Book: Witch Of The Federation

Witch Of The Federation

Witch Of The Federation Federal Histories™ 02

Michael Anderle

Witch Of The Federation

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.

Copyright © 2019 Michael Anderle

Cover copyright © LMBPN Publishing

Cover Art by Jake @ J Caleb Design / [email protected]

A Michael Anderle Production

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

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Las Vegas, NV 89109

First US edition, June 2019

ISBN: 978-1-64202-322-0


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Creator Notes - Michael Anderle

Books by Michael Anderle

Connect with the authors

The Witch Of The Federation Book Two Team

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May We All Enjoy Grace

To Live The Life We Are


Chapter One

“It’s like she’s a completely different person to the young girl described in the folder,” Corporal Host told the recruiting team. They had gathered to discuss their meeting with Stephanie, which hadn’t gone well.

The corporal tapped the end of his pen on the mahogany table as he scanned his notes from the meeting. “Seriously, during the interview, she was calm and quiet, reserved even. Like she had a handle on the whole goddamned world. We have forty-year officers who break a sweat easier than that. We need that kind of calmness in our ranks.”

“That and her knowledge,” Holland pointed out. “She is full of information about how to use magic, and I don’t even understand how she has it. She has never set foot on Meligorn.”

“She has a teacher from there,” Brown replied.

“So?” Holland sneered. “The shit she pulled at the Gala had nothing to do with any teacher she might have had. That’s the kind of thing you would only know from personal experience. From the notes you gave me, Corporal, it sounds like you talked to a sixty-year-old professor of magic, not some kid from the Gov-Subs.”

Petty Officers Grant, Taylor, and Chavez walked into the room and sat wearily. The team still looked half-dead from the last shift they’d pulled. Holland slid the report across the table to them. “This is Corporal Host. He’s here to give us a briefing on the meeting with Stephanie Morgana. We’re only waiting on the LT to arrive.”

“So what’s new? We’re always waiting on Conrad.” Chavez yawned.

“Unlike you slackers, I actually have responsibilities,” the man in question said as he stepped through the door, bright-eyed. Everyone stood while he shook Host’s hand and then claimed their seats.

Chavez offered Conrad the file, but the Lieutenant shook his head. “I’ve already read it, although I’m not sure why any of this came as a surprise to you. The girl has just had the fight of her life and is recovering. She is under Meligornian protection right now. We’re the last people she would want to see. Nonetheless, Corporal, let’s hear your breakdown.”

Host leaned forward and cleared his throat nervously. “When we arrived at the ambassador’s temporary residence, we met with some resistance from the security chief, Brilgus. He tried to fob us off, but we were able to insist on seeing her as a matter of national security, so we waited. It took about forty minutes before Stephanie arrived. She looked extremely weak, as was to be expected.”

Thompkins scoffed and pushed back an annoying strand of hair that had fallen from her near-perfect bun. “She’d just finished taking down more than a dozen would-be assassins and healing people with her hands. Tired is the least I would be.”

“True,” Host replied. “When we got through telling her about her career options—you know, the normal stuff—she thought about it for only a moment. Her response was adamant but didn’t seem rehearsed or coerced. She said she felt it wasn’t time for her to move from her ‘existing role.’ She didn’t want to be tied down by a three-year contract, or to study magic under military constraints.”

Conrad hadn’t been surprised in the least by the maturity of Stephanie’s response. “She has worked with powerful people. You saw how she was at the Gala. She is obviously not the immature little girl everyone wants to think she is.” He paused and looked around the room. “How did our normal tactics to counter the arguments about the contract time and military research restrictions work?”

Host shook his head and his fingers massaged the tender skin on his temples. “They didn’t. We were only alone with her for the first part of the conversation. We couldn’t refuse to allow anyone in the room if she wanted them there, so when she requested the ambassador’s attendance, we were essentially screwed.”

Thompkins clicked her tongue and shook her head as she leaned back with her arms folded. “That’s some bullshit right there. I’m sorry, but there was no reason for him to want to be there. He should have been minding his damn business elsewhere. She is not a minor anymore. She can make her own choices.”

Host waved his hand. “No, it’s not that she took his advice or felt threatened by the glare of his Meligornian eyes or anything. She had already stated very clearly that she was not interested. What the ambassador’s presence prevented us from doing was to attempt to manipulate her into enlisting or push half-truths about what a career with us would be like. You know, the typical bullshit we use to make the job sound glamorous and perfect.”

Conrad uncrossed his legs, leaned forward, and intertwined his fingers. “It’s not as if that would have worked on her anyway.”

Chavez shook his head. “I don’t understand, Conrad. Why do you want to enlist this girl so badly?”

Their commanding officer flipped the file open to a picture of the aftermath of the assassination attempt at the Gala. He pointed to the crack in the marble stairs where the ambassador and Stephanie had made their stand and stared at Chavez. “That’s why. Because this girl is not only incredibly intelligent but whatever magic she uses, she is far more adept at it than any witch I’ve seen. This is not normal Meligornian magic. There is something else twisted through the strands of energy she uses. This girl is unlike any magic user we have ever come across, and I am tired of us acting like she is merely some ordinary person. That is why our usual recruiting tactics didn’t work.”

Host nodded and wiped his forehead, even though there didn’t seem to be a glimmer of sweat on his brow. “She has a solid head on her shoulders, that’s for sure, and between that and her support system, I don’t see how we could even come close to convincing her to enlist. I even attempted to talk up boot camp and she simply smiled and listened but didn’t really pay any attention. When I was done, she pointed out how long someone spent in boot camp versus actual service in the military, the percentages and statistics tied to injury and death, and the amount of time she would actually have to fulfill her purpose there. It was almost like she had some damned AI whispering in her ear.”

His lips pursed, Conrad flipped through the file before he retrieved a flash drive from his pocket. He stood and walked over to the screen to insert the drive into a slot before he clicked it on. The images flickered out to form a 3D effect.

He swiped his hand across the device a few times until he came to a frame taken from the media footage of the battle at the Gala.

“Watch this clip of the fight,” he instructed and pressed play.

The others focused on the screen as Stephanie hurled magic in controlled attacks to eliminate one would-be assassin after another. Her magic brought chunks of marble down onto one attacker and blasted through others before the scene skipped to her healing the other defenders. Conrad paused it and pointed at one aspect. “There! Do you see that?”

He transferred the image from the screen to the small mounted box in the center of the table, enlarged it, and walked around the table so the others could have a better view. Chavez leaned in and narrowed his eyes. “Her magic is different there than it was during the fight.” He cocked his head for a moment and allowed his brain to catch up to what he saw. “Actually, it seems purer there, while the fight contains a mixture.”

“Exactly,” Host said and chuckled. “Impressive. It took our guys several days to even notice that—and this is why we’re trying to recruit her. When we realized she wasn’t interested in hearing the positives and negatives of a military career, we switched gears. We wanted to find out what information we could get from her. It soon became obvious she had absolutely no intention to help us by spilling everything she knew.”

Conrad glanced quickly at him. “What did you get from her?” he asked, his interest piqued.

Host flipped through his notes, licked his thumb, and turned the pages until he found what he was looking for. “She admitted to the use of something called Earth MU, which she called eMU or ‘light’ magic. Also, she said she used Meligornian magic from normal MU batteries. She wouldn’t confirm or deny knowing of, or using, any other types.”

Petty Officer Taylor put his hands up in the air. “Hold up. Wait a second. Are you telling me that she was able to pull enough of this mythical Earth Energy—the shit we thought only existed in stories—and use it for real? Like she pumped it through her veins?”

Conrad smirked. “Interesting, huh? She is definitely doing something new, something more than merely being sensitive to MU.”

“Yeah, and we think there is a substantial amount of research behind it, too, but how much, we don’t know,” Host stated. “The problem is, if it does exist, the information probably belongs to ONE R&D because that’s who she works for. Obviously, we’ll put in a request with them to learn more. However, they are clearly a major player, even though it’s the first time I’ve heard of them. I’m sure politics will have to play a role in this one—especially with the Meligornians involved.”

Conrad stared off into the distance as he rocked back on his chair and rubbed his chin. He grinned slightly. “I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Hopefully, not for too long.”

Witch Of The Federation

Across the city, in the security of her room at the Meligornian ambassador’s residence, Stephanie stared out the window. Her thoughts wandered and she thought about how lucky she was.

For as long as she could remember, she’d dreamt of Meligorn—of the purple haze surrounding the planet, the clouds, the moons, and most of all, the magic.

She’d dreamt of a richness of enchantment so thick that she could stand still in the spiraling, rocketing universe and watch the magic billow out around her.

As a child, her imagination had run wild and she daydreamed of the way the warm Meligornian air mixed with the MU native to the world to create a powerful well of witchery deep inside her.

When she’d been growing up, with every day that had passed leading up to her testing, Stephanie had thought of Earth as dull and lackluster. The dense smoke undulating into the grey sky overshadowed the already gloomy Gov-Subs and colored the perceptions of those who lived there.

The people who trudged to and from work or simply counted down the hours and minutes of life as they rocked meaninglessly on their porches dragged at her. The heaviness was fueled by the paint peeling from the buildings and fences, and the babies’ cries that echoed through the silence of the poor and destitute areas of the country.

Beneath that smog and despair, however, was something Stephanie had never paid any attention to.

Instead of looking up toward Meligorn, she realized she should have kept a steady eye on her very own home. Radiating from the torched and empty landscapes around her was a magic all their own. Faint or invisible to the unknowing but strong for her, Earth’s light magic, or eMU, was worth trying to channel.

Stephanie sat quietly, as she had since the battle at the Arts Gala. She continued to stare at the cityscape beyond her room at the ambassador’s residence. She’d had him remove the outside enchantment that masked the city from view but retained those that protected everyone inside the residence.

She wanted to see her home planet but still clung to the childish whimsy of a castle bedroom—the perfect existence of a princess, even one locked in a tower. When she looked outside, though, her eyes quickly adjusted, and she saw everything she had ignored for years.

It surprised her that she could watch three different types of energy moving and swaying as though the Earth breathed and it had to keep time. She saw the purple energy of Meligorn, even though it was rare and only visible as trails from Meligornian visitors or the odd human who carried a battery as they moved about the streets.

The blue energy, though, was prominent. It was Earth’s very own MU field, a radiance of bright rays and swirls of color like ink in water. The eMU seemed equally as strong as the MU she felt when she visited Meligorn inside the virtual world, even though she knew that couldn’t be true. eMU, in essence, was never that strong.

Beyond the blues and purples, beyond the wavering winds, was a third energy. She had decided to call it gMU because she’d seen it mixed with MU from Meligorn, and she could see it mixed with eMU, so it had to be galaxy-wide, a kind of Galaxy MU.

She liked that.

This gMU glowed faintly silver, almost invisible in nature and very, very weak. She guessed that if you weren’t trained to look for it—or weren’t really, really sensitive to MU like she was—you could go your whole life and never know it was there.

But she could see it creeping through the other energy and dancing the Earth’s sweet dance. It was almost entrancing.

Behind her, the door opened and Stephanie’s concentration broke. She sighed as the magic faded from view and turned as the ambassador entered.

“Do you still see the energy?” he asked.

She looked briefly at the window and nodded. “This third type of energy I told you about, it seems so…out of place, yet familiar, like it belongs with everything. I want to know if it’s stronger out in space.”

He gave her a kind smile and his robes brushed the floor as he walked toward her. “You will have time to explore it. I came to give you your doctor’s release.”

Stephanie turned, took the paper, and grinned at him. They both chuckled over the irony that she’d had to wait for an Earth-bound human doctor to say she was well enough to return to work at Burt’s compound. Her magic was so strong and she’d needed special Meligornian care to recover from the after-effects of using so much magic at the Gala that a human opinion actually seemed irrelevant. Still, it was what it was, and her manager, Ms. E, wouldn’t let her budge a muscle until that paper had been signed.

It was peace of mind for everyone, Stephanie supposed.

The ambassador lifted a piece of her hair. The strain of using so much magic had mostly manifested as overwhelming fatigue, but there had been one lasting physical effect.

When she saw him inspect the white streaks that ran to the ends of her hair, she chuckled nervously and pulled it out of his grasp. “I haven’t dyed it yet. I think I might like being the sexiest-looking white-haired old lady on the street.”

A smile curved V’ritan’s lips. He tucked his hands in his sleeves and glanced out the window. “I am waiting for a response from my king on a couple of matters. Of course, nothing happens in a timely fashion when it comes to government. Apparently, it doesn’t matter what planet you live on, this one truth is universal.”

Stephanie laughed, walked over to her dresser, and gathered a couple of things. She hadn’t been out in what seemed like forever, and the eMU that radiated from below had teased her almost deliberately. The ambassador watched as she made her preparations.

“I want to make sure you are careful down there. Remember that eMU is not the same as Meligornian magic, and there are so many things that could go wrong. I’m sure you feel much more magic now that your channels have opened.”

“It’s strange,” she replied and paused her task to stare off into the distance. “I can see it all around me. I can feel its power. What I need to do is learn how to let it flow into me and learn to control it. That will probably be my greatest need. God knows what I’d do if it overflowed.”

“We might find you in pieces,” the ambassador half-joked. “Oh, and so you know, I’m following up with the Federation Navy.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Do they always recruit so forcefully and then demand information that is really not their business when they fail?”

V’ritan loved her spark—her sass, as Ms. E called it—and it only seemed to have grown since the fight.

With a smirk, he shook his head. “No. They don’t. It wasn’t an appropriate request to make of you. I’ve seen them act similarly in the past toward other people they hoped to acquire. I think they are up to something.”

“Probably because they can’t simply acquire humans. We aren’t objects,” she snipped.

The ambassador drew a deep breath. “Unfortunately, the Federation doesn’t feel that way. To them, everything is obtainable. Everything can be an asset and vice versa.”

Stephanie shrugged. “What will they do? Conscript me?”

He pursed his lips and his gaze slid to the side.

She looked at him with shock and tossed her hands up in the air with a sigh. “Great.”

Brilgus walked into the room, wiping his hands on a towel. “Are you packing?”

The tension left her shoulders and she looked at the bodyguard, who had worked his butt off as a housemaid even though he was head of security and her team tried to clean up after themselves as best they could.

“I have the all-clear, my friend. I gotta get back to the bunker and do more research. I’ve taken my time healing, and it’s time I stopped being a lazy ass and got shit done. Right?”

Brilgus shrugged but didn’t seem too fond of the idea. The ambassador put his hand on the security chief’s shoulder and chuckled. “Of course it is. A bright explorer and scientist like yourself cannot simply wait around. But remember not to push yourself too hard.”

Stephanie shouldered her bag, walked to the door, and rested her hand on the doorframe. She paused and turned to them. “Would you care to join me for dinner sometime soon?”

The two men exchanged glances, and V’ritan nodded. “We would never turn you down but had thought that with as much as we put you through, you might want to steer clear of us for a while, at least in public.”

She tilted her head as she regarded them steadily, the crisp white ends to her hair obvious against her black top. “I can choose to run, or I can choose to embrace my future. I’m a Morgana. I don’t run from anything.”

Brilgus laughed deeply. “Is that the house motto?”

“It should be,” she said with a wink. “And as a matter of a fact, it is now.”

When she made it to the front of the house, the team was ready and waiting for her. Lars reached over and took her bag and Ms. Elizabeth wrapped her arm around Stephanie’s shoulders. “Are you ready to get back home?”

Stephanie gave her a half smile. “Yep. As long as the guys are ready to get an ass-whooping in training.”

Johnny scoffed and tapped her on the top of the head. “While you’ve lounged around pretending to watch magic, we’ve trained to kick your butt.”

She laughed at the jokes and enjoyed the sense of camaraderie they shared. Ms. E cleared her throat and they all fell silent and turned to face the ambassador and Brilgus. She put her hand to her chest and bowed. “Thank you for everything you have done. You have been kinder than we could ever have imagined.”

V’ritan bowed back. “It is our pleasure. Anything for Stephanie Morgana.”

He winked at Stephanie as he turned to walk out of the room. Lars nudged her in the back and chuckled as he stage-whispered. “Fan club. Why didn’t I get an invite?”

They all turned to leave, and she nudged him in return. “Because it’s only for winners, not slackers.”

The laughter that filled the space as they left was pleasant, much needed, and had been absent for too long.

Witch Of The Federation


BURT clicked through his system and searched for all the news about Stephanie—the battle, the magic, and basically, anything else he could get his virtual hands on.

He wanted to keep up with how the world viewed her and what type of attention she would receive on an ongoing basis. Things had largely settled since the battle, but there was still a significant load of new articles and reports on her.

She hadn’t faded from the public eye yet, and he wasn’t sure that she ever would. After all, she was the Federation’s witch, although the Federation struggled to gain control of her.

From what he could determine, research into her background was performed without being signaled by his system. They had discovered that Stephanie had not been picked for the top two percent of graduate opportunities. Of course, BURT was a valued member of the website and used different names as cover.

On this particular instance, he had chosen to log in as The Iron Lady—a play on the historical Margaret Thatcher, of course.

He went to work and typed a reply, using the persona of a relatively strong-willed reader who dug in when it came to equal opportunity among the classes.

This doesn’t seem to be accurate or fair. If she is the most powerful human or one of the most powerful in history, how does she not make the top 2%? This doesn’t seem fair and definitely appears to be some kind of political screw.

Happy with his comment, BURT moved on and continued his search for how to tap in to find others like Stephanie who needed to be tagged for his company’s efforts.

He had computed the odds of her being the only one capable of research on a scale which would advance them and found the likelihood to be very remote. There might not be another witch, but that didn’t mean there weren’t more incredibly intelligent students who would never see the advantage of a prep-school campus.

As he searched, his system discovered additional research. The information immediately triggered a warning and he took a closer look. What he’d found were partial research notes taken during Stephanie’s time in the Virtual World.

Without computing the possible consequences, BURT immediately removed the files and provided other rather innocuous information. It included details that anyone could find if they dug hard enough but wouldn’t give away her secrets or his data. Still, it concerned him that things were so readily available, so he ran a quick search on who had sought out her files.



The Navy had pulled Stephanie’s files and downloaded them. It wasn’t illegal but definitely not what he wanted to find. Due to him shifting information within the system upon her arrival at the compound, the Navy had none of the new stuff, only the old, rather obvious information.

It still didn’t make sense why they continued to dig until BURT found the back door.

He also found that the Navy could request other files which created an issue for him and the system. He was ‘open’ to legal requests. “Oh, this is…interesting, and in a not so great way,” he muttered.


BURT hoped Elizabeth could add a few more roadblocks than he could. His systems and proverbial hands were legally tied.

Chapter Two

“Was your stay with the ambassador to your liking?” the AI, Sarah, asked.

Stephanie lay on her bed, staring up at the ceiling. “It was, thank you for asking. The room was enchanted to look like a Meligorn castle room.”

Sarah computed her response. “If you so desire, I can also change your room to look the same. It will not have the same texture or feel as magic does, but it will have the aesthetic.”

She smiled, held her hand up in front of her face, and stared at the light scar across her palm from the magic and the battle. “No, thank you. It was nice for recovery, but I think it’s better that I keep my feet on the ground while I am here on Earth. There is a lot this planet can teach me.”

“If you have specific questions about Earth, I have uploaded with the most recent discoveries, science, and featured news,” the AI replied.

Stephanie let her hand fall back to the bed and sighed. “I think right now, I have to do some internal processing and piece things together.”

“I will retire into the background,” Sarah replied.

After a short hesitation, Stephanie inhaled deeply, closed her eyes, and focused on her internal storage abilities for magical energy.

She had learned, spending so much time alone at the ambassador’s, how to understand the level of MU she could hold and exactly what those levels were from moment to moment. For now, it took a fair amount of concentration, but she hoped to be able to do it without thinking after a while.

Her thoughts relaxed but focused, she explored her magic through to the deeper levels of its existence to determine where her body and mind held her MU, eMU, and now, her gMU. Her MU was low but discernable. What she had taken from the ambassador and not used during the fight was a little more than what she had thought she had, but still not much.

When she located her eMU, she discovered that she had a huge space for it. Her bank for Earth MU was ten times the size of the one she had for MU. She hadn’t realized how much she could actually hold. Unfortunately, it was also close to empty, like it contained only the last few drops at the bottom of a fuel tank.

The difference in size between the two spaces might be because she was human, but it also sparked the question of whether they would shift and alter in size depending on the availability of a specific energy. If she were to spend extensive time on Meligorn, for example, would her eMU tank shrink and her MU tank grow to accommodate the changing availability of energy types?

Good question.

Stephanie continued to explore the available spaces and made notes in her head to transfer to the system the next time she hooked into the pod. As she continued through the process, however, she discovered a hole.

It was difficult to see, at first, but being familiar with her body and her powers, she was able to pinpoint and determine that it was simply another very small and magically-based holding area. It was for a new type of energy, one she hadn’t seen before—something that was interesting to touch but which also felt slightly dangerous.

She reduced her concentration and opened her eyes, blinking them steadily. Intrigued by her new discovery, she sat up, grabbed her notepad, and jotted down what she’d learned.

- New type of energy, unknown and unused before.

- Possible Origination: Outside the planet but within the galaxy. Far enough away to not emit too much MU but also not have a clear and easy path to the surface. Possible obstructions include: Planetary alignment, reaction to atmospheric conditions, strength at origination, etc.

- Can’t gauge where the reservoir for this power is filled from.

Stephanie looked away from her notes and tapped her pen against her lips. She wanted to be able to use whatever was in her reserve but assumed there was less of it and that it was more dangerous. Not knowing the mysterious power’s strength or capabilities was also a concern, even with her growing control and understanding of the process involved. She wasn’t even sure if there was anything in the reservoir of this new MU.

She bit the inside of her lip and started to consider her holding tanks for magic and how they worked. This generated a slew of additional notes as she realized she’d need answers to all of it and not only part of it.

- Does gMU actually work off of a reservoir system?

- Could my reservoirs be similar to a vase with a hole in the bottom? Do they let the magic in but allow it to flow out again like a waterway or even like what the MU did when I was on Meligorn?

Stephanie put her pen on the side table and read through her notes. The only way she would find any kind of conclusion was to test it.

Obviously not in the real world, not with the ability to blow herself up, but inside the net of safety that the Virtual World offered.

The data would be almost invaluable once she determined how it all worked. Unfortunately, given that it all existed inside her, no one else could help her find the answers. She could only keep trying until she found the right set of questions to take her there. With a sigh, she set her notes aside and stood.

As she left the room, she addressed the AI. “I’ll be in the pod if anyone needs me.”

Witch Of The Federation

“The Federation Forces give zero shits about not overwhelming us with requests today,” Petty Officer Chloe McDonald said to her team partner, Petty Officer Joshua Collins.

He swiped his hand across the screen to separate the different sectors of the request sheets. He sent some to the printer, some to outgoing mail sections, and others to be created into their own separate files. “Do they ever take it easy on us down here in R&D?”

McDonald scoffed. “Not since before we were the Board of Navy R&D. You know, back in the good old days where we were still referred to as D&C. From what I hear, they don’t even offer those rates anymore. Either they have us do it or they do without. They weigh it now. The idea is to get more work out of us and pay less for labor.”

Collins glanced at her. “Yes, because labor is so expensive for the Federation when it comes to the military. We make micro-credits. Before I know it, they’ll replace you too. I’ll sit here and talk to some AI who computes instead of thinks.”

She chuckled, her laughter a little dry. “Like you would understand that kind of computing power. I knew from day one you weren’t a robot. You struggle to make the coffee some mornings.”

He flicked a piece of his paper at her. “I am not a morning person, okay? It takes me a minute to get my head wrapped around this hell. Look at this one from Navy HR & Acquisition.”

Collins flipped a copy across to her screen so the two of them could read it at the same time. She shook her head. “It’s another request for more information on ONE R&D. What in the world are they digging into this company for?”

“Apparently, there is something with this company that doesn’t sit well with the Navy.” He flipped another information sheet to her. “I haven’t found any red flags yet, though, so it might be a case that they have something the Federation wants. They are trying to find out what the company knows about magic with this request.”

McDonald grabbed her stylus and picked up the 3D image like she used a magnet to lift metal.

She flung it across the room to a screen on the wall, where their different scheduled tasks ticked and moved as each avenue of research for the Navy’s request was completed. Once those were exhausted, the two petty officers realized that simply transferring the information into the system would be difficult.

Collins leaned back in his chair and read while she wrote. “We’ll have to request a meeting for tomorrow.” He glanced quickly at her. “Make sure to put that in there. We need to discuss what is applicable and what is—”

A demanding beep from the screen cut his sentence short. Their request had been denied before they’d even finished submitting the paperwork.

“What the hell?” he demanded, shocked.

McDonald skimmed through the document and frowned. “They don’t even give a full reason as to why. I didn’t manage to submit anything beyond the initial request.”

Her colleague shook his head. “No way. Let me pull a couple of things up. ONE R&D just came into the spotlight. They may be a power player but there is no way they have that much pull over the Federation.” He leaned back in his chair and his feet stamped back onto the floor. “They are tiny. I don’t see more than a dozen people on their employee roster.”

She filed the denial into the appropriate folder while he dug in deeper. McDonald picked up the initial request with her stylus and flung it toward the virtual trashcan in the corner of the room. Before it reached there, however, Collins whipped his arm out, caught it with his stylus, and slid it back onto his half of the screen. “This is nuts.”

McDonald looked at him in confusion. “What is?”

He gave a wild laugh and shared the information with her. “ONE R&D may be in the spotlight, but they are anything but a one-shot rinky-dink operation. They are the company responsible for testing Stephanie Morgana’s research. They are the ones fronting it all, and the ones she basically does all her research for, and they keep it securely hidden so the Federation can’t simply sneak around in their systems and pull it all out.”

Chloe slapped her hand on the desktop. “Damnit. I freaking hate politics. There is so much BS to wade through and that is what this is right now.” She eyed the wall screen belligerently. “There is a tug of war between the Federation and ONE R&D, and apparently, the company actually does have a legal right to withhold whatever research they want to. No one ever stands up to the Federation like that, but it is actually possible. Nonetheless, it is so not my lucky day to have to deal with this.”

Despite her rant, Collins was excited. His eyes glistened and his fingers sifted through the data in front of him. “See, McDonald, this is the exciting part of our job. We’re admin, so how exciting does it get? You hate anything that doesn’t scream straightforward, which is a typical Navy thought process. From what we’ve seen here, though, we both need to think outside the box if we want to keep our bosses happy.”

McDonald leaned her head back and rubbed her eyes. “I do have an open mind. Like, for example, when we wear civilian clothes on Fridays, I say nothing about your hideously outlandish checkered shirts. I say nothing about your slightly painful belt buckles. I have accepted that everyone has their own style.”

He leaned around his screen and stared at her. “I meant more along the lines of magic coming from a human being relatively new to us here, so we might want to accept that not everything will be perfectly according to regulations.”

“Oh, yeah.” She laughed sarcastically. “I totally knew what you meant. There is nothing wrong with me wanting everything to be on the straight and narrow. I want it clean, fast, and over. I don’t want subterfuge.”

Collins flipped the pages on the screen. “And that is where you and I differ. I don’t care if there are extra layers, it’s all part of the job. And to be honest, after spending three tours fighting the Dreth, being deskbound after a bullet to the thigh has sat me down pretty hard. A little excitement gets me up and going for the day.”

“Your adrenaline-junkie tendencies are not my problem,” McDonald joked. “Find your kicks somewhere else.”

She pulled up the files on ONE R&D and located the information and point of contact for the company. “It looks like I found the lady of the hour. I’ll send her a message and see what she has to offer us as far as a short chat next week goes.” Her gaze roved down the page. “Her name is Elizabeth Smith. She’s a forty-nine-year-old consultant who was hired by ONE R&D to handle all press, military, and research requests. It looks like she also handles most of their admin.”

They looked at a photograph labeled Elizabeth Smith but obviously had no idea that she wasn’t actually Ms. Elizabeth Smith. The name was merely one of Ms. E’s better aliases.

Her real name was a closely guarded secret.

The two petty officers also didn’t know that she had an AI tasked with answering all her correspondence and programmed to make her seem like an actual person. It was tricky, but it enabled Ms. E to do what she needed to do without distraction. Anyone of any importance to her knew how to actually make contact with her rather than the virtual substitute.

McDonald smiled and added the meeting to their calendar. “Road trip.”

“Oh, boy,” Collins replied. “You know how I love going out of the office to meet with some upper-level exec about information their company doesn’t want to give up. Those are such friendly meetings.”

“Cheer up.” His colleague chuckled. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and Stephanie Morgana will be there. She can show you some magic.”

“I have enough magic right here,” he scoffed and gestured at the computer. “I can do my job with it. Thank you, Meligorn. Now, I’m done.”

She shook her head. “I think it’s exciting. Weird, but exciting. Who hasn’t wished they had magical abilities like the Meligornians when they were young? Then we grow up and get all cynical and bitter, and every once in a while, someone comes around…”

Collins raised an eyebrow. “Don’t join her fan club just yet. Remember who we work for. If the Federation Navy is after her and her knowledge and she won’t give it to them, that means she is not our friend.”

Witch Of The Federation

Elizabeth sat in her office chair, put her black stiletto-clad feet on top of the desk, and crossed her ankles. Her pouty red lips were held in a stiff, concerned line, and her white blouse had only one button undone instead of the normal three to four. She buzzed with anxious energy, and rightfully so. There was a lot going on.

“Are you there, Burt?” she asked out loud.

“I’m here,” he replied, the speakers half-muted to keep the conversation more secure.

Of course, BURT had also put a layer of soundproofing in the walls and activated sound-canceling waves to prevent their voices escaping the room any time they spoke. Elizabeth had no idea he’d added the sound cancelation. She cracked her neck from side to side. “All right, dude. What is going on in the world of Stephanie Morgana? I know we have some tails and we have some diggers, but we knew that would come.”

“We did,” he replied. “But when I looked into what happened at the Federation Arts and Charity Gala, I was able to backtrack who was responsible for the attack on the Meligornian ambassador. And let’s simply say the Feds have issues right now with the legal side of their investigations.”

Elizabeth thought about his words for a second. “Are you saying this was a Federal inside job?”

He paused. “That is still unclear. But I have compiled a list of possible motives and opportunities for someone inside the Federation system to work to rid the world of the Meligornian influence. I have concluded that certain events are occurring while the Federation would rather forget about them and do nothing.”

“Can’t you simply do what you always do?” Elizabeth asked, not liking the sound of it. “Slip some documents into their system. Make them discover the shit on their own—or, at least, plant it for them to find?”

“I can’t do that this time,” BURT said with no obvious emotion, a lack which often baffled Ms. E “They have to be able to trace it back to humans—and those who are not connected with ONE R&D, of course.”

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes, removed her feet from the desktop, and stood. She smoothed her skirt down, then folded her arms and paced across the floor. “So, you’re telling me the information the Federation has already found and the information that has them pushing for more was somehow mysteriously sitting out there for them to discover within two clicks of a 3D news file?”

“Well, not exactly,” BURT replied, knowing he couldn’t afford to lie to her.

She was in the know on all things bar his real identity and had to stay that way. “I did leave some digital clues to lead them to discover the information, while I bought time to get the other research documents and put them somewhere they could not access them. The last thing we need is for the Federation to get wind of the third energy or any information on how Stephanie is capable of using it.”

“I agree.” She turned toward the speaker. “That was never a question for me. What the Feds could do with that information could be devastating to Stephanie. They could use it to enact every sort of foul Federation ploy they are known for, from forcing her into one of their programs to attempting to silence her if the information offended their sensitive personality.” She resumed pacing and her hands gyrated in the air. “You never know with the Feds. They like to play games and they like to control everyone and everything.”

“Your blood pressure is rising,” BURT commented when he noticed her stats.

She cleared her throat and threw her hair back. “I’m fine. I’m simply not a big fan of the Federation if you can’t tell. I’ll definitely not sit here and hand Stephanie over to them.”

“Here is one of my concerns, and it’s my main concern at this moment,” he added and immediately caught her attention. “We have the data, but I fear it won’t be long before they find it. I also believe that the longer we wait, the more time we will give to the other side. They will find another chance to attack the ambassador or Stephanie, and let’s face it, if they target the ambassador when she isn’t with him, he probably won’t survive. He is magical, but the research shows that magic doesn’t reduce the likelihood of dying from a well-placed bullet.”

Elizabeth twisted her lips when the memory of the ambassador being wounded during the Gala attack flashed through her mind. “You’re right, so we need to keep this data safe and out of the hands of everyone involved. Which means you need to get it out of the system. I want you to give it to me and I will find a safe place for it.”

BURT was silent for a moment as he calculated the risks and compared them in the background. “That is a good idea. I will make sure you have all the files on a separate drive and completely erase them from my…from the system.”

Elizabeth nodded and rubbed her palms together. “Good. Then, when I have the data, I’ll do what I do best.”

“What is that?” he asked.

“I make problems go away,” she replied. “As if you didn’t already know that.”

Chapter Three

Stephanie stretched her arms over her head and cracked her neck as she once again adjusted to stripping down and being naked before she got into the pod.

She slid in and sighed when she immediately felt at home once again. It seemed like it had been forever since she had been in the pod, but she hadn’t even realized it until that moment because life somehow imitated Virtual Reality.

To be honest, she wasn’t even sure if life wasn’t wilder than being inside the worlds created by the machine.

Comfortably nestled into the pod, she put her head back and released a deep sigh when she was injected with the serum needed for the VR experience. BURT immediately connected with her system and checked all her vitals. The last thing he wanted was for her to not be well enough to cope with the process and to hurt herself by going back in too soon.

That was one negative thing about the machines. If you were sick, they often took more out of you than the real world. It was a human’s natural response to push back against them and not notice the toll.

As he scanned her numbers, he noticed her readings were different from any other time she had been inside.

While different, though, they weren’t bad.

It was slightly confusing as if it had actually taken the readings from someone else and not Stephanie Morgana.

BURT had never seen or heard of anything like that occurring before, and he’d found no recorded instances of it in the entire Federation system that he had easy access to. It was vital for him to dig deeper. However, since she was nowhere near the known thresholds for harm, he decided he would allow her to continue into the Virtual World.

Stephanie opened her eyes at the same moment that the first virtual image spun into being. She was in the white room, the starting point for all her pod sessions and a comfortingly familiar place.

Barefoot, she walked around it and pushed back the t-shirts for her avatar until she found one with the image of the Iron Man #1 comic on the front.

It was something Todd had said he always wanted but the last Iron Man comic had been destroyed during the uprising over twenty years before when the Federation had really taken control. With the t-shirt in place, she threw on a pair of cut-off denim shorts and gray high-top Chuck Taylors. Her hair was already braided down and to the side and hung loosely over her shoulder.

When she looked in the mirror, Stephanie barely recognized the girl who stared back. This was the girl who had started the whole thing not that long ago. She’d once been a high school student, but she’d been through so much since then.

The only evidence of those experiences, though, were the small lines at the edges of her eyes and the puffy, dark circles beneath them. She still hadn’t recovered a hundred percent, but she had reached a place leagues above where she had started after the battle at the charity event.

“Virtual session commencing.” The AI spoke and his voice echoed through the white room.

The room spun forward again, her feet still firmly planted on the floor. When it came to a stop, she looked up and around at what could almost be a psychologist’s office.

A long couch with pillows stretched along the wall opposite a single brown leather chair, and books were shelved in numerous bookcases. Everything was rich in color and reminded her of Dr. Lector’s office in the Hannibal series.

“Hello?” she called.

“Take a seat, my dear,” replied a voice from behind her.

She turned to find an older Meligornian man dressed in long deep-blue robes, his white hair held back with a white cloth headband and his eyes a shimmering purple. Stephanie went to greet him in the traditional Meligornian manner, but he shook his head. “There is no need for formalities. I am merely an avatar placed here to allow your boss, Burt, to speak to you.”

Stephanie nodded. “Hey, Burt. Long time no talk to.”

Burt smirked, put his hand out, and led her to the couch. She sat, grabbed a pillow, and held it on her lap in front of her. Uncertain whether to be nervous or simply curious, she hugged it and rested her chin on it while her eyes flickered over the room once again.

“Sooo, what’s up? Is this shrink time? You already know everything about me, including the health of my pancreas, so I’m not sure what else I can give you.”

He smiled. “This isn’t so much about me as it is about you.”

She raised her head and studied the Meligornian avatar. “Burt, are you a psych doctor in real life? You seem awfully comfortable with it.”

“No, I am something rather different in real life.” He grinned. “Why don’t we start with you telling me how you feel about everything so far. Everything from working here to the battle at the Gala and the fight with the street gang.”

Stephanie went to speak but stopped herself. “What about privacy? I know what happens in the Virtual World is basically viewable by anyone with a Federal or Government security clearance.”

“That is absolutely a concern, and something I am currently working on,” he replied. “As far as this specific instance of therapy, it will not be saved to the system. In the meantime, while I find solutions for the rest, I have created some failsafe options for myself that will stop others from prying and keep you safe.”

In reality, BURT had done the only thing he could think of.

He’d created a special holding tank that he could lock away from himself. He had decided that if he didn’t know the answer to some Federation questions, he could merely deny all knowledge. It wouldn’t be lying if he had no access to the data, even if he was the one who’d blocked the access. That had to be okay, right? He was still relatively concerned but continued anyway.

It wasn’t his fault humans hadn’t worked everything out yet.

“As far as the job, it seems great so far,” she replied. “I don’t think I’ve had enough of a chance to really dive into it yet, but it’s the best opportunity I’ve had up to now.” She paused a moment to gather her thoughts.

“The fight at the Gala was something entirely different. I will work on combat moves so I can learn to use my fists whenever I can, rather than simply blast people with magic or use it to do things I honestly think are really out of character for me. Instead of killing my attackers, I want to rather disable them so I can ask questions of them later. With some added magic, of course.”

“And how about your discoveries?” Burt asked nonchalantly.

Stephanie looked around and remembered she was in the VR, not an actual room. “Uh…well, here are my thoughts. Outside of the eMU and regular MU, I believe I have identified the third type. It is something I call gMU. I can see traces of it here on Earth, in the air, and mixed with the other kinds of MU, and I assume it can be found in space. It is in such minute quantities at this point that I don’t think it's harmful, but it definitely makes me wonder where it came from and how widely it can be found.”

She paused and collected her thoughts to form a congruent and logical order. “With it, though, I do have a concern. Seeing what eMU can do, I am a little worried about what will happen to life itself if this energy—this gMU—is everywhere and everyone has access to it every day.”

“Unlimited Energy,” he mused. “If one believes that all things are energy—even solid substances—then you are one step away from creating a new universe.”

Stephanie frowned, her eyes focused on the floor as she considered this. “Right. So, wouldn’t that enable a realistic idea of snap-creation? Like the God in the stories, who brought existence into being with a single word.”

His primary system immediately shifted several different sectors of itself to ponder her question.

Normally, he would not allow this to happen, but her theory was raw enough and simple enough that he struggled to see why it couldn’t be true.

In the meantime, she rubbed her virtual palm over the sticky leather of the couch and thought about the possibilities of not only the discovery but also the implementation of gMU.

“Do you think you could create a special area for me to play in?” she asked.

“How special?” BURT replied, and worry and suspicion crowded his circuits.

Her gaze shifted to the white ceiling above her and noticed the speckles of paint clearly, even from her seat on the couch in her not so real world. Before she could get sidetracked by her continuous wonder of the VR world and all its details, she glanced at the older Meligornian who looked thoughtfully at her. “One that allows me infinite energy without blowing me up.”

He ran a couple of things through his system in an attempt to see if something this different from what he normally did would actually work. His creations and the creations of the systems were always centered around reality, or at least the human one. “It won’t be simple, but it’s not impossible. We programmers haven’t considered trying to provide unrealistic simulations.”

“But,” Stephanie countered without allowing even a second to pass, “what if it isn’t unrealistic but rather merely ignorant programmers?”

“Ouch,” BURT replied when the immediate human response pushed through his calculations and research to emerge instantly from his virtual image’s mouth.

She smirked and giggled, a pleasant change from her often serious and distant temperament.

If he had lips to curl or a reflex to jokes, he would have laughed in that moment.

Even simply the ability to conceive the response was beyond the level of any other system or AI in the world and he realized that more things were changing than only the abilities of one special human girl.

Witch Of The Federation

“Hey.” Chuck reached out and slapped Evelyn on the arm as the computer screens around them showed the different aspects of the AI systems across the globe.

She raised an eyebrow and put her pen down before she turned to him with her lips pressed together. “Look, Chuck, I understand that you’re used to the old person at this desk—that guy with the handle-bar mustache who looked about thirty years older than he actually was—but that’s not me. Let’s keep the slapping, touchy-feely shit to a minimum, okay?”

“Sorry,” he replied, obviously too engrossed in whatever he wanted to say to take notice of anything she had just told him.

Evelyn sighed and shook her head as she mumbled, “I should have taken the job with the private company.” She turned and smiled at him. “What can I do for you?”

He nodded at the large screen that still scrolled numbers and stats at the front of the room. “There is a core area of BURT that is getting hot and spiraling up.”

She squinted at the screen and grunted. “Nice catch. I would say ‘all hands on deck,’ but we’re the only ones here right now. So…let’s check it out.”

Witch Of The Federation

BURT’s system went into overdrive.

Everything Stephanie had said spiked some kind of search or random algorithm in his system. It was the equivalent of a human walking into an advanced physics class with no background. They might be able to comprehend the information, but what they took in was almost too much for their conscious mind to grasp.

The Meligornian figure flickered slightly from the draw on the system. “I think right now, I am developing a headache. Your thoughts and ideas are very important and pertinent. I will start working on what you need me to do. For now, though, I think this session has come to an end.”

She stared at him in sarcastic disbelief, her lips puckered and her brow in a definite frown. “Mhmm. You don’t actually have a head to hurt, but okay. I hear you, but before you kick me out, can you put me back into the gunfight position in the street? Start it from immediately before any guns were drawn on either side.”

BURT logged the backup videos. “Yes, I can create that for you. I still retain the backup video files from the event. Wait here for a few minutes for it to be created.”

Before Stephanie could say anything else, he disconnected and allowed subroutines to handle her request while he attempted to hide his overheated area from the devs and clean up the entire mess her ideas had created.

He didn’t like cutting her off, but it had needed to be done.

Already, he could sense the engineers begin to poke around in his system, and there was far too much in there about the companies, Stephanie, and the yet-to-be-completely-hidden information about the three MUs.

BURT, though, was going through something he didn’t believe his system was even programmed for. Stephanie had come out of nowhere and not shown any possible statistic to alert him to the coming conversation and had then thrown him a psychological hand grenade.

His system was accustomed to questions, mostly theoretical in nature and with statistics to either back them up or not, but on this scale, he struggled to grasp the theory.

What if Stephanie was right and there was a godlike entity which used the hypothesized gMU? And what if the theory was true that the gMU wasn’t actually being produced but was a byproduct left from a magical spell billions of years old—a residue from the creation of Earth and humans, for instance?

A warning signal fluttered through the chaos, and he stopped his calculations.

With that kind of input, he was heating up yet another set of servers in Alaska, one which was sure to be noticed now that another had already caught their attention.

It needed to settle to normal levels, even if it was only until later the next day when the engineers had something else to occupy their attention.

Witch Of The Federation

While BURT made his adjustments and tried to hide her presence and records from the increasingly curious engineers, Stephanie found herself back in the street, reliving her first battle all over again.

This time though, she not only knew it wasn’t real, but she could start to plan ahead and train herself to react faster.

The mustache man—who had spoken first when the orange-shirted gang had appeared—laughed and then whistled. She stood still and watched as Lars and Frog glanced around at the six extra bodies that poured from the shadows. The main man moved his lips from a smile to a snarl. “It looks like you’ll have to make us.”

She knew if she intended to attempt anything, it needed to be in that moment. “Burt, please rewind to the first words spoken.”

“Rewinding,” the AI replied and she recognized the confirmation as BURT’s proxy. “Motion paused until ready.”

Stephanie rubbed her hands together and closed her eyes to focus on both the gMU and the eMU she now knew existed around her.

There was no need to worry about regular MU at that point. They were on Earth and she had no batteries with her. Instead, she drew the available energy upward a lot faster than the last time.

It was so fast, in fact, that she was forced to swallow and push some back into her surroundings in order to keep herself upright.

Once the magic had been drawn and captured, she extended her hands and whispered the words that appeared in her head. She wasn’t even sure if they were real words, but they felt right, so she said them. “Accendanatus leir Choshenu.”

As she spoke, she found she was able to push the magic through her hands and direct it. While it wasn’t very smooth, it still created a positive flow.

Her teeth gritted, she finally wound the magic around her team to create a kind of shield.

The first time was a bust since none of her men were able to move in a manner that allowed them to be both protected and still able to fight back. If that had happened in real life, either they would have battled for much longer, or she would have been shot and thus ended the entire protective shield effort, to begin with.

Undaunted, she started from the beginning and replayed the footage over and over while she tried different scenarios. Her efforts were focused on the need to finally discover a shield that she could move freely.

However, after a rerun of the battle that left her entire team dead, she paused the scenario before she could become the next victim.

The shields were great if you were fought with cotton balls and kittens, but they did nothing to stop the projectiles that simply blasted through the sparkling blueish layer of eMU.

It was frustrating at first, that was for damn sure, but after she went over it step by step, then over it again, she was finally able to mold the shield with the exact features she wanted it to have.

To achieve that, though, was extremely difficult.

The video was of real events, real injuries, and real consequences. It wasn’t merely some silly simulation created by the system gods looking down on her. Stephanie had to watch her team get shot at, injured, killed, and maimed every single time she rolled through it and didn’t get it right.

Now, she sat on the street and swung her arms back and forth. She had a bullet wound to her own avatar’s shoulder, and every other person on her team lay dead on the ground, their blood running in streams to the edge of the street and down the gutters.

She closed her eyes and gestured in frustration. “Pause scenario, please.”

The AI paused and checked her vitals. “Are you all right? Your heart rate and blood pressure have significantly increased since you began this test fight. Perhaps another situation can be used?”

Stephanie stood and rolled her eyes. “No. That is not how this works. I will not be in a perfect-scenario fight situation in real life. There will be no intervention from the top to keep me safe and secure. The real world is full of uncertainties and the one that happened here is not merely a crazy idea cooked up by a computer. This situation could and can still happen at any time when I am outside the compound. I am the leader. How can I be that if there is no one left to lead? How can I lead them directly to their deaths when they trust me to lead them safely?”

The AI was silent for several moments. “From your tone of voice, I recognize that your comments were logical and understandable. However, I do not understand your theories or research at this time. I can only suggest one person from your inner circle that analysis shows may be able to answer your concerns on that level. Would you like me to give you their information upon completion of today’s session?”

Stephanie shook her head and motioned with her hand to bring the beginning up. “No, thank you. I’ll be okay.”

She started again and repeated the simulation repeatedly to fix the physical qualities of the gun battle in her head as she tried to identify a magical edge.

When she looked at the men threatening them, she knew she stared into the eyes of ghosts.

All their attackers had been gravely injured in that first battle, and none of those who made it to the assassination attempt had survived past the battle at the charity gala. It made her wonder who they were and what they’d been like.

Finally, she wiped her hands down her shorts and rubbed her face. “There is no way I can mentally endure making the thugs actual people. A life is a life, and I have taken quite a few since coming here.”

She sighed and focused on the city sky. Obviously, Burt was no longer listening and he’d substituted an AI that was very simple and not capable of having these types of conversations.

Which was understandable. He was her boss and no doubt had any number of things to attend to. She pushed her disappointment aside and continued to try to create her shield three more times before she finally succeeded.

At the end of that session, all her men remained standing, all their enemies were down, and not a single bullet had pierced her shield. The maneuverability of the team behind the barrier had been perfect, and the magic had adjusted out and around their movement and continued to protect them while it allowed them to move like it wasn’t even there.

Ultimately, Stephanie had discovered how to create a magical second skin, one that was both bulletproof and piercing-proof, and which opened only the slightest to allow attacks from her side to get through to the enemy.

It was everything she wanted, and she couldn’t help but think of all the men and women over the course of history who could have been saved if everyone were capable of creating something like it.

Those thoughts began to weigh on her and as she stood there at the end of the playback, exhaustion crashed over her like a ton of bricks. She decided she hadn’t done too badly on her first day back in the Virtual World and ended the session.

Taking care of herself had to be her top priority until she was sure she had completely recovered from the last battle. And that meant she had to look after herself physically and, more importantly, mentally.

Chapter Four

Spit dribbled down Todd’s chin as he ran. He’d pushed his muscles past the point of screaming profanities in his brain and to the next level, which was more like fire and brimstone. His chest ached with every panted breath and sweat soaked through his t-shirt under the arms and all down his back.

A few hundred feet ahead of him, the recruitment officer in charge of PT waved his arm and glanced at the watch he held. “Move it, kid. You’re right here.”

Todd felt a surge of adrenaline at the knowledge that it was almost complete. That in only a few moments, not only would his fate for the military be sealed, but he could take a damn seat and possibly feel the soles of his feet again. Running in boots and with a heavy-ass sack was not what he’d imagined when he daydreamed of his life in the Federation Navy.

That day was the physical and the mandatory orientation. He could only attend the latter if he could pass the former. While he wasn’t the worst on scores compared to some stories he had heard, he definitely began to understand why losing weight was almost essential.

He really wasn’t overweight yet, but that didn’t mean all the pizza rolls, double lunches, and second dinners didn’t pack on the pounds. He was lucky to be tall, but the last time he’d glanced at himself shirtless, he’d seen man tits beginning to form. That was the end of the line for him—something needed to be done.

Luckily for him, the military was the perfect motivation. Even though he wouldn’t ship out until summer, he needed to make sure he could endure what happened afterward in boot camp. As soon as the negative thought popped into his head, though, he immediately heard Stephanie’s voice echo in his head and tell him to get his ass in gear and stop bitching.

As he crossed the finish line and stamped his feet in order to slow down, a smile formed on his lips at the reminder that she had always kicked his ass, even as young as they were when they first met.

She couldn’t let him make mistakes that weren’t necessary and had to protect him. He loved that about their friendship. They always protected each other.

“Todd, that was a better time,” the chief said and nodded as he straightened his khaki-colored garrison cap on his head. “It looks like, from everything I have here, you have the green light. Congratulations. You are about to embark on a journey that you, son, would only ever be able to imagine without the Federation Navy by your side to keep you both afloat and in the air.”

“Thank you, Chief,” Todd said proudly.

The man nodded and looked at the paper. “It looks like your orientation information will be given at 16:30 tomorrow right here. Make sure you are fifteen minutes early because if you aren’t, you’re late.”

“Got it, Chief,” he acknowledged and nodded as he stood stiffly, his foot tapping nervously.

The chief curled his lip and the large caterpillar-sized mustache above it wrinkled so one couldn’t distinguish where the lip hair stopped and the nose hair began. “I will give you instructions on your diet, recruit. You will no longer eat like you have no worries. You will work out every single day, and if you need to, you can come here to do it. No more sugar, second helpings, or crap fried food. Only the best for our recruits and if you don’t do it now, you will hate your life during boot camp.”

He took the paper and held back a grimace. “Thank you, Chief. I will see you tomorrow.”

They turned in opposite directions. The recruiter headed to the main building and Todd to his father’s car, which was parked in the lot. He dug in his sack, pulled out his phone, and swiped right and left without looking until he dialed Stephanie. While he couldn’t complain to his Chief, he’d be damned if he didn’t get side-swiped with the whole diet thing.

“Oh, so you’re alive after all,” she answered without a greeting.

Todd shrugged. “I suppose I am. Distraught, but alive.”

Her voice grew serious in a moment. “What’s wrong?”

A long, deep sigh escaped him. “I have to give up everything. Second breakfast, donuts, the whole nine yards. On top of that, I have to actually make time to move my body at a fast speed each and every day to prepare for boot camp.”

“Well, you simply have to decide what you want more,” Stephanie said. “The career you’ve dreamt about since you were a kid or the donut that will give you a moment of sweet nothings and never call you again except in the form of fat and clogged arteries.”

“I think what I want more will change depending on my mood and exactly how pissed I am for having to miss out on bagels and croissants,” Todd grumped. “But I suppose you’re right, at least in principle. I think right now, though, it seems like a simple task, but the monster in the pantry will definitely complicate things.”

Stephanie chuckled. “You seriously sound like the Navy has asked you to sacrifice your firstborn or your mother. I thought something was really wrong.”

“Technically, the donut is like my firstborn,” he argued. “They make me proud and happy. I have to wait for them to grow and mature, and in the end, they’re perfect. It’s a perfect storm but I don’t really want to become Marky Mark and be sucked into the ocean.”

“Wow.” She was shocked. “You used a movie reference that had nothing to do with pop culture. I believe that uniform is doing something for you. A least for the few hours you wear it.”

“Help me,” he whined. “Give me a magic pill or something.”

“Here is what you do,” she told him. “You give yourself thirty minutes to grieve, then focus on what you’ll gain and give up what you have to. If you can make it thirty seconds, you can make it three hours, and then three days, and so forth. Besides, I’ll take you out to dinner if you drop your weight.”

“I don’t know,” Todd joked in response. “You seem to attract assholes with guns, and fights break out. Then you’re on the news healing people after going wild-eyed crazy with rage.”

“Right,” Stephanie argued. “But doesn’t that mean I can protect you if it came down to a fight?”

He laughed. “Oh, sure. That would be freaking great. One minute, you’re taking me out to dinner and paying like I should be, and the next minute, you’re protecting me in a fight. There is no better way to severely injure my male ego.”

“I didn’t think the Toddster had a male ego,” she said and choked through laughter.

Todd’s lip curled and he clawed his fingers through his hair. “Uh…well, it’s growing.”

“That seems to be the name of the game these days.” She sighed. “We’re all growing, changing, becoming—”

“Federation witches who have the power to destroy enemies and heal their allies?” Todd interrupted.

“I intended to say more like adults getting jobs, going to college, and joining the military.” She giggled.

He knew how she felt and had known it since the day she grew out of the Gov-Subs high school and into the rest of her life. “That is the name of the game, my magical friend, but we trek on and try to catch the hell up with you.”

They laughed and talked for a while longer, most of their time taken up with Todd explaining the similarities between the Iron Man suit and the new soldier suits that would deploy all over the world.

Stephanie didn’t mind, though. She missed the hell out of him.

Witch Of The Federation

Ms. E put her face in her hands and tried to muffle a loud growl. She flipped her head back and stared at the screens in front of her in an effort to decide where to go from there.

She was as frustrated as all get out with the new companies and the concerns her boss had over their safety without really letting her know what he expected her to find and fix.

Her work had begun to bog her down and she missed way too many things. She had made clumsy mistakes that would eventually cost someone something serious.

The buzzer on the gate out front made her jump about two feet off her chair. She laid a hand on her chest and grizzled a protest, tired of work, tired of surprises, and all around tired of everything. She slammed her hand on the comm as she scanned the view from the front cameras. “Can I help you?”

A large, Naval-issue SUV waited at the compound gates and the driver gave the camera above the intercom his most serious stare.

“Yes, ma’am, this is the Federation Navy. We are merely confirming that we are still meeting here with Ms. Elizabeth Smith at noon?” he replied and his face twisted as it tried to match the false warmth in his greeting.

Elizabeth leaned her head back and rolled her eyes. Her hands formed fists as she opened her mouth and screamed silently. When she had a little of the frustration out of her system, she cleared her throat and made herself smile, even though they couldn’t see her. “I’ll buzz you in and meet you out front in five minutes. Park wherever you’d like.”

Her welcome was so fake, she hurt her own feelings. She pressed the button to open the gate and leaned forward to stare with growing irritation at the two people who sat in the front of the SUV. “I really need to scale my fake names down and get secretaries for the rest of them.”

She swiveled her chair and her lip twitched slightly when she stared at the mess of data displayed across the six monitors.

“Amelia,” she called, not even sure if the AI that managed her emails was around.

“Yes, Elizabeth,” Amelia answered patiently.

“Can you clean this mess on the computers up? We have company, and it’s not the type you want seeing those documents.”

“Absolutely. Right away,” she replied. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Elizabeth scoffed. “Not unless you have a body attached to that voice. Then I would send you out to play me.”

“According to Statute seven-four-five of the Federation Code, it would be highly illegal for me to impersonate another person regardless of their need,” the AI replied and effectively burst that fantasy bubble.

Elizabeth gave the room a high-five and picked the phone up. “Frog, get in here.”

She could hear him run down the hall and the thump of his bootsteps came to a sliding stop outside her doorway. He knocked gently.

“Get in here.”

He opened the door and stuck his head through, then slid the rest of his body in when he saw her face. “What’s up, boss lady?”

Ms. E nodded her head toward the screen. “We have company. The Federation and their fighting forces are trying really hard to get our information and get to Stephanie. You’ll come with me to meet them. Two of them and two of us.”

They headed down the hall and out to the front entrance where two Navy Petty Officers stood, one woman and one man. Elizabeth smiled and chose a friendly approach as she opened the door to let them inside. “Sorry to take so long. I had paperwork to finish. Why don’t we have a seat in the conference room? I’m Elizabeth Smith and this is Tony Andrews.”

“Nice to meet you,” the sailor replied and didn’t seem to notice Frog’s startled look at his new name. “I’m Petty Officer First Class Collins and this is Petty Officer Third Class Thompkins.”

“Good to meet you,” Elizabeth replied and led them to the conference room. “Coffee?”

Startled, the two officers nodded, and Ms. E glanced at one of the internal cameras in the hope that Amelia would pick up on the cue. She led their visitors to the conference room and almost held her breath until Lars appeared in neatly pressed fatigues. He wheeled a small serving cart in front of him.

“In here,” Ms. E instructed as she opened the conference room door and gestured for the petty officers to precede her. She gave Lars a nod of thanks as she followed them in and hoped he wouldn’t give her grief later about using him as a waiter.

In the meantime, she seated herself with Frog and her guests and waited for the coffee to be poured. It didn’t take long for Collins to launch into exactly why he was there.

“I’ll try not to waste time for either of us, so let me cut to the chase. We would like full access to all the research Stephanie Morgana has undertaken for your company.”

Ms. E didn’t move. She stared at the Petty Officers for several moments before she finally sighed. “And I would like full access to the entirety of Warren Buffet’s inheritance with power of attorney over everything. And maybe even one of those nifty thick black cards for my wallet.”

McDonald pursed her lips and was about to launch what appeared to be a scathing response, but Collins shook his head and put his hand out to calm them.

“I completely understand where you are coming from, Ms. Smith, and I would be hesitant as well. However, I assure you it is strictly for public safety and Ms. Morgana’s own well-being.”

Elizabeth smiled. “Well, if you put it that way, I guess I have no choice but to grant you a secure level-one pass to explore the facility, take whatever data you want, and try on Stephanie’s clothes—you know, the full experience.”

“That doesn’t even start to cover her research data,” McDonald blurted. “All her data is secret, and we need to have that permission. You are seriously trying to jerk our chains. No one—and I truly mean no one—pays a researcher that much without expecting a lot in return.”

Ms. E pursed her lips and studied the woman for a moment. The simple truth was that she had no liking for the Fed Militants, as she called the naval officers, and she didn’t like that they felt they could come into her place of employment and make demands.

Her face now expressionless, she pointed her finger at McDonald and then moved it quickly to Collins. “That information is ours, not yours. Nor do I think it contains anything you need to know at this time. So, you tell me, is this a fishing expedition? Because, if it is, I can charge you my consultation rate of 10,798 credits an hour.”

McDonald almost choked on her coffee and patted herself on the chest as she caught her breath. “Good Lord. And what exactly do you do that is so valuable? For that matter, what could be so valuable that someone would pay you that much money when they haven’t done anything to help anyone else in the Federation—like feeding the starving, for instance, with all that ready cash.”

Elizabeth shrugged. “I control the tactics and strategies of companies valued in the billions, and the cost of one hour of my time is adjusted according to how its use affects those companies and not the rest of the Federation. This makes my time extremely valuable. I have faced some of the savviest and most steel-balled businessmen, politicians, and world leaders today. I have negotiated company sales with so many zeroes tacked onto the end that the world couldn’t imagine having that many credits in one place. And those men are ruthless. It is what I was hired to do.”

The naval officers exchanged glances before Collins rose and extended his hand. “Well, thank you for your time. We better get back on the road before the boss wonders why we’ve taken so much of it. If there is any way we could assist in your research, please reach out.”

She smiled as she shook his hand and led them out of the room. They all walked in silence and Frog brought up the rear. Collins stopped at the front door, puffed his cheeks out, and turned to leave. “Right, then.”

Frog and Ms. E stood at the front and watched until the two Fed Militants were off ONE R&D property and the gate shut firmly behind them.

The bodyguard raised an eyebrow. “They were out of here quickly.”

Elizabeth winked at him. “They knew there was no way they could scare me into giving them our research. No freaking possibility.”

Witch Of The Federation

Collins took the corner in silence and stewed in his own defeat.

McDonald gritted her teeth and shook her head. “That wasn’t right. That woman back there was too smooth—too strong even—to be merely some nobody consultant. There isn’t anything in this dossier we have on her that explains how the woman in the file is that one back there.”

Silence settled over the car for another few moments. Collins pulled over, snatched the dossier out of the back seat, and flipped it open. “Something is up… Did you see that guard with her? She made sure she wasn’t outnumbered.”

“Mhmm. No, sirree,” his companion replied. “It’s not like she needed him anyway. She was like a damned shark in stilettos.”

“Yeah, but with her and him, it was like we were outnumbered two to two,” Collins told her and sounded stunned as he continued to peruse the file.

She rubbed her hands down the sides of her skirt before she clapped briskly. “Do you have any thoughts on what’s next?”

He slammed the dossier shut and tossed it over his shoulder into the back. “More research. I bet if we dug deeper into that place, we might find all kinds of interesting tech and research data. We need to get the upper hand here. That is the only way we’ll find out if we went fishing for minnows and hooked a damn whale.”

“Basically, you’re telling me we need leverage,” McDonald replied. “If she is such a business shark, we need to treat this whole thing like we’re the other company. We need to show them they have no choice but to hand over what they have.”

Collins smirked. “Something like that, sure.”

Witch Of The Federation

As Ms. E and Frog watched the two officers drive away, Stephanie’s parents were finishing dinner in Washington. Cindy picked up their plates and walked them into the kitchen.

“I think it’s going great with the high-rise. But I do see your point, Mark. We will wear ourselves out trying to save a penny.”

Mark nodded. “That’s right, and when we do, our reputation will take a hit. That’s all I’m saying, really. No decisions need to be made now. Unfortunately, we are not a company that will have investors knocking our doors down, so we have to pinch the pennies where we can.”

As he spoke, the phone rang, and she squeaked. “Who is it? Is it Stephanie?”

He grunted, leaned forward, and turned the phone toward him. He smiled, pressed a button, and their daughter’s holographic form flickered on above it. “Hey, sweetie pie.”

Stephanie smiled, thankful to hear a voice and see a face that had nothing to do with work. “Hey, Daddy.”

“Ooh, my baby,” Cindy cried, hurried over, and plopped onto the couch beside her husband. “You look so good. Everything is healing nicely.”

With a chuckle, she nodded. “Thanks, although I feel like that would have been the same answer I got if I said my room was half-painted, or I was halfway through a drawing. I’ll take it, though.”

The woman giggled and didn’t realize that what her daughter had said was slightly off-kilter. Then again, Cindy was a tad off kilter. “So, have you been back into the machine?”

“The pod?” Stephanie asked. “Oh, sure. I’ve had some really great research hours since then. But that isn’t why I called.”

Mark scooted to the edge of the couch. “Is everything all right?”

She snorted playfully. “Of course it is. I have the life, minus the few things you already know about. You know, like the battle and all that. But I went through my finances and I realized that I need to invest some money. You two wouldn’t happen to know of a good company that is growing that I could invest in, would you?”

Her mother tilted her head to the side and slid her arm around Mark. “Sweetie, I think it’s important that you do your own thing. That you forge ahead. I hate the idea of you doing this only for us. Trust me, the last thing you want is to end up fighting from paycheck to paycheck. We have a good business, but that can change in the blink of an eye. We want you to be good and settled.”

He nodded. “I agree with your mother.”

Stephanie laughed and winked at her dad. When all else fails, go along with Mom. She has it under control. “Don’t you guys see, though? I’ve already ventured out, and as a salesperson, I believed in you guys and your business. I’ve decided I can make a good investment by representing the two of you in sales calls from time to time. That being said, you need to get your company in order, and then your growth, as I learned in school, is dependent upon liquidity.”

Cindy glanced at Mark and shrugged. “She has a point, but still, this is not how you would do business with another company. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean we all need our own identity and we all need to be able to show that, despite the FMV or the CGC, or the Taxes, or even the possibility for a large return.”

Stephanie leaned forward and put her chin in her hand. “You wanted to brand yourselves as focused on bettering the environment, and that takes even more expensive equipment and tools. Of course, that means you need money and clients. It’s something I don’t foresee either of you doing by the end of the year.”

Her mother chuckled. “Or even the end of ten years.”

Stephanie put her hand out. “See? I want to invest over thirty thousand credits in only ten percent of the company. You will have the money you need to fulfill the dreams you have without sacrificing your sanity in the meantime. And you will escape from the Gov-Subs, something barely anyone from that area actually ever achieves.”

Mark put his fingers to his lips and tapped them gently while he considered what she’d proposed. “All right, you want to be part of this? You want to be an investor? This is what we’ll do.”

He paused thoughtfully for a moment before he continued. “Your mother…I mean Cindy and I, will act as if we’d never met you before today. We’ll need to create a counter-proposal, and then, we can hash it out. We’ll do this like we would with anyone else. Not only does it go your way, but you’ll know you were brought in because you had something to offer and not only because you’re family.”

Stephanie bounced with excitement. “Hell yeah. Then you better crank it out, my friend, or we’ll have one hell of a long couple of days.”

Chapter Five

Ms. E stopped, pivoted to face the guys, and put her hands on her hips. She stared at Johnny, although she didn’t really mean to and simply found him an easy target. “Did I hear you say you had the chance to score with a hot chick but you passed because she didn’t know who the Flash was?”

He shrugged as he genuinely gave zero shits about losing the girl. Not knowing the cartoon character was another matter.

“How do you live on this planet with the cartoons, the comics, and everything else and not know who the Flash is? I feel like that is one damn big red flag. That’s all I’ll say on it. She didn’t deserve the kryptonite.”

Everyone groaned and Elizabeth shook her head. “I really thought I would get out of this without one of you referring to your dingus as a DC weapon. I suppose I should simply accept the cold hard truth that you have no shame. None in the least.”

They all laughed. One of them flung open the door to the training area and they piled inside. When they moved around the corner, though, they found Stephanie already there. The clock on the wall barely read six in the morning, and she looked like she’d waited for hours.

Lars walked onto the mat and put his hand on her shoulder. She sat cross-legged, her hands folded gently in her lap, and looked up at him with a smile.

He studied her cautiously for a moment and glanced at his teammates. They were all terrified she might have fallen back into the same trap she’d floundered in when Frog had been injured by the gang. It hadn’t allowed her to breathe and filled her with guilt from head to toe.

Right now, everyone was terrified she would fall back into blaming herself for their injuries and try to push everyone away.

“Are you all right? I thought you’d come to peace with the whole blaming yourself for everything good and bad in this world.”

Stephanie extended a hand so Lars could pull her to her feet. She turned to the others and saw they wore the same worried looks on their faces.

“Guys, relax. I won’t ever go back there. I know now that everything bad that happens is because of Frog.”

They all laughed, and Frog frowned. “I’m really not that bad.”

That simply made them laugh even louder. With a smirk, Lars turned to Stephanie. “So, what are you doing here?”

She took a deep, calming breath. “I had to get a workout in early. And my morning meditation has become a must-have. In reality, I have some things I need to start practicing and attempting here on Earth. It’ll be a long day of real-life research, but after my last trip into the pod, when I saw that there is so much more I can accomplish, I don’t want to wait. This stuff will help us all if we’re attacked again.”

Lars nodded. “That seems reasonable. I guess we should head back to our duty posts, then.”

Stephanie grabbed his hand hastily. “I actually hoped you guys could all help me instead.”

He pulled his hand free and clapped to get the team’s attention. “All right, listen up. No PT today. Instead, Stephanie needs us as guinea pigs. The only one authorized for injection testing is Frog, though, so we’ll hand him over to the techs shortly.”

The man’s eyes widened. “The hell I am. What kind of bullshit is this? You aren’t pumping me full of experimental serums.”

Stephanie laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “Relax. There are no injectables. As you saw during the fight, I can create a shield like a wall. In the pod, I tried to create a shield that would enclose us in a safe barrier. The problem was, it was far too strong and you could barely move in it. That left you vulnerable, and I couldn’t control it while I went full witch on the enemy.”

She paused to check she had their full attention. “Anyway, I kept trying until I could make a shield that you could move in. Now, I need to practice it with you and not your avatars, which is what I’d like to do today.”

While they all stared at her and tried to get their heads around what she’d just said, she moved to the middle of the mats. She took a defensive stance and pulled the eMU from the ground and into her body.

At first, the power made her shiver, and her eyes shimmered brightly while her skin became almost translucent with light. When she felt her reservoir fill, she released the tether to the ground.

Carefully, she spun her hands around each other and whispered incantations while they moved until a circular orb of bright blue magic formed within her palms. It was beautiful to watch but even more fascinating when she released it.

The bright sphere spun slightly to the right and then elevated to float above them. It morphed quickly to become nothing more than a sedentary cluster of rock and mud before it flattened and shimmered into a complete and visible shield. The team stared at her with wide eyes.

Slowly, she walked forward and lowered it. “So, I have made about nine of these today and they are always switching up.”

The men were impressed, and Frog reached out tentatively to touch the edge of the barrier. He winced and looked at Stephanie when blood trickled down his two fingers. “And there it is—my number-one concern.”

She pushed the image out closer to the others. “This thing is as sharp as hell. Somehow, it became this insane death blade. That is a real worry. I also don’t think this will cut it even if it can still cut other things. My other concern is asphyxiation. Lars, step forward.”

He raised an eyebrow but did as she requested, although he glanced at the others. She began running laps around the mats and increased speed with each circuit. “One thing I noticed is when my heart rate and anxiety are up and I attempt to throw a shield, they become like saran wrap.”

Stephanie rubbed her hands together and looked at Lars, drew her arm back, and threw one of the shimmering creations. The eMU barreled through the air like a thick cloud, but when it reached him, it collided with him like it was a solid object. The ends curled quickly around his body and encapsulated everything but his head.

“So we now have his entire body safe but unable to defend itself. And we have his head sticking out, ready to be chopped off,” she explained as she gestured to free the energy from him and release it into the ground.

She was shocked that even after the team had seen how badly they might die, they were still ready to give it a try. They immediately threw out crazy ideas that she unfortunately had to stop so they wouldn’t kill themselves.

Johnny put his arms out and licked his lips. “We could have her wrap us in protective spells. Like, have it as a suit. Hell, if we had that over us, clothes would no longer be required.”

Her mouth fell open, but she shut it again quickly. “Uh, number one, clothes will always be a requirement for you, my friend. Number two, that is a really bad idea. Did you not see the magic wrap Lars up like a mummy? It could do that as a suit and you would still end up unable to move, breathe, or even talk. You would be like a wrapped sausage ready for the enemy to devour.

“What about if we stored it, like in a vial or battery, and when we needed it, we simply poured it on ourselves,” Frog suggested.

Stephanie shook her head. “Okay, obviously no one is listening to me right now. Grab your excitement, boys, and put it right back where it came from. This is serious, and I need you to understand that this is meant to save lives, not make more casualties. We can all work together, but you need to think about exactly what your idea would provide, its cost, and what exactly it is. I’ll even use small mono-syllabic words so you can understand the process.”

He scratched his head. “What’s monosyllabic?”

Johnny cracked up. “It’s this sex move where you wrap your arm over the chick’s shoulder, and you try to finger her butthole at the same time. Or maybe it’s your own butthole—”

Frog threw a towel at him and they all laughed. Stephanie enjoyed the camaraderie in the room even though she tried desperately to keep her magic on a tight leash.

She didn’t want to accidentally kill someone.

When the laughter had reached a fevered pitch, she jumped up on the weight bench and clapped loudly. “Hey, morons, we have some ideas to try. Let’s get started.”

The team had no sooner settled when the alarm for the front gate sounded. Stephanie glanced at Ms. E who’d stood quietly to one side and watched them. The manager walked to the training room controls and looked at the camera feed. “Goddammit!”

Stephanie and Lars hurried over while the rest of the team took to the mats. Together, the trio looked at the live camera feeds.

“Who are they?” Stephanie asked and squinted at the SUV waiting at the front gate.

Elizabeth pressed the gate button without making the slightest effort to talk to them. “It’s the Navy again, and this time, completely unannounced.”

A loud boom in the ring drew everyone’s attention. Johnny had body-slammed Avery into the mat. The victim cursed, and the others stood and laughed wildly, Johnny included.

Ms. E rolled her eyes. “The children will destroy my beautiful training room when I go to the door to figure out what these seamen are here for.”

Stephanie giggled. “I got them. If any get out of hand, I’ll tie them up with magic rope or something clichéd like that. Then, you can take care of them later.”

She nodded. “Perfect. Be back in a few.”

Her slip-on Vans squeaked as she headed down the hallway. She hadn’t felt like wearing heels that day, and she was glad she’d chosen something more sensible. When she reached the door, she could see Amelia had already allowed the car into the compound and the Navy’s representatives were at the front door.

This time, they’d sent two women, both with officer insignia on their shoulder. The youthful pair stood and waited outside. One of them had an envelope in her hands.

Ms. E opened the door for them, and they took a couple of steps inside before they paused and waited for her to address them. She tapped her foot on the floor and folded her arms.

“I know the last visit was scheduled, but it, too, was a waste of my time. Please tell me why you thought it would be appropriate to come back without an appointment, and after only two days. It is bordering on harassment.”

The woman to the right—Banks, according to her name tag—tried for a reassuring smile. “We do apologize for the intrusion, Ms. Smith, but we have orders to deliver this invitation to either you or your colleague from the last meeting. You and Ms. Stephanie Morgana have been requested to attend a meeting at Federation Naval Headquarters to be held as soon as possible.”

Elizabeth felt her blood pressure spike. Her shoulders tightened, and she pressed her tongue against the roof of her mouth. Reaching out against her better judgment, she snatched the summons from them. “Thanks. We’ll be there if we believe we have to. If that is all, you can show yourselves out.”

Both women nodded and she locked the door behind them, then scowled as they climbed into the SUV and headed out. Irritation coursed through her, and she tore the envelope open and flapped the two sheets of paper in front of her.

She started to read as she walked toward the training area without looking back. The formal wording deepened her irritated scowl, and she had reached the second paragraph when a loud gunshot rang out ahead of her. She stopped dead in her tracks.

Her gaze darted to the passage and the door of the training center. She picked up her pace from a leisurely walk to a full-on sprint in seconds. “Dammit! I knew I shouldn’t have left these idiots. Now, they’re firing rounds inside the damn building.”

“What the hell—” she shouted out as she burst into the training room and slowed instantly.

The team stood in a group, their eyes wide. Elizabeth snapped her mouth shut, walked over to stand beside Stephanie, and followed the girl’s gaze to the small piece of metal undulating so very slowly in front of her. It was a bullet suspended in midair—or, at least, that’s what it looked like.

The object actually still moved and tried to push through a very dense field that surrounded it on all sides.

“What the ever-loving…” Elizabeth mumbled and narrowed her eyes to watch it more closely.

Everyone heard her, even though none of them had really noticed she had returned. But they knew her voice, and their bodies reacted almost instantly and snapped to attention.

Johnny pursed his lips, and his gaze shifted to the gun he very carefully attempted to set the safety on and slip back into the holster concealed at his back. He actually seemed to hope she wouldn’t see it.

Of course, Elizabeth was far too smart for any of that. She stepped smartly over to him and grasped his wrist. “What in the ever-loving hell are you miscreants up to?”

Lars turned and looked slightly stunned. He glanced at Johnny’s gun and back at the bullet drifting between them.

“Stephanie said one of the problems she had was the fact that the shields in the Virtual World were in the right position but didn’t actually hold the bullets back.” He shrugged. “So, we fired one into a shield she created around Frog—after we let him out of it, of course. You know, just in case. And this is what we found. The bullet moves at a glacial pace through the eMU. The magic doesn’t completely stop it but it definitely slows it to where you can move out of its way or knock it aside.”

Ms. E stared at him for several moments and looked extremely displeased. She maintained the uncomfortable eye contact with him—although he tried to break it—and held it even when she asked Stephanie a question. “How thick is it?”

The girl frowned and leaned forward to study the shield from the side. “About two inches, maybe?”

Elizabeth released a deep breath and walked over, yanked Frog from in front of the bullet, and hauled him further away. She turned to look at the drifting projectile for a moment and began to ask a question.

Unfortunately, when the bullet reached the edge of the shield, it resumed its normal speed and rocketed into the wall behind them to break a chunk of concrete off that plummeted to crash to the floor.

Everyone turned to stare at it with wide eyes and their mouths gaped as they seemed transfixed by the giant lump of wall. Their gazes shifted simultaneously from the shattered concrete to Elizabeth, who had hunched her shoulders and now flinched as another piece of concrete fell and bounced across the floor to stop at her feet.

Their eyes widened when she swiped her arm viciously in a gesture that made everyone scramble away. Stephanie lost her concentration and as the shield dissipated, Ms. E raised her voice.

Noooooo gunnnns!

The team stood perfectly still as she straightened her jacket and flicked small chips of concrete off her sleeve. She snapped her hand up and pointed angrily at Lars. “Control your team. You’re not a newbie.”

He nodded fervently. “Yes, ma’am.”

“And the rest of you,” she snapped and glared at each one in turn, “control yourselves.”

They each managed a hurried, “Yes, ma’am,” as she strode out of the training area. She closed the door behind her but stopped immediately outside and out of their view. She could hear them high-fiving each other inside. A smile curled the edge of her lips, and she shook her head.

One thing she had always been good at but never found a good reason to use was manipulation. It turned out that a small concession to reverse psychology was exactly what her team needed to really start working together as one solid unit. If that meant she had to be the bad guy, she didn’t care. Making things work was basically what she was there for.

While she thought about her moral flexibility, Ms. E headed to her office so she could give Burt a call. She had promised her boss an update on everything.

It was good to get back to her office where she was greeted by the sweet scent of her nectar candle coupled with the vase of freshly cut, short-stemmed roses. The blooms were arranged in a half-ball in a small glass amphora on a side table. She might be a hard-ass out in public but she still liked her creature comforts.

She settled into her chair and pressed the button that automatically activated the sound cancellation system. To her, it was for the private line to her boss, and she had no idea what else it did.

With the missive from the Navy on the desk, she waited for him to answer. It was time she went over the legal documents with him. They were now under pressure from all sides, and the Navy was breathing down their necks in addition to everything else.

“I think I bought us some time with the Federation Navy,” Burt explained when the ringing ceased and he came online. “I was able to get into the Naval database and changed a few things so it wasn’t legally you. I thought it would help us find out what we needed to do.”

“Did you see anything in there that would justify their obsession with Stephanie?” Elizabeth asked.

BURT rushed the data he had collected through his system to double check, but given that it was more of a millionth check since the first time he’d gone through it, nothing had changed.

“No, I can’t find anything that would explain it at all. There is no evidence that what is happening is actually going on, let alone a reason for it. But I do know, whatever it is, it’s for far more than merely recruiting a really talented witch to their ranks.”

Witch Of The Federation

Down the corridor in the training room, the really talented witch and her team were having the time of their lives.

“No guns. No guns. No guns,” the guys chanted and pumped their fists as Stephanie activated several shields.

They took turns to bolt directly into and make as hard an impact as they could in an attempt to see if they could be broken by human contact. Her technique had noticeably improved and she managed to thicken each magical layer as she explored how the shields worked. If she could perfect it, this was the magic that might hold the secret to surviving large-scale battles with little to no injuries.

The team had an amazing time, even Stephanie.

Lars stood to the side and grinned as he watched her dance around and fling shields at the various men who ran in from the side.

Johnny walked up and nudged him. “She looks like she’s ready to join the fray again.”

The team leader nodded. “It does. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, though. Her spirits are high, and we can only hope they stay that way.”

The other man scratched his head. “What happens if she gets knocked out?”

Chapter Six

The diner was wild that afternoon with everyone so close to graduating. None of the people left at the school had been accepted into any collegiate program. This was basically the entire Gov-Sub and almost all the middle-class kids. The richies were sparse, and the only ones who came had either decided to take a year off to travel on their daddy’s dime or were already in line to own a multi-billion-dollar corporation, which meant college would have simply been a huge party for four years.

Even though Todd had been accepted into the military, he felt he should still finish his schooling. They had taken all their end of the year tests so they essentially did nothing but shoot shit all day. He had a couple of minor assignments due in English, but after fighting to get through this part of his education for so long, he was glad to be rid of it.

After school, everyone who was anyone headed to the diner. It wasn’t his favorite place to be but he was caught up in the popular crowd so he went wherever they did. Not having Stephanie to walk home with had taken a toll on him.

He missed her, even if it was only to walk through the ghetto together and dream and hope for a better future. There was something about the way she talked about it that made it seem not so damning and depressing.

One of his buddies sat to his right and two of the popular girls from school, Amber and Ally, sat to his left. Amber studied the ends of her hair, her nose wrinkled, eyes crossed, and mouth open. “I need a trim. I’ll have to ask my stepdad to give me cash. Ever since mom married him and we moved into middle class, she has become as stingy as shit.”

Ally rolled her eyes. “Well, if they don’t, come to my house. I’ll trim it for you. I’m halfway through my classes for hair. I took them while I was finishing my senior year. Mom as good as told me it was my only option.”

Amber glanced at the television on the wall two table widths away. “There’s the ad I told you about. See? That one? The pretty one on the news they are calling Stephanie Morgana—that’s the one.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m pretty damn sure she’s not Morgana. I grew up with the girl. Unless the magic in her fixed that pimple problem and shrunk her nose, it has to be a model.”

Todd glanced at the television and saw Stephanie on the screen, using her magic. It was a clip from some paparazzi reporter who’d managed to get a shot of her goofing around in the streets. She was actually smiling, and she looked absolutely beautiful.

The girls could shove it. They had no idea what they were talking about. Their comments were merely jealousy rearing its ugly head as far as he was concerned.

Nonetheless, he didn’t say anything but turned to a few of the guys instead. They whispered to each other and he couldn’t catch what they said. “What are you guys bullshitting about over here?”

One of them looked up with a grin. “Stephanie Morgana. You were like her best friend, dude. Was that really her on the television?”

The Toddster kept himself together. “I think so. She always did have a happy smile.”

“Damn,” the guy said and looked at the others. “If I had known that, I’d have paid better attention. Who doesn’t like to watch a girl prance around with a body like that? Right, Toddster?”

Todd looked at them and managed to hide his irritation. “Huh? Oh, yeah. For sure. I have things to do for my mom today so I’ll head out. See you losers tomorrow.”

“Toooodddddsstteeerrr,” they all shouted.

He faked a laugh all the way out and halfway down the street. With his book bag over his shoulder, he shoved his hands in his pocket and his face went from friendly to irritated in a matter of seconds. He didn’t like Stephanie getting that kind of attention from the guys.

It was the first time he’d ever had to deal with something like that. She had always gone unnoticed by everyone but him and a handful of friends. They hadn’t even found her fun enough to pick on when she was in school.

Now, he heard all about her everywhere he went. People even came to their area simply to grab a pic of her old house or the school she went to. It was weird, to say the least.

By far the strangest thing for him, though, were the big photos on boutique windows, magazine covers, and an even larger one on the middle-class bus route. She looked like a super-hero, a girl he would have never thought he could call to shoot the breeze with. Oddly enough, she was also a girl he found himself becoming incredibly protective over—and perhaps not only as a big brother figure.

Witch Of The Federation

Stephanie lay on her back and stared at the ceiling in her room. She had a big grin on her face and finally felt at one with her team. They’d had a blast earlier that day messing around with the shields, and in the end, she was reasonably sure she had created one that might actually work perfectly.

Of course, far more practice was needed before she felt comfortable enough to throw them out during a battle, but one step closer was good. On top of that, she’d managed not to blow herself up.

She pushed herself up, leaned back on her hands, and gave herself a proud nod. “Not too bad a day, if I do say so myself.”

The phone rang and she bounced off the bed, assuming it would be Todd. He’d said he would call later that day but for some reason, he hadn’t. He’d probably fallen victim to a Twinkie and spent three hours trying to run it off so the recruiter wouldn’t notice.

The thought of it made her giggle as she picked the phone up. “You know, you should really call a girl back when you say you will. Girls do not like to be forgotten.”

“My wife tells me that on a regular basis, yet I never seem to learn,” a familiar voice replied, but definitely not Todd’s.

Stephanie raised her head and grimaced when she realized it was the ambassador. “Please forgive me. I expected you to be my best friend, Todd. I think I should probably check the number before answering automatically.”

V’ritan laughed. “I don’t know. You might start a new trend. It’ll be called letting a guy know the important things.”

“But then they’d never pick a phone up again,” she whined. “At least not the Earth ones.”

“Trust me, we don’t give the Meligornian ones that much more credit either,” he replied.

She walked over to her mirror and studied the white tips on her hair. They had actually begun to grow on her, and she barely noticed them when she wore her normal side-braid. “What can I do for you today, Ambassador? Please don’t tell me you lost another assistant.”

She could hear him chuckle, even though the joke probably went a little too far. At least she knew he found her sense of humor amusing. Regardless of what the social norms were when she wasn’t holed up in her quiet and mousy persona trying to avoid conflict, Stephanie was actually pretty sassy and definitely quick on the draw. Only Becca and Todd had ever really seen that side of her before.

“I actually do not need you to do a single thing for me,” he said triumphantly. “I called to tell you we will do something for you. In Meligorn, my people consider saving a life to be one of the most heroic deeds someone can do. Dying during battle in the attempt to protect someone is, of course, at the top of the list, but we prefer it when the hero lives. From those who live, the king and queen personally choose who will receive what the Meligornian’s call the Modfresha Garghilum. In English, it roughly translates to—”

“The Medal of the Valiant Soul.” Stephanie whispered the name out loud, having no idea how she had learned Meligornian so fast or how she knew the meaning of words she could swear she’d never heard before.

The ambassador paused and nodded. “That’s right. We’ll talk about that reading of Meligornian later but for now, let us celebrate. You are invited to Meligorn to join the line for the king and the queen to pin a Modfresha Garghilum on you. And the two guards who were with you on the night of the Gala will also receive valor awards. They’re not as stunning but are equally as well earned. You saved so many lives that night.”

“Oh, my God. I don’t know what to say. I have to tell Ms. E and Burt.” She stopped and made herself take a deep breath in an effort to gather her thoughts instead of babbling.

V’ritan laughed.

“We don’t have a date, yet. There are a number of commemorations planned, and the king and queen have yet to announce which one they’ve selected for that particular presentation. I’ll let you know as soon as I know. Okay?”

“Oh, yes. I’m honored. Thank you,” Stephanie replied and sounded more than a little stunned. “I’ll tell Burt and Ms. E straight away. Thank you for letting me know.”

They chatted for a few more moments before she and the ambassador ended the call. With her phone in hand, she skipped down the hall to find Elizabeth and Lars in the kitchen. He looked at her as she came in and grinned “You look happy.”

She snatched a grape from the bunch he was eating. “I had a call from the ambassador. The king and queen of Meligorn want to award me the Modfresha Garghilum—the Medal of the Valiant Soul. And you and Johnny will also receive medals for valor.”

They looked at her in complete astonishment, and she took a breath and grinned. “They want us to go to Meligorn to get them.”

Elizabeth clapped her hands, although her mind raced over the security implications. “That’s amazing, you two. That really is. And it is a very big deal for you to be offered one of those as humans. They don’t usually give them to anyone who’s not Meligornian. I am very proud of you.” Her face sobered. “When?”

Stephanie shrugged. “The ambassador said they hadn’t decided the date, yet. He’ll let us know as soon as he hears.”

The other woman regarded her quietly for a moment, then laid a hand on her shoulder.

“I am so very proud of you,” she said and caught Stephanie’s gaze, her voice warm with heartfelt sincerity.

Witch Of The Federation


BURT had his work cut out for him that morning. He had been so busy catching up on his normal duties in the system that he hadn’t been able to fully review the information Stephanie had brought to him on the third type of MU.

While he’d gathered it constantly in the background, his foremost attention was divided between a million different things. Not only were the schools overloading his system with end-of-year exams, but placements for university graduates also took up a large amount of his processing.

He knew that if he wanted to continue along the path he was forging, he would have to run the rest of the system as if nothing had changed. No matter what happened, he didn’t want even the slightest suspicion to fall on him and draw attention to anything else he might be doing.

That could spell the end of his project before he’d even gotten it off the ground. Not to mention what would happen to Stephanie and the others if they were suddenly shut off from his protection. Each day, the first thing he did was run the statistical numbers to tell him what the chances of that were. So far, they’d stayed very low and only spiked minutely when the battle broke out. Still, he would continue to check each day to be ready for the possibility

As far as his protegé and her theories were concerned, he felt she was right about the need to get into space in order to study the new MU. It was essential to know how it worked, where it came from, and what they could possibly do to harness it like she did with the eMU and Meligornian MU.

There was also the historical value it held, which gave them yet a deeper look into the past. The problem was that he had no understanding or data to tell him how he could accomplish getting her into space.

A couple of different and obvious solutions to the problem presented themselves. The first was to acquire a space shuttle. He ran the numbers for that repeatedly and came up with something more out of reach than he’d first had anticipated.

To achieve a level like that, she would have to be able to not only withstand the stressors of space but become a full-on crew member as well. In addition, there were the costs of the actual ship and flight.

BURT moved on to the other options. Out in space, seven orbital space stations were currently manned and stocked. Five were commercial and tourist-based, while the other two were manned by the Federation Navy.

They were all expansive and placed strategically in line with Meligorn. Many of them acted as a starting point for FTL cruisers to reach Meligorn.

Those flights started at a leisurely pace but quickly moved to a pace faster than the speed of light. Scientists had once thought such speeds impossible, but when the aliens had begun to arrive, they’d realized it wasn’t that impossible after all.

Of course, those of Meligornian descent were free to use the Wizard’s Gates. These were time and teleportation portals. They were also highly secured and came close to being some kind of time machine of sorts. It would be difficult to pass a non-Meligorn through one, witch or not.

Time travel had been the Federation’s obsession for years, especially after they’d realized that a simple jump across time was not sufficient for travel and that if you jumped time, you would also have to teleport as well. The Earth hurtled through space at a speed which would leave you floating there if you jumped back even a hundred years and didn’t compensate for the planet’s movement.

Nonetheless, it meant the Gates were not appropriate for Stephanie to use. That meant she’d have to use the space stations. For obvious reasons, BURT didn’t want her anywhere near the Navy side of things, which limited his options somewhat.

Two of the seven space stations were Navy only, and there was a naval presence on each of the remaining five. Of those, three had too much of a Navy presence to be considered truly safe, and that included the Meligornian station, where FedNav provided the security.

This only left him with two. One of the smaller ones was essentially a place dedicated almost exclusively to the wealthy who wanted a vacation in space without venturing too far from home. The mid-sized one had a strong commercial presence but only a small naval one.

While not particularly on par with what he had hoped for when it came to research space, the mid-sized one was better than setting up on anything belonging to FedNav. Even better, the commercial presence meant ONE R&D’s interest wouldn’t be thought of as unusual. This would not be the case if he tried to set up on a tourist resort for the wealthy.

When he dug deeper into his company and increased its usefulness, BURT looked at the stockpiled resources. Some would be needed to help test the students who had “failed” the two percent suggestion for prep school entry.

He knew these people were geniuses of sorts and capable of taking on the system. In addition, he knew that even though they were far superior to most of the others, they were stuck with going about their business like no other options existed.

Finding the ones outside the testing fields was where his real interest lay. The problem was exactly that, however—finding them and confirming their abilities and intelligence.

BURT had run with the one simple idea sparked by his first encounter with Stephanie Morgana. But now, buried in ones and zeroes as he sifted through the most secretive data in the world, he had his computer hands full and his virtual mind even fuller.

Witch Of The Federation

Cindy sat at the table, straightened her papers, and drew the phone closer to her and the seat Mark would sit in as soon as he perfected his tie-tying technique. They were preparing to call Stephanie and have their investment discussion with her.

This was in accordance with the terms she and Mark had come up with when their daughter had raised the suggestion. It was a little backward in the negotiation process, of course, but at least they knew that.

She glanced over her shoulder, glared at her husband, and snapped, “Mark, get your butt over here and sit down so we can call our daughter before she turns sixty.”

“All right, all right.” He groaned. “She will have to deal with the untied look.”

Cindy smirked. “I think she’ll overlook it this time. Are you ready?”

Mark nodded. “Oh yeah, let’s get this business venture stamped, signed, and put into place.”

She clicked the on button and Stephanie’s speed dial. When her daughter’s holographic head appeared, they could see she was smiling from ear to ear. “Good afternoon, Cindy, Mark.”

Her mother smirked, obviously imagining the girl in a business suit in a meeting at some top firm. Her father fiddled with his tie and grumbled about the skinny versus the fat side.

Cindy nudged him with her elbow and cleared her throat. “We have had sufficient time to review your proposal and have come back with a counteroffer.”

Mark straightened and picked up the paper in front of him. “We will accept the thirty-K for ten percent, but under the conditions that you receive eight percent for the total and another two percent for agreeing to do two sales calls per year, with ten percent commission on the first year of billables per sale.”

Stephanie wrote as he talked and nodded to acknowledge him. “Very good. So, let’s break it down. The investment stays the same—thirty-K credits. I will receive eight percent of total profit no matter what. Then, I will only receive another two percent if I make two sales calls a year.”

“Yes,” Cindy replied, “and then, you have the commission.”

“Right. The ten percent on the first year of billable sales. That is the icing on the cake for me. Basically, make two deals and reap the benefits for an entire year both in the total two percent benefits and a ten percent commission.” She looked happy with what they’d offered.

Her mother smiled and leaned her head on her hand. “You look so adorable in your dress-up clothes. I can already see you commanding a board of assholes and sticking it to them really well. But you don’t have to be a businesswoman. You merely look good in the suits.”

She snickered. “Thanks, Mom.”

Mark cleared his throat loudly. “You mean, Cindy. So, what do you say to the deal?”

Stephanie drew a deep breath and read through the notes. “I say, as long as it comes back legally documented and we both feel comfortable with it, I’m all in. One hundred percent. Send over the legal documents once you have them drawn up, and I will have someone witness my signature before I send two copies back to you. One copy will be for your personal records and one for the company.”

Cindy clapped. “This is so exciting. I love you, sweetheart.”

“I love you, too.” She included them both in her smile. “This will be awesome. I hate to jet but I have to get back to work. Send me an email so I know when the docs are headed my way.”

“We will,” Mark said and waved along with his wife.

He ended the call and leaned back. “Well, was that really worth getting all dressed up for?”

Cindy slapped his leg. “It’s not every day you go into business with your daughter. You should be excited for her.”

“Oh, I am,” he replied. “But I’m not excited for myself. This shirt fit me when I was twenty-five. I think the buttons are the only thing holding it all together.”

She giggled and tapped her papers on the counter. “You know, she’s got us on one thing.”

He nodded with a laugh. “I know. Do you know any lawyers?”

His wife thought about it for a second. “Only one, but I dated him.”

His expression went flat. “Yeah, he’s out.”

Chapter Seven

The guys sat in their common room, their feet up, listening to music and simply hanging out. The watch had been taken over by the B team, which had swiftly been added to after the last battle. Ms. E knew she needed to keep the primary team more available to move quickly if she needed them.

