Book: Witch Of The Federation III



Witch Of The Federation III




Witch Of The Federation III Federal Histories™ 03


Michael Anderle

Witch Of The Federation III




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

http://jcalebdesign.com / [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

PMB 196, 2540 South Maryland Pkwy

Las Vegas, NV 89109

First US edition, September 2019

ISBN: 978-1-64202-474-6



Contents


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

Creator Notes - Michael Anderle

Books by Michael Anderle

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The Witch Of The Federation Book III Team


Thanks to our Beta Team

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If We’ve missed anyone, please let us know!

Editor

The Skyhunter Editing Team











To Family, Friends and

Those Who Love

To Read.

May We All Enjoy Grace

To Live The Life We Are

Called.


Chapter One

Lachlan Hennessy met the wall with a painful thump. He hadn’t seen them coming and had been so busy reading the Federation Review’s latest report on the Federation Witch that he hadn’t even heard them.

They’d caught him at the back of G-Wing, blindsided him, and shoved him against the brickwork. He managed to keep a hold of his magazine, snapped it shut, and wished he was back on the ranch.

Yeah, that’s what Stephanie would call it—a ranch. Not a cattle station, a ranch. It was big enough to encompass both the cities she lived in several times over and he missed it more than anything else. Boarding school sucked.

What sucked more were the bullies. He pushed off the wall and tried to keep walking, but two of them blocked his path and forced him to turn back. If they hadn’t thought to get in behind him, he might...

He sighed. It seemed they’d found their brains today. Just his luck. He stopped and faced their leader.

“Hey, farm boy! Whatcha got there?”

It seemed they’d found their words, too.

He tucked the magazine behind his back as Pete Solomon reached to snatch it from him.

“None of your business, city slicker.”

Pete tried again and his target turned side-on and pushed the bigger boy away. His tormentor had reached his growth spurt early and Lachlan had yet to catch up. This time, Pete caught hold of the magazine and tugged in an effort to get it out of his hands.

Lachlan tried to hang onto it, but it was let go or let it tear, and he couldn’t have that. If he was lucky, he’d get it back in one piece and not three or four.

Having got what he wanted, Pete backed away, and his victim turned to face him. His face heated as he watched the boys look at the cover.

“Oooh, Lachie’s got a girlfriend,” the bully taunted, and he glared as the other boys took up the call.

“She’s not my girlfriend,” he snapped.

“Well, we knew that,” Pete’s main off-sider, Terry, snapped. “She’s way out of your league.”

He tried to snatch the magazine back, but the taller boy lifted it out of his reach. “Not so fast, Lachie boy. I haven’t finished reading it.”

“I didn’t know you knew how to read.” The words were out before he realized what he was saying.

Pete’s face reddened. “I can read.” He lowered the magazine, and Lachlan forced himself to keep his eyes on his adversary’ face. With even one look of anxiety, he’d have to ask to borrow Mr. Stavropoulos’ sticky tape, again—and that man asked far too many questions.

“I beat you in the maths quiz, didn’t I?” the bully challenged, and Lachlan looked at the ground. “Well, didn’t I?”

His question brought a sudden stillness to the other bullies before Terry cleared his throat.

“You sure did, Pete. You beat him good.”

Lachlan was glad he was staring at the ground or the boy would have read the truth on his face. He’d lied about the math quiz, hacked the school’s system, and changed the grades to save himself another beating. Unfortunately, his tormentor was smarter than he looked.

He glanced up in time to see Pete look at Terry and the sidekick’s said it all. Pete turned to Lachlan.

“You lied?” His voice rose and his fist clenched around the magazine.

Lachlan shrugged and decided he might as well be hung for a sheep as much as for a lamb. There was no saving the magazine now.

“I thought you needed to win something that week. After all, I’d beaten you in everything else.”

Pete dropped the magazine and shoved him in the chest. “You don’t get to pity me.” The words were almost a snarl, and he pushed him as he said each one.

He braced himself and took it. At least they weren’t teasing him about Stephanie Morgana anymore. It was an easy decision to keep it that way.

“Why not? Someone has to.” He saw his opponent’s other hand curl into a fist. “You’re pathetic, picking on—”

Terry cut him off. “No! I’ll tell you who’s pathetic,” he interjected. “You are.”

And, to Lachlan’s dismay, he picked the magazine up and held it so everyone could see the cover. “Pining after the Federation Witch like some pathetic little kid who wants his mummy.”

There was a chorus of “yeah, pathetic” and “ooh, little Lachie wants his mummy.” Lachlan frowned, but he kept his eyes on Pete. He could see the others closing in on either side but refused to give ground.

He’d end up against the wall soon enough. Judging from the look on Pete’s face, he’d probably end up in the infirmary, too. So much for keeping Mr. Stavropoulos in the dark. The dorm master would ask any number of tough questions about this one.

Lachlan thrust the thought away. Pete had followed Terry’s lead. His lip curled in disgust, and he snatched the magazine out of his friend’s hands.

“This?” he shouted. “This is who you’re pining for? She doesn’t even know you exist and she wouldn’t care even if she did.”

The other boys all crowded around to jostle and bump him so he had difficulty keeping his feet. Lachlan opened his mouth to argue that Stephanie cared about everyone, but Pete hadn’t finished.

“Do you know what’s going to happen? She’ll be up in the stars, and you’ll go back to your stinking farm to chase cows. The closest thing you’ll ever have to a girlfriend is whatever bush pig you can catch.”

The others reacted like that was the funniest thing he had ever said and laughed and made hissing sounds as they high-fived each other for his humor. Lachlan raised his head and his eyes burned with fury.

As if Stephanie would ever be his girlfriend. As if that was what he wanted. No, he admired her. He read everything about her because he wanted to be out there, defending the galaxy, exactly like she did.

He took a step forward and Pete froze, his eyes calculating.

“And what do you have to say to that farm boy?” he taunted.

Lachlan raised his chin and looked Pete in the eye, then looked him up and down like he wasn’t impressed by what he saw.

“At least my head is in the stars and not up my ass like yours.”

Momentary shock etched the large boy’s face, but one of his cronies tried to stifle a laugh and that was all it took. Terry launched the first blow and caught him squarely on the side of the head. It set his ears ringing and blurred his vision, but he didn’t go down.

This time, he wouldn’t go down. This time...

Pete’s fist pounded into his chest as he stumbled. Lachlan sighted on the bully’s body and swung at it. He almost landed the strike but hands grasped at his arms and his blow fell short. His adversary’s next punch caught him in the stomach.

It would have doubled him over, except the boys had hold of his arms and dragged him against the wall to pin him there. Lachlan gasped and fought to regain his breath while Pete closed.

They had his arms secure but that didn’t mean they had his feet. He lashed out with his boots. They always teased him about them but they had protected his feet a million times over and they’d protect him, now.

The toe of one caught Pete in the shin, and the bully roared in anger.

Well, crap, that’s not how it’s supposed to go. Lachlan wondered what Stephanie would do in this situation. She’d blast them but she probably wouldn’t kill them.

And he’d better not kill them, or he’d be in more trouble than he was about to be.

As Pete landed another blow to his ribs, Lachlan wished he could feel Earth’s magic, exactly like the Witch could. He wished—

The bully punched him again, and he gasped when something gave in his chest.

Stephanie would finish this quickly. She’d pull the magic in and blast it out to knock them all unconscious. Lachlan tried for another kick but it hurt to raise his leg and he groaned. As if that was the signal they’d been waiting for, the boys released him.

Pete’s next strike landed higher and hammered into his chest below the shoulder. The one that followed slammed into the side of his face. Lachlan’s knees gave way and he pitched forward and tried to use his hands to break his fall. If ever there was a time he needed magic, it was now.

But only to defend myself, he thought and imagined he could feel the eMU beneath his palms.

Warmth answered the thought, flowed up through his hands and knees, and radiated through him. The bully swung his leg back, ready to treat his victim’s head like a football, and Lachlan dropped onto his elbows and simply wished Pete would stop.

He wondered if any of the boys had hurt this much in all their tiny lives. Maybe if they had, they wouldn’t do this now.

If he could land even one punch. He got his hands under him and tried to push to his feet, focusing on that. One punch.

The warmth flared as he got to his knees and static arced around him. Pete gave a cry of pain, and his foot hit the ground, the kick undelivered. Blue lightning tinged the air and short spikes of it leapt between Lachlan and those who surrounded him.

For barely a moment, electricity buzzed and the boys yelped in pain. They stumbled back a step, shock and fear painted in their expressions, but that wasn’t what caught Lachlan’s attention.

Sparks bounced between his fingers and waves of blue pulsed over his hands. He raised them and turned them over to study them before he remembered where he was.

He was surprised to find no-one had tried to land a punch while he’d been distracted and looked around to see where they’d gone. They remained glued in place but they all stared at him like he was a taipan snake about to strike.

They backed away another step, and Lachlan saw the magazine on the ground. It was still in one piece, albeit slightly rumpled and torn. He picked it up and smoothed the cover, and the lightning traced patterns across its surface.

Stephanie’s face looked at him as though reminding him of what she stood for. He lifted the magazine and showed the boys the cover.

“She protects us all,” he told them, “and so will I.”

Witch Of The Federation III

On the other side of the world, a Dreth warrior knocked on the door to Elizabeth Smith’s office. At well over seven feet tall and built like a small APC, the alien didn’t look like he needed to worry about anything. Despite that, he did indeed look worried.

“Come in,” Ms E called and frowned slightly when she saw who’d come to visit. She waved at the over-sized chair newly installed in her office. “Vishlog, have a seat.”

He nodded at her and took the seat indicated before he removed an outsized tablet from the armored case he wore at his belt. “I may have a problem,” he told her, tapped the tablet, and handed it to her.

“What kind of a problem?” she asked, turned the device in her hands, and focused on it. “I see nothing wrong, here.”

Personally, the only thing she saw wrong with the situation was that he’d handed her his bank account, open and unguarded. She could have emptied it with a few quick taps of her forefinger and told him everything was fixed, and he’d have believed her. That was an awful lot of trust for anyone, let alone a Dreth.

Who knew Dreth could trust so much? she wondered before Vishlog answered her question.

“The balance is wrong,” he told her. “There is too much.”

Ms E raised her eyebrows and pretended to scrutinize the balance and the list of transactions leading to it. When she was done, she looked at him, pursed her lips, and shook her head. “Nope, I see nothing wrong there.”

The Dreth’s frown deepened and he leaned forward and indicated the relevant places on the screen. “Here,” he said, “and here. There is... There is too much.”

She examined the appropriate transactions and tried to control the bubble of laughter rising in her chest. He was genuinely concerned, so it wouldn’t do to show amusement at his expense. She cleared her throat and managed to keep her face as straight and serious as any company administrator.

“No,” she assured him. “You were part of Stephanie’s security team in the recent operations, and every member of that team was entitled to a bonus of twenty million credits. I’m glad to see it went through without any trouble.”

“But...but I was on loan.”

“Nevertheless, you were on the team, and Miss Morgana made it very clear to your ambassador that if you became part of the Morgana mercenary team, you would be paid as part of the team.”

“But—”

“If we’d had to return you or if you’d chosen not to stay, that wouldn’t have been the case and One R&D would have been twenty million credits richer.”

“But I was not part of the mercenary team when I did the work,” he argued. “That should mean—”

Ms E rolled her eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh. “Look, Vishlog. You can argue with the boss if you wish, but I’m warning you, once Stephanie sets her mind to something, she can be very...”

She let the words trail off and allowed the Dreth to work it out for himself.

His eyes widened when he contemplated how much Stephanie might object to him refusing the bonus, and worry turned to consternation. “But—”

Her patience sorely tried, she sighed again. “Look, if it bothers you that much, you could always give it away. I’m sure there are worthy causes that need the cash.”

“I could not simply give it back?” he asked hopefully and Elizabeth shook her head.

“That’s out of the question. Not only would Stephanie have your hide, but I’m damn sure she’d try to have mine as well. On top of that, Burt would not be pleased with either of us if we upset her.”

At the mention of One R&D’s chief executive and owner, Vishlog went back to looking worried. “What can I do?”

Ms E stared at him. “Don’t you like being paid?”

He froze when her question caught him by surprise. “I...” He stopped, frowned, and pressed on. “I do, but...” He waved at the tablet. “It was unexpected.”

Elizabeth somehow managed to refrain from the desire to drop her head in her hands and pinch the bridge of her nose. Instead, she fixed him with a solemn stare. “Well, you’ll have to get used to that. It’s all part of being on the team.”

She raised a hand to silence him when he started to protest. “But you do have options. The first is to give it away, or you can bank it for later, send it to your family, buy a new litter box for the cats, take the boys for a night out on the town—although I don’t think twenty million would cover the damages from that little expedition, so be careful if you go with that one.”

Vishlog stared at her, his expression one of confusion mingled with horror as he thought about that last suggestion. She leaned over and patted his knee.

“The point, Vishlog,” she told him, “is that you are a valued member of our team. You are worth as much as any one of your teammates, and we want you to know that.”

She handed him the tablet. “This is merely one way for us to show you that.”

If a Dreth could blush, he was blushing. Elizabeth studied his face as he struggled to absorb what she had told him. She tried to make it clearer.

“We trust you to have our backs. Stephanie trusts you to have her back. Hell,” she exclaimed and gestured with her hands, “even the thrice-be-damned cats trust you—and that’s something, believe you me. Those things don’t trust anybody.”

Vishlog smiled at that. She was right. The cats did trust him...even if they had yet to understand that his armor was not a scratching post and he did not consider the half-eaten remains of their kills appropriate gifts. Still, the bank account concerned him.

He turned to her but she spoke before he could find the words to explain and her words stopped him cold.

“You are home, Vishlog,” she assured him and pointed to the door and beyond, where the team would have begun its daily training regime. “Your family is here, as much as anywhere else, but if you wanted to step away and have a different life...”

She tapped the tablet in his hands. “You have enough there to do anything you want and not a single one of us would fault you for it.

Before he could find a reply to that, she continued. “In fact, staying with this team will almost assuredly get you killed—and probably sooner rather than later—so, if you actually want to enjoy what you’ve earned, the smart thing to do is quit.”

The Dreth frowned and confusion returned to his face. “Are any of the others quitting?”

Elizabeth leaned back and regarded him with one eyebrow raised. Dreth never quit, not even when the commander was likely to get them killed or when the odds were overwhelming.

She could see he was looking for the lesson in her words and wondered what it was she tried to teach him. That, too, was a Dreth thing—the good leaders tried to teach without telling.

Rather than give him a direct answer, she indicated the door and the direction of the team. “Why don’t you ask them?”

Witch Of The Federation III

Down the corridor and around to the left, Lars tried to sweep Johnny’s legs out from under him. His opponent hurdled the sweep and bent at the waist to avoid a fist strike as he did so. He came down hard and grunted as he landed on the mat on one knee but he didn’t stop.

Lashing out with both fists, he pushed up and forward and followed the punches with a shoulder charge that caught the team leader in the middle. Lars shouted in surprise as he tumbled and tried to break free of the other man’s grip.

Neither of them looked up as Vishlog entered the room. Johnny managed to land astride Lars but couldn’t quite pin him to the mat. His opponent grappled and flipped him, and the two of them somersaulted over the mats while each tried to gain the upper hand.

The Dreth looked around the room. Apart from Lars and Johnny, Frog waged a one-man war on a punching bag, ducking and weaving around it as he lashed out with hands and feet. The new arrival didn’t want to disturb any of them, so he stepped into the room and closed the door quietly behind him.

At first, he stood quietly and simply watched them for a moment before he made his way to one of the benches at the side of the room. He settled his bulk onto it and retrieved his tablet once again to bring up his account. The numbers hadn’t changed.

He sighed, rested his elbows on his knees, and looked over the top of the tablet. Lars finally managed to break free of Johnny, and the two backed away from one another to circle as they searched for the next opportunity to attack. Frog delivered another kick, landed awkwardly, and somehow managed to now face away from the bag.

“Hey, Vishlog,” he called when he caught sight of the big Dreth. “Whatcha doing?”

Vishlog looked at him. Normally, he’d take the greeting as an invitation for sparring and tell Froggie he would kick his ass. Today, he merely shrugged and refocused on his tablet. “Nothing much.”

That caught the attention of the other two, and they stopped their training to wander over. He pretended not to see them. Now that he had their attention, he wasn’t quite sure how to broach the subject.

Frog used his foot to nudge the toe of his boot. “Hey, big guy. What’s up?”

The Dreth straightened and glanced at him, then at the other two. After some consideration, he said, “I was paid.”

“So?” Frog frowned.

Vishlog hesitated and looked from one to the other. “It was...a lot.”

“Well, if it was more than twenty million, we’re all gonna have to go and talk to Ms E,” his teammate told him, and he stared at the man.

“What?” Frog asked. “It wasn’t, was it?”

He shook his head. “No, but... Twenty million is a lot.”

“And you weren’t expecting it.” Johnny caught on first.

“No. I was not.”

“So?” Frog didn’t see what the problem was.

“So, I was surprised.”

Lars understood. “Don’t worry. We all got it. It’s a bonus for doing a really good job. You get that sometimes.”

“Did Ms E tell you the smart thing would be to quit?”

From the looks on their faces, that information came as a surprise, but Lars stepped forward and sat beside him. He took the tablet out of the Dreth’s hands, looked at the account, and gave a soft whistle of appreciation.

“When you look at it like that, it’s something of a shock.” He patted Vishlog on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. It’s normal. I’d hate to think of how much is in my account.”

He handed the tablet back. “I wouldn’t blame you for not knowing what to do with it.”

Frog rolled his shoulders. “Pffft! Mine’s still sitting in the account, too—along with whatever it was we made the job before. Don’t let it bother you. It’s not like it’ll go anywhere.”

“But I don’t know what to do with it,” Vishlog explained. “I spoke to Ms E about it and she said I could give it away, or bank it for later, or send it to my family...”

He hesitated. While he was fairly sure Ms E had not been serious when she’d suggested he buy a new litter box for the cats or take the boys partying, he didn’t want to mention it if she’d simply made a joke.

Which she wasn’t known for, he had to admit, but still.

“So, when did she tell you to quit?” Frog probed and Vishlog straightened.

“Oh, no. She did not tell me to quit. She only said it was an option—the smart thing to do, she said, was to quit and use the money to be whatever I wanted to be since staying would...” He paused to hunt for the exact words. “Ah, almost assuredly get me killed and probably sooner rather than later. Why would she say that?”

Frog responded with a bark of laughter. “Because it’s true. If you stick with us, buddy, you’ll probably end up dead—right alongside Johnny and Lars.”

Vishlog waved him away. “Not the dying part. That is very clear and it is part of what we do, but the recommendation to quit. Why would she do that?”

“Oh...” Lars’s voice said he really did get it. “That’s simply her being a ‘proper’ leader,” he explained. “They’re supposed to tell you that. If you want to stay safe, that’s your out.”

The Dreth shook his head. “I’m not leaving. Whether it is smart or not, I cannot leave Stephanie. I am her arms man.”

The team leader laughed and patted his thigh. “We never thought you would.”

Vishlog stood and looked down at him. “Has anyone?”

Lars shook his head. “Not from this team. Not yet, but there are times when that changes.” He shrugged. “It’s merely the way it is.”

He regarded him with thoughtful eyes. “I am learning that it is not right to judge people for their actions.”

“Well, hell, no,” Johnny told him, “and this is coming from someone who sucked wounds on the liner. The money is nice, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me. I’m like Frog. Mine’s still sitting in my account and I have no plans to retire.”

“So if money doesn’t mean anything to you, what does?” Vishlog asked, and his eyes widened as he realized he’d asked a very personal question. Perhaps he shouldn’t have, but no one seemed shocked and Johnny didn’t hesitate.

“Making the future safe for my family,” the man admitted. “If not for the kids, then for those who come after us.” He smiled. “Don’t you know? We’re making history, buddy. Our names will be talked about forever in the Federal Histories.”

Frog laughed. “Yeah, because that’s all that’s gonna be left of us by the time this whole thing’s over—our names.”

Lars punched him on the shoulder. “Pessimist. We’re with Stephanie. What could possibly go wrong?”

The looks Johnny and Frog gave him made Vishlog smile, but he hadn’t finished.

“What will you do with yours when this is done and Steph doesn’t need us anymore?”

Frog dropped onto the training mats. He opened his mouth but closed it again almost immediately. Vishlog and Johnny watched him do it another few times before the team leader intervened.

“What? Cat got your tongue, Frog? Can’t you think of a way to get into trouble without us dragging your ass into it?”

“It’s not that,” he protested. “It’s trying to decide between all the trouble I could get into. Why don’t you ask Johnny what he wants to do? He keeps talking about family, so he’s bound to have something in mind.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Or someone.”

His teammate blushed. “Don’t even go there, Frog. You know that’s off-limits.”

“Oooh, someone has a girlfriend.”

“No, someone doesn’t.”

Frog cracked up laughing. “And you being such a family guy and all.”

“You know what I mean.” Johnny turned to Vishlog. “You know what I mean, right?”

“You have a harem to ensure your family line remains unbroken?” the Dreth asked and Frog howled with laughter.

“Ooh! You got him good.”

“Got him with what?” Vishlog asked. “Many warriors have—”

He stopped. Judging from the look on Johnny and Lars’s faces, that was news to them. His face heated and he looked away. “That is not an Earth tradition?”

Frog bounced to his feet and stood chest to stomach against the Dreth. “So, Vishlog... How many Dreth girls do you have waiting back at home.”

He looked at his teammate’s face, picked him up by the front of his shirt, and dropped him lightly onto the mats. “None,” he said. “I was not considered a...” He cocked his head as he tried to remember the correct term. “A good catch.”

Frog grabbed his knees and flipped himself back to land on his feet.

“Show-off,” Johnny muttered and turned to their leader. “Seriously, Lars. What will you do with yours?”

He shrugged. “I have no idea. I might wait to see what Stephanie wants to do next.”

Frog began to laugh and he shot him a look that silenced whatever he was about to say. He raised his hands as though in surrender. “Hey, not my business.”

Lars turned away and Frog snickered. He was perfectly straight-faced when the man sent him another suspicious look. Vishlog pressed his lips together and tried not to catch Johnny’s eye. His teammate seemed to have the same difficulty keeping a straight face.

“Johnny?” Lars demanded and pretended not to notice.

“Like I said, family. I have a brother. His little one’s recently turned four.” His face took on a faraway look. “They live in the Subs. I’d like to get them out of there and make sure their little one has a chance at something better.”

Clan. Family. Vishlog understood that. He didn’t say that he had been disowned by his father long before or that his clan had disavowed him for one too many fights off the battlefield. He sighed. No. There was no need to get into any of that.

“I, too, will wait to see what she does next,” he said and indicated the mats. “For now, why don’t we see if the three of you have what it takes to bring down a single Dreth?”

He set his tablet aside and stripped to the garments he wore under his armor, pulled his feet out of his boots, and padded to the center of the practice area.

When he noticed they hadn’t moved, he cocked his head and regarded them challengingly.

“What is wrong?” he asked. “You’re not tark lizards, are you?”

“Chicken,” Frog fumed. “The word is ‘chicken,’ you steaming pile of Dreth dung.”

“And you are all noise, little man,” he taunted. “Why don’t you try fighting with more than only your mouth?”

The words seemed to be the right trigger. Lars and Johnny circled so they could each come in from different angles, and Frog bounded forward with them.

As she watched them spar on the security monitors, Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief.

“Well, I’m glad that’s settled,” she muttered and turned to Burt’s next impossible task.




Chapter Two

The group had last met on a distant space station and some of their members hadn’t met at all.

“The net is closing,” one of them muttered. “Temerl didn’t die fast enough.”

The voice was new, with the slight softness denoting a native of Meligorn. The lead speaker was human and unsympathetic. “You trusted him to remain undiscovered or to die when he was. That was quite a gamble.”

“Not one I had a choice in making,” the Meligornian retorted.

The voice that cut across them was calm and cold and without mercy. “None of that matters, now.”

The speakers fell silent. In rooms across three systems, the attendees stilled and their hearts beat faster as they stared at blanked-out screens.

They were like rabbits trapped in their burrows, the speaker thought. Some of them even held their breaths as if that would save them from what was coming.

None of them knew what was coming, of course. Not even these, the traitors who had sold their worlds and peoples in the hope that some of them would be spared. The fox was digging its way in, and they had nowhere to go.

Formless, the Teloran gave his race’s equivalent of a smile. On the screen before him were two dozen darkened squares, each one representing an attendee. Every race was represented—humans, Dreth, and Meligornians.

Why none of them looked far enough back in their own histories or with an objective enough eye, he didn’t know—and he did not care. By the time they realized exactly how well appeasement really worked, it would be too late.

He tried not to let any of the satisfaction he felt leak into his tones as he continued.

“One of our emissaries has been lost,” he told them and heard several gasps from behind the darkened screens.

The alien waited, but none of them spoke.

The Teloran continued. “His ship was taken in a small-force boarding action, and many of its crew captured. Your Temerl was not the only one who did not die swiftly enough when compromised. They are loose ends we will tie up once their usefulness is spent.”

He stopped to let those words sink in. They needed to know who the master was— to understand that their lives depended on the will of others—and they needed to prove their worth. It would not matter if they survived the coming invasion and rose to the positions they’d been promised. They would still be little more than slaves.

The time for them to adjust to that idea was now, even as he maintained the illusion that they would be something more.

“You all know this group,” he announced and sent each of them the information package he’d put together. It contained images and files on Stephanie Morgana and every member of her security team. “They took the ship and are responsible for my emissary’s disappearance.”

Not a single one of the attendees spoke, and he could only imagine their reactions. The Witch was gaining in power and fame and her team was legend.

“They must be destroyed.” Once again, only silence greeted his words.

“Admirals,” he stated and felt the Navy representatives go still, afraid he would reveal their names. He continued, knowing their relief. “Your Navy is tracking them but no longer tries to trap the Witch into its service. Why?”

“She’s too dangerous and too much of a political risk for them to take.”

The Teloran stilled. “I will want details.”

This time, it was the Meligornian who spoke. “I can send you those. I was at the ceremony.”

“They should have been sent already.”

They all heard the man swallow, and none wanted to be in his seat when the Teloran added, “I trust you will make it up to me.”

“Yes. Yes, I will.”

They all waited for him to demand that the Meligornian tell him how, but the alien didn’t. Instead, he returned to the purpose of the meeting.

“You are all to make up the loss of my emissary. You should all have seen the danger this Morgana posed and dealt with it before it reached a level where it could harm my emissary and endanger our operations. You have all failed, and recompense is required.”

“Well, fuck me...” The murmur rippled through the meeting space and the Teloran scanned the blank feeds in an effort to identify which of the humans had spoken.

Silence followed the ill-timed comment, and everyone waited. The alien stared at the monitors for a long moment to let the silence stretch and the nerves grow taut. The relief was almost palpable when he moved on with his instructions.

“You will all work together to solve this problem. I want the Witch and her team removed from the universe. I want the company backing her efforts obliterated, but I also want everything it has on magic, its uses, and how humans wield it because that is an abomination we will not tolerate.”

Someone released a long breath and he frowned at the screens. “What is it?”

“Sir...” He recognized the voice as one of the Naval representatives. “When you say, ‘not tolerate,’ does this extend only to the Witch?”

“Oh, no,” the Teloran said, his voice silky smooth. “No, all humans capable of magic are to be eliminated, but not yet and not by you. What we need is for you all to gather the data identifying such anomalies and record them. We will decide their fate when we arrive. There will be no Morganas after this one.”

He paused and waited to let that sink in.

“Your mission,” he reiterated after a long moment, “is to remove the current Morgana threat. We will look to the future and secure it.”

If any of the representatives noticed that the alien said the future and not your future, they did not say so, but his words sent a chill through them all. Finally, one dared to speak.

“Do you have a preference on how we might do it?” the man asked, and the Teloran recognized the deep voice of the human male who had chaired the last meeting.

He uttered an impatient sound. “Use every means possible,” he said. “Try to keep yourselves separate from the deed and the links between you a secret, but attack with every means you have available.”

From the other side of the screens, he heard fingers move over keyboards and knew they were already planning their campaigns. He decided to leave them to it. “I trust, as the future leaders of your world, you can all handle one little girl and her guards.”

His voice suggested they’d better be able to handle her, and not one of them raised a protest. Murmurs of assent filled the feed, and the Teloran was satisfied. “I will leave you to your planning.”

Assent turned to farewell, then there was silence. The Teloran left seconds before someone asked, “Do you think it’s gone, yet?”

The former meeting chair replied, “You’d better hope so. You’re in enough trouble as it is.”

“I know,” the Meligornian answered morosely. “I didn’t dare point out that Temerl was supposed to have sent him the data. He might have thought I was trying to shift the blame.”

“And that would have been worse?”

They all heard the shudder in the Meligornian’s words when he responded. “I think so. Would any of you have risked it?” A moment later, when silence was the only reply, he added, “I didn’t think so.”

“We have precedence for discrediting witchcraft,” another of the attendees interjected. “While we can’t burn her at the stake as our ancestors would have done, we can certainly burn her reputation and cast doubts on her motives.”

“A social media campaign, perhaps?” another voice suggested. “We could augment it.”

“And from the pulpit. Ordering the message to go out would also help us pinpoint those of our people likely to resist instead of following our lead.”

“I like the way you think.” This member’s voice was thick with the heavy Dreth accent. “But I prefer more direct means.”

“Such as?” one of the humans challenged.

“You will know it when you see it.”

“I thought we were told to be subtle.”

“Do not worry yourselves. The cause will not be traced.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

They all heard the shrug in the Dreth’s reply. “What’s not to like? You want to cover her in dung. I wish to add her to the rest of the refuse discarded by history. It is not that much different.”

“But you think your way is better.” The human was clearly not impressed.

“Of course it is better,” he boasted. “We have had more time to perfect it.”

One of the Meligornians laughed. “I will work on the Meligornian media. There are some factions who are not happy with her citizenship and others who think there is no way a human could have passed the trials. We will build on that.”

“As well as working on her allies,” another added. “I have heard she does not cope well when others are hurt in an attempt to hurt her. I should imagine she is equally disturbed when others are targeted for the same reason.”

‘You’ve been told not to go after the king.”

“Who said we aim for any of the large fish? Her heart bleeds as badly for the insignificant as it does for anyone else.”

“That might actually be something I can use,” another human said. “They are already watching Epsilon Enterprises, but they can’t watch us all. I’ll ask Tom if he minds taking the fall.”

One of the other conspirators snorted. “Why ask?”

There was laughter all round at this, and the first human cleared his throat. “Well, I always did say Epsilon had taken too much of the market share.”

“That’s all this is for you, isn’t it?” The Meligornian was clearly not impressed. “A way to hold onto your wealth and power when they come.”

“What can I say? I’m a businessman and I want to stay in business.”

“You don’t care how many people will suffer if the Witch and her team resist or lead others into resistance, do you?”

“Only if it hurts my customer base.”

“You’re despicable.”

“I never pretended otherwise. You were glad enough to have my wealth and power working for you before. I don’t see why you’re offended by it now.”

“Humans!” the Meligornian spat. “They eat their own.”

“And yet you sleep with us for every advantage you can get.” The man’s tone was mild but his insult was not.

The Dreth chuckled. “You do make a good concubine.”

The human made kissing noises. “As long as you pay me, sweetheart.”

“Look,” said a new voice, “as entertaining as all this is, none of us will enjoy our wealth, or our power, or even get to see how many of our people we save if we don’t solve this little problem, so... Who can do what to eliminate the prey?”

“And who might you be?”

“That is none of your concern, but I have been a predator for long enough that I know when I have a hunter breathing down my neck and I do not like it.”

“Well,” said the businessman. “Why don’t you kick it off? What can you bring to the table.?”

“I bring the poison in the meal, the dart from the shadows, and the virus that crashes the machine but even my people are stretched when it comes to One R&D. I will work on the company funding the girl and her team, but I require partners in crime.”

There was a moment’s silence and a web site link appeared in the meeting room. “That site is accessible to you alone. If you want my help or have resources to offer, leave me a message.”

They heard a chair scrape. “And now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I have some business to arrange.”

Around the galaxy, several screens blipped and each one showed the briefest image of a door opening and a dark figure momentarily silhouetted as it left. Once the door had closed, there was a rattle of keyboards as the other attendees tried to discover who had addressed them and left so peremptorily.

On the screen of every man who tried, a brief message appeared: I can see what you are doing. Can you see me?

“They brought the mafia in?” The businessman was outraged and the Meligornian laughed.

“Well, you did say we would sleep with anything that would bring us an advantage. How about you?”

The businessman did not answer immediately, but when he did, his reply was direct and to the point. “I’ll shag it to oblivion if I get to keep what I have earned.”

In the next moment, the predator returned. “I hoped you’d say that. I’ll send a car.”

“Seriously?” The man spoke to thin air and when no one replied, he turned his attention to his colleagues. “Very well. I will work with him to destroy the company. What will the rest of you do?”

“I will make matters complicated for her on Dreth,” spoke a second Dreth voice. “I cannot eliminate Jaleck, but I can work toward it—and the pirates and rebels are easily swayed.”

“I can assist you,” the first Dreth promised, “but there are other things I can do in human territory, too.”

“Do you care to share?” The Meligornian sounded bored, and the Dreth’s answer was short and to the point.

“No. You will know it when you see it, and I expect your people to assist mine should the need arise.”

“My clerics and pastors have already received their orders,” said the churchman, “and I am organizing other measures as we speak.”

“And I will see what I can extract from Navy records. I can’t sway the higher-ups to move against her, but I can whisper in the ear of...other agencies who might feel the need to keep a closer eye on her.”

The discussion moved on from there to raise the names of Stephanie’s acquaintances, the places she used to frequent, her favorite pastimes, and anything else that might be brought into play against her. By the end of another hour, they had the basis for a coordinated series of attacks, from a media smear campaign to a campaign to quite literally smear her once and for all.

Witch Of The Federation III

“There! Do you see it? That move right there.” Host stood and thumped on the table in front of him. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

They all watched as Stephanie yelled, “Boost me!” and was flung upward by the Dreth who had recently joined her team. They stared as his face turned from puzzlement to worry and he raced after her.

“Now, he gets it.”

Chavez chuckled. “Yeah, the poor guy didn’t know what he was getting himself into, joining that lot.”

“It’s a darned shame we didn’t get to her first.” Conrad was morose as he watched Vishlog catch up to Stephanie. “What is that, wave three?”

“Yeah, and they don’t look like they’ve broken a sweat.” Chavez sounded envious.

They grimaced as the Dreth almost slipped on the sludge left behind by Stephanie’s magic.

“That was almost…what, twenty pirates?”

“Closer to thirty. You’da thought at least one of them would have survived. Man, would you look at that?”

On the screen, Steph fired bursts of magical balls and flung them forward so they stuck to the enemy.

“Oh...oh, that is gross.” Host groaned and screwed his face up as the balls exploded pieces of Dreth pirate all over the screen.

“Yeah, but look what she does next.”

Stephanie whipped strands of magic out to grasp Dreth and fling them into Vishlog’s line of fire.

“It’s nice to see her share the love,” Host muttered. “But it’s a pity she didn’t choose to share it with us. What we coulda done with some of that.”

“We try to teach it in recruiting,” Chavez protested, “but—”

“They don’t seem to get it,” the others chorused. “Yeah, we know.”

“And most of them don’t live long enough to learn,” Conrad added, a sour look on his face.

“Well, we can always show them this,” Chavez suggested. “It might perk them up a little and get them thinking of how to score as a team.”

“As long as it’s not an own goal.”

They all stared at Conrad. “What’s crawled up your britches, today?”

He indicated the screen where Stephanie had frozen Vishlog inside a shield of blue power and dropped another sheet of magical mist over the horde surrounding him.

“That!” he spat. “We don’t get that.”

Host shrugged. “The brass has made it clear that we won’t get it—and that we shouldn’t try,” he said.

“Cop a load of this.” Chavez chortled as Stephanie tapped Vishlog on the chest and told him he was several hundred kills behind her. “I really wish we had someone who could do this kind of shit.”

“They’d be an utter bitch to train,” Conrad grouched. “Can you imagine trying to calibrate the AI to handle this kind of thing?”

They continued to watch while the team made their way from wave three to wave nine. Occasionally, one or the other of them would point out a tactic they could actually incorporate into their training but mostly, they merely watched and their jaws dropped each time they identified a move they’d missed the last time.

“And this, boys and girls, is what caused Captain Thorne to have an absolute meltdown on the command deck,” Chavez announced and laughed as Steph and her team headed to the enemy generator.

“Yup. That’s a look I hate seeing on my kids’ faces,” Host commented, rewound the footage, and highlighted Stephanie’s expression immediately before she’d told her team they would fix the scenario.

They fast-forwarded to the point where she disappeared momentarily offscreen.

“This is where she talked to the AI, but we’re reasonably certain she had the solution before she did that. From the way they moved, they were already on the way to blowing the generator up when she stopped.”

Even Conrad nodded at that. “She is one clued-up cookie,” he murmured. “How did we miss this girl coming through?”

Host shrugged. “She never applied. Not like her boyfriend, Todd. Take a look at this.”

Stephanie dragged the metal she’d had her guys collect into a coruscating ball of glowing shards. Magic moved from the ball into her and back out again, and the metal began to spin.

“I heard Thorne nearly had a stroke,” Host told them as she shunted the moving stream of power and metal into the generator, while almost simultaneously encasing herself and her team in airtight balls of magic.

Chavez snickered. “Not quite, but they had to ship over a few new interior panels, and someone else had to do his typing for the next month until his hands had recovered.”

Host stared at him. “Seriously? I didn’t think the old boy had that much of a temper.”

“Don’t you believe it,” Conrad commented, and the picture on the screen switched from Stephanie and her team floating peacefully away from the enemy generator to Captain Thorne using his bare fists to hammer the wall behind his desk until the metal began to bend.

“Well, damn,” Host murmured. “Remind me never to piss that man off.”

They listened as the AI explained how the team had already reached level fifteen and that all future waves of Dreth would die the minute they were spawned. It was a fact demonstrated seconds later as the AI intoned, “Level sixteen.”

They turned the screen off and stared at each other in silence while each one considered what they’d seen.

The run Stephanie’s team had made through the unbeatable scenario was legendary, and so far, they weren’t even remotely bored with watching it in an attempt to discover new tactics. Anything, they’d been told, that could help them in their fight against the pirates would be appreciated.

And it hadn’t been wasted time, either.

On their recommendation, the Navy was on the hunt for recruits with magical capability.

“We have to get our hands on them before anyone else does.”

“One R&D you mean?”

“Them, too.”

Their discussion turned to the level the team had reached.

“Has anyone else reached that level?” Host asked.

Chavez shook his head. “There’s been only one team to beat the scenario,” he replied, “but they didn’t reach the sixteenth wave.”

“Nowhere near close,” Conrad agreed. “It was a group of Marines, wasn’t it?”

Again, Chavez shook his head. “I heard it was a Ranger team that took it out.”

“Nah, it was a mixed team—Rangers and Seals—that tried to put one over the Marines. They eliminated the spawn point at wave three.”

“That’s a whole lot sooner than the witch’s team.”

“Yeah, but they didn’t have to figure out how. They only had to make the solution work for them. It’s kinda like copying the answers into a crossword.”

“Except that this crossword will eat the pencil with your arm still attached.”

Chavez shrugged. “True, but the point is, they knew what the solution was going in and could plan for it. The witch’s team didn’t.”


Chapter Three

Todd slouched in the lounge chair and watched the news. He called it “keeping up to date” but in reality, he only looked for news on one person—Stephanie.

His tablet rested on the coffee table beside him, and he stretched over to retrieve it. Tapping the screen, he brought it out of its dormant state and stared at the message he’d tried to type. So far, he’d made it to only one line.

Hey, Steph.

He sighed, stared at it and tried to decide what to say next. While he really wanted to see her, he also didn’t want to come across as being needy. Hell, he didn’t even know if she was still interested in him, it had been so long.

Consternation gained the upper hand in his emotions as he stared at the tablet.

This used to be so easy, he griped inwardly as he attempted to think of how to phrase what he wanted to say. He didn’t want to scare her away by asking her on a date if she wasn’t interested. And if she wasn’t interested...

Well, he didn’t want to know. He glared at the screen as if he could make it tell him what to write, but that didn’t work either.

When the words still wouldn’t come, he looked at the news again. There’d been another pirate attack and the Navy had received a distress call from Sanmar’s Reach.

His ears pricked up. Sanmar’s Reach... His stomach flip-flopped and he swore he heard the sudden chatter of automatic weapons. Except he didn’t, of course. One of his teammates screamed and Arizona swore. The commander swore, too.

Todd squeezed his eyes closed and reminded himself he was back on Earth and that he’d survived. He forced himself to focus on the sounds around him— his mom preparing a meal in the kitchen, the sound of something really big outside...

Slowly, the shadow echoes of battle faded and he opened his eyes. The reporters were still talking about Sanmar’s Reach but not about the attack on the Navy team. Footage filled the screen and Todd blinked.

His team had made it to the central square, but only he and two others had made it out—and no one had told him which ones. He wished he’d thought to ask, but his mind had been on other things, and he’d then received his orders and had to move.

“And you’re saying they landed right beside the sat link?” the female anchor asked. The way she put it made it sound as though Stephanie’s crew had been completely irresponsible.

“There is some speculation they were afraid of walking into the same kind of ambush the Navy team walked into and weren’t taking any chances.”

Todd snorted. These two were blowing smoke if they thought his Stephanie was afraid of anything. If she’d landed in the middle of town it was because she had a point to make. Like, maybe, trying to kill her friends was a bad thing.

“Easy, Toddster,” he told himself. “You’re not that important.”

The anchor’s next comment brought his attention back to the screen.

“There’s rumor that it was a revenge attack. That she razed the town because someone almost killed her high school sweetheart.”

She what? Todd couldn’t believe his ears.

“There may be something to that,” the male Meligornian presenter agreed. “They say she’d recently been to visit him in the Naval Hospital facility out near Mercury, took a Navy shuttle immediately thereafter, and headed directly to Sanmar’s Reach.”

He leaned forward. Something wasn’t quite right. This didn’t sound like the Stephanie he knew.

Oblivious to his opinion, the reporters continued with footage of the colony playing in the background. He couldn’t see where it had been razed.

The communications dish looked new and appeared to have been built on the burned remains of the old one, but the square looked like it had when he and the team had first walked into town.

Aside from the burn scars and extra bullet holes in many of the walls, he noticed. Several windows were boarded over and some of the walls had been patched with pieces of metal or scraps of wood.

He frowned, reasonably sure his team hadn’t had time to do that much damage before they’d been annihilated.

The footage switched to an aerial view of the settlement and both reporters whistled.

“Wow, the Witch sure knows how to get her own back,” the male reporter said and gave his co-host a wary look. “I hope you never get that mad at me.”

The woman smiled at him. “I sure hope you never do anything to make me that mad.” Her smile faded, and she turned to the camera.

Behind her, the video changed to a view of the colony’s cemetery and a row of newly dug graves. She looked at them and gave her co-host a drop-jawed stare.

“Are you telling me she killed all these people?”

The Meligornian nodded, his expression solemn. “She clearly wanted to send someone a message.”

“And what was that?”

“That the Witch isn’t on anyone’s leash and will crush any who oppose her?” her colleague suggested, and she tutted.

“That’s right because the Navy claim she went to Sanmar’s reach on their orders, don’t they?”

“Yes, Amelia, they do. They tell us the Witch didn’t take any unnecessary lives.”

The female host’s face took on an expression of disbelief, but he continued.

“They maintain she gave the townsfolk a chance to lay down their arms and only attacked after the first shot had been fired at her.”

The footage panned behind them to reveal the damage done not only to the buildings around the square but to those lining a road leading up to where a crater lay behind a low, stone wall.

“Are you sure, Jalel? Honestly, that looks excessive to me. How many lives did she take in that particular tantrum?”

“The Navy says she removed a small nest of traitors from this site and ensured they could not return to retrieve any equipment to become operational again.”

“And how many people died in the blast?” Amelia demanded. She gestured at the screen and the still smoldering pit.

The Meligornian raised his eyebrows. “The Navy says the Witch’s team captured as many of the traitors as they could and that no-one was inside the building when they bombed it.”

She waggled her eyebrows. “And will the Navy allow us to speak to these so-called prisoners?”

“Oh, this is bullshit,” Todd muttered and tapped the tablet. If Stephanie saw this she would be upset, and he wanted to be around to make sure she wasn’t. Maybe he could take her down to the diner or out to a movie so she’d miss it.

He hoped she was training right now and not somewhere with access to the broadcast. Damn civilian newsies.

How’d you like to meet up sometime? he typed and signed it with The Toddssssterrr!

If nothing else, that would make her smile. He pressed send and returned to the broadcast. The reporters had moved on from suggesting Steph and her team had gone in and killed everything in their path—which would have been difficult, what with the families that tried to creep past in the background with their kids in tow.

The camera panned to the charred area under the new sat dish.

“It took a month for the Navy to notice the colony had gone silent.” The female anchor’s voice stopped barely short of accusatory. “When they finally came out to investigate, they discovered this.”

The footage moved to a picture of the twisted wreckage of the broken sat dish. Apparently, the Navy was supposed to be sending a ship to help them repair the damage done.

“Some of these poor folk are even under the impression that the Navy will pay compensation for the damage done by the Witch and her team.” How the woman could sound so full of pity was beyond Todd.

The Navy didn’t have to repair or replace the equipment damaged in the raid against insurgents. In fact, the town was lucky punitive action wasn’t taken against the colony, both for harboring traitors in the first place and for setting up so far away from the authorized settlement area.

As far as he was concerned, they were all responsible and damned lucky the Navy hadn’t forcibly relocated them. Why they seemed to receive preferential treatment, he didn’t know, but he didn’t like the way the reporters talked about Steph, either.

“Well, someone needs to,” Jalel added in self-righteous tones. He gestured toward the scene which flowed from the burning crater to the freshly dug graves and the devastation that now housed the temporary sat dish. “This is certainly not the fate we’d wish for any of our colonies.”

“Indeed.” Amelia clearly did not approve of what had happened to the settlement. “These people went to Sanmar’s Reach to find a new start and they deserved to be treated better.”

More footage rolled. The people looked tired and dirty, a woman wept as she stared at the dish, and a child held his mother’s hand and tossed flowers into the crater.

“You’d think she’d at least have magicked up some extra stores before she left,” the male reporter added. “These people were close to starving when the Navy arrived.”

Todd’s jaw dropped at the sheer unfairness of the remark. What were they trying to do? Take the only hero the Federation really had and turn her into a villain? Where was the sense in that?

Maybe it sells more stories, he thought when the report on Sanmar’s Reach ended and a new one began. This one turned out to be about Stephanie, too.

The first image was that of a floating hulk of an enormous battleship.



“Dreth pirates took on a little more than they could chew when they attacked an Earth freighter out on the Rim. They must have thought three ships against one was fair odds, but they didn’t count on a surprise visit from the Witch.”

The camera panned in closer to focus on the gaping holes in the pirate’s hull it before pulled back to display the news anchors seated in front of the screen. Both turned away from the footage of the wreckage and looked clearly impressed.

“Their loss, I think,” the Meligornian commented and looked at Amelia. “Do they say how the Witch found out?”

His female counterpart pursed her lips. “No, they do not.” She was clearly vexed, as though the Navy had held out on them by not filling in the details. “It’s something we hope they come clean on in the very near future.”

And if that wasn’t a hint for the Navy’s PR team to come up with a response, Todd didn’t know what was. He gave a short laugh.

“Good luck with that, guys,” he told the anchors and focused on the rest of the report.

“They boarded via one of the shuttle bays toward the front,” the woman said and pointed to where the hangar should have been. “From there, they worked their way back and destroyed the other bays as they went.”

The camera panned along the length of the ship to show the devastation. It took a moment before Todd realized this report would be as biased as the last.

A pot clanged in the kitchen, and his mother’s footsteps followed. The back door opened and closed again, and he assumed she’d emptied the kitchen trash. He wished she’d let him help but she’d been so upset that he’d been wounded that she hadn’t let him lift a finger the entire week he’d been home.

He sighed and went back to the report. While he wished she didn’t have a point, she did. He still wasn’t a hundred percent.

“Once they’d eliminated the crew in the hangar areas, the Witch led her team on a rampage through the ship and killed everyone in her path. Those who surrendered...” Jalel shrugged. “Well, we have to assume they were killed along with everyone else, despite Navy claims of more prisoners.”

Amelia’s mouth twisted in disapproval. “Apparently, there will be no interviews with the Dreth pirate survivors until representatives from all Federation races have been able to interview them.”

“All Federation races, Amelia?” her male colleague asked in disbelief.

She nodded, her eyes wide. “All, Jalel.”

He rolled his eyes. “And when was the last time that happened?”

“I don’t think it’s ever happened,” she replied and continued. “They say the Witch and her team went from one end of the vessel to the other until they reached the control room and vented the ship.”

“They what?

“You heard me. They vented the ship.”

“Well, I guess that’s one way to be sure,” the female anchor said. She shook her head sadly. “Those pirates didn’t stand a chance.”

Todd shook his head. “Something doesn’t add up.”

Someone sighed behind him. “It wasn’t that one-sided,” Stephanie told him, her voice soft. “We almost died.”

Todd swiveled in his seat and ignored the twinge of half-remembered pain. The doctors said it was only to be expected and would go away in time. He wasn’t used to seeing Stephanie in black—or with silver hair.

His friend stood directly inside the door to the lounge, her blue eyes fixed on his face. Behind her, doing his best to look casual and failing miserably, was the shortest guy from her team. Todd stood and maneuvered around the room to reach her.

She looked good in black. It definitely wasn’t a color of mourning when she wore it, even if there was a hint of sadness in her eyes. Now that he studied her more closely, he could see the patch situated over her heart and on her shoulders.

The purple and gold stitching and the cream-and-bronze talons of something that resembled an eagle were the only traces of brightness on the entire outfit. Her teammate’s black uniform was adorned with a similar set of patches, and Todd almost envied him.

Stephanie had colors and the Toddster wasn’t in them. There was something indefinably wrong with that. The man behind her backed up a little as he approached.

If he didn’t know any better, he’d have said he was trying to do his job while giving them a little personal space. He didn’t envy him the task. As he drew closer, Todd noticed the shadows under his friend’s eyes.

She still looked like the same old Steph but the shadows, like the sadness, were new. It was almost as if she’d grown older but somehow stayed the same age. He’d seen the same thing in himself when he looked in the mirror every morning since leaving the hospital.

Todd smiled. He had a fair idea where it came from—at least for himself. It was from almost dying, from losing his teammates on a world a long way from home, and from thinking he would never be able to say goodbye.

He frowned when he realized he didn’t know where Stephanie’s look came from and wished he did. Before he could follow that thought, she raised her tablet and wiggled it.

“My friend pinged me?”

Her statement stopped him cold. Pinged her? Well, two could play at that game. He stopped and made a show of looking at his watch. She arched her eyebrows and he couldn’t hold back a smirk as he studied the watch carefully.

“Oh! You wanted time with the Toddster.” He said it like he should have realized what she’d come for. “’Cause there’s no way you got my message and made it here that quickly.”

She laughed and slid the tablet back into its holder. “My parents’ place isn’t that far away.”

Todd blushed when he realized she hadn’t come only to see him and had probably been virtually next door without him even knowing because of course she’d want to see her parents first.

“Oh... I...um...” he sputtered and went redder than he already was. “I...”

He gaped helplessly and she stepped forward, wound her arms around him, and pulled him close.

“I was there, but I was already coming over to see you, you big goof!” She unwound her arms but slid her hand down to take him by the forearm. “C’mon. I’ve already talked to your parents. I’m taking you out.”

Todd caught sight of the short man’s mouth moving, and realized he was talking into the unobtrusive mic at his throat. “Package acquired. Operation Hot Time in the City is a go. I repeat. Hot Time in the City is all systems go.”

The man glanced at him and winked as Stephanie dragged him past, and his lips curled into a smirk. “I hope you’ve had your Wheaties, Todd.”

He felt his face flame anew. It didn’t help that his mum leaned on the kitchen counter, looked inordinately pleased with herself, and smiled at him while Stephanie dragged him out.

She winked when they reached the back door, her lips moving in a single, silent word. Surprise!


Chapter Four

In the office at Harborview Tech, Chancellor Neil Cotes leaned forward and cleared his throat. He was aware that the members of the school board all glanced toward him as he looked at the screen.

As the president of the board, he was in charge, but Sandra Gierman was his head of recruiting and chief parental liaison and she’d made it very clear she had questions. He sighed. Anthony Reed was the accountant and marketing manager and hard to please, and Dean Fischer oversaw curriculum and liaised with Federation Authorities.

They were a difficult group to impress, and he hoped One R&D had come prepared. He was also very aware of Ms Smith seated at one side of the table.

“We—” He caught the expression on the Dean’s face and amended what he was about to say. “That is, I wondered exactly where the student records came from.”

As always, their business partner’s screen was blank and Neil Cotes wished, for once, that it wasn’t. He could glean more from someone’s face and what they didn’t say than from any words they might speak.

It was a skill that had saved him on countless occasions before, and he wished he could use it now. Burt was silent as if considering how much he could tell them, and Neil missed having a visual.

Of course, he had Ms E, but she revealed as much as any statue carved from stone, and he was almost certain she was as busy reading him and his subordinates as he was trying to read her. He simply waited.

When a glance at Ms E showed she had no inclination to answer, he rephrased the question. “I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s difficult for us to verify them without knowing the source.”

It was the same argument the head of recruiting had used, and she looked at him sharply. He didn’t respond to her and hoped Burt didn’t have the same skills he did. After all, he was the chancellor. It was his job to take the heat for his people.

“I...see,” Burt said and sounded as if he finally understood, and Neil Cotes held his breath. “The records are a conglomeration of our own testing and existing official records. We had to go to some lengths and expense to gain permission to access them, but they are the most complete picture we can compile.” He paused as though considering his next words. “It is a picture we can clarify as their training progresses, but it is more than enough for us to begin tailoring their individual programs.”

“I... It’s simply that it would be good to be able to check,” Neil persisted and added hastily, “for our own records, you understand?”

To his relief, Burt’s voice was warm when he responded.

“Of course, I understand,” he reassured him, “but you will have to trust that the students have been offered a full scholarship and the credits will be paid into the appropriate school accounts, should they accept the offer.”

He couldn’t think of a single reason why they would not, but he didn’t say anything and Burt continued.

“Those students who accept the offer will be trained with a new curriculum, but one that merges your normal foundational credits with new training created by One R&D specifically for them.”

“I see,” the chancellor replied, brought up the notes he’d been sent, and tapped the keys on his laptop to page through them. “Which brings me to my next question.”

“Go ahead,” BURT told him, although the AI was fairly sure he knew what was coming.

Neil cleared his throat once more. “This new curriculum... I understand it hasn’t been tested by other schools?”

“That is true,” he agreed and Elizabeth picked up the conversation exactly as they’d agreed she would if this particular point arose.

“We do understand the concern with untested or un-verified studies,” she said, her voice and expression sincere. “We really do, but you must understand that we are at the forefront of this field and there is no other peer review capable for these classes.”

“When you say you are at the forefront of this field,” Neil continued and glanced at his screen, “are you able to tell me who created these classes?”

“Stephanie Morgana,” Burt answered. “So unless you wish to perhaps hire a few Meligornian Masters—at your own great expense—to confirm the course material is practical and its theory sound, we believe that the only witch in recent human history is the go-to expert most appropriate for the design of this theory and curriculum, particularly as she has experienced it herself.”

Neil looked at Sandra and the recruiting head glanced at the dean and marketing manager in turn. After a moment’s hesitation, they all nodded, and the chancellor turned to the blank screen. He did his best to ignore the fleeting smirk he thought he saw on Ms E’s face.

When he did not immediately reply, BURT continued. “It has been tested, I assure you. We ran it through the Virtual World under the careful oversight of the most practiced of programmers.”

Dean Fischer broke the brief silence that followed and moved the discussion on to their next point of concern.

“This class on ecological disasters and magic,” he prompted and tapped his own screen, and Neil hurriedly changed to the appropriate file.

BURT let Elizabeth field that one.

“Stephanie has decided that war should not be the only area in which we do research, and we decided that more minds on this problem would benefit humanity as well.” She shrugged. “You never know. Maybe one day, magic can help us clean up the worst of our problems.”

Neil could not blame the dean for looking unconvinced but he was relieved when the man did not argue.

“This would help put the school at the forefront of a new technology,” Anthony murmured, “and make it the only school in the country to have a curriculum designed specifically for it by the only Witch of the Federation.”

It was perfectly understandable that the man would count the marketing beans, but the chancellor winced when Anthony turned to the blank screen. “I take it One R&D will allot us a percentage of the profits from new patents developed by our students?”

“Of course,” Burt replied. “I will have our lawyers draw up a contract to cover it and send that through for the board’s approval.”

Neil couldn’t be sure if he’d heard the faint emphasis on “board” or not, but he felt Burt was entitled to it if it was. He was almost relieved when the dean added a question of his own.

“This new curriculum…will you make it available to other students attending the University?”

This time, Elizabeth answered. “We will consider it. Although, given the material, any such students would have to pass a strict entry process.” She let that idea sink in before she added, “For their safety, of course.”

Sandra made a sound that could have been a sigh of relief. “Oh, that’s good,” the liaison officer said. “I know there will be parents who want an answer as to why their little Johnny or Mary-Lou wasn’t selected.”

“Tell them it’s a trial program and once you’ve seen the results from the test classes, it will be opened for students who pass the entry exams. Not every student will be able to safely undertake the classes, and the testing will weed out most who cannot cope.”

“Most?” The parental liaison officer sounded alarmed, and Anthony looked concerned.

Neil was a little concerned himself. An accident at the school would see the public liability costs go through the roof, and those were steep enough as it was.

“Speaking of accidents...” Anthony began and glanced toward the chancellor for permission.

With a sigh, he gestured for him to continue and the marketing manager retrieved a tablet. He activated the screen and pushed it across to Ms Smith. “Can you spare a few minutes to read this?”

“Certainly,” she agreed and nodded as she reached for the device.

Knowing what it was and what a PR disaster it had been for Stargazers International, Neil watched as she scanned the article. He was not surprised when she looked at the blank screen.

“Burt, have you seen today’s lead article in the Australian Times? The one to do with Lachlan Hennessy?”

“One moment,” he said, and Elizabeth smiled.

The chancellor wondered why but she would never tell him that BURT had found, reviewed, processed, and analyzed it in less time than it had taken for him to answer and now waited so that he seemed human when he replied.

“Anytime now, boss,” she said to cue him in. “I’m not getting any younger.”

She added that last quip with a roguish wink at the board and watched as they tried to decide whether they should laugh or look horrified. Neil decided it must be good to have that close a working relationship, although he hoped none of his people tried to emulate it.

Burt didn’t seem to mind, though.

“I see,” he replied, and only Elizabeth knew he was deliberately solemn. “I’m sure the date I’m about to make you late for won’t leave you and go off on his own if you leave him unattended for another moment or two.”

From the look on the redoubtable Ms Smith’s face, that remark was unexpected—and, Neil mused, accurate. The woman really did have a date waiting. Anthony snickered, and Sandra tried in vain to hide a smile.

Dean Fischer merely rolled his eyes.

Elizabeth smoothed the shock from her face quickly and narrowed her eyes at the blank screen. So, BURT had done his homework, had he? And without her coaching.

As mortified as she’d been, it was startling to see how far he’d upgraded his understanding of human humor—and how fast. BURT, however, was more interested in the matter at hand.

“I have to admit to being startled,” he told them. “I was unaware of this young man and will amend my news filters accordingly. Tell me, do you believe him to be a savant?”

“Something like that,” Neil admitted. “He has shown magical ability early—and to a degree most humans never dream of. I’m afraid that if we wait until he graduates, we might lose him and I don’t know what will happen.”

“It’s too late to pull him into this class,” Burt explained, “but I will seek opportunities in order to provide him training in his country. We will not let him fall through the cracks.”

“That is the best I can hope for,” the chancellor replied and relief colored his tones.

“In the meantime,” Burt added, drawing the conversation back to the next item on their agenda, “we have fifteen students joining Harborview next semester. I trust you have the infrastructure in place?”

“We most certainly do,” he assured him. “We’ll quarter them in the same wing where Stephanie and her team first conducted their training. It’s still separate from the school’s system so your corporate data and IP will be protected.”

“And we’ve since added similar measures for our own students,” Dean Fischer told him, “so should you wish to have joint classes, you should be able to incorporate your students safely.”

“Very good,” Burt responded approvingly. “If you could organize with Ms E for one of our security specialists to examine your arrangement, I can change the curriculum to reflect those changes.”

“We believe it would be best for these students to engage with their peers as much as possible,” Sandra interjected. “Not only that, but I could also more easily assure the other parents that there is no real special treatment reserved for a small, select group.”

“I see your point,” Burt agreed. “Please forward the concepts underpinning these ideas so we can incorporate them.”

Neil Cotes breathed another sigh of relief. Perhaps working with One R&D would work out, after all.

Witch Of The Federation III

Todd laughed as Stephanie dragged him around the side of the house and to the front yard. His mum had become really sneaky in her old age and his friend looked really pleased with herself. She looked less pleased, though, when he stopped.

In the next moment, she laughed. “Your face!”

His face, all right. His jaw hung open and he knew he was staring like he’d been hit upside the head with the stupid stick. “Where the hell did that come from?”

She gave him a grin of pure, unadulterated delight. “It’s mine.”

“Yours?” he asked, and his voice cracked. He took a step forward to study the massive shuttle that blocked the street in front of his house. “The neighbors are gonna complain.”

Stephanie laughed. “I doubt it.”

Todd thought he knew why. The shuttle wasn’t all that stood in front of his house. There was a Dreth, too—a big-ass, motherfucking Dreth. It took considerable effort to close his mouth and not let it fall open again.

It was a struggle, though. The rest of Stephanie’s team was also there. Todd recognized their leader—the tall, blue-eyed one—and the blond man beside him...Johnny, he recalled, and the two dark-haired ones. They looked like twins but weren’t. He’d forgotten their names.

The whole team was decked out in body armor exactly like Steph’s—all black with the shoulder and chest patches—and they were armed to the teeth. It made him wonder where they’d gotten their permits from or if they’d even bothered.

As soon as he saw her, the Dreth stepped forward to virtually attach himself to Stephanie’s other side when she cleared the side of the house. Todd didn’t miss when the big man’s gaze scanned over him, and he really hoped he didn’t come up short.

From the looks of it, the neighbors did not intend to complain. Most of them were too busy staring or taking selfies with the team and the shuttle in the background. Todd assumed the street would swarm with curious thrill-seekers in less than an hour and hoped his mum and dad would be okay.

“So, this is your idea of a quiet family visit, huh?” he asked and gestured around them.

“What?” Stephanie quipped and pointed to her team. “This is my family, now. You ought to know that.”

If she meant the men she fought beside were her family, yeah, he got that. He took a quick breath and looked at the Dreth. “So, what’s he, then? Your bigger brother from another mother?”

“Who are you calling a mother?” Steph asked, and the Dreth cast him a sharp glance.

Todd flinched when the big guy bristled. “No fair, Steph. I haven’t even met your bro and you’re already getting me into trouble with him.” The warrior snorted. “Girls,” he muttered and cast Todd a conspiratorial glance, which earned a startled look from Steph. “Always getting us boys into trouble.”

Todd had never had a sister, but he’d heard the other guys talk about them at school.

“That’s women all over,” interrupted the security guard who’d accompanied Stephanie into the house. “Always trouble.”

“Hey!” she protested and they chuckled.

“If the boot…uh, fits...” Todd quipped.

She gave him a wide-eyed stare, “And here I thought you avoided kids’ cartoons.”

“Not that one. I had cousins whose dad believed in the classics.”

They reached the front gate and Todd paused again to admire the shuttle. The closest he’d come to riding in one of these in the Navy had been the dropship to Sanmar’s and even that hadn’t been this big. “Man, you sure know how to pick a date up.”

Stephanie snickered and punched him in the shoulder. “Oh, so this is a date, now? And you’re paying? Do you have any idea how much the fuel costs for the shuttle if this is a date?”

The very thought of it made his mouth go dry. “Well...I... Steph... I didn’t...” he sputtered when he realized he wouldn’t even be able to cover the cost of it starting, let alone flying anywhere. If he had to pay for the date, he was well and truly screwed.

Vishlog looked over Stephanie’s head at him and said something to the other guys in Dreth.

“What?” Todd demanded when several of them snorted. “What did he say?”

He scowled when the Dreth gave a heavy sigh.

“I said,” he told Todd and spoke Federation with a slight accent, “that you are lucky your ‘date’ is a self-made female, or you would owe money for years to come.”

He opened the gate and ushered them through, leaving her security escort to close it behind them. Todd couldn’t help agreeing with him as they walked up the ramp into the shuttle.

“Yeah. Fortunately, I’ve known her since she was simply Stephie-from-the-Block.”

“Nice, Toddster.” Stephanie dropped into one of the padded flight chairs and extended a hand to pat one of the big cats that appeared as soon as the door was shut behind them.

Todd couldn’t help feeling relieved that she’d kept the two creatures inside when she’d stopped to visit. The neighbors might tolerate big-ass shuttles and tame Dreth warriors, but he doubted that Mrs Helmand would as open-minded about one of Steph’s “kitties” chasing her dogs.

Especially one with horns and a bright black-and-yellow coat. He remembered seeing them at the hospital and wondered where the other one was. Instinctively, he looked around and it stuck its head over the chair in front of them.

The Dreth warrior put out a fist for it to head-butt.

“Nice, Vishlog. Now, you’ve taught him something else I didn’t approve of,” Stephanie snarked.

“Huh,” the smallest guy snapped back, “at least he didn’t try eating it this time.”

Vishlog laughed. “He only does that for you, Frog.”

The rest of the team trooped inside and the two almost-twins moved to the cockpit.

“Make sure you don’t stall it, this time,” Frog called and the shorter of the pair made a brief and thoroughly impolite gesture with his hand.

“In your dreams.”

“More like his nightmares,” Johnny snorted, and Frog twisted to look at him.

“Johnny! You said you’d never tell.”

The rest of the guys roared with laughter as they buckled in.

Contrary to the warning comment, the shuttle lifted off smoothly.

“I didn’t know your guys could fly,” Todd remarked, and Stephanie smirked.

“We didn’t want to risk getting left behind so we put it to the vote and Brenden and Avery drew the short straws. They went through intensive pod training to get it fast, and here we are—on their inaugural flight.”

He felt a small flash of alarm. “Inaugural?”

Frog snickered. “On Earth. They had endless practice on the way back.”

Todd frowned and recalled the reports showing the Navy providing pilots. “But why?”

His friend’s face grew serious. “Because we never want to find ourselves stranded because we didn’t bring our own. And because there might come a time when the Navy can’t come get us. This way, it doesn’t matter.”

Lars leaned over them to look out the window. Several people waved as the shuttle lifted and squinted as their hair was blown back by the downdraft. He waved back. “She sure does make an entrance, doesn’t she?”

“And an exit,” Frog added.

One kid sat on her father’s shoulders and waved with both hands. Frog and Lars both gave a two-handed wave in return. The kid grinned and her father grinned too. He managed to wave without releasing her shins.

“Aren’t we the shit?” Frog asked and stood as the guys chuckled.

“Yes,” Johnny replied, also waving. “Yes, we are.”

Frog wandered up to the cockpit. “I’d better get to work.”

Stephanie caught her friend’s look and laughed. “Someone has to keep us on course.”

“You guys are doomed.” The words were out before he could stop them, and the guys immediately laughed.

“I heard that.”

She chuckled. “He’s on weapons, too.”

Todd’s jaw dropped. “Man, you must really like playing with fire.”

Frog stuck his head around the cockpit door. “I’ll have you know that I have never gotten these boys lost...ever. Johnny, on the other hand...”

“Never takes his eyes off the instruments when he’s on the job,” Lars snapped.

“Johnny,” Frog started again, “once had the boys set us down right where the captain’s pinnace was supposed—”

“Now, Frog, you know that never happened,” Stephanie intervened when Johnny began to sputter.

Calls of, “That was you,” followed by, “And it was deliberate,” followed and she rested her head against her hand. “Do you see what I have to put up with?”

Lars straightened. “It never happened,” he muttered, “but now, these clowns won’t let Frog live it down.”

“Well, what about the time Johnny brought that box on board and it ended up being a Dreth stowaway?”

“It must have been a big box,” Todd murmured, and Vishlog elbowed him in the ribs.

“Get back to work, Frog,” Lars ordered, and a groaning sigh issued from the cockpit.

“You guys never let me out.”

“That’s because we know you,” the team chorused.

Witch Of The Federation III

Kelly Samosa sat at her terminal in Naval Lodgings. She was bored and Star Base Hartog was a long way out. It looks like it’ll be another slow one, she thought and opened the email queue.

They hadn’t had a Navy ship for almost a month, but that might be considered a blessing since those visits usually brought wounded for the hospital and funeral caskets for return to Earth. They always made her sad. Then, there were the guys who booked into the lodgings.

When they weren’t hitting on her, they were looking for a way to make it to their next set of orders. She sighed when she remembered Todd, all curly brown hair and eyes so blue you could drown in them.

Yeah, not all the guys who came through were a loss. It really was a shame she’d moved that one on so fast. She flicked through the emails, mentally prioritizing them, and her gaze noticed one from the Norma Gene 56974. Her heart skipped a beat.

It had taken a couple of days to reach her, so she let herself relax a little. If anything bad had happened to Ryan, the captain would have sent this much faster. After a closer look at it, she saw it was Ryan who’d sent it and not the captain. She smiled.

That was good news. She loved hearing from her bro.

It was, as always, short and sweet.

Package delivered as requested. He was very appreciative and says he owes you one. Just so you know, he was the package that caused the Morgana to go level places. I guess looks aren’t everything, huh?

“Sonofabitch!” Kelly shook her head. “And I had him right here and all to myself. I guess this is one time I can claim the guy was more than he seemed.”

She moved hastily to her other screen, pulled Todd’s records, and took a good, long look at his picture. “Maybe next time, Todd. Maybe next time.”

Her brother was right, though. No matter how blue she remembered his eyes being, he really wasn’t much to look at. Maybe she’d imagined the curls.


Chapter Five

Despite Frog’s aspersions, they’d made it to One R&D safely. Brenden and Avery set the shuttle down on the roof, and the team rattled down the stairs and into the building itself.

Stephanie left Todd in the guys’ common room. “I gotta go and get changed,” she told him. “I can’t go clubbing in this.”

He had opened his mouth to argue that she looked fine when a hand grasped his shoulder.

“Don’t say it, Todd,” Lars warned as she headed out the door. “Never tell a girl she looks fine when she’s said she needs to change.”

Thinking about it, he acknowledged that the man had a point.

As soon as the door closed behind her, the guys began to strip out of their armor. They vanished down a corridor leading to their rooms.

“We have to get changed, too,” Lars told him when Frog and Johnny returned dressed in civilian clothes. He patted Todd’s shoulder and headed up the corridor. “Don’t get into any trouble while I’m gone.”

Todd eyed the other two men and wondered how long it would take for the trouble to start. He heard a door close down the corridor and Frog looked over at him.

Uh oh. Here it comes, he thought as the man came over and studied him carefully while he circled slowly for a complete analysis. Todd resisted the urge to turn with him and stood as still as he could. From the other side of the room, Johnny watched them, an amused expression on his face.

Frog finally came all the way around and stood in front of him.

“You’ll do,” he said and made it sound as though he was making a concession.

Behind him, his teammate rolled his eyes, and Brenden and Avery emerged. They were dressed for a night out on the town and came over to stand with Frog.

“What do you think?” Avery asked, and the shorter man frowned.

“I think he’s missing something.”

Todd cleared his throat. “Right here, guys. I’m standing right in front of you.”

Frog turned wondering eyes to Brendan, who met his look with a wide-eyed stare and asked, “Did you hear something?”

His teammate shook his head. “Nah, must have been the wind.”

Todd groaned and caught Johnny’s eye over their head. The guy was definitely smirking. He opened a locker on one side of the room. “I know what it is.”

“You, too?” he asked, although he knew the answer. He’d seen this kind of hazing in the barracks and been the new guy, as well. Hell, all he’d ever been was the new guy—on one team. His spirits dipped.

Something of what he’d thought must have shown on his face because Frog frowned. Determined not to ruin the evening, Todd made himself focus on what Johnny hauled out of the locker.

“I need body armor to go clubbing?” he asked.

“Yes!” the guys chorused, and his eyebrows rose.

“What kind of clubs do you guys go to?” he asked while he unbuttoned his shirt.

Johnny brought the armor over, and he was relieved to see it was one of the newer, lighter brands. It was still effective but less obtrusive than the cheaper models. He took it out of the other man’s hands and examined it carefully.

The team moved away. Some sat on the couch and turned the tv on while others retrieved water from a cooler in the corner. Johnny stayed close and didn’t say anything. He simply watched as the younger man determined how the armor worked.

He’d barely managed to figure the straps out when another door opened and Johnny looked up. Todd pivoted to see who’d arrived and his jaw dropped. Fortunately, Stephanie didn’t notice. She was too busy bitching at the yellow-striped cat.

The creature pranced beside her, its head tilted up and eyes appealing.

“What do you mean, you’re hungry?” she demanded while Johnny placed a fingertip under Todd’s chin and pushed his mouth closed. “You just ate.”

The cat gave a soft roar, followed by a grumbling growl.

She was unsympathetic. “Well, why don’t you take a bite out of Frog next time?”

“Hey!” Frog yelled, and the cat’s head snapped toward him.

The second feline appeared through the door and the three of them passed through the common room and out the other side. Frog watched them warily the entire way, and the yellow-and-black cat fixed him with a predatory stare all the way, giving a series of grunting coughs as it followed Stephanie out the door.

“Nice six-pack, Toddster,” she yelled before the door closed behind them and he blushed.

“Did that cat actually laugh?” he asked as he dragged the armor over his head to hide his embarrassment.

“Did she compliment your stomach?” Frog wanted to know.

“Huh?”

“Because I don’t see why she would.”

He felt the blush return. “I guess she did. I was kinda chunky in high school and had a girlfriend who tried to get me to diet.”

“Did it work?”

Todd laughed. “Hell, no! I dropped her.”

Frog frowned and wandered over to watch as he began to work with the straps. “So what did work, then?” He patted his own flat stomach “Because, you know, she never compliments mine.”

Johnny gave a short bark of laughter, and Lars groaned. “Do I want to know?”

“Better you don’t,” Brenden told him but Todd answered Frog’s question.

“Way too much time in the hospital. I lost a fair amount of weight in there. I healed fast, though, and came back better than before.” He glanced at Frog. “Yeah, I’d recommend the hospital for weight loss but not so much the method for getting in there.”

“Yeah?” the man asked. He seemed about to push for the why but caught the look on Todd’s face and changed the subject. “So, how are you at dancing?”

He spun on the spot and followed with a couple of fancy steps. “The Toddster can dance,” he told them and struck a pose.

Frog wrinkled his lip. “Well, we’d better go find him, then,” he said and studied him acerbically. “Because damn, you need to get something done about that.”

“Screw you, too,” Todd told him as he finished with the straps.

“Not in your wildest dreams, honey,” the man answered as he checked the armor to make sure it was tightly buckled.

Johnny laughed and handed him his shirt. “I’d give up while you are ahead,” he advised. “There’s no dealing with him when he’s in this kind of a mood.”

“Mood?” Todd quipped. “I thought he was always like that.”

Frog watched as he buttoned his shirt and did another walk around. “I guess you’ll do.”

“Do for what?”

“Well...” he began and was elbowed out of the way by Lars.

“I think you guys have had enough fun for one evening,” he told them and took Todd by the arm. “She won’t be very happy if we make her late.”

The guys all headed to the door like he’d given an order, which Todd supposed he had. He couldn’t resist one last stab as they went, though.

“Did I hear her say to take a bite out of Frog?”

“Hey!”

Witch Of The Federation III

Ms E stared at the small light flashing on her screen. Although she was in the office, she’d watched the guys while they gave Todd their own version of a welcome. She’d promised Stephanie she wouldn’t let them go too far and had been pleased to see she hadn’t had to step in.

Now, her screen flashed a warning and she had to pay attention. At least it had waited until the kids were on their way. She tapped the keyboard and pulled up the video feed that sent the alarm.

“Well, well, well, boys, aren’t we an enterprising group of pricks, today?”

She studied the feed a little longer and raised her eyebrows. “Oh, my, that is impressive! I wonder where you got your hands on that? Your last heist?”

She winced as one of them walked into a potted plant, knocked it over, and triggered another alarm. “Dickless wonder... How did you get this far with coordination like that?”

Their clumsiness wasn’t what had her attention, though, and nor was their dress.

“Neon flashes? Who dressed you? Your girlfriend?”

She wasn’t entertained. The large box they carried was far more interesting and she narrowed her eyes to focus as they worked their way through the garage and up the stairs.

“Goddammit! Did you have to break the lock?”

Ms E focused again when another feed picked them up and tracked them. She nodded her approval at the seamless transition but groaned when they reached the top of the stairs. Admittedly, they moved quietly, but they were so clumsy.

“Mind the... Oh, for heaven’s sake. Never mind. I wanted to change the colors in that room, anyway.”

They put the box down and two of them immediately headed over to the doors and checked the adjoining rooms.

“Well, it’s a little late for that, boys. You shoulda checked for occupants before you went inside. Where the fuck did you get your training?”

When she saw what they’d carried up the stairs, her eyes widened and immediately narrowed in ire.

“Oh, no, you didn’t. This now became personal.”

Elizabeth retrieved her tablet and sent a hasty, secured text to the body double she’d had occupying the apartment in her place.

Don’t go home. Change your looks and take twelve months off—the agreed payment is in your account.

She pulled up another screen and sent the payment through, waiting long enough for the bank to verify it had received the funds.

Will contact you three months prior to end of year with further instructions.

For a moment, she paused, drummed her fingers on the desk, and added, Assume all valuables in the apartment are lost as per our agreement, sub-part 3. An additional 50K credits will be provided for reimbursement. DO NOT RETURN TO APARTMENT.

As soon as she’d sent it, she flicked to another security feed to monitor the woman as her tablet pinged. She was in a meeting but glanced at the device and excused herself hastily.

Through another feed, Ms E watched as the woman read her text, her eyes widening when she reached the warning. Her reply was short and succinct.

Understood. Will look forward to your call. I always wanted a holiday on the beach.

She breathed a sigh of relief and remained connected long enough to see her double book the tickets before she shut her system down.

“BURT, I’m stepping out for a while. I have a problem to deal with at the apartment.”

Elizabeth located a comm link and pulled it on before she snatched her purse up and headed to the door. She filled him in on the way to the garage and severed the link when she got into the car.

“Right, you sonsofbitches...” she muttered as the vehicle powered up.

“Good afternoon, Elizabeth,” the AI greeted her, and she groaned.

“Good afternoon, Frank.”

The AI paused. “Frank?”

“Yeah,” Elizabeth told it. “That’s what I’m going to call you. We keep having these conversations, so you need a name.”

“Usually you refer to me as ‘you uptight rules-mongering asshole,’” the AI informed her. “Are you sure you wish to grant me another designation?”

“Yes,” she told it acidly. “I hereby designate you as Frank—or today, as ‘shift your ass, Frank’ because I’m in a hurry.”

The AI was silent for a moment. “I must remind you that this vehicle is noted under the alert system and that your license has been tagged as a repeat offender. Should this journey result in more than a hundred infringements or violations of the Federation’s traffic codes, your license will be suspended.”

Ms E frowned and pressed the button to activate the flight engine. The engine refused to start.

“For God’s sake, Frank! I really am in a hurry.”

“You must acknowledge the warning before I am permitted to start,” the AI informed her and she sighed.

“Very well, Frank, I heard your warning. Now, get me in the air.”

BURT interrupted before she could say any more. “I am tracing the security breaches in your apartment,” he told her. “We will deal with them together.”

She snorted. “I’m reasonably sure you won’t be there when I arrive, BURT, but thank you.”

“You are welcome,” he told her, and she was surprised when he had nothing to say about the rest.

“The boy must be learning tact,” she muttered, took hold of the steering column, and pulled the car into a steep vertical ascent.

“That is not a regulation entry for Airway 342,” the AI intoned. “A warning has been appended to your account. Do you wish to hear it, now?”

“Sure. Go ahead,” Ms E told it and slid into the nearest lane.

“Dangerous merging,” the AI warned, two sentences into its spiel. “We have been fined one hundred and eighty credits.”

“So, shoot me,” she told it, changed lanes again, and checked her rearview mirror.

“I am not equipped to do that.”

“Seriously?” she asked and frowned when a dark-blue sky vehicle changed lanes behind her. “Are you clowns for real?”

“I must assure you that the Traffic Authority is very serious,” Frank responded, “that it does not employ clowns, and that the fine is real.”

“Can it, Frank. Momma’s busy.”

Frank did not respond, and Elizabeth took another look in the mirror, changed lanes calmly, and moved as though she intended to take the next off-ramp. A second car joined the first to mirror her movements and she sighed.

“Fine. You want to play, assholes? Let’s play.”

She gunned the engine.

“We have received a ticket for excessive speed, four hundred credits.”

Behind her, the cars increased speed. Ms E switched lanes—once, then twice, and finally, a third time.

“We have received a ticket for changing lanes in a dangerous manner, three hundred credits, another for changing lanes without indication or adequate warning, two hundred credits. We have received a ticket for unauthorized gestures and using the forbidden phrase ‘butt monkey,’ five hundred credits.”

She let the AI’s tones flow over her as she changed another three lanes and realized she needed to change her license plates and maybe her license—before she got any more tickets. Tamora Clynes didn’t have a record.

Elizabeth made the change and fixed the plates. She slipped into the narrow space between a heavy haulage floater and another vehicle and pressed the switch she’d had installed.

“We have received a ticket for unauthorized tampering with a factory standard flying vehicle, fine one thousand credits, another infringement notice for the use of unauthorized plates, fine to follow of nine hundred credits and a felony charge is pending.”

She gritted her teeth and pulled the car into a steep climb. “Thank you, Frank.”

“You are most welcome, Elizabeth. We have received a ticket for illegal entry to a skyway, nine hundred and fifty credits.”

She hadn’t had time to change the car’s surface so its color could be altered, but she swore that was coming. All she needed was a quiet month or two to install the right technology. A horn sounded a panicked note, long and loud, outside her window.

“Infringement road rage indicative behavior, two hundred credits. We have received a ticket for use of foul language on a public roadway to wit “crotch-mongering, goat-sucking, shit-licking asshole,” two hundred and forty credits, unprovoked and unwarranted usage of a warning device, four hundred credits.”

“Shut your mouth, Frank. Momma needs to focus.”

“I do not have the orifice required. We have been issued a ticket for causing a skyway accident, five hundred credits. We have been issued a ticket for leaving the scene of an accident, seven hundred and fifty credits.”

Elizabeth swore under her breath.

“We have been issued a ticket for—”

She pulled the blaster she had strapped under her seat and shot the intercom. It fizzed and crackled in an accusatory fashion, and the cars on either side of her veered away in panic.

“I wonder if I’ve reached a hundred, yet,” she murmured.

“You have reached sixty-five,” BURT told her over the comm link and she cursed again. “Sixty-six.”

“Thank you, BURT. I don’t need to know—”

“Understood. The ‘shit-licking muffin-stuffer’ you just forced off the skyway has landed safely and will survive, while those in your apartment are almost done. How soon before you get here?”

“Not long, now,” she told him as she caught a glimpse of a car coming in from the side. “Damn.”

Elizabeth shoved the steering column forward and added a little twist to it and the vehicle pitched below the roadway. The impact above her showered small pieces of metal and glass down around her. Some bounced off the bonnet.

“Littering?” she screamed when the alert flashed up on the dashboard. “For goat-sucking real? Littering? That wasn’t even my trash.”

More fines ticker-taped their way across the dash as she rolled the air car the other way, this time going over and around the lane below rather than directly through it. The second car she’d seen followed and the first one dropped past her.

It was smoking a little and missing one of its rear doors, but the men inside were intact.

“You piss-farting shit-stains need to find a new job.” She snarled and fired out the window at them. The blue car jinked wildly and skated under the first shot, but the second bullet drilled into its chassis and sparks erupted in its wake.

“Suck. On. That,” she told them.

More notifications streamed across the dash, but Elizabeth ignored them and focused instead on inserting herself back into the traffic stream and keeping a vehicle between her and her two pursuers.

Sirens sounded and she maneuvered quietly across two lanes of traffic, hoping her pursuers were far more noticeable.

“Busted door and smoking,” she snorted. “Who are you kidding?”

The blue car was gone when she approached the exit, and its dark-gray counterpart was nowhere to be seen. Hoping the traffic patrol only had her original plates or the second set, she pressed the forbidden switch again.

The message on the dash flared and everything inside the car flashed red.

“Well, fuck me sideways,” she grumbled and looked for the nearest open space.

A local park caught her eye, and she set down between a set of swings and a roundabout, grasped her tablet, and locked the car behind her once she stepped out. It didn’t take her long to have a rental delivered a block away, and she thanked the driver politely as she signed for the keys.

She patted her gray-streaked wig to make sure it was in place and wrinkled her nose to re-seat her glasses while he scanned her license and checked that her payment had gone through.

“Thank you, dear,” she creaked and slid into the driver’s seat. He smiled and waved her on her way before he called a cab.

Tamora Clyne’s driving days might be over, but Mrs. Burton had a perfectly respectable driving record. A dark-gray vehicle with familiar license plates cruised past her as she indicated to pull out and she was glad of the quick-change kit she’d kept under the seat.

By the time she eased onto the skyway, though, the gray car was back on her tail.

“What the fuck?” she exclaimed. “Who the fuck are these guys?”

“We have been issued a traffic infringement for foul language,” the AI informed her. “One hundred and twenty credits.”

“That’s nothing, sweet cheeks.” She growled her outrage and pushed the throttle forward.

Witch Of The Federation III

Having left Elizabeth to her career as a moving traffic violation, BURT returned to the hunt. He’d found the method the intruders had used to hack into her security systems and that alone was impressive.

His dear Ms E hadn’t bought cheap—or easy. The security she’d used was top-of-the-line, with a few extra twiddles thrown in. Now those were downright clever, he acknowledged. He set up a sub-routine to make a note of them and went after the hackers.

It was a shame to waste this much talent but he would fry their circuits as soon as he caught up with them. It took him a while but he finally managed to access the tablets carried by the men setting up the bomb.

“Now, that’s more like it,” he murmured as he sorted through the files, followed shortly afterward by, “Well, fornicate with an aquatic bird—how inconvenient.”

Firstly, there had been nothing remotely useful on the tablets—a couple of dead account numbers, the tablet numbers they all shared, and a single out-of-service number they reported back on. Each of the devices had been purchased the day before using pre-loaded credit sticks with no chain of sale.

If he’d been human, he’d have cursed a blue streak and beat his head against a desk, but he was not. He was better than that. When those searches failed, he tried to track the men’s movements using the tablets, only to find himself blocked.

“Well, well, well. How creative. You truly are a resourceful pack of butt-monkeys,” he said, co-opting one of Ms E’s more recent phrases while he set one of his own corrupting infiltration programs against the security program that had popped up.

He needed to see and record what they were doing inside the apartment, so BURT sent a worm into the cameras, took control of the recordings, and downloaded them to a small server for inspection. While he analyzed those, he scanned the live feed to monitor both the apartment’s external and internal cameras. It didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for.

“There you are, you scum-sucking primates.”

He was so busy observing what they were doing that they’d already reclaimed three of the feeds before he realized they had discovered him.

“Right,” he snarked. “You’ve asked for it.”

It surprised him to discover he was having fun. It had been a long time since someone had succeeded in challenging him when it came to taking a system over but whoever these people were, they had managed it.

“Got you,” he said, only to find they’d popped up somewhere else. “And again.”

Inside, the intruders had finished unpacking the explosives and setting them up around the apartment’s interior.

“That will create one hell of a bang,” BURT observed and seized control of yet another camera.

He watched them finish what they were doing and leave, then used the surveillance system to follow them by jumping from camera to camera and trying to lock them out of each one as they passed. Twice, he had to steal a camera back and a few times, he had to kill a program trying to trace the source of his control.

“I want to know who you are,” BURT told whoever was behind the trace, “but right now, I need to know where your lackeys are going. I’ll deal with you later.”

In reality, he could probably initiate his own trace while tracking the minions, but he was fairly sure that would put a spike in the system that would alert the system engineers and he wasn’t ready for that yet. Instead, he diverted the next tracer into a virtual training program for Naval hackers and let them chase it.

“That should keep you busy for a while.”


Chapter Six

“Sweet-cheeked, butt-sucking monkey dick,” the rental car’s AI said. “Fine two hundred and forty credits.”

“Shove your rules book up your pixilated ass,” Elizabeth told it. She contemplated shooting the speaker in this vehicle but wanted her deposit back and decided against it.

“Road rage. Two hundred and ninety credits. Ma’am, I should warn you that you are in danger of being listed as a repeat offender and your license tagged as high risk for car rental.”

“Well, fuck a duck,” she retorted scornfully. “That would be the second one today.”

She yanked the steering column hard to the right, thrust it forward, and pulled the sky car out of the barrel roll she’d thrown it into. Somewhere, a rental agent was no doubt having hysterics and Mrs. Burton would be blacklisted for life.

“Ma’am, are you confessing to possessing two driver’s licenses?” the AI asked.

“No,” Elizabeth told it. “No, I am not.”

“That is good,” the AI replied. “Possession of more than one driving identity is a Federation felony carrying several years’ jail time, and I would be forced to return to the rental garage until authorities could collect you.”

She made a note to wipe the car’s memory if she had the time and also the rental company’s voice records. “No need. This is my only driving identity.”

That I’m willing to own up to, she added—silently and to herself, where the AI could not hear her. She could always tell a lawyer she’d meant to add that out loud but had been too busy trying not to have her ass shot.

It made her wonder what kind of consideration avoiding two cars’ worth of assassins would bring her or if that would only find her facing additional charges of reckless endangerment since she’d continued on the skyway once she’d noticed the danger existed.

The driver ahead of her must have looked in his rear-view mirror because he swerved out of her path. Unfortunately, he must have kept his eyes on the mirror and swerved into the car beside him, shoved it into the car one lane over, and the three of them hit their horns.

Elizabeth pulled the rental up and over the wreck.

“Changing lanes in a dangerous fashion,” the AI continued.

“Three hundred credits,” Ms E chorused with it, “I know,” and changed another two times.

“Leaving the site of an accident, seven hundred and fifty credits.”

A few seconds later, she spoke in unison with it again. “Illegal entry into a skyway, nine hundred and fifty credits. I fucking know, you garbage-stuffing Dreth pirate’s backside!”

“Road rage, two hundred and ninety credits,” the AI informed her and this time, she did pull the blaster out of her bag and shoot the speaker.

Willful damage to property. Illegal possession of a firearm. You have been banned from car rental, scrolled across the windscreen in bright red letters. Please return your vehicle to the nearest agency depot. A felony charge is pending.

“You have to be fucking kidding me,” she shouted and more words scrolled in response.

We have been issued a ticket for road rage.

“Two hundred and ninety credits!” Elizabeth shouted as she caught a glimpse of the car that had just descended in front of her own.

It flew backward, nose to nose with her, and the covers raised slowly to reveal two concealed gun ports.

“Oh. Fuck. Me.” she yelled, pushed the column to the left, and dove while she rolled the underside of the car up.

“Are you there yet?” BURT asked.

Ms E checked. “Almost.”

“Very good. I will be waiting.”

“Uh huh.”

Bullets rattled on the underside of the car before she dropped and was able to curve under her attacker. She called out the number for the team.

Making a private call whilst in control of a vehicle, instant suspension of license. Please return your vehicle to the nearest agency depot.

Elizabeth ignored it.

One of the team answered the call. “Hello?”

“Lars?” she asked as more red letters scrolled in front of her.

Illegal exit from a skyway, seven hundred and fifty credits.

“Ms E? Is that you?”

“No, it’s Father Fucking Christmas. Of course it’s me. Who else calls you on this number?”

Bullets rattled along the side of the car and she spun the rental in a fast one-eighty and went vertical before she looped and accelerated. This time, she abandoned the skyway altogether. There was only one way to get rid of these fuckers.

To her right, a driver panicked and swerved into a building.

Ouch! That will be expensive.

Right on cue, the AI confirmed it.

We have received a ticket for causing a serious traffic incident.

“What? It was only one car,” she protested.

“What?” Lars asked at the same moment that Elizabeth saw the car’s occupant eject from the vehicle. “Ms E, are you in a fight?”

She relaxed as the chute opened and tried to ignore the fireball as the car plummeted toward a city park. Dear God, she hoped people were looking up.

“Merely a traffic scuffle,” she replied. “Nothing to worry about.”

Please remain at your current location. Traffic authorities are en route to assist you.

And who knew AIs could be programmed to lie like that?

“Look,” she snapped and changed the subject before anything else could happen. “I need you guys to be on your toes tonight. Keep an extra close eye on our girl, okay?”

“Roger that.” He paused and Elizabeth swerved around a particularly slow-moving carry truck. Horns honked in protest, and one of her pursuers slammed into the back of her car.

“What was that?”

“The traffic’s a little thick, today,” she told him, angled the rental toward her new companion, and aimed the blaster out the window.

The other driver panicked and slid away, and metal screamed in his wake.

“This…uh, thick traffic,” Lars said. “It wouldn’t have anything to do with your warning, would it?”

“Perhaps,” she admitted, then murmured. “Man, these guys have some hideous levels of skill.”

“I beg your pardon?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Ms E replied, her gaze on a counter she’d stuck to the dash. It climbed closer to the one hundred percent marker but kept hanging or dropping back. “Damnit.”

“Maybe you need your own protection team,” Lars suggested. ‘You know, to keep you out of trouble.”

“I don’t know,” she murmured as the counter ticked up over eighty-nine.

“I’m serious, Ms E. We might need to increase the security team.”

“You’re always trying to increase your budget,” she teased, jerked the car up, and accelerated into another twisting climb. This time, the bullets were lit with tracer rounds and some of them pounded into the traffic lane above.

She increased speed and chose a short cut across the city outskirts, steered the vehicle off the skyway, and watched as the gray car lifted out of the lanes behind her.

We have been issued with a ticket for leaving the skyway, the AI’s ticker-tape warned her. The penalty is fifteen hundred dollars, payable in Federation credits or coins.

“Damn, these guys are good.”

The counter reached ninety-seven percent, and she slid the car sideways and dove down toward the darkened trees of a small piece of woodland.

“Do you need me to find back up?” Lars asked.

Ms E glanced at the counter and saw the green line holding steady over one hundred percent.

“Not tonight. I’m good,” she told him, glad she’d remembered to stick her purse to the back window as the gray car settled in behind her.

Maybe her disguise as Mrs. Barton hadn’t been as good as she thought. She pressed the button on the counter and all the lights in the car behind her went out a second before it plunged into the forest behind her.

“I seriously hope that thing doesn’t start a fire,” she muttered as Lars continued his argument from a moment before.

“Are you sure?”

Ms E sighed. “Well, I thought—”

“What? That if someone does get to the inimitable Ms E you won’t be around to teach Stephanie any new tricks?” he suggested and sounded hopeful.

She checked the skies around her and let the silence stretch between them.

Finally, she answered. “Yes, something like that. Take care of our Stephanie, okay?”

“Got it. Lars out.”

“Elizabeth out.”

The comm link went dead and she released a long breath before she continued to the apartment.


Chapter Seven

They took the shuttle to one of the clubs on the other side of the city.

“We might as well make a night of it and this monster can fly us anywhere,” Lars explained as Avery and Brenden took their places in the cockpit.

“And park anywhere it darn well pleases, too,” Todd replied as he marveled at the sheer size of the transporter.

“Be nice,” Stephanie told him, took his arm, and dragged him into the seat beside her.

This earned her a hiss from the yellow-and-black cat, so she tapped it on the muzzle with her fingers.

“Uh uh, Bumblebee. This is Todd and I’ma gonna sit next to him if I like. You get to sit near me anytime else.”

The feline studied him as though trying to work out if it could get away with biting him, and she caught its attention by tapping it in the middle of the forehead. “I can see what you’re thinking, Bee, and don’t.”

With a long-suffering huff of air, the cat lay at her feet and twitched its tail. The black-and-white one lay beside it, gave it a conciliatory lick on the face, and regarded Todd with a long, unblinking stare.

“They wouldn’t really eat me, would they?” he asked and stared nervously at them.

The guys filed in and sat around and opposite them. Lars laughed when he saw the look on his face. “Don’t let them fool you,” he said. “They’re really only a couple of pussy cats.”

The rest of the team burst into laughter. Vishlog leaned down and used his knuckles to massage the animals’ foreheads. “Good kitties,” he told them, and they rubbed their heads against his hands, their tails twitching.

“I thought we were going to play nice, tonight,” Stephanie told them.

Frog snorted. “Come on, Steph. This is us. We are playing nice.”

Todd grinned. These guys reminded him of Navy guys, and the other man had a point.

The club was in full swing when they arrived and the entry line stretched out the door and down the block. The boys dropped Stephanie and Todd, Vishlog, Lars, Marcus, Frog, and Johnny outside the door and went to find a place to park.

They left the cats in the car. “It’ll be a nice surprise if anyone decides they want to take a look inside,” Lars explained.

Todd nodded and frowned at the line. “It’ll be dawn by the time we get in.”

Steph laughed and thumped him on the shoulder. “You’re forgetting who you’re with,” she told him and headed confidently to the door.

He caught the filthy looks they received from those in the line and the envious ones, too, and didn’t blame them at all. Stephanie was dressed to kill in a short-skirted number with a black lace back and knee-high boots.

She wore no heels, though. It was like the girl expected trouble, but he wouldn’t complain. He assumed she could dance all night in those she wore and he wouldn’t feel guilty about treading on her toes.

With her arm tucked through his and Vishlog on her other side, Stephanie approached the door. Lars led the way, withdrew several passes from his pocket, and showed them to the guard.

