, something that can fold almost as fast, without attracting as much attention when you arrive.” Yasmin explained. “Let me show you the engines.”

“You can,” I shrugged. “But it’s not gonna do any of us any good,” I said. “Unlike your mate, fixing things isn’t one of my skills. Flying them however…”

“Which is why you’re perfect for this,” Hakon slapped my shoulder. “Fly her, tell us how it goes when you get back. Don’t try to mess with the engines.”

Before long I had as much of the tour I needed.

Supplies were on board, coordinates laid in.

Yasmin looked over her shoulder as she jumped out the hatch back into the dock.

“Either my new engine will get you back to the Areitis Sector almost as fast as The Queen would, or you’ll go the long way, under conventional power.”

Haakon wrapped an arm around her.

“There’s a third  option, but I don’t think it’s very likely,” he said.

I hit the switch to close the hatch. “Option three is that it goes boom, isn’t it?”

His teeth flashed as he grinned. “So many things in our lives do, don’t they?”

I couldn’t argue with that.

I made my way back to the cockpit, made sure they were well past the fire line before I powered up and headed out past the force screen, into the Black.

It was good to be alone. By myself. No one but me to fall back on, no pesky issues of trust to have to endlessly sort out.

Whatever Ronan had said about whether or not we were built to be alone, I knew differently.

Apparently some things could change beyond our original manufacturing specs.

Change irrevocably.

Carefully I guided The Vixen well past Orem’s space, getting used to the feel of the controls, how she responded under my fingers.

For the third time I checked the coordinates.

A small moon deep in the Aretis Sector, the home of Transaman Corp.

I didn’t remember ever hearing of it before.

My hand hovered over the button that would trigger the new experimental engine.

Be there in the blink of an eye or take days of travel.

Or, the ever present option three.

Boom.

I hit the button.

Time to find out.

Tempted by the Traitor Prince: Chapter Four

Nettie

“I think we need to go have our own council,” Matilde announced as the Rakian warriors stood around the table, still discussing strategy long after Tirus and Vokal had left the room.

She rose slowly, the swell of her belly obviously causing a shift to her center of gravity that she hadn’t quite gotten used to yet.

For a moment, Nettie let the familiar twinge of sorrow sweep through her, then carefully wrapped it and packed it away.

“I’ve prepared your sitting room, milady,” the gray-scaled Kuseonian woman said as she unobtrusively slid a hand under Matilde’s elbow.

“Of course you have,” Matilde answered. “You should be a part of this discussion, I think.”

Nettie looked around at the gathering of women, all talented in their own ways, all foraged by Crucible in ways that the founders had never expected.

Yes.

 A council of war would be most appropriate.

“I’m sorry to cause so much trouble,” she said softly as the group moved toward one of the tower’s elevators.

“Nonsense,” snapped Zuri. “I don’t think the Empire and Alliance even know what they’re fighting about anymore. They must’ve realized that fact to just start this sort of experiment, letting people from both sides try to live together.”

“Nyseth certainly knows what she’s doing,” Sasha said, rubbing at her neck. “She and whoever she’s planning with have every intention of making as much chaos as they can, and exploiting every crack they can find. I’ve got no doubt about that.”

She looked at Nettie, her face tight with worry. “Whatever you do, if you’re going, you need to not underestimate her. She looks human, and might be for all I know. But there’s a vicious mind running the show.”

The elevator opened and Edris herded the women, Coracle trailing, to a brightly decorated sitting room.

A group of plushly upholstered chairs was drawn into a circle, with small tables set between them.

Nettie sat, easing into the softness. Sasha and Esme took up the positions beside her, and some of the ice around her heart cracked just a little, her eyes prickling.

Matilde shot a look at Edris. “You, too,” she ordered.

With something that might have been mistaken for a smile, the Kuseonian woman tapped at a panel on the door, and within a moment, another chair had been brought in, the circle expanded, and all the women sat as an uneasy silence fell across the room.

“Are you sure you need to do this?” Rhela broke the silence, much to Nettie’s surprise.

She’d seldom interacted with the shy, soft-spoken gardener.

But the woman’s forehead was creased, her lips pressed together in sincere worry. “You don’t know anyone there and, if your Gift is gone, I don’t know what you think you can do?”

Matilde raised her eyebrows. “A Gift isn’t always necessary in order to kick the universe in the pants.”

Rhela’s hands fluttered in front of her. “Of course not, I didn’t mean that. Just, it sounds like it’s going to be dangerous. And you’re just now getting better.”

Nettie smothered a giggle that even to her own mind would have sounded slightly hysterical.