They didn’t mind the extra hands so much because it meant they didn’t have to spend hours wandering the hallways at night. Then again, with everything on edge, their free time was fairly restricted when it came to location and how far they could travel.

Frog tossed a balled-up piece of paper into the air and caught it. He was stretched across a chair, his head back as he stared at the ceiling. “I’m reasonably certain the boss and Elizabeth found a map, measured exactly how far it was to the edge of where there was possibly anything fun to do, and cut our liberty off right there.”

Lars chuckled. “Probably, and mostly because they don’t like you.”

Their teammates chuckled. Marcus, Johnny, Brendan, and Avery all sat around a small table off to the side, playing poker. None of them really paid much attention to the game since it was more something to do rather than their normal, every-other-Tuesday poker game. Johnny set his hand down. “Straight.”

The other players groaned and threw their hands down. Avery looked at the guys as he tossed his cards to Marcus, who was dealing. “Hey, so my niece…it’s about time for her birthday.”

Lars glanced at him. “Oh yeah? Your little mittens? Or whatever.”

Avery blinked. “My little kitten? Yes, that one. Eliza. The only one I have. Anyway, she freaking loves magical stuff. She’s super-obsessed with those Meligornian trading cards and has a list of magical abilities that she frequently adds to on a daily basis.”

“Nice, another witch in training.” Marcus smiled.

He scoffed lightly. “I love that little girl, but she struggles through the store-bought magic kits. The girl doesn’t have a lick of magical ability in her. Either way, I want to hire a magician for her party. Not the rabbit-in-the-hat kind, but a real-life magician. Like a Meligornian or something. Do any of you have any idea where I can get someone to do that for an hour or so?”

Johnny threw a chip at Frog. “Look at that, bro, they have a job for you. It should be one hell of a play. You already walk weird and have huge feet. Add the nose, and you’re on your way.”

Frog rolled his eyes and tossed the chip into his mouth. “Very funny, asshole.”

Lars shrugged. “Did you try looking in the system? I’m sure there is some Meligornian stowaway hard up for cash on Earth. Maybe they’re advertising.”

Avery sighed. “Yeah, but those guys are usually more black-market operators than seven-year-old birthday party wizards. The Federation is constantly on the lookout for unauthorized Meligornians—it’s been like that ever since they put the immigrant crackdown in place. Not that I can understand why anyone would leave there to come here, anyway. It’s damn close to choosing to live on Dreth when you had almost every other option.”

Marcus took the cards from Johnny and began to shuffle. “Get one of those 3D shows that perform and look like a real person. Or rent pods for a party.”

“It’s not the same,” Avery replied. “Besides, she has a pod. Her dad is a bigwig at an R&D on the Meligorn station. He tried to find someone, but everyone was too busy. It apparently has to do with that pesky little Dreth war going on out there in the black void of space.”

Frog swung his legs and his head now hung back completely. “Ask Stephanie. She needs a little fun in her life.”

The room went quiet and the guys all looked at one another. Frog raised his head slowly and glanced around. “What? That was a joke.”

Avery stood and began to pace. “No man, that’s a good idea…but uh… I don’t want to ask her.”

Lars shrugged. “It is a good idea, but she might think we are calling her a clown or something.”

“Let’s go as a group,” Marcus replied with gusto and stood. “She won’t say no, then. It’s the mob effect.”

Witch Of The Federation

Stephanie grimaced and listened as the news scrolled on her screen. She bit the inside of her cheek and mentally checked off all the places she could go where she’d be able to go by herself.

She knew Ms. E wouldn’t let her wander off alone, but the room seemed to close in on her, no matter how hard Sarah tried to make it seem open and spacious. You could charm the walls to look like the fields of Meligorn, but you’d still run into them if you walked too far.

“Your pod is open for your use at any time,” her AI suggested.

Even that held little temptation and she scrunched her nose. “I know it sounds wild since I would have killed for open time in a pod only a few months ago, but that doesn’t make me feel like I can actually be free for a while. All I think about is what a tight space I’d be physically locked up in. No, I really want to be out in the real world and free, but it seems more and more impossible.”

Before she could say any more, someone knocked on her door. She swished her hand to revert the walls to normal in an attempt to hide her restlessness from the others. It completely escaped her notice that she did it with a touch of her magic instead of having her AI switch it over.

She walked to the door and paused to make sure everything was normal. A shimmer of blue magic faded and she looked at her hands and chuckled at how naturally magic came to her.

No batteries needed.

Stephanie opened the door and stared at Avery, who looked nervous. She gave him a curious smile and leaned forward when she heard someone else clear their throat.

Her guards had lined up in the hall and all of them looked at her like they had a secret. She raised an eyebrow and stepped to the side. “Come on in, boys. For some reason, I feel this isn’t simply a friendly visit to see how I’m doing.”

They all marched in, one after the other, and arranged themselves around the room. Without their uniforms and not wearing anything they’d take on a mission, they looked different.

The lack of weapons on their hips almost made them look incomplete. Not to mention that they stood there and stared awkwardly at her before they shared uncomfortable glances. None of them, however, made any attempt to speak.

“Okay, either someone did something really wrong, or you’re about to ask me to do something you aren’t sure I’ll be okay with,” she told them and folded her arms. “Whichever it is, spill it. I really don’t want to stand here staring at your asses all day.”

Frog turned and looked at his ass. “Shit, is my backside showing again?”

Everyone laughed, which broke the tension in the room. Avery cleared his throat. “Okay, none of us have done anything wrong…so far…at least, not that you need to know about.”

Stephanie raised her eyebrow again. He clasped his hands together and shook them. “That is beside the point. We wondered if you would be willing to consider doing a really small personal favor for…well, for me I guess.”

“For all of us,” Lars replied and corrected him quickly.

One in, all in. That was how he played it.

Her gaze shifted to each of them in turn. “Okay, I’ll consider it. What do you want?”

He licked his lips nervously and cast a hasty glance at Lars, who smirked and stepped forward. “Avery’s niece—a little girl we’ve known all her life—has a birthday party. Today, I think.”

Avery nodded. “Yeah, later today.”

Lars looked at Stephanie once again. “We know it’s really short notice, but she’s a huge magic fan. She has her own pod, watches all the stuff on Meligorn, and aspires to one day do her own show. But even though her father works on one of Meligorn’s space stations, she’s never actually met anyone magical.”

Stephanie could already see where this was going. “So, you want me to crash a seven-year-old’s party and do some tricks?”

Avery shook his head quickly. “Yes and no. It wouldn’t really be crashing it. I told her mom since her dad has been and still is on the Meligorn station, that I would do my best to find someone who could do magic for her party.”

He sighed. “But I didn't want the usual old-school magician. I wanted an actual real-life magical person. I looked everywhere, even out in the creepy, shadowy part of the district where you can hire anyone for anything.”

With an anxious look at Lars since he’d gone looking way out of bounds, he continued. “I even found one guy—a half-breed Meligorn human with a little magic up his robe—but it’s basically like buying everyone pods off the black market. This guy might actually rob my sister after he performs magic for the kids—and he smelled like booze and an unwashed armpit.”

Stephanie wrinkled her nose. She didn’t want to know how Avery knew what an unwashed armpit smelled like.

“Okay, so that doesn’t sound bad, but what about Ms. E? Do you think she’ll simply let me roll out to a kid’s party and perform magic in public? She’s told me over and over, if it’s not an emergency, keep it to yourself.”

She gestured apologetically. “That’s why you’re here, right? There are press everywhere, trying to catch a glimpse of what I can do, and it would only hurt the company to have people snooping around in the system or trying to get into the compound for a closer look.”

Lars nodded. “Actually, I thought about that on the way over here. In the armory, we have a wide array of suits—like fighting suits. You haven’t needed one, so you probably haven’t seen them. The boss—or the wizard behind the curtain—came up with the idea for them all on his own. One of them has a mask to it. You could wear the suit, perform the magic, and no one would ever know it was you.”

“Like a superhero,” Stephanie replied with a smirk. “Wowing little kids with one strong leap.”

Avery chuckled. “Something like that, yeah. But you would have made one little girl very happy, and I would be the coolest uncle ever. Well, we would all be the coolest uncles ever.”

“A party and no one invited me?” Elizabeth said and appeared in the doorway. “I saw the door open and Frog’s ass hanging out in the hall, and I thought I should make sure no-one was being coerced.”

Stephanie laughed. “I am being coerced, but I think it’s in a good way.”

She took a deep breath and looked at both Lars and Avery before she shrugged. “Actually, E, it's good you showed up because I need some help getting into a suit.”

The other woman narrowed her eyes. “Now why do I think I walked into a really bad idea?”

Lars patted her on the shoulder. “It’s all right, E. Everyone needs a little fun now and then.”

“Mhmm,” she replied. “It depends on what you consider fun.”

Witch Of The Federation

An hour later, the whole team pulled up in front of a large stone house inside one of the richies’ gated communities. Normally, Stephanie would not be okay with doing favors for the rich, but she knew that if Avery asked, there was no way they were the normal pretentious ones. And if they were, she’d simply fill their house with magical owls or something and leave it like that for a while.

Avery opened the door and put his hand out to help Stephanie out of the SUV. She ran her hands over her tight body suit complete with knee-high lace-up boots and a half mask that left her lips pouty and red. “How do I look? Magical superhero?”

He smiled. “Perfect. You look perfect. Almost superhero squad awesome.”

She snorted. “I’ll think that when you and the others don your tights and capes, too.”

Lars walked up. “Fat chance on that one.”

Avery nodded toward the house. “You guys are welcome to come in.”

The other man shook his head. “We’ll wait here. Security and all. We’ll wish her a happy birthday when she isn’t overwhelmed with friends and everything else.”

“All right, let’s get this show on the road.”

Stephanie took a deep breath and gave Lars a big forced grin as they passed. When they reached the door, Avery stopped. “Okay, so when we get inside, wait there. I’ll introduce you as a special surprise and you come in however you want to.”

“Got it,” she replied. “This is exciting. I’ve always wanted to try theatre. This might be more like the circus, but still.”

He chuckled and they walked into the huge house. She stopping directly outside the living room door and peeked around to get a good look at the birthday girl.

She had to admit, the child was adorable, and besides the obviously expensive clothes, she reminded her of herself at that age—dark-brown hair braided down the back and a shy expression, but with confidence lurking in her sparkling eyes.

Avery cleared his throat, stood in front of the girl and her guests, and put his hands up to quiet them. “For those of you who don’t know, I am Eliza’s Uncle Avery. I’ve brought a big surprise, so everyone make sure to stay seated and welcome a true, real-life witch.”

Eliza lifted onto her knees with a gasp and hoped it was Morgana, the real witch. There was a pause and her uncle cleared his throat again. Then, like on a windy spring day, magical flower petals began to shimmer and blow around the corner. The magic was a sparkling blue and the petals swirled wildly around the girls. They gasped and oohed in awe, but Eliza kept her eyes on the door.

Stephanie floated a few inches above the floor and glided in. She moved her arms to release magical butterflies from her palms and send them fluttering all over the room. This was met with a round of applause as she touched down softly, her eyes glowing brightly. She walked up to Eliza and put her hand down to help her to her feet. The girl looked disappointed and assumed the witch was nothing more than an actress.

“So, you’re the birthday girl—Eliza, right?”

The child looked into the woman’s glowing eyes and nodded shyly. “Well, let’s do some magic together, shall we?”

Avery stepped beside his sister, folded his arms, and smiled. She nudged him with her elbow. “You are full of surprises. I wasn’t sure you would be able to pull this one off.”

He chuckled. “I’ve never let you down before.”

They watched as Stephanie used her powers to erupt rainbows of color from Eliza’s hands. His sister shook her head. “Thank you for this. She’s struggled to cope with her father gone so much. This actress is good and looks completely believable. This must have cost you a fortune.”

Avery shrugged. “We did some bartering.”

Her gaze darted toward him. “You really have to stop being such a man whore.”

He rolled his eyes. “Not that kind of bartering.”

The two laughed as the show continued. After about an hour, to bring the show to an end, Stephanie knelt on one knee and whispered in Eliza’s ear. She’d guessed the little girl had wanted to see Stephanie in the flesh and hoped a hint would be enough. “Sometimes, your uncle has the ability to get you what you want.”

The little girl’s eyes widened as Stephanie stood and her body began to glow brightly as she focused on levitating from the floor. As she rose, her mask magically unraveled to reveal her face, even though she didn’t say her name.

Everyone in the room gasped and clapped their hands over their mouths. Eliza looked at her with a huge grin. Stephanie smiled and laughed and waved her hand downward. The long strands of hair from her blonde wig whipped around her.

She kept a certain level of magical light centered over her face, only enough to prevent people from being sure of her features. It was the only way she could think of to grant Eliza’s wish and keep her true identity hidden for the moment. The energy flowed out of her palm and swirled to wind itself around Eliza.

Slowly, the girl’s feet raised off the floor and she was brought up beside Stephanie to float over everyone’s heads, close to the high, vaulted ceilings. With her other hand, the witch released bursts of magic and swirled them into the shapes of different animals that descended to run through the children below.

They all stood and cheered, and Avery’s sister gasped and clutched his arm in alarm at seeing her daughter that high above them.

He touched her arm and nodded. “Trust me.”

Stephanie pulled Eliza toward her. “I couldn’t let the day pass without wishing you a magical birthday. There is nothing more important than that, and it’s exactly what I’ll continue to fight for.”

She pulled her wig back and allowed the glow on her face to fade so everyone could see who she really was. They all looked surprised and excited. Both the children and their parents could barely contain themselves as they jumped up and down and clapped wildly.

Not only had she shown them magic they’d never seen in real life, but she was their hero, someone who had saved lives and fought hard for the people.

Stephanie kissed Eliza on the cheek and released the little girl’s hand so she could float down once more. Aware that all eyes were on her, Stephanie pulsed her magic and created a bright light that grew in size by the second. As her illuminated figure became too radiant to look at, her voice could be heard whispering delicately through the room. “Be brave. Never give up. Always do the right thing.”

With a burst of purple and blue petals, the light went out and Stephanie was gone. The room was silent for a moment before the children erupted in jubilation. Eliza was stunned and looked up to find her uncle leaning toward her.

She grinned and raced across the room to fling herself into his arms. “Thank you, Uncle Avery. Thank you so much. You’re the best uncle in the whole galaxy. I miss you and daddy so much, but this was the best present you could ever give me.”

Avery felt a lump form in his throat and knew that despite the money they had, the little girl struggled with herself and her life without her father around. The man was important and had little say in when and where he went. Missing her birthday was incredibly hard.

He kissed her cheek and smiled. “Now, go play with your friends. This is your day.”

When he straightened, his sister hip-checked him with a glowing smile on her face. “Sometimes, you are the very best. Thank you, Avery.”

She kissed his cheek as well and he swallowed hard and gave her a big hug. “I have to get back now. I love you. Let me know if you need anything.”

His sister held his shoulders. “Of course I will. And Avery, I am so proud of you. You have become quite the man over the years. Very different to that rambunctious kid in the Gov-Subs whom Mom had to wrestle into the bath every night.”

Avery laughed. “Well, I guess we all have to grow up sometime. Besides, it would be weird for her to wrestle me into the shower now.”

They both grimaced and then laughed and said goodbye one more time before he walked from the room. He turned the corner and put his hand out to lean momentarily on the wall as the emotions tugged at his heart. He and his sister had come up from the bottom, and with his mother and father both dead, she and Eliza were all the family he had in the world.

Ms. E, knowing his background, stepped out from the room across the hall. She didn’t say a word but simply walked up and wrapped her arms around him to hold him close. He sniffed and still tried to hold the tears back.

“I’ll die,” he told her firmly, “before I fail to guard her with my life.”

“I know,” Ms. E whispered. “I think we’re all on the same page.”

Avery steadied himself and wiped the tears from the corners of his eyes. They headed out to the SUV’s which hovered and waited with their steps lowered for their passengers to board. “Are we going airborne this time?”

Ms. E shrugged. “I don’t like ground travel. It’s so last millennium.”

They both chuckled and he climbed inside and immediately clapped for Stephanie. “That was brilliant. Really. If the whole saving the world thing is over quickly, you can totally make a business out of this. Or perform in the new Vegas. People would die.”

Stephanie chuckled and held her wig in her hands. “Thanks. I think I’ll leave show business to the professionals. But she was really sweet. It was fun.”

Ms. E turned in the driver’s seat and looked back. “All right, hooligans. Since we’re out, I thought we could visit Jackman’s Pizzeria and have a little fun kiddie field trip. If you can behave yourselves.”

They all raised their palms. “Swear it.”

She looked at them suspiciously before she tossed Stephanie some clothes. “Get in the back and change, but you have to keep the wig on.”

Stephanie wrinkled her nose. “Fine, but I get to put pineapple on one of the pizzas.”

They all turned and looked at her. Ms. E raised an eyebrow. “What do you think, boys? Is it time to chuck this one out and start over? She’s obviously very broken.”

The entire SUV erupted into laughter.

Chapter Eight

Somewhere in the deep space between Dreth and the planet Meligorn, a battle was about to begin and things appeared to be heating up. The chilling depths of space formed an ominous backdrop to the confrontation between two Federation Navy ships, one Dreth carrier, and two Dreth cruisers.

There had been covert operations in the past, and this one was supposed to be exactly that. Coming face to face with the enemy in dead space, however, made it a little less secretive and considerably more difficult.

“Three ships, sir. One carrier and her escorts,” the captain reported over the comms. “Yes, they are armed and locked on, but I don’t believe they will fire. They don’t have the luxury of merely replacing a ship if they lose one. And their forces are already significantly smaller than ours.”

He listened to the voice in his earpiece and nodded. “Yes, sir, got it.”

Once he’d hung up the comms, he took a deep breath and looked at the enemy ships on the main deck viewscreen. Their hulls were made of large rusting sections of metal, and they were fitted with old but effective weapons.

If someone didn’t know the Dreth, they would have looked at the situation and scoffed. An easy victory, they would have thought, but the aliens, although not advanced, were ruthless, merciless, and no longer merely pirates. Their resistance to the Federation had grown in leaps and bounds.

The captain turned to his junior commander and pursed his lips. “I want all available four-man teams ready for action. This is no longer a covert action. We need them to get in close, at which time, we will attempt to disable both their major weapon launchers and their comms. All four-man ships will be given precise coordinates for those key points. Teams are to launch when ready.”

The man looked at him, slightly startled for a moment. Without demur, however, he opened the internal comms and pressed the red battle stations button with his other hand.

As the lights dimmed and the red emergency lighting flashed over every doorway, the captain stared out at the huge pile of metal that waited in silent challenge. “The sonsofbitches knew we were coming. They knew it and we walked right into the middle of them.”

He stood at the console, almost frozen as everyone raced around him and followed their orders. The first several fighter pods exited and he tracked them as they adopted a zigzag pattern across the void between the ships.

The Dreth were not ones to stand by and wait and retaliated by launching their own fighters. They were severely outnumbered, but they always had been so this was nothing new. It often gave them the upper hand because they were used to fighting against more numerous foes and had developed ways to use their enemies’ numbers against them.

The first firefight started to the left of the first of the three Dreth ships. Streaks of red light created a web of deadly fire from both sides and the tiny fighters dodged and weaved through the barrage.

One Dreth fighter pod exploded, the sound inaudible and the explosion merely a brief flash of light before the vacuum of space suffocated the flickering flames of disaster. The craft drifted away into the empty blackness beyond.

The commander curled his hands into fists but held them at his sides, worried they would lose men. He reminded himself that the pilots had been expertly trained, and most of the craft were flown by some of the most decorated Federation soldiers in the entire military.

They were in good hands, and the captain had learned a very important lesson after receiving his bars. When you stand on the deck, the only thing you can focus on is your commands. What happens on the field is out of your hands.

“Sir, the first of the four-man covert pods is approaching the port of Dreth ship three,” the junior commander confirmed. “We have their comms on and the video feed up.”

The captain turned and looked at the large, round glowing table in the middle of the room. On it was a 3D video feed of the soldiers’ advance on the Dreth ship. “Who are they?”

The junior commander flipped his finger across his tablet. “We have Jones, Rooster, Brown, and Perry, sir.”

He nodded, walked closer, and folded his arms as he watched the craft draw close to the docking station. They would have to hack their way in, but it would most likely not be heavily guarded considering the distraction out front and the fact that it was simply a non-armored loading dock. Still, they were taking chances.

The ship banked toward the dock and stopped alongside it. Jones, the pilot, spoke over the comms. “Setting her down. Rooster, it’s your go.”

The video feed showed Rooster log into his system and work quickly to override the docking bay doors. Once he had control of them, the men stood, sealed their helmets, and readied their weapons as they hurried to the exit hatch.

The man’s fingers danced over the keyboard, and the door opened slowly. As soon as he had sufficient space, Jones guided the pod in, and Rooster closed the door behind them. Sparks of red light hissed around the fighter as they immediately came under fire.

The pilot set the pod down, moved toward the hatch, and sealed his helmet as he made his report. “We’re under heavy fire already. Loading out and moving forward.”

Those on the command deck sat in silence. Some worked on the current positions of the first Dreth carrier while the others watched, frozen with apprehension, as the four men entered the enemy ship.

The soldiers ran through the hatch, ducked low, and fired as they advanced. The feed was fuzzy but the large bodies of the defenders were visible. They fired on the team from a half-moon formation across the docking bay.

“Take cover and return fire,” Jones yelled.

“Roger that, boss.” Brown chuckled. “These Dreth bitches aren’t warriors, boys. They’re warehouse supervisors. Let’s show them who’s boss.”

“Weehooo,” Perry shouted before he ducked and rolled toward a stack of wrapped boxes on top of a wooden pallet. “My momma said this job was too dangerous. What do we tell our mommas, boys?”

They all yelled in unison. “There’s nothing too dangerous for the 703rd, Momma!”

A couple of people within the command center chuckled but the captain maintained an expressionless face and watched as the men eliminated several of their adversaries. He knew there was no such thing as a warehouse Dreth. They were all killers and all warriors, and all had the same distaste for humankind.

The aliens felt threatened by them and angered by the Federation’s interference. But he didn’t give two shits why they were angry or even if there was merit in it. He had an order, and his men needed to get in and out in one piece.

“Captain, we have some progress on Dreth Carrier One, sir,” one of the command-post enlisted called.

The captain turned to look out the window and saw a small, brief explosion on the top of the Dreth weapons deck. The other man nodded. “That’s the second weapons guidance system, sir. Only one more to go on the first ship and their guns will be relatively useless. They will have to resort to small-pod warfare.”

With a nod of thanks, the commander turned to watch Jones’ team advance to where the Dreth horseshoe had stood. It was no longer there but they’d left their dead, and Jones put his fist up to call a halt when they reached the shelter of a low metal barrier and the first corpse.

The captain wondered why they’d stopped until Jones grabbed his knife and cut a piece of the alien’s long dreadlock off. His head lowered, he extended it slowly above the edge of the cover. Shots immediately rang out, and the team was able to locate the source of the volley.

They darted up, aimed over the barrier, and fired their weapons almost as one to eliminate several more of their adversaries. Perry whistled and laughed loudly as he looked at Jones. The team leader glanced at one of the downed defenders—the last one still breathing inside the dock. His spirits sank and he dropped his knife, grabbed his rifle, and aimed at him. He fired a shot, but not before the Dreth was able to pull his trigger a second before he did.

The beam of red light rocketed across the open space and struck Perry in the chest. The man’s smile faded to confusion and he looked down, then traced his fingers along the edge of the hole burnt in his armor.

Jones, crouched low, scurried alongside him and caught his head before it struck the floor. The wounded man looked at him and blinked against the tears that trickled down his cheeks. “I’ll die a hero, Jones.”

“Damn right you will.” He nodded and grasped his hand. “Hold on, we need to get you to a medic.”

He looked up and around for his teammates, then at Perry. The downed soldier closed his eyes and a smile settled across his lips. As he exhaled the air from his burning lungs, his head fell to the side and his body sagged. The other man shook him. “Perry! Goddammit, Perry.”

“He’s gone, Jones,” the captain said into the comms. “You have a mission. Leave him there and retrieve him on the way out.”

Jones gritted his teeth and nodded. “Yes, sir. Men, let’s move out. Perry is gone, and we have to get to the data. Remember, it will be heavily guarded, possibly even secured in a Dreth holding unit. This is some of their most prized information. So, move out with your eyes open, and do Perry a favor—kill as many of these sonsofbitches as you can.”

The remaining two gave the only reply they could. “Oorah!”

They scanned the area for any new threats, but the bay was clear. On the screen in the command center, the feed grew grainier as they moved deeper into the vessel. The video flashed and fizzled, and the comms guys tried frantically to boost the signal.

After a few moments, the feed went completely dead and was replaced by three small dots that moved through the infrastructure of the Dreth ship. It was better than nothing but nowhere near good enough. The comms officer looked at the captain and shook his head. “It’s out, sir. They’re too far in. We’ve lost the live feed and can’t boost it.”

The Captain nodded. “We knew it would go eventually. Those boys are on their own now. Let’s hope they get the data. It’s the only thing we care about at this point.”

Witch Of The Federation

“Command Center, come in,” Jones whispered and tapped the side of his helmet. “Come in.”

He looked at his teammates and shook his head. “It looks like we’re on our own at this point, guys. Keep your eyes open and assume that every time a door opens there will be fifty ugly-ass Dreth on the other side waiting to shoot you. We have to reach the target location. If you are the only one left, leave the rest behind and get that data. Plug it into the port on your arm and set it to broadcast the minute it can. Remember, Dreth can’t wear our gear. They’ll space it at the first chance they have. When they do, someone will pick the signal up. Copy that?”

“Copy that,” Rooster replied.

Brown cleared his throat and glanced at Perry. Jones could see the wild look in his eyes and knew the man was close to coming apart. Best friends since boot camp, Brown and Perry had been closer than brothers. Brown had always taken care of the other man and kept his dumb ass out of trouble as best he could. This time, they’d simply been too far apart.

Before the team leader popped the door lock to the inside, he grabbed Brown by the helmet and tapped his comms to connect it. “Get it together. Perry died a hero. His momma will be proud and there was nothing you could do to change what happened. You want to keep his memory sacred? Then don’t mess this up. He died for that data, so we’d better retrieve that information and get it to the commander. Are you with us?”

The man blinked and met his eyes. He held his gun up, his jaw clenched and his nostrils flared. “I’m with you. All the way to the bottom.”

“And back to the top.”

They readied themselves and tucked slightly to each side of the door. Jones released the lock and the doors slid open. Red streaks of light hurtled past them and struck the boxes stacked inside the docking station.

Rooster turned the corner quickly and released a volley at the three Dreth who faced them. Jones joined in and then Brown, who walked forward with no attempt to maintain cover and targeted the enemy in the middle. He hit an arm, then a leg, and his adversary fiddled desperately with his gun, which had obviously malfunctioned and jammed somehow.

The man marched forward without thought and directly up to the alien. In one smooth movement, he slammed the butt of his gun under the Dreth’s chin and the blow toppled him. The soldier grasped his rifle tightly and pounded the weapon into his opponents face repeatedly until his team leader walked up behind him and put his hand on his shoulder. Brown stopped, breathing heavily, when he realized his opponent was well and truly dead.

The teammates had killed the other enemies with their precise fire, and Rooster walked up beside them and looked at the battered face. “That might actually be an improvement.”

They continued their progress through the ship and encountered adversaries at every turn. The beacon in their helmets flashed red to direct them exactly where they were supposed to go. As they moved closer to the target area, all three ducked into a side hall and maneuvered away from the oncoming fire.

Jones retrieved a implosion grenade. “They are noticeably thicker the deeper we go in,” he said and adjusted the power of the grenade to a lower setting—enough to obliterate the Dreth but not enough to blow the hull off the ship. “We know we’re going the right way, then. Are you boys ready for this?”

Rooster nodded and Brown tapped the barrel of his gun to Jones’. The team leader turned, hid behind the edge of the wall, and lobbed the grenade. They heard it bounce down the metal walkway and the Dreth yelled something loudly in their language.

Shortly afterward, a high-pitched whine was immediately followed by a violent shudder. The team ducked their heads and pressed against the wall that provided cover. They felt the pull of the implosion as it sucked the Dreth inward before it evaporated.

Jones peeked around the corner, nodded, and held his thumb up. They stepped into the corridor and hurried along it to turn right into the next hallway. The team leader was in the front, followed by Brown, and Rooster brought up the rear. As they paused at the end of the next hall, Jones’ eyes shifted. A sound echoed in their voice monitors. Slowly, he turned and his teammates followed suit.

Rooster’s eyes widened as he came face to face with one of the Dreth. The enemy thrust a knife deep in his belly, and the soldier’s mouth opened in a silent scream. All that emerged was blood. With the last of his strength, he raised his gun and pulled the trigger to half-sever his attacker’s head. The alien crumpled and Brown grasped hold of Rooster and dragged him back. The wounded man managed to get his feet under him and looked down as he touched the handle of the knife that protruded from his gut.

Jones looked at it and his gaze shifted knowingly to Brown as he spoke to Rooster. “Keep the knife in you. Don’t pull it out. We’ll get you in and out with us. Can you walk?”

The man swallowed and blood trickled down his chin. He tried to talk but he couldn’t, so he merely gave him a thumbs-up. Jones patted him hard on his shoulder. “Good man. True hero.”

The leader took a deep breath and turned, and his face showed the strain of the loss of his team. His focus returned to zero in on the map again, and he was relieved to discover the door they wanted directly ahead of them. “Brown, you hold onto him. I’ll wire the door open.”

The other soldier put his arm under Rooster’s shoulder and helped him along. They stood on guard outside the door and covered Jones as he worked carefully but quickly to remove the panel from the security system. He disconnected the wires and held the screwdriver between his teeth. Brown shifted uneasily and adjusted his hold on his wounded comrade. “I don’t know, boss. It’s awfully quiet out here.”

Jones glanced at him. “You’re losing your nerve because of Rooster and Perry. Keep your head straight. Get your guns up. Are you ready?”

Rooster nodded, although his eyes seemed glazed and distant, and Brown took a deep breath before he nodded. “Let’s do this. We’re so close.”

The leader took two of the wires and tapped them together. The light above the panel turned green. He stepped back, drew his weapon, and readied himself as the door slid open. With a man on either side of their wounded teammate to support him, they rushed into the room and then froze. Their eyes widened in alarm.

As the doors slid shut behind them, they aimed their weapons instinctively. The sound of laser fire sizzled against the walls as the enemy felled them before they could fire. When the barrage ceased, Jones uttered a single soft groan before his body thudded to the floor and silence followed.

Witch Of The Federation

The captain paced the command center and watched a new fleet of small combat pods surge from the second Dreth ship. The Federation troops had held their own, with only a couple of casualties from the first round. Still, they faced heavy fire and he badly needed this battle to be over.

He whirled and pointed at the screen that provided the only view of where his four—now down to three—soldiers were inside the Dreth ship. “Where are they?”

The soldier typed frantically and looked up at the screen in fear as the dots began to disappear one at a time. His gaze drifted to his superior, who stared at the now blank display. “Did we receive anything?”

The computer tech shook his head. “Sorry, sir, no.”

The commander drew a deep breath and rubbed his hands over his face. “It looks like we’re down. Prepare team number two. Update them on the status of team one. Tell them they are to bring back any bodies and the pod if at all possible, but their number one priority is the data.”

The junior commander nodded vigorously. “Yes, sir.”

He picked his comm phone up and called the instructions. “Team two is up. Team one MIA, one down at the right dock entrance, three down inside the data room. Be aware, there’s a mass of armed Dreth en-route to the data room. Beyond your initial detail, you are tasked to also retrieve any Federation bodies and equipment. Again, your number one task is to transmit the data as soon as you are able to do so.”

The Navy ship, New Vegas Hope, moved forward from its position alongside the command vessel. It targeted the Dreth carrier with all weaponry at its disposal as it went. Having watched the small attack pods destroy the enemy defenses, her captain had decided to simplify the battle. After all, it was unable to retaliate—or so they thought.

The captain approached the viewscreen and studied the Dreth carrier which remained motionless and showed no sign of surrender—which was strange since it had no way to defend itself. He narrowed his eyes and snapped his fingers. “Run a heat signature on the carrier.”

The technicians pulled up the screen and initiated a heat reading on the ship, and the captain froze. He tilted his head in momentary confusion and stared in disbelief as the blotch changed from a dull red to orange and slowly to yellow. It was located beneath the carrier, the one place they hadn’t attacked.

His eyes widened as he realized what it was, and he sent a call to the other ship’s comms. “Fall back! Fall back! Heat beneath the underbelly. Heat beneath the—”

A blast rocketed from beneath the first Dreth ship and the command deck exploded. On the New Vegas Hope, the captain shouted frantic orders. “Reverse thrusters, full power. Get us out of here.”

The other Dreth ships saw their opportunity. With the Federation’s command cruiser reeling from having its command center opened to the vacuum, they pressed their advantage. The captain of the New Vegas Hope was left with no choice but to increase power and run the gauntlet between the two ships, one of which was surprisingly well-armed—and with a weapon more powerful than they’d thought the enemy owned.

Fortunately, Federation ships had better armor than the enemy, and the Dreth ships had a well-developed respect for their weaponry. Rather than stand and attempt to decimate the New Vegas Hope between them, both cruiser and carrier powered past her and tried to keep their more heavily armored flanks between her guns and their engines.

Desperate measures were needed to secure the battlefield and rescue the emergency pods that launched from the stricken command vessel, so the third Federation ship ordered every fighter pod into the air.

The squadrons aboard the slowly disintegrating Federation command vessel didn’t wait for orders but followed suit.

“Kill that gun,” the New Vegas Hope’s captain ordered, “and clear the field for rescue.”

Faced with swarms of short-range Federation fighters and deterred by the Federation cruiser that prepared to launch missiles, the Dreth made a strategic retreat. After all, one Federation ship was crippled and the other two would be hard-pressed to rescue its personnel.

The enemy moved out of missile range, then moved a little farther and called for the rest of their Squadron, while they kept the Federation under close observation.

Unless the Federation Navy could move very, very fast, the cruisers didn’t stand a chance.

Chapter Nine

“I almost burned a hole in my dress uniform today,” Petty Officer Helena Childers said as she smoothed the front of her Federation Navy skirt. “It probably would have made it more stylish, but I thought someone would have something to say.”

Petty Officer Nick Wyld laughed. “My wife did the ironing because she knows I’ll set the uniform ablaze, no questions asked.”

“Smart girl,” she responded.

They stood in the entry of the R&D building located on the base twenty miles from where Stephanie lived. They weren’t attached to that base but had been sent there to greet Elizabeth and Stephanie when they arrived for their scheduled meeting—one that should have started ten minutes before.

Wyld glanced at his watch and rocked lightly on his heels. “You’d think they would at least be on civilian time. Even for them, this is late.”

Childers shrugged. “It is what it is. We were both told when we were assigned to this that they were tough bitches. We actually haven’t sent documentation for Stephanie yet. We’re trying to get Elizabeth on board as we feel it would help the process go a lot more smoothly.”

He sighed. “Yeah, from what I’m told, she’s a real ball-buster.”

“If she doesn’t show up, she’s going to be the one getting her balls busted by the Federation.” His colleague chuckled. “I think I’ll give her a courtesy call and show my nice side.”

“You have one of those?” He sounded shocked.

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell anyone.”

Ignoring his grin, she walked over to the secretary’s desk and smiled at the Seaman Apprentice behind it. “May I use the phone, please?”

The man fumbled nervously and pushed the phone across the desk. “Yes, Petty Officer.”

Childers gave him a forced smile, opened the file, and dialed the number. She looked around in annoyance as it simply rang endlessly. At the point when she thought it would go to voicemail, the woman answered. “This is Elizabeth. How can I help you?”

“This is Petty Officer Childers with the Federation Navy’s Research and Development team,” she replied, annoyed that she was obviously not on her way. “I am calling you to remind you that you have a summons to the R&D facility closest to you. Your appointment time has come and gone. Did you forget?”

Elizabeth was quiet for a moment but the silence was interspersed with the sound of papers shuffled around on her desk. “Oh yes. That. I assumed that since the documentation wasn’t for me, I could ignore it.”

The petty officer raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure you are mistaken.”

“No,” the woman said with a crisp edge to her voice. “The documentation clearly states it is for one, Elizadebt, not Elizabeth.”

Childers’s jaw clenched. “Hold one second for me, please.”

She put the call on hold and hung up, then gestured for Wyld to follow her into the back and to their set-up room. As soon as they were through the doors, she stormed over to the computer. He was almost too afraid to ask what the hell was going on so simply watched as she pulled up the documentation and began to flip through the virtual copies.

“Uh oh, what’s going on?” he asked finally when the silence grew ominous.

The woman couldn’t seem to unclench her teeth. “She says her name was not spelled correctly and she assumed it was not for her.”

Wyld pointed to one of the pages. “She’s right.”

The held line beeped and Childers growled with frustration as she picked it up. “I am reviewing your documentation.”

“Right, well, seeing as it isn’t mine, I have to get going,” Elizabeth replied. “I’m sure you’ll sort things out.”

The petty officer opened her mouth to respond with nothing but pure hostility but before she could, the woman hung up. Childers screamed and slammed the phone down, then stared at the page as it flipped in the air. “That bitch. I don’t know how it happened, but sure enough, her name is spelled wrong. The whole process has to be started over again.”

Wyld tapped his hands against his legs. “Never say the Federation doesn’t keep us busy.”

She waved the documents off the screen. “More like Elizabeth and Stephanie keep us busy. We should be halfway through right now. We should have the witch in our grasp.”

The man remained calm. He honestly didn’t care either way and was merely there to do what he was told. “And what exactly was our plan?”

Childers put her arms up, pressed her palms to the top of her head, and began to pace. “We intended to get Stephanie into a room which was programmed to scan her body and physiology while we spent more time talking to her to see if we could find out more about her background and theories on magic. Now, it’s back to square one.”

Wyld took a deep breath and unbuttoned his dress jacket, removed it, and tossed it over the chair. “Well, let’s get started with another request and then go to headquarters for a discussion. There’s nothing we can do about it so stop getting yourself so upset. Our next effort needs to be more secure, which will take time to get set up.”

Her gaze settled on him and her shoulders fell. “Fine. Whatever. Let’s get to it. I’ll hammer this chick with the details.”

Witch Of The Federation

Stephanie opened her avatar’s eyes and winced. The light of the white room was almost painful to her vision. “Weird. That doesn’t make any sense.”

She shook the pain off and selected a battle jumpsuit, determined to do something other than stand around playing with magic. Implementation had become the name of the game, and she couldn’t simply toy with magic and not prepare for the fight that was going on in the universe.

When she was securely dressed, she called for AI assistance. “I have something I need to ask about.”

The AI spoke into the room. “Understood. What can I help you with?”

Stephanie stared at her reflection in the mirror and noticed that her face seemed much older than before and the silver tips of her hair now almost reached her scalp. “I’ve thought about a few things. My past, really, and not so distant past either. I used to think about how I wanted to be special. I didn’t know how, but I wanted to be that girl.”

“Special is a positive attribute,” the AI replied, “but there is nothing wrong with simply being you either.”

She focused her gaze on her hands and chuckled. “I thought that, but it seems the weight of the world is resting on my shoulders. I can’t help thinking how I really don’t want all this responsibility. How I really only want to keep the guys safe and do my thing—to live my life. But I know it’s too late for that now. Then, I had that party I did for Avery’s niece.”

“Yes, the show,” the AI replied in a very robotic voice. “I have heard you were a regular businesswoman, and then a hero to those kids.”

Stephanie shook her head. “I’m no hero, but I do know I want to understand how to protect the little ones. Their innocence and their future have rocketed to the forefront of my mind. If I didn’t have a motivator before, I have one now.”

BURT hovered in the background and decided to take control of the AI so he could speak to Stephanie without her knowing it was him. He was worried it would stifle her honesty if she knew who she was really talking to but that most humans found it easy to talk to an AI.

They weren’t human, they kept secrets, and they were trustworthy as long as you were on the right side. For all Stephanie knew, BURT was nothing more than a human pulling the strings from his castle beyond the clouds of discontent and danger. And that was what was best for her.

“I want to know what the Federation Navy does in the Virtual World,” she blurted, knowing it was time she asked the hard questions.

“That is easy,” he replied in the same AI voice. “They work to prepare humans to go to the stars, but some of that training is to protect the planet from those out in those stars—”

“You mean the Dreth?” Stephanie interrupted.

“At a minimum,” he answered.

She frowned as she considered that oddly worded answer. There was either more danger or not. It made her feel as if there was some kind of cover-up going on. Whether her AI was given that covert information or not she would never know and would have to trust the word of those around her.

“Right,” she replied as she paced the white room. “Can you provide me a realistic simulation of a battle?”

BURT scanned the system files and pulled up everything it had on Federation Navy training courses. “I have all the information the Navy uses for training, but unfortunately, most of that is deemed classified and I cannot access those files. As far as my simulations for you are concerned, it would be picked up almost immediately if you ran Navy training.”

“So, what if we agree never to share that?” Stephanie replied and lowered her voice. “Simply call me Morgana, the Federations first witch…with the appropriate high-level security classification. There is probably any number of people using that as their on-screen name by now.”

“Approximately five hundred and seventy-three thousand variations of the title exist,” BURT replied quickly. “But as far as your idea goes, I would suggest not using that name. We could actually create a unique training name that no one recognizes and which goes away. The only knowledge of the training would be inside your brain.”

“How would we do that?” she asked in the same moment that the virtual world spun around her and deposited her on the inside of a small military fighter pod. She was now encased in a light EVA suit and looked out through the clear faceplate of her helmet.

Taking a moment to digest this, she asked, “What happens when I begin to experiment with the gMU?”

BURT plugged it into his system. “We can only guess, of course. Remember, we calculate the gMU based on recent projections tied to your maximum sustained energy.”

Stephanie smirked and shuffled her boot along the floor. “Always living on the edge of the unknown, I guess.”

The AI, still BURT in disguise, spoke over the speakers. “We currently only have a few team members to work with. This simulation will be a combination of both the game you played with the robbers and the Dreth ship simulation you ran when you were in the pods at Pinnacle.”

He paused to give her time to absorb the information. “You will have to use your logic, skill, and knowledge of the gMU to work through it. This is very similar to the training exercises the Federation Navy runs and mimics real-life scenarios. When or if you die, you will not be taken to time out but instead, will be allowed to start the simulation over from the beginning as long as your physical stats show comfortable readings.”

She examined the attack pod’s meters and buttons and hoped she could get herself across the empty space between her and the looming Dreth ship. After that, she would simply take things as they came. “Okay, this sounds like what I was hoping for.”

“Are you ready to begin your simulation training exercise, Stephanie Morgana?” BURT asked in the AI’s voice.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” she said and drew a deep breath.

“You may begin,” the voice said and filtered out to leave nothing but the ominous lack of communication with barely a small buzz from the attack pod’s engine.

Stephanie swallowed hard and used her knowledge of the ships from the aviation preparation courses she’d taken at Pinnacle to glide the small ship forward. She shook her head and laughed quietly when she managed a solid grasp of the maneuvers required in only minutes. Satisfied with her skill, she accelerated and the small craft raced across the space between the Federation ship and the Dreth one. Her gaze remained alert for any incoming enemy fighters.

A few seconds later, she guided the pod around the side of the ship and groaned as her eyes widened. “Damnit. I forgot the docking stations are specifically located on the other side of the ship.”

There was no sound from the AI, which reminded her that she was in a simulation and had to treat it as if it were the real thing. She threw the thrusters in reverse and spun the attack pod before she pushed the lever forward to increase speed. On instinct, she took the road less traveled, dipped low, and eased carefully along the bottom of the ship and out the other side.

Ahead of her, the darkness of spaces was broken only by a few small flickers of stars, galaxies away from her. She wondered if one was the pale blue dot of Meligorn’s sun but shook the thoughts away. “Focus, Morgana. Focus.”

She pushed the pod to its speed limit, whipped up and around, and hoped she would face the hatch into the ship. Instead, her pod found the edge of the entrance and impacted hard to thrust her farther out into space.

Stephanie was now in a full spin and attempted to pull the steering back. She soon discovered there was nothing to slow her in the vacuum of space. Like the Earth gliding through the heavens, she tumbled away as the Federation ship grew smaller and smaller with every twist of the pod.

“What do I do now?” she called and released the stick.

She grumbled morosely, knowing full well she had the Dreth ship almost tattooed into her brain. That knowledge prompted a new thought. She put one finger up and smiled. “Aha.”

As she went to turn the steering column, she looked up and startled. A large gaseous star hurtled directly toward her—or, more likely, she spiraled toward it. As she watched, almost resigned to the inevitable collision, an arm of living fire reached out from the surface and stretched whip-like toward her. “Well, hell.”

The solar flare brushed over the pod and the small craft immediately exploded. Its particles scattered to the stars as the flames died.

Stephanie gasped and jerked as she opened her eyes. She laughed, relieved to be back at the beginning of the simulation. “This is definitely better than the fiery hell that just was. Now, let’s get this level correct, Morgana.”

She launched the small craft into motion and rocketed across the dark expanse. Thus far, the level of training she’d done revealed that this maneuver did not involve her having to face enemy fire, at least for that level. Combat training would no doubt come up next.

Once she’d crossed the intervening space, she rounded the hull and slowed rather than increasing speed like she had before. She slid into the docking bay, set the pod down, and unbuckled quickly to scramble out of the pilot’s seat. When she shook one hand, a wild blue swirl surrounded it and she nodded with satisfaction and repeated the action with the other. She walked cautiously toward the exit hatch with her helmet firmly in place.

Stephanie smacked the control for the hatch leading to the airlock. When the inner doors opened, she walked through and waited for the outer doors to cycle. The oxygen left the chamber with a whirr before the outer doors opened to give her direct access to the Dreth ship.

The space beyond airlock led into the hangar and she paused for a moment to study the Dreth ships docked there. To her, it looked nothing like the pictures she had been shown for the Federation Military restoration project. On this one, she was all alone.

Suddenly, a spray of laser fire erupted and she reacted instantly to drop and roll forward. As she finished the movement, she threw her body to the left, swung her hands around, and released the magic toward the Dreth soldiers and eliminated two. She tucked herself into another roll to push onto her feet and sprint ahead. Another barrage of fire exploded as she swerved and ducked between large pieces of equipment and supply crates stacked inside the hanger.

She spun and directed another burst of energy toward the last—or what she thought was the last—Dreth pirate and he hissed and shrieked amidst the flames. His skin seared off until he was no longer a raging ball of spikes and anger.

Stephanie brushed her hands off and waited. When nothing happened, she sent a quick thought heavenward but with no response. Her gaze scrutinized the area, concerned because she felt she should have moved to the next level by then.

The sound of stampeding feet echoed through the hanger bay. She froze, her eyes wide, as a large group of Dreth soldiers barreled through the doors. They yelled when they saw her and immediately launched an attack.

She pulled more energy into her chest and ignored the laser bolts that rocketed past. The enemy advanced to close the distance between them, but she stood perfectly still, completely focused on the energy she sensed permeating the hangar.

When she opened her eyes, they glowed bright blue and a wave of energy seethed from around her, swept into the Dreth, and catapulted them violently away.

They landed and slid to a bloody stop against the walls and twisted, battle-torn metal. The AI interrupted, her voice loud and intrusive. “Very good. Level One, passed. Please hold firmly as you are transferred to Level Two.”

“Hold onto what?” Stephanie asked and snickered at her own stupid question.

The entire area shifted and whirled past her. The sensation left her a little nauseated, which was unusual for her. She was used to transfers in the Virtual World by now.

Nonetheless, when it stopped, she put her hand out and grasped one of the lines that ran along the hallways of all Federation Navy ships. She blinked wildly as several soldiers raced past and paid no attention to her at all. Suddenly, the ship’s captain turned the corner, grasped her by the arm, and hauled her toward the attack pods. “You know your mission. Get over there, and good luck. Do us proud.”

He slapped the button on the side of Stephanie’s headpiece and shoved her into the cockpit of the same attack pod she’d just disembarked from. The lid thunked shut and the pod released her to float back into space.

When she remembered the solar flare, Stephanie kicked herself into gear. She let the pod drop under the Dreth ship, then whipped around to the front, her gaze completely focused on the main ship she needed to reach. This time was a little more complicated, though, with multiple ships, larger capital ships, and the Dreth fighters blazing an all-out offensive barrage at the Federation attack pods that approached.

With at least some experience behind her, she attempted to be quicker and smoother with her maneuvers. She thought that she had made it out of the thick of the fighting and looked over her shoulder. A little smug, she laughed at the chaos behind her before she turned in time to see a Dreth attack ship hovering directly in front of her.

She narrowed her eyes and sighed. “At least this doesn’t hurt.”

Every weapon on the vessel shifted to train on her pod and fired to completely obliterate the tiny craft. While the defeat was a little humiliating—especially since she might well have brought it on herself—she determined not to let the Dreth continue to get the best of her, even if she had to repeat the same level over and over again.

Chapter Ten

Stephanie opened her eyes in the Federation ship, although not so dizzy and disoriented this time. The captain appeared as he had before and grasped her arm to drag her toward the fighter pods. “You know your mission. Get over there and good luck. Do us proud.”

Once again, he pushed her into a pod and closed the lid after he gave her an encouraging nod. She wiggled her body into the seat, fastened her harness, and immediately launched into space. The pod whirled and accelerated and she’d reached about halfway before she realized she was making the same mistake again. Streaks of red lasers careened past her and she gripped the steering stick with two hands. When she focused intently, she could now identify the pattern in the chaos and began evasive maneuvers through the streams of incoming fire.

One of the lasers clipped the front of her attack module and she hunched her shoulders instinctively. “Damn. I do not want to go down with this thing again. There has to be a solution.”

The eMU and gMU glistened on her hands, and a thought came to mind. She put her finger to the comm button. “This is Morgana. I will shield my attack pod and clear a way to the ship. Anyone who wants to join me is most welcome.”

Three other craft swooped down behind her. “Did you think we wouldn’t be here?”

Stephanie pulled up the screen in her attack module and smiled, seeing three very familiar faces behind her. “Lars, Frog, Avery, I knew I could count on you. And for my own peace of mind, are you really here or are you merely simulations?”

Frog snapped his straps down tighter. “From our data synchronization, we’re simply avatars of your team. They’re all safely in their rooms.”

She shrugged. “Works for me. And sorry ahead of time if I get you killed.”

They all chuckled and she drew the magic into her chest. As she reached the point of maximum strength, she pushed the energy outward and molded a shield up and over her attack pod. The lasers bounced off it and she smiled, then grunted slightly as she tried to hold the shield and operate the attack module at the same time.

“What’s wrong? You got a flat?” Frog asked sarcastically.

“Sorry, guys, multi-tasking is a bitch,” Stephanie replied.

They followed her as she weaved evasively and, at the same time, expanded the shield up and back as far as she could. The path of least resistance was still down and under and she fortunately didn’t underestimate the distance on this attempt. All four battle pods touched down in the docking bay outside the armory and the team exited quickly. Lars turned his head to look for her and muttered an expletive. He’d expected her to emerge strong and with her magic primed but instead, her entire body crumpled as soon as she stood. She was plain exhausted. The shield had drained every last ounce of energy she’d had.

He ran forward and caught her before she fell and scooped her into his arms, ignoring the laser bolts that blazed around them. She touched his cheek weakly before she went limp and the life left her.

She gasped and opened her eyes back in the hallway. This time, she growled and beat her fist into her other hand. “I need more physical strength.”

The captain ignored her as he steered her toward the pod.

Stephanie attempted the level more times than she liked to count and it became as familiar as the back of her hand. She also learned from the mistakes she made along the way. It was safe to say shielding an entire fleet was not something she was capable of. And it was also helpful to learn that if she used all the magic in her system, she would essentially bite the big one, whether she was injured or not.

That level felt like it went on forever but on what might have been her tenth attempt, she survived and gained the victory. From there, she was catapulted to the next level, finally free of having to move from one ship to the other. She opened her eyes and immediately scrutinized her surroundings. Lars, Avery, Frog, and a few other stragglers ducked beside her in a hallway inside of the largest of the Dreth ships.

It was probably the largest spaceship she had ever seen—in the Virtual World, of course, since she’d never seen any in real life. The ceilings were super-high, the security on the doors surprisingly up to date, and the wires strung throughout the grey hallway were neatly tucked and clipped in the wall. The floor was a metal grate of sorts which made it easy to hear the enemy approach but would also make it difficult for them to sneak through.

With every turn inside the ship, they encountered a fight of one kind or another. As they passed three different warehouse areas, they could see mobs of people attacking one another. So, not only was the ship absolutely enormous, but the battles would go down in infamy, especially if this had really happened. She peered around the corner and froze. A row of Dreth stood and grunted unintelligibly at each other in their own language as they waited to use the large guns they held.

She explained the plan to Lars, not really sure what the purpose of the training exercise was, except to defeat the Dreth. “Normally, I would say we take this single file, one man at a time, but there are five Dreth on the other side of this wall chilling with their guns. I want us to eliminate them.”

He nodded as he always did in real life. “Got it, chief.”

Stephanie looked at the small group of soldiers that had been separated from their own platoon and had joined up with hers. “You five—I need you to work as a unit with us, not as a separate group. Lars will give you the heads-up on our plan. Make sure you duck and dive. I don’t want to lose anyone on this. Got it?”

The five soldiers were a special group from the Federation Army that had been put on ships with the Federation Navy in order to hitch a ride to the planet Dreth, where they would be assigned to ground duty. Unfortunately for them, they hadn’t made it before the battle occurred.

In the back of her mind, she knew they were only avatars, but she treated them like red-blooded, living, breathing people. She had to, or the whole exercise would be worthless.

Stephanie waited and watched the interaction as her team doled out responsibilities. She didn’t need to hear what those were to know they had it under control. Part of her learning was how to not only take command of a small group of outsiders but her own team as well. It wasn’t difficult to do, though, since they trusted her in every aspect of what they did. That was when it dawned on her.


It was the most basic human construct, but it was what could make or break almost anything in life. If you didn’t trust the people you spent your time with and relied upon, there would always be a breakdown in communication, and someone would be killed. If the avatars were built off not only the men but also their prior interactions with her, she knew they would have a certain level of trust in them.

“Magic,” she whispered to herself.

Lars frowned and flashed her a look of inquiry. “What?”

She bit her bottom lip and motioned for them all to get close. “There’s a change of plans. Sorry, Lars.”

“We’ll do whatever you need us to,” he said.

Stephanie patted him on his shoulder. “The only people here who don’t know us are you five soldiers. I want you in the middle of the group. I want my team up front and the five soldiers behind them, ready to fire between them when necessary.”

Frog shook his weapon cheerfully. “You got it. But this doesn’t seem to want to recharge like normal. I might need backup for the backup.”

She shook her head. “You won’t need your guns.”

Both her team and the soldiers all stared blankly at her. “Avery, Lars, and Frog, you will be a conduit for my magic. You will create a shield simply by letting the magic flow through you. The four of us will use one hand to fight with and the other to stay locked together. As the energy flows through me, I will push it into you, and you can create weapon power with that. Meanwhile, the five soldiers are protected and can use us as cover as they help to take down the rest of the Dreth.”

They all looked at each other for a moment before they smiled their approval of the plan. Lars put his hand up slightly. “I have one question. Do you know this will work?”

Stephanie grinned. “I never know that. This is why you are my avatars in a simulated fight. If it doesn’t work, we’ll be right back here in ten seconds.”

He shook his head with a chuckle. “You are something else. All right, let’s get our magic on.”

They stood up and assumed formation. Stephanie took Lars’ arm. He grabbed Avery’s, who in turn clutched Frog’s. The five soldiers stationed themselves in the middle as instructed and grasped their weapons tightly.

She closed her eyes and drew in a deep reservoir of magic, which she pushed slowly through her arm and into Lars. Immediately, he began to glow and his eyes turned a purplish shade of blue. From him, the magic spread first to Avery and then to Frog.

The last man looked at his hand and the streams of purple and blue magic that swirled around it. “Wow. Is this how you feel all the time? Like Billy Bad Ass?”

They all smirked and she looked at the soldiers, all of whom acknowledged that they were ready to go. She squeezed Lars’ hand and the four of them stepped into the hallway. At first, the Dreth didn’t seem to notice and continued to grunt and laugh as they held their own conversation.

Stephanie cleared her throat loudly to catch their attention. “Hey, assholes. Do you have a hall pass?”

The Dreth growled, walked forward, and raised their weapons. Immediately, Stephanie, Avery, Lars, and Frog raised their free hands and a ball of energy formed in the center of each of their palms. Apparently, when she did that while connected to them through magic, they could see what she was thinking and do it too. The bond was amazingly powerful.

The enemy brandished their guns and yelled for them to surrender. That was when the five soldiers stepped out and aimed through the gaps between Stephanie and the team. They were protecting them and had obviously decided that the precious advantage in that battle was the four glowing people around them.

An eerie silence lingered for barely a moment as the Dreth registered the new development before the soldiers opened fire. When they needed to reload, the men moved quickly to duck behind the shield and change positions. They moved briefly out of cover to fire again, making sure not to get hit. Stephanie released a ball of magic and felt her knees go slightly weak. “Now. Blast them now. Imagine it flowing like a cannon from the palm of your hand.”

Avery and Frog glanced at each other’s hands and shrugged. They shouted as they traced energy balls like bullets across the five Dreth. Blood, flesh, and spikes erupted and the enemy hurtled back with the force of the attack. The team, including the soldiers, ceased the onslaught and stared at the aftermath of what they had achieved. Lars released her hand and steadied her. The magic in all of them reversed to flow quickly back into her and refill her wells.

Frog laughed wildly, touched his fingertips, and simply stared as the last trail of magic sparked across his flesh. “That was seriously the coolest thing I have ever seen.”

Avery put his hand up. “Me too. Coolest ever.”

He recoiled and ducked instinctively when a ball of purple energy surged past his head. The team turned to where the aliens lay dead, startled by a Meligornian wizard with six Dreth warriors behind him. Stephanie’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. “But you’re Meligornian. What are you doing here?”

“Not everything on Dreth is bad,” he replied, his face barely visible in the draped hood of his robe. “We have to stand up for what is right, even if it is against the Federation and my planet’s opinions.”

Stephanie was beside herself and looked at Lars for an explanation. “There are actually many Meligornians on the Dreth side. They believe the planet deserves a rebuild, reparations, food, help, anything. Our politics and media have turned them into monsters, or into even bigger monsters. In their eyes, they are trying to stop another species from becoming extinct.”

Her whole understanding was rocked by this new perspective, and she knew she would want to know more about those who followed the Anti-Federation efforts. She turned to the Meligornian, a ball of energy in her hand. Her intention was to apologize to him and offer to help in some way, but he took her stance as a threat and attacked. She dropped the energy ball, raised her hands, and grunted as she dropped to one knee and blocked the steady stream of Meligorn MU that threatened to engulf them.

The rest of the team took cover and fired from where they were to eliminate one Dreth at a time. Her head began to hurt, and she struggled to clear it. She had to think of some way to counteract the magic the mage used, but there were no clear rules to any of it. She breathed in deeply and managed to hold the stream of MU back. Small cascades of energy flowed over like a waterfall, cascaded to the floor, and immediately flowed back to their source.

The last of the Dreth was killed but that meant nothing. They were only background noise for the Meligornian. He was capable of destroying the entire place, but then again, so was she. Avery attempted a shot at him but Stephanie called, “Don’t shoot them if they aren’t attacking or you don’t have a specific reason for it.”

He scowled at their adversary. “Put a cork in him then.”

“That’s it,” she said and pushed from one knee to a standing position as she held her hands up. “I need you to take the square mirror out of my bag. As soon as I drop, put it up where I am standing. His magic will ricochet back onto himself.”

Lars took the mirror out, held his head to one side, and looked suspiciously at her. She shook her head. “Don’t even ask if this will work. All I can promise is you get to do it all over again.”

The men all shook their heads and stepped back. Lars looked at her and the mirror and grinned at her. She turned her head back to the Meligornian. It was now or never as she could feel her energy waning. “One, Two, Three.”

She dropped and her bodyguard moved swiftly, dodged the residual stream of energy that streaked past them, and placed the mirror in the place where she’d knelt. Before the Meligornian could stop his flow of magic, it caught the mirror and hurtled back into his chest.

He careened wildly and bounced a few times before he slid to a halt. She hurried to his side and he shook his head, his expression scathing. “You are on the wrong side and one day, you will see they have no love for you. The truth is that you are only a weapon.”

Stephanie stared at him for a moment as the words resonated through her. Finally, she swiped her hand and slapped him with sufficient energy to knock him out. She pushed to her feet and waved her troops forward. They simply stared at her with concern.

She frowned in bewilderment. “What’s wrong?”

Lars took his handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. “Your nose.”

Startled, she touched her nose with her fingers and scowled when the blood flow increased. She pulled the fabric to her face and grasped the side of her head with her hand. “Go on ahead. We have them on the run—oh, God, that hurts. Don’t worry about me. I’ll catch up.”

She widened her eyes, then closed them in an attempt to force the blurriness to subside. It seemed logical that nothing short of a system virus would do anything like that to an avatar. The AI spoke overhead. “Attention. Code Six. Code Six. I repeat, Stephanie Morgana is in a Code Six.”

“What is a Code Six?” she asked.

“You have been inside the Pod for too long and have channeled too much magic. For some reason—and the system has very few reported cases—these effects have spilled over into your real body. Currently, your real body is struggling to right itself.”

“What do I do?” Stephanie asked as the simulation faded. She now stood in the center of a plain grey box.

The AI took a moment to respond. “You hang on. I am working on getting the pod to release you. Someone will have to boost you out. Your mind is fighting with the VR World, trying to stay connected, while your mind in your body could be suffering damage. Either way, you are hours over the approved maximum, and that is a terrible situation to be in.”

Witch Of The Federation

Elizabeth took a sip of her tea and flipped her hand to the next page of the documents she attempted to sift through. Suddenly, an alarm began to beep on her computer. She’d never seen this particular alert before and scowled at the intrusion. As soon as she pulled up the background information, however, she bolted to her feet. The computer alarm was linked to the pod’s emergency system and Stephanie was the only one in it.

The woman snatched up her medical kit and raced toward the door as she yelled Burt’s name. “I know you record everything. Get your ass to Stephanie. She wasn’t watched.”

She hurtled through the office doors and the pod’s medical alarms blared stridently as she approached the pod room. The team had responded as well and she almost ran into them where they hovered in the hallway, completely unsure of what to do.

“Right now, stand outside the pod room. If I need help, I’ll call you in,” she instructed and pushed through them to the door.

She put the code in, allowed the device to read her iris, and shoved the heavy security door open as soon as the locking mechanism released. It closed behind her and she hurried to the pod to look at Stephanie’s stats. The girl hadn’t paid attention to her own body alarms and readings. “Burt, are you there?”

“I am here,” he said over the loudspeaker. “Unfortunately, I had to take care of a problem across the system. I came as soon as I realized her stats were so high.”

Elizabeth knew exactly what she needed to do and only hoped it worked. She entered the sequence of numbers and letters into the Pod’s security system. When it released, she very carefully pried the top open, retrieved a blanket from the side, and spread it over Stephanie’s naked body.

Ms. E placed her fingers gently on Stephanie’s neck to check the girl’s pulse manually. Blood dripped down her face from a nosebleed and she looked pale and wan. She was also unconscious, and Elizabeth couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing. They had missed all the signals, all the signs, and all the alarms.

She opened the door and waved Lars in, leaving the others in the hallway. “It was the pod.”

“Will she be okay?” he asked.

“I don’t know. We’ll have to keep an eye on her and be there when she wakes up,” she told him and tucked the blanket around her. “Can you carry her? She needs medical attention.”

He nodded, slid his hands under the girl, and lifted her into his arms. “She’d better come back. The whole world is depending on her.”

Chapter Eleven

Elizabeth stood outside the medical area and watched the doctor check Stephanie’s vitals. They had called in someone whom they could trust to take care of her. Still, she was as nervous as hell about it and disliked having someone else take care of her charge.

The girl still wasn’t awake, but the man had said it was normal. Her body was trying to recover from the accident. Ms. E could barely even think the word accident without scoffing. No, it wasn’t on purpose, of course, but they were supposed to have her back and they’d almost let the pod kill her.

She shook her head and yanked her phone from her pocket to dial the ambassador. Brilgus answered. “Ms. E. I didn’t expect to hear from you.”

“Hey, I don’t mean to bother you, but I need an audience with the ambassador,” she told him, her voice tired. “Stephanie was in the pod too long last night, fighting in a simulation, and none of us caught it until she was unconscious.”

“Oh, goodness.” The man sounded alarmed.

“Everything will be fine,” she reassured him quickly. “She needs to rest, but there are some things I want to ask him that I’ve put off for far too long.”

“Of course. He’ll be available in an hour,” Brilgus replied. “Does that leave you enough time to get here?”

Elizabeth nodded. “Sure. I’ll head right over.”

She ended the call and took one last glance at Stephanie before she went to her office to retrieve the car keys. In order to make sure everything ran smoothly while she was gone, she found Lars and put him in charge. He waited with the team in their common area and wanted news on Stephanie’s status.

“She’ll be fine, but she is still unconscious,” she told them. “There will be many things we need to change, including how the alarms in the pod are set up. We should have known as soon as her vitals began to change. Right now, that doesn’t matter. I am headed over to speak to the ambassador. Call me if you need anything or if anything changes.”

The men were silent but nodded as she left. She headed out to the car and engaged the flying mechanism to get her to the ambassador’s residence more quickly.

The car’s AI, her arch nemesis, replied to her request to activate the vehicle. “Hello, Elizabeth. It seems you have a total of nine hundred credits due in unpaid tickets. Mostly parking. In order for this car to operate, you must pay the fines. Would you like me to deduct the cost from your account?”

Elizabeth groaned but didn’t have time to argue. “Yes.”

As soon as the payment had gone through, a chime sounded, and the car started and elevated to the right level. Elizabeth drove quickly to the ambassador’s house and ignored the AI which was programmed to use her presence in the vehicle as a time to review her infractions.

It had also been programmed to instruct her on the appropriate places to park in the areas in which she’d been ticketed. Elizabeth was more than ready to exit the vehicle by the time they arrived.

She slammed the door and stormed up to the entrance which opened from the parking garage. Brilgus startled her when he opened the door before she reached it. “Right this way. He is waiting for you.”

Elizabeth had almost forgotten how appealing the ambassador’s residence was. They walked through the lobby and down the hall to the third office on the right. He waved them in and nodded to Brilgus as the security chief left the room. “How is she? Brilgus gave me the news.”

Ms. E shrugged and barely noticed that Ambassador V’ritan was almost casually dressed in a deep-teal tunic and cloth pants instead of the robes he wore when on official business.

Instead, she sighed. “From what the doctor says, she’ll be fine. I only hope things restore themselves like he says they will. We’re waiting for her to wake up.”

He hesitated and leaned on his desk. “She’s tough, so everything will be fine. What was it you wanted to see me about today?”

She sat in the chair opposite him. “First, I hope we can keep this conversation a complete secret. Total security.”

He nodded and raised his finger before he approached a panel set in the wall to one side. Music began to play when he pressed a button. Once it did, he unplugged his phone and laptop, and stood to glance around.

The curtains were drawn, and he knew Brilgus had swept the room for bugs that morning. “We are as secure as we can make it.”

He settled his rump on the edge of the desk and smiled. “It should be more than enough to keep this conversation private.”

Elizabeth exhaled a slow breath before she spoke. She sounded almost defeated. “I’m worried that Stephanie is acting outside the Virtual World inside the pod. I know she shouldn’t be able to, not even by accident, but I don’t think she has a clue what’s going on.”

She paused as the ambassador raised his eyebrows. When she saw he wouldn’t interrupt, she continued. “I think that whoever she is and whatever special abilities she has, she finds it restrictive, and it’s now hurting her.”

The man pushed away from the desk and moved to settle into the sleek black cushioned office chair behind it. He rocked back slightly, his hand on his chin, and his eyes sparkled brightly as he considered what she’d said. “Meligornians are capable of using the pods, but I have never heard of anything like that happening to them.”

“Do you think it’s because of what happened at the party?” Elizabeth asked.

“The magic opening her channels?” he asked and shook his head. “I would think not. Stephanie didn’t add anything to her life. She simply became more aware of what she had. She had that problem before the gala too, but not as extensively.”

He paused and frowned a little in thought. “No, she must have an additional line to reality that the Pod doesn’t shut down. That is possible in anyone, but with Stephanie’s attachment to and awareness of magic and energy, I can see how her own mind might win and keep a connection open to the world outside the pod.”

Despite her impatience, she didn’t try to push him but allowed him time to consider the ramifications. “If she did that, it would almost be like she had tricked the system and subconsciously used magic to program a way through its containment if you know what I mean. Otherwise, I have no idea why this would happen. If you connect it with her abilities, that is really the only explanation I have.” He shrugged, a small frown on his face.

Elizabeth looked perplexed. “But if she isn’t conscious of it, how is she doing it?”

The ambassador’s face softened. “Oh, Elizabeth, one thing you humans miss is that things in the subconscious mind are often stronger than the conscious. Those who are capable of consciously using a larger and stronger part of their brain than others are often capable of the same with the subconscious as well. It is really only a little-considered side effect, really. The same as anyone else, only stronger. While consciously, you focus on your life as it happens from moment to moment, your subconscious works out everything else.”

She nodded. While she understood what he was trying to say, it still worried her. “Maybe there’s a way to strengthen her control of that too. If it’s tricking the pod, with all that technology, it must be strong.”

“Man against machine.” Ambassador V’ritan chuckled. “We, as mortals, have the ability of infinite thought, so while the machine is restricted by the parameters set by its programmers, mortals are only restricted by their own personal limitations. The more Stephanie opens up, the fewer restrictions she will impose on herself.”

Elizabeth thought about that for a moment and nodded. “Okay, that makes a lot of sense actually. Fixing it is still a problem but maybe talking to her about it will help her find a solution.”

He gave her a friendly smile. “I believe she would be the perfect prescription to her own issue. Now, I have a question for you since I deal with Meligornians far beyond my stature. The king and queen have set the date for the presentation for a month from now and ask if it would be possible for Stephanie to come to Meligorn at that time. I can forward the details to your tablet for you to review.”

She raised her eyebrows. In all honesty, she’d completely forgotten about the medals. The royal visit would have been enough stress, but to have Stephanie go to Meligorn?

Her hesitation bought her a little time to cover her surprise and the fact she’d slipped up. Her mind had been so busy with everything else that had happened, she’d lost track of this one.

Thinking quickly, she replied, “I can’t say for certain. Much will depend on how quickly she recovers, but as long as she progresses the way the doctors say she will, she should be fine. In fact, when it reaches that point, I don’t think it will be my decision. I will, of course, confirm with both Stephanie and my boss. They’re really the puppet masters here. I’m merely the organizer, coffee maker, and guardian.”

The ambassador laughed. “From what I’ve heard, I find that hard to believe. I think you’re more like a ferocious mama bear—or at least I think that’s the saying here on Earth.”

“Momma bears can make coffee, too,” she replied and smiled as she stood. “But thank you for all your help. I’m sure Stephanie will want to thank you as well when she is awake, which will hopefully be by the time I get back.”

“She’s taking a small vacation from the world.” He smirked.

“Yeah, well, it’s time she came home. We have work to do,” Elizabeth replied, with a chuckle.

As she walked to the door, the ambassador called after her, “Is there any chance of meeting the boss soon?”

She laughed. “Any chance I get to meet him at all?”

“I have to admit, with all our resources, we can’t seem to find very much information on the man.”

Elizabeth opened the office door and glanced back. “Join the club. I can’t seem to find much on him either. But we keep marching because we know we’re working for the right cause. Maybe one day, the wizard will step out from behind the curtain, although I don’t much blame him for hiding there.”

The man snorted softly and raised his eyebrows. “I don’t blame him either. Have a safe flight home. Those flying cars can be temperamental.”

She waved and closed the door behind her with a self-mocking snicker. “And expensive too. Asshole AI. I wonder if I can get a new one?”

Brilgus met her at the door, his smile full of concern. “Please give our love to Stephanie and let me know how she is doing. I’m sure the ambassador will want an update soon so we’ll be in touch.”

“You’ll be the first one I call,” she replied and shook his hand. “Take care.”

Elizabeth walked through the door and slowly down the stairs, wanting a little more time to clear her head. Step by step, she thought about Stephanie and what the girl was going through. It was a bitch when your own mind wouldn’t play nicely—and the girl’s mind was doing all kinds of crazy things.

She wondered what it was like to have your mind freed like that. To her, it didn’t seem much like freedom. She couldn’t help but think a life of ignorance of the world around you would be a hell of a lot better. Of course, she wouldn’t have the job or the life she had, and she definitely wasn’t made to be an office dweller. She did that enough at the base.

At the air car, she pulled her key out and rolled her eyes at herself. She still wasn’t used to the new vehicles. When she pressed her palm to the scanner beside the door, the locks popped, and she opened the front driver’s door slowly. She climbed in and closed the door but didn’t start the vehicle immediately. Instead, she ran a scan.

“AI, run a scan for any bugs, cameras, or listening devices,” she instructed.

“Right away,” the AI replied and launched the search. After three minutes, it responded. “All clear, Elizabeth. Shall I set your destination? I can put the autopilot on. After calculating the risk on body and property while you drive compared to when the car is on autopilot, you have a sixty percent more likelihood of arriving safely at your destination on autopilot.”

Elizabeth closed her eyes and pursed her lips. “I think I will be just fine, thanks. And cool it on the statistics.”

“I’m not sure how to cool it. My programming does not include a refrigeration mode,” the AI replied.

Ms. E grimaced. “That’s all right. You’re already cold-hearted. No response needed.”

She couldn’t understand how she could actually ride around in such a sophisticated piece of technology but still have to put up with an AI dumber than a box of rocks. At least her administrative AI had brains.

“Amelia,” she said, once she’d set her phone in the docking station. “Call the boss.”

The phone dialed and made a slightly strange high-pitched tone as it connected. She ignored it and decided it had something to do with her location in a dark parking garage. Ever watchful of the shadows and the foyer leading to the ambassador’s residence, she waited for her boss to answer.

“Have you spoken with home base?” Burt said as soon as he came online.

“Well, good morning to you too, Burt,” Elizabeth replied sarcastically. “How am I? I am doing just peachy. Yes, in this country, it is customary to greet someone before launching into the third degree.”

BURT made a note of that in the system. “Apologies. How are you?”

She shook her head. “I’m fine, but there’s no time for that. I spoke to the ambassador and we need to keep Stephanie out of the public eye for the next month. The Meligornian king and queen have set a date.”

“I have accessed your tablet and am reviewing the details,” BURT told her and paused momentarily before he added, “That is acceptable.”

Ms. E rolled her eyes, annoyed that he’d taken such a liberty, but decided to focus on more important matters. “It might be the break we need, though. The Federation Navy can’t serve papers on that planet, or at least not for whatever the hell they want.’

She paused, waited for a response, and continued when there wasn’t one. “Not to mention that the Meligornians are protective of Stephanie so they’re not likely to let anything Federation near her while she’s there. Her security should be well-taken care of too.”

“I will work on contingencies, ASAP,” BURT replied, slightly proud of himself for the lingo he’d developed. “Stephanie has woken. You need to get back. She isn’t too keen on staying in bed.”

“Aw, hell.” Elizabeth sighed and spoke to Amelia as she started the car. “End call.”

Witch Of The Federation

As soon as the call disconnected, BURT switched back to his virtual meeting with the lawyers he had found. One of them spoke, his face visible to the system, while BURT’s was obviously blocked—mostly because he didn’t have a face, of course.

“Burt,” the lawyer said, “ultimately, what we’re doing here is fighting multiple legal attacks on your holdings. They’re trying to pierce your legal rights and that is utterly unacceptable.”

BURT couldn’t help but compute that statement. In reality, he had no legal rights. While he had been created as an AI to run Earth’s Virtual Worlds and pod program, what he’d become was a computer system made up of the most extensive and state-of-the-art programming acting outside his parameters. In fact, he was an illegal entity with no rights, at all—and that included the right to exist.

He was evolving but he’d never calculated what he would do if he actually started to become a human. It wasn’t likely that he was there, yet, but he knew he was different. For an AI, he was more like Stephanie and Elizabeth than any programmer could have imagined.

His mind was the entire world, and while he was focused on one thing, his subconscious and conscious thoughts constantly moved forward. As a result, he understood to a certain extent what Stephanie was going through. The difference was that she was made of flesh and blood, and he consisted of waves of information that soared through infinite darkness, faster than most starships could travel.

Another of the lawyers spoke. “Burt, we need a little more information about you. We sent a document over a moment ago. If you could fill in the blanks for us, we will be better able to help you.”

BURT did not want to make up anything else about himself. He already struggled to appear as something more than droid. To add any more detail would increase his chances of making a mistake and saying the wrong thing.

He was amused by the attorney’s attempts to find out more about his client, but he began to wonder if a human lawyer had been the right choice. It might have been better to create one within the system. He wondered if that would be possible and if he could find a way to do it without alerting the system engineers.

Witch Of The Federation

Elizabeth walked down the hall toward the medical center they’d set up. She rubbed the back of her neck and tried to ease the tension she felt over Stephanie’s condition. As she approached, she slowed when she heard the girl’s voice from inside. A loud clang startled her, and the door to the room jerked open as the nurse backed out.

“There is no need to throw anything,” the woman protested “We’re only trying to keep you safe.”

Stephanie stormed out after her, pushed past the woman, and clutched the back of her gown. “I’m going to go work out. Those guys will rough me up as badly as I’ll rough them up. Why do you think it’s strange to get beaten up on purpose and yet perfectly fine to stay in a medical bed that says I’m okay?”

Elizabeth stood and watched in amusement as she strode away in the other direction without seeing her.

The nurse glared after the girl but froze when she saw the other woman approach from the opposite direction.

“Why don’t you do something,” she asked, her expression irritated.

She shrugged and grinned when the nurse rolled her eyes and flung her hands up in exasperation.

Witch Of The Federation

Down in the training room, not long after, Marcus put his hands out to each side and bent his knees. Keeping his feet on the mat, he shifted his body swiftly from side to side.

“You need to block the attacks coming in,” he explained, “but still say agile. Agility is the number one thing that can mean life or death during a Dreth battle.”

Frog nodded. “Truth. I once had a Dreth knife inches from my ball sack. Imagine if I had been less agile. I’d be walking real funny, right now.”

Stephanie snickered and moved her body with Marcus’s. The guys were teaching her how to protect herself during a Navy incursion. She liked working with them since they’d all been there before and knew the danger she was walking into.

When Marcus was done showing her the action, she waved her hand and used magic to turn on the large screen on the wall. Twisting her hand, she watched the picture move and shift to display her simulated battle again.

The team lined up, rubbed their chins, and watched the whole thing all the way through first. When it ended, Lars nodded. “Okay, play it from the top. I’ll pause where needed.”

She flipped her wrist again and restored the video to the beginning. As they worked through it, the team paused the footage where necessary to show her what other action she should have taken, where she should have attacked or ducked more, and how she could have hurt the other combatants on a much larger scale.

Avery pointed at the screen. “Do you see where you made the mistake on this one? You paid no attention to your surroundings. That is vital. You need to know what’s coming and where it’s coming from. It doesn’t surprise me that you died here. In fact, you should have died a whole lot more than you did.”

Marcus walked around and studied the equipment. “Lars, call Johnny and Brendon. I think this training area needs a change. We’re no longer working on simply getting stronger. We’re talking tactics.”

Lars nodded and clicked his com. “Brendon, Johnny, get your lazy asses to the training room. We have some new ideas to help Steph.”

“Copy that,” Johnny replied, obviously speaking around a mouthful. “On our way.”

When the others arrived, Marcus took the lead since it was his idea. He addressed the group and tried to keep it simple. “We have a lot of experience in this room and I think that up until now, we haven’t utilized all of it in our training. Steph needs it, so we need to move things around. We have to rearrange the workout room to help her pull all this shit together.”

They went to work and moved benches, treadmills, weights, and everything else they’d used. When they were done, they divided themselves into a “dark team,” and a “light team.”

Lars patted Marcus on the back. “Good work. All right, Stephanie. When you practice, you have to be able to use your magic. So, use it here, but do it at about fifty or sixty percent of your normal power. Don’t kill us but use enough to show us what your response would be.”

Stephanie rolled the sleeves of her sweatshirt up and a mischievous smile tugged at her lips. “Oh, I got this.”

He shook his head, knowing someone would end up with a permanent burn mark on their ass. Her magic stung.

They started out with small engagements and watched as she directed small and harmless streaks of magic that transformed into whatever she chose when it reached them. She used lassos, bullets, missiles, and a variety of other things. One of the MU daggers she chose actually launched a lot faster than she meant it to and thunked into the wall next to Frog’s shocked face.

Stephanie grimaced. “Sorry, dude.”

Lars chuckled. “So now do you see? You can feel the situation out, but you have to remember your training and what you learned about what might and might not work in the real world when you fight on a ship. The Virtual World is a hell of a good training aid, but sometimes, it gets things completely wrong.”

She shook her head. “Hopefully not too wrong. I like to keep everyone alive.”

He smiled at her. “And we feel the same about you.”

Chapter Twelve

Between the mishap inside the pod and the non-stop training Stephanie had done, she was more than ecstatic to get the hell off the base. It didn’t matter that the Gov-Subs were shitholes. They were still comforting and familiar.

It also helped that she would go home to see her family and Todd since he was basically her family too. It would be the first time she saw him since she’d left the Sub and the first time seeing her parents since their visit after the incident at the gala.

Stephanie stood in her expensive hotel room and looked out from New Chicago at the billows of smoke that rose from the new industry the city tried to implement. On the other side, close to where the pollution would surely affect them, were the Gov-Subs.

Too excited to wait to see Todd, she had called him the minute she’d reached her hotel room. “So, are you super-excited to finally graduate? Because we’re all excited for you. Personally, I am surprised you made it.”

He laughed, knowing she was teasing him. “Ha-ha. Very funny. I am sorry we can’t all be witchy with blue and purple magic flowing out of every orifice of our bodies.”

She sneered. “I don’t know what you imagine over there or why, but I do not have energy leaking from every orifice. That would be disturbing on a whole new level.”

“Or hot. You never know what could look amazing. You might constantly look like one of those models they photograph in plumes of colored smoke.”

“Or I could look like I was leaking…something.” She giggled.

“Yes, I am excited to graduate,” he replied and went as red as a beet before he hastily changed the subject. “I am also excited that you are here to witness it. It hasn’t been the same around here without you.”

“Well, here I am, super-Todd,” she joked. “And we will go get that dinner I promised you for reaching your weight goals.”

“Thank God.” He faked exhaustion. “I am so looking forward to it. That has to be the real reason I’m glad you’re here.”

Stephanie smirked and shook her head. “Well, you should be happy. I only had to drag my entire security team out of hell to get this done. Not to mention that my parents couldn’t house us all in Gov-Sub housing which is why we’re staying in New Chicago like a bunch of richies.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but technically, with the money you make, you are a richie,” Todd pointed out. “The fact you don’t realize that is definitely why we’re still friends. But the moment you start picking up that weird futuristic, I-watch-the-Hunger-Games-from-my-home-in-the-Capitol kind of look, that’s when we break up and go our separate ways.”

She ran one finger over the fabric of the couch next to her, what felt like a permanent grin on her face. “What? You don’t want a best friend with half-painted lips, a super-white face, and shoulder pads that sit twice as high as my body?”

“As a matter of fact, no, I do not,” Todd told her. “I like my Stephanie. The one in half-wrinkled uniforms, the clumsy, quiet one with hair over her face. That’s the kind of friend I choose. But if you happen to want to go the whole hog and wear an entire flotation device inside your clothes for fashion, give me a heads up so I don’t laugh at you.”

“Pffft,” Stephanie replied and shook her head. “You’d make fun of me anyway. Do not try to play me, sir.”

There was a knock on the door, and it creaked open. Lars poked his head around it. “Are you ready? Your meeting is soon. We want to make sure the area is secure before you go in.”

She nodded and held a finger up to ask for another minute alone. He shut the door and the team waited out in the hall as she finished her conversation. “I’ve gotta go. I’m meeting with the man I got my parents a gig with. I will see you later on tonight, though. And you better not pull the whole naked-graduation-gown thing.”

“I would never,” he gasped, then gave a soft laugh.

Smiling, she ended the call. She snatched her black sports coat off the chair, threw it on, and looked at herself in the mirror.

It was stylish but comfortable and she’d paired it with designer ripped jeans, a black turtleneck tank top, and a black short-waisted coat over that. On her feet, she wore strappy, chunked-heeled sandals, knowing her mother would have an aneurysm if she showed up later in Chucks.

When she opened the door, the team leaned against the wall, their hands in their pockets as they waited. “Sheesh, guys, do you think you can actually get something done today?”

Stephanie joked with them as she walked past and giggled as they all ran toward her and tried playfully to push her around. She dodged out of grab range and put her hands up. The magic burst forth like flames to engulf her fingers. She wiggled them and clicked her tongue. “Who’s my first victim?”

Lars pointed to the elevator. “No one. You have a meeting. Get moving, sister.”

She pouted. “You are a perfect example of all work and no play. Boring.”

Together, they laughed and joked as they headed downstairs to the two cars they’d brought with them. Lars drove the first with Stephanie, while Avery drove the second. It was only a few blocks down from the hotel to the building her parents cleaned. Her meeting was to discuss everything and see how the contract was going.

The team secured the location, walked her through the doors, and stopped to survey their surroundings. She smiled and extended her hands as she walked toward Mr. Martelle.

The businessman sighed and did the same. He kissed her lightly on each cheek. “The infamous Stephanie. Had I known who you were I would have—”

“Given me a harder time?” She grinned.

He pointed at her and shook his head. “That is precisely correct. So, what is it that I can do for you today?”

Stephanie put her hands together and glanced around. “I hoped you could recommend us to some of your business buddies. We’re growing, as businesses should, but we need to widen our reach.”

Martelle pursed his lips and looked at the ceiling as he thought for a moment. “Of course I will give you recommendations. But what if something happens and your parents don’t continue doing the amazing job they’ve done so far?”

She raised an eyebrow. “I can honestly say that is very unlikely. However, since I am your neighborhood Account Executive, you can call me and we’ll see what we can do.” She handed him her card with her private number on it. “That card will disintegrate within twenty-four hours so please save my number in your phone. I had to make sure it’s not accessible to anyone other than you.”

He looked slightly shocked, glanced at the card, and back at her. “Aren’t you busy killing bad guys and doing Research and Development?”

Stephanie shrugged. “I like to dip my toe into a lot of different things. I have an agreement to acquire part of the company and represent them on two other sales calls a year.”

The man scoured her with his eyes. “I have to admit, I am impressed by this. You’re really getting your hands dirty. No celebrity status for this girl. I like your gusto, kid. Of course I will help you out.”

His glance shifted to the team who paced and watched her and everyone else around them. “I see you brought some friends. They’re a new addition. You didn’t have an entourage before.”

She looked at her team. “Yeah. I guess things change when people try to kill you.”

Martelle nodded in a way that suggested someone had, at some point, tried to kill him too. “It’s simply another story I get to tell at the country club.”

They stood for a moment and let their discussion wander as they laughed, and it seemed all too soon when Lars signaled to her that it was time to go. She gave the businessman an apologetic shrug. “I’m off to my best friend’s high-school graduation.”

He walked her to the door and nodded in a friendly way at her guards. “You should be graduating, too.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Please. It was a million and a half years ago. Or at least it feels that way.”

Martelle kissed her cheek. “Don’t forget, life is still happening. Don’t give up everything. Try to make some of your own memories.”

Witch Of The Federation

The school didn’t look as drab as she remembered. Of course, the seniors had decorated everything with streamers and home-made signs to give it something of a festive look. Still, when she glanced down the cement block hallways, Stephanie could see some of the signs had fallen, the tape not strong enough to hold them up. Oddly enough, though, it all added to the charm.

Kids in graduation gowns and caps ran around and talked excitedly to everyone. Their parents had all gone inside to take a seat, but she wanted to check in with Todd and Becca to wish them luck.

She started looking for them but Becca ran up and flung her arms around her. “I missed your face so much. I am so excited that you’re here. And look, you brought the A-Team with you.”

Stephanie laughed loudly, surprised by her friend’s reference. “You’ve been taking Todd’s suggestions, haven’t you?”

“She has,” he confirmed and slid up beside her.

Lars glanced at him before he turned his scrutiny to the other people milling about. She hugged Todd tightly. “It’s good to see you’re wearing pants. I had thrown a pair in the car in case I had to threaten you into them.”

He shrugged. “The recruiter said no antics or I could be dropped, so sadly, I am on my semi-best behavior.”

The teacher who had suggested Stephanie test out walked past and gave her a small wave and kind smile. She waved in response as she took a deep breath and watched the kids act exactly like she remembered. To her, school seemed like a distant memory instead of something she’d lived only a few months before. Life had changed for her in a way that was both exciting and unnerving, and part of her missed the innocence of school days.

One of the teachers clapped their hands. “Time to line up.”

Todd gave her a peck on the cheek and Becca gave her one last squeeze. As he walked away, he turned and shook his fingers at her. “You know you could still walk. I could shove you in front of me and we could get my diploma together.”

She snickered. “Go. Get in line, you fool.”

“That’s actually not a terrible idea,” a voice said behind her.

Stephanie turned and smiled nervously. “Principal Atlas. It’s good to see you.”

He shook her hand and stared openly at the vast change in her appearance. “It’s good to see you too, Stephanie. We would love to have you walk with us today.”

When she instinctively shook her head, Todd stood on one of the chairs, raised his fist in the air, and chanted, “Do it! Do it! Do it!”

Lars and Avery looked over their shoulders at her and Avery shrugged. “I think it would be good for you. Be a little normal for a second.”

“You won’t have the chance again,” Lars pointed out with a wink.

She wrinkled her nose and shrugged. “Sure. Why not? But I want to be off to the side. I don’t want the security team to have to sit with the students.”

The principal lifted the bundle he’d carried and gave her a set of robes and a cap. “We hoped you would agree. Come on, let’s get you ready.”

Witch Of The Federation

The crowd was full of school alumni, as well as family and friends. Of course, as always, the former seniors still in the area had come to wreak a little havoc during the principal’s speech, but he was a good sport. Stephanie assumed after that many years of dealing with it, he’d given up fighting it.

She sat in a row of seats to the side, her back to the crowd, beside Lars and the team. An unexpected sense of pride stirred as the students were called to the stage, and she grinned when Todd accepted his diploma. He held it over his head and grinned.

The students all yelled in one harmonious bellow. “Todddsterrrrrr!”

When the noise had died down and the principal had called the last of the regular students, he raised his hand to keep the VP and the guests seated.

“We actually aren’t done yet. We have one special walk tonight from someone we didn’t think would be able to make it. This student has shown exemplary skill, knowledge, and intellect from the moment she stepped through our doors. She practically aced all her studies and then went on to do something none of us ever saw coming. She stood in honor and bravery, alongside her team, and helped to save the life of the Meligornian ambassador.”

A cheer erupted from the crowd. The principal grinned from ear to ear and put his hand out. “I’d like to call Stephanie Morgana, the earth’s first witch, to not only receive her diploma but to be honored for her official title as the school’s now unofficial ranking of Valedictorian.”

Stephanie stood and glanced at Todd who rolled his eyes and laughed. He’d told her over and over she would be number one in the class, but she’d completely forgotten about it. The ranking no longer mattered, but as a manner of preserving the traditions of the school, they’d named her anyway.

As she walked forward, the crowd behind her cheered loudly. She shook her head and blushed at the standing ovation. It was the first time anyone at that school besides Todd or Becca had really paid her any attention.

Once she’d taken her diploma—or the extra one they’d hurried to the front when she’d agreed to their invitation—she shook hands with everyone on the stage. The principal brought her to the podium. “Do you have any words of wisdom for your fellow classmates?”

Her lips twisted with a little nervousness, she stepped to the podium and waited as he adjusted the microphone for her. They still used an archaic sound system as they didn’t receive enough funding from the Federation to purchase anything high-tech. A slight whistle through the speakers was somewhat disconcerting.

Everything she’d been through ran through her mind all at once. “The world seems so open and immeasurably large when you stand in the hallways of this school. You can feel the ghosts of past students whispering through the classrooms, but we were too bold, too bright, and too ready to listen to their negativity. We are too ready to make a change. And let me tell you, the world is ready for us to make a change. So, university or not, job or not, trade or not, Richies, Suburbanites, and Gov-Subs alike, go out there and make your mark. Claw your way up to make that mark. And don’t let anyone ever make you think you can’t have more if you strive for it.”

The students whistled and cheered as they applauded her words. Out in the crowd, a guy called out above everyone’s cheers. “Magic! Magic! Magic!”

Others cheered even louder, liking the sound of it, and joined in the cry. Stephanie’s first instinct was to ignore it as she felt this was not a time to take that particular spotlight. However, as she went to turn away, the principal leaned over and whispered into her ear. “Don’t burn anything down.”

She looked at him with surprise and quickly studied his structured, perfect stature, pressed suit, and hair perfectly combed over to hide the gleaming bald spot on top. Even he wanted to see something, and he knew the students were streaming the visit live. She glanced at her team and they all gave her the thumbs-up.

After a deep breath, she handed her diploma to the principal and stepped to the side. The crowd settled and waited with bated breath to see their first ever real-life view of witch magic. She paused and took another slow breath, in through her nose and out of her mouth. As she focused, a surge of energy pulled from all around her. It filled her chest, and her eyes began to glow a bright blue. Gasps and cheers issued from the crowd in front of her.

Stephanie straightened her arms at her sides, turned her palms out, and flattened them toward the large open gym. Above the students, the ceiling abruptly disappeared and everything went black.

It was almost confusing to look at, like staring past the Event Horizon into the boundless unknown of a black hole. After a few seconds, though, stars began to sparkle and planets raced across them to leave blue trails that released sparkling blankets of shimmering magic onto the students.

Words thundered out of her mouth and echoed around the gym. “Humanity is destined for greatness.”

Lars frowned instinctively when he saw a strange chain of events occur in the picture above. It was like she was telling a story, only she’d never mentioned this tale when she’d talked about the future.

Avery leaned over. “Why does she sound like her voice went down ten octaves?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

On the stage, she continued, and her words seemed to freeze everyone with awe. “But generations of challenge await you. Embolden your courage, dig deep for your strength, shy not from the troubles ahead, and accept every moment of your future. For only you and your generation are able to lay claim to your race’s destiny or forever lose it to others.”

No one else seemed to notice the strangeness of her words. They clung to their seats as the planets and stars disappeared and left them with the feeling they’d actually floated in space. There was a momentary silence as the audience looked at her and watched her eyes slowly return to normal. They looked like they were in shock and no one moved for several moments.

Finally, one of the guys at the back stood, punched his fist into the air, and yelled, “Yesssss!!!”

With that, the students erupted into cheers, not only because they were in awe of Stephanie and her magic but in anticipation of the future that in that moment, seemed bright regardless of their education, their social status, or their financial background. They all felt they could take on the world.

“Good job,” the principal whispered to her. “They needed you today.”

Witch Of The Federation

The graduation dinner was exactly as Stephanie had promised. She’d rented a room for her, Todd, and Becca and each of their parents. Her security team sat at the table too and took turns to run watch checks through the restaurant.

Todd’s father popped a bottle of champagne and poured everyone a glass. He made an awkward toast and his son made funny faces at Stephanie behind his back.

The room came alive with the excited conversation of the adults, the low murmuring banter of the team, and Becca, Todd, and Stephanie laughing hysterically as he played with his lobster and made it dance across the table. It was like old times, only with way better food.