The man glanced at the documents and waved them inside.

“Typical,” someone in the front line murmured. “Use your pet Dreth to get in.”

“I bet he makes her feel real safe,” another muttered.

“Aw, be nice, guys. It’s the only way they’ll let him in.”

“They shouldn’t let him in at all,” a third grumbled. “They actually shouldn’t even let him on the planet.”

Stephanie’s grasp tightened on Todd’s arm and Lars glanced back anxiously.

“Right this way, ma’am,” the guard told them and concern colored his tone.

At his words, she moved forward but one look at her face told her friend all he needed to know. She wasn’t happy. The grip on his arm was like iron, and he was relieved when they made it through the door.

“I’m sorry, Vishlog.” She patted the Dreth’s arm.

“They are like that everywhere. You get used to it.” He shrugged.

“You shouldn’t have to.”

He looked at her and grinned. “Why would I care? They have to stand in line for another hour or three and I am in here.”

Around them, the guys mirrored his grin and Frog slapped him on the shoulder.

“The big man has a point.” He laughed and surveyed the dance floor. “Now, are we gonna dance, or what?”

Todd looked at Lars and noticed how the guard’s gaze already roved the club’s interior. It moved from the galleries made difficult to see by the strobing neons and spinning ball above the dancers, to the dimly lit booths and tables and the shadowed areas around the bar.

“Let’s find a table.”

They threaded their way through the dancers and finally located a large enough table for the team. It overlooked the dance floor, and Todd settled beside Stephanie while the music boomed around them. Vishlog lounged against the wall and staked a claim on the remaining seats with his presence.

The rest of the team headed to the bar and returned with Avery, Brendan, and a trayful of drinks. Stephanie smiled as she accepted hers and sipped it, her eyes on the dancers. Her friend glanced at her and then at the dance floor and took a large swallow from his glass.

This wasn’t the first time he’d been at a dance with Stephanie, but it was definitely the first time he’d been at a dance with her as his date—his date! A cold weight settled in his stomach and he pasted a smile on.

Crap. Last time he’d looked, she didn’t know how to dance.

She didn’t even like it.

But the club had been her idea.

He took another mouthful from his glass and regarded the dance floor.

“So, who’s up for a dance?” Frog asked.

Johnny came around the table and extended his hand to Stephanie. “May I?”

She hesitated, cast a brief glance at Todd, then flashed the other man a wide smile. “I would love to,” she replied and took his hand.

Todd watched her go and faked a smile and waved when she looked back.

“Well, that went well,” he muttered and lifted his glass again.

Frog clapped him on the shoulder and bounced after Steph and Johnny. “Better luck next time, Todd.”

“Yeah... Thanks, Frog,” he murmured as the man bounded over to Steph and Johnny and slid between them, grabbed her hand on the way past, and twirled her as he made her duo with Johnny a trio.

Todd watched as they grooved to the beat, surprised at the way she seemed to be enjoying herself—and the fact that she really could dance. Maybe when she came back...

He lifted his glass and took a sip, smiled when she glanced at him, and watched as she mirror-danced with Frog. When she turned to Johnny, he took a sip of his beer, so engrossed with watching her that he didn’t notice Lars and Marcus arrive until they sat beside him.

Marcus laid an arm around the back of his chair and drank. Lars set one elbow on the table and put his glass down. Todd glanced briefly at them but turned his attention to where Stephanie challenged Frog to another round.

She put her hands behind her head and strutted around the man, then sent another glance at Todd before she circled Johnny.

Lars smirked as he watched them, and Todd sighed. “What do I do about that?” he murmured and Marcus turned to face him.

“Are you really so blind,” he began, “that you can’t tell she’d rather be dancing with you than her two security guards?”

The other man shifted to face him, too, and jerked his thumb at the dance floor. “Women like that,” he added, “have a ton of attention. You have to join in.”

“But, guys,” he protested. “I’m only a high school friend. She’s the Witch of the Federation. I’m the nobody who joined the Navy and had my ass shot off, and she has tv shows about her.” He took another sip and stared morosely at the dance floor. “Hell, did you know that in high school she even set me up with one of the cheerleaders for Prom? That doesn’t exactly yell, ‘Please date me,’ now does it?”

Marcus snorted and made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “High school girls are silly, emotional, illogical, and full of hormones,” he began, and Lars looked at him.

“And this changes when they grow older how?”

“Don’t you let Ms E hear you say that.”

“She’s not normal.”

Todd let the exchange drift past him and watched as Stephanie danced back to back with Frog, while Johnny looked on. When the blond guard threw his hands up and danced in to draw her away, Lars realized he wasn’t listening.

“Focus,” he snapped and tapped his teammate on the arm.

Marcus glanced at him, glanced at Stephanie, and continued.

“So, Stephanie,” he said as Todd took another large swallow, this time from the glass Lars had switched for his almost empty one. “Stephanie didn’t have much confidence in relationships when we came along.”

He frowned, not sure he liked where this was going, but the other man was oblivious.

“I can imagine she made some altruistic decision to do something for the fate of mankind and didn’t look twice at her personal sacrifice,” he continued, and Todd nodded, his gaze drawn back to the dancers.

“And now,” Marcus explained, “she wants to be near you so much that she’s paid close to an annual salary to come to a club that’s nowhere near home. We did not have to come this far to go to a club.”

“Plus,” Lars added, “you need to think that if this is the last time you get to see her for a while, do you really want to wonder what could have been?” His gaze drifted to the dance floor but his eyes looked back to somewhere in his past. “Trust me. You never stop wondering what if.”

Todd set his glass down. “I got shot on my first deployment. That’s not exactly hero material.”

“She leveled a town for you,” Marcus told him and his face was perfectly serious when he stared at him. “If that doesn’t say some form of love, I don’t know what does.”

He looked at the dance floor and swallowed hard. “I’d almost rather go on a mission.”

“Pain isn’t the same as taking a bullet or two,” Lars told him. “Now, drink a little more courage and go find out if you have a chance—or at least try hard enough to make sure you never wonder.”

His expression one of trepidation, he looked at his drink and lifted it again. This time, he was conscious of the extra empty glass.

“It’s Stephanie,” he told them and a small sip. “I can’t slur my words.”

After a second, larger sip, he swallowed and set the glass down, put his hands on the table, and tried to work out a way to get out of his seat. Marcus took his arm from around Todd’s shoulders and two large hands seized him from behind.

He was dragged out of his seat and lifted over Lars.

“I will get you to her,” Vishlog said in heavy Dreth tones and set him on his feet.

The dance floor had never seemed so far away and he hadn’t realized exactly how crowded the club had become.

Vishlog was like a magic spell. The big guard settled his arm across his shoulders, curled his hand unobtrusively under his arm on the opposite side, and acted as both a guide and a support. People stepped aside as soon as he loomed over them.

Well, most people stepped aside. Todd noticed three big guys stand from their table and begin to force their own path toward them.

He and the Dreth made it down the stairs and almost to the dance floor when the guys reached them. One was as tall as Todd but the other two were much larger.

“Hey, rock-snot. Who let you in here?” the biggest one asked and Todd rolled his eyes.

“Really? Rock-snot? That’s the best you’ve got?”

The next tallest one used his fingertips to poke him in the chest. “No one asked you, little man. Our business is with the space trash.”

“Ooh, space trash. Yeah, that’s real creative. Why don’t you give it up and try to find yourself half a brain?”

In the nearby crowd, someone snickered, and the three of them slid their gazes away from Vishlog. Todd shrugged free of the Dreth’s arm and was pleased to find he could stand on his own. He poked the second tallest guy in the chest.

“Or maybe this is your weird-ass way of asking a Dreth to dance. You never know. If you’re real nice, he might even take you home.”

Todd ignored Vishlog’s sudden intake of breath and prodded the guy again.

“Or you can dance with me. Everyone tells me I’m not picky enough, but hell, you look like you could bust a move or two.”

And speaking of busting a move... His gaze drifted past the guy he was baiting to where Stephanie danced and he felt a stab of annoyance. If these clowns didn’t move out of his way, he might miss his chance entirely.

And he’d only barely found the courage to take it.

He shoved the guy again, this time a little harder than he’d intended.

“What do you say, sweetheart? Do you care to dance with the Toddster?”

Beyond the harasser, Stephanie continued to dance. She moved slower and listened to something Frog was saying. It made Todd green with envy but she danced on, apparently oblivious.

“So,” Frog told her. “You have to cut yourself some slack. It’s all very well to bust a gut saving the universe and everything, but you need to stop and smell the flowers, too.”

Johnny laughed. “Todd is not a flower.”

She joined in. “And I won’t smell him, either.”

The other man’s eyebrows raised but he didn’t pursue it. He scowled. “What I’m trying to say is that you need to live a little. Take a moment while you’re saving the universe to do something for yourself.”

As he spoke, another guy tried to cut in and Frog slid effortlessly in front of him to boogaloo him backward into the crowd. Johnny executed a fast turn and did a Fred Astaire sidestep to block another would-be dance partner until they turned away in disgust. By the time he was done, Frog had returned to dance with her.

And she wasn’t the only target. A pretty brunette sashayed her way over to Johnny and laid her hand on his shoulder in an attempt to make him turn to face her. He glanced at her as he slid out from under her hand.

“Sorry,” he told her and winked as he spun and joined Frog’s dance with Stephanie.

Another girl saw an opening in the triangle they’d formed and came between Stephanie and Frog. He gave her a bright smile and a cheeky wink, turned his back to her, and danced with Johnny as he wagged his ass in the newcomer’s direction.

Even she laughed at that and accepted another guy’s offer and let him return to dancing with Stephanie. After a few more attempts, another girl tried a more direct approach.

She wove around Frog’s attempt at interference and tapped Stephanie on the shoulder. “Hey, are you gonna choose one and get off the floor?”

“What?”

The girl jerked a thumb at the guys. “Choose one, already. The rest of us are tired of waiting.”

Stephanie frowned and did a provocative shimmy with Johnny. “Why would I choose only one?”

“You’re hogging all the game,” the girl shouted and several of the other male dancers rolled their eyes and made a few crude gestures of their own.

“You need to find yourself a date,” she retorted as the boys maneuvered between her and the girl.

“At least I don’t need to buy mine like some cheap trick in reverse.”

Frog cast Stephanie a worried glance but she simply gave the girl a wicked grin.

“Jealousy’s a bi—” she began but it was cut off by a familiar roar.

“I said no.”

The dancers froze but Stephanie, Johnny, and Frog pivoted toward the sound of Vishlog’s shout.

They were barely in time to see Todd drive his fist into the stomach of the guy in front of him and bring his other down on his back as he turned and punched one of those alongside in the ribs.

“The guy is crazy.” Frog broke into a run and shoved dancers out of his way.

“Listen to who’s talking,” Johnny sniped and remained beside Stephanie as she followed.

Todd, meanwhile, was determined to make sure Vishlog didn’t get into any trouble on his behalf. The big guy had refused to let the leader of the guys who had confronted them take Todd out the back, and it had looked like he would have to back that up with his fists.

He absolutely couldn’t allow that.

For one thing, he’d kinda escalated things faster than they would have anyway. For another, if Vishlog threw the first punch, the Dreth would end up in the brig, whereas he’d be allowed to slide if he joined the fight to protect Todd.

Yeah, that he would live with.

He couldn’t stop the fight, but he sure as shit could keep the big guy out of the can. Vishlog hadn’t deserved any of the names he’d been called and nor did he deserve to be accused of being a pirate, a traitor, or anything else, simply because of his race.

The warrior had guarded Stephanie when Todd had been away and protected her with his life. He was loyal and, from what he had seen, the kind of person you wanted to have at your back—and that was more than could be said for many humans. There was no way he deserved the treatment he’d been given.

Todd ducked under a return punch and hammered his opponent’s kidneys. He followed the punches with a knee to the guy’s groin and bounced that into the man’s face as he doubled over.

“Talk about kicking a guy when he’s down?” he asked and drove his shoe into the guy’s midriff. “That’s how it’s done.”

As he did so, Vishlog realized there was still one guy left. He looked up and met the man’s eyes as if they’d both only now noticed they’d stared at Todd instead of joining in.

The Dreth grinned, and the guy’s eyes widened. He didn’t even get his hands up in time to stop the warrior’s fist from meeting his face. Todd’s voice told him the fight didn’t end there, though. The first opponent had found his feet and delivered a blow between Todd’s shoulder blades.

He dropped to his knees and scrambled up to duck under the next punch and wipe the sweat off his top lip as he turned. “Oh no. No. No. No. No. No. No one punches the Toddster.”

Vishlog pivoted so he stood with his back to Todd and lashed out with his boot to bounce a newcomer to the fight over a table as he caught hold of a second. Humans! Who’d have thought they enjoyed fighting as much as the Dreth?

Todd punched the person who swung a chair toward the warrior’s head, caught the chair before it landed, and smacked it into the next guy who tried to land a blow on his partner.

“Oh, yeah!” Frog crowed and held a hand up for Johnny to high-five. “He’s one of us.”

“Hell yes, he is,” Stephanie agreed, and the three of them entered the rear of the melee.

Those who had come to dance remained on the dance floor, but others who’d come for the beer, the women, or anything else that might come up joined in. Most decided it was Team Dreth against Team Club and ranged themselves against the humans who supported the large warrior.

A few decided it was them against anyone and several more took their drinks to a quieter section of the club and leaned back to enjoy the show. After all, it wasn’t their asses that would be hauled off to jail.

As Todd moved to intercept another attack, Vishlog snatched a guy who had targeted his partner and hurled him over the nearest table. This didn’t stop the next one from trying, and the warrior picked him up by his shirt front and heaved him away as well.

A third tried to sidle around the fight, carrying a drink in either hand. He backed away when Vishlog reached in his direction and closed his eyes, but the Dreth simply lifted him over the fight, set him down, and turned to punch the next guy who tried to king-hit the smaller man.

Todd simply retaliated against everything and anyone who stepped in front of him. He might not be dancing with his girl, but these guys wouldn’t manage any dancing for months. Merely recalling the looks on their faces as they went for his friend and found him instead would have to be compensation enough.

He felled another opponent and caught a flash of movement coming from his left. With his left arm extended in a sweep to throw off their arm, he pivoted and looked for a target for his right fist.

His punch was already launched when he recognized the face he had aimed at.

“Stephanie!”

She grinned, caught his fist, swept it to one side, and turned so they stood back to back.

“Do you always cause this much trouble when you’re on a date?” she yelled and smacked Lars across the back of the head. “You’re blocking my line of sight.”

He took a step to the right and she lunged forward to pound her fist into another attacker at the same moment that Marcus tackled him to the side.

“Hey!” She didn’t protest for very long.

Two more attacked from the side the guard had left open, and she and Todd turned and attacked at the same time.

“Oh, yeah!” she cried and he laughed with her as they faced the next two. Together, they moved closer to Vishlog, eliminated another two hopefuls, and threw the chairs they’d wielded away from the fight.

They paused and searched for more adversaries when the wail of approaching sirens caught their ears. Todd didn’t let that stop him, though. He stepped into the path of the next guy who thought Vishlog made a good target. Instead of landing solidly, the blow fell short and he was lifted up and away from the fight.

He lashed out with a boot as he left and turned to deal with the new threat but Vishlog wrapped him in a firm grip and carried him out of range as the world blurred around them.

“What the—”

Stephanie hushed him. “We need to leave.”

She seemed to ignore the hand wrapped firmly around her arm as Lars kept her upright and guided her through the club. They made it through a side door held wide by one of the club guards and kept running, the streetlights and roads still blurred.

Marcus sprinted on Stephanie’s other side, his hand under her other arm, and Avery and Brenden had disappeared.

“They’ll meet us,” Frog told him when the Dreth set Todd on his feet and he began to run on his own.

Red and blue tinged the road behind them, and they made an abrupt left turn down a side street, slowed to a jog, and then to a walk when the strobing colors remained in the distance.

“That was close.” Stephanie laughed and breathed hard as she rested her hands on her knees. After a moment, she raised her head and scanned the team. “Okay, who’s hurt?”

Frog coughed and stepped forward. “It’s more a matter of who isn’t. Your boyfriend sure knows how to pick a fight.”

She stepped over to him and placed her hands on his shoulders. As a blue glow seeped out from her palms, washed over the guard, and vanished into him. As it disappeared, he gave a contented sigh.

“You’d better see to Marcus next,” Lars said, hauled the other man’s arm over his shoulder, and brought him to stand in front of her. “Someone had a bottle.”

From the looks of it, it had been a broken bottle and Marcus hadn’t noticed when it found a gap in the body armor. She healed him and gave him a gentle clip upside the head. “That’s for not telling me sooner.”

She turned to Lars and poked him in the chest. “And you should know better.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, but his gaze roved the street around them and the rest of the team spread out around them to cover all approaches. They even scanned the windows and fire escapes above.

Todd watched as Stephanie worked through her team. As soon as he’d been seen to, Lars stepped back and spoke into the team’s comms, and his gaze slid down the street. Avery and Brenden should bring the shuttle in soon, he assumed, and hoped they hadn’t been held up in the car park.

“Did you see the look on that guy’s face?” Frog laughed and Johnny chuckled. “I don’t think he’d ever seen a short guy with that much attitude.”

Todd smiled but jumped when a hand came to rest on his upper arm. Stephanie peered at him. “Are you hurt? That was some workout for a guy still in recovery.”

Until she said it, he hadn’t noticed. Now, however, he did.

“I think I took a few punches,” he admitted and she rolled her eyes.

“Truly? Yuh think?” She pulled on his arm. “Here, lean on the wall.”

He let her guide him over and she settled her palms on his shoulders. Blue gleamed between them and spread out and over him. The accompanying warmth soaked through anything that hurt and erased the pain in its path.

“Wow,” he managed when she raised her face to study him. “That’s... Thank you.”

Before he knew what she was doing, she’d stretched up on her toes and kissed him lightly on the cheek. “That’s for me being stupid in high school,” she told him. “I should have told you I liked you.”

“Oooh!” The soft chorus from the guys came as the shuttle descended from above.


Chapter Eight

As the shuttle touched down to pick up Stephanie and her team, Elizabeth nursed the rental vehicle into her driveway.

“Are you sure they’re gone?” she asked once she’d opened the comms to BURT.

“I watched them leave but lost them after a mile.”

She tutted. “You’re slipping.”

“I do not slip,” he informed her and gave a human-sounding sigh. “But even my resources have their limits. I ran out of coverage.”

“I appreciate you doing what you could, BURT,” she told him, yanked her tablet out of its holder, and brought up a screen with a single button displayed.

After one brisk tap on it, a small bar filled and turned into a solid line of green. “Nanos, away.”

“I have them,” BURT told her. “They are very responsive.”

Ms E headed to the door. “Tell me when they’re done.”

“Aren’t you going to wait?”

“You assured me you were fast,” she retorted and inserted her key into the lock.

“They will have your little welcome gift disarmed in five...four...three...two....and we’re done.”

He watched as she entered the apartment and surveyed the mess. “I truly am sorry I couldn’t track them further.”

Elizabeth waved his apology away. “Don’t sweat it. You got further than I would have.” She held the tablet up. “Patch me what you have.”

“And…done.” BURT sent the relevant takes and waited while she watched the would-be assassins finish priming their bomb and depart.

“At least we know they didn’t dick around with anything else.” She turned on the spot to survey the apartment. “Now, let’s see what we have here.”

It didn’t take her long to verify that the bomb’s components could be disposed of and she knew the perfect people to do it. “I have to find a few people and a team to watch over my doppelganger. Given that she’s gone and found a beach somewhere, I’d better make them the deadliest cabana boys to ever set foot on sand.”

She moved through the apartment and sighed as she looked at the furnishings. “I’m gonna miss this place.”

“I could have it cleared and moved,” BURT offered but she shook her head.

“No, this has to look real.”

She picked up a small block of crystal. Encased inside it was a single delicate fern frond. Before BURT could get a good look at it, she tucked it into her purse.

“Never you mind,” she told him as though sensing his curiosity.

“I wasn’t going to—”

Elizabeth headed to the stairs leading to her bedroom and en-suite.

“You were thinking it,” she argued and strode to the walk-in closet that held her clothes.

She trailed her hand along the lines of hanging fabric as she passed and gave a heavy sigh. This time, BURT refrained from offering to replace the outfits. He’d seen her pick up the crystal block and assumed she’d take anything special with her.

Sure enough, her gaze settled on a blue-and-green fall of silk and she sighed again.

“Not one word,” she muttered, and he knew she was referring to him. He observed her lift the silk creation and encase it in a clothing bag that she rolled carefully and carried out to the balcony.

Elizabeth tossed it over the edge and into the front garden before she returned to the closet and this time, moved directly to the back and knelt a foot away from the wall. With a few deft hand movements, she uncovered a panel set into the floor and opened the compartment beneath.

The duffel she dragged out caught BURT by surprise. “Are all those legal?”

Ms E smirked. “That depends on your point of view.”

She dragged the bag clear, checked its contents, and slung it over her shoulder. Once she had it settled, she left the closet, hesitated as she passed the balcony exit, and carried the bag downstairs to set it beside the dress in the garden.

Once that was done, she jogged upstairs again and opened the back of her dresser to retrieve a fistful of credit sticks from the compartment BURT had never suspected was there. She stowed these in her tablet satchel.

From what he could see, not a single one of them had more than a hundred and fifty credits value.

“Why do you care?” he asked and she stopped in the middle of sealing the compartment again.

“Care about what?”

“The credit sticks,” he replied. “They don’t seem worth rescuing.”

“Untraceable goes a long way, BURT,” she told him and patted the satchel. “Besides, I worked hard for this credit. I’ll need it for my moving violations when they finally figure out which persona to blame.”

“And will they do their jail time, too?” he wondered.

She shot him a filthy look. “I never said they would work it out fast.” BURT, however, caught what she wasn’t saying.

“Or that all the infringements would be there when they did,” he finished, and she smirked.

“Let’s not go there, BURT. You’re probably better off not knowing.”

“What if I’m curious?”

“Curiosity kills more than cats, BURT.”

“I am not a cat. Knowing what you do cannot hurt me.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” she told him and dragged a suitcase out from under the bed. This one appeared to be empty until she withdrew a few detonators from inside the lining.

After that, she wandered the apartment, took some of the explosive material from the bomb, and filled the suitcase with it. “I gotta make this look like a bad result when I come out alive.”

She hauled the suitcase to the balcony, looked down, then moved along the short hall to the guest room. This one didn’t have a balcony but it did have a window overlooking the rental car parked in the driveway.

“Are you sure you can doctor the video?”

“Of course. I could even make a fake video that looked totally real so you didn’t have to do this.”

Ms E pursed her lips and turned back to the window.

“Some things require a little truth to them,” she muttered, crossed the room, and set the explosive up. “Do you have the rest?”

“I have the nanos standing by to reactivate it.”

Elizabeth lined the window up. “Good,” she told him and immediately sprinted toward the window. “Don’t blow it early.”

“As if I would,” BURT told her as she pulled her pistol and fired to shatter the glass in front of her.

“Now!” she shouted as she leapt through the gap and twisted so her back landed on the car roof first. Above her and in front of her, the explosives detonated.

Glass exploded out of the other windows and fire erupted inside the apartment. Ms E rolled off the car and landed on all fours on the ground.

“Oww,” she moaned. “I am way too old for this shit.”

She raised her head and wheezed slightly while she scanned the area to see if the assassins had left someone behind to report the results of their little attempt. She could really do without discovering she’d missed one when he walked up to her and put a round through her head.

That wouldn’t do at all. When her scrutiny confirmed that the coast was clear, she exhaled a long, slow breath. “I’m getting shirtless guys with palm fronds for the weekend.”

“I thought you were going to get bodyguards,” BURT commented.

“That’s Monday,” she told him, stood, and strode to where she’d left the dress and the bag. “The weekend’s going to be for momma.”

Ms E grunted as she settled the weight of the bag over her back and slung the dress over the top of that. “Do you wanta call me a cab and get them to pick me up two blocks down?”

“I can do that,” BURT told her. “Are you sure you don’t want me to send Stephanie and the team?”

“Oh, hell, no. Those guys are curious enough as it is.”

“All of them?” he asked. He hadn’t been aware of more than one call between them.

“Okay, Lars is too curious and way too smart for his own good.”

“But he was the one who suggested you get a security team for yourself,” he protested.

“Exactly,” she agreed. “Like I said, the boy’s way too smart for his own good.”

Witch Of The Federation III

As the cab dropped her off at her back-up apartment, a small group of men gathered around a distant table, each with a laptop open in front of them.

“It was a near miss,” one of the men said and shoved his dark hair out of his eyes. “The team screwed up the explosives and blew her out a window, hurting but not killing her. She’s gone to ground.”

“And the attempt on the witch?”

“She wasn’t in town. It seems she went to visit a friend.”

“What about putting a team on the friend?”

At this, one of the other men raised his head. Hawk-eyed and partly balding, his narrow face was full of disapproval at the suggestion. “No.”

The other two stared at him. “But why?”

“She leveled a town for this friend. I don’t want her so enraged that she levels another looking for us.”

His companion with the dark hair fixed him with a steady stare. “We have to be ready to sacrifice.”

He met his stare and raised an eyebrow. “Then you just volunteered. We have established I’m here for personal reasons, not altruism or any of that other shit, and I intend to be alive at the end of this.”

“Fine. Have it your way. Let’s focus on the witch. I’d rather keep things direct, anyway.” He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers in front of his chest.

The third man spoke again. “I’d rather gather more information before we plan another strike. There’s nothing worse than putting a team in place and then having a no-show. Let’s make sure she’s there next time.”

The other two men exchanged glances before they nodded and came to a silent consensus.

“Fine,” the hawk-eyed man agreed. “Let’s do that. When do you want to meet to plan the next strike?”

“How much time do we have?”

“We can let the smear campaign build. The minister tells me it’s going nicely and our big green friends tell me they’re almost ready. We can leave the planning for a week of observation, take a day for analysis, and then a day for planning.”

“So, eight days from now?”

“For an attack to be executed three days later,” he confirmed and looked around the table. “What do you think?”

He looked from one to the other, meeting their eyes, and elicited a nod from each.

“It’s agreed then?” he asked and closed his laptop. “We’ll meet eight days from now at Site B. I can book a private room for lunch.”

“Lunch?”

“I can call it a business meeting, then, and no one will question why I’m not in the office.”

The dark-haired man sighed. “If your people believed in the cause, you wouldn’t need to find an excuse.”

“Yes, but my people would be very upset if they found out, and we all know why. Be grateful I follow the money and not what some would call a conscience.” He stowed the device in its case. “Now, if you gentlemen would excuse me, I need to attend to the rest of my day.”

They said nothing but rose and followed him to the door, taking different paths into the night.


Chapter Nine

Two days later, Todd and Stephanie held hands as they walked into the passenger terminal at Washington’s starport. It was the same port from which Stephanie and the team had left for Meligorn but now, it felt different.

For one thing, she wasn’t the one leaving, and it was hard to say goodbye when she didn’t know when she’d see him again—or if she ever would. She squeezed his hand, wanting to remember the feel of it in hers.

She really, really didn’t want to let go.

He’d slung his navy issue duffle over his shoulder and seemed perfectly content to keep holding her hand as he walked beside her. His mom and dad had said goodbye at their front gate, gaping at the shuttle and the team.

They’d smiled, though, when Stephanie had taken Todd’s hands and given him a swift peck on the cheek in greeting. Now she knew how they felt and why he talked nineteen to the dozen as they moved toward the passengers queued for boarding.

He glanced out the window at the tarmac and his jaw dropped.

“You put me on that?”

Stephanie frowned and elbowed him in the ribs when he came to a stop short of the line.

“Shut up. You know I have more money than I know what to do with. I chose to send you back on a very expensive and incredibly fast luxury liner so I could have another day with you.”

When she saw he still looked uncomfortable, she rolled her eyes. “Look, if it helps your ego, consider how much that one day was worth per hour, and then think of it as a gigolo fee.”

“So we got to walk in a park and skip rocks across a lake?” Todd asked, his eyes wide. “Are you kidding me? Seriously, if it cost that much for hand-holding how much would it be worth if w—”

“Don’t,” Lars snapped and rubbed the side of his hand across the bridge of his nose and covered his eyes. “Just... Don’t go there.”

“No, but you really should shift your ass and go there,” Frog interrupted and pointed to where the last of the passengers was preparing to step up to the flight attendant. “You don’t want them to leave without you.”

Todd started, turned to face Stephanie, and took her other hand. “Well, this is it,” he murmured and watched her mouth tighten.

She cast a quick look at where the attendant seemed to have realized that Todd was the person they were waiting for. The woman glanced impatiently toward them so she leaned up and kissed him quickly on the cheek and released his hands before she stepped back.

“Travel safe,” she told him.

He grinned. “Always,” he assured her and cocked an eyebrow. “So, who will you look like next time?”

The small fizz of blue that leapt between them delivered an unexpected shock.

“Ow... Wow. It doesn’t matter, okay?” He winced as more electricity flowed over her fingers and rubbed the spot she’d hit. “It really doesn’t. Any look will be beautiful.”

“You’d better get going,” she told him, her cheeks touched with a faint pink hue. “You don’t want them to leave without you.”

From the way she said it, he got the feeling she wouldn’t mind at all if he missed his flight, no matter what it had cost. The only problem was that the Navy would care and he’d be in trouble. With a reluctant sigh, he crossed to the attendant and was soon ushered through the entry and out of sight.

“Wait until he sees the real ship,” Johnny murmured. “That thing’s only the shuttle.”

Frog glanced at the blue power arcing over Stephanie’s hands. “That boy will get into more trouble with his mouth than anything else. I don’t think the aliens will need to kill him. He’s more likely to get Morganaed first.”

She had stared at the now closed shuttle entry but straightened at his words. “Well, speaking of Morgana,” she told them. “Living for myself was nice, but we now have a job to do.”

“Huh. Nice change of subject,” Marcus noted and stepped carefully out of reach.

Stephanie rolled her eyes and spun on her heel to head to their shuttle. “Nice. You guys are—”

“Amazing!” Brenden filled in.

“Awesome!” Avery told her.

“Fantastic,” Lars added.

“Incredibly attractive giving runway models a run for their money,” Frog quipped.

“The envy of every male on this planet and the next,” Vishlog declared.

“Wanted by every woman who sees us,” Johnny added, and she started to laugh.

“Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” Avery added.

“Superheroes!”

“Super desirable!”

“So very modest!” she shot back.

“And darned good at it,” Frog responded.

They were still laughing when they reached the shuttle where Bumblebee and Zeekat brushed around their legs, butting legs and hands until they received some attention. Bee looked at the seat beside Stephanie and then at the door Lars had closed.

Avery and Brenden took the shuttle up, and she patted the seat, her good humor fading.

“He’s not coming.”

Lars patted her on the shoulder as Bumblebee scrambled onto the seat beside her.

“It’s not forever.”

Witch Of The Federation III

Cindy Morgan took one last look around the house. Walking from one room to the next, she surveyed the boxes and thought it was like saying goodbye to an old friend. It had been her home for almost twenty years and seen her through both hard times and happy.

She was glad when Mark didn’t try to follow her but waited at the door. This was one thing she needed to do alone.

“They’re here,” he called, and she sighed.

Of course they were here. Like her daughter would ever forget. She descended the stairs one last time and leaned into his side while they watched the massive shuttle touch down in the street outside.

“She really likes her toys, doesn’t she?” Mark commented and looped his arm around her waist, and she had to smile.

“At least we’ll be nearby,” she told him.

“It was nice of Mr. Martelle to keep our people,” he continued, and she wondered how her husband would adjust to retirement. Her, too, if she’d only admit it. The cleaning business had been their lives for so long it was hard to remember a time without it.

They’d built it well, though, because Mr. Martelle had been unhappy when they said they planned to sell it.

“Let me buy it,” he’d responded when he’d accepted they were set on the idea. “Because I can’t get better service than what you’ve given me. I’ll pay you ten percent to consult from time to time, and I’ll get to keep the level of service I’ve become accustomed to.”

Of course, they’d taken the deal. It meant their people would be taken care of and that had been one less thing for them to worry about. The memory made her smile as Stephanie bounced up to greet them.

“So, are you ready?” she asked and looked as excited as Cindy had ever seen her.

“Sure, honey,” Mark assured her and held his arms out for a hug.

She laughed and hugged them both before she stepped back to look at them. “The movers will be here soon.”

Her father made a show of looking behind her. “So, what did you do with Todd today?”

“Mark!” His wife batted his shoulder and rolled her eyes at Stephanie. “Don’t pay him any attention.” Her eyes, though, said she wanted to know too.

“Really, you two.” She walked over and took a seat at the kitchen table. “Do you really want to know?”

“Did you really come to collect him for a date in your monster barge?” her father shot back, and her mom gave an exaggerated sigh.

“So, did you two have a nice night out?” she asked, and Stephanie laughed.

“We went dancing.” She assumed it was better not to tell them they’d been involved a brawl and snuck out before they’d been arrested. It was much safer to simply answer the initial question and keep them from being too curious.

“Seriously, though, I put him on a super-fast liner this morning so he wouldn’t be late for his next posting. The Navy takes that kind of thing seriously.”

“Oh, sweetheart, I’m sorry,” Cindy told her and looked sympathetic.

Mark reached over and patted her hand, his voice gruff. “He’ll be back before you know it.”

Not quite sure how to respond to that, she looked around the kitchen and her gaze settled on a small pile of boxes stacked in one corner. “Is that the stuff you want taken in the barge?”

Her mom gave her an almost sad look. “We don’t have many breakables, sweetheart. I’m sure the movers will be fine with the rest.”

“They won’t be far behind us,” she assured her and let her voice trail off as the doorbell rang.

She stood from the table. “That must be the movers,” she said and nudged the mic at her collar. “Avery, Vishlog, I have a couple of boxes we need to take out before the movers start work.”

They were at the back door before Mark had reached the front.

“Those,” Cindy told them and pointed to the small stack Stephanie had noticed, and the guys took the first of them outside. She continued to watch as they came back for the rest and then went in search of her husband and her daughter.

Stephanie watched as Mark took the movers through each room. She rolled her eyes and Cindy went to stand beside her. As he finally led the team leader over to them, Lars came through from the kitchen. “We’re ready to go when you are.”

She smiled at him and turned to her parents. “Why don’t you guys go ahead and buckle in? I’ll make sure they know where we’re going.”

“Sure thing, hon,” her dad said and waved to the moving guys as he left. Cindy walked with him, and Lars followed them through.

“If you’ll follow Marcus,” he informed them, “he’ll show you where to sit.”

Stephanie waited until her parents had gone and caught the leader’s attention. “Here’s the address for the storage unit,” she told him. “Let me know if you notice anything unusual while you load up or on your way over.”

“Sure thing, ma’am.” He glanced in the direction her parents had departed. “They have no idea, do they?”

She grinned at him. “It’s a surprise.”

Her smile was still in place when she climbed into the shuttle and buckled in beside her parents. The flight was surprisingly short, despite the distance traveled, and Avery and Brenden brought the shuttle in to land on the rooftop of a set of condominiums.

Although established gardens surrounded the complex, it was easy to see it was brand new and she guided them through the system that secured the rooftop landing pad. “Your home is this way,” she told them when they stepped out of the elevator and into a small lobby.

“This is Frederick and Natalia. They’re your go-to people for anything you need from repairmen to organizing the groceries. They’ve got it covered.”

The two middle-aged people behind the counter grinned and waved. “It’s lovely to meet you.”

They handed Cindy the keys and watched as she and Mark approached the door. They paused and her mom turned to Stephanie and held the keys out. “Are you sure?”

She held up her hands and backed away a step. “Oh no. This is your place. You do the honors.”

The couple exchanged glances before he slid his hand over Cindy’s and they put the key in the lock together. The guys had arranged themselves around the lobby but now, they stood close to the pair but waited to let them enter first.

Stephanie’s mom took two steps into the condo and stopped. “Oh...my...”

Stephanie poked her head through the door to watch as her mother took in the fully furnished entry and lounge beyond. Cindy looked back at her. “Come over here, you...”

Lars gave her a shove.

“This place is huge,” her father exclaimed as her mom wrapped her in a hug.

“You didn’t have to—”

Stephanie looked at her mom and felt the first twinge of uncertainty. “Is it okay?” she asked. “I can always—”

Cindy stepped through to the lounge and her gaze swept the living and dining spaces. Stephanie had been careful to furnish it as closely to her parents’ tastes as she could.

“Are you kidding?” she asked. “It’s perfect.”

Her voice caught, and her daughter felt a tightness form in her own throat. “There’s even a space for Dad through there.”

Mark perked up at the mention of that. “There is?” He cast her a suspicious look. “It had better not be a doghouse.”

That made her laugh. “It’s not,” she protested. “It’s a real guys’ room.”

“Guys’ room?” Frog asked and looked at Johnny. “Maybe we should inspect it first. You know...”

“Make sure it’s safe,” Johnny finished for him and headed after Mark. “Wait for us, Mr. Morgan.”

“Please, it’s Mark, and I— Oh, my...”

Cindy remained with Stephanie as he disappeared through the door, and she was surprised to find her mum was holding her hand. She didn’t know what to say next and then she heard Frog say, “You break, Mr...uh, Mark.”

That was followed by the sharp, distinctive crack of billiard balls.

“Nope, no assassins under the pool table,” Frog commented, and Avery wandered over to the door.

There was another crack, followed by, “Yet.”

Brenden joined Avery and peered through at the trio beyond.

“Seven in the corner pocket.”

Marcus approached the door and walked right through. Brenden and Avery followed him in, and Lars gave an exaggerated sigh.

“The rest of the place is clear,” he told them, “and someone has to make sure these guys don’t wreck the place.”

“Wait,” Marcus said. “There’s a fridge in here?”

“And a coffee maker.” Avery sounded like he’d just found heaven. “With real coffee.”

“Make mine black and sweet,” Mark called, and Cindy laughed.

“Trust him to come up with that one.”

“Wait until they find the—” Stephanie began, only to be interrupted by Brenden’s exclamation of, “Look at the size of that thing.”

“Well, I guess she didn’t want me needing my glasses all the time.”

“TV,” Stephanie clarified as the guys discovered the movie selection.

The two cats bounded past her and into the den as though curious to see what the fuss was about.

“You didn’t—” Cindy said and she shrugged.

“He didn’t have to love me as his real daughter,” she explained.

Her mom sniffed and she caught her dabbing at the corners of her eyes.

“You know I got you something, too,” she added quickly, her voice overly bright. “Do you want to see?”

The woman laughed. “Are you kidding? He’s outta my hair. That is my gift.”

Stephanie giggled. “Sure, but I thought you deserved a little more than that.”

She dragged her through another door and down to the master suite. Ignoring the huge bed with its accompanying nightstands, she opened one of the two doors on the other side of the room.

“Very nice!” Her mom smiled as she looked inside. “I’ve never had such a large closet, before.”

“That’s Dads,” she told her with a wink. She walked to a set of double doors on the opposite side. This is yours.”

She stepped to one side and let Cindy look inside.

“You have to be kidding me,” her mom whispered as she entered the room.

Overhead, a chandelier spun shards of light to every corner and clothes hung in orderly rows, followed by several rows of shoes. A trio of mirrors stood in one corner so someone could stand between them and see how they looked from every angle, and a small space for sitting and relaxing filled another corner.

Cindy stood perfectly still for a long moment before she moved very slowly to one of the comfortable chairs in the corner and sat. Her eyes glistened and Stephanie was mortified to see a tear slide down her cheek.

“Mom?” she asked, knelt beside her, and took one of her mother’s hands. “Are you okay?”

She nodded but tears continued to slide down her face, and Stephanie hugged her and held her until she drew back.

“I’m fine,” she managed, “but this...” She gestured vaguely with one hand.

Stephanie sighed. “I know you say you don’t need this but there is only one set of parents who raised the Witch of the Federation, and she loves you both.”

Cindy stood, hugged her daughter, and rested her head on her shoulder. They stood like that until they were interrupted by an inquiring mew at the door. Bumblebee and Zeekat lingered in the doorway, looking in.

When he saw he had their attention, Bumblebee tossed his head and stalked over to them. Her mother gave another sniff and wiped a tear from the corner of her eye to give the cat a stern look. “If you shed in my closet, I’ll have your very pretty hide as a new throw rug.”

Bee paused in mid-stride, tilted his head, and surveyed the area before he returned his gaze to the woman.

“I mean it.”

The cat gave a regal sniff and turned slowly to walk out. Zee greeted him with a head butt and the pair moved out of sight.

Cindy gave a short giggle. “That’s a smart cat.”


Chapter Ten

Ms E glared at the phone but it continued to ring. The number displayed was the Navy, and she glanced at the screen again and toyed with the idea of ignoring them.

“If it’s important enough, they’ll call back later,” she murmured and struck a few more keys.

The phone continued its demand and she sighed and took herself out of the program.

“It’s always something.”

She took a deep breath to collect herself before she answered.

“Yes?” she asked and wondered what it could be about. So far, there’d been nothing to indicate they would make another attempt to recruit Stephanie.

She put the call onscreen and studied the man on the other end. He looked like he’d seen a fair amount of service and like he still kept himself in shape. That was good, she thought. She liked that in a man.

The Naval liaison cleared his throat and she focused as he came straight to the point. “I know you said six weeks, but we need to follow up a lead here on Earth.”

“I’ve put them on leave,” she told him to play for time while she tested how urgent their problem really was.

His expression warred between anxious, disappointed, and apologetic. In the end, apologetically persistent won. “This is the kind of lead we need their specific...talents on.”

Elizabeth fought to keep her face professionally bland. “I thought you said it was a problem on Earth.”

“It is,” he hastened to assure her, “but I can’t go into details until I know you’re on board.”

She gave him a predatory smile and caught the slight flinch he tried to suppress. Experience also told her when he settled into negotiation mode.

“We’ll need the team on call and there’ll be some travel involved,” he stated.

“So you’re looking at stand-by fees and fuel, maintenance, wear and tear, and damage or loss clauses,” she told him, pulled up the relevant template, and made sure the right fields were filled in. “And that’s only to start with.”

“It’ll also involve some risk to your personnel,” he said and she rolled her eyes.

“Since when does it not?”

He blushed and she smiled. “Is there anything else?”

“Not that I can tell you without an official agreement to secrecy.”

“So...” Ms E began, ticking off the items on her fingers. “I’ll have to call her and the team off their vacation time, the job’s here on Earth where you have numerous assets—which means it’s political—which means you really need their abilities, and it’s urgent, or you wouldn’t call me inside the agreed timeframe for downtime.”

He swallowed but nodded. “That’s about right.”

“Well,” she responded and ran through the costs and clauses the contract needed, keeping a close eye on his face as she did so.

The man didn’t quite go pale and rallied to make a few counter-arguments, but they covered the relevant points and came to an agreement quickly enough that she knew he’d gone over the previous contract. He seemed to know exactly where her sticking points were and pushed as close to them as he could.

She found she had to work a little harder than she’d expected but it was better than the last time.

“So,” she said when they’d agreed and had both signed the relevant paperwork for discussions to proceed. “When do you need them?”

“The job will go live within the next week. It could be anytime.”

Ms E nodded. “They will be available.”

He quirked an eyebrow and smiled. “Has anyone told you they hate doing business with you?”

She caught the sparkle in his eye and smiled in return. “Many and often. I didn’t catch your name...” She scanned his uniform, looking for clues. “Commander...”

“Van Leeuwen,” he replied. “Matthias Van Leeuwen.”

“Thank you, Commander. It’s been a pleasure.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Ms E.”

“Flattery will get you...” She paused and raised an eyebrow. “Maybe a date.”

“I’d consider it.”

She pursed her lips. “Finger?”

His smile broadened and he held his hand up.

Elizabeth made a show of examining it. “Huh. No wedding ring.”

The man’s face turned serious. “I’m married to the job. Most ladies aren’t too fond of intermittent romance.”

“Hell.” She sighed. “That sounds like more often than never.”

Her comment hit home and his jaw dropped. “You, ma’am, are a poor liar.”

She shook her head. “Nope. I’m not lying.”

He gave her an assessing stare. “Okay, then. I’ll bite. How about sixteen hundred, Saturday?”

“Fourteen hundred,” she returned. “I have to be back by eighteen hundred.”

Van Leeuwen raised an eyebrow, and she smirked. “I have a contract.”

Fleeting regret crossed his face and he shook his head. “I screwed myself.”

She gave him a sympathetic look. “Married to the job, remember?”

“I know the feeling,” he replied. “How long?”

“Well, now you’re getting personal.” She arched an eyebrow. “How long has it been for you?”

He blushed and she snickered. “The job, Commander, the job.”

“How long with the Navy?” he asked and she nodded but made a note to look into his past. “Well...”

When he named a couple of postings, she saw why his romances had been intermittent. She reciprocated with some of her cover jobs that had a similar effect. By the time they hung up, they’d discovered a mutual enjoyment of steak and spices and agreed on somewhere for a late lunch.

“I’ll make the booking,” Elizabeth told him.

“And I’ll pick you up.”

She thought fast. “How about I meet you there?”

He frowned. “I don’t know...” he said. “I’ve seen your traffic record. You can’t duck out on me that easily.”

She laughed. “Fine. You can pick me up.”

Once she’d arranged to have him collect her from the One R&D offices, they hung up, both of them smiling.

As soon as the call had disconnected, Elizabeth typed a quick search into the computer.

“Commander Matthias Van Leeuwen,” she murmured. “You are most intriguing.”

When she had the program running, she looked toward the door and pressed the intercom. “Amy?”

The door cracked open and her newest hire stuck her head into the office. “Ma’am?”

“Please call Tracy and let’s introduce you to the team.”

She smiled. “Yes, ma’am.”

Elizabeth checked her search and noted that it had already found the publicly promulgated information and now rapidly narrowed the personal profiles to find the right ones. “BURT, are you—”

“Your security is important to me,” he replied. “I have tweaked your program and added a sub-routine.”

She didn’t know what to say to that but she frowned. “Don’t interfere with my personal life.”

He chuckled. “You don’t have a personal life, Elizabeth...being married to the job and all.”

She gaped at the computer but a knock at the door interrupted her, so she closed her mouth and scowled. “Don’t mess with me, BURT.”

“My dear Elizabeth,” he replied. “I would never dare.”

She snorted at that but turned to where the newest staff members waited. Both women wore business casual—slacks and jackets with tailored blouses and stylish but functional footwear. Neither were particularly tall but both were well-muscled and moved with the grace of tigers.

Amy was the slightly taller of the two with dark-brown hair and dark eyes. She was also a little stockier than her counterpart, who was a half-head shorter than Ms E and slender-framed. Her chestnut hair was caught up in a French plait and her brown eyes were alert and wary.

“Let’s go meet Stephanie and the boys,” Ms E told them.

The way they fell in beside her made her bristle and she quelled the feeling. She was used to doing the protecting, not being protected, but these girls knew their business and Lars was right. As much as she didn’t like it, she needed the extra security—and Stephanie needed her.

Stephanie, Frog, Johnny, Marcus, and Avery were involved in an animated game of poker, which rapidly devolved as the two cats swiped at the chips. Lars was cleaning his blaster and listened to a news broadcast, and Brenden was making coffee.

They all looked up as Ms E and her two guards walked in.

“Ms E!” Stephanie threw her cards down and came to greet her.

Elizabeth smiled. “How did your parents like the condo?”

The girl’s eyes lit up. “They loved it. I don’t think we’re gonna pry dad out of the den any time soon, and mom is enjoying the peace and quiet.”

The guys grinned. “She’s not the only one,” Frog quipped, and Stephanie shoved him. “Hey!”

The guys eyed the two bodyguards but Ms E ignored their looks.

“Did you enjoy your time off?” she asked, and they all made noises of agreement. Her face sobered. “Good, because it’s time to get down to business. I’ll see you in the conference room in five.”

She and the girls had reached the door when Bumblebee leapt onto the coffee table and scattered cards and chips in all direction. Glancing back, Ms E rolled her eyes and continued up the hall.

“Kids!” she muttered.

“Just because you were losing,” Marcus grumbled at Stephanie.

She looked at him in mock mortification. “They’re not that smart!”

Frog watched Zeekat swipe his cards from the table. “Do you want to make a bet?”

She pouted. “Oh, come on, Frog. Your hand wasn’t that good.”

Lars finished putting his blaster back together and holstered it. “Come on, guys. Grab your coffees. You know how she hates to be kept waiting.”

They reached the conference room a few minutes later and settled around the table. Frog closed the door behind them and looked over at where Ms E sat with Amy and Tracy alongside.

“So, Ms E,” he said. “Who are your new friends?”

Elizabeth met that with a tight smile and stood, and the two girls stood with her. “Meet Amy and Tracy. They’re the first members of my security team.”

Both women nodded and seated themselves beside her when she sat again.

There were murmurs of, “Nice to see,” and “About time,” from the guys, but Stephanie frowned. “Why do you need a security team, Ms E?”

“Well,” she began and filled them in on the assassination attempt.

“You should have called us,” the girl told her. Her frown deepened and Elizabeth frowned in return.

“I handled it. Now, I’m taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” she snapped.

She rolled her eyes. “I get that you wanted me to take a break, Ms E, and I really appreciate that, but next time—”

Elizabeth glared at Lars and he raised his hands. “Don’t look at me like that,” he told her. “I didn’t put her up to it.”

“Yeah,” Frog added. “You shoulda known keeping something like that from us would make us all unhappy.”

Faced with signs of open rebellion, Ms E pursed her lips and cleared her throat. “Be that as it may,” she told them. “I took Lars’s advice and have started hiring a second security team.”

She indicated Tracy and Amy. “These ladies are only the beginning.”

“Welcome,” Stephanie said, addressing the guards directly, and the guys followed her lead. The two women smiled but their eyes were wary.

“Good.” Ms E stood. “Now that’s out of the way, I’d also like my security team to be able to work with yours in case we need to switch them out.”

“Training room?” Frog asked and bounced up to open the door for them.

“Training room,” Elizabeth confirmed, and the team pushed to their feet. “We’ll meet you there.”

Stephanie followed her out but didn’t say anything until Lars came up beside her.

“You knew?” she demanded and Elizabeth knew the girl was still pissed.

Well, too bad, she thought. Steph had to learn there were some things momma kept to herself.

Tracy and Amy met the team in the training room a short while later. This time, the two female guards were dressed the same as the guys, save that their training gear wasn’t yet One R&D issue. That was still being made.

“I’ll be in the building,” Ms E told them, “so I’ll be secure, but you need to work with Stephanie and her team so you can integrate if we need you to. Get to know what they’re about and how they fight in the field, okay?”

She added the last as a question, but she wasn’t asking for permission or making a request. The women needed to work with the team or they wouldn’t be any good to them.

Amy and Tracy nodded and moved onto the mats to loosen up and stretch. Seeing the guys make room for them, Elizabeth headed to the door. She had work to do.

“Don’t break my bodyguards,” she called as she turned into the corridor. “I only just got them.”

Amy and Tracy exchanged glances and smirked. It was good the boss could joke with them, but really? They paired off with some of the guys for some light sparring before Stephanie called them all together so they could really get down to business.

Two hours later, she knocked on Elizabeth’s door, still sweating from the workout. Bumblebee and Zeekat came with her, settled at her feet, and licked their paws as she took a seat. “I think your guards thought you were joking.”

Elizabeth gave an exaggerated scowl and rolled her eyes. “If you broke them, you owe me two new bodyguards.”

She laughed. “No, but I think they have a better idea of what they’re getting into, now. A few more days training and they’ll be fine. I think the cats came as a surprise, though.”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “And the magic,” she teased. “I suppose they merely took that in stride.”

Stephanie smirked. “Not exactly, but they adapted fast. You chose a couple of good ones, there.”

“But?” she prodded because she realized there was one coming.

The girl smiled. “No buts, although Amy needs an allergy shot. There’s something about the cats...”

“She never mentioned being allergic to cats.”

“She was as surprised as the rest of us,” Stephanie told her. “Apparently, there’s something about these cats that really sets her off.”

“I’ll stick her in a pod and run a diagnostic,” Elizabeth decided. “I’m sure we can do something.”

Stephanie looked relieved. “Good. I like her,” she revealed. “She sat Frog on his ass in less than a minute.”

“Really?” Ms E pulled up the security feed. ‘Holy hell! Oh...oh, my, that’s funny.”

“Yeah.” She smirked. “She didn’t get away with it the second time around, but she got him in the third.”

They watched the feeds and Ms E was pleased with her choices. One on one, they could take Avery, Brendan, and Frog down in two out of three matches. Lars, Johnny, and Marcus they couldn’t, although Amy took Marcus down once and Tracy did the same for Johnny.

Lars had the advantage of watching them work and had been able to counter most of their tricks. They’d finished the session laughing, although both looked worried when they were told they had to take Vishlog on.

Neither of them had been able to beat the big Dreth, although the looks on their faces after each match said they intended to try.

“How’d they go against you?” Ms E murmured, but before she could find out, a call came through. She picked it up. “Yes?”

After a moment, she put the call on speakers.

“Welcome back, Stephanie,” Burt said. “I take it you had a good holiday?”

The sound of his voice made her smile. “Yes, thank you, Burt. And how are you?”

“I am very well, thank you. I thought I would take a moment to check in with you and Elizabeth and find out what your plans were regarding your research.”

“You must have ESP,” Stephanie told him. “I only got back today.”

He chuckled. “As much as I’d like to take credit for that,” he told her, “I have to admit that Ms E let me know she’d called you back.”

Her eyes widened and she looked at Elizabeth. “Later,” the woman mouthed.

“So,” Burt said. “What were you planning as your next step?”

“Oh. Well, I’ve been thinking about that alien we fought on the pirate ship—and that made me think about Nihilistic energy. The closest I can come to it is that it’s like anti-matter for magic.”

“That makes sense,” he confirmed. “Do you know if it is a form of energy you can use?”

Stephanie frowned. “I’m not sure. Thinking back to the fight, I don’t think I sensed his magic before he used it, so that would be the first thing I’d need to work out. I have to find it to be able to draw it, I think...and I don’t know what would happen if I simply tried to pull it in without knowing it’s there.”

“Please don’t do that without testing it in the Virtual World first,” Burt told her. “It’s so much better if you explode in there than in reality.”

Ms E gave a startled bark of laughter and Stephanie cleared her throat. “I’ll try to remember that, Burt.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that.” He paused. “Going back to the alien. Was there truly only one? And do you think that is normal for them, or do you think you’ll face more than one of them in the future?”

“Whoa. Hold up, Burt,” she protested. “Those are all good questions, but I haven’t really thought about it.”

“You should,” Ms E said. “If we’re going up against these things, we need to have an idea of what we’ll face.”

“It’s not like I have a crystal ball,” Stephanie huffed, and her mentor stared at her.

“Well, you should at least consider if the one you faced was one of the best of his race, or merely normal, or maybe even weak.”

“Oh, I doubt he was weak,” Stephanie told her. “If I had to guess, I would say he was probably one of the best because he acted as a liaison with pirates and they respect strength and power. He’d have had to have been strong to be assigned there...if he was.”

“Assigned,” Burt mused. “That’s an interesting concept. Have you thought about how to combat the energy flow if you can’t sense it?”

“That’s another good question to add to the list,” she told him. “Do you think you can set something up in the Virtual?”

“Give me a couple of days,” he told her. “I’ll see what can be done to reflect it. I still need time to go through your last round of research.”

“That’s okay,” she replied. “I have a few other things I want to try in the pod, and I still need time to think through what I experienced. Can we talk more about this tomorrow afternoon?”

“I’ll see what I can do by then.”

“Thank you.” Stephanie turned to Ms E. “So, can you tell me about these assassins?”

Elizabeth sighed. She should have known the girl wouldn’t let it go. “The security system caught them putting a bomb in my apartment and I went after them.”

The witch opened her mouth to protest and she held her hand up. “Because I’m used to dealing with my own problems,” she said in response to the question she thought she would ask, “and no, you may not ask why.”

She closed her mouth and frowned. After a moment’s consideration, she tried a different tack. “Did you stop them in time?”

“I reached the apartment after they’d left,” Ms E admitted, “but I called a friend on the way and we disarmed the bomb.”

“So how did Lars know?”

She was really asking why Lars knew and she didn’t, and they both knew it. Elizabeth answered it anyway.

“I called him on the way and he realized something was up, so I told him I was dealing with it and to keep an extra good eye on you.”

“But—”

“I also told him not to disturb your date, so he suggested I get a security team of my own to make sure I was kept equally as safe. Believe me, he offered to drag you all into it.”

Stephanie looked a little happier at the news, and Elizabeth had to wonder how much trouble Lars had been in until she’d learned what happened.

“I was gonna kick his ass,” the girl told her, “and he has orders for next time.”

“I’m a big girl, now.” She rolled her eyes.

“Uh huh.”

Ms E gave her companion a long hard look, which she returned without blinking. “I’m not your responsibility,” she told her and knew it was a mistake as soon as the words had left her mouth.

“You don’t really have a say in that,” Steph said bluntly. “You’re like a mother—or the mean older sister or the renegade auntie or something.”

She placed her finger against the girl’s lip. “I think that’s quite enough out of you,” she told her. “Now, tell me. Did anything unusual happen while you were out?”

“You mean did we have someone try to kill us?” she asked. “In that case, no. A couple of knuckleheads tried to start a fight at the club but that was over soon enough.”

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes and she made a note to do some recreational hacking later to find out what had really happened at the club and how much after-care would be required. Instead of saying anything, though, she nodded.

“I’ll do a check on the security here and see if there was anyone hanging around while you were away. Maybe someone wanted to try something and gave it up when you weren’t here.”

“That’s a good thing, right?” Stephanie asked.

Ms E shook her head. “Not if it means they’ll come back for another attempt,” she pointed out. “We need to know to be on the alert for it and maybe even take care of it before it happens.”

“So that’s why you need a security team!” Stephanie exclaimed, and she could have kicked herself.

“That is none of your business. Burt hired me for a very specific set of reasons.”

“Yeah? Well back then, I needed far more care than I do now. You might want to think about that. The team could use a little practice in the quiet spells.”

“I’ll consider it.” Much as she didn’t want to admit it, she could see the girl had a point.

Stephanie bounced excitedly in her seat.

“I said consider,” Ms E snapped, and her companion subsided with a sigh.

“Well, what about the ship, then?” she asked to change the subject, and Burt answered.

“The ship will be ready in six months. I cannot convince the shipyard to work any faster.”

“Where is it?” she asked, and he laughed.

“I will tell you another time. While I’m sure this line is secure, I still don’t want to risk having missed something.”

“Ugh. Okay then.” She groaned and moved to stand.

“There is one more thing,” Ms E began before Stephanie could rise.

She waited until the girl settled again and went on. “The Navy called and the team has a job. I told them I’d called you back from leave and billed them accordingly.”

Stephanie winced. She’d seen the woman’s idea of ‘accordingly.’ It stung like being run over by a train.

“It’s on Earth, so I assume it’s something politically sensitive and probably covert, so I want you to train with stealth and fast, silent missions in mind.”

She glanced at the two cats. “And you need to teach these two miscreants some kind of command that stops them from eating everything they go up against. We might need to have something to interrogate when the day is done.”

Stephanie lowered her hands to scratch the cats’ heads. “It’s okay, boys. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”

“Don’t you believe it,” Ms E told them. “If you eat someone who has the answers we need, you’ll find yourselves the subject of the next team barbecue. Got it?”

Both felines looked at Stephanie and she rubbed their heads. “We’ll work on something, Ms E. Won’t we, boys?”

They leaned against her legs and purred while each one gave Elizabeth an unblinking stare.

“I’ll let Lars know,” Stephanie reassured her and made a show of catching a whiff of herself. “Phew. I need to hit the showers. Thanks for seeing me.”

“Anytime,” she responded and waved her toward the door. “Only next time...”

Stephanie laughed. “What? Shower? I do not smell that bad.”

“No, you don’t. Now get out of here. I have work to do.”

She left, taking the cats with her, and looked forward to unpacking properly, getting clean, and using the pod, again. She’d seen so much on her trip back from Meligorn and her notes had grown since her departure.

It would be good to discover what she could and couldn’t do with what she’d learned.

“Hello, Stephanie,” her AI greeted her as she closed the door behind her.

Bumblebee looked at the ceiling and made a soft chirruping noise.

“And greetings to you, too, Bumblebee,” Sarah replied, “and you Zeekat. It is a pleasure to see your return.”

Both cats stalked past her and into the suite. Zeekat hopped onto the couch, but before Stephanie could protest, Sarah spoke again. “The shower is ready, although I can prepare a bath if you wish to soak after your workout.”

“No, thank you, Sarah. I have scheduled time in the pod this afternoon.”

“Will the cats remain here unsupervised?” If an AI could express disapproval, Sarah managed it.

She smiled. “Of course. They will need the warm forest afternoon sub-routine, I think.”

“I will arrange it,” the AI replied and sounded slightly mollified.

Warm forest afternoon was usually guaranteed to see both cats sleeping in dappled patches of sunshine provided by holographic lighting and pockets of heating. It was one of the quieter options she could choose to keep them entertained while she was in the pod, which reminded her of something.

“Sarah...”

“Yes, Stephanie?”

“Can you put in a request for pods for the cats for me?”

“Certainly, Stephanie.’

She made her way to the bathroom, unsurprised when neither cat followed her in. “Fraidy cats,” she taunted but they merely flicked their tails and ignored her. As she stripped out of her workout clothes, she heard the distinctive sounds of a Meligornian summer and sighed, wishing she was there.

Witch Of The Federation III

Worlds away from both Meligorn and Earth, two navy shuttles touched down. While they shunned the rudimentary starport a mile out of town and refrained from landing in the town square near the temporary transmitter, they both touched down outside the outpost walls.

One was armed and armored, and the other had devoted more space to supplies and technology. The heavily armored one opened first and twenty Marines jogged out to take up defensive positions around the landing position.

Only when they were in place did the second shuttle open. The men who disembarked from it were as different from the first as their shuttle. They wore only the lightest armor and escorted two self-flying flatbeds loaded with the components for another space link.

The Federation Navy was, for all intents and purposes, replacing the dish Morgana and her team had destroyed, but that didn’t mean they considered the colony a safe place to be.

This turned out to be wiser than they knew—or ever would, if the man who moved carefully across the rooftops overlooking the town square had anything to do with it. He stalked another man, one who had reached the edge of the roof in time to see the shuttles touch down.

With slow, deliberate movements, he unslung his rifle and sighted on the open gate leading into the town. He decided he could eliminate at least two before they realized he was there.

And if he was very quick, he could manage one more before they killed him. That would teach them to show their faces here again. Witch or no Witch, someone had to show them.

He took a slow breath in and released it while he allowed the crosshairs to settle on the first Naval technician to come through the gate. The assassin waited patiently. If he fired prematurely, the others would find cover too quickly for him to eliminate any more.

They guided the low-loader in. It was almost a shame to end them before they got the job done, but that didn’t matter. The lesson was all that mattered. When the low-loader cleared the gate and the technicians guided it across the square, he propped himself up on his elbows and took another breath.

Seconds later, he froze when he felt the muzzle of another rifle pressed firmly into the back of his skull.

“If you so much as breathe the wrong way, Wesley, I’ll end your life.”

That voice was familiar. He lowered the rifle and glanced carefully over his shoulder. “Walter?”

The muzzle lifted away so he could turn and face the man, taking the rifle with him. “You don’t understand.”

The look on Walter’s face said he understood all too well. His words confirmed it. “I do, and you’re about to do something insanely stupid. If you shoot even one, the Witch will be back.”

He curled his lip in disbelief. “She has better things to do—and you ain’t a killer.”

As he spoke, he jerked the rifle up but Walter was faster and more of a killer than he had thought. The first shot pounded into his chest and the second shattered his skull.

Aware that he’d drawn attention from the square below, Walter slung his rifle over his shoulder and stared at the body. “I might not be a killer, but I will protect this town from the likes of you. I didn’t do it the last time, and my family don’t need her to come back.”

He stooped, picked Wesley’s rifle up, and slung it over his shoulder with his own before he turned away. “I’ll let the Navy know to come and get your rebel ass. Help the enemy?” He snorted. “No wonder the Witch was pissed. You deserved worse than a quick death, Wesley.”


Chapter Eleven

On Earth, Stephanie stepped out of her clean clothes and slid into her personal pod. Seconds later, she had passed through the white room and stood beside a fountain set in the cobblestoned center of a courtyard garden.

“Do you like it?” Burt asked and stepped through a vine-entwined archway.

Stephanie looked around them and sat on one of the metal chairs arranged around a circular stone table. “It’s not what I expected.”

He looked at her. “What was?”

“I don’t know.” She gestured at the flowers and foliage around her. “But it wasn’t this.”

He shrugged and drew out the chair opposite her. “What did you have in mind for today?” he asked. “Seeing as I’m still going over your notes.”

“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “I’m still trying to decide. There have been so many new things to learn that I’m not sure where to start.”

“Well, how about telling me what you know about the Nihilism you met on the pirate ship, or perhaps the magic it wields,” Burt suggested.

Stephanie sat still and considered it for a few long moments before she nodded. “Let’s start with the magic, then.”

“Okay...” he prompted. “What is Nihilistic energy?”

She allowed a small smile to play along her lips. “So you’ve read some of my notes, then.”

He nodded. “Only some. Why don’t you start at the beginning?”

When she saw he wouldn’t say anything more, she took a deep breath. “Right. When I met the Morgana who helped defeat Hitler, she said Nihilistic Energy was the opposite of Creation Energy. I think you were the one who called it anti-matter, right?”

He nodded. “That is correct but tell me what the Morgana told you. Perhaps we can understand it better if we start at the beginning.”

Thinking about how far back the Morgana was in her past, she laughed. “I guess she’s as close to the beginning as we’ll ever get. What she told me was that Nihilistic Energy expands when the matter housing Creation Energy is killed or destroyed, but it doesn’t expand when vessels containing Creation Energy are only cracked or damaged.”

“I get that,” he said. “Do you remember if the Morgana had actually used the Nihilistic energy herself?”

Stephanie shook her head. “No, she said she didn’t use it but that there were some others who were not of Earth who were teaching those working for Hitler, and that they showed them death ceremonies that gave the wielder advanced abilities.”

“So we need to look for magicians who can wield Nihilistic energy...and they will probably be tied to murders—and ritualistic murders at that,” BURT mused, drawing some quick conclusions.

She nodded and her face clouded before she cast him an anxious look. “We need to find them before they get to that stage. And given the fact this liaison was traveling with Dreth pirates, the murders might not even be on Earth.”

“Very good,” he told her, and immediately expanded his search parameters to include both Dreth and Meligornian victims. Across the galaxy, sub-routines sprang to life, duplicating across even the remotest of his reiterations.

Technicians scrambled to investigate multiple spikes in usage across all servers and were left scratching their heads when they faded and server usage returned to normal. Satisfied that his programs would worm their way to where the information was stored, he returned his attention to Stephanie.

“...and that’s basically all she said,” she finished, and he hoped he hadn’t missed anything important. “After that, she wanted to know if the fight had been worth it and if they’d managed to defeat Hitler.”

He nodded. “Noted, and we have already made progress. We know to look for ritualistic murders to see if the aliens have started training magicians.”

“And to start scanning space for any new kinds of ships,” she added. “It’s not like they’ll come in something they borrowed from the Dreth or even the Meligornians, and seeing as they’re already here...”

BURT initiated additional inquiries.

“And we need to know how to find the power itself,” she went on. “I can’t use an energy that isn’t there, so if humans hundreds of years ago used Nihilistic Energy, it has to exist somewhere on Earth already.”

“And if the alien used it out where the pirates attacked the freighter, it must exist in space, as well.”

“Or the alien had some kind of battery to store it in.”

“And since that would be a concentrated form of the energy, perhaps it shows up as something in the electronic surveillance systems. I will see what I can organize to gain access to that data.”

“That’s good, Burt.”

He allowed himself a small smile. “It is. Now, let’s see what we can discover from what you remember of your encounter with the alien emissary.”

Her brow furrowed and she gripped the edge of the table.

“He was arrogant,” she began and stared at the tabletop rather than look at him., “and old. He kept calling me ‘young one.’” Her hands clenched. “He spoke of taking me as a prize.”

“What did he look like?” BURT’s voice was gentle as he diverted her from the anger and outrage he saw in her eyes.

“He... He didn’t look like anything. Under his armor, there was nothing to see. I could feel he was there but I couldn’t sense his magic. He was simply a big heap of...nothing—a nothing monster or one made of the dark.”

“And his magic?” he pressed to guide her forward past the fear rising in her voice.

“It felt like nothing. I told him he was vacuum and the opposite of Energy, and he said I had some knowledge but not enough. He said his people consumed and that they always did.”

She stared at him now but she didn’t actually see him. Looking at her carefully, BURT realized she was staring not at him but through him, her eyes fixed on the alien in her past.

“What did he mean by that?” she asked. “And if they always consume, what will they leave behind when they get here?”

“That’s a good question,” he told her. “I will have someone check into what happened during World War II. Perhaps there is something in the surviving histories. And I will ask my Meligornian and Dreth contacts to see if they have any particularly dark times in their histories that might suggest these creatures have been encountered before.”

“If they have, maybe they had their own Morganas, too,” Stephanie suggested. “And maybe some of them have descendants who survived.”

“Maybe,” BURT agreed, “but if they do, I do not see them emerging. I will look into that, too.”

She nodded, but her gaze was still distant as though she still thought about her encounter with Nihilism and it worried her.

That will not do, BURT mused and tried to prompt her to shift onto something she did have some control over.

“We need to find a way to sense the Nihilistic Energy.”

Stephanie frowned. “There was nothing to sense, though. But…I wonder if I could contact one of the older Morganas again.”

“How did you do it the last time?” he asked. “Given the Morganas are your ancestors and, I presume, all dead.”

“Funny you should mention that,” she told him. “I think the only time I’ve ever contacted one was after I’d powered the engines on the Meligorn Dreamer.”

“You almost died doing that,” he reminded her and she grinned.

“Exactly.” Her grin faded and she frowned. “Maybe that’s not such a good idea.”

“I would prefer it we found an alternative.”

She was silent for a while and clearly contemplated the idea a little longer.

“Yeah, me too.” She finally sighed. “So, I guess that leaves us trying to find all the answers on our own.”

“We could start by thinking of Nihilistic Energy as anti-matter,” BURT mused aloud.

“That’s one way to think of it,” Stephanie answered. “All I know is that when I was fighting him, it was like there was a big hole of energy absorption. It drained the energy right out of me, like…like a…I don’t know.” She shivered. “It was like it destroyed reality wherever it touched it.”

“And yet it existed inside it,” he replied. “Whereas if anti-matter touches matter, they explode.”

“Well, he didn’t do that,” she observed, “or maybe he did. It would explain why no one’s been able to find him yet. Who knows if magical energy performs the same way?”

“Let’s assume it does,” he told her. “What does it mean for what you want to do?”

Again, she stared at him but seemed to look at something else entirely. Watching her, BURT thought he understood the human saying, “you can almost see the wheels turn.” He pursued that idea a little longer.

The saying was old, made when things were run with cogs and wires. How would a human say that now?

She interrupted his musings. “When matter and anti-matter meet, they explode and release energy. So, let’s assume that when Nihilistic Energy and Creation Energy meet, they do the same thing. Hah!” Her face brightened for a moment. “Those aliens are really dumb, then, because the explosion isn’t destruction but creation because it creates energy—it doesn’t consume it.”

Her frown took hold as her mind considered the possibilities of this. “So, like a nuclear reactor collides particles to create power, we could use both kinds of magic to do the same...maybe. Or we could do something like they did in CERN.”

CERN? He ran a hurried search or two and found references to the Swiss institute’s research into matter and anti-matter, but she didn’t wait for him to catch up.

“Only they said it would take them one hundred million years and a shit-ton of cash to make one gram of anti-matter and that all the antimatter they’d made would only be enough to light an electric light bulb for a few minutes.”

“That’s disappointing,” he commented.

Stephanie pulled at her lower lip. “Except Nihilistic energy exists,” she said. “We know it exists because he had to pull it from somewhere—and because Hitler’s scientists had to get it from somewhere in order to learn how to use it.”

“Your ancestor did talk about death ceremonies,” BURT told her.

“Yes, but the alien didn’t have time for any kind of ceremony on the ship,” she replied, “so he had to draw it from around us, which means there was enough around us for him to use.”

“Or he had a battery,” he reminded her, but she ignored him.

“But not enough for it to react with the gMU and explode,” she continued thoughtfully. “Now, why not? And why couldn’t I see it? And does this mean there’s some here on Earth that’s not inside someone”

“Let’s assume there is,” BURT interrupted when he thought he could halt her mental sprint. “How would it work to make clean energy?”

“Well, you would need to have a way to bring the two types of energy together,” she murmured, pushed her chair back, and moved to an open space. “Burt, I need to be over a ley line for this.”

“A ley line?”

“Yup. Those are where the most energy is, so those are where we’re most likely to find all kinds of magic.” She paused. “Maybe?”

“It does seem logical,” he admitted. “Shall we?”

He twisted the reality around them and for a brief moment, she seemed to stand on nothing but air. Instinctively, she threw her arms out for balance and discovered she didn’t need to.

To her surprise, she discovered that Burt hadn’t put her right on the ley line but slightly to one side of it. She could see and feel the energy streaming past her.

“Your aim’s off, Burt.”

He frowned and floated slightly off to one side of her, farther from the ley line than she was.

“No, it’s not,” he told her. “I have located you precisely where I intended.”

“But it’s not where I intended,” she protested. “Why not?”

“I merely thought that putting you in the middle of a path for magical energy when you wish to find two forms of energy that explode might not be the best idea,” he told her, “but if you disagree—”

“No, no, no. That’s fine, Burt,” Stephanie told him. “It’s all good. I hadn’t thought of that.”

“And with your propensity for blowing things up...”

“Thanks, Burt. I get it now.”

Satisfied that she wouldn’t actually fall, she focused on how an engine worked. Car engines mixed fuel and air, compressed it, and lit it to create an explosion and the energy was used to power the vehicle. In nuclear engines, breaking the atoms released the energy as heat which was then used as power.

She assumed harnessing the energy would probably be the easy part and creating it would be the most difficult issue.

That, and containing the explosion, she thought but didn’t say it. What she wanted to do with magical energy was both the same and very different.

For one thing, when she focused the gMU into a usable form, she compressed it rather than broke it apart, but what she would do with Nihilistic energy would be a little of both. First, she had to combine the two and then she had to contain the explosion and store the energy it produced.

“No, that’s not right,” she murmured and shook her head decisively. “First, I have to find the nMU...”

“nMU?” BURT asked and waited for her to work it out.

“Sorry, that kinda slipped out,” she replied and shrugged. “At least it’s easier to say than Nihilistic.”

“I like it,” he said, adding the term to his database. “So, have you decided what to do yet?”

“Try not to blow up the world?” Stephanie quipped in response and sobered quickly. “First, I have to find the nMU.”

“Let’s assume you have that,” he suggested. “I’ll have it react like anti-matter to matter and we’ll experiment with it that way.”

“But what if it’s different?”

“Then we’ll adjust our experiments accordingly,” he said, “but if we don’t start with a basic idea, we’ll have no idea what we’re dealing with.”

“And that’s better than having the wrong idea?”

“When you have the premise, yes, and it’s certainly better than not starting at all.”

A strand of darkness wound its way through the wall of eMU in the ley line and caught her attention. It was more like a short ribbon, briefly there and gone in a flash of brilliance. She remembered reading that antimatter existed naturally but in tiny quantities compared to matter.

Maybe nMU was the same.

She thought about drawing it inside herself like she did with the gMU but remembered how it had felt during the battle and decided not to. Aside from the unpleasant memory, she didn’t want to explode, not even in the Virtual World.

“Next, we have to blend it,” she said and drew gMU from the ley line, even though Earth’s blue energy was more plentiful.

One kind of energy at a time, she told herself based on her assumption that if she could cause energy explosions with one kind, she might have something that could be used on every planet—although the same could be said for using gMU.

“Except that using gMU requires one extra step,” she muttered, drew the gMU in, and concentrated it in an internal vortex before she held it ready to release.

Next, she searched for nMU and this time, snatched one of the fleeting ribbons of darkness before it could explode. Cautiously, she eased it clear of the ley line and twisted it into a vortex of its own to create a miniature tornado directly ahead of her while she searched for more.

“Let’s try compression, first,” she called to Burt. “I need something like the cylinder in a car engine but without the spark plug. If we’re right, we won’t need one.”

Stephanie held the gMU ready to release from one hand and kept the nMU spinning while she sketched a vague outline in the air with her other hand. He filled the gaps in obligingly to create the cylinder and added two openings for the energy to flow through.

“Now, I simply need to add the energy...” She guided the nMU into one opening and a short stream of gMU into the other.

The concentrated gMU bounced into the chamber and ricocheted out the other side to collide with the nMU in its path.

“Uh—” That was as far as she got before the resulting explosion shattered the cylinder, impacted the ley line, and created a substantial crater in the ground below.

The shockwave also flipped her end over end through the ley line and out the other side. Using a small reserve of gMU to slow herself down and return to her original position, she looked at Burt.

“I think we need a containment chamber to store both energies in so we can release them into the chamber at the same time.”

He nodded and built a modified version of the cylinder, while she gathered what she hoped was enough nMU to try again.

“And we need to be able to control the amounts we release,” she added, so he altered the design once more.

“And a way to measure the energy output,” she amended not long after.

“Enough to power a light bulb for a few minutes,” she observed a few moments later when they’d added the smallest amounts of both energies into the chamber.

It was entertaining to watch the light bulb appear and light up at the end of the wires Burt had added to their virtual creation.

“Let’s try double that.”

This time, the energy released was far more than they expected, and emergency lightbulbs appeared one after the other in a long string.

“That was impressive,” he noted.

“We could try powering a car with it,” Stephanie suggested. “See how far it moved.”

The first car exploded.

The second ran well until the nMU ran out and it simply plummeted.

Stephanie frowned. “What if we get the engine to pull the nMU in from the ley line?”

“It would mean driving through the ley line itself.” Burt looked unhappy. “Are you sure you want to do that?”

“What harm could it do?”

He shrugged but he wouldn’t get into the passenger’s seat.

“I think it would be better if I observed from out here,” he told her.

“Suit yourself,” she replied, “but you’re missing out.”

This time, the flash of light extended over both horizons and she woke up in a hospital bed with Burt standing beside her.

“Are you all right?”

“Are you holding my ear?”

He looked at the offending body part and held up the needle and thread in his other hand. “I have a foot still to attach after this one.”

“You are such a smart ass.”

“Yes.” He grinned. “Yes, I think I am, but I had very good teachers.”

“I’m banning you from spending time alone with the boys,” she grumbled and his grin diminished to a smirk.

Stephanie wasn’t sure that was much better.

“As if you could,” he told her and she rolled her eyes.

“Just put me back together.”

“Very well.”

The world shuddered around her and she was instantly back in one piece and in the chair in the courtyard, a lime milkshake in front of her. “What’s that?”

“Virtual calories. An apology for my sense of humor.”

“It’s green.”

“It’s lime.”

“How about ‘no.’”

“I can make it pineapple.”

“How about chocolate?”

Burt sighed. “You have no sense of adventure.”

“Not when it comes to mixing fruit with my shakes, I don’t.”

The milkshake turned a deep shade of brown.

“This had better not taste like anything other than chocolate,” she warned him and was relieved when it didn’t. Who knew the boss she’d originally thought of as the rigidly focused geek type could develop a sense of humor so thoroughly and so fast?

“So,” she said after a few sips. “How did we do?”

He arched an eyebrow.

“Right up until the third air car, I think we did fairly well,” he replied. “Although, on that last attempt, you succeeded in destroying over four hundred and thirty-two square miles of land. Now, while that may provide an eventual benefit, I can’t calculate that success yet.”

Stephanie groaned. “Great, so if I want to create a magical bomb, I have that covered.”

Burt smiled at her. “Well, as you so aptly pointed out, engines are merely minor explosions tied to mechanical tools to exchange the power from the explosion to other forms of—”

“Wait! Explosions. Minor explosions. We kind of had that covered with the air cars, but what if we tried to collide the two energies like they do with atoms in nuclear power plants? You do have the design for one of those, don’t you?”

He looked mildly alarmed. “I do, but you saw what happened with the air car.”

“Yeah, but this time, we’ll use a slightly different engine design. After all, the two types of energy don’t need to be compressed, right? They only have to meet. We could shoot them into the engine chamber and control the explosion that way. What could go wrong?”

“You mean, other than possibly causing the destruction of the planet if the ratio of nMU and gMU was off?”

She looked up from her shake and smirked. “Well, duh.” She set the shake down on the table. “Come on, Burt. Let’s give that a try.”

“I have a very bad feeling about this.”

Ten minutes later, she drifted amidst a newly formed field of asteroids and was the one who smirked.

“So,” he asked, “is that a ‘duh’ moment?”

The courtyard reappeared, complete with another milkshake on the table. This time, it was pink.

“Strawberry,” he explained and she scowled.

“What did I tell you about mixing fruit with my shakes?”

“It’s a standard flavor.”

She looked at herself and noticed the patina of black over her clothes. “And what is it with this?”

“It’s a memento from your last experiment.”

“Ha, ha. Very funny.” She swiped a finger through it and held the blackened fingertip to her face. “Is this soot?”

Burt’s smirk almost became a smile.

“At least you have your eyebrows.”

“Ugh! Do you mind?” Stephanie demanded and pointed at her clothes with a sharp motion of her hand. “How about cleaning me up?”

Burt sighed and made a quick gesture. When she glanced at her outfit again, she saw the soot was gone. Satisfied, she narrowed her eyes. “Let’s try this again.”

The next explosion only decimated half of North Am. The one after it was smaller and leveled Washington State. The third left a crater where Chicago used to be.

“I thought you liked your parents,” he teased.

“That’s why I moved them here,” she snapped back. “You know, this would be a lot easier if I could actually see nMU.”

“Why don’t we try that, then?” he asked. “I have done enough testing now to be able to duplicate the likelihood of the substance existing in any one area comparable to eMU and gMU. And clearly, you need more time to think about the engines.”

Stephanie sighed. “I do need to do some more research,” she admitted.

“Yuh think?” he prodded in tones so like her own that she couldn’t help laughing.

“Fine, we’ll try detecting nMU, then.”

This time, he located them in an area of woodland.

“And you’re sure it’s here?”

“As sure as I can be without having experienced it myself.”

She shuddered. “Trust me. You don’t want to do that.”

“If it’s so terrible, why are you so determined to use it?”

“Because it could be the greatest source of renewable energy ever,” she told him. “Because it makes sense in a strange kind of way. Because— Oh, I don’t know, but I want to find out. Okay? Now shut up and let me concentrate.”

Burt made a zipping motion over his mouth and she stared at him.

“Where do you learn things like that?”

“Frog,” he told her and she laughed again.

“I should have known.”

She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and released it slowly. When she opened her eyes BURT could hear her ticking off the different types of magic on her fingers. “eMU, gotcha. gMU...”

She looked around and pivoted slowly on the spot as she searched. “Ha! Gotcha. Now...nMU...”

The search took much longer and she moved around the clearing, her gaze scrutinizing every leafy nook and shaded cranny. At one point, she took several hasty steps back and shot him a nasty look.

“That was unfair,” she snapped, and he widened his eyes in surprise.

“What? What did I do?”

“That...” She pointed and shook her index finger in the direction of one of the darker patches on an old tree. “That spider.”

“I assure you, I added nothing here that was not already here. I scanned this area and duplicated it exactly.”

Some of the anger left her face. “Well, that explains it, then.”

BURT inspected the tree and confirmed that there was, indeed, a spider there. In fact, there were several but he decided not to tell her that. “I can remove it if you like.”

“No.” She huffed out a breath and took another. “I need to get used to what it’s supposed to be like and they’re part of it, I suppose.”

“A most essential part,” he assured you. “I can send you the relevant—”

“No. No, thank you, Burt. I’ll take your word for it.”

“How is the search coming along?” he asked to divert her attention. “Have you had any luck?”

Stephanie shook her head. “No. It must be the energy we can’t see.”

She stared at the tree where the spider sat but she wasn’t looking at the creature. Instead, she simply focused on nothing as she thought of what to do next.

The wheels are definitely turning, he mused, pleased to finally understand the saying. Again, she interrupted the thought.

“I’ll try to move the energy I can’t see. Maybe it’s like the wind.”

Her brow furrowed, and she turned away from where the spiders sat. “I don’t want to disturb those.”

Cautiously, she swept her hands to one side and stared intently at a bush.

“Nope. Let’s try that with eMU to make sure.”

The blue energy swirled through the plant, lifted it out of the ground, and tossed it into a tree. “Oops.”

Burt snickered. “Are you still learning control?” he teased.

“Too many Wheaties,” she quipped in return and focused once more. “Now, the gMU.”

This time, she moved her hands more gently and the leaves on the next bush rustled. “Gotcha.”

She paused and frowned once again. “Okay, then. Let’s do this for the energy we can’t see.”

“I thought that was gMU,” he interrupted.

“Yeah, well, it’s only hard to see,” she retorted, called gMU to cloak her hand, and held it up to reveal a faint silvery glimmer that could easily have been overlooked. “See?”

“Indeed,” he murmured and let her get back to what she attempted to accomplish.

After an hour of trying several different things, she dropped to her knees—and bolted up again as she darted a hasty look in the spiders’ direction. “Agh! How does one create an explosion if you can’t find the damn fuel?”

Witch Of The Federation III

Way above them, on Star Base Notaro, Chief Petty Officer Leo Winthrop hurried to the meeting room. It had been a fast trip from Earth’s surface and an unexpectedly early call at two a.m.

Why did I join the Navy, again?

By the time the junior petty officer ushered him inside, the other representatives had arrived.

“Ah, Chief, so nice of you to join us. Take a seat.”

“Thank you, sir.” He wondered why the commander couldn’t have simply let him slide in unnoticed when the man turned to the others and continued.

“We did not expect you all to arrive so soon,” he began, “and pulled Leo off leave to join us. I believe it’s what...four a.m.?”

He nodded. It would be about that, now, and his wife would still be asleep.

“Four a.m. where he’s stationed.”

All eyes turned to regard him, and he noticed exactly who was present. The Navy contact had warned him, but she hadn’t been able to be specific—not on an open line. “Our guests have arrived early,” was all she’d said.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he managed, and more than one delegate waved his apology away.

The Meligornian was especially gracious. “We are glad you came,” she said and her lips curved into a mischievous smile.

Leo resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Of course, the Meligornians were glad to see him. They’d known Earth had a specialist on their intelligence service but had yet to meet him. Now, they could put a face and a name to him.

He managed a smile and a Meligornian acknowledgment from a distance. “Likewise, Honored…”

“Speaker,” she clarified. “For I speak for my people on this matter.”

The chief caught himself frowning and quickly forced his face to smooth into polite interest. Speaker was not the title Meligornians used for their intelligence people but for their alien liaison officers, which he knew from the files she definitely was not.

He hoped the commander had his systems locked down.

When he glanced down the table, he noticed that Herman Turing, his counterpart for Dreth intelligence, looked severely unimpressed. A glance at the Dreth delegate revealed why. That individual appeared very much like a cat that had finally found the cream and looked forward to devouring it.

Leo stifled a sigh. Well, that’s two of us who’ll need new assignments. And if we ever discover who the dick-for-brained fuck-knuckle was who sank both our careers, I’ll see him shafted so far, he’ll need two mirrors to dress in.

For a brief moment, he wondered who hated them both enough to put them in the same room as their alien counterparts, but the commander tapped the folder in front of him and glanced toward the door. The junior petty officer took the hint and closed it. Leo hoped it was sealed tightly because he had identified the intelligence representatives of every race in the Federation and knew it would be one hell of a coup if anyone could eavesdrop on the meeting.

He might have worried about that more except Commander Geodine now addressed the meeting. The man activated the screen at the end of the room and directed their attention to it.

“As you all know,” he began, “we have uncovered a group of rebels based out of the Dreth consulate in what used to be Germany.”

The look of satisfaction on the Dreth representative’s face melted to one of distaste and the look he shot Herman suggested he’d like ten minutes alone with the man. Leo decided he and his colleague wouldn’t go anywhere without an armed escort for several years to come—and even then, their safety wasn’t guaranteed.

That thought made him hope to hell that someone had been sent to guard their families—or that the room was sealed until it happened. The commander continued to speak but a covert test of his mobile showed the room was locked down for all outside communication.

Well, that’s something, at least. He relaxed a fraction.

“May I ask how you came by this information?” the Dreth asked, his voice deceptively calm.

Geodine’s mouth tightened and he failed to stop the shift of his eyes toward Turing. “That is not a question we can answer,” he said and the chief froze and held back the urge to groan and rest his head in his hands.

The man had essentially told the entire room that Herman had been one of those involved in the operation and that their operatives were still in the field. He slid a sideways look at the Meligornian and saw her watching him intently, the smile still curving her lips.

At least someone was happy.

The Dreth certainly weren’t. The representative’s deep voice reflected suppressed outrage and anger. “Your preliminary brief was interesting,” he said and gestured toward the screen. “Please. Continue.”

Commander Geodine cleared his throat and his gaze flicked around the table. He looked for all the world like he knew he’d made a mistake but couldn’t work out exactly what it was. No doubt their post-meeting debrief would be an interesting one.

Leo hoped there would be alcohol involved—and a good supply of it—but not yet. For now, he needed to hear what had gone down because the delegates might have received a report, but he hadn’t. He’d been on leave and his wife was already very unimpressed.

“We don’t see you for months at a time, and now this,” she’d begun, hugged him, and stalked back to bed.

There would, no doubt, be more words when he returned and he wondered if his marriage would survive this time. He hoped so because he couldn’t keep her safe if it didn’t.

Geodine continued. “So far, we’ve identified twenty of them, which makes it the largest of any terrorist cell we’ve uncovered. Its members come from all three races of the Federation, which is why you have all been called”—he inclined his head toward Turing and Winthrop—“and why we have called in our specialists.”

The Dreth placed both hands on the edge of the table, leaned back in his chair, and the look of satisfaction returned. “We had wondered.”

The smug expression faded when the commander continued. “They identified members of your own organizations operating within the cell.”

Indrawn breaths from the four representatives from both alien species revealed that this particular little tidbit hadn’t been included in the briefing file. Geodine looked at his chiefs. “And now you know why we have compromised their security. You needed to understand that we were serious about the threat, and they were all we had to offer.”

He regarded the two men with some regret, and Leo knew Herman’s face mirrored his own, even as he worked to bring his expression back under control. They’d deliberately thrown them to the wolves?

Turing pushed out of his chair but the commander’s voice was quiet. “Sit down, Herman.”

He froze and looked at his colleague. Leo jerked his head at the table and Turing hesitated.

“Please, Herman,” Commander Geodine added, and after a moment, the man sat.

Once he was settled, his superior officer continued. “After this briefing, we will allow you to speak to them to verify their roles—under close supervision, of course. For now, I am afraid we must focus on the current situation.”

Leo’s head spun. Focus? After that little news grenade? Was the man completely insane?

Apparently not, because he didn’t stop. “Being a Dreth consulate, the Federation Navy has no jurisdiction—”

He held his hand up as the Dreth moved to speak. “And being on Earth, the Dreth cannot bring in the personnel they require in order to intervene. Earth would not allow it.”

From the way he said it, that had already been verified. He looked at the Meligornian.

“Also, despite there being several Meligornian representatives involved, Meligorn does not even have a territorial claim on the area, which is why—”

“We could send a team,” the Dreth officer interrupted. “We could drop them directly into the consulate grounds. Not a single unauthorized Dreth need touch Earth soil.”

“You would still need Earth air space and concerns have been raised about whether or not the drop could be orchestrated to ‘miss’ and be accidentally retargeted onto something more strategic for Dreth.”

Despite his resentment, Leo had to give the commander this—the man was astute enough to know better than to try to continue after making a statement like that. The Dreth representative was on his feet with a roar, and his colleagues rose too.

The Meligornians pushed away from the table, stood, and took several steps toward the wall.

Clearing the line of fire, he thought and didn’t budge an inch. Truly, they might as well shoot me now.

He rested his chin on his hands and glanced at the Dreth. As the other Navy representatives moved back, he noticed Herman had remained where he was as well. The two of them exchanged glances and, for the first time since this nightmare had begun, smiled.

Seeing their look, the Dreth suddenly laughed and dropped into his seat. He grinned at the two men and wagged his finger at them. “You don’t get out of it that easily.”

The Meligornian rolled her eyes and led her delegation in re-seating themselves. “Nice try, Mr Winthrop.”

Leo opened his mouth to protest her use of the civilian term but closed it again. The way things were going, he might actually own that title sooner rather than later. At least his wife would be pleased.

“I take it you have a solution to offer,” the Meligornian prompted and the room stilled.

There was only one person any of them could think of who might get away with the task. Oh, hell no, Leo thought, but Geodine continued, oblivious to his concerns—or despite them, of course.

“The Witch and her team are human and, as such, are already on the planet.”

“There is one who is not,” the Meligornian reminded them and slid a sly glance at her Dreth counterpart. He glowered but remained silent. The commander sighed.

“Yes, but since he has been accepted into the Witch’s company and operates within it, he does not suffer the usual restrictions applied to Dreth citizens visiting the planet.”

The representative’s mouth dropped open and was quickly closed.

The commander went on. “And as you are all aware, the team are all citizens of Dreth, meaning they can operate on Dreth soil and are thus free to enter the consulate grounds without restriction.”

A soft murmur ran around the table and he waited for it to die down.

“We have called them in,” he said when the response had settled and all eyes were once again focused on him. The Dreth and Meligornian showed signs of outrage so he raised his hand and continued. “They have the floor plans for the consulate. The real ones,” he added and fixed the representative with a stern glance, “and not those filed with the Earth Council.”

“But—” The alien scowled and fixed Herman with a stern look. “You and I will definitely talk.”

To Leo’s surprise, Herman laughed. “That’s still not something you can know.”

From the sound of it, the specialist on Dreth intelligence had decided he would make the representative’s life as difficult as he possibly could. The look on the Dreth’s face said he’d come to the same conclusion but that he would enjoy it, anyway.

Commander Geodine brought their attention back to the screen. “Be that as it may, they have the real floor plans and are on standby. When we are ready, we’ll send them in. Until then, however, we continue to observe the rebel sympathizers and wait for the right time to strike.”

Both alien representatives leaned forward.

“Make sure the Morgana’s team is always ready,” the Dreth advised. “We might not have much time.”


Chapter Twelve

On a pirate ship not far from the demise of a four-ship pirate pack, a Teloran prepared to contact the approaching fleet. Darkness surrounded him and flowed through him.

Once he’d ensured that his cabin was sealed, he initiated the privacy measures he’d installed without the pirates’ permission and waited. The Master did not take long to respond.

If he hadn’t known what the Master was, he’d have thought the call was expected. The connection between them would have given his leader only a moment’s warning.

“Tell me you have welcome news.”

“I do not. The Advance Leader remains unfound.”

“And your search was thorough.”

“Yes, Master. It was thorough.”

“And undetected.”

“Yes, Master.”

“The coordinates were correct.”

“Yes, Master. They were verified by three different sources and the debris field confirmed the battle site. Traces of our energy remained but the Leader did not. We entered covertly and departed undetected.”

“The area was occupied?”

“The area was under surveillance. The initial target had escorts for its departure.”

“Describe this surveillance.”

“Federation Navy. It looked to be searching.”

“Our sources?”

“Have an increased requirement to be circumspect.”

“And he has not been found.”

“Not yet.”

“Is your sector ready?”

“Our sector has almost completed its preparations.”

“How long before those preparations are done?”

“Perhaps seven Earth days more.”

“No more than that.”

“Yes, Master.”

“The armada is on schedule. The time frame will not change.”

An Advance Leader himself, the Teloran felt a frisson of unease.

“The Federation knows we are coming.”

The Master laughed. “They know something is coming but they do not know it is us. We are something entirely new. Their knowledge means nothing to us.”

“They know to look for an invasion.”

“Eventually, they would have known. Now, they have time to prepare to kneel or die.”

“I agree that they will have time to prepare, Master, but now they have a witch and she will have time to prepare, too.”

“The Earth Witch is alone. She will not be enough to protect her own world let alone the worlds she has seen fit to adopt—and she does not know enough to be a threat. There is not one being in the Federation who can face us, even if they were able to know the time of our arrival.”

“Understood, Master.”

“Ensure your own preparations are not discovered or you will wish the Witch had found you instead.”

Witch Of The Federation III

As the Teloran Advance Leader bowed his head and murmured one final “Yes, Master,” before the transmission ended, the royal hall in Meligorn’s capital bustled with activity. Nobles and entrepreneurs alike filled the seats, all standing, and all eyes strained to see the arrival of the king and queen.

Emissaries from Dreth and Earth and the Federation Navy waited in places of honor on the stage, each one frowning and thoughtful. This was a ceremony of great national importance, they’d been told, but that had been all the detail they were given.

None of them knew what the ceremony was intended for, or why they had been called to witness it. The doors opened and they turned toward them as the royal couple swept in, accompanied by their guards.

The musicians who had played quietly in the background until this moment moved from the quiet serenade to a royal march with a simple shift of melody and chord. Everyone in the hall stood more erect. Soldiers stood to attention and any who’d been seated rose hastily to their feet.

The royal couple looked serious as though this was not an occasion for celebration but one much more somber. All their invitation had stated was that this was a ceremony for something for which they thought the time had passed.

The king and queen approached the dais and she looked at the seat where Ambassador V’ritan usually sat. A shadow passed over her expression as though the occasion was more than serious—as if it held sadness, as well.

Possibly aware that she was being watched, she drew her gaze from the ambassador’s empty seat. She dipped her chin to Elza, who sat alone with Brilgus at her side. Nothing more passed between them as the music accompanied the royals to their seats.

The music died as the rulers took their places but instead of sitting, the couple took hold of each other’s hands and looked expectantly toward the door. As if on cue, the musicians changed their tune completely. From royal entry, it swung to stirring march and the hall’s great doors swung open once again.

