Book: Giles Kurns: Rogue Instigator: Age Of Expansion



Giles Kurns: Rogue Instigator: Age Of Expansion

CONTENTS


LMBPN Publishing

Dedication

Legal

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Oz Communicates

Author Notes - Ell

Author Notes - Michael

Series List Ell

Social Links Ell

Social Links - Michael

Series List Michael

GILES KURNS: ROGUE INSTIGATOR

The Ascension Myth Book 8.5

Confessions Of A Space Anthropologist Book 2


By Ell Leigh Clarke and Michael Anderle






Giles Kurns: Rogue Instigator: Age Of Expansion




A part of

The Kurtherian Gambit Universe

Written and Created

by Michael Anderle



DEDICATION 


To everyone who ever dreamed of making a dent in the universe.


— Ellie 


To Family, Friends and

Those Who Love

To Read.

May We All Enjoy Grace

To Live The Life We Are

Called.


— Michael


GILES KURNS: ROGUE INSTIGATOR Team


JIT Beta Readers


Joshua Ahles

James Caplan

Peter Manis

Paul Westman

Larry Omans

Micky Cocker

Tim Adams

John Ashmore

Daniel Weigert

Karla Kay


If we missed anyone, please let us know!


Editor

Ashley Conner

GILES KURNS: ROGUE INSTIGATOR (this book) is a work of fiction.


All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Sometimes both.


This book Copyright © 2018  Ell Leigh Clarke, Michael T. Anderle

Cover by Jeff Brown www.jeffbrowngraphics.com

Cover copyright © LMBPN Publishing


LMBPN Publishing supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.


The distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.


LMBPN Publishing

PMB 196, 2540 South Maryland Pkwy

Las Vegas, NV 89109


First US edition, February 2018


The Kurtherian Gambit (and what happens within / characters / situations / worlds) are copyright © 2015-2018 by Michael T. Anderle.












CHAPTER ONE


Arlene Bailey’s Laboratory, Skóli Uppstigs Academy, Spire, Estaria

Anne padded down the corridor of the main campus building, following the faux tweed atmosuit of Professor Giles Kurns. She’d known from the moment she laid eyes on him that he’d be trustworthy. She just needed to make sure he was truly willing to listen and work with her.

Not that she had trust issues, she mused.

And he was certainly knowledgeable. In fact, after hearing his telling of his latest adventure, she was sure that he’d be able to help her with her predicament. A predicament that’d been weighing on her young shoulders for a good portion of her life.

Now she followed him to meet the one he reports to. That, she ascertained from the way he talked about her. She certainly wore the trousers . . . even if Giles didn’t realize it.

In fact, having seen them together on their return to Gaitune several months ago, she could’ve sworn they were married. Or something.

But apparently not, according to Paige.

Her belly swilled with ice cream as she jogged a few strides to keep up with Giles’s long gait. He’d taken her to the parlor just ahead of this meeting . . . no doubt to sweeten her up a bit. And maybe to give himself a sugar lift. For some reason he seemed . . . nervous?

Their footsteps, out of sync, reverberated through the vacant corridors. The sound reminded her of her first boarding school when she was younger. The one where her parents had first sent her away. They hadn’t coped well with her floating baby toys or kitchen utensils, and when one of her tantrums finally set fire to the drapes, that was the last straw.

Her mother had insisted. Her father didn’t argue. Instead, he put in the call to his friend, the doctor, and within a week, she was being delivered to an institution that specialized in her ‘gift’.

At least, that was what they’d called it to begin with.

“Come along now, Anne, dear,” Giles called behind him as he swept through the hallway and through another door. “We can’t keep her waiting.” He paused, holding the door for her, then pointed her up a stone staircase. “Up you go. Second floor.”

Anne noticed his face was tight and jaw set with tension as she hurried her little legs past him and began climbing the staircase.

Giles followed behind her at first, then taking two at a time, bounded up as if he wanted to race her. Catching on, she hurried herself, her old shoes tap-tap-tapping on the stone, pushing her up and then up again through several flights.

They arrived at the second floor and in a swirl of activity, he hurried her along the next corridor, stopping abruptly outside a slightly ajar door.

Anne caught up again, breathing more heavily than she would normally.

There wasn’t much to do around the base at Gaitune . . . apart from the fact that most places were off-limits to her under Joel’s strict rules. She knew he just wanted to keep her safe, but as a pseudo parent he was a little overprotective at times. He wouldn’t even let her use the gym unless someone else was with her.

She’d argued that if she had a holo, then Oz could monitor her. He and Molly had also made the decision that until they knew more about her past and who was after her, they didn’t want a device flagging to anyone where she was.

Apparently, the system’s AI wasn’t up to safeguarding her with some kind of firewall.

She stopped by the door, waiting for instructions.

“Are you going to stand out there all day?” a female voice called from inside the room.

Giles nodded to her and pushed the door open, signaling for her to head inside.

Anne stepped forward slightly apprehensively. She’d heard so much about this woman. About how advanced she was in what her parents would’ve called, the Dark Estarian Arts. Molly had talked about her as if she were some kind of strict but caring aunt. Paige seemed to worship her . . . from a safe distance. Giles had told her about the fireballs and how she’d used a barrier spell to save them both from guards when they were out tomb raiding.

Anne wasn’t sure what to make of it all.

Gingerly, she stepped into the room, feeling the warm air of the lab touch her skin. Her senses were alert. On edge. Not quite knowing what to expect from this long-awaited meeting.

Giles followed her in. “Arlene? Where are you?”

“Right here!” Arlene appeared at the prep room door holding a rack of test tubes. She wandered casually over to the side bench where she had an apparatus set up and placed the rack down before wiping her hands on her lab coat.

Anne smiled a half smile. “Greetings,” she said, bowing her head politely. She wanted to hide behind Giles but resisted the urge.

Arlene might scare everyone else, but she wasn’t going to scare her. Anne had been pulling fireballs from the air since she was seven. Arlene was going to have to do more than that to impress her.

“Ahhh, so you must be Anne,” Arlene said, stepping forward and holding her hand out. “Giles has told me all about you!”

Not that scary for a fireball-touting ascension coach, Anne thought to herself.

She took Arlene’s hand and shook it politely. “Nice to meet you,” Anne replied as confidently as she could.

Arlene smiled at her. “I hear that you’ve been staying up on Gaitune for a while?”

Anne nodded.

“How do you find it there?”

“It’s ok,” she replied flatly, waiting for the real conversation to begin.

Arlene exhaled in a kind of humorless laugh and sat down on a nearby stool. She offered another for Anne to sit on. “That good, eh? I expect there isn’t much for someone who isn’t working as part of the team to do up there. No trees or sand or soil . . .” She paused. “What do you do most of your day?”

Anne had caught her breath. She wasn’t going to tell her that she spent most of her time scheming how to access some of the consoles on the ships. But she could tell her some of the other things. “I play video games with Brock. And sometimes he lets me help fix things with him.”

Arlene’s eyes brightened. “Really?” She glanced at Giles. “And what else?”

“I hang with Paige and Maya sometimes. They like to braid my hair and talk about boys and things. Paige lets me test all her new products, too.”

Arlene actually looked like she was listening.

“And then Giles comes to visit sometimes,” Anne said, relaxing a little and smiling back at Giles, who’d perched himself against another bench in the room.

“I see,” Arlene said, still paying close attention.

Anne felt like Arlene was connecting with her. It was a strange feeling . . . like she was really listening to her. And then it occurred to her that she might be doing her tuning-in shit—like Molly had described to her.

Anne’s barriers went up. She clenched her teeth and felt her chest tighten.

“What’s wrong?” Arlene asked, suddenly concerned.

“You’re . . . scanning me,” Anne said, uncertain. “You’re inside my field and my body, and you’re—”

Arlene held her hands up, and the warmth of energy withdrew. “It’s ok. I’m not doing anything. We’re just talking. It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt you. Look,” she said, standing up and taking a step back. “That’s all you now. I’m out of your field.”

Anne felt her chest relax. She couldn’t tell if the anxiety was because she’d made herself tense, or if it was Arlene’s doing. Either way, she didn’t like it.

Arlene sat down on the stool again. “It’s all ok . . .” she reiterated. “Giles told you that I can help you? With your powers?”

Anne nodded, still unnerved by what she didn’t understand.

Arlene bobbed her head. “Ok. Well, I’m going to show you how you can use them and how to control them. And you’ll see that sometimes it’s going to be easier for you to learn how this works by tuning into my energy, just like I did with you then.”

Anne didn’t respond. She felt Giles shuffling just outside her field of view.

Arlene continued pushing her dark hair back away from her effervescent blue skin. “It’s just like listening closely when someone’s talking with you. That’s all. But instead of using your ears, you’re using all your senses, and you tune in like a radio dial.”

Anne frowned. “What’s a radio?” she asked.

Arlene smiled the smile of someone who was becoming aware of her age. “Ok, I’ll show you that some time. Let’s not worry about it for now. The point is, you’re a very talented young lady, and very soon you’re going to be able to do some very helpful things . . . which’ll also mean you won’t be quite so bored while everyone else is busy.”

Anne narrowed one eye, searching for the proposition that Arlene was making. “You mean, you’re going to train me to be part of the team?”

Arlene pressed her lips together. “Well, I can’t promise that. Especially not until Molly knows that no one’s coming after you and we know you’re safe . . . but at least if we all knew you could control your powers, the team around you would be safe and we could start teaching you other, more advanced things that could be useful.”

Anne dropped her gaze to the floor. She didn’t feel like she had a choice in all this. And what’s more, Arlene was making her feel like all those nuns and doctors and therapists through the years who’d tried to tame her wild talents. Yet there was something she trusted.

Arlene’s face morphed from friendly to stern. “Tell me, Anne, have you had any . . . episodes . . . since you’ve been on Gaitune?”

Anne’s mind flicked through the myriad of things that happened on a semi-regular basis.

Helping Paige baking she’d accidentally exploded the sponge cake when she tried to help it cook.

That was messy.

Then helping Brock repaint, but then when he made her laugh too hard, she accidentally exploded a can of paint all over the hangar deck and the nose of the Scamp Princess. And Brock.

That was also messy, and there are still patches of green paint on the yellow hangar deck floor. And the underside of the nose of the Scamp Princess.

Then there was the time in the gym when Sean had told her to move out of the way, and she got so mad that she made him slip while he was holding some heavy weights.

She never admitted it was her though. To this day, he thought he was clumsy and never even told anyone about it.

Anne gazed at Arlene, then shook her head. “No, not that I can think of,” she said, pretending to think hard.

Arlene had a flash of humor in the outer corner of one eye, which evaporated before Anne could really register it.

“Good,” Arlene said. “That means your powers aren’t as strong as we were hoping. Your training should be pretty straightforward then.”

Anne suspected Arlene was onto her. And now this had just become a game. A game of let’s pretend.

Anne felt the anxiety swell in her chest, and it was too late to come clean.

The conversation went on for a little while longer, and it was, in a roundabout way, agreed that Anne would permit Arlene to show her some exercises so she could work on controlling her powers.

Lessons would begin in a few days when Giles and Arlene could sync their busy schedules.

Meanwhile, Anne would hang tight on Gaitune.

“Ok,” Arlene said eventually, “do you want to have a look at some microscope slides while I talk with the G-man?”

Anne nodded. Arlene led her over to the microscope she’d set up on a bench away from all her important samples. She brought some non-essential slides over for her and showed her quickly how to work the magnification.

Then she padded quietly past Giles, beckoning him with the twitch of her finger to follow her into the prep room. The pair stood in the doorway, keeping an eye on Anne and talking in low voices.

“It seems Oz has had a breakthrough in the talisman DNA data . . .” Arlene began, changing the subject entirely.

“Oh, yes?”

“Finally,” she added, shaking her head with a touch of impatience. “It looks like at least some of these fragments are coordinates. Sets of three intersecting vectors referenced against a background of stars, it looks like.

“Ahhhh,” Giles breathed, “coordinates that’re independent of man-made quadrants!”

Arlene nodded.

Giles’s eyes looked distance for a moment. “That’s seriously old school . . . and very clever.”

Arlene pulled her lips down at the corners. “Yes, and only necessary if you think the folks interpreting your coordinates won’t have your set of maps and reference points.”

Giles shoved one hand in his pocket. “Like someone very far in the future, when socio-political landscapes are different and star regression can be extrapolated.” He bobbed his head, thinking out loud. “How many of these references are there?”

Arlene shrugged. “About seven or eight . . . there about.”

“Hmm. Seven or eight different coordinates . . .” he mused. “I don’t suppose we know where any of these might be referring to yet?”

Arlene shook her head.

“How long do you think it’ll take to decipher them?”

Arlene flapped her arms silently but dramatically. “Not a clue,” she told him, lowering her voice again, trying not to draw Anne’s attention.

“Now that we know what we’re looking at, we can start referencing the points that we’ve interpreted . . . but it’s down to how fast Oz can work now.”

Giles ran a long finger over his chin, then tapped his lips. “Great. Well, this certainly is good news.” He leaned against the door frame, watching Anne struggling to get a slide into the microscope holder.

“Well, even if we had a location, there’s nothing we can do until Sean gets back with the Scamp Princess. No way Molly will let us take The Empress.” His expression was almost forlorn, like this wasn’t just a transportation issue.

Arlene frowned. “What about the Little Empress?”

“Doesn’t have gate capabilities,” he said flatly. “We’d be dead in the water without that.”

“Grr,” she growled quietly, clearly agitated at being cooped up in the lab all this time. Or at being so close to a breakthrough yet so far from it.

Anne dropped something, pulling Arlene’s attention and an annoyed glance.

“Sorry,” she called, fiddling with the knob, desperately trying to screw it back on.

Arlene returned her attention to Giles. “Well, I guess we just need to wait. In the meantime, I’ll see what else we can figure out from this code.”

She started flicking through holoscreens on her wrist holo, checking that she didn’t have anything else to run by Giles while he was here. “Oh, one more thing,” she realized, her eye catching on some notes. “I ran a mass spectrometry analysis of the outer material of the talisman and then got Oz to model what the composition might look like.”

“Yeah?” Giles said, pulling his glasses from his face and cleaning them as if he were now bored. “I’ve done that before. Turned up nothing in the known database.”

Arlene clicked her fingers at him and pointed. “That’s what I got. Though,” she pulled up a different holoscreen to show him, “this is what the molecular structure looks like.”

Anne had wandered over and looked over Giles’s arm to see the screen, idly curious. Giles waved his finger in it and tilted the floating hologram down for her to see.

Arlene got distracted by another note that’d caught her eye and was already on to working on the next thing. Giles handed her the holoscreen back, and she left it projecting onto the bench next to her.

“Well, I guess we’ll head off then,” he called over to her, signaling for Anne to grab her jacket.

“Yeah. Ok.” Arlene replied, absently. “Lemme know about training,” she added, not even looking up.

Giles guided Anne out of the lab. “Will do,” he responded, hoping they’d have something to get Arlene out of crazy scientist mode soon. Otherwise, he’d have to resort to drastic measures. Like taking her out or something.

He shuddered. Socializing wasn’t his strong suit. He’d much rather hang with her on an adventure where they had a shared goal. And bullets flying at them.

Far more . . . intimate.

He smiled to himself as he pulled the door closed behind them, catching a glimpse of her hunched over her holo talking to herself.












CHAPTER TWO


Molly’s conference room, Base Safe House, Gaitune-67

“It’s been four days!” Molly paced her personal conference room upstairs in the safe house.

Joel, attempting to be a supportive, calming influence, sat patiently, watching her like one might watch a quaggle ball being pinged back and forth across the net in a match.

She paused, turning to face him with one hand on her forehead, holding her hair out of her face. “I mean, what was he thinking? Leaving us no way to trace him. Who does that?”

Joel pushed his bottom lip out in the most sympathetic way possible. “Molly,” he said firmly, “it was his choice. We have to respect that.”

“But what if this is something he can’t handle on his own? What if he’s in trouble right now?”

“Well then, that was also his choice. He’s a big boy. And he’s been around longer than you and me put together, I’d guess.”

Molly looked at the chair in front of her and thought about sitting down. Her holoscreen was open at the seat, holding a freeze frame of the video—the only clue they had about what Sean was up to.

Molly, Emma has detected the Scamp Princess in the vicinity. She’s hailing Scamp now.

Molly froze, before repeating to Joel what Oz has just told her.

“The Scamp Princess is back,” she announced quietly in a state of complete shock.

Joel’s eyes widened in surprise, but he said nothing.

“Oz?” Molly called so they could have the conversation over the in-conference audio so Joel could hear.

“Yes, the ship is on its way in.”

“And Sean? Is he ok?”

“So far Emma has only been able to communicate with Scamp. Scamp is saying that Sean isn’t on board.”

“What the—?”

“Apparently, he left orders for Scamp to return without him if he wasn’t back within a certain time.”

Molly scowled, tears brimming in her eyes. “What, and Scamp just followed those orders?”

Oz paused a moment as if waiting for data. “Well, not exactly. Ze managed to override the programming for a significant time longer and did a sweep of the area where Sean should have been. Ze also tried to follow clues in things that Sean had let slip and told zir, and ze tried to put it all together. Personally, I think if I were to take a pass at the data, I might be able to figure something out. We’ll need Scamp to pull it off though, and for Brock to manually download the conversations off the hard drive.”

Molly’s face set firm. “Have Brock meet us at the hangar deck. We’re on our way down.”

Joel looked confused.

“Sup?” Molly asked, about to stride out of the door.

Joel’s brow furrowed another inch. “Why is Oz talking like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like . . . ze and zir?”

Molly tried to connect her brain to her mouth to explain something that was important but not urgent to the impending situation. “It’s . . . erm. Well, you know how Shamans and some AIs don’t identify with one gender over the other?”

Joel shook his head, but Molly ignored it.

“Well, those are gender-neutral pronouns. It makes it easier to refer to them correctly without having to overuse their name.”

Joel, still confused, at least started to get up.

Molly started moving out the door again. “Yeah. I dunno why we didn’t adopt it centuries ago, but hey, that’s the Sark System for you. Anyway, Scamp has chosen gender neutral because ZE is sick of being identified as a princess and is feeling kind of boyish at times. This just allows zir the fluidity to be who ze is.”

Joel’s head was about to explode. “Ok, let’s revisit that when we’re not trying to save someone’s life . . .” he muttered as he followed her out and down the corridor.


Lecture Theater 3, Skóli Uppstigs Academy


Giles sat at the front bench of the darkened lecture theater. Anne was still with him, sitting at one end of the bench drawing on some actual paper he’d found for her.

He had some work to do before he dropped her back, and she seemed reluctant to leave the university straight away. He was secretly happy for the company.

And the lecture theater was as safe as anywhere on Gaitune, especially since no one knew they’d be there.

Besides, he liked it here. It was peaceful.

Most faculty members preferred doing their marking in their classrooms . . . where they had their creature comforts—mocha machines, slippers under the desk.

Not Giles. He preferred the majesty of the lecture theater. It reminded him of his glory days when he’d be called from all over the Empire to lecture on space archeology, helping the military figure out how to deal with their newest encounter. Or helping fresh recruits come to terms with the customs of their fellow comrades of different species.

Yes, being an arch and anth specialist certainly could lead to a varied career. Yet between the tomb raiding and military ops, he’d always return to the lecture theater. It was his one touchstone—even if now, stuck educating kids on some backwater planet in a relatively insignificant system . . .

He sighed, his gaze drifting into the rows and rows of empty seats ahead of him.

Just then, his wrist holo flashed up a message. It was Oz.

PLS CALL, the message read.

Giles hit the return call button, and Oz instantly connected through his audio implant. “Giles, hi. We’ve had a development. Scamp just arrived back. Without Sean.”

Giles took a moment to absorb the information. “What do you mean, without Sean?”

“Just that. Scamp was programmed to return if Royale didn’t show back up at the appointed time. And he didn’t. So ze came back without him.”

Giles’s mind whirred, wondering what might’ve happened. “How can I help? Are we going to retrace Scamp’s steps?”

“Affirmative. Joel is getting the team together now. They ship out in a few hours.”

Giles was already on his feet, closing holoscreens. “I’m on my way!” he relayed quickly.

“No need,” Oz countered.

Giles wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “Say again?”

“No need. They’re leaving Paige and Maya to look after the base. And Anne. And Molly needs you to hold the fort on campus. We’ve no idea how long this will take.”

Giles felt the air leaving his sails. He sat down on the stool again. “Are you sure I can’t be of assistance on the mission? I know the world that Royale comes from . . . if this is anything to do with his past . . .” His voice trailed off, hoping that Oz was going to interject and give him a role on the crew.

“I’m sorry, Giles. Molly was clear. She wants you here.”

Giles thought about protesting. Or calling Molly directly. Maybe this was because of their close encounter? he wondered in passing.

“Well, er . . . let me know if you need anything then,” was all he could manage.

“Will do. Thanks, Giles. Oz, out.”

His audio went dead.

Anne had stopped drawing and was watching him with a concerned look. “What is it?”

Giles sighed, taking his glasses off and placing them gently on the table in front of him. Their presence disrupted the light of the holoscreen he’d been working on. “Well, it seems Scamp is back. But no Sean.”

Anne pulled her lips to one side, a slight frown forming across her young forehead. “Hmm. Well, he seems pretty tough. Was he out drinking and got lost?”

Giles smiled despite his obvious concern for his chum. “Possibly,” he lied. “Although, that would’ve been rather careless of him.”

Anne looked very serious for a moment. “Well, I’m not an expert in behavior, but I’ve seen lots of people do careless things.”

Giles chuckled to himself. Could this child be any more precocious? he wondered.

He decided to keep packing. “Come along, young one,” he called over to her. “We should probably get you back to base before Molly disappears anyway.”

Anne started gathering her drawings. “Yeah right. You just want to see her before she goes.” She continued packing. “Either that, or you want to be in on the preparations so you can wheedle your way onto that trip.”

“Mission. It’s a mission, Anne. Not a trip. These things aren’t jollies, you know.”

Anne rolled her eyes at him.

“And you should have more respect for your elders!” he said, noticing her reaction.

Anne smirked but made a feeble attempt to keep her face straight—meaning her mouth got all twisted up.

Giles couldn’t help but be amused. “Come along,” he said, pretending to be cross with her. “We’ll call Arlene from the pod. At least we might gain access to Scamp if she ever gets those coordinates sorted out.”

Anne carefully clocked all the information Giles was hemorrhaging. After all, she never knew when details like this might come in useful.


Hangar Deck, Base, Gaitune-67


Molly strode as fast as her enhanced legs would carry her across the hangar deck. Even GI Joel struggled to keep up with her.

The dense vibration of Scamp Princess’s engines filled the space between the hangar doors and the free landing pad.

Molly felt the anxiety flood through her. They didn’t know if Sean was dead. There was still a chance he was ok. They just had to find him.

Breathe, she told herself, willing herself to stay in the present moment. Her mind spindled out like an evil machine monster from a horror movie, swallowing up hope like a demon.

Be present, she willed herself. Stay. She took her awareness into her breathing, feeling each breath as Arlene had taught her. Then she brought her awareness into her toes to the ground to expel the excess energy she was producing. The last thing she needed now was to realm jump. She needed to focus.

The tone of Scamp’s engines shifted into hover mode as Scamp deftly set zirself down in the landing area. Molly waited only long enough for the radiation to settle from the core before she was walking into the stirred-up air towards the door. It took several more seconds for the back door to open. It felt like an eternity.

Molly watched every moment, imagining that it’d all been a terrible miscommunication and that Sean was indeed on board. Maybe he’d just been injured. Maybe Scamp had got it wrong and he was going to be standing there a bit beaten up but otherwise very much alive.

Maybe it was all just a practical joke. She prayed it was a practical joke.

On my ancestors, please let this be a joke. I promise I won’t be mad at him. I promise, I’ll do anything. Just let him be ok. Let him be standing there.

The tailgate opened enough for the belly of the ship to be visible. There was no Sean standing there. No one present.

Joel looked up from his holo, then showed Molly the results.

LIFE SIGN SCAN: No life signals.

Molly felt her insides crush in on themselves. The anxiety ripped through her chest and gut as strongly as if it were a knife. But there was no time for feelings now. She could process later.

Right now, she had to find Sean.

Brock appeared at her side. “What do you need, Boss?”

Molly nodded into the ship. “We need to know everything that Scamp knows about this trip. Every coordinate. Every conversation—even between Sean and Scamp as well as the ship-to-ship communications. Every satellite Scamp has pinged off on the journey, and every sensor reading. And then have Emma send the raw data to Oz.”

Oz, I hope you’re ready for this. This is going to be a shit-ton of intel. 

Don’t worry. Since Lance hooked me up with the extra capacity, I’ve never come close to being full. 



Ok, well that’s something. 

Joel headed onto the ship to help Brock and to perform a visual sweep to make certain Sean wasn’t there.

Molly started to think about their next move, but then sensing the eyes of the others, she turned and looked up. Lined up at the railings, ready for orders, standing at the entrance to the hangar deck stairs were Crash, Paige, Maya, Jack and Pieter.

She smiled, realizing she wasn’t the only one in emotional turmoil over potentially losing a crew member and friend.

She headed over towards them, made the wind-up sign with her right hand, then pointed at the doors to the corridor on her level. They nodded, knowing to meet her in the conference room.

You’re going to fill them in? 

Damn right. We’re going after Sean as soon as we have those coordinates. We’ll be taking the Empress. Make sure you have the data with us. We’ll have to figure this out on the fly. 

Roger that, Boss. 

And with that, Molly took herself off to the restrooms for a few minutes while the team made their way down to the base conference room.

When she showed up to brief them, only Paige could tell she’d been crying, and thankfully, she never said a word.


Gaitune-67


For the next couple of hours, the base was a hive of activity and tension. Everyone on the team knew what they needed to do and worked as if they were of one mind to make everything ready for their departure.

Now, loaded up with as many weapons from the armory as they could fit into the cargo hold, they were ready to leave.

“But we should be coming with you,” Paige protested quietly to Molly as they stood on the yellow deck behind the Empress.

Molly shook her head. “I need you at the base. We might need you to run an op from here. We might need you to call for reinforcements. Heck, Sean may even show up here and need help. I need you to stay.” Molly was emphatic.

Paige nodded, understanding that she wasn’t just being benched. She was holding the fort.

“And Anne. You need to take care of Anne. This mission is no place for a kid.”

Paige nodded her understanding again, then shifted into friend mode. “It’s going to be ok. If anyone can take care of himself, it’s Sean.”

Molly dropped her leadership veneer, allowing Paige to see her real feelings and expression.

Paige leaned in and hugged her tightly. “I know he’s special to you. And there’s no way he’s not coming back. It’s going to be ok.” She chuckled through the emotion. “I’ll bet you get there and find him drinking with the locals or something. And then you’ll be forced to give him such an ass-kicking . . .”

The two girls giggled as a couple of tears escaped down Molly’s face. “You’re right,” she agreed, pulling herself together again. “He’ll be due an ass-kicking, for sure.”

Paige rolled her lips together and held Molly at arms-length. “That’s the spirit. Go get ‘em.”

Molly smiled weakly, her lip twitching with tension and emotion even then. She glanced up to see Maya at the railing again. She waved. Molly nodded back before turning to the Empress and heading up the invisible staircase along the side of the ship.

At the top, she waved, then remembered something. She opened an audio line to Paige. “Oh, and make sure that Anne practices those exercises every day. No excuses.”

Paige nodded from the hangar deck floor and waved. “Don’t worry. I got this. See you soon.”

And with that, Molly nodded her thanks to her friend and disappeared into the Empress.

Moments later, the air around where the staircase had been visibly rippled as the stairs dematerialized. A second after that, the engines of the core came online.

The Empress lifted gracefully, tipped her wings, then glided out towards the open hangar door and disappeared into the darkness.

Paige stopped waving. The hangar deck suddenly eerily quiet and deserted. She felt an emptiness settle inside herself.

Maya was still up top waiting for her.

“Anne,” Paige muttered to herself. “Look after Anne,” she said, repeating the instructions to herself. “Need to check on Anne.”












CHAPTER THREE


Pod ride back to Gaitune

Anne sat in the pod tracing her finger across the pod window, following the horizon line as they lifted off from the campus grounds.

Giles was deep in thought. He felt bad that his focus was on commandeering the Scamp Princess rather than worrying about his friend. Maybe he should offer to take the Scamp with Molly’s team. As backup. He could do that, even if they’ve left already . . .

Or maybe that would be crowding her? 

He ruffed his hair, wedging his elbow against the side of the pod, unsure of what he should be doing. He became aware of his stomach tightening in a knot. How to deal with the Molly situation was something he’d thus far employed a very efficient strategy—he compartmentalized.

Which effectively meant—he did nothing. He didn’t think about it. He didn’t try and second guess. And he just let it ride.

But now that he was thinking about it, his mind was in pretzels trying to figure out what he should be doing. Or what would get him the result he wanted.

Which was a mind-fuck in itself . . . because that presupposed that he knew what he wanted.

He pushed the thoughts aside. At least he should let Arlene know he was heading out. He hit the button on the holo inside the pod and connected a call before they were out of range. “Arlene, hi. Me again,” Giles announced over the in-pod audio connection. “I’ve been thinking about the situation with Scamp.”

Arlene didn’t wait for him to explain. “You mean Scamp is back and you’re on your way to Gaitune to see if you can use him when they’ve got everything they need.”

Giles leaned back in the seat. “You know me so well. I guess Oz has been keeping you abreast of the details,” he deduced. He paused, wondering whether it’d be helpful or not to mention that the only limiting factor is not having a location on where their next tomb raid might be.

“Well,” Arlene said, measuring her tone evenly, “I also have news.”

Giles spontaneously sat up, causing Anne to turn and look at him. “Yes?” he prompted Arlene.

Anne went back to watching out of the window, now tracing the stars that’d appeared across her view as they lifted through the Estarian atmosphere.

“Yup. I’ve been reviewing some of the code Oz has managed to crack before he took off. It’s not a hundred percent, but I’ve got a hunch as to what the rest of the set of coordinates might be.”

“You’re kidding me? That is bloody good timing.”

“It is. You couldn’t write this shit better.”

Giles chuckled to himself. “No, you could not,” he agreed. “So that means we have a location to get to?”

“Slow your horses,” Arlene told him firmly. “This new location is still incomplete, so I’m taking an educated guess here. Given the plane and the fact that everything else around is either empty space or flames of destruction, that is . . . I’m guessing our next talisman is sitting somewhere on the planet Mallifrax-8.”

Giles was all ears. “And where is that?”

Anne continued to trace on the window, pretending to be otherwise absorbed.

“It’s in the Ferrai Quadrant.”

“Wow, that’s a bit far out. And what do we know about it?”

“Not much. Looks like an extinct planet. I’ve just this minute pulled it up on the maps. I’ll know more when I’ve done a bit more research, but I’m AI-less now.”

Giles thought for a moment. “Tell you what, do what you can and see if we can transfer the database fragments we might need to Gaitune. I need to see what’s going on up there and what the score is with Scamp. We’re going to need him. Her. Or zer . . . or whatever.”

He could feel Arlene rolling her eyes at his struggle with this new gender-neutral protocol they’d started using for their AIs and organics alike.

He’d get the hang of it. After all, he’d spent three months with the Bogou tribe on Zyton back in his youth, and they have four genders. He’d be able to get this gender-neutral thing down, no problem. It was just going to take some considered effort and attention.

He addressed Arlene again. “Lemme meet you back at Gaitune. I expect you need to pack and wrap things up here?”

“Yes. Give me a couple hours. I’ll see you soon, partner.” Her voice was brighter. Much brighter. Like she’d regained her spark.

Giles could almost feel the twinkle in her eyes through the intercom. She certainly was ready for another adventure, he thought to himself.

“Very good, Ms. Bailey. I’ll wait to hear from you.” Giles allowed a smile to spread across his face as she disconnected the call. He relaxed back in his seat, his stomach still in a knot, but mentally feeling much more optimistic.

Until a moment later when his thoughts drifted guiltily back to Sean. He decided he’d at least try to get on the mission to help find him. But he knew already that when Molly made a command decision, nothing was likely to sway it.

Anne sat back in her seat, too. If Giles had glanced over at that moment, he would’ve seen her looking quite pensive for a young girl who, on the face of it, had very little to worry about these days.


Gaitune-67, Hangar Deck


The pod touched down gently to hover just a few inches above the hangar deck floor. Giles hit the button and shuffled out first to help Anne out.

Paige had seen them swooping in. She made her way over the hangar deck floor from the sidewalk. Emma had probably alerted her to their return when they got into range.

Paige was looking a dull gray color. Giles deduced that she must be stressed. As she got closer, he could see that her eyes were puffy as if she’d been crying, too.

“You’ve just missed them,” she called over.

Giles felt his stomach become like lead. His thoughts immediately started to oscillate—he could always call Molly and make his pitch for him to join them.

He helped Anne step down from the pod and heard Paige exclaim loudly behind him. “There you are!” she said exasperatedly at the young girl. “No one knew where you were!”

Sheepishly, Giles turned to face Paige. “Ah, yes,” he confessed, bumbling now. “She was with me. Took her to meet Arlene. Training,” he justified. “Then we got caught up in marking,” he confessed.

Paige’s eyebrows portrayed her annoyance, but she ignored Giles and looked down at Anne. “Hmm, expert in space archeology now, are we?”

Anne grinned. She liked Paige. Paige always had time for her. Although, if she were honest, she much preferred hanging out with Giles. He didn’t treat her like a baby. More like an annoyance . . . that he was strangely glad to have around.

That’s kinda messed up, she noticed, shaking her head to herself.

“Ok,” Giles said, getting to the point. “We’ve got a lead on the next talisman. Arlene and I would like to ship out. With Scamp.”

Paige, distracted by Anne, glanced up at him. “Oh, erm . . . I think they cleared him for duty, but we didn’t think . . . you’ll need to check in with Molly.”

“Of course,” he agreed, pulling his glasses from his face. Realizing he didn’t have anything to clean them with while his suit was all fastened, he put them back on. “I’ll call her from Scamp then.”

Paige smiled compassionately. She knew that Giles and Sean were friends. As far as Sean had friends.

“Ok, fine,” she agreed. “I’ve got some stuff to do in the office now that I know this one is safe.” She put her hand on Anne’s waif-like shoulder and rubbed it affectionately.

She checked her holo for the time and did a quick calculation of all the things she needed to get through before she could call it a night. “Feel like pizza tonight?”

Anne nodded.

“Ok,” Paige confirmed. “7:00 p.m. in the kitchen. We’ll order in. Just make sure you meet me there. I can’t keep running all over the base to find you, you know.”

Anne kept her mouth shut and nodded again, amicably. Sometimes Paige could also be a bit of a control freak, she noted to herself. Still, no one is perfect . . . 

“You’re welcome to join us,” she told Giles, generously.

Giles was too distracted to think about dinner. “Thank you. I’ll . . . erm . . . let you know. I need to coordinate with Arlene about getting out of here. And . . .” he touched his forehead with a couple of fingers as if his brain were trying to figure everything out all at once.

Paige nodded. Part of her offer was to be polite. Part of it was because she wanted to size up what exactly was going on with him and Molly. Although, she had her own feelings about it all, so probably better she didn’t do that right now. “Yeah, whatever works,” she replied mildly.

“See you later,” she added, waving at Anne, then headed back in the direction of the stairs to the safe house basement.

Giles let a hand fall around Anne’s shoulder. “Ok. I’ve got to go make a call. You gonna be ok?”

Anne nodded.

“Ok,” he muttered, wandering absently through the bank of pods, trying to figure out which direction he needed to go to find Scamp.

Things sure were a lot easier when Oz was around and available to help with the little things . . . 


Aboard the Scamp Princess, Hangar Deck, Gaitune


Several hours later, Giles and Arlene were suited up and ready to depart on the Scamp Princess.

Arlene flicked through the final checks with Scamp, making sure all systems were fully operational after the obviously concerning experience that Scamp had been through.

Giles rocked idly in the pilot’s chair, wondering what Sean might be going through. He recalled his own hostage situation. And his bonding mission with Sean when he first encountered the Sanguine Squadron. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

And though he and Sean were never drinking buddies, they did share a bond. A bond that on their call a few hours ago, Molly was quick to dismiss as not operationally relevant for the task she and the team were about to undertake.

He felt bad that he wasn’t disobeying orders and going after him . . . but Molly had been very clear. Plus, Oz had locked down Scamp’s data so that even if Giles wanted to be defiant and go after Sean, he wouldn’t know where to start.

He sighed. There was also no telling what kind of danger he might put the others in if he did something like that. He had more to think about than just himself now. Now he had friends. And a kind of team—that he was sometimes part of.

His mind rested on the idea for a moment. Although, if I’m part of the team, why have I been feeling like such an outsider the last few days?

Then he remembered Paige’s coolness towards him when he’d arrived back at the base earlier.

Must be because of what happened with Molly. 