Adena’s healing Gift and repeated treatments in the garrison’s regeneration pods had healed the scars on her body and had given her some measure of sight back into her damaged left eye.

But better?

She was never going to be better.

“If a war does break out, we’re all going to be involved,” she said. “Especially all of us. Crucible has resources both sides are going to want, even need if the fighting picks up. And do you think the commanders on either side are going to let us all live here in peace?”

Sasha scowled. “I’d be willing to bet the assholes in Central Command are going to yank our guys back into the middle of wherever the heaviest action is.” She grabbed a small sandwich from the side table and bit into it savagely. “And I wouldn’t put it past them to try to order our mates to leave us behind.”

Adena’s eyebrows rose as she sipped her tea, then her nose wrinkled and she pushed it away.

“They can try.”

Edris rose swiftly, disappeared for a moment, and returned with a fresh cup that she pushed into the healer’s hands.

Adena didn’t seem to notice the substitution, but she took a second sip without complaint. “After the events of the last few months, none of our guys are feeling particularly eager to accept orders without questions.” She took another sip.

“Lots of questions.” Zuri tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair. “I know Kennet has been working with Ship, tracing through every possible weakness in its,” she trailed off, then threw her hands in the air. “Something like its mind. Honestly, even now, sometimes he starts talking and I just smile and nod. It’s easier than him trying to explain.”

Coracle sprang into Nettie’s lap, then turned himself around three times and settled down.

“Ship and I share what could be termed an artificial brain,” the cat explained. “While we function as independent entities, it is true that our original programming was executed at the orders of Central Command.”

He licked a paw and smoothed back the fur behind his ears. “I dislike anyone tinkering with my higher functions, but I agree, Kennet’s inspection needs to be done.”

Silence descended again on the circle. Nettie wondered what each woman was thinking about the possible upcoming war, what it would mean to them.

Would they be separated from their mates?

Would Adena and Matilde be on opposite sides?

“If you’re going to go, we need to get started packing,” Esme finally announced. “First off, you’re going to need weapons. Lots of them.”

Edris shook her head. “From what I understand from my mother’s letters, weapons are expressly forbidden to the colonists. So we will have to be very cunning, won’t we?”

Sasha leaned forward. “Are you sure your mother will be alright with this?” she asked, her voice slightly strained. “It seems like we’ll be putting her into danger just by Vokal and Nettie being there. It doesn’t seem fair, not without her agreement.”

Edris’s eyebrows raised slightly. “I am fairly certain that if one of her charges were sent into danger and she was not allowed to help, my mother would take it as a grave offense.” She smiled suddenly. “And my mother is far less easy-going than I am.”

Matilde sputtered into her tea. “Well, that’s settled then.”

Warmth spread through Nettie’s chest as the seven women arrayed around her began to plan her invasion of the colony world, weighing and discarding options with all the seriousness of generals at a campaign.

Esme leaned across the small table separating their chairs to take her hand. “You’re certain about this?” she asked in a whisper.

“I always have been. The stars themselves are calling,” Nettie answered. “And this time, nothing will stop me.”

***

Dressed in a comfortable pair of pants, a knee-length shirt, and a form-fitting tank top beneath, Nettie hoisted the backpack to her shoulders, her head still aching from her session in what Sasha and Matilde had called the ‘learning pod of doom’.

“Remember,” Adena said. “When Nic starts arguing, let me handle him.”

“You sound pretty certain that he’s going to object,” Nettie said, shifting the weight on her back until it felt comfortable, trying not to think too much about her next steps.

This was right, she knew it was right.

But she’d thought that once before.

Her stomach clenched.

“That man has it in his head that it is his job to protect everyone and everything from everything else,” Adena laughed. “You’re part of the family now, so I suspect he’s going to be especially growly.”

The smile flickered on Nettie’s face before she pasted it back into place.

Part of the family.

That was… different.

Sasha and Esme moved to either side of her. “But if this is what you want,” Sasha began. “Then we’ll make sure it’s what happens,” Esme finished.

Edris took both of Nettie’s hands in her own. “Thank you,” she said simply.

“I haven’t done anything yet,” Nettie protested.

“Still, I feel better knowing that someone is there to check on my mother.” The Kuseonian woman squeezed her fingers. “Much better when that someone isn’t me to be scolded.”

Together, the women took the elevator to the top of the tower.

No one was surprised to find the men assembled in the hangar bay.

“What are you doing?” Vokal said, moving away from the small teardrop-shaped craft he’d been inspecting.

It was him, his voice, his form. But still, it took her a moment to understand the change to his coloring. It was almost like a ghost had stepped out from his shadow.

She reached her hand to stroke down his cheek.