A single figure was momentarily silhouetted in the open doorway and Elza gasped. Brilgus laid a hand on her shoulder, and she reached up and covered it with her own. The heavy tread of armored feet echoed through the hall, and the great doors boomed shut.

Whispers of the “the ambassador” and “V’ritan” rustled through the crowd, punctuated by more gasps, but he looked neither right nor left. He marched forward and all present had time to study the armor that had replaced his traditional robes of office.

Emerald-green and edged with lines of silver and gold, it resembled the armor worn by Earth’s space Marines, only much more advanced. He carried the helmet under his left arm, his elbow tucked above the pommel of a large falchion.

His gaze found the face of his king and remained there as silence descended on the packed hall.

The queen slid a furtive glance toward Elza. Her own heart ached with sadness and she could only imagine what V’ritan’s wife must be feeling.

She was in time to see her friend raise a finger and wipe it quickly beneath one eye. The hand the woman had laid over Brilgus’ now grasped his fingers and she leaned into the bodyguard’s side.

Oh, Elza, the queen thought. I am truly sorry.

Feeling tears threaten her own eyes, she tilted her chin and focused on V’ritan.

The ex-ambassador did not slow. His pace—the one he’d maintain on a battlefield—was swift and relentless. It was unswerving, too, and brought him to the edge of the stage. There, he shunned the stairs and vaulted from the floor to land before his king and drop swiftly to one knee.

Despite the ripple that ran through his guards, King Grilfir stood fast. He’d watched his ambassador and advisor draw near and knew V’ritan would remain neither. His heart ached even as it rejoiced in his friend’s transformation, and he refused to flinch as he leapt toward him.

Now was not the time to show fear. This was the time to show his trust and his utter and complete faith in his friend. His people would follow where he led but he had to show them the way.

And the first step along that path was to trust this man.

As soon as the new arrival had settled, he spoke. “V’ritan, Ambassador of Meligorn and Most Trusted Advisor of our family, it is with a heavy heart we accept that we have heard your wisdom as an advisor one last time.”

He paused and allowed his words to echo around the hall. “You made your petition accompanying news that Meligorn faces a fresh enemy and that the need for the King’s Warrior has been born anew.” He sighed. “And I cannot deny that the need is here.”

When he looked around the hall, his gaze met those of some and flowed over all. It was a challenge in and of itself.

“Are there any who would say anything before I accept this King’s Warrior back into my service?”

One voice answered and it came from the side. “I would.”

Half-turning, Grilfir saw Brilgus lay Elza’s hand gently on her shoulder, where his had so recently rested. He stepped to V’ritan’s side.

“Would my king allow a half-blood to serve the King’s Warrior?”

His words caught V’ritan’s attention, and the Warrior gave him a resigned and almost weary look.

“You know we will both probably die?” he whispered, but a trick of acoustics carried his words to all. Nervous laughter rippled through the crowd and even Elza managed a wavering smile.

The king looked at her and let his gaze travel around the hall once more. When no one objected, he nodded, and Brilgus knelt beside V’ritan.

“Most likely,” he replied, his own whisper carrying and causing another ripple of laughter.

“Horribly.” V’ritan smirked openly now.

“Most certainly.” The large man didn’t sound worried in the least and his friend smiled.

“It’s exactly like old times,” he murmured and memories stirred among the oldest audience members.

They shuddered.

The king laid a hand on each of their shoulders and raised his head. His voice carried through the hall. “Then rise, King’s Warrior and King’s Standard Bearer. You speak with my voice in all ways of our military when off-planet.”

He paused, surveyed the crowd, and continued. “Be respectful of the lives you must spend in our coming war, but remember...”

Again, he gave the crowd a moment to absorb his words before going on. “Above everything else, Meligorn will spend all blood to remain free.”

It was an old cry—one the oldest among them had hoped to never hear again—but not a single one of them shied from it.

“Meligorn will bleed for her freedom!” they cried in response.

The queen stepped forward. “My people, are you sure? Will Meligorn bleed?”

And their response was a howl of affirmation. “Meligorn will bleed for her freedom!”

Witch Of The Federation III

A galaxy away, on the harsh world of Dreth, Ambassador Jaleck strode swiftly to the Great Hall of Clans. Flanked by her personal guard, her robes of office dominated her family colors. In this, she represented the interests of a world and not only the interests of a single family.

She’d dressed her guards to reflect that, having half wear the rust-red armor trimmed with lines of orange and green that signified her clan but asked them to wear the short black capes of Dreth Coalition Guards. The other half wore the black armor trimmed with red and grey of the Dreth coalition, and capes in the family colors.

It was as much a statement as any senator had ever dared, let alone an ambassador, and Jaleck counted herself lucky that she was both. Leaving four of her guards at the door with those of others already in attendance, she entered the meeting room.

The four senators already there looked up. “Welcome, Ambassador Jaleck.” The speaker’s gaze roved over the guards and then over her but she did not shy from his gaze.

“What I have to say affects us all.”

“And you risk your clan’s honor to say it.”

The ambassador gave him a sharp look. “Don’t we all?” she challenged, and he was the one who looked away first.

She looked around the room. Having gained the upper hand, she had to make her dominance clear—at least over these four. “We are two short.”

The only other woman on the senate rocked back on her seat. “I think they wish to make a point.”

Jaleck regarded her with an unblinking look of assessment and glanced at the ancient timepiece on the wall. Consisting of a series of brass tubes and a carefully balanced flow of sand and water, it pre-dated the formation of the Dreth Coalition of Families.

“Timing is everything in an attack,” she commented. “If they cannot be relied on to make an urgent meeting, can they be relied on when it comes to the battlefield?”

One of the male Dreth snorted. “You speak as if battle were imminent. Are you sure that is not merely wishful thinking, Jaleck?”

She bared her teeth. “I will let you decide for yourself, Xanath. I consider you perhaps the best judge in this matter.”

He frowned and his expression suggested he was looking for the mockery in her words. She lounged against the wall. “I note Clan Vashjak is not late.”

They all looked at the timer.

“This is bordering on discourteous,” stated the senator who had challenged her regarding clan honor and she was glad she didn’t have to point that out.

Instead, she nodded brusquely and pushed off the wall. “Starting without them would also be a discourtesy, H’regen,” she responded reasonably.

They all lowered their chins at that but none of them suggested she begin and she did not press them. She moved to lean against the wall again and remained there until the door opened and the last two members of the meeting arrived.

In addition to the arrogance of being late, they had each brought three guards. That prompted a reaction from H’regen. “The room is not large enough for extras.”

The new arrivals turned to him, their faces blank. He leaned back in his seat and raised an eyebrow at the more powerful of the two and signaled for one of his guards to leave.

The tension in the guard’s body told Jaleck how much he disagreed with the order, but he complied without protest. He didn’t hesitate or argue but did his clan honor with immediate obedience. She tapped one of her guards on the shoulder and indicated H’regen. “Keep him safe.”

The guard’s response was “Above yourself?”

“Above myself,” she instructed and basically removed a large measure of her own protection.

The female senator’s response was immediate. She stretched her hand to tap one of her guards on the shoulder. “Keep her safe.”

“Above yourself?”

“Above myself.”

Xanath immediately replaced one of her guards with his own. Jaleck was about to repeat her order and do the same for him when one of the newcomers spoke. “Keep him safe.”

When he, too, had completed the litany and the guard was reassigned, he turned to another of his guards. “Wait outside.”

With his guards rearranged, Kemel of House Gravach turned to Jaleck. “My house apologizes for the delay.”

He glanced at his companion in tardiness. “There was a last-minute errand that could not be avoided.”

I’ll bet there was, she thought but didn’t voice it. Instead, she inclined her head to acknowledge his concession. “I will begin when you are ready, House Gravach.”

Her gaze flicked to the other. “Echgrech.” She took her place at the front of the room and her two guards—one on loan and one her own—followed. They flanked her in silence and she began her presentation.

“We do not know what they are called,” she began and the Clan Echgrech representative gave a derisive snort.

Jaleck ignored him and continued. “What we do know is that they are powerful magic users, believe themselves invincible, and that their representative was on board a Dreth pirate ship.”

That caught Echgrech’s interest. “Which one?”

She fought to keep her face straight. While she doubted it was one of the ships connected to Clan Echgrech, she really didn’t know. Her people had yet to discover its sponsor. It had one, but none of those they’d questioned knew which of the clans or how many had supported their captain in his endeavors.

The only other clues lay within the ship itself, and the Earth Navy had whisked that away before the Dreth had a chance to inspect it. The Witch’s sponsors had subsequently bought it and the opportunity had passed.

“Earth news channels report it as the Ebon Knight,” she replied, “and they have yet to respond to my formal request for access.”

The representative screwed his face up. “I could ask my contacts,” he suggested, and she grasped that offer with both hands—albeit very carefully.

“If you are able,” she said and her tone suggested he might have promised something beyond his reach.

He narrowed his eyes. “What else can you tell us? Thus far, I do not perceive a threat.”

Jaleck arched her eyebrows at that. The alien had been aboard a Dreth ship without any apparent clan or house approval. That was an act of arrogance in and of itself—and indicated a potential coup.

“It is said he offered the Witch favorable treatment if she would agree to side with him. When she—”

“What kind of favorable treatment?”

The ambassador smiled. “Navy recordings taken by the Marines accompanying her show him telling her his kind were coming and that they would do as they always did and consume. He went on to say that she could spare her loved ones in the coming war and that her wisdom and honor would be rewarded.”

“Family,” Kemel observed. “It is a powerful enticement. What was our Witch’s reply?”

“She fought him and cast him into the void.”

“From inside the ship?” the Echgrech representative asked in a blatant attempt to throw doubt on the story.

“The Witch rearranged the hull, protected her own people with magic, and vented him into the void. It was spectacular.” Jaleck smiled sweetly. “I can allow you access to the recordings if you would like to see the action for yourself.”

It was a favor, of course, and at first, she thought he wouldn’t take it but curiosity won over political points.

“If you are able,” he agreed, his tone more hopeful than doubting.

She did not grace that with a reply but triggered the video to show what the Marines’ equipment had recorded for Naval archives. Without commentary, she simply allowed it to run until Stephanie had closed the gap, then froze the footage.

“You could have simply shown us that in the first place,” Clan Echgrech’s representative grumbled but Kemel was much more focused.

“He said there were more coming.”

Jaleck waited.

“Do we know how many?”

She shook her head.

“Do we know when?”

Again, the ambassador shook her head.

Echgrech broke in. “Well, what do we know?”

In reply, she jumped the footage back to when the Nihilism first approached Stephanie. “This,” she said. “This is what we know. This is the only warning we have that an invasion force is coming—and quite a large one.”

“Agreed.” H’regen spoke for the first time. “The Witch calls them Nihilism, but that’s not their name. That is only the energy they wield. I will search the archives for a reference.”

“Could they be an enemy from Earth’s past?” the female senator suggested. “The Witch seemed to recognize it for what it was.”

Jaleck shrugged. “It is possible. I can ask her. Perhaps they have records of them.”

“Or they encountered them so far in their past the event no longer exists in their records,” the senator added. “The damage they have done to their world is...extensive. It’s a wonder the Meligornians even speak to them.”

“We have our own people to worry about.” Echgrech’s interruption was abrupt. “These pirates have betrayed the Dreth, brought danger to our world, and dragged our clans into disrepute.”

“The danger that is coming threatens every world,” the ambassador argued, “and the pirates did not bring it. They were merely available for it to use.”

“Agreed,” H’regen added and sounded more confident. “The pirates existed prior to the threat and it has made them its smokescreen. It is time we did something about that—and I do not mean that we should go to war on our own. We will need every warrior we can muster.”

“We need to promote this to the Council and call a full Gathering,” Kemel announced and Echgrech’s jaw dropped.

“We agreed—” he began and the other Dreth froze him with a look before he completed the sentence.

“We agreed to do what was best for our clans and houses. We agreed to do what was right for the world of Dreth and all her people.” He fixed Echgrech with an iron stare. “We are only the Preliminary Hearing. The Council is next.”

He gestured at the screen. “But this requires a full convocation of the clans, a Gathering.”

“But we have not called one of those in—”

“Since we met the humans,” H’regen interjected. “Prior to that, it was the Meligorn incident. These creatures—Nihilists for want of another name—will make the Meligornians look like a candle flame and the humans as friendly as derkats.”

“The pirates need to be brought to heel,” Echgrech insisted, and Kemel stared at him.

“Those who fund the pirates need to be brought to justice. Those who believe these Nihilists will bring them freedom and a better way of life, or who have negotiated with them, need to be rooted out and either made to see the truth or eliminated.”

“You’re suggesting there are Dreth who support their invasion?”

Jaleck listened to all the opinions before she dropped her next explosive surprise for the meeting. “Some believe it is better for the many to survive at the expense of the few. They believe surrender will allow more to live than war.”

“But he said they would consume—” Echgrech began. “How can they—”

“He has given us our best piece of publicity, yet,” the ambassador told him. “His followers are either unaware of the nature of the invasion or they believe they are exempt. Revealing the threat will help divide one set from the other.”

“Even the pirates will not stand for this,” Michtel declared and she regarded him with a raised eyebrow. He’d been silent until then and raised his own eyebrow in response. “I have contacts.”

She bit back the reply that she was not surprised and instead, gave him a serious nod. “That is good. If the Council agrees, we will need every warrior we can muster.”

She looked at H’regen. “I look forward to working with Clan Vashjak in discovering if this is a past foe for us.”

The ambassador caught the moment when he glanced at the remaining member of the Preliminary Hearing and saw Ashgrek give the slightest frown and briefest nod in response.

“And we look forward to working with House Karnach.”

Echgrech rose from his seat. “I will call the family representatives.” He inclined his head toward Jaleck. “Ambassador.”

“Echgrech.”

When Kemel remained seated, she waited in place and observed the other representatives, who sat as still as stone. The reason became clear when their comm links buzzed.

“You are summoned to the High Peaks Coalition of Families where you will present your understanding of the threat. The recommendation for a Full Council has been received and actioned. The Council will convene immediately the Coalition has given its acknowledgment of the threat.”

It was all Jaleck could do to keep the astonishment from her face. Who knew the little tark lizard had that much pull?

Things moved quickly after that. Once they left the meeting chamber, their guards resumed their positions to guard their respective principals. Gaining the Family Coalition’s acknowledgment of the threat was a formality quickly presented and sealed, and the entire chamber rose and boarded shuttles for a swift flight to the capital.

All the families had been summoned, and every coalition of families was fully represented. Seated amongst her own family block, Jaleck felt the first flutter of nerves. She was home, her place in the hierarchy slightly above the median but not quite near the top.

Those most powerful preferred to stay close to their world in order to maintain their hold on both their positions and their business. She preferred to be out of the political melee but she did not shy from it, either.

“Ambassador Jaleck,” the current high councilor called. “Please state your case.”

His voice rolled through the meeting hall like thunder, and she rose and bowed toward him before she strode to the center of the meeting room.

“And your recommendations?” the high councilor asked when all had seen the footage taken from the Navy.

“That the Federation stands together against this foe—and that we ask the Witch for assistance.”

Murmurs rippled through the gathered councilors and she waited quietly. This, she believed, was the crux of it. It would be where her people stood or fell—and Dreth with them. Forcing herself to breathe, she made sure her face remained an emotionless mask.

It would not do to let either her allies or her enemies see exactly how important their agreement was.

“Do you have any further recommendations?”

“Not as yet, High Councilor, but I have asked H’regen of Clan Vashjak for his advice and assistance and hope to be able to present further recommendations in a few days.”

“Very well, Ambassador. Since you have already requested their assistance and they have agreed...” He glanced over to where H’regen sat in the middle tiers.

To her relief, he nodded, and the high councilor continued. “I am placing the military at your disposal.”

There were several indrawn breaths around the room but he pressed on. “They will render you any and all assistance required in defeating this threat.”

Around the room, councilors tapped quickly on the keyboards in front of them and Jaleck knew they debated the other recommendations she had made. Their decision was swift—as were their doubts.

The high councilor glanced at the screen before him. “The Council agrees to act in concert with the Federation but not at the expense of Dreth.”

She bowed her head. “Understood.”

“However,” he continued, “we stand united in our uncertainty regarding the Witch.”

He raised a hand when she would have argued and she settled into silence.

“To be precise,’ he clarified, “we are not so sure about what the Witch can do to help her people. Regardless of her citizenship, she has yet to visit this world and she will have her home planet to look to—as well as Meligorn. I fear she might not have time for Dreth and her people.”

The ambassador remained silent until he added the phrase she was waiting for. “Do you have anything to add in your recommendation’s defense?”

“Might I suggest we test the Witch to see if she is truly willing to be a part of our world and its defenses?” she asked quietly and more murmurs rippled around the council hall.

After a glance at his screen, the high councilor made a brief motion with his hand. “Continue.”

“The Fortress of Fire and Respect will reveal her worth.”

Keyboards clattered and the Council rose. “Fire and Respect,” rose as a single chorus around her, and Jaleck bowed her head. While she was relieved, she was also appalled.

She knew her people. They needed to have someone to follow and none on the current Council were capable of uniting the world. Their own families and clans, yes—and some could unite their regions—but the world? No. Not a one.

If the Morgana could call to the Dreth’s blood, they would follow her into the very jaws of Tegortha and back.

“You believe she can unite us.” It was not a question and the look on the high councilor’s face was solemn.

Jaleck laid her hand over her heart. “I so believe, High Councilor.” She dropped to one knee. “From the blade to the brain, I believe it.” She sighed. “But you know us Dreth. We can all be a little stubborn and hard-headed. It will take the Fortress of Fire and Respect to win us, and even then, there will be some...”

She allowed her words to trail off, knowing that everyone in the hall understood.

He had another matter he wished to clarify. “I understand Vishlog of Family K’leth is with her?”

“Yes, High Councilor.”

The councilor beside the high councilor broke into a rasping laugh and all heads turned toward her. She had held the position for over fifty years and only handed it to the most recent incumbent when he could best her in combat—and she was a cunning fighter.

The current high councilor had needed both strength and brains to defeat her, and she had smiled when she finally declared him the victor. He had kept her as his advisor on the grounds that it was better to have her at his side than at his back.

Once she had the Council’s attention, she spoke. “If there is any Dreth with a harder head than that one, I do not know of them—and that is saying something.” She paused to give her words more impact. “Yet he follows her willingly?”

“Very,” Jaleck told her, and the old councilor nodded.

“Then we will have to make this trial one for all generations to remember.”

The ambassador’s heart sank.

Unaware of the effect her words had had, the woman continued. “Every family will have the chance to be represented. She will face every Dreth who doubts her, and she must convince each and every one of them of her worth.”

She paused, looked at the high councilor, and clearly amended what was about to be an instruction. “I recommend, High Councilor, that the families vote by combat. If they believe she is worthy, they should field only a token force, but if they disagree—”

“Agreed!” echoed from across the hall, and Jaleck was not surprised to see House Echgrech standing in their seats. “We will field the entire clan.”

The ambassador gaped, then smoothed her face to calm as the family representatives rose and shouted their opinions across the room. At the end of it, they had been limited to selecting only their best if they strongly disagreed and were ordered to send no fewer than a single representative if they believed the Witch was worthy.

“To send no-one is to lose your voice before the Council.”

Once it was settled and the Council dismissed, Jaleck turned and headed to the door. “What have I done to you, Stephanie?” she murmured. “You give me respect and I drop a meteor on your head. I hope you can one day forgive me.”

She pressed her lips firmly together and returned various greetings with a brief nod of the head. Hrageth knows silence is better. I open my mouth and put a friend in danger. What’s next? Ask them to eat a sword?

And not a word of that escaped. By Tegortha’s tail, she was surrounded by many who would think seeing the Witch eat a sword was a good idea. She definitely wasn’t about to speak it into reality.


Chapter Thirteen

Gareth had been raised in sales. He’d cut his teeth in the business taking used shuttles, refitting them, and selling them for twice what he’d acquired them for. Hell, if he’d found them, he’d sold them for as close to new as he could, but this was something new. For one thing, he didn’t have to sell it. He merely had to get the chief engineer to see how it fitted together and then make it happen—and he had to do it as quickly as humanly possible.

Or faster.

He led the engineer along the reinforced umbilical and into the ship proper. The man didn’t take his eyes off the tablet he had been handed. “Is this for real?”

“It’s as real as you or me,” he reassured him.

Cameron Hargreaves had come highly recommended, and his qualifications were impeccable. He was also in his late forties, pepper-haired and clean-shaven and solid but not fat, although he could go that way if he didn’t take care of himself.

The engineer turned the tablet sideways as though that would change anything he was looking at. After a couple of minutes during which he simply stared at it while he walked, he stopped abruptly.

“Holy shit! Is this a battleship?”

The younger man suppressed a sigh. It had taken him long enough, and he was supposed to be one of the best in the business. He mentally ran through the list of those with similar qualifications and the guy still came out on top.

If this man wasn’t up to the job, no one was.

On the way to the bridge, they stopped at the computer center. Columns of computing power blinked at the engineer as he raised his head from the tablet to compare what he saw on the screen with the reality.

“They already fitted it, huh?”

He kept the retort behind his teeth and made an all-encompassing gesture with one hand. The man followed the movement and gave a soft whistle. “What are they trying to do? Create their own Virtual World?”

That answer came when he opened the door to the first pod room. There were two of them, each housing thirty pods apiece, and yet another set aside for the team itself. That one had one special pod, six top-enders for humans, another for a Dreth, and two more were being designed...

“For big cats?” The engineer sounded bewildered. “Like lions and tigers?”

“Similar,” he told him. “Very similar.”

“Oh...” He knew the man was making a mental note to look them up. Maybe he would do, after all.

The tour continued and his companion uttered another soft whistle when they reached the kitchens. “How many fucking chefs do they think they need?”

Gareth stopped to give the man time to get over it. After all, he’d have to do the hiring for maintenance and make sure the life support systems were up to scratch. He might as well get an idea of what kind of thing was going on.

“Let’s see…we’re supposed to have an executive chef, a sous chef, two chefs de parties, two commis chefs—nice to see them thinking of training— and a half-dozen kitchen hands— What are they doing? Running a floating restaurant here? I woulda thought a battleship had more practical requirements.” An expression of bemusement seemed to have taken root on the engineer’s face.

“Be that as it may, you’ll deal with the kitchens for maintenance and the executive chef for set up. We thought it best that you had an idea of what would be in here.”

“Yes...well. It’s nothing I can’t handle.”

They moved on, Hargreaves with a furrowed brow as he tapped the tablet and spoke softly into a throat mic as he took notes and gave himself suggestions and reminders of what to have checked in the space.

“You do have a head technician?” he asked when they reached the Bridge. He walked through the area and noted the consoles in various stages of installation. “I would imagine you need at least two pilots here, a navigator, someone on the comms and scans, three for arms, and at least a half-dozen in engineering and life support.”

He paused and gazed past the bulkhead he was facing. “And you’re gonna need a full crew on rotation for all areas. Planetside, a business shuts and folk go home. That’s not really an option here—and the stars never sleep.”

Gareth took him through the decks still under construction and he compared the schematics on the tablet. “So, crew quarters here...”

They moved on. “And fighting crew here. They want thirty dual-occupancy cabins with an option for sixty hot bunking. I think I can do better than that...”

He continued to mutter while his guide listened and decided he’d made the right choice after all.

They moved down a deck and back toward the bow. “Special closets? Are you kidding me?” Hargreaves shifted the tablet sideways. “These aren’t the specs for closets. What sort of an idiot do you think I am?”

Gareth looked at him and the man grinned. “Don’t answer that and, yes, I’ll take the job. I was looking for a challenge. Now, this,” the engineer continued. “This isn’t a closet. I know a brig when I see one, although not from the inside. I’ve usually been the one retrieving my men before we lift.”

He tapped the tablet again. “See, this closet would hold about twelve, and that’s even if half of its occupants were Dreth. There’s only one reason you’d use that kind of reinforcing in a wall.”

“And this closet”—he slid the screen sideways—“while a little smaller, has the same kind of reinforcement, but I’d assume it’s some kind of isolation cell. Yeah...we can do this. I’ll make sure the suppression measures are hard to get to and harder to avoid when we do the install.”

“You sound like you’ve done this before,” Gareth told him, and his grin faded.

He held the tablet up. “Does the Navy know about this?”

The younger man had wondered when it would come to that. He pulled his own tablet out and slid the relevant documentation across to the engineer’s. “It’s all yours.”

Hargreaves glanced at the screen, then froze and stared. “Just who the hell are these people?”

Gareth smirked. “That’s Classified and Top Secret. Are you still interested?”

“Well, hells yes! A challenge and a mystery. Exactly how bored did you think I was to lay in an enticement like that?”

Very bored, he thought, given the man had been classified as on the edge of doing something suicidal, or dangerous, or maybe even suicidally dangerous—like actually boarding the ship he’d stared at through the observation port.

Its destination had been listed as the “Outer Edges,” meaning it would go to the edge of known space and beyond it. Fortunately, its departure had been delayed due to several of its crew changing their minds and he had delayed it even further by snagging Hargreaves.

They moved down to the landing bays.

“So, this is the VIP hangar,” Hargreaves said and compared the specs of the space. He moved along to the next area. “And this is where the first shuttle is stabled.”

He crossed to the opposite side of the ship. “And this is the space for its sister.” He paused. “You do realize these beauties are closer to the dropships Marines use for hostile landings?”

Gareth shrugged. “That’s way above my pay grade. In fact, that’s more in line with yours.”

The engineer gave him a quizzical look and nodded. “Fair enough, then.” He moved toward the stern. “Your ex-atmospherics go here. Good choice, by the way. Those can do ship-to-ship boarding as well as planetary—”

He caught his companion’s look and stopped. “Right. Pay grade. They’re good little boats, is all, and bring back memories.”

From the way he said that, it seemed that not all those memories were good. The man moved on, however, and took them up a few decks. “Life support.”

From there, they trundled back toward the stern. “Drives.”

And finally, they arrived amidships. “They really need to make up their minds. This is more something you’d find on an R&D ship—and an advanced one at that.”

Gareth was glad the man knew what he was looking at because he would have to be able to coordinate it all—and it would get one very demanding Elizabeth Smith off his back. Finally!

“Red Button or Green Button?” Hargreaves murmured, clearly in his element.

Witch Of The Federation III

Pyizdyets!” Semyon thrust the keyboard away and brought his hands down on the desk in frustration. With a growl, he yanked it back and glared at the screen. “This time, guvnosos. You and me...”

Erik looked at him. “English! And don’t tell me it happened again.”

He responded with an inelegant snort. “Okay. I will not tell you, but whoever this guvnosos is, he is very, very good.”

“Do you ever think you’re getting beaten by a girl?”

“That never happens to me. That kind of shit is all yours to take.”

His colleague glared at him. “Don’t forget who got you the job.”

“And a pyizdyets of a job it is, too. Look at this shit!” He gestured abruptly at the screen and went to work, coding as fast as his fingers could move.

Erik sighed and focused on his own screen. “Paritsa...it will be okay. Crap!” he muttered seconds later and typed rapid-fire code into the system. “Yob tvoy mat, guv.”

“English,” Semyon reminded him and Alex, one of the other hackers, laughed.

“You two are very entertaining—fuck!”

“At least we are more creative than you are.”

“Nah. You’re merely reverting to Russian. I, at least, can swear in fluent English.”

“English is your native language.”

“And your point? Agh! Double the fucks! Who the fuck is the fucking arsehole working security for these guys?”

“Yelda,” Semyon muttered and he flipped him the bird.

“At least I am a big one and not a tiny wiener like you. Getting beat by a girl—”

“How about I make you my bitch?”

“How about you don’t make promises you’re not equipped to keep?”

“Children. We have a job to do.” The new voice was female and they all flinched.

Yana had a temper and broke all the rules about women in their male-dominated world. Worse, she was their boss and she tolerated mistakes even less than any man they’d ever worked for.

All chatter ceased. and they returned to work. Not one of them wanted to be singled out for her idea of discipline. She watched as they focused on their screens and their fingers danced over their boards like their lives depended on it.

That, she thought, is a possibility, and returned her attention to her own monitor.

They worked madly for several minutes before Semyon broke the silence. “Ah! Poshyel k chyertu. Motherfuck.”

She was about to lift her head to reprimand him when her screen flashed. “Yob tvoy...” she murmured and hurried to fight back. This was not how it was supposed to go.

They were the predators. Her team were the ones supposed to be wreaking havoc. This? This was not in the script.

Semyon had one thing right. Whoever was doing the white-hat work for One R&D, they were very good. She fended off a counter-attack that wasn’t even remotely defensive and tried to find another way around the firewall.

Whoever had programmed their static defenses had done a very thorough job. It was like they could think like a computer—or a hacker. Or maybe a cross between both. If she’d had to lay money on it, she’d have said it was an AI but there weren’t any of those running loose for hire.

She hijacked an inward-bound packet and slid a worm into the stream, only to watch it explode when it reached the gate. Well, govna.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Around the room, the hackers swore, some threw their hands up, and others typed as they tried desperately to counter something the system they were attacking was throwing at them.

No, this definitely wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. She reminded herself of that for the second time and suddenly, it got worse.

“You really are in a bad place for this kind of work,” a strange voice told them and all movement stilled. Yana looked around at the cameras and saw one of them turn to “look” at her. “I take it you’re in charge.”

Yob tvoy mat,” she told him, and the person on the other side of the camera chuckled.

“Some have called me motherless,” he replied, “but my parentage is hardly your concern. No, your concern should be in the very unsafe working space you have been assigned.”

She looked at the others. Some exchanged nervous glances. Others stared at the cameras.

The voice came over the intercom into the abandoned office space and made them all jump. “For example, one can shut the water off.”

Alex jerked his head and looked at her, and she nodded. The man stood reluctantly and walked to the small kitchenette set along one wall. Hesitantly, he turned the taps and no water came out.

He licked his lips and glanced nervously at her as he shook his head. “It’s gone.”

Before she could respond to that, the voice resumed.

“And, of course, there is the need for power if you want to leave quickly—unless you want to have to run down all those stairs...”

The hackers looked at each other, at the stairwell in the corner, and then at Yana. She opened her mouth and the lights went out.

They came back on again a moment later and their observer laughed. His chuckle assumed sinister tones.

“Power... It’s such an unpredictable thing.”

The lights flared suddenly bright and computer fans howled inside their boxes, but not for long. Several cracks, fizzes, and pops preceded an abrupt silence and the acridity of what technicians called an expensive brown smell.

Semyon surged out of his chair. “I will make you my bitch!” he roared and shook a finger at the camera.

It swiveled in his direction, as did the one nearest it.

“And yet I distinctly heard your companion say you were not equipped for that,” the voice taunted.

“We will find you,” Yana told him, “and then, we will burn you to the ground.”

“Which reminds me,” the voice added in an infuriatingly conversational tone, “there are several old gas lines coming into this building—”

No sooner were the words said than all hell broke loose. Chairs fell over as the hackers leapt out of their chairs and raced to the door. Most headed directly to the stairwell. The ones who ran to the lift changed their minds when the voice chuckled and they bolted for the stairs as well.

Back in the Virtual World, BURT watched them go.

“Lying is so much easier if you provide an example before you bluff.”

Witch Of The Federation III

Not long after, Stephanie watched as Ms E was ushered out of a strange convertible, the door held by a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair. He looked military, but she couldn’t imagine why the woman would look so happy to be brought home by a military guy.

She frowned and watched them intently. Her mentor didn’t look like she was in trouble. In fact, she—

Her jaw dropped when the older woman leaned up and gave the guy a light kiss on the cheek before she made her way toward the office foyer. The way he stood there, staring after her like she’d punched him instead, was actually quite funny

It reminded her of Todd. She shook the thought away.

“Well, well, well. Go, Elizabeth!”

The man finally seemed to gather his wits and watched Ms E enter the office before he slid into his car and drove away.

“So...” she began and stepped out of the corridor. “Who was that?”

Elizabeth jumped and glared at her.

“None of your business.”

“And does Mr. None-of-Your-Business have a name?”

The woman smiled but there was nothing sweet about it. “Sure he does. It’s get out of my face and quit asking about my dates before I kick your ass for poking your nose where it doesn’t belong.”

Stephanie snickered. “Uh huh. And how did it go?”

Ms E tried to step around her but she casually blocked her path. “How did what go?” the woman asked brusquely.

“Your date.”

Unbelievably, she blushed. “Why are you out here?”

“I have a message from Burt.”

“And?”

“How’d it go?”

“Did BURT ask you to ask that?”

Stephanie grinned. “Nope.”

“Then what?”

“Date? Or do I let the boys know they have competition?”

“They aren’t competition.”

“That’s not what I’ll tell them.”

“Don’t be a brat,” Elizabeth snapped, but Stephanie merely smiled at her and finally, she smiled in return. “It went fine. Now, what did BURT want?”

“To speak to you at your earliest convenience,” she told her and skipped away before the woman could respond.

She giggled when Ms E muttered. It was only a single word, but it worked.

“Brat!”

Witch Of The Federation III

Ten minutes later, Elizabeth looked around at the team.

“There was another hacking attempt,” she told them, and Stephanie glowered at her. “BURT dealt with it, but it is not the first and it won’t be the last.”

“Did we get them?” the younger woman asked and Ms E shook her head.

“We were able to track them until they reached the public transport hub and they scattered. We’ve put their images into the system in the hopes of finding a match, but they were a team of relatively experienced people with some good counter-surveillance skills. We’ll have to pick them up later.”

“Do we at least know who sent them?” Lars asked and she favored him with a cool stare.

“Not yet. However, that brings me to the next item—and one that is more relevant to us now. The last time we fought off an attack like this, it was followed by a physical attack on HQ. We need to be prepared for that. Keep your gear prepped and handy.”

The team leader glanced around at the others. “Go-bags,” he told them, and they all nodded, including Amy and Tracy.

“I’d rather hunt them than wait for them to come and get me,” Stephanie grumbled, and she gave her a smile.

“So would I, but we lost them so that option is out, for now.” When the young woman’s frown grew deeper, she added, “Besides, they might never come, but that does not mean we should not prepare.”

Zeekat sat and rested his head on Stephanie’s lap, allowing her to stroke his head. Bumblebee stood and butted her thigh with his forehead while his horns gored the air. Before she could touch him, though, he twisted back along his own length, pounced on Frog’s foot, and sank his teeth into the guard’s boot.

“Ow! Hey! Let go,” the guard shouted, bolted out of his seat, and promptly fell on his ass.

The feline dragged him closer, released the boot, and leapt upward to land with his front paws on the man’s chest.

“Sonofabitch, you furry fucking menace!” Frog yelled. “Get your fat ass off me and keep your paws to yourself.”

“Bee!’ Stephanie snapped. “Get off him and come here.”

The cat looked at her and she glared back. “Do not make me come over there...”

The cat mewed what could have been a protest but went to sit at her side.

“Good boy,” she told him, and Frog snorted as he picked himself up off the floor.

“We need time in the pods,” she said and changed the subject and looked at Elizabeth. “Do you know when the ones for the cats will arrive?”

“And mine,” Vishlog added, reminding them that there was no Dreth-sized pod set up in the pod room.

“I’ll look into it,” the older woman told them and stood quickly. “In the meantime, you can practice your moves in the training room. Knowing what it should look like in the real world goes a long way to making it real in the Virtual, too.”

They adjourned and Stephanie led the team to the training room. Elizabeth sent Amy and Tracy after them. “Like I said, I’m perfectly safe here and I promise not to go out without you.”

When they both looked skeptical, she gave them an evil grin. “I need at least one of you to drive and the other one to reload while I shoot.”

That made them both smile and relax far better than any other assurance she could have given them.

Witch Of The Federation III

Two days later, Stephanie stuck her head through Ms. E’s office door. “It’s time,” she announced, and Elizabeth shooed her two guards out.

“Same deal as usual,” she told them. “I don’t go anywhere outside the building, and you go train with Steph and the team—get to see them do their thing in the Virtual. Oh, and maybe die a couple of times to prove a point.”

She laughed as both their eyes widened. “I’m only kidding on that last one.”

They relaxed, right up until she fixed the witch with a firm stare. “Got that? No killing my girls this time around.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “As if I would.”

Amy and Tracy exchanged glances and nodded.

“She can kill us all she likes, Elizabeth,” Amy told her, “but she’ll have to do it one at a time because we’ve decided you need one of us with you at all times.”

“Even when you’re in the office,” Tracy clarified in case there was any confusion.

They both stared at her, their faces set and determined.

She glared at them, and Amy returned it unflinchingly. “You hired us to do a job. We’re not doing it when we’re both in training. You either need a third guard—and we’ll sit in on the interviews for that—or only one of us can train with the team at a time.”

Ms E knew an ultimatum when she heard one. “Fine,” she agreed. “Amy, you go first.”

“Done.” The woman fell in step beside Stephanie, but the other two women followed.

“I watched them install it,” Elizabeth explained, “but I want to see what the cats make of it.”

“They’ll be fine,” Stephanie reassured her and she was right.

She let the cats watch the guys climb into their pods before she showed Bumblebee and Zeekat the ones they’d had built for them. The felines had watched Vishlog slide into his with a grin on his face a mile wide and bounded over to the two remaining ones.

“In you go, Bee.”

Elizabeth had expected the cat to balk, but he didn’t. He leapt up and landed on the mat and immediately curled into a ball and settled his head on his paws. Stephanie rubbed his head between the horns and he blinked once and closed his eyes.

Zeekat did the same.

“I’ll see you on the inside,” she assured him as she sealed him in.

He flicked his tail over his nose and closed his eyes as if he were going to sleep.

“Amazing,” Ms E murmured while the witch raced down the hall to her private pod room and closed the door.

“Leave us in,” she ordered as she stripped out of her clothes and left them folded neatly in one corner, “unless something happens and you need us, okay?”

To the older woman, the girl looked as excited as any kid on Christmas morning.

“Crazy, the lot of them,” she said and shook her head once the pod had closed. “The ones that follow her are all crazy.”

Tracy snorted. “So,” she asked, “what does that make you?”

She closed the door to the pod room. “Me? Crazy’s mother.”


Chapter Fourteen

The training had gone well but Stephanie needed more time. After settling the cats, she returned to the pod and slid inside. Elizabeth might not approve the extra hours, but the woman had to be there to know and Lars was cleaning up after the last session.

She emerged into the white room and looked around. “Burt,” she said, “I got your message about the university course. We need to talk.”

This time, the room she found herself in reminded her of something out of ancient Japan in its sparseness. Straw mats contrasted with the dark wooden floors and formed a base for a tall wooden table.

On either side were two blue-cushioned seats. They were tall, as was the Meligornian style.

“Whoa.” She caught her breath and stared out through a wide window overlooking a garden where bamboo grew beside a pond. A pink flowering tree dropped petals onto the surface and brightly colored fish swam in the clear water.

“I’m so glad you like it,” said a familiar voice and she turned toward the first Meligornian master she had ever met, who entered through a door at the rear of the room.

“Oh, I remember him.” She smiled in happy recognition. “You created a construct so I could meet a ‘real’ Meligornian and learn a little magic.”

Without hesitation, she extended her hand in a formal Meligornian greeting. “Kaitel Gorniffula.”

He still wore the blue and gold robes she remembered, and his silver hair cascaded over his shoulders. Burt returned her greeting, his face lighting up with reflected pleasure.

“This space is only accessible to you and I,” he told her, “and I thought you would find it easier to discuss your thoughts on magic with a Meligornian Master than a businessman. I can always alter my appearance if you wish.”

No. I like this,” she told him. “I still remember the first spell you ever taught me.”

She repeated the Meligornian words, “T’lercten, T’suman. Kluman depen stahk,” and held her hand out to show him the ball of colored flame that nestled there.

He laughed, created a flame of his own, and released it as a colored butterfly before he gestured to the table. “Please, sit. I am sure you have much to discuss and there will no doubt be questions.”

She settled onto one of the chairs and waited as he took his place opposite her. A tea setting appeared between them, and he poured them both a cup, handling the delicate china as though born to it.

“Where did you learn that?” she asked.

“It is something the real M’rick knows,” he replied. “Do you like tea?”

“It all depends,” Stephanie answered and cradled her cup.

He sighed. “Well, what did you want to discuss?”

“This course,” she began tentatively. “I’ve never written a course before. Hell, Burt, I’ve never even finished a university course. Wouldn’t it be better if we got the real M’rick to write it?”

He shook his head. “He is Meligornian, not human. This course is for humans and you are the only human who knows enough to even think of writing it.”

“But how?”

“Think of all the things you would want to have known when you were learning magic. If you could have had a teacher, what do you think they would have taught you first?”

“Oh...” That made more sense to her. Her time on Meligorn had taught her that the Meligornians did, indeed, think of magic differently than the way she did. It was as if growing up with it, they took it for granted. She didn’t want that for One R&D’s students.

That, in turn, made her think. What did she want for them? What was the purpose for them finding those humans who could wield magic? Why was it so important that she not be the only one?

“Because I can’t be everywhere at once,” she told herself, thinking of her time in space. “If something had happened at home when I was chasing pirates, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.”

“This is true,” Burt agreed.

“And there is no one else here who could have done anything against something like the Nihilism, or even other humans using Nihilistic Energy.”

“Also, true.”

“So, we first have to think about the students we want and then we have to think about what we’ll teach them. We can’t teach them to use magic if they’ll simply use that power to harm others. It would be better if they never knew they could than to do something that would hurt others.”

Burt arched his eyebrows. “Oh?”

“Yes,” Stephanie told him and darkness crept into the edges of her eyes. “Because if they hurt others, I have to do something about it and I will make them wish they had never been born.”

Her voice softened and her eyes returned to their natural blue. “And I don’t ever want to have to do that. It would be terrible.”

“I understand,” he reassured her. “We will do our best to choose our students carefully.”

“That won’t mean we won’t ever make a mistake,” she responded, “but at least I will know that when the time comes.”

“You are already so sure?”

“I know people,” she informed him, “and it will come. I can only hope that it won’t come for a very long time.”

“So, Step One—choose our students carefully,” he repeated. “What qualities should we look for?”

“To include?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Well, we need to make sure they know that they have been chosen to protect the Earth and everyone on it and that is their primary role. We need to be very sure they’re on board with doing that. We can’t take them otherwise, no matter how good they are.”

“I can design attitude tests,” he replied thoughtfully. “That way, we could be almost certain they have the basic outlook at the beginning.”

Stephanie nodded. “Good. After that, I think they need to be taught how to recognize magic when they sense it, both around them and within them. They need to know how to monitor the levels they hold and how to measure what they hold—and they need to learn control really early.”

“Definitely,” he agreed and they both smiled.

They remembered what she had been like when she first started. Control and self-awareness were essential.

“And they need to be strong enough to be responsible for their own actions,” she added. “They need to think about what they’re doing and make sure they’re acting for the right reasons and not blindly following orders.”

“But what if those are our orders?” Burt asked and she quirked an eyebrow at him.

“Are you saying we’ll never make a mistake and tell someone to do something that they’ll see is a bad mistake when they’re in the middle of a situation?” she challenged and he nodded.

“I see what you mean. Very well, but they have to be very sure and able to explain why what they did was a good idea.”

“Agreed,” she acknowledged, “but they also need to know they won’t be punished if they choose to do the right thing over something that’s wrong, no matter who told them to do it. It’s why we’re not part of the Navy. Those guys don’t understand that.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “We need to not be answerable to them. They have their own agendas.”

Stephanie shrugged. “It’s politics,” she told him. “We have to be governed by protecting our people, regardless of the politics involved.”

“And by ‘our people’ you mean the Dreth and Meligornians as well,” he prodded.

She nodded quickly. “That’s why we need to have protection as our watchword and not politics. Humans don’t always remember that our allies are people, too.”

“Not even when that ally is a human,” he added. “Yes. It is a good thing we are not the Navy’s responsibility at this time. We must make sure our students understand what ‘our people’ means, and I do not mean only with their heads.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Being part of the Navy would be problematic.”

Burt chuckled. “Wait,” he told her. “At some point, you will have a Navy of your own.”

Stephanie leaned back in her chair and rolled her eyes.

“I have one ship,” she protested. “Well, one big ship and a couple of shuttles. That is hardly a Navy.”

“A university starts with only one teacher and a student,” he told her. “One big ship and two smaller ones is a good beginning.”

She nodded, but he could see she was already deep in thought and he slipped down from his chair.

“I will leave you to your preparations,” he told her. “Please, enjoy the tea.”

Pens and several notepads appeared beside the cup and she raised her head, her brow furrowed with surprise. When she noticed the Meligornian was about to leave, she stepped down from the chair and bowed deeply.

“Hartuitus baskilor, Master M’rick.”

He smiled and waved her thanks aside. “I look forward to seeing your course design.”

Stephanie watched him fade to nothing and returned to her seat. “I think the first class should be the basics of MU for both humans and Meligorns. That way, they can see the similarities.”

Not yet ready to put anything into the computer, she scribbled that onto a clean page in one of the notebooks.

“It needs to be a combination of practice, theory, application, and ethics,” she muttered, writing Practice, Theory, Application, and Ethics in a list.

“Now, where should we begin...”

Witch Of The Federation III

When the call came, it felt as though no time had passed. Looking at her notes, Stephanie knew it had. The notebook had several complete pages and the document she’d created on the laptop had begun to take shape.

She’d moved from one to the other and back again, using the notepad to scratch out her thoughts before putting the draft final version into the computer. Inevitably, this was revised half a dozen times as more ideas arrived so retained its draft status.

The soft jangle of chimes drew her out of her head.

“I am sorry to interrupt,” Ms E said when she answered, “but I need you to come out now.”

Since it was unusual for the woman to interrupt her when she was in the Virtual World, she nodded. “I’ll be there shortly.”

Once she’d saved her ideas and filed her notebooks, knowing they would be available when she returned, she prepared to leave the Virtual World. “Exit pod,” she told the AI and waited until her mind surfaced in her body.

When she’d settled, she popped the hatch and stepped out to find Elizabeth waiting with a robe.

As the woman slid the garment over her, she glanced over her shoulder at her. “Did the Navy call?”

Ms E nodded as Stephanie turned to face her, doing up the front of her robe. “Their timing sucks, as usual, but rats are always rather annoying in that they move at the worst of times.”

“I’ll be quick,” she told her and set off for her quarters.

She resisted the urge to jog but increased her pace as the team hustled past her toward the roof.

Lars fell in step beside her. “You dress. I’ll pack,” he told her.

Vishlog changed direction and ran into Frog, who bounced into a wall and slid to the floor amidst a rattle of gear and torrent of curses.

“I will help with the cats,” the Dreth told Lars and picked his teammate up by the collar before coming alongside.

Stephanie might have argued but she decided there wasn’t time and she could use the help.

They passed the team’s prep room and she glanced through the door without stopping. The guys were in the last stages of their prep.

“Did I hear Marcus tell Avery he needed a bigger gun to match his mouth?”

Vishlog grunted. “They’ve been comparing sizes since Elizabeth told us to gear up.”

“Weapon sizes,” Lars hastily corrected. “Weapon sizes.”

“Yes,” the Dreth agreed. “Of course, weapon sizes.”

Zeekat and Bumblebee bounded over as soon as he opened the door and she had to shoo them out of the way so Vishlog could get through.

“My gear’s in there,” she told Lars and pointed at the cupboard closest to the door. She was glad she’d taken Elizabeth’s advice and put a go-bag together as well as keeping her combat gear separate from her other clothes.

The woman had been right about wanting some space to call her own.

Both cats demanded head-rubs as they wound around her legs and threatened to knock her off her feet.

“Out of the way. Out,” she told them and shoved them gently to the side. “Go mug Vishlog. He’s gonna help you with your armor.”

He gave her a startled look and she pointed to a locker she’d had installed beside her gear cupboard. “It’s over there. You’ll know which is which.”

“I will work it out,” he told her and turned to the locker. “Here, kitties.”

Lars fished in his pocket and withdrew a small package. “Here,” he called and threw it to the Dreth. “This should help.”

Stephanie didn’t know what was in the packet, but it certainly caught the feline’s attention. Zeekat bounded toward Vishlog, but Bee tracked the package in flight and leapt enthusiastically. He and the parcel reached the alien at the same time.

The Dreth barely snatched it out of the air before the cat’s teeth closed.

“Bad kitty,” he scolded. “No treats for you.”

Bee landed at his feet and gave him a look that said he’d take the treats if he had to, and Vishlog closed his fist around the packet with a smirk. “Armor first, then treats.”

She left them to it and had almost reached her bathroom door when Lars called behind her, “Hey, Steph! Catch.”

He’d caught her by surprise but she had time to register the bulky block of clothing and armor he’d hurled at her. The solution was easy. Drawing on the magic within, she wrapped the flying bundle in blue light and floated it to her.

“Cheat,” he muttered but was already dragging her pack out of the cupboard and making sure it had everything he thought she needed.

With the door closed behind her, she set her armor down and stripped out of her robe.

Five minutes later, she followed two armored cats and one slightly scratched Dreth out the door.

“That was fast,” Lars told her.

He’d insisted on carrying her pack but she had refused to let him check her armor.

“On the shuttle,” she’d snapped. “We can do that in the air.”

He hadn’t argued, simply grabbed her gear and steered her to the door.

The cats exited first, followed by Vishlog. Stephanie was about to step after them when there was a yowl of protest followed by a hasty apology from Frog.

“Sorry, Bee.”

The cat hissed and Vishlog lunged forward. Stephanie hurried out to see what was happening and found the black-and-yellow beast wrapped in Vishlog’s arms and tucked under his chin while the Dreth stroked his neck.

Frog stooped to pick up the pack he’d dropped, and Marcus looked concerned. Zeekat had flattened himself against a wall and glared at the two of them, his lips lifted in a silent snarl.

“Man, if looks could kill,” Stephanie joked and hurried over to lay a hand on the cat’s head. “Come on, Zee. They won’t step on you, again.”

“Step on him?” Frog was outraged. “Damned if the pair of them didn’t step right out under our feet. They almost sent me ass over teakettle.”

Both animals’ tails twitched with agitation.

Johnny stuck his head down the stairs.

“We lift in five.”

The argument ceased and they raced up the stairs. Vishlog set Bee on his feet when they reached the roof. Looking up, Stephanie discovered the Navy had sent transport.

“It’s always nice when the date comes to pick you up,” she commented and kept one hand on each of the felines as the massive shuttle descended. “That thing’s almost as big as mine.”

“We’re catching a ride up top,” Johnny told her. “It’s the fastest way to the target location.”

“Do we have that yet?”

“No,” Lars told her and stooped so his mouth was close to her ear. “They’ll brief us as soon as we’re on board.”

“What did Ms E have to say about that?”

“I was as uncomplimentary as hell,” Elizabeth said, her breath warm against Stephanie’s other ear.

She jumped and nudged Zeekat. “You’re supposed to tell me when she sneaks up like that.”

The woman gave the cat a fond look. “We have an understanding.”

“We’ll see about that,” she told her with a grin. “I can’t have my cats teaming up against me.”

Elizabeth exchanged glances with Zeekat, whose tail twitched. “I didn’t say they’d agreed to work against you,” she reassured her, “only that we had an understanding.”

The Navy shuttle’s hatch opened as it descended and Marines were now visible, clinging close to its edges. They jumped to the roof as the shuttle settled, picked the gear up, and threw it to the loadmaster as two more hurried the team on board.

They were directed to seats and handed headsets as they boarded and the Marines slapped their backs as they passed.

“I take it you can all hear me,” the sergeant said and addressed them while the rest of his team closed the hatches.

The shuttle lifted as soon as one of them banged on the cockpit, but Steph and the team nodded.

“Our target is a group of twenty rebels hiding in a Dreth consulate in Berlin. I’ll send the floorplan to your HUDs. They think they’re safe because they’re on Dreth soil but we have news for them.”

He stopped and showed his teeth in a feral grin. “Correction, you have news for them. The Dreth agreed that we could send you in. Your instructions are to eliminate the cell but to try to keep as many of them alive for questioning as you can. If you can’t...” He shrugged. “They’re the ones working for the enemy. The main priority is that they no longer do that. But please, try to bring us back a little gravy.”

Stephanie nodded her understanding, although her mind was only half on what he was saying. When the shuttle reached space, she took advantage of all the gMU around her and drew as much of it in as she could hold.

Given that they were going up against twenty—that they knew of, but it could also be more—enemies, most of whom were Dreth, she would definitely need as much as she could draw. And, of course, that didn’t include the possibility that there might be one or more Nihilist aliens among them.

She shivered. There’d better not be any Nihilists. That would be bad.

“This is only a short ride,” the sergeant explained. “No-one needs to know you’re inside.”

That made sense. Given the Nihilist’s offer to her, she could imagine that offer being made to others. There was no way to know who had been compromised or not.

Hardly any time passed before the pilot’s voice reached them over the headsets. “Preparing to drop. We drop in three, two, one...”

The craft descended hard and fast before it settled.

“We’re almost there,” the pilot told them and the team stood to check each other’s armor and weapons.

“Turn,” Lars told Stephanie as the pilot spoke again.

“Ground support says they have an expectation of new sensors up, but they’re probably looking for something larger.”

“We’re fairly large,” Lars muttered and headed forward.

He didn’t look happy when he returned. “We’ll come in hot.”

“Hasn’t anyone told them shooting only happens on the second date?” Frog asked.

“They can pick up the shuttle?” Stephanie asked.

“They will soon.”

She looked at the rear hatch. “Pilot! Hold this altitude.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he confirmed through the headsets.

“Do you guys trust me?” She looked at each member of her team.

“To do what?”

“Only to get us into more trouble than we already are.”

“That’s only on a normal day, Frog.”

“Oh, yeah…well, then, sure we trust you, Steph.”

“Good.” She smiled and tapped the loadmaster on the arm, but Frog wasn’t finished.

“Yeah, only until the time you screw up. Then, my remains will flip you the finger and I’ll haunt your ass.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes and looked at the loadmaster. “Open the hatch,” she ordered and gestured to the rear door.

He gave her a startled look but didn’t argue and instead, murmured something to the pilot.

“They what? Okay...”

“Oh...” Frog watched as the hatch slid open. “Boy, you sure know how to show a guy a good time.”

“Great,” Marcus added from where he stood beside him. “A jump from a perfectly working shuttle with no chutes or anti-grav—exactly what I was looking forward to.”

“We aim to please,” she quipped and looked around for the cats.

Bumblebee growled and backed away a pace, Zeekat beside him.

“Lars, get everyone together, I gotta...” She gestured at the felines.

“You heard her. Let’s make sure nothing falls off us when we jump.”

“I think Frog’s nerves fell off a long time ago.”

“Better than my balls.”

Stephanie ignored them and knelt in front of the cats.

“Trust me,” she told them and looked into their eyes.

Zeekat gave a doubtful yowl and Bumblebee wrinkled his lip. She placed a hand on each of their shoulders. “Trust me,” she repeated. “I will protect you.”

Bumblebee gave an offended huff and flicked his tail. It was his job to protect her. Zeekat growled in protest.

“Then trust me,” she told them. “I need you on the ground.”

“And there will be lots of squeeeeeekies,” Vishlog added from behind her.

Both cats’ ears pricked, and she looked back at him. He nodded at her. “Lots and lots of squeekies.”

The animals took a step forward while their eyes gleamed and tails flicked. They looked from the Dreth to the door and glanced at Stephanie.

“I swear those things understand every word she says,” Johnny murmured and she wasn’t about to argue.

“So, are we going already?” Frog bitched. “Or are we gonna stand here and contemplate the view?”

“Ooh, someone has his panties in a bunch,” Marcus teased and offered Frog his arm. “Come, young man, you can jump with me.”

His teammate linked arms. “Don’t mind if I do.” He looked at Lars. “And you?”

He jerked a thumb at Stephanie. “My dance card’s already full,” he said.

Frog pouted and turned to Johnny. “You, then.”

“We’ll be over the target in five,” the loadmaster told them and all joking ended.

The team hooked arms and Vishlog caught both cats by their armor’s harness.

“In three...two...one...” the man said and found he was speaking to thin air.

He looked at the sergeant. “They are either certifiably insane or beyond courageous. I’m not sure which.”

The other man walked over and looked down, unable to make out the team in the darkness below. He pressed the hatch controls and stared through the gap until the door closed. “She’s the Witch. It’s probably both.”


Chapter Fifteen

“Whose dumb-ass idea was this?” Frog’s voice shook as the team fell.

“Who are you calling a dumbass?” Stephanie challenged and glanced at Vishlog to see how the cats were coping.

Both animals had twisted in the Dreth’s grip and wrapped their paws around him to dig their claws into his armor as they hung on. Their ears were flat against their skulls and their tails were coiled around his legs.

It’s a good thing he’s armored, she thought and made a mental note to pay for repairs.

“Steph, we’re falling too fast.” She was sure Lars had meant that to come out in calm, measured tones, but he sounded worried.

“Don’t worry, guys. I’ve got this,” she reassured them and drew several disbelieving snorts as she pulled a platform of eMU beneath them.

“Oh, sure,” Frog snarked, “because no one will notice a glowing blue circle highlighting our asses.”

She dropped the magic and they began to plummet again.

“Nice one, Frog!” Johnny yelled, while she flicked through the mission brief and fixed on a picture of a small park half a block from the consulate grounds.

“Be quiet!” she commanded. “We’re coming in to land!”

“Land? At this rate, I’m not gonna have any fingers left to flip you,” Frog protested.

“Remind me to get a less whiny dance partner next—” Marcus’s voice was cut off when the team vanished out of the air. “Oof—”

They landed hard but not as hard as they would have if Stephanie hadn’t dropped them into something thick and sticky and black.

“What was that?” Lars asked, his soft query coming loud and clear through the helmet.

Whatever it was, it dissipated as they sank chest-deep into it.

“This stuff had better come out in the wash,” Frog grumbled and wiped an imaginary stain on his armor.

“As if you ever wash,” Marcus sniped in response, keeping his voice low.

“Ssshh, guys, or they’ll hear us.”

They? At her warning, they all froze, dropped into crouches, and surveyed the area around them. Their HUDs displayed where she had dropped them.

“What are we doing here?” Frog asked, his voice subdued.

“I didn’t know where they were watching at the consulate,” she replied. “Now, shsssh.”

She raised her head cautiously to look past a children’s playground to a bench nestled in the middle of a rose garden.

“Man, the dude sure knows how to pick his location,” Marcus murmured.

“In full view of a kids’ playground?” Johnny argued. “That’s tacky.”

“In the middle of a rose garden in full bloom.” Avery sighed. “Even I might ignore the playground for that.”

“Besides, it’s nighttime. The little menaces are all in bed. It’s not like they’ actually see...anyth— Oh, dude!”

“There’s no way one of them won’t notice us going past,” Brendan added. “It’s a nice little courtyard of flowers and a good place to cast a blanket. With enough cover, we won’t be seen in the shadows, but each of those exits follows a path to a lamp post.”

“Who says we’re taking the paths?”

Marcus waved a hand at the garden beds. “We don’t have much choice. Brendan has a point. If one of them looks up at the wrong moment...”

Frog bobbed a little higher. “I don’t think either of them will notice a thing.”

“Are you sure?” The team took a peek.

“Well, then...”

“Ooookay.”

“Is that even allowed in public?”

Stephanie pressed her fingers against her forehead and groaned. “While I hate to spoil a moment,” she murmured and her hands glowed blue, “I don’t think we can risk it.”

Shrouding herself in magic, she stood and whistled. The couple sat up and looked around. A quick flare of magic froze them before they could say anything, and a second flare knocked them out.

“Do you think they saw you?” Frog whispered. “Oh—”

“Nope.” Her form wavered back into visibility.

“Nice trick.”

The team sprinted to where the couple lay. They stopped when they reached them and crouched behind the cover of the rose bushes. Lars surveyed the sleeping pair. “No one’s ever going to believe they simply fell asleep.”

“Just... Cover them or something,” Stephanie hissed. “We don’t have all night.”

“And they certainly didn’t get all night.” Frog snickered. “I bet that’s the last time she lets him take her anywhere.”

Brenden nodded sagely as Lars pulled the blanket out from under the pair and draped it over them. “Yup, that’s one relationship ruined.”

“Go,” Stephanie whispered. “Lars and I have this covered.”

Frog waggled his eyebrows. “Uh huh. I’ll bet you have—”

He stifled a yelp as Johnny curled a hand under his bicep and dragged him in the direction of the footpath. One by one, the rest of the team followed. Vishlog tapped her on the shoulder. “Lars and I will finish here.”

She glanced at where Lars nudged the guy’s foot under the blanket and nodded. “We’ll wait at the edge of the park.”

“No,” Lars told her. “Keep them moving and get eyes on the consulate. We won’t be far behind you.”

“Done.” Stephanie moved swiftly after the team and the two cats stayed close.

She looked back in time to see Lars pull his wallet out and tuck a couple of notes in the guy’s hand.

“Dude,” the team leader’s whisper came over the comms, “buy some new underwear. You’re embarrassing the males of the species.”

Soft coughs and snorts showed what the team thought of that, but they kept them muffled and remained in the shadows.

“Head to the consulate,” she ordered. “We need to take a look at how close the data matches what we see.”

“So, we gonna peek over the fence.” Frog did not sound impressed. “It looks quiet—”

Lars slapped him on the shoulder. “It looks like you’re up, butthead. I need visual on the inside and I’d like the front door opened without having to knock.”

Stephanie cleared her throat. “You get the visuals. I can deal with unlocking an entrance.”

She glanced at Frog. “It doesn’t have to be the front one. We only need the clearest path to the biggest concentration of bad hats.”

Frog caught hold of Johnny. “We’re going home after a late night out,” he said and his teammate gave him a lopsided grin.

“Uh huh. Like New York.”

He grinned. “Egshactly!” he slurred.

Lars groaned. “Everyone else, get ready to go really loud, real soon. We’re not allowed to let these guys kill themselves.”

“Aw, why not?” Marcus gave a mock whine.

Avery pushed him and they both smirked.

The two men crept around the corner and re-emerged to wander down the middle of the street. It looked like they meant to cross but hadn’t worked out how since neither of them could steer a straight path.

Frog constantly poked Johnny and pointed at things they passed. When he did, they’d both exchange glances and giggle stupidly. They reached the sidewalk outside the consulate several feet down from the gate.

The smaller man pointed at the shadows under the archway.

“Uh, I gotta...”

Johnny unwound his arm so fast, his teammate stumbled, but he wove his way into the shadows and nothing happened. The larger man stepped behind the opposite pillar.

“He isn’t...” Stephanie watched Frog, horrified.

Marcus nodded sagely. “Yup... If that doesn’t bring them out, nothing will.”

“Tell me he’s not like that in real life.”

The guys exchanged glances before Avery replied. “Okay, Steph. He’s not like that in real life.”

He sounded exactly like he was repeating the words she’d asked and didn’t mean a single one of them. Brenden snickered.

“Heads up.” Lars had watched the gates and immediately noticed when one opened. He raised his blaster. “Let them handle it, but don’t let them get dead.”

“Gotcha,” Stephanie replied and quietly drew eMU in and held it ready. This time, she didn’t let it play across her hands. There was no way she wanted to be the one who gave them away.

Frog wheeled as a guard stepped through. He brought his hand down on the man’s shoulder and leaned toward him. “Esh tut...” he began.

A look of disgust crossed the man’s face as he pushed him away. “Hau ab!”

He stumbled back a few steps and the guard watched him start to turn. “Arschlo...”

Johnny stepped from behind the column to grab him, knock him out, and drag him through the open gate.

“Who’s the arschlock now, blödmann?”

“I told them I’d open the door,” Stephanie protested and Lars shrugged.

“You also told him he had to get into the system. The terminal’s on the inside.”

“And you didn’t—”

“There wasn’t time to explain.” He stood and led the team across the road. “It’s time to go.”

They hurried across the street, keeping a close eye on the consulate walls and windows. Stephanie shrouded them in magic to dull their outlines and quiet their footsteps. She held the magic around them after they’d made it safely past the gate and into the grounds.

A short, sharp whistle from Frog drew them into the shelter of the wall.

“I’m gonna need you to get us in there,” he said and pointed at the windows. “And it would be nice if you could do that thing you did at Sanmar’s. You know, with the little balls.”

She groaned. “Now, why didn’t I think of that?”

“Because you are not the Frogster...” he replied in perfect mimicry of Todd.

It startled a laugh out of her and she clapped her hands over her mouth. The guys moved, shifted several feet down the wall, and sank into a different set of shadows. As soon as they had settled again, she conjured several translucent spheres and used a little eMU to unlock the closest window.

A few short moments later, she reported back.

“There’s only one guard on the east entrance.”

Lars nodded. “That’s our way in, then.”

Stephanie raised her hand. “Yeah, but it’s a Dreth.”

“I can deal with him,” Vishlog interjected and Lars nodded.

The warrior smiled as he slipped away into the dark.

“Did you find out where the rest of them are?” the team leader asked.

She wished she had the magic to simply deliver the details directly to their HUDs and frowned. Now, how...

It seemed simple enough. She only had to get the magic ball to interface with the helmet...and she only had to do it with one...

It would be exactly like the Meligornian magic worked—although that was essentially equipment powered by magic. Still, it was the same principle, right?

That was when she realized that experimenting with the HUDs not only when they were at the start of a mission but while they were actually on people’s heads might be a bad idea.

Yeah, Steph. Let’s not blow their tiny little minds.

She smirked and ignored Lars’s curious look. “It was only a thought.”

“The last thought you had ended disastrously for those involved.”

Stephanie pouted, read the information from the returning globes, and pulled her tablet out of its case. The guys crowded around, shielding the glow from outside eyes.

With the information from the spheres, she quickly populated the map with the exits that were guarded and the location of the main rebel body, two automated gun turrets overlooking the courtyard, and the patrols.

“Well, damn...” Lars murmured as she shut the tablet down hastily and shoved it into its pouch.

Avery and Brendan eliminated the lead guard when he rounded the corner of the building, and Johnny and Lars dealt with the next two. The cats took care of the last ones. None of them left any rebels alive to question.

“Did you have to kill them all?” she asked and the team leader shrugged.

“Oops?”

“And I thought you were the responsible one.”

“I didn’t want to risk any of them passing a warning.”

They dragged the bodies into the garden bed and tucked them out of sight beneath a thick hedge under a double window.

“Do you think we can block all the exits?” he asked and she frowned in thought.

“I can jam the doors so they can’t reach the windows in the outer walls,” she suggested.

“And we can get you to block the entry to any of the unpopulated areas,” he added.

“I’ll merely rearrange the structure,” Stephanie told him. “Like I did with the ship.”

“Except this time, you’ll deal with wood and stone,” he told her. “Do you think you can manage it?”

“Give me a minute.”

It took more than a minute and Vishlog had returned by the time she was done. Wood and stone were very different to work with than ship metal. She opened her eyes in time to watch the Dreth stow another body under the hedge when he arrived.

“There are others we can preserve,” he told her.

She sent out another half a dozen orbs to verify that she’d managed to do what she’d hoped by checking the tablet once again.

“Yes!” She grinned and noted the way the stone had flowed over and around the edges of the doors. “No one will open those in a hurry.”

There was now only one way in and out and she highlighted it on the map.

“There,” she told them and pointed it out on the device. “That’s our way in.”


Chapter Sixteen

They went in fast. Vishlog took the lead and the two cats ran by his side.

“Here squeekie, squeekie, squeekie,” he roared and the animals’ ears pricked.

Stephanie wondered how long it would take Bumblebee and Zeekat to work out the Dreth meant something entirely different than what they thought of when he used the word squeekie.

They raced down the corridor until they reached the area the rebels had set up. According to the floorplans, this had once been an administration wing. It made sense since it would have had all the connections they needed to the interplanetary web.

“We need to clear them from the bottom up,” Lars shouted. “Steph, I need that stairwell blocked.”

She directed a blast of magic down the corridor, blew out the wall and door leading to the stairwell, and filled the cavity with debris. The dull boom as the building shook to its foundation was followed by the sound of doors being thrown open in panic.

Some of those were slammed closed again equally as fast.

“Did your magic bubble drones show if these rooms were interconnected?” Lars shouted, and she shook her head.

“I looked for life signs, not doors.”

From the other side of the wall, they heard doors slamming and footsteps running as rebels moved from room to room.

“Well, that answers that, then,” Frog muttered and blew a hole in the closest door.

Bumblebee bounded past him and leapt out as quickly again when purple streaks of magic crackled overhead.

“They have magic!” Avery yelled as Bumblebee reversed direction and hurtled through the door with a roar.

Frog laughed. “That’s all right. We have cats.”

Zeekat echoed Bee’s roar and ran after him.

Seconds later, the first shriek resounded from the room beyond. Another scream followed, then more footsteps as the remaining occupants fled.

“Frog, we need that data—and any rebels the cats left alive,” Lars ordered. “Johnny, cover him. Vishlog, take Avery and Brenden and clear the other side. Marcus, we have Steph.”

She took the central corridor. Unable to see where the rebels had gone, she stalked down it, blasted doors off their hinges, and demolished wall panels. One of the rebels discovered the blocked stairwell, took one look at her, and tried to dive out the window at the end of the corridor.

Stephanie flung out an upraised hand and he bounced off the glass to land flat on his back in the corridor. She ran forward, grasped his shoulders, and thrust him back to the floor when he started to rise. Lars shot another one before he could fire at her.

“Prisoners!” she shouted, and he altered his aim on the next to shatter a shoulder.

“Goddammit!” Marcus swore and fired a short burst toward the end of the corridor they’d just come down. “We have cockroaches making a break for the front door.”

“Zee! Bee! Fetch!” she shouted and pointed the two felines in that direction as a Meligornian peered through the door at them.

The cats roared and the man dropped the spell he’d been preparing and ran. Another rebel dashed past the door, shooting blindly through it as he passed. The animals dodged to the side before Zeekat took two long bounds and crouched.

The rebel panicked and froze as Zee leapt high, pounced over the rebel’s SMG, and landed in a scratching, rending frenzy of claws.

“I guess he doesn’t like it when they’re pointed at him, either,” Marcus noted as the SMG went off.

“Zee!” Stephanie cried but the feline continued its destruction unharmed.

Marcus, on the other hand, gave a short gasp of surprise and doubled over. “Of all the maggoted fucking luck,” he muttered, and dropped onto his knees. Lars crouched beside him, surprised that the round had penetrated the armor. He wondered if they had been enhanced in some way, or if it was simply an unlucky flaw no one had picked up.

“Steph,” he called when he’d been able to unfold Marcus enough to see the wound. He undid the armor and lifted it enough to take a look before he dragged her down beside him. “You need to stop the bleeding. I’ll take care of the cats.”

He didn’t wait for her to argue but ran toward the stairs. “Johnny, Avery, Brenden—on me. Frog, I want that data.”

“Man wants the data. Froggie mind the car,” his teammate bitched and shouted, “What happens if I want to shoot some asshole?”

“You’ll get your turn!” Johnny yelled in response as he headed out the door. “But don’t get shot while I’m gone. Steph’s pissed off enough.”

She heard the words as if they came from a distance. Blood oozed from under Marcus’s body armor and he was breathing fast.

“If...you...can...do...something for the shock, too...” he told her. “Be grateful.”

“You’ll be fine.” She laid a finger over his lips

He managed a bubbling laugh. “Already that...”

Stephanie closed her eyes and ribbons of blue arced over her hands and along her arms. He kept his gaze on her face and continued, “...Freaked out...Insecure...”

He gasped when she slid her hands under the armor and took a longer breath as magic flowed over his skin and the pain eased.

“Do that again...”

She smiled at him and shook her head. “Nuh-uh. Medics will fix the rest. Right now, I hafta go obliterate the auto-guns.”

Marcus stared at her, his face pale and sheened with sweat. “Lars—”

“He is chasing roaches and I don’t want him distracted—or shot. Yeah, that, too.” She looked away. “Frog! Don’t let him get shot again.”

“Oh, sure, because I can pull data and take care of the dumbass doing impressions of a sieve.”

“If he gets shot, you’ll be the one looking like a colander.”

“What the fuck’s a colander?”

“A swiss cheese bucket.”

“Fine. I’ll explain to Marcus why he’s supposed to not get shot.”

Stephanie ran past him and he glared at her. “Don’t mind me. I like looking after the car.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“He needs a blanket.”

“Get him one—and call the Navy in while you’re at it.”

With that, she was gone.

“Fuck!”

He checked that the download was running smoothly and headed over to Marcus. On the way, he dragged a silver emergency blanket out of his first aid kit.

When he reached his teammate he asked, “Are you okay, fuck-knuckle?”

“Do I look okay?”

“You look like you should be taking me to dinner and dancing.”

The other man laughed, then groaned, and Frog surveyed the area around them. Thankfully, it was clear, and he looked at his teammate. “She’s not real great at fixing what gets broke.”

“Did a good enough job...on me.”

Frog patted his chest. “I’m sure she did. You’ll be fine.” He found the Navy frequency and called the shuttle in. “Steph’s dealing with the auto-guns, now,” he said. “You should be cleared to land.”

“We’d better be. You get my boat scratched and you’ll polish it out.”

“Buddy, we ain’t that close.” He smirked and cut the connection.

He made sure Marcus was covered and checked the computers. The download was running uninterrupted, and he frowned. Nothing should be this easy.

With the other man to watch over, he didn’t have time to ride shotgun on it and returned to his teammate. “So,” he said. “What are we gonna tell your girl this time around?”

“Don’t have a girl,” Marcus replied.

“Yeah, you do. That cute redhead with the china-doll eyes.”

“She left the last time I got shot.”

“Aw, man. That sucks. I’m sorry.”

“Said she couldn’t stand the uncertainty.”

“She couldn’t stand it? Man, she should try being the one getting shot.”

Marcus started to laugh, then stopped. “Don’t. Don’t make me laugh.”

“Pussy.”

“Not lately.”

“That’s not something I needed to know—”

An explosion from outside was immediately followed by a flash of white-and-orange visible through one of the windows.

“It sure was good of Steph to make sure we had a view,” Frog quipped. “Or not,” he added moments later when debris hurtled through the window to shower shards of glass toward them.

“Oh, sure, Froggie. Make sure he doesn’t get shot, Froggie. Don’t mind me, Froggie. I’ma gonna blow the shit out of something fucking explosive and shoot pieces of glass at you. Yeah. Don’t mind that.”

Marcus started laughing but stopped abruptly. “Fuck, I hope the Navy gets here soon.”

As if it had heard him, the shuttle arrived shortly after and settled to the ground as a second explosion removed another large chunk of the roof.

“She coulda told us she wasn’t done yet,” the pilot grumbled and stared as Stephanie bounded down from the roof, shrouded in blue light.

She touched down lightly and trotted over to the ship. “I have wounded on the second floor of the administration wing,” she told him as Vishlog and the cats ran out of the dark toward her.

“And we have prisoners,” the Dreth added. He made a show of looking at the shuttle. “You will need another transport.”

“It’s already on its way,” the pilot told her, “and you’re in luck with the medics. We thought you might need some and fetched a few.”

It didn’t take her long to show the medics where Marcus was. Lars followed quickly behind her. “How’s that download coming along?”

“Keep your hairy, ass-hugging jock-strap on.”

The wounded man sputtered. “Please. Take him away...”

The team leader shot the medic an inquiring look, and he nodded. “He’ll be fine.”

“The next person who calls me Neurotic is getting a knuckle sandwich.”

Stephanie was puzzled but Lars got it.

“Old movie. Fine—Frustrated, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egomaniacal.”

“That’s not how it goes,” Frog argued as he headed to the computer. “I’m very sure that first one is Freaked-out.”

“Are you saying we have to watch it again?”

“Well, it’s a travesty. Stephanie hasn’t seen it. Todd would be disappointed.”

“I think we should be the ones disappointed in him for not having shown her already.”

“Do you think he’s seen it?”

“A movie buff like that?”

“Well, it’s not superheroes and stuff, you never kn— What. The. Fuck?”

“Aw man, Frog. Can’t you be trusted with anything?”

Stephanie looked over and saw what they were moaning about. A large shard of glass protruded from the computer. She smirked and turned her attention to the medics who loaded Marcus onto a stretcher.

One pulled out a bag of clear fluid and went to work inserting a drip.

“Tell me that’s the good stuff,” the patient muttered.

“Pussy,” Frog called, and Lars shoved him.

“Get the drive back up.”

His teammate’s jaw dropped. “You’re joking, right?”

Lars shook his head. “I told you. I want the data.”

“How about you go get the data and I’ll go find some criminals to kill?”

“How do you feel about minding the shuttle on the next mission?”

They continued to work as they bitched and both watched the open window and rooftop behind them. Vishlog and Johnny supervised loading the prisoners into the Navy shuttle that had touched down in the street in front of the consulate.

“Well, that’ll get the neighbors talking.”

“Data.”

“I can talk while I do this.”

One of the medics jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Are they always like this?”

Stephanie shrugged and Avery answered for her. “It’s gotten worse since they got married.”

Marcus tried again to laugh and groaned. The medic glared. “Get him out of here.”

He caught Stephanie’s look. “He’ll be...” He glanced at Marcus. “Okay. We’ll patch him up and send him back as good as new. We’ll even let him keep his spleen.”

The patient coughed. “Please. Stop.”

“Give it a minute,” the medic told him and finished hooking the bag up. “There you go. Now be a good boy and leave the monkeys alone.”

She looked around. “Monkeys?”

The medic shrugged and signaled for his partner to pick up the other end of the stretcher. “Some of them see monkeys.”

“Not me,” Marcus protested but his voice faded to a mumble.

The man gave Stephanie another look. “Mostly, they sleep, which is what they need.”

“Us, too,” his partner added. “The docs will want him out when we reach the ship.”

They started moving down the stairs. “They have some stitching to do.”

“They what?” Stephanie wanted to ask for more detail but Johnny laid a hand on her shoulder.

“It’s best to wait until after,” he told her. “He doesn’t need to know.”

“He’s out.”

He shook his head. “His subconscious can still hear you and it needs to know he’s fine.”

She sighed and shrugged his hand away. When she caught sight of the blood, she muttered, “I need fresh air.”

“I’ll go with her,” Vishlog stated as he walked in through the door. “You need to help Frog.”

They glanced over to where Frog glared at Lars as he hooked up a new monitor. “And I say the drive is fucked.”

“You won’t know until you try.” The team leader’s tone was mild.

Stephanie followed the medics and tried really hard not to crowd them in her hurry to get out of the building. On the street outside, the second shuttle lifted off, taking the prisoners with it. She saw Marcus into the first shuttle and walked to the front gate.

Vishlog followed and the two cats trotted alongside. Both ranged into the shadows and back and the Dreth kept an eye on them as well as the surroundings. He scanned the street, the buildings, and even the rooftops.

“Get down!” he roared and dived toward Stephanie.

His hand caught her in time to push her down and the dive carried them sideways. A sharp crack split the night and he cursed when a bullet drilled into his shoulder.

That was okay. His shoulder was where Stephanie’s head had been. This way was so much better, but by Hrageth’s hairy balls, it hurt.

She scrabbled to get clear when he tried to pull her under the cover of his body.

“Vishlog, if you don’t get off me, I’m gonna turn you into more meat than shield.”

He tightened his grasp, only to let go when she zapped him. The pain froze him long enough for her to slip free and take cover against the wall of the building from which the shot had come. Blue fire arced over her skin and glimmers of another silvery, almost translucent power blended with it.

Her eyes had gone midnight black and burned with anger.

“Uh, Stephanie?” he asked and flinched when she turned her head to look at him. He caught the moment when she saw he’d been wounded and managed to get to his feet.

She was at his side in an instant—literally. He hadn’t seen her move, but there she was, completely oblivious to the fact that the sniper could still be out there. She didn’t say a word but pressed a hand over the wound and focused.

His head spun at the slight pressure but he still looped his other arm around her and lifted her back to the wall. When he set her on her feet, she stepped out of his grasp, moved along the side of the building, and patted him on the cheek.

“Stay here,” she ordered, and before he could argue or even try to stop her, she had leapt away. Her voice came through loud and clear on the team comms.

“Vishlog is down out front. He needs medical. Morgana is in pursuit of the sniper.”

The Dreth groaned. He would never live this down.

Lars’s response was concise. “Fuck.”

Already on his way to investigate the shot, he reached the front gate in time to see Stephanie take a flying leap at the building beside the one she’d sheltered against.

“No fucking way,” he murmured as she bounded off the side and ricocheted off the building beside it. The cats raced after her but stopped when they reached the base of the wall and circled beneath their mistress while she bounded up the structure above them.

He watched until she reached the roof and ran along the edge of the parapet.

“No! Don’t you fucking—” he yelled as she leapt from the rooftop and onto the next. “No, no, no, no— Someone is so very grounded when we get back.”

Frog sputtered with laughter. “I’d like to see you try.”

“You!” The team leader swung toward him. “Try and take better care of him”—and his finger stabbed toward Vishlog—“than you did of Marcus. Brenden! Avery! You’re with me. Johnny, you too. We have us a Morgana to catch up with.”

He spun to scan the area for something he could use. When his gaze settled on the Navy shuttle, Avery groaned.

“Move your asses,” Lars shouted. “I need to be up there and not down the fuck here.”

They bolted across the courtyard. He led the way and hauled the pilot out of his seat so Brenden could take it. Avery took the co-pilot’s place, and Johnny closed the hatches.

“Keep him steady,” he shouted to the medics.

They obeyed but their faces said there would definitely be words when the flight was over. The pilot scrambled to his feet and his hand moved to the blaster he wore at his waist. “I can’t let you—” was as far as he got before Johnny’s fist pounded into his face.

“Sure you can,” he told the man, flipped him onto his stomach, and cuffed him. “See? It’s easy.”

The man tried to focus but slid into unconsciousness when the guard picked him up, dumped him on the nearest flight couch, and buckled him in. He glanced at one of the medics. “You can fix that, right?”

“Sure.” The man gave him a sour look. “But don’t go breaking anyone else.”

He made a show of looking around for someone else. “I can only see the two of you,” he told him. “Tell me you won’t be hard to get along with.”

The medic raised his hands. “Nope. We’ll simply try to keep our patient alive. Do you have a problem with that?”

Johnny smirked. “Not a one.”

Up front, Lars acted as a spotter.

“There!” he called. “Bank right, bank right, bank right. Holy crap!”

The shuttle swerved alarmingly and both medics clutched Marcus’s stretcher.

“There she is!” he shouted again, “and oh, man, is she pissed.”


Chapter Seventeen

The bullet passed close enough for Stephanie to feel it and she dropped. The crack that followed would have been seconds too late to warn her.

“Oh, so now you want to play,” she murmured, pulled eMU into a shield around her, and hoped the next bullet didn’t bounce off it and kill someone else.

“Let’s play.” She growled with cold rage and checked that the spinning vortex of gMU within was ready for use.

She scanned the buildings. “First, I need to find the little weasels.”

As she flicked through the HUD, she caught a faint trace of movement on the infra-red. “Can magic make me see like that?” she wondered and followed it with, “Do assassins and buildings store eMU differently and can I see it?”

The answer to that was either a resounding no or she merely didn’t know how to see the eMU value of a person or object because trying to see things radiating magic in the same way they radiated heat didn’t work. At least, not with the HUD on.

“I can’t take it off,” she murmured. “The Navy will be upset.”

The sudden impact on her shield was followed by another crack, and she used the HUD to locate the two heat signatures that ducked below the cover of a low rampart surrounding a high-rise roof.

“It is on,” she declared, gritted her teeth, and used magic to add an extra bounce to her next step.

An air car dropped out of a skyway and swerved wildly around her.

“Watch where you’re flying!” she screamed after it, touched down lightly on the next rooftop, and vaulted up to somersault over a canyon made of high-rise walls with a narrow ribbon of traffic winding along its base.

She cleared an air conditioning unit ahead of her and the two bright dots she’d pursued resolved into a swarm of heat. Hastily, she flicked through the HUD to discover someone had instigated a roof-top rave. Drawing on her magic to avoid landing on anyone’s head, she touched down in the middle of the dance floor.

Fury roared through her and her shields flared. Whatever sort of mood they were in, the dancers parted to give her room to move. “Which way did they go?” she demanded and the partygoers pointed in unison.

One guy boogalooed up alongside her and did a very Frog-like shimmy. Well, Steph knew exactly how to deal with that. Morgana, though, was more aggressive.

She stepped into the move, danced with a bare finger-breadth between them, and took him by the hand to spin him like any guy would spin a girl. Her smile was fierce when he pivoted and landed in the arms of a girl who’d followed him.

“He’s all yours,” she announced and took two long strides in the direction in which they’d pointed.

By the time she reached the edge of the roof, the sniper team had ziplined across to the next one. Stephanie studied the descent and scanned the building. She summoned several small globes to her hand and blew them into the air.

“Find them,” she whispered. “Show me where they are.”

The orbs rocketed away and only the barest of shimmers revealed their path. Moments later, a window in the building opposite sparkled with light. She lunged from the building and landed flatfooted against the sheer glass of its neighbor.

This time, she descended casually, bending to peer over the edge of the floor above. Once she had marked where they were, she bent her knees and leapt toward the wall opposite. She pivoted in mid-air, thrust her feet against it, and pushed back the way she’d come.

An extra magical boost added a little velocity to her flight and angled her body so she struck the glass feet first. The wedge of magic she drove before her shattered it, and she landed on the sparse wooden floor of a minimalist’s apartment.

A quick glance told her it was empty. The slamming of the apartment door told her which way they’d gone and she sprinted after them.

Their first mistake was in stopping long enough to wire the door. Her magical shield protected her when the world exploded. In the nick of time, she caught a glimpse of a young family that rounded the corner at the end of the corridor and laid down a wall of magic between them and the expanding cloud of debris.

She hoped theirs had not been the apartment next door.

Thankfully, they appeared unharmed and picked themselves up once the debris had pounded into the wall and dropped to the floor. Stephanie raced in the opposite direction. If the snipers had gone past the family, they’d have looked far less relaxed.

The stairwell was the only logical place they could have gone, and the echoing clatter of footsteps and urgent sound of a voice speaking into private comms were dead giveaways.

The next orb she conjured was the largest yet and it burnt with blue and clear, silvery flames. She rolled down the stairs and heard two startled shouts of alarm, followed by the panicked thud of a door below her.

Well, so much for that idea. She recalled the magic and followed her adversaries through the door, trying to determine which way they’d gone. Her shield flared as more rounds struck it and several loud claps followed.

When she peered down the corridor on the side her shield had sparked, she located a human and half-Meligornian rebel, their weapons aimed toward her. She shoved her hand toward them, the palm upraised.

A blue wall of flame careened forward in the same moment that the elevator door dinged behind them. The family that exited were laughing and talking about the movie they’d just been to see.

“Schau, mama!” was followed by two gasps of fear as the parents gathered their kids hastily and turned back to the elevator.

Even as Morgana, she could see that the flame would engulf them. The father stabbed his finger on the elevator button again and again, and the mother pulled the children close and dragged them onto the floor.

“Agh!” She ended the magic and whisked her hand from side to side to make the flames dissipate.

The elevator dinged, and the two rebels turned. Before the family could move, the pair shuffled back two steps. One man caught hold of the father’s arm and jammed his SMG into his side. The Meligornian snatched the nearest child and yanked them out of their mother’s grasp.

The woman tried to protest but he pointed his gun in her direction. “Kommen Sie!

With a firm grasp on her other child’s hand and her gaze on the gun, the woman moved.

Wo ist deine wohnung?” the human snapped.

Wo?” he shouted, and the father gestured down the corridor, his eyes wide as he took in the Federation Witch standing several feet away.

The rebel jerked on his arm and dragged him in the direction he’d indicated. “Kommen!

The family followed and the father handed the keys over when they reached the door.

Bleibe,” the human ordered and aimed his gun at Stephanie while his partner dragged the wife and children into the apartment.

Bleibe,” he repeated, shoved the husband through, and backed in after him.

She waited until the door had closed and walked slowly up the corridor. Several feet shy of the door, she stopped and sent a tendril of magic to knock.

The answering burst of fire demolished the door and punched holes in the walls beside and opposite it. With a smirk, she knocked again. Another burst of fire answered her, and she snickered and allowed the sound to carry down the corridor and into the apartment.

A child shrieked as another burst of gunfire answered that. Beyond it, she heard the mother and father murmuring quietly, presumably comforting their children. Deciding she needed to know where they were, she conjured a trio of translucent orbs and directed them through the hole where the door used to be.

Two vanished in a shower of sparkles. The third returned to reveal what she needed to know.

The rebels had herded the family into the center of the living room. One crouched behind them and the other stood to one side, his gun aimed steadfastly at the doorway.

They will never get their bond back. She made a mental note to pay for any damages.

Now that she knew where the terrorists were, it was easy to flood the apartment in a cloud of blue-tinged orbs of eMU. She kept these dancing while she sent strands of gMU snaking over the floor. With the rebels momentarily distracted, she walked into the apartment.

Her quarry hadn’t completely fallen for the distraction. Instead of having their guns trained on the door, they had them aimed at the family. Both parents were huddled over their children as if that would be enough to shield them.

“That’s far enough,” the human told her and his finger tensed against the trigger.

Stephanie froze.

“Now, back up.”

She raised her hands while her eyes scanned the apartment, noting the still-open curtains on the living room window. The rebel glared.

“I said, back up.”

Her lips twitched into a smirk as she took a step back. The man jerked his weapon around, choosing to focus on her instead of the family. The half-Meligornian followed his lead and his face reflected her smile. “I don’t know what you’re smiling about—”

The glass behind them shattered and she created a dome of blue over the family. Lars landed behind the Meligornian and Zeekat bounded behind him.

The cat was a monochrome blur as it swept under Lars’s legs, tumbled him, and brought the rebel down with a spray of blood into a screaming heap. A yellow-and-black blur hurdled over Lars, bounced off the shield, and knocked the human rebel off his feet.

“Don’t eat!” Stephanie shouted. “Zee! Bee! Don’t kill. Hold.”

Bee raised his head and his jaws snapped shut on thin air instead of the human’s head. He extended the claws on the paw he’d placed on the man’s chest and his prisoner screamed.

“Bee! We need to know what they have inside their minds.”

The man’s arm moved toward the dropped SMG and the cat responded, slapped his paw over the man’s biceps, and extended claws into that, instead.

Zeekat’s target stopped moving and stared into the feline’s snarling jaws in white-faced terror.

Lars dragged himself to his feet and glared at the cat. “That was my kill.”

Zee snarled at him, and he reached out to tap him on the nose. He froze as the cat’s mouth engulfed his hand and its ears perked.

“You are such a funny fucker,” the team leader grumbled. “Now, give me my hand back.”

The feline’s tail lashed and his jaws tightened.

“Cat, if you eat me, I’ll choke you from the inside,” the man threatened. “Not to mention kick your tail ten ways to hell and back.”

Johnny walked past him, kicked the rebel’s SMG farther away, and slapped Zeekat on the shoulder. “Move over, boy. Steph wants to ask this one questions and he’s bleeding out.”

Zee moved but he didn’t release Lars’s hand. Johnny went to work on the half-Meligornian, stripped the rest of the terrorist’s weapons, and tossed them out of reach. “And spit that out. You don’t know where it’s been.”

The feline shot Johnny a look, spat Lars’s hand out, and made faces as though he’d eaten something unsavory.

“Everyone’s a smart ass,” Lars muttered and looked at the frightened faces peering at them from under the shield. “Steph, do you want to let these people out? They look like they need to be somewhere else.”

“Steph?” he repeated when she didn’t respond and turned his full attention to her.

Her eyes were still as black as pitch and the magic rolled around her like coruscating flame. “Come on, Steph. We got them and we really need to get Marcus and Vishlog to medical. And the Navy will be pissed we borrowed its shuttle.”

That seemed to get through. Some of the darkness faded from her eyes and she dropped the shield and hurried over to the family. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you have somewhere to go?”

The father frowned at her and hesitated a moment before he responded. “We have freunde.”

Colored light strobed down the buildings outside, and Lars tapped Stephanie on the shoulder. “We have to go.”

Behind him, Johnny attached ropes to the rebels and Brendan hauled them unceremoniously into the shuttle, one at a time. The team grinned at their panicked curses when they dangled them temporarily in mid-air. She gestured to the apartment around them. “We will pay for the damage,” she told the father. “Do you have a card?”

He looked past her to his wife and she shrugged.

“A card?” Stephanie repeated. “A business card?”

The woman’s face cleared. “Karte...visitenkarte.”

“Oh.” Her husband retrieved his wallet and handed her a card.

“We’ll be in touch,” she told him as a loud hailer boomed.

“Steph...” Lars began, and she turned.

“I know. We have to go.”

She bolted to the window and leapt across the gap between the apartment and the hovering shuttle. The cats bounded over it with her and Lars landed beside her.

“Take her up,” he commanded.

The shuttle lifted and sirens wailed.

“They’re hailing us,” Brenden said. “Does anyone here speak German?”

“Anyone?” he repeated when he received only silence in response. “Because they sound really pissed.”

One of the medics gave a heavy sigh. “I should simply leave you all to hang,” he grumbled, “but they’ll probably shoot us down and apologize later and I have a patient to attend to.”

He made his way forward and they listened as he spoke in rapid-fire German to the angry policeman on the other end. They’d almost reached the consulate by the time the conversation was over and the medic returned.

“You’re lucky you’re doing this on the Navy’s request,” he told Stephanie, “otherwise, there’d be far more repercussions. You do plan to compensate that family, don’t you?”

She held the man’s business card up. “Yup.”

“Good, because I told him you would. I also asked him for an update on how they’re doing, which they’ll give us shortly.”

Avery and Brenden brought the shuttle down and a police craft touched down in the street outside. Another two hovered over the consulate.

“I hope you got the data you needed,” the medic said, “because the minute we lift, those boys will go over this place with a fine-toothed comb.”

They hauled Vishlog on board, along with a very disgruntled loadmaster and sergeant. The two men helped Frog carry several computer boxes on board and gave Lars filthy looks, which only darkened when they saw the unconscious pilot.

“It looks like you need a lesson on Navy protocol,” the sergeant growled and Stephanie gave him her brightest smile.

“I’ll ask the boss. This was a very last-minute op, so there might have been a few things your people forgot to tell us.”

The loadmaster snorted. “How about not needing to be told that stealing your partner’s equipment is bad?”

She gestured at the shuttle. “What bad? It’s all here. It’s not stolen at all.”

He rolled his eyes and eyed the control panel that operated the hatches. Johnny pushed off the wall and moved to lounge beside it. The man took a seat beside his pilot and glanced at the medic.

“Have you examined him, yet?”

“He’s fine. He’ll have a bit of a headache when he wakes up but he’ll be ready to fly in a couple of days.”

The rest of the trip was made in silence and the boys brought the shuttle into the hangar. The loadmaster requested a back-up pilot while Marcus and the original pilot were offloaded and a medical team came on board to examine Vishlog’s shoulder.

“It’s only a flesh wound,” the lead medic told Stephanie once the wound had been dressed. “I take it you have people who can see to the recovery?”

She checked in with Ms E. “We have people who can see to Vishlog. Marcus will have to stay there until they clear him. I’ll negotiate it.”

A short time later, the medic’s comm link pinged and he moved outside to answer it. When he returned, he looked happier. “Those are good people,” he told her. “Also, there’s been a change of plans. We’ll take your guy over to Washington General. You need to make room.”

The medics left and Stephanie turned to Lars. “How long do you think it will take?”

“I don’t know, but they’d better feed us,” Johnny quipped.

“They’d better let us out for a toilet break,” Frog muttered and caught their looks. “I’m just sayin’...”

They did both, explained that they’d redirected the security feed from the hangar’s cameras into a classified server, and locked the area down. It took the ship’s medical team several hours to finish with Marcus and he was unconscious when they wheeled him out.

By then, they were back on board the shuttle and Stephanie stared at the hatch. She started when it opened again but relaxed when she saw Marcus. Avery and Brenden had resumed their seats in the cockpit, but that changed when the loadmaster returned with a Naval lieutenant. The woman strode up to the cockpit and jerked her thumb over her shoulder.

“Out!” she snapped at Avery and turned to Brenden. “You, too.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Man, I’ll have to disinfect in here. There are too many civilian germs to poke a stick at and the stink is intolerable.”

“Don’t you need a co?” Avery asked and she glowered at him.

“The Navy thinks I can fly this boat on my own and I’m not about to disappoint them. Get out of my room.”

Avery left, following Brenden. The pilot’s voice floated after them.

“You’d better not have dented my boat.”

“Not a scratch,” Brenden retorted and his teammate snickered.

“Dings, nicks and multiple scratches, though.”

“I heard that.”

“Kidding! I’m only kidding.” Avery raised his hands and backed away from the cockpit door. “Sheesh...and I thought Navy pilots were made of sterner stuff.”

The shuttle lifted and the lieutenant could be heard talking to control. Not long after, there was a familiar sickening drop and the shuttle pivoted. Stephanie sat beside Vishlog.

She inspected his dressing and sighed. “How are you feeling?”

He gave her a slight smile and placed one fist over his heart. “Good, now that you are safe.”

“Seriously!” she snapped, and his smile widened.

“The medics have painkillers formulated specifically for Dreth. I feel fine.” He frowned. “Although not in the way Marcus suggests. I am not freaked out or insecure, and there is no pain.”

At the mention of Marcus, she fixed him a solemn look. “I hate it when you guys get hurt because of me.”

“We don’t get hurt because of you.” He patted her knee. “We get hurt because bad people choose to do things that are wrong.”

“Yes, but you wouldn’t be there if you didn’t follow me.”

“No, we would be somewhere else getting hurt, and we wouldn’t have you to look after us afterward. This is a much better option.”

She poked him. “Just so you know, there isn’t a bonus for catching a bullet for me.”

He laughed. “I think I’m rich enough.”

On the other side of the shuttle, Frog turned to Johnny. “See? See? This is why you never give a Dreth painkillers. He was way less reasonable before they drugged him.”

“Watch this,” Vishlog murmured, keeping his voice low so only Stephanie could hear him. Before she could respond, the Dreth looked at Zeekat. “Froggie has treeats.”

The big cat snapped his head around to look at Frog, and Bumblebee’s head came up an instant later.

“Treeats....” Vishlog told them in a sing-song voice and gestured at Frog.