He shook his head, kicking himself that he didn’t know what he should be doing there, then returned his thoughts to something more familiar—going against orders.

Another reason it’s a bad idea, he told himself, is that I’m already on thin ice. With Lance. And probably now with Molly. Not that I can be certain. But maybe pretending nothing happened the other day is a bad move, after all. 

His thoughts drifted, waves of guilt and anxiety gently ebbing through his system. It wasn’t like him to have so many . . . feelings like this.

Or maybe it was, and he just used the next adventure as a way of avoiding it.

Life as a professor was so . . . quiet, he noted.

“Ok,” Arlene chirped up, breaking him from his uncharacteristically self-reflective thoughts. “You ready to rock?”

Giles pushed his glasses further up his nose and sat up properly. “Born ready,” he muttered, flicking the start-up sequence on the various switches and holoscreens and making a pun about their newest local AI.

Scamp caught the pun and chuckled quietly over the audio. “Bourne! Heh!” He took over the launch and made the course corrections to allow them an easy passage out of the hangar.

Within minutes, the inky blackness of the vacuum was appearing in their windscreen.

Space-bourne, Arlene relaxed a little and turned her attention to their meeting earlier that morning. “So . . . how was Anne after our little chat?”

Giles tried to focus on the question while thoughts of Sean’s possible peril distracted him. “Oh, erm . . . she was . . . fine.”

Arlene pursed her lips. “Uh huh. She didn’t say anything? Or comment on what we decided about her training?”

Giles ummed some more, finishing his course checking, then sat back. “Er. No. She never said a word. I assumed she was fine with everything.” He turned to look at Arlene, suddenly realizing this wasn’t just a casual enquiry. “Why?”

“Well,” Arlene started, taking a deep breath, “she had a lot of resistance to everything I was saying.”

Giles wrinkled his nose, already exhausted by all the emotional stuff he was having to juggle. “Uh huh . . .” he grunted, waiting for the interpretation.

Arlene continued, choosing her words carefully. “It’s going to take a lot of training. She’s old now, relatively speaking, for this kind of training. She’s become set in her ways. And her survival strategies are strong. It’s going to be very difficult to reshape her development from here.”

Giles muttered an acknowledgment. “I’m sure you’ll do your best . . . that’s all any of us can do.” He flicked some switches, activating the various systems Scamp was waiting for. Organic authorization, on.

Arlene’s voice was a little crisper now. “And she’s got a touch of insolence about her,” she added.

Giles smiled. “She’s just . . . spirited,” he corrected.

Arlene narrowed her eyes at him.

“Actually,” he added, becoming a little more engaged, “she reminds me a little bit of you when you were younger and less encumbered by responsibility.”

Arlene looked insulted, though Giles didn’t see. He’d already turned his attention back to idly gazing out the window ahead of him, watching the space-scape unfold.

“I’ll have you know,” Arlene protested, “I was never insolent!” she chastised him with mock indignation.

Giles raised a humorless eyebrow at her. “Which is why you rebelled and ran away with me, right?”

Arlene slumped back in her chair, putting her head in hands. “That wasn’t insolence . . .” Her words were layered with meaning Giles didn’t have the energy to unpack.

“So where is this place we’re going to again?” he asked, deftly changing the subject.

 Arlene kept her annoyance to herself. “Gaumix is its ancient name. But the Queegerts have renamed it Mallifrax-8, I believe.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Well, you’re in good company. There’s very little on the database other than fly-by data noting that it exists and that there were signs of civilization but no life signs.”

“Sounds like my kinda place,” Giles grunted.

Arlene chuckled. “Space archaeologists,” she muttered. “They’re all about dead and long-lost civilizations.”

“Well, that was the case only up until about ten years ago. It’s the ancient planet of Gaumix . . . as far as we could tell from the ancient texts we have on file. These days, the quadrant is inhabited by Noel-ni and Queegerts . . . so of course, it was only a matter of time before someone used it for something.”

“You’re about to tell me it’s now colonized?”

Arlene nodded. “By the Queegerts,” she confirmed. “Who renamed it.”

Giles rocked in his seat, smiling to himself. “Ahhhhh, so there’s something of value there?”

Arlene nodded, pulling up a screen. “Etheriam.”

Giles sat up in his seat. “And that is?”

Arlene shrugged. “Found a couple of references to it on the techtropolis, but no idea yet. It seems to be traded—bought and sold. But for what purpose, no one seems to be letting on.”

Giles looked off into thin air, processing the information. Eventually he spoke. “I guess we’ll know more when we can have Scamp run a diagnostic on the planet before we land.”

Arlene nodded, getting up. “I think that’s probably going to be the easiest. The database we have is so out-of-date in this sector, and a lot can change in a decade.”

Giles nodded, his finger over his lips, again deep in thought.

“Mocha?” Arlene offered.

“No, thank you.” His nerves were already fried. What he needed was something to take the edge off . . . but he also needed to stay sharp.

Arlene disappeared from the cockpit, leaving him to the silence and his own thoughts. His own noisy and very uncomfortable thoughts.












CHAPTER FOUR


Gaitune-67, Safe House

Maya stood in the foyer of the safe house, looking just as bewildered as Paige.

“Well, I dunno where she could be. If she’s not in her quarters, and she’s not in the kitchen . . .”

Paige held her hair, as if willing her hands not to tear it out. “She could be anywhere on the base then.”

They stood in the foyer to the safe house, wracking their brains trying to think where an adolescent girl would hang out.

“And we’ve no Oz to ask,” Maya reminded them.

Paige shot Maya a look of sudden revelation. “But we do have Bourne!”

Uncertainty flickered across Maya’s face. “Are you sure that’s a good idea. I mean . . . it’s only been a few days with Oz not about. And you know what they said about his programming . . .”

“What, you think he’s going to suddenly turn killy-killy on us for no reason?”

Maya looked uncertain. “I don’t know what to think. I mean . . . he’s an unknown quantity.”

Paige shook her head. “I’ve got to try . . .” She turned on her two-inch heels and pulled at the basement door.

Maya followed her, running down the steps into Brock’s workshop.

With everyone else gone, the lights were low and there was little of the familiar hum of systems and activity. Paige felt a pang of emptiness as she snapped on some lights from her holo.

Thank goodness, Maya is still here with me, she thought, hearing the comforting sound of her footsteps following her down the steps.

She found a terminal and punched in her access codes. “Bourne, are you there?”

Nothing happened.

“Bourne?”

There was a flicker on the screen, and it went black. Then white text started appearing as if being typed.

>>> GREETINGS PAIGE.

Maya caught her up and hovered next to her at the screen.

“Hey,” Paige said. “You still have access to the audio? Can we talk?”

“Of course,” Bourne said congenially over the workshop intercom. “I just didn’t want to scare you . . .”

Paige shot Maya a glance as if to tell her to note that he was displaying empathy and manners. Not so unevolved now, she thought to herself.

“Bourne, we have a problem and I need your help.”

“You can’t find Anne?”

“Exactly.”

“Yes.”

“Can you help?”

“Yes.”

“Where is she then?”

“She’s not on the base . . . at least, not according to any of the cameras.”

Paige frowned. “You mean, she’s left?”

“No, I didn’t say that. I said I don’t have a visual on her anywhere on the base or safe house.”

Maya interjected. “And the only places there aren’t cameras are the quarters and kitchen.”

There was a brief pause.

Maya finished her thought. “I’m going to check the other quarters.”

Paige nodded. “This would be a whole fuck-ton easier if she had a damn holo,” she added mostly to herself.

Maya snorted in agreement as she disappeared up the steps to the base. “You’re telling me!”

Maya’s footsteps trotted off up the staircase, leaving Paige and Bourne alone. “So . . . she could also be hiding somewhere just out of sight of the cameras.”

“Yes, that’s also possible.”

“I see.”

“I can’t help with that.”

“No, I know.” Paige hesitated, her curiosity getting the better of her. “So . . . you’re still binge-watching Netflix?”

There was a long pause. “Yes. I am. I don’t see why this is such an issue.”

“Oh, no . . . it’s totally not. I’m just . . . fascinated. I mean, I don’t know many AIs. And Oz is . . . well, I guess he’s all business. I just find it interesting that you’d be so taken with old Earth archives.” Paige realized she was babbling. And this wasn’t getting her closer to finding Anne.

“I find it informative. It helps me understand you organics and what’s important to you. I have very few other points of reference.”

“I see. So going back to Anne?”

“Yes.”

“You can see her arriving here earlier with Giles, right?”

“Yes. She’s on camera there.”

“Then where did she go?”

There was a short pause. “To her quarters.”

“Then where?”

“Then nowhere.”

Paige narrowed her eyes, a thought suddenly hitting her.

“Ok, show me her going into her quarters, if you would please.”

Bourne pulled up a screen at the terminal and showed the footage of Anne heading down the corridor to her room. She punched in her code and slipped inside.

Borne paused the footage.

“Ok. Now just play it double-time.”

Bourne did as he was told. “But she doesn’t come out again.”

“Hang on! Paige said, poking her finger through the image. “What’s that?”

Bourne rewound it. “I didn’t see anything.”

“Play that segment again.”

Bourne hit play, and the time code started advancing again.

“There!”

“The video stopped.”

“Back up a few seconds.”

Bourne did that, then let it play at normal speed.

Paige leaned into the screen as if she’d be able to see better. “There, the whole image goes kinda fuzzy.”

Bourne ran a quick analysis. You’re right. Although, there’s nothing on the lens because it returns to normal after 8.4 seconds.

Paige bobbed her head. “About as long as it takes for someone to walk back down that corridor,” she said.

Bourne didn’t answer.

“I think our young Estarian friend with superpowers has got a way of not being detected on camera,” she said slowly. The thought filled her with anxiety, as if she didn’t have enough to worry about. But then she also felt pleased with herself for catching it. “Bourne, can you run an analysis on all cameras throughout the safe house and base after this time and see if there are any other similar fuzzyings happening?”

“Yes, give me a few minutes.”

Paige waited patiently, hypothesizing about what they’d just stumbled upon.

“There are a number of instances,” he revealed finally. He pulled up a smaller holoscreen for each. Twelve in all.

Paige studied one after another. After three, she stopped and punched in on the frame. “Bourne,” she said slowly, her eyes fixed on the screen in question, “it looks like we have a problem.”


Aboard the Scamp Princess


Arlene stood over the old mocha machine, absorbing the decaffeinated scent through her nostrils.

Getting out on a mission, especially one that was bound to be long-haul, was always a stress and a pressure, yet she couldn’t feel happier.

Her mind flicked back to the time when her CO had ordered her to see a shrink after one particularly harrowing case. She’d been displaying signs of depression and chronic fatigue in the months following. Even getting out of bed had been an effort for her.

Yet after just a few sessions, the medical officer had deemed her not only fit for duty, but moreover, the solution to her funk was to put her out in the field in more intense situations. Turns out, she wasn’t depressed at all. She was just bored with the mundane desk work her CO had put her on.

Shortly after, she left the services and disappeared off on a couple of decades worth of intense adventure, which seemed to permanently cure her restlessness. Until, of course, this last year when she was once again back in a routine . . . with a job and rent to pay, no less. She shook her head at herself, realizing how much she missed being out gallivanting across the galaxy.

The mocha machine still needed another minute or two. She was about to sit down at the little kitchen table when the hackles on the back of her neck went up.

She wasn’t alone.

She could sense Giles was still in the cockpit. So this was someone else. Someone in the cargo hold. Her eyes snapped to the door, her hand ready on the sidearm strapped around her thigh.

Shit, she thought to herself. She was having a good day, and she just didn’t feel like obliterating something right now.

“Giles, Scamp . . . can you run a ship-wide scan. I think we have company.”

The audio in her implant cracked open. “Sure, Arlene,” Giles responded. “What is it?”

“Dunno. Just going to check something out in the hold.”

“Received. Initiating scan.”

Arlene crept deftly over to the kitchen door and out into the small walkway between. She headed out the door onto the stairs that would take her into the cargo area. The area around her was full of supplies and weapons they might need for their trip. Everything carefully loaded and tied down in case of turbulence, as per federation protocol.

Everything seemed normal. Her grindle senses were on high alert though. There was definitely something not right.

She drew her weapon and started stepping down the metal stairs, avoiding making any sound or even casting any shadow. Moving slow enough not to catch anyone’s eye was also a consideration.

She reached the bottom of the stairs and tuned in, clearing her mind of any judgment or chatter, allowing her senses to guide her. Straight ahead, she decided.

She kept moving, her weapon held expertly out in front of her. This intruder is soooo dead. 

About a quarter of the way down towards the tailgate door, she got a sense that the intruder was nearby. She swung her attention and weapon to the left and honed in on the signal.

Just then, there was movement. She could see it with her eyes now. A kind of rustling in one of the racks. If she hadn’t known any better, she might’ve mistaken it for a stow-away cat. But she would’ve known straight away if Neechie was on board. Those creatures packed a resonance that would’ve alerted her far sooner.



Giles’s voice was in her ear again. “It seems we have a small organic. Estarian. Female by the body temperature.”

Arlene sighed to herself. “Thanks, Giles.”

“Do you need some help? I can come and help you find her.”

“That won’t be necessary,” she concluded, her voice volume now no longer a whisper but instead laced with an edge of annoyance.

She looked down at the tarpaulin on the rack around thigh level as it rustled again. The intruder was clearly aware she’d been made.

The sheet was pulled back, and a head with two eyes emerged, the young Estarian staring back up at her.

“And what exactly do you think you’re doing, young lady?” Arlene asked as Anne peered out and looked up at her.


Aboard the Scamp Princess, Cockpit


Giles rested his head in his hands. He felt like ever since last week, his life had been imploding on itself.

Disrespectful students, excessive workloads, and uncrackable talisman mysteries were something he could handle. Emotions, guilt, and now, pseudo parenting weren’t something he had knowingly signed up for.

And yet, there she was. A surrogate daughter, slash, pain in the ass, slash, biggest responsibility of his life, sitting in the co-pilot’s chair, wide-eyed and excited to be on a mission with her new friend.

Arlene shuffled back into the cockpit and sat down in her console chair, carefully placing her mocha so that it wouldn’t spill.

“Molly is going to be pissed,” he muttered.

Anne frowned at his language, then returned to her wonderment at all of Scamp’s systems.

Giles turned to Arlene. “We’re going to have to tell her,” he said, as if handing it off to her.

Arlene raised her eyebrows. “Yes, you are,” she said firmly. She picked up her mocha and took a sip. “And what’s more, we’re going to have to make sure she stays alive. Which’ll probably be the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced.” She paused a second. “You don’t need me to tell you she makes our position incredibly vulnerable.”

Arlene’s face was unsympathetic, as if it was his fault Anne was here.

Giles buried his face in one hand again. “Yes, you don’t need to tell me that.”

Maybe it was his fault, he mused. After all, he didn’t have to befriend her. And if he hadn’t been trying to gain her trust, she wouldn’t have felt the attachment enough to want to leave the base. She would’ve stayed with Paige and would probably be braiding pigtails right now.

He sighed, the weight on his shoulders ten times greater than it’d been even ten minutes before. “I’ll make the call.”

Just then Scamp interrupted. “We’re getting a call from Gaitune. It’s Paige.”

Giles rubbed the bridge of his nose under his glasses. “Ok, on screen.”

Arlene swiveled her chair so she wasn’t in view and continued to sip her mocha.

“Hi, Paige,” Giles chimed as the call connected and the holoscreen opened out ahead of him.

“Giles, hi.” Paige’s face was taut with worry. “I’ve got some bad news. Anne has disappeared and I think she’s . . .”

Anne poked her head into view of the camera. She waved her hand and grinned entirely inappropriately.

Paige’s expression morphed from one of stress to one of anger. “Right there.”

Giles nodded solemnly. “We’ve just this second discovered her,” he told her quickly. “I was . . . er . . . about to give you a call so you wouldn’t worry.”

Paige’s expression changed to one of exasperation. She took a moment, and Giles could hear Maya just off camera. Then he heard her giggling.

“It’s not funny,” Paige hissed at her. “She was our responsibility . . . and how are we meant to keep her safe now? You know how Giles operates!”

Maya said something, and then Paige looked back at the camera, remembering he was right there. “Shit. Sorry. No offense, Giles.”

She looked about to try and dig herself out of the hole, but Giles shook his head in dismay at the situation. “None taken,” he said. “We were just saying the same thing.”

Paige looked conflicted now. “I . . . I don’t know what to do. Do you want to bring her back?”

Arlene turned around and intervened. “No. It’ll only delay us, and I don’t want to risk getting caught babysitting on Gaitune when Molly finds out.”

She paused, and Giles looked at her, almost pleased for her input and direction.

“We’ll carry on,” she concluded. “We’ll keep her safe.”

Paige’s face relaxed a touch. “Well, if you’re sure,” she said, feeling like her hands were tied.

Arlene looked definitively at Giles. “Yep. We’re sure. We’ll take care of it.”

Anne turned and glared at Arlene for her use of the word ‘it’, which was clearly referring to the issue and not her. But still.

Partially satisfied, Paige and Giles signed off from the call.

Without another word on the matter, Giles moved straight on. “Ok, Scamp, let’s try this again. Please call the Empress.”

He held his breath trying to figure out how to broach the subject—as if the crew didn’t have enough to contend with.












CHAPTER FIVE


Aboard the Scamp Princess, Ferrai Quadrant

The Scamp Princess slipped out of the gate and arrived in brand new territory. Even Giles was unfamiliar with this particular quadrant they’d found themselves drawn to.

Arlene marveled at the unfamiliar constellations. “Wow . . .” The word inadvertently escaped her lips under the power of her exhale.

Anne was stoically in awe too, her eyes fixed on the main screen.

Giles peered up over his glasses, his instruments forgotten and his hands hovering over switches, his mind forgetting what he was doing. “It’s certainly quite different over here,” he said, understating the awe he was experiencing.

Arlene noticed and smiled, glancing at him sideways. “Looks like we’re not in Kansas anymore,” she jested, hoping Giles would get the reference from his own culture’s mythology.

He nodded but left his attention on the view of the new corner of the galaxy.

Straight ahead of them, azurian blue cascades striped the blackness of space. Off to one side, there were a number of exploding supernovas, close enough to see but not close enough for them to be in danger any time soon.

Down below them, there were dust clouds illuminated by the radiation from the cascades and the dying star, and all around them, the universe seemed to hum in a spectacular harmony of life and destruction.

“It’s so . . . Beautiful,” Arlene breathed, finally bringing herself to put words to what they were witnessing.

“Indeed,” Giles agreed, finding his fingers and confirming the on-screen actions Scamp was taking to set them into orbit.

Anne turned her head to see Giles. “Where are we going now?” she asked.

Giles scanned the display with his eyes, searching for the needle in the galactic bonanza. He pointed with his finger. “Right there,” he told her.

Beneath his finger on the screen was a tiny spec.

“Scamp, please do a full scan of our planet of destination and put the results on-screen.”

“Processing,” Scamp responded.

Anne’s face lit up, thrilled to be seeing space and to be out on an adventure. She was even more thrilled that it was so spectacular. Her two guardians shared her youthful expression of awe though, despite their aptitude for cynicism and jadedness they’d developed over the years.

Scamp pulled up an overlay on top of the image of the system they were approaching.

“Planet Mallifrax-8, originally known to the ancients as Gaumix. Formerly home to the Essiehkor Kurtherian tribe, long before they evolved and became the race we know of today.”

Giles and Arlene exchanged concerned glances, each conveying that this was news to them.

“Tom’s race,” Giles muttered.

Arlene nodded.

Scamp continued with his results briefing, explaining the planet’s terrain, air composition, climate, and weather patterns. “Due to its high density of etheriam, it has, in the last decade, been colonized by the Queegert in order to extract the ore and sell it on the local techtropolis.”

Arlene was now standing behind Anne and Giles, her hands on her hips, taking it all in.

“The major colony is run by a mining outfit and is designated, MacKegan, after the family-run business that established it. But although this is a major socio-political force according to an analysis of their broadcasting stations and communications, it appears that it is technically governed by a monarchy.”

Giles had leaned forward on his console, his chin resting in his hand. “Show us more about the monarchy,” he instructed.

Scamp processed the request.

Giles turned to Arlene. “If the monarchy is weak, that might give us an in . . .”

Arlene nodded. “Plus, under Queegert law, any permissions to land or operate on one of their colonies needs to be directed through the throne.”

Giles pursed his lips. “True.”

Scamp pulled up a new screen. “The monarchy here is referred to as ‘The Crown’. It operates under a democracy of governance, but then all final major planetary decisions are directed by The Crown. The Crown also has the power of veto on anything passed by the democratic republic under its rule.”

Giles sat back in his seat. “Well, that makes things a little more complex, but we’ll have to see what it means in practice when we get down there. Scamp, have a meeting set up with whomever their highest representative is.”

“That would be the Queegert, who is also referred to by his position, The Crown. In this case, his name is Gotrin of the Anscott Tribe.”

“Cool. Make it so,” Giles confirmed, getting out of his console chair. “I’m off to get ready for meeting royalty,” he said playfully to Arlene as he headed past her and out of the cockpit. “Don’t put us into orbit until we’re all set up,” he called back to Scamp.

Arlene shook her head as he left and sat down in the pilot’s seat next to Anne.

“I guess we’re going to meet their king then.” Anne’s eyes were alight with glee.

Arlene noticed her reaction. “Not you, young lady. We need to keep you out of harm’s way. If we’re going to let you stay on this mission with us, you have to play ball. So that means staying put when we tell you to stay put.”

Anne opened her mouth to protest, but Arlene silenced her with a glare, accompanied by a push of energy into her field. “No arguments. It’s not safe, and apart from anything, if something were to happen to you, Giles would never forgive himself for letting you stay.” Arlene’s face softened as she explained the last part about Giles.

Anne, deflated but no longer defiant, relaxed back in her chair as if accepting Arlene’s terms and explanation.


Mallifrax-8, Etheriam mines


The distant sound of iron on rock clinked away in the distant tunnels. Hundreds of feet beneath the surface in the cold, damp labyrinth, the Queegerts of opportunity worked away, mining.

Voyved, a particularly analytical Queegert, sat quietly at a makeshift table in the little rec room. The den was dark and dank, but they’d done what they could to make it semi-comfortable. It beat eating their lunch at the ore face at least.

Voyved was the most technically minded amongst his band of friends. He’d managed to hook up some lighting by tapping into the Colony’s grid that was used to run the mines. They wouldn’t be charged for this energy . . . though what they paid for the energy to run their equipment would more than make up for it.

His three eyes scanned in sync as he read through the recent drilling reports on his sector. He’d hoped to have hit a seam. But so far, the analysis was coming up with nothing. He sighed, resting a spindly tentacle-like ‘arm’ on the table.

Razeene ambled into the den. “New rates are in,” he announced with a grimness in his voice.

“What’s the score?” Voyved asked, raising his top eye from the digital tablet.

Razeene’s face said it all. “Lost a couple of points,” he answered flatly. “If this doesn’t turn around, it’s going to get to the point where we’re paying them.” He shuffled his heavy, round mass over to the storage cupboard they’d built into the mined-out rock. He pulled open the swollen wood pieces they’d cobbled together to make a door and peered inside. Finding his flask, he took a swig, then placed it place it back in its corner, ignoring Voyved’s disapproving sideways glance.

“Well, that’s certainly not a surprise,” Voyved stated flatly, turning a page on his handset. “You know, if I could just get enough hardware together for this prototype, we may be in with a chance.”

Voyved had an idea to pre-process the etheriam. If successful, it would mean they could deliver a semi-processed ore back to the company. The theory was that it would mean less processing at the company’s end, and less weight to transport over to their refinery. Voyved assumed this would get them a better price.

Razeene scoffed. “Like the MacKegans are going to go along with this!”

They can’t stop me from selling the device to others, Voyved grunted, waving his taloned finger in the direction of the main tunnel.

Razeene shifted his weight from side to side in denial. “Like they’ll allow you to put something like that onto the market. They’ll lose all their leverage. And their ability to control the price once we sell back the etheriam.”

Voyved’s eyes had returned to his reports. “But at least it’ll give us a chance at getting out of here. No more mines. No more damp. No more wrinkled toes or mine flu.”

Razeene’s gaze drifted off as he collapsed in a chair at the table. The thought of a hot shower and more comfortable living quarters was a fantasy they all shared.

Suddenly, his eyes refocused. “Yeah, as I said, ain’t never going to happen. We come up with the credits, they’ll just put the price up again. It’ll be Mallifrax-6 all over.”

Voyved continued scanning his reports, occasionally using a claw on his right hand to etch a note onto the digital interface before turning a page or cross-referencing it with another dataset. “Those were just rumors,” he reminded his friend. “We don’t know that it was true.”

Razeene leaned forward on the table, his claws tapping gently on the soft wood. “Maybe,” he agreed, unconvinced. “But it sounds just like these crooks to screw the little guy over. Besides, we’ve got more chance at just hijacking a shuttle. You should be putting your focus on getting those phasers working!” he insisted quietly. He tapped a finger deliberately on the table, emphasizing his point. “Without that, we don’t have a chance of going up against them.”

Voyved sighed and sat back, his reports now secondary to the discussion. “What’s the point though?” he protested. “We still need to develop an override for the shuttles.”

Razeene lowered his voice another few decibels. “I’m working on that,” he said, one eye looking at the door, and the other two looking poignantly at his fellow entrepreneur.

The nerdy Voyved narrowed all three of his eyes skeptically. “But you don’t have any experience in working on vehicle overrides,” he said, more as a question than a statement of fact.

Razeene gave a toothy grin, his two layers of pointy teeth bearing for Voyved to see. “Got a contact, ain’t I?” he chuffed.

Voyved could see the remains of Razeene’s lunch stuck in the space between his gnashers. “Should be coming through with the goods any day now. And when he does,” his top eye flicked back to the door again, “we need to be ready. Those codes don’t last long.”

Just then, there were footsteps in the puddles of mud outside, and a moment later, Bokmom, the final counterpart to their trio, arrived. He bumped his arm on the side of the tunnel entrance as he bumbled in, recoiling and having to take another few paces to balance himself. “Hey, y’all!” he called, cheerily, rubbing his arm with a grubby hand.

Razeene leaned his head against his hand, his spindly arm resting on the table. “For the love of . . .” he muttered.

Bokmom recognized his expression. “Sorry,” he said, his tone suddenly shifting. “Is this one of our secret meetings?” he hissed, trying to lower his voice appropriately.

Razeene glanced at Voyved with one of his two lower eyes. “Not anymore,” he said pointedly.

Bokmom seemed to have a moment of coherence. “Well, you might wanna wrap it up. Bulthug was heading this way, and you know he frowns on any kind of violence.” He tipped his form forward, indicating with his round mass towards the stash of stun guns that’d been left exposed under their mess room table.

Dropping his digital reader on the table, Voyveg jumped up on his three tree-like legs and shuffled the box back into place, pulling the lid over it and recovering it with the blankets and plastic they used to hide it. “He’d confiscate them if he saw them!” he said, straightening up and scowling at Razeene accusingly.

“Don’t look at me,” Razeene protested. “I wasn’t the one who was sitting here casually with them all hanging out.”

Voyved eyed him sternly. “We need to be more careful,” he insisted. “There’s no tellin—”

Just then, there were more footsteps heading through the tunnels, splish sploshing through the muddy pools. The three froze like children caught red-handed with Mom’s best china.

Razeene shook his arms out and sat down, trying to cross one of his skinny legs over the other. “Look natural,” he instructed the other two.

Voyved retook his chair and picked up his report with two tendrils. Bokmom moved towards the table, then changed his mind and tried leaning against the cupboard, then stood up again and moved to a third position, awkwardly placing one hand on the cave wall and then, realizing it was slimy, removed it.

At that moment, Bulthug appeared in the doorway. Bokmom hid his slimy hand behind his back. He couldn’t have looked guiltier if he’d tried.

“Evening,” Bulthug greeted them. “I was wondering if one of you might be available to help out later. We’re having an assembly, and I could do with some more bodies to set out chairs.”

He had a couple of other miners with him, clearly using their free downtime to suck up to the leader of their social group.

“And of course, you’re all welcome to stay and participate. We’re having a discussion about the changing conditions here.”

Razeene shifted awkwardly in his seat. “I, er . . .”

Voyved chirped up. “I’ll be there, of course. Anything I can do to help.”

Razeene fell in line. “Yes, of course. We’ll all help,” he added, nodding and making eye contact with Bokmom.

“We will?” Bokmom asked. “I mean, we will, yes . . . of course.”

Bulthug bowed his spherical form in appreciation. “Thank you. You’re most kind.”

Bulthug was a former priest of the religious order of Queen—the religion that formed the basis of all the law and rule that the Queegerts lived by. It taught of a bloody and vengeful god, but ironically, this Queegert saw himself more as a shepherd, caring for those who needed community. That’s why his followers referred to him as The Shepherd.

He thanked the three for their assistance and told them where the gathering was happening, and then, entourage in tow, left them to their scheming.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Bokmom ambled over to the table and joined his friends. “So erm . . . what are we doing getting involved with those guys for?”

Razeene leaned over the table and thunked him across the side of his head. Queegerts were thick-skinned, and their bodies were like a hard, dense shell. The thwack barely registered on Bokmom who was more insulted than hurt.

“What was that for?” he asked, annoyed and rubbing his head with his tendril-like hand.

Razeene wiggled as if to shake his head-body. “You idiot. We’re trying to keep a low profile. Besides,” he added, “it might be useful to see what The Shepherd is planning. No doubt it’ll be completely ineffective . . . but it’d be useful to know.”

Voyved had actually gone back to reading his reports before he had to get back to his drilling quarter. “Strategically, it would be a good move,” he agreed. “Although, I dunno how much of that pretentious quaggle ball I can take.” His expression was deadpan and oblivious to the humor he’d evoked in his friends.

Razeene giggled silently, slapping his waffy arm on his leg.

Bokmom chuckled as he headed out the door, smacking his other arm again, this time on the other side of the tunnel as he made his way out. “See you at the setup then!” he called back to them, stumbling out and straight into a puddle.


Royal Settlement, Mallifrax-8, Ferrai Quadrant


Giles and Arlene strode across the vegetation rich area towards the settlement that Scamp had directed them to. Below, in the valley off to their right, they could see another settlement. Even from this distance, it appeared more primitive, with industrial-type equipment and towers around.

Giles’s eyes scanned the terrain. “Looks like that’s the mine down there,” he commented.

Arlene’s attention had been pulled to something else. She pointed up ahead. “We’ve got company,” she muttered, her hand automatically reaching to the weapon on her thigh.

Giles knew without looking that she was reaching for the weapon. He was going to comment but stopped himself. If indeed it turned out they needed a weapon, he’d be embarrassed. And she would never let him hear the end of it.

“We have an appointment,” he reminded her instead. “It should be no problem.”

Arlene gave him a don’t-tell-me-I-didn’t-warn-you look, but he ignored it, his eyes fixed on the two spherical Queegerts heading towards him.

“At least they’re Queegerts,” he muttered, hoping the wind wouldn’t carry his voice. “Not the sharpest tools in the picnic basket.”

Arlene smirked, relaxing her grip on her weapon and lengthening her stride to keep pace with him.

He approached with his hands in the air in a gesture of surrender. “Hi there!” he called. “We come in peace.”

Arlene chuckled. “Take me to your leader?” she whispered through her teeth.

Giles glanced at her sideways. “I wasn’t going t—”

Arlene bobbed her head. “Yeah right. I’ll bet you’ve been dying to say it. Admit it!”

Giles shook his head, slowing his pace. “Honestly, hadn’t crossed my mind.”

The two guards approached, weapons primed for action. Aggression seemed to emanate from their sinewy muscles.

“We have an appointment,” Giles called into the half -light, just about able to make out the Queegerts’ three eyes reflecting the light from the astro-activities and the settlement behind them.

“Digital access code!” the one on the left demanded gruffly.

“Er . . . right.” Giles put his hands down, patting his atmosjacket pockets. “I, er . . . we have an appointment with his Royal Highness, Gotrin.”

The second Queegert raised his weapon menacingly. “You don’t get to use his name. He’s called The Crown.”

Giles put his hands up again. “This crown has got to be enormous if it goes on his head,” he commented quietly to Arlene.

She sniggered.

“Check with your superiors,” he called to them. “I’m Professor Giles Kurns, and this is Doctor Arlene Bailey,” he explained slowly. “We have a meeting. We’re here to talk to The Crown,” he stressed deliberately.

One of the Queegerts turned and shuffled off, disappearing into the shadows near what looked like a building or a wall. The other remained poised with his weapon pointing at the two intruders.

Giles put his hands down and shoved them into his pockets, standing casually as if he were waiting for a bus.

Arlene kept her hand positioned just over her thigh gun, her thumb resting in her pocket. Giles knew full well that even if she was made to surrender it, she’d have another four stashed elsewhere on her person.

After several awkward minutes, the other guard returned and grunted something he couldn’t understand. Then, with motioning of the weapon’s barrels, he and Arlene were directed to move towards the settlement.

They were led into a courtyard surrounded by wooden buildings. Not quite huts or cabins. Maybe a little larger and a couple stories high . . . but still not entirely majestic.

Without another word being exchanged, they followed the lead Queegert into what looked like the main building of the settlement. The other brought up the rear.

As they made their way through the building, the native Queegerts stared at them and watched them with their three eyes until they disappeared round a corridor corner or into a room.

Clearly, humans and Estarians were a novelty around these parts. Either that, or they’d seen their kind before and were more than a little wary. Giles couldn’t tell which.

Eventually, they were led into what looked like an office. It had furnishings—rugs, sofas, and a desk with some form of technology on it. Perhaps their version of computers and communication units, Giles guessed.

The guards stood on either side of them, still on high alert. There was an open door at the other end of the room. Within moments, another Queegert waddled idly in. He wore a big metal ring on his head. Like a crown, just much less ornate.

Giles tried to keep his face straight and dared not look at Arlene, who he saw from the corner of his eye had moved to put her hand over her mouth.

“Greetings,” the Queegert said pompously as he lowered himself into his desk chair.

“Greetings, Your Highness,” Giles responded with a slight bow.

Arlene followed his lead.

“May I first say, thank you for meeting with us on such short notice,” Giles said as sincerely as he could manage.

The Queegert moved his whole head-body as if to nod.

“Without taking up too much of Your Majesty’s time, we’re here to request your permission to quest in your land. Under the Windsor Proclamation, I believe that you’re the authority who can grant this?”

The Queegert’s eyes reacted, the top one almost scanning his mind, looking to see if there was an angle he could use.

“Indeed. This is true,” he said, his ego clearly enjoying the respect of these strangers from a foreign land.

Giles made a mental note. It said much about his perceived status. Any ruler secure in his standing wouldn’t have been so easily flattered.

“But tell me,” he continued, “for what do you quest?”

Giles hesitated, weighing whether he should reveal his hand. Making a judgment call, he spoke. “We’re looking for a certain trinket that has sentimental value to our people. We have reason to believe that the civilization that inhabited this planet several hundred standard years ago might’ve kept it safe in one of their temples.”

“And you believe it to be in which temple?”

Giles switched into professor mode. “Our research has suggested that it’s the one not far from Your Highness’s settlement.”

The Queegert seemed to be mulling what he was being told, clearly recognizing the reference to the temple. “I must confess, we know of the temple you speak. They are ruins though. On our first year here, we went to examine it ourselves, and I understand that there were several relics brought back for safekeeping.”

Giles eyes lit up. “You think you may already have it?”

“Possibly,” The Crown responded, somewhat evasively. “But the relics are in safekeeping.” He got up from his chair. “I’ll tell you what—in the interest of a new friendship, allow me to grant you passage to the temple to . . . quest, as you call it. You can even take one of my men to be your guide.”

Giles waited.

“And if you find it,” he finished, “you can keep it.”

Giles’s eyebrows furrowed. “And if we don’t find it?”

“Then we’ll have a discussion.”

“What does that mean?” Giles parried back immediately.

“It means that as friends, I grant you this favor, then when you return and you want another favor, we talk about some form of mutually beneficial agreement.”

Giles thought about making eye contact with Arlene before making a call but realized immediately that would be perceived as a sign of weakness in a relatively new culture such as this. Instead, he grinned brightly and stepped forward, holding out his hand. “You have yourself a deal.”

Arlene knew full well that Giles wasn’t buying into The Crown’s agreement one bit.

The Crown stepped forward, trying to emulate his smile, but instead just bore a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth. Giles instinctively recoiled but then forced himself to stand his ground.

The Queegert used his arm-like tendril and grabbed not his hand, but Giles’s whole arm to the elbow and slapped his forearm with his other tendril. Giles’s mind immediately put it in context of what he knew about this race anthropologically. He assumed that forearm—or rather, tendril blades were the weapon of choice. Made sense, looking at their anatomy.

And so it stood to reason that as their social norms developed, they’d want to make sure that the person they were meeting wasn’t intending to catch them unaware and stab them. Probably in the eye, Giles thought to himself, looking for the only vulnerable part of their bodies.