“You’re still you,” she said, and his eyes widened as he froze into stillness at her touch. “Do you think your friend will still recognize you?”

Tirus laughed. “We could be dressed up as Xandorians, and Getta would see right through our disguises.”

“What are you planning?” Vokal asked her in an undertone.

“You promised,” she answered him. “And I’m ready.”

“What exactly did you promise?” Nic began, his arms crossed stiffly across his chest.

Adena stepped to stand before her mate. “Sweetheart,” she said, resting her hands on his forearms. “You’re not going to like this, but it’s not actually any of your business, is it?”

To Nettie’s amusement, Nic’s nostrils flared as his head reared back. “How is it not my business? You are saying that sending a civilian off to a potential battlezone is a good idea? After everything that you’ve –”

He broke off quickly.

“After everything that I’ve done?” Adena finished for him sweetly. “My job is to heal people that need it. They are under no obligation to keep themselves locked away as some sort of payment.” She raised an eyebrow. “Unless you and your brothers are all planning to take up gardening as a hobby?”

Tirus coughed. “I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s much harder than it looks.”

He broke off as Matilde kicked him lightly in the shin. “It was a metaphor,” she hissed.

“How was I supposed to know?” he whispered back.

“Yes, but,” Nic tried to continue, frowning.

“It’s going to be dangerous,” Gavin rumbled.

“For all we know, it’s going to be very dangerous. And that’s just the problem, we don’t have enough information,” Jormoi added.

“More dangerous than what’s already been done to me?” Nettie responded.

She stepped toward the sleek curves of the small ship and imagined it racing through the sky. Then she let her mind fill with image of the stars waiting and hoped it would be enough to drown out the terror pooling in the pit of her stomach.

“I’ve spent far too many years in a cage. No one’s going to put me back in one.”

Vokal stood by her side, carefully not touching her, but close enough she could feel him, feel his warmth.

The terror subsided just a bit.

Tirus held his arm out and, after a surprised pause, Vokal reached toward him, clasping forearms. “Good hunting.”

Matilde sniffed, her eyes shining.

“You both better come back without a scratch. I mean it. I’ve got you down for babysitting duty and I’m not going to let you skip out on it. And–”

She turned to bury her head against Adena’s shoulder. “Sorry. Hormones.”

“We’ve tried to allow for twice the number of surveillance satellites than we’re aware of, out of a preponderance of caution,” Tirus told Vokal. “The optimal flight path has been programmed into the navigation system, but depending on what you find when you get there, you may have to make adjustments.”

Vokal snorted. “Believe it or not, making things up as I go along will finally serve me well.”

Nettie looked around the hangar at the mix of worry and nerves running from face to face.

Not anger.

And if it was fear, it was only for their safety.

Coracle twined between her ankles. “I don’t like this,” he growled. “I don’t like this one bit.”

He turned to sit directly in front of Vokal, glaring up with golden eyes. “If you do not bring her back, happy and healthy and safe, I will find a way to infiltrate every computer system you will ever use in your lifetime and make your life a living hell.”

“Coracle!” Nettie and Adena admonished simultaneously.

Vokal squatted down, resting on his heels to face the black and white furry pile of fury.

“If I don’t bring her back safely, you won’t have to worry about doing anything to me,” he promised.

“Humph.” Coracle simply thrashed his tail.

“Shall we?” Vokal asked her.

It was funny.

Once you got past the scales, or the strange coloration, or the wire-like hair, or the difference in the number of fingers on the hand…

Well, that was rather a lot to ignore, wasn’t it? But once you could see past all that, it was hard not to notice the kindness in those dark eyes.

“I’ve been ready longer than you’ll ever know,” she said.

With a tap on the side of the hull, a door irised open and he helped her inside.

She turned to wave at the silent group behind them.

“Stop worrying,” she said, “this was always meant to be.”

Tempted by the Traitor Prince: Chapter Three

Vokal

 “Are you out of your mind?” Tirus spat at Vokal.

The brothers had drifted into a corner of the room, away from both the Enforcers and their mates.

“Probably,” Vokal answered. His eyes drifted back to where Nettie sat, calmly stroking an agitated looking black and white cat.

For all the smoothing of its fluffy fur, it didn’t seem to be enjoying it.

“It’s not like I stole the lady away,” Vokal added, only mildly amused to see Tirus’s flinch as the bolt struck home. “Instead, she came and fetched me. What was I supposed to do? Leave her in the forest? Let her pilot herself back?”

“We are grateful that you have returned Nettie unharmed,” Nic said.

The massive black hulk of the commander of the Enforcers moved far more quietly than any being of that size should be able to.