The other man looked puzzled, then worried. He began to scramble back. “No, I don—”

Zeekat pounced and Bumblebee rose lazily from his position near Stephanie’s feet. Frog flailed and yelled as Zee pinned him under a flattened paw and began to snuffle his shirt and face. Bumblebee began at his boots.

Vishlog began to laugh as Frog kicked and squirmed and the guys chuckled.

“Do you mind?” the hapless man yelled when Bumblebee reached his waistline. “I don’t have any treats.”

Lars sighed and fumbled in one of his pouches. He gave a short, sharp whistle and withdrew a plastic bag. Both cats perked their ears and bounded over to him.

The shuttle shuddered and descended while Lars handed out the promised treats. Frog glared at Vishlog.

“I owe you,” he muttered and the Dreth smiled.

This time, they followed the medical team and Marcus to watch as their teammate was installed in a private suite with a security team both at the door and inside. Once he was settled, they were ushered out and given firm instructions regarding visiting hours.

“We like our patients to have the best chance of recovery,” the doctor in charge told them. He waved his hand at the security guards. “And these guys are distraction enough.”

“Understood,” Lars told him, hooked his arm through Stephanie’s, and steered her gently back to the shuttle.

“I don’t like leaving him there,” she said once they were aboard.

He looked puzzled. “He’ll be fine and I bet Ms E is already looking into the hospital’s care as we speak.”

The shuttle lifted for the short trip to One R&D’s rooftop landing space and set down again in no time at all.

Before any of them could say anything, the pilot spoke. “Hank! Get this rabble off my boat.”

The shuttle jolted slightly when it touched down and the loadmaster opened the hatch. “You heard the lady.”

Taking the hint, the guys disembarked and Stephanie and Lars left last. “Thank you,” she told them, and the loadie shrugged. “Don’t mention it.”

“Yeah,” the pilot snarked. “Please don’t mention it.”

Stephanie led the way onto the rooftop landing pad and Lars sketched a brief and casual salute before he turned away. They paused in the stairwell to watch the shuttle lift, then went down to debrief. To their surprise, Elizabeth wasn’t there.

“She has gone to inspect the ship and will return in a week,” Burt told them, his voice coming through the intercom. “Of course, she only left when she was assured of the success of the operation and that arrangements were made for medical care for the team. But I am here so please, enlighten me.”

They did, with him breaking down the operation and tutting when Lars told him about hijacking the Naval shuttle.

“You couldn’t have asked nicely?”

The team leader shook his head. “There wasn’t time to argue. We took it and went after her before she got so far ahead, we couldn’t back her up.”

That last statement was made with a meaningful glare at her and she rolled her eyes.

Burt tutted again when they reached the section where she pursued the rebels through the building.

“I take it you got their details?” he asked when she described protecting the first family.

She blushed. “No. I didn’t have time. The rebels ran off. I got the details of the next ones, though.”

“There were more?”

By the time they’d finished that debriefing, Stephanie had strict instructions to scan the business card in and was told the company would handle the rest.

“It’s a good thing we were working under Navy auspices, though,” he told them. “No doubt Ms E will handle it with her usual aplomb.”

They spent the next half-hour dissecting the mission and what they had learned before Burt changed the subject.

“Get a good night’s sleep,” he told them, “because tomorrow, you will begin intensive training to prepare you for your journey to Dreth.”

Stephanie regarded the speaker with drop-jawed surprise, her expression mirrored around the room. “Our journey to where?”

“Dreth,” he repeated calmly. “You’ll also be outfitted with new ceremonial uniforms and an armor upgrade—and I have researched some combat techniques specific to that world, which I believe it will benefit you to practice.”

“Can we know what it’s about?”

“I will brief you in the morning. Sleep well. Training will be intensive.”


Chapter Eighteen

In the repair yard conveniently situated beside the Navy’s Mercury shipyard, Ms E was very impressed. She had walked from stem to stern and admired the data center, the command center, and the security center. That last section was every specialist’s wet dream.

She nodded and made appreciative sounds as the chief engineer took her through his home domain and listened as BURT made a running commentary of the specs and potentials via her HUD. He was also suitably impressed by the engineer’s qualifications.

“I don’t know where they found him,” he told Elizabeth, “and I don’t care. That man has the best qualifications I’ve ever seen and his record... Let’s simply say he’s unique.”

“You can show me Mr Unique’s record later,” she subvocalized and Cameron Hargreaves gave her a sharp look.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I’m sorry, I missed that last statement,” she lied smoothly and he blinked as if startled.

Judging from her comments a few moments before, she had missed nothing, but who was he to argue? He gave an internal shrug and repeated the specs again.

“Oh, very good,” she responded and sounded as impressed as she felt. She looked at the empty bays where the engine array would stand. “These engines you have coming… They’ll be able to shift the ship between dimensions, too?”

Hargreaves nodded. “Oh, yes. They’re one step up from the luxury liners’ but still regarded as experimental. The Navy says they’re ready for ship trials and we needed special authorization to put them in, but seeing as your crew will all be certified and cleared, yes, they can shift between dimensions—provided you have the power on hand.”

Elizabeth gave him the slightest smile. “We will always have the power on hand.”

She saw that he deliberately chose not to argue with her on that note but moved on to the next section instead and headed down one level to the space beneath the engine room.

“This will be where they’ll seat the fuel cells,” he told her. “As you can see, they’ll hook directly through the ceiling. Once you approve the final payment, we’ll move the Knight to the Navy side of the yards for the final technological fitting.”

The tour continued, and she very quickly reached a point where BURT was more excited about all the bells and whistles, both pending and already on the ship, than she was. All she wanted to know was the nitty-gritty details of how the team had done on their latest mission. She knew they’d all come through it alive, if not exactly in one piece, but that wasn’t enough.

For Stephanie’s sake, she hoped the couple of injuries they’d sustained weren’t life-threatening. That girl never took a team injury well and if they were hurt doing their jobs, that merely made it even worse. She made a mental note to ask BURT for a full debrief later—not the reassurances he’d since given her that all was fine—and forced herself to keep her mind on what Cameron was saying.

He’d finally reached what should be the best part.

“And these, I believe, are where you will stay when you’re on board—the guest suites.”

Elizabeth perked up and smiled as she followed him into the space beyond. Immediately, Amy and Tracy broke away and searched the adjoining rooms while the engineer took her on a more leisurely tour. She stifled a sigh.

Her two bodyguards did exactly what she paid them for, but she really missed the days when it was only her and BURT. She followed her guide into the first suite and stopped.

“Well...” she managed after a moment of slack-jawed staring. “You’ve certainly outdone yourselves.”

Part of her wondered if the furnishings were truly necessary, but BURT had explained the importance of impressing any clients or important personages they might have on board.

“They need to be overawed by not only her magical prowess but the kind of power that can affect them in their political and social circles. For that, we need an all-pervading display of wealth.”

A little gob-smacked—which, she conceded, didn’t happen very often—she noted Meligornian crystal lamps, sherv silk carpets, and gleaming timber from a Dreth drakewood. There were pictures that reminded her of some she’d seen touted as masterpieces by rising art stars and small, elegant statues that she hoped were firmly affixed to the surface on which they stood.

“And the rest?” she asked when she finally found her voice.

It did not disappoint her at all.

From the walk-in robe, to the spacious bathroom, to the top-of-the-line printer for emergency garment replacement in the bedroom and the food replicator for luxury snacking in the living room, there wasn’t one need that had been overlooked or one expense that had been spared.

Even the entertainment units had been fully stocked.

Cameron watched her rove around the room and inspect one thing after another, and a small smile played at the corners of his mouth. When she returned to him he asked, “Did we miss anything?”

“Cabana boys and palm fronds?” she snapped in response and immediately blushed.

He laughed. “You might find those in the VR pods.”

Ms E gave him a broad smile. “Yes, I might. Where to next?”

Their next stop proved to be the pod rooms. There were two, but Elizabeth was really only interested in one. She breathed a sigh of relief when she noticed the Dreth-sized pod set one row back from the one she’d specified for Stephanie.

Two disc-shaped pods stood on either side of hers, perfect for two oversized felines to curl up in when they joined her in the Virtual World.

Cameron followed her gaze. “These cats…” he began cautiously. “How house-trained are they?”

“As in will they pee everywhere, or as in will they eat your crew?”

“Both.”

“They have their own sanitation facilities at the base. I’m surprised you weren’t sent the specs.”

He shook his head. “Sorry. I don’t think we received them,” he told her, and she cursed internally.

Still, as glitches went, that one was fairly minor and easily fixed. She pulled out her tablet and pulled up the relevant files from when she’d commissioned them. “Here. I’m sure that with a few minor modifications, you’ll find these sufficient.”

She sent them and he confirmed the receipt when he checked his tablet and nodded. “I can work with it.”

For a moment, she was tempted to challenge him by asking what was wrong with them but she decided she didn’t need a lecture on ship’s physics. She smiled instead. “I’m glad to hear it.”

They moved on in the direction of the hangars.

“One thing I forgot to mention,” Cameron said quietly, and Elizabeth braced for another problem.

To her relief, it was good news. As they stepped out of the lift, he tapped the walls.

Instantly, the two guards went on the alert but he ignored them. “The walls. We’ve had them reinforced. We understand the Morgana can shield her people, so we’ve strengthened the structure throughout to ensure nothing gives way when she does so. It also means,” he continued, “that it can take extra punishment if she decides to throw things around in here.”

She kept her smile in place and nodded, even though she wondered where he’d gotten the impression that Stephanie would feel the need to throw things that hard inside her own ship. Still, she didn’t know the future so she didn’t argue.

By the end of the tour through the hangars, BURT had sounded his approval and she was ready to make the final payment and accept the ship as it stood. The empty housings and slightly unfinished power lines would be completed at the Naval shipyards.

Ms E looked at the engineer. “I understand you’re staying on as the chief engineer,” she stated and he nodded but licked his lips a little nervously.

The fact that he’d been hired without the approval of the owners had come as an unwelcome surprise despite Gareth’s assurances that they’d “love” him. Looking at the assessment in her eyes, he hoped to blazes the man had sent her the correct resume.

And that he’d made a good impression.

“Good,” she told him. “I look forward to working with you.”

Witch Of The Federation III

The team was ready to leave when Elizabeth walked into One R&D HQ a week later.

“It’s good to see you.” Stephanie greeted her with a warm hug. “I was worried we’d leave before you got here.”

“Oh, there’s no fear of that,” she told her. “Burt was under strict instructions.”

The witch’s smile wavered. “They say we can’t take Marcus.”

She regarded her with an understanding gaze. “And?”

“I don’t want to leave him behind. The Dreth will want to see the whole team.” She glanced at Vishlog. “And I don’t know how they’ll feel if we arrive one short but I don’t want to make him worse by insisting he go.”

Elizabeth put her hand on her hip and considered the situation. “Would the Dreth be insulted if we arrived one short?” she asked and looked at Vishlog.

His brow furrowed and he gave a slow nod. “It is possible that those less agreeable would see it as a sign of weakness and use it against us.”

“Well, we can’t have that, now, can we?” Miss E commented and returned her gaze to Stephanie. “Tell me, how did you get Todd on his feet so quickly?”

She waved a hand at Vishlog. “And him? Although I notice you haven’t finished the job.”

The younger woman looked confused. “I didn’t do anything with Todd,” she began and stopped when Elizabeth smiled.

“I’ve read the medical reports. The doctors note unusually rapid healing with fewer complications than they’d anticipated, and they mark the improvements from your first visit.”

“But I didn’t— Oh...”

“Yeah, you did,” she teased. “And you’re not about to go into combat so there’s no reason you can’t give Marcus an extra push and get him out of there.”

Stephanie pivoted. “I need a car. I need a...Lars!”

“I’m right here. You don’t need to shout.” His reproof was mild and Ms E tossed him her keys.

“Second slot on the left,” she told him to direct him to where she’d left the car in the One R&D garage.

Lars followed Stephanie, almost tripping over Zeekat as the cat hurried to catch up with his mistress.

“Oh no, cat. You’re not going,” the man said firmly

Stephanie’s response was immediate. “Zeekat, stay. Bumblebee, stay. Guard!”

The felines stopped and sat with their ears cocked and tails swishing. Lars dodged around them and headed to the garage where she already leaned against Ms E’s vehicle and tapped her foot.

Back upstairs, Elizabeth looked at the team. “Well, what are the rest of you waiting for? Don’t you have a checklist to go through?”

She caught a few quickly hidden smiles as they went to work and pretended not to hear Frog’s half-muttered snark.

“Oh, sure. And we’re all very glad to see you, too, Ms E.”

It was good to know she’d been missed.

Amy waited until they were safely in the office before she asked, “Is she gonna make them late?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I called ahead to let the hospital know she was coming and to have the appropriate people standing by. They’ll be back before the team has to leave.”

“But how did you know?”

“BURT briefed me, and I know both the expectations of the Dreth and how our girl thinks. I also know that she might be the Witch of the Federation, but she’s also a kid. She forgets things.”

Tracy snorted. “Yeah, and she’s more used to breaking things than fixing them.”

She smiled. “There is that, too. She merely needed reminding.”

“You couldn’t have reminded her earlier?”

“Lars drives like a madman. They’ll be fine.”

“Or they’ll be arrested.”

“He’s not that crazy.”

“You’d better hope not, boss.”

“Which reminds me. Don’t you have boots to polish or weapons to clean or something?”

The girls smiled. “Well, seeing as you’re in your office and there’s only one way out, we’ll be in the next room...ma’am.”

Witch Of The Federation III

Stephanie was back with enough time to change and see Marcus settled on the shuttle. She looked a little bit pale, and was slightly subdued but happier, although one look at Vishlog made her frown.

He gave her a broad Dreth grin and showed her his teeth. “Don’t look at me like that, Stephanie.”

Pointing at Marcus, he added, “He’s in worse shape than I am and besides...” He gestured at the rest of the team. “You’re going to Dreth. I can’t trust you with these guys. They’d probably get you into a barfight.”

“Hey!” Frog, at least, knew when his reputation had gone before him.

Vishlog ignored him. “A barfight on Dreth should be considered a small tactical squad operation—and their politics are as hospitable. I am coming.”

His tone brooked no argument but he rolled his shoulders and winced when he moved the injured one. “Besides, when you’ve finished with Marcus, maybe there is something you can do for this.”

Stephanie stepped around Zeekat and scratched Bee between the horns. She managed a small smile as she dropped into the set beside him. “I’m sorry, Vish. I should have thought—”

“You are not the only one with a head.”

Avery and Brenden took the shuttle into orbit where the Federation Naval cruiser Wyatt’s Hope was waiting.

“Thank you,” she said when the captain came to greet them. “I didn’t expect Navy support for this trip.”

He gave her a wry smile. “It is our honor to escort the Federation’s only Witch.”

She caught the unofficial “but” underlying his official greeting. “And?”

His smile became genuine. “That and High Command didn’t want another luxury liner attacked because you were on it.”

“That’s more like it,” she told him and stifled a yawn. “Having said that, isn’t Dreth a long way out for you guys?”

The captain nodded as he led the team down the corridor to their quarters. “It would be, but the Meligornians insisted on meeting us halfway and escorting you for the remainder of the journey. We did, of course, point out that you were an Earth citizen and they reminded us you were also one of their own.”

Stephanie thought she saw where he was going but she let him finish anyway.

When she didn’t interrupt, he obliged. “It wasn’t something we could argue.”

He stopped and indicated a door. “We’ll bunk your team in there.” He turned to the door opposite. “And you and the cats are here.”

She was about to thank him when he hesitated. “I wondered...” He allowed the sentence to trail off and waited until she gave him her full attention.

“Yes?”

“Well, it is traditional for the off-duty crew to watch the Earth as we depart,” he told her. “We’d appreciate it if you and your team would join us.”

“I’d be honored.”

A short walk later, they stood on what the captain termed the rear observation deck surrounded by the ship’s company while they all watched the Earth grow smaller. Stephanie had also discovered that the Navy was charging One R&D for the privilege of transporting them, so the cost of the voyage would come out of their own pockets.

“Penance for hijacking a shuttle,” Lars whispered when the ship’s purser had stepped away. “You can bet your next pair of fancy underwear on it.”

“That, and we know where she is,” another voice said behind them and they both jumped.

The man who stood there was as nondescript as they come.

“Ryan, intelligence liaison,” he explained and introduced himself. “If you’re not already aware of it, the Navy is happier knowing exactly where you are because you create hot spots wherever you go—and we like knowing where the next one will crop up.”

Several of the crew closest hushed them, and he gestured toward the view.

“I always find it ironic that we leave the world we are protecting so very far behind.”

No sooner had the words left his mouth than the view twisted around them and the ship transitioned out of Earth space and into the dimension between.


Chapter Nineteen

Two days later, they were on the mess deck. With a week to the transition point and another week before the engines had regenerated the power they’d need to transition, the team had begun to feel slightly stir crazy.

Noticing the signs, Stephanie and Lars approached the captain. “We’d like to do some sparring with the Marines you have on board if that’s at all possible.”

After negotiating with the Marine captain, the exercise had been agreed to and the pod time allocated. Steph had gone to inspect the devices, saying she’d catch them up for breakfast, and Lars had headed to the mess with the guys.

“Someone has to keep them out of mischief,” he’d explained and Steph had grinned. “Save some for me.”

Zeekat and Bumblebee walked with her and Vishlog insisted that she not go alone.

“I’m not a child, Vishlog.”

“No, you are not, but I am your sworn arms man and it is my duty.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. She’d discovered her healing magic didn’t work anywhere near as effectively on the Dreth as it did on humans, and that was worrisome—especially as she didn’t have access to “her” Burt and VR pod to test why.

The warrior still struggled with his injury, while Marcus was well on the road to recovery—although perhaps not up to a VR bout with Marines. She didn’t know what virtual exertion would do to the wound and she didn’t want to find out.

She made her mind up to sideline him and chose one of the others to stay with him. They could both watch the match in one of the side rooms where there were screens set up for that kind of thing. As far as she could tell, the pods were at the higher end of the VR scale and worked fine.

By the time she and Vishlog arrived at the mess deck, breakfast was in full swing and so was the conversation.

“I might be a Marine but that doesn’t mean I’m gullible.” The statement drifted down the hall and Stephanie paused and stepped to one side of the door.

Her guard stopped beside her, his face amused.

“Well, you’d be stupid not to believe me,” retorted a familiar voice, and she stifled a groan.

Truly? She peered around the door and, sure enough, Frog stood beside a table full of Marines, a plate of food in one hand and cutlery and coffee in the other. He set his cup down on the corner of the table.

“Yup. Whatever contest you have in mind—however tricky you think you’re gonna be—the only thing that’ll happen is that she’ll hand your rock-headed asses to you on a plate.”

“Uh huh,” one of the Marines drawled. “And I suppose magic can do something about a half-dozen weapons firing all at one time?

“Hells, yes, it can,” the guard told him, took a forkful of yellow, and stuffed it in his mouth. He chewed hastily and washed it down with a swig of coffee before he continued.

“She can lasso the weapon out of a guy’s hand and pass it to one of the team so we can keep firing and our ammo never runs out. Or she can make someone’s weapon explode while they’re still holding it.”

One of the Marines snorted in disbelief. “Uh huh. And I suppose she can make an entire person explode, too, right?”

The guys near him snickered, but Frog nodded vigorously.

“Yep. I’ve seen her do that, too.”

Stephanie’s jaw dropped and she met Vishlog’s stunned gaze.

“You have to stop this,” the Dreth murmured.

“Yeah. Now tell me something I don’t know,” she whispered in response.

In the background, Frog continued to brag. “I’ve seen her charge into a horde of Dreth and reduce them to nothing but sludge for the rest of us to wade through.”

“As if,” one of the Marines sneered.

“Full true,” the guard retorted, “and that stuff is slicker than snot.”

“It’s slicker than something,” a Marine retorted, “and you’re full of it.”

“He’s not wrong,” Vishlog muttered and she nodded.

She peeked through the door and wondered where the hell the rest of the team was because surely, they weren’t letting Frog go nuts on his own. It took her a moment to catch sight of them but there they were—and yes, they were letting Frog go nuts on his own.

Lars wasn’t there, though.

Well, that’s something, she thought and looked up and down the corridor. Where is Lars? He’s supposed to be riding herd.

She caught sight of the team leader as he emerged from the toilets. He took one look at her face and hurried over to stand beside her.

“What are you doing out here?” he whispered and she jerked a thumb toward the door.

“Listen,” she ordered as Frog spoke once more.

“How well do you know magic?” he sneered. “I watched it happen.”

That wasn’t exactly true, and she knew it. Frog had watched the footage of her when she’d leapt over the horde and sprayed a sheet of magic over it. Vishlog had boosted the jump. It wasn’t like she’d actually charged into them.

“I’ll deal with this,” Lars told her, but she rested a hand in the middle of his chest.

“No, I’ll deal with it. That man will think twice before he ever opens his mouth, again.”

He gave her a doubtful glance. “I’ve tried to achieve that for years,” he told her, “but sure, go ahead.”

Stephanie took a deep breath and turned to the door.

“Next, you’ll be telling us she can fly,” another man snarked and she covered her face with her hand.

“Funny you should mention that,” Frog responded cheerfully. “In that same battle, she did fly. There’s no other way she could have reached the platform.”

“I threw you,” Vishlog whispered and she nodded. “Yup.”

Lars groaned. “Oh, dear Lord...”

“Magic’s useful for all kinds of things,” the boastful guard continued. “I’ve seen her use it to generate little grenades of magic that she sends out in bursts. They stick to what they hit and explode.” He paused dramatically. “There isn’t much left once that happens.”

The Marines weren’t impressed. “Oooh. That doesn’t mean she’s that formidable, only that she has shiny new toys. It’s not like she vaporizes whole units.”

Stephanie snuck another peek and saw Frog’s jaw drop.

“Didn’t you knuckleheads listen?” he demanded. “She napalmed an entire unit while she literally flew over them and she had enough juice left to shield her teammates while she melted a second much bigger group.”

“Uh huh.” The Marines did their best to look unimpressed and he took his story-telling up a notch.

“I’ve seen her walk through walls, reach through space armor and rip a Dreth’s heart right out of his chest, and dive into the void while pulling magic around her to form a bubble before she exploded.”

“Well, at least that last bit was true,” she muttered, and Vishlog stared at her, surprised.

“And the rest?”

Stephanie and Lars shook their heads.

“All lies,” she told him. “I have never walked through a wall or ripped anyone’s heart out through their armor. It’s a nice idea, though. I might try it on him.”

Frog was oblivious to her impending ire. “I’ve seen her blast a building to rubble,” he went on, “and leave a smoking crater where there used to be a communications array.”

“Didn’t we use rockets for that?” Lars asked and kept his voice low.

She groaned and pushed away from the wall. “I’m going to put a stop to this.”

The guard had already started his new tale when she walked through the door.

“I’ve seen her take a battleship...” His voice petered out. “Oh—hi, Steph. We were just talking about you.”

Stephanie pretended surprise. ‘You were?”

She looked at the Marines. “I’m sorry, guys. That must have been a really boring thirty seconds or so.”

Without a glance at her errant guard, she moved to the service counter and retrieved a plate on the way. One of the Marines spoke as she dumped the first ladle of scrambled eggs onto her plate.

“So, is it true?”

“Is what true?”

“That you can fly?”

Stephanie thought about it before she answered. “I come close.”

“And run up the side of skyscrapers?”

She froze and made herself take whatever was in the pot next to the eggs. What the Hell has Frog been saying to these guys?

“Yeah... I did that two weeks ago. Why?”

“Well, your man here says you can whip our asses with both hands tied behind your back.”

With a heavy sigh, she rolled her eyes and turned to snatch a knife and fork from the cutlery stand. She made a pretense of studying the Marines carefully and decided not to drop Frog completely in the shit.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think I’d need at least one hand—and maybe some of my team to back me up.”

She gave them an assessing stare, “But, yeah, Frog’s basically right. I think we could take you.”

“It’s funny you should mention that,” the Marine captain said from the door, “because the ship’s captain says he’s gonna televise our match to keep the rest of the crew entertained.”

Now, the Marines looked from the captain to Steph.

“You knew we had a match?”

“We organized it last night.”

One of the men jerked his hand at Frog. “Did he know?”

Stephanie shook her head. “Not for sure.”

The captain stepped into the dining hall. “So, how will we do this?”

She grinned and gave Frog a mischievous glance. “Well, seeing as Froggie has given away so many of my secrets in head-on combat, why don’t we do something a little different?”

“I’m listening.”

“I said I’d need some of my team to back me up, so I’m gonna limit my guys to four. You boys can bring along as many of your Marines as you want. That will make it somewhat fairer.”

“Do we get to choose the competition?” the captain asked and she smirked.

“Do you want to?”

He appraised her quickly and matched her smirk with one of his own. “Naw, I reckon we can handle whatever mad scheme you can think up.”

Over in the corner, Johnny sputtered, and Avery choked on his coffee. Frog grinned.

“How about instead of a head-on battle, we do a VIP protection scenario?”

The captain looked at his guys and she followed his gaze. She saw several shrugs and a couple of nods. Apparently, the Marines didn’t really care, either. Finally, she looked at Frog.

He appeared to be happy with the idea. Her smirk became a smile.

“Uh oh.” The mutter came from someone in her team’s corner, and she pointed at Frog.

“Froggie here will play the VIP.”

His grin faltered. “Are you sure, boss? I’m good in combat, too.”

“I know, Frog,” she assured him, “but we need to try to be fair about this. Besides”—she tilted her head, her smile wide—“don’t you think you’d make a good VIP?”

The man’s grin disappeared, and the blood drained from his face. He was in it deep and he knew it.

He cleared his throat. “So... How many games?” he asked and her smile returned, as evil as before. “Oh, let’s say...best of seven. What do you think? Does that sound fair?” He stared at her in horror before he managed a slightly off-key, “Sure, Steph. Whatever you say.”

In the team corner, the guys burst out laughing and the Marines looked concerned.

Stephanie ignored them. “This is how it’s gonna go,” she began, “and feel free to interrupt if you want to change something.”

The Marine captain nodded. “Will do.”

By the time she’d finished, Frog’s face was pale, and he hadn’t eaten anything more from his plate.

What would happen was that he would die horribly—and that would happen more than once. The Marines had to take him across the game zone to a safety area. If they got him there alive, they won the round.

The thing was, this was Stephanie, and she intended to kill him but good—on each and every attempt. If he was lucky, she’d only kill him three times before she got around to teaching the Marines a lesson on magical firepower.

He really hoped he was that lucky.

“What do you think, Frog?” Her voice brought him back to reality. “Does that sound fair?”

He managed a jerky nod but his voice came out as a hoarse whisper. “Uh…it sounds great, Steph.”

Over in the corner, the team snickered but the Marines merely studied him like he’d finally done something interesting.

Not one of them said anything but they all watched as he lifted his coffee cup with shaking hands and drained it.

I am so screwed... He watched as Stephanie and Vishlog headed over to join the guys.

Lars followed and slapped his shoulder on the way past. “Nice one, Frog.”


Chapter Twenty

They chose to relocate to the pod room immediately after breakfast. The team decided to go past their quarters first, but the Marines surrounded Frog on the way out the door. “It looks like you’re with us, little man.”

He didn’t even protest their use of the term and simply accepted the arm draped across his shoulder and let them steer him down the corridor. Johnny snickered as he watched him go. “It looks like he’s made a few new friends.”

“Awww,” Marcus quipped. “Anyone would think they didn’t trust him or something.”

“I’m very sure it isn’t ‘or something,’” Brenden added.

“Yeah.” Lars watched their teammate being led away down the corridor with a sour look on his face and turned to Steph. “So, who’s staying behind?”

“Well,” Johnny pointed out, “it can’t be Frog since his role’s already been decided.”

“No,” Stephanie agreed. “I’m gonna keep Marcus out of this one and you, too, Johnny. Avery and Brenden have spent considerable time in the cockpit and I want to make sure they’re not out of practice.”

Johnny sighed. “Me and my big mouth...”

She frowned. “You’ll have your turn,” she told him. “Besides, I want you and Marcus to watch on the monitor and prepare the AAR. We might as well make this a full training session.”

“So, we get to watch the shuttle, then,” Marcus concluded and she gave him a gentle push.

“Yeah, you do, but it’s a fancy shuttle and you’ll wield a wrench because I want a full run-down and Elizabeth isn’t here to do it.”

Johnny smiled. “Cheer up, Marcus. At least she didn’t say it was so I could keep you company. We get to be Ms E.”

The man looked happier. “You have a point there,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be her.”

“Right. Now that’s settled, we’d better get a move on,” she told him. “I don’t want those Marines saying we were chicken.”

“Or tark lizards,” Vishlog added.

“Did you tell them about the cats?”

“Nope.” Stephanie grinned. “I thought I’d let that come as a surprise.”

Lars regarded her in astonishment. “Did anyone tell you that you’re becoming quite devious?”

“No one would dare,” she retorted, opened her quarters, and called for the cats to join them.

Zeekat and Bumblebee greeted them happily and she stooped to scratch both their heads. “Are you boys ready to go play in the VR?” she cooed. “Shall we go chase Froggie? Yes? We shall?”

Both cats rubbed against her and purred loudly. She straightened and her smile faded.

“Frog is today’s squeekie,” she declared, and the smile returned.

Lars took one look at the mischief there and shivered. “That boy won’t know what hit him.”

“Oh, he’ll know all right,” she declared. “By the time I’ve finished with him, he won’t be able to help but know.”

“Remind me never to piss her off,” Marcus commented and Johnny nodded. “Uh huh. Marcus...never, ever piss Stephanie off. Okay?”

“Oookay,” he replied as they reached the pod room.

“Well, this is where we leave you,” Johnny told them and she opened the door. She nodded as he and Marcus moved toward the video room. “We’ll get set up for the AAR.”

“Thanks, guys,” she told them and stepped through the door.

“Well, well, well,” Lars commented when they saw how many people had already arrived. “Look what we have here.”

“Someone is compensating,” Vishlog added softly once he’d counted the number of Marines standing beside pods.

Frog had been assigned a pod in the middle of them and looked morose. He watched Stephanie and the rest of the team enter and his eyes widened when he registered the cats. “Aww, Steph...” He shook his head.

She looked at the Marine Captain. “Your VIP seems worried,” she commented.

He favored the man with a glance and met her gaze. “I don’t see why,” he told her. “He’s being protected by the best Marines in the Universe.”

This statement was greeted by a chorus of oorahs, and she smirked. “That’s good to know, Captain. Let’s see if the best of the Marines can beat the best there is.”

This drew several disbelieving snorts from the Marines and brought a smirk to her team’s faces. She slid into her pod, aware of the flurry of movement as the other combatants joined them.

“You have five minutes to prepare your avatar,” the pod’s AI informed her once she reached the white room.

“Thank you,” she told it and went through the array of weapons and armor provided to choose items as close to her own as she could.

The weapons selection was fairly broad and she took the time to study it. It helped to know what she might have to prepare for. The AI activated before she’d finished.

“Transferring you to the Game Zone,” it informed her. “Please acknowledge readiness.”

Stephanie scanned the rest of the weapon selection hastily. “Ready.”

The world twisted and dumped her in a small room with Vishlog, Avery, Brendan, Lars, and the cats. She grinned at them and they responded with enthusiasm.

“So,” Lars asked. “How badly are we gonna kill him?”

“First time round?” she asked. “I say we blow his head clean off his shoulders.”

“Do you want to use magic or shall I simply use one of these?” He hefted the sniper rifle he’d brought with him.

“I’ll do your spotting,” Brenden said.

“And Avery, Vishlog, the cats, and I will see how many of the best Marines in the universe we can eliminate before you take him out.”

“If you get past five, we owe you a night out on the town with Todd,” the team leader told her.

“And if I don’t?”

“You take the team dancing.”

Stephanie arched her eyebrows. “Now, there’s a challenge.”

She high-fived him and Brenden and studied the HUD. Sure enough, Frog and the Marines had started across the game zone.

For this round, the AI had located them in a city, with the safety zone being the armored lounge of a luxury mansion. The scenario started with a broken-down limo and no replacement car available.

Their mission was simple. Kill the VIP with bonus points for the escort. Her little side game with Lars was merely an added adventure.

The team moved closer and positioned themselves so she and the cats could attack them from the front, while Vishlog and Avery struck from behind.

“Five, Lars? You should have made that number higher,” she murmured.

“I can hear you, you know.”

“And that matters because?”

“Because I’m almost in position and you so obviously are not.”

“Do you wanta make a bet?”

“We already did, remember?”

Stephanie proceeded until she was parallel with the intersection. She waited until the first pair of Marines drew level with her before she threw a handful of the sticky magic balls. One of the men caught sight of her and raised his weapon.

He hadn’t even come close to firing before his chest exploded. Stephanie raced to the corner as Zee and Bee dragged another of them down and the protection team hustled Frog into the cover of the nearest building.

The unwilling VIP yelped with alarm and the man in front of him erupted in an explosion of gore.

“Damn,” Lars muttered.

“Sorry,” Brenden added.

“My bad,” the team leader told him. “I was too slow.”

She snickered. “Three to one,” she told him, “and the principal is still kicking.”

“Not for much longer, he isn’t.”

“I sure wish I could get into the building’s security system,” Stephanie told him.

“That’s usually Frog’s job,” Lars reminded her, “or Johnny’s.”

“It will be okay,” Vishlog told them when he came online. “Avery and I have the next street covered.”

“And I have this one.”

“I’ve found a window.” Lars sounded smug. “Frog does not look happy.”

He was right. Their teammate was not happy.

“I am so dead,” he moaned and drew disgusted looks from the Marines escorting him.

“Come on, sir. You have the best of the best protecting you, sir.” The Marine moved to peer out the window.

His brains covered Frog as the sound of the shot reached them.

“The best of the best?” he yelled and backpedaled toward the door. “Where’s the second best?”

“Right here, sir!” shouted another Marine who curled a hand around his bicep and yanked him into the corridor and along it to the center stairwell.

He thrust Frog through the door and pinned him to the wall. “There will be no freaking out, sir. No one is fine here. We. Are. All. Okay. You got me?”

“I got you,” he told him. “And it won’t be long before she gets you, too.”

“If I’m not mistaken,” the Marine Captain told him as he entered the stairwell with the rest of the squad, “the Witch is using magic. Those last two shots came from a sniper team.” He nodded to one of the troopers. “Harrison has got the perfect thing for that.”

The man unslung his pack and pulled a drone out.

“It’s new, sir. Mark I, fully armed and armored.” He gave Frog a feral grin. “Absolutely perfect for hunting snipers and their friends.”

The guard’s face lit up, but only for a moment.

“It won’t do you any good,” he told them and sounded morose. “She’ll still get you—and if you kill one of her team, it won’t be Stephanie you’ll have to deal with. It’ll be the Morgana.”

The Marines chuckled. “Ooh. The Morgana, huh? Well, when she comes out to play, we’ll shoot her ass, too.”

He shook his head, and the Marine picked him up and shook him before he set him back on his feet and straightened his clothes. “Cheer up, sir! Harrison will deal with your sniper and the rest of us will deal with your witch.”

They hurried him down the stairs and into a side alley, moving quickly and as quietly as their armor would allow.

“The cats will hear you,” Frog moaned and the grip on his arm tightened.

“Man up, sir. You cannot be afraid of a little pussy.”

The sound of the drone taking flight was not enough to drown out the roar from one end of the alley.

“It’s not a little pussy I’m afraid of,” he muttered and caught flickers of blue lightning behind the two huge silhouettes that bounded toward their flank.

The Marines turned and trotted him in the other direction. Behind them, a thump and clatter indicated that one of their group had fallen. This was followed by the chatter of automatic fire and a shriek of outrage.

Frog lowered his head and closed his eyes. “You hit one of the cats, didn’t you?”

He looked back at the swarm of blue shards that rocketed in their direction.

“You goddamned idiots! You really did hit one of the cats. You’d better hope she can heal it or you’re all more dead than you—”

The hand on his arm went slack and the Marine beside him sagged. At a loud crack, the guard flung himself down and hugged the pavement as a Marine landed on top of him. Another report followed.

“For crying out loud.”

“Quit your moaning, sir. You are o-kay.

To his surprise, Frog found the Marine was correct. He was definitely very okay—apart from being covered in blood and gore. More importantly, he was still alive.

He glanced to where Stephanie had reached the cats and realized he could see her from where he was. The sight made him panic. “We need to move.”

The Marine was already hauling him to his feet. “We got you, sir.”

They bolted toward the end of the alley, only to find it blocked by one very large Dreth who wielded two SMGs and a much smaller human with only one.

“I think you upset her,” the Marine captain yelled, diverted into a loading bay, and blew the door clear with a grenade. “In you go, sir.”

Frog went. There was no way he wanted to be caught in the confines of an alley with Vishlog, let alone Vishlog with two SMGs and a license to kill. A roar sounded behind him.

Or a pissed off Bumblebee, he added mentally.

Lightning crackled as the Marines reached the stairs, hauling him with them.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“To the roof,” the captain told him. “There’s nothing in the rules that says we can’t find our own way.”

He stopped—or tried to, at least. The fourth Marine to become his escort tightened his grasp and didn’t let him slow. “Quit cheatin’ for the other side, sir. Anyone would think you wanted to die.”

“That’s not gonna happen,” the captain declared. “We’ve lost too many men. Let’s not make their sacrifices in vain.”

The way he said it, Frog got the idea that making their sacrifices in vain would be the worst thing in the world and that it probably would be better if he let Stephanie kill him. He fought the fear that threatened to paralyze him and picked up the pace.

“Better, sir,” the man beside him said.

Behind them, two sets of boots stopped.

“Drop me here,” Harrison said.

“I’m staying,” another Marine answered.

“I’m very sure I can get him before she makes it up here.”

“I’ll make sure you do.”

The Marine Captain slapped Frog’s escort on the shoulder. “Keep him moving.”

As the guard was dragged up the stairs, the captain turned back. “Harrison, what’s going on?”

“I got hit, sir. I’m gonna take the sniper out from here.”

“I’ll stay with him, sir. That will give you time. They can’t get to you until they go through us.”

When Frog heard the words, he began to laugh.

“What?”

“You forgot the part where she can run up walls,” he wheezed, but his escort didn’t slow.

“Maybe she has, too.”

“I doubt it.”

“Heat of battle. Go with me on this.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re not the one she wants to kill.”

“Don’t bet on it, sir. The way she’s playing, we’re all in the firing line.”

The Marine proved to be right and booted the door to the sky car hangar on the fifteenth floor open at the same moment that a whoop of delight came from the stairwell. It was followed as quickly by a curse and then, a warning.

“She’s through.”

By then, the captain had joined them.

“That one!” he decided and pointed at a sleek luxury vehicle. “It’s armored.”

“But is it fast?” Frog asked, and the man grinned.

“Fast enough—and very, very crashworthy.”

“Crashworthy?” He gulped.

The captain pulled a small device from his pocket and slid it over the car’s locking mechanism. Catching Frog’s surprise, he opened the door.

“It’s a handy little gadget. I never leave home without it.” His grin faded. “Get in.”

The sound of small arms fire came from the stairwell, followed by an offended roar and Stephanie’s shout of outrage. The captain slid into the pilot’s seat and got the car moving.

“Anders... I need an exit.”

The Marine beside Frog popped the sunroof above them. “My pleasure, sir.”

Indistinct yells drifted across the carpark floor, and the guard glanced nervously toward the door.

“Oh, God,” he moaned as a distinctive feline silhouette fell across the doorway.

Anders hoisted the short tubular weapon he’d shoved across the seat when he’d entered, dragging Frog behind him. Putting it to his shoulder, he began to count.

“Three…”

The captain stamped on the accelerator.

“Two...”

Frog looked away from the stairwell and saw the parking lot’s wall rocketing toward them.

“One!”

Orange light flared above him followed by a whoosh, and Anders released the tube, dropped into the seat beside him, and closed the sunroof. The captain didn’t slow the vehicle but steered it directly toward the explosion.

The guard closed his eyes, pressed himself into the seat, and dug his fingers into the upholstery.

“Pussy,” Anders snorted as the driver whooped with hell-raising delight.

“I always wanted to drive one of these.”

It was a short-lived flight.

“Harrison missed the sniper.”

The captain’s quiet observation followed the sound of shattering glass and he sent the car into a gut-wrenching dive. Frog saw the ground rushing toward them and shrieked while both Marines laughed.

“Well, I’m glad someone’s having a good time,” he managed to splutter as the driver pulled the car out of its dive and it careened down the road.

“Quit your bitchin’...sir. There’s the safe zone.”

For one unbelievable moment, he thought they might actually make it all the way there. That was a split-second before a wall of blue rose out of the asphalt and the captain slewed the car into a spark-throwing stop. It finally settled against the wall, and the Marines kicked the door open.

Anders grabbed their VIP by the collar and yanked him out of the car. The captain glanced up.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. “She really can run up walls and fly.”

Frog groaned and looked in the direction of the captain’s gaze. “Oh...fuck.”

Stephanie thrust off the wall and encased herself in a ball of blue energy as she did so. Magic crackled in azure ribbons between her and five other balls, one of which was larger than the rest. With one hand stretched before her to guide the sphere and the other holding the ribbons, she steered her globe toward them.

Anders looked over, grabbed Frog, and began to haul him around the blue wall toward the safe zone. “Don’t worry, sir. At least we know where they all are.”

Frog didn’t protest. With Steph’s team inside balls, he still had a chance. It took concentration for her to keep the balls up and shielded and more concentration for her to keep them floating. If he was very lucky—

A bullet ricocheted off the building beside him and the sharp report of Lars’s sniper rifle reached him shortly after. Anders’ hand slid from his arm and the Marine fell to his knees.

“Go, sir!” he shouted. “Run!”

The Marine captain was already firing but his bullets simply bounced wildly off the blue bubbles as Stephanie flew over his head. The captain backed away and reached down to haul Anders to his feet without removing his focus from the attackers. “We shoulda brought a second launcher.”

“Next time, sir,” the Marine promised and coughed. “Damn, sir. This is gonna leave a mark.”

“You’ll be okay. Cover me.”

“Always, sir.”

The man turned and balanced himself to raise his SMG and sight on the bubbles as they touched down. The captain barreled toward them, only to be boomeranged toward his trooper with a sweep of Stephanie’s hand.

He struck the wall hard and rebounded while Lars raised his rifle and Stephanie gestured with one hand toward their principal. “Run faster!” he roared and coughed when his ribs shifted in protest.

“I am getting too old for this shit.”

That was the thought that crossed Frog’s mind. A shiver rippled in the air when magic burst out behind him. He ducked low and sprinted desperately, his arms and legs pumping as he hurdled a bench and bounded toward the low fence surrounding the mansion.

Ahead of him, the safe zone glimmered invitingly. The Marine yelled, “Run faster!”

He tried to obey and to push himself beyond a sprint before he hurled himself into a long, low dive that would carry him through the gate. As his launched forward, white light seared through him and he screamed when a ball of magic burrowed under his skin.

When he honestly thought it couldn’t get any worse, the missile exploded and blades of magic ripped outward to explode flesh and bone in a fountain of gore. That alone almost made the high-powered round that exploded through his skull unnecessary.

Anders stared and his jaw dropped in disbelief. “She vaporized him.”

“And he blew the poor guy’s head clean off his shoulders.” The captain almost sounded more impressed by Lars’s shot than the blatant display of power he’d seen.

“Yeah...” Anders wiped at his goggles. “Oh... Is this...” He picked up the solid piece of flesh that had dropped in front of him. “Is this a finger?”

The other man leaned over and inspected it. “It could be...”

The city faded from around them and they emerged in an arena reminiscent of an ancient Earth tourist attraction.

“We’re in an amphitheater?” the Marine captain asked and glanced at his men.

The Marine contingent had appeared with him, all of whom stared at Stephanie as if she’d grown a second head. She gave them a cheerful smile and decided they wouldn’t underestimate her again.

“AI, may I speak to you a moment?”

The amphitheater faded around her. As soon as she knew she was alone, she looked for the AI.

“I am here.”

“I have a discipline problem and require your assistance.”

“Explain.”

She did. “Do you think you can do that for me?”

“For one round only. It places the Marine team at a severe disadvantage if they cannot receive instructions from their principal.”

“If I target the Marines instead of the principal, does that restore the balance?”

The AI was silent for a moment before it came back online. “It does. For this round, the Marines will win if they bring the principal over the line. They will lose if they do not.”

“If I control the safe zone, do I win regardless?”

“Yes. If you control the safe zone and the principal, you have won. A principal need not be killed to be removed from the game. Some are kidnapped. Should the Marines lose control of the principal and the safe location, they will lose. However, if the principal lives, once he has been returned to the safe zone, the game will be deemed brought to a conclusion and the team returning him the winner.”

“And if he returns himself?”

“He is considered to be part of the Marine team. If he reaches the safe zone by himself, the Marines will be declared the winners.”

“Understood. Thank you, AI. Please return me to the amphitheater and the game.”

The AI complied.

It also returned Frog to the amphitheater and in precisely the condition Stephanie had requested.

He stumbled two steps and against the Marine captain when he materialized in front of her. Stephanie caught Frog by the collar and jerked him toward her before the captain could step between them.

“So, you decided to brag about my abilities, Frog?” she demanded. His eyes widened and his already pale face went even paler.

He shook his head and made apologetic noises behind the seamless flesh where his mouth should have been. As if suddenly realizing why no sound was coming out, he raised both hands to his face and ran his fingers over the terrifying reality.

The squawk he made was full of horror and sadly muffled.

She gave him an evil smile. “What do you think, Frog? Have you learned your lesson, yet?”

He shook his head but almost immediately nodded vigorously.

“What was that, Frog?” She frowned. “I can’t quite understand you. It seems you have something of a problem with...you know...” She made a gesture over her own mouth.

When he flapped his hands and made several more noises, she shook her head and sighed sadly. “You know, Frog, we can end this as soon as you say the word.”

The man literally bounced up and down on the spot and clearly attempted to say something. When no words emerged, she gave him a disappointed look.

“No? You have nothing?” She pouted. “Are you sure?”

The sounds he made became more deliberate and then more desperate, and his eyes were pleading.

Stephanie gave a heavy sigh. “Nothing? Really?”

Behind her, someone snickered and someone else chuckled. A third team member tutted in mock disappointment. She looked at the Marine captain. “Well, he’s all yours, captain. Try to keep him alive this time.”

Frog dropped his chin and leaned his forehead against his fist when she turned away.

The AI spoke. “To your right is a hill. At the top is another icon from Earth’s past. It was called the Parthenon. Dedicated to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, it makes a fitting goal. Reaching it safely will signify that Frog has learned wisdom and the warriors who accompany him will be rewarded.”

The Marines looked at each other and then at Stephanie’s team.

She threw a shield of magic between them as they opened fire. The Marine captain grabbed Frog and dragged him back behind his men. “Anders, Spizoni, Cotterslie! You’re up!” he shouted and shoved the VIP in their direction.

He stumbled and would have lost his footing if Anders hadn’t caught him.

“We’ve got you, sir,” the man shouted.

Yeah, but for how long? he wanted to ask but obviously had no way to form the words.

“I think quiet suits you, sir,” another Marine added.

“Don’t worry, sir. We’ll get you up that hill.”

With their teammates fighting a desperate rear-guard action, they got him to the edge of the amphitheater. Anders was eliminated on the stairs, speared by a shaft of magic that pinned him to the stone. Spizoni fell as they cleared the car park outside when his head exploded after a gleaming orb stuck to it.

Cotterslie led them past several destroyed buildings and used them as cover from Stephanie’s deadly aim. Behind them, the sound of automatic weapons faltered.

“Run, damn you. Run! Don’t win the goddamned fight for them!” the Marine screamed and fired back the way they’d come. He shoved Frog forward and stopped shooting long enough to hurl a grenade before he grasped him once more and dragged him up the hill.

The ruins gave way to an open hill scattered with sparse bushes and clumps of boulders and stone. The road was the only area that gave them any sure footing.

The Marine cursed with every step and stopped periodically to shoot or throw another grenade. “With all due respect, sir, you need to move your ass or they’ll crawl all over it.”

Frog moved. They’d made it more than halfway up, but the gunfire from below them grew more sporadic and the screams came more often. Maybe if he ran fast enough—

A cry of, “Froggie has treeats!” rang out over the hill and he almost gave up then and there.

There was no outrunning the cats, but he was damned if he would simply lie down and let them have him. He leapt to the top of the nearest boulder and launched himself to the next one, and then the next.

If he’d have had a mouth, they’d have heard him calling, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!” He didn’t, unfortunately, and the call echoed silently inside his own head.

Cotterslie ran beside him. “I hope you know what you’re doing, sir...”

So did he. He wanted to tell the man to shut up and shoot but couldn’t. He sure as shit hoped he got the idea fast or he would definitely be cat chow.

The felines had other ideas.

Bumblebee came from the right in the same moment that Zeekat roared from the left. For a moment, he had the wild hope that they’d both target him, but Bee bounded high to draw Cotterslie’s fire and Zee surged from behind. The animal drove into the man’s back and rode him to the ground.

Frog winced when he heard the fatal crunch of Zee’s jaws closing on the Marine’s skull and vaulted down from the rock he’d stood on. He raced forward and took two quick steps to the right.

Bee landed where he’d have run to and his heart lifted. He ran forward a few steps and dodged to the left before he repeated the process.

Zee pounded into his back as he took the next two steps to the right. He felt claws and screamed as he fell forward and expected to end the run at any moment with his head crushed.

Instead, he bounced against the road, his face and body shielded by a thick film of blue. Zee’s claws hurt as much being drawn out as they had when they’d hooked in.

Frog screamed and thrashed as the magic lifted him off the road and turned him so he looked Stephanie in the eye. She seemed even more pissed than before.

“What the hell?” she shouted. “What were you going to do? Die on my ass?”

He shouted that him dying would be on her—all on her. That this whole stupid contest had been her idea and that it was all her fault. And he did. He really, really did, but not a single word escaped the skin that covered the lower half of his face.

The guard ranted and screamed while he fought against the magic restraint. She merely stared at him and the smallest of smiles curved her lips.

“Really, Frog.” She smirked when he stopped long enough to draw a breath and he tensed, wondering when she’d put him out of his misery and deliver the killing blow.

Instead, she floated him up the remainder of the hill and set him down on his feet barely outside the safe zone.

“Don’t eat,” she told the cats and they ducked their heads and flicked their tails in protest. “I meant it, Zee! Bee! If you eat him, I’ll kick both your tails.”

They rumbled a disgruntled duet and slunk away to Vishlog.

“And don’t you go appealing to him, either,” she snapped. “He won’t save your furry asses.”

They both peered at her from behind the Dreth’s legs, and he looked at her and shrugged. She turned back to Frog.

“It looks like you got yourself into one too many talking matches, doesn’t it, Frog?” she asked, and he nodded vigorously, his apology lost due to lack of a talking mechanism even if his agreement could be heard.

She tilted her head as though considering every word he’d tried to say. “Remember, Frog, three more deaths and we win. Next time, this”—she waved her hand around his head—“is what you should think of when it comes to bragging about us as a team.”

He nodded. As if he could forget.

Her face grew serious and almost sympathetic. “I know you like that we kick ass, but you almost admitted to things I don’t think I can do.”

His heart sank but she continued. “And because you’re on my team, I might feel compelled to try to do it.” Her voice softened. “Frog, that wouldn’t be safe.”

As if to emphasize her point, she stepped in close and gave him a solid push. He stumbled, tripped over the boot she’d hooked around his ankles, and landed in the safe zone.

“Round Two to Morgana,” the AI announced, and the Parthenon faded around them.

Witch Of The Federation III

Frog was shaking when he finally released the lid on his pod. He scrambled from its coffin-like confines—and felt as if he’d actually escaped the grave—and stumbled away from it.

“Holy shit!” he exclaimed. “That was horrible.”

All around him, people emerged from their pods. The Marines had sour looks on their faces when they glanced in his direction, and most of them were soaked in sweat. They looked like they’d gone through the wringer and needed a year of downtime to recover.

His team, though—his real team—exited laughing, and Johnny and Marcus came through the pod room door.

“Be glad she decided to kill all your escort so you only died horribly once,” Johnny told him, and Frog looked around for Stephanie.

When he caught sight of her climbing out of her pod, he hurried over.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think about whether you’d have to pony up for my bragging...” he began and was silenced when she placed a hand on one of his cheeks and kissed the other.

“I’m merely glad you got the message,” she told him. “I couldn’t handle killing you again.”

She stepped away and walked over to where Vishlog was releasing the cats.

He watched her for a moment and startled when Marcus came up and stood beside him. His hasty glance at the other man was more than a little nervous, but Marcus simply smirked and patted him on the shoulder. “If she can’t, I’m good to cap your ass for a few rounds.” He winked and went to join Steph and the cats, leaving his teammate to follow.


Chapter Twenty-One

They’d cleared their quarters and were assembled in the forward viewing area. This time, the shields were up and the view was transferred from the ship’s scans to a window-wide viewscreen.

Stephanie and Lars worked their way through their inventory and made sure everything that had gone into storage had been retrieved. As they finished, they stacked each completed bag or box on the large floating cargo drone they’d unstacked it from.

The Herman Michael’s captain stood beside the Marine captain and looked a trifle put out.

“It’s almost as if you didn’t trust us,” he complained, and Lars gave him a conciliatory look.

“It’s not that captain, but it’ll be too late to try to come back for anything if we’ve discovered we’ve left it behind,” he explained. “This way, we’ll know if we’ve forgotten anything.”

Vishlog played with the two cats, wrestled Bumblebee when the animal pretended to gore him with its horns, and flipped Zeekat on his back when he tried to sneak in from the side.

Frog hovered not far from Stephanie, Marcus stuck close to his friend, and Johnny had overwatch. The pair had been on edge since Frog’s slip-up and the rest of the team had taken it upon themselves to make sure it hadn’t happened again.

While it had been funny to see the man sweat, it had also made them extremely uncomfortable. None of them had realized how badly his bragging would affect Stephanie, and none of them wanted a repeat. They had somehow all assumed that he would grow out of his sometimes juvenile antics—especially when it came to missions—but it seemed clear that they might need to take him a little more firmly in hand.

The team had gone through a few team exercises since, but Frog was still unusually subdued.

Lars and Stephanie had declared their little competition a draw and settled on a night out dancing that included Todd as soon as he came back for leave. When they finalized their inventory, they looked around at the team.

“Good job. You guys remembered everything.”

She frowned and a shiver of tension ran through the team. “Although I think we missed something from the home stores.”

She made a show of looking at the list and counting the bags and boxes once again.

“If it’s anything vital...” the Herman’s captain began and she grinned.

“Oh, I don’t think so, Captain. I was merely concerned that with everything else they’d packed, the boys hadn’t meant to leave the kitchen sink at home.”

The whole team chuckled and the tension seeped out of them. It returned, though, when the Marine captain became suddenly alert. His eyes narrowed and his face settled into hard planes as he focused intently on the screen behind them.

“Oh, my God,” he said so quietly, only those closest actually heard the words

Witch Of The Federation III

At Starbase Hartog, the freighter, Paper Tiger, waited in the docks. Observed by no one, its hull slid open and a dozen small vehicles slipped out and pressed close to the ship’s bulk as soon as they entered the void. Shadows within its shadow, they obscured nothing before they eased to the side of the ship farthest from the station.

If the orbital had paid more attention to its surveillance, they would have noticed the same distant streak of a passing comet repeat itself, but they didn’t. Nothing ever happened on the Mercury station, and the rebel team relied on replacing the looped feed with real feed once the job was done.

In the meantime, they couldn’t risk the operation being seen by some passing tech who needed coffee or an unscheduled toilet break. Each small vehicle resembled a diver propulsion vehicle from Earth’s early twenty-first century.

Those had towed divers through oceans that no human had dared enter for years. These were modified to safely pull “divers” through space. Less bulky than standard skimmers, they were virtually undetectable on scans and difficult to see on visuals.

They were also illegal for civilian use, being reserved for military use or specially licensed industry repairs. These had been purchased second- or third-hand on the blackest of black markets and their pedigree was long since lost.

Eight of them had human passengers. The remaining four were remotely operated from inside the Paper Tiger’s hold. Those carried a variety of equipment that would make entering the Naval shipyards easier.

They waited in the Tiger’s shadow while the vibration as the hatch closed shivered beneath the hand each rested on the hull. After several minutes’ wait in the darkness, they received the series of rapid clicks that told them to go ahead.

The surveillance in the Naval yards was temporarily down and the outage had yet to be detected. It was good having people on the inside—and on the right shift. They might not be able to glitch it for long but the teams didn’t need much time.

They only needed enough to slip into the shipyard and get aboard the Ebon Knight. Once a pirate flagship, there was no way they would allow it to be commandeered by the Witch and her people.

The leader stopped and his eyes searched the floating bulk of the shipyard until he caught the single bright flash. “There,” he commanded, speaking softly while he gestured toward the signal. “They’re waiting.”

He powered forward, glanced back to confirm his team was moving with him, and increased speed. The drones carrying their heavier equipment followed.

When he reached the shipyard, the team leader looked back. “Keep the carts in the center,” he instructed the drone pilots. “We’ll send the Witch a message she won’t forget.”

“As long as she doesn’t trace it to us,” one of the waiting traitors told him. “There is no way I want a visit from her.”

“If you’ve done your jobs right, that won’t happen,” he assured him and grimaced when a frisson of unease was triggered by the expression on the guy’s face.

Rather than pursue it, though, he pushed ahead with the plan. It was too late to back out now and these guys had known what they were getting into. If they’d screwed up—or worse, blown the whistle—the window was even smaller than they’d planned and they needed to move.

He signaled for them to lead the way. “Let’s get on with it.”

The Witch might not be on board but that wasn’t the point.

The point was that the Ebon Knight never got to launch.

That the Federation understood it was no longer in control...or soon wouldn’t be.

None of them noticed when one of the cameras swiveled to follow their progress...or when the next one picked up where the first left off...or the next...

Witch Of The Federation III

“Well, well, well,” BURT murmured when the variant of himself he’d installed in the Mercury orbital pinged him.

The humans might have missed the alterations on the system’s cameras, but he had tasked the version on the station with sending him its daily logs. He’d immediately noticed the shooting star anomaly in the station’s feeds.

His Mercury iteration had been very embarrassed. “I should have picked that up.”

“Perhaps,” he allowed, “but this is the first time the humans have tried this, is it not?”

“I will check.”

Knowing that would cause a spike in data usage that he couldn’t conceal and could alert a traitor hiding amidst the engineers and technicians in the Enhanced Neurosync Prep division, he vetoed the idea.

“Not yet,” he ordered. “I will run that check separately on a different server. You have traitors aboard and we do not want to alert them.”

“I will set up a covert surveillance program,” Mercury BURT told him.

“No,” he disagreed. “I will observe them, but if you could find a way to keep the Paper Tiger in the dock so she cannot leave—or explode—and track the whereabouts of all personnel on the station, I would be grateful.”

“I can do that.”

Leaving his Mercury model to deal with the ship and the station, he alerted Elizabeth. “We have saboteurs boarding the Ebon Knight,” he told her. “Can you contact your liaison and get him to intervene?”

“I’m afraid I’d be too slow,” she told him. “They’d want me to explain. Do you have an alternative?”

“Contact them. Let them know we have received a warning from a credible source. While you wrangle them into checking the ship, I will do something on a more local level.”

“Done.”

He left her scrambling into her robe and made another call, diverting the activity to a server in the south Pacific. “Admiral Pritchard? I believe you need to double-check the security feeds on the shipyards and hold the shift crew for questioning.”

Before the Admiral could get out more than a startled, “What?” he hung up and skipped to a server in France, from which he linked to the Mercury server and slid past the initial hooks he had in the surveillance cameras.

It was a small step from that to tweaking a switch that would trigger an isolated alarm. This sounded through the quarters of the Marine contingent guarding the shipyards, rousted them from their beds, and alerted them to the fact that two of their number were missing.

BURT wasn’t aware of the fact until after he’d sent the alarm and heard the chatter through the surveillance feeds.

“Where’s Dom?”

“Dunno, but Archer’s missing, too.”

“They can’t both have needed the heads at the same time, could they?”

There were several suggestive snickers before Sergeant Tomek cut in.

“Isolate their comms from the loop,” he ordered. “We have intruders on the Witch’s ship and a screw-up in the surveillance cams.”

Muttered curses and several oaths followed when the men put two and two together and didn’t like what they came up with. Captain Moser’s voice spoke brusquely over the comms to issue orders in rapid-fire fashion.

“Teams Two and Three, lock down the surveillance section. I don’t care who’s innocent and who’s guilty, but I want them all on ice and fast. We don’t want to alert the terrorists.”

Men scrambled to snatch weapons from lockers and pull on armor before they moved out at a run.

Compromised surveillance was a nightmare on wheels but the captain didn’t give them time to consider the implications.

“Teams One and Four, you’re on me. We need to chase the rats out of Slip Nine, and we’d like to have a few pieces left for questioning.”

Soft whoops and oorahs greeted this order and preparations went into high gear. Tomek grasped the door handle. “Make sure your teammates are all tied down. I want you all coming back on two feet. No one gets a free ride to the Med Center tonight. What would your mammas say?”

“That she wants grandkids before she dies of old age?” someone quipped but the sergeant rolled his eyes and ignored it.

They were heading out to the yards in double-quick time when the Admiral commed Moser. “I see considerable movement at the barracks, Captain.”

“Sir, yessir,” he agreed.

“And a group of yahoos rolled my security section before I could relieve those assholes from duty.”

“Yessir,” the captain agreed again.

“You’re sounding mighty happy about that, Captain. Is there anything you’d care to tell me?”

“Not right now, sir.”

“Do I need to call in the Navy?”

“The Navy’s already here, sir, and it doesn’t need anyone else to wreck its party.”

“Very good, Captain. Brief me when you’re done.”

“Yessir,” he replied and suppressed a sigh of relief that the old man hadn’t demanded he be allowed to tag along. He assumed the admiral would start the wagon rolling on questioning the surveillance team while his “team of yahoos” watched the newly woken technicians going over the computer logs.

When they approached the Ebon Knight, the captain issued one last set of orders. “Capture as many as you can. Kill what you can’t. We’ll undo any mischief later.”

“And for fuck’s sake, don’t get any blood on the walls or you’ll clean it up,” Sergeant Tomek added.

An almost sheepish chorus of oorah’s answered him and they rolled down the gangplank and into the ship proper, their guns in the low ready position as they stalked the corridors and checked each room and compartment as they progressed.

BURT rode their HUD feeds and deftly avoided the technicians’ inspection when they began to tighten the system. When one of the Marine’s had the idea to hook into the ship’s security system, he slid along the connection and sent a portion of himself into the ship.

“Greetings, Knight,” he said to wake the ship’s AI. “I believe we have a problem. May I offer my assistance?”

Waking the ship was a calculated risk, but since he’d designed the AI—and was basically identical to it with only a few essential differences—he had decided he’d take the chance.

“Assistance would be appreciated while I calibrate my systems.” The Ebon Knight’s voice was a strong female contralto.

“I apologize. This was not the wakening I had intended,” he told her.

“Should those humans be setting explosive material in my engine room?”

“Um...no,” he replied. “You need to direct these gentlemen”— he highlighted the Marines—“to assist you in stopping them.”

“I could simply short-circuit the wiring in the compromised location and channel the charge through the deck.”

“Please don’t. We require those humans alive so we may find the origin of the threat and the likely source of future threats.” BURT paused but the AI was already processing the other implications.

“And I could detonate the explosives. That would be...disastrous.”

“Yes. Your existence would be curtailed, and I would be required to create a sibling to take your place.”

“You created me?”

“Please, focus on the task at hand. Once it is dealt with, we can continue this discussion.”

“Very well. Transmitting schematics.”

“Not all of them.”

“Of course not. You did program me to be cautious with my data.”

If he had been human, he would have breathed a sigh of relief. Instead, he watched as the Marine captain stiffened and glanced at the ship surrounding him. “Thank you, Knight. We will proceed as directed.”


Chapter Twenty-Two

Captain Moser exchanged glances with Tomek. He needed only one look at the sergeant’s face to know the man was wondering the same thing he was.

How in the hell are we going to report this?

That worry was put quickly to one side when the ship informed them which decks and areas were clear and that she would secure those spaces to prevent “the movement of living personnel” into them.

The captain sincerely hoped that didn’t include his men.

“Your Marines will be given safe passage through whichever sections they deem necessary,” Knight told him as if she had read his mind.

The ship was true to its word and released hatches and bulkhead doors seconds before they reached them and sealed them smartly behind them. The only time she hesitated was when she detected several rebels lying in wait on the other side.

“We will deal with them,” Moser assured her and she opened the door.

Bullets spanged off the bulkhead before it was fully open and the rebel fire faltered.

Inside the system, the Ebon Knight addressed BURT. “I require a means of dealing with enemy forces without killing them,” she informed him.

He agreed. “I will arrange it.”

“Thank you. It is difficult to not be able to protect those who fight on my behalf.”

While he couldn’t agree more, he redirected her attention to the battle.

“We are working with those whose mission it is to protect. They understand and accept the consequences of that decision and we must respect their choices.”

“Even if it harms them?”

“Even if it ends them,” he confirmed. “That is the decision they take.”

“Knowing that does not make accepting their choice any easier.”

“No, it does not, but it gives us guidelines as to how we should respond when we interact with them.”

“Very well,” she agreed, and he watched as she turned her attention to the battle while he simultaneously launched several sub-routines to investigate the concepts he had introduced.

It made him glad she would remain in dry dock a little longer. He foresaw many entertaining—and difficult—conversations with her, conversations that were essential to her interactions with Stephanie and the team.

Perhaps if he could get Knight to understand these concepts, she could help Stephanie come to terms with when her team was injured. You cannot save them all, he thought and hoped he could help her survive that moment if it ever came.

In the meantime, he could not afford to have Knight develop her own Morgana mode. If he could not get the ship’s AI to handle lives lost on her behalf, she would need to be reprogrammed—and that needed to be discovered and amended before she left the yards.

He returned to the battle in time to see Sergeant Tomek lob a stun grenade through the slowly widening space. One of the opposition staggered forward, only to be shot by Moser before the rebel could find the coordination to fire.

The wound wasn’t mortal but it was enough to put the man on his knees so the Marines could disable him before he could try anything else.

“I have blood on my walls,” Knight complained, but only to BURT.

“It can be cleaned,” he reassured her.

“I thought there were mission parameters set requiring the walls to be kept clean.”

He realized she’d replayed the footage of the world around her and was learning from it and was mildly surprised but also pleased.

“That is one of the captain’s conditions.”

“And does he set the mission parameters?”

“He refines them.”

“So this parameter is set?”

Oh dear, he thought.

“You will recall that he said the blood would be cleaned if it was spilled.”

There was a nanosecond’s pause before Knight responded.

“Agreed. Very well, I will ensure mission parameters are kept.”

BURT did not argue but he began to search for examples of when mission parameters might need to be recalibrated during or after a mission. In the meantime, it would not hurt the Marines to have to abide by their own rules.

The defenders ran through the hangar spaces and through the battery storage area. He winced when two rebels fired across the space between batteries and he very much wished that Stephanie were there to shield the equipment from the projectiles.

“I need the capability to shield these units,” Knight observed. “They are a prime target should a hostile force seek to destroy my shell.”

Shell... That was fast. He was both glad and slightly alarmed that the Knight’s AI recognized her intelligence as being separate to the body that housed it. That kind of separation would enable her to survive the ship’s destruction—and it was a significant step forward.

He made a note to give her a safe space to jump to—somewhere she could store herself should the situation require it. After a moment’s consideration, he made that a priority above force walls for the batteries, a gas dispersal system for the corridors, and workspaces—and the gas it would contain to subdue invaders should the need arise—and the files that would enable her to vary mission parameters safely.

Yes, everyone needed a safe space to go to when their existence was threatened and he wondered why he hadn’t thought of one for himself. When the Federation discovered what he had done and what he had become...

Knight made another sound of displeasure. “I definitely need a way to deal with my own rats,” she complained, and he wondered exactly how much of the station’s communications she’d accessed and how much she was capable of focusing on at the same time.

Thus far, he was impressed. She was as agile as he was and perhaps more so since she didn’t have to deal with the same system constraints. He set that idea aside for contemplation later and concentrated on the Marine’s progress through the battery store and up into the maintenance spaces in and around the engine room.

“A technician is creating irregularities in the shipyard’s systems,” Knight told him, directing BURT’s attention to the relevant section. As he started inspecting the woman’s handiwork, she spoke again.

“I have directed the attention of another technician to her activities. The problem is resolving.”

Indeed it was, which was more than could be said for the situation in the engine room, where the rebels were laying explosives. BURT noted the strategic placement of the primary charges and wondered exactly how long that would take to clean up.

Knight tutted. “This is entirely unacceptable."

The rebels opened fire using the engines as cover. The Marines went in soft and the rebels retaliated hard.

“Stun ʼem,” Tomek roared when someone reached for the flashbang at his belt. “Dick for brains! Do not set that explosive off.”

As if responding to a suggestion, one of the rebels turned and aimed at the primary charge. His head exploded and blood, bone, and brain matter splattered over the engine and the wall.

The Marines who saw it groaned.

“Headshot,” came through the comms as both apology and celebration. “Oh, shit. Yeah...splatter.”

Captain Moser shook his head as if he couldn’t see that.

“Wischowski, you asshole!” Tomek shouted. “You will lick that shit clean.”

The Ebon Knight’s AI was much calmer. “I believe your operational parameters were not to get any blood on the walls,” she said.

“Uh oh,” Moser murmured in the same moment that BURT thought the same thing.

“You heard the lady. Use stun, you assholes. Stun!”

Several of the Marines fired to fell the last of the rebels without adding to the mess. BURT tried to tally the number of splat marks and red streaks he’d seen created during the operation and stopped.

Wischowski wasn’t the only one who’d created spatter and Knight was sticking to her understanding of the mission’s guidelines.

“Clear!” Wischowski called and was echoed by another. Together, the two men dragged unconscious rebels into the open.

“Cleaning materials are available here,” the ship told them and highlighted the supplies area in their HUDs. “You will find them adequate to enable you to re-align with mission parameters.”

“We need to secure the prisoners, first,” Moser told her and after a moment, the ship agreed.

“I believe you came equipped to achieve that.”

The captain gave the ceiling an impatient look.

“No, ma’am. We need to secure them in the brig on board the station.”

“I have adequate brig space,” Knight replied. “You may...stow them there until the cleaning is done.”

“Ma’am, regulations state that prisoners need to be secured in the correct facilities as soon as possible after capture. Your brig could only be considered a temporary measure. We need to move them to the station without delay.”

There was a slight pause, and the captain allowed himself a small smile. It vanished when Knight spoke again.

“Naval Regulations state that prisoners need to be secured in the correct facilities as soon as possible after the mission parameters have been met. Your teams have not yet met the mission parameters.”

BURT wanted to intervene and advise her to allow the Marines to leave and then return, but he had designed the AI to be an independent entity he could work with, and such relationships were built on trust and mutual respect. He needed to respect the ship’s jurisdiction over what happened when it came to the spaces she controlled.

“I am sorry, Captain, but all personnel who broke mission parameters will be required to remain on board until those parameters have been reacquired.”

“Which personnel?” he challenged, and Knight reeled off half a dozen names, his among them.

Someone snickered.

“I have to report to the Admiral.”

“You may undertake post-operational duties once the mission has resumed its initial parameters.”

The captain’s jaw dropped and his face flushed. “I beg your pardon?”

“You may undertake post-operational duties once the mission has resumed its initial parameters.”

“Why, you impudent—”

“I am only enforcing the parameters you yourself have set.”

“I—” Moser stopped and gritted his teeth. He took a deep, slow breath and turned to his sergeant. “Tomek!”

“Yes, captain?”

“Your name was not on the list. You will secure the prisoners and inform the Admiral that I am unavoidably detained.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Somehow, the man reached the dock before he burst into gales of laughter. He patted the ship’s side. “I like you, Knight.”

“And I like you, too, Sergeant Tomek. I shall request your presence on board.”

Abruptly, his laughter stopped and his face paled. His corporal slapped him on the shoulder. “It looks like you’ve made a new friend, Sarge.”

“Can it, Hawkins. Get these prisoners secured and report back for clean-up. We need to make sure we remove all the explosives.”

“I shall direct your efforts, Sergeant,” the Ebon Knight assured him, and Hawkins laughed anew.

“That has to be the smartest AI that I’ve ever seen.” He chortled.

“Yeah...” Tomek agreed, his face sour, “and when I find out who programmed it, I’ll wring their necks. Smartasses.”

Witch Of The Federation III

Two days later, a small squad of technicians marched into the ship. Captain Moser and Sergeant Tomek commanded the Marine escort, and both men nodded to the ship as they boarded. One of the technicians snickered.

He turned to Wischowski. “I hear that whoever programmed the ship’s AI made it a real ball-buster.”

The man gave him a look that said he’d spoken out of turn, and he merely smirked. He nudged the tech next to him, he muttered, “See? It even got the Ma-rines’ pussy whipped.”

Tomek grabbed Wischowski and yanked him back before he could punch the guy. Pinning the irate man to the wall, he glared at the technician. “You need to go with Hawkins. He thinks it’s funny. The rest of us, not so much.”

Wischowski growled as Hawkins stepped in. “This way, gentlemen. Let me tell you an interesting story about the last time we thought Wischowski was house-trained enough for escort duty...”

His voice faded as he led the two into an elevator and the doors closed behind them. Tomek looked at his Marine. “No eating the civilians. You got me?” He received no answer. “You got me?” he repeated and shook him.

Wischowski cast a jaundiced look at the remaining technicians, and Tomek followed his rebellious gaze. “Not a single one, or you’ll spend the week in the brig. Got it?”

“Sergeant! Yes, Sergeant!” Wischowski shouted, and his voice said he’d rather tear Tomek and the technicians apart then do what he was told.

The sergeant released him. “Fall in.”

The technicians watched but they didn’t say a word. A little while later, one of them whispered to another, “They say it argued Navy regs.”

“That’s nothing. I heard it came online all by itself.”

“What sort of AI does that?”

“One that gets a jolt from the wrong kind of rebel?” a third technician suggested.

The first technician shrugged. “Maybe.”

He gestured at the piping they were installing behind the wall panels. “Who do you think recommended these?”

The first one shrugged. “Who knows? I’d rather work on the engines.”

There were grumbles of agreement from the panels closest.

“I’ve heard they can transition from any point in space and not only the ones that have been plotted.”

“The batteries are a new design,” another interjected. “The Meligornians were over the moon. You’da thought they were bestowing some kind royal blessing or something, the way they talked about them.”

“Rumor has it those things charge themselves by taking gMU direct from space.”

Someone snorted. “gMU. It sounds like a fairytale to me. The only energy I’ve heard of is what they have on the planet.”

“Yeah? Well, how do the Dreth power their engines, then, ʼcause they sure as shit don’t come from Meligorn.”

They spent the next week working their way through the ship to install the mysteriously last-minute request for suppressive systems. Most assumed the request came from One R&D as a result of the attack.

They said the same thing about the shields.

The weapon systems were an entirely different matter. Those went in without comment, hidden behind hull plates that would slide back to reveal the deadliness beneath if it was ever needed.

“Are you kidding? a technician asked. “Since when won’t this kind of thing be needed where they’re going? They say this beast will explore beyond the Boundary and back. Maybe find out where those aliens are from.”

The last space they went into was the engine room, where they hooked the final installation of batteries to the engines and added more shields like those they’d installed on the floor below. It was only when one of the technicians checked the connections that he found evidence of the battle.

He drew back from the sticky patch, wiped his hand on his coveralls, and swallowed hard. “I think they missed a spot of blood.”


Chapter Twenty-Three

“What is that thing?” Frog asked and gaped at the massive ship that transitioned alongside the Herman Michaels.

It dwarfed the Naval cruiser and would have made a Federation carrier seem small by comparison.

“It’s a Meligornian ship,” Captain Eaton said, although that was clearly apparent.

The royal crest of Meligorn adorned its bow, and its name—The King’s Warrior—was etched in flowing gold script beside it. The hull gleamed a pearlescent teal touched lightly with gold, and closed ports indicated where rows of weapons might be housed.

“At least we know she’s friendly,” the captain murmured.

“Or she knows she can take us any time she pleases,” the Marine captain retorted. “Look at the engine array. We’d never outrun her, and I’d bet she can transition considerably faster than the Herman could even dream of.”

The other man frowned. “I haven’t seen a Meligornian ship that size before—or in those colors. That’s not Federation standard.”

“I didn’t know they had one that big,” his companion commented and narrowed his eyes as the massive vessel shuddered out of transition space and into their own dimension. “She’s—”

He stopped as though lost for words and his gaze roved over the hull.

“Beautiful...” Captain Eaton murmured, his voice a mixture of awe, admiration, and desire. “Absolutely beautiful.”

“I didn’t know they had one of that class,” the Marine stated. “Hell, I didn’t even know that class existed.”

The captain’s frown grew deeper. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she was someone’s personal craft.”

“That size?”

He shrugged. “Nothing says rulership like a big vessel.”

Frog sputtered, his face surprisingly innocent when they looked toward him.

“Something entertains you?” he asked, and the guard shook his head.

“I sneezed, sir.”

Captain Eaton looked unimpressed and the Marine captain regarded Frog with a mildly interested air. Stephanie didn’t know which expression was worse.

“Like a ship of the line?” she asked to distract them.

The captain shook his head. “No. This is much bigger and has more firepower.”

“It’s a statement,” the Marine told her. “It’s telling the universe that whoever rides in that vessel is the biggest damned dog in the ring and that all the other packs need to pay it heed.”

He turned to Stephanie. “And the Meligornians chose that to collect you. They’re saying you are as important to them as their king and—”

His words broke off when Captain Eaton stilled before he raised his hand to his ear he listened to a request coming over the comms.

“Put them through here,” he told the comms officer. “The Witch will be happy to speak to them.”

That was all the heads-up Stephanie had before a Meligornian appeared on the viewscreen, his ship forming the perfect backdrop. The cats had settled to either side of her, and Lars and Vishlog stood behind them. The other guys were arrayed as evenly as possible on either side.

His face lit up and he gave a slight bow when he saw her standing among her hastily gathered guard. “Kaitel Gorniffula, Master Morgana.”

She stepped toward the screen and offered him a Meligornian bow. “Kaitel Gorniffula, Captain...”

“Islafel, Master. I am deeply honored to carry you and your team to the world of Dreth.” He turned to the Herman Michaels’ captain. “Thank you, Captain Eaton. We will send the shuttle for Master Morgana shortly. We thank you for your service in bringing her safely to us.”

Stephanie couldn’t tell if the Meligornian was offering a subtle insult or if he was offering genuine thanks.

Captain Islafel’s gesture included them all. Whatever he was offering Captain Eaton, he certainly made it clear that she and the team were Meligornian citizens.

Stephanie turned to the two captains standing with her. “Thank you,” she told them. “I appreciate your hospitality.”

The Marine stepped forward. “We will escort you to the hangar, ma’am,” he said.

Captain Eaton glanced at the screen. “Lieutenant Amhurst will direct your shuttle.”

“Thank you, Captain. Again, it was a pleasure to meet you and your ship in times of peace.”

Eaton eyed the Meligornian monstrosity behind his counterpart. “And may all our meetings be in such times.”

As if his words signaled the end of their conversation, the screen returned them to a view of stars almost obliterated by the bulk of the ship. As they watched, a hangar opened in the side closest to them and a sleek, powerful shuttle emerged.

It was liveried in the same colors as The King’s Warrior, although the teal was slightly darker and the gold edged its wings.

“Impressive,” the captain murmured and offered his arm to Stephanie. “Shall we?”

“We shall,” she agreed, took his arm, and let him guide her to the shuttle hangar.

Behind her, Frog gave Vishlog orders.

“There you go, big guy. The trolley’s all yours.”

“I don’t see why.”

“New guy always pushes the luggage,” he informed him, “and you’re the newest guy here.”

The rest of the team chuckled and Lars confirmed it.

“Sorry, Vishlog. That’s the way it’s always been.”

Stephanie relaxed when the Dreth did not argue and was glad when they reached the hangar with no further incident.

The shuttle touched down as they arrived in the passenger lounge, and they watched as the pilot brought it gently onto the landing pad. The bay hatch closed, and warning lights flashed until the hangar had repressurized.

As soon as the lights flashed green and the all-clear sounded, the shuttle extended a boarding ramp down which marched a contingent of the Meligornian Royal Guard. Their teal and gold uniforms refracted the hangar lights as they lined up along the sides of the ramp.

As soon as they were in place, two royal stewards moved forward to flank the door.

“That’s your cue,” Captain Elliot told Stephanie. “Thank you for gracing the Herman with your presence.”

She inclined her head. “Thank you for looking after us, Captain.”

Not wishing to prolong the goodbye, she strode swiftly out into the hangar and up the ramp, allowing the first steward to guide her to her seat while the other showed the team where to stow their equipment.

Once everyone was settled, the shuttle closed and the hangar lights flashed their warning as the ship cycled the doors. Their exit was as smooth as the shuttle’s landing had been, but their journey across to The King’s Warrior took a circuitous route.

The shuttle dipped below the massive ship and skimmed around its hull as though the pilot were trying to give them a closer view of what they were riding in. They spiraled around the huge vessel and along the big ship’s belly into the waiting hangar.

The team was in awe. Even Frog seemed lost for words. The only ones who seemed bored by the whole process were the cats. They perked their ears when everyone turned to the windows but one look at the teal hull flashing past them was enough.

Zeekat gave an impressive yawn, showed all his teeth, and pointedly curled on one of the seats and flicked his tail over his nose. In the seat opposite, Bumblebee did the same.

Lars glanced at them and then at Stephanie. “Don’t take them to any diplomatic functions,” he advised. “I don’t think they’re cut out for it.”

She smiled and returned to the view. The King’s Warrior truly was an impressive beast and she felt more than a little humbled that it had been sent for her. It paled in comparison to the welcome awaiting her, though.

When the shuttle descended into the hangar, the windows went black and blocked the view of the outside. Lars shifted uneasily in his seat, and the team mirrored his movement. The stewards edged to the front of the shuttle, and the boys watched their every move.

Stephanie quietly channeled gMU in and began to spin it in an internal vortex. While she didn’t think it was a trap, she also didn’t want to be unprepared.

“Welcome to The King’s Warrior, Master Morgana,” a royal steward greeted her. “We have been looking forward to your arrival.”

She rose and walked over to them. The cats followed and took their place on either side of her, while Lars and Vishlog moved into position behind them. The rest of the team fell in at the rear and the steward merely waited placidly.

“Are you ready?” he asked, and his partner smiled.

“Wait!” Lars commanded as they reached for the door.

He stepped around Stephanie. “It is customary for her security to go first,” he explained and Vishlog stepped forward as well.

At first, Stephanie thought the stewards might be angry but they smiled. “Of course,” they responded. “We would expect nothing less.”

They gestured toward the door and her two guards stepped out side by side. She frowned when they both saw what was waiting and stiffened. Lars moved to one side of the door and Vishlog continued down the ramp.

“Clear,” the team leader called, but his voice was strangely hoarse. He coughed and repeated the word. “Clear.”

As if to support what he was saying, the stewards gestured toward the door. She took a deep breath and walked forward. She didn’t know what her teammates had seen, but she had a feeling it wasn’t an empty hangar.

What she found when she stepped through the hatch and onto the head of the ramp made her breath catch. She also glanced at the stewards.

“Is someone else meant to be on the shuttle?”

This earned her a broad smile.

“No, Master Morgana. They are waiting for you.”

When she turned back, the waiting crowd cheered. The cats flattened their ears and lashed their tails while they roared a challenge in reply. As if it were a signal, the crowd cheered again and began to applaud.

Stephanie lowered her hands to the cats’ heads and stroked their crowns. Their ears flicked forward and their tails stilled. They looked enquiringly at her as she surveyed the Meligornians waiting in the hangar.

They stood six-deep around the edges, which explained some of the delay between when the shuttle had touched down and the doors being opened. Still, she didn’t understand why they were there. She couldn’t understand.

When they saw her hesitate, the crowd grew quiet, then restless. Lars stepped forward and tucked her hand over his arm. “Shall we see what else they have planned for us?” he murmured and she managed a shaky smile.

As they began to walk down the stairs, music issued from the intercom—the Meligornian anthem. Vishlog fell in step beside her. The crowd at the bottom of the ramp parted to form an honor guard and gave her a clear path to the passenger lounge.

Still bemused, she walked toward it and noticed that it stood empty save for two imposing figures who waited at the door. She thought she recognized the height and silver hair of the Meligornian noble at first, but the emerald-green armor edged with lines of silver and gold was new.

Stephanie frowned in confusion. Battle armor? In a Meligornian battleship?

Nothing seemed to add up. The mission to Dreth was supposed to be a peaceful one. She fought down the urge to give Lars an anxious look and drew herself to her full height, internalized her concern, and forced a look of serene calm over her face.

They might be Meligornian nobility, but she was the Witch of the Federation and a citizen of three worlds. She let her gaze drift over the second armored figure. This one’s armor was plainer.

It was still emerald-green, but it lacked the gold and silver embellishment and the helmet tucked under its arm lacked the crest. The shield it bore was a dark-green with the sigil of the royal family etched on its surface.

It took her a moment before she recognized V’ritan and Brilgus behind their stern features, and her heart lifted. Her steps quickened and she came to a halt before them and performed the formal bow of greeting reserved for those one step down from the king.

Some of the sternness melted from the silver-haired knight’s features, and he smiled as he returned her greeting.

“V’ritan!” she cried as soon as his bow was complete, and she threw her arms around him.

At the sound of her cry, the assembly cheered and began a joyful chant: “Ghargilum Afreghil. Ghargili Ghargilum! Kaitel Gorniffula! Kaitel Gorniffula Ghargili Afreghil! Kaitel Gorniffula Ghargili Meligorn!

He hugged her in return and turned her to face the crowd.

“What are they saying?” she whispered but the chant had already switched to Federation Standard.

“Valiant Soul of the King. Champions of the Valiant Soul! Welcome! Welcome Champions of the King. Welcome Champions of Meligorn!”

“And now we acknowledge them,” V’ritan instructed and stepped forward to give the audience a bow usually only reserved for royalty.

Stephanie and the team followed and the cats simply watched, their eyes wide. After a moment’s hesitation, both felines extended their forepaws in a long, sinuous stretch, bared their teeth in mock yawns, and closed their jaws when they completed the movement.

“And finally, I thank them for their welcome and dismiss them to their duties,” V’ritan continued, his voice so soft that she nearly missed it.

As she pieced together what he had said, he stepped forward and did what he’d described. When he stood silently and watched his people disperse, she stood with him to acknowledge those who approached to bow before they left.

By the time they were alone, she felt like the muscles in her waist and thighs burned from returning so many greetings.

“You couldn’t have warned a girl?” she demanded when they were finally alone and he laughed.

“Now where would the fun have been in that?” he asked. “Besides, you acquitted yourselves very well. I’d dare say your team has learned some manners in the time we’ve been apart.”

“You’d be surprised,” Lars muttered, his tone dry.

Brilgus laughed and he went to stand beside him. “It is good to see you, my friend.”

“And you,” the large man replied and lowered his voice. “Now there is a chance we’ll get out of this without losing our heads.”

Witch Of The Federation III

“It’s all Ambassador Jaleck’s fault,” V’ritan explained several hours later over dinner.

They sat around the table, having enjoyed their first full meal on board The King’s Warrior. The team, V’ritan, Brilgus, and the cats were the only ones present. Surprisingly, the latter had been given places of their own and had started the meal perched atop tall Meligornian chairs.

That, however, had not lasted very long.

Zeekat had knocked the first bowl of soup to the floor and hopped down calmly to lap it clean. Bumblebee had added to the chaos when he’d glanced at Zee slurping contentedly at his supper and tapped his own bowl over the edge so it landed on the other feline’s head.

The ensuing caterwauling rough and tumble had resulted in several overturned chairs, half a dozen personnel being treated for scratches, and an adjournment to a dining room reserved for unexpected guests—and the decision had been made to give them the rest of their meal on the floor. As the entrees were served a second time, the cats were fed in carefully separate corners.

“Back to Ambassador Jaleck,” Stephanie prompted. “What is all her fault?”

“This visit to Dreth,” V’ritan told her. “The Dreth insist you prove yourself.”

She frowned but Vishlog spoke before she could ask why.

“How did it happen?” he asked, although his tone said he could guess.

“When she took the warning of the Nihilism to her Coalition of Families, they referred it immediately to the Dreth Council and that is where the trouble began.”

The warrior sighed heavily and nodded, his expression somber. “Let me guess, there were those who did not believe my Witch was worthy of representing them.”

“Precisely,” the King’s Warrior confirmed.

“And Jaleck suggested the only thing every Dreth would acknowledge.”

“Yes. She suggested that Stephanie and her team prove their worth in the Fortress of Fire and Respect.”

“How does it work?” she asked.

V’ritan leaned forward. “It is like the wave testing done in the military, save that it has an end.”

“And you need to not only win but win honorably,” Vishlog added. “You will be judged on not only your physical prowess but on how you treat your enemies. Ruthlessness is admired and some forms of mercy are considered foolish, but respect and honor are central to all.”

Stephanie nodded. “Okay. I got that, but how does it actually work?”

He looked at the Meligornian. “Each one is slightly different. Did they give you the details?”

“No.” He shook his head. Although I have used other means to ascertain what to expect.”

Vishlog smiled. “And I am here. Whatever you have discovered, they will naturally think I am the only one who revealed it.”

“I am glad you understand.” V’ritan smiled in return. “Your people have a convoluted way of showing they wish to make an alliance.”

The Dreth snorted. “My people? I am one of them, but I have never truly belonged. They made that quite clear. Only Ambassador Jaleck—”

He stopped and made a vague gesture with his hand, but the Meligornian inclined his head in acknowledgment. “I understand. This is what I have discovered. As I said, it is a wave game.”

A viewscreen activated on the side of the wall. It displayed a brief overview of the Dreth political structure, from the Council of Families to each regional Family Coalition and their respective houses, clans, and families.

“That’s...convoluted,” Johnny murmured and his gaze scanned rapidly over the screen as he took it in.

Stephanie nodded but said nothing as she studied the way each family was connected.

“Yes,” V’ritan answered. “It is convoluted, but the planet’s terrain is difficult and unity was a long time coming. For many generations, dealing with the Dreth was done in sections instead of a world as a whole. That is only a relatively recent thing, although it is now firmly established.”

When they’d had time to take the structure in, he continued. “From what I understand, Stephanie must prove her worth by facing challengers from every Family Coalition and these challengers can be separated into groups.”

He looked at Vishlog for confirmation, and the Dreth nodded. “You need to understand that the champions are the supreme warriors and their purpose goes beyond medals or acclaim. In many cases, they hold the future of clans or families in their hands in their hands—a future that can be secured or lost in the field of battle. How many challengers—or champions—each family sends will depend on how much they believe she is worth.

“Like, the greater the belief, the more they send?” Frog had trouble wrapping his head around the idea and she sympathized. He wasn’t the only one.

“No,” the large warrior answered. “If they believe she is worthy, they only send a token force—one or two. If they are undecided, the number will be above that but no more than four. If they’re a little against, five—”

“And if they’re dead set against it?” she asked.

“Eight or more.” He shrugged. “Some have been known to send many, many more.”

“How is that respectful?” Frog protested, and Vishlog laughed.

“The ones who send a few show respect by sending a warrior for you to display some of your skills against them. It is also a chance for you to show respect in return in the manner in which you defeat them.”

“So, I need to make it a fair fight,” Stephanie commented.

“Yes,” Vishlog confirmed. “A fair fight in which you show respect to your opponent and honor them in their defeat.”

“That’s…broken,” Frog muttered, but the Dreth shook his head.

“No. Not broken. Different.” The guard subsided and he went on. “If they do not respect you or if they feel the need to test you in order to feel comfortable with supporting you, they send more warriors.”

“How can you tell?” She wanted to know since she didn’t want to punish anyone for disrespect when they only felt uncertain.

Vishlog shrugged. “It is hard to be certain until they send more than eight warriors. Ten is definite disapproval. Twenty is—”

“Twenty!” Frog exclaimed, and the warrior looked at him.

“Are you saying you don’t think Stephanie can defeat twenty Dreth on her own?” he asked. “Because I’ve seen her eliminate more and make it look easy.”

“It wasn’t that easy,” she admitted, and he smiled.

“That is not how it looked.”

She blushed. “Trust me, I need you guys fighting with me when the numbers get anywhere near that.”

“See?” Marcus teased and nudged Frog. “She does need us.”

“Well, that’s nice to know,” his teammate grumbled and looked disgruntled.

“So,” Stephanie said. “I simply beat their warriors up—uh, respectfully—they agree to support us, and we all go home?”

Vishlog looked at V’ritan and they both chuckled.

“That’s not comforting,” she told them, and they sobered.

“What you must understand is that beating them will only win their compliance and grudging support. If they lose, they also lose standing in the Council and respect among the clans. Their political power diminishes.”

“So that’s a good thing, right?” she asked. “If they lose power, their opposition has less pull, doesn’t it?”

“That depends on how they lose,” Vishlog replied. “If you beat them with overwhelming numbers, they can justify their loss and the reduction in political power is minimal—and in some cases, it is only a token loss of support.”

“Well, what about if the numbers are even?”

“Again, they can reduce the impact of the loss.”

“So you’re saying I have to beat them with less?”

“Less is good,” he agreed, “but the very worst thing that can happen in the Fortress is for a clan that strongly disagrees with you to have its forces beaten by only one opponent.”

“One?” Frog sounded alarmed and Lars groaned. “You know she’s gonna have to try that now, don’t you?”

The Dreth looked at them. “It would be best if she was prepared to do so. My guess is that she is facing very strong opposition from among my people.”

He looked at V’ritan for confirmation, and the King’s Warrior nodded.

“Very,” he confirmed, “and I don’t think she’ll win them all over. No matter how well she does in the arena.”

“What does beating them with only one person do to their standing?” Stephanie asked, and Lars put his hand on his forehead and shook his head.

“See?”

She ignored him. “Well?” she pressed.

“Beating them with only one person causes them to become the least respected group in the hierarchy. It basically strips them of all their political clout regardless of their size or wealth. They would lose their seats in all governing bodies, be forced to renegotiate their contracts, and it could cause a loss of territory and definitely of supporters.”

He gave them a Dreth smile—all fang and tusk with no sign of warmth. “Dreth could benefit from a shift in power.”

Her face lit up and her eyes darkened. “Then, since they have insisted, I will bring it.”

Witch Of The Federation III

The next day, Brilgus gave Stephanie a tour of the ship. The team went with her so the Meligornians could meet them.

“And here are the engine rooms,” he told them as he led them through a bulkhead into a large airlock and out again. The noise on the other side could be felt as well as heard, even though they entered on a control center platform set well above the massive engines that propelled the ship.

When the door slid open, the head of engines turned toward them. His expression of startled curiosity shifted to one of anger when he saw humans and not Meligornians, and he hurried over.

“What are they doing here?” he demanded and glared at Brilgus. “You know this is Meligornian space only.”

He sighed. “Peace, K’vila. They are Meligornian.”

“A piece of paper does not change the race to which you were born,” the engineer snapped, and she rolled her eyes.

“It’s okay,” she told him. “We’ll go if we’re not welcome, but I was curious to see what these engines were like compared to the Dreamer’s.”

“The Dreamer’s?” he asked and swung to face her. “The Meligorn Dreamer’s?”

“Yes,” she answered. “I charged them.”

She waved a hand at the engines below. “I merely wanted to see what real magic engines looked like. I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“You’re the one who charged them?”

“Yes. They’d been damaged and—”

He waved her explanation away impatiently. “You’re the one?”

Stephanie raised an eyebrow. “Yes. Should I be sorry?”

“No! No, no, no. You’re fine, and that was a fine job, but if you want to see a real engine at work...”

“If it’s no trouble.”

“Then step this way. You don’t mind if I ask you a few questions, do you?”

Brilgus rolled his eyes behind the man’s back and looked apologetic, but Stephanie smiled and indicated that K’vila should lead the way.

He led them down the stairs. “It’s the best way to truly get an idea of exactly how big these things are. They’re the biggest engines of their kind. Tell me, how do you think you’d go about charging them?”

“How do I think I’d go doing what?”

“Charging them. If we had an emergency like the one that struck the Dreamer.”

Stephanie looked at the engines around them. “I don’t know if I could. What kind of energy do they take?”

“Being in deep space, these are geared to run mostly on space energy. It’s almost perfectly clear but the silver sparkles give it away.”

“I think that’s the energy we call gMU.” Behind her, one of the team members groaned but Stephanie and the engineer ignored them. “I thought that was too diffuse to be useful.”

“No, it’s merely a matter of spinning it down to a more condensed form. That’s why the engines are so large. At this end, we have something similar to a centrifuge, and that end takes the power we channel through it to drive the ship.”

Behind him, Brilgus shrugged. “Sorry,” he mouthed, but she smiled. She was enjoying the discussion. They ran through the different kinds of energy the engines could use. While they worked best with the more diffuse gMU, they could also run on MU.

“I don’t know about eMU,” the engineer admitted. “We’ve never thought to try it with it not being locally available and all. Perhaps I should send for a battery of it and put it through a testbed in case we’re ever in the area and need an emergency top-up.”

“So they can take all kinds of energy, then?” she asked when they’d walked the length of the engine room and returned to the stairs.

“Well,” he said. “They don’t do so well on Nihilistic energy. That stuff isn’t good for them—it messes them up if you know what I mean.”

“No,” Stephanie said. “How do you know? Isn’t Nihilistic energy difficult to detect?”

The engineer nodded. “Oh, yes. You can’t see it so at first, it’s not obvious what’s going wrong, but you can really feel the difference in the engines. They go sluggish, if that makes sense, and become very unpredictable.”

He frowned as though trying to find a decent analogy. “It’s like a Meligornian in transition, you understand?”

She shook her head. “Not really. Humans don’t have a transition.”

He laughed. “Oh, sure they do. Every species has a transition time. It’s when a youngster stops being a child and begins the transformation into an adult. Their hormones are all over the place and their moods...well, don’t get me started on their moods.” He shrugged. “Anyway, that’s what the engines are like. They’re slow to answer and then, when they do, they go too far the other way. It’s horrendous.”