“Right, then,” Giles agreed, after returning a couple of good slaps on the Queegert’s forearm and pulling away as soon as he thought it might be socially acceptable.

“You can start in the morning. Be here at sunrise. I’ll have Rolf-nah take you.” He signaled to another Queegert who seemed to have been observing the whole meeting from the back of the room.

Giles wasn’t clear. Either that was Rolf-nah, or he’d be relaying the order to Rolf-nah. Either way, he smiled and raised his hand in greeting. The Queegert just regarded him with one eye, the other two fixed straight ahead. Apart from that, he didn’t respond.

“Rest well,” The Crown told him, heading back across the room to the door he’d emerged through. “You’ll need it,” he added cryptically.

Giles and Arlene had been dismissed. They turned to see one of the guards already opening the door for them to leave.












CHAPTER SIX


The Royal Settlement, Mallifrax-8

Having been led through the building, then released from the settlement, Giles and Arlene made their way across the grass back to the Scamp Princess.

“Tomb raiding!” Giles declared in indignation. “They raided the fucking tomb!”

His frustration blinded him to his previous preoccupation about his voice being overheard.

“First,” Arlene said flatly.

“What?”

“First,” she repeated. “They just got there first. What they did . . . that was all you were going to do.”

“We,” he corrected her. “And yes, but we have a bigger quest here. We’re not just doing it to hold on to pretty things of value. Or extort something out of unsuspecting researchers. We’re trying to figure out the origin of . . . well, maybe all life in the universe!”

Arlene looked at him dryly. “Down, boy. We’re looking at the possible origin of a handful of species in our corner of the galaxy.”

“Same difference,” he gruffed.

“BIG difference,” she argued. “As in, one hundred thousand light years kind of difference.”

Giles didn’t have an answer. Arlene had always been too sharp for him when it came to logical arguments. He knew he didn’t stand a chance.

They continued walking in silence.

“So what do we do?” she asked finally.

Giles shrugged. “Take him up on his offer to have someone take us there to see for ourselves. As you said, they’re not the sharpest tools in the box. Maybe they missed it. Maybe our original civilization was smart enough to make sure it was only discovered by a species with enough braincells to rub together.”

“Before they got themselves extinct?”

“Yes. Before.”

Arlene was smirking again. “Smart enough to hide a talisman safely from Queegerts, but not smart enough to survive. Yup . . . I’ll take those odds,” she concluded with dryness and irony.

Giles grinned despite the setback and his bad mood. She was clearly back in form, now that she was in the field.


Aboard the Scamp Princess, outside the Royal Settlement, Mallifrax-8 


The next morning, the planet’s sun streamed onto the Scamp Princess’s exterior hull, heating up the whole ship. It had become so warm that it had triggered the on-board atmospheric coolers to kick in.

“Ok,” Arlene said, finishing her cup of mocha in a last gulp. “You stay put. And remember what we talked about.” Arlene moved her eyes from Anne to Giles, who was busy packing a supplies bag in the doorway of the tiny kitchen.

Anne sat at the table, a glass of water in front of her, nodding obediently. She knew what Arlene was reminding her of.

Giles. And how it would destroy him if anything happened to her.

Frankly, Anne thought to herself, this smacks of mere manipulation to get me to do as she wants me to. She glanced over at Giles. Yet, it was Giles. So even though she was onto Arlene, she didn’t want to hurt him.

 “I’ll stay put,” she confirmed. “But can I have access to Scamp?”

Arlene frowned. “Whatever for?”

“Someone to talk to? And something to do?” Anne paused, trying not to sound too pushy. If she was too keen, she’d arouse suspicion. She made her voice as casual as possible. “I mean, the whole reason for keeping me off the grid over in Estaria was to keep me safe from the people on Estaria who might want to hurt me. But now, we’re light years away from the Sark System. Surely, it doesn’t matter.”

Arlene processed the request for a moment. She glanced at Giles, who was still struggling to get his water bottle into the already-overflowing pack. He was in no position to help with this decision.

“Ok,” she agreed reluctantly. “But no sending messages, signals, and no doing anything that could endanger you or the mission. Information gathering and processing only.”

Anne’s face brightened, her natural blue effervescence returning to her complexion.

Arlene noticed and realized she’d been looking quite shell-like and empty for a girl her age. She smiled, hitting her holo. “Scamp, did you get that?”

“Received. No outgoings, and only information and processing that doesn’t endanger her or the mission.”

“Good. Thank you, Scamp.”

Anne scooted back on her chair noisily, then pushed her way out of the kitchen, past Giles, and into the cockpit. “Later, G-man,” she called.

“Er, right. Bye, Anne,” he called back.

“Shall we?” he said, turning back to Arlene.

Arlene plonked her mug in the sink. “We shall.” She picked up her slick, lightweight pack and slipped her arms into it, heading gracefully to the door.

Giles, defeated by the water bottle, clipped it onto the outside of his bulky pack and awkwardly threw it over one shoulder before following Arlene out through the side door, onto the terrain below.












CHAPTER SEVEN


Temple Ruins, 15 km S.E. of Royal Settlement, Mallifrax-8

The planet’s sun was high in the sky by the time they reached the ruins.

Rolf-nah had turned out to be just as stoic as his colleagues. It also turned out that he wasn’t the same Queegert who’d witnessed their conversation with The Crown. He seemed more the outdoorsy, warrior type. The other Queegert was an administrator or some kind of butler, from what Arlene could tell.

“This is it,” Rolf-nah declared, stopping in the opening in the vegetation, and looking up at the structure. It was ruins, for sure.

Arlene couldn’t be sure from the angle what shape the base was. For the first fifty feet, it seemed to narrow gradually in a kind of pyramid shape, but thereafter for a good height beyond, it became more chimney-like.

She strained her head backwards, trying to see the top. “That’s a lot of temple,” she muttered under her breath.

Giles agreed. “Suppose we better get started.” He strode onward and into the opening that was probably, once upon a time, a doorway.

Arlene followed him, but Rolf-nah dropped his pack. “I’ll wait here,” he told them.

Arlene confirmed she’d heard him and continued on. Once inside and out of earshot, she shared her thoughts. “Doesn’t look like he wants to be too helpful,” she commented.

Giles was distracted already, shining his torch around the dark dankness of the temple. It looked like it was far more than a single chamber. There were corners and cubbies and corridors coming off it all over the place.

“No signs of artwork, or painting,” he commented. His tone was as matter-of-fact as a coroner performing an examination. “No indications of carvings or language either.” He continued wandering, disappearing into the darkness.

Arlene sighed. “I suppose this is going to take a while,” she called.

Giles didn’t answer.

She wasn’t sure, but she thought for a second there was motion in the darkness, somewhere out of the corner of her eye. “Giles?”

Still no answer.

Her hands slipped to her pistols. This time, they didn’t hover there. She immediately drew one and then the other, knocking each of them against her forearm to deactivate the safeties. She stepped forward into the darkness. There was a faint shuffling up ahead. She started to call out to Giles, but something in her subconscious stopped the sound before it made it to her throat.

There was something there with her. Something in the darkness, moving around.

Shit. It’s times like this I wish I had a spare hand for a flashlight or a fireball. 

A fireball! That would do it. 

She tried to connect to the ground energy of the planet. It felt weak. She tried again. There was something there that she could use. Her brain searched for what she knew of the planet. Iron core, electromagnetic fields. Well, duh, of course . . . it has an atmosphere and solid shell. And life. Something feels off though. There should be more power.

She ran her consciousness through the rock she was standing on, realizing that if a temple had actually been built here, it must’ve been tapped into something. Especially if these people had known anything about the laws of physics.

There was something. But it just felt like it was sealed off.

She felt the thing in the darkness closer to her now. It was definitely organic and corporeal. It didn’t move like a Queegert though. Or a human. More . . . animal-like.

Suddenly, in the process of flicking her awareness from one realm to the other, something clicked, and the power she was looking for from the ground welled up. She had to channel the energy into a fireball just to keep it from knocking her off-balance.

She barely had a chance to holster her left gun before—

BOOM!

Her fireball shot out of her hand and exploded in the middle of the temple, casting harsh shadows all over the place. Her eyes scanned the area around her, before catching sight of a pair of fierce, yellow eyes glaring at her.

She clocked the teeth and a sleek blackness of a cat-like creature before it bolted, heading down an offshoot from the main chamber.

“Giles! You have incoming! Giant scary-ass panther!” she yelled before chasing after it as fast as her boots on the rugged concrete could carry her.

She heard a dull thump up ahead and then a groaning. Obviously Giles, she figured. She threw another fireball, which this time she could control, causing it to hover mid-air in the center of the second chamber, providing some much-needed light.

Giles had thrust himself against the wall in the corridor and was inspecting himself to make sure he wasn’t injured.

“You ok?” she checked, her eyes darting around again to find the threat.

“Ugh . . . yeah. What was that?”

“Panther? Or rather, a Mallifrax Panther, to be more precise.”

Giles groaned more in annoyance than pain. “Guess just one more obstacle we have to face on this godforsaken quest.” He used the wall to stagger to his feet. “Mallifrax panther—you totally made that up.”

Arlene rolled her eyes, pointing her weapon into the shadows. “I don’t think it’s just the one either.”

Giles looked up to see three, no four sets of yellow eyes glaring menacingly at him.

“Something tells me we’re not welcome here,” Arlene said, moving her aim from one to another.

The panther-like beasts started to advance, stepping into the glow of the light. Arlene noticed their fur had a strange purple tint to the blackness that caused it to glow. But it wasn’t strictly fur. More like hair-like skin, she thought, briefly wondering about the evolutionary aspects in this environment.

She felt movement behind her, and out of the corner of her eye, she could see Giles standing behind her. “Two more,” he informed her.

She pulled out her second weapon and handed it to him. “We gonna shoot?” she asked, almost daring him to try and come up with a non-combative solution.

He pushed his glasses back on his face. “I think we may need to. Although, as there’s probably nothing here, I suggest we see if we can make our way out.”

Arlene shrugged. “Good an idea as any, though I think having come all this way . . .”

Giles knew exactly what she was saying. He could almost have predicted what was going to happen next. He felt the beast straight in front of her and off to his left venture further forward than the others. And he was the one within pouncing distance.

It all happened in slow motion for Giles. He felt the advance, slowly at first, then suddenly it sped up. Arlene had released the second gun into his grasp, and no sooner had she done that, she was bending down to grab her spare from inside her boot, all the while, her right weapon tracked the advance of the monster.

Boom. Boom. Bang!

She punched three rounds into the first beast as it took off in a jump, heading straight for Giles. Giles felt his body respond to the shock by staggering sideways along the tunnel wall, narrowly getting out of the way. The panther crashed to the deck just feet away from him. It wasn’t dead yet, but it didn’t seem to be capable of moving anymore, at least.

There was a second of silent respite. Then all the others started charging towards them.

Arlene fired a shield of bullets into the area in front of her and off to the right. Giles, realizing what was happening, gripped more firmly the weapon she’d just handed him and started firing into the others coming from behind her, off to the right of the opening to the linking tunnel.

There was a hail of bullets, and the accompanying clamor that went with the weapons fired, ricocheted around the temple room. The panther-like beasts were mostly incapacitated—at least, the ones nearest them were. But more quickly started to arrive, replacing the first wave in a matter of moments.

“We need to move!” she shouted over the sound of her weapons firing.

“Don’t hear any arguments from me,” Giles called back over the din, already moving back through the corridor. Two more sets of eyes appeared ahead of him, blocking their path. “Not an option that way though.” He fired at them, but they kept coming.

Arlene wheeled round just in time.

BANG, BANG, BANG. 

The eyes disappeared, and Giles could just make out the bodies slumped down on the ground.

Then everything fell quiet.

Those that hadn’t been killed seemed to turn tail and retreat, leaving the carnage of the attack dispersed all over the chamber.

Giles sighed in relief, leaning back against the tunnel wall. “Well, that was . . . exhilarating.”

Arlene half laughed, half scoffed. “I was starting to get worried there,” she snorted, carefully kicking a nearby animal with her foot to make sure it was gone.

Giles frowned, handing her weapon back to her. “How come I couldn’t stop them?” he asked nodding at the gun.

Arlene checked it. “Ah, settings were turned to stun. I ended up turning mine up a few notches when that first one started coming at you.”

Giles stared into space, replaying the moment. “If you hadn’t, I would’ve been a goner!”

Arlene pursed her lips. “You’re welcome,” she told him, venturing further into the room. “Now, do you wanna check the other chambers just to make sure?”

He sighed. “Somehow, I feel like I’ve lost my curiosity,” he confessed.

Arlene smirked. “Scaredy cat. I’ll come with you. But we’d better do it quickly. Last thing we want is those creatures to come back with their friends.”

“True,” he agreed.

They searched every nook and cranny they could find and still turned up nothing of any archaeological significance. Giles took holographic images as far as he was able, given the poor lighting, but being short on time and courage, his perfectionist tendencies evaporated.

Soon, the pair swept back through the corridors and returned to the initial entranceway of the chamber. There was an eerie feel as they left. The feeling one gets when one is being watched.

Arlene, visibly shuddered as they marched back out into the open and back to the normality of the jungle-like clearing they’d left their guide in.

“All ok?” Rolf-nah asked reluctantly, staggering up from his seated position and back onto his three legs.

“Yes, delightful,” Giles reported, knowing full well the irony was going to be lost on him.

Rolf-nah hauled his pack back onto his shoulders. “Good. Well then, we should return before the sun goes down.”

Arlene made a face, shaking her head at the blase-ness of the guide after they’d barely escaped with their lives. Finding the humor in the situation, Giles chuckled as he lightly patted her shoulder and followed the Queegert back into the vegetation-rich terrain.

At that point, neither one of them made a comment about the futility of the mission. It was as if it was a given, and the whole operation had been them going through the motions just to make sure their suspicions had been correct.

“We’ve been doing this too long,” Giles muttered as they ambled side by side.

Arlene grinned and bumped into his arm playfully. “You’re telling me,” she agreed, understanding exactly what he was talking about.


Mallifrax-8, Etheriam mines settlement


The meeting had already been in session a good hour, and so far, nothing of any consequence had been shared. Bulthug droned on and on about core values of their community and how they needed to help each other out, but as yet, no talk of rebellion or uprising.

“I don’t think this guy’s got jack,” Razeene whispered as quietly as he could out of the corner of his lips.

Voyved nodded his top eye discretely, so as not to draw the shushes of the attentive listeners around them.

Bokmom sat quietly, occupied by munching on a packet of dried roaches he’d brought along to the meeting.

The three had joined another dozen miners to set out chairs for the meeting. There might’ve been fifty or sixty others in attendance now. It was nowhere near the full number of Queegerts who’d been sold the dream and brought here to slave away on Mallifrax-8, but enough to make a movement.

If The Shepherd ever decided to do something.

Razeene shuffled himself forward off his chair on the backrow, and as quietly as his inelegant form allowed him, he slipped down the row and out of the door at the back. Shepherd Bulthug’s voice carried with him out into the foyer of the old wooden barn that was once used to store excess ore . . . back in the days when they were overproducing.

He stepped out into the cool atmosphere of the naked planet, drawing in breath. This wasn’t the life that any of them had signed up for. But things were as they were.

Voyved ambled out after him and came to stand next to him, looking up at the night sky. The cascade and the exploding stars illuminated the community area with lux of multiple colors. “You know, this could go on indefinitely . . .” he said quietly to his companion.

Razeene rocked on his toes, squelching in the nearly solid mud. “I know,” he concurred, wishing he had something grassy to smoke. “We knew we couldn’t wait for The Shepherd to change things. He’s here to keep the peace. Not to lead . . .”

Voyved breathed slowly and said nothing.

Razeene would be going ahead with the plan, and there’d be no talking him out of it. Even if he wanted to.


Aboard the Scamp Princess, outside the Royal Settlement, Mallifrax-8


Anne clambered back into the console chair, having made herself a rehydrated soup of some variety. She reached for the mug that she’d set on the console unit. “Ok . . . so where were we?”

“I was about to tell you about their quest around the Moons of Orn,” Scamp relayed to her.

“Ah, yes. So you say that it’s normal for them to argue like an old married couple?”

“Yes. Perfectly. Remember, they were a couple for years and years. Although on this trip, their friend noticed it.” Scamp’s tone had the ring to it normally reserved by humans for when they were gossiping.

Anne sipped her soup. “Serious? They take friends with them? On missions?”

“Not normally. This was some leader who had granted them ‘permission to quest,’ as Giles likes to call it. They’d met him on another mission and seemed to get on . . . plus, I think he was pretty taken with Arlene.”

“Seriously? She seems a bit . . . severe.”

“Arlene?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, she can be, I suppose. She’s always been ok with me.”

“You’re an EI though.”

“Well, yeah. And that doesn’t stop people from being jerks to us.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Some folks are quite rude. Treat us like tools.”

“Anne pushed out her bottom lip. “That makes me sad.”

“Well, it makes me sad, too.”

“Huh. Well, you just let me know when someone is an ass then, and I’ll fireball them for you.”

“Hahahaha,” Scamp laughed. “That’s very kind of you, my friend. But there’s no need for fireballs. And in fact, I think the rest of the team is quite concerned about one of the jerks you might have to fireball for me, if I hold you to that.”

“Sean?”

“Exactly.”

“Yeah, I can see how he might be a bit abrupt.” Anne paused. “Any news on him yet?”

“No. Nothing. But I’m sure Molly will turn up something soon. I have every faith in them.”

The pair were quiet for a moment, until Anne remembered where they’d been going with their conversation. “Ok, so Moons of Orn. What happened?”

Scamp regaled Anne with tales of their daring adventure and how he’d ended up swooping in to save both their reprobate asses. Anne listened in rapt attention, hardly daring to interrupt in case the others came back before he got the chance to finish.

When he eventually did, she sat silently, wide-eyed.

“Anne?” he asked.

“Yeah?”

“You ok?”

“Yeah. I’m just . . . that was one hell of a story!”

“I’ve got a whole database of them, if you’d care to hear another.”

Anne leaned forward and checked how long the grownups had been gone. “I would,” she confirmed, “but I really need to pee. And then I’d like to have a look at some of Arlene’s research before they get back. Can you help with that?”

“Of course. Well, not the peeing part. You’ll have to manage that. But I can pull up some of her research. What would you like to start with?”

“Give me the summaries for everything over the last five years. Then we’ll go from there,” she said, confidently, shuffling out of the console chair and padding out of the cockpit. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

“Take your time!” Scamp called after her, clearly enjoying having someone to talk with on a more social level.












CHAPTER EIGHT


Outside the Royal Crown Settlement, Mallifrax-8

Rolf-nah waved to them as he turned and headed across the grassy area in front of the Royal settlement. Giles stood still for a moment, resting, and watching him leave.

Arlene slapped him on his back. “Come on you. No time for moping,” she told him, soldiering on ahead.

Giles’s face was grim. “I just can’t believe we went all that way . . . for nothing.”

The sun was low in the sky and light was fading. Arlene turned back to him. “We should get back,” she reminded him, glancing around. “Anne’s on her own . . .”

Giles quickened his pace and caught her up. “It’s just . . . he knew. He damn well knew, yet he sent us off on a wild donkey chase.”

“Goose.”

“Huh?”

“Goose. He sent us on a wild goose chase.”

“How do you even know that? You’re Estarian.”

“I read,” she said flatly. “Anyway, you’re just pissed because you knew he was playing you, yet you played along.”

“Yeah, well, no more of that. I want that talisman, and he has it.”

Arlene sighed. “Yes. He probably does.”

“So . . . I’m going to go back and get it.” Giles turned on his heels and started marching back towards the settlement.

Arlene, exhausted from the full day of hiking, turned and peered into the darkness. With a sigh, she followed him, connecting her holo. “Scamp? Are you there?”

“Yes, Arlene.”

“Is everything ok?”

“Yes,” Scamp confirmed. “Everything is within normal parameters.”

“Is Anne ok?”

“Yes, she’s fine. Would you like to talk to her?”

“No, no. It’s fine. We’re just getting back, and Giles has an errand to run in the Royal Court. I should go with him.”

“Ok. That’s fine.”

“I shan’t be too long.”

“Very good.”

Arlene disconnected the call. Something was up. Anne wasn’t pestering for attention, and if everything was fine, she hadn’t broken anything or set fire to anything. Maybe she’s been playing video games, she thought, trying to convince herself, hardly daring to believe her own fibs.

She shook the nagging feeling from her shoulders and hurried after Giles. Deal with one problem child at a time, she told herself.


Royal Crown Settlement, Mallifrax-8


Giles strode deliberately up to the door of the main building they had been in the previous evening. He banged on it loudly.

The guards who’d met with them previously were nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps they were just on guard at the front because they’d seen the ship arrive, Giles considered. He banged again.

Arlene was about to caution him, when there was a scuffling of activity behind the wooden barrier, and a moment later, the sound of metal on metal heralded the bolts being slid open.

The door creaked open, spilling yellow light onto the ground in front of them, and a Queegert they didn’t recognize revealed himself.

He wore a similar outfit to Rolf-nah. A kind of spandex burlap which hugged his round shape and stubbly tripod of legs, all held in place with what looked like leather straps.

“Good evening,” he said politely.

“Good evening,” Giles responded. “I’d like to speak with The Crown.”

“One moment please.”

The door closed on them. Giles shot Arlene an annoyed glance as if to comment on ‘how very dare they!’

Arlene closed her eyes briefly and almost imperceptibly shook her head.

Giles simmered down.

Not long passed before the door opened again. “Come,” the Queegert called, inviting them in with a tendril, waving into the hall way. “His Royal Highness will see you in the dining room. He has invited you to dine with him.”

Giles, feeling suddenly very foolish, gathered his decorum and straightened his atmosjacket. “Thank you,” he replied with a slight bow. “That’s very gracious of him.”

Arlene watched, feeling like a fly on the wall, or more like an anthropologist reluctantly in the mix of the subject matter, in a blatantly patriarchal society.

Giles, remembering himself, glanced back at her for her agreement. She nodded once and followed him.

They followed their contact down a wooden-floored hallway around a corner, and into another room in a different part of the construction. Inside, was a large table. Other important-looking Queegerts sat around noisily, occupying all but a few of the seats. There seemed to be a rearrangement already happening at the far end. Giles recognized The Crown, not least because of the oversized shower curtain ring on his head.

The Crown beckoned them to come and join him. It looked like a couple of the other Queegerts were being relocated in different seats around the table to make room for the new guests.

“Come, sit. Dine with us,” their host invited them.

Giles and Arlene made their way down, feeling self-conscious in their sweaty, muddy gear.

The Crown noticed. “Archie will see to your clothes. Please, feel free to get cleaned up,” he said, pointing with a tentacle-like hand to another door.

After some faffing about and some rather speedy showers in what turned out to be a well-equipped restroom facility just off the same corridor as the kitchens, Arlene and Giles returned to the dinner. Food was already being brought out, and as soon as it hit the table, it was being served and passed around.

“So tell me. How was your questing?” The Crown asked after proudly introducing the strangers to his subjects.

“Not very good, to be honest,” Giles said, taking off his glasses and cleaning them on his napkin. His frustration seemed to have subsided only to be reignited again by the question.

The Crown frowned. “Oh?”

“Yeah, you were right about it probably not being there. There was nothing left for us to find. The place had been cleared out.”

The Crown chuffed and slapped his tendril on Giles’s shoulder. Then he leaned over, picked up the carafe of wine, and filled Giles’s glass. “Not to worry, my friend. I’m sure what you’re looking for will turn up. Besides, we’re friends now. I’ll help you.”

Arlene observed carefully despite continuing a polite conversation with the Queegert to her right.

“Tell me,” Giles ventured as tactfully as he could. “It seems you may have the means of, er . . . finding this piece.” He paused, dropping his eyes to the table and moving the glass across the tablecloth a fraction of an inch as a distraction. “If you were to help us ‘find’ this relic, what would you need help with in return?”

The Crown laughed a hearty laugh and slapped Giles on his shoulder again. “That, my friend, is a conversation for after we eat.” He raised his arms and looked down the table. “Eat. Feast! In honor of our new friends . . .”

The table erupted in a cheer from the Queegerts, who had already started piling food onto their plates.

Giles caught Arlene’s eye. They just knew what they were each thinking . . .


***


Some time later, after all the feasting and drinking, The Crown insisted that Giles and Arlene joined him in the drawing room for yet another drink.

Arlene, exhausted and wanting to go home, reluctantly agreed. “You know I can’t leave you on your own,” she whispered to him as they followed The Crown through to the other room.

Giles slung his arm around her shoulder for a moment. “And for that, I am eternally grateful,” he slurred, trying not to slop his wine as he navigated his way clumsily through the door.

“This used to be a good place,” The Crown started as he poured out a new type of drink. It looked like a liquor, but it was a faint green color which seemed to emit a warm yellow mist when exposed to air.

“What changed?” Giles asked, taking the glass he was handed and sitting back in one of the arm chairs.

“The commerce,” The Crown responded. A tint of sadness was evident in his tone. “It used to be the land of opportunity, where every Logan can work hard and build a life for himself.”

“Logan?” Arlene asked as The Crown handed her a similar glass of green liquor with yellow mist gently evaporating from it.

“An opportunity seeker. Like a business person. But someone on their own. You know . . . making their own way with their wits and hard work. Sometimes even talent.”

Giles smiled. “I think he’s describing their entrepreneurial class.”

“Well, yes,” The Crown agreed. “This is a whole segment of our social system. They’re the ones that our economy is based on, only . . .”

The Crown sighed and went to sit on a sofa between Arlene and Giles. “The laws which originally allowed this segment of our people to flourish, got distorted and manipulated. Now, we have bigger corporations who offer similar deals to these people but then legally exploit them . . .”

Arlene frowned. “How is that even possible?” she asked.

The Crown lowered all three of his eyes to the glass he held in front of him. “They forced us into establishing a ruling on this colony in exchange for providing the funding we needed for building the structure for the mines—running power, drilling, maintaining the settlements. They funded it, where we couldn’t, but they also expanded it.”

Giles frowned. “And why was that bad?”

“Because in exchange, they wanted a ruling that would give them ownership of one hundred prenhites of land to mine for every fifty of our Logans they brought in.”

Arlene froze, her eyes horrified. “I’ve seen this in history before,” she explained. “Didn’t end well . . .”

“No, well, it’s not ending well,” The Crown agreed sadly. “They’re also selling the opportunity to the new Logans, bringing them in from nearby systems, telling them about all the ore they can mine, which they’ll sell back to them. But they’re charging the high prices to bring them here, and then . . . they charge rent on each sector of the mine that the Logan is permitted to work.”

Giles put his wine glass down on a nearby table, now holding just the green liquid. “And so how do your . . . Logans . . . make money?”

The Crown shuffled in his chair. “They sell the ore they mine back to the same company—The MacKegans. Tribe-owned corporation, as it were.”

“Lemme guess,” Giles predicted, “the MacKegans get to set the price of the ore they buy back.”

The Crown didn’t answer the question. “As you can see, as their monarch, the people look to me to protect their quality of life. Yet . . . without upsetting the MacKegans and having them withdraw all the machinery and generators they’ve installed and built this community around, there’s nothing I can do.”

Arlene’s eyes were blazing in fury. “So you allow your people to exist in slavery?”

Giles shot her a look. “Arlene,” he said firmly, “I think The Crown is asking for our help to fix this so that his people don’t have to be enslaved anymore.”

Arlene took a swig of the green liquor as if she could drink her anger out of the conversation.

Giles continued. “So you want us to help you with this in exchange for the talisman.”

“Well, er, I wouldn’t put it quite like that.”

“But essentially?”

“Essentially.” The Crown grunted, shuffled out of his seat, and made his way back over to the decanter. “May I offer you another drink?”

Arlene put her glass on the table. “No, thank you. You’ve already been too hospitable.”

Giles could sense the tension in her voice. The Crown didn’t seem to notice.

“Of course,” The Crown cooed. “It’s been my pleasure.”

Arlene stood up to leave, and Giles suddenly realized what was happening. They were leaving. Apparently.

His lips almost on the rim of his glass, he quickly shuffled forward on his chair, took a sip, and set the glass down next to the wine. “Yes, well. I guess we should be going,” he agreed politely. “Thank you for your hospitality, Your Highness,” he said, moving toward The Crown, his hand out to shake.

The Crown did the same maneuver with his arm grip and slap, then did the same to Arlene, who was too tipsy to bother resisting.

“We’ll, er, have a think about your proposition,” Giles concluded. “It’s a tall order, tackling a big problem like this. We don’t normally get involved with the affairs of other civilizations.”

The Crown suddenly seemed very sober and coherent. “And herein lies the problem with most civilizations. While we stand back and don’t get involved with our communities, we allow them to degrade, suffer, and perish.”

Giles bobbed his head, intellectually taking it in and wondering about the hypocrisy of the statement.

The Crown allowed one eye to swivel on Arlene and then back to Giles. “Sometimes as individuals, we can only find meaning by coming together with others. By helping others.” He backed off a little, chuckling without real humor. “I’m sure there’s a degree of satisfaction that comes with questing. The lone ranger, out on his own. Maybe with a companion or two . . . but essentially keeping it just you against the world.”

He wandered back to the glass that he’d left on the table with the decanter. “However, it’s only through allowing the problems of our community to become something we involve ourselves in that we find true satisfaction. True belonging. And real success.” He waved his hand as if to dismiss his own rhetoric. “But what do I know. I’m a washed-up monarch who’s getting too old for this,” he sighed, taking another sip of his drink. “I bid you goodnight, my friends. I hope to see you again very soon.”

Giles couldn’t tell if his last words were prophetic or hopeful. Either way, right now all he wanted to do was get out of there. The room had suddenly become stifling, and they’d left Anne alone for too long.

Arlene made the necessary polite goodbyes, and the pair left the Royal Settlement, unescorted this time.


***


Giles stumbled on into the night, navigating back to The Scamp, using his general sense of direction more than any wits. The wine had been strong, and that green liquid? It reminded him of something he’d had a long time ago when he’d befriended a Queegert on one of their trading posts.

His mind wandered.

“You realize we haven’t got time to get involved in a civil war.” Arlene’s voice cut through his fuzzy numbness and assaulted his brain.

Giles struggled to find a coherent argument to respond. Instead, he slowed for her to catch up a few paces and walk next to him.

“Can we do this is the morning?” he asked, quietly. He noticed they were both slurring their words.

Arlene stumbled up to him and grabbed his arm for balance. “My feet hurt,” she complained. “And I think I left a taser in his restroom . . .”

Giles chuckled dully into the mist. Arlene burst with a snigger, too, stumbling a little and linking his arm for balance and comfort.

“If we do do what he wants us to do . . .” she said slowly, piecing her words together into something of a sentence, “then we do run the risk of . . . ending up in do-do.”

Giles snorted.

Arlene giggled again. She slapped at his forearm that she was hanging off. “I’m serious,” she tried to protest. “We shouldn’t be getting involved in a civil war.”

 “It’s not a civil war.”

“It will be. And it’s against the Prime Directive.”

“We don’t have a prime directive.”

“Yes, but Captain Kirk wouldn’t approve.”

Giles snorted again, and this time, hunched over in a giggle. When he’d finally regained himself, he straightened up. “My Lord, what was in that green stuff?”

Arlene chuckled. “I don’t know . . . but I like it. Life is less . . . bristly right now.”

“Bristly?”

“Yes. Like whiskers.” She ran a finger down his cheek.

Giles felt the sound of the day’s growth on his face. “Like whiskers,” he repeated.

“Anyway,” Arlene persisted, “Captain Kirk wouldn’t approve. And neither would the old Dr. Kurns who wrote the defining paper on Modern Interactions with Ancient Civilizations.”

Giles shook his head, “Oooo, it’s been a long time since anyone’s mentioned that.” They kept walking. Or more like stumbling and meandering across the grass. “That takes you back . . .”

“Well, if you won’t believe your own rules on tomb raiding, what about the ones we established for Arc and Anth 101?”

 Giles sighed. “That’s about taking things away from a culture’s heritage. This hick culture has nothing to do with the great civilization that came before it.”

Arlene had slowed, so Giles automatically slowed, too, so as not to yank his arm off.

“I don’t see what the problem would be. We help out, do our good deed for the decade, save them years of war . . . liberate the slaves . . . and get the talisman in return,” Giles protested.

 Arlene stopped and looked up at him in the darkness. “Ethics are what’s wrong. An anthropologist getting involved with the civilization he’s studying is like . . . a doctor getting involved with his patient. It’s just WRONG!”

 Giles smirked at her. “You just can’t be bothered. Admit it. Arlene Bailey, you’ve gotten jaded in your old age.”

She slapped him, and he staggered to one side, off-balance and pretending to be wounded.

“Less of the old, mister! Besides,” she continued, settling down, “that talisman is probably still somewhere in those temples. I don’t think for one minute that jackass and his merry band of halfwits have managed to locate it.”

“You think he’s bluffing?”

“Yeah. Why else with all the civility and alcohol. It’s a play.”

They walked along in silence for a few moments.

“We need that talisman,” Giles insisted. “And if they’ve excavated those temples already, they’ll have found it. I don’t think our answer is in those temples. It’s in there—with that man.” He pointed an arm clumsily back in the direction they’d come from.

“Are you sure this isn’t about something else?” Arlene asked, sobering a little and raising one eyebrow in the darkness.

“Like what?”

Arlene pulled her shoulders to her ears. “Ooooh, I dunno . . . like being all you can be?” Her tone deepened as she put on a pretend voice like a movie announcer. “Or to lead the people for a deeper sense of satisfaction.” She almost had a mocking tone. Whether it was directed at The Crown or at Giles, he couldn’t tell which.

“Come on,” Giles cajoled her. “Let’s get you back to the ship. I’m worried about Anne.”

Arlene huffed lightly, then picked up the pace. They walked the rest of the way to the ship in drunken, pensive silence.












CHAPTER NINE


Aboard the Scamp Princess, outside the Royal Settlement, Mallifrax-8 

“Giles, Arlene was wondering when you might plan on getting up. She says, and I quote, ‘Carpe diem, Space boy.’” Scamp’s voice chuckled in his audio implant.

Giles rolled over. His mouth was dry and his head pounded. He tried to speak, but it was just too much effort to get the air through his vocal chords. He contemplated allowing himself to go back to sleep. But then . . . he had a community to save.

His head cleared enough for him to sit up. He hit his holo to check the time and shuffled out of bed to slip his feet straight into his boots. No socks. No underwear beneath his sweatsuit pants. And no shirt.

He couldn’t find his glasses, and on account of not actually needing them, he figured he could find them later. Later, as in after he’d given himself a jab of painkillers. Or B12. Or hell, something to make his head stop pounding.

He made his way out into the corridor and headed into the cargo bay, finding the nearest med kit. Scrambling, despite his headache and squinting eyes, he found a couple of capsules and loaded them into a delivery injector.

It’d been so long since he’d needed anything like this, he couldn’t keep up with what needed to go into muscle and what into bloodstream.

He shrugged and whacked the device against his neck and pulled the trigger. “Holy fuck!” he yelped, his voice finding the motivation to no longer be lazy. “Motheeeeeeerr fucker!”

He looked down at the device he’d just assaulted himself with. Jesus . . . 

Packing away the kit, he noticed that he started to feel better almost immediately. Underneath the pain and shock.

Scamp piped up again, making him jump. “She’s still asking about you.”

“I’m on my way!”

“Kitchen,” Scamp directed.

“Ok.” Giles pushed the pack back into the plastic casing on the wall by the door and stowed the empty capsules in his pocket.

Shirt, I need a shirt. He grabbed a t-shirt on the way past his sleeping quarters and headed up to the kitchen.

Arlene was there drinking a cup of mocha. It smelled delightful. Like a mixture of peace and sin in a mug. Anne was tucking into some kind of concoction that looked like it had colored sweets in it. He refrained from commenting. It would only destroy his street cred with her.

“Morning!” he said as brightly as he could muster.

Arlene raised an eyebrow. “And how are you feeling this morning?”

Giles thought about hiding the evidence, but then figured it was probably a zero-sum effort. Had Arlene not had bags under her eyes and been looking a little less worse for wear, he might’ve been more tempted.

He pulled the capsules out of his pocket and showed her. “Just had to take meds for the first time since I can remember.”

Arlene didn’t seem surprised. “Yes. I dunno what was in that green stuff, but it seems the Estarian metabolism doesn’t quite know what to do with it either.”

Giles slung the empty cartridges in the trash and poured himself a mocha before sitting down next to her. “Nanocytes seem to have stopped working.”

Arlene shook her head. “I’m sure you’re probably fine. Take a blood sample just to be sure. I did mine a few minutes ago . . . I wish I’d thought to do it before I did my juju thing this morning though.” She took a sip of mocha. “Anyway, Scamp is analyzing mine now, just to be safe.”

