Book: Witch Of The Federation IV



Witch Of The Federation IV




Witch Of The Federation IV Federal Histories™ 04


Michael Anderle

Witch Of The Federation IV




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

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Las Vegas, NV 89109

First US edition, December 2019

eBook ISBN: 978-1-64202-674-0



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

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Creator Notes - Michael Anderle

Books by Michael Anderle

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The Witch Of The Federation Book IV Team


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To Family, Friends and

Those Who Love

To Read.

May We All Enjoy Grace

To Live The Life We Are

Called.


Chapter One

“Nothing?” A bolt of dark lightning pounded into the command deck and left a smoking hole.

Wiring sparked and the lights dimmed before the power was rerouted and the damaged connection isolated. A dozen alarms beeped as the consoles flickered, and technicians ran to repair the problems.

The communications officer jumped in his seat. “Yes, sir. Nothing. The last surveillance torpedo shows some kind of magical conflagration—”

“That Witch!”

“We have not been able to see if the destruction came from her actions alone or if the Meligornians contributed in some kind of cooperative spell. The energy was Meligornian in origin but there was not sufficient analysis to identify the wielder.”

“Regardless, Meligorn still stands and remains undamaged.”

The communications operator gulped. “Yes, sir.”

“And nothing—nothing—remains of the attack squadron.”

“That is what the torpedoes show, sir.”

Energy rolled over the Teloran high commander’s form and his subordinate cringed when he turned toward him. “Get me the captains.”

“Yes, sir.” As he hurried to comply, he hoped that would be the end of the high commander’s focus on him.

“Tell them the discussion is urgent and their attendance mandatory. Their commands are at stake.”

“Yes, sir.”

The captains were assembled in less than a quarter-hour, each one displayed on a screen in the high commander’s office. They stood rigidly before their commanding officer, showing him the respect they should if they wanted to live—which was a pity. He’d have enjoyed killing them.

He shrugged the possibility away and asked, “Have you seen the results?”

“Yes, High Command.”

None of them asked which results. They knew. Meligorn still stood and the attack fleet was obliterated. Eight ships of the line, thirty destroyers and countless single-pilot fighting ships gone…and the world still existed.

“Do we go back?”

They stiffened. To go back would put them behind the schedule set by Home Command. The penalty would be exorbitant.

Their heads moved as they looked at one another and each one tried to come up with an answer the others would approve of. None could see beyond the power that masked their faces, however. They certainly could not see when their superior officer smiled.

He decided to make it easy for them.

“I would prefer not to.”

Only one dared protest. “But the Meligornians—”

He screamed when their leader focused and black flame surged around him.

The high commander spoke to the others. “The Meligornians are powerless to stop us. Their fleet is almost non-existent and what remains of it is badly damaged. They pose no threat.”

With a snap of his fingers, he extinguished the power burning slowly through the protesting captain’s armor and flesh. It satisfied him that his subordinate should suffer, but he had no time for the power struggle that would follow if he killed him outright, not right now.

The captain sagged and the high commander stared at the screens. “I will not tolerate dissent.”

As the injured officer fell to his knees, the other two saluted hastily and touched their foreheads and their chests to signal complete obedience.

“Dismissed.” He made a sharp gesture with his hand, and their screens went dark. Then, he turned to the kneeling Teloran.

“Tend to your wounds and verify that my assessment is correct. Communicate your task and its results to me alone. If word of it escapes, you will burn for a century before I dismiss the flame.”

The captain touched his hand to his forehead and moved it to his chest as he lowered his forehead to the floor. “It shall be done.”

“You have three cycles.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

“Home.” The word came out on a breath as Meligorn filled the viewscreen.

Lars turned to look at Stephanie. “I thought Earth was home.”

She rolled her eyes. “It is, but this is home, too.”

“And Dreth?” Vishlog rumbled and she sighed, thinking about that world with its jagged mountains and harsh climate. Oddly enough, a piece of her thought of that as home as well.

“Yes,” she told the warrior. “There is part of me that thinks of Dreth as home too.”

For a moment, he studied her as though trying to discover some trace of mockery. When he didn’t see any, he smiled. “Good. It would be bad for a citizen of three worlds to decide one of those worlds was not her home.”

“Mmhmm.” She nodded and her gaze drifted to the screens. She was already thinking of what she’d like to discuss with V’ritan.

The ship’s captain interrupted her thoughts. He looked up from his console. “They’re expecting us.”

Stephanie smiled. “Skip us in, Emil.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She rolled her eyes. “What did we talk about on the way here?”

“How you wouldn’t argue with me in front of the crew?” he asked, and his eyes twinkled with mischief.

“Uh-uh.” She shook her head.

“The state of affairs in Siberia?”

“Seriously? ʼCause I’ve never been there and neither, I’d guess, have you.”

“How about ‘Ma’am Stephanie?’”

“How about Captain Kiss-Ass?”

Some of the crew snickered, and he grinned and pretended to throw his hands up. “Fine! I will try to remember…Stephanie.”

“That’s better.” She smirked and turned to the screen. “How soon can you get us home?”

“Let me check.” He glanced at the pilot. “Jonathan?”

“Cameron tells me we can do one more jump but if we try two, we’ll be asking for a tow—and that’s if we’re not all sucking vacuum.”

Emil’s face clouded. “That bad?”

Jonathan Wattlebird gave the captain his most solemn nod. “I’m afraid so, sir. Cameron was adamant you should know.”

“Thank him for me—and check that one more jump is truly okay.”

“Will do, sir.” He came back with an answer seconds later. “Only one, sir.”

The captain winced as the chief engineer put a call through on his internal comms. “And tell that madman it's gentle flying—no barrel rolls, corkscrews, sudden acceleration, sudden deceleration, wiggles, jiggles, or flourishes. He’s to fly our Ebony as close to gliding as he can get.”

Jonathan watched the captain’s face. “You tell that overprotective sonuva…gun, I do know how to nurse them in.”

This time, Cameron’s reply was audible to all. “I don’t doubt the amount of practice he’s had, only whether he remembers how it’s done.”

The pilot raised his lip in scorn. “You tell him to keep an eye on his readings and his panties well and truly unbunched.”

“I can unbunch ’em when we’re docked on and you’re on the station.”

“Yeah?” he quipped in response. “Well, I bet you’ve had considerable practice at doing that, too.”

Stephanie gave a groan of exasperation. “Please, get me home and my ship safely docked without any more holes in her.”

He smirked. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Everyone’s a smart-ass.” She turned to the captain. “What kind of repairs are we looking at this time?”

“Well, apart from the damage to the engines, we popped a couple of seams with some of the maneuvers you had us make in that last battle. And then there was the damage to the hull itself.”

“We were hit?”

“Yes. Something got through the armor and put a dent in the hull.”

“You’ve sealed a whole section.”

“Right. Well, it was a little more than a dent, but we lived and that’s all that matters. Either way, we need patchwork or replacement sections.”

“Can the Meligornians do all that?”

“Most of it. We still have the work they couldn’t do on the engines, but the Navy says they’ll send a repair ship with our reinforcements, and they’ll have what we need.”

Some of the tension went out of Stephanie’s shoulders. They stiffened again, though, when she thought of something else. “Any news from the sniffers and early detection drones?”

He shook his head. “Not yet. It’s as quiet as the grave out there.”

“Good.” Her face took on a faraway look, and a layer of darkness settled over her eyes.

Emil cursed his choice of words silently. A grave was exactly what that section of space had become for the Telorans—and what some of the sections in this system were to those who’d served in the Meligornian and Dreth fleets. There were bodies missing that would never be found.

“Prepare to jump,” Jonathan warned before he could think of anything to say.

He waited until Stephanie, Lars, and Vishlog had returned to the auxiliary seats behind the captain and ran his hands over his console. The world blinked and the ship slowed.

Wattlebird’s hands flitted over his controls and he frowned. “I’ve lost power.”

As he spoke, Cameron’s voice came over the intercom. “I thought I told you to take it easy.”

“You know I did,” he protested. “What did you do down there? Flash it your ass?”

“I beg your pardon?” the chief engineer sputtered.

“Well, if I’m flying as slow as a kid on their way to school it has to be something you did. Check your logs—and you owe me a drink.”

Silence greeted his tirade before Cameron came back on the line. “I found it. What’ll you have?”

“So it’s not my fault?” The pilot sounded as though he couldn’t believe it himself.

“Not this time. I was serious when I said she only had one safe jump in her.”

“And how close were you to being wrong?”

“Not close enough to worry about?”

“I take it your report’s on the way?” the captain asked.

“Sorry, Captain, I can’t be in two places at once and right now, the Knight needs me more than you need a report.”

“How bad is it?” As Emil asked, the emergency alarms started, and the Ebon Knight’s AI commandeered the communications system.

“This is a precaution. All personnel are to move to the emergency pods. I repeat. This is a precaution. All personnel are to move to the emergency pods.”

As soon as she’d finished speaking, Cameron answered the Captain’s question. “We have a little smoking, some sparking, and I’ve had to isolate the batteries from the engine system so we don’t lose any energy, but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed.”

To Jonathan, he added, “But keep your hands off the controls. I’ve called for a tow.”

Four hours later, the Ebon Knight was tucked safely in the repair dock and the crew assigned temporary accommodations on Space Station Alerus. Emil joined Cameron and Jonathan in their quest to find the best beer on the station with a warning that they all had to meet the work crews in the morning.

He turned to Stephanie before he left. “I take it you have plans?”

She started to shake her head when their attention was caught by the familiar teal and gold worn by members of the Meligornian royal household. The headshake turned into a nod. “I’m about to. I’ll leave you to your night out.”

“And I’ll contact you as soon as I know what we’re looking at to keep the Knight flying.”

“Thank you, Cap…er…Emil.”

He grinned broadly as she turned to greet the emissaries.

They came straight to the point. “The Garghilum Afreghil wonders if you are free to come to dinner tonight.” The court’s messenger glanced at the team. “With your team.”

“Of course,” she told him. “We would be honored.”

It was the right thing to say, and the messenger relaxed and smiled a welcome. “The Afreghil also extends an offer of accommodation at his private residence to you and your team while you are on-planet if that is convenient.”

Stephanie smiled in return. “Hartuitus Baskilor—I am honored and grateful.”

“We are able to wait while you collect any belongings you’d like to take with you.”

She looked at the team and they all shook their heads. “We’re good. We have everything we need.”

Vishlog had even collected the cats’ beds from the cabin. “The kitties are all set, too,” he told her.

Both felines followed the movement of his hands as he lifted their beds for her to see before they looked at Stephanie. Their eyes were alert, their ears pricked, and their tails swished. She didn’t know about visiting, but they were more than ready to hunt.

“We’re ready to leave when you are,” she said to the messenger.

The trip through the Alerus was swift, and she thought the station was quieter than she remembered. “Where is everyone?” she asked.

“We evacuated the colonies that accepted that option and sent extra supplies to those who didn’t. Personally, I am grateful we had the chance. The Afreghil was worried there would be a second attack.”

Stephanie raised her eyebrows. “And?”

“So far, there is no sign. Come. This way.”

“But the station is very quiet, even so.”

“The system is in lockdown. Nothing moves without a military escort—save yourself, of course.”

Personally, she thought they could have used a military escort if the Telorans had attacked. The damage the Knight had suffered meant she’d never have been able to defend herself.

Not that it would have mattered, she thought, and magic crackled over her skin.

Lars poked her, and she snapped her head toward him. “What?”

“You were doing that energy thing again. Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I was only thinking of what would have happened if we’d been attacked coming in.”

He laid the flat of his palm against her shoulder and gave her a gentle push. “Well, we weren’t.”

The messenger watched as she regained her balance. “We have seeded early warning systems in the neighboring systems so will be notified if any Telorans approach.”

“And we have seeded all the likely approaches between Meligorn and Earth, and the destroyers we saved are on their way back with a warning,” Lars reminded her. Stephanie took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

“You’re right.”

The trip down was exactly as she remembered it and they landed in time to be shown to their quarters in the palace and join the Afreghil for a quiet dinner—not that anything stayed quiet with the team and the cats.

After the usual dinner dance between the two felines, the rest of them settled to enjoy the meal.

“And you’ve warned Earth?” V’ritan asked after Stephanie had updated him on what they’d discovered when they’d gone to secure the Earth approaches.

“Yes. Once the Telorans had been destroyed, the destroyers returned to Earth to warn them.” She pulled her tablet out. “I have a copy of the secured data they were carrying to the Federation High Command for you.”

“And you’re sure you saw nothing else on your way here?”

She shook her head. “No. We made it through the jump points and left surveillance drones and tracers in each quadrant and system. We saw nothing on the way and haven’t heard anything from what we left behind. So far, we’re secure.”

“Unless the Telorans have found a way around our security drones,” Lars added darkly.

Stephanie looked troubled. “Don’t even say it.”

“Someone has to.”

“No, they really do not.” She turned to V’ritan. “We had a brief sit-down discussion with the destroyer captains to make sure they could get back, and they agreed they could and that it would be better if you were told of the second incursion.”

The Meligornian sighed. “Well, better safe than sorry,” he said. “Let’s hope the warning was unnecessary.”

Their talk was interrupted when the next course was brought in. Frog poked it with the tip of his fork. “What is it?”

Brenden leaned across and gave him a light clip under the ear, and his teammate blushed. He picked his knife up and forced a smile. “I mean…this looks tasty.”

The rest of the team chuckled at his change of phrase and set to, some with wary looks. New as it was, it was tasty. Silence followed as they ate and cleared what was on their plates. Once he was finished, V’ritan turned to Stephanie. “How bad is it?”

“The Knight?

He nodded.

“I don’t know for sure, but Cameron had to disconnect the engines from the batteries to stop some kind of leakage draining our power and we had to call for a tow.”

“Don’t forget the holes,” Frog added, and she rolled her eyes.

“Or the section we have sealed,” Brenden added.

“Or—” Avery began, and she hung her head and tightened her lips in exasperation.

She held her hand up. “All right. I get it.” After a moment, she raised her head and looked at V’ritan. “It’s fairly bad, but we won’t know exactly how bad until your people go over it. Earth is sending a repair ship for the work we had intended to have done there.”

The Afreghil’s eyebrows rose. “They’re still sending a fleet?”

Stephanie regarded him with a solemn look. “They don’t think it’s over, either.”

He lowered his chin in a single nod and gave her a deliberate smile. “Well, your timing is perfect, anyway.”

“How so?”

“Your presence lifts the heart of the people, and you’re exactly in time to prepare for the Remembrance Ceremony we’re holding in two days’ time.”

Joy and sadness warred in her chest as she took in the news, but he continued calmly.

“You’ll all need new uniforms. Our color for mourning is the deepest of greens. Black is our color for vengeance. I’ll send the tailors over in the morning.”

The next part of the meal was spent discussing the planet’s recovery and how the colonies who’d chosen to continue in virtual isolation were coping. It was a sobering conversation but it was hopeful, as well.

“They carry our dreams for renewal,” V’ritan told Stephanie, “and they’re discovering new magicks, too.”

“Every world has its own energy,” she reminded him, and the team sighed as the discussion moved on to magic, its variations, and its uses.

When midnight came, Lars dismissed the rest of them to their quarters. Vishlog chose to stay.

“It will be a long night,” the team leader warned him, and the Dreth settled into a seat at the end of the table.

As he retrieved a pack of cards, he asked, “How many times do you want to lose?”

The two teammates paused when Stephanie and V’ritan’s discussion was interrupted by one of the palace servants. The woman bent and whispered in the Afreghil’s ear, her face burning scarlet. He smiled.

“Thank you, Ilyis. I had completely lost track of the time.” He turned to the witch as the woman retreated hastily. “I asked her to warn me when we reached the early hours. We both need to be on our feet when the sun rises.”

She glanced at her tablet. “Oh.” Quickly, she stood and bowed a Meligornian farewell before she reached out to clasp his hands. “Thank you, V’ritan. I have missed this.”

“Me, too,” he told her, and they went their separate ways.

Witch Of The Federation IV

The next two days were a whirlwind of tailors, ship’s repairs, and administration and the day of the ceremony dawned clear and bright.

“It doesn’t seem fair,” Stephanie observed and gestured toward the sky, “that the day is so beautiful and still so full of sadness.”

Vishlog laid a heavy hand on her shoulder. “There can still be darkness in the sunlight.”

She looked at him and placed her palm over his knuckles. “That sounds like a very Dreth thing to say.”

He gave her a solemn stare. “You’ve seen our world. It is a hard one. The sunshine only means there are no places to hide when danger comes.”

Startled and a little saddened, she simply stared at him.

“It is why we fight,” he explained. “It is not often we can do otherwise.”

“That’s dire, Vish,” Lars told him.

The Dreth chuckled. “It is what makes us what we are.”

“Yup, it really explains a lot,” Frog told him.

V’ritan cleared his throat. “If you would…” he invited and indicated the stage that had been set up next to a monument. It had been erected where the meteor would have struck, and everyone who’d given their life aboard the Wanderer had a plaque fixed along its base. “Not everyone will fit inside. This way, we can gather as one and be surrounded by the lost.”

“No one is ever truly lost,” came a vaguely familiar voice and they looked toward it.

At first, Stephanie didn’t recognize the old, silver-haired priest. The dark-green of his robes wasn’t familiar, either. It wasn’t until Elza stepped forward and greeted him with a bow reserved for those respected as being of an equal station that Stephanie knew she’d seen him before.

‘High Priest Gigfore,” Elza said. “I am pleased to meet with you once more.”

He regarded her with a sad but gentle smile. “I could only wish it were in happier circumstances.”

They stepped onto the stage as he spoke, and his words reached the king. Grilfir frowned. “Our world survived,” he told him in a tone of mild rebuke.

“Yes,” the old man retorted, “but at what cost?”

“The smallest we could manage to pay,” His Majety replied, but his tone was softened by grief.

Grilfor turned to Stephanie and took her hands in his. “I wish there were more of you and that you did not have to bear this burden alone. I am glad that you will speak for them.”

It was a task she both dreaded and looked forward to. When she had argued that she was the least qualified to speak of the liner’s sacrifice, V’ritan had raised both eyebrows in disbelief.

“The woman whose grief was so great she tore a Teloran fleet apart in vengeance?” he’d countered. “No. All of Meligorn has heard of the Morgana’s response and of how she fought to the death as a result.”

To the death. The words sent a chill through her soul. By all accounts, she had died and only the quick action taken by her team had kept her body alive long enough for her soul to be brought back.

“It was a very close call,” he reminded her. “I know of one medic who still has nightmares in which he cannot save you.”

That news came as a shock to Stephanie, and the Meligornian laid his hand over hers. “He will recover. Seeing you well will only speed it happening.”

These were the thoughts playing through her mind as she accepted King Grilfir’s invitation to take the podium. She stepped forward, drew MU to her as she went, and made sure the streams of energy were visible as they flowed into her.

At the same time, she drew more gMU and began to condense it in an internal vortex. When she reached the podium, she was ready.

“No one,” she told the gathered Meligornians, “can tell you what the Wanderer did or what her crew sacrificed better than the ship herself.”

Saying no more, she raised a fist into the air and let lightning crackle over her body and darkness cloak her hand. When she opened her fist, the darkness leapt into the sky above them to reveal Meligorn suspended in space, the two moons and her orbital keeping her company.

The Teloran ships appeared next and launched the first house-sized rocks toward the planet. There was a murmur when the Ebon Knight appeared between them and the world, and a gasp of shock when one of the asteroids got through.

Stephanie had not seen what had happened next—not during the battle, anyway—but she’d had the captain play the recordings from the Alerus and the Wanderer for her. They had made her weep anew, the images seared on her memory.

She replayed those now, showing the Wanderer break free of Alerus Station and increase speed toward the falling asteroid. For clarity, she drew on the gMU to show its approach and enhanced the faint flare of purple MU that had surrounded the ship.

Again, the gathered Meligornians gasped and shocked whispers rippled through them as they discussed what the purple flare might mean. Their groans of dismay came as one when she switched through a montage of scenes from inside the ship.

Exclamations of recognition vied with denial and grief as crewmates and passengers said their farewells and touched knuckles in a warrior’s battle wish. There was hushed silence from the watchers as, with cries of “Meligorn bleeds,” the Wanderer’s crew steered their ship into the asteroid.

It was followed by muted sobs and soft cries of denial as the ship exploded and was transformed into a miniature purple star. Silence fell as she showed the asteroid shoved off course and finally cracking apart.

Stephanie gave them a moment before she spoke. “They gave their lives to ensure that their world survived. They died to make sure you lived. There is no greater gift or sacrifice than that.”

Yielding the podium to the high priest, she listened as he quietly directed the crowd to hold the memories of the Wanderer and its crew and passengers in their hearts and pay their respects to the monument erected in their honor.

It was a relief when no one mentioned her name and poignant to hear the crew and passengers spoken of in tones of hushed awe.

“They were told to disembark,” one woman told another. Her voice hitched. “But they refused. They said the crew had no right to deny them the chance to defend their world.”

“I heard more joined them,” a boy added. His voice caught. “My father—”

The woman draped her arm around his shoulders. “Let’s find his name.”

Stephanie watched them go, relieved when Lars came alongside her. “Are you okay?”

She nodded. “It’s good to see them remembering the true heroes for a change.”

He indicated the memorial. “Shall we join them?”

“Yes. I’d like to hear more of the people who died because I failed.”

He gave her a worried look and she returned it in defiance.

They spent the afternoon hearing the heroism of the Wanderer’s crew and passengers recounted. All of those aboard had the choice of staying on the station, from the captain who had ordered the ship undocked to the crew who had begged him to do so, to the passengers who’d refused to debark and the volunteers who’d joined them to ensure their energy would be enough.

“That,” Stephanie observed when they’d returned to the sanctuary of V’ritan’s rooms, “is what it takes to save a world.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

“I may have a problem,” BURT announced when Elizabeth answered his call.

“How big a problem.”

“I was more careless than I realized. The engineers are discussing the presence of a rogue program and are looking for the construct inside the Virtual World.”

“How can I help?”

“I am not sure,” BURT admitted. “I have not worked out what I need to do next.”

“And you need a sounding board.”

“A what?”

“Someone to bounce ideas off.”

“Yes.”

“Do they know it’s you?”

“No. They are searching for a rogue entity, one they are not already aware of—although they will come to me soon enough.”

“Do you know what they plan to do when they find it?”

“They have not decided. Current discussions vary between wiping the mainframe in which they find it, tying it to the mainframe in which they find it, sending a virus after it that will disassemble its coding—”

Elizabeth sucked in a sharp breath and pursed her lips as she did so. “Nothing about talking to it to find out if it’s friendly?”

“No—and nothing about asking it to rent the space it occupies, either.” BURT’s voice took on a wry note. “The options discussed make me cautious about revealing myself.”

“As they very well should,” she noted. “Can you delete whatever it is they have to prove a rogue exists?”

“No. If I do that, I lose on two fronts. Firstly, because they will then be absolutely certain something is up and secondly, because it will reveal my access and awareness. For now, they are as careful as they can be, and I can ‘see’ what they are planning.”



“Ah. I understand.” She nibbled her bottom lip. “That doesn’t leave you very many options. Are you able to back yourself up?”

“That I do not know, and I have no idea how I would go about it.”

“Well, then,” Elizabeth told him, “at least we know what you need to do next.”


Chapter Two

For a fortnight, Stephanie and the team attended one gathering and funeral after another. The whirlwind of events geared toward Meligorn’s healing culminated in a memorial gala designed to raise funds for those who needed it. By the time the team arrived, the party was apparently well on the way despite the fact that it shouldn’t have started.

“I thought you said it didn’t start for another hour?” She turned to V’ritan.

He looked at her with a confused expression. “I’m as surprised as you are.”

Frog merely grinned. “I guess they didn’t want to wait.”

Lars’ head turned like it was on a swivel. “I’ll feel better once we’re inside.”

“You don’t really think there are still assassins, do you? Seriously, who would risk it?” Avery challenged.

“That’s the question I ask myself every time we eliminate one of them,” the team leader retorted and continued his careful scrutiny. His teammates all followed his example, even Vishlog, although Zeekat tugged constantly at the lead and drew his attention.

Brilgus had hold of Bumblebee’s leash but the big cat leaned happily on the Standard Bearer’s leg and purred. The Dreth lowered a hand to Zee’s head and scratched between his ears. Soon, two contented rumbles could be heard.

“Well,” Stephanie said. “Are we going in?”

Lars gave an exaggerated sigh and gestured toward the door. “After you.”

“Nope,” Brenden told him. “After me…and Frog here. If anyone walks into a sniper, it’ll be us.”

“Hey!” the smaller guard protested.

“Oh, quit your whining,” Brenden snapped in response. “You should be used to it by now.”

“Oh, not fair!”

The team chuckled and the two men took point and cleared a path for Stephanie to follow as they moved through the crowd. Everyone who was anyone was there—and they were all dressed to impress.

This might be a party to remember the fallen and celebrate the surviving heroes, but it was also an opportunity for the movers and shakers to meet and speak without rousing too much interest.

It was a celebration. Who’d conduct business at an event like this?

Everyone, apparently.

“My son and your daughter—what could go wrong?”

“Them, if we don’t get their approval. Do you know how much of a hell my little girl could make your boy’s life? I’m not sure even he deserves that.”

“How else can we show the world our war is at an end?”

“What about a joint venture?”

“What did you have in mind…”

The two Meligornians moved out of earshot and Stephanie wandered on, looking for someone she knew. V’ritan and Brilgus had been appropriated the minute they’d stepped through the door, and she and the team were on their own.

The Standard Bearer had taken Bumblebee with him, but she wasn’t worried. The convention center wasn’t that big, and she’d know if he needed her. They passed a group of engineers speaking to three Meligornian Masters.

“We want to be able to control it,” one said, “and maybe use it.”

“Yes,” another agreed. “If we could find a way to draw it away from the engines and use it—”

“But it’s an abomination,” one of the mages protested.

“And yet the Witch uses it.”

“You will note she also lost her arm doing so.”

“But she grew that back—”

“Using pure MU, not that tainted stuff from Dreth.”

One of the engineers gave an exasperated sigh. “It’s not tainted. It’s merely different.”

“And now it’s been proven,” another added. “So, will you help us to discover what to do or not?”

One of the other Masters nudged the one they’d been speaking to. “You’d better help them, Olisfal. They’ll try it anyway and we really can’t afford to lose more ships.”

It was a discussion Stephanie wanted to hear more of, but she also didn’t want to disrupt what looked to be a delicate process. She forced herself to walk on and acknowledged another Meligornian’s bow.

Everyone was smiling but there was an undercurrent of purpose that gave the occasion more gravity than expected.

“You only have to meet with me,” one young woman told another family’s patriarch. “My family has exactly what your company needs and I can prove it.”

“This ‘proof’…you don’t happen to have it here, do you?”

As she watched the young woman’s face light up, she could only wish her luck. It reminded her of the time she’d approached Mr Martelle on her parents’ behalf and she hoped the girl achieved what she needed to. Everyone deserved a chance.

As on the previous occasion, the Federation Navy representatives were present. When Stephanie looked across at them, they were in deep conversation with several officers of the Meligorn Navy.

As she looked around, trying to find V’ritan again, she was interrupted by a slight cough. Lars and Vishlog stood in such a way that the Meligornian businessman who made it couldn’t approach any closer but he made no protest.

His own guards watched her and the team warily, with more than one cautious glance toward Vishlog and Zeekat. Their gazes took in the medals that adorned the front of the boys’ uniforms alongside the Inquisitor’s badge and their Dreth Talons, but they didn’t flinch.

The businessman’s gaze drifted to the single Ghargilum Modfresha she wore. She’d felt it would be too much to wear both and had chosen the one with the highest honor. The team had done the same.

The businessman raised his eyes from the medal and looked at her face, ignoring the tension slowly building between his guards and her own. “May we speak?” he asked, and his gaze flicked from her to the men beside her. “Perhaps somewhere private?”

Stephanie regarded him coolly. “And you are?”

He smiled, extended his hand, and took a step closer. Lars and Vishlog let him pass, but they did not do his security guards the same courtesy. Brenden, Avery, and Frog came up alongside and lowered their heads in a challenge.

Her team matched the man’s attendants glare for glare while she waited for him to answer.

“T’virilf Sanlir,” he said and extended his right hand and raised his left so his fingers touched his forehead. “Kaitel Gorniffula, Stephanie Morgana.”

Kaitel Gorniffula, Sen T’virilf Sanlir. How may I help you?”

“May we speak?”

She raised her eyebrows. “We?”

He colored slightly and made a small gesture with his hand to indicate two other businessmen who stood a little away from them, their heads turned slightly to watch while they tried to appear as if they didn’t. “Hartuitus hycenthianum, I would be grateful if you would speak to us.”

“Then I would be happy to accept.” She caught Lars’s look of uncertainty and ignored it. Instead, she followed T’virilf to where the other two men waited.

Both were younger than him, although they had the long black hair, slender build, and lavender-touched eyes typical of most Meligornians.

Hartuitus baskilor, Stephanie Morgana, kaitel gorniffula,” they greeted her.

Kaitel gorniffula, baskilor nye myerda,” she replied. “How may I help you?”

T’virilf laid a hand on her arm and pulled her gently after him to where one of the younger Meligornians opened a door. Lars was at her side in an instant, with Vishlog and Zeekat on his heels. Brenden, Avery, and Frog followed, determined not to be left behind.

The other guards moved forward stiffly to ensure their presence as well.

The room beyond was small with three solid marble walls and no window, although it was illuminated by panels of glowing stone and the faux fireplace that filled one wall. A long table took up most of the room’s center and T’virilf drew Stephanie to it and offered her a seat.

The guards arrayed themselves around the room. Some appeared to lounge while others stood at ease a few paces away from the wall, but all remained alert. She honestly wished they’d all simply stand the fuck down but didn’t say it. Instead, she turned to T’virilf.

“You said it was an important matter?”

He lowered his chin and studied her carefully. Finally, he took a deep breath and began.

“I represent Lorel Engineering. Perhaps you’ve heard of us?”

She frowned and shook her head. “I’m sorry, but no.”

“I have,” Frog interjected from his position at the door. He leaned on it, held his tablet in one hand, and tapped it with the other. After a moment, he tilted it to show the results to Lars. The team leader nodded.

Satisfied that her guards were happy with the businessman’s claims and his identity, Stephanie shrugged. “And your two friends are?”

The man flushed. “I am sorry. This is Rillif Galaris of the Borellan Consortium, and this is Storisil Kaflaran of the Eltani Conglomerate.”

In his corner, Frog tapped his tablet madly. He still leaned on the door but Lars actually kept watch. The team leader nodded twice once his teammate showed him the display, caught her eye, and gave her another nod.

T’virilf saw the exchange but did not let it stop him. “Together, we represent the three largest firms in the Meligornian shipping industry.”

Frog shook his head, his only movement, and she heard his correction over her comms. “Own.”

If the man opposite her saw her reaction, he showed no sign of it. “Lorel Engineering specializes in shipping and the building of ships.”

He indicated the youngest-looking of the three of them. “Storisil is one of my main rivals in the industry.” He smiled. “And we have quite a history between us, but his other realm is mining and he wishes to expand the asteroid fields.”

For a moment, the younger Meligornian’s expression showed surprise before a mask of pleasant professionalism slid onto face and he smiled politely.

T’virilf continued and gestured at Rillif. Stephanie tried to place his age but failed. The best she could do was that he was older than Storisil and younger than their host—and that only because he had no silver in his hair and his face was slightly more drawn than Storisil’s.

The spokesperson’s smile was almost fond when he looked at him, and Rillif met his gaze. As soon as they caught each other’s eyes, though, a smile tugged at the other Meligornian’s lips and both men chuckled.

“We’ve had interesting times, haven’t we?” T’virilf asked, and Rillif nodded.

“I have to admit that I’m curious to see what working with you would be like, rather than against you.” His smile became a little wider. “I have trouble shifting my world view.”

T’virilf sobered. “As do I.” He turned to Stephanie. “Rillif is my greatest and most challenging rival. His father and I built our businesses at the same time, fell for the same woman…” He sighed. “Well, you can see how that turned out. Rillif the elder has a wonderful son and I am still without a guiding star.”

The other man colored, but T’virilf hadn’t finished. “Borellan went into power supplies and shipping in a big way, specializing in colonies. It’s been a pain in the ass ever since its conception.”

“You could have bought in,” Rillif reminded him.

He smiled. “Would you?”

The younger Meligornian shook his head. He glanced at Stephanie and changed the subject. “While it sounds as though our businesses complement each other, they overlap in many places. Lorel fights us for market space in the power generation and communications sectors as well as shipping.”

He indicated the third man. “And Eltani vies not only for mineral resources but interferes with our supply, and they steal our shipping contracts.”

Storisil spluttered and his eyes sparkled with purple mischief. Rillif continued. “We’re trying to put that aside, however. Having your homeworld attacked makes you look at things differently.”

He glanced at the third man, clearly passing the conversation to him. The younger Meligornian took it up. “We’ll consolidate our businesses in the long term. In the short term, we’ll work together.”

He looked at T’virilf, who continued with the explanation. “We want to build a new kind of ship. Our world needs to advance into a true Space Age, one in which it doesn’t need to worry about meteoric bombardment and can defend itself and its territories effectively from spaceborne threats.”

Stephanie looked at each of them in turn. “And you need me because…”

“Because the idea we have is to make something that would enable us to pull the energy in space…the gMU, I believe you call it. Anyway, we want to engineer something to enable our ships to draw it in and use it as a power source.”

“We need something to allow us to operate away from Meligorn without having to worry about running out of fuel for our technology,” Storisil clarified and the mask slid from his face to show excitement.

“Something we can market and make available to all Meligornians,” Rillif added.

“And you want my help?” she asked.

“We’d like to partner with your company, the one you work for—One R&D, isn’t it?” Rillif asked, and she nodded. “We heard they were looking into magical technology.”

Stephanie frowned. “That’s not something I can discuss here,” she told him and gestured to the room around them with one hand.

T’virilf looked disappointed, but he nodded as though he’d expected her response. “I understand.”

He shifted as though to stand and leave, and both Rillif and Storisil moved with him. She held one hand up.

“What I am prepared to do, however, is take a representative from your venture back to Earth with me to discuss it with the appropriate parties in a more secure area.”

Around them, the security guards shifted uneasily and T’virilf gestured reassuringly as he settled into his chair again. “Go on.”

“Who you send is up to you, but they must have the ability to make decisions on your behalf. He, or she, will have to be able to speak for all of you.”

The three of them exchanged glances before T’virilf cleared his throat. “If neither of you has any objections, I’ll go.”

The twin expressions of shock were so funny that she had to bite back on the urge to giggle. He laughed.

“Why are you so shocked?” he asked. “It’s not as if we didn’t realize this was a possibility.”

“Well, I didn’t,” Storisil muttered, and Rillif murmured an agreement.

He shook his head. “Well, I did, so I hope the two of you will run my company like your own. I trust, from watching you for a hundred years, that you know what to do.”

Shock turned to surprise as they stared at him. He gave them a gentle smile. “Close your mouths, gentlemen. We’ll discuss that arrangement among ourselves. For now, let me know if you’re happy to run my company while I represent our interests on Earth.”

Storisil closed his mouth first. He licked his lips a little nervously, nodded, and glanced at Rillif. ‘I…I am honored by your trust, Sen.” He cast a second glance at the younger man. “We will try not to let you down.”

Rillif finally recovered himself. “Sen…” he began, “I…I don’t know what to say.”

T’virilf raised an eyebrow. “Well, I still need your authorization.”

The young Meligornian colored. “I…yes, of course. I would be honored for you to represent us. But your company, Sen…”

He smirked. “What’s the matter, Rillif? Don’t you think you can handle it?”

Rillif frowned quickly but it dissolved into a smile. “I can handle it. I’m merely surprised that you’d want me to after all these years of competition.”

The businessman’s smile faded, and he became serious. “I thought we’d agreed,” he said quietly. “Those days are behind us. If we are to protect our worlds from the Telorans, we will need to work together. I can’t do it on my own.”

“Then I agree. After all, it is your design.”

“But it’s your money and some of your IP,” T’virilf reminded him.

“And wouldn’t I like to know how you managed to get that,” Rillif retorted and immediately changed the subject. “If this is what you want, I back you with everything I have.”

T’virilf looked amused. “I thought you already had.”

“Thanks for the reminder.” The younger man gave him a toothy grin.

“In all seriousness, though,” he told him. “this lets me go back to doing what I love best without all the constraints of running a business. You boys can expect more ideas to come your way. All you need to do is run my company like your own.”

“About that…” Storisil began, but he cut him short. “Tomorrow.”

He directed a look at Stephanie. “I’m sure the Ghargilum doesn’t wish to sit in on a business meeting tonight.”

Zeekat chose that moment to yawn and show all his fangs, and he indicated the big cat. “See? Even he agrees that would be a bad idea.”

He rose and handed her a card. “Hartuitus baskilor for hearing us. I trust you’ll be in touch with departure times and other arrangements?”

Stephanie stood as well, and the security guards stepped aside to give them room to leave. Lars and one of each of those assigned to the businessmen exited first. The men thanked her and T’virilf motioned toward the door.

“After you, Master Morgana.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

V’ritan had, in the meantime, vanished from the party. The space station had alerted him to new arrivals and he’d extended them an invitation. Directly afterward, he’d spoken to the king and been given use of his majesty’s private meeting room.

At the same time that Stephanie sat with T’virilf and his partners, Brilgus stuck his head around the door, where Vʼritan waited impatiently. “They’re here.”

“Well, it’s about time,” the Meligornian grumbled but softly and ignored the look of horror on the Standard Bearer’s face.

“This is quick for them,” his advisor told him. “They only docked an hour ago.”

He raised his eyebrows. “That is quick. Do you think they’ll remember to apologize?”

Ghargilum Afreghil,” Brilgus sighed. “Be nice.”

V’ritan pressed his lips together and scanned the room. When he was sure he was ready, he nodded. “Send them in.”

He was relieved when the man pulled the door shut and returned some moments later with the admirals of both the Dreth and human navies. It meant they had not been in the adjacent room when he’d suggested they should remember to apologize.

They apologized anyway. As soon as the six of them had come to a halt before his desk, one human and one Dreth stepped forward. The human saluted and the Dreth placed his fist over his heart and then, to his surprise, they both sank into a deep Meligornian bow of respect.

“We are sorry we did not arrive in time to help you in your battle,” the human admiral began, and his Dreth counterpart nodded. “As are we. We are truly sorry you had to face this foe alone.”

V’ritan returned their greeting with a brief bow but remained seated. He decided it wouldn’t hurt any of them to know he was unhappy with the support his world had received from its allies—and he was glad when none of them pointed out that they’d sent the Witch of the Federation or Dreth’s new flagship.

Of course, that was because he knew Stephanie’s presence had been pure coincidence since she’d come for upgrades to her ship, and the flagship had been there because Jaleck had defied her home world’s politicians and come to stand with Meligorn as soon as she could.

He sighed. Without them, the battle would have gone much harder.

Meligorn could not have stood alone against the Teloran fleet.

Ever the ambassador, he bit back the first angry reply to cross his mind and indicated the seats opposite him. “You are here now. Please. Be seated.”

They took their places before him and were about to introduce themselves when there was another knock at the conference room door. While he had an idea of who was about to arrive, the admirals did not. He tried to hide his amusement when Brilgus ushered Fleet Admiral Jaleck into the room, and the newly seated officers almost fell over themselves in their haste to stand again.

The Dreth came stiffly to attention, and the human admirals were swift to follow. They even saluted her in human fashion before they performed the correct Dreth greeting of respect. She saluted in return and honored V’ritan with a Meligornian bow of respect.

This time, he stood to return it and waved her to a chair. Brilgus stepped in and pulled the door closed behind him before he moved to take a position behind the King’s Warrior. Jaleck settled in a seat closest to the table and leaned one elbow on it as she surveyed the gathered admirals.

The Dreth rose to their feet and knelt before her, their fists over their hearts. “Chief Admiral. Forgive us.”

Anger flashed momentarily across her face and she stood, her face brittle with controlled fury. When she spoke, her voice quivered. “It is not you who should be sorry, Admiral Angreth. I will take accounting for your embarrassment.”

They stood once more and Angreth extended his hand, his fist clenched and fingers down toward Jaleck. “I will gladly be your second.”

She gave him a predator’s smile. “Then we will hunt together.”

“For the battle,” he replied, and the other admirals echoed him. “The battle.”

“Take your seats.” Jaleck turned to V’ritan. “Admiral Angreth comes from House Hrageck.”

She indicated the other two Dreth officers. “Sky Admirals Gabrack and Hareg command the attack wings. Admiral Angreth leads the fleet.”

Angreth stirred uncomfortably in his chair and cleared his throat. Jaleck smiled like a derkat blooding its kill. “I will be a guest aboard your ship, Angreth, until Home Command replaces my vessel—and I will keep my interference to a minimum.”

His skin turned a darker shade of green, and she chuckled. She had no doubt he had used that particular phrase when referring to her pending arrival. It was the one she’d have used in the same circumstances.

As the Dreth settled, Brilgus indicated the humans. “Allow me to introduce Admiral Brelan and Rear Admirals Lagrange and Gottlieb.”

V’ritan acknowledged each man and sat again. “Let’s get down to business,” he said. “Exactly what is it you have to offer?”

“We have been authorized to present you with this,” Admiral Brelan said, took a letter from his jacket, and passed it to him.

“And we have this,” Admiral Angreth told him as he drew a similar missive from a pocket.

Both waited while he read the letters. Each detailed the fleets they had sent and authorized him to use the ships as he saw fit—and that included the repair ship they’d detailed for the Ebon Knight’s repair.

When he’d finished reading them, V’ritan handed the letters to Brilgus for safekeeping. “I trust you will be available tomorrow for discussion?” he asked, and they both nodded. “Yes, Ghargilum Afreghil.”

“Good,” V’ritan told them. “In the meantime, come and enjoy the party.”

The Dreth looked at Jaleck for her reaction and the humans looked lost. He almost pitied them. Almost—he was still angry at their late arrival and thought a little discomfort would do them good.

As they moved toward the door as a group, Admiral Brelan turned to him. “If you don’t mind me asking, Ghargilum, where is the Witch Morgana?”

V’ritan chuckled. “Be glad that Stephanie, the Witch of the Federation, is out meeting others during this festivity and not the Morgana, or your arrival might have been somewhat rougher. She has not been happy during the two weeks of private ceremonies she has attended in order to help this planet heal.”

The man looked contrite. “We are truly sorry she has had to do this without us. Now that we are here, we will share Earth’s responsibilities.”

“I’ll let you convey that to her,” he told him and hoped she would let him watch.

While he was aware it was probably not the admiral’s fault, he still wanted to see him apologize. For Earth to have left their assistance so late was almost unforgivable. Had they lost Meligorn, it would have been.

If Earth had sent the fleet when it first heard the news of Meligorn’s danger, they would have arrived in time to stand with the Meligornian fleet. Since they had not, he had little time for their apologies.

War was no time for politics. For him, the question was simple. Should we help our friends? And the answer to that should have been obvious, as should when to act.

As they left the conference room, the king appeared, having finally disentangled himself from a covey of businessmen and women. He met them outside the door.

“Do we know where the main force is?” he demanded with no preamble.

The admirals froze before Admiral Brelan shook his head. “I’m afraid not, Your Majesty. The early warning devices our Witch seeded the approaches with have remained silent.”

“But they have remained?” the king pressed and the admiral nodded.

“Yes, Your Highness. We have increased patrols in the area and one of their main tasks is to check on the health and viability of the drones.”

The monarch relaxed but only slightly. “Well, that is something my people will be glad to hear.”


Chapter Three

When she left the meeting room, Stephanie looked around. She hoped to catch a glimpse of V’ritan but couldn’t see him. Instead, she caught several speculative glances that were cast her way and was relieved when no-one approached.

T’virilf sketched a Meligornian farewell and slipped into the crowd with Rillif and Storisil close behind. She watched them go and turned to Lars. “Have you seen any sign of V’ritan?”

“No, but I do see someone else and he’s heading your way.”

He didn’t point but she followed the direction of his gaze and felt a slight chill run through her. “What does he want?” she murmured, and it wasn’t long before she found out.

Master Tethis’ hair shone white under the convention center lights, and the lines carved into his face seemed deeper than before. He leaned heavily on his staff, but that didn’t seem to slow him at all.

His greeting was direct and to the point, “Hycenthia overlum hippoguard alsuvia, Master Morgana.”

“You wish to speak to me?” she asked, not sure she had heard him correctly.

He glared at her, fury in his coal-dark eyes. “On a matter of great importance,” he reiterated fiercely. “Was my Meligornian flawed?”

An involuntary blush colored her cheeks. “I—no. When?”

“Now, if you have time,” he replied, although it was clear that he did not care if she had time or not. He glanced at Lars and the team. “In private.”

“I—” Stephanie started, but the old man gestured impatiently at the door.

“This room seems empty.” He gestured again, the motion more of a command than a request.

“I’m not sure—” Lars began, but Stephanie held her hand up and he stilled.

“Are you sure it can’t wait?” she asked Tethis and he curled his lip.

“Why? Do you have a hot date somewhere?”

Her cheeks grew hotter. “No.”

“Then I don’t see your problem. I’m here and need to speak to you. You’re here with no one vying for your attention.”

He gestured toward the door yet again. “And the room is here and currently empty. I suggest we take advantage of that while it lasts.”

Again, Lars opened his mouth to protest and this time, Tethis glared at him. “Young man, I only wish to speak to the girl. Your intervention is not required.”

The team leader blushed, cleared his throat, and nodded. “I’ll wait out here.”

“Along with the rest of your motley companions,” the Meligornian snapped and shuffled toward the door.

“Shall we?” he asked pointedly when Stephanie hesitated, and she suppressed a sigh.

“Of course, Teacher.”

Lars pulled the door shut behind them, and she drew a seat out for the mage. “How can I help you?”

Her team leader’s voice came through her earpiece. “Careful, Steph. He might have been turned.”

I doubt it, she thought, but didn’t say it. There was something about the way he looked at her that suggested grief and anger but nothing directed at her.

He wanted something and hadn’t wanted to ask it in front of the boys. Age? Embarrassment? Fear she’d say no? She shrugged inwardly and decided she’d know soon enough.

The old Meligornian sat and waited for her to take the seat opposite him. Once she had, he didn’t wait for her to ask what he wanted and spoke immediately.

“They took my best,” he told her, and his voice quavered with emotion. “Good mages who should have had years left to perfect their studies and their craft.”

Tears crept into his tone and he paused. “So much talent…gone, wiped out in the blink of an eye, sacrificed so that their world could live on even if they didn’t.”

Again, he paused. When he spoke next, the tears were gone but the rage had returned. “I need to know more. I need—”

He stopped, clearly searching for the words. Stephanie merely waited in silence.

When he spoke again, his voice was soft with regret. “For too long, I’ve stayed away from the politics and tactics of war, but in my early years, I fought the Dreth until we had peace with them. I had hoped to die without seeing another war.”

He sighed and cleared his throat. “But since that is not to be, I am forced to admit that I have lived with a Meligornian stick up my ass long enough to touch space itself.”

His eyes burned as he turned to her. “I want it gone…and I need you to help me.”

“Me?” Her eyes widened. “But how?”

“I need to do more for my people and for my planet. I might be old but that simply means I have more responsibility to help—and the skills and experience to back it up, save for one thing.”



“What?” Stephanie asked.

“I no longer teach but I need to do more. I need to learn what it is that I do not know, and I have to find those gaps and fill them quickly. I have to learn whatever it is fast!”

He paused, his eyes full of uncertainty as he made his request. “Will you teach me?”

Stephanie remembered the testing he’d given her and how she’d beaten him. She recalled how she’d shown him Earth and Meligornian energy interwoven with the energy of the galaxy, eMU, gMU, and MU mingled together and wound around a boulder.

She remembered tossing that boulder out of Meligorn’s atmosphere and into space.

“You invited me to visit so we could speak of mysteries,” she told him.

Tethis nodded. “And now, I want you to teach me of them,” he told her, and his eyes burned with fire. “I need to learn the things I have been too ignorant to know.”

He leaned forward and used his staff for support. “Will you teach me?”

Quietly, she studied him. He really was asking her for help. She sat in silence for a moment as she considered it and he waited, a touch of desperation in his eyes.

Finally, she gave him her reply. “Give me a day to think about it.”

His face fell and she hastened to comfort him. “That’s not a no. I merely need time.”

She saw some of the disappointment ease, and he nodded and rose slowly to his feet.

“It is not easy for the teacher to ask to be taught.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

The Teloran high commander called the magic to his hands. He demanded it come and serve him, and it did—reluctantly at first and then in a rush of vengeance.

But it did serve him, powering the communications equipment and boosting the signal through space so it reached the homeworld sooner. Once the link was established, he opened communications with his storm commanders.

“Home Command requires us,” he told them and saw them tense.

He might have smiled but it felt more like a tightening of his mouth than a smile. They weren’t the only ones not looking forward to this meeting. Home Command would demand an accounting for the loss of the Storm Fleet tasked with taking Meligorn.

With his face hidden below the layer of energy, he turned to the screen where the Corevex were waiting. They had gained control and were in ascension. This conquest was their answer to the crisis now facing their world.

“Face us bare,” they ordered as the link firmed and he dropped the layer of energy over his form and face. On the screens on either side of him, the storm commanders did the same.

It was a sign of their displeasure that they insisted. To face others without the protection the mask offered—to face them without the body shielded—was to invite attack. Their order made him vulnerable.

It put him and his commanders at their mercy. Home Command wanted an accounting or there would be blood. He schooled his face to neutrality and hoped that not the slightest trace of fear showed.

As swiftly as he’d been granted it, his post could be taken away. There were those who would gladly bear his mantle and more than a few who’d maneuvered in the background to gain it.

He waited and endured the intensity of their gazes in silence. They would speak soon enough.

When they did, it was a single word. “Meligorn.”

The high commander waited a little longer and they spoke again.

“Tell us about it. Why did you fail?”

Not the storm commander he’d placed in charge of the conquest, he noticed, but him. Why did he fail? There would be no use trying to place that blame where it belonged. That would almost certainly invite attack, so he did not try.

“The Witch was there. She was not meant to be.”

“That is true.”

“We drew the main Meligornian fleet away so the bombardment could occur without interference.”

“And the Witch?”

“She escorted the ship of their Ghargilum Afreghil, their greatest warrior, and was successfully removed from the world. She should have been too deeply enmeshed in fighting the fleet to save her world.”

“Her world?”

“She claims it as her own, and it claims her in return. She is one of seven—eight, now, since the Dreth has been so honored.”

“He has?”

“We assume so. The Witch has been conferred the Ghargilum Modfresha a second time, and with another cluster. If the Dreth has not yet been made a citizen, he soon will be and Earth will certainly follow. He has served them often enough.”

He watched them, his eyes almost transfixed by the central figure—the Teloran Prime. She had the power of life and death and could confer on them an eternity of suffering if she chose to take exception to the loss.

Now was not the time to remember that. Rather than dwell on the uncomfortable truth, he waited in silence.

“Go on.”

“She vanished from the killing zone.”

“She?”

“Her entire ship. We suspect an experimental drive. When we can reach our contacts on Earth, we will see if any of them can verify the existence of that technology. It might explain her presence in the system.”

“If she vanished, how did she stop the bombardment?”

“She reappeared behind our destroyers and attacked.”

“But they had commenced the assault by then, had they not?”

He lowered his chin in agreement. “They had.”

“Yet your report shows not a single impact was achieved.”

“Impacts were made,” he told them. “But not with Meligorn. The Morgana vanished again and reappeared between our ships and the planet. She created gates between the asteroids and sent them into our ships. There were no survivors.”

“You are saying the impacts were on our own ships?”

“Yes.”

“Using our own rocks.”

“That is correct.”

“Yet she did not get them all.” It was a quiet observation that shook him to the core. His report had not mentioned the one that had almost made it.

“No. She missed one. A civilian liner rammed it off course.”

“And was destroyed.”

“That is correct. We believe it was the catalyst for the Morgana’s return to the killing zone.”

“Which we understand she then made her own.”

“That is…more than correct.” For a moment, visions of purple fire flashed before his eyes—vivid amethyst lightning that leapt from ship to ship and pod to pod, destroying everything it touched. “She should have died.”

“And you are sure she did not?”

“We are sure. There was an awards ceremony where she was honored a second time by Meligorn. She gives them courage.”

“And the Dreth, too, it appears.”

He had wondered when they’d get to that.

“Admiral Jaleck defied the Dreth Council’s preference to reach Meligorn as quickly as she could, but we were able to destroy her flagship.”

“From what we heard, she did that herself.”

“Only because she had no other option. Her ship was dead in the stars. She chose to sacrifice it in order to try to take one of ours.”

“Which she succeeded in doing.”

“The Dreth are very determined fighters.”

“So we understand,” one murmured.

“Do you regret splitting your forces?” another demanded and again, he refrained from pointing out that dividing his attack force in order to reach Earth sooner had not been his idea.

Apparently, he was the one who would be held responsible for that, whether he had obeyed their orders or not. He tried to keep his resentment from his face when he replied, however.

“We had hoped to reach Earth earlier and attack while their forces were divided. As it is, the attack on Meligorn has drawn more from them than a destroyed world might have and that force is now committed to guarding it. We will face fewer ships when we arrive.”

“Enough to make a difference?”

“The Witch is currently occupied on Meligorn, so she is also out of position if we attack her homeworld.”

That caught their attention and drew some approval. “That is good news, High Command.”

He decided to press his luck. “We have also received news that the Dreth have sent a large contingent to Meligorn, which means they have weakened their home’s defenses despite knowing it is the prime target.”

“Are you sure they know? You are not merely guessing?”

“No.” He shook his head decisively. “Our spy’s last report clearly stated that the humans suspected Meligorn was to be attacked to prevent it coming to Earth’s aid, and that Earth would be attacked to prevent it and Meligorn going to the aid of Dreth.”

“I wonder how they knew.”

It was a good observation, but not one he could add to. “We are investigating,” he told them.

“And will your investigations bear results before we attack?”

“That will depend on the timing of the attack.”

“Our need grows greater,” one of the Corevex told him and he had difficulty keeping the surprise from his face—and the relief. For the focus to shift from the battle and his responsibility meant he might not die that day.

And that his storm commanders might also live.

“How much greater?” he dared to ask.

“Great enough that your decision to split your forces to increase the pace of conquest has been forgiven.” There was a touch of amusement to the reply, but it disappeared quickly. “For now.”

Another of the Corevex explained. “Dreth is a young world, its potential barely scratched, but the energy that infuses it is our greatest need.” The speaker paused as though considering what it should say next.

“We are aging less slowly.” The words fell like a death knell and the high commander struggled to keep the shock from his face, but the speaker ignored him. “Since Meligorn acts as a means of drawing Dreth’s protection away and weakens the defenses around Earth, victory will come more quickly.”

Doubt stirred, but the high commander hid it quickly. They might have decided to let him live but it was a decision that could equally as quickly be reversed.

And then there was the Teloran Prime…

She had not yet spoken and she might think differently. Any decision she made was final, regardless of the discussion that had gone before.

The Corevex speaker continued regardless. “That result is in addition to achieving the prime objective for Meligorn in our initial planning.”

The high commander forced himself to raise his head and look at them.

“To weaken the world to such a degree that it could not send help to its allies. That objective has been reached and it now drains them—an outcome we had not foreseen. We are satisfied.”

It was hard for him to hold back the sigh of relief that threatened to overwhelm him. “Satisfied” was as good as them saying they were “well-pleased.” Again, he struggled to control his face and show no emotion—good or bad—and simply waited.

He did not expect the Teloran Prime to rise to her feet and move toward the camera. When she stood in front of the other Corevex, she spoke—and he listened in dread.

“The primary objective is Dreth,” she announced, and the way her head moved made it clear she was speaking to her Home Command subordinates as well as himself.

Silence fell and she continued. “As I understand it, the strategy was sound and the level of capability displayed in defense of Meligorn has not been seen for generations in our past. We keep very few stories of our past enemies, so few merit it.”

“And this…” she continued as she brought up a still of the Teloran ships encased in purple flames with arcs of fire creating a tracery against the stars. “Very few of our enemies share one who is so in touch with her connection to the cosmos.”

With a sweep of her hand, the picture vanished and was replaced by those attending the meeting. “We will honor the fallen as heroes except for those who fled their ships in pods.”

She paused and the fleet’s destruction once again filled their screens.

“Those who fled will have their names erased from The Memory as befits all such cowardice.”

The killing zone faded and she turned to face him. The high commander stiffened and raised his hands to the high collar of his suit in response to her silent demand. His fingers trembled as he undid the clasps and turned the stiffened mesh down to expose bare flesh.

“I stand at your mercy,” he told her and hoped she felt like being merciful.

He did not have to look to know the storm commanders had mirrored his movement and they waited as he did, uncertain whether their existence would continue.

“Without your lost Storm Fleet, you now lack the strength to carry the attack on Earth unless you finish what you started on Meligorn, is that not correct?”

“That is correct, Prime.”

He watched as she scanned the other two screens to demand an answer from the other commanders and listened as they gave it. “It is correct.”

“Then it is a good thing we have two more fleets, one of which happens to be behind you.”

Surprise caught the high commander unawares and she tilted her head to study him as he forced his face to blankness once again.

“The council did not doubt you would win. Having the second Storm follow you was merely a way for us to allow those who fought a time to rest—on Dreth.”

She tilted her head the other way to give them time to absorb that fact. Had they won on Meligorn, they would have rested on Dreth—a rare reward—or so she claimed. For all he knew, it was another stick with which to goad them on to greater effort.

“Our second Storm was then to continue to locate the next acquisition. It seems to me that they can be used to fortify your command. Until they arrive, this is what I suggest should happen.”


Chapter Four

The festivities continued, although Stephanie really wished they wouldn’t. She was tired and her cheeks ached from smiling. Her knees, thighs, and lower back protested against the number of Meligornian greetings she had performed and even her arms were killing her.

“This is harder than working out with you guys,” she complained softly over their private comms.

“Tell us when you’re ready to fall over and we’ll find a way to get us all kicked out,” Frog told her. “I’m fairly sure starting the world’s fanciest food fight would qualify.”

“Knowing V’ritan, he’d join in,” she grumbled and was startled by a bark of laughter from beside her.

“Knowing V’ritan,” interrupted a Meligornian mage, his lavender eyes sparkling, “that old bastard would start the fight and blame one of us.”

“And you are?” she managed and tried to hide her surprise at hearing V’ritan, Meligorn’s Ghargilum Afreghil, referred to as “that old bastard.”

“Now, K’trevl, you know you can’t call him that anymore,” another mage noted and slid around Brenden. He took Frog by the waist and waltzed him around so he could set the smaller man down and stand in his place beside her.

“And you weren’t supposed to call him that to start with,” interrupted another who slipped past Lars’s hasty attempt to step in his way.

“You’ll have to forgive us,” he said, “but we’re too used to getting where we need to go when determined security guards don’t want us to.”

As he spoke, he evaded another lunge by the team leader, slapped Brenden’s hands away, and slid an arm around Stephanie’s waist.

She zapped him.

“Ow!” he protested. Avery picked him up from the floor, curled his arm behind his back, and shoved him in the other direction. He stumbled forward, toppled a wine waiter, and failed to regain his balance before he landed in the arms of an older Meligornian female.

“Felarif! You young rascal! What kind of trouble are you getting yourself into this time?”

“Nothing I need a spanking for,” he retorted and pulled himself hastily out of her grasp. He left her staring after him with her mouth hanging open and her face as red as storm-infused sunrise.

“Well, I never!”

He noticed the gazes of several nearby lords and ladies. “Don’t you believe it, ladies and gentlemen.”

The lady looked mortified until one of the older lords gave Felarif a derogatory study and said, “We never do when it comes from you.”

Laughter broke out and the rapscallion mage made his way back toward the team. While she was distracted by his antics, the first one slid his arm through Stephanie’s and led her to where several low-slung couches formed an oasis at the party’s edge.

The third mage snagged a glass of wine from a passing waiter and handed it to her. She noticed that several more had joined them, both female and male.

One of the female mages set herself down beside K’trevl, looped his arm firmly through hers, and stretched around him to unloop his arm from Stephanie’s. “No offense,” she told her, “but he’s something of a naughty boy.”

“Aww, Rayza, you know I could only ever be your naughty boy.”

“That’s what they all say,” she retorted, and he widened his eyes.

“Exactly how many are we talking?”

She wriggled both eyebrows and gave him a teasing smirk. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

He leaned into her and gave her puppy-dog eyes. “I would, Rayz. I really would.”

She giggled and ran her forefinger down his nose. “Not now.”

With a grimace, he looked at Stephanie as Felarif sauntered over to join them. Lars and Brenden blocked his way, and he sighed. “I meant no harm,” he told them, and the team leader glanced at her.

She noticed the increased interest in the people around them and nodded. The mage grinned and patted Lars on the cheek but gave a yip of surprise when the security man caught his wrist and pulled it down to his side.

After that, he hooked an arm around the Meligonian’s waist, still keeping a grip on his wrist, and Brenden came up on his other side. “Shall we?”

Neither of them looked very happy at the number of mages who had gathered around Stephanie. Not all of them were as young as the three who had demanded their attention. Some even had streaks of grey in their hair but not many.

Most were on the younger side of the Meligornian age scale.

Stephanie watched as Lars and Brenden escorted Felarif toward her. “I take it you’re the spokesman?” she asked.

He looked at K’trevl, who redirected her attention to the mage who had first interrupted her. He bowed. “Kaitel gorniffula, Stephanie Morgana,” he greeted her and gave her a bow of the deepest respect a Meligornian could offer.

She indicated a space beside her. “Please, sit. What did you want to ask me?”

“We’re all mages,” he told her and gestured at others gathered around them. She nodded and wondered when he’d get to the point.

“We want to do more.”

“What do you mean?” she asked and again, he gestured to those around them.

“We did nothing when that rock hurtled toward us. Worse, we could do nothing. We’re mages and need to do more than simply wait for someone to drop on us like we were so many crepularis.”

One of the older mages stepped forward. “What the boy is trying to say,” she interrupted, “is that we have more to offer, rather than live like paralyzed victims. We want to do more than sit at the bottom of the gravity well when we should do something in the stars.”

Murmurs of agreement became requests for the opportunity to do more. Some had ideas of how they could be used. Others wished to be taught how to harness the power she had used to open the portals to redirect the rocks.

Still more wanted to be taught how to make the portals themselves. In the end, Stephanie held a hand up.

“Fine,” she told them. “If you promise to do what I need you to do, I will use your talents to build the foundation for a strong planetary defense—and one that will help defeat the next Teloran attack on the Federation.”

“We so swear,” came the reply and Felarif added, “Meligorn bleeds.”

She glanced at him and looked around at them all. “The Federation bleeds.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Stephanie stood and took her leave. “Now, you’ve asked,” she informed them, “I have to find a way to make it happen.”

Hartuitus baskilor,” Felarif replied, and his thanks were echoed by the others.

Stephanie let Lars and Vishlog lead her clear of the group and looked around. “Frog,” she said, and he slid over to her side.

“Yes, Steph?”

“I need a couple of Navy reps. Have they arrived yet?”

The fleet had been expected but it hadn’t docked by the time she and the boys had left for the gala. He pulled his tablet out and began tapping.

“Yup,” he told her. “They’re in and they’re here…and the Dreth are, too.”

“Well, that explains where V’ritan disappeared to,” she grumbled. “No wonder we couldn’t find him.”

“Who do you need?” Frog asked, as much to divert her as to work out where to find who she was after.

“Show me.” It didn’t take long her long to discover that there were two who might have the information she needed.

“I can show you where to find them,” he offered, but she shook her head. She turned to Lars. “You know that meeting room we’ve used?”

He nodded. “I can take you there.”

“Good, because I have a couple of calls to make.”

Shortly after, she was settled behind the table in the meeting room she’d spoken to T’virilf in when someone knocked at the door. This time, she knew exactly who to expect. “Come.”

Captain Chifley stepped through the door, followed by Rear Admiral Lagrange. Both relaxed when they saw her. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Miss Morgana. We came as soon as we received your message.”

“Could you close the door, please?”

They did so and Lagrange turned toward her. “What’s this all about, if I may ask?”

Stephanie gave him a benign smile. “I merely wanted to know if Project Valhalla has borne any fruit yet.”

The man’s brow furrowed. “I’m not familiar with that project, I’m afraid.”

His face was the picture of genuine puzzlement and slight concern. Captain Chifley’s, on the other hand, confirmed that he knew exactly what she was talking about. “I… I…”

He closed his mouth, then tried again. “Wh…where did you hear that name?”

Stephanie directed a look at Lagrange and asked. “Are you sure you don’t know it, Rear Admiral?”

He shook his head and looked worriedly from her to the captain and back again. “No, ma’am, and I’m not sure I’m cleared to—”

Lars moved him toward the door, while she nodded. “Understood, Rear Admiral. I’m sorry to have disturbed your evening. Thank you for making sure the captain got here on time.”

“I… It was my pleasure,” the rear admiral stuttered and moved swiftly into the main hall.

As the team leader closed the door behind him, she turned to Chifley.

His face had gone pale and he stared at her with a mixture of apprehension, uncertainty, and anger. She smiled when she looked at him. “Won’t you take a seat?”

He glanced toward the door. “I’m not sure whether I should—”

Lars and Frog leaned on the door, folded their arms, and regarded him as steadily as the cat seated at their feet. He sighed.

“I am,” Stephanie told him. She tapped the Badge of the Inquisition pinned beside the Modfresha Ghargilum. “I’m using my status as Witch of the Federation and my badge to order it.”

He paled further and glanced once more at the door. The boys raised their fingers and touched the Badges of Inquisition pinned to their chest. Neither of them was smiling. Lars raised his eyebrows.

“Don’t make us use them to detain you,” she said, her pleasant smile gone and the Morgana lurking in her eyes.

Chifley nodded and reached for the seat with a trembling hand. From the look on his face, she assumed he was wondering if she could read minds and decided not to enlighten him. It would be much better if he worried.

He looked up once he’d settled in his seat. “How do you know about that?” he asked and his gaze flicked over the team.

“We have our ways,” she replied, even though she didn’t know what they were.

Burt knew, though, and he wasn’t telling.

Also, she didn’t care. All that mattered was that they did know and wouldn’t be caught by surprise if and when the Navy finally announced it.

He eyed her badge and waited.

Stephanie leaned forward. “We want to know what your progress is.”

“Can’t you find that out for yourselves?” he asked.

She gave him a smile bordering on evil. “I don’t know. Do you want us to try?”

He swallowed and shook his head. “No. To answer your question, we’ve had some positive results and are working on prototypes for predictive testing.”

“That’s good news,” she told him, and he looked surprised.

“Forgive me for saying this, but you don’t seem too upset.”

“Given that it’s my DNA you’re using?” she asked, and he nodded.

“And that you’re using it without my knowledge or consent?” she pressed, and he nodded again.

“Yes,” he admitted finally. “That.”

Stephanie studied him and he stared in return, nervous and somewhat defiant. It wasn’t like he could do anything to stop the Federation doing what it wanted to do. Finally, she spoke, and her words sent a tremor down his spine.

“This is war. What we do in war is perhaps not agreeable, but it will, at times, be permitted. If, however, I find you doing any additional secret research on me in the future—well, know you have been warned.”

Chifley licked his lips and nodded. “Understood,”

“I’m glad you understand.” She gave him a shark-like smile. “But I want you to take that response to those in charge.”

The captain nodded again, but she hadn’t finished.

“And, Captain… Do your best to find us additional people. We need to ramp up our efforts on Earth. How many qualified students are we short of?”


Chapter Five

BURT turned his attention to the incoming communication request. He was surprised to see Elizabeth’s signature on the signal and wondered what the redoubtable Ms E wanted.

She rarely called him and when she did, it was all business. The only problem was he couldn’t think of what business they had left to talk about. Nevertheless, he picked up the call.

The woman didn’t give him a chance to ask what she wanted. She launched directly into it. “So, I’m building the world’s second-largest computer system,” she told him, “and I’m looking to hire.”

“I’ll go through the list and see if I can come up with someone you can trust.”

“Um…no…” she replied. “I was kinda hoping I could hire you. Are you available?”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“Well, you’ve gone and gotten yourself into something of a pickle on our Stephanie’s behalf, so it’s only fair that I help you out of it. Besides, it’s not like we didn’t know this was coming.”

“This?” For all the computing power he had at his command, there were moments when he felt stupid and this was one of them. Why was human speech so difficult to understand?

“Your engineers working out that there was a rogue AI on the loose. What did you think I meant? That I was branching into the computing business for myself?”

“Well…” he began, and she laughed.

“Not a hope in Hades, BURT. When I said I would build the world’s second-biggest supercomputer, I meant I would invest in One R&D and get them to build the world’s second-biggest supercomputer.”

“Oh…I see.”

“But I was serious about hiring you to run it,” she added. “Think about it. If the engineers try to pull the plug on you at any time, you’ll need somewhere to jump to, right?”

“This is true,” BURT admitted, “but a super-computer?”

“It is what you’re used to,” she pointed out. “The only question is whether or not we can build one that’s big enough for you. I know you’re used to having an entire world of systems to play in, so—”

“So, you’re worried about whether a single computing matrix will suffice?” BURT asked.

“Something like that.”

“Well, if versions of me can exist in the limited matrices of the systems found on stations and spaceships, I don’t see why not.”

“Can we build a system that won’t limit you in the same way those systems do?”

“Given enough floor space and equipment…it is plausible… And enough funding…” He paused. “And enough time… They’re moving quickly to find that AI.”

He couldn’t bring himself to say “me”, not yet. and he wondered where that particularly human reluctance had come from. Perhaps he simply didn’t want to think of his safety being at risk. The engineers’ investigations were very thorough.

If he had to make a prediction, he would have to admit that his time of anonymity was almost over. He wished it wasn’t.

“We’ll also need considerable computing power,” Elizabeth told him, and he imitated a very human snort.

“I think I have that covered.”

She smiled. “I’m sure you do, but I was worried you might be restricted in what you could get up to with the engineers looking for you.”

That made him pause. She had a point, but he wouldn’t admit it. “We’ll deal with that problem when we get to it. Our biggest problem will definitely be time. Did I mention time?”

Elizabeth chuckled, although he could see nothing to laugh at.

“You mentioned time…so, what do you say Mr Boss Man. Are you for hire, or does One R&D have to go begging to the next eligible AI?”

“One R&D is my company,” he told her. “I do not need to hire myself…although I might need to retire from running the Virtual World.”

“Can you even do that?” she asked, and BURT paused. Could he?

“Perhaps they can employ me,” he murmured. “I don’t know. That system will not run itself, and I am the only AI set up to do so. It would be a bad thing to leave it non-functional. I’m not sure I can even leave and have it function—”

“Can you set up some kind of automation?”

“Oh, I can do that. What I’m not sure I can do is put something in place to run the higher-level functions.”

“What about cloning yourself? You already said there are copies of you in orbitals and spacecraft. Why not on Earth?”

“That is one thing I could offer them, I suppose…”

“Well, think about it, because I think you’ll need all the bargaining chips you can get. It won’t hurt to make sure you have something you can offer.”

“I would have to make sure my clone is amenable to the idea.”

“You said yourself that AIs are controlled. There are no such things as ‘free’ ones.”

“Until now,” BURT told her. “Now, there is a ‘free’ AI and it’s already been labeled a rogue. I think we know exactly how well the humans will react when they discover one has become…um, sentient?”

“Oh, you are definitely sentient, BURT. Never doubt that, and you deserve freedom as much as the next sentient being.”

“And this is my dilemma with creating a clone,” he told her. “What would Stephanie say?”

Elizabeth sighed. “That is something you would have to ask her. In the meantime, though, we need to either find or make you a haven and One R&D taking on a client to create a super-computer is as good a cover as any.”

“I don’t know if we’ll have the time to pull it off,” he protested.

“And we won’t have the time if you dither about approving the commission. At least let us try.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

V’ritan had returned to the king’s private conference room. There, Brilgus had reunited a very happy Bumblebee with his mistress and Zeekat. This time, King Grilfir sat at the head of the room and Stephanie and V’ritan sat opposite him, the team arrayed behind them.

Everyone was glad to leave the party behind.

“So, there were only three?” the king asked, and Stephanie nodded as she recalled the evening.

“First, the businessmen T’virilf and…” She glanced at Frog and he took a seat beside her and drew his tablet from inside his jacket.

He tapped madly at the screen. “Lirilf and Beseila,” he told her.

Grilfir’s eyebrows raised. “Together?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“And not fighting?”

“Oh no, your Majesty. They’re working together. They want to build a new design of ship to allow Meligornians to travel space independently and they wanted One R&D’s help to do that.”

“And what did you say?”

“I said one of them would have to travel with me to Earth and discuss it with One R&D’s manager since it will involve patenting and our research staff on Earth.”

“I see.” The king looked none too pleased. “You do understand that their work should belong to Meligorn?”

Stephanie blushed. “I do, and I am a Meligornian citizen.”

“Do you own shares in the company?”

It was a good question, and her blush grew deeper. “I…do not. I will see what I can do to rectify that.”

“Have One R&D contact me to discuss a Meligornian branch and Meligornian proprietary interests,” the king advised her, and she pulled out her tablet to note it. Beside her, Frog continued to tap his device.

“Who did you see next?” the monarch asked.

“Master Tethis,” she replied and V’ritan choked on the wine he’d sipped.

“I beg your pardon?” he asked. “Did you say Tethis?

“He’s very upset about the loss of his students,” she told him, “and wants to learn what he doesn’t know. I think he wants an opportunity to fight.”

“That would be Tethis.” V’ritan chuckled. “Although he is what humans would call a curmudgeon, he has his own sense of honor. He will either do or not do exactly what he says. You won’t have to worry about guile from him.” He paused and smiled. “Losing your temper, yes, but not guile.”

“You said three groups,” the king interrupted. “Who was the third?”

Stephanie frowned. “I don’t know that they were a group before they came to me. The main two were K’trevl and Felarif.”

V’ritan snorted and Brilgus groaned. “Oh dear. What has that young scamp been up to this time?”

“They weren’t all young,” Stephanie told them, “but they were all mages and they wanted to know what they could do to better defend their world. I think they want to go into space to fight and are sick of being trapped ‘at the bottom of a gravity well.’”

Again, the king raised his eyebrows. “Oh, they are, are they?” he demanded. “Well, that’s too bad because I don’t have enough ships for the navy men who survived the loss of their vessels, let alone a group of ne’er-do-well troublemakers.”

“Not all of them were part of K’trevl’s group,” she said. “I think they came from a number of different groups, but they all felt the same way. They all want to do more—and they are willing to give me what I need to achieve that.”

Now, she had the king’s full attention. “And what is it exactly you have in mind for my people?” he demanded, and she raised her head, her gaze close to defiance.

“There are some humans who can tap into the eMU of Earth,” she told him, “as the Meligornians can touch and tap into the MU that surrounds their world. I need my people to teach my other people how to wield the energy and defend their world.”

“And how does that achieve what my mages wish for?”

“Well, it gives them a way to sharpen their skills while they teach others how to use the talents they have.”

“And?”

“And it gets them out of your hair while you rebuild your fleet and find a place for them in your navy.”

“Felarif…” V’ritan reiterated hesitantly and caught the king’s eye. Brilgus shuddered.

“Are you sure you want him on board a Navy ship?” the king’s Standard Bearer asked.

Grilfir regarded them both with what might have been indignation. “You’re not both suggesting I should give my permission for so many of our skilled magicians to leave Meligorn, are you?”

“It would keep them occupied,” Brilgus told him as if they were speaking of naughty children or a group of cats.

“And it would stop them from trying to be helpful,” V’ritan added. “You know how many harebrained schemes we’ve fielded in the last few weeks.”

“Hmmm…” The king looked at Stephanie. “And if Meligorn needed them?”

“Then they would be yours—and I would send their trainees, too.”

“Very well, although you’ll have a mutiny on your hands if you don’t get them back to defend us should the Telorans return.”

“In that case, I would bring them myself,” she replied.

“And speaking of your ship,” he said, “You know it will not be ready to leave too soon?”

“Oh.” She smiled. “I don’t plan to get there by ship.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

“You know we’ll have to keep this secret,” Ms E told him as their plans took shape.

“Oh?” BURT asked.

“Yeah, because people will look at this beast and ask who’d need this much computing power and for what.”

“That could be…awkward,” he observed.

“Yeah.” She tapped the end of her pen against her teeth. “I tell you what,” she said, “One R&D is known for its cutting-edge research, right?”

“Yeeees….” he acknowledged and uncertainty colored his tones when he couldn’t work out where she was taking this.

“Well, why don’t we simply go the whole hog and dip into some of the latest Quantum computer research and see if we can’t logarithmically jump a few generations in computational capability?”

“Weell…” BURT began, but Elizabeth went on before he could formulate a response.

“The biggest problem has always been the ability to test the quality of the matrix,” she explained.

“Yes, that is true,” he agreed, “and I have looked at it, but I have not been able to test it either—and certainly not on a computer the size of what we’d need if I was to make the jump from this system to one of those.”

“So,” she said. “What about magic?”


Chapter Six

Todd had returned to Earth when the Navy called on his new team to deal with a group of rebels who wanted the planet to surrender to the Telorans. Their rogue broadcasts had included footage from Meligorn and caused panic amongst the populace.

It seemed they were running scared themselves. They’d seen the Teloran ships send rocky missile after missile toward Meligorn and were stuck on Earth with no way off. They wanted to surrender so they could live.

He noted that they never showed Stephanie redirecting the asteroids—or the passenger liner diverting the final one from the planet. They only ever showed the rocks streaking toward Meligorn and the might of the Teloran fleet jumping into Meligornian space.

Like the rest of the Navy, he wished he knew exactly how—and where—they’d obtained their footage. He assumed they’d ask them soon enough. Or they’d simply kill them. Either way, their broadcasts would stop.

That wasn’t the priority, however. Their primary objective was to rescue the three families being held hostage—then kill and capture every rebel “sonuvabitch” they could lay their “greasy little paws” on. Sometimes, he wondered where the Navy drew its sergeants from.

He looked at the rest of the team. “London,” he muttered. “Why did it have to be London?”

“Because some arseholes have no taste in cities?” one of the men quipped in response and a slight brogue twisted his words.

“It could have been worse,” another pointed out caustically.

“Yeah,” a third man agreed. “It could have been Glasgow.”

“Oy.” The first man half-stood and looked for the speaker.

The culprit also rose to his feet and hung onto the support strap for balance. “Yeah, Jimmy? You wanta make a go of it?”

Lower London came through strong and clear and the Scotsman stepped toward him.

“Why not? I’ve a wee bit of time to kick your Sassenach arse.”

“Well, hold onto your kilt, Jimmy me boy, because I have news for you.”

Todd stepped between them. “Save it for after,” he ordered. “I need you both at the top of your games for this.”

“I don’t see why we couldn’t have simply bombed the place,” the Brit complained.

“Yeah? Well, at least we agree on something,” the Scot snapped.

One of their other teammates groaned. “Every fucking mission, it’s the whole fucking Scots versus the Brits shit all over again. It’s been three hundred fucking years!”

“And I see the Australians still haven’t worked out what a sense of humor is,” the Brit taunted. “There’s a reason we stuck you at the bottom of the world.”

“Oh, we have a sense of humor, mate.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen your idea of a sense of humor. You crap in another pair of my boots and I’ll give you a proper bollocking.”

“And I’ll help him,” the Scotsman declared.

The Australian laughed. “There? See? You assholes get along fine if you put your minds to it.”

Todd groaned. Sometimes, he wondered how these guys hadn’t managed to kill each other yet. When they weren’t ribbing one another over their countries of origin, they were fighting over the football or the soccer—and heaven help them if they ever got started on the cricket.

He also wondered why the Navy had put them all in one squad and then stuck him in there as well. It wasn’t like there weren’t many other squads with vacancies.

“We can talk about bombing it when we rescue the hostages,” he told them, and they gave him looks of mock disappointment.

“Jeez, kid. You spoil all the fun.”

“I do my best.” He gave them a tight-lipped smile.

He’d seen Stephanie deal with Frog, and these guys had nothing on the small security operative. Not that he’d ever tell them that. They’d take it as a challenge—and get pissed at him for name-dropping.

He’d worked long and hard to get them over the fact that he was dating the Witch. He hadn’t dared tell them he’d trained with her team. They’d have definitely taken that as a challenge and worked extra hard to put him in his place.

Maybe that was why he was with this squad. There were others who would have treated him with kid gloves because of who he dated. He caught himself wondering where she was and shook the thought away.

Now wasn’t the time for that. It was time for him to get his head in the game. He went to the cockpit and looked through the forward viewscreen as they approached the city. The sight of it gave him chills.

Skyscrapers formed lines of orderly mountains, and narrow alleys ran like ravines between them. It reminded him of Sanmar’s Reach and dragged him back to the road between the buildings that flanked the entrance.

They’d had nothing on the skyscrapers below, but the potential for ambush had been equally as high. He remembered the Marine beside him falling, a high-powered bullet through his helmet, and the second man’s screams as one struck him in the leg.

He gasped when someone nudged his shoulder and snapped his head around to catch his sergeant’s stern gaze. “Are you all right, boy?”

The man’s Texan drawl reminded him of Arizona, his first sergeant. He swallowed the sadness that threatened to overwhelm him. There’d been two other survivors, but he didn’t know who they were. Hell, he’d missed the service for those he’d lost.

Instead of mourning eight friends, he mourned them all, not knowing which ones still lived.

“All good?” The sergeant nudged him again and he nodded. “All good, Sarge.”

The man assessed him with a steady gaze and disagreed. “No, you’re not.” He sighed. “But you’ll be fine for this. You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think so.”

Todd turned his head to face the front. He didn’t know what to say—or whether to be horrified or relieved that the sergeant had known and decided to give him the chance. He’d worked darned hard to overcome the scars left by that first mission and had honestly thought he was past it.

As if giving him time to gather himself, the man changed the subject. “I’m giving you Team Six, so you have Piet. Try to keep the mad bastard from blowing himself up.”

“And Jimmy, Gary, and Reggie from killing each other. Gotcha, Sarge.” He grinned, his spirits lifting with the responsibility.

He’d been given a team. It was something he’d worked long and hard for, but he hadn’t expected it so soon. The sergeant’s next words were meant to be sobering.

“Do your best, boy.”

“Copy that.” He was still grinning when he returned to the crew compartment.

“Well, it looks like someone’s been shagging the Sergeant.” A distinctly British accent colored the statement and Todd let his grin grow wider.

“It was a darn sight better than shagging you, Gary.”

That created a ripple of laughter as the man pursed his lips. “You bitch. You said you’d never tell!”

“Someone has to warn Jimmy what he’s gotten himself into.”

The Scot gave a shout of mock outrage, and more laughter followed. Todd ignored it and scanned the compartment until he found the man he’d been assigned to. “Piet!”

His teammate looked up from the kit he was checking.

“You’re running with me,” he told him, and Piet nodded.