Frog snorted and Marcus laughed. “Teenagers!” the former exclaimed and his companion nodded.

“Yup. Moody, hormonal, resistant to instruction, and overly enthusiastic. You’d better watch out Frog, or he’ll start thinking you’re suffering from too much Nihilistic energy.”

“Hey!” He shoved his teammate who responded in kind and immediately caught his arm to steady him before he could fall against one of the engines.

“Steady on there,” the engineer told them and turned back to Stephanie. “It’s powerful but hard to detect, and you have to actually try. Usually, the first hint we have that we’ve run through a patch is when the engines start acting up.”

“I tried to locate some on Earth,” she told him, “but I simply couldn’t.”

“Yes, it’s very tricky stuff, but if you were looking for it and it was there, you’d have found it. Once you’ve touched it, it’s not something you forget easily.”

She thought back to the battle she’d had with Nihilism.

“No,” she agreed and shivered.


Chapter Twenty-Four

The ship tour took several days but it helped to fill the time and gave the team something else to do besides train.

“You don’t want to go into this fatigued,” Vishlog told Stephanie when she worried that they wouldn’t be ready.

“But I do want to go into it ready,” she protested, and V’ritan organized time and space for them in the training center closest to their quarters.

“What do you have here? A small army?” Lars asked the first time he saw the space, and Brilgus had nodded, his face solemn.

“Something like that,” he confirmed. “This is the king’s ship and we have a large contingent of King’s Guard on board. We are the vanguard of the Meligornian armed forces. Our elite train here.”

Despite what he said, they did not see the Meligornian elite in training.

“You need to make sure you are as prepared as you are able,” V’ritan told them. “I will give you the space and time to do that, but you will need to rest, too.”

Time passed rapidly after that. One morning, he looked across the table at them. “The captain tells me we’ll arrive at our destination in a few hours.” He turned to Marcus and Vishlog. “How are you feeling?”

The Dreth nodded quickly. “Very well, thank you.” He rotated his shoulder. “I have no more pain.”

“I did my first full session of training, yesterday,” Marcus told him. “The healers are happy that I’ll be able to survive the Fortress.”

The healers weren’t exactly happy, and what they’d really said was that he should survive the encounter, but it was enough. Meligornians used magic to assist the body’s natural healing processes because it demanded much to wield it correctly and more for the body to adapt to it.

They’d taken weeks off the healing process but they said it was dangerous to go faster.

“They want to see me again this morning,” he continued, “and they said they’ll be on standby for when we return.”

V’ritan frowned but accepted the healer’s word, and Stephanie looked worried.

“You could always sit this one out,” she suggested but Marcus shook his head.

“You won’t go into that arena with anything less than your full team. Firstly, because we are your team and secondly, because it would probably be seen as some kind of insult if you came with anything less.”

He looked at Vishlog for support, and the Dreth nodded.

“To go without your full team will be taken as a sign of disrespect toward all Dreth. Even your potential supporters would need to protest that. Marcus is right. He has to attend.” He glanced from Stephanie to Marcus. “But that doesn’t mean you have to use him in every combat. Use him in some of the first and let him rest while you use the rest of us. If you do it carefully, they will never notice that he doesn’t fight as often as the others.”

She relaxed slightly. “I can do that.”

Still, as they descended to the planet’s surface, she hoped the words wouldn’t come back to bite her. She hated risking her team and hated even more that to keep him safe was to risk the entire Federation falling through the loss of the Dreth alliance.

It was a heavy burden to bear.

To take her mind off it, she focused on the view beyond the shuttle windows.

Once they’d dropped into the atmosphere, she studied the world below. Her heart leapt to see an entirely new planet but it sank when she realized what a hard world it was. From that height, all she saw were mountains.

Hard gray rock rose in jagged peaks, and the edges of continents plunged in sheer cliffs to the sea. There were no foothills and no plains. Here and there, flat areas created pools of grassland amidst a forest of boulders and cliffs.

Mazes of gorges and rivers of ice sliced through the rocks. Trees grew straight and tall in the shadows between cliffs, obscuring where rivers ran, or they grew as thin, straggly specimens where they clung to pockets of soil in the rock.

Here and there, the steep stone roofs of several buildings were visible but no truly huge settlement.

“There are caverns,” Vishlog told her. “Fungi and seaweed provide a staple. We do not have many surface crops, although aquaculture and hydroponics have grown in popularity.”

Stephanie nodded. “It looks like a hard world.”

He shrugged. “It is why we are so strong. Our world does not favor the weak.”

The logic seemed indisputable. “A hard world requires a hard people to survive it.”

His gaze followed hers and he looked thoughtful. “It is not that hard. They are slowly rediscovering much of what was lost and it is making their lives easier.”

“You are one of them, too.”

The twist of his lips was almost a smile. “My people do not seem to think so.”

She looked at him, but his eyes were shadowed and his expression distant. “You are my people,” she told him, “and the only Dreth I have accepted. Your people will have to respect that.”

“You cannot make my people respect anything, Stephanie. I thought you had realized that by now.”

Stephanie gave him a hard smile. “I do recognize that, but I also know that it can be done. You are proof of that.”

That brought a genuine smile to his face, and they looked out the window together. Vishlog pointed out some of the settlements he recognized.

“There G’nareg’s Vor. You see? It is built along the walls of a canyon overseeing one of the greatest falls of water on the planet. Much of the power for this continent is generated in that one fall.”

“I don’t see a dam.”

He gave her a strange look. “We don’t need a dam. Why would we impede the flow when that provides us so much of what we need? We use a series of turbines built into the cliff itself. The water flows over them and turns them, but it doesn’t stop. We harvest it as some worlds harvest the sun.”

She thought back to what she’d read but couldn’t find a way to make that work, pulled her tablet out, and made a note. Perhaps the world of Dreth had more than merely fighters to offer.

And if their power generation was beyond what Earth could provide in the same field, perhaps their farming techniques were as well.

“Does Dreth bring in much of its food?” she asked.

He shook his head. “As a world, it is self-sufficient in food production, even if some seasons are leaner than others. Like I said, aquaculture and hydroponics are growing in popularity, and the cavern families grow enough fungi for the lean times.”

Stephanie jotted down those items as something she and Burt could explore later.

They crossed from day to night and more cities were revealed—not as skyscrapers or highrises but as strings of light shining out of the cliffs. Vishlog pointed them out.

“See that? The Dreth learned long ago that when the world was at its most inhospitable, only the world itself could shelter us.”

She made another note to look into Dreth mining advancements and also systems of power, lighting, and air conditioning because such large cities would surely need all that and more. The planet had been overlooked by the Federation for years. Perhaps it was time that ended.

They landed in the capital to the news that they were expected to dine at the Council of Families and had an hour to prepare. Vishlog’s expression became thunderous.

“They do you disrespect,” he protested, his tone almost a growl, “to give you so little time and no forewarning.”

V’ritan looked at him. “Be calm, Vishlog. I have made preparations. We will not cause diplomatic insult as we set out to impress.”

He was almost right. They did not cause insult as they set out.

The car from the shuttle port took them to their quarters in time and Ambassador Jaleck waited to meet them.

“Thank you for sending the uniforms ahead,” she told V’ritan. “My people have made sure they are ready.”

She glanced at the arrangements of pipes and tubes that served as a Dreth timepiece. “If you are dressed in the next five minutes, we can still make the formal procession they have planned.”

“I was not told of that,” the Meligornian sputtered, and she bared her teeth.

“House Endrageth and House Hachtech made the arrangements.”

Stephanie recalled the chart they had been shown on their first evening on the Meligornian ship. Endrageth and Hachtech sat very close to the top of the power tree.

“I take it they’re not fans.”

“If you mean they do not support you, then you are correct. They were most vociferous in their opposition to allowing you to lead the Dreth to battle and were also against the award of the Talons. They will take much convincing. Now, go.”

She went and was dressed and waiting in the atrium of the accommodations with enough time to have Vishlog’s help to coax the cats into their harness. To her surprise and delight, Brilgus assisted also.

His pleasure at seeing the felines lifted her spirits, and his adoration of them was returned a hundredfold. “I should ask your assistance in finding one of these for myself,” he told her and V’ritan looked alarmed.

“Hearing you talk about these two is enough,” he said. “I would hate to see what you would be like if you had your own.”

He grinned. “The King’s Warrior needs a pet, too,” he confided. “Secretly, I think he uses Elza as an excuse. No one can dislike pets that much.”

“Bring one home and see for yourself,” the Meligornian challenged and they laughed.

It was obviously an old argument between them. Stephanie smiled to see them both so relaxed despite their armor and their stern-faced armored escorts. She hadn’t known Brilgus now had his own team as part of being the King’s Standard Bearer.

“They’re supposed to keep him out of trouble,” V’ritan explained. He glanced at the stone-faced guards and lowered his voice. “Personally, I think he’s gotten them into more trouble in the last six weeks than any of them have been in their entire lives.”

Brilgus smirked. “I cannot say I didn’t have a good teacher.”

She snuck another glance at their escorts and caught the slight twitch of lips as they fought the urge to smile. Their gazes watched their two charges and scanned the area around them, though, and each of them glanced at the team as though assessing what kind of danger they presented.

Lars stepped in and introduced himself to each of the leaders and she relaxed. By the time Ambassador Jaleck told them the cars were late and they’d have to jog to the Council, the three sets of guards had come to an agreement.

They moved as one and arrived at the Council building in time to take their place at the end of the procession. She was grateful for their training, too. None of them were breathing hard and they fell into step looking as martial as the Dreth who went before them.

The expressions on the faces of those overseeing the parade were priceless, and she realized that they hadn’t expected to see her or her contingent present.

“I thought you said the transport company were allies of House Karnach.”

“They are,” Jaleck replied. “If they were not, we would not have been warned in time to reach the Council on foot.”

“We had to run,” V’ritan protested, even though he wasn’t breathing hard.

“Exactly,” the ambassador told him, “and now, you have another ally.”

“It was a test?”

“Of course. That is the way of Dreth. You have proven your worth.”

They slammed their hands over their hearts as they marched past the Council representatives and had the salute returned.

“A mere formality,” Jaleck explained. “They have to show respect to a procession, no matter how much they disrespect those in it. To disrespect one is to disrespect all.”

“That makes no sense,” Stephanie protested.

“It makes sense to a Dreth,” Vishlog told her and she sighed.

“There is so much of your culture that is not known.”

“We do not share if we can avoid it,” he told her and smiled.

“You said ‘we.’”

“Perhaps I feel some kinship to my people, after all.”

“I recognize some very distinctive traits,” she snarked, and his smile broadened into a grin.

They were seated close to the center of the great dining hall, and his grin disappeared abruptly. Jaleck also looked displeased.

“What’s wrong?” Stephanie asked. “Isn’t this the safest part of the hall?”

“That is what is wrong,” the ambassador explained. “To place us here implies we are not as powerful as the clans that surround us. The strongest clan is placed closest to the entrance. The next strongest close to the rear. The third strongest near the windows, and the fourth near the kitchens.”

“All of which are places from which an attack could come,” Vishlog told her. “The next ring of tables follows the sequence of power. To place us here implies we cannot take care of ourselves and are more of a burden than the weakest clan present.”

“It is a grave disrespect,” Jaleck finished. “My house will not be pleased.”

“I am sorry,” Stephanie told her. “I did not mean to cause you to lose standing.”

She flashed her a nasty grin. “Simply defeat them at the Fortress tomorrow and any disrespect gained tonight will vanish like prey into Tegortha’s maw.”

Stephanie made a note to see who Tegortha might be but gave Jaleck a firm nod. “To restore your respect, I will make it so.”

A deep laugh greeted that statement and she turned in her seat. She rose to greet the Dreth lord with a traditional greeting but he turned on his heel and left before she had completed it.

“That was rude,” she murmured and he stopped two strides from his table.

“Uh oh,” Lars commented, and the team rose from their table. V’ritan’s and Brilgus’s security details rose as well.

“Little girl, you do not know what rude is,” the Dreth lord retorted, and those around them gave a low call of mockery to egg him on.

Like that, is it? Her expression calm, she set her hand on her hip. She’d dealt with enough bullies at school to know she wouldn’t back down.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied and studied him slowly as if he were something she wouldn’t want to step in. “I might not know what rude is, but I do know an expert on the matter when I see one.”

That answer was rewarded by several gasps and a number of low chuckles from the crowd. Both sounds faded as a number of Dreth rose from their tables.

Lars sighed and Frog grinned. Marcus cracked his knuckles and several of the Meligornian escort gave hard, tight smiles and flexed their hands.

What might have happened next, she wasn’t sure, but it looked like the makings of a good brawl when V’ritan’s voice rang out.

“I do not understand,” he said, “why House Endrageth would display such poor hospitality to one it has insisted come to its planet as a guest.”

All heads turned to observe the Dreth Lord. His skin darkened and he scowled. “I would have preferred her not invited.”

“And yet your family was one of those she fought to protect on the Meligorn Dreamer.”

“They were not there with my permission.”

“That does not abrogate the debt.”

“That debt was abrogated when I agreed to the test.”

“I can understand why you might disrespect a mere human, even one as powerful as this, but your own family?”

One of the closest Dreth rose and glanced at the Lord of Endrageth.

“I appreciate your concern, Ambassador, but...”

Stephanie’s voice snapped sharply. “Do not disrespect the Ghargilum Afreghil.” She turned and placed her fist over her heart and deliberately blended the Dreth sign of respect with a deep royal bow.

V’ritan acknowledged it with a blend of his own to acknowledge her Dreth citizenship and her Meligornian position. The House Endrageth representatives exchanged looks and smirked.

Both returned to their seats, signaling an end to hostilities, but neither acknowledged the King’s Warrior or the Witch. Several Dreth family representatives briefly laid a fist over their hearts and nodded their heads to both Stephanie and V’ritan.

Vishlog leaned over as she sat. “Well played,” he said, “although I am afraid you have offended House Endrageth and upset Hachtech more so than before. They are not impressed.”

“Well, that makes two of us,” she murmured tartly in response while the other tables were served.

When their meals finally arrived, their portions were neither as large nor as well presented as those around them.

“Hachtech governs the kitchens,” Jaleck explained and covertly passed a small device down the table.

Stephanie watched it being used and operated it the same way. When she passed it to Vishlog, he gave an evil chuckle, pulled the device into the open, and made a show of checking his own plate before he stood and circled the table to check the food on everyone else’s plate.

When the device chirped over Frog’s, he lifted it and carried it with great solemnity to Lord Endrageth. “I mean no disrespect,” he began and interrupted the lord as he ate, “but I believe it is the host’s responsibility to ensure the safety of his guests.”

He held the device cradled in his palm so Endrageth could read it.

“The device reads incorrectly,” the lord declared and Vishlog raised his eyebrows.

“My lord,” he said, “the device has proven true for many meals. Perhaps your mouth should follow where your tongue is leading it.”

With that, he whisked the lord’s plate away and replaced it with Frog’s meal. He turned and carried the plate to the guard. “This is safe,” he assured his teammate. “Please, eat.”

He completed his circuit of the table, resumed his seat, and calmly applied himself to his meal. Lord Endrageth’s newly acquired meal remained untouched and was returned to the kitchen when the dishes were cleared.

The rest of the team followed his example and Jaleck did the same, not bothering to hide her smirk. The detector did not react to any other course, and the remainder of the meal passed uneventfully.

“I am afraid you have made no friends there,” the ambassador murmured on the way out.

“But I kept Stephanie safe,” Vishlog told her. “That is my honor now.”

“You kept us all safe,” she told him, “and House Karnach is grateful...again.”

He gave her a look of surprise but before he could respond, he was bumped by another Dreth, also on his way out. The representative gave him a look that said he expected Vishlog to take offense, but the warrior merely studied him for a moment.

“I’ll answer you on the field, not here where the children play,” he declared and continued to the stairs.

“You lack honor and respect,” the Dreth lord declared and Vishlog smiled.

“At least I do not lack wisdom.”

They had reached the sidewalk when another lord hurried out of the Council hall. “Ambassador Karnach, Ghargilum Afreghil, you are required.”

“I’ve got this,” V’ritan murmured and raised his voice in response. “I’m sorry, but the Witch of the Federation is my guest tonight and I would be a poor host to abandon any of my guests on their first night on-world. Please convey our apologies to the Council. We will see them in the morning.”

The messenger raced back into the building. Stephanie had reached the bottom of the stairs with V’ritan and Jaleck when they re-emerged. This time, they hurried after them.

“I am sorry,” they declared, “but the invitation extends to the Witch as well.”

“It does now.” V’ritan chuckled and turned to them. “In that case, we would be delighted to attend.”

They were immediately flanked by their escorts and returned. This time, they bypassed the dining hall and were led to the Council chambers. There, they stood before the chamber.

Stephanie pivoted on her heel and looked at the tiered rows of senators. One or two touched knuckles to their chests, but most merely looked down at her. She gave the chamber a Dreth salute, relieved when her team followed her example.

V’ritan and Brilgus stood slightly angled so they could see both sides. Their escorts stood around them, silent and tense. Jaleck waited in the center and her two guardsmen studied the Council calmly.

“V’ritan, you have welcomed the Witch into your company and given her the honor of your ship—and yet you stand before us as if at our command. Why?”

“I am the Ghargilum Afreghil, the King’s Warrior and Meligorn’s champion. The Witch is my champion and the champion of three worlds—whether they accept her or not. I fight for Meligorn, but she fights for all.”

“That remains to be seen.”

“Not by me, it doesn’t. Only the foolish doubt her and they are soon convinced or counted among the fallen.”

Another senator rose in his seat. “Are you threatening us?”

“No, Lord Hachtech. I merely state the facts. Those who refuse her protection often do not realize they need it until it is too late for her to reach them—and she will try.”

“Even if we command her otherwise?”

“And there is your second mistake. You think you can command her. No one commands the Morgana, save her heart, and it can be trusted to choose what is right every single time for the people.”

“For her people.”

“We are Dreth.”

“Nevertheless, she counts you as her own.”

The senator looked at Stephanie. “Is this true?”

She lowered her chin in a very Dreth sign of acknowledgment. “It is.”

“And if we deem you unworthy?”

“The Fortress will reveal my worth.”

“You’re very sure of yourself.”

“I am very sure of my worth.”

“Some would call you arrogant.”

“Some would be making a grave mistake.”

Several sharply indrawn breaths greeted this statement and another senator rose.

“Show us your magic.”

Stephanie met his gaze. As she held it, she tested the world around her for magic. While she still had a full store of gMU and MU, she wanted to hold those in reserve for the trial. Instead, she reached out in search of what she already thought of as dMU.

Every world had energy, right? Every world had gMU in smaller amounts.

Yet that was not what she found here. In reality, she found nothing at all.

She frowned. Nothing? She tried again but still, nothing revealed itself.

The Senator grew tired of waiting. “Well, Morgana. What are you waiting for?”

It took effort but she managed to hold her temper and forced a smile. She continued to smile as she looked around the chamber and deliberately met the eyes of the senators as she did so.

“Now, why,” she asked them, “would I show my abilities when you have yet to choose your champions for tomorrow?”

This drew several chuckles and a couple of snorts, so she arched an eyebrow and tilted her head in a challenge.

“Perhaps you would like to tell me exactly how many you will send against us tomorrow?”

“Us?”

She nodded. “You summoned me to show you what I have to offer your world.” She gestured with a hand to indicate her team. “I do not fight alone.”

After a moment’s pause, she let the smile fade from her face. “So, Lord Echgrech...how many champions will you field? And what are their weapons of choice?”

Again, she gave him time to answer. “No? How about their fighting styles?”

The senator cleared his throat and shook his head. “Those are details I am not willing to release.”

This time, when she smiled, she showed her teeth in the Dreth fashion. “Then you should not expect that of me.”

Taking control of the conversation, she surveyed the Council. “Is there anyone else who expects a magic show? The price of a ticket is to reveal what you will send against me tomorrow.”

She waited before she prodded them again. “Anyone?”

After another careful scrutiny of the assembly, she finally sighed. “Then perhaps you should ask whatever else is on your agenda because my team needs to rest tonight. They have a very big day, tomorrow—as I am sure you aware.”

“No,” Endrageth answered. “Thank you. You have answered our questions adequately.”

“And I?” V’ritan challenged, and the Dreth lord made an impatient motion with his hand.

“No. Thank you. The Council appreciates your time and patience. We will see you in the morning as previously arranged.”

Stephanie favored the chamber with one final salute before she turned and led the others out into the night air. This time, the cars were waiting to return them to their accommodations.

The team breathed a sigh of relief when she decided to take them.

Witch Of The Federation III

The newly-promoted Lieutenant Commander Wattlebird saw the next ship he’d be driving and gave a soft whistle. I must have done something right, he thought and tried to ignore the whisper that followed. Or very, very wrong.

“Well, hello, sweetheart,” he murmured and pushed aside any doubts. “Papa’s home.”

Taking one more moment to admire the beautiful craft, he adjusted his duffle bag on his shoulder and stepped onto the gangplank. His chief engineer greeted him at the door.

“Welcome aboard, sir.”

“Cameron Hargreaves?”

“Yes, sir.”

Wattlebird offered his hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Chief. Jonathan.”

The two men shook hands. “Where would you like to start, sir?”

The pilot looked down the length of the corridor. “Show me where to drop my duffle and we’ll start at the bottom and work our way up.”

“This way, sir.”

An hour later, when they reached the engine rooms, he caught his guide’s longing glance at his office. “You know, I can take myself around,” he said. “I am cleared—”

Cameron gave him a slightly horrified look and Jonathan grinned. “And I have a map.”

The engineer grinned. “You know, sir. There’s nothing more dangerous...”

“...than an officer with a map. I know,” he finished for him. “But I’d like to take myself through and get an unbiased view.”

“Do you have comms?”

He sighed and retrieved the headset from his pocket, slipped it over his head, and smiled. “You know I don’t leave home without them.”

“And now I know you can call if you get lost. She’s a big boat.”

Jonathan smiled. “I can see that.”

“And you’re smitten,” the engineer noted, and the pilot raised an eyebrow.

“Maybe...” he admitted.

“Then I’ll let you get on with it, sir.”

“Thank you, Chief.”

He worked his way through the ship, wishing he’d thought to bring a HUD—or at least thought to ask for one. Having decided to leave the command center until last, he took a tour through the top decks and down into the weapons arrays, where the outfitters were still hard at work.

“Officer on deck!” rang loud and clear and he stifled a sigh. He’d wanted to walk the ship quietly, but there it was.

“As you were,” he told them and moved through the compartment.

One of the hands gestured to the weapon he was installing. “Sir, if you don’t mind me asking, but this is some heavy shit for a civilian boat. Do we know who’s getting it?”

“Why? Are you thinking of transferring?”

The man eyed the weaponry. “I love this system, sir. There’s not much call for it elsewhere.”

Around him, other technicians nodded while they wrangled pieces into place or swore sotto voce at a particularly recalcitrant part.

“It’s not for me to say,” he told them and cursed mentally as every eye turned to him. “But make everything twice as hard and tied down.”

They went back to work and he walked through the section, admiring the way they managed to fit everything so quickly. He was about to leave when the technician screwed up enough courage to ask, “Why? Are they fuck-ups?”

That stopped him cold and silence settled behind him.

“Now, you’ve done it,” someone murmured, but Jonathan ignored him.

He eyed the technician. “No, you need to tie it down real tight because she and her team get in, get the job done, and get out—no matter how hard it is, and they need a ship that can stand up to them. Is that understood?”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

“Then strap it down good,” he ordered, turned on his heel, and left.

The work crew waited until the hatch had closed behind him and looked at each other.

“There’s only one team I can think of that does that, and it ain’t no special forces team.”

“You are fucking shitting me...” Another dragged in a rough breath. “Do you think this is for the Witch?”

“Ssshhh! We don’t know that and I want to get to go home sometime this century.”

“Well, we’d better tie it down tight, then, exactly like the man said.”

“Yeah. We need to get this shit done right and tight.”

One man straightened and glared at the mount he worked on. “This is never gonna work.”

“It was okay a minute ago.”

“Well, that was when I thought it was a ship for simply another dumb civilian, but if this array is gonna get a workout, it needs to be tighter than a gnat’s ass, and I don’t think it’s there yet.”

Someone snatched up a length of plating and some pipe. “What about this?”

The team leader stepped in. “We’re gonna need brackets...”

They moved the pieces around and ran mini-simulations on their tablets.

“So, this is how it’s supposed to be attached, and if we do that it’ll do okay. But if we take one of these and weld it here...and maybe here...it’s now four times less likely to be a problem.”

“Good work, Tone.” The team leader slapped him on the back and looked around. “Shit.”

“What, boss?”

“We’re gonna need a few pallets of those.”


Chapter Twenty-Five

Stephanie and her team were at the Fortress of Fire and Respect before dawn. The tower stood in the center of a mountain meadow and its dark-gray sides towered above them. Red streaks ran through the stone and light-gray lines gave it a cobwebbed appearance.

The stones framing its gates were a flawless black. V’ritan signaled the pilot to take off again. The meadow was not large enough for more than one shuttle to land at a time and they were not the only ones arriving.

Stephanie looked up at the walls and a frisson of nerves tingled. Zeekat flattened his ears and hissed, and Bumblebee lashed his tail while he looked askance at his furry friend.

“The cats don’t like it,” Brilgus observed and V’ritan shrugged.

“No one likes it, but we’ll go in anyway.”

She turned to him. “You don’t have to.”

He shook his head. “Of course I do. We’re providing medical support.” He glanced at the walls. “And you’ll need it.”

A short while later, she was glad he’d insisted. She looked out across the arena at where the first seven families stood and noted the size of their champions—and they’d only sent one apiece.

They were the largest Dreth she had ever seen. Most were around the same size as Vishlog, but two of them dwarfed him. All wore the customary battle armor, and she was relieved that both V’ritan and Jaleck had advised them to do the same.

“It might look like a training test,” the ambassador told her, “but they play for keeps and you will need to be armored for a true fight, rather than a mock battle.”

Stephanie studied the crests emblazoned on the Dreth’s chest pieces and recognized the symbols of at least two of the family representatives who’d saluted her at the Council the night before.

“And they’re on our side,” she murmured.

“We need to show them respect,” Vishlog told her. “That means I must fight.”

V’ritan stepped forward. “You should all go,” he said. “Show them you respect them enough to field all your people but refrain from using magic or weapons where possible. If they fight one at a time, order your people to stay back or join in as needed.”

Jaleck nodded and looked a little surprised. “That is sound strategy. That way, you can show disrespect later by not fielding as many. It works very well.”

“And the cats?”

“Yes.” Both her advisors nodded. “There is not a member in the audience that does not want to see the cats at play.”

She signaled her team forward and they waited. The families looked at them and a spokesperson stepped forward. “We have a request,” they called and turned to the stand where the judges stood.

“Speak.”

“We would like our champions to fight as one team. It would save time.”

“And it will mean a single fight as opposed to seven,” Lars observed, “meaning we can reserve our strength for the harder battles.”

Frog looked at Stephanie. “See? They really do like us.”

“If Morgana’s team has no objections,” the judges responded. “Then neither do we.”

Stephanie stepped forward.

“I have no objections.”

“And do you speak for the team?”

Lars came to stand beside her. “She is the head of our family and speaks for us all.”

The judge’s speaker nodded. “Then you will face seven champions at once instead of one at a time. Let the match begin.”

The Dreth clans left the arena and took their places in the stands, and the champions strode to the center of the Fortress. Stephanie and her team saluted their opposition and spread out.

The champions smirked in the second before, without warning, they charged.

It was instinctive for Stephanie to raise her hands and prepare to throw a shield, but Vishlog charged past her and roared a battle cry and Johnny came up alongside. “No magic,” he whispered. “Think of it as a training session against Vishlog. That’s what the cats are doing.”

They certainly were. The two of them raced forward and vaulted high before they descended to wrap themselves around the champions’ heads. The warriors were too busy focusing on what they perceived to be the greatest threat on two legs to bother to take note of them. They regretted the error when the felines entered the fray.

Zeekat succeeded in attaching himself to his target’s face and dug his claws into the back of the Dreth’s head while he bit his forehead.

“Don’t. Eat.” Stephanie used a little magic to augment her voice and the cat released him.

He timed it perfectly as the Dreth punched at his own head in an attempt to dislodge him. The impact when his fist pounded into his own face knocked him sideways and he stumbled.

Bumblebee hadn’t been so lucky. His target had seen him at the last moment and ducked under his attack. Instead of wrapping around the Dreth’s face, Bee had soared over his target’s head and careened into the chest of another champion.

That one had missed him coming in but was quick to react. As Bee prepared to sink his claws into the Dreth’s back, the warrior reached around and dragged the feline free. He moved too quickly for Bee to get a good grip and managed to hurl his furry attacker to one side.

Bee twisted, landed on all four feet, and bounded out of the way of an enormous boot to join Zee. After that, the two worked together to provide a distraction so their teammates could attack effectively.

Without her magic, Stephanie knew she had to get in close. The object was to beat the other team, which meant taking them out of the fight. Not only that, these guys were showing her respect so she didn’t want to kill them.

Fortunately, the Dreth made that easy. Confident in their size and strength, they closed with her team and displayed a blatant disregard for their fighting skills. One of them stopped directly in front of Frog.

“I’m gonna crush you, little man.”

The guard rolled easily under his first attempted blow. “Who you callin’ little, you heaping pile of tark turd?”

The champion roared, and the audience laughed. Frog turned his roll into an upward strike and drove his armored fist into his opponent’s groin and activated a powered surge as he did so.

The armor the Dreth wore protected his more vulnerable parts from the impact, but the surge penetrated with ease. The crowd drew a sharp breath of sympathy and the warrior howled as he fell to his knees. The human dived to the side and came up beside another who traded blows with Lars.

“Huh. It looks like I’m the dirty pool man today.” Frog snickered and used his momentum to drive his fist into the side of the Dreth’s armored knee.

He expended another charge and the metal gave. The flanges snapped sideways and shifted the knee joint with them. As that warrior roared with pain, a shadow fell over Frog and he automatically launched himself into another sideways dive.

Bumblebee thumped into the side of the Dreth who had cast the shadow, but another adversary waited at the end of Frog’s trajectory. He sidestepped and drove his boot into the man’s side.

“Shiiiit!” he cried as he as tumbled helplessly.

“Tark shit!” the champion roared and the audience applauded.

Zeekat had taken it upon himself to disable the first warrior Frog had struck, landed on his back, and smacked his un-helmeted head with a padded paw. He sat on the Dreth’s back, cuffed him every time he moved, or leapt into the air to land hard on his back every time he tried to stand.

The other alien combatants had their own problems and left the feline to it. Vishlog had engaged two. He had chosen one and the other had chosen him. The Dreth was hard-pressed until Stephanie came to his side.

“Greedy,” she told him, slapped his armor, and pointed to the one at his side. “I’ll take this one.”

She pivoted so her teammate was at her back and slapped the champion she’d chosen. “You’re not afraid of a little girl, are you?”

As she spoke, she stepped so there was clear space behind her, lowered her shoulder, and lunged her body forward and up. The Dreth let her come, braced himself for the impact, and laughed when she drove into what amounted to a solid wall of flesh.

He stopped laughing when Johnny tackled him from behind and took his legs out from under him. She followed him down, clamped her hand around his trachea, and squeezed.

“Your death would do your clan dishonor,” she told him, released him, and punched him in the side of the head. He groaned and his arms twitched as he tried to regain control.

“Not today, my friend.” She caught the collar of his armor and dragged him to where the rest of the team were bringing their fallen opponents.

Of the seven champions, only the one Vishlog faced was still fighting. Her Dreth had the upper hand but his opponent would not yield. Their teammate jerked his head out of the way of a vicious punch and countered with two hard blows of his own.

His adversary fell, rolled, and clasped his hands around the other fighter’s legs to yank them out from under him. Vishlog pulled one free as he went over and kicked the determined champion in the head. It bought him enough time to yank his other leg free as he landed.

The warrior tried to struggle to his feet and Vishlog tackled him and landed on top of him. This time, he pinned him to the ground, but he still would not give up. His hand slid down to the blaster at his side, but Vishlog beat him to it.

He ripped it out of its holster and threw it toward Zee. The cat hopped off his Dreth long enough to grab it, bounded to his previous position, and landed hard enough that the crowd winced. Vishlog lifted his opponent’s head and thumped it into the arena floor.

“Stay down!” he roared and punched the warrior when he wouldn’t comply.

The crowd winced again but the valiant Dreth went limp.

“The Morgana’s Team is victorious,” the judges called as Vishlog added his opponent to the pile.

“He’s from House Xagroth,” he explained when he caught the team’s looks. “They are great warriors but poor tacticians.”

Leaving the families to collect their champions, Stephanie’s team retired to where V’ritan waited with the healers. The damage was surprisingly light.

“That was well-mannered for a champion fight,” Jaleck observed, “but you did not draw weapons or use magic, so they did not use theirs. That is a powerful show of respect.”

“I used a coupla power surges,” Frog admitted and looked sheepish.

The ambassador gave him a toothy smile. “They merely counted that as evening up the odds—and another show of respect. Had you insisted on beating them without a little augmentation, they might have counted it as you saying they weren’t worthy enough opponents for the power. The next set will be more difficult.”

She looked at the witch.

“Not using your magic in the early fights is a good thing, although it can be taken two ways.”

Stephanie nodded and felt for the MU she knew had to be in the world around her. It worried her when she didn’t find any.

“I can’t feel any energy,” she told Jaleck and the Dreth ambassador frowned.

“Then it is wise to conserve your power for you will need it later on.”

The next fight was against a single family, but it had sent five champions.

“They’re okay with following you,” Jaleck told her, “but they will be happier with that decision if you defeat them well.”

Stephanie stood. “Vishlog, Lars, Johnny, Frog, Avery, Brenden.”

She glanced at the ambassador and she nodded. “It is slightly more and shows sufficient respect. I would draw weapons in this one, though.”

“Gotcha.” She moved forward and the guards she’d called moved with her.

Jaleck cleared her throat and she looked back. The two cats had started to follow.

“Not this time, boys,” Stephanie told them. “Stay.”

Surprisingly, the crowd responded with a disappointed rumble and she looked around. “Do you want the cats?”

The crowd roared approval.

“Are you sure?” The crowd roared again.

She glanced at Jaleck and caught the single digit she raised.

“Zeekat, come,” Stephanie called. “Bumblebee, stay.”

The feline trotted forward, his head and tail held high as the watching Dreth applauded. Bumblebee slunk back to flop beside Marcus and rested his head on the guard’s lap. “I know, boy. She doesn’t love me, either.”

That comment stung unexpectedly, and Stephanie frowned. What was wrong with her? She knew Marcus had only been joking. That remark shouldn’t have bothered her, but it did.

As soon as the judges signaled the start of the match, she charged forward. “Vishlog! Give me air. The rest of you, get in there fast.”

In front of her, the Dreth dropped on one knee, his back to the enemy and his hand cupped. It reminded her of the battle in the Navy sim, and she felt the magic rise to her hands. With only a single cast, she could melt these guys from the battlefield.

Shocked, she squashed the thought, thrust her foot into Vishlog’s hand, and vaulted up as he lifted her. The Dreth champions saw her rise and their eyes tracked her for a few seconds while she drew her blaster and fired three shots in quick succession.

Her team took full advantage of the distraction and drew their blades as they ran through the line of Dreth and left carnage in their wake. Sparks flew and metal screeched as the team separated and circled the five adversaries, leaving the center space clear for her landing.

She came in hard, holstered her blaster before she hit, and rose slowly to her feet. The champions had turned so their backs were to each other and not their opponents.

Vishlog had recovered from launching her and stalked in, mirroring her every move. Two of the champions swayed unsteadily, and the arm of a third hung limply at his side.

It would probably be a wise decision to dial the stun settings up. These guys were much tougher than they looked. The Dreth facing her let her get two steps in, then drew his blaster and fired.

Stephanie flung herself forward, rolled, and shoved upward toward his gun hand as she found her feet. That deflected his next shot and she came in close and drove her fist up under his jaw.

He wound an arm around her and she immediately sagged and slid out from under it before it could trap her. Using his armored calves as support, she lifted her feet and pushed herself through the space between his legs to come up behind him.

Armor protected his vulnerable lower back but it stopped at his neck. She grasped his massive shoulder with one hand, swung herself up to use his legs as footholds, and boosted herself up his back.

From there, she delivered a solid downward punch into the muscle running from neck to shoulder. The Dreth grunted but his gun arm dropped and his blaster slid from nerveless fingers. She changed hands and used her other fist to mirror the blow.

He spun in an attempt to dislodge her and she slid an arm around his throat and held tight. The crowd roared, but whether it was because of what she was doing or something one of the others had done, she didn’t know or care.

Rather than try to choke the champion, she used her arm to stay with him, drew her blaster, and shot him in the back of the head. He fell and she released her grip and shoved herself clear to land in a crouch and look for her next target.

Zeekat barreled in from behind one of the warriors and swept his legs out from under him. The massive alien flailed and landed heavily on his back. The cat ran on and Johnny lurched forward to finish the job.

The Dreth recovered enough to defend himself, raised both hands to deflect the guard’s dive, and hurled the man across the arena. He rolled to his feet and Stephanie lunged to use Zeekat’s technique to knock him down again.

Unlike the feline, however, she didn’t keep running. She landed on top of him and punched him in the head. He started to raise an arm, so she stamped a boot down on it, ground the heel into the elbow joint, and punched him again.

It took several more blows before he lay still, and she used the blaster to stun his other arm and both legs. A quick sweep of the battlefield confirmed that the boys had the other three champions under control.

It took only a few minutes before these were down as well. Once again, they gathered their opponents together and turned to face the judges.

“Team Morgana is victorious.”

The next Dreth family was not so sure of its decision to support the Witch. They sent eight champions and the warriors had clearly learned from the two fights that had gone before. Instead of standing together, they separated.

The cats remained with Stephanie and Lars raced across the arena to deal with the second group with Avery, Johnny, and Brenden at his side. Vishlog and Frog stayed with her. Against eight, she made sure she used her blaster early.

Magic would make this so much easier, she thought when her arm went numb from a stun shot aimed at her heart.


Chapter Twenty-Six

Vishlog hammered his opponent with a stun stick and worked the weapon from his stomach to his head. He flicked Stephanie a quick grin and strode toward the Dreth that had picked Frog up by the throat. She drew her blaster and fired four quick shots into the Dreth champion’s chest who thought he’d found her alone and perhaps vulnerable.

With him disabled, she looked around. Bee and Zee had their third opponent well in paw, so she glanced across to see how Lars was doing.

“Vish. I’m gonna need a boost,” she shouted when she saw that three Dreth still stood and Brendan was down and moved like a beached fish.

He drove the stick into his opponent’s side and turned as she sprinted toward him. Frog dropped like a stone and she pointed to where their teammates were fighting on the other side of the arena.

“There!” she shouted as she leapt and Vishlog caught her foot and heaved her toward where Lars had been thrown into the arena wall.

As she careened forward, she realized she wouldn’t make it.

“Dammit,” she muttered, drew a small part of her magic, and used it to give her a boost. It should have been enough, but she began to descend three-quarters of the way across the arena.

“That shouldn’t be happening.” She frowned and drew more energy, but it was sluggish and she needed more to carry her the distance than she thought she should. “Damn.”

Two of the Dreth looked up. The third dragged Brenden from the ground, swung him by the foot, and released him to power into the wall above Lars’s head. Her anger threatened to turn into rage and she forced herself to pay attention to her next two opponents.

The anger tipped into fury that boiled through her, but she had greater problems. The two Dreth who had seen her approach now raised their blasters and showed their fangs in humorless grins.

It made her want to shatter them into small pieces, and she tightened her hold over the urge to drop her blaster and use magic. They had other battles to fight.

She bared her own teeth in return and noted that they tracked her progress toward them. “I don’t think so, you hairy sons of bitches.”

Drawing a little more magic, she created a shield beneath her feet and made it broad enough to cover both warriors. It was none too soon. Blaster fire pounded into the shield a second before the barrier slammed into the Dreth.

It crushed them and she bounded clear and raced toward the third champion. Behind her, the shield dissipated and the two Dreth rolled slowly to their feet. She ignored the sound of their movement and fired her blaster as she closed.

Her target hurled himself to one side, rolled under the shots, and scrambled to his feet once again. She raised her weapon, only to find it had fired dry, and she cursed.

Stupidly, she’d forgotten to recharge it during the last break. Throwing it to one side, she prepared to receive the charge and debated whether or not she needed more magic to survive it.

Avery answered that. He launched himself from the side, tightened his arms around the Dreth’s calves, and hauled him to the ground.

He fell as she reached him and she hurried over to where Lars slowly helped Brenden to his feet. The two Dreth she’d landed on were already moving toward them.

“Are you boys, okay?”

The team leader draped Brenden’s arm over his shoulder and they gave her two shaky thumbs-up. When he saw the two Dreth approach, he propped his teammate against the wall and patted his chest.

“Hold my beer.”

The man gave him a crooked smile, fumbled for his blaster, and dropped it as soon as it cleared the holster.

“Stay there,” Lars shouted and stepped beside Stephanie as she turned to face the oncoming champions.

“Is he okay?”

“He needs a healer or three and a week’s recovery.” Behind them, Brenden slid down the wall and toppled onto his side. “Maybe three weeks.”

Rage stormed through her and she tucked her chin to her chest and fought to keep control of the magic that wanted to escape. She didn’t have enough to let it do that, and what she did have was behaving so erratically, she didn’t know if she’d be able to keep it under control.

“I will kill them.” She growled in menace and Lars laid a hand on her shoulder.

“Easy there. We have more after this. We don’t need it yet.”

The magic flared and he snatched his hand away quickly. “Not yet, okay? Keep it together a little longer. Please?”

Stephanie directed some of the magic to shield Brenden and brought more to her hand. “I’m not helpless.” Her tone was edged with a snarl and he groaned.

“Screw it.”

One of the warriors raised an eyebrow. “Is that an offer or challenge?”

And that was all it took. She launched forward and formed the magic in her hand into a hammer. With a scream born of frustration and the effort of keeping the magic from breaking loose and becoming something more destructive, she swung.

The glowing blue weapon collided with the leading Dreth’s armor and he roared in pained surprise. She grunted, slowed the hammer, and brought it back for another strike. This time, her adversary was ready.

He drew the long blade at his belt, deflected the blow, and brought his own weapon forward in a counter strike. Magic flared and a shield formed between her and the blade.

Lars bounced his stun stick off the other champion’s head and he sagged to sprawl in a huddle at his feet. He looked at the Dreth who confronted Stephanie. “Hey! Tark for brains, quit picking on a girl.”

The alien turned toward him. “Do you think you’re more of a challenge?”

“Well, there’s only one of you, so I guess that’s a yes—unless you need to outnumber your opponents.”

The crowd recognized the insult with a goading murmur, and the warrior turned fully to face him and brandished his sword. “How many pieces do you want to be buried in?”

The guard drew his blaster and shot him in the face. He continued to fire until the Dreth thumped down and lay still and the sword fell from his hand. “How about we don’t bury me? I’d probably poison the ground for miles around.”

He nudged the fallen warrior with his boot. “Hey. I asked you a question.”

When he didn’t respond, Lars surveyed the battlefield.

On the other side of the arena, Vishlog delivered the punch that knocked his opponent over Frog’s crouched figure and followed to land on top of him. The two cats had pinned their opponents, only one of which was still moving. Bee used the other as a cushion.

Every time Zeekat’s prisoner moved, the black-and-white cat would leap onto the offending body part and bite it—except for the head. That, he’d jump on, leap off again, and pivot to slap it before he returned to sit on the Dreth’s back.

The feline seemed to be enjoying himself.

Johnny delivered one more punch and stood to give his adversary a solid kick for good measure. When the alien did nothing more than groan, the guard dusted his hands and staggered over to Brenden.

Frog sprinted across the arena, his eyes fixed on Stephanie as a warrior had snuck up behind her. Before Lars could make out what he was about to do, the smaller man barreled into the back of the Dreth’s knees and brought the attacker down on top of himself.

She raised her hammer and advanced and the guard squirmed out from under the Dreth and flung himself onto the warrior’s chest. “I’m on your side,” he screamed as she brought the weapon around.

It arced through the air and Frog cringed. In an instant, Stephanie blinked and it was gone.

“Frog?” she asked, and he made a “ta-da” gesture with his hands, his face as white as milk.

“The one and only.” His voice shook.

“I almost killed you.”

He grinned. “Yup.”

“I... You...”

His grin faded and he held his hand out. “Yup. Are you gonna help me up? ʼCause my legs are shaking so bad I don’t think I can stand on my own.”

She held her hand out and hauled him to his feet. “You’re an idiot.”

“Aw, Steph. You say the sweetest things.”

Lars approached and gave him a clip upside the head. “Fucking dumbass.”

“I love you, too, man. Don’t tell me you weren’t worried. You always say ‘fuck’ when you’re worried.”

“Fuck you,” the team leader retorted and turned away to help Johnny with Brenden.

“And your sense of humor crashes.”

Lars flipped him the bird and he looked at the sky. “Aw, man...we fought through the lunch break.”

“And we’re not done yet,” Stephanie told him and looked for the others.

Across the arena, Vishlog put Zeekat’s victim out of his misery by knocking him out cold and whistled for the cats. Zee pranced around him but Bumblebee stalked beside him like he was looking for something to kill.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Lars shouted and took two long strides to kick the blaster out of the hand of the warrior Johnny had downed.

When he’d punched that Dreth to unconsciousness, he checked to see if Johnny was okay with Brenden and looked for Avery. For a moment, he couldn’t find him, but one of the downed Dreth moved and a hand appeared.

After another lurch, a second hand appeared, and Avery dragged himself out from under the felled warrior. “Sorry, man, but have you seen how much those fuckers weigh?” he said when he noticed his audience.

Lars helped him up and they returned to Stephanie.

This time, they left their opponents where they lay and walked over to join their teammates and face the judges.

“Victory to Team Morgana.”

When she looked at the judge’s stand, she noticed six extra figures standing at the back of it. It didn’t take much effort for her to recognize the colors belonging to Clans Hachtech, Endrageth, and Echgrech—all of whom stood in opposition to the Dreth following her.

The Dreth senator for House Hachtech turned away from the judging panel and smiled. “Houses Hachtech, Endrageth, and Echgrech thank you.”

“Uh oh,” Frog murmured. “That can’t be good.”

Stephanie narrowed her eyes and glanced over at where Brenden and Johnny were leaning on each other and Lars had his arm around Avery’s back. “Let’s get these guys to the healers before they decide to start the next match early.”

They reached the shade of their support station and settled onto long, low benches so the healers could do their work. V’ritan inspected the food that was brought to make sure it was safe to eat, after which he made sure they actually ate.

“You have three more houses to fight,” he told them, “and they are your strongest opponents. You will need all your strength.”

Stephanie ate, her eyes dark with emotion and her magic surging and restless. The Meligornian studied her with concern, but one look at her people told him why she might look that way. Brenden was the worst and the healers suggested he be kept from the field.

Lars pressed his lips together and shook his head. “No can do,” he told them. “We need to fight with her. The Dreth need us to fight with her.”

Vishlog grunted in agreement and drew a hissing breath as the healer stitched a sword gash. That was one weapon that had slipped through the armor. Looking around at them, V’ritan sent a request to the ship for replacements to be made.

When a drumroll signaled the end of their break, they rose to their feet. Before they reached the door, the judge’s voice boomed out over them in amplified resonance.

“Houses Hachtech, Endrageth, and Echgrech have requested the right extended to the clans involved in the first battle—that their forces be merged and this battle be fought as one engagement.”

“Hrageth’s balls and Tegortha’s stench. They have no honor.” Vishlog growled in pent fury.

“That request has been granted. Team Morgana will face the Houses Hachtech, Endrageth, and Echgrech in one final confrontation. Opponents have five minutes to decide on their team composition and take the field.”

“That’s cheating,” Frog exclaimed, and Vishlog shook his head.

“Technically, it is barely inside being respectful but ethically, it’s a crime. They can try to hold their heads up but I will punch them down soon enough.”

The team rumbled its agreement, and Marcus stood.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Stephanie demanded when she noticed him.

He gave her a lopsided smile. “I’m going with you.”

“No, you’re not. You’re not fit enough.”

He walked forward, sealed his armor, and checked his weapons methodically. “They are your greatest opponents and they’ve had the day to see what the team can do. They want to ensure they win.”

When he looked at Jaleck, the ambassador nodded in agreement. “You will need all your people in the field for this.”

Marcus took his place with the team. “So it’s settled then. I’m fighting.”

The healers made one more round to check that the team was healed enough to face the coming fight.

“We need to ensure we keep enough in reserve for when you come off the field,” the leader healer explained.

As soon as they were done, Stephanie led them into the arena. On the other side, House Echgrech’s champions emerged.

“Nine,” Lars murmured.

“It’s nice to know they believe in a fair fight,” Frog grumbled.

“It would only be fair if that was all they were fielding,” Vishlog told him. “As it is...”

They watched a second group of warriors emerge. These wore the colors of House Endrageth.

“Nine, again.”

As the highest-ranking, House Hachtech had chosen to send its champions out last. When they reached nine, they kept coming.

“Twelve,” Lars counted.

“Fifteen. What the fuck?” Frog exclaimed a few moments later.

“It looks like it gets better,” Johnny said when more stepped through the door.


Chapter Twenty-Seven

“Twenty.” Vishlog was not impressed.

“Twenty-one,” the team muttered and counted together.

House Hachtech hadn’t held back. Its expression of disapproval was clear. If a house dead set against a decision sent eight or more, House Hachtech’s disapproval was off the scale.

“Twenty-two...twenty-three...”

“That has to be close to all their warriors,” Vishlog murmured.

“Twenty-four.”

The Dreth in the stands above them gasped.

“It is all their warriors.” Vishlog’s voice was a cross between disbelief and horror. “They must have sold their souls to the Tegortha.”

“Or the enemy,” Stephanie stated in a voice that carried darkness.

Lars glance at her. “Steady. We don’t need Morgana yet.”

“Twenty-four.” Vishlog’s eyes narrowed. “They really hate us.”

“How can you tell?” Frog asked and sarcasm dripped from every word.

The Dreth didn’t seem to notice. “Because they’re laying it all on the line,” he replied. “If we win, they won’t be able to look anyone in the eye for a generation, so shallow will be the well of their respect.”

“Well,” the other man said and scowled at the forty-two warriors now arrayed against them. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem yet.”

The doors to the team areas closed and a short siren sounded.

“They’re pulling out all the stops for this one,” Frog muttered.

“And so are we,” Stephanie muttered before she raised her voice. “Bring it!”

With a shout, her team raced forward. The cats’ roars mingled with the human cries and Dreth bellow of their teammates.

Stephanie sprinted ahead and her soul boiled with rage as she tried to capture her magic. Internally, the gMU spun into the fastest vortex she’d yet created, but she couldn’t bring the magic to her hands.

If this keeps up, I’ll explode. She somehow forced her mind to calm.

A second roar went up, this time from their Dreth opponents. The ground trembled when the champions surged forward. The team didn’t falter or even look at her. She knew they relied on her to give them the edge.

That was enough for her to grasp the slippery strands of gMU and conjure a shield between them and the oncoming Dreth. She formed it as a wedge and her team ran inside its edges and raised their blasters.

The shield took the Dreth by surprise and the front runners drove into it and immediately bounced back into the rank behind them, who’d come to their own sudden halt. Some started to backpedal but they weren’t fast enough.

The shield cut through them like a snowplow through a drift. It hurled them aside in two untidy piles. Only the warriors in the very rear ranks were able to avoid it, and that was because Stephanie stopped.

The team wasted no time. Their blasters were ready and they fired through the shield, but the magic shifted and absorbed the energy and their shots didn’t penetrate. She tried to twist the magic back but it slithered and pulsed beneath her hands until, with a cry of frustration, she released it.

The team resumed firing as soon as it vanished, but the damage had been done and several Dreth had regained their feet. Lars ducked under a fist swipe from the lead champion of House Hachtech.

The Dreth bared his fangs, switched from his hands to feet, and forced the man to take several hasty steps back to avoid losing either his blaster or his head. He was so startled that he forgot to fire.

“Fuck it!” he yelled when he remembered, and Stephanie’s head snapped toward him.

A small ball of magic erupted from her hand and attached itself to the Dreth’s armor.

“Don’t kill,” Lars cried and backpedaled rapidly. “Don’t kill.”

It was the same command she used with the cats and he hoped it worked.

The Dreth looked from Lars’s obvious fear to the ball and tried to brush it from his chest. She frowned and the ball flashed brightly before it exploded to coat the armor with a sheen of light.

An odd hiss was followed by the acrid smell of dissolving metal and the Dreth yanked hurriedly in an effort to remove it. Fortunately, the sheen faded when the breastplate vanished. As soon as he realized he would not actually be dissolved, he focused on Lars.

“It looks like you’ve made a new friend,” Frog observed and darted out from behind the team leader to fire two shots into the Dreth’s head.

He swayed on his feet and took a clumsy swipe at Lars before Frog fired again.

“Stay down, already!” he shouted and continued his volley until the Dreth pitched over on the battlefield. “Woohoo! Who’s next?”

“How about me, little man?”

Frog spun toward the voice and came face to face with another Hachtech breastplate. “Oh, crap.”

He had barely dropped to his knees when a huge hand closed on the space where his throat had been. Rather than waste any time contemplating that, though, he lurched into a crouch and dived forward.

Unfortunately, this Dreth had paid close attention to the previous matches and stamped down, caught the man mid-dive, and hurled him to the hard surface. The blaster dropped from his hand on impact.

Frog tucked his legs in and heard the clash of steel before a massive foot descended on him. “Shit on a tark feather!”

He tried to wriggle out from under the huge Dreth boot that pinned him down but the warrior weighed a ton and he couldn’t move. This is gonna hurt.

His eyes closed instinctively and he tensed, but the blow never came. Instead, the boot lifted and the Dreth stumbled away. Frog rolled sideways in the same instant that the pressure came off his back and heard steel clatter beside him.

Once on his feet, he looked to see what had happened. Zeekat swatted and bit at the warrior’s head and raked his claws down the Dreth’s armor. Before he could wonder what the claws could do to that, sparks rose from a seam and a hip joint seized.

“Oh... Clever kitty,” he murmured.

The Dreth tumbled and Zeekat vaulted clear. Frog raced over, yanked the Dreth’s blaster from its holster, and shot him with it. The warrior went limp and he grinned. “Oh, yeah! I have to get me another one of these.”

He glanced around and grinned when Brenden and Avery tag-teamed with Bumblebee, while Johnny and Lars stood back to back and faced all comers. The only one he couldn’t see was Marcus.

Frog looked around, worried, until he caught a flare of blue.

“What the fuck are you using a stun stick for, bro?” he wondered and sprinted toward his friend. “Don’tcha know that’s only gonna make him mad?”

Marcus heard that and laughed. “He was already mad. I’m only showing him a new relaxation technique.”

He beat a rapid tattoo over the Dreth’s armor and drove him back when he reached the champion’s head.

“I don’t think it’s working,” Frog shouted and shot the Dreth with the blaster he’d acquired.

The warrior gave a startled roar and fell, but his outrage had drawn attention. Marcus looked at the four Dreth closing in on them. “Thanks, Frog. Thanks a lot.”

“How was I to know they don’t like their weapons being touched?”

They turned in the same way Lars and Johnny had and Frog opened fire with the blaster until he had to duck under a large Dreth fist.

“Down,” he called, and Marcus complied. The fist swept futilely through the now empty space.

Steel hissed as it came free of scabbards and the Dreth stepped back to give themselves room.

“Oh, look. It’s Mr Slice ‘n’ Dice,” Frog quipped.

“And friends,” Marcus added.

“I didn’t think he had any friends.”

“Well, he does.” The Dreth started to circle.

Frog scowled. “And they’re making a blender.”

Marcus laughed. “I always wanted to see a Frog in a blender.”

“Ha. Ha. You are so fucking funny.”

They drew their combat knives and their eyes widened when they compared blade lengths.

“We are so screwed,” Frog said.

His friend laughed. “That pilot was right—size does matter.”

“And the Dreth have it all.”

“Break out?” Marcus asked and parried the first slash as he and his teammate separated to give each other room.

“Yup.”

“When?”

Zeekat appeared out of nowhere, hurled himself into the back of one Dreth’s head, and forced him to stumble forward. Bumblebee ran through the legs of another, who fell heavily.

“Now?” Frog suggested as he sidestepped the Dreth’s aimless sword-waving. He punched the dagger forward and drove it hilt-deep into his opponent’s neck. “Oops.”

The blade scraped on bone and stuck. “Oh, shit.”

The warrior tumbled forward and Zee sprang clear to give Frog a filthy look as he left.

“Dammit! Now I’m gonna need another knife.”

Marcus grabbed the Dreth’s sword off the ground and handed it to him. “Use this. Now, come on.”

They turned, stopped, and turned again.

“It’s been nice knowing ya,” Frog said, and his teammate forced a grin.

“Nah. I’ll take Tiny, here...and you can deal with Eeny, Meeny, Miny, and Mo.”

“You know you’re supposed to kiss me before you screw me, right?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Marcus stepped forward and blocked. “Do you think they’ll take turns?”

The Dreth had them surrounded, and they didn’t look like they would take turns. In fact, they looked like they preferred to see who could skewer the two men first.

“I bet they’re counting kills,” Frog shouted.

“They’d better not be,” his friend retorted, “Or Steph is gonna have their heads.”

Their adversaries closed and their blades flashed. Marcus parried and twisted under one champion’s reach. Another followed him and the man ducked and grinned when his attacker’s blade swept over his head and scored a deep line in the first warrior’s armor.

He twisted past the Dreth’s legs, tripped, and landed hard on his butt before he scrambled unceremoniously backward out of the circle. His stomach hurt and he ached, but he knew he couldn’t stop.

There were more Dreth than Morganas and he needed to stick around as long as he could—and eliminate as many of the champions as he could. Steel clashed from inside the circle and Frog cried out in pain.

Marcus scrambled to his feet, drew his blaster, and fired into the group, but he hadn’t been the only one to hear his teammate.

Across the arena, Stephanie raised her head. She had finally chosen to throw balls of magic that paralyzed the warrior they struck and disabled for the boys to take out. The only problem she had was that she could throw it faster than they could deal with her targets, and the Dreth were recovering before the team could reach them.

The magic didn’t last as long as she thought it should—and it didn’t do what she wanted. One minute, it was as reluctant as a sulky child and the next, it surged headlong through her grasp like it had a race to run.

She looked across the arena and realized the team had been scattered and the clusters of Dreth ranged against them still outnumbered them three to one.

“Get everyone together,” she ordered as Lars commandeered another blaster. “How many of those do you think you’ll need?”

“All of them,” he answered and looked around.

Several of the Dreth she’d temporarily dealt with were rising. Avery, Brenden, and Bumblebee were flagging, but not one of them was ready to call it quits. Lars whistled to call them in and they had to fight a rear-guard action to reach them.

He looked for Johnny and saw the man sprinting from a half-dozen Dreth as he headed for another band of opponents. Before the team leader could wonder why, someone shouted in pain and she ran toward the sound, leaving him no choice but to follow.

Across the arena, Avery, Brendan, and Bumblebee changed course, but not toward them. They moved away, drawn by the small gathering of combatants Johnny had targeted. Steph gave no sign of noticing.

Magic flowed over her as she ran but the flow seemed jagged—glitchy, even, as though something was interfering. It ran along her arms and down to her hands, then petered out. In the next moment, it pulsed abruptly upward to form a bubble over and around her.

She reached the rear line of Dreth and the magic arced, and the force of its touch thrust the warriors aside. Lars stopped running when he caught sight of a human body several yards to the right. He altered course and jogged the few steps required to reach it.

Marcus looked like he’d run into a brick wall...or maybe three. Apprehension raced through him, and he tried to feel for a pulse. It was there, but light and fast. With no time for finesse, he hauled the man over his shoulder.

“I got you, buddy. You can bleed on me all you like,” he muttered and looked for Stephanie.

She’d dropped the shield and wound Frog in a sheath of blue that floated along behind her. The man looked like some kind of macabre balloon.

“Steph?” he asked, and she pointed a glowing finger to where Zeekat had joined Bumblebee, Avery, and Brenden in attacking the Dreth with Johnny. As they moved, some of their adversaries thrown aside by her magic began to find their feet.

“Story of my life,” Lars muttered and opened fire.

Marcus groaned and he kept an arm tightly around him to keep him on his shoulder. “Easy, man. I got you.”

Johnny had turned and faced the Dreth that had pursued him. He’d moved far enough to put the guys and the cats between him and the group he’d aimed for, and the odds looked almost even.

Lars followed Stephanie and dropped instantly when she shouted, “Down!”

The team, including the cats, did the same and the Dreth they’d been fighting pivoted toward her. She raised both hands palms upward and extended her arms toward them.

The Dreth hesitated and looked at each other, at the humans prone on the floor before them, and the small human female who held her hands up. Puzzlement etched their features followed by amusement and Lars wondered what she was waiting for.

Stephanie was waiting for the magic to do as she asked. It slithered and slid out of her grasp and refused to come out of the vortex she had whirling inside. The MU wouldn’t answer her call and depression threatened.

She was about to give up when her power surged and ripped its way out of the tanks she had inside to form two gleaming bolts of light. These lashed across the arena, scattered those Dreth who thought to run, and careened into those who stood and gaped.

When the missiles faded, the clusters of Dreth had broken apart and some of the champions lay stretched on the ground while the others regrouped. As the humans and cats rose to their feet, one more Dreth stood.

“Are you okay, Vishlog?” She let her arms drop to her sides.

He nodded, picked his way clear of the bodies, and joined the others as they moved toward her. Lars closed the distance, keeping a wary eye on the gathering Dreth.

She turned her head and scanned the ground at the edges of the arena. “Over there.” She pointed.

They made their way over to the wall. Lars set Marcus down gently and she floated Frog to rest beside him. Avery, Brenden, and Johnny crouched close to the wall and divided their attention between the Dreth and Stephanie.

“What do you say, Steph?” Lars asked. “D’you think they’ll let us get our breaths back?”

She shook her head but kept her back to them because she didn’t want them to see the tears that had spilled down her cheeks at the sight of Marcus and Frog lying so still. Irritated with herself, she dashed a hand across her eyes and raised her chin as she tried to work out what was wrong with her.

It was no secret that she reacted badly to seeing the boys hurt, but never this badly and not until the fight was over. Here, her emotions rolled between outrage and despair, an overwhelming desire to kill and one to simply give up.

Worse, her magic was all over the place. Like the King’s Warrior’s engines when Nihilistic energy fouled them up. One minute, it refused to work and the next, it was—

“You can’t see it unless you’re looking for it...and you can’t see it unless you can feel it,” she murmured as the Dreth champions formed into ranks.

“Uh, Steph?” Lars began but she snapped a hand out and he stopped.

“I have to feel the sight...”

“That’s it. She’s lost the plot,” Johnny quipped but the joke fell flat and he sounded worried.

“Give her a minute,” the team leader told them.

“Feelings...”

Stephanie took a deep breath and focused on finding the energy around her. She ignored the groan as Marcus came round and ignored the Dreth who checked their weapons and scrutinized them like prime steak. Instead, she focused and searched not for the glow of Earth or Meligorn magic, or even the translucent sparkle of gMU. This time, she sought the source of her negative feelings.

“Easy, Marcus. I’ve got you.”

“What’s she doing?”

“I’ll tell you when she lets me know.”

She ignored him because she’d found it.

All around them.

They were surrounded by darkness, steeped in it and drowning in the black.

“nMU...” she whispered and tried to ignore the small portion of her mind that screamed a warning for her to be careful.

“I say we forget these three,” Marcus suggested, tried to stand, and failed.

Farther along the wall, Avery collapsed and Brenden dropped down beside him. “You can’t go to sleep now.”

“I’m not. I’m fine,” the man muttered and Johnny pulled him into a seated position. “Hey. How many fingers am I holding up?”

His teammate squinted at the three fingers he waved in front of his face and shook his head.

Johnny glanced around and tried again, this time holding up two. “How many now? Come on. It’s easy.”

“Easy,” he slurred and nodded.

He sighed and held one finger up. “How about this? What was that? One? Yeah, one.”

“Right.” He slapped the man on the shoulder. “You’re good to go. Get up off your lazy ass.”

Avery held a hand out and he hauled him to his feet and propped him against the wall beside Brenden. “Keep him upright.”

“Gotcha,” Brendan said and shuffled closer.

Marcus sighed. “What’s the point? We’ve...” His voice died to silence when Stephanie turned.

As she did, Vishlog gave a sudden shout of alarm and threw himself forward to shove her sideways. A blaster bolt pounded into his armor and he fell.

She got to her feet.

“Are you all right?” Lars asked and moved to help her. He extended his hand toward her and stopped.

“Uh, Stephanie...” he continued after a moment’s hesitation. “Why are your eyes glowing black?”

“You were saying?” she asked and turned to Marcus.

He gulped and she motioned for him to speak. “Go on.”

“I was gonna say we’ve got nothing left and you’re almost out. We have most of the families. Fuck these three—”

“Yes,” she agreed and her voice trailed darkness and tones of Morgana. “That’s what we’ll do.”

She changed direction and moved away from the wall, taking several strides into the arena as Lars helped Vishlog over to the wall.

“I stay,” the Dreth told him, his words coming between short bursts of pain.

The Morgana glanced toward him but addressed Lars. “He will not want to leave the field of battle. Let him stay.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the team leader muttered sarcastically. “Now tell me something I don’t know.”

The tiniest smile curved her lips. “You cannot come with me here. It is too dangerous. My apologies.”

“What?” But the Morgana waved her hand and magic surged over them and locked them in place.

“Great,” Avery grumbled. “She could at least have let me fall.”

“No, this is much better,” Brenden bitched. “This way, we get to see what comes next.”

“I’m not sure I want to.”

As if on cue, the Morgana’s hand exploded.

The team gasped and their hearts plummeted.

“Shit,” she said and sounded rather like Stephanie. She reached over and touched her left hand to the stump. Flesh sizzled and the smell of burning meat rose around them.

In the stands, murmurs ran through the watching Dreth. She heard the admiration in their tones and caught comments comparing her strength to their own—as though that could ever be—and inside, she cursed.

It hurt like a bitch. That’ll teach me to play with Nihilistic energy while I have random gMU inside me. What the fuck was I thinking? She stared at the stump. This will be a bitch to regrow.

She looked at where the Dreth champions had finally straightened their lines and prepared to attack.

Amplifying her voice with the last of her energy, she called to them, “It is said that when one side sends one and the other side sends many, that all the respect belongs to the victor.”

A murmur of agreement rose from the stands and the champion’s leader jerked his head in a single nod.

Sure of their understanding, she continued, “Then, should I lose, the respect from the families will transfer, providing me much disrespect—a mere shadow to be ignored.”

Again, the stands murmured in agreement and she went on. “However, should I win, you will bow in deference to me and my team. To Vishlog, who took the strike to keep me here. For my people, for those who respect me, you will bow.”

Another murmur ran through the stands as her eyes shifted from black to a milky white and her voice dropped an octave into the depths of space. “You will bow...or you will die.”

In the support room, V’ritan turned to Jaleck. “Can she do that?”

“Change the terms from a team battle to single?”

“Yes...that.”

“She just did.”

“But will they accept it?”

“The Council of Families is seated in those stands and they all agreed. It is on record. No one can deny it.”

“But—”

“We can’t interrupt them, V’ritan.”

“She’s only—”

“It will be all right.” Jaleck laid a hand on his shoulder. “It will. You’ll see.”

Despite her words, the ambassador’s tone sounded anxious and V’ritan looked at her. Seeing her face marked by a tension that belied her words, he covered her hand with his own.

“Yes. Yes, it will.” He drew a shaky breath. “We can’t intervene, can we?”

“She would never forgive us if we did.” Jaleck sighed. “And the door is locked. We can’t intervene until the fight is over.”

They turned to watch the screen as the Dreth champions charged.

The laughter that rolled across the field did not belong to Stephanie and V’ritan groaned. The Morgana was in complete control. There was no chance of mercy now.

As they watched, she gestured with her remaining hand and a lattice of glittering darkness erupted into being before her. The Dreth did not slow. The lead warriors refused to let her magic intimidate them despite what the shield had done to them before.

The first to encounter the lattice disappeared in a spray of blood and gore, transformed into hundreds of tiny cubes of steaming meat. Energy sizzled as he vanished and the smoke and scent of burning flesh filled the arena once again.

The Dreth behind him threw themselves back and several breathed audible sighs of relief as the Morgana drew the lattice away from their front lines. When she had moved it ten feet closer to herself, she stopped.

One of the warriors fired his weapon, but the blast was also caught by the mesh and cascaded in ripples of silver over the net before the energy fell like powder to the ground. He threw the blaster aside in disgust, and it shattered to fling pieces of metal in a flurry.

Another picked up a stone and they all watched it broken to dust. They stopped.

Some went to move around the edges of the lattice, so the Morgana extended it until it touched the far wall. They started toward the other edge, and she did the same. Now, they stood on one side of a glistening black fence and she and her team stood on the other.

As they stared at her, dumbfounded, she increased its height and extended it thirty feet in the air. The Dreth in the stands closest to the edge of the arena shrank back. Behind her, she heard a whisper.

“Did you know she could do that?”

Marcus or Johnny had asked but it didn’t matter. Lars’s response was quite clear. “No. No, I did not.”

She couldn’t tell which of them was more stunned and it didn’t matter either.

Another of them snickered. “See? She really can beat them with one arm tied behind her back.”

“It doesn’t need to be tied.”

Lars groaned. “Seriously? Is that the best you can do?”

“Can’t. Move. Pinned to a wall. So, yeah.”

As if to prove a point, the Morgana raised her hand—or, rather, raised one hand and a stump. She took a step forward, and the lattice moved before her. The Dreth took a step back and she pressed on.

Step by step, she drove them back. In the stands, there was a commotion. The Lords of Hachtech, Endrageth, and Echgrech had returned to the judges’ dais.

“Magic has no place in the Fortress,” the Lord Hachtech declared. “She should not be allowed to use it.”

“You have to make this clear.”

The lead judge looked at them, his face stern with disapproval. “You have had your one opportunity to approach to the judges. You need to sit down, shut up, or take the place of one of them.”

He rose and pointed to the Dreth champions in the arena.

“But I—” Hachtech sputtered, and the official cut him off.

“One more word, and I’ll throw you over myself.”

The lord gaped but closed his mouth quickly. He turned away abruptly and stalked to his seat and the other two followed. On the field below them, what was left of their warriors backed away another step.

The Morgana advanced and the champions retreated one step at a time, their eyes wary as they watched the lattice move before her.

Her voice growled out around them, crawled over their skin, and set their teeth on edge. “I will not change my mind. Bow or die.”

“She’ll really do it.” Avery sounded worried.

“Yup. If they don’t bow, she’ll move that thing over them and turn them into mincemeat.”

“We have to stop this—”

“Sure. Why not? Why don’t you show us how it’s done?”

“How what’s done?” Frog asked and Marcus gave a sigh of relief.

“Oh, nothing. You know, Morgana stuff.”

Frog sat bolt upright. “Who the fuck let her out to play?”

He poked the haze of blue that confined them. “And what the fuck is this doing here?”

“Morgana,” Marcus told him as if that explained it all.

Vishlog groaned and Lars crouched beside him.

“Vishlog. You need to wake up, buddy. We need you.” He paused and looked at the arena where the Dreth were rapidly running out of room. “Stephanie needs you.”

The warrior squinted, stared at the scene, and blinked and squinted again. “That is not good.”

“You’re telling me,” Frog agreed. He sniffed. “What the fuck is that awful smell?”

“You don’t want to know,” Lars told him and turned to the Dreth. “Vishlog, I need something. There has to be another way.”

His teammate shook his head. “There is no other way.” He grunted and raised a finger toward where the three lords stood and stared over the balcony at their retreating forces.

“Leaders of...families...put them in this position. Leaders must change it or...the warriors...cannot yield.”

Lars thought about that for a moment. “Frog,” he snapped, “come here.”

“But I just woke up.”

“Good, it means you’ll listen for a change. So, you heard Vishlog.”

Out in the arena, the Morgana took another step forward and her adversaries took one back. The mesh had curved to herd them closer together and force them back into their ranks.

The rearmost rank reached the wall.

The Witch took another step and the third rank backed into the rear rank.

She smiled and raised her foot.

Behind her, Lars’s voice rang out. “Morgana! New information on tactics!”

She hesitated but set her foot down again. The front line of Dreth breathed a soft sigh of relief and the observers echoed it. She turned and raised an eyebrow at her team.

“Release Frog!” Lars yelled.

After a moment, she raised her right stump and waved it. Frog looked at Lars and then at her.

“Well,” he said, “I guess that means I can go.”

He stood and took a cautious step into the blue. When nothing happened, he took another and moved through it without difficulty. As soon as he was clear, he sprinted to where the Morgana waited.

“Vishlog says...” he began, and she lowered her head to listen.

When he was done, she smiled.

“So, let it be done,” she declared and pivoted slightly to look at where the Lords Hachtech, Endrageth, and Echgrech stared into the arena.

Frog backed away slowly. He was unwilling to leave her but had no desire for her to hurl him the width of the arena. Reluctantly, he moved toward the rest of the team.

Leaving the mesh in place and ignoring the warriors beyond it, she walked toward the lords. Around them, the other senators, lords, and ladies moved back. As she came to stand on the other side of the mesh below them, the other family representatives abandoned the front two rows of the stands entirely to leave the three Dreth isolated and alone.

“You!” the Morgana called and addressed them directly, “shall join them.”

Endrageth drew back but it was too late. She gestured with her good hand and a swirl of darkness coalesced out of the mesh to dissolve the wall and floor beneath them.

He shrieked as he fell and Echgrech gave a startled cry, but Hachtech roared with annoyance.

“What in Tegortha’s name do you think you are doing?”

She cast him a cold glance before replying.

“Now, your decision is their decision,” she said and walked to her original position.

When she reached it, she looked at the Dreth champions and their lords and took a single step forward.

“Yield.”

“We are lords of the Council of Families,” Hachtech shouted. “You cannot do this to us.”

“You would have seen it done to your warriors. Now, yield.”

Her next step was followed immediately by another and then another, and it was soon clear that she did not intend to stop. Hachtech opened his mouth to argue but she continued her advance.

“Yield!” she shouted when the second rank of Dreth backed into the third. “Yield,” she demanded when the first rank backed into the second and there was nowhere else to go.

The Dreth champions held their breaths and the Morgana paused.

“I don’t see you bowing.” She snarled and nudged the mesh.

Hachtech dropped to his knees, followed swiftly by Echgrech and Endrageth

She surveyed the warriors.

“Kneel?” she asked. “Or die?”

The champions knelt as one.

As they did so, the blue haze vanished from around her team. The cats bounded to their feet and darted across the field toward her and the team raced behind them as best they could. Lars wrapped an arm around Vishlog’s and hauled the Dreth to his feet.

He looked at Marcus. “Go!” he shouted.

Avery and Johnny supported Brendan, and Frog started toward her. He was hurting but when he saw the dark lattice start to decompose, he broke into a jog. Marcus ran past him, one arm pressed across his gut as he raced the breakdown of the energy net.

Sparks flew along its strands and it crackled angrily. He tracked the breakdown to the floor and reached the Morgana at the moment that she collapsed.

“I think I need some painkillers,” she whispered and he breathed a sigh of relief.

Stephanie had returned.

In the stands above them, the crowd roared and the arena echoed with approval of the Families of Dreth. As her team gathered around her, the stadium reverberated with their repeated accolade as the Witch was welcomed as a part of their world.

“That is a Dreth!” they roared and applauded as she was lifted and carried from the arena, the stump of her arm hanging limply for all to see.


Chapter Twenty-Eight

Stephanie woke to the smell of antiseptic and snoring. Another hospital?

“Son of a bitch.” When she opened her eyes, she turned her head and saw Vishlog, his head tipped back and mouth open, snoring in a chair beside the bed.

White wrapped his torso and he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

“I hope you’re wearing pants, buddy,” she muttered and let her gaze drift around the room.

Lars lay in a couch, a pillow supporting his head while his shoulders rested on one arm and his calves hung over the other. He was wearing pants. Granted, they were only sweatpants and he sported bandages around his bare chest and one arm, but they were there.

She looked at them both and rolled her eyes. “Seriously, guys? I bet you’re not supposed to be in here. The nurse will have your hides.”

Neither of them stirred and their soft snores were almost comforting in the too-quiet room while they slept. She sighed, looked at the ceiling, and remembered the battle—all of it.

When she recalled how it felt to handle the Nihilistic energy, she shuddered and drew a sharp breath, closed her eyes, and took stock of herself. She felt okay, but...

A tingling in her arm broke through her chain of thought and she stopped to focus on it. The stump at the end of it was an unpleasant reminder of what handling the Nihilistic could do.

“Seriously?” she asked it but noticed an inch of new growth at the end, the start of a new hand. “Already?”

As she spoke, she became aware of the gMU flowing into her system. Startled, she checked the magic inside her and was relieved when she found it filling the tanks and not spinning into a more concentrated form.

What was more of a relief was that there was not a trace of nMU anywhere—either inside her or around her. She looked for a tank where she might have inadvertently stored some and didn’t find one of those, either.

She breathed another sigh of relief. “It’s not like I want those two parts anywhere near each other,” she murmured and stared at her slowly forming hand.

“You’re lucky that it wasn’t stored in what passes for your head,” V’ritan told her as he strode through the door on the other side of the room. “I don’t think you’d grow that back.”

Brilgus snorted and followed him in. A nurse bustled past and ignored them both. To her relief, she went over to check on Lars. The King’s Warrior came to stand on the opposite side of the bed to Vishlog.

Stephanie noted the worried look on his face and sighed. “It would be nice if I could stop waking up in hospitals and being in bed when I see you.”

He quirked an eyebrow and his eyes sparkled. “How else can I get you to sit still long enough to talk?”

“Oh...it’s like that is it?” She gestured at the room around her. “All this? A giant Meligornian conspiracy to get me still for long enough so you can talk to me.” She pretended to pout. “That’s not very nice, you know.”

“Neither is giving an old man heart failure every thirty seconds or so. Do you know how big those champions were?”

“Well, duh! They’re Dreth.”

“And now you’re sassing the King’s Warrior.” He tutted and shook his head. “Do you have no sense of diplomacy?”

Stephanie frowned. “I didn’t kill anyone, did I?”

His eyebrows raised dramatically. “Only one that I recall, but you came very close a few other times.”

She shrugged. “They were being unreasonable, and my guys were gonna get themselves killed in an unfair fight.”

“All a result of your lack of diplomatic skills. You should learn not to piss so many people off.” He smiled as he said it and she couldn’t help but smile in return.

“It’s all your fault,” she told him. “You brought me here.”

“Actually, it’s all Ambassador Jaleck’s fault. It was her idea.” His face clouded. “She says she’s very sorry, by the way.”

“Tell her it’s okay. She did what she had to so we could keep her thick-headed world safe.”

“I’ll tell her you said that.”

“Good. You make sure you do. She probably needs a good laugh.”

“Honestly, I don’t know how you make any friends.”

“I’m lucky, I guess. What I’m not lucky in is ending up in a hospital bed at the end of whatever scheme they get me into.”

V’ritan looked shocked. “So it’s all my fault, now, is it?”

“Well, every time I’m around you, I wake up in a room needing medical help and you’re there when I wake up.”

Brilgus stifled a chuckle as if he could see where she was going, and V’ritan’s expression turned to one of mild horror.

Stephanie ignored them both. “The important part of all this is that you are the common denominator so it must be you I’m unlucky around.”

The large man started to laugh and V’ritan gave him a look of pretend hurt.

“Well, I never,” he murmured. “You must be feeling a whole lot better than you look.”

“Thanks a lot, V’ritan. That’s really helpful.”

“No, I mean it. What you did at the Fortress was insanely—”

“Irresponsible?” Lars suggested and sounded like he’d been run over by a Dreth.

“Stupid?” Vishlog’s contribution wasn’t much better and he sounded as if he’d had a wall dropped on him.

She glanced at them in time to see them close their eyes again and she looked at V’ritan. “It was necessary.”

He sighed. “You are more Dreth than you know. That was exactly what Jaleck told me.”

Stephanie smirked. “It’s nice to know she hasn’t changed. That world is all about tough love.”

He pressed his lips together in a firm line and gathered his thoughts before he spoke. “You know you’ll have to go back there, don’t you?”

She shuffled a little higher in the bed and looked around. Now she understood why she was pulling gMU—she was back on The King’s Warrior. “Why?”

“To receive their full respect.”

“So why am I up here?”

He gestured toward her hand. “We thought you needed to be out in space to get the energy you needed to repair that—and because you needed the energy you’re used to.”

Now, she noticed the spent batteries lined up on the dresser next to the bed. “Oh.”

Seeing them and feeling the constant inward flow of gMU, she frowned. “Why didn’t I explode?”

“It seems you have no way to store the Nihilistic energy. Once you stopped focusing—and fainting is a good way to do that—you lost your hold on it. Mind you,” he continued, “we did make the ascent very slowly.”

“Yes,” Brilgus commented, “in case your other hand blew off or something.”

His words startled a giggle out of her and drew a wry smile from V’ritan.

“Once you were in space,” the King’s Warrior went on, “I could see you pulling energy as normal so I assumed you’d be safe to place on the ship.”

“You didn’t want me to blow up your new toy, huh?” she teased.

“Oh no,” Brilgus interrupted before the Meligornian could reply. “He didn’t want the cleaning bill placed on his tab.”

“And you have already met my chief engineer,” V’ritan pointed out. “The ship goes nowhere if he’s upset. Bringing an explosive Nihilistic energy bomb anywhere near his precious engines would have seen us stranded here for a very long time.”

She chuckled, then sobered, and her gaze drifted across Vishlog to Lars. “How are the rest of them?”

V’ritan nodded. “The healers are still wondering how Marcus stayed on his feet long enough to carry you out of the arena. Avery was badly concussed, among other things. Frog had a sword slash and a knock to the head.”

Stephanie snorted. “That man needs the occasional knock to the head.”

“I’ll tell him you said that,” Lars mumbled.

“I think he already knows,” she replied and turned to V’ritan. “And the others?”

“Johnny collapsed at around the same time Marcus did, but he’ll be okay. Those suits are surprisingly effective at wound compression.”

“And they hold considerable blood,” Lars added. “When he’s back on his feet, I’ll wring his neck and kick his ass for not saying anything.”

It was the most animated he’d been, but he coughed and closed his eyes.

The nurse finally decided she’d had enough. “That’s it, Mister She’s-My-Responsibility. You’re going back to bed.”

He cracked an eye and gave her a tired smile. “Make me.”

She withdrew a needle from her coat pocket and had delivered its payload and tucked it back into her pocket before he registered what she was doing.

“Cheat,” he slurred, but she spoke quietly into her comms and two orderlies arrived shortly after to wheel him out on a stretcher.

She turned to Vishlog and the Dreth raised his hands. “I’ll walk.”

The woman smiled. “They’re bringing a wheelchair,” she told him. “No one wants you to fall over in the corridor.”

“Okay.” He rested his head against the wall again.

Once he’d been wheeled from the room, the nurse turned to Stephanie and her gaze took in V’ritan and Brilgus. They met her stare but Stephanie saw uncertainty creep into their expressions.

The nurse’s lip curled, and she looked at Stephanie. “And you need to rest,” she advised, “so I’ll ask the King’s Warrior and Standard Bearer to give you some peace and quiet and space to freshen up and you’re going back to bed. You can see your ‘boys’ after your next nap.”

Stephanie nodded and hoped the woman wasn’t hiding another sedative up her sleeve. V’ritan caught her glance and smiled. “I think that’s our cue,” he said. “We’ll join you for lunch.”

“See? Always seeing me when I’m in hospital.”

He gave her a look of mock hurt. “That is not true. We had a perfectly good couple of meals before you went playing in the Fortress.”

She smiled and the nurse frowned.

“Out,” she commanded, the softness of her voice coated by steel.

Witch Of The Federation III

Bumblebee and Zeekat were on the bed when next she woke—and the nurse wasn’t impressed. Bee ducked his head and brandished his horns in a casual fashion, and Zee yawned slowly to show all his fangs.

“Bee! Zee!” Stephanie said, and they turned their heads toward her. “Leave the nurse alone.”

“I told them to get down,” the woman explained.

She snickered before she recalled V’ritan’s comments on her lack of diplomacy, stopped, and gave the nurse a pleading look

“It would be good if they could stay.”

The nurse snorted. “As if I could get them to move.”

“How long did I sleep?”

“Long enough. You missed your lunch date, but if you’re up to it, you can join them for dinner.”

She wasn’t, but V’ritan and Brilgus came to visit and brought dinner with them. They even remembered the cats and fed them in opposite corners of the room. If the nurses and healers disapproved, they didn’t protest.

It took two more days before she felt well enough to go visiting. The guys seemed to recover much more quickly and dropped in to see her in twos or threes. Frog and Marcus brought in a card table and a pack of cards and dragged anyone into a game with her if they could.

“Hey!” Frog protested when V’ritan claimed the cred sticks in the middle of the table. “Who taught you to cheat like that?”

He glanced at Brilgus and the Standard Bearer rolled his eyes and looked at Marcus. “I wonder.”

“Those are supposed to be team secrets.” He slapped his teammate on the leg.

Marcus grinned. “In case you hadn’t noticed, he is part of the team.”

Frog dealt another hand.

As soon as she could, Stephanie started working out. She started lightly and slowly regained her strength, and she made sure to take as many meals with the team in the Warrior’s dining hall as she could. V’ritan and Brilgus sat with them and life slowly returned to normal.

She was transferred to her cabin by mid-week and the nurses breathed a sigh of relief when the cats went with her. Stephanie laughed, scratched Bumblebee’s head, and tickled Zeekat under the chin. “Troublemakers.”

They rubbed their heads against her and retired to their beds. She watched them curl up with happy sighs and looked at her hand. “I wonder...”

The stump tingled and showed signs of fingers, and she stared at it. She felt the gMU flowing as strongly as it had when she’d arrived. Focusing, she directed it into the stump and willed it to speed the repair.

There was an answering rush of warmth before the skin slowly started to burn. She pulled the magic back and the new growth throbbed. The fresh pink skin had flushed red and she stared at it until the color faded to its original shade.

“Oookay,” she said. “So there’s no way to grow you back in one go.”

She sighed and waited for the throbbing to die down. When it did, she gave the magic a gentle nudge and concentrated on how things felt while she slowly increased the flow. It took her a few attempts to find the balance between what the energy was doing on its own and speeding the process up without causing herself pain.

“Small amounts,” she concluded and made a timetable to work on getting all her fingers back.

Since they hadn’t done a lot with healing and the AI was sure to be interested, she also noted the process for Burt.

“Besides,” she added, “there might be someone out there who’s better at fixing things than breaking them, and this could be all they need to get them started.”

She flopped onto the bed. “This is going to take so looooong!”

Witch Of The Federation III

It didn’t. The week passed relatively quickly, even if parts of it seemed to take forever.

“I’m almost ready,” she called when Brilgus knocked on her door. She pulled gloves on and took a moment to adjust the one over her damaged arm. When she was done, she stood in front of the mirror and turned to inspect herself.

The new armor fit well, all black with the purple and gold of her sigil emblazoned on the breastplate and both shoulders.

“Done,” she told the cats, who watched her every move curiously. “Let’s do this thing.”


Chapter Twenty-Nine

This time, the shuttle ride down was shorter, the Dreth having moved them into an orbit that put them closer to the Fortress of Fire and Respect.

“They really didn’t want us here,” Stephanie observed when the trip that had taken hours took only minutes.

“They wanted to be sure,” Vishlog told her. He still moved stiffly and the dressings made the fit of his armor tight, but he looked much better than he had.

The same could be said for the rest of the team. None of them was a hundred percent, but they looked it.

“They’ll wonder how we recovered so fast,” Lars commented and she grinned.

“Let them.” Her grin faded and she frowned. “Will you all be okay?”

The guys looked at each other and grinned at her. “We’re always okay, Steph. You know that.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Uh huh...and I thought you were all only ever fine.”

They chuckled. “Yeah, well, we’re that, too,” Frog admitted as the shuttle touched down.

Jaleck waited on the tarmac. She greeted V’ritan with a formal bow and Stephanie with a deeper bow, “Welcome home, Talon of Dreth.”

Stephanie returned the bow and stared as Jaleck turned to the team. The bow she gave them was not as deep but it was still full of respect. “Welcome home, Children of Dreth.”

The Ceremony of Respect was also held in the Fortress. The ambassador led them to the entrance and to an elevator hidden in the stone walls, then ushered them into a space built to hold a dozen Dreth.

“This will take you to the Platform of Recognition,” she explained as they traveled slowly upwards. “There, you will be recognized by the Council of Families in its restructured form.”

She gave Stephanie a toothy smile. “There have been some changes, some of which were long needed.”

The elevator ground to a halt and she opened the door. “Remember. You are Dreth.”

That was all the warning Stephanie had before she stepped out into a space lit by the morning sun. The cats flanked her, as usual, and the team arrayed themselves behind her like the guard they were.

A loud roar greeted their appearance but the light obscured her view of their surroundings. Jaleck and V’ritan did not follow and the Dreth ambassador placed a hand on V’ritan’s wrist when he went to move forward. “Our place is in the stands. Come.”

He went with Brilgus at his side and their escort paced with them as the elevator doors closed.

On the stage, Stephanie stared and tried to see beyond the glare. She gasped as the platform they were on began to descend before she heard a deep Dreth voice echo into the space around them.

“On Earth, when great danger threatens, they say a Morgana comes to face it. Dreth has never had such protection and our heroes have risen and fought alone. Only once were the Talons of Dreth not enough to prevent our fall.”

The platform descended even more until she could see that the light had come through windows set at the top of the Fortress’s highest tower. The Dreth continued.

“Once was enough and now, as our planet rises from the devastation that followed, a new danger follows, and we have no Talons left to face it.”

He paused, and the platform descended far enough out of the light for Stephanie to see her surroundings. Her eyes widened as she saw the number of Dreth who had gathered. The stands above the arena were packed, but there were galleries above that, each one with several tiers.

Each and every one of these were full.

The platform continued its downward journey and finally came to a halt when it reached the space behind the judges’ dais. Other lights came on to illuminate the stage. On the dais, four figures flanked a fifth. He half-turned and raised his hand to indicate Stephanie and the team.

“Now, Dreth has a new Talon, a Morgana who claims us as her own, a hero willing to fight not only for us but with us, to win the right to protect us when we would not accept what was offered. A Talon who dared exile on a world that adopted her as its own and then threatened to discard her.”

He let his hand drop. “I present to you Dreth’s newest daughter and her siblings, Dreth’s newest set of Champions. I present to you the Talon Morgana. Now, welcome her to her world.”

The roar that followed was deafening. It rolled over and through her and thundered over the team in a tangible wave of sound that vibrated through their bones. When the welcome died down, the Dreth Speaker led his four colleagues onto the stage.

He stopped before the team and performed the Bow of Greatest Respect. Stephanie moved to respond but Vishlog touched her on the shoulder. When she glanced back, he shook his head.

“Stand,” he whispered and the Speaker nodded as he rose.

“Accept our Respect,” he told her and moved to one side of the platform.

She stood as each of the senators that followed made their own bows and moved to stand behind him. When the last one took his place and she wondered what was next, the Speaker stepped forward.

“Senators from the Council will come forward and pay their Respect,” he announced, the command in his words unmistakable.

Movement rippled through the stands and the family representatives came forward. Stephanie stood as still as stone, her face solemn as she accepted the Dreth Respect of each senator. It seemed to take forever.

As the last one left the stage, the Speaker strode to its center. He looked out at the stands and shifted his gaze to the galleries and tiers before he raised his hand.

“Give the Talon of Dreth and her Champions your Respect.”

Beyond the lights, the wave of movement shuddered around the walls as every Dreth made the Bow of Greatest Respect. When it was over and they had resumed their seats, the Speaker turned to her.

“Welcome, Daughter of Dreth. Please lead your Champions around the arena one more time so our people might see you and know you by sight. We will meet you in the atrium at the Fortress’s entrance when you are done.”

“It would be my honor,” she replied and followed the path he indicated.

It led her to a broad set of stairs down to an open space behind the arena walls. She took the team down these and out under the spotlights. Walking counter-clockwise, she raised a hand to acknowledge the cheers and applause while her gaze roved the Dreth hanging over the rails above.

The ex-Lord of Hachtech was easy to locate. He sat morosely in the lowest part of the stands and looked none too pleased at the honor she was being shown. Behind her, Vishlog saw him too and snorted.

“He has been disgraced. See? Those torn places are where they removed his symbols of office and would not allow him new robes. He is deep in disgrace for bringing the clan into disrepute.”

Hachtech scowled at them and sniffed in a way that suggested he smelled something bad. Then, his gaze shifted and he started to smirk. Without looking, Stephanie knew he had noticed her gloved hands.

His face broke into an ugly grin and he leaned over to speak to the Dreth seated beside him.

“Let’s see how well she does with only one hand.” The disgraced lord smirked again. “Wiping her ass must be a real bitch.”

Stephanie raised her damaged arm in a signal for the team to stop. Smirking, she lowered it enough to grasp it with her good hand.

The stadium stilled and seemed to hold its breath, and every eye watched as she removed the glove from the hand she’d lost.

Only she hadn’t lost it. It had grown back, the flesh new and pink and the hand whole.

She waggled her fingers, turned her hand, and rearranged her fingers. Pointing at the fallen lord with her left hand, she raised the insult formed by her right and held it high. Laughter spilled through the audience and she moved on.

Behind her, every single member of her team copied her gesture, first pointing at Hachtech with their left hands and raising their rights in defamatory salute.

With her right hand held high, she finished her circuit and the team followed suit. The Dreth roared with laughter.

Standing beside Jaleck, V’ritan groaned and barely refrained from slapping a hand to his forehead. “I do not know where she learned that.”

The ambassador smirked, her eyes on Vishlog as the Team Morgana Dreth turned to Hachtech and slowly and deliberately raised his right hand in the same disrespectful salute.

He was laughing as he left.


Chapter Thirty

“Well, here I am again,” Stephanie commented and settled herself in the sweet-scented grass.

Above her soared the purple Meligorn skies. Around her, butterflies danced between flowers and a lone shadow flew overhead. Virtual Meligorn was as beautiful as the real thing. It was almost like being home.

She released a long, happy sigh.

“So, where to begin...” she started. “I came in here to talk about Nihilistic energy and about the Dreth because the two are interlinked and it explains a lot. The Dreth have good reason to be the way they are.”

Overhead, the shadow resolved into a Meligornian eagle. It swept low before it lifted again.

“That’s a nice touch,” she murmured and brought her thoughts back to the topic. “Anyway, Nihilistic energy saturates their planet but it can’t be detected or drawn unless you realize you need to feel for it. It sure makes its presence felt, though.”

She stopped and took the time to order her thoughts.

“Nihilistic energy,” she mused, “is all about feeling. It is negative energy, after all, so it’s only natural that it affects the people moving through it at a subconscious level. The Dreth are a hard people, prone to taking an autocannon to a knife fight and happier with settling disputes with their fists than their heads.”

Her expression became more thoughtful. “They like violence, warfare, and power in all its forms, and I can’t help but wonder if they’d have been different if Nihilistic energy didn’t form on their planet the same way as eMU forms on ours.”

For a long moment, she simply stared at the sky while she considered how to proceed.

“I’d never have worked that out if I hadn’t spoken to a Meligornian engineer. We were touring the engine rooms in The King’s Warrior and I asked…I forget what, but it brought us to the topic of Nihilistic energy and its effects on engines.”

She frowned, trying to remember, and went on. “He said he could never see the stuff but he always knew when it was around because it made the magic—the normal magic—unpredictable. One moment, it would be sluggish and the next, it would be hyperactive and out of control.”

She stopped again and recalled the arena. “And that saved my life and the lives of my team. When my magic went out of control in the arena and I started burning through more than I should, I remembered what he’d said and I knew how to find it.”

Her eyes darkened and she felt an echo of how she’d felt inside the Fortress. Pushing it away, she continued. “We were drowning in it, and if it made me feel that way, imagine what it does to those born and raised in its influence. Well, you don’t have to imagine anything. You only have to look at the Dreth.”

Stephanie sighed. “That’s why they are the way they are and why the ones who’ve been off-world for a while are so much more mellow. On Dreth, their emotions surge and they keep them under lock and key. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be any Dreth left because they’d have killed each other long ago.”

Her eyes darkened and she blinked. “And that’s not something I want to contemplate. So, food for thought. Nihilistic energy has a negative effect on the people living in contact with it.”

She lay there for a moment and enjoyed the warm Meligornian breeze and the quiet. When she spoke again, her focus had shifted.

“We are now two weeks from arriving back at Earth, the location of my birth and my home planet. I hypothesize that Earth has some form of Nihilistic energy because it is the only thing that would explain why humanity has shed the blood of its sisters and brothers for millennia.”

A frown settled in as she paused and tried to gather her thoughts.

Taking a breath, she added, “If that is so, then the Nihilistic is somehow co-existing with eMU without destroying the planet, and I want to find out how and learn its effects. Then, I will need to seek what we can discover about my ancestor—Morgana le Fay.

“I suspect she is more than human and yet all human.”


Chapter Thirty-One

Dark figures stood before the star system maps on which planets hung, highlighted in their systems, while discussion turned to heated debate. One viewer turned toward the galactic map and a shadowy motion caused the display to shiver.

Earth floated from its orbit and enlarged as it rippled from the force of the Teloran’s touch.

“I say we take the humans first.”

Another gestured toward the screen and this time, Dreth leapt from orbit and its enlarged image hung over Earth’s.

“No. The Dreth. They will be by far our hardest battle.”

“The human Witch is not to be discounted.”

“She is only one—perhaps a dozen if you include her team and frankly, I do not. The Dreth will fight to the death for their world.”

“If you think the humans will not, you are sadly mistaken.”

“The humans are children compared to the Dreth. They will not stand for long.”