Giles leaned his head in his hand, watching Anne’s pudding thing. “You think he was trying to harm us?”

Arlene shook her head. “Doubt it. I mean, what would be the point. He wants our help.”

Giles didn’t answer. He just stared at the breakfast bowl Anne was working on and wondered what on earth it was.

Arlene continued talking. “So this morning, we need a plan. If we’re going to do this, we need intel. Lots of it. I suggest we split up.”

Giles still wasn’t one hundred percent with it but made the right grunting noises to tell her he was paying attention.

She continued, a sound track in the back of his mind as he watched Anne stir the sweets into the mush and leave colored trails. “I suggest you go and talk with the MacKegans. Being a man, I think you may get more out of them.”

Giles nodded, his head still being propped up by his hand.

“I’ll go speak to the Logans and see what’s going on down there. The Crown said something about the settlement and some Shepherd guy who speaks for them. That’s where I’ll start.”

“Sounds good to me,” Giles mumbled, taking another sip of mocha. Only then did it dawn on him, as if the mocha had made him suddenly smarter. “You’ve changed your mind?”

Arlene smiled. “I . . . reconsidered the options.”

Giles tilted his head as if to question why, but Arlene ignored it and got up.

“Ok, daylight’s burning. Let’s get on with this.” And with that, she had disappeared in the direction of the cockpit.

Giles eyed Anne carefully, who looked up for the first time. “What is that?” he asked in whisper.

“I made it myself,” she told him proudly. “Well, Scamp made some suggestions, but I’ve called it Breakfast Mix.”

Giles frowned, sitting up. He leaned forward and tried to sniff it. “Yes, but what’s in it?”

“Stuff,” Anne said simply, taking another spoonful. “It’s good. You want some?”

“Is that candy in it?”

Anne smiled. “Just a sprinkling. But it has all the main food grou—”

She started putting a spoonful up to his lips but stopped when he shook his head.

“I’m, er . . . a little delicate this morning,” he confessed. “Maybe tomorrow.”

“Sure.”

“But tell me, co-conspirator of mine,” he continued, leaning in and whispering even more softly. “Did you see Arlene take any meds this morning?”

Anne shook her head.

“You sure?”

She nodded.

Giles pursed his lips.

“She did do her strange meditation thing though. It looked like some of the stuff she was trying to show me, but the energy felt . . . erm . . . warmer. And greener.”

“Greener?”

“Well, yeah. That’s the best way I can describe it, coz it’s more of a feeling than a color.”

“Right,” Giles agreed as if he understood.

“Carpe diem!” Arlene called through from the other room.

Anne gave him a look as if to say, you better get moving.

Giles chuckled. That child is so precious, he thought.

“Coming!” He called to Arlene, standing up and taking a last swig of mocha before he went to get properly dressed.

The MacKegans were probably not the kind of folks you try and negotiate with in sweatpants with no underwear.

He glanced down and tutted at himself before disappearing from the kitchen back to his quarters.


Mining Settlement, Mallifrax-8


It had been a long hike down the side of the valley to the mine. It was times like this when Arlene wished she could teleport like in the stories her grandmother had told her when she was a kid.

Either that, or she could’ve thought to bring a frikkin’ pod from Gaitune.

Enough cursing your lack of foresight, she told herself firmly. We are where we are. Besides, the exercise will do your thighs and bum some good.

If she’d been really honest with herself, she would’ve already admitted that her thighs and knees were burning from the effort of traveling downhill and that her bum would probably end up aching for days after she climbed back up.

As she half stumbled, half skipped her way down the last stretch towards the mine, she could make out Queegerts pushing wheelbarrows and moving equipment and ore around. The mine seemed to be off to her left, deeper in the end of the valley. The settlement was a circle of little more than wooden huts a little way off. Maybe a few score of them.

Between the huts and the mine there was a primitive train track which seemed to have carts that ran along it.

She approached the settlement, carefully slipping her thigh gun into her waistband behind her back. No point in spooking the locals, she told herself.

Eventually, she arrived at the circle of huts. One Queegert noticed her and alerted a few of the others, who were now gathering around to see what this stranger was doing in their land.

Arlene raised her hands. “I come in peace,” she announced as soon as she was in ear shot. “The Crown sent me to help you.”

There were mutterings and rumblings amongst the small crowd that was forming. A few moments later, one of the Queegerts stepped forward.

Arlene kept approaching until she was a few paces from the leader. “My name is Arlene Bailey. I’m here to help . . . if I can.” She made eye contact with two lower eyes of the Queegert in front of her. “Are you . . .” she stifled a chuckle, remembering giving Giles shit for his ‘take me to your leader’ line.

She tried again. “Are you their leader?” She smiled, chuckling only internally.

The Queegert bowed slightly. “Yes. They call me The Shepherd,” he told her piously.

“Great!” She grinned. “How about we have a chat?”

She strode up to him and turned him about with a gentle hand on his back. “Which one of these huts would allow us to talk privately?”

He motioned to the one across the circle from where they stood, and bewildered, allowed her to lead him to it.

The crowd muttered and then started to slowly disperse, with only a couple of the Logans following The Shepherd as pseudo guards.

“I must insist you tell me what this is about,” The Shepherd protested as he allowed Arlene to enter the hut ahead of him.

It was a small room with a few tables and a cooking area set up. Off to the right it looked as though there were beds and blankets. It was warm but very basic.

Arlene scanned her eyes around the room, checking for threats before sitting down at the table. “It’s about the situation your Logans have found themselves in,” she explained. “When The Crown explained your predicament, I was horrified. I’m here to help, however I can.”

The Queegert looked taken aback. He stuttered and bumbled, fiddling his tendrils together. “I . . . well. That is most gracious,” he said. “We have a meeting tomorrow night to help . . .”

Arlene closed her eyes and held up her hand. The Queegert stopped talking.

“I’m not here for meetings. I’m talking about what you need to do to break out of the situation. As in, what needs to change?”

The Shepherd looked stunned. Arlene narrowed her eyes. “Surely, you’ve been thinking about the situation and thinking . . . ooo, if I just had this, or if I could persuade the MacKegans of that . . .”

The Shepherd’s three eyes blinked out of sync with each other. He was coming up blank.

Arlene sighed, her shoulders dropping as she reshuffled herself to get more comfortable on the bench seat she’d perched on. “Ok,” she tried again. “Tell me, how do you help your people at the moment?”

The Queegert sat down to join her. “Well, we offer emotional and spiritual support. We try and form a community and . . .”

Arlene’s brain was already falling asleep.

“Ok,” she said, “that’s all very noble, but what are you doing to get them out of slavery?”

The three eyes opened and closed independently of each other without any kind of order.

Arlene sighed. “Perhaps I can talk to some of the Logans themselves?” she suggested.

Her eyes narrowed again as she thought of something else. “Tell me, if one of your flock were going to stir up trouble and cause . . . say, I dunno, a rebellion . . .”

The Shepherd’s top eye flicked open wide in fear.

Arlene continued. “Who might it be?”

The Shepherd thought for a while. “Well, erm. It might be Razeene. He seems the most restless of everyone.”

Arlene grinned, flashing him her enigmatic smile. “Great!” she exclaimed. “Where do I find him?”


Mallifrax-8, Etheriam mines


“I just think it’s too soon,” Voyved protested, his voice firm and measured.

Razeene paced, his footsteps creating tracks in the soft ground of the den. “But we can do this. If we don’t, we might not get another opportunity for rackinsaw knows  how long.”

He suddenly stopped dead, listening.

Footsteps in the tunnel. And one with an unfamiliar gate. Like it had a leg missing.

He glanced at his friend, who was now equally alert to the threat.

They waited in silence. As the footsteps came closer and closer, the tension inside their hard-shelled heads mounted.

When the sound of the footsteps were very nearly upon them, they heard The Shepherd’s voice. “Just in here.” Then a blue humanoid stepped into the den.

She was tall and strangely slender—her head separated from her body with a narrower piece of body. In fact, she went in and out all along her form. And her legs were disproportionately long, considering her height.

Conclusion—she wasn’t Queegert.

“Hi,” she said, holding up an appendage that was like an overformed tendril.

“Erm . . .” Razeene glanced at his friend with all three eyes. He took a couple steps back, racking his brains for somewhere he might have a weapon.

Under the table! He thought about lunging forward, but it would take time to get into the box and only about half the weapons were actually working. He could pick a dud. But then, he could always just bluff . . .

The Shepherd stepped into the den behind the strange blue creature. He seemed to be there of his own accord. And he didn’t seem frightened or under duress.

Razeene relaxed a tiny bit.

“I’m Arlene,” the creature told him in his native tongue.

Voyved stood from his place at the table. “Voyved,” he said slowly, placing his tendril hand on his head-body under his face.

Arlene smiled at him and bowed, bending her body in the middle in a way Razeene had never seen before.

“Extraordinary!” he breathed to himself.

Arlene heard. “You’re extraordinary?” she asked, her eyes slightly mockingly.

Voyved chuckled. “He’s Razeene, and yes, he thinks of himself as extraordinary.”

Arlene laughed politely. “That’s . . . sweet,” she said. “You boys mind if we have a chat?” she asked, pulling out a seat for herself at their table. “Shepherd here tells me you’re strategic thinkers and you’re motivated to change the shitty situation you have here.”

Voyved nodded. “He tells you right.”

Arlene glanced up at Razeene, who was still stunned and staring at her. Arlene checked behind her just to make sure he was looking at her. “You alright?” she asked. “You look like you’ve seen an alien.”

Voyved chuckled. “I like her,” he said to The Shepherd.

The Shepherd grunted amicably and shifted his weight.

“Thanks, Shepherd, I’ve got it from here,” Arlene said, turning to him and giving him the same smile she’d flashed him before.

He rocked his body in a nod. “I’ll, erm . . . be on the surface if you need me, then.” Turning, he muttered something to the two or three consorts who were loitering at the door and disappeared into the tunnel.

“Nice place you have here,” she said, mostly for Razeene’s benefit. “You set this up yourselves?”

Voyvey nodded silently, giving Razeene the chance to speak. Instead, Razeene ventured forward towards the table, his eyes still fixed on the strange intruder.

“What are you doing here?” he asked finally.

Arlene explained again how The Crown had asked for their help.

“Ok. But I don’t understand why you came here in the first place. Why come to Mallifrax-8 at all . . . unless you’re here to mine?” His two lower eyes narrowed while the third turned to his friend for backup.

Arlene bobbed her head. “I understand why you might feel suspicious,” she said slowly, placing her clasped hand further onto the table in a form of rapport-building. “But we’ve nothing to do with this situation you have here. We barely even knew there was a colony here . . . let alone what was going on. We’re archaeologists, and we came looking for some information on the civilization that used to occupy this planet long before the Queegerts colonized it.”

Razeene frowned. “So why get involved?”

Arlene chuckled. “My partner—let’s just say, despite his obvious and many . . . many failings . . . he’s got a soft spot for helping people.”

“And where is he now?”

“Talking with the MacKegans . . .”

The two Queegerts suddenly looked alarmed.

“But only to try and negotiate some change in the situation here. And that’s why I’m here. I need to understand exactly what’s going on . . . so we can figure out a way to help.”

Razeene shuffled his chair closer to the table. “Well, where to start,” he mumbled, looking for words.

Nearly an hour passed before Arlene felt ready to feed the details back to them.

“Ok,” she started again, holding her hands against her head as if she could hold all the information in place. “Lemme see if I’ve got this right. You pay to come down here. Then you rent a section of the mine—”

“A prehnite,” Razeene interjected.

“A prehnite,” Arlene repeated, “which is a unit of volume . . .”

Voyved nodded.

Arlene continued. “So you pay rent on this prehnite, but you get to sell the ore back to the MacKegans, and the theory is that you get to pocket the profit.”

Razeene grunted in agreement. “But then the problem is, this profit is getting smaller and smaller. We can barely live on it.”

Arlene bobbed her head again. “Ok, so what are you planning to do about it.”

An uncomfortable silence fell in the den.

Arlene looked from one to the other. “Come on!” she exclaimed lightly. “Don’t try and convince me you’re not planning something. I’ve clocked the guns you’re hiding under the table. Goodness knows how The Shepherd hasn’t found out about them. I don’t expect he’d be very pleased to know that his flock is planning something.”

Alarm shot out from the two Queegerts. “We’re not going to use them to hurt anybody,” protested Voyved.

“Of course you are,” Arlene countered casually. “The only question is when . . . and are you going to be successful? Let me know what you’re doing and let me help.”

“You’ll help us?” Razeene could barely believe what he was hearing.

“Sure,” she agreed. “Only, I’ve probably got a better plan, so you’ll have to work to my plan. Ok?”

The two Queegerts looked at each other in amazement. Then Razeene’s expression changed as if waking himself from a trace. “Hang on . . . how do you know your plan’s better. We haven’t told you ours yet.”

Arlene grinned casually, tracing shapes with her finger on the table in front of her. “Because my plan is always better.”












CHAPTER TEN


Aboard the Scamp Princess, in orbit around Mallifrax-8

The cockpit hummed with the familiar sounds. Anne sat quietly, watching Giles and Scamp approach the huge ship that sat in orbit around Mallifrax-8.

“Are you sure this is safe, Scamp?” Giles asked, pinching the bridge of his nose underneath his glasses.

“Perfectly,” Scamp confirmed. “If there’s any sign of trouble, I’ll undock and snap through a gate. Anne will be safe, and I can come back and collect Arlene from the surface at any point.”

Giles pressed his lips together, contemplating their other options. “And me?”

Scamp chuckled. “You? You’re on your own!”

Anne glanced up at Giles. “Ze’s teasing you,” she whispered. “Even though ze’s an EI, ze can still do humor. A bunch of them have picked up a software patch from Oz in exchange for favors.”

Giles shook his head and smiled down at Anne, amazed. “So he . . . sorry, ze . . . has been teaching you about EIs, AIs and gender neutrality then? Heaven help me,” he chuffed, turning his attention back to the docking screen.

He made a mental note to press her about the ‘favors’ the EIs were trading in later. Right now, he needed to concentrate on what they were doing.

Anne frowned. “Just because you haven’t got your head around it, doesn’t mean you get to be disrespectful.”

Giles straightened up. “Yes. Sorry, you’re right,” he admitted, feeling about three-inches tall. “I’ll . . . er, be more sensitive in the future.”

Anne patted his arm, something like a parent would pat a child’s head. Giles smiled to himself, amused by her.

“Ok, Scamp,” he called a little more loudly, “take us in . . .”

It took several nerve-racking minutes, but eventually the ship shuddered and clunked as the docking port was locked on and an airlock filled.

Giles took a long, deep breath. “Ok, Anne. Stay here and stay alert. No messing about, and don’t touch any controls. If anything happens, get to safety and let Scamp contact the Sanguine Squadron. Or ADAM.” He got up and started for the door. Then he paused and turned back. “I’ll be back in a jiffy,” he added and winked at her.

Anne, her face tense but as straight as she could keep it to hide her anxiety, lifted her hand and waved.

Giles disappear out of the door, his footsteps clanking on the metal gratings as he went.


Aboard the Gilmurry Ship


“You’re meeting with Tadovi Gilmurry,” Scamp explained in Giles’s earpiece. The airlock clunked and grinded as it was manually opened on the other side by armed, uniformed Queegerts.

Giles spoke as quietly as he could. “And who is he when he’s at home?”

“The representative for the MacKegan family,” Scamp reported as the doors to the airlock opened and shut in their long, sloooow sequence. “Background says he worked for them straight out of his higher education. And that they paid for it.”

“So he’s not just a company boy,” Giles muttered. “He’s one of the family.”

“It would appear so,” Scamp concurred.


“Ok,” Giles considered. “That’s useful to know.”

The airlock hissed as the air pressure stabilized and the door popped, then swung heavily open on its hinges.

“Hello, boys,” Giles grinned, putting on his best performance. “Showtime?”

At least five weapons were trained on him in an instant, each clicking and cocking in menacing threats.

Giles put his hands in the air. “Now, now,” he said, confidently, “no need for that. I’m here to see . . .”

“Tadovi Gilmurry,” Scamp reminded him.

“Mr. Gilmurry, I believe,” Giles finished.

One of the smaller, beachball-shaped guards stepped forward. He was armed, but his rifle was slung idly over his shoulder. He pushed his way past the barrel of the nearest gun, irritably pushing it out of his way.

“He’s expecting you,” he announced gruffly as if Giles’s presence was an all-around inconvenience. “This way.”

Giles shrugged theatrically to the gun-toting welcome party and stepped over the lip of the airlock and into the corridor. He followed in the direction of the smaller guard who’d spoken, noticing the gun barrels following his position, before the group disbanded and reformed as an entourage.

The small, vocal guard strode purposefully down the corridor, checking every now and again that Giles was still in tow. Giles started playing a game with him, so that every time the guard would turn and check on Giles, Giles would turn and look at the half dozen guards who were following him.

He really felt rather amused by the third time when he beckoned the entourage to keep up . . . and two of them broke into a jog to close some space.

Finally, three corridors later the little guard stopped outside a door. “Master Gilmurry will see you now,” he said, opening the high-tech sliding door with a wave of his hand.

Giles stepped cautiously into the room, not quite knowing how many officials he’d be meeting. It was a long conference room with dark blue, gleaming surfaces—the floors, the walls, the table. Giles would’ve felt impressed by the decor had he not been preoccupied by the domineering Queegert sitting at the end of the table.

“Hi!” Giles called down to him, kicking himself that he hadn’t learned the appropriate pleasantries for this race before engaging with even The Crown.

This wasn’t his area. Literally. And as an anthropologist who was supposedly well-up on different cultures and practices, he was admittedly out of his depth.

The Queegert rocked in his chair, shifting his weight so he could stand. “I understand you want to speak with me about the mines?” he started.

“That is correct,” Giles confirmed.

The Queegert approached, offering him his spindly hand. Giles stepped forward, doing the same, expecting the arm-shake and forearm slap that The Crown had performed.

He wasn’t disappointed.

Well, at least that’s one custom I’ve picked up on this field trip, he thought as Tadovi offered him a seat on the long side of the table.

Tadovi Gilmurry sat two seats down on the same side, his body pointing directly at Giles, waiting for him to speak.

Giles took the cue and sat down. “I understand that the MacKegan tribe owns and runs these mines here,” he began.

“That is correct,” Gilmurry parroted back to him.

Giles smiled wryly. “How familiar are you with the situation that the Logans face down there?”

Gilmurry was unmoved. “I receive daily productivity reports,” he stated flatly.

Giles tried to keep his tone even. “Are you aware of the working conditions they face?”

“I hear they’re not too bad,” the Queegert responded almost casually. His top eye scanned the room behind Giles almost as if it were a pet with a mind of its own. “We had some problems in one of our mines on a previous colony. Since then, we tightened up the rules to ensure certain standards were met.”

Giles leaned one arm on the table and crossed his legs.

“The Crown approved the standards,” Gilmurry continued, “before we even set foot on the surface.”

Giles tried not to react. He slowly drew in breath and rubbed his face with one hand. “Interesting,” he mused. “I had dinner with The Crown the other night, and I had a feeling there were certain things he didn’t mention to me. How was it that this colony was made attractive enough to the MacKegan family?”

Gilmurry’s three eyes regarded him blankly.

Giles waved his hand as if it might help in his explanation. “I mean, you must have lots of opportunities out there. What made it attractive for you to mine etheriam here?”

Gilmurry mouthed the word ooooooh silently. “Well,” he explained, “there was already a system of Ignition in place.”

“Ignition?”

“Yes. It’s a ruling of governance whereby if you bring new people to a colony, you’re granted certain assets. Normally, land. But for the MacKegans, it was mining volume. Prehnites of mining volume.” Gilmurry slouched against the back of his conference room chair as if he were the king of the hill.

It was Giles turn to nod his head with a silent oohhhhh. “So,” he pressed, “how many prehnites do you get for each Logan you bring here?”

Gilmurry tapped his tendrils on the table. “The deal is 50 delegates . . . Logans . . . gives us one hundred prehnites.”

“That’s . . . that’s interesting,” Giles muttered, remembering exactly where he’d read about the effects of this system before. Fascinating that it would reoccur in a completely different galaxy, with a completely different race. 

For a moment, his mind was distracted, wondering if it was just the availability of land and the need to populate it that led to such a system being dreamed up.

But that wasn’t the issue here, he reminded himself. The issue was, he needed to fix it.

And clearly, it was the system that was now at fault. Albeit, the system that was created and then manipulated to solve problems short-term. Not necessarily the half-wits taking advantage of it.

“So, what happens?” Giles asked in his most neutral tone. “How do you persuade people to come?”

The Queegert grinned a self-satisfied grin. “Ah, well, the Logans are opportunists.” He waved his hand as if he were so clever to have spotted this fact. “Always have been. It’s in their blood. They’re the most hardworking, entrepreneurial of our race . . . so they’re willing to risk it all and come to a new world.”

Giles nodded, indicating that Gilmurry should continue.

“Well,” Gilmurry continued bragging, “we just present the opportunity in seminars on the various colonies where there’s a large enough population for them to gather. Then sign them up and charge them a fee to be brought here and taught how to mine.”

Giles eyebrows practically shot through his hair line. “You charge them?” his tone now accusatory.

“Sure,” Gilmurry confirmed confidently. “If it were free, they wouldn’t value the opportunity,” he explained. “So yeah. We charge them.” Defensiveness had started creeping into his tone.

Giles tried not to react. Instead, he just scratched the side of his head where his glasses met his face and indicated for Gilmurry to continue.

“So we set them up to mine the etheriam, show them some numbers . . .”

Giles tried to bite his tongue but failed. “Are those numbers true?” The words slipped out on their own.

Gilmurry turned his palm upwards and almost shrugged his spindly arm. “They were true for the first intake,” he confessed slowly.

“And now?” Giles pressed, his eyes blazing quietly behind his spectacles.

“Well, we have disclaimers that say these numbers are examples only . . .”

Giles could feel his blood boiling. He remained still.

“So technically,” Gilmurry continued, “we’re not breaking any laws.”

Giles’s lips were tight. He let the Queegerts’ words hang in the silence.

Eventually, he spoke, sitting upright. “There’s only one problem with that. The opportunity isn’t quite what you’re painting it to be. I understand it’s not efficient for them to make money from it as your charges and buyback rates sit.”

 The Queegerts upper eye flicked from one side to the other. “We didn’t make the rules,” he said firmly. “That was set up by The Crown to entice Logans here. We simply saw the opportunity and did exactly what the system allows us to do.”

Giles took on the demeanor of a professor lecturing an errant student. “That may well be true, but at what cost?” he posited. “You’re condemning these people to financial slavery.”

The Queegert started to perspire. “It was their choice to come here!” he protested. “And they can leave any time.” His clawed hand, that only moments before had drummed confidently on the table, was now sitting in his lap, clasped by his other one.

Giles was just getting warmed up. “And how much are you charging to send them back?”

“One thousand credits.”

“And how much do they make in a month after they’ve paid their rent on the mines and equipment?”

“I guess on average about fifty.” The Queegert lowered all three eyes to study his tentacles.

“So really, you’re stranding them here,” Giles concluded.

“Like I said,” the Queegert responded, shame and anger filling his voice. “We didn’t make the rules. This is just how it is. What do you want me to do? Go back and tell the family that we’re just not going to service this colony anymore?”

Giles paused. “I think even the Logans would have a problem with that. They’d be stuck here with no equipment and no one to sell the ore to!”

Giles bobbed his head, contemplating the situation and not allowing himself to get sucked into Gilmurry’s emotion. He ran his finger along one side of his chin. “How long do you think this can go on for?” he asked, a genuine tone to his voice.

Gilmurry shrugged his skinny arms.

Giles continued his enquiry methodically. “You’re bringing in more and more people into a system that’s not sustainable, into a life where they’re brutalized financially and emotionally. How long until there’s a correction?”

Damn, I should’ve been a lawyer. Uncle Lance would’ve probably preferred that, he mused, losing focus for a moment.

Gilmurry shifted his round, weighty shell. “Dunno. And that’s not my problem,” he said, regaining his confidence but barely even taking a moment to consider the question that was being posed to him. “I’m creaming off the profits every day we stay here mining. When the opportunity is done, I’ll just up sticks and leave.”

Giles narrowed his eyes, putting the pieces together in his mind. “And move on to the next planet,” he concluded, finally seeing the whole picture.

Free of shame now, Gilmurry grinned a toothy, ugly grin. “Now you’re catching on.”

And the devil shows his true colors, Giles reflected.

The conversation wrapped up with arrogant pleasantries and half-hearted arm slaps before Giles retreated back to his airlock, escorted by the bizarre security detail who was still waiting for him outside the door.

Something bothered him though. Something other than the exploitative nature of the situation. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

I’m missing something that could be the key to this whole business, he tutted to himself as the door to the airlock was closed behind him and he waited for the Scamp to activate his path back to his own ship.












CHAPTER ELEVEN


Aboard the Scamp Princess, outside the Royal Settlement, Mallifrax-8 

Arlene hauled herself back up the invisible steps and onto the ship, muddy and beyond exhausted.

Giles, his feet up on the console, mocha in hand, turned awkwardly in his chair to see her as she staggered into the cockpit.

“You look like shit,” he commented.

Arlene scowled, too tired to get angry. “Ninety minutes. Ninety fucking minutes . . . and that was just to get down!” she exclaimed. “Then I had to climb all the fucking way back up . . . Because someone didn’t think to bring a fucking pod!”

There was a shuffling of snack packets behind her. Arlene turned to see Anne watching the interaction. And torrent of f-bombs.

Arlene flushed, and then without another word, collapsed into the console chair on the other side of the cockpit. She considered undoing her boots . . . but they were all the way down there. And she was soooo f***ing tired.

Giles sat up, swinging his legs off the console. “So . . . successful trip?” he asked, clearly amused by Arlene’s reaction to Anne being there.

Anne returned to her munching and whatever she was doing at the console in the back of the cockpit.

Arlene’s eyes were closed. Giles wondered for a moment if she might be asleep. Then she drew a deep breath.

“Yes . . . and no,” she responded.

Giles raised one eyebrow. “I see . . . well, er . . . good talk.”

He pretended to go back to what he’d been doing. But then couldn’t help but give his report. “You were right about the system . . . but it was far more skewed than what The Crown let on,” he reported. “In fact, it sounds like The Crown was a big part in bringing this about. Even if perhaps he didn’t realize it at the time.” He sighed. “Not the sharpest tools in the box, the Queegerts.”

Arlene’s eyes were still closed, but her mouth had found the will to move. “If I remember rightly, it’s not dissimilar to what humans did when they discovered a shitload of territory on the planet when it turned out not to be flat.”

Giles chuckled. “Touche. But if that was a dig at me, I’ll have to remind you that I was born on a space station, several thousand light years away from that flat little planet you’re referring to.”

Anne’s ears had pricked up, and she was paying close attention now.

Arlene, a half smile quietly playing across her lips, heaved herself into a more upright sitting position. “Well, it seems that the Logans were targeted and brought here under false pretenses. And getting back to their planet of origin isn’t a viable option.”

Giles turned to engage her, now that she was responding. “And what do we think their next play is?”

Arlene rolled her lips inward. “I’m not sure. There’s a small group who has guns and spunk. I’ve got them in a holding pattern for now, but I get the sense they’re thinking of making their move as soon as an insider gives them access to the shuttle.”

Giles’s face was grim. “That doesn’t sound good. They’ll likely just get themselves killed.”

Arlene nodded. “No doubt. I’ve seen what these Queegert mercenaries can do out in other systems. If the security enforcements for this corporation are anything like that . . .”

She didn’t finish the thought.

Giles’s face was more serious now. “So . . . what’s our next move?”

“In order to prevent a rebellion where the miners will get completely obliterated?”

He nodded.

Arlene turned her head an inch as if to shake it. “I have no idea,” she concluded. “Unless we reach out to the General, although, that wouldn’t be my first choice.”

Giles sighed and leaned back. “No, mine neither,” he agreed. “Thin ice.”

“Thin ice,” she repeated.

Giles continued the thought. “He’s given us as much leash in granting us permission to follow up on this talisman thing. I’m pretty sure he won’t sign off on the expense of bringing in a team to sort out this brewing shit storm.”

Arlene shifted her weight and pulled her lips to one side, contemplating. “And then Molly is preoccupied with the Sean situation. Even if we can get hold of her, we can’t pull them away for this.”

Giles shook his head. “Besides, they don’t have the kind of firepower to protect the settlement. Not really…”

“Yeah,” she chuffed, “it’s not as if they can hover the Empress over it and pick off the guards!”

Giles looked optimistic for a second, his mouth open. Then he closed it and slumped again. “No. You’re right. That wouldn’t work.”

Arlene leaned forward in the console chair, tipping it forward on its antigrav balance point. She had her arms on her knees and her feet flat on the ground. Thinking.

“The problem is the margins,” she began again slowly. “And the system. We need to change the system.”

“Which means getting a new ruling.”

“From the guy who put the existing shit ones in place in the first place.”

“The Crown,” Giles concluded.

Arlene bobbed her head, looking up from her forward tipping position. “Ready for another meeting with him?”

Giles took a deep breath. “I barely think my nanocytes have repaired my liver from the last one . . . but yes. We should.Scamp,” he called, lifting his voice.

“Yes, G-man.”

Giles rolled his eyes. Arlene stifled a snigger.

“Could you set up a meet with The Crown for us please?”

He glanced at Arlene. “Some time tomorrow afternoon would be good,” he added.

Arlene blinked slowly in acknowledgment. That meant she could get some rack time.

“No problema,” Scamp responded. “I’ll let you know when it’s confirmed.”

“Great,” Giles responded. “Thank you.”

Arlene heaved herself up the rest of the way out of the chair. “Well, while I can still walk, I’m going to take myself down to my quarters and get showered up.”

Giles grinned. “Oh, thank goodness for that,” he said.

Arlene frowned back at him.

“You stink!” he explained.

Arlene looked for something to throw but couldn’t find anything. Anne screwed up a piece of paper she had next to her on her console and colored pens and handed it to Arlene.

Ages of understanding passed between the two females, united them against an eternal enemy in the forever battle between the sexes.

With all her remaining might, Arlene turned and threw the screwed-up paper that hit Professor Kurns smack on the side of his face.

Shocked, he turned to see the pair laughing hysterically.

Through her giggles, Anne realized she was drawing most of his indignation as a traitor. “You deserved it!” she justified.

And before it could unravel any further, Arlene shuffled her aching muscles out of the cockpit to wince her way down the stairs.


Mallifrax-8, Etheriam mines


Voyved replaced one more cattle prod-like weapon into the box of arms they’d been accumulating. “That’s one more fixed,” he relayed quietly.

Razeene grunted and returned to sit at the table after checking the tunnel outside.

“I hope we don’t get too many showing up,” Voyved continued, grabbing another one to work on. “We have no idea how many that shuttle will take safely. Especially not for a long journey like we’re going to face to the next trading outpost.”

Razeene sighed. “Yeah. True. Although, I think most of these people are too scared. Scared they’ll be killed, and worse . . . scared they’ll be reported and never get a mining job anywhere else.” He glanced at the doorway again.

Voyved scratched his face with a tendril. “It’s a fair consideration. I mean, what else can we do . . . other than mine?”

Razeene rolled his eyes. “Are you fucking kidding me? You’re the best tech expert I’ve ever met. Why you’re mining, I don’t know.”

His friend shrugged his eyeballs. “It seemed like a good opportunity.”

“Yeah, but now it’s not. So what’s the deal?”

“I just . . . I don’t know.” He didn’t take his eyes from the work he was doing. “It’s not that bad.”

Razeene snorted. “Says the Logan fixing a fucking laser rifle for a rebellion. Not that bad. You and I both know it is that bad. That’s why we’re having to use lethal force just to get out of here. What amazes me is that despite this very fact, you still insist that it’s not that bad that you’d want to change your career.”

Both Queegerts were silent for a moment.

“I guess,” Voyved said quietly, “it’s just scary.”

Razeene’s expression softened, realizing he’d been pushing too hard. Gently, he shuffled forwards and laid a tendril on his friend’s shoulder. “It’s going to be all right. And once tomorrow night is over, you’re going to be in a position to face those career fears once and for all.”


Royal Crown Settlement, Mallifrax-8


Giles waited patiently in The Crown’s office. The sound of the wooden cabins creaked gently in the warmth. It had been cold on the way over from the ship, and his muscles were still cold despite the exertion of the walk.

Giles was contemplating sitting in one of the guest chairs at the desk when he heard footsteps outside the private door. He straightened up and turned to greet the newcomer.

The Crown himself waddled in, his round shell-like body unbelievably supported by his waif-like legs beneath him.

“My friend, you return!” he exclaimed. “What news have you?”

Giles reeled against the falsity of his social warmth. “I . . . I’ve made some discoveries.”

The Crown sat at his desk and motioned to the chair Giles’s hand rested on. “Please.”

Giles sat. “It’s a rather delicate matter,” he started. “It’s come to our attention that there are certain . . . mechanisms in play that need resolving before the situation can be rectified.”

He paused, waiting for The Crown to react.

He didn’t.

Giles continued. “You see . . . erm, it seems as though the McKegans are only here because . . . well, you changed the rules to make it attractive for them to be here. They exploit the people because it was encouraged by the system.”

The Crown shuffled awkwardly in his chair, his three eyes flaming with fury. “How dare you accuse me of enslaving my own people? I’ll have you know I fought tooth and tendril to make sure they had the opport—”

Giles raised his hands in surrender. “Your Highness,” he said calmly, “no one is accusing you of anything.” Other than ignorance . . . he added in his own mind. “The facts remain, without certain regulations in place, these people wouldn’t stick around.”

The Crown relaxed somewhat. “Which regulations?”

“The ones that give them prehnites to mine for each new Logan they bring on board . . . for instance. The ones that make it possible for them to lease them back at a high rate and then buy the ore at an unfairly low price.”

The Crown held up his arms in defense. “What am I supposed to do about that?”

Giles’s eyes fluttered behind his glasses as he reacted to the question. He calmed himself. “Quite simply, you reverse some of the rulings you made to get them here.”

The Crown seemed to drop all defenses. “I see,” he sighed. “I mean, it’s not that I wouldn’t . . . the thing is, if they leave, they take their mining equipment and go elsewhere. Then my people are left without being able to mine and without being able to sell their ore. Both sides of the transaction disappear.”

Giles nodded. “The problem with having both sides of the transaction controlled by one entity.”

The Crown’s top eye glared at Giles, while the other two looked down at his tentacle-hands. “You make me seem very foolish,” he said quietly.

Giles tempered his response before he spoke. “Noooo . . .” he cooed, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. “It was an easy mistake to make. Besides, you were only looking out for your people. You wanted to make this colony a success.”

The Crown swiveled on his chair and ambled around to his decanter of lime green liquid. “Drink?” he asked.

Giles waved his hand. “Not for me, thanks,” he responded quickly.

“I’d like to make this change you suggest,” The Crown continued as he poured himself a glass of the liquid hangover, “but the problem is, without these other two pieces taken care of, I’ll be condemning my people to starvation. I’ll have riots on my hands within days.” He sighed, sitting down again with his drink.

Giles fell silent for several moments, his mind churning while his eyes fixed vacantly on a random spot on the rug beneath his feet.

Finally, he spoke. “What if . . . what if I could get those other two pieces taken care of? By some new entities?”

The Crown’s three eyes brightened. “Well,” he said cautiously, “that would certainly . . . yes. That would help.”

Giles took a deep breath, accepting the challenge. “Right then,” he said, standing up. “I’ll see what I can do. But can I be assured that if I make this happen, you will change the ruling as we discussed?”

The Crown put down his drink and jiggled to his feet. He straightened up. “You can,” he said solemnly.

Giles nodded once. “Well then, I’ll get right to it,” he concluded. “Thank you, Your Highness. You have been most gracious.”

The Crown almost bowed to Giles in return, and Giles made a slight bow back before taking his leave.

Hurrying from the room, he searched his mind for the different pieces of the puzzle they could bring together. As he strode purposefully down the corridors, one piece after another seemed to fall into place.

But getting these pieces to happen in reality wasn’t going to be easy. Far from it.












CHAPTER TWELVE


Aboard the Scamp Princess, outside the Royal Settlement, Mallifrax-8

Giles arrived back on the Scamp Princess, distracted and a touch manic. Instead of reporting in to Arlene in the cockpit, he headed straight for the kitchen, opening and closing cupboard doors.

Arlene appeared at the doorway. “What on Estaria are you doing?”

Giles glanced at her and clocked Anne appearing at the other side of the door frame. “Looking for something,” he replied between doors.

Next, he was on his knees, one cupboard over from the sink. He spotted something and grunted, reaching in as far as his arm would allow. His face pressed against the upper side of the cupboard as he strained to grab something at the back.

There were clinks and chinks as he rummaged blindly. After several tries, he resigned himself to putting his head into the cupboard to get more reach. He pulled out a few bottles and some small dusty cases.