Vokal fought to keep his face still, to keep his lip from curling.

He missed his mask.

It had seemed stupid at the time to keep his face covered whenever around outsiders, but now he was beginning to see his grandfather’s wisdom.

“She seems perfectly capable of taking care of herself,” was his only remark.

This was getting ridiculous.

The rest of the Enforcers joined what had been a family discussion, even if not a particularly pleasant one.

Vokal leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

“So, you have no information other than a possible attack, at some point in the unknown future, on a world that is defenseless. And would provide a flashpoint for the outbreak of hostilities.”

He shaped his lips into the lazy smile he knew irritated his brother the most.

“And besides that, someone I like lives there.”

He glanced around the semicircle of faces arrayed against him.

“Does that sum it up?”

“We’ll crack that file,” Tirus insisted. “Even if we do have to work together, we will find out Nyseth’s plans and stop them.”

“But what are you going to do in the meantime?” Vokal pressed. “You may not like it, but the lady is correct. We need to get eyes on the ground, see the situation.”

The tallest of the Enforcers, dark gold hair forming a mane around his face, snorted. “She doesn’t know anything about it,” he argued. “There’s no way any of us could get there without attracting just the sort of attention we don’t want.”

“I could take one of the smaller craft, find an inconspicuous place to land and see what I can find,” another one of them offered.

Jormoi, that was his name, Vokal remembered from overheard conversations the last time he’d been at the tower.

He didn’t seem like a bad sort.

He glanced at the giant, Gavin, again. Unlike some.

“And who’s going to tell you what’s normal and what’s not once you’re on the ground?” Vokal said. “Should I send a note with you, ask Getta to fill you in on everything? Or were you planning to pose as one of her kin?”

The scout stuck his chin out stubbornly. “You might not believe it, but I am actually fairly good at my job. Even without a letter of introduction.”

“Maybe I’ll go with you  keep you company,” Vokal said, the sudden resolution surprising no one in the group more than himself.

Dammit, he’d sworn to stay out of Imperial affairs. Let the whole damn Empire burn for all he cared.

A thin edge of guilt wormed its way through the pit of his stomach.

If something did happen, did set the war alight again in all its fury and left an opening for this shadowy third-party to exploit, could he forgive himself for standing by?

And more importantly, if the colonists, if Getta were injured or even killed in the process, could he live with himself?

“Don’t look so surprised,” he snapped at Tirus’s slack-jawed expression.

“I’m only doing it because I’m concerned about Getta. War, or peace, doesn’t mean a thing to me, not anymore.”

His brother’s eyebrows rose even as the Enforcers’ brows settled into a uniform scowl.

“It’s not like you’re going to pass unnoticed, either,” said the one who Vokal mostly recognized from lying twitching in his stasis pod.

“Your soldiers have been seen often enough by the Alliance, but every Kuseonian there will know that one of the princes has come for a visit if you show your black-scaled face anywhere.”

Oh. That was a problem.

However, not an insoluble one.

“There is a solution,”

He shot a bitter smile at the group. “Not a particularly pleasant one, so some of you should be happy, at least.”

***

Vokal stood at the edge of the medical pod.

There was still time to say the hell with this. To go back to his clearing, his pile of stripped logs.

There were months before fall came again. He’d be able to build a house. Probably.

Even if he didn’t, there was no reason in the entire universe for him to climb into that pod.

But even though she was no longer near, he could still feel the touch of Nettie’s small hand on the scales of his arm, the pull of her gaze that drew him like iron to a magnet.

Vokal sighed. After a lifetime of doing whatever the hell he wanted, trying to do the right thing was a pain in the ass.

“We don’t know if it’s reversible,” Tirus argued, hands held carefully over the controls. Vokal looked at his brother, wondering.

That couldn’t be concern, could it?

“Matilde is going to be angry if something goes wrong,”

Ah. That made more sense.

“Tell my sister I’ll be fine,” Vokal said as he pulled off his vest, stripped out of his boots and pants, and climbed into the pod.

“Honestly, this is a much nicer regeneration chamber than the one you stuck me in before.”

“I think I liked you better when you were an asshole all the time,” Tirus said as his hands flew over the controls.

The lid slid over him, sealing him inside. “Sometimes I think I did too,” Vokal admitted.

With a hiss, gas seeped into the chamber, the freezing cold something he’d never gotten used to.

And now the pain. Somehow, he hadn’t expected this to hurt quite so much. He lay there, his eyes closed, imagining five more ways he could try to build his little house.

Maybe build the walls flat on the ground, then raise them? No, he’d need someone else to hold it still.