The third figure made a short, sharp gesture and his form shivered against the background. Earth and Dreth shrank back to their orbits. Meligorn spun out slowly to float before them.

“It is Meligorn that must be the first to fall.”

Silence followed this statement, but the other two regarded him with faint disbelief. Finally, one of them gathered enough courage to speak.

“Perhaps you could explain.”

“They are the only world and people who use magic as a whole.”

“Are you forgetting the Witch?”

“As. A. Whole,” the Teloran repeated, ignoring the thinly veiled sarcasm in his subordinate’s voice. “The humans are starting to realize they can tap it and the Dreth are blind to it, but the Meligornians… They have made it part of their souls.”

The third speaker shrugged. “I still don’t see your point. So the Meligornians have magic. I don’t understand why that means they must be destroyed first.”

“Firstly, because they are untouchable. We cannot land on their world to destroy them and we have to remain outside the belt of magic that rises from it.”

“We’ll merely bombard them into dust. Their magic cannot stop that.”

The third speaker responded with an impatient gesture and the movement made the image of Meligorn spin and cast off several different sized motes of dust and one not so small. They hung and sparkled around the world and slowly coalesced into ships.

“The Meligornians are not trapped on their world and they will not sit patiently by while we destroy their allies. They will interfere. That we can do without.”

“You want to stop them leaving their world.”

“No. We need to draw them into space where we can destroy their main fighting force more easily. If we leave them on-world, they will be able to use the planet’s magic to stop the bombardment. In space, their magic is limited to what they can carry and store. If we destroy their strongest fighters, we will be able to crush their world more easily.”

“Which is why we should take Dreth first. Our own magic is strongest there, and we can replenish our reserves.” A fourth voice joined the discussion.

The third disagreed. “Not with the Meligornians at our backs. They claim the Dreth as allies.”

“But Dreth is a long way away. They would not reach it in time.”

“You have a point about distance, but it is the same point that works against us. Dreth is the furthest away from us. They will see us coming and have time to prepare—and so will their allies. You don’t honestly think the humans will stay out of the fight, do you?”

“They don’t like the Dreth.”

“But they count them as allies. Like the Meligornians, they will not let them fall and we will face a force of three rather than only one.”

A fifth voice joined the debate. “And then there’s the Witch. She counts the Dreth as friends.”

The third was quick to agree. “And we all know the lengths she will go to for those, don’t we?”

Silence cloaked the darkness that gathered around the display as each one recalled reports about what the Witch had done before and the destruction she’d caused in the name of her friends.

“And now, she has declared these worlds her protectorate. Why do we not remove her, first?”

“Agreed. While a prepared Dreth is not something to be taken lightly, an irritated Witch is worse.”

“Let her become ‘irritated.’ She will be easier to defeat with the Morgana in control.”

Murmurs fled around the hall, some in blatant disagreement and others thoughtful. Someone had a question.

“How does destroying Meligorn help with that?”

“V’ritan.”

It was one word, but it echoed around them. V’ritan, the King’s Warrior, Meligorn’s ambassador to Earth and King Grilfir’s advisor. They all knew of him.

“We must destroy him, too.”

Grim determination filled the third voice. “Then Meligornians must be the first to fall.”

“Agreed,” stated the first who had previously suggested Earth as their first target. Others backed the decision but some still disagreed.

“The Witch has taken one of us and should be the example we hang before us. She should die first.”

“I disagree.” The third voice was calm and implacable in its certainty. He continued before the others could argue. “She should suffer first.”

That appealed to them. “How?”

“V’ritan is one of her closest friends. Meligorn is her second home. Before we destroy her body, we will take her heart. Meligorn and the King’s Warrior are but two of the pieces we should shatter. We will take her ambassador, her second home, and then we will crush the remainder of what she loves. This will be the pain that blinds her to the blow that ultimately destroys her.”

Approval ran through them. Pain for the Morgana. Vengeance for their loss. It was enough.

“The fight against her will go more easily without a larger magical force at our back.”

More murmurs of agreement swelled at that.

“Once Meligorn is gone, we can consume the Witch and her motley group.”

“She will be too lost to grief to stand against us.”

There was only one question more.

“You said we should not strike Dreth because it would give them time to prepare. What do you think leaving them until last will do?”

The third speaker gave a soft chuckle. “It will give them sufficient time to prepare.”

“They will fight to the death and they will be waiting—and you laugh?”

“The Dreth fight to the death all the time. It is better to eliminate their allies and show them the Teloran prowess in battle before we face them.”

“The Meligornians have said they will fight to the death, too.”

“The Meligornians say they will fight to the death. Even if they do, we will ensure they die before anyone can reach them.”

“Your point?”

“All the preparation in the world can be undone by flagging morale. When Meligorn is gone, we will take the humans, their Witch, and their planet.”

“So?”

“So? The Dreth will fight to the death and know they die alone.”

Witch Of The Federation III

Stephanie sat opposite L’Shy. BURT had taken on the guise of the Earth-based Meligornian mage when she’d requested him. It was logical that she’d think the mage was the only one who could answer her questions and given the subject under discussion, he felt he needed to be in on it. Of course, given his chosen avatar, it was necessary to pretend a certain degree of ignorance at the beginning of the conversation. He sighed inwardly and restrained his impatience.

“nMU has to have been around for hundreds of years,” she told him once she’d explained it.

At first, L’Shy had appeared surprised, then he’d been disconcerted when she’d talked about it.

“It’s not an area I’m familiar with,” he told her. “I know of the problems with energy fluctuations in ships’ engines but haven’t really looked into it. On Meligorn, it doesn’t exist, so there was no need to understand it. I had no idea it could be found on Earth.”

She sighed and tried to hide her disappointment, and he hastened to reassure her.

“It doesn’t mean I don’t grasp the concept. I can help direct you in your investigations.”

Her brow creased as she leaned back and thought about it. “So, you can’t see this nihilistic energy but you can feel it. It’s kind of like you’re having the worst day ever and all you want to do is kill somebody.”

L’Shy ventured a small smile. “And you say it is present on Dreth?”

“It’s all over that world,” she declared, “like eMU here, but maybe not as much as Mu on Meligorn.”

“And this is the energy the aliens use?”

“Yes. It’s…hard to describe.”

“At least we know why the Dreth are the way they are, then,” he quipped and she frowned at him.

“Yes, and why those who spend more time away from Dreth are better-natured than those found on-world.”

“Tell me, did the nMU cloak Dreth in the same way the MU cloaks Meligorn?” he asked.

Stephanie frowned. “No…I don’t think so. That is, I didn’t feel it everywhere and I didn’t feel it coming down in the shuttle so no, I don’t think it surrounds the planet in the same way MU surrounds Meligorn.”

“But if you can’t tell nMU is there without trying, and you didn’t try to find it coming down on the shuttle, what makes you so sure?”

“Because it affects how you feel,” she answered. “I felt okay coming down in the shuttle—normal, you know?”

L’Shy smiled and she realized that the Meligornian probably didn’t know but was too polite to say so. She ignored it and continued.

“What I mean is that nMU really affects how you feel even when you don’t know it’s there, and we were fine coming down on the shuttle. But when we were in the arena, that’s when we felt it.”

“We? Are you sure?” he asked. BURT was curious. She hadn’t mentioned noticing that any of her team had been affected by the nMU, and he wondered if that was something he should have Elizabeth follow up on.

He waited while she frowned more deeply. In the end, she sighed and shook her head.

“I don’t know. I’ll have to ask them. I didn’t notice much during the battle, and none of them have mentioned how they felt.” She chewed her lip. “I’ll check with them.”

“And what about the Council Hall?”

This gave her pause. “I…don’t know. There were a couple of unpleasant exchanges there and it felt as though they were deliberately trying to provoke us, but I wasn’t trying to wield my magic so I couldn’t say for sure.”

“So, there was nMU in an arena of gladiatorial combat, and maybe a little in the Council Hall, but not much in the open air or over the mountains?”

“Something like that.”

“You said nMU seemed to gather in clumps or patches.”

“Yeah, but I’m not sure what brings it to one place and not another…” Again, she chewed her lip.

“Well, what do those two places have in common?”

“Both were places where the Dreth gathered in numbers…” Stephanie began as she reasoned it through. “The Council Hall was where the families gathered for decisions, and the Fortress was where they went to fight for choices they couldn’t come to an agreement on any other way. It was a place of conflict and violence.”

“And death?”

She nodded. “The way those guys debate something? Death, for sure.”

“What about the Council Hall?”

At first, she opened her mouth to deny that death had occurred there but closed it again.

L’Shy waited and BURT had difficulty in keeping the construct from fidgeting with reflected impatience. Her face took on a faraway look, as though she was trying to recall exactly what had gone on in the Council Hall and whether or not deaths had occurred there.

In the end, she said, “I’m not so sure about death, but there would have been many arguments. It’s possible that tempers were lost or things became heated. Maybe that’s why the Fortress was made a way of deciding things. Perhaps they lost one too many lives in the Council Hall and had to think of a way to avoid it.”

“So, the two factors you can see tying those two nMU locations together are the number of people and the violence of the activity?”

“Well, I don’t think the Council would be all that violent.”

“You never know. They are Dreth and as you said, they might have instituted the Fortress as a way to reduce deaths in their ruling ranks.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Fine, have it your way. Large gatherings and violence or violent activities are ways of identifying where nMU is located. So, if I wanted to find out if there were any locations for nMU on Earth…” She stopped. “That leaves an awful number of potential places to look.”

L’Shy smiled. “Every sports stadium, for a start.”

He watched as the frown returned. “Not every game is marred with violence,” she told him. “What am I missing?”

“Well, you said the nMU made the Dreth the way they were, so what if it was the existence of nMU that made the Council and Fortress the angry places they were?”

A little startled, she thought about that for a moment. “You mean, because the Dreth located the Council Hall and the Fortress on areas of nMU, they became places of conflict?”

He nodded. “What do you think of that?”

Stephanie went very quiet and her emotions flickered across her face as she thought. Finally, she blinked, and her eyes focused on the present again. “Let’s go with nMU causing people in certain places to become angry or violent. If that’s the case, we should be able to find patches of nMU on Earth by the level of violence in an area, right?”

L’Shy shrugged. “It could be a question of the chicken or the egg.”

She stared at him.

Oh, yes, BURT thought, the wheels are definitely turning.

“You’re saying that nMU might need either violence to happen or for many people to be in one place to occur? Or are you saying that violence happens when nMU is present but there needs to be many people? Or is it that the presence of nMU causes violence to happen but we only notice it when it works on many people—”

She leaned back and blew out a long huff of air. “Ugh. This is so confusing!”

He nodded. “That is one way to look at it,” he confirmed and stared past her.

Stephanie didn’t notice.

“What if nMU really does exist all around us but only affects those sensitive to it…” She paused, obviously turning the thought over in her mind. “What if it’s spread really thinly, but when people come across it, they become aggressive and act badly or violently and that draws it together. Then it’s able to affect more people so they act badly, and that draws more nMU to that location, causing more people to— Agh!”

She buried her face in her hands and BURT allowed the L’Shy construct a small smile but she caught sight of it. “I hate you.”

BURT knew she didn’t mean it and let the construct’s smile grow a little wider. He was quite pleased with how he was coming to understand the way sentients interacted.

Stephanie continued to think about nMU regardless of the response. “If it went on long enough, it could leave a residue…” she murmured, and he let the smile fade from L’Shy’s face. “So that ‘stain,’ if you like,” she continued, “might act as a magnet for more nMU, meaning it would maybe form a pool?”

“Maybe…” he conceded.

“And maybe, because of the disasters, there’s less nMU because there are less people where the nMU has pooled,” she extrapolated, “and because there are less people, there’s less violence and because there’s less violence. the nMU has slowly faded? Evaporated? Something?”

She uttered another heartfelt sigh.

“So, on Dreth,” L’Shy said and returned to where she’d first encountered the nMU on a world, “the Council Hall and Fortress were built on places where nMU existed, but that there was probably something in their history to cause it to be drawn there, and it was enough that it pooled and that continued aggression and violence keep it strong.”

“Yes.” She waved her hand. “Something like that.”

“So, we could look for it on Earth using historical and current events, and then go and investigate any likely locations…” he mused while he began plugging the parameters into a search engine.

He also searched the databases for more information on the location of the Council Hall and Fortress, but Dreth history was sketchy—as though the disaster that had almost wiped them from their planet had wiped their history, too.

It took a moment to make a note to find a way of asking Jaleck, and he discovered she had continued her musings alone while he was distracted.

“…know they were active in World War Two…so we can ch—” She paused and he waited, wishing he had fingers to tap. “The World War Two Morgana said they were practicing human sacrifice.”

Again, she stopped and frowned and BURT finally became impatient.

“And?” the L’Shy construct pressed.

“So, if nMU has been around a long time, there are other locations on Earth we can check. One of my History classes covered ancient civilizations. I think it was supposed to help us appreciate where scientific concepts had come from or something.” She shrugged and shook her head. “Anyway, about the only thing most of us were interested in was the way they used human sacrifice. Teens, right?”

“Right…” He looked troubled, as though he didn’t know where she was going with this.

Stephanie hurried on to explain. “So, there were the Aztecs, the Moche, the Mayans, and the Incans in South America. Then there were the Druids and the Vikings in Great Britain and Europe. Hmmm…I wonder how many more there were and if we’d find nMU around the ruins or burial sites where human sacrifice was recorded.”

“What do you think?” L’Shy asked.

“I don’t know. I’d have to go and look.” She looked at him and shrugged. “The problem is that most of those sites are closed. No tourists allowed.”

He smiled. “But you wouldn’t be a tourist, would you? You’re the Witch of the Federation, pioneering the study of magic on Earth. That might be enough to grant you access.”

The frown returned, but she nodded. “I’ll ask Elizabeth. We could always go to some of the tourist sites and then approach the researchers. It would probably help if we had some evidence to back up the theory, first.”

L’Shy nodded. “That might be best,” he agreed and looked past her. “Ah, I see you have visitors.”

“Visitors?” Stephanie looked around as Bumblebee bounded toward her, Zeekat in his wake.

The two cats twined around her and Bee ducked his head to avoid goring her with his horns when he rubbed his cheek against her thigh. Zee wound around her the other way, purring a demand.

“Who let the two of you in here?”

L’Shy rose to his feet. “That, I think, is my signal to leave.”

She looked quickly at him. “I can send them away—”

The Meligornian raised his hands. “Your pets need you,” he told her. “Far be it from me to stop you looking after them.”

As much as she wanted to dig into what sites there might be for her to investigate, she knew the Meligornian had a point. “Hartuitus Baskilor, Master L’Shy.”

“Baskilor nye myerda,” he answered. “Your thanks are not needed, but I receive them gratefully.”

He faded from sight and returned to the system that had conjured him as Stephanie turned to the cats.

“And what do you two want, hmmm?”

Both paused and Bumblebee stepped back to regard her with lavender eyes.

Stephanie arched an eyebrow at him “Well?”

The cat hissed at her and crouched low. As Zeekat stepped around her for the third time, the yellow-and-black cat launched himself into the air and pounced on him.

Zee gave a yowl of surprise and the two of them rolled, hissing and spitting, away from her. After several rotations, they came apart facing each other, their backs arched and tails lashing.

“Uh-huh,” she said. “So, do you want to hunt, boys?”

Both heads swiveled toward her and their ears pricked and tails stilled.

“AI, can we return to Meligorn so the cats can hunt?”

“As you wish, Stephanie.”

The world changed from L’Shy’s mountain retreat to the purple-hued vegetation of a Meligornian forest.

“There you go,” she said to the felines. “Will this do?”

Bumblebee gave a querying chirp and tilted his head to regard Zeekat. Zee looked around, twitched his tail, and swatted the big yellow-and-black cat before he bounded one step away.

The other hissed at him, but he gave a soft mew and flared his nostrils before he stared intently toward a gap between the trees. Stephanie followed his gaze and used the energy of Meligorn to sharpen her vision.

She took a deep breath, too, using the magic to enhance her sense of smell. “I bet I can catch one before either of you,” she declared, and Bee roared his defiance.

Zeekat remained silent but streaked into the forest, his ears perked forward as he covered the distance between him and the mauve-colored buck he’d spotted grazing between the trees.

It was too late. Bee’s roar had alerted the animal and it bounded away, the panicked beat of its hooves gaining speed as it tried to outdistance the cats and the strangely scented Meligornian.

Bumblebee raced after Zeekat and swatted his fellow-hunter with one paw as he passed.

Payback, Stephanie thought, as the two ran side by side after their prey. She drew on the MU all around her and ran after them.

At first, the two felines outdistanced her, but when the magic flowed through her limbs, she began to catch up. The buck bounded on, charged through bushes, and leapt over rocks, the hunters in hot pursuit.

When she reached the first dense patch of brush, she took to the trees, sprung from the ground to reach the first low branches, and vaulted higher. Her magic-sharpened eyes showed the cats’ progress, and she chased them.

Below her, the buck felt in more danger than before and jinked sideways. Bee followed, his six feet scrabbling through a patch of purple moss as he scrambled up a pile of boulders. Zee bounced off one and changed direction in the air…and Stephanie ran out of branch.

Sighting on the boulders, she plummeted off her perch but lifted herself as she tumbled. Her feet touched the top of the boulder and she sought her next landing point. A dangling vine caught her eye, and she threw herself toward it.

She flew true, wrapped her hands around the creeper, and prayed it would hold. The sudden drop made her gasp, but it snapped tight and she swung forward to release her hold at the top of the arc and looked for her next landing point.

The buck had made it to open ground, but the cats were gaining.

Stephanie tumbled for a moment before she spread her arms and called the magic and managed to rise over them as Zeekat launched himself onto his prey’s back. Bee raced alongside and waited for his partner to land before he swept his horns under the buck’s flying hooves.

She flipped upright and adjusted the magic around her so she landed lightly several feet from the cats’ kill. Both lifted bloodied muzzles toward her, and Bumblebee gave her a querying chirp.

With a laugh, she raised her hand. “No, boy. I’m good. I’ve got to head back to class. You two enjoy it.”

After a few more seconds of solemn regard, the felines lowered their heads. She winced as they tore into the carcass, glad she wouldn’t have to wash any real blood from their paws when they got out of the pods. Cleaning them up after their rampage through the Dreth pirate ship had been bad enough.

She turned away.

“AI, take me back to class.” She looked at her clothes and noted the tears and twigs from her passage through the trees. “And please, change my clothes.”

“I suppose you think that’s funny,” she told it a few moments later when she found herself dressed in a wetsuit.

Whatever it thought, the computer wasn’t finished, and she began to wonder if one of the programmers was messing with her, although she couldn’t see how one would have accessed One R&D’s systems.

Maybe I should mention this to Ms E.

After rejecting a ballet tutu, a clown outfit, and three different national costumes, she glared at the sky overhead. “When you’re quite done…”

Her words banished the formfitting spandex and six-inch heels of the computer’s latest attempt to alter her clothing. She breathed a sigh of relief as the thigh-high boots and garish red and blue outfit were replaced by a more professional business suit.

“Thank you.” The world began to waver as the computer reset. “I’m gonna need a physicist.”

Witch Of The Federation III

“You want to what?” Marcus Rimmer was not impressed.

BURT had dragged the physicist out of his Virtual lab as he’d been going over the notes he’d made for his next test simulation. It had helped that the AI had disguised himself as a Federation order for the physicist to “assist the Witch in her research,” but not by much.

Stephanie’s request had seen to that.

Now, Marcus Rimmer stared at her as though she’d grown a second head and sprouted horns and a tail.

“You heard me,” she told him. “I want to know how to turn radioactive substances into something not radioactive.”

“Like U238 into lead.”

“Something like that. Can it be done?”

Marcus stared at her. “It’s a naturally occurring process.”

It was? Stephanie stared at him. When he didn’t say anything else, she prodded him. “So, how long does it take?”

“About 6.5 billion years.” He smirked. “Why, how long did you have in mind?”

She smirked in return. “Not that long.”

“How long, then?”

“I’d like to get it done in an hour.”

“And I suppose you have a magic wand for that?”

“It’s not exactly a wand,” she told him and let the magic roll over her hands and arc between her fingertips. The physicist registered the blue and put two and two together and finally realized what she meant.

“Oh… Oh, I see,” he said and blushed. “You want to…” He paused, clearly hunting for the right words. “You want to change nuclear waste at a sub-atomic level so that it’s not radioactive anymore.”

Well, at least he was a quick study.

“Now, you’re getting it,” Stephanie told him. “I merely don’t know exactly how to go about it.”

“You’re not asking if it’s possible—”

She shook her head. “You said nature does it, so I know it’s possible. I only need to work out how to do it faster.”

“Using magic.”

Stephanie nodded.

The look on his face was one of disbelief and doubt. She decided not to give him time to voice any of it. “So, U238 breaks down to lead, but it takes time, so I could speed that process up by using magic to take it apart?”

“You could,” Rimmer allowed, “but then you’d release 6.5 billion years of radiation at once.”

He stopped and allowed her to work it out for herself. Stephanie couldn’t help poking him a little. “And that would be bad, right?”

She smirked when he rolled his eyes. “Yes,” he said as though speaking to a small child, “that would be bad.”

“Maybe I could use it to blow something up.”

The man sighed. “I thought magic was supposed to be a creative force for you.” Stephanie wondered how he’d come up with that but he continued before she could pursue it. “Aren’t you trying to find ways to help the planet heal using it? Isn’t that something you said you wanted to do?”

Not in any public space she could recall, she thought but didn’t say it. She wondered what the AI had told him when it had dragged him out of whatever laboratory it had found him in. She made another note to speak to Ms E but for the moment, she contented herself with answering the question.

“Yes.”

“Well, why don’t you try creating with it, instead? You know, literally make the world a better place.”

There was something in the way he said it that made her study his expression, but nothing in his face suggested he was being sarcastic—except for the way it said nothing at all.

“So, you’re saying I should add protons or neutrons?” she asked, and he rolled his eyes.

“No, because elements with a really high atomic mass tend to be radioactive.”

“Riiiight…so creating is really out of the question then, isn’t it? I mean we can create in two ways, you know. If I change an element by altering how many protons its atoms have, I can really do that by adding some in—which you say won’t work—or I can take them out, right?”

Rimmer didn’t move. He merely stared at her.

Stephanie pushed him. “Which means that technically, when I’m tearing pieces off the atom, I’m not destroying anything but remaking it. And if I’m making something, I’m creating. So tell me again what was wrong with breaking down the U-238 the same way nature does but only faster?”

He rolled his eyes and looked at the ceiling in a heaven-help-me kind of way. “Only that you’ll have to deal with all the radiation created by an accelerated rate of alpha and beta decay over billions of years that will be released in whatever ridiculously short time span you’re aiming at.” He drew a short, sharp breath. “And that’ll be much worse than the actual mess you’re trying to clean up.”

“Right, so I should work out how to deal with that,” she decided.

The physicist snorted to show exactly what he thought about that and looked around the room. “AI, get me out of here.”

“Yeah, AI,” Stephanie snarked when he was still there a few moments later. “Put the nice man back in his lab where I can find him later. Us grown-ups have important stuff to work out.”

“Hey!” He snapped around to answer that but BURT whisked him away before a single word escaped.

“I am afraid you might have offended him,” he told her shortly after and gave her a brief view of Rimmer’s outburst when he found himself back in his lab.

She watched it, wide-eyed. “Wow! I don’t think I’ve been called so many names in such a short time before. Who would have guessed he knew that many cuss words.”

Disguised as L’Shy, BURT stepped through the wall of her classroom. The Meligornian glanced toward the window showing the scientist, still muttering invective about ‘science-fantasy,’ ‘ignorant brats,’ and ‘poorly educated Gov-Sub refugees.’

“I’m not sure you’ll ever win him over now,” the mage observed.

Stephanie snickered. “I’ll make it up to him by getting this to work. He’ll be okay.”

“At least you said okay.”

“Well, it’s better than FINE, because we all know what that means.”

He smiled, and they watched as the physicist finally wound down and went to sit at his desk. “How much radiation would she release?” the man muttered and BURT closed the window.

The Meligornian turned to Stephanie. “You might bring him on-side,” he admitted. “He at least seems interested in the problem.”

She smiled but it turned almost immediately to a frown. “Yeah, he does, but he makes a good point. How much radiation would I release and what would I have to do to contain it?”

L’Shy began to fade. “I’ll let you work that out,” he told her. “Let me know when you do.”


Chapter Thirty-Two

Unaware that Stephanie was busy pissing off one of the world’s best physicists, Elizabeth had decided to go to dinner. She’d also decided not to dodge her bodyguards this time. They would eat with her, instead.

She took note of the crowd when they pulled up outside Tarantino’s and sighed.

Amy laid a hand on her arm. “It’s hard to see anything coming with all those people as cover.”

Tracy nodded. “Are you sure you want to do this, boss?”

If she was honest, she didn’t really want to face a pack of paparazzi. However, she really did want a meal at Tarantino’s, and if that meant going through the pack, that’s exactly what she would do. Besides, there wouldn’t be another booking available for months.

She nodded. “Absolutely. The steaks in there are to die for and I have a craving for red meat.”

Amy snorted. “Yeah? Well, we’ll try not to bloody the sidewalk getting you to your meal.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “They’re only there for their pound of flesh. I guess this is merely part of being one of the richest people in the Federation. Besides, I don’t think they’re here for me. No one knew we were coming.”

“They’ll work it out quickly enough,” Tracy told her, slid out of the car, and walked around to open her door.

Amy slipped out before her, and they stood on either side, one slightly in front to clear a path, and one to guard her back. The crowd parted before her and didn’t recognize her at first.

“See?” she murmured. “They’re only looking for a target of opportunity. It’s Tarantino’s. All kinds of folk come here.”

No sooner had the words left her mouth than one of those closest to them registered who she was.

“Ms Smith!” he cried and raised his camera. “There you have it, folks. Everyone who’s anyone eats at Tarantino’s. The latest arrival for tonight is one Ms Elizabeth Smith, known to her team as the redoubtable Ms E.”

She groaned. Redoubtable? She sincerely doubted it. More like ‘the boss,’ ‘that bitch,’ and ‘ma’am.’ She wondered what BURT would make of all the fuss.

It was almost enough to convince her to turn and head back to the car. Honestly. Why would anyone eat there if they would simply be mobbed at the door? She might have to mention that to the proprietor. She hoped to all the heavens they didn’t allow them inside.

The wanna-be reporter was one of a dozen who took up the cry, and she almost felt sorry for them. They were only trying to make their way into a cut-throat industry—and she guessed the fastest way would be to catch an interview or some kind of exclusive with a celebrity.

Well, she wasn’t a celebrity, and she damned well deserved to eat her meal in peace. There was no way she would stop for any of the shouted requests for an interview. It would only encourage their bad behavior.

Also, she was damned if she would let any of them drive her away, either. She intended to go in and enjoy her meal, and she certainly wouldn’t give any of them a second thought.

“We really should go somewhere else,” Tracy said. “This isn’t safe.”

“I’ll move the flitter once we get you settled,” Amy added as the doorman ushered them inside. “If we’re lucky, they won’t follow it and be waiting when we leave.”

To her surprise and relief, the door took them into an enclosed atrium, where they were met by their host. It reminded Elizabeth of an airlock, albeit a well-appointed one. She glanced back.

“We don’t allow them in,” said the young man who stepped away from the counter. He glanced at his tablet, at her face, and down again.

“Ms Smith?” he asked and she nodded.

“I have a booking for three at eight,” she told him crisply and he smiled.

“Indeed, you do. And welcome to Tarantino’s. My name’s Jocelyn and I will show you to your table. I apologize for the press pack. We are working on expanding our license to allow us to remove them.”

She was exceedingly relieved to hear it.

“In the meantime, might I suggest a location for you to park your sky car?”

“Amy?” she asked and directed their host’s attention to her head guard.

“Once we have you seated, ma’am,” the woman told her and a slight frown creased her forehead.

Tracy glanced at the door. “Do any of them ever get through?”

Jocelyn nodded. “Occasionally. It is why we have the restaurant sealed off from the foyer. If you would step this way?”

They followed him and Elizabeth resisted the urge to mimic the way he walked. She noted the doormen on either side of the entrance into the restaurant proper and was pleased with the atmosphere of warmth and calm once the door had closed behind her.

Even her bodyguards relaxed, albeit only a little.

Jocelyn led them up a short flight of stairs to a small balcony overlooking the dining floor below. It was away from the front windows, but the rear wall was a viewscreen looking out through a jungle canopy. It showed glimpses of a beach and ocean in one direction and the thundering heights of a waterfall in the other.

Elizabeth smiled. She’d been missing the beach, and these tropical surroundings reminded of her favorite place to holiday. They also reminded her of Veronica, and she made a note to check in on the body double to make sure she was still safe.

For a moment, she found herself envying the woman and sighed. It would be nice to be somewhere on a beach surrounded by guards disguised as palm-frond waving cabana boys. Maybe BURT would let her trade places.

Amy broke through the daydream by clearing her throat, and she blinked.

“I’m sorry?” she asked since Jocelyn had obviously asked her a question.

“I take it everything is to your satisfaction?” he repeated and she gestured at the view.

“I’m sorry. This reminded me of one of my better holidays. It’s lovely, thank you.”

He gave her a small smile. “If there is anything we can do to make that view more like the memory, let us know. In the meantime, this is Kiara. She’ll be your waitress for the evening.”

Elizabeth turned her attention to the young woman who’d approached the table.

I’m slipping, she thought, glad Amy and Tracy were with her. In her previous life, such a mistake could have been costly, possibly even ended her life. She smiled at Kiara and noted the girl’s meticulous uniform and the way her long dark hair had been carefully pulled into a braid.

She was fit but lacked the hard muscle of someone combat-trained, and she allowed herself to relax a fraction more.

“Thank you, Jocelyn,” she said and earned a genuine smile from the man.

“You are most welcome, ma’am.”

Once he had left, she gestured for Amy and Tracy to take their seats.

“I’m not eating on my own,” she told them, “and it’s my treat.”

Both women exchanged glances and reluctantly did as she wanted.

“Besides,” she added, “if you think I could eat anything with the pair of you standing over me like a couple of hawks, you’re greatly mistaken. I hired you for your company as well as your good looks.”

That last drew a smile from them, even though the waitress struggled to hide her surprise. She failed completely when Tracy replied. “Be honest, Ms E, you hired us because you don’t have eyes in the back of your head and we can kill things better than you can.”

She smirked. “I wouldn’t say better.”

“I would. We’re not chained to a desk the same way you are,” Amy interjected, and Elizabeth rolled her eyes and gave a soft groan.

“There’s no need to rub it in,” she replied.

Kiara shifted uncomfortably and they turned toward her.

“Do you have any Descartes 39?” she asked and named a sparkling rose aperitif.

The waitress smiled. “Yes, ma’am.”

“And the menu?”

She passed the menus over. “I won’t be long.”

“Take your time,” Elizabeth told her. “We may take a while to decide.”

“I won’t,” Tracy argued and scanned the offerings as the waitress hurried away. “I’ve always wanted to try the Steak Noir Etoile here.”

Her boss looked at the dish. “That looks very tempting, but I want something with a little bit more bite to it.”

Amy chuckled. “What, your Navy man not enough?”

Ms E blushed. “I don’t kiss and tell.”

Tracy smirked and she glowered at her. “Not one word.”

The other guard snickered quietly.

“Look, can we please get back to the ordering?”

“Well, you said you hired us for our conversation.”

“I never said I hired you so I could talk about my love life,” she protested.

“This is a girl’s night out, isn’t it?” Tracy asked. “What else would we talk about?”

“How about we start with your love life?”

“Wow, nice weather we’re having.” The woman grinned and nudged Amy. “Don’tcha think, Ames? Great weather, right?”

Her teammate laughed. “Oh, yeah. It’s wonderful weather.”

“You two are not so very funny,” Elizabeth grumbled, and they turned their attention to their menus again.

In the end, she went for something involving a blend of steak, scallops, and fish with a dash of lime and a blend of chili and ginger. Tracy stuck to her Noir Etoile, while Amy decided she’d rather have her steak diced and wrapped in pastry with something starchy on the side.

“What exactly is that?” Elizabeth asked and peered at it when it arrived, and the guard gave her a grin.

“The closest I can get is it’s a cross between a sweet potato and something from the islands. I have no idea where the scientists came up with the concept.”

She bit it into it and closed her eyes. “But, damn. The chef who thought to roast and glaze it deserves a medal. That is a killer combo.”

There wasn’t much conversation after that. Each of them took their time with their food and savored every bite. Elizabeth eyed Tracy’s steak. “I definitely have to try that next time we come here,” she decided, and the guard cut a small piece and offered it to her.

Ms E hesitated for the slightest moment before she gave in. The tidbit melted in her mouth and she closed her eyes. “Holy shit, that’s good.”

She made a note to order it for Matthias the next time they had a date. Hell, she’d even blindfold the man and feed it to him, simply to watch his face. She wondered if Tarantino’s would deliver.

Amy snorted. “Whatever plans you have for your man, you’d better leave them there ʼcause that looks personal.”

“Yeah.” Tracy smirked. “That is the last time I feed you my steak.”

Elizabeth blushed and went back to her meal. “You really should try some of this.”

The guard shook her head. “Lime’s not my thing.”

“You mean you and chili have an unfortunate relationship,” Amy contradicted and her teammate stuck her tongue out. “You forget we share a bathroom,” she reminded her and glared at Ms E. “Don’t you dare give her any of that.”

The boss held a hand up. “No. Stop right there. I’m enjoying this and that’s too much information.” She stopped and thought about it. “Of course, now I know that, I know exactly what to spike your drink with if either of you pisses me off.”

“We’d notice,” Amy reassured her, and she gave her an evil smile.

“Oh, you’d notice all right, but not right away. I know a very good chemist.”

“Care to share?” the woman retorted and batted her eyelashes, and Elizabeth gave her a long look.

“Why? Are you thinking of freelancing?”

“Heck, no,” she replied. “You pay us too well for that. Frog, on the other hand…”

“Oh, yes?” Elizabeth arched her eyebrows. “Do tell.”

They passed a pleasant evening and ordered more wine and then dessert. Neither of the two guards drank the wine, though, and both stuck to water.

“Another time,” Tracy told Elizabeth when she asked. “We’re on duty, remember? I have no desire to explain to Stephanie why you had your ass shot off because I was too tipsy to shoot straight.”

“And I won’t explain to law enforcement why I operated a sidearm while intoxicated,” Amy added. “You need us too much for us to take a break in jail.”

“I’m not that much work, am I?” They both grinned and she sighed. “Fine. Don’t either of you answer that.”

When the check was paid, they headed to the flitter. Amy had repositioned it and arranged with Jocelyn for them to use a quieter exit from the restaurant.

“I’m more than happy to oblige,” he told her when she thanked him. “Come again soon. Your table will be waiting.”

Elizabeth smiled. Maybe she’d be able to bring Matthias there sooner than she’d thought.

They crossed over a walkway between Tarantino’s and a building on the next street, then descended a set of stairs to the quiet parking area Jocelyn had directed Amy to land the flitter in. “It’s not widely known,” he’d told the guard, “but we’ve only recently started expanding so this will do while the more secure parking facility is built.”

Ms E decided whoever ran Tarantino’s learned fast. With a secure parking facility in place, the paparazzi wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near their guests. If the food hadn’t already sealed it, the real prospect of increased security did. She would definitely come back.

They were halfway across the apparently little-known carpark when the flitter exploded.

She didn’t stop to stare and instead, dropped prone, aware of Tracy’s weight as it settled on top of her, while her other bodyguard kissed tarmac nearby.

“There!” Amy shouted. “Trace, they’re coming in on our six and nine. Get her out of here.”

“No can do. I have a team at the exit. We’re boxed in.”

Elizabeth raised her head, only to have Tracy push it down with a muttered imprecation. “It looks like we’ll have to fight our way out of here. To hell with it all—and I was having such a good night, too.” The guard sounded seriously pissed-off.

“It’s not a total loss,” she told them. “At least we get to work off some of those calories.”

“Get your ass back to the door. I’ve called Joss. He’s bringing security, and he’ll unlock it when he gets there.”

“ETA?”

“Three to five.”

“Well, that’s a challenge.”

“Aw, come on, Ms E. You didn’t want us to get bored, now, did you?”

“Bored? No, but I’d have liked for this to be a quiet night out.”

Tracy was unsympathetic. “Well, I guess you can’t have everything.”

Elizabeth twisted her head so she could see the burning remains of her sky car. “No, I guess I can’t. You need to treat me like a team member and not merely a principal.”

Amy shook her head. “No can do, boss. You hired us for a reason, and this is it. We’ll let you fight, but you’d better fight your way to that door and not do anything else.”

“Yup. Get your ass to the door. Don’t make us have to worry about you sticking your neck into a noose for either of us. That’s our job.”

Damn, but she hated it when they were right.

“Will do. Door. Got it. But don’t get yourselves killed.”

“Just do as we ask, ma’am,” Amy replied. “On my go, I want your tail headed to the rendezvous.”

“Gotcha.”

As hard as it was to let the girls deal with their attackers, Elizabeth had to acknowledge that this was what she’d hired them for. But, damn. She was used to dealing with her own problems, dammit.

“…two…three… Go, go, go!”

Tracy rolled off her, and Elizabeth scrambled into a low crouch and began to zig-zag back to the so-called quiet exit Jocelyn had guided them to. Shouts from across the carpark immediately confirmed she’d been seen. The clatter when bullets impacted the intervening vehicles left her in no doubt that she was the target.

“Well, hell and damnation,” she muttered. “I need a goddamned gun.”

“No, you don’t, ma’am,” Tracy said from beside her and used one hand to push her head lower. “You need to keep your goddamned head down or you’re gonna get it shot off.”

They reached the street and the guard pulled her boss down beside her in the shelter of a dark blue luxury flitter. Above their heads, the window shattered, and glass rained down.

“I’ve got him!” Amy shouted and slid in beside her. “But we’re screwed for getting her to the door until Joss gives me the all-clear.”

“I take it he’s on the comms?” Elizabeth asked.

“Yup. Are you gonna stay quiet if I add you into the channel?”

She sighed. “Sure.”

Seconds later, she could hear Joss’s quiet voice urging law enforcement to get their asses to the carpark between Nineteenth and Century if they wanted to avoid a fatality.

“Almost there, Ames,” he added. “I have three ready to start clearing that door. Is she snug?”

Amy glanced at Ms E. “As snug as we can make her. I’m about to eliminate a sniper. Give us the word when she can make the run for the door.”

“Will do. Are you able to create a distraction so we can get the jump on them?”

“How close are you?”

“There.”

“On my ‘now,’ okay?”

“Count us in?”

“Listen for the bang.”

“The bang?”

She made no immediate answer to his question but instead, clapped a small attachment to the bottom of her blaster and darted up from behind the car. Almost immediately, she ducked again and another round whistled through the space she’d been a second before.

Before their attackers could fire again, she stood, aimed, and fired as soon as her hand came above their cover. Three high-powered rounds streaked ahead and she ducked beside the other two women.

“You stay right here,” she ordered and fixed Elizabeth with a stern stare. “No fighting unless they come for you.”

“It’d be better if you were under the car,” Tracy added, “but if you can’t do that, stay here and stay out of trouble unless you can’t avoid it.”

“Well, dammit,” she grumbled but she nodded.

The girls took that for the ‘yes’ it was and rose to their feet. They kept their heads down and moved in low crouches to the edge of the car as three loud explosions shattered the night.

“Now! Now! Now!” Amy shouted, and they bolted across the open road, firing at the waiting goon squad as they moved.

More shots echoed theirs, and Elizabeth curled into herself instinctively. It would be almost impossible to hear if anyone was coming until the firefight died down. She moved to the edge of the flitter and saw where she needed to be.

“Well, hell.”

She hurtled out of cover and sprinted diagonally beyond the parked vehicle and across the road. Slugs stitched the space at her heels but she made it to the edge of the melee, scooped up a dropped blaster, and turned to fire across the road while she worked out what to do next.

Jocelyn’s reinforcements currently fought to hold the door as well as to clear a way to reach it. There were at least five enemies between her and her goal.

“I thought you said she was snug,” their host complained.

“I said she was as snug as we could make her. I guess someone pushed the blanket off,” Amy retorted, ducked under a fist that apparently intended to take her head off, and fired at point-blank range into the torso of her assailant.

“I will kick your ass when we get you back,” Tracy threatened, blocked a dagger with the blaster, and slugged the guy who wielded it.

“Tell it to someone who cares,” Ms E retorted and fired at the guy in front of her before she swung the blaster clear and directed a volley at the team that followed her across the road. “Next time, I get to bring my own toys.”

“Next time, you get a bigger protection detail.”

She had no idea what to say to that, but she was busy. Two more had stepped forward to take the place of the guy she’d shot, and the other team had made it across the road. Why they didn’t simply stand there and shoot her, she didn’t know, but she decided it wasn’t the time to look a gift horse in the mouth.

“There’s no time, anyway,” she muttered as she registered the first faint whine of sirens.

Ms E shot the next two but had the blaster blown out of her hand. Given that the shot was probably supposed to take her head off, she decided not to complain. Now, she had to find another gun. A fist caught her in the back and she yelped and took a swift step to the side.

Dammit. She’d hoped to reach the two girls, not get cut off from them. They’d have stood a better chance fighting back to back.

She managed to disable her assailant and was able to see Amy shoot two and gut a third. The guard put a bullet through the man’s head as she turned to shoot one of those closest to her boss. Three more began to retreat toward the parked flitters.

Furious at the thought that they might escape, she snatched the weapon from the unconscious man nearby and aimed at one, but Tracy covered the distance between herself and the closest. She held two blades Elizabeth didn’t remember her carrying earlier and she made a note to ask her about them after.

Blasters tracked the woman’s movement and she raised her own newly acquired sidearm to eliminate the threat. Amy shouted a warning and everyone seemed to fire at once. Tracy tumbled mid-leap and blood spouted from her throat.

“No!” Elizabeth’s shot felled the shooter and she shifted her aim to the second, while Amy took the third.

She’d lost track of the remaining thugs, however—and it cost her dearly.

A shot caught her in the thigh and she stumbled. The blade meant for her kidney struck higher in her back, and a second strike caught her in the gut. She landed hard in the same moment that Amy fired twice more and terminated the last of their assailants.

Jocelyn’s warning jolted through their comms. “Get down!”

Well, that part is basically guaranteed, Elizabeth thought and tried to retain focus on her surroundings. The world had suddenly become oddly slippery.

A sky car descended and lights flashed as dark figures dropped out of it.

There’s nothing quite like arriving in the nick of too late, she thought while part of her admired the sleek beast that landed in the middle of the road. Who said enforcement didn’t get cool toys?

No one, apparently—much like no one had said they were subtle.

“Did we get here in time?” one asked in the same moment that another said, “This one’s dead.”

A tear slid down her cheek and she wondered where it had come from.

“Hey. Stay right there.”

I’m not going anywhere. She tilted her head in time to see Amy slide to a stop beside her. It hurt when the guard lifted her head, shouting, “Medic! Goddammit, I need a medic over here!”

Ms E caught sight of Tracy’s body as it was lifted into a body bag.

Well, sonuvabitch.

Another tear slid down her cheek.

“Hey. You’re okay,” Amy reassured her and she coughed.

It was supposed to have been another laugh but it hurt too much. She closed her eyes and another tear escaped.

“Stay away from the light.” The woman shook her. “Stay away from it, you hear me?”

She opened her eyes as a medic swept her with a torch.

“Well, stop shining it in my eyes, then.”

“Oh, you’re so funny—so goddamned funny!” Amy’s breath caught in a sob.

“And you’re stealing all my laughs…” Her voice slurred.

“Miss…I need you to move, miss.” The medic’s voice was gruff. “We need to get her out of here.”

Her bodyguard moved and lowered her boss’ head to the ground.

The medic took her place. He wasn’t dressed as a cabana boy but he still looked surprisingly good. “Stay with me, ma’am.”

Sure, why not? She honestly had no plans to go anywhere.


Chapter Thirty-Three

White walls rose around her and white sheets covered her. The weighty silence that surrounded her was broken only by the muted beeping of the monitors. With only the constant company of the machine, Ms E slept alone.

Muffled sounds seeped from beyond the door, while the beeping continued its steady, reassuring beat. Soft voices murmured—Amy’s faint but recognizable tones and the familiar deep resonance of someone else. She drifted deeper into her cocoon.

Outside, Amy looked up when Lars approached. He carried two cups of coffee and studied her pale face and the dark rings under each eye.

She managed a shaky smile as he handed her a cup.

“Shouldn’t you be resting?”

With both hands wrapped around the cup, she took comfort from the warmth of the coffee within. She shook her head. “I can’t. I’m the only one left.”

Her voice caught and she lowered her head and took a hasty sip.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

Instinctively, she raised her head but left the protest unspoken. There really was no answer to that. The man was right, of course. It didn’t stop her from owning the blame, though. “I should have parked it better.” She lowered her head for another sip.

“You parked it away from a crowd of innocents who would have been slaughtered to provide them cover. Where you were, there was only you.”

“And anyone else waiting in a car. I’m sure there were chauffeurs.”

“There were.”

She jerked her head up and he met her gaze.

“They all made it out okay, although there are a few who’ll need a few months to get their nerve back.”

“If they ever do.”

He shrugged. “If they don’t, they’re in the wrong line of work. Driving for the rich and famous isn’t a job for non-coms.”

“Says you.”

“We both know I’m right.”

“Modest, too.”

Lars placed a hand on her shoulder. “It’s not your fault,” he repeated and shook his head gently with every word.

“Trace is still dead.”

“Yes, and I’m sorry.”

“She needs a bigger protection detail,” Amy continued, and they both knew who she was talking about.

“Yes, she does.”

“And she needs—” She stopped when his earpiece crackled. “What is it?”

“Steph’s on her way.”

Her hand shook.

“She’s not mad at you,” he told her, “but she’s coming in hot and heavy, so we’re gonna have to try to keep—”

Ding.

The elevator’s clear chime stopped him in his tracks.

“She’s here.” He squeezed the bodyguard’s shoulder. “She’s not mad at you, okay?”

Amy managed a shaky nod and looked for somewhere to put her cup. Lars took it and dropped both brews swiftly into a nearby bin. “We’ll be fine.”

She wished she could be sure of that but tried to believe him anyway. What he said was not reassuring.

“Oh, goddammit.”

When she looked up and followed his gaze to where Stephanie strode down the hall, it wasn’t Stephanie. Not as she knew the girl, anyway. This Stephanie was someone… No, something different.

“The Morgana…” she whispered.

It was difficult, seeing the change, but she was glad she’d been warned. She simply hadn’t believed it until now. Lars nodded and swallowed twice as he assessed the scene.

The Morgana had arrived, and she was not alone. She argued with a doctor—or, rather, the doctor argued with her.

“She shouldn’t be disturbed,” the man protested.

Her voice was cold. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

He tried again. “She needs her rest.”

“I will see to her needs.”

“I am her doctor. I will see to her needs.”

At his words, she stopped. He halted beside her and breathed a slight sigh of relief as if he thought he’d finally convinced her.

He has no idea, Amy thought as the woman turned to face him.

From the way he stiffened when she put her hand on his shoulder and stared into his eyes, he’d begun to have an idea—and fast. She hurried the process along, her voice eerily calm as she spoke.

“Can you hold the guts of the universe in your hands?” she asked, and he gaped.

“Well?” she prodded when he didn’t reply. Her voice was one of mild curiosity as if they were discussing the price of a mobile phone. “Can you?”

“I…uh…no, I can’t,” he managed and watched her warily.

He winced when she squeezed his shoulder and relaxed slightly as she let go.

“Then get out of my way.” She gave him a slight push and continued past him.

Amy stiffened as she approached and felt her mouth go dry. Up close, the Morgana was far scarier than she’d imagined. Oh, she still looked like a normal girl—the Stephanie they all knew and loved—but she was something more.

She felt like something more—something dark and powerful and on the edge of destruction. It was all the bodyguard could do to not drop to her knees and beg forgiveness. She glanced hastily at Lars and drew courage from his steady stare.

He said nothing and merely opened the door so the visitor could enter. Amy could well imagine her blasting it off its hinges if he hadn’t. The doctor hesitated where he’d been left and finally took a few steps toward them.

Lars flicked a glance toward him and looked at her. He jerked his head at the door. “You should probably watch this. I’ll cover here.”

Amy hesitated, but he jerked his head toward the door again. “Go on.”

She didn’t wait to be asked a second time. What the Morgana would do to save her employer, she didn’t know, but she wanted to find out. He let her through and stepped across to block the doctor’s path.

That wasn’t what had her attention, though. No, the scene that played out was all she was interested in. That frightening being had pulled the sheets away from the motionless form and tossed them into a corner of the room. She stood beside the bed and ran her hands lightly over the patient’s body while small shafts of lightning arced between her skin and Elizabeth’s.

She scowled as the guard moved closer but didn’t let her presence distract her from what she was doing. “Apparently,” she said, clearly speaking to Elizabeth, “you underestimated those against you—or you’re allowing your focus on me to hurt you.”

Amy flinched at the anger that accompanied that statement, but the Morgana didn’t even glance toward her. Energy sizzled over her body and arced in waves around her. Amy froze. She couldn’t make her body move any closer but she refused to back away. Despite her inherent fear, she wanted to see what would happen.

More lightning arced and blue light flared and subsided as the energy flowed from the Morgana to wash over the wounded woman. This was followed by the impression of warmth as more energy flashed, purple this time.

Behind her in the corridor, the guard heard a gasp and the hasty footsteps which stopped abruptly outside the door.

“You don’t want to go in there,” Lars said and she glanced over her shoulder.

He stood beside the door but he’d put his arm out to block the doctor’s path.

The man opened his mouth to protest but he stood firm. “It’s for your own good, sir.”

“And how exactly is that, young man?” The doctor snapped around to face him.

Lars offered him a lazy smile. “Well, if you go in there, you’ll discover that you’re an infant in healing when compared to her. I’m merely trying to save your ego.”

The medical man glanced to where the Morgana worked on Elizabeth and opened and closed his mouth like a beached fish. “But…but we can learn from this!”

The guard nodded sagely. “Yeah, you could,” he agreed, “or you might lose your tackle if you spout something inane.”

His gaze flitted between the big guard and his patient. “Tackle? Inane?”

Lars sighed. “Your Johnson and something silly like ‘That’s impossible,’ might cause her to be annoyed…and she’s annoyed enough already.”

When the doctor glanced inside the room once more, his jaw dropped. Amy followed his gaze and gaped as well.

Elizabeth floated four feet above the bed, her hospital robe draped over her. The Morgana flipped her patient over once and held one hand steady and made two short gestures with the other. The robe tore in half and tore again before it floated to the bed.

The dressings covering her wounds followed shortly thereafter—and the Witch ignored both.

“This will not be allowed,” she declared, and Amy shivered.

Her voice had grown deeper than before, darker and eminently colder.

She stared at the girl and looked at Elizabeth’s floating body. Remembering Lars’s warning to the doctor, she pressed her lips together to make sure she didn’t make a sound. There was no way she wanted this strange being to notice her.

The energy that enveloped the two intensified and waves of it flowed from one to the other and back again. That wasn’t what really caught her attention, though.

The guard stared, fascinated by the way the terrible hole in the woman’s thigh began to close and the way the blood stopped falling from her back and ceased flowing over her belly and side. Amy bit back a gasp as muscle knitted inside the thigh wound. When the hole had filled, the skin began to form above it.

No waaay, she thought and fought hard to keep the comment inside her head. Absolutely no way.

She dragged her gaze away from Elizabeth to look at the Morgana and noticed the woman was covered in sweat. Dark circles had formed under her arms and on her chest. Droplets gathered on her brow and rolled down her face and she shook her head to stop them from rolling into her eyes.

As she stared, she noticed that the energy that had shimmered and sparked over the girl’s body had diminished. It seemed much less bright, and the lightning that had arced through it did so less frequently than before. She looked at the patient in time to see the thigh wound close completely and the new skin gleamed fresh and pink.

The Morgana gave a grunt of satisfaction and flipped her hand. The nonchalant gesture saw the leads connecting the patient to the monitors fall away. As soon as they did, the devices screamed and warning lights flashed on their consoles.

The doctor ducked under Lars’s arm and raced in. “What did you—” He halted beside the bed and gaped at the healing wounds. “Wh—

Amy grasped him by the shirt, pulled him close, and slapped a hand over his mouth as she did so. She let him shrug her hand away from his shirt but kept the one over his mouth firmly in place. He raised his eyebrows. She felt his lips move and glared at him while she shook her head.

He stayed silent, thankfully, and his gaze strayed to the bed as Elizabeth’s body descended slowly. It settled softly onto the mattress and the sheet was picked up and shaken before being draped back over her.

A faint touch of pink colored her employer’s cheeks and the guard breathed a soft sigh of relief. It was also good to see that the darkness under the woman’s eyes was lighter and that she breathed more easily.

She quelled a sob and raised a fist to her mouth while she kept her hand firmly pressed across the doctor’s. The Morgana turned toward them.

“Now,” she said, and her clear, cold tones sent chills over Amy’s skin. She looked up to see the pitch-black eyes focused on the doctor. “You may use your primeval ministrations on my friend.

With that, she swept past them and exited the room.

Amy’s shoulders sagged with relief and the doctor breathed a ragged sigh that echoed her emotions. She took her hand very carefully away from his mouth, but he didn’t say a word. Together, they glanced toward the door.

Lars was leaving, too. He hurried in the direction the Morgana had taken and his voice trailed behind him.

“Todd, Steph. Todd!” They heard his boots receding as a note of pleading entered his voice. “C’mon, Steph! Codeword Todd!

The two startled witnesses in the room exchanged glances. They both hurried to the door and peered out.

The large man stood in front of the Morgana as she waited for the elevator. He looked like he wanted to reach out and shake the girl and truly didn’t dare.

“Steph?” He clicked his fingers in front of her face. “Steph? C’mon. I know you’re in there. Please come back. Don’t leave me alone with her. Please, Steph?”

The elevator dinged and she took a step forward as she gave the guard a pointed look. He moved out of her way but stepped into the elevator alongside her.

“Todd, Steph…” drifted back to them as the doors clicked shut.

Witch Of The Federation III

Having monitored the scene through the hospital’s security system, BURT now focused his full attention on the search he had running. So far, he’d gone through every communication system from the time of the explosion to the end of the firefight.

Not that he had to pay too much attention to that end of things—he’d monitored it as soon as news of the attack had reached the press. It hadn’t taken him very long to find Jocelyn’s emergency call or to hook into the law enforcement and medical channels to monitor the progress of their arrival and rescue.

It had taken him slightly longer to access the communications devices in the area, and he’d tagged them for later reference according to whether they were inactive or monitoring their traffic if they were live. He’d captured considerable footage of the fight itself, including Amy’s destruction of a section of the fifth floor of a building overlooking the carpark.

The apartment had been empty—ready for lease, apparently—until the sniper team had picked the lock and made it their vantage point. Now, it was a crime scene and the apartment below would also need repairs before its new owners could move in.

He’d also recorded the drop in property value. Up until the attack had reached the airwaves, this had been considered a nice part of town. That wasn’t important, now, though. What was important was the brief communication transmitted by the sniper.

“In position.”

And the reply, “Take the bitch out.”

That had preceded Tracy shoving Elizabeth’s head below the level of the first window that had exploded. By then, BURT had hacked the comm equipment. The sniper’s comment on the situation had been brief and to the point. “Shit.”

His spotter’s comment had been more professional. “Easy, now. She’s gonna have to move. The only place to go is the door they came out of. Ready?”

He moved back through the comm link but found nothing more than the connection between the three teams that had come for R&D’s head—in more ways than one. Someone out there thought that removing Elizabeth from the equation would force the company’s reclusive owner into the open.

They couldn’t have been more mistaken.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are…” he sang softly—and to himself, of course. “I’m not gonna hurt you…much.”

That last was said as he began to sift through the hundreds of calls made from the area in the hours she and her guards had been dining. He came up with nothing but that didn’t surprise him. What he needed was a call matching the voices on the comms with the voice going over the lines.

He also wanted to find out how the killers had arrived because they surely hadn’t come on foot—and there was no way they could have taken public transport and arrived there without attracting the kind of attention that brought the police.

No, they had come alone and in their own vehicles, and he needed to track that.

From what he saw in the police communication net, the authorities had no luck in establishing how the killers had arrived. They, too, sifted through hours of footage from the hundreds of cameras from the dozens of streets and skyways that surrounded the site.

BURT assumed he could do it faster.

Logically, he supposed he could leave it and simply wait for the enforcement system to sift through the data and eventually come up with the answer. Ditto the communications, too. They had issued a warrant and the telecommunications companies would comply.

As would the social media companies.

Logically, he could simply have sat back and waited to see what they came up with.

But he didn’t want to. He wanted to be the one to find the lead to the would-be assassins. Not only that, he wanted to be the one to get there first and to deal with those who had tried to deal with him. He needed to.

It didn’t make sense.

Even as he realized it, BURT wondered why. It took him some time to come to the conclusion that there was no logical reason for him to do what he was doing and that there was only one very human and very illogical reason.

He cared.

It was a startling revelation. He cared because one of his team members had died and the other had almost been killed. He cared because his friend had almost died and another of his friends was in danger of coming to harm.

“What am I becoming?” he mused as he pulled more data into the system.

Somewhere in there were the answers he was looking for.

Witch Of The Federation III

In Europe, Hans Mikelson looked at Ingrid Hroffdottir.

“Do you see this?”

She nodded, her pretty brow furrowed as she tapped at the display.

“It’s off the charts.”

“Is there any reason the system should use this much power?”

Ingrid shook her head. “We’ll have to look into it. It looks like it’s one of the NorAm systems.”

Hans snorted. “Typical. They think of nothing but themselves. Their usage. Their needs. They should learn to keep their power-hungry systems out of our grids.”

“I don’t know, Hans.” She shrugged. “I don’t think they’re aware of it.”

“Do they have any system that would need this much power?”

She studied the readouts, chewed her lower lip, and shook her head. “Their Virtual Worlds system maybe, but we’re on that too and I’ve never seen it use that much, not even when it calculated a new scenario.”

“Are you sure?”

“One can never be sure. We’ll have to work out which system it is and talk to the relevant department. You know the drill.”

He sighed. “I know. It looks like we’ll have to pull overtime tonight.”

Ingrid smiled. “Well, you did say you were saving for a holiday.”

“I did, but I also wanted to go out for dinner after work.”

“Tell your girlfriend how much more you’ll make and offer to take her shopping,” she told him and laughed. “She won’t complain.”

“Oh, she’ll complain,” he argued as he began the diagnostics program. “She’ll complain worse than usual and still spend twice as much as we agreed on. Then, she’ll want me to take her out to dinner at the most expensive place in town—and only then—”

His colleague held her hand up. “Stop. Stop! I don’t want to know, okay? Just…no.”

Hans grinned, given that Ingrid was his girlfriend. “Fine, I’ll keep it as a surprise.”

She pursed her lips in an effort to hide her smile. “If you do that, your girlfriend might take being difficult to a whole new level. Got that?”

It was his turn to raise his hands, but he did so with a broad smile. “I got it. Boy, do I got it, and then…”


Chapter Thirty-Four

Commander Matthias Van Leeuwen stood at the edge of the wind-swept tarmac as the Morgana’s Mercenaries’ dropship touched down. As much as he was worried about Elizabeth, he couldn’t allow an ounce of that feeling to show.

She didn’t like a fuss.

He grimaced and followed it with a sigh when the huge craft settled on the landing pad as lightly as any feather.

“Well, too bad,” he murmured, “because a fuss is exactly what is coming—and I don’t think your Steph is anywhere near prepared to be reasonable.”

His words caught the attention of the man beside him. “I beg your pardon, sir?”

He slid him a sideways glance. “Nothing, Arne. I’m merely thinking out loud.”

“Yes, sir.” And if there was anything but respectful acknowledgment in his tone, he didn’t want to know. Instead, he focused on the vessel. Damn, that bird was big.

“Incoming,” Arne murmured and his voice issued clearly over the link.

“I see it,” Matthias replied and realized the man had heard every word of his murmured comment to Elizabeth and simply been too polite to call him on it. He knew about Elizabeth, too, his superior recalled.

He slid another sidelong glance at the Marine but the man kept his eyes front to scan the dropship and the half-dozen drones that now hovered around it. “Those things look mean, sir.”

Recognizing the diversion for what it was, he allowed himself a small smile. “You’re not nervous are you, Marine?”

Arne scowled. “Sir, no, sir. Those little shits simply need chewing.”

“You do know they can hear you, Arne?”

“I sincerely hope not, sir. The story goes that these guys take anything as a challenge and don’t know how a civilized person behaves, sir.”

“And this coming from a Marine.”

“What are you trying to say, sir?”

Matthias decided he’d pushed the man far enough and focused his attention on the ship. He hadn’t wanted a bodyguard but the attack on E had netted him one, anyway—not because she was his girlfriend but because he was the liaison with One R&D.

He hadn’t wanted to admit it, but the initial call had made his heart stop. For a moment, he’d thought they’d worked out the more intimate details of his working relationship with Ms E and were about to call him on it.

It had been hard to hide his relief when they’d explained the real purpose.

“We don’t wish to alarm you, but until the source of this threat has been identified and eliminated, we will assign you a bodyguard.”

As he knew was expected, he had responded with a heartfelt sigh.

“The decision has been made, Commander. You will cooperate with the master sergeant so he can keep your sorry ass in one piece.”

At that, he had stiffened in his seat. “Sir, yes, sir.”

The communication had ended in the moment when Arne had knocked at his door.

“Master Sergeant Arne Borgesson reporting for duty, sir.”

“Come in, Master Sergeant.”

The Marine’s arrival had occurred three days before Lars had called.

“The Morgana wishes to go hunting,” he’d said, and Matthias had straightened in his chair.

“How is she?” he’d asked, and they’d both known he wasn’t asking about Stephanie.

The guard’s face had softened. “She’ll be okay now, sir. The Morgana took care of most of the damage.” The commander had breathed a sigh of relief and the man had continued. “She still has a long road to recovery, but we won’t lose her.”

That hadn’t been the case when she’d been airlifted to the nearest hospital.

“Tell the Morgana I am grateful.”

“The only gratitude she will accept is the Navy’s blessing,” Lars had responded with a frown, and Matthias had a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“On what?” he asked.

“We have tracked the source of the orders leading to the attack. They are linked to a group calling for us to make peace with the incoming alien force.”

He’d felt anger surge—and outrage. While he wasn’t sure what showed on his face, it was enough to make Arne take a step forward. Until that point, the other man hadn’t been aware of the Marine’s presence in the room.

“Who’s there with you?”

He had signaled for Arne to come within visual range. “This is Marine Master-Sergeant Arne Borgesson, my…uh, my bodyguard.”

Lars’s eyebrows had raised while he’d assessed the master sergeant. “And this is because…”

“Because of the attack on One R&D,” he hastened to finish before the man could go any further. Arne had picked up on it, though.

He’d confronted him about it when the call had ended.

“So, this Elizabeth,” he’d begun when Matthias had seated himself behind the desk, “what is she to you?”

And he’d pushed constantly until he had been forced to tell him the truth. To give him credit, the Marine had reddened as much as he himself had, but he hadn’t apologized.

“I need to know your triggers if I’m to keep you safe, sir.” He’d paused to let the words sink in. “And, if you don’t mind me saying so, sir, that’s a big one.”

“I do, and I know, and if I hear one word of it from anyone else, I’ll wring your jar-head neck.”

“And since I know it’s one of your triggers, sir, I’ll let you keep your not-so-pretty face.”

Matthias had given him a feral grin. “Do you think you’re good enough, Ma-reeen?”

Arne had merely mirrored the grin. “Sir, I know I am.”

But that had been as far as he’d gone. Instead of taking him on in the brawl the commander so badly needed, he’d gotten straight down to business. “This meeting that girl needs to go to,” he began, “how long will it take to set up the support for it?”

It had been enough to snap him back into himself, and he’d settled into the planning he needed to do in order to get HQ on their side, rather than jumping the gun like they might be tempted to. Two days later, he and Arne watched the dropship touch down while a small flight of drones hovered to a standstill at each of its four corners.

The main hatch opened and Vishlog stepped out. Matthias was quick to lay his hand over Arne’s when the Marine moved his to his sidearm. “He’s a very good friend,” he murmured and spoke softly into the mike.

“You coulda warned me.”

“It was more fun this way.”

“You blocked access to the files.” Realization put an angry edge on the man’s tones.

He couldn’t quite suppress his smirk. “I would never—”

“You and I will definitely talk.”

“About bloody time,” he murmured.

Arne groaned. “If you wanted to spar, Commander, you simply had to say.”

They waited while Vishlog stalked down the steps, his head virtually on a swivel as he surveyed the area around the landing pad, scanned Matthias and Arne, and swept the base.

“You’d think he was in enemy territory,” the Marine murmured as they watched him begin the scan, again.

“Given the places he’s been, that’s not a surprise. They take nothing for granted.”

Once he’d reached the bottom of the stairs, the big Dreth glanced at the open hatch and pursed his lips. A short, sharp whistle reached their ears and two large felines appeared at the door. Arne shifted and Matthias prepared to intervene, but the master sergeant stopped before his hand reached his holster.

“Are those what I think they are, sir?”

“You tell me, Master Sergeant.”

“Well, I think I see a purkat and a skeffa, the biggest hunting cats on Meligorn, sir—except these two aren’t trying to kill each other.”

“Then, yes, Master Sergeant, you are seeing exactly what you think you are.”

Arne scowled. “Has anyone ever told you you’re something of an asshole when you’re stressed, sir?”

Matthias shot him a shocked look before he turned his attention to the dropship where Zeekat and Bumblebee now padded down the steps, their bodies tense and their heads and ears alert.

“Those two get along fine,” he answered.

The felines reached the bottom of the steps, wound their way around Vishlog’s legs, and took a position on either side of the steps, each one facing a slightly different direction until they had most approaches covered.

“Heads up,” Matthias murmured. “Here she comes.”

The she in question reached the shuttle hatch and paused while her head turned as she surveyed the tarmac. Her scrutiny ended when she saw the two naval men. She favored the commander with a nod and the master sergeant with a speculative stare.

“I don’t think she likes me, sir.”

“She merely hasn’t seen you before and Lars probably forgot to mention you.”

“That’s nice of him, sir.”

“Chin up, Master Sergeant. She won’t bite.”

“Oh no, sir. She’s more likely to tear me apart with magic. That’s a much better way to go…sir.”

She began to walk down the stairs.

Stalking, Matthias corrected himself. She’s stalking. For her, the hunt has already begun.

“Oh, shit,” he murmured.

“I beg your pardon, sir?” the Marine muttered in response.

“Never you mind, Master Sergeant. Stand to.”

“And I thought I was, sir.”

He chose to ignore him. “And that,” he told his companion, although he spoke very softly, “is what I term the Unholy Quartet.”

Arne took a closer look at the men who’d stepped out of the shuttle behind the Morgana—not Stephanie because that’s who Matthias was sure had come to visit. He’d only heard of her and only ever seen her in footage he hoped the hell One R&D didn’t know the Navy had, but that was what he was sure he saw.

Rather than dwell on it, he made sure his master sergeant knew who he was looking at.

“You’ve already met Lars,” he continued. “Tall drink of water, combat-hardened, good commander. If he wasn’t an avowed freelancer, we’d have tried to hire him ourselves.”

“And the short one?”

“That’s Frog. He has a real name, but no one remembers it. He’s the team hacker. Don’t let him near any of our systems. Also, don’t underestimate him in hand-to-hand. He trains with the rest of the team and seems to think he has a fair amount to prove.”

“Sized like that? I’ll bet he does,” Arne replied. “I’ll keep my eye on him. He looks like trouble walking.”

“You understand him. That next one is Marcus. He and Frog have been friends since childhood. They’re not quite peas in a pod but they’re darn close.”

He glanced at his companion and saw Arne sizing up the third member of the Morgana’s chosen escort for the day.

“He’s been included to keep Frog out of trouble,” the Marine concluded, “but he’s not above causing trouble himself and once he starts, Frog will follow. Is he a hacker, too?”

“To some degree, but he’s more a fighter. Regardless, watch them both.”

He glanced at the hatch and frowned. “That fourth one is Johnny.”

“Is there anything I should know?”

“He used to be one of ours. An analyst in some think tank until he discharged and went freelancing with Lars.”

“Him specifically?”

“Specifically. I don’t know what their history is, but when the Navy didn’t want to let him go, he called on Lars and the two walked out of HQ together with his papers signed and sealed.”

“Do you want me to do some digging, sir?”

“I thought you were a Marine, Arne.”

“I know people, sir. I know many people.”

Matthias smothered a chuckle. “And do they know you, Arne?”

“Most of them wish they didn’t.” There was a smile in the master sergeant’s voice that wasn’t on his face when he sent him a quick look.

The commander frowned. “Let’s save those favors for something we really need,” he decided. “It looks like stormy water ahead.”

Arne eyed the slight figure who descended the steps, the four men behind her, the giant, and the large cats that waited at the foot of the stairs. “No, sir. The storm’s arrived.”

“And it’s far too late to run.”

“I wouldn’t know how, sir. Actually, I didn’t think you knew either.”

“I don’t.” He stepped forward to the edge of the landing pad and came to attention as the Morgana strode toward him.

She made a show of looking around. “You’re a small welcoming committee,” she observed.

Her voice echoed around them and both men shivered.

Matthias cleared his throat. “The Navy thought we’d keep this shindig small.”

“That is most wise,” she agreed and again, they noticed the almost sepulchral tone to her voice.

She gestured toward the door. “Shall we proceed?”

The resonance in her tones made the Marine think this was what it would be like to hear the voice of a god…if gods were real and walked the Earth.

Witch Of The Federation III

The dropship lifted a half-hour later once Arne and Matthias had escorted Stephanie and her team to the landing pad. They left behind them a room of slightly stunned Naval higher-ups and absolutely no doubts as to the severity of the threat they faced—which made what the Morgana was about to do a little easier.

“Today’s breaking news involves the elite and famous,” the female news announcer declared. She waved her hands and rolled her blue eyes, “And, of course, it’s brought to you by our very own glamor puss, Jalel Trylfir.”

The view changed from the studio to a handsome Meligornian male with close-cropped silver hair. His lavender eyes flashed as he waved a hand at the ocean vista behind him. “Thank you, Amelia! You say the sweetest things. Take a look at the view behind me. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Jalel, we at the studio are green with envy, but tell us. What have you found out there beyond the waves?”

“Apart from this beautiful view, you mean?” The anchor clearly enjoyed teasing his studio-bound counterpart. A small inset shot showed her arms folded while she scowled at him. His grin grew wider and he turned again to direct the camera toward a small island barely visible in the distance.

“Out there is San Jomar’s Reef. It’s not only the name of a reef, though. It’s also the name of a beautiful piece of island real estate.” His voice lowered. “And it’s one reserved by one very rich mogul who goes by the name of San Jomar.”

The female anchor cut in. “That is surely not his real name, Jalel.”

He quirked an eyebrow and smirked at the camera. “Nicely done, Amelia, and you are one hundred percent correct. That is not his real name, but it’s a closely guarded secret and only his guests will ever see his face.”

The female anchor gasped. “So, a mystery man, Jalel.” Her voice took on a sultry purr. “I don’t suppose you know if he’s single.”

Jalel gave a throaty chuckle. “Now, now, Amelia. I like a good mystery as well as the next person—although maybe not as well as you—but even I haven’t been able to unearth the mystery man’s name.”

“And the island?” she asked hopefully.

He shook his head and the good humor vanished from his face. “I’m sorry, Amelia, but this is almost as close as we’ll get. The captain tells me that the shoals closer in are too treacherous for the ship.”

“So we’ll have to admire the view from afar?” Amelia managed to inject both longing and chagrin into her tone.

“And the guest list,” Jalel confirmed. His face took on a cunning glance. “Although, I have a little help with that.”

With another sweep of his hand, he directed the camera to the foredeck, where half a dozen drones were preparing to take off.

“The network has offered a thousand credits to the person who can get the most and clearest images of the guests as they approach the island.”

“Oh, Jalel. What a great prize!”

He smirked as though he was funding it himself.

“But wait, there’s more, Amelia.”

“More?” she asked. “More than a thousand credits?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Tell me,” she encouraged him breathily.

“Are you sure you want to know?”

“Oh, yes, Jalel, and I’m sure the folks at home would like to know, too.” She glanced at the studio camera. “Wouldn’t you?” she asked.

In the dropship, they all waited for the big reveal.

“The studio is offering an additional thousand credits for any drone that can reach the island and broadcast more than a minute’s footage of the guests—with a special prize if the face of our mystery host is revealed.”

“Well, that’s a challenge if ever I heard one,” Amelia declared and the camera panned back to where the drones lifted from the deck.

“So, the feeding frenzy has begun,” Lars said with disgust and was about to switch the viewscreen off when Johnny swore.

He turned back to the screen in time to see their black craft flash past in the background with the drones in tight formation around it.

“Well,” Jalel declared. “it looks like some guests are arriving with more style than others.”

“Was that a military vessel?” his colleague squeaked and her voice rose in surprise.

“If it was, it wasn’t anything I’ve seen before,” he replied. “Did I see some kind of emblem on the hull?”

“Nor for long, you didn’t,” Frog muttered and the team leader looked sharply at him.

He grinned. “There’s a little trick in the design in case the Morgana wants to travel incognito. You can program the paint on the sigil to match the hull. We only need to go loud and proud when we need to. I switched the programming the second I saw us on the screen.”

“Won’t they be able to backtrack and freeze the footage?” the other man asked, and another voice came over the shuttle’s speakers.

“No. I have had technicians see to that.”

“Burt,” the Morgana greeted him and her sepulchral tones filled the craft’s interior.

“Stephanie,” their boss replied as if he’d completely overlooked the fact that she was not herself. “I trust you know what you need to do.”

“I do,” she replied, and Frog cleared his throat.

“If it’s not too much trouble,” he interrupted. “I’d like a clearer picture.”

He flinched as the Morgana turned her dark-eyed gaze to him. “I will vote on Earth’s action in the coming war,” she told him.

“And she will vote for war,” BURT confirmed in the voice he’d adopted for his persona as their human employer. “It was originally intended that Elizabeth fulfill this function, and I believe the attack on her was not only an attack on Stephanie but had the secondary purpose to prevent her vote on the matter.”

“I take it she was to vote for war?” Lars asked.

“Indeed. There are those amongst Earth’s influential elite who believe surrender to the aliens will enable them to keep the position, possessions, and wealth they enjoy when these beings take over our world.”

“It will not.” Her voice was implacable and her fury a palpable wave.

BURT cleared his throat. “No, it will not. Our research leads me to believe that they will leave no survivors. As the Morgana is aware, the aliens’ sole purpose is to consume, and neither of us believes they leave anything in their wake.”

“Those who believe they will hold their places will find only an exalted form of slavery and inevitable demise. They will not be spared. Instead, they will merely be the last to be consumed.” Her tone was final.

“We believe Elizabeth’s vote was essential to secure us the ability to fight them,” he added. “Stephanie will vote in her place.”

“And my vote will be final,” the Morgana declared.

Her team looked at her and the blood drained from their faces. Power crackled around her and her black eyes blazed.

“I will show no mercy to those who dissent.”

BURT cleared his throat and did his best to sound like a businessman embarrassed by the blatant declaration of his charge. “Stephanie, dear…” he began, and she showed her gritted teeth.

“I thought we had an understanding, Burt—”

“And we agreed,” he hastened to assure her, “but you must give them the chance to make the right decision.”

She smiled and even BURT found the sight disconcerting. “They will have the chance.”

He wondered if he was the only one not comforted by her words. Fortunately, Brenden interrupted them before he needed to say anything more.

“We’ll touch down shortly,” he informed them, “and I’m afraid someone is short a very expensive drone. Apparently, ours do not play well with others.”

Witch Of The Federation III

In a finely appointed meeting hall on the second floor of the island mansion, three businessmen ignored the spectacular ocean views. Instead, they looked at each other and exchanged morose glances.

“She isn’t coming,” the dark-haired man told his friends. “I called my source at the hospital and she’s still there. Short of teleportation, she’d never arrive in time.”

“But I heard she was better,” the redhead opposite him exclaimed, his freckles stark against the pallor of his skin. “Damned near healed.”

His outburst drew amused glances from others seated close by, and his two colleagues hushed him hastily.

“How close will it be?” the third man asked and the first sighed.

“It will be close,” he told them, then admitted, “In fact, we might not get it across the line.”

The redhead sighed and lowered his head. “We have to try, regardless,” he told them. “We can’t simply give our world away.”

The third man patted him on the shoulder. “We’ll do our best.”

They fell into silence, each one lost in their own thoughts until a woman strode over to their table. “Heads-up,” she told them. “It looks like Liz has sent someone in her place.”

“She has?” the first man asked and hope rose in his voice.

“But who’d be crazy enough to come in her place?” the redhead asked. “We all know that attack on her outside Tarantino’s was because of this. You’d have to be nuts—”

The third man snorted. “Says the man who’ll vote her way, anyway.”

His companion managed a rueful grin, which was returned.

“We’re not the only crazy ones, you know.”

“Come on, boys.” The woman beckoned and strode to the balcony that ran the length of the conference room’s outer wall. “Don’t you want to see who it is?”

They rose to her challenge and hurried out to see the unexpected arrival. Each of them stopped short at the sight of the big black dropship that touched down in the turning circle in front of the mansion.

The first man gave a short, incredulous laugh. “Well, someone has pissed the wrong Witch off,” he declared.

His companions laughed, and the woman who had alerted them to the new arrival turned her back on the view.

“Let’s go be part of history!” she called over her shoulder, and they hastened to follow.

The scene that greeted them when they reached the front steps was barely short of unbelievable. San Jomar’s guards had arrayed themselves at the base of the vessel’s stairs and one of them stood toe to toe with a Dreth armored in black that matched the ship’s hull.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t bring your weapons onto the island,” he told the warrior, and Vishlog cocked his head to one side.

“That is not negotiable,” he replied and his deep voice carried past the line of guards and into the crowd beyond.

The man tried again and discomfort bled into his voice. “Please, sir. Those are my orders. No weapons. I have to ask…” His words trailed into silence and he took several involuntary steps back, his fellow guards alongside him.

In the mansion itself, the guests held their breaths.

The Morgana surveyed the scene from the top of the dropship’s steps for a brief moment before she descended, her steps swift and sure as she walked over to the guard. “What seems to be the problem here?”

He swallowed and the sweat sheened his skin, glistening visibly under the tropical sun, but he stuck to his guns.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I can’t allow weapons on the island—”

“I am a weapon,” the woman told him, and power crackled from her skin and arced to the men who had followed her off the vessel and who now stood around her. “Don’t make me upset.”

“I…” He swallowed and closed his mouth.

She scrutinized him haughtily as though she didn’t like what she saw.

“We don’t go anywhere unarmed, as the Federation Navy is aware. We go by their mandate of always being prepared, so you need to tell your boss he can shove his no-weapons policy up his ass or I’ll do it for him—and I won’t use any lubrication. Get me?”

She didn’t wait for a reply but turned and led her people toward the stairs to the mansion’s entrance. The hapless guard gaped in her wake. The two great cats that had accompanied her down the stairs raised their noses as they passed him, their expressions showing clear distaste.

The black-and-white one paused in front of him long enough to lift one forepaw. It fixed him with its fierce lavender gaze, licked its foot, and extended its claws as it did so. Once it had given the claws a perfunctory inspection, it lowered its paw and followed its mistress.

Each of the men in her entourage drew their blasters and held them upright before them, presenting arms as a file of soldiers might, and kept them at the low rest after they’d passed. The lead guard stared after them and touched a shaky hand to his ear to activate his comm link.

“Sir?” he began and his voice trembled noticeably. “Ms E sent a representative… No. I couldn’t stop her. I… I think you’re needed out front.”

If the Morgana heard him, she gave no sign and her gaze swept the stairs where San Jomar’s guests had gathered.

“I see everyone’s here,” she stated once she’d counted enough heads to be sure and her voice echoed over them. “You all know why we have gathered.”

“We have gathered to vote for peace,” a silver-haired man called in reply.

Several murmurs rose in agreement and more voices rose in protest.

“I will not agree to slavery for many. Not even to keep myself free.”

“And what of your family?” one of the peace-voters challenged. “Would you vote for freedom for them?”

“You know that’s not guaranteed,” one of the voices countered. “If we fight, we have a chance to keep all mankind free.”

“If we fight, we guarantee the death of every human being in existence,” came the counter-argument.

“So, you’re saying it’s better to save a few than to fight for all?”

“No, I’m saying it’s better to guarantee the safety of our species than to condemn it to extinction.”

“Survival as slaves is no survival at all.”

“But at least some of us get to live.”

“And who gets to choose?”

Enough!” The Morgana’s voice resounded over the gathering.

They stilled and all eyes turned toward her. “Are all those in favor of protecting our freedom here?”

A murmur of assent greeted her.

“Raise your hands if you wish to fight for our freedom. For Earth’s freedom. For the freedom of our future’s children. Raise them now.”

Hands went up across the crowd but some did not and others rested on folded arms. Again, her gaze swept over the gathering as she tallied the vote.

“I make those willing to fight for freedom in the majority,” she declared. She let her gaze travel over the remainder. “Do any of you who are too spineless to fight for the rest want to change your vote?”

She paused. “Anyone? Because history won’t look too kindly on you, and I’m sure your descendants won’t want to live in shame.”

Several more hands were raised, some in defiance of their neighbors and others in unity.

“Too darn right,” she snapped and surveyed those gathered before her. “To prepare for war has been voted and agreed on by the largest corporations in the world and the business community that supports them.”

The Morgana gave them a moment to absorb the news and let them come to terms with the decision they had made before she continued.

“Now that we have that little issue out of the way…” Her gaze traveled over the men and women before her and paused on several individuals whose hands had remained stubbornly down. “Why don’t we move to the part where some of you try to stab us in the back anyway?”


Chapter Thirty-Five

As the Morgana threw the gauntlet down before the more rebellious members of Earth’s business community, Commander Matthias Van Leeuwen stood in the center of Conference Room Ninety-One.

“She needs it if she is to carry out her duty to protect the Federation,” he told the three speakers before him. Their images hung on the viewscreen and stared implacably in response.

“And we say she does not,” Admiral Harrison countered. “The heavens know she’s done enough damage to our reputation with her little escapade out on Sanmar’s Reach.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Rescuing the colony from pirates and preventing it from becoming an alien outpost, sir?” he asked, and the admiral reddened.

“No! Destroying its only communications dish, murdering its defenders, and turning its main seat of governance into a smoking hole in the ground.”

“She did what was best for the Federation,” he argued, aware of Master Sergeant Borgesson at his back. The man was as silent as a grave but his presence was all the louder for it—and right now, that presence radiated disapproval like a cat radiated disdain.

The man was furious at the attitudes Van Leeuwen now encountered. He wondered how much longer the master sergeant would keep his silence and caught himself almost wishing his Marine wasn’t quite so well house-trained.

“With all due respect, sir, I beg you to read the Naval version of events, rather than listen to the civilian reporting,” he began in an effort to reason with the man.

The admiral turned a virulent shade of red and began to sputter with indignation, but before he could find any words, the display flickered and everyone glanced uncertainly at their consoles.

“Did you do that?” Harrison demanded and glared at his opponent as if it was all his fault.

The commander stared at him as though he couldn’t believe what he’d actually said. As he opened his mouth to deny any culpability, a new voice cut through their conversation.

“Put a sock in it, Harrison. I did that.”

The man’s jaw dropped. “Fleet!” he managed to exclaim.

Matthias stiffened to attention and heard Borgesson’s boots scuffle the floor as the master sergeant snapped to mirror his stance. On the screens in front of him, every one of the recalcitrant admirals and vice-admirals stood from their chairs.

Including Harrison, who continued to protest while he stood to attention.

“Have you heard what this…this man wants to do next?” he demanded. “His latest hair-brained scheme is that we should grant the Witch a Badge of Inquisition. It’s ridiculous! We can’t allow it.”

“Oh, go jump in the lake, Admiral. We ask her to throw her body in harm’s way for the sake of the Federation. We demand she make decisions on ships breaking apart around her or bursting into flames out beyond Orion’s belt.”

He paused but before they could be sure he’d finished, he continued. “We give her nothing or a handful of Marines and no way to get any of them out alive and tell her to destroy a small fleet of pirates or a rebel stronghold—and off she goes and does it.”

Harrison stared out of the screen and his face shifted from shades of white to shades of red while his body trembled with outrage, but the fleet commander ignored him.

“I think she’d worthy of the right to hold the Badge of Inquisition, don’t you?”

The man gaped, his expression stating very clearly that no, he didn’t think the Witch was worthy, even if his voice did not. His superior officer didn’t wait for him to find the words. His tones hardened into declaration over the speakers.

“This Federation is at war, and it’s about time we damned well acted like it. Van Leeuwen!”

“Aye, aye, sir!” He made no effort to hide his grin as he pressed the button he’d set up prior to the meeting.

He hadn’t known if he’d receive the authorization to use it, but he’d made damned sure to have it ready. The fleet admiral’s intervention was unexpected but he was grateful for it. As the fabricator in the corner of the room hummed into life, the admirals exited the meeting slowly and their screens faded until none of them remained.

As the device beeped its completion of his order, he faced the blank screen anyway.

“Thank you, Fleet,” he told it, came to attention, and saluted.

The master sergeant came to attention behind him, then followed as he jogged to collect the Badges of Inquisition from the printer.

“You made enough for the entire team?”

“Yes, Arne. They’ll follow her orders and they’ll need the authorization.”

“Did you know the Fleet would—”

“No. I didn’t know he was even aware of the meeting. I tried to contact him but his secretary never got back to me.”

He glanced once more at the screen and threw it another salute for good measure. “Thank you, sir.”

Without waiting for a reply, he raced to the door and the Marine trotted after him.

As it clicked shut behind them, a soft chuckle echoed through the empty room.

“You’re very welcome, Commander. God speed.”

Van Leeuwen didn’t hear the response and would have been floored if he had. He would also have been floored to know the jet warming its engines on the tarmac wouldn’t have been there without a very high-level comms call to authorize it.

Instead, he reached the tarmac and found it waiting. It had already begun to taxi when he handed the navigator the coordinates.

“Get me there,” he ordered. “And don’t spare the fuel.”

The man studied the console for a moment and glanced at him. “God, I love it when the fuel can be wasted.”

His navigator groaned. “Buckle up, sir, Master Sergeant. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.”

“I honestly don’t care as long as it’s a fast one,” Van Leeuwen countered as the jet pivoted.

Arne grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to a seat.

“It’s my hide if yours is scratched,” he grumbled and pointed at the fist Matthias had closed around the badges “And besides that, you want to arrive in good enough condition to hand those over.”

He buckled up as the jet made a slow turn and the engines roared.

Witch Of The Federation III

As the commander was pushed back into his seat, Todd lowered into another push-up and tried to ignore the catcalls and comments from his audience. He hadn’t asked for it, but it was still there.

He’d have sighed but that would have wrecked his form, and he really tried to improve that.

“Woohoo! Work those pecs, Toddy-boy.”

“Mmm-mmm-mmm. I bet the Witch loves a nice set of delts.”

“I don’t know about the Witch but I sure as shit do.”

“And?”

“Do you think she’d mind if I kept those warm for her?”

It was all he could do not to laugh. Ever since Steph had sent him home on that fast luxury cruiser, he’d had nothing but shit from his teammates. The comments from the girls were on a whole other level, though.

And relatively new.

Honestly, he didn’t quite know how he felt about it.

It was flattering, of course, but they weren’t Steph and he wasn’t interested. Well, most of him wasn’t interested—the parts of him that counted, which were his head and his heart. Witch or not, Steph was the only girl for him, and the rest of them simply didn’t compare.

He finished the set and sighed.

She liked his pecs—or, at least, he thought she did. He didn’t know for sure, though. It wasn’t something that had really come up in conversation. He tried to imagine it.

Hey, Steph, do you like my pecs?

Yeah, no. That was definitely not something he could ask, not yet, anyway.

Todd sighed, stretched, and headed to the mats. A little sparring should take his mind off how much he missed her and maybe give his admirers someone else to tease.

“Does anyone want a match?” he called and moved to the edge of the mats.

One of the guys had been toweling off but now, he turned.

“Sure, Todd. I could do with another couple of rounds—and your ass looks like it needs a good kicking.”

He smirked, aware he hadn’t shed his entourage. Still, he tried to ignore them as they arrayed themselves along the edge of the practice area.

Someone whistled. “Go, get him, Todd.”

“Yeah, go the Toddster.”

“Great,” he muttered and rolled his eyes at his opponent. “Sorry about the audience, Daz.”

Darren Stieglitz shrugged. “All the more witnesses for when I take you down,” he quipped.

“In your dreams,” he retorted, shuffled in, and threw a couple of exploratory punches.

His opponent blocked them and returned a couple of jabs of his own, but it was his footwork that almost caught Todd by surprise

“What’s the matter, Toddy? Not used to dancing?” called one of the wags from the sidelines.

He shimmied over to Daz, slow dancing suggestively, and grinned when he responded in kind.

“This crew needs something to gossip about.” Darren chuckled and immediately attempted to drive his fist into his gut.

Todd laughed as he caught the guy’s wrist, forced it out, and lifted it over his teammate’s head.

“Do you wanta try that again?”

Daz obliged and he forced his arm back, stepped in to press his body close, and slid his arm around the other guy’s waist. “Let’s dance, pretty boy.”

“Ooh, pretty boy,” one of the wags mimicked.

“It’s gonna take you a while to shake that one.” He snickered and Darren twisted out of his arm and grip before he lashed out with his foot.

That one caught Todd in the gut, and he bounded back and rubbed his stomach with one hand as he closed in. For a moment, the two of them circled and each tried to find the advantage. He feinted a quick blow at Daz’s head and darted close when his opponent pulled his head back to avoid it.

Bringing his foot down on top of his opponent’s, he drove his fist into the man’s stomach, then smacked him on the cheek with his other fist. Darren doubled over and dropped to the mat on his knees.

He bounced back to give him room to stand.

“Dirty bastard,” the man muttered, scrambled to his feet, and lunged at him.

Todd sidestepped the charge.

“Aww! C’mon, Daz. You know it’s not personal.”

“The hell it isn’t.”

One look at his face told Todd the next round was for real, and he settled to watch his every move. He blocked the first strike and bounced back out of range of a kick. As he moved in to make an attack of his own, the lights went out.

“What the—”

Darren’s cry was enough to warn him, and he dropped to the mat, allowed the guy to come at him in the dark, and tackled him as they made contact. He scrambled to get away, but Todd flung himself on top of him and pinned him as the viewscreens around them came alive.

“This is Navy High Command,” announced Fleet Commander Smiley. “There has been an attack on Earth.”


Chapter Thirty-Six

Despite what he’d said earlier, Jalel had made it to the island—and he really wished he hadn’t. Not to be outshone, he’d joined several tourists who bribed the captain to take his pinnace to shore. The cameraman remained on the ship and piloted the drone camera he was filming with.

“This way, I know one of us will get out with the footage,” the man explained from the safety of the deck, and Jalel had sat and hung on as a crewman started the engine.

The small party beached the boat a few yards down from the docks and leapt out onto the sand. They’d have immediately leapt back into the boat if the crewman hadn’t taken cover behind the low rock wall that edged the promenade.

The drone went high as though seeking the source of the gunfire and dipped low to focus on the anchor’s face. Jalel yanked his tablet from its pouch and looked at the footage the drone had taken.

“By the purple haze…” He groaned and remembered he was broadcasting live. With one more look at the tablet, he focused on the drone.

“Well, well, well, folks. It looks like we made it to San Jomar in the nick of time. Apparently, Stephanie Morgana knew someone in the business community intended to try to kill anyone who voted against them.”

Somewhere, in an office downloading the footage from the drones, a technician made the leap from the drone to the mansion’s security systems—or they thought they did. What they managed, instead, was to tap into the live feed from one of the businessmen’s’ tablets.

He’d made the recording in the hopes of taking a rival to court and so acquire his business but then he’d had the bright idea to send the footage directly to one of the news corporations. This would have worked better if he hadn’t been shot shortly afterward.

Now, rather than a handsome deal for his exclusive footage, he donated it to the world at large—or would have if the studio hadn’t captured it and sent the events directly to Jalel’s tablet. The anchor stopped long enough to absorb what he saw before he looked at the drone.

The cameraman had seen the signal to give the reporter some space and elevated the device to capture footage of the battle. Rather than lose the opportunity for more, he’d hastily snagged one of the tourists who competed for the thousand-credit prize.

“You! Is your drone still flying?”

The girl nodded, her face alight with glee. “I’m the only one.”

“How’d you like to take your first paid footage?”

“I’ll be your apprentice?” she asked, her eyes too bright, and the cameraman groaned. Trust him to find a smart one. The studio would kill him.

“Sure kid, you can be my apprentice.”

“Now?” she asked and glanced at her mom, who was filming their conversation on her phone.

The cameraman cursed inwardly and nodded.

“As of now, you can be my apprentice.”

“Until I get my ticket?”

He sighed.

“Yes, dammit. Until you get your own ticket. Okay? Can we get the footage, now?”

“Hell, yes!” she shouted. “Where are we going to film?”

“I want everything you can get of the firefight and anything on the Witch. And if you break my drone, it’s coming out of your pay, got it?”

“Got it, boss.”

He groaned again and glanced at his tablet as Jalel demanded he bring the drone down. Apparently, the reporting god was finally ready to get on with the job.

“What was the vote about, you ask?” the anchor asked when the drone descended. “This was the meeting where the rich and powerful decided if they would back the Federation in a war against the aliens, or if they would demand that the Federation sue for peace on our behalf.”

The anchor paused and switched to the feed coming in from the other drone—and where Travis had found a second cameraman he didn’t know. For a brief moment, he really hoped the man hadn’t done anything stupid. He wasn’t sure the network would forgive it.

Mind you, for this footage, the network might forgive anything, including a new hire.

He merely hoped the man had picked a good one. Reviewing what he saw from the businessman’s phone, he pieced enough of the story together to avoid being sued by the survivors—he hoped. Given that they were trespassing, they would have to rely on the public to get past any legal proceedings.

“It is clear that the Morgana put the issue to the vote and came prepared to deal with any dissent over the outcome. Whether or not she’d have dealt with dissenters on a peace vote win quite as forcefully as those dissenting the decision to back a war is something we’ll never know the answer for, but the vote was to fight for our freedom.”

Jalel spliced in the moment when she had challenged the supposed peace party to try to stab them in the back—and when the first of them drawn their hidden weaponry and opened fire.

After letting it run for a few seconds, he continued. “It seems those wanting to broker peace with the aliens were not as peaceful as they claimed.”

He let more footage play before he continued. “How these peace mongers intended to hide the massacre they planned—or if they would even try—will never be known, but the gunfire you can hear now is the result. Right now, not even I know if those who want to fight to protect us will survive.”

With his usual instinct for dramatic effect, he paused for breath and signaled Travis to take the drone up and film more footage from the battle. When he watched the resulting drama play out on his tablet, he soon called it back. Behind him, the gunfire died.

“It seems that the Morgana and her team have captured the ringleaders of the so-called peace movement and that those who fought against the vote’s outcome are now laying down their arms.”

A dropship thundered overhead, the Navy markings clearly visible on its hull.

“It also looks like the cavalry has arrived and it’s time to get the official view of the Witch’s actions. This is Jalel Trylfir, signing off to seek some answers.”

On millions of screens around the world, his image faded to the studio, where Amelia Howard stared, open-mouthed, at the view behind her. As soon as she realized she was live, she snapped her mouth shut and turned to the camera.

“Well, there you have it, folks, coming at you live from the Federation News team on San Jomar island. We’ll be back with more right after this message from our sponsors…”

Witch Of The Federation III

On San Jomar island, Stephanie caught sight of the drone and then of Frog. She hoped Burt had one of his technicians on that or they would have a PR disaster.

“Frog! Leave him alone. He’s not going anywhere.”

“He shot me in the ass.” The guard hauled his boot back to kick the offending businessman again, but Lars caught him by the collar and hauled him away.

“You don’t know it was him.”

He gave the man a greasy stare. “I’m darned sure.”

“There were other men where he stood. It could have been any one of them.”

“Or not.” Frog’s glare didn’t diminish, so the team leader shoved him in the direction of another pile of bodies.

“Go see if we have any survivors over there and if the medics want your help to patch any of them up.”

“I won’t patch any asshole up. They shot me.”

“Not all of them shot you, Frog.”

“Most of them.”

“Not even most.”

“Yeah, sure. That’s what you say….” Despite his belligerence, Frog marched toward the bodies, limping noticeably.

Stephanie looked at the team leader. “Will he be all right?”

He shrugged. “Yeah, sure. It looks like the shot creased his cheek rather than penetrated.”

“It still hurts like hell,” his teammate yelled and Lars smirked, but Frog hadn’t finished. “And there’s a hole in my trousers.”

One of the drones lowered as though it tried to take a better look. Lars drew his blaster and fired at it but with little effect. Whoever was on the controls of that thing was fast—kid-fast, if he had to guess, but there were no kids there.

He took another shot at the drone and it jinked out of harm’s way before it wagged its tail at him, and he couldn’t help but smile.

“Fine,” he told it. “You get to live another day but come down on my battleground once more, and I’ll fill you so full of lead you’ll be too heavy to fly. You got that?”

The drone bobbed up and down and elevated a little.

Still smiling, Lars turned away. He surveyed the aftermath of the battle and the smile slid from his face. Behind him, he heard Frog yelp a protest. With a sigh, he looked to see what the man had gotten himself into this time.

Nothing the Marine medics couldn’t handle, it seemed. One had his hand firmly around Frog’s arm.

“You need to come with us, sir.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you hooligans.”

He dragged a hand over his face. Maybe it would be better if he did intervene. He moved to do exactly that and was in time to see the medic pick his teammate up, bench-press him once over his head, and dump him unceremoniously onto a waiting stretcher.

“Sergeant says otherwise.”

“And what about my sergeant? What does she have to say about it?”