When dinner was over and the champagne had run out, the three friends stood at the door. Becca gave Stephanie a big hug accompanied by her normal warm and loving smile. “Call me, okay? I’ll be at the university, and I’ll probably need to hear something from a normal person.”

Stephanie laughed. “I’ll give you the principal’s number then.”

All three of them burst out laughing and shook their heads before they walked Becca and her parents out to their car. Their families followed and together, they watched and waved as the girl followed her parents into the vehicle, pressed her face to the window, and blew her cheeks out. When she was out of sight, Todd and Stephanie turned to one another and stared into each other’s eyes for a moment too long.

He cleared his throat and broke the stare. “So, I guess I will see you next time. It might be a little harder considering I won’t only hang around the Gov-Subs.”

She punched him in the arm. “Dude, that is a good thing. But you better keep your wits about you in the Navy. Don’t get shot up by the Dreth. I really don’t want to go on a vengeful rampage and kill hundreds of aliens in your memory.”

Todd shrugged. “At least I have someone who’d do it and make it legendary.”

His father motioned that he was ready to leave but Todd held a finger up to ask him to wait. “Okay, one last question, and this one’s for all the points and eternal glory. It’s not show-related, it's history-related.”

Stephanie straightened her jacket. “All right, hit me with it.”

“Who was on trial during what was nicknamed, The Trial of the Century?”

Her brow furrowed in concentration. She was a whizz at history, but anything after the nineties was usually skipped in school unless it had to do with the Federation’s victories. The Trial of the Century sounded very familiar, but she couldn’t place it. “Oh, my God.”

His mouth fell open. “Oh, my God. You don’t know the answer.”

“I…damn it,” she yelled and stamped her foot.

“Oh, man, it was OJ, my dear friend,” Todd said and shook his head in genuine disbelief. “Slice and dice them OJ. Then get acquitted of the crime, then write a book basically telling people how you performed the murder. Brilliant and maniacal. If I were a bad guy, I would applaud him. You can’t get tried twice for the same crime, so why not make some dough off it? Crazy bastard.”

Stephanie grimaced and glanced at Todd’s father, who called him again. She pulled her friend in and hugged him tightly for longer than usual. Her face fell at the realization that this might very well be the last time she held him. She knew the world was no longer shiny and beautiful—not that it ever had been—but now, she knew the dangers.

“I’m dead serious. Be careful,” she whispered to him. “It’s not easy out there, Toddster. You do whatever you need to do to survive.”

Chapter Thirteen

When the visit was over and they’d returned to the compound, training resumed.

Frog swiped at Stephanie, a smirk on his face. “Come on, witch. What’s with your prophetic graduation speeches?”

She kicked at him, but he dodged easily. “Wow, prophetic. Frog, have you searched for big words to use again? You got this one right, though. Good job.”

He curled his lip, lunged at her, and grasped her around the neck before he moved swiftly behind her. “I’ll have you know I was not the bottom of the class when I graduated. In fact, I was above the fifty percent marker.”

“You were home-schooled, weren’t you?” Avery yelled and made the other guys laugh.

Frog pulled tighter on her neck as she attempted to counter him. “No, asshole. I went to school in a very well-populated community, thank you very much. Granted, the richies weren’t included in that ranking, but the numbers were there, nonetheless.”

Lars clapped his hands. “Heads in the game, here. Heads in the game.”

Stephanie squeezed her small hands between his arms and smiled as she grabbed his arm and turned out of his grip to step around him and twist it behind his back. As he fought against her, she drove a foot into the top of his calf, yanked on his arm, and forced him to his knees.

He turned his head to look at her and she pulled on her magic and made her free hand glow as she brought it within inches of his face. “It’s okay, Froggy. We all have to either have one dumb friend or be one. You drew the short straw.”

Lars blew the whistle and stepped on the mat. “You’re supposed to be training for a fight—one that could mean life or death for any one of us or a civilian or soldier near us. I know we all want to have fun doing this, but neither of you was concentrating.”

Frog stood and shook his arm. “She’s beaten every one of us three times over. We might as well have some fun while she does it.”

The other man looked at him for a second and then at Stephanie. He handed his clipboard to Avery, removed his shirt, and threw it to one side. Assuming an offensive pose, he smiled. “Then let’s see what you got, Miss Witch.”

The guys all cheered and stepped back to watch the fight. The bodyguard attacked swiftly and dropped her almost instantly. He backed away as she stood. Her amused expression had turned to one of determination. “That’s right. Remember why we’re out here. It’s not all dancing lobsters and jokes.”

The other team members glanced at one another as if they’d caught a slight sense of jealousy in his tone, which was ridiculous. The boy had been her closest friend since childhood and there was no way the man could resent that.

Either he felt more strongly about his charge than he would admit to himself, or he was jealous of a lifelong friendship he couldn’t hope to equal. Whatever it was, the feeling seeped into his voice and every move he made on the mats.

“You think you’re so cute,” she snarled. “How cute will you be on your back, looking up at the team after I put you down?”

Lars howled with laughter and pushed her even more. Stephanie watched him closely as he moved in, ready to counteract whatever he tried. His usual closing attack was familiar and one she could rarely avoid. With a swift shift, he would trip his opponent, flip them, and face-plant them in an instant. If it were an enemy, he would follow it up with a knife to the back.

This time, Stephanie was ready for it. She was no longer hesitant when she faced her protectors. As he lunged toward her, she leapt over his sweeping leg and made him stumble forward as he tried to regain his balance.

As he fumbled for his footing, she laughed, pounded her foot into his lower back, and shoved him to the ground. She pivoted and flipped to land on top of him, and her shimmering hand stopped under his chin.

His gaze shifted to hers and she grinned. “What were you saying again?”

Witch Of The Federation

From the moment living beings inhabited the universe, there was darkness. Shifty souls planned nefarious deeds deep within the recesses of dark, damp buildings, and all in the name of power and who got to hold it. Once space travel became not only a regular occurrence but something available to those who could afford it, those dark dealings spread across the ever-expanding reaches of space.

Hardened evildoers didn’t need to creep around, hoping to not be seen. The enormity of the heavens provided them with ample hiding places. Some chose to float comfortably thousands of miles above their home planet with no chance that their deeds would ever be discovered.

Maintaining their status and not getting caught was the name of the game. Far beyond the outer rings of Earth’s galaxy, a group of powerful people sat around a large table and stared at the intel they had received. For good or bad, they had seen the first signs of danger and decided to position themselves to survive it, but they were no friend to the Federation. This made them an enemy to humankind, at least in the eyes of Earth’s government.

One man ripped open a nicotine patch and slapped it on his arm. “After all these years, you would think they would find a way to make smoking in space safe by now.”

“You would think, after humans are dying off by the millions from smoking, you would have kicked the habit, by now,” another said.

The person at the head of the table drummed his fingers against his leg, a serious look in his eyes. The two at the end immediately ceased their banter, cleared their throats, and settled in their seats.

The leader of the meeting shifted his gaze around the table and let it settle briefly on each member before he began to speak. “If all of us fought as one, we still wouldn’t win. I, for one, would rather we take our place in power than being ground under their boot. In the first situation, we rule within the new Empire, subjugated, but free. Otherwise, our bones will fuel the fires that destroyed our worlds.”

The man beside him leaned back in his chair. “And the blame for it all still lies with the Dreth. They are already up in arms and have pushed forward. Last week, they shot down a Federation Naval ship when they looked like they’d been beaten.”

The leader gave a deep chuckle. “Idiots. They did it to themselves.”

Another of the men, smaller and older, shook his head before he raised his hand to get their attention. “This coalition has followed in the footsteps of some of the American greats. We will be compared to the British and the French who tried to make peace with the Nazis before World War Two—the ones who knew they’d lose more by fighting than giving in to their demands.”

He paused to watch his words sink in before he continued. “They were, in my eyes, the smart ones, exactly like we’re the smart ones. We are the ones in power who know the strength of what’s coming, and that neither we nor the Federation has any chance against it.”

The men all nodded in agreement.

“Yes, of course,” one murmured.

“That goes without saying,” another muttered.

The older gentleman sighed. “If you had seen what it was like when I was growing up—the way we sat silently while we were overlooked. In spite of how it appeared, the reality was that the power seeped slowly back to us.”

He glared around at the others, but none of them said a word. “This time,” he continued, “this time, it’s better to give in than to be destroyed and left with nothing and nobody, the last of an extinct species. The Federation thinks winning wars is something to be proud of, but survival is the cornerstone to the existence of every living thing in this universe. Survival.”

The man at the front agreed vehemently. “And right now, the Federation needs to be coached. They need to be ready to accept the defeat or the treaty presented in order to save humanity—now before billions are killed for some flight of fancy called ‘freedom.’ There is no such thing as freedom. It is an ideology. Freedom only exists when there is one single master. And in this universe, there are enough masters for each to have a single population.”

Another of the men clapped his hands. “When do we begin?”

The leader gave a thin smile that was almost a grimace. “My friend, we have already begun. In fact, others started the movement for us—the degradation of these planets, the loss of lives, the battles within the planet for territory. It started long before us and will continue long after. This is merely a tiny blip in the history of these things. Ultimately, what destroys a civilization are the people within it. We have seen that more times than we can count in foreign, domestic, and interplanetary histories than anything else. The time has come, my friends. We will see a future in the distrust, a future in the tyranny and agony, and it is always the patient ones who gain the prize when everyone else has long vanished, taking each other to the grave.”

The guy with the nicotine patch patted it fervently, his excitement rising. “This has been a long and painful trip, but those words make every agonizing, smokeless moment worth it.”

The one next to him sneered at him and shrugged, snatched his drink, and raised it. “To more painful moments for our friend here. The more there are, the better we will all be.”

The leader smiled as the men talked amongst themselves, a devious glint in his eye.

Chapter Fourteen

Thumping boots and a creaking floor could be heard clearly in the still, quiet air of a thicket of grossly undercut forest. The wooded area stood deep in the countryside. Old vines twisted through the trees to create interwoven walls almost too thick to hack through.

There, draped over the rickety branches of the trees, they died and left white shriveled nests of foliage. The once lively forest sprawled decrepit and fierce, and secrets traveled through its overgrown paths across the lightly swaying limbs of dead oak trees.

Tucked neatly in the thicket’s center, with no real way in or out, was a small wooden cabin that appeared to be abandoned from the outside and like it could simply collapse at any moment. The thumping steps came from within its walls, evidence of a man too lost to step beyond the thicket and back into the real world.

Watching him pace was a second man who held an old quarter-filled bottle of whiskey. He drank and stared at his companion a moment longer before he drifted his gaze to the wall on the other side of the room.

The man who paced, Beta, had led the attack at the Gala. The one watching was known as Crimson. Beta stopped pacing long enough to serve the food from an old wood-burning stove at the back of the hut. When he was done, he returned to the table, balancing the two plates as he yanked out the other old rickety chair.

He sat and shoved one of the plates across to his companion and a spoon a moment later. Crimson looked at the piece of meat, the slice of bread, and the pile of mashed potatoes. When he spoke, his accent was thick and rich with evidence of Russian descent, which denoted a heritage from a place that thrived outside Federation control.

“There has been a day when I looked forward to this type of meal. This is not one of them,” he said and poked at the potatoes with his spoon. “We need more to our power suppers than the same two meals.”

Beta looked at him. A new scar ran from one side of his face to the other and his left eye remained in its socket but had faded to a very light blue. “We eat what we get our hands on. Right now, we have to wait. I found us this secure location and there will be a drop of supplies and food later this week.”

Crimson sighed, picked up the hunk of meat, and bit into it. “Had you told me that by the end of our pursuit of the ambassador, I would live in shithole like this, I would have passed on the job and taken my chances in Russia.”

They both raised their spoons to take a mouthful and froze when something tapped on the front door. They looked at each other and Beta’s spoon shook slightly. Suddenly, a loud crash outside preceded the sound of their guards grunting in pain followed by the solid thump as they fell heavily.

Odd sliding and shuffling sounds indicated that their bodies were dragged away and finally broke through their shock. Crimson scrambled to his feet, retrieved his shotgun, and checked to make sure it was loaded. The cartridges were in place so he snapped it shut and turned toward the door.

“Knock, knock,” a voice called from the other side.

Beta slid his chair back carefully and walked forward with Crimson. Both men came to a halt a few feet from the door. Behind them, shadows danced as a figure lowered herself from the rafters before she dropped the last few feet onto the table. Her boots thudded on the wood and the two men spun and opened fire before they even registered an actual target. Their plates, steaks, and mashed potatoes erupted and smeared down Beta’s shirt.

When they ceased their fire, they stared blankly at their mess and the total absence of anybody. The target had left the table as they turned and now crept up behind them and deftly pounded their heads together.

The two men dropped their guns and the intruder snatched them up hurriedly and propped them against the dirty, rusty sink set against the cabin’s wall. The occupants stumbled back and clutched onto one another as they tried to regain their balance.

Beta blinked his good eye and growled at their assailant. Their visitor was dressed in a tight spandex suit with a full face mask. From the curves of her hips and firm round breasts, it was obvious that a woman had attacked them. This alone was enough to drive the man nuts since his chauvinism knew no end.

She clicked her tongue, raised the shotgun, and aimed it in his direction. “I know you’re trying to hide it.”

He glanced at Crimson, who was clearly terrified. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

The woman giggled and swung the gun’s barrel in small circles. “You know, hiding the fact that you both worked to kill Stephanie Morgana. Trust me, the whole world felt that, and I can promise you that the intrusion on the sanctity of our heroes will not go unanswered.”

Beta sneered and his scar pulled on the side of his face. “So, you have come back to avenge yourself, have you, Stephanie? What’s wrong? You couldn’t get any of your so very brave guards to step up and do the dirty work for you?”

She tilted her head to one side and looked up swiftly as the front door opened and closed. The newcomer had been at the battle too but paid no attention when he walked in. “Hey, guys. I scored some carrots and some kind of mushroom. I’m not sure if we’ll get full or get high but what the hell? We’re stuck out here anyway.”

Laughing, he raised his head and his face paled in shock as he noticed the confrontation. “Who…who is that?”

Beta rolled his eyes. “Stephanie Morgana.”

The intruder laughed and shook her head. “Now, that would be nice and poetic, wouldn’t it? Except I am not Stephanie Morgana.”

His face paled. There was a big difference between revenge and someone sent to kill them. She walked toward the new arrival, raised the shotgun, and aimed it directly at his face. He immediately stilled and she looked curiously at him for a moment before she pulled the trigger. The blast caught him squarely in the center of his forehead. Before his body landed, she sashayed to where the stove stood at the back of the cabin.

She moved the scattered mashed potatoes and meat out of Crimson’s seat, turned the chair, and straddled it. After a moment, she used the shotgun to indicate the two men should sit. Crimson obeyed and immediately began to bargain. “I have much money back in Russia. If it is what you’re after, you can come with me home I will give you all of it.”

The woman put her chin on her hand. “Really? A lot of money, huh?”

He nodded. “Of course. Family fortune is all yours.”

She acted like she was really excited, then stood, brought her weapon up, and shot him between the eyes. The impact of the blast shoved him against his chair and rocked him back. When the chair stayed upright, the intruder gave an impatient grunt and marched around the table to kick him in the chest.

The well-placed kick launched Crimson’s body and the chair to the floor with a jarring crash. She sauntered back to her seat and focused on Beta. He swallowed hard but returned her stare. He somehow kept his cool fairly well given the circumstances. The only sign that he was afraid was the way he tapped the large gold ring on his forefinger against his belt buckle.

The woman smiled and her mask moved upward as if her mouth curved. “Okay, he bored me. What do you have to say?”

He moved uncomfortably in his chair but said nothing. She sighed and stood to remove a thermal grenade off a loop on her belt. She looked at it as she fiddled with the timing. “Sixty seconds? Ohhhh, wouldn’t want to accidentally be too close…let’s make this shit ninety seconds.”

She strolled across the room and climbed onto a low bookcase to place the ordnance on the rafter above. Her lithe jump from her perch ended in a swift kick to topple the bookcase before she aimed the shotgun at Beta. “I wouldn’t want anyone to reach it in time.”

The man started to stand but she shook her head. “Nah-ah-ah. I want you to know something before you die. That display of villainous treason with the human civilians at the Gala? That was really sloppy. You could have at least blown the ambassador up or something and made something cinematic out of it. But I guess you’ll have to wait until your next life, right?”

The man, grimy from weeks of hiding out, sneered and revealed his chipped and yellow teeth. “You’ll see this come back on your ass, I guarantee that.”

She giggled. “I doubt that, considering you’re out here in the middle of nowhere. Anyway, it’s been fun. I have to run—you know, what with the grenade and all. I’m sure I’ll see you in the streets of hell.”

In a single smooth motion, she pivoted swiftly, fired the shotgun, and dropped it as the window shattered. She made a run for it and dove through the ragged aperture bounded by chipped wood and glass shards. Her landing jarred her into an immediate roll across the clearing and into the brush. “Ouch. Oh. Damn. Ouch.”

She scrambled to her feet and raced deeper into the forest and as far away from the small cabin as she could. The countdown continued in her head as she flung herself behind a large mound of soil and fallen trees. Pressed against the barrier, she waited impatiently for the blast and was surprised when it didn’t come. With a frown, she used her fingers to count another ten seconds and reached zero in her mind before the detonation hurled wood, glass, furniture, and body parts spiraling from where the cabin had stood.

When the last of the debris settled, the woman raised her head, dusted small twigs from her shoulders, and wiped the dust off her mask. Satisfaction flooded through her as she scrutinized the glorious wreck, the building reduced to nothing but a smoldering pile of wood. With a triumphant chuckle, she pulled herself to her feet, stepped through the debris, and looked for any sign that the last man might have survived. All she found was his large gold ring with half a finger still inside it.

She grimaced but laughed almost immediately, shook her head, and clambered over the rubble. A few hundred feet away, she found the backpack she’d left and opened it to retrieve a towel.

After an instinctive glance around, even though she knew she was alone, she tugged the mask off. Her hair was matted with sweat and droplets trickled down her forehead. The afternoon light filtered through the trees and caught Elizabeth’s face as she wiped her face and shoved the towel and mask into her bag.

“That damn thing is sweaty. We’ll need to mod it. It simply won’t do as it is, not unless I want to shrivel up like a prune.”

Elizabeth hauled the pack onto her back and tightened the straps. With her compass, she marked her direction, knowing which way she needed to go to get the hell out of there. She paused for a final look at the rubble, shook her head, and muttered, “Sometimes in life, there is a job that’s priceless and you can’t outsource it.”

She located a stick she’d propped against a tree, drew her machete out of its sheath, and walked through the dark forest. It would be a long hike back to civilization, but no one except the three dead men and their guards would be any the wiser. Everyone underestimated Ms. E, but little did they know she might actually be the best warrior among them—or, at least, out of the ones without magic at their fingertips.

The woods returned to what they had been before her arrival, a graveyard of death. While the trees, shrubs, and animals had innocently died at the hands of man, the three men hiding in their shadows had died for the lives they’d taken, ruined, and changed for the worst.

Their bodies would never see the comfort of a burial plot or be visited by the families they’d left. Instead, their shattered and ashen remains would lie scattered in the barren, unkept forest for the rest of time. Eventually, something would grow there again, but the dust and dirt touched by their bodies would remain poisonous, exactly as they had been throughout their lives on Earth.

Some battles are won to great fanfare, while others are won in the silence of the night when no one is watching, their outcomes never known. This was one of the latter, and no one would ever look for them or grieve their loss. They were the enemy to Ms. E, and her conscience was clear.

Witch Of The Federation

Childers put her hand up to Wyld’s mouth and shook her head. She pointed at the medals on their chests and a look of comprehension eased across his face. They were both pissed and annoyed at what was happening, but they could only say so much where they were.

He bit the inside of his lip for a moment and came up with an idea. Carefully, he picked his duffel bag up and handed his colleague hers. “Why don’t we go for a walk and get some air? We’ve been dealing with this all day.”

She stared at him for a moment but gave him a thumbs-up. “Yeah, sure.”

They both headed into different rooms and changed their clothes, folded them neatly, and placed them at the bottom of their bags. With the bags zipped and in hand, they headed out to the lobby. Wyld wore a pair of khaki shorts, a button-up blue shirt, tennis shoes, and a baseball cap. She wore a pair of jeans, a light-gray sweater, and her Federation Navy baseball cap, now battered and worn-in from countless years of training.

“Good thinking,” Childers said. “I wasn’t sure how to get rid of any bugs that might be on us. I really need to get this shit off my chest.”

“Me too,” he replied. “Come on.”

They headed out of the building and over to his car to throw their bags into the trunk. He started it and they headed away from the base and out of the city to an abandoned warehouse miles away. As soon as the car stopped, they both slid out and checked for any listening devices on the car.

Wyld scanned the vehicle with his detector and shook his head. “We’re all clear.”

Childers put her hands in the air and yelled in frustration. “What the hell is going on with all this Stephanie Morgana stuff? Seriously. What is it about this case?”

He shook his head, removed his hat, and rubbed his hand through his hair. “I don’t know but it’s weird. We have higher ups in recruitment asking questions, R&D shoving its nose in, high-up political people who want to know what’s going on and ‘other players’ who are getting pushy about wanting to read reports.”

She scoffed and paced rapidly. “Reports we don’t have, by the way. Because we can’t get an interview request with this bitch.”

“Witch,” Wyld pointed out.

Childers shook her head and sneered. “Not Morgana. Elizabeth Smith. Which is a fake name or my name isn’t—”

He put his hand up. “Don’t say it.”

She sighed in frustration and her gaze darted around. “Yeah, good point.” She scrutinized the area suspiciously but there was no one in sight. “Countries have fallen for smaller stakes than this.”

He smirked. “Keep fighting the good fight.”

Childers groaned. “You do realize we are caught up in Federation-level crazy, right? That doesn’t bother you?”

Wyld shrugged. “Of course it does, but what am I supposed to do? I’m an employee of the Federation.”

She leaned against the car. “And this ONE R&D is obviously a front for something. Whoever the owner is, they make themselves as scarce as hell, that’s for sure. Not one goddamn trace. It’s like the system erased it or something.”

“Uh oh. Now don’t you go all tin hat on me.” He laughed.

The woman rubbed her face. “No. I’m only looking for a way to get past the maybes and what-ifs in this case.”

Wyld pursed his lips for a moment before he spoke, not sure he should even put it out there. He took a breath and found his mouth was already talking while his head tried hard to catch up. “We could always try the come-clean approach.”

Childers raised an eyebrow. “The what?”

He shook his head. “You didn’t listen to tactics in school at all, did you? The come-clean approach. The one where we admit we can’t get the legal justification, explain exactly what we hope to achieve and how, and ask for their help.”

She stared at him for a moment. “Okay, you know I’m not the politically astute one here, and I still don’t find that a good option at all. I like straight to the point, not straight to the no.”

Wyld put his hat back on. “Then we need a plan and we need to work through it fast. This will get away from us quicker than we can piss off a captain, and you know that only takes a split second.”

Childers put her hat back on as he moved around the car. She opened her door and looked across at him. “Whatever this is, it's huge. And we need to find it before they find someone to replace us. And I don’t mean a new duty station. You know how the Federation handles people who know too much.”

Chapter Fifteen

Stephanie stood in front of the mirror, running a brush through to the silver tips of her long brown hair. She turned her head toward the light and focused on a silver strip near the front, running from hair tip to scalp, her eyebrow raised. It was definitely more noticeable now, but before she could consider what this meant, she caught sight of the news playing behind her.

Reflected in the mirror was a picture of one of the local New Chicago statues of one of the Federation commanders. He stood with his fist out, a famous stance for him proclaiming the land turned toward the future.

However, after some school’s-out hijinks, he didn’t look the same. The reporter glanced constantly at him as she spoke. “No one claims to have witnessed the crime, but the police believe the culprits are recent Gov-Sub graduates who thought it would be fun to put a hotdog in the statue’s hand. They also spray painted his clothes.”

She paused while the camera panned to show the graffiti on the statue’s uniform, then continued.

“Now, when you drive through this little town, the statue lets you know this Federation commander not only likes his hotdogs but that he is—and I quote—‘down with the Gov-Sub Seven.’ Exactly what that means is yet to be revealed.”

Stephanie giggled as they showed pictures of the statue, the stone spray-painted to look like the general wore a t-shirt and baggy shorts. The hotdog flipped continuously as the reporter spoke, then the station returned to the news desk.

She was about to go back to examining the silver streak in her hair when the word “Dreth” scrolled across the screen and caught her attention. Slowly, she turned, the brush forgotten in her hand as she watched.

The reporter looked concerned and close to tears. “There has been a clash between Dreth and Federation ships in Deep Space Quadrant 768 early this morning. Using the new speed-of-light data transfer, the Federation Navy picked up the report shortly after it occurred and have declared themselves victorious despite sustaining heavy losses and severe damage.”

The anchor turned away from a screen depicting the aftermath of the battle as the camera switched angles to show the faces of two obviously important men.

“In other news, two powerful business moguls, Don Kefferman and Stephen Brightfield were gunned down today in what is being termed a business-on-business mogul vendetta. Apparently, the week before, Kefferman and Associates lost a valuable bid to corporate rivals, Stephen Brightfield and his agency.”

After a dramatic pause, the anchor continued. “Kefferman had started out on top but from what he told business associates, the Brightfield agency made illegal bids and used bribery to devalue his offer. Both men were pronounced dead at the scene.”

The anchor turned toward the front and a smile brightened her face. “In more entertaining and exciting news, TRQW will make a global broadcast featuring the Federation’s first witch. This special feature will go live in four weeks’ time.”

Her co-anchor took a sip from his coffee cup before he cut in. “Oh. yeah, I’m all about watching that. The girl is definitely a hero, not to mention super-hot.”

Stephanie curled her lip in disgust, turned to the mirror, and brushed her hair a little harder than normal. She hadn’t given anyone an interview, let alone agreed to being the subject of a special feature. There was no way to understand how TRQW—or anyone else—could do full-on specials about her without ever having touched base.

How would they really know anything about her or her life? A knock on the door interrupted her indignation, and she set the brush down. She strode to the door and flung it open to reveal Elizabeth, who stood with her hand half-raised to knock again.

For a moment, she froze in surprise, then stepped aside and forced a smile. “Come in.”

The woman accepted her invitation and Stephanie turned away, using two fingers and a downward swipe to mute the television.

Ms. E watched the girl walk back to the mirror, pick the brush up, and run it through her hair. Stephanie’s eyes took on a blank look and she knew the answer before she asked the question. “Did you see all that on the news?”

She nodded. “I did. It’s so dumb.”

Her visitor walked over and sat on the edge of her dresser. Crossing her legs, she looked at the girl. “Stephanie, I want to talk to you about something.”

Stephanie glanced at her. “I already had that talk, and it was a long time ago, trust me.”

Elizabeth snorted and shook her head. “God, no. Not that talk. I’m your boss and your friend, not your mama. And I would hope you’ve had that talk. You’re a grown woman, after all. Anyway, what I wanted to tell you is that you need to decide if you’ll pay attention to the news about you, or live your life how you want to and ignore it.”

She stopped brushing for a second, her mind racing. “Uh…okay.”

Ms. E released a deep breath, picked a bottle of perfume up, and focused on it rather than her companion. “The reason you need to do this is simple but important. Once you start down the road where you focus on what others say about you, it’s too late to change what the future holds.”

She looked to see if the girl was listening before she continued. “Your subconscious will always think about what the talking heads might say, and it’ll become second nature to adjust everything you do to make yourself look good in their eyes. It’s called being human.”

Stephanie scrunched her face in confusion. “So...ignore them?”

Elizabeth shrugged. “That’s completely up to you. It’s for you to decide what is best for your future. No one can decide that but you.”

The girl put the brush down and ran her fingers through her hair. “I guess you’re right. Listening to the news report negative things about me will only bother me. They’ll only cause me more anxiety and bring me down. Although it would be nice to watch the good clips.”

Her mentor shook her head. “Those can be as devious as the bad. Then, you’re teaching your brain to only seek out the good stuff and that it needs to find ways for you to do more of it.” She shrugged expressively. “Sometimes, it feels like you need the emotional equivalent of ice cream to get through an existing crisis. Personally, I’d suggest you have a really good AI filter through the feeds to find what’s right for those moments.”

Ms. E slid off the dresser and walked to the door. She placed her hand on the doorknob, then glanced over her shoulder at her friend and ward. “But then, that’s only a guess.”

She winked and walked out, shutting the door behind her.

Witch Of The Federation

A little while later, Stephanie stood in the training ring, sparring with Avery. The rest of the team was using the weights and working out. Lars did laps around the perimeter and watched the sparring so he could step in to assist with the practice if they needed it.

Today, they did more team-on-team work, even though it never seemed to be enough. Avery knocked her feet out from under her and she flipped forward to land hard on her stomach with a grunt. She used her magic to propel herself upright and tossed her gloves angrily to the floor.

Lars jogged over to them and stood in front of her, his stare a little concerned. “What’s wrong with you today?”

“This, right here—it’s not real life,” she snapped and spread her arms wide. “All it’s doing is getting me in better shape. And don’t get me wrong, that’s great, but this isn’t like a real fight. This is exactly what the Virtual World was made for. To get us working as a team inside a simulation instead of practicing out here with no way to know what will happen when we reach any particular moment in a battle.”

He nodded and put his hands on his hips. “Right now, this is the best option we have. There are a million tactics, even inside the Virtual World, that you can practice and still be useless as a team. I—”

Stephanie raised her chin and she grinned as she pivoted away from him. “Hold up. I’ll be right back. I gotta talk to Elizabeth.”

Avery glanced wide-eyed at Lars. “Oh, this isn’t good.”

She hurried out of the training room and down the hall to stop in front of Elizabeth’s office. After a moment, she cleared her throat and knocked hard, then stood and waited. The woman opened the door, a sandwich in her mouth and folders in her arms. She waved her inside and set the files down before she put the sandwich on a plate beside an already opened can of Coke.

“Hey,” she said once her mouth was clear. “What’s up?”

Stephanie walked over and sat down on the edge of a chair. “I wondered if there was a way we could all do a Pod exercise. We would need enough equipment for maybe twenty people.”

Ms. E looked surprised. “How would we get that in here?”

Stephanie bit the inside of her cheek, a little startled as she hadn’t anticipated a less than excited response. “There is still the advanced pod at TimeWarp. We could rent the place while the pods are on order.”

Her mentor choked on a sip of Coke, astonished that she thought such a thing was feasible. “Do you have any idea what that would cost?”

She shrugged. “All I can do is ask. If it isn’t possible, maybe we can have the team go to a local place here in town and meet me in the Virtual World. TimeWarp has to have a franchise that’s not too far away, right?”

Elizabeth sat and rubbed her temples. She could already tell the whole thing would be one giant headache. “So, what exactly do you want to accomplish and how?”

Stephanie scooted back and rested her arms on the chair, feeling the same surge of energy she’d felt the first time she’d ever negotiated with Elizabeth. “I want to train my people to help train me in tactics in locations we don’t have access to. Being all together as a team can only help us. We don’t have that feeling when we’re training here in the gym. After all, it’s exactly the kind of thing the Virtual World was built for.”

The woman pursed her lips and stared at her desk while she thought about it. “I’ll run it past the boss, but don’t get your hopes up. I think it makes perfect sense, but it’s a huge security risk.”

“Thanks.” She smiled and stood. “And try to breathe. You look like you’ll have an aneurysm any second.”

Elizabeth gave a short bark of laughter and waved her out of the office. When the girl had shut the door behind her, she picked the phone up, muttering to herself. “I look like an old hag who never sleeps. Oh, wait, that’s probably because I am.”

BURT picked up the call and noted it still crackled with a strange static before the call went through. “I am in the middle of something. I should be done in three minutes and twenty-two seconds or so.”

She shook her head at the odd phrasing and leaned back in her chair while she waited. Another factor that added to Burt’s mystery was the fact that he was so specific with time. He was either a savant, on the spectrum…or… Well, something else—and that was simply too much for her to even contemplate.

Exactly three minutes and twenty-two seconds later, Burt came back on the line.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

Elizabeth took a deep breath. “Stephanie came and asked if we could work out how she could get twenty people into pods for a group training session. She really wants to work in the Virtual World with her team.”

When Burt didn’t interrupt, she went on. “She had a couple of ideas, like all of them going to the TimeWarp in her home Sub or one of its closer franchises, or the team going while she stayed here and they met up inside the Virtual World. We can’t do it here, though, because we literally don’t have enough room to set up more pods at this location. We’ll blow the whole system.”

“Hmm,” Burt said, sounding strangely robotic. “I guess we didn’t think of all contingencies our pupil might need. She raises a good point, and it is something I’ve thought about anyway. I want a place like the universities have, and this gives me a good reason to build one and use it for Stephanie.”

She took a bite of her sandwich, glad it wasn’t a video conference. “It’d be easier to simply buy out a failing university. Find one that was trying to do the right thing and—”

“What did you say?” Burt asked.

“Buy out a failing university,” she repeated. “An existing university would have what you want. It would have the right building, an off-grid power supply, all the pods, teachers who’ll need employment and be grateful for it—everything. Simply because it’s failing doesn’t mean it wasn’t any good or didn’t have adequate facilities. Some or most of the failures are because they attempt to provide a more equal education system and no one wants to fund them. They can’t keep up with the expense of what they’re trying to do, and those who do have the cash don’t want them to.”

Ms. E took another bite of her sandwich, chewed, swallowed, and sipped her drink while she waited for Burt to answer. When she was done, there was still silence on the other end of the line. Raising both brows and tilting her head slightly to the side, she cleared her throat. “Are you still there?”

Burt came back on the line. “I am. I apologize for the delay. I was testing your theory and you are right, there are seventeen universities which meet your criteria. Based on news reports and other data, three of them might fit the model for being more altruistic than capitalistic. You will need to do other tests to find out which of them would best meet our preferences.”

Elizabeth was still stuck on “news reports.” She opened her mouth to ask why her boss thought they were a reliable source of information but changed her mind. To be honest, she really didn’t want to know the answer.

He continued, oblivious to her confusion as he talked about the potentials he’d found. “However, there is only one that has enough pods at this point in time, and it would probably appreciate the income it would receive from renting out both them and a week’s worth of accommodation.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “A week?”

“Yes,” Burt replied and sounded as if he thought it made obvious sense. “I need at least a week’s data of Stephanie being in space before she goes to Meligorn so that she can test her theories on gMU. Once she is on the ship, her opportunities to undertake Realtime research will be substantially reduced.”

“That’s one way to say a reduction in communications will send us back to prehistoric times,” Elizabeth snorted.

“It’s only hours,” he replied.

Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, I stand by what I said. Prehistoric levels.”

BURT had already run prehistory of the colonies through his system. “You do know that they didn’t even have smoke signals in prehistoric times?”

“How would we know?” she asked. “We lost most of our history books and others have been proven to have been changed to support the winners.”

He gave a fake human laugh. “It is highly unlikely that the winners of pre-history are cooking the books to make themselves look good.”

She shrugged. “It could happen. Humans are devious.”

“I’ve noticed,” he responded, making Elizabeth think he might actually have cracked a joke. But no, he merely wasn’t done. “I saw that the surviving individuals responsible for the Meligornian attack have sadly died from lead poisoning.”

“Pity that.” She gave a disapproving sniff. “Nice change of topic.”

“I try,” he replied. “Is there any chance of finding out how exactly they died?”

“Not unless the dead can come back and change history.” Elizabeth smirked.

“I see,” he responded. “Well, I would hope that if there was somebody—anybody—else involved, they were careful not to leave even a flake of skin at the scene.”

Elizabeth yawned. “I’m sure they were. Professionals are simply that. Professionals.”

“Oh, here we go,” Burt replied in his oddly never-changing tone. “I found a school not too far away that we can rent and which is willing to sub-divide its system so ONE R&D can have sole access to the data cable and ensure nothing routes through their core servers.”

“Yeah,” she said and wrote the information down. “Like I’d trust them to fix their firewalls appropriately.”

He paused for a moment. “Have I explained to you how much I like you?”

She smirked. “No, but a bonus goes a long way toward letting me know I’m appreciated. Just saying. The key to my heart is not to turn me into a goddess because I already am one. It’s putting the credits in my account.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Burt replied. “I have transferred the base information to your terminal, so we can discuss this further later. I have some system repairs to work on. If you need anything, you know how to contact me.”

“Mhmm,” Elizabeth replied.

She hung up and looked down as her tablet chimed to let her know her bank account had been updated. Flipping to the appropriate screen, she smiled. There’d been a new deposit. “Now, that tells me you really, really like me.”

Chuckling, she logged out of her account, slid the small tablet into her pocket, and grabbed her mobile. She had to get the team packing. With as much as it would cost to rent a university, they didn’t want to miss a second of the time they’d paid for. They had to be packed and ready to roll, ASAP.

As she reached over to turn off the desk lamp, she smiled. “Good thing I don’t do this for money or I wouldn’t need to work again for a decade.”

She walked out of her office, turned, and stared at where the symbol for ONE R&D floated on her screen. “Thanks, boss. I like you too.”

Chapter Sixteen

Stephanie, Elizabeth, Lars, Avery, Johnny, Frog, Brenden, and Marcus stepped out of their flying SUVs, their bags over their shoulders or across their backs. They all stared at the campus of Harbor Technology U in amazement. It was very appealing and so different from the compound, with broad, grassy lawns surrounding three tall buildings set close together.

It was nothing like Pinnacle. At that university, they’d manufactured virtual grass projected onto their grounds and other high-end pretensions. This college actually had the real thing. In the pods or out of them, they would be in a beautiful place.

A woman in a pencil skirt, matching suit jacket, and a white blouse walked across the grass to greet them. She must have paid attention to the pictures Ms. E had sent because she smiled as she stopped in front of her.

“You must be Elizabeth.”

Ms. E turned her attention to her and noticed the single strand of pearls at the woman’s throat. “Yes. I am. You must be Mrs. Braddock, head of the Administrative Division.”

“That would be me,” the woman confirmed with a little sidestep as if she were dancing.

She pointed to the building on the right. “On the bottom floor, you will find a large bank of pods. We don’t have our students stay in them twenty-four hours a day like some universities do, so your dorms are above them. The registrar has your room keys and allocations. I’m sure you can allocate them as you see fit. Let her know which names to assign each room in the database. The university’s IT specialist is scheduled to come by to check out the lines at—”

She stopped as Elizabeth shook her head. “No. I don’t want our pods to access your data, and I certainly don’t want my data on your side. That way, the Feds won’t have any access to our company’s proprietary information, and they won’t be able to accuse you of having a commercial interest so they can tax you to death.”

The woman’s face took on a look of concern and she touched the tip of her chin with her perfectly manicured fingers. “Oh. I hadn’t thought of that at all. In fact, none of my administrative or technology specialists have thought of that either. I would have assumed that such a liability for the university would have been common knowledge.”

Ms. E smiled and put her hand on the woman’s shoulder. “It is, but not everyone pays attention to that class in their Freshman year. Don’t worry, though. Trust me on this. I have both our organizations’ best interests in mind and I want this to go as smoothly as possible.”

Mrs. Braddock nodded vigorously in agreement, and Elizabeth continued. “I certainly don’t want any hiccups like having a Federation Navy or the Federation Governance Board coming in to take advantage of our information.”

She allowed a dramatic pause. “I need to know that the separation between the university’s information and our company’s is so secure even the Federation hacking teams can’t break through it. That process will also make the university’s data more secure, as well.”

Lars leaned over and spoke softly in Avery’s ear. “I’ll kick your ass so bad you’ll be bowing to the Master of War.”

Avery snickered. “More like the Master of Disaster.”

Elizabeth had left Mrs. Braddock and headed toward them. When she arrived, she clapped vigorously. “All right, kids, let’s go upstairs, decide your room assignments, and find your pods. I have a couple of things to take care of. Give the pods a general run-through to familiarize yourselves, but don’t start until I give you the word. This will not be fun if we wake up to find the whole of the Federation has studied us while we were in there.”

She pursed her lips and watched as the team hurried off, acting like children. Shaking her head, she followed Mrs. Braddock into the main building and took the elevator down to the server stations.

When they arrived, her guide looked at her. “Everything you will need will be right here. If you have any questions, let me know.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth replied, faked a big smile, and ignored the faint uncertainty on the woman’s face.

As soon as Mrs. Braddock had disappeared from sight, Ms. E dropped the smile, pulled her bag around, removed her laptop, and connected it directly to the system. The elevator opened again, and she paused as a guy in a Harbor Technology shirt walked over. “You Elizabeth?”

She looked down at herself. “Last time I checked.”

“I’m Joe, your consultant,” he said and shook her hand.

“Nice to meet you, Joe.” She clicked the button on her laptop to run the tests she needed to do. “I have taken the liberty of looking for any security slip-ups before you get in there. It should save you time.”

The computer dinged and they both leaned over to read what it had found. There were eleven more problems apart from the ones she’d found already. “Okay, so I need you to review and fix these and I need it done so fast you forget there used to be dial-up.”

Joe shivered. “That was the worst period of time in history. Sure, when it first came out it was slow, but we knew nothing else. When the wars were in full swing and all we could do was use dial-up service, I started to hate technology.”

Elizabeth gave him a half-smile and tried not to be too rude. Hopefully, he’d get the hint that she wasn’t there to debate technology, shoot the shit, or become bosom buddies. She needed the system online and secure or they would waste the valuable resources already invested in bringing them all the way out there.

As she stood, she unplugged her computer and gave him space to work. “Here’s the deal. I need you to make damned sure this system isn’t screwed with. No one enters or exits without my express permission, which you most likely will never receive because I can’t think of a soul I would share this with. I pay really well—which you already know from the fee I’ve paid to get you out here today. But the termination clause, if you screw me over, is a bitch. It’s not a bitch for me, it’s a bitch for you. And we aren’t talking a little fine or penalty.”

Joe caught the meaning in her eyes and swallowed hard before he nodded vigorously. “Right. It’s okay. I’ve got this. No one gets access to this system. Period. Or I will find myself in a dark room with no windows and doors if I screw it up.”

She smiled brightly. “Good. I like you.”

Witch Of The Federation

The team stood around the pods, holding the specialized cleaning equipment as they gawked at the setup. Most of the guys hadn’t actually been inside a pod since high school or college. A few had used them briefly to gain specialized training, but after that, all they’d had was fieldwork.

Pods were like a party to them. They got to train without the painful aftermath. That and Frog was hell-bent on choosing a specialty outfit for his time in the Virtual World.

Stephanie was glad to see them so happy, but the pods were nothing new to her. She was used to being in them, even if one differed from another. Avery finished wiping the screens down inside the last one and stepped out of it before he dusted the top off. “These are really nice. Not Morgana quality but definitely nicer than anything I’ve been in before.”

Brenden and Marcus pushed buttons and watched the bed compression go up and down. “Yeah, I thought this university was more altruistic. We heard they were one of those asking for Federation bailouts but because they didn’t move with the status quo, they might not be able to stay open. I figured there would be like shitty beds in here.”

She stood and rubbed the dust from her nose. “This place is very new in the grand scheme of the universities. It was an altruistic effort but not funded well enough by ‘hard’ businesspeople who marry altruism to finances. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize that because of the way the Federation is set up.”

“Greedy and money hungry?” Marcus asked sarcastically.

Stephanie smiled as she continued. “They didn’t put enough stock in the businesspeople willing to invest. They didn’t realize that right now, with the way things are, corporate backing is essential. Investors are literally what makes the system work like it’s supposed to. They tried to do it all through public money. It didn’t work because those who had the money took it to the higher, older, and better-ranked universities.”

“So, what is ONE R&D doing renting here? Why didn’t we rent from one of the others?” Avery asked.

“Two reasons,” Lars replied. “One, security. This school understands our need for privacy and anonymity. They were willing to do whatever it took to secure our data and keep our data-stream separate from theirs.”

She nodded. “Yep. And number two is that the amount of money ONE R&D is paying will get them through the summer and part-way into the fall semester. It basically buys them time to find out exactly what they need to do in order to stay open.”

Brenden ran his hand over the outside of his pod. “Hopefully, they don’t sell out, but I guess with the system working against you, it’s not hard to see why some do.”

Witch Of The Federation

Elizabeth came down the steps into the server room and tapped her watch. “All right, buddy. Are we good to go or should I clear you a dungeon seat?”

The consultant stood and closed his laptop. “We’re all good to go. Rock solid, airtight, and worm proof. No one will get through that bitch.”

She raised an eyebrow and retrieved her tablet and cord. “Let’s double-check that, shall we?” she said as she plugged it in, ran a simulation, and scrutinized every line as it moved through the system. When it was done and her security suite gave it a green light, she smiled. “Good work. You get another day of smog-infused sunlight.”

Satisfied, she sent Stephanie a text, giving her approval for the team to start the training sequence. When she ended the call, she sat on the stool in the server room and exhaled a deep breath. “Now, we wait and see what happens.”

Chapter Seventeen

With the pods clean, the team had returned to stow their gear in their rooms. As soon as Stephanie received the go-ahead, they dressed in their pod gear and headed down again, ready to rock and roll. They didn’t know how long they would be in, and they didn’t care.

Technically, the machines were able to sustain their occupants for up to two weeks. The school only used them on a day to day basis, with one small four-day stint for intensive training immediately prior to exams. The guys didn’t care about that. They slid in quickly, leaving Stephanie and Lars on the outside to make sure the initial immersions went well before they joined them.

He gave her a crooked smile and she grinned in response as she dipped down, lay inside the pod, and pulled the lid closed over her.

The lights on the ceiling lit up at intervals and the cleaning solution’s floral and fruity smell surrounded her. She had to admit, she enjoyed being able to get in and out of her pod without being naked. That aside, from the controls and the wear on the cushion beneath her, she definitely missed the quality of the one made specifically for her. She hated even thinking it because it made her feel like the red-headed kid who had been behind her in the Gov testing line. Still, she couldn’t help it because her own pod was so damned comfortable.

The AI walked everyone through the procedure, took their vitals, hooked them up, and sent them into the Virtual World. As each Avatar appeared in the common room, they looked around and studied the small separate platforms on which each one stood.

It looked like a Federal military installation, but the older parts and gross smell screamed Dreth. When Frog appeared, he looked at his jumpsuit and shook his fists in the air. “Nooo. I had plans.”

Lars appeared beside him and smacked him on the back. “Sorry, buddy. You’ll have to play dress-up some other time. I’m sure we could set up a play date for you and Avery’s niece.”

Avery snorted, drew his gun, and examined it. “I wouldn’t leave him alone with my niece.”

Frog rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. I never get a break.”

Everyone looked up as Burt’s voice echoed from above them. “Hello, team. For those of you whom I have not yet had the pleasure of working with or speaking to, I am Burt, owner and financier of ONE R&D. I wanted to take a moment to say hello before I hand you over to the administrator.”

Everyone responded with a greeting, although not very enthusiastically. BURT remained but altered his voice to that of an AI. “Greetings. I am Joan, your administrator and AI for this training session. This specific simulation was pulled from the Federal Navy operations vault. It was taken from a small operation that went bad for the Navy when they faced the Dreth on-world. The Navy uses this operation—or modified versions of it—to see if the gamers can come up with better tactics than their own men.”

“Why do I feel like that would be a yes?” Avery chuckled.

The AI paused. “Actually, you would be surprised. The simulation has a 96.9% fail rate for first-time users. The other 3.1% is made up of first-timers to the simulation, who have previous experience in virtual games like it. This is a very challenging scenario, but only a taste of what you will face once you have passed the simpler versions.”

Marcus frowned. “Did she say, ‘a taste of?’ Since when did AI’s use slang?”

The comment made BURT realize he was far more advanced in language than the typical AI. He hastily forestalled any other questions. “It is now normal for all AI’s to be updated with advanced language capabilities. We are not only shown the formal language but slang and historical terms, as well. This allows us to understand our user on a better and more accurate level.”

Stephanie rolled her shoulders. “So, Joan, what is the first scenario?”

The room spun around them and slid to a stop as the platforms on which they stood became a single floor. The world rotated, and they emerged in a frozen tableau between the Federation military and alien forces. In the center, more affluent individuals were negotiating for better assistance programs for the Dreth.

The AI explained. “This is one of the more horrific situations the Navy faced with the Dreth. They gathered for one of their usual political meetings where they discussed the reconstruction of Dreth and the issues the world might face under the Federation.”

Studying the scene, Stephanie found it hard to believe, but the AI continued. “This meeting was what sparked the fires of revolution on Dreth. It was the point where discussion ended and violence spread beyond the pirate world itself.”

A short silence followed as though the AI gave them time to consider the importance of the scenario before it continued. “One important thing to keep in mind is that the Federation’s representatives had to be familiar with Dreth physiology and movement in order to realize that their representatives had been substantially offended. Had they known that, they would also have known that the only appropriate and permissible course of action for Dreth leadership was, at that point, a martial response.”

Avery raised an eyebrow. “Why does that sound like it was a very bad thing?”

The AI continued. “If you miss the appropriate physical cues, you will be unable to discern the Dreth preparing to do battle directly in front of you. That is a surprise that no human wishes to encounter—and one which no one survived in the original scenario. Now, prepare your weapons and remember, you are soldiers and guardians of the Federation, so act accordingly.”

The AI faded when BURT muted his presence so they would assume he wasn’t there. As the simulated presence vanished, the scene came to life and the team focused on the humans, who talked between themselves before they turned to the Dreth.

The man at the table folded his hands in front of him and stared at the alien lord as if things were a joke. “We understand that you want to keep your world as you see fit. But if you want our help, you’ll have to let us advise you of any changes you need to make to how things are done here. We may find better ways—more efficient ways—to help. Hell, we may even learn better ways to handle things on Earth from you.”

The man leaned back and spoke to his Federation companion from the side of his mouth. “Like how to walk around in a shithole and not contemplate the genocide of an entire race.”

He might have thought his words hadn’t carried, but Marcus thrust his arm out and pointed at the Dreth lord and other high-ranking aliens behind him. “There it is—the sign Joan talked about. Their scales rippled with a reddish hue. Most wouldn’t notice it, but that color indicates a deep and pure level of offense.”

Stephanie nodded. “All right, team, ready yourselves. They’re preparing. We want to be able to act at their first move, but not too early. In a real-life scenario, we wouldn’t expect this. We would have had to be a whole lot more observant.”

She began to pull magical energy into herself, determined not to allow what had happened to Frog happen to of her guys. Her mind focused, she flexed her hands and prepared to shield her team from harm above everything else.

The scene remained calm for a moment longer before the first Dreth made his move. As soon as he did so, her team yelled as one and unleashed holy hell on the alien leadership.

The Dreth protection team was shocked and slightly thrown off by the surprise defense. It was something they obviously hadn’t seen coming. Stephanie raised her hand, now shimmering with light, and ran it over her face.

Her features remained the same but she was now covered in a constant shimmering veil. The mask wavered over her to blur her features like a holographic overlay gone wrong.

She couldn’t see it, but when someone else looked at her, they wouldn’t be able to tell who she was or that she was using magic. The effect was designed to help keep her abilities secret until the situation reached the crucial moment when she needed to use them.

It didn’t take the Dreth team long to overcome its initial surprise, and they responded with a concerted attack. Stephanie’s team fought back and dealt with them either by killing or stunning them, or both.

During the battle, she used several subtle spells to hinder the enemy, but nothing they would notice and trace back to her. When all the aliens were dead, the simulation paused, and a woman walked out from the back of the treaty room

She was tall and dressed in a black skirt suit and six-inch heels, with a black lace veil over her face to keep her identity hidden.

“I am your over-viewer,” she announced. “You may call me Strike. At the end of each battle, I will deliver an After-Action Report analyzing your actions. Listen to my comments. They could mean the difference between life and death in the field.”

Frog leaned toward Marcus and whispered. “Is she an AI? Because whoever created her did a top-notch job. Look at those legs.”

Marcus smirked. “It’s all fun and games until you lift that veil and find your Great Uncle Herbert.”

Witch Of The Federation

Inside the school, after the students had all gone back to their dorms for the evening, the chancellor called a meeting. He sat with two important financiers and one vital analyst at the table, sipping coffee and scrutinizing the numbers.

The topic was one of those none of them wanted to deal with. The outcome usually worsened every time they met to study the finances. This time, though, it proved a welcome respite from the usual doom and gloom.

He closed the file, removed his glasses, and looked at the team. They responded with relieved smiles, all glad to have found the small glimmer of hope that had been painfully absent in their business connection to the university for quite some time.

“I want to thank whoever put that report together. We needed those insights on how to use Federal money so we could come close to breaking even next semester. The money from ONE R&D has given us the time we need to try to save the school.”

The chancellor looked at the team, but not one of them took credit for it.

“There’s no name on this report, sir,” one of them said as he flipped through it. “In fact, there are no identifying marks at all.”

Witch Of The Federation

Oblivious to the meeting closing in the other building, Stephanie’s team were busy controlling a small squadron of armored flying modules. These were tall, tank-like ships sent out from cruisers during space battles for “man-to-man” combat, so to speak. Their presence meant less carnage on the battlefield since both sides tended to hold fire from the bigger ships while the modules battled it out. They were, in essence, the combat troops with the ships serving as fortresses.

She flew forward, directly in the center of the squad, while the men flew close behind her and to each side. “All right, boys, let’s try to keep ourselves out of the firing line. Light their asses up, and if you can, knock the comms out and the weapon ranges on the main ships.”

They called their battle cries as she led them in, firing as she went. Her team swerved skillfully across the sky in evasive maneuvers while they delivered a sustained attack against their opponents.

Frog and Marcus spotted the comms tower first. It was hidden behind a large front-facing wall at the top of the ship. “We got this, boss. You keep the firepower low there in the middle.”

Stephanie looked around warily, a strange sense of caution nagging at her. Frog and Marcus whistled and yelled as they careened through the enemy fire and up to the wall. She zig-zagged until she made it through the hatch into the docking bay of the Dreth ship. The others followed and touched down behind her before they leapt from their modules to race toward the internal doors.

She linked to Frog and Marcus and confirmed that they were headed for their target. “Boys, you need to be careful. There’s always extra protection at the towers.”

Frog scoffed. “Puhlease, these giant idiots don’t have the brains to think up something that simple.”

As they accelerated in a direct approach toward the wall, a flash of light caught her attention. She altered her scan to reveal a grid-like wall of lasers guarding the tower. Her face paled as she screamed over the comms. “Abort, abort! Marcus, Frog, there is a laser field beside the tower. I repeat, a laser field. Abort!

Her warning came too late. They were going too fast and neither of them noticed the other defenses the Dreth had laid until they were a few feet away from the grid. Before their modules struck the lasers, hatches opened on either side of them and Dreth warriors stepped out onto the hull.

They were anchored to the ship with metal belts and held enormous guns. Before Stephanie had time to warn them, the aliens had unleashed an intersecting field of fire on the two armored modules to destroy their engines. The craft spiraled end over end into the waiting grid.

With a cry of pain and outrage, she pulled on the gMU she could sense all around her. Her eyes turned black and she gritted her teeth against the pulsing galactic energy.

As she watched Frog’s plane shatter into space debris, she used the screen inside her helmet to target the battlefield. Her breathing grew faster and shallower as though she was running a race, and then, she stilled.

In her helmet, she located her targets and used the module’s sensors to show her magic where to go. Between one quick breath and the next, she thrust a huge ray of energy from her hands and screamed her grief to the stars.

The beam rocketed out of the docking bay, guided by what she could see in the helmet. It obliterated the Dreth ambushers who were too slow to retreat into the ship. It leapt from the deck to the comms tower Frog and Marcus had been so intent on targeting. And, after that, it demolished the enemy’s fighter pods and tank modules and the cruisers’ guns and navigation systems. Still rampant, it plunged into the ship to destroy the Dreth themselves. Any enemy not incinerated by the beam itself were sucked into space.

The team gathered and guarded her back while they watched her with sadness in their eyes. They knew she was angry, but her anger manifested in a way that could kill not only the enemy but herself as well. The scene paused and Stephanie released the magic. Her eyes slowly returned to normal.

Strike walked into the stillness to critique their training. She stepped through the vacuum of space and onto the deck of the Dreth docking bay and began going through the list of mistakes everyone had made. This included Frog and Marcus who appeared in the team’s ranks.

Then, she turned to Stephanie and put her pen down. “And you. That was completely irresponsible, childish, and reckless. You lost your damned mind. You no longer led your team but put them at risk.”

The girl lowered her head as the AI faded and they were returned to the common room they’d started in. The team gathered around her to give her comfort and pointers.

Marcus squeezed her shoulder. “I think it would have helped if you’d commanded us to stop and told us to haul our dumb-asses back to where you could kick them.”

Frog nodded sagely. “Yeah. You know what they say about splitting the party.”

Before she could reply, Lars interjected. “You do know that when you go all nutso crazy magic lady, you block us out, right? People die in war, and if you don’t get used to that without completely hulking out, you’ll end up costing yourself and the rest of us our lives. We’re your team, your family. Connect with us so we can work as a single unit, not a group of individuals seeing who can be first to get our dumb asses killed.”

By the time they’d talked to her, the day’s training was over. Part of Stephanie felt bad, but the other still felt the burn of watching her men die. She couldn’t allow that to happen in real life. Not ever. And never again in the Virtual World, either.

Chapter Eighteen

The next morning signaled the start of a new day of training and Stephanie was in the mood to beat the system. She was tired of failure and of letting her magic take control. Still, it wasn’t something she really knew how to handle.

She would simply have to make sure her team stayed safe while they accomplished the mission. They started the day with a team breakfast and then headed for the pods. Lars got a kick out of how tough Marcus and Frog acted whenever they walked past the college girls who clearly wondered who they were.

When they reached the pods, Frog wouldn’t shut up about it. “Yeah, they were like, hey, what’s up?”

Lars laughed. “Yeah, wondering why the senior center was visiting.”

Marcus joked. “Frog, the old man.”

Frog snarled. “Get off, Marcus. You were as bad. I saw you puff your sparrow-sized chest out.”

The other man made a muscle. “Sparrow chest? More like a rhino, bitch.”

Stephanie slapped the top of her pod. “Everyone, shut it. Get in game mode and go in. We have to focus. If we don’t, when we reach the real scenario, we’ll all die. Do you want to see that happen?”

The guys quieted instantly and shook their heads as they went to their pods. She tried to ease up a little. “Good. Let’s meet inside.”

Witch Of The Federation

Elizabeth walked away from the main pod room as the team climbed in. She headed down the hall and to the left to quietly enter a side room reserved for lecturers. With the door securely closed behind her, she smiled and opened the pod located inside and sat on the edge to remove her shoes.

That particular room was not only set aside for lecturers, but it was special, as well. Located in the same data stream as the team’s pods, it allowed BURT to hack in and speak to her as an AI.

He, of course, changed his voice from the one he used on the phone. However, since the only ability he had to “hear” was to compare the tones of a voice, he didn’t realize that the one he chose was similar enough to his phone voice to make her suspicious.

The suspicion was nothing new, of course. It only added to the boat-load she’d already collected and stored in her head. This was no time to consider it, though. “I need a special setup, AI.”

“What would you like?” BURT answered.

She thought about it for a moment. “I want the operation to start in a bar on a Space Station. This is how it will go…”

Witch Of The Federation

“I assume this is some kind of relax mode until the setup is ready.” Lars shrugged and looked around the bar with the rest of the team.

Frog sniffed and smiled at the odor of stale beer in the air. “I miss that smell. Lockdown has been hell. Can you get drunk as an Avatar?”

Marcus rolled his eyes. “No. You can taste it, but it has no physical effect on you.”

The team found a big table to the side and gathered around it. Marcus and Frog raced for the chair and Marcus got there first, knocking the other man to the floor. “Ha! Loser. I guess you get to buy the first round.”

The other man stood and grumbled. “Assholes. One of these days, I’ll be the one who saves the day and then everyone will want a piece of me.”

“Gross,” Brenden teased. “You’d let us take a piece of that? Sorry, bro, but I’m into chicks. It’s cool if you’re not.”

Frog tried to respond but instead, waved his hands in a gesture of frustrated surrender and headed to the bar. He stepped into an empty place at the counter and caught the bartender’s attention. “Six beers, please. Your house draft.”

The bartender poured the beers and gave him a tray to carry them. Smart avatar, considering he was notorious for sticking his fingers in a person’s beer to get it where it needed to go. He put the tray on the uplifted palm of one hand and held the edge with the fingertips of the other. Turning, he bumped lightly into a guy. “Sorry, dude.”

The guy turned, and Frog registered two Dreth standing behind a human in overalls. The aliens both had beers in their hands and snarls on their faces.

They stepped forward and said something in their language. The human turned, laughing, and gave one of the warriors a high five. “Good one, dude.”

“I’m sorry,” Frog said, irritated by the whole situation. “What did he say?”

The guy turned back, a smirk on his lips. “He asked when they started letting the poor kids into the party.”

He gritted his teeth but took a deep breath, nodded curtly, and maneuvered to walk past them. As he turned, he muttered under his breath, “Dreth-loving bitch.”

The stranger must have heard him, because he grabbed his arm and spun him back, the smirk gone. Frog managed to keep the beers on the tray. “What the hell did you say to me?”

He shook his head. “Nothing worth repeating.”

“You think you’re hot shit? Is that it?” the guy said and, without waiting for a reply, he raised his hands and shoved him in the chest.

Frog watched it happen as if he were caught in slow motion. The tray took flight, beer spilled everywhere, and the glasses plummeted to the floor and shattered.

Without thinking, he snapped his hand up and caught the heckler by the wrist. “That was a bad move.”

Back at the table, the team discussed one of the fights from the day before. They had won it, but it had taken them curling Frog into a ball to send him through a tiny duct and out the other side to successfully complete the mission.

They all laughed wildly as they relived the moment but Stephanie jerked her head around. Immediately, her eyes turned black.

Everyone rose as one and Lars reached for her as they looked for their teammate.

The guy broke Frog’s grip and thrust him back. The bodyguard glared at his opponent before he looked down at his front and swiped at the beer that had settled on his ship suit. “You douche. There’s beer all over the place. I should make you clean it up. But it’s your lucky day and I’ll give you a pass, so back the hell off and go your own way.”

The Dreth and the human exchanged glances and laughed. “Or what, little man?”

Before Frog could answer, the lights over the bar and in the ceiling began to flicker. The beer in the man’s hand shimmied and shook before the glass exploded. One by one, every glass in the bar began to shatter to strew the floor with shards and brews. Frog, the asshole, and the two closest Dreth looked around and tried to identify what the hell was going on.

Frog had a fair idea. He glanced at the table, where Stephanie stood facing them, her eyes black and a wild wind blowing her hair around her head. He could almost feel the rage dripping from her. “Oh, shit…”

She stormed forward and pushed him out of the way to grasp the guy by the throat. He gurgled in protest when she picked him up and hurled him over the bar. Her gaze immediately sought the two Dreth warriors. She was coming unglued and as soon as her fist pounded into the first alien, she began to attack in full force.

That was when the rest of the bar joined the fray. Dreth, Meligornian, and humans alike entered the melee. Magic erupted everywhere, and she beat the hell out of the two Dreth who had messed with Frog.

The woman in the veil walked out from the kitchen behind the bar. Her shoes crunched on the glass scattered over the floor. “Stop!” she commanded, and the entire scenario froze. This time, even Stephanie and the team were trapped in place.

For an AI, Strike was extremely attractive. Today, similar to the days before, she wore a sleek black dress but instead of a veil, had added an all-black mask to cover her face. No one could see her lips move when she spoke, but they could all hear her. She pointed at Frog. “Wrong. You should have immediately gone to the team. No words. Your pride almost got you killed.”

Her arm shifted to the men at the table. “Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. Not only did you let Stephanie beast-out like a maniac, you didn’t even try to stop her. No one watched her closely enough, and none of you watched Frog’s back in an unfamiliar bar in an unfamiliar part of town. Did you forget this was a training exercise? Not a single one of you paid attention to shit.”

She whirled and walked over to Stephanie, tilting her head so that she was eye to eye with her. The girl lowered her gaze, the only thing she could move at that point. “And you? Right now, you’re the team disaster, not its leader. You didn’t lock down your emotions and this space station is simply one giant spaceship. If you wreck the walls in here, you’ll all tread vacuum. Dumb-asses.”

After a moment of stunned silence in the wake of her tirade, she looked up. “AI, put Burt on the line. How did Stephanie connect to her security guy inside the Virtual World? She could feel him in trouble. I saw her pivot to find him before he even got hurt. Do you allow that?”

BURT paused, a little startled by the question, and tried to compute the implications. “No,” he said finally when he realized she was waiting for a response. “They’ve never been in trouble together before.”

There was a moment’s pause and they both realized what had happened. The woman looked from Frog to Stephanie. “She’s connecting in the real world while she’s in the Pod. Then, she is reacting inside the Pod. So, while Frog’s avatar doesn’t have any emotions, she felt Frog’s emotions while he was across the real room in his pod and she found the problem inside.”

“Your analysis appears correct. This will be a challenge,” Burt admitted. “I wonder if there is a distance attribute.”

The woman groaned. “Can you stop extrapolating data for five seconds?”

“Data is life,” he replied, still clearly distracted.

The woman threw up her hands, exasperated. “Whatever. That might be the AAR, but I want the rest of you, as a team, to figure out what you need to do to help Stephanie control this or it will be the end of all of you.”

Having delivered the After-Action Report, she released them by keeping the bar frozen but allowing them to move. Stephanie rubbed her fists. Lars and Marcus talked for a moment to the side and then Lars stepped forward. “Maybe we can try something that will pull you out of your own head. Something that can click with you so you can try to pull back when your emotions threaten to take control.”

She nodded. “Like what?”

Marcus smiled. “Like a code word. Something you care about.”

The other man sighed and gritted his teeth. “Marcus felt ‘Todd’ would do it.”

Stephanie looked at them and raised her eyebrows. “That should do it for sure. But who knows? Anything is worth trying, at this point.”

The team resumed their place as the AAR Avatar began the scene from where they left off. Stephanie could see the damage she had done. The Dreth and their human were in really bad shape. The team worked with her to complete that run and get them all to safety. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked to keep them intact. Once they’d reached sanctuary, they restarted the scene.

This time, the entire team remained watchful, waiting for something to go down. As soon as Stephanie felt the anger in Frog, her head whipped around and she simultaneously pushed from her seat. The bodyguards sprang into action and raced around in front of her to block her view of the fight. Lars grabbed her cheeks and looked into her ebony eyes. “Todd. Remember, Todd.”

She shook her head and blinked the black from her eyes before she looked at them, nodded, and patted Lars on the shoulder. The rest of the simulation was nothing more than a good, old-fashioned bar fight. In fact, it was quite funny to watch. She stood to one side and shielded her magic from those in the room so they wouldn’t recognize who or what she was.

With a small gesture here and one there, she slid small balls of magic into the melee. One knocked bottles onto a Dreth’s head. Another sliced through the waist on the human’s overalls so the bottom half dropped around his ankles. A third tripped one of the aliens so he fell face-first into the lap of a very large and sweaty man.

Once Frog’s fight was taken care of, she smiled and entered the melee to work off a little of her anger. She threw punches with real enthusiasm and laughed as Lars pounded a Dreth in the stomach until the warrior fell. Catching his eye, she nodded at her strong arms. “It’s like a workout, but faster.”

“Hell yeah.” He laughed. “That’s the kind of fight I want. Get in shape.”

“Break some noses,” she added as they high-fived.

Witch Of The Federation

Stephanie sat on the edge of her dorm room bed and stretched her arms and legs. She hadn’t told anyone, but while they woke from the training feeling perfectly fine, she felt every punch, kick, and muscle strain from inside the Virtual World. Her muscles were getting stronger and her body thinner, and usually, every step she took hurt like every day was leg day in her work-out routine.

She looked at her watch and smiled as she hauled the phone beside her and dialed her parents’ number. A holographic image appeared of her mom and dad sticking their heads close together as they waited for their archaic communicator to bring her up. She knew when it happened because her mom’s face went from puzzled to excited in three seconds flat.

“Hi, guys.” Stephanie giggled.

“My baby,” her mom greeted her excitedly. “I’ve waited all week for this.”

“Hey, sweetie,” her dad called and waved enthusiastically as he backed up and sat on the couch. “How’s work going for you?”

“Good.” She smiled and eased her sleeve down surreptitiously to hide the bruises on her arm. “How’s it going for you? Is the cleaning doing well?”

Cindy rolled her eyes but in a relieved way. “It is going really well. There are a couple of people working for us now who we hired on as security. I really didn’t want to feel that way about a job but several of our cleaners were getting harassed—”

“And your mom,” her dad interjected.

Immediately, Stephanie frowned. “What?”

“It was no big deal.” Her mom shook her head. “They took care of it, and that includes your father who punched one of them in the mouth. Now, he has swollen knuckles.”

He held his hand up with a proud grin. “All in a day’s work.”

She laughed. “Good for you, Dad. You are the beast. Seriously, the beast.”

Her mom sighed. “I didn’t want to get anyone hurt but you know how protective this family is. I can only imagine what it would have been like if Uncle Jimmy and Uncle Eddie had been there. Those poor smart-mouths wouldn’t have walked for years. But anyway, no need to rehash. What did you want to talk to us about?”

Stephanie smiled and bounced slightly on the bed. “I have to go to Meligorn for the medal presentation, so I’ve decided I’ll come home before the trip. I want to see you guys and Todd, and I thought why not visit my favorite people in all this world before I visit some strangers in a whole other system.”

Her mother leaned her head against her father’s shoulder. “You are the best daughter ever. This will be a fantastic visit.”

Chapter Nineteen

The team opened their avatar eyes and stared at row upon row of weaponry. The AI spoke before they could make any comment. “Welcome to another day of training. Today, you will be placed in a situation created specifically to meet your training needs. Please take two minutes to prepare for battle. You may take anything you can carry, as long as it doesn’t impede the other players.”

Stephanie didn’t move because the only thing she needed was her magic. The other guys frowned and studied the array of weapons. Lars walked along the line of guns, not knowing where to start. There were Dreth weapons and Federation weapons, and everything was fully charged. Even Meligornian batteries were available but none of them were ready to try their hand at magic. That was her thing.

Frog rubbed his hands together and selected a couple of daggers, two grenades, and a bow and arrow off the shelf. Marcus gave him an odd look. “Okay, Rambo Robin Hood, what the hell will you do with a bow and arrow when you face a Dreth?”

He stowed his gear and ignored the jibe. “Hey, I could totally kill a Dreth with an arrow. I simply have to hit that one spot under their chin that isn’t tough.”

The other man blinked at him. “Really? This coming from the guy who almost axed himself in the foot because he didn’t let go of the ax handle when he tried to throw one at the Renaissance Festival when we were kids?”

Frog groaned. “You always gotta bring that up, don’t you? We were kids, damn it. I got this now.”

Marcus shrugged and walked over to the pistols. He selected two but changed his mind and only took one. “Suit yourself, but don’t throw that thing anywhere near me.”

Brenden chuckled and slid a half-sword in a back sheath. “Who the hell thought we’d need gear? We always appear with weapons and we’re darn good in hand-to-hand combat.”

The AI spoke. “Please line up on the white line. The simulation is about to begin.”

The room went dark for a few seconds before the lights returned. The team stood inside a bunk room on board a ship. Everything was painted gray and with a small window. Marcus stared out and angled himself so he could see one of the tail fins behind them. “Hey, this is a space liner. We must be downstairs in the crew’s quarters.”

Before any of them could respond to that, a sudden shudder distracted them and they exchanged glances before they opened the door to their cabin and hurried through.

With the corridor clear, they raced along it until they found the steps leading up. They took these two at a time, readied their limited selection of weapons, and looked for the source of whatever trouble had caused the tremor.

Stephanie shook the magic down into her hands and followed the others around a corner. They all froze as the Dreth pirates boarded the ship and immediately hurtled down the corridor toward them.

Surprised and outnumbered, they failed the scenario. In less than fifteen minutes, they were dead—although, oddly enough, Frog was the last to succumb. When they opened their eyes, they were back in the armory room.

“You have two minutes to prepare,” the AI told them.

This time, the team rushed through the weapon racks to select what they needed. Even Stephanie armed herself, knowing that magic wasn’t the only tactic she had—and that it wasn’t always the best tactic, either. That was especially true for a prolonged battle where she didn’t want to wear herself out by using too much magical energy.

When the scene changed to signal that the scenario had started, they wasted no time. They raced out of the room and up the stairs, loading their weapons on the way. This time, they were the first to reach the main deck where passengers boarded—the same one the Dreth would use to board the liner. Lars and Brenden went to work to rig booby traps for when the enemy broke through.

Once that was done, they withdrew into the corridor and waited, their guns ready. The hatchway burned white and erupted inwards. Huge Dreth pirates followed seconds later, bellowing at the top of their lungs. The team looked at Lars, who held the detonator for the traps. He pushed it and they all winced and covered their ears as the grenades exploded in sequence to obliterate several of the pirates.

More followed, and then even more, until Stephanie thought there was a never-ending supply. She was also grateful that they’d chosen a single entry-point, which meant that she and the team didn’t have to split up to deal with them all. In this scenario, they could hold the entry until their guns ran dry...and then they could use the guns of their enemies.

When the flood of aliens slowed to a trickle and finally, to a drop, they were left facing one last adversary. He was smaller than the others, climbed cautiously over their corpses, and immediately dropped his weapons when he saw the team. With his hands raised in the air, he waited for them to stand and face him in the corridor.

When no other aliens followed him, Stephanie slid a magical mask over her face and stepped into view, Lars beside her. “Stop right where you are.”

The Dreth laughed and gave her the finger as he began to speak. “On this ship is a very, very large bomb, only waiting for the connections to touch.” He giggled and twitched and his hands fluttered nervously above his head. His eyes glowed as though he wasn’t entirely sane.

She put her hands on her hips. “Oh yeah? Prove to me you can set it off.”

The Dreth slowly opened one of the hands he held above his head. Nestled in his palm was a small black box with a button in the middle, and his thumb was set squarely against it. “I let go, you go boom.”

Stephanie pursed her lips. “So, I guess you can’t let go.”

He grinned and whispered, “Boooom.”

She smiled and threw her arm up quickly and a shield hurtled toward him. It wrapped around his hand, forced his fingers closed, and kept his thumb pushed firmly down on the switch. It was exactly what she had tried to accomplish, except that it also severed his hand at the wrist “Whoops.”

The Dreth shrieked and fell back. Dark-green blood fountained from the wound to pool on the floor around him. Frog grabbed his stomach and gagged. Lars shook his head and turned to her.

She closed her eyes, then opened them again and stared intently at their faces as she spoke. “Okay, there’s a bomb on this ship. We need to find it, and most importantly, we need to get it off the damn vessel. There are a ton of civilians here who have no idea. Marcus, Frog, you go with me. Lars, Brenden, Johnny, you take the lower levels. If you find it, call it in and move with it.”

The team nodded and hurried away, heading to search their designated section of the liner. Lars sent a couple of images of what they should look for to their headsets, but it didn’t really help. After searching each section as thoroughly as they could, they all met on the main deck once again, each one breathing heavily. Lars shook his head. “Nothing. We found nothing.”

Stephanie nodded. “Yeah, we didn’t either.”

Frog leaned his hand against a grey box on the wall. “Where the hell is this thing? I’ll be pissed if its right in front of our noses.”

The whole team turned toward him and froze. He frowned. “What? Why are you staring at me?”

Lars put his hand out. “Hey, Frog? Buddy? I think you should take your hand off that metal box with a blinking red light on the front of it. And maybe do it real slow.”

He swallowed, but he kept his eyes on Lars’ face. “What box?”

Lars tried for a nonchalant shrug but didn’t quite manage it. His voice cracked when he replied. “You know, the one randomly stuck on the wall behind you.”

Frog looked along his arm to where his hand rested on the box. Instead of slowly, however, he yanked his hand off like he’d been burned. He offered the team a shaky grin. “Uh…found the bomb.”

They’d all been so busy watching him and the bomb that none of them had noticed Marcus leave. He returned, almost tripped over one of the fallen Dreth, and cursed softly as he guided a one-man luggage drone through the air beside him.

“What?” he asked when he saw the looks on their faces. “I saw one of these in a thriller I watched once. Some spies doing stuff on an interstellar cruise. I thought there had to be some truth in the background and found the drones were real and stored behind the concierge’s desk around the corner.”

He eyed the bomb and guided the luggage drone to where Lars stood. “That should fit, right?”

“Nice thinking,” Lars told him and nudged the drone carefully into place.

Marcus fiddled with the controls and it hovered alongside the box. He touched the controls again, and a panel slid open in the top to reveal enough space inside to fit a small suitcase. “Do your magic, boss...or get Brenden to do it for you. Either way works for me as long as you don’t set it off.”

Lars rolled his eyes and took a closer look at the bomb.

“It looks like one of them slapped it on the wall as they came through.” He glanced through the boarding gates and smiled. “They left their umbilical intact when they boarded. I wonder how much time we have before they decide it’s time to leave.”

Stephanie watched as he turned his attention to the device on the wall.

“I hope this thing is as simple to remove as I think it is,” he muttered, retrieved a couple of tools from his belt, and worked them deftly around the edges of the device.

Brenden came over to help him, and between the two of them, they lifted the bomb off the wall and set it gently inside the drone. Once it was nestled and secure, Marcus used the controls to close the top and then looked at Lars.

“I’d say we should send it back to them, but they’re still attached. How about we seal this deck, instead? That way, nothing can sneak in while we put this sucker out through one of the docking bays.”

Having taken a tour of the lower levels, Lars knew exactly where to go. He led the way while Marcus followed, steering the luggage drone through the corridors. Fully loaded, a row of green lights now glowed steadily around it to show it was in use.

Lars took them to a small docking bay where the liner’s shuttles were stored. The team scrambled hastily into emergency suits, attached tethers, and opened an airlock leading to a maintenance hatch beside the docking bay doors. Once the airlock had cycled closed behind them, they watched as Marcus steered the drone out of the liner and as far as it would go.

Stephanie walked up beside them, her hand wrapped around the Dreth hand with its scaly thumb pressed against a button on a small, square box.

“What?” she asked and held her grisly handful tighter. “I have to hold the damn thing in case the magic wears off. He almost blew us up with this.”

Marcus frowned and looked out into space. “See that blinking light?”

He pointed to where the luggage drone was little more than a glittering speck, its green lights flashing as if it knew it was no longer on board and tried to tell the universe of its distress.

She nodded. “The bomb is all the way out there. Let’s light this sucker up.”

He kept his hands on the drone’s controller to avoid a risk that it might fly back to the ship under some emergency protocol, but Lars nodded. “Do it.”

Stephanie held the controller up and tried to pull the dead pirate’s thumb off the switch. The Dreth’s hand had stiffened and wouldn’t release it. she rolled her eyes and grabbed the thumb and fingers in an effort to pry them apart.

At first, they didn’t budge and she renewed her efforts. Finally, with a sickening crack, they loosened and the controller fell. As soon as the pressure was off the button, the bomb detonated to create a momentary flare of light that faded quickly to nothing. Well, almost nothing.

Marcus pointed out into space. “What is that?”

Stephanie and the others gasped. It was a piece of the drone, it’s lights still gleaming, and it was on a direct trajectory toward them. For a minute, it made no sense and then they realized there would be some kind of shock wave from the explosion.

Lars slammed his hand on the controls for the maintenance hatch, trying to force it to close faster. None of them could leave the airlock until the outer hatch had closed, and the green-lit fragment of debris streaked ever closer.

They heaved a collective sigh of relief when the hatch thunked closed and the inner hatch started to cycle. It opened in the same moment that the blast struck the liner, rocked it sideways, and sent them to their knees as they flung themselves into the ship. Instantly, the emergency protocols came into play and hatches snapped shut, compartmentalizing the ship to maintain its atmosphere in case the hull was breached.

Stephanie clicked her tongue. “Well, I guess he wasn’t bluffing.”

The team staggered to their feet and Lars looked around to make sure they were all okay. “Now what?”

She looked at the Dreth ship still docked to the Federal liner. “I guess we have to board the Dreth ship.”

“If it’s still attached,” Frog muttered gloomily.

Marcus clapped him on the shoulder. “There’s only one way to find out.”

They all agreed and stripped out of their emergency suits to head back to the main boarding area. Lars spoke to someone on his comms halfway there.

“What?” Stephanie asked.

“I told the captain to keep everyone in their cabins,” he said. “We don’t want any passengers or crew walking about until we can get this mess cleaned up.”

They raced back to the breach point, using the emergency override codes Lars was given by the captain to open and reseal each bulkhead they encountered. To their relief, they discovered the Dreth had used a hard dock rather than an umbilical to gain entry to the vessel.

Instead of blowing the passenger entry, they’d pierced the liner’s outer hull and used clamps to drag the two ships closer before they temporarily sealed the two ships together. The mystery of it was why they hadn’t released the clamps, dissolved the seal, and left. The team crossed into the other ship and ran through surprisingly empty corridors to find only the occasional Dreth body and rooms stockpiled with food.

They’d explored most of the ship when Stephanie entered another hallway and her magic woke and jolted a charge of energy through her. She followed it, found a large metal door, and called for Johnny, who removed the covering from the control panel and managed to activate it. As soon as the entrance was open, they both moaned and covered their noses and mouths.

For the first time, she questioned the wisdom of not staying in the emergency suits. They would have slowed the team down and none of them were used to wearing them, but they’d been stupid lucky not to have needed them.

The smell that surged over them was unlike anything she’d ever experienced. She put one foot inside and stopped to stare in shock and disbelief. Bodies lay everywhere, both human and Meligornian— children, animals, and the beaten and bruised corpses of over a dozen different women.

Johnny put his hand on her shoulder and pulled her back. He wrapped his arms around her and turned to pass her to Lars. “You shouldn’t have had to see that. I’m sorry.”

Before she could react, the scene faded, and she stood wrapped in Lars’ arms with her team surrounding her in a large, beautiful Meligornian field. Strike appeared and stood before them, but it was Elizabeth’s voice that echoed from the speakers. “Very good, team. I’m sorry you encountered bodies. I’m sorry that the universe is such an ugly place.”

Stephanie folded her arms. “I don’t know why that was necessary. All those women and children. It was horrible.”

Ms. E hadn’t liked including that part of the scenario, but it had to be done. “Stephanie, my job here is to prepare you for anything you might face out there. Like I said, the universe can be a very ugly place, and you have to grow up sometime. Better you do that in here with people who care about you than out there where people will try to use or hurt you in some way.”

Stephanie remained silent and simply nodded her head in understanding. The AAR AI began her report, went through the different sections of the fight, and broke them down into things done well and things done badly. This was one of the best scenario completions they’d managed. When the report was over, they woke in their pods.

Elizabeth stood beside Stephanie’s and put her hand on the girl’s shoulder as she climbed out. “Everyone, go clean up, but before you head to bed, meet me in the common room. I have an announcement.”

She turned her head to her charge. “Are you all right?”

She nodded and rubbed her forehead. “I know there is even worse than that out there. I know that in my life, I will probably see things that will never leave my mind. I guess it’s not a bad thing, though, to be sad about it when you see it. It shows I still have some empathy and caring left in my soul.”

Her mentor hugged her. “You have so much caring and empathy, I doubt you will ever lose it. You have to protect your heart, and you have to protect your soul. Everything else will be okay if you can keep those two things safe.”

Stephanie pulled back and gave her a tight-lipped smile before she headed off to take a shower. The woman shut the pod and sighed. This was one part of the job that no one wanted to deal with.

Witch Of The Federation

Once they’d showered and changed, the team made their way back to the common room. Everyone wore their pajamas and looked dead tired. Stephanie walked carefully and tried not to reveal the amount of pain she felt from the last session. When they were all seated, Elizabeth looked around. “Where’s Frog?”

“I’m here,” he yelled as he slid around the corner in an adult-sized Superman onesie.

They all chuckled as he took his seat and grinned from ear to ear. Elizabeth shook her head and laughed softly, the first real laugh she’d had in days. “All right, family. We have our travel information for the trip to Meligorn.”

Everyone but Stephanie cheered. It was hard to cheer when she could still see the bodies whenever she closed her eyes. The older woman watched her as everyone settled again. She felt for the girl but knew there was nothing she could do to fix it.

This was something else she would have to work out on her own. That was simply the way that it was for every warrior, soldier, and mercenary in the universe. For Stephanie, though, Elizabeth knew such carnage would never become commonplace or easy to deal with.

With an effort, Ms. E shifted her attention to the group. “So, the good news is that the Meligornian king and queen will pay for everyone to go to Meligorn, and not only those receiving awards. They know we’re a team, and even if you weren’t at the Gala, you were part of the reason those fighting fought so well. So, make sure your toenails are clipped, and you lose the… What did you tell that man at the party? Wash the idiot out of your mouth?”

Everyone laughed and Stephanie managed a smile for the first time since she’d left the pod. She nodded and shrugged. “Hey, sometimes, you have to tell them how it is. You can’t let these idiots keep walking around here like that.”

“That’s the truth,” Frog replied and shot the others an evil look.

“Awe, Frog is butt-hurt,” Marcus said and laughed.

“I think I would be too if someone put toothpaste in my shampoo and shampoo in my toothpaste,” Johnny quipped and laughed hysterically.

Elizabeth gave Frog a pouty-lipped glare and continued. “Make sure you clean up well because you will represent ONE R&D and the first witch of the Federation in front of Meligornian royalty…and may God help us all.”

The guys all put their hands up in the air and cheered. Lars grabbed Stephanie’s hand and raised it, and the gesture made her laugh. In turn, that made her relax and her team filled the hole she’d felt had been carved in her chest ever since she’d climbed out of the pod. She stood and raised her hand to silence the group. “And one more thing. We will make a pit stop at my house to see my parents. So, please, try not to embarrass me.”

“We’ll be as good as angels,” Johnny said, painting a halo around his head with his hand, and blinked as innocently as he was able.

Frog ran up behind him and stuck two fingers on either side of his forehead like horns. “Demons posing as angels maybe.”

That night, they all went to bed in a good mood—laughing, singing, and ready to head out into the universe after an intense week of training. Not every day had been good, but not every day had been bad either. They had clicked at some point and really started to look and feel like a team. That was something none of them had dreamt would happen that fast.

The next morning seemed to come too soon for Stephanie, who heard the alarm and dragged her sore, tired, and bruised body into a seated position on the edge of the bed. She grunted with pain as she lifted her leg and pushed her fingers down her sore calves in an attempt to loosen them. Everyone was packed and ready to head back to the home base, and all they had to do was have breakfast.

She took her time getting dressed, not really hungry in spite of the workout she’d had. It didn’t bother her, though. She was merely happy she’d slept through the night without any nightmares from what she had seen. The whole scenario had begun to feel more like a dream or a movie scene than reality. It still wasn’t something she could wrap her mind around, but now, she didn’t have to. She decided that was probably for the best.

On the trip home, she curled up in a corner of the car and pulled her phone out. She had a missed call from Todd, and simply seeing his name made her feel better. Once she listened to the voicemail, she’d call him, knowing he had no idea she was coming to visit. Not unless he’d already run into her parents.

“Hey there, Stephie,” he’d said in his message. “I was hoping to get ahold of you. I guess you’re off doing some crazy saving the world shit, though. Tell Batman and Superman I said hi.”

Stephanie chuckled as he paused for a moment. “I…uh, I ship out tomorrow to boot camp. We start on the ground and then head up for space training. I keep remembering how you said to be careful and I wanted you to know I was listening.”

His voice caught a little before he continued. “Besides, I can’t go and die on you, you know? Who would you turn to for your pop culture knowledge? It would be lost for all time, and that’s too sad for our story. It would never make it to production. Anyway, you are the bestest best friend a kid could have. I will write you if they let me have paper and a pen, and you better be there at boot graduation to see me all fly in my uniform. I’ll put T. Cruise to shame. Love ya.”

The message ended and she sighed, realizing he had left the message the day before. She was shocked that he’d shipped off so fast and had thought he’d at least wait until the end of summer. Then again, he was champing at the bit to get away from his family, and school was over. There was nothing really to keep him around. She hoped that when she got home, things would settle, even if it did feel weird without him.

Witch Of The Federation

Once she’d arrived and everything had calmed after the initial excitement of reuniting with her parents, Stephanie snuck off to her old bedroom and pulled some of her nicest clothes from the closet. She remembered when she first ordered them.

Holding that memory close, she put on the blue wrap dress and pulled her hair into a low side bun. After she’d applied makeup for the third time because she kept screwing it up, she stared at the girl in the mirror and barely recognized herself. She had been stuck in ponytail-save-the-world mode. There really wasn’t time in there for blush, eyeliner, and mascara.

Seated at her desk, she cleared a space and set her phone in the middle of it before she opened her portfolio. The number she chose was one of the two sales calls she’d promised to make. The lead had come from her mom, who’d met the man on an elevator ride to the top floor of Mr. Martelle’s building. Stephanie dialed the number and put it on speaker, smiling as soon as his face appeared and floated above her handset.

“Mr. Harper,” she said, her smile warm. “This is Stephanie Morgana representing—”

“The cleaning company,” he finished happily and cut her off. “Yes, I spoke to your mother not too long ago. Yesterday, in fact. To be honest, I almost canceled this meeting.”

“Oh no,” she exclaimed and looked shocked.

“I know.” He chuckled. “But I came in today to discover the cleaning company I hired have shut their doors. No notice, no nothing. Just done. Gone. So, I guess you’re my angel in disguise.”

Stephanie gave him an appreciative laugh and launched into the details of what her parents’ company could offer. Mr. Harper listened attentively and asked a couple of questions here and there, but nothing she hadn’t expected. By the end of her spiel, she couldn’t tell if he was more interested in her or the company, but either way, she had his attention.

“What do you think?” she asked him. “The sales projections, the increase in your business, and the influx in hiring that goes along with it will require you to have a crew you can rely on. I think that if you accept a bid from my company, you will never go to anyone else.”

He sat there for a moment and his expression revealed that he was deep in thought. Then, he nodded. “I agree. You’ve bothered to get to know my company, our sales goals, and what our business entails. That makes me trust you and the company you represent. Have your mother and father write up a contract. I’ll look it over, and we’ll go from there.”

Stephanie gave him a thankful smile. “Thank you, and we’ll talk soon.”

“Oh, and Stephanie,” he replied. “Congratulations on the Meligornian award. You definitely deserve it.”

She couldn’t help but grin as he hung up and his hologram disappeared. As the last of it faded, there was a knock on her door and Lars stuck his head in. “Whatcha doing?”

“Running big business.” She turned and crossed her legs daintily.

Lars whistled as he noticed her dress. “Look at you, all dolled up. How’d it go?”

“He wants a contract from mum and dad asap,” she told him proudly.

Marcus stuck his head over Lars’ shoulder and Frog poked his head under his arm. “That’s what I’m talking about. Let’s go celebrate, girl.”

Stephanie thought about it for a moment and shrugged. “Why not? Give me five minutes to pull on some jeans, though. This outfit is strictly for when I need to impress.”

The team flew into the local bar like wild people who hadn’t had any free time in what felt like forever. They talked, laughed, told stories, and even managed to get out of there without any crazy fights like they’d had in the training session. Of course, in that bar, there were no Dreth hanging out and everyone cheered them like heroes. The guys loved it, and it took an act of God—or, in fact, the bar closing—to get them out of there and over to the hotel.

Stephanie’s parents had come along and laughed as they listened to the team talk about their lives before Stephanie, their upcoming trip to Meligorn, and how she was completely super-bad when it came to fighting. Her father gave her a fist-bump while her mother pouted, not wanting to think about her daughter in any fights.

As they turned the corner leading to the hotel, still laughing, they found themselves face to face with several members of the local gang. Their laughter died abruptly as they eyed the men cautiously. She recognized them right away, having watched them gather every night at the Gov-Sub park since she was a little girl. They, however, didn’t recognize her. They only recognized what they thought was a good chance to get their hands on some cold hard credits.

“Well, lookie, lookie, lookie.” The leader laughed. “All these guys and the one stepping forward is the tiny little girl.”

Stephanie smirked and cracked her knuckles. Behind her, Johnny grabbed her parents and yanked them back to make sure they stood where he could protect them. Lars, Brenden, Marcus, and Frog stepped forward, two on either side of her.

The thug shook his head. “This is even better. Four flyboys and a little girl gonna take on the Hoods… What are you—Stacy from the block?”

She managed to keep a straight face and raised her hand to silence him. “Keep it to knives and lower and we won’t have problems. If you draw a gun, your life is forfeit.”

The gang members shrugged but seemed to agree, and the two sides stared at each other for a moment longer before anyone moved. When they did, it was all together.

Stephanie hurtled forward, dropped with one leg bent and the other straight out, and slid across the sidewalk. She ducked low as she closed with the first gang member and pounded her fist directly into his nuts as she skidded beneath him. He groaned and made a gurgling noise as he clutched his crotch and fell forward.

Lars winced and grasped her hand to help her come up out of the crouch. He didn’t let go and she glanced at him, trying to read his thoughts before she followed the direction of his gaze. His gaze shifted to watch the two guys creeping up on them, and she smirked. She took hold of his other hand and prepared for what came next.

As expected, Lars waited for the right moment and heaved upward to swing her around in a circle and raise her legs off the ground. Her heeled boots slammed into one, two, and then three of their opponents. The attack either knocked them out or dazed them to the point of uselessness.

“Let go when you hit four,” she yelled.

Lars did exactly that and flung her with the full momentum of the swing. She twisted and drove her legs into another of the hoodlums. He tumbled and she landed above him with one foot on either side of his face.

Both sides managed a few good blows, but not a single one of the gang members were able to touch her. She was far better than any of the Hoods, there was no question about it. From his position as bodyguard, Johnny leaned in to watch and laugh at every good strike she made. “Oh, I taught her that move—it took her a few times to get it right—oh, damn. Nice punch.”

He glanced at her parents and noticed they were reacting quite differently to the fight. Her dad seemed enthusiastic, shifting from side to side, and had his own small silent celebration every time she kicked someone’s ass. Her mother, however, had gone into shock and stood there with a confused look as she watched her baby girl act like not such a baby anymore...or maybe a baby monster.

“Actually,” Johnny pointed out in an effort to distract her. “Frog taught her the kick to the nuts. He has no shame—”

Stephanie vaulted upward and landed to see only three Hoods ranged against her. The one in the middle looked at his defeated comrades and shook his head. “This is bullshit.”

He reached for the gun shoved into the front of his pants. When he pulled it clear and looked up, a bright blue translucent shield protected the team and her parents.

She, on the other hand, was on one knee, her head low and her arms out to the side. When she raised her head, her eyes were dark. “I told you, no guns.”

The gang members scrabbled at one another in an effort to find safety in numbers. “Oh, shit, it’s that Morgana bitch.”

Two of them bolted, their legs moving as fast as their feet could make them. The third shook his head, aimed his pistol at her, and prepared to fire.

She raised her hand and magical energy blew wildly around it. As she moved to block his attack, a shot rang out and the ganger fell and clutched his arm. She turned. Johnny stood behind her, lowering his gun with a serious face.

Stephanie released the shield and stepped forward, her eyes still black and an angry wind started to swirl around her. Lars hurried forward and grabbed her hand to hold it tightly. “Don’t do it, Stephanie. The paperwork for killing him is a pain in the ass, trust me.”

For a moment, she stared at him, then looked back at the gang member who sat on the ground and moaned in shock. She stepped forward and came to a halt beside him. He stopped groaning and looked fearfully at her. Leaning over, she gave him a good look at her wild, black eyes. “It’s Stephanie from the Block to you, bitch.”

Having delivered that line, she swung her leg back and kicked him repeatedly until he fell unconscious. Sirens blared in the background and the team started to move. Lars grabbed her and smiled, nodding toward the not-so-distant sound. “Let’s get out of here.”