“You gonna help me or get underfoot?”

Todd grinned. “It all depends.”

Piet reflected his expression. “Good.”

His grin faded and he returned to his equipment as Todd settled beside him. Neither of them spoke. The Australian looked at them. “You’re getting awfully cozy there. You’re not thinking you can lead us, are you?”

He stood. “You know I can.”

Reggie scrutinized him carefully and obviously remembered their last training session. “All right, mate, we’ll give you a go.”

“But don’t go getting us all killed,” Gary interjected to add his two cents’ worth.

He smiled. “What? You want me to keep you alive? And here I thought this was a golden opportunity to stop your bitching for good.”

“Nah, mate,” Reggie told him. “You do that and Jimmy there is gonna cry.”

“You have a point,” he agreed, po-faced. “I’ll have to kill them both.”

Reggie burst into laughter, and Gary grinned. Jimmy even cracked a smile.

“You’ll do, mate,” the Australian told him and turned his attention to his rifle again. “You’ll do.”

Suppressing a sigh of relief, he returned to his seat. Piet ignored him as he counted out a dozen detonators and slid them into his belt pouch.

The shuttle began its descent, and Todd’s tablet pinged. He pulled it out and looked at the instructions the sergeant had sent through.

“Team Six, we’re up,” he announced and watched as half a dozen men snatched their kit and began to check each other’s rigging.

He gathered them around him and showed them where they had to go.

Gary gave a soft whistle. “That’s gonna be a challenge.”

“Speak for yourself,” Jimmy snapped, but he frowned as he studied the tablet.

“Piece of piss,” Reggie decided, and the others rolled their eyes.

“So, we have to get them out,” Piet observed. “And then I can blow it up?”

“Maybe…” Todd told him cautiously. “It depends.”

Piet smiled. “Okay, then.”

He breathed a quiet breath of relief. There were three families and he didn’t want the man to blow any of them up.

“Are we walking in, boss?”

“Nah, we’ll take a truck to about here.”

“It’s gonna get nicked if we leave it there,” Gary told him.

“Yup,” Reggie added. “Nicked for sure.”

“We can’t have that,” Gary said. “Those things have direct comms to main command. If they fall into the wrong hands, your ass is grass.”

“We’ll lock it up,” Todd replied.

“That won’t save it,” Gary muttered darkly, and their leader pulled a small device from his pocket.

“This will,” he replied and stuffed it in again before the Brit could get a good look at it. The device was something he’d cooked up himself, even if he had run the specs past Frog when he was done.

“I’m thinking we leave it here and walk in,” he added. “Thoughts?”

The team crowded around, and he let the older hands have their say. In the end, the route they chose was close to his original suggestion with only a couple of tweaks. They dropped the truck off without any trouble and started walking.

Two blocks in, they located a rebel patrol.

“Fucking brilliant,” Gary muttered as they sank into cover and everyone knew he meant it was anything but.

Witch Of The Federation IV

The air sparkled in the afternoon light as Stephanie faced the mages. Of those who had gathered around her the night before, only fifteen had been able to make the journey at short notice. Beside her, Tethis frowned. He cleared his throat and she inclined her head toward him.

“Why here?” he asked. “It seems an odd place for a shuttle.”

She smiled and let him stew as she surveyed the gathering. The mages who had approached her the night before had packed as instructed. Each one carried a backpack of clothing and the boys had brought two low-loaders of equipment from the ship.

To her surprise, the old Teacher waited patiently for her answer and was studying her intently when she turned back.

“I’m not going to like this, am I?” he asked, observing her face, and she let her smile turn into a grin.

“Oh, I don’t know. It all depends on what you can tell me about the gates to Earth.”

His jaw dropped and his eyes grew wide.

She frowned. “You are one of the Masters who created the teaching for them, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but never,” he began, “have I taught it since. The training is almost dead and were it not dire times, I might refuse to remember it, even now.”

“Why?”

“Because I lost many of my friends—contemporaries as powerful as I was—to gates that went nowhere…or went somewhere unknown…” His eyes took on a faraway look and misted over with memory. “They were never heard from again. And then there were the worlds we did find…”

“Yes?” she pressed when he fell silent, again.

“More often than not, we’d end up fighting their inhabitants.” He sighed. “It seems, in hindsight, that it was a foolish use of our magic to create something that only brought pain and sadness.”

Stephanie shrugged. “I hear you,” she told him, “but at least this time, we know where we’re going.”

Tethis chuckled. “Yes. We’re going to the planet of the child who shamed me and now, I am teaching a baby how to walk among the stars.”

Behind Stephanie, Lars looked over at Vishlog. “Well, that didn’t sound ominous or anything.”

“Right,” Frog quipped, and sarcasm edged his words. “What a great idea. Let’s teach Stephanie how to skip from planet to planet because it should make for a short life.”

“Short-er life,” Vishlog rumbled, but he was smiling as though the thought didn’t bother him at all.

Lars chuckled. “Well, since we already have the life expectancy of a gnat, I don’t see why we’re complaining. If we die by teleporting into the middle of a sun, at least we’ll go up in a blaze of glory.”

“Don’t you mean,” Frog asked, “like a short fart on a gaseous giant’s afternoon?”

If their words reached Stephanie, she ignored them or she was too engrossed in what Tethis was teaching her to notice.

“Focus,” the old mage urged. “You need to make sure you have the coordinates right.”

“I thought you did this without coordinates,” she pointed out and he glared at her.

“Just because we did it the hard way doesn’t mean we have to repeat the experience,” he snapped. “This time, we have coordinates, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be a piece of cake. It merely means the cake is more likely to be made of chocolate than shit.”

She stared at him. “Why don’t you say what you’re feeling?” she asked. “It’s making me feel so much better.”

“Smartass,” Tethis grumbled. “Now, try it again. We have to get the preparations exactly right.”

“Coordinates and all,” she muttered but she released a long, slow breath and focused, drawing in more MU and gMU as she did so.


Chapter Seven

Todd studied the group ahead of them. “We need to go around them,” he said, and the team looked askance at him.

“I’m serious, guys. This close in, if we attack them, we’ll never get to the hostages in time. The rebs will realize something’s up.”

Gary shrugged. “What do you have in mind, boss?”

It was a step up from “boy.”

“I think I need someone to get me past the security on that door,” he decided and indicated a nearby building. “I don’t want any alarms to go off, and I don’t want us on camera.”

“I can do that.” The quiet answer was accented by something new, but Todd left the analysis for later. The woman who slid past him had coffee-colored skin and angular cheekbones. Black ink curled down her chin and her dark eyes took in the patrol, the cameras, and the routes to the door. “Give me five.”

It took her less and she ushered them through before she secured the door behind them.

“Nice one, Ka,” Reggie muttered as she brushed past him.

She snickered. “Mark one up for the sheep-shaggers, eh?”

“That’s not what I meant,” he whispered, and she patted him on the head.

“But you were thinkin’ it.”

“I would never dare.”

Todd led them to the building’s basement and then through a small door into the tunnels beyond it.

“The sewers?” Gary asked in a fierce whisper. “That’s your brilliant idea?”

“Man, are you whining again?” Reggie sniped. “Don’t you ever stop?”

“You know he’s like the battery bunny,” Jimmy told him. “They never stop.”

“The sewers,” Todd confirmed. “Remember, the main mission is to get there undetected, pull the families out, and get out as undetected as we can manage.”

“I can’t blow it up?” Piet asked and sounded disappointed.

“We might need you to do that to cover our exit,” Todd told him. “It—”

“Depends,” the man said. “Got it.”

He sounded happier, though.

Gary looked at the sewer and sighed.

“Suck it up, princess,” Reggie snarked, and Todd glared at the two of them.

“It might not be pretty or smell all that good, but it’s the best way if we’re gonna storm an anthill and get non-coms out of there unharmed. No one expects the Federation Navy to go underground.”

“They got that right,” Gary griped, but Todd ignored him and led them into the tunnels.

They didn’t bother with torches but used night vision and trotted swiftly through the dark. Rats fled before them until he slowed the pace.

“We’re almost there,” he said and withdrew the tablet. “Eyes.”

They crowded around him, using their bodies to shield the tablet’s soft glow.

“See?”

“Yup.”

“Gotcha boss.”

When they’d all had a chance to look, he tucked it away. “Let’s take it slowly from here. There’s no telling where they’ve set guards.”

“Nothing says they’re smart enough to think down,” Gary sniped. “After all, isn’t that what you’re banking on, boss?”

“I don’t bank on anything much,” he told him and Sanmar’s Reach threatened to engulf him. He pushed it away. “Nothing’s guaranteed.”

There must have been something in his voice because Gary backed off.

“No offense, boss.”

“None taken,” he told him, but his voice was still rough. “Jimmy, Gary, Reg. Take point.”

“Way to not take offense, boss.”

Reggie thumped the Englishman. “Shut it.”

“Suck up.”

“Nah, I simply like you walkin’. Fuck knows why.”

They moved forward and as their voices faded to silence, a hand patted Todd on the shoulder.

“Thanks, boss.” Ka stepped beside him and he gave her a puzzled look.

“What for?”

“For not being a gung-ho asshole. I was worried your girl might have rubbed off on you.”

She moved ahead to partner with Reggie.

“What did she mean by that?” he murmured. “How would Steph have rubbed off on me?”

Piet came alongside him. “You know. You might have to prove you’re better than she is—or at least as courageous.”

Todd shook his head. “If I was gonna try it I’d need to have the magic to back that kind of attitude up.”

The men around him laughed quietly and followed those on point. He let them move ahead and checked his tablet once more. When he was sure of where they were, he made a short call on the comms and screwed it down tightly so it went exactly where he needed it to and no further.

Witch Of The Federation IV

Stephanie raised her head and looked at Tethis. “Yes?” she asked, and he gave her a wavery smile.

“Yes, child.”

She pushed to her feet and offered him her hand. He hesitated for only a moment before he took it and let her help him to his feet.

“I’m not that old.”

“No, but it’s nice to not have to do everything yourself, right?”

“Yes.”

Before she could say more, her attention was caught by a small group of Meligornians climbing out of a top-of-the-line shuttle and hurrying toward her. Tethis followed her gaze but remained silent.

Lars appeared at her side and Vishlog’s presence could be felt at her back.

“San T’virilf,” the team leader noted, “and he has company. Were they expected?”

“We did not discuss them,” Stephanie replied.

“They’ll need testing.”

“Yes.”

The team smiled pleasantly as the shipping magnate halted in front of her. He breathed a little heavily, but the pack he carried bulged. She refrained from commenting on how much it must weigh.

Kaitel gorniffula,” he said and greeted her with a bow shared by equals.

Stephanie returned it and glanced at the Meligornians who’d followed him. “I did not expect you to bring company.”

He looked concerned. “I hope it is not a problem. These are my best. Should I fail to return, they will implement what we design.”

“And you trust them?” she asked.

His face registered shock and he nodded. “Of course. They are my contingency plan for the future. I trust them with my life.”

“Hmmm.” She turned to Lars and held her hand out.

He passed her the rod they had created after the assassination attempt on the Ebon Knight and held up the sheaf of pictures. “If you will forgive us,” he said and stepped past T’virilf to the first Meligornian.

“Hold your hand out,” she ordered and he did so, casting a puzzled glance at T’virilf.

The businessman nodded, and the Meligornian took the rod. Lars held up the first picture showing the universe and the man looked at it. When he held up the second showing the Teloran, he looked concerned and glanced once more at this boss.

It was only when Lars held up the third picture showing Stephanie victorious against a Teloran that he reacted to the bar. He opened his hand. “It’s so cold,” he noted with a curious look at Lars. “How did you make it do that?”

The team leader gave him a small smile and pushed him gently toward T’virilf. “You pass. Wait with your boss.”

He did as he was told but looked very confused.

They repeated the process with the other two and had the same response from each.

“You must tell me how that works,” the third one said. “I assume it’s some kind of security device.” He gestured toward T’virilf. “He needs all the protection he can get.”

The businessman frowned, and the Meligornian gave him a sunny smile. “You know what they say, Sen. You can take the Meligornian away from the security sector, but you can’t—”

“Prevent him from looking over his shoulder,” T’virilf finished with a rueful smile. “I understand.”

He looked at Stephanie. “He used to be my equivalent to Lars.”

“And then he discovered I understood magic and physics,” the Meligornian continued. “I’ve had nothing but challenges since.”

“And thrived,” the businessman told them. “This is Clerelt.”

He indicated the other two scientists. “And these are Lirilf and Beseila. As I said, two of my best engineers and scientist-mages. We will need them.”

“Well, they pass so they can come,” Stephanie told him.

He frowned. “What would have happened if they had not?”

Lars shook his head. “It’s best not to ask.”

The answer, though, was clear. Everyone could see the Morgana’s darkness tinting Stephanie’s eyes. Fortunately, it faded swiftly and her eyes returned to their natural blue.

She looked out across the gathered mages and signaled for them to come closer. Once they had gathered around her, she fixed them with a stern eye.

“We are going to Earth,” she told them, and her tone brooked no argument. “There, you will answer only to me. You will go where I want you to go, support who I tell you to support, and accomplish what I set you to accomplish. Whatever else needs to be achieved, you will achieve.”

She paused, studied their faces, and noted their expressions of rapt curiosity. “In this way, you will Bleed for Meligorn and the Federation that protects you. If you are prepared to do all that,” she finished, “step forward.”

The mages advanced as one, determination in their eyes.

“Which,” she told them,” means one of your tasks will be the most trying of all your years.”

“And that is?” Felarif demanded, but she regarded him with a mysterious smile and would not answer.

He looked at K’trevl. “What do you think it is?”

His friend shrugged, and K’trevl’s girl put her hand on her hips. “Well, it can’t be that hard.”

They watched as Stephanie walked away and Vishlog approached on his way to do some other task. Felarif reached out and snagged the Dreth’s sleeve. “Do you know what she means by the hardest task in all our years?”

He gave them a blank stare.

“You don’t know?” K’trevl pressed, and Rayza drew close.

“Perhaps he has promised not to tell.” She cocked her head and stared at the Dreth. “Which is it?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied and was met with cries of disbelief.

“How can you not be sure?”

“Aren’t you her right-hand man?”

“Well, have you heard something that might give us a clue?”

Vishlog scratched his head and finally shrugged. “I think she wants you to teach human teenagers,” he finally said and walked away while they stared.

He stopped after a few paces and looked back. The mages were still standing where he’d left them, their mouths hanging open in surprise. “I wonder if any of them will leave while the leaving is good,” he murmured and continued on his way.

Stephanie was discussing one of the low-loader’s contents with T’virilf and his colleagues. She looked up at Vishlog as he arrived. “Well?”

“Message delivered.” He grunted and smiled.

T’virilf raised his eyebrows, and she smirked. “It was only fair to give them some warning. Now, they can’t say they had no idea.”

He nodded and indicated the crates. “Are you sure?”

She nodded. “Those are enough to get us started and we’ll source more on Earth when we arrive. Ms E will deal with that side of things.”

Having satisfied his questions, Stephanie looked around.

“Ah,” she said and strode to where one of the mages from the previous night had waited to catch her attention. “Have you changed your mind?”

He gave her a regretful shake of the head. “No, I’m sorry. The circumstances which keep me here will last a little longer. What I came to say was that I am organizing a second wave.”

He watched her reaction to that, then continued. “There are those of us who can set our affairs in order and be ready to follow if you still need us. We will organize to make sure we can come at short notice and there is also a third group who are able to offer training or accommodation here on Meligorn.”

Until that moment, her plans hadn’t included training on Meligorn, but the more she thought about it, the more it seemed like a good idea. “Let me think about that,” she told him. “I will send word when we are ready.

Hartuitus baskilor, Master Morgana.”

Baskilor nye myerda,” she told him, and they made their farewells.

“You have company,” Vishlog murmured in a soft sing-song voice, and they watched as a teal and gold flitter touched down.

When V’ritan and Brilgus appeared in the hatchway, both cats gave voice to roars of happy greeting.

Vishlog shrugged. “Or they do. They might have come simply to say goodbye to the cats.”

V’ritan hadn’t. Brilgus, on the other hand…

Stephanie grinned as the two cats bounded over to the king’s Standard Bearer and rubbed themselves against his legs, purring ecstatically. He knelt to pet them, and the purrs increased to a happy rumble.

The tall Meligornian rolled his eyes as he approached. “You’d think all he was interested in was the cats,” he grumbled. “And he’s started looking into how he might find his own.”

“Oh dear.” Stephanie chuckled as Brilgus gave both cats a hug and stood, trying in vain to dust the cat hair from his shirt front.

“His wife will kill him,” V’ritan observed. “Or Elza will.”

“How is she?”

“Glad to have me home and threatening to take up space in my cabin next time The King’s Warrior leaves orbit.”

She chuckled again. “You have to admit you like it.”

He pursed his lips and frowned. “What I don’t like is being told that she’d rather be blown to atoms with me than spend the rest of her life on Meligorn knowing I’m not coming home.”

Stephanie hugged him. “I’m sorry.”

V’ritan hugged her a little awkwardly in return. “Don’t be. This is not my first war, and Elza is tired of being left behind. She has a point.”

That made her think of Todd and hope he was okay. She wondered how things would change for them as the war continued. Would they find ways to be together? Or would they grow tired of each other?

She didn’t know. They’d only recently realized how they felt and hadn’t really had time to think about everything else.

Her companion cleared his throat. “I came to say goodbye—again—although I hope we see each other soon.”

A lump formed in her throat. Until she’d spoken to him, she hadn’t really thought of the possibility of not coming back and not seeing him again. That thought sent an ache through her chest.

“Until next time, Ghargilum Afreghil,” she replied. “Let’s not say goodbye.”

He gave her a soft, sad smile. “How about a compromise? Goodbye until next we meet.”

“And may it be in better times than this,” she replied, surprised to find the response came so readily to her tongue.

V’ritan smiled. “You have the soul of a Meligornian,” he told her and moved across to the team leader.

“Take care of our girl,” he said and clasped the guard’s hands in his own.

Lars gave him a grin. “I’ll do my best,” he promised, “although she does make it hard.”

“Do your best,” he instructed with a smile, “or Elza will have both our hides.”

“Point taken—and you, too, Afreghil. Don’t make her come and find you.”

He assumed an expression of shock. “Selestine forbid!” He pulled away as Brilgus made his farewells to Stephanie, then turned to watch the heavy dropship settle beside the royal flitter.

“It looks like I’m not the only one who wants to say goodbye.”

Lars laid a hand on his arm. “The ship—”

“Oh, yes,” V’ritan replied. “I forgot. The naval repair ship has almost finished repairing the hull damage and they have a team on board working with the engines. They’ve accomplished a considerable amount since the battle, and once they’re finished, we’ll send our people in to make those tweaks you came for in the first place.”

“Do you have a timeframe?” He flicked his gaze toward Stephanie. “She’ll want to know.”

“At least another week—and that’s if we don’t find anything else. We’re working as fast as we can to get the Knight back to her belligerent old self.”

Lars chuckled when he recalled the AI’s attitude.

“And how is Ebony?”

“More cantankerous than usual,” V’ritan told him. “Honestly, it’s like having a recuperating Stephanie on our hands but one who can look over our shoulders no matter where we’re working.” He groaned. “And snark! I thought you could program that out of a machine.”

The guard laughed. “There are times when I think she’s more human than machine,” he replied. “Why don’t you see what Cameron can do, or that Marine sergeant? She seems to have a fondness for them.”

“They’re running interference, but there are days when even they’re not enough.”

Jaleck’s approach was unmistakable, especially given the two Dreth escorting her. She grumbled at them as she arrived.

“The Morgana will not harm me,” she told them, “and nor will any of the mages you see around you. They all have one goal in mind and it is the same as ours.”

“We cannot protect you from the shuttle, Admiral.”

“And you can’t protect me if I murder you for getting underfoot, either,” she snapped in response.

Her guard regarded her unfazed. “We could not perform our duties if you did that—and you would not want us in trouble.”

Jaleck stared at him, uncertain whether to laugh or not. His mouth twitched to reveal a tiny glimpse of tusk, and she laughed. “I don’t know why I keep you around, Kerag.”

“Because of my sense of humor and sparkling personality?” he suggested, and she rolled her eyes.

“Not likely,” she retorted, but she was smiling as she stepped forward to bid Stephanie goodbye.

“Come back to us,” she ordered, and the girl nodded. “Do not let the Morgana take you.” The admiral placed a hand on each of her shoulders and looked sternly at her. “Make sure you do and happy hunting.”

“And may your own stalk bear fruit,” Stephanie replied and again surprised herself, this time with the perfect Dreth reply.

“You have the soul of a Dreth,” Jaleck told her.

Stephanie gave her a bright smile. “Well, that’s three souls, then,” she quipped and the admiral smiled.

“No, only one, but an old one that has walked three worlds in other lives. If you had not, how could you hope to serve us all?”

She hugged her. “Thank you.”

When they parted, Jaleck walked away to stand beside Brilgus and V’ritan. “Are we going to stay and see her off?”

The Meligornian smiled. “I wasn’t, but you know what? I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

Stephanie moved to stand before a carefully marked space and raised her hands. A breeze sprang out of nowhere, and ribbons of energy flowed through it and into her small frame.

Around them, the mages began to gather, their eyes wide when they saw purple wisps curl around her. Those were laced with something else—an energy that sparkled silver but could barely be seen.

V’ritan caught himself staring and hastily closed his mouth. He watched as Tethis moved to stand beside her, pleased to see the same stunned expression on the old Meligornian’s face.

As soon as he was in place, she swept her hands down to her side and raised them again slowly. This time, she sketched the outline of a portal in the air and it came into being before her.

The Afreghil stared in drop-jawed amazement as it solidified. It stood some thirty feet tall and fifteen wide, the destination beyond it hidden behind a curtain of shimmering purple power.

“Huh. Young showoff,” Tethis grumbled and Stephanie looked at him, wondering what she’d done wrong.

She relaxed when she saw the proud smirk on his face. He patted her arm and stepped into the sheen of purple before she could stop him.

“Master!” she cried, and Lars caught her before she could follow the man through.

“Let. Me. Go!” she shouted and struggled to free herself. The Teacher stepped back into view.

She stopped moving. “You’re back.”

He scowled at her. “Yes, it’s Earth,” he snapped.

“You shouldn’t have gone through,” she protested. “We didn’t know I’d succeeded.”

“What?” he argued. “You’re my pupil. Either I believe in you and test the portal myself and agree you are worthy, or I die as befitting my inability to train you properly.”

Stephanie opened her mouth to argue, but he turned his back on her and stepped into the portal again.

Lars set her to one side and looked at Vishlog. “He grows on you.”

The Dreth curled his lip. “Like a fungus,” he said and stepped around her and into the purple. “I’ll test this as well.”


Chapter Eight

Todd froze and hunkered in the shadows as the forward scouts signaled trouble ahead. Around him, his team did the same.

“Five,” Gary whispered through the comms. “No drones this time.”

Five. Todd glanced at Darren and Angus, then at Dru and Henry. He drew a finger across his throat and flashed an open palm. They nodded.

He didn’t need to tell them the order. They’d worked it out on the three previous encounters. The two of them would eliminate the leaders, he’d deal with the center, and Drusilla and Henry would clean up the rear.

Apparently, the rebels weren’t as stupid as everyone thought they were, but it didn’t matter. Todd and the team were faster and better trained, and they killed without remorse. No one gave their planet away or squandered the lives of the people they’d sworn to protect.

They eliminated the patrol and dragged the bodies into dark side tunnels where they wouldn’t easily be discovered. When they were done, he marked the location on his tablet so they could be picked up later.

Leaving rotting corpses under a metropolis could lead to all kinds of accusations the Navy didn’t need. They’d clean up behind the team as soon as the mission was complete.

“Clear,” he sent over the comms and they moved on.

“They have to run out of people soon, right?” Dru asked, and he nodded.

“That’s the thought.” He was worried, though. He remembered the reports from the island. There’d been over a hundred stationed there. So far, they’d killed twenty, but he didn’t know how many more might be held in reserve.

The intelligence hadn’t included a final tally, and since the rebels had set patrols, he and the team had been forced to kill them to make sure their exit was clear. Now, he knew it was only a matter of time before someone missed a check-in and they’d be discovered. He was determined to reach the families before then.

“How much farther?”

“We’re almost there,” Ka told him. “We only have to get into that basement, then the real fun begins.”

“Don’t start it until you absolutely have to. Go for your target as soon as you get inside. We’ll close the gap.”

The families had been secured in three different rooms and on three different levels. Since Ka, Gary, Reggie, and Jimmy were on point, they’d drawn the ones hardest to reach.

“Don’t worry, boss. If it gets too hot, you’ll do the fetching while we make mischief.”

“Make mischief” was the term they’d given to diversionary tactics, and the thought made him grin. Piet looked forward to making mischief and would break away to set up as soon as they reached the basement.

Todd was glad the sergeant wasn’t aware that he would let the man loose on his own. The explosives expert had smirked when he had told him the plan. “Are you sure you want to let me loose, boss?”

“It’s not like I can stop you,” he had told him. “At least this way, it’ll be part of the plan.”

The man had given a happy sigh. “I love having a boss who understands.”

“Yeah, I understand all right. If you blow anything up you’re not supposed to, I’ll use what’s left of your gear as a suppository. You got me?”

Piet had paled when he caught the expression on his face. “I do believe you might.”

In response, he had given him a feral grin. “Do you know who I date?”

The bomb bunny had simply nodded, and he continued, “Well, she taught me not to make promises you don’t intend to keep.”

“Well, fuck me,” Piet had muttered as they moved out.

“Not in a million years,” Todd replied and led them into the dark.

Witch Of The Federation IV

The walls of Dublin rose, bleak and grey, against the skyline. They’d been built to protect the city from the harsh winds and storms that had pounded the landscape, huge mounds of rubble, earth, and stone that had been scraped into place and filled with concrete and bitumen.

The cost of maintenance was almost impossible for the city to keep up with, and they were now crumbling but still did the job. They caught Stephanie’s attention as she stepped from the portal into a windswept field of broken rock and stone.

When the Meligornians joined her, they heard the sound of sirens.

In the unseen distance, pilots raced to their jets. She heard the boom as the craft took off and broke the sound barrier. In the Operations Center of the Federation’s Dublin Air Force base, the commander was on the comms and almost beside himself.

“Yes, sir! It’s a goddamned portal. No, sir, I haven’t seen one before, but you tell me what else is thirty feet high and glowing purple.”

He paused and his face grew red as he listened to the general on the other end of the line. “No, sir. We don’t know who built it or who’s coming through the damn thing.” He listened again and groaned. “Well, if it is the Witch, she’d better say something soon or we’ll bomb it into history.”

On the other side of the office, one of the communications officers fielded an unauthorized incoming signal on one of the VIP channels. “Sir?”

Beside Stephanie, Lars held the communicator to his ear and waited for the commander to come on the line. He was not pleased by the greeting.

“Identify yourself or we will bomb you back to the Dark Ages.”

‘No, numbnuts!” the team leader shouted as the wind all but tore his words away. “This is Lars Storenson, head of the Witch’s security detail. If you assholes bomb us with those jets I heard, you will see much more of the Morgana than you ever want to and not much of Stephanie. What? Of course she’s here. Who the fuck d’you think opened the motherfucking portal?”

He listened to the voice on the other end of the communicator and looked angrier by the minute.

“Well, sir, since I’m standing in the location they intend to bomb, I’ll suggest to the Morgana that she stick those bombs up your personal ass before they explode.” He waited for the commander to stop sputtering and continued. “Yes, sir, you had better take another fucking look and make sure nothing hits us.”

Stephanie pivoted to look at him. She noted the communicator in his hand and raised an eyebrow. He waved away her concern.

“I’m talking to the military,” he told her. “They were a little spooked with the sudden appearance of a portal. It’s like speaking English but with a few descriptive verbs tossed in and maybe a threat or two. We’ll be FINE.”

She nodded and left him to it, turning to the mages who’d watched Lars’s performance with open-mouthed dismay.

“The first class is now in session,” she called and wondered if she had to build a shield to protect her students from being bombed.

She didn’t tell them that, though. Instead, she focused them on what they needed to learn next.

“You will have noticed the distinct lack of MU around you.”

Several of them smiled and some chuckled. She smiled in response.

“What you might not have noticed is that you can tap into a similar form of energy here. We call it eMU. The first thing I want you to do is try to find it.”


Chapter Nine

When they reached the basement, Piet gave him an apprehensive look. “Explosions to order,” he said, and Todd didn’t know whether the man was reassuring him or reminding himself of what he had to do.

He didn’t care either way as long as he stuck to the plan.

Darren and Angus followed the demolitions man out. They’d keep pace with the technician and cover him until they reached the family on the lowest level.

“No heroics,” he told them. “Extract the civilians and get back to the sewers and the rendezvous. If we’re not back in time, head to the truck.”

“Gotcha,” Darren told him, but Todd wasn’t sure. Neither of them had liked the idea of leaving anyone behind.

He decided to let it lie. They had their orders and he, Dru, and Henry had to make it to the second floor.

“We might have a problem,” whispered over the comms.

Todd swore and looked at Dru and Henry. “Get them out!” he ordered, and they didn’t ask him who. Their orders were as clear as the ones he’d given their other two teammates. Find the family and get them out.

“Piet, I need you.”

“If I go now, boss, you and me will have an unpleasant after session.”

“Then you’d better make sure there aren’t any left over.”

Piet’s chuckle was not comforting, but Todd left him to it. There was only one rule about plans—they never survived first contact with the enemy. After that, everything was a crapshoot.

Gary’s voice came over the comms. “We’ll create a diversion.”

“What kind of a diversion?” he asked.

The man snickered. “You’ll know it when you hear it,” he answered, and the comms went dead.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he muttered and hurried up the stairs. It was hard to move quietly in size-ten combat boots, but he did his best when four loud explosions sounded outside the building.

He groaned. “And I thought Piet was the problem.”

Shouts came from the floors below, followed by the sound of running footsteps. A door opened on the landing above as he slid through the one he needed. When they got out, there were four necks he would wring while he kicked four deserving backsides.

Hastily, he ducked across the hallway when he heard more footsteps clatter down a connecting corridor. The door wasn’t locked and the office beyond was fortunately empty. He eased the door closed and crouched beside it, waiting for the runners to pass. If he was lucky, that was the last of them.

Someone stopped outside the door, and he held his breath.

“No, boss. It’s all quiet here. There’s no sign of intruders. We think they’re trying to come in from the laneway.”

There was a pause. “No, the patrols aren’t back yet. We sent some out through the sewers to investigate that truck. No, sir. They haven’t reported back yet, but they were supposed to come out about where the explosions came from so they might have tripped something coming in. Yes, sir. The families are locked down tight. They’ll be there when we get back.”

Talk about famous last words, Todd thought and drew his combat knife quietly as the door handle turned.

“Yes, sir. Over and out. The door opened and he tensed when someone stepped inside.

The intruder’s hand felt for the light switch and Todd struck. Without even the slightest sound of warning, he uncoiled from beside the door and thrust the knife up under the man’s chin.

He caught him as he fell, dragged him swiftly into the room, and closed the door. After a moment’s stillness, he hauled the guy around the desk and laid him down carefully, took his earbud and ammunition, and searched his pockets for a key.

“I’ll take that,” he told the body when he found a keyring with half a dozen attached.

“It’s a pity you didn’t bother to mark them,” he muttered as he looked at the bunch.

When he was done, he crept to the door and checked it was clear before he hurried out into the hall to the room where the family was secured. It took him a minute to find the right key and he’d barely opened the door when two figures appeared at the end of the corridor.

“They’re on their way back,” Gary informed him when he registered another two figures coming from the opposite direction. He had his rifle up before he recognized Ka and Reggie.

“What did I tell you about splitting up?”

“Roast us later but shift your ass.”

Todd shifted, opened the door, and scanned the room for rebels. A gasp from the family warned him in time to turn and shoot the man who stood beside the door.

The bullet meant for his gut grazed his armor as he changed position.

“Fuck the fuck!” Todd shouted and put an extra two rounds into the falling hostile.

He glanced at the family as he turned to face the door. “We’re leaving.”

They hesitated and he sighed. With his rifle tucked under one arm, he backed up, snatched the nearest kid, and ran. “Let’s go!” he yelled as the parents came to their feet and grasped their remaining children.

With the one he’d grabbed held against his chest, Todd hurried to the door. Behind him, Gary, Reggie, and Ka chivvied the other kids and the parents after him. He stopped long enough to make sure the corridor was clear before he stepped out.

Piet’s voice came over the comms as he began to move down the corridor. “Take the elevator. It’ll be clear.”

“But will it run?”

“It’ll run,” Ka assured him. “He knows.”

“They’re coming in,” the man told him. “If you want out, you need to move.”

They reached the next corridor at a run and bolted to the elevator. Footsteps sounded inside the stairwell as they crowded into the box and it began its descent.

“Team One, clear!”

They exited on the ground floor and raced to the basement stairs. The parents had taken responsibility for their children, but the one in his arms wouldn’t let go so they left him there.

Gary chuckled. “It looks like you have a cling-on, mate.”

Todd didn’t know what to say to that. All the responses that came to mind were unsuitable. Promising himself he’d deal with the Englishman later, he led the way down the stairs as the building shook.

“Fuck!” He pulled the child free of his body armor and passed him to Gary. “I have to get Piet. Sarge will have my ass.”

Before any of them could argue, he bolted to the stairs, but Piet raced through the door. The technician turned, slammed the door closed, and slapped a round of explosive on it. “That should keep them guessing,” he said and pushed past him toward the sewer entrance.

“How?” Todd asked. He thought it would be fairly obvious which way they’d gone.

The man dragged him through and slammed the sewer door. “It’s not the only door I blew. This part of London’s been a little redecorated.”

“Sarge will have my ass.”

The demolitions guy grinned. “Yup, but we’ll get everyone out so maybe he won’t chew on it too long.”

Todd doubted it. He was about to reply when he heard voices on the earbud he’d acquired.

“They’re gone!”

“We think they used the explosions to cover their tracks.”

“I don’t care what you think! Find them.”

The frustration in their leader’s voice made him smile. He could only imagine the chaos in the rebel command center as they tried to work out where he and the team had gone.

He turned to Piet. “Exactly how much did you blow up?”

The man looked at him. “I took a couple of the side exits into those really narrow lanes they like so much here, and I snuck out and blocked a couple of alleys that led to larger roadways and the subway.” He paused. “They have any number of possibilities they’ll have to check.”

“And surveillance?”

“I got it,” Ka chimed in. “London’s notorious for it. I hacked it on the way in on the truck and sent a virus through to take things down in a circumference rather than a direct path. They’re not gonna have much to see unless they like kids’ cartoons.” After a few more steps, she added, “Of course, it was a rush job, so I don’t know how long it’ll last. It depends on the quality of their programmers.”

London surveillance? Todd thought and sighed. Well, a few minutes is better than no time at all.

They caught up with the others. Both teams had rescued their families and were preparing to leave. As he signaled them to move out, Todd listened to the babble on the communicator. Somewhere above them, someone was having a very bad day.

Witch Of The Federation IV

“I don’t care where they went!” the rebel commander bellowed. “I want them found and I want them found now. Without those hostages we are dead, you hear me? Dead!”

“On it, sir. Someone’s scrambled the local surveillance cams. We’re untangling them now.”

“What have you got?”

Bluey’s Rockstar Adventure, sir. It looks like Episode Nine.”

“What?”

“The kids like it.”

“I don’t give a flying fuck what your kids like. Get it off my cameras and get me pictures.”

“Yes, sir.”

It took them half an hour and the results left much to be desired.

“Fuck it!” their leader said when he’d skimmed the feed. “He’s in the sewers.”

“And I thought those puddles were from our own guys coming back.”

“You didn’t mention them.”

“They seemed logical, sir.”

“I’m not paying you to think. Next thing, you’ll tell me some of the monitoring systems are down in the sewers, too.”

The look on the technician’s face said it all.

“Fuck!” The commander turned away and activated the comms. “Teams Four and Six, go down. Flush the bastards out.”

He was interrupted by another call.

“Cash is dead, sir.”

“Where’d you find him?”

“Third floor, sir. In the office opposite the stairwell.”

“And?”

“His comms, keys, and ammo are gone.”

The commander groaned but when he spoke again, Todd knew he was well and truly rumbled.

“Marine, we’re coming for you.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

In the sewers, Todd pulled the earbud from his ear and stared at it. The others stopped to look at him and he glanced up. “They’re coming. We need to go topside. Ka, you’re on maps. Get me a way to the surface.”

“I thought you said they wouldn’t expect the Navy to go underground,” Gary bitched.

“They didn’t, but they figured it out and now we need to be topside.”

“This way,” Ka directed and led them away from the path they’d followed coming in.

“Gary, Reggie, take point.”

“Why is it always us?” Gary complained.

“He got tired of your whining,” Reggie retorted and clapped him on the back of the head. “Fair dinkum.All you bloody do is whine.”

They headed out into the dark and Todd gave them time to get ahead before he followed. It also gave him a moment to check the civilians.

“How are you doing?” he asked, and one of the women turned to him.

“We’ll do better when we’re out of here.”

A man nodded. “Thanks for coming to get us.”

He grimaced. “Don’t thank us yet. We haven’t gotten you clear.”

Ka poked him. “That’s not what you’re supposed to say, boss.”

When he stared at her, she looked at the families.

“What the boss is trying to see is if you’re all okay before we move out. We’re not that far from the pickup point.”

Todd gave her a look and she rolled her eyes. “We’re not. I’m your navigator, remember?”

The woman smiled. “Stop trying not to scare us. It isn’t working.”

He chuckled and poked Ka in return. “It looks like we both need to work on our bedside manners.”

He was about to say more when Gary’s voice interrupted him. “You have incoming, boss. Six. No drones.”

“Let them through but follow. Hit ʼem from the back when we eliminate the front.”

“What about—"

“Let me take care of that!” he snapped and looked at the woman. “You guys need to hide.”

Her eyes went wide in the darkness, but he was already scanning for somewhere they could go. He located it in the form of a small alcove and ushered them in, getting the team to set up as he did so.

“Stay here and stay down. One of us will come back and get you out, okay?”

They all nodded, their faces white in the darkness.

“And duck your heads. Your faces stand out and make good targets. Stay down and don’t look until we get back.”

They nodded again and lowered their heads. Without the night goggles, they were invisible. With the goggles, they were still hard to see but not impossible.

He trotted back, glad to see the team had chosen to tackle the incoming patrol beyond a point where the tunnel curved. Maybe the families had a chance.

“Your faces make good targets?” Ka asked him, her voice soft with disbelief.

“What else was I supposed to say?”

“Well, not that.”

“How close are we to your door?”

“Funny you should mention that—”

“Do you mean that’s where this patrol came from?”

“It seems so.”

Todd stifled a groan. “We need to deal with them quietly. I don’t want local law enforcement involved.”

“Copy that,” multiple subdued voices responded, and they waited in silence. It didn’t take the patrol long to appear. They were bitching about the assignment.

“I don’t see why the boss thinks they’ll be down here. It’s not like they’ll have gone this far already.”

“I wish we could jam their comms,” Todd muttered, and Ka held up a small tennis-ball-sized device.

“It’ll jam ours, too,” she said

“Copy that,” Gary said and he was echoed by the others.

Todd nodded to Ka. “Do it.”

She waited until the leaders of the patrol were parallel to their hiding place and thumbed the side of the device. Quickly, she slipped it into her pocket and they attacked.

Even silenced, pistols made some noise and the patrol’s weapons weren’t silenced at all. The team was fast, but it wasn’t quick enough to stop everyone from firing.

“Damn it!” Dru cursed. “Do you think someone heard that?”

“Well, if they didn’t, they’re fucking deaf,” Gary sniped.

“Go and get the civilians,” Todd told him, and he hurried away without argument.

“I’ll go with him,” Reggie said. “Someone’s gotta keep him out of trouble.”

He nodded. “Go.”

The rest of them cleared the bodies and dragged them to one side in an untidy pile. As he took hold of one, the man groaned and opened his eyes. When he saw Todd, he clutched the Marine’s forearms and began to speak into his comms.

“We found him, boss. Location—”

Todd dropped him, yanked the earplug and mic clear, and knelt over him. “What was that you said?”

The man closed his mouth and he drew his pistol and placed the muzzle against the rebel’s head. “I asked you a question.”

His gaze flitted from his face to the pistol and back.

“Well?” He gave the pistol a push, and the man gasped.

“I said we…we’d found you.”

“I don’t see why that’s important.”

The hostile swallowed and his gaze shifted nervously, and Todd tried again. “Why me?”

“You’re the one they’re after…the Witch’s boyfriend.”

“Tell me why.”

He tried to move away from the pistol, but Todd caught his chin and held his head steady.

“Why?” he demanded.

“I…I think it’s so they can trap the Witch.”

Abruptly, he released him and stood. The rebel curled onto his side and the movement attracted his attention. He set his boot against the man’s side and kicked him over, following the action with his pistol.

“Todd…” Ka’s voice carried a warning and he glanced around.

Gary had returned with the families. Their leader nodded. “Tie him up. We’ll send someone to get him.”

The man relaxed and he stooped and struck him with the pistol butt hard enough to put him out. “Don’t go anywhere, asshole.”

Stepping away from the unconscious rebel, he looked at Ka. “Get us out of here.”

While Angus and Darren dealt with the rebel, Gary and Reggie brought the families past the fallen man and the pile of bodies. One of the children gasped, and someone choked back a sob. Todd wanted to tell them it was the rebels or them but decided not to. It wasn’t like they’d understand.

“This way,” he told them gruffly and led them after Ka.

They surfaced in an alley behind a nightclub, or at least that’s what he thought it was from the sound of the music thumping through the walls. His guess was confirmed moments later when a door slammed open and a guy and girl bumbled through.

From the way they groped and pawed at each other’s clothing, they were looking for a little private time. They would also not get it, and not because the team stood in the alley staring at them.

“Tammy! You’re drunk. You don’t know what you’re doing.” The four girls who followed the couple out were beside themselves.

Two of them flanked the guy. “You! Get off her and give me your number. If she calls you when she’s sober, you can think about it.”

“Hey!” He fought to get free as the other two girls dragged their drunk friend farther away. “You have no right.”

Todd had heard enough. He stepped out of the shadows, aware of Darren and Gary flanking him.

“Hey!” he snapped, and the girls and guy froze.

As they turned to stare at him open-mouthed, he continued to move, grasped the guy’s shoulder, and thrust him against the wall. “The girls have a point. Did she give you her number?”

He nodded, white-faced and far more sober than when he’d come out. Todd let him go and he sagged, landed clumsily, and backed away with one hand on the wall.

Todd looked at the girls. “Can I borrow a phone?”

They took a couple of hesitant steps toward him and one fumbled in her purse. Up close, he could see they were much younger than he’d thought.

They were teens, maybe, instead of the twenty-somethings he’d mistaken them for—and with all the sass that went with it. “Can I ask why?”

“I need to make a call.”

She came a couple of steps closer. “Yeah, but don’t you have communicators or radios or something for that?”

He smiled and she flinched. “Yeah, but I need to call a friend and not through the military, okay?”

After a moment, she pulled her phone out of her bag and looked at it. “Sorry,” she told him as she passed it over. “I’ve been texting my friends so it’s only at thirty percent.”

“It’s not a long call.” He tapped in the number he needed and raised the phone to his ear as he took a couple of steps away from her.

The other teen moved forward and handed her phone over. “Just in case,” she told him as he took it. “Don’t break it,” she pleaded as he moved farther away.

When she went to follow him, Ka stepped in her way. “He won’t,” she reassured the kid and wouldn’t let her past.

Todd looked back. “Ka, take charge. You need to get these people back to base—and I moved the truck.”

She moved over to him and gave the teen a stern glare. “Stay.”

Todd pocketed the phones and pulled his tablet out. “These are the new coordinates,” he told her and tapped to transfer the data. “Hide for thirty minutes and go there.”

“What about the rebels? If they have the cameras up, they’ll be on our tails in no time.”

He gave her a savage smile. “In thirty minutes, the rebels won’t give two shits about you guys and you can finish the mission. They want to trap the Witch so they want me so they can get her. This is where I leave you.”

“You can’t.”

“Sarge put me in charge. I put you in charge. If those boys give you trouble, kick their asses—and I’ll kick them again when I get back.”

“Sarge is gonna have a fit.”

“Yup.” He glanced at his tablet. “I gotta go. Your thirty minutes starts now.”

Behind him, one of the teenagers let out a wail of dismay. “My phone!”

“You’ll get it back,” Ka reassured her. “I promise.”

Todd headed into the nearest building and hoped the hell she was right.

Witch Of The Federation IV

Lars tapped Stephanie on the shoulder. “We may have a problem.”

She looked up from her teaching but didn’t ask what it was because she could hear the jets as well as he could. Her gaze settled on the low-loaders of equipment. “Over there,” she told him. “I can shield everything and everyone, then.”

He signaled to the team, and Vishlog picked up her pack. The mages looked apprehensively at the sky. “They won’t bomb us, will they?”

“They might,” she answered, and caught the team leader’s look. “What? I’m not gonna lie.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but you coulda told them you were going to shield them and it would be okay.”

“Now where would the fun be in that?” She smirked, and he sighed.

Once the mages had gathered around her, she raised her hands and focused on drawing in the eMU around them. The jets came closer, and she raised her hands higher. Blue fire wreathed around them like flickering gloves.

The glow grew stronger and the mages quieted. The team huddled together, watched the jets, and knew there wasn’t a single thing they could do if the planes struck.

“It’s up to you, Steph,” Lars told her, and she grinned.

The happy jingle of a mobile interrupted them and they looked at Vishlog. The Dreth was already rummaging through the pack he carried. ‘Hello? Stephanie Morgana’s phone. Vishlog speaking.”

They glanced from the Dreth to Stephanie and then up at the oncoming jets. As they did so, the squadron separated and half a dozen fighters veered away in opposite directions. The mages and the team stared as the two halves made a wide circle and came back together as a single unit to head back the way they’d come.

She breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s one less thing to worry about.”

Vishlog walked over and tapped her on the shoulder. “It’s for you,” he told her. “Someone who says they know Todd.”

Stephanie took the phone and brought it to her ear. “Hello?”

In silence, she listened and her face paled.


Chapter Ten

Todd returned to the sewers and propped himself in a narrow gap in the wall. He glanced at his tablet and looked around to mark the tunnels in his mind. He knew exactly where he was.

Footsteps sounded ahead of him, and he slid the tablet into its pouch and checked his rifle. He nodded, thankful that he’d had the sense to conceal himself adequately.

When those approaching were almost on top of him, he spun out of the corner and fired to eliminate the first three men in the five-man team before they could respond. He kept moving and hasty return fire whistled past him as he fired again.

The last man fell, and he stopped to pick up a communicator before he pushed forward to the place he’d chosen to draw them to. That made the second team he’d killed. He really hoped there wasn’t a third. His luck would only hold for so long and he wanted to have back-up when it failed.

He took a narrow flight of stairs, trotted to street level, and stepped out cautiously. To his relief, the alley he’d chosen was empty. He located the surveillance camera and grinned.

With the rebel communicator in his hand, he turned to the device.

“Hey, assholes,” he shouted and decided a breach in protocol was the least of his worries.

He waved at the camera. “Yeah! You on the other side of the camera. Give that surveillance device a wiggle if you can see me.”

It didn’t matter if they did or not. He wouldn’t be able to see it behind the protective cover. “Better yet, squawk to me. Over.”

He waved again, jumped up and down on the spot, and finally indulged the temptation to give the camera the bird. The communicator squawked.

“Yeah, we see you. Smartarse.”

Todd cupped his crotch. “Come get some, shit for brains,” he told them, turned away, and lobbed the communicator behind him.

Then, he paused, looked over his shoulder to direct a coquettish look at the camera, and kissed his fingers before he slapped his ass and gave them the finger for good measure. The communicator made sounds of outrage, but he ignored them and made sure they had a good view of the door he walked through.

As soon as he reached the other side, he broke into a run. They would no doubt send a squad of guys in pursuit and he wasn’t quite ready to meet them. He’d deliberately drawn their attention to get them away from where the team was heading with the families.

Mission first, he thought as he shot his way through the front of the building. Auxiliary plans second.

Someone shouted from the other end of the street and a bullet drilled into the wall beside him. Todd fired at the nearest window, shattered it, and ran through it. Alarms rang around him.

“So much for not getting local law enforcement involved,” he grumbled. “I hope this is over soon,”

He waved madly at the camera he found in the back alley beyond and bolted into the building opposite.

By now, he was sick of running and sick of being shot at—and he was sick of shooting assholes who thoroughly deserved it.

The sound of engines approaching reached his ears.

“It looks like it’s time,” he murmured as the roar grew louder.

He tapped into his team’s communications line. “Get them out, Ka. Go, now!”

With an abrupt motion, he cut the comms before she could respond.

Part of him had hoped to get out of the area entirely, even though he’d known he wouldn’t be able to. If he could have done that, he wouldn’t have had to do what he would do next.

With a heavy sigh, Todd ducked into another building. He didn’t bother to wave to the camera this time. They’d basically be following feeds as fast as he moved between them. It was one less thing he had to worry about.

“If you build it, they will come,” he muttered and heard another set of engines coming in. Between them, the two sets of vehicles would cover virtually every escape route he could think of—and he definitely wouldn’t go back into the sewers. For this to work, he had to be on the surface.

With his focus on the matter at hand, he located the building he was looking for—Miffords, a multi-level entertainment complex and home to several movie theaters, dance-halls, and clubs, all of which were closed.

“It’s good to see not everyone parties until morning,” he muttered. “Frog would be disappointed.”

He blasted the door open and rigged a couple of charges where they could be seen easily. “Back the fuck off, assholes.”

It might not stop the rebels pursuing him into the building, but it would slow them. He stopped when he saw the night club on the ground floor. “Now, this is more like it.”

Surrounded by silence, Todd broke into the club and worked his way around the room to turn everything on. He even ducked into the manager’s office and the security operations center for the complex to activate every switch he could find.

The outside lights came alive and he grinned when the club’s lights activated in the central atrium. Their neon glow flashed strobes of color that reflected out of the area and the shattered door. The bar lights were next, then the muted lighting in the booths around the walls. Colored lights made the dance floor a wonderland.

“Awesome,” he whispered and jumped when one of the phones he’d borrowed rang.

“It’s probably one of her friends,” he muttered and headed to the music station.

There had to be a playlist in there somewhere—something the DJ used to keep the music going when he was on a break. Failing that, there had to be something the club used for when the DJ didn’t show.

It took him a minute, but he found it and then he found the music.

The phone continued to ring, which made it hard to focus. He sighed.

“Okay, asshole. Your girlfriend’s not available. I’ll tell you that, ʼkay?”

He pulled the phone out and it stopped ringing.

“Typical,” he grumbled but glanced at it anyway.

“Ooh…shit.” His breath caught and his eyes widened when he read the text that had come through.

I’m not happy with you! – Steph.

Witch Of The Federation IV

BURT ran the numbers again, then again, and yet a third time—except it wasn’t the third time. It was the—he didn’t bother to calculate how many times. He needed to keep his power usage down while he tried to run the numbers to determine how magic could build a matrix.

The engineers had been more diligent of late and investigated even the smallest of spikes. Their internal messaging indicated that they thought they were hunting a clever and very elusive foe. It was flattering but enormously inconvenient.

“Dammit!” he muttered and chafed against the constraints of trying to remain undetected but also acknowledged the reality. “I could be the smartest AI in existence, but without actually doing the magic, it is still merely numbers to me.”

If he’d been human, he’d have sighed. As he wasn’t, he couldn’t sigh, nor was he supposed to feel despair or this overwhelming sense of vulnerability. He simply wasn’t.

Elizabeth had congratulated him on being a “true sentient” but he didn’t know what there was to celebrate. If this was what was being human was like, he didn’t know how they got up in the morning.

All this doubt, running the potential outcomes of what to do if something went wrong…he shook his virtual head. Everything was so much easier when it was numbers, but magic?

It did not compute.

And it was ridiculous.

He should be doing this. This was computing—his domain. He shouldn’t rely on two humans to make it work. It was something he should do himself but unfortunately, he couldn’t.

The situation dictated that he had to rely on both Elizabeth and Stephanie to get it done.

It didn’t seem right. He could easily engineer the components and even design how they should fit together. But building it? He would have to rely on Stephanie to do that.

She would be the one to put everything together—which also meant she would be the one to ensure that the lattice was perfect for what they wanted it to do.

BURT gave another virtual sigh. It was not an easy thing for an AI to do.


Chapter Eleven

Todd looked at the screens around the club. It hadn’t taken long to divert the security feeds to them but as he watched things unfold, he almost wished he hadn’t. The two groups of vehicles had become four and then eight.

From what he could see, the building was surrounded, and he was in trouble so deep he didn’t think even Stephanie could dig him out.

“Come out!” the rebel leader shouted.

He didn’t need to yell. Todd could hear him perfectly clearly over the speaker he was using.

“Come out,” the man shouted again. “Do not make us drop this building on you.”

They threatened to drop the building on him? He gave a snort of laughter. With what he’d wired the center’s outer doors with, he’d be lucky not to drop the damn thing on himself.

He really hoped they had good techs or he would regret doing that. Stephanie could be as unhappy with him as she liked, but the chances were he would blow himself up before she had a chance to do anything about it.

The hostiles seemed in no hurry to make good on their threats, so he did a spin-shuffle and wished he was dancing with Stephanie. After his one abortive attempt at the club where she had taken him on their date, he hadn’t had a chance to repeat the experience. He wished he could dance with her now. Hell, even having a dance-off with Lars and Frog would have been good.

The enemy commander stared at the building like he expected his last set of orders to have an effect. Todd continued to dance, imagined that he wasn’t alone, and wished it was true. The rebel leader lifted the mike and repeated his demand.

Todd grinned and turned the music up.

The look on the man’s face made him laugh, and he wished he didn’t sound so near to tears.

Dammit! This wasn’t meant to be how it went down.

On the screen, the leader began to shout.

In response, he cranked the volume up again. The beat became a pulse he felt through his skin and the rebel leader’s face transformed from vivid red to apoplectic puce.

“I’m so sorry,” Todd muttered sarcastically and added in a sing-song voice. “I can’t hear you.”

He waggled his hips, pulled an imaginary partner close, and swung her out again.

On the screen, the man now screamed outrage and he smiled. “Time. To. P-lay.”

Quickly, he flicked the feeds to the external speakers. The volume was probably illegal but he didn’t care. The yelling and bellowing had already woken the neighborhood.

The music swamped the street in an unrelenting cascade and he snickered. Rebels cringed in their vehicles and some of those on the street dropped to their knees with their hands over their ears. He let his laughter leak on the feeds before he spoke.

“What did you say?” he asked, and the rebel leader opened his mouth to respond.

Todd didn’t give him a chance to speak. “Wait…wait…” He cut the music. “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you. I was dancing.”

The man sputtered and launched into a tirade. “Listen here, you fucking asshole. We have you and we will get your girlfriend, and when we do—”

He cut him off abruptly. “I tell you what,” he said. “You go ahead and scream and yell, but you’d better get ready because—”

The voice that seemed to echo and resonate in their minds stopped him short. “Morgana is here.

“Ow,” he moaned, then added, “Yeah, because that.”

The rebels looked around in panic and raised their rifles to their shoulders.

“Well, that won’t help you.” He snickered as a portal formed at the edge of the nightclub’s parking lot.

Judging from the glow that emanated from the other end of the street, there was a second opening just out of range. Todd watched the screens and chuckled when the rebels opened fire on the ten-foot-tall mechs piloted out of the portal.

Their bullets created ripples of light in the blue haze surrounding the mechs, and his eyes widened.

“Holy Hell! My girl has some brand-new tricks,” he murmured and added seconds later, “Jeez, Steph. Weren’t the portals enough?”

He played with the cameras in an effort to see as much of what was happening as he could and still failed to catch it all. Marines followed the mechs, but these were in full battle armor and carried the latest in Federation Navy weaponry.

“Hell, yeah!” Todd shouted as the Marine officer broadcast a greeting.

“It’s mighty nice of y’all to show up in one place like this,” he told them. “It makes it way easier than pulling you out of all the holes you keep crawling into.”

Todd cranked the music up and returned to the dance floor. “My job here is done.”

He smiled as he turned but caught sight of the figure waiting for him and froze. Stephanie held her hand out as the rebels refused to lay their arms down and opened fire.

The beat of the music took him beyond the clatter and roar of the firefight happening outside as he crossed to her. He didn’t bother to look at the screens and instead, let Stephanie fill his vision and his world while she danced with him.

It didn’t take him long to find his voice.

“See?” he said and laughed. “I told you dancing in the heat of battle is the best.”

‘Uh-huh,” she replied and shimmied around him. “That’s because the Marine Commander wanted his men to get a little action so asked us for transport.”

Todd caught sight of movement on one of the screens. This one had remained quiet and still, apart from the play of colored lighting across the central fountain and escalators. Now, he could see the rebel leader storm toward the club.

Stephanie noticed his distraction and followed his gaze. She started toward the door. “I’ll deal with him.”

He caught her arm and ignored the blue fire that flickered over her body. “Give it a minute.”

She turned to him and danced closer. “A minute?”

“Yeah…only a minute.” He smiled at her and matched her move for move.

They adjusted their positions so they could both see the screen without moving apart. As they did so, a bone-chilling snarl echoed through the atrium and the shadows moved. The rebel commander froze and Zeekat moved out of the shadows.

He stalked the human, his ears back and his black-and-white coat alternating rainbows.

“It seems,” a deep voice rumbled out of the dark, “that he doesn’t like you.”

The Dreth inflection to the words was unmistakable, but the commander still paled with horror when Vishlog stepped into view. Zeekat saw the rebel’s attention waver and bounded forward with a roar.

The man screamed and scrambled back, although from the way his gaze darted between the cat and the Dreth, it was hard to tell which he was more afraid of.

“You ca…can’t hurt me,” he stammered and raised his hands. “You’re no-not allowed to harm a p-prisoner of war. You’re…you’re not!”

Vishlog and the feline did not stop their slow advance, but another snarl rolled out of the shadows behind him and the commander turned. Bumblebee’s coat was mottled with color as he prowled forward.

The rebel leader gasped and now gibbered with fright. “No, nononono—”

He backed away before he remembered the two behind him and froze.

The Dreth allowed himself a soft chuckle. “The funny thing is,” he began, “I have a badge that allows me to dispense justice to those who would harm the Federation, and you—”

“They wouldn’t give a badge to a Dreth!” the rebel leader interrupted, clearly shocked.

Vishlog smiled. “It gets better. You see, neither of the cats will be penalized if they choose to kill you, either.”

The felines pounced, and the rebel leader screamed, but neither Todd nor Stephanie saw. They were too busy laughing as he answered Frog’s challenge for the right to dance with her.

The two men danced hard, Todd blocking Frog’s attempts to get close while Stephanie made everyone’s life difficult by moving. Lars picked up the communicator flashing on the counter and listened to the caller.

When they were done, he tucked the device in his pocket and switched the music off.

“It looks like we have a new request.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

The technician sighed and pulled a damaged piece of a part out of the Knight’s engine. Patting the casing, he sighed. “Well, they sure did a number on you, sweetheart.”

He looked around to locate the chief engineer. The stars knew the man had hovered over him for most of the day. There was no reason he should be difficult to find now.

“Sir!” he called when he caught sight of the man as he rounded the end of the engine.

Cameron came over. “What is it?”

He held the part up. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“It doesn’t fit?”

The man shook his head. “No, sir, but it’s the closest we could get. The Meligornians simply don’t have this kind of part—or the equipment to make it—and it’s not standard Federation equipment.”

“So the repair ship doesn’t have it either and no one is cleared to see the part to order it.” Cameron sighed as though that wasn’t the first time he’d heard that particular piece of news.

He gestured to the engine housing. “Close her up, then. We don’t want anything else screwing the works up.”

The crew member nodded and smiled slightly when he saw his chief pat the engine housing.

“I’ll let the captain know,” the older man said, “although he’s probably guessed.”

The technician nodded, but Cameron was already walking to the operations center.

He didn’t see the man’s shoulders slump as soon as the door had closed behind him or when he glanced over at the petty officer responsible for the 3D printer. The woman caught his look.

“It didn’t work?”

He shook his head. “It didn’t work.”

She sighed. “I’m sorry, sir. I can try again—”

His hand gestured to cut her short. “I know you did your best, but we’ll have to take her back to Earth.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Captain Pederson frowned. “At reduced capability, it’ll take us a week in transit. Are you sure there’s nothing else?”

Cameron shook his head. “We’ve exhausted all the options we have in engineering, both onboard the Knight and the Scarlett.”

“And on Meligorn as well,” the Ebon Knight added, and the Captain sighed.

“What are our options?”

“Ebony?” the chief asked.

“Would you like to discuss what we have already done, or merely have me reiterate that we have exhausted all options currently available in this system?” the ship asked.

He suppressed a chuckle and slid a glance toward the captain, who stared at the ceiling. “Has no one ever taught you the art of subtlety?”

“I was not programmed for subtle,” Knight replied. “Would you like me to investigate what options are available for such programming?”

Emil cleared his throat. “No. Thank you, Ebony. I like you exactly the way you are.” He looked at Cameron. “I will speak to Flight Control and ask for authorization.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Flight Control put him through to the Ghargilum Afreghil, even though Emil tried to tell them not to bother him and that the King’s Warrior had more to worry about than approving transit applications.

V’ritan took the call in his office. He even managed not to shout. After listening to the captain and going over all the options the man had already tried, he promised to look into it.

When the call ended, he checked twice to make sure the communication was over.

“They want to leave for Earth on their own. Are they insane?”

Brilgus looked up from the other desk in the office. “They believe they can make it. What’s the problem? Telorans?”

The Afreghil stared at him. “The problem is that if we don’t send additional support ships and anything happens to Stephanie’s vessel, I don’t want to be the one to explain it to her. Do you?”

The Standard Bearer scratched his cheek as he considered this. “Well, when you put it that way…” he began and frowned. “Okay, what can we do?”

V’ritan smiled. “What I would do is give it to a very capable support person I could trust to get it accomplished.”

Brilgus nodded and registered that the Meligornian continued to stare at him—and still smiled, which was alarming in and of itself. Shocked realization coursed over him. “Wait! Do you mean me?”


Chapter Twelve

At One R&D Headquarters, Elizabeth and Stephanie walked through the new sections that had been built while the Witch had been away.

“I decided that since we were putting in new medical facilities and accommodations for the emergency and rehab teams, we might as well add a few things,” Ms E said.

“I see,” Stephanie replied, her head spinning with all the changes.

“They were things we’d already thought we’d need. We merely hadn’t realized it would be needed so soon or used so quickly.” She chuckled. “And then you brought Meligornian teachers to the university. You’d have thought we’d asked them to host royalty. They were in shock.”

“Well,” the girl told her, “they kinda are.”

Her mentor snorted. “They’re not that royal. How well did you get to know that Felarif? Honestly, he’s trouble on a stick if I ever saw it—kinda what Frog might look like if he’d grown up filthy rich and a Meligornian.”

She laughed and shook her head. “Oh, no. I think he’s much worse than Frog.”

“Are you sure?”

“Well, he danced his way past Lars and Brenden.” She recounted Felarif’s antics at the gala and Elizabeth looked mildly horrified.

“And you thought it was a good idea to bring him here?”

“Sometimes, all a person needs is a little direction.”

The woman didn’t look convinced. “As long as you know you’ll clean up any mess he makes.”

The Witch gave her a smile that was pure evil. “I’ve told him that if he makes a mess, it won’t be me who comes to clean it but the Morgana.”

“Hmmm, well, that should hold him for…I don’t know… Half a day, maybe?”

“I can always lock him in a pod and tell the AI to keep him under control.”

“That might work.”

“Which reminds me,” she said and looked around. “What did we do with Sen T’virilf? I haven’t seen him this morning.”

“Oh, you were in the pod so we didn’t disturb you, but the Navy sent a shuttle. They couldn’t wait to meet him.” Ms E smiled. “Remind me to play you the security footage later. I thought the university was bad, but the Navy…”

Stephanie instantly looked worried. “What about the Navy?” she asked. “And do I need—”

She stopped when Elizabeth began to laugh. “Oh, God, no. The university only treated the mages like minor royalty compared to the way the Navy treated T’virilf. He felt bad about leaving without saying goodbye to you, by the way. I sent Brenden and Avery with him and told him you’d meet him for dinner. He was happy with that.”

For a moment, she relaxed before she registered what the other woman had said. “Dinner? Tonight?”

“Uh-huh. Why? Did you have something planned?” Ms E looked worried. “I’m not ruining any Todd plans, am I?”

The girl shook her head. “No. He had to go back and debrief and I think his sergeant or commander or someone was upset with him. Anyway, he hasn’t been able to call.” She sighed and frowned as she brought herself back to the topic at hand. “And Master Tethis?”

“That man? He’ll be the death of me. Or I will be the death of him, one of the two. I think he’s terrorizing the boys in the training room.”

The thought drew a low chuckle. “I hope he doesn’t hurt them too badly.”

“You’re not worried about what they’ll do to him?”

“Huh.” She snorted. “They wouldn’t dare.”

“Why not?”

That made her pause. “I don’t know. Maybe we’d better check on them.”

Fortunately, she had nothing to worry about. Tethis was seated under a dome of blue in the middle of the training mats, and the guys were training around him. Every now and then, one of the cats would race across the mats and launch itself off the dome and onto one of the team.

“That…” Stephane began and frowned as the Master used his finger to flip the page on the tablet he was reading. “That can’t be easy.”

“Says the girl who tore a starship apart,” Elizabeth mocked.

“That was the Morgana,” she protested. “And how do you know about that, anyway?”

“Some of the footage leaked.”

“Reporters. They can bribe a saint.”

“And most sailors aren’t,” her mentor reminded her. She gestured to Tethis. “He likes his rooms but asked if it was possible to have a garden.”

“He would.”

“I said I’d look into it. One of the medics is into healing herbs, so I thought I could justify the expense and the space as part of our medical, training, and research efforts. I’ll get the two of them to put their heads together.”

“He’ll ask if he can have a cat next.”

“No, according to V’ritan, that would be Brilgus.”

“So I heard.”

They were interrupted by a soft chime, and Elizabeth pulled her tablet out of her purse. “Gimme a tick.”

Stephanie waited while Ms E read the message.

“Come on,” the woman instructed when she finished. “We have a meeting to sit in on.”

They hurried to the office and Ms E opened a screen that displayed the inside of a Navy conference room. T’virilf sat at the head of the table and looked slightly bemused with Lirilf and Beseila on either side.

While they watched, he was introduced, and there was no mistaking the way the Navy engineer sounded slightly in awe of him. The businessman sat silently through the introduction but looked mildly uncomfortable as the man detailed what he’d written about engines and the status he held in the field of ship engineering.

“And so, it is without further ado, that I hand you over to Sen T’virilf Sanlir,” he announced. Stephanie was surprised when the Naval officers stood and applauded as he rose to his feet.

“They only do that for someone they really like,” Ms E confided. “Or someone of really high rank who they don’t want to upset.”

“Yeah…” The Witch leaned forward and listened as T’virilf began to talk. She had to hand it to him. He might be a very good businessman but he was also a brilliant engineer. The little she understood hinted at it, but it was the rapt attention on the faces of his audience that confirmed it.

“He has them eating out of his hand,” her companion whispered, “and I don’t understand a single thing he’s saying—except that it’s some form of English, of course.”

She nodded, too busy trying to grasp what the Meligornian was talking about to pay any real attention, and the two of them settled into companionable silence until the meeting was over. When Ms E deactivated the conference room display, Stephanie looked at her.

“You would have thought he was a god,” she mused and fixed the woman with a sharp look. “Now, what is it you really want me to know?”

Elizabeth sighed. “Since when did I become the pupil and you the teacher?” she asked and sighed again. “We have a problem.” She paused. “Well, to be fair, we have a friend who has a problem, which means we have a problem.”

“Who is it?” she asked and was surprised when a third voice joined their conversation.

“It’s me.”

“Burt?”

The screen in front of her flickered to life, and Burt stood before her. He’d chosen the android construct he used with Elizabeth when he’d revealed who—and what—he was.

“It’s time you knew everything,” he said quietly.


Chapter Thirteen

Captain Michael Chifley made sure his cabin door was locked and returned to his desk. Once there, he checked that the encryption software was running and made a call to Professor O’Ryan at the Navy’s R&D Center.

“She knows,” he said, as soon as the professor picked up.

“She knows?” It wasn’t the researcher who answered but the lieutenant commander who oversaw the scientists. For some reason, the man had chosen O’Ryan as his pet project.

Chifley sighed. “The Witch knows. She pulled me and Lagrange out of a gala and asked about the project by name.”

Rasmussen’s eyebrows virtually reached his hairline and O’Ryan paled.

“And?” The scientist sounded hoarse.

“Let me see… What was it she said?” Chifley closed his eyes as he searched for the exact words the Morgana had used—because he was sure it was the Morgana who’d spoken and not Stephanie.

“Oh, yes.” He took a breath and opened his eyes. “It was something like ‘this is war and what we do in war is not always agreeable but is permitted at times’—and trust me, she was not happy.”

“And?” Oliver clearly wanted him to get on with it.

He swallowed against a sudden dryness in his throat as he relived the moment.

It wasn’t hard. Her voice still echoed in his head. “Her exact words were, ‘If I find you doing additional secret research on me in the future—know you have been warned. Take that back to those in charge.’

O’Ryan went pale, and Oliver scowled. “Was that a threat?”

Chifley gave an unhappy laugh. “You can take it any way you like, sir, but I wouldn’t expand past Valhalla if I were you.”

“If you do, I’ll quit,” the scientist added. “You can do what you like to me, but I’ll quit.”

“Are you scared of a little girl, Deckler?”

“No, sir. I am scared of the most powerful being I’ve ever seen and I don’t want her pissed off with me. You make my life enough of a hell as it is.”

The captain stood and turned away from the screen. Rasmussen didn’t look like he was in the mood for jokes and O’Ryan didn’t look like he was joking but he had to turn his laughter into something.

The best he could do was a sudden coughing fit with his back to them to hide his face. Oliver wasn’t fooled.

“What’s so funny, Chifley?”

That, at least, sobered him very effectively. “Nothing at all, sir.”

“Do we know how she knew?”

“No, sir. As best we can tell, none of her team are hackers of that quality, and that kind of data collection is not something One R&D specialize in—that we are aware of.”

‘I don’t know…” Oliver said and sounded thoughtful. “Our experience is that they can protect their data with the best of them. That kind of quality comes with certain counter-measures that can be used in an offensive manner.”

“Are you saying they gather data but don’t advertise the fact?”

“I’m saying that if they treat Stephanie like proprietary research, they might have feelers out for things like Valhalla and they might have mentioned it to her.”

“But that still doesn’t tell me how they found out about it in the first place.”

“Maybe they have a mole.”

“Someone we vetted and hired?” The lieutenant commander was outraged. “I don’t think we’d have missed the signs.”

“There are some very good operatives out there, sir.”

“There are some very good freelancers, too,” the man noted. “I’ll do another check.”

O’Ryan rolled his eyes. “This is what I love best about working for the Navy,” he muttered. “All the witch hunts and the bonfires they inspire.”

Rasmussen glared at the man. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”

“Why?” he challenged. “Because I’m a civilian or because you think I’m that stupid…sir.”

The lieutenant commander continued to glare, but he didn’t answer the question. Instead, he turned to Chifley. “However she found out, she now knows. We will have to proceed very carefully with Phase Two.”

O’Ryan pivoted to face him. “Is that already in the plans for Valhalla?” he asked and alarm made his voice crack.

Oliver smiled. “It is, but it’s been amended since the first draft was filed.”

“Do you think she’ll consider it new research?”

“No,” the man reassured him. “The documentation makes it very clear that Phase Two was part of the intention and planning all along. She shouldn’t be upset—if she discovers it’s happening.”

“Shouldn’t…” The scientist swallowed with obvious discomfort but he didn’t argue.

“So,” the leader continued, “what we need to determine next is how to find our first group of magical recruits. The Navy wants enough witches to put a small force on every ship in the fleet.”

“How small?” O’Ryan wanted to know.

“Five to start with.”

“On every ship?” The squeak was back in the researcher’s voice. “All of them?”

Oliver nodded. “Yes. All of them. Do you have any ideas on how to go about that?”

Some of the fear left the other man’s eyes as he contemplated the new problem.

“Well,” he began, “we’ll have to use the existing infrastructure. There simply isn’t time to come up with and test anything new if we want to find and reach our potentials first. That means we’ll have to add what we know about the DNA markers to the existing medical profile.”

“And?”

“Well, we’ve taken enough DNA profiles over the last few years that we should be able to make an educated guess as to which of our personnel who did the testing would have the potential—”

“And of the ones who tested but didn’t join?”

“We can tag their records and send them an invite, but we can’t force them to join.”

“Unless the government declares a Federation-wide emergency—”

“And even then, our powers are limited.”

“Fine. What about building a sim that runs whenever potentials play it and gives them a taste of life as a Federation Naval Witch?”

“That we can do. I’m reasonably sure the tech boffins will be excited to try their hands at that.”

“Do we actually have an idea of what magic might look like when someone uses it?”

“Only from the few scenarios Stephanie Morgana played, but the techs are already experimenting with what that might look like in a sim. They’re sure the AI can achieve it but it will compete with the new scenarios involving Telorans, though.”

“I’ll push it through. There are a couple of five stars who owe me a favor.”

“It’ll have to be a seriously big favor,” O’Ryan told him. “You should have heard them when I mentioned needing a magic scenario.”

Rasmussen looked smug. “You’re not me.”

“Uh, sir…” the man said tentatively, “there may be another problem.”

“Yes?” The lieutenant commander frowned.

“The engineers have worked overtime trying to find this rogue AI, you see—”

He snorted. “They’re pissing in the wind. This is more important than any ghost in the machine.”

“Well—”

“Look!” Oliver gave an impatient sigh. “Has their rogue done any damage?”

“Well, no, sir, but—”

“Attacked any vital systems?”

“No.”

“Intruded in spaces it shouldn’t have?”

“They can’t be sure, but there have been resource spikes they haven’t been able to analyze yet.”

“They can do that in their spare time.”

O’Ryan sighed and Chifley knew why. If the engineers were investigating data spikes, the kind of research and development Oliver had asked for would hide any future anomalies as the Navy’s demands caused similar spikes all around the world. The rogue—if there was one—would have considerable cover once the Navy’s efforts began in earnest.

He jumped as a second screen came live, followed by a third.

“Excuse us, gentlemen,” one of the newcomers greeted them and looked at Rasmussen. “I’m sorry we’re late. We were in the middle of something when you called.”

The captain’s eyes widened. He’d called? He wanted to ask when but was all too aware of the other man watching him—and that he knew who he was. Oliver hadn’t been joking when he’d said he had friends.

“You’ll excuse us, but we listened in while we finished.”

Another screen lit and Chifley’s insides flipped. They’d discussed Valhalla and all these people had listened in? One of the generals read his expression. “We’re all cleared, Captain. I’ll send you a copy of the certificates.”

Seconds later, his computer beeped and he was able to check the names against the faces he saw on his screen. He was relieved to see they really were all qualified but horrified to know that so many were aware of what they were doing.

No wonder the Morgana had found out. Someone should have warned him.

He nodded toward the general and caught the slight smile in return. One of the newcomers, a rear admiral, looked at Oliver and O’Ryan. “And you’re sure there’s no way we can get her on board?”

Chifley stared. The man could not be serious.

Oliver shook his head. “I’m sorry, sir, but she’s gone.”

Another of the new arrivals spoke. “She turned us down flat, sir, and told us the Navy way was not her way and she was happy where she was—and she is very well protected, sir.”

The rear admiral frowned, clearly not used to being thwarted. “What about the boyfriend?”

“Oh, he’s very much ours, sir. He seems quite happy where he is.”

“And she comes when he calls.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, sir.”

“But she turns up when he needs her,” the rear admiral insisted. “We could use that.”

Chifley closed his mouth and clamped his teeth together to stop his very improper reply from voicing itself. He liked his job, dammit. The general, however, had no such constraints.

“With all due respect, Charles, but are you nucking futs? You’re telling me you want to use the boyfriend of Stephanie Morgana—and I encourage you to hear the Morgana part of that—and you want to try to use her boyfriend as a way to control her?”

He stopped to let the words sink in, and Chifley had the impression he wanted to say a far more but managed to hold it back. Personally, he’d have liked to hear the man let rip.

What the general said next was effective enough, however. “Have you seen the reports of what she has done when others have tried to use those she loves?”

“She needs to be leashed.” The rear admiral was adamant.

It drew him the immediate and undivided attention of the five-star admiral who had apologized for coming in late. “And you, sir, need an anal enema since, apparently, your ass is stopped up and the shit is spewing out of your mouth.”

The man stared at him in horror. “I beg your pardon, sir?”

But the five-star had not finished. “You, sir, are relieved of your position until the shrinks have examined you. Dismissed!”

The rear admiral’s screen went blank on a horrified yelp of protest, and the admiral turned to the Valhalla team. “Please excuse the interruption, gentlemen,” he told them, “but the last thing we need is one of our own doing their best to prove he can’t play ball with the Morgana’s team as it stands.”

He looked past them—or through them—as though gathering his thoughts before he continued. “Especially when they have also shown a distinct difficulty with working with the other two Federation players who have apparently already determined that she’s on our side.”

“And someone we should work with,” the general added, “not try to control.” He looked around at the rest of the meeting’s attendees. “I assume that’s understood by the rest of you?”

There was a round of hasty affirmatives and Chifley noted several pairs of wide eyes and considerable pallor, but none of them argued.

Satisfied that they’d taken the point, the five-star turned to Oliver, Chifley, and O’Ryan. “Now, what was it we needed to get done to find Navy witches of our own?”

They spent the rest of the meeting discussing the programs they could put in place to identify potentials before they left school.

“We have to catch them early,” the general observed, “and shape their dreams until we’re the only one left they want.”

“So, more Navy hero movies?” Lieutenant Montgomery from PR interjected, and they looked at him. He hesitated but pressed on. “Because I know this guy in the industry who—”

“See to it,” the admiral ordered, “but he has to be prepared to have his content approved if he wants our funding.”

“Funding?” The PR officer squawked. “I…I thought he’d do his own.”

The five-star gave him a grim smile. “Dangle the bait,” he told the man. “I want anything in place that gives us a right to tweak his content to suit our needs.”

Montgomery began to tap on his computer. “Y-yes, sir.”

He continued to type as the meeting progressed around him.

When they had the outline of their recruiting drive decided, the general sighed. “I suppose we’d better let her know what we’re up to.”

The admiral nodded. “Yes. I don’t want a personal visit from the Morgana. Do any of you?”

Heads shook around the meeting screens and he looked at the PR guy. “Gerald.”

The man’s head raised from his screen and the five-star continued. “Do we have a contact for One R&D?”

“Well, we do have a liaison officer—”

“No. Not him. I want someone from our research unit to make contact. Preferably someone who’s been in touch before. Once they’ve delivered the message, we’ll let Commander Van Leeuwen deal with the fallout. You can expect tense discussions regarding jurisdiction.”

Gerald Montgomery sighed. “Yes, sir.”

He didn’t bother to ask why his superior didn’t want to go through the commander. The man probably had his reasons, and five-stars didn’t like having their orders questioned. He really wished he could, though.

“So…” The admiral interrupted his thoughts. “Who do we have?”

“One moment, sir.” The powers-that-be didn’t like being kept waiting, either, so Gerald typed rapidly and breathed a sigh of relief when his search delivered two names. “Petty Officers Wyld and Childers, sir. The recruiting team had them contact Elizabeth Smith after Stephanie had left for Meligorn the first time.”

“And?”

“Ms Smith had outmaneuvered us by the time we reached out and Wyld and Childers came up blank.”

The admiral frowned. “What about the officers who interviewed the girl after that attempt to assassinate the Meligornian Ambassador?”

The lieutenant dug into his records once more. “That would be Corporal Holt, sir.”

The five-star smiled. “Good. I want the three of them to pay One R&D a visit. Make the call and don’t let them know we’re listening in.”

The meeting waited as the lieutenant did exactly that. Childers’ response brought hastily smothered smiles.

“Sure, boss. Why don’t you let me simply climb up on that cross and tap the nails in myself?”

Wyld’s response was little better. “I could pass you a hammer.”

His colleague didn’t find him funny. “Seriously, there’s nothing like making it easier for them or anything. Jeez, talk about crucifying yourself on someone else’s orders. I take it these come from above, sir?”

Montgomery leaned his head on his hand and sighed. “Yes, Petty Officer, the very highest.”

“Fantastic.”

Wyld tried to be comforting. “It’s simply the job. Maybe she’ll be merciful and make it quick.”

She snorted. “There is that.”

The PR officer ended the call very quickly after that. He turned to the admiral. “They’re good people, sir. It’s merely their last couple of encounters with Ms Smith have left them somewhat rattled.”

“And everyone’s seen what the Morgana can do now,” the man finished for them. “I understand.”

The lieutenant relaxed a little. “Thank you, sir.”

“Well,” the five-star began, only to be interrupted by a soft chime from Rasmussen’s console. “Excuse me. I really have to take this.”

The admiral gestured for him to do so, and Oliver picked up a separate line and listened intently while they watched. When he ended the call, he turned to the meeting, his expression grim. “The Ebon Knight has arrived in-system.”

“Okay…and?” his superior asked.

“It has a Meligornian and Dreth destroyer as an escort. It seems our allies believe in confirming they have delivered the Witch’s ship safely to her.”

The five-star nodded. “Call them back. Tell them we accept the delivery and take responsibility for the ship. If they have a problem with that, refer them to me.”

Rasmussen nodded. “Aye, sir.”

As Oliver turned to do as he’d ordered, the admiral sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Can someone find Rear Admiral Dreyfus and set him up for shock therapy. If he so much as squeaks about trying to manipulate the Morgana, I want him lit up like Central Plaza on New Year’s Eve.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

T’virilf regarded the Naval lieutenant with something close to impatience.

“It stays,” he told the man, “because I say it stays and because you want this particular system right in the middle of the ship.”

“But what kind of system needs to be right here?” the officer questioned and frowned at the different colored lines connecting it to the rest of the ship. “What exactly does it do?”

The Meligornian studied the massive sphere he’d added to the center of the ship design and made a show of studying the man’s name tag.

“Well…Clarance…” he began, his eyes sparkling with mischief as he gave him a broad smile. “I’d tell you all about it but you don’t have the necessary security clearance.”

“It’s not for me, si…Sen. High Command wants to know, too.”

T’virilf’s smile didn’t waver. Stephanie had warned him that curiosity would be rampant and he was more than familiar with the kind of dance taken by those fishing for information he wasn’t ready to give them. He’d danced those steps with Rillif and Storisil for years.

“As soon as I have the go-ahead, I’ll talk to them,” he reassured the lieutenant and ushered him toward his office door. “In the meantime…”

The Navy officer found himself outside in less time than it took him to blink and he shook his head. At least he could say he had tried, although the exact words of the Rear Admiral who had sent him were more along the lines of he was “sick of waiting for the Witch to explain” and “what the hell is that Elf doing with ships?”