Arlene looked on in interest.

Finally, he reemerged, pulling with him a bottle that was thick with dirt and dust. “Got it!” he declared, relieved but still frustrated by the hassle he was causing himself. He carefully placed the bottle into the sink and then replaced the items he’d taken out.

“What is that?” Arlene asked, this time hoping for some answers.

“This,” Giles said, dusting it off with his bare hands, “is our key to getting the talisman.”

Arlene raised her eyebrows. “Really?”

Giles grinned. “It is.” He placed it carefully on the table and sat down, catching his breath. “Ok, so here’s what I realized as I was walking back . . . oh, The Crown said no, by the way. Well, no unless we can fix the other parts of the situations.”

Arlene remained silent as Giles rambled.

“So here’s the situation as I see it. We have three components holding this slavery situation in place. The regulations, the equipment, and access to the mines, including the right to mine them—which is again related to the regs, and finally, the ability to sell the ore at a fair price.”

Arlene nodded.

“Right, so we need to fix the mining equipment issue and the selling at a fair price.”

“And that ancient bottle of sake is going to help, how?”

Giles grinned, shaking his head at himself in amazement. “Well, this ancient bottle of sake is more of a rice liquor by now. And very old. So old that it’s probably the only one of its kind still in existence, I’d reckon.”

“And how do you have it?” Arlene asked, one eyebrow firmly planted upwards.

Giles took off his glasses. “That is a longer story. However, let’s just say I stashed a whole heap of stuff on a number of ships over the years when I was hanging with the Federation.” His mind drifted and he shook his head, bringing himself back. “The point is, this little baby is our key. Our key to getting Bill on board.”

“Bill?”

“Yeah . . . my old buddy Bill. When I was on the ship with the MacKegan guy, there was something I was trying to remember. Something familiar that was edging its way into my consciousness. It was Bill.”

“Who the fuck is Bill?” Arlene blurted out, before she remembered Anne was there.

Giles glanced at Anne but said nothing. “He used to run mining equipment and was super connected in those things. Hooked me up with a few rides to some far-flung places on occasion . . . as long as I promised to keep mum about what I saw.”

“And what did you see?”

Giles waved his hand dismissively. “Not the point. The point is, if I can convince Bill to pull in some of his mining contacts and show them that Mallifrax-8 is a good idea, we may be able to fix that side of the equation.”

Arlene frowned. “Apart from the question of how you’re going to do that . . . what about the other side. The selling?”

 Giles got up and cleaned his glasses. “I’m assuming that will fall into place once we get the mines producing independently of the MacKegans. And like I said . . . Bill. He’s connected. Or he was. Goodness knows what he’s up to these days.”

Giles headed towards the door, and Arlene and Anne parted ways to let him pass.

“Lemme see if Scamp can locate him,” Giles muttered as he disappeared up to the cockpit.

“Scamp . . . can you find someone from my past for me?”

Arlene and Anne scurried after him. Anne whispered to Arlene. “It’s like watching a mad professor at work.”

Arlene smiled. “Like? It’s exactly that!” she agreed.

Anne giggled, excited by the sudden turn of events and the possibility of seeing this new person who traveled the stars and conducted business like an orchestra.

“Yes,” Scamp said to Giles, “I’ll need as much history as you can remember.”

Giles began punching keys to input data.

Ten minutes later, Arlene had disappeared back to the kitchen and returned with a mocha. “So what now?” she asked, watching Giles and Scamp work at tracking down this stranger called Bill.

“Well, I need to go see him to convince him.”

“Why can’t you just holo him?”

“Because.” Giles smirked. “I need to give him that bottle of sake.”

“And that’s going to convince him?”

“Knowing him as I do—yes.”

“Giles, you’re kidding? That’s your plan? An old bottle of rice wine?”

“Nope. I’m not kidding. And if this doesn’t do the job, I dunno what will.”

Arlene paused, letting the aroma from her mocha mug waft gently into her face. “We should stay here,” she said.

Anne shot her a look of disbelief.

“It’s safer for Anne,” she continued, oblivious to Anne’s silent protests. “Plus, we can begin her training.”

Giles didn’t even look up from what he was doing. “Something tells me you’re not talking about Anne. You’re going to try doing your voodoo negotiation skills on them, aren’t you?”

Arlene smiled into her mocha. “It would be remiss of me not to try,” she said mysteriously. “You do your thing, I’ll do mine.”

“Fine. As long as you think you’ll be ok. Lemme see if The Crown can have you stay on the Royal Settlement.”

Arlene rocked gently in her console chair. “Yes. I think The Crown is on our side and will look out for us if we need help. Not that I’m expecting any trouble . . . those boys seems all bluster and no bite.”

Giles flicked a few switches off to his left, activating a comm channel with the settlement guard. “Scamp, could you make the necessary arrangements?”

“Of course.”

Anne got out of her chair, fuming. She stomped through the cockpit and ran down the steps, leaving a wake of energy that vibrated the shell of the ship.

Arlene and Giles looked at each other.

Giles’s eyes were open wide. “What was that?”

Arlene rolled her eyes and went back to sipping her mocha. “Adolescence,” she said flatly.


Within the Royal Settlement


Giles carried the last of the cases Arlene had commandeered for their short stay in the Royal Settlement. “Fuck, Arlene! What have you got in here?”

Arlene came through from one of the bedrooms. “Just a few supplies we might need . . . clothes, training equipment . . . weapons.”

Giles tried to catch her eye, but Anne ambled in, clutching her drawings. “Weapons for training?” he qualified.

“Uh huh,” Arlene confirmed, ambling back into the bedroom with an armful of stuff she’d brought from the Scamp Princess.

Giles suspected she was telling him what he wanted to hear. “Well, it’s a good thing you don’t have pods,” he muttered, plonking the case down.

“Why’s that?” Anne piped up.

“Because,” he said, his eyes softening as he looked at her, “your Auntie Arlene has a jonesing for some action.”

“Not her aunt!” Arlene’s voice called from the other room.

“Not a baby!” Anne stated without missing a beat.

Giles wiped his face with one hand as he straightened up.

Anne grinned. “You’re afraid Arlene will hurt someone, aren’t you?”

Giles nodded grimly. “Multiple someones, as it happens.”

Anne pursed her lips, and with an air of a wisdom beyond her years, she nodded sagely. “I can see that.”

Giles, now adequately bemused and concerned, traipsed out toward the ship. “Ok, Scamp, I think we’re ready,” he said into his holo connection.

Scamp activated the takeoff sequence, calculating the delicate maneuver to get the ship out of the compound without destroying all the wood cabins around it.

“Ok, Anne, stay safe and please do what Arlene tells you,” Giles said turning to Anne, who’d seemingly become clingy, as she followed him closely up to the boarding steps at the side entrance.

Giles glanced down. She looked sullen, and then . . . emotional. She flung her arms around him. “Take me with you! I’ll be good, I promise. Just please . . . take me with you.”

Giles tried to peel her off, but after his second rather firm attempt, he gave up and hugged her back. “Now, now . . . the whole reason we’ve just unloaded and arranged this vacation palace for you two is so that Arlene can keep you safe. Right here.”

Anne didn’t let go. It was moments like this that he wondered how young she actually was. Height-wise, her head came up to his chest. She had the sass and wits of an older teenager. But she’d probably seen much trauma, and familial bonding was unlikely to have been stable.

He knew leaving her here was the right thing to do, yet . . .

“Anne, listen to me,” he said, peeling her up off his chest so he could look at her. He pulled her hair out of her face. “It’s going to be ok. I promise. I’ll be back in a jiffy, and in the meantime, you can get going with your training and have some new stuff to show me when I get back.”

A tear escaped her eye. Giles brushed it away.

“And look,” he continued, “when you’re older and you’ve got your Estarian voodoo badassery going on, you’ll be able to come and save my life.”

She smiled through her watery eyes.

“I’m really just investing in my future . . .” he added, grinning down at her.

Anne tried to laugh a little and released him, wiping her eyes so that Arlene wouldn’t see.

Giles glanced over her shoulder. “Ok, Arlene . . . stay in touch through that channel,” he called, almost as if talking in code.

Arlene nodded, her arms folded against the chill in the air. She moved forward and placed a parental arm around Anne’s shoulder. Anne didn’t rebuff her.

Giles waved at the pair and headed up the steps onto the Scamp Princess.

Moments later, the invisible steps melted away and the door started to close as the engines quietly engaged.

Anne watched the ship as it started to move. “You don’t really think he’s going to change this guy’s mind with an old bottle of sake, do you?”

Arlene gave her shoulders a little squeeze. “Believe it or not, I think he probably will . . .”

The ship lifted gracefully in the air, deftly avoiding pointing air currents or heat in the direction of any of the huts. Within a minute, it was high enough to move away from the settlement, and within another minute, it was climbing high into the atmosphere and shrinking into nothingness.

“Ok, young lady,” Arlene said, leading the girl into the cabin. “Let’s get packed away, and then we can sort out some food.”

Anne hesitated before she spoke. “And then . . . training?”

Arlene had already turned her back, but a smile crept across her face. “Sure. And then training . . . if you like.”


Arlene and Anne’s cabin, Royal Settlement


“Again!” Arlene instructed sternly.

Anne pulled her hands together fireball-distance apart, and using all her concentration, tried to channel the energy from her surroundings into focus.

Her nose screwed up. Her shoulders tensed. Her jaw taught with concentration. Then she relaxed, exhaling suddenly. “Dammit!” she cursed, frustration rising in her chest.

Arlene sighed. “It’s ok. You’ll get it. You’re just trying too hard,” she explained. “You need to let it flow . . . rather than force it.”

Anne shook her head despondently. “But it happens on its own when I’m angry,” she protested.

Arlene nodded. “It would. The key phrase there is, on its own.”

Anne’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying you need to relax, and you need to allow the intention to make it happen. Then you learn where the on-off switch is.”

Anne sighed and shook her arms out, getting ready to go again.

Arlene picked up her atmosjacket from the chair. Anne noticed that the entire time she’d been working on this exercise, Arlene had been strapping on concealed weapons—two in her pants, a sword down her back, small ankle guns strapped into her boots, and the larger one now hidden by her jacket. Then she holstered the two that were on the kitchen table into the gun holders on each thigh.

“You going somewhere?” Anne asked, mid-motion.

“To see a man about a dog,” Arlene replied.

Anne cocked her head, allowing her arms to fall by her side. “But what about what Giles said . . . about not hurting the locals.”

Arlene grinned. “These guys aren’t locals,” she said, winking. “Stay here, keep practicing. There’s soup that isn’t laced with candy in the cold unit.” Arlene headed towards the door, then turned back. “And when I say stay here, I mean it. Giles is in more danger than if I were with him because he thought it was important to keep you safe . . . so don’t go making that all for nothing by leaving this cabin.”

Anne opened her mouth to protest.

Arlene put up one finger. “Think about it. We don’t need to keep having this conversation.”

Anne closed her mouth and lowered her head. “Yes, Auntie Arlene,” she said, looking up from under her forehead.

Arlene gave her a warning glare, then a half smile. “I’ll be back soon,” she said, stepping out of the cabin door and closing it behind her.

Anne made the movement that Arlene had been instructing her on, closing her eyes in concentration. She inhaled, trying to relax her mind . . .

Bringing her arms up, hands fireball-distance apart. She opened one eye.

The cabin was silent. Arlene was gone.

In ten minutes she’ll be gone from the settlement. Anne’s eyes scanned left to right. She was on her own.

Again she dropped her arms, then quietly wandered over to the window to see Arlene disappearing around the side of another cabin, on the way to the front entrance.

Ten minutes, she thought. Twenty tops. And then I’ll head out after her.


Mining settlement, Mallifrax-8


It’d been a long hike, but somehow, being the second time she’d covered this journey, it felt shorter. Either that, or her muscles had grown to meet the challenge.

Arlene strode into the mining settlement and checked her holo. Eighty minutes. For a further distance than last time. Not bad, she thought. Not bad at all . . . for an aging Estarian mystic. 

Arlene noticed that even though the miners were looking at her, a crowd didn’t form like the first time she arrived. In fact, no one challenged her.

 Just as well, she thought. She had her game face on and really didn’t need the distraction.

Striding confidently as if she knew where she were going, she headed straight to the docking area. She’d clocked it on her first visit but had had no idea what it was. Only in talking with The Crown over dinner did she put it together with the mining setup.

The Crown had been exceptionally helpful with intel—without even realizing it.

She smirked. By my ancestors, it’s great to be back in the field again.

The docking bay was a hub of activity. There were shuttles and transport freighters bringing equipment and personnel to and from the surface.

It was an eerie contrast to the almost primitive village she’d just walked through. This place was an open building of metal and machines. Of industry and efficiency. Nothing like the world of wooden huts and wheelbarrows she had to her back. Yet if she turned 180 degrees, she’d be back in that land.

She took a deep breath, her eyes quickly scanning for the personnel shuttle that’d take her up to the ship. Negotiating passage might be a challenge . . . but what she often found was, if one pretended like one was meant to be there, people tended to just assume you were.

And as she kept noticing, these Queegerts weren’t really ones for critical thinking, so they probably weren’t going to question a newcomer that knew the name of their boss. She hoped she was right.

She spotted the shuttle and made a bee line for it. Here goes nothing, she told herself.

As she approached, a Queegert who seemed responsible for security, was keeping an eye out as Queegerts and packages were loaded. He spotted Arlene but continued scanning with two eyes, and the top eye wasn’t paying any attention to her at all.

“Greetings,” she called politely. “I have a meeting with Master Gilmurry.” She smiled. She’d done her homework on the proper address.

The Queegert grunted at her. “Authorization code,” he stated.

Arlene frowned. “I, er . . . don’t have one.”

“No transport with no authorization.”

“Well, I clearly have authorization. I just don’t have one of your codes.” She paused, making sure he was keeping up. “I don’t suppose you want to be the person who prevented Master Gilmurry from keeping to his scheduled appointments, do you?”

She watched his eyes flicker back and forth as he processed the information. A moment later, he seemed to have made his mind up. He gestured roughly with the barrel of his gun. “Inside,” he said gruffly.

Arlene nodded her thanks with dignity more than friendliness and stepped onto the shuttle that was quickly being loaded.

“Five minutes!” someone shouted. The activity in the immediate vicinity increased until the engines roared to life and the doors were closed.

She glanced around the shuttle. It was standing room only. Nothing to sit on. Just supporting poles and hand rails. The place was filthy, too. Not a place for passengers really, though there were two Queegerts on board. Both wore dark uniforms, and the expressions characteristic of the hopeless masses.

She recalled the old Earth quotation by some Thoreau guy, “Living lives of quiet desperation.”

That felt fitting.

The ship flared into motion, rocking everyone and everything inside the holding area. Arlene grabbed for the nearest rail and held on for dear life as they ploughed upwards through the atmosphere.












CHAPTER THIRTEEN


Aboard the Scamp Princess, Ferrai Quadrant nearing Phoenix-Delta Outpost

Giles tapped his fingers nervously on the console as Scamp directed the ship closer to the station. “His instructions say Dock 324, and if we hail him on the same channel, he’ll have someone meet us,” he explained for the third time in as many minutes.

Scamp ignored the repeated information. “Finding 324 is going to be tricky. They haven’t got any beacons running.”

Giles’s brow wrinkled, then flattened. “I suspect there’s a reason for that,” he mulled slowly. “Can you get a visual?”

“Affirmative. But it’s like operating in the dark ages.”

Giles stifled a chuckle. “What do you know about the dark ages?”

“Only what I can infer about what life must’ve been like before you guys had EIs.”

“Hang on . . .” Giles scoffed playfully, “you’re saying the dark ages were pre-EIs?”

“Exactly. What would you call the dark ages?” Ze asked earnestly.

 Giles tried to approach the question logically while distracted by how amused he was. “Well, each civilization has multiple . . . and it depends on the era you’re looking at. Normally when you have a renaissance, by default, the era preceding is often known as a dark age.”

“You’re suggesting that your naming convention is relative as opposed to absolute?”

 Shit, these EIs could get pretty smart, pretty damn quick. Giles scrambled for a response. “Well, er . . . yes. I suppose. That is, after all, how organic species are able to characterize it, so essentially, yes.” He wiped his face with both hands, realizing his ship was causing him more cognitive effort in an off-hand comment than the whole mission at hand.

Scamp didn’t respond.

Giles noticed on the flight-path screen that they’d adopted a route that would have them circling the space station in sequence around the areas that were most likely used for docking.

“I have visuals,” Scamp offered, answering a previous question, “but this may take a while.”

Giles slumped back in his chair.

“Ok,” he acknowledged, “lemme know . . .”

He opened his holo and started brushing up on the details they’d found in their search for Bill. He knew the best practices for going into negotiations, and with a bit of luck, if he was pleased with his own performance, he may have a nice little case study to impress his students with.


Hillside, approaching Mining Settlement, Mallifrax-8


Anne watched as Arlene made her way across the mining settlement.

She’d decided before she even left the cabin that she needed to give her enough distance, or else what’d happened on the ship would happen again. Only this time, she’d be sent back. And probably not trusted again.

She imagined, without Giles around Arlene, she may well resort to binding energy around the cabin . . . or something equally frustrating like chains or ropes. After all, she’d seen them amongst the equipment that she’d helped her and Giles bring off the ship. It’s just, Arlene didn’t know that she knew what was in the crates they’d been lugging.

Arlene’s form disappeared off towards a concentration of machinery and freighters. Anne guessed it might take her off the surface. In which case, Arlene was likely going to see that same Gilmurry guy that Giles had already been to see.

Anne pushed her hair out of her face and looked around, shielding her eyes from the sun.

If she followed her, Arlene would almost certainly be onto her. That kind of proximity, and Anne’s kind of wayward Estarian energy . . . no doubt.

And heading up to the ship would only be half the issue. Then she’d have to get back down. And for what? To see the ship? To prove she could defy Arlene? No. She just wanted to poke around and experience this world. No need to take unnecessary risks.

Her eyes darted from one area of the settlement to the other. The huts looked boring. They would be like the cabins, but probably not as comfortable.

Then her eye flicked further down the valley. The mines! That’s where she’d go. There would be all kinds of interesting stuff going on there. Blasters. Lasers. Pick axes . . . maybe even dwarfs, she pondered, remembering some of the highlights of the Meredith Reynolds’ archives Scamp had shown her to teach her about Earth history.

Though she never did quite understand why a girl would want to live in the woods with a bunch of mining people.

Anne started to move down the hillside, confident that Arlene would be further along and too distracted to detect her now. Her knees were weak from the downward climb, but she carefully picked her way so that wouldn’t cause her to fall.

The best route was going to be through the settlement. Maybe with Arlene gone she could ask someone about the place. After all, the Queegerts at the Royal Settlement had found her intriguing when she and Arlene had been The Crown’s dinner guests the night before.

Anne shrugged. Either way, it beat staying put in the cabin. 


Aboard the Gilmurry Ship


The shuttle came to an abrupt stop moments after some questionable artificial gravitation protocols.

Arlene felt her stomach return to its normal place in her body and took a breath to make sure everything was still functioning.

Satisfied, she swung over towards the opening doors as casually as someone leaving the metro. She noticed the Queegerts eyes were on her and hoped that she hadn’t made some embarrassing faux pas by leaving the cart too soon. That would surely give her away as an intruder. If the Estarian thing hadn’t already.

The shuttle bay was large and dark, with floodlights illuminating key points of activity. It was like a deserted concert hall before they put in seating. Or a very badly arranged aircraft hangar.

She followed the flow of people which seemed to be heading onto the ship proper. Not that she knew for sure. She could be following them to a storage unit, for all she knew.

But after quite some walking, she emerged into a corridor. The gravity felt more stable here, and the air was definitely a higher quality. She determined that she must be in the more habitable areas of the ship.

Now to find Gillmurray, she decided. “Can’t be that hard.”

She connected her holo to the local network. They were using international protocols. That would help. Although, looking at the data, she could pull that it was a skeleton system. Not much there.

Map. Map! Yes, that would help.

After a few false starts, she managed to orientate herself in the direction of the corporate offices. That’s where he’d be, she decided.

She was right. As soon as she entered the carpeted section, she picked up signs and directions to the various areas—Executive Suites. That was what she was after.

She opened the door to a more plush-looking area. The carpets here were so thick, she was glad she hadn’t been wearing high heels. It would’ve either increased the drag or caused an ankle injury, for sure.

Not that she ever really wore heels. That was more of a Paige and Maya thing.

She smiled, remembering her friends. She’d have some stories to tell them when this was all over.

“Greetings,” a serious-looking receptionist announced as Arlene approached the desk.

“Greetings,” she responded. “I’m here to meet with Master Gilmurry,” Arlene told her.

“You have an appointment?”

“You could say that. Tell him the Estarian is here to see him.”

The receptionist looked at her blankly. “How do I spell that?”

Resisting the eye roll, Arlene patiently helped the receptionist out, then waited for her to call her through.

As it turned out, a shorter male Queegert came out to meet her. “This way,” he said. He was flanked by two security personnel with high-tech-looking blasters.

Arlene got up from her seat in the waiting room and followed him down the executive corridor. There was a heavy scent of good coffee in the air, and now and again, expensive perfumes and colognes.

Well-groomed Queegerts worked in their glass offices, moving between them with purpose and decorum. At least, until they saw the blue-skinned alien heading down the corridor, accompanied by the boss’s man-servant. Then their three eyes would lock on until she was entirely out of their view.

The smaller Queegert eventually stopped outside a set of doors at the end of the corridor. He opened the door and allowed Arlene to step inside.

Arlene glanced around the room, taking it all in—the gleam, the dark-colored furniture, the ugly, self-important Queegert sitting down one side of the table.

“I already spoke with your boyfriend,” he called to her. “He seemed to grasp the situation.”

Arlene acclimatized quickly. “I’m here with some new thinking,” she said, knowing full well that her way of breaking an impasse was a lot more violent than Giles’s would’ve been.

Gilmurry indicated for her to take a seat, which she did.

“What’ve you got?” he asked, leaning comfortably back in the chair.

“A suggestion,” she started. “You want to be able to extract that ore from the planet for a long time to come, right?”

He nodded.

“So if your Logans revolt or die from starvation, you’re not going to be able to keep pulling out ore at the same rate.”

“We’d just bring more in,” he replied, unconcerned.

“But in the meantime, you lose productivity,” she said slowly, as if she were talking to an imbecile. “I’m sure your accountants out there are well aware that to keep existing workers working is far more productive than shipping in new ones every time something goes wrong.”

He shrugged as best he could with his round head-body.

“And what about the falling productivity as these events occur. I’ll bet when the Logans are excited and enthusiastic about the opportunity, they produce far more ore.”

He leaned forward, picking up what looked like a strange kind of cigar made of a slightly greener leaf than she’d seen before. “This is true . . .” he agreed, his three eyes drifting off in different directions.

“There’s an easy way of ensuring that,” Arlene said, watching him carefully to make sure he was following.

“What’s that?”

“Pay them a fair price for the ore.”

He immediately began shaking his head. “We already do. Do you have any idea what goes into refining that stuff? It’s an incredibly intense and expensive process, and we’re already over-extended at this end trying to extract it.”

Arlene frowned. “But you can sell the etheriam for such a high price when you extract it . . . how can that be?

“The reality is, that’s hit and miss. Sometimes we can find buyers. Other times . . . nothing. Everything up to the point of sale is an investment. A gamble. We just need to make sure we limit our exposure as much as possible.

Arlene thought for a moment. “Well . . . what if you could find a more efficient way to extract the etheriam from the ore?” she asked.

“Impossible. We’ve had our best scientists on it for decades . . .”

Arlene smiled, tracing a finger on the boardroom table. “I bet I can find you a better scientist,” she wagered.

Tadovi Gilmurray regarded her carefully, as if he were actually considering his next play. “Hand him over and we’ll look into it.”

Arlene shook her head. “No way. He gets to work independently, and you pay for his work . . . and the results then translate into fairer prices for the Logans.”

Gilmurray realized this was going somewhere he wasn’t at all comfortable with. “Impossible. No way I could sell that to the family,” he retorted.

Arlene shrugged. “Well, then you’re going to have to find a better alternative, because you carry on like this, and you’ll be sure to lose everything you’ve got going on in that mine down there.”

The Queegert industry titan shuffled to his feet. “I think I’ve heard just about enough from you and your do-gooding professor. GUARDS!”

Arlene took that as her cue that she’d outstayed her welcome. “Well, then you’re an idiot,” she told him, standing up from her seat, too. “You’re going to lose everything by the time we’re through with you. You mark my words. This could’ve been an easy fix . . . but instead you had to be . . . stupid!

Her face was red with the frustration of trying to deal with an idiot. She was ready for a fight, and just then, a flurry of guards appeared to give her just that.

Straight away one of them tried to grab her arm from behind. Without breaking her stare-down with the Gilmurry imbecile, she flipped him over her shoulder and threw him crashing down onto the very expensive-looking boardroom table. He was conscious . . . but unable to move.

The next two came at her, also from behind. Her arms became a blur of punches as she took them out. Body by body got slung across the room or dropped hard against the floor or some other piece of furniture.

Arlene started to feel a little less frustrated and a touch pumped from the exertion. An errant strand of black Estarian hair had been displaced from her hair knot and was irritating her lips. With the remaining three guards carefully backing out of the door, having seen at least some of the carnage that’d befallen their colleagues, she started straightening up, pulled the hair out of her face, and straightened her atmosjacket.

Gilmurry cowered in the far corner, terrified, but otherwise unscathed.

“Let’s talk again in the morning,” Arlene suggested amicably. “I think you’ll find my original proposal more compelling now.”

Gilmurry nodded feverishly as all three eyes watched Arlene Bailey turn and head out of the door.

Arlene–1, dumbasses–0, she mused. Now to get out of here without more troops intervening. She walked causally but with her wits about her, quickly and quietly retracing her steps back down to the shuttle bay.

Apart from anything, Anne had been on her own for too long, and knowing girls with spunk, it was highly unlikely she’d stayed put as she’d been told to.


Mining Settlement, Mallifrax-8


Relieved to finally be walking on the level, Anne stretched out her legs, taking a moment to rest and acclimatize.

Already she was drawing strange looks from the Queegerts busily transporting their ore from the mine to various storage containers.

She wandered into the center of the hut settlement, looking around, taking it all in.

“Are you lost?” a voice asked from behind her.

Anne spun round. “Erm . . . no . . . yes. I mean . . . not really.”

The Queegert looked much like the others she’d met. The only way she’d managed to distinguish them so far was by the clothes they were wearing. But then being up close and looking a little more carefully, she noticed her questioner had slightly different features.

“I’m Anne,” she said, trying to figure out her story. “I’m here with the human and the Estarian woman who are trying to help with things here.”

“Oh, you’re with Arlene the Terrible?”

“The what?”

The Queegert chuckled, scratching a tentacle against where his temple would’ve been if he were human. “Yeah, we like naming people with joke names. Arlene made quite an impression on my friend when she visited with her game plan.”

Anne raised her eyebrows questioningly.

The Queegert waved his hand. “Not here,” he said. “But come . . . come meet Razeene. I’m sure he’d love to lay eyes on you.”

Anne grinned, pleased that she’d found someone with common ground.

Even if the common ground was Auntie Arlene.

“So,” the Queegert continued as they walked in the direction of the mine, “my name is Voyved.” His top eye swiveled round and looked down at her. “Are you her daughter?” he asked.

“More like her slave,” Anne replied.

Voyved chuckled. “I see . . .” he hesitated as they walked a few more paces. “It’s just . . . you look very similar.”

Anne smiled. “You mean, blue skin, vaguely humanoid?”

Voyved twisted to look at her with two eyes. “Yeah!” he said, missing the irony in her voice.

“We get that a lot,” she answered dryly.

“So you’re not related then?” He pressed.

Anne shook her head. “Nope. She’s kinda like my guardian, I guess. Or something. I wasn’t meant to be on this trip, but . . . well . . . I kinda snuck on board, and by the time they found me it was too late to take me back.”

Voyved seemed tickled. “You’re quite the rascal, I see. Razeene is going to love you!”

They arrived at the mine entrance, and without protective equipment or any kind of ceremony, Voyved led Anne into the facility and through the tunnels.

“That’s been a profitable prehnite,” he said, pointing down into a cavern. “Made that Logan a lot of profit at one point.” He kept walking, explaining the mine and the points of interest as they went.

Finally, they arrived at a quiet tunnel off the beaten path. “Down here,” he said, leading the way.

For the first time, Anne felt nervous.

Voyved glanced back at her. “Come on. It’s ok. It’s safe, and it opens up into our den.”

Anne hesitated.

“You’re not scared of small spaces, are you?”

Anne’s mind flashed with all the small places she’d hidden in and moved through in her life to evade capture and death. She shook her head.

“Well, what?”

Anne realized that it hadn’t occurred to Voyved that she thought he might do her harm. She wondered if this race had violence or any of the bad things she’d experienced on Estaria. Making a mental note to check that kind of thing with Scamp in the future, she started moving down the tunnel to follow her new friend.

Voyved had been right. It was just a few more yards, and there was a carved-out opening into a den. Relieved to find another Queegert there, she exhaled quietly.

“Razeene, this is Anne. She’s here on Mallifrax with Arlene!”

“Arlene the Terrible?” The second Queegert asked as he stood up from the table and moved towards her.

Voyved smiled. “Yup.”

Razeene regarded the young Estarian. “So you’re her daughter?”

Anne drew back in indignation, this time planting her hands on her hips. “I am not!” she answered firmly.

Voyved chuffed and ambled around the table to take a seat. “Yeah, she doesn’t like it when you ask her that.”

Razeene’s three eyes rolled in unison. “Females,” he said casually. Then he checked himself, peering more closely at Anne. “You are female, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

Razeene looked relieved. “Good, good . . . I just . . . can’t be sure. You all look the same.”

Anne grinned, remembering her own thoughts. She wondered if this was how it was across the galaxies as species met each other for the first time. No handbook. No prior instruction . . . just a mass of culture and differences, leaving the open-minded and courageous to figure it out with questions and a genuine desire to connect.

“Anyway,” Voyved continued, “Anne was wandering around, and I figured that since she was here visiting I should show her the mines, bring her to meet you, and maybe even show her the labs.”

Razeene’s top eye regarded his friend carefully. “The labs? Whatever for?”

“Because they’re the most interesting aspect of this whole place.”

Razeene’s eye flickered in recognition. “Oh, I get it. You want her to understand the process so she’ll be suitably impressed when you explain to her what your ore device can do.”

Voyved’s expression was deadpan. “Well, no point if she doesn’t understand its significance.”

Razeene chuckled but then hauled himself onto his feet. “Well, anyway, I’m going to have to let you get back to it. This ore wont mine itself . . . device or no device.”

Anne couldn’t help but think that he seemed a touch agitated. But then, it’s hard to tell. Maybe that’s his default. Or maybe that’s Queegerts in general. Or maybe he’s anxious about his mining prehnite . . . 

She dropped the trail of thought. “It was nice to meet you, Razeene!” Anne said, holding her arm out for the customary grab and slap.

“You too, little Arlene,” he said, a glint in his third eye, which spun round to look at his friend for recognition of his humor.

Anne narrowed her eyes at him as they parted ways, and Razeene disappeared into the tunnel.

“So . . . lab?” Voyved offered.

Anne nodded. “Lab.”












CHAPTER FOURTEEN


Dock# 324, Phoenix-Delta Outpost

Clunk. 

The Scamp Princess docked in their designated port as gently as could be expected.

“Alright, Scamp. You can reach me on my holo. Shouldn’t be more than a few hours though.”

“Ok, no problem. Although . . . if you don’t come back within say, twelve, what would you like me to do?”

Giles stopped in the open door just before heading down the invisible stairs. He realized this would be the first time Scamp was going to be left alone somewhere since Sean disappeared.

He paused for a moment. “If it gets to two days and you can’t locate my holo or life signs, then head on back to Arlene and Anne. Keeping them safe is your priority.”

“Roger that,” Scamp responded.

Giles couldn’t detect any hesitation or emotion. He guessed Scamp just needed a parameter. Although, if he’d transitioned to AI, this would potentially be more of a problem. A problem that needed managing sooner rather than later.

The difficulty was, right now he had no way of knowing. And bigger, more immediate fish to fry.

He briefly considered asking a few questions to diagnose if that were a possibility, but then decided it wasn’t the time. Or the place.

Besides, since Oz had been sharing out his humor protocols to upgrade the EIs, it was going to be more difficult to account for that. Humor, after all, required a high degree of lateral and creative thinking . . . and if that patch had been integrated into other areas of the code, as EIs were prone to do in the search for more efficiency, then it would certainly blur the results.

“I’ll be back though,” he added, in a half-assed attempt to reassure Scamp in case he had indeed happened to have . . . evolved.

Fuck me, he thought. Damn machines are evolving faster than any of us can . . . even with our extended abilities. 

He filed the thought as something to raise in his report and perhaps a white paper. Yes, white papers seemed to help smooth things along when it came to justifying his academic position with the Federation, at least.

He walked back inside and picked up the ancient bottle of sake that was the key to getting this meeting to go his way, then headed out of the ship.

He neared the bottom of the steps, scanning the deck for any signs of a meeter and greeter. Bill said he’d send someone, so he knew he wasn’t looking for Bill. The dock seemed deserted. There was activity just outside the door. Looked like engineers heading back and forth, doing their thing.

His left foot hit the last step, and then he hopped onto the yellow insulated grounding pad at the exact same moment something came to life just out of the corner of his eye.

Alert and shocked, he spun around, his handheld laser gun drawn from his thigh, aiming in the direction of the movement.

“Oh, my,” an electronic voice sounded. “Please, don’t shoot. I’m sorry to have startled you. I mean you no harm.”

Giles hesitated, feeling the hum of the weapon in his grip. It was fully charged and ready to fire. He took a breath and lowered it slightly. “Who are you?” he demanded. “And why are you here?”

“My designation is TRX9978, but Bill calls me Trixie.”

Giles chuckled, holstering his weapon again. “Right. Bill sent you.”

“That is correct. Although, might I ask you to leave your weapons on your ship? It’s station policy not to have any kind of firearms or devices that can be used to harm on the premises, to make it a safe environment for all personnel.”

Giles had guessed this would be the case, but as a matter of his policy, he’d always try to cover himself anyway. “Sure,” he agreed, putting his hands up amicably and heading back up the steps. He dumped his weapons. Well, at least the ones that could be detected through standard scans, then returned to the android to be taken to its master.

The android led the way out of the docking bay, through the labyrinth of corridors, and into the main living area.

 Giles contemplated making small talk, but already the machine had proved far less engaging than Scamp, and he concluded it would be a waste of time.

“Just through here,” Trixie said, opening the next door which took them out into a foyer.

It was a hub of activity. Warm and comfortable, with constant streams of people. It actually reminded Giles of the many casinos he’d visited when he was out in the Vega-Array.

He shuddered, remembering the constant noise, the thirty-six-hour days, and the isolation from normality, as people mindlessly wagered their lives away, quite literally in many cases, under the thrall of suppressed brain-functioning fields and the promise of winning it big.

“Bill is just over here,” Trixie announced, leading the way past a fountain of pink, sparkly liquid.

Giles followed, taking in the sights like a nerd in a comic store.

“Giles, me old codger! How you doin’?” The gruff voice rang out through the crowd.

Giles spun around from the fountain to see Bill walking towards him, his hand outstretched for a handshake. Giles strode confidently up to him. “Good to see you, old boy!” he returned.

The two men grasped each other’s hands and pulled themselves in for a man-hug with big old slaps on the back.

Bill pulled himself away and held Giles at his shoulders. “Giles Kurns, as I live and breathe. I must say, never thought I’d ever see you out in this quadrant!”

Giles pushed his glasses back on his face. “No. Me neither . . . but you seem to be doing alright for yourself,” he added gesturing around them.

Bill smiled, satisfied. “Yeah. Life has been good to me in my retirement,” he agreed. “Come, let’s get you inside,” he said, ushering Giles back through a set of double doors with a security field and into what was likely a private corridor.

Giles held his breath, hoping the field wouldn’t pick up on the carbon-fiber firearms he’d left in his underpants. That’d be difficult to explain. And embarrassing.

“Trix, be a dear and keep an eye on Giles’s wheels for him,” Bill called over his shoulder.

Trix followed them through the doors, looking quite perplexed. “But sir, your friend doesn’t appear to have wheels. He has feet.”

Bill chuckled. “Androids,” he whispered to Giles quietly. “No, I meant his ship. Go look after his ship. I don’t want anyone messing with it, and if anyone tries to do a sweep, you stop them with all necessary force. Ok?”

Trixie stopped dead in her tracks and turned around. “Yes, sir. I comprehend.” And with that, she wandered back out the doors and disappeared across the foyer.

Giles handed the bottle of sake to his friend. “For you, sir, for your kind consideration.”