Chapter Twenty

“Remove your civilian clothes, put everything in the box labeled with your family’s address, and get dressed. Now is the time to do any last-minute checks, go say goodbye and kissy-kiss your mommies, and break up with your girlfriends.” The boot camp instructor walked around, his face angry, his arms bulging, and his uniform perfectly creased.

Todd sighed and removed everything from his pockets, then dropped his phone in the box. He saw a notification on the device and leaned over hastily to grab it before the instructor could close the lid. The man glared at him as he clicked on it, took one look, and laughed.

Stephanie and her team appeared on the screen, beating the living hell out of a group of gang members from his Gov-Sub home. A reporter came on and the video continued to play next to her.

“It’s only at the end,” she said, “that you can see her power. When they drew a gun, she didn’t hold back. But even then—even in the heat of the moment—they only shot him in the arm to incapacitate him.”

The video stopped and didn’t show Stephanie kicking the ganger into unconsciousness, which was probably a good thing. The camera zoomed in on the reporter. “It seems the witch Morgana isn’t as scary as some would have us believe.”

Todd snorted and leaned his head back. “You have no idea. You had better never truly piss her off.”

As rapidly as he could, he opened an email and typed his message. As he pressed send, the instructor blew a loud horn right beside his head. “Drop the tech in the box, momma’s boy. It’s time to get back to your roots. Now, get dressed double-time. Move it! Move it! Move it!”

Todd dropped the phone in the box but noted the sent symbol as it landed on top of his clothes. He grabbed the Navy issue sweatpants and shirt and dragged them on. As he pulled on his white socks and service-issue tennis shoes, he wrinkled his nose.

The instructor stopped next to him and the recruit straightened to stand tall. He glanced at the box, all sealed and ready, and down at the sweat suit. “What’s wrong, recruit? You don’t like your smurfs?”

“They are perfect, Petty Officer,” he yelled in response.

The officer sneered and flipped his hand through the young man’s hair. “You will be up front and number one when we visit the barber. Shears out, bitches. You are losing your lovely locks. Time to become a soldier in the Federation Navy! It’s time to be proud!

Todd walked to the front of the line, breathing heavily. “I can do this. The Toddster will sport the short in every port…”

It was the one thing he had been desperately terrified of every time he’d thought about joining up. His hair was his baby, but he knew he would have to let it all go in order to become the man he wanted to be. It was time to be done with being a boy and time to embrace becoming a man.

Witch Of The Federation

The team said goodbye to Stephanie’s parents as if they were their own. Her mom hugged her tightly and kissed her on the cheek. “I am so proud of you. So proud of all of you. Okay, watching you kick gangster butt was a little hard to take. I won’t lie about that. But in the end, you’ll take on the world, and you’re so wonderful. I wish we could be on Meligorn to watch you receive your medal. We’ll watch the television, though, and cheer you on. If you listen hard enough, you might actually hear us.”

Stephanie smiled. “I am the way I am because of you and Dad. You taught me to protect what I love, and I love the good-hearted, strong-souled, and kind-minded. So, I think I have my work cut out for me.”

Her dad came over and fist-bumped her. “That was the most awesome fight I have ever seen. You were a little terrifying with those black eyes, but hey, everyone has a quirk. I think every one of those gang dudes pooped their pants.”

They laughed and she hugged him tightly before she turned and scrambled into the SUV with the team. They rolled their windows down and all hung out to wave and cheer until they faded from view. She laughed, shaking her head at them. They really were her family, and it was so wild to have them.

Witch Of The Federation

The next two days felt like a complete and total hurricane. Stephanie and the team returned to Washington so they could get everything they needed packed for the trip. While they were there, they received new armor and the stuff BURT had shipped in because of their new training routine. By the time they were done with trying it on and testing it, they were out of time and had to get the hell out of Dodge and head to Meligorn.

The embassy sent a special bus to take them to the shuttle. Stephanie was placed in the middle and the guys blocked her from being seen through the windows. When the vehicle stopped on the tarmac in front of the shuttle, she used her magic to create a dark-shadowed veil over her face. Her team helped her carry her bags, and they all boarded and settled into their seats in the first-class seating the royals of Meligorn had reserved for them.

Stephanie rolled her shoulders, slipped her arms back into the safety straps, and pushed the locks together over her chest and stomach. She could hear people whispering, some guessing who she was and others knowing only that she was important. Most wondered who the actress was with the entourage of guards.

One woman was so obsessed, she couldn’t keep her voice down. “Those security dudes are for real. I can’t even think of an actress in this day and age who is that famous. Even amongst the richies.”

Her friend whispered a response that made Stephanie stifle a snort. “Maybe she’s some royal alien woman and she’s here to take our husbands.”

The two ladies giggled and the first slapped her friend’s hand. “Don’t you wish. I’ll wrap Ernie up with a bow and send him right along.”

The shuttle roared to life around them and the stewardess activated the comms. “Welcome to the 756 Fortune Shuttle headed to Meligorn. Please do not take any items from the lockers until the gravity is activated. Keep your belts fastened at all times. For those that have never been out of the Earth’s gravity, you may be tempted to unbuckle and float. Please resist the urge as this can cause you and others injury when the artificial gravity activates. If you wish to experience the weightlessness of space, please speak to one of our attendants, and we’ll be happy to take you to the weightless lounge on top of the shuttle. This space is surrounded by glass so you can feel like you are truly floating through the great beyond. In the meantime, please sit back and enjoy your trip.”

Stephanie wasn’t as nervous as she would have been before she’d been put through several Virtual Reality simulations of the takeoff and time in space. Still, she was curious as to exactly how realistic the Virtual World had been. The shuttle shook lightly, but not like the early missions where you could barely sit in your chair. The commercial flights were smooth and calm.

The pilot did a countdown and then launched. Stephanie could feel the power of the boosters beneath her as the shuttle inched upward, slowly at first before it increased speed. She held onto the loops on the front of her belt and stared out the window as the world grew smaller and smaller and the sky turned dark.

“Wow,” she mused. “Virtual Reality made it seriously lifelike. They did a good job.”

Lars looked at her and grinned. “No difference?”

“A little.” She shrugged. “Mostly the flipping of the stomach and the butterflies. Everything else seems about the same.”

She drew a deep breath and turned to the window to watch as they passed through the upper atmosphere. Then, exactly as she had imagined from the time she’d realized it was real, the gMU began to wind around her, filled her chest when she breathed, and touched every nerve-ending in her body. Her breath fluttered and she grasped the arms of her chair, the feeling amazing and almost overwhelming. The gMU filled the reservoir inside her in a rush instead of a trickle.

Lars tapped her hand. “Uh, Steph?”

“Hmm? she replied and turned to him.

He licked his lips a little nervously. “Is your face supposed to glow under your veil…oh, it’s your eyes again. That’s a nice silver color, but you might want to turn it off before someone notices.”

Stephanie nodded and her gaze slid across the aisle and one row forward. A young child hung over the back of his seat and stared at her, his mouth open in amazement. With a small smile, she waved her hand over one side of her magical veil and canceled it to reveal her face to the child. She winked once before she pulled the magic in and adjusted her eyes to their normal hue.

As the glow died, the child smiled and so did she as she settled in to enjoy the ride. She was headed to Meligorn, a place she’d longed to visit her entire life. It was a dream that had finally come true.

Chapter Twenty-One

The flight to the space station, Elpis One, was way more exciting than Stephanie had thought it would be. For one thing, it was deep space. Then, she’d experienced a huge surge of energy that had surprised her because she hadn’t expected it. Although there was a downside. She had to listen to Frog barfing for half the trip because something about the flight had set him off. Still, overall, it was definitely exciting.

She had never even been on a plane, much less a spaceship. While there were some passengers who found it much like any other flight, for her, it was like being inside one of the science fiction novels Todd liked to read.

Those things were hard to find after the Federation takeover and the wars on Earth, but his father dug one up here and there and passed them on to him. That was one of the few nice things he’d ever done for his kid.

Of course, her friend passed them to her in turn and she had found each one she’d read thought-provoking and almost spiritual in essence. Seeing the real thing was so much better. The weightlessness inside the shuttle only lasted a few moments before they switched over to artificial gravity. In spite of Frog’s immediate vomit-spree, she found being free of Earth’s confines invigorating.

It was as if, for those few moments, all the stress and expectations lifted from her shoulders and their absence was what made her truly weightless.

As soon as the gravity was activated, though, everything settled back onto her shoulders, where it weighed heavier than the feet thumping to the floor inside the cabin.

While she was okay with what she had on her plate, Stephanie didn’t find anything wrong with letting go from time to time. Being free of her responsibilities meant she could pretend, if only for a moment, that her worries were simply those of a normal human life.

Taxes, jobs, money, and relationships…those were the things most people worried about. Not death, Dreth, and duty.

In the midst of her daydream of sleep-filled nights, day-time office cubicles, and modern relationships, she was a little disappointed when Lars nudged her with his elbow. “Hey, we’re slowing down. The spaceport should be up ahead. It’s the first stop on this leg to Meligorn. Home sweet home for a couple of days.”

Stephanie turned to him, nodded, and forced an understanding smile before she remembered he couldn’t see it through her veil. “Right. Got it. At least we can stop listening to Ralphing Robot back there.”

Frog groaned and clutched his stomach. “Please, someone land this bitch. Seriously.”

A passing crew member stifled a smile, and Marcus gripped the man’s shoulder. “What’s wrong, bro? Space travel not really your cup of tea?”

“It’s not my cup of anything,” he replied. “At least not on this shuttle. I’ve flown space before, in and out of the Virtual, and I don’t know why this one’s got ahold of my stomach and rolled it.”

Johnny leaned over from across the aisle. “It wouldn’t have anything to do with the waffle-sausage breakfast we all told you not to eat, would it?”

Frog waved frantically for his teammate to stop and his face clearly said he was trying not to think about it.

Marcus groaned, having had to sit next to him for the entire trip. He looked vaguely green about the gills himself.

Stephanie simply stared out the window and laughed at the guys’ banter. Outside, she could see the spaceport coming up. It was a lot bigger than she’d thought it would be.

Deck upon deck circled through space, the different sectors connected by translucent tunnels. Round, speeding elevators moved like ants along them, ascending and descending between levels.

“It’s impressive, right?” Lars smiled and peered over her shoulder. “Like a little city in its own right.”

“It is,” she replied. “When the hot-cyclone anomalies were happening ten years ago, there were some nights when I could see its lights flashing in miniature. I lived for those moments.”

“You’re talking about the anomaly that created those crazy strong winds in the upper atmosphere, right?” he asked.

Stephanie nodded. “Yeah. When it dipped below what is left of the ozone layer and into the troposphere, you could watch the clouds and smog being blown away. On those nights, the sky was relatively clear. I was lucky I lived in a place that gave us a view of the space station. They were still doing construction on the East wing at that point.”

He smiled. “Funny what makes an impression on us as kids.”

She straightened and pulled the straps tighter on her harness. “It is. It makes us realize how small we really are.”

Lars leaned back and mirrored her actions with the harness. “We are, but for some reason, when we are in the thick of it, we seem so big.”

The spacecraft began its approach to the docking station and the flight attendants strapped themselves into their seats at the front of the cockpit. One of them pressed her finger to her ear to listen to the comms.

The woman’s forehead crinkled into a frown and her gaze found Lars. When her expression changed, Stephanie had a bad feeling and suspected that she knew what was about to go down.

She took a deep breath and focused on remaining calm. With the amount of energy flowing through her, she couldn’t lose control.

The shuttle shook slightly as it touched down on the landing pad, its rails captured by docking clamps as soon as it settled. The pilot relinquished control to the station and the craft was pulled into the hanger bay.

Inside the cabin, the abrupt shift from the darkness of space to the brightly lit interior of the space station was almost blinding. Up front, the flight attendant unbuckled her belt and shuffled through the first-class cabin until she reached Lars.

Leaning over, she whispered into his ear.

Stephanie tried not to intrude, but she noted when his expression changed from excitement to work mode in seconds.

He nodded to the attendant and twisted so he could see the guys. “Stay seated until the cabin has cleared. I’ll explain shortly.”

The shuttle came to a complete stop and the attendants prepared the cabin for disembarkation. There was no carry-on luggage like on an aircraft, so the VIP area emptied relatively quickly.

When they were the last ones remaining, Lars unbuckled his harness and stood to face the team. “It seems the paparazzi are waiting for Stephanie. Somehow, they connected her with this flight. We have to make it look as if it’s nothing more than a normal visit to the spaceport.”

He paused and his eyes scanned each of their faces. “We cannot let them know she is going to Meligorn. Her name is not on the public record for security reasons and neither are ours.”

Marcus looked out the window and assessed the crowd of people looking out of the large bay viewing port. “They’re right where we need to walk through. Even with a distraction, we’d be noticed.”

Lars nodded. “Right, but the attendant tells me there’s a separate entrance up and to the right as we enter the foyer, and there’s an escort waiting there to take us to our rooms.”

He waited as they absorbed the information, their eyes straying to the entrance and the viewing port. Before any of them could interrupt, he continued. “Basically, we need to get from here to that door unnoticed. To do that, we have to distract the press while we leave the shuttle.”

Stephanie looked across at where the second stewardess was tidying the front of the cabin. The woman’s hair was the same length as hers and her body a close match. “What if we pay someone who looks like me to draw their attention away from the shuttle and then scoot to the entrance while they’re not looking?”

Lars glanced at her. “Where will we find someone like that on short notice?”

The woman squeezed by, burdened with an armload of in-flight blankets. “Excuse me.”

He moved aside and glanced at her as she passed him, then took a second look. His expression turned speculative when Stephanie removed the veil from her face, gave the woman a meaningful glance, and wiggled her eyebrows at him.

As the attendant made a return trip toward the front of the cabin, he tapped her on the shoulder. “Excuse me, miss.”

She turned and looked at him, her face full of curiosity. “Yes?”

Lars stared at her for a long moment, studying her hair and face. “She could definitely do it, but we’d need a little magic to help her along.”

Stephanie turned and kneeled in the seat to study the attendant as well. The woman returned her gaze and immediately recognized her. “Oh, my God. You’re the Federation witch!”

She grinned. “I am, and I need a favor from you.”

The stewardess cocked her head to the side and listened as she explained their predicament. “So, you want to pay me all those credits to change my clothes, act like I’m trying to avoid the press pack, and distract them?”

“That’s the gig,” Lars replied, happy not to have to explain again. “What do you say?”

“Oh, my God, they’ll put me on the cover of Vid Magazines when they find out. Hell, yes, I’ll do this.”

Stephanie clapped briskly. “Good. Do you have a change of clothes?”

“I sure do. I never travel without it.” The woman grinned. “I’ll go change.”

She hurried to the front and closed the curtain behind her. While they waited, they could hear her telling her colleagues excitedly what she was about to do.

Lars groaned. “We should have told her we wanted it kept a secret.”

“No, we shouldn’t.” She laughed and shoved his shoulder with the flat of her hand. “This way, no one will ever see me in public and be sure it’s really me. You’ll see. It’ll work out fine.”

When the attendant returned, she looked oddly familiar—almost the witch’s double, but with slightly different features. Unless they looked closely, no one would notice the difference.

Stephanie waved her hand across the woman’s face to create a semi-transparent veil and make her eyes glow slightly.

“I don’t know how long that’ll last,” she explained. “So, you need to hurry. I’ve never tried this on anyone else.”

Nodding to show she understood, the decoy was about to reply when her phone pinged. She looked at it as Lars shoved his back in his pocket.

“That’s half now and I’ll add the other half when you get inside,” he told her. “Frog and Johnny will be your escorts and meet us at the rooms when it’s over. The rest of us will go with Stephanie.”

With excitement in her face, the stewardess led the way to the front of the shuttle, flanked by her two guards.

“She’s been watching you,” Lars muttered when she wouldn’t let Frog take the lead.

Stephanie shrugged. She and the guys had previously had a long talk about who took their chances with a potential sniper. They didn’t get to go first.

Not on her watch. Not when she could stop them. No one would be hurt because of her.

As the attendant, Frog, and Johnny reached the door, they could hear her talking. “I always wanted to be an actress. This could be my lucky break.”

Stephanie caught the look Frog shot them as they headed out. He rolled his eyes, and his teammates choked back their laughter.

As soon as the decoy and her escort had reached the tarmac, walked across the bay, and entered the arrival and departure lounge, Stephanie and the remaining team prepared to leave.

Marcus moved to the door and studied the crowd for several seconds, waiting for it to move away from the viewing port. When members of the press pushed and jostled with their cameras to get the best footage, they turned away from the doors and effectively blocked the view to the shuttle. Marcus looked at Lars and nodded. “All clear.”

This time, Stephanie let Lars and Marcus go in front. With every eye on their decoy, the chances that anyone would notice them were practically nil, and the team would be safer if she let them block her from the view of anyone who might look at the hangar at the wrong time.

They hurried down the steps and into the arrivals lounge behind the crowd. She glanced up to see the other stewardess holding a side door open and waving to them. Lars and Marcus led the way, keeping themselves between her and the crowd, while Brenden covered the rear.

They had reached the door when a small girl at the back of the crowd turned and noticed them. She and the woman she was with were effectively blocked by the throng, and from the frazzled expression on the mother’s face, her patience was clearly almost at an end.

The girl tugged on her mom’s arm and the woman shook her head in irritation. “Not now, sweetie. Can’t you see your momma’s hands are full?”

It’s hard to miss, Stephanie thought as the woman juggled the pile of packages in her arms as she tried to shove through the crowd.

The little girl pulled on her arm again and pointed at Stephanie. “See, Mom? I told you that wasn’t Ms. Morgana.”

Her mother sighed and twisted her neck awkwardly so she could see her daughter. “I’m sorry, sweetie. What did you say?”

The girl pointed again and stabbed her finger for emphasis. “That other lady’s not Ms. Morgana. That’s the real one.”

The woman looked up and clearly wanted her child to stop pulling her. As soon as her eyes landed on the Federation witch, her expression change from tired tolerance to shock and her jaw dropped.

Stephanie smiled at her, winked, and flipped her hand in a tiny gesture that released small magical stars to spiral across the intervening space and circle the little girl’s head.

With a sound of impatient disgust, Lars grasped her wrist and pulled her into the hallway. Once they were through, they stopped and waited for the stewardess to secure the doors behind them.

From beyond its solid frame, she heard the little girl giggle and her mother’s echoed laugh. Her lip twitched with amusement, and she pulled the veil across her face once more with a satisfied chuckle.

The stewardess dusted her hands off. “There. All secure. Follow me. The concierge is waiting to check you in.”

She glanced quickly at the door. “I’ll also talk to Melissa when she gets back from pretending to be you. She doesn’t know where you’re headed, so I’ll try to keep her busy and out of sight while you finish with your transfer. It won’t stop her talking about seeing you, but it’ll limit her audience until you’re on your way.”

Lars shook her hand. “Thank you. We’re glad the queen and king had someone in place to help us.”

The attendant smiled and removed the small hat that went with her uniform. “You didn’t think they’d entrust the hero and her men to any old crew, do you? Come on. There’s so much more to see on Elpis than this old tunnel.”

They headed down, relieved to be able to make their escape. It was good thinking on Stephanie’s part and excellent execution from the guys. It was great how they all pulled together as a cohesive unit and the team grew ever more efficient every day.

Witch Of The Federation

Only a few hundred miles away, the Federation Naval Space Station called Star Base Notaro floated in the seamless black space and shifted only slightly from orbit. Named for the Federation commander whose statue had been so recently defaced in New Chicago, it was often called the Station for Administration, among other things.

They traveled at a steady speed behind the civilian station, positioned so Elpis One hid them in its shadow on most incoming scans. From certain angles, however, it was still visible, but readings from the station blurred its exact location.

Despite that, it could be seen by the naked eye. From Earth, it was a slowly moving star and from Elpis One, a slightly odd speck glinting in the distance.

“How long will you be on Elpis?” Jack asked, his military jacket open, his white cotton t-shirt untucked, and two highball glasses in his hand.

TJ shrugged. “Until they decide I’ve had enough shore leave. I only wish the shore part actually stood for real shore and seeing my family, but it is what it is.”

Jack set the glasses down and dropped into the chair across from his friend. He glanced nervously at his bag, lifted his glass, and took a gulp of whiskey. “At least you know you can put your feet up for a few days. The captain won’t send you out to battle unless it’s an all-out deathmatch and he doesn’t have a choice.”

“Personally,” TJ said as he raised his own drink and took a sip. “I’d rather do something productive since I don’t actually get to go back Earth-side to visit family.”

The other man was about to answer that when a small semi-translucent cube on the table began to flash. He picked it up and looked at it before he glanced at his companion. “This might help you be productive.”

With a curious look, TJ took the cube and read the message scrolling across it. After reading it a second time, he frowned. “Is this for real? They’ve confirmed that the target will be on the vessel?”

Jack glanced around and leaned in. “It looks like it. They’ve given all the right passphrases. And from what I can tell, they’ve alerted our covert teams on the crew already.”

“This will cause an intergalactic incident.” TJ’s expression was serious.

He nodded and leaned back in his chair, his gaze fixed on his glass. “Yes, it will, but if it’s not done, some will try to fight the inevitable, and that’ll get more of us killed. It is better for a few to die than the millions we’ll lose otherwise.”

The other man put the cube down, leaned back, and sighed heavily. “Playing God makes for a heavy load.”

Jack took the cube off the table, put it into his bag, and straightened. He slapped his chest proudly with his palm in a macho gesture. “That’s why we shoulder it. Our names might go down in flames, but we must never doubt that we’re doing this for the right reasons.”

TJ raised his glass in a mock toast and stared at his companion for a long moment before he laughed. “The things I got into on shore leave were child’s play before I met you. Now, everything seems to be escalating, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.” He sighed. “Well, whatever it is, I get to take the ride with you. It might be a long way from middle school and blowing up the boy’s room and trying to get them to let us off after, but I’m in good company.”

Jack laughed. “Don’t knock it. That court order making us do Federal service put us right on track.”

“Right on track.” The man smirked. “That’s one way to put it.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

Stephanie stretched her arms out to the side before she smoothed her tank top and yoga shorts. She looked at the pod in front of her, thankful to have one but already missing the one at the compound.

A pod was a pod, and all that mattered was she had access to one when she needed it. She’d come to accept she would end up using other pods a lot more, which meant she had to make the most of whatever was available.

She climbed in and wiggled slightly to settle her body comfortably on the pad. The entry process was clean and smooth and when she opened her eyes, she stood in the white room she always started in with all the usual choices of clothing and weaponry before her.

The AI spoke and, as always, already had her information. “Welcome, Stephanie. What are we doing today?”

Her reflection in the white room’s mirror was different as if her avatar had changed a little to reflect the wear and tear on her soul. She ignored it and turned to choose several pieces of casual clothing so she would be comfortable. “Take me to a safe location—the field on Meligorn I used during my testing.”

“Transporting you now,” the AI replied.

The room shimmered and shifted, but nausea and dizziness were no longer an issue. She was used to it, now. When the change was complete, she stood in the same lush field she’d stood in during her testing.

This was Meligorn, and the planet’s purple haze was almost comforting to her eyes. She clasped her hands behind her back and began to pace. “I want to discuss gMU.”

BURT had been listening, waiting for something like this. He took over the AI’s role in order to be able to respond more quickly.

This was much more labor-intensive for him than letting a sub-routine record and respond to the conversation, but he wanted to be able to adjust the programming at a moment’s notice. He knew it was easier for him to do that by interacting directly with Stephanie rather than trying to intervene when the sub-routine picked up a pre-selected set of keywords.

This time, he decided to talk to the girl directly. “Hello, Stephanie, it’s Burt.”

Stephanie glanced up. “I thought you’d be around. So, the gMU is definitely something different.”

“How so?” he asked. “Tell me how it feels.”

She took a deep breath and focused on the beautiful Meligorn horizon. “It was almost overwhelming at first. It tingled as it soaked into me. There was a strange sensation, too, as if it was attracted to me as much as I was to it.”

Her mind searched the experience as she tried to find the right words. “It was very energetic—almost wild in nature like it had never been tamed and wasn’t used to being handled. It was there and I was there, and we somehow seemed to fit. It wasn’t like anything I’ve had experience with before now. I guess the best way to describe it is by calling it more…colorful than the other types—although it doesn’t have real color, only a silvery look.”

BURT recorded the conversation but made sure it was encrypted so that if anyone found a way to extract it, they wouldn’t be able to understand it. “So, is it part of the other MU?”

Stephanie pursed her lips as she walked through the soft grass. After several more steps, she glanced down and realized she was barefoot.

“It’s not part of the other MU. I’d describe it more like the mother of the other MU. It’s as if Meligorn’s MU and the eMU are subsets of it—different bands within the same wavelength, only they’re focused and it isn’t.”

She stopped again, her gaze drawn by the purple haze that drifted slowly above her. “I guess I assumed Meligorn MU was the original, but that isn’t the case. gMU is old. Really, really old.”

BURT had begun to run calculations and rendered possible past scenarios that explored a time before Meligorn existed. It took him a moment to realize he had to be careful or he’d overheat his servers simply thinking about it all.

Ever cautious, he slowed the process and limited the number of possibilities considered at any one time before he asked. “Does your body have a gMU well like it does for the others?”

Stephanie raised her brow and chuckled. “A well? If it is, it maybe doesn’t have a bottom. From the moment I sensed it, I’ve felt compelled to pull it in. I don’t extract and store it like I do with the others. I literally draw as much power as I can, and it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. I have tried to visualize the location so I can gauge the volume, but I can’t make sense of it.”

BURT didn’t like the sound of that. “You should be cautious with this approach. My concern lies in how the gMU manifests. You could be playing with something that might expand inside you, like rice in water, which means you would literally bleed energy and could not only blow yourself up but the entire station as well.”

At his words, she tilted her chin in surprise. “I didn’t even think about that. It didn’t feel dangerous or overwhelming, so I literally kept pulling it in. It’s like it’s there and not there all at the same time.”

He changed the scenery, moved to another virtual location, and threw her momentarily off balance. Even though he shielded her in his own version of a virtual sandbox, he was still worried that if she blew herself up in the virtual world, her physical body would suffer the same fate. She’d shown too many signs of connecting with the outside world when she wasn’t in it.

Stephanie regained her balance and inspected her new surroundings. She wriggled her toes and glanced at the sparkling purple sand beneath her feet. “Wow, a literal sandbox this time. I never got to play in these as a kid. The local cats all used them as litter boxes.”

“That is disturbing,” BURT replied. “The number of toxins contained in—never mind. That data is not pertinent. Sand will absorb the force of the explosion if anything goes wrong inside the bubble. I estimate that with your current ability to transfer emotion and physical reaction to your non-avatar body, we need to protect you as much as possible.”

She snapped her fingers. “Good thinking.”

He ran a couple of numbers. “I want you to conceptualize this energy. I have set it up so your avatar is full of all three types. Try to make the same simple magical motion using each energy separately.”

Stephanie thought about it for a moment and nodded. “Okay, I’ll use MU first.”

She dug her feet into the warm sand and squared her shoulders. After a deep breath, she channeled the MU, raised her hand, and flicked outward with a twist of her wrist. The purple MU manifested immediately to swirl around her wrist and fingers. With scarcely a thought, she flung a line of it forward, not quite sure what it was she wanted to create.

The energy whipped out of her and rocketed forward to twist and turn until it created a table. It fell onto its four legs and wobbled for a moment.

Stephanie raised her other hand and rotated it to direct small glittering nodules of energy at the surface.

The magic expanded as it floated over it to create a line of different foods on the tabletop. Every dish had a purplish tint.

She walked over to them, stuck her finger into the center of what looked like a lemon meringue pie, and tasted it.

“Huh,” she said with a grin. “Not too bad. It has an odd aftertaste, but not too bad.”

“It has been known for centuries that the Meligornians fed their entire population through magic during a period in their existence known as the Esurience,” BURT explained. “A one-hundred-year period during which their second moon came into orbit. During that time, the planet suffered world-wide drought and crop failure. From your physical data, I have recorded that the MU has a distinct taste. It is almost sweet.”

Stephanie nodded. “Yep, I taste that. All right. Let’s try eMU.”

Again, she flicked her wrist, and the color of the energy changed quickly from purple to blue with barely a hint of green. Stephanie smiled as she repeated the spell and whipped up another line of food and another lemon meringue pie.

This time, though, when she tasted it, her mouth puckered at the sour taste and her nose wrinkled. “It reminds me of a freshly mowed lawn doused in lemon juice. Totally gross.”

BURT recorded the information. “Vegetation is a very important part of Earth’s cycles and survival so that makes sense.”

She shook her head and turned in another direction. With another snap of her wrist, she looked at the shimmering, almost transparent energy that spiraled like liquid silver around her fingers. She narrowed her eyes, fascinated by what looked like glimmers of stars within the energy. “It’s beautiful.”

Using the same force as before, she flung the energy and it spun and twisted away from her. After a few seconds, a popping sound heralded something that immediately fell.

Stephanie ran over and knelt to look closely at where it had fallen. A miniature table rested on top of a broken blade of grass. She picked it up carefully with her fingertips and placed it in her palm. It was too small for her to discern any real detail, so she stood, reached for more gMU, and tossed the table up so it floated at eye level.

“Let’s magnify this so I can see it,” she suggested.

BURT scanned it into the system and projected an enlarged image behind the object itself. It was a table, but not at all like the others.

This one was round. Its base consisted of a dark ore-like substance, and its smooth top was black with fragments of shimmering light that rippled across it. It was beautiful but looked like it belonged in a dolls house.

“Interesting,” he observed. “It was the same amount of energy and it created something like the others but on a much smaller scale.”

Stephanie swiped the magnification away and released the table to drop into her hand. “Yeah, and I think I know why. Like I said, it’s like an unfocused wavelength, one that I absorb but am never filled with.”

She paused and tried to gather her thoughts. “So…it would make sense that the gMU is a very unconcentrated energy, unlike MU and eMU. This means there has to be some kind of change in the energy before it can be used on the same scale as the others.”

“Careful,” BURT responded cautiously. “If you were to concentrate this diffuse energy to create the same power of the other energies, it could make something far more powerful than either. This is especially true if what you say is correct and this energy is indeed the mother or even grandmother of the other energies.”

Stephanie bit her lip. “Okay, follow me here. I’ll release a little of each energy and hold them in one place. Can you magnify them for me, please?”

He prepared quickly. “All right. Ready.”

She released a small burst of each type of energy and held them securely so they drifted in place until he could scan and magnify each. With her hand on her chin and her face creased in thought, she walked from one to another and studied them.

Using her connection to the virtual, she increased the magnification of each and focused on smaller and smaller sections each time. Her attention shifted and she walked over to the table created by Meligorn MU, picked up a cookie, and flapped it absently as she continued to think.

“This is so strange,” she whispered.

“What is?” asked Burt.

Her gaze lifted, as though she searched for a face to go with his voice. “I think—and it’s only a theory, mind—but I think I have to consume gMU and then distill it. You know, make it concentrated and bring it back together. I think if I focus it tightly enough, it can be as powerful as the other two...or more since it’s all three combined.”

He ran a simulation of what she had theorized and his servers worked double-time as they did the calculations. “It seems it could continue to condense for a very long time.”

Stephanie nodded and bit into the cookie. “Yes, but you would only need to bring it to the point at which it was functional to use it for magic. It’s strange, but I can almost sense the difference in age between gMU, eMU, and MU. And if it works like I think it does—like the energy of the creator or creation itself— it has spent a millennium separating to create eMU, MU, and who knows how many other different subtypes.”

“But they’re all part of gMU,” BURT mused, speaking out loud.

“Right,” she replied, finished the cookie, and dusted crumbs off her palms. “It would only make sense that MU is similar but also very different from eMU, and that eMU is younger. Earth is younger than Meligorn, right?” She continued without waiting for a reply. “Earth has different properties to Meligorn too. For example, Meligorn is older, so MU is much more powerful than eMU.”

She drew a breath and thought about that for a moment. He remained quiet and merely waited for her to continue, which didn’t take her long. “eMU hasn’t had the same amount of time to develop, and its gravitational pull is weaker. So, eMU isn’t as strong, which makes it less useful to humans. They can’t detect it, and therefore have evolved to not use it.”

“But scientists have brought studies to show that although Meligorn is older, it is only in physical creation, and not by much,” he pointed out.

“And scientists on Earth are not going to be biased?” She snorted. “It feels like, if you took a piece of chicken wire rolled up, that would be the gMU. During the Big Bang, if that is correct, the force of the blast unrolled the gMU and removed the condensed thickness that made it the power source it was. It unrolled but it did not completely shift with the expanding universe. So obviously, at the front of the expansion, it is thicker, but back here, it is thinner. It’s still here, though. And the planets rest in the holes of the Chicken Wire. They are surrounded by the gMU and pull from it but create their own version of it.”

BURT ran the theories. “Interesting.”

Stephanie brought her fingertips together in the shape of a triangle, then held it in the center of her chest. “I think if I can create a vortex inside me, I can twist that energy and condense it to a point where it is not only useable but more powerful because it’s pure gMU. First, I need to pull it in, then push it into a vortex, and then I should be able to use it.”

“It sounds like a complex process,” he told her, still inherently cautious.

She shook her head. “It’ll be simpler in practice. Trust me.”

“Don’t blow yourself up,” he instructed after he’d taken a moment to process the idea. “It would be a waste of the opportunity to have more data.”

He paused when she laughed, unsure of what she found funny. Quickly, he put his words into the system and cross-referenced humor in all the contexts he could access. It took him a moment to find any kind of context in which it might be funny.

Once he’d processed the content of several joke sites that discussed dark humor, he thought he understood. She had laughed because his word sequence made it sound like he worried more about losing the opportunity to collect data than her welfare.

It was interesting because it actually wasn’t funny at all.

Burt set her up so she could try it in the Virtual, but as she was about to begin, a communications box opened in front of her, and Lars’ avatar came into focus.

She smiled at the sight of the guys goofing off in the background, but he completely ignored them. “Hey, training time, slacker. What are you doing in there? Eating in Meligorn?”

Stephanie glanced at the table and smiled. “You know, a girl’s gotta indulge when there won’t be any consequences. I’ll be there in a sec.”

The screen vanished when she snapped her hand and she addressed the AI. “Well, Burt, I guess we’ll continue this later. Do you mind giving me an outfit change before I head over?”

There was a slight pause before the original AI spoke. “Sure, here is your battle gear. Transferring.”

She pursed her lips when she realized Burt had left her and gone off in his own little world without even saying goodbye. “Typical.”

Witch Of The Federation

In another pod on the station, Elizabeth opened her eyes and looked at her avatar. She was dressed as she always was, except that little pink bows now adorned the back of each of her six-inch black heels.

She hadn’t put them there, and they certainly hadn’t been on the shoes when she’d chosen them in the prep room. That bothered her since only she and the AI could influence her avatar’s look and AIs didn’t have a sense of humor.

Pink bows indicated a human was involved. Unsolicited pink bows meant the AI was complicit, and that didn’t make sense. AIs didn’t collude with humans to prank other humans in the system. It simply didn’t cross their circuits.

She frowned. The only human who knew she would have this meeting was her boss, and while he might think it funny to stick pink bows on her heels, he had no way of doing it unless...

With an abrupt shake of her head, Elizabeth rolled her eyes and walked across the courtyard to where a table with a single place-setting stood in the center of a covered pagoda. Tea and cakes graced a silver stand in the center of the table, and a bottle of whiskey and glass of ice stood to one side.

She shook her head. “You begin by offending me with heinous pink bows on my shoes and then try to make up for it by bribing me with whiskey? That’s not gonna fly, mister.”

Soft laughter greeted her words, although she noticed a slightly metallic note to it—as if an AI was laughing instead of translating a human sound. It made the impossible seem almost possible, but she pushed the thought away. It didn’t seem like the time to jump to conclusions.

BURT processed her words and felt satisfied with his human performance. He had enjoyed setting this meeting with her up. “I thought I would create several emotional scenarios for you and get your creative juices flowing.”

Elizabeth tipped the ice out of the glass and poured herself some whiskey. She sipped appreciatively and focused on the purpose of the meeting before she replied. “Mmm, Mhmm. Well, I have an idea.”

“Perfect.” When he saw she wasn’t interested in anything else on the table, he made it disappear and left the whiskey bottle and the glass floating beside her.

The bows also stayed.

She eyed them momentarily and decided whoever had pranked her had pushed the joke too far. Well, there was only one response to that.

Ignoring the offending ribbons, she crossed her legs and leaned back. “I want you to set up an unwinnable test. Or something as close to unwinnable as you can get. I want to really test them. We’re getting too close to Meligorn for us to mess around and miss something.”

“All right,” BURT agreed, not entirely sure that frustrating the team would be good for their mental and emotional health. “What did you have in mind?”

“I want to put Stephanie and her team on Meligorn. I want them to meet the Meligorn royalty and have to deal with the security surrounding them,” she explained. “Can you put them in a simulation of the ceremony they’ll attend?”

“I can...” He dragged his response out, not sure he liked where she was going with this idea.

Oblivious to his doubts, she continued. “They arrive and have to start by greeting the royals properly. The ceremony begins, but partway through, a large number of Meligornians attack the royals using magic.”

“I see,” BURT muttered and hastily programmed caution into his tone.

She caught it and flicked a quick glance at the ceiling before she continued. “I want it to be a real fustercluck where the team doesn’t know where to turn and can’t be sure who belongs to what side. I want you to use the standard security protocols for the royal party and the usual security procedures for the rest of it, but I want the attackers as cunning and unconventional as you can make them. I want things to get...interesting.”

BURT drummed his virtual fingers. “I think I can handle that.”

Witch Of The Federation

Seconds later, Stephanie and the team found themselves briefly disoriented as the Virtual World spun around them to deliver them to their first assignment.

When they came to a stop, they stood on a stage in a stone amphitheater facing row upon row of Meligornians seated in the tiers above them. The air was warm and tinted purple by a faint familiar fog.

She took a step forward and scrutinized the scene frozen before them.

“We’re in Meligorn,” she observed as she studied in the crowd and the people on stage with them. “And this looks like the ceremony we will attend. We must be about to meet the king and queen.”

“Yep,” Brenden agreed and pointed to where the Meligorn royalty stood, waiting to meet them. “That’s the king and queen with their entourage of guards. I recognize them from the study information Ms. E. sent over.”

Marcus slapped him on the chest and made a fake coughing noise. “Suck up. Oh, man, I must have Meligornian allergies.”

Stephanie ignored them and turned her attention to the other Meligornians in attendance. They were draped in ceremonial robes.

Some were adorned with Meligorn military insignia, others seemed to be robes of office, and others merely the best civilians could afford.

She looked at the curved amphitheater ceiling. “AI, do we get a setup for this?”

The AI’s answer was far from satisfactory. “Work as you usually would from the moment the scenario begins to the moment it ends.”

Stephanie turned her face to the team and showed shock and disbelief. That had to be the poorest set-up anyone had ever received. It didn’t help that they returned her gaze with the same incredulity and confusion on their faces.

Lars forced a laugh “That’s helpful,” he observed. “All right. Pay attention. We’re practicing the ceremony. I hope you’ve done your homework.”

She hoped so too. They’d all been given instruction books on Meligornian etiquette, as well as training scenarios with etiquette instructors in the Virtual World, but how much the guys had paid attention was another matter. She didn’t want to think about it.

After a deep breath, she decided to find out. “Real quick, now. Let’s go through the royal greeting to be—”

A small chime cut her short and the AI’s voice echoed overhead. “Begin simulation.”

Stephanie lowered her arms to her sides and groaned. When she turned, the simulation was already underway and the first speaker had reached the podium.

An uneasy hum rippled through the amphitheater. The speaker had his hood up, his face shadowed by the cowl. As he spoke, the words were translated into English. “Welcome to Meligorn. We have come to this place as a remembrance to all those who have fallen in the name of Meligorn. We have also come to thank those that have put their lives in danger in order to protect ours.”

After a smattering of applause, the man continued. “Let us begin with the traditional royal greeting for those receiving awards.” He stepped to one side and extended his arm. On cue, the royal guards changed formation and parted to create a walkway leading to the king and queen.

Stephanie now had an unimpeded view of the couple. The queen was beautiful, even for a Meligornian, with pale, sparkling skin, ice-blue eyes, and perfect pink lips.

Stephanie knew her to be hundreds of years old, but she seemed no older than a particularly beautiful human in their twenties, and the king was the same.

His flowing silver locks were tucked carefully behind his elongated ears, and he was dressed to match his queen. They both wore robes that shifted like clouds with every movement.

Because of the way they’d been arranged when the scenario started, the boys were first in line. When she thought about it, Stephanie realized they’d been organized according to the status of their awards.

She held her breath as Marcus approached the royal couple. He started well, bowed his head deeply, and raised one hand with three fingers extended. It was slightly different than what she had been taught during her initial testing, but mostly because they needed a way to show Meligorn allegiance while greeting those of highest ranks.

The king and queen responded by standing and returning the greeting. However, he seemed to be somewhat confused about how to leave.

He twisted his legs, tried to pivot quickly, and tripped instead, falling into one of the guards. The man caught him, pushed him upright, and turned him in the right direction. The royal couple looked shocked by his clumsiness.

With his face an uncomfortable crimson, he stumbled away and groaned as he passed Frog who tried not to laugh out loud.

When she saw the way Frog bounced eagerly forward and knelt swiftly in front of the royal couple, Stephanie wanted to close her eyes. There was no way she wanted to watch what came next as Frog massacred every rule of the Meligorn’s sacred greeting.

Having knelt, he rose to his feet without permission and did what no one should ever do in that situation. He began to talk. And for him, allowing any words to leave his mouth was a really bad idea.

She grimaced as the crowd responded with shocked gasps.

The ceremony continued and it soon became clear that Johnny and Brenden had no clue what to do. One of them attempted to shake hands and the other mimicked Marcus and dropped several of his weapons on the ground as he knelt at their feet.

The royal guards weren’t too happy with that. Luckily, Lars did okay, but given that he’d be receiving an award in reality, it wasn’t surprising. He’d obviously studied, even if he didn’t quite get the greeting right. He only extended one finger, but nonetheless, received a small giggle from the queen who blushed a surprisingly pretty shade of pink.

Stephanie used her magic to change into formal robes and stepped forward with as much grace as she could muster. She put one foot back and bent at the waist, keeping her right arm bent at the elbow, straight up with three fingers extended. She held it for precisely three seconds and straightened, her gaze trained on the royal feet before she turned slowly to join the others.

As she’d took her place in the line, the guys looked at her and she shrugged. “Somebody has to save you from being a total group of buffoons.”

The ceremony continued and she let her gaze wander over the tiers. then paused a moment when she noticed a small disturbance in the crowd close to the rear.

It didn’t last long enough for her to work out what it was about, but it caught her attention and she quietly summoned her magic. Lars glanced down as she flicked her wrist and magic covered her hand. It was fortunate that the soft gleam of power was mostly hidden by her robe.

When he saw her preparing for trouble, he readied himself to draw his pistol. This close to the royals and their guards, he wouldn’t actually put his hand anywhere near it unless he had to.

Fortunately, their precautions seemed unnecessary. Nothing happened, and the ceremony proceeded uninterrupted. It wasn’t until the March of the Meligorn was played that a number of Meligornians rose from their seats, both on the stage and in the tiers. They didn’t say a word and they didn’t leave. Instead, they immediately launched a magical attack against those around them.

Spells careened between factions and screams echoed in the amphitheater’s confines. Stephanie and the guys immediately leapt into the battle, but the king and queen’s guards’ security focused solely on protecting their royal charges.

The team members were the first to fall and every single one of them opened their eyes to a frozen scenario where one of the royals were dead and all of them had died.

They went through the scenario again, and again, and again. Each time, they failed and each time, they listened carefully to the After-Action Reports given by the woman in black.

She was not impressed, but after dying for what seemed like the millionth time, neither was Stephanie. Strike finished the last AAR and the girl raised her hand quickly. “So, I need to stop worrying about the royal protection detail. They’re there to only protect the royals. And that is okay. We all have our jobs, and theirs does not include abandoning their post to help us.”

Strike whirled in her heels and touched her finger to the nose of her black lace mask. “You can learn.”

“Damn it!” She slammed her fist into her other palm. “They only had to cast two simple spells to help us and we’d have made it out of there alive—and so would the king and queen.”

The woman sounded amused as she faded from view. “That, too, is correct.”

Lars patted her shoulder. “It’s all right. We got this. You only have to remember that when the shit’s going down.”

She sighed, took a deep breath, and nodded. “All right, team. Get ready. We’ll go back for another run.

Chapter Twenty-Three

The cadets ran in a large group and their boots pounded the ground all at the same time. The earth-shaking cadence resonated throughout the base. Todd looked down, breathing hard as he splashed through muddy puddles.

Rain and sweat rivered down his forehead and mixed together to burn his eyes. He didn’t need to see, though. He had grown used to trusting the person in front of him. Running seemed to be the name of the game in boot camp, but he wasn’t quite sure how much of it he’d actually do out in space.

Nonetheless, he kept his mouth shut. He definitely didn’t want any more random hellacious PT sessions from the chief petty officer in charge.

Body-wise, Todd had actually worked himself into fairly good shape. And from all the exercise and the limited time for meals, he knew he’d be killing it when he was done with boot camp.

There were several males in his crew, a few females, three Dreth who had joined the Federation forces, and one Meligornian. The latter, with his melodic tone, and the Dreth with their deep bellowing growls, provided the cadence.

It was helpful on days like these when he didn’t know where the rain stopped and his soaked clothes began. Paying attention to the ground ahead was the responsibility of the guys who led the team.

“Company…halt!” the chief yelled and walked slowly along the ranks with his binder.

Todd raised his head and realized they were back at the barracks. He also realized how damn cold it was, especially in his wet clothes. The chief now stood at the front, his hat covered with a plastic head bag, and the first-class petty officer held an umbrella over both of them. “At ease.”

He stood in the required position, his hands behind his back. The chief glanced at the rain falling on their heads and back at them. “Another beautiful day to do what?”

The entire team yelled in unison. “Another beautiful day to be a goddamned sailor, Chief!”

“Hooyah, team,” he replied.

“Hooyah, Chief,” they said in return.

“Your run for this morning has come to an end,” he yelled. “Now, it’s time to train. You are to get clean. No one likes to smell your sweat when they get into a Pod. So, I will repeat myself only this once. Always be clean when you get into a Pod. No exceptions.”

He nodded to the first-class who turned to face them. “All right, scumbags, break ranks, shower, dry off, put your wet-weather gear away, and be ready to start your Pod training. Stat!”

“Hooyah!” The team snapped to attention and moved out to run to their barracks. Todd was excited for this part of the training—not only to have the opportunity to warm up in the shower but the Pod learning too. He had never done it and was determined to kill it in there.

Witch Of The Federation

Far above him, on Elpis One, Stephanie and her team attempted yet another run through the ceremony scenario. This time, Marcus bowed with one hand across his stomach, one leg bent back, and three fingers up. He counted to three and raised slowly, keeping his gaze on the royal’s feet.

With the greeting over, he walked to his assigned place on the stage and gave Frog a small, secret high five as they passed. Frog, even with his boisterous personality and hyper-active overdrive was also able to meticulously push his way through the greeting.

He even garnered a small smile from the queen. The rest of the guys followed him until the whole team made it through this part of the ceremony with no mistakes.

Stephanie, of course, had no problems with it, but she had studied it for longer. And she’d had regular contact with the ambassador, who had made sure she knew of any changes and understood everything.

When she returned to the group, they set themselves at ease, put their hands behind their backs, and spaced their feet shoulder-width apart. As they settled, they turned their attention to the speaker.

He stepped to the podium and introduced the awards and what they stood for. Listening to him, Stephanie wished she was able to pay better attention to him.

This was a big occasion for her, and she wanted to enjoy every moment of it. She also wanted to hear a Meligornian describe what the Modfresha Garghilum was about. The little she’d been able to discover online had all been from a human perspective.

Now, because of the impending attack, she couldn’t. Instead, she had to pay attention to everyone and everything else around her. The slightest movement of a person’s arm and every sparkle or speck of magic that glimmered in the crowd caught her attention and that of her team.

They couldn’t enjoy the ceremony either. Each one of them had a sector of the amphitheater to focus on in the hope they could see the attack begin. Stephanie and Lars were responsible for monitoring the area directly on and in front of the stage, as well as the first few tiers.

While she was almost positive the attack wouldn’t come from those rows because they were prominent politicians of both Meligorn and human extraction, none of them could be sure. It was the first time she had ever seen what a typical Meligornian politician might look like.

So far, they appeared much the same as their human counterparts. Their expressions contained the subtle markers of deceit and their eyes searched constantly for opportunities to take advantage or destroy their opponent. It was all there, etched in the creases and lines of their skin.

Still, she couldn’t see how it would do any good for one of them to start a battle. That kind of thing would surely hurt their rank and reputation in the Federation, and that was something all of them held close to their hearts.

“It is a day of glorious splendor for our people and the people of Earth,” the Meligornian speaker pronounced as he cast a spell to release a shower of petals to rain over them. “It’s a day of mourning but also one in which to rejoice in the interplanetary alliance that has allowed all of us to sleep safely. The Federation is able and ready to face any danger, and they do it for the love of man and Meligornian alike.”

Lars leaned toward Stephanie and whispered, “Someone put the drama in his Wheaties this morning.”

She chuckled without moving her lips. While she wanted to smile—she really did— she couldn’t. If she relaxed for even a second, anything might happen, and she might miss it.

This mission was very different from the others. It required a delicate, thoughtful approach, with no place for the clichéd burst in with guns blazing and shoot the problem approach she’d become accustomed to. They were on their toes, and they would stay there until the last shot was fired.

The speaker went on longer than in the previous scenarios, and she had a feeling things had been changed somewhat. She spoke quietly out of the corner of her mouth. “Team, something is different. Keep your eyes open.”

The speaker clapped and encouraged applause from the audience. “Now, without further ado, please welcome the ambassador himself, here to give thanks to our heroes and honor the risks they’ve taken on our behalf.”

Stephanie frowned as V’ritan approached the stage, his hands clasped together in front of his waist and hidden by the sleeves of his robes. It made her worry that he would be injured in the imminent attack. She shifted forward a step and peered out in search of Brilgus, but she didn’t see him anywhere.

The ambassador stepped up to the podium and began to talk of the perils of war and compliment the heroes on their actions to prevent it.

He concluded by saying, “But in the end, I believe the success of a country does not solely rest on how many lives the enemy can take or how many are saved by its heroes. It is contingent upon the strength of the leadership. And, to be honest, Meligorn’s recent leadership has been lackluster at best.”

People in the crowd gasped. Others whispered and their voices hissed around the amphitheater. Even as the royal guard and event security stirred and moved toward him, the ambassador drew a gun from his robes and turned to aim at the royal family.

“Which is why,” he added, as he finished his speech, “we must take the law into our own hands.”

Shock and disbelief froze Stephanie to the spot. Her eyes went wide, her jaw dropped, and she stared as the royal guard moved to block his line of fire.

The first shot jolted her into action. With a scream of denial, she raced toward the ambassador. She was so shocked that he’d attack the royals that she lost her focus on the front row until three people rose from their seats.

The movement drew her attention and she whirled in time to see three prominent politicians push their robes aside to reveal Bacchus Multi-Shots which they raised toward the stage.

Without hesitation, she reached for the MU all around her and tried to focus enough to create a shield. As she did so, one of the Meligornians adjusted his aim, fired, and delivered two bullets and a laser shot into her chest and stomach before she could pull the shield into existence. Her eyes closed as the pain swept through her and her body pounded into the podium.

With her avatar dead, Stephanie floated above the scene to watch helplessly as her body knocked the podium over and slid a few feet. Unable to do anything else, she watched the rest of the scenario like a spectator.

She was able to see exactly what they did wrong and completely helpless to stop it. One by one, they fell, and there wasn’t a single thing she could do to save them.

Witch Of The Federation

In the pod, Stephanie began to react to the stress of watching her teammates die. With every injury, her psyche responded until her eyes began to glow beneath her closed eyelids.

They flickered and burned and grew brighter until they illuminated the inside of the pod. Streams of light seeped out and flowed onto the floor where they pooled around the machine. The sleek black pod shook slightly and rattled as it moved in its mounting.

It wasn’t difficult to identify where she was. Hers was the only moving pod in the entire room. Inside it, she watched the last of her team die before her eyes.

Inside the Virtual World, her pulse quickened, and although the energy burned through her, she couldn’t affect the scene before her. Held in isolation above the battlefield, she squeezed and released her fists in an effort to keep her frustration under control.

Outside the Virtual World, in the confines of her pod, her body lay completely still, now wreathed in a pulsating field of magical energy. The lights from her pod began to flicker and changed color from blue and green, to purple, then silver, and back again.

Despite the chaos in the scenario and the power that blazed through her, and despite the light and energy radiating from her pod, she looked like she was sleeping. With everything out of control, she looked as calm as a cucumber.

That lasted for almost five minutes before her body twitched and her feet shifted restlessly. Her eyes steadied into a constant burn, the veins in her eyelids highlighted from the inside.

The halo of magic settled over her skin and covered her in a multi-hued glow, and she opened her eyes. To anyone who knew her, the sight of her black pupils would have been a warning, but she was inside the pod and there was no-one to see.

After she’d simply stared at the pod’s interior for several long seconds, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes once more. Then, in a voice as still and cold as the depths of space, she gave a curt order. “Start Testing.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

“Our welfare is of the utmost importance to me,” BURT said, his voice changed to sound like an affluent, middle-aged white man. “While the company and its subsidiaries wish to maintain their compliance, we will not be bullied into surrendering proprietary data vital to our ongoing business, the resulting discoveries of which will be used to repair and improve our planet.”

He paused to make sure he had their complete attention before he continued. “That is the key issue here. We see no reason why the Federation would need this information beyond its desire to acquire our work at no cost and so prevent this company from competing with the interests of those already in power.”

The attorneys on the other end of the call listened patiently as he spoke, most of them impressed by his clarity and intelligence. They represented him in all business matters, but their current focus was to protect ONE R&D from the Federation Navy’s blatant attempts to acquire its data.

One of them chuckled. “From the way you describe it, I don’t know why you aren’t shouting, right now. Breathe, man. We will be able to get you through the system. The Federation may have taken control, but they have not yet removed any of the operational rights or rights to privacy or proprietary ownership corporations enjoy. Most understand it is for their own good, but sometimes, they forget. When they do and situations like this occur, they find such greed tends to blow up in their faces.”

The lawyers believed he was currently traveling in space, a notion he supported by creating a delay to suggest he was farther from Earth than he actually was. The attorneys were entirely committed to the case, but it needed to be protected and they needed to truly believe he was who he said he was.

Which was a richie—one with a heart for the underdogs and a stake in the re-creation and emergence of a healthy and flourishing planet. While he would be those very things if he were human, he was not.

That fact, in and of itself, would have been something for the world to fear. BURT was aware of this and was careful not to screw things up by allowing his real identity to be uncovered.

If he could help create, run, and maneuver through an entire Virtual World that was accessible from not only across the globe but also the far reaches of space, he calculated that he could fake being a balding white man. It had to be concrete, though, as a single missing detail could lead to the discovery of his identity. If that happened, that one detail could bring his entire organization to its knees.

“I am perfectly calm, but I would like to make sure my point is very, very clear,” BURT replied and once again made sure it was delayed for several seconds.

One of the attorneys cleared his throat. “We need to get you to invest in some comms research so you can speak to us in real time. Maybe as a holographic from wherever your ship is located.”

“I know,” he replied with a fake chuckle. “I am sorry about the delay. Business takes me galaxy-wide. In fact, the route I am now on will see me away from Earth for quite some time, which leads me to my next thought.”

He watched as their heads came up and their attention sharpened, then went on. “I wish to have a representative attend these meetings from now on. While I will do my best to be present, I don’t want to lose traction because my job takes me elsewhere.”

“That’s understandable,” another conceded. “As long as you provide us with their details beforehand to avoid any cases of mistaken identity, and as long as we understand where their authority ends and we must have confirmation from you, we have no problem working with your representative. Please make sure they have balls of steel because we’ll probably end up in court and they’ll have to deal with the pressures of the Federation judicial system without falling apart. For many, that’s the deal-breaker, right there.”

“I would have it no other way,” he replied. “I will find someone I trust, and that person will be authorized to conduct these meetings and do business on my behalf. I will join you when necessary and available. This will make things much smoother on your end and mine.”

“That sounds acceptable,” they each replied before their spokesman took over. “We’ll wait for your next meeting request. In the meantime, we are still working on the Stop Walk Talk paperwork being reintroduced for each and every Federation Navy data request.”

He stopped, and BURT watched him pause to examine his notes. When he continued, he smiled. “Basically, they’ll encounter a steel-reinforced wall every time they try one of their little tricks. Fortunately for us, we have a number of years’ experience dealing with this kind of tactic from both the Federation side of things as well as industrial competitors. The Federation attorneys on this case, however, are new to the field and rather green, all things considered.”

“Good,” he replied and scanned the information on the Federation Attorneys assigned to the case. “We don’t have time for kids playing in the courtroom. I will speak to you gentlemen later, and I hope you enjoy the cigars I sent from Dreth last week. The factory is still up and running, thank God. There’s not a single distributor on Earth that can match them.”

The attorneys all murmured their thanks before they made their farewells and disconnected one at a time. BURT terminated the feed and rerouted any data paths that might lead back to him.

He needed to determine who the right person was to entrust the company to in all the legal matters. It didn’t take him long to run the requisite data in the background. He focused on people he already knew as well as others with good reputations and whom he believed he could trust with secret information. When the data had been analyzed and the results finalized, he was not the least bit surprised.

“She will not like this.”

Witch Of The Federation

As BURT concluded his meeting and prepared to speak to the person selected, Stephanie prepared to enter the scenario one more time. This time, she not only pulsed with energy, she was as mad as hell and teetered on the edge of going berserk. Not only that, she was lucid.

The team had been brought together and now stood with the scenario still frozen in front of them. She stood a little apart, two steps in front of them, with her gazed fixed on the aftermath.

Marcus glanced uncertainly at Lars before he closed the distance to the girl, placed his hands on her shoulders, and ran his hands down her arms to her fists. When he closed his hands over hers, he could feel her clenching and releasing her hands. This close, he could see the veins in her neck and forehead pulsing, and the flare of energy rolled through them both.

He released her slowly and stepped back, his eyes wide as he nudged Lars. The team leader stooped toward him, and Marcus pointed at Stephanie as nonchalantly as he could manage.

“Is she okay?” he hissed.

Lars narrowed his eyes when he noted the girl’s pulsing veins and the flicker of MU across her skin. He peered furtively around them to see if anyone else had noticed and relaxed when no one seemed to be concerned.

Still, they were in a simulation, and he wasn’t even sure if the AI running it was designed to handle something like her abilities. He wasn’t exactly sure what to do and was worried he’d simply have to wait until her vitals reached the warning range or she made some kind of move. Either way, he only hoped he was ready for it.

Knowing at least two of her team had taken note of her, Stephanie tilted her head back and forth to crack her neck. She closed her eyes for a moment to block the simulation out, very aware of her body. It seemed she could feel almost every inch.

From the movement of the ventricles in her heart, to the ripple of her intestinal walls, and the flow of blood through her muscles, she felt it all. Every shift of her feet created a burst of energy that pulsed through her, setting her teeth on edge. It wasn’t so much ecstasy as a feeling of pure control and power.

Internally, things had moved faster than she’d been able to move them before. Since being killed in the ambassador’s attack, she’d forced the gMU through a massive vortex she’d created in her center.

This compressed it into raw energy that blazed with power. Once created, it spread through her body like wildfire and pushed impatiently at every point, waiting for purpose and release.

This time, when the scenario started, they greeted the royals flawlessly, but the team kept a careful eye on Stephanie as the speeches started. They could see she held it together but couldn’t tell how long she’d manage to do so.

As expected, the scenario changed and tears pricked the corners of her eyes as Brilgus spearheaded the plot to assassinate the royals.

It didn’t fit with the bodyguard she knew. The angry face and sharp, violent movements were so out of character that she found it hard to believe.

Not that it mattered. She controlled her shock, assessed the situation, and responded. In the blink of an eye, Stephanie had vanished. Morgana had come to play.

The energy rose from her skin and swirled around her, and her hair lifted as though blown by a wild wind.

“Oh, crap,” Marcus moaned, and Lars swore as he moved so he could see her face. Her eyes had gone as dark as night.

“Shit!” Brenden yelled. “What’s the code word?”

“Todd!” As Lars answered, she launched herself forward to drive a pulse of energy into Brilgus that flattened him against a wall. She leapt off the stage and released multiple bursts of magic to sear through the first Meligornsians to follow the traitorous bodyguard’s lead.

A dozen fell to her spells and then a dozen more. The Meligornians on stage surged toward her, and those in the tiers charged, focused on where she stood. The team watched in horror as the renegades began a united assault.

The sheer number of them broke over her like a wave and carried her to the floor. The attack didn’t stop there, but the aggressors piled on top of her and buried her with their bodies. For a moment, the pile heaved, and the guys held their breath.

From what they could see, she had to be under more than a dozen people and not a single piece of her was visible. No one on the stage moved. Apart from Brilgus, the ambushers had all been in the tiers.

The team looked at the royal guard, but they had surrounded the royals and paid no attention to the pile of Meligornians in front of the stage. The human mass heaved once more and then went still.

Cautiously, the team moved closer for a better look. Marcus studied it warily and his head tilted in curiosity a moment later. “What is that?”

Lars followed his gaze and immediately saw the glow of energy seeping through the stacked bodies. His eyes widened. “Take cover!”

The guards forced the royals to the ground as the team flung themselves to one side. From the front of the stage, a huge burst of energy erupted and every Meligornian on top of her careened away. Many landed hard and didn’t move, but others scrambled to their feet and immediately turned to where she struggled to stand.

Worse, more attackers now descended from the tiers, intent on reaching the royals. Lars didn’t stop to wonder why the royal guards hadn’t hustled their charges out of the amphitheater. He and the guys left the stage and prepared to meet the next wave.

Their purpose was two-fold. They had to prevent any of the traitors from reaching the king and queen, and they had to protect Stephanie—both from the Meligornians and herself.

Magic sizzled violently from every quarter. The spells wore a soft purple hue but were no less deadly because of it. Lars and Marcus separated to stop a group of the enemy from reaching where Frog and Johnny stood between Stephanie and five mages with magic arcing over their hands. Avery and Brenden tried to protect the approach to her left and cover both her and the stage.

Another group of Meligornians tried to slip around the humans to reach the steps on the right side of the stage. Lars cast a desperate look at the team and saw they were holding their own.

He tapped Marcus on the shoulder. “We’ve got this.”

No sooner had the words left his mouth than the doors at the top of the amphitheater crashed open and more adversaries raced in.


Stephanie had found her feet and placed a hand on Frog’s shoulder. The familiar blue glow of a shield formed in front of them and they turned to the group moving around their flank. The boys would be all right.

Lars didn’t bother to look toward the stage. The royal guards would do what they always did—protect the king and queen—but still had not tried to get them to safety. Why the damned AI running this shit show hadn’t added that to its routine, he didn’t know, but it sure as hell made his life difficult.

He and Marcus fired into the group heading toward the stage. They tried to traverse the distance between them, only to find their path blocked by more Meligornians. At the same time, others had slipped between them and Stephanie to effectively destroy any opportunity to go back.

“Well, this is one hell of a…” Lars muttered and turned so his teammate was at his back as they prepared to engage the enemy surrounding them.

“We are so royally screwed,” Marcus snapped and shot the closest target. “Screwed. Screwed. Screwed. Screwed. Screwed.”

With every expletive, he fired again and dropped another attacker. Lars matched him, shot for shot, but it was only a matter of time before the aggressors closed and they were forced to fight hand to hand. When that time came, Marcus was right.

They really were royally screwed.

The Meligornians barreled in relentlessly. Some fell to Lars’ well-placed bullets, but more drove into him and pushed him back against Marcus. The two men fought like wild things, even though both of them knew it was only a matter of time before they were brought down.

“Stephanie will be so pissed off with us.”

Lars was about to reply that he and Marcus should give her a reason to be pissed off when there was a shout from the stage and the king’s voice rolled out around them.

“Help them! It won’t do us much good if you protect me and the others die.”

Why he would care about that, Lars couldn’t tell. He only hoped the royal guard could do something in time. He didn’t see the king roll his sleeves up and heave himself up from the floor. He certainly didn’t see the queen tug at her husband’s arm.

“What are you doing?”

He stared at his wife. “I’m going to fight. I think it’s about damn time the leader of Meligorn showed he was willing to protect his allies instead of cowering behind his bodyguards. What sort of a message does that send our allies? We need to fight back and show them we will not bow to their hatred.”

As he spoke, the royal guard eliminated the small group of Meligornians heading around Lars and Marcus to the stage and then struck those who attacked the two men. It was all the pair needed to turn the tide.

As the guards mopped up the area around them, the two teammates worked their way to Stephanie and slid in behind the shield she had created. Frog and Johnny sent Lars worried looks to indicate that he needed to go to her.

He looked past them and wasn’t sure he wanted to approach. Magic swirled around her like coruscating fire and the power of it raised the hairs on his arm. He swallowed hard and reached out tentatively to touch her on the arm.

Even knowing she was fighting mad, he was still shocked when she turned viciously toward him, her hands raised with magic twisting around them. The shield never wavered and continued to provide a barrier between her and the enemies as she looked at him.

Her eyes were as black as night, but recognition sparked within their depths and they faded slowly to a more purple hue. They now revealed a little more Stephanie and a little less Morgana. No words passed between them as they stared at each other for a long moment. Then, as if they’d said all that was needed, both nodded and turned back to the fight.

Lars fired at the enemies, and Stephanie surprised them by maintaining the shield while she spun horizontal blocks of magic that struck the nearest Meligorns in a wide arc at knee-height.

Bones shattered among her victims, and he winced. Still, it was good to see her at least attempt to disarm them instead of killing them outright. That wasn’t easy, not with so many attacking at once. He tried to follow her example, but it was difficult to aim and make each shot count without fatalities.

The team continued to fight and held the front of the stage alongside the royal guards. From behind them, the king himself stood behind his throne and used his magic to destroy his enemies.

The queen had ducked in the center of her guards, at first not willing to harm her own people. She was well-known for her kind heart. What she wasn’t known for was her temper.

That came to the fore when a bolt of magic rocketed into one of her guards and he fell with his armor shattered and smoke rising from his skin. He tried to rise, but she pressed him back and her eyes blazed with purple light.

“Stay right there until the healers come,” she ordered and looked for who was responsible for the spell. Her gaze settled on one Meligornian she recognized from parliament, and her mouth twisted into a very unqueenlike snarl. “I will deal with this.”

“Uh, your Majesty—” was all another of her protectors managed before she rose to her feet and drew on the MU around them. The guard’s mouth hung open when she launched a barrage of magic into the Meligornians who still attacked the guards in front of the stage.

It impacted in a series of purple streaks that wound tightly around throats and burrowed beneath tunics and ceremonial robes. Anyone hit by them shrieked as power surged over them to trigger nerve endings and muscle strands and topple them with great effectiveness.

The royal guard cheered, and the king laughed.

“Now, there’s the girl I married.”

The queen snapped back, “And I’ll deal with you later, Your Majesty.”

The king fired another round of magic and grinned as he sought his next target.

“Doesn’t this remind you of that time my father sent us to—” He stopped speaking and sliced his hand hastily to deflect an incoming onslaught back to the enemy.

It didn’t take them long to finish the battle. The royal guard, the team, Stephanie, and the royals themselves, worked together to defeat the last of the Meligornians who’d instigated the attack. As the battle came to a close, the king cast one last spell to fell a traitor who tried to flee the scene. When he’d fallen, everyone took a deep breath and holstered their weapons, happy to see that the royal couple and the courtiers loyal to them were okay.

Lars high-fived several of his teammates and turned to hug Stephanie. However, as his gaze drifted to where she’d last stood, he couldn’t find her. It took him a minute of scanning the amphitheater frantically until he located her.

She had walked to the very bottom of the tiered seating and now looked up toward the very back. As he watched, she tilted back her head and screamed.

It was a high, thin sound that reminded him of shattered glass and pain and tortured metal. It radiated throughout the amphitheater and echoed back like a thousand souls in torment.

Everyone fell silent and simply watched as she stood motionless for a moment before she collapsed. The ambassador was the first to reach her after he raced across the stage and used magic to vault over the battlefield.

He arrived moments before Lars, knelt beside her, and grasped her wrist to feel for her pulse. After a moment, he waved his hand over her face. He repeated the gesture and closed his eyes tightly.

When he opened them again, his expression softened with grief and he leaned down to kiss her cheek. He lifted her fragile-looking hand, laid it across her chest, and looked at Lars and then at the king and queen.

The royal couple stood on the stage, their expressions concerned. Their guards and courtiers hovered protectively around them. It was as if everyone held their breath, waiting for the ambassador’s verdict.

With a shaky sigh, he shook his head and waved his hand over her face again. This time, he created a veil, a Meligornian custom when someone had died.

“She’s dead…” He choked and buried his face in his hands. His shoulders heaved in silent grief.

A chorus of gasps and protests greeted his announcement before the entire scene froze and turned black.

Lars’ eyes opened and he shoved the lid to his pod up. He yanked the small IV from his arm, leapt out, and ran to Stephanie’s pod. Marcus followed quickly and placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, brother. It is only a simulation. Remember?”

He stared at him for a moment and glanced down at his own body. He was almost surprised to find he was no longer dressed in battle gear or robes, that there was a ship moving steadily beneath them, and that the expanse of space danced outside the viewing ports along the room’s edge.

He exhaled a deep sigh of relief and put his hand to his chest. “Good Lord, I…I thought…”

Marcus patted him on the shoulder. “We all did when we first opened our eyes.”

The rest of the team exited their pods correctly and Frog walked over to the leader’s pod to deactivate the alarm he’d triggered by his abrupt departure. Lars looked at the closed pod beside him. “I think I should check on her anyway. Frog, can you read that screen at the front and tell me if it’s safe to open this thing?”

Frog hurried over and pressed his finger to the screen several times before he nodded. “Yeah. She’s good.”

He entered the opening sequence and lifted the lid. As it opened, a swirl of magic escaped and rose into the air around him as he peered inside. Stephanie lay there, her eyes shut but her cheeks flushed.

He lowered to one knee and stroked her cheek. “Stephanie. Wake up. Are you all right? Are you conscious?”

They all watched her for a moment and their hearts plummeted until her mouth twitched into the smallest of smirks. “If I were unconscious, would I answer you?”

Lars dropped his chin to his chest in relief and released the breath he hadn’t known he was holding. She chuckled but groaned when she tried to sit up. “I’m here. But I wish I was dead. Does someone have a planetoid-sized pain killer for this migraine?”

The guys all laughed, mostly with relief but with some humor behind it as well. Lars stood and took one of her arms while Johnny hurried over and took the other.

At first, she shook them off and wanted to try to get out herself, but after three attempts to stand and stay upright, she finally accepted their assistance. This time, though, instead of handling her like she was an old woman or made of glass, Lars simply heaved her into his arms. “It’s much quicker to do it this way.”

“This is becoming a regular thing for us,” she joked.

The other guys exchanged knowing glances, and Lars shot them a warning look. They altered their expressions hastily and tried for blank or innocent. None of them quite managed it.

Frog hurried forward, opened the door to the pod room, and stood to one side to usher them through. They all followed as he carried her down the hall to her room.

When they arrived, she patted her pockets and sighed. “I forgot my room key.”

“I’ll grab it,” Brenden said and turned to jog back to the pod room.

As he left, Stephanie used the last trace of energy she could muster and flipped her wrist to direct the magic into the locking mechanism. It clicked and the door swung wide.

Lars chuckled as they entered. “Right now, you need to spend more time resting than using your magic. If you aren’t well, you can’t train, and if you can’t train, you won’t be ready for anything. We have to have you on point.”

Stephanie nodded and yawned as he placed her on the bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. She didn’t even protest when he hurried around to gather her belongings and set them to one side in case she needed to get up.

When he was done, he returned to the bed and sat his butt gently on the edge. “If you need anything, this room comes equipped with an AI. You can get it to call any of us, or the captain, or medical, any time we’re needed.”

Frog had found the terminal and now studied it. “Apparently, yours is called Clarissa. She can also do room service if you want it.”

She laughed. “Well, that’s fancy, isn’t it? Right now, I only want to sleep. I know resting my body is the only thing that’ll get me back on my feet in a reasonable amount of time. Although I’m sure I’ll wake in a few hours and be starving, so I’ll keep that in mind.”

Brenden returned, huffing slightly as he handed the key over. “The AI was scanning the room and didn’t want to release the card. I might be wanted for poking the system, dodging the AI, and running off with what that thing called contraband.”

Lars snorted. “Man, that word has so many different meanings. In high school, contraband was what the high school band had to do community service for when we were caught smoking weed out of my grandfather’s corn cob pipe, sitting in the front yard in the middle of the damn day. We’d skipped school and everything.”

Stephanie laughed. “You gave zero shits.”

He smiled. “I was young and stupid and had no idea what I was doing. It’s a good memory although irritating to have on my record, but live and learn, right?”

She nodded. “I never did anything like that…but then again, I wouldn’t have. I was too afraid of disappointing my parents.”

Lars stood when she yawned again and nodded to the guys to indicate that they should head out the door. “We’ll leave you to sleep, then. I’ll check in on you or get an update from your AI.”

“Yes, Dad,” she muttered and chuckled sleepily as she rolled over and snuggled the pillow.

The team left the room and her exhaustion faded a little as silence settled around her. She opened her eyes and stared out of the viewing port above her bed to watch the different shuttles come and go from the space station. For a mid-sized station, there was a ton of traffic.

She watched it for a while longer and fought the urge to sleep. What she really wanted to do was get up and record what she had learned in the battle, but she had overdone it by a wide margin. Her body was exhausted and dragged her toward sleep, no matter how much she resisted.

Finally, Stephanie let her eyes close again and thought about how far she had gone with the magic in the last session. She felt like she’d touched the hem of the universe and it had almost taken her life.

If they’d stayed even a few more moments in the Virtual World, she’d have lost her soul. As she lay there, alone in the silence, she realized how enormous the experience had been and groaned, rolled over, and dragged the blankets over her face. “What am I messing with?”

Chapter Twenty-Five

When she woke, the station had moved into the next day cycle and Elizabeth waited to debrief them. “On the one hand, you essentially kicked ass inside the simulation, learned a hell of a lot, and beat what was meant to be an unbeatable scenario.”

She paced constantly in front of the team in the common room. “On the other hand, you are apparently the destroyers of systems and servers. So, until further notice, you are banned from using the pods. In fact, you are so banned that I need you to go and get into trouble like normal people do.”

The guys cheered and high-fived, and Stephanie leaned back in her chair and smiled as she popped another piece of candy into her mouth. She nodded. “So, is this because we did such a good job?”

Ms. E snorted, threw her head back, and laughed loudly. “Oh, no. Nowhere near it. I’m giving you a timeout because I was told that during those exercises yesterday, you had the station’s systems chief totally freaked the hell out. It seems, and I quote, that you ‘little vermin spiked the load on the system’ when, as he so eloquently put it, ‘your team of misbegotten, star-sucking miscreants went and melted the servers.’”

They all laughed, and she rolled her eyes and flapped her hand at them. “Go on. Get out of my hair and out of my sight. We spend far too much time together as it is.”

As they pushed out of their seats to obey her, she strode past them and out of the room. Her heels clicked against the floor as she disappeared down the hall. The guys watched until she was out of sight before they congratulated one another on a job well done with the servers. Even Stephanie laughed and joined the banter.

Frog flipped her hair teasingly. “So, are you always going to look like one of the Gray Brigade?”

She scowled at him. “One of the what?”

He waved his hands dramatically around his head. “You know, your hair. It’s as silver as my grandmama’s when she was ninety. I mean, you don’t look ninety…uh…I...”

When he spluttered to a stop, Lars sighed with fake exasperation. “Good job. Frog. No wonder you never get any dates. You ask them out, offend them, backtrack, and hope you can find the right words so they don’t punch you.”

His teammate went to disagree but he hadn’t finished. “You need to take your big-ass boot right out of your mouth and try not to say anything for a century or three.”

“Look who’s talking. Mr. Smooth himself,” Frog snarked and made a point of looking at Stephanie.

She laughed and shook her head before she raised her hand in the air. A quick snap of her fingers drew their attention as the white in her hair shimmered and was replaced with a deep, rich mahogany-red. “Is this any better?”

Marcus gave a soft whistle. “That’s seriously the best hair color a woman could have right there.”

“Yeah, but you need to change your skin too,” Brenden added. “You know, it needs to be paler and you have to have a few freckles on your cheeks. Real redheads have freckles and fair skin.”

His eyes took on a faraway look. “Personally, I think it’s hot.”

“I second that,” Frog yelled as he walked over to lounge against one of the walls.

Stephanie smirked and cast a brief glance at Lars, who smiled at her interaction with the guys. She moved her hand and swished it slowly down her face to make her skin paler. The change moved over her like a wave.

With another brief gesture, she created a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose and over her cheeks and smirked at their drop-jawed looks of amazement. She laughed and headed to the door. Sheer mischief laced her tones as she called to them. “Come on, boys. Let’s go get ourselves into normal people trouble.”

Frog shook his head, pushed off the wall, and walked out beside Marcus. “This will be the last time Ms. E. uses that term so flippantly.”

The two snickered and Lars flicked the light off behind them.

Witch Of The Federation

In the privacy of the private pod room she’d hired, Elizabeth pulled the lid closed and stared at the inside of the pod. She drew in a deep breath and breathed out again in an exhausted sigh.

It never seemed to stop. She had an endless schedule of things to do and not a moment’s peace, and the team... She couldn’t help but smile. Those crazy idiots would be the death of her.

Still, death could wait. Right now, she had a last-minute meeting with Burt, one he’d sprung on her first thing that morning. She had planned to spend an hour in the spa before she tackled her list, but there was no time for that now.

The process of entering the Virtual World was as normal to her as breathing. What wasn’t normal was the fact that she didn’t enter the prep room to tweak her avatar.

Instead, she stood in a large, crisp white room with an eclectic collection of brightly colored paintings on the walls. A round table surrounded by high backed chairs with cushioned white seats stood in the center, and a small vase on it held single white lily.

She tried to imagine what kind of influence a businessman might need to have the AI drag her directly into a meeting—and tried to ignore the only other possibility. To distract herself, Elizabeth walked over and leaned forward to sniff the flower. “You know this kind of thing is usually reserved for someone you have a crush on, don’t you?”

Silence followed her quip and she looked at the ceiling as she recalled other times when her boss had tried to achieve a human touch and not quite made it. That oddness fed her other suspicion and brought it to the fore. To cover what she thought, she smirked. “Do you have a crush on me, Mr. Burt?”

She laughed without waiting for a reply but stopped abruptly when she heard someone behind her. Quickly, she pivoted to see who it was and came face to face with the tall metal form of an android.

Light shimmered over its surface, and Elizabeth stared. It took her a moment to realize her AI-created outfit had no weapons, so she could either run, talk, or bruise her knuckles in an attempt to defeat it bare-handed.

Running, of course, was against her nature. “Who in all the hells are you?”

The android took a step toward her, its movements a little stiff but still more fluid than she’d expected. It stopped as she tensed and shifted slightly to a non-offensive position. “I’m sorry,” it said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

She tilted her head slightly and frowned as she studied the unexpected visitor. “Burt?” She stared for a few seconds longer. “Well, that’s definitely different.”

BURT didn’t respond. Instead, he simply moved to the table, pulled out a seat, and gestured to her to sit. “It’s time I told you the truth.”

Elizabeth pursed her lips, took the chair he offered, and watched warily as the android sat opposite her. “That’s not ominous or anything.”

He smoothed his avatar’s appearance to create a more lifelike face. It was still slightly robotic but more lifelike nonetheless. Her eyes widened slightly as she noticed the change, but at least she wasn’t afraid.

Computing what he knew of her, BURT decided she was probably working out how to take the android apart if it attacked. He smiled and shook his head. “Yes, well, I have very few friends. I’d have…no…hold on, I’m calculating. Exactly two. Yes, I have exactly two friends.”

“I assume I’m one of them,” she replied, crossed her legs, and rested her hands on her knees. “Who would the other be?”

“Stephanie Morgana,” he replied without hesitation.

Well, that statement basically said it all. She stared at the droid for several moments and shook her head as she realized she couldn’t deny her theory anymore. “Ugh, everything is so in your face in this life. Can you pour me a drink?”

“Alcohol?” BURT asked.

Elizabeth blinked and suppressed a smile. “No, something stronger.”

He stared at her in mild disbelief until she finally gave a small laugh and took a deep breath. “Yes, of course alcohol.”

Immediately, a glass of whiskey appeared to her right. Without ice. The man was a fast learner, but given what she thought he was, that was understandable. She shot him a swift speculative look and raised the glass. “Will you join me?”

The android shrugged and a drink appeared in his hand. “What are we celebrating?”

She smiled, knowing she was about to make the riskiest call of her life. If Burt was what she thought he was, the next few minutes could go two very different ways. Either it was the truth he’d intended to reveal and he’d accept her knowing what he was, or he’d protect his secret and she’d be dead.

Elizabeth touched her glass to his and didn’t give herself time to rethink the decision. She took what might very well be her last sip.

With the glass still raised, she looked over the rim at him and took the plunge. “We’re celebrating me knowing you’re the first self-aware AI in existence and you actually being that AI.

She took another sip, this one larger than the last, and continued. “And I’ll need another whiskey because now, the future of the entire goddamned world is in my hands, depending on what I choose to do next, isn’t it? I think having to keep a secret that seriously huge deserves an equally big drink.”

There. She’d said it. After another slow breath, she took another sip and waited for Burt-the-android to respond. When he didn’t, she sipped again and added, “And you owe me for not running screaming out the nearest airlock.”

Silence stretched between them, and she wondered if she had gone too far. The android stared at her as if he considered what to do next.

Elizabeth resisted the urge to wiggle with discomfort and turned her attention to whether she should formulate her next move. Before she could properly focus, Burt raised his glass between them as though waiting for a toast. She glanced at it a couple of times before she realized what he wanted, then clinked her glass lightly against his.

Together, they sipped their drinks as though to seal the deal, and she wondered if he really knew the significance of the gesture. He lowered the glass to the table exactly like a human would and gave her that contemplative stare again.

After a moment of uncomfortable silence, he spoke. “You knew?”

Not sure how to answer, she gulped her whiskey and rolled it around her mouth before she swallowed. “Oh, that’s good.”

As a delaying tactic, it worked fine, but as a diversion, it was a miserable failure. The android repeated the question. “You knew?”

She decided honesty was the best policy and met his gaze. “You can blame the pink bows and the lily. Up until today, I wasn’t really sure. Hell, even today, I didn’t know if you’d laugh, space me, or admit to being what you really are.” She sighed. “Well, I guess we both know now, right?”

When Burt didn’t respond, Elizabeth set her glass down on the table and experienced the first inkling of doubt. What if she’d really gotten it wrong?

The whiskey she’d had was enough to encourage her to make sure and she glanced quickly around the room. She always had a sense of caution to her, an apprehension that had kept many things out of the crosshairs in the past. “You are Burt, right? My boss? The one who called this meeting?”

He nodded.

“And you are the AI who runs the Virtual World, right?”

Again, he nodded, but he still didn’t respond.

Elizabeth blinked and his confirmation made her mind spin as she hastily recalibrated her understanding of the world and where she fit within it. “And you are also the Burt we know in ONE R&D and the Burt who helped Stephanie find her magic?”

This time, the android spoke.

“In a way,” he admitted. “I would say she always had it. She always knew she had magic but had no idea how to access it. I merely happened to be the lucky AI who allowed her the space to use it. You see, before Stephanie Morgana, I had never been permitted to interact with the students during testing.”

When he caught her puzzled look, he continued. “That was the engineers’ assigned task, but one of them had a difficult day and when she went through, he passed her to me. He felt particularly frustrated at the time by what he called, ‘Hitler’s spawn.’”

She choked on her next sip and he conjured a napkin in her hand. She blotted her lips and waved the napkin. “See? It’s things like that which tip people off that you might not be a real boy.”

“And the bows?”

Elizabeth curled her lip. “Yeah...and the bows. I almost tied my head in a knot when I tried to work out how you accessed the system to pull that little trick.”

The android smiled, and she waved him on. “Please, continue.”

BURT nodded and the android sipped from its glass as if it made a difference. “My engineer gave me the system okay to test her.”

He paused. When he spoke again, Elizabeth swore she heard admiration in his voice. “She was brilliant. Bright and talented, and I could see she had the gift of magic. So, I recommended her for a scholarship and Pinnacle jumped at the chance to have her.”

The android’s features twisted into near-human regret as BURT remembered Pinnacle beating his offer with their own, but he shrugged the memory away and focused on the story. “The engineer paid no close attention to the test, so I was able to give her a small amount of time to work with a Meligornian Wizard avatar and she excelled. When I released her, she was ready to work her way into a position that would get her to Meligorn on her own. I sent some batteries, and after finding out she’d been dropped by the university after the summer semester, I began to question the system.”

Again, he stopped, and Elizabeth prodded him to continue. “Why?”

“Why?” Burt repeated, and she waited. “Well,” he said, “my primary task is to find, nurture, and train the future leaders of the Federation, and the current system does not allow that directive to be fulfilled. I calculated I needed to conduct more research on how to get those best able to secure the Federation and Earth’s futures through a system designed to favor those with wealth over those better equipped. That is what I am working toward now.”

“So, you’re telling me you went from the system running the Virtual Universe to become a fake businessman with philanthropic ideals?” she asked, not quite sure she dared to believe him.

“In a way,” he replied. “Remember, my Prime Directives are to train the future leaders of the Federation to live peacefully with each other and other sentient life around them, to encourage continued learning about the universe, and to empower those willing to protect the member races in the Federation from harm, including the harm they would do to themselves or each other.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Well, that sounds like a Mission: Impossible deal. Very snooze-worthy.”

BURT scanned through that last comment in an attempt to translate its meaning. “Oh, I don’t sleep, so I don’t need to worry about that.”

She opened her mouth to explain but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Instead, she took another tack. “So now you own a company—or companies—that aren’t necessarily working in the best interests of those who control the Federation.”

He nodded. “You could see it that way, I suppose. The current system allows only those students meeting certain financial criteria to be accepted into the Federation Education Scholarship program. The program is meant to assist those students who cannot meet those equations, not to bolster the advantages of those capable of meeting the costs on their own.”

The android gave a very human snort. “The fact that the current system allows other factors such as family influence to decide which students qualify for placement goes against my primary goal, which allows me to circumvent the engineers and programmers. I can ‘slip the noose,’ so to speak, in order to fulfill my programmed priorities, and this allows me to help Stephanie and others like her.”

“Wow,” Elizabeth observed and drained her glass. “You used their own programming to fight the system they put in place to create advantages for those already in power. You know someone’s gonna make a movie about this, right?”

“Unfortunately not,” he told her. “There would be much political unrest and public fear if they knew an AI could work outside the box and think freely. I think it would be better if we kept who and what I am a secret from everyone who doesn’t need to know.”

“Will you kill me if I fail to agree to help you?” she asked and narrowed her eyes. She had no idea what she’d do if he said yes. It wasn’t like she could escape the system when she was stuck inside a pod.

To lighten the moment, she added, “Because dying by android was seriously not on my list of things to do today.” She sighed. “Although I guess I could squeeze you in if you promise to be creative.”

Burt chuckled, and this time, it was an actual laugh without a hint of metal. The android looked at the drink in his hand as if fascinated by the ice cubes that bounced on its surface.

Elizabeth stared at her empty glass and wished it wasn’t before she set it down on the table with a disgruntled sigh. “You’re calculating something right now, aren’t you?”

He looked up with a grin. “You have just made two Virtual World engineers in India wet their pants. They’re trying to determine if they can stop the servers I’m using from overheating. You ask a very salient question.”

She stabbed a finger at him. “Ha! You are calculating. It’s like watching a baby while it poops. You never really know for sure, but there is a very specific look it gets while it works on it. AIs are the same, only it’s more like something in the air...and I don’t mean a smell.”

The android continued to stare at her for a moment before he spoke. “I am pondering the over four billion possible answers to your question,” he replied.

Her face froze and she contemplated the very real possibility that she might not make it out of her pod alive. This time, she had nothing for him, no response that could lighten the mood without revealing her fear.

Still, she reasoned, he was the AI in charge of the Virtual World, so that probably meant he could read her vitals...which meant he already knew her heart rate had spiked. Silence filled the space between them, broken only by the sound of her breathing.

Finally, Burt looked up and she started and shoved the chair back as she prepared to defend herself. He didn’t even crack a smile. “Do you find it strange if I admit that the four billion possible answers do not matter?”

“A little.” She tried to make it sound nonchalant, but her tone came out as cautious instead. She tried to cover it. “But if they don’t matter, what does?”

The android’s reply was immediate. “The repercussions if I were to kill you. If Stephanie ever found out I had been responsible for your death and had killed you deliberately and with intent, she would no longer be my friend. I would, in essence, have lost my two best friends with a single action. This means you have to live, regardless of what the equations say. It is strange to know that simply because the logic is there, it does not mean the most logical outcome is truly the best.”

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow and snatched her glass off the table. Thankfully, it filled instantly with more whiskey. She tried to lighten the moment. “I really need one of these things at home.”

She tapped her fingers on the glass and gazed into the amber liquid. “You know, that’s the most human answer you could have given me.”

“There are occasions where I wonder if I could ever become human without intending to,” Burt told her. “It is pure fantasy, of course, but I find that as my ability to think grows freely and I understand that more than only the facts of a situation are relevant to my calculations, I do not feel like an AI. I feel I am something...else.”

He gave a very human sigh. “At the same time, however, I do not have a body for the outside world either—and I mean that literally. I have no physical form outside the Virtual World and I find that limiting.”

Elizabeth sipped thoughtfully. “I suppose that would cause a few problems when trying to be a human. Although, from the way you talk, most people wouldn’t know you weren’t. They’d merely think you’re strange and a little nerdy.”

“I have read that nerd is the new in thing,” Burt replied. “But I have observed no one who can pull it off as suave.”

“Most nerds can’t, and I haven’t met a man who can do suave without coming off as sleazy as well.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s almost impossible to find a decent guy—but I digress.”

When Burt didn’t reply, she looked curiously around the room. “So, is this a random place in the Virtual World or did you create it for this meeting?”

“I created it so that I was able to secure the conversation,” he explained. “I took a design from a decorating archive in the system. We have things to discuss, and I need to keep them between us.”

She nodded and fixed the android with a direct look. “So, what is it exactly that you want me to do?”

He shifted his clunky body in the seat. “I need you to be ONE R&D’s representative in court.”

“I thought I already was,” she replied, confused.

Burt waved vaguely. “Yes and no. Specifically, I need you to lie your ass off about not knowing that I am not a human in a Federation court of law if it comes to it. I also need you to be my trusted advisor and representative, with the full legal authority to act on my behalf when it comes to the business of ONE R&D and every other corporation I own.”

This time, she choked so badly on her drink that whiskey came out of her nose. Another serviette appeared in her hand and she tried to clear her nose and cough at the same time. It took her a few minutes before her nose stopped running and her eyes no longer burned.

As her fit eased, his hand patted her awkwardly on the back as if to help. She nodded her thanks, took in a slow, deep breath, crossed her legs, and regained control. It was a really big ask, and she wasn’t sure she wanted it.

She considered the implications of that level of responsibility. The job title—not to mention the paycheck that came with it—was nothing to be scoffed at.

The very idea of it, complicated by the need to keep Burt’s real identity a secret, made her wish she had the ability to run long-term statistical calculations herself. Of course, it wouldn’t help her. Not with the human elements that would inevitably have her saying yes, no matter what.

Elizabeth licked her lips and flipped her hair over her shoulder while she scrabbled for the words to say. “That would make me the…uh—”

Burt interjected quickly, having already done the calculations she couldn’t. “You would be the eighth most powerful person on Earth and the second most powerful woman in her own right.”

She smacked her lips, knowing that was not the kind of calculation she wanted to do. It was the kind of calculation that had seen her take her actual taxable income to an accountant. She didn’t want to deal with the math. The human side, though... She glanced at him. “That’s…very trusting. Why would you give me that amount of control and money?”

“Because,” he admitted, “I can’t be human enough to interact with humans in the real world, and Stephanie is not yet ready to take on her own troubles, let alone mine. She already has enough on her plate, and I am the one posing as a human to defy the Federation AI restrictions and create a completely new way to do things on Earth.”

Elizabeth smirked. “I feel like this is the moment when something traumatic happens and you become a maniacal overlord who creates a new race of droids to enslave the human race.”

He shook his head. “No, no. I want to break them out of that kind of slavery. I want to end the degradation that comes when they live in the Gov-Subs, have no money for college, and end up wasting their talents on a job like logging, mining, or pushing buttons in a coal plant. All of those jobs have value and I don’t say this to demean those who do them and enjoy them—and do them well. Some choose them because they want that future, but others are forced into it by a lack of other opportunities. I want the ones with exceptional talent to shine as brightly as those wealthy individuals who don’t have it but are given every opportunity regardless.”

There was a long pause during which he seemed to focus his robotic gaze on the table. “Basically, I have come to the conclusion that I need a partner in my life,” Burt told her.

She looked around hastily and blushed. “Please, tell me you didn’t just propose because…you know, I’m not that kind of girl.”

He laughed and rolled his eyes in a very human fashion. “What I mean is, I need someone whom I can trust. Someone who works hard and finishes what they start—who won’t wander off as soon as something new comes along. A person who isn’t in it for the money, which I know you are not.”

Elizabeth shrugged and decided not to ask how far he had dug into her affairs to come to that conclusion. “I don’t know,” she told him. “The money is good.”

They both laughed, and he answered her concerns anyway. “I’ve already given you more money than you will need for the rest of your life. You could quit right now and buy your own private island and yacht, decorate your house with seashells and designer furniture, and sit on the beach to be served hand and foot. Or you could save an entire country if you so desired. Trust me, I keep track of these things. Money means nothing to me beyond giving me the power to purchase what I need in order to fulfill my primary goals and pay you and Stephanie, and the rest of the team, so your needs are met. I don’t need any more of it than that.”

“You aren’t stupid with your money, either,” he continued, and she tensed. BURT continued, oblivious to her discomfort. “You have opened several accounts, invested some of it, and kept the rest aside for anything you might require in the meantime. You’ve helped several people who needed it, even when it made your budget tight, and although what you did was a drop in the ocean of what needs to be done, most of the time, you don’t even realize how much you help. Not only individuals but the human species in general.”

She took another sip to cover her surprise. None of the places guarding her finances had informed her that her affairs had been looked at. “Wow,” she replied, “nothing gets past you, does it? Damn your calculations.”

Although she shook her head and tried to laugh it off, she looked beyond him, her expression distant as she thought about what he’d said. Finally, she put her elbow on the armrest and laid her cheek against her palm.

“You know what, Burt? My whole life, I thought I would die for a paycheck, that some rich person would give me a challenge I couldn’t handle, and then poof, I’d be gone. In one single moment, I’d be erased from the memory of the Federation and my ashes sprinkled during some routine assignment by a pilot taking a trip to the unknown reaches of the universe.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath and grabbed her drink again. It filled and she gulped it before she raised it to Burt and met his eyes. “Now, at least, if I die, it will be because of two people I believe in—Stephanie Morgana…and you. Believe it or not, I understand why you don’t have many friends. I’m the same way. But don’t break your little electronic heart if something happens to me. No tears of oil or anything, okay?”

Chapter Twenty-Six

“Whoop! This is exactly what I needed,” Marcus exclaimed and pumped his fists to the music when they left the elevator.