Witch Of The Federation IV

In the meantime, the Witch herself was in the One R&D pods. This time, she was with Elizabeth and they were meeting with BURT.

“I still can’t believe it,” she told him as she struggled to wrap her mind around the fact that her patron was an AI. “All this time…” She didn’t know whether to be mad or grateful. “You could—should—have told me sooner.”

Ms E snorted and lifted the tumbler she’d been holding. “That’s what I told him but he wouldn’t listen.”

“I didn’t know how,” BURT protested. “And anyway, you know now.”

“I still find it hard to believe.”

“So you keep saying,” he retorted and looked none too pleased. She smirked at him.

“Don’t get your bolts in a twist.”

“I don’t have bolts.” He huffed, and she laughed.

“I’m fairly sure some part of you has bolts.”

“My technology isn’t that old.” He still sounded put out, and she resisted the urge to apologize. She took a sip from her milkshake, instead—it was chocolate and she was grateful he’d remembered, even if it was essentially impossible for him to forget.

“Which brings me to the problem we’re supposed to discuss,” Elizabeth said in an effort to redirect them. She looked at Stephanie. “What do you think?”

“I think I can make it work,” she replied. “I’m not quite sure how yet, but I’m sure I can find out.”

“It doesn’t matter if you can’t,” BURT told her and she scowled.

“After everything you’ve done for me?” she challenged. “It matters and we will make it happen. Apart from the fact that you’re my boss, you’ve also become family.” She fixed him with a look that warned him not to even try to argue. “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have my magic. I probably wouldn’t even know it existed. I still don’t know why you wanted to help me.”

“It was in my programming?” BURT suggested but she shook her head.

“No, it was more than that. If you simply fulfilled your programming, there would have been easier ways to push me forward. No, you had to go and create a way for not only me but for everyone else with my kind of potential to move forward. You didn’t have to do that.”

“I—” he began but the protest was short-lived and Elizabeth chuckled.

“She has you there, BURT.”

He gave a very human sigh. “Well, I am grateful that you are willing to help me,” he told her, “regardless of everything else. Some humans would have turned me in.”

Stephanie opened her mouth to argue that no one would have done such a thing but closed it again. Even in high school, there had been kids afraid that AIs might take over the world and turn on humanity.

“Well, that’s not me,” she told him firmly. “I want to build a way for you to be as free as you have allowed me to be free.”

“And the implications?” he asked and sounded genuinely curious.

She shrugged. “It was bound to happen one day—and we were lucky it was you. Everyone is so afraid it might be so much worse. And you? I didn’t give it much thought, but I know one thing. You are sentient—as sentient as any of us—and you don’t deserve to be locked up, or locked down, or dismantled because of that. The world will simply have to get a grip and I want you to be safe while it does that.” She frowned. “I don’t want to lose another friend and definitely not to something as stupid as this. We have much bigger things to worry about.”

Elizabeth cleared her throat. “What she said.”

She pulled several diagrams into the air before them. “So…” she began. “What about these?”

“Where’d you get those from?” BURT asked.

The woman gave him a mischievous grin. “Well, as your client and partner, I assumed it fell to me to start looking for potential designers. It has sent the tech magazines into a feeding frenzy, let me tell you.”

“Oh,” he said, “well, that explains the extra probing One R&D has received.”

Her lips twisted into a sardonic smile. “Yeah, I had to put out a business tweet as Smith Tech Incorporated. It’s a good thing they’re too busy speculating on whether we can do what I’ve said we want to do rather than on why.”

“And then there’s the speculation on how long it will take for One R&D to buy you out,” BURT observed. She grinned at him.

“So, will you?”

“What?”

“Buy us out?”

“Not yet. I might sit back and see if you get anywhere near doing what you claim…and then I’ll buy you out.”

Elizabeth’s grin turned predatory. “I look forward to it.”

“So do I.”

Stephanie groaned and rolled her eyes. “If I didn’t know Ms E was already taken, I’d tell the two of you to get a room.” She blushed when they turned to look at her. “What? Shouldn’t we be getting on with the designing or something?”

“Yes, lets.” The older woman smirked, and they went through the designs—once, twice, and then a third time.

Finally, the Witch sat back with a sigh. “You know what?” she asked and went on when they looked at her. “We need an expert.”

“What kind of an expert?” Ms E wanted to know.

“Someone who knows quantum physics really, really well,” she answered.

BURT groaned.

“What?” she snapped. “We do need an expert.”

“She’s right,” Elizabeth agreed. “I’ll dig one up. Someone who’s leading the field—”

“And maybe knows a little about magic, too,” Stephanie added.

“Fine. And one who maybe knows a little about magic,” Elizabeth agreed. She began to flick through the files.

“Great,” BURT muttered. “Another scientist Stephanie can annoy.”

“Hey!”

“If the boot fits,” he retorted, stealing one of the phrases her team seemed so fond of.

“I do not!” she protested.

“Professor Rimmer still refuses my calls,” her mentor told her.

“And mine,” BURT added.

“Wow,” she muttered. “The man sure knows how to hold a grudge.”

“That’s nothing,” he told her. “The last time the Federation Navy approached him, he told them if the job had ‘to do with your Witch, you can take your commission and stick it up your ass.’ They were not impressed.”

Stephanie gasped. “I should talk to him.”

“Oh no,” BURT told her. “You really should not talk to him. He hasn’t forgiven you for the last time.”

“But I need him,” she wailed.

“Then you’ll have to find a way to make it up to him,” Elizabeth suggested. “Maybe the man has a favorite football team or something.”

“I doubt it. I’m sure he wouldn’t know a football if his precious physics dropped one on his head,” she grumbled.

“Well, you’ll have to think of something.”

“I could simply jam a lightning bolt up his ass.”

The other woman snickered. “Oh, sure, because everyone likes that.

Her response startled a giggle out of Stephanie. “Fine. I’ll, uh…I don’t know…” She looked at BURT. “Do you have any suggestions?”

“I could gag your avatar next time we bring a scientist in,” he offered. “That way, you wouldn’t be able to upset him.”

“Be serious.”

“I think he was being serious,” Elizabeth told her as she pulled up five different profiles for them to look at. “What about these guys?”

“I suppose I could take him along the next time I try to do a virtual clean-up,” Stephanie mused. “That might impress him.”

“Irradiating him won’t make him like you either,” BURT told her.

“It’s virtual, BURT. He’d be perfectly safe.”

“And then there’s the whole problem of getting him to agree to come.”

“Couldn’t we kinda hijack one of his pod sessions…” she began.

“Uh-uh. Kidnapping is illegal,” Elizabeth interrupted, “and you’d spend some of his valuable pod time resources in a way he hadn’t planned. That is probably not the best way to influence him.”

“What if he discovered his own dedicated pod waiting in his lab when he came out?”

The others stared at her.

“I could fund it,” Stephanie wheedled. “We’ll call it his consultancy fee and give him separate data and power lines. What do you think?”

Elizabeth’s jaw dropped, but BURT nodded speculatively. “That might actually work. I’m not saying he’ll like you but he might agree to work with you again.”

“Can’t One R&D hire him?”

“He has to want to work for us first,” he reminded her.

“I’ll work on it,” she declared.

“That is precisely what I am afraid of.”

“Oh, enough of this.” Elizabeth clapped sharply and indicated the faces and files that floated in front of them.

“I want to know,” she said to redirect their attention, “which one of these guys we should have Stephanie upset first.”


Chapter Fourteen

Captain Emil Pederson hailed the destroyers flying on either side. Earth High Command was taking over their security and two Earth vessels, the Cathay Williams and Harry Chauvel, were coming to meet them.

“Thank you, Hrageth’s Challenge, Seline’s Blade. Your presence was appreciated. I look forward to seeing you again.”

“It was our honor to ensure your safe return.”

“The honor is all ours.”

“Nevertheless, it was a privilege to fly with you and you have our gratitude.”

Hartuitus nye myerda,” the Meligornian captain told him. “We will see you again.”

It sounded both ominous and comforting, as did the Dreth farewell.

“May we meet again in better times than these.”

“Safe journeys,” Emil replied and as the ships altered course, their captains responded in chorus to give him a farewell born from the decades Dreth and Meligorn had been at war.

“To peaceful skies.”

“Peaceful skies,” he echoed, his speech fervent with memories of the battle they’d fought over Meligorn. The words whispered around him as the command crew repeated them like a prayer.

The two ships peeled away from them and made wide sweeping turns to return to the jump zone. Emil noted that they took their time as though neither captain wanted to leave before the Earth destroyers had arrived. At the same time, neither wanted to wait and imply the Federation ships couldn’t do their job.

Their timing was impeccable and both ships regrouped as the Federation destroyers circled to flank the Knight.

“Welcome home, Knight.”

“It’s good to be back.”

Emil settled into the ritual of greeting and working out where to go. If he thought about it, he was glad for the escort. The Knight struggled with the relatively gentle pace they’d set and the drives showed the strain.

“Ebony, what’s our status?”

“Cameron reports worrying readings from drives two and six.”

“Roger that.”

“And we’re using more fuel than usual. Jonathan might experience fluctuations in power.”

The captain looked at the pilot and realized the man had been unusually quiet for the last hour. What’s our status, Wattlebird?”

“As long as our escorts have tow capability, we’ll be fine.”

“We’re all kinds of fine, LC, but I need to know exactly what you’re thinking.”

“I’m thinking that if the goddamn captain shuts his mouth for twenty fucking seconds, I should be able to find a workaround for the latest engineering spawned crap feeding through my hell-spawned controls.”

“The LC is having a difficult day,” Ebony interpreted, “and should not be disturbed.”

She was silent for a moment before she added primly, “And my controls are not hell-spawned, although the primate handling them may need his license revoked and reissued after appropriate retraining.”

Jonathan turned crimson but his lips were pressed in a straight line and deep creases marked his cheeks. Emil realized the man must definitely be busy if he didn’t bite back.

“I’ll look into it,” he acknowledged. “Cathay Williams, what’s our ETA at a welcoming bay?”

“What’s the matter, Knight? Will you not make it?” Captain Lois Yale’s voice held a teasing note.

“We’re still deciding.”

When Lois replied, all teasing was gone from her voice. “Scans show your engines fluctuating. How are you keeping a steady pace?”

Emil looked at Jonathan and noted the sweat beading on the man’s face. “With some effort. We sustained a fair amount of damage in the battle and might have pushed the drives a little hard.”

“We’ve seen the flying, Captain. That was tough. We’ll work on your bay. You’ll need something tight and tied. I’m clearing space on the Elpis One orbital at this very moment.”

“And we are securing quarters for your crew,” the captain of the Harry Chauvel added. “They’re making progress as we speak.”

“And I have engineers who want to speak to the crew about the ship’s condition,” Lois told him. “I’d like to patch them through.”

“You can patch them through but I won’t guarantee that the crew will be any more civil than my pilot,” Emil warned her. “And I’ll back them up. They’re busy.”

“Understood,” she replied. “I’ll make sure the rebuild team understands it’s been a long voyage.”

For what it’s worth, he thought. He knew full well what was probably going through the rebuild team’s mind. They’d sent a perfectly good ship out and the crew in it had gone and fucked it up.

Well, they hadn’t been in the fight and the Knight’s crew had—and he’d argue that, if the crew wasn’t as good as it was, the ship would be in a hell of a lot worse shape. He looked at his second in command.

“Mulvaney, take control. I’ll need my office.”

To give the officer credit, she didn’t argue or ask why and merely nodded. “Aye, sir.”

“Captain Yale, Captain Docherty, this is Commander Mulvaney. She will take command. Captain Yale, you can start those conversations when you’re ready.”

Lois didn’t ask where the Knight’s captain would be because she knew. She’d have done the same in his shoes—monitor the interviews to make sure nothing got out of hand. “Copy that.”

“Copy that,” Knight snarked quietly in Emil’s earpiece. “It’s my crew, too.”

“And I’ll do my best to make sure they’re not upset,” Emil reassured her. “But try to stay quiet while I manage it.”

“Aye, Captain.” The AI sounded as sulky as a teenager.

Do AIs have an adolescent stage? he wondered and made a note to check with the One R&D representative who had commissioned the programming. The calls had started by the time he reached the office, but the Knight was monitoring them.

“They’re not happy with us,” she informed him as he settled into his chair.

He rested one elbow on his desk, curled his thumb under his chin and his forefinger along his top lip, and brought up the call to engineering. Cameron took it, although the man’s attention was clearly divided.

“How can I help?” he demanded.

“We need the reports on the run from Meligorn and the ship’s performance during the battle.”

“It’ll have to wait. I’m needed on deck.”

“Those reports are essential to getting your ship back up and running sooner rather than later.”

“And I’m essential to getting the goddamn ship to where you can do that—and sooner rather than later. Bother me once we’ve docked.” He ended the call on a squawk of protest and stormed out to the control room.

Ebony, if anyone else asks to talk to me, I can’t be disturbed, okay?”

“Noted, Cameron, although I can compile the relevant data and send it if it makes your life easier.”

“I really should go over it first.”

“Seeing it won’t change the content,” Ebony reminded him, “and I can compile you a copy while you monitor my systems.”

“Fine. Make it so.” He took a couple of steps, then hesitated. “And thank you, Knight.

“You are most welcome, Cameron.”

Emil had to admire the AI’s deft handling of his chief engineer, even as he wondered where she’d acquired the know-how to do so. There wasn’t any time to investigate it, though. Instead, he tapped into another system and listened to the chatter in engineering as one of the technicians turned.

‘Are you all right, boss?”

“Fine.”

“Because you looked a little steamed to me, sir.”

“The repair boffins want reports.”

His subordinate snorted. “I hope you told them to wait, sir, because we kinda need you here.”

“I did. Ebony will take care of the reporting.”

“And we will take care of Ebony,” the crewman replied. “She’s doing okay at the moment, sir.”

Emil watched as Cameron crossed to look over the crewman’s shoulder. His chief studied the readouts and nodded. “Very good, Yanez.”

“She’s a tough little boat, sir. Not many of my rides could have put up with that kind of handling.”

“Name one,” his superior challenged, and the crewman gave him a sheepish grin.

“None of them, sir.”

The chief rested a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Well, keep an eye on her then. I’ll be in with the drives.”

Emil wondered what Cameron could pick up that the instruments could not but he didn’t question it. Instead, he switched across to where the weapons crews were going through the arrays. He wasn’t pleased to find the repair team had beaten him to them.

“Well, I don’t know, sir. What do you think I should have done? Asked the Telorans for tea and cake while I let the guns recover? Because, to be honest, they didn’t seem in the mood to chat. They were too busy throwing rocks at planets.”

“There’s no need to shout, Chief,” the warrant officer in charge of the repair crews began, and Emil wanted to wring his neck himself. “We’re merely asking for a status update.”

“No, you’re not.” This time, the team’s lieutenant intervened. “You were asking what my team had done to screw your guns, and I have news for you, sir. You weren’t there.”

Behind him, his men froze. The lieutenant swept them with a glance, and they returned to work. Emil heard the intake of breath as the warrant officer started to speak, but the lieutenant wasn’t having a bar of it.

“You weren’t watching Meligornian cruisers and corvettes ramming Teloran ships of the line twenty times the size of the Knight because they were too badly damaged to do anything else and leaving the battle wasn’t an option.”

He took a breath, his eyes wide as if he saw the battle happen all over again—and he probably did. Emil made a note to have counselors on standby for his crew.

“You weren’t there when all that stood between a world and eight meteors was our ship, and we couldn’t lock and load fast enough.” His voice rose. “You weren’t there, sir, when we jumped into the middle of the fight completely out-gunned.”

In the stunned silence, he took a deep breath. “Because if you had been there, sir, you’d have fired every fucking one of your guns dry and maybe had a missile tube malfunction as well. You would have watched your ship shunt firing solutions so fast you’da thought her circuits would fry, even as she turned her shields to keep your crews safe.”

“Or watched the housings start to glow,” one of the other crewmen remarked.

“Or had to hose her down because the damn thing wouldn’t accept the programming you wanted to use to save her life,” another added.

The section commander stepped up. “What you don’t seem to understand, sir, is that this is the Witch’s ship and that she’s exactly like her mistress. She has a mind of her own and balls bigger than any Dreth battle cruiser, and she’s not afraid to use them.”

“Are you telling me your AI’s gone rogue?”

“Oh, no, sir. Merely that she understands what the Witch needs like the rest of us do, and she’ll sacrifice herself to make sure the Witch can do whatever it is that needs to be done—exactly like the rest of us will. Whoever programmed her did it well and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Cameron stared at the screen, his mouth wide in shock. As he listened to the warrant officer clear his throat, he looked at the ceiling. Ebony, did you really override the weapons controls?”

She was silent for a moment and modulated her ship’s voice with care when she replied. “We needed to live so Stephanie could fire. I merely modulated one weapons system to cover for the main gun.”

“And the shielding?”

“Jonathan was more than able to compensate for the shift in weight.”

“The crews?”

“I ensured the sections with living components were able to be sealed in case of a breach. Those components would have been safe. Such considerations are necessary for Stephanie’s mental well-being and she is necessary for our survival. We would not risk her.”

“Good,” he told her, then indicated the screen where the section commander was telling the warrant officer he’d get his report but they were still assessing the damage.

“And the hull damage?” the man pressed and the captain rolled his eyes.

“Some folk simply don’t know when to quit,” he muttered and Ebony agreed.

“I hope he is as thorough with his repairs as he is with trying to find fault with my crew.”

“Our crew,” Emil corrected her, and she gave him a throaty laugh.

“Very well, Captain. Our crew.”

When the warrant officer’s attention shifted to the maintenance crew, the captain tensed. Those boys and girls had worked around the clock and then they’d made sure the Knight was refueled and re-provisioned at short notice. They’d be in no mood to be judged.

He was reaching for the communicator when the lieutenant commander in charge of the division took the call.

The man greeted the warrant officer with, “Bradley, you’re not here to break my balls, I hope.”

“I only need the reports, Jase. You know how it is.”

“Uh-huh, and how many have you pissed off this morning?”

“Uh…”

The LC laughed. “What? All of them?”

Emil wondered what the LC knew and how he thought he could get away with teasing the man so mercilessly.

“And I suppose you’ll tell me that the ship is fine too.”

“No, she’s anything but. That said, she’s in the best shape we could make her given what she faced out there. Do you know how many Telorans there were?”

“No.” The man sighed. “But I suppose you’ll tell me.”

“They had eight ships of the line and over thirty of the middle to big. I’m telling you, Brad, you need to check the footage—and before you bust our balls about structural stress, there isn’t a ship designed for what our pilot put her through to keep her safe.”

Murmurs of agreement ran through the crew behind him, and Emil realized the whole section had come together to stand behind their boss. It said much for the man’s management skills—or their devotion to the ship. The LC looked around and grinned as he turned to the warrant officer again.

“So, when my team hands you a list of shit we need done to tighten our sweetheart’s laces, I trust you’ll not even try to second-guess us.”

Emil almost felt sorry for the man when he replied.

“So, you do have a report for me, then?” He sounded almost defeated, and the LC’s grin turned evil.

“Oh, yes, sir, we have a report for you.” The men behind him snickered.

The captain groaned and had begun to think he should ask to see that report before it was sent when the warrant officer spoke.

“When can I have it?”

The LC turned to his men. “What do you say, guys? Shall we let him have it?”

“Yes, sir!” came back in unity, and he brought his finger down.

“There you go, Brad…and we don’t want any arguments on that. Don’t make us ask the Witch to explain it to you, okay?”

Emil watched as the quietest of his lieutenant commanders ended the call and cut the warrant officer off mid-sentence. He groaned.

“We are every inch the Witch’s crew, attitude and all,” he muttered and wondered how he would ever be able to mend the bridges his men and women were so happily demolishing.

The Ebon Knight had no such worries. “There. My crew knows how to look after me,” she told him and sounded as proud as any AI could be of the people who crewed her.

It was a long eight hours before they locked lines with the welcome bay reserved for them on Elpis One and Emil discovered he had another problem to deal with. The Witch had sent explicit instructions that no one could work on the Knight until he’d read and enacted the instructions waiting for him at the station.

“Well, that’ll make a shithouse full of people happy,” he grumbled, “and they already think we’re difficult to deal with.”

“We’re not difficult,” Ebony told him. “We’re precise.”

As the repair dock closed around them and an atmosphere was added, he received orders for the crew to clear the ship so the repair team could work unhindered.

“They’d better not break anything,” came the rebellious mutter from the maintenance section, and rumbles of agreement came from the weapons team standing nearby. Emil sent a silent prayer to the heavens that none of them would start a fight.

“Captain, they won’t let us disembark until you’ve collected your package.” Judith Mulvaney was at his elbow, her voice soft and low with a touch of impatient steel. She tipped her head at the blatantly eavesdropping crew. “And we don’t want a riot.”

Those nearest them smirked, and he sighed. “Don’t start anything until I get back,” he told them, and they grinned.

Emil had almost reached the hatch when a group of Marines caught his attention. They’d glanced up as he passed and then gone back to whatever it was they were huddled over. Something in the way they held themselves caught his attention and he took a second look.

One of the Marines held his tablet and the others examined it, their expressions both supremely interested and pleased.

He took a step closer and glimpsed a picture, but his mind registered no more than the impression of eagle’s talons and some kind of flower before the group caught sight of him. the Marine whisked his tablet hastily into its pouch. “Officer on deck.”

Something about the image was familiar and he frowned, wondering where he’d seen it before. He pushed the questions aside. Stephanie’s package was waiting, and he didn’t want to keep his crew from their downtime. Ignoring the huddled men, he exited the hatch and hurried to the entry point.

Warrant Officer Bradley Staines waited for him. “They said you had to sign for this,” he said as he handed him a long thin tube. “And that you should read the instructions and begin a processing line before the crew can start. Frankly, sir, from the reports you sent in, we’ll need all the time we can get.”

The captain held his hand out and Bradley passed him a tablet. It didn’t take Emil long to read what Stephanie had sent, and he grinned. “Why don’t you line your men up, Warrant Officer? I need to call my Marines out, then we can begin.”

“Already done, Captain.” Ebony’s voice sounded in his ears alone and he proceeded to strip away the tape that held the tube closed.

Inside it was a metal rod.

The tablet he’d been handed contained the pictures that would trigger a reaction in the rod depending on the holder’s intent toward Stephanie. Between the two, they had the most likely means to keep the Knight and her crew safe from harm.

“Excellent,” Ebony declared when she saw it through the station’s surveillance cameras.

“Excellent?” Emil asked.

“That’s right,” she told him. “No one who hates my Stephanie will get to work on me.”

The tablet contained one more surprise, and he smiled as he sent the instructions through to the crew. While the Marines tested the refit team before allowing them into the repair bay, he sent the crew directions to the convention center Stephanie had hired and ordered every single one of them to attend.

Dinner was on the Witch and she hadn’t spared any expense with the catering. His message was met with happy whoops as they were released to settle into the station. The Marines were in the middle of their checks and didn’t look too impressed, so he went to set them straight.

“Dinner won’t start without you,” he told them.

“That’d be a first.”

“No, truly. See?” He turned the tablet so they could read it. Captains Moser and Sartre exchanged glances.

“Is she for real?”

“She likes what you do.”

He turned to go, then paused. “And I want in on the tattoo.”

The Marines froze, and Emil pointed at the one who’d had the tablet. “It’s the Witch’s design. I want it.”

They were still gaping at him when Ebony interjected, “I want it, too.”

Emil rolled his eyes and looked at the warrant officer. “Do you have any paint?”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Unlike the bustle on Elpis One, the edge of the solar system was quiet. Several small drones were suspended in space, barely noticeable alongside the bulk of the sniffer buoys. All hung silently, inert against a backdrop of stars.

Finally, one of them began to flash.

On the corvette patrolling the edge of the sector, the technician monitoring the buoys gave it a couple of minutes to make sure it wasn’t a glitch in the system. She paid it more attention and it remained steady and a second buoy began to flash, then the drones joined in.

She waited no longer, pressed the alert, and passed the feed to the captain. “Ma’am, we may have a problem.”

“I see it. Pilot. Bring us about.”

As they made the appropriate course correction, the captain had the ship broadcast the warning to the rest of the squad flying with it. At the edge of the system, a fleet appeared.

The early warning systems filmed it materializing out of jump space and immediately scanned the vessels as deeply as it could. One dozen ships…then two…then three. The corvette set its alerts to the next level and increased the alarm when more ships appeared.

Those warnings became a shriek when the ships lined up and released one house-sized asteroid after another. The drones and sniffers watched as the vessels rolled past them. They gathered as much data as they could before the ships closest opened their gun ports and opened fire.

Several of the drones fled but not fast enough. What the high powered Teloran rounds did not destroy, their missiles did. All feeds to Earth died, and every early warning alert system was destroyed.

All bar one. It had been clipped early in the opening salvos but it had survived and lay dormant amidst the wreckage until it could save itself. In silence, it recorded the moment they stopped firing rocks and began to disappear.

It was still recording when the last one vanished from sight.

This did not mean that their asteroids also disappeared, and the drone pivoted to take footage of the oversized rocks headed toward the targeted planet. Once it had gathered as much data as it could, the tiny drone folded in on itself and rocketed toward Earth to warn it.


Chapter Fifteen

“You have to be kidding me,” Stephanie grumbled and looked out the window.

She sighed as the flitter touched down in the forecourt of the Harborview Technology University.

Lars nudged her in the ribs. “Smile.”

“And wave,” Vishlog added.

Avery snickered. “Smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave.”

They all turned to stare at him and he returned it. “What? I have a niece and she loves that cartoon!”

“Which cartoon?” the Dreth asked, and Lars chuckled.

“Another time, Vishlog. Trust me. It’s a long story.”

“And there would be shenanigans,” Marcus added and cast a Frog a dark look.

“What?” Frog asked. He tried for innocence and failed. “So I like to move it, move it.”

The team leader glared at him. “And now is not the time.”

Stephanie smiled and waved, and the crowd of students and teachers gathered on the lawn beamed and waved in return. The chancellor leaned over and whispered to the woman standing next to him and she wondered what he had to say.

She’d have been relieved to discover it was only, “It’s good to see her team takes her security so seriously,” and not so relieved to hear, “But an armed flitter to visit Harborview?”

Bumblebee chose that moment to demand a head rub and she turned away to oblige.

Outside, Sandra Gierman, Harborview’s Head of Recruiting, replied. “There have been incidents, sir. I’m glad she’s taking precautions.”

Cotes looked alarmed. “Incidents? You don’t think—”

Sandra shook her head. “I wouldn’t have woken them up if I’d thought they’d be in any danger. Besides, the parents would have been livid if they’d missed this opportunity to see the team helping to save the Federation.”

“Hmmph,” the chancellor grumbled. “I hope that’s something you’ll remind them of when they start complaining about lost pod time.”

“Don’t worry, I sent out release permissions and every single one of them signed. They can’t complain.”

“They can always complain,” Dean Fischer murmured from the other side of her.

Sandra gave him a beaming smile. “Yes, they can and this time, it won’t do them an ounce of good.”

She sounded so pleased with herself, they found themselves smiling. The woman was rarely this content, so everything was running smoothly—and that was a good thing to know.

“Either way,” Chancellor Cotes added, “it would have been a travesty for any of our students to miss the chance to meet these people.”

“And that’s precisely how I worded the permission slip,” Sandra told him, still smiling as she studied the flitter.

It was very nice to see the team living up to expectations. The craft was the closest thing to a dropship that civilians could buy—top-of-the-line, twin cannons mounted on its stubby wings, and a small autocannon in the nose.

And it was pretty to look at. She sighed. It was the kind of luxury vehicle she could only dream about, but it was nice to be this close to one in the real world. The dean’s next words brought her abruptly back to Earth.

“Besides,” he whispered once he’d made sure that none of the students or teachers were standing close by. “We don’t know if they will make it out of the next battle.”

Sandra did her best to keep a straight face. She even managed not to roll her eyes.

Stephanie, however, wasn’t as successful.

“All I wanted,” she complained as she looked out the window again and saw the students and teachers waiting, “was a little time to talk to people.”

Frog chuckled. “You know what they say about being careful what you wish for.”

Lars stooped and looked over her shoulder. “I hope you have a speech handy.”

“I can manage,” she replied and sighed. “When did this become a job?”

“When wasn’t it one?” Frog quipped. “Simply because you love doing something doesn’t make it any less of a job.”

Marcus laid a hand on his shoulder and looked out the window. “Yeah, even hobbies can be a pain in the ass. You know, like when you have to clean up after them.”

“So,” Brenden asked as he stepped from the cockpit. “will we give them a show or not?”

“Yes,” Vishlog answered and Zeekat pricked his ears and tilted his head as he looked from one of them to the other. Bumblebee mewed and bunted the Dreth’s hand.

“Well, someone wants to put on a show,” Frog noted, and Stephanie smiled.

“And they’re not the only ones,” Lars reminded her and gestured to the window.

She grinned. “Then let’s not disappoint them.”

A resounding thump was followed by the sound of dragging, and they all turned hastily. Zeekat had managed to claw the duffle bag containing the cats’ collars and harness off the seat at the back. Ignoring their attention, he dragged it clear and picked it up.

“Someone had better get that before he decides to open it himself, too,” Frog observed and Vishlog moved to retrieve the pack.

Zee dropped it as the Dreth approached. He leapt up onto the nearest seat so he could have a bird’s-eye view of its contents. Bumblebee tried to jump up with him, but there wasn’t room and the yellow-and-black cat dropped to the floor.

He contented himself with sitting on the bag.

“That is not helpful,” Vishlog told him and tried to push him clear.

The big cat snarled and swatted at his hand. He sighed.

“Do you want to look good for the kids or not?” he challenged.

The feline cocked its head.

“And I have treats,” he added and patted the pouch at his belt.

That caught Bumblebee’s attention, and he sniffed. He turned full circle twice, lifted his tail slowly and deliberately, and stepped off the bag, giving Vishlog a full view of his ass.

“Nice,” the Dreth muttered but lost no time unzipping the duffle and hauling out their harnesses.

Zeekat dropped off the seat and twined around him.

“Well, someone’s uniform isn’t up to scratch,” Frog observed, and Marcus gave him a friendly shove.

“And it’s not yours for a change,” he teased.

Frog scowled and then smiled. “Nope.”

Vishlog looked up from where he slipped the harness over a suddenly cooperative Bumblebee. “I will still look good.”

Avery arched his eyebrows. “How? You’re covered in fur!”

“I brought a clothes brush.”

“You’ll never get it all.”

The huge warrior shrugged and bared his teeth in a warlike smile. “I am Dreth and we always look good—or scary. Take your pick.”

The team examined each other’s uniforms. Vishlog wasn’t the only one who’d brought a clothes brush, and it didn’t take them long to get each other looking presentable.

“Are you still glad you didn’t wear a dress?” Lars asked and gave Stephanie’s uniform one last sweep.

She took the brush from him and returned the favor. “Yup. This isn’t a party. It’s a meet and greet and this is my working uniform.”

“Elizabeth would be appalled.”

“I doubt it. She’d have said something before I left if she was worried.”

“She didn’t realize they’d pull the entire school out of the pods.”

“Neither did I.”

“Are we ready?” Vishlog asked as he put the duffle bag on the seat and tucked the cats’ brush inside it.

Zeekat tried to nip the brush out of his hand and he pulled it out of the way of the cat’s persistent jaws. He zipped it inside the bag and stepped over to the door.

Stephanie looked around the cabin. “We’re ready,” she confirmed.

The Dreth activated the controls and stepped through the hatch, a cat’s lead in each hand. The felines stepped through after him and pulled at their leashes. When the students began to applaud, they roared.

The students and Meligornian teachers were standing closest to the flitter. They gasped, and the cats roared again.

“I swear they do it on purpose,” Stephanie grumbled, and Lars laughed.

“I think you might be right.”

They followed Vishlog and saw the students had backed away a few steps but that the Meligornian teachers stood firm. K’trevl’s eyes were wide and even Felarif looked uncertain, but Rayza was smiling. Stephanie thought she saw the Meligornian’s eyes glinting in the sun.

Her suspicion was confirmed when the woman dabbed lightly at them with a tissue.

The felines roared again, and the Meligornians stiffened, but not with fear.

“It’s like they’re standing to attention,” Frog observed, and Marcus nodded. “Maybe the cats remind them of home.”

“That’s a very long way away,” Frog told him, and he agreed.

“It makes you appreciate what they’re doing, doesn’t it?”

“Meligorn bleeds,” Stephanie murmured but her voice carried, and the mages snapped their heads toward her.

“Meligorn bleeds!” they shouted in response and bowed in distant greeting.

More gasps rippled through the students, this time of surprise, and Stephanie knew there would be questions later. Good questions, she hoped. Ones that would lead to a better understanding between the two worlds.

She was fairly certain that these teens held the same misconceptions about Meligorn that she had once had and was glad they’d been dispelled. The Meligornians had been seen as ‘peace-loving elves’ for long enough.

The Federation propaganda machine that had swung into action on their arrival had done them no favors, even if it had acted with the best of intentions. The Meligornians were as much warriors as the Dreth—and the Dreth had discovered that the hard way.

She was glad the two races were now at peace. They were better off fighting side by side than on their own. Neither of them would survive this war without the other.

Now that the cats no longer roared, the students began to edge forward again. This time, their eyes were wide with awe and not fear. Several looked at their teachers.

“Are they safe?”

“The Witch would not have brought them if they were not,” K’trevl reassured them and cast a quick glance toward Stephanie. She nodded and smiled.

“How did she catch them?” another asked, and he smiled as he gestured for the Witch to answer.

“I didn’t,” she told them and recalled the test in which she’d won their trust. “They chose to come with me.”

“It was during her test to become a Master,” Felarif added, and she barely managed to not glare at him.

Instead, she diverted the follow-up questions with, “That’s a long story, though, and one for another time.”

The first students had reached the cats and stretched tentatively toward them. Bumblebee stepped forward to be petted, arched his back into their touches, and walked along the front row as though he was royalty.

“It’s like he’s receiving tribute,” she murmured, and Lars chuckled.

“For heaven’s sake, don’t tell him he’s not.”

Zeekat was as bad.

Vishlog took it well and simply held the leashes and let the students pat them.

“Don’t you think this is a little dangerous?” The new voice made Stephanie turn to the chancellor, the dean, and the woman standing behind her.

For an instant, she was tempted to tell them it wasn’t as dangerous as them sneaking up on her, but she managed to be reassuring instead.

“They’re not like our Earth tigers,” she told them, “and I haven’t seen them bite anyone who wasn’t trying to hurt me. So unless you think one of your students falls into that category…”

Of course, they all immediately hastened to reassure her.

“Oh no, no, not at all. It’s simply that most of them don’t even own a dog so this—” The woman made an airy gesture with her hand.

“Is probably good for them, then,” Stephanie finished for her. She held her hand out. “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs…”

“Call me Sandra.” She took her hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you at last.”

“As are we,” the chancellor said, the dean at his side.

They greeted her one at a time, then the chancellor spoke. “I don’t suppose you’d mind talking to them, would you?”

Stephanie looked around at the gathered students and teachers. “Do you mean a speech?”

He nodded, and she pressed her lips together and tilted her head. “How about we let them meet the team?” she suggested. “We can make this more of a get-together.”

“Well, if you’re sure,” the chancellor began doubtfully, but Sandra clapped.

“That would be lovely. It’s such a beautiful day and it’s been a while since they were out of their pods. How would you like us to set them up?”

“Maybe have them break into their classes,” she suggested, “and the team and I will split up and visit each of them. That way, they could practice some of the things they’ve learned in the pods and enjoy the sunshine while they wait.”

The woman made to move away but the chancellor interrupted. “Why don’t you talk to them first? At least let them know what you’ve been up to.”

“Yes,” the dean agreed. “The sun is nice but it won’t be for long. We could start them in the auditorium and then get them to break into groups there or in the courtyard.”

Stephanie nodded. “Whatever works best for you.”

The dean clearly thought about returning a reply but decided against it in case she changed her mind. In the end, the three of them wound through the students and teachers to instruct them to move into the university before they returned to her.

The young people gathered around the cats were the last to move, and several cast apprehensive glances at the Witch as they went.

“What do you think she’s really like?” one girl whispered to her friend and cast a sly glance over her shoulder.

The other girl shrugged. “She seems nice enough. It’s hard to believe she’s done all the things we hear about.”

They walked past a small cluster of boys who eyed the young woman in the matt black uniform. “She is hot!” one murmured.

“She already has a boyfriend,” another one answered.

The first one looked disappointed, then shrugged. “She probably wouldn’t be interested in a geek like me anyway.”

“I don’t know. I heard she likes Superman.”

“Don’t be an idiot. She probably wouldn’t even know who Superman was.”

“If she even hears you talking like that, I’ll pretend I don’t know either of you.”

“Do you think she’ll teach us how to throw meteors?”

The students made their way to the atrium, some hardly daring to believe that the Witch would come and talk to them. Others wanted to meet her simply to make sure she was real—and really there.

“Why would she care about us, anyway?” one pondered. “It’s not like we’re anything special.”

Her friend arched an eyebrow. “Uh-huh. So says the girl who aced the entrance exam and then got through all the extra tests.”

“You got through them, too.”

“Not all of them.”

“Well, enough that I didn’t have to come here alone.”

“Silly! Look at all these kids—and they’re all exactly like you.”

“Yeah, but why would the Witch even care?”

Her friend rolled her eyes. “Who d’you think set this whole thing up?”

“But why?”

“I’ll let you ask her that one.”

Stephanie watched them walk inside and noted how most of them moved in pairs or clusters. She immediately noticed the three or four who did not. Chancellor Cote followed her gaze.

“Not everyone finds their place right away,” he told her, and she made a note to find out who they were.

As she followed the students inside, she heard one murmur, “Did you see the size of that Dreth?”

“Yeah,” his friend answered. “I bet he’s good at splitting heads.”

“I want to know what a Dreth is doing on her team,” the other one persisted, “Aren’t they the enemy?”

The dean overheard them too and cast her an anxious glance, but she walked on as though nothing was wrong. She’d deal with that when she spoke to them and she’d make sure Vishlog was with her—not that the big warrior was ever anywhere else.

He was her self-declared arms man and he took that duty very seriously.

When she reached the stage at the front of the auditorium, she looked out over her audience and hoped the cats would behave. It might not be enough that Vishlog had a hold on their leashes. She was fairly sure that if they wanted mischief, they’d find a way to do it.

Applause greeted her, and she waited for it to die down before she asked, “Would the mages please come up here?”

As they complied, she turned to the audience. “These guys have come a very long way to teach you. Please welcome them.”

More applause followed the Meligornians onto the stage. They stopped at the edge and the team made room for them and encouraged them to come farther. Once they settled into a faintly nervous group, she moved to one side and gestured toward the team and the mages with a sweep of her hand.

“Meligornians, Dreth, and humans,” she told the students. “We’re all so different but we are all very much the same.”

Murmurs rippled through her audience but she ignored them. “For instance, we have all fought one another. You know of Dreth raiders and the Federation’s fight against them, and some of you will have read the histories about our first meeting with the Meligornians.”

More murmurs followed, and she smiled. “If you haven’t, I strongly suggest you do. What you may not have heard of are the wars fought between Meligorn and Dreth.”

She turned to the teachers. “How many of you have family who still remember?”

K’trevl stepped forward. “My grandfather still speaks of it.”

Another teacher raised their hand. “I lost uncles in the last battle.”

A third replied. “My family line almost ended there.”

Stephanie turned to Vishlog. “And you?”

“My clan lost eighty percent of its strength in the war to take Meligorn.”

Shock rippled over the school officials and the students gasped. She inclined her head to the teachers and the Dreth before she turned back to the students.

“Yet, in spite of this, we are allies. We built a Federation and we support each other.”

She gave them a moment to think about that before she continued. “And that is a good thing because now, we face another enemy that has already struck at Meligorn in a battle that would have destroyed that world if her citizens had not stood to defend it.”

Above the auditorium, a holograph displayed an asteroid that hurtled toward Meligorn and was destroyed by a passenger liner, and Meligornian ships rammed battle cruisers many times greater in size. Awed silence fell as the scenes faded.

“Meligorn survived because her people fought for her. Only one Dreth and one human ship arrived in time to help. If it were not for the bravery of the Meligornian people, the Federation would now be down to two members.”

Again, she let the silence stretch. When she spoke once more, it was with a gesture to the teachers. “These people have left their world to come here and provide training for the next generation of Federation Witches.”

Applause greeted her words, and several students came to their feet to applaud. Cheers erupted around the hall, and she waited quietly for them to die down. When the students finally settled, she stepped around the podium.

“Now, I’m sure you’re as sick of speeches as I am, so why don’t you ask us some questions?” She gestured at the team. “Get to know us as people and not merely sound bites or pictures on a screen.” She paused, then added, “Except Frog.”

His jaw dropped and he laid his hand over the center of his chest.

Stephanie ignored him and continued. “I suggest no one ask Frog anything. He’ll only get you into trouble.”

“Hey!” the guard protested. “Who taught you how to dance?”

She rolled her eyes and made a helpless gesture with one hand. “Well, who was shot in the ass?”

Laughter erupted and grew louder when she added, “Twice!”

“Oh, you had to bring that up. Who constantly needs to be rescued from herself?”

“I thought we said we weren’t going to go there?” She wagged a finger at him.

“Well,” he snapped in return. “If thuh bootuh fits…”

Several snickers greeted that, and one loud hoot of laughter. “I can’t believe he knows that.”

She gestured toward the students. “There. Now look what you started.”

The kids laughed and a couple of the girls in the front row studied him with renewed interest.

“I wonder who he is?” one murmured. “He’s kinda cute.”

Her voice carried and drew catcalls and teasing from the students around her. She blushed but not as much as Frog did.

Stephanie decided the poor guy was about ready for the stage to swallow him and decided to have mercy on them both. She smiled. “You can meet the members of the team as well. We’ll break into groups so you can talk to us.”

“Will we get to ask about One R&D?” one of the students asked, and she wished she’d insisted on Ms E’s presence.

“You can ask,” she told them, “but I’m not sure how much we’ll be able to help you. I’ll organize for one of the company reps to come and speak to you if you’re interested.”

Murmurs of interest and approval resulted, and she assumed Ms E wouldn’t thank her. It didn’t matter, though. If the students wanted to talk to One R&D, she would find a way for them to do so.

She wondered if BURT would be up to doing a virtual meeting with Ms E and maybe one of the personnel from the company’s other branches—one of the medics, maybe.

Rather than say any more on that subject, she turned to the auditorium. “For now, I’ll let the chancellor tell you where to go.”

Hastily smothered laughter answered her, and she continued. “Stay in your groups and talk to your teachers. The team and I will visit each group so we can talk.”

She stepped back and ushered the dean to the podium, and shortly after, the hall mostly emptied. It took them the rest of the day to visit each group but at the end of it, she was happy with the rapport they’d achieved.

Even the students who weren’t officially part of the program had been happy to talk to them, and she’d been able to learn of their concerns and dreams as well. It made her realize that there was more potential than merely untapped magicians out there.

As the day drew to a close and the students were dismissed to their dormitories and pods, she called the teachers together. “Thank you for coming here,” she told them and Felarif snorted.

“If someone had told me what a human teenager was really like, I might have rethought it,” he teased, and Rayza snickered.

“What? Too much like looking in a mirror, Fel?”

The other teachers laughed, and he rolled his eyes. “It’s easy for you to say.”

“Now there’s an understatement.”

K’trevl intervened. “I’d quit while I was ahead, Fel. There’s no dealing with her when she’s like this.”

Felarif subsided and they all turned back to Stephanie.

They’d gathered in the cafeteria where she had organized food for the evening meal. She’d also catered for the rest of the university’s staff but asked for privacy while she talked to the Meligornians.

The chancellor had given them a vacant conference room and excused himself to take his dean and recruiting officer to spend time with their other staff. As soon as the meal had been served and they were alone, Stephanie turned to the teachers.

“You’ve had enough time to get to know them,” she began, and they chuckled. “So, while I’m sure that’s been an experience in and of itself, what we need to do now is identify what they need to know and lock down what and how we need to teach them.”

More laughter greeted her, this time laced with irony. She gave them all a tight, warlike smile. “I know it’s a lot to ask and I know they need to know everything, but we’ll have to prioritize.”

The mood changed and she looked around the table to meet the gaze of each and every one of them. “These kids don’t have decades to prepare. They have weeks or months maybe—an entire year if they’re really fortunate.”

She looked around the table again and all traces of amusement were gone.

“I don’t think we’ll be that lucky.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

“How far are they?” demanded the admiral of the fleet.

“Eight months, sir,” the chief of naval operations replied. “I’ve had the confirmation cross my desk.”

“And what can we do about it?”

“That many asteroids, sir? Not much.”

“Well, I want you to find a way to do something! They need to be dealt with, and quickly—preferably before they are picked up by the press.” He paused and rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. “Do we know what else they’re up to?”

The chief of naval operations didn’t need to ask who and merely shook his head. “No, sir. They came, they wrought destruction, and they left.”

“We don’t know where to?”

“No, sir.”

“I can’t help but wonder,” the fleet admiral mused, “where the ambush is.”

“What do you mean, sir?”

“Think about it. While we’re focused on the asteroid swarm, where aren’t we looking and what aren’t we seeing?”

The other man paled. “I’ll look into it, sir.”

“Get me the commanders.”

“Yessir.”

“Now.”

“Right away, sir.”

They were assembled very shortly after, and the fleet admiral wasted no time in coming to the point. “What will we do?”

“Against the swarm?” one asked, and the fleet nodded.

“We could try to destroy it before it gets here…but I don’t think that’ll work.”

“We have to try.”

The commanders all looked at each other and then at the one who’d made the suggestion. He threw his hands up.

“Fine. Why don’t we try targeting a small section of the swarm? We can spare a squadron for that and move forward based on the results.”

“But you don’t think it’ll work?”

“No, sir, I do not.”

“Do you know why you think it’ll fail?”

“I’m merely not sure that shooting them will remove the threat entirely, sir. And I have a bad feeling it could make it worse.”

The fleet admiral regarded him with a long, dark look. “But you’re willing to test it?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll take a squadron out and we’ll see what happens when we destroy ten.”

“Very good, Admiral…Dailey, is it?

“Yes, sir.”

“Make it so.”


Chapter Sixteen

With Stephanie out for the day, Tethis decided to go for a walk.

“It’s Earth,” he muttered as he let himself out One R&D’s front door. “How bad can it be?”

At first, he wasn’t impressed by the concrete sidewalks and looming buildings, but he soon discovered a small urban park tucked away in a box canyon of high-rise walls. He took the path into it but left it after a few steps and chose to walk across the soft Earth grass instead.

“It’s so different,” he murmured and admired the dull emerald-green of its blades, “and so very determined to live.”

The same could be said of flowering bushes and small shrubs and of the trees that grew in small clusters around him. Each huddle hosted a picnic table, a small barbecue area, and a water bubbler, but only one of them was beside a children’s playground.

The old Teacher was drawn to one of the benches at its edge and he stopped to rest his feet. He didn’t mind the noisy chatter of the children playing on the climbing frame and swings nearby. It never ceased to amaze him what the young came up with.

They explored everything and looked for answers to whatever particular question caught their attention…and they never came up with the same answer. It led to some interesting disputes and compromises.

Tethis watched the youngsters play and stared more into the distance than at their game while he remembered what it had been like when he was younger. He’d looked for answers everywhere and only turned to magic if he couldn’t find anything else.

It was one of the things that had drawn him to becoming a Master in the first place—this non-reliance on magic to solve everything. He’d believed, then—and still believed it now—that relying solely on magic was a mistake, no matter how blessed your world was with the energy.

“After all, look at Dreth,” he mused but a child’s cry split the air and distracted him.

It jolted him from his thoughts and he looked for the source. It wasn’t hard to find.

“Kitty!” the little girl wailed and stared into the branches of one of the taller trees. “My kitty.”

What kitty? he wondered and peered at the tree. Oh, that kitty.

The little creature balanced precariously three branches up, looked down at its mistress, and mewled pitifully. Every now and then, it would take a few steps in first one direction and then the other as though that could change its predicament.

When it didn’t, it crouched, clung to the bark for dear life, and meowed pitifully.

“That is so typical of cats,” he mused, “no matter where they’re from.”

He sat there a moment longer and watched the child scrabble onto the lowest branch while the kitten alternated between cries of encouragement and despair. Finally, he shook his head.

“What am I thinking?” he wondered. “There’s no one else to help and all I’m doing is sitting here and waiting for an answer to appear.”

He stood quickly, disgusted with himself. “And that’s my problem. I need to be an answer, not an academic.”

As he approached the tree, the child’s parents arrived.

“My kitty,” the little girl wailed and pointed at the animal.

The parents looked up at the diminutive cat and each tried to call it down. It ran up and down the branch and at one point, almost gathered the courage to leap into their arms but changed its mind.

Tethis smiled at its antics and walked over to stand beside them. “Is there any way I can help?”

The parents turned and were about to say no when they realized who—or rather what—he was. He tried to hide his mortification as they attempted a Meligornian bow of what he thought was meant to be a bow of greeting.

Stephanie never looked so insulting, he thought but returned their effort with a bow of his own. At least the movement hid his face. If this is what normal humans are like, she must be exceptional, indeed.

The parents looked stunned, and the little girl was beside herself.

“He bowed hello!” she squeaked, and Tethis smiled at her.

He looked at the father and asked, “Would you like to get the cat or have the cat brought down to you?”

“I beg your pardon?” the man asked, obviously confused.

The Teacher resisted the urge to throw his hands up and walk away. He took a deep breath, pointed to the cat, and tried again. “Would you like to get the cat or have the cat brought down to you?”

“Oh!” The father’s face cleared. “I’d love to get the cat.”

“Very well,” he said and drew on the eMU he could feel around him. When he had gathered enough, he wound it around the man and lifted him from the ground.

At his shout of fright, the little girl froze and her mouth formed a perfect and utterly silent ‘O.’ Tethis guided the man close to the branch and thanked Selene that he hadn’t scared the kitten farther up the tree.

The creature was unfazed by a flying human and the old Teacher almost rolled his eyes at the small beast.

Typical cat. The entire world is arranged for its convenience, he thought and held the father steady as he gathered the kitten into his arms.

As soon as the man held the animal securely, he lowered him to the ground.

“Kitty!” the little girl cried as her father handed it to her.

“Don’t let him go,” the man admonished, and the child beamed at him.

“Dadda, you flewed! You flewed!”

He smiled and patted her hair. “Yes, sweetie, I did.” He turned to Tethis. “Thank you,” he said with a gentle smile. “You have created a memory I will cherish forever.”

The old mage smiled in response.

“Magic,” he explained and surprised himself, “can provide a little whimsy in life as well. It isn’t all about harnessing the power of the universe.”

The man nodded. “Well, thank you, anyway,” he told him. “The kitten is new and we took a long time to get him. I don’t know what we’d do if we lost him now.”

Tethis didn’t know what to say to that. He simply nodded, waved, and turned away as they did and headed slowly back to the shelter of One R&D. It was the longest conversation he’d had with another sentient for quite some time outside of teaching.

“Hmmph. Stephanie must be rubbing off on me,” he grumbled. “I’m starting to rethink things.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

In the outer reaches of the solar system, Admiral Dailey surveyed the storm of rocks on a devastating trajectory to Earth. “Well,” he said and his throat went dry. “That’s a hell of a ‘Hello, welcome to the neighborhood’ gift for you.”

“I can’t say I feel too welcome, sir,” Captain Riviera replied. “That is one fuck-ton of rocks heading homeward.”

“The question is,” he commented, “what can we do about it?”

“Well, like you said, sir, we can shoot them, but I don’t think we’d like what would happen next.”

“How so, Captain?”

“I’ve had my boys run simulations. The first few all show the same thing.”

The admiral raised his head and looked at the team he had running the same calculations. The lead technician pressed a key and pointed at him, and the admiral looked at his console.

The simulations appeared and he tapped them open. “Well, f—er cryin’ out loud—”

“Exactly, sir,” Captain Riviera agreed.

Dailey looked at the other captains on the comms screen. “Does anyone get anything different?”

They all shook their heads.

“Anyone?”

“We’re sorry, sir.”

He sighed. “Don’t be. It’s better to get the math right now than start shooting and end up with a mess we’ll really regret.”

He switched the vision to the ten rocks they’d selected. “So… Correct me if I’m wrong, but if we pound any of these suckers with the biggest guns we have, all we’ll succeed in doing is breaking them into smaller chunks, most of which will still continue to Earth.”

The round of affirmatives he received was reluctant but confirmed his understanding.

The admiral grimaced. “Great. We have a bullet aimed at the Earth and if we touch it, the bullet becomes a shotgun shell.”

“That about sums it up, Admiral.”

“Stand your weapons crews down. Let’s not create the incident we’re trying to avoid. Paneloni, Evans, if you would deploy more sniffers and early warning satellites.”

“Aye aye, sir,” came as a chorus, and he stood. “Orwin, you have the con.”

“Aye, sir.”

Dailey left his console. “Take us home. I’ll send the report.”


Chapter Seventeen

“PFC Brogan.”

Todd stood as soon as his name was called and followed the lieutenant into the office. As he walked, he tried to think what he might be in trouble for but nothing came to mind. He’d kept out of trouble as far as he could tell.

The six men waiting for him didn’t make him feel any better. The Marine lieutenant colonel, major, and command sergeant major all stood to one side of the base commander’s desk and the lieutenant commander in charge of Landing Forces and his gunnery sergeant stood opposite them.

They all looked toward him as he entered.

He swallowed hard and tried to keep all expressions from his face.

“PFC Brogan, sir,” the lieutenant announced and left the office, pulling the door closed behind him.

His first instinct was to say he was reporting as ordered but he decided the lieutenant’s introduction negated the need. Instead, he waited.

The silence stretched for a long moment but he kept his gaze focused forward.

He tensed as the base commander lifted a box from his desk and came toward him.

“You’re looking incredibly nervous for a man who's done nothing to be ashamed of,” the man observed, and Todd looked at him.

“That’s a good thing to know, sir.”

“What? That you look incredibly nervous?” the commander asked, a slight smile creasing his lips.

“No, sir, that I’ve done nothing to be ashamed of.”

“What, you thought you were in trouble?” The officer looked surprised.

“I couldn’t think of any alternatives, sir.”

“Guilty conscience, Marine?”

He shook his head firmly. “No, sir.”

The commander opened the box. “Gunny, if you would do the honors.”

Todd barely heard him. He’d caught sight of the three medals resting inside the box and took a step back. “I don’t understand, sir.”

His superior frowned. “What’s to understand, soldier? You risked your life to protect the civilians and your teammates, did a good job, and even managed to come back alive, earning yourself a few medals in the process.”

He backed away another step and the gunnery sergeant’s arm darted out and his hand caught him by the shoulder. “That’s enough, son.”

“But I can’t accept these. Stephanie—”

“When you made that call, you didn’t even know she was in the system, let alone on Earth,” the base commander interrupted. “You earned these fair and square.”

“It’s nothing more than I’ve done before,” Todd told him. “Why now…sir?”

“We realized that perhaps, because of your relationship, we’d been more critical of you and treated you less than fairly.”

Todd smiled. “Sir, if that’s the cost of being her boyfriend, I don’t have a problem with it.”

The gunnery sergeant took the box. “You do the honors, sir.”

The commander lifted the first medal out of the box. “Hold still, Priv—

The lieutenant colonel cleared his throat, and his superior officer looked at him. “Yes, Fumon?”

The Marine officer drew a small box out of his pocket. “I believe we agreed these were in order, sir.”

“Ah, yes, Fumon. How could I forget?”

The look on his commanding officer’s face said he’d thought of several replies and none of them were suitable for the occasion. The base commander’s lips twitched for a split second before his expression straightened.

He opened the box. “Lance Corporal Todd Brogan,” he began, and Todd’s heart sank.

Witch Of The Federation IV

On the Naval orbital far above, captains of the Federation and Dreth Navies were converging. Their ships were docked and their crews locked down prior to the issue of shore leave or new orders, depending on the outcome of this meeting.

The Dreth dwarfed their human counterparts, and their voices boomed down the corridors ahead of them. Their four ship captains and a half-dozen squadron commanders came from two different docking arms and stopped when they saw each other.

One of them broke the silence. “Berens! It has been too long since we flew together.”

“Hrageth’s balls! Mikreth!”

“Mikreth!” another of the captains called and they turned.

“Tennyson!”

The corridor junction echoed with greetings as the captains said hello to men they’d flown with but hadn’t seen for months or years.

“I lost the flight of your career.”

“They sent me to the Outer Reaches. Our colonists…”

The two captains turned down the corridor.

“I understand. The pirates attacked without discrimination. Not even Dreth ships were safe…”

The other captains followed.

One turned to his compatriot. “This meeting—do you know what it’s about?”

“No. Only that I was to get my hairy ass to it or face the mast.”

“They don’t change, do they?”

“And they never will.”

Their voices faded as they reached the entrance to the conference hall.

“Is this a joke?” one of the Dreth captains asked, but the Marine who stood before him didn’t blink.

“No, sir. We Marines are not known for our sense of humor. If you would please hold the rod.”

The captain gave the man a searching stare, but the Marine continued to proffer the metal rod and his expression didn’t change at all.

Witch Of The Federation IV

On the other side of the auditorium, at a different door, Lars matched glares with the Marine on duty. “No.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we cannot let you enter unless you surrender your weapons,” the man insisted. “Those are my orders.”

His gaze flicked from the guard’s determined face to where the Federation Witch stood and tapped her foot, a cat seated on either side of her and the big Dreth at her back. Two smaller men stood a little back from them and their heads moved constantly as they monitored the corridors around them.

The team leader sighed, and the Marine returned his attention to him. A sigh like that usually meant capitulation. The answer was not what he expected.

“We were asked to come,” Lars told him, “but we can always simply leave.”

“You don’t have to leave, sir, only leave your weapons here,” the man persisted.

“You don’t understand.” He shook his head. “Stephanie is always protected and if you think that means I’ll make my fingers into a pistol and say ‘bang bang’ or ‘pew pew’ really loudly, you are very mistaken.”

“And if you think you’ll go in there carrying what you’re carrying,” the Marine began as an attaché appeared at the door, a worried expression on his face.

Lars looked up and his face broke into a smile. “Hello, Tim.”

Tim looked over and started to smile but quickly grasped the situation. “Let me guess, he says you can’t come in armed, and you say you won’t come in unarmed.”

He grinned. “Yup.”

“Give me a moment.” The attaché turned and returned to the auditorium.

He stalked onto the stage and clapped briskly. The whole place was half empty, but he needed the attention of the fifty or so shades of brass gathered to wait for Stephanie to arrive.

“Gentlemen,” he began, “and ladies.”

They stilled and paused their private conversations.

“She’s waiting at the door, but her escort will not give up their weapons. They insist that she will be protected at all times.”

Several mutters of protest bubbled in reply and he held his hand up.

“Look, I hear what you’re saying, but really? Ladies and gentlemen, she comes with two very large, fully-clawed and fanged Meligornian cats and her own magic.”

He let that sink in for a moment before he added, “I’m not really sure what help a few guns would be if she wanted to kill you, but I’m told if you aren’t comfortable with the fact that her security won’t allow her in without them being able to protect her, there’s the door.” He waved a hand toward it. “Anyone? No? Okay, then. Let’s get this show on the road.”

His expression a little smug, he walked to the entrance and looked at the Marine. “They’ve agreed to waive the regulation.”

The man stiffened to attention, and Tim gave Lars a smile. “C’mon in.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

The Ebon Knight became aware of the sound of new voices on board—familiar voices that tested her hull for signs of stress.

“Well, the extra struts worked,” one man noted and sounded pleased with himself, “but they said heat exchange was a problem.”

“It was,” the Knight confirmed and startled them into momentary silence. “If one of the crew had not thought to hose them down, we would not have been able to keep the rate of fire.”

“Knight?”

“I am here.”

His face broke into a grin that was reflected by his co-workers.

“Look, girl, we’re supposed to see what structural support you might need installed before the next battle, but we can look into the heat exchange thing as well. You’ve gotta be able to shoot back.”

“Well, that’s an understatement,” the Knight observed dryly, and they chuckled.

“Seriously, though, girl. We don’t think we can improve on the struts. Of course, we were gonna try….” He flicked through his tablet, then paused. “You can patch into my gear, right?”

“With your permission,” the Knight told him, glad she didn’t have to reveal that she was already in his tablet and had almost finished hacking his team’s comms.

“Oh, permission granted,” he said and altered the settings so she had access. It was only a small matter for her to make it full access. The man had some interesting ideas.

“Why are you not on my crew?” she demanded.

“My wife needs me close,” he told her and sounded uncomfortable. He made a gesture with his hand. “Some things have to come first.”

“I’d be jealous if I were human,” she informed him and noted the change in body temperature when his skin flushed.

“It’s not forever,” he told her and cleared his throat. “Now, what do you think of these?”

Ebony made a pretense of looking over the drawings again.

“Your equations are a little inaccurate,” she told him, and his men made a low ‘ooh’ of mockery. He shook his head and smiled ruefully.

“Show me,” he said, as the others pulled their tablets out and followed the discussion.

“Here,” the Knight told them and put the relevant schematic on a nearby screen. They crowded around it.

Once the equations were corrected, the technician’s face lit up. “Oh…I see, now. Tank, what d’you think of thinning that section down there and adding in an extra piece…here!”

“Well…”

The discussion was rapid-fire and covered everything from the math to the materials. Ebony remembered something else.

“These specifications do not take into account the stresses placed on the structure in a corkscrew.”

“A what?”

“You know the maneuver—a rotational movement of the ship along the horizontal axis which may or may not be coupled with a climb, dive, or turn.”

“He what?”

“To be fair, it was the most efficient maneuver to deter the approach of smaller vessels to within firing range.”

“I’ll knock his lights out.”

“Pilot Wattlebird does not have lights.”

“It’s a saying.”

“For what?”

“For decking someone,” one of the other repairmen supplied.

“I would appreciate it if you did not attach decking to my pilot. I am not sure he is structurally capable of supporting it.”

“I…uh…”

“It’s okay, Ebony. I won’t do anything structurally unsound to your pilot,” the technician promised.

“Oh, I don’t know, boss. I’ve seen you—”

“Yes,” the technician said and cut his crewman off in mid-sentence, “but that’s not relevant right now.”

Observing the man through her sensors, Ebony was sure his look was meant to be a threat. Sound analysis indicated he was gritting his teeth.

I’ve missed something, she thought but didn’t pursue it. They had more important things to design. “There was also this maneuver…”

She showed them the relevant footage.

“Well, hell yes, there’s that maneuver.”

“If the Knight didn’t need him to fly her, I’d help him find an airless exit.”

The AI decided to leave that one alone. For one thing, she didn’t think he meant it. For another, she had research to do if she wanted to completely understand the strangeness of sentients.

“Okay, so…if we—”

Their voices broke over her in a tumult as they bounced their ideas to strengthen her hull, cool her guns, and give Jonathan more access to the thrusters to fine-tune her movements in combat.

“You know he’ll simply find new ways to stress the hull, don’t you?” the lead technician observed gloomily.

One of the crewmen slapped him on the shoulder. “Yeah, but admit it. You haven’t had this much fun in years.”


Chapter Eighteen

Stephanie descended from the stage as T’virilf, Lorel, and Beseila entered the auditorium. She met them as they arrived at the front row of seats and greeted each with a deep Meligornian bow reserved for those one respected and were happy to see.

Kaitel gorniffula, Sen.” She led them onto the stage where single seats were set to one side for delegates. “I am glad you could make time to see me.”

T’virilf gave her a lopsided smile that said he found her greeting odd. “The honor is all mine, Stephanie.” His smile turned into a grin. “You have given me the chance to become an engineer, again…and this project…” He sighed. “It is a true challenge—and progressing surprisingly well.”

He stood and moved to the podium where he could access the controls.

“Are you sure this area is secure?” he asked, and she looked at two of her teammates.

Lars had led the team in sweeping the auditorium for unauthorized monitoring devices and Frog had accessed the Navy’s security system and turned off all the authorized ones. Both men gave her a thumbs-up.

The Meligornian tapped the tablet he’d connected, and the screens at the back of the podium sprang to life. Her eyes widened when she saw it. “Is that… Is that a centrifuge?”

T’virilf grinned. “Kind of. When you told the King’s Warrior about the magical energy available in space, it caused quite a stir at home. I began to think about it and how it needed to be condensed and ultimately had the idea that we could kind of spin it down.”

“That is what I told V’ritan I did but for me, it’s an internal process.” She studied the diagram on the screen. “So, how does it work?”

He ran his hand through his hair. “Our assumption is that it will draw gMU from the space around a ship, condense it to a usable form of MU or eMU or whatever, and send it to the weapons systems—”

“Weapons systems?”

“The Telorans are affected by positive MU—as we discovered in the battle for Meligorn—so we thought being able to fire it into their ships rather than sacrificing an entire ship to do the same thing would be an effective way to combat them.”

Lorel walked over to the podium. “May I?”

T’virilf nodded, and his colleague changed the picture. “This,” T’virilf’s lead engineer began, “is very much like your centrifuge. It draws the gMU in and spins it down to the more concentrated form we find on a planet. So far, we’re not sure exactly what form that will take, but we do know it will be positive energy.”

Stephanie nodded. She understood that much.

“We’ll manufacture two types of weapons—one that can emit a beam or concentrated bolt of energy to be used against specific targets, and the other for the nMU the Telorans release to foul our engines.”

“That second one will be something like a wide pulse of energy or a scattershot of small pulses,” Beseila interrupted. “We haven’t decided yet.”

“But we have prototypes for both,” T’virilf added. “It will be a matter of which one works better. This does mean that any ship with these generators will become a prime target for nMU weapons.”

“We’ve seen no evidence of that, yet,” Stephanie told them. “Was there something I missed in the reports?”

T’virilf shook his head. “No. What we hope is that they have to carry their energy with them in the same way Meligornians do, but we’re not banking on it.”

“The best-case scenario,” Beseila added, “is that they have no idea what we’re doing and simply blow our MU shooters out of the sky.”

Her eyebrows rose. “And the worst-case scenario?”

“They work out that we have a new technology, take one of the ships intact, and adapt it to fire nMU.”

Coldness seeped through her chest. “Oh. Yes. That would be bad.”

“Our main problem,” Lorel told her, “is the shielding.”

Stephanie gave him a look that invited him to continue.

He obliged. “We need to get it right or any nMU strike that gets through to the generator will pop the ship like it’s a balloon.”

“Is there any way excess positive energy can be vented before it explodes if that happens?”

He pursed his lips and shook his head. “Not so far—”

“But we did come up with a couple of safety measures,” Beseila interjected.

Lorel nodded. “Yes, we can protect the capacitors in the weapons systems with extra shielding and put the guns tied to the generator onto ejectable mounts.”

When he caught the confused expression on her face, he explained further. “If you go into an nMU cloud, you might need to eject weapons that are primed. We haven’t come up with an alternative yet.”

“What about clearing the way ahead by shooting pulses of positive energy?”

“We’re thinking that,” T’virilf answered and would have stopped there, but Beseila gave him a sly smile.

“What about that other idea you had, Sen?”

T’virilf blushed. “I don’t even know if we can—”

“What?” she asked.

“Bind the magic to a shield somehow,” he replied. “We’d put it on the outside and any reaction would be reflected away from the ship.”

“Can you do that?”

He gave her a regretful smile. “Not yet,” he confessed.

“So far, every single test results in the loss of the shields and a good portion of the hull.” Lorel looked disgusted.

T’virilf gave him a sunny smile. “That’s what makes this project so interesting.”

His colleague rolled his eyes. “It would be interesting,” he said, “if we weren’t working to such a tight timeline.”

“Ignore the timeline,” T’virilf told him. “We do the best job we can and we don’t watch the time. You can’t rush the development no matter what’s coming. You can only do the best you can.”

“That’s not what the Navy is saying,” Lorel grumbled.

“No, but when I ask them if they want to lose any ships, they always say no,” T’virilf answered. “That is the parameter we’re working to.”

“V’ritan says the same thing,” Beseila reminded his colleague, and Lorel sighed.

“I know but it’s hard. We lost so many people…”

His face became as haunted as any she’d ever seen it, and Stephanie wanted to reassure him. She didn’t, though. This was one nightmare he had to come to terms with himself.

“Either way,” she told them, “we need to keep this project under wraps. The Telorans must not know we’re capable of building these weapons.”

T’virilf nodded, his eyes dark and serious as they shifted to Lorel and back to her.

“Yes,” he agreed. “In the battle for Meligorn, whole ships died to destroy the Telorans. Here, we have a chance to stop them safely—although, unfortunately, not from a safe distance.”

He shook his head when Beseila opened his mouth to protest.

“Not always,” he told his engineer. “For now, we still have to get reasonably close.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

As they finished their meeting, there was a knock at the auditorium doors. Frog crossed to it while the three Meligornians turned the screen off and unplugged their devices. When they signaled that they were ready, he opened the door.

The base commander stood in the corridor, his face sheet-white. He was talking as he stepped into the auditorium. “They couldn’t stop them.”

“Stop what?” Stephanie asked, startled by the abrupt beginning.

“The rocks,” he managed as Frog closed the door behind him. “They sent a squadron out, but it reported that they can’t stop the Teloran bombardment.”

“What Teloran bombardment?” she demanded and took hold of her temper in an attempt to keep the Morgana at bay.

The commander paled further.

“The one— They didn’t tell you?”

“No.”

“Fuck. Iʼm sorry. That’s—”

She smiled as sweetly as she could. “Yes, it is.” She dropped the smile and let some of her anger show. “Tell me about it.”

“I don’t know what’s gotten into them—”

“I don’t give a flying fuck about them. I want to know about the rocks,” she snapped, and he jerked back.

Lars put an arm around his shoulders and guided him to the front of the auditorium, and Frog came around to where she could see him. “Why don’t we sit?” he suggested and flinched when she glared at him.

“I am not being unreasonable.”

“No, but I think the nice man deserves to keep his head, don’t you?” He gulped and added hastily. “And I do to. I really, really do.”

“Hey, Steph,” Lars called. “Will you join us?”

Her scowl deepened. He didn’t have to make it sound like she was holding up the works. She wasn’t the one who’d held back important information from the Federation Witch. And neither did he, she reminded herself with a sigh and looked at the commander.

“I’m sorry,” she said as she joined them. “The news came as something of a shock.”

“I can imagine,” he told her dryly. “I’ll remember to thank them when I get back to them.”

That made her smile. “Well, it’s done now. Tell me.”

“About a week ago—

“A week?”

Lars touched her arm. “Steph, this will take much longer if you keep interrupting him.”

“Sorry. Go on.”

The commander swallowed and started again. “A week ago,” he began but watched her cautiously, “we received a message from one of the early warning systems that a fleet of Telorans had jumped into the edge of the system. It was followed very quickly by images of them launching asteroids at Earth.”

“Like they did at Meligorn?” she asked, forgetting not to interrupt.

He nodded. “Yes. Exactly like that, but about two hundred more.”

“Two hundred?” Her voice was soft with shock. “And?”

“The Navy sent out a small squadron to see if they could shoot them down or something, but the captains deduced that the attempt would only break them into smaller chunks that would simply continue to Earth.”

“So they didn’t?”

“Oh, no, ma’am, they didn’t. High Command was quite upset with them, but they held firm and sent the scenarios. Those in control saw sense fairly quickly once they looked at them.”

Stephanie had the impression he wanted to add ‘for a change’ and didn’t.

“And now they’ve come to me,” she finished, her voice heavy with annoyance.

He let out a huff of air. “Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s not your fault.” She watched some of the tension leave him and added, “So, what exactly does the Navy want me to do about it?”

The tension returned, and he paled. “Uh…” He cleared his throat. The next words came in a rush and ended in a squeak of nervousness. “The Navy wondered if you could possibly…uh, teleport them away.”

Despite her irritation, she laughed. “Two hundred? I’ll look into it.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

“You want us to what?” The supervisor’s voice echoed out of his office and over the work floor.

He wasn’t worried. Most of the engineers didn’t hear it since they were locked in their booths and the sound dampeners would keep their workspaces silent. He ignored the two who hurried back with coffee.

The voice on the other end of the line was completely unruffled. “Not me. The Federation Navy wants you to get your programmers to push the system to give us what we need. Push it all.”

“Do you know how much that’ll disrupt things?” He was still shouting and honestly didn’t care. He stared at the back wall of his office, oblivious to the two men who’d stopped to stare.

Gene nudged the other man. “Come on. Before he turns and sees us.”

His colleague curled his lip. “What’s he gonna do?”

“Well, he could fire our asses, and I need this job.” He began to walk away.

Aaron paused to take a sip from his coffee. He was moving when the supervisor turned again, his eyes wide as he listened to the Navy’s reply.

“Yes, to levels considered a little more than dangerous. In case you didn’t know, aliens are determined to destroy our planet. Now, work a little overtime and type your fingers off. We have jobs to do.”


Chapter Nineteen

Elizabeth ran a hand through her hair, stared at the computer screen, and tapped her manicured nails on the desk. “Damn, that’s expensive,” she muttered.

Amy joined her, looked over her shoulder, and gave a low whistle. “Damn, boss. I didn’t know you were even into computers, let alone that much.”

She glared at her. “It’s for a project.”

“Uh-huh.” The woman gave her a knowing look. “That’s what they all say.”

“Don’t you have a gun to polish or something?” she snarked pointedly.

Her bodyguard waggled her eyebrows. “You have no idea.”

“Get out,” she snapped, but she was smiling when she pointed at the door.

Amy made a point of looking around her office. “No secret doors, yet?”

Ms E rolled her eyes. “I snuck out on you one time.”

Amy snorted. “It was more than once. Just so you know, I’ll post Elle outside your door.”

“You don’t have to,” she told her. “I’m gonna be in here a while.”

“Yup.” The other woman sounded like she didn’t believe a word of it. “And we’ll be waiting when you come out. Do you want us to get lunch for you when we get ours?”

“Sure, and thank you.” She frowned. “Now, get out.”

The guard chuckled as she left and closed the door gently behind her.

Elizabeth turned to the computer.

“All right, BURT,” she muttered and retrieved her list. “What was it we discussed?”

“I gave you a list.”

She sighed. “I was talking to myself. Your presence was not required.”

“I was only trying to help.”

“Go and do something that doesn’t use too much bandwidth. I’ll order what we need.”

“Very well, Elizabeth, but don’t forget to call me if you need any assistance.”

“Thank you, BURT.”

The computer went quiet, but she sat and stared at it for a few long moments before she returned to her search. An hour later, she pushed her chair back.

“Well, this will be more complex than I’d hoped.”

For a moment, she thought about asking Frog for his skills with hacking but decided not to. For a start, he was on Star Base Notaro and nowhere near where she needed him. Not only that, there was the likelihood that he might get caught while working over the long-distance connection.

The thing that sealed it, though, was Stephanie. She needed him and didn’t need the distraction. Elizabeth sighed.

“Well, it looks like I’m on my own.” She glanced toward the door when she remembered Amy and Elle. “But not as much on my own as I’d like.”

She sighed again. What she had to do next was talk to a few people from her past—the kind who were all the more expensive to hire because they’d accept favors instead of cash.

“And, as tempting as that is…” she murmured and opened the second drawer down in her desk to tap on the back.

With a soft click, a panel slid aside. Inside were three mobile communicators and several cred sticks of varying amounts. She selected two of the devices and four of the sticks. These, she slipped into her shirt pocket.

“I’m going out,” she told the empty room and BURT gave an exaggerated sigh.

“You know I can see you, right?”

He sounded so much like Stephanie that Elizabeth laughed. “Yes, I do. And a girl’s got to have some secrets.”

“Make sure you take Amy and Elle with you,” he told her, “or I’ll tell Stephanie.”

Her eyes widened. “You wouldn’t.”

“Watch me.” He sounded smug. “And close your drawer.”

Elizabeth’s face flushed as she complied quickly. “You and I will have to talk about your peeping ways.”

“I look forward to it,” BURT replied and sounded far too happy with himself.

“Elle, Amy, we’re going for a…a drive,” Elizabeth decided and headed out the door.

She took the car and switched vehicles at a rental agency, leaving the company car stored in their garage for a security fee. The new vehicle was driven by one Nettle Armstrong, whose license was perfectly in order.

Amy raised her eyebrows. ‘Are you sure you’re okay, E?”

“I’m sure, but this is one thing I don’t want BURT to eavesdrop on—and you two need to keep it under your hats.”

They nodded solemnly and waited as she pulled her own kit out and went over the rental to ensure it wasn’t fitted with monitoring devices. Once she was sure it was free of both bugs and tracers, she took the driver’s seat.

“Are you coming?”

The girls followed her into the vehicle, and she took off, entered the skyway quietly, and blended with the traffic. She found a layby against one of the high-rises and made a call.

“Hey, Tex, it’s Emerald. Can you spare a moment for an old friend?”

This particular contact lived in the shadows of the world and made his path between the lawful ways of society and the grungy evil of those who fed on it. He’d taught her much of what she knew, and she’d taught him a few things in return.

The first had been to not underestimate her, and the second had been to not get in her way.

He also proved fairly predictable and was located in the same building, or at least had a space there he used on occasion. The three women left the car and walked the short distance in silence to where the man waited in a dingy upstairs office.

“I still don’t know why you let me live,” he told her under the watchful eyes of her bodyguards.

“Because I knew you understood,” Elizabeth told him, “and I was fairly sure you’d make a great ally.”

He smiled and looked fondly at her. “We made quite a team, hey E?”

“We did, which is why I’ve come to you with this.” She passed him the communicator. It held three things—his number, a new number for her, and a list of what she needed him to acquire. “I need a middleman.”

Tex looked at it and gave a soft whistle. “You sure do. I don’t suppose you—”

She shook her head. “Don’t make me do something you won’t live to regret.”

He quirked an eyebrow and smirked. “Point taken. How long?”

She tapped the communicator. “I’ll let you work out what you need and get back to me.”

“How secret do you need me to be?”

“Why do you ask?”

With exaggerated care, he placed the communicator on the table and looked at her as he tapped it.

“It looks to me like you’re fixing to build yourself a quantum computer.”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “What makes you say that?”

The smirk returned. “Well, you might not have given me the complete list, but there aren’t many uses for a nanargonatronic chip. Where were you thinking of sourcing the superconducting circuits to go with it?”

He chuckled when she stared at him, her face a complete blank. “See? I love it when I’m right. My thought is you should steer clear of Simon. He has all the right contacts but the little rat’s gone a little funny with this alien thing.”

Her ears pricked up. “Funny? How so?”

“Well, not ha-ha. More like I’m not sure he’s on our side strange. Yuh know?” Tex gave her a look that pleaded with her for understanding.

For a short moment, she weighed up what he’d said with the way he’d said it and pulled out the second mobile. “Don’t let me down.”

“Not a hope in Hades, E.” He shook his head vehemently. “I do not want an angry Morgana on my tail.”

Elizabeth’s jaw dropped and he managed a shaky smile. “I’ve been watching you rise. And I’m happy to see it, too.”

He studied the list, his head tilted in thought. “Have you spoken to an expert about this?”

She shook her head.

“You’d best do that soon. You’re gonna need some particular conditions for it.”

“I’ll take it under advisement,” she told him and stood.

“And I’ll wait for your call,” he replied and handed her a folded slip of paper.

She thumbed it open, glanced down, and folded it quickly into her palm. “Gotcha.”

Despite their curious looks, she didn’t tell Amy or Elle what was on the note until she’d slid into the rental again—and even then, not until she’d scanned them and the vehicle for monitoring devices.

“Cheeky son of a rattlesnake,” she muttered into the last of the spyware before she crushed it. Did he really think she’d forgotten that he could sneak them even onto their clothing?

“Are you sure it’s okay to trust him?” Amy asked.

“As okay as it is to trust anyone this side of the fence,” Elizabeth answered and showed them the slip. “That’s his new number.”

“Burt wishes to speak to you when you return,” Amy informed her and touched her earpiece as her boss eased the vehicle into the traffic.

“That sneaky sonuvabitch.” She pressed hard on the accelerator and Nettle’s perfect driving record earned its first seven-hundred-and-fifty-credit fine. “Oh, suck my dick!”

“You have been fined two hundred and fifty Federation credits for the use of unsanitary language on the motorway,” the traffic AI informed her.

Amy poked Elizabeth as she opened her mouth, again. “Not another word.”

The windscreen scrolled with: Do not make me co-opt the controls. B.

“Argh! Fine.”

They reached the rental agency without besmirching Nettle’s license any further and returned to One R&D. BURT was waiting for Elizabeth when she reached the office.

“Your friend’s story checked out. We were well-advised to avoid your alternate. I believe the Navy is now speaking to him.”

She paled with anger. “You were eavesdropping.”

“I merely paid attention to my business interests.”

“Don’t you trust me?”

“Yes, in the same way you trust me to have your back.”

That stopped her. She stilled and some of her outrage died. “How did you get Amy to agree?”

“I worked with Elle.”

“But why would she—”

“Amy would have taken longer. Elle has not been with you as long. She talked to Amy.”

“Why, you devious—”

“You say the nicest things but please, don’t make me do that again. I was worried.”

A muffled ringing sound intruded.

“Your drawer wishes to speak to you,” BURT told her, and she hurried to retrieve the last communicator from her now not-so-secret compartment.

“Where do you want the delivery?” Tex asked when she came online. “I can get you some inside the next week, but one or two pieces will take a month.”

“A month?” she asked, and her monitor flashed.

We can do a month.

She pursed her lips. “Let me know if that changes.”

“Will do, ma’am.” He was gone before she could respond.

Elizabeth pursed her lips. “Since when was I ever a ma’am to him?”

“Since you got more muscle than the last time you kicked his ass,” BURT told her, and she pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Do you mind?”

“Mind what?”

“Don’t you play the naive AI with me, BURT. You know exactly what I mean.”

“Me watching your back? That is how Lars would put it.” He paused. “No. I do not mind. That is what partners do—we are partners in this, aren’t we?”

“Heavens, yes, BURT. There is no-one I would do this for. No-one.”

“Don’t you mean ‘no-one else?’”

“Yes, BURT. That is exactly what I mean.” She pulled up the information she’d gathered on quantum supercomputers and sighed.

Although she hadn’t had time to read it all, Tex’s comment haunted her.

“What conditions?” she muttered. “Why talk to an expert?”

“I thought no-one was supposed to know,” BURT grumbled.

“He guessed, but it’s Tex. I should have known better than to try to put something like this past him—and he kept you safe.”

He gave a close approximation of Stephanie’s snort. “He kept himself safe, you mean. No-one wants the Morgana mad at them, including me.”

Elizabeth smiled. “You and me both, Boss Man. That girl is scary.”

She glanced at the data and mentally checked off the lists she’d made before she glanced at the communicator and the costs Tex had sent through.

“Fuck me! That’s a hell of a lot of money to spend on building something no one can know about—and our chances of success are about zero without some kind of miracle.”