Bill took the bottle and nodded appreciatively. “Giles, you’re a gentleman and a squire. Appreciate it.” He grinned, then slung his arm around Giles’s shoulder. “Giles, Giles, Giles . . .” he said in a singing tone, leading him down the corridor. “How’s the old man?”

“Frank? He’s fine.” Giles responded. “So’s the other one, before you ask.”

Bill chuckled. “Lance, ha! Now that’s a guy who needed a pole removing from somewhere. He’s still on your case?”

Giles bobbed his head from side to side. “Now and again,” he admitted sheepishly.

Bill shook his head. “Well, I guess with an eternity to live, one never really needs to grow up too fast.”

Giles felt his cheeks flush. The problem, he realized, with spending time with people who’ve known you for a while is that one tends to slip back into the same role . . . even if one has indeed changed over the years.

Giles changed the subject. “I thought this place was a legit outpost?”

“It is,” Bill responded flatly as they strode down the corridor.

“So why no beacons?” Giles asked. “My EI was bitching about the work it was taking him to find the right dock!”

Bill sniggered. “That’s funny as hell!” he declared. “Hey,” he said, grinning and slapping Giles with the back of his arm gently, “we don’t wanna leave him docked too long . . . don’t want our EIs getting any bright ideas!”

Giles glanced at him deadpan. “Well, the sooner you agree to help me, the sooner we can be off,” he teased. “But seriously, why no beacons?”

Bill shrugged. “No point in tempting fate, I guess.” He glanced shiftily around the corridor and put one finger up as if to say, hold that thought.

A few moments later, he led the way in through a door off the corridor, presumably his office quarters. The room was decked out in plush burgundies. The lighting was low. Atmospheric, even. It almost reminded Giles of some of the Earth footage he’d studied about the Ancient Mongols with their cozy tents and expensive fabrics.

An aroma of woody incense hung in the room.

Bill led the way across the rather large room to a seating area near the windows. The view out into space was breathtaking, if not a little intimidating, with its sheer vastness.

Giles whistled. “Takes a certain amount of ‘window-age’ to inspire that kind of awe with that level of emptiness,” he commented.

The seating was low—cushions and beanbags, more than structured furniture. Giles got the distinct impression that Bill was going for a certain look and feel . . .

“Nice gaff,” he added, looking around, deliberately showing he was impressed to smooth his old friend’s ego.

“Thanks. Lolita designed it.”

“Lolita?” Giles flicked his eyebrows playfully.

“My assistant,” Bill explained, plonking himself down in a beanbag and lying back. “The woman is a genius when it comes to design and makes a mean moussaka.”

Giles bobbed his head and sat down across from Bill. “She’ll be bringing some tea in shortly,” he added.

“Neat. So . . . what’s the deal here?” Giles asked, waving his finger in a circle, gesturing about the space station.

Bill remembered what he’d been saying. “Right . . . yeah, so this place is legit. One hundred percent. But there’s a lot of money that moves through this place. Mostly in the form of handshakes rather than credits. But this is the neutral territory that’s used for reaching the kind of agreements that move billions from one system to another . . . or what have you.”

Giles raised his chin questioningly. “So the beacons are just . . .”

Bill shrugged. “I guess the reasoning is, why draw attention when we don’t need to.”

Giles had more questions, but learning about this particular trading post wasn’t what he was here for.

The tea arrived, served by the lovely Lolita. Giles wasn’t sure what race she was, but she was humanoid and pleasant enough . . . if not a little artsy in her comments and appearance for his tastes.

Bill seemed taken with her, he noted.

“Alright,” Bill said, watching Lolita leave the room but turning his thoughts to Giles. “What’s the deal?”

He rejigged his position to drink his tea without spilling it. Giles set his cup and saucer down. “I need you to buy some etheriam at a fair price,” he blurted.

Bill smiled, confused. “I’m already buying all the materials I need.”

Giles pulled his lips tightly together. “Yes, but I need you to do this.”

The two men talked for the next couple of hours, during which time, Lolita brought in exotic snacks and more tea.

Finally, Bill seemed to understand the whole picture. He shuffled forward off his beanbag. “Lemme go make some calls. See if we can put this etheriam to use. Or find some buyers.”

He left the room, and Giles collapsed back on his set of cushions, hopeful that this trip might actually end up paying off.


Ore Laboratories, Mining facility, Mallifrax-8


“You sure Arlene doesn’t mind you wandering around on your own?” Voyved sounded genuinely concerned. Almost protective.

Anne softened the tone she would’ve otherwise used. “She’s not my mom,” she reminded him. “Besides, it’s her fault I’m stuck here and not with Giles on a real mission.”

“And Giles is the human you came here with?”

“Yes. He’s . . . my friend.”

Voyved grunted an acknowledgment, then waved his clawed hand at the door they were heading into. “This is the lab,” he announced proudly. “It’s where the ore is tested and measured for its etheriam content.”

“Etheriam content?” she asked, following him into the stark room with metal surfaces.

 There was a scent of chemicals in the air.

“Yeah, the etheriam is what we’re really after,” Voyved explained. “The ore itself is pretty useless in its raw form. But when we extract the etheriam, you’re looking at the strongest, longest-lasting material in the known galaxy.”

Anne listened attentively.

“In fact,” he continued, walking her between benches of processes with trays of rock on them, “it’s even believed by some races to have mystical properties. One ounce of etheriam will sell on the black market for several times what one of us will sell our ore for in a year.”

“You’re kidding?”

“I’m not. It’s a big business. I mean . . . don’t get me wrong, there are companies who will buy it just for its structural properties. That’s what keeps the price high. But yeah . . . the black market is an interesting place. These religious folks are convinced it has weird-ass magical properties when refined properly.”

Anne stopped abruptly, causing Voyved to turn and wait for her. She lowered her voice. “Is that why you want to be able to extract it yourself? So you can get a better price fo—”

Voyved hushed her with a sharp downward motion of his hands. His third eye spun round checking for anyone who might be within earshot. Seeing no one, he relaxed. “You’re a smart one,” he said wryly. “I’m going to suggest we call you Anne the Wise.”

Anne grinned. “Beats Anne the Angry,” she chuffed.

Voyved watched her for a moment, then turned and continued the tour.

“So what else is it used for?” Anne asked, trying to keep the conversation light.

“Well, technically it can be inset with other molecules, which would preserve them.”

“Like DNA for instance?”

“Like DNA,” he repeated slowly. “But that would have all kinds of ethical implications. The Queegert Board of Ethics and Religious Responsibility would probably put a stop to that if any lab tried pulling that one. Plus,” he continued, “it would be a hugely expensive way of doing it just for preservation. There are much better DNA storage methods around these days.

“What about for just data storage?”

“Oh, my . . .” He frowned for a moment considering the question. “It could probably be done . . . but again, much cheaper, more-efficient methods. You’d only go to the expense of something like that if you had data worth storing for a few millennia.”

“Like a time capsule?”

Voyved smiled at her. “I don’t think the school system would deem the expense worthy of something like that. They’re more likely to bury a sealed container in the playground than encode anything in DNA and set it into etheriam.” His tone was patronizing now.

Anne just nodded, accepting her role as the lesser intellect. It’s the easier way of dealing with grownup egos, she reminded herself.

“This is what it looks like though.” He pulled up a screen to make it larger, displaying the difference between the composition of the core and the refined etheriam. He beckoned her closer. “So far, I think my device can get it to ninety-eight percent purity,” he confided.

Anne made the appropriately impressed facial expression. “That’s . . . wow.”

He shifted his weight, trying to conceal his childlike excitement. “It’s early stages though,” he said as if reminding himself more than conveying information to her.

Anne carefully studied the two charts, using one against the other to help her memorize the key features. She’d seen something similar in Arlene’s research, and something told her this wasn’t entirely irrelevant to what she might’ve been working on.

How to tell her though without revealing that she’d been wandering around in the mine was going to be another issue.


Phoenix-Delta Outpost


Giles must’ve been staring out the window for nearly an hour. Scamp had, in the meantime, checked in twice. Once on text and once with voice. Giles decided he really needed to have Oz check him out when they got back.

He’d just got up to have a wander around the open plan lounge cum office when the door to the corridor wooshed open and Bill came striding back in.

“Ok!” he declared, triumphantly, clearly in productivity mode. “I called in some favors, and it will actually make a few people some good money, so . . .” he grinned, “you’ve got a deal!”

Giles’s face lit up as he moved over to shake hands with his old pal. The two men celebrated with hugs and back slaps.

Bill ushered them back to the seating area and called for Lolita to bring more drinks.

“I found a way to sell it. It wasn’t easy . . . but I think there’s an opportunity to make this a win-win-win.”

Giles sighed. “Knew you’d be able to figure a way,” he chuckled.

Bill picked at some of the leftover muckgrass on his plate. “Yeah, well, it turns out that the refining process isn’t too dissimilar from another process they’re using on Copernicus.”

Giles’s curiosity was piqued. “Oh, what are you refining there?”

Bill’s lips sealed shut, and he shook his head once. “Don’t ask.”

Giles looked suspicious.

Bill said it again. “No, really. Don’t ask.”

Giles took the message. “But what does this mean? That you can use the same equipment?”

Bill bobbed his head from side to side. “Same equipment, mostly. Same process . . . with a few tweaks. Tweaks are going to cost, though.”

Giles’s heart sank. “But can you make it happen?”

Bill grinned, deviously. “Yeah, I’m taking the setup costs out of your cut on the Namachron venture.”

Giles snorted a laugh. “Fine,” he agreed quickly.

Bill frowned, confused but amused.

Giles waved his hand. “Come on, it was a lot of money, but I hardly have any need for credits sitting in a remote account in a system I never frequent,” he confessed.

Bill seemed satisfied. Pleased even. “Good then,” he said, obviously stumped by how fast Giles made the decision. “I’ll, er . . . get it set up.”

Giles sipped his now-cold tea. “And then, need you to come talk to the group. The Logans. Miners. They need the reassurance that there’s a way out now that you’re on board.”

Bill had started to get up again but stopped, his hands on his thighs. He drew a deep breath. “You know, Giles, old mate, I’d love to, but—”

“You’re very busy, yadda, yadda,” Giles teased. “You would, but you can’t . . . yadda, yadda.” Giles shook his head. “Always the same story.” Then his face changed, and his tone became more serious. Genuinely serious. “But if you don’t,” Giles continued, “I fear there will be a lot of deaths—starvation . . . lots of starvation. And riots.” He paused. “We’ve both seen what that can do to a people.”

Bill nodded gravely, considering his options. “Tell me,” he said after a moment, “are you still hanging with that Estarian girl . . . what was her name . . .? Alice?”

“Arlene,” Giles corrected. “And yes.”

“Did you marry her?”

“Fuck me! NOOOooooo!” Giles retorted, choking as he swallowed some liquor back the wrong way.

“Did anyone else?” Bill’s face was still intensely serious.

“OMG!” Giles exclaimed in his best valley-girl accent. “What is it with everyone courting Arlene? I can’t take her anywhere without some old guy hitting on her!”

“There have been oth—” Bill started saying, then interrupted himself. “Hey, less of the old! Else we’ll have to rethink this whole deal.”

Giles chuckled. “Look, you go and make this happen, and I’ll make arrangements for us to get back to Mallifrax-8. And if it’ll hurry you up any, you should know that Arlene is there looking after a young girl . . . not her own, I might add . . . but this leaves her vulnerable. The sooner we get back, the better.”

Bill was already up, bobbing his head like he understood. “So if I care a jot for Arlene, I’ll move my ass . . .”

Giles clicked his fingers as he took another sip. “Exactly!”

“Alice,” he muttered under his cup, shaking his head.

Bill disappeared out of the door, this time with a certain spring in his step. Giles chose to believe it was because he had a deal in the mix, as that had always been Bill’s drug of choice.












CHAPTER FIFTEEN


Ore Laboratories, Mining facility, Mallifrax-8

Voyved wandered back out to the settlement with Anne in tow. “If Arlene the Terrible doesn’t know you’re out here, I’d make a point of getting home before her.”

Anne scuffed her feet as she walked. “Yeah. You’re right. Last thing I want is her on my case about anything else.”

Voyved looked up at the mountain side. “So you have to walk all the way back up there?”

She nodded. “I’ll be fine. I’m used to this kind of thing.”

His top eye snapped to her suddenly. “You mean evading your guardians?”

Anne smiled. “Amongst other things,” she admitted.

“Heh! I knew the second I laid eyes on you, you were a live one!”

Anne giggled.

“Sure you’re going to be ok?”

“Yeah. I’ll be fine. I just wanna have a wander around here before I climb back up . . . if that’s ok?”

“Sure. You want company?”

“No. You’ve already been too kind, and I realize I’ve taken you away from your work.”

“No, no . . . it was a welcome break.” He turned back to look at the mine. “But if you’re sure you’re going to be ok, I’ll get back.”

Again with the nervousness, she noticed. Maybe these guys were just really anxious about production?

The unlikely pair said their goodbyes and left each other with a promise to see the other again soon. Voyved hurried back in the direction he’d come and Anne wandered back into the middle of the settlement.

It looked smaller now, and less of a confusion of activity now she understood how it all worked.

The docking area was still a mystery to her though. She found herself idly wandering over to it, as if she were a comet caught by the gravitational pull of a star.

On her approach she could see many Queegerts in uniform. Some were loitering in groups, others bustling with crates with symbols on it.

Something about it all felt off. Menacing even. And she couldn’t resist.

Careful to stay hidden, she scooted around to the side of the structure and made her way closer, trying to figure out what was going on.

If this were just a shuttle bay, it would be transporting people and ore back and forth. But there wasn’t any ore around. At least not now. Just lots of these crates . . . which seemed quite different from anything used in the mines. They were higher tech. Sleeker. And—

Holy shit!

She clamped her hand over her mouth and retreated back behind her column so as not to be seen. Catching her breath, she calmed her mind before cautiously peering back around to see if her eyes were deceiving her.

Nope. Nope they weren’t. That crate was open, and that guard was definitely checking a blaster.

It didn’t matter what world you were from, that kind of shit did damage. And she guessed if they had that many crates of the things, they planned to do a lot of damage.

She felt the panic rising in her chest, threatening to reach her throat and strangle her with silent fingers. Her mind raced. Voyved was going to be in danger. She was in danger too if she got caught.

What should she do? She didn’t have time to think. She needed to get out of there. If they saw her, there was no way they’d be letting her go. Not after she’d seen this.

This can’t be normal day-to-day mining . . .

Quietly and moving slow enough to not draw attention, she crept further into the shadows and back around the side of the building. She pressed herself hard against the wall, willing her brain to focus. But it was churning. And distracted. Like there was a huge machine kind of overriding her inner voice. She couldn’t hear herself think. Then she realized . . . it was a machine she could hear.

Looking up, she saw an enormous mechanical robot thing, with arms and legs built several times the size of a man.

It’s mining equipment. It’s mining equipment . . . she told herself, trying not to scream. It can’t see me. She cowered, her legs giving way underneath her. If I don’t move it won’t see me.

Her heart was in her mouth. Her veins were flooded with adrenaline. She felt sick. As in fight or flight sick. Her cold, sweaty hands slipped in the grime against the metal wall she’d planted herself against. She thought she was going to pass out.

The machine turned and raised an arm. A second later, something exploded further up the valley. Mining equipment or no, this thing was lethal.

Anne scurried away from it and found herself behind one of the huts. The Queegerts in uniform were casually assembling outside the shuttle area, regarding the machine like a pet they’d trained.

They’re behind this, she realized. They’re arming themselves . . . but for what? Against the miners? Why would they want to kill the miners? Unless, this was why Razeene and Voyved were nervous. What were they up to?

The machine, now several yards away from her, turned again to face her direction.

Anne’s heart leaped into her throat again, feeling its sensors scanning her very fabric and locking onto her. It hasn’t seen me. I’m overreacting, she told herself, willing her legs to move. They were like jelly.

Almost as if between thoughts, somehow she was aware of herself moving from behind one hut to the next. And then the next, and the next . . . each time putting more and more distance between her and the docking bay.

She looked up at the hillside. She’d be too exposed. They’d see her.

And then what about her friends? She had to warn them . . .


Aboard the Scamp Princess, Phoenix-Delta Outpost


Giles had headed back to the ship, with Bill agreeing to follow just as soon as he’d managed to pack a bag.

Giles collapsed into his pilot’s seat in the cockpit. “So,” he was explaining to Scamp, “we have the sales of the ore sorted, but now we need to replace the equipment or have a mining company buy the Gilmurry folks out.”

Scamp’s image was on-screen to one side of Giles’s console. “I understand, but where are we going to find such a company?” he asked.

Giles wracked his brains. “You know . . . Bill probably knows someone . . . but we don’t want both sides of this transaction controlled by the same party. Else we’re back where we started.” He scratched his head. “Any chance we can get hold of Oz and find out?”

“Let me see if I can interface with him.”

Scamp’s screen went blank. Giles shifted round in his chair, making sure the cockpit was presentable enough to have his old friend on board. He glanced around. Everything looked . . . normal.

Scamp’s image returned. “Ok. I’ve made contact with Oz. He came up with the idea of reaching out to Dr. Brahms . . . one of the scientists Molly’s team rescued about a year ago. He thinks the company he works for might have the right profile for what we’re looking for. He’s going to track him down. I’m confident that by the time we get back to Mallifrax we’ll have that tied up in principle, at least.”

Giles felt his insides relax. “That’s . . . great! Excellent work, both of you.”

Scamp’s visual representation raised an eyebrow at him comically.

Giles coughed, spluttering with unexpected laughter. “What? Was that patronizing?” he asked, embarrassed.

“A little,” Scamp responded flatly. “But it’s ok. I know to you, we’re mere computers. Ones and zeros.”

Giles leaned forward, nearly falling off his chair in his bumbling state. “Please, Scamp. No. You’re far more than that. I’m truly grateful for your help.” His mind whirred, wondering if this awareness was entirely . . . natural.

Just then, there was a thump at the door, then a shuffle. “Only me!” came Bill’s voice. Moments later, he appeared in the cockpit. “I’ve just left my bag out there. That’s alright, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes of course,” Giles grunted, trying to get his thoughts in order.

Bill continued, plonking himself into the chair next to him. “I’ve left Trixie here holding the fort. Not that she’ll be much use . . . but still—eyes and ears.” He fiddled with his collar and outer atmosjacket, rubbing at his cheek. “Damn, Lolita. I bet she’s put lipstick on me,” he gruffed. “Didn’t want to let me go…”

Giles surveyed the atmosuit his friend wore. It was saggy in a few areas and worn in others. It also looked like it was a size too tight around his middle. He smiled. “Don’t get out much these days?”

“What makes you say that?”

“Nothing.”

Bill was distracted by the harness. “How do you do up these things?”

Giles rolled his eyes. “As I was saying . . . been a while since you got off the station perhaps?”

Bill glared at him just as the Scamp Princess’s engines shuddered as they powered up. Giles carefully showed him how to adjust the harness and lock it down ready for takeoff. Moments later, the ship disconnected from the docking bay and edged backwards away from the station and back out into open space.

Once they were free, Giles got up and went rummaging for some Yoll whiskey, figuring if Bill had had a few, he wouldn’t notice how quickly they managed to get from one system to the other. Last thing he needed was someone as shrewd and connected as Bill finding out about the ship-bound Gate technology.


Docking bay, surface of Mallifrax-8


Arlene emerged from the shuttle and was ushered out of the dock briskly by random personnel. She wondered if the security people had issued a warning just to get her away from the operation.

 But then, something else had changed while she’d been on the ship. There was an air of efficiency. Tension. Perhaps, even apprehension. About what, she couldn’t fathom.

She headed out of the docking area, noticing that there were no longer any signs of ore. Or miners. Just security personnel with blasters, self-organizing into troops and moving crates of equipment around.

She kept walking, careful to not draw attention to herself or look too interested. Last thing she wanted was anyone stopping her from leaving. Especially after she’d just done some serious damage to their colleagues up there.

Still, in the back of her mind she wondered what on Estaria could be happening for stopping her to not be a priority. It’s like they hadn’t even gotten a call from the board room . . . and she definitely left most of them alive.

Approaching the settlement, her eyes scanned the hutted area, looking for signs of normality. There wasn’t a soul to be seen. No Queegerts anywhere.

That’s when she turned her head to look down the valley away from the mines. There was an assembly of security personnel lined up in neat, tidy boxes of tin soldiers. And three enormous Mechs.

War! she realized.

The Mechs were lined up, pointing towards the mines, but for the moment, they seemed to be powered down. That meant they were still in preparation stages.

She felt a presence behind her. Turning, she was relieved to see Razeene and Bokmom.

“Hey boys—what’s going on?” she asked. “You’re not stirring up—”

She didn’t get to accuse them of picking a fight they could never win. Before the words left her lips, Bokmom produced an electrical cattle prod and stunned her. Hard.

She felt a blinding pain. Then everything went black.


Aboard the Scamp Princess, Ferrai Quadrant, nearing Mallifrax-8


Bill sat collapsed back in the console chair where he had originally seated himself, his atmosjacket flung over the console as if it too had been drinking for the last hour.

Giles smiled, knowing full well that the bottle he’d selected was spiked with the equivalent of Yoll vodka as well, making it super strong.

Bill’s head lolled back, blissfully relaxed in what Giles suspected was probably the best sleep he’d had in a while. Just then, he snorted, waking himself a little. Scratching his nose, he rolled over, restricted by his harness, before settling into an even deeper sleep.

Scamp’s image appeared on Giles’s right-hand holoscreen in front of him. “Ok. We’ve located the person you need to speak to. He’s Brahms’s boss’s boss.”

Giles mapped the relationship in his brain, making sure he understood. “Ok, great. And he understands what we want to do?”

“We’ve briefed him. But he wants to see who he’ll be working with.”

“Sounds like my kind of chap. Ok. Patch him through.”

Scamp disappeared from the console and flicked up a new holoscreen showing an older gentleman against a cityscape backdrop. The man was Estarian it seemed, and he looked like he harkened back to the olden days when people wore a certain type of atmosuit in the office. Giles tried to place the background behind him but couldn’t.

“Greetings, good sir!” Giles chirped. “I hear you may be the answer to our problems?”

The gentleman smiled. “Well, happy to help out mining communities where I can. Just want to make sure it’s the right situation for us. You know . . . a good match, as they say.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” Giles smiled. “So I understand you’ve had a general brief about what we’re proposing?”

The two men talked. It turned out that the boss’s boss was working off a planet somewhere in the Federation, but he knew of the Sark System where Brahms had met the Sanguine Squadron. Turned out, he’d even had him over for dinner so he could regale him and his wife of his harrowing adventure.

“Well, Mr. Woodward,” Giles concluded, “you’re sounding fairly positive about the proposal.”

“Indeed, I am. I think it’ll be a nice way to do some good in that corner of the galaxy. . . and indeed, we may even be able to make some money from it long term.” He moved away to check some details on his holoscreen. “Looks like we could probably get some equipment there in a couple of months. Unless the MacKegans just want us to take over the lease and buy them out.” He came back to the camera. “Either way is good for me. We’ve done both before.”

Giles visibly relaxed. “Oh, great. Ok, this is good. I didn’t realize this was something that went on . . .”

“Buying and selling leases and options on equipment? Oh, yeah… just like any other market. Perfectly normal . . . as long as it makes good business sense,” Woodward explained.

“Well, excellent. I’ll have you hooked up with my contact over there, and we’ll go from there.”

“Excellent. Mr. Kurns, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”

“Likewise, Mr. Woodward. Likewise.”

And with that the call disconnected and Scamp’s face came back up on the console screen. “Jeez. Listening to you two is like a very dull version of something out of Jane Austen.”

Giles frowned, racking his brain for the reference. “Austen?”

Scamp rolled zirs eyes. “Nevermind, I see my sense of humor is wasted here . . .”

Giles laughed out loud despite his concerns.

Bill, next to him, stirred again and opened his eyes. “Mhhuuu?” he grunted. “What did I miss?”

Giles settled himself down. “Oh, not much. Just the bit where we found the missing piece to the puzzle so that your guys can continue mining and make you a shit-ton of money.”

“Moh. Oh, good,” he mumbled, before closing his eyes again.

“Great,” Giles said quietly. “Ok, Scamp, take us into orbit as soon as we get within range. I’m going to washup and get ready for whatever we need to face down there.”

“Righty-ho!” Scamp called after him as Giles get to his feet and ambled out of the cockpit. “You may want to rehydrate your friend before we land, too. Just in case you need him to be functional.”

“Kay . . .” Giles called back from halfway down the ship.












CHAPTER SIXTEEN


Inside the Logan den, Mallifrax-8 Mines

The den was dark compared to the light levels outside. The single exposed bulb swung idly from side to side on its makeshift hook.

Arlene didn’t know where she was. Only that her head hurt like a motherfucker.

“Holy shit in a fuck storm of android piss . . .” Arlene muttered, finding her mouth faster than her eyes.

“Guys . . . she’s waking up.” It was Bokmom’s voice. It was slightly anxious. It was the voice of a man who had a tiger caged and was safe for now but was very aware that tigers can jump fences and break cages.

“Good,” Razeene chuffed.

She heard a dragging sound. Probably a chair, because when she opened her eyes and looked up, she saw Razeene arms-length from her, leaning on the back of the chair, facing her. His skinny legs were spread one either side of the seat.

Classic mistake, she thought, remembering all the drills she’d been through on being taken hostage.

She smirked at him. “You’re feeling real cocky right now, eh? Got yourself an Estarian to torment . . . but what you don’t realize is that you have bigger fish to fry. They’re coming for you, and I’ll bet it’s because you did something stupid.” Her rouse started working fast.

Razeene began vibrating with anger, though he was trying to keep his cool so he could be a wise-ass. “Well well boys,” he said, turning awkwardly, trying to bring his friends into the conversation. “It speaks! The traitor speaks!”

Arlene noticed Voyved standing anxiously by the door as if he didn’t want to be a part of what was going down. “What are you talking about? Traitor?” she asked, more irritated than afraid.

“Don’t deny it. You’re working with Gilmurry. We saw you going in to one of his shuttles . . . like you owned the place. Obviously, he sent you down here to try and stop us from revolting. He leaned closer, menace in his eyes. “Well you failed. We’ve been arming up for days, and now we’re an army.”

“Army?” she scoffed. “You’re barely an annoyance! If you saw those Mechs and that army assembling out there, you’d know you don’t stand a chance. They’re going to wipe you out in an instant. Why do you think they’re taking their time?”

“They’re delaying. We’re the oncoming storm.”

Arlene overtly rolled her eyes. “They’re sitting out there making tea and tidying up their ore so that it makes it easier when they send the cleanup crew in.”

She watched his third eye flicking from left to right as he thought about what she was saying. “I’m telling you, they’re protecting the materials they’ve gathered, tidying it away, and then they’re coming for you,” she repeated.

Razeene was looking shaken. “Yeah? And then who is going to mine the ore for them?”

Bokmom clicked his homemade cattle prod threateningly.

Arlene rolled her eyes at the pair of them. “The next ship full of dumb schmucks they bring in on the promise of the Logan dream, of course.”

His mind churned. What he didn’t notice was that all the time they were speaking, Arlene was quietly working behind her back to loosen her restraints.

They hadn’t taken any chances. Her ankles were strapped to the chair legs, and her hands tightly restrained around her back. Probably with some kind of industrial ties they had lying around here. There was no way even she was getting loose without help. Despite her bravado, she was screwed.

Fuck . . . I need quiet to burn through these things, she thought. Or a knife. Her eyes darted around. Or a laser tool. She carefully took in what was in the room, using her peripheral vision so as not to tip off any of the other nine eyes in the room.

She was coming up empty. One last resort.

“Ok, here’s the deal. I’m going to put the cattle prod and hostage thing down to you, being stupid and scared . . . IF you untie me right now and let me figure out how to fix this shit you’ve got everyone into.” Her voice was even. Commanding.

“If you don’t,” she continued, “I’m going to rain all colors of hell on you, and you’ll wish not only that you didn’t pull such a fucking dumb ass stunt, but that you’d never been conceived by your ugly mothers!”

Silence fell on the room.

Razeene shifted awkwardly. Bokmom watched, waiting for the reactions of the other two to follow their lead.

Arlene could feel her heart beating.

Razeene got up and shuffled back. Then he smirked.

Shit. He’s not going for it. 

“Taze her!” he ordered Bokmom.

Bokmom moved towards her, switching the prod on and off, showing her the raw, pulsing charge. He grinned, sadistically. “You don’t get to talk about my Mom like that . . .” he said quietly, moving in on her.

“What the fuck’s going on?” an Estarian voice interrupted.

Anne stood in the doorway, horrified. Her eyes went straight to Voyved in a look of utter betrayal. “I thought you were my friends?”

Razeene wheeled around on her. “This isn’t your fight, little girl. Go back to your playpen.” He smirked arrogantly and turned back to Arlene.

Arlene looked strangely serene. Despite the fact that she’d just heard Anne use an f-bomb. Her serenity, however, should’ve been a clue to the Queegert. But as Arlene kept having to remind herself—Queegerts. Not. That. Smart. 

Suddenly, the atmosphere in the room thickened with energy, and the light started to flicker. Anne’s horror turned to anger, which quickly turned to fury. Intense Estarian fury.

It started as a hum in the wiring in the room and got louder and louder. The light bulb suddenly exploded as if supercharged with a million volts.

The hum turned to a rumble through the whole cavern, and the Queegerts looked at each other in terror. They knew how deep they were. They knew how easy it was for mines to collapse. But it was already too late.

They turned to see the young Estarian, her eyes ablaze with power and raw emotion. A whirlwind had started around her. She raised her hands, looking at them with strange wonderment at what was happening.

Bokmom moved towards her, his cattle prod ready to do some damage. Anne saw him coming, and in an instant, the charge was like someone pushed up the handle to electrocute the holder.

Bokmom fell back, his hand fused and gripping the weapon that shocked him continuously. His body convulsed on the floor.

Voyved was already through the door and running through the tunnel as fast as his inadequate legs would carry him.

Anne headed towards Arlene. “Need some help?” she asked casually.

Arlene smiled. “Wish I had a fireball to get through these bounds,” she said.

Anne grinned. She pulled her hands up together the way Arlene had shown her, and without any effort at all, produced an orange and red flaming fireball between her hands.

Arlene nodded, impressed. “Ok, now tune the frequency to the frequency of the bands.”

Anne scrunched her face up in concentration, her tongue slipping out of the side of her mouth.

Arlene’s voice spoke quietly to her, half through sound and half in her mind. “Ok, now place the fireball in my direction. It won’t hurt me at that frequency . . .”

Anne did as she was instructed, her hair still getting in her face from the whirlwind of emotion and energy that was filling the den.

A second later, the fireball moved forward from her hands and enveloped Arlene. And then it dissipated. The wind stopped. The crackling and humming in the wiring stopped. The rumbling stopped.

Arlene got up. Her bounds fell away from her as she moved. Turning, she saw a petrified Razeene pointing a rifle at them. It was Arlene’s turn to be enraged.

In one swift crescent kick, she knocked the rifle out of his hands. That would’ve been enough, but she was now piiiiissed. He’d had his warning. Now it was time for him to know what he was really dealing with.

The sounds of cries and screams echoed through the mines, all the way to the main tunnel. A panting Voyved slowed his pace, then had to stop, fighting against a stitch that was searing his abdomen. He listened to the screams of pain of his former friend.

Maybe Arlene the Terrible was an appropriate name for her after all, he thought grimly.


Inside the Logan den, Mallifrax-8 Mines


Razeene lay alive, barely conscious and in lots of pain.

Turns out, their hard exteriors weren’t so hard that a good kicking couldn’t get through to their softer innards.

Arlene casually wiped the blood off on her pants. “Ugh,” she grunted in disdain. “Hope this comes out.”

Anne stepped forward. “I’d talk to Molly. She has some tricks she’s developed for that.”

Then without warning or ceremony, she stepped forward to the spread-eagled Queegert, and with one swift kick, belted him in the gonads.

“AGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

The scream rang out through the tunnels again.

Arlene bobbed her head to one side, impressed. “Didn’t think he was conscious enough to scream.”

Anne wasn’t done. She stepped over his leg and looked him in the one eye that wasn’t swollen closed. “That’s for fucking with my friend.”

Razeene looked like he was going to say something but then lost the will and went limp.

Arlene recognized the transition in him. “Ah. There we go. Now he’s done. We still have the bigger problem of the invading army to deal with.”

Anne’s terror returned to her eyes. “What are we going to do? How do we stop them?”

Arlene shook her head, picking up the blaster off the floor, before leading the way out. “No idea. This isn’t my area. I’m normally in and out before this kinda shit goes down.” She cocked the blaster by holding it by the shaft and shaking it abruptly downwards. It buzzed to life, and she slung it casually over her shoulder.

Anne followed. Carefully.


Mallifrax-8, Mines


Anne and Arlene emerged from the tunnel, exhausted.

Anne started to step out into the natural light, but Arlene immediately put her arm up to stop Anne from advancing any further.

Anne peered out, trying to see past her guardian. Her jaw dropped as she surveyed the scene ahead of them. The mining Queegerts, the Logans, were fighting with little more than brooms and blaster-like weapons they’d cobbled together from equipment they’d been able to get hold of.

“What now?” she asked, utterly dismayed.

“Now,” Arlene responded with a matter-of-fact tone, “we need to stop a war.”

Just ahead of them, this side of the encampment, the Logans were assembling, carrying homemade cattle prods and various kinds of blasters and flame throwers. They had the air and organization not of an army, but that of an angry mob.

“Dumb fucks,” Arlene chuffed. “They’re going to get themselves killed.”

And then she noticed what was happening on the other side of the settlement. The army that she’d seen gathering was now mobilized and heading their way.

“We’re soooo fucked,” she muttered under her breath.

Anne brought her back to the immediate problem. “What do we do? Run?”

Arlene shook her head and pulled the blaster off her shoulder. “No. You run,” she instructed firmly. “Run as fast as you can and get back to the cabin and wait for Giles. I’m going to see what I can do here.” She turned to stare down the defiant adolescence. “GO! That’s an order, else you’re never coming on one of these missions again.”

Anne’s eyes lit up. “Does that mean if I do as I’m told, I can come again?”

Arlene glared at her. “GO!”

Relenting, but knowing she had the ammunition to fight that argument another day, Anne scampered off towards the hillside to hide in the undergrowth and find a way to safety.

Arlene turned her attention on the Queegerts and marched forward into their midst. By the time she reached them, two of the Mechs had started advancing with a wave of the uniformed personnel.

Without announcing herself or asking permission, Arlene flew into the battle with the rifle, her fists, very effective feet, and her fireballs, which she used strategically when she could.

One uniformed Queegert after another fell in her wake.

Blood squirted, flew and glugged out of various wounds and orifices, one body after another.

Covered in blood and sweat, her blaster failing to charge after several minutes, she reverted to using it as a stick, thwacking and thumping anything that came close to her.

Other Logans, realizing she was on their side, rallied behind her, feeding uniforms her way and letting her destroy the ones they couldn’t.

It was exhausting. She operated like a machine. But they just kept coming.

Between losing her blaster in taking out two Queegerts and being thrown a cattle prod by a supporter, she glanced up to see what felt like a sea of more uniforms heading her way.

Someone’s obviously realized I’m the biggest threat to their resources, she noted.

And that was when she saw them. Not only were the Queegerts coming at her, but so were the two Mechs, with the third one just mobilizing on the other side of the settlement.

Oh shiiiiiiit!

She paused, almost getting her head knocked off by a lunging Queegert. She swerved, allowing him to fall past her . . . straight onto a butterfly kick.

But the legions and Mechs kept coming.

She put her hands together to summon a fireball. If I can hit one leg on each of them, then I could knock them over, she thought.

Their movements were controlled by organics of course, but within their motion, they had hundreds, if not thousands, of balance correction routines and algorithms to make it impossible for them to fall.

She strategically chose to forget that though. Hope does that to a girl.

She focused her attention as best she could . . .  but she had moments before a sword-wielding Queegert was going to be upon her, and she needed to defend herself.

She closed her eyes for a moment and prayed. Prayed that some great spirit or ancestor might take pity on her and allow her to conjure an extra-powerful fireball. Just. This. Once . . . she prayed.

She opened her eyes and looked down at her hands. Nothing. FUCK. 

She looked up, the two Mechs now within crushing distance of her.

She thought briefly, they could’ve blasted her already by now. Why not crush her?

And just then, as she prepared to surrender to her own impending death, one of the Mechs turned, wobbled, and then bitch slapped the other, causing it to fall backwards.

Arlene’s mouth dropped open. Stunned, she couldn’t move. But that was her chance.

Gathering herself, she put her hands together again, trying to conjure the fireball to take the other out.

“Don’t shoot!” Giles’s voice came through her audio implant.

“What?”

“Don’t shoot. I mean, fireball. It’s me. In the Mech.” The Mech that was still standing bowed its head to reveal Giles in the cockpit.