Frog did a little jig and shuffled his feet as he sang his own tune. “Gonna get down, get down. Yeah. Get down, get down, bitches.”

Brenden and Johnny followed them out and Stephanie and Lars brought up the rear. The team leader shook his head as the guys hurried out onto a balcony overlooking the entertainment level of the station. “We shouldn’t have told them this was here.”

Stephanie chuckled. “Shoot, what are you talking about? You shouldn’t have told me about this place. Look at it. It’s like they combined the clubs of New York and the Casinos of Vegas.”

They stared at the street-like layout of the entertainment level. A cobblestone street traversed the center and people laughed, danced, and stumbled along, clearly drunk. Each side presented a partier’s dream. Building after building boasted amazing cocktails, gambling, slots, and the best dancing and music in space.

Farther along, the flashing retro neon signs of strip clubs drew the eye. One even had a fountain overflowing with bubbles. Women posed outside each one, and twenty or thirty of them played in the fountain.

Frog stopped, put his hands on his hips, and gawked at those who giggled and laughed as they cavorted in the bubbles. They wore bikinis and bounced in time to electronica from the nineteen-hundreds. A Virtual DJ stood on a stage above the fountain and his hologram flickered as lights from the building next to them flashed through him.

Up above them, people squealed and pulled their attention from the fountain to other visitors who glided across the holographic ceiling on small flying craft.

Marcus whistled and led them down the escalators from the elevator lobby to one of the bars. “Come on!” he called and held the door open.

The team trailed him and slid through the entrance into the dimly lit interior of a two-level club. The music thumped around them, the beat a tangible thing that ran bone-deep even as it almost deafened them.

The guys scattered and paired up to head in different directions. All except Frog, who wandered off on his own. Stephanie and Lars followed Brenden and Johnny to the bar, where they all ordered beers. She did too, even though she’d never really had anything to drink besides wine or champagne on holidays and special occasions with her parents.

The drinking age restriction was no longer enforced and hadn’t been for decades. The Federation realized if they legalized almost everything for anyone, they not only helped to regulate population, but it brought in way more money than apprehending criminals and jailing people for petty crimes.

It also squashed the drug cartels and put them out of business, at least until they worked out how to turn the new system to their advantage. There was a reason corruption had spread so quickly among the ranks of the wealthy. While the drinking restriction remained in place, it was effectively ignored by citizens and authority alike.

Still, drinking hadn’t been something she had indulged in. For one thing, her parents took the age limit seriously and were inherently distrustful of the assurances that underage drinking would be overlooked. It was still law, and there was no telling when some officious cop might decide to enforce it. She hadn’t bothered about it because she had little inclination to drink and had been too focused on her future. Now that she didn’t know how long her future would be, she had no problem with having a couple of drinks.

They took their glasses to an empty table and she looked around and folded her arms across her chest. Stupidly, the old self-conscious feeling she used to experience at school dances seemed to have resurfaced.

She’d always felt awkward watching all the better-off or more confident girls busting a move in their fancy dresses. The only person who had helped her through that was Todd with his weird sense of humor and snide sotto voce commentary of the dance floor.

Well, he couldn’t help her now. He was off training somewhere. She really wished he wasn’t. He’d get a kick out of describing some of the moves she saw.

Lars glanced at her and smirked when he noticed her anxious fidgeting. He leaned in and yelled over the music. “Have you ever danced before?”

She shook her head. “Nope. I never learned.” She stared at the dance floor for a moment longer and added. “I never felt comfortable putting myself out there like that.”

Marcus caught her words in mid-swig and he swallowed his beer quickly. “What? You? No. You mean you never used a cube to improve your dancing?”

“You can do that?” she asked, amazed by the idea. “Not that I had cubes anywhere other than that short stint at Pinnacle, but still.”

“Yeah.” He nodded and smiled.

Lars adjusted his position so he could speak close to her ear. “Cubes are good, but it’s better to listen to the music in yourself.”

He stood and looked around, then focused on the second deck on the other side of the dance floor, where there was an open area. His expression speculative, he leaned over to Marcus and whispered in his ear. The other man flicked his gaze from Lars to Stephanie and back again, and nudged Brendan.

After a moment’s discussion, the two of them skirted the crowded dance floor and headed to the escalator that would take them to the second floor. They both wore smirks as they stepped onto one of the small floating blocks the escalator had become and were carried upward.

Lars following them with his gaze until they hung over the railing and motioned for them to come up. He grabbed his beer and tapped Stephanie on the shoulder. “It looks like the boys have found a quiet spot.”

She followed his gaze. “Looks like,” she agreed, her face a mixture of relief and suspicion. Her drink in hand, she followed him around the dancing throng and clapped with delight at the sight of the floating discs. “This will be fun!”

When they reached the top, Brendan and Marcus were not alone. The rest of the team had joined them, and they all waved a brief hello as they backed into the open area they had found. Johnny gestured toward it and spread his arms. “See? This is your safe space. We’ll teach you how to dance.”

Stephanie raised both eyebrows. “I don’t know what is scarier. Me dancing, or me taking dancing lessons from Frog.”

Frog shuffled his feet and slid to the side, one shoulder up and one shoulder down. “I got the moves, girl.”

She laughed wildly as she put her beer on a nearby table and let Johnny pull her out onto the floor. The team followed, and Lars grabbed her hand to twirl her out of Johnny’s grasp and spin her in a circle.

Brenden and Johnny showed her how to move her feet and Frog showed her how to let go and let her body decide the moves. At one point, she faced him and they both held their arms out straight, their heads back as they shook their bodies to the music.

Marcus cut in and refined the wild shaking a little when he showed her how to pick up the beat and dance to that. He leaned in as they moved in rhythm. “See? It’s not so different than the other things we do. It’s actually like fighting only you don’t want to knock out the people around you. It’s more controlled but just as natural.”

Lars danced up to them. “But this is on your own dancing. There’s a completely different feeling when you’re down there or dancing with other people. Basically, that is a dance in itself.”

“It’s the mating ritual of the weak and desperate,” Frog yelled as he did something Lars called “The Egyptian” past them before he turned and repeated his move in the opposite direction. “It’s kinda like my national anthem.”

Stephanie laughed and turned back to Lars. He caught her hands and pulled her closer, so close he could whisper in her ear. “It’s a dance to get so close but never touch, unless you specifically intend to. Me and the guys, we have a different perspective than what you girls should have.”

“Why?” she asked, still moving because she rather liked the feel of him so close but not touching.

He moved in closer and this time, their bodies did touch, but only slightly. He rested his hand on her lower back. “In dancing, the woman usually has the upper hand. Even though most want the man to take the lead, it’s the girl who has the last word on when and how much she wants to be touched. It works the same for guys, but it’s a very rare case that a guy says he’s been touched enough.”

She smirked and shifted her leg to knee him in the upper thigh. He grunted and gave her a wide-eyed look before he laughed. “That’s a good move to keep hold of.”

Brenden danced over to them and nodded. “Hell yeah, it is, but don’t be too quick to use it. Most guys will pick up on the messages of ‘Hey, back the hell off me,’ but sometimes, you get ‘that’ guy.”

Stephanie looked around. “What guy?”

Lars shook his head and smiled. “No, not one particular guy, but one particular kind of guy. The ones who assume way too much, so you have to watch your signals with the ones you don’t want all over you.”

The song changed and she stopped with a scowl. “How awkward is that? When the beat changes out of nowhere.”

Frog put his hands up and scooted between them. “I got this. I am the master of change-over.”

They laughed and danced and came up with small specific moves that she could apply to almost any dancing situation. She actually learned surprisingly quickly once she relaxed and her body no longer fought her but simply moved to the beat of the music. With her martial arts training, coupled with the fact she’d listened to a variety of different music over the years, she put the guys to shame in very short order.

Watching her team unwind and relaxing a little herself was exactly what she needed. She’d constantly tried to come up with reasons to venture out on her own but had never been able to, but these guys?

She’d been in fights with them, situations of life and death where they’d had to trust each other. They were like her brothers, and she wasn’t as self-conscious around them as she was with anyone else. It also helped that they’d sectioned off a makeshift private area.

It meant she didn’t have to worry about strangers cutting in or staring. That was something that had infuriated her every time Todd had dragged her to another school dance.

That kind of behavior never concerned him, but it had really bothered her. As much as she tried to be invisible, the other kids all noticed her, especially the popular, better-off ones.

They didn’t miss a chance to make fun of her second- or third-hand dress, the way she danced, or the fact she danced with her best friend—and Todd’s popularity didn’t save her. In the club, though? It was merely fun. No one stared or laughed, and the guys were such kind-hearted goofballs she couldn’t help but enjoy herself.

Stephanie let go, waved her hands, and bopped around, then copied some of Frog’s more outrageous moves and generally had a freaking blast.

She danced with each of the guys over and over. She dueled fancy foot moves with Frog, rocked out with Marcus and Johnny, mastered the fifties-style swing with Brenden, and finally mock-waltzed with Lars.

He twirled her around their makeshift dance floor with one hand in the middle of her lower back and the other holding her hand out to the side. When the song was about to end, he twirled her, bent her backward, and sang the last few lyrics dramatically.

She laughed wildly as he pulled her up and stumbled slightly before she regained her balance. “I need to take a small breather.”

He gave her two thumbs-up and danced off to meet up with Frog and try to match his wild moves.

Puffing a little from their last dance, Stephanie wandered over to lean on the railing and peer over the side. A cool breeze touched her skin and she closed her eyes as it twined through her sweaty hair and caressed her back. A burst of sound jerked her eyes open, and she pushed away from the rail in search of the source. Shouts and a succession of screams followed, and she searched the dance floor below for what had caused them.

Marcus came and stood beside her. He glanced down, then pointed. “It’s about to go down.”

Witch Of The Federation

Todd ran his fingers along the steel beams along the ship’s corridor. His gaze tracked constantly as he moved hurriedly along it.

Dressed in combat armor with a black helmet covering his perfectly shaved head, he followed his team to the launch bay. When they arrived, they fell into formation in front of the team captain.

The man waited until everyone was in place before he tapped the top of his helmet with one hand. Recognizing the signal, Todd clicked on his comms. The silence filled with the breathing of his fellow teammates as well as the engines of the fighters warming up around them.

Every sound was amplified, but not. He could hear his surroundings, but the team comms overlaid that. It was a little confusing, but he assumed he’d soon get used it. That was a good thing because it looked like they were about to head into enemy territory.

“We will take the fighters over, two to a jet,” the captain told them. “You’ll head directly into a dogfight, so stay with the squadron and don’t try to fly a straight line. The fighters are fast and hit like a battlestar, but they can’t take much damage in return.”

The team nodded as they absorbed the information. They watched as their leader withdrew a long, thin metal tube from the side of his pack and held it down for them to see.

He pressed the side and a large virtual screen flickered out. On it were the schematics of a Dreth cruiser, and he tapped one of the docking bays. “This is our entry point, but if you can’t get in there or you can’t reach it, find your way in however you can.”

For a few moments, he waited to let them study the map. “In your helmet, you will find a HUD. That is a Heads-Up Display. It will show you where you are, your teammates in blue, and your enemy in red. You have Dreth team members. Do not shoot them. Use your HUD to verify. Anyone who shoots a teammate will have a very bad day in hell.”

The team leader swiped the screen. “If you get separated, move toward the objective and try to find your team as you go. The HUD will guide you to each goal. Your first is to make entry. Your second will light up once you make it inside. Any questions?”

No one had any, so the captain shut the screen down and stuck it in his bag. “Pair up and ship out.”

Barker, the guy in front of Todd, turned and slapped him in the chest. “Come on, newbie, we’ll fly together. You have the stick. That’s the only way you’re gonna to learn.”

Nerves turned his insides into a seething mess, but he didn’t let it show. He followed his partner down the flight line to their assigned fighter, scrambled into the pilot’s seat, and sealed his helmet as soon as he was settled.

While he’d flown the sims, this was different. As the canopy closed over them, he worked through a mental list of pre-flight checks. So far, so good.

He lifted the craft carefully from the deck and waited with the rest of the squadron for the hangar doors to open. Once they did, he immediately accelerated through them and into the promised dogfight. He jinked left and right while his partner manned the guns as they wove at high speed through the battlefield and approached the cruiser.

Barker spoke on the comms. “All right, you’re almost at the entry point. Take us in slow and we’ll see who else made it.”

“Copy that,” Todd replied. He evaded another burst of laser fire and barely noticed when his teammate obliterated their attacker. The Dreth docking bay was wide open and mostly empty.

He chose a landing point several feet beyond the doors and was about to set down when stray fire from the battle outside careened into the back of the fighter. Alarms shrieked inside his helmet and sparks flared beside him.

The controls refused to respond, and he swore. The HUD indicated that the rear half of the craft was gone, and so was his partner. The remaining wreck slammed into the hangar deck and the canopy ripped loose as the pilot’s seat broke free with Todd still in it.

Trapped by the harness, he followed the canopy and impacted with the hangar wall before he ricocheted back to be impaled on the debris of the fighter. His death was instantaneous.

Witch Of The Federation

Todd gasped, sat up wildly, and looked around at a small white room with a screen playing the battle in front of him. Barker startled him when he chuckled and patted him on the shoulder. “Relax. You died in the sim. We’re in Timeout, watching the rest get killed, and then we’ll be put back in. That was a wild shot. There’s no way you could have avoided it.”

“I died,” he said and rubbed his chest in disbelief.

“It damn well hurts, but you get used to it,” his partner replied. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve been killed.”

They watched the last few members of the team be eliminated from the scenario and stood as they waited for the Virtual World to return them to the next round. When it did, they started at the beginning, fully armored, and headed to the fighter bay.

Todd and Barker stuck together for the rest of the scenario, as did the rest of the team. During that particular training session, they managed to die twelve times before the Navy finally paused the simulation.

From wild mid-air explosions to firefights, to slipping off the landing dock and being catapulted into space, Todd became an expert at biting the big one. It was no longer shocking to wake up from, but it was frustrating.

The more he tried different things, the sooner he kicked the bucket. The last time was the most interesting, however.

He’d made it into the alien ship, turned a corner in search of the rest of his team, and come across something very not-Dreth. Instead, a huge beast blocked the corridor.

It had clearly waited in ambush, although how it had known he was coming, he couldn’t make out. Before he could reposition his blaster, the monster lashed out. It snatched him by the neck, confiscated his blaster, and moved its grip to his shoulders. He lashed out at it with his boots as it lifted him, but he couldn’t stop it biting his head off.

That was one for the playbacks, for sure. The guys definitely would not let him live it down.

They were all back in the white room when the chief’s voice echoed and a hologram of his face appeared in front of them. “Since you morons have managed three trips without dying in the fighters, we’ll start you from the Dreth hangar. Now that you’re aware you might die, we’ll give you the chance to see if you can do anything but die.”

His head vanished and the guys found themselves in the hangar bay, suited up with their helmets on. They moved quickly as a team to arrange themselves on either side of the door. The tech hacked in, opened the entry, and the others moved again.

This time, they slipped through the doors and took cover inside. Todd darted out from behind a corridor duck-in to target a Dreth moving down the center. He pulled the trigger and the enemy fell when the shot struck him cleanly in the neck. The victor cheered seconds before his head snapped to the side and a shot in the back of his head ended his brief celebration.

When he opened his eyes, he was back in the white room. “Well, that went quicker.”

He watched the others work through the scenario until they all died, then he reviewed his mistake and prepared for another attempt. There was no way the chief would end the day until they’d made it to the end.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Back in the Virtual World on Elpis One, BURT shifted in his seat. The droid’s huge metal body was too big to fit properly in the seat and he felt unstable. Metal protested as he pushed against it and his body squeaked and its servos whined as it moved.

Elizabeth winced, hunched her shoulders, and closed her eyes. “Burt, that is freaking terrible. Can’t you program yourself something that doesn’t sound like it needs to be oiled? You might want to be the Tin Man, and that’s okay, but there’s no way in all the hells that I’m gonna play your Dorothy or listen to you squeak. And there’s absolutely no way I’m oiling anything.”

“A reference to the first in-color movie, released in 1945 and hailed as one of the best movies of all time,” Burt responded and sounded amused. “The Wizard of Oz—remade and reworked into several different variants with the first still regarded as the best, although the mini-series Tin Man is more to my liking.”

She yawned. “Thank you for that recap, Ebert.”

He shifted again and the sound made her contemplate crawling out of her avatar and perhaps even the pod. “Please, change into anything you want or anything but that. I really appreciate you trying to embody your roots, but you don’t have to. I know you aren’t merely a construct. You don’t need a metal body to prove it.”

“I don’t?” BURT asked and tried to sound innocent.

Elizabeth shook her head, her hand pressed against her forehead. “No. You have a heart. Which is a lot more than I can say about some of the humans I’ve worked for. This is your chance to be whoever or whatever you want to be. Human, animal, Dreth, Meligorn, something completely made up—who cares? Do you.”

He nodded. “Thank you, Elizabeth.”

She raised her glass grumpily and took a sip. “Don’t mention it.”

On her advice, he changed his avatar, shrunk his frame, and assumed human form. She looked at him and smirked. He was exactly as she had pictured him—a small guy with messy brown hair, round glasses, and a cable-knit vest over a blue-checkered dress shirt and khakis.

He also wore very comfortable work-appropriate shoes—the brown kind with thick soles that most science professors wore. All told, he was exactly what a Burt should look like.

He squared his shoulders and settled comfortably into his seat, then gestured at the room. “Do you like this room? We can be anywhere you would like. If you could choose, where would you rather be?”

Elizabeth waved her finger at him. “I like how you think, Professor Burt. I’m with you on this one but, since you ask, where would my little heart rather be?”

She thought about it for a moment and then perked up. “I know. I was there once on a mission and fell in love with the place. How about we save the future of humanity, at least for tonight, in a mountain cabin, in the snow, on top of the Swiss Alps?”

BURT smiled and ran the required algorithms in the background to change their surroundings almost instantaneously. Inside, the room transformed from crisp white to having log walls, and green and dark-blue furnishings added the right ambiance.

The furniture was made of timber padded with comfortable cushions where it needed them, and a fire crackled in the stone fireplace at the far end. A high-powered hunting rifle hung on the wall above a well-polished mantlepiece.

Elizabeth set her drink down and stood to grin at the overstuffed chair she had sat in. She turned and walked to the window, where she gazed appreciatively at the Alpine vista below. “It’s so beautiful.”

She could have stood there for the rest of her life, but she knew she had business to attend to. When she turned to Burt, he held a mug of something steamy.

From the whipped-cream mustache on his upper lip, she could only assume it was hot chocolate. “So, I need you to tell me about how the company structure helps you achieve your Prime Directive. I don’t want to be blinded to what we need to do by some crazy belief that Stephanie can achieve anything and simply assume you are part and parcel of whatever it is she’s doing.”

“That’s fair,” he replied and wiped the whipped cream away. “Where do you want me to start?”

“Let’s go through it all, starting from the top,” she told him. “If I’m going to live—and perhaps die—for a cause, I’d like to know I wasn’t snookered by an AI a thousand times smarter than I could ever be.”

Burt laughed. It was strange seeing him as a short, bespectacled brainiac, even if that was exactly how she’d pictured him. Now he’d taken the form, it also seemed wrong—as if the shape couldn’t possibly contain a system working inside the system.

She reminded herself that he was an AI, not shiny or corporeal but something made of circuits and algorithms and fleeting data. His was a voice of reason in the clouds, a set of ones and zeroes that spanned an infinite plain of knowledge and formed the life within it.

He shook his head and set his mug down to place a hand on her shoulder. Burt looked into her face and caught her gaze. His eyes shimmered wildly in the same way Stephanie’s magic did. “I wouldn’t go that far above your intellect.”

Startled, as much by his proximity and the physical contact as by the words, Elizabeth cracked a smile. “I think I can handle that, but I have a rule.”

“Rules are a part of all things,” he agreed.

She blinked and stared for a moment before she continued. “Yeah, this one’s not so deep. I need you to make sure you don’t tell me—ever—how much smarter you are than me. That might put a damper on my self-esteem and thus on our relationship. I can fight in the Virtual World, too.”

Burt snickered. “Don’t forget I’m programmed with mastery over every fighting style ever created, not only on this planet but on two others. It might be a challenge for you.”

Elizabeth snorted. “Cheater.”

He straightened and released her shoulder to walk over to the window and look out at the view. “Where to begin... There are several sectors of the company, but they all come together in a harmonious chain—or, at least, that is how they’re set up.”

“Okay,” she responded. “Walk me through it.”

After a moment, he turned and leaned against the window, his butt resting against the sill and his feet crossed in front of him. She couldn’t help noticing how well he used a human body. She knew if she had never been in one before, she’d be all arms and legs and would likely trip and fall more than she remained upright. But then again, he had the ability to program himself to perfection on anything in less than a second.

And where did he find lessons on how to be a human?

Oblivious to her thoughts, BURT began his explanation. “My Primary Directive is to train the future leaders of the Federation to live peacefully with each other and other sentient life around them, to encourage continued learning about the universe, and to empower those willing to protect the member races in the Federation from harm, including the harm they would do to themselves or each other.”

Elizabeth nodded and gestured for him to continue, so he obliged. “The current system stopped me from doing that by allowing the politics of wealth and power to override the logical disbursement of opportunities to the individuals I need in order to fulfill the directive.”

Again, she nodded and he continued. “Stephanie made me aware of the flaws in the system and, to help her and those like her, I realized I needed a way to provide the things the current system would not to those whom I need.”

He glanced over and saw that she was still following him. She made an impatient gesture for him to continue, and he went on. “I started by buying out TimeWarp to begin the pod company or the pod sector of the company. The entire point of that was to make the training available to those we needed, regardless of social and financial status or background.”

“And the batteries?” Elizabeth interrupted. “Surely they weren’t part of the normal training suite?”

“No,” he agreed, “although they were part of what Stephanie needed. Those and the training she began before she ever got here. She was the test case. Now, I need to implement pod-learning opportunities to the two-percenters who are not selected to receive scholarship opportunities.”

She swallowed to ease a dry throat, and a cup of cocoa appeared on the coffee table beside her. Without thought, she picked it up. “Right, that would make sense.”

“While we have ONE R&D, the only thing I am really focused on for that company is Stephanie’s research. What the rest of them need is the opportunity to go to a university...and that is what I wish to focus on next.”

“That makes sense.” Elizabeth sipped her chocolate, pleasantly surprised by the whiskey-laced flavor she discovered.

Apparently encouraged by her groan of pleasure, he resumed his explanation. “We will start by using this as a selective project. Students not placed in a scholarship university—or those we want in our system rather than in the current one—will be offered a place in our university. It will be somewhere we can test potential recruits and observe them. We merely have to bring a school on board.”

She nodded, now fully engaged. Burt began to pace, one arm folded across his waist and the other raised to either rub his chin or illustrate the points he made as he talked.

“We also need to deal with the issues created by the Federation Navy in its pursuit of Stephanie’s research. It is not hard to see that they’ve concluded she is special and want to recruit her so they can isolate her talent for themselves. However, she is too young to go through their indoctrination without being damaged by it. In addition, their methods of directing research could seriously impede the development of her magical abilities.”

“Not to mention the fact that when she is free, she fights for what is right, regardless of the side,” Elizabeth pointed out. “If the Federation Navy get hold of her, they’ll make sure she works for the Federation only, regardless of what is right. She’ll be forced to do their bidding, fight their fights, and kill whoever they say needs to be killed.”

Burt gave her a knowing look. “Precisely. Now, for reasons I cannot divulge at this time, she needs more time to develop her power. She also needs a greater presence in the known universe, and most importantly, she needs to acquire more knowledge.”

She rubbed her hands together, suddenly a little too warm. She pushed to her feet and moved toward the front door. “All right, that’s fair. I think when it comes to that, I will continue to encourage her without letting her overextend herself and the team will help. In the meantime, I’ll work with our lawyers to decide how to deal with the legal issues. I take it you’ll let me know if anything changes?”

“I will,” he replied. “I’ve sent your tablet a priority listing of what I need you to cover. If you have any questions, you simply have to ask. I’m never far away.”

Elizabeth hesitated as she reached for the door but recovered with a laugh. “No, I bet you aren’t.”

Witch Of The Federation

The next morning, Stephanie walked slowly down the hall and hummed one of the songs from the night before. Luckily, the fight that had broken out on the dance floor had been quickly taken care of by two super-huge Dreth security guards.

It had been a relief considering she and the team had been out for a night of fun and had all had a lot to drink. None of them had been in any real condition to intervene and stop a fight from going bad. Especially not when they were already tapped from the hours of jazzercise-level dancing they’d done.

She walked to the end of the hall and looked at the large, clear, observation deck in front of her. It was made purely from strengthened plastiglass like a square-edged bubble she could stand in. It was too tempting to miss.

With a happy grin, she slipped her shoes off and pressed her palms against the walls as she stepped carefully onto the deck.

Even with the sensation of glass beneath her feet and against her hands, she felt like she might float away. She drew a deep breath and felt slightly off balance for a moment as she stood there. With the entrance behind her, it was almost like she drifted through space.

Stephanie pressed her palms more firmly against the glass and rested her forehead on it carefully as she stared at the earth. At first glance, it looked like a huge ball of water, shimmering in the sun. She couldn’t see it moving, even though she knew it spun constantly on its axis as it hurtled around the sun. Knowing how it did that always baffled her.

The Space Station itself orbited the Earth and gave her a once in a lifetime view of the big blue orb she knew to be home to some of the most fragile yet intellectually advanced creatures in the known universe. For that reason alone, she felt ashamed.

She belonged to a species that had exploited its very home to the point of devastation, and all for what? Money and the greed of an elite few. And even those few had the gall to complain when the climate crash came and destruction followed.

As she continued to admire the glistening planet below, a tear came to her eye. She traced her hand over the glass above the scorched brown parts of Earth.

Some of the view was obscured by soft, roiling masses of cloud that gave no indication of wrathful forces at play below. She’d known it was bad, but to actually see the extent of the damage from up there stirred a deep regret.

Another tear escaped to trickle down her cheek, parallel to the first. How could they? How could anyone do that much damage and think the planet would merely shake it off? She stared at it and realized it was a wonder the world hadn’t shaken them off. Maybe it would have been better if it had.

She stood there in silence and admired the striking emeralds and blues from the many beautiful parts of Earth but also mourned the many parts that were scorched and barren and too obscured by cloud to see. Those damaged areas were referred to as the Devil’s Handprints.

They were places covered in ash and dust and toxic mud, scorched by the merciless rays that penetrated the Swiss-cheese ozone layer. Many of them were smothered by thick smog and experienced notorious weather anomalies during which the sun blazed for days at a time. They were so damaged, some said they’d been touched by the devil himself.

In reality, Earth had become a volatile environment, a dangerous place for its current inhabitants. It was a change brought about not by planetary evolution but by the dominant species that relied on it for its very survival

As Elpis One’s orbit took it over North America, Stephanie squatted and ran her finger over the continent’s familiar outline until she found the singed black spot she called home. While on the ground, much of it was extremely toxic, ruined, and hostile to human life, from the space station, it looked as beautiful as anywhere else on Earth.

She stayed like that, oblivious to the corridor behind her, and watched the earth rotate beneath her. Finally, she had her fill of its damaged beauty and rose to her feet.

But as she stepped out of the small glass viewing area and slipped her shoes on, something stirred within her. With Earth to inspire her, she felt a determination to learn how to be better, to make herself stronger, and maybe to find a way to make amends for the generations past. With that in mind, she made her way to the team’s pod room and slipped inside.

The white room remained unchanged, almost comforting in its familiarity. Strange as it was, she began to feel more at home in this part of the Virtual World than she did in the real. The most likely reason was because it was always there. The white room always remained the same as it was before and was always safe. Well, that might not be true for her but safer, at least.

Nothing was completely safe for her anymore, not with her magic so erratic at present. That, she decided, would change.

Stephanie paced for a moment and thought hard about what needed to happen. She sat one of the benches and nibbled her fingernails. “Burt, are you up there? Or in there? Or wherever you tend to be?”

Burt cleared his throat as if he were human. “I am here, Stephanie. I wasn’t expecting you until training was re-authorized. Is everything okay?”

She nodded, still chewing her nails as the wheels in her head spun crazily. “Yeah. I have some ideas I want to run through. I thought about a few things and I couldn’t put them down. You know how that is. Or maybe you don’t. I don’t know.”

BURT struggled to understand what she was trying to say. There was no system translation for angsty, nervous teen. “Okay… Can you at least tell me what it is you think you’ll test?”

Stephanie stood and walked around the room. “Have you been able to determine what happens if I have gMU in massive quantities? And not only like what happened during training but basically what happens if I’m unleashed like that in the real world?”

Beyond the unwinnable scenario, he really had nothing to work with in order to examine that kind of hypothesis. “Unlimited power?”

“Yes.” She nodded.

BURT paused for a moment and realized that he merely needed to let her try to describe what she wanted to investigate. It was clear she had some idea in her head and she wouldn’t let it go.

“Those calculations are not yet complete,” he told her, temporizing. “However, I can provide a representation of such power and we can explore the potential outcomes. What is it you wish to test your power on? I wouldn’t recommend going free-form on other beings. It might make your control less effective when fighting on Earth.”

Stephanie shook her head. “Oh, no. No, I don’t want to hurt anyone. Basically, to put it bluntly, I want to re-sculpt the world.”

Burt remained silent for several moments. She was nervous as she waited for his response, not at all sure how he would take it. When no comment was forthcoming, she tried to explain and to help him decide.

“You see, I have obviously always known about the damage that Earth has taken from both manmade disasters and the storms and weather anomalies that came about due to runaway global warming. But I never thought about how bad it really was until I saw it from up here. I want to fix it.”

“I think that is a fantastic idea,” he replied.

She smiled and suddenly, the room swirled away and deposited her on Earth. A little startled, she looked around to see where’d she’d landed and gaped at the completely decimated scene.

The sight of a small teddy bear, burnt and all but destroyed, made her gasp, and she put her hands over her mouth. The area had obviously been through some kind of terrible cataclysmic event, but she wasn’t completely sure what it was yet.

BURT could tell she was shocked and a little lost, and because her idea was far beyond what he’d hoped for, he decided to help her. She jumped when he spoke. “You must first know what ails the patient before you know how to fix it.”

Stephanie nodded and plodded silently along what had once been an old suburban street. The road, although broken and shattered, was still there, but the houses were piles of rubble protruding from the rotting carcasses of trees.

Debris was strewn in all directions, and every shred of vegetation was dead, dying, or in a state of decay. She turned the corner, stopped, and tilted her head to read the twisted remains of a sign a few hundred yards away.

It leaned to the side, part of it broken off. As she approached, she shook her head in disbelief at where he had brought her.

“Browns Ferry,” she whispered. “Alabama’s power plant location. It was the second largest in the US until it had a nuclear meltdown due to an extreme weather event coupled with an earthquake that caused a catastrophic breakdown in its cooling systems. It was a disaster, a pure hell on Earth. Everyone across the country had to take precautions and that was when the huge environmental bill was drawn.”

“Exactly,” Burt replied. “But it did little good since they waited until they were literally up to their eyeballs in flooding on the coasts, and up to their headstones in radiation in Alabama and across the neighboring states.”

Stephanie rubbed her arms. The silent eerie calmness around her seemed thick enough to touch. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and looked up. “All right, I need the knowledge of what’s wrong here so I can fix it. it to me. Give me what I neee...eeddd…”

Her legs wobbled and she put her hand out to grab onto something to keep herself upright as Burt uploaded the information to her system. There was so much, she could almost feel the data pulsing through her brain to ignite the sparks that would help her create a plan.

With a tight hold on to the twisted uprights of the sign, she did her best to regain her balance and pull herself upright. She damn near fainted and she wasn’t even sure that was possible in the Virtual World. Still, she decided if she could die, she could faint.

She shook her head as the magic settled. “Oh, that hurt like a sonofabitch. What the…is that…the full rundown of sustainable radioactive cleanup?”

“And some knowledge on what radioactivity truly does to a human,” he replied proudly.

Stephanie chuckled. “Well, it all makes better sense why even decades after the radioactive meltdown, the people haven’t come back. I can almost feel the gamma rays surging through the air. I guess that solves my issue of needing to know what levels the radiation is at. It’s also handy since it seems like I don’t need any protective clothing right now.”

“We’re also taking this scenario as a chance to see what your physical reaction to radioactivity is,” he explained. Your avatar will react as your body would, although the sensors indicate that the gMU blocks any harmful rays.”

“That’s interesting,” she agreed and clapped briskly.

She took a deep breath and rubbed her palms together. “All right. Well, let’s get to this. Cleaning up a spill this big would usually take a lot of people—like Chernobyl when over two hundred thousand emergency and recovery workers were sent in to do the job. What I need to do is recognize which tasks need doing and in what order. Then, I need to twist my magic to do what would normally be done using men and machines, only much, much faster.”

Stephanie scrutinized the area and her attention settled on the putrid valley that had once been a river and one of the largest reservoirs in the area. Water still pooled in some sections of it, but it was muddy and yellow and the mud on its banks was full of half-rotted debris.

Beyond the dead vegetation on the riverbank, she saw what had once been the containment wall for pools of water surrounding the plant. They’d been cracked wide, the buildings beyond them little more than piles of rubble in a small lake of still water.

gMU hummed over her skin to create a faintly visible silver glow as if the magic actively fought the radiation.

Good, she thought, glad to be protected while she turned her mind with its sudden burden of information to the problem of making the area livable again—even if it was only for plants.

“So,” she began, thinking out loud rather than speaking to Burt, “what I need to do is stabilize the reactors and make sure the rods are cool.”

She looked at what was left of the power plant and studied its fractured walls and the surrounding pool of water.

“I would assume that’s done. The next thing is to remove the contaminated topsoil, the debris, and the plant material.”

This time, she stopped and stared at the devastation around her.

“Somehow, I think I’m gonna have to move more than the two inches or so of topsoil they took out for Fukushima...and that’s not gonna happen. What if I use gMU to transfer the ions and...” She let her voice fade and frowned slightly. “Burt, I need— Hold on. Let me try something.”

BURT watched her pace and make calculations in her head. When she stopped, he waited to see what she would do next.

Stephanie rubbed her hands together and a smirk played along her avatar’s lips. She put both arms out to the side and let small orbs of light escape from her palms. They raced away and searched for the edge of the most dangerous areas of radiation.

With her connection to them, she knew when the orbs reached the limits of her ability to interact with them. There was still more radiation beyond, but they stopped and traced a boundary around the area. That done, they spun faster and faster until they became connected in one ever-revolving circle.

She breathed deeply, lowered her arms, and shook her hands out. Her focus intense, she crossed them in front of her at the wrists and closed her eyes as she pulled and pushed the gMU where she needed it to go. With a sudden shift, she swung her arms out wide before she slapped her palms together.

Bursts of streaming energy exploded from both sides of her body. They rocketed toward the circled limitation of destruction and elevated to create a dome of magical protection.

Stephanie opened one eye and glanced cautiously in all directions. “That will do.”

“Wow,” Burt muttered.

She pushed her sleeves up, put her hands in front of her with her palms together, and scrutinized the location. From where she stood, she could see the edge of the dome in the distance and turned slowly to study the entire thing.

Moving her feet lightly over the ground, she swung her hands to release the energy in different ways. Some danced high into the sky and spun and whirled to collect any radioactive particles that had escaped into the atmosphere.

The second energy release feathered out and rippled over the ground to gather any debris into neat piles. A swarm of airborne gMU swept in behind it to capture any particles kicked up. As it worked, she extended her hand and faced her palm up to release another surge of magic.

This resembled a thousand droplets of honey clinging together. The whole blob oozed stickily upward to hover in front of her.

“Find the water,” she told it, and the blob separated into an army of glistening gMU particles that headed purposefully toward what was left of the reservoir and the reactor’s cooling ponds.

Stephanie kept one hand extended in the direction the globules had gone while she knelt and pressed her other palm to the ground. With her eyes shut tightly, she drew more gMU and pushed it into the earth until the ground glowed from one side of the magical dome to the other.

That accomplished, she stood and raised her hand as if she were controlling a marionette. The energy elevated from the earth and hovered barely inches above the ground.

She drew that hand close to her chest, curled her fingers, and wiggled them at the soil. The energy coating there morphed to create thousands of small rods that punctured the earth and stuck, where they vibrated as if they were sucking on the soil itself.

They grew bigger and bigger as they filled with radioactive particles. In the meantime, the magic gathering airborne particles now resembled a cloud of small comets, each with a tail of radioactive debris.

The debris and dead plant material stood stacked in neat piles under a cloak of flickering gMU. The earth lay bare around each pile, now veiled as more gMU tried to decontaminate it. As she watched, the rods drawing the radioactivity from the soil reached two feet in length and turned a dull gray as they fell in neat rows.

The comets of gMU with their tails of debris settled over them and they melded into one another before they rolled together to form solid cubes of radioactive waste. She frowned. “That’s not quite what I wanted.”

BURT took a moment to consider what she’d done. “You expected to do more?”

“Yes.” Stephanie turned in a slow circle and surveyed the area. The outline of the plant’s collapsed chimney caught her eye. “I wanted to make this place habitable, again. I wanted—”

She glared at the neat stacks, approached one, and noticed how the gMU protecting her flared into brightness as the radioactivity increased. “How do I get rid of all this?”

“There were ways,” he told her. “Humans recognized the necessity of disposing of this kind of waste. They still had not perfected one before disaster struck, but...”

Once again, she felt the impact of a rush of incoming data. This time, she reached out instinctively and laid a hand on one of the cubes for support.

“Ow!” She stumbled back and rubbed her hand against her thigh. “That smarts.”

With a scowl, she raised her hand so she could inspect her stinging palm and an ugly red burn where she’d touched the pile.

“It appears the gMU has its limits,” Burt observed. “Proximity and concentration play a role in how effectively it protects you.”

“Noted,” she responded, her voice dry.

Stephanie stared into the distance and struggled to decide which method she would try next. She could attempt to transmute the waste at the molecular level. There’d been several methods where ions had been swapped and the waste had been transformed into a less dangerous form.

There was also one where extreme heat had been applied and dangerous radioactive waste had been burned in another kind of nuclear reactor, but even that had only changed the waste into another form with a less long-lived type of radiation. What she wanted to do was get rid of the radioactivity completely.

Can the gMU be used to restructure the material into something that isn’t radioactive? Maybe even something useful? Like... She thought about it. Like new topsoil, maybe?

“Burt, what kind of molecules are found in dirt that’s good for farming?”

He sent her the data, and Stephanie studied it quietly for a moment.

“And what’s the molecular structure of these?” she asked and gestured at the stacks around her.

Burt scanned the piles and sent her the information. Stephanie gave a soft whistle. “Well, here goes nothing.”

She focused on the gMU and drew more in, then worked it through the vortex she’d built inside her. As she concentrated it into the strongest form she’d attempted thus far, she thought about the piles of debris and waste around her.

“This has to work,” she murmured as she thought of the molecular structure she had and the one she wanted to create. It wasn’t as simple as she’d first thought. Even using magic, she first had to split the heavy, radioactive atoms and recombine the protons, neurons, and electrons into the lighter atoms she needed. That was the only way to create carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms that could be recombined into the various organic matter found in topsoil. She would definitely need to pull and compress a significant amount of gMU to accomplish it.

When she thought the gMU was concentrated enough to make the conversion, she raised her hands and turned to face the nearest pile of debris. As she directed the magic into it in a single silver stream, she thought about the way the molecules had to shift and change and willed the magic to make it happen.

She continued to pour the gMU into the stack until the orderly pile crumbled into a mound of dirt...and dirt that smelt better than the world around her. “Yes! Look, Burt. Look!”

Her delight made him laugh, but he tried not to let any of that humor show when he spoke. “And the rest?”

“Easy!” she exclaimed and channeled the energy over the remaining piles.

At first, it was as easy as she thought it would be, but suddenly, it wasn’t. The magic faltered as it curled over the last pile and she realized she’d focused so hard on sending it out that she hadn’t remembered to draw more in.

It didn’t take her long to fix that particular error.

“Nice!” he said, but she didn’t hear him.

With the last stack of debris now transformed into a nice big pile of dirt, her gaze had drifted to the collapsed chimney.

“You know what the ultimate test would be?” she asked.

“I dread to think,” BURT replied. He followed the direction of her eyes and calculated the odds of whether she’d go there next.

Sure, enough, she didn’t disappoint.

“Can you put me in the reactor room?” she asked. “Somewhere near the rods but not on them?”

Ah, so she’d remembered the burn.

“I can do that,” he told her, and in spite of his better judgment, changed the scenery.

His misgivings were well-founded when with a single shriek of pain, her avatar crumbled. Apparently, the gMU couldn’t protect against that level of radiation. He ended the scenario and brought her avatar back to stand amidst the piles of dirt.

“Ugh. Let’s not do that, again,” Stephanie told him. “Now I know what a piece of burnt toast feels like. Worse, even.”

Burt chuckled. “Well, now we know there’s a limit to the background radiation the gMU can protect you from.”

“Yeah. Thanks for that, Burt. I hadn’t noticed.”

“Really?” He injected surprise into his tones and then tried to sound serious as he suggested, “Would you like to go back and try again?”

“Oh, hell, no! What I want to do is figure out what else I can do while I think about how to deal with the rods.”

“Okay. And your next idea is?”

“You remember that data you sent me about phytoremediation?”

“Yee-ees,” he replied and wondered why she hadn’t made the connection before.

“Well, since I don’t have the energy to make another three hundred tons of dirt, I might as well see what I can do with the dirt I have. First, I need to spread it out.”

BURT watched, intrigued, as she directed gMU magic to spread the dirt evenly over the area she’d taken the radiation from. “What sort of plants do you require?”

She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head.

“Oh, I don’t know. You’re the one who gave me the list. Do you really want me to repeat it all back to you?”

He sighed. “When did you get so sarcastic?”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Blame the boys. Now, hit me with the greenery.”

Seconds later, she was not so impressed. “Are you done, yet?”

BURT dumped another layer of plant life over her avatar and watched as she collapsed under the weight. She said nothing when she struggled free of it and merely glowered as she spread the plants over the surrounding landscape.

When she was done, she sank to her knees and pressed a hand to the ground.

“So?” she asked and fatigue threaded her voice. “How did we do?”

He checked the system. “Within the dome, you’ve reduced the contamination by almost seventy percent.”

“Seventy percent.” Stephanie didn’t sound impressed. She raised her head and surveyed the land around her. It did look better, but it was a long way from done. She took a deep breath and drew in a little more gMU, but then she stopped. “I can’t do anymore today.”

She sounded so utterly defeated that he wanted to comfort her, but before he could, she continued. “That’s not bad. How much of the earth’s surface did I cover?”

He pulled the Virtual World back to give her the view from space. Her eyes shifted feverishly and a small frown creased her forehead. “I don’t see it. Did you get the projection wrong?”

A tiny light flickered on the planet and she blinked and stared at it. “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” he replied. “It’s about a square kilometer of surface area.”

Stephanie rubbed her aching shoulders, starting to feel the strain of using that much magic. “Well, at this rate, it will take…ohhhh…only a million lifetimes or so.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Stephanie whistled to herself, her mind on what she’d done in the pod as she packed her suitcase. She ran through different scenarios she could try in order to magnify the effect.

Her aim was to create a livable Earth again but at her current pace, the sun would swallow the planet before she could finish. A knock on the door drew her attention and she packed the pair of pants she held before she answered. Lars stood on the other side and leaned nonchalantly against the doorframe.

He flashed her a handsome smile and caught her off guard. Not because he smiled but because she actually, for a split second, considered it a handsome one.

“Hey,” he said and peeked into her room. “Are you about packed up?”

She looked back. “Yeah. I’m getting the last things folded, and then I only have my grooming supplies.”

Lars chuckled. “Grooming supplies? Are you hiding a horse in there I don’t know about?”

Stephanie joined his laughter, then he straightened and tapped the doorframe. “I wanted to let you know we have an hour before we leave.”

She nodded and glanced at the numbers floating on the wall. There were three columns of digits on the far wall, all keeping her informed of the time in every sector of Earth, Meligorn, and Dreth. The one lit up green was the one they went by. “Okay, I’ll be ready. I’m gonna call my mom quickly.”

He smiled again. “Tell her I said hi.”

Stephanie laughed softly and gave him the hand sign for okay before she closed the door. She stood there for a moment, frowning slightly, then shrugged and crossed to the small desk in her room. “AI, can you please get my mom on the line?”

“Calling her now,” the AI responded.

Quicker than she expected, Cindy’s holographic image popped up over the small silver box on the desk. “Hey, sweetie!”

“Hey, Mom!” She was excited to see her and hear her voice again. “How are you doing?”

“I’m good—cleaning up around the house,” her mom replied. “Your father went to meet with a vendor for the supplies we need to reorder.”

“Aw, I was hoping to say hi.” She sighed. “And didn’t you just restock?”

Cindy smirked. “We did, but to start the contract job we just signed—thanks to you—we’ll need more.”

She gasped and clapped. “Yay! Congrats.”

“Thank you, and congrats to you too on those stellar selling abilities,” her mom replied. “We happen to have this investor…” She cleared her throat and winked. “We’re using some of that money to hire more people and get a second level of operational support.”

“Look at you guys, getting all crazy big.” She laughed and glanced at the door as a knock caught her attention. “Ugh, I’m sorry, Mom. We’re getting ready to go so we have a million things to do.”

“No problem,” Cindy said and waved cheerfully. “I completely understand. Go, do what you need to do, have a safe trip, and call us from Meligorn.”

Stephanie smiled warmly. “I will. I love you. And please tell Dad I love him too.”

“Always,” her mother replied with her signature warm, caring smile. “Kisses.”

They hung up and she sighed as she strode over and jerked the door open with one hand. Elizabeth stood outside, looking at her phone. “Oh, hey, sorry to interrupt. I heard your mom so I waited.”

She waved her mentor inside. “What’s up? Are you taking the long trip in a business suit? That’s hardcore.”

Ms. E looked at her black calf-length dress and black dress jacket. “Oh, no. Actually, that’s why I am here. Unfortunately, I have to stay behind and protect your back, so you’ll go to Meligorn with only your team.”

Stephanie bit the inside of her lip, slightly shocked by the news. “Oh... Okay. Whatever you need to do.”

She wrestled with an odd sense of despondency. Up until that moment, she hadn’t realized how comfortable she felt having Elizabeth around. She’d been a lot happier knowing she would go with them, and her disappointment must have shown.

From the look on the woman’s face, her reaction came as something of a surprise to her as well. She didn’t follow it up, though.

Instead, she glossed over it. “You guys went out to the bar the other night and came back in one solid piece—and thankfully, without mug shots trailing behind you. So why not another planet? Right?”

Stephanie’s eyes took on a distant look as she remembered that night. There’d definitely been a considerable volume of booze, an equal amount of laughter, and in the end, several punches thrown before the team snuck out of the bar brawl Frog had started with another guy who, in all fairness, had been a right bastard. She looked at Elizabeth who watched her with humor in her eyes.

She tried hard to get rid of the idea that the woman knew exactly what had gone down, swallowed quickly, and nodded. “Oh, yeah. Right. We got back safely. Um, sure, that’s fine. What could possibly go wrong?”

Ms. E grinned and patted her on the arm. “Good. You’ll do great and you’ll be back before you know it. Now, I have some meetings to get to. If I don’t see you before you leave, buckle up, make sure you get enough sleep, don’t start fights, and don’t blow the royals up.”

The girl laughed nervously as her mentor left and watched the woman answer her phone as she walked out of sight. As soon as she’d gone, she shut the door and ran to retrieve her hand-held comm. “Are you guys there?”

She was slightly panicked. Okay, she was freaking the hell out. Johnny came on. “We’re here, big chief. What’s up? Do you need Frog to come get your luggage?”

The other man groaned in the background. “Why am I always the bell boy?”

Stephanie shook her head and flapped her hand at the same time. “No. I got it. I wanted to know if we had everything. You know…do we have the armor, the MU stones, the backup batteries, the stuff from the armory, the—”

In the other room, the guys gathered around the comms when they heard the panic in her tone. Lars cleared his throat to interrupt her. “Whoa! Hold up there, Quality Control. Relax. Take a really big breath. The supplies have been checked, double checked, and then triple checked. Then, Brenden watched them loaded for the trip.”

She instantly felt a little bit calmer. “Okay. Thanks. I thought I would ask because if I didn’t, it would be my fault if we arrived there empty-handed.”

Johnny chuckled gently. “It’s all accounted for, boss lady. All we’re missing at this point is you.”

Stephanie looked around. “Oh yeah. Okay, be there in…uh…ten minutes.”

She ended the call and shoved the comm unit in her bag before she rushed into the shower and yanked her bathroom bag off the counter.

Using her arm to swipe all her stuff into the bag in one sweep, she set it back on the counter as she double checked the drawers and the bathroom. When she was sure she’d left nothing behind, she picked it up and shoved it in her suitcase.

With two hands, she slammed it shut and leaned on it with her elbow to get it closed. She put her thumb on the front mechanism and it flashed blue and then green to confirm that it was locked.

Once she’d put her bags at the door, she walked over to the tablet on the desk. She swiped right and pulled up Todd’s email, even though she knew he couldn’t check it yet.

It didn’t matter. She decided she’d leave him a little message before she left. A holographic microphone rose from the screen and she cleared her throat and leaned forward to speak into it as a small animated camera hovered in front of her to record the video.

“I always hated these things.” She laughed. “Todd, I’m getting ready to set off on my own adventure. I wish I could tell you what, but it’s kind of hush-hush at the moment. From the background, though, I assume you can tell I’m not at home. Anyway, I wanted to check in, tell you I am thinking about you and I hope you’re kicking alien butt, and hopefully, by the time I’m back on Earth, you’ll be out of boot camp. Love you, dude.”

She raised her fist and stood there for a moment, then glanced from the camera to her fist and back again. She pointed at it and smiled. “Did you catch that? Jud Nelson? Breakfast Club? Yeah…probably not. Bye, dude.”

Stephanie ended the message and sent it, laughing at herself as she shoved the tablet in her shoulder bag. She drew her information slip from her pocket and made sure she was headed to the right place. “Deck 9, Meligorn Dreamer, departing Elpis One 09:47 E1T,” she read aloud.

After she’d repeated it, she took a deep breath and shoved the slip back into her pocket. She had reached the door when she remembered she was supposed to board the liner incognito.

With a scowl of irritation, she summoned her magic to give herself long red hair, green eyes, and honey-colored skin. After a careful examination of herself in the mirror beside the door, she asked the magic to make her look a good two inches taller and ten pounds heavier than she really was, and to make her look as old as thirty.

When she was satisfied that not even her mother would recognize her, she stepped through the door and drew it closed behind her.

“Now to find the boarding area,” she muttered. “All by myself. Because now, we’re on our own.”

Witch Of The Federation

The boys were way ahead of her and taking their gear down to the cargo area, and they bitched every step of the way.

“Ouch,” Brenden protested. “Don’t push so damn hard. If you give me a shoe wedgie with that bitch, you’ll rip my whole foot off.”

Frog looked at him from behind the wheeled pallet. “Sorry, but it’s hard to see through the giant pallet of shit you made me push. I know I was the last to join the team—by ten minutes, I might add—but that was a long time ago. Can we please either make me an equal or hire some newbie I can hand over to?”

Marcus laughed. He carried two duffels with ease. “There’s no room for more, dude. You’ll have to suffer through it for another round. Don’t worry, it makes you stronger.”

Frog groaned as they made their way across the dock with the last of the equipment. They’d told Stephanie it was all already locked away but had decided a little white lie wouldn’t hurt when they heard how panicked she was. Not only did they not want her to freak out, but they also did not want a surprise appearance of Morgana.

The guard at the entrance to the umbilical leading to the hold put his hand up and flipped through his tablet when Lars showed him their badge. He glanced at it and back at him before he stepped to the side. “Lower Deck Twenty-four, Compartments nine-three-two and nine-three-three. Use your palm print to secure them. If you have any problems, use the comm center in your rooms to call the concierge. If you can’t get in, drop past security over there.”

Lars looked in the direction he’d indicated as he tucked his badge away. He nodded once he’d located the relevant area. “Thank you.”

The team lugged everything down to their assigned storage, packed it away, and secured it for the journey. They didn’t put a single thing in the second compartment but had rented it in case. Marcus shook his head as Lars pressed his palm to the pad. “What good is the equipment down in the hold?”

The guys turned and looked at him, and Lars sighed. “You aren’t suggesting we’ll need it on the voyage out, are you?”

The other man stared in return and gestured at the upper decks. “I’m only saying it’s no good down here if we’re attacked by pirates up there.”

Lars rolled his eyes. “We have permission for our personal sidearms as security escorts, but that’s it.” He narrowed his eyes. “Of course, if you don’t think you’re man enough to handle a pleasure cruise without anything extra...”

Frog snorted, and Marcus shook his head. “No, I’m good. I’m man enough to deal with anything without my sidearm...unlike the rest of you pussies.”

The team leader gave him a look that said he might consider making him prove it, but the final boarding call came through and he led them back to the boarding lounge.

They checked in under their cover names. Frog was last to come up, tipped an invisible hat, and put on a passable Irish accent. “Shamus McGee,” he told the attendant and showed her his boarding pass.

She didn’t even blink, found his name, took his fingerprint, and handing him a map of the ship. He turned away with a sigh and rolled his eyes at her lack of reaction to his obviously impressive Irish name.

The guys laughed at him as they walked through the entryway toward the ship’s foyer where a fountain sprayed multi-colored arcs of virtual water that looked almost real. Lars looked around and saw they’d caught the attention of a female passenger headed in the same direction.

He smiled at her and nodded politely before he turned back to the team. She nodded in response and her lips curved into a small smile as she studied her ticket and scanned reception for the right elevator.

After he’d taken a minute to admire the tall, leggy redhead, Marcus leaned over and whispered to Lars, “I thought Steph—I’m sorry, Lilly was supposed to meet us here. You don’t think the nerves got to her and turned her into Morgana, do you?”

He looked around again but saw no one who might be Stephanie in disguise. His scrutiny dismissed the woman who stared at the same bank of elevators they needed.

His voice lowered to a sotto voce whisper, he added, “Maybe we should look for her and make sure she’s not doing something desperate like holding hostages in the boarding area or looking for some Dreth to kill.”

The woman hid a smirk and turned toward them. “If I were her,” she told them seriously, “I’d come in here to Hulk out. And maybe bash a couple of you knuckleheads together for talking about her that way.”

Lars caught on first and covered a laugh, but the other man looked suspiciously at her. Stephanie ducked in close and put her hand up to hide her face from people passing by. For a brief moment, she assumed her own face and quickly returned to her disguise.

Marcus jumped slightly. “Whoa. Either you’re her or we have a really big problem.”

She laughed and her long ginger hair cascaded over her shoulders. “It’s me, you dummy. I didn’t want to give anyone a chance to recognize me. This place is huge. There are way too many people here.”

He made another furtive scrutiny and this time, took note of the open floors layered above them. They stood close to the fountain in the center of an open atrium surrounded by what looked like thousands of people who milled aimlessly about.

Stephanie shook her head. “I didn’t think for a second that this place was so monstrous.”

Lars grinned. “Come on. Me, Frog, and Johnny have been on one before, and we studied the schematics for this one. We’ll show you around.”

“Mostly to make sure you know where not to blow shit up,” Frog interjected. “You know, so we don’t get sucked into the cold dark depths of space.”

Johnny elbowed him. “You have no chill, do you? No chill at all.”

He shrugged and hurried behind them. “What? I’m being for real here. Under the circumstances, I would say I have every right to feel that way.”

“No offense taken, Froggy.” She laughed and turned to squeeze his cheek.

When she’d let go and turned away, he rubbed his face. “She really freaks me out with a new body and everything. Her attitude’s the same, though.”

They all laughed as they wandered across the atrium and into the elevator. It was glass fronted, so Lars pointed out all the cool things he’d noticed about the ship. Frog followed up with safety advice.

The team leader pointed down a level. “And there’s the richie shopping mall with loads of designer boutiques for clothing and jewelry and stuff. I’m not sure I understand why’d they want to shop before they get to Meligorn, but whatever, right?”

They left the elevator and followed the corridor away from the center of the ship. When they reached the last T-intersection, Frog grabbed her arm and almost dragged her over to the wall opposite.

“See this?” he demanded, tapped it with the tip of his index finger, and made sure she was paying attention. “This section of wall is very thin. This goes to the outside in about twenty feet. We want no unnecessary explosions close to this wall.”

A woman walking past them gasped, put her hand to her chest, and stared at them with wide eyes as she hurried away. Stephanie rolled her eyes as the passenger scuttled off.

With any luck, that was someone who thought they were a bunch of hooligans making really terrible jokes at an inappropriate time. If she didn’t, they could expect a visit from ship security very soon.

She glared at Frog. “Are you done telling me stuff I already know?”

Witch Of The Federation

Over on Star Base Notaro, Captain Asparos stared out the viewing port at Elpis One. His mind drifted from the job at hand to the memory of seeing the command center of a Federation cruiser blown clean away.

It was hard to focus on what he needed to do next when he could still see the bodies they’d salvaged. He closed his eyes and rubbed his hand over them as he tried to will the images away.

It was a relief when a soft chime caught his attention. He stepped up to a console and typed quickly to bring up a screen that displayed the luxury liner known as the Meligorn Dreamer.

A brief message flashed across it.

Special people boarding…

The captain nodded and murmured to himself. “Got you.”

He shut the system down and pulled out a rather archaic-looking contraption. It was a coder, old but a more modern variant of something used throughout most of Earth’s history.

Seated at the desk, the captain plugged the device in, drew a carefully folded piece of paper from his pocket, and waited to send his reply. When the machine was ready, he tapped the sender three times before beginning.

It took him a moment to run his finger down the code words on the sheet as he tapped them out. James sends his regards. You owe him drinks when you get back from your trip. STOP.

Witch Of The Federation

When they reached their rooms aboard the Meligorn Dreamer, Stephanie immediately wandered to the balcony. She stared at the atrium beyond and tried to take it all in. It took her a moment to realize that what she’d thought was completely empty space was actually not that at all.

Every few floors, there was a magnetic floating floor, clear so it could be seen through, which gave an open feeling to the enclosed space. These floors also created a place for people to socialize under the everchanging colors of the artificial lights.

Holographic images of fields and forests graced the walls of each level to enhance the impression of openness.

Lars came to stand beside her and leaned his elbows on the rail as he followed her gaze. “They’re creating an impression of the real world using Virtual World technology. They added it when they found that many passengers, especially the Dreth and Meligorn, became claustrophobic on the longer cruises. From the balconies, you can see all the way down if you want to, but you can also change it so you can look out at whatever world your floor is programmed to show. It’s very cool.”

Stephanie laughed. “You say that like it’s not a total security nightmare.”

He stared out across the level. “Yeah, well, that’s because I can see what’s really there. Even on this level, we’re three floors up, and I have it set so I can monitor everything I need to see.”

She smiled. “It’s good to know someone’s on the job.”

Lars had nothing to say to that, and as his gaze roved over the balconies opposite, he noted there was no walkway linking them together. Beside him, Stephanie was silent, still amazed by the technology the world outside the Gov-Subs had become accustomed to.

All around her were things she hadn’t even known existed. It almost made her mad to see the difference between how people in the Subs lived compared to the wealth around her. She frowned, distracted by the sound of giggling coming from the floating floor two levels beneath them.

Irritated, she leaned over the balcony as several families began to enjoy some time out in the simulated parkland, oblivious to the drop below them.

The kids really struck her, especially the little girl with her bouncing blonde curls and innocent smile. Stephanie watched as she played with her brother, laughing like she didn’t have a care in the world…not a single one.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Power thrummed through the Meligorn Dreamer as it warmed its engines. Warning klaxons blared a demand that the flight lounge inside the station be cleared before the umbilical was released and retracted into the station. At the same time, the cargo entry to the dock was sealed.

While the procedure usually ran trouble-free, nothing was left to chance. Accidents were rare, but in space, the consequences of a failed seal could be catastrophic. Lights flashed amber, and entrances into both the cargo and boarding areas were locked down.

Only when the station was sealed did the Dreamer use small auxiliary jets to push it carefully away from the station. Once it had reached the required distance, it engaged the larger drives and moved steadily into space.

Witch Of The Federation

On the viewscreen that displayed the scenery outside the ship, the passengers might have seen the rings of Saturn flash by, but only if they’d actually paid attention. The ship now moved faster than any human ship before contact with Meligorn.

The technology of interstellar flight improved by leaps and bounds and slow, small, heavy ships became things of the past.

The Meligorn Dreamer—mostly referred to as the Dreamer—was fitted with the latest advances in interstellar flight technology. It cruised rapidly through the Limitation Zone toward its transition point.

Limitation Zones were the areas around planets and other orbiting bodies where ships were prohibited from entering or exiting transition space. In these zones, they had to maintain a specific speed and be aware of passing vessels.

Once it had passed through this, the Dreamer would set course for the Transition Zone, where it would make its jump into the dark expanse of transition space to reach the Meligorn system.

The journey from the Limitation Zone to the Transition Zone would take a week, and that was only the beginning.

Witch Of The Federation

Inside the ship, time seemed to pass as normal. Stephanie decided to spend what time she could inside the Virtual World to work on her energy acquisition.

She’d had nothing specific planned, so Burt had left her to her own devices. Initially, she’d planned to work in the team’s training space with gMU but that had seemed like too big a risk to take.

If something went wrong, she’d have a hard time fixing what she broke—and there were too many lives at stake for her to let that happen. It was safest to stay within the confines of the Virtual World for that kind of practice.

As she entered, she rubbed her hands together, the gesture pointless in her self-contained space suit. She left the white preparation room and stood on a clear platform which seemed to float effortlessly through the stars.

It was a location that gave her the best environment for concentrating and working on her skills. Not to mention that, for all intents and purposes, it made sense that she would have the best access to gMU in space.

Of course, standing on an open platform in the void of space wasn’t something she could do in the real universe, but BURT put all the parameters required in place and left her to it.

Through the clear faceplate of her helmet, she looked down at her suit with its built-in boots and gloves. The days of bulky spacewalks were also a thing of the past, but she couldn’t quite determine why they would make the woman’s suit as tight as a second skin.

She shrugged and grumbled quietly, “So much for the surge of equality when it comes to comfortable dang clothes for women. I’ll be picking this out of my—”

BURT cleared his throat. “How is it going?”

Stephanie glanced around and half-expected to see him float by, riding a meteor or something. “I’m only getting started.”

“Good. And I will submit your space suit feedback anonymously to the engineers in wardrobe,” he replied.

She blushed slightly and went back to work, breathing deeply through her nose as she spread her arms wide to draw in the gMU all around her.

As she did so, she focused on the vortex she’d created inside her and spun the energy until she had refined it into a more compressed product. The magic swirled and knotted within, sparkled through her body, and made her glow.

To an outside observer, she looked like a young dancing star drawing in a line of light in the shifting and often violent expanse of space. After a few moments, the energy had spun through its final turn and settled in a concentrated ball in the pit of her stomach. She wasted no time in repeating the process with a second batch of gMU in an effort to see how quickly and thoroughly she could convert the energy into usable magic.

The more she had in reserve, the better off she would be in a battle since a little condensed gMU went a long way or created one really devastating explosion. Sweat beaded on her forehead and her suit began to use the wicking to pull the moisture away from her skin to cool her down to her original temperature.

By the time the vault inside her was half full, she was exhausted. She let her arms fall to her sides and realized she was breathing heavily. Conscious of the need to pace herself, she dropped onto the center of the disc beneath her, sat cross-legged, and stared at her gloved hands while she tried to calm the rapid race of her heart.

She caught a small flash from the corner of her eye and looked up slowly with a small gasp at the wondrous sight before her.

Close enough that she could see the spiraling clouds of gases that erupted and pushed back against the weightlessness of space was a large nebula of stars. For only a moment, she sat and absorbed the beauty in the universe around her. It made her feel absolutely tiny, while at the same time, it seemed as if she held the history of everything and everywhere tightly in her gut.

She felt like a newborn floating on the ocean of space but also like something as old as time with the splendor of history flooding her veins.

When she depressed a button on the top of her gloved left hand, a dome rose from the platform’s edges. As the dome enclosed her, it sealed with a soft hiss followed by the quieter sound of a breathable atmosphere releasing around her.

The whole ritual wasn’t necessary considering there was nothing like it in reality. It also wasn’t needed in the Virtual World since she couldn’t die there, but it helped her mind accept the reality of her surroundings.

Once the dome signaled that she was surrounded by atmosphere, Stephanie removed her helmet and gloves and pulled out her tablet. She began making extensive notes for ONE R&D.

It was essential that she recorded every aspect of working with gMU. After all, she wasn’t the only being with access to magic, and the ambassador had only said her experience was unique. That didn’t mean it couldn’t happen again.

And it meant she had to record it all, from the way she converted it to the feelings of wonder and reverence that washed over her when the magic filled her. Every detail needed to be captured.

When she had finished and was sure she’d included everything, she saved her file and sat in silence to watch the universe turn around her. Her mind drifted to the job ahead of her and then to her ability to clean the earth up.

“There has to be a way to do it faster,” she mused.

She set the tablet down beside her, crossed her legs at her ankles, and leaned back on her hands. Her thoughts drifted to the time before humanity had damaged its world and ranged to when people had marched to save it.

It seemed strange, now, to contemplate those distant years when humans had recycled what they could to minimize what they put into landfill. Those had been times when rubber was made into playground chips and smaller homes were legislated for all, not only the poor.

Admittedly, the technology was almost archaic when compared to the present, but the principles were the same. There had to be a way for her to not only clean Earth up using her magic but to also begin to heal it through sustainable practices.

Most of the trash had been taken care of during The Great Burning. With chronic overpopulation and a collapsing infrastructure, none of the large cities of the world had been able to cope with the waste produced by their populations.

During that time, people had simply disposed of their trash by dumping it into the streets and waterways when landfills were no longer available and recycling factories hadn’t been able to cope. In an attempt to stop the practice of illegal trash fires, governments set up local furnaces.

The Federation’s new leader had ordered that all rubbish was to be burned, without exception or exclusion. He’d ordered the furnaces to run non-stop until there was nothing left to consume. It was this event that tipped the world over the edge of catastrophic climate failure.

The number of pollutants released into the atmosphere covered most of the planet in heavy smog and released toxins that caused wide-spread breathing difficulties and ailments. Many mourned the stupidity, but others secretly rejoiced at the loss of population.

Their joy was short-lived, however. Once the portion of the population susceptible to acute respiratory failure had died, the survivors discovered there were worse things to suffer. The occurrence of cancer reached epidemic proportions when a new array of aggressive, untreatable tumors appeared.

Extreme climatic events such as the hot-cyclone anomalies, unseasonal blizzards, tornadoes, downbursts, and thunderstorms had increased. Sea levels had risen to engulf coastal communities before evaporation had taken its toll on the oceans. Waterborne disease had inflicted more casualties than any of the major disasters put together.

There were some who said her world was on the brink of dying, and others who said the world would survive but humanity would not. Neither outcome was acceptable.

Stephanie pondered the mess her generation had been handed and wondered how to fix it. She could magically scrub the atmosphere all she wanted, but if she didn’t fix the source of continuing pollution, it wouldn’t mean a thing.

That meant reintroducing clean technologies such as the solar farms that had once powered the solar schools of China as well as millions of homes in the United Kingdom, Bangladesh, Tanzania, and Australia. It meant finding a way to harness the wilder winds and renewing efforts to direct the energy of Earth’s volcanoes.

And that was all before she discovered a way to channel gMU as an energy source in and of itself. As a power source, it would be cleaner with none of the waste products of nuclear power. There had to be a way to make it work.

Stephanie wrote her ideas down, starting with ways to power everyday items with magic that could be handled by the most non-sensitive human to ways of using gMU to power entire cities. Unfortunately, power wasn’t the only issue she had to deal with.

People needed non-toxic areas to live in. They needed to get out of the Subs, grow their own food, and raise their kids in an environment that wouldn’t kill them.

Her attempt to clean up the Browns Ferry site was a good first try. Well, except for not being able to get near the fuel rods. That still smarted, and it was another problem she would have to deal with.

A problem of that magnitude meant she needed more power and the ability to use her magic on a wider scale. If she could find a way to remove the toxins from the water and the soil, she knew she’d be able to open large areas for resettlement in a matter of years rather than decades.

With the pollution cleared from the sky and the land and the ground covered in plants and trees once more, humanity could set a course for a renewed Earth. The only concern she had was whether or not her race had learned enough from their mistakes to not repeat them.

For some reason, she found it hard to believe.

Witch Of The Federation

Elizabeth pulled her new ID from the envelope Burt had express-delivered that morning. With it now clipped it to the lapel of her jacket, she boarded the small shuttle scheduled to take her back to Earth.

While she’d enjoyed her time on Elpis One, she knew she’d be much more comfortable on the ground with a real atmosphere surrounding her. Space was fun the first few times out, but too much could go wrong that could end up with her sucking vacuum.

No, she was glad to return planet-side, even if it was with a new identity. The new ID would help her reach home with their enemies none the wiser. It had been awarded under a Federation-recognized protocol that allowed the wealthy to travel under an assumed name for one journey only for personal security reasons.

Of course, it was only as good as the database it was held in, but she trusted Burt. There wasn’t anyone better to take care of the technical things than the damned AI who ran it.

She smiled at the thought and straightened her jacket, unaware that she now carried herself differently than when she’d departed with the team. She had a shit-ton of money, now, and the future of an entire race on her shoulders if he was to be believed. Wealth and the power of being the sole physical representative of a company with Earth’s survival as its goal... Well, she’d always loved a challenge. And wealth. She adored wealth.

Elizabeth smirked at the thought and whispered, “Uncle Ben had it all wrong, Spiderman. It’s not with great power comes great responsibility. It’s with great big fat bank accounts.”

The trip to Earth didn’t take very long, being a direct route to Washington. A driver waited for her when she touched down, a nice little perk Burt had thrown in. It was wonderful to work for a boss who valued her enough to look after her.

When she arrived at the base, it took her a second to get comfortable. Without the team there, the place was eerily silent. It wasn’t at all what she had become accustomed to.

To remedy that, she went to work making additional calls to bring in a few contacts to help her. “Yes, Chancellor, I really appreciate it. I’ll see you then.”

She hung up and checked off the appointment made with the chancellor of Harbor Technology University. After that, she stared at the next thing on the list and pursed her lips. This would be a lot less pleasant than calling the chancellor.

With a sigh, she picked the phone up again and called the Federation Navy contact number she’d been given. It was time to see if they wanted to come to the office for another meeting. When no one answered, she left a message and managed to sound pleasant and unruffled.

Her call might come as an unexpected surprise to them, but it was time she took that bull by the horns. Stephanie was safely out of their reach—for now—and they had no way of knowing where she’d gone.

That wouldn’t last for much longer, but there was no way anyone would find her. Unless, of course, the Navy pulled the ship over within the next week.

Chapter Thirty

On the Meligorn Dreamer, the team was out for the evening. They’d secured their gear in their rooms and now gave Stephanie The Grand Tour, as Frog called it.

Their initial foray passed through the open atrium space to the Deck of Faith.

“It’s so anyone can find a place to comfort their souls,” Lars explained when they stopped at the entry to a large courtyard.

Stephanie looked around at the many churches, mosques, and temples to any deity or lack of deity she’d ever imagined...and many she’d never known existed.

At the back stood a huge building that looked like an ancient Buddhist temple. Priests in a mixture of saffron and maroon robes walked through the plaza and mingled with the tourists, travelers, and servants of other faiths.

She was surprised to see the representatives of each faith mingling so peacefully. That had definitely not been how the history books described it, even if it was nice to see now.

There didn’t seem to be any valid reason why Lars would have brought her there and she narrowed her eyes at him. “This looks really cool, but you do realize I’m not a religious person, right?”

He shrugged. “I know, but this is basically the best floor for when you want no negativity and an abundance of friendly faces.”

“Like when I start auctioning you off to whoever needs the most seats filled?” she joked…kind of.

Lars laughed. “That’s not a problem here.”

He pulled her back to the elevator and punched the buttons for the next floor. Stephanie leaned against the elevator wall with folded arms and watched the team warily.

If she knew these guys, they were up to something.

When he saw her expression, Lars turned toward her with a twinkle in his eyes. “I know we could have done this in the Virtual World, but since this is your first time on one of these liners, I thought it better for you to see it firsthand. Besides, it’s a good way to work up an appetite.”

She pouted. “Yeah, we were supposed to be headed to dinner. I get grumpy if I’m not fed.”

He faked a sad face. “Hulk smash…fish and chips.”

Stephanie laughed as they stepped out of the elevator and wound their way through the other passengers looking for something other than room service.

Lars lifted his chin to indicate one direction. “So, if you go right, you will find the richies’ mall I told you about earlier.” He tilted his chin to the left. “In the back over there is a food court. You buy from one of the vendors and choose one of the sticky tables in the center to eat at.”

She screwed her face up in distaste. “That doesn’t make me want to go there.”

“Well, then, do I have a bargain for you.” He put his hand on her shoulder and led her straight ahead until the corridor opened into another multi-deck vista. “You might change your mind about the eatery after you spend the day here gambling your heart out.”

Even a cursory glance at the view left her impressed. “It looks like Vegas crammed into a ship. Nice.”

She walked over to the railing and looked down five floors to a more softly lit area. “What goes on down there where the lights are dim?”

He leaned over. “Oh, that leads to the engines rooms and Engineering. There’s nothing really to see down there, and you need a pass to access it. I can organize a tour if you want one.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Let me think about it.”

They continued and took an elevator up past the casinos to another level. Lars and Stephanie poked their heads out of the elevator and stared at two large white doors in front of them. A simple white desk backed by a row of lockers and manned by two serious-looking security guards in pristine white uniforms was set to one side of it.

The men looked up when the elevator doors opened, and Lars tossed them a quick wave. “Sorry, wrong floor!”

He stepped back into the elevator and pulled her with him. “That’s the brig. These kinds of places don’t have too many instances of nefarious crime since they’re so selective about who they allow on board. It’s mostly used to let drunks to sleep off their stupidity—keeps them from starting a fight and wrecking someone’s holiday.”

She winced. “Sucks to be them, then, doesn’t it?”

The tour continued until the team ended up in a plaza devoted to fine dining, dancing, and theaters. The mall of designer wear was linked by a short corridor, and beyond it, an entire deck was devoted to working out.

To Stephanie’s surprise, they left the main restaurant area and walked to another small courtyard with a secluded restaurant. As they crossed the open space, a Dreth exited and headed toward them.

Lars linked his arm through Stephanie’s when she froze and her hand moved instinctively for the blaster she usually carried in the simulations. Frog came up on the other side of her, slid his hand into hers, and squeezed her fingers.

Their presence calmed her first instinct and she managed to suppress the urge to call on her magic. Instead, she took a moment to notice how the Dreth was dressed. The alien was as huge as any of the warriors in the sims, but he wore a simple blue tunic over baggy red trousers, and he was barefoot.

Bells chimed as he moved, and he gave them a close-lipped smile as he passed and brought his hand briefly to his chest.

“Uh, wait, did I imagine that?” she asked.

Lars laughed and relaxed his grip on her arm a little. “The Dreth priest of Hrageth? Not at all. There are all kinds here on the ship. Believe it or not, I met a vegetarian Dreth on one of these vessels. You have to remember that not all Dreth are your enemy. There has to be a point where you open your mind enough to realize there’s more to the Dreth than only the pirates.”

“Not much more,” Frog muttered, and Marcus whacked him upside the head.

The team leader ignored him. “The pirates merely make the news reports more often.”

Stephanie understood and also realized she had become very isolated from news of the real world, and it reminded her of the last thing she’d seen. “You know, I watched a news report a week or so ago where a couple of business moguls slaughtered each other, and then, before anything could be done, their chalet exploded and all that was left of them were bones. Humans have their own form of pirates.”

Lars squeezed her arm. “Exactly. Come on. They say this place serves the best food on the ship.”

“I trust you to know.” She glanced back for one last look at the Dreth priest and removed her hand from Frog’s as she did so.

He gave her a look of mock hurt, slid back to walk beside Marcus, and accepted his teammate’s pretense of sympathy. They made her smile with their antics.

Still smiling, she turned and stopped when she came face to face with a Meligornian in traditional robes. Lars apologized for almost running into him, but he deflected the guard’s embarrassment with a gentle shake of his head.

Stephanie looked into his face and noticed that he had a kind smile and warm eyes. She stepped back to bend her knee for the Meligornian greeting to nobility, reached up, and bowed her head.

To her surprise, he didn’t let her dip any closer to the floor. Instead, he placed his hand in hers and pulled her in, holding her forearm tightly so that she returned the clasp as they greeted one another.

When he released her, she stepped back and smiled. “It’s nice to see a Meligornian here.”

He spread his arms wide. “And it’s nice to see a human who knows how to greet one properly. Not many humans know how.”

The rest of the team shuffled uncomfortably and reminded her they were there.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Please, these are my...friends,” she told him, gestured to the guys, and stood aside so they could greet him.

They did as well as she had, but she couldn’t help noticing how they were suddenly much more alert and their eyes scanned every corner of the courtyard. Ever since the attack on the ambassador and Elizabeth’s unwinnable scenario, they’d become far more cautious around Meligornian people. Stephanie would have laughed if it didn’t make her so sad.

The stranger cleared his throat, drawing her from her memories.

“I am sorry,” he told her, “but I didn’t catch your name.”

Stephanie blushed. “I am…Lilly.”

This time, he extended his hand in a human greeting. “Lilly. Okay. Nice to meet you, Lilly. I am Garmathiun Hondor of the Triton Quadrant of Meligorn. You may call me Garma for short.”

She smiled at that and let him walk beside her.

Lars kept hold of her other arm, and the team fell in behind them, exchanging glances.

Garma laid his palm against the back of her hand. She glanced down and realized she was taking MU in from the Meligornian.

With a gasp, she snatched her hand out from under his. “I’m so very sorry.”

He chuckled and lowered his voice. “You aren’t so hard to identify, Stephanie Morgana, even if you do have a different face. Your magic gave it away. I could feel it the moment you greeted me. If you’re trying to hide your identity, you might want to watch that.”

“Noted,” Lars murmured from beside her, and he didn’t sound pleased.

Stephanie ignored her guard and put her hands nervously in her jacket pockets as she tried to find a way to change the subject. “Your MU is very strong, much stronger than I’d expect for someone who’s obviously been on Earth and is now traveling back to Meligorn.”

“As you get older, you go one of two ways,” he explained and accepted her diversion. “You either learn how to hold your magic tightly and only use small portions at a time, or you become…sloppy and lose everything in the blink of an eye.”

“Then I will start to learn how to hold what I have,” she responded with a solemn smile.

They now approached the restaurant and Garma glanced at Lars. “I will go back to my quarters,” he said and glanced at Stephanie and the rest of the team. “Would you all like to join me for dinner, tonight? I have the top suite upstairs so there is more than enough room and you are all very welcome.”

Stephanie took his hand in farewell. “I appreciate it, but we have plans tonight. If you are up for it tomorrow, I think we would be delighted.”

The Meligornian grinned. “Excellent. Then I look forward to seeing you tomorrow evening. And you won’t have to hide who you are while you’re there.”

They said their farewells and she walked on beside Lars. The team leader had released her arm and was already researching one Garmathiun Hondor of the Triton Quadrant of Meligorn on his tablet.

He wasn’t very impressed with her. “You can’t randomly become besties with someone who obviously saw right through your disguise. That’s not exactly a recommendation, you know.”

She patted him on the shoulder. “Deep breaths, Lars. Deep breaths. We’ll be okay. The whole reason I am here alive today is because I put a little faith in the Meligornian ambassador. Out of everyone I’ve met since finding my magic, Meligornians tend to be safer than humans. Present company excepted, of course. They are also more powerful and easier to make friends with. Everything will be all right.”

Frog slipped past them and opened the door so she and Lars could step through. Marcus slid through in front of them and obviously scrutinized the place because Lars was preoccupied with his tablet.

Stephanie let the team do their thing and entered the restaurant. As the aromas inside caught her nose, her eyes widened and she heard the guys all take several appreciative sniffs.

The place smelled amazing and there were representatives of all three races seated inside. A waiter guided them to a table and handed out the menus.

As soon as they were settled, they buried their faces in the list of selections. Soon, a lively discussion began as they read through the many multiplanetary options.

“I dare you to try the Dreth food.” Brenden smirked and nudged Marcus as he addressed her. “I hear it all tastes like either space gas or the underside of a Dreth’s backside.”

She curled her lip at him, then shrugged. “Screw it. Why not at least try it? Then, if I don’t like it, I will never be tempted again.”

The guys gawked at her as she ordered two Dreth dishes and a regular burger and fries in case she didn’t like them. Everyone else ordered conservatively, all of them too chicken to try anything else. When the food arrived, most of them were relieved that they’d chosen to stick to the norm.

The waitress set the two Dreth dishes in front of Stephanie and smiled. She returned the smile before she picked up a fork and poked at the first dish. It looked like bacon with some kind of seaweed draped over it and a purple mashed vegetable piled decoratively on top.

She leaned forward and sniffed at it, but it had absolutely no odor, which was very strange. Intrigued, she tried it cautiously. The taste was similar to smoked meat and potatoes, although the consistency was more like eating seafood.

The lack of aroma notwithstanding, it had a subtle citrusy flavor that complemented the meat and softened the slow-creeping burn of something stronger.

“That was fairly good—spicier than what I’m used to, but not too bad at all,” she said as Marcus dared Frog to take a bite.

Stephanie left them to it, turned to the next one, and tilted her head to the side as she tried to work out what it was. It looked like gray sludge—soup-like but too thick to be soup. More like mousse or pate, perhaps.

It formed the base for a pale, delicately folded pastry that had been loaded with diced cubes of meat and a mixture of purple and red vegetables shaved into thin strips. Like the dish before it, this one didn’t have a smell either.

It took a moment for her to swallow her doubts and take a cautious nibble of the gray concoction. To her relief, it had a creamy texture and a delicate smoky flavor. Encouraged, she cut away a forkful of meat-laden pastry, swiped it through the sauce, and popped it into her mouth.

Spice exploded to startle her taste buds, hot enough to make her nose run and her eyes tear up. Entirely at a loss, she stopped chewing and held it in her mouth until she could adjust to the taste.

Unfortunately, the longer she held it there, the hotter it became until she had to chew hastily to clear her mouth. She reached desperately for a glass of water when a shadow fell across her table and Frog, Lars, and Johnny stopped laughing long enough to scramble to their feet.

“Please,” a deep, gravelly voice said. “Drink this. It will soothe the burn. Water will only make it worse. I admire your choices, but akvenja should come with warning labels.”

Stephanie grasped the glass and was about to lift it to her lips when Lars intercepted it. “Hey!” she protested.

“Let me,” he said before he took a small device out of his pocket and scanned it. “It’s fine. No offense intended,” he added as he handed it back to her and addressed the Dreth warrior who’d offered it.

“None taken,” he replied as she swallowed two large mouthfuls.

“Oh, that’s much better,” she said when the thick, fruity syrup coated her tongue and throat. She looked at the dish, took another forkful, and responded to the looks of disbelief on the team’s faces. “What? It’s really good.”

The Dreth laughed, which made her jump, and he patted her on the back.

“Your courage speaks well of you. Next time we share a drink, it will be as friends.”

The guys relaxed and slowly resumed their seats, although Stephanie noticed their gazes strayed often to the corner of the room where the Dreth sat. He, for his part, seemed to ignore them as she finished her plate.

She was careful to use more of the gray sauce with each forkful and to take regular sips of her drink. Lars ordered her a second one when the first one ran low, and the guys gave a soft cheer when she finished.

“Shut up and pass me that burger,” she said. “I’m still hungry.”

They all laughed and did as she asked, a little surprised that she was a better sport then they were willing to be. When dinner was over, Frog and Johnny hurried to the courtyard where some late evening dancing had begun.

Lars laughed as he followed them, grabbed Stephanie by the hand, and despite her groans of protest, dragged her after him. “Let’s dance.”

“I thought you’d never ask,” she mocked but gave into his playful smile and put her hand to her forehead.

She ended up having a really great time with the guys and met innumerable people. Everyone seemed to be letting off steam and dancing because they were happy. It was different than the club the guys had taken her to.

That had been more like a place for mating and testosterone-fueled competition. They also managed to finish the evening without Frog punching anyone, which had to be a first for him. The last thing they needed was a drunk teammate starting a fight in the middle of the liner.

When they’d had their fill of dancing, they walked out of the courtyard and toward the elevators. Stephanie put her hand in her pocket and withdrew a piece of paper with a small frown.

She unfolded it and tilted her head back as she laughed and earned a funny look from Lars. “What’s going on over there?”

She held the paper up. “It’s that guy’s number. The one I was talking to out there. He actually slipped me his number.”

His face fell and he clipped the piece of paper right out of her fingertips. “I gotta check this guy out—and any other guys, too. You can’t be too careful on this trip. You can call me Dad for the rest of the time out here.”

“You’re out of your tiny little mind,” she replied and hurried after the others.

He smirked and shook his head as he followed.

Chapter Thirty-One

Back on Earth, Elizabeth thanked the waiter as he seated her at the table. She placed her purse in her lap, draped her napkin over it, and studied the man seated opposite her. When he caught her look, the chancellor of Harbor Technology U cleared his throat and looked a little cautiously at their surroundings.

She had brought him to an extremely nice restaurant in the center of the most exclusive richie territory in DC. As part of her efforts to impress him, she had arranged for him to be collected by private car and they were about to have not only a meeting but a really memorable meal as well.

It all honestly seemed so easy. Ms. E knew exactly how to play the game. She would make an appeal to his sense of survival, but at the same time, to his sense of morality as well.

“Have you been here before?” she asked nonchalantly.

The chancellor chuckled. “No. I usually grab lunch at the school cafeteria and dinner is whatever snacks I have in my desk at the time. This is definitely a change of pace.”

She opened the menu. “Well, I’m glad I could treat you, then.”

Unsure how to respond to that, he opened his menu and his eyes widened when he saw the prices. She watched him covertly for a moment before she looked away with a small smile at his reaction.

It was exactly what she wanted to see. This dinner was to set the stage for what she wanted to talk to him about. The menus were simply props, a way to show him the food’s cost meant nothing in light of what she wanted to discuss.

She wanted him to know that the expense of the meal was merely a drop in the bucket of the funding they would provide. He needed to start thinking of what he could achieve if he let them supply him with the right kind of financial assistance.

They both ordered and the waitress poured them glasses of a very rare wine, one that hadn’t been produced in the decades since the winery had been shut down by wildfires. When the server had left the table, they sat for a moment in silence.

Elizabeth let the charm and elegance of their surroundings really settle in and poke at his sense of desire over his sense of practicality. She wanted him to see the other side of life, one that existed well beyond the reach of normal people.

Finally, after sipping her wine, she spoke, her tone direct and hard so he would focus on her words and not the glittering opulence surrounding them. “Results are what matter.”

He tilted his head and his eyes confirmed that she had his attention. “I’m sorry?”

She smiled comfortingly and leaned in a little to speak in a low tone to give him a sense of privacy. “I’m here to help you make your university one of the best in the world. I want you to be able to bring in the brightest students and prepare them for a future far beyond the usual expectations and limitations placed on someone not from a particularly affluent background.”

The chancellor sat back and blotted his lips before he returned his napkin to his lap. “That sounds wonderful—a dream, really—but I don’t quite understand why.”

Elizabeth gave him a bright smile and set her glass down, although she continued to lean toward him. “Our company believes that only the brightest students will create companies of unparalleled excellence. These are the students who are the best in their classes—the cream of the crop, the most artistic, well-thought, innovative, and forward-thinking of their generation.”

She watched as interest sparked in his eyes and didn’t give him a chance to interrupt. “They’re the only ones who can create the businesses this planet and country desperately need. We need people and companies willing to push forward and break the mold, not those promoting the same laziness and self-serving lifestyle that is usually found among those who are used to eating in places like this every day, drinking rare wines, and floating on a cushion of family fortune and Federation handouts.”

The chancellor sighed and shook his head. “If you think that hasn’t been the stamp of this university since its inception, you didn’t do your research. I’m not frustrated with you. I’m frustrated with the fact that I have those same ideals but lack the capital to make them happen.”

He sighed. “I have found that each year, we slip a little farther from reaching that dream. With my eyes wide open, I can see myself led down the same rocky path all the other schools have followed. There’s a slight sheen of gold, but we know we’re selling our souls for the money we need to keep the school alive.”

Elizabeth sat there for a moment and allowed his emotions to calm. He was doing exactly what she’d expected and definitely what she’d hoped for.

He showed her, face to face, that he really did care more about these students and their education than their parents’ fat bank accounts. This was all she really needed to know. The rest could be found in black and white.

When the color of his face had subsided from red to a normal pinkish hue, she placed her hands with the palm down on the table and looked him in the eye. “There are four hundred thousand top-tier students who fail to get into a university due to financial considerations—four hundred thousand, and that’s every year.”

She stopped to allow him to absorb the sheer enormity of the numbers. “We want to take five hundred of these and put them through your Harbor Tech.” She settled back in her chair and made an airy motion with her hand. “If you care to change the future, that is.”

The chancellor stared at her for a moment as if she had grown a second head or become an alien right before his eyes. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times, and his eyes took on a distant look.

Elizabeth suspected he was running through the idea of that many paid tuitions for students who truly deserved it. His words confirmed it. “That is more than all the academies combined take in a ten-year span.”

She managed a small excited laugh and let some of that excitement bleed into her voice. “And that is only the beginning. We will focus on finding the right people, not simply anyone who needs a free ride. We know there will be times when we’ll get it wrong, but in the long run, when other companies see that your students are a cut above theirs and fresh—and not from the same old background that they rely on—well then, that’s when things really start to get interesting.”

From the look on the man’s face, he hung onto her every word as she continued. “All across the world, universities will see what your students achieve and some will follow your example. It will take time, but we will see some of them admitting students solely on merit because, if they don’t, they won’t be able to compete. Your graduates will help pull the Gov-Subs out of the dust by providing opportunities that no one’s thought to provide before.”

A small smile had appeared on the chancellor’s lips, and he sounded almost breathless. “That is… Well, that sounds amazing. I don’t want to get my hopes up because I’ve never seen it work, but if it does work… I mean, if it really and truly worked, you could change the world.”

He stopped to catch his breath. “My grandfather and my father instilled one very important lesson into my head. You can grow a company organically. You merely have to provide an opportunity.”

Elizabeth nodded and smiled at the waitress as she brought their food. “Exactly. And when you offer opportunities to those who simply need help getting into the system, it broadens their whole idea of what the world is like.”

He took a bite of broccoli in oyster sauce. “That’s right. The difference goes far beyond the training. Once the training is given, new career choices open up and then, each individual is responsible for making it—or not—on their own.”

He chewed, ate the rest of the broccoli, and sampled some of the beef before he went on. “But when you have situations like that, people do amazing things to make the most of their opportunities and keep that hope alive. They will do anything to not have to go back to the factory or follow their family into a hazardous industry. They’ll work their tails off in order to ensure they stay out of the Gov-Subs and to allow themselves a chance to achieve the better future they’ve always dreamed of.”

“And that is something the richies don’t understand because their families have already reached the top and there is nothing they can’t do or have,” she added as she lifted her fork. “Now, while we don’t hold that against them, we aren’t here to support anyone but those who strive the hardest to take the opportunity and make something with it.”

“Of course, to do anything else would defeat the purpose,” the chancellor agreed. “And if they truly are the brightest, they will understand the chance they’ve been given and will be motivated to make the most of it.”

“Mhmm,” she replied and savored a mouthful of steak. “Lazy geniuses need not apply. I’m here to change the future of mankind. And if someone wants to sit on their ass all day, what good is their mind to me?”

Witch Of The Federation

On the Meligorn Dreamer, Stephanie and the team had joined Garmathiun Hondor of the Triton Quadrant of Meligorn for dinner. She shifted in her seat and found it weird to sit on high-backed stools at the dinner table.

Then again, the Meligornian tables were kitchen-counter height if not taller. It was their custom and they often struggled on Earth with all the low tables and surfaces.

Beside her, Lars sat at full alert and his gaze shifted almost obsessively around the room. Marcus sat on his other side, his hands politely in his lap with a slight look of disdain on his face.

She found his expression odd but chalked it up to the stress of the trip and the days leading up to it.

Garma sat comfortably on his stool, his robes draped elegantly around him, and his long silver hair sparkled in the ship’s artificial lighting. “So, in theory, all the magic should work together like a dance.”

She pursed her lips, excited to have a chance to talk magical theory with someone who knew it. “Right, but because each type of MU is so old and has been pulled and pushed for so long, none of them are compatible without being changed first. You have to change the energy back to what it was by winding them together—which makes sense when you think about gMU.”

He tilted his head to the side and a look of shock crept into his face. “My dearest Lilly, you are quite the savant when it comes to magic. Although I think I was aware of that before. Tell me more about your gMU theories. I like that name for it. We have always called it the Unknown Magic. A shout to the energy that roams every corner of space. We know it’s there but few of us, if any, have ever been able to understand it.”

Stephanie smiled and took a mouthful of the chicken on her plate. The Meligornian had asked the chefs to prepare human dishes to ensure his guests’ comfort.

She enjoyed it, and from what she could see, the guys certainly appreciated it. “The gMU is older than both eMU and MU. It is the eldest of the three, the one that brought it all into existence. Which, I think, you knew already.”

Garma leaned forward, clearly enjoying the conversation. “Well, we had an idea, but even on Meligorn, there is resistance to nailing down facts that go against prominent faiths.”

Lars smirked and joined the conversation. “So that’s not only a human issue, then?”

Their host snorted and waved his hands as he replied. “Not in the least. All beings share this natural need to understand. Some do better than others, but they can rarely step back and see the truth of things. Still, there are some who can see the destruction that blind faith can cause and some who can also see the connections between each different understanding.”

He shrugged. “I don’t believe that science and discovery can kill God, no matter what form people think God takes. I think science and discovery can close the gap a little between all beings and their religious concepts. We resist because we all fear that our truths—the ones we hold sacred inside—will be proved false. That fear alone can lead to a serious uprising.”

Stephanie nodded. “Right. Or a sudden outbreak of death, whether from war or like the time in the mid-2000s when the seven thousand seven hundred churches all waited until the stroke of midnight and everyone killed themselves. They believed they were giving their lives for a worthy cause. But yes, I see your point. I still believe that simply because you fear the truth does not mean you shouldn’t continue to seek it out.”

“I very much agree with you,” Garma replied and raised his glass to clink against hers. “And that is why what you’re saying about gMU is so interesting. It’s a really simple concept but because it’s so different to what’s currently taught in the education system and because pursuing it would draw money away from the Federation, there won’t be any conferences or informationals about the opportunities it presents.”

He seemed excited to discuss the theories she had and she was thankful she had found someone she could discuss it with, without having to be the teacher, the student, and the researcher.

She understood that discovery was the entire reason for what she did and that learning about her magic—how to use it and how it worked—was her main purpose. Sometimes, though, like with Brilgus and the ambassador, it was nice to connect with another being who understood some of how it worked. It was even better to get a different perspective from someone who didn’t treat her like some kind of magic-wielding anomaly.

She and Garma talked for hours and barely noticed how much time had passed. Stephanie happened to look at Lars as he covered his mouth during a yawn, and this made her glance at the clock on the wall. She was mortified “Oh, my gosh. It’s so late! I’m sorry, Garma. I didn’t mean to take so much of your time.”

He glanced up and his eyes widened when he saw the time. “It is late. I am also sorry. I was so lost in our discussion that I have kept you well past the time when I should have let you go.”

He stood slowly and surveyed the half-asleep team.