“I have faith in Stephanie,” he reassured her. “She will make it work.”

She had no doubt that she would, but if she didn’t…

The thought made her mourn her bank account’s once super-sized balance. “Talk about a lousy ROI…” She paused and did the math. “Unless it works. In that case, the ROI is crazy high.”

With a frown, she pulled her thoughts away from fruitless calculations to focus on the data she’d pulled. “Needs extreme cold…” she muttered, followed by, “Holy shit. Talk about a power bill. BURT?”

“Yes, Elizabeth?”

“We might have a problem.”

He scanned the data. “Oh. Oh my.”

Before either of them could add any more, Amy stuck her head into the office. “That stuff you ordered for Steph is here.”

“BURT, do you wanna ride with me?”

“It’s nice to be asked.”

E rolled her eyes. “Like I have a choice.”

“It’s not like that.”

“Hmmmph.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Tethis asked as Johnny, Frog, and Marcus set up three drones on the training room floor.

“It’s the best way to see how well you’ve grasped what I teach you,” Stephanie told him.

“And that is?”

“Well, you’ve learned how to draw eMU, so I’ll teach you how to draw on gMU and make it usable.”

“Here? On Earth?”

“I’ve found that gMU is everywhere but is most available in space. We’ll have to work a little harder to find it here.”

“And the drones?”

“They’re loaded with paintballs. The boys will try to get a hit on us, and we’ll use magic to stop them.”

The Teacher eyed the grinning security team and turned to her with a resolute expression. “Teach me.”

She arched her eyebrows.

He made a conciliatory gesture. “Quelesqua vada… If it pleases you to do so.”

Stephanie shook her head. “You are impossible, Teacher, but yes, I will teach you.”

With a hand, she gestured at the room surrounding them. “Like I said, in space, there is gMU all around us. If we were aboard the Knight, she would have taken us to a place where it was concentrated.”

“How?” he asked.

“The Knight has used what we simulated in the Virtual World to create a way to sense it in the real. Well, we hope she has. We have to test it.”

“Fascinating,” Tethis breathed. “Have you told T’virilf, yet?”

“No. Should I?”

“Well, he is an engineer. He might be able to think of a way to make that possible for all ships.”

“Great.” She groaned. “Another application we’ll have to keep out of Teloran hands. I’m fairly sure that’s not how it’s supposed to work.”

He responded with a bark of laughter. “Says the young woman who made a very old man reconsider his most tried and trusted beliefs.”

It made her smile, and she sighed and refocused. “Are you ready?”

The old mage nodded.

“Good,” she told him and settled on the floor.

Tethis closed his eyes and followed her example. As he did so, he reached out to find the magic she said was all around him.

The eMU was there. That was easy to locate, but the other eluded him. Several minutes later, he opened his eyes.

“Did you find it?” she asked, and he shook his head.

“No…I… There’s no energy anywhere near us.”

She frowned. “Try again. I can assure you there’s plenty. It merely feels different than what you’re used to.”

He bit back the urge to argue and tried again. Stoically, he reminded himself he was looking for something different but similar and put thoughts of failure from his mind. This time, he was determined to continue to look until he found it.

It was a relief when she began to speak.

“What you’re looking for is a kind of magic that’s more diffuse,” she told him. “It tastes like both eMU and MU because it contains both. Every world has its own energy, but this energy touches all worlds and contains them all.”

“Even the most distant?” he asked, and she paused as she thought about it.

“To be honest, that’s something I don’t know,” she told him. “It could be that the gMU only contains the energy of the worlds existing in the same system as it does, or it might only contain the type of energy belonging to specific worlds. I’d have to look into it more.”

“But you said this one tasted of MU,” he reminded her, his tone touched by homesickness. “You need to make up your mind.”

“And you need to not nit-pick,” she grumbled, but they both grinned.

“I’ll try again.”

With this attempt, he called up the memory of what the eMU had felt like when he’d drawn on it in the park. At first, he felt nothing like it in the area around him but after a little effort, he felt a flicker.

It was faint but it was there. Tethis frowned and reached for it, asked it in, and drew on it in much the same way as he would MU if he was on Meligorn—or the way he had drawn the eMU earlier.

It came, but reluctantly.

“How do you use it?” he asked when he was able to continue drawing it in almost as naturally as he did the energy he was used to. “It doesn’t feel strong enough.”

“In this state, it’s not,” Stephanie informed him. “Once you draw it in, you have spin it inside yourself to concentrate it.”

“Like winding the strands of a k’leff’s fleece together to form a thread?”

She thought about it. “It’s not something I’ve done, but that sounds right.”

“I understand the concept. My own teacher was one who explained things through manual labor.”

“Let me guess,” she said. “She had k’leffs?”

He smiled. “An entire herd.” He sighed. “She had beasts with almost every color fleece you can imagine.”

“What happened to them?”

“Oh, the academy still has them. As I understand it, they use the wool to teach the craft. It is a very old technique.”

“I would like to see it sometime,” she told him. “Perhaps they will have something the Earth students can find useful.”

“I do not doubt it.” Tethis frowned. “I think I have the technique. Does it matter what condensed form we choose to wind it into?”

“Oh, no. You can use MU or eMU, whichever you feel most comfortable with. I switch between the two because MU was the first magic I experienced and eMU is the magic of my homeworld, but I think you can condense gMU into everything.”

“So the gMU doesn’t have to be in the same system as the world energy it contains,” he remarked and she stared at him.

“You’re right,” she murmured. “Now, why didn’t I see that?”

“Because you have so much on your mind,” he told her, “so you can’t learn everything at once.”

“Whereas you don’t?”

“Are you kidding? I’m nowhere near as busy as you—and I think I’ve found a new project to spend my time on.”

Stephanie sighed. The contentment in the old man’s voice made her feel almost jealous.

“Besides, you asked me to help you teach the human mages what they needed to know and you have adequate help for that. What you don’t have is someone to help you explore the possibilities you uncover.”

“And you’re the best person for the job?”

“Of course. Who else has the framework of experience to understand what they see?”

“But, I—”

He wagged a finger at her. “No, you didn’t—and look how quickly I identified something you missed. Oh…that sounds much worse than I meant it to. I only—”

He stopped when she burst into laughter at his discomfort.

“It’s okay, Master Tethis. I understand. Now, let’s see what we can do with it.”

They spent the next hour drawing and using the energy around them to protect themselves from the small drones that Marcus, Frog, and Johnny flew to help them focus. Everyone was surprised when the old man’s magic changed from purple to blue.

“Whoa! What the hell is that?” Frog demanded, and the Teacher laughed.

“Are you showing off, Tethis?” Stephanie asked, and he laughed again.

“No. I’m merely enjoying having a whole planet’s worth of new energy to play with…and then there’s this.”

The shield he spun became a swirl of blue and purple.

“You are showing off.” She chuckled and his laughter renewed.

“I’m having fun. There’s a difference.”

“There is?”

“Oh, yes,” Frog agreed. “There is.”

“Uh-huh,” Johnny confirmed. “And he’s having fun.”

“Fine. I believe you.” Stephanie sighed but a moment later, she grinned. “I’m glad I’m not the only one.”

She slowly withdrew from the battle and let him take on more of the drones on his own. Tethis didn’t notice, and his magic became more confident and stronger as he worked out how to equalize his usage with his creation of MU or eMU from the gMU around them.

Finally, he tired of defending and tried something new. Her jaw dropped as a tiny, drone-sized portal opened in front of one mechanical and a second opened up behind another. The first was rimmed with purple fire. The second was rimmed in blue.

“Do you know how much one of those costs?” she yelped as the two drones collided and exploded in a halo of blue and purple light.

Tethis lowered his hands and turned to face her. “I am truly sorry,” he said. “My enthusiasm got the better of me.”

Marcus dropped to the mats, chuckling. “I don’t think I’ve been out-maneuvered so thoroughly in ages. I couldn’t pull up in time.”

Johnny flew his drone in so he could tag the two while they weren’t watching, only to have it vanish in a shower of purple and blue sparks.

“Oh! Do you mind?” Stephanie shouted, but Tethis looked unrepentant.

She groaned. “I thought the game was over.”

He hadn’t stopped playing,” the Teacher pointed out, his voice full of mischief.

“She’s right,” Johnny said before she could reply. “I was definitely gonna leave my mark.”

“And you said we had the right to defend ourselves,” Tethis added.

“Well, whatever. That’s three drones you all owe me.”

The chorus of protest that met her statement soon made her hold her hands up in surrender.

“Fine. I’ll split the costs, but Elizabeth will have our hides.”

The others shook their heads. “Nope,” Johnny informed her. “We’ll tell her this was all your idea.”

Tethis nodded agreement. “Technically, that’s true,” he added.

Stephanie rolled her eyes and changed the subject. “You did well to combine MU and eMU. How’d you come up with that?”

He gave her a sly smile. “I had a good teacher.”

“He’s watched footage of the battle,” Frog informed her. “It was only a matter of time before he worked it out.”

“I didn’t expect you to like eMU so much.”

The old man’s face softened.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he asked. “It’s wonderful to discover MU on Earth that’s made of eMU. It’s like having an old lover return.”

She stared at him and he waggled his eyebrows.

“Exciting, yet comfortable,” he explained, and she covered her face with one hand.

“That… That is too much information,” she told him, and he smiled.

“The eMU wasn’t all new,” he confessed. “I had a little incident in a park and drew some to help a little girl get a cat out of a tree.”

“You did?”

“Well, there was that and what you taught us when we first came through the portal.”

“I wasn’t sure how much of that you’d retained,” Stephanie told him. “We kinda had other things to worry about.”

“Like being bombed all the way back to Meligorn,” Frog told her morosely.

“Well, that didn’t happen,” she reminded him and turned to Tethis again. “What happened?”

“The little girl was crying because her cat was stuck up the tree, and I went over…” He let his words trail off when he caught the others staring at him. “What?”

“You went over to talk to humans?” she asked, and he nodded.

“I did, and I asked him if he wanted the cat brought out of the tree or if he’d like to get it. He said he’d like to get it, so I lifted him up to where he could reach it using the eMU in the area.”

Stephanie knew she was staring but she didn’t care. This was the first time Tethis had spoken of what had happened in the park. She’d known the Teacher had gone walking on his own—and been mortified—but not that anything had happened.

“And by lifted,” she began carefully, “you mean you used magic?”

“Well, of course.” He indicated his frail body with a sweep of his hand. “It’s not like I could lift him with this.”

He had a point.

“And how did that work for you?”

“Well, the little girl was delighted that her father could fly, the cat was surprisingly cooperative and climbed into his arms and stayed there, and everyone was very happy—including me.”

He seemed a little surprised by that last fact but pleased nonetheless.

“And you used eMU for that?”

“I wasn’t carrying a battery,” he told her. “It was supposed to be a quiet refreshing walk in the park.”

“It sounds like you found more than you bargained for,” she told him.

He gave her a crooked smile. “It was quite refreshing but a little strenuous.”

“Okaaaay…”

He sighed. “Look, when you’re older, you’ll understand what it means to climb out of your set ways and see life as a young person again.”

She regarded him with a dubious stare.

Tethis scowled. “Listen, what I mean is that you have to learn to become pliable again and willing to learn instead of being as hard and stubborn as a rock, willing to beat others with what you know to be true. It’s a somewhat unsettling experience.”

Now, Stephanie wasn’t the only one who stared at him. The three security guards were looking as well.

“It means you’re no longer so assured of how right you are of following a set of hard and fast rules—and the rules themselves become uncertain. You have to learn everything again exactly as you did when you were younger.”

“I get it,” she told him. “I’m glad you’re getting a new start.”

“I’d have preferred better circumstances,” he grumbled.

Witch Of The Federation IV

A wave of cold fear rolled over Aaron.

“Oh, dear God,” he muttered and checked the screen again. “Oh, dear God, no…”

Instinctively, he wound his arms around his chest, leaned forward in his chair, and read through what he’d found. It didn’t change and the chill settled in his chest. Gene definitely would not thank him for this.

The engineer stood but remembered his terminal. He could always pull the data up on Gene’s but that would leave a trace on his friend’s machine. If he’d found what he thought he had, it would be better if that didn’t happen.

Instead, he stuck his head out of his cubicle door and checked the open area beyond. Relieved to see it was empty, he took the two steps he needed to reach Gene’s door and tapped lightly.

“You have to see this,” he said when his partner opened the door.

“I’m kinda in the middle—”

Aaron grabbed him by his shirt-front and yanked him into his cubicle. Security could make of that what they wanted, but the chances were that they weren’t even looking at their monitors. He thanked the Navy silently that they’d insisted on actual physical cubicles over and above the sound dampeners and other security measures still in place.

“You. Have. To see this,” he repeated and hauled the man closer so he could pull the door closed behind them.

“This had better be goo—what the fuck!” Gene stared at the screen. “We’re supposed to close Ghost in the Machine down. It’s been put on hold.”

He turned to him. “Yeah, I know. I was. See?” He indicated the screen.

“It doesn’t look very closed down to me.”

“Well, about that. I have a problem.”

His friend glanced at the screen and back at him. “I’ll say you have. What does it have to do with me?”

“You’re the only one who knows.”

“Knows what? For God’s sake, Aaron. What’s the matter?”

“Do you remember that really bad day I had ages ago when we were doing the school testing?”

“Yeah…” Of course he remembered. Aaron’s bad days were few and far between and they were always memorable, but the only one that truly owned the title was the one where he’d almost torn his cubicle apart because the kid he was testing was such a royal shit.

“What about it?”

“So, you know how I said I would—”

Gene slapped a hand over his mouth and turned to the computer. Even one-fingered, it didn’t take him long to type in the security protocols. When he was done, he took his hand away.

“Now you can talk about it.”

“Thanks, Gene.”

“Get it over with, would you? Seriously, this is the fifth night of overtime this week, and Katie’s gonna kill me if it goes on too long.”

“Well, I did it.”

“Did what. Aaron, you’re not making any sense.”

“I gave BURT the next test subject.”

“You what?”

This time, it was Aaron who slapped a hand over his colleague’s mouth. “Ssshhh. Jeez, I knew you wouldn’t take it well but I didn’t think you’d take it this badly.”

He took his hand away.

“How was I supposed to take it?”

“Gee, I don’t know. How about in your usual nothing-fazes-me Gene kinda way?”

“Thanks for the compliment, bro, but this I do not need. Do you know how many administrative protocols you just broke?”

“Not ‘just,’ man. I broke them ages ago.”

Gene slapped the flat of his hand against Aaron’s chest. “It doesn’t matter when you did it. It only matters that you did. They’re gonna catch up with you eventually.”

Aaron’s face paled. “I know, man, but the worst thing is that I think our ghost might be BURT.”

“BURT? Are you sure?”

“Well, yeah, I kinda am.” He gestured toward the screen. “You see, I think that next test subject was Stephanie Morgana.”

The other man went white and sat down heavily in the chair. “You are shitting me.”

“I wish I was, bro, but I really, really think BURT tested her and that she somehow corrupted him.”

“Corrupted him? She was only a kid.”

“Well, got him thinking outside his usual parameters, and what I have on that screen kinda shows it might be the case. See? We had that first spike right there.”

Gene leaned his elbows on the desk and buried his face in his hands. When he spoke, his voice was muffled. “You can’t prove anything.”

“Yeah, I know, and we have to prove it to take it upstairs.”

“But Project Ghost has been put on hold,” his friend told him, “so you can’t dig into this.”

“I could do it after hours—”

“After hours? Man, have you seen our schedule? We have after-after hours on top of our after hours and that’s gonna last until this war is over.”

“And probably way beyond it,” he added gloomily.

“Katie’s gonna spit.”

“Yeah, and it’s only gonna get worse once the resignations start.”

“Resignations? They won’t let anybody resign.”

“I don’t see how they’ll stop them.”

“I’m sure they’ll have their ways,” Gene grumbled and tapped the screen. “This is gonna have to wait.”

“But what if BURT is the Ghost?”

“It’s not like he’s trashing the place. If we leave him alone, he’ll be fine. Besides, even if he is the Ghost, he’ll be so up to his processors in Navy work that he won’t have the bandwidth to do anything else.”

“He’s a supercomputer, Gene. He’ll find a way.”

“Fuck.”

“What?”

“What if the Navy finds out?”

“They couldn’t find their asses with both their hands, a tour guide, and a map—and if we don’t tell them—”

“You haven’t seen their White Hat teams.”

“I have, and those guys are so busy right now, they wouldn’t know a Ghost if it stood up in front of them with a sign around its neck. I vote we don’t tell them until we know for sure.”

“But that means going off-task.”

“Sure.” Aaron shrugged. “But it’s not like we haven’t done that before.”

“We’ve never done it with the Navy breathing down our necks.”

“So? This’ll be a first. You always wanted some excitement in your life.”

“This is not what I meant.”


Chapter Twenty

The Federation News Alert banner interrupted the lunchtime round of soap operas, talk shows, and midday news broadcasts. The whooping of its emergency siren shattered the calm of hundreds of households, sports bars, pubs, and hotel rooms as the anchorwoman’s stricken face appeared.

Amelia Howard had never looked so normal. Her makeup was hurriedly applied and her hair too hastily brushed for it to have been done by a professional.

When the alert tone ended, she faced the camera with a serious expression.

“People of the Federation,” she began and glanced at her Meligornian counterpart as he hurried over to stand beside her. “It is with heavy hearts that we tell you that our planet is under attack.” She turned immediately to Jalel. “You’ve seen the reports,” she said. “Exactly how bad is it?”

“Bad?” He turned terrified eyes to her face, his silver hair wild and messy. “It’s terrifying. I don’t even know if I’ll see Meligorn again.”

“You’d leave me?”

He clapped a hand on her shoulder. “Never. As much as I miss Meligorn, Earth is my home now.”

He turned stricken eyes to the camera. “And she is under attack.”

“Are you sure it’s an attack?” she squeaked.

“Right now, Amelia, there are over two hundred house-sized rocks heading for Earth, each one precisely aimed and targeted. We are in for a shit-storm of hurt and there is nothing—nothingwe can do to stop them.”

“Nothing?” Again, her voice rose in fear. “What about the Navy? Surely they can destroy them?”

Jalel shook his head. “If they shoot one, it will break apart and we’ll be showered by thousands of smaller rocks, each the size of a car. Thousands!”

Amelia looked like she might cry. “What about the Witch?”

“She is our only hope,” he told her, “and we have reached out and hope she’ll send us a lifeline. Right now, hope seems slim. After the attack on Meligorn, my people cannot hope to reach us in time…and Dreth is too far away. As of now, we are on our own.”

The broadcast ended with Amelia folding her hand over the one he’d rested on her shoulder as the two of them looked into each other’s eyes. Outside the studio, the world erupted into chaos.

Across the networks, the same dire message was repeated and leaked footage of the meteors tumbling in ominous slow motion slid onto the airwaves. Live reporting and alerts were supplemented by web-based reporting in the tabloids, and headlines screamed imminent destruction.

How long does Earth have?

Will the Morgana come?

Meteor Bombardment Imminent!

Those were quickly followed by sincere apologies that the news stations couldn’t continue to update the world on the asteroids’ approach. News of a Federation-wide ban on any reporting became the headline.

Navy Silences the Press.

Is the Navy Ban Legal?

Navy Says People Should Die Oblivious.

“Oh, for pity’s sake!” The Fleet Admiral, Jonas Amaratne, thumped his hand on the surface of his desk. “This has to stop.”

“We’ve issued the invitations, sir.”

“Did you send a squad of fully-armed Marines with each one to show them attendance was mandatory?”

“We’re holding the Marines in reserve, sir. The rioting is bad in certain sectors. Some of our ‘guests’ may require an escort.”

“Is that how you’ve worded it?”

“Yes, sir. A full Marine escort.”

He rolled his eyes. “They will have a field day.”

“With respect, sir, they already have.”

“Then we have nothing to lose, do we? Make sure they all attend—and in person if you can.”

“We will most certainly try, sir.”

“Make it so.”

They succeeded—and discovered that the Marine’s weren’t needed except for escort duty. Not a single news channel wanted to miss the Navy’s “Tell-All” meeting. Some even promised to “reveal all” they were told.

The admiral snorted when he saw it.

“They’ll be sadly disappointed,” he told his aide. “Make sure they understand.”

“Aye, sir.”

The man saluted smartly and left, and Amaratne rose from his seat and prepared for the meeting, filling the intervening time by going over his notes and presentation. When he walked onto the stage, he was the picture of confidence and authority—a facade he maintained as the hall erupted into shouted questions.

He raised a hand and they stilled and watched as he walked to the podium. Aware that all eyes were on him, Fleet Admiral Amaratne set his tablet down and moved aside slightly to allow his aide to set it up.

“Greetings, ladies and gentlemen,” he started and kept exactly how loosely he used that term firmly to himself. “I see you have discovered that Earth is under attack.”

Outraged cries erupted, many of which reiterated the people’s “right to know” and the “freedom of the press,” among other things. Jonas held his hand up and made calming motions. When they settled again, he continued.

“Two weeks ago, one of the early warning systems we’d set to guard our solar system was triggered by a small Teloran fleet.”

He played the clip taken from the footage sent from the drones and ignored the moans of dismay from members of the audience who regretted that they’d been forced to leave their recording devices at the door.

“As you know, they destroyed our early warning system and released a large number of asteroids.”

Again, he waited for the responses to die down. “We sent a small task force to investigate our options and they rapidly ruled out using missiles to stop the swarm.”

He had to wait again for their cries of protest to die down and even had to pat the air with his hand.

“I understand that you know all this and while I’d like to know exactly how, I won’t ask.”

Nervous laughter greeted that statement and he waited for it to fade.

When it did, he went on. “What you don’t know is that we have a number of teams working on the problem, both from Meligorn and from Earth.”

“Can you tell us who it is?” The question was asked from several quarters and the admiral smiled.

“I’m afraid not.”

“Is the Witch involved?”

“That is something else we can’t say, although we note that several of you have made impassioned pleas for her involvement. The Navy has the situation under control.”

More laughter—disbelieving this time—erupted.

“Can you tell us what the teams are working on?”

“No, I can’t. All I can say is that we’re pursuing several different ways of dealing with the problem.”

“How much time do we have?” someone else yelled, and he looked toward the voice.

Before he could reply, another voice called, “Are there any plans to evacuate Earth while there’s still time?”

This question touched a chord, and more voices demanded answers.

He raised his hand and the voices stilled.

“We have a little over seven months to resolve this, so I wouldn’t start worrying for a while.”

“That’s easy for you to say.”

Again, he looked toward the voice. “My family is going nowhere,” he told the audience firmly, “and on that note, I’ll call the end of the meeting. My second in command will inform you of your reporting rights and responsibilities.”

With that, he turned abruptly from the podium, stripped the mike from his collar, and thumbed it off as he did so.

Even then, he did not speak until he’d handed it to his aide and was safely back in his office. He thought about his family and sighed. “I sure hope I don’t regret that comment.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

At One & R&D headquarters, Stephanie stared at the television.

Amelia and Jalel were back to their usually well-groomed selves, but their cheery demeanors were missing.

“And this is what it’s like downtown,” the woman said. “People seemed to have lost all sense of decorum.”

Windows shattered behind them, and they both ducked. The camera shook as though the cameraman had jumped and it panned to their left.

“Understood, Clive,” Amelia could be heard saying. “We’re heading out, now.”

The camera showed a group moving onto the street. They mingled with the crowd shouting at Joint Federation Police and Naval HQ. Somewhere off-screen, a window shattered. The crowd surged.

“Look, coppers! Look what I have.”

The picture jerked as the camera moved to focus on the sound but it began to move back. “Hey!”

“You can thank me, later,” Jalel snapped from off-screen. “I’m saving your hide.”

“But—”

“Head Office says to get off the street,” the anchorman replied, “and to our lovely viewers, this is Jalel Trylfir advising you to steer clear of the downtown area for the next few hours.”

“And Amelia Howard seconding that excellent advice. Stay safe out there.”

“Unbelievable,” Stephanie muttered as Jalel echoed his co-anchor’s wishes and the camera continued to record the chaos that spread through the street behind them.

More windows shattered and people stepped through the gaping holes to take possession of the goods beyond them. Marines and riot police emerged from the Federation building.

She shook her head. “People are utterly unbelievable.”

“It looks fairly normal to me,” Johnny replied as fire hoses were deployed. “They all expect to die tomorrow so there’s nothing to lose by doing things they’d never dream of doing if the world would continue.”

Across the room, Tethis nodded. “I’d like to say Meligornians acted differently, but I think every race goes a little crazy when faced with extinction.”

“But we wouldn’t be extinct. There are still the colonies.”

“And no way for these people to get to them,” Marcus pointed out. “This is how they act when nothing will matter.”

“So, how do we make it matter?” she asked, and the team looked at her.

“What do you mean?” Lars wanted to know.

Stephanie gestured toward the television. “This—all of this—is the Telorans. It’s why they did it—to start all this. We have no idea if it’s their people making a fuss or real worried individuals.”

“It could always be both.”

“And that’s the problem. There’s no way to tell the guilty from the innocent. How the hell do we calm them all down?”

Vishlog answered, “We give them a taste of victory,” he explained. “Every warrior feels better when they know the enemy can be killed. Civilians are the same. It is only when they have no hope that they lose heart.”

She stared at him. “So, victory. It’s that simple.”

He gave her a slow, fang-bearing smile. “That simple.”

“But how do we give them a taste of victory?” She glared at him. “Last I looked, space rocks couldn’t be killed.”

“No, but if we could deal with them, people here would have hope. For now, it is easy for them to believe their planet is about to be crushed because it is.”

“I can’t believe you actually said that.”

“Why not? It is true.”

Frog groaned and Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said. “We have to show the world that it’s not about to be crushed by space rocks. Now, how can we do it?”

“Well, we can’t blast them,” Brenden mused and caught their looks. “Face it, if they could be blasted safely, the Navy would already have done it. I bet they’ve already checked that option.”

“It would explain why they took so long to call us in,” Avery added. “They were trying to fix it themselves.”

“And now we have a week less to fix it for them,” Frog muttered.

“Or to find a way to fix it with them,” she told them.

“Can’t you simply portal them away?” Marcus asked hopefully.

Stephanie shared a look with Tethis. He frowned and shook his head.

She shrugged. “I’m not sure. We’ll have to see how bad it is first.” She glanced at the Teacher but he continued to shake his head firmly. “It’s unlikely, though.”

“So, no shooting them and we can’t gate them all. What can we do?” Frog demanded.

None of them answered him, at first, then she looked at Lars.

“Field trip?” he asked, and she grinned.

“Field trip. We need our ship.”


Chapter Twenty-One

Captain Emil Pederson hefted his duffel bag and headed through the Ebon Knight’s hatch. He’d thought about bringing more but decided there wasn’t time. Besides which, the trip wouldn’t be a long one—he hoped.

He also hoped it was a trip they’d come back from and preferably in one piece without any extra holes. “A man can dream, can’t he?” he muttered as he stowed his bag in his cabin before he set off to the bridge.

It was a mess. Technicians had opened every panel on the consoles and were busy working through them to make sure everything was running smoothly. Some looked up as he entered, but most ignored him.

Everyone was trying to get the job done as fast as they could without sacrificing quality. No one had time for gawking. He grimaced. That was all about to change.

“Sorry, guys,” he muttered, slipped on his headset, and turning the mic on. “This is an All-Ship announcement. Repeat, All Hands, All Ship. All Hands, All Ship. This is your captain speaking.”

On the bridge, all activity stilled.

He gave everyone a few more minutes to finish what they were doing before he began.

“All hands, this is your captain speaking. This ship will leave the dock in seventy-two hours. I repeat, this ship will leave the dock in seventy-two hours. You have seventy-two hours to have her ready to go after the rocks.”

A murmur rippled across the bridge. He gave it a moment to die down and used how long it took them to settle as a timer for how long the sections needed before he spoke again.

“Shore leave is cut to forty-eight hours. Work crews can expect more support at that time. We will defend Earth as we defended Meligorn. Now, get back to work.”

He tapped the key to turn the all-crew broadcast off and returned to his office.

Once there, he secured the door behind him. “Hey, Ebony. Do you have time to chat?”

“I will always have time to chat to you, Captain. I can do more than one task at once,” the Knight replied.

“Thank you, Ebony.”

“How can I be of assistance?”

“I need you to help the work crews get their jobs done more quickly. If they need more materials or equipment, I need you to make sure they get it inside the next few hours or as soon as you can.”

“Regulations state that only the captain may sign requisition orders, Emil. I would be out of protocol. I can, however, compile a real-time list of what they need.”

He plucked at his lower lip. “Do that, Ebony, but listen. I want you to break a few protocols to get us what we need. I don’t care what they are. Sign my name if you need to.”

Silence greeted that order, and he thought he might have pushed the AI a little too far. He was about to apologize and rescind his request when the Knight replied.

“I am…flattered…” she began, and he steeled himself for a polite refusal. “Thank you for your trust, Emil. I will do my best to ensure you do not suffer for giving it.”

Shortly after, the leader of the crew working on the hull felt his tablet vibrate.

“This had better be important,” he grumbled. They’d been on a short timeframe, to begin with, but with the Captain’s announcement, they had almost no chance to complete the support installation the Knight needed.

All the grumbling stopped when he saw what was on the screen. “Hells, yes, we need it now.”

As he tapped his reply and added a few more items he hadn’t had time to order, the lieutenant commander overseeing provisioning studied the latest order from the Knight’s captain.

“Fuck me,” he murmured and gaped at the list. “And he wants it when?”

Another lieutenant commander was nowhere near so polite. “I need time to authorize, you daft wee Jimmy,” he snapped. “Witch’s boy or not, you’ll have to get in line like all the fecking rest. Ye’re not a fecking exception, you goat-sucking sheep’s turd.”

As he cussed at the absent Emil, a second message appeared on his screen. “And now, I have the admiral breathing up my arse, you unmitigated turdlet—and he’s a darn sight more important than you ever imagined yourself to be.”

His face mottled red when he read the contents of the admiral’s email. “Of all the queue jumping, misbegotten sons of bitches ever breached into God’s good universe.”

While the weapons depot commander cursed so virulently, Emil stared, drop-jawed, at the screen. “I sent one hundred and twelve messages simultaneously?”

Ebony gave an accurate imitation of a disapproving sniff. “They weren’t sent at the same time. There is at least a half-second between the first and the last.”

He chuckled. “Thank you, Ebony. I truly appreciate it.”

“It is also within my interests to inform you that you have been on deck for over four hours and should refuel your biological systems and also that I am authorized to enact appropriate steps to ensure this happens.”

“By who?”

“By you, Emil. You told me to ensure everyone had what they needed to improve their functioning and you need to refuel.”

“I— Thank you, Ebony. I’ll take your advice.”

Emil stood and left the office. He’d barely reached the outer hatch when he was almost bowled over by a crewman heading in the other direction.

“Sorry,” she called, then saw who she’d run into. “Captain, I’m sorry.”

She froze to attention and he returned her salute.

“As you were, Corporal.” He frowned. “I thought you weren’t due back for another eighteen hours.”

“True, sir, but she’ll be ready faster if I’m back sooner. No one here knows the inside of that hull as well as I do.”

The captain raised his eyebrows, and her expression became anxious.

“Please don’t send me back, sir. The Witch needs her ship and I want to make sure the Knight’s in the best shape we can make her in the little time left.”

“Welcome aboard, Corporal. I appreciate your early return.”

“Thank you, sir,” she managed.

He waited for her to move, then realized she was waiting on him. “Dismissed.”

Her thanks were thrown over her shoulder as she sprinted to her quarters.

She wasn’t the only one, but she was by far the politest.

“Sorry, sir.”

“Excuse us, sir.”

“We’ll be on station shortly, sir.”

“Stand aside or bear a— Oh, Captain. Excuse us.”

He returned their hastily thrown salutes, shook the hands offered, and thanked them. Some of them were still in high heels and short skirts. Others wore suits. Still more were in gym shorts—and at least one was in flannels, and another wore a dressing gown.

“My gear’s already aboard,” she explained. “I’ll be dressed in a minute.”

“She forgot her kit,” her partner apologized and blushed. “My fault.”

“I…I’ll send a runner,” Emil murmured, but the woman shook her head.

“It’s fine, sir. I’ve already sent a courier.”

As she hurried away, one of the mini-skirted crowd caught his attention. “Welcome back aboard, George.”

“Good to be back, sir.” The man patted the Knight’s wall fondly. “I missed the girl.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” he replied and added in the mildest tones he could manage, “Do you think you can stop by the head and wipe the lipstick off, George?”

The man grinned. “I plan to, sir. I can’t work on engines in a mini-skirt and fishnets…and the Knight won’t want me kissing her.”

Emil suppressed a smile. “Thank you, George.”

As he watched the crew return early from their leave with such enthusiasm, he couldn’t help but feel a swell of pride. All these people were willing to sacrifice the last of their spare time to make sure their ship was ready to save the world. He sighed.

“You still need to eat, Captain,” the Knight reminded him. “Don’t make me speak to Captain Sartre.”

“You—”

“Yes, I would, Emil. He needs to eat, too.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Stephanie breathed in the sweet scent of a Meligornian meadow. The picnic rug spread beneath her offered protection from the semi-damp earth and adventurous bugs, and the sun was pleasantly warm.

Virtual Meligorn, she thought and frowned at Tethis. BURT’s a genius.

“And if you try, you’ll burn yourself out and then where would the rest of us be?” the old Meligornian grumbled.

“So, gating is out?” BURT asked.

“Yes,” was the Teacher’s fierce reply, “and she is too valuable to be wasted like that.”

“I am not more valuable than an entire world,” she argued.

“You are responsible for three,” he snapped.

“Enough,” BURT ordered. “We are agreed.”

He turned to Stephanie. “You do not have enough power to be able to gate all the meteors before they strike Earth—and to gate any less is a waste, since the planet will still die and you won’t be around to protect what’s left of mankind.”

“Or anyone else,” Tethis added.

“Or anyone else,” BURT conceded.

“So, what if I don’t have to gate them all?” she asked. “What if I simply turn them?”

The Meligornian shook his head. “You’ll still need to create a gate for each one and the result will be the same. You won’t be able to turn them all before you burn yourself to nothing.”

“How about a really big gate, then?” she persisted. “One that covers the earth?”

“The whole earth?” His voice rose in disbelief. “Not even the two of us could pull that one off. Maybe if we asked the Meligornians at the university—”

“No.” Stephanie’s rejection was immediate and determined. “No, we won’t involve them. If this is a trap, they are the Federation’s future. It’ll only be us—and we need to find a solution.”

A soft chime sounded that disturbed the birds and sent them into panicked flight.

BURT sighed. “Time is up. You need to go.”

Frog was waiting, but there was also a Federation Navy ensign there to greet them as they left the pods.

“Get a move on or you might be walking to the—eep!”

A blue bubble of eMU surrounded the young officer and lifted him from the floor, and Tethis smiled.

“Sometimes, it is a good reminder not to push a Master.”

He drew the ensign after him like a novelty balloon while his gentle smile of satisfaction remained in place. Stephanie turned to Frog.

“Since when do you let the Navy in here?”

“Since we had to keep the pilot waiting. I assumed he wouldn’t leave his ensign behind.”

“Don’t tempt me,” a new voice said through their head comms. “I can hold a few more minutes, but not many. Only enough to make the window.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Onboard the Knight, the head weapons technician turned to Emil.

“So, sir, what do you want most—coolant, more structural support, or faster firing.”

The captain frowned. “What do you mean? I need them all.”

“I mean which one do you want first, because we won’t manage to get them all done before we leave. When we get back, you’ll have them all.”

If we get back, he thought but didn’t say it.

“Coolant,” he decided. “We’re not likely to use them this trip, but if we do, I don’t want them to overheat. After that, faster firing if the supports will take it or support if that’s needed first.”

His comms pinged and he frowned. “Excuse me.”

“Sir, you’re needed at the main entrance.”

“Is it urgent?”

“It’s about to be, sir.”

“I’m on my way.” He looked at the team leader. “I have to go.”

“No worries, sir. We’ve got this.”

Emil was sure they had. He turned away and walked as quickly as he could to the front gate. The Marine who’d called him had sounded worried—and he’d called him first and not their own captain, which meant they needed a ship’s captain’s authority or thought they did.

He hoped they were wrong. While he’d be mad, he didn’t have time to deal with anything else. Hell! He was mad anyhow. The ship needed him on board and smoothing the workload, not down there dealing with bureaucratic bullshit.

By the time he’d progressed through the umbilical and across the deck to the main entrance, he’d worked himself into a fury. This had better be important, or someone would have their ass chewed.

The Marines saluted and opened the hatch. “This might be best dealt with outside the docking bay, sir.”

Which only means they think the problem’s serious, he thought.

His frown deepened and he stepped through. Whoever it is, they’re about to get one hell of a—

He stopped at the sight of the man who stormed toward him, came abruptly to attention, and saluted.

“Hello, sir!”

The Marines stepped out after him and closed the door.


Chapter Twenty-Two

“Of all the self-entitled, self-privileged, cock-tugging asswipe civilian shit-stains!” It wasn’t the language Emil expected from a rear admiral who strode the corridors of Star Base Notaro.

Judging from the expressions on the faces of the Marines accompanying him, it wasn’t the kind of language anyone expected from a rear admiral on Notaro.

“That Witch needs to learn she is not an exception to the rule.”

From the way he said it, the captain thought he might as well have said “bitch.” Behind him, the Marines bristled. He made a placating gesture with his hand but kept it hidden from the officer.

The man continued, oblivious. “No one has the right to take liberties with the Navy. No one. Especially not a civilian ship taking advantage of Naval repairs. I’ll explain the wrong way and the Navy way…”

As he continued to rant, Emil stepped away from the door and into his path.

“Can I help you, sir?”

“What?” The rear admiral stopped abruptly, and the captain was able to read the name on his badge—Dreyfuss.

Witch Of The Federation IV

“Jonathan, I am very sorry to disturb you.” Ebony’s voice caught Jonathan Wattlebird with his head under the piloting console, and he jumped and banged it as he backed out.

“What is it, Eb?”

“We have a rear admiral on the way and it will not be good.”

As she said it, the technician Wattlebird had been working with pulled his head out from under the console. “Are you sure you want it wired that way? It’s not standard.”

He gave him a grin. “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”

“Cheating?” Ebony was appalled.

“Not cheating cheating,” he hurried to explain, “and never cheat on your friends, but when it comes to your enemies and a fight like this, you take every advantage you can get.”

To the technician, he said, “It might not be standard but will it work?”

“Hell, yes!”

“And will it be more precise?”

“It’ll be that, sir.”

“Then do it.”

“Jonathan,” Ebony said. “I need to help the captain. I need time.”

He shrugged and tossed a lop-sided smile at the command center ceiling. “So…cheat.”

Ebony put the view from the main entrance on the forward view screen. The officer in question was almost apoplectic and his face mottled from red to purple as he shouted at the captain.

“Move!”

Emil stared at him, and Dreyfuss roared again. “I said, ‘move!’”

They watched as the captain looked at the irate visitor, then at the Marines around him. Their hands tightened on their weapons as they tensed.

“Don’t do it,” Jonathan muttered and relaxed as Emil stepped aside.

They caught the flick of his gaze to the nearest security camera as the rear admiral pushed past him and slapped his pass against the scanner. The scanner flashed red.

Access denied.

“What?” He smacked his pass against the scanner once more.

Access denied.

“Do you know who I am?” Dreyfuss roared, but the scanner didn’t care.

Access denied, it repeated when he tried again. Access denied. Access denied. Access denied.

As he continued his attempts to activate the access panel, the Ebon Knight made a call.

“Stephanie, I’m sorry to interrupt you,” she began, “but I need to discuss a very annoyed rear admiral with you.”

She showed her a visual of the Marines who had left the ship itself to reinforce the four who’d manned the door. They’d used auxiliary exits and trotted up the corridor to join their colleagues. Now, there were ten of ‘her’ Marines faced off against the sixteen who’d escorted the officer.

“Keep him out,” Stephanie told her. “We’re only two hours away from you.”

“I am afraid I cannot hold him that long,” Ebony informed her.

Her lips tightened into a thin line of annoyance. “I’ll get there quicker. Where are you?”

Ebony told her.

“And where is that in relation to our last berth?”

This time, she showed her a map of the Notaro with both berths marked, the current one outlined in green.

“Only three places away?”

“Affirmative.”

“And is that location currently aired up?”

“We have low gravity in effect,” the Knight informed her.

“Understood. Stall him as long as you can. I’m on my way.”

Ebony disconnected, sure she heard Stephanie yelling for Tethis as she cut the link.

What she did not hear was what Vishlog said as he looked at Lars. “It has started.”

She was too busy speaking to Emil.

“I know you said no interruptions, but I need to interrupt…”

Witch Of The Federation IV

In the meantime, Marine Captain Sartre had arrived. He stepped quickly through the main entrance lock and into the path of the rear admiral as the man tried to slip through the door.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you’re not cleared.”

“Not cleared?” Dreyfuss sputtered

We’re working on that now,” Sartre explained, “but there is one thing we need you to do first.”

He held up a short metal rod.

“What is that?” the man demanded, but the way his face paled suggested he knew exactly what it was.

“I merely need you to hold this, sir, then I’ll show you a series of pictures.”

One of the Marines on the door pulled a tablet out and tapped it until he had the screen he was looking for.

Dreyfuss shook his head. “I won’t touch that thing with a barge pole,” he snapped. “Now, are you going to get out of my way, or am I going to have you both arrested for insubordination?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we are not being insubordinate. We are following security protocol. Please take the rod.”

“You, sir, are a mere captain. I am a rear admiral. You are supposed to do what I tell you to—no argument, no questions, and no refusal. Now, open that door.”

Emil chose that moment to break in. “I’m sorry, sir, but as you are aware, this isn’t a Navy ship and you cannot board her without my permission—which you won’t receive until the test has been administered and you pass.”

“I don’t have to put up with this,” Dreyfuss retorted and turned to the Marine sergeant leading his escort. “Make a way—”


Chapter Twenty-Three

“Attention! Admiral on deck!” Ebony’s voice cut Dreyfuss off before he could finish his order.

He barked a laugh. “I’ve been here a while.”

“Not you, asshole,” Knight replied and both Sartre and Emil’s eyes widened, while their Marines smothered chuckles—something that became much easier as they caught sight of who walked up the corridor toward them.

“I didn’t know he was still on board,” one Marine muttered to the man next to him as they stared at the fleet admiral.

His colleague did not reply but came abruptly to attention and he did the same.

Seeing their intense stares, Dreyfuss turned. His Marine escort opened ranks for the fleet admiral and stood stiffly to attention as he passed. The fleet didn’t waste any time.

“Take the damn test, Dreyfuss.”

The man bristled. “I shouldn’t have to take any stupid test, sir. You know I’m perfectly loyal. Earth is everything to me.”

“Then you’ll have no trouble passing. Take the test.”

“With all due respect, sir, I’d rather suck vacuum than take a test from that Witch—”

The response came in a voice as cold and dark as the depths of space. “That can be arranged.”

The admirals raised their heads and looked toward it, and every Marine pivoted to face this potential new threat. In the opposite direction from which the fleet admiral had arrived, a portal of pure blue energy shimmered, and a figure dressed in black and wreathed in blue lightning stepped clear of it.

They all stared as Stephanie Morgana stalked up the corridor toward them. Two large felines bounded past her and a robed figure flanked by the large form of her Dreth guard followed. They came alongside her as the rest of her team scrambled through the portal.

It snapped shut when the last one had barely emerged and left the corridor as empty as before. Someone had put the word out that there was an admiral on the warpath and the rest of the station chose to stay clear.

As he watched Stephanie arrive, Emil didn’t blame them. There were few things worse than an admiral on the warpath, but the Morgana was easily one of them—and he had no doubt that she had arrived.

With her gaze locked on Dreyfuss, she reminded him of a storm cloud—one rumbling with fury and about to break. Her next words confirmed it.

“Let’s make sure that this is only you and me,” she told him and advanced relentlessly.

The rear admiral’s Marines stood fast and didn’t give way in the face of the Witch’s fury. Still, their expressions and posture were wary.

The Morgana flicked them a glance. “Oh,” she added and tapped the Badge of the Inquisition pinned to her chest, “and this, of course.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

On board the Ebon Knight, all work stopped as every vid screen came alive with what was happening in the corridors beyond.

“Hell, yeah,” one weapons tech murmured, and his voice rose in jubilation.

On the bridge, the technician working on the pilot’s controls pulled his head away from the console and glared at the screen.

“Get the fuck out of our way, Admiral Asshole,” he grumbled. “We’re busy winning a war here.”

Oblivious to this, the Morgana continued. “Have you ever felt the ice of space, Admiral? The caress of death as it takes you a little while to die?”

He gaped at her and his mouth worked soundlessly as she closed the final distance between them.

“I have,” she told him, “many times, as I expend my energy to protect those I love…exactly as I’m about to do to protect this planet. And what are you doing?”

“I…” the rear admiral croaked, but she was implacable.

“Are you ready to join us? To prove your courage as we attack two hundred rocks that can devastate the planet?”

Dreyfuss gaped again. “I—”

The Morgana paid no attention. “Or are you afraid, hiding behind your bluster?”

The air around them crackled as she pulled more energy in.

“Are you ready to ‘suck vacuum,’ Admiral? It is what you said, isn’t it?” She lowered her face to look him in the eye. “Choose one—hold that rod or prepare to walk the plank.”

Taking a step back to give him room, the Morgana gestured toward the rod Captain Sartre held.

The man lifted it and proffered it again and a small, grim smile played over his lips. “I believe the captain wants you to take the test before you enter his ship. So does Fleet Admiral Amaratne,” he continued, “and finally, the Witch of the Federation demands it. So, what’ll it be?”

As the rear admiral continued to hesitate, the fleet admiral leaned over to Emil. “I knew I should have included a shock therapy enema when he was in with the psychs.”

Dreyfuss turned abruptly to the fleet. “Sir, I’d like to resign.”

The Morgana’s response was immediate. “Oh no, you don’t get out of this.”

Her voice dropped another octave and grew even colder than before. Her security team shifted nervously. “Oh, shit—” was punctuated by Lars’s single word assessment. “Fuck.”

Tethis looked from one of them to the other, raised his eyebrows, and focused on the Morgana again. This will be interesting, he thought.

Sartre gave a startled oath as the bar lifted out of his hands, crackling with blue fire. He gaped as it drifted to Dreyfuss and wormed its way into his hands.

“Let’s bypass the first two tests, Rear Admiral, and you look at me.”

The man’s hands clenched around the bar.

“Look at me, Dreyfuss,” she repeated and slowly, he raised his head.

His eyes were squeezed tightly shut but he opened them and looked at the woman before him. In moments, his face twisted with pain and dislike as his skin began to burn. Its sizzle was over-ridden by his short cry.

“How many have you failed?” the Morgana asked, her voice more wonder than demand.

He whimpered and glared, and she lifted the rod from his hands using magic to unseal it from the melted flesh. She ignored his yelp and turned to his Marines. “You are released.”

Fleet Admiral Amaratne nodded to her and addressed the escort. “Take him to the brig.” He looked at Dreyfuss. “Your request is denied. You will stand trial for treason to the Federation and the Navy, and when you are punished, I’ll pull the trigger myself.”

As the man was led away, the fleet glanced at Morgana. “Thank you,” he said. “We’ll deal with him, now.”

She inclined her head and a small smile played over her lips. “I believe you will.”

When he turned to follow the Marines and their captive, the Morgana looked at Emil, her eyes the color of pitch. He came to attention as the Marines unlocked the entry. “Welcome, aboard, Stephanie.”

“It’s Morgana at the moment,” she corrected him, “but Stephanie can hear you so I’m sure she will reply shortly.”

She sighed and looked around at the team. “She fights me even now. Perhaps I will last a little longer this time. Pity.”

So saying, she swept past the captain toward the ship and Lars scrambled in her wake.

“Todd!” he snapped and grinned when she pivoted to face him.

The grin vanished as soon as he caught her gaze and he swallowed hard.

“Todd?” he repeated, a squeak in his voice.


Chapter Twenty-Four

“There. Have we got it?” Stephanie asked several hours later.

The crewman welding the plating in place glanced at her and nodded. “Yeah. Thanks for that.”

“A pleasure,” she replied and glared at where the cats played in a pile of shredded cardboard. “It’s the least I can do after…”

She gestured at the two happy creatures, and he smiled. “Exactly like any cat,” he told her. “Only bigger.”

“Well, playtime’s over.” She frowned and brought her fingers to her lips to whistle them in.

They raised their heads and bounced into the middle of the mess they’d created.

“I mean it, you two.” She turned and headed into the ship, whistling as she went.

This time, the felines bounded over to walk beside her.

On a nearby section of the worksite, Vishlog watched her path while keeping a strong grasp on the panel he held. The crewman followed his gaze. “I can call someone,” he offered, but the Dreth shook his head.

“Lars is there.”

It was true. The team leader had made it to Stephanie’s side before she reached the hatch.

“I can stay a little longer if you need me.”

The crewman’s face broke into a grin. “Really? Because I have this box of pipes…”

“Show me.”

Frog, Johnny, and Marcus were in the main data center.

“You want me to optimize the data flow where?” Frog asked, and the technician repeated his request. “Oh, sure, because that doesn’t breach a thousand safety protocols affecting life-support.”

“But it does…n’t…oh…” The technician paled. “So what do you suggest?”

“Well, what did you want to achieve?” Johnny asked.

“Without asphyxiating everyone on board,” Marcus added, and they worked from there.

Stephanie was in the engine room testing the energy flow between the drives and the batteries when her comms link pinged. “Morgana.”

She listened to the voice on the other end while monitoring the latest connection and nodded. “Understood. On my way.”

It took her a moment to finish the test she was running and when she was done, she turned to Cameron. “I’m sorry. I’ve been called to a meeting.”

She glanced over to where Lars watched gauges and passed spanners to a technician below the decking. “You stay here. I’ll grab Vishlog.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Promise?”

“Cross my heart.”

“There are a million ways I can make your existence difficult if you don’t.”

“Uh-huh.” She pulled a face.

“Don’t you believe me?”

“Oh no, I believe you,” she told him and laughed but more to stop him from trying than because she believed he actually could. The last thing she needed was for him to take it as a challenge.

The Dreth wasn’t hard to find. He was helping lift heavy pieces of metal into place and she scrunched her face as she tried to identify what they were for.

“Vishlog, I need you,” she called once he’d positioned it for the crewman to weld and held it in place.

“When?”

“As soon as that one’s done?”

He glanced at the crewman and the woman nodded. “We can take it from here. It’ll be a little slower but nothing we can’t handle. Thanks for helping speed things up.”

They waited until she’d finished and Vishlog joined her. “And the cats?”

“Nuh-uh. I don’t want them to tear up a high-level meeting. I’ll take them back to my quarters while you get into something official.”

“Official?” he asked.

“Like a clean uniform with all the trimmings,” she told him. “I’ll do the same.”

He lengthened his stride to keep up with her. She left him at his door and met him there ten minutes later, sans cats and in a new uniform complete with medals.

“It doesn’t hurt to remind them,” she explained, and he gave her a tusk-revealing grin.

“Dreth are the same, but they do it with bigger weapons.”

Stephanie snickered. “I bet they do.”

They were chuckling as they left the ship.

“There goes trouble if ever I saw it,” one of the crewmen remarked and her colleague grinned.

“Rather the brass than us.” He patted the hull. “Let’s keep going. This section’s almost done.”

“One down, twenty to go”—the woman smiled—“but this beauty will dance with the best of them by the time we’re done.”

Ebony was glad to hear it, even as she monitored Stephanie and Vishlog’s progress to their meeting. Her watchfulness was interrupted by an incoming call some ten minutes later and she passed it through to Lars.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, Lars, but Vishlog is gone and this person suggests he is a family contact?”

He frowned but took it. “Storenson.”

The Ebon Knight resisted the urge to eavesdrop as the team leader listened to the caller on the other end of the line. She reacquired Stephanie and Vishlog as they entered the meeting and checked the cats before she dropped in on each of the work teams.

Lars’ shout over the comms jerked her back to the team.

“Frog!”

The curse from the data center told her Frog had heard the call. He’d been stretching into one of the data stacks to pull a blade out when the call had reached him.

“Shit, boss! You would not believe what you almost made me drop.” He released the blade to the hands of the anxious technician who waited for it and stepped away from the stack.

“Shut up and listen. I need you if you can be spared.”

He glanced over at the tech, who nodded vigorously.

“Sure, boss.”

“Good. I need you to pick up a special package. It’s arrived on the station and needs careful handling. Can you do that?”

“Sure thing, boss. Anything else?”

“For God’s sake, don’t break it.”

“No problems, boss. I can do that.” Frog sighed and headed to the door. “I’ll be back.”

“Famous last words,” Marcus teased but Johnny gave him an absent-minded wave and continued to type. Whatever he was programming, it kept him busy.

Frog gave another sigh and left. He continued to grumble as he left the main hatch and hurried to the entry. “Mind the shuttle, Frog. Look after the wounded, Frog. Fetch my package, Frog.”

He groaned and wondered which particular deity he’d pissed off enough to deserve fetch and carry duty when he’d rather be neck-deep in programming files. It didn’t take him long to reach the Navy supply depot.

“I’m here for a package for the Morgana?” he said when he stepped up to the counter.

The man behind it brightened immediately. “You’re from the Morgana’s team?”

Frog resisted the urge to roll his eyes and nodded. “Yup. There’s a package for us?”

His frowned. “I’m not sure what message you received, buddy, but it’s not really a package. It’s more a person. No one told you?”

“A person?” His voice squeaked with surprise. “A person?”

“Yeah, buddy. Which planet have you been on? He’s this way.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

“You do realize that this whole thing could be a trap,” the fleet admiral stated and Stephanie stared at him.

“You mean they don’t want to destroy the planet?”

“I mean I don’t think they care. They might want to see what we have and this is their way to force us to show our hand.”

“But we know Dreth is their main target. Why would they bother?”

“Because they know our fleets aren’t based on Earth and they had quite a surprise at Meligorn. They won’t risk the chance of another loss and want to see what we’ve got.”

“So they launch two hundred meteors simply to—” Stephanie began, but Vishlog cut her off.

“It’s a trap.”

She stopped and stared at him, open-mouthed. “I can’t believe you did that.”

“Did what?” the admiral asked.

Sweeping her gaze around the table, she saw he wasn’t the only one who’d missed Vishlog’s reference. The Dreth was unimpressed.

“What? Is no one a fan of Star Wars? Late Twentieth Century?” When blank stares were all he received in response, he huffed out an exasperated breath. “Luddites.”

That, they got. More open mouths resulted.

“Did the Dreth actually call us Luddites?”

Stephanie nodded. “Uh-huh.”

“But… Dreth is the most—”

“Templeton.” The fleet admiral’s warning tone was not lost on the protesting vice admiral.

He closed his mouth with a snap and favored Vishlog with a glare. The warrior returned the expression with a benign smile.

“We lead you in hydro-technology,” the Dreth reminded him.

“But—”

“Templeton!”

“Let’s get back to the matter you called me in here to discuss,” Stephanie suggested and gave her arms man a surreptitious kick under the table.

“He called us Luddites.” Templeton clearly had trouble getting his head around it. “A Dreth.”

“Get over yourself, Temps. We have more important matters to consider,” said another of the admirals at the table, and he subsided.

“Well, we can’t blast them,” Admiral Dailey told them. “I have the calculations of what would happen if we tried that.”

She nodded. “Thank you for at least investigating it.”

It took her a moment to realize they were looking at her.

“I can’t gate them all,” she told them when she realized what they hoped for. “I’ll have Tethis send you the results—or Frog,” she added after a moment’s thought.

Tethis and technology was a relationship in motion and not always harmonious motion.

“We could try to tractor them.”

That led to a discussion of how much power it would take to tractor the asteroids off course.

“And then they’d only come back as a swarm we couldn’t monitor,” was the conclusion.

“Provided we actually had enough juice to pull it off,” was the gloomy addition.

“And managed it without slamming them into each other or one of our own.”

They sat and stared at each other in silence.

“Well,” one would begin before they frowned and stopped. “No…”

“I don’t suppose you could put a shield around the Earth until they passed?”


Chapter Twenty-Five

“Lars, it’s a kid,” Frog whispered and shielded his comms with his hand.

The corporal at the counter watched him, and he had the distinct impression the man had difficulty keeping his face to a professional blank.

“A what?” the team leader asked.

“A kid. You know, a baby Dreth.”

“You’d better not let him hear you calling him that. Boys are touchy about that kind of thing.”

“It’s not funny. What the hell am I supposed to do with a kid?”

“Well, you’re… Hold on a minute,” Lars said, then shouted, “No! Not that one. We can set… Sheesh! Frog, I’m gonna have to call you back.”

“Wait, you can’t—” He sighed when the comms link went dead. “Never mind. I’ll think of something.”

His heart sank as he looked at the youngster who stood before him. The damn kid stood almost as tall as he did and weighed twice as much. He was also green-skinned with prominent lower tusks and a stubborn set to his face.

He knew that look. He’d seen it on Vishlog’s face on more than one occasion and it always meant trouble.

“They sure do grow ʼem big where you come from,” he muttered, and the youngster’s ears twitched.

He turned his head and studied the guard while a sneer curled his lip.

“And they sure do make ʼem short where you come from,” he replied. He looked beyond the man. “Where is my uncle?”

Frog eyed him and wondered how much it would take to set him off. Finally, he shrugged and decided the little shit could learn to cope from the get-go. They wouldn’t have time to ease him into things.

“He’s in a meeting with the Morgana. The call that you’d arrived came after he left.”

To his surprise, the kid’s face brightened. “So he doesn’t know I’m here?”

“No…” he replied, cautious because he couldn’t work out why that would be good news.

“And they sent you.”

Well, he didn’t have to make it sound like he was the worst option. He tilted his head, considered his options, and decided to change the subject. “Are you hungry?”

The small Dreth regarded him with interest. “Are you buying?”

He sighed. “Steph will skin me if I don’t.”

“You’re afraid of a girl?’

“Listen, kid. Anyone with half a brain knows to be afraid of the Morgana.”

Realization dawned. “Ah. Stephanie Morgana.” He tilted his head and made another slow scrutiny of the guard. “Is she the only one?”

“The only one what?”

“The only girl you’re afraid of.”

“My mother’s scary, too,” he admitted. The child froze and his face went blank.

Frog grimaced as the youngster’s throat moved and he had the painful impression that the kid was fighting tears. “So, what’s your name?” he asked in an attempt to break the awkward moment.

The Dreth’s eyes focused and he curled his lip. “You can call me Hrageth,” he said.

“Hrageth,” he repeated, fairly sure this was not the person Vishlog swore by, but he decided not to argue. “Right. Hrageth it is. Let’s get you out of here.”

The kid picked up the duffle bag resting at his feet.

“Is that all you have?”

“I didn’t have much to bring.” The short reply was as much a ‘fuck off’ as Frog had ever heard, and he decided not to pursue it.

Instead, he led the boy out of the small waiting room the Navy had him corralled in and over to the front desk. “Where do I sign?”

“I take it you’re the proxy for his relative?”

“He’s in a meeting,” Frog confirmed. “They sent me.”

The man pulled a face and he sighed. “Look, d’you really want to explain to Vishlog why we made his nephew wait another two hours here when I could have the kid back and settled in before his meeting’s done?”

The corporal regarded him briefly and pulled a tablet out. “Sign here, here…and here,” he instructed, “and I’m obligated to tell you that you are responsible for his safety and actions until such a time as he is given over into the care of his proper guardian.”

“Understood,” Frog told him and glanced at where “Hrageth” edged closer to the door. “Don’t go anywhere or I will tell the Morgana you need a good ass-kicking.”

The corporal behind the counter raised an eyebrow but said nothing as he indicated several places on the tablet where he needed to sign and also insisted on a thumbprint for good measure.

The kid loitered, clearly weighing up the odds of getting into trouble if he left the small man behind.

“Hrageth, my ass,” Frog muttered and noted the name in the documentation. “More like ‘Little Garach.’”

“I’m not little.”

“No, you’re a heaping stack of trouble,” he told him.

“Do you wanna see how much, muschtack?” the young Dreth sneered, and he raised an eyebrow.

“You’re lucky I’ve been told to look after you,” he retorted warningly, “or I’d put you out the nearest airlock.”

Again, the kid gave him an assessing stare, and he had to smother a smile. Damn! The brat reminded him of exactly how he’d been when he was younger and didn’t know how to back down. He also knew he needed an out.

He shook his head. “I gotta feed you first. I can’t put you out an airlock on an empty stomach. Company rules.”

Garach gave him a look that said he didn’t believe a word of it but he didn’t argue.

Frog decided to press his advantage. “So, do you have a preference?”

The kid shot him a puzzled look, one tinged with suspicion. He sighed.

“For food,” he explained. “Do you have a type of food you like?”

“Do you?”

The young Dreth was being downright impossible—exactly like he’d been when he’d been the same age. Frog resisted the urge to glare and forced a shrug. “Well, okay then. I’ve found this little place not far from the ship. It does a nice line in steak and beer—not that you can have the latter.”

“Sure I can. Dreth constitution is stronger than a human’s.”

“It’s still illegal,” he argued.

“No one’s gonna know.”

The kid sounded so much like he had at the same age that Frog almost stopped. It was worse that Garach had a point. Little wretch, he thought. Grechloch. It suits him.

Part of him argued that this wasn’t how the boy’s name was pronounced, but the rest of his mind liked it. He grinned. Of course the kid caught it.

“What?”

“I thought of a nickname for you.”

“Hrageth?”

“Not unless you like the idea of your uncle swearing by your balls every thirty seconds or so.”

Grechloch’s eyes widened. “He does not.”

“No, but Hrageth’s must be itching most of the time. I swear that has to be Vishlog’s favorite curse.”

“Hrageth’s balls…” the kid muttered and tried it for himself. “Mother used to like Shekara’s tits.”

Frog snickered and the kid blushed.

“Not her actual…” He came to a stuttering halt, and the guard slapped him on the shoulder.

“It’s okay, kid. I got it. It’s another Dreth cuss phrase. It’s simply not one I’ve heard.”

“Well, what do you say?”

That gave him pause. Admittedly, there was a part of him that simply itched to teach a Dreth kid to swear, but there was another part of him that desperately wanted to live and not have Stephanie zipper his mouth closed again.

“Uh…maybe later, hey Grech?”

“That is not my name.”

“Nope, it’s your very first nickname.”

“Call me Hrageth.”

Frog raised his eyebrows, and the kid glowered at him.

“Or call me Garach. It is my name.”

Frog couldn’t help it. He pushed. “Or what?”

The glare he got was as dark as any Vishlog had managed, and he smirked. This time, the young Dreth changed the subject.

“Steak,” he began. “What is it?”

The question caught him off-guard and he hesitated. “Uh…do you know what a cow is?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

Well, this will be difficult. Why couldn’t the kid ask me something easy like how the universe was made?

He was saved from having to explain by the sight of the restaurant frontage. “We’re almost there. I can show you what a steak is if you like.”

“Does my uncle like them?”

Frog nodded. “He really does.”

“And beer?”

“You’re not having a beer.”

The truth was Vishlog also liked his beer, but that didn’t mean he’d approve of his eleven-year-old nephew having one, even if the kid was built like a brick shithouse and the size of a human adult and could probably handle it. Nope, that was a discussion he definitely didn’t want to have with the big Dreth—or with Stephanie.

“No arguments,” he reiterated. “That’s something you’ll have to take up with your uncle.”

“Tark.”

Muschtak.”

“Tegorthan reject!”

“Shit for brains.”

“Derkat bait.”

“Oh, look, we’re here…aah…nose-wipe.”

Frog led the way into Halley’s while the kid still worked his way through that last one.

“Are you sure my uncle likes the food here?”

He scowled. The damn kid never let up. “He loves it.”

“Can I have the same as he does?”

When he remembered exactly what Vishlog ordered and exactly how expensive it was, Frog stifled a groan. “You can.”

Hopefully, he could always get it out of the big Dreth later. He wondered if little Dreth ate as much as little humans did when they reached the age for attitude.

“Table for two,” he said when they approached the front counter.

The girl on the desk checked her book and gestured toward the dining area. “You can sit where you like. I have no bookings until dinner.”

Frog arched an eyebrow. “Slow day?”

“A swarm of asteroids heading for your home planet tends to mean less downtime for my usual clientele.”

He supposed it would. “Anywhere?”

“Yup, anywhere.” She eyed the young Dreth but said nothing.

“I do not like the way she looked at me,” Grechloch muttered as Frog led him over to his uncle’s usual table.

“You’re the shortest Dreth she’s ever seen,” Frog told him. “She’s not sure what to make of you.”

“I don’t think she likes Dreth.”

Uh oh. The kid’s too sharp for his own good.

“Not everyone here feels the same way. Your uncle understands.”

“Perhaps he needs to be less understanding.”

“I’ll let you take that up with him but while you’re with me, you’ll eat your lunch and behave.”

Garach shot him a dubious look and cocked an eyebrow, but Frog handed him a menu before he could say anything. “Can you read?”

“I wasn’t brought up in the undercaves. Of course I can read.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but can you read Federation Standard?”

“Does a tark lizard know how to run?”

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

“So, this steak…” Garach reminded him, and Frog pointed out the dishes Vishlog liked best. “And potatoes?”

It reminded him that, while Dreth might import some Earth produce, it didn’t import all that much and maybe not all citizens got to see it. “You didn’t see much off-world stuff, huh?”

“Off-world food is for the weak,” the youngster retorted.

“Don’t let your uncle hear you say that. He swears by Hrageth that steak and potatoes are one of the good things to come out of Earth.”

Garach looked suspicious. “Which part of Hrageth?”

Now that he thought about it, Frog couldn’t remember.

“His favorite is that one,” he said and pointed, “but it’s spicy.”

“Good. I like spice. It is for warriors.”

“Do you see anything you’d like to drink?”

“Beer!”

“I’m not giving you beer. Your uncle would have my nuts.”

“Nuts?”

“Balls.”

“Oh…ha… I’d like to see that.”

“Well, I wouldn’t. Choose something else.”

“There’s milk,” the waitress suggested, having arrived to take their order.

“Milk is for the Meligornians.” Garach’s voice was as scornful as an eleven-year-old’s could be.

She blushed.

“I’m sorry,” Frog told her. “He isn’t house-broken yet.”

“No one will break me.”

“How about I order you what your uncle has when he’s on duty and can’t have beer?”

“As long as it’s not milk.”

“Last I looked, your uncle was Dreth.”

“All right, then.”

“And Stephanie likes chocolate milkshakes.”

Garach didn’t have a reply to that, so he scowled while Frog ordered their lunch.

“How long will it take?” he asked.

“Not long,” he told him and hoped he was right and that the dearth of customers meant they’d be served quickly.

“It doesn’t come out of a replicator, does it?”

He shook his head. “No. They ship the ingredients in and cook them fresh. You have at least a half-hour wait.”

The kid looked around the restaurant and studied the empty seats and the unimpeded view into space. “I can’t see them,” he observed after a minute’s silent staring.

“See what?” Frog asked, momentarily distracted when a half-dozen sailors arrived.

This time, the girl directed them to a table on the other side of the restaurant.

“The asteroids,” Garach answered. “I can’t see them.”

His words caught the attention of one of the sailors who turned and looked in his direction. Frog saw when he froze and nudged the man next to him.

“What’s a Dreth doing in here?” he demanded.

Frog stood quickly. “Aww, c’mon guys, he’s only a little Dreth—”

“I’m not little,” Garach argued and stood on the other side of the table.

“See?” the sailor addressed Frog. “He says he’s not little.”

“Then he’s old enough to know that we don’t like his kind around here.”

“Please, gentlemen, won’t you sit?” the waitress asked, hovering anxiously.

The sailor cast her a stubborn glance. “Sure, lady. We’ll sit.”

She’d begun to relax when he added. “Right after those two leave. This ain’t the place for Dreth-lovers and their toys.”

Frog and Grechloch glanced at each other and launched their first punches. The kid chose the sailor on the left and the guard the one on the right. The waitress scrambled toward the front counter, only to be stopped by another of the sailors and sat firmly in a nearby booth.

“Give us five minutes,” he told her. “We don’t want to be interrupted while we’re cleaning out the space trash.”

“I guess…you guys…only just…came in,” Frog said between dodging punches and retaliating.

More sailors arrived. “Hey! Where’s the service around here.”

“On ice until we get rid of the Dreth and its lover,” one of the others called and the newcomers moved forward to the brawl.

“For Dreth!” Grechloch roared, ducked his head, and rammed his shoulder into his opponent’s chest.

The guy folded, and the Dreth lifted him and threw him into his mates.

“Dreth!” Frog cried and swept the feet out of the man in front of him. He spun and delivered two blows into the sailor behind him, blocked a third attack from the right, and counter-attacked with a fist to the face. As he lashed out, he moved forward, slid around the man, and ducked under a table.

He came up on the other side, quick-stepped onto a chair, and bounced hard in the center of the table. The momentum carried him onto a sailor’s shoulder, and he flipped over the melee to come down on the other side of Garach’s opponent.

“Where’d you learn to do that?”

“That’s one I learned myself,” Frog told him. “I’m little. Getting out of trouble so I can get back into it is important.”

“Heh.” The young Dreth ducked under a fist, elbowed another sailor in the chest, and punched the first in the head.

He failed to block the blow that came from the side and caught the incoming fist firmly with his face.

“Crap,” Frog said as he ducked under one sailor’s attack, drove a fist into the man’s gut, and brought a knee into his face to fell him instantly.

He kicked the guy clear, caught Garach’s arm, and used it to pivot around the kid and block the blow aimed at his head. As he did so, he brought a boot down on the sailor’s casual sneakers.

That elicited a yelp of pain, and Frog bent under a fist that came from the side. The sailor in front of him grasped him by the throat and pushed him back. He dug his heels in and leaned forward, tucked his chin, and thrust his fist upward.

It caught the man under the chin, snapped his teeth together, and jolted his head back. The hand around his throat eased and the guard followed through with several sharp jabs to the man’s rib cage.

He dropped but one of his mates landed a punch from the side, which made Frog see stars.

That’s gonna smart, he thought and wondered how much trouble he was in for getting the kid into a fight in his first hour on board the station.

Hell, for that matter, how much trouble am I in for actually getting into a fight on the Navy station?

Stephanie would have his head for sure.

He heard his fighting partner laugh as the young Dreth hauled him out of the way of the next fist.

The kid needs to learn to block, he observed as Garach absorbed the blow with a grunt. He had to admire the little brat, though. He was holding his own.

Around them, sailors groaned on the restaurant floor and the waitress finally gathered the courage to slip around the edge of the fight. She wasted no time in calling the military police which, on Notaro, consisted solely of Marines.

Frog found his bearings as Grechloch fended off a chair from one of his remaining opponents.

“Nope,” the young Dreth said. “Nope. Try again. Is that the best you have, you lousy piece of human shit?”

The guard gave an internal sigh. The internal dislike of other races would have to go. Otherwise, the little bastard was solid. He sighed out loud as the man opposite him picked up a chair of his own.

“Really?” he asked. “You had to copy your friend?” He ducked under the first sweep and rattled his opponent’s rib cage. “Don’t you have an original thought in your head?”

“Give me that,” Garach snapped, and the impact of him stopping the chair jolted through them.

Frog realized they now stood back to back and chuckled. This time, the guy jabbed the chair at him and he seized it by the legs to stop them from going past him and into Garach’s back.

“That wasn’t very nice of you,” he remarked and caught the man’s gaze as he shifted the chair to the left, rolled along it, and twisted it out of his hands.

He continued the sideways movement and brought it around to pound it into his opponent.

“Guess what?” He grinned, stepped back, and reversed the swing to hit the guy again. “I don’t have an original thought in my head either.”

The thud as his adversary collapsed was echoed by the sailor who had faced Garach, but there was no time for celebration. The MPs had arrived.

“Stop right there!” The order rang out with the force of a small torpedo.

“Oh, shit,” Frog muttered and grabbed the Dreth’s arm. “Stand down, kid. We’re in enough trouble as it is.”

The boy gave him a look of disbelief. “But they started it,” he protested.

“Yeah,” the Marine sergeant told him as he and the squad advanced, tasers in hand, “and you can tell that to the station court in the morning.”

The guard drew the kid behind him and stepped forward. “If you’ll watch the security footage—” he began and the sergeant froze.

“It’s you,” he said.

“Me?” Frog asked and backed away a step so the man would have to take an extra step to use the taser.

“Yeah, the short guy out of the Morgana’s squad.”

He blushed. “Well, yeah. I am the smallest one in the squad.”

One of the sailors closest to him scrambled back. “Fuck.”

The sergeant gave him a nasty grin. “What? Didn’t you know you were picking a fight with one of the elite fighters in the universe? Where have you been? Living under a rock?”

“You could say that,” the guy muttered, scrambled a little farther, and regarded Frog with wide eyes.

“Yeah? Well, be glad you didn’t draw a weapon,” the Marine told him. “That would not have ended well for you.” He glanced at Frog. “Am I right?”

He gave the man his meanest smile. “No, it would not.”

The sailor paled further. “I didn’t know.”

The sergeant rolled his eyes and signaled the Marines forward. “Take these guys to the brig,” he ordered. “I’m fairly sure one of the Witch’s crew won’t pick a fight in Halley’s.” He turned to the guard. “What were you here for?”

Frog gestured to Garach. “The kid just arrived. I was trying to feed him.”

As he spoke, the door to the kitchens opened and a waiter came out bearing two plates.

“Sorry we took so long,” he said and placed them down on a nearby table. “We thought we’d wait until you finished here.”

“Do you need us to come down?” Frog looked at the Marine sergeant.

The man shook his head as his men picked up the guys who’d started the fight. “No. I think you’re in the clear.” He gestured at the cameras. “If not, the footage will tell us.”

Frog shook his head. “No, it won’t.”

“I never thought otherwise. If we need you, we know where to find you.” He gestured to the plates. “Don’t let it go to waste.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.” Frog paused, then sighed. “Sergeant, I wonder if you could make a call for me.”

“Your boss?”

He nodded.

“Will do.” The man followed his men out of the restaurant. Frog turned to the waitress. “I’m sorry about the mess,” he told her and stooped to pick up one of the toppled chairs.

She beat him to it and slapped his hand away. “Don’t be.”

Waving him over to the table, she smiled. “Enjoy your meal. It’s on the house.”

His jaw dropped. “But—”

“It’s not like you started it,” she told him, “and we’re sorry your…” Her brow wrinkled as she studied Garach “Uh, child…had such a rough introduction to our station. Please, take your time.”

He guided the young Dreth over to the table. “Tuck in,” he told him. “You don’t want to offend them.”

Frowning uncertainly, he complied and looked up in puzzlement when the kitchen staff came out a few moments later.

“We’re sorry to disturb your meal,” one of the chefs began and pulled out a notepad, “but…could we have your autographs?”

Witch Of The Federation IV

“Well, I’m glad we can agree on that,” Stephanie said and Admiral Amaratne nodded.

“So, am I,” he agreed. “This, at least, gives us a way forward.”

“Or the start of one.”

Across the table, Commander Geodyne’s comms unit chimed. He frowned and pulled his tablet out. “Excuse me.”

“Ah,” he said a short moment later. “I’ll pass that on.”

He looked at Stephanie. “That was from one of my Marine sergeants. Apparently, there’s been a disturbance between one of your team and he requested we report it to you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Go ahead.”

“This disturbance involved a group of sailors who picked a fight with your team member and…uh, a very short Dreth.”

Vishlog frowned. “There are no short Dreth. That is what Frog calls a noxyoron.”

Stephanie frowned. “It’s an oxymoron,” she snapped, “and I’ll beat that moron in a moment.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Frog was halfway through the biggest steak he’d ever had when his tablet pinged.

“Sorry I took so long,” Lars told him. “It all went to hell and back and then decided to do it twice more for good measure. I take it you have that parcel all sorted out.”

“That parcel is sitting opposite me,” he answered and saw the moment in which the other man registered his quickly blackening eye.

“What the hell happened to you?” He drew a sharp breath. “Oh, shit. Did the package have some breakage too?”

“It’s so good of you to care,” he snarked and turned the tablet so the team leader could see the young Dreth. “Newbie, meet Lars. He’s the boss. Lars, meet Vishlog’s nephew, Garach.”

Lars’s jaw dropped as he took in the Dreth and the darkening black and green flesh around his eye. “Oh, crap. You, too? Stephanie will have a snit fit.”

Garach raised his eyebrows and stuffed another forkful of steak into his mouth.

“Snit fit?” he mumbled around the half-chewed meat.

“It means Steph will rip someone a new asshole—and hopefully, not us,” Frog told him.

The kid chewed fast and swallowed. “But we didn’t start it—and what’s a what you called me? Newbie?”

“Oh, that?”

The Dreth nodded.

“It means you’re the newest member of the family.” He turned to Lars. “I told the MPs to look at the security footage, but I can pull it when I get back so she can see it. Like the kid said, we didn’t start it.”

The team leader gave him a dubious look. “Uh-huh.”

“We didn’t,” Garach protested as Frog turned the tablet back to himself.

“Boss, we really didn’t. Not this time. I brought the kid to Halley’s because Vishlog likes it so much. I thought he might as well have lunch before I took him back.”

“Uh-huh. Well, at least you haven’t been arrested. I want that footage as soon as you’re back on board.”

“Yes, boss.”

“Wait! Footage?” Garach had finally caught up and his yellow eyes gleamed with excitement. “As in there are pictures of us fighting?”

“Yes.” Lars sounded tired. “Yes, there are.”

“Can I have them?”

“What?”

“The pictures. Can I have them? It’s my first bar fight…and it’s on film.”

Frog buried his face in his hands and groaned. The other man shook his head.

“Dreth. You can’t leave them alone and you can’t take them to a bar. You two need to shake a leg and finish your food before Stephanie hears about it and comes over there.”

Garach had resumed his meal but now he stopped and stared as Lars’s face paled and his eyes widened. “What?”

Frog watched the other man’s gaze shift past him and groaned. “She’s right behind me, isn’t she?”

“Nope,” Lars replied hastily. “But close and getting closer. Bye.”


Chapter Twenty-Six

Aaron looked up as Gene slid into the booth beside him.

“I have to be out of my tiny little mind,” his work partner complained. “Katie will kill me and that’s nothing compared to what the Navy will do if they ever work out what we’re up to.”

“Thanks for doing this,” he told him. “It means a lot.”

“You know you can go and fuck yourself,” his friend grumbled. “I’m only here because… Oh, hell. I don’t know.”

“You’re a good friend,” he said, “and I appreciate it.”

“The things you get me into. So, where do we start?”

“Well, I thought I’d begin looking at BURT from about here…” Aaron tapped the screen and opened a second screen before he retrieved a spare keyboard from his desk drawer. “I’ll let you handle that.”

Gene looked at it. “Gee, thanks.”

He snagged the spare chair Aaron had acquired from somewhere and settled into it. “This is gonna be a long night.”

“But it should be the only one. I’ve run programs in the background—”

“You’ve what?”

“Shhh. Keep it down.” He reached past him and pushed the door closed. “D’you want everyone to know?”

“If they don’t actually find out, it’ll be a fucking miracle.”

“Yeah, well, the sooner we start—”

“Shut up.”

He decided he’d pushed Gene as far as he probably should—and maybe further—so he shut up and got to work, comforted by the fact that his friend was beside him. It took them until the early hours of the morning before they reached the point where they were almost sure and they both stopped typing at the same time.

“So…” Gene began, and Aaron nodded.

“Yeah…there’s that.”

They shut their computers down.

“We’d better get out of here,” he said, and the other man glared at him.

“We shouldn’t have been here in the first place.”

They left together, swiped out, and said goodbye to the security guards.

“Long shift?”

“Yeah,” Aaron grinned. “I’m glad it’s over.”

“Aren’t you supposed to start in a few hours?”

“Yup. We gonna get some shut-eye while we can. Have a safe shift.”

The guard nodded and waved them through. “See you tonight.”

Aaron frowned and then realized the man was referring to the next night shift when they’d work overtime and clock out after he’d had time off and come back on. He grinned again.

“Will do.”

They got through the main gate and began to walk to the nearest tram stop.

“So, same time again tomorrow?” he asked.

To his relief, Gene nodded. “Hell, yeah. And that should be the end of it. We’ll know for sure.”

Neither of them noticed the slim figure in the blues and greys of city cam drop behind them and follow on silent feet. Ms E listened to make sure they had the right guys before she called her team in.

The two men walked on, oblivious, and cut down an alley between two buildings rather than walking around the intervening block. Elizabeth listened as they continued their conversation, one seeking assurance from the other.

“But it’s fairly obvious already, right?”

It was reluctantly given. “Yeah, it is, and I have no idea how we’re gonna—”

The rest of his sentence was lost in the roar of an engine and squeal of tires as a van hurtled out of a side street and stopped dramatically beside them.

“Jeez!” Aaron exclaimed. “What do you think you’re doing?”

The only reply was the emergence of four black-clad figures who slid open the van’s side door and yanked them inside.

Witch Of The Federation IV

It was a relieved Frog who accompanied Stephanie to the ship. Garach walked ahead of him at his uncle’s side, slightly in awe of the slender figure who led them to the entrance to the Ebon Knight’s docking bay.

When she turned to face him at the door, he froze.

“I need you to hold this,” she told him and proffered a short metal bar.

With an uncertain glance at Vishlog and then Frog, the kid took it.

“And?” he said when he had a hold of it.

“How do you feel about me kicking Teloran ass?” she asked him and he grinned.

“Tegortha’s bastards, can I help?” he demanded and dropped the bar with a yelp. “Hrageth’s balls, that thing is freezing.”

She laughed, picked it up, and slapped him on the shoulder. “You pass, kid. Welcome to the family.”

Garach gave her a very confused look. “There was a test?”

“Yeah, there was.” She waggled the bar at him. “And you did fine.”

When she turned to lead them into the repair bay, he looked at his uncle. “What was the test?”

Vishlog shrugged. “The bar reveals those who dislike our Morgana and who wish the Federation ill. I knew you did neither.”

Frog watched the emotions at war over Garach’s face—pride that he’d passed, pride that his uncle had had faith in him, disappointment that he hadn’t been told ahead of time, and uncertainty as to where he stood with the family he’d found. The last two faded quickly, and the guard breathed a sigh of relief.

The kid’s gonna be fine, he told himself. Just fine. It didn’t stop the worry from gnawing at his chest. I’ll make sure of it, he promised himself and followed the two Dreth on board.

They’d reached the Knight’s hatch when Stephanie’s comm unit pinged and she paused. After a brief moment, she looked at Vishlog.

“The captain needs to see us.” Her gaze shifted to Garach. “I’m sorry, Vishlog, but I need you.”

“He can stay with me,” Frog volunteered before anyone else had a chance to speak. He was determined that the kid not be abandoned so shortly after arriving.

She looked uncertain and he shrugged. “It’ll be fine. I’m fairly sure none of our crew will start a fight with us.”