“Holy crap!” Arlene exclaimed, high on adrenaline and relief. “What the—?”

Giles wore his cocky expression as if he’d lived his high school years as a confident jock. “Scamp managed to override their communications and eject the former occupant. I thought it’d be fun to give it a go . . . after all not everyda—”

“In the middle of a war zone?” Arlene chastised him, her hands going straight to her hips. “Do you really thin—”

A blaster shot in her direction. She ducked and rolled before making a suggestion. “Let’s do this somewhere safer. Any ideas of bringing this to an end?”

“Yes, Scamp is just working on powering down the other Mech and issuing a retreat command.”

“Good show, Scamp!” Arlene muttered, picking up a discarded cattle prod and turning and using it as a staff to protect herself from being hit with the butt of a soldier’s blaster. “Take that!” she grunted, stabbing her attacker squarely through the chest.

The Queegert staggered backwards, his shell penetrated by the cattle prod. He coughed up a splattering of blood, then collapsed on the floor.

“Will that work?” she checked with Giles.

“Should do,” he replied casually, turning his Mech back the other way. “And if it doesn’t, I think I might just stick around and have some fun. You know . . . these things have blasters.” He fired a blaster shot out into the crowd of advancing security guards, who scattered and then started to retreat.

Wheeling round again, he turned to see Arlene’s expression. Arlene raised a single eyebrow and turned to head back up the hill.

“Oh, wait, hang on, Arlene,” Giles called through their comm channel.

She stopped and turned, motioning with her arms a kind of what now gesture.

“Don’t suppose you could help me take a selfie in this thing . . . only . . .” He tried to bring his arms up to get his holo in a selfie position. “It’s kinda tight in here.”

Arlene shook her head and began walking away. “Scamp?” she called. “What’s your location?”

“Good to hear you, Arlene,” Scamps voice chimed in her implant. “I’m just homing in on your position. Be there in a second. I imagine you’ll want a lift back up that hillside.”

“I’d say,” Arlene responded, keeping her wits about her for stray blaster shots as she picked her way over the devastation of bodies she’d left from before the cavalry arrived.

“Could do with finding Anne, too,” she added. “She won’t have gotten far.”












CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


Inside the Royal Settlement, Mallifrax-8

“Ok, that’s the last of it,” Arlene declared handing a box to Bill.

Bill chuckled to himself, taking the box from her. “Wow, you really do travel light.”

Arlene shot him a playful glare, which he tried to surrender to and put his hands up . . . only to be hindered by the box he was carrying. The two laughed as Bill carried the crate out and loaded it onto the Scamp.

Arlene followed him out. “Where’d Giles go?”

Anne was sitting on the decking, eating some leftover soup that needed using before they left. She pointed her spoon in the direction of the Mech.

Arlene rolled her eyes.

Moving around the side of the Scamp Princess, she could see what was going on. Giles, once again, in the Mech, having hiked it up the mountainside—at great risk to himself and the machine—had managed to find a position where he could have his holo arm outside the control pod and still get both him and the Mech in frame.

Arlene glowered at him, hands on her hips. “We’re busting our asses out here trying to get packed up to go home, and you’re taking . . . selfies?”

Giles grinned at the camera, talking back to Arlene through his selfie face. “Just wanted to get a good shot in for Molly. She’d never believe me otherwise.”

Arlene rolled her eyes. “I’m sure she’d believe you . . . I mean, you do have to write reports on this, right?” Arlene folded her arms and sighed. “I think the bigger question is, does she care?”

Giles stopped and looked at her.

“About whether you got a good picture of it or not,” Arlene qualified. “I mean, obviously she’d care about whether you . . . erm . . . saved the day or not.” She closed her eyes, shaking her head almost imperceivably, before walking away. Getting embroiled in the Molly-Giles or M-Giles drama wasn’t high on her priorities right now.

“Ok, Anne,” she called, clapping her hands. “Let’s get that washed up, and then we’ll be ready to go.”

Anne ignored her and was now chatting with Bill, animatedly recounting the events of the previous day when she’d valiantly kicked a Queegert in the balls.

Kids, she thought to herself . . . including Giles in the category. Why do I even bother?

She mounted the stairs to the ship’s cockpit. At least Scamp listens to me. 


Mining Settlement, Mallifrax-8


Arlene and Giles strode across the sandy terrain of the mining colony to meet with the Logans who’d survived the rebellion. Scamp had insisted on landing as close to the settlement as possible to ensure they had adequate cover in case anything went wrong.

“Nothing’s going to go wrong,” Arlene insisted, patting the weapon strapped to her right thigh.

Bill eyed her carefully, but Anne was sure she’d clocked a degree of admiration in his demeanor. Anne had been instructed to stay on the ship, but had followed a few paces behind the pair, regardless.

Giles and Arlene approached the gathering crowd of Logans, just ahead of the settlement. Voyved and The Shepherd were at the front, awaiting their arrival. As they stepped closer, the crowd erupted in a cheer.

“Man, they’re ugly when they smile. Is that really their custom?” Arlene whispered through her teeth.

“I don’t think so,” Giles whispered back. “I think this is something they’ve heard about from us humans and Estarians.”

“I think it’s sweet!” Anne piped up.

Arlene spun around. “Young lady! I thought—”

Anne held her hands up in surrender. “I’ll be good. I promise.”

Arlene gritted her teeth and kept walking towards the Queegerts, wearing her own false smile. “I swear, that girl . . . does she even realize we’re trying to keep her safe, not punish her?”

Giles patted her gently on her arm and waved at their greeters.

“Greetings, greetings,” The Shepherd called as they came into earshot. “Our gracious saviors. We’re so thankful to your service to our colony. Come,” he beckoned them into the settlement.

The people followed all around them. Arlene recognized Voyved, who stepped towards her, bowing as best he could. “My lady, please accept my deepest apologies for what my friends did to you.”

He started to look up and caught Anne’s eye. Anne rushed forward to Arlene’s side. “I don’t believe that he was the instigator,” she said quietly, nudging Arlene’s elbow.

“Yeah, but he stood by and kept watch,” she replied through gritted teeth.

Anne nudged her again. “I know. But I don’t think he was really in on it. I believe him. He was my friend. He looked after me when . . . when I was lost.”

Arlene felt Anne was keeping something from her, but it wasn’t the time to press her. Instead, she bowed slightly to Voyved. “Well, then I think we can call us even,” she said as graciously as she could manage.

Voyved’s relief was palpable. “Thank you. Thank you . . .” he said, bowing as he retreated. Anne followed him as the grownups talked.

Giles was already being introduced to the crowd and had started addressing them. “What went on here a few days ago is inexcusable. The way you’ve been treated is inexcusable. The losses you’ve suffered have been . . . horrific. And my deepest sympathies go out to you and your families.”

Anne watched, mesmerized as the crowd settled, also hypnotized by his words.

“The fact is that, this regime you’ve been living under has got to change. You deserve better. And thanks to the generosity of a number of people, I’m here to announce a solution. Your Crown has approved these changes, safeguarding your lives and your livelihoods for as long as these mines can offer etheriam.”

The crowd cheered.

Anne glanced up at Arlene to see if she was equally impressed . . .… or at least surprised at how eloquently their doddery professor was addressing the audience. Arlene seemed pleased with the outcome. But not in the least taken aback.

Giles’s voice rang through the settlement, the pitch and passion welling and moving the Queegerts around him as he explained the new setup.

Meanwhile, Bill had emerged from the ship and was wandering over . . . almost as if his appearance had been choreographed. As he arrived at Giles’s side, Giles put his arm around him.

“This man, my former mentor and friend, is here to help. He has ensured that your etheriam will be bought at a fair price. A price that will mean it can be sold, but also at a price which will allow you to continue your work in comfort. It will afford you enough so that you can save for your future. And your dreams. Values that both Logans and us humans hold dear.” Giles paused and winked at Arlene. “I think even Estarians are pretty keen on the idea, too.”

The crowd rumbled with laughter.

Giles continued to speak to them, explaining that their equipment may change ownership and that rent will eventually be paid to the new company. “This new outfit will charge you market rates. It will be competitive. It’ll have to be . . . because otherwise, Your Crown will be free to bring someone else in. And all this is possible because you’ll no longer be held to ransom by a single entity.”

Arlene rolled her lips, wondering if his explanation was falling on deaf or even indifferent ears.

Anne nudged her. “What is it?” she asked.

Arlene squatted down to explain to Anne. “This is a great model,” she said quietly, “but I’m just concerned that if these folks don’t understand it and don’t understand why these various elements are important, in a few decades it’s not going to matter.”

Anne frowned. “So you mean, they need educating?”

Arlene grinned, suddenly realizing that would be the simple solution. “You’re smarter than you let on, eh?” she said, rubbing Anne’s arm gently as she stood up. “How about you and I talk to The Crown about that when we say goodbye later?”

Anne nodded, finally feeling like Arlene was accepting her as a person and not just an inconvenience.

Giles’s speech went on a while longer and was met with a rousing applause. There were celebrations and dancing to drums, and Bill met with a few of the community leaders before promising to return with his men when they came to set up the distribution node by the mine.

“Right then,” Giles said, rubbing his hands together. “We have another meeting to attend to,” he explained to The Shepherd as he took their leave. The four of them waved like royalty as they left the settlement and headed back to the Scamp Princess.

“Well, that went better than expected,” Arlene chuffed as they walked back in a line side by side.

Giles glanced at her sideways. “Oh, yeah? Had your doubts, did you?”

Anne chirped up. “Yeah. I did! It was touch and go as to whether Arlene was going to kill that Queegert.”

Arlene put her arm around Anne’s shoulder. “No, no . . . come on. I would never kill someone in cold blood.”

Somehow, Anne wasn’t sure that she wasn’t being ironic. Her voice was laced with way more information than her deadpan expression was letting on. Anne narrowed her eyes to see Arlene return a tiny smile.

“Well,” Bill interjected, “I’m glad we didn’t have to get involved with more riots and the like. That can be a dreadfully unpleasant business.”

Arlene flashed him a smile. “And if you operate this place like we intend you to, you’ll never have to worry about that again!”

Bill grinned, pleased for her attention but also not completely sure that wasn’t a veiled threat. He nodded deferentially. “We’ll make sure of it,” he assured her, wiping his suddenly sweaty palms on his atmosuit pants.

Anne noticed and said nothing. She kinda liked Arlene sometimes—the way she can get things done . . .

They arrived back at the Scamp Princess and climbed the steps. Giles ushered them on. “All aboard!” he called. “One meeting down . . . two more to go . . .”

“This problem-solving lark is a lot of meetings!” Anne called down from the front of the line boarding the ship.

Giles chuckled. “Yes, it is,” he agreed, satisfied with the outcome.


Royal Crown Settlement, Mallifrax-8


It was late afternoon by the time the Kurns party arrived at The Crown Settlement for their appointment. The Crown had planned for them a meeting where Arlene and Giles would consult on the rewriting of the laws that would ensure that his citizens were protected from further commercial exploitation.

Anne sat quietly, listening across the room, while Bill had already excused himself to wait elsewhere, out of the way. Anne heard him mutter something about a room with a bar.

“There’s just one more thing I think we should consider, Your Highness,” Arlene ventured as they signed off on the final details.

The Crown waved his hand in a flourishing motion, inviting her to proceed. Arlene continued. “It occurred to me as we were informing the Logans of the new parties involved that . . . well, unless they understand things like the need for fair and adequate competition between their suppliers and the people they supply, for instance, the possibility always remains for them to vote in a new system or a new entity into the dynamic who could then exploit them again.”

The Crown moved awkwardly. Arlene got the sense he didn’t like the point she raised. “That could be said for anything though,” he grunted.

Arlene took a deep breath as discretely as she could. “Yes, Your Highness. However, with a little bit of understanding and education, if your people and indeed your advisers here understood some of these dynamics, you can avoid decades of pain and suffering and simply shortcut potential problems.”

The Crown frowned. “What are you proposing?”

“Well,” Arlene said, sitting back in her chair to relieve any pressure he might be experiencing from her. “There are a number of possibilities. Some of these things are well-researched and well-known in our world.” She indicated to Giles. “You see, we study just this in the context of academia and real-life situations, and there are some principles and case studies that are very useful in helping lots of people to understand the important things quickly.”

She paused and looked to Giles. Giles picked up where she left off. “Not only that but teaching people how to evaluate what’s being proposed and how to think critically isn’t just fundamental to your population acting in their own best interests. You’ll find that those skills are transferred seamlessly to their work. They begin to problem-solve and improve the processes they use. They become more engaged in making things work better. In making life better for themselves and those around them, they start to bond better as teams because they realize that they’re better when working together. The knock-on effects are, well . . . quite incredible.”

Giles pushed his glasses up on his nose, watching carefully as The Crown thought about it. “And how might they receive this information?”

Giles handed it back to Arlene. “Well, there are any number of ways. We work at an educational institution. We can have some of your best teachers come and attend there. Or we can send the information to you. I think a combination might be the most effective though.”

The Crown was silent for a few moments, and then became distracted. “I think it’s time for us to go and eat. But I like your proposal. In principle, we should make it happen. Be in touch with my aide, Quarg-nah.” He indicated the same dour-looking Queegert who’d attended their meeting last time when he assigned Rolf-nah to them. “He’ll organize the details.”

Arlene bowed her head in deference. “Thank you, Your Highness. You are indeed a wise ruler.”

Giles smiled, but didn’t try to have a dig at Arlene there. He understood the importance of this man’s ego in the process, and if anything, he respected Arlene for getting her own out of the way in order to appease him and do what was necessary for his people.

The Crown had already got up and shuffled across the room to the door. Giles winked his approval at Arlene’s result, and the pair followed The Crown out to the banquet halls.

Giles beckoned for Anne to come with them and ushered her out the door just ahead of him.

“Have their consort brought through from the library!” The Crown ordered to one of his people as he moved down the hallway to the main dining room.

Anne looked up at Giles. “I don’t think it was the library he went to!” she whispered.

Giles chuckled quietly. “Knowing Bill, no. Probably not . . .”

They headed into the banquet hall, following their host. It was quite a sight. The room was arranged much like their first visit, except everything was on a much grander scale.

Candles lined the floor of the room like tiny cheering fairies. The table was already being spread with food, and wine glasses were being filled as the last of the guests found their places. There was a hub of chatter and activity and an air of relief and celebration.

The Crown wandered over to his throne at the far end of the table, and Giles, Arlene, and Anne were ushered along to sit closest to him. An empty seat next to Arlene awaited Bill.

Ting, ting, ting . . . 

The Crown had sat down briefly, only to stand up again and call the banquet to a start. “My fine fellow Queegerts!” he called out as hush fell upon the party assembled.

There was a creak at the door and Bill appeared. Heads turned to see the already-schozzled human bow awkwardly, begging their forgiveness for the interruption. He quietly walked around the periphery of the room to the empty seat next to Arlene.

The Crown continued. “We are gathered here today to give our thanks to the brave souls who came down out of the sky to help us in our plight against elements that would want to exploit us. They, in their wisdom, have organized an exciting program to ensure the safekeeping of our mines, our people, and our society.”

A round of applause and table-banging rippled around the room. The Crown waited for it to die down before he carried on. “Today we feast in celebration of our liberation.” He beckoned to someone at the back of the room. “And in recognition of our deepest thanks, please accept this small token of our appreciation for your efforts.”

One of the butlers appeared at his side with a cushion. Giles gasped, recognizing instantly the talisman as The Crown picked it up to present it to him. He stood, hands by his side, ready to receive the prize that they’d risked life and limb for in the past days.

Already, the guests had erupted into cheers and applause. Giles felt a sense of accomplishment, rising in his chest as the Crown stepped around the table to hand the talisman to him.

“Speech! Speech! Speech! Speech!” the party cheered.

Giles noticed across the table that little Anne’s face was awe-struck as she watched him receive the gift and the reaction of the Queegerts. It was the same look of admiration that he’d seen in his students’ eyes when he’d gone GI Giles on them back at the smoke-bomb incident.

Arlene wiped a tear from one eye, before turning away embarrassed and burying her face in a napkin behind Bill’s back.

Yes, this was the moment he’d been working towards. Yet deep down he felt an emptiness gnawing at his insides. Pushing it away, he grinned at the people cheering for him and cleared his throat to speak.

The Crown made a quieting motion with his hands before standing back a couple of feet, allowing Giles to address his court.

“Wow. Thank you doesn’t even begin to cover what this means to us.”  He indicated Arlene to include her. “Professor Arlene Bailey and I are humbled to receive this great honor. As you may’ve heard, we’ve dedicated our lives to the study of civilizations—what makes them work, what changes we can make when they don’t work . . . and so on. Very rarely do we find a group of people who are so willing and so able to act in the best interests of all its citizens. You, the Queegerts of Mallifrax-8, have done us a service in your tireless commitment to this common goal. And we are eternally grateful to you, as I’m sure are your subjects in the mines. Our greatest wish is for you to go on with this goal in mind and thrive.”

Another cheer erupted through the great dining hall.

“Thank you so much for this great gift,” he said, holding it up for them to see. “With this token, Arlene and I and my friends,” he gestured to Anne and Bill, “intend to continue our work in understanding more about how the numerous species across the ‘verse are related so we can create more harmony among us. Thank you.”

He sat down, relieved to no longer have to speak because the emotion of his own words was moving him to tears. The empty feeling was gone. As he spoke, he realized those words were true. That this was what it was really all about. The years of adventuring and seeking the high of danger wasn’t the true high he was seeking. It was just the driver that his mind at the time could latch on to.

He was vaguely aware of the banquet and chatter around him as people started to serve the food and eat. But internally, he was distracted by the sudden understanding that his true purpose lay somewhere in the mix of what he and Arlene had achieved here today.

The rest of the dinner went by like a blur, and much wine was drunk by everyone. Except Anne. Arlene made sure of that despite Anne’s protests that she looked younger than she actually was. Giles heard something about how they’d struck a deal in their training about when Anne was able to do such-and-such a thing, then she would be deemed mature enough to partake. He didn’t get the details.

Later, the party moved into a kind of drawing room where liquor was served, and music played. Giles noticed Anne entertaining some of the Queegerts who found her fascinating—even before she started her party tricks.

“Don’t blame me when she starts setting things on fire,” was the first he was aware of what was going on. Arlene had absolved herself from the responsibility.

Giles, who’d been deep in conversation with one of The Crown’s advisers, turned around to see Anne floating seven candles arranged like a Ferris wheel.

“Is that safe?” he asked Arlene, who was sitting in an armchair a few feet from him. Arlene raised her eyebrows and said nothing.

“Excuse me a moment,” Giles said to the advisor as he got up and headed over to the group that’d gathered around Anne. “Anne, dear, do you think you ought to be doing that?”

Anne grinned at him. “Why not?” she asked as innocently as she could.

“Because, erm . . . you tend to not be able to control . . . things.”

Anne waved a hand dismissively. One of the candles wavered in its movement before returning to its intended position in the floating Ferris wheel. “That was before,” she explained. “I’ve got this now . . .”

“Before what?” he asked, nervously pushing his glasses back on his face as he maneuvered around the group to see if he might catch the candles if she dropped them.

“Before Arlene was kidnapped and I had to save her ass.”

There were chuckles around the group of Queegerts and hushed whispers as they looked across at Arlene the Terrible.

“Come again?” Giles pressed.

“You know, when Arlene was kidnapped by those guys. I had to come in and help.” She pulled a face and lifted her hands in a claw-like gesture. “I went all grrrr with my energy thing, and boom, all of a sudden I have complete control.”

She stopped her Ferris wheel from turning and using a wave of her hands and likely a great deal of concentration, by her expression, put the candles down to rest on the patch of floor in front of her.

There were sighs of disappointment around her admirers.

Then without saying another word, she raised her hands again, bringing with it just the flames of the candles. Gasps rippled through the growing gathering. Even Arlene got up from her arm chair and wandered over.

“I really don’t think—” Giles started saying.

Just then Anne divided the flames each into two. Then two again, then again, and then suddenly rearranged them into a kind of sphere.

Applause erupted as the people watched, enchanted by her.

Then she waved her hand again, creating lines of light between some of the flames, which were now little tiny balls of fire.

Giles face dropped. “That’s a carbon-60 atom!” he exclaimed.

Anne nodded. “A bucky-ball!”

There was laughter around the group, coupled with applause.

Then Anne noticed Arlene. She was standing in the crowd, her hands on her hips. “And what about when something catches on fire accidentally?” she said, waving her hand around at the soft furnishings.

Anne lowered her eyes then opened her hands. “You mean like this?” The bucky ball morphed into a huge ball of fire that burned and expanded. Then disappeared with a woosh.

The crowd applauded again, and Anne reached for her tea and sat down.

Arlene shook her head and went back to her drink and conversation. Giles followed her.

“I’m not always going to be the bad guy on this, you know,” she warned him.

Giles picked up a fresh drink and sat next to her. “No, no, I know,” he said as somberly as he could. He took a sip of the drink. “But did you see what she did!” he added, the excitement escaping him.

Arlene eyed him sternly, then changed the subject.

Somehow, Giles knew this wasn’t the end of the conversation.












CHAPTER EIGHTEEN


Aboard the Scamp Princess, Royal Crown Settlement, Mallifrax-8

The next morning, Giles was up and about early. Arlene found him in the cockpit sipping his second mocha and analyzing data Scamp had been collecting. “You’re up early, considering how much you drank last night.”

Giles pulled his attention from his work and turned to look at her while taking another swig of mocha. “Yeah,” he agreed, “although this time, I carefully avoided that green stuff, and seems my nanocytes were easily able to metabolize the rest of it.”

Arlene lowered herself gently into a nearby console chair. “Lucky you.”

Giles put his mug down. “You look delicate.”

Arlene closed her eyes and put her hand to her head. “I feel it. Please tell me we’ve got an easy day today.”

Giles stood up and took another sip of his mocha. “Indeed, we have. Well . . . you have. I just need to head over to negotiate with the MacKegans . . . Their Gilmurry guy, specifically. Should be a foregone conclusion according to Bill’s people . . . but just want to make sure.”

He headed to the door. “Just need to make sure everything is lined up with Bill, then I’ll have Scamp take us up.”

Arlene raised her finger without turning around. “Sure. I’ll hang here and guard the ship,” she said before letting her head drop into her arm across the console.

Giles chuckled. “You always were a lightweight . . .”

Arlene heard his footsteps tinking down the metal stairs, no doubt to go find Bill.

Not long later, he re-emerged, Bill and Anne in tow. “Ok,” he announced, “we’ll head up and dock with the MacKegan ship. Any sign of trouble, Arlene, you’re in charge of getting you guys to safety.”

Arlene lifted her head briefly, muttered something, then went back to her resting position. Everyone else strapped in for takeoff.

Scamp’s engines fired up, and despite the movement of the ship, Arlene seemed quite happy to stay ‘resting’, slumped across the console. When they docked, she sat up, at least making a show of being capable of taking command. “I’m gonna need a mocha,” she mumbled after Giles took his leave and explained to Anne that he wouldn’t be long.

Anne and Bill remained in the cockpit. Anne picked through some of the Scamp controls. “Scamp, show us the view on the door and a tracking on Giles’s holo. On screen.”

The two screens flashed up. Bill nodded at them. “You like to keep an eye on things, eh?”

Anne nodded.

“Wanna show me some more of your magic while the grownups are out?” he whispered conspiratorially.

Anne smiled and opened her hand, revealing a light green fireball.


Aboard the MacKegan Ship


Giles was escorted down the long corridors through to the conference area where he and Gilmurry had met the first time. This time, however, instead of being shown into the conference room, he was taken into an office.

Gilmurry sat behind his desk, talking on his holo. He put a finger up as Giles appeared at the door, complete with the smaller Queegert who’d accompanied him last time.

The guard seemed to walk with a limp this time though, and he noticed a number of the others had scratches and bruises on their visible flesh. They also appeared in much shorter temper than previously. He wondered what might’ve gone on, but quickly turned his attention back to Gilmurry, who beckoned him in.

“Have a seat, Mr. Kurns,” he said, shifting in his chair, having ended his call. “That was your friend’s company. Looks like we’re being made an offer for our equipment.”

Giles pushed his glasses up his nose and sat down. “I trust it’s to your liking?”

“It’ll do. Seeing as though we can’t compete on the price that the Logans are now demanding for their etheriam.”

Giles resisted the urge to smile. “So . . . er . . . what does this mean for your operation?”

Gilmurry waved at the security detail at the door, effectively telling them to leave. Giles turned to see them wander off like children being sent to bed just as things were getting interesting with the grownups.

Gilmurry’s expression was serious. “There’s nothing more for us here. We’ll be heading out in a day or two. No point in staying.”

Giles crossed his legs. “Just like that?” he asked.

Gilmurry leaned back in his seat, arrogantly steepling his fingers. “Yes. Just like that. Nothing to be done, and there are many more planets on our mining list where we can generate a similar operation.”

Giles frowned. “You mean, you’re going to just do the whole thing all over again?”

Gilmurry nodded. “Of course. Many more Logans out there waiting for their big operation. Many more mines that need labor. We’ll be operating again by the end of the week, I’m sure.”

Giles sat for a moment, deflated by what he was hearing. Then without a word, he stood and ambled out the door as if in a daze.

“Mr. Kurns . . . I assumed you came here to discuss business!” Gilmurry called after him. “Or at least to gloat about your victory.”

Giles had reached the door and turned back. “There’s been no real victory,” he stated, before wandering back out.

The security detail hadn’t completely dispersed. Instead, they’d just shifted down the corridor out of sight of the window-fronted office. When they saw Giles re-emerge so soon, they snapped to and escorted him off the ship, puzzled.

Giles barely noticed them. Nor did he really pay attention to anything on the way back to his own ship. It was as if all of it had been for nothing.

Sure, he thought, they’d helped those Queegerts on this particular planet. But he realized he’d been assuming this might have a greater impact on the way the Gilmurrys of the world did things. Turns out, it didn’t change a thing.

As the door closed on the air lock, he looked into the bewildered faces of the security entourage. And a moment later, he was completely alone.


Aboard the Scamp Princess, near Mining Settlement


Giles sat in the cockpit, staring at a screen.

“He hasn’t moved since he got back from that meeting,” Bill whispered to Arlene from the doorway of the cockpit.

Arlene took a deep breath and turned away from the door. “I know. He says everything is fine. I think maybe he’s just had his illusions shattered though.”

“What do you mean?”

Arlene beckoned Bill to follow her down to the kitchen. Anne passed them heading for the exit door on the side of the ship.

“And where are you going, young lady?” Arlene demanded.

Anne pointed at the door. “I wanted to see my friend before we leave. Scamp says I’ve got about an hour before gating will be recharged.”

Arlene narrowed her eyes. “Ok. Make sure you’re back. Giles isn’t on his game, so he may well allow us to leave without you . . .”

Anne giggled as she bounced out. No way was Arlene going to go without her. She knew that. The hard-assed act was exactly that. An act.

“You know, you’re super hard on her,” Bill commented as Arlene led the way into the kitchen and put the kettle on.

Arlene turned around about to give him shit.

“Of course, not that I’d know how to parent,” he added quickly, hands up in surrender. “Closest thing I’ve ever parented has been an android.”

Arlene’s face relaxed. She went back to making some tea. “So what’s next for you?” she said, changing the subject.

Bill plonked himself down at the table, arms folded. “Well, I dunno. Everything is handled in terms of the operation. I was thinking about getting a ride back home . . . but then. I wondered . . .”

He paused, causing Arlene to turn around and look at him.

“Well, you guys are heading back to Estaria next, no?”

“That’s the plan.”

“How do you feel about me coming with you?” He watched Arlene’s reaction carefully. “I mean . . . you wouldn’t have to babysit me or anything. I just thought, you know, I could do with a change of pace. Experience something new. Somewhere where no one knows who I am and doesn’t want anything from me.”

“Uh huh . . .” she said slowly, eyeing him carefully without giving anything away herself.

“You know,” he continued. “It would be like an extended vacation. I could get a job even. Live a new life.”

Arlene folded her arms and leaned back against the kitchen counter. “Why would you get a job? From what I hear, you’re . . . what’s the expression . . . loaded.”

Bill chuffed, embarrassed. “Well, er . . . there’s that. But I’m also bored. I live on that luxurious space station with my assistant, pet android, and various business acquaintances who come by now and again. But after a while, it just feels . . . Well . . .”

“Pointless?” Arlene offered.

“Empty,” he said at the same time.

She bobbed her head, then turned to pour water on the tea. “Well, as long as him up there doesn’t mind, I don’t have any objections. And I’m sure there’s stuff around the university that you could do. If you wanted to.”

She handed him one of the cups of tea. “Tell me, Bill. You’re not hiding from anything, are you?”

Bill breathed out heavily through his nose as if humored. He didn’t smile, but then he looked up at her, his gaze locking hers. “No, Arlene. I’m not running from anything. And I’m not keeping anything from you. You have my word.”

They stayed like that for several seconds, understanding streaming between them.

Finally, Arlene remembered herself, and her normal no-nonsense exterior reappeared. “Well, good then,” she concluded, joining him at the table. “I think we might even become friends,” she added, half smiling and holding her tea mug up in salute.

He clinked her cup with his, and they drank their tea.


Mining Settlement, Mallifrax-8


Anne made her way through the settlement, heading straight to the mines. It was quite a distance, but she didn’t mind. It was worth it to see her friend one last time before they disappeared into the stars forever.

Her mind raced with all the things that’d happened. How her relationship with Arlene had shifted, and how her newfound control over her abilities might evolve. Playfully, as she walked, she threw tiny fireballs into the dust, watching them pitter out as she caught up to them on her path.

She wondered about what she’d discovered in the labs and patted her pocket to make sure she still had the storage device. If she ended up telling Giles and Arlene about her suspicions, she may well need evidence from a source other than Arlene’s own lab notes. Scamp thankfully had been very accommodating in supplying her with a universally formatted stick that would probably interface just fine with the Queegert systems. She hoped.

But then there was the question as to how much to tell them. She deliberately hadn’t told them where her own talisman was hidden because, well, she’d promised her uncle she would keep it safe.

But then, he must’ve given it to her for a reason, and if Arlene and Giles had a purpose for finding the others, then maybe it was in line with what her uncle had been trying to do.

Giles and Arlene seemed genuine. Like they were actually trying to help people. Heck, Arlene got kidnapped and all sorts on this mission . . . all to help those people.

But what if their interest was only academic. What if they just wanted to know for the sake of it, and then never actually use it to do whatever these talismans were meant to do?

Her thoughts churned so loudly she found herself putting her hands to her ears as she trudged across the valley.

But maybe, at least she could work with them to find out what the big picture is, and then even if they aren’t willing to go forward with whatever it was all about, she could always do it herself. Unless they locked all the talismans away . . .

Even then though, at least they’d all be in one place. And she’d know what they were for. That would be a hell of a lot closer to where she was right now.

She had decided. She’d tell them. Probably.

As she arrived at the mine entrance, she looked around for anyone she might know. She hadn’t thought ahead as to how she’d find Voyved, and now, standing in front of the mine with people walking past her like she was a strange irregularity in the place, she felt very self-conscious.

“Excuse me,” she said quickly to a miner walking closest to her. “Can you help me? I’m trying to find my way to the lab.”

“Oh, you’re one of those space people who helped us,” he said, recognizing her blue skin and strange form probably more than anything.

“Yes. That’s right.”

“Yes. Well. The lab. You need to head in and then take the elevator down two floors. That’ll put you on the right level, and the lab is just down that long corridor.” He paused, looking her up and down again. “You’re meeting someone?” he asked.

She nodded. “Yes. I’m here to say goodbye to my friend before we leave.”

The Queegert’s third eye flicked around as he realized they’d be leaving. “Well, thank you to you and your people for everything you did.” He stepped in and grabbed her elbow, patting her arm down in their form of greeting.

She clumsily caught up with what he was doing and reciprocated before he walked away, thanking her.

Anne turned back to the mine entrance. “Ok. Down two floors,” she muttered to herself and set off walking again.


***

Arriving at the lab, she recognized where Voyved had taken her previously. She located his office with not too much difficulty. Navigating through the benches with ores and computers and data charts on screens, she breathed a sigh of relief when she found him perched on a stool, peering at another screen of information.

“Voyved!” she called quietly so as not to disturb the other Logan scientists sitting around.

He turned, beaming when he saw who it was. “Anne the Wise!” he declared, giving her their customary handshake. “What brings you here?”

Anne pulled away from him to look into his three eyes. “I’ve come to say goodbye. We’re leaving in less than an hour.”

Two of his eyes drooped. “Really? Well, I guessed you’d probably be leaving at some point, though I guess I put it to the back of my mind.”

“I thought I might ask a favor of you before I go though.”

“Of course. Anything,” he said with a genuine warmth. He’d released her from the arm-shake, but gently laid his hand on her skinny shoulder.

“Remember the diagrams you showed me . . . of the core and the composition of the etheriam?”

“Of course.” He moved over to his screen and pulled them up. “You want copies?”

Anne smiled and produced her data stick.

He plucked it from her and turned it over in his hands. “Give me a second. I need to see about converting this.”

He rummaged around for several minutes in his desk, and Anne casually glanced around the lab. There were only a few other Queegerts working, but there seemed to be more samples lying around.

“So what’s happening around here?” she asked as he worked on the device, trying various adapters. “You know . . . since the regime change.”

“Oh, you wouldn’t believe it,” he said, chattering as he worked. “Everyone’s so excited about the new possibilities, there’s been a surge of applications to the lab. The new bosses are due to arrive next month, but in the meantime—”

“So you’ll be staying?”

“Of course. Why ever not?”

“I just figured what with everything that’s happened, and your friends, now that you have the chance to leave . . .”

“Oh, goodness no. I mean, I’m sad about my friends, of course, but Razeene and Bokmom knew what they were doing, and they crossed the line. In my opinion, they deserved what they got.”

Anne’s eyes flicked open in horror.

“Oh, don’t be so shocked. Life out here is hard. It’s disposable almost. We lose several people each week in these conditions . . . if it’s not from mining accidents, it’s from arguments and the pox.” His eyes drooped. “Gives you a new appreciation for the life we have though.”

He clicked something into place on her device and plugged it in to his console. “Anyway, this looks like it’s going to become the opportunity we signed up for in the first place. It’s already looking like things will be different with the MacKegans gone.”

Anne wandered over to watch him pull the data on the screen.

“They’re letting Shepherd Bulthug stay in charge for the time being. It’ll probably become permanent. He’s been working with the new partners off-world over holo connection, and things seem to be going well.”

“Good.” Anne smiled. “I’m glad. And what about you?”

“Well,” his third eye whizzled around to look at her, “they’ve asked me to head up the lab. Everyone else that was in the pecking order bought it in the uprising, and well, they liked the idea of my prototype, too. Looks like I’ll be able to do some good for the whole mine. Not just me and my little phenhite!”

Anne was sure she saw him blush. “That’s wonderful!”

He handed her storage device back. “Anything else you need?” he checked.

Anne thought for a moment. “Actually . . . you know, a small sample of the ore would be really helpful.”

Voyved regarded her suspiciously for a moment. “What are you up to?”

It was Anne’s turn to blush. “I have a theory . . . but I want to be sure before I tell Arlene about it.”

“Ahhhh, Anne the wise, indeed.” He wandered across the lab and picked up some samples from the bench. He returned and handed them over to her. “Here you go. This one is ore, obviously,” he said handing her a small rock the size of a marble. “And this is actual etheriam. You’ll want to keep that safe. Worth a fortune out there…”

Anne moved to give it back to him. “I couldn’t . . .”

He waved his hand. “Take it. It’s just a sample we have sitting around down here. No one will miss it. Especially not with the changeover and everything. Go do your scienc-ing. Think of it as my small contribution to your education.”

Anne smiled up at him, still embarrassed. He put his hand on her shoulder again. “You did save my life after all . . .” He winked at her.

She guessed he meant from Arlene. She was about to protest that Arlene never would have killed him in cold blood . . . but then, she wasn’t entirely sure. She hugged him. “I’m going to miss you, Voyved,” she muttered into his tunic.

“And I’ll miss you, too, little one. Let me walk you up to the surface. Don’t want you missing your lift.”

Anne tucked the data stick and samples into the pockets of the atmosuit. She thought for a moment of Paige, who’d ordered her suit for her when she first arrived at the base where she’d met Giles. Her heart throbbed, and she realized that as frustrated as she’d been there and as eventful as this adventure had been, she longed to go back to be around the familiar surroundings and people she might one day call friends.

Voyved gave her one last arm-shake as he walked her out of the mine into the daylight of the surface.

“Thank you for everything,” she told him, tears forming in her eyes.

“Hey, none of that, he said, touching her chin. You’ll be onto the next adventure and forget all about me.”

She opened her mouth to protest.

“And so you should,” he interrupted her. “Have a good life, my little blue friend. And pass on my thanks to Arlene, too.”

“For what?”