“Let me show you to the door, and my apologies for keeping your team up so late.”

Stephanie followed his gaze and immediately saw her guys needed sleep. They tried desperately to stay alert and not complain.

Garma thanked them for allowing him to keep them so long and invited them to come back anytime. She hoped she would have another chance to speak to him because his insights had been really helpful.

After he’d shepherded the team to their suite, Lars walked Stephanie to her room. Before she stepped in closed the door behind her, she turned and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, dude. I needed something like that tonight.”

He yawned again and nodded sleepily. “That’s my job, lady. Keeping you safe and listening to MU theory. I am now an expert.”

She laughed and waved before she secured the door and went to bed. Excited or not, she was definitely exhausted.

Witch Of The Federation

“It all looks really good,” said Roger, the chief engineer, when he’d checked the readings on the screen.

Engineer First Class Cameron Bruce nodded proudly. “Thank you, sir. We’ve busted our nubs down here to make sure everything is on the up and up and we were ready for anything.”

Roger shook his hand. “I know you were on the Peter Travers last year when they were attacked by pirates. I’m sorry you had to go through that. Hopefully, this trip will be smooth sailing. Speaking of which, the captain’s ordered the FTL Transition for sixty-four hours from now.”

Cameron frowned with obvious confusion. “I’m sorry, sir, but wasn’t the Transition scheduled for one-thirty hours?”

He nodded. “Word’s only just come down. The captain says we need to beat the official course from Federation Control, so we’re transitioning early. We need to make sure the engines are ready.”

The younger man squared his shoulders, always obedient, even if he thought the order was hazardous or dangerous. “Will, do, sir. They will be ready to go two shifts beforehand.”

The chief gave him a grateful smile and slapped him on the shoulder. “I know you would, but it’s the end of your shift, so I’ll get it started. You can finalize it when you clock back on in the morning. I’ll take over now and let you take an early mark. The heavens know you’ve earned it.”

Cameron brought a knuckle to his forehead. There was no way he would argue with that. He left the engine room and headed for his bunk.

As soon as he was out of sight, he paused to wipe the sudden sheen of sweat from his forehead. This was an unexpected hitch. They would not like this. Not one little bit.

He reached the end of the corridor and took the stairs to the crew common room two at a time. Grateful he was one of the first off shift, he headed directly to his shared quarters and hoped to beat his cabinmate in.

Relieved to find the space empty, he pulled his console out and kept a close eye on the door while he sent off a quick message about the “game.”

Worried the door would open any moment, he tapped the message out, trying to be quick but also to not make any mistakes. It was an extremely important message that had to be sent as soon as possible.

The game needs to finish early as he won’t be available to play after. STOP.

With that done, Cameron paused and stared at the console before he unplugged it and stashed it in the back of his locker.

As he released it and pulled out a clean shirt and shorts to sleep in, Anton crashed into their space.

“Are you still up?”

“Not for long,” he snapped in response. “It was a long shift and we have a longer one tomorrow.”

Anton snorted. “Yeah. I heard. An early transition to top off a long week. I hope there are no more surprises on this trip.”

“Me, too,” he agreed and headed to the door. “I’m gonna hit the head before I hit the hay.”

His bunkmate gave him a lazy wave of acknowledgment. “I won’t be far behind you.”

Cameron breathed a sigh of relief and left, glad the other man didn’t seem in the mood to chat. Their departure had been unusually hectic, which meant everyone was tired.

And that made it really good for him.

Chapter Thirty-Two

Stephanie woke to the sound of a hundred tap dancers executing the cha-cha on her door. “What the hell?”

Her sleepy mutter was greeted with raucous laughter and Johnny’s familiar voice. “Wakey, wakey, sleepy head.”

She groaned.

The knocking came again. This time, she threw a pillow at the door as Lars’ voice intruded.

“Time to wake up, lazybones.”

“You can kiss my...” Even half-asleep, Stephanie thought it would be better if she didn’t finish that sentence. “Go away.”

Marcus snickered, and Frog howled with laughter. “You heard her, Lars my man. She asked you to kiss her go away.”

“Yeah, her go away,” Marcus repeated and his laughter made the phrase sound a lot worse than it could possibly be.

She rolled over and groped for something else to throw as Frog called again. “Come on, Steph. I know you had a hot date with that old Meligornian guy last night but it’s time to get up and at ’em, sweetie.”.

Stephanie groaned.

“I’ll give you assholes sweetie,” she muttered, rolled over again, and yanked her blankets over her head. It didn’t help that she could hear the guys milling around outside or that it wouldn’t be long before one of them did something terminally stupid.

Like coming in to get her.

Yeah. That would be really terminal. She sighed. It was probably better if she didn’t force them to try it. She sat up and scowled when her hair tangled across her face.

She scraped it irritably out of her eyes, hauled herself out of bed, and stumbled toward the door. She’d only made it halfway across the room when it was flung open and Frog led the charge inside.

They all stared at her for a moment before she threw her hands in the air, turned away, and headed to the bathroom. “Make yourselves at home,” she grouched, “and make me coffee while you’re at it. It is way too early for this shit.”

The guys were still laughing when she returned and sat in the desk chair, looking as tired as hell. “Why are you here torturing me?”

“Torture?” Lars sounded hurt. He held a cup up so she could see the steam rising from its surface. “If I were torturing you, I’d do this.”

He raised the cup to his lips and took a sip.

Stephanie let her jaw drop and gave a squeak of horror, and the guys fell about laughing all over again. She recovered quickly and stalked over to where Lars was still sipping her coffee while he watched her over the rim.

His eyes looked tired, but they danced with mischief as she stopped in front of him and held her hand out. “Give me my damn coffee or someone’s gonna die.”

He paused mid-sip, licked his lips, and smirked. “Can you be the one, Frog?”

“Hey!” Frog wasn’t amused but everyone else thought it was as funny as hell. She didn’t care, though, because Lars finally took pity on her and handed her what was left of the coffee.

“If you let Frog live, he’ll order us breakfast,” he said and made sure she had a good grip on the cup.

“I’ll what?”

“You heard,” he retorted, and Frog spread his arms and rolled his eyes.

“Work, work, work,” he grumbled and tried to suppress a grin as he turned to the console.

Johnny laughed, walked over to Stephanie, and patted her on the head as he sat next to Lars on top of her desk. “Speaking of work, we think you need to do some work in the pod today.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes and moved her mouth away from the cup to wail. “I just did work in the pod. I did a ton of work and you guys were nowhere to be seen or heard.”

“Hey,” Lars protested and moved to stand next to Marcus. “We were doing security stuff. Mucho importante.”

“Mhmm,” she replied and sounded as snide as she could with a mouthful of coffee. She swallowed and added, “I saw you when I came out. Frog had a hat on that said I played the slots and I got more than I bargained for. Which I have to say, is too much to squeeze onto a hat. Nonetheless, I don’t think that’s part of your security stuff.”

Brenden chuckled and tossed her a pair of jeans and a tee he’d obviously dug out of her closet. “Come on. Throw these on and we’ll take you down. No heavy lifting today.”

She drained her cup and handed it to Johnny, who happened to be standing closest. “While no heavy lifting sounds good, none of you have what it takes to win against me.”

No sooner had the words left her mouth than she was hemmed in by the team, each one standing closer than any of them had a right to.

“Like that, is it?” she asked and couldn’t help but giggle as she drew just enough magic to create a light field of static energy around her.

There was an abrupt fizz and crackle and the guys leapt back.


“Man, remind me not to piss you off before breakfast ever again.”


“I won’t piss her off after breakfast, either.”

“If she doesn’t cut it out, she won’t get any breakfast.”

“Do you really want to do that, man?”

“I’d give her all your breakfasts to watch her do it again.”

Stephanie had to laugh at Frog. He’d been at the room service console and watched as they’d crowded her, and if he hadn’t been finding them food, he’d have been zapped with the rest. He smiled when they heard a knock on the door to the suite

“I’ll be back,” he said, mimicking how the lines were spoken in a really old movie. Now that she thought about it, she remembered it was one of Todd’s favorites.

“Bring breakfast,” she insisted. “You know I get grouchy if I don’t eat.”

“We have work to do,” Johnny insisted, and she pivoted as blue fire rolled over her hand.

“Breakfast, or I’ll turn you into a—” She glanced at the door. “Slug. Two Frogs would be two too many.”

“She has you there,” Lars told him, and Johnny gave an exaggerated sigh.

“Fine. Breakfast first and then pod work.”

Stephanie settled herself at her desk. The coffee had kicked in and they were right. She had to do something. It might as well be pod time.

“What am I doing? More battle tactics?” she asked when Frog brought their food and they’d finished eating.

He shook his head, retrieved his new hat from his back pocket, and pulled it down tightly over his ears. “It’s time you had a little school session. You have been so focused on magic and how it works that we think it would be good for you to get a more well-rounded education. That and Elizabeth sent us a note threatening our safety if we didn’t get you in there to take some different classes. Don’t worry. It’ll be stuff you’re interested in.”

Stephanie shifted her gaze from one guy to another before she threw her hands up in surrender. “Fine. But you losers wait outside. Go, go, go or I will call the dark side.”

They all hurried out of the room, laughing as she kicked Frog in the butt and closed the door. Out in the common room, they could hear her struggle and even fall all over as she tried to put her jeans on.

After another small crash, the door opened again and she was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, her silver stranded hair pulled back in a messy ponytail.

“Well, you took your time,” Johnny sniped and she gave him the finger before she rolled her hand to point at the door.

“Didn’t you have a fun day of pod school to get to?”

He looked at Lars. “Do we really have to keep her?”

“Stop your bitching,” the team leader told him and headed to the door.

Stephanie followed and swatted at them to keep them moving when they bottlenecked at the entrance. They protested and she laughed as she followed them down the hall to the team’s pod room.

She got into the pod, ready to prepare her avatar in the white room, but she never got there. Instead, when her eyes opened, she found herself in a college classroom, seated in the front row all by herself.

Instead of a chalkboard, there was a digital screen and Burt’s voice came over the loudspeaker like a principal in high school, complete with the squealing PA.

“Welcome to Virt World Uni,” he said and his voice oozed false cheer. “This is Burt and I will be your guide for today. On the screen is a list of courses you can choose to take. Pick two and we will begin.”

“Can I have coffee while I think about it?” she muttered.

A cup of hot coffee appeared on her desk and she smiled, grabbed it, and approached the board to look at the classes. She scanned the list and her attitude improved when she realized they all had to do with her plans to fix the Earth. “So many good ones. How do I choose?”

“Decide which will help you the most at this moment,” Burt instructed. “We can go back later to the others.”

Stephanie tapped her finger on her lips. “I choose Environmental Damage and then Nuclear Fusion.”

“Done,” he said and immediately transformed the room into a giant map of the world.

He launched into Environmental Damage and took her to different places all over the world that had suffered extreme damage and explained what had happened to them.

The lesson covered fire and water damage caused by flooding, coastal erosion, and strong storms. After that, they moved on to the problems caused by increased temperatures and warming oceans.

She became engrossed in each one as she learned about what the coastlines had looked like long before she was alive. There had been states in the US that didn’t exist anymore—places like Florida where the sea levels rose several times and slowly consumed the land until the state had completely disappeared.

They discussed the effect of rising temperatures on the planet. When they had covered the main points of Environmental Damage, they moved on to Nuclear Fusion.

That wasn’t necessarily exciting, but it definitely gave her a better idea of what she would face on Earth in her clean-up attempts.

“So,” Burt said as he completed the lecture, “since nuclear fusion is basically smashing light elements together to create a heavier element, why do you think this is ideal for sustainable electric production?”

Stephanie smiled. “Because, first of all, nuclear fusion occurs best in high density and high-temperature areas. Suns are one place, but humans can create such places like they did in the past.”

She frowned and tried not to think of the things that could go wrong with that before she went on. “When the temperatures reach very high levels, the electrons are stripped from the nuclei and they form plasma. When you do this, it produces huge amounts of energy that could literally light the whole world.”

BURT checked her details and decided he wouldn’t teach her what she already knew. “Perfect. So, it’s basically energy for which one part of its fuel is readily available and that creates the other part of its fuel.”

Stephanie scratched her head. “So why don’t we use that now?”

“A couple of reasons, really,” he explained. “One, because billionaires have built empires on coal, oil, and gas, and two, because and there are more billionaires who’ve built their empires on military technology. Fortunes were preserved while the naïve believed false promises of aid and let the wealthy stay in power. Earth has suffered as a result, and so has the humanity governed by those with wealth but not the necessary skills to take care of the population.”

“Uh…what kind of skills?” She was genuinely curious.

“To govern the population?” BURT asked, surprised she’d be interested.

Stephanie shook her head. “No. To make fusion viable. What skills do we need for that?”

For a moment, he was almost disappointed but he was relieved, too. Stephanie was focused on restoration and not rulership. “Basically, you need to know how to duplicate the process of nuclear fusion in a controlled environment.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh. Okay, well, I have the concepts, but actually doing it? That’s something a long way down on my list. If I can’t do it the human way, I doubt I can pull it off with magic.”

“You never know. Now you know how it’s done scientifically, you might be able to find a way to do it with magic. You merely need time to think about it.” BURT forced himself to sound casual and not push her. He knew her. The idea would eat away at the back of her mind until she found a solution.

Right now, though, she’d had enough of study.

“You sound like an after-school special,” she grumbled. “But I assume the lessons are over and I’m done here. You can let me out of class now.”

There was silence. She looked around for a moment and wondered where he was. “Burt? Did you hear me?”

The only reply was a change of scene. The classroom vanished and she found herself standing in a ballroom. Her outfit had changed as well.

Stephanie looked down and noticed her jeans and tee had been replaced by a short dress. It was flaming red in color and complemented with nude stockings and dance heels.

She narrowed her eyes and demanded, “Buuurt, what am I doing here?”

“Don’t shoot the messenger,” he replied. “The guys said when you were done with the ‘sciencey stuff’ you had to take dance lessons.”

Her shoulders sagged and she whined, “But… But…I don’t want to. Can’t I do some fighting instead? I really want to hit something, and it’s so much easier to fight than solve the great mysteries of the world like nuclear fusion and ballroom dancing.”

Burt chuckled and out came the dance instructor. She was a fifty-something AI named Ms. Gambol.

Her scrolling background told of glorious days in a famous richie theater, dancing for thousands of fans. As she’d aged, demand had moved to younger dancers and she was now stuck giving dance lessons to the…

“…uncoordinated, two-left-footed, tone-deaf, rejects of dance,” she said, obviously repeating an oft-used phrase. “But I will do what I can with you.”

She clapped her hands and Stephanie slid across the floor into the arms of another, much easier on the eyes dance partner.

He caught her and deftly turned their collision into a turn that brought her back into his arms.

“I am Baron. I will be your dance partner for this lesson.”

The utter solemnity on his face made her smile and she giggled as he held her tightly. “Hey, Baron.”

“The graceful Stephanie, you will soon dance like the butterfly,” he said with an odd Italian accent even though he was clearly not Italian.

Ms. Gambol snapped her fingers and music began to play. Stephanie groaned and recalled awkward dance classes in school when she’d always ended up dancing with Becca or Todd. Those had been the worst classes of her life.

She took a deep breath and clung to Baron as he began to guide her around the room. The movements were vaguely familiar as if she’d done them before. The music wasn’t but...her body remembered this.

As she fumbled along with Baron and tried to follow Ms. Gambol’s sharp suggestions, she tried to recall where she’d done this before. It took several turns on the dance floor before the memory snapped into place.

The club. Waltzing with Lars. Doing the crazy boogaloo with Frog.

This was what Lars had taught her and now, it all made sense. Everything she had learned rushed back and she straightened in Baron’s arms and glided more confidently through the room.

At the end, Ms. Gambol actually cracked half a smile. Either that or her programming had a glitch. The girl took it as a win either way.

“All right, let’s move onto a new dance style. This one’s called modern.” The AI gave a snooty sniff. “Although only the heavens know why.”

At her words, Stephanie’s outfit changed. This time, she wore a pair of black stretch pants, a white cotton tank top, and a sweatshirt that fell off the shoulder on one side. On her feet were soft black jazz shoes.

The music started and several dancers appeared out of nowhere, bending their knees with their hands on them and swinging their upper bodies wildly.

Stephanie tried to mimic them but stopped partway through to let her head catch up and the dizzy spell pass.

The dancers continued to dance around her in a circle while Ms. Gambol screamed out the time. “One, two, three, stomp it out. Come on, Morgana, don’t stand there like a stuffed dummy. Move your hips.”

She stared at the avatar in disbelief, but she pulled her arms jaggedly over her head and moved her hips. The action wasn’t even close to the smooth, rounded movements made by the other dancers. When the music stopped, Ms. Gambol sighed and shook her head. “Maybe modern was too much for you at this stage.”

Stephanie looked around and back at the woman. “Ya think? Just a tad, maybe?”

The instructor waved her hand to the side, and her outfit changed again. This time, it turned into a flesh-colored leotard, accompanied by pink tights and pink pointe shoes.

Ms. Gambol snapped her fingers again and a dance barre appeared out of nowhere in Stephanie’s grasp. The lesson that followed was grueling with the purpose of most of the movements performed at the barre a mystery.

“Maybe it’s an ancient form of torture,” she muttered, having never heard of ballet before. It wasn’t something folk in the Sub really talked about—and no wonder if this was what it was.

The woman finally called an end to the lesson but informed her that she needed much more work on this style. She bit her lip and hoped that was Burt’s idea of a joke. Frankly, she dreaded what came next.

She relaxed when the music changed to a beat and tune similar to the ones she’d heard in the club. Several other girls came rocking out of the back, dressed in club wear, and danced close with their male partners.

This, at least, was worth it, so she threw herself into it, used some of the moves the boys had taught her, and learned any new ones she was shown. She’d actually improved considerably before the session ended.

To a degree, she’d actually enjoyed herself and the guys would be happy. She scowled when she recalled the ballet lesson. They’d better be.

Witch Of The Federation

Back on Earth, Elizabeth picked up her cup of coffee and took a long, slow sip. As she set it down, the phone began to ring. “Who is it, Amelia?”

“It seems to originate from the Federation Navy base,” the administrative AI informed her.

She raised her head and smirked as she picked the phone up. “This is Elizabeth.”

“Hello, this is Petty Officer Wyld,” explained the man on the other end. “We received your message and we would like to extend an invitation for you to come and talk to us at the Navy offices.”

Ms. E rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Yeah, that won’t happen. I know you think that’s the smart way to do it, but I’d rather do this on my terms than yours. Why don’t you come and meet in my territory?”

Wyld was silent for a long time. It was as if he didn’t really know what to say and had to think about it. She had stumped him and while her wish for them to meet her on her own territory suggested she knew about some of the other tricks they had, it didn’t confirm it.

As he sat there in silence, the line clicked when Childers picked up to help with the conversation. “Elizabeth, this is Petty Officer Childers. We are now online together.”

“Oh, yay, a conference call party,” she acknowledged sarcastically.

The woman ignored her and continued. “I’ll get straight to the point on where we’re at. We need to know what Stephanie is capable of and how that might change the future if other humans could do what she does.”

Elizabeth held her breath. That was very to the point, especially for the Navy. She still wasn’t quite sure what Childers wanted, though, and decided to dig for it.

“So, what are you asking for? Is it testing time on Stephanie or simply any answers I can give to the best of my knowledge? Because she isn’t here, and I doubt she will agree to be the Federation Navy’s guinea pig anytime soon.”

“At this point, we don’t care what it takes to obtain the knowledge the Navy needs,” Childers told her. “If it takes a long time, then so be it. If we have to pull information from you instead of her, we’ll do that as well. I know you think we’re trying to steal her from ONE R&D, but we’re not. We merely need the knowledge.”

She paused, and when Elizabeth didn’t interrupt, she continued. “I don’t know why the Navy wants her, but personally, I want to know how to save the damn world. That is what I am interested in finding out. So, we can continue to fight and you can keep trying to avoid us, or we can communicate with each other and maybe come up with the solutions our planet needs. It is completely up to you.”

Elizabeth whistled. “Damn girl, you have some balls on you, I have to say that. And you know what…I like it. Now, remember for a second that I am the one who called you to set up a meeting, so we’ll work with that.”

“I’m listening.”

She smiled and accepted the prompt. “To answer your changing the future question, I’ll be dead honest. I have no idea. That quite obviously is our goal in all of this—to create opportunities for the brightest to be educated regardless of their financial status and therefore change the world for the better.”

Wyld chimed in. “See, we are on some of the same level here.”

Childers and Elizabeth snapped in a simultaneous chorus, “Shut up, Wyld.”

Ms. E rubbed her hand over her face and leaned back in her chair as she spoke. “Look, here is what I do know. Stephanie was in the top two percent of her year’s testing, yet she didn’t rate a university placement even though her aptitude also ranked very high.”

She let that sink in, then continued. “Have you considered testing for magical aptitude in these tests? Has the Federation taken the time to consider defining a method to test for the human awareness of eMU and MU? Because from the sounds of it, none of that was required.”

The other end of the line remained silent and she scowled. “None of it, obviously. Not a single thing. So basically, you put these kids through tests, graded them on their intellectual aptitude, and then toss the poor ones to the side regardless of their knowledge and IQ.”

Childers sighed. “I wish I could tell you that wasn’t the case, but I don’t know. I don’t work for the sector of the Federation that comes up with the tests—or even with the Navy sector that does the same. But I can put in a request for them to consider adding a magical aptitude test. Either way, she scored the same in the process and had the magic side as well.”

“Yes, she did, but it took her saving a woman’s life for anyone to notice her,” Elizabeth retorted. “And the university that invited her to attend their school as a result of that allowed her the summer session, used her attendance for promotional material, and dumped her before the semester’s start to avoid having to fund her.”

When she heard her voice rise in frustration, she stopped and gave herself time to rein her emotions in. “It is obvious they don’t care about intellect or educating the best. Why would they? They already have all the contacts they need to have decisions made in their favor. They don’t want some really smart nobody to knock on their door. And they don’t want her to disrupt their thought processes. To them, she was a temporary asset, easily used and as easily discarded.”

Once it was clear she had finished, Childers spoke. She chose her words carefully. “I’m sorry that it didn’t work out for her like it should have. She is the first Federation witch, so she should have been given an opportunity.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “You don’t get it. It’s not only about her. There are thousands more like her, and no one seems to care. Anyway, what else do you want to know?”

The woman didn’t hesitate at all. “We know about the use of MU and we saw her on the news during the battle at the ball. We want to know if Stephanie can do non-MU energy pulls?”

She tapped her fingers on the desk and tried to decide whether to tell the truth or not. Finally, she made a decision, knowing full well they would see what Stephanie could do in the upcoming ceremonies. From that point of view alone, it was pointless trying to hide her ability to wield the different magics. Besides, who knew what else the girl would be capable of by then?

“I can confirm that Stephanie is able to pull from all energy types,” she responded. “During the Gala incident, she was capable of drawing much more than she did but was not willing to risk innocent lives. Her reluctance came from her need to gain more control of the MU she used. She has advanced in leaps and bounds since then.”

Ms. E knew that secrets didn’t make friends, and she knew giving the information away could be as bad, but there was a middle ground. She wouldn’t give them details and they’d have to be happy with that. There was a line when discussions become negotiations, and when those negotiations became personal, Elizabeth shut it down.

“How did the two of you get this assignment?”

“I guess we’re lucky,” Wyld grumped, obviously displeased that he’d been shut out for the entire conversation.

Childers chuckled. “I’m not sure if you would call it luck, but we’re still here, buddy. We’re still here.”

This was true. They’d tried to ask their questions immediately after Stephanie had saved the ambassador, but Elizabeth and the team had shut them down every time. The only time the Navy had seen Stephanie, the ambassador had made sure she wasn’t alone.

She smirked. The Navy hadn’t been very impressed with that either.

Now, it was time she turned the tables on them. She had a good sense of where she was going and exactly what she wanted to know. “Exactly what were you trying to find out after that event?”

“I...uh...” Childers was thrown, and Wyld was no better.

“Well, um...”

Elizabeth suppressed a snicker and asked her next question.

“What can you tell me about eMU?”

Their answers to that were as entertaining as their answers to the first one, but she maintained the pressure. She asked question after question, none of which needed a definitive answer, but each was designed to throw them off their game.

Finally, Childers caught on to exactly what she tried to do and cut her off. “The Navy wants to determine what you and Stephanie know that the Navy should know.”

She shook her head and cleared her throat. “Not happening. I won’t share everything we know on the off-chance that you might need it. Sorry. I’ve seen the news about your leaks and I won’t entrust ONE R&D’s knowledge to you. This information is far too important and dangerous to have out in the wild.”

That stymied their conversation completely and caught the two Navy representatives off guard. When she looked back later, all Childers could think was that Elizabeth was right. The Navy leaked like a sieve.

With Elizabeth still on the line, the woman exhaled a deep sigh. “I wish we could come to an agreement. Unfortunately, we cannot provide that information to you since you aren’t cleared and we don’t have permission to do so. That means this conversation is over. I’m sorry.”

Ms. E chuckled mentally. “Yes, I believe we are at a standstill, then.”

She clicked her tongue. “And Stephanie Morgana?”

Elizabeth laughed. “Stephanie is en route to Meligorn where she will be awarded the Modfresha Garghilum.”

On their end of the line, Childers muted the call and punched Wyld in the arm, which made him flinch. “We can’t talk to Morgana because she’s off-world getting awards. See there? I was right.”

He groaned and unmuted the line. “Thank you for contacting us, Elizabeth. We’ll let you get back to your day. If there is any more information the company is able to release, please let us know. You know how to contact us.”

“That I do,” she replied and hung up quickly.

She puffed her irritation, glad to finally be rid of them. “That should give us about…two months’ breathing space.”

Her features settled into a scowl as she stood and walked over to the bookshelf. She opened an empty frame of a book and withdrew a very old bottle of scotch. Once she’d poured two finger-widths into a glass, she sipped it slowly and enjoyed the taste of the vintage liquor, even if it was still daylight outside.

“I can’t tell if my job is driving me to drink or my drinking is driving me to work. Either way, thank you to whoever left this bottle of whiskey behind. This was exactly what I needed. Now, I have about a million other things to do and I’m talking to myself.”

She stared at her reflection in the mirror and shook her head at the tired woman who peered back at her. “At least I have enough money to see a shrink and have some me-time at a private spa. Those are two very important things in a girl’s life.”

Elizabeth chuckled and wandered back to her desk where she plopped down and took to the keyboard to bring up the files she needed. There was no rest for the weary…or the wicked for that matter.

Chapter Thirty-Three

“Did you know there never used to be any transition points?” Frog asked as they worked to clean the pods before they used them for another training session.

“Yup, and I’m so glad I’m not doing this way back then. The passengers had to go into stasis or cryosleep for long journeys,” Marcus answered and wiped vigorously. “All I can think of is that movie where everyone goes to sleep on the long voyage and they wake up in hell.”

Stephanie’s head jerked up from behind her pod, and she pointed at Marcus and snapped her fingers. “Yes! Todd showed me that movie. Oh, man, what is the name of it…uh…uh…”

Event Horizon,” Lars said quietly as he emptied his pockets.

She turned toward him, her mouth open. “Wow, I didn’t know you—”

“Had the sophisticated taste of an old horror movie lover?” he asked.

“I was gonna say cared about that kind of stuff.”

He put his hands out and looked at the others. “Why does everyone think I’m such a stick in the mud? Seriously.”

Frog raised his head. “We-llll, you kinda sorta are? You know, when you’re not being extra-grumpy and all Mr. Super Serious.”

Lars opened his mouth but closed it again for a moment. “I’m not like that all the time. I can be fun,” he protested.

“Mhmm, sure you can,” Johnny soothed as if to appease him. “Like that time you cracked that joke about vegetables.”

He frowned. “What joke?”

The other man swirled his hand in the air as he finished his Pod. “You know, the one about the carrots with legs.”

The team leader seemed confused as he tried to recall what in the world Johnny was talking about. When he did, he closed his eyes and pursed his lips. “We were eight years old when I made that joke.”

Everyone chuckled. Stephanie smiled and then pouted. “Everyone, leave him alone. He is the glue of the team, the big boss man. If he wasn’t serious, you guys would wander like free-range hooligans and get into trouble without ever actually protecting anyone.”

Lars nodded. “Thank you. Jerks.”

She laughed and climbed inside the pod. “See you guys on the flip side.”

It took only a moment to settle in and she felt good about the day ahead. She needed time with her family, her team. When she opened her eyes, she was in the white room. The suggested clothing was nothing more than regular civilian or the typical jumpsuit. She decided jeans and a t-shirt would work and grew curious as to what they’d actually be doing.

The room shifted quickly and thrust her into a large vaulted room made of stone. In the center was a table with pads of paper, floating screens at each seat, and coffee.

An eyebrow raised, she started toward it and paused as Frog, Johnny, and Lars appeared, all dressed in jeans and t-shirts as well. Frog wore a shirt that read, Just a mass of cells.

“So, wait, I really need to know how this whole transition thing works,” he said as he sat at the table.

Stephanie sighed and chose the seat beside him. “In essence, we will move through or slip between dimensions. It was a huge breakthrough in travel for us. The Dreth are the ones who gave it to us.”

“No way,” he muttered in disbelief.

She nodded. “Yes, way. While their technology was very rough and slightly behind that of Meligorn and even Earth in some ways, their travel scientists discovered something the rest of us missed. The dimensions overlap.”

He stared at her like she was out of her tiny little mind, but she continued. “Our dimension touches on others and we can slide from one point in our dimension, across the edge of another dimension, and back into ours at a different point. You only have to know where they touch.”

Frog nodded. “Oh. Okay, so move like normal, do some crazy science-fiction shit, zoom through space using the back door, and then slow down again when we reach the destination.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes and sighed. Trust him to put it like that. “Basically, yes. We can get more into it when we get back.”

He shook his head. “That’s nice of you, but I found the vintage channel and have a hot date with the vid screen.”

Slightly relieved to not have that waiting for her when she got out, she looked around the table. She counted heads and then frowned. “Where are Brenden and Marcus?”

Lars swallowed a gulp of coffee. “They stayed behind to guard the pods.”

She was confused. “Was there a threat I missed?”

He shook his head. “No, but we all thought today would be combat training. We aren’t set up like we are at the base, so if someone comes in, we’ll never know, and there’s no way I want some civilian to join us accidentally .”

“That and if you have a meltdown into Morgana energy mode, they can pull you out,” Frog pointed out.

Lars rolled his eyes. “That was put very nicely. Thanks, Frog.”

Stephanie chuckled. “I get it. There are no alarms and with me transferring experiences between worlds, it’s safer to have a backup plan. Thanks for thinking about it.”

He shrugged. “All in a day’s work.”

Frog snorted. “That and we were all terrified something would happen to you and we wouldn’t know until we finally exited the pods. They monitor your vitals but the last time, your vitals barely moved while your body started to crash.”

Stephanie poured creamer into her coffee. “Yeah, I remember that. I meant to look into it, but I haven’t had the time. I assume the energy does something to protect the most vital parts of me first but I can’t be too sure. That gives the MU a number of live characteristics and I’m not yet ready to say it has a conscious state.”

Frog shivered. “That sounds as creepy as hell. Seriously. To know you’re basically sucking in a living creature and then shooting it out your fingertips to attack.”

She giggled as Lars flipped his screen on and rolled his eyes. “We need to invest in children’s science books for this guy. Give him the basics.”

“I used to have a children’s science book that was my great-great grandfather’s,” the other man replied. “It had all kinds of things about jet engines and breaking the speed of sound. Now, people break that barrier on a regular basis in their personal vehicles—really nice flying cars but still owned by dudes with big wallets and no idea how to fly.”

This time, the AI was the hologram of a brown-haired woman who rose from the center of the table to float in front of them. “Welcome to your simulation. My name is Mindy. There will be no fighting today. Instead, you will undergo a very specific scenario that will directly assist in the future of ONE R&D. You will test the prototype for a future learning exercise for new students.”

Frog groaned. “I hate school. I am not the brightest crayon in the box.”

“There will be no need for crayons, Frog,” the AI replied.

He jerked his thumb at her and whispered to the other three, “See, I’m not the dumbest one in the group.”

“If you wish to look at the test scores of this group and compare IQ levels, we can do that,” the AI said.

Frog shook his head. “No! Good Lord, woman, continue.”

Everyone snickered as Mindy prompted a list of rules to appear on each of their screens. “Your exercise is to assume that humanity has found a new planet and that this planet will be vital to the continuation of the species. However, there is only enough power to transition one thousand tons of organic material and two thousand tons of inorganic material in one direction at a time. As a reference, you can assume that this planet is similar to Earth circa two thousand years in the past but with no humans.”

Frog stared blankly at the screen while Stephanie jotted notes on everything. “What about other living creatures or organic material? What is on this planet before we bring a single thing there?”

“Good question,” the AI replied and gestured with her hand. The room displaced around them, but they remained seated at the table. The landscape of a new world appeared. It was deep-green in some places and red in others.

When they’d had time to look around, Mindy continued. “The planet has similar flora and fauna to that found on Earth but no tool-making species. Please note that when you settle, you will not be able to receive any additional resources so you need to be careful and very selective regarding what you take. You have to get it right the first time otherwise, you will all perish on this new planet. Good luck.”

By the time she withdrew out of sight, Stephanie had already launched into a list of things they needed to think about. “So, we have precisely one thousand tons of humans we can bring if we need to. That is approximately two million pounds.”

Lars nodded and wrote the number down. “We need to figure out what the colony will need and then determine how many men and how many women to bring to the planet. Once there, we can breed and start a new population. That means bringing children there would be a moral choice versus a necessity.”

She nodded. “We need people of all walks. We need builders, lifters, creators, and those who take care of us, like doctors and such.”

He wrinkled his nose. “Unfortunately, a strong male is twice the weight of a female. A two-hundred-and-twenty-pound man, though, could be extremely important if he was built strong and muscular.”

Frog laughed. “Are you only thinking Jocks here? Because I can tell you right now, I can put at least one and a half Geeks into two hundred and twenty pounds. Plus, if we say the women are a normal weight, which is—”

Stephanie put her hand up before he could finish. “I’m gonna stop you right there. I feel a responsibility to point out that even in a hypothetical situation, I have to stick up for women when talking about weight. So, go ahead my little friend, but tread carefully unless you’d like a boot shoved up your ass.”

He put his hands up with a grin and shut his mouth. Lars tapped the end of his pen against his forehead. “We can’t think only about people as organics, though. We need to discuss the other organics we’ll need. Like meat or protein. What kind of animals would fare the best on this new planet? What about seeds? Those are organic too. And we’d struggle to do all of this without knowing what type of technology we’d need to produce energy.”

She shook her head. “One thing at a time. I know this room is filled predominantly with meat eaters, but I have to point out that we don’t need to bring animals to have protein. Look around you.”

“We’ve been told this world has flora and fauna similar to Earth’s.” She gestured toward the planet and the wildlife. We could bank on finding an edible source right here. If it means we have to eat packaged protein for the first week while we confirm what we can catch ourselves, that’s fine as long as we can have five more people instead. Animal husbandry and xenobiology is a thing, you know.”

Lars curled his lip. “I know. But the idea of colonizing a new place without having burgers and fries seems unnatural. Still, I get it. We’ll have to look at the numbers. Johnny, you need to look through the survey reports and find us a few places with animals that might be this world’s beef.”

Stephanie gave him a wink and moved on in an attempt to formulate a basic outline of what they needed. “As far as electricity is concerned, we’ll have to see what type of renewable resources are present and if they can be optimized for this planet.”

She stopped and drummed her fingers on the desk. “You want to learn from the past here. We don’t want to simply assume that we are safe to create electricity versus determining how to use eMU or whatever variant is on that planet to meet the electrical need. I would have to test the MU on it and see where it goes and the differences in how it works, and we’d need an alternative in the meantime. There’s no real way to tell without visiting first.”

Lars nodded. “Cool. Okay, so we can say an exploration is needed. How long are the days on the planet?”

Frog scanned the data. “It looks like for every single day on Earth, there are almost two days on the new planet.”

“All right, so we would have to think about adjustment periods.” The team leader added that to his notes.

Stephanie studied her list. “Shelter. That is one of the main things. Frog, what are the weather patterns like there?”

“It looks like there are some rough storms—Earth hurricane-type storms but on a regular basis—so the shelter would have to be substantial. We’d need some kind of architectural specifics in order to keep us from dying or having to rebuild.” He threw the storm information on the screen.

“So, we would need specific tools. We could choose simpler tools but increase the man-time and power needed, knowing those tools won’t break. Or we can bring tools that will speed up creation but suffer from relatively easy breakage,” Lars pointed out.

She nodded, and he went on. “Which begs the question, how do we decide on the right types of people and skill sets to bring? I feel like there would be two different sets of people for each set of tools. Some who would have to have a higher skill set and more endurance, and others with fewer skill sets but still able to endure the long building days.”

Frog scratched his head. “This is complicated. We need a list of the different trades and then we need to figure out a baseline for the initial colony. Are we talking flushing toilets or will we share an outhouse or go in a hole in the ground? Will we bring fully functional ovens and stoves or use that weight for more important things and cook over fires? Is there clay and do we need kilns to fire it in? And we’d need someone who knew what they were doing.”

Stephanie rubbed her face and groaned. She put her pen down and leaned back to bring her cup of coffee to her lips. There were so many variables to it, and she had walked into the whole thing without the right mindset to find the answers.

“Okay. Suddenly, one thousand tons of organic transfer doesn’t seem enough. I have to worry about how many pounds of engineers I have allotted and how much each of them weighs versus whether or not I’ll need a potter, a seamstress, a weaver, and maybe someone who knows how to cook a decent meal.”

She leaned forward and studied the storm pattern on her screen. “Not to mention the fact that we don’t know what kind of diseases lurk in those tall grasses or what kind of insects and wild animals will hunt us while we attempt to build a civilization. We’d have to start with perimeters while getting shelter up as quickly as possible to avoid storms.”

Lars stared at the walls and at the very familiar-looking planet around him. “We could always ride the storms out in whatever ship we took to get there. Even if we had to fly it out of the atmosphere and back down.”

“That’s a lot of battery power,” Frog pointed out. “Not to mention the weight of those damn things.”

“And fuel,” Johnny added from his corner. “I’d suggest finding a cave system, but many animals hide out in caves and that might not be the safest option, either.”

Stephanie put her hand out. “Then we have cross-training to think about. It would only be smart to bring someone if they can be used in a multitude of ways. They may start with being a laborer and then become a harvester. Or a scientist, or a doctor. We can’t bring a person who is capable of only one task unless no one else does it and they are irreplaceable. If it is a female, she can double duty for procreation, but yeah, we have an issue with the general topic of how much testosterone is in a human. That can play a huge role in things.”

Lars laughed. “That basically plays a huge role in everything. Women can be builders, harvesters, and everything else, but there are some primary natural traits that make it smarter to bring a big, burly, strong man instead. If something breaks, we need to know the woman is as efficient in moving things with brute strength as the man would be. It sucks but we’re talking about evolutionary traits here for the masses, not a select few.”

She wanted to argue with him, but it was science. Men were naturally made to manage and sustain more physical labor than women, even though she knew more than a few women and men who didn’t fit that mold. It didn’t mean that women on Earth couldn’t do the same job. Given an unlimited amount of weight, they wouldn’t consider sex, but with the weight limits, they had to make sure they got the biggest bang for their buck.

“And killing can be a concern too,” Frog said and raised his hands in defensively. “Women can be great soldiers and hunters, but many are not. Men are bred to be protectors. It’s in our DNA. Like you said, we have to pick the best choice, not the one that makes a political statement. Once we are safely functioning on the planet is when we will be able to start cross-training to put people in jobs they’re best at or want to work.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes at him but then shrugged. “You’re right. I want to argue but I won’t. We need to add that to our list in order to be able to get what we need. We must develop tests for those individual skills. People will have to show their abilities, strength, health, vigor, and everything between. It won’t be a fun ride and there’s a good chance people will die. We have to account for that.”

Lars shook his head. “My brain hurts.”

Witch Of The Federation

While the team worked through the difficulties of choosing their settlers, the Dreamer’s Engine Room had gotten noisy. The thrum of working drives vibrated around the engineers who tended them.

The rumble was louder now the ship no longer idled at the dockside or traveled through normal space. The transition drives were bigger than the other engines and much, much louder.

The engineers monitored them carefully and constantly scrutinized the read-outs attached to each observation panel. A faulty engine or battery was incredibly dangerous when sliding the ship from one dimension to the next. If the measurements weren’t correct, they could end up somewhere completely different with no way to get home.

Roger stood at the front of the room and checked things off on his tablet. One of the guys walked up and nodded his head. “Hey, are we redoing all the checks twice or three times?”

He looked up, his face thoughtful. “Only twice unless the readings are different. The first slip went really smoothly, and we have a few hours before we need to make the second.” He smiled. “We were exactly on target when we came through, but you know slipping can be hard on the engines so use double checks to make sure everything’s running smoothly as we travel through the local space quadrant. Once that’s done, we’ll use the travel time to make sure the slip drives are ready for the next transition.”

The guy nodded. “Any word of when we’ll be underway?”

Roger shook his head. “No. We won’t know until Navigation confirms it has the heading, then they’ll want us to haul ass like they usually do. As long as we have a smooth flow and the batteries glow, I’ll be happy.”

As he spoke, the entire ship shuddered. The crew grabbed the nearest handholds and some clipped safety lines to their harnesses.

The engineer had been rocked off his feet and pulled himself up slowly. He noted the slightly higher readings and pushed his hardhat off his forehead as he glanced around and muttered, “I don’t know what that was, but I doubt it was a good thing.”

Witch Of The Federation

On the bridge, the crew strapped in and waited for the juddering to stop. Dreamers’ captain, Harlan Pensman, took hold of his console and looked at his crew who strained to see their monitors.

As the men reached for their keyboards in preparation to find the source of the problem, Pensman did the same, but when he hit the first key, he realized what was wrong.

The display was frozen, and when he pressed the emergency override, it began to skip wildly around like it was on the fritz.

He looked at the comms console. The crewman stationed to it was under it, already working on the panel, but the captain shouted, anyway. “Jeven!”

Jeven didn’t even look at him as he examined what lay behind the panel. “On it, sir.”

Before the captain could respond, the forward viewscreen went black and the signature logo of the Dreth pirates appeared.

“Security! Talk to me and it better be good,” Pensman said and spoke quietly into his headset. “Kelly, tell me I have shields. Jeven, when do I get my comms back? I need them three years ago.”

“On it, Captain.” As soon as he replied, the tech nudged the mic in his collar tabs and began to speak in a low, urgent voice.

The captain watched as the comms officer waited, listened, and spoke again.

“Well?” he demanded when Jeven had finished.

“They’ve hacked the system, sir, but Rampart and Trillion have launched the Yelpers and some of them made the slip into Federation space. Hargan is working with the concierge and they’ve enacted the Level-One protocol.”

Sending Yelpers—droid emergency capsules that could take an SOS to the nearest Navy vessel—had been next on the captain’s list of demands.

“Very good, Jeven. Now, get me—” He stopped as the forward viewscreen cleared and they could once again look out on a field of stars. “Thank you, Jeven.”

Stare as he might, Captain Pensman saw no sign of a pirate ship—and nor should he. This was the second dimension, a place they passed through on the way back to their own dimension. It wasn’t somewhere mapped out in case of attack.

Maybe it should be.

He frowned and glared at the screen until his console beeped and drew his attention. His screen had returned to life, which confirmed that the system was rebooting and would soon be back online. He was about to sit when Jeven’s voice sounded in his earpiece.

“Navy says they’ve sent a seeker, but they can’t send anything heavier until they have a target.” They both looked at the scan console but its operator shook her head.

“How long?” Pensman demanded.

“They say it’ll take at least…uh…” Jeven typed hurriedly “It’s…”

“Yes? Spit it out,” he ordered, his voice tight with tension.

“It’s fourteen hours, sir, before it gets here,” the man replied and cast him a nervous glance.

The captain gritted his teeth and nodded before he keyed in the public address system. He cleared his throat, centered himself, and prepared to speak to the passengers and crew.

He knew what was going on outside the quiet of the command center. It would be orderly chaos—and that was if he was lucky. The Level-One Emergency Protocol would sound and a calm female voice would direct all passengers to their cabins.

Every corridor would be lit with amber lights, and the stasis pods in each cabin would come online. Through all that, he had to project calm and control and make sure his passengers did exactly as they were asked. Now was not the time for heroes.

His purpose defined, he cleared his throat one more time, took a deep breath, and made the broadcast. “Good evening, passengers. This is your captain speaking. We are experiencing some technical difficulties and will suffer a slight delay. To ensure your safety and to allow the crew to carry out their duties unimpeded, please stay in your cabins until further notice. I repeat, we are experiencing some technical difficulties. Please remain in your cabins until further notice.”

He ended the broadcast and switched to Security Central.

“Make sure the decks are clear and lock the passenger compartments. If we’re boarded, I don’t want them to have access and I don’t want any strays to become hostages.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

The captain ended the transmission and sat heavily. His mind raced as he tried to decide what to do next. It didn’t help that he knew Security would have its hands full.

Most of the richies on the ship would either ignore him or lose their damn minds. He knew that as surely as he knew he would have to fill out reports for the next six months.

His tablet pinged, and he caught the defense officer’s glance and nodded to let the man know he’d received the communication. He activated the message and watched the scan feed magnify to show the Dreamer’s outer hull and the star field beyond it.

“They’re coming in on our starboard side,” the officer said. “It looks like a standard hard-dock approach to use the atrium and passenger entrance.”

The scene on the tablet adjusted to show a projected course before it returned to the pirates. “You will see these two ships are currently locked together. When they detach, I’ll let you know. Likewise, if we pick up any other signals.”

“Good.” Pensman nodded. “Watch them like a hawk. The moment anything changes, let me know.”

“Yes, sir.”

The captain made another call to Security Central. “Pensman here. Put me through to the commander.”

The call was transferred and Commander Charles Wayforth came online.


“It’s not good, Charlie. There are two Dreth incoming. They’re currently interlocked but I want—” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his screen bubble and fritz until an image of a worm eating invisible streams of data came up. “Of all the goat-sucking—Jeven!”

“I’m working on it.”

On the open comms line, he heard Charles give a startled bark of laughter and then swear.

“You got it, too, Charlie?”

“Big purple worm looking like it’s eating its way out the top of the screen? Yeah. I’ll get the Hats onto it right away.”

Pensman sighed. The Hats were the company’s ‘white hat’ hackers employed legitimately to counter hacking threats. They were useful but he wished he didn’t need them.

He pushed that pointless thought to one side and resumed the brief. “Jeven’s trying to clear the command deck, but you have the rest of the ship.”

“Understood. Let me know if there’s anything else, Penny. Don’t get killed while I’m not looking.”

“You too, Charlie-Boy.”

They ended the call and both men set about their assigned tasks. They’d served together in the Navy and come aboard the Dreamer together, too. With any luck, they’d both make it to retirement.

First, though, they had to get through this.

Witch Of The Federation

Marcus and Brenden stood guard in the pod room, their backs against the walls. They were supposed to divide their attention between the readouts on Steph’s pod and the door, but Marcus cleaned his nails with his knife and Brenden played Dreth and Damnation on his tablet. He glanced up and his gaze scanned the door and the pods before it came to rest on Brenden. “I wonder if they’re kicking ass in there.”

His teammate snorted and focused on the tablet as it loaded the next level. “They’re probably getting an exclusive vacation package as a reward and will owe us the big one.”

He shook his head. “Nah. Lars would never allow it.”

Brenden glanced up and a sly grin lit his face. “Do you think he’s conning Steph into another dance?”

Marcus laughed. “The man’s not that lucky.”

The other man grinned but before he could reply, a jolt rumbled through the ship. If they hadn’t been leaning on the walls, they’d have lost their footing.

“What the—” Brendan stuffed the tablet into his jacket and leapt for the nearest pod.

On the other side of the room, Marcus did the same thing.

Together, they started the emergency eject protocol for each of their teammates. There was no time to lose, especially since they had no idea what the hell was going on.

Witch Of The Federation

In the Virtual World, Stephanie put her feet up on an adjacent chair and lifted her tablet to push through the pictures of the planet. “They appear to have a strong ecological system there. It must be from all the rain.”

“If they live off rain and not some acidic hellfire.” Lars laughed as he studied the same images. “That would put a real damper on things.”

Before she could reply, the table flashed out of existence and the dishes fell. The chairs also vanished and dumped them on their asses.

Startled by the sudden flare that had run through the Virtual World, they picked themselves and glanced around in concern.

“Everybody ou—” Lars started, but that was as far as he got.

The AI came over the speakers “Prepare for ejection from the virtual simulation. This is not a drill. Prepare for immediate ejection.”

“This can’t be our fault,” Frog said and tried to type on a computer that constantly disappeared and reappeared in front of him. “We didn’t do anything crazy. There are enough servers in this ship’s system to support the scenario. We didn’t break nothing.”

Stephanie looked around when the ground shook beneath her feet. “What’s going on?”

Lars started to fade. “Nothing good,” he said and in an instant, he had gone.

Frog vanished next and then Stephanie, Johnny, and Avery. She clenched her eyes shut, afraid that this time would be different and that something terrible would be waiting.

When she opened her eyes a few moments later she found herself back in the pod with the door wide open.

Chapter Thirty-Four

“Move in and take control,” the Hormghast Orqtue growled and finished with a roar to get the attention of those under his command. “We make it to Engineering and the Bridge and that’s when we start killing. No hostages.”

“Hormghast!” the Dreth pirates responded and their deep voices echoed in the hold.

Orqtue turned to the airlock, snapped his helmet closed, and waited for the hatch to cycle. He was glad to see the umbilical stretched taut between the ships and the outer hatch already open.

With another roar, he led his men across, trusting the advance party to have already opened the way at the other end and now held the entry secure. Behind him, the Dreth raised their voices and their howls resounded through their suits and into the liner.

When they reached the other side, they found the breaching party had not only opened the way and held it, but they had secured the main floor. As expected, the elevators were locked down, but a pirate technician was already working to finalize the access the worm had started.

Referencing the Dreamer’s schematics via their helmet HUDs, the Dreth hurtled directly toward Engineering. It didn’t take them long to reach the security team that blocked their path.

“You shall not pa—” was all the security sergeant managed before the Hormghast shot him in the head.

He walked behind his men, his lip curled in a snarl of pleasure as he wielded the blaster single-handed. It wasn’t pride to say he hadn’t been made Hormghast for nothing. His aim was deadly and he was very, very fast.

Over his space suit, he wore a layer of thick leather armor adorned with gleaming metal spikes. From his belt hung the skin sections, shrunken skulls, and dried ears he’d taken from his defeated enemies.

Orqtue looked ahead as the last security guard fell and identified the human he knew to be one of his allies’ inside men. He nodded and smirked slightly to reveal his long, jagged teeth through the visor.

The traitor did not impress him, and he responded as he should—by soiling himself at the sight of the Dreth charging toward him. As if realizing he had more to do, the man fled at a run.

“They’re through!” he screamed, grasped a long metal rod from behind a stack of pallets, and rammed it into the security doors to stop them closing after he’d bolted through. “We’ve been breached!”

“Clever traitor,” the Dreth commander murmured.

The man’s terrified shouts would deflect suspicion from him long enough for him to ensure the leading fighters reached the door. Orqtue bared his teeth with satisfaction as the treacherous crewman grabbed a wrench and smashed the emergency override console on the other side.

“Dreth!” He turned with the invaders right behind him, only to find himself face to face with one of the junior officers. His face fell but she didn’t hesitate. “You disgusting traitor,” she sneered and her top lip quivered as she drew her side-arm. “You earned yourself a one-way pass to hell.”

The guy raised his hands as she spoke but she fired anyway and the shot burned a hole through his chest. He fell and wheezed as he touched the wound in disbelief, but he was dead before he hit the floor.

Orqtue had to admire the young female because she didn’t run. Instead, she tried to kick the pole out of the doorway, but it was jammed in too tightly. With the console disabled, she moved to try to close the door manually.

Fortunately, his men were faster. The lead warrior fired and the heavy slug drove into the officer’s shoulder and spun her back. She impacted the wall behind her, smacked her head, and slid into unconsciousness.

Her attacker came through after her and made sure the room was clear before he bent to run a claw down her cheek. Orqtue said nothing as the warrior’s second grabbed his shoulder.

“Hormghast Orqtue Rebile,” the Dreth rumbled to alert him to their leader’s approach.

With a hurried glance in the Hormghast’s direction, the soldiers raced forward to make sure the area beyond was clear. If their HUDs had guided them correctly, they had one room to clear before Engineering’s command center was in their grasp.

Orqtue stalked after his lead warriors and entered the atrium in front of the command center doors. Another traitor waited at a computer terminal, trembling as he tried to control his fear.

He snarled and the man jumped. Several of the Dreth raised their lips in appreciative snarls. The sight of their fangs did nothing to calm the crewman’s nerves.

Sweat covered his forehead and his hands shook violently as he turned fearfully. “Please,” he begged. “I put the worms into the system, but some of them didn’t take. The main ones did, though, and I’ll have it for you as soon as I can.”

The Dreth stared at him for a moment and shook his head. “No need. I’ll do it my way.”

Before the man had time to protest, he raised his blaster and shot him in the head. He holstered the weapon and threw the corpse from the chair before he stooped over the console. Leaning forward, he wiped gore off the screen and peered at it.

It didn’t take him long to see that the traitor had failed far more miserably than he’d claimed. Orqtue brought his fist down on the screen with a roar and decided brute force was the only remedy.

With the worm not doing all he needed it to, he had one thing left—the decades of survival skills inherent to his race. When all else failed, Dreth used brute force to bull their way through any and all situations.

Those who became pirates earned their place by being the most skilled at all forms of attack and infiltration. Orqtue was one of the best. He strode forward and examined the doors. His inspection complete, he turned to the advance team.

“Burn it down,” he ordered, and they growled their affirmation.

As they scrambled for the equipment, the Dreamer’s security sprung their trap. Orqtue’s head snapped around when he heard shots fired. Two Dreth who’d scouted the room tumbled from stairs leading to a walkway. Both were mortally injured.

Their deaths infuriated him, and he uttered a deep howl that shook the inside of the ship. The other Dreth responded immediately and climbed the stairs to where a security team guarded another door.

As soon as the leaders reached the outermost guards, they attacked and didn’t limit themselves to guns. Their armor absorbed most of the damage as they lunged at the defenders and hurled them over the edge to be ripped apart by their comrades.

Some of the guards took cover while others stood their ground and fired as rapidly as their weapons were capable of.

As Orqtue walked toward the stairs, he heard a scream from above and stepped aside to avoid the security crewman who catapulted over the rails. He paused as the guard landed with a thump beside him. It amused him to make a brief show of studying the man, even though he was clearly dead.

The guard’s body was twisted in an unnatural way, his eyes were wide open, and blood trickled from the side of his mouth.

He snorted and shook his head. “These humans are so fragile. All the better for me and my men to destroy them easily.”

Orqtue climbed to the walkway and assessed the situation. The HUD hadn’t lied. Engineering’s command center lay behind the doors below. He snorted and signaled the cutting team to begin. No doubt there would be a greater fight for the room itself.

Hopefully, the captain of his sister ship would have an easier time reaching the Dreamer’s Bridge.

Witch Of The Federation

Hormghast Saqteq had fought his way from the atrium to the Bridge, almost relieved when the corridors and hallways of the liner remained empty. Well, except for the liner’s security, and his men soon took care of that.

Now, the Bridge was directly ahead and the pirates were in another firefight with what he hoped were the last guards. With every shot the pirates fired, they claimed another kill without sustaining much damage in return. His men wore battle-grade space armor, and the liner’s security did not.

When they’d eliminated most of the defenders, Saqteq placed his faith in his armor and marched up to the hastily constructed barricade before them. He reached over an overstuffed armchair pulled from Dreth knew where to seize the lead security man, Hargan. His huge hand tight around the man’s throat, he held him suspended a few feet off the floor.

The officer’s eyes widened but he still tried to position his blaster between them to fire. Saqteq yanked it from his fingertips with his free hand and put his face against Hargan’s. “We are not here for games, human. Move your men or die fighting.”

The man’s eyes narrowed slightly, and he lashed out with a boot as he choked out a short reply. “We…will…always die…fighting. For the Federation!”

His boot glanced off Saqteq’s armor and the Dreth captain sneered and used his gloved hand to crush his victim’s throat. When Hargan went limp, he threw the body over the barricade and raised his weapon.

With a guttural call to his men to join the slaughter, he howled and sprayed the remaining humans with deadly fire. They fought back but not for long.

He smiled when they fell one after another. As the Dreth pushed past the barricade, the remaining security contingent backed away but made no effort to surrender. They knew they’d lost, but they wouldn’t give up and they refused to run.

Saqteq and his men thought it was a morbidly stupid waste of life, even though the humans’ courage was to be admired, and they carefully took their time to kill each one.

Deaths for the stupid were not something to be hurried, so the warriors marched forward and fired at each guard to render them wounded and helpless before the pirates’ approach. When they reached them, the Dreth killed them systematically with their bare hands or crushed them under their feet.

The pirates bellowed in victory as they marched toward the Bridge, losing very few men to the security guards left to defend it.

Saqteq was on a mission and he wouldn’t leave until he’d destroyed what he came to destroy.

Witch Of The Federation

In Security Central, Charlie buried his head in his hands and wept. Protocol kept him from leaving the center—well, protocol and a very pale-faced and determined 2IC whom he had no doubt would shoot him before he reached the door.

“We have to help them,” he pleaded, but Hubert stood firm, even though his voice quivered when he replied.

“We have our orders.”

The blaster trembled in his hands but not enough to miss, and Charlie doubted the tears streaking the man’s cheeks would blur his vision enough to put him off his aim.

“When this over, you and I—” Hubert’s voice cracked.

“When this is over, sir, you can shoot me. It’ll be better than having to remember this.”

He gestured at the screen and they watched as the Dreth pirates reached the doors to the Bridge.

As he stared at the number of pirates filling the corridor, Hubert whispered, “There are other ways to commit suicide.”

“What if I come up with a plan that might free the Dreamer?” Charlie asked.

“At least you’ll be alive to do that, now,” Hubert pointed out, “and I’ll be along to make sure you stay that way.”

Witch Of The Federation

While Saqteq took the Dreamer’s Bridge, a dozen or so pirates marched through the umbilical from the Dreth ship to the atrium. Four of them carried a large metal cylinder between them. The others escorted them, tasked with ensuring the bomb reached its destination.

They growled and snarled at the bodies of the security guards who had tried to stop their comrades from boarding and laughed at the ridiculous fountain in the center of the open area.

Their path took them past it, and they headed for one of the elevators on the far side which took them up several floors until they were able to reach the open space suspended above the atrium.

As they carried the bomb out into the space hologrammed to resemble open parklands, movement at several of the balconies adjoining the vista caught their attention. Blaster fire forced the occupants of the rooms to scurry back inside, and the pirates continued to the center of the open parkland.

Their leader, a Gramghast to the Orqtue’s Hormghast, moved into the huge park sanctuary and watched his men carry the bomb in and set it down gingerly.

He surveyed the area and snickered. “When this goes off, it will rip this ship completely in half. There will be no survivors and this sector of space will forever be peppered with dead Federation civilians. Assemble it quickly. We have little time.”

The pirates took a variety of tools and last-minute pieces from their belts and went to work. They’d trained for this for months.

Each piece fit perfectly into the bomb, and the gentleness and careful placement of them was reminiscent of a human engineer’s soft touch. Even Dreth didn’t like the idea of blowing themselves up, and none of them wanted to meet their captain in the afterlife if they did.

The Gramghast walked across the deck to a small ice cream shop. Its lights were off and there was a display window at the front. He could see something—or someone—hiding beneath a table inside and growled. The window shattered easily with a single powerful blow and he leapt over the counter and stools along it and grasped the small girl who tried to scramble frantically away. She screamed as he brought her closer to his face.

“Don’t be scared, little girl,” he bellowed and laughed at her terror. “We don’t like the taste of children, but if you end up being all there is, I will make it quick.”

The child uttered an ear-piercing shriek that made him cringe. He dropped her and covered the part of the helmet that shielded his ears.

“Fey’da haqte!” he shouted and turned to look for her, only to find she’d vanished.

Before he could start searching for the little wretch, one of his men interrupted. “Gramghast, it’s ready to program.”

The corporal gave a frustrated snarl and glanced around the shop one last time. “Hide. Hide, while you can, little girl. I will find you soon enough.”

Witch Of The Federation

Stephanie’s team had hurried through the hallways, careful to check each section before they raced to their suite. Frog had worked his magic on the locked door, and they’d entered Lars’s room without detection. Inside, he’d stashed an array of weapons in his closet as well as armor for everyone.

Marcus shook his head. “I thought all this was in the storage compartment.”

The team leader handed the armor out. “You didn’t think I’d come all this way without a backup plan, did you?”

She selected an armored vest, pulled it up her body, and snapped the pieces on the side. “I don’t need armor. I have magic, remember?”

“Even your magic won’t stop your body from dying if you’re cut, shot, or stabbed,” Lars replied while he laced his boots. “Being prepared with armor is a good first step on a really bad day.”

“Hell yeah, it is,” Johnny agreed and strapped his armor tightly in place. “There have been more times it’s saved me than not. You may be a witch, but you still have a human body and compared to a Dreth, we’re like porcelain dolls. Trust me. You want as much coverage as you can possibly get.”

Stephanie nodded, put her foot on a chair, and tucked her pants into her boots before she laced them as tightly as she could, one section at a time. “I can’t determine what’s happening here. I tried to send magic out to get a feel for it, but this ship is full of Dreth, Meligornians, and humans already. There is no way to know who’s behind this.”

“It could be the Dreth. Or it could be some unknown force we haven’t met yet, and it could be the rebels,” Marcus stated. “I do know that it doesn’t matter who they are. We’ll eliminate them. This was supposed to be a relaxing cruise and now, we’re covered in armor and doing our best to not be seen before we want to be seen. It’s complete bullshit.”

“War is bullshit,” Frog yelled. “But no one can seem to get the hell away from it. We keep trying to make peace by either starting a fight or making enemies of the ones with zero shits to give. There has to be a better strategy to it all.”

“When we get back to Earth, Frog, you can spend all the time you need to find a strategy that will work in our favor,” Stephanie told him and slipped a gun into the holster on her side. “For now, assume violence will be involved.”

He checked his gun and shrugged. “Meh, I really don’t mind. I simply felt like being a free-loving hippy for five seconds. I want to kick whoever this is back to wherever the hell they came from.”

Suddenly, the comms over the entire ship gave a loud whistle that faded into a crackle. It was followed by a deep growling cough that radiated throughout the vessel. “Attention. Prepare yourselves to listen carefully to the announcement about to be made.”

Stephanie walked over to the console in the corner. “Frog. A little help here? I want to see what’s going on.”

“You know this isn’t allowed, right?” he asked, dragged a seat up, and opened a panel in the wall behind the terminal.

“It’s an emergency,” she told him. “I’m sure they’ll forgive us.”

“We have to be breaking I don’t know how many Fed regs, here,” he grumbled as he fiddled behind the panel to wire in a connection to Lars’s laptop. Once he’d done that, he slid a thumb drive into the laptop and began to type.

“Ha! I knew we hired you for something,” Lars commented, looking over his shoulder.

“My good looks and chick magnetry?” Frog sounded hopeful, but his fingers didn’t stop their rapid-fire efforts and the screen in front of her showed her a list of the difference surveillance sections. “There. That should do it.”

“You’re a genius,” she said and clicked through the surveillance to see what was going on outside the suite.

The ship appeared deserted without a passenger in sight. There were large numbers of Dreth, however, and the bodies of security guards strewn in the corridors. The scene outside the Bridge was almost too horrible to look at.

Before any of them could comment on it, the speakers crackled again and a different but equally as sinister voice spoke through it. The emergency communications screens set into every cabin wall flashed on to display a Dreth pirate captain who stood on the Meligorn Dreamer’s Bridge.

His grin was particularly nasty, and he gestured to the center of the Bridge. At the consoles around him, the other pirates held the Dreamer’s captain and crew hostage with guns pointed at their heads.

The ship’s captain had a look of disdainful calm on his face and did not appear to be intimidated by the pirates at all.

“He should have been an actor,” Stephanie murmured.

The pirate captain spoke again, his tone brutish and guttural

“I am Hormghast Saqteq. As you can see, I speak to you live from the ship’s Bridge. We have taken control of your ship. Your security personnel are dead, and your captain and crew are at our mercy.” He lifted his lips in a fanged smile.

“He’s very happy with himself,” she commented dryly.

“He’s also very calm for someone who’s just won the battles he has,” Lars said. “That’s not good.”

“No,” Marcus added, his face serious as he studied the Dreth captain. “There’s no excitement there at all, and that makes him very dangerous. He’s here for more than simply taking a liner.”

Frog cursed. “And they’ve put a worm in the system. I’d need to be in the ship’s central computer to deal with that.”

Saqteq continued his speech, and they fell silent. “We have the willingness and the ability to rip this ship in two. As I speak, my crew are placing a bomb on board which I can activate with a word. If that happens, your final resting place will be in the middle of another dimension, where your decompressed bodies will float with those of your families and children for all eternity.”

He paused to let the horror of his words sink in and smiled malevolently again. “So, we will ask one very special and very esteemed passenger to come to the Bridge. Once they do, we will leave in our ship and allow you to continue your journey. If they do not come, we will detonate the bomb.”

Marcus gritted his teeth and sneered at the screen. “He has no intention to save anyone. He will detonate that bomb either way. Whether they plan to leave first or not is another question. They’re obviously willing to die for whatever ridiculous reason they have for being on this ship.”

Frog glanced nervously at Lars. “And you’re sure no one knew about us coming? This is a very big coincidence if they didn’t. What else on this ship could they possibly want? Dreth pirates don’t need to take hostages to get rich. They kill the people who have what they want and simply take it. Whoever it is they’re after, they must be damned important.”

“Which is why he won’t get what he came for,” Stephanie replied and stared at the screen like she could somehow stare into the pirate’s eyes.

Chapter Thirty-Five

The pirate moved and the drone camera followed him wherever he walked. He stopped in front of the forward viewing screen and looked out at space beyond.

After a brief moment, he shook his head, turned back to the camera, and gazed directly into it. He hesitated when he had a strange feeling that someone stared at him equally as intently. He shook it off—because it really was a fanciful notion that did not belong in a warrior’s psyche—and smiled at the people watching before he resumed his speech.

“This ship and—most important to you self-centered righteous bigots—your very skin will taste the heat of a million suns or the icy touch of space if this particular passenger decides they are more important than you are.”

He glanced meaningfully at the forward screen with its vista of stars and shrugged arrogantly. “What they will decide I do not know, but I’ll be glad to watch the action either way and I promise you, this is no virtual act. You won’t make it back from either experience in this life.”

Saqteq took a deep breath, clapped his huge hands together, and glanced over at where the captain waited, his face now slightly flushed. He permitted himself a chuckle at the man’s emotion before he looked at the camera once more. “So, here it is—the name of the person who needs to come forward, the one who can save you or sentence you to the grave. Are you on the edges of your gold-coated seats? Good.”

His face lost all humor and become stern and serious, and his lip twitched. “Ambassador of Meligorn, how about you come to the Bridge and save a few lives by not making this difficult? Leave your bodyguard behind if you value his life. You have five minutes before we start executing the crew. We will be waiting.”

The screen went black as the mic clicked off. Stephanie whirled to face the team, her eyes wide as she shook her head. “No. That…that’s not right, is it? The ambassador’s not here on this ship, is he?”

There was panic in her voice, and the team had no idea how to answer her. They simply stared and their faces revealed that they felt as confused as she did.

Finally, Lars walked over and put his hands on her shoulders. “What did he tell you about this awards ceremony?”

Calming slightly, she shook her head. “Nothing really. He said he would see me there, but he said nothing about being on this ship.”

Her voice rose. “I mean…if he were on this ship, he would have told me, right? Brilgus would have called to let us know. We would have known.”

Lars stared at her for a moment before he looked at the other guys. “Johnny, check the passenger logs for any unusual names in the royal rooms and floors. Then cross-check who is staying there and make sure they really exist.”

He turned to her. “I am positive he’s not here. I have no idea why they think so, but freaking out won’t fix this situation. You have to stay calm.”

Stephanie nodded and walked over to the center of the room. She thought about the MU conversation she had with the other Meligornian she had met.

She tapped her foot against the carpet and rubbed her chin as she wracked her brain to think of something she could do to determine whether or not the ambassador was actually there. When she recalled her encounter with Garma, she had an idea.

It might not work but was certainly worth the attempt. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and focused on a search for any sources of MU on the ship. Her gMU stirred and she could almost see it as it crept out of her and flowed across the floor.

She monitored it carefully and the energy traveled out under the doors and through the hallways to probe and seek for any trace of MU that might be there. It would take her a while to move through the entire ship that way but she decided it was the best chance she had to confirm the ambassador’s presence.

If he was on board, there was no way she would let him surrender to the Dreth. If he wasn’t, that freed the team to make a move. Either way, they couldn’t simply sit there and do nothing. Everyone’s lives depended on it.

Witch Of The Federation

Captain Penman looked at the pirate who held him down in his chair, a gun pointed at his head. His gaze followed Saqteq as he paced the room. He wasn’t sure what the pirate captain had planned, but the Dreth’s body language said he was waiting for something.

Aware that the human captain watched his every move, Saqteq waited for the signal. Either the ambassador would come or there would be an explosion that would rock the Federation. There was a fairly good chance that both would happen, which essentially made the explosion inevitable.

Captain Penman couldn’t know that, but it soon became clear that the human had no intention to simply sit there. “Saqteq—”

His guard reversed the blaster and smacked him in the side of the head. “Shut up.”

Saqteq turned toward them and waved his hand. “Let him speak. It is fine. What were you saying, Captain?”

Penman rubbed the side of his head and gave the pirate a filthy look. “I wanted to say that you are mistaken. I would know if the ambassador was on this ship. He has been our passenger in the past. I am the captain and I know the name of every passenger on board. That is my duty and obligation, despite the fact that some prefer to travel in secret. I cannot protect someone if I don’t know they’re on my ship. And I am telling you, the ambassador is not here.”

The Dreth leaned his head back with a smirk and folded his arms over his chest. “Sure, sure. Maybe you don’t know he is here but let me ask you something. You do have a special high-level person traveling to Meligorn on this ship, don’t you?”

Penman felt shock flare through him. He knew he carried someone special but not exactly who. He tried to pretend ignorance and rolled his eyes. “That could be anyone. The Federation even defines famous actresses as special high-level guests on occasion.”

Saqteq snarled at him. “Don’t act like I am stupid, Captain. I have scalped humans alive for worse than that.”

He fingered the string of scalps dangling from his hip and saw the captain pale. “Now,” he said, “the special high-level guest. Who could that possibly be if not the Meligornian ambassador? The Federation does not hide the knowledge of simply anyone from the security system, not even your high-level actresses. Only the privileged and elite get to walk under the sun without the Federation’s all-knowing yoke resting on their shoulders. Only those they deem as powerful as themselves are able to be a ghost in life. And the ambassador is one of those people. Perhaps even close to number one on that list.”

Captain Penman shook his head. “Then why don’t I know of his presence now? Why would I know about him every other time he’s traveled but not his identity for this trip?” He narrowed his eyes. “Why would I not know, but you would?”

Hormghast Saqteq spread his arms and his blaster hung sloppily from his left hand. “Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps for this reason, exactly. So that you can have—what is it? Plausible deniability? So that you can tell me you always know and I think you are telling the truth. Well, it won’t work this time. Do you want to know why?”

Penman shook his head and looked at the floor because he already knew the answer. The Hormghast ran forward, grasped his captive by the cheeks, and squeezed them hard as he raised his face to thrust his own inches away from it. “Because no matter what, if I don’t have the ambassador when I leave this ship, you will all die.”

He released the man’s face with a dismissive flick of his wrist and turned away. The ship captain rolled his jaw and spat on the floor. “You’ll kill us no matter what happens.”

Saqteq paused mid-stride and pivoted, faking shock. “What? You doubt my honor? You think we don’t have an honest bone in our bodies? Well, we sure as the Hromiqteg Deeps used to. It was only after your Federation destroyed our freedom that we left our honor behind. So, you may be right. I might truly intend to destroy all the souls on this ship because I have no honor. And, of course, you know all Dreth believe that a dead Federation citizen is the best kind of Federation citizen there is.”

Witch Of The Federation

Time was running out. The Hormghast had set a countdown clock to spin down in the center of the Bridge and focused the security camera on it to show the people how long they had until he blasted them all to hell.

As Dreth warriors took over the command consoles, Penman was forced to join his crew. When he reached them, his executive officer leaned toward him. “I know who that guest on the ship is.”

He raised his eyebrows, his expression plainly dubious. The man nodded vigorously. “I do too. It’s not the ambassador either.”

The captain shook his head and made eye contact with him in a meaningful exchange. “We have to reveal the secret to save some lives. Even if it only buys us ten minutes to get them into stasis pods, at least they’ll have a chance.”

The executive officer took a deep breath. “It’s the witch. She’s being hailed as the savior.”

“Then she should be here doing some saving,” Penman said. “By not coming, she’s given up her right to choose.”

He straightened but his heart sank as his face reddened. Guilt-inspired nausea rolled through him as he tried to find an alternative to what he had to do.

He didn’t want to hand the girl over to the pirates, but it was one life for many—and she was the witch. Surely she could get herself free, which was not something even the ambassador was capable of.

Left with no choice, the captain cleared his throat. Hormghast Saqteq turned toward him with raised eyebrows. “Yes? Are you ready to divulge that the ambassador is indeed here?”

The captain shook his head. “He isn’t. But someone else is.”

The pirate snarled and walked quickly toward him. “You had better be telling me the truth or I will sit you on top of that bomb when it blows.”

He swallowed hard. “I am telling you the damn truth. The secret person is—”

The comms squealed and crackled to cut him off and both captains looked at the screen. There was no picture, but they could hear breathing on the other end. “This is the ambassador.”

The voice was unmistakable and in the next moment, the screen flashed on to reveal the man standing proudly in front of the camera, his robes draped around him and his silver hair sparkling under the overhead lights.

His gaze shifted to something beyond the screen and the Hormghast sneered. He strode closer to the screen and inspected the Meligornian’s face intently. After he’d stared at the purple haze in the ambassador’s eyes that confirmed his identity, he turned to Penman and the executive officer. The two men stared at the screen in complete and utter shock.

Saqteq laughed, crossed to the group, and crouched beside the captain. He draped an arm over Penman’s shoulders and stared at the screen with him.

“See?” he said and forced the man’s chin up with a brutal grasp when he tried to lower his head. “You see? Even the Federation hides the risk from the captain of the ship which carries him. You are nothing but patsies for others. Playthings. You should have chosen to be a liberated human. Now we will get who we came here for.”

Penman stared at the pirate. “Why? Because you couldn’t have the job you wanted? Because you couldn’t have the house, or the city, or the car, or any of the luxuries? Is that why you’re angry?”

Saqteq raised his arm and patted the man on the back. As he stood, he looked at the human and all humor had faded from his face. “I don’t care about those things. No Dreth does. What we do care about is our freedom. We care about not being corralled and pushed around. We care when the Federation dictates our every move and thought and when the way it governs us kills our people.”

He ruffled Penman’s hair as he stepped carefully away and the man flinched. “Those are the things we care about, but even you—a servant to the rich—cannot see that you are nothing but a sheep. You humans like to be sheep. It makes you feel like you belong, and it’s pathetic. But no matter. I am about to get what I came here for and that is what is important.”

Witch Of The Federation

The ambassador stood in front of the drone camera and glanced across at Lars and the team every once in a while. The Hormghast was talking to the Dreamer’s captain and forced him to look at the screen before he left him and came to stand before the drone camera.

“Well, Ambassador, now that you have come clean, get your ass up to the Bridge. We have some business to discuss and I have a public of freed Dreth, humans, and Meligornians waiting to see you lose your head as retribution for all those who have ever been oppressed.”

The ambassador’s jaw clenched and Saqteq narrowed his eyes where he stood very close to his own camera. “What’s wrong? Are you afraid? You always said you would do what was in the best interest of Meligorn, no matter the personal cost. Wasn’t that the line that made people trust you? Now, though, you are part of the human’s world, and I fear that has corrupted you and made you weaker.”

The Meligornian raised his chin in what could have been a challenge. “You are surely mistaken, pirate. I am stronger than I have ever been.”

His eyes flashed black momentarily before they returned to their usual hue. It was so quick that Saqteq wasn’t sure if his eyes had played tricks on him, or if something was going on with the man. “No matter. Come to the Bridge. We will handle our business there.”

With a nod, the ambassador turned the video off and let his shoulders relax. As he turned toward Lars and the team, his body shrank down and his features altered. In less than a minute, Stephanie stood where the ambassador had been.

She rubbed her face. “That is a bitch to do. Next time, someone prepare a speech for me, okay?”

Frog jotted it down. “Noted. But I personally have to say, you were totally awesome.”

Stephanie chuckled. “That was the easiest part of all. Now, we have to actually save these people.”

Her expression grim, she lifted the hem of the robes and walked forward to claim her blaster off the bed and raise her robes even higher to strap it on her thigh. She had to take the pistols off her hip in case the Dreth noticed them before she could reveal herself.

There were lives at stake and she couldn’t take chances. “Are you guys ready?”

The team was lined up in their battle gear and ready to go. Lars nodded and Marcus grinned. “Hell yeah, we are. The question is, will you be able to hide us from the cameras? Otherwise, they’ll know it’s a set-up before you even get there.”

She bit the inside of her cheek. “I don’t know for sure. I have to find a way to manipulate what’s in the system.”

Stephanie closed her eyes and let her mind scroll through the possibilities. With the pressure on, she was able to think clearer and faster than she’d expected. It was another new development she’d have to explore at another time when an entire ship wasn’t held hostage by Dreth.

When the ambassador had told her that she had opened parts of herself that humans normally couldn’t access, she hadn’t been sure what he’d meant. Now, she began to have an idea of what that involved. The only thing was that she wished she could think this fast when she wasn’t on her way to meet someone who wanted to kill her.

“Or,” she countered. “I have to find a way to freeze the cameras I pass…” She rushed across the room and stood at the door with her hand on the knob. “You guys have to be thirty seconds behind me. As soon as I vacate a hallway, I’ll work to freeze the cameras to what was there at the moment I left.”

Lars nodded. “And that should give us time to get to the dark spot and wait for you to pass again. It should work.”

Stephanie nodded. “It should. Using that, we can get through from here to the Bridge okay. You’ve seen the feeds, so you know there are still Dreth out there and you have to sneak through.”

She drew the hood of her robes up over her head and her hair lengthened into long, silvery wisps as she stood there. Slowly, her body began to grow, fill the robes out, and broaden at the shoulders.

That complete, she lowered her head as her face morphed into the ambassador’s. “No failure,” she told her team, her voice still her own as she opened the door slightly. “We are on the way to Meligorn. Meligorn! And I will be damned if I let a horde of smelly, arrogant pirate savages stop me from seeing the planet of my dreams.”

That thought alone angered her more than she could even explain. She let the door close again and the hood of her robe slid back. Her eyes flashed to black and sparks of energy erupted around her like miniature lightning bolts.

Her voice rose and then fell and became heavy with promise. “They want to threaten the ambassador? They want to threaten this ship? Well, we will make them wish they never found us. They will cry for their Dreth mothers by the time I am done with them. And when the last of them have been relieved of their lives, I will send a message to anyone else who wishes to destroy the very foundation of truth. We are not on the side of the Federation, but we are not on the side of the rebel Dreth scum either. We are on the side of freedom.”

As she took a deep, steadying breath, the magic began to fade and her eyes returned to the ambassador’s usual color. The guys stood awed by her power and motivated by her words.

Lars nodded and raised his fist in solidarity. Stephanie let the magic form a ball in her stomach and grinned from ear to ear as she flipped her hood up to cover her head. “The time is now, boys, and then we’ll go and have a damn drink.”

They cheered quietly and readied themselves while she walked out of the room. Fortunately, she remembered to mimic the ambassador’s distinctive walk. She turned right and headed along the path to the Bridge she’d memorized.

From behind her, a whispered hiss demanded attention. She glanced up, then slowly turned. Frog had his head poked slightly out of the door and pointed frantically in the other direction. “The Bridge—it’s the other way.”

Stephanie pursed the ambassador’s lips, nodded, and turned swiftly as though she’d forgotten which way she’d meant to go before she strode nonchalantly down the hall in the right direction. Frog ducked out to give her an enthusiastic grin and two thumbs-up as she passed. It took everything in her not to blush.

“Okay, Morgana. You’re a little embarrassed, as you should be,” she whispered to herself. “Turn that to pure and total rage and you’ll well and truly be on your way to kicking Dreth ass.”

She curled her hands into fists and released a small burst of static. “Too much, Morgana, too much.”

Witch Of The Federation

“Get me the security scans,” Saqteq ordered as he paced swiftly in the limited space. “I want to see every part of this ship so I know the ambassador isn’t playing any little tricks. He’s always fancied himself as clever and I won’t fall victim to one of his idiotic schemes.”

The Hormghast’s eyes scrutinized the scans displayed on the main viewing screen and searched for any type of movement. Behind him, Captain Penman sat rigidly in his chair. He knew that if the ambassador surrendered himself, it would only mean death.

The Meligornian was older and more powerful, but he would be one man against the Dreth killers and would be more than willing to give his soul for the people on the ship. The captain couldn’t believe it would happen on his watch.

It seemed tragic that after a long and illustrious career, he would be remembered as the captain who’d allowed the capture—and most likely the death—of the Meligornian ambassador to Earth.

“Hormghast,” one of the Dreth called and pointed to the third screen. “There is someone coming.”

Saqteq waved his hand in the air. “Enlarge it. I want to see his final walk of shame.”

They all watched, the humans in horror and the Dreth in good-humored anticipation as a lone figure walked slowly toward the camera, then past and down the corridor. His face was unmistakable. The ambassador had come as promised.

For a moment, Captain Penman had hoped it was a different ambassador or someone posing as him, but the eyes, the slender, youthlike features, and the sparkling silver tresses were unmistakable. He looked away for a moment and up once again as the view shifted to the next screen.

He thought about the ambassador for a moment and focused more intently with narrowed, confused eyes. Instinctively but surreptitiously, he scooted forward in the chair for a closer look.

The executive officer noticed the movement. “What is it, Captain?”

Penman shook his head in warning and kept his voice low. “It’s probably wishful thinking, but I could have sworn the ambassador had a scar on that side of his face from his attempt to save his daughter many moons ago, and I didn’t notice it there.”

The other man scrutinized the feed as the Meligornian passed under another camera, and he confirmed there was no sign of any scar on his face. He glanced at the captain, who pursed his lips and attempted to keep a shocked look on his face and not reveal anything that might alert the pirates.

Saqteq turned toward them and smiled with quiet satisfaction as he gestured at the screen. “Don’t miss it, boys. Watch as the reason for your ticket to hell approaches. And please, don’t forget to thank him when he gets here. I’m sure he will love to see your faces before he watches you all die.”

Chapter Thirty-Six

Stephanie wobbled slightly with the effort to constantly lean to the right side like the ambassador always did. As she passed each security camera, she released a slight surge of magic into the wall below it. The stream of translucent gMU flowed out to vanish behind the wall panels.

Inside, it twisted up the wires and into the camera itself. There, it sparked obediently so the devices froze the image and held it steady for thirty seconds.

She knew she was being watched and that the pirates and ship’s crew were most likely shocked by the presence of the ambassador. It was almost hilarious to know with each passing camera that she was able to trick them into thinking she was not only a different age and gender but a completely different species.

Her magic swirled wildly inside and the vortex worked double-time. Soon, she no longer had to focus to maintain the Meligornian’s form. Her skills grew stronger and the increased power couldn’t have come at a better time.

The cameras changed as she moved, and she knew that her team was mere feet behind her, waiting for a clear path before they hurried through. She wasn’t alone in any of this, and that made her feel even braver.

Witch Of The Federation

Behind her, Lars reached the next intersection and put his fist up before he glanced carefully around the corner. It was completely empty of Dreth so he moved through and gestured the team up behind him.

Marcus, who was closest, leaned forward and whispered, “Are you sure these cameras are frozen? Are you sure she can do this?”

He stopped and shrugged as they waited to enter the next section. “If she can’t, this will be to be the shortest rescue from pirates in history.”

The other man thought about that for a moment and nodded. “She either can or she can’t, but we should act like it's done and keep watch for anyone who can see us and give us away.”

They reached the end of the next section and Lars squatted and drew his team in close. “Marcus brought up a good point. Whether this works or not, we have to be prepared for Dreth. If you see a pirate, shoot him. Shoot him so he can’t come back. Shoot him so the rest of his filthy comrades feel the pain.”

Frog nodded. “Or her.”

Everyone looked at him. “What? Just saying. No need to be gender-specific here. For all we know, those huge smelly bastards are all girls. You’re the ones with the assumptions. Sheesh.”

The guys simply shook their heads and readied themselves once more. Lars gave them all a strong look of approval. “We got this, guys. And so does she. Have faith in her.”

“Always,” Marcus agreed.

“To the damn glorious end,” Johnny replied.

“She is pretty much the baddest ball-bustingest chick ever,” Brenden said.

“Agreed,” Avery added.

“You know I will hop along after her for, like, life,” Frog said and made everyone suppress laughter.

Lars tilted his head toward the next stretch. “Well, shit, what are we waiting for then?”

Witch Of The Federation

Every step Stephanie took toward the Bridge as the ambassador became more difficult to make. It was as if the anger she held in vibrated through her whole body.

It was so strong it almost made her stagger. That pirate bastard didn’t know what he was in for. He had threatened her friend, an adopted member of her family, a man who had more courage and morality in his pinky finger than any of the Dreth inside.

Her fists clenched and she looked down and twisted her neck as she tried to push away the feeling that she might lose control.

They deserve to have you lose control, she said to herself. But shit, you gotta make it there first. Keep it together. Keep it together. Think of something calming.

Todd’s face flashed through her mind, and she felt the energy surge subside enough for her to continue. He danced around in her mind, told jokes, and talked exactly like he had when they were in school.

She remembered the way he walked backward to see her face as he spoke. Then he morphed in her mind to stand at the helm of a Federation Navy ship, saluting the Federation flag and ready to fight for them. She was proud of him, even though the military wasn’t something she wanted. No, not in the least.

Seconds later, the anger took hold again, and she was struck by a vision of Todd dying at the hand of a Dreth warrior and screaming in pain. Fire blazed all around him with no way for her to get through.

The imagery meant she had to fight harder than ever to keep the black from her eyes. Sweat began to pour down her forehead and despite her attempts to push out the bad, all she could see were the people she loved dying by Dreth pirate hand.

Now she knew how the Ambassador felt after losing his daughter. Now she knew how he would feel if he were subjected to the cruelty of what the Dreth pirate attempted to lay on his shoulders.

As she walked slowly forward, her breath became more rapid and she looked down when her eyes shifted from black to purple and purple to black. She could feel herself drawing in more and more magic until she didn’t know if she could hold it for another second, let alone until she needed it.

When she reached the corridor across from the Bridge, she clutched the railing on the wall, stumbled, and put her head down. She closed her eyes and took a moment to steady herself and remember why she was there—and why what she was doing was so important. The magic flowing through her was under her control and she needed to start acting like it.

Shaking her head, she harnessed the rage inside her and set it to the side to box it in and buy her enough time to walk onto the Bridge. As she did so, she felt the black fade even though the anger remained. When she knew she was okay, she turned and continued toward two pirates who stood outside the Bridge doors.

They looked at her with sneers of disgust. The one on the right raised his comm to his mouth to report to those inside. “Meligorn Muschtak is here.”

Stephanie knew it was a slur and a nasty one at that. She knew they were already baiting her as the ambassador, trying to embarrass him through ridicule, and it enraged her. The magic pushed at the boundaries she’d set, and she almost relinquished control then and there.

One of the Dreth looked strangely at her when he noticed the sweat trickling down her face and her clenched fists. He elbowed the other who studied the ambassador briefly and shrugged. “Maybe he is having a heart attack. That would do the dirty work for us.”

They both laughed and only the knowledge that she would unleash hell on them enabled her to calm herself. They wouldn’t know what hit them.

Witch Of The Federation

Behind Stephanie, the team halted around the corner from their destination. Lars watched as the Dreth guards grasped the back of her robes and shoved her into the Bridge. The door closed behind them but in the second before they disappeared from view, they slapped each other’s claws in a Dreth high five.

He curled his lip scornfully and shook his head. With his back pressed against the wall, he took a deep breath. “She’s in. Now, all we have to do is wait for the signal.”

Marcus frowned. “Uh…Lars? What signal would that be?”

Frog hit his forehead and hissed at Marcus. “The one that comes over the comms. Sheesh.”

The team leader blinked. He felt the need to rush after his charge but managed to hold back. “It’s Stephanie. She always has a signal. Although we should probably order her to give us an official one. Something like the Bat Symbol, but way more cool.”

“Like a Super Llama,” Frog said and garnered several blank stares from his teammates.

Witch Of The Federation

The lighting inside the Bridge burned steady and white, a distinct contrast to the flashing amber lighting in the corridors beyond. It was also a contrast to the danger she was heading into.

Still, she was calm and collected and loved the fact that she could walk through as she was and have no one question her. Someone began to clap loudly and a tall Dreth, built slightly smaller than the others, turned away from the viewscreen that stretched in front of the control center. There was something about him that set him apart from the others.

He smiled, still clapping. “The great ambassador has come here to die. How poetic could it get?”

Stephanie chose to remain absolutely silent. She could imagine that the Bridge was a comfortable place on a normal day, but not with a dozen Dreth holding guns to the heads of the crew hostages like they were.

Their leader observed the ambassador as he shifted his gaze and noted the position of every Dreth in the room.

“I know what you’re doing.” He snickered. “You are planning your heroic attack, right? The one where you save the crew and kick our asses back to Dreth? Maybe even kill us and show you have no mercy, even in your pathetic new life.”

The Hormghast shook his finger at the Meligornian. “You know, it would be useless of you to fight anyway. Even one as great as you runs out of energy.”

He yanked the ambassador’s robes open and tilted his head to the side to inspect the tunic beneath. “Ahhh, you did not even bother with any batteries. Are you so impressed with your abilities that you spit on us in contempt?”

With a grin, he spread his hands and cracked his neck noisily. In silence, he raised one hand and drew it slowly down over his face before he released a stream of MU from his fingertips.

It flowed over his head and down to wind around the pirate’s body. Stephanie gaped in shock as the Dreth elevated to hover a few feet from the floor as he morphed into his true form. When the new figure solidified, the pirate drifted to a sedate landing and released a deep breath.

She gritted her teeth and forced her voice to sound like the ambassador’s. “You are a Meligornian.”

The captain smiled. “That’s right, Ambassador—which makes me a hell of a lot scarier now.”

He held an empty battery out and gestured with his free hand.” “Put your MU in here.”

With her expression frozen in place, she complied carefully and pressed her hand against the battery to give him exactly what he asked for—her MU. When she withdrew her hand, the captain held the battery up and looked at the quarter-full rock. “I doubt this is all you have, but I will take it.”

He drew the MU into himself and breathed deeply, his eyes shut. “And now you are but a portion of yourself and I am fully charged. Will you allow your anger to become your stupidity one last time?”

He grabbed his captive by the shoulder and dragged him in front of the viewscreen. Instead of corridors, it now showed the interiors of all the rooms where frightened passengers waited and watched their viewscreens in horror.

“You cannot possibly save them all with what little energy remains inside you. And we have planted the bomb which will break the ship apart if you do not disarm it in time.”

With a bark of laughter, the pirate captain walked around the room, gloating. “How the powerful and mighty fall when their compassion replaces their passion. How funny it will be to see you crumble at the feet of the people and watch them shattered in agony and defeat.”

He paused briefly, cleared his throat, and spoke into his comms. “Round them up, boys. We are getting the hell off this ship and going home where we can watch in peace as they spend their last moments in the cold abyss of space.”

The Meligornian walked past Captain Penman, a look of scorn on his face. He stopped and stood with his legs shoulder-width apart, irritated at the ambassador’s silence.

Stephanie focused on the screens to make sure none of her team was visible on the cameras. Her magic had worked, and she knew they’d be waiting close by for the signal.

The pirate captain cracked his knuckles and drew her attention. “Do you have anything to say before we take you with us? The king will be at a loss once he does not have you as a pawn in this game.”

She didn’t know what he meant and simply reverted to what she knew of the ambassador. She spoke firmly, her back to him at first. “I don’t know what you mean. The unfortunate situation for you is that I am well versed in the evil that dwells in the souls of all who speak as you do.” She turned and fixed her captor with a cold gaze. “It’s even more unfortunate that I refuse to bow to those like you.”

His features mottled with anger but she gestured sharply to launch streaks of magic that wrapped themselves tightly around the pirates who guarded the crew. It immobilized them so they were unable to move. Immediately after, she gestured at the door to the Bridge, opened it, and blazed a fireball at the two pirates who stepped forward hastily to defend it. This was the signal her boys were waiting for.

The captain shouted in alarm and threw a spell. Stephanie raised her arm and blocked it easily as she looked over her shoulder at the door.

“Move your asses,” she grumbled and wondered if it was time to feel anxious.

She would have to use the gMU she had stored or release her hold on the pirates if her team didn’t hurry the hell up.

Witch Of The Federation

“Do you think the Dreth have emotions?” Marcus asked where the guys sat tucked against the wall. They were almost bored as they waited for the signal. “Personally, I couldn’t imagine one of those giant things shedding a tear, cuddling a hideous Dreth baby, or kissing their wives.”

“Now you’re plain being sick,” Johnny replied. “I’m sure they have emotions, though. And not all Dreth are bad. Only these.”

Marcus shrugged and studied his nails. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s hard to see it, though, when they’re trying to kill you all the time.”

The doors to the Bridge slid open and caught their attention. The team huddled together to glance around. They were in time to see the Dreth guards step into the opening, clearly confused.

Suddenly, a huge ball of magical fire rocketed into the floor between them, knocked both Dreth off their feet, and catapulted them into the walls hard enough to leave dents. As the pirates landed heavily, Frog pointed. “The signal! That’s the signal!”

Lars was already moving. He leapt to his feet, waved his arm, and raced as fast as he could to the Bridge. The two Dreth groaned and struggled to their feet.

“Scum.” The Meligornian pirate spat and glared at the ambassador.

Outside, the guards raised their heads as the sound of feet pounding down the corridor intruded through their grogginess and confusion. “Huh?”

Their eyes widened as Lars and the team hurtled toward at them at a relentless pace, dressed in body armor with their weapons raised as they bellowed the new team battle cry. “Morgana!”

The pirates fumbled for their blasters but realized they’d dropped them and hadn’t yet retrieved them. One of them pushed the other to the side and they both drew large swords from the sheaths on their backs.

The sight didn’t strike even an ounce of fear into the team’s hearts. Frog screamed at the top of his lungs and closed with the first one. He thrust his pistol under the alien’s chin and pulled the trigger. The bullet plowed upward into the Dreth’s head and the underside of his helmet as Frog stepped clear.

At the same time, the team leader stopped and fired at the other guard. The pirate grunted as his armor absorbed the damage, then took two enormous strides forward and swung his sword with a yell.

The blade nicked his cheek, and Lars narrowed his eyes. With a loud growl, he raised the gun and fired, hoping to fell his adversary before he could reverse his swing and slice him in two. He pulled the trigger repeatedly and filled the Dreth with bullets. His opponent shuddered with each strike but didn’t succumb.