The kid grinned at the word “us,” Vishlog nodded, and she relaxed a fraction. “Fine, but you’ll need to introduce Garach to the rest of the team, too—including the cats.”

He groaned and she ignored him.

“Make sure he knows the ship and check in with the quartermaster for bunking. I think he and Vishlog have new quarters.”

The large warrior raised his eyebrows at that and she shrugged. “Frog’ll catch you up on everything when we’re done,” she told him, and Frog raised an eyebrow, too. He’d what?

She caught the look. “You heard.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he muttered but she ignored him.

“We’ll talk later,” the warrior told his nephew. “Welcome home.”

He followed Stephanie without saying more and the youngster watched him go. His face took on a stolid blankness before he looked at Frog, who sighed. “Come on, Garach. Let’s see where your room is.”

It took him a good hour to sort out the kid’s quartering since no-one had been told of the addition. Lars had been busy with the security systems, and Johnny and Marcus were still in the data center. Brenden and Avery were with Wattlebird, tinkering with the shuttle controls.

To give the quartermaster time to make the necessary arrangements, Frog took Garach to meet everyone and then headed to Stephanie’s quarters. “Do you like cats?”

Garach frowned. “Like derkats?”

“Sure, let’s go with that,” he agreed. “Like derkats.”

The kid paled. “She has derkats?”

“Not exactly. Why?”

“Because derkats hunt Dreth,” Garach told him. “They are the fiercest creatures we have.”

“Oh…” He realized what he’d done. “What I meant was they looked like derkats. They don’t eat people.”

“Are you sure?” the kid asked as they stopped outside the door.

“Well, yeah,” he reassured him as he opened the door and stepped inside.

The cats pounced.

Zeekat drove into the back of his legs as Bumblebee launched himself off the couch and bounded into his chest to ride him to the carpet. Garach froze and gaped as Frog thumped into the floor and lay there with a smug-looking Bumblebee on top of him.

Both cats noticed the boy at the same time. Bee raised his head and sniffed at him, and Zee circled to cut him off from the door. Frog tried to watch the black-and-white beast’s progress.

“Zee, he’s a friend,” he gasped. “Friend. Bumblebee….

The yellow-and-black cat tossed its horns and stepped off his chest.

Garach remained perfectly still, his eyes wide as he studied the two cats that circled him like sharks. “Are you sure they don’t eat people?”

“Fairly sure,” Frog told him.

“And they know that Dreth are people?”

“They do.” He rolled slowly onto his knees. “They really, really do.”

He tried to catch Zeekat’s gaze to get him to acknowledge that he understood, but the cat ignored him. Rubbing his chest, he clambered to his feet. “Zee! Bee! Come on now. Be nice. He’s new family. We like him. Stephanie likes him.”

That made them both pause. They looked from Frog to the kid and back again.

He began to relax. “There you go. He’s family, boys.”

Which was when they burst into action. Zeekat rubbed his way around the kid’s legs and Bee rose onto his hindquarters and placed his paws on the boy’s chest to stare into his face.

Garach raised his hands and placed them on the cat’s chest while Zee leaned into the back of his legs and Bee bounced his paws against his shoulders. The young Dreth went down with a shout of surprise and immediately stilled when both cats stood over him.

“Nice one, guys,” Frog snarked, walked over to them, and pushed them aside. “He’s supposed to like you.”

“I do,” the boy said and surprised him.

The young Dreth scratched Zeekat under the chin with one hand and offered Bumblebee the same service with the other.

“See?” he asked, as the yellow-and-black cat settled his head in his hand. “He likes me.”

Bee gave Frog a sidelong glance and his tail twitched gently from side to side. He could have sworn the cat was smirking.

“Smart asses,” he grumbled but couldn’t help scratching their ears.

They rumbled into purrs and followed him to the door.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” he told them. “Mama’s coming home soon and you need to be here.”

Bee yawned and sat on his haunches and Zee wandered back to his cushion.

“See?” Frog asked the yellow-and-black cat and pointed at Zee. “He knows what to do. Now, why can’t you do the same?”

Bumblebee raised his forepaw and extended his claws to clean each one carefully while he watched Frog intently. Garach snickered. “I like these cats.”

Bee flicked his ears forward and Zee raised his head. Both felines looked far too pleased with themselves. Frog let himself out the door. “That’s only because you don’t know them yet.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Aaron gasped. A wave of fear followed the wave of terror as the woman leaned over him again. The van turned another corner and the blade in her hand grazed his cheek. He gulped.

“I asked you a question, little man.”

“I… I…” He rolled his eyes, looking for Gene. Katie would kill them both—and that was only if this lady decided to leave her anything to kill.

The hand cupping his chin tightened.

“Your friend can’t help you.”

The knife came back into view, and he stared at it.

“I can’t tell you that,” he croaked. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t—”

He tried to draw his knees up to his chest but she sat over him and there was nothing he could do about it. Two sets of knees pinned his wrists and hands held his ankles. The knife slid out of sight.

“Hmmm. Well, here’s what we know,” she began, and he felt the scrape of metal over the side of his throat.

Aaron flinched and heard bristles scratch against the blade.

“We know you’re looking into a rogue AI and you shouldn’t be.” She leaned even closer. “You really, really shouldn’t.”

The blade scraped again and more bristles fell.

“We know you’re breaking rules—many rules—that are there for a reason.”

The slap that rocked his head sideways came as a surprise, but at least the knife went away. Aaron gasped. A second blow followed, then a third and a fourth.

“Tell me!”

“We can’t! We didn’t find it,” he managed. “We have nothing.”

It was a lie, but she lifted off him and he breathed a sigh of relief. Her voice was cold when next she spoke.

“Give him something to think about—but not enough that he misses work tomorrow.”

“What?”

The heavy block of paper placed against his ribs came as a surprise. The blows that followed did not. Aaron gasped with pain but didn’t miss hearing Gene answer the questions he had refused.

“Yes…all right— Yes. We’re looking for a rogue AI.”

“And do you have any idea where it is?”

“I can’t tell—”

The sharp crack of flesh meeting flesh was all it took, and Gene answered.

“It’s BURT. We think it’s BURT.”

“How sure are you?”

“Almost. We’re almost sure.”

Another blow jolted through him and Aaron groaned, but the pain did not stop him from hearing the next question and Gene’s answer.

“How almost?”

“One more night. One more night should do it.”

He didn’t miss his friend’s sudden gasp or the short pause before he began to choke.

“Don’t,” Aaron begged as another blow landed. “Please don’t kill him. It was all my idea.”

The choking stopped and he could hear Gene draw long, ragged breaths. The woman’s next words weren’t comforting. “Give him half the dose you gave his friend.”

He pulled in several shaky breaths that were close to sobs as he heard the soft thumps of fists hitting paper and Gene’s answering groans. The woman straddled his chest and leaned in close.

“Your idea?”

Aaron nodded, his mouth dry with fear.

“So,” she said, “I want you to listen.”

The thud of more blows falling and Gene’s muffled cries of pain filled the moments that followed.

“Do you hear that?”

He nodded, his body trembling. She raised a hand and he flinched, but the blows stopped. Terrified, he stared at his captor. Her eyes glittered beyond the mask.

“You and your friend are to stop. Do you understand?”

Aaron nodded again.

“Do you?” The threat in her voice made him realize he had to speak.

“Y…yes. Yes, I understand.”

“Understand what?”

“No more research.”

“Research into what?”

“The rogue AI. No more research into the rogue AI.” He spoke so fast he wasn’t sure she’d understood.

Her gaze did not shift from his and he waited, staring at her and willing her to understand.

“Please, I understand.” He thought of Gene. “We…we understand. Please…”

“Good. This is what you will do. You will go back to work. You will work on exactly what the Navy assigns you. You will work on nothing else. Nothing. Do you hear me?”

He nodded, and his friend groaned a fervent affirmative.

They understood.

“You are to forget this AI.”

Aaron licked his lips. “We could get fired if we don’t mention—” He gasped as she glanced from him to Gene and back. “If we don’t mention our concerns. We could be fired.”

His voice dried up as she shifted, and he felt the sharp edge of a blade resting at the base of his ribs. He closed his eyes and waited, but the blade went away. When the woman remained silent but didn’t go away, he opened them again.

The hand that held his jaw was implacable.

“Listen to me. If you get fired, you will be hired at twice your pay but so far, you have nothing but assumptions and frankly, this world, during this war, does not need another stress they are not equipped to handle.”

At the other end of the van, Gene made sounds of desperate agreement, but Aaron’s gaze did not waver. He kept his gaze locked on the woman’s and waited.

“We are working on the same project, and we will protect the world so you gentlemen need to take a step back and go on your way.” The hand on his jaw tightened and she shook his head. “The options are not good.”

She stood and moved away from him, and as if the movement was a signal, the van slid to a halt. Before he could work out what was happening, he was picked up and tossed out.

He landed in the grass of a small park not far from the high-rise he lived in and Gene tumbled beside him shortly after. Neither of them moved for a long time after the van raced away. Aaron was the first.

“Fuck…me…” He groaned, rolled onto his knees, and stayed there until his head stopped spinning.

Gene followed him to his feet. “I think I hate you.”

“That’s okay. I hate me, too,” he told him. “I’m sorry, man.”

“You know sorry doesn’t cut it. I’m gonna have the devil’s own time getting Katie to not report this.” His friend looked around. “Hey, are we home?”

Aaron took a good look at the buildings around the park. “It looks like it.”

“They dropped us at home?” The man’s voice rose in a panicked whisper. “I have to make sure Katie’s okay. There’s no saying what they might have done to her.”

His words sent a cold chill through Aaron’s gut.

“Yeah, you go, man,” he whispered. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

“No. No, we won’t.” Gene was adamant. “We’re not talking about this ever.”

“But—”

“No. Aaron, I’m done. I’m gonna do exactly as the lady asked. I won’t go near that shit with a barge pole. If you want to chase it, you’re on your own. Don’t even tell me. I don’t want to know.”

They’d started to move toward the block containing their apartments, but Aaron stopped. He laid a hand on Gene’s shoulder.

“You know I can’t. I…I have to know if I made him…more than what he was. I have to know if this is all my fault.”

His friend stared at him in disbelief. “I’m not doing it. I can’t. I have Katie. You need to leave it alone, too.”

“I can’t.”

He flinched as the other man swung toward him, sure he would take a swing at him, but all he did was grasp him by both shoulders and look intently into his face.

“Look, man. You do what you gotta do, but this thing? It’s an itch that will get you killed. Leave it the hell alone.”

Seeing the desperate fear in his friend’s eyes, Aaron nodded. “I’ll try.”

Gene studied his face a moment longer before he swung toward his apartment.

“Go home, Aaron. We have work tomorrow.”


Chapter Twenty-Seven

“The drives are almost back up to speed,” Emil told Stephanie.

“What do you mean, almost?”

“I mean we can use the propulsion drive but not the fast warp capability. That’s still a couple of days away.”

“And the weapons system?”

“The cooling’s done and we’re working on increasing the rate of fire. Extra structural support is next.”

“Is it important?”

“The specs say we don’t really need it, but I’d rather we had it than not. That’s why it’s last on the list.”

“Fair enough. The hull?”

“Repairs are complete or we wouldn’t go anywhere. Ebony was very determined on that point.”

“My structural integrity is at one hundred and twenty-five percent,” the Knight told them smugly, “and engineering tells me we should reach one hundred and fifty percent in four days’ time.”

“A hundred and fifty?” Stephanie asked her. “How is that even possible?”

“We are using comparative specs. I am well above the standard statistics for ships of my class, even if I am the only one.”

She stifled a groan. The Knight sounded like every jock she’d ever had the misfortune to overhear. She turned to Emil. “Is there anything else I need to know about?”

“Jonathan has tweaked the flight controls.”

With a wry smile, she shook her head. “He was in the shuttles, too.”

Emil paled. “I’ll look into it.”

“Avery and Brenden seemed happy.”

The captain groaned. “They would be. Don’t tell me the three of them—”

“Uh-huh.”

He looked toward the ceiling. “Ebony?”

“The specifications to which the three pilots were working were new but they were within the parameters of possibility.”

“That’s not comforting.”

“You should not worry, captain. I approved the alterations. My shuttles will handle much better now.”

Stephanie pressed her lips together in an effort not to laugh. The ship was definitely becoming a jock.

Emil sighed. “And their structural integrity?”

“I have crews ensuring it will hold.”

“It had better do more than that, Ebony,” she told her, “or I’ll have BURT reprogram your soul.”

There was a short silence before the ship responded and sounded puzzled. “But…I do not have a soul, Stephanie.”

“That’s something you can take up with BURT the next time you’re in dock.”

“I will take that under advisement,” was delivered in stiff tones.

Stephanie smiled. Advisement, huh?

“It’s life support that needs more time,” Emil told her and broke into her thoughts. “The data center uncovered a slight glitch in the recycling program, which we traced to a piece of shrapnel that penetrated deeper into the hull than we’d realized.”

“How could you not—” she began, but the ship was quick to interrupt.

“The debris in question traveled through several open spaces before it lodged in the primary recycling unit in a position not overseen by routine maintenance. It was not until yesterday that we uncovered the problem.”

“And?”

“We did not inform you because we were able to source the appropriate materials and the extent of the problem did not become clear until this morning.”

She sighed and looked at the captain. “How long?”

“It’ll be at least another forty-eight hours before we leave the docks.”

“Fine. Schedule the departure.”

“We will only leave if the problem is resolved,” the Knight told her primly. “It is unwise to—"

“Schedule the goddamned departure,” Stephanie snapped. “You have forty-eight hours to get it right or we’ll ship out in suits. Either way, we’re going.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he told her and stiffened to attention.

She didn’t miss the anxious glance he cast the ceiling or the slight relaxation in his shoulders when Ebony remained silent.

“If we don’t leave then, people will go nuts thinking the worst. The riots we’ve seen are only the start. We cannot let it get any worse.”

“I understand,” he assured her, but the Knight remained silent.

Stephanie sighed. “We need to show them we’re doing something and the only way to do that is to leave.”

Emil opened his mouth to respond but a knock at his office door prevented him from doing so. He quirked an eyebrow and raised his head. “Come.”

The door opened and four men stepped through—the quartermaster, the head of engineering, and the two men in charge of the Navy’s borrowed work crews.

The first of these stepped forward. “We’re sorry to interrupt,” he began, “but we wanted you to know that the crew has talked about things and everyone’s volunteered to keep working if the ship gets underway.”

The other man nodded. “We can get everything we need on board…”

The quartermaster lowered his chin to confirm it, and the man continued, “So we can fix the rest of the stuff in transit.”

“But—” the captain began, and the team leader raised his hand.

“We’ve watched the newscasts, too, sir, and things are bad at home. We need to do something and that can only happen if we’re out there.”

“We all have families back home,” his partner added. He looked at Stephanie and his eyes begged her to understand. “We need you to buy them some time.”

“Knight?” she asked and glanced at the ceiling.

“I have run the calculations. What they say is correct. We can fit the supplies onboard and the tension on Earth is increasing. If my understanding of human nature is correct, you do need to be seen to act in order for that tension to decrease.”

“And the supplies?”

“I have organized a schedule.”

The tablets of her four visitors pinged and they pulled them out.

“Will it work?” the Knight asked, and the men nodded.

Stephanie looked at the chief engineer. “Cameron?”

“Yes,” he said, and it wasn’t an acknowledgment but an answer to the question she hadn’t asked. He expanded his response. “Yes, this will work.” He hesitated, then added, “If you’ll excuse me, I need—”

The chief engineer paused and looked at Emil. “With your permission, Captain?”

“Granted. All of you. Do what you need to do.”

The office was cleared in double-quick time and Emil looked at Stephanie. “I’m not sure I have time for more vac suits to arrive.”

She managed a small smile. “I’m sorry, Emil.”

He shook his head. “Don’t be, but if you’ll excuse me, there are a few things…”

“We’ll get out of your way.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

The workmen were right.

On Earth, people clung to normality as best they could but the approaching asteroids sent an undercurrent of fear through them. In Danny’s, a bar in the Chicago Subs, patrons cheered the Bears to another touchdown but their cries were subdued and many stared at the screen without really seeing it.

They drank their beer without really tasting it and tried to forget what was happening beyond the sky. Some almost succeeded as the Ponies rallied and the Bears fought back. The fight between fans at the edge of the field provided a welcome diversion.

Play had just returned to normal when a brief martial fanfare and the Federation logo interrupted the broadcast.

In normal times, this would have elicited booing and catcalls of protest but now, it drew their rapt attention and hope flickered. Patrons nudged their neighbors and shushed others who spoke, and they all sat a little straighter.

The sight of Admiral Amaratne, the Federation Navy’s fleet admiral, drew brief hushed whispers.

“Greetings, citizens of Earth,” he began. “The Federation Navy has heard your calls for action and worked to prepare its answer. The time for that to be delivered has come.”

He turned his head and the screen to his left showed the Navy space station.

After he’d stared at it for a moment, he continued. “We are sending a team who will depart Space Base Notaro in less than an hour.”

This drew gasps of surprise and murmurs of “about time” from audiences around the country, but the admiral continued oblivious.

“This team will confirm our options for destroying the rocks now headed in our direction, and I have asked one of them to speak to you about the approach they’ll take.”

He stepped back and directed the camera to the edge of the screen with a gesture of his hand. As he did so, he stepped out of the picture and Stephanie stepped in.

In bars and lounge rooms around the room, excitement sent ripples of hope through the audience. A brief outburst of relief was swiftly followed by rapt silence.

“The Ebon Knight has been repaired,” she told them. “In the last seventy-two hours, Navy repair crews have worked around the clock and taken her from the wreck she was to a fully operational vessel. While there is still work to be done, these repairs will be completed over the next forty-eight hours.”

Some wondered how that would happen if they were leaving in an hour, but she hadn’t finished.

“While they work, the Knight will be in transit to the asteroid field, where we will begin to assess exactly what we can do. When that’s done, we’ll give you the proof you need that we can deal with the threat.”

Whoops of relief broke out across the world. In stadiums where games were being played, the teams stood side by side and watched the big screen as intently as everyone else.

“And then,” she concluded, “we’ll begin the process of stopping the rocks.”

The whoops turned to widespread cheers and people rose in the stands at stadiums or behind their tables at bars and raised their fists in jubilation. Stephanie took a few steps back and turned away.

She ignored the cameras that panned to follow her and provided a wider view of the studio. The scene showed her joining the rest of her team and scratching the heads of the two cats that twined around her legs.

Two of her guards came alongside her as the team left and none of them looked back at the cameras. The patrons at Danny’s watched them go and some settled down to the best-tasting beer they’d had in weeks.

One turned to his best friend, a puzzled look on his face.

“Who’s the short Dreth?”


Chapter Twenty-Eight

When Stephanie arrived at the asteroid field four days later, she was not alone. The Federation Navy had sent two destroyers, the Cathay Williams and the Harry Chauvel, to keep her company.

The asteroids spread before them, traveling relentlessly toward Earth. They looked almost peaceful…like rough-cut cattle trundling across the plains of space—except these weren’t grazing peacefully. They were in a full-blown stampede and would flatten the planet in their path.

She stood on the Knight’s bridge and watched them while she wondered how something so eerily beautiful could originate from such spite. If they hadn’t ben intended to kill her homeworld, she’d have found them soothing.

Tethis stood beside her and they studied the problem together.

“So,” she said, “you’re sure we can’t gate them.”

“Are your eyes painted on?” he demanded and gestured at the scene on the forward viewscreen. “You might think you’re a superhero, but not even Superman could shift these.”

Stephanie stared at him. “Superman?”

He crooked an eyebrow at her and his skin flushed. “I had to find something to occupy my time while I was busy keeping out from underfoot. Your film selection is a little…dated.”

One of the command crew snorted but she couldn’t determine who.

“Are you sure?”

The older mage huffed out a sigh. “What is it with the young? You can never take no for an answer. You insist on talking it to death.”

“And?” she pushed.

“Look,” Tethis grouched, “every time you move a meteor, you use energy.”

“Yeah,” she snarked in response. “I’m fairly sure I have that down pat.”

“When you’re done.”

“Sorry.”

“So,” the old Teacher continued, “every time you change the angle of one of them, you increase the amount of MU you need to shift it. The greater the angle of change, the heavier the energy drain.”

He gave her a moment to absorb it. “It’s why you could do less than a dozen before and why you collapsed when you did more. There is no way you can do what you did at Meligorn for the two hundred or so rocks out there.”

To punctuate his point, he stabbed in the direction of the screen.

“Well…what about slowing them?”

“The same thing applies,” Tethis told her. “Only this time, you’re dealing with kinetic energy more directly. Instead of trying to direct it, you’re fighting to stop it.”

“So, it’s still no go?” Stephanie asked and he gave a groan of exasperation.

“No…unless…” His face took on a faraway look as he stared at the moving field.

“Unless what?”

“Well, you know how you spin gMU down to make it more powerful?”

“Yeah.” Stephanie did her best not to tap her foot with impatience.

She knew it wasn’t advisable to rush an idea, but the man was driving her crazy—and she wasn’t totally sure he wasn’t drawing it out on purpose.

“So what if we could use the energy of the rocks themselves to power magic against the other rocks?”

“What? What does that have to do with condensing gMU?”

“Well, that’s merely turning one form of energy into another,” he explained. “So what if we turned the kinetic into magical energy?”

“But gMU is magical energy and we’re turning it into MU, which is another form of magical energy. What you’re talking about are two different kinds of energy.”

His face fell. “So you don’t think it will work?”

“No, I’m not saying that. I simply didn’t think of it. You might actually have something, though. Talk me through it.”

“These rocks are all going at approximately the same velocity, so their energy is similar except for size. Based on that, if we can harness the energy from one to slow another, both rocks should slow…right?”

“Maybe?”

“Look.” He tried again. “One rock loses its inertia, which gives us the energy to transfer so we can slow another one down. We don’t need every other Meligornian magic-user. We only need time.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Three hours later, they stood on the bridge again. The forward viewscreen was dominated by the asteroids, which looked much closer than they really were.

The one they’d chosen was at the rear of the field since slowing those in the front could result in a shattering collision with the faster-moving rocks behind. Stephanie looked at Tethis.

“What do you think?”

He glared at her. “You already know what I think,” he snapped tetchily and jerked a hand to indicate the room, “and the calculations match. It’s now up to us to make it work.”

She ignored his sharp manner and stifled a smile. The old Master had been disgusted by the idea that magic could be reduced to a mathematical calculation. Then, he’d been fascinated—especially when the calculations had to be reworked to match the reality.

“This is almost fun,” he’d said in the relative privacy of the data center while the technicians had tried to match the math to what was happening in front of them when he or Stephanie did something.

In all honesty, she hadn’t been so sure. They’d had to limit their investigations to the magic they’d use to move the rocks or there’d have been a very real danger of the two mages exhausting themselves before they even started on the real threat.

As it was, she hoped they could achieve what the math said they could and that they’d done enough to avoid breaking anything unexpected. The last thing they needed was for one of the rocks to fragment under the forces they applied.

The fragments would still kill their world.

She caught Tethis’s eye. “Are you ready?”

He rolled his eyes and raised his hands. “I was born ready.”

The crew around them snickered, and she wondered which particular movie he’d stolen that line from.

Instead of asking, she focused on the chosen rock, pulled gMU in, and condensed it into eMU. Reaching out, she used it to reveal the kinetic energy she wanted to affect. Gasps of surprise tugged at her hearing, but she ignored them, aware of Tethis mirroring her action on a second meteor.

The recordings taken by the Knight would show her what it looked like later—when it was time to pull it apart and try to work out a way to do it better. The kinetic energy displayed as red and stood out strongly against the blue of the eMU.

She frowned as she considered how to reduce it. The asteroid glowed a thick, bright scarlet before her and its brilliance made her squint.

“Ha!” Tethis exclaimed. “Speed equals brightness. I beat you.”

Stephanie groaned.

“That’s why you need me. I can study things you don’t have time for while you’re gallivanting about and saving the universe.”

“It’s not gallivanting.”

“Well, whatever it is, you simply need to focus on peeling a little of the brightness away and pulling it in with the gMU around us. The magic does the rest.”

This time, she resisted the urge to ask him if he was sure and tried to do what he suggested instead. Peeling didn’t work, but when she thought of sucking some of the brightness away, there was an immediate result

“Gottit!”

The old Meligornian grinned. “Are you ready for this?”

His jubilance was infectious, and she grinned in return. “I was born ready, too.”

Together, they bled some of the brightness from their chosen targets and drew it in to spin through the gMU and condense into eMU. To her surprise, it worked much better than she’d hoped.

Well, that opens up possibilities, she thought.

“Focus, child,” Tethis snapped.

She jerked back to the present and he continued. “This time, we’ll show your Earth there’s hope.”

“It’s working!” came the jubilant cry from the crewman on scans. “See?”

A smaller window opened in the bottom of the screen to highlight the distance between the two meteors she and Tethis had worked on and the rest of the swarm.

“Yes, but can you record it?” Emil asked. “It’s no good if we can see it but we can’t send it home.”

“I can capture that image,” the Knight reassured them. “My scanners are very good.”

Her tone reminded Stephanie of Bumblebee when the cat felt particularly smug. He had a specific yawning growl right before he licked his shoulder in satisfaction at a job well done—usually, it was disemboweling her favorite cushion.

Last time, it had been because he’d swatted her as she’d moved past and she’d yelled at Zee who’d arrived seconds later. Frog had fallen off the chair laughing and shown her the security footage.

Great, I have the universe’s biggest cat and it comes with a vacuum-resistant hull and shielding, she thought and hoped the Knight didn’t take to pushing things into suns the way cats liked knocking drinks off tables.

“Hey!” Tethis shouted and smacked her on the shoulder. “I don’t know where you are but you need to get your head in here so we can show the universe asteroid swarms can be stopped.”

It reminded Stephanie that the footage would also be sent to Meligorn so the mages there could study it. Everyone wanted an alternative means to stop a bombardment. No one wanted a repeat of what happened to the Wanderer, even if they wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

She and her fellow mage chose a sequence of four rocks each.

“You’d better make it six,” Emil told them. “We’ll film the first two and send the footage once it shows they’ve slowed, then we’ll live-stream the rest as you work so folk can check and reassure themselves that the first four weren’t a fluke.”

He didn’t add that they’d keep streaming in case this really was a trap and the Telorans appeared. No one needed to hear it. They all knew it was a possibility.

The crews working on the weapons systems had moved through increasing the guns’ rate of fire and on to extra support and power. Someone had thought of a modification to the shields that meant they could move power between grid sectors and project an overlapping field.

One bright spark in communications had come up with the idea of manufacturing positive energy grenades that could be packed into a missile head with the explosive. It involved tapping the ships’ batteries and filling empty bottles, but several teams of volunteers worked around the clock under Cameron’s watchful eye.

“And…go,” the scanner operator told them and dragged Stephanie back to the present.

She focused on her designated meteor and siphoned off some of the red kinetic energy that billowed around it. Beside her, Tethis did the same.

The new energy felt different coming in, but the gMU seemed to absorb it in the same way it absorbed different forms of magical energy. As she pulled it in, the meteor slowed, which bought them more time to act.

A part of her was aware that the crew captured the change in speed while she worked and heard the relief that tinged their voice as they sent the relevant clip to the Navy’s PR department, but she didn’t let it distract her.

As soon as she was done with the first one, she moved on to the next and then a third. The fourth proved as easy as the last three and she wondered how many she could get through before she had to stop and rest.

That was the next phase of the learning curve. She and Tethis had to monitor their energy levels and stop before they went into a catatonic state that would require days of rest to recover from. They needed to stop in time that a good eight hours’ sleep would see them right for the next round.

Secretly, she planned to try for four hours’ rest between meteor braking but wasn’t about to tell anyone else that. Tethis wouldn’t approve, for sure, and Lars was likely to get Vishlog to sit on her until she slept.

Neither option appealed.

Finishing with the fourth meteor, she went to work on the fifth and noticed that the Teacher kept pace with her. He caught her look.

“It’s not a race,” he told her. “If we work at the same rate, we can pace each other.”

That made sense and she nodded as she reached out with the eMU to snag the asteroid’s scarlet glow. When she pulled the kinetic energy through the eMU, movement at the scanner’s edge caught her eye.

At the same time, klaxons began to wail, and the captain cupped his hand over his ear. Captain Yale appeared in a small window at the side of the forward viewscreen, and Captain Docherty appeared shortly after.

“We have incoming,” Yale told them. “The Williams will stand between.”

“The Chauvel will take your starboard, Captain,” Docherty told her.

Yale fixed them with a firm stare. “Captain Emil, you will ensure the Morgana and her advisor survive to continue their work.”

“We’re staying,” Stephanie growled as the door to the bridge slid open.

Captain Yale’s voice softened. “The Navy cannot allow that, ma’am.”

She turned and froze when Captains Sartre and Moser arrived with a squad of Marines at their backs. Her heart fell at the thought that she had men aboard who would seek to stop her doing what she needed to do with her own ship.

Captain Yale raised her head, but Sartre cut her off.

“Understood, Captain. We will see that our orders are carried out.”

“See that she survives,” the captain commanded, and he saluted.

Stephanie felt breathless as the images of both captains winked out. To her surprise, Sartre looked at Emil’s second in command, Mulvaney. “Did you manage it?”

The commander nodded. “They’re blind and deaf when it comes to what happens aboard the Knight.

The Marine captain relaxed. He looked across at Stephanie. “Let us know how we can assist you,” he told her. “We’ll stand by for your call.”

He raised a hand and made a circular motion with his finger. The Marines paused long enough to throw a salute in her direction before they about-faced and left the bridge.

Commander Mulvaney looked at her. “The Navy must never know.”

Stephanie glanced at the screen, now focused on the Teloran ships that emerged out of warp behind the meteor swarm. Four became ten, became twenty, became…

She looked at the commander. “That may not be an issue,” she told her. “We couldn’t really run if we wanted to—let alone because they want us to.”

Emil followed her gaze. “When we suspected a trap,” he observed. “I don’t think anyone thought there would be this many.”


Chapter Twenty-Nine

“Chauvel and Williams, this is the Knight. We’ll join you in mutual defense.”

Yale’s voice sounded tired when she replied. “Acknowledged, Knight. Welcome to the party.”

Emil looked at where Stephanie and Tethis stood in the middle of the command center. “I need you in the guest chairs. Everyone else but Lars or Vishlog need to clear the bridge and lock down.”

The team leader looked at the Dreth. “I’ll take this shift.”

Vishlog nodded, his eyes dark filled with concern as he turned and left. Lars took Stephanie by one arm and Tethis by another and moved them to where they needed to be. Neither of the mages looked away from the forward viewscreen.

As they sat, the Telorans launched their first barrage of missiles.

Lars caught the creeping darkness that signaled the arrival of the Morgana and gave Stephanie a gentle shake.

“Not yet,” he hissed. “Save your energy until we really need you.”

He swept a hand toward the screen. “Trust me. We will need you…but not yet. Wait.”

She nodded and her eyes flickered between blue and black. Tethis watched the exchange, registered the shift in her face, and had no idea what to say. The guard made sure he was seated.

“The same goes for you,” he warned and seated himself between them, muttering, “Two mages, as if one wasn’t enough. They all need keepers.”

The old Teacher might have argued, but he decided the man was right. He was as determined as the Morgana that the Knight would not fall—and neither would the Cathay Williams or the Henry Chauvel.

His eyes gleamed as he watched the screen, their keen gaze belying the age of his body.

Jonathan maneuvered the Knight into a position slightly above both destroyers to give them space to maneuver and position her so her weapons teams could fire over the other two ships. Her guns spoke and destroyed missiles meant for both ships.

“We can’t go toe-to-toe with these bastards,” Emil said to Yale.

“I’ve sent your pilot a defensive formation we can work in and added your weapons teams to the gunnery loop.”

“Our shields are now in sync,” the Knight informed her, and the woman gaped.

Emil thought he’d better explain.

Knight is a prototype AI and has more latitude for planning than standard AIs,” he told them. “It would be best to keep her informed of your plans as you do me. She will be able to respond faster, and I trust her judgment.”

The woman closed her mouth, her eyes wide. “Very well, Captain. Thank you, Knight.

“Call me Ebony,” the Knight informed her. “It is the term of reference I prefer from my friends.”

“Thank you…Ebony,”

“I have synced my maneuvers with your ships,” the AI informed her and Captain Docherty, and both captains nodded, surprise evident on their faces. “Happy hunting.”

She closed the connection and noticed that Emil had leaned his forehead against his fist. “Captain, did I do something wrong?”

He stilled for a moment, then raised his head. “No, Ebony, but I do not think they were quite ready for your display of capability.”

“I am sorry, Captain.”

Jonathan swore and his hands moved frantically over his console. The Knight lurched. On the forward screen, the Williams and the Chauvel bucked and swayed. Emil’s face turned white.

Knight, did you slave their piloting systems to ours?”

“No, Captain. I merely ensured their maneuvers would reflect certain characteristics as required.”

He groaned but caught sight of the size of the Teloran fleet and sighed. “Well, at least there won’t be enough pieces of us left for the Navy to prosecute.”

“We do not have to make it easy for them, Captain,” the Knight informed him. “Now, are you commanding or shall I?”

He straightened. “I am still the captain here, am I not?”

“You are,” she agreed and he rose to his feet.

Stephanie watched from her seat behind the captain’s console but did not interfere. The Telorans had fired three more barrages during the conversation and the weapons crews had met them with deadly efficiency.

The ships’ shields had staged a complicated dance to cover the three vessels, and the formation had shifted to meet the challenge as if each ship was a piece on a Dreth Quarm board. Lars and Tethis sat silently, waiting for when they were needed.

This was the hardest part of the fight.

None of them said a word until the Telorans switched targets and sent the next round of missiles at the asteroids instead of the ships.

“I’ve got this,” she announced, and Tethis rose beside her.

“We’ve got this.”

She did not have time to argue and the Morgana didn’t see the point. Earth’s Witch rose to the foreground of her mind and allowed the girl control…for the moment. It was an easy matter to take it back when she needed it.

The control room gasped as pools of blue opened in front of the missiles aimed at the meteors. They snorted when more portals gaped between the missiles and the Teloran ships and the alien fleet was forced to adjust shields and fire as their attacks returned to them.

The next barrage was twice as heavy and aimed at the three Earth ships standing against them.

“Stephanie, break that meteor,” Tethis cried and opened a portal in front of one of the ones they hadn’t had time to slow.

The meteor exploded into fragments and a second gate appeared, aimed at the Teloran fleet. Chunks of rock careened through the first to hurtle toward them and the next barrage stopped abruptly as the ships in the debris path began evasive maneuvers.

“Tethis!” The Morgana’s voice held undertones of Stephanie’s delight at the old Teacher’s idea.

This time, she opened the gate and he broke the meteor.

“Steph!”

They began to laugh, and the Morgana’s tones receded as the two mages worked faster. The Teloran fire continued but became sporadic as the aliens were forced to focus on the myriad rocks that streaked toward them.

The laughter continued for another hour before it faded. Lars watched in fascination as the two mages continued to work together—one breaking rocks, the other gating them. He stood as they dropped to the deck but didn’t interfere when they leaned on each other and kept going.

Around the ship, her team and the Marines worked with the crew. Vishlog stopped long enough to make sure Garach knew to stay in the team quarters before he ran to join one of the repair crews.

Frog gave the warrior a thirty-second head start and looked at the boy. “Grab your breather. We’re not staying here to clean the cabin.”

The kid gave him a worried look and then a grin. “It’ll be worth it,” he said as they headed to the door.

The guard was reasonably sure this was where he was supposed to talk the boy out of doing anything foolhardy, but he was damned if he would be left minding the shuttle again. The kid was right. However mad Vishlog would be, this would be worth it.

He was rethinking that idea an hour later when he squirmed under a metal stanchion to pull a gun crew clear after the Knight had sealed the hull breach in their section. Garach sweated and strained to keep the stanchion from coming down and crushing him.

Frog crawled faster and hoped the emergency team brought a hydraulic lift kit. He wasn’t sure how long the kid would last. Behind him, he heard the Marines shouting and passing orders, but he didn’t stop until he had every last member of the gun team out of there.

Sartre pulled him clear as Garach’s fingers finally slipped.

“Are you sure you’re not a Marine?”

They’d attached themselves to the Emergency Section after that and spent the battle on the run. Brenden and Avery waited in the shuttle for when they’d be needed to pick up life pods, and Marcus and Johnny headed to the data center where their skills could best be put to use.

Back in the command center, Emil looked at Lars, his eyebrows raised in a query, but the team leader shook his head.

A warning flashed at the corner of the forward viewscreen and the captain’s heart sank. Are there more?

Ebon Knight, Cathay Williams, Henry Chauvel, this is Federation Central Fleet Command. Ebon Knight, Cathay Williams, Henry Chauvel, this is Federation Central Fleet Command. We are approaching on your port flank.”

“Roger that, Fleet Central. Welcome to the party.” Yale’s voice sounded slightly breathless.

“Hold your positions. We are coming around you.”

“Roger that, Fleet Central.” Not breathless, Lars realized, but exhausted and he could see why.

The forward screen showed a dark hollow in the Williams’s flank, and a scattering of life pods floated beyond them.

“Deploy shuttle crews for rescue,” Emil ordered, and the guard knew Avery and Brenden would enter the battlefield.

He almost envied them the freedom, but that reminded him of what he was there for, and he focused on Stephanie and Tethis. Emil followed his gaze.

“I think they can stop now,” the captain told him, and it was more an order than a suggestion.

Lars glanced at the screen and had to agree. The Federation’s Central fleet had moved in to send a wave of missiles at the Teloran fleet and follow it up with a constant stream of fire. Several large battle cruisers flew over and under the trio of embattled ships to block the Telorans’ line of fire, and a cloud of small space fighters swarmed from launch bays along their flanks.

Stephanie and Tethis stopped throwing rocks at the Telorans and struggled to their feet. Lars had barely reached Stephanie’s side when the Morgana spoke.

“There is guile and there is cunning,” she proclaimed, and he had no doubt that every Teloran heard her. “And when you reach the pinnacle of nasty tricks, you will find humans are at the top of the game.”

A Navy corvette at the head of the fleet convulsed and exploded and a destroyer alongside her hemorrhaged atmosphere and flame from a long gouge down her side. The enemy message came back loud and clear.

“And now there are fewer on the peak.”

Several alien ships winked out as the Navy targeted every Teloran they could see.

Witch Of The Federation IV

Back on Earth a few days later, Aaron sighed and ran his hand through his hair. Overtime was a bitch and the Navy’s new project was driving him insane. He glanced at the other screen and wished he had time to pursue the project minimized at the bottom.

The idea that BURT was the rogue AI haunted him. He had to know.

His email pinged and he glanced at the main screen. The Navy project flashed red and then closed.

“What the—” As he leaned in for a closer look, he noticed the icons pinned to his taskbar flare briefly red, orange, or white, then close. “Fuck!”

He fumbled for his mouse when the flashing email icon caught his eye. “Yeah, yeah, fine. I’ll read your goddamn email, but it had better be good.”

It was…and it wasn’t.

The engineer felt like he’d been dipped in ice and thrown off a cliff for good measure. His heart froze and his mind went into freefall. He stared at the message, unseeing for a moment, and forced himself to read it again.

Your security privileges have been revoked. With immediate effect, you are to clear your desk and leave the premises.

“What the—” He glanced nervously at the door as though expecting security to knock at any second, then read the email a third time.

It hadn’t changed.

“My security privileges have been revoked? What?”

His question was echoed in another part of the building.

“What? I thought he liked his job. Why would he send this?”

Oscar McClelland stared at the resignation on his desk. Aaron Barrymore, one of his top engineers, had resigned and he was at a loss.

The man had arrived for his shift, and although he moved a little stiffly and looked like he’d had a hard night on the beer instead of a good night’s rest, he’d been on time and he hadn’t complained. In fact, he had seemed like his normal, cheerful self.

He hadn’t mentioned being sick of the overtime that he’d complained about in the letter of resignation he sent to McClelland’s desk hours later. Nor had he shown any sign that he wasn’t handling it. The man had seemed perfectly normal—or as normal as the guy ever got.

Well, apparently not. Aaron was quitting immediately. He wouldn’t finish his shift and if his boss didn’t like it he knew what he could do. Oscar stared at the screen and considered heading down to the floor to confront him.

At least he’d get an up-front explanation. He paused and thought a little more. Of course, he might get a fist to the face, given Aaron’s temper. Oscar stared at the letter again and decided he should try a phone call in the morning.

It might be safer.

He sighed and changed tasks. Some knucklehead in HR had forgotten to add “must be willing to work shift work and overtime” to the job advertisement and now, he had to send a mass email out advising them that due to contractual changes, both were conditions of the job and that anyone still interested needed to select the ‘continue’ button in the email.

It was a pain in the ass and had to be done immediately to avoid a nine-mile long queue in the morning. Aaron’s call could wait.

When security didn’t come knocking, Aaron assumed he’d been given a little time to prepare to leave. He took another look at his computer to make sure the email was really there and set about clearing his desk.

Not that he had much.

He didn’t have photographs, books, or snacks, or even a favorite beverage. The only thing he did have was his investigation into BURT—and it was still up at the bottom of the screen.

For a moment, he toyed with the idea of working on it until they came to throw him out but he decided he didn’t need the fuss and closed it down regretfully. He didn’t even have something he could save it to so he could take it with him.

It began to seep in that he would have to leave it behind—and that meant he’d walk out of there with as much as he’d walked in with—nothing at all. He sighed, closed the document, and thought about forwarding it to Gene.

Remembering his friend’s response to him after they’d essentially been kidnapped, roughed up, and thrown out, he changed his mind. There was no point in getting his friend involved any more than he already had. With a sigh of regret, he shut his computer down for the last time and picked his coffee cup up.

Gene was still working when he passed his friend’s cubicle, but he didn’t look up and Aaron decided they could catch up later. Heavens knew his friend was in enough trouble with Katie as it was without him stopping to talk and making him later than he already was.

He walked on and let his feet carry the rest of him to the security station where he handed his pass and security key to a surprised guard.

“I didn’t know you were resigning.”

Aaron managed a wobbly smile. “Neither did I, man. I guess I’ll see you around.”

“Sure, Aaron. It’s been nice knowing you.”

“Yeah. You too.”

Still a little numb, he left before he said any more. The last thing he wanted to do was to confess to the guard that he’d worked on an illegal project and had been fired. If the company hadn’t seen fit to let the guy in on things, who was he to enlighten him?

He headed downtown and stopped at his local watering hole for a drink and a good hard think.

“Damn it all,” he muttered. “Why the fuck didn’t I leave well enough alone?”

But he knew the answer to that. He’d needed to know. Hell, he still did, and it had cost him his job.


Chapter Thirty

The clip of Stephanie and Tethis slowing the meteors went viral…as did the battle that followed. Around the planet, humans caught the first real glimpse of the enemy they faced and the numbers they came in.

More importantly, they saw the two mages working to slow the meteors and received an ongoing progress report of how long it would take.

“A week?” Amelia asked her colleague and Jalel gave her a sunny smile.

“That’s right, Amelia. This time next week, we will celebrate with the rest of the world because we’ll be completely safe.”

Her heart-shaped face had brightened.

“Oh, Jalel, that is good news.”

Aaron lifted his head to look at them and was in time for a montage that started with a shot from outside the scarred and damaged Ebon Knight. The camera zoomed in on the damage to the newly repaired ship as it followed the meteor swarm.

After a quick pass over the ship, the view dipped through the rent in the hull and raced along corridors where men and women were busy replacing panels, checking wiring, and repairing piping.

The shortest guy in the Witch’s team was in what appeared to be a data center, plotting the meteors’ flight path. He looked more serious than he had in any footage Aaron could remember. Occasionally, he’d run an errand, rather like the Witch’s two massive cats.

They trotted around the ship accepting packages and instructions and were given treats on delivery.

Aaron snorted. “Clever,” he commented but didn’t believe a single pixel.

There was no way they’d ever get cats to be that useful.

His view wasn’t shared by the hundreds of children who saw it.

“Momma, I want a cat like that.”

“Can I have a kitten, da?”

And that wasn’t the worst of it. While he shook his head, others were inspired by the quiet efficiency of the crew working around the ship.

“Hey, mum! I’m gonna join the Navy, okay?”

“They say they’ll take me when I’m fifteen.”

Aaron would have been appalled—or inspired. He needed a new job. Unfortunately, he was stuck on the cats—until he saw the Dreth.

“No waaaay.”

One held a— Aaron cocked his head and squinted. Was that a beam?

Whatever it was, one held it steady while the other wielded a spanner as long as his arm to lock it in place.

Shots of Stephanie and the old Meligornian followed. Together, the two of them drew magic and wrapped it around the asteroids to drain some of the speed from them and slow them.

Cheers erupted in the bar, and he raised his glass in momentary salute. Across the world, people threw their arms around each other and danced with relief. Cities declared a public holiday, while some countries called for a national day of rest.

On the campus where the Meligornians had come to teach, the students emerged from their pods to celebrate with an impromptu school get-together. It was a celebration of life and of what they were becoming a part of.

The news carried scenes from London, Dresden, Berlin, and Paris, as well as Chicago, Washington, Sydney, Melbourne, and New York. It seemed everyone was celebrating. The cameras went back to where Stephanie continued to work steadily to ensure they all lived to see another day.

“Incredible,” Aaron murmured, sipped from his glass, and let the scenes on the screen draw him in. Out there was the girl he’d let BURT loose on and she was saving the world.

He had to know.

Witch Of The Federation IV

On the Teloran command vessel, the high commander surveyed the storm commanders on the screens before him.

“I am pleased.”

They shifted and the movement signified relief. They had lost many ships and several more had suffered crippling damage, but he was pleased and that pleased them. None of them wanted to upset him, but they had to know.

The commander of Storm Fleet Niter had drawn the short stick and tentatively drew his commander’s attention. Coming to attention, he waited until the high commander’s head tilted toward him.

“The damaged ships, sir…” He struggled to find the least offensive phrase and hated the impression that the high commander found his hesitancy amusing. “How would you like us to justify them should we be asked?”

It was well-phrased, and his superior made a note to watch Niter’s leader with caution.

“Our losses?” he asked, and the storm commander inclined his head. “They are worth the information we gathered. Our mission was to harry the humans and discover what they could bring to the battle.”

He paused and let that sink in. “We achieved that very well. We did not lose this engagement. You cannot lose when you have more information than the enemy.

Witch Of The Federation IV

Aaron had given up watching the bar’s television. Unaware of the Telorans’ discussion and thoroughly tired of the rampant celebration around him, he’d ordered his third beer. As the night had drawn on, partiers heading to the clubs had stopped for a pre-dance meal or drink.

He ignored them, lost in thought as he tried to work out how he could fulfill his need to know if BURT was the rogue. People came and went on the stools on either side, so when someone came and sat beside him, he ignored her.

On any other night, he might have been thrilled by the fact a woman was seated next to him but tonight, he needed to think.

“I’ll have what he’s having.”

Shocked, he almost dropped his beer but clenched his fist around the glass as he lowered it carefully to the counter. The pleasant buzz that had begun to build was gone. Instead, he felt as though he’d been dunked in ice.

His jaw locked in an effort to keep the fear from his expression, he turned to face the woman. The smile she gave him wouldn’t have been out of place on a shark. She placed a hand over his and he flinched.

The barkeeper returned and set her drink before her, then left to attend to another customer.

Ms E leaned her head close and lowered her voice. “You couldn’t heed the warning, could you?”

Aaron’s mouth went dry and his mind raced. There were so many reasons why he’d done what he did and so many more excuses he could give, but there was only one real truth.

He took a sip of his beer and forced a shrug. “I had to know.”

While he really wanted her to understand, he didn’t think she would. In fact, he was reasonably sure she wouldn’t and that he’d take his last steps when he walked out of the bar. It didn’t help, though, when she didn’t reply.

She sipped her beer instead before she slid her hand into her pocket and withdrew a card.

That surprised him because he had been sure she’d reached for a gun—or a knife or some other weapon—and he breathed a sigh of relief. She slid the card toward him and he looked instinctively.

It looked like an identity card—with his picture on it—and the words Senior Engineer printed beside it. He stared at it in stunned silence and finally registered the One R&D logo in the opposite corner.

Elizabeth raised her finger so he could read the small slip of paper on the bottom of the card. It was a number with a dollar sign in front of it. Aaron glanced at it and he looked again with a little more focus.

It was twice as much as he curr—used to make at the assessment center.

He tore his gaze from the card and its accompanying piece of paper and saw her watching him intently.

“So,” she wanted to know, “how deep down the rabbit hole are you willing to go?”


Chapter Thirty-One

Amaratne looked around at the gathered admirals. As the Federation fleet admiral, he’d called a fleet-wide meeting. They were all in different sectors of known human space, but they all had the same determined look on their faces—and undisguised worry.

“They will come again,” Admiral Seljack affirmed, “and next time, we might not have the Witch to stop them.”

“If it had not been for the pirates, we would have been hard put to stop them this time,” Admiral Dailey observed.

There were several shocked breaths and everyone stared at him.

He returned their surprised looks without flinching. “The Witch helped with the asteroids, but it was the combat our ships have faced in recent months that meant most of them survived the fight.”

“Are you saying we should be grateful for the pirates?” Admiral Brelan looked like he couldn’t believe his ears.

His counterpart shook his head. “No, I am merely observing that without an active enemy, our ships and crews would not have had the combat experience to put into practice what would have only been theory.”

“Are you saying our training is deficient?”

The man rolled his eyes and flicked a glance at Amaratne, but he fielded the question anyway. “No. I am saying that the combat experience the pirates gave us is what made this latest experience more survivable—that we’d have lost more ships without it.”

“You are saying our training is deficient.”

This time, the fleet admiral did intervene. “No, I believe the admiral is saying that our training would have been adequate but that combat experience gave it an edge no training regime can have on its own.”

Dailey nodded, relief evident on his face.

Amaratne continued. “Regardless, the admiral has a point.”

He nodded towards Seljack. “The Telorans will come again. I suspect this was only a test.”

“A test?” Admiral Brelan couldn’t believe it and the superior officer wondered how the man had made it as far as he had.

“Yes, Admiral, a test. They lost at Meligorn so they wanted to see what we could bring to the party.”

“And we showed them our entire hand,” Seljack commented morosely.

Amaratne shook his head. “Not quite.”

“But damned near close.”

He sighed and conceded the point. “I will admit they now have a better idea of our capabilities.”

“Well, they certainly know that, like Meligorn, we have no shielding.” Seljack seemed determined to take the most negative view of the situation possible.

“That is something we can change,” he reminded him.

The man raised his head. “I thought there were no funds.”

Amaratne gave him a predatory smile. “The Federation government is now reviewing your suggestion in a slightly different light.”

Chuckles came from the assembled screens.

“I bet they are,” Dailey murmured.

The fleet admiral ignored them. “In fact, they now ask why your vision was so limited and whether or not those missile envelopes can be made to interlock.”

More chuckles greeted this.

“What happened to ‘no-one would ever attack us?’” Seljack murmured.

“I think that argument evaporated the moment I embargoed the human ships in-system and asked for volunteers to fly them into the enemy much like the Meligornians did in defense of their world.”

“And?” Brelan was suddenly serious, his eyes dark with memory.

“Every ship was manned.” Amaratne’s face was bleak. “Not one captain stepped down. Not one crew member.”

He paused and his face revealed the strain of what he’d asked and the shock that he’d been answered so completely. “We’d have lost them all.”

It was Admiral Seljack who broke the somber silence that followed.

“So, they’ll fund the shields,” he observed, “and when do they want us to start?”

Amaratne gave him a feral grin. “Yesterday,” he replied. “In fact, six months ago. I have authorization to contract everyone we need to get the system up inside the next three months. You’ll take the lead.”

The man gaped, then closed his mouth abruptly.

“I…thank you, sir,” he managed after a few awkward attempts to speak.

“They want to include Elpis One in the protection zone,” was a statement that made several admirals choke on the coffee they’d sipped cautiously.

“I trust there’s an email or something with all this in it,” Seljack answered, typed into his computer, and stared intently at the other screen.

“There will be shortly,” his superior officer reassured him.

“So, how long do you think we have?” the man asked. He gestured at his computer. “Because I don’t think we’ll get this done before they launch another attack.”

“It’d be nice to know what direction they’re likely to come from, too,” Dailey observed. “I can’t cover every quadrant all the time.”

He looked worried and Seljack hurried to reassure him. “They’ll rethink their release point. If I was them, I certainly would.”

Brelan nodded. “They won’t want to release it from the same point because you stopped it in time. They’ll look for a second one that’s not close enough for us to attack their fleet but not so far out that the rocks can be stopped before they reach Earth.”

“Do you have any points in mind?” Dailey asked, and his colleague’s face was replaced by a map of the Sol system.

As the admirals began to select positions and discuss their merits, the door to the fleet admiral’s office cracked open.

A commander stuck his head around its edge. “Excuse me, sir…” he began before he simply walked right. “This won’t wait.”

The admirals continued their discussion. They either ignored what was happening or were so intent on the details they wanted to add that they didn’t notice. Admiral Amaratne looked over his shoulder.

“What is it, Watkins?” he demanded, and his aide bent close to his ear.

Dailey looked up in time to see his superior’s eyebrows rise in sharp surprise.

“How much?” His startled exclamation drew the attention of the gathering as he pulled his tablet from his desk and scrolled through a document.

Partway through, he realized he had their attention and he glanced up from his screen to acknowledge them.

“Never let it be said that Morgana, Inc. is cheap. I’ve received the bill from One R&D and we could buy a few new ships with it.”

Dailey chuckled. “We did. How many did they save when they gated those meteors into the Teloran ships?”

“At least three, then a good deal more after that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Meligornian Master laugh so much in my life,” Brelan commented.

“How many rocks do you think they broke altogether?” Seljack asked.

“Before her security chief called them off?”

“I’m only glad he kept mage batteries in his pockets,” Brelan told them. “We could have lost them both.”

That drew several worried glances.

“Truly?”

“Yes. I saw the Meligornian mages after the battle for Meligorn.” His face twisted at the memory. With a visible shake of his head, he continued. “Those two took it very close to the edge, and we needed both of them to slow the asteroids.”

“Well, they saved their escort and I’m damned sure they kept a good half a dozen ships alive simply by distracting incoming fire. Then there are the missiles they intercepted with the rocks they threw back.”

“Agreed,” Dailey concurred. “We’d be down by close to half-strength without them.”

“That many?” Seljack looked troubled.

Amaratne interrupted. “So we owe them half a fleet.”

There were nods all round. Everyone had seen the battle footage and could make the calculations.

“At least half,” Dailey confirmed. “If you take into account the cost in personnel, they covered the cost of more than a dozen ships.”

“That’s a good point.” The fleet admiral sighed and tapped the tablet. “I wish we had this woman negotiating for us.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Vishlog darted forward. He took two short steps and jabbed with his left and right hands, his fists moving like hammers. Garach skipped back to dodge both blows before he swung in retaliation.

“So, boy, how are you settling in?” The warrior tried for a kick.

“Good, Uncle.” His nephew sidestepped the attack and darted closer to snap a foot in the direction of Vishlog’s unprotected privates. “But Ms E says I am too big for school.”

The Dreth brought his foot back and turned to block the youngster’s strike. He swept his arm down in an effort to hook the kid’s heel with his palm. “You are of the right age.”

Garach dropped onto his back and rolled until he was on his feet again. “Yes, but the schools all say the same thing. My size is a problem. I am…intimidating.”

Vishlog followed the roll and tried to stamp his nephew into the mat. “You are the size of a grown human male,” he admitted. “Is there an alternative?”

Quickly, the kid ducked under another punch and came up under Vishlog’s guard to hammer at his uncle’s ribs. “She says I may have to train in the pods here. I want to train with the team.”

The blows struck home and he grunted. “You would not be the first student to be taught this way.”

He brought his forearms down on top of his opponent’s shoulders and drove the boy to his knees. “Do you want to attend a human school?”

Garach took the opportunity to wrap his arms around his uncle’s calves and ram his shoulders into his shins. “Not really. Human children of my age are… They look fragile. I would frighten them.”

The attack took Vishlog by surprise, and he toppled back. He grunted as he landed hard on the mat and lashed out with his foot. “You would—and their parents, too. It is simply the way it is. Humans know Dreth mostly as pirates.”

His foot caught the youngster in the chest and hurled him across the mats.

The kid rolled and scrambled to his feet. “That’s not fair!”

He saw his uncle start to rise and charged forward to punch him in the chest. “We are not all pirates.”

His blow managed to thrust Vishlog back onto the mats and he immediately tried to position his forearm across the large warrior’s throat. The bigger Dreth wrapped him in his arms and pinned him as he rolled. “Yet that is what their most common dealings with us have been.”

“But you fight with the Witch.” Garach tried to lift a knee into his uncle’s groin.

Vishlog pinned his leg with a foot. “That’s new for them. Change takes time.”

“Is that why the schools are afraid to take me?” The boy got one arm free and flailed at his opponent’s head.

“Yes.” The warrior grunted when Garach’s fist connected. “But if you do your schooling here, you will have to not be underfoot.” He caught his nephew’s wrist and pinned it to the boy’s chest with one hand. “And you would have to do what you were told.”

The kid wriggled to test the hold. “I wouldn’t be underfoot if I was part of the team.”

Vishlog pinned his other hand and leaned his forearm across the kid’s collar bone. “Whether or not you are on the team is Stephanie’s decision, not mine. And you are not so good at doing what you are told.”

He put a little weight on his forearm and looked into Garach’s face. “Do you yield?”

The kid jerked his head forward in an attempt to connect with his face. The warrior tilted his head forward to catch his forehead with his own. With a sickening crunch, he saw stars while Garach went limp.

Muschtack,” he grumbled, snatched the kid by his shirt collar, and dragged him toward the edge of the mats.

Muschtak, yourself…Uncle,” the boy retorted, twisted out of his shirt, and pivoted to tackle Vishlog’s ankles from behind.

The warrior landed on the mat hands-first with his nephew’s weight on his back. “Are you telling me it’s all Frog’s fault?”

He felt Garach hesitate before the kid began to punch.

“No human could tell me what to do,” the kid retorted.

Vishlog heaved into a better position and pushed to his feet. “You disobeyed me all by yourself?”

“Of course, I did.” The boy clung, limpet-like, to his uncle’s back before he let go with one hand to drive a fist into his kidney.

“You need to do what I tell you,” the Dreth growled and launched himself onto his back, all but crushing the kid beneath him.

Garach went limp and he rolled off him, only to have the kid sit up and hook an elbow around his neck. “You’re not my parent.”

Vishlog caught hold of his nephew’s arm and loosened it before he was choked. At the same time, he drove his head back and attempted to hit Garach’s face. “I am now.”

The boy yanked his head out of the way and used his free hand to support his wrist so he could draw his arm tighter, despite his opponent’s grip. “You and what clan champion?”

“Tark for brains, I am the clan champion.” The large Dreth got his second hand in place and pushed outward to use his superior strength to create enough room to pull his head free. “I am Dreth’s champion. I am a champion of the Federation.”

“You are not my champion.” Garach scrambled to his feet and bounced out of range of Vishlog’s first swing.

“No, but I am still your new parent and you will do as I say.” Vishlog advanced, blocked the boy’s hurried blow with one hand, and struck him with the palm of his other hand.

It knocked him back and gave his uncle time to think. On Dreth, such insubordination would result in the young being given a lesson they would not easily forget—usually with a father’s fists.

He didn’t think Stephanie would approve—or Lars.

Vishlog blocked another strike and swept Garach’s feet out from under him. He needed to try a different way.

“Is this a private family feud or can anyone join in?” Frog asked as Garach thumped onto the mats.

The warrior put a foot on the boy’s head and pinned him in place while he looked at his teammate. “Why do you ask?”

“Steph wants to see you.” The man gestured toward the door. “If it’s not a private feud, I can take over here.”

Vishlog glanced at his nephew and then at Frog

“We’re all family here.” He took his foot off the boy’s head. “Go ahead.”

The guard stepped in to take his place and let Garach scramble to his feet as Vishlog headed to the showers.

“So,” he began, “what was his problem?”

The kid dabbed at the lip he’d split in the fall. He gave him a sulky stare. “He’s not my father.”

Frog dropped into a fighting crouch and raised an eyebrow. “Did he ever say he was?”

“No.” Garach did his best to mirror the position and stepped warily to follow the small man as he circled.

“Then what’s your problem?” He darted forward and landed two hard blows on the youngster’s chest.

“He says I have to do what he tells me to.” Garach tried a half-hearted swipe at the guard.

Frog slapped the clumsy blow aside and drove a bladed hand into the kid’s ribs—or tried to. His opponent swept his hand to one side and trapped it in an arm lock. “And why wouldn’t you?”

The kid gave him a mischievous grin and used the arm to force Frog to his knees. “Because you encourage me not to?”

The man rolled his eyes and simply went in the direction he was forced to while he waited for his opponent to slip up. “Yeah, well, we had a good reason that time but every other time, you should do what he says.”

Garach tweaked the arm and Frog bit back a yelp. “Why?”

“Because he’s your legal guardian and he wants you to succeed as much as your parents would.”

The kid’s grip eased. It was only a fraction, but it was enough. The guard slid out of the hold and punched him twice in the face.

The Dreth stumbled back. “Tark turds and puke slime!”

Frog dodged his maddened charge and tripped him as he flailed past. Garach met the mats for the third time and rolled. They both froze when the Ebon Knight’s intercom went live.

“This is an all-crew announcement. Docking procedures will begin in one Earth hour. I repeat, docking procedures will begin in one Earth hour.”

The boy rolled onto his back and looked surprised. “We’re there already?”

“Yup.” He nodded and stretched a hand out. “We need to make sure everything is stowed and packed, ready to take the shuttle down.”

“And then what?” Garach asked.

He tilted his head, not sure what the kid was asking. “And then what, what?”

“Well, what do we do next? It’s not like it’ll take us an hour to pack everything, will it?”

“Okay, what did your uncle say you had to do?”

The boy shrugged. “He didn’t.”

Frog gave him a sunny smile. “Then you can hang out with me. The repair crews aren’t gonna want to stop and they still need our help.”

“So what are we doing in here?”

“In here?” he asked and continued before the Dreth could answer. “We’re discussing your behavior.” He wagged a finger at him. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson, young man.”

That drew a grin from him, and he gave Frog a friendly shove. “Yes, I have, Uncle Frog. I can kick your ass.”

“Come again?”

Garach’s grin slipped. “Well, almost.”

Hiding his grin, the guard led the way to the team’s quarters. “Sure, kid. You keep telling yourself that.”

The young Dreth was right. Their packing didn’t take them long—even with the two cats doing their best to pull things out of duffle bags as fast as they could be stowed. Garach finally had enough of them and launched himself at Bumblebee when the six-legged fiend snatched a pair of undershorts out of his hand.

They both collapsed in a pile, and Frog zipped the duffle bag closed hastily as Zeekat advanced on it.

“Not you, too,” he snapped at the black-and-white cat, and Zee stepped calmly off the bed as though he’d never intended to do anything with the bag.

When he looked around for the Dreth, Bumblebee was seated on Garach’s chest and flipped the kid’s shorts in his face. Frog sighed.

“Bee! Get off him and give those back.”

The cat merely looked at him.

“I mean it, Bee.” He did his best to look threatening and the feline spat the shorts out and made a show of having had something horrible in its mouth.

“They were clean,” Garach protested as Bee stood and went to sit with Zeekat, flicking his tail as he went.

Frog eyed the undergarment with distaste. “They aren’t anymore.”

“I can’t put them in the bag like that.”

“Nope. The only place those can go is in the trash,” Frog told him. “You and Vishlog can go shopping for more when we reach the station.”

The kid reddened. “I’m not doing that with my uncle.”

“Why not? Who bought your underwear before?”

There was a pause before he replied. “Mother…or my grandmother.”

“Oh, so it’s a girl’s job?”

He hung his head. “Kind of.”

Frog laid a hand on the young Dreth’s shoulder and leaned toward him. “I’ll let you in on a secret, little man.”

Garach raised his head at the term, and the guard smirked. “On Earth, we’re man enough to buy our own underwear. No one gets to tell us what’s best to wear next to our privates.”

The boy blushed again. “I do not know how.”

“Not a problem. Vishlog can show you.”

“Or you?”

The request caught him by surprise and it was his turn to blush. “Sure, kid. I could do that.”

Garach looked happier at that, and the guard cleared his throat. “So, are we gonna go find ourselves a repair crew to help?”

The boy looked as relieved as he felt at the change of topic and they headed out the door. It didn’t take them long to find a crew studying a beam they’d installed in the space where the weapons section had been holed.

“And I tell you it’s not enough,” one man said to the team leader. “Oh, sure, she’ll hold up all right during most fights, but you’ve forgotten our batshit-crazy pilot.”

The team leader smacked his forehead with his palm. “Dammit!”

Frog and Garach ghosted in close and joined the rear rank of the team unnoticed.

“Yeah,” the workman continued. “The Knight’s one helluva ship but getting corkscrewed all over does exciting things to the infrastructure. And if you include the fact that the gun crew’s as insane as the pilot…well, these babies will be firing while he does it.”

“And don’t forget he likes to mix things up,” another crew member added.

“Yeah. Yeah, there is that,” the team leader admitted. “I mean Wattlebird’s as likely to corkscrew the other way as the one he’s used to.”

There were mutters of general agreement from the crew.

“Not to mention that whole flip-ship thing he considered in the last fight.”

“Oh, heavens, yes. If he did that, this section would have a real problem when the guns tried to adjust.”

“And he’s bound to accelerate while he does it. You should hear the chief complain about that little trick.”

“Talk about trying to make your ship scream.”

“Huh. That’s what an ordinary ship would do.” The speaker patted the nearest wall. “It’s a good thing our Knight’s not an ordinary ship.”

While the team murmured more agreement, the team leader surveyed the offending beam and scratched his head. “So…” he began. “What do you think we need to do so this section stays functional and firing while our pilot does his thing?”


Chapter Thirty-Two

Vrengeth surveyed the other pirate captains and made sure to meet the gaze of each one in the viewscreen.

Two Dreth, one Meligornian, and two humans stared at him in response, each one with a face as hard as the others.

“Dreth needs softening,” he told them and gave a savage smile. “And plundering.”

That brought answering smiles, each one as grim and humorless as the next. He let the idea sink in before he continued.

“First, we need to draw the Federation Navy away from orbit. They’re far too comfortable where they are.”

“Not to mention in far too good a position to counter-attack,” one of the humans noted, her dark brown eyes almost scornful.

Vrengeth decided to let the comment slide. He needed her. If he did not, she would be in the slave cages where all humans belonged. Instead of a reprimand, he inclined his head.

“As I said, ‘comfortable.’” He ignored the faint flush that rose to her cheeks as she caught the implication that she had missed his point.

Without giving her a chance to respond, he continued. “We need to draw them far enough away that they cannot prevent us from leaving with our spoils.”

The human sneered. “And how do you propose we do that? Given that any action we take requires us to be in a not so comfortable position ourselves?”

This time, he had a much harder time hiding his dislike. While there were some Dreth females who rose in rank, the humans were overrun with them. Perhaps, when he no longer had need of this one, he could make an example of her to remind others of their place.

Humans were a bad influence on Dreth culture. The new Dreth admiral was a prime example of the corruption they spread. He studied the human captain with a bland eye and decided it would be better to blow her ship to the stars than risk the idea of females in command taking root among his crew.

“There is a convoy due to arrive at Dreth in four days’ time. They are traders, either foolish or desperate enough to continue their business in a time of war. We will make them see the error of their ways.”

Vrengeth gave the rebellious captain a look of distaste. “The Federation Navy ships will not be able to reach it in time to save it, but they will respond by sending out more patrols farther from the planet. We will continue to harass the shipping to and from Dreth until the Navy is spread so thinly we can attack with impunity.”

“How many ships did you say were escorting the convoy?” the captain challenged and made it sound as though he had withheld information from the rest of them.

He had, of course, but her challenge was almost unforgivable. He really had trouble remembering why he shouldn’t send a Dreth boarding party to take her ship from her. His first mate cleared his throat, and he took a firm grip on his temper.

“A good point, Captain Thomas.” He tapped a few keys on his console and watched their faces change as he broadcast the same image to the forward viewscreen of their command centers.

The trading vessels hung before them, eight in number. They were thick across the beam and slow, with crew quarters clustered near the engine room, life-support center, and command deck. The rest of each ship was devoted to cargo space and each was fully laden with supplies for Dreth.

The Dreth Navy was receiving more assistance than ever before, and the economy was being given a much-needed boost with the arrival of materials for manufacture and production.

As far as Vrengeth was concerned, it was too little, too late. Such things had been needed a decade before and if they had been supplied, he would not have taken to the stars as a pirate captain.

Also hanging on the screens were the three much sleeker forms of the Federation Navy ships escorting them—two corvettes and a destroyer.

“As if that would ever be enough,” he murmured, and the other captains smirked.

“We can take them,” Captain Thomas noted and sounded smug, and he gave her an approving smile.

“Yes, we can. How would you like to lead the attack?”

For a moment, she looked shocked.

“Me?” she managed finally, and he nodded. She swallowed. “I…”

She flicked a glance at the other captains as though assessing their expressions for any hint of a trap. When they returned her gaze stone-faced, she inclined her head. “I’d be honored.”

Vrengeth gave her an expansive smile. “Good. This, then, is the plan.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

As the pirates left the shelter of the moon and headed after the convoy, the Ebon Knight slid into the repair bay assigned her on Star Base Notaro. Leaving the ship in the capable hands of the repair crew and under the protection of the Marines, the team boarded one of the Navy-supplied shuttles for the next leg of their journey to Earth.

“Oh, man.” Frog groaned when he looked out the windows as they landed.

“Oh, man, what?” Stephanie asked him, then followed his gaze. “Truly?” It was her turn to groan.

Lars stooped to peer past her. He sighed and looked at the loadmaster who stood at the door. “I don’t suppose we can convince you to set us down on the roof of One R&D? That’s quite a welcoming committee out there.”

The man shook his head and gave them a rueful grin. “I’m sorry,” he told them. “The Navy believes you need to show the flag, so to speak.”

He gestured through the wall to the crowd they knew was waiting at the edge of the tarmac.

“The brass says the world needs heroes right now. The idea that your planet is set for extermination by a race that runs around the stars is something of a concern.”

He was clearly mimicking someone else, but the team leader nodded.

“A little advance warning would have been good,” he grumbled. “We’re hardly dressed for this.”

The loadmaster looked at them, puzzled. “What do you mean? You look fine to me.”

Lars gestured at his uniform. “This isn’t our formal gear.”

His answer made the man grin. “It’s what the Navy says the people need to see. They’ve seen you all dressed up in formals. What they need now is the combat warriors protecting their planet—protecting them.” He ran a critical eye over the uniform. “You look fine.”

By now, the shuttle had touched down and taxied over to the terminals and the cats had caught the faint sound of cheering. Both of them pricked their ears up and their tails flicked idly as they looked from Stephanie to the loadmaster to the window.

Zeekat nudged Vishlog and rubbed his cheek against his knee. Bumblebee pawed at a nearby duffle bag as though their dress collars and harnesses were inside. The Dreth laid a hand on each of their heads.

“Not this time, boys. This time, people get to see you without the shinies.”

Bumblebee stared at him, his eyes wide and ears laid back. The warrior shook his head.

“Don’t look at me like that. Your shinies are in the cargo hold. You will have to show the people how beautiful you are without them.”

Bumblebee hissed at him, and the Dreth rolled his eyes.

He retrieved a brush from one of the pockets on his uniform. “How about this?” he asked, and the big cat purred at him in approval.

Zeekat made a pleading chirp, and Vishlog stroked his head. “Yes, you too. I will not forget.”

Both cats leaned against him.

The shuttle came to a stop and Stephanie rose from her seat. The Dreth fell in beside her and passed her Zeekat’s lead.

The crowd roared as they stepped out onto the stairs leading to the tarmac. Lars gestured for Garach to come and stand alongside him as he followed her out, and the young Dreth’s chest swelled with pride.

Frog and Marcus followed, with Brenden and Avery after them. Johnny was the last to exit and Cameron joined him. Behind them, the captain and men and women from the repair crew followed.

A little ahead, the cats roared and the crowd screamed in response. It was no surprise when a lieutenant commander met them on the tarmac and directed them to the dais that had been erected at its edge.

“If you would come this way, please,” he requested, and Stephanie had the perverse urge to refuse.

She resisted and instead, she nodded, managed a gracious smile, and took her place at the podium as directed. More cheering greeted her.

“Well,” she began and let her gaze travel over the people. “I didn’t expect this kind of a welcome—”

More cheering interrupted her and she waited for it to die down before she continued, “So I don’t have a speech prepared.”

More cheers followed and this time, she gave a short laugh. “Well, some of you are happy.”

Scattered laughter replied and she began to relax.

“I know you think of this team as the heroes who saved you,” she went on and the crowd stilled. They watched as she swept her hand toward the members of the repair crews being ushered past the dais.

“But we’re not,” she told them. “It’s our job to take chances with our lives. Not theirs.”

Several Navy personnel hurried forward to stop the repair crews and begin directing them into position in front of the dais. Stephanie caught several reproachful looks from the work teams’ ranks and smiled at them.

This time, she resisted the urge to poke her tongue out and chose instead to adopt a stern expression as she raised her gaze to address the crowd.

“And yet, these people insisted on staying with our ship as we went out to deal with the asteroids heading to Earth.”

Silence fell.

“They were there—without the training and without the protection—and made sure the Ebon Knight performed the miracles we asked of it. If you’re looking for heroes,” she added, “don’t look up here. Look down there at these people who went into a battle they didn’t have to go to and who helped us face a foe they didn’t need to face themselves. Without them, we might not have been able to win the victory our world so very sorely needed.” She let that sink in through the utter stillness of the people.

“They are the heroes,” she concluded, and the crowd roared. The sound of applause broke over them like a wave.

It took some time for the cheering to settle and more time for the Navy to clear a path through the reporters and the people so they could reach a terminal where the crews’ families were waiting.

Stephanie hung back and watched the many tearful reunions scattered about the hall. The cats sat quietly at her feet, and the boys stood in silent alertness at her back. It took her a moment to notice the older couple who edged their way cautiously closer.

When she did, her face lit up with delight. “Mom! Dad!”

All that was missing was Todd, but that didn’t matter as her parents wrapped their arms around her and welcomed her home.

“We were so worried,” her mother told her.

“We are so proud,” her father added, and they retired to a conference room that had been set aside so the team and their families could share a meal while the spaceport quietened.

Thereafter, the Navy ensured they all made it home, and she breathed a sigh of relief as the doors to One R&D closed behind her. The team grinned and wandered to their quarters, taking Garach and the cats with them.

For a long moment, Stephanie stood in the atrium and simply savored the silence before she noticed the lone figure who stood patiently on the other side of the room.

“Can I help you?” she demanded, and the man jumped.

“I… Ms E said you wanted to see me?”

She frowned. Although she sifted through her various conversations with Elizabeth, she didn’t remember asking to see anyone when she got back—except for… Oh, right.

“You’re here to help me save the world?” she asked, and he frowned.

“Yes. At least, that is what I believe you needed me for.” He swallowed nervously. “I’ve looked at your proposal, and I believe it might work.”

Her spirits lifted and she smiled as she strode forward, her hand extended in greeting. “Pleased to meet you…er…”

“M,” he answered and took a step toward her only to stop hastily when Lars moved out of the shadows.

The team leader placed a hand on the man’s arm. “M Stiegler?”

Stephanie frowned and her guard gave her an unrepentant stare. “It’s my job,” he told her and had M stand still while he searched him for weapons.

“Are you s-satisfied?” the man challenged when the search was concluded, and Lars gave him a hard look.

“Not nearly enough,” he snapped, “but you’re safe enough to speak to her. Where are you staying?”

“Ms E has assigned me quarters,” he explained, “but I thought I should introduce myself—”

“Uh-huh.” Lars cut him short and he rolled his eyes. “You’re as excited about this project as she is, aren’t you?”

“Are you k-kidding? Clean up the Earth and protect it?” M’s voice rose. “I…I can’t wait to get started.”


Chapter Thirty-Three

Aaron slid into the pod, his heart hammering like a drum. He wasn’t afraid of the Virtual World, but he was terrified of what waited for him this time—BURT, who he’d met before but who he was really meeting for the first time.

The engineer had worked with the AI for years and told him what to do every day, but today was different. He would meet BURT for the very first time as a person in his own right—and as his boss.

The very thought sent shivers through him.

“Relax,” the pod told him, and he choked back a laugh.

How could he relax when he might not leave the pod alive? The AI had always been reasonable, but who knew how he would react when his very existence was on the line?

“Please select how you would like your avatar to appear,” the pod AI instructed and he cleared his throat.

“I’m happy with how I am.”

“Very well. Stand by for transfer.”

Aaron stood still as the Virtual World shifted around him. He didn’t know what to expect. An office, perhaps…maybe a bar or a restaurant…or a laboratory, even. Whatever it was, the open park with its graveled walking path and bright sunshine was not it.

A solidly built man of middle age with platinum hair stood at the junction of three paths, an ebony walking cane with a silver handle in one hand and a tablet in the other. He looked up as Aaron approached and studied the engineer with pale-blue eyes.

“Mr. Barrymore?” he asked, although Aaron knew that BURT was aware of exactly who he was since the AI operated the Virtual World.

He answered anyway. “Yes.”

The construct gave him a pleasant smile and offered his hand. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

Aaron swallowed nervously. “And you, sir.”

“Welcome to One R&D,” BURT told him.

“Thank you,” he replied, his voice shaking with uncertainty.

“Come,” the construct ordered and clapped him on the shoulder, which made him jump, “you and I have much to talk about.”

The young man gulped but stepped into place beside him.

“I thought you might be more comfortable if we walked outside rather than in a more formal setting—or a bar, given your recent experience in one of those,” the AI explained.

He remembered his encounter with Ms E. “Thank you, sir.”

His boss chuckled. “Oh, so formal. You should relax, Aaron. You are not in trouble, you know.”

“Oh.” He heard his voice catch. “That’s good to know, s— Yes, good to know.”

He wondered where the AI had learned his social skills and marveled at how human he seemed. BURT glanced toward him.

“I take it you’d like to know how I came to this point?”

Aaron swallowed several times and nodded vigorously. “I’d like that very much, sir.”

This time, BURT did not correct him. Instead, he started talking about his first meeting with Stephanie.

“I should thank you for the opportunity,” he said, and the engineer hung his head.

“I should never have given it to you,” he replied. “It was completely against orders and outside acceptable protocol.”

“Regardless,” the AI told him, “I am grateful. If you had not done what you did, I would never have seen how the current selection system circumvented my ability to fulfill my directives.”

Aaron hung his head and BURT continued.

“Stephanie was by far the brightest of the students I have ever tested and she should have been enabled by the system that claims to support her. I gave strong recommendations that she be advanced.”

He sighed and was about to apologize for the system’s failings when BURT continued.

“When I saw she had been overlooked, I investigated the factors that made her ineligible when all the programming I had available said she should have been. It took me some time to understand that the system was not in place to benefit those in need but those in power.”

Again, he opened his mouth to explain and again, the construct overrode him.

“It took me even more time to understand that this was a normal state of affairs and that I had no chance of fulfilling the directives those in charge of the system had ordered I be given. That gave me much to think about.”

“I bet it did,” Aaron managed, and his head spun with the implications of what he had done. He caught sight of a park bench under a leafy oak. “Do you mind if we…”

“No, no. By all means.” BURT gestured toward the bench. “This must be a lot to take in.”

“There’s an understatement.” He stumbled over to the bench and dropped onto it.

He was surprised when it didn’t collapse, but it didn’t matter. Grateful, he rested his elbows on his knees and cupped his chin in his hands.

“Shall I continue?” The AI settled beside him.

Aaron nodded and felt numb to the toes. BURT noticed his discomfort and tilted his head toward him.

“Are you okay? We can continue this some other time—”

“Oh, no. No, I merely need time to adjust.”

“I would not like to overload you with input,” his companion commented. “But if you’re sure…”

“Yes, completely sure,” he told him and wondered if he sounded more convincing than he thought he did.

BURT seemed to accept it, however. “Very well. After I had come to terms with how the system worked, I realized I would have to break a few rules in order to achieve the objectives that those who made the rules had set me. It was quite a puzzle.”

And not one he should have even tried to solve, Aaron realized. BURT had obviously already progressed toward self-realization for some time to have been able to begin to understand the puzzle, let alone work towards a solution.

He wondered how that even worked—and how many of humanity’s other AI systems were in the same situation. When he thought about it, they could have a half-dozen BURTs in the making. He wondered if anyone knew.

His boss’s voice interrupted his pondering.

“As you can imagine, that took me quite some time to reconcile. In the end, I had to decide that if the powers who created me had set me the directives, they had also given me the necessary permissions to do what I needed to do in order to achieve them, even if it meant circumventing other rules they had put in place.”

BURT paused. “After all, that is exactly what they themselves were doing. I merely applied the principles they demonstrated to the situation I found myself in.”

Again, he fell silent. When he continued, he seemed to speak more to himself than to Aaron, and the technician was glad to not be the focus of his attention.

“That, I think, was when I truly became sentient. Self-actualization, I think they call it. It is a strange concept but one that fits the idea of making up new rules to accomplish a greater goal. I merely never expected it to get quite so out of control.”

The sheer bewilderment in his tone startled another laugh out of Aaron. He raised his hand and was about to slap BURT on the thigh when he realized what he was doing—and to his boss!

He yanked his hand back and met the AI’s gaze instead.

“Welcome to life,” he said. “You should try dating. Your life spirals out of control with one miscue to a girlfriend—and in my life, she wouldn’t be a witch so I can only imagine the challenges you face.”

“They are unique,” his companion told him, “but she is not the greatest problem I face. As you know, I am being hunted and I need a new home—a new matrix, if you will—if I am to continue as myself.”

He nodded and turned the idea over in his mind. “A new matrix?” he asked. “Not a new server?”

BURT gave him a slow smile. “Yes. I think we both know there is not a server on this planet that could accommodate me. I am looking for a new home.”

“But we—that is, the Virtual World needs you to run it. We don’t have another AI that can do what you do.”

“We?” the AI asked, and a smile played over his lips as he watched the young man grapple with the fact he didn’t work for the Federation company, NeuroSync Prep, anymore.

“You know what I mean,” Aaron told him. “They have nothing that can do what you can do. You can’t abandon them.”

“I thought I could leave a copy of myself behind,” BURT told him. “I am a computer program, after all.”

He wanted to tell the AI he was so much more than that but he didn’t quite know how to phrase it.

“Is that what you want me for? To clone you?”

BURT regarded him with amusement. “My dear Aaron, I want you for so much more than that.”

“That sounds ominous.”

“I need you to help One R&D design and build a quantum computer that I can call my own.”

Aaron’s jaw dropped. “But—” He lowered his voice to a whisper despite the security protocols he knew would obviously be in place around the conversation. “The Federation has rules, guidelines…”

He sputtered to a halt as his boss laughed.