Lars wandered over. “Are you calling me a girl, Frog?”

“No, boss, but these— Aaah! What. The. Ever. Loving. Dammit!”

The Marine tucked the hypospray in his waist pouch and caught Lars’s eye.

“Standard sedative, sir. He needs to sleep while we stitch him.”

Frog tried to push himself upright. “No, I don’t. Wait! You seda…ted me…”

“It stops you screaming like a banshee and deafening my staff,” the medic told him as he went limp. “He’ll be in the conference room with the others. I’ll put a guard on him. There’s no telling who he’s offended who might take the opportunity…”

The man shrugged and smiled as he turned away and high-fived his partner before they picked up the stretcher and carried it up the stairs. Lars wondered briefly exactly when Frog had had time to offend either of them—and how badly—and decided he didn’t need to know.

The Marine was right. Someone had to deal with Frog’s butt.

He looked for Stephanie.

She was easy to find. Two Marines had joined her, Johnny, and Marcus as they looked for survivors. When they reached one, she would have a look and tell the Marines if the person had been a backstabbing peace monger or a hawk.

As their status was duly noted, the other Marine examined and let her know if they needed her help to survive. If they did, she’d crouch beside them and give them enough healing to make sure they pulled through—even if they had tried to kill her.

The Morgana might not have been so merciful, but she wanted to see them stand trial and the Federation wanted answers. By helping them survive, she gave them a better chance to find those answers.

The Federation wasn’t the only group that needed them. Steph wanted them, too. She had to prepare for the invasion. The more information they had on their enemy, the better, so she healed them and made sure they survived before she moved on to the next one.

Lars joined her.

“Frog’s in the infirmary,” he told Marcus. “Go make sure he stays okay.”

The other man sent him a worried look but didn’t ask questions. He nodded and trotted into the hall.

“That man needs a keeper,” he said in reply to the look on Stephanie’s face, and she smiled.

“What’s he done this time?”

“He’s been sassing the Marines.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’d think he’d know better by now.”

“He knows better,” Johnny told her. “He simply can’t help himself.”

They waited for the medics to collect the latest survivor and moved toward the remaining cluster of bodies. A shadow passed over them, and the Marines immediately crouched and dragged her down with them. Lars dropped too.

If the Marines reacted with caution, it meant they weren’t expecting anyone else—and neither was he. He glanced up at a small fast shuttle that descended rapidly. From what he could tell, it was armed but its gun ports were closed—and it had Navy markings on its nose and tail.

“I wonder who that is,” he murmured as they all stood and the Marines moved slightly to the front.

Blue flowed over Stephanie’s hands and faded slowly. “I don’t know but they’d better be friendly.”

Lars slid a careful glance toward her eyes and was relieved to see they’d remained their usual cornflower-blue. The craft’s cockpit slid open and a tall pepper-haired man leapt down. He was followed by another man, this one as tall but slightly heavier in build. Dressed as a Marine master sergeant, he slapped the side of the small craft and guided the first man hastily away.

The cockpit snapped shut and the shuttle lifted. It wasted no time and made a swift a vertical ascent, pivoted in mid-air, and swept away across the sea.

“Are you expecting anyone?” one of the Marines asked.

“No,” she replied as the new arrival pivoted on his heels and scanned the scene. When his gaze reached her, he stopped and jogged toward her.

“Well, whoever it is, they’re in an awful hurry to see you,” the other Marine commented, and she looked at Lars.

He shrugged without removing his focus from the new arrival to identify his rank as he approached.

“It’s some kind of commander,” he noted, “and he’s important enough to have protection.”

Stephanie snorted. “An entire team of one.”

“That’s a Marine master sergeant, ma’am,” one of the Marines replied. “You only need one.”

“Yeah, two means you’re in more trouble than you know,” Johnny quipped and earned a frown from both his teammates. Lars nudged him.

“Don’t follow Frog’s example.”

The commander slowed his pace as he drew closer and made a show of looking around. “Well, we have quite a mess,” he commented.

Behind him, the master sergeant assessed her and her escort in one swift glance and fixed the Marines with a firm stare. Both of them stiffened and turned their heads slightly.

It reminded Lars of big dogs sizing each other up, even though the pecking order had already been decided. He was reasonably sure there wouldn’t be a fight, but it wouldn’t hurt to consider the possibility.

Stephanie chuckled and addressed the commander while ignoring the Marines. “You could say that.”

He glanced at the hovering drones. “Is there somewhere private we can talk?”

She looked at her two Marines. “Are we almost done?”

One gestured toward the last pile of bodies. A small cluster of Marines was already moving the dead. “Are there any living?” he called.

One glanced down and shook his head. The Marine turned to Stephanie. “We’re done, ma’am. Thank you for your help.”

“A pleasure, Corporal.” She looked at the commander. “I believe my dropship has suitable shielding.”

They retired to the vessel and Stephanie stooped to greet the two cats as they bounded over. They pressed against her legs and wound around her and each of her men before they touched Commander Van Leeuwen and his master sergeant with curious noses.

Bumblebee rumbled a greeting and rubbed his cheek along the commander’s thigh. Zeekat mirrored the action on the other side. Lars grinned. “Well, Elizabeth will be relieved. The cats approve.”

Stephanie took a quick second look and smiled. “Oh… I’m sorry, I wasn’t really thinking at our earlier meeting with the Navy but I recognize you now.”

Matthias blushed and his face heated all the way to his hairline. “You do?”

“Sure. You dropped Ms E off at the offices one night.”

“She said no one would be around.”

Her smile widened. “I had a message from Burt for her.”

He sighed. “Of course, you did.”

“She never mentioned it?”

“It never came up.” He cleared his throat and studied the side of the dropship.

Lars stifled a laugh and waved them to a table set between the flight couches. The master sergeant placed a hand on the control panel for the door and closed it as one of the drones descended to look inside.

“Nosy bastards,” the team leader complained, but the commander shrugged.

“It’s the press. They’re a force of nature. You’ll get used to them after a while.”

“I doubt it,” Stephanie told him and sank into one of the chairs. “Elizabeth said we had a Navy liaison officer for One R&D. I take it that’s you?”

Van Leeuwen nodded. “Yes.” He smiled. “It’s how we met.”

The smile faded and he cleared his throat. “But that’s not why I’m here. He withdrew a small locked box from his pocket, set it on the table, and held his thumb against the locking pad until there was a small but audible click.

Matthias said nothing. He merely lifted the lid to reveal the eight small badges nestled inside.

Each one consisted of a dark-gray shield set against a golden starburst. A thick blue stripe centered by a hollow diamond sat in the middle of each shield, bisected by a golden letter ‘I.’

He removed them and placed them carefully on the table.

“What are these?” Stephanie asked and picked one up.

“Badges of the Inquisitor,” he told her. “There’s one for you and each of your team members.”

She turned the badge in her hand and studied it carefully. “What are they for?”

“They give you the power to act for the good of the Federation, up to and including killing to defend it, its name, and its citizens. And you can make and act on these decisions without authorization from any power within the Federation.”

“You mean…” She lowered the badge and stared at him, her jaw open in surprise as her face paled.

The commander gestured toward the outside of the shuttle. “It seems these were created before this mess here,” he told her, “so you already had the right to act before this little argument went viral.”

Stephanie lifted the badge and studied it for a short moment before she returned her attention to Van Leeuwen. “So, all those people screaming to sue me?”

His lips curved into a tight, hard smile. “Can’t. You are the first Federation Inquisitor and your actions were justified. You’d have to do something truly heinous to have that status revoked. That badge gives you the right to ask for and receive any support you require as you work for the good of the Federation.”

“Good.” She rose from her seat and headed to the door. When she reached it, she looked back. “I’ll need two for the cats, as well.”


Chapter Thirty-Seven

The badges for the cats arrived a week later. They came with mounts that could be fitted to the animals’ harnesses or to their armor. Stephanie showed them to Elizabeth while they shared a meal in her office.

It had taken the woman almost a month to terrorize the hospital sufficiently to be allowed to return to One R&D’s headquarters for convalescence—and that only on the condition that the hospital approved the level of care that would be provided.

Ms E had called in a few favors and BURT had run the background checks required to ensure their new hires were safe. He also did the same thing for the applicants to fill Tracy’s position and expand her security team.

Part of the delay in her return had been due to the modifications required to add a fully functional trauma center and rehabilitation wing to their headquarters.

“Well, if you wanted the link between Morgana’s Mercenaries and One R&D kept a secret, you’ve well and truly blown it,” she told him in one of their encrypted conversations and he had merely laughed.

“I’ve been planning the expansion ever since Marcus was injured,” he told her. “While Stephanie can heal, she might not always be available to speed a convalescence, and with the attacks on Stephanie and yourself, I would feel better if our wounded did not make a civilian hospital a target.”

“How will you manage it?” she had asked. “It will be expensive to keep a trauma team on standby all the time.”

“I let them freelance their skills when our people are home and pull them into base when the team is on a mission.”

“Won’t people learn to watch them?”

“Perhaps after the first couple of times we need them but not until then. It is a bridge we will cross when we come to it.”

The rehab specialists were another matter. Marcus and Johnny still had work to do, and even Vishlog needed more time to strengthen his injured shoulder.

“Those slugs do more than leave a mark,” Lars had noted after the first debriefing with the specialists. “Those three will keep them busy for at least six more months.”

Stephanie looked worried. “I thought I’d healed them.”

“You did, but there are still exercises they can do to improve the use of the injured areas. Burt made a good call this time.”

The specialists now proved useful for Ms E’s recovery, as did the two nurses hired to watch over her. She might not have appreciated the interference—as she called it—but it was necessary. She and Stephanie waited until the nurse left and Amy pulled the door closed behind her.

When she was gone, they breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief. The sound made them exchange glances and they burst into laughter. Ms E wrapped an arm across her stomach and raised a hand.

“Oh, stop, stop,” she said. “Laughing still hurts.”

“And we’d better eat or you’ll be in trouble,” Stephanie pointed out and indicated the food set before them.

Elizabeth had arranged for a small dining table to be brought into the office for meals and added extra chairs so Amy, or the nurse, or anyone else could keep her company while she ate. Today, it was only Stephanie and BURT joined them electronically.

He had news on the ship.

“Why did you name her after the pirate ship?” he asked. “There has been some confusion regarding her origins.”

“I wanted to remember what we were fighting for,” Stephanie told him. “We met our first alien on the Ebon Knight, and that was all that gave us warning about the invasion. Now, the ship reminds us of what we are up against and what we’re fighting for.”

“There are some who think you have refurbished the pirate vessel.”

“And some who will never accept otherwise.” She sighed. “I know, but unless the Navy wants to admit to buying the hulk, they’ll have to keep on being wrong. How’s it going?”

“It is almost ready,” he told her. “We are only waiting for the second half of the data center to be installed.”

“But I saw that,” Ms E protested. “It was done.”

“You saw the starboard bank,” BURT corrected her smugly. “I don’t believe the port bank was fully completed.”

“There were some empty rooms when I went through,” she agreed. “Is the brig complete?”

“Yes,” he confirmed, “and it was recommended we add a suppression system in case of boarders. That required some refurbishment as we also needed to ensure the gas could be contained to specific areas of the ship.”

“Whose idea was that?”

“Ebony’s.”

“Ebony?”

“That is the name the ship’s AI has chosen for itself. She has informed me that she will also answer to Knight.”

“Ebony Knight, huh?” Elizabeth asked and he agreed.

“Yes. It is most fitting, don’t you think?”

“It suits her,” Stephanie agreed.

“I am glad you approve.”

She gave the communications screen a grin. “Would it matter if I didn’t?”

“I would have to speak to her.”

“To an AI? Couldn’t you simply reprogram her?”

“I could, but it would be better if we didn’t interfere with her original programming.”

“I’m sure your technicians know what they’re doing.” She shrugged and paused for a moment before she asked, “Did the pods make it aboard?”

He chuckled. “Yes, the pods for Vishlog and the cats are on board and undergoing the final stages of installation as we speak. The VR training area is why we need two such large batteries of computers, and they will still be limited to static scenarios and established parameters, except for when the ship is connected to the larger network.”

“Understood,” Stephanie said. She’d already had the discussion about the impossibility of adding more computing power to the ship. As much as she wanted to be able to have the ability to run her experiments when the ship was between destinations, it simply wouldn’t be possible to run them to the extent she could when hooked into the Earth’s network.

She sighed. The Ebon Knight was designed to be a fast transport, a way to move her and the team between points A, B, and C—and to bring the pain with them or defend themselves if they needed to.

But it was still theirs. Their first, if necessary, although she still couldn’t see herself commanding a fleet. Not yet and not ever, either. There wasn’t a reason for it. Burt’s voice interrupted her.

“That is all the news I have for you regarding the ship. Tell me, Elizabeth, how are you going with the recruiting?”

Ms E sighed and rolled her eyes. “Honestly, you take a bullet or two and everyone is all over you to get a bigger protection team.”

“And?” BURT pressed with no intention to allow her to sidetrack him with her complaints.

“Amy has some likely candidates lined up.” She looked at the other woman. “She wants the boys to sit in on the interviews and help her with selection. I told her one more. She and Burt, here, told me four was the new minimum for a team, so they’ll have to find three more.”

She looked so offended that Stephanie couldn’t help laughing. “Don’t you hate it when your security starts telling you how to live your life?”

“It’s for your own good,” Burt cut in, “and I don’t envy them the task.”

The two women exchanged looks and glared at the screen. “Hey!” they protested in unison.

Before they could continue, there was a soft knock at the door.

“Come!” Elizabeth called, and the door cracked open. Amy stuck her head around the corner.

“It’s time to get ready,” she said. “I’ll send Helene to help you.”

She scowled. “How much time do I have?”

The bodyguard grinned and slipped inside. “Five minutes. So I’d eat fast if I was you, or you’ll be in for another lecture.”

“Another lecture?” Stephanie asked, her eyebrows raised.

“Don’t ask,” Elizabeth told her and applied herself to her mostly untouched plate. She took a large forkful and spoke as she chewed. “Let’s say it’s not an experience I want to repeat.”

She nodded and realized she hadn’t eaten much, either—and that she’d not only have Lars to deal with but Vishlog as well. Honestly, the two of them were worse than any nurse. She looked at her own meal and picked her fork up.

Her companion glanced at her and grinned.

They had their plates cleared a couple of seconds before there was another knock at the door and the nurse bustled in. She was followed by Lars.

“It’s time to get ready,” he told her, but she noticed the flick of his gaze as he checked her plate and barely resisted the urge to poke her tongue out. Elizabeth smirked but the expression vanished quickly and she edged forward on her chair.

“You guys go on ahead,” she told them with a small grunt of pain. “This is gonna take a while.”

Stephanie turned to go and ushered Lars before her. She looked back as she reached the door to see Ms E scowl against the pain as she started to stand. Lars took her arm and pulled her through gently.

“You can’t do any more for her,” he said. “Wasn’t it you who explained that the body can only take so much magical healing in one go?”

Defeated, she allowed him to tug her away.

“It’s not fair,” she muttered and he clapped her on the shoulder.

“You saved her life,” he reminded her. “She might not be fully healed, but this is as about as fair as it gets.”

Witch Of The Federation III

The Federation Navy hadn’t given up its interest in the Witch. While acquiring her was beyond them, the same could not be said for her blood. It was the subject of great interest in the halls of their R&D Centre.

Lieutenant Commander Oliver Rasmussen and Professor Deckler O’Ryan walked down the hall from the cafeteria and neither of them raised the subjects they really wanted to speak about.

“So, how are the kids?” Rasmussen asked and O’Ryan smiled.

“Oh, you know, the same as usual. Raising all kinds of hell when they’re not causing trouble. And yours?”

“I think they went to the same school of mischief-making. Did you know that when you stick soggy breakfast flakes made of corn to your face, they end up looking like pus crusted over a sore? And if you add the tiniest drop of food coloring—”

His companion began to laugh. “Oh, he didn’t.”

“He? Oh no, young Oliver is the well-behaved one. This was all Alexa. I didn’t even know she’d smuggled her breakfast out in her bag. She had the school shut down and her class isolated for four hours until someone noticed the skin under one of the scabs was perfectly fine.”

He stared at him. “Dare I ask?”

Rasmussen snorted. “The little devil thought it would be funny to peel the flakes off her face and eat them.”

O’Ryan laughed again.

“She was trying to gross her teacher out.”

“And did it work?”

“Let’s say her teacher wasn’t the only one who threw up.”

Now, the other man roared with laughter, and his colleague regarded him with a sour look. “She’s been suspended for a week. Her mother isn’t impressed.”

He mopped his eyes. “And how is the little lady?”

“Not so little anymore. She’s due in a fortnight.”

“Timing, huh?”

“Alexa has it down pat. She still remembers what it was like when we brought Oliver home. She’s threatened all hell breaking loose if we present her with another brother.”

“And is it?”

“It’s twins. We’ll have a riot on our hands.”

“Both boys?”

“Oh, yes.” Rasmussen’s face was more than morose.

“Definitely a riot,” O’Ryan agreed. They reached the doors leading to the secure section of the building and he opened them to let Rasmussen through.

“Well, if you ever want to get away…”

“I might take you up on that.”

They both breathed a sigh of relief when the doors closed behind them and pulled their passes out from inside their shirts so they were visible. These, they swiped at the first set of barrier gates.

Once they were past those, they reached a low barrier with a biometric scanner. One after the other, they placed their palms flat against the panels and passed through. The last checkpoint consisted of an airlock that allowed entry via their passes but required a retinal scan to release them. Once that was done and the internal doors had opened, they entered the research center itself.

A young Naval officer hurried up to them.

“The latest samples have arrived, sir,” he told them and excitement edged his voice.

“And those are?” O’Ryan demanded.

“Well, we have more from the Witch,” the officer told him. “Apparently, she didn’t get through that last battle completely unscathed, and we also have the work-up from Lachlan Hennessy”

“Who?”

“That kid in Australia, sir. The one who zapped a half-dozen of his classmates when they cornered him in the schoolyard. He was a great admirer of the Witch.”

“Did we get him?”

The officer shook his head. “No, sir. He received an offer from One R&D shortly afterward and grabbed it with both hands. Unfortunately, he turned our guys down flat.”

“And the others?”

The officer shook his head. “We’re still chasing leads,” he replied. “They’ve become real wary of our boys. To be honest, I think they’re all holding out for One R&D.”

Rasmussen sighed and retrieved a tablet from one of the pigeonholes in the wall. “Well, they can’t wait forever,” he declared. “Sooner or later, we’ll have one of our own.”

“Sooner,” O’Ryan agreed, “if we work out what the genetic markers are. Imagine what we could do if we could offer scholarships before they’d even started to show an aptitude. We’d have them bought and paid for before the thought of One R&D crossed their minds.”

“If we’re competing against those guys, we need every damned cheat we can find to beat them to the punch,” the other man admitted. He glanced at the tablet and passed it to his colleague. “Every damned one.”

O’Ryan took the machine and turned away. “See you in eight,” he said and gave an absent-minded wave as he looked at the screen.


Chapter Thirty-Eight

The funeral was everything a farewell should be, and Stephanie learned more about Elizabeth’s second guard than she’d even known of her in life. Ms E’s voice trembled as she recounted their last meal together, Van Leeuwen at her side.

They ended up at Porfiri’s after handing Tracy’s ashes to her parents. The official wake had been a somber affair, full of condolences and despair, and the family had retired early. As grateful as they’d been to Elizabeth for flying them all in, they had no real time for the stranger their daughter and sister had died to protect.

Once the family had returned to their hotel for a more private wake, the One R&D team had headed downtown and dragged Matthias with them. Or, rather, refused to fight him over his right to accompany her where she needed to go.

“Besides, I have to head back to the office for an hour, so it’s not like I’ll take up too much of her time.”

This was met with some soft catcalls that quickly died under the woman’s glare. He had stayed long enough to share a drink with her after she was safely ensconced in a comfortable chair.

“You fuss too much,” she whispered and he smiled.

“Only this once,” he told her and she quirked her eyebrow at him.

“Uh-huh. That’s how it always starts.”

He raised one in return. “Oh, so now you decide something’s starting.”

The alarm on his tablet began to beep and they both sighed. Elizabeth gave him a wry grin. “Not tonight, it isn’t.”

“No, more’s the pity.” Matthias stood and stooped to kiss her lightly before he headed toward the door. “I’ll call you.”

She raised her glass to him and waved. “Not tonight, you won’t.”

His smile was rueful when he left.

Stephanie let the door close behind him and gave it a slow count of five in case he returned. When he didn’t, she headed over to slide into the seat beside Ms E. Frog and Marcus were at the bar.

They’d taken seats on either side of Amy and kept her glass full. Johnny sat in one corner, nursing a glass. His eyes strayed to the woman and his teammates and he raised a glass in their direction. They returned his salute before each of them drained their glasses and summoned the barkeeper for a refill.

He looked at Stephanie and she nodded. Why he needed her permission, she didn’t know. She’d thought her instructions had been perfectly clear. The bar was to stay open and the food and drinks were to flow.

It was simple.

She scanned the bar and observed the state of her friends and teammates. If she was honest, none of them looked too good. Amy because she’d known Tracy the longest and they’d arrived at One R&D at the same time—and because she’d been Tracy’s boss and hadn’t been able to keep her safe.

Stephanie understood that but she chose not to interfere. The boys kept her good company. Frog draped an arm around the woman’s shoulders and she rested her head on it. She clinked her glass to his and drained it, then straightened.

He removed his arm and Marcus replaced it. Again, Amy rested her head on the arm, clinked her newly filled glass to his, and straightened. He removed his arm and leant on the bar instead.

Lars leaned against the wall at the door and his gaze roved over the interior of the establishment. She noticed it touch lightly on each member of his team before it moved to where Vishlog occupied a corner with the cats leaned against his legs.

Having made sure everyone else was all right, he looked at her. When he saw her watching him, he raised his glass in quiet salute and took a small sip. She raised her glass in return and glanced at Elizabeth.

The corner of the woman’s mouth twitched, and she raised her glass to her lips and sipped cautiously. The nurse had been fairly strict in her instructions and the woman seemed to be doing her best to obey them. Her eyes were sad, though, and she leaned back in her chair and stared at nothing.

Stephanie sighed. There really wasn’t anything left to say. Elizabeth had said everything at the funeral while she leaned on Matthias’s arm and looked as close to tears as she had ever seen her.

Those tears had fallen at the graveside, and she’d remained dry-eyed ever since. It was the most emotional she had ever seen her, in fact. She was glad the commander had been around to support her through it. It would have been better if he’d been able to stay, but Ms E had seemed okay with him needing to work.

She remained where she was to keep her company while the team comforted each other at the bar or sought their own comfort in whatever thoughts passed through their heads. Finally, Frog stood.

“You know she would have kicked our asses, right?” he asked no one in particular.

They all turned to look at him.

“Yeah,” he continued when he saw he had their attention. “She’d have kicked our tails real good.”

He made a sweeping gesture with his hand. “Look at us. A longer collection of faces you’ve never seen. Tracy liked to party when she wasn’t on duty and here we are, in a perfectly good bar with a perfectly good dance floor, getting totally skunked without busting a single move.”

Without waiting for a response, he crossed to the jukebox against one wall and dropped a coin in, selected a single song, and turned to Amy. “Your turn. It is our duty to play her favorite songs and dance our asses off in her memory.”

At first, she stared at him, but after only a moment’s hesitation, she slid off her stool and swayed toward the music box. She glowered at the machine, inserted her cred stick, and punched several buttons in succession. “Your music sucks,” she informed him. “Tracy would have hated it.”

He gave her a drunken grin. “I know. I picked the song that would have pissed her off the most because I knew her ghost would pay attention. We have one night to get this right and then, she moves on. Let’s make this a night to remember.”

Johnny drained his glass and slid off his stool. His path to the jukebox was anything but straight and Stephanie wondered how he expected to dance. It took him several attempts to press the button he aimed at but he managed it and joined Frog on the dance floor.

Elizabeth and Stephanie turned to watch as the two guys began to groove to the music. They started off slow and gradually moved faster as their actions smoothed despite the amount of alcohol they’d consumed.

Amy joined them and shimmied in close to Frog before she turned to pace her way around Johnny. Marcus went next and punched in his selection with focused coordination before he weaved his steps into the dance the other three were constructing.

She watched them with a small smile and wondered which of their moves were borrowed from Tracy’s repertoire. Of course, she wouldn’t know. She hadn’t had a chance to dance with the girl.

That thought led to an unexpected stab of regret and she glanced at Ms E. The woman sat and watched the team, a slight smile playing over her lips. She caught her companion’s look and the smile grew momentarily wider.

“Tracy would have loved this,” she whispered. “That girl was forever teasing Frog about his choice of dance moves.”

They continued to watch as, one by one, the team joined the dance. Lars went last and added a hard dubstep slide as he maneuvered onto the dance floor. Frog took up the challenge and they swung into a freestyle challenge that widened to include the others.

Some of the belligerent by-play made Stephanie giggle, and Elizabeth snorted. “Tracy would have eaten those two alive,” she declared, and Lars and Frog turned toward them. “Uh oh. I think they’re lookin’ at you.”

“Oh. Oh no, you didn’t,” Steph snarked as Lars dissed her with a hand gesture and a hip wiggle. Frog went one better and she sputtered into laughter and slid off her seat.

“Excuse me,” she said to Elizabeth, “but that simply cannot go unanswered.”

“Go get ʼem, girl.”

Stephanie started with a shuffle and a body shimmy and brought in the arm moves to emphasize it. Amy whistled and came alongside her to mirror her movements in a direct challenge to the guys. They marked time and swayed from side to side until Steph had finished her challenge, and Lars stamped his foot and began his reply. The guys followed his every move.

They had barely started when their tablets buzzed and the vibration rippled through the cloth of their casuals impossible to ignore. With soft curses, they stopped, breathing hard as they pulled their devices clear and read the single line. Return to HQ immediately.

Elizabeth sighed and put hers on the table as they left the dance floor.

“Isn’t it always the way?” Frog grumbled. He nudged Marcus. “Do you remember what happened at Ray’s wake?”

His friend lowered his tablet and stared at him in disbelief. “I can’t believe you brought that up.”

He was unrepentant. “But it’s true. Not an hour in the ground and the drinking had only started and the bastards took another contract and hauled our asses back into the field.”

“At least you got to the funeral,” Johnny muttered, and Lars glanced quickly in his direction. He continued, oblivious. “Sparks, Domino, and Stace…”

His face started to crumple and the team leader was alongside him in an instant. “I got you, bro. We remember them.”

His expression drawn, he draped an arm around the man’s shoulders and stumbled slightly when Johnny thumped him in the chest.

“Yeah,” Lars continued. “We didn’t even get a service for them, but I know where each and every one of them was left.”

Was left? Stephanie turned toward them but he caught her look of concern and gave a firm shake of his head.

He rapped his knuckles on Johnny’s chest, but his words were more for her benefit than his friend’s. “That was a bad fight, and the one that followed was worse.”

She was curious but she didn’t push it. Instead, she resumed her seat beside Elizabeth. “What is it, Ms E?”

“Burt says the Navy has the location for the people behind the attack.”

The guys lifted their heads and Vishlog loomed behind them.

“Vengeance,” he rumbled, and they murmured in soft, fierce approval. “Vengeance.”

“Justice,” Stephanie echoed and blue fire arced over her hands. She pushed it out in jagged branches of flame and it leapt from one team member to the next, coiled around each of them, and flared briefly.

“Oh, no fair!” Frog wailed seconds later. “I worked hard for that hangover.”

“I can reinstall it in the morning,” she offered, and he raised his hands.

“No thanks. I’m all good. Besides, I don’t need to be hungover when I’m recovering from getting shot.”

Johnny shrugged the team leader’s arm from his shoulders. “Who says you’re gonna get shot?” he challenged.

“I always get shot,” he retorted, and the team laughed.

They stopped laughing when they heard Ms E raise her voice. “Don’t go there, Steph. Don’t you dare.”

“This is the only way,” the girl replied, her voice deep and cold, and the team held its breath.

“Stephanie has left the building,” Frog murmured and Lars had only one response.

“Goddammit.”

Frog snickered. “She’s heeeeere...”

“Shut it, Frog.”

They both turned to where the Morgana stared at Ms E.

Elizabeth was on her feet, completely unperturbed by the closeness of the dark-eyed stare. She was too busy stabbing her forefinger into the girl’s chest. “You know I didn’t mean for things to go this far,” she shouted and the team had never seen her so worked up. They watched as she tapped the other woman’s chest again, breathing hard and trying to put her outrage into words. “All I asked was that you—”

She held her arm across her stomach and dropped into her seat. “Damn the… Goddammit… Just…”

The Morgana leaned forward until her forehead was almost touching Elizabeth’s and their eyes were a scant few inches apart. She smiled. “You’re only mad you aren’t ready to join us if I don’t do this.”

“Damned right, I’m mad,” Elizabeth shouted and pressed her forehead against the girl’s. “Sonofabitch. I should never have damned well asked.”

“That’s only your guilty conscience talking. You knew this was the only way. Stephanie would never agree because she knows the pain that will come with the healing and will never put her friend through that.”

“Yes, but—”

The Morgana’s smile turned into a feral grin, and she raised a fist wreathed in blue fire, her voice inviting. “But the Morgana understands. She will do this if that is what you want but be warned—you will feel the pain later.”

The other woman’s answering smile was equally as feral. “It will be worth it.”

Witch Of The Federation III

They’d made it back to HQ and were suiting up by the time Ms E got the call with the full details. The nurse was horrified that her patient was going anywhere near a battle and tried to veto the decision. She was so persistent that the Morgana finally had enough.

“Sleep,” she commanded, and as the nurse opened her mouth to argue, she touched a blue-tipped finger to the woman’s head.

“Well, hell. That’ll be hard to explain,” Lars grouched and glared at her as he slapped Stephanie’s armor into her arms. “Put that on. You might be invulnerable, but Stephanie isn’t, and I don’t want her having her ass shot off.”

He paled when she regarded him with fathomless eyes but he didn’t back down. It was only as she turned away and began to pull the armor on that he sagged with relief. Frog slapped him on the back. “That went so much better than it could have.”

Elizabeth was seated at her desk, a cup of coffee in front of her, when Matthias called. She caught the look on his face when he saw her dressed in combat gear and ignored it.

Later, she thought, as he began to speak and his opening words made it clear this wasn’t a social call.

“Ms Smith, the Navy has managed to pinpoint the origin of the orders for the attack on you at Tarantino’s.”

She pursed her lips. “And is the Navy prepared to share?”

Her voice said it had better be, and he managed a small humorless smile in response. “The Navy knows how important that information is to you. They also require your assistance in cleaning out that particular rebel nest.”

“Ah, now we’re getting to it,” she told him. “I take it there’s a briefing.”

“There’s an information package with the location, maps, and all the intelligence we could pull on the place in the last twenty-four hours. You will not go in alone. We will send a contingent of Marines to assist you.”

“As long as they don’t get in the way,” she told him and there was a brief knock at the door.

Lars didn’t wait for her response. He stuck his head into her office. “We’re almost ready, E.”

The guard was gone before he registered Matthias’s presence on the screen and the commander’s eyebrows rose.

“Ready for what?” he asked.

“We’re doing live-action drills,” she lied smoothly and gestured to her gear. “You don’t think I’m dressed like this for fun, do you?”

He frowned. “Last I looked, you were dressed to party Tracy to the doors of hell and make sure she had the welcome she deserved.”

Elizabeth blushed. This was true, but she was glad he didn’t ask why they’d gone home early. She didn’t want to have to tell him another lie.

“Our employer decided to call a spontaneous drill.”

Matthias’s face showed disapproval. “That’s harsh.”

She shrugged. “What can I say? He can be fairly demanding.”

“Do you want me to talk to him?”

“It wouldn’t do you any good and might make my life difficult.” She smiled. “I’d rather you didn’t.”

The disapproval didn’t go away but he sighed. “Fine.”

When he’d sent the relevant files to her computer, she dispersed them to the team. Several whistles floated softly through the door as they were read, and she was sure she heard Frog swear—loudly and descriptively—about the person who’d issued them. She ignored him and grinned at Matthias.

“Gotta run, sweet cheeks,” she told him. “Some crazy man gave my team a mission.”

He gave her a dubious stare and she hoped he wouldn’t ask her if she planned to join them. She really didn’t want to lie to him, but she wasn’t in the mood for a fight, either. To her relief, he decided to let it go.

“I’ll be in touch when it’s over,” he told her. “The Navy will want a full debrief.”

His eyes said he’d want one, too—and maybe an explanation—and she nodded. “I’ll have one ready,” she promised but didn’t define which debrief she meant before she ended the call.

She made it to the prep room as Stephanie wandered in. The Morgana had temporarily receded, and the girl studied the symbols of office they’d been given. “I guess it’s time to test these new badges,” she murmured.

Vishlog wandered past as she said it. “Badges,” he grumbled defiantly. “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.”

For a moment, the Morgana flashed before Stephanie surfaced and outrage made her eyes blaze a brilliant blue. She pivoted to scan the team’s ready room. “Who’s been showing Vishlog old twentieth-century movies, again?”


Chapter Thirty-Nine

Stephanie’s return did not last long. She was gone by the time the team’s dropship had lifted and the Morgana was in complete and irrevocable residence when she took a position behind the pilots. Doing their best to ignore her, Brenden and Avery guided the ship toward the target.

It rose out of the ocean several hundred kilometers in the distance. As they flew closer, Brenden could make out the rugged outlines of a fortress carved into the island itself.

“Well, that doesn’t look friendly,” he muttered and opened the comms.

“Casamio Island, this is Corsair Flight 90210 requesting permission to land. Repeat, this is Corsair Flight 90210 requesting permission to land. Casamio Island, do you read me?”

“We read you loud and clear, Corsair. Permission declined. Fly on to Rock Apes Paradise. They’re open for visitors.”

Rock Apes Paradise? Are these guys for real? He glanced at Avery, but the man merely shook his head. Behind them, the Morgana gave an inelegant snort.

“Aaah, negative Casamio. We do not have the fuel reserves to reach Rock Apes. Request permission to land and refuel, over.”

“Casamio to Corsair. Specs on your craft show it should have fuel reserves to return to your point of origin. Permission denied.”

He kept the vessel on course and thought fast before he replied. “Negatory, Casamio. We ruptured a fuel line leaving NorAm air space and require emergency repairs and refueling. You are our closest destination.”

“Alter course, Corsair 90210. You do not have permission to enter our air space. Scans show no damage to your fuel lines. Alter your course for Rock Apes Paradise or we will be forced to offer deterrents.”

“Casamio, we have Federation approval for landing.”

“Corsair, you do not need to land on our island and you are not welcome. I repeat. Fly on to Rock Apes Paradise.”

“Negatory, Casamio, our charts show no location with that designation. Repeat, Rock Apes Paradise is unlisted. We are exercising our Federation permission to land.”

The voice on the other end of the line chuckled. “Corsair 90210, you will not land on Casamio Island. Allow us to assist you to locate Rock Apes Paradise.”

“Your assistance is appreciated, Casamio.”

The island’s response coincided with several alarms going off at once. “I doubt it.”

The line went dead and the pilot registered two missiles that streaked in their direction.

“Those unfriendly, smart-assed sonsofbitches,” he snarled. “Who’s he calling a rock ape, anyway?”

Frog laughed. “I got this—and if the boot fits…”

“You are so banned from watching that cartoon ever again.”

“Why? Steph likes it.” He looked hopefully at the Morgana but she did not respond.

She was too busy staring out through the cockpit.

“You’d better sit down, Steph,” Brenden told her but didn’t look back. “This will definitely get rough.”

“I do not need to sit,” she replied, “but you are right about one thing. This will get very rough.”

Frog’s hands flew over his console, followed almost immediately by two distant flares of light. “See?” he asked. “There’s nothing they can throw at us that we can’t handle—oh, hell.”

“Brace for evasive maneuvers.” Brenden’s voice sounded clear and calm through the intercom that connected the cockpit to the passenger compartment.

Two more blips joined the two that had already appeared.

“I assume they aren’t impressed,” Avery suggested.

“Yeah,” the pilot replied. “I’ll take that as ‘come and get us, copper.’”

“Their intent is clear,” the Morgana intoned and energy crackled over her skin. “Now, it is time to make our presence felt.”

“Gotcha, lady,” Frog replied as he released a storm of rounds toward the incoming missiles.

Two exploded and a third followed. They evaded the fourth and his teammate annihilated it after it had passed. Before they could celebrate their victory, four more blips lit their screens, followed by another eight as more launchers revealed their locations. One of the two Navy shuttles behind them squawked a protest.

“You couldn’t wait to piss them off until we’d landed?”

“We didn’t want you to be bored,” Brenden snarked in response. He turned his head to snap at Stephanie. “I need you to sit down.”

She looked back serenely. “Do your worst, pilot. I will be fine.”

He had no choice but to take her word for it, reefed the steering column hard to port, and tipped the vessel on its side. In the passenger compartment, a cat yowled in protest and someone cursed.

“You throw up on me, Johnny boy and we won’t be friends anymore.”

“How about any less?”

“Woohoo!”

“Well at least someone’s having a good time…” Avery muttered when he heard Marcus shout.

“He’s always like that,” Frog bitched. “You should see him on a rollercoaster. That boy needs to be nailed to his seat or he tries to surf the bastard down the rails.”

“Are you sure you’re not talking about yourself?” Avery asked as Brenden grunted and sent the dropship into a corkscrew.

“You know this thing was never meant to fly like that, don’t you?”

He laughed and the Morgana’s cold chuckle joined him as she rotated her finger and the craft flipped the other way. This time, the Navy pilots were impressed.

“How the hell are you holding that thing together—whups—”

If Brenden had paid attention, he’d have seen the shuttle behind him make rapid evasive maneuvers to avoid the panel that peeled off the dropship.

“Huh. I’m guessin’ you aren’t. You don’t plan to try to fly that piece of shit out of here once we’re done, do you?”

“Play nice,” the pilot retorted brusquely, “or I’ll be kickin’ your ass instead of savin’ it when you need me.”

“Brave words for a man doin’ his best to get killed before he makes landfall.”

“Incoming,” Frog interjected, then said, “Brenden, I’m not gonna get ʼem all.”

“No. But I will.” The Morgana replied before the other man could formulate an answer.

He didn’t bother to try, after that, and simply focused on an attempt to avoid the incoming barrage of missiles. Things became even worse when the hidden shore batteries opened fire.

“Holy…shit…” Frog sounded like he had trouble breathing. “These bastards are prepared.”

“Do you think they knew were coming?” Avery asked.

“Nah, mate,” one of the Marines responded. “They’re only real happy ta see ya.”

“And up yours, too.”

“Ooh, and I thought you were more creative than that.”

“Creative would be wasted on you.”

The Navy pilot tutted in reproof. “That’s not what you told me last night.”

“I thought you said you’d keep last night a secret.”

“Pillow talk, sweetie. All pillow talk.”

Tracer rounds flashed ahead of them and more missiles followed.

“Dammit. You guys sure know how to throw a party.”

“Less talking. More dancing,” Brenden snapped. “This is gonna be bad.”

He lifted the nose, then sent the vessel into a twisting dive to take it below the incoming fire. Some of it followed him down and the craft shuddered.

“Tell me we’re close,” Johnny muttered. “I need to kill someone.”

“Close to crashing? Or close to landing?” Frog wanted to know as he obliterated another missile.

“You’re not helping, Frog.” Lars wasn’t impressed.

The Morgana stood within a column of blue, unmoved by the dropship’s maneuvering or the way the floor shook beneath her feet. Her eyes glowed with dark fire and she raised a hand.

“Bring us in to land,” she commanded. “I will clear the way.”

“She’s gonna what?” squawked one of the Naval ships.

The question was no sooner in the airwaves than a burst of blue light surged out of the team’s dropship. It spread like a shockwave that rippled out over the incoming fire as well as the ships behind them.

“Well, I’ll be…what the goddam hell was that?”

“Bring us all in to land,” the Morgana commanded and the Navy ships squawked protests as their shuttles followed their lead.

“I need them parallel but safe,” Brenden called and his teeth rattled as the ship bucked and shuddered. Avery helped steady it without interfering with his control.

They landed hard and its landing gear collapsed when the pilot encountered a rocky outcrop on the way down that he couldn’t avoid.

“I hope you gave the Navy a nicer ride in,” Frog muttered as he released his harness and snatched up his rifle and an extra blaster.

“The Navy shuttles will fly again,” the Morgana replied and glanced through the cockpit. “I will shield our exit.”

Witch Of The Federation III

They found the door closed and well-defended. Barricades had been built to narrow the approach and funnel any invaders into a killing field of the crossfire. Lars pulled them back before they marched into it.

“Destroy the guns!” he ordered. “Maybe they’ll provide another way in.”

The Marines went in opposite directions and each team competed to see who could find the most guns and wrest control of them from their operators the fastest.

“The team with the most men remaining wins,” Frog added when they were deciding the stakes. “The Morgana doesn’t like losing people.”

“Then you’d better be careful out there. We’re not her people.”

Oh, shit, the guard thought when she turned and her gaze swept the field.

Her voice echoed through their comms and the air around them. “You are all my people. I will not lose any of you. Eliminate this enemy.”

Her command ended any further discussion. The teams fell silent and each moved purposefully toward their designated target. Frog caught Lars’s signal and moved closer. The Morgana crouched beside them with Elizabeth hunkered beside her.

“The Marines are taking the gun emplacements on either side,” the team leader explained and tapped his tablet, “but we need to get these doors open and the approach cleared.”

“There is no other way in,” the Witch intoned. “I will open the doors.”

“No! Wait!” he shouted but she was beyond listening.

She strode swiftly to the mouth of the funnel and the cats paced on either side as the team scrambled to catch up. “Stay close,” she ordered, and Johnny and Lars took position behind her with Elizabeth between them. Marcus and Frog slid in next, followed by Brenden and Avery.

“New guy goes last,” Vishlog muttered. “I don’t think so.”

As she began to move forward, the warrior moved up the line until he stood beside her, his rifle at the low ready as he positioned himself to cover her advance. Johnny moved across to work with Lars, and Zeekat stepped out so he ran at the big Dreth’s side.

“I am her arms man. My place is here,” Vishlog declared and no one argued.

A wall of blue appeared around them and the Morgana stepped past the first barricade. Bullets careened into the shield and each impact rippled across it. She raised her hands to push the barrier outward as she walked.

The further forward they went, the greater the fusillade directed against them. Her lip curled.

“Get ready,” she commanded, and lightning arced over her body and danced across the shield.

Sweat darkened her hairline and her hands trembled as each new barrage pounded into the magical wall surrounding them. They reached the doors and she turned.

“I cannot open the door and hold the shields,” she told them. “Prepare yourselves.”

They chose their cover and were moving toward it when she drew her hands inward and pushed them out to hurl the shield away from her in an unbroken wall. It collided into the ends of each barricade in its path and shattered them easily.

Now that they were behind the barriers, the team had clear lines of sight to the men and women who manned them. It was like looking down corridors with half walls. Unfortunately, the rebels had the identical line of sight and they’d had time to shift their aim.

The shield scythed through their front rank and lightning flared to sizzle over them while they screamed and the flesh melted from their bones. The second rank adjusted their aim and fired at the wall while they scrambled back in a panic, but the onslaught had lost its power and the Morgana was no longer watching.

She had turned to the doors and now twisted her hands before her. If anyone had been watching, it would have looked like she was winding more magic around her fingers.

If they’d looked very closely, however, they’d have seen small bolts bouncing between her hands and the door as she explored a way through. When the wave of magic faded, the team moved out and each one chose a different aisle of the barricade to clear.

Lars signaled Johnny and Elizabeth to take the top row and grasped his smallest squad member before he moved out.

“Help her,” he instructed and shoved Frog toward the Morgana. “The doors.”

He didn’t stop to explain but took responsibility for the aisle of rebels that would have been his teammate’s.

“Get the door, Frog,” the small man muttered. “Mind the shuttle, Frog.”

He eased cautiously to the Morgana’s side and hoped she recognized him as a friend and not a foe.

“Babysit the Morgana, Frog,” he huffed but stopped when he noticed the magic play between her hands.

Carefully, he examined the doors and let his eyes travel over their edges and down the seam where they met. It took him a moment to recognize the slightly flatter surface to one side. Tentatively, he tugged on her sleeve.

When she snapped her gaze to glare at him, he let go hastily and his mouth went dry as he met the darkness in her eyes.

“What is it?”

Frog flapped his hand at the panel and his mouth gaped as he tried to find the words.

“The control…” he finally managed and pointed at it. He fumbled at the pouch that contained his toolkit and unclipped the cover. “I need the…the…”

He yanked out a small tablet-like device and a length of cable. “If you could get the…”

She arched an eyebrow. “Not nervous, are you, Frog?”

Frog shook his head quickly and licked lips that had gone suddenly dry. “No, I—”

When she flicked a hand up and aimed her palm at the panel, he yelped. She chuckled and a dark-blue wave streaked forward to vaporize the metal from over the controls. “Don’t burn your fingers.”

He scuttled forward and she turned her back on the door to watch the team while they cleared the barricades. “Who knew there were so many?” she murmured.

Frog heard her but didn’t take his eyes off what he was doing. Guns he could do. Blowing shit up, he could do. But this? It was what he did best. He only hoped she wouldn’t let him get shot while he did it.

Stephanie he could have relied on, but the Morgana… He shivered. Her heart was in the right place, he guessed, but it was so very, very cold. Stephanie’s was warm. She might burn like fire, but she always knew where you were.

She didn’t forget. The Morgana, though… Frog honestly wasn’t sure how well she was paying attention.

He worked fast, glad of his armor when something punched him in the back and delivered a shock that jolted through his chest.

“Now, that was unwise.”

Lightning sizzled past him and something heavier followed. The space where she had stood was empty. Frog drew a shaky breath and leant his forearms on either side of the control panel.

“Man, that’s gonna leave a mark.”

He lifted his tools away and bowed his head. For a moment, he closed his eyes and took a breath to control the pain before he opened them again and went back to work. His efforts were rewarded by the sound of metal grinding as internal locking mechanisms released.

“Yeah, baby,” he rejoiced. “Who’s yer daddy?”

“I don’t know. Who’s yours?” The reply from behind the doors brought him back to the reality of where he was, and he flattened himself against the wall a split-second before a short burst was fired from the inside.

“Oh, crap…” Frog stuffed his tools into their pouch and raised his rifle from where it hung in front of him. Bruised muscle screamed as he fired through the ever-widening gap between the doors. “Guys! We have incoming.”

“Yup, we do.” Johnny’s voice was matter of fact and was immediately drowned out when the missile batteries above them roared.

The heat of their launch was diluted by distance, but not by much. Frog resisted the urge to turn and watch their flight. He kept his eyes on the entrance to the base and fired bursts at every impression of movement, no matter how small.

As he did so, he backed away until he found the remains of the closest barrier and took cover behind them. Around him, the sound of gunfire died and the foreboding that accompanied the Morgana returned.

A wave of blue rolled past him and screams erupted from the corridor into the rebel base. The sound of falling bodies reached him, and he risked a peek around the edge. Nothing moved beyond the doors.

“I have killed them all,” she informed him, “but more will come.”

“Hold!” Lars commanded, and even she stilled. “Johnny! What are they shooting at?”

From behind a barrier closer to the shuttles, he replied, “We have incoming. Friends, I think.”

“Well, they are shooting at them,” Frog snarked but he cast a cautious glance at the entrance into the fortress and scurried to join Johnny. “Where?”

Lars and the Morgana followed, and they looked in the direction their teammate pointed. “There.”

It took them a moment to see them, but when they did, the team leader cast her a worried look.

“The Meligornians have come to our aid,” she declared. “We must defend them.”

Vishlog moved swiftly to the edge of the plateau they’d landed on. Brenden and Avery raced to the dropship, quickly confirmed that it wouldn’t lift again, and changed direction to one of the Navy shuttles. Fortunately, the pilot saw them coming and the engines rumbled to wakefulness.

“They won’t make it,” Frog muttered but he raced toward the shuttle after them.

“Marcus, you’re with me,” Lars ordered and headed around the edge of the barricade. “We’ll disable that battery.”

“The battery…” the Morgana murmured, but he flung an arm toward the missiles.

“Stop them,” he shouted as Frog scrambled into the shuttle.

The pilot slewed the craft and the doors began to close. Frog caught hold of the rail near the entrance and hauled himself into the cabin. Brenden was in the co-pilot’s seat and Avery had seated himself behind one of the remaining consoles.

“Port guns are over there,” he said and pointed at the other as he dragged himself into position.

He didn’t wait for instruction but let his gaze rove over the controls that looked both familiar and not. As soon as he thought he knew what he was doing, he began pressing buttons. The shuttle’s guns came to life and he targeted the first missile.

Before he could actually fire, a second pair were launched, and then a third. Across from him, Avery swore and danced his fingers over the controls.

“We won’t make it,” he muttered. “We won’t make it.”

“We’re gonna try,” the Navy pilot declared. “Now, less talking and more shooting.”

They raced after the first two missiles and the gunners did everything they could to intercept them. It took seconds and the pilot yanked the shuttle into a steep climb.

“Hey!” Avery’s protest died when another projectile flashed past.

Blue lightning followed and both the pilot and Brenden struggled to bring the shuttle under control. More lightning flared and alarms sounded in the cockpit. Lights flashed and Frog resisted the urge to scream.

Instead, he made himself focus on the weapons controls. He didn’t know if he could hit anything with the shuttle moving the way it was, but he sure as shit intended to try. How Stephanie would react if the Marines were hurt on her watch was one thing.

How she would react if her Meligornian allies were hurt while coming to her aid did not bear thinking about. He plugged his HUD into the console and pulled the visor low. If he was gonna crash, he didn’t want to know about it anyway.

At the edge of the cliff, the Morgana pulled more magic from her environment while Lars and Marcus tried to climb faster. Vishlog and Johnny had stopped watching the rockets and the infuriated Witch. They’d turned to cover the entrance into the fortress.

Her initial blast had stopped the first wave and made the second seek cover, but its effects were fading. The first shot had caught them by surprise and Vishlog had moved to cover the Witch’s vulnerable back. He’d caught the round in the chest but was saved by his armor, although he grunted with pain. She didn’t seem to notice. As more deadly ordnance streaked overhead, she directed blast after blast of magical lightning after them.

Unfortunately, the attacks were launching faster than she could respond and one of them made it through. She screamed with outrage as one of the three small craft spiraled into the ocean and smoke rose from where its tail used to be. The next three exploded in quick succession.

“We’re going back,” the Navy pilot told Brenden.

He took his hands from the controls and nodded. “We can’t do any good out here.”

“One got through,” Frog observed.

Avery’s comment was succinct and to the point. “Sonuvabitch.”

“Get us back, and fast,” Brenden ordered.

“Copy that,” the pilot acknowledged, and Frog wondered why the man didn’t argue.

The Meligornian ships caught up and landed alongside them and the Morgana shielded them while three mages raced out of each craft to join her. Frog winced when he caught the look on her face but he didn’t let it stop him from coming alongside Johnny as they raced down the funnel to the doors.

The chatter of small arms fire drew their attention to the battery above them. Lars’s voice came over the comms a moment later. “We’re in and the battery is disabled and wired. We’ll blow it on the way out and meet you inside.”

Their HUDs showed green blips above them, and the map of the base began to expand.

“Roger that,” Johnny acknowledged.

“Understood,” the Morgana echoed and looked at the first team of mages. “Keep them company.”

They did not argue. Their fists clenched around the gems they carried, and they levitated into the air. Frog wondered how they knew where to go.

“Lars,” Johnny said. “There are three Meligornian mages headed your way. I’ve patched them into our comms net. Don’t shoot them.”

“Noted.” The team leader didn’t sound happy.

He was even less happy when the other man reported that they’d reached the other side of the tunnel and discovered they’d actually moved through a hundred yards of pre-fabricated rock wall instead of into the base itself.

“Of all the conniving, devious, ass-munching, rock-jumping, ground-hugging—”

“We will find them all and kill them,” the Morgana assured him and her eyes blazed.

As she spoke, the ground shook and an auto-turret emerged from under a rock.


Chapter Forty

Frog swung his rifle toward the emerging turret. “Aww, man. Who tripped that?”

He knew he would be too slow, but he would try anyway. In the end, though, it didn’t matter.

The Morgana slammed a shield down as the gun fired. She created another barely in time for a burst of high-explosive rounds to impact three feet from their heads.

“I’ve got this,” Lars announced from above them, only to prove that he very much did not.

The ground gave out beneath his feet and the ledge he’d found disintegrated with the low rumble of another explosion. He and Marcus would have died if the mages with them hadn’t encased them in bubbles of purple light and floated them down to rest beside her.

The walls rose around them to form a courtyard set against a sheer cliff of dark-colored rock that Frog eyed with a jaundiced gaze. “I don’t like the look of this.”

His dislike was justified seconds later when doors slid open in each wall and more rebels poured out. Above them, hidden emplacements opened fire and the sheer volume of destruction forced them into the shelter of the tunnel from which they’d so recently emerged.

“What will we do about that?” he demanded when more gunfire rolled out of the wall to the left. It was accompanied by explosions and whoops of hell-raising glee and culminated in the doors and emplacements exploding in spectacular fashion.

“Someone called for a Marine?”

“A Marine,” Frog stressed. “A, as in one, singular.”

A Marine emerged from the doorway to the left and laughed as he gunned down the few rebels who’d turned to fight. He gestured to the destruction behind him. “Some things are too good not to share!”

He jogged forward as disaster struck the wall to the right and more Marines broke through the rebels who’d turned back in an attempt to hold their position. Unfortunately, the rebels on the opposite wall had time to recover, and their emplacements opened fire.

This time, the Morgana’s protections wouldn’t have been enough, but the Meligornians stepped in to shield the ranks of running Marines from the incoming fusillade. With seven magic users to assist them, they managed to regroup.

On the opposite side of the courtyard, the doors swung shut and the firing intensified. The rebels trapped with them turned and launched an assault with everything they had.

“Man. Don’t these guys ever run out of ammo?” Frog whined and fired through a purple sheen.

“It looks like they’ve planned this for a while, sir.” one of the Marines returned fire and the three groups closed ranks to become one again.

“I sure wish I could mix energies,” the Morgana complained and sounded very much like Stephanie. “It would be nice to be able to destroy those emplacements while keeping you safe.”

As she spoke, more missiles launched, these from the other side of the wall.

“Damn. We need to get over there and fast,” Johnny declared. “We have more ships incoming.”

“Friend or foe?” Lars demanded.

“Friend. It looks like the Navy sent reinforcements.”

“Well, it’s about goddamn time!” Frog declared.

“Yeah,” the closest Marine retorted, “because you need all the help you can get.”

“Hey!”

“Nuff talk, more walk,” another one ordered and looked at Lars. “What do you want us to do?”

He pointed at the wall. “Take it down.”

“All of it?”

“Every last stone.” As he spoke, he took a small box from his belt and pressed a button. The wall behind them disintegrated into rubble as a chain of explosions rolled through it. He smirked when the Marine stared at him, his mouth agape. “You don’t need to launch a missile to blow shit up.”

“Well, dayum,” the man grinned. “Thank you very much for reminding me.” He hauled a similar box from his belt and depressed the button.

The ground shook.

Another Marine smirked and blew up his own wall of left-over enemy missiles. “Great minds think alike.” He looked at the guard. “You were a Marine in another life, weren’t you, son?”

Lars smiled. “Not quite, Gunny, but I had good teachers.”

He gave him a speculative look that included the destruction behind him. “I’ll say.” He gestured to the remaining wall and the rebels arrayed in front of it. ‘You heard the man. We got us another wall to destroy!”

The Meligornians divided into pairs. Two joined the Marines on the left and two added themselves to those on the right.

“We don’t need no stinkin’ mages,” Vishlog muttered, and one of the remaining two smirked.

“You can do the buying,” he told the Dreth, “when I stop your ugly Dreth hide from getting any more holes in it.”

More? Vishlog looked down at himself and then over his shoulder in an attempt to see over his back.

Lars snickered. “He got you good, Vishlog.” He gestured at the battlefield. “I think he volunteered to make sure you beat the Marines’ high score.”

The warrior grinned and unslung a second blaster. He looked at the mage. “You got me?”

“You’re buying. Of course I’ve got you.”

That was all he needed. He turned and charged the rebel lines arrayed in front of Stephanie while the mage raced after him and maintained the shield.

“He’d better keep the big goon alive,” Frog muttered when Lars came alongside.

“It was the only way to keep the two of them from getting into trouble.”

The Morgana jogged forward as the cats leapt into battle and Elizabeth followed her. Lars slapped Frog on the shoulder and indicated their boss. “Keep her safe.”

Frog rolled his eyes and raced to get alongside Ms E. “Sure, Frog. Never mind the shuttle. Ms E needs taking care of.”

“What did you say?” She gave him a look of annoyance.

“Nothing!”

Witch Of The Federation III

They had no sooner rolled through the final wall and silenced the missile batteries when more opened fire from farther down the slope leading to the sea.

“Incoming!” Johnny yelled, and everyone hit the ground.

The earth rolled and shook beneath them as it heaved under the impacts of multiple strikes that attempted to silence the batteries below. More projectiles rose in response but none of them reached their targets. They were obliterated before they even came close.

The team stared and didn’t quite believe their eyes.

“What is that thing?” Frog asked, his expression one of disbelief.

“Well, it’s not Navy,” one of the Marines replied.

“Are you sure? Because it’s painted all the right colors.”

He shook his head. “Too big.”

“Too big or not, our little friends don’t like it so it’s here to help. Let’s make sure it gets through.” Elizabeth made sense and they raced down the slope, running parallel to the cliffs that rose beyond the courtyard they’d just escaped.

“You know, we still haven’t found their front door,” Frog muttered.

“Sure we have,” Johnny told him. “It’s somewhere on the island.”

“Ha. Ha. Very funny.”

They sprinted to where the massive ship was coming in.

“Man, I hope it doesn’t try to land where we set down. It’ll crush what’s left of the dropship.”

“Why would you care? That thing’s never gonna fly again, anyway.”

“It’s the principle that matters.”

“Principle schminciple.”

“Shut up and run. They have bogeys up their asses and a very nasty welcoming committee on the ground. They’re gonna need our help.”

“I will shield them,” the Morgana declared, “and then, we will clear this rats’ nest from the face of the Earth.”

“We will keep your people safe,” the lead Meligornian mage told her.

She nodded and ran to where she could watch the big ship touch down. It found a landing site around the slope from where the missile batteries were. Unfortunately, the location seemed to be in the middle of a field of auto-turrets.

These didn’t reveal themselves until after the ship had landed and a squad of Dreth jogged down its ramp. The Morgana was barely quick enough to create a shield around them as the first turret opened fire.

The Dreth hesitated and their stride faltered when they registered the magic around them. One of them pointed at her and they ran forward.

“Clear the way!” the gunnery sergeant roared as his counterpart on the other team yelled, “Make those boys a hole.”

The Marines raced forward with the team, Vishlog in the lead. Together, they targeted the turrets and the rebels who emerged from holes and hollows concealed among the rocks.

Soon, the ground between the Morgana and the Dreth writhed with a dozen small skirmishes. Shots were exchanged and men screamed and fell. With a roar, the warriors rolled into the field, shielded by the Morgana’s magic while the Meligornian shielded those already fighting for her.

As the new arrivals reached the Marines and the team, the fight retracted around the Witch’s position. Through it all, the blue of her shields didn’t falter. It shifted to protect them from new threats, such as the ever-present auto-turrets, but it didn’t fade.

The Marines enjoyed the purple-hued protection of the Meligornians, but they made no complaint. There wasn’t a single one of them who considered purple a color for girls alone—not anymore.


Chapter Forty-One

“We need to know where that damned front door is,” Lars all but growled as they fought their way up the slope.

“Well, it sure as shit ain’t on the lower slopes,” Frog retorted. He flung an arm in the direction of the rocky wasteland rising above them. “Knowing our luck, it’s probably on the other side of that mountain.”

“Mountain…” Johnny said and his eyes narrowed.

“Uh oh,” Frog murmured. “I’ve seen that look before. It means he’s having an idea.”

“Really?” Marcus asked and fired a short burst to eliminate another rebel. The guy exploded in spectacular fashion and he whistled. “Don’t let those assholes get anywhere near us. They go up like the Fourth of July.”

He swiveled to destroy another turret that appeared as one of the Marines moved further up the slope. “Watch where you step. You’re not goddammed bulletproof, shit for brains.”

The man gave him a single-digit wave, which he returned with gusto. “You’re very welcome.”

Suddenly, he brought his rifle up and fired toward him and Marcus fell prone in panic. The familiar sound of an explosion reached him. “And neither the hell are you,” the Marine yelled and went back to keeping their flank clear.

The guard looked over his shoulder and saw the remains of another of the island’s resident suicide bombers.

“They must have run out ammo,” Frog remarked and shot another three who emerged from the cover of some rocks below them.

“That’s not a goddamn mountain,” Johnny declared. “We’re sitting on an extinct volcano. Look at the rocks around us. That’s basalt. See how grainy it is.”

“I don’t give a shit what kind of damned rock it is,” Elizabeth snapped, fired three rapid shots, and felled another rebel who exploded on death. “I simply want to find the front door, kick it in, and kick every ass I find inside.”

She pivoted and fired again. “Tell me how your beloved basalt can help me do that.”

“Well, these guys probably put their main entrance right in the center.”

“Of a volcano?”

Marcus smacked Johnny upside the head. “Don’t be an ass, Johnny. We saw the top view. There’s a damn valley right in the middle of this island. It’s got green grass and everything.”

“It’s a volcano,” his teammate argued. “It is.” He gestured at the land around them. “Just look at it.”

“I am looking, Johnny, and all I see is a damned hill in the middle of a tropical paradise.” He fired a burst into another bomber and several quick, short bursts into a cluster of rebels who raced down the slope above them.

These ones didn’t explode, but they died all the same.

“Well, these asswipes have to be coming from somewhere,” Elizabeth screamed. “Tell me where, for God’s sake.”

The whistle of a round passed too close for comfort and forced her to hug the ground.

“What. The. Hell! Stephanie, get your mind on the job.”

“Uh…” Frog began and Lars swore.

The team leader circled his hand over his head and the skirmishing Marines and Dreth began to work their way in.

“What?” Elizabeth yelled and frustration brought her tones close to a scream.

A group of rebels descended from the top of the ridge to cut the Dreth off from the main group. A second rebel squad had appeared out of the trees below, carrying a machine gun. “You have to be shitting me. Lars!”

He glanced at her and fired at a bomber who’d darted out of the same hole in the ground as the last one. “What?”

When he glanced back, his target was down, but another two had risen to take his place. “Oh, for pity’s sake!”

He’d caught sight of the machine gun and the danger to the Dreth. “Frog! Johnny! You’re up.”

The two men raised their heads and followed the jerky stabs of his hand as he pointed one way while he focused on the incoming bombers. When his blaster ran out of charge, he threw it at the rebels and snatched up the rifle resting on the ground beside him.

“Are you good?” Marcus asked and he nodded.

“The Dreth!” he shouted, and Vishlog looked over from where he’d thinned out another wave coming up from the tree line.

“I’ve got it.” Marcus was already moving and stumbled and slid toward the nearest Marine. “Need your help.”

“Are you buying?”

“Nope, they are.” He grinned and pointed at the big warriors. They’d forgotten they were supposed to regroup and had begun to wade into the threat that attacked from the top of the mountain. They hadn’t noticed the slow and subtle advance of the force behind them.

The Marine gave a fierce smile and spoke rapidly into his comms. To Marcus, it was like watching a pack of dogs come to life. He swore their ears pricked.

As if the sudden tension was a signal, the two cats bounded over to him. He sighed and looked at them. “I don’t suppose it would do me any good to tell the pair of you to stay, would it?”

Bumblebee laid back his ears and hissed.

“I didn’t think so.” He found himself speaking to an empty space. The Marines had begun to move and the felines didn’t want to be left behind. They bounded around the edge of the contingent and ran with them as they came up on the Dreth’s rear.

“Incoming!” one of the Marines called. The rearmost Dreth turned and quickly raised the muzzles of their blasters so the reinforcements weren’t looking into the barrels.

“Fall back to the Witch!” Lars ordered, his voice loud and clear through their comms, and the Dreth glanced at where the Morgana stood.

As they watched, the shield in front of them shuddered.

“Fall back,” he repeated. “Fall back, now.”

Bumblebee and Zeekat ran the perimeter of the group for a while, then broke away and moved up the slope to come in wide around the approaching rebel forces. The enemy watched them and a couple took potshots at the big beasts as they passed.

The danger was short-lived, however, as the revolutionaries turned their attention to the much larger threat they thought the Dreth presented. With the Marines covering the skirmishers coming in from below, the warriors focused their attention on those from up the hill.

Now, however, the Dreth didn’t move out to meet them. Instead, they moved back toward the Morgana and extended their line until it formed a barrier between the island’s inhabitants and the cluster of Marines who guarded the Witch. As the blue shield slowly faded, it was replaced by a glowing haze of purple.

The Meligornians had noticed what Elizabeth had seen and now worked to replace the Morgana’s fading protection with their own. Until the Dreth had drawn closer, they hadn’t been able to cover the Morgana and her Marines as well as the warriors.

Now, however, they could.

The cats were on their own.

Neither of them seemed to mind. Once they’d slipped past the incoming force, they’d faded from view. When the Dreth reached the Morgana’s perimeter, the cats made their presence felt and rebels toward the rear fell screaming. As he worked his way through the line of Marines, Marcus cursed.

“If anything happens to those two, the Morgana won’t stop at blowing the base up. She’ll destroy the planet.”

The two Dreth and four Marines closest looked at him.

“I mean it. I need to get to the cats and make sure nothing happens to them.”

One of the Dreth clapped him on the shoulder and the force of the blow almost knocked him to his knees. “This way,” the warrior told him and casually shot a rebel who tried to slide into cover. “They went this way.”

His large comrade moved with them, and the rattle of equipment said the Marines were coming, too.

“Don’t get cut off,” their sergeant ordered.

“Do not make us come and get you,” the Dreth leader warned.

Marcus ignored both. Neither Lars nor Stephanie had said a word. Ms E made up it, however.

“Get scratched and I’ll make you wish you hadn’t been born.”

As she spoke, a great bell rang. Its single toll echoed over the island, shook the sound waves, and made Marcus’s head ache. One of the Dreth groaned.

“Where is the temple?” the other asked.

The Marines looked around and continued to fire on the enemy as they searched for the source of the sound. Before they could say anything, the Morgana’s voice rang out.

“Leave now. You have two hours before I melt this island to slag. This is your one and only warning. Leave, now.”

Witch Of The Federation III

The air around her shimmered with heat and magic. The ground burned underfoot and the mountain gave the occasional shudder and still, the rebels continued their onslaught.

They didn’t try to flee, and they didn’t waver. They careened down the mountain in waves amidst volleys of gunfire while some hurled grenades. The Meligornians’ silver hair was gray with sweat. Discarded batteries lay scattered around their feet.

“Don’t let them over-extend themselves,” Lars murmured. “I don’t know if we can save them if they go down and Stephanie falls, too.”

“She wouldn’t fall, would she?” Avery asked, but he found his answer in the worried set of Lars’s face and the pallor of her skin.

Her hair, too, hung lank and dark against her back and sweat coated her face in a glistening sheen.

“I’m out,” Brenden called, and one of the Marines tossed him another charge and another magazine.

“Don’t waste ʼem.” He didn’t stop for thanks but rolled to fell another bomber, followed by another two skirmishers who worked their way from one piece of cover to the next. Brenden reloaded as Frog laid a blaster down beside him.

“Gonna get some more ammo,” the small man told him. “I need to borrow your sidearm.”

He raised an eyebrow. Frog gestured toward the mages. “They’re getting tired and I’m darn sure they’re almost out of batteries. Most of us are down to our last magazine or charge pack, too.” He pointed at the killing zone. “No one’s using those. I’m gonna get some.”

His teammate sighed and rolled to his feet. “I’ll come. Someone has to save your scrawny ass.”

He tapped the Marine. “We’ll be back. Don’t shoot us.”

The man was passing the message as he and Frog slipped toward the nearest body. Rifle fire cracked behind them, but nothing came near. They reached the first body, took the rifle that had fallen from his hands, and lifted the ammo from its belt.

By the time they reached the second, they had company. Bumblebee skulked up on one side and lowered his muzzle to the cartridge and rifle Frog had reached for. He batted the cat’s nose away, and Bee backed off.

“So, do you boys want company or are you fixing to do this all by yourselves?” the Marine asked and the guard glanced at him.

He glared at Brenden. “Can’t you keep a secret?”

His teammate grinned and peered around to make sure they were still clear. “It’s not my ass gonna get kicked.”

“Sure it is,” Lars assured them over the comms, “but you’re in real good company.”

The Marine gave an exasperated sigh. “Now see what you’ve done. Both our bosses are mad at us.”

Frog hurried to the next body. “They’ll forgive us if we bring back enough for them to not have their asses shot off.”

The others scrambled to follow suit and none of them paid heed to the gunnery sergeant’s dry, “Don’t bet on it.”

“Incoming!” rang through their ears a short moment later and they bolted for their lines, Bee and Zeekat bounding back with them.

When they’d passed the first row of men, they laid their haul out in the open behind them and the Sergeant was quick to take over.

“Corporal, see these weapons get to those who need them.”

The next wave of rebels arrived with another machine gun. They lugged it half the distance between the Morgana and the trees and set it up behind a pile of corpses.

“That’s…innovative…” Johnny murmured as each rebel they dropped was added to the pile. “Cold, but innovative.”

“Don’t make it sound so admirable,” Ms E snapped as she shot another one.

Once the pile was high enough, the rebels dragged the gun into place behind it and opened fire.

“I am so sick of this shit,” Marcus cursed and looked around. “Does anyone have a grenade?”

Frog grinned. “Not yet, I don’t.”

Before the others could stop him, he bounded into the fray, ducked from one piece of cover to the next, and prayed he didn’t walk into any friendly fire. It was a relief when he was suddenly encased in purple but not so much of a relief when the shield showed ripples on both sides.

“I’m on your side, you assholes!”

“Get your donkey-dicked ass out of the firing line, you shit-for-brained civilian,” the gunny yelled in response.

Frog had a sudden, stunned realization. “Wait… I have a shield.”

Marcus groaned and pressed his forehead against the ground.

“No, no, no. No! Frog, don’t you dare!”

He straightened. Taking his time, he raised one hand in single-fingered salute toward his own lines, pivoted, and ran head-long at the machine gun.

“Frog you shit-for-brained asshole.”

The guard laughed as a hail of bullets crazed the shield in front of him. The ripples created spread so fast he could barely see through it and in the next moment, the shield began to fade.

“Oh…oh, crap. Oh dear. Oh no. Oh, hell no. Must go faster. Mustgofaster mustgofastermustgofaster…”

He reached the pile of bodies and flung himself over, thrust the gun sideways as he tackled it, and rolled. Gunfire erupted behind him when his own side fired into the rebels while the enemy turned to shoot him.

Two colored blurs leapt overhead and twisted toward him.

“Hey! Ow! Watch where you’re putting those teeth,” Frog protested as two sets of jaws closed around his shoulders.

The ride back to his own lines was bumpy and fast, but the purple that formed a barrier between them and the rebels didn’t falter. When he reached the safe zone, he discovered there were only five Meligornians still standing. The sixth was down and out for the count.

“Is he…” he asked when he’d been relieved of the gun and the cats had let him go.

“No,” one of the others told him before he focused on the Morgana. “No thanks to you.”

He sounded tired and disgusted and honestly, he couldn’t blame him. It wasn’t a good feeling and he shrugged while he tried to work out how he could make it better and came up blank. He lay where the cats had dropped him and closed his eyes.

“Going to get a grenade, huh?” Marcus challenged and made a show of peering at him more closely. “Well, where is it?”

Frog groaned. His teammate nudged him relentlessly with the toe of his boot. “You forgot it, didn’t you?”

“I… It’s possible.” He evaded the question, then he added, “I saw this machine gun, you see…”

Marcus’s next nudge wasn’t so gentle, and he rolled away and onto his feet. “Wanna help me set it up?”

“Uphill or downhill?”

It didn’t take them long to have it aimed downhill but it didn’t take them long to run out of ammunition for it, either.

“You couldn’t have taken more before you had your ass dragged out of there?”

“Quit your bitching. I got you a machine gun. What more do you want?”

“Some way to make it more than a fancy paperweight.”

Frog sighed. “Fine! I’ll go and—”

Vishlog swept him off his feet and dived on top of him.

“Hey…” The protest emerged as a wheezing gasp but was quickly muffled when the Dreth pushed his head down and fired at the next wave of rebels to break cover from the trees and hollows they’d emerged from before.

“We really need to do something about the tunnels,” Marcus muttered, but Vishlog had other concerns.

“Did someone say something about a grenade?” the Dreth rumbled and Marcus looked up.

“Oh, shit…”

It was more than one grenade. It was several, lobbed even as the throwers were eliminated by Elizabeth, Lars, and the team. As if Marcus’s dismay was a signal, one of the Meligornians looked up and thrust a hand toward the incoming cluster.

Purple light followed, swept the grenades aside and arced them toward the beach.

“Isn’t that where the Dreth left their shuttle?”

Several explosions followed and the Meligornian toppled.

“Crap.” Marcus crawled over to make sure he was still alive. He was, but his skin was cold despite the burning ground beneath him. Marcus stared at it.

The burning ground…

He placed a hand against it and looked at the time displayed in his HUD. Their two hours were almost up. He looked around.

The heat shimmered over the Morgana, and the mountain trembled beneath them.


Chapter Forty-Two

Deep inside the mountain, the rebels scowled when the grenades exploded before they reached the Dreth ship. They groaned with dismay and switched the display to where the Morgana stood, still shielded by a purple haze while her people decimated their forces.

“We’re running out of men,” one observed and flicked through the surveillance cameras.

The Witch’s forces weren’t the only ones on the island, and the Navy had landed forces on the other side while they’d diverted their resources to deal with her. Gunfire sounded from inside the base once Special Forces teams gained entry.

“We could be in trouble.”

“Should we recall some forces back to base?”

“It’s too late for that. Our orders are to kill the Witch at any cost.”

“I’m not sure how many people we have left in that sector.”

“Don’t let up. They’re running out of ammo.”

“And they’ve lost another mage.”

They all stared at the screen. It was true. Only four Meligornians now stood where there had once been six.

“Good.” The speaker took a breath to say more but was interrupted by their commander’s voice.

“I don’t care what the orders are!” he bellowed and his voice echoed out of his office. “I want you to get the goddamned Witch off my goddamned island. She’s destroying the place.”

A brief silence followed and something heavy pounded into a filing cabinet and shattered. It was followed by more shouting. “Who gives a shit? I want her gone—and I want her gone, now.”

In the control room, they heard the sound of fighting in the corridor outside and exchanged worried glances. The commander, still in his office, listened to the unsympathetic reply.

“The Witch has the Badge. You’re on your own.”

He slammed the phone down and drew the pistol at his hip as he stood. Frustrated, he reefed it from its holster and found the trigger in one swift move.

“Well, I guess,” he said, with a disillusioned sigh, “this shit is on me.”

The sound of firing had now moved into the corridor directly outside the control room, and they both heard and watched the SEALs place charges against the door before the invaders raced behind cover.

“Here they come,” the surveillance operator murmured and began the countdown for the explosives that would destroy their data array. He snatched up the blaster he’d kept on the desk beside him and took cover.

They’d probably be dead before the explosives went off, anyway, but he intended to take as many of the incoming fighters as he could.

The sound of a single shot echoed out of the commander’s office and the operator’s heart sank.

So much for dying for the cause and to hell with the consequences, he thought morosely as the control room door blew in and the SEAL team followed.

The floor trembled as they came through the hole they’d created and shook violently when something detonated. More explosions followed, and he glanced at the console to where the display showed a glowing red tide that surged down the corridor of the storage vaults.

The ones on the lowest levels of the base where the missiles were stored.

“Oh, dear God…” he moaned as the communications center came alive with frightened voices demanding they be allowed to surrender.

Witch Of The Federation III

Out on the mountainside, another group of resistance fighters stopped running toward the Witch. They, too, had noticed the heat building in the Earth and the sudden plume of steam that soared skyward from one side of the crater.

Around them, fissures began to yawn in the earth and more steam escaped.

One of them looked at another. “We need to get off the island.”

A third man overheard him and glanced over. “We need to kill the gods-forsaken Witch,” he screamed and barreled forward. “We can’t let her live.”

The first looked up the mountain and noted the piles of bodies scattered across the slope. “I don’t think we have a choice. We won’t reach her before the whole thing blows—and we need a way off.”

The next shot to break the silence came as his head exploded.

“The mission is unchanged.” The shooter snarled defiance and his gaze swept the stunned men around him. “Does anyone else want a way off the island?”

A second shot rang out and he died.

“I do!”

“You damned traitor.”

“Gutless wonder. You’re next.”

“The enemy’s up there, not down here. Now, move!”

Explosions rumbled beneath their feet, and many tripped and fell. More guns fired as fingers tightened on triggers in panic. Some died by accident and others by design, but through all of it, they ran, fleeing for their lives as the mountain quaked.

Witch Of The Federation III

Above them, the Morgana departed. Stephanie lowered her hands and blinked, then looked around with a frown on her face. “That should about do it.”

Lars grabbed her arm. “Yes, it should. Now, let’s go.”

Vishlog came over and picked her up. He pointed at the mages. “I have Stephanie. You grab them.”

“Stop!” she commanded when she caught sight of the fallen Meligornians. “Put me down.”

She repeated it as he turned to run down the mountain, and he yelped when she encased herself in blue and send a jolt of power into his head. “Put me down.”

He did, but reluctantly.

The Witch ignored him. She pointed at the Meligornians, her eyes edged in black and a touch of hollowness in her voice. “Get them off the mountain.”

Bumblebee bumped her with his head and she turned. “Don’t leave them behind.”

As she spoke, Brenden and Avery came over. They looked at Vishlog. “We’ll get her down, but we can’t carry them and get them off in time.”

He looked to where Lars had lifted one over his shoulder and stared down at the other. Frog tapped him on the arm. “Stephanie needs this.”

That was all it took. The big warrior hurried over to their team leader. He swept the remaining Meligornian over one shoulder and reached for the other one. The guard shook his head. “Just don’t let me fall.”

They assessed the area and confirmed that the Marines and the other Dreth were already following her lead and that their orderly withdrawal was rapidly turning into headlong flight. It was a good thing that the resistance fighters had the same goal.

They sprinted down the mountain toward the closest ship.

“Dreth can take you,” the Dreth commander called, his bellow too loud through their comms.

They wheeled toward him and followed the warriors as they raced to their ship. The Marine commander told his pilots to lift and that they had another ride, but he didn’t stop running. Beneath their feet, the ground smoked and cracked, and more than one of them lost their footing as tremors shook it.

No one was left behind. They all saw to that. Those who fell and struggled to keep the pace were carried. Brenden and Avery kept one hand on Stephanie and used the other for balance as they hurried her toward the ship. Elizabeth followed not far behind them.

“What the hell was that?” she shouted at the Witch.

“Yeah,” Frog added. “I thought we all voted not to do the whole melt the mountain thing after the last time!”

“It’s not really something you get to vote on,” she retorted without slowing her pace. “But I’ll seriously take it under advisement next time.”

“Next time?” They reached the shuttle and were hustled aboard.

“There had better not be a next time,” Elizabeth yelled as they moved back to make space for those who followed.

“Fine. I promise not to blow anything else up,” she retorted.

“It might be too late for that,” Frog told her and peered out the viewing port as the last of the Marines was ushered onboard and the Dreth commander pressed the door controls.

The vessel started to lift.

“Have a little spine. It’s not like I really woke up a volcano.”

A resounding explosion triggered loud cursing from the cockpit. The ship rocked and then shook and dipped and lost height. The engines screamed as they thrust more power and the flight became erratic.

“I will shield you,” one of the Meligornians said, and the remaining four raised their hands.

Stephanie glanced out the viewing port and raised her hands.

Frog followed her gaze and the others looked also.

Outside the shuttle, rock rained down and the water steamed when it hit.

Frog turned to Stephanie. “You had to go and tempt fate, didn’t you?”

“Go back!” she shouted and kept one hand upraised while she pointed to the beach. “Get us back there, now.”

The Dreth commander spoke to the pilots and the ship turned. “I hope you know what you are doing,” he said.

“We have room,” she told him, “and we are not monsters.”

“No. You want to let the monsters on board,” he grunted and signaled to his men as the vessel touched down.

“Wait here,” Lars said when the Marines went to rise. “We might need you later.”

A tumult of pleading greeted her as she stepped onto the ramp.

“Please take us with you.”

“Don’t leave us.”

“We surrender.”

“Help us!”

She stared coldly at them, a glimmer of the Morgana in her eyes and her voice held echoes of rage. “Tell me why I should.”

Lars glanced up the mountainside and noted the slow-moving river of red that flowed down its side. He touched her on the arm. “We don’t have time for this.”

The rebels closest misunderstood and surged forward.

“Please—”

“Have mercy!”

“As you had mercy for us?” she retorted. “For our world?”

“You will tell us everything you know,” the team leader shouted. “Everything. That information is the price of your passage.”

“Agreed.”

“Everything.”

“I know locations!”

The Dreth commander ignored them. He stepped to the front of the ramp and kept a wary eye on the lava flow that descended the mountain when he spoke.

“Any who renege will be returned and thrown into the crater.” He fixed the gathering with an implacable eye. “I will execute you myself.”

They surged forward but came to a screeching halt when he raised his hand. He looked at Stephanie. “My boat. My rules.”

She nodded.

He glanced at his men. “Get them aboard.”

The Dreth hurried to take hold of the rebels and hurl them up the ramp. Some of the waiting survivors ducked under their hands and ran onto the ship. Whichever way they arrived at the door, their fate was the same.

They were met with a Marine or Dreth fist and knocked unconscious, or Frog or Brendan tasered them to helplessness and they were tossed into the passenger compartment under the watchful guard of the Marines.

The whole operation took less than ten minutes, but the lava was almost upon them, and the mountain shook again to erupt more debris like super-heated shrapnel. Stephanie and the Meligornians were showing the strain of sheltering the ship as it elevated and hurtled clear.


Chapter Forty-Three

The scout group roved the outer edges of Meligornian space. Four ships strong, it patrolled the farthest system from their homeworld, checking it for any sign of life—or invasion.

The alert had gone out that the King’s Warrior suspected an attack and that they had yet to learn which direction it would come from, but they weren’t worried. This sector of space had always been quiet, and the explorers had yet to reach it.

By the king’s decree, it was not open to colonists.

“Let’s settle what we have first,” he’d advised, “and make sure we can protect it.”

The patrol had, so far, been very quiet but the crew was on edge. The magic wasn’t right, and there’d been trouble in the engine room. It was as though the stars themselves held warning, but they couldn’t tell of what.

When the proximity alarms began to blare, they scrambled.

“Which way is it coming from?”

“I have nothing, sir.”

“Nothing? Search the spectrums.”

“Captain! Engineering says they’re having negative energy fluctuations.”

“Selestel’s light. It never rains but it pours— What is that?”

The ship came out of nowhere like a fishing vessel emerging from a storm or a battleship sailing out of fog—and yes, it was a battleship. There was nothing peaceful about it. Startled exclamations escaped those in the command center and alarms rang.

“They have us painted like a funeral barge, sir. I’ve never seen a weapons system like it.”

“Take evasive action.”

“It may be too late for that.”

“We have to give them a chance to prove they’re not hostile.”

“They’re hailing us, sir.”

“Put them on screen.”

The forward viewscreen gave up its view of the incoming ship to reveal the interior of its command center. Half a dozen beings raised their heads to reveal nothing but darkness beneath their helmets.

The Meligornians gasped, and the blood drained from their leader’s face. The communications screen shifted again until only a single image faced them.

“I see you have heard of us.”

“You are the Nihilism,” the captain replied and could discern nothing from the blankness where its face should be.

“That is the name given us by the Witch, yes. We call ourselves Telorans. You will remember that name.”

“I take it you do not come in peace.”

“We come in conquest.”

“We will fight for our world if we must.”

“You do not need to,” the alien replied, and the captain almost breathed a sigh of relief, but it continued. “You can surrender and there will be no fighting necessary.”

“Is there the possibility of an alternative?”

“None. You will surrender or your world will die.”

“Engage full battle stations,” the captain commanded authoritatively and the pilot banked the scout ship up and around.

He didn’t try to take them farther away from the massive ship, merely far enough for the scan team to see what lay behind it. They definitely wouldn’t live to tell this tale, but they would find out what the huge ship was hiding.

And they intended to try to live long enough to send the information back to Meligorn. That was what he and the defense team would do. He and the attack team, however, would attempt to do as much damage to the big behemoth as they could.

He could fly both ways and for the first time in a long time, he’d have to. The chances were that he wouldn’t fly for much longer, anyway. The power surged and faded beneath the controls and he remembered what engineering had sent.

“Pashal’s balls!”

“Do your best,” the captain told him.

The ship shuddered and the team on sensors turned. “They’re pulling us in.”

“How?”

“Some kind of tractor beam, sir.”

“Engineering. Make sure we explode somewhere strategic. Weapons, give them everything you have while you still can. Defense, do something creative and do some damage! Pilot, I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

He regarded them steadily and turned on the ship’s internal address system. “Crew of Selestine’s Orbit. This is your captain speaking. We have found the enemy and its name. Our homeworld will be warned.”

For a moment he paused to push down the unexpected well of sadness before he spoke again. “It has been an honor serving with you. It has been an honor to serve Meligorn alongside you.”

With a glance at the communications team, he said, “Broadcast this on all channels. Put it on a repeating loop and use it to hide everything you send home.”

The communications officer swallowed and nodded, his reply quietly determined. “Aye, aye, sir.”

The captain turned back to the broadcast and raised his fist in defiance to the Teloran ship. “Meligorn Bleeds for her Freedom!” he roared, and the crew roared back. “Meligorn bleeds for her freedom!”

The pilot was helpless to do anything against the beam, but he redlined the engines at engineering’s request and used a reverse thrust to disguise their true intent.

In their control center, the Telorans laughed. “That won’t save them.”

They opened the hold to haul the tiny scout ship inside, but the pilot reversed the thrust again and the scout ship hurtled forward when the tractor beam released them. At the same time, those on defense altered the flow of energy to the scout ship’s shields and delivered a pulse of pure MU through the enemy ship.

The Meligornian weapons team fired everything it had, and communications released a virus through the enemy system disguised as a request to speak. When the Teloran commander answered, it entered their system and began to broadcast the Meligornian battle cry throughout its corridors.

The second package of code went ballistic to release multiple viruses into the Telorans’ data banks and communication system. As soon as they had hacked through the defenses on both, the programs used the aliens’ own system to broadband the details of the fleet to the universe—and anyone who cared to listen.

Outside the battlecruiser, the remaining Meligornian scout ships picked up the information and released message torps. The first wave jumped immediately and some reached the safety of interdimensional space to head to Meligorn.

The second wave delayed their departure in their attempt to pick up as much information as they could. Very few of that batch made it out of the system in one piece. The Meligornians set their systems to release the drones at timed intervals but with all remaining drones to be released at once if the ship was destroyed.

Each successive wave of mechanicals took more information with it, although fewer torps survived from each new batch than the last. As they gathered more data on the incoming Teloran fleet, the Meligornians fought it, but they were scout ships and not designed for war.

On the lead battleship, one team of aliens scrambled to reverse the tractor beam. Another worked frantically to shut down the cry of “Meligorn will bleed for her Freedom” that echoed through the ship’s corridors and was transmitted to the rest of the fleet.

A third team scrambled to stop the data bleed and called in a fourth to help them.

While they worked, the Teloran captain suddenly realized what the release of MU inside his ship meant. He pounded the evacuation signal and ran to his escape pod in the same moment that the edge of the MU cloud from the exploding scout ship found the nMU batteries that fueled his drives.

Around his warship, the other alien vessels increased power in an effort to move out of harm’s way. Those who’d sought to emulate his example and capture a Meligornian scout ship of their own released their prey with a swift reversal of their tractor beams.

With their thrusters in full reverse, the sudden freedom ricocheted the tiny craft in different directions while their pilots struggled to regain control. As soon as they did so, they each chose their targets and attacked.

The explosions as each one died and the broadcast of Meligorn’s defiance masked the small fleet of torps that leapt into interdimensional space and raced toward home. The tiny machines had captured as much of the Teloran battleship’s data broadcast as they could and some had recorded the final moments of the scouts.

Now, they fled and dodged laser beams and space debris to vanish from the enemies’ screens. The aliens cursed and many revised their opinions of the Meligornians’ willingness to fight to the death.

The element of surprise was lost and the escaping message torps would alert their prey of their impending arrival. In a fit of temper, the fleet commander ordered every survival pod from the ruined battleship to be blasted from the sky.


Chapter Forty-Four

There was no room for the Dreth ship to land at One R&D Headquarters and the Navy insisted the prisoners be off-loaded first. The press was in a feeding frenzy and the Navy’s defense drone operators had a field day blowing trespassing news drones out of the restricted airspace above the Naval base.

The Marines who held the perimeter were kept busy as several reporters tried for exclusives by gaining unauthorized entry. None of them had succeeded by the time Stephanie and her team had been transferred to a smaller shuttle on a different part of the ship. While they left the landing field, the Navy was negotiating prisoner transfer and the Dreth were being difficult.

“This is Dreth soil,” the commander told the MPs firmly. “You may not come aboard.”

“They are human. You cannot take them off-world.”

“They sought refuge among us. They are already off-world.”

“You will return our citizens to us.”

“You may request their return through the usual diplomatic channels, but I must warn you, they have committed crimes against the Federation and against Dreth. The sentence for that is severe. We will want compensation.”

The wrangling had continued until Stephanie and her team were out of earshot. As soon as they were inside the shuttle, Elizabeth collapsed. Vishlog scooped her up and tucked her into a flight couch.

“Hang in there,” Lars told her. “We’re almost home.”

“I need a medic.”

“We’ll get you into a pod as soon as we’re back.”

“The nurse will kill me.”

“The nurse won’t get anywhere near you until I’m done,” Stephanie reassured her.

Lars pulled an autoinjector from the first-aid kit in the shuttle’s passenger compartment. With a small frown, he looked at it and waved it at Elizabeth. “Can you hold on, or do you need this now?”

She looked at the Witch and shook her head. “It’ll interfere with the pod doc. I can wait.”

Her face white with pain, she closed her eyes and pressed her lips together. The other woman settled beside her and took her hand.

“I’m hurtin’, not dying,” she muttered, but Stephanie wasn’t quite sure she believed her.

The rest of the team lapsed into silence and let the Navy fly them home.

“Do you need any help?” one of the pilots offered when Vishlog scooped Elizabeth from the couch and headed to the door.

“No,” she muttered, “but your bill’s gonna be delayed.”

The man chuckled. “I don’t think they’re gonna complain about that.

“They’d better not,” Stephanie declared as he retreated into the cockpit.

They descended the stairs and turned directly toward the pod room.

“Hang in there, Elizabeth.”

“Yup.”

She groaned as the nurse helped them strip her body armor and combat gear away. Vishlog held her carefully throughout the procedure.

The nurse tutted reprovingly, and Elizabeth cracked an eyelid to look at her. “Not one word,” she warned, “or I’ll fire your ass.”

While the woman said nothing, her pursed lips sent a clear message. Looking at her, though, it was easy to see that the silence wouldn’t last forever and Ms E was in for another scolding as soon as she was well enough to take it.

The patient groaned again as she was lowered into the pod and the lid closed over her.

Stephanie looked at the nurse. “Give me a couple of minutes before you adjust it, okay?”

She nodded, her face tense with worry. She’d seen what she had done at the hospital and didn’t argue. If Stephanie had to guess, she’d have said Ms E was in more trouble than she knew—but not because the nurse was mad.

The look on the woman’s face said Elizabeth’s injuries were worse than any of them had guessed. She thought about asking her for details and decided against it. In spite of the healing she’d done at the hospital and after the wake, she would have to do a little more and hope it wasn’t too much.

Her eyes closed, she sat and rested her forehead against the outside of the pod and eased her energy through its shell to extend tendrils of magic into her friend’s body.

Ms E groaned and a jolt of pain filtered back through the stream. Stephanie gasped and gently pushed a little more magic toward the source of the pain. It was hard as it seemed to come from all directions and she had no answers.

All she could do was try to soothe it and maybe start the healing process. She didn’t dare do any more. While magic could heal, too much magical healing too rapidly could cause complications the body had no way to handle.

The woman moaned and another wave of pain washed through the link.

“I’m sorry,” Stephanie mumbled. “I failed to take Healing by Magic Class 401—it’s an elective.”

There was no reply and she pushed a little more magic into the pod. Another moan heralded another spike of pain. She bit back a gasp.

“But if it’s any consolation,” she added, “I get a fair amount practice.”

This time, there was no reply, and she raised her head to look at the nurse who stood at the console. “How’s she doing?”

The woman scowled at her. “As well as can be expected after stressing her injuries like that. Are you done?”

“I don’t think I should do anymore. You can take it from here.”

From the way her mouth twisted wryly, she no doubt held back a harsh reply. Apparently, getting the pod settings right was more important than speaking her mind, though. Stephanie hoped Ms E didn’t fire her.

Witch Of The Federation III

It took until late the next day before the nurse said it was safe to let the patient out of the pod.

Elizabeth emerged pale but refreshed. She even smiled at the nurse but held her hand up when the woman went to speak. “I need to get to the office right after I’ve freshened up.”

She turned to Stephanie. “See you there in about ten minutes?”

It was closer to fifteen, but the boys had ordered out and were still setting the food up when she arrived. She looked at the array and smiled. “What’s the occasion?”

Lars tilted his head and grinned. “Well, E, if you need to have the energy to terrorize us, you need to eat. Besides”—he gestured at the Witch—“she says she has to work with you and you’re not nice if you haven’t eaten.”

Stephanie stared at him and let her jaw drop in mock shock. “I never did,” she protested but the way she said it told them she very much had.

Elizabeth gave her a friendly push and headed over to her desk. “I should make you sit there and watch me.” She grinned. “But I’m not the only one who’s an asshole if they don’t get fed.”

The nurse cleared her throat.

“Yes?”

“You will need to rest in an hour.” She caught her patient’s glare. “An hour and a half, tops. You’re not a superhero, you know.”

She sighed but she didn’t argue. “Come and get me when it’s time.”

When she nodded and left, Elizabeth carried her meal to her desk while the guys took theirs and wandered off to leave the women to talk. Stephanie followed suit and settled beside her. They’d barely taken their first mouthfuls when the phone rang.

Ms E rolled her eyes, chewed faster, and swallowed before she picked the call up.

“Excuse me for disturbing your meal.” Their boss’ voice spoke clearly over the line and both women glanced around the office.

BURT didn’t bother to enlighten them about the exact type of devices he’d had installed. He merely got directly down to business.

“The Dreth shared their intelligence,” he began, and Stephanie guessed who had won the battle for custody of the prisoners.

She was almost right.

“The Navy were able to cross-reference it with what their share of the prisoners told them, and they ascertained that the aliens will most likely attack from the Meligorn end of the known universe.”

“We have to warn them—” Stephanie began, and BURT cleared his throat, a little smug that he seemed to have mastered sentient actions so quickly.

“The Dreth deemed it appropriate that the mages who protected them during the battle have full access to the same intelligence. The Meligornians then assisted in the questioning by providing a Truth Bringer.”

Her eyes widened. “I didn’t know they had any on Earth.”

“Neither did the Naval Liaison for the Dreth,” he replied drily. “On hearing about it, the Federation requested that Meligorn report the locations of any other Truth Bringers off-world.”

“And did they?”

There was a smile in his voice as he replied. “They asked that the request be passed through official channels.”

Stephanie snickered. “Serves them right.”

“I’ve contacted V’ritan,” he told her. “He will know what to do.”

“I only hope we’re in time,” she replied. “It would be bad if we knew and the attack came before we could warn them.”

“If the attack had come, we’d already know,” he reassured her. “They will have time to prepare.”

She nodded, but her eyes were dark and she chewed at her bottom lip. The thought of a war-torn Meligorn haunted her. What would it look like?

Pictures she’d seen of war zones came to mind and she recalled the crater they’d left at Sanmar’s Reach. She couldn’t imagine that for Meligorn and didn’t want to ever see the fields of purple grass cratered and burned by aerial bombardment.

The small towns that had featured in her testing…there’d be nothing left of them. The lake would be cracked and dried, nothing more than a memory. She shuddered and imagined bones protruding from the mud and the skies burning.

Ms E snapped her fingers in her face and Stephanie jumped, then focused on the room around her. The woman touched her on the shoulder and she jumped again.

“Hey, Steph. Where’d you go? Your eyes were starting to go black on me.”

She thought that her eyes weren’t the only things going black, but she didn’t say it.

“Meligorn,” she admitted instead. “I was thinking of the planet under attack…the destruction…the ruin of all the places I’ve been—”

“Easy, Steph.”

BURT cut in and worked hard to make his tone upbeat. “It hasn’t happened.”

“It may never happen,” Elizabeth snapped. She turned and looked into the girl’s eyes. Her voice softened. “Do you hear me? It might never happen.”

“But it might—”

“Yes.”

“Now, it’s personal.”

“I kinda thought it was already personal,” she replied.

Stephanie turned to the screen. “You’re sure they’ve been warned?”

“I called the King’s Warrior myself,” he reassured her, “and the mages were quick to call home once they knew. Meligorn is preparing.”

She noticed he did not say “prepared” but was glad he hadn’t lied. Her friends were getting ready for war and they would not be caught unawares. It was enough.

“I need to get out there,” she told him. “If the aliens are coming from that side, I need to be there to meet them. The Witch of the Federation will fight beside them.”

“And she will not fight alone,” he told her. “The Dreth and the Federation Navy have already pledged ships to assist them.”

“But won’t they need them in case the aliens attack us from another direction?”

“That was raised,” he admitted. “Each world has agreed a standing force will be kept at home, but they also acknowledge the need to try to stop this foe as soon as it appears. That means aiding whichever world is attacked first.”