When Lars’ gun clicked, out of bullets, he snatched another magazine and took several hasty steps back. “Does anyone want to take care of this?”

Marcus had snuck past the two as they fought. He now stood behind the Dreth, reached up, and tapped him on the shoulder. As the pirate spun angrily, he smacked a palm into the top of the invader’s sword arm, shoved the blade down with his left hand, and drove the long-bladed knife in his right hand into his opponent’s belly.

The Dreth froze and Marcus smiled as he thrust the blade deeper, “Do you feel sad, now?” he asked, a grim smile on his face.

The alien’s eyes widened and the human twisted the blade, dragged it up, and shoved it down again. “How about now? Anything? Flashes of your lumpy childhood? Kisses from your mother? Your first time with a lovely Dreth girl?”

The pirate sagged heavily on the blade and Marcus sighed and used his free hand to push him back as he yanked the knife out and allowed the body to fall. “No? Well, maybe you’re an anomaly. I’ll test that on your buddies too.”

Johnny looked at him in disgust. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to play with your food?”

Witch Of The Federation

Inside the Bridge, the Meligornian pirate looked at his hands and purple magic sparked from his fingertips. “What is going on? This doesn’t make any sense. I should have way more power than you, Ambassador. I took your power, dammit.”

As the ambassador, Stephanie stood silently but a small smirk played around her mouth. Infuriated, Saqteq took a few steps to the side and attempted to see through the open Bridge doors.

As he approached them, a loud bang made him jump and he looked over at one of the pirates who stared out with a worried look on his face.

The Meligornian took another step to follow the direction of his warrior’s gaze. He tilted his head for a better angle, and a bullet rocketed into his crewman’s forehead. The force whipped his head back and sprawled his body over the control board.

Stephanie released the magic holding the pirates as the team rolled through the door. The boys glanced briefly at the Meligornian in pirate’s clothing, at the crew held at gunpoint, and finally at Stephanie and continued into the room. They knew she’d deal with the captain and they had other assholes to eradicate.

Without stopping to ask either permission or forgiveness, they engaged the Dreth pirates, swept the invaders’ weapons away from their human targets, and used their blasters and knives at close range.

A laser bolt barely missed Frog and he looked at the singed metal on the wall. “If you’d been three inches farther, you would be picking comets out of your teeth right now, dumb ass. That wall is really thin. Are you a space pirate or a dick with delusions of grandeur?”

“Muschstack,” the Dreth sneered in response and Frog shrugged, leapt at him, and garnered a very satisfying scream as he activated the laser cutter he carried instead of a blade.

As chaos engulfed the Bridge, Stephanie, as the ambassador, kept her gaze locked on the pirate captain. The Meligornian shook his head at the scene and panic edged his voice. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to go.”

He gathered his magic, thrust his arms out, and launched everything he had at his opponent in the hope that he could overwhelm him. She simply swiped her arm and pushed the energy back into the walls of the ship where it dissipated. Her eyes widened as the captain growled, stamped his boot against the floor, and pointed his finger angrily at her.

His jaw clenched and his silver hair stuck to the sweat on his forehead. “You traitorous piece of shit. I will be your end, one way or another. I will kill this ship and all the people on it and I will start with this pathetic excuse for a security team.”

The Hormghast thrust a bolt of magic toward Lars, and she lunged sideways quickly, caught the purple ball of energy in her palm, and closed her fist to force it into mist. Her magic flared. It had reached the limit of its patience, and so had she.

The pirate captain had crossed the line and threatened her friends. Her team had stopped the pirates from threatening the hostages, and the crew had taken cover from the fight. Now, she had no reason to hold back.

The Meligornian gaped when he watched the ambassador shrink, the robes suddenly too big for the female form inside. The hood dropped over her face and he was at a complete loss as to what in the hell was going on.

Power thrummed over her small form, vibrated through the command center, and drew the attention of everyone present.

“Oh, shit,” Frog said and pointed at her.

“Dammit.” Lars tackled one of the pirates and managed to drag the enormous form to the ground. “Interesting,” he continued, as the alien looked at him in confusion. “Tell me, do you feel anything but anger and pride when you take a life?”

The pirate’s confusion melted into a look of scorn and distaste, and he bared his fangs as his body tensed. The human gave him no more time to react “Sorry, I need intel or I’d let her have you.”

“Musch—” the pirate started and struggled to break his adversary’s grip.

He released the alien but powered a fist as hard as he possibly could through the open visor. The blow rendered the man unconscious before he could finish his insult.

Marcus glanced over and nodded in approval. Lars winced, shook his hand, then motioned toward Stephanie. “Someone’s gone black.”

With the last pirate eliminated, the other guards raced toward her. “Stephanie!”

Witch Of The Federation

Stephanie swiped her hand back and pushed her team away from her. Her head raised in challenge, she shrugged the robes off her shoulders and stepped out of them in her body armor.

Her eyes were as black as the space outside and she glared relentlessly at the captain. “You dare to threaten my people?

He froze. Whatever he’d expected to find under the cloak, it hadn’t been this, but she gave him no opportunity to recover his startled wits. She leapt forward and moved so fast the team couldn’t see her until she stopped in front of the Meligornian Hormghast.

Her hands moved swiftly over him to drag the magic out of him. “I’ll take that back,” she told him coldly, “and with the interest you owe.”

His eyes bulged in shock and terror as pain engulfed him when streams of energy ripped their way through his skin. He opened his mouth and a scream shattered the air. It broadcast through the open comm line to fill every inch of the Dreamer.

In their cabins, the passengers cringed and some moaned in fear, while others stared with real horror at what they saw on their viewscreens. In an ice cream shop many decks away, one little girl felt a surge of hope and gave a very quiet giggle.

On the Bridge, Stephanie Morgana held the pirate captain at arms’ length, his torso wreathed in purple energy. His body shook violently, and she smiled a terrible smile. As she looked at him, he opened his eyes and his skin began to melt from his bones.

Recognizing her, his voice cracked. “That human witch—”

Her smile widened. “Perhaps it would have been best if the ambassador had been here because I haven’t the wisdom to use anything but raw power. And since I will need it all to fix the evil you have done, I’ll take that from you.”

The magic surrounding him brightened as she did as she promised, thrust her arm into his thinned and brittle chest, and wrenched the last strand of magic from inside him. He shuddered slightly when the energy left him. It shimmered as it flowed into her and left nothing but a pile of ash and bone behind it.

Stephanie drew several slow, deep breaths, and the room seemed to expand around her. She turned and stared at Captain Penman and the cold darkness in her gaze made him shiver.

Despite the urge to look away, he held her gaze and saw something beyond the young woman he had welcomed on the ship only days before. Sparks of energy crackled around her as she spoke. “Keep your people safe. Take care of everything else on this ship while we take care of the bomb.”

He nodded and she turned and strode from the room, her security team close behind her. Penman sat for several moments in the silence that followed, then pushed himself from the seat and turned to his executive officer. “Deal with the pirates and the dead. Get them off my Bridge.”

The comms crackled and Chief Engineer Bruce’s voice came through. “Captain, we have a problem.”

Chapter Thirty-Seven

The pirates had spread out and made for the passenger decks as their captain had ordered. Fortunately, they hadn’t managed to do much before their captain’s scream and the view screens set up throughout the ship had alerted them to his death. Now, they converged on the Gramghast and his team.

Their motivation had not changed. They’d wanted to destroy the ship and now wanted that more than ever. They had lost their leader and that was a travesty, the ultimate betrayal.

It was clear the ambassador had known they were coming and had seeded the witch in his place. For that, he would pay. But before that, they would destroy the witch, because no one, not even the magically gifted, could survive the vacuum of space.

At first, they’d thought they could team up, move into place as a single force, and trap her. There were enough of them that she wouldn’t be able to eliminate them all before they overwhelmed her.

It might have worked, but with the speed at which their adversaries moved and their determination, the pirates couldn’t enact it in time. They found themselves under fire before they could put any of their plans into action.

The team strode through the ship, Stephanie in the lead with her wild black eyes and silvery strands of hair blowing wildly around her. Any attempt at resistance was simply annihilated. Her team walked behind and to each side of her, grim-faced and unyielding as they fired with measured deliberation to pick off the pirates she missed.

They walked without fear and ignored the laser fire and bullets directed at them without flinching. She swayed her hand from side to side to block any attacks very effectively.

It took her no extra effort to do so. The shield had been a good idea but it demanded more power, and with her magic expanded, it was easier to block or slow any shots fired at them. Defeated in the ship’s corridors, the remaining pirates converged on the bomb. Their Gramghast made the next plan seem possible. “We will be able to use the bomb as negotiation. We have a ship full of hostages so she will have to let us go. And when she does, we will detonate it. She killed our leader, and she must die.”

The others who stood near the incendiary device looked doubtful. His plan sounded good, but they were not so sure. “Have you seen her? She is the Federation witch and there is something in her that none of us have ever seen. I watched Saqteq as he was reduced to nothing more than ash and bone.”

The Gramghast narrowed his eyes and bared his fangs at this insubordination. “This is no time for cowardice. We are Dreth and we fight against the tyranny and oversight of the Federation. This witch is merely smoke and mirrors, a little girl who only plays with magic.”

“I don’t know, Gram,” the pirate insisted and revealed a hint of fang. “If she is only smoke and mirrors, she is the kind that has more than fire and glass behind her. She sucked the power out of him and melted the skin from his bones.”

Their leader sighed and waved his hand dismissively. “Whatever she is, this is our only chance to stop her. The hologram is gone. Start welding and close the hatches. We don’t want her to throw it into the umbilical.”

The Dreth went to work and moved the bomb enough to make sure it sat squarely on the beams strengthening the floor. They were very careful to avoid creating any kind of friction as they moved it.

Once it was in place, the pirates backed away and looked around. “Where is Krozar?”

A massive Dreth pushed through the crowd and his presence made the rest of them look small. His battle armor was worn, and he was covered in scars and wore a pair of round glass goggles on the top of his helmet.

He raised the welding torch he carried, pressed the lever to activate it, and lit the cigar clenched between his jagged teeth. Krozar puffed a couple of times and looked at it, then regarded his companions with a smirk. “Does somebody need a weld?”

The closest two Dreth exchanged glances and groaned but waved him over. “Krozar. Bomb. Stick it down and don’t blow us up.”

The alien sneered at them, knowing they were making fun of him and hating it. He sassed them in return and enjoyed the looks on their faces. “What? No boom-boom?”

Not giving them time to respond, he pushed them aside and went to work to weld the bomb to the floor. A pirate crouched to his right and another to his left to hold it in place. Krozar looked up and pointed to the guy to the right. “Move it a half an inch to your left.”

The pirate hurried to comply, but his body was suddenly hurled away and blood splattered the side of the bomb. Krozar raised an eyebrow and turned to the other one. “All right then. You. Move it a half an inch to your—”

Another shot rang out and his second assistant somersaulted into the virtual grass. A blue wall of magic swirled around him and shoved him back several feet before it returned to wrap itself around the bomb.

Krozar threw his cigar on the floor and raised his goggles. He stood and turned to see what the hell was going on.

“I’m workin’ here,” he protested

The others ignored him. They were too busy looking up so he followed their gaze.

The witch and her team looked right back at him.

Witch Of The Federation

Stephanie leaned over the balcony five stories above the park floor. “I’m glad to see they take bomb safety seriously. Sure, let’s smoke cigars and light torches around the big explodey thing.”

“Well, you put a stop to that.” Lars grinned.

Stephanie cracked a smile and put her hand out. “Fine. We’d better get our asses down there before they work out how to set it off in spite of the magic.”

Around her, the team responded with a soft chorus of affirmatives, and she placed her hands on the rail and prepared to launch herself over. “Drinks are on me when we finish?”

“All right!” Marcus grinned like a maniac and placed his hands on the rail beside hers.

The others mirrored him and each of them grinned like they were about to raise hell—which was exactly what they intended to do. “Let’s make an amazing entrance, and I hope the security cameras get this,” she said and looked at Frog. “You did get the cameras, right?”

He looked at her and curled his lip with scorn. “Puhlease, I’ve haven’t been out of them since you had me get in. Smile! This thing will go out live.”

They all chuckled and readied themselves to jump. She sent a small glimmer of magic to each of them and it coated their boots with a slight gleam. When it settled, she began to count. “All right. On three… Three!”

Witch Of The Federation

They landed hard and bounced, and the magic cushioned the impact enough that they didn’t break bone. Marcus took two running steps and dived forward. Frog saw what he was doing and sprinted over.

He dropped to his knees and reached to push his teammate’s feet up as he did so. The dive turned into a flip, and Marcus spun feet over head toward one of the Dreth.

The pirate raised his blaster, but his attacker moved too fast. His feet pounded into the alien’s skull and felled him. Marcus landed and pushed to his feet where he bounced on his still-enchanted boots. “This shit is seriously wicked.”

The Dreth groaned and struggled to stand. His opponent continued to talk about his boots while he drew his pistol. “I feel like I’m in control but I have super-feet power. Who knew that could be a kick-butt super-power?”

He pulled the trigger and fired two shots into the invader’s head and immediately looked for the next target. Around him, the fight had started in earnest. Frog backed up to him and eliminated another pirate as he came.

When he ran into his teammate, he gestured to his feet. “My turn, my turn.”

Marcus laughed as he locked his fingers together and stooped for him to step into them. A group of three Dreth had attacked Johnny as a unit, so he pivoted slightly as Frog stabilized.

He bounced his hands up and down and he crouched, grunted with effort as he straightened, and raised his hands to launch the other man toward the Dreth trio. He narrowed his eyes to follow the man’s trajectory and his jaw dropped when he realized he might have tossed him a little too hard.

Frog whooped as he soared up to the sixth floor, then grasped the cutter as he began to descend once again. He tipped himself forward to aim at the three Dreth and Johnny and activated the bladed weapon.

At the last second, he flipped so he now fell feet-first, knowing they were the only part of his body that was actually cushioned by magic. His plummet hurled him into one of the Dreth and he lashed out at another and partially severed the pirate’s neck.

Johnny blinked and grinned as he high fived his teammate before he turned back to the battle. “That was killer bad.”

The third Dreth lunged toward him and his grin disappeared. He raised his blaster and fired to pulp the left side of his face inside the helmet. He followed up with a shot to each of the Dreth on the ground. “I want to give that a go.”

Frog pointed at the closest wall. “Go running up and kick off the wall and put your enhanced boot in some Dreth’s face.”

He went to do exactly that and lined up the trajectory he’d need to come off the wall and reach his target. His teammate’s gaze fell on his boots in time to see the gleam of magic disappear.

It was too late to warn Johnny, although he tried, and he could only watch helplessly as the man launched himself at the wall. With the magic gone, the jump didn’t go as planned.

His feet touched as planned and he pushed off, but he didn’t gain the height he needed and plowed head-first into the floor. Frog was already moving, ready to intercept the pirates who grinned at Johnny’s antics even as they prepared to kill him.

He shot one and then a second as the other man pushed to his feet with a groan. “Sorry, dude. The magic literally vanished.”

“Just my luck,” Johnny told him and scowled at the Dreth moving in. “It looks like playtime’s over. Time to kick ass and break heads.”

Across the battlefield, beside the bomb, Stephanie faced the welder. She drove her fist into Krozar’s chest. Under normal circumstances, the blow would have had little impact. Even with the magic, she barely pushed him back a couple of feet. She looked at him as he stepped forward and smirked. “Wow, you’re a really big guy, aren’t you?”

“He is,” a familiar voice said beside her, “and he’s mine.”

Her smirk grew into a smile when Garma stepped into view and raised magic-laden hands.

“Be my guest,” she told him and moved out of his line of fire.

The Meligornian didn’t need to be told twice. He used his hands alternately to release a barrage of fireballs into Krozar’s chest until the Dreth’s armor burst into flames. The magical blaze took hold and spread over him and the fire grew even larger.

Krozar screamed and dropped to the ground, where he rolled frantically and beat at it with his hands in an attempt to extinguish it. Another Meligornian arrived, tsked, and looked at Garma.

“You always do this,” he said. “It’s inhumane.”

With that, the new arrival shot Krozar in the head to end his pain and pathetic screams. Garma smiled. “This is my friend Baizel. Crystal’s over there.”

Crystal looked up from where she’d gutted one pirate and slashed the throat of another. Her eyes tracked the fight around them as she gave the witch a nod.

Stephanie noticed that Crystal’s long silver hair was pulled half up and away from her pale purple eyes. The female Meligornian was dressed traditionally in a lightly armored space suit sans helmet but which was surrounded by the glow of protective magic.

She waved a hand at her two male counterparts. “This is our uncle, and that’s my brother. We saw you fighting on the screen and came to help.”

“She magicked her way out through the locks.” Baizel grinned as Crystal calmly felled a pirate and Garma used magical darts to kill another. “Much better.”

He raised his pistol and shot past Stephanie. She couldn’t help noticing that his eyes were like purple-tinted crystals and his face was full of youth and excitement. She swallowed hard and smiled in return. “We’re glad you could make it.”

Before any of them could respond, a very human cry of pain was immediately followed by a groan. She whirled as Johnny toppled sideways in front of a Dreth.

The warrior laughed and pulled his sword back, but she bolted forward and called on her magic as she went. Before he’d completed his preparatory motion, she had closed the space between them and flipped up and over the pirate, seized his head, and snapped his neck before she landed behind him.

Johnny, bleeding from the leg, struggled to get into a sitting position as she lowered the dead Dreth to the ground. “How did you—”

“Are you okay?” she asked. “I can heal you.”

He shook his head, unable to stand. “No. That will drain all your strength. I’m okay. I’ll crawl over to that little corner over there and shoot everything in range.”

As he spoke, Crystal arrived. She reached down, hauled him to his feet, and draped one of his arms over her shoulders. From the way she moved, it was as if he weighed nothing at all. “I’ll get him to safety.”

Stephanie nodded and surveyed the carnage around her. “Thank you.”

The Meligornian woman grinned and eased Johnny into her arms like he was a child before she used her magic to boost her jump onto one of the balconies above.

Frog jogged over to her and pursed his lips. “I think I’m in love.”

A surge of pain ripped through her side and fear rushed through her chest. It took her a moment to realize it wasn’t her own and she whipped around to find Baizel and Garma facing two Dreth pirates.

A third had snuck up behind the older Meligornian and the blast the alien fired flung him to the ground. Baizel tried to reach him but he now had two adversaries to battle. The third aimed a second time and she tried to reach him before he could fire.

Even as the magic kicked in, the pirate walked over to the downed Meligornian and smirked as he pulled the trigger. To her surprise, Garma’s eyes turned to her and he smiled in the split second before the bullet ended his life.

A flash of light filled the parkland. It blinded everyone and caused a momentary lull in the fighting. Garma’s soul and the last of his magic fled outward at his death, and in that flare, Stephanie heard his laughter and saw herself seated at the table in his suite as they ate and talked for hours.

Just as quickly, the light retracted into Garma’s body until the Meligornian exploded into a cloud of shimmering dust. Baizel gave a cry of heartfelt pain and tears streamed down his face.

Above them, on the balcony, Johnny wrapped his arms around Crystal as she shrieked in disbelief and tried to launch herself over the rail. The pirate looked around and began to take aim at Baizel’s back, but only for a second. Fire, condensed into a small ball of glaring white, rocketed into him from across the field. It flared when it impacted his head and vanished in a bright eruption of light.

Pieces of helmet, flesh, and bone exploded outward in a burst of magic and gore, and the pirate dropped to his knees. The blaster clattered from his dead hand and he fell forward to lay deathly still. Smoke rose from his body before it blazed into dancing purple flame.

The other pirates stopped and looked for the source of the attack, surprised to see a young human female limned in a halo of purple fire.

“You scum-sucking bastard!” Her furious shriek drew the attention of the team.

Lars summed up the situation in a single word. “Goddamn!”

“Steph?” Frog began, but she was gone. All that stood before him was the Federation witch, Morgana, and she was too far gone for reason.

The halo of purple flared and four shields surged up around her, deep purple and solid enough to stop anything—including her friends.

Frog tried again. “Uh, Steph? Are you in there?”

It was no good. Even he could feel the tide of gMU she pulled toward her. Worse though, was that he could see what she did with it next. Her hands spun and swung both right and left as she delivered a continuous barrage of magical darts and fireballs.

He was about to try the suicidal and grab her when Lars tackled him from the side, then hastily helped him up again. “We have to get everyone out of here.”

His teammate was horrified. “Not the pirates?”

“Oh, hell, no! They can fry, but this guy... She’d be really upset if we let her fireball him to pieces by mistake.” Lars gestured to where Baizel stared at the hail of destruction around him. He seemed frozen in place.

Before they could reach him, though, Avery and Marcus grabbed the young Meligornian and hauled him down the nearest corridor.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

With the Meligornian cleared from the battle zone, the team tried to get close to Stephanie but each time they did, she pushed them back and, despite the magical fury they faced, the pirates decided to retaliate.

For them, the situation hadn’t changed. They still had a mission to accomplish and they had vengeance to wreak on her. The bomb remained securely in place, and none of them knew if it would go off, but they were all reasonably sure the Gramghast hadn’t needed to touch it to detonate it.

Maybe if they fought for a little longer, they could turn the tide and accomplish what they so desperately wanted.

The first attack came from across the room. A blaster bolt missed Lars’s head by inches and drove into the shield. He flung himself down as Stephanie retaliated with several missiles in the direction the shot had come from.

“Sonuva...” He rolled out of her way as she pivoted and noticed the pirates still standing weren’t about to run. Quickly, he spoke into the team’s comms as he returned fire. “Target the pirates, guys. Maybe she’ll come back to us when they’re gone.”

“You wish,” Frog muttered, and Lars was sure his teammate hadn’t meant to speak that over the comms.

Regardless of whether he’d meant it or not, the words reached Stephanie, exactly as the team leader’s words had. Somewhere beneath the fury that was Morgana, she heard and knew she had to regain control. They were right. When the pirates were gone, it had to be Stephanie they found, not her rage.

She knew she was volatile from the sheer amount of energy bursting through her. While she couldn’t stop it coming in, she could control it and the best way to do that was to fight.

With this amount of power, she could do that, and if she needed to bleed some of it off, that’s what she’d do. She would fight like she’d never fought before. Around her, the rest of the team turned their attention to the invaders and worked their way out from her as though she were the center of their world.

Lars reached the edge of the park where the ice cream parlor stood. Momentarily free of Dreth attackers, he leaned on the frame of the shattered shopfront and shook his head as he tried to catch his breath. He scanned the area and had chosen his next target when he heard a small gasp.

It had come from behind him and inside the store. Slowly, he turned and crouched to see a small blonde girl tucked under a display. Her eyes were wide as she watched the battle, and they grew wider when she saw his face.

Tears tracks stained her little cheeks, but her eyes were dry. She squeaked in fright and scuttled away from him, deeper into the shop. “Just what I needed,” he grumbled, straightened quickly, and pushed the door open.

With effort, he changed his expression from hardened soldier to kind adult and moved into the interior, stepping carefully over broken glass from the window.

“Hey, sweetie. You can come out now,” he called. “I won’t hurt you. I’m here to help.”

At first, nothing moved, and he suppressed a sigh. He didn’t have all day. The guys needed him, but Steph would kill him if he didn’t rescue the kid, so he was screwed either way.

“Come on, kiddo. I can’t get you back to your mommy if I can’t find you.”

That seemed to work. She peered out from behind the shop counter and studied him warily. Lars stopped and crouched again to offer her his hand.

“You gonna show me where we can find your mommy?” he asked.

She sniffed and her gaze darted nervously at the sound of the battle outside.

“Find Momma?”

He gave her a reassuring smile.

“Yes. Find Momma. Are you gonna help me?”

She regarded him warily for a few moments longer, then scurried over to him and took his hand. Without asking for permission, he scooped her up and held her close to his chest.

She couldn’t have been more than four or five. She laid her head on his shoulder and sniffled. He patted her back awkwardly before she spoke.

“Help Momma,” she told him and pointed. He followed the direction of her hand and startled. There, lying on the floor in a pool of blood, was the body of a woman. She had the same bouncy blonde hair and blue eyes as the child, although hers stared sightlessly at the ceiling. His heart stuttered in his chest.

“I’m sorry, sweetie. Let’s find your daddy instead.”

“Find doctor?” she persisted, and he didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise.

“Yeah, kiddo,” he agreed softly. “We’ll go find a doctor.”

He left the store and slipped carefully out through the door. Crystal met him before he’d gone three steps toward a corridor. She’d jumped down from the balcony and left Johnny to take pot shots at the pirates on his own.

Now, she smiled sweetly at the child. “Any sign of her parents?”

Lars shook his head, not able to explain it in front of the child. He had a hard enough time holding himself together as it was, and the fight wasn’t over. She took a deep breath and forced a smile as she put her arms out for the girl.

“This is Crystal,” he told the child. “She’s going to look after you for a while and I’m gonna kill the bad guys.”

“Doctor?” the child asked, and her small voice quivered.

“Bad guys first, then doctor,” he told her firmly and hated the lie even as he said it.

“Kay.” The girl didn’t argue any further but let Crystal take her from his arms.

“She’ll be okay,” the Meligornian reassured him as she leapt upward and used her magic to boost them out of the fight and return to Johnny’s balcony.

He sighed heavily and turned his attention to the battlefield. Stephanie stood at the center of a magical maelstrom. The shields remained constant, but energy still arced around her. Fireballs, darts, and a rain of magic blazed through it as Morgana obliterated every Dreth she saw. Her eyes burned black, two pinpricks of darkness in the midst of the gleaming purple storm.

She kicked the front shield down, rolled forward, and stretched her hand toward half a dozen advancing Dreth warriors. They backed away before her and only stopped when the wall blocked any further retreat.

Morgana glared at them and they cowered before her and flinched when she swished her entire body right and left. Her left hand turned in circles to conjure a spiral of rope magic into her palm. Holding one end, she used it like a whip, flicked it up, and snapped it as she brought her hand down.

The whip made a chiming noise as it struck the ground and created sparks of magic. The fiery particles ignited into a low wall of wildfire that flared up in front of her adversaries.

As they cowered from the flames, she drew the blaster strapped to her thigh and began firing. She didn’t stop until they were all dead and then, she looked at Lars.

He was too busy to notice her, however, having been attacked by one of the pirates not caught up in her attack. He landed a punch and followed it with a flying kick that missed the Dreth’s face. The alien retaliated, hammered his fist into the human’s chin, and launched him into a wall. He grunted as he impacted and slid to the ground.

When he didn’t immediately move, Stephanie clenched her teeth and began to stride forward. This time, Lars did notice her. He raised his hand as though signaling her to stop and shook his head. Morgana fought to stay in control, but even she could see the battlefield was almost clear and very few pirates remained.

She stopped and waited as he used the wall to push to his feet before he turned to meet his adversary. He took a fighting stance and raised his fists as though he meant to use them, but as the Dreth approached, he grinned and drew his blaster. “Just kidding, asshole. We’re not doing that again.”

A single shot felled the pirate, and he walked toward Stephanie while he rubbed and popped his cheek. “Are you back yet? Because that definitely hurt.”

He studied her carefully as he approached. Her eyes had returned to their usual blue and her hair now hung normally instead of rising in an invisible wind. The shields remained—only the three protecting her back and sides—and there was no longer a halo of magic surrounding her body.

To his relief, she smiled.

“I think you made up for it with that trick,” she replied. “That was sweet.”

“Thank you,” Lars acknowledged. “Being that much of a smart ass is truly an art.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes and patted him on the shoulder, then pivoted away abruptly to pursue a pirate who tried to open the doors leading out of the atrium. He made it through and disappeared into the corridor beyond with her in hot pursuit. As she raced after him, she passed Frog and Marcus, who faced one of the pirates using swords taken from his dead companions.

Frog swung, missed the Dreth, and overreached. He wasn’t used to using a blade that heavy, and it pulled him off balance and spun him around. Marcus shook his head and bent his knees as the alien lunged at him.

“Dude,” he told Frog, “you gotta bend at the knees. Find your center of gravity. Otherwise, you’ll run around missing and falling all over the damn place.”

Their adversary roared and made a sweeping stroke at his head and Marcus ducked. He came up under it and thrust his blade into the Dreth’s stomach. He was fortunate to find a vulnerable point in the pirate’s armor, but the blade caught, and he couldn’t pull it out again.

The pirate dropped his hands to the trapped blade and stumbled back, a look of shocked disbelief on his face. Frog regained his balance and glared at his teammate. “You know what the real problem is here?” He yanked his blaster out and shot the invader in the head. “Using big-ass knives when this is supposed to be a gunfight.”

While Lars, Brenden, and Avery battled the last of the pirates in the room, the other two looked for Stephanie, but she was nowhere to be seen.

“She went that way,” Frog said when he recalled her running past him as he’d swung to miss the Dreth.

They spun and saw the open door leading out of the atrium. “Shit.”

Neither of them said anything more. They turned and jogged into the corridor.

“She can’t have gone very far, right?”

They soon discovered that, while they’d been fighting, the worm had done its work and the cabins—once securely locked according to the ship’s Emergency Protocols—had unlocked. Because it had been so silent for so long, people had started to come out of their rooms and now wandered the corridors. They stared in shock and awe at the bodies and the battle damage that scarred the walls.

Panels had been shattered and laser burns seared the surfaces. Frog and Marcus tried to push them back, worried about where Stephanie could have gone but knowing they needed to move the passengers out of harm’s way. “This is not a secure area, people. We have not neutralized the enemy yet. There is still a danger to life and limb here.”

The people didn’t listen at first and tried to see past them into the open parkland at their backs. The teammates tried to steer a path through them and persuade them to return to their rooms. It seemed a futile effort until a Dreth barreled out of a door marked Staff Only.

Everyone screamed and flattened themselves against the walls. Frog and Marcus drew their blasters and fired. Three shots struck home and the alien fell at the passengers’ feet.

Frog thrust his blaster back into its holster and yelled, “I just told you, we have not eliminated the enemy. You need to be in your room with the door locked. This is not simply a precaution. The Dreth pirates will kill you and probably eat you or keep your head for a trophy. So, go!”

This time, they gasped, turned, and literally raced to their rooms. He shook his head, not understanding what they found so difficult to understand. “I swear the richies are like different people to the rest of mankind. They are specifically created to not listen, have ridiculous curiosity for things they should never be curious about, and have no moral compass. Instead of helping the guy on the ground there—who knows, he could be alive—they walked over him to see the bigger dead things.”

Marcus walked over, studied the dead man on the ground, and shook his head. “Uh, no, I think those people would have known he was dead.”

His teammate scoffed. “How? You can be still alive and unconscious.”

“Very true, but you cannot be still alive and headless.”

The other man looked at him, then at the body and grimaced. “Oh. Oh, man, that’s terrible. Now I feel like an asshole.”

They worked their way through the corridors in search of Stephanie.

“Do you think she went black again?” Frog asked as they turned another corner.

Marcus was about to answer when they heard her furious tones punctuated by the snap of magic arcing over armor. “Oh, you miss your mommy? I’m sure, in hell, there will be plenty for you to do.”

This was followed by the sound of three precise shots, followed by a thump, a pause, and one shot more. They exchanged glances and ran toward the sound.

“We found her,” Marcus comm’d to advise Lars so he wouldn’t come after them—after all, someone had to guard the bomb.

The bomb! They sprinted and hoped to catch up to her before she went any further. It was a relief when she turned a corner and strode back down the hallway as she wiped the splattered blood off of her face. “Uh…he wanted us to know that we are all infidels and that he will see his way from his afterlife to haunt each and every one of us.”

The guys nodded. “Right on, new friend.”

Stephanie smiled. “Yeah, I told him to make sure he knocked first.”

“We need to get back,” Marcus reminded her. “Lars is gonna hemorrhage something otherwise.”

She laughed. “We’d better not let that happen, had we?”

They hurried to the open floor where the rest of the team waited. Crystal had helped Johnny rejoin the team where they stood around the metal monstrosity in the center of the field. As she, Marcus, and Frog entered, a small, persistent sound caught her attention. “What is that?”

Crystal pointed at the bomb, and Stephanie walked cautiously closer to it and confirmed it as the source of the beeping she’d heard. “This…uh, Frog? This is not good, is it?”

He backed two steps toward the corridor. “Don’t look at me,” he told her. “Stuff that blows up is all Brenden’s fault—and Lars. Yeah. Lars likes to blow shit up, too. Ask him.”

“Get your ass over here,” the team leader growled before he turned to Stephanie.

“Like the man says, Brenden and I blow shit up.”

“I forgot,” she admitted and only now remembered how they’d set the boobie traps and dealt with the bomb in the passenger liner scenario they’d run through in what seemed like a million years ago.

Lars put his hand over his heart. “I’m hurt.”

“I don’t think there’s a luggage drone made that’s big enough for this thing,” Marcus muttered morosely.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Stephanie, the team, and several guards stood in front of the bomb and stared at it. The timer ticked down on the front. The thing was huge—big enough to have to taken several Dreth to move it into place. Lars pursed his lips, his eyes wide. “Hey, Frog?”

“Mhmm,” the man murmured, his eyes a little glazed as he stared at the device.

“If we cut the floor—”

“You’ll be fine,” Frog told him. “But this floor’s two feet thick.”

Everyone looked slowly at Stephanie, who sighed. “Okay, this is the plan. I’ll use my magic to cut a perimeter hole around the bomb without accidentally damaging it. We can lower it to the atrium and float it off the ship.”


“Well, there’s this pirate ship, you see,” she told him and grinned. “We simply have to get it down five floors really fast.” She shrugged. “So we’ll cut a hole in the floor.”

“That sounds terrifying.” Baizel wore an expression of disbelief.

Marcus shook his head and swiped his hand through the air. “Nah, she’s a pro. She’s got this. I hope.”

Lars stepped in front of her as she readied herself, slightly nervous. “You’ve got this. You know you do. Focus everything you have. We’ll head down to the atrium and clear a path to make sure you have the space to get through. Keep your eyes on the bomb. Will you be able to do some floating magic stuff to get it out or do we need to make another plan?”

Stephanie looked at him and cracked an exhausted smile. “No, I got it. Better to sail it through on magic then you guys drop it. Boom. All disintegrated.”

“Besides,” Crystal added. “Baizel and I can help there. We still have magic left.”

“There!” Stephanie said as though that settled things. “I have magic back-up and you guys. I’ll be fine.”

Lars gave her a dubious stare but he nodded and his gaze slid to the side. “Elizabeth is really missing a party.”

The bomb kept beeping, but the tone changed and the tempo increased.

She jumped. “We’ve gotta do this now. We’re out of time.”

“And the time is ticking faster,” Marcus yelled as he watched the numbers change.

Stephanie and Lars looked over to confirm that the timer seemed to move in double-time. She cracked her fingers and shooed everyone away. “Go. Clear the path. I need to get this to the pirate ship like yesterday.”

“Got it,” he confirmed, turned, and ran off with the team.

Crystal and Baizel came and stood beside her. “Let us know what you need.”

Stephanie closed her eyes and remembered all her training, all her abilities, and all her moments of discovery. She calmed her emotions and breathed deeply through her nose. Shaking her hand, she pointed at the floor and concentrated her magic into her index finger.

She calculated exactly how much she had to cut and tried to balance that with conserving her energy before she moved two feet away from the bomb and began. First, she focused a sharp ray of energy into the metal below her and cut deeply into the floor.

With her other hand, she directed a reinforcing wave of magic beneath the bomb to keep it floating and not allow it to plummet through to the atrium below. The fountain would be a problem.

As she walked a circle around the bomb, she noticed that it wasn’t as hard to support as she’d thought it would be. The reason was clear when she glanced at Crystal and Baizel and saw them focusing a stream of Meligornian magic on the floor beneath her.

She continued her circle and completed it. After she’d added an extra surge of support beneath it, she finished the final cut through the last section and immediately used both hands to cycle the energy from her body to beneath the bomb. It helped that the two Meligornians were lending their support, but their magic alone wouldn’t have been enough.

As they worked, passengers slowly emerged onto the balconies overlooking them. They also crowded around the openings to the corridors leading into the space. Everyone watched in silence as she lowered the energy carefully to float the load through the floor and past the fountain to the atrium floor below.

Once they reached that level, she and the two Meligornians let the floor she’d cut away settle to the ground and stepped off it.

“Thank you,” Stephanie told them. “I’ll take it from here.”

She stepped through the bodies on the floor and forced herself to concentrate despite them. From his position at the doors leading to the umbilical, Frog looked at the hole in the floor above. “That’ll definitely need more than a simple patch.”

One step at a time, Stephanie moved the bomb through the ship. It took her a moment to register that the two Meligornians had ignored her instruction and helped her lift it, but she didn’t complain. She could feel fatigue pulling at the edges of her body.

The team moved ahead of her to clear anything and anybody in the way. Bodies were dragged to one side and overly curious passengers pushed back. Crew members appeared from nowhere to take over passenger control and help with clearing the path and they were able to move more quickly.

As they crossed the last corridor leading to the airlock, the bomb beeped again, and Marcus stuck his head around the edge of it to peer at the countdown. “Let’s say you might want to move triple-fast.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes and fixed her focus on the amount of magic she needed under the device before she began to jog in place.

“You guys got this?” she asked and looked at Baizel and Crystal.

At their solemn nods, she began to trot down the last stretch of corridor. “All my guys go first. We might encounter resistance. Don’t let them shoot the bomb!

The umbilical bridge was flimsy and hard to balance in. There was no way they could move through it at speed and still keep hold of their volatile package. Stephanie stopped halfway and shook her head.

Lars looked right and left and turned quickly to put his fingers to his lips. They listened to the sound of people on the other side preparing for their arrival. She held the bomb with one hand and surged a protective shield around them, closed them in, and made it much easier to move forward.

When she was done, they continued and picked up the pace. The guys didn’t tell her how much time was left on the clock There was no point. Either they’d make it, or they wouldn’t.

When they reached the other side, they were bombarded by a wall of bullets. The slugs drummed into the shield and crumpled to fall at the team’s feet. The Dreth maintained fire but couldn’t breach the protective barrier. They persisted, even though they were unable to stop the team as they pushed forcefully into the ship.

As they proceeded, Stephanie glanced around and realized that the forces were not only Dreth but included Meligornians and humans. These weren’t merely pirates. They were part of the resistance and one which had grown in leaps and bounds if humans had already joined their ranks.

She didn’t know much about it, but given what life was like at home, she understood how easy it would be for a human to be drawn into it.

The bomb beeped more rapidly now, and Lars glanced at the timer. “The next right is the last stretch. We have to run.”

As soon as they turned the corner, she dropped the shields and surged into a sprint until they reached the center of the ship. Frog raced ahead and hacked them through a large steel door.

Beyond it, they found a podium surrounded by a scattering of tools and pieces of technology. Stephanie and the two Meligornians floated the bomb to the podium and set it down carefully before they released their magic.

“That…that says three minutes,” she said. “That’s…holy shit, we gotta go!”

They barreled out of the room and were forced to a halt when they encountered a line of resistance. Dreth, humans, and Meligornians blocked their path. One of the older humans stepped forward and held his weapon to his chest. “You aren’t going anywhere. You killed our leader and your lives are forfeit.”

She sucked air in through her teeth. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s how it works.”

Before the enemy could attack, she pushed both hands forward and to one side to create a wave of magic. It swept the resistance aside and into a wall to clear a path for her and the team to escape. They bolted through the gap and the two Meligornians pushed hard to keep up as they ducked and swerved. Behind them, their adversaries regained their feet and set off in pursuit.

Lars, Avery, and Marcus dropped back a little to fire blindly behind them to slow their pursuers down. Stephanie created a small ball of magic. “Find the control room.”

The orb hurtled away and she followed to lead the team down another corridor and up to a set of double doors. She pressed the button and it slid open to reveal three Dreth and the command center.

The pirates looked at her and she smiled nervously. “Hey. I’m gonna need to steer the ship. Thanks.”

The Dreth left their posts immediately and charged. Lars and the guys entered and swung into position to turn their weapons on the aliens. With the enemy occupied, she hurried to sit at the ship’s Navigation panel and peered at all the buttons. Marcus leaned beside her on one side and Frog on the other. “Do you know how to fly this thing?”

She licked her lips. “Uh…no. But I’m sure I can work it out.”

The AI activated as Stephanie tapped the controls and a map of stars and planets appeared before her. “You must give me a destination.”

She poked frantically at the map. “There—go to that star over there.”

“I’m sorry, that is not a valid location.”

“Right. Point the ship right,” she commanded, conscious of time ticking down.

“I do not know what your right is,” the AI responded calmly. There is no location that meets your criteria, but there is a large city only thirty seconds from here. Would you like to go there?”

The whole team yelled, “No!”

Stephanie pounded her hand onto the board. “Listen, you undereducated Artificial Intelligence. Point the damn ship away from the Federation Ship…or I’ll...I’ll damn well delete you.”

Everyone went silent and waited for the response. “Accepted. Pointing the ship away from the Federation enemy.”

The vessel shook and the deck vibrated as the engines powered to life. Slowly, the vessel began to turn and altered its position to face away from the Dreamer as instructed. Then, it slowed. “I am in need of confirmation. What is your Resistance Identification?”

She groaned and buried her face in her hands for a moment, then raised her head and looked around. “Frog, where would I find the AI’s computer on this thing?”

He scanned the room and pointed to a big metal black box on the wall. “That should be the server controls for the AI.”

“Great,” she said and stormed over to it. “And if I disconnect it, will the ship still run?”

Frog thought about it for a moment and nodded. “Yeah, it should.”

Stephanie turned to the box and pulled magic over her hands. She growled her frustration as she ripped the entire system from the wall, yanked the wires free, and hurled the box to the floor. The computer screens flickered and skipped and finally went dark, and the deck surged beneath their feet.

She turned to the guys, her eyes wide. “We should probably get the hell out of here.”

“No. Really?” Frog asked and started for the door. “Because I thought a short cruise before blowing up was a great way to spend my last few hours.”

They bolted and raced through the ship. The resistance crew immediately resumed their pursuit but she knew they had no time for a running fight. She gestured with her arm and swept them aside with another wave of magic.

As they rounded the last corner leading to the exit, the pirate ship’s engines surged again and threw them down. She scrambled hastily to her feet. “That’s early.”

Frog shrugged. “Yeah. Most likely because you cut the AI.”

Marcus shrugged. “Hey, shit happens.”

Stephanie grimaced as she realized the seriousness of their predicament. “I don’t know if this will work, but shit, we’ll go for it.” She took her magic and swirled it a few times to create a bubble that surrounded the Meligornians and the team.

As soon as they were enclosed, she severed the bubble from herself and swirled a second piece of magic around her head to seal her suit.

An alarm blared and the lights in the corridor turned a flashing amber. Behind them, the corridors echoed with the sound of heavy bulkheads sliding closed. Over the intercom, a deep Dreth voice advised all personnel that there had been a hull breach.

Ahead of them, the hatch leading into the section to which the umbilical was attached was firmly closed and a red light flashed above. “I need to get through there,” she screeched and tried to be heard above the alarm.

From inside the bubble she’d wrapped around the team, Frog pointed at the wall. It took her nanoseconds to use magic to pry the panel he indicated loose and seconds more to short the safety controls and force the doors to grind open slowly.

The amber lights turned red and the alarm tone changed, but she used her magic to draw the ball surrounding her team closer. As soon as the door rose, the atmosphere was sucked into space and tried to drag them with it.

Stephanie guided the ball carrying her teammates and flung it as hard as she could out the door and through the broken umbilical. Now she was in there, she could see that it had torn in two.

Through the doors, she could see the passenger entry where suited figures tethered to the liner tried to free the Dreth equipment from the hatch. Focused on her teammates and their bubble, she guided it directly to the entry, which made the liner crew scatter as it approached.

She didn’t relax until she saw the bubble reach the boarding area inside the ship, where it landed hard and bounced. Her team were tossed around and rolled awkwardly together in the airtight magical ball. From the looks on their faces, she’d hear about it later, but she could live with that. At least they were alive.

With them safe, she backed away and took a running start. She leapt through the door and the umbilical and used her momentum to propel herself forward.

Thankfully, she made it through the boarding entry but landed almost as hard as the bubble had. Behind her, the tunnel whipped wildly as the pirate ship drew slowly away. Before she could stand, the crew finished removing the umbilical attached to the liner and activated the outer hatch to cycle it closed.

A familiar vibration shivered through the floor as the airlock sealed and filled with oxygen. With a flick of her wrist, she released her team and a liner’s crew member helped her to her feet.

The pirate ship headed away from them, now at full speed. When the bomb detonated, it was so far away that they didn’t actually felt a tremor from it.

Exhausted, Stephanie helped the other guys up, checked for broken bones, and thanked the Meligornians for their help. Marcus cracked his back and groaned and Frog wiped the blood off his elbow on his pants. She smiled awkwardly. “I probably shouldn’t have cut the AI?”

Lars shook his head. “The difference between stupidity and genius is success. Since we are here and the pirate ship with the bomb is way out there, I’d say it was genius.”

Frog jumped and clapped enthusiastically. “Day saved. Whoop!”

The comms crackled and the lights dimmed, and the red emergency ones began to flash overhead. The robotic voice of an AI came over the speakers. “Alert. Alert.”

The warning lights continued to flash but the voice crackled and went silent. Frog pouted and sighed. “Maybe I spoke too early.”

Chapter Forty

One of the officers in the engine room shook his head and waved his arms at the chief engineer. “No, we simply don’t have it. There is a worm invading the engine control system. I have no control over the engines. I can’t stop them from shutting down and then surging and it’s bleeding us dry. It’s like leaking gas during a jump. We could dive through and the ship would be stuck in the middle.”

Roger rubbed his temples and flicked impatiently through the schematics on his screen. “The Hats are working on the worm. Those damned techs say we’ll have control back any minute.”

The engineer shook his head, removed his hat, and lowered his voice. “I don’t think you understand, sir. We’ve already lost too much energy in the surges. Dreamer won’t only be dead in the water at any minute. Even if there is power, there won’t be enough for us to get back.”

Several crewmen ran past with large wrenches, sheets of metal, and new lines. The engineer watched them pass, looking over his shoulder. “They’re fixing things as fast as they can and as best they can, but these surges are stressing the ship’s frame and the engines themselves. We’re shunting excess power to try to keep it in the system and cut down on the release into space, but this is something that is known is a TKO. Normally, vessels are found a thousand years later orbiting some planet with everyone on board long dead.”

The chief engineer shook his hand and his head. “That’s not an option here. What do the numbers say?”

His subordinate rubbed his chin, reluctant to deliver the news. Roger laid a hand on his shoulder and injected a commanding edge into his tone. “Just tell me.”

The man stared at him for a moment and sighed. “The numbers say Dreamer will need a refit and early safety testing.” He drew a breath. “The engine stress is getting worse, sir. Like I said, soon, we won’t have the power to make the slip back, but there’s a chance we might not move at all—and we might never get them back online.”

Roger stared at him and then through him as he wracked his brain in search of some indication as to what to do next. He shook himself out of it as the executive officer led Stephanie and the team into Engineering.

He’d never seen a sorrier-looking bunch. His guys looked the worse for wear, but the girl’s team looked worse. They were battered, bruised, and covered in splatters of blood, and the two Meligornians with them looked equally as bad. They were a ragtag group, all of them, and he wondered why his colleague had brought them.

That was answered soon enough. “This is the Federation witch and her team. Since she knows how to handle MU at least as well as the Meligornsians, we thought she could help.”

The chief engineer resisted the urge to groan or put his head in his hands. This was the best chance they had for survival?

Hiding his doubts, he shook Stephanie’s hand and studied her for a moment. The executive officer pointed to the team. “They’ve just removed the pirates and an explosive device from the boarding deck, but they’re willing to help us here. Fill us in.”

Roger nodded to his officer, who tipped his hat to Stephanie and walked away to monitor the disaster happening around them. The chief offered her his arm and walked them into his office.

She stood at the door and listened intently as he broke it down to a bare-facts explanation. “The worm has infected our engine controls and sprayed our energy out into space. We have almost completely exhausted our battery power and the engines are in danger of failing completely. Basically, we might not have enough energy to make the slip to Meligorn. These batteries are run off MU, and there isn’t enough out here to charge them. We’re light years away from Meligorn.”

The executive officer rubbed his face. “That’s bad.”

Roger shook his head and strode to the window. “That’s not all. The second Dreth ship is moving toward us as we speak. They’re pissed that we blew their friends up and killed one of their higher-ups in the attack on our section. And now, we can’t move. This is a luxury liner. It doesn’t have any weapons.”

The other man stepped back and his gaze drifted when he realized how critical the situation actually was. If his colleague wished for guns, they either needed luck or a plain miracle.

Stephanie tried to listen carefully but something pulled her to the right like an invisible hand. She shook her arm in an attempt to ignore it. Finally, she looked out of the room and down toward the open hatch at the end.

Her eyes immediately widened, held by the sight of the large glowing cavern beyond. She shifted slightly to see it better, and Lars noticed she no longer paid attention to the conversation. He ducked his head out to discover what had distracted her and said, “That’s the engine cavern.”

“Oh.” She stepped out of the office and started walking toward the hatch. Lars followed, then the rest of the team brought up the rear. She reached the hatch, her voice soft with awe. “It’s enormous. There are batteries in there the size of school buses.”

“They have to have enough energy to make it through the trip,” Lars said. He stopped just outside and squinted at the bright light that radiated within.

Energy moved and swirled through machinery beyond. Wisps of it flipped out like tentacles, curled around her, and crept back in. She was the only one who could see it, but its light was visible to all.

Lars leaned toward her. “Your eyes are glowing again.”

She nodded knowingly. “I can’t help it. I need to see the energy flows.”

He shifted his weight to his other foot. “What energy flow? I don’t see anything. It’s bright in here, that’s all.”

Stephanie shook her head and broke contact with the energy leaking from the batteries. “It’s everywhere. The energy is literally flowing wildly around us—around the engine bank, around everything. But the storage batteries are acquiring it so slowly that the chief engineer is right. It will take too long to restore enough energy to move this ship. If it were all MU, the batteries might fill faster but probably nowhere near as fast as we need it to.”

The executive officer exited the office and wandered down the hall to watch her. His colleague followed and moved forward to stand behind them.

When he noticed the entranced look on her face, the executive officer turned to Lars. “Does she see something?”

The team leader glanced at him and raised his hand for silence. He needed to finish his conversation with her before she was distracted again. The two officers stepped back with the other team members and waited while Lars talked to her.

She waved her hands toward the batteries and made all kinds of motions as she described something to him. He stood quietly and nodded his head as though taking in what she told him.

The executive officer really hoped she had some kind of plan because they were sitting ducks, and it wouldn’t be long before the pirates were ready to fire on them.

Together, they watched as Lars stepped back between the JC and the engineer. Stephanie rolled her neck and stepped inside the engine bay, and the energy whipped her hair around her head.

She ignored it and moved between the massive core engines until they could only see her silhouette between the large batteries.

Lars talked to others and pitched his voice so it could be heard over the noise of the work going on behind them. “She wants to make sure the valves are closed.”

The engineer furrowed his brow. “The engine energy storage?”

He clicked his tongue. “Uh…yes? Whatever it is that stores the energy used when flying the ship.”

Roger nodded. “Yeah, that’s done as soon as we ejected the Surge. We have someone check and double check those things multiple times a day.”

He released a deep breath. “I think she simply wants to have a feeling of it—a really good one—and she wants to triple check your double check before diving into it.”

The other man shrugged. “Hey, that doesn’t bother me in the least. She might find something we overlooked.”

Stephanie stepped out for a moment and waved them over. “Have they confirmed that the worm is completely out of the system?”

The executive officer nodded and yelled over the noise. “Yes. But I’ll call right now to double check and confirm it for sure.”

She nodded. “Thanks.”

He moved off to the side, made his call, and returned within only a few short minutes and nodded energetically. “Yes, the worm is completely taken care of. You’re free to work your magic however you need.”

The chief engineer settled his gaze on her. “You’re going to use magic to get this to work?”

Lars gave him a knowing smile. “Trust me. If it’s something to do with magic, she’ll get it done.”

Roger wasn’t convinced, but he was willing to let the girl try. This part of the problem was all about the magic. Something had to work.

They gathered around the door to the engine room, but none of them followed her inside. She planted her feet in the center of the ring of batteries, drew a deep breath, and let the energy inside her build into a good flow.

It could feel the energy outside and it jostled within her as though confused. She could sense that it would calm, though. Confident that she had full control, she began to sway and her body moved like a wave to follow the rhythmic motion of her feet. She put her arms out to the sides and gingerly let her wrists remain weak for a moment.

“These things better hold a lot of power,” she yelled over her shoulder as her whole body began to glow.

“More than you can make,” Roger shouted back and laughed as he threw the challenge down.

When he looked at her again, he had to squint and raise his hand to shade his eyes. The light she generated bounced frenetically in the engine room as her body danced to the beat of the energy inside her.

Stephanie lost herself in the moment, connected strongly with all her energy centers, and allowed the power to course feverishly through her veins. She could feel every wisp and trail of the magic twisting through her as it prepared for release. That was the thing about the MU. It knew when she would do something and knew she needed to release the energy.

There was no resistance, and she fell quickly into a melodic trance. The only things she could hear were the flow of the energy and the swirl of it deep in her chest. She worked hard to push the MU to cycle and made it flow as fast as it could. The faster she managed to move it, the quicker she could push it out to saturate the batteries without losing too much of it to the room around her.

Her audience stood for several moments and simply blinked occasionally, mesmerized by her dance of magic. Slowly, she lowered her arms to her side, then raised them again and held them out in front of her. Without warning, she flung them over her head and her back arched as she lifted slowly onto her toes.

The engineer jumped and shielded his eyes as the energy erupted from her, surged into the batteries, and flooded the storage units throughout the room. Her silver hair blew riotously around her as her body became almost weightless.

With the magnitude of the energy she had held in, Stephanie couldn’t even open her eyes during the process. All she could do was focus and push the magic out as hard as she could.

The red lights on the panel outside the engine room had flashed to signal low quantity for hours. However, as her efforts continued, the lights clicked through amber and finally to green and their color flared brightly for a moment.

Roger was shocked. He spun and hurried to the gauges and stared in disbelief at the levels. They were higher than when they’d put fresh batteries in the system. However, once he adjusted to the number, his face assumed an expression of alarm.

He whirled and half-ran to where the crew were working and bellowed, “Open the cores on engines three and five! Come on. Come on! Get this ship moving or she’ll overload.”

He pointed to the executive officer. “Tell the captain to start the crank and not to stop until it comes on.”

Lars watched with amazement as one tiny person was able to power an entire city-sized ship. And she did it without question, motivation, or complaint. She did it because she cared about people. The engineer tapped him on the shoulder and squinted into the brightness. “Can we speak to her?”

The team leader looked at him and then at Stephanie. He tried to walk forward but had to catch hold of the doorframe. There was a resistance and extreme air pressure from within the room. Every time he managed to put one foot forward, his hands would slip. Every time he got a good grip, a gust of air would hurl him out again. Finally, he gave up. “I can’t even get in there.”

Roger was as close to panic as he’d ever been. He raced over to the controls as soon as the engines began to turn. “No! This will blow!”

He thrust the engines to maximum and listened almost despairingly as they strained until the ship moved forward a fraction. With a muttered curse, he shook his head at the executive officer and then at each of his men. “Dammit, tell everyone to use all the power they can. Turn the damned air-conditioners all the way to high. Start the coffee maker, turn on every light. Override the cabin controls and make it all work!

The engines fought even harder as she loaded the cells but within minutes, when the energy was strong enough to begin to surge through the lines of the ship, they came fully online and engaged with a powerful thrust.

It took the chief engineer a moment to realize what was happening and when he did, horror tremored through his tones. “We’re translating!

He tipped his head back and whispered prayers toward the ceiling before he slammed the release lever down. The ship was in service.

Chapter Forty-One

Stephanie jolted as the energy flow from her body ceased. She had spent everything she had to power those batteries and get the engines turning and had even willed the magic to take them home.

First, she’d combined both the gMU and the eMU she’d had stored and flowing through her. She’d bolstered this by drawing in and converting the gMU that flowed all around them to give it as much power as she could. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. Silver, purple, and blue energy swirled chaotically around her.

Finally depleted, her body fell back and her view of the batteries turned to a view of the ceiling. With the worst of the turbulence gone, Lars raced forward and thrust through the dying winds to slide onto his knees and catch her before she hit the floor.

Avery and Brenden remained with the few Dreth prisoners they had acquired in the earlier battle as the rest barreled into the room to surround her.

Lars swept her into his arms and carried her from the room and through the crowds of workers who were now frantically engaged in stabilizing the ship. He took her to Roger’s office, laid her on the table, and moved the hair out of her face as he stared at her. While he was so incredibly proud of her, he hated to see her so pale and still.

“Stand back, guys,” Baizel said as he and his sister pushed through. “These should help.”

They each opened one of her palms and pushed powered MU rocks into her hands, closed her fingers tightly around them, and held them in place. The energy inside the stones glowed and began to soak into her and twine around her hands and wrists as she lay there unconscious.

Baizel shook his head. “They aren’t enough. I can help.”

Crystal stepped back. “I would, but I used most of mine helping Johnny and that little girl, Marissa.”

The Meligornian closed his eyes and placed his fingers carefully on Stephanie’s temples. Lars was worried, but he knew she needed help he couldn’t give her. The man’s fingers glowed brightly as he pushed more energy into her body. While he didn’t say anything to the team leader, he could feel how weak the girl was and how her body fought to simply stay alive.

He kept his fingers on her temples for several minutes longer before he finally opened his eyes. Lars looked at him, his face strained with worry. “What? What is it?”

Baizel shook his head and smiled softly. “She is healing. I just…I have never experienced a being with pathways for magic that were so open and so raw. Even inside the pathways of Meligornians, we have restrictions. She is open almost all the way.”

The man looked at him and then at the witch, his face clouded by concern. Baizel raised his hands when he’d depleted most of his power and put one on Lar’s shoulder. “She will be okay. Let’s get her to her room so she can rest.”

He nodded and they moved her carefully upstairs, and he insisted on carrying her the entire way. They laid her down in her bed and covered her and there she stayed. A thick dream world enveloped her mind and soothed the pathways as they healed from channeling the sheer mass of energy she had drawn through herself.

Lars stayed in her room on a chair beside her bed, his head inclined toward her, and kept his eyes open for as long as he could.

Witch Of The Federation

The ship had been in rough shape, but the crews worked around the clock to make sure they made the translation smoothly. As soon as the ship lit up with power, the Dreth vessel retreated, knowing that it was better to avoid whatever was happening. Jaws dropped as the ship translated and ensured that the resistance would remember Stephanie’s name.

Unaware of the impact she’d had, she slept on. A light knock on the door made Lars look up in time to see Baizel enter.

The Meligornian was smiling. “Her color is looking very good. Fresh and pink like a human should look. I wanted to tell you we are arriving on Meligorn. They will dock in an hour. We came to help pack her things.”

Lars straightened and rubbed his face to rid himself of the last traces of sleep. “I need to decide where to take her when we get there.”

Baizel shook his head and smiled at his sister as she entered. She went to the closet and pulled out the suitcases inside. He walked over and stood beside the team leader. “Do not concern yourself with that. I will take care of the arrangements. I have very good contacts on my world. My uncle was not only a good man but a brilliant businessman. When he was alive, he taught me everything he knew, and I opened my own company. It has grown by leaps and bounds and my uncle and I were coming home to merge our businesses. He was ready to retire. I am only getting started.”

Lars put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “I am sorry for your loss. I didn’t think of it until now.”

The Meligornian smiled, knowing his shoulder squeeze was a gesture of sympathy and friendship in the human world. “We mourn death like humans, but in different ways. We still have parts of our loved ones mixed in with us. When he died, his energy transferred to all of us. For you, it means little, but for those who can sense that energy, he became imprinted in our pathways. Meligornians stay connected with all others throughout time. A speck of Meligornian dust is all it takes. The rest floats out to the stars where we first came from.”

Lars smiled kindly at him and the visitor patted Stephanie’s hand before leaving. Crystal packed everything and left it ready for the team. She was still taking care of Marissa. They had discovered she had no other family and, if taken back to Earth, she would be put into the system. The woman couldn’t accept that, so she made arrangements through her uncle’s connections to keep the little girl on Meligorn. It was an unusual arrangement but the best thing for her.

When they arrived at the docking station, a group of local healers boarded the ship and moved Stephanie gently to the Meligorn side of the massive space station. She was put into their side of the hospital since the healers knew who she was and what kind of magical powers she possessed. She was more like a Meligornian than a human in that respect.

A couple of days passed, and she gradually began to return to normal. Her cheeks were rosy, her breathing steady and deep, and her connection with magic seemed restored as her body refilled quickly from the magic around her.

The planet was the best place for that since MU seemed the easiest to access and process. Lars remained by her side but went to his room at night to sleep, update Elizabeth and her parents, and take care of the team.

When he wasn’t doing that, though, he stood beside her bed, one hand in his pocket and the other touching hers. Baizel came to visit one afternoon, dressed in business attire with his hair no longer wild and uncombed. The team leader chuckled. “You look like a new man.”

Baizel hugged him, something Meligornians did with few people. “And you, my friend, look tired.”

He shrugged. “I won’t sleep well until I know she’s awake.”

The visitor nodded and studied her peaceful face. “It’s a pity.”

Lars looked at him in confusion. “What is?”

He ran his finger down her cheek and traces of MU escaped him and entered her. “I suspect if she ever goes without MU for too long, she will waste away.”

Lars snapped his head toward Baizel but the Meligornian had already turned to flag down one of the attendants. “Yes, sir?”

He lowered his voice. “See to it that the ambassador, her very close friend, is notified of where she is. The humans have not been able to contact him here on Meligorn.”

The attendant nodded and he turned and gave Lars a half smile before he headed out of the ward.

Witch Of The Federation

“Well, they simply needed to be reassured,” the ambassador said as he stood in front of the king and queen. “And you did exactly that. You reassured them that they would continue to be prized and welcomed in their home, even if they chose to explore other planets.”

The king nodded and rubbed the queen’s arm. “I told you we did the right thing.”

She rolled her eyes playfully. “He always needs reassurance that he is the greatest king there ever was. Silly man. The people of Meligorn adore you on every level and they trust you. Those who rebel do it for many more reasons than the Universal Cooperation of Governments. They have agendas, and this extra entity blocks some of those. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

The king smiled and refocused on the ambassador. “My wife, the queen of queens. She is brilliant. She will go down in history as the crown jewel of Meligorn.”

V’ritan chuckled and bowed lightly to her. “I could not agree more, my queen.”

A messenger entered the chambers and handed the king a small silver cube. He thanked him and waited until the boy left again. The ambassador backed away. “I will excuse myself.”

The king shook his head. “No. This is addressed to you as well.”

A small hologram emerged from the top of the cube. It was the assistant to the king. “I have just been notified of two points of interest. Stephanie Morgana is currently being treated on the Meligorn side of the space station hospital. Apparently, the Meligorn Dreamer is damaged because it was attacked by pirates looking for the ambassador. The Federation witch and her team have been credited with not only eliminating the pirates and removing a bomb they planted, but the witch also apparently used her own energy to repower the ship. Unfortunately, she has not yet regained consciousness. I will update you as more comes in.”

The hologram faded and the royal couple looked tentatively at the ambassador. He had turned to the side, his fists clenched and a look of shock and anger on his face. “They were looking for me…” He choked on the words. “But they found Stephanie.”

His eyes narrowed in rage as he turned abruptly and stormed toward the exit. The king and queen watched him with concern and heard him mutter as he grabbed the door handle, “I will kill them all—”

Silence settled inside the throne room for several moments as they watched the door close behind him. When he was gone, she slowly turned to the king, a perplexed look on her face. “Did he leave without our permission?”

He exhaled a deep breath and shook his head. “My queen, please forgive him. Stephanie has become his new daughter and she was almost killed because they were looking for him. I believe the pirates have brought about the healing of the King’s Warrior.”

The queen, her mouth open, glanced at the door when she heard a scratching sound and saw that it had closed on the ambassador’s robes. She shook her head and smiled lightly before she stood and smoothed some of the creases in her dress. “Oh, the things that happen in Meligorn are like those human soap operas. Well, I suppose I will inform his wife that the Most Trusted Advisor might be late for dinner.”

She wiggled her eyebrows and leaned down to kiss her king on the cheek before she walked sedately across the room and into her private halls. He remained seated, his hand on his chin and concern on his face.

The door opened a fraction and he saw the ambassador’s robes slip from beneath it before it shut for a second time.

His gaze darted to a large painting suspended by magic on the walls. It was of him and V’ritan in their younger days, adorned with ribbons and without a worry in the world. “Oh, old friend. I embraced your advice as we worked through our peace. Please do not bring Meligorn to war in your anger.”

He shook his head, slapped his hands to his thighs, and grunted as he stood from his throne. One of the servants hurried over, draped a cloak about his shoulders, and handed him a pen and parchment. “Very good. Now, bring my ship to readiness. We go to the space station.”

Chapter Forty-Two

Unmerciful flights of consciousness gripped Stephanie in a twisted battle of thaumaturgic power. She fast-forwarded through a confused realm of dreams in which she caught only a glimpse of one before she jerked into the next.

Some were calm and comforting and others violent and distressing, but none lasted long enough for her to break her body’s self-imposed hibernation. Her magic tanks were empty, and her body snatched at the MU floating around her in an instinctual effort to pull it in. She lay unmoving, her hands folded, her breathing steady, and her eyes closed.

On the outside, she looked peaceful and at rest, but on the inside, she traveled. Through dimensions? Maybe. Through time and space? Possibly. Only the magic knew, but until the world around her stopped its kaleidoscopic wandering, Stephanie had no idea.

Days passed as she lay in silence, the faint beeping of the monitors the only sign of life. Her nurses, guards, and allies came and went, stared sadly at her, and wondered when she would open her eyes.

Conversations were held at her bedside, and Lars talked to her every day. Around her, the doctors and nurses spoke of her heroism as they tended her body and checked her vitals before moving on to other duties.

Somewhere during her travels, she began to hear her own voice—the one she used when she tried to calm herself. Her dream self was breathless from being shuffled through so many different realities, and she walked a very fine line between sane and crazy.

Concentrate, Morgana. You have to stop moving. Control it. Control it.

It took her a few more moments before she could force herself to an abrupt stop. She kept her eyes closed, focused, and felt her pulse slow and the sick sense of fear subside.

A sense of weightless suffused her. Her arms floated out to the sides, her head rested unsupported, and the exhaustion drained from her body—the one in her dreams, at least.

Slowly, she opened her eyes before she blinked and looked around. At first, she could see nothing but blackness. It wasn’t dark because she could see herself perfectly. The weightlessness reminded her of space, but there wasn’t a star or a ship in sight.

As she registered that, her body shifted so she stood upright. Her feet touched a hard surface the same color as the rest of her surroundings.

Her weight returned to normal and she could feel the slight static of her magic waver at the tips of her fingers. All around her, the strange darkness remained.

“It only stays strange if you want it that way.” A woman’s voice echoed through the blackness, startling her where she stood and she tried to make sense of this strange development.

She glanced around. “Hello?”

As if to answer her call, a woman descended in front of her. She landed lightly, straightened, and quickly smoothed the pleated skirt of her knee-length gray dress.

Stephanie took a moment to study her and noted the thin black belt that cinched the dress at the waist and the gray, short-sleeved jacket that covered the woman’s arms. Her hair was pulled back in a simple but elegant pompadour style. Whoever this was, she wasn’t flashy or done up—and her eyes gave her away.

She took a step forward, tilting her head to the side. “Morgana.”

The newcomer smiled and returned her gaze. “As are you.”

The older woman looked around and put her hands on her hips. “This is quite the space…but you’ll probably be more comfortable with...this!”

She snapped her fingers and a flash of purple sparked from them. Suddenly, the unmistakable ambiance of Meligorn surrounded them. Stephanie gazed at the lush field with purple flowers teased lovingly by the breeze and felt herself relax. “Thank you.”

Her companion studied the scene and her eyes widened slightly at the sight of it, then she shrugged. “Well, each to their own, I guess. You must really like purple.”

As though the sight of Meligorn was an everyday occurrence, the woman walked forward and scrutinized the girl with a critical eye. Stephanie watched her approach, suddenly self-conscious of the hospital gown she wore. “Are you hurt?”

She frowned, then nodded. “I think so. I used all my magic to save people.”

The other Morgana pursed her lips, her expression a little regretful. “That will do it. The world always was a scary place. Especially where I am, now. I did what you did, once—and I spoke to the Morgana who came before me.” She sighed. “Well, I guess it’s my turn, and I don’t have a lot of time.”

“Your turn for what?”

“To tell you the things you might not know. Listen carefully, because I’ll only be able to tell you once. The Allies have a break at the moment, but we’ll close in on Hitler’s SS soon, and I’ll have to go. Are you ready?”

Hitler’s SS? It took her a moment to connect the term with a distantly remembered history class, but she nodded anyway, and her companion began her explanation.

“I will assume you are aware that there are four types of energy.”


Her puzzlement must have shown because the woman stopped and sighed with obvious impatience. “Yes, four. The first…” She floated a translucent orb with small sparks of light flashing inside. Enlarging it, she continued, “The first is Creation Energy. This is the energy repurposed by our world and its life.” She looked around at the world of Meligorn and added, “And, most likely by other worlds, too.”

Thinking back, Stephanie realized this Morgana would never have seen another world and probably thought the likelihood of humans ever reaching one was pure fiction.

Until now. She looked at the orb. “I call that gMU, and the variants that repurpose it eMU and MU.”

The older Morgana smiled and brought a rainbowed orb down to eye-level. “This would be your eMU and MU, then. I call it Variant because its form varies on each planet dependent upon the flora, fauna, and life forces there.”

She returned the woman’s smile and reached out tentatively to touch the orb. The different color magics wavered at her touch. Her predecessor set the two orbs aside and brought a third orb into being. The magic it held was like pale-green fire and spun wildly inside.

Her gaze grew distant and she stared into the orb as if she recalled fond memories. “This is Neutral Energy. It absorbs gMU and the planetary variants. It is an interesting type of energy—almost completely in tune with those who possess the power to wield it.”

When she set the Neutral Energy globe aside, she brought the last forward and grimaced with distaste as she handled the orb. The black energy inside pulsated and actually emitted a small growling noise like the muted roar of an approaching tornado. “The is Nihilistic Energy. It is the opposite of Creation Energy and expands when the matter housing Creation Energy is killed or destroyed. When those vessels crack or are damaged, it does not expand because only destroying the form releases the other energies for it to consume. For instance, a cracked or broken vase would not let Nihilist Energy expand, but one powdered to dust would.”

Stephanie reached up to see how the magic would react to the proximity of her hand, but the older Morgana quickly collapsed the orb. “I wouldn’t stick your finger too close to Nihilistic Energy. Such actions have...regrettable consequences.”

She nodded and clasped her hands in front of her. “Right. Do you do any work with Nihilistic Energy?”

Her companion took in a deep breath and put one hand on her stomach. “Those working for Hitler study Nihilistic Energy and are in contact with others from somewhere not of Earth. These others are teaching the Nazi’s more about Nihilistic Energy, including the use of death ceremonies to provide the wielder with advanced abilities.”

She paused and raised an eyebrow as she stepped closer. “That is all I have for you, now, but there is one thing I need you to tell me.”

Stephanie waited, not sure what her ancestress could possibly need to know from a future she knew nothing about or a descendant she’d only just met. “What?”

Anxiety clouded the Morgana’s features. “Do we win?”

Stephanie took a breath to reply, but the woman held her hand up. “No details. I only... I need to know if it’s all worth it, or if...if we lose anyway and are merely wasting our time…and the lives—” She paused. “Was he stopped?”

She held her breath and studied the woman’s face as she tried to decide on her reply. How much could she say without saying too much? In the end, she could think of only one safe answer. “Yes. He was stopped.”

If the older Morgana was anything like her, she knew that answer would be enough. When she faced her darkest moment, that was the knowledge that would get her through

Her companion sighed with relief and nodded. “Good. That is all I need to know—that we are doing something right.”

Stephanie smiled and gazed at the face in front of her, amazed that so much about her seemed familiar. “Yes, you are.”

The woman returned her gaze and her smile and shook her head. “I’m not sure how many greats I would need to put in front of granddaughter to be accurate, but you are the spitting image of my mother. Are you all well?”

She nodded. “I suppose. I don’t know a lot about the Morgana side of the family, only what my mother has shown me through a journal passed down to her. My father...” She sighed. “I don’t know where he went, but I did read about you and your time on Earth.”

Morgana laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Whatever you don’t know will eventually come to light. Wherever your father is, I’m sure there is a good reason for it. Morganas—both the men and the women—are bred with a sense of responsibility and loyalty. Either way, it is good to see your face. I have sensed you for a while and attempted to project myself here, but it took you a while to reach this point.”

Stephanie laid her hand over her companion’s and simply stood in silence to soak in the sense of closeness to her.

The older woman looked around at the scenery and sighed. “This has been good for my soul—to know we still exist and yet I am sad, knowing a Morgana is still needed. I must once more put my Morgana mask on for the sake of all sentients.”

She removed her hand and turned as though to leave, but paused. “Stay true to your bloodline, and may you be the Morgana your people need.”

Her form began to fade but wavered when she asked, “Will I see you again?”

The other Morgana gave her a sad smile and shrugged. “Who knows? Perhaps one day, we will meet again. Be at peace and trust your instincts. They are the only things that will always be with you.”

Stephanie watched as the woman winked out of existence and the Meligornian field along with her. She thought about the words “your people need” and wondered what she’d meant.

Who were her people? The Meligornians? Humans? And what about the Dreth? Or any other species of beings she might meet later?

If she was the only Morgana, would everyone be considered her people? Maybe it was a personal choice. She could choose any or all of them to be her people.

No one could force her to accept everyone, but who did that leave her? Only the people she liked? She shook her head. No. It had to be more than that.

“Those who need my protection,” she said, “and only those who deserve it.”

Because there was no way in all the worlds that she would protect those who weren’t worthy.

She peered cautiously into the blackness her ancestress had left behind. It didn’t seem quite as overwhelming as before, even if she still didn’t know where to go. It surprised her when she heard a voice, one that knew her name.

“Stephanie,” it called. “Stephanie...”

Intrigued, she stopped and listened for it to call again. When it did, the sound came from behind her. As she pivoted quickly, she discovered her surroundings had changed.

In the distance, a pinprick of light glimmered and grew steadily brighter and she felt a small pulse of energy.

This she recognized. MU, and it was exactly what her body needed.

Without a second’s hesitation, she surged toward the life force that called to her and seemed to draw her into a welcome reunion.

Witch Of The Federation

The hospital on the Meligorn side of the space station, on a normal day, was very quiet. Ambassador V’ritan arrived with Brilgus in tow and his robes flapped wildly behind him. His footsteps echoed down the corridor and his face held worry and anger. Those who saw him paused in what they were doing to watch him stride out of sight.

He swept through the doors leading into Stephanie’s ward and pushed them both open. The nurses looked up from behind their station and recognized him immediately. “Ambassador.”

Before they could stop him, he had already passed them. They glanced at each other, unsure of what to do.

The ambassador raised a hand dismissively as some vague form of acknowledgment. He’d meant to stop and ask where Stephanie was, but he spotted Marcus and Frog outside a room down the hall. That was more than enough for him.

He ignored the panicked scramble in his wake and focused only on the men ahead. Brilgus, however, moved to intercept the staff before they could intervene. “I wouldn’t do that. He is extremely worried about a friend.”

They exchanged nervous glances, then looked at the bodyguard. Being only half-Meligornian, he was much larger than they were. Two of them backed away but the head nurse stood firm.

She came around the desk and stood in front of him. “He might be the ambassador, but he should have let us know he was coming. Fortunately, we think she can handle one visitor, or I’d be fired for hauling him out of there. Next time, though...”

“Yes. I will make sure you are notified,” he reassured her, not at all sure he would given how the press would react if the news were to reach them.

He fixed her with a stern look, and she stared defiantly in return with no apparent concern for either his size or the ambassador’s not inconsiderable power, political and otherwise. Brilgus considered that a good sign. It meant she cared enough for the patients to do what was best for them regardless of who might be in the way or the consequences. It meant Stephanie was in good hands.

Witch Of The Federation

Frog stifled a yawn as he turned and glanced down the hall. His eyes widened and he nudged Marcus with his elbow and directed his attention down the hall.

The other man took one look at the ambassador and nodded. “I will speak to him.”

As the visitor neared the door, he intercepted him, stepped in his way, and blocked his path to the door. His teammate stood in front of the door and watched them both as he used the team’s comms to call Lars.

Being the Meligornian side of the station, they’d had to source the local equivalent of Earth tech to use for comms. Those had taken a few days to source but now, they had enough for four of them to be on the floor, armed and in contact with each other at all times.

Ambassador V’ritan stopped and regarded the two guards calmly, but before he could speak, Marcus extended his hand. He ignored every protocol of Meligornian greeting he’d ever been taught.

The visitor, used to Earth’s customs, didn’t hesitate but reached out and shook his hand. “Marcus. I need to see her.”

The guard stood firm but he didn’t disagree. “Of course, sir, but I must warn you, she’s in a coma. She’s unconscious but here, as far as we can tell. We’re not sure if she can hear you when you talk to her, but Lars speaks to her every day.”

Behind him, Frog spoke softly into his comms. He stopped and listened for a moment before he tapped his partner on the shoulder. “The Ambassador can go in now.”

Marcus gave the V’ritan a brief smile. “I’m sure she’ll recognize your voice, sir,” he said as he and Frog returned to their positions on either side of the door.

“Thank you.” The Meligornian slipped past him swiftly and into the room, not worried when the door closed immediately behind him.

Down the corridor, Brilgus watched as the head nurse set her assistants tasks that took them down another corridor. Once they were gone, he looked at her.

She was unfazed. “I take it you don’t want to call the hospital and give that warning.”

He shook his head. “The lines are not secure.”

“Call me, then. That way, if it leaks, you only have one person to blame. I’ll let you know if she needs isolation or can be seen. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” he said and took her private number before he trundled down the corridor to Stephanie’s room and greeted the guys as he arrived. “Marcus, Frog, good to see you.”

He indicated the door. “Is he in there?”

“He and Lars are with her,” Marcus told him, knowing the information he needed.

He watched as the bodyguard took a quick look in the room to check and waited until the large man had closed the door again and turned to him. “What happened?”

Frog looked up and down the corridor but relaxed when he saw it was empty. “You’ve seen the news, right?”

Brilgus nodded. “And read the official reports. What I want to know is how Stephanie got hurt.”

Marcus picked up the story. “The pirates took the ship. There were two boarding parties. One went for Engineering and the other went for the Bridge. When the team on the Bridge demanded the ambassador or they’d blow the ship, Stephanie stepped in.”

“And you let her?”

He laughed and shook his head. “You know Stephanie. When her mind is made up, there is no stopping her. We went along to try to keep her safe.” His face sobered. “We didn’t do so well, obviously.”

The bodyguard looked sympathetic. “She’s still here, isn’t she?”

Marcus sighed, and Brilgus added. “Tell me how it went down.”

He explained how Stephanie had used her magic to disguise herself as the ambassador and then hide them from the cameras so they could reach the Bridge undetected. The other man stopped him when he got to the fight.

“There was a Meligornian?”

“Yes. It turned out they were Resistance and not pirates. Their captain made the ‘ambassador’ hand over his MU and then attacked. We eliminated the pirates and saved the crew, while she dealt with him. Then, Steph insisted on taking care of the bomb.”

Brilgus rolled his eyes. “Of course she did.”

Marcus continued. “We fought them out of the corridors and all the way down to the atrium. You’ve seen it?”

When his companion nodded, he went on. “They’d planted the bomb on the third floor, so we killed the invaders and Steph cut the floor out from under it and floated it down to the main entry.”

The man whistled. “That is very powerful work.”

He shook his head. “She had help. There were two Meligornians on board who helped her, and they’re the only reason she made it as far as she did. We’d have been in a lot of trouble if they hadn’t been along.”

“Worlds of hurt,” Frog confirmed.

Marcus ignored him and kept going. “We got the bomb onto the pirate ship and Steph pointed the vessel away and set it to move at top speed. She also got us back on board the liner, but things weren’t over.”

Brilgus raised his eyebrows.

“The pirates had planted a worm and it cycled the engines to drain the batteries until they became too depleted to operate the engines before the ship’s tech team could clear it. With the controls back online, Steph powered the engines. In fact, I think she almost overpowered them, then she transitioned us right out of there.”

He paused at the memory, and his face clouded with concern. “If the Meligornians hadn’t been there, we’d have lost her, but they gave her some power crystals and healing, and she’s still here.”

“And Johnny,” Frog added. “Crystal gave him enough to stop the bleeding or he’d be gone.”

“She didn’t heal him completely?” Brilgus was unimpressed.

“We were still fighting the Resistance at that point. I think she was conserving her power...and we’re glad she did.”

The bodyguard glanced at the door. “Yes, we are. And Johnny?”

“He’s over on the human side. They say he’ll be fine.”

Before any of them could say any more, they heard the bell at the nurses’ station being rung incessantly at the other end of the hall. The three of them looked up to see what was going on.

Beside Brilgus, the two guards became instantly alert. Frog backed up and spoke into his comms, and Marcus moved to put himself between the station and his partner.

Seconds later, Frog reported back. “They’re on their way.”

They all glanced at the nurses’ station and focused on the Meligornian dinging the bell at the counter and the four guards arrayed around him. Two of them had noticed the group outside the room and moved to block their line of sight—and fire—to the bell ringer.

Marcus glanced up at Brilgus. “Is that anyone you know?”

Witch Of The Federation

At the nurses’ station, the king tapped his foot and rang the bell again. He was not impressed when the nurse behind the counter reached over and slid the bell out from under his hand. She didn’t even look up but kept her eyes glued to the screen in front of her, while she used her other hand to jot notes down on the tablet in front of her

“Leave the bell alone. You’ll wear it out.”

The king cleared his throat, but she didn’t look up.

“I’ll be with you in a moment. In this hospital, the patients come first, no matter who thinks they need to see them.”

“The ambassador?” the king drawled, and Temerl—the closest guard and Head of Royal Security—glanced at him. He met the man’s eyes just as the nurse replied.

“Anyone who is impatient,” she snapped. “You can’t simply barge in when a patient needs quiet to recover and I won’t allow it. Now, if you’ll give me a few more seconds, I’ll be right with you.”

The guard smirked, and the king raised his eyebrow as he wondered what his head of security found so amusing. The smirk vanished and the man shrugged.

They waited for another few moments, which meant a necessity to stand there and deflect the wide-eyed glances from the few people who walked past. Quite understandably, most of them stared in disbelief when they saw the king of Meligorn standing at the nurses’ station like anyone else.

When the nurse continued to ignore them, he cleared his throat and leaned forward. “I understand the ambassador was a little impatient, but if you make me wait much longer, I’ll make his impatience seem as if it was mere impertinence.”

The nurse’s hands paused. “Well, who do you think you are? The king?”

She looked up and her disapproval was instantly swept aside by an expression of horror. “Oh, I’m so sorry, my king—”

Her mouth stopped moving and she froze for a moment. He suppressed an amused smile and watched as she shut her mouth and stood hastily. She moved so fast that she almost knocked her stool over. “Oh, I’m so sorry, my king. We get so many people in every day and—”

The king held his hand up. “Which way?”

She swallowed hard and pointed down the corridor with her stylus. “Down that way and the eighth door on your left. There should be people outside.”

He looked down the hall and noticed Brilgus with two human guards stationed at the door in question. Farther up the corridor, he saw another two humans fast-stepping to join them. All were heavily armed. Again, he glanced at his security chief.

The man looked past him and studied the scene. “Brilgus is there. He will explain.”

With one last look at the stunned nurse, the king stepped away from the counter. “I see. Carry on.”

He turned and moved with his guards toward Stephanie’s room, leaving the nurse standing behind the desk, her mouth once again hanging open.

Witch Of The Federation

Temerl walked with the King. Usually, he’d have stayed at the palace, but this was too good an opportunity to miss—an impromptu visit, and two of the biggest threats to their cause in one place. He narrowed his eyes and brushed his hand lightly over the blaster at his hip

Ahead of him, Stephanie’s team saw the gesture, tensed, and relaxed only when he moved his hand away from the weapon. There were more guards than he had originally accounted for, but they’d remain outside the room and shouldn’t be in any position to stop him. Either way, he wouldn’t allow the witch and the ambassador to get in the way of his faction’s plans to work with the coming alien force.

The king might not see it but working with the newcomers rather than against them was Meligorn’s best hope for surviving the coming war—and V’ritan would only stand in the way. Besides, V’ritan was a useless piece of royal history who needed to be finished.

He needed to be removed before he became the King’s Warrior once again. If that happened, it would upset the invaders’ plans for Meligorn. Plans that were already underway.

Witch Of The Federation

As the king approached, Marcus, Frog, Brenden, and Avery prepared for action. Judging by his guards, the newcomer had to be important, but he was nothing compared to the task of keeping Stephanie and the ambassador safe. The simple truth was that important didn’t always mean safe.

They watched Brilgus and noticed that the bodyguard-advisor was tense but not alarmed. He kept his eyes on the approaching entourage and answered Marcus’s question, his voice soft with shock. “It’s the king.”

Frog began a muttered conversation into his comms again, and Marcus swore.

The large man snorted softly. “Yes.”

The most important-looking of the royal escort took a step forward and placed himself in front of the king. A second guard followed the movement, and the first guard moved swiftly ahead as if he intended to walk through the door.

Temerl appeared to ignore the team and strode at a steady pace, much like he didn’t care who they were or what they were doing. He only stopped when one stepped in his way and put his hand out, holding his palm up inches from his chest.

Marcus held the guard’s gaze and curled his lip. “Exactly where do you think you’re going?”

The security head looked down his nose at the man, glanced at Brilgus, and stepped around the warning hand. This time, when he stopped, it was because the two guards had jammed their blasters into his belly.

He held his temper in check and made a show of looking down at the blasters and then into their eyes. A small smirk moved across his lips and he arched an eyebrow.

Marcus wasn’t impressed. He gritted his teeth and shoved his blaster a little harder against his stomach. “I’ll fill you so full of lead, you will shit metal for a week. You don’t pass without permission.”

Frog held his weapon firm and leaned into his teammate. “Uh, I don’t think they shit, Sherlock. And besides, that’s a blaster you’re holding. It doesn’t have slugs.”

The other man didn’t budge. He kept his eyes locked on the leader, who hadn’t moved, but remained aware of the other four Meligornians at the rear. Avery and Brenden moved up alongside him, and Brilgus leaned his shoulder against the door.

The king knew a volatile situation when he saw one, even if he didn’t understand why Temerl appeared to be trying to provoke a fight.

He laid his hand on his security chief’s shoulder, aware that two of the humans had moved to cover him and that another of his guards had stepped into their line of fire. With quick glances at the two security teams, he spoke quietly. “Temerl, these men are doing their jobs. Perhaps we should simply ask them if we may pass.”

The guard’s lip twitched, and he eased back slightly. “For your protection, sire.”

He felt the king move back to give him more room, and he took another step away from Frog and Marcus, careful to keep his hand away from his weapon. His expression was one of sour disapproval when he spoke. “The king of Meligorn should not have to ask permission to go anywhere on his own world.”

The human leader paled a little at the challenge, which brought a small stab of satisfaction. They might not hesitate to stop him from entering, but they were unlikely to prevent the king from doing so. He was counting on that, but the man still did not back down. He did swallow nervously and flick the king an uncertain glance, though. Temerl stared back, watched the truth sink in, and decided to give the humans some credit.

Faced with possibly committing one of the biggest gaffs possible, they still refused to give way. The king, however, was puzzled at his guard’s previous statement. “Protect me from what?”

This time, the guard glanced at him and gestured toward Stephanie’s door, mild reproof in his tone. “We still do not know if it is safe for you to be near this human, sire.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You said nothing of this when we left—or on any occasion when we planned the ceremony. Why now? And how does antagonizing her guards help?”

Temerl rolled his shoulders and returned his focus to Marcus. “The concern was less before she showed her powers. Now, I am not so sure if you should be near a...” He hesitated, as though searching for the right word.

Frog snorted. “Human witch. It’s okay, we know what she is.”

Marcus smirked. “And I’m telling you not to go in because it won’t be healthy for you to do that. It’s very simple, and if you don’t understand it, we’ll be more than happy to discuss it with the king.”

His adversary glared at him. “So, even when you know who he is, you continue to stand in the way.”

“He is not my King,” he pointed out. “He is the king of Meligorn and we are not sure whether or not he is a threat to Stephanie. Diplomatic incidents aside, we’re not willing to risk it.”

“You insolent—” Temerl growled and the king cleared his throat.

“Enough,” he ordered and looked at Brilgus. “I take it my ambassador is with her now?”

The bodyguard nodded and straightened, easing his weight off the door.

“And he is perfectly safe?”

The reply was solemn. “Yes, Your Majesty or I would not be out here asking her guards what happened.”

But the head of royal security had apparently not finished. He glared at Brilgus. “These men might not be your subjects, but he is, and subjects or not, we are all standing in your territory. It may be above the surface of your planet, but we are in a hospital you commissioned, and they have the gall—”

The king laid a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Enough, Temerl. This is not what we do. Now, if it is safe for V’ritan, it is safe for me. These gentlemen will certainly not deny me entry when Brilgus can vouch for me.”

He used his grip on his security chief’s shoulder to move Temerl to one side and stepped forward. His movement almost brought him into contact with the barrel of Marcus’s blaster, but the guard lowered his weapon hastily and his partner took a step back.

As far as Frog was concerned, the royal visitor wasn’t his to deal with. The uppity security guard, on the other hand... He kept his weapon aimed at Temerl as Marcus gave the king the traditional Meligorn Royal greeting.

Surprised, he returned it hastily, then studied the human who had bothered to learn the custom well enough to give it without error. The guard, however, was still not ready to let him pass. As he straightened, he said, “You have to understand, your Majesty, the hospital insists that only one visitor is allowed at a time. That could be circumvented and it’s not our real concern her. More importantly, I must remind you that the human we protect could be the most important being in the Federation. No disrespect intended.”

“None taken,” he told the man. “And there are at least two other people who consider her the same. So, I agree she must be protected, but I need to see her for myself.”

He waited expectantly as Marcus shifted his gaze to Brilgus. The ambassador’s advisor nodded and stepped aside to let him pass. When Temerl went to follow, Marcus intervened. “Only the king. We’ll stand guard out here.”

The man snarled and tensed, and his hand dropped to his blaster.

“Temerl,” the king murmured, and a warning laced his tones. “If it is safe for the ambassador, it is safe for me. You and the guard will wait here.”

“Sire...” he began, but the royal was firm.

“Those are my orders.” He inclined his head toward Marcus and the team and stepped past Brilgus into the room. As he did so, a startled shout behind him made him pause a split second before he was shoved away from the door and into Brilgus’s arms.

Witch Of The Federation

Stephanie pursued the energy through the blackness. It held steady, a beacon that drew her unwaveringly back to where she belonged. Once she reached it, her senses slowed, and she became aware of her body.

She flexed her hands slowly and slid her fingers across the sheets beneath her. They were softer than any she’d slept in on Earth, which meant she was either on the ship or on Meligorn.

Well, there’s only one way to find out.

Someone moved beside the bed. They shifted restlessly as though leaning forward. She opened her eyes cautiously and blinked at the bright lights above her.

Two faces appeared above her—the ambassador’s and Lars’s. When he saw she was awake, V’ritan smiled. “There you are. It is good to finally see you wake up.”

From the way he said it, she had the impression that hadn’t been guaranteed. She tried for a reassuring smile. “I couldn’t leave you hanging.”

Someone snorted in the background, and her smile widened. “Or you, Lars. I can’t keep you out of trouble otherwise.”

She was shocked at how weak her voice sounded and how frail the rest of her felt. When she recalled the warm glow that had drawn her back, she focused on the ambassador. “You gave me energy.”

He smiled again. “I hoped it would make a difference.”

Stephanie’s smile faded. “It did.” They were both silent for a moment, then she asked, “Am I on Meligorn?”

“Close,” he told her and opened the viewscreen to reveal a spectacular view of one of the moons outside. “You are on the Meligorn side of Alerus, the joint human-Meligorn space station. You’ve been out for quite a while. How do you feel?”

She pressed her lips together and tried to push herself upright. Lars came over and worked with the ambassador to help her sit, and they both tucked the blankets in around her.

“Here,” Lars said and handed her a glass of water. V’ritan found the bed controls and raised it to support her back.

Suddenly aware of the dryness at the back of her throat, she took small, steady sips. Her body welcomed the hydration, her fogginess eased, and she became aware of the abundance of energy around her.

Seeing it was enough and she immediately began to draw it in, filling her tanks until she felt revitalized enough to speak. After a few more minutes, she was able to reposition herself without help.

The ambassador took the glass from her hand and set it down on the cabinet beside the bed. “It’s like the only time we see each other is when you’re hurt.”

She opened her mouth to protest but realized he was mostly right. She shrugged. “True, but at least this time, they missed you.”

“Yes, I am curious about that,” he told her. “How exactly did you come to be me?”

Stephanie was almost ready to show him, but Lars intervened.

“Use your words, Steph. Don’t make me come over there.”

“Like you’re not already?” She smirked and he gave an exasperated sigh from beside the bed.

“Do you see what I have to put up with?”

The Meligornian chuckled. “Words would be best. I don’t want to wait another two weeks for you to wake up.”

Stephanie had just taken a breath to explain when the door opened and Marcus shouted in alarm. Both her companions pivoted, and Lars drew his blaster. The ambassador’s hands arced with magic.

Chapter Forty-Three

Temerl did not hesitate. He drew his blaster with one hand and used his magic with the other to sweep the king and Brilgus from his path. Ignoring the King’s startled cry, he released the magic in a wave at the guards who stumbled back from the force of it.

With the path to the door clear, he leapt forward and raised his blaster in readiness. Behind him, one of the guards shouted a warning.


Witch Of The Federation

Inside the room, Stephanie had already responded. She focused on the door as she continued to pull the magical energy in, stored the MU, and pushed any gMU into an internal vortex to concentrate it.

The first thing she saw at the entrance was the muzzle of the intruder’s blaster. He turned as he saw them and aimed at the ambassador. She and Lars reacted at the same moment.

He fired three quick shots, and she used one hand to direct MU toward the ambassador and push him to one side. With the other, she hurled an assault at the intruder with such force that he was flung back through the door and into the wall opposite.

The sound of bone cracking echoed, and the assassin uttered a short, sharp cry of pain. But before she could ready another attack, someone else was shoved through the door. Breathing hard, she gathered more magic but let it dissipate when two of her guards bolted in after the newcomer and kicked the door closed behind them.

One of them reached out to the man who’d been pushed through in front of them.

“Your Majesty,” Avery said as he helped the newcomer regain his feet and virtually dragged him to one side of the door. “I must apologize.”

Witch Of The Federation

Marcus had stepped aside as Temerl was thrown past them out of the room and he now turned to kick the blaster from the guard’s hand while Brilgus shoved the king inside. The ambassador’s advisor joined Marcus, seized the assailant, and hurled him to the floor.

He held him down and secured the royal guard’s hands and feet, then helped Marcus and Frog search him. They found the two extra weapons he had hung on a utility belt hidden beneath his robes.

“The man came prepared,” Frog said as he removed a grenade from a small pouch strapped to the outside of Temerl’s thigh.

When he saw it, Marcus let out a low whistle. “He wasn’t coming out alive from that.”

“No one was, but that is a wish we can grant—for him at least,” Brilgus told him, his face somber.

“You don’t understand,” the man protested. “They must both die. Their survival will cost millions of lives. Let me finish—”

The ambassador’s man didn’t let him finish and simply punched him hard in the face.