Perhaps…

His mind kept slipping to her face. The tiny smile that had broken through the mask as she glanced over her shoulder at him, waiting for him to catch up, to join her on the airsled.

Finally, the gas ebbed away, and the lid opened to show Tirus looming over him, eyebrows raised.

“It worked,” he said flatly. “I have no idea if I’ll be able to undo it, though.”

Vokal sat up, reached for the edge of the chamber, and froze.

No reason to be surprised.

He should’ve been expecting it, this was exactly what he’d asked for.

But his scales were now charcoal gray instead of midnight black.

He rotated his arm, wondering at the change.

Such a small thing, something he’d never stopped to think about.

The color of his scales and skin.

Such a simple thing to have marked him as part of the royal blood, set apart, different.

And with one simple procedure, he’d cut himself off from all of that and changed into a faceless warrior, like millions of others.

“Good. I’m not sure if I’d want to change back anyway,” he answered, shoving the small doubts into the back of his mind, then climbed out and redressed.

When they exited the medical bay, only the slight widening of Lorrik’s eyes betrayed his shock.

“We’ve readied the craft, Your Highness.”

“Not anymore,” Vokal said, waving his newly grayed skin before the lieutenant.

The man’s eyes narrowed. “I was not speaking to you.”

Apparently Vokal’s previous disastrous visit to Tirus’s tower hadn’t been forgiven or forgotten by everyone.

Fair enough.

He had nearly killed the man.

“Somehow, no one ever is,” he shrugged, then headed toward the elevator.

The long dining table had been set up as something of a war room, every map and scrap of information that either the Enforcers or Tirus had on Cigni gathered together.

“Cigni III was a mining colony of partithium originally,” Kennet began, flicking overlays across the globe that slowly spun before them. “Its resources had been exhausted a century ago, leaving it of comparatively little value to either side.”

“It’s not like anyone was going to pick a useful planet for this experiment, was it,” Vokal added.

With another flick of his fingers, the planet enlarged and zoomed in to show just one continent.

“From what I have been able to determine, the majority of the colonists are all in this region.” Kennet tapped the air, the image resolving to display broad swaths of green and tan, wiggles of blue marking the rivers that crossed the continent. Mountains curved around one side of a vast plain, thick forests cutting through the land in thick swathes.

“I am not familiar with any details of where your friend is residing, however,” he finished.

Vokal thought back and tried to remember the details Getta had mentioned in her letters.

“She must be near the main center of the colony,” he decided. “She’s mentioned going to a small town for midday meetings, but back again by evening. If the powers that be are having the colony work from the basics up, it’s unlikely that everyone would have their own air transport. Safer to assume she’s on foot, or possibly with the basic flitter.”

Tirus nodded and moved the area to a smaller region. “That narrows it down. What else?”

“Her nearest neighbor raises something, some sort of creature that he shaves for wool.”

“Something like our chatha?” one of the garrison women asked as she moved next to Kennet.

The analyst nodded. “It seems likely, Zuri.” He gestured to the map. “If you could choose anywhere, where would you put a small chatha farm?” She laughed and, to Vokal’s shock, reached up to tap the stonefaced warrior’s nose lightly.

“It’s not a farm. Unless this is some sort of creature the likes of which I’ve never heard of, chances are good they’re not growing them out of the ground.”

She turned her attention back to the map.

“Either of these areas looks good,” she said thoughtfully. “Easy access to water, not too dry, and the trees aren’t too thick around them. Of course,” she shrugged. “That’s assuming they need the same sort of terrain as our chatha.”

Nic nodded. “We can only go with the information we have, and attempt to draw reasonable conclusions.” He glanced at Vokal. “Anything else? Anything useful?”

Vokal decided that he really did not like that man.

But considering from what he understood, that the Rakian commander’s mate had been the one leading the efforts to heal Nettie’s eye, he would try to make an effort.

“She likes to watch the sunrise from her porch, she can see it coming up over the mountains, watch it spread over the town,” Vokal realized with a jolt.

“And you’d have to be far enough away from the mountains to appreciate it,” Nettie said softly from his side. She tapped the second of the areas that Zuri had indicated. “There. I think she’s there.”

“There’s supposed to be a communications blackout,” Nic grumbled. “Apparently it’s not as secure as we’d been told, if you’re getting regular correspondence from one of the colonists.”

Vokal shrugged. “When we were growing up, it was pretty hard to get anything past Getta. I can imagine that whoever was trying to keep her from sending a letter whenever she wanted to would have an equally difficult time.”

“Once you’re there, keep those letters flowing,” Tirus directed. “I’ll keep working on that encryption.”

“Good,” Vokal said. “We’re going to need every weapon we  can get.”

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