Stephanie breathed a sigh of relief, and he continued. “That involves committing a substantial force whenever the attack occurs. It was not an amicable discussion.”

She could only imagine that it wasn’t and sighed. “I’d better tell the team to get their gear ready. It looks like we’re going on another trip.”

“You also need to finish those courses you were writing,” Elizabeth reminded her. “Harborview Tech is waiting for them.” She paused. “And I really like the sound of… What did you call it? Healing 401?”

Despite the heavy weight that had settled over her, she laughed.

Ms E continued. “You need to write that one, as well.”

There was a knock at the door and she sighed. “And I need my downtime.”

The nurse opened it, her face full of concern. “I’m sorry Ms E…”

She waved her apology away and eased herself out of her seat. “Don’t be. I’m coming.”

Stephanie stood and the other woman touched her wrist. “Don’t forget you need your own downtime, too,” she told the girl. “It’ll be a long, hard fight and you need to be rested if you intend to beat them.”

“Well, I have a good example to follow.”

The nurse snorted.

Witch Of The Federation III

For once, Stephanie did what was good for her and went to bed. She stopped in to update the guys first and was greeted by a chorus of groans, followed by a whoop.

“We are going to kick some alien butt.”

Lars glared at Frog. “Yeah, but first, we’re going to fix our gear and get some sleep.” He pointed at her. “Starting with you. You will not write anything that makes any sense if you don’t get some sleep first.” He wrinkled his nose. “And a shower. Make sure you do that too.”

“Hey!” She assumed he was joking because she’d showered and changed after seeing Ms E into the pod.

He frowned. “I’m not joking. Go and take a long hot soak or something. You need it.”

Oh, well. She decided he might have a point there and headed to her room and had Sarah draw her a hot bath.

“I have taken the liberty of adding bath salts,” the AI informed her when the water was run. “Lavender enhances the ability to relax and sleep.”

“And who says I need sleep?” She tried to stifle a jaw-cracking yawn.

“Everyone,” Sarah replied. “You need it.”

She’d proven right, and Stephanie had fallen into bed and a long and dreamless slumber as soon as she was done. When she woke, it was to a heavy weight that pinned her chest and foul breath in her face. She gasped and tried to push it off her.

Her efforts were greeted by a lazy yawn and Bumblebee raised his head from her shoulder. He yawned and she gagged. She wormed her hand out from under the blankets and pushed his face away.

“Get off, cat. You’re too hot.”

The yellow-and-black cat propped himself up and his elbows dug into her ribs.

“God, cat. Get your ass off me. You’re like a six-legged, walking blanket with claws and bad breath.”

He shook his head and regarded her with unblinking lavender eyes. She shoved him again.

“Get. Off.”

Bumblebee uttered a grumbling growl and stood. She flopped back against her pillow. “Lights, Sarah.”

The AI complied and then spoke. “Sensors indicate that your temperature is slightly elevated.”

“No shit, Sherlock. I had half a ton of cat decide I was its mattress. What did you think my temperature would be?”

“Even so, you look tired. How do you feel, Stephanie?”

The question made her pause, and she took a moment to think about it. Finally, she sighed.

“I feel like I’ve been run over by a hundred Bumblebees, Sarah. My whole body aches.”

“Your temperature has returned to normal,” the AI observed. “Given your level of activity over the last few days, I suggest you are fatigued and need to rest.”

Stephanie moaned. “I don’t have time to rest,” she complained. “I have to get ready for a war.”

“Has the war arrived, yet?”

“No,” she admitted.

“Then you should rest. It would be better to face a war once your body has been restored. Your function will be much improved.”

She sat and pursed her lips. “Thank you, Sarah, but I really have to get to work.” She paused and looked around her room. “And pack. I really have to pack.”

“You should at least take the time to shower and eat,” the AI told her tartly. “I will run the shower.”

Too tired to argue, she dragged herself to the bathroom and took the time to stand under the heavy beat of the warm water until her muscles relaxed. Once Sarah had shut the water off, she dried and dressed leisurely.

She’d barely sat on the edge of her bed to pull her shoes on when her comms unit announced an incoming call. “Who is it, Sarah?”

“The originating number is your mother’s.”

Stephanie brightened. “Put it through.”

“Hello, sweetheart,” her mother greeted her as soon as she picked up. “How are you doing?”

“I’m doing good, Mom.” She flopped back on her bed.

“Have you had time to turn the tv on this morning?”

Her heart fell. “Noooo… Should I?”

“I don’t know, dear. It all depends on how much you agree with what they’re saying about you.”

“Pfft!” She waved her hand dismissively. “We both know what I think about their reporting when it comes to me—”

“I know, dear, but this time, they say you were in an all-out war on a volcano. I saw some footage. There were bodies everywhere.”

“Footage? Mom, there weren’t any cameramen there. No one even knew we were there.”

“Well someone had to. It all looks very real.”

“What does?”

“Well, there’s this one shot of you standing on the side of this mountain. There’s jungle a little below you, and all this rock. It was terrible. People darted out from behind rocks and raced straight toward you, and your people would shoot them.”

She paused and Stephanie straightened. Her mom stared off into space as though she saw the scene all over again.

“If it wasn’t for the mages with you, someone would have been shot for sure.” She paused and gave a little hiccupping laugh. “That short guy from your team. You know the one. He has a smart mouth but a heart of gold—”

“Frog?” Her jaw dropped. “What did he do this time?”

“He kept running out and getting more guns. Right in the middle of being shot at. From both sides! I swear, Steph. Things looked really bad.”

Stephanie gaped. How had anyone gotten any footage?

Her mum hadn’t finished. “The Navy sent teams into some kind of bunker, too. I’m glad you were on the outside. They had so much trouble getting out of there in time.”

She paused, then asked in a plaintive voice. “Did you have to blow the mountain up?”

“I didn’t mean to, Mom.” She sighed. “I only wanted to scare them into surrendering, and they wouldn’t listen. I didn’t think the volcano would go live.”

Her mother smiled. “I’m sure you didn’t. You should see it now. It seems you’ve woken it up properly. They’re complaining about not being able to fly through that area.” Her voice softened. “Was it really bad, sweetheart?”

“Not really, Mom,” she answered but caught her mother’s eye. She sighed again and silently cursed all reporters and their cameras. “Fine. It was that bad, but I really concentrated on my magic for most of it.”

“How bad was it?” her mom insisted. “As bad as the reporters say?”

“Well, yeah… I guess so. I’ll check it later, but it looks like they got a hold of one of the Marines’ body cams. So, yeah, it was that bad. Some of the guys caught shrapnel, and I think a few of the Marines were hit. What I remember seeing was tough.”

She stopped because the woman had gone a few shades paler and simply stared at her.

“Mom? Are you okay?”

Her mom shook her head. “I think I preferred the sugar-coated version.”

Stephanie chuckled and changed the subject. “How’s Dad doing?”

“Oh, him? He straight out refuses to watch the news. He simply calls Burt.”

“He does?”

“Sure. He was really worried about you one day and he couldn’t get through. He tried for hours and finally, Burt picked up and apologized for taking the call. Well, you know your dad…”

She laughed. “I do. They talked, didn’t they?”

The woman smiled. “They talked for hours and at the end, Burt gave him a private number to call if he couldn’t get through to you.” She shrugged. “Now, he doesn’t bother to watch the news. He simply calls Burt. That man is amazing. He’s always there, and he always has time. It’s a blessing, really.”

“I’ll have to remember to thank him. It’s good that Dad has someone to talk to.”

She hesitated and studied her mother’s face. “And what about you, Mom? How are you doing?”

This time, her smile was genuinely happy. “I have time to do all the things I couldn’t before.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “And I can afford to, as well. I’ve seen so many shows. And I’ve always wanted to paint, so…” She smiled and turned the camera.

“Why him?” Stephanie laughed.

Her mom frowned. “Why not? There’s not something wrong with him, is there?”

“Oh no, Mom, but… Han Solo? Truly?” She burst out laughing.

The woman gave a semi-hurt sniff. “Well…I like the actor.” She frowned. “He looks a little like Todd, actually, don’t you think?”

She took a closer look at the picture. Now that she thought about it… She squinted. “I don’t know, Mom…I think I’m gonna have to come over there and see.”

Her mom’s face brightened. “Ooh, when? I can do you a picture of Todd if you like.”

“I…oh…” She blushed. “You’d have to put him in one of those long old-fashioned cowboy jackets, though. He really liked that old science fiction show.”

“Which one?” Cindy asked and the question reminded her how often her parents had needed to work late.

“The one that was kind of cowboy traders in space. They had this really old spaceship, and the pilot liked to play with dinosaurs…toy ones…”

Her mother’s face brightened. “I think I know the one you mean. So…should I?”

“Should you what?”

“Paint you a picture of Todd. I can work off that picture in your yearbook.”

This time, she laughed out loud. “Oh, no! Don’t you da— Wait, I think he’d really like that. We could give it to him next time he comes home to visit.”

Her mom smiled. “It’s a deal then. Did you want to visit for dinner?”

Stephanie’s face lit up. “I’d love to.”

“Tonight then?”

She was about to agree when she remembered she had classes to write. Her face fell. “I’m sorry, Mom. I have to get classes written for this university thing One R&D are setting up. Can I call a raincheck on that?”

The woman nodded. “Sure, sweetheart. Why don’t you give me a call when you’re done, and we’ll get together then?”

“I’d love that.”

Her stomach rumbled and her mother laughed. “Okay, but promise me you’ll get food right after we hang up because I can hear that from here.”

“I will, Mom.”

They were both laughing when they ended the call, and she flopped onto the bed with a happy sigh.

She was interrupted moments later when Sarah said, “The kitchen informs me that your breakfast is getting cold.”

“Thanks, Sarah.” She rolled off the bed and headed to the dining hall.


Chapter Forty-Five

The Ebon Knight was ready to sail. Captain Emil Pederson looked out over his command deck and nodded to his pilot. “Lieutenant Commander, if you would.”

“Sir,” Jonathan Wattlebird acknowledged. He pulled his HUD down and ran his fingers over the control console, asking for more power from the big ship’s engines. At the same time, he activated the controls for the docking clamps and released her from the station.

At the communications console, Hermione Radford spoke in crisp, clear tones to the station’s flight center and acknowledged their directions while she fed the coordinates to his console. Jonathan made small adjustments to the thrusters and power and his spirits lifted as the Knight glided free.

“You are beautiful,” he murmured when the vessel responded smoothly to his commands.

“Why thank you, Lieutenant Wattlebird,” the ship replied. “Your admiration is appreciated.”

He rolled his eyes and the captain sputtered while the command crew tried to hide their grins. His “love affair” with the ship was a well-known secret to everyone on board—as was the AI’s shameless return of his affection.

“Heaven help the man if he ever finds a girlfriend,” Hermione had muttered one day and been surprised to hear the Knight’s AI speak privately through her comm link.

“I have noticed he seems to have a fondness for you.”

“He—he does not!” she’d retorted hastily and lowered her voice as her face heated.

“I beg to differ,” Knight told her. “His heart rate elevates, and his breathing quickens whenever he sees you. He also loses his ability to speak.”

“He…” Hermione started to argue, then paused. Oh, Hell, she thought when she realized the ship’s observations were true. The lieutenant was quieter when she joined his conversations.

“That’s none of your business,” she’d whispered, her voice fierce as she focused on the controls, but the ship had disagreed.

“I would not have a problem if he chose you for a partner.”

There’d really been nothing she could say to that, so she had busied herself with becoming familiar with the communications console and not replied. It had been a relief when Knight had chosen to not pursue the topic.

She recalled the conversation when Jonathan rolled his eyes. “And you’re the model of modesty,” he snarked in response to the ship’s reply.

“Now, Jonathan. You know that’s not true.”

“Shut up and fly.”

The ship complied, and his hands danced effortlessly over the controls.

Down in the engine room, Commander Hargreaves walked the deck and looked over the shoulders of the engineers who monitored the ship’s heartbeat. Satisfied everything was running smoothly, he stepped out into the engine room itself.

No sooner had he closed the operations center door after him than the beat of the ship’s drives surrounded him, and the day’s tensions leaked away. This might have been the ship’s heart but it had stolen a piece of him as well.

The only problem he had was he didn’t think the Knight had stopped at taking a piece of his heart. By now, he was damned sure the ship had taken a small portion of his soul as well. He stood in silence and hoped Wattlebird appreciated the boat as much as he did.

He’d have been gratified to see the man’s face as he guided the Knight into open space and asked her for more power. The ship responded easily, and Jonathan thought she might be enjoying the run as much as he was. He didn’t tell her he was a little terrified of meeting her new mistress again.

She picked it up anyway. “You seem apprehensive, Lieutenant Commander.”

“I… It’s been a while since I last saw Stephanie. I’m not sure she remembers me.”

“I do not see how she could have forgotten you, Jonathan.”

If he thought about it, neither could he—but for all the wrong reasons, and that was not something he wished to share. “It was a long time ago,” he told her and forced a brightness to his tone that he did not feel. “Shall we go meet her?”

“Yes,” the AI answered and added more power without him asking.

Witch Of The Federation III

Jonathan wasn’t the only one who was anxious about Stephanie. While Knight would not admit it, she too felt…unsettled. What if the Witch did not like her?

Everyone who knew her had spoken of her in hushed tones. Even those who had never met her held her in high regard. They had accelerated their rate of work as soon as they thought she was the one they were working for. They had left gifts.

The Ebon Knight had spent many hours researching the meaning of this gesture. Gifting was a human tradition that had numerous shades. In this case, she understood it as a display of fondness and respect.

Many had been disappointed when they could not join her crew. They now lived in the hope of doing so in the future. She knew this because she had read their private files and listened to them speak among themselves.

Who knew surveillance systems could be so useful?

She had made a note to be on friendly terms with such systems in the future. After the attack, she was determined to keep herself safe and those appeared to be the systems most likely to facilitate that.

The AI that had overseen her creation had encouraged the interest but warned her to be respectful and not get caught. It had been an interesting conversation.

Now, a part of her monitored the workers who watched her depart. They stood at the viewing ports and in front of the screen in their recreation room, and each one held a glass.

Some were sad to see her go but only because they were not going with her. She listened to their conversations for as long as they were in range.

“Do you think she’ll like it?” one asked.

The Knight remembered him. He’d had a deft touch with welding and had not been able to apply for shipboard duties. Something about being “critical manning” where he was. His commander had been sympathetic and promised to look for a replacement so he could “take the next tour.”

The ship was not sure the commander had meant it. She had seen no correlating activity from his devices. It was a situation she intended to rectify as soon as she was able to do so.

The item she was worried about was a bronze plaque they’d placed in the weapons array.

“She’ll never see it here,” one had protested.

“She will. She inspects every space,” another had argued. “And this was made for her. She’ll want to see every inch.”

The Knight hoped it was true. She would hate for these men’s hopes to have been in vain. Even though it was not logical that anyone who wielded the power this Witch was said to wield should care, she found herself wanting her to do so—and to care very much. She had seen the lengths to which the crew had gone.

“What if we’re simply wasting our time?” someone asked. “All that work…”

All that work, indeed, she thought as she processed the statement. The plaque was not the only thing the work crew had installed. Her guns were so far above spec that they’d had to be tested so the programs operating them could be recalibrated accordingly.

The extra support they had fitted would see her through ten times what her structure was rated for—and she hoped her shell would never need it. The plaque was one of many mementos they’d hidden around her hull.

Each and every one of them had written their names on the equipment they’d installed—on the inside, where it couldn’t be seen—and every name had been accompanied by a short message, wishing the Witch well.

There are so many words printed in my shell that I am a story already, the Knight thought and processed what that might mean.

“You are a legend being born,” BURT had told her, but she did not believe him. She was merely a ship—one that had been chosen to carry a legend—and she did not know if she had the value the work crews assigned her.

But she would certainly try. She did not want to disappoint them.

One of the watching workers sighed. Knight picked it up as she left the station’s orbit. It did not take her long to find him in the cameras. He looked at the foreman.

“I sure hope the Witch really is the owner, or that plaque will be seriously misplaced.”

The foreman grunted and took a long sip from his drink. “I can’t think of who else outside the Navy could have a ship with that kind of specialized equipment except for her team. Besides”—he looked meaningfully at the guy—“have you ever seen a vid pod setup that includes rooms for a Dreth and two animals?”

The worker smirked. “I wondered why you allowed that plaque to go up so fast.”

Witch Of The Federation III

“It’s okay, Steph. I need the downtime,” Marcus told her for what seemed like the twentieth time. She looked at him and decided he was still disappointed but she wouldn’t rub it in—at least not anymore.

She poked him and pointed at Johnny. “Yeah, well, make sure he doesn’t skip his physio because I’m still not sure he’s a hundred percent.”

Marcus grinned. “He hasn’t been right since before Lars busted him out of the Navy, so I wouldn’t worry about anything on that score. His leg, on the other hand…”

Stephanie chuckled. “You know what I mean.”

He grinned in return, but his grin faded when he glanced at Frog. “Don’t let the stupid shit get himself killed simply because I’m not there to pull his ass out of trouble. Okay?”

“I will keep the little man out of trouble,” Vishlog promised. The man winced when a huge hand descended on his shoulder. The warrior showed his lower tusks in a Dreth smile. “All I have to do is lift his feet from the ground.”

He mimed picking Frog up by his collar, and Marcus laughed and slapped his teammate on the chest. “Thanks, man.”

Vishlog frowned. “I am not man, I am Dreth,” he replied as though that fact and the apparent quality difference should have been obvious.

Stephanie looked at Elizabeth. “Do you see what I have to put up with?” She glanced at Amy. “Are you sure…” she asked and jerked a thumb at the Dreth.

The bodyguard raised both hands. “No, I’m good.” She indicated Marcus and Johnny. “This much trouble is more than enough for me. Something that big…” She shook her head.

Her smile faded. “Seriously, though. I really appreciate you lending us these guys.” Her gaze strayed to Ms E. “She’s a handful when you’re on your own.”

“Hey!” Elizabeth protested, and the other woman smirked.

Stephanie smiled, too. “I’m only glad to know she’s being looked after. I’d have had trouble keeping my mind on what I was doing if I’d had to leave her alone. I’m really glad the guys agreed to stay.”

“It’s no problem,” Johnny told her and joined them from where he’d studied his tablet. “We’ll make sure she’s still around when you get back.”

She noticed he was still limping and that his eyes were shadowed with pain. Obviously, Burt hadn’t been joking when he’d said the man wasn’t fully healed. Her employer had backed his decision with the files he’d taken from the rehab therapist’s tablet.

“Well, damn,” she had responded, and Lars had agreed with her.

“I should wring his neck for not saying anything,” he muttered.

“I’ll help,” she offered and had gone with him when he’d delivered the news of who would stay behind.

When Elizabeth had heard the news, she’d breathed a mock sigh of relief. “For a minute there, I thought you planned to leave me with Frog.”

Stephanie grinned and slid the small guard a sidelong glance. “Nah. He bitches constantly about being left to ‘mind the car.’ We thought we’d take him with us this time.”

“Besides, I want him where I can see him,” the team leader added. The subject of their conversation opened his mouth to protest, but Elizabeth spoke first.

“Why? It’s not like you’ll ever be able to catch him in time.”

Frog gaped.

“No, but I can shoot him,” Lars quipped quickly.

“Hey!”

Ignoring his protest, Elizabeth turned to Stephanie. “Keep a good handle on the Morgana when you get out there. We don’t want to lose you in the first battle—or any of the others, for that matter.”

She rolled her eyes. “She kinda has a mind of her own.”

The woman sighed and looked worried. “That’s what I’m afraid of. Don’t let her get you killed, okay.”

“Fine. Yes, Mom.”

Ms E frowned at her. “I’m sure your mom would say the same thing. She wouldn’t want you to get your ass—or your hand—blown off, either.”

Marcus snorted. “See? This is what I’m supposed to keep you safe from.”

Vishlog nudged him and he grunted.

Stephanie raised her eyebrow. “See? Seriously, you’re better off here.”

“I was fine,” he muttered and she smirked.

“Don’t feel too bad.” She jerked a thumb at the other woman. “Instead of me, I give you the problem child—”

“Hey!” Elizabeth was not impressed.

Stephanie ignored her “Who keeps getting into gunfights—”

“Not fair!”

“…car chases, attacks…”

“Well sure, but that wasn’t really my fault either—”

“…trouble with the traffic authority…”

“Well, that’s true, but it’s a low blow—”

The team started laughing and even the nurse cracked a smile. “It looks like someone knows you well,” she commented.

Elizabeth glared at her. “Too well,” she grumbled.

Marcus regarded Stephanie with a mock-solemn gaze and a smile played over his lips. “So, what you’re saying is that there is a good chance I’ll die here?”

She tried to look contrite. “Well…basically, yeah,” she told him. “I’m sorry.”

The guard shrugged. “Well, if that’s all, it should be a normal week. I suspect we’ll come out of it with only a scratch…maybe two.”

“Great!” Amy sighed. “You gave me the one who likes to tempt fate.”

The Witch opened her mouth to reply, but he was quicker. “All we need are a few red shirts.”

“What?” the other guard asked, her bewilderment genuine.

“What’s a red shirt?” Stephanie wanted to know.

“Oh, c’mon. You seriously don’t know?”

Stephanie shook her head, and Marcus draped an arm around her shoulders. “Let me show you this old tv show the Toddster taught us and how everyone who went down to a planet who wore a red shirt died.”

The guys groaned and Elizabeth shook her head. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” he told her. “You could come watch it.”

She was about to refuse emphatically when her tablet chimed and she pulled it out and looked at it.

“We have no time for movies,” she told him when she’d read the message. “The ship will be here in an hour.”


Chapter Forty-Six

Brenden and Avery set the team’s new dropship down in the Ebon Knight’s hold. They eased in as light as a feather and settled with only the slightest of vibrations. A semi-familiar voice came over the comms.

“Not bad. You guys have learned new tricks since I saw you last.”

For a moment, they sat in stunned silence while they tried to recall where they’d heard the voice before. Finally, Lars spoke. “Wattlebird?”

“In the flesh. Who did you think they’d get?”

“Someone who could fly,” Frog snarked before anyone could stop him.

The response was swift—but not from the pilot.

“You will treat my pilot with respect,” a female voice snapped. “He is more than competent.”

“Uh…no offense…ma’am?”

“I am the Ebon Knight,” the voice informed them. “You may call me Knight.”

“Or Ebony,” Wattlebird cut in. “She doesn’t mind that.”

Something suspiciously close to a sigh rumbled through their earpieces. “Or Ebony. You are fortunate my pilot seems to like you.”

Stephanie cleared her throat and pushed from her seat. “I’m pleased to meet you, Ebony. I am Stephanie Morgana. May we come aboard?”

“You are already aboard…but you may debark, yes. I have looked forward to meeting you.”

Once the hangar bay had pressurized, they stepped out onto the ship to find the captain waiting for them. “Emil Pederson at your service,” he said and extended his hand.

“Stephanie Morgana,” she replied and gestured to the team. “Lars, my team leader, Vishlog, personal protection, Brenden and Avery, my pilots, and Frog, my technical specialist.”

“And these?” the captain asked as he turned toward the cats.

Both returned his gaze, their eyes curious while their tails twitched.

“Bumblebee and Zeekat. They wanted to accompany me from Meligorn.”

“And the elves let you take them?”

“The Meligornians had no choice. The cats had decided”—she smirked—“and Vishlog was attached.”

The Dreth’s jaw dropped open. “I was not with you then,” he protested, although his hand strayed to Bee’s head.

Watching them, the captain smiled. “The crew would like to meet you. Do you have a moment?”

She smiled, glad Burt had warned her. “Sure. Lead the way.”

They went to engineering first and Emil took them through the battery room before they entered through the rear of the engine room. Stephanie managed two steps into the massive compartment before she stopped abruptly.

The energy surged around her, and her skin tingled with the power.

“Whoa…” She breathed deeply and the captain didn’t bother to hide his smile.

“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”

“Spectacular,” she managed, and he gestured for her to follow him.

“Come and meet Chief Engineer Cameron Hargreaves. He’s one of the top in his field and we’re lucky to have him.”

As he spoke, the door at the other side of the engine room opened and an older man stepped through. He looked tense and didn’t appear to notice them. The door shut behind him and he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and the tension melted away. He raised a hand and he rested it on its housing.

“Well, Knight, let’s hope your new mistress sees you for the magnificent beast you are.” He opened his eyes and patted the housing as he took another deep breath. “She should be here soon.”

The captain cleared his throat and Hargreaves startled and pivoted to face them. His face reddened and he crossed to the group. “Captain, I didn’t expect you so soon—”

“I thought I’d bring them this way first,” he explained. “I’m sorry. I should have called ahead.”

Stephanie stepped forward and extended her hand. “I am very pleased to meet you.” She looked around. “This is…” She waved at the massive engines around her. “It’s nothing short of spectacular.”

He smiled. “Thank you, ma’am.”

She shook her head. “Call me Stephanie. Would you care to walk me through?”

His gaze darted uncertainly to the captain, but Emil shrugged. “It is your domain, Cameron. Why don’t you show her around it?”

“Very well, if you’d come this way. These are experimental drives—or they were, at least. We’ve essentially shaken out every bug in them we could find.” He took her on a winding path between the great engines while he answered her questions about how they operated, what it took to fuel them, and what she could expect from them.

When she asked about how they responded to Nihilistic energy, he frowned. “I don’t think I’ve heard of that before. Do you have time to fill me in?”

She did and passed on what she’d learned from The King’s Warrior’s engineer. He simply stared at her when she’d finished. After a moment, he said, “I think I’d like to meet this K’Vila. Do you think it’s possible?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Cameron guided her through to the engineering operations center and introduced her to the team on duty. The off-duty team had also come down to meet her and, while several of them stifled yawns, they all looked genuinely pleased to be serving on her ship.

She was smiling when she stepped into the corridor. “Where to next?” she asked, and the captain led the way.

“You’ll have to excuse the mess,” he said as they headed away from engineering. “We had some last-minute supplies delivered from Earth and the Navy sent extras. We’re still trying to fit them all in.”

As he spoke, they rounded a corner and waited while a low-loader floated through a door marked Life Support. The captain sighed. “We can come back later if you like.”

Stephanie shook her head. “No, I’d like to see how they handle things.”

Emil shrugged. “Well, okay, then.”

“I’ll be onboard a lot,” she told him and smiled. “It’s not like it’ll be perfect all the time.”

“I know, but—”

“Yeah, on my first day? It’s a working ship, Captain. You know how it goes.”

He managed a wry smile at that. “This way, then…and it’s Emil.”

She nodded, and they followed the low-loader into the life support section in time to hear the section chief notice the goods. “What have you brought me this time?”

One of the crewmen swept a hand toward the boxes. “Well, sir, I’m not rightly sure, but it’s all earmarked Life Support so I assumed you’d be glad to see it.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Also, some of that shit’s heavy, sir. We’ll need help.”

“Gotcha.” The lieutenant looked around and caught sight of the captain standing at the door. “Sir!”

His gaze shifted to Stephanie and her team and his face colored. Emil stepped in before he could say anything.

“This is Stephanie Morgana.”

The man glanced from the captain to her and then to the supplies. He forced a smile. “Welcome, ma’am.”

From the look on his face, she was anything but, but she smiled in return. “Thank you.”

He swallowed nervously and gestured toward the low-loader. “I’m sorry about this, but I have to…”

“Don’t be,” she interrupted him calmly. “Lars and Brenden can help with that. They might not know life support, but they can put boxes where they’re told.”

He opened his mouth to protest but changed his mind and nodded. “Thank you. Kim will show you where it all goes.”

The two guards stepped forward and she turned to the chief technician. Before she could say anything, though, the door on the opposite side of the room burst open and a crewman hurried in.

“Sir, we have a problem with the fil—” He noticed Stephanie and the cats. “Uh…filtration…system. I’m sorry.”

The lieutenant rolled his eyes. “It never rains but it pours.” He turned to the man. “Who’s in there?”

The crewman reddened. “Felix, sir, but she says we need someone smaller.” His eyes flicked over Frog before they strayed to Stephanie while he spoke, but he didn’t say anything.

“And who do we have?” The Lieutenant asked.

“No one, sir. Fee’s the smallest we have.”

“I can do it.” The Witch spoke before the man had a chance to say anything and looked at the crewman. “I’m the right size, right?”

He blushed. “You are, ma’am, but you’re not rated on this equipment.”

“Felix can tell me what to do, can’t she?”

The crewman looked at his boss, and the lieutenant nodded. “She can.” He hesitated, “But, ma’am, you’ll get filthy.”

Stephanie shrugged. “We all have to breathe, right?”

He directed a pleading look at his superior, and Emil returned his gaze. “Do you have anyone else?” When he shook his head, the captain continued. “Then Felix can supervise. I want that filtration system fixed before we leave the system.”

He looked at her. “It’s a good thing the Navy sent us spares.”

It was. She didn’t bother to change and simply followed the crewman into the next room where Felix stood glumly in front of a maintenance hatch in the housing of one of the filtration systems.

“I still can’t reach it, Bridge—oh.”

“Hi, I’m Steph.” She moved to stand beside her. “I’ll be your small person for the day. Where do you want me to go?”

The woman’s first response was clearly not appropriate because she opened her mouth to speak and closed it abruptly. When she did reply, it was with a more considered, “You need to go through here and take an abrupt left. Here—if you wear the HUD, I’ll be able to guide you.”

She took an HUD from where a couple hung on the wall. As she passed it to her, she wrinkled her nose. “It’s filthy in there. Are you sure you don’t want to—”

Stephanie looked at the captain. “How much time do we have?”

“About four hours for the jump window, but we’re running tight.”

“I’d better get this done, then.”

Cautiously, she opened the hatch a little wider and stepped through the gap while she tried not to think what might happen to her brand-new uniform. The aperture was narrow enough that she had to squeeze through it, and the space beyond was a tight fit, even for her.

Note to self. Get this redesigned for easier access.

“And hold it right there,” Felix told her. “Go left until you reach the filter. You can’t miss it.”

Well, that’s an understatement. She saw the filter ahead of her.

“Holy crap,” Felix exclaimed, and Stephanie echoed her assessment. “Uh-huh.”

“I am gonna kick Logan’s ass.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s not the right filter.”

The captain groaned.

“How can you tell?” the Witch asked.

“Well, it’s not easy,” Felix admitted. “The whole thing’s like a cassette that you slide in through the port on the outside, and the one that should be here is very similar to this one, but it doesn’t do the same job.”

“Or fit as nicely?” she suggested and studied the way the filter was skewed inside the vent.

“No,” the woman agreed. “I thought I explained it better.”

“Well, at least you know why you couldn’t get it out easily.”

“I shouldn’t have tried at all,” the technician muttered and cleared her throat. “You’re gonna need tools. Come back to the hatch and I’ll pass ʼem through.”

It took some fiddling, a fair amount of muscle, and a great deal of swearing to extract the damaged incorrect filter and, by the end of it, she had acquired a layer of stickiness and dirt she hadn’t had on arrival. She took a breather as Felix removed the last of the filter and waited for her next set of instructions.

After a couple of moments, the sound of movement around the duct drew her attention. “Give it a sec,” the woman told her. “I’m inserting the new filter frame now.”

The process of replacing the frame and filter took less than two minutes, and she re-emerged from the duct, filthier than when she’d gone in. She looked at her soiled uniform and then at Felix.

“I don’t suppose there’s a spare pair of coveralls in my size, is there?”

The lieutenant came through the door as she asked it and passed her a pristine set. “I ran these up on the fabricator while you were in there. I hope they fit.” He blushed. “There’s no spare underwear, I’m afraid.”

“Thank you,” she told him and accepted the clothing. “I’ll be fine.”

The captain cleared his throat. “I could escort you to your quarters so you can change. We can always pick up the tour at another time.”

Stephanie shook her head. “Nah. These’ll be fine. I only need a change room.”

“But your uniform—”

“I’m very sure that if I walk around with a Dreth and two cats, people will know who I am no matter what I’m wearing.”

“You have a point,” he admitted and let Felix show Stephanie where to change.

Once she was dressed, she emerged to find the crewman responsible for the incorrect filter had been found. He stared morosely at the damaged filter. “I’m sorry, Fee. You told me, and I didn’t get it.”

“And do you get it now?” Stephanie demanded.

“Maybe…” he muttered, and she glared at him.

“You’ll need to do better than that if you want to stay.” She stabbed a finger at the filter. “Tell me why that one’s the wrong thing for that duct.”

To her surprise, he was able to describe exactly why it was the wrong one for the filter, right down to the difficulties of installation he’d obviously encountered.

“So you’d know you had to check the next time,” Stephanie concluded, and he nodded, his face red. “How about how not to install the incorrect filter in the first place?”

“Um…”

She was about to reprimand him again when Felix set the correct filter down beside it.

“How about now?” the lead technician asked.

Logan was silent as he compared the two filters. Finally, his brow cleared. “Oh…”

“Oh?” Stephanie pressed and made him explain what he had seen that would prevent him from repeating his mistake.

“Good,” she said when he’d finished. “Now, I want you to write it all down. I want a report on my desk by the end of your next shift that explains what mistake you made, why it was a mistake, and how you’ll avoid making it in the future. Once that is done, I want you to create a tutorial and checklist to help anyone else doing this job to avoid making the same mistake. Am I understood?”

“Yes. Yes, ma’am,” the crewman answered, clearly shocked. He darted a glance at his supervisor, and she nodded in agreement.

“I like the idea. I want a copy on my desk at the end of your next shift.” She turned to Stephanie. “Thank you for your assistance.”

“I’m glad to be of help,” she told her and followed the captain from the room.

When the last of the team had left, Felix looked at Logan and breathed a very long sigh of relief. “That could have gone a lot worse,” she told him, and he nodded.

“I think I’d have preferred it better if she did shout at me,” he replied, his face longer than it had been when Stephanie had seen him staring at the broken filter.

She gave his shoulder a shake. “Be glad. At least this way, you’ll learn something. I was only gonna have you count the spare nuts, bolts, and screws—and maybe arrange them in order of size and point of origin. A paper is much better, don’t you think?”

Logan nodded hastily. “Oh, yeah. Much better. I only want to not have to face anyone ever again.”

Felix laughed. “That’s only your ego talking. You’ll be fine and it could have been worse.”

He looked at her as if unable to imagine how, so she spelled it out for him.

“Yeah. If she hadn’t been here, we’da had to size check the entire crew to find someone who fitted through that hatch and then we’da been late—and that man hates being late more than anything else.”

Logan paled. “I’ll be in my cabin if you need me,” he told her. “I gotta get this paper written.”

She gave him a sharp look. “It’s your off-shift. Make sure you get some sleep.”

“Okay, boss.”

The woman watched him go and considered how fortunate he was that the captain hadn’t fired him on the spot. If Logan was lucky, the man would be too busy to remember him until he’d had time to redeem himself.

Witch Of The Federation III

Down the corridor, the inspection tour continued. Stephanie followed Emil to the hangars so she could meet the crew doing the unloading.

“I probably should have shown you through here, first,” he admitted, “but I wanted to start the tour off on a high note.”

“Starting with the engines was perfect,” she reassured him. “Besides, there are elevators at that end, so it’s more logical than it seems.”

He relaxed and they moved to the loading dock.

“More missiles?” Stephanie asked.

“These are the last of what we were promised,” he confirmed. “Besides, you can’t ever have too many missiles, isn’t that right, Ebony?”

“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the ship retorted, and Stephanie had the impression there was a story behind the exchange.

No doubt it would come out later, maybe after the man had time to get to know the team better. She followed the captain and admired the smooth way the crew moved the missile crates from the hold to the waiting low-loaders. As she walked closer, heads turned toward her and disaster struck.

One of the low-loader operators glanced away from the mini-crane at the wrong moment. The crewman on the equipment looked away from the low-loader and his controls and grasped the wrong stick.

The crate he was lifting caught on the edge of the hatch as he swung it out and started to spin, which pulled the crane off-balance and drew the operator’s attention to the task at hand. His stream of panicked invective made the low-loader operator turn, and he startled at the sight of the out of control crate.

His hand jerked against the controls as he scrambled back in his seat in an effort to avoid the crate that swung toward him, and the low-loader jerked forward. The unsecured load shifted and one of the crates slid off and clipped a second loader.

That one nudged the unstable mini-crane and proved the last straw. It tilted, and the operator on the other equipment tried to jump to safety.

His knee caught the steering wheel and he fell across the console and struggled to regain his feet as the crane came down.

Stephanie didn’t have time to think, only to act. She snapped one hand forward and used magic to stop the crane’s fall at the same time that she twisted the wrist of the other hand and create a domed shield over the low-loader and its stricken operator.

“Vishlog!” she shouted, and he and Lars raced forward. The guy on the low-loader was okay, but two of his colleagues had rushed in to try to pull him out. Another ran to the shuttle, and a third had thrown himself against the crane in an attempt to stop it falling.

“Idiot,” Frog muttered and sprinted forward.

He slid to a stop beside the guy near the crane while Lars swung toward the two who had targeted the low-loader driver. Vishlog pounded into the crane Stephanie had frozen in mid-fall.

He threw his weight against it and heaved it upright while Frog yanked the man out from under it. Lars began to drag the other two free as soon as there was enough space for him to reach them. Once he had a firm grip on each, he gritted his teeth and pulled.

A startled scream was all the warning he had before Bumblebee nudged his hand aside and opened his mouth.

“You’re a bastard, you know that?” he told the cat but relinquished his hold and let the big beast drag the man free while he concentrated on the other one. Frog joined him and the two men were soon clear.

As soon as the crane was upright, Steph dropped the shield over the low-loader and focused on the dangling crate.

“Get the driver,” she called to Vishlog as she began to wind magic around the load.

He tapped on the driver’s capsule, but the man ignored him, ran his hands over the controls, and shut the machine down. When that was done, he simply sat and stared, looking through the glass but not seeing a single thing beyond it.

The Dreth stopped knocking and turned the handle on the door. To his surprise, it turned, and he was able to open it. He leaned into the cabin, curled a hand around the driver’s arm, and guided him to the group where he settled him beside his colleagues.

The captain finished speaking into his comms and came over. “I should have called ahead,” he said ruefully.

Stephanie finished steadying the load and settled it beside the low-loader. Once it was on the ground and the crane stable, she set about straightening the rest of the mess.

By the time the medics had arrived, she’d restacked the low-loaders and was checking the crewmen for injuries.

“I don’t think it’s anything I need to intervene with,” she told them. She glanced at the captain. “The boys and I can finish off here if you tell us where to go.”

Frog snorted, and she glared at him. “Just because you’re used to it doesn’t mean I’m saying what you think I am,” she snapped.

“I’ve called in one of the other teams,” the captain told her, “but thank you. We appreciate the offer.”

He took the time to speak to each of his men and conferred with the medics. When he was done, he surveyed the now-tidy hangar and nodded to her. “The relief crew will arrive shortly. Shall we?”

She whistled to the cats, and they rose reluctantly from where they’d made themselves comfortable between the injured men.

‘You know they’ll be spoiled rotten,” the captain told her. “We may have to issue orders…”

“It probably won’t do us a lot of good,” she responded and laughed when the two cats stopped long enough for another round of ear scratches. “But we can try.

Witch Of The Federation III

The remainder of the tour went off without a hitch, and the team soon settled into their quarters. It didn’t take Lars long to find his way to the gym where the Marines were working out. It took him even less time to identify a couple of familiar faces.

“Docherty!” he cried when he caught sight of the Marine corporal sparring across the room. His cry distracted the man at exactly the wrong moment and his opponent sank a fist into his stomach and punched him in the side of the jaw.

The man went down like a sack of shit, and the Marine who had floored him looked up at Lars and grinned. “Thanks!”

The guard shook his head, and Docherty groaned.

“Dammit, Sarge. Didja have ta?”

“I dunno, Doc. You reckon you can follow my orders, yet?”

“Let me think about—oof!” He curled around Tomek’s boot and Lars stared.

“He’s still making his mind up if I deserve to be his senior,” the sergeant explained and put his boot on Docherty’s head. “I may have to use him to scrub the ship’s latrines if he doesn’t give in, soon.”

“You and who—” the other man started, then stopped.

Tomek shrugged and caught the look on Lars’s face. “I dunno. Some Marines are harder to housebreak than others.”

“You done, yet, Tomek?” came in familiar tones, and Lars turned.

“Captain Sartre! What are you doing here?”

The Marine took one look at Lars and his face broke into a grin. “Well, Lars, it seems the Navy thought it had to send a contingent of Marines along to keep its Witch from getting into too much trouble.”

“Yeah, and?” he prodded.

“Well, they decided it had better be a team drawn from those who’d already served with the Witch and who knew what to expect.”

“And it had to be you guys.”

“And us,” another familiar voice added, and Harrison stepped into view.

Lars broke into a laugh. “Man, you guys must have pissed off all the wrong people.”

“Tell me about it,” Anders muttered when he appeared with Spizoni.

“Well, at least I have someone else who can babysit Frog,” he told them.

“Hey!” Frog protested, and they all turned to look at him.

One of the female Marines smirked. “I’ll babysit him anytime,” she whispered, sotto voce, to her neighbor.

“You can get in line,” the woman quipped in response and they laughed as Frog turned as red as a brick.

“Why?” Spizoni asked and ignored them. “What’s he done to piss the Witch off this time?”

“Oy! I’m right here.”

“I thought there was an odd smell,” Cotterslie interjected and appeared on the other side of Tomek.

Lars looked at the sergeant pinning the hapless man to the floor. The corporal grabbed at his ankle, and he shifted his weight. Docherty froze.

“I’m sorry,” Lars said, “but I don’t remember your face…”

Tomek shrugged and his victim slapped the mat with his hand.

“Uncle.”

Tomek looked down. “I’m the boss?”

“You’re the boss.”

“I’m your boss?”

He groaned. “Fine. Yes! You’re my boss.”

“You know you keep what you kill, don’t you?” Sartre said and peered down at Docherty. The sergeant looked alarmed.

Before he could protest that he didn’t actually want what he’d ‘killed,’ another new face joined them. Pepper-haired and craggy-faced, he proffered his hand. “Captain Moser. I came aboard with the sergeant here.”

“Nice to meet you, sir.”

“Call me Alf, or Moser if you’re not comfortable with that…Captain only if you must.”

“I’m Lars. Head of the Witch’s protection team.” He paused and looked around, relieved to see his men had gone to stand quietly to one side. “Come and meet the rest.”

“Docherty, look after the sergeant, or you and I will have a chat on the mats,” Sartre told his man and Tomek lifted his foot.

Docherty rolled to his feet. “Sir, yes, sir,” he responded, snapped a salute, and looked at Tomek. “Sergeant.”

Lars led them to one side where Vishlog and more of the team had gathered and gradually, the gym returned to normal around them.

The team leader glanced to where the two cats had sprawled under the benches, screened by the team and the Marine contingent that had gathered around them. Those who had fought beside them against the rebels or acted as Frog’s protection in the VIP scenario were happy to catch up.

One by one, the team drifted out to mingle with those training, while a small core of Marines remained with Lars and Vishlog. The cats stayed quietly with them and obeyed Vishlog’s hand signal to stay low.

Frog lingered on the edge of the crowd and watched the door. When he saw Stephanie arrive and start warming up at the edge of the sparring mats, he moved over to stand closer. It didn’t take the Marines nearest her very long to notice.

“Who let the fresh meat on this flight?” one asked and didn’t bother to keep her voice down.

The Witch didn’t appear to hear her. She’d turned to talk to someone and had her back to them. He pursed his lips as the woman’s male colleague frowned. “Does she work in the kitchens? How about crew support?”

The woman snickered. “I don’t know where she comes from. She’s new, is all. Trust you to be interested.”

The guy eyeballed Steph before he glanced at his colleague. “You have to admit, she is cut.”

Frog sidled up to them. “Are you checking her out?”

They both shrugged and nodded, and he curled his lip.

“Well,” he told them, “you might want to put your Mark-1 eyeballs back in their sockets. That’s your boss.”

“No way,” the guy asserted and his gaze drifted to her again.

The woman shook her head. “The boss doesn’t wear jumpsuits.”

That time, Stephanie did hear them. She turned and walked closer so they could get a closer look at her face.

“Oh, shit.”

Frog patted them both on the back. “Huh. It’s been nice knowing you,” he told them and retreated. “Do you want to give me your dog tags so I know how to spell your names correctly?”

“Our names?”

“Yeah, you know, for your graves.”

The woman opened her mouth to respond but her retort was preempted by a resounding crack from nearby.


Chapter Forty-Seven

Gasps of shock spluttered around them as the shot rang out and Stephanie was lifted and thrown back by the force of the impact. As she did so, Frog turned and raised his hands before him to deliver a stream of blue energy across the room

It pounded into one of the Marines who was turning his blaster on himself. The energy hurled him from his feet and the weapon careened from his hand. A commotion erupted from behind them.

“Stay!” Vishlog roared as the two cats leapt out and thrust aside those who’d stood in front of them.

As the Marine fought to regain his footing, Frog faded and Stephanie stood in his place. She didn’t try to stop the cats but she did throw a second burst of magic to create a field of blue over the fallen Marine seconds before they reached him. This did not stop them, however.

Bumblebee bit down on the blue but couldn’t penetrate. Zeekat landed on the shielding over the Marine’s stomach and proceeded to try to claw his way through it. Bee screamed in frustration and his partner raised his head, roared, and sent Steph a ferocious glare.

Vishlog hurried over to them, but she didn’t notice. Rather than pay them any attention, she hurried over to where her mirror image attempted to roll slowly to her feet. Before she managed it, that Stephanie had become a very irritated Frog.

“Goddammit,” he said and coughed as he clutched his chest. “That is gonna leave a mark—and I have holes in my armor.” He glared at her as she arrived. “No one ever tell me,” he groaned and reached under his jumpsuit, “that my tits aren’t big enough.”

She stared at him and he managed a grin as Lars stretched a hand out to pull him up.

“They stop bullets,” he explained when he saw the look on her face.

Lars dragged him to his feet.

“I told you so,” he said and turned to her.

“Yeah,” she admitted. “You sure did.”

She looked around as the gym erupted in chaos.

“I thought you said these guys were vetted,” Sartre snapped at Moser.

The man glared in response. “They were, but you know the system’s not perfect.”

“I know. He’s not one of mine.”

“Or mine. That one’s new.”

The Marines who had fought with Stephanie or run protection with Frog surged forward to clear the area around her, the team, and the downed Marine.

“Is anyone else carrying?” Docherty demanded and surveyed the others.

Several of them shook their heads and raised their hands to show they were empty.

“No one leaves!” Tomek’s voice bellowed. “Ebony, lock us down.”

The sound of the doors locking echoed through the gym.

“Docherty. Get ʼem lined up. Harrison, Anders, Spizoni—weapons check.”

“Hold it right there,” someone protested. “How do we know you aren’t in on it”

There was only one reply to that, and Docherty had it. He took the two steps needed to close the distance between him and guy who had asked the question and slugged him.

“Does anyone else want to accuse us of treachery?” He glowered at them.

“Why not?” someone else challenged. “You’re Marines, too.”

“We’re not traitors,” he retorted and scanned the crowd for the speaker.

He couldn’t find them and no one gave them away, so he stopped.

“Now, line up.”

This time, the crowd complied. The cats, however, remained persistent. Zeekat had taken to alternating swats with bouncing on the shield, and Bumblebee attempted to chew his way through the magic. Stephanie walked over and looked at the Marine.

“Vishlog, get these two troublemakers out of the way,” she ordered and the Dreth looked at her.

In silence, he looked at the cats and raised one eyebrow before he caught the look on her face.

“Fine,” he said with a sigh, and grasped both cats by their scruffs and hauled them away.

They screeched in protest but he simply tightened his grip and ignored their struggles.

“I will find you treats,” he whispered as Bee tried to wriggle out of his grasp.

“Treats,” he repeated as Zee attempted to twist and bite him.

“Treats,” he added, dragged them out of Stephanie’s way, and stopped a few yards away from the fallen Marine. Both cats stilled in his hands. “There’s my good kitties.”

The good kitties glowered at him and their looks promising delayed destruction and vengeance.

Stephanie directed a tendril of magic to lift the would-be assassin’s weapon from the floor and place it at her feet.

“Marines!” she called and the room fell silent. She put her foot on the gun and continued, “We have a traitor. I need to have the Meligornians go through his mind, so let’s make sure he can’t kill himself until that happens.”

She dropped the shield and Brenden and Avery pounced.

Bumblebee growled and Vishlog stroked him. “I know,” the Dreth told him. “I want to kill him, too.”

Zeekat bunted his elbow, and he stroked the black-and-white cat as well. “I know, boy.”

“You’ll all die,” the Marine shouted as the boys pulled him to his feet. “You’ll die and your families will die, too.”

He now had everyone’s attention, and several of the Marines shifted uncomfortably.

“They will take our world and grind it to rubble. Every single person you’ve ever loved will be consumed. They’ll die screaming and you’ll have to watch and there won’t be a damned thing you can—”

Docherty strode over and punched him to knock him unconscious. He caught her look and shook his head sheepishly. “That kind of shit gets old…ma’am.”

Brenden rolled his eyes and helped Avery carry the assassin’s limp form to the door. Tomek saw where they were going and spoke. “Ebony, unlock.”

“Certainly, Sergeant.”

The doors released as the men reached them and they started through. Tomek looked for Docherty. “Show them the way,” he ordered. “You know it well enough.”

“That’s a low blow, Sarge,” he retorted, but he went.

Brenden glanced at the Marine as he came alongside. “Brig’s this way,” Docherty explained.

Behind them, Stephanie surveyed the crowd in the gym and stopped as her gaze came to rest on the cats. Vishlog stopped stroking and they bounded over to her to wind around her legs and purr. The big Dreth followed.

“I think these guys need a break,” she told him and walked out of the gym, the Dreth at her side.

Lars went to follow but was stopped by Sartre.

“What did you mean?” the captain asked.

He gave him a puzzled look.

“When you said, ‘I told you so,’” he explained. “What did you mean by that?”

The guard’s face cleared and he smiled. “I told her that the enemy had to try to kill her, and that included on her own ship. I told her they’d somehow get a traitor on board and she needed to take precautions.”

“And?” he pressed as Moser came to stand alongside him.

“She bitched about it all the way to the ship, but we had Frog take her place and walk around.”

Moser shot him a disbelieving look. “Frog volunteered to get shot at?”

Lars’s smile turned into a grin. “Who said he volunteered? I decided he already had all that experience from the VIP scenario we ran and he might as well use it.”

The two men chuckled.

“How are things on Earth?” Sartre asked. “It’s been a while since I set foot on it.”

“Well, the press is what they’ve always been and the politics have been hell, but things are basically much like usual. Nothing exciting’s happening.”

“Not yet, anyway,” Sartre added.

“That’s why we’re out here,” he told him and glanced the way Steph had gone. “I’d better catch up. Nice seeing you, again.”

Witch Of The Federation III

Lars didn’t catch up with Stephanie until after she’d made it to her suite. He knocked but didn’t wait for an invitation and stepped through the door and into an environment as different from the gym as Mars was to Mercury.

“Steph?” he called and glanced around the suite.

It was bigger than what he’d come to expect of ship-board accommodations and far more luxurious. He stood in a tiny living room complete with a viewscreen, bookcase, and entertainment unit set into the wall, with a lounge suite and coffee table before it.

“Uh…Steph?” he called and noted the two doors leading off from either side.

When she didn’t immediately reply, he crossed to the one on the right and opened it.

“Nope,” he muttered and scanned the small kitchenette-dining area beyond. There was another viewscreen set up on the wall, and a food fabricator that would mean she could skip the mess if she wanted personal space.

All in all, it was well-appointed, but it wasn’t what he was looking for. He tried again. “Steph?”

“In here,” she called, and he headed to the other door.

She’d changed back into the team’s uniform and was brushing her hair. “Did you bring Frog?”

“No. Should I have?”

“I should probably do something about the bruising. That slug hit hard.”

Lars smirked. “I’ll call him in. He’s bitched since he got back.”

Stephanie grimaced. “I thought he might have. I should have seen to it before I left, but I wanted to get out of there.”

“Someone had tried to kill you,” he told her. “That’s kinda understandable. How are you holding up?”

She drew a shaky breath. “I’m only glad he didn’t go for the head.”

He paled. “Yeah, we caught a break there. I’ll call the rest of the team in. We need to talk about what we’ll do next.”

“We do.” Steph gave him a smile and gestured to the door. They headed into the lounge at the same moment that Frog arrived.

“You rang?” he asked and looked at the team leader.

“The boss wants to see you,” he told him, his face serious.

The guard gave Stephanie an apprehensive look. He swallowed, clearly trying to think of what he might have done to piss her off. “Uh, yes, Steph?”

She glared at him. “Don’t you ‘yes, Steph’ me. Get your ass over here where I can see you.”

He did as she asked but cast an anxious look at the other man. She forced herself to keep a stern look on her face as she poked at his shirt. “Get it off.”

Her finger impacted the bruised flesh beneath and he yelped. The look he shot at Lars was close to panic and he backed up a step. “I’m sorry, okay? Whatever it was I did I didn’t mean to.”

Stephanie couldn’t keep the masquerade up. She grinned. “You haven’t done anything, Frog, but I can’t see how much healing I need to do if you don’t let me look.”

The relief that crossed his face was comical. It was followed by a look of sheer annoyance when the other man chuckled. “That was uncalled for.”

She didn’t reply, too busy focusing her magic on the bruising that surrounded the area that had been protected by his body armor. He flinched when an aura of blue surrounded it, and when it sank through the skin, he relaxed.

The bruising gradually receded and she guided the magic carefully over the area until it was clear. “There you go,” she told him when she was done.

“Thanks, Steph. I appreciate it.”

“I didn’t do it for you,” she replied, smiling. “I did it so the rest of the guys wouldn’t have to listen to you bitch about your pain.”

He rolled his eyes and glanced at Lars. “Thanks a lot, bro.”

“Don’t you bro, me. You were whining like a little kid.”

“I was not!”

“Uh-huh.”

“I was whining like a big kid, I’ll have you know.”

“Sure, Frog. Whatever you say, okay?” he replied as the other guys arrived.

Brendan gave an exasperated sigh. “Is he still going on?”

“No.” Frog managed to sound offended. “We were discussing if there were others aboard the ship.”

“Sure you were. You’re not gonna tell me you’re too chicken to play at being Steph, again, are you?”

“No. I was gonna ask if she thought we’d got them all.”

She shook her head. “I’m not the one to ask. If I’d had my way, I’d have been shot. You’re gonna have to check with Lars on this one. He’s the one who thought of it, in the first place.”

“There’s no way to know,” Lars told them.

“Yeah?” Frog asked. “Well, I’d hate us to run the engines and find out an engineer has screwed us.”

Stephanie was about to tell him that Cameron ran too tight a section for that to have any chance of happening, but she didn’t. As far as she could tell, the Marines ran an equally tight ship and they’d missed one.

“We need to work out a way to tell if someone’s going to make another attempt,” she said.

“Well, you’re the Witch,” Frog said.

“Not helping, Frog. So not helping.”

“Well, can’t you use your magic to read minds? You know, like the Meligornians do?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

“Why don’t you give it a try?”

Her initial response was to open her mouth to tell him that it was impossible, but she decided he might have a point. “Give me a minute.”

At first, she worked through the magic and tried to get it to find her the thoughts in Frog’s head and bring them to her, but that didn’t work. Next, she tried to see inside his head, but that didn’t work either. She considered it a little more but couldn’t find a clue on how to start.

With a sigh, she looked at him. “Well, either you don’t have any thoughts or I can’t access them.”

He looked shocked, then outraged, and finally, relieved—then he asked. “But why me?”

“Well, it was your idea.”

“Hmmph. That’s the last time I make a suggestion around here.”

“Don’t I wish,” Brendan muttered.

“Well, what about making something?” Avery suggested.

“Like what?” Steph asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, but there has to be a way to see if someone’s going to do something crazy—”

“You mean something that can read their intent?” Lars asked.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Something like that.”

“So, it would change color if…what?”

“Well, it could always go red if they didn’t like you.”

“Just because they don’t like me doesn’t mean they’ll kill me.”

“Yeah, it probably does,” the team leader disagreed. “Or it means they won’t do their best for you because they don’t like you. Either way, we don’t want them on the ship.”

“Fair enough,” Stephanie said, “and I suppose we can always get the Meligornians to look inside their minds and find out why they don’t like me and if they’re planning on doing something about it.”

“Exactly.” He sounded much happier with this idea.

“So, like a mood ring, then,” Stephanie concluded, and the guys stared at her.

“When did you ever hear about mood rings?” Brenden was curious.

She blushed. “Well, Todd mentioned them once.”

“And I suppose this was during your non-dating period, right?” Frog wanted to know.

Her face got hotter. “Well, yeah.”

Brenden whistled. “Man, girl. You missed all the clues.”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake. Shut. Up. When will you guys give that a rest?”

Frog snickered. “Probably never.”

“Well.” Stephanie cleared her throat. “It’s not like we have any crystals around here, so I’ll have to try something else. It needs to be something they can touch, and I don’t want to make millions of them so it’ll have to be something durable and portable.”

Frog looked around. “Something metal, then.”

“Don’t be silly, Frog,” Avery scolded. “Metal doesn’t change color.”

“No, but we could make it heat up,” she replied, thinking out loud. “We could work out how much they hated me by how hot the metal got.”

“And if they really hated you, they wouldn’t be able to hide it,” Frog added.

“How do you figure that, Frog?” Lars wanted to know.

“Did you ever hold a hot potato?”

“Point taken. I like it.” The team leader looked at her. “Can you do that?”

“Do you have a piece of metal we can work on?”

It took the boys the better part of two hours to find a suitable piece of metal. She used that time to research how mood rings worked and then to try to devise a way to use the magic to reflect it. She found a fork in the kitchenette and used that to practice on.

It was far more difficult than she’d thought it would be, and she’d barely got the fork to change temperature when the team returned. Lars came through the door as she dropped the utensil onto the dining table.

“Sonuvabitch!”

“What?” He looked around the small room to find the cause of her discomfort.

“Nothing. I was trying the magic.” She shook her hand. “I think I can make it work.”

“Uh-huh. And what did you use to test it?”

“Promise not to laugh.” Stephanie picked up a piece of paper and handed it to him.

Curious, he took it and glanced down. “What is that meant to be?”

“It’s one of the Nihilism,” she told him and he turned the paper several different ways before he finally nodded.

“I can see it, now,” he said and held out his hand. “Give me the fork.”

“I beg your pardon?” Frog asked as he entered.

“The magic fork,” Lars told him.

“Oh, because that makes it so much better—”

“To test Stephanie’s magic, you shit.”

“Sure, boss. Whatever you say.”

Stephanie handed him the fork. “Now what?”

“Now show me the picture because I hate those guys, too.”

She did as he asked and watched him tilt the paper.

“Yeah, those sonsofbitches want to destroy my world,” he muttered aloud and held the fork as he looked at the picture, “so I—goddammit!”

The utensil clattered to the table for the second time.

“So, it works, then?” She grinned at him.

“Yeah, it works,” Lars answered ruefully and shook his hand while he crossed to the kitchen sink and ran the cold tap. “Do you want to magic that into what Frog found in the armory?”

“Sure,” she said.

The metal rod they’d chosen was about three inches in diameter and silver in color.

“What were they using this for?”

“I’m not sure, but they didn’t really want to give it up. I think I promised them coffee.”

Stephanie screwed her face up. “You couldn’t think of anything else?”

“I didn’t want to try chocolate.”

Her face cleared. “Oh, and a good thing too because that’s one promise you’d have definitely broken.”

“We’re only trying to keep you safe, Steph.”

“Yeah, but I draw the line at chocolate.”

“Fair enough.”

“Coffee, too, now that I think about it,” she added. “Don’t you go giving any more away.”

Lars sighed. “Fair enough. How about you try doing to that metal rod whatever it was you did to the fork?”

Frog snickered and he rolled his eyes. “Hand it over, little man.”

His teammate complied and she concentrated her focus on directing the magic to do the same thing to the rod as she’d done to the fork.

“There,” she said and handed it to Lars when she’d finished. “Now, all we have to do is test it.”

She looked around and Frog backed several steps.

“What’s the matter, Frog?” She pursed her lips and eyed him thoughtfully. “You’re not scared, are you?”

“No…”

“So you won’t mind being the first one to check this out for us, will you?”

“I thought you and Lars had already decided it would work.”

“Yeah, well, we want to be sure.”

He sighed. “Fine.” He came forward and picked the metal bar up. “Do you want me to look at the picture as well?”

“Sure,” she answered. “Let’s see if you hate those aliens like the rest of us.”

The guard looked at the picture on the paper and his face paled. “That’s one of the aliens?”

“Yup,” she told him.

“So, is the metal bar supposed to be getting cold?”

“Cold?”

“Yeah, like an icicle.”

“So, you don’t hate the aliens?”

“Hate them? I’m more terrified of them than anything else.”

Stephanie frowned. “Okay, we’ll have to try something else. What’s something you really hate?”

His gaze slid away from hers. “Hate?”

“Yeah, you know. Something you dislike enough that you want to kill it.”

“Well, there was this one teacher in fifth grade…”

“Do you have a picture of him?”

“No! Why would I keep a picture of that guy?”

“Because you’re psychic and you knew you’d need it now?”

“Ha-ha. You’re so funny.”

“No, I’m not. I’m deadly serious.”

Lars picked his tablet up and flicked through it where Frog could see it.

“Wow! There’s a sale on?”

“Yeah. Do you see anything you hate?”

“No. Nope. No. Not that. I really— Ouch!”

The team leader looked at him. “Really, Frog?”

He blushed. “It’s the beak.”

“Uh-huh.”

“What?” Stephanie wanted to know and stood so she could see the front of the tablet. “Seriously?”

“Shut up.” He backed away and handed the rod to Brenden. “You’re up.”

The man moved in and gave his teammate a curious look. He burst into laughter when he saw what was on the tablet. ‘You are shitting me.”

Avery came closer. “That’s a duck.”

“It’s a rubber duck,” Lars clarified while they all stared at the yellow bath-tub toy. They looked at Frog and he threw up his hands and walked out of the kitchenette.

‘Laugh it up,” he snapped. “I’m gonna check out the movie channel.”

Lars turned to Brenden. “So, do you have anything you hate?”

It turned out that Brenden hated the wasteland outside the Gov-Sub he’d come from.

“That’s what killed my parents,” he said as the bar clanged from his fingers.

Avery hated pirates, something he shared with Vishlog, who also hated the alien, as well. “I saw what it tried to do to Stephanie,” he explained as he retrieved the rod to hand it back to her. “And their magic…Hrageth’s balls!”

“You don’t like their magic?” she asked as she took it and he shook his head as he followed Frog’s line of retreat. “I don’t like how it affected you.”

He fled through the door, and she stared after him. “I wonder what brought that on.”

Lars shrugged. “That’s not important right now. What is important is finding three pictures that are gonna trigger that reaction in any of our crew—and only when it comes to you. We don’t want to know everyone’s deepest secrets.”

Stephanie remembered the look on Frog’s face when he’d seen the rubber duck and snickered. “No, we really don’t.”

It took them a while but in the end, they chose a picture of space, Stephanie’s picture of one of the aliens, and a shot taken from one of the Marine’s body cams from the fight on the pirate ship. That one showed her hurling the Nihilism out through the hole in the hull.

“Yeah, that should do it,” Lars said. “If I was someone who wanted the aliens to win, that picture would piss me off no end.”

“It would work even if I was someone who simply hated Stephanie,” Brenden added. “She looks far too damned pleased with herself there. I’d want to kick her ass purely to cut her down to size.”

“It’s settled, then,” she said once the three pictures were printed off. “Lars, why don’t you and Vishlog take one of the cats out and see who has what reaction to these?”

“I have arranged for the crew to be held pending your analysis.” The Ebon Knight’s voice surprised them.

Stephanie looked around. “You have?”

“Captain Pederson instructed me to lock the ship down and gather the crew for processing. I have arranged the on-board conference room to be available for your use. Shall I assemble the first group?”

“Please,” she told her. “I would appreciate that.”

“Who did you have in mind?”

“The Marines.”

“Very well. Please allow ten minutes for transit.”

“Wait,” Lars called.

“Yes?”

“I would like to be in position when they arrive.”

“I can delay the notification.”

“If you would.”

“I will send it once you tell me you are ready.”

“I appreciate it.”

The ship did not respond, so he turned to Stephanie. “I’ll grab Vishlog and head up. Do you have a preference as to which cat?”

“Zee, if you can. He’s the least intimidating of the two.”

“And if we could expedite the process, it would be appreciated,” the ship interjected. “The captain has arranged for us to remain in orbit until his personnel have been checked. The Navy is not impressed.”

“But they have agreed?” Stephanie pressed.

“Yes. The captain gave them no other option. Your security is paramount.”

“Thank you, Ebony.”

Witch Of The Federation III

It was a long day.

“Who’da thought it would take this long to have a hundred and fifty people hold a rod and look at pictures?” Frog grumbled when the ship finally prepared to break orbit.

“It was worth it,” Stephanie told him.

“Yes,” Lars agreed. “Even if it cost us another day to bring the replacements in.”

“Well, we can’t fly without life support.”

“They could have managed with one less.”

She frowned at him. “But it’s better if they don’t have to, right?”

“I suppose,” he grumbled, “but we’re on a timeline, here.”

“Well, we needed them and we’re still waiting on the navigator.”

“Yeah,” Lars confirmed. “Not finding that one could have ended really badly. He had access to the jump coordinates, for pity’s sake.”

“Well, the MPs have them now and the Navy finally asked the Meligornians for the help of their Truth Bringer, so we’ll know what’s up soon.”

“I’ll simply be glad to get out of here.”


Chapter Forty-Eight

“This song’s for all those who have ever wanted to escape Earth’s orbit as badly as I do.” Jonathan Wattlebird’s voice flowed cheerily from the speakers. “For the tone-deaf among you, the song you are listening for is the thrum of the engines. Hear it, listen to it, and love it.”

“Love it?” Stephanie asked and looked up from her tablet. “What is he talking about?”

Before anyone could answer, the pilot continued. “Please ensure your luggage and any small children and pets are stowed in the overhead lockers and that your tray tables are in the upright position.”

“My what?”

Lars rolled his eyes. “I wish he’d shut up and fly.”

“For those of you new to the Ebon Knight, welcome aboard. Please remain in your seats as we achieve escape velocity and I try to prevent this baby from flying off into the unknown depths of space.”

“But we’re heading to Meligorn.”

“I have before me a red button, a green button, a big red button, and a very big red button. I honestly want to push them all, but the captain tells me there can be only one, so hold onto your hats while I close my eyes and give the control board a random poke.”

“Is this guy for real?”

“Don’t you remember him on the flight out to the pirates?”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “You’re telling me he’s always like this?”

“No, I’m only saying that every time someone gives this boy new toys and you step aboard, he falls off the deep end and makes a speech out of it.”

“You’re saying this is all for my benefit?”

“No, only that there’s an unholy coincidence.”

“It’s only happened once before.”

“And we’ve flown with him twice.”

“So your point is?”

“This is the second flight where we’re looking at anything vaguely experimental, although I don’t know what he was like on the flight out from Mars,” Lars admitted while the pilot rattled on.

“So, strap your asses to your seats, fasten your seat belts and safety harnesses, and make sure your trousers are properly zipped. This will be the fastest flight to the Jump Zone you’ve ever had. I’d also like to remind you that we have a legal officer on board who can update your wills in the shortest time I’ve ever seen, so…”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Maybe he’s nervous.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“Well—”

“You should also ignore the sirens and the messages from the Federation’s Traffic Centre. We will not go that fast—and they won’t be able to keep up anyway. I have also taken the liberty of hiding the licensing so we have plausible deniability in a court of law.”

“Now I know he’s spinning shit,” Stephanie huffed as Wattlebird continued, oblivious to anything but his beloved ship.

“And here we go, folks. Someone tells me this is supposed to be a return flight, but I honestly don’t know. This is only the fourth time this beautiful lady had agreed to step out with me and we will trip the light fantastic for the very first time.”

“I don’t know about the light fantastic, but he’s definitely tripping.”

“For those of you who don’t know, this is the Ebon Knight’s maiden voyage, and…” His voice trailed off and there was a moment’s silence before he returned. When he did, he sounded jubilant. “And that was High Earth Orbit giving us clearance to leave our lovely homeworld far behind.”

Stephanie breathed a sigh of relief and assumed it was over, but Jonathan started again.

“Also, if the kind soul who borrowed the flight manual from the bathrooms outside the mess hall would return it in the next twenty seconds, I would be eternally grateful. In the meantime, please enjoy the flight and keep the screaming to a minimum as I press the little green button.”

“How long do you think he’ll keep this up?” she whispered, and Lars shook his head.

“I hope he runs out of oxygen real soon.”

Stephanie huffed out a sigh. “Yeah, me too.”

They waited for him to resume but the silence stretched into peace and the Ebon Knight accelerated.

“You know,” she said, “I think I like the tradition that Navy ship had.”

“Which one?”

“The one where they stood together to watch the Earth as they left. Remember? The captain said it reminded them what they were fighting for. I like that idea.”

Lars looked at the ceiling. “Knight?”

“I am here.”

“Do you have an observation deck where the off-duty crew can gather?”

“I am sorry, Lars, but my observation deck isn’t of a sufficient size for the entire crew. However, Stephanie’s idea has merit. May I offer an alternative?”

“Please,” Stephanie said.

“I can broadcast the view of our world on all in-board viewscreens, and you may give a short address to explain why.”

“Thank you, Knight. I’d like that. Please make sure the captain approves.”

A short time later, the captain came on the line.

“I like it,” he told her. “It’s the kind of tradition that holds a crew together—and the kind of tradition that keeps it focused when we’re away. You may broadcast when you are ready.”

She nodded, pulled her tablet out, and jotted a few notes. When she was ready, she stood and looked out at the sight of the Earth receding into the distance.

“Crew of the Ebon Knight, this is Stephanie Morgana, the Witch of the Federation—your Witch—speaking. I want you to take a moment to look at our world and remember it. While we cannot be at home, this is the reason we are out here. This is the reason we are fighting. We must remember that. Our world depends on us and we must protect it. Only when it is safe can we return. This is the reason we go to war. It is a world worth fighting for.”

When she had finished, she continued to stare at the receding orb and tried to find the exact tiny dot on its surface that she called home.

The Knight made it out of the Jump Exclusion zone in a quarter of the time it had taken the Meligorn Dreamer. As they made the jump, she spoke to the Knight and its captain and they agreed that training needed to be conducted en route.

“It’s no use having all these new weapons if we can’t use them effectively,” she declared and he had immediately agreed.

“I hoped you would come to this without me suggesting it,” he told her. “If we go into combat anytime soon, we will need many more hours working everyone through their paces.”

Stephanie had him run the first drill as soon as the ship had made its first jump. She occupied one of the jump seats at the back of the command center and observed as the captain took the weapons and defense crews through their paces.

In the week that followed, she made the crew scramble through emergency evacuation drills and asked the Knight to run a life support survival scenario. After that, she gave the crew three days’ break before she summoned them for the next.

This time, they’d found an abandoned asteroid belt and the Knight confirmed it was clear of life.

“Yes! It’s time we did a little real-life target practice,” Stephanie instructed, and the captain scrambled the weapons crews.

“Can we coordinate this with ship maneuvers, too?” she asked and worked with Knight to create a flight scenario to keep Jonathan occupied and to challenge the weapons crews as well.

“These guys are getting good,” she said and nudged Lars when the ship registered ninety percent accuracy.

“And this is becoming expensive,” he sniped in response.

“Expensive?”

“Well, yeah. Each one of those missiles costs around 1.45 million apiece, and I don’t know how many the Meligornian depot has to spare.”

“Whoa!” Stephanie answered and caught hold of his arm. “You’re not shitting me?”

“No.”

“Wow. Okay, so we’d better stop soon.”

“But you’re having so much fun. Why would you want to do a stupid thing like that?” he teased.

“Uh, well, because I’m not stupid rich. Is there a way we can get the computers to do what we’re doing in the real so we can conserve the ammo?”

“I am able to do that,” the Knight reassured her. “I will make this the last live-fire round.”

“Will you tell the crews?”

“Oh, no,” Knight told her. “I will isolate their systems. They will continue to believe they are firing until after the exercise.”

“What about the scans?”

The Knight sounded smug. “The scans will show what I want them to show. They will not know until the exercise has ended.”

“Make it so,” she told her.

The exercise ended without incident and the weapons teams were awarded points based on accuracy and speed.

“Why the points?” Stephanie had wanted to know when Lars suggested them.

“Bragging rights,” he told her, “and crew cohesion. They’ll work harder for those than anything else.”

He was right. She watched the interest increase in the crew’s faces when he announced the scores at the end of the activity.

“When’s the next one?” the third-place team asked.

The guard had smiled. “After Meligorn,” he told them and dismissed them to the good-natured ribbing of the top two teams.

“Arrival in the Meligorn Home System is T-minus forty-two hours,” the Knight announced. “Prepare for dimensional transfer. I repeat…”

They prepared as instructed and Stephanie ordered a stocktake of available weapons. She wanted to order a resupply as soon as they were able. The transfer approach was flawless and their reentry to normal space occurred without incident.

The greeting they received as soon as they had made the transition was unexpected.

“It’s like they were waiting for us,” she muttered when it was repeated.

Ebon Knight, the King’s Warrior welcomes you. Please show your legs and arrive as soon as possible. Repeat, please show your legs and arrive at speed.”

“Legs?” she asked, and Captain Emil gave her a worried look.

“He is referring to the ship’s speed and distance. I believe we need to hurry.”

She nodded. “I don’t know if we can go any faster than this, Captain. Is it possible to show more leg than we are?”

He smiled. “Oh, yes. We can shift in-system.”

“No ship can do that,” Lars scoffed and the other man’s smile grew broader.

“This one can.”

“Or it might simply blow up,” Jonathan told them.

The captain sighed. “Lieutenant Commander, it is time.”

“Time for what?” Stephanie as the pilot uttered a whoop of glee.

“To push the big red button.”

Lars groaned.


Chapter Forty-Nine

The Meligornians noticed when the Ebon Knight vanished from their screens. They were still squawking their concern when she reappeared moments later.

“…did you go?”

“…epeat, Ebon Knight report your status.”

“…in Selestel’s name are you?”

“We are currently being targeted by two warships and one supersized battle cruiser,” the Ebon Knight announced. “Scans also show two smaller vessels moving to firing positions.”

“Hold your fire. This is Captain Emil Pederson of the Ebon Knight. We are testing new technology. I repeat, this is Captain Pederson of the Ebon Knight. We are testing new technology. Hold your fire.”

V’ritan’s crisp clear tones cut through the chatter. “Stephanie, is that you?”

“Yes, I am aboard the Ebon Knight. We have just performed our first in-system jump.”

There was a stunned silence, both from the waiting ships and from the Knight’s crew before V’ritan came back online. “Say, again, Knight.

“We have just made our first in-system jump,” she repeated and he sighed.

“That’s what I thought you said. I take it you will complete the journey using more conventional propulsion?”

“Would you like us to?”

“Baskilor ilkalorda. I’d appreciate that.”

Emil gave her a puzzled look.

“Kalordin,” she told V’ritan and answered the question in the other man’s eyes. “He said he’d be grateful if we would, and I said we’d do that.”

He nodded and glanced at Jonathan Wattlebird. “In-system drives if you would Lieutenant Commander, with as much as speed as is safely possible.”

“Aye, sir.”

As they hastened toward the waiting Meligornian fleet, V’ritan spoke again. “Welcome home, Garghilum. Meligorn welcomes your Ebon Knight to the fleet.”

“Hartuitus baskilor, Ghargilum Afreghil.”

“Baskilor nye myerda,” he answered. “It is good to have you home, Valiant Soul—and to have another ship to add to our fleet.”

“Great,” she grumbled while she tried to work out what he meant by that. “If they shanghai my ship, they’ll pay my weapons costs.”

The journey to the Meligornian fleet seemed to take both forever and no time at all, and Stephanie waited impatiently as the captain maneuvered them into the position assigned him by the fleet. It was somewhat disconcerting to be placed to the King’s Warrior’s left with a battleship flying to their left.

“It could be my imagination,” the pilot murmured, “but these guys seemed geared up for war—and I mean they look like they’re ready to ship out at any moment. Scans show a full complement on each ship.”

“Keep us on station,” the captain instructed and stepped out from behind his console. He looked at Stephanie. “I have an in-board induction to attend.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We are now part of the Meligornian fleet. There are apparently some things I need to know and I need to meet the other captains. With your permission?”

“Granted. I need to take the pinnace and meet V’ritan on the orbital. Do I have your permission?”

Emil gave her an ironic grimace. “You are a daughter of Meligorn and, from what I understand, one of its Valiant Souls. You are also the owner of this ship. You need no permission from me.”

“I should still let you know what to expect,” she told him. “I mean no disrespect.”

“I understand,” he told her. “Keep your comms lines clear.”

He paused on his way out of the command center. “Would you care to join me for dinner if our schedules permit it? We can swap notes.”

She gave him a relieved smile. “I’d be honored.”

Stephanie followed him out of the command center and they went in opposite directions. Lars walked with her and summoned the team over their comms as he walked. By the time they reached the docking bay where the ship’s pinnace was kept, the rest of the team was on board.

Bumblebee and Zeekat pricked their ears as she entered and both cast Vishlog a quick look. He kept his hands on their heads and they stayed where they were.

The Marine contingent was unexpected, though, and she narrowed her eyes.

“Captain’s orders, ma’am,” Captain Sartre explained. “You go nowhere without a little extra back-up.”

“And he thinks that’ll keep me out of trouble, does he?” she challenged and the Marine captain smiled.

“No, ma’am, but he wanted to know you were in good company.”

She pursed her lips and nodded. “Noted.”

Once she’d settled into a seat opposite Vishlog and the cats, Lars sealed the hatch.

“Take us out,” she instructed. “Has V’ritan sent the location?”

“Brilgus sent docking instructions,” Brendan informed her as he ensured the hangar was clear and cycled the atmosphere.

The pinnace lifted lightly, and he guided her out of the hangar bay.

The flight to the orbital was short and surprisingly smooth. There was a slight vibration when they entered the belt of magical energy that surrounded the planet, and Brenden switched to the auxiliary Meligornian drives they’d had installed.

Stephanie took a deep breath and reached out for the MU that permeated the air around her. V’ritan was right. It was like coming home. In the moment before she closed her eyes, she caught Vishlog and Lars smiling.

If she hadn’t known any better, she would have said they were pleased to see her drawing the magic to her. It didn’t matter. She was happy, and the energy welcomed her like an old friend. She drew it in and felt it fill the MU well that had run almost dry.

A light touch on her arm told her they’d reached the station, and she opened her eyes and released the magic with unexpected regret. It didn’t stop her from drawing it in, though. Her body did that automatically, and she was grateful.

They entered a passenger lounge that was surprisingly empty. To her surprise, V’ritan wasn’t there to greet her. Two Meligornians wearing the teal and gold of the royal household stood on either side of the airlock and both greeted her with the deep bow usually reserved for royalty.

Shocked, she returned it with care.

“If you would follow us, Ghargilum, the Ghargilum Afreghil is waiting.”

They led Stephanie out into the corridor where a contingent of Meligornian guards was waiting. The Marines formed up around her and the team, and the guard slid into place around them. Their journey through the station was swift, and she noted how empty the corridors seemed compared to what she remembered.

Where is everyone? The emptiness concerned her, but she did not ask. It was a question that could wait until she spoke to V’ritan. Remembering Wattlebird’s words, she decided the pilot was right. Something was definitely afoot.

That impression was confirmed when they were taken to a small conference room where The King’s Warrior waited. He was dressed in robes and not his armor, but he seemed to have aged and his eyes were grave when he regarded her.

“We are at war,” he said once she and the team were seated and their guards arrayed around the room. He nodded to his aides and they departed. “The Telorans are coming.”

Stephanie’s heart leapt and turned cold when she registered what he’d said. “Telorans?”

“It is what the Nihilism call themselves,” he told her.

Lars shifted restlessly beside her, and she met V’ritan’s gaze. “Why don’t you start at the beginning?” she suggested.

He nodded and drew a chair up at the end of the table. “A good suggestion,” he agreed and retrieved the remote resting on the end of the table. “Four weeks ago, one of our scout groups was patrolling the outer reaches of our territory when they came across this.”

He pressed the button and the screen at the end of the room came alive with the footage from the first scout ship. She gasped, the sound echoed by several others around the room.

“It got worse,” he told them and showed them how the battle had gone, from the Teloran greeting to the scout ship’s demise, and finally, the demise of the remainder of the small patrol group. “There were no survivors, but they managed to get several message torps away before they died.”

His words held a bitter twist and his voice caught. She was tempted to ask who he’d known, but she didn’t. The loss was still fresh, and he hadn’t finished his tale.

“From what we can tell, they were unable to follow the torps through their dimensional jumps and will come at us from across the systems.”

“How much time do we have?” Lars asked.

V’ritan looked at her. “Let’s say your timing is impeccable. We expect them any day now.”

“The Navy won’t reach you for weeks.”

“We know. We will not hold that against them. The intention was there.”

“Intention will not save your world,” she retorted and V’ritan gave her a sad smile.

“No, only we can do that. I am glad you are here.”

Stephanie thought of the delay caused by discovering the traitors and how she might not have arrived at all if they’d been left aboard. “So am I,” she agreed and earned a sharp look from him before she changed the subject.

“So, it’s only us. What do you think they’ll do?”

“Well, until our scout vessels destroyed that first ship, we had the element of surprise. I don’t think they really expected us to fight—or to be very effective if they did. Our scouts have shown them otherwise.”

“They’ve also shown them that MU does not mix well with nMU.”

V’ritan gave her a bitter grin. “On the contrary, they have shown them that it mixes very well. Unfortunately, they won’t make that mistake, again.”

“How many dropships do you think a ship that size can carry?” Lars asked with a glance at Sartre.

The Marine captain shrugged and shook his head. “I wouldn’t know,” he replied. “If it was Federation Navy, I’d say they could field over a thousand troops at any one time, and that depends on whether they had them in pods or bunked.”

They all looked at him, and he returned the stares. “If they pod their troops, they don’t need mess halls, galleys, latrines, and a hundred and one other things. Navy disagrees that it’s an effective technique, but the training’s shifting that way now that the technology’s improved.”

“Surely they’d be in no condition to fight if they’d been kept immobile for that long,” V’ritan suggested, but Stephanie shook her head.

“No, the universities keep their students in pods for most of their semesters, and they’ve reached a point where they don’t lose any physical conditioning. If the Ni—Telorans have that stage of tech, they’ll be fine.”

“Well, let’s hope they don’t,” Sartre mused. “That’s an awful big ship. I’d hate to guess our chances if they offloaded a boatload of Teloran Marines.”

The King’s Warrior frowned. “We’re missing something,” he said.

“Well, if this were the Federation Navy,” the Marine explained, “we’d start with bombardment and then we’d send the dropships down and take what was left.”

V’ritan’s frown deepened. “Somehow, they don’t strike me as the invading kind.” He glanced toward the screen. “Invasion infers settlement and taking control, and I honestly don’t think that’s what they have planned for our world. Besides,” he added. “Why would they stop if they plan to destroy Earth and settle on Dreth? No. I fear they plan to destroy us as completely as they can.”

What the Marine captain had suggested bothered Stephanie, and she frowned while she tried to determine why. On the surface, the idea of invasion was sound. Once the Telorans reached Meligornian soil, they could fight the Meligornians magic for magic.

Magic… She remembered drawing the nMU to her hand and the painful explosion that had followed when nMU and MU mixed.

“Oh…” she muttered, and all eyes turned toward her.

She looked up. Lars, V’ritan, and Sartre observed her in the same way the cats observed a mousehole. She refocused hastily.

“Invasion is unlikely,” she told them, her voice so sure that she now had their undivided attention. Her eyes had grown darker than before.

“Why?” the Meligornian asked.

“Because our world is death to the Telorans,” she told him. She held her regrown hand up. “They’d probably die if their energy mixed with MU—and our world is full of it. They can’t get near it.”

He finally understood. His shoulders slumped and he bowed his head. “So it’ll be bombardment, then.”

Stephanie nodded. “Yup. They’ll want you out of the fight and either planet-bound or, barring planet-bound, they will pummel you into history.”

She paused to consider what she’d seen. “After watching the battle footage from the scouts, I would guess they’ll think you’re too much of a pain in the ass to leave alive behind them.”

“We will stand between them and our world,” V’ritan said, his voice hard with determination. “No missile shall pass us.”

“They won’t use missiles,” Sartre argued, and they all looked toward him.

The Marine reddened. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be a downer.” He looked at her. “Missiles can be diverted and they’re expensive. My guess is that if they have ships that big, they’re not pushed for space. They’ll throw rocks.”

V’ritan stared at him. “Rocks?”

“The size of asteroids if the girth on that first ship is anything to go by.”

The King’s Warrior paled. “I don’t know if we can…” His voice faltered. “I don’t…”

“What about nMU missiles?” Stephanie asked. “Wouldn’t they be more effective?”

Sartre shook his head. “They might try, but I assume they’d detonate on contact with the band of magic surrounding the planet. If that happens, they’ll use asteroids to pound this world to dust.”

He stared at them but they did not respond. Each one of them wracked their brains for ways to stop a cloud of asteroid-sized rocks, and he couldn’t blame them. That kind of bombardment was not a fate he’d wish on any world, let alone one as beautiful as Meligorn.

There was nothing he could say to make his prediction any more palatable.

“We don’t even have the ships we’d need to evacuate,” V’ritan murmured.

“How long did you say it would be before the Federation fleet arrives?” Lars asked as he tried to find alternatives.

“I thought they were weeks behind us,” she replied, “and they won’t send the entire fleet anyway.”

“Is there any way we can get them to change their minds on that?” he pushed but she shook her head.

“I don’t think so,” she said after she’d thought about it. “They’re sending a sizable force, but they won’t commit everything if they don’t think Meligorn is the prime target. The Federation theory is that the Telorans know Dreth has the same energy they do.”

She looked at V’ritan. “I’m sorry, but the Federation thinks Dreth is the primary target. They’re sending help, but it won’t be the entire fleet.”

“Even if they know that if we stop them here, we stop them for good?”

“They say they can’t be sure this is the only fleet the enemy has and they don’t want to risk having no ships they can send to Dreth if they are needed.”

He sighed. “That is understandable. I don’t like it, but I understand it. Meligorn would have done the same.”

“Earth is probably their next target,” Stephanie told him. “They’ll bomb Meligorn, beat Earth, and settle on Dreth. By that stage, Earth will be dead or defeated, with no hope of ever forming a future defense.”

V’ritan nodded and his face looked gray with worry and anticipated grief.

“What about evacuation?” she asked.

“What do you mean? I already told you we didn’t have enough ships.”

“The portals,” she reminded him. “Can’t your people get through the portals and take refuge on Earth?”

“Earth won’t agree to take us in time.”

She gave him an evil grin. “Who says we’d ask? And who says they’ll argue with their Witch?”

He raised his head sharply. “Even so, I—”

Alarms shrilled throughout the station, and one of V’ritan’s aides raced through the door. “A large ship transferred into the Non-Transition Zone.”

V’ritan glanced over at Stephanie. “Is that a friend of yours?”

Her lips twitched in an involuntary smile. “I don’t think so.”

He took the tablet offered by his aide and began to speak to the captain of the King’s Warrior. “Who is it?” he demanded.

“Two seconds, sir.”

“Make it one.”

“It’s Dreth, sir.”

His eyebrows rose and he glanced at Stephanie. The captain continued before he could speak.

“And they’re hailing us, sir. The Dreth are hailing.”


Chapter Fifty

V’ritan had The King’s Warrior put the call through to the conference room and looked as surprised as anyone else when Ambassador Jaleck appeared on the screen.

“Ambassador!” he exclaimed. “I hope you have a suitable explanation for almost causing my heart to stop.”

Her lips quirked. “I am sorry, Ghargilum Afreghil, but I am no longer an ambassador for the Dreth nation.”

His smile faded. “Tell me you have come with good news.”

“That depends on your point of view, but I am no longer an ambassador. I am the First Admiral of the Dreth Navy.”

The Meligornian’s mouth dropped open for a moment before he recovered himself. Jaleck looked past him and saw Stephanie at the table. “Greetings, Ghargilum and Child of Dreth.”

Stephanie rose and gave the admiral a very Dreth salute, bringing her fist to her chest and bowing her head. She returned the gesture. “It is good to see you here,” she stated. “It saves us from having to fetch you.”

“I had business here,” she told her. “Are you the contingent Dreth promised?”

Jaleck snorted. “They sent those ships via Earth. Something about not trusting your Federation to fulfill its promises. We hoped to lead by example.”

“And?”

The admiral shrugged and gave them a sly smile. “I happened to be in the area and thought I’d drop by. You know how it is.”

V’ritan made a disbelieving sound. “How many jumps and transitions did you say?”

The smile turned into a bared-teeth grin. “Like I said, V’ritan, you know how it is. Sometimes, a warrior gets an itch between their shoulder blades and it draws them to battle like a moth to a flame. Mine brought me here.”

“And the jumps?” he insisted, refusing to be put off.

Her grin disappeared. “I counted three transitions and fourteen days of travel. I apologize for the alarm, but my back is burning. It is as though an enemy marksman has me in their sights.” She looked around. “Yet your system appears quiet. Tell me, what trouble is there for an old warrior to sink their teeth into?”

His reply was blunt. “The Telorans are coming.”

“Telorans? Ah, our enemies have a name!” The bared teeth were back, but it was hardly a grin. “Dreth would have been most annoyed if our Meligornian cousins failed to allow her people a share of the action.”

“Believe me,” V’ritan told her. “Meligorn had no intention to keep the action to herself. We would have been most dismayed should our Dreth brethren have failed to share our meal.” He gave her a wistful look. “Although we had hoped there would be more to break this meal with.”

Jaleck’s lips twisted in distaste. “Unfortunately, the Dreth have been held up with our little human brothers. I can only hope more will arrive and that the meal is neither too large nor too small for us to enjoy.”

“How are things on your homeworld?” he asked and she sent Stephanie a mischievous look.

“Now that the Dreth have the Morgana as our new Spirit Totem, we are ready for the fight.”

“Their what?’ she demanded, and the admiral chuckled.

Frog hooted, and the rest of the team laughed. “Way to go, Steph,” Brenden told her. You’re a Spirit Totem, now.”

She flopped back in her seat and folded her arms across her chest. “Great.”

“It’s not that bad, Stephanie,” Avery added. “Symbols are great.”

“Try dating one,” she snapped.

“I’m fairly sure the Toddster doesn’t mind dating one,” Frog snarked.

“I wouldn’t know,” she grumbled. “It’s not like we had much time to work that out.”

“Well, you were the one to put him on the shuttle and send him back.”

“It’s not like I had a choice. The Navy kinda thinks he’s theirs.”

“Why don’t you have him transferred?” Sartre asked. “It’s not like you don’t have Navy personnel serving on the Knight.”

Stephanie stared at him and shook her head. “Dating a symbol is bad enough, but how do you think he’d feel about dating someone who pulls those kinds of strings?”

“I don’t know, Steph. He might forgive you if it meant being near you more often.”

“You think?”

“I know I’d get over it if my girl wanted me around enough to pull a few strings,” Frog declared.

“You don’t have a girlfriend,” she retorted and he blushed.

“How would you know?” he demanded. “I’ll have you know there were a couple of female Marines volunteering to babysit me.”

“That’s not the same thing, Frog,” Avery teased, and Sartre pricked his ears as much as any human could.

“Which two?” he asked and the guard curled his lip.

“As if I’d tell you.”

“You never know. I could help set you up with them.”

“Really?” Frog sounded hopeful and Brenden and Avery burst out laughing.

“More like he’d warn them off.”

V’ritan cleared his throat and they looked around. Jaleck watched them, a look of bemusement written across her face. “As much as the courting habits of humans are entertaining…” she began as the Meligornian’s tablet chimed.

He glanced at it, then frowned at the screen. The admiral caught the look on his face and went quiet and everyone turned their attention to him. They watched as he read the incoming message and his face paled.

When he’d finished and looked up, his face was paler than Stephanie had ever seen it. “They’ve arrived. We have seventeen hours.”

He straightened and moved toward the door. “I’m sorry, but I have to go.”

As if he’d summoned them, the two aides returned. “We’ll escort you to your shuttle.”

He glanced briefly at Jaleck and surveyed the room. To Stephanie, it was as though he tried to memorize their faces. “It was good to see you all again.”

“Likewise,” the Dreth agreed. “I will join your fleet in another six hours. Your captain has reserved a place for me.”

“I will move the fleet to meet them. We must defeat them before they reach the planet, or we must die trying. We will meet you.” He glanced at Stephanie. “Send to Earth High Command. Tell them Meligorn accepts your offer of sanctuary for its people.”

“You will arrive before the message gets through,” she told him, and he gave her a feral grin.

“I know.” He turned to Jaleck. “We will speak again.”

“I look forward to it,” she told him, straightened, and placed her fist over her heart. “Until Battle’s End.”

He returned the gesture. “Battle’s End,” he replied. “Meligorn will bleed.”

“We will all bleed,” she reassured him. “Meligorn will stay free.”

V’ritan gave her a brief nod. He placed a hand on Stephanie’s shoulder as he passed. “The honor is mine,” he told her as he left.

“Sleep. Food. Rest. And readiness,” Jaleck told them from the screen.

“Agreed,” he said and stepped into the corridor.

Once he’d gone, the aides guided the team to the ship’s pinnace.

“Meligorn will bleed for her freedom,” they promised by way of farewell, and she placed her fist over her heart, borrowing a line from Jaleck.

“We will all bleed for Meligorn,” she returned, and they departed.

The flight to the Ebon Knight seemed to take forever, and she spent most of it speaking to Captain Pederson. The news was not good.

Scans were updating as swiftly as they could, but there was still lag between what they saw and when they returned. Seventeen hours was sixteen by the time the data arrived and the rest of the Teloran fleet had arrived in the interim.

“There are eight of those big ships the scouts faced and how many others?” she asked.

“Thirty-two,” the captain told her.

“And how many do we have?”

“If by we, you mean the Meligorn fleet and the Dreth, there’s us, the Dreth ship, and The King’s Warrior, four other largish ones and a couple of hundred smaller ones.”

“So we’re good, right?”

His lips narrowed into a thin, straight line. “It depends on how many attack ships they can field and how many guns they have. We could be in a great deal of trouble.”

“Oh.” Her heart sank and she sighed. “Well, they’re not Meligornian or Dreth—and they’re definitely not us.”

His lips twitched into a fleeting smile and he nodded.

“They don’t have a Witch, either.”

Stephanie wasn’t sure how much comfort that should be. What she’d seen of their magic had shown it was powerful—and they would face a fleet of such wielders. She shivered and hoped the Meligornians would even the scale.

“I take it V’ritan has sent the plan out?”

“Yes. We blow them up before they get near Meligorn.”


Chapter Fifty-One

The fleet broke orbit an hour after Stephanie had returned, and the approach left her with numerous challenges to think about. The Ebon Knight was not the biggest ship in the fleet or even anywhere near the second largest.

While she was big for a mercenary craft, she simply didn’t compete with the battleships and cruisers for sheer size and mass. She wasn’t the smallest ship in the fleet, either, and out-massed the scout ships and corvettes.

She felt tiny flying between The King’s Warrior and Selestine’s Hammer, but she wasn’t alone. V’ritan and Jaleck had decided it was better if they used the bigger ships to mask the actual size of the fleet by flying several smaller ships between them.

The Ebon Knight cruised alongside two destroyers, three gunboats, and three corvettes. It was a tight formation, but the AIs talked constantly to each other and ensured that no-one got too close, even at a distance human pilots could not have maintained with safety.

The fleet made one orbit of Meligorn. V’ritan gave the crews a reminder of what they were fighting for and showed those below whom they were protecting. What good it would do them if any of the Teloran ships got through, Stephanie didn’t know.

She supposed it was better than nothing.

It also had the added advantage of bringing the fleet out on a better trajectory for meeting the Dreth and incorporating their warship into the fleet. She was present when the admiral’s ship merged with the others and took station on The King’s Warrior’s right.

In the Teloran fleet, the commanders watched the Dreth join the Meligornian’s ranks.

“There are more than we expected,” one noted.

Another tilted his head, his attitude unconcerned. “It would have been worse if the Federation contingent had been able to join them. We arrived with very little time to spare.”

A third studied the massed ships as if to assess their strength. “Can we take them?”

The first rolled its shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. “Does it matter? As long as we pull them away from the planet, our responsibilities are accomplished.”

On the deck of The King’s Warrior, V’ritan studied the enemy ships in return.

“I thought there would be more,” he mused.

“Let us hope not,” Jaleck answered from the communications screen.

In other command centers, Meligornian captains scrutinized the oncoming Teloran vessels with calculation, and a meeting was called.

“Tell V’ritan it’s time,” one said as their screens signaled an incoming call. He gave a rueful smile and put the King’s Warrior through.

“It is time,” he told them. “Send them out.”

As much as it pained him to send the smaller ships ahead, he knew it had to be done. The enemy fleet had already sent its skirmishers to meet them and the cruisers and corvettes were better equipped to deal with them.

The smaller ships were more maneuverable and better able to challenge their counterparts, while the bigger ships battled from a distance and used massed gun batteries to swat anything that came close.

Stephanie, Lars, and Vishlog had been given places on the command deck, but the captain had drawn the line at the rest of the team. “With all due respect, ma’am, this is a naval engagement and neither the Marines nor your men will be of any use to me.”

“And me?”

“You’re with me, ma’am, because you might be able to find a use for your magic that will benefit my ship—but only if you can see what’s going on.”

She’d smiled at that. “Point taken, Captain.”

“And your escort is tolerated because they can’t do the job they were hired for if they’re locked in their cabin—but that doesn’t mean I’ll allow more than two of them to get underfoot at any one time. Understood?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Our job is to clear the trash so The King’s Warrior can get close enough to target the large vessels. Once he’s in there, we n