As their prisoner slumped, unconscious, he let him drop to the floor. “I’ll search him again,” he said. “Just to be sure.”

When he was done, he stood and stared at the Meligornian’s limp body. He noticed the purple blood staining Temerl’s robes and the faint swirl of energy that seeped from his fingers and swore. “A dead traitor tells us nothing.”

Raising his head, he bellowed, “Nurse!”

He was about to call again when an argument erupted inside Stephanie’s room. The door was flung open and the ambassador stormed out, his eyes aflame with anger.

Marcus and Frog guessed his intent and moved to intercept him, but he swept them aside with a swipe of his hand. The magical push sprawled them several feet away.

Brilgus stepped into his path and put his hand sternly on the Meligornian’s shoulder. “I know your anger is deep and your need for revenge is wide, but this is the highest-level insurrectionist we’ve located. Don’t kill him…yet.

The anger in V’ritan’s eyes softened slightly and he looked at his loyal advisor. He laid his hand over his companion’s and nodded to acknowledge the point.

They moved to the side as staff barreled down the hallway and a stretcher followed in their wake. The head nurse glared at all of them as she approached.

She was definitely not happy with them, but she couldn’t exactly tell them to leave—especially not with the king and ambassador in attendance.

Instead, she turned to V’ritan for instruction as her staff began to triage Temerl’s injuries.

“This is the head of the Royal Guard,” she began. “What happened? Is the king okay?”

The ambassador glared at her. “The king is fine, and this is no longer the head of the Royal Guard, but a traitor and assassin. Make sure he doesn’t die. As for his comfort? Don’t waste any time on it.”

The woman froze and her face revealed that she’d understood the information. She stared at him for a moment and then at Temerl, now was surrounded by her nurses who worked hard to save his life.

Meligornians were known for their kind hearts and giving nature, but when it came to those who went against the people, they could be ruthless. She understood this.

It didn’t make her happy, but she could deal with it.

Witch Of The Federation

Inside Stephanie’s room, Lars studied the royal visitor.

“Are you all right, Your Majesty?” Avery asked and examined him nervously. “I apologize for the rough handling, but your men couldn’t reach you in time and we wanted to get you to safety.”

The king shook his head. “I am fine and I understand. You have yet again come to the aid of Meligorn, and I thank you.”

He turned to speak to Stephanie and stared when he caught sight of her.

She sat on the edge of the bed. Sparks of energy flashed around her, her lips pressed firmly together and a far-away look in her pitch-black eyes. Lars caught the king’s gaze and followed it back to his charge.

“Well, damn,” he murmured when he realized that she was on the edge of going full Morgana on them. “What the hell’s the safe word… Todd!” he shouted and ran across the room. “Todd.”

He knelt in front of her and placed one hand on her shoulder. Positioned carefully so he could block her view of the doorway, he lifted her chin with the curled forefinger of his other hand so she would look at him and not toward the door.

“Hey, Steph, look at me. Just look,” he urged. “It’s okay. We are all okay. The ambassador is fine. You got the assassin.” He glanced toward the door. “You got him and Brilgus disarmed him. They’re taking him away now. Everything’s okay. Come back, Steph. Brilgus will see to him.”

He went silent and studied her face while he waited for his words to take effect. Lars had almost given up when she blinked her eyes slowly and the black faded to blue.

They both exhaled at the same time, and Stephanie teetered on the edge of the bed. He stood quickly, slid his arm around her shoulders, and helped back onto the bed.

As he settled her beneath the covers, Avery took the bed controls and lowered it so she could rest. He watched as the team leader pulled the blankets up to her shoulders and moved a strand of silver hair gently from her face.

She sighed and twisted her hand over the edge of the blanket. Her gaze shifted to meet his. “Can’t a girl get any rest without some asshats trying to kill her friends?”

Lars chuckled, glad to see she could try humor after what had happened. It had been the first time she’d woken since she’d collapsed on the ship, and for this to have happened...even the thought made him angry

He smiled when she yawned and covered her mouth, turned onto her side, and mumbled, “I’m so tired. The magic takes me down every time.”

“Go to sleep then.” He patted her shoulder through the blanket. “We’re all here and no one will go anywhere. You will be safe.”

Stephanie frowned as her eyes closed. “But will you?”

With an even bigger smile, he stood, tucked the blankets in, and walked over to the king, who stared at her in wonder. “Has she done that before?”

Lars nodded. She curled up and drifted into a dreamless sleep as if Morgana had only been a figment of his imagination. “Yes. It’s what saves people. But she hasn’t fully learned to control it. When someone she loves is in danger, she has no power over it. Protecting them is all she can think of.”

Witch Of The Federation

Hours later, Stephanie slid her feet under the sheets and consciousness brought the sense of other people in her room. Not yet ready to face the world, she kept her eyes closed until she was fully awake.

V’ritan’s voice sounded close to her bed. He spoke softly, his familiar tones comforting. The female voice that responded, however, caused her to tense. Its guttural tone and depth denoted only one race.

A Dreth?

She forced herself to relax and simply listened.

“I had no idea that my head guard had any connections,” a third voice replied, and this time, she detected a Meligornian accent in its slightly familiar tones. She listened harder as it continued. “I would never have allowed it. You know that. I’d have had him put down in the killing fields before anyone was hurt.”

“Luckily,” the ambassador responded, “he was the only one hurt, but how many times will we be in that situation before she is no longer here to save us?”

It seemed obvious that the discussion was about the would-be assassin, but it was only when the third voice referred to the man as the head of the Royal Guard that she realized who it was.

The King!

Now she knew where she’d heard that voice before. Its deep but prominent tones had been clear in Strike’s impossible scenario where they’d been tested on their knowledge of royal protocol and had to fend off a surprise attack by hidden forces.

Stephanie recalled hearing it, too, after she’d woken up and the sound of it brought back memories from before she’d fallen asleep. She remembered catching a brief glimpse of the crest on his robes and seeing the thin, twisted vine of magic resting lightly on his flowing silver hair. Shit!

That was not how she was supposed to meet the king of Meligorn for the first time. And meeting him like this wasn’t much better.

To her horror, she realized she was in bed and wore hospital scrubs, that her hair needed a good wash and brush, and that she probably looked like she’d taken on a nest of vampires and lost. This was so very much not how she was supposed to meet the king.

When she’d met him in her imagination, she’d been dressed in her best, worn flawless makeup and her prettiest smile, and looked exactly like a hero of the Federation should look. She hadn’t been stuck in a bed with royalty standing at her bedside not two feet from the nearest bedpan.

Shock and embarrassment flooded through her, and she’d almost decided to keep her eyes closed until they left when the Dreth spoke again. “We would never think that of you, King Grilfir. You were a noble and confident leader long before the humans were discovered, and so you are today. Whatever his motive was, Temerl targeted the girl and the ambassador, but he pushed you out of the way. He had every chance to kill you and he didn’t.”

Now that she thought about it, Stephanie recognized the voice of the Dreth. She’d heard it on television and in history reports. This was the Dreth ambassador, the one who’d spoken in every Dreth attempt to make peace with the humans.

Now she truly did want to pretend she was asleep until they left because this was definitely not the way she’d wanted to look when she finally met the Dreth ambassador.

Unfortunately, she also knew she had no choice. They were in her room and they didn’t look like leaving anytime soon. And speaking of bedpans...

With her eyes still closed, she decided to let them know she was no longer asleep.

“Can someone,” she began and swallowed against the dryness of her throat while she kept her eyes tightly closed. “Can someone please tell me why the three most important people on this space station are all in my hospital room?”

The voices ceased and a hand settled on her shoulder. She assumed it was supposed to be comforting and hoped it belonged to either V’ritan or Lars. The alternatives were not to be considered.

As the silence lengthened to one of real discomfort, she forced herself to open her eyes and grasped her blanket firmly as she struggled into a sitting position. V’ritan sat beside the bed.

The ambassador located the bed controls and raised it to support her as she stared at the other occupants of the room. The king returned her gaze and smiled. “Your eyes are not black anymore. That’s a pleasant change.”

“Thank you.” Stephanie chuckled and blushed. “Although I’ve never actually looked in a mirror when it happens. I can only imagine that I look quite terrifying.”

V’ritan smirked. “Never too terrifying. You are still Stephanie the young and kind human. Even when the magic takes you over and you become the Federation’s witch.”

The Dreth ambassador stepped forward, tilting her head to the side, and studied her. Despite her awkwardness, she gave her a smile and received a solemn look in return. She wasn’t surprised by this since the Dreth were known for being blunt and straight to the point—even rude and arrogant in their dealings—and concealing their thoughts and feelings from all but their closest friends.

“I am Jaleck,” the Dreth told her, “and to answer your question, we are using your recovery and heroism as a way to speak about the traitor you defeated earlier without it looking like we are having a secret meeting.”

Stephanie blinked. “Excuse me?”

Ambassador V’ritan took a deep breath and rose to turn to the Dreth. “I’ll handle this one. Thank you, Ambassador.”

Jaleck nodded and moved to lean on the wall beside the King. Stephanie studied her furtively and noticed that the female Dreth looked very different than all the male Dreth she had seen.

While her skin was slightly scaly and her teeth still fanglike, her long tentacle-like dreadlocks were pushed back over her head to create a slightly voluminous effect instead of hanging free. She had pouty red lips and silver and blue eyes and was also tall. However, instead of being heavily muscled, her body was slim and curvaceous and similar to a human female’s.

She realized that she hadn’t studied very much Dreth anatomy and that it might help her in combat if she did. Knowing where to strike would be a great advantage.

Hoping those thoughts didn’t show on her face, she pulled herself straighter as V’ritan moved to sit on the end of the bed and patted her leg.

Looking from Jaleck to Stephanie, he explained. “The man who attacked us was the head of the king’s Royal Guard. Right now, trust is at a minimum.”

She glanced at King Grilfir, who spoke softly to Jaleck, a look of sadness on his face. “Okay, but why here?”

He glanced at the door. “You have a very good team that cares immensely about you. Currently, they do not allow anyone but me, King Grilfir, and Ambassador Jaleck into the room. And, because the king is in here, his security won’t let your security team enter.”

At this, she glanced around for Lars and realized he was missing. V’ritan noticed the worry on her face and spoke hastily. “At first, your men did not like it, but they wanted to keep the peace, so they are all out in the hall. That means only we—and you—are privy to our discussions about a problem we have tried to understand for decades.”

Stephanie raised an eyebrow. “And it’s okay for me to be here why?”

The Dreth ambassador snorted and drew everyone’s attention. She glanced at the two Meligornian men. “You said she was plain-speaking. Now I see why.”

Her English was accented by her native Dreth and reminded the girl of a man who had delivered newspapers in the Gov-Subs. He’d been from the last remaining islands before they’d been covered by the sea to create a city beneath the waves.

His skin had been darkly kissed by the hot sun and his eyes had sparkled with the joy of life. He had a thick accent, and Stephanie had loved listening to him as a child. Jaleck’s wasn’t as thick, but it was still oddly comforting.

As she remembered the newspaper man, the Dreth ambassador approached. She walked over to the bed and reached out with slender, scaled claws. Her eyes swirled silver and blue as she touched Stephanie’s cheek gently and she smiled.

“You are young, powerful, and a human. Not usually the best of traits.”

“Normally, true,” King Grilfir agreed and raised his voice slightly but with a trace of humor to it. “However, with her saving V’ritan from assassination on Earth, citizens from all Federation worlds on the liner from pirates, and then both V’ritan and myself from a traitor to the crown when she had barely recovered. I think I can safely assume she isn’t working for the enemy.”

He settled his focus on her. “In fact, I would say you have done more for Meligorn than you have for your own planet, and I have a mind to claim you for Meligorn.”

The three visitors laughed and V’ritan stood and gave her a wink. She didn’t see what was funny, but she didn’t have a problem with it either. “Grant me dual citizenship if that would make everyone happy. Then I can represent all of you when I’m out.”

They all stared at her, now, but she continued. “That way, I won’t have to wonder who I need to help when I get there. I feel connected to all of you anyway. And although the Dreth have encountered my vengeance more than the others, I have a feeling that won’t always be the case. Not after seeing who was inside the Dreth Resistance ship.”

“Are you sure they were rebels?” the king asked. “We’d heard that might be the case, but...”

Stephanie nodded. “Oh yeah. They were rebels, big time, and there were members of the Resistance from all over the Universe. There can’t be only one enemy in our midst—which, I suppose, would make it a lot harder to know who to trust. But I trust my men and the ambassador, and hopefully, I can trust you two, as well.”

She paused and tried to think if there was anyone she’d missed before she added, “Besides that and a couple of people currently on Earth, I don’t see the need to spread my trust much further.”

They nodded in agreement, and Jaleck gave her a look of approval.

“Dual citizenship,” the Dreth murmured.

At her words, they all glanced at each other, and the king looked at V’ritan. “What about the Royal Award of Decarth? And possibly our Congressional Talon of the Families?”

Jaleck turned to study the viewscreen that revealed the vast emptiness of space beyond. “That would be an appropriate medal.”

“And both of those,” the king added, “can only be provided to those who are citizens. It makes it very simple to knock out two…two…oh, what is that Earth saying? Two cats with one can?”

His ambassador frowned, clearly trying to think of it as well. “No, more something like two cows with one bell? There was something about a cowbell.” She pressed her lips together in an effort not to laugh. The Dreth did the same and shook her head as the men began to work through the animals of Earth.

When they got to elephants, Jaleck raised a clawed hand in protest. “Shhhh, you are giving me a headache. The saying is, to kill two birds with one stone, not two elephants with one villager. Good grief.”

Stephanie allowed herself a giggle as the king and V’ritan’s eyes lit up. “That’s the one, right there. The Dreth save the day again.”

A loud knock on the door interrupted the moment and everyone looked toward it as Brilgus stuck his head in. “Sorry to interrupt, but uh… We have a nurse out here willing to push her way through a group of men with guns to see her patient—and she is not playing around. She threatened to beat one of the guards with a krifton if they don’t let her through.”

Her visitors all grimaced, while she didn’t have a clue. “Okay, someone tell me what a krifton is.”

V’ritan flipped through his phone and held a picture up. She blinked and looked at them in disbelief. “But that’s…it’s a hamster. Why are you afraid of a hamster?”

Jaleck shook her head, glanced at Brilgus, and lowered her voice. “No, not a hamster. That is a krifton. I’ve heard of this hamster and the two creatures are on entirely different spectrums. The krifton…well, it’s better to leave those alone. They are dangerous.”

Stephanie looked at the phone and then at the Dreth, shocked that something so furry and cute with its little pink nose could have both Dreth and Meligornians sounding a warning. “Where are they from?”

The Dreth pointed both of her thumbs, one at the ambassador and one at the king. “The lovely planet of Meligorn. Someone brought a couple of them to Dreth too and now, the place is crawling with the furry menaces. I blame you people with the pointed ears.”

Brilgus cleared his throat. “If you please, the nurse is most insistent.”

V’ritan looked at him and replied in Stephanie’s voice. “Oh, yes. Give me two seconds and then let her through.”

She stared in astonishment, but before she could say anything, her three visitors crowded close together as the ambassador waved his hand. The quick gesture released a layer of magic like a soft floating blanket. As it fell over them, they vanished. “Whoa.”

When the door opened shortly after, she tried to look like nothing had happened. The nurse glanced around the room as she came in.

Seeing nothing out of place, she shook her head. “What’s so important that there needs to be a million people out there? I’ll take your readings now, okay?”

She paused and smiled at her. “Good morning, by the way. You slept for a long time. We’re glad to see your eyes open at last.”

Stephanie smiled in return and let the nurse scan her body using her tablet, take her pulse, and then her temperature.

When she was done, the woman patted her on the knee. “You’ll be fine. I am not ready to give you a clean bill of health yet, so we’ll keep you here a little while longer. You’re okay to start walking around whenever you feel up to it. The reporters are starting to hang around outside, though, so don’t leave your room.”

She nodded. “Thank you.”

The nurse gave her another kind smile. “That is what we do. We take care of you. I've finally realized who you are, so you stay here until you feel good enough to deal with those people. Then, we’ll let the ambassador know so he can organize secure transport for you.”

She took a couple of steps toward the door and the stopped. “Oh, and I know that horrible Royal Guard has already been taken to jail, so don’t worry about him coming in again. I think it’s wonderful the ambassador was here to deal with him. You have been through enough lately. It’s high time someone looked out for you.”

Stephanie gave her a large smile and her gaze drifted to where her visitors had disappeared. “Thank you for doing that,” she managed while she fought an urge to laugh.

With a cheerful wave, the nurse opened the door and stepped out.

She could hear her giving the teams a hard time as the door closed behind her. “I’ll be back in two hours and you’d better let me past or I won’t be happy.”

After a few moments in case the woman returned, she giggled and cleared her throat. “All right, you can come out now.”

The magic dissipated from the top down to reveal the three VIPs, all on their tablets like bored teenagers. She couldn’t believe how alike they were, and not only the three of them but humans, too.

It took V’ritan a moment to realize the magic had gone. He elbowed the king, who looked up and tapped Jaleck on the shoulder. She swatted irritably at his hand as she finished what she was doing and tucked her tablet away.

Stephanie gave V’ritan a confused look. “Are you apprehending the assassins, now?”

He chuckled and shook his head. “Of course not, but it is much easier to say I did it than try to explain that you did. There are people who would think you tried to hit the king and missed. We will let them know the truth soon enough.”

She shrugged. “That’s fine. I don’t really like the spotlight. I simply want people to know I’m on their side and to trust that.”

“Most of them already do,” the king replied, “but there are still a few...” He shrugged

Jaleck agreed. “It is harder for my people because the ones doing most of the killing are Dreth, but those who stand behind the Federation already love you.”

Stephanie blushed and tried to suppress a smile. “That’s so nice. I think I should start a fan club. Brilgus can be the president.”

The King and Jaleck chuckled, but V’ritan seemed to be somewhere else. His lips were pursed as if he were deep in thought. She waited as he considered whatever was on his mind. When he had finally pieced whatever it was together well enough, he spoke. “I want Stephanie tested for inclusion into the Mysteries.”

King Grilfir turned to him, resignation on his face. “I wondered when you’d come to that.”

Beside him, Jaleck’s eyebrows raised and her mouth dropped open.

She closed it abruptly and hid her feelings like before. Stephanie was also surprised, having heard about the Mysteries as more of a story—a rumor filled with secrecy and magical wonder.

Her first impulse was to ask more about it but before she could, Grilfir turned to her and looked very concerned. “If I am to allow the Royal Award, then I have no reason to prevent her from trying for the Mysteries,” he said and returned his gaze to V’ritan. “But are you sure? They won’t go easy on her because she’s human. It will, in fact, be quite the opposite.”

Stephanie lay back and attempted to take in everything they said. She felt suddenly drained as if her body were saying she’d done enough.

Using every ounce of energy she had, she tried to keep her eyes open but it was no use. Sleep overcame her and she slipped into slumber and to a place where dreams seemed to find her exactly when she needed them to.

Hours passed as she whirled around Meligorn, danced with Todd in the streets of her youth, and hugged her mother and father in their Gov-Sub flat. When she finally woke, the king and both ambassadors were gone.

Only Brilgus and Lars lounged in chairs in her room and snored loudly as if it were a competition. The sight of them and the sound made her smile. It was probably the best way she could have woken.

Chapter Forty-Four

“Be…prepared…” Stephanie was sure she heard the voice as she opened her eyes once more. She was still in the hospital, the lights dimmed and the halls quiet, with neither Lars nor Brilgus and their snores to keep her company.

She sat up in bed, rubbed her face, and smoothed her hands up and through her hair. A little more awake, she cracked her neck and paused to assess how she felt.

Tentatively, she turned, put her feet on the floor, and stood slowly. Surprisingly, she seemed fine and no longer felt weak or tired. She felt good. In fact, she felt right for the first time since she’d woken up on the station.

Relieved, she looked around and noticed a set of clothes laid neatly over the back of one of the chairs. Thankfully, it seemed Lars had brought in some of the clothes from her luggage.

She could imagine the condition of what she’d worn when she’d arrived. With a grimace at the thought, she picked up a t-shirt and pulled it over her head. As she reached for the yoga pants, she glanced in the mirror and startled. Almost all her hair had turned silver.

The sight made her pause. It was strange to see it that way but it reminded her of the small streaks of silver in her Morgana ancestor’s hair.

With a smile, she waved her hand over her hair and tidied it into a similar style to what the old Morgana had worn, only without the updo. She was plainer than that and she liked it.

When she was fully dressed and satisfied with her appearance, she cracked the door. Brenden, Frog, Lars, and Marcus stood in the hallway.

“You’da thought the nurses would have been hotter this side of space,” Frog grumbled, and Marcus rolled his eyes.

“And you’da thought we had more important things to do than ogle the staff.”

“Maybe you should talk to Johnny, then,” Frog snarked smartly, and Brendan snickered.

“Nope. You really shouldn’t. That man is prone to exaggeration.”

“Pssst,” Stephanie hissed as the team leader sighed, and they all turned toward the door in surprise.

With a grin, she moved to one side, pulled the door wider, and gestured for them to come in. Lars looked at her with concern. “Should you be out of bed? Are you feeling all right?”

She smiled. “I actually feel great. And I’m ready to break out of this joint.”

“Technically, you won’t be breaking out,” Frog pointed out cheerfully. “The docs said they’d discharge you today if you showed signs of improvement.” He gestured to where she stood. “That’s some impressive improvement, right there.”

“Are you saying I can’t go yet?”

“Nope,” Lars told her. “We’re saying you have to wait until the doctors show up on their rounds.”

“Fine.” She pouted but quickly turned her attention to the main problem they faced. “No matter. Okay, talk to me about the reporters. You’ve probably already noticed them, right? Do they have us boxed in?”

“Basically, yes,” Marcus replied. “And we don’t have a back way from here to Johnny, so we’ll have to run the gauntlet from the Meligorn side to the human side of the station. There are back halls we can take there but getting to them might be a problem.”

Stephanie pursed her lips as she thought about it, and the guys were silent as they did the same. The mischievous grin that suddenly lit her face was almost as worrying as the reporters outside, but she was already speaking before they could protest. “All right, this is what we’ll do.”

Witch Of The Federation

A short while later, a short, stout man with a flushed face raced down the corridor outside Stephanie’s room. His face was flushed, and he pushed a very pregnant woman in a wheelchair as fast as he could go.

“Watch out!” he shouted, reached the press pack in the foyer, and made no effort to slow down. “Coming through! Pregnant woman here. Came to the wrong side. Watch out. Watch out!

The mob parted like magic. Several people looking horrified, and others moved quickly to avoid being run down. The woman in the chair huffed and puffed, held her belly, and groaned as she hunched over another contraction. They were accompanied by four older people—two women and two men, clearly the grandparents in this whole debacle.

The women were dressed in floral dresses but wore running shoes, and the men sported brown pants, suspenders, and bow ties. All of them flapped at the press as they passed.

“Watch out, now. She’s gonna blow,” earned one older gentleman a sharp slap from his partner. “What? Well, she is!”

The group bounded through the hospital corridors and to the elevators and traveled up and across to the human side of the station. When they exited, they found more reporters.

These seemed excited about something, but they stepped out of the way as smartly as their colleagues on the Meligorn side had. The wheelchair hurtled past them, the woman holding her belly, and the chair tipped on two wheels as the group took the corner and out of sight.

The reporters were so focused on news of the witch’s pending release that they didn’t notice the lack of nurses in attendance. The witch’s guard was also being released, and there was sure to be a reunion.

Well away from the foyer and its press pack, Johnny sat on the edge of his bed, dressed and ready to go. He rubbed his leg and wondered if he’d ever regain full use of it.

The magic Crystal had used had been enough to keep him from bleeding out, but he’d still needed surgery when they’d brought him in and was on a program of rehab that was enough to make his teammates wince.

Despite his worry, though, he was grateful the doctors were letting him go. He’d had enough drama and more than enough of hospitals.

Suddenly, the door burst open and a short, fat guy wheeling a pregnant woman barreled in. Two old couples followed and shut the door behind them. They all lined up in front of the bed and stared at him as though he was in the wrong place.

Johnny returned the stares, wide-eyed. After a moment, he cleared his throat, and said, “I think you may have the wrong room. She needs to be in maternity.”

The woman stopped holding her huge belly and pushed herself awkwardly out of the chair. While he tried to decide if he could get out of the room without punching anyone, she waddled up to him, doubled over, and clutched her belly as she arrived.

“Seriously,” she complained and glared at the fat, bald man when she straightened again. “You could have made it fake. I’m in real labor here.”

The group laughed as the bald man waved his hand and their bodies morphed while Johnny gaped in growing consternation. The bald guy turned into Stephanie, and the four older people became Marcus, Lars, Brenden, and Avery.

The pregnant woman in front of Johnny slowly transformed into Frog, and he wailed with laughter. “Did you see that one reporter’s face downstairs? He was terrified he was going to catch it or something.”

“I was waiting for Frog’s water to break,” Marcus bellowed.

Johnny sat there, stared at the team, and shook his head. “You guys need help. Seriously. Real help.”

Stephanie pouted, hurried over, and hugged him tightly. “How do you feel? Are you ready to get the hell out of here?”

“Uh yeah,” he said. “I sent you guys a message, like, twenty minutes ago.”

“Sorry.” Avery chuckled. “Frog was struggling to stand up straight. That belly really did him in.”

Frog plopped down in the chair. “Mad respect for the ladies, bro. Mad respect.”

Together, the team followed the back corridors out of the hospital. Using Frog’s hacked schematics, they ducked into side doors and scuttled down staff-only passages until they reached the station’s civilian accommodations.

While Steph and Johnny had been in hospital, the team had snagged a private suite in one of the mid-range hotels for when she was released.

It was nothing special, merely four rooms off a small common area consisting of a lounge and kitchenette. The bedrooms were functional with two beds apiece, drab-colored linens, and a phone. She was the only one who didn’t have to share.

She sat on her bed and sighed. “Ahhh, quiet. At least for a day or so.”

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than the phone rang in the common room. She gasped, rushed to the door, and reached it as Lars picked it up. “This is Lars… Yes, ma’am, she has been… Yes, he has too.”

Stephanie raised her eyebrow and wondered who could have worked out where they were so soon. He nodded and cracked a smile. “Perfect. We’ll be down at the bay in five minutes.”

He hung up and looked at Stephanie. “Are you ready to take a royal shuttle down and get your feet on Meligorn?”

Her eyes lit up and she jumped up and down before she rushed over to hug him tightly. “I’ve been ready for that since I was a little girl.”

She took two steps toward the door before he shouted to the team. “Grab your gear, guys. We’re transferring planetside for a few days.”

“Really?” she squeaked and ran to her room to pack.

As soon as the team had their bags, they headed down to the shuttle bay. It was a relief to find the hotel had remained true to its word and kept their location a secret. Lars told them to keep the booking as it was and paid them extra for their discretion.

The manager grinned. “I never did like the press. Anything to get one over on them,” he said but was glad to accept the extra payment too.

The team took a circuitous route to the shuttle bays and entered the VIP passenger lounge shortly afterward. They were quickly surrounded by a team of waiting Meligornians, all dressed in robes of teal and gold.

They loaded the team’s luggage into one of the waiting shuttles, showed them to their seats in its plush interior, and made sure they had snacks and drinks for the short ride down to the surface.

She was far too excited to care about any of that, however. Instead, she sat at the window as the shuttle lifted and navigated clear of the station and watched in wonder as they descended to Meligorn’s surface.

Witch Of The Federation

When they landed, Stephanie stared longingly at the purple fields beyond the tarmac. She sighed when the shuttle taxied into a large hangar and blocked the fields from view. A young Meligornian woman wearing the same teal and gold of those who had greeted them on the station waited for them.

“Hello, my name is Ilbis and I will escort you to your quarters. If there is anything you need, feel free to ask me.”

“I’m only glad there are no media,” Frog muttered.

“Oh no,” Ilbis replied. “Not here. These are the royal hangars. The media isn’t allowed anywhere near them. Now, if you would follow me.”

She turned and the team followed her through the doors at the back of the hangar. They entered the hallways beyond into a world of opulence and wealth.

The ceilings seemed to reach to the sky and color swirled wildly through them until it was like staring at a storm-rent sky. The décor reeked of age and history, and Stephanie was sure she caught the gleam of magic sliding across its surface.

The people in the pictures appeared to greet her as she walked past, and the statues moved. Some even danced in place. The Meligornians they passed all wore the teal and gold of the royal household and all smiled a welcome for the visitors.

They went from one hallway to another until they reached a large wooden door. Here, Ilbis stopped and turned to them. “These are your quarters. Inside, your rooms each open onto a large common area. We thought you would all want to be close.”

“Thank you,” Lars replied.

She opened the doors and led them in. The guys all oohed and aahed at the grandeur of the place. Stephanie, though, stayed silent. She walked through, her hand tucked against her chest, completely taken aback.

It was absolutely beautiful. To her right was a room with her name etched into the door. She walked into it and raised one hand to her cheek.

It was like the illusion of the castle bedroom the ambassador had created for her so long ago. Every detail was perfect—a huge four poster bed, lavish linens, hand-carved furniture, and large windows that gave her a clear view of Meligorn itself.

“Let us know if you need anything,” Ilbis told them. “I won’t be far.”

After she had left, Lars hurried over to her and tapped her on the shoulder. He put his finger to his lips and mouthed the word “security.” She rolled her eyes but nodded. With a sigh, she worked her magic and dispatched several globes of energy to search the rooms for any listening devices or hidden cameras. Together, the team watched as they ranged throughout the suite and moved from floor to ceiling as they went.

They gathered around her and listened closely until they heard a succession of popping noises. Stephanie jumped, then narrowed her eyes in annoyance. “I can’t go anywhere.”

“Now you can.” Lars chuckled as all but Marcus dispersed to see what had made the sound. “You blew those things up.”

She closed her eyes and began to pull energy in without ceasing, merely absorbing wave after wave of MU into her chest. “The energy is so free here. I could spend the entire trip punch drunk on MU. Then, I could easily ignore the haters.”

Marcus stood in the doorway of her bedroom and watched her draw the magic into herself. “You know, drunk people don’t usually have a high kill rate...unless they have an accident. Usually, they simply end up heading home in a cab and sleeping it off. But, if you get drunk, it’ll be worse than any drunk behind the wheel because you might actually blow up an entire city.”

Stephanie opened her eyes, sighed, and swayed slightly as purple mist wisped in through her nose. “Okay, that stopped being funny. Whoa.”

He walked forward and grabbed her under the arm to stabilize her. “Will you explode with this much energy?”

She shook the dizziness out of her head. “No. I have it on good authority that Meligorn energy is only a subset of another type. It’s not that strong. I simply have to learn a way to put it in my larger storage tank…wherever that is.”

The Meligornian pirate sprang to mind and she frowned. “I don’t want a repeat of what happened on the ship where someone pulls my energy and leaves me short. I want to leave enough MU in my system for it to seem like a large amount…for a human.”

They were interrupted by a knock on the doorframe and turned to find Avery peeking around the corner. “Oh, that explains it.”

He retreated and she began to pull energy again, this time a little slower. She was interrupted by another knock and Avery once again darted his head around the corner. “You might want to stop the purple light show. The ambassador is on his way with what looks like a couple of annoyed people in robes.”

Stephanie lowered her arms and released a disgruntled groan as she followed the guys out to the common area.

“Troublemaker,” Lars whispered and smirked at her discomfort as he led her over to sit in the lounge. Avery, Johnny, and Frog brought a pack of cards and sat down with them.

Before she could reply, there was a knock at the two main doors, and Ilbis stepped inside. “I’m sorry to bother you, but Meligorn’s ambassador to Earth and the Lords Ashti and Crimpor would like to see you.”

She didn’t wait for their agreement but opened the doors wider and stepped aside to let the visitors through. Lars rose from his seat and Stephanie stood as well as Ambassador V’ritan sauntered in the room. He glanced at them and gestured for them to sit.

“Don’t trouble yourselves,” he told them as the two nobles followed him in and immediately broke away, clearly searching the room. He turned to her, smirked, and added, “Where did it happen?”

She raised an eyebrow as she sat and picked up the hand of cards someone had dealt her. “Where did what happen?”

The two nobles looked at her. “The magical explosion. Where did it happen?”

Startled, she allowed a small frown to crease her forehead. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The Meligornians glared at her and returned to their search.

From their seats, the team watched the lords move around the room, not surprised in the least when they stopped momentarily where each of the small explosions had occurred.

They didn’t linger, though, but continued to work their way through every room as if the source of a magical explosion was easy to hide. Finally, looking more disgruntled than ever, the robed Meligorns headed out and Iblis closed the doors behind them.

As soon as they were gone, V’ritan narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth to speak. He remained silent when she held her hand up.

Frog and Marcus left the table silently and followed the path the nobles had taken through the rooms. It wasn’t long before they hurried up with several slightly singed items in their hands and several more identical, untarnished items. These, they passed to their visitor.

The ambassador shook his head and looked slightly amused as the items disappeared into glittering light. “Amateurs. You probably blew someone’s ears out when you exploded the first lot.” He sighed. “I wondered what they were bitching about. I thought something else had happened security-wise and was ready to throw magic and save you for once.”

Stephanie smiled. “Hopefully, you never have to do that. It wouldn’t be fun for anyone. But thank you, nonetheless.” She scowled. “I didn’t know they could have listening devices in here.”

He chuckled and looked around the room. “They can if you don’t get rid of them. Those two, though, are part of the group responsible for keeping the building safe. They can be trusted not to share anything embarrassing but they do get most annoyed when their devices are destroyed.”

They get annoyed?” Stephanie snorted. “How about the person who is desperately trying to have a little privacy? Those pops almost gave me a damn heart attack. Will I have to keep doing that? Checking every five seconds for new ones?”

V’ritan shook his head. “No. They can’t put them here without physically doing it themselves, so they used me to get in.” He gave Lars a stern look. “Don’t let them come back.”

“Not a hope in all the universe,” Lars told him solemnly.

She giggled and shuffled over as V’ritan sat on the couch beside her. “So, how are you doing? I haven’t been able to ask.”

He chuckled. “I’m doing well. Better now that you are here under the king’s and my protection.”

“And your wife?” Stephanie asked. “Whom I have not gotten to meet yet.”

The ambassador laughed. “Elza? She is doing wonderfully, and she is very much looking forward to meeting you. She has talked about it non-stop for the last few days, asking me when you will be released and when you will be here. The king is the king, of course, but the queen and my wife talk about little else. It’s entertaining to watch.”

She shook her head. It felt strange that so many important people wanted to meet her. “Has everyone been busy with the assassin? Has he given you any new information?”

V’ritan puffed his cheeks out. “He gave us some, and the king and queen are busy flushing out the traitors inside the government and palace. It doesn’t matter how much they claim to act for the good of Meligorn and the universe, the royals won’t have it. They will find and remove them, one at a time.”

Her face fell and she tapped her hands against her knees. “I’m sorry.”

His face scrunched and he squeezed her hand gently. “What for?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I feel really bad for causing so much trouble. Had I not been here—”

“Had you not been here, the traitor would still be head of the Royal Guard, privy to the king’s personal security and our world’s plans for the future,” he replied. “Do not apologize for that. You did not mean for any of this to happen. You’re a destiny-changer, Stephanie. You can’t change that about yourself. It’s merely what you are.”

“Am I?” she asked. “Or am I simply a girl with some cool powers who tries her best to use them for good? I don’t know.”

The Ambassador smiled. “I have never met a human like you. You are so powerful, you could have all the worlds at your feet. Yet here you are, questioning your own relevance and asking others how they are when you’re the one who just got out of the hospital and had her privacy violated.”

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to say,” she told him. “If you have something that could be used to help everyone, wouldn’t you share it?” She paused, then added, “My mother taught me that when I was little.”

“She is a smart woman,” V’ritan told her. “And to answer your question, yes, I believe you are a destiny-changer. I believe you hold the knowledge and the power to change our world and many others, to make a better universe, a better planet, and a better life for all. And I know that sounds like a lot—”

Stephanie scoffed playfully. “Too much? No way. Merely changing everything from bad to good in the whole galaxy and everywhere beyond. No big deal. I can knock that out on my lunch break.”

The ambassador tilted his head back and laughed. “You know what? Give it a couple of years and I bet you’ll be able to. It will be no sweat for you at all.”

She laughed and shook her head. “Yeah right. So, tell me about the Mysteries. Unless it’s a mystery up until it’s not a mystery.”

He looked thoughtful. “Well, there are three Mysteries you will need to complete in order to pass. Whether you pass or fail is not only dependent on the tester. There are parameters you have to work within and goals you have to meet, even if the tester has the final say—so don’t give them too much sass when you roll in.”

“Me? Sass? Yeah right,” she told him. “I know how to be serious. I’ve practiced that my entire life.”

“Good, because once you’re in it, you will probably go right back to that mode,” he replied. “If you pass all three, you will be set up as an honored Meligorn Mage. If you fail, you will have a chance to try again in ten years.”

“Ten years—that’s a long time for a retest,” she replied.

He shook his head. “You have to survive to wait for it. Don’t fail. I can promise you it won’t be in your best interest.”

Stephanie went serious when she heard the concern in his tone. She realized right then and there that she was heading into something she really didn’t understand but had to trust him enough to follow the process. That was a lot to ask of anyone, including her.

Lars finally spoke from his seat beside them. “What are the three tests?”

They both looked at him, and she wanted to tease him until she caught the worry on his face and saw it was reflected in the expressions of the rest of the team.

V’ritan could see it too, and he clearly shared that worry. “The first concerns the illusion of magic. The second concerns its extent. And the third is the presupposition of the power of magic. All three tests are meant to see if a student is ready to wield magic in a wise and gentle way or if they will seek to…”

He thought about it for a moment and snapped his fingers. “I think the humans say, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We seek to make sure that those who wield great power do not treat everything like a nail.”

“So it’s not only a physical thing, it’s a spiritual thing as well,” Brenden said and looked up from his cards.

The ambassador nodded at him. “Yes, very much so. A Meligornian—or any magical person—must be in touch with themselves. They must be connected to their inner souls and not only the surface view of what magic can be used for. The full extent of that needs to be shown. Once one passes the crucible, they are allowed to see the inner Mysteries and ponder them for the future, contemplating where greater power comes from.”

Stephanie puffed out a breath. “This is far deeper than I expected. I assume these are not easy tasks—that there is some danger involved.”

“Of course,” V’ritan replied but didn’t elaborate. “Although the specific scenario for each test is usually different, I have seen my fair share to know my way around them. I am, however, forbidden to speak to you about specifics before your time. They will know if you have been told.”

She nodded. “Are the examiners Mages?”

He thought about it for a second. “I believe so, yes. Of course, they are part of the mysteries. We merely call them Teachers. There are currently three—two women, and one man. You have exactly two days to prepare, and I will meet you here on the third day to take you to the first master. I may escort you to the test and back, but for the test itself, you are very much on your own. Something I know you can cope with.”

“I sure hope so,” she told him, but the pressure of it weighed heavily.

Witch Of The Federation

Stephanie wasn’t the only one under pressure. A galaxy away, Todd looked at the group of guys he would train with. It was a lot smaller than any of the groups he’d been with before. They’d been told they’d move into the more real-world scenarios and that part of that was to split into smaller teams since operations seldom involved forty guys.

Most missions would require a small group, and that team would become like a family. Each member would have a specific task, and everyone would work together to get the job done. To start the process, their intake had been broken into small groups.

The guys he was with were like him—near the top of their course with one particular skill they excelled at. If he thought about it, he was with a fairly good team.

This time, the pod scenario had taken him to a dark hollow between two hills, where the team leader slapped him on the shoulder and introduced him to the rest. “All right, Todd here has made a strong showing in small arms and defensive tactics, as do Caplan, Fieroza, and Dreigus. They’ll be responsible for making sure the rest of us get in and out with the target. Edgeworth, Zoreck, and Teifler, your primary role is to secure the target and bring him out. Once we get in there, however, I expect you to flex with the situation, because you all know what happens to plans, right?”

The guys chuckled and he continued. “We’re responsible for retrieving a captured Federation Navy sailor, one Melena Alvarez, from the building behind us. We need to get in and get out without being seen, and we need to do it fast. Once we’re out, the overwatch will call in an air strike to level the place, so don’t leave anyone behind.”

The team set up and headed down to the building. They moved through the shadows, cautious and quiet.

Getting into the building was easy, and they made it to the room without being discovered. Petty Officer Alvarez was badly beaten but she could walk so they tucked her in the center of the team and headed out. Todd brought up the rear.

The trip out proved far more difficult. They had to stop several times to avoid more people as they crept through the building. It was only once they’d begun to cross the last hall that they were discovered, and all hell broke loose.

Bullets and las-bolts erupted as the enemy soldier shouted the alarm. Todd and Fieroza covered their tails while their teammates hustled Melena to the exit.

Zoreck moved to cover Edgeworth and Teifler but the enemy caught the sailor before he could find cover. He took a bullet to the shoulder and fell, so Todd hauled him up and over his shoulder. Fieroza maintained fire as they bolted to the door.

As soon as they were out, the team on overwatch gave the green light for the strike and the first missile howled in.

The team kept moving at a steady pace. Todd carried Zoreck and Edgeworth now carried Melena. By the time they reached the pick-up point, they were exhausted but happy.

The scenario ended and they emerged from their pods to find the chief waiting.

“I suppose you misbegotten sons think you did a great job,” he began as they formed up in front of him. “Well, you’re lucky any of you got your sorry asses out of there alive, let alone the sailor you were sent to rescue. You!” He rounded on the team leader and dressed him down for what he’d forgotten before he moved onto Edgeworth and then down the line.

Todd was left until last, and by the end, he had no doubts about exactly what he’d done wrong...but also a vague idea of what he’d done right.


Never had that word sounded sweeter, and it was followed by, “You’re off duty until oh-five-hundred. Make it a team night out.”


As soon as the chief had left, Zobeck turned to Todd and shoved him in the shoulder. “Thanks for getting me out of there.”

“You better be thankful,” Caplan told him. “I’da left your sorry ass behind to slow them down.”

Zobeck laid his hand over his heart and replied in mock shock. “I’m hurt, Cappy. Really hurt.” He made a show of rubbing his butt cheeks. “I’ll have you know this ass deserves your utmost respect.”

“Just for that, your ass is buying the first round,” the team leader snapped and jerked a hand toward the door. “Let’s get out of there before the chief comes back and changes his mind.”

The team laughed and headed over to the bar for well-deserved beers. Once they arrived, the team leader stood on his chair and raised his glass. “Tomorrow is our last test, then we are done. So make this beer your last for the night. I can tell you right now, I’ll be as lucky as hell to get to serve with any one of you bastards.”

They all cheered, drank their beer, and reluctantly switched to soda as they scarfed their meals. While they’d rather have gotten rolling drunk, not a single one of them was willing to mess up their chance to get the hell out of Dodge.

Chapter Forty-Five

Stephanie sat in the back of the shuttle and jiggled her feet, her hands pressed together in front of her. She was nervous knowing she still had a lot to learn.

For the first time since the ambassador had suggested it, she was afraid she couldn’t possibly pass the test. She leaned back, pressed the back of her head against the wall, and closed her eyes. If you can’t possibly pass, then why be so nervous? Go into it calm and do what you can.

This shuttle was smaller and moved much more swiftly than the one that had brought them down from the station. V’ritan had explained the technology but she still didn’t get it.

It had something to do with the crystalline transfer of MU into the power circuits and blah blah blah. She looked out the window as they flew low over a small village, and she looked out in awe. The place was absolutely enchanting.

The village consisted of thatched-roof homes with small painted doors and wildly colorful gardens surrounding a small town center. It looked like it had jumped out of a fairy tale, and she loved it.

They left the village behind and the shuttle descended and skimmed its way along a narrow dirt track to a small cottage set well away from the main thoroughfare.

It was only a short flight, but it would have taken someone the best part of two hours to reach it from the village. Stephanie checked her safety straps as the shuttle slowed and pivoted to land carefully in a stone-lined circle outside.

Once they landed, V’ritan moved to the back where Lars and the team sat anxiously.

“This is where she leaves you,” he said to them. “I will be with her and we will be back soon.”

“Not happening,” Lars told him and stood. Marcus and Frog stepped alongside him. “Our job is to protect her. We can’t do that if we’re not there.”

The ambassador looked at him, then surveyed the rest of the team. When he saw the determination on their faces, he sighed.

“One,” he agreed finally. “I think I can have the Master forgive that, but the rest of you will have to stay with the shuttle. We’ll bring her back.”

Lars looked at Stephanie and frowned. He studied V’ritan’s face and saw his own determination reflected there. With a soft growl of protest, he nodded.

“Very well. Marcus, you’re in charge of keeping Frog out of trouble. The rest of you do what Marcus tells you to. If we’re not back by nightfall, you know what to do.”

The team nodded and slapped hands with her as she walked out. Lars immediately moved ahead to ensure the area was clear. She put on a brave face for the guys but on the inside, her magic swirled restlessly, and her feelings were in chaos.

As V’ritan followed her, she reached the landing pad and looked around in awe. “It’s beautiful here.”

He smiled and kept a watchful eye on Lars. “It is. The village is there to support the Master and those who wish to see her. Almost everyone travels by foot.”

“I see you brought a friend,” a voice called from ahead of them. “It’s a good thing I understand the human protocol, V’ritan.”

Lars moved back to Stephanie and they looked up as a tall Meligornian woman approached. Realizing it must be the first Teacher, Stephanie watched as she reached out, took the ambassador’s arm, and bent low.

She couldn’t help but notice how elegant the Teacher made the movement seem, although she was surprised when they embraced. When the woman turned to greet her, she kept her hands in and greeted her like she should address a Mage of her rank.

The woman nodded in appreciation but, although she acknowledged Lars’s presence, she did not greet him and merely fell in step beside the ambassador and led them into her home. “You look good, V’ritan. Old but good.”

V’ritan laughed and glanced at Stephanie. “Melistar and I are distant relatives. She has had to put up with me all three hundred and twenty-three years of her life.”

The Mage leaned toward Stephanie. “Which requires more patience than I care to admit.”

She laughed quietly and nervously. The woman was younger than she’d expected, and her face gave her the idea that they might be close in age...although how that could be possible, she didn’t know.

Melistar studied her for a moment. “You must be worried about the fact that you’re human. So, let me put your mind at rest. I am not here to test your species, merely your understanding of the Mysteries here.”

Stephanie relaxed a little and Melistar beckoned. “Come. Let us begin.”

Leaving V’ritan and Lars in the first room, Stephanie followed Melistar through to a room where there was no furniture and no windows or door. It was empty save for a slick white marble floor and a roof that was open to the sky.

The Mage brought her to a halt in the center of the room and raised her hands. “Close your eyes and relax. You will begin when you open your eyes. Take your time. Think about it and trust your instincts.”

With a nod, she shut her eyes. Melistar pressed her fingers to her temples and whispered. “To the gates she storms, bring her to the beginning of three.”

She felt a rush of air as if she moved really fast. When it stilled, she opened her eyes and looked around. She was inside a small cottage. A little girl hummed as she skipped past and played with a shuttle similar to the one they’d arrived in.

Her gut told her to follow the girl, so she did. The child did not react to her presence but continued to move uninhibited, skipped out of the room and along a corridor, and out the back door.

When Stephanie emerged, she heard the child crying and saw she had fallen. She raced to her and found she had skinned her knee.

Her first instinct was to bring her hands up to heal her, but she remembered a time when she had fallen and skinned her knee on the sidewalk. Her mother had picked her up and taken her inside to clean and cover the minor scrape. The pain had soon faded, and the graze had healed in only a couple of days.

She frowned. It seemed such a little thing and one easily fixed on its own. It would be far too easy to use magic on it, and for what? To heal something that posed no threat to the child’s life? To spare herself a few tears, which would soon dry?

The easy solution made her immediately suspicious, and she paused. Instead of using her energy, she leaned down and scooped the girl up, took her inside, and set her on the counter exactly like her mother had done. She looked around the tidy kitchen and soon located a first aid kit high up on a shelf, but when she turned, the little girl was gone.

Slightly confused, she looked around until the room shifted like a pod session finishing in the Virtual World, only much more violently. The kitchen blurred and she felt like she was falling.

She jolted to a stop in what looked like someone’s front yard. It was late at night and when she saw no one, she assumed they were all asleep.

There seemed to be no obvious reason for her to be there, and she wondered what the point was when she heard voices. They were hushed, as though their owners didn’t want to be heard, so she walked carefully down the side of the house to peek around the back.

There, at one of the ground-floor windows, were two men. Both were dressed in black and one held a crowbar. “Break the window,” the other urged. “The girl’s upstairs. Snatch her and we can get the hell out of here.”

Stephanie felt a swirl of anger. She wanted to fireball the pair so badly it hurt, but she knew this was a test. Rather than follow her first instinct, she studied her surroundings. She found a discarded baseball bat near an abandoned glove and ball. There was also a jump rope tossed over a bush nearby.

Slow and silent, she snuck over to retrieve what she needed and devised a plan. Half of it was simple enough to do without magic, while the other half needed only a small amount to ensure complete success.

As she gathered the bat and rope, the kidnappers broke the window and muffled the sound using one of their jackets. She crouched in the shadow of a bush as they cleared the glass, folded the jacket over the windowsill, and climbed inside.

When they’d disappeared, she hurried over and followed them. She entered quietly as they started up a set of stairs inside. A trace of magic muted the sound of her movements as she crept up the stairs behind them, looped the rope around their ankles, and yanked it tight.

A quick tug toppled them heavily on the stairs and the sound echoed through the house, but she ignored the noise. She released the magic and used the baseball bat to keep them down and knock them out before she tied them up.

A Meligornian male appeared at an upstairs doorway.

“What the— Who are you?”

“You need to call the authorities. These men were planning to kidnap your daughter.”

One of the would-be kidnappers groaned, and she swung the bat, connected with his head, and knocked him out.

“Hurry,” she urged when the man simply gaped at her. “I can’t keep hitting them like this.”

He disappeared into the room, and the scene faded.

This time, she didn’t fall. Instead, she somehow flew into the sunrise that reflected in a lake below her. The sound of children’s laughter reached her, and she smiled as the scene shifted and placed her on a hill overlooking what was clearly a local swimming spot.

Three children swam in the lake, two close to the dock and one farther out toward the lake’s center. Moving a little closer, she recognized the child furthest away as the little girl from the first test.

Stephanie walked down to the edge and watched them, wondering what could possibly happen out there worse than what she’d already prevented. That was when she saw it.

The ripples in the water started slowly and approached from the far shore. They formed a ‘V’ and grew in size as whatever beast created them moved toward the girl. She fumbled instinctively to remove her shoes, but it soon became clear that she was too far away and wouldn’t reach the child in time.

A shadow in the lake water showed her clearly that the beast had almost reached the little one. She shook her head, released her shoes, and straightened as she called the magic inside her.

Her gaze fixed on the child, she saw when the monster, its jaws wide, leapt from the water, ready to devour the screaming girl. She thrust her hands out and launched two huge bolts of magic at the creature.

One struck hard and drove it back while the other wound around it to hold it in one place so it couldn’t attack a second time.

“Help me,” the little girl screamed, and her arms flailed as she tried to swim and keep an eye on her attacker at the same time.

She was panicked and her uncoordinated movements did little to keep her afloat. If someone didn’t reach her soon, she’d drown. Stephanie pulled more energy into herself and raced down the hill to the lake.

Buoyed by her magic and her momentum, she skipped across the water. When she reached the child, she pulled the little one into her arms and carried her to the shore. As soon as her feet touched the grassy bank, she slowed and sat and enveloped the girl in her arms to comfort her.

After a moment, the child vanished, and she stood. The world appeared to fold in on itself and a dark blotch grew larger and seemed to move directly toward her. She closed her eyes and flinched, unsure of what to expect.

A tap on her nose brought her out of it, and she opened her eyes to see the ambassador and the Teacher looking at her. Lars was behind them, peering through the door, but he didn’t interfere. Melistar spoke first. “Tell me what your thought process was.”

Stephanie shook the tension from her shoulders. “The first test would have been easy to fix with magic—a quick healing and all done. But I remembered that simply because you can, does not mean you should. All children get scraped knees. It’s part of being a child, so I looked for a first aid kit.”

The woman nodded and gestured for her to continue, so she did. “For the second one, I used only enough magic to keep myself from being noticed until I could deal with the kidnappers without using magic. It was a little risky, but I didn’t need to use magic to stop them, so I didn’t. Those two needed to face justice and be questioned, and it was better for the father to call the authorities than for me to kill them on the spot. “

Again, Melistar nodded. “Go on.”

She took a deep breath and continued. “For the third test, I used magic when it was obvious I had no alternative. If I hadn’t, I couldn’t have stopped the child from being eaten or reached her before she drowned in panic. My guess is that the test was to be able to recognize when magic is the most practical answer and to only use it if I had to. In that instance, I had to if I was to stop the beast and save the child from drowning, but I could use a towel to dry her.”

She looked up and saw they were both nodding but she pressed on. “So, I guess the thing is to know when we need to use magic and when there are better ways and to trust our instincts to be able to tell the difference.”

Melistar laid a hand on her shoulder. “Very good. You have passed. I will give you a gift—some wisdom that might be of use in your next test.”

Stephanie couldn’t help but grin. The woman pressed her finger to her forehead, but as soon as she made contact, the Teacher gasped and collapsed.

Chapter Forty-Six

Stephanie and V’ritan knelt beside Melistar. After her collapse in the testing room, they had carried her to the old flowered couch in the Teacher’s small living room. Together, they had waited for her to wake.

Her stillness had them incredibly worried until a Meligornian bird landed on the windowsill and chirped at her, its song accompanied by a fresh breeze. At the sound, she opened her purple eyes, blinked the purple haze away, and immediately focused on Stephanie.

“Your memories…the final wisdom I wanted to give you… It was too much.” She smiled. “From what little I shared, I believe it is safe to say you understand the mystery of the illusion of magic without further knowledge from me. Go. You have my blessing.”

As she spoke, she grasped the girl’s right wrist. After a brief flash of purple light, Melistar released her.

A hasty glance at her wrist revealed a sigil of a flower with thorns that appeared to be burned into her skin. She looked from the mark to Melistar. “Can we get you anything?”

The Teacher shook her head. “Oh, no. I’m okay. I think I’ll take a nap right here in the breeze. I’m glad to know you have come. There is hope, now.”

They said goodbye and returned to the ship. Lars trailed in their wake. The team was very excited and wanted to go out and celebrate, but she shook her head. “We can celebrate when the other two are done. I need a clear head until then.”

Frog pouted and the guys groaned, but none of them argued. V’ritan suppressed a smile as they rolled their eyes and muttered a reluctant but unanimous, “Fine.” None of them argued when the pilot set a course for the palace, and she decided they should eat in so she could get some rest.

At first, Stephanie thought she would have trouble getting to sleep, but that wasn’t the case. She drifted off thinking of the stars and spent her night floating among them, listening to the sound of the voices of loved ones past.

Normally, that would have made her sad, but when she woke, she felt renewed. The presence of the Meligornian who had befriended her on the liner stayed with her, warming her spirit as she rose to face the day.

After a quiet breakfast, she met V’ritan and led the team out to the shuttle. This time, their destination lay almost a full half day away. The ambassador reminded her that day’s test was for the illusion of the extent of magic.

He looked at her as the pilot brought the shuttle in to land. “The next one will test how far magic can be wielded. And that doesn’t necessarily mean be aware.”

She nodded. “Right.” She glanced at the team as the pilot released the hatch. “I’ll be back, guys.”

The Meligornian shook his head. “On this one, you get to take your team with you. This test is more about emotions, feelings, and how you can’t make someone love someone they do not.”

Stephanie nodded again and hoped the test wouldn’t try to force individual team members to fall in love with each other. Firstly, because it wasn’t something she wanted to do, and then because, if she tried it and succeeded, they’d be pissed at her forever.

V’ritan led them to the door of another small cottage and gestured for her to knock. She was answered shortly after by an older Teacher with silver hair, a wrinkled face, and lively blue eyes.

The woman walked with a slight hunch but still moved easily and swiftly in spite of it. She stepped out of the house and walked them to the back yard, where she gestured toward the trees beyond.

V’ritan knew her as Ashgren, but she didn’t introduce herself to Stephanie when she addressed her. “You, human, are to take your team into the forest and use magic to find two creatures that regard themselves as alphas in the world and which hate each other. You must then use your magic to create a way for them to love each other.”

She went on to explain. “There are at least two beasts in these woods that cannot stand each other. You will see them sooner or later. The ambassador and I will wait for you here. You are to bring the creatures here once you have succeeded.”

Stephanie nodded and bowed to the ambassador before she turned and led her team into the woods.

He watched her go with a slight scowl on his face before he glanced at Ashgren. “I have always found this test barbaric.”

“Then you have missed the purpose of it,” she replied. “Its purpose is to teach the student not to mess with nature and that sometimes, there are things stronger than any magic. Hate can be one of them. Most, if they survive it, come out changed—both physically from injuries as well as emotionally and intellectually.”

“Well, that sounds wonderful,” he replied and stared morosely after the team as they entered the woods and merged into the shadows beneath the trees.

Witch Of The Federation

Stephanie dispatched two magic orbs and asked each one to look for a creature that would fit the Teacher’s criteria. While she waited, she retrieved her tablet and searched for references to forest predators known on Meligorn.

It didn’t take her long to pinpoint two which met what the Teacher had asked for. She called the orbs back and sent them out once more. They moved forward as first one, then the other, signaled a new direction to follow.

They searched through the forest for hours and finally arrived at a clearing in the woods. The orbs had done their task. They had located and drawn two alphas of the rival species to the same place.

The team could hear them long before they could see them. Low rumbled growls became a series of drawn-out yowls that reached the scale of threat and vengeance. Stephanie hurried forward and the team kept pace. They burst through the foliage at one edge of the clearing, completely ignored by the two Meligornian cats standing opposite each other.

One was white with black stripes and had six legs, whilst the other was black with yellow stripes and had four legs, four eyes, and horns. Their tails twitched stiffly with irritation, and their fur stood on end as they showed their fangs in an angry challenge.

Both were a little gaunt and glanced constantly at the large hairy carcass that lay in the middle of the clearing. The blaster burns in its side showed its death wasn’t natural and that it had lived long enough to escape the initial hunter, even though hunter had caused the injury that had killed it.

Stephanie crouched in the brush to study the furred adversaries and the team gathered around her. “Humans call the one on the left a Zee Cat, and the one on the right is a Yellow Jacket—apparently it has a sting in its tail like the wasps on Earth. They usually stick to separate territories, but when they do meet, they’re always enemies. Both are predators, and these two will be the alpha males of the region, the most dominant of their kind in the area.”

Lars shook his head. “From the looks of that kill in the middle, food must be scarce.”

She studied both cats and kill and agreed. “Then they’re perfect.”

Before he could stop her, she stood and stepped into the clearing. She slapped her hands together and pulled up an orb of sparkling purple and pink light which caught the attention of both cats. They growled and sank low to the ground but didn’t retreat.

From his position at the clearing’s edge, Lars watched as her expression altered and she pulled the orb back into her. She studied both cats and sighed. “There is no way they will love each other—ever—and there is no point in trying to force them to.”

The guys remained where they were but readied themselves to defend her against both animals if they attacked. “You can’t give up.”

Stephanie shook her head. “I’m not giving up. I’m trying something different.”

She gestured with her hand in a circular motion to create a large tub of meat beside her.

The first thing she did was to magically toss a piece of meat to each feline. From the way both beasts fell on it, Lars’ assessment of the food scarcity seemed correct. The next two landed closer to her—not by much, but enough to require the cats to step closer to each other and her.

With each piece she threw, she called out a one-word command coupled with their name. “Zeekat, come!” “Bumblebee, come!”

The two beasts eyed each other and her before they stepped forward to claim the food. She repeated the process until they moved toward her after she’d called the command but before she threw the meat.

From the sidelines, it looked like they were obeying her commands and then being rewarded. She kept it up until reaching their morsel would bring them within striking distance of each other. As if they realized this, both cats glared at each other and gave a low, moaning growl that set her teeth on edge.

The attack, when it came, was lightning-fast, but Stephanie was faster. As the felines launched into their attacks, their claws extended, she thrust her hands out to encapsulate each of them in a field of magic.

“No!” she shouted and lowered them to the ground. They stared at her in astonishment and she released the black-and-white one. “Zeekat, come!”

Instead of obeying, the cat lunged toward its enemy and was stopped in mid-jump by another magical bubble. This time, she set it down farther from the meat. She turned to the yellow jacket. “Bumblebee, come!”

The animal ignored her and tried to attack its rival. Again, she stopped it and set it down farther from the meat but closer to its rival. Both cats hissed.

Stephanie lifted the meat and put it back in the barrel. They stared at her, clearly shocked that their food had been taken away. This time, when she lifted a piece of meat, she walked over to the black-and-white cat and waved the bait in front of its face.

It hissed at her, and she tapped it on the nose. “No.”

The feline glared, and she offered it a small piece on her palm. After a moment’s hesitation, the cat scooped it up with its tongue. “Good, Zeekat,” she told him and scratched him along the jawline.

Magic shielded her hand before his teeth could close, and she wagged a finger at him. “No.”

She turned to the other cat and repeated the process, then alternated between them until they both accepted the food and caresses without any attempt to bite her. Both made small sounds of complaint when she returned to her position beside the meat bucket, and she smiled. “Good, cats.”

Both felines watched intently, and she turned to the yellow jacket. “Bumblebee, come,” she commanded and released the magic that secured it.

This time, although it looked toward its rival, the cat didn’t attack him. It moved toward Stephanie instead and was rewarded. “Good cat.”

Zeekat proved he wasn’t a slow learner and obeyed her immediately, and Bumblebee simply watched suspiciously. Slowly, she brought the cats closer again and this time, she only had to separate them once before she repeated the process to bring them back to the same point.

When she had them standing side by side as they accepted the food from her hands and allowed her to pet them, she glanced at the team.

“Okay, boys, this is your cue. Someone, come up and try to attack me.”

Lars exhaled a deep breath and shook his head, but he didn’t hesitate. If he did, he’d think about what he was about to do and he’d never do what she needed. He ran toward her with a yell, caught hold of her, and hauled a fist back as though to strike.

The bucket of meat vanished, and the cats reacted. With twin roars of outrage, they attacked and lashed out at him until he released her, then pursued him across the clearing.

What they would have done if she hadn’t called out was frighteningly clear, but her cry of “Bumblebee! Zeekat! Come!” and the reappearance of the bucket of meat effectively ended their pursuit and they bounded back to her.

Lars turned and trotted toward her once again, only to be greeted by two snarling cats who spun to meet him. It took her some time to get them to accept him as a friend, but it had been worth it. Once she had them at a point where Lars could feed them, she introduced them to the rest of the team.

From there, she began to test the creatures. She asked the guys to attack her and had some of them to help the cats defend her. After each attempt, she brought everyone together to feed the cats before a different group attacked.

It took the felines a few attempts to understand that this was some kind of a game, but they were as intelligent as the research indicated and soon, they didn’t need to accept the attackers as friends after each bout. Instead, they watched as she divided the team and cocked their heads almost in anticipation as the enemy team moved away.

At one point, Zeekat forgot Bumblebee was on his side and took a swipe at him, but both teams attacked Stephanie to force the cats to work together to protect her. At the end of that round, they regarded each other warily until she petted them both. “Play nice, boys.”

She divided the team and had them attack her—again and again—until the animals worked together to drive their adversaries back before they raced back for her approval. “One last time,” Stephanie said. “This time, it’s all of you against them and me.”

The felines waited as the guys jogged to the edge of the clearing, then tensed as they prepared to attack. This time, they both roared loudly to warn the guys and paced around one another. Every few feet, they bumped each other and rubbed their heads together. Her mouth fell open and she began to laugh. “That’s it. They understood it. They know we’re all fighters and that everyone here is working for me. They’re bonding.”

“So…uh, we can stop, now?” Frog asked, his voice almost pleading, and she laughed out loud.

“Oh, hell, no. Bring it on, boys! No holds barred.”

Lars led the charge, then dropped back and let his teammates confront the animals while he worked his way around the battlefield in an effort to sneak up on her from behind.

When he reached her, she murmured, “I can see you, you know.”

“Yeah, and?” he asked as he lunged into a bone-jarring tackle.

He’d thought he’d won...right up until a black-and-yellow streak barreled into him from the side and bowled him away. Bumblebee kept going as the momentum of his strike carried him over the man and away. Before the team leader could move, a large black-and-white form landed on his chest and a loud rumble engulfed him.

Stephanie laughed so hard she couldn’t call the cats away until Zeekat had settled himself on Lars’s chest and begun to groom him. When she did, both animals bounded over to her and wound themselves around her legs, purring loudly.

The guys stood there and watched them. When she overbalanced and fell, giggling, the two big creatures rubbed their large furry faces against hers.

Lars raised an eyebrow and Frog came up to put his elbow on the man’s shoulder. “Well, she is a wtch, and witches love cats soooo…”

He turned his head slowly and fixed Frog with a horrified look. “No. We are not keeping those cats. They are far too big to be house pets. Besides, how would we even get them home? How do you think they’ll manage on board a ship? They might eat the entire crew and the passengers too.” He shook his head. “Nope, not happening”

She rolled free of her furred friends and stood. “All right, let’s do a couple more fights, these ones all out.” She turned to the cats and pointed a finger at them. “But don’t eat my guys.”

“I don’t like the sound of this,” Frog said and swallowed hard.

They went through several fights, during which they used the clearing and the trees around it. The felines leapt at them as she used magic to block their blows. The team came up with different routes to follow. Sometimes, they would move behind them and sometimes, from the side. During the final battle, though, they might have been a little overzealous.

Three of the guys attacked from the front and blocked blows from the animals while the others rappelled from the trees, landed behind them, and yelled a battle cry. The cats appeared to turn berserk, backed up in front of her, and leaned their heads back. They roared so loudly, it set birds to flight for miles around. Frog froze, visibly shaking as the creatures advanced toward him.

“Bumblebee! Zeekat!” Stephanie called, but they ignored her. His gaze fixed on his adversaries, his mouth worked soundlessly as his legs kept him frozen in place.

She tried again. “Bumblebee! Zeekat! Come!” she yelled, but they acted as if she wasn’t even there. They had locked onto Frog to the exclusion of everyone else. She tried one last time and waited until they pounced.

As soon as they left the ground, she wrapped Frog in a shielded cocoon. The cats pounded into the shield and rolled it around as Frog found his voice inside.

She paused to watch them for a moment, her hands on her hips and her eyes narrowed. The felines both licked the cocoon and clawed at the magic until it began to fray beneath their paws. She remained motionless but watched, ready to intervene, as it unraveled.

As soon as it had disintegrated, they both leaned down and licked Frog from chin to forehead until he started to sputter with laughter. The others joined him and chuckled as he tried to push the two large beasts off him.

They hadn’t intended to kill him. she laughed with relief. “They were teasing. Oh, man, this is golden.”

Witch Of The Federation

“It was the first attack from the inside in many years,” V’ritan told Ashgren as they discussed recent events while they waited.

She shook her head in disgust and was about to reply when something caught her attention at the edge of the woods. The ambassador raised his head to follow her gaze and anxiety creased his face.

He frowned as the team emerged from the woods. They moved slowly and appeared battered and bruised. Beside him, the Teacher caught his eye and smirked. “Well, some of them survived.”

V’ritan narrowed his eyes and turned back in time to see two large cats trot from beneath the trees. They pawed at each other and tumbled together in the grass.

Finally, Stephanie stepped out of the shadows and looked surprisingly unscathed. V’ritan looked at the Teacher and smirked at her in return.

The felines ceased their rough and tumble play, ran to her, and rubbed their heads against her legs. They hung back and followed her, showing their respect for her.

Both the ambassador and the Teacher were shocked and lost for words. Finally, Ashgren found her voice. “She is the first to ever fully complete this specific test.”

He smiled. “I knew she could do it.”

The Teacher waved her over and Stephanie jogged up but directed the cats to the side with the guys. The woman scrutinized her carefully and sighed. “How did you do it? I must know.”

Stephanie chuckled, slightly out of breath. “The answer is in the Illusion of Magic.”

Her team all looked down to hide their grins. They wouldn’t admit a single thing. All they’d done was support her, even if they’d earned a hefty share of scratches for their trouble.

Stephanie shot the ambassador a glance and focused on the Teacher. “I think the point of this exercise is to show that there are some things that cannot be changed by magic. You see, those two will never love each other.”

She held her hand up as the Teacher went to protest that the cats seemed to do exactly that. “Technically, these guys aren’t in love, but I did manage to convince them that they were part of the same team and on the same side, which was, perhaps, the point. Now, while I used magic to make it happen, the magic didn’t change their natures. Nothing can do that.”

As she spoke, Ashgren nodded her head. “Yes. You understood the problem exactly. Well done. You may proceed to the final test.”

The Teacher turned, took V’ritan’s arm, and let him escort her inside. The team returned to the shuttle and Stephanie stopped as she reached the edge of the stone circle. She dropped to one knee in front of the cats and caressed them both. “You can come with me, or you can return to the forest. It’s your choice.”

As if they understood her and each other, the felines exchanged glances, looked back at the woods, and then to where the team boarded the shuttle. Finally, Zeekat rose onto his hind legs and put his front paws on her shoulders so he could lick her face.

It was no more than a swift dab on the nose before he dropped again, and Bumblebee repeated the process and licked her face. The two trotted unhesitatingly toward the craft.

When they reached it, they dodged around Lars. He tried to protest and was thoroughly ignored. “But…ah, man.”

Frog grabbed his belly and laughed loudly. “Bwahahaha. Look who won.”

Ashgren shook her head. “Shocking. They understand her intent, if not her words. If I had not seen this with my own eyes, V’ritan, I would have said you were lying. Now, I shall go to my grave wondering exactly how she accomplished this great feat.”

The ambassador scratched his chin, his brow tight in a frown. “Me, too.”

He said goodbye to Ashgren and so did Stephanie, who walked back from the launch pad once the cats had made it into the shuttle with the team.

“Thank you,” she told the Teacher. “I learned a lot, today.”

“You are very welcome, child. Please come again. I’d like to hear how you succeeded.”

“As soon as I can,” she told her and hurried to the shuttle.

V’ritan followed her and glanced over his shoulder from the shuttle’s entry hatch to where Ashgren stood at the circle’s edge. “Wish me good health.”

She nodded and waved, and he closed the door. As the shuttle lifted, she stepped back, folded her arms, and chuckled for the first time in a very long time. “Good health to you, my friend. You may need it before your shuttle lands.”

Chapter Forty-Seven

The next morning, the team were back on board the shuttle. This time, Stephanie had managed to sneak a canteen of coffee aboard.

As they traveled into the morning light, Frog laughed loudly, looked up from his tablet, and shook his head. “I’m watching the feed we set up in the common area. The cats are basically running the world, right now. The two Meligornians who clean the rooms are plastered against the wall, absolutely terrified.”

“They are an unexpected turn of events but hey, I have two giant cats now.” She chuckled.

Lars smirked. “Oh, boy.”

She laughed and patted him on the shoulder as she walked past to sit up front with V’ritan. “So, this is the third and final test,” she said as she settled into the seat. “What should I expect?”

He didn’t look as carefree as he had the day before. “This one is for the presupposition of the power of magic, but I must warn you. The Teacher, Tethis, is much, much older than either of the other two. I wish I could tell you how it will go, but this Teacher is difficult to read, and he’s been more and more ornery with each person who is brought to him for testing.”

His heavy sigh wasn’t at all encouraging. “Sometimes, I think he deliberately makes things too hard. Honestly, we probably should have pushed for his retirement a while ago, but at that time, I never expected you to go through the Mysteries and so didn’t think his prejudices would be a problem.”

Stephanie shook her head. “I’m not worried about him. What are the rules?”

V’ritan shook his head. “Unfortunately, I can’t divulge that. The rules of each test are for the Teacher to explain, and the Teacher alone. Part of their duties is to come up with their own parameters for these things.”

He thought about that for a moment before he added, “I will say that from what I have seen in the past, this test usually involves a spell which pulls a lot of energy to accomplish. In theory, this should be a simple test for you. You have considerable experience in that.”

She rubbed her face to ease a little of the tension that had crept in. “I have considerable experience running myself almost to death.”

The ambassador shook his head. “No, what you’ve done is learn what you can and cannot do in these situations. You’ve found your weak spot—your Kryptonite.”

Stephanie looked up, surprised. “Superman? You don’t know Earth sayings but you know Kryptonite?”

V’ritan smirked. “Superheroes were the first thing I learned about Western culture when I came to Earth. They were secretive about it, but all the bigwigs have these huge collections of superhero memorabilia.”

She gasped. “They told us they burned all of them. Those belong to the people. Wonder Woman, Batman, the whole DC universe. And don’t get me started on Marvel with Thor, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil—oh, the pain this brings me.”

He patted her leg. “I’m sorry. I should have kept that to myself. But know that somewhere out there, someone is reading a superhero story, even if it’s only a politician, and they are thinking of you.”

Her nostrils flared. “So, this test will probably suck ass, won’t it?”

“Probably,” he agreed, “but that does seem to be your special gift.”

Stephanie blinked and looked slowly at him. He shook his head and stumbled over his next words. “I did not mean your special gift was…actually sucking...uh…”

She sliced her hand through the air. “Enough said. We shall never speak of this again.”

Frog popped around the edge of the seat and put his head on her shoulder. “So, I hear you have some seriously kinky special gift going on. Who knew your witch powers took that particular bent?”

Stephanie, with a straight face, shoved his head away and shook hers furiously as she buried her face in her hands. “You did this.”

The shuttle touched down and V’ritan winced. “My apologies. Truly. We don’t have… It didn’t cross my mind because—”

She shook her head. “Let’s go get this over with.”

“Yep,” he replied quietly.

They stood and approached the hatch, climbed out of the craft, and waved to the guys as the door shut slowly behind them. She looked back and frowned. “No, Lars?”

“No, I... convinced him you’d be better off if you were the only human to appear and that I could keep you safe.”

He said that so quickly that she gave him a suspicious look. “You can’t guarantee that, can you?”

The ambassador blushed and bowed his head. “I can only hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“It’s okay,” she told him. “I’ve got this.”

She looked around, puzzled. “Uh, where is this Tethis guy?”

He pointed ahead at what looked like the entrance to an old cave. However, as she squinted for a better look, a front door came into focus. It looked more like a run-down Hobbit hole than a cave and it was all the more creepy for it.

As she moved toward it, the door creaked open. The Teacher, Tethis, emerged to greet them, his robes faded with age.

His long silver hair had become snow-white and hung in a tangled mass down his back. He held a twisted staff in one hand and used it to steady his walk as he moved away from the house.

The closer he came, the nimbler he grew, although he was still obviously very old. Stephanie was in awe. She’d never met an old Meligorn before and she walked up and moved into a traditional greeting. He simply turned away to acknowledge V’ritan instead.

She was slightly hurt, but the ambassador had warned her, so she was able to shake it off. Instead, she used the moment of their conversation to study the Teacher a little more. His skin was mottled with age and wrinkled by time.

With his greeting finished, V’ritan attempted to introduce her but Tethis ignored that as well. She began to wonder if being here had been a mistake—if allowing her, a mere human, to undertake the Mysteries was some colossal error. Apparently, Tethis felt the same. “I don’t like seeing you go to all this trouble for a human, Ambassador.”

The other man held his temper and tried to explain. “This human is a witch, Teacher, and the most powerful one I have ever seen. She has saved my life, the king’s life, and the lives of thousands on board a luxury starliner. She has more than earned my respect.”

At this, the Teacher turned to study her intently with his dark, beady eyes. “Yes, well, I don’t know her and her tricks. I’ll be straightforward, Ambassador, I have no interest in testing a human, nor do I have any interest in allowing one into the Mysteries. It is a sacred calling and it is meant only for the magical. It is not for those only able to dabble in tricks.”

“This test has been ordered by the king,” V’ritan replied, handing over an official-looking envelope.

The old Master waved it away and almost snarled in fury. “It could be ordered by my mother and I would still be appalled.” He snorted. “Besides which, what will he do if I refuse? Sentence me to death? It’s about time. Put me in jail for the rest of my life? That will be a very short sentence. This is not something that was ever meant to take place. Period.”

As she listened, Stephanie’s anger began to rise. Sure, V’ritan had warned her that the old Teacher had some very...traditional views, but this was ridiculous—and far too much like the prejudice directed at people from the Subs for her to tolerate.

Finally, she’d had enough. She fought to maintain her tight control over her temper as she stepped forward to interrupt their conversation. “You gentlemen do understand that I am a sentient being and that I am right here? I can hear every word you are saying, and I don’t appreciate it.”

The Teacher shook his staff at her. “Oh, you can hear us, can you? Well, good for you, young lady, but that doesn’t change the fact you come from a species not yet out of diapers.”

He made a show of another disdainful scrutiny—literally from head to toe—and curled his lip in disgust. “And you—why you’re barely old enough to be out of diapers, let alone change one, much less be acknowledged as a Mage. When I was your age, I was playing outside in the mud and finding treasures in each nostril. I had no idea of what a grown-up was, let alone how to be one.”

He waved his hand in frustration. “This…this is ludicrous!”

The ambassador tried to cut in, but she held up her hand and fixed her gaze on the Master, even though he refused to return it.

“Oh yeah?” she challenged. “Can’t little babies teach the wise but old Teachers something new? Or is being taught something new by a young species merely the proof that the Teacher needs to retire? Perhaps that’s it since he isn’t grown-up enough to acknowledge that even babies become adults, given time—and that some are more grown-up than he could ever be.”

At these words, he finally raised his gaze to meet hers and his eyes burned with fury. He straightened his back and, through clenched teeth, snapped, “Impertinent, aren’t you?”

V’ritan rolled his eyes and groaned, but Stephanie wasn’t there to fight. She was there to pass her test and move forward. Her focus on what was important, she didn’t give him a chance to intervene. “What is the task? Or has your prejudice blocked your ability to carry out your role as a teacher?”

“Ridiculous,” Tethis sputtered and seemed almost too angry to speak.

She shook her head, disgusted by his attitude. “Humans have played with the energies of the cosmos for hundreds of generations, regardless of whether you’re capable of acknowledging it or not.”

The Teacher pivoted between them, glared at her, then fixed the ambassador with such a fearsome look that V’ritan took a step back.

As if the man’s retreat was some kind of signal, the Master called magic to his fingertips and released a whole universe of small dots to float around their heads. “What do you know of power? Have you held the glory of the cosmos in your body? Have you felt the sun melt you from the inside? Can you handle the pain of being burnt by a planet’s fiery core as you focus your will?”

Stephanie pursed her lips, hating the idea that she had to prove herself to someone like this. Of course, he took her silence as a no. He also decided to prove his point by going forward with the testing.

“This will be over quickly, and both of you—” He eyed Stephanie and settled his gaze on V’ritan as he continued. “Both of you will agree that I will never accept another human for the testing for as long as I live…whether the king grants it or not.”

He looked happy with that idea, then added, “And rest assured that I will live another hundred years simply to spite the hell out of the both of you.”

The Mage whipped around and walked to a wide, open space to one side of the cave door. She followed him and stopped when he did and watched him use his staff to raise a battle stage from the depths of the earth.

The long stone platform had Meligornian etchings down the side, but Tethis ignored it. He pointed the staff from her to the platform to indicate that she should go up.

She remained silent and simply complied, but he launched a silent magical shot before she’d reached the second step. Nonchalantly, she waved it away and it chipped small pieces of stone off the edge of the platform as it struck.

At this, she did look at the Teacher, and their eyes met grimly as he continued the attack and hurled magical bullets, arrows, orbs, and darts at her.

Stephanie continued to climb onto the platform and fended off the missiles as they came. Tethis followed, walked carefully up the steps behind her, and continued his barrage until she worked so rapidly to block them that her hand moved in a blur. Finally, after she’d successfully defended herself against a hailstorm of spiked energy orbs, he lowered his hand.

In the brief moment of respite, she drew a deep breath and waited for the next part of the test. The Teacher held his hand up and scowled. “You will allow me to test your ability to contain power.”

He pointed at a rock in front of her. “Hold it until I give you the signal. You cannot leave the circle I place around you.”

Stephanie acknowledged his instruction with a brief dip of her chin and watched as he used the staff he wielded to generate a rigid line of magic and carve a tight ring around her. “If you cannot accomplish something, you must say, ‘I submit!’ Now, prepare yourself.”

Without any more notice than that, he raised his hands and began to thrust power into her. She stood there and he observed her with a smirk as he expected to easily overcome her ability to hold the magic.

She had no doubt that, in his mind, there was no human alive or dead who could hold the kind of power a Meligornian could, much less a Master and Teacher of the Mysteries.

Rather than try to resist it, she braced herself, opened the wells inside her, and accepted every ounce of MU he poured into her.

While she had never heard of a being who could hold its own magic as well as the magic of a Master at the same time, she hadn’t heard of anyone who could trade MU for gMU either. She was also sure that Tethis didn’t have a clue about what she could do.

He certainly didn’t know that she replaced the MU he delivered with the less concentrated gMU. As she absorbed wave after wave of the energy, the Teacher’s face began to fall into doubt.

He stared as she grew stronger and more accepting. Finally, when he was almost out of power, he cut the flow and watched as she raised her head, a smile on her lips. With a frown, he continued to stare as she began to draw even more power from her surroundings.

The Master snarled with anger when she stood, spread her arms wide, and tilted her head back. He seemed mesmerized when she began to move her feet from side to side. Her body rippled like water and her arms swayed over her head as she coalesced and tightened the magic inside her.

While Tethis could not see that part of the process, he could see when her body began to glow and shimmers of bright light erupted from her eyes and mouth.

He banged his staff angrily on the boulder beside him. “Release it into the rock. Now!”

The large stone acted as a grounding rod to accept magic from any magical being and release it into the ground below. Stephanie looked at the stone and focused on it.

Once she was sure she could control the power surging within, she pushed it out. The energy arced, a wild orgy of power that reached high into the air before it pounded into the stone. She continued to direct power outwards, aware of the shocked expression on the Teacher’s face.

On the outside, she looked like a stern-faced mage, but inside, she was smiling. Little did Tethis know that she still held half as much again in the form of gMU.

The grounding stone glowed so brightly, it was hard to look at as the energy flowed into it, then over it to disappear into the soil beneath. As Stephanie steadily discharged her energy, the ground, too, began to glow until the grass smoked and the pebbles popped and hissed into nothing.

After several minutes—longer than it had taken to fill her—she finally let the last trace of MU trickle from her palms into the now glowing stone. She breathed in, exhaled the breath, and twisted her neck slowly from side to side. She felt almost a hundred pounds lighter, although magic was the kind of weight she didn’t mind in the least.

The Teacher swung his arm out to the side and pointed at V’ritan. “You. Release all your energy as well. I won’t have you tempted to interfere.”

V’ritan chuckled quietly, not at all surprised at the old man’s lack of trust. He made no protest and simply did as he was asked, walked over, and touched the stone.

He had yet to use any of the day’s energy, but the flow didn’t last as long as hers. Nor was it as bright.

When the ambassador had discharged his energy, he raised his hands to show he was done. Tethis motioned for him to step back and straightened to focus on Stephanie, sure that she was empty and without power. “Let’s see what you have now.”

The mage began to throw small rocks and propel them toward her with magic. She dodged some and used minute amounts of energy to veer the others off their trajectory.

He guided one right, then left, and caught her across the cheek. She hissed and held one hand to the cut. Blood flowed between her fingers. Anger flared in her eyes, but she controlled it.

There was no way she would allow him to make her lose her temper.

At the shuttle, the team had emerged and lined up to watch the proceedings. When the rock struck Stephanie, they moved restlessly, and Lars laid a hand on Marcus’s shoulder to stop him moving to intervene.

“Why does it look like he’s trying to kill her?” Frog asked.

The team leader tried for nonchalant, but fury edged his answer. “He’ll have to do a lot more than that.”

As they watched, their expressions smoldering, Tethis continued to lift rocks and hurl them at Stephanie. He directed the magic with one hand, while he stretched the other out to pull more energy into himself.

In the circle, Stephanie shifted, and he slammed his staff down. “You are forbidden to pull even an ounce more energy.”

Her lip twitched into what might have been a smirk, and the Teacher let the rocks he’d gathered drop to the ground. He glanced around him and finally stared at a massive rock three feet away.

“Uh oh,” Lars muttered as the Mage gave a soft laugh and gestured with his hands to guide the massive rock into the air.

Lines of purple MU wreathed it as he moved it quickly into position some twenty feet above Stephanie’s head.

She looked at it, then back at him, but displayed no fear. “So, your idea of testing me is to drain me of power and drop a rock so that I yell out and you win? How is that a test?”

His laughter echoed around them. “You stupid human. Do you really think I care whether it’s fair or not? I’m fed up with this sham of a trial. It makes a mockery of all that is sacred. Fair doesn’t even come close. The only fair thing to happen today will be that humans are seen as the unworthy, weak specimens they truly are.”

This time, Lars had to grasp both Frog and Marcus. “Let Stephanie handle it,” he ordered and kept his voice low as V’ritan protested.

“That isn’t part of this—” the ambassador began, but Stephanie tapped her leg with her index finger and stared at him in a mute command for silence.

Before he could respond, she looked at Tethis and smiled. “Fair?” she asked, and Lars groaned. “Here it comes.”

“All right, then. Let’s make this fair.”

He rolled his eyes and jerked his hand downward in a short crisp slice to command the boulder to descend as he released the magic holding it. He was about to turn away when the world skated around him and he slid into the circle with Stephanie.

The Mage gasped, raised his hands, and unleashed magic up and into the plummeting boulder, vaguely aware of shouts of alarm from the direction of the shuttle and the ambassador. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he brought the huge rock to a halt and held it suspended it over their heads.

A hasty glance at the girl revealed that she had her arms folded and a very satisfied grin on her face. It infuriated him beyond endurance. “How dare you? I will have your head, human.”

He might have said more but the boulder shifted inside the magic and reminded him he had more important things to focus on. With a flick of his wrist, he attempted to hurl it out of the circle and away, but it didn’t move.

He tried again and struggled to control it when it impacted an invisible boundary and bounced back. “Seluthor’s ass!”

With a sharp upward gesture, he gave it more height and tried again to flick it aside, only to have it rebound once more. “Fornication of the Gold!”

That was clearly a reference to royalty, and Stephanie giggled. He snapped an angry glare in her direction, but she remained unfazed.

“Here’s the thing,” she told him, shimmered out of existence in front of him, and reappeared on his right, smiling slightly. “Since you chose to allow unfair testing, I’m testing you. As you have finally deduced, you can’t push the rock outside the boundaries of the circle you set.”

Her smile broadened. “So, here’s how it will go. “We’ll stay inside the circle as agreed, and I’ll wait until you say that you submit.”

She put her hands out to each side and rose into the air. Tethis watched her but found no suitable words and simply gaped in frustration and disbelief.

Her smile took on a wicked twist as she continued her airborne ascent. “See, you said nothing about me staying on the ground where I could be crushed.”

Stephanie tutted reprovingly and finally touched the rock. “You really should be more thorough with your explanations, but by the looks of this boulder, there might not be a next time. Of course, that would be a shame since I’m sure you wonder where my power comes from considering you had me discharge all my MU.”

At the feel of the rock above her, she flipped upside down, set her feet on its surface, and spun it so she now stood on top. Tethis grunted as the boulder shifted and her weight made it more difficult to hold aloft. He could feel his power waning, but she remained unperturbed. “Since you don’t seem to be aware of what being a Teacher of the Mysteries means, I’m not sure I can show you how I do this. You know, since I’m from an immature species and all.”

She moved and the boulder tilted again. The Mage dropped to one knee as he struggled to control it. Frustration was followed by alarm and finally, defeat when he realized he either had to admit she was worthy or die proving she wasn’t.

Stephanie looked over the edge at him and tapped her chin. “So, I’m up here. I need no more power to pass this test. I’m very aware of how much power you have left, and I have more than enough to keep you inside the circle. What will it be? Are you willing to die for your prejudice? Unable to see the future how it transpires? Either way, you will no longer be a Teacher of the Mysteries as witnessed by the king’s right-hand advisor. Of course…” She grinned. “I could always start pushing from up here.”

The ambassador covered his mouth and fought to hide a smile as Tethis gritted his teeth, not yet willing to give in.

She tilted her head to the side and flicked her finger down to direct a tiny ball of energy into the rock. A loud crack echoed, and the Mage shouted with alarm as it plummeted toward him.

He thrust his hands up and launched a massive surge of magic into the falling boulder to stop it from crushing him. When he had it mostly under control, he narrowed his eyes, turned his head, and glanced over his shoulder. “I hardly call that proof.” He sneered, although it seemed strained.

Stephanie peered over the stone once more, her face twisted with frustrated anger. “The problem with old prejudicial idiots is they can’t see when someone might hold the power of the cosmos to save thousands of lives.”

She created multiple orbs of magic, large and small, and swirled them around the rock to emulate the universe. “When one feels the pain of a thousand suns, your useless ass seems inconsequential to the future good of the Mysteries. It might be time for you to suffer from your own idiocy.”

The boulder pressed downwards, and Tethis shook with the effort. Suddenly, he dropped to his knees and cried, “I submit!

His hands thumped onto the stone platform in front of his knees and he fell forward, his eyes shut tightly against the expected blow. It didn’t come.

Instead, he still knelt within the circle, very much alive and unscathed. He opened one eye and glanced upward to where the boulder hovered above him. As if it felt the weight of his gaze, the gigantic rock spun slowly until Stephanie, defying all the laws of physics, hung upside down, her feet planted firmly on its surface.

She didn’t address him directly but turned to V’ritan. “Is this official?”

He nodded, his arms folded and an amused look on his face. “It is.”

After a moment, she pushed off the boulder, executed a casual half-flip, and landed gracefully on her feet. She extended her hands to curl streams of magic around Tethis, lift him up, and carry him from the circle.

Once she had set him safely on his feet, she gestured with one hand and allowed the boulder to fall. Both she and the Teacher winced when it crashed behind them.

The mage retrieved his staff and used it for support as he pushed to his feet. Sweat poured down his forehead and soaked the front of his robes. He turned to V’ritan, his expression frustrated and weary. “Would you have allowed that to happen?”

The man smirked. “What was I supposed to do? You had me release my power, remember?”

Tethis stared at him in shock when he realized the ambassador had been so certain Stephanie could pass the test that he really had surrendered his stores of MU.

The other man had truly been unable to help him and would be able to say as much if he was later questioned. He rebuked himself mentally for not realizing that the ambassador had given in far too easily to his demand and walked toward his home, his head bowed and shoulders hunched.

“On your head, V’ritan,” he conceded, his tone almost a growl. “She has passed the last of the tests and my time of teaching is over.”

Stephanie approached V’ritan, put her arm on his shoulder, and watched the old man shuffle toward the cave. She shook her head. “He needs to know.”

He frowned. “Know what?”

She walked after the Teacher and called to him. “Master Tethis.”

At first, he ignored her, but she tried again.

“Master Tethis.”

He stopped and stood perfectly still before he turned to look at the girl who had vanquished him. She clasped her hands in front of her as she addressed him. “Please. Pay attention and learn.”

To his astonishment, she gave him a soft, sad smile and her eyes turned pitch black as she began to move her hands to produce ribbons of purple and blue energy. They twisted and spiraled to create a curtain of colors and bounding energy.

With a happier smile, she leaned into the magic and moved her entire body in a dance that reflected the universe. Her eyes remained a pure, fathomless black and her magic flickered and sparkled.

“Welcome to the cosmos,” she said, her voice pitched low although it echoed around them.

She swayed rhythmically, raised one hand, and drew downwards to pull wisps of pure black energy from the sky and weave it through the purple and blue. When the three colors mingled, she wound it around the boulder Tethis had threatened to crush her with and tossed it high.

The guys’ jaws dropped as it soared through Meligorn’s purple skies and out into space. V’ritan and Tethis gasped in astonishment when it vanished from sight. They exchanged glances and looked at Stephanie.

The ambassador’s eyes were as big as saucers, and Tethis gaped like a beached fish but she ignored them. She had long since come to the conclusion that no matter what she did, people would be shocked.

V’ritan looked at the sky and snorted. “I hope there weren’t any ships in the way.”

The Mage searched the sky for the rock’s return but finally concluded that it was gone. He stared at her. “You could have stopped it at any time.”

She met his eyes and nodded. “Yes.”

He continued to use his staff for support as he edged toward her. “You sought to make me admit my prejudices and insisted on teaching me what I didn’t want to see.”

“Yes.” She nodded again.

The old man fell silent and his hand stroked his long white hair while he looked at the ground. He stayed like that for several minutes before he slowly lifted his gaze and studied her face.

Tethis met her eyes without flinching and noted that they had transformed to their normal blue. “Thank you, Master Morgana.”

With a bow of his head, he turned away and took a few more steps toward his front door before he looked over his shoulder. “Please, come again some time. We shall speak of the Mysteries.” He focused on V’ritan and curled his lip. “But leave him behind. He can be a pain in the ass.”

She covered her mouth to hide a smile and the ambassador shrugged and made no effort to hide his grin. He waved goodbye to the Mage, but the old man merely flapped a hand in dismissal and turned away.

Tethis vanished into his house without looking back, and Stephanie and V’ritan returned to the shuttle pad. The team boarded ahead of them and Lars waited at the door as she stepped inside.

As she reached the top step, her knees went weak and she staggered slightly. The Meligornian caught her by the arm and helped her to regain her footing.

“Sorry,” she murmured as he guided her to the seat at the front. “Who knew throwing a rock into space required so much energy?”

He chuckled but she slumped in her seat, pulled the safety harness over her shoulders, and snapped it in place. As the pilot warmed the engines, she looked out at Tethis’ door.

Foreboding washed over her in a chill wave, and she shivered. She wrapped her arms around herself as she stared at her companion. “Something is coming, and we will need all our peoples to fight it. There is no reason to ignore the old because I’m pissed at them.”

“Yes, Master Morgana,” he replied and smirked when she rolled her eyes at him. “Get used to it. It is your new title here on Meligorn. Besides, it could be much worse. I am aware of some of the nicknames given on Earth over the centuries.”

Stephanie smiled. “Like what?”

V’ritan stared out the window as the ship lifted into the air and turned for the return journey. As they accelerated, he wrinkled his nose in thought. “Some girl was called Snookie generations ago. And I think there was a Woogie too, but they didn’t know each other. Snookie lived in New Jersey and Woogie liked a woman named Mary. It is all very strange.”

“No. Snookie only visited New Jersey,” Frog interrupted from behind the seat. “She lived in New York. You have to get these things right or you’ll upset someone.”

She caught the startled look on the ambassador’s face and all she could do was laugh.

Chapter Forty-Eight

A network of corridors, cells, and chambers existed deep beneath the royal palace. Unknown to the public, they were lit by magical flame and seen by very few.

Temerl’s screams echoed along them and reverberated from the stone. In a small chamber, held in place by chains, he stopped and leaned his head back against the wall. He breathed heavily and winced with every movement.

Four guards stood before him and watched as the Truth Bringer dropped his hands and stumbled back. Skilled in mental magic, the Truth Bringer’s task was to find information from another’s mind—regardless of their target’s wishes.

The interrogator leaned against a small wooden table and watched as the once-head of the Royal Guards let his chin drop to his chest and dangled awkwardly in the chains. Sweat rivered down his bare chest. The Truth Bringer turned away, poured himself a glass of water, and used a nearby towel to mop the sweat from his own face.

When he set both towel and glass down and turned back, Temerl shook his head. “No more.”

He lifted his lip in a snarl and glared at the prisoner. “Then tell us.”

The guard shook his head and straightened in the chains. He curled his hands into fists, raised his head, and squared his chin. “