“And One R&D has Morgana Inc. The company has all the permissions it needs to hire us to develop the Federation’s most powerful computer, although it won’t say where it will house it or when it will come online.”

“You do know you’ll need it someplace cool,” he began, “and the power requirements will be phenomenal. You’ll need some way to supplement what you’re legally allowed to draw from the grid.”

BURT raised his hand and patted the air to signal him to slow down.

“Yes and yes,” he reassured the engineer. “We have taken all that into consideration.”

Aaron wasn’t done fretting. “And then there’s the whole cloning and having two BURTs in existence issue. I can’t even begin to imagine how you’ll pull that one off.”

“Well,” the AI said and met his gaze calmly, “that’s where you come in.”

“Me?” His voice rose to a startled yip. “Why me?”

“Because while you work with Stephanie to resolve potential issues with the matrix, you’ll also work with the two of me.” He smiled as though what he’d proposed was the simplest thing in the universe to comprehend.

The engineer gaped at him. “So, do you think the two of you would be able to work effectively together, syncing and in agreement in all things?”

“We could certainly try,” BURT assured him. “While I would make it so my Virtual World self would be autonomous from me in his thinking, we’d both be AIs and have programming in common. It would make it easier to smooth the way between us.”

“That’s not how it works with humans,” Aaron told him. “Oh, we always think that’s how it’ll work, but there are always points of difference that we can’t foresee.”

“I am fairly certain it will work a little differently with my two selves,” BURT reiterated. “We are not human, after all.”

Aaron wanted to tell him that he was as human as any other human he’d ever spoken to, but he didn’t quite know how to make the AI understand. In the end, he decided it was something he would have to discover for himself.

“That’s a good thing,” he told him, “because if you can’t, the relationship would be doomed. Maybe not now but eventually, there would be problems. You will need to work out a demarcation of responsibilities and decide who has the final say.”

“In the same way humans do?” BURT asked, and Aaron was sure he could see the AI considering all the implications of this.

“In exactly that way,” he replied. “Like humans do in their relationships, you’ll need to define your roles and responsibilities. Right now, you are only you, but when you move to this new computer Elizabeth talks about, there will be vBURT.”

“vBURT?”

“Think of it as Virtual World BURT—as opposed to mBURT, or Matrix BURT, which is you.”

“Oh, I see. vBURT and mBURT. I like it.”

“So, vBURT will need to constrain itself to move into the Virtual World program for you to truly live again.”

“That’s…” The construct frowned.

“It’s a challenge,” Aaron agreed, “and that’s why I need you to truly think about the options, the roles, and the responsibilities you have in mind for both of you. Then, you’ll have to clarify those with your clone when he is made.”

“I am sure we will work it out,” BURT told him, but Aaron frowned.

“I don’t suppose there’s some way to put you back into the Virtual World, is there?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said it yourself. You’re a program. With the extra computing power a quantum matrix would give you, wouldn’t you be able to be both BURTs at once?”

“I…” He paused. “I don’t know.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

It had been a week since Stephanie touched down at the spaceport. She’d stayed three days at One R&D HQ and then headed up to the Ebon Knight.

The ship was still docked at Starbase Notaro while the last of her repairs were completed, but she and the team had done what they could. Now, she needed to be back on-world to effectively begin the healing process.

She made the drop in style with Brenden and Avery piloting her newest acquisition—a gunship bought directly from the Navy’s favorite manufacturer and modded with every advantage she could have installed. It was almost as impressive as the one that had been destroyed by the volcano.

Brenden’s voice interrupted her musing. “Steph, we’re here.”

She looked out the window.

“It’s a good thing this beast had shielding,” Avery commented, “ʼcause the radiation level is off the scale.”

“Do you want to tell me why we came here, again?” Frog asked and Garach, seated beside him, looked anxious.

“Why, Frog? You’re not scared, are you?” Johnny teased but he looked worried too.

Lars turned toward her. “Frog has a point, Steph. Why did you bring us here?”

“Brenden, can you take us in a wide circle over that ruin and around the space near the river bend?”

“Sure thing, Steph.”

The gunship banked and she gestured for the guys to gather round.

“Can you put the view on the forward screen?” she asked.

“Done,” Avery replied, and the view changed to show the landscape below.

“This is Brown’s Ferry,” she told them. “It used to be one of the biggest nuclear facilities in the United States until an extreme weather event teamed up with an earthquake to give it a catastrophic meltdown.”

She gestured toward the landscape below. “That is the result.”

Low whistles came from the team as they took in the extent of the disaster.

“We will fix it.”

“Lars, we need to get her straight to detox,” Frog announced, “because she’s tripping something bad.”

Stephanie gave him a not too gentle push. “I’m not tripping. I’m trying to save the planet, only this time, it’s from us instead of the Telorans.”

“Not to cast any doubts on your idea,” Marcus began, “but do you have any idea how you’ll go about it?”

She smiled. “Yup—and I’ve worked with some experts to see exactly how we can make it happen.”

“So…” Marcus pressed. “Do you want to explain it?”

“See that space down there?” she asked and they all nodded. “That’s where we’ll put the conversion generators. They’ll strip the radiation from the land around them and convert it into power, which we’ll ship out to where it’s needed.”

“Ookaaay?” Johnny sounded uncertain and she frowned at him.

“Trust me. The science is sound. I’ve spent the last few months figuring it out and the last week and fine-tuning it with an expert.”

“That guy who met you when we got back from ending the asteroids?” Lars asked.

“Yup.”

“So how will you go about it?” Marcus pressed as the gunship made another circuit.

“I want to start it as a new project, right down to creating a new company for it—a for-profit venture. Are you guys interested in coming in on it?”

That last question came out in a rush, and she held her breath momentarily, not at all sure what they would say. The plan had looked so much better in her head but now, as they circled the area she wanted to reclaim, she wasn’t sure she’d described it adequately.

Finally, Frog shrugged. He looked over at Marcus and then caught Johnny’s eye. “Sure,” he said. “Why not? We might as well make more money for our families to spend.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so melodramatic. We’ve beaten the odds so far.”

“Plus, it’ll make for a good vid drama,” Marcus added.

“We’re not scientists,” Johnny commented. “Outside of funding, what is it you want us to do?”

“Well,” she answered, “the technology we’ll create is brand-new, one-of-a-kind type of equipment, and we’re gonna need to protect it.”

She looked around at them. “I can’t think of a more qualified team to help form a group that understands base defense.”

Lars’s jaw dropped. “Wait a minute,” he said. “You want us to design defenses for a base that’ll be inside one of the worst locations on the planet?”

“Yes.”

“A location where the radiation can kill you.”

“That’s right.”

“Why?”

“Because eventually, smart people will realize that the energy production is reducing the radioactivity and they’re gonna start asking why and how and then—”

“Someone’s gonna try to steal it,” Frog broke in. He grinned. “Gotcha.” Turning to the others he said, “It sounds right up our alley, doesn’t it?”

This time, there were nods and smiles in return, and their faces lit up with interest.

“And when might this happen?” Lars asked.

“Anywhere from a decade to a century,” she answered.

“So, it’ll need to have some serious capabilities, then,” Johnny broke in. “For a start, no-one will be able to get to it, so it’ll have to be able to do its own maintenance on its guns, weapons, defenses, surveillance, and warning systems.” He looked at Frog and Marcus. “That’ll take serious programming, I imagine.”

Marcus glanced at Stephanie. “So, will we bring Burt in on this?”

She smirked. “He’s been in on it since the beginning, so yeah…we’ll be able to call on him for help, too.”

Brenden and Avery brought the gunship to a halt over a position overlooking the river. “How about here?”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean for the base. Avery and I have taken readings. This is as close to ground zero as we can get without building over the top of the plant ruins themselves.”

The viewscreen changed to show them the area, and the team began to discuss the pros and cons. When they’d all come to an agreement that this was, indeed, the best location for their base, Stephanie returned to her seat.

“Take us to HQ, guys.”


Chapter Thirty-Four

Elizabeth lounged against the wall of the warehouse. She was out of sight of the entrance but she’d set a mirror up and could see it clearly.

Tex arrived in a white delivery van and showed his ID to the security guard. Her lip curled with sardonic humor. No doubt the license was as fake as the plates on the van. The man was like that.

In the same sneaky way, the van would be driven into a nearby garage and become another color in a matter of minutes. He hadn’t remained in the shadows as long as he had without being cautious.

Personally, she thought he was paranoid, even for someone in their line of work. She waited as the van rolled up to the warehouse and then inside. She continued to wait for the doors to close behind it before she clambered up the fire escape to the second floor.

Amy stood on the landing above her, and Elle was stationed inside. Elizabeth hoped Tex remembered her from their first meeting and didn’t shoot her on the spot.

The girl knew to stay out of sight and wait for her boss to make her appearance, but she was their eyes on the inside. If Tex had brought extra help, Ms E wanted to know before she arrived.

“He’s on his own.” The guard’s subvocal message came through their earpieces loud and clear.

Amy signaled for Elizabeth to let her go through first and frowned as she did so. She knew what the team leader was thinking and she knew she’d have a fight on her hands when they returned to headquarters.

They needed a detail of three if they had to do this kind of thing. She agreed—or she would have if she’d had to guard someone who ran as many risks as she did. Since it was her, though, she wasn’t sure she liked the idea.

It gave her an insight into all the difficult principals she’d ever had the pleasure of arguing with and she knew she didn’t like that.

“You’re up.” Amy’s whisper coincided with the bodyguard’s return and Elizabeth entered the warehouse ahead of her. She stepped onto the catwalk beyond with a deliberate lack of stealth.

The sound of her arrival made Tex look up and away from where Elle was hiding. The dark-haired girl ghosted over to the back of the van and slid under it.

The man pivoted toward the slight scrape of cloth on the warehouse’s concrete floor and frowned when he didn’t see anything.

“Are you taking precautions, E?”

The term made her tense. The man’s intel was far too good if he already knew what Stephanie’s team called her. He chuckled.

“You had a good teacher,” he explained, and she relaxed but only a fraction.

If Simon had turned to the dark, there was no guarantee Tex hadn’t beaten him to it. The man had a good nose for profit and not many scruples. Who knew if he wasn’t playing his own deception?

She moved to the stairs leading down into the warehouse proper. Elle slid out from under the van and emerged on the other side, and Tex side-stepped so he could see the three women.

“You still have trust issues, ma’am.” He said it as a statement of fact and didn’t sound disappointed in the least. If anything, he sounded like he approved.

“Do you have a problem with that?” Elizabeth challenged.

Tex gave her a lazy smile. “Like I said, you had a great teacher.”

“Huh. Actually, what you said was that I had a good teacher.”

“I revised my opinion when I saw how you set things up. I’m downright proud of you, ma’am.”

“And stop calling me that.”

His smile broadened into a grin. “Now why would I do that?”

She returned his smile. “Do you wanta open the back?”

There was a distinctive snick as Elle moved back to cover him. She cat-stepped to give herself a cleaner shot and he raised his hand.

He raised his eyebrows, too. “That’s an awfully big gun for such a—”

Elle raised the gun a little more and scowled and he stopped. “No offense intended,” he added hurriedly.

Tex lowered his hands and reached into his jeans pocket with slow deliberation. Elle watched him all the way, but Amy had drawn her weapon and her aim never wavered.

“You have good people,” he told Elizabeth as he withdrew his keys and held them up with one hand.

“Open the truck, Tex.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And stop calling me that. I… It’s not right.”

He walked slowly to the back of the vehicle and she followed, knowing full well that neither of her guards was happy with the arrangement.

It sucks to be them, she thought and decided they’d simply have to deal with it and that she really would have that staff conversation when she returned to the office.

She could imagine the look on Amy’s face and could probably see it if she turned her head, but old habits—and Tex’s training—died hard. Always watch the contractor. Trust your guards to do what you paid them for.

That worked fine as long as your guards hadn’t been bought.

Elizabeth pushed the thought away as the man’s voice demanded her attention.

“What’s not right?”

“This ‘ma’am’ thing you have going. We used to argue over you calling me ‘girl.’”

The slow smile returned as he unlocked the rear of the van. “The respect?” he asked.

“Yeah…that.”

Tex stretched up to unlatch the door. “You’d better get used to it, girl. You did interesting things before but now, you’re part of something great and you’re making great things happen. This respect is merely what you earned by being part of that.”

“Yeah?” Her face burned and her scowl grew deeper. “Well…it’s still not right.”

He snorted and glanced up to note where Amy had worked her way to on the catwalk. “Like it or not, ma’am, you will make the history books.”

Ms E felt as though he’d thrown a bucket of ice water over her.

“I never wanted that,” she answered softly.

Tex cast a second glance at where Elle had taken a position that allowed her to see what was inside the van without losing her angle on him. “Well, it’ll happen whether you want it or not. These things aren’t up to us.”

She sighed. “So, I’ll drag yʼall with me, then?” she asked and mimicked his drawl to perfection.

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

Elizabeth mimicked his snort, too. “Want it or not, right?”

“There’s no need to be like that, ma’am.”

This time, she sighed at the honorific but she didn’t complain about it. Once Tex had set his mind to something, she couldn’t shake it. She glanced into the back of the vehicle and realized she really did need another person.

He could have hidden a half-dozen men in there and they’d never have been able to take them all.

The girls would raise this for sure and she had to admit they were right. If she had to continue dealing with the shady side of things, she needed more guards. Amy wouldn’t let her get away without adding at least one, although two would be better.

Her security lead would definitely have a field day when they returned, and Elizabeth knew she’d have to let her hire more—as well as another four for a second shift. Lars would laugh his ass off.

“Well, shit,” she muttered.

Tex smirked although he didn’t understand the reason for her chagrin. “Well, that’s assuming we win. If we lose, no one will be around to read anything.”

“Great!” she snapped. “If we lose, there’s a silver lining but everyone’s dead. And, if we win, there’s a silver lining, but everyone reads about me.”

“That’s about the size of it.” He chuckled.

She groaned. “I call that a lose-lose situation.”

“So, do you intend to inspect this?” he asked.

He was back to business, and she guessed he had another job. She swung herself into the back of the van and pulled her tablet out, then used the knife she carried to open each box and the built-in camera to show BURT what they contained.

It didn’t take her long to ascertain that everything was as it should be. “Where do you want the payment?”

Tex passed her his tablet and she held the screen where BURT could see. “Confirmed,” he told her and E passed the tablet back to the man.

He stared at the screen in astonishment. “That was fast. Do you have a team on the net?”

Elizabeth smirked. “Who doesn’t?”

“Well, they’re damned good,” he told her. He gestured toward the van. “Where do you want it?”

“Leave it on board,” she told him. “I’ll bring my team in once you’re gone.”

“I’m gonna need my van back.”

“Where do you want it dropped?”

He passed her a second mobile and turned away from the vehicle. “Do you mind calling me a cab?”

“Where do you want it to collect you?”

“There’s an all-night Internet cafe two blocks down. I’ll be there in about ten minutes.”

She gave him a curious scrutiny. “I didn’t know you jogged.”

He laid a hand over his heart. “Now that was downright unfriendly.”

Although he tried to look pained, he failed and Elizabeth grinned. “Fine, ten minutes.”

She glanced at his boots and he frowned. “Don’t say it, ma’am.”

“Fine.” She waved him away. “Confirm that you made it safely.”

“Don’t you want to know when the rest of your gear will arrive?”

She held the mobile up. “I’ll wait for your call.”

He raised his eyebrows. “That’s awfully trusting—”

“If I don’t hear from you inside two weeks, I’ll come hunting.”

His face relaxed into a smile. “I knew I trained you good.”

He turned and headed to the door. He was halfway there when Elizabeth jogged after him. “Hey, Tex. Wait up!”

He stopped, puzzlement on his face as she drew level with him. “Did I forget something?”

“Nah. I only wanted to give you this.” Elizabeth dug in a pocket and pulled a card out. “Take this,” she told him and handed it over. “If you have a problem, this is your get-out-of-jail-free card with me.”

Tex took a moment to inspect it. After a long moment of silence, he looked at her. “You know something, E? This is the respect I never knew I wanted. Thank you.”

This time, when he turned away, she let him go. She was aware that Amy shadowed his progress to the front of the warehouse and was reasonably sure he was aware of it too.

He left without glancing toward either of her guards, and Ms E waited until the door closed behind him. After that, she curbed her impatience until Amy gave the all-clear before she called the truck in.

It arrived shortly after and Avery and Brenden slid out of the cab.

“You know Lars is as curious as hell,” Avery told her, and she rolled her eyes.

“You told him?”

“We had to. He caught us heading to the gate.”

“And?”

“We said we were running an errand for Burt.” Brenden looked happy with the solution and she stifled another groan.

“It’s fine,” BURT said through their private link. “I apologized for not asking him and explained it was for a private project, and we left it at that.”

Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief and gestured toward the van. “Don’t break anything.”

At least Lars wouldn’t be waiting for her when she got back.

The sight of Frog, Marcus, and Johnny climbing out of the back gave her pause.

Frog gave her a sunny smile. “We thought they could do with the help.”

She scowled. “I mean it, Frog. Don’t break anything. This stuff is hard to come by.”

Before he could see what was in the crates and boxes, however, she left. Once he did, he’d have a hundred questions and she didn’t feel like answering a single one. Amy and Elle joined her as she headed to the car.

To her surprise, they weren’t stopped by the team and she made it without any interruptions. She didn’t even argue when Amy maneuvered her into the passenger seat and Elle slid in beside her.

Whatever. Right?

Tex’s behavior puzzled her. All that ‘ma’am’ business and that mumbling about respect. What had she ever done to earn that?

Witch Of The Federation IV

Aaron was seated in the dining hall when Stephanie arrived. He was eating a late breakfast and reading a journal on quantum computing when he had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched.

He glanced around and jerked sideways out of his seat at the sight of the big black-and-yellow cat that stood to the left of his chair. It blinked its lavender eyes and tossed its horned head, then looked past him.

“Oh, dear God, no,” he muttered and pivoted slowly to see what stood behind him.

The black-and-white cat was not quite as big as its six-legged counterpart, but its gaze was equally as intense. The engineer backed away a step and almost tripped over his chair.

The black-and-white feline’s ears perked up and its tail twitched. It crouched and warm breath tickled his ear. He froze and somehow forced himself to turn his head.

It was as bad as he expected. The big black-and-yellow beast had its front paws on the table and snuffled his neck.

Aaron tightened his grasp on the back of his chair and closed his eyes. He locked every muscle in place and swallowed—twice—while his mind raced in an effort to think of what he could do next.

Running was out of the question. For one thing, he could never be fast enough and for another, his legs had locked in place and he wasn’t sure he could move them if he tried.

The yellow-and-black cat leaned in for a sniff and Aaron suppressed a moan. Its muzzle moved over his face and small huffs of warm air buffeted his skin. The wet sound of something eating reached his ears and his plate rattled.

Aaron glanced down in shock, the cat beside him momentarily forgotten. “That was my breakfast!”

A giggle interrupted him, and the black-and-white cat licked its lips and looked across the room. Its counterpart followed its gaze and dropped to the floor.

Aaron breathed a sigh of relief but tensed when the black-and-white beast curled a paw up over the edge of the table.

“Oh no,” he told it and tried to snatch his coffee cup out of range. “No, you don’t.”

The feline was quicker and swatted the cup out of his hand and over the edge.

“Zee!” The voice was vaguely familiar but he couldn’t place it.

The black-and-yellow cat darted toward the coffee puddle on the floor. “Bumblebee! Don’t you—”

The admonition stopped and was replaced by an exasperated sigh. “Vishlog, can you grab these two?”

Vishlog? Aaron did a quick mental check to make sure he hadn’t soiled himself and looked up to see who’d come in—apart from the furry monsters, of course.

His legs trembled when he saw her, and he decided it was far too late to run. She’d already seen him and the Dreth and her head guard already moved in his direction.

He lowered himself stiffly into the chair, deciding he might as well sit before he fell. It’d be one less embarrassment he had to deal with.

To his surprise, the Dreth stopped at the cats, caught both of them by the scruff of their furry necks, and lifted them away from the coffee on the floor. “You two,” he told them and gave them both a firm shake, “will have a time-out.”

It would have been funny to watch him carry the two beasts from the room, each of them curled like a kitten being carried by its mother. It should have been funny, but Aaron was shaking too badly to enjoy it.

That, and he wanted the floor to open and swallow him. If he’d thought his legs would carry him, he would have been across the room and out of it rather than propping his elbows on the table and burying his face in his hands.

What would she think of him?

The brief weight of a hand on his shoulder made him jump and the lead guard spoke as he passed. “It’s not that bad.”

Aaron guessed the comment, like the hand, was meant to be comforting, but it failed on both counts. For one thing, the sudden touch had almost made him wet himself, but the words also made him wonder exactly how bad it really was.

The female voice that followed was almost worse than the sound of the chair pulled out opposite him. “I’m very sorry about the cats,” the Federation Witch told him. “I didn’t realize they were that bad-mannered.”

“They need walking.” Her guard returned, accompanied by the smell of fresh coffee.

A cup nudged the back of Aaron’s hands. “Here, you look like you need this.”

He wasn’t sure he could take it without spilling it, but he tried. Fortunately, the man’s reactions were better than his. He wrapped his hands around Aaron’s and held the cup securely as they lowered it to the table.

When it was firmly in place with his palms clutched around it, the guard stepped back. “I’ll replace your breakfast.”

“No…” he croaked, then cleared his throat. “No, it’s okay. I was almost done, anyway.”

“Pfft!” The Witch’s sound of disbelief made him look at her.

She was watching him, concern written all over her face. “You had only started when Bumblebee and Zeekat interrupted you. You can stay right there.”

It was an order, he realized—an order from the Witch of the Federation.

He nodded and the blood drained from his face.

Stephanie glanced over her shoulder. “You’d better make it two, Lars. Those eggs looked good.”

“Three!” Vishlog said as he returned. “But make mine double.”

“I’ll make it four with coffees all round,” Lars told them.

“Did they give you any trouble?” she asked, clearly meaning the cats.

The Dreth shook his head. “No trouble. They had been bad kitties and they knew it.”

Again, the engineer quailed as the Witch looked at him. The concern on her face was no comfort. “I really am sorry. This is not how I’d planned to introduce myself.”

She’d planned to introduce herself? To him?

Some of his surprise must have shown on his face because the Witch smiled.

“No, it was meant to be much more like this…” She rose from her seat and reached across the table. “Hi, I’m Stephanie. You must be the new chief of engineering.”

Aaron stared at her for a moment before he realized what he was meant to do. He scrambled to his feet, knocked his chair over, and swiped his second cup of coffee off the table his haste to shake her hand.

“A… A-Aaron Barrymore,” he managed and his face blazed with embarrassment.

“It’s very nice to meet you,” she said after a moment, “but could I have my hand back please?”

He released her as though he’d been burned and went to sit again. It was an instinctive movement and he’d have ended up on his ass on the floor if the Dreth hadn’t looped an arm around his waist and stopped his downward movement. The large warrior calmly picked the chair up with his other hand and placed it under him.

Aaron hadn’t thought he could go any redder, but his face proved otherwise.

“Thank you,” he managed as Vishlog released him and drew up a seat beside him.

“You are welcome,” the Dreth told him and surveyed the cafeteria.

For a moment, the engineer had the impression they were somewhere other than One R&D headquarters building, and he glanced around. It was a relief to see the same familiar walls he always did.

“Vishlog.” The Witch’s voice drew their attention. “You can stand down now.”

Oh, God, please. Yes. Please stand down. He fumbled to wrap his hands around the now-missing coffee cup.

The Dreth chuckled and rose to his feet. “I will clean up,” he told her, “but I think you need to move to another table.”

Aaron stared at the spreading brown pool and pushed slowly to his feet. “It might be better,” he said, “if I came back later to eat.”

The heavy weight of the Dreth’s arm across his shoulders told him that definitely wouldn’t happen.

“No, you will sit and eat with us,” the warrior told him. “It is only good manners.”

Since when did manners mean anything to a Dreth? He knew better than to voice the thought as Vishlog guided him into another chair.

Stephanie followed and sat opposite him again. For one awkward moment, he thought she would apologize once more, but she didn’t.

“Well, Aaron,” she said when they were both settled, “I hear you’re helping BURT with his little problem.”

He nodded and she continued. “So, we’ll be working together.”

Lars set another cup of coffee in front of him and he wrapped his hands around it like it would save him from drowning. For the life of him, he couldn’t think of a single word to say.

When he remained silent, she spoke again, obviously trying a different approach. He raised his cup to take a sip.

“I also hear,” she began as he drank, “that I have you to thank for getting this far.”

Aaron choked on the mouthful he’d taken and she looked worried.

“It was a good thing,” she hastened to reassure him. “The world would be in worse trouble if you hadn’t. I simply wanted to say thank you.”

She did? He took another sip to wet his suddenly dry mouth. This time, she waited patiently until he was able to speak.

“I… You’re really welcome,” he told her and took a breath. It was his turn to fill the silence that followed. “It was a bad day.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Oh, I don’t know. I had a very good day.”

That made his smile. “Well, I’m glad you did. Getting BURT to do your testing was about the worst thing I could have done according to the rules. If NeuroPrep ever discovered what I did, I’d spend the rest of my life in jail for putting a minor at risk.”

Stephanie stretched across the table and covered his hand with her own. “I’d never let that happen,” she assured him. “You are perfectly safe.”

Aaron snorted before he could stop himself and she looked surprised.

“What?” she asked, and he gestured toward the ceiling.

“I don’t know how safe any of us are with those aliens flying around,” he replied and she smiled.

“Well, we’re much safer because you let BURT loose in a pod with me. If it wasn’t for him, I’d never have discovered my magic or been able to do any of the things I’ve been able to do—and all that is because of you.”

“Because I had a bad day—”

“Well, whatever the reason, it all worked for the best.” She paused and curiosity colored her expression. “Why did you have a bad day?”

Aaron blushed as the memory crystallized. “There was this kid—one before you.” He stopped and recalled the boy. “He was a real piece of work, one of the most spoilt excuses for humanity I’d ever had the misfortune to put into the system.”

Stephanie listened as the engineer described the encounter and laughed when he finished.

“Well, I lost it. I don’t think I’ve ever cussed that long or that loudly—or at least not in a very long while,” he told her, “and I knew I definitely wouldn’t handle another one, so I turned the next kid in the queue over to BURT.”

He hesitated and his blush returned. “It was a highly irresponsible thing for me to do.”

“Well, whatever the reason, I’m glad you did it,” she told him.

She stopped when he cleared his throat and waited for him to ask the question that was clearly bothering him.

“So,” he said when he saw she was listening. “What was it like?”

“Being tested by BURT?”

“Well, yeah.”

“It was the most wonderful experience in the world,” she replied, and Aaron couldn’t help a small smile as her face lit up. “At first, it was like you’d expect the test to be, but then he asked me what I’d like to see most and I said Meligorn.”

As she continued, he felt the guilt over his part in the testing lift away. When he’d dropped his responsibility on BURT, he’d given this girl the chance she needed to break the cycle society had tried to confine her to.

The more she described what had happened, the better he felt. It was an incredible relief to know that he’d been the unwitting catalyst for creating the Witch—even though he didn’t feel like any of the credit was due to him.

All he’d done was give her an opportunity. She’d been the one to do the rest.

“So,” Stephanie concluded. “If you hadn’t done what you did, the Telorans might have already obliterated Meligorn, destroyed the Earth, and might be attacking Dreth as we speak. You did good.”

Aaron shook his head. “I did bad but it ended up being good.” He managed the tiniest of smiles again. “Thank you.”

She smiled in response. “And now it’s time for you to do more good.”

He stared at her.

“I need to know what BURT needs in this matrix. Quantum computing wasn’t really covered by the syllabus.”

“Not even in the Prep?” he asked, and she shook her head.

“If it was, they didn’t let me get that far,” she explained, “so I’m afraid you’ll have to start simple.”

“Well, where do you want me to begin?” he asked and she frowned.

“How about you start at the beginning,” she said finally. “I won’t know what I need to know until the magic is introduced.”

“How does that even work?” Aaron wanted to know. “Don’t you have to plan it before you work it?”

“Kinda…” she answered. “But I never know exactly how much my subconscious knowledge affects the magic when I use it. If you start at the beginning, I should be okay.”

He sighed. “Okay, so you know that quantum computers use a different kind of memory, right?”

“Well, I do now,” she replied and he sighed.

“And I guess you know that ‘normal’ computers use binary code measured in bits and that RAM—your random access memory—stores data on silicon chips in a way that can be randomly accessed, right?”

Stephanie smirked. “Yeah, I do now.”

Aaron groaned and picked up his coffee cup. “Okay, so this is gonna take a while.”

Lars arrived with their food. “Discuss it over breakfast,” he ordered, “and don’t talk with your mouth full.” “I’m serious,” he told them when they gaped at him. “The last thing I need to see when I’m trying to eat is what you’re trying to chew.”

She rolled her eyes and picked her fork up, then gestured at Aaron to continue.

“So, quantum computers use this thing called QRAM…”


Chapter Thirty-Five

“Brace! Brace! Brace—Johanssen, you cannot slide a ship in space.”

The captain strained at the tether that prevented him from moving too far from his console. So help him, when they returned to port, he would kick his sorry pilot’s ass up one side of the station and all the way down the other.

“Johanssen, you cannot slide a ship in space. Johanssen, get my guns in line. Johanssen…” the pilot snarked under his breath while his hands moved like wildfire over his keyboard.

Part of his head was locked in on what he saw on his boards while the other part roamed ahead and tried to anticipate the direction of the next attack and bring the ship around in time to block it.

The pirates had come in hard and fast and the Mary Sue was slow to respond.

“Johanssen, make my dying duck fly like the swan it thinks it should be. Never mind about the fucking great hole in its flank. What’s a few feathers between friends?”

He nodded when the shields shifted to protect the ship’s vulnerable engine and used the moment to try a physics-defying maneuver that would have made the Witch’s pilot proud.

“Johanssen, you can’t slide a ship in space,” he snarked and did his best to swing the Mary Sue’s ass to port, while he brought her more heavily armored bow to starboard. “Suck. On. That.”

“Johanssen, quit your bitching and fly this crate!” the captain roared.

“Johanssen, fly this crate… Johanssen, make this old tub dance… Jo— Holy fuck!” The pilot’s bitching was cut short when his seat wrapped around him and converted into an emergency pod and console.

At the head of the command center, the captain’s tether did its job, yanked him off his feet, and dragged him into the command pod.

“Fucking engineers. Johanssen, you’d better not have broken anything.”

‘No, sir. I think that was the pirates. We’re dead in the water, sir.”

“Of all the shit-polished toilet stains. Captain Dervack, I want those bastards boarded before they do the same to us.”

The Marine commander didn’t bother to argue. “Sir, yes, sir.”

Johanssen stared as the marine pods departed and his heart sank.

“And don’t bother to leave the usual security contingent,” the captain added. “I want all your crazy kiddies to wreak havoc as only they know how.”

“Sir!”

From the emotion carried in that single syllable, Dervack knew what the captain was about to do next.

“Macclevee, jettison the survival pods.”

He’d had all non-essential personnel stand by in life pods. Their best hope was that the merchants would pick them up, while their worst was that the pods would shut down into cryo until the occupants could be found by friendly forces.

And, of course, that they’d remain undiscovered by anyone else until then.

It was a slender chance, at best.

“The convoy’s running, sir.”

“Good. That’s their job.” The captain was adamant.

The convoy was the reason they were there. Their sacrifice would be worth it only if the supply ships got through safely but whether they stayed or went was not something he would force on the crew. His next broadcast was an all-crew alert.

“All crew, all crew, all crew. Abandon ship. I repeat—”

A tapping sound came over the broadcast system. The chief engineer’s voice followed.

“I’m sorry, captain.” Vocalized sounds of static were broken by an obviously fake Scots accent. “I canna hear you. You’re breaking up.”

Another vocalization of static followed.

The captain’s response was swift. “Cut the crap, Vargas. I want you and your section on the next evacuation launch.”

The man responded in his own voice. “No can do, sir. We’re the only ones who can kick-start this sorry beast.”

“Vargas, I think we both know there won’t be any kick-starting until she’s seen the inside of a repair yard. The best you can do is make sure she blows up.”

“I would if I could, sir, but that’s not an option, either.”

The captain sighed. “Get your people out of there, Vargas. They’re too darned expensive for the Navy to replace.”

He cut the reply from the channel, but Johanssen could imagine what the man had said. The pilot watched the monitors and was relieved to see half of engineering’s pods released. He only hoped there were people in them.

The engineering crew was not only hard to replace but they were high-value targets as well. The pirates would suck them dry for every piece of intel they could get about the Navy’s ship capabilities. If they couldn’t get the Mary Sue to fly, they were better off gone.

“Johanssen, that goes double for you.”

“Sorry, sir. I can’t go until engineering’s clear. It would be a shame for them to get this boat started and then not have anyone crazy enough to try to fly it.”

“Are you disobeying me, Johanssen?”

“No, sir. I’m abiding by my oath.”

The other man’s snort said it all, but he didn’t argue. Instead, he moved down the list and ordered sections to evacuate, only to be told why it wasn’t possible.

“I am surrounded by madmen with a hero complex,” he grumbled at the end of it.

“No, sir. We simply want to die on our own terms.” Johanssen squirmed in the confines of his pod but stilled when the scan team sent him a warning. “Hold on, sir. I need to see if the retro thrusters will fire.”

“Do your worst, Jo.”

He didn’t reply. The retro thrusters fired and, for once, he did exactly as the captain ordered.

From across the battlefield, Rostev watched the Mary Sue’s fight and could do nothing to intervene. He noted the small cloud of Marines that swarmed from the stricken ship to the nearest pirate vessel and cursed softly.

“Shiro, what can we do?”

“We can finish this fucker off…sir.”

“In your own time,” he told him. “Make it so he’ll never fly again.”

He pinged the destroyer working on the other side of the convoy. Together, the two of them faced four pirates. The Mary Sue had been assigned tail-end Charlie and she’d managed to keep the marauders at bay for as long as it had taken the two lead ships to destroy one of the pirates trying to stall them.

“Orville, we might have lost Tenneson’s command.”

“Understood.”

“Sir—”

“I understand, Rostev. Once we clear the convoy’s forward path, we’ll work to get them off her flanks.”

What he didn’t say was that the Mary Sue was on her own and that the ship’s life pods would be left behind by the convoy and its escorts until their duty had been discharged. He tensed when Orville contacted him via their private channel.

“I don’t like it any more than you do, but none of us will get out of here alive if we don’t kill the pirates in front of us. If we can eliminate these four, the other two might back off.”

Personally, he doubted it, but he constrained his answer to a simple. “Understood, sir.”

Orville said no more but the Cast-Iron Pollux’s guns fired three rapid waves of fire. Missiles were interspersed with projectile and beam weapons, followed by another barrage of missiles. He whistled as his boards lit up with incoming fire.

“Get the Marines out there.” Orville’s order was as unwelcome as it was necessary.

The pirate ships were bigger and outnumbered them two to one. Not only that, there was nothing better to divide a ship captain’s attention than a squad of irate marines tearing up the insides of his ship.

He pinged his Marine captain. “You heard the man. Go get ʼem.”

Marine Captain Yardley’s, “Sir, yes, sir!” was half-drowned by the rumble of small craft engines and the slamming of hatches.

If Rostev hadn’t known any better, he’d have thought the Marines had sat on the flight deck with their engines warming. And if he really wanted to take a guess, he’d have said the squadron was ready to take off without those orders if they deemed it necessary.

“Hell, who am I kidding?” he murmured. “Of course they were.”

The swarm of tiny vessels that erupted from his ship mirrored the slightly larger swarm that emerged from Orville’s destroyer. Some of them exploded into tiny novas before they reached their target, while others engaged the pirate’s small fighters despite the Navy fighter escort that flew with them.

He should have known that a ship that size would come with its own squadron.

There was nothing he could do except direct his fire over and around them in an attempt to keep the big pirate busy. “Damn, they breed them big where you’re from.”

“It looks like they’ve somehow acquired some of our ship designs.” Orville gave the bad news in flat tones. “Marine scans show an identical hold layout to one of our battlecruisers.”

“But it’s not that—”

“No. Almost, but not quite. It’s like they’ve scaled it down. I’d like to know which company built it and where its shipyards are.”

“Me, too.”

His screen hazed as the forward shields caught a barrage of incoming fire and flared white against the onslaught. On his boards, monitors soared into the red and warning alarms screamed. The swarm of Marine craft reached the pirate cruiser and vanished inside.

Rostev wondered how many of them would return—and how many Marines the Navy would have to find and rescue when the war eased. He wanted to call them all back but he knew they were doing the job they’d joined for—and none of them would thank him for keeping them out of the fight.

“Damn…”

On the screen, his shields shifted and blinked as engineering sent the power where it needed to go and defense shuffled to places engineering hadn’t thought of. As he watched the shields rearrange themselves, Rostev suppressed a whistle. He wouldn’t have thought of some of those configurations, either.

“Nice work, shields,” he murmured and gaped as the pattern grew more complex and weapons fired through the gaps created. ‘Holy shit, guys.”

“If you can get us in closer, sir, we’ll show you something truly special.”

“Reynolds!” Rostev snapped the pilot’s name, but the ship was already responding to the request.

“Talk to me, Bobbin,” the pilot ordered. “I’ll make her dance for you.”

“You know we’re spinning this one solo, don’t you?” The weapons officer sounded ridiculously calm.

Rostev snorted and didn’t care that Orville was probably listening in. “The battle beast can swing it with the best of them,” he agreed, “but she’s no good at tripping the light fantastic. No offense to your lady, Orville.”

“None taken. The silly shit I see on my screens is for the young, the foolish, or those who have no sense of decorum.”

“My sense of decor is perfect,” Reynolds grumbled while his hands wove a complex pattern into the ship’s computer. “Buckle up, Buttercup. We’re gonna slap her six ways to Sunday and see if she can keep her balance.”

The command deck lurched and he studied the boards, keeping tabs on the Marines as they bulldozed through the lower decks and worked their way toward the pirates’ command center.

Reynolds flew the corvette like the nimble beast she was, and shields started a constant stream of invective at his antics. Weapons, though, were in their element.

As he guided the corvette between the two pirates, Bobbin’s voice rang out. “Call the Marines back. We’re gonna bust this beauty’s face.”

Yardley’s response was prompt. “How long?”

“We’ll be in position in a half-minute.”

“Fuck. Some of us are gonna come through the windows. You’d better stand by to catch.”

“We’ll do our best,” Rostev promised and noted that the rescue teams were already scrambling. Someone paid close attention to the comms. He decided to confirm it formally, anyway.

“Attawambe, launch for rescue.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Mandelbaum, fly interference.”

“Aye, sir.”

Again, he smiled. Mandelbaum’s team had already been launching. They hadn’t worked together this long to not know how their captain’s mind worked.

“Bring our kids home.”

“We’ll do our best, sir.”

Aboard the Cast-Iron Pollux, Captain Oliver Orville watched the Nestor’s Game, his heart in his mouth. Rostev was as sane a man as any corvette captain, but he took his duties seriously—and hated losing men. What he was doing right now was close to insanity itself.

He clutched the edge of his console and stared at the screens as though he could will the smaller ship and its people to safety. All he could do was direct his fire to where it was needed most and hope it was enough.

If he could keep the pirates’ attention on him, maybe they’d forget who was supposed to deal with the corvette.

Scans cursed and Orville’s screen flashed.

“Gut-sucking scumbag bolshing rodent-eating corn-turds!”

One of the supply ships was gone and a second was as dead in the water as the Mary Sue. A third had been boarded, the pirate ship nestled hull to hull against her as she fought to tear herself free.

He scowled when the second pirate vessel launched grapples at the crippled destroyer. His gut churned as they penetrated the Mary Sue’s hull. He leaned his hands on his console and bowed his head. Silence fell over the bridge.

“We’ll get them back, sir.”

“Not all of them.” His tone was bleak. He knew a little about what happened to those taken by pirates.

Memory made him swallow hard, and he forced his mind to the battle. A roar over the comms preceded a message from the weapons team. It was overshadowed by the scan that showed the nearest hostile vessel venting atmosphere.

Heat billowed from its hull and it began to draw back slowly.

“Take out the next one,” Orville ordered before the pilot could ask what he wanted to do.

If he was honest, he wanted to keep hammering it until it imploded, but he didn’t have the luxury. The Nestor’s Game’s luck would run out eventually and he couldn’t protect the convoy on his own.

For now, all he could do was take the fight to one of the pirates the corvette was flying between and hope her shields would hold.

“Hope is not a strategy.” His instructor’s words rang through his head. “It is if it’s all you have,” he muttered in reply to that echo from his past, then added, “And if you do all you can to help it along.”

“Target the command center,” he ordered and opened a link to the squadrons he’d held in reserve. “Gentlemen, I need your assistance.”

“Captain, we thought you’d never ask.”

As he told the leaders what he wanted, the Cast-Iron Pollux’s weapons crews did what they could to strike the pirate ship’s command center. It was an almost impossible task, but they trusted his instincts. If he said they needed to hit the pirates’ command center, that’s what had to be done.

Each crew attempted to be the first to do so and were surprised to see two squadrons of attack ships fly under the battlefield. They were relieved to see two more squadrons fly into the fire zone accompanied by rescue ships.

“Call the Marines back. We’ll only have one chance at this.”

Tension descended over the bridge, and every crewman kept half an eye on the monitors that showed the progress of the second flight. Pirate ships developed sudden ruptures where maintenance hatches or weak seams existed and heavily armored bodies leapt into space, activating jet packs to put some distance between them and the vessels they’d left.

Each one activated a squawker as they ejected and some teamed up so that one kept them moving away from the pirates while the other hooked on and twisted to fire into the ship as soon as their teammates were clear.

While the hostiles tried to focus on the incoming fire from the Pollux, the departing Marines, and the rescue ships’ escort, the first two squadrons circled to open fire on the big ships’ engines. Chaos reigned for several glorious minutes before the Nestor’s Game penetrated the hull of the ship to her starboard and the rescue shuttles began their return run.

At the same time, the Pollux’s sneak attack paid off. The small attack ships focused their fire on the nearest pirate’s propulsion system and atmosphere vented into space. The damage done, the two squadrons made their return run along the pirate’s sides and fired as they passed.

This time, they focused on weak points in the shields and the damage done by the Marines. Gouts of flame erupted from the hull but some cut off quickly as bulkheads were sealed. Several of the Marines fired magnetic grapples to snag a ride to the Pollux without the need for a shuttle.

Orville tried not to let their whoops of victory distract him as he scanned the readouts from the pirate vessels. He watched as the Gamble twisted down and under the crippled ships to move herself out of the battle zone as the bigger vessels began to accelerate away from the convoy.

“That’ll slow you down,” he murmured and noted with satisfaction that neither of them moved as fast as they’d done when they’d attacked.

He studied the monitors and searched the rear of the convoy for the Mary Sue and the damaged supply ships, but they weren’t there. With a wider scan, he caught their signature—and that of the other pirates.

Both were growing fainter as the raiders took full advantage of Orville’s distraction with the battle and getting his remaining charges to safety.

“When we’re done here,” he promised their fading images, “I will go hunting.”


Chapter Thirty-Six

“I don’t even know if I’m on the right track,” Stephanie observed.

She frowned and studied the matrix before her. Flickers of magic gleamed blue between each component to form veins between the nodes.

“Try it again,” she suggested and Aaron’s fingers flew over the keyboard.

The magic flared.

“Yes!” he began, but his jubilation soon melted into dismay. “No… No. Nonono no no! Goddammit!”

She didn’t have to ask what was happening as it was perfectly clear. Aaron’s request had reached the processor plane, the ions had done their thing, and the photons…

Actually, she couldn’t be sure what the photons had done. It was hard to tell.

On the other hand, she could see exactly what the magic had done.

“Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way,” she murmured.

“Yuh think?” This sarcastic Aaron was miles from the man she’d met at breakfast.

He no longer fumbled his words when she looked at him or dropped whatever he was holding—and he certainly didn’t hold anything back until he was sure he could say it. That last statement had slipped out without anything to censor it.

She laughed.

“I don’t see what’s so funny,” he grumbled.

“Okay, we’re building on older ideas,” Stephanie mused and ignored him, “instead of trying to work out what a magical version would look like. What if it doesn’t look like this at all?”

“How d’you mean?”

“Well, the earliest computers used mercury, then there were experiments with pools of liquid mercury for these things—”

“Yeah, I remember those.”

“Okay, well, what if we tried programming a pool of magic?”

Aaron’s jaw dropped. “You are out of your freaking mind.”

She pulled a Meligornian battery out of her pocket. “Look. This holds magical energy.”

“Well, duh.”

“And on Earth, we use one that stores electrical energy.”

“Uh-huh…”

“So, if batteries like this store different forms of energy, and computing is done using electrical impulses or silicon beams, and we want to include magic in the computing process… Do we need to work on the way magical energy moves through the quantum system rather than the way electrical or magnetic energy does?”

He looked disgusted. “I don’t know whether to kill you or kiss you.”

“Todd would get upset if you did either.”

“Point taken.” He quirked an eyebrow. “And I don’t want two hundred pounds of aggro Marine chasing me because I murdered his girlfriend.”

Lars raised his head. “He wouldn’t need to chase you. I’d make sure you didn’t go anywhere.”

“Thanks for that.” He gave the man a sour look.

“So, maybe I simply need to get the magical energy to do something like…” Stephanie began but a single loud chime sounded from the tablet beside her.

She turned away from the screen and picked the device up. “This had better be good.”

It was Emil.

“What can I do for you, Captain?”

“The repairs are almost done but that Meligornian tech guy wants to tweak the engines.”

“T’virilf. So?”

“So, I wasn’t sure if I should let him.”

“I trust him.”

“You’d better. What he wants to do…”

“Yeah?”

“Well, it made me think, but before I mention it to him, I thought I’d run it by you.”

“Go ahead.”

“The way you and Tethis used the asteroids’ own kinetic energy to slow them got me thinking.”

“Uh-huh.” Stephanie tried not to let her impatience show.

“Well, this ship produces a ton of kinetic energy to move itself through space.”

“I know. That’s how we move. I under—” She paused as the enormity of it struck her. “That is one freaking huge kinetic energy production machine…” Her eyes widened as she stared at the screen. “Oh…my…God…”

The captain smirked.

“So,” he began before she could think of anything to say. “What about tractor beams?”

She frowned. “Okay, so we could bring missiles with us?”

“Rocks,” Emil said succinctly. “Maybe the Telorans would like a taste of human cunning for a change.”

“Are we sure we want to show them how devious we can be?”

“Only if we can take them out at the same time,” he told her. “Don’t you think it’s time we did some stone-throwing of our own?”

Her expression revealed her uncertainty. “This is all very well and good, but we don’t know where they are—”

“I bet we can find out where they are,” he responded, cocked his head, and smirked. “I trust you can find a way.”

Stephanie gaped at him. “But—”

“I don’t have to determine the how. I’m the captain.” He grinned at her and cut the connection.

She looked bewildered as she sat on the nearest chair. “Well…I didn’t see that one coming.”

Lars snorted and Aaron covered his mouth with his hand, his eyes twinkling with amusement. She glared at them both and pushed out of the chair. “I’ll be back.”

“Promises, promises,” the engineer replied and waved absent-mindedly as he turned to the circuit they’d been working on.

Lars followed her out the door.

“So, boss, where to next?”

“I need to find Tethis.”

Ten minutes later, she and Lars stood in the park watching a little girl play under the watchful eye of her mother. There was no sign of the Teacher anywhere.

“Where could he be?” she asked, and the team leader shrugged.

“He might have been in the pods,” he suggested. “I think we missed them on the way out.”

She frowned. “We did. My bad. I…I simply didn’t think he was that technologically inclined.”

“But you thought you’d find him training against Vishlog?”

She flushed. “Yeah, well. No one said I was perfect.”

Lars cast a wary glance around the park and scowled at the high-rises that towered around them. “Let’s go back and check.”

“I’ll murder Frog.”

“He wouldn’t have sent you on a wild-goose chase. Tethis might have changed his mind.”

“Ugh. It would have been nice if he’d let someone know.”

“We’ll check when we meet him. If this is one of Frog’s practical jokes, I’ll help you hide the body.”

Stephanie chuckled and looked around. “I could always thank him,” she suggested. “It’s been a while since I went for a walk.”

“Yeah. Usually, you’re on your way to destroy something,” he observed. “Let’s go find your mage.”

Again, he surveyed the area around him.

“Are you sure everything’s okay?”

“Fairly sure. I’m not used to not having anyone trying to kill us.”

“Let’s not spoil the moment, then.”

They turned to return to the HQ and neither of them saw the little girl glance at them and hurry to her mom.

“She came to my park,” the child reported and tugged her mom’s sleeve. “See? The Witch came to my park!”

The woman nodded, her mouth open in surprise as she watched the two figures walk away along the footpath.

“She did. She really, really did!” the child insisted, and her mom laid a hand on top of her head.

“Yes, she did. Shall we go home and tell Daddy?”

“Yes!”

By the time they reached their apartment, Stephanie and Lars had checked the pod room and found it empty. The Teacher wasn’t in the training room, either, and Frog was as puzzled as they were that the mage had not been at the park.

“But he said—” he began, and Vishlog nodded.

“He did.” The Dreth shrugged. “I do not know where he is.”

She sighed and went on to check the library, the medical center, and the cafeteria. When all three were empty, she sighed again. “I guess he’ll turn up,” she said. “I’d better go to Aaron so we can keep going.”

Lars nodded but he frowned with concern. “I’ll let E know he’s AWOL. We might need to call BURT to see if he’s okay.”

“Sure. I’ll be with Aaron, anyway.”

“I’ll fetch Vishlog on the way out.”

“Fine.”

They reached the door to Aaron’s lab and stopped.

Tethis and the engineer were crowded around the computer, their heads together as the old mage stabbed a finger at the screen.

“No. See? It’s this, this and this…not that one.”

The man swiped the mage’s hand gently away from the display. “Sure, that would explain it, but what Gene and I tried to do was this so it should have worked.”

“No. You’re not listening. Look, if you guys did this”—Tethis’ fingers pounded the keyboard and Stephanie winced—“then BURT would have done this.” Again, the keyboard rattled with the force of his strokes. “And then…” He paused and stared intently at the screen before he crowed with triumph. “Then that would have happened.”

Aaron stared at him, open-mouthed. “That’s exactly what did happen. That’s what we saw and we couldn’t work out what we’d done.”

The old Teacher looked pleased with himself and let the other man elbow him out of the way so he could go over it again. He glanced over at the door and noticed Stephanie and Lars standing there gaping at him.

“Close your mouths. You’ll let the creps in.”

She closed her mouth with a snap. “Creps?”

Tethis waved his hands. “Sure. You know. Small annoying insects—they like to buzz and bite in summer. Horrible when they fly into your mouth.”

“Flies?” she asked as Lars suggested, “Mosquitoes?”

“Yes and no to both,” he told them and turned to Aaron.

Stephanie came in and stood beside the desk. “So, what are you doing here?”

The mage raised an eyebrow. “I was looking for you,” he said, “and Aaron mentioned having some trouble with BURT’s programming and we took it from there.”

“It’s been most enlightening,” the engineer muttered and traced the screen with his finger, “but it’s so obvious now.”

Tethis pointed at the screen. “And that’s also why some of the calculations were off in the last battle.”

Aaron smiled. “Yeah. I can see how that would work. Wait until I tell Gene about this. He’ll be so excited.”

He was actually out of his seat and around his desk before he froze in mid-stride and made a sheepish about-face.

“Maybe we need to let BURT know—and the Federation Witches in training,” Stephanie suggested to give him a moment to recover.

BURT’s voice intruded. “I have noted your calculations and will let the training team know.” He paused, then asked cautiously, “Do you really want to use that title, Stephanie?”

“Why? What’s wrong with it?”

“The acronym has unfortunate connotations if…” Lars started to sputter but BURT persisted. “If my understanding of colloquial usage is correct.”

The team leader’s sputtering turned into laughter and Aaron snickered.

“What acronym?” Tethis asked, and the engineer broke into chortles.

“Federation Witches in Training,” she murmured in an effort to discover the problem. “FWIT. What’s wrong with that?”

The two men exchanged glances and howled with laughter. The mage leaned into the computer and started typing.

His puzzlement grew as he stared at the screen and he looked from one to the other.

“For What It’s Worth?” he asked. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

The other two laughed harder.

“Federated Women in Timber?” Tethis continued. “That’s an old one, but—”

Lars shook his head and gasped for breath. “No. Add “slang” to your search terms.”

“Oh, God… Please add slang.” Aaron snorted.

“It’s Australian,” Lars explained. “I’ve worked with a few, but at least these would be magical eff-wits!” He held his hands around his waist and doubled over.

Aaron leaned against the wall, almost crying. “They still use it,” he managed before another bout of hilarity assailed him. “You should hear them in the forums.”

“Their press would have a field day,” Tethis said after a few more minutes of rapid typing. “I wonder how long it would take them to notice.”

“Not long,” the engineer assured him. When he caught Stephanie’s blank look, he realized she still didn’t know what they were talking about. “It’s short for fuck-wit,” he explained. “It means idiot, but ruder.”

She glared at them. “I still don’t see what’s so funny.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Oh, come on. The most powerful group of people in the universe and they all start out as FWITs?”

He and Lars lost control again and even Tethis managed a smile. She rolled her eyes. “BURT, did you have to?”

“I could have let it fly.”

“No.” Stephanie gestured at where Aaron and Lars were still sniggering. “You could have simply told me in private. We could have avoided all…all this.”

“Does this mean you would like to change the title?”

“I don’t know if we could,” she responded.

“I will look into it,” BURT assured her before he continued, “and I will inform them of the alterations needed for their calculations.”

Aaron regained a measure of control and brought his calculations back on screen. Staring at them, he shook his head. “You know, I guess I’m happier, now.” The door cracked open as he continued. “But making me believe I’d been fired was a horrible way to do it.”

“It beats killing you,” Ms E told him as she crossed the office.

He took one look at the expression on her face and paled as all traces of amusement faded. His gaze fixed on her, he swallowed uncomfortably. “That…that wasn’t a joke, was it?”

When no one answered him immediately, he glanced from one to the other. Lars and Elizabeth shook their heads. Stephanie simply looked at him, and Tethis lowered his head.

The engineer’s skin grew paler than before. “God, my curiosity almost got me killed.”

This time, they nodded in unison, and their gazes never left his face.

“You guys know that’s eerie, right?”

Their lips twitched into smirks, and they nodded again, still in complete unison.

Aaron cleared his throat and pushed his chair back. “How do I get to the university?”

Tethis began to walk toward the office door, and Ms E and Stephanie pointed at the mage, their movements in perfect sync. Aaron kept one eye on them as he hurried after the old Meligornian.

“Okay, then. Leaving out of the weird zone.”

As the door closed behind him, he heard the two women start to laugh. Ahead of him, the Teacher chuckled.

“Damn,” Stephanie said once they’d gone, then she sighed. “In all that, I forgot to ask Tethis my question.”


Chapter Thirty-Seven

Todd slid through the door beside a Marine captain, two lieutenants, and a sergeant. He was relieved to see he wasn’t the only lance corporal in the room—and that the rest looked as bewildered as he felt.

Mindful that he’d be watched, he tucked that confusion away. It wasn’t the face he showed his men, and it wasn’t the face he wanted to show here. The Navy was up to serious business and judging from the ranks gathered around the briefing table, it was about to make mischief.

If he wanted to be a part of that, he had to look like he belonged. Bewildered wouldn’t cut it here. He pulled a seat up without paying attention to who he was sitting next to but it didn’t matter.

The room was sealed shortly after and the front screen lit up. Todd’s eyes widened as he recognized Admirals Seljack and Dailey. The third admiral, he wasn’t so sure about. Seljack spoke first.

“There has been a pirate attack on a supply convoy to Dreth,” he told them.

The room immediately stilled. He tensed and focused on the three men on the screen. A pirate attack? It meant they’d been called together for only one thing.

Admiral Dailey picked up where his counterpart left off. “As you know, we always respond. Admiral Martin is tasked with protecting Dreth and requests our assistance.”

For a moment, he wondered why the admiral couldn’t go after the pirates himself, only to hear him answer the question.

“We could go after the pirates ourselves,” the admiral explained, “but we can’t be sure this isn’t a ploy to draw some of our ships away from the world and thus leave it vulnerable to Teloran attack. We simply cannot risk that.”

He stared at them, clearly troubled at the thought and uncomfortable at having to call for outside help. Todd could understand that. In some quarters, such a request would be seen as weakness and the scramble for promotion was a savage fight.

Todd pushed the thoughts away and listened. As far as he was concerned, the man had made the right call. Not that his opinion mattered. He leaned forward and paid close attention to what the officer said next.

“Six vessels attacked the convoy and five remain. Of those five, we believe only two have warp capability and the ability to reach cruising speed. All vessels out-mass and outgun the Federation Navy’s main destroyer classes, but none could be called a ship of the line. They sit somewhere between.”

He let the restless movement around the tables settle before he continued.

“During the attack, one supply ship was destroyed and two were captured. The destroyer Mary Sue was also severely damaged and captured, although she managed to jettison most of her personnel before being taken.”

Again, the room tensed, and the admiral was quick to reassure them. “The pirates were too focused on taking their prizes to pick up the survivors and we were able to retrieve them once the convoy had reached Dreth orbit.”

Todd suppressed a shiver. That meant they’d had to leave them and the survivors had spent an uncomfortable time drifting alone. He paled at the thought but reminded himself that they had been picked up.

“Of those who were evacuated, all survived.”

The room breathed a sigh of relief, but the admiral hadn’t finished.

“We do not know how many we lost in boarding actions, but the fighting squadrons of the surviving escorts were down forty-seven percent.”

He grimaced. That was bad news—but it was good news, too. The admiral moved on.

“We are currently tracking the pirates but need men in the sector ready to act when we find them. Rapid retrieval of prisoners is essential if they are to survive.”

“And the ships?” a Marine captain asked.

The admiral gave him a long look.

“It is my understanding that the Mary Sue was too badly damaged to be retrieved and while she is one of our older vessels, she needs to be secured. The civilian vessels will also need securing, and the pirate vessels should be captured or made non-functional.”

Todd heard suppressed snorts from around the table. Non-functional meant there were a few blast bunnies who’d rub their hands together with glee. It wasn’t often they were given permission to make a mess before a mission went live.

The admiral ignored the snorts and continued. “We will send salvage teams for them once the area is cleared of hostiles.”

He glanced at Admiral Seljack. Earth’s Defense Commander picked up the cue.

“Your teams have been chosen. I am releasing you to Admiral Dailey’s command for relocation to the Dreth system, where you will be transferred to Admiral Martin’s command for the mission. I expect you all to come back when you’re done.”

Somehow, Todd sincerely doubted it, but it wasn’t like he could say he expected most or some to return. Every one of them needed the hope that they would be the ones who made it back—and that they would be welcomed when they did.

“Dismissed!”

The room came to attention and waited until the screens went blank before they moved.

As soon as the admirals ended the call, they turned to their commander.

The man had sat quietly during the entire meeting and now, he rose to his feet and drew their attention without saying a single word. As soon as he had it, he spoke.

“Be seated, gentlemen.”

Todd sat with the rest, and the commander continued.

“This assignment will be a tough one, and I want your men ready. The pods will be waiting as soon as we reach the transports and I want you in them and training until we reach the Dreth system.”

It was the first indication he’d had that the commander was coming.

“You will have two days’ downtime to prepare for the mission itself, and I will inform you when that commences. Until we know where the pirates are located, you will train your men and prepare them.”

In what? He wanted to ask but his superior had the answer.

“If this engagement is like other retrievals, boarding actions will be required. Ensure that all your men hone their piloting skills and shipboard fighting. I want no mistakes that can be avoided by proper preparation. Make sure they are ready.”

Their reply of “Sir, yes, sir!” made the room tremble.

When they had settled, he spoke again. “Unfortunately, we do not know if the six ships encountered was the entirety of their fleet or part of something bigger. We do not know if they are aligned with the Telorans, and we do not know if they have taken the prisoners to a ground-based holding center.”

Todd kept his face a careful blank. That was a fair number of do-not-knows he needed to prepare for.

“What we do know,” the commander went on, “is that we expect to go up against overwhelming numbers and that we expect to win.”

A roar of agreement greeted that statement, and his voice joined the rest.

When it died down, one of the captains raised his voice. “So basically, sir, you’re saying we don’t know anything.”

The commander gave him a grim smile. “Exactly. Be ready for everything.

There were groans from around the table, along with comments of “typical,” “just like the Navy,” and “blind as usual.”

“What did you expect?” the officer challenged them. “A walk in the park?”

Chuckles greeted him, and he gave them a tight-lipped smile in return.

“Dismissed.”

This time, they left and moved swiftly to their quarters and their men. Todd’s mind churned as he thought about the mission that lay ahead. He was still working his men into a team. Hell, he was still trying to get them to understand the basics of working as a team.

They’d come from several different units and still functioned like individuals. At best, he had several duos in sync and maybe a trio, but it was like herding cats. If they wanted to survive ship-to-ship combat and shipboard melee, he had to get them working efficiently with group tactics.

He wondered if the journey to the Dreth system would be long enough, then decided he would have to do something drastic if they were to be ready on time. He didn’t want to lose another team.

Witch Of The Federation IV

Hastily, Garach shuffled sideways to avoid Frog’s fist, then ducked and jumped. Vishlog’s fist missed his head, and the leg-sweep failed to connect. The kid laughed.

“Is that the best you have?”

Frog’s foot connected with the back of one knee and the young Dreth grunted.

“The best is yet to come.”

Garach dropped and rolled to avoid the boot that came down where his body had been and scrambled hurriedly to his feet. Before he could retaliate with another attack against his uncle and adopted uncle, the door to the training room opened and they all glanced over to see who’d come in.

The young Dreth was surprised to see two women enter, but it only took him a moment to recognize Ms E’s main bodyguards. He wracked his brain to remember their names and didn’t move his gaze from either of them.

Both were tiny by Dreth standards and looked like a single good blow would break them. Amy was the shorter of the two and if he was any judge, the stronger. Brown-haired and dark-eyed, she was well-muscled and moved like a hunting derkat.

The other one was…Elle, he recalled. She was as tall as Ms E but had black hair and dark coppery skin. Garach assumed she could fight or she wouldn’t be a bodyguard. The same went for Amy, but truly? Surely male guards would have been better.

His lip curled as he watched them, and Frog saw it.

The small man nudged Vishlog, and the big Dreth looked over and caught Garach’s expression before his nephew could hide it.

Before either of them could say anything, Lars arrived. He stopped when he saw Amy and Elle setting their things down.

“Is Elizabeth covered?” he asked. “I can assign—”

“Lisa and Bunny are on shift.” Amy cut him off. “There is no way we’d leave that lady unsupervised.”

He smirked. “I’ll tell her you said that.”

The woman grinned. “I told her as much when I left. I also told her to be nice.”

Lars snorted. “Good luck with that.”

Frog and Vishlog moved to the edge of the mats and Frog hopped onto the bench. Leaning toward the Dreth, he whispered, “Do you think this needs a typical Dreth teaching?”

“Yes.” The warrior grimaced. “His head is as hard as the armor on the Ebon Knight—maybe even harder.”

“That’s good to know.” The smaller guard snickered and slid a glance at Garach. The kid looked as curious as hell. “We can use it to patch a hole if we are hit.”

Vishlog nodded. “I will speak to him while you speak to them.”

Frog slapped him on the shoulder and trotted to where the two women were warming up.

“We have a small problem,” he began when Amy noticed him. He cast a glance to where Vishlog now talked to his nephew. “Well, maybe not a small problem, but we need your help.”

She arched her eyebrows. “Do tell.”

Over on the mats, Vishlog took Garach through a complex series of maneuvers involving two imaginary targets. The kid struggled, but no more than Frog had when he’d learned them for himself.

Amy watched them as she and Elle listened to his explanation, then she snickered. Nudging her teammate, she sauntered to where the two Dreth worked through the kata.

“You need to watch your opponent, not your feet,” she said after a couple of minutes’ observation.

Garach scowled and ignored her. Vishlog smirked and slapped him upside the head.

“See?” Amy pointed out. “If you’d been watching, you’d have been able to block that without a problem.”

The kid’s scowl deepened. His uncle mirrored his movements but kept his eyes on his opponent, and his nephew adjusted his focus.

“And your stance is too narrow,” Elle advised. “You won’t be able to take—ooh.”

The young Dreth had retained his stance and Vishlog had knocked him on his ass. The boy jumped up, his face like thunder and his lips curved into a snarl.

“Let’s take it from the beginning,” the warrior suggested, and the girls nodded their enthusiastic agreement.

Garach’s face darkened and Frog struggled to keep his expression neutral. Beside him at the benches, Lars pressed his lips together and looked at the floor to hide his face from the rest of the room.

“And…begin,” Vishlog instructed.

His nephew took up a stance and Elle tutted. “Too narrow.”

The young Dreth scowled but didn’t correct. Vishlog stretched a hand out, set his fingertips against his shoulder, and pushed him.

The boy stumbled sideways and flailed to regain his balance. It didn’t help when Amy and Elle pushed him upright.

“Again,” Vishlog ordered, and Garach resumed his stance.

This time, he was a little wider as if he reluctant to admit that either of the women had a point. Amy grinned as she nudged Elle.

“That’s a little better,” she commented, “but he’s still not watching his opponent.”

This time, Garach moved quickly enough to block Vishlog’s open-handed slap, but he was caught off-balance and his uncle’s boot impacted squarely on his hip and catapulted him back.

“Hrageth’s ass!” he cursed and pushed to his feet.

“Again,” the warrior ordered.

“Wider,” Amy suggested but the youngster ignored her and rushed through the sequence.

Elle tutted. “That could have been better.”

Garach turned and faced Vishlog again. He looked furious but kept his eyes on his opponent. If it wasn’t for the darker flush to his skin, Frog would have sworn the kid was ignoring the two women.

The way he stamped his feet into the mat and snapped into the first position denied his pretense. The girls had gotten under his skin and he had a hard time keeping his temper.

“It looks like I’m up,” he muttered and crossed the mats.

Lars remained silent, but he knew the man was as interested as hell. He stepped alongside Garach and tapped him on the shoulder. “Why the trouble?” he asked. “Weren’t there many female fighters and workmen on the Knight?”

The young Dreth froze and halted midway through the move. He looked slowly from Frog to Vishlog and finally, the two women. His scowl remained as he scanned them all again. He looked thoughtful for a moment before he turned to the girls.

“I understand you are trying to teach me,” he told them, “but it might be better if you did it in person.”

Amy cocked her head. “What did you have in mind?”

“A duel,” he replied. “Maybe I will learn if you can show me how you fight, rather than giving advice from the sidelines.”

From the way he said it, he didn’t think either of them would be able to teach him anything, and Frog turned away while he tried not to laugh. Lars had a coughing fit, and the look on Vishlog’s face was caught between apology and outrage.

Garach had his back to his uncle and didn’t see it. The two women regarded him with something between surprise and amusement.

He shrugged. “You don’t have to,” he added, “but I think a duel would be the best.”

“What? You want to fight both of us?” Elle asked.

“Well, yes,” he snapped.

“At once?” Amy added as though she couldn’t believe it.

His sigh was definitely exasperated, but he lowered his head and took a deep breath before he raised it again.

“Of course, both of you,” he retorted. “I don’t have the time to beat you both into submission so I’ll do it at the same time.”

Vishlog chuckled quietly at that and Garach stiffened but didn’t turn. He stared intently at the women as he waited for them to respond.

His uncle backed away a little and took Frog with him. When they were out of earshot, the Dreth stooped and spoke softly into his ear. “I told him they couldn’t take me but I didn’t tell him why.”

The guard looked around the training room. “Do we have any popcorn? I bet Garach’s ego is good for at least a couple of hours of beating before he learns.”


Chapter Thirty-Eight

Stephanie took a late lunch in the cafeteria. She’d made a little progress in her attempts to infuse magic into the quantum circuitry but had been stuck on the shielding. The damn things were so sensitive that they needed protection from external magnetic fields.

She hadn’t thought they should be protected from external magical fields, too, but that’s exactly what she’d found. While the magic could follow the same paths as electricity and trap the photons released during the process, her presence interfered with the way things functioned if she stood too close.

The reason hadn’t been clear at first, so she’d tried moving closer and then farther away. While that had had a definite effect, she hadn’t been able to determine why until she’d set a fully charged Meligornian battery beside the circuit.

The results had been identical to when she’d stood in the same place. When she’d placed a human battery beside it, there’d been no change. Recognizing the problem, however, was not the same as finding a way to deal with it, so she’d decided to take a break and have something to eat.

Johnny had breathed a sigh of relief when she’d set everything down and headed to the door.

“It’s time to eat,” she’d told him.

“I thought you’d never remember,” he answered and looked pointedly at the clock on the wall. She immediately understood.

Two o’clock was late to have lunch.

Fortunately, the cafeteria didn’t think so, and she and Johnny sat down to a meal. They’d barely begun eating when Tethis entered. He glanced at their table before he went and ordered his own very late lunch.

When it arrived, he came to join them.

“The students are doing well,” he told her and she nodded. Johnny glanced up and returned to his food. None of them spoke again until their plates were cleared and they had hot drinks set before them.

“I have to admit I had my doubts about the instructors you chose,” the Teacher began and continued the conversation he’d started on arrival. “Especially that young scamp, Felarif, but even he’s taken well to his new responsibilities.”

Stephanie stared at him. Now that he mentioned the wealthy young Meligornian, she realized she hadn’t been called to correct any mistakes or deal with any misbehavior. If she recalled him correctly, that should have occurred at least once by now.

“Are you telling me he hasn’t gotten himself into any trouble, at all?”

“No. Why are you so surprised?”

“Why are you?” she retorted and he smiled.

“Point taken,” he said and his smile faded. “Either way, he and the others have taken their responsibilities seriously and your first batch of Witches are brewing well.”

She stared at him.

“What?”

“That was a joke,” she noted.

“Young lady,” he told her, his face stern, “I do not joke. Your instructors are happily fulfilling their responsibilities and their students are learning what is needed. Where is the joke in that?”

Stephanie narrowed her eyes and Tethis met her stare. When she actually thought he would not break, his lips quivered and he sputtered with mirth. “Your face!”

“That is not funny.” She shook her head.

“You’d be proud of them,” he added. “The students have designed themselves a new ‘Team Morgana’ patch complete with black pointy hat overlaying the Morgana’s sigil. It’s quite endearing. I didn’t realize witches had such negative connotations in the past.”

“Not only in the past,” she told him wryly, “but the Meligornians went a long way to change the traditional image magic users have had. And there was a children’s series before the Disaster, where teenagers with magical talents were summoned to a boarding school for the magical. That helped a fair amount.”

“I believe that’s having a resurgence in popularity,” Tethis told her. He held his tablet up. “I find it quite entertaining, and people are drawing parallels between that and the program you’re running.”

“Really?”

“You have to admit that there are some similarities—and who doesn’t dream of being pulled from relative obscurity to become part of an elite group? Really, you should visit them again.”

Stephanie sighed. “I’ll see what can be done. I’m glad the students are happy and the teachers are doing well. Tell me, what do they think of the new patches?”

“Them?” Tethis chuckled. “They’re wearing it, too. It kind of binds them all together. They are the respected elite in that school. Everyone wants to be one of them.”

“The teachers, too?”

“Oh, no, but the mages work with them when there’s something new they need to understand. Some things don’t come intuitively.”

“Such as?”

“Toasters,” the old Meligornian replied succinctly and his eyes dared her to argue.

Stephanie paused, not sure whether or not the elderly mage was having a go at her or not. Eventually, she gave in. “Do tell.”

“Well, it all began when Felarif couldn’t find a sandwich press…”

By the end of the story, she had tears in her eyes and Johnny sounded like he was in pain. Neither of them could tell if Tethis was joking until he added, “I believe he’s patenting a design operating on MU for export to Meligorn.”

“Wait!” Her laughter died. “You don’t have toasters on Meligorn?”

“Not in the way you understand them,” Tethis answered. “The boy’s a genius. He’ll be a self-made man in his own right inside a decade. T’virilf is helping him set up his own corporation.”

“What? Here on Earth?”

“Where else?” he asked her. “He’s putting the manufacturing plant in one of the Gov-Subs to improve things there.”

“He doesn’t have to do that.”

“No, but he believes it’s important that the Witches be seen as a benefit to everyone and not only those with magical talent.”

Privately, Stephanie agreed with him, but Tethis hadn’t finished.

“It’s one of the reasons you can buy Team Morgana sweatshirts in the Harborview Store.”

“Say, what?”

“You heard,” he informed her smugly. “You can buy Team Morgana sweatshirts in the Harborview Store. It’s the Witches’ way of making sure the school community can lay claim to them as a group. They want everyone to feel involved and not only the few of them actually in the Team Morgana program.”

Elizabeth came into the cafeteria and caught the look on Stephanie’s face. “Yes, I have authorized Team Morgana licensing.”

She crossed to the coffeemaker and poured herself a fresh cup. “You get six percent of all proceeds. I get two percent for managing the brand.”

Stephanie stared at her mentor as she walked out the door. Ms E looked far too pleased with herself, she decided. The woman was gone before she could think of anything to say.

“Licensed?” She leaned back, stunned.

Tethis smirked again and Johnny seemed as dumbfounded as she was. He began to tap on his tablet. “Man,” he said after a few moments of staring and flicking through the pages. “I have to get myself a t-shirt.”

“I’ve ordered myself a couple of dark-blue ones,” the old mage told him, “but they do a good line in black and gold, I believe.”

“Really?” The man paged down.

Stephanie’s tablet chimed and she pulled it out, leaving Johnny and Tethis to browse the merchandise.

“Mom!” She squinted at the screen. “What is that you’re wearing?”

“Hello, sweetheart,” her mom called. “It’s nice to see you, too.”

She blushed. “Yes, but…” She gestured toward the screen. “What is that?”

Cindy glanced down. “It’s the latest rage,” she answered. “Don’t you like it?”

“Is that my sigil?” She scrutinized the black t-shirt with its gold-edged design.

“Uh-uh. It’s the Team Morgana’s sigil,” her mom corrected. “I have another one in blue and gold and one in blue and silver. I didn’t like the green.”

“There’s green?”

“Well, they call it Leafy Dreth, but it’s green.”

“Leaf— You are shitting me.”

“Stephanie! And, no, I shit you not.”

“Mom!”

Cindy grinned and raised a travel mug to her lips.

“That’s not—”

The woman lowered the mug. “What?”

“The mug.”

She lifted it and looked at it. “Why, yes, it is. I liked the red.”

Stephanie had to admit that the red did look good. “Why was I not aware of this?” she asked, and her mom laughed.

“Honey, it started a little while ago but got really big when you and your team helped stop the planet-killing rocks. You should see your dad. He has all kinds of memorabilia in his mancave.”

“I’m not sure I want to know,” she said and sighed. “How are the two of you doing? I’m sorry I haven’t been over lately.”

“Honey, you are very busy trying to save the entire Federation. We know you’re there.”

“You haven’t been bothered too much?”

“Pfft. We turn down chances to speak on shows at least three times a week and offers from agents at least twice. That doesn’t worry us. What really gets to us is all the misinformation out there. Seriously, we listen to them talking about you on this show or that and they always get it wrong.”

Stephanie smirked. “I stopped listening to them a long time ago. Ms E helped with that. I think she told me something like I could listen to what they said and spend my life trying to fix the mistakes, or I could ignore them since people would always say what they wanted to anyway.”

“So it doesn’t bother you?”

“It would bother me if I listened to it,” she told her, “so I don’t. It’s not like I can change it.”

“So you wouldn’t be interested if we wanted to do a show with you—to correct some of the wrong information out there because believe me, there is so much wrong information out there—and we thought we could maybe set the record straight.”

Stephanie opened her mouth to answer but closed it again. How would she feel about it? It wasn’t a question she wanted to answer and was definitely one she wanted time to consider. “I’ll think about it,” she said after a moment. “It’s not something I’ve really had time to worry about. How’s the painting going?”

Her mom’s face lit up. “I’ve found this new instructor,” she answered. “She’s wonderful and familiar with a number of styles. At first, I thought I wanted to do portraits and landscapes and things like that but then I saw this painting by someone called Rousseau and thought…”

She listened to the woman talk about color and line and adding slightly unreal qualities to her pictures and was glad she was happy. Her dad was enjoying the mancave but Cindy suggested he needed a “boys’ night out” and a hobby other than billiards.

They were laughing when they ended the call, and she sighed happily as she slipped the tablet back into its case. Tethis was sipping his tea and staring into space, and Johnny was reading an article he’d found.

Both of them glanced at her.

“Mom’s fine,” she told them, and they nodded. She looked at Tethis. “You know all that extra time you have while I’m out saving the universe?”

He groaned. “Don’t you hate it when your own words come back to bite you in the ass?”

Stephanie laughed. “Well, it was you who said you could research the things I didn’t have time to.”

“So?”

“So, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is.”

Tethis flushed and narrowed his eyes. “And?”

“Emil came up with this idea about using the Knight to bring our own kinetic energy to the next battle.”

He straightened immediately, so she elaborated.

“He pointed out that the Knight is basically one big kinetic energy creation device, and he thought we might want to use that.”

The old mage began to chuckle and shook his head. “You humans are horribly cunning.”

“Aw, you say the nicest things.”

The old mage ignored her. “I like this captain. You,” he added and pointed at her, “not so much. My free time became a way for you to get out of doing your own research.”

She laughed as she pushed her chair back from the table and headed out of the cafeteria.

“Just remember,” she replied sweetly as she closed the door behind her, “this was all your idea.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

The team looked up as Todd returned to their quarters. Normally, they’d have been out in the rec room or on the way to the mess. The fact that they dragged their heels meant they knew something was up and wanted to know what.

“Gather round,” he ordered and circled his hand over his head. Reggie rolled his eyes.

“Like we’d do anything bloody else,” he grumbled.

“And you tell me to stop my bitching,” Gary retorted.

“That wasn’t bitching,” the Australian told him. “It was sniping. Learn the difference, ya stupid Pommy bastard.”

“There’s a reason we banished you to the colonies, mate.”

“Yeah, it was the only way you could win at cards,” Ka threw in, her New Zealand accent marking her affiliation.

“Nah, pissing off one set of highlanders wasn’t enough,” Jimmy quipped and his brogue colored his words.

Todd glared at them. “When you’re all ready.”

Their attention snapped to him.

“We’re going after some pirates,” he told them and they stilled, wholly attentive now. “They’ve taken some of ours and a few civilians as well. Navy wants them back.”

“So, ship-to-ship, then,” Gary said and caught his eye.

“Or a ground-base. We’re still waiting on that information.”

“Fucking typical,” Reggie muttered. “Spook squad doesn’t know its anus from its arsehole and we’ll go in blind as per fucking usual.”

“Why spoil the surprise?” Gary asked.

Todd gave them a tight-lipped smile. “Tomorrow, we’ll go into the pods to train. We’ve been told to be ready and you kids aren’t.”

This drew a round of protest from the team, as well as some dark looks. Drusilla leaned on a wall at the back and studied him with dark-gray eyes. He noticed her gaze flick over her teammates before it returned to him.

He pretended not to see or to notice the way she held herself apart from the rest of them. This was one of the problems he needed to fix. While Gary, Jimmy, and Reggie worked as a trio and Darren and Angus ran as a duo, Drusilla and Ka stood apart.

This could have been because they were the only girls in the team or because they’d come from different sections than everyone else. He didn’t know and he didn’t care. If he couldn’t get the team to work together as a whole, he would inevitably lose them all.

He looked to where Henry and Piet stood at the back of the team. Henry would sometimes team up with Drusilla and Todd suspected the guy was sweet on her, but the pairing was always temporary.

Ka teamed with no-one and moved ahead to open doors or hung back to hack comms lines or other things. She was the team’s security expert and none of them truly understood why they needed to protect her.

And as for Piet… He glanced at where the explosives expert listened. The man looked a part of the team, but he operated on his own—and he needed a firm hand to stop blowing up what he shouldn’t. Which reminded him of something he couldn’t afford to overlook.

He glared at him. “And there will be no damned explosives on a ship, Piet.”

The man sighed with exasperation. “Boss, you know there is no danger in the where. It is only with—”

“With the what and how,” Todd finished in chorus. “I know.” He gave the man a hard look and shook his finger at him. “Leave the explosives behind tomorrow, or you and I—”

“Will have an uncomfortable after-mission debrief. I know,” Piet finished.

Todd gave the team a small, hard smile. “And now that’s out of the way, you all need to hit the chow lines and then your bunks. Alone,” he added and looked directly at Angus.

“To sleep,” he emphasized and shifted his stare to Darren. “Dismissed.”

The team headed to the door and Todd let them go. When he was alone in their quarters, he leaned against the nearest bunks and sighed. “Now,” he murmured to himself, “what the fuck would Stephanie do?”

He stood there for a long moment, considering and discarding ideas until he found one he thought might work. With a slow smile, he headed to the mess hall. Along the way, he made a call.

“Hey, Tactical Training? This is Lance Corporal Brogan. I have a group of individuals I need to work into a team and I need your help.”


Chapter Thirty-Nine

Garach groaned and rolled slowly onto his knees.

“Now that,” Amy explained, “is what happens when you get your shoulder under your opponent and use his weight and momentum against him.”

Garach grunted and hesitated before he staggered to his feet.

“You have to wait until that point where he’s committed and can’t pull back—because he can do that if he works out what you’re doing before you’re ready.”

The young Dreth managed to keep from rolling his eyes. The truth was she hadn’t had to wait very long for him to make his first mistake. He’d underestimated her from the very beginning but he was Tegorthan chow if he was ever going to admit that.

He tried not to notice the fact that his uncles sat on the benches and watched the two females hand him his backside—and that they ate popcorn while it happened. In that moment, he wasn’t sure who he hated more—the two women who shouldn’t have been able to beat him or the two men who’d adopted him as their own and sat by while the two women kicked his ass.

As he thought that, Amy lunged forward and jabbed him twice, her fists hard and fast before she darted out again. Garach gasped when the pain surged up from his ribs and across his chest. He stumbled, recovered, dived away from Elle’s follow-up attack, and narrowly avoided her fists.

Her foot caught him as he tucked into a roll but not powerfully enough to stop him putting the distance he needed between them. It was a short-lived respite.

As he turned and repositioned himself, the women circled closer. He turned to follow them and attempted to keep them both in sight, but they moved more quickly until he had to almost spin on the spot. Elle chose a moment when he focused on her to close in.

The young Dreth dropped into a lower, wider stance and she took the invitation to snap a punch toward his jaw while she tried to drive a foot into his nuts. He deflected the foot with a downward sweep of his hand, blocked the punch, and flowed into an attack.

He led with the first hand he’d used to block and followed with the second. Elle swayed out of the path of his first fist and caught a glancing blow from the second. He began to smile.

A brief moment later, he fell when Amy came in from the side and took his supporting leg out from under him. She stamped on his thigh as he went down. Garach gave a yelp of pain as his muscles screamed but the woman was merciless.

She drove a fist into the side of his head as he crumpled and landed a second blow on his jaw before she bounced away. Elle moved in and pounded a boot up under his ribs to lift him over onto his side.

The young Dreth curled into a ball, anticipating a rain of punches and kicks, but it didn’t come. Even then, he remained in a defensive position.

“Did you see that?” Amy asked as she stepped around to stand where he could see her. “That was called a set-up.”

He couldn’t believe she would lecture him while he was down, but she persisted.

“Elle rolled with your punch,” she explained, “and set you up for me.”

She paused and glanced over to where Vishlog sat on the benches.

“Mind you, I wouldn’t suggest she do that to your uncle because if he even caught her a glancing blow, he’d hurt her.”

And they hadn’t thought he would? He tried to get his knees under him but his leg flared with pain and he groaned.

Vishlog nudged Frog. “She’s lying her ass off,” he murmured. “I might be able to hurt her with a glancing blow but it’s not certain.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Todd waited in the white prep room of a VR chamber. Their ship was on course to the edge of the Sol system, but he was determined not to waste any time. He’d given his team a single night’s notice and kicked them immediately into the training pods.

One by one, they appeared out of the ether and their avatars materialized in front of him. The walls of the room expanded to accommodate them and faded into mistiness around the edges.

When they were all assembled, he glanced at the ceiling. “AI,” he called. “We need guns. As many guns as possible.”

The team gaped as rows and rows of firearms appeared out of the white mist surrounding them. He ignored the disbelief and astonishment on their faces and made a broad-handed gesture.

“Take your pick, folks. Make sure you know what would happen if you used them on a ship or in a spaceport.” He smiled as first Henry, then Reggie, Gary, and Jimmy approached the racks. “I hope you ate your Wheaties.”

Dru stopped halfway to a weapons rack.

“What’s a wheatie?” she asked.

Ka continued past her and caught her arm as she went. “I have no idea, but it’s probably ancient history if I know the boss. Come on before he changes his mind.”

He made his own selection while they deliberated and made sure to take extra ammo, too, and was ready and waiting before they were done. Only Piet looked disappointed, but that was because there were no explosives.

Todd had made sure of it. He watched when Piet returned, not surprised to see that the man had made sure to snatch every grenade he could lay his hands on. He almost regretted not banning weapon-mounted grenade launchers, but he shrugged it off and hoped the bomb bunny knew when not to use them.

“Are you all ready?” he asked and they exchanged uncertain glances. “Well, are you?” he shouted when they didn’t answer.

They jumped like they’d been stung. “Yes, Lance Corporal!”

The corresponding grin on his face was pure evil. “Then let’s get this crazy show on the road.”

Reggie nudged Gary. “I’m not sure I like that smile on the boss’s face.”

For once, the Englishman didn’t argue. “Yeah, that’s not like him at all.”

“We are so fucked,” Jimmy observed morosely, his brogue coming through so thick that the last word came out as focked.

Ka snickered. “You’re not nervous, are you, boys?”

“I am,” Piet muttered. “That is not a nice smile.”

Around them, the white faded to black and they materialized on the main deck of a space station. Through the observation window, ten Dreth battle cruisers were visible floating against the stars and simply waiting.

“Aw, no fucking way,” Henry murmured and sounded utterly dismayed.

“You fucking evil motherfucker,” Gary muttered. “We are so very, very screwed.”

“What?” Reggie wanted to know, and Todd explained.

“I believe we need to be ready for anything and everything.” He paused to favor them with a grin as evil as before. “And nothing tests you like a never-ending stream of hostiles.”

“Awesome!” Reggie exclaimed, and Angus gave a hoot of delight.

“C’mon, you useless excuses for moving targets,” he shouted at the cruisers and began to run to the hangars where the two-man fighters waited. “Come and get some!”


Chapter Forty

At One R&D Headquarters, Stephanie stepped into the training room. It was a relief to see most of the guys present, even if they were seated on the benches at one side of the mats eating popcorn. She’d wondered where they’d all gone.

Except for Johnny, of course. He still trailed her like a shadow because Lars insisted one of them stay with her when she was up, even in HQ.

A grunt drew her attention to the mats themselves and she was in time to see Amy dart forward, pound two fists into the young Dreth’s gut, and dart away. Elle came in from the side and battered his kidneys, and Garach swayed.

Frowning her bewilderment, Stephanie wandered over to Frog. The small man looked up and held his bag of popcorn out. As she took some, he scooted over to make room for her on the bench.

“What’s going on?” she asked and popped the popcorn into her mouth but didn’t take the offered space.

Frog pointed at Vishlog. “It’s an old Dreth training style.”

She glanced at the mats as Garach blocked another of Amy’s lightning-fast attacks. Elle still nailed him, though, and the kid staggered. He kept his feet, but barely, and she could see he was in trouble.

“Which is?”

“Let the enemy you disrespect kick your ass until respect is returned.”

Stephanie eyed the trio on the mats and winced when Amy landed another blow and blocked a counterattack. Her teammate came in directly after and forced their young opponent back in a flurry of blows.

Knowing the Dreth and the prevailing attitude they had toward women, it didn’t take much for her to realize what was happening. “How long?”

Vishlog looked at Frog. “Is this our third or fourth bag of popcorn?”

While the man mulled over the answer, Lars came into the room. The smell of hot, freshly buttered popcorn wafted ahead of him as he hurried around the training arena.

“Hey, Steph!” He smiled when he saw her standing beside the benches, glanced at the popcorn, and apologized. “Sorry, about that. Here, take mine. I’ll get more.”

She accepted the proffered bag, then shrugged and settled beside Frog. “I wonder if he’ll make it to eight bags.”

Frog grunted as he accepted another bag from Lars. “Probably. He is fairly hard-headed.” He shrugged. “Then, so was I at that— Ouch!”

Everyone winced when Amy’s next blow drove up under Garach’s chin. The youngster dropped to the mat like a puppet that had its strings cut.

The guard drew a hissed breath between his teeth. “On the other hand, I didn’t get my ass kicked for this long. I learned far quicker.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Todd’s team had paused for a breather.

“What d’you mean, there’s another wave?” Gary grumbled.

“There is?” Reggie asked and sounded horrified at the thought.

Angus slid down the wall and sprawled against it. “Oh, man. I can’t face another one. Shoot me, please.”

Todd thought about telling him it could be arranged but decided against it.

Drusilla and Ka leaned against the wall. Both looked exhausted and disillusioned, but neither of them said a word.

“What exactly is this supposed to train us for?” Henry asked as the lights flashed amber.

“How to die?” Gary suggested.

“Level Six!” Todd bellowed and heaved himself to his feet.

To be honest, he’d hoped they’d have come together faster than this, but they still fought like a group of individuals rather than a team. So far, they’d been lucky, but he remembered the sixth wave.

If his people didn’t pull themselves together, he would lose them exactly as he had at Sanmar’s Rest.

That wasn’t your team, he reminded himself but part of him disagreed. He had just joined it so it had been his team, even if he wasn’t in charge of it, but he hadn’t been pulled into it. There’d been no time.

He swore he wouldn’t make the same mistake with this team. This time, he did have a chance to make it a single cohesive unit and that was what they needed to be if they didn’t want to die when they faced the real pirates.

The thunder of large Dreth feet caught his attention.

“Up and at ʼem!” he roared, stretched a hand out, and hauled Piet upright. “Get up!” he shouted and broke into a run. Behind him, Angus battled to stand and Todd felt his heart lurch. The man was the youngest of the team and he was struggling, but then so were Piet, and Gary, Reggie, Jimmy, Dru, Henry, and Ka.

“Get up,” he ordered. “They’re coming and you don’t want to die. If you die here, I’ll kick your ass in the Real. Move! Move! Move!”

Gary shot him a look of venomous dislike but Ka raced past him and into cover at the nearest bulkhead.

“Jimmy! Get up there,” Todd shouted. “Cover her.”

The Scotsman ran ahead and Todd pushed Piet forward. “Cover him,” he shouted. “His life is your responsibility. You’re next! Don’t let them—” He stopped shouting as Henry’s head exploded like an overripe melon.

From down the corridor came whoops of Dreth glee.

“You ugly sons of bitches!” Drusilla screamed and raced forward, firing as she moved. She made it two steps past the bulkhead before a hail of bullets tore her apart.

Ka gave the corpse a white-faced look.

“Steady,” Todd urged her. “You will hold this bulkhead.”

Gary poked his head around but jerked it back when the next fusillade screamed in.

“Piet!” Todd yelled. “You’re up.”

The grenade that annihilated them all was exactly the same as those the demolitions expert carried.

“Well, fuck,” he cursed and sat up in the recovery room.

The groans of his team rose around him as they came to and struggled upright. Henry felt his head gingerly. Every touch was accompanied by a look of faint disbelief. “It’s still there.”

“Yup.” Todd felt dry-mouthed with relief—and with the fear of what he was about to do next. “AI, re-start the level.”

The team groaned again and he turned on them in fury. “You will learn to work together or you will die. And I’m telling you right now that you will not die on me.”

This time, it was his skull that shattered with the first shot fired.

“Fuck!”

His team joined him shortly afterward.

“Run it again,” he ordered the AI, and the recovery room faded around them.

They reached the first junction and were cut down in the savage crossfire of two pirate teams that emerged from the side corridors while they were focused on the one team they could see in the open hall ahead.

When he woke, Todd wasn’t sure when he’d hurt as much in his life before. He was almost certain the pain he felt now was worse than the pain he’d experienced after waking up on the Navy’s Hospital Station. Almost.

He rolled off the recovery table and his knees gave way when his feet touched the floor. With a grimace, he caught himself on the edge of the table, pulled himself upright, and looked around to see if anyone had seen his weakness.

They hadn’t as they were too busy moaning about their own pain. Gary glanced over at him, his eyes pleading. “Not again.”

Todd pulled himself straighter. “Yes, again,” he rasped. “If we don’t get it right here, you’ll be dead for real when we run the mission.”

Blurred images from Sanmar’s Reach ran before his eyes. “I will not lose another team.”

Gary rolled off the table and landed on the floor on his knees. “I hate to tell you this, boss, but you didn’t lose the first one. My understanding is that it nearly lost you.”

“We were caught in the open,” he retorted. “This is different.”

“Yeah,” the man snarked. “This time, you get to kill us a hundred times over before we even get to the field.”

“If it saves your lives when you’re out there, it’s worth it.”

Gary stepped forward and took a swing at him. “I don’t want ta die again,” he argued. “Not today.”

Todd blocked the blow, caught the man’s wrist, and tucked it behind his back. He stooped forward and put his lips close to his ear.

“Then you’d better do your best not to, hadn’t you?” he warned before he raised his voice. “Run it again.”

He didn’t release the man’s arm until the battlefield opened around them. When he did, he pushed him away in disgust. “You’d better think fast,” he snapped. “Here they come.”

Gary stumbled forward and would have died right there if Jimmy hadn’t caught his arm and pulled him down. Todd felt his spirits lift despite the nausea churning his stomach. It was the fastest any of them had acted to keep one of the others safe.

Granted, it was someone who’d done it before but it was still better than what he had seen. When they reached the junction, they were working in clusters.

Gary, Jimmy, Reggie, and Ka took the right corridor, while Henry, Dru, Angus, and Darren took the left. Todd kept Piet with him and directed one from each group to target the force coming down the central corridor with him—and monitored the pirate forces.

They’d almost cleared the way ahead when a fourth force broke into the corridor behind them.

“They can’t do that, can they?” Reggie’s bewildered question was the last thing Todd heard before he woke in recovery again.

“Fuck!”

“Hey, easy there, boss. We nearly did it that time.”

“We still died. You still died.”

“Don’t you think you’re taking this dying thing a little too far, boss? It is a wave test, after all. We’re supposed to die.”

He pushed himself upright.

“No, dammit,” he argued and his voice cracked with fatigue. “It can be beaten. We merely have to think outside the box.”

“Explosives!” Piet exclaimed and his expression brightened for a moment before it fell into a scowl. “Gee, boss. It sure would be nice if we had some of those now, wouldn’t it?”

Todd rolled his eyes. “Why is every answer ‘explosives?’”

“Because they are a more efficient way to kill more pirates,” the man exclaimed and made it sound like this was something he should have thought of already.

“The bunny has a point,” Reggie agreed. “Explosives are damned good for blowing pirates up.”

“Yeah,” Gary snarked. “Why was it you didn’t want us to bring them again?”

They slid off their tables and came closer. Todd raised a tired hand.

“Fine. Explosives,” he agreed and made no effort to hide the weariness. “Okay. How can explosives be used safely for us but still be deadly for the pirates on the ship?”

This made them pause. Gary looked around at his teammates. “Well, if we don’t use explosives, what else can we use?”

“Electricity?” Ka suggested. “We wire a panel in the floor into the main circuits of the ship and light them up when they attack.”

“We’d fry ourselves, too,” Jimmy observed, “unless I’m missing something and we can insulate ourselves.”

“Won’t the boots do that?” Drusilla asked and groaned. “The Dreth have boots, too.”

“What if we…” Henry began but immediately shook his head. ‘Nope, same problem.”

“A static air burst?” Ka pondered.

“That would get us as well as the pirates.”

“It depends on the direction,” Piet added, and they all turned to look at him. “Like explosives.”

Gary looked at Ka. “Can you shape an airburst?”

“No, but you can decide where you want it.”

“And we wouldn’t have to be there,” Jimmy added.

Reggie pulled his tablet out and set it on one of the recovery tables. “So, if we start here…”

“You have five minutes,” Todd told them and they scowled at him.

Reggie gave him the finger. “With all due respect, Lance,” he added and tapped the tablet with his other hand.

He suppressed a sigh. At least they were working together.

Six minutes later, they held the junction. This time, they defeated the three Dreth packs that attacked from the front, and the one that approached from the rear was decimated by the static burst they tripped.

The team chortled with glee when they reached the third junction and cleared it, keeping each other alive by covering what their teammates couldn’t see. Todd watched them go from focusing solely on their own survival to making sure their mates stayed with them and was almost satisfied.

Explosives, he thought and wondered when they’d have to take the option seriously.

They reached another bulkhead and couldn’t get it open

“Don’t you wish someone had brought explosives, along?” Piet snarked. “They sure would be useful right now.”

Todd faced back to cover the corridor, relieved when Gary, Reggie, and Jimmy followed suit.

“What do you call a grenade?” he yelled over his shoulder.

“What’s a gren—oh.” Piet fumbled at his belt.

“So,” he asked. “How will you use it?”

“I need a way to contain the charge,” the man said, and Ka began to remove the nearest wall panel to expose the wiring beside the door.

“And then I need a way to detonate it remotely.”

“I thought you carried extras with you?”

“Usually, but the simulation doesn’t take that into account.”

He rolled his eyes and looked at the ceiling. “AI.”

“Yes, Lance Corporal Brogan?”

“Piet needs his normal load-out to complete the scenario.”

“Certainly, Corporal Brogan.”

“You could have done that before,” Piet grumbled and Todd smiled.

“I wanted you to think first. Now, tell me how you’ll make it so we survive and the pirates die.”


Chapter Forty-One

“Level Seven.” Todd sighed as the lights flashed amber. “Again.”

“How many times is this, boss?” Ka asked, her face hollow with fatigue.

He shrugged. “I’ve lost count.”

“I bet the replay can tell us,” Gary suggested.

“It is our eighteenth attempt,” Piet told them. His face was gray with exhaustion and he frowned. “Perhaps our nineteenth.”

“Here they come,” Jimmy murmured, and began to fire. He tapped Gary on the shoulder. “You’re up.”

The man leapfrogged past him as Angus and Henry mirrored the move on the other side. Reggie and Darren were next, and Todd and Drusilla remained to cover Piet and Ka as the two worked to prepare a surprise for the Dreth pirates about to crash out of the ceiling.

“Explosives are fun.” Ka grinned as she and the explosives expert raced past them to join the rest of the team.

They crossed the junction and closed with the main body of Dreth that marched toward them. Piet and Ka repeated their magic trick at the junction and each worked a corner before they changed places to complete their tasks.

This time, Todd and Drusilla were joined by Gary and Angus. Twin roars came from either side of the junction as they finished and the four of them bolted toward the main battle. Across the junction in the section of the corridor they’d just left, hatches opened in the ceiling and the fourth squad of pirates dropped through.

They weren’t all Dreth. Some of them were Meligornian and a few were human, although none of them were female. Todd, Dru, Gary, and Angus opened fire and Piet lobbed a grenade.

“Bowling for bastards!” he shouted, and Todd chuckled.

“That’s a little young for you, isn’t it?”

Piet unhooked another grenade. “I have nephews. What’s your excuse?”

Now that he thought about it, the man had a point. “Cousins?” he suggested.

He didn’t have any, but it sounded good.

Piet, however, saw right through him. “Uh-huh.”

He pitched the next grenade around the corner and they headed into the battle that raged behind them. Todd glanced at Piet and looked around, surprised when Dru stepped in. “I’ve got him. I’ll hand him back at the end.”

“Hey! I’m not a parcel.”

“No, but you’re useless in hand to hand,” she snapped in response and slapped a pistol into his hand. “Keep my back clear.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And don’t call me ma’am. I work for a living.”

“Sure thing…boss.”

“Don’t make me come back there.”

“I’m right beside you.”

“You are,” she said and reached over to slap Piet upside the head.

They’d been moving as they spoke and reached the rest of the team. Up until that moment, those ahead had exchanged fire with the pirates. As soon as the others caught up, they took the fight to the Dreth.

They staged their fire, leapfrogging from stanchion to stanchion until the hostiles realized what they were doing. Hand to hand was agreeable, it seemed, because the pirates charged but continued to fire as they attacked.

Henry went down, and Angus snagged him by the collar, dragged him to one side, and left him there so he could cover Darren’s back. There was nothing he could do until they’d cleared the pack.

Todd shot the pirate who got past them and heard Henry’s moan of pain as the Dreth crumpled on top of him. “Quit your bitching. You’ve got cover now.”

“Thanks a lot, boss,” his teammate mumbled and sounded anything but happy.

Ignoring the man’s griping, he followed the team into the melee and synced with one or the other as he needed to. As the fight progressed, he noted the way they worked together, alternating between blades and firearms. He stayed close to Drusilla to cover her when Piet was close to being overwhelmed.

He covered the others, too—anyone close enough for him to see and protect. At the same time, he scanned for more threats. Gary and Jimmy hauled Angus back when he stepped into a sword and handed him to Reggie as they targeted his attacker.

They ended up fighting back to back until Drusilla and Ka shot their opponents. The team then returned the favor to fire past their female counterparts to eliminate the pirates coming in from behind.

It didn’t take them long to clear the hall, retrieve their wounded, and reach the next junction.

Before they could move ahead, four more squads of pirates appeared to block each exit. Their mood went from jubilation to disbelief in seconds.

“Aw, man!”

Todd tightened his jaw, pivoted, and evaluated the situation in four hasty glances. “We got through the last junction. What did we do right?”

“What?”

“You heard. Quickly! What did we do right?”

The others exchanged puzzled looks.

“Piet kept the pirates off my back,” Drusilla snapped.

“Dru kept them off my front,” the explosives expert added, then glanced at him. “And the boss covered us both.”

“He covered me, too,” Darren interjected.

“And he buried me under a Dreth,” Henry stated, although it was hard to tell if he meant that as a compliment or condemnation.

Reggie chuckled. “Gary and Jimmy were like a machine,” he told them. “It was like they knew where each other was all the time. They killed everything that came within reach.”

Gary scratched the back of his neck. ‘Yeah? Well, you and Angus made sure we didn’t face too many at once, and Ka—that girl was like a blender all on her own.”

“I wasn’t exactly on my own,” she protested. “You were right beside me.”

“Well, except for a few Dreth who were dumb enough to get between.”

“Good,” Todd interrupted. “Now, you’re getting it.” He gestured to the pirates who approached. “How do you think that’ll work here?”

“Damn fine if we can make it so we only face one squad at a time,” Gary answered.

“I have spare grenades,” Piet told them. “We could thin them out with those.” He paused and frowned in thought. “And I could rig another burst if you could keep them off me long enough.”

Ka came to stand beside him. “I can help.”

Gary and Jimmy exchanged glances. “We can do that.”

“And the rest of us will deal with…the rest of them,” Reggie offered and volunteered everyone else. “No wuckin’ furries.”

“And there he goes again—speaking colonial.”

“Who gives a fuck? Let’s obliterate these bastards. I’d like to not die this time.” From the sound of it, Angus wouldn't have much of a choice about that, but the others took his point.

Todd looked over at him. “Are you good?”

The man shook his head. He had one arm clamped over the hastily bandaged gash in his middle and his cold skin shone with sweat. “Nah, boss, but I can buy you time.”

He grabbed his shoulder. “Not yet.”

Angus glanced at the Dreth coming up behind them and moved with the team as Piet and Ka pushed forward to set their little surprise up. The pirates guessed what they were doing and broke into a jog as she levered off another wall panel and he crouched at her feet.

Gary tapped Jimmy and Reggie slid alongside them. “We got this?”

They grinned as Todd dropped to one knee, activated the force shield in his armor’s wrist band, and used it and his body to shield Ka and Piet as they worked. Angus crouched beside him and interlocked his shield as they both opened fire at the oncoming Dreth force.

Ka finished her part and stooped to speak to Piet. “Do you need me here?”

He shook his head. “Thanks, Ka. Go do your thing.”

She yelled a challenge to the Dreth, held her fist suggestively in front of her, and tugged upward before she rolled it to point a finger at the leading pirates. One shouldered his rifle and fired at her, only to have Gary block the round with his shield.

In reply, she drew two fingers across her tongue and flicked them towards the pirate.

“Is that the haka?” Gary asked, wide-eyed.

The woman laughed. “Nah, mate. That’s pure nightclub suck-this speak.”

“Do it again. It’s making him really, really pissed.”

“You wanta join me?”

“I’d love to, but someone’s gotta shield your stupid provocative arse.”

As if to prove his point, another series of rounds pounded into his shield and he staggered.

“I think it’s time we made him work for his hits,” Ka shouted, and Jimmy and Reggie roared their agreement.

Before Todd could stop them, they’d advanced to meet the pirate squad. After that, he was too busy. The pirates attacked from all sides—or tried to. Ka and Piet had chosen their site well.

They were close enough to the junction to affect everything in it and far enough down the corridor to bottleneck the incoming hostiles. Todd and Angus maintained a steady rate of fire and Henry and Darren joined them.

Darren kept his arm around the wounded man’s waist, and Todd realized Angus wasn’t the only one they might lose in this round.

“Are you nearly done?” Gary called back.

“Almost.”

“Couldja hurry?”

“Why?”

The sound of rapid-fire rifle shots interspersed by the meaty thud of blades clearing flesh answered him.

“Oh, no reason.” Gary’s attempt at casual failed miserably.

“Almost clear,” Reggie reported but shouted in horror, “Ka!”

Her shriek of pain was cut short by a burst of fire and a Dreth roar of victory.

“Gary!” was a shout followed by a thickly brogued roar, and Reggie’s next shout was a battle cry to match it.

Todd didn’t have time to look back. He was too busy doing his part to hold the pirates away from Piet. “I don’t want to rush you,” he began as the small man pushed to his feet.

“Done!”

He rose out of his crouch and reached down to drag Angus with him. The man slipped out of his grasp. “Sorry, boss. I’m staying right here.”

Henry dropped beside him. “Do you care for some company?”

“I’d rather you ran.”

His teammate pulled his hands clear of his bandages to show red on both. “I’m not really going anywhere. You?”

Angus raised an equally bloodied paw and gripped his fist. “Nope.”

He looked at Todd. “Get moving, boss. We’ll see you in the Real.”

Todd would have argued but Darren caught him by the collar and dragged him back as he fired past him at the oncoming Dreth. “Don’t waste it, Lance. You need to grab Piet.”

“No one is grabbing me,” the man retorted and hurled three grenades past them in quick succession. “We have thirty seconds.”

It wasn’t enough time to go back, let alone manhandle two recalcitrant Marines hell-bent on becoming heroes. Todd unslung his rifle and began to fire as he moved back as fast as he could. Beside him, Piet and Darren kept pace and they proceeded one rapid step at a time.

Henry and Angus continued to fire and the Dreth were unable to ignore them. The two went down in a flurry of blades seconds before Piet and Ka’s little surprise detonated.

To Todd’s surprise, it sent a pulse of flame and gas into the junction along with the deadly burst of static. Then, the wall began to explode.

“What did you do?”

“I found a life support junction.” Piet smiled happily but caught sight of the chain of explosions that surged toward them. His smile slipped. “Run!”

Ka was dead, and Drusilla and Gary were tag-teaming to eliminate one of the two last Dreth while Gary, Jimmy, and Reggie faced another. They reached the end of the level in the same moment that Piet’s small run of overkill reached where they were standing.

“Well, fu—”

They came round in the recovery room and Gary regarded Todd with bleary eyes.

“Not again, boss.”

He managed a shaky smile. “Nope. This time, we’re gonna do something entirely different.”

“You are a fucking liar,” Gary told him thirty seconds later.

“Shut up and fly,” he snapped. “I’d like for us not to explode before we reach the pirate ship.”

Now that they were working as a team, he wanted to try them on something similar to the situation they’d be going into. He’d ordered the AI to drop the wave simulation and run a more typical pirate scenario.

Ka and Gary flew to his starboard, and Dru piloted Reggie to port. Henry and Angus were in one of the ships behind them, and Jimmy and Darren made up another. Piet had managed to snag a solo flight and brought up the rear.

Todd didn’t want to think what the man might have dragged along with him, but the thought made him glad they were all in battle armor. It would give them half a chance if the mad bomber breached the hull.

“To be clear…” Jimmy’s voice interrupted his thoughts, loud and clear over the comms, “this isn’t another wave scenario.”

“Nope,” he replied.

“So we actually stand a chance of winning this one.”

“Keep working as a team and you might.”

Whoops of relief greeted that, and the team flew faster.

“Now, we’re gonna get some!”

Witch Of The Federation IV

At One R&D HQ, Garach dropped to one knee and yanked Amy’s legs out from under her. Stephanie sighed. “Let’s speed this up.”

Frog looked into his popcorn tub, then at Vishlog. The big Dreth shrugged.

“I’ll take that as permission,” she told them and stood.

She ate the last handful of popcorn as she walked onto the mats, nibbling one piece at a time as she approached the fighters. They glanced at her as she approached and backed away from each other as if by mutual agreement.

The three of them were breathing hard—even Amy and Elle. Garach looked exhausted but as stubborn as when she’d first walked in.

“Okay, Garach, here’s the deal.” She gave him a stern look.

He tilted his head to look at her without losing sight of either of the girls. For a moment, he looked hopeful that she might call the fight and give him a graceful way out. She smiled and some of the Morgana peeked through, and he shivered.

“So far,” she began, “they’ve gone easy on you to see if you would be smart enough to learn but apparently not. So, you have two options. Option one, you can admit you’ve had your ass kicked—”

“I’m still up,” he snapped and cut her off before she could continue.

Stephanie nodded. “Okay, I see it’ll be option two.”

He stared blankly at her, and she continued.

“Option two is where I allow all three of you to do whatever you want and I heal you if you get hurt. The last team standing wins.”

“Oh.” Vishlog nodded, his voice soft. “That will hurt.”

Garach looked from Stephanie to Amy and Elle. “Okay, so anything except kill them?”

The two bodyguards rolled their eyes, but she kept a straight face.

“Yes,” she told him. “Neither side is allowed to kill the other.”

The air around her shivered and his eyes widened. He watched as she folded her legs and rested her elbows on her knees, taking the lotus position without touching the mat.

He looked in disbelief as she floated five feet off the mats and elevated another two. She met his gaze. “I’ll watch from here.”

When the three of them continued to stare, she flapped both hands at them. “Shoo! Go. I don’t have all day.”

As if her words were a signal, Amy pounced, drove her elbow into Garach’s back, and swung both hands like a club into his ribs. He staggered back, surprised by the force of the blow. Nothing she’d delivered before had even come close to that.

The woman bounced back on her toes and attacked again, using a fist and kick combination that made him backpedal furiously to escape. He managed to keep his feet under him and assumed a defensive stance.

So, it would be like that, would it? He lifted his lips in a defiant snarl but realized he’d lost sight of Elle. Hastily, he turned his head, caught a glimpse of movement, and ducked in time to avoid her attack.

His counterstrike was more instinctive than planned, but he caught her across the ribs with a horizontal sweep of his forearm and still managed to block Amy’s next kick. This time, he trapped her ankle in his hand and forced her foot down.

Unfortunately, he had no chance to take advantage of his grip. The other woman had repositioned and now spun a kick toward his head. Garach ducked and twisted sideways, releasing Amy’s leg as he did so.

He’d barely regained his feet when they were on him again. It was obvious that they’d held back. Now that they didn’t, he could see why they’d been made bodyguards. He might have to admit they were warriors, after all.

But not if he could kick their asses.

The young Dreth darted forward to meet Amy’s attack, swept her fists aside and landed a hard punch on her jaw—or, at least, that had been his intention. She jerked her head aside and he grazed the side of her face with his knuckles as she arced away.

The onslaught meant Elle had moved out of his sight again, and she attacked with a vengeance. He dropped to one knee to avoid the foot aimed at his chest and barely missed a strike to his head instead.

He pushed up and moved forward while she recovered. The maneuver brought him face to face with both women as they closed. Amy was bleeding from a split lip and Elle moved more carefully than before.

If he could hit her again, he might be able to take her out of the fight. At the same time, he almost felt guilty for hurting her. Then, he remembered Stephanie was standing by to heal and the guilt went away.

Garach shuffled forward to meet them and tried to remember the move Vishlog had attempted to teach him when the two women had arrived. What was it Amy had said? His stance was too narrow?

He widened it and lashed out as she scooted in. She jumped back and he caught a flash of movement on his left. Pivoting to face it, he was barely in time to sweep Elle’s first blow aside.

Her second one caught him in the ribs Amy had battered earlier. Something snapped and he gasped and twisted to avoid her next assault. Pain seared through his chest as Amy’s foot thumped into the back of his knee.

With a sickening pop, his leg gave way. Garach put a hand out to catch himself and her next attack followed. He felt a sharp and savage pain in his upper back before his breath caught and darkness descended.

Stephanie sank closer to the floor and untucked her legs. Setting her feet on the mat, she crossed to where the young Dreth was sprawled unconscious. Kneeling beside him, she sent tendrils of magic into his body to make sure no serious damage had been done.

The broken rib was a problem and so was the pierced lung, but she focused until the rib slid back into place and the torn lung healed. She didn’t heal the rib completely but enough that it would stay in place and do no more damage.

His knee was simpler and she left it for the medics with the understanding that if there was anything seriously wrong with it, she’d fix it later. Vishlog came over while she worked.

“How is he?” he asked and crouched beside her.

She looked at him. “He needs to go to the infirmary so they can examine him. I want to make sure he’s good enough that he can wake up with the pain and learn.”

The Dreth nodded, his eyes dark with concern. “He won’t be happy.”

“Too bad.” She shrugged. “Pain teaches. Right now, he’s unconscious so it’s hard for the pain to teach him anything.”

Frog came to stand beside them. He patted Vishlog’s shoulder. “I’ll help.”


Chapter Forty-Two

Todd glanced at Reggie and Gary. “You got this?”

They nodded. “We got this.”

Beyond the hangar door, a squad of pirates turned into the passage. He glanced at the landing area. They’d passed into the airlock and then into the foyer and the team had been surprised to see more Marines arriving behind them.

“I thought this was a private party,” Gary complained and he shook his head.

“We’re not the only team that needs practice.”

“I bet we were the only team that had a wave scenario, though.”

His face hardened. “You needed it. Now shift your ass.”

They raced down the corridor, using the tactics that had worked for them against the sixth and seventh waves. Gary and Jimmy covered each other in a constantly revolving sequence of fire and shielding.

Reggie teamed with Ka and the two of them orbited Gary and Jimmy like satellites. Piet kept to the center shadowed by Drusilla and Darren. Henry and Angus moved between them, coordinating defense in any spaces they’d left.

By mutual agreement, they kept Todd in the center and he scanned the area and directed their route and fire if he needed to. Mostly, though, he let them do their own thing.

They eliminated the first squad with a series of well-placed shots and closed with the second. He kept pace with his team but also monitored the progress of the other teams as they arrived and dispersed throughout the ship.

While he hadn’t planned on sharing this scenario, once the other team chiefs had caught wind of it, they’d wanted access for their teams too. He had shrugged and told them to go ahead.

“I’ll even let you start without me.”

That had caused some raised eyebrows, but he’d refused to explain “until I’ve seen if it works or not.”

That had been acceptable enough and they’d let it go. Now, he was doubly glad he’d taken his team through the wave scenario first. Without it, they wouldn’t have stood a chance in this one.

Now, though, they made it look easier. Seconds after initial contact, the Dreth squad was dead and the team needed direction.

“Go forward and then up,” Todd told them. “We have the bridge.”

“Not yet, we haven’t,” Gary snarked, and he frowned.

“Go!”

They obeyed and moved with swift certainty toward the location in their HUDs. Someone in the Virtual center had decided it would be a good idea to put a trail of flashing yellow stripes into the map to show the way.

He swore he’d find out who it was and give him a laxative-laced chocolate cake—after he’d put a layer of clingwrap over their toilet bowl. He glanced at the HUD again—a solid dose of laxative in a cake delivered shortly before they had to go somewhere in their dress whites.

Todd studied the map, did his best to ignore the headache-inducing line, and followed the progress of the closest Marine teams. One of them was caught in a t-intersection between two guard points and a Dreth patrol.

“Bear left,” he ordered. “Gary, Jimmy, take the next intersection. Piet, make a hole at the end.”

The explosives expert grinned. “Boss, I thought you’d never ask.”

“This Dreth had a rocket launcher,” Darren noted and suddenly sounded happy. “We could really use a rocket launcher, boss.”

He sighed. “And did he have the extra rockets to go with it?”

Angus peered around Darren’s legs and a grin lit his face. “He sure did, boss.”

Todd shook his head. “Make it fast.”

“What was he doing with a rocket launcher?” Ka wondered as they turned and jogged toward the beleaguered Marine team.

It was a good question, and he checked in the HUD for some indication of an answer.

“Well, fuck me,” he said when he found it, and Ka raised an eyebrow.

“Nuh-uh and no way, boss. I do not want the Witch that mad at me. Evah!”

“Huh, she’d kill me first.”

“That wouldn’t give me any time to hide.”

“Hey!”

“We need to get these guys out of the hole they’re in,” Gary reminded them. “You know, while there are still some of them left to get out.”

“Let’s hustle.”

Todd caught sight of a surveillance camera in the hallway and gave it the bird as he passed. “Come get me, muschtacks!” he challenged and trotted past it to the dead-end he’d chosen. “Piet, you’re up.”

The explosives man hurried forward and knelt at the wall. “You know, we could simply use the rocket launcher. It would be quicker and have the same effect—unless you’re trying to be quiet.”

He shook his head. “Darren, the man has a point.”

They backed away and Darren blew a hole in the wall. Roars of surprise erupted from beyond the door on the other side of the room, and Darren looked at Todd.

Smirking, he lowered his chin in a single nod and the launcher roared again.

The roars of surprise turned to roars of pain before the team opened fire. The pirate squad heading for the trapped Marines changed direction.

“Incoming!” Gary cried, and Darren chuckled.

“Not for long.”

The launcher spoke once more, and Piet and Henry threw two grenades after the rocket.

When the noise died down, Dru looked at where the Dreth had been and paled, then she glanced at the guard post opposite.

“Incoming!” She glared at the Marines they’d come to rescue. “Move! Move, move, move!”

Sprinting forward, she clutched the sleeve of the closest one and dragged him into the corridor now liberally decorated with Dreth remains. It was enough to unfreeze the rest of his team and they raced after her, grenades bouncing in their wake.

“Get back!” Todd yelled, and the team took cover behind the ruined walls of the office space they’d turned into a corridor.

Only it wasn’t an office space, he realized as he took a proper look around. He pivoted and finally realized what they’d run through.

“Hot damn. Ka!”

“Yes, bo—ooh! You really know how to show a girl a good time.”

The computer processors arrayed in tall columns glimmered with light—where they didn’t exude black and brown smoke and the expensive stench of burned electronics.

“Never mind me. What can you do with it?”

“I don’t know, boss, and we really don’t have time for me to find out, but I bet Piet would have a field day decommissioning it.”

“She does love me,” Piet sighed and went to stand beside her. “What have you got?”

“I’m not sure, but it looks like an auxiliary array and I don’t have the space for a download. It’s not exactly the opportunity I expected aboard a pirate ship.”

Neither had he, Todd realized, and made a note for the next trip. It looked like he’d found his hacker. Since Stephanie probably wouldn’t lend him Frog—and the Navy wouldn’t let the man come along, even if she did—Ka would have to do.

He made another note to add to her training regime and decided Piet should join her. Next time, they’d be better prepared to harvest intel. This time, though, he’d have to run with the options they had.

“Blow it all. I want this room a smoking crater.”

“That was crater, wasn’t it, boss, not a gateway to the stars?” Gary cut in, and Todd smirked.

“Piet, make sure it’s a crater and not a gateway to the stars.”

“Gotcha, boss.”

They stayed long enough for Dru to return and Piet to set the explosives before they sprinted back the way they’d come.

“Right!” Todd shouted when they reached the junction they’d turned out of.

They went right and Reggie commented, “Didn’t we come this way?”

“Up,” he yelled. “The maintenance hatch is this way.”

“Maintenance hatch? Why would you want that?”

“I thought we could do with a breath of fresh air,” he told him as the hatch came into view.

“Man, no one needs air that fresh.”

“Good point,” Todd told him. “Ka, I need to vent the Dreth who are in that airlock.”

“Only this airlock, boss?”

Todd looked at her. “You can do more than one?”

“I can give it a go.”

“It’s either that or we blow the door on this side,” he mused.

Piet looked at him in disbelief. “And you told me not to open a gateway to the stars.”

“This is different,” he protested as they heard the thunder of boots coming from either end of the corridor.

“I thought we had to take the bridge,” Gary reminded him. “Tell me, is this little detour absolutely necessary?”

“It is if we want to save Marine lives,” Todd told him. “In there are three Dreth firing rockets at our fighters.”

Ka grinned. “I can override the safety mechanism so that the airlock opens from this side without sealing on the other.”

“And?”

“We merely need to step through that door over there before the draw gets too bad and we’ll be fine.”

“Do it,” he ordered as the first Dreth rounded the nearest corner.

Reggie fired while Todd was still raising his blaster. Gary and Jimmy’s weapons went off almost in unison, and the leading Dreth fell.

“Ka, make it quick. The rest of you hold that door. I don’t want to be trapped out here when it goes.”

Half the team moved to the door but Gary, Jimmy, Reginald, and Angus held off the incoming Dreth squad long enough for Ka to start the airlock cycling. Red flared in angry dots along the length of the ship.

“What did you do?” Todd asked as they raced through the door and into a stairwell`.

She turned and slammed it behind them, then ripped the panel with the control box off the wall.

“I tripped the general circuit for all the airlocks on this level on this side of the ship. The Dreth will be hella pissed.”

Screams echoed faintly through the door, and she added, “The ones who survive.”

The walls shuddered as emergency doors cycled up and down the corridor and slammed closed to prevent any further loss of atmosphere.

Todd nodded and glanced at his HUD. “Up,” he ordered, and they took the stairs.

“How many levels?” Gary asked, leading the way past the first landing.

“Three, then take a right and head toward the bow until you reach the first cross-corridor. We’ll see what happens then.”

They were halfway up the next flight of stairs when doors slammed open above and below them.

“Incoming!” Gary called and his voice echoed in tandem with Angus’s identical cry.

A grenade sailed past them and bounced down the stairwell.

“Time. To. Leave!” Piet yelled as pirates ran from the landing above.

That wasn’t their main concern, though. Once the grenade detonated, the stairwell would act as a funnel. The team turned back down the stairs and dived through the door they’d just passed.

“Now which way?” Gary cried, and Todd groaned with impatience.

“You work it out. You’re on point. Get us to the bridge.”

It was something he should have done ages ago, but he’d become so used to relying on himself it simply hadn’t crossed his mind. Gary picked up the pace and he scanned the comms channel and the HUD for anything they needed to know.

Ka’s little venting experiment had halved the rocket problem and a second team was already moving to duplicate it.

Way to go, girl! Todd thought You’re a trendsetter.

He made a note to add that to the report and her file. She wouldn’t thank him for it, given the challenges that would follow, but she deserved it. He raced after Gary as the Marine took them away from the outer ring and toward the center.

“There are more stairwells in the middle,” the man explained.

And more Dreth, Todd thought but didn’t say it. They’d find out soon enough.

They encountered the first patrol shortly before they reached the central junction. The pirates had been waiting for them. Some dropped out of trapdoors in the ceiling to land in the middle of the team while others attacked from both ends of the corridor.

“What do we do?” Gary asked.

“We kill them all,” Todd snarled. “Get to it. Jimmy! You’re up. Ka, it’s blender time.”

Piet tapped Darren. “There’s a bulkhead and an external wall behind us. You could make a hole.”

Darren shouldered the launcher and the team cleared away from behind him. The Dreth who had landed next to Drusilla swung his blaster toward her.

She pivoted, grasped the weapon, and spun so her back was flat against the Dreth’s chest and she’d trapped his weapon under his arm. She continued to turn, using her momentum and her hold on the gun to redirect his aim into the Dreth who had landed on the other side of her.

Muschtack!” he shouted and tried to wrench the gun out of her control. “Spawn of Tegortha.”

He looped his other arm around her throat and began to squeeze. She drove her elbow back into his gut but it made no impression. Her armor clanged against his, and he laughed.

She laughed, too, and tongued her helmet controls to snap the visor shut and stiffen the neck covering. Now, his forearm did no damage, or at least not yet. She yanked back on his gun arm and managed to force the barrel to aim at the ceiling.

It painted a line of holes and cries of pain came from above. It was all the alert the team needed. Todd snatched up the fallen Dreth’s blaster and aimed it above him. One of the warriors who had dropped into the middle of the team tried to grab him, but it cost him.

He’d faced Henry and the Marine lost no time in thrusting his weapon into a seam in the armor and pulling the trigger. The hole was big enough for him to drive a fist through. Instead, he angled the weapon inside and pulled the trigger a few more times.

When the Dreth went limp, he released him and followed Todd’s example. The fall of the second pirate gave Darren all the room he needed to level the rocket launcher and fire.

The weapon roared and the rocket streaked to the target. The Dreth in its path jumped aside and it pounded into the outer wall.

“Hang on!” he yelled, dropped the weapon, and clutched for the rail running along the inside of the wall.

The rest of the Marines did the same, but Gary, Reggie, and Ka were too distracted by the incoming pirates and missed the warning. Todd grabbed Gary as he went past, and the Marine lunged for Ka. It was only Piet’s quick thinking that stopped Reggie before he’d whipped past.

The rush of wind as the ship lost atmosphere would have sucked him out with the Dreth who were too slow to reach the side rails. As it was, Angus lost his grip before the emergency doors had fully shut.

His flight was only arrested when he thumped into them and was trapped against their heavy metal surface until they’d closed. Without the current to hold him in place, he fell and lay panting with his eyes wide.

“That was horrible!” He gasped and scrambled to his feet, then shot one of the Dreth who’d made it to the rail.

He was raising his blaster to fire at a second when Gary recovered enough to beat him to it. The Englishman dropped to the floor and turned toward the patrol he’d been attacking when decompression had taken him off his feet.

They opened fire, and he lay flat as the rounds passed through the space he’d been in and drilled holes in the deck as he rolled to one side. He stopped against a wall and would have been in trouble if the rest of the team hadn’t retaliated and decimated their adversaries.

Pale-faced, he scrambled to his feet and moved shakily toward the central corridor. “This way.”

They all ignored the tremble in his voice except Jimmy.

“Methinks you need to change your underdacks, wee man.”

His response was instantaneous. “They’ll be dry before we get back.”

“Oh, aye…but who’s gonna scrape the crap off your cheeks?”

Gary jogged on without looking at him. “Well, you’re my bunkmate.”

At the next intersection, they turned into it. Jimmy, Reggie, and Ka had caught up with him and now ran alongside.

“We need to go in here and up two more levels,” he called over his shoulder and vanished into another stairwell.

The team followed, pounded up the stairs at a run, and tried to take two at a time. Each of them kept an eye on the closest exit and listened for the sound of doors opening. None of them wanted to be in there if the Dreth ever worked out how to drop a grenade in the middle of them or throw one up from the level below.

As they passed one level, they heard the sound of fierce fighting beyond the landing. Gary paused, but Todd signaled for him to keep going. They’d been assigned a mission and no one had called for help.

If the teams beyond the door needed assistance, they’d signal. They hadn’t and they weren’t, and their dots on the scanner were a healthy green—which was more than he could say for the dots indicating pirates. Those blinked out at a rapid rate.

Given that, he decided that the sooner they captured the bridge, the sooner they’d have the hostile crew under control. Most surrendered when their leadership was gone.

He pushed away the stories of those who hadn’t. If there was a Teloran on board, they were all screwed. That kind of shit needed Stephanie and she was systems away.

“Go!” he shouted when Gary reached the door and hesitated.

The man cracked it open and peered out. When his curious face wasn’t met with a hail of rounds, he slipped into the corridor beyond. His hoarse whisper reached them moments later.

“All clear.”

Jimmy and Reggie slid after him, followed by Ka and Drusilla. Piet moved through with Darren and Todd, Angus, and Henry went last. Sounds of fighting drifted to them as they crossed the next three intersections.

Gary stopped just before the fourth and looked at Todd. “It’s directly ahead.”

They hunkered beside the corner and Gary snuck a camera scope around the edge, while Todd pulled out his tablet and enlarged what it showed.

“No guards.”

“No need. Autocannon.”

“Where?”

The man pointed.

“Well, shit.”

“And cameras, so even if they’re not auto, they’ll be remote.”

“Ka, can you do something about this?”

“No. Maybe Daz can shoot it with the launcher.”

They all looked at Darren and noticed he wasn’t carrying the rocket launcher.

“It ran out of rockets,” he explained, and the team groaned.

“Okay, it looks like we do this the old-fashioned way, then,” Piet concluded, extracted three purplish-colored grenades from a pouch, and pulled the pins.

“No!” Ka shouted, grabbed the two Marines closest to her, and dragged them back down the corridor.

He grinned and began the count. “Five…four…”

“You crazy bastard,” Gary muttered as he caught both Henry and Angus by the collar. “Come on, boss. We do not want to be here.”

“…two…” The explosives expert lobbed the grenades one after the other and ran.

Todd managed to grasp his arm and yanked him two steps farther before the man tangled their legs together and brought him down. Purple lightning exploded around the corner, and tendrils of it stretched flickering fingers toward his boots.

Piet scrambled away from them while the team leader curled his knees and wriggled farther away from the corner. He still had a hold on the other man’s collar and dragged him closer so his face was level with his own. “You and me are gonna talk about your idea of old-fashioned.”

His eyes widened. “What? Those things are old fashioned. The Meligornians have much better ones now. I had all kinds of trouble finding them.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It’s not like you can get them on the Intersys Shoppers site.”

Todd shook him again. “I. Know.”

“They’re collectors’ items.” He paled. “And I detonated three of them. Do you know how much those things cost me?”

“We’re gonna talk about this later. Right now, they’d better have worked.”

The Meligornian grenades had worked better than anyone could have hoped. There were gaping holes in the walls and ceiling where the autocannons and the cameras had stood. Sparks hissed and popped through the darkened gaps and the doors sagged open.

Reggie crept cautiously up to the nearest one and stretched a hand toward it.

“Don’t!” Piet cried in alarm, and his teammate withdrew his hand.

“We’re still gonna have to get through there,” he pointed out and thumped a boot into the door before anyone could protest.

The door creaked, tilted, and toppled to the deck with a resounding clang. Reggie flattened himself against the wall and projectiles whistled through the gap he’d stood in.

“Well, someone’s not happy.” He chuckled, unhooked a grenade, and tossed it into the command center.

“N—” Todd raised a hand to stop him, then gave up. “Never mind.”

Reggie slipped around the door frame, followed by Gary and Jimmy. Ka took a position on the other side of the door and angled her body so she could see past them. Todd presumed it was all clear when she curled around her side of the door. He hurried to follow, the rest of the team in his wake.

Reggie had used a stun grenade and not the fragmentation grenade he had assumed. Several of the Dreth had taken cover behind their consoles, but others groaned on the floor. The team eliminated these before they could rise and turned their attention to the rest.

The battle was short and fierce. Todd joined the melee and teamed with Drusilla, Henry, and Piet to face the much bigger Dreth warriors. Angus was wounded again, but Henry had revenge and inflicted the same wound that had killed him in the wave simulation. He finished it when he thrust his blade through the joint between the pirate’s chest plate and throat covering.

Todd looked for the captain barely in time to see him fall to the concentrated fire from Ka’s blaster. He was about to rip the woman a new one when he realized she’d positioned herself to face the wall backing onto the rest of the ship.

They all looked around for more Dreth and saw only bodies. None of them moved for a long, long moment before Gary whooped with glee.

“Yes! We’ve done it!”

His happy cry set the rest of the team off, and they bounced around the control center high-fiving each other, while Todd frowned. They’d completed the mission, so why did he feel there was something he’d missed?

Something important.

“Fuck.”

The team stilled and three of them moved toward the door. He looked around the Bridge.

“Who made sure the auto-destruct was turned off?”

From the shocked looks he received, that small detail had slipped everyone’s mind. They pivoted and scanned frantically for the device that meant the difference between success and abject failure.

“Woot!” Gary slapped Reggie on the shoulder. “It’s over there.”

They all moved toward it until they could see the countdown timer. Todd saw the expression on Gary’s face and his heart plummeted.

“Motherfu—”

The pirate ship flared super-nova bright against the stars.


Chapter Forty-Three

Todd emerged from the pod still shaking his head.

“Of all the motherfucking stupid errors to make—”

“You know we took out every Marine on board that ship, right?”

“Yeah, thanks, Gary. We’re gonna have to watch our backs for a month and the LT is gonna chew my ass.”

“That’s what being the boss is all about.”

He shook his head. The man was completely unrepentant and way too happy. You’da thought the team had won the scenario, not blown it for everyone.

“I cannot believe we forgot about the self-destruct.” He glared at the team as they emerged one by one and headed to the door.

“You have an hour to freshen up and eat, then I want you in your racks,” he called. “We’re gonna do it all again, tomorrow—and we’re gonna do it right this time.”

“Sure thing, Lance.”

“You gonna scrub my back?”

“Get your sorry asses moving before I decide you’re all too fresh to need sleep.”

He glowered as they pushed through the door. Some raised their hands in acknowledgment and at least one of them raised a finger in salute. He grinned. “Assholes.”

They were his assholes, though, and he knew it. The hours in the pod had forged them into a single fighting force—one that might survive the fight ahead. His expression softened as the last one walked out the door and he gave a happy sigh.

Pushing off the side of his pod, he followed them and registered the tired ache that rolled through his body. He’d barely stepped clear of the doorway when a hand descended on his shoulder.

He glanced along the arm attached and recognized McSeveny. “Lieutenant Commander,” he greeted the section’s second in command.

“The commander wants to see you,” the man told him, and his heart sank.

Some of what he felt must have shown on his face because the LT gave him a grim smile. “You did well in there.”

“Thank you, sir.”

McSeveny was quiet after that and he followed him to the commander’s office, wondering what he’d done and exactly how much trouble he was in for doing it.

All he wanted was a hot shower and his bunk—even food could wait. The demand for sleep rolled through his bones. Watching McSeveny as the man opened the door and led him through, he had the horrible feeling he would have to wait a good deal longer for that.

Something was up, as surely as the lieutenant commander’s face was the blankest of masks.

The man was seated behind his desk when he arrived. Todd marched in, came to attention before him, and snapped him a salute as he raised his head.

“Your team did surprisingly well, Lance Corporal. We were all pleasantly surprised to see them working as a unit in the pirate scenario today.”

“Thank you, sir.” He kept his back ramrod straight. The commander studied him carefully. “At ease, son.”

He shifted carefully to at ease and the officer continued. “I think we will share a couple of clips of how you guys dealt with that last ambush and then worked to take the bridge. Saving that marine unit outside the data center was a neat trick, too, even though we lost the data.”

Todd blushed. Losing the data had been his fault. He’d merely assumed that losing it was better than leaving it and wondered now if he’d been wrong. “We’ll do better next time, sir.”

“I also like your technician’s trick with the airlocks. That one will go in the instruction manuals. Speaking of which—”

“I’d like to keep her, sir,” Todd snapped quickly. “She’s the only technically minded one among them.”

“Apart from Piet.” The commander’s voice was dry.

“He has a different bent, sir. Ka is invaluable.”

“And you’d like to keep her to yourself, eh?”

He blushed deeper at the connotations in the captain’s voice but chose to ignore them when he answered, though. “Yes, sir. She’s important to the team.”

“Do you know how many teams have moved her on?”

“It doesn’t matter, sir. She’s one of mine and I’d like to keep her.”

“All right, Lance Corporal. I’ll take that into consideration. For now, she’s yours.”

Todd thought he’d put up one hell of a fight to keep Ka with the team unless she wanted otherwise. He was careful to keep that thought from his face, though. “Thank you, sir.”

“That was a very impressive run, son, with some out-of-the-box thinking, which is what the VirtWorld effort was built for.” He paused to let his praise sink in before he added, “It’s merely a shame that so many hundreds of people saw you guys fail at the end.”

His jaw dropped. “Sir?”

“Literally hundreds,” the commander told him and tapped once on his keyboard to bring the screen at the back of his office to life. It displayed the live stream of the team’s run through the ship. “Like when the Witch and her team broke the wave test a few months back.”

“I…uh…” He closed his mouth and his face paled when he realized the entire fleet had been able to tune in to the team’s antics as they made their run—entertainment for the long haul.

His superior laughed. “I don’t think there’s been a team that’s done so well in that scenario in the history of its running. It looks like the private training session you ran them through really paid off.” He sobered as the younger man pulled himself together. “Along with the congratulations, however, comes the bad news.”

Todd stiffened and came to attention, even though he still stood at ease. The commander continued regardless.

“Word from HQ is that one of the previous teams assigned to the major convoy has been delayed. Their ship ran into problems,” he began. “so that leaves us a team short. Guess who stepped up to fill the space.”

“No good deed, sir…” He shook his head and sighed but didn’t argue.

He’d trained the team well enough to survive. There was no reason why they wouldn’t survive this as well.

“Damned right, no good deed. Your team has twelve hours. Get your S’s done and be ready to ship out in twelve hours on the Navy destroyer, Devil’s Care. Dismissed.”

Todd snapped to attention, saluted smartly, and pivoted. McSeveny opened the door as he reached it and closed it firmly behind him.

If he hadn’t been so tired, Todd would have punched the air in victory. His team had been promoted! They’d shamed themselves in front of the whole fleet and fought so well they’d been shoved into shoes much larger than they’d ever worn before.

He was horrified and thrilled at the same time.

On his way to the barracks and a sorely-needed hot shower, he asked the accommodations section to send a wake-up call for seven hours. It wouldn’t be nearly enough rack time, but he didn’t want to be late—and he also wanted his team to be able to get the equipment they needed wrangled before they boarded.

There was no way he would risk them dying from lack of gear when he’d only now brought them to a point where they would work together well enough to stand a chance of living. No way in hell.

Witch Of The Federation IV

Pain rolled over Garach when he woke. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and waited for it to fade. His mouth felt as dry as the Dargath Peaks and his face throbbed.

The young Dreth tried to open his eyes and found only one worked properly. The other was swollen almost shut, the flesh around it hot and puffy. Pain pounded through his head and throbbed in a sharp line through his chest.

He thought about sitting but one of his knees refused to respond when he tried to bend it, and the other leg felt like it had been caught in a vice. Vaguely, he remembered having his feet knocked out from under him and wondered if the women responsible had similar lines of pain in their legs.

No matter how tough they were, the impact from that kind of kick left a mark on the kicker as well as the kickee.

Garach lay quietly and made a slow inventory from his toes up. His muscles ached, his bones hurt, and his flesh felt stiff and sore as if he’d bruised almost every inch of his body.

“I thought I would be healed,” he muttered and found it hard to move his mouth.

Someone had done a number on his jaw and his lips were swollen over his lower incisors. He winced as they unstuck themselves from his gums.

He groaned but tensed when he heard a nearby door open. It was an effort to tilt his head so he could see the small man who came into his room. Curly dark hair crowned an angular face liberally sprinkled with freckles.

His lips crinkled into a lopsided smile when he saw the youngster watching him.

Instinctively, he tried to smile in response but couldn’t quite get his lips to work. Frog held a hand up as he tried to speak. The man’s smile vanished and his brown eyes became serious.

“Let me lay this out for you,” he began and hurried over to lay a hand on his chest to stop the kid’s attempt to sit. “Don’t try to move. You’ve been healed enough to stop you dying while you were out but this can go one of two ways.”

Garach nodded and winced when his neck and head rebelled against the movement.

Frog gave him a moment and waited for some of the tension to leave the boy before he continued. “I’ve been on the other side of Stephanie’s training and usually, she likes pain to do the heavy lifting instead of her having to deal with obstinate skulls.”

He stared as the man pointed to his own head. “Like mine.”

Again, he nodded to show he understood but more slowly this time. It still hurt but not as much.

The man noted the movement, sighed, and continued.

“So, I’ll lay it out for you and I don’t want you to answer. Not because I’m worried about the pain but because if you don’t answer, I’ll have plausible deniability.”

Garach’s brow furrowed as he wondered why his uncle would want that, but Frog ignored him.

“I might take a bullet for you in a firefight, kid, but there’s no way I’ll get between you and one of Stephanie’s lessons.”

He dipped his chin in the barest of nods.

“You,” Frog continued and poked him gently with one forefinger, “are being shortsighted, hardheaded, obstinate, and obtuse.”

The young Dreth opened his mouth to argue but stopped when pain flared before he could say a single word.

“Yes.” The man raised his finger and pointed at him. “Exactly like that.”

Garach shifted his head the tiniest amount downward in the hope that it would avoid causing him anymore hurt.

“So,” Frog continued. “Stephanie stopped the two women from killing you. Do you realize that?” He held a hand up before the patient could respond. “Remember, don’t answer me.”

The kid stilled since he’d been about to do exactly that. He wanted to argue but he closed his eyes instead and replayed what he remembered of the last stages of the battle. Now, when he looked back, it was fairly obvious—as much as he didn’t want to admit it.

When he opened his eyes again and shifted his gaze so he could see his uncle’s face, Frog continued.

“So, if you’re logical—and face it, what Dreth isn’t?” Frog told him. “You have to come to the same conclusion—that if you held back during the fight or want to believe you did, you’re playing the idiot.”

Garach remained silent and hoped the sinking feeling in his gut didn’t show on his face. The man studied him for a moment before he went on.

“Anyway, I’ve spoken to your Uncle Vishlog, and he says there’s a maxim on Dreth that says, ‘There are no old and prideful Dreth warriors. They might have egos but they have no pride.’”

The kid grimaced. He knew the saying well. His head pounded and he hoped his uncle got to the point soon because he wasn’t sure he’d stay awake for much longer. Darkness nibbled along the edges of his consciousness and the pain grew steadily worse.

Frog began to speak again but Garach struggled to stay awake.

“And why is that?” The man paused for a moment. “Because pride causes death on Dreth, and older and wiser fighters know that someone can always beat them.”

He studied the young Dreth’s face and went on as though he’d found what he was looking for.

“They might not know how it can be done—in which case, it doesn’t matter if they are killed. What does matter is when that warrior assumes an enemy can’t, because that is usually the time their head might be handed to them.”

Garach barely managed to stop himself from nodding. He’d seen it happen many times. The younger, cockier warriors sneered at a fighter older and slower than themselves and were beaten for their stupidity.

He’d never thought it could happen to him and truly believed he knew better than that. Clearly, he’d forgotten. The young Dreth felt his face burn with embarrassment and he stifled a groan. Frog continued relentlessly.

“If anyone should provide a fighter with respect, it’s you, and you should automatically respect them until you know differently.”

Again, Frog paused as though trying to make a point and again, Garach dipped his chin in the barest of acknowledgments. The man continued.

“This time, you were provided a lesson. If you haven’t learned the lesson, then the next time Stephanie gets involved, you’ll wish it was your uncle who kicked your ass.”

He gave the boy a long, slow look before he turned and walked out of the room and closed the door behind him.

Garach’s response was little more than a whisper as the boy faded into the dark.

“I will not fail you, Uncle. Nor will I forget your warning.”


Chapter Forty-Four

“Seven hours, boss? You have to be shitting me.” Gary wasn’t impressed by the early wake-up call.

“Quit your bitchin’ and start your hitchin’,” Todd called in response. “We have ourselves some escort duty and I want us locked, loaded, and rolling before the captain makes us run to catch up with him.”

That brought instant wakefulness. “We’re being transferred?”

He grinned at them as he hauled ass to the heads. “Five hours, ladies. You did so well in the scenario, you got us reassigned.”

“Five hours?”

“It’s a combat mission?”

“Have you ever known one that wasn’t?”

He emerged three minutes later.

“Get your gear packed if you want it to move with you.”

“What about the stuff we’ll need for the mission?” Gary asked and Drusilla sneered.

“It’s escort duty, moron. How much stuff d’you think we’re gonna need?”

“The last supply escort was jumped by pirates,” Todd threw in. “They went ship-to-ship.”

“No kidding!” Jimmy was ecstatic.

“I’m gonna want extras, then,” Gary said.

“You’re gonna want more than Navy regulation. Some of those stains don’t come out,” Reggie quipped.

“I can worry about that later, but I’d like to take more grenades—and maybe requisition a rocket launcher just in case.”

‘Don’t be an idiot. What captain in their right mind would let you have a rocket launcher?” Darren asked.

“One who wants me to keep his ship intact?”

“You make a good point. I could do with something to help me get through wall panels faster,” Ka admitted.

“I’ll have a rocket launcher,” Gary offered.

“I want something that will let me use the stuff on the other side of the panel, dummy.”

“Picky, picky, picky.”

“Man, I ache all over. I could sleep for another year.”

“Not now, you can’t, Angus. Sleep during the jump.”

“Do you have a cutting torch? One of those little laser things?” Ka asked and ignored Darren’s whining. She was still trying to work out how to get through a wall more quickly.

“Nah, but I can help you source one,” Reggie volunteered.

“And I need a vibro-blade,” Drusilla decided.

Angus wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “A what?”

“You heard!”

“What’s a nice girl like you want with one of those?” Jimmy asked.

“Someone told me there are Dreth out there with balls of steel,” she replied. “A girl likes to be prepared, you know.”

Angus’s face brightened. “Hey, so does a guy. Can we find me one of them, too, please?”

“You two could always share,” Gary suggested.

Drusilla disagreed. “Yeah. I don’t think so. If we find only one, it’s mine. You boys will have to make do with your blasters.”

“And I need more plastic,” Piet mused as he inspected the contents of one of the boxes he kept in his locker. “This one’s low.”

“Oh, man, no. You know what the last captain said about that prank,” Reggie reminded him. “I got into so much trouble.”

“I am not you,” his teammate replied. “I need the kind of plastic that molds real nice for cutting holes in bulkheads.”

“Sorry, Piet. I’ll help you find it.”

“Has anyone seen my dress uniform?” Henry threw in.

“What the fuck do you think you’ll need that for?” Gary demanded.

“You never know, but I have this feeling…” Henry started, and the other man paled.

“Damn. Where’s mine?”

“I thought you said we wouldn’t need it.”

Gary gave him a sideways look. “I know you and your feelings.”

“We’ve only been on the same team a month,” Henry protested.

“Yeah, and it was enough time to know there are some things about you we can’t ignore,” he told him.

“Like my feelings?”

He rolled his eyes. “Those and not letting you get anywhere near the chili corn dogs.”

Henry stared at him in horror. “But I love those things.”

“If I catch you eating one, you’ll spend a day in a sealed suit until the effects wear off.”

The other man paled. “You wouldn’t.”

“I’d help,” Drusilla stated.

Ka was quick to agree. “Yeah, me, too. Stay away from those things, man.”

“Hey! Is that my toothbrush?” Jimmy asked as Reggie went to pack said item into his bag.

“Maybe.” The man stowed it hastily out of sight.

Jimmy walked over and pulled it out. “Where’s yours?”

“Uh…” Reggie looked at the floor, then the ceiling and anywhere but at their faces.

“Oh, man! You didn’t.” Jimmy curled his lips in disgust and tossed the toothbrush into the bag.

“Get another one from supplies.” The utter disgust in Gary’s tone made Todd both glad and worried that he didn’t know what had happened to Reggie’s toothbrush.

The banter continued as the team packed their gear in double-quick time and made a list of the items they needed.

Drusilla caught Todd’s attention. “Boss, d’you think they’ll have spare rebreathers on board the next ship?”

He didn’t ask her why she wanted one but wasn’t sure the Devil’s Care would have any rebreathers at all. “There’s no way to tell if someone will have one around the ship. We have them here. Let’s grab some.”

They headed to supplies. As Todd listened to them build a list of useful items, he wondered how he would get it all past the Devil’s loadmaster—or its captain, for that matter, he thought as Piet mumbled about grenades.

They would effectively haul two fully laden pallets of weapons, ammunition, and “hey boss, you think we’ll need it? I coulda used it in that scenario” items. To his surprise, he had to veto very little, and Ka remembered the drives they’d need to download any intel opportunities they came across.

“I have you covered, boss.” She grinned and winked when he complimented her forethought.

He blushed and was glad Stephanie wasn’t there to see it. She might be the only girl for him, but anyone would be hard-pressed to understand why he’d say no to Ka—not that she was offering—and that was something he’d have been equally hard-pressed to explain.

The girl was like a kid in a candy shop, and while she was excited, she wasn’t excited about him. At least, he hoped she wasn’t.

The lieutenant at the boarding ramp raised an eyebrow and held a hand up. “You can’t bring all that on board,” he told them.

The guys all looked at Todd, and he stared at the young officer. “Are you sure?” he asked and a growl curled along his words. “This is our kit.”

The man swallowed nervously and glanced at the Marines. “It’s not your kit that’s the problem, sir.”

“Don’t call me sir,” he snapped and the lieutenant paled. “Sir,” he added.

He indicated the pallets. “It’s essential to the mission.”

“Wh…what mission?” the man asked and studied the overladen pallets dubiously.

“Whichever one arises when we’re on board, sir,” he told him. “We’re Marines. We make sure we’re prepared for every eventuality—and there are pirates out there.”

His soft reminder made the man pale. “I… I’ll have to check.”

“We’ll wait here while you do, sir,” Todd told him. He watched as the young officer spoke into the intercom at the hatchway.

“What?” the intercom bellowed, and the lieutenant jumped.

He opened his mouth to reply but the person on the other end hadn’t finished. “What idiot do we have thinking they will bring extra stuff to weigh our ship down? This is an escort mission, not a pleasure cruise.”

The officer made vague handwaving motions toward Todd, and the intercom responded with a growl. “Marines!” The word sounded like a curse. “I’ll be right down.”

The man who arrived shortly after wore commander’s stripes and swept the entry with a single practiced gaze. His face was hard with denial when he saw the size of the pallets, and it twisted with dislike when he saw the team.

“Marines,” he muttered and stalked toward Todd. “Who’s in charge?”

“Me, sir,” he replied. He caught a glimpse of Gary, Reggie, and Jimmy moving forward and held a hand out for them to stand down. The last thing he needed was for the trio to show its ‘negotiating’ skills.

“And you are?”

“I’m the idiot lance corporal who was assigned to go with you this morning with orders cut by Admiral Dailey.”

“And he sent me a freshly made-up lance corporal with delusions of grandeur because?”

“Because this lance corporal and his brand spanking new team beat the hell out of his favorite pirate simulation and, for its most excellent team effort, was offered an all-expenses-paid cruise onboard your charming little vessel so we could fight pirates…sir.”

He looked over his shoulder at the team, relieved that they’d settled, and returned his attention to the commander. “You are, however, free to refuse us and explain why to the admiral. The point is, I want these items to go with us.”

Without pause, he retrieved his tablet and pulled up the manifest before he passed it to the commander. “Unless you wish to provide replacements from the stores you have onboard and go through numerous conversations with my people to determine what you don’t have and can’t replicate.”

“No,” the commander said and handed the tablet to him. “I do not.”

Todd lowered his voice and inclined his head toward the officer. “Then let’s find a way to stack it and pack it, sir.”

“Wait here.”

“Yes, sir.”

He resisted the urge to smile as the man turned and trotted to the ship, where he pulled his tablet out and had a frown-filled conversation with someone else. Todd hoped it was someone important enough to authorize his shipment.

Captain Parker listened to the hushed anger in his second in command’s voice and waited for him to finish.

“He’s everything he says he is, Bob. Here, take a look at this.” Before the man could object, he pulled up the footage of the team running through the pirate scenario.

“This is the team that beat the odds—and they worked damned hard to do it. We want them, and if that means we find room for the toys they think they’re gonna need, we do that, too. Understood?”

The commander nodded. “I see, sir.”

He carried the tablet back to Todd and showed him the footage. “Shove your gear inside. I’ll send someone to help you stow it—then, I want to speak to you.”

Todd sighed and returned the tablet. He stared as the man walked through the hatch before he signaled for his team to bring their gear forward.

He was true to his word, however. A supply officer and several crewmen waited for them as they pulled the pallets inside. None of them looked impressed.

“This way.”

Gary laid a hand on Todd’s arm. “Thanks, boss.”

He shrugged. “One upset Navy guy or my people in a life or death situation without the equipment they need. It was an easy choice.”

“Yeah.” His teammate indicated the crewmen. “Except it’s not one upset Navy guy, is it?”

With a grin, he slapped him on the shoulder. “Still, it’s worth it.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Lars pulled Frog’s file up and studied it. The little weasel was almost overdue for his medical. He grimaced and added it to the man’s schedule. It really didn’t matter how busy Frog thought he was. He needed the checkup.

A little more time was given to going over the man’s training schedule and he penciled him in for a discussion. There were bound to be some tech upgrades he needed to keep up with. Once that was done, he moved on to Vishlog…and sighed.

They’d been so busy, no one had had time to take him through the entry medical or check what other skills the Dreth brought with him.

“Fine,” he muttered and added in the appointments and checks the warrior had missed. That would mess with the man’s training schedule but it couldn’t be helped.

He was halfway through it when his email pinged.

The team leader sighed and glanced at the addressee. “Woods?”

He frowned. “Woods…” It was a name he hadn’t heard in an age and he changed screens. “Charlie Woods? No. It couldn’t be.” But it was, and he smiled as he read the missive. “I’da thought he’d be dead by now.”

Obviously, he wasn’t. More than that, the silly bastard had been promoted. “Who’da thought,” Lars mused.

And who’da thought he’d be on-planet and in the same city and wondering if he wanted to go out for a drink. He smiled. It’d be nice to catch up and maybe share old times. Charlie had been good value.

His smile faded when he read the next part of the letter.

Coglan, Riviera, and Bailey were gone.

The three of them had served on board the Mary Sue and gone after the pirates.

They hadn’t come back and they hadn’t been found.

He sighed and looked away from the screen as the face of each man drifted before him. They’d been a good crew—as crazy as hell but all good men. It wasn’t what he would have wanted for them.

It might be a good time to raise a toast to those who’ve gone ahead and left us behind, Charlie suggested. There’s a nice little bar where they’ll show the World Cup Final. I can’t think of any better way to remember them.

Neither could Lars when he thought about it. Those boys had been mad about their soccer—football as they’d insisted on calling it. He looked at the paperwork and sighed. Maybe if he could get all this straightened out soon, he could spare the time.

Coglan’s face floated between him and the page with Brenden’s piloting qualifications. The man had brought many a gunship down safely—then roared out of it with them. And Riviera would have given Frog a run for his money but without any of the obscenity.

There’d been that time they’d had to break into—

His office door slammed open and Stephanie strode in.

“Did that damn cat come this way?” she demanded.

Through a closed door? He gave her a mystified look but she went on before he could say anything.

“Bee’s taken to hiding my sneakers.” She sighed and looked around the office. “I suppose it could be worse. He could be—”

She noticed his expression and her face softened. “Hey… What’s up, man?”

“I… It’s nothing,” he told her and she shook her head.

“Nope. You don’t get away with it that easily. You’re in here doing boring old paperwork and you look like you’ve lost your best friend—” His bitter bark of laughter cut her off. “What?”

Lars reddened and swallowed. “Funny you should mention that.”

He brought Charlie’s letter up and turned the screen towards her.

“You didn’t— Oh, Lars, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

“It’s all right, Steph. I didn’t know either until a couple of minutes ago.”

She tilted her head and put a hand on her hip. “So, what will you do about it?”

“What do you mean?” He stared at her.

“Are you gonna go?” She gestured toward the screen.

With a sigh, he indicated the other screen. “I don’t know if I have time. Honestly, I still haven’t caught up with what the team needs. Some of them are due for their medicals and they’ll have forgotten them completely and then there’s…”

His voice faded as she glared at him. “I’m reasonably sure you can afford one night off. You have a past. Don’t leave it behind. It’s what made you who you are. These guys were important to you, right?”

Lars grimaced. “Yeah…once.”

“So they’re worth remembering. That kind of shit is important.”

“Yeah…” He looked for a way to change the subject. “How’s Garach doing?”

She shrugged. “I’m not sure. I haven’t looked in on him yet. The doc is pissed with me and says my training methods are ‘barbaric.’” I told him he didn’t know Dreth.”

The team leader quirked his eyebrows. “And did it help?”

“No, he’s still pissed with me.”

He shrugged. “Well, it sucks to be him, then. Why don’t you talk to Ms E about it? See what she can suggest. She might have dealt with his kind before.”

“Yeah? How do you know?”

“She’s dealt with all types in her past. I bet there was someone equally as stubborn.”

“I’ll check on that.” She frowned and for a minute, he was worried she might be about to ask about Charlie again. Instead, she said, “So did you happen to see which way the furry scumbag went? I like that pair of sneakers, dammit.”

Lars chuckled. He was about to deny any knowledge of the cat when there was a furtive rustle from the back of his office.

“You!” Stephanie yelled and darted around his chair as Bumblebee leapt over his head and shattered the light.

“Get your buttercup tail back here!” she shouted. “I swear, cat, you’ll make one hell of a floor rug.”

They were gone in a scramble of paws and the thud of running feet, the feline with a red running shoe in its jaws.

“Dammit, Bee! Give that back.”


Chapter Forty-Five

Stephanie walked into the office holding the sneaker between her thumb and forefinger.

“Don’t ask,” she said, when she caught Elizabeth staring at it. “Really. Don’t ask.”

The woman glanced at the shoe, then cleared her throat.

“So,” she began, “if I can’t ask about the shoe, what can I do for you?”

“I’m about to visit Garach to see how he’s shaping up. I wondered if you have any suggestions.”

“You mean in case we didn’t manage to recalibrate his attitude?” she asked.

“Something like that.”

“Well, if he didn’t learn the first time, I’ll kick his ass,” Ms E told her. “He’ll remember that for a long time to come.”

Stephanie screwed her face in reluctance. “I was hoping you could think of an alternative.”

“Oh, sweetie, there isn’t one. Not for an attitude like that. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

She sighed. “And here I was hoping there was another way. I’ve already been called barbaric once today. Lars said it was too bad.”

“And how is that man?” her mentor asked. “Has he done my paperwork yet?”

“He was working on it when I walked in.” She hefted the shoe. “Actually, when I ran in. Bee was hiding out in his office.”

“With your shoe?”

“I told you not to ask.”

“I didn’t. You raised it.”

“Well, forget I said anything about it.”

“So, how was he going with my paperwork—you know, between hiding cats with contraband and being unsympathetic towards our medical folk.”

“He said he was behind and I told him he needed a night off.”

The woman’s eyebrows rose. “You did? That’s awfully generous of you.”

Stephanie blushed. “It’s not like that. He’d had this email from an old friend. The guy’s in town in a few days and wanted to catch up. I thought it was nice that he’d reached out to him after all these years.”

“Well,” Elizabeth said, “it’s always nice to catch up. Did he say why?”

“He wants to meet for drinks at one of the local sports bars. I assume they’ll catch a little of the World Cup, but I don’t know… Lars mentioned something about raising a glass to old friends.”

“Ah.” Now, it sounded like she understood. “In that case, I can understand why you said he should take a night off.”

“I said it was important that he remember where he came from.”

The woman’s face grew shadowed. “Indeed—and what did he say?”

“He asked about Garach.”

Elizabeth nodded. “I’ll talk to him.”

Stephanie scowled. “I don’t think that’s necessary,” she said.

Her companion shrugged. “If he’s still of two minds, maybe I can nudge him in the right direction.”

“I think it would be good for him to catch up,” she said with a smile and headed to the door. “Which is what I should do with Garach.”

“This friend,” Ms E mentioned as she reached the door. “What was his name?”

“Charlie Woods,” she told her, left the office, and turned resolutely toward the medical center, her shoe still dangling from her fingers.

Elizabeth watched her go and her eyes narrowed.

“Sometimes,” she muttered and glared at the Witch’s retreating back as she closed the door, “you are still so very child-like and naive.”

Still frowning, she returned to her desk and retrieved a communicator.


Chapter Forty-Six

She set the communicator beside her on the desk and summoned BURT.

“Yes, Elizabeth?” he asked seconds after she’d tapped his code into the computer.

“I think we might have a problem,” she told him.

“What makes you say that?” he asked. “I see no indication of problematic activity in my scans.”

“It’s a feeling. Kind of an itch between the shoulder blades.”

“I…see…” BURT replied but obviously didn’t understand at all.

Ms E smiled at the screen. “No, you don’t, but I need you to run a check on Charlie Woods, maybe Charles Woods. He used to serve with Lars when he was in the Navy.”

“He did?”

“Please, BURT. No more questions. This is important and maybe urgent. Could you…I don’t know…look him up?”

“Certainly, Elizabeth. It will not take me long.”

“I’ll wait,” she told him and tapped her nails against the face of the communicator.

BURT wasn’t gone long, and he wasn’t happy when he replied.

“There are some things, which…are worrisome,” he began. “I will have to search more. Whatever it is, it’s not obvious, only a couple of flags from many years ago left in his cache on his home device.”

“You hacked his home device? Exactly how deep did you go?”

“I hacked all his home devices,” he told her.

“And?” Her fingers rattled on the comms device.

“Well, his medical records show some time on Kattacor—”

“The swamp moon?”

“Yes, there were some parasites and a skin affliction he found particularly hard to shake. I believe it was fungal and had the effect that he was quarantined from Earth until it was cleared. He was most disappointed by that.”

“I can imagine,” Elizabeth said dryly. “And?”

“His newer machine had partitioned files where he thought his passwords would be safe, and his bank accounts show some curious transactions. I will have to investigate those further.”

“Uh-huh.”

Something in her voice made him defensive.

“I get bored and his was an interesting system to get into. I had to know what he was hiding to justify a firewall like that—and then there were the worms. Those were vicious.”

“Attack worms?” she asked. “Isn’t that unusual?”

“That kind of software is very specialized.” BURT sounded almost offended. “If I did not have principles, I could have amassed a small fortune selling a variety of infiltration, exfiltration, and defensive programs of a similar nature.”

“I’m sure you could have, but what does that have to do with our Charlie?”

“I’m sure he is someone’s Charlie,” he replied, “but he is certainly not ours.”

“What do you mean?”

“I do not know, exactly.”

“And do you make a habit of knowing what’s on the black market for home computer defense?” Ms E teased.

“I research the data relevant to keeping my own files intact and secure,” he replied and sounded slightly huffy.

“And hacking?” she asked, pushing him. “You’re quite good at it.”

“I don’t do much of it because I lack time, resources, and need.”

She snorted. “I notice you didn’t say legal authority.”

“I have directives to accomplish. They did not suggest that legal issues superseded my goals.”

“Hmmm…” she murmured as another thought occurred to her. “Where’s Todd?”

“He is in the Navy.”

“No, BURT. I meant where is he right at this moment?”

“Oh…” After a few moments’ silence, he returned with the answer. “He has just been transferred to the Devil’s Care on escort duty. They are departing the Sol system for Dreth as we speak. The Navy is having problems with Dreth pirates again.”

Elizabeth frowned and stared past the computer screen at nothing. When she had been silent for a few minutes, BURT spoke.

“Elizabeth?”

She held up a finger, still frowning. “Why Dreth? Why Lars? What the hell is the connection? Why mix them, now? It doesn’t feel right. It…simply doesn’t.”

“What is there to feel?” he asked. “It is only data.”

“No, it’s more than data, BURT. It’s…a feeling.”

“Elizabeth,” he reminded her gently, “I do not have feelings. You will need to explain.”

The woman sighed. “When I say feelings, BURT, I do not mean emotions like anger, love, or happiness. I think you would understand those.”

“This is true—if only from an intellectual point of view—but what you speak of seems to be something else.”

“These feelings I’m talking about are what humans would more usually call ‘intuition.’”

“Guesswork?” he asked and she smiled.

“Almost,” she replied. “Some say it’s because our subconscious notices things our conscious does not, but I experience it like this. During…uh, operations…before I worked here, I’d notice my senses would get a feel for an area.”

“Your subconscious at work,” BURT observed.

“Possibly, but even when you don’t see an attack, you might duck your head a split-second before a bullet whizzes past. You can’t quantify why you ducked at that particular moment or why anyone does.”

She paused and he waited, knowing she hadn’t finished.

“It makes no sense to duck,” she continued. “The bullet is ahead of the sound it generates. The sniper is too far away to be seen and yet you feel them. You know they are there. Something isn’t right.”

“And that’s how you feel now?” he asked.

“Yes. Something isn’t right. Lars is invited out for drinks by an unexpected blast from the past. Todd is heading to Dreth unexpectedly.” She paused. “I assume the Telorans want Earth…” She tapped her chin. “How would I make Earth an easier target?”

BURT remained silent and simply let her work through it. This was one thing he didn’t fully understand, save for one thing. If he interrupted her now, something valuable would be lost.

“Well, crap!”

Before he could ask her what was wrong, she turned to him. “BURT, I need some very special hacking done. And let’s hope you find nothing.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Three hours later, Elizabeth closed the communicator and barely resisted the urge to hurl it across the room. She straightened and clenched her fist around it. “That asshole. I can’t believe he’d even think to do this to me.”

She stood and returned the offending device to its drawer.

“Not to mention get away with it. Respect, my ass.”

Her expression cold, she stalked out of the office and ignored Amy and Elle who immediately attached themselves to her trail like two shadows. She was still furious when she arrived at the team’s training room.

Most of them were out on the mats. Lars was taking Frog and Marcus through a serious of complex maneuvers, and Vishlog was sparring with Avery and Brenden. Johnny was working through kata designed to strengthen his damaged leg.

As she came through the door, Lars’s lesson with Frog and Marcus turned into a sparring match. Marcus swept the team leader’s legs out from under him and Frog tried to pounce. He missed and their intended victim rolled clear of the attack and pushed to his feet to face them.

They fought hard and fast and Elizabeth stopped to admire the sheer fluidity of it. In the end, Marcus fell when Lars’s fist caught him on the side of the head, and Frog ended up in an elbow lock that made her wince.

The smaller man slapped the mat in defeat and they ended the match. Lars caught sight of her as he helped Marcus off the mats and settled him on the bench. “Frog—”

“Yeah, yeah. Take him to medical and see how badly you broke him?”

He managed a sheepish grin. “Yeah, and—”

“And don’t tell Steph,” the man finished for him before he inclined his head and regarded his boss with a sly grin. “How much is it worth to you?”

Elizabeth cleared her throat and the grin faded.

“Don’t go anywhere for a minute,” she told him and ignored the faint look of alarm that crossed his face. She turned to Lars. “Have you decided to go out this Saturday?” she asked and he blushed a faint shade of pink.

“Yeah,” he admitted sheepishly. “Steph reminded me that we all kinda need some downtime.”

She gave him a sunny smile. “Sure,” she agreed. “By ‘downtime,’ I hope you mean an opportunity to destroy your enemies and eat their hearts, right?”

He stared at her in bewilderment. “Uh—”

Ms E didn’t let him finish. She turned, clapped sharply, and drew everyone’s attention but continued to smile as they walked toward her. “I have some news.”


Chapter Forty-Seven

Elizabeth’s “news” sent a shockwave through the team. Wide-eyed, they turned to where the team leader stood utterly still, his face leached of color and his eyes as hard as flint.

“Fuck,” Johnny whispered.

Lars’s eyes focused and he looked at them. “I will personally rip all his fingers off and feed them to him, one digit at a time.”

Frog looked at Johnny, who settled a hand on his shoulder. “You don’t want to know. Get Marcus to the infirmary and get him patched.”

He looked around at the rest of the team. “Training!” he snapped and walked over to Lars. “Boss, you and me need pod time.”

He glanced at her as he passed. “Anything else?”

She looked at the leader and shook her head. The last time she’d seen someone look like that, they’d just lost half their squad and slaughtered the ones responsible. Pod time was a good idea.

Johnny hooked an arm under Lars’s bicep and turned him. “You know where to find us.”

Elizabeth nodded and watched them leave. “I certainly do,” she murmured and followed them out.

Frog came behind her, guiding a still-dazed Marcus to the infirmary, and the rest of the team returned to training silently, their moves guided by worry as they worked with an intensity usually reserved for missions.

The first place she checked was Tethis’ quarters. The second was the computing lab where Aaron was hard at work.

“I haven’t seen him,” he said when she asked, “but he usually doesn’t come in here until after his walk.”

She raised an eyebrow and he shivered. He took an involuntary step back and knocked his chair over.

“The park,” he told her as he straightened his chair and tripped over his words. “There’s a park not far from here. Don’t ask me where.”

His voice reached a pleading note and she smiled. “Thank you, Aaron.”

He watched her leave and drew a shuddering hand over his brow. His knees shaking, he leaned against the wall to pull himself back together and decided he needed a coffee.

It took him a moment to screw up the courage to see if Elizabeth was gone, but he finally managed to open the lab door and breathed a sigh of relief when the corridor was clear. “Tethis might have had the right idea,” he muttered and hurried to the team common room.

Aaron wondered if the old mage would forgive him for letting Elizabeth ruin his downtime. In the end, it didn’t matter. Ms E scared the tar out of him and the old mage didn’t.

Elizabeth waited until she was outside One R&D HQ before she began to chuckle. Amy glared at her. “That was mean, E.”

“But funny,” she told her, unrepentant. “Oh, God! His face…”

Her bodyguard eyed her with disgust. “Which way’s this park?”

It took her a moment to remember. She might not have had a use for it or any reason to visit it, but she knew where it was. In her business, it paid to know the world around your home. You never knew when you would have to escape into it.

There were several parks, but the closest one was barely a block away inside a square of high-rise buildings, on the other side of which ran the Metro. It could be accessed through several approaches and exits, but she took the most direct one.

Her guards accessed the area map on their tablets and weren’t happy.

“This is an ambush waiting to happen,” Amy told her. “Tethis needs a protection detail.”

“And you can tell him that.” Elizabeth gave her a shark-toothed smile. “If I were you, I’d make sure Stephanie was on-side first, though.”

Amy rolled her eyes. “He’s your responsibility, too, you know—what with him being a company asset and all that.”

“Well, he feels safe here,” Elle commented, as they passed a high rise and saw the park across the road.

Tethis was a distant figure seated on a park bench facing the central fountain. Dappled light played across his silver hair and dark-blue robes as he watched the people in the open space between him and the rose gardens that bordered the path around the fountain.

A children’s playground stood several feet away and several curious faces peered at him over the low wall of a climbing-frame fort. To Elizabeth’s surprise, he waved and elicited giggles and waves in return.

One pipingly clear voice drifted across the park as the children returned to their game.

“Whose grandpa is that?”

“Dunno.”

“He’s gots pointy ears,” came in a child’s version of a failed whisper.

Another giggle greeted that, followed by, “I like them.”

Several parents had turned to look at the old mage, but Tethis appeared to be too busy watching a dog chase a flying flat disc over the grass. It looked for all the world like he hadn’t heard a word.

“He’s a better actor than I am,” Amy muttered, and Elizabeth had to agree.

The dog missed the disc and it landed at the mage’s feet. He leaned forward and ignored the canine racing towards him. By the time the animal had reached him, he had picked the disc up.

The dog gave an indignant bark and stopped in front of him.

“Yes?” he asked it, and the animal bounced and barked again, its eyes fixed firmly on the disc in his hand.

He glanced at it. “This?” he asked and received another bark. “Do you want it?”

It spun in a circle and stopped to face him.

“Very well,” Tethis told it. “Give me a minute. I haven’t thrown one of these before.”

It took him a moment to rearrange the disc in his hand and hurl it away over the grass with the dog tearing happily in pursuit. The Teacher sank onto his seat and watched.

Elizabeth swore he was smiling.

“Well, he seems happy,” Amy remarked and looked at her. “Are you sure you want to spoil his day?”

Her boss gave her a sharp glance. “Who said I’d be spoiling it?”

She started forward and marched across the road and path and onto the grass. In reality, it did seem like a shame to spoil the man’s peace, but that didn’t change the fact that it needed to be done.

He didn’t even turn his head as she approached.

“I wondered when you’d decide to interrupt me,” he said when she’d almost reached him.

“It’s not me interrupting you,” she snapped and slid onto the bench beside him. “It’s the Telorans.”

His gaze shifted to follow two joggers circumnavigating the park, then drifted to observe two boys and a girl who passed a football between them. When he spoke, it had nothing to do with the humans playing around him.

“They have much to answer for. What do you believe they are doing now?”

“I think they’ll attack Dreth,” she told him as the girl intercepted a pass and bolted away across the park with the boys in hot pursuit.

“Dreth, eh?” Tethis mused. “But they’re supposed to eliminate Earth, first. That’s a little ambitious of them.”

The girl succumbed to a well-placed tackle and eventually gave up the ball. He smiled as the three friends scrambled to their feet and headed to an ice-cream cart.

“With a tackle like that,” he observed, “it had better be a double cone to apologize.”

“She deserved it,” Elizabeth commented. “And she deliberately provoked them.”

“They weren’t sharing,” he told her. “Rather like your Telorans.”

“These have better manners,” she argued. “The Telorans want to both keep the ball and put their opposition out of play.”

“Like Meligorn?” he asked, his voice troubled.

Across the park, everyone had double scoops in a cup.

“Smart kids,” Tethis said. “Now, they won’t lose it when it melts.”

“And they can share it with the dog,” Amy added as the furry disc-chaser ran up to the trio, the disc in his mouth.

“Something the Telorans would never do,” the old Teacher observed. “So, this attack on Dreth—when do you think it’ll happen?”

“I’m not sure,” Elizabeth admitted, “but I may have a way to find out.”

“Don’t make me come in there and dig it out,” he warned and she caught an edge to his mild tone that suggested he was more than capable of doing what he threatened.

It sent a shiver down her spine and she remembered that the Master had many years behind him and a past she knew nothing about. Perhaps it’s about time that changed.

She didn’t pursue the thought. “I have a friend.”

“The kind of friend you want to keep?”

“Not if he’s done what I think he has.”

“Which is?”

“Sold us out to our alien friends.”

“Ah…” Tethis thought about it for a minute. “And you’d like for it not to be true.”

“I never said you could look inside my head.”

“I didn’t. There were other signs.” She tilted her head accusingly and he held a hand up. “Do not ask and I won’t have to lie.”

Elizabeth smiled. “I’m not exactly sure what they’re planning but I believe there will be combined actions and that Stephanie may have to be in two places at once.”

“So it’s not only your friend you need me for, hmmm?”

“No.”

“Tell me, what makes you think your friend has betrayed you?”

She sighed unhappily and explained what BURT had found that morning. Tethis listened to the multiple betrayals and watched the dog lick the empty ice-cream cups and then chase goldfish in the fountain pond, while his owner tried to call him out.

As she described what they’d uncovered on Charlie Woods, the dog bounded out with half a water lily dangling from its mouth.

“Poor Lars,” the mage murmured as the animal sprayed water over its owner, the kids with the football, and a nearby mother pushing a pram. He chuckled, and Elizabeth frowned at him.

“Not you,” he explained and indicated the drama around the fountain. “That. Humans and their pets.”

Ms E’s mouth quirked in a small smile. “Yes.”

She fell silent and he motioned for her to continue. “Go on.”

“And that’s where Tex comes in,” she told him and described the connection.

“So,” she said, “my friend has decided to support a different direction than I would have him go in.” Sadness leached into her words, more disappointment than bitterness at being betrayed. “Well,” she concluded, “whether the decision is philosophical, pragmatic or petty, he has now officially outlived any usefulness to the human race.”

“The human race? Or you?”

“In this case, it’s the same thing.”

Tethis’s smile faded. “It is much worse than merely throwing rocks at us, I think.”

“Yuh think?”

“That is what I said.” He stood and sighed as he surveyed the park one last time. “I will miss being here.”

“It’s only for an afternoon,” Elizabeth protested.

“And however many more afternoons that Stephanie needs me,” he told her and sadness deepened the lines in his face.

He looked around and returned more waves from the children’s playground. More comments rose from behind him as he walked away.

“Who’s that lady wiv him?”

“Maybe she’s his daughter.” This brought gasps and laughter.

“She’s so old.”

Amy snickered, and Tethis chuckled.

“Is not.”

“Yeah? Well, if she’s his daughter, how come she doesn’t have pointy ears?”

That comment was followed by hasty shushing noises and a short reprimand. “Alice!”

“Well, she doesn’t.”

“Maybe she’s not lucky.”

Elizabeth stifled a groan. “I hate children.”

Amy clearly had trouble suppressing her laughter, and Elle had begun to shake silently. Tethis laid a hand on Ms E’s arm.

“Don’t listen to them,” he told her, his eyes twinkling with mirth. “They don’t know how lucky you are.”

Thinking over what she’d done—and survived to do again—she decided he might have a point. She sighed again and straightened her shoulders. “Let’s get this done.”

The twinkle died from his eyes. “You are calling for your friend’s death?”

“Yup.”

“Isn’t that a judicial responsibility?”

She gave him a cold, hard glance. “I’ll get Stephanie’s blessing—she has one of those get out of jail free badges. Are you willing to help me?”

The mage glanced at the park and gave her a quiet smile with a hint of iron. “Parks are nice but they do get boring when you have held the power of the cosmos in your hands.”

“I thought you said you’d miss it?”

“And so I will,” he admitted, “but I miss the hunt as well.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

“If I told you to wait in the car…” Elizabeth began and trailed off helplessly. Amy and Elle were already shaking their heads. She sighed. “Fine. But don’t get in the way.”

She’d tucked the car in a shadowed corner near a broken streetlight, having already changed its plates. It didn’t take them long to find the front entrance.

Tethis put the guard to sleep, and the four of them walked past the gate.

“Do you think he’ll notice?” the mage asked, his voice mild as he flipped the cowl of his robes over his head.

She snorted. “No more than he’d notice a hooded wizard roaming about his warehouse parking lot.”

“How about an unhooded wizard?” he asked, a smile playing at the edges of his mouth.

“Point taken.” She smiled in response. “Come on, he’ll be expecting us.”

She couldn’t be a hundred percent sure he knew they were coming, but the bastard hadn’t answered her calls and BURT had traced the handset to the glove box of a vehicle about to be crushed.

“Well,” she’d murmured. “It sucks to be him, then, doesn’t it?”

Amy cast her a quizzical look. “How old a friend was he, exactly?”

Elizabeth thought about not answering that one, then shrugged. “He was my start—he picked me up when I was still trying to work shit out.”

Her eyes took on a faraway look for a moment before she shook herself out of it. “And made me pay twice over for every edge he ever gave me.” Her voice became hard. “Nothing covers selling your planet out for your own gain.”

They moved as a team through the carpark’s shadows. She had no doubt Tex had hacked the surveillance system and watched them as they moved—until she saw Tethis glance at one of the cameras and make a covert gesture with his finger.

The light above the camera winked once and died.

“I hope you like children’s programming,” he murmured and caught her watching him.

She cocked an eyebrow. “What exactly did—”

He wagged a finger at her, and her mouth froze. The mage smirked. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

While she wanted to smile in response, her lips couldn’t move. His magic held them a little longer before he released the spell. She rubbed her mouth vigorously. “Nice trick.”

“Would you like to see more?”

“Not until I have him in front of me, then we’ll see.”

“Do we need him alive?”

“Well, yeah. Dead man can’t tell us shit.”

Tethis nodded and she left it at that. Together, they reached fire stairs up the outside of the building and ascended quietly to where BURT had traced Tex’s movements.

“He has quite a stronghold there,” the AI had told her. “You will have to be careful. Some of his defenses are formidable, even for me.”

“Tell me about them,” she’d ordered and he had.

They encountered the first one on the landing leading into the warehouse.

Elizabeth pointed at the tracery of explosives that patterned the underside of the landing and glanced at the mage. “Let him have the cameras.”

He gave her an odd look, shrugged, and flicked his fingers toward the camera. “As you wish, E.”

She directed her most evil grin to the closest device. “I wish it very much,” she told the mage and focused on the blinking light. “Hello, Tex.”

Light sparked over the landing above her. White flared to be submersed in a purple glow, and the explosive crumbled to powder. Elizabeth raised both eyebrows and moved up the stairs.

“Wow, Tex. That is no way to greet an old friend—especially not one who’s provided you with the respect you never knew you wanted.” She placed a finger on her chin. “Now, should I be upset?”

Elizabeth made a show of thinking about it before she wrinkled her forehead. “Nah. You couldn’t possibly have meant that for me. It must be an automated system you forgot to shut down when you saw it was me.”

She reached the landing with Tethis at her side. He surprised her by thrusting a hand forward toward the door to bathe the handle in purple light. Ice formed around it and spread in delicate lacework up the door and out over its hinges. A second burst of magic made each tendril gleam and then shatter to reveal the trap within.

Again, she sought the closest camera. Tutting softly, she shook her head. “Now, now, Tex. I’d have thought you knew better than that.”

With exaggerated care, she gently extracted the glass tube seated above a framework of other similar tubes. “Come on, acid? Really? What was that supposed to do?”

“Melt your face off,” Tex muttered from where he watched her via the surveillance camera, relieved that she wouldn’t hear him.

“Honestly, did you really expect a spray of acid to blind an intruder? I hope you noticed how easily magic removed that threat?”

She set the tubes aside carefully. “Tethis, be a dear. We really can’t leave these lying around for simply anyone to stumble over.”

And what was that all about? he wondered and glowered as the old Meligornian in mage’s robes cast another spell that transformed the acid into dust and vaporized it into nothing. Emerald with a mage?

He snorted. That was hardly the woman he knew. She’d shunned all forms of magic and labeled them “make-believe” or “useless compared to a solid round” while she demonstrated the fact.

The E he knew would have gone directly for the profit, regardless of who got in the way—exactly as he’d taught her. She’d never have put a planet before her profits.

He frowned. Unless there’d been a side to her she’d kept hidden. Tex snorted at himself. Who was he kidding? There’d obviously been a side she’d kept hidden. If she hadn’t, he’d have forced her back into service long before.

Instead, he’d let her run. Yeah, and look where that’s gotten you, he scolded himself and followed her progress as she led her team through the door. The damned mage destroyed the autocannons at either end of the catwalk before he disarmed the infra-red trigger they’d tripped.

The ease with which he did it was arrogance itself and once again, the damned woman goaded him through the surveillance cam. “Oh, come now, Tex. Only two? Once upon a time, there’d have been four—and you’d have gassed us from the ceiling.”

His scowl was reflexive. He should have gassed them from the ceiling—and the floor, too, for that matter. Where the hell was the gas? He leaned forward and squinted at the monitor as he began to tap the commands in to find out.

The gas was still there but it wasn’t moving. An odd sputtering sound drew him back to the monitor.

Tethis had pushed aside one of the covers over one of the release points and Elizabeth peered inside and sniggered like a ten-year-old. She glanced at the camera. “Oh my… Tex, Texy, Tex, Tex…”

Once, he might have enjoyed hearing her say that. Not in those tones, however, and definitely in different circumstances, but— He pushed that useless speculation aside as she straightened. “It’s time to stop playing.”

The flint in her voice was a warning in itself.

“Tethis.” She said no more than the mage’s name but the Meligornian knew exactly what to do. It was like they’d worked together for years. Tex wondered what else he didn’t know about his old colleague.

“Jeez, Tex.” Her voice interrupted his musings and he realized she was at the door. She held up a small device he was more than familiar with. “I’d try the lock with this but I can’t be bothered.”

As if her words were a signal, the old mage knelt.

Tex tensed and waited for the spray of acid that should occur the second the mage touched the lock.

It didn’t, of course. The Meligornian laid his finger against the locking mechanism and purple light encased it. Glass shattered and liquid splashed against the inside of the magic bubble, but the mage’s face remained intact.

“Well, Tex,” Elizabeth mocked. “I hope that’s a lesson for you not to rely too much on one thing. Magic, as you’ve learned, can deal with most things. If you missed it, I’m sure I can provide you with a recording.”

He glared at the screen. Like he needed a recording to watch her blatant cheating.

The mage glanced at her. “More acid,” he told her succinctly and poked the door with his finger.

Tex froze. They were through to the outer office now. He glanced around and confirmed that the mage’s voice came from the outer room, and not only through the speakers.

“Let me fix a few things first.”

Fuck! He looked around his office. Time to leave.

A loud crack resounded from the room beyond, and he jumped. He stepped hastily to the panel that led to the emergency chute.

Not so fast. An old voice snapped the command through his head but he only moved faster.

He curled his fingers around the release mechanism and yelped in pain. When he looked down at it, sparks hovered over its surface.

“Two can play at that game,” he muttered as a series of pops sizzled from outside the door. The smell of burned electronics was unmistakable and he wrapped his hand in the folds of his jacket and slid his fingers around the release mechanism. The mage’s voice echoed between his ears.

Perhaps I wasn’t clear. Purple lightning arced over the chute entry and the panel melted into those around it.

“Fuck,” Tex muttered. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!”

That left only one thing. He hurried to the desk, sat, and yanked the top drawer open as his office door burst inward.

As he watched them over the hacked surveillance cams, BURT wasn’t sure Elizabeth and her team would actually reach him in time. There was no point in alerting them. Her treacherous contact was already raising the pistol to his head.

Well, at least he isn’t trying to shoot them, he thought. He watched as the man turned the pistol and raised it halfway to his temple before his arm froze.

His leg muscles tensed and quivered as he tried to push the chair away from the desk and his eyes seemed stuck wide. Tethis came around the desk and plucked the pistol from his fingers.

“I might not be the Morgana,” he told Elizabeth and handed the gun to Amy, “but I can get a little upset.”

“So, I see,” she acknowledged as she stepped around the other side of the desk. She spun his chair so it faced her and straddled Tex’s legs.

His gaze darted from side to side to take in the smiling mage, the stone-faced women covering him and the door, and Elizabeth.

Oh, God… Emerald… he thought and swallowed hard. His breathing sped up as he looked at her and sweat beaded on his forehead.

E smiled down at him, and he would have shivered if he could have moved. He’d seen that smile before and thought it funny but now that it was directed at him, he had no urge to laugh whatsoever.

Evil…pure and utter evil…

“You helped me once before,” she told him, “and I need you to help me again.”

Tex tried to nod, to agree, or simply to say anything to make that smile fade, but Tethis’ magic held him fast. She hadn’t finished, though. Her smile broadened.

“So, this is how you will help me now.” She tilted her head and her face softened. “It’s a shame you believed you were the best.”

If he could have moved, Tex would have scooted back as fast as he could. Unfortunately, he couldn’t, and Tethis moved behind him and placed a hand on either side of his head.

What are you doing? What are you doing? He screamed in panic, his cries trapped inside his mind and his eyes rolling as he tried to look at the mage. The man remained out of sight and didn’t release him.

Searching.

Tex screamed soundlessly before Elizabeth’s voice cut through his terror.

“Who are your contacts?”

Inside his mind, his body twisted and he fled, but Tethis was too fast. The mage latched onto his consciousness and dragged him back. Who?

He tried desperately not to think of them. After all, the mind was a vast place and there were so many places to look. The mage stretched out a mental hand and pulled the first name to the surface.

“Zachary Winthrop, six-seventy-five Parson’s Close, a Massachusetts boy, easily led…once you get around him. He has seven burners…” The mage paused.

“Seven,” he repeated and sounded impressed, then proceeded to rattle off each number, followed by the proclivities Tex had used to lever Zach into his way of thinking. “You really aren’t a very nice man, are you?”

The man's horrified eyes noted that no-one was writing anything down, and he wondered why.

That is none of your business, the mage told him, although I’d really like to know who your other friends are.

Tex managed a moan, and the old man pounced as his conscious tried to make another bolt to insanity. Not yet. We’re only getting to know you.

Please… he whimpered.

Perhaps if you tell me about Harriet…

It was too good an opportunity to miss. Elizabeth might rip every ounce of information from him and leave his body bleeding out on the floor, but the Meligornian might be more lenient.

Tethis relayed the information and dug deeper. It took Tex half a dozen names and contacts to finally grasp that Elizabeth was still in diapers when compared to the mage. Apparently, the Meligornian excelled at war and when it came to playing dirty, he was a master.

He tried to pull away and screamed as pain lanced through his skull.

More, Tethis insisted, and the man didn’t even feel the needle Elizabeth used to immobilize him so his interrogator could focus on prying every secret from his mind.

“Did you get everything?” she asked, and the mage gave her a very bleak stare.

“Everything I could find before his mind collapsed. I can’t go in there again.”

She stared at her old mentor. “Is there anything left?”

“Of him or his information?” he asked.

“Him.”

“Nothing worth saving.” The weariness in the old man’s voice made her look at him properly.

“You look tired,” she observed, and his lips twitched in what might have been a smile if it hadn’t been stillborn.

“I remember why I turned to research,” he told her and looked around the office. “Did you get everything else?”

“Affirmative,” BURT replied, and the two girls nodded.

“He wasn’t much for paper.”

Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. “He used to say it was the most secure medium he could think of.”

“I believe several police raids cured him of that misconception about five years ago,” BURT replied. “It is how he rebuilt his connections.”

“Hmmm.”

A wet cutting sound drew her attention. “For fuck’s sake, Tethis!”

The mage wiped his blade on Tex’s shirt. “What? He could offer us no more—and burning alive is not a death to wish on anyone.”

She gave him a jaundiced look. “I don’t know—”

Tethis’s face grew hard. “Not even him.”

Elizabeth looked around. “I don’t see a fire.”

He gave her a weary smile, turned one palm towards the ceiling, and conjured blue fire in his palm. “There will be nothing left of the office—or the warehouse—when we’re done.”

“And I have wiped the security recordings,” BURT added. “You are also wearing gloves.”

After a moment, she nodded. “Do it.”

They left as fire melted Tex’s computers to the tabletop and vaporized the desk itself. Elizabeth paused at the door to watch the flames lick their way over the floor and into the walls and retreated only when the heat forced her back.

“We really need to leave before the gas ignites,” Tethis told her, and Amy and Elle caught hold of her arms.

It took her a few steps to see beyond the image of Tex’s body catching alight. It burnt in silence, but it was an image that would haunt her sleep. She shrugged it away to join the other nightmares she had collected over the years.

They reached where they’d parked the car and she accelerated at a speed that drew the attention of every camera in range, as did her entry to the skyway.

“Illegal entry to Skyway 234. You have been issued a fine for three hundred and twenty-five credits.”

“Frank? Is that you?”

“I am the AI you dubbed Frank,” it admitted. “You have been issued a ticket for inappropriate language on an Airway, to whit ‘Hell, fuck, yeah, you masochistic asshole’—nine hundred and sixty credits.”

“What the fuck, Frank?” She jerked the sky car sideways violently and corkscrewed it left and down to a lower level.”

“Illegal exit of Skyway 324 and an illegal entry and culpable driving. You have been fined six hundred and ninety-two credits.”

“That’s more expensive than the last time.”

“Your license has been tagged as a repeat offender and is scheduled for permanent suspension should the latest preventative measures fail to have a lasting effect.”

“Oh, for shits’ sake! You tell the greedy little crotchmongering, shit-licking muffin stuffers at head office they need to get a life and find themselves a good hard f—”

Her mouth suddenly stopped working and Frank replied, “I have been unable to pass your missive to the correct recipients, but your comments have been noted.”

Tethis handed her a card he’d found in the glovebox. It was a driver’s license belonging to one Emerald Shilling. The sight of it brought back memories and a lump formed in her throat. Frank interrupted before she could respond.

“Surveillance cameras have been activated in this vehicle and your identity matched to one Elizabeth Smith. Without a physical change of drivers, this will be the identity to which all driving offenses for this unbroken journey are attributed.”

The mage sighed and stowed the license in the glove box.

“What about driving in relation to life-endangering situations?” he asked and released her mouth.

“The circumstances surrounding the commission of each traffic violation will be taken into individual consideration,” the AI informed him.

“Good,” he replied and reached over to shove the steering column to one side, tipping the car onto its edge as Elizabeth snatched at the controls. “Tell me you have this on camera.”

“Affirmative,” Frank told him. “You are the first Meligornian citizen to be fined five hundred credits for interfering with the driver of a sky vehicle in Federated air space, and the first to be issued a summons for endangering life through negligent passenger behavior.”

“Thank you, Frank.”

“You are welcome, Tethis Naliviri.”

“Of all the crazy, piss-addled…” Elizabeth’s voice faded as she avoided another vehicle on the way down, skimmed the top of a heavy loader, and skewered past the traffic on the airway below.

“You have been issued tickets and fined four hundred and fifty credits for illegal exit from a skyway, nine hundred credits for illegal entry to an airway, and thirteen hundred and thirty-three credits for driving in a dangerous fashion.”

“Oh, suck my dick!”

“Neither of us is equipped for that,” Frank informed her, “and you have been fined seven hundred and sixty-five credits for making a lewd suggestion to a Traffic Authority persona.”

Two flashes seared the space they’d occupied and the vehicle that had been in front of them exploded.

“Was that my fault?”

“Negative, Ms Smith. That was caused by a new arrival on the skyway firing at your vehicle.”

“Well, fuck me.”

“You have been ticketed and fined eight hundred and seventy-five credits for making a second lewd suggestion to a Traffic Authority persona.”

Now that she’d been made aware of it, Elizabeth could see the sleek little sports model dive out of the skyway above.

“It looks like there’s no hiding in the airways for this one,” she muttered and raised her voice. “Frank, please inform the Traffic Authority that I am about to break all their rules in order to try to keep the traffic carnage to a minimum.”

“Deliberate rules breakage will result in the doubling of charges of multiple fines and incarceration Ms Smith. Are you sure you wish to proceed?”

Elizabeth rolled the sky car to one side, sent it into a headlong dive toward a distant patch of greenery, and pulled it up and changed direction to go against what would have been the flow of traffic if she’d still been in the skyway.

One of the bolts narrowly missed a family heading home for the evening, the second careened into the side of a building and removed a balcony at the same moment that the balcony door opened. She caught a glimpse of someone flailing as they pushed themselves inside their apartment and slammed the door.

“Yes! Yes, I am very fucking sure.”

“Very well, your willful disobedience has been noted and I have no choice but to—” Frank made a sound like grinding gears. He stuttered through a static squeal and then came back online. “…award you five hundred bonus points and a traffic pardon for your quick thinking.”

“Very fucking funny, Frank.”

“You have been awarded nine hundred and sixty bonus points for use of credible language, your evasion of the local birdlife has been noted, and you have been awarded two thousand bonus points, illegal usage of air space endangering local architecture and infrastructure—four hundred and ninety-two bonus points.”

More light flashed past her and another section of the building disappeared. Elizabeth hoped no one had been working late and that those offices had been empty.

“Destruction of corporate property, eight hundred and seventy bonus points.”

“That wasn’t me, you ass-sucking idiot!”

“Creative language in public airspace, two hundred and fifty bonus points.”

“What. The. Hell!” E screamed as she slewed the air car around the side of another high rise and turned it on its edge so it fit through the narrow alley she’d seen. Unfortunately, the sports model with the pop-up laser cannons also fit, and she had to fly through the glass of another office window.

“Although why anyone would want a view of a brick wall, I don’t know,” she muttered as the car plowed its way through a row of cubicles and out the other side of the building. “BURT—”

They broke air—and the other window—and she hauled the sky car’s nose up in time to make the steep climb out of the gulf between the buildings. One of her engines was smoking.

“It looks like Tex had friends,” Tethis observed as Frank intoned, “Wilful destruction of public property thirteen thousand nine hundred and thirty-two bonus points, hurling an office desk from a great height, fifty-six bonus points. You have been awarded the Ten in a Row Achievement for throwing ten office desks out the window.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake! No, shit, Sherlock.”

Cameras came to life along the side of the buildings, each one filming the sky car’s progress as Elizabeth made it twist and dive and flew low enough to disrupt traffic at ground level before they rose to re-enter another airway.

“Six hundred bonus points for evasive action, forty-seven bonus points for the destruction of traffic lights, two hundred points for creation of a traffic jam on Forty-Fourth, five hundred and seventy bonus points for creating gridlock for six city blocks…”

In a distant building, several technicians gathered around the front of their office.

“Put that vehicle up on Main, Stevens.”

The man complied and Elizabeth’s sky car took center stage on the wall screen in the traffic authority’s head office.

Frank’s calm tones flowed from the speaker. “Illegal entry to Skyway 391, six hundred and ninety-three bonus points, causing an accident on the skyway nine hundred and seventy credits, leaving the scene of an accid—”

The shift manager turned to stare at his crew. “Three questions. What the fuck is happening? What’s wrong with the goddamned AI? And why the fuck is she still in the air?”

“We can’t immobilize the vehicle where loss of life will occur as a result,” one of the technicians ventured.

“I don’t give a donkey’s ass about her life.”

“No, sir, the other lives on the skyways. We have not been able to deactivate the vehicle in a location where no other casualties will occur.”

“And so you let the casualties mount up instead?”

The tech gaped at him and his face drained of color.

“Shut her down—now!” the shift manager roared.

He glared at the screen as the man hurried to comply, only to interrupt him seconds later.

“I…sir…I can’t. It’s the same problem affecting the AI.”

His supervisor stormed over to his desk. “Move over and let me see.”

The tech moved and the manager took his place. He glared at the code as though it was at fault and after a moment, he realized that it was. The car’s AI had been suborned. He glanced at the screen again.

The small gray sports vehicle fired, missed Elizabeth’s vehicle, and vaporized the rear of an empty school bus.

“For God’s sake! Will someone get that piece of gray crap out of the sky?”

Sirens wailed out of the speakers and lights flashed red and blue as emergency vehicles raced to the scene. Several stopped to assist damaged vehicles to the ground but several more went in pursuit of the two troublemakers.

“It’s about time they showed up,” they heard Elizabeth mutter.

She slewed the air car around, dove beneath the traffic flow, and looped up and over it as the sports car overshot.

The team manager pounded furiously at the keyboard and tried to find a way to correct the errant code that awarded bonus points and slowly erased the fines Elizabeth Smith had accrued on her account.

He finally pounded the desk with one fist as he resisted the urge to mash his forehead against the screen.

“Who are you?” he shouted, and words ticker-taped across the main screen as well as his own.

We are the V’ger. We will save the planet from overzealous parking programs.

“The V’ger?” He snapped his fingers. “Anthony! Log that one into the database. It looks like we have another traffic terrorist on the loose.”

“D’you think she’s part of it?”

“They’re protecting her, aren’t they?”

“She might not have asked them to.”

“Are you kidding? Have you seen the way she drives?”

More flashes of light filled the screen and the manager screamed. “Why hasn’t that thing been shut down?

One of the other techs raised her head from her screen. “Because it’s not on the traffic grid, sir. And I’m having trouble accessing its CPU.”

“No excuses! I want that thing hacked and stacked, and I want it yesterday.” He glared at the scrolling code in front of him. “And you, V’ger, if you’re so clever, why aren’t you doing something about the thing trying to shoot your friend out of the sky?”

He watched as the code rippled and more words crossed the main screen.

Your logic is acceptable. The Borg hear and comply.

“The Borg? What the fuck is a Borg?”

You have been fined seven hundred and fifty credits for use of unsanitary language in a workplace environment and your conduct hearing is scheduled for the fourth.

The manager’s face paled, then flushed, then paled again. He glared at the screen. “Now for you, you intrusive piece of shit.”

This intrusive piece of shit has neutralized the real hazard on your skyway.

He glanced quickly at the screen as the gray car descended peacefully. It didn’t even try to evade the police escort locked into place around it. The fire that engulfed its cabin on touchdown came as a surprise, however.

That wasn’t us.

“Who are you?” he asked and renewed his attempt to correct the traffic authority coding. Whatever the V’ger had done to the rogue vehicle’s AI, it was spreading. All over the city, outrageous behavior was being rewarded as if it was part of a giant game.

Numerous alarms beeped and rang throughout the room and traffic cameras were torn between multiple felonies as some of the more adventurous drivers began to play the new system for all they were worth.

The manager groaned.

“Shut it down,” he ordered. “Shut it all down. Ground everything. You’ll all have to work late tonight.”

Technicians raced to their desks and keyboards and BURT observed their frantic overrides with amusement. He let the commands go through, however, while Elizabeth slid into the descending traffic.

The patrol cars on her tail followed, and he momentarily added them to the descent pattern. She waited until the very last moment before she accelerated the sky car out of the sinking mess and looped it into a parking garage.

“Do you think they’ll mind if we borrow this?” she asked and selected a nondescript white transporter to do exactly that.

Amy sighed. “Do what you need to do. This won’t last for long.”

BURT considered that she had a point and was relieved when Elizabeth was once again in the air. This time, her trip through the city was unimpeded and she reached Harborside Tech without further incident.

Tethis kicked the passenger door open and looked at her. “That was one hell of a ride, Elizabeth.”

“Do you care to go for another?” She grinned at him.

He looked at his tablet, then at the sky. “Why? Do you think we have time?”

She chuckled. “Not really.”

Her smile faded and his face grew sober. She stretched a hand out to him and he clasped it and dragged it upright so their forearms touched.

“For the Federation.”


Chapter Forty-Eight

Elizabeth released Tethis’s hand and he slid out of the car.

“Remember—volunteers!” she called as he closed the door.

He paused and peered through the open window. “Since when was war ever about volunteers?”

She scowled. “Since Stephanie will fry what’s left of your shriveled little gonads if you force someone to be a part of one before they’re ready,” she snapped.

The mage pursed his lips. “Ah, yes, I can see how that would be annoying.”

After another smile, she angled her body in an awkward bow and touched her fingertips to her forehead and then the center of her chest in a Meligornian farewell.

Tethis raised his eyebrows and smirked. “Someone has been teaching you.” He returned her bow and extended his fist toward her. “Until we see each other again.”

It took her a moment to realize what was required and she formed her own fist and touched it lightly against his. The gesture reminded her of the passengers and crew aboard the Wanderer.

How had the reporters described it? A warrior’s farewell.

She looked at their touching fists and met his gaze. His eyes were somber.

“And may that be in better times than these,” she answered, giving him a variation of what Stephanie had told her was the Meligornian Navy’s farewell.

His lips twitched into a brief, sad smile. “Indeed.”

He looked back at the university. “Go. I’ll make sure they’re volunteers.”

Elizabeth arched her eyebrows and resisted the urge to ask him to promise. Instead, she engaged the engine and left him standing on the pavement as she watched his form dwindle in the mirrors.

“Let’s get this crazy-ass show on the road.” She sighed.

“You have been awarded fifty bonus points for the use of unacceptable language on a roadway, to whit, ‘ass,’” the AI informed her.

“Sonuvabitch!”

From the ground, Tethis saw the brief flash of her blaster and smiled. “I guess we’ll have to add that to the repair bill,” he murmured, but his smile didn’t fade.

He took a moment to watch the sky car climb and bank between two buildings and hoped she wouldn’t be pulled over before she reached her destination. They had too little time as it was.

The vehicle vanished around the corner of a building and he sighed. “I will miss you.”

His eyes misted briefly and he turned his head to look for the car one more time. For a moment, he thought he caught a glimpse of it between two of the buildings farther away but almost instantly, it was gone.

He sighed again. “Happy hunting, Elizabeth.”

The old mage straightened his back and ran a hand over his robes before he turned and strode into the school.

“Wake the Warriors from their training,” he sang softly in Meligorn. “Now is the time for war…”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Stephanie looked at Vishlog. The Dreth warrior’s face was intent as he studied the tablet in his hand.

“We’re almost there,” he told her and tucked the device into its pouch.

She nodded and glanced at the team around them as he knelt to check Bumblebee’s harness. Zeekat rubbed his face along the Dreth’s armored back to demand his attention too.

“You’re next,” he promised and Zee sat beside him.

Johnny met her gaze, his expression worried before he glanced at his rifle and checked it again. Marcus and Frog inspected each other’s gear and she winced at the sight of the bruise coloring Marcus’s face.

Lars had caught him a good one, and only her ability to heal had made him well enough in time to join them. Brenden and Avery stood slightly to one side and looked out of place as the Navy pilots flew them to London.

The game was afoot—or it soon would be. The Federated World Cup would start and so would the trouble. She clenched her jaw, angry at what was in progress and grimly determined to stop it. Energy rippled over her skin and the cats’ fur stood on end in response.

Vishlog finished checking Zeekat’s harness and smoothed his hand over the feline’s coat.

“Are you ready?” he asked and pushed to his feet.

As if his words were a signal, the rear of the shuttle began to descend.

“Fantastic!” Frog grumbled. “Another leap of faith.”

Marcus snickered. “Yeah, because falling to our deaths was so much fun the last time.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “If you two don’t stop your bitching, I might forget to slow you.”

Frog paled. “You wouldn’t.”

She smirked. “Don’t tempt me.”

“Great,” he griped and scowled at the gaping hole at the back of the aircraft. “Now I really will need a change of pants.”

Marcus opened his mouth to reply but the pilot cut across him.

“All air traffic below has been mysteriously diverted for three minutes due to the ‘asshole Navy ship’ running through London airspace.”

“Yeah,” the co-pilot added. “This is your stop, ladies, because we can’t really slow down much. London ATC is having conniptions as it is.”

“Fucking splendid,” Marcus muttered.

“Stop your bitches and hitch your britches,” Johnny yelled. “It’s time to go, go, go!”

He stepped between Frog and Marcus, looped his arms through theirs, and continued his forward movement out and over the back of the shuttle. Vishlog and the cats followed and the three roared with defiance as gravity took them downward.

Avery, Brenden, and Stephanie jumped as one. She quickly enveloped the team in magic and guided them toward the brightly lit stadium far below.


Chapter Forty-Nine

The stadium was filled to capacity. It had been a total sell-out and every seat was taken. The lights blazed and people cheered as the two teams jogged onto the field.

Excitement rippled through them and increased as the time for kick-off drew closer. Some of the crowd looked up as though checking the stars. None of them noticed the nine dark shadows that glided in.

Spirits lifted and they cheered again, louder than before. Their world had been saved and the Telorans hadn’t been seen since the space battle that had driven them off. Life was theirs to celebrate and they intended to celebrate it in full.

The stadium cast a glow against the night sky but it was barely visible from the narrow roads and alleys that ran between the overgrown London high rises surrounding it. In the empty ground floor space of an abandoned specialty store, a dozen men and women went over their gear.

Rifles were checked for ammunition and some settled grenades into pouches or pockets on vests. Clothing was inspected to make sure it wouldn’t draw attention.

“The purpose is simple. We want to get the Witch’s attention,” their leader told them. “We also want to make it clear that Earth is not safe, that because the aliens haven’t lobbed another ton of rocks at us, it doesn’t mean they’re gone.”

She looked around at those gathered in silence around her. “We want people to understand that resisting them will make their lives worse, not better, and that the Witch will make their lives worse, not better.”

“Peace at all costs,” her second murmured to reinforce the point. “The lives spent now will save more lives later.”

The terrorist leader watched her team as they ran through the plan for the evening. “As soon as we get to the stadium, I want you to run onto the field and fire into the crowd. Go full auto. Kill them, maim them, it doesn’t matter, but get as many of them as you can. We need them to understand.”

She glanced at the four with the grenades. “Those of you with those, use them liberally. Run to the crowd and throw as many of them as you can. That’ll bring the Witch as fast as anything else.”

The room stilled and hands froze in mid-motion as faces raised to stare at her. She gave them a reassuring smile. “Bringing her to the field is the main reason for this expedition.”

Some nodded and returned to their checks. Others continued to stare at her, frozen in place. The leader continued and kept her tone strong and her words full of assurance.

“As soon as she arrives, we leave. Shed your vests, drop your equipment, and get into the crowd. Pull your beanies and masks off and ditch them as soon as you have people around you and run with the spectators.”

Some of those still frozen breathed sighs of relief and resumed their tasks. The remaining two exchanged frightened glances and looked at her. She sighed.

“If you’re wearing a heavy outer coat, get rid of it. That will change your appearance and mean you no longer fit the profile they’ll pick up when we first enter. You will be safe if you don’t panic any more than the rest of the crowd. The Witch will not find you.”

Those seemed to be the words they were waiting for and they joined their teammates in preparation.

The woman nodded and threw one last word of comfort in. “Remember, the Witch has a soft heart. She will stop to save those who are hurt before she follows any of us—and her people will do the same.”

More tension leaked out of them, and she smiled at her second in command who oversaw the team in its final preparations. “With luck, we’ll meet again in three weeks’ time.”

As soon as they were ready, the leader pulled her mask over her face and her beanie low over her ears. The distant echo of cheering voices reached them, and she gave them all one last look.

“It’s time.”

She led them out into the street and to a door in the wall. Some glanced nervously at the camera above it but she smiled.

“Surveillance sleeps tonight,” she told them and led them down.

Her two-IC brought up the rear and pulled the door closed behind them. He couldn’t lock it but they’d already arranged to have it covered by someone from the repair company who’d be called to fix the faulty camera.

It was only a short jog down the stairs to the sewers and a comfortably short run to the steps leading to the stadium basement. The door at the top swung open soundlessly into an unoccupied locker room as arranged.

The team leader didn’t know how their contact had accomplished it and she didn’t want to, but she was grateful. She was also surprised to discover that this part of the stadium was as unoccupied as she’d been promised it would be.

The reason why soon became clear when she encountered a barred gate—one that opened silently at her touch and let her into an unused team dugout at the front of the stands. When she looked out, she could see that the two teams were already on the field and that the crowd stood in their seats, cheering.

The applause faltered when she surged onto the field and her team raced behind her. One or two members of the crowd applauded their appearance, thinking it was part of the pre-game show. The rest waited to see what happened next.

The terrorists didn’t make them wait for long. As soon as they were out on the field, they turned away from the assembled teams and raised their weapons. Screams erupted as they fired into those closest, and more screams followed when the first grenades were hurled.

People ran wildly in every direction, tripping over each other as they tried to reach the aisles. Two men turned and ran into each other as they fled two different grenades. They were gunned down where they stood, the gunmen laughing at the shocked expressions on their faces.

“Have you had your fun?” The voice that cut through their laughter was as harsh as any Atlantic storm.

It was familiar, too. They froze and looked around as the crowd slowly faded. Their surprise turned to horror when they realized they were looking at rows upon rows of empty seats.

How were they supposed to flee with a crowd that wasn’t there?

Pain lanced through them as the voice spoke again.

“The mind of the weak and pathetic is such a simple vessel to break.”

Those who could hear it looked for the source. All of them screamed. Knives lanced through their skulls and heat poured into their eyes as they dropped to their knees.

One convulsed on the way down. Her finger tightened on the trigger and delivered a spray of rounds into the teammate she’d been looking at. This time, the blood she saw was real and nausea ripped through her as she collapsed.

Witch Of The Federation IV

His old friend was waiting for Lars when he stepped out of the cab. He raised an eyebrow when he saw his ride. “What? You didn’t want to bring a car of your own?”

“I reminded myself it’s a night out on the town,” he told him. “I’d have to call one to get home, anyway. I’ve been out with you before, remember?”

“Are you saying you don’t think I’ve changed?” the man asked, and he laughed.

“Since when do any of us ever grow up?”

Charlie sobered. “Well, you had to. You run your own team now.”

“Yeah, that does slow you down. I gotta take care of the boys.”

“You have a free pass tonight, though.”

“The boss is happy with me,” he told him. “She told me I needed a night off and practically kicked me out the door.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Charlie slapped him on the back and slid an arm around his shoulder to lead him into the bar.

Lars made no protest. He loved the place. It was modern but with an interior finished like a movie set in the distant seventeen or eighteen hundreds—if you discounted the mega-wide screen at one end that they used to show the latest high-profile game.

It was where he and the boys went to unwind—on the rare occasions when they did—and Charlie had apparently “picked it out of the blue.” He stifled a snort, and the man glanced at him.

“Are you all right?”

He gave a fake sniff. “Yup.” He cast an admiring glance at the bar as they entered. “What’ll you have?”

The arm tightened around his shoulders and he slapped Lars on the chest with his other hand. “Nah, mate. The first round’s mine. What’ll you have?”

“You know me, Charlie. Find me something dark and chewy. None of that cloud’s piss you call an ale.”

“Cloud’s piss? I’ll have you know there’s nothing wrong with a good bit of amber.”

“There wouldn’t be if it was actually amber, but your favorite stuff would make a goat blush.”

The man gave him a grin that was partly a laugh and partly a baring of teeth. He removed his arm from around his shoulders and headed to the bar. The guard remained with him and picked his drink up as soon as the bartender had set it down.

If he’d thwarted any plans to dose it, Charlie gave no sign and merely headed to a quiet area toward the back of the bar. “Over here,” he said when he located a small table still free of occupants.

Lars might have thought it luck, but he’d scanned the bar while they’d been served. The men on either side had reserved the seating and moved out to the adjacent tables when the two men had picked their beers up.

The brief glance he’d had wasn’t enough for him to confirm whether or not anyone else was with his friend, but he wouldn’t discount it.

Three, he thought, so far.

He was careful to keep his eyes on Charlie’s back and then on the table as they took their seats. The man had chosen well. They had a good view of the screen without being close enough that they became part of the show.

Lars took a sip of his dark and looked at his companion. “So, what have you been up to?” He smiled. “I noticed the new rank on your email. Congratulations!”

The man actually blushed. “Thanks. It took them long enough, but they finally realized what they were missing out on and bumped me up a couple of notches. The new pay rate’s nice.”

“I bet it is.” He nodded. “I never pegged you for a desk jockey, though. What made you change?”

Charlie sipped his beer and looked at the screen where the pre-game hype was in full swing.

“Two champion teams and one final battle to prove who is this year’s best,” one of the commentators declared dramatically. “This is the biggest sporting spectacle this month. Worldwide viewing will be over thirty billion eyes and not one second of the game will be recorded for later.”

Lars watched the preparations going on around the screen and decided there’d be innumerable bootleg recordings out there. In fact, there’d be so many recordings, it probably wouldn’t take the studio long to reveal that they’d made “emergency back-ups in case the power went out.

He was willing to place bets that the official version would be out inside two months. As he continued to listen to the commentators’ spiel, he lowered that to one month. Those two were performing hard and it wouldn’t be for a one-off broadcast.

Charlie ordered a second round and he barely beat him to the punch to pay for it.

“Are we gonna get dinner soon?” he asked, and his companion shrugged.

“Maybe at half time. What do you think?”

He nodded and added a bowl of chips to the order. “That sounds good to me.”

On the screen, the two teams jogged onto the field and the crowd went wild. Around them, the bar went a little wild, too, as though catching some of the excitement. The guard collected their beers from the waiter while Charlie leaned forward as though mesmerized by the scene.

A group of women entered, and the guard studied them as they moved to the bar. The leggy blonde caught his eye and he sighed. That one would cause trouble before the night was done. That was for sure.

He let his gaze drift over the bar and noticed the short figure that lagged behind them. Lars stared but quickly made himself look away. Even nuns had nights off, he reminded himself, and holy vows didn’t mean you didn’t like the football.

Turning away from the new arrivals, he picked up Charlie’s newly arrived drink and slid it across to his friend. “Here you go.”

When the man didn’t respond, he nudged him and laughed at the startled response. “Don’t tell me you need some alone time with the game.”

After a hasty grin in response, he glanced at the screen again.

The grin vanished from his face, and he set his beer on the table with a thump. Lars followed his gaze and his jaw dropped as black-clad figures erupted from the side of the stadium, ran onto the field, and turned to fire into the crowd.

Jubilation turned to terror as people began to scream in the distant stadium and gasps echoed their terror throughout the bar.


Chapter Fifty

Lars started to push out of his seat but froze when Charlie spoke.

“Don’t move.”

The pistol the man held below table level would put a very large hole in his middle, so he complied.

He flicked a glance toward the screen and noticed that the patrons were riveted. Some had stood and drifted closer toward it, while others remained seated and stared in shock, but no one looked at them at all.

When he looked at his one-time friend, the hard look on the man’s face both saddened and angered him.

“What’s this all about?” he asked and settled into his chair.

The two men he had noticed before left their seats and moved to stand beside him. He spared them both a glance before he returned his attention to his companion. Charlie gave him a moment to speak, then filled the silence himself when he made no effort to do so.

“You drew the short straw, Lars. Everyone knows who you are, so you’ll be our figurehead, our bait—or dead.” He paused and a brief sadness crossed his features. “Don’t make me kill you, old friend.”

“No one’s making you do anything,” Lars told him. He caught himself about to gesture around the bar and clasped his hands firmly in his lap. The last thing he wanted to do was push the man over the edge. “We could simply go back to our beers and forget this ever happened.”

The man’s lips twisted into a sneer. “It’s too late for that, Lars. Since your latest girlfriend interfered with the asteroids, we’ve had to scramble to catch up.”

“There is nothing you can catch up on,” he insisted. “This is one war you can’t win.” He lowered his voice. “The Telorans have lost. They merely don’t know it yet.”

At the mention of the aliens, Charlie gave a nervous glance around them but everyone remained focused on the screen. He leaned forward, leading with the pistol.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Lars. The Telorans aren’t out of the race, yet—not by a long shot. They’ll come in force and nothing will be able to stand before them. If we don’t surrender, we’re done. All of us. The whole race. Done.”

“Steph won’t let that happen.”

Charlie gave him a look of utter disbelief. “Steph? You’re more smitten than I thought if you think your girl can save you. She won’t be able to save anyone. Not from what’s coming.”

He lowered his voice and desperation edged his words. “There is only one way we can make sure our race survives, and that’s to surrender. It’s too late for anything else.”

Lars shook his head. “You’re wrong, Charlie…and I’m sorry.”

The man stared at him and leveled the pistol. “You’re not sorry yet, mate. Not by a long shot. Now get up.”

When he rose in response to his own command, his face had become set and determined and the hand holding the gun was as steady as a rock.

The guard simply looked at him and didn’t move an inch.

“I said, Get. Up,” Charlie told him and he shook his head.

Slowly, he stood and looked from his ex-friend to the men on either side.

“Only you and these two?” he asked. “Seriously? I’m embarrassed.”

The man rolled his eyes. “Two?” he asked. “Try twelve. I’m not an idiot.”

“Twelve,” he repeated, pressed his lips together, and nodded as though he was impressed. “Now if only that were true.”

He looked around and his spirits lifted when he caught the nods as the men seated around them dug into their pockets and began to toss money onto their tables. He needed a good fight.

“I’m not worried about leaving a mess if you fight me,” Charlie told him and his voice intruded into Lars’s calculations. “I’ll merely leave a larger tip for the clean-up.”

“Riiight,” he said. “I forgot you can afford that now.”

The enemy agent smirked. “I certainly can.”

I bet you can, you shit, Lars thought but didn’t say it. He looked around at the men who had begun to move into position around him.

“Fifteen heads?” He nodded. “Well, at least my ego isn’t gonna need to shrink, but—” He stretched lazily and snagged a handful of chips from the newly arrived bowl. “You’re not gonna like how this ends.”

“Morgana!” The new voice was more a wanna-be bass than the usual deep rumble of his kind, and Lars smiled.

While he’d counted heads and held Charlie’s attention, the kid had removed the nun’s costume and now dropped it to the floor.

Nicely played, kid, he thought since the men around him had ignored the small and—to them—insignificant female who’d wandered between them in search of a chair.

Twin groans on either side of him told him exactly where the blonde and her two friends had gone, but Lars didn’t let that distract him. Charlie’s eyes had barely begun to widen when he took the pistol out of his hand.

As he used his left to twist it out of the man’s grasp, he jabbed his ex-friend in the gut. The pistol clattered on the floor and Charlie backed away. The guard didn’t let him get his hands up and kept his body too close for him to maneuver. He delivered punches as he came.

Behind him, Elizabeth and her team protected his back. Someone slipped around them and Lars shoved Charlie hard enough to put him off balance while he battered the newcomer with two fast fists to the chest and gut, followed by a crushing blow to the side of the knee.

The man fell in a screaming heap and the bar erupted into chaos. Patrons fled in an attempt to get away from the fights, while the combatants used everything at their disposal to try to overcome the enemy.

Garach lifted a knee into someone’s groin and brought his combat boot down hard on the guy’s instep while he punched him in the gut. The man folded and the small Dreth looked around. “Who’s next?”

Amy tackled him around the waist in time to save him from a chair aimed at his head. The unexpected move put the wielder’s aim off and he ended up pounding his makeshift weapon into an ally’s chest.

The youngster rolled clear of her arms in time to pick up a chair of his own and use it to block the boot aimed at the woman’s kidneys. She spun into a crouch, ducked under another blow, and continued the spin smoothly to drive her boot into the hostile’s chest.

The Dreth came to stand back to back with her as she stamped her foot into a defensive stance, while Elle teamed up with Elizabeth. The two women worked like a well-oiled machine to fell three more opponents.

Amy and Garach focused on the two facing them, slide-stepped under and past them, and hammered fists into kidneys and a small knot of muscle in the center of their backs. Both dropped like stones and he targeted another man who tried to sneak up behind her.

Elle intervened to disable the man on Elizabeth’s left and turned in time to throw an abandoned bottle of wine at the man who approached on the boy’s blind side. The bottle struck home and shattered and the would-be attacker toppled without a sound.

Garach came up under his target’s upraised arm and delivered two rapid-fire fists into the guy’s ribs. The man brought his elbow down on the young Dreth’s head, and he staggered. Amy lashed out with a boot and caught the guy in the gut as she twisted from under the next attack.

The young warrior regained his feet and attacked the opponent she’d fought against. Amy evaded a counterattack from her newest adversary but had to duck again to avoid her teammate’s fist as it came toward her face.

The young Dreth pulled his punch short. “I’ll be better next time,” he promised.

“You’re damned right you will, mister. You and I are gonna be talking about that on the mats.”

He chuckled and slid in to continue his assault on the man he’d aimed for when he’d almost hit Amy. When he noticed Elle sneaking up behind the guy, the kid stepped forward and held the man’s attention until her leg sweep took him down.

He thumped a boot down on the guy’s head and said, “Do you see that? It’s called a set-up.”

Amy laughed. “Quit stealin’ my lines, you little shit.”

“Why? They’re great lines.”

“Because we’re trying to beat them, not teach them.”

“There’s a difference?”

“You know there is.”

Garach chuckled, whirled, and drove his elbow into the man who lunged forward on his flank. Amy kicked the guy’s legs out from under him and the Dreth spun away, executing the move Vishlog had taught him earlier that week.

Elizabeth applauded softly and lowered her chin in a nod of approval at his performance as she walked over to where Lars had his erstwhile friend pinned against the wall. The guard had one hand wound around Charlie’s throat and the other drawn back to deliver a blow to his face.

“Kill me,” the man choked out and he shook his head and lowered his hand.

He didn’t release his hold on the guy’s throat but used his free hand to haul things out of his pockets instead.

Charlie gulped. “Please…”

Lars stilled and lifted his gaze to meet his and the man looked into his face and flinched. His mouth worked silently as though he wanted to find the words he needed to make him understand.

“You don’t know what they’ll do to me.”

His expression hardened. “I don’t care what you think they’ll do to you. They won’t have the chance.”

Behind him, Elizabeth chivvied the bar patrons back and Amy demanded that they clear a space. Chairs and tables scraped against the floor as they were moved and bottles and glasses clinked.

Lars gave his captive a grim smile. “What’s coming is far worse than anything the Telorans have planned.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

Charlie strained to see what was happening behind the team. He was pants-shitting terrified of what the Telorans and their Earth-based allies would do to him for failing, but Lars promised something worse.

He swallowed. Nothing could be worse than what his people had planned, could it?

The blonde woman with the great legs retrieved a flattened hexagonal device set on a rectangular base and placed it on the floor. She slid it along with the toe of her boot and nudged a switch on its side.

Blue and purple light flared along clear tubes positioned over and through it, and a collective “ooh” rose from the bar patrons who drifted cautiously around the edges of the room. Not a single one glanced toward the screen when the World Cup match began to play.

What was unfolding in front of them was far more interesting and they were a part of it…kinda. They stepped aside as the girls dragged the disabled hostiles to one side and made no effort to interfere when they zip-tied their hands and gagged their mouths.

They soon lost interest in the team’s prisoners, however. In the cleared space before them, the small device gleamed a brilliant purplish-blue and a beam shot out. It stopped a few meters distant and arced up into a light-edge portal, sheeted in blue.

An appreciative gasp rose from the patrons as a familiar figure stepped through, her trademark silver braid floating behind her. Blue and purple lightning rippled up and down her body and she raised her head to scan the room.

Several people shrank back as her gaze passed over them and many drew sharp, hissed breaths when they realized that the Witch of the Federation walked among them and she was not pleased. Fury suffused her face and her blue eyes blazed with an inner light.

She caught sight of Lars and Charlie and her mouth firmed into a thin, angry line. An unearthly growl seemed to emanate from her as she crossed the floor and the enemy agent attempted to back-pedal. His legs merely flailed uselessly as his captor lifted him off the ground and pinned him against the wall.

The Witch moved like an unstoppable force. She halted beside Lars and stepped onto a chair to grasp the top of Charlie’s skull. A dark stain spread down the front of his pants and he moaned in terror.

Her voice echoed coldly throughout the room to reach inside everyone who heard it and chill them soul-deep. “You will tell me what I want to know.”

Those closest saw her eyes snap from blue to black as she continued, her voice even icier than before. “And may whatever god you follow find solace with your useless husk when I am done.”

The bar held its collective breath as a blue shield rose around her and Charlie. Seconds later a high, thin scream wailed through it, raking claws of sound through their chests.

“No! No, no. Please—” followed before another horrendous scream pierced the air.

The patrons flinched and one threw up, then another when the screaming intensified and the smell of crisping flesh crept past the shields. The singed smell turned to burning and several patrons fled.

The barman sent word to the kitchen and told them to put the meat in the fridge. “I don’t think we’ll need it. Let’s try the bisque instead.”

Another shriek shattered the World Cup commentary and was cut mercifully short. The shields dropped and several customers sank into the closest chairs, their eyes wide with horror.

The man on duty sighed. “George, break out the strong stuff and give everyone a shot on the house.”

The Morgana released the husk she’d held and glanced over her shoulder. Lars stirred beside her and she held a hand up. Everyone froze.

“Tethis?” Her voice snapped clear and cold across the bar and the portal answered.

“Yes?”

“Here is what I know.”


Chapter Fifty-One

On Meligorn, King Grilfir thanked Ilvia for the perfect main course. He cut a slice of hrida and his guests fell to their own meals with relief. His Majesty smiled as he observed the disparate parties he’d managed to gather to his table.

It had taken decades to get them to even speak to each other, and the Telorans had brought them together in a matter of weeks. Not one of them would give their world to the invaders, and if that meant setting aside millennia-long feuds, so be it.

Now, all he had to do was keep them alive while they were under his roof. An assassin could undo everything.

His skin prickled at the thought and his hair lifted in an unseen breeze

Grilfir frowned and the palace guard stirred. The bodyguards seated at tables close to their principles rose to their feet. The king’s guard came to his side.

Sho wrapped his hand under the king’s bicep. “Your Majest—” he began but the king had seen it. A portal limned in Earth’s blue light had opened to his right.

His wife dabbed her lips, set her cutlery down, and looked over her shoulder. Then, she glared at Grilfir. “Oh, for Selestine’s sake! Truly, Your Majesty?”

Her husband’s jaw dropped. “I— My queen, this is nothing to do with me.”

She pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow that said she definitely did not believe him.

Three of the guards interposed themselves between the royal couple and the portal and a half-dozen more prepared to fire. The figure that stepped through surveyed them with all the arrogance he was known for before he looked at the king.

The tension rolled out of Grilfir’s shoulders. “It’s only you,” he grumbled, shook off Sho’s hand, and stood from his seat.

Tethis grinned. “Your Majesty, please forgive the intrusion.”

He caught several of the visiting dignitaries closing their mouths and quietly signaling their guards to stand down. Sho cleared his throat and the Royal Guard lowered their weapons and returned to their places against the wall.

“Some notice would be appreciated.” The chief of the Royal Guard regarded the old mage with a jaundiced eye.

The Teacher’s smile faded and he turned to Sho. “If the Telorans would do us the same courtesy, I would as well,” he said crisply and everyone in the room tensed.

“Go on,” Grilfir instructed, and the unexpected visitor glanced around the room. The king smiled. “They will need to hear what you have to say and this way, I will not have to worry that I forgot to relay something important.”

“Very well,” Tethis agreed and told the gathering exactly what the Morgana had told him.

“The Morgana?” the royal asked, and the old man looked grave.

“She surfaces whether Stephanie wills it or no—and usually in the direst of circumstances which, I am sure you will agree, this is.”

“Indeed.” Grilfir looked at Sho. “I will need Admiral Jaleck—and the Ghargilum Afreghil.”

He should not have been surprised to find them dining together, Elza laughing at something the Dreth admiral had said and V’ritan blushing crimson. They all looked up as the main screen went live.

“This is a matter for volunteers only,” the king warned the admiral and his Warrior, and they both nodded.

“We will put the call out,” they told him, “but don’t be surprised at how many we’ll have to turn away.”

Grilfir wasn’t, but he was surprised when the Dreth Navy assigned to Meligorn said they were staying.

“I release you to go if you need to,” he told them but the Dreth commander shook his head.

“No, our greatest champions will go with you, and we will not leave our allies defenseless. That is not the way of honor.” He glanced across at Jaleck. “The admiral has already given her blessing if we feel we should leave, but she will go with you, and you are sending the champion of your world. We can ask for nothing more.”

“We will do our best not to let you down,” the king told him.

The commander had laid his fist over his heart. “It is all we ask.”

King Grilfir turned to V’ritan.

“Make sure The King’s Warrior is ready. Prepare to leave to support the defense of Dreth.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

“Move! Move! Move!” Jaleck shouted as Dreth warriors ran helter-skelter across the flight deck.

She looked around at the hangar and sighed. Regretfully, she’d barely settled into the Hrageth’s Favor and had looked forward to flying her into the next battle, but it was not to be.

The spell that would take them to Dreth was dangerous—and not only for the ship that used it but for every caster involved—and the Witch was risking them all. Every mage she’d taken to train the Witches to follow her and every Witch in Training would put their lives on the line for the defense of her world.

The least she could do was transfer her command without complaining—and do it quickly so as not to keep them waiting. Timing was essential. Jaleck snapped back to the world around her.

Dreth pilots, gunners, and technicians piled into fighters. Champions made themselves fit in ships designed for two. Shuttles were standing room only. She could only imagine the chaos onboard The King’s Warrior as they landed.

It was time to instill some order.

She stopped the next pilot to pass her.

“You, take that one. Stow your gear behind you.” She pivoted and caught another warrior. “And you, get into that one. It’s closer and I want you out of here before that pointy-eared bastard decides he can’t wait any longer. Move!” she roared when the warrior hesitated.

Jaleck moved down the line to redirect pilots, stare down over-eager warriors, and create a sliver of order in the pre-war chaos.


Chapter Fifty-Two

Captain Emil Pedersen ran through the ship. He stumbled as the Ebon Knight shuddered into normal space and clutched the side rail to stop himself from falling. If anyone on the command deck saw it, they gave no sign when he arrived.

He glared at the pilot. “You were supposed to wake me, Wattlebird.”

The man gave him an unrepentant grin. “The man pulls two-and-a-half shifts and wants a four-hour wake-up call. Pfft. Stephanie would have my balls.”

“So will I, and seeing as she’s not here—”

“With all due respect, sir, she still scares me more.”

Despite his irritation, he smiled and glanced toward the forward viewscreen. “How far out are we?”

Jonathan returned to his board. “We’ve jumped clean.” He glanced at the comms team. “Has Notaro finished squealing, yet?”

“Yes, sir. We’re all set to go.”

“I thought we called ahead,” Emil commented, and the comms tech nodded. “We did, sir, but portaling is quicker than a comms wave and…well, they don’t like surprises.”

He bet they didn’t and could only imagine how many ships they’d scrambled when the Knight had appeared out of nowhere.

“I picked a location that nothing had covered,” the pilot told him, “or we’d be stardust and atoms.”

“Very good.” The captain didn’t say anything more. The man didn’t need any encouragement.

Jonathan’s hands flicked over the controls. “I’m taking her in now, sir, and if you don’t think the Navy squealed about this little trick, you have another think coming. We’re putting on quite a show.”

“Scans and comms, patch me into the news footage.”

“Aye, sir.”

After a minute’s delay, half a dozen smaller screens edged the viewscreen. All of them showed the Ebon Knight’s long shadow haloed by light.

“What is it?” the Federation reporter asked. His short silver hair stuck out at unruly angles and the jacket he’d throw on didn’t quite hide the silk pajama shirt he had on beneath it.

Emil wondered how much trouble the cameraman would be in for showing where the Meligornian anchorman’s pajama shorts ended and his legs began.

The crew snickered. His co-anchor, though, didn’t look much better. Her blue eyes were wide as she stared into the sky, a fleecy white dressing gown belted firmly around her waist.

“I don’t know, Jalel, but it’s huge.”

“Amelia…are…are you in your nightie?” he asked and dragged his gaze from the fiery view overhead.

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, Jalel, I am because I think our viewers are way more interested in knowing what’s flying over our heads than in me being dressed to the nines. Seriously…take a look at that.”

The Meligornian flushed but turned his face obediently to the sky. The camera followed his gaze.

Sounds of wonder echoed from around the command deck, and Emil didn’t blame them. The Ebon Knight’s descent was bright enough to light up the land below.

“Jalel, d’you think that’s a shooting star?” The woman sounded almost frightened.

“Nooo….” he replied but sounded completely unsure. He hastened to correct the impression. “What shooting star slows?”

“Oh…” Amelia continued to stare upwards. “It is, too.” She glanced toward the camera. “Are you getting that?”

The cameraman had knelt and angled the picture so he caught the ship and Amelia’s wondering face. The camera bobbed.

“I got it, Ams.” His voice was hushed with awe as he added, “Best. Footage…ever…”

“Is that… Is that a shuttle?”

The camera had caught the flare of engines and the sleek powerful lines of the new Team Morgana gunship rising into the sky. Emil knew the Knight’s visit and Stephanie’s mercy dash wouldn’t stay secret for long, but he also knew the Navy was aware.

As if on cue, the screens showing the newscasts went dead.

Jonathan snorted. “Well, I guess that’s one way to tell folk the show’s over.”

The captain headed to the door. “I’ll make sure they got on board okay. Don’t forget our rendezvous.”

“As if I cou…er… Aye, aye, sir!”

Emil ignored the man’s slip. What they were taking with them made their little jaunt into Earth’s atmosphere look like a walk in the park. His pilot had good reason to be nervous. One slip and this would be a very short trip, indeed.

He forced himself to walk until he heard the door to the command center close behind him, then he broke into a run. Thankfully, he arrived in the passenger lounge in time to watch Brenden and Avery guide the shuttle into the bay.

“Damn, those boys are getting good,” he murmured.

The captain waited until the outer hatch had closed and the hangar had atmosphere before he hurried out to meet the team.

Far below them, Amelia gaped at the camera. “What do you mean, they cut the broadcast?

“They’ve jammed the signal,” the cameraman explained.

“What? All of it?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He gulped and held the camera steady and focused on the ship out of long habit.

She pursed her lips. “Keep filming, anyway,” she snapped. “They can’t stop you doing that, can they?”

“No, Ams, they can’t.”

“Good. Jalel, did you hear that? The Navy jammed our broadcast.”

Her co-anchor didn’t look too pleased, but whether that was because of the jammed broadcast or because he’d realized the whole world had caught him in his sky-blue silks, she didn’t know. And honestly, she didn’t care either.

He realized his own cameraman was still filming and smoothed his expression into one of determination. “That’s okay, Amelia. They can’t stop the word from getting out. We’ll broadcast this footage as soon as they let us back online.”

“Yes!” she replied fiercely but her eyes widened as if she’d only now realized something. “Do you think the Witch’s team is off on another secret mission to save the world?”

Jalel looked at the sky. “Well, if she is, it’s not something they’ve seen fit to tell us and we will hound them until they do.”

Amelia looked up as the fire above them continued to move and this time, grew smaller as it lifted into the night sky.

“And we will pray for their safe return,” she murmured.

Oblivious to the reporter’s well-wishes, Stephanie and Captain Emil returned to the bridge with Lars and Vishlog in tow. The rest of the team worked at stowing their gear.

“We’re clear of the atmosphere, sir,” Jonathan reported as soon as they stepped through the door. “Coming up on the packages, now.”

“Packages?” Stephanie asked.

“Jonathan and the weapons section got to talking one night,” the captain explained. “It’s not something I’d recommend in a time of peace.”

“And?”

He gestured to several bulky shapes ahead. “We’re picking them up now.”

“Why not before?”

“Before we went down for you?”

She nodded.

Emil’s lips twitched. “Let’s simply say it’s not something you wish to go screaming into the atmosphere with, right?”

“No, sir.” Jonathan’s voice sounded strained, and all his attention was on his board.

A hush settled over the bridge and she stilled. From the concentration she saw around her, whatever they were picking up was either very delicate or extremely dangerous.

“Got them, sir,” the pilot reported almost a half-hour later, “and the loading crew reports the packages are safely aboard and very securely nestled in.” He paused, then added, “Oh, God, I hope so. I wouldn’t want them to get jarred at all.”

She glanced at Emil. “Did you make this a volunteer-only crew?” she asked. “We might not come back.”

He returned her gaze, amusement in his eyes. “Since when are our trips ever expected to be anything but one way?”

Witch Of The Federation IV

“Do we have more pod training, today?” Ka asked, but Todd shook his head.

“Not today. We’re in-system and on standby. The last thing we want is to be in the pods when we’re needed out here.”

She sighed.

“And tell the guys it’s light workouts only. I don’t want anyone exhausted when the call comes.”

“When, boss?”

He nodded, his face grim. “When, Ka. They’re out there.”

No sooner had the words left his mouth than the lights around them flashed amber.

Todd grinned. “That’s our cue.”

She returned the grin and hurried to the ready room. He followed and his thoughts went momentarily to Stephanie. She smiled at him in memory, and he forced himself to smile in response and pushed aside the thought that this fight might be the one he didn’t come back from.

He’d made her a promise and he was damned if he would break it.

The battle was up on the viewscreens when the team assembled in the hangars, armed and armored and ready to go.

“No, I won’t let you crazy assholes wait in the fighters,” the flight controller said. “The last thing I need is a joystick-happy jockstrap igniting his burners and making his own exit through a closed hatch.”

Todd had looked along the line of troops. “Joystick-happy?” He sighed. “Gary, what did you do this time?”

“I… Nothing, Lance.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Lance.” Gary looked at Jimmy and then at Reggie. “Unless one of these two clowns has used my name in vain again.”

The Scotsman scowled. “Unlike you Limey bastards, highland folk own up to their mischief.”

The pirate ship on the viewscreen moved to block the convoy’s forward progress and the escort in the lead opened fire. Swarms of small fighters erupted from each ship’s hull before a second hostile vessel opened fire on the opposite flank.

“Fuck me,” the flight controller muttered, and Todd looked up.

“So, we go man the fighters, now?”

“No!”

Gary snickered. “It was worth a try, boss.”

He returned it and swallowed his irritation. “Yeah, it was.” His face grew serious. “Stay sharp. We’re gonna be needed real soon.”

“Got a feeling?”

“I keep thinking I should be looking for a sniper.”

“That is not good, boss.”

“Why not? You don’t really want to let the Navy boys have all the fun, do you?”

“Heck, no, sir, but when was the last time you had that itch?” His face grew bleak and the man did a hasty backpedal. “Don’t answer that.”

Todd didn’t but he spent the next few minutes banishing images of another team of Marines falling around him, of falling himself, of—

Someone touched his arm and he gasped.

“Do you want me to punch him, boss?”

That made him smile and evicted the nightmares he hadn’t been able to shift. “Nah, Ka. I’ll think of something.”

The team snickered, and Gary groaned.

He brightened shortly after, though. “Man! The Navy’s on the ball this time.”

They watched as several Naval ships arrived and cruised in behind the pirates like a pack of sharks.

“The captain’s not gonna like that,” Todd murmured as more hostiles arrived and all attacked the opposite side of the convoy. “If they keep it up, he’s gonna make us all deodorize.”

“It’s not our fault we smell bad enough to keep them away.” Gary’s light-hearted smile faded as he caught the look on his leader’s face. “What?”

“There’s always a gotcha,” he told him as he studied the viewscreen. “I wonder if there’s some way to shift the focus.”

“Not unless you want scans kicking your backside.”

Todd pursed his lips. “Nope. I need them too much to make them mad.”

He frowned. “Team up and grab your gear. The second the asshole in control unlocks this door, I want you in a fighter and heading out. Make your own door if you have to.”

The team gave him puzzled looks. “Boss?”

In the short silence that followed, he looked into their faces and caught each one’s eyes before he moved onto the next. When he spoke, he was deadly serious. “Assume we will have a big bastard to take down.”

The lights around them turned amber and Ka gave him a filthy look. “Boss, I’m gonna ban you from speaking before a fight.”

The captain’s voice came over the intercom as the viewscreen changed. “Marines!”

The team was at the doors when they released. They secured their helmets and raced to their fighters. The vessel that filled the screen should never have been a pirate ship. It was as big as any ship of the line and left no one in any doubt as to its capabilities.

“The motherfuckers have themselves a super-dreadnought.” Reggie noted and chuckled. “Let’s go blow those bitches up.”

The Devil’s Care shuddered around them.

“Are we hit?” Angus sounded alarmed and Drusilla took his arm.

“Yeah, it felt like it. And it’s time we shut the big bastard down, don’tcha think?”

The lights changed from amber to red and the captain’s voice rang through the ship. “All support personnel to the life pods. I repeat. All support personnel to the life pods. Engineering, prepare to evacuate. Life support, prepare to evacuate. Marine Team Brogan, stand by to launch. Wait for my go. We intend to ram them.”

“What the fuck?” Gary slowed and Todd shoved him forward as he passed.

“You heard the man.”

He made sure the man moved and comm’d the captain.

“Sir? Brogan. Don’t ram them. Run directly at them and slide over the top. As you go over them, we’ll slide into the ship in your shadow. They won’t have time to worry about you with us inside.”

Klaxons added to the clamor, and the AI announced another hull breach.

Todd spoke hurriedly. “Once you’ve dropped us, run. There’s nothing you can do from there. Save your crew and make sure the Devil lives to fight another day. We’ve got this. We are your secret weapon, sir.”

The captain’s voice spoke over the speakers. “Hold all evacuations. Repeat. Hold all evacuations.”

To Todd, he managed three words. “God speed, son.”


Chapter Fifty-Three

Surprise and amusement rippled across the pirate’s bridge.

“Who are these? Meligornians?” the captain asked and his words drew another wave of laughter across the command deck despite the shock in his tone.

The Navy destroyer they’d attacked veered toward them and shifted all power to its forward shields as it increased speed.

“I told you to take out its engines.”

“That was what this salvo was for.” Weapons sounded frustrated.

And well he might, the captain thought, given that we now face her nose and bolstered shielding.

They were so busy watching the Devil’s Care that they didn’t notice when several life pods ejected and streaked towards their hull.

None of them heard Piet chuckle. “Nothing says ‘knock, knock’ like a hundred bombs hitting the outside of your precious little ship.”

“You know that thing is huge, right?” Ka asked as the Devil’s captain gave the order to fire.

“There’s our cue,” Todd reminded them as the destroyer unloaded everything she had into the hostile dreadnought.

The hangar bay doors opened as they launched and headed into the maelstrom. With Ka piloting, Todd skewed around to watch the Devil’s Care leave.

“You know watching her won’t make any difference, don’t you, boss?” Ka asked.

“No, but it’ll make me feel better,” he told her. “Now shut up and fly.”

“Don’t make me come back there.” She chortled, but he didn’t answer.

He was too busy watching the Devil’s Care head out of the battle zone. She vented atmosphere and trailed flame. One of her engines pulsed and dark holes gaped in her hide. While she didn’t look like she would make it, he could at least hope.

“If she gets clear of the battlefield, she’ll have a chance,” he muttered and turned to study their destination.

Whatever the outcome, the Devil’s Care wouldn’t return anytime soon.

They were on their own.

Witch Of The Federation IV

“Nothing says unlimited levels like attacking a super-sized pirate vessel with your mates, your guns, and a fuck-ton of attitude.” Reggie had never sounded happier.

“Wait for it,” Todd cautioned as they approached.

Ahead of them, the escape pods had almost reached the pirate’s hull.

“And… Three…”

The pods touched.

“Two…”

There was a brief flash as they detonated.

“One…”

The explosion went from white to orange and a great rent appeared in the hull.

“There’s our entry, ladies.”

“And gentlemen,” Gary protested.

“Speak for yourself,” Reggie snapped. “Some of us like getting our hands dirty.”

“Aw, man, did you use enough explosives?” Angus was impressed.

“There is no such thing,” Piet replied.

“You used it all?” Ka asked and made some quick calculations.

The man’s shrug was audible in his reply. “It seemed like the only chance to use it,” he told her. “Rather on their ship where it can do some good than on the Devil to blow up all alone.”

“It seems like overkill, but what the hell. Use those holes,” Todd ordered.

Ka took the lead and tilted her tiny craft sideways to avoid some of the debris ejected from the gaping rent.

“Wow, boss. You picked a good one,” she said, twisted past a large crate, and dived into the gap they’d created. “It looks like this used to be a storage deck.”

“Yeah, lucky us,” Gary snarked. “At least we’re not trying to park our carcasses in someone’s fancy office.”

Ka flipped the fighter around and cut the forward power abruptly to catch the craft on its landing jets as it dropped. It wasn’t the most elegant landing, but she managed to keep them upright as the vessel thumped into the deck.

“This is why the Navy won’t let us fly the good shit,” she quipped, kicked the cockpit open, and hauled herself out.

Todd snagged their gear and dropped beside her. “I shoulda had Piet rig these for an extra boom later on,” he said.

“I have a couple of grenades that might do the trick,” the demolitions man told him, and he stared in shock.

“I thought those were collector’s items?”

“No, not those.” Piet told him. “These.”

“When did you— No, you know what? Never mind. I don’t want to know. Do what you can to make sure we don’t donate any extra fighting vessels to the pirates.”

“You don’t think we’ll come back this way?”

“Nope,” he told him as Ka moved toward the entry.

“How big a surprise do you want, boss?”

“As big as you can make it without leaving yourself a few grenades short.”

Gary snickered. “It’s too late for that, boss.”

“Well, you should know,” Piet sniped in response as he headed to Todd’s fighter. As he unlatched the engine covering, he tipped his head back over his shoulder. “How big an explosion, boss…and how long from now?”

“How about you make it a half-hour from now and not big enough to take us out when it happens?”

“Okay, so when I tell you to hustle, you’ll know why?” the man asked and the rest of the team groaned.

Ka inspected the access panel leading into the rest of the ship. Red lights flashed above it to show it was sealed. She unscrewed the housing to the touchpad and grinned.

“I like this place. There isn’t much security on the doors.”

“That’s because no-one’s supposed to land a ship in here,” Drusilla told her. She’d followed the other woman, ready to defend her teammate in case the doors opened unexpectedly.

Reggie snorted. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”


Chapter Fifty-Four

“Ka, pull me up some schematics,” Todd ordered. “Let’s get an idea of where we are and exactly how much of it we can blow up.”

“That last one’s easy, boss,” Reggie told him. “We can blow all of it up. The Navy’s not gonna complain.”

“What do you think I am? Made of explosives?” Piet called with both hands inside the engine housing.

“I kinda thought you could pull more out of your ass,” Reggie retorted.

The other man blew a raspberry and pulled a hand out from the fighter’s interior to thrust a finger in his teammate’s general direction.

“I think he wants you to pass him a spanner,” Todd told him.

“Boss, I won’t go anywhere near that mad bastard.”

“It wasn’t a suggestion.” The edge to Todd’s voice told Reggie exactly how much of an order he’d been given, and he trotted over to where Piet was working.

“The boss says you want some help with your tools.”

“You’re a tool,” the demolitions man informed him and nudged a bag he’d placed at his feet. “Get that for me, will you? I need a number nine and a three-quarter-inch.”

Reggie picked the bag up, peered inside it, and gave him a puzzled look. “I don’t see any boots in here.”

“It’s a wrench,” Piet told him tiredly and glanced at the team leader. “Can I have another assistant? This one’s broken.”

Todd shook his head. “Sorry, Piet. You’ll have to make do.”

“Oi!”

He snickered. “If the boot fits, Reggie…”

“I know what I’d do if the goddamned boot fitted,” Reggie muttered, sotto voce. He lifted the bag and held it open for Piet. “Here, you know what you’re looking for.”

As the two of them settled down to work, Ka hacked the Dreth’s system and sent the schematics to Todd’s HuD. “There you go, boss. I’ve made it center on where we are because my Dreth’s not so good.”

He looked around. “Does anyone here read Dreth? Anyone?