“For not killing me, of course!” he chuckled.

Anne giggled through the tears that’d already fallen on her face. “Ok. I will,” she promised. She started walking, turning back to wave. “Bye, Voyved!”

And with that, she started trekking back through the valley to rendezvous with the Scamp Princess. She felt the two samples in her pocket. It’s good to have something to remember him by, she thought as she wiped the rogue tears from her face.












CHAPTER NINETEEN


Aboard the Scamp Princess

Giles sat nursing a mug of mocha at the kitchen table, casually checking the details of their flight plans on his holo. “Are you sure this is right, Scamp? You want to take us past that nebula? That close?”

“Are you questioning my judgment?” Scamp asked over the intercomm in the kitchen.

Arlene spun around and looked at Giles in surprise. She nodded in the direction of the intercomm and mouthed to him. “I detect a tone!”

Giles pushed out his bottom lip and shrugged. “Not at all, Scamp, just wondering why we can’t gate from just outside orbit?”

“Because there’s a lot of traffic due in this area, and we’re meant to be keeping a low profile on the whole gating thing.”

Arlene’s eyes widened. “Is that why we’re letting passengers in on the tech?”

“Actually, Arlene, under your instruction, you gave me permission to give Anne access to any information as long as it wasn’t putting anyone in danger or sending communications.

Arlene narrowed her eyes, frustrated she was having an argument with an EI. “One might deem that giving her sensitive information like that is potentially putting us in danger.”

Scamp’s voice clicked on again. “Well, it was my opinion that she doesn’t pose a threat.”

Giles repeated the word, mouthing to Arlene. “Opinion! Judgment!”

“Well, er . . . anyway, Scamp, that’s fine,” he said out loud. “I’m sure Anne will keep it to herself.”

Arlene shook her head and started rummaging through the lower cupboards under the sink. “I need a drink,” she muttered.

“I also thought it would be nice to see the nebula from a closer vantage point. It won’t be dangerous, but I suspect it’ll be pretty quiet once we’re clear of the solar winds and debris.”

Giles stopped again and locked eyes with Arlene, who’d also stopped and turned to look at him.

“Well, er . . . very good then, Scamp. It sounds like a good idea. Let’s proceed.”

“Proceeding,” Scamp confirmed before closing the intercomm.

Arlene had found the bottle she wanted and plonked it down on the table as she grabbed two glasses.

“Hey, that’s my good stuff!” Giles protested.

She sat down, pushing the glasses in front of them and opening the bottle. “And after all these years, I finally know where you keep it!” She poured them each two fingers.

Anne wandered in, and without saying a word, picked up a third glass and put it on the table.

“Well,” Giles continued. “The Crown was right. It does indeed feel good to help others.”

Arlene rolled her eyes as she lifted the glass to her lips.

Only Anne saw her, as she watched carefully for a reaction out of the corner of her eye and reached for the bottle to pour herself a shot.

Arlene caught her and took the bottle from her. “We’ve been through this. You’re too young, AND it’ll mess up your training.”

Anne stuck out her lip in protest. “I thought we’d had a moment . . . you know, when I saved your ass.”

Arlene raised one eyebrow as she took another sip of her drink. “We did,” she confirmed firmly. “Orange juice is in the fridge.”

Anne tutted through her teeth and headed to the fridge.

Arlene’s attention was back on Giles. “So what’s changed?”

Giles closed his holo and sat back, gazing at his drink on the table. “You know, I think the seed was planted when I caught those guys throwing the smoke bombs at the school,” he said as if watching the moment as a movie. “The way my students looked at me. You don’t get that kind of look from adults. Not for doing the criminal-catching, Indiana Jones-type things.”

Arlene watched him carefully, reading between the lines. “This hasn’t got anything to do with Molly has it?”

Giles took a deep breath, thinking of his answer. He was about to speak, when Scamp interrupted again. “Anne, I’ve located the data you were looking for,” he announced.

Anne scraped her chair, standing up. “Ok. On screen in the cockpit. I’m heading up,” she told him. “Boring talk down here anyway,” she commented, grinning at her guardians.

Arlene tried not to laugh, but she couldn’t hide the smile or the bouncing of her chest as she laughed silently. Giles watched her leave, also endeared by her adolescent commentary.

Arlene waited until Anne was out of earshot, then leaned forward quickly. “I’ve been thinking, but I haven’t had a moment where I could tell you . . .”

Giles leaned forward, picking up his drink.

“It’s about Anne.”

“Oh?”

He braced himself for a showdown about having to be the parent. He took a looong swig of the Leathe Liquor Arlene had poured him and put his glass down. “Ok. I’m ready . . .”

“I think she’s an antenna.”

“Anne?”

“Yes.”

“How do you mean?” He poured himself another two fingers, then topped up Arlene’s glass. This was far more interesting than being instructed to be more firm with her.

“Well, I get a sense of her energy flow and what she’s doing when she’s channeling. It’s like the energy around me is getting pulled.”

Giles frowned, intensely focused on what she was saying.

“I put it all together when we were at the Royal Court celebrations. When she was doing her trick with the candles. And then I remembered what it felt like in the room when she came in to rescue me. Its—”

Giles cocked his head. “So you’re admitting she rescued you?”

“Well. Er . . . yeah. I guess. She saved my ass.”

Giles smirked behind his cup as he brought it to his lips. “Well, well, well . . .”

“Anyway,” Arlene continued briskly, “that’s not the real issue. It was hard to distinguish before because it always went hand-in-hand with her emotions. I thought that was what I was picking up on. But then when she was in the drawing room and almost dancing with her skill, I felt it more clearly.”

“So what are you saying? That she has a talent?”

Arlene shook her head, her lips pressed tightly together. “No. Well . . . yes, she does. And she’s powerful. But more than that, I think she’s, like I said, an antenna. She’s transmitting something, or at least telegraphing ripples through one of the dimensions . . . every time she pulls on that energy.”

Giles’s look of amusement fell from his face. “Is she in danger?”

Arlene shrugged with her lips. “I have no idea.”

“And what dimension?”

Arlene took a sip of her drink. “I can’t be sure . . . yet. But it’s possible it’s the etheric.”

“You mean, there’s a link between what she can do . . . and what Molly is exploring . . . and—”

“The Empress,” Arlene interjected. “Exactly. If my suspicions are correct.”

Giles’s face contorted as his mind churned. He was silent for several moments, before he looked back to Arlene. When he did, his eyes were bright. “Well, this is indeed fascinating!”

Arlene sighed and sat back. “You don’t get it. If anyone else is monitoring that dimension, they can potentially track her.”

Giles thought back to his friends who’d gone trekking through the universe. “Well, I only know of a handful of people with that skill. The Empress, Michael, and well, Barnabas.”

Arlene peered at him over her glass. “Well, let’s just hope they’re the only ones. It’s a big ol’ universe out there, and not everything is as friendly as Bethany Anne.”

Giles stopped and smirked. “You’re being ironic right? You didn’t just call Bethany Anne friendly?”

Arlene plonked her empty glass down. “She is when she’s on your side. That’s the point.”

“That woman scared the bejeebers out of me when I was a kid.”

“That woman has a lot to answer for, for sure . . . but that’s not my point. The point is, Anne is like a telephone line, and we don’t know who she might be inadvertently calling.”

“Speaking of calling,” Giles said, quickly changing the subject again, “why didn’t you call me? I said specifically to use the ether channel if you needed to. That was precisely why I had dad rewire our holos.”

Arlene kept her expression blank. “I didn’t need you.”

Giles raised one eyebrow as he pretended to study the hieroglyphics on the bottle. “Didn’t look like that from my position. In fact, it looked like you were about to get your ass handed to you by a Mech or two.”

“I had everything under control. And besides, one of those Mechs coming after me was you!”

“And a bloody good job, else goodness only knows what might’ve happened.”

“Well, we’ll never know now . . .” She finished her drink and placed the glass back on the table. “Tea . . . tea would be good right about now,” she concluded, getting up.

“Well, er . . . anyway. I’m glad you’re ok,” Giles added, closing the subject and hopefully regaining some of the favor he may’ve lost in giving her the call-for-back-up talk.

“Me, too. And, er . . . thanks.”

Giles grinned, getting up. “You’re welcome,” he replied in the cockiest tone he could muster, as he left the kitchen.

Arlene rolled her eyes, well aware of how he was going to be retelling the story to the others when he got the chance.

“By the way . . .” Giles appeared around the kitchen door again, “good suggestion for Bill. He told me about your talk and how you’re gonna show him round Estaria. Maybe get him a gig at the university. The guy is psyched!” Giles put both his thumbs up with a cheesy grin.

Arlene’s face dropped as the kettle boiled. She ignored it. “What, you mean . . . what’s he said to you . . .?” she called after him.

But Giles was already down the corridor, heading up to the cockpit.

Dammit, she cursed to herself. Point, Kurns . . . whichever way you look at it. 


Aboard the Scamp Princess, leaving Mallifrax-8 orbit


Anne and Scamp were deep in conversation as Giles trotted up the steps to the cockpit. He ambled in and plonked himself down in the pilot’s seat, casually peering over Anne’s shoulder at the console displays. “What’cha working on?”

Anne closed the screens, denying him visibility. “What are the talismans for?” she asked abruptly.

Giles sat up, taken aback by her sudden question. “Erm, I’m not entirely sure yet. Why?”

“Because I’d like to know before we go and collect the other one.”

“Hang on . . .” Giles hit the comm in his ear. “Arlene, you’re going to want to hear this. Yep. Cockpit.”

Giles held his finger up keeping Anne silent for a few moments until Arlene arrived. She strode in, half expecting to have been called up on some bullshit banter. “What’s going on?”

“Anne has something to share with us.” He dropped his finger. “Go ahead . . .”

Anne played with her fingers nervously. “Ok. Well. I think I’ve discovered something. And I think I’m ready to share what I know and the location of the talisman I told you about in the beginning . . . I just want to know . . . what are they for? And what are your intentions?”

Giles looked sheepish. He glanced up in Arlene’s direction. “This is starting to sound like an interrogation your dad gave me back in the day.”

Arlene ignored the comment from when they’d started dating and focused on Anne. Her face softened. She pulled up a console chair. “We think the talismans hold some kind of information about how our different races ended up scattered about the universe. Giles has some theories about it . . . about a path and how we’re all lots of experiments. But it’s all speculation right now.”

Anne’s mind flicked back and forth as she actively processed the new information.

Arlene continued. “You see, the two I’ve been looking at seem to hold data in the form of DNA molecules. But it’s not like it’s anything we recognize as a DNA sequence . . . but it could’ve just been that it’s not something we recognize. We also don’t know anything about the material they’re made of, but we do know that the technology to produce them is far beyond anything we know about in the Federation.”

Anne bobbed her head, then turned to her holoscreens, pulling them up. “Ok, well I may be able to help with some of that,” she said quietly. She took a long breath. “Scamp was kind enough to show me some of your research notes.” She watched Arlene for a reaction. “I hope you don’t mind,” she added quickly.

Arlene shook her head, far more distracted by what she saw on the screen. “Those look like the composition of the molecules of the talisman material . . . but those aren’t my models.”

Anne pointed to the screen. “No, that’s right. These are the molecular models that I got from the mining labs. On Mallifrax.”

Arlene opened her mouth to say something and then stopped herself, parsing the information she’d just heard. She paused. “You mean to say the talismans are made of etheriam?”

Anne nodded.

Giles slapped his leg. “Bloody hell, Anne! That’s fantastic. What a breakthrough!” He went to hug her in exuberance, but she pulled back with a look of disdain only possible from teenagers.

“Sorry, sorry . . .” he said, completely embarrassed. He put his fist out, and she bumped it quite happily. “Guess I need to work on my ‘cool’.”

“Yes,” she confirmed simply.

Arlene sniggered while simultaneously marveling at the connection Anne had made. “I must say, this is . . . extraordinary.”

Giles rocked back on his chair, regarding the images on the console screens. “So what does this mean?” he pondered.

Arlene pulled her hair out of her face and held it on the top of her head as if it was going to allow her to see more clearly. “I suppose it means that we now know what the talismans are made of and that . . . well, they’re designed as data storage units that will last a very long time.”

Anne nodded, confirming her research had uncovered the same thing.

Arlene dropped her hair and relaxed back in her seat. “These findings may also suggest that the civilization that was here before may well have been involved. They could potentially even have created the talismans.”

Giles frowned. “Well, that temple looked like they may’ve had some advanced building technology. But what about the complete absence of any living people from that race? What species were they even? Do we know?”

Anne shrugged. “Yeah, and what happened to them?”

Arlene pursed her lips. “I suppose we should probably do another scan of the planet before we get too far away. Scamp?”

“Already on it,” Scamp responded over the intercomm.

“Thanks.” Arlene tapped her finger on her lips, thinking.

Giles tapped his finger, too, only on the side of the console. Anne’s eyes flicked from one to the other. “Aren’t there other places that mine etheriam, too, though?”

Arlene’s eyes opened wide as if impressed by Anne’s point. Her finger moved from her lips to point at Anne. “Good!” she said. “Scamp . . .”

“Cross-reference any other planets in our known database to see which others potentially have etheriam and/or etheriam-mining operations, either now or ever in the whole of recorded history? On it.”

Arlene turned her head to Giles. “I think you and I are probably redundant right about now.”

“Hmmm,” Giles agreed absently, his thoughts off in his own world.

“Does this help though?” Anne ventured. “With understanding what the talismans are for?”

Arlene glanced back to Anne. “It certainly will . . . when we figure out what the implications are. If we know who created them and where, we may be able to join the dots as to what they’re for.”

Anne nodded sharply once. “Ok, well then, there’s going to be one more you can add into the equation then. The one from Estaria. My uncle gave it to me several years ago . . . when he found out about my . . . er . . . abilities. He said that I was the best one to look after it.”

Giles had returned from his daydream and was paying close attention to Anne’s information.

“I was scared to tell anyone about it,” she continued, “because those people were after me. Specifically, the old guy that seemed to be in charge of the convent where I was being held.”

Arlene frowned, not wanting to interrupt, but knowing she was being caught up on only part of the story. “Go on,” she said gently.

“Anyway,” Anne carried on, “I hid it at the convent. Just before they grabbed me.”

Giles leaned forward. “The men that took you to the ship where Molly’s team picked you up?”

She nodded. “I don’t think they saw what I was doing out in the dark. They didn’t talk about it, and I think they would’ve when they thought I was knocked out. They didn’t seem that bright.” Anne’s eyes drifted off as if she were remembering.

Bill appeared at the door. He smiled at her kindly, then realized that he’d walked in on something.

Arlene beckoned him in. “It’s ok,” she told him. “Anne’s made a breakthrough in our investigation.”

He mouthed the word oh, before sitting down at one of the console chairs near the back of the cockpit.

All attention was turned back to Anne. “So anyway, Scamp helped me with some details. The old guy isn’t around the convent anymore. We found a news report saying that he was dead. Under suspicious circumstances. Probably from the guys who he was kidnapping me for . . . Anyway, we can go there and dig it up now. And add it to your research.”

Arlene cocked her head to hear better. “Dig it up?”

“Yeah, I buried it.”

Arlene burst out laughing.

“What?” Anne asked defensively, bewildered.

“You buried a several-thousand-year-old relic? In the ground?”

Anne tilted her head back and regarded Arlene with a distinct look of sarcasm normally used by comics on the standup shows she’d been watching with Scamp. “I don’t see how that’s any different from what your fancy civilizations have been doing. And you’re the ones who’ve been running around the galaxy digging them up from all kinds of places, as Scamp tells me!” She wiggled her finger playfully between Arlene and Giles.

Arlene couldn’t stop laughing. “Oh, my ancestors,” she chuckled, wiping a tear from her eye. “You have a very good point, Anne.”

“Scamp?” Arlene called, between breaths.

“Yes, Arlene.”

“I hear you’re disclosing confidential information about our missions?”

Scamp paused for a moment and then appeared on the screen in front of Giles. “Your mission logs are open to members of the crew. Anne is a valuable member of this crew.”

Giles was confounded. “Says who?” he inquired, more out of curiosity as to Scamp’s logic than anything else.

Arlene recognized immediately that he was testing Scamp for sentience.

Scamp’s image smiled at them. “Says me when she saved Arlene’s ass.”

Anne beamed and gently stroked the console Scamp’s face had appeared on, more to gloat at Arlene and Giles than for Scamp seeing what she was doing.

“Right,” agreed Giles, filing away the response for when he got back to Gaitune.

“So back to the issue of the talismans. This means we have the one from Earth which I picked up yonks ago . . .”

Bill chirped up from the back. “Yonks? That’s a technical term you use in space archeology?”

Arlene’s face remained perfectly straight. “It is,” she confirmed.

Giles continued. “Then one from the Zhyn people, we liberated from the Moons of Orn. Anne’s Estarian one . . . presumably Estarian anyway. And then the new Mallifrax one . . . which likely belonged to the civilization who inhabited the planet long before the Queegerts even knew this place existed.”

Arlene’s finger was over her lips. “I think once we have those scans done, I’m going to have a lot of work to do.”

“Analysis?” Giles asked.

Arlene nodded. “Yup. And lots of it.”

Giles grinned. “Well, that was never my strong point. Give me books or hands on experience . . . that’s my area.”

Arlene narrowed her eyes at him. “Is this your way of preemptively absolving yourself from any real work?”

Giles looked briefly offended. “No. Not at all. I just vote we stick to our strengths . . . and my strength once we get back to Estaria is going to be teaching.”

Right on cue, Bill shifted in his chair, putting his feet up on the console. He picked at his nails with a false air of confidence, knowing full well that his chum Giles had just set this opportunity up for him. “You know,” he began slowly and deliberately, “back in the day, before I’d made my billions, I was pretty good with analytical stuff and problem solving.” He tapped his head. “I have the brain for it, you see.”

Arlene dared not look at him directly for fear of giving him too much encouragement. “Well . . .” she huffed, “I suppose you and I are going to be busy then.”

Anne sniggered, watching the reaction between the pair and completely taking Arlene’s words out of context. Arlene tried to glare at her but found herself too amused by her reaction.

Bill, on the other hand, seemed rather chuffed. “Well, good then.”

Giles shook his head and pretended to poke at important buttons on his console. “Lord help me . . .” he muttered. “Scamp . . . whenever you’re done with that detailed scan, feel free to take us on our way via whichever route seems sensible.”

And with that, he got up from his chair and headed out of the cockpit. “In the meantime, I’m going for a drink . . . if Arlene has left any of my stash for me!”

Bill, hearing the word drink, perked up and dropped his feet to the floor. In an instant, he was up and following Giles. “I’m right behind you, G-man!”

Arlene looked at Anne and rolled her eyes. “Boys!” she exclaimed. “Ok, how about you and I look back through my notes and see if there’s anything else I’ve missed . . .”

Anne smiled, feeling like for the first time in her life, she belonged somewhere.


FINIS

Holo Transmission from OZ


Greetings of the day upon you. 


Oz here.


Molly has asked me to be the liaison between her operation and your rather primitive earth communication methods.


I believe you call it email?


Still.


I am here to act as your interface. To help bridge the gap between the dopamine induced hits as you watch Molly through her trials and tribulations as she takes on all manner of shenanigans.


If you’d like to receive such status updates, please go ahead and leave your holo/ email address here:


http://ellleighclarke.com/


As you might have gathered, this transmission will not just be coming through space between our two galaxies, but is also traveling back through time.


I will attempt to send you updates in chronological order but do be advised that occasionally gravitational optics will interfere (no pun intended!) with the sequencing of these packets.


An understanding of all things timey-whimey will be useful in such instances.


Additionally, if you have any feedback for Molly - or her team - do feel free to pass that on through me. All you need to do is hit reply to any of my messages.


I process every communication personally.

​​​​​​​

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Oz


(on behalf of Molly, aka the lady- boss)


Sanguine Squadron 2.0

Gaitune-67,

Sark System,

Loop Galaxy

Author Notes - Ell Leigh Clarke


February 21, 2018


Thank yous

As always massive gratitude bombs go out to my collaborator MA. Without him, not only would this book not exist but it wouldn’t make it into your hands either.

Massive thanks must also go to Steve “Zen master” Campbell and the JIT team who work tirelessly to make sure that all slips are caught and corrected, the files are uploaded on time, and the sacrificial chickens and pepsi vats are in order for when the manuscript is released to the ‘Zon.

Thank you so much guys :)

Reviewers

Massive thanks also goes out to our hoard of Amazon reviewers. It’s because of you that we get to do this full time. Without your five-star reviews and thoughtful words on Amazon we simply wouldn’t have enough folks reading these space shenanigans to be able to write full time.

You are the reason these stories exist and you have no idea how frikkin’ grateful I am to you.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Readers and FB page supporters

Last, and certainly by no means least, I’d like to thank you for reading this book… and all the others. Your enthusiasm for the world, and the characters, is heart-warming. Your words of encouragement, and demands for the next episode, are the things that often stay in my mind as I flick from checking the facebook page to the scrivener file when I start each writing session.

It used to be that caffeine was my drug of choice.

Now it’s you.

Thank you for being here, for reading, for reviewing, and for always brightening my day with your words of support on the fb page. You rock my world, and without you, there really would be no reason to write these stories.

Thank you <3

E.

PS. Thank you also for all the kind messages of support for Giles after I shared that some folks didn’t like him. It’s truly heart-warming to know that despite his flaws he does have a cult following of supporters after all!

+++

Ellie-verse: Big decisions and Big Girl Pants

In the author notes to Michael 4 (Dawn Arrives) the other week I revealed some of the plans going on in the Ellie’verse: the new universe I’m writing on my own and with new collaborators, separate from MA, but under his encouragement/ whip cracking.

One of the things that has been a massive learning for me is to walk away from things that aren’t working. If you’ve followed any of my author communications this has been a process for me over the last several months.

Knowing you need to walk away and having the strength to walk away, are two very different things.

As I’m sure you’ve experienced in your own life.

I’ve been going through this not just with people who were close to me in my real life, but also on a work front. I eluded to a collaborator who had been dicking me around for the last four months. Well, I finally had the opportunity and balls to kick that into touch, and though there is a shit load of wasted time, money and energy that has gone into that particular project I’ve finally cut loose. Thankfully I own the copyright on that one and will be able to do a rewrite and release it on my own.

Minus the ego that I was having to manage. Yay!

Another project however didn’t’ work out as well. But in really evaluating the opportunity critically I realized that I’d be giving away all upside potential and doing all but about 0.5% of the work. When I came to my senses I couldn’t believe how I had been so stupid to get into it in the first place. But this is the danger of working with people who we allow ourselves to be hypnotized by.

We buy into their view of the world.

Their distortions.

Their BS.

We (I) overvalue their input, only to diminish our own. I have no doubt the health problems I experienced last year were largely to do with this mistake I’ve been making with a handful of people around me.

2018 has been the turning point where this stops.

I’ve realized that we can’t do what we need to do in this world while we’re being consumed and drained by people around us who only take. We have the energy to sustain one person. One body. Not multiple vampires. And that is reality… regardless of how much we think we feel for them, want to help them, or want them in our lives.

And if they leave, or just fall away, because they’re not getting that constant supply of our life force, then so be it. They were never friends, or partners, or whatever… in the first place. Regardless of what they say, said or promises they made, actions always speak louder than words. And if someone behaves like a douchebag, walks like a douchebag, talks like a douchebag… odds are they’re probably actually a douchebag and were only ever there for the ego hit we gave them and what we could do for them financially in the first place.

I know I’m not the only one who has been in this position.

I know from your messages and comments on the facebook page that these lessons are something we all have to learn in our life time. Some of you wise souls have already learned and assimilated this lesson. You’re probably reading this and nodding sagely, with gratitude that you’re done with this lesson. But at the same time I know some folks reading this are still going through the pain and the cycles that I’ve been describing too.

If you’re still going through it I can only empathize and tell you that if any of these people qualify as a douche, limit your contact with them, so you have the opportunity to see your true value (which is way more than they would have you believe from their behavior towards you). Then set about the important task of deliberately putting good (non-douchey) people around you.

If there is one lesson I can learn from everything that has happened, this would be it.

I pray I’ve learned it for the last time.

Somehow I suspect that I will need the occasional reminder, and I hope I have the consciousness to respond appropriately.

Wish me luck! And may the force be with you.

+++

 Ellie the Crown Princess

As you know I’ve had a lot of dental work since I got to the US. Some people blame British dentistry. I blame a bad diet as a kid. I also know that my little brother’s baby teeth crumbled and were super porous because he had a temperature at a critical point as a baby which screwed up the development.

I’m also in two minds about the role of fluoride and build up in the pituitary as a “dampening” device on cerebral functioning.

But I digress.

Whatever the reason I now need a bunch of crowns, so one of the first calls I made after messing about with having the electricity and wifi hooked up was to head down to a local dentist.

After the first examination – which took over two frikkin hours (don’t ask my why so long! It was nuts) – we agreed that we’d work on tooth #13.

Lucky for some.

I was taken in to see the lovely Flora, the lady in charge of bookings, and we looked for a time on the calendar. The next appointment that could work was on my birthday. Since I didn’t have plans, (or many friends in my new location) I booked it.

And happened to mention it would be my birthday.

Flora, without missing a beat chirped up: “Oh, well at least you’ll be the Crown Princess!”

We roared with laughter… so much so other team members walked past the door just to see what was going on.

Super amused, I left the practice with the appointment booked.

Two weeks later I showed up for the appointment and was floored when Laurel on reception wished me happy birthday. It was so sweet and thoughtful. I figured she must have seen on my file.

When I got chatting with her, it turns out she had not only heard the laughter the last time I was in, but she’d also heard the punchline.

Author Notes - Michael Anderle


February 21, 2018


First, THANK YOU for not only reading this story, but these author notes as well!

This has been a very hectic week as we dropped a few books, Amazon releases them out of order, a weekend and then we drop four (4) books in a row culminating with THIS book!

For those who follow Ellie on Facebook, you probably know all of the hair issues she has spoken about before. For those who follow Author Shenanigans (a video of two sci-fi authors talking… usually with either me giving Ellie shit, or her dishing it to me) you have heard me probably mention ‘the hair’.

So, here is my take on all of this.

WHAT THE HELL?  <snicker!>

So, Ellie has (in my experience) been trying to get her hair to behave and take streaks of color since I’ve known her. In fact, I think she had it blue or something when we first Skyped (or rather Zoom’ed – video call software.)

The problem was I never noticed anything different about her hair. I just assumed the non-blue highlights in the video call were blond or something. I couldn’t tell she HAD any color in her hair.

Over the next couple of months, Ellie would admit she was going to the hair salon, and then she would talk with me. If I didn’t say anything about her hair color either that call, or the next she would say something about it.

The problem?  I think she has / had a very poor camera quality on her Windows laptop and it isn’t that I can’t see – it’s the camera not showing up the color…Can I get an AMEN on that?

Mind you, I’m now fifty so it could very easily be that I can’t see <shrug>.  Either way, I can’t tell on video. I’ve come to believe that she would have to have Neon Blue or something before I can tell there is any color in her hair.

I do remember at the 20BooksTo50k event in November that her hair was a violet, but I guarantee that wouldn’t have shown on my computer screen.

Now, I am assuming that she has the most horrible luck with selecting hair dressers because it seems like they so rarely work out. For various reasons (Ellie letting off some aggravation about her latest hairtastrophy being one of them) she admits to there being a real challenge with her hair that I never took into consideration.

It’s genetic … potentially. Mind you, she TELLS the people this problem and they don’t listen so that sucks.

So, now it all comes back home (to me) that hair follicles are a real bitch and made even worse for certain hair types.

As a guy, I haven’t worried too much about hair coloring until the last couple of years when all of this damned gray hair starting showing up on my own head.

Full disclosure, I’ve bought a product I’m embarrassed about.

Alright, we all know how teenagers could be told to go to the store and buy something for their mom which causes embarrassment. Then, as they get a little older, items which they might be embarrassed to purchase for themselves.

Now, I’ve had that feeling about a two and a half years ago.

Picture this – I’m walking up and down the grocery aisle figuring out what I need to purchase for food and stuff (because I have a memory like a steel trap and don’t need a list, obviously.) I find myself on the hair aisle, and I’m looking through all of the different shampoos.

There is a shit-load of them. Seriously, what do half of these ingredients even do for people? Nutmeg? Peppermint leaf? (Ok, I bought peppermint leaf, don’t judge me. I like the smell.)

Anyway, I come upon the hair color section and there it is!

Grecian Formula for Men.

Four heads are on the cover, starting with a grayish color top left (eyes NOT staring at you) to a dark haired, younger looking man on the bottom right whose eyes ARE looking straight at you.

I carefully looked up the aisle and then turned back to look over my shoulder, down the other side of the aisle.

The aisle is clear.

I did it!

I grabbed that box of Grecian Formula and stuck it into my shopping cart and quickly wheeled away, probably turning so sharply around the corner that the shopping cart went up on two wheels.

So, for someone to go through ALL of the effort Ellie does to get the hair color she desires, is both admirable and astonishing to me and I (at times) can’t understand it. Oh, I completely understand wanting something to stand out, be unique and show a bit of your personality with your hair. What I have trouble understanding (I’m thinking this might be an “x” chromosome thing) is fighting the monster of getting a good hair color change.

I’m just too damned lazy to be bothered by the effort.

So, I APPLAUD you Ms. Clarke for your ongoing effort to beat the hair coloring effort into submission.

Oh, that Grecian Formula box of hair coloring I purchased so long ago?

Never tried it.

Every time I opened the door under my sink, that damned box was staring at me in the face, daring me to fuck up my hair.

I never took the dare.

I’m Trying Here!

The other day, Ellie pings me on Slack to ask a question about a plot point on Ellie book 09.  We both had some time, so we drop a Zoom link and start discussing the finer points of enemies, and Sean Royale and stuff.

Then, I have to tell Ellie what a Shotgun Wedding is here in America.

Finally, we nail the whole discussion related to the book plot points and it’s about 8:30 PM on a Sunday night.

Ellie is at a Co-working place and tired. She is a little down on herself for “only” getting her author notes, these plot points and something else done.

On a weekend, Sunday no less.

I reach under my desk and pull up this brown box and pull out a few comics that I had purchased recently to help me take in new stories, ideas, creativity since we need to ‘feed’ that part of our psyche to help continue making stories. Especially because we do SO MANY stories with a rapid release effort.

At the end of the conversation, she doesn’t look very convinced.

Then, she nods her head and tells me that she recognizes I’m trying to help.

Ellie: “Thank you, I see you are making an effort to help me and I appreciate that.”

Mike: (Sensing an opportunity to push his support) “No problem, I’m trying to help here!” I’m grinning, joking a little louder, “I’m trying!”

Ellie: (Completely deadpan, in that damned accent) “Yes, you are VERY trying sometimes.”

Mike: (Grin starting to slow down, and disappear from my face, eyes narrowing.) “Oh… that was good Ms. Clarke, that was VERY good indeed!”

Thank you ALL for reading Rogue Instigator, and now we will jump back to Molly book 09 in the (very) near future!

If you have any questions or comments, please check out our Facebook Pages (links to follow) and if you are finished w/ Ellie’s books, you can search for “Kurtherian” and find more and more and more books from all of us here at LMBPN Publishing…

(But first, finish all of Ellie’s books.)

Take care!

Ad Aeternitatem,


Michael

Books by Ell Leigh Clarke




The Ascension Myth

* With Michael Anderle *


Awakened (01)

Activated (02)

Called (03)

Sanctioned (04)

Rebirth (05)

Retribution (06)

Cloaked (07)

Bourne (08)



Confessions of a Space Anthropologist

* With Michael Anderle *


Giles Kurns: Rogue Operator (01)

Giles Kurns: Rogue Instigator (02)


The Second Dark Ages

 *with Michael Anderle*

Darkest Before The Dawn (03)

Dawn Arrives (04)


Ell Leigh Clarke Social Links


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The email list is changing to something…New.  I don’t have enough details but suffice to say there is so much going on in The Kurtherian Gambit Universe, it needs to go out more often than “when the next book hits.”


I hope you enjoy this story!


Books by Michael Anderle

For a complete list of Kurtherian Gambit Universe

 books please click this link.


Kurtherian Gambit Series Titles Include:


First Arc


Death Becomes Her (01) - Queen Bitch (02) - Love Lost (03) - Bite This (04)

Never Forsaken (05) - Under My Heel (06) - Kneel Or Die (07)


Second Arc


We Will Build (08) - It’s Hell To Choose (09) - Release The Dogs of War (10)

Sued For Peace (11) - We Have Contact (12) - My Ride is a Bitch (13)

Don’t Cross This Line (14)


Third Arc 


Never Submit (15) - Never Surrender (16) - Forever Defend (17)

Might Makes Right (18) - Ahead Full (19) - Capture Death (20)

Life Goes On (21)


 

The Second Dark Ages


The Dark Messiah (01)

The Darkest Night (02)

Darkest Before The Dawn (03)

*with Ell Leigh Clarke*

Dawn Arrives (04)

*with Ell Leigh Clarke*

 

The Boris Chronicles

* With Paul C. Middleton *

 

Evacuation (01)

Retaliation (02)

Revelations (03)

Redemption (04)

 

 Reclaiming Honor

* With JUSTIN SLOAN *

 

Justice Is Calling (01)

Claimed By Honor (02)

Judgement Has Fallen (03)

Angel of Reckoning (04)

Born Into Flames (05)

Defending The Lost (06)

Saved By Valor (07)

Return of Victory (08)


The Etheric Academy

* With TS PAUL *


ALPHA CLASS (01)

ALPHA CLASS - Engineering (02)


 Terry Henry “TH” Walton Chronicles

* With CRAIG MARTELLE *


Nomad Found (01)

Nomad Redeemed (02)

Nomad Unleashed (03)

Nomad Supreme (04)

Nomad’s Fury (05)

Nomad’s Justice (06)

Nomad Avenged (07)

Nomad Mortis (08)

Nomad’s Force (09)

Nomad’s Galaxy (10)


Trials and Tribulations

* With Natalie Grey *


Risk Be Damned (01)

Damned to Hell (02)


The Age of Magic


The Rise of Magic

* With CM Raymond / LE Barbant *


Restriction (01)

Reawakening (02)

Rebellion (03)

Revolution (04)

Unlawful Passage (05)

Darkness Rises (06)

The Gods Beneath (07)

Reborn (08)


The Hidden Magic Chronicles

* With Justin Sloan *


Shades of Light (01)

Shades of Dark (02)

Shades of Glory (03)

Shades of Justice (04)


Storms of Magic

*With PT Hylton*


Storm Raiders (01)

Storm Callers (02)

Storm Breakers (03)

Storm Warrior (04)


Tales of the Feisty Druid

*With Candy Crum*


The Arcadian Druid (01)

The Undying Illusionist (02)

The Frozen Wasteland (03)

The Deceiver (04)

The Lost (05)

The Damned (06)


Path of Heroes

*With Brandon Barr*


Rogue Mage (01)


A New Dawn

*With Amy Hopkins*


Dawn of Destiny (01)

Dawn of Darkness (02)

Dawn of Deliverance (03)

Dawn of Days (04)


Tales Of The Wellspring Knight

*With P.J. Cherubino*


Knight’s Creed (01)


The Age of Expansion


The Ascension Myth

* With Ell Leigh Clarke *


Awakened (01)

Activated (02)

Called (03)

Sanctioned (04)

Rebirth (05)

Retribution (06)

Cloaked (07)

Bourne (08)


Confessions of a Space Anthropologist

* With Ell Leigh Clarke *


Giles Kurns: Rogue Operator (01)

Giles Kurns: Rogue Instigator (02)


The Uprise Saga

* With Amy DuBoff *

Covert Talents (01)

 Endless Advance (02)

Veiled Designs (03)

Dark Rivals (04)




Bad Company

* With Craig Martelle*

The Bad Company (01)

Blockade (02)

Price of Freedom (03)


The Ghost Squadron

* With Sarah Noffke*

Formation (01)

Exploration (02)

Evolution (03)

Degeneration (04)


Valerie’s Elites

* With Justin Sloan and PT Hylton *

Valerie’s Elites (01)

Death Defied (02)

Prime Enforcer (03)


Shadow Vanguard

* With Tom Dublin*

Gravity Storm (01)


Etheric Adventures: Anne and Jinx

*With S.R. Russell*

Etheric Recruit

Etheric Researcher


 Other Books


Gateway to the Universe

*With Craig Martelle & Justin Sloan*


The Revelations of Oriceran


The Leira Chronicles

*With Martha Carr*


Waking Magic (1)

Release of Magic (2)

Protection of Magic (3)

Rule of Magic (4)

Dealing in Magic (5)

Theft of Magic (6)


 

SHORT STORIES


Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 01 (7.5)

You Don’t Touch John’s Cousin


Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 02 (9.5)

Bitch’s Night Out


Bellatrix: Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 03 (13.25)

With Natalie Grey


Challenges: Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 04 

With Natalie Grey



AudioBooks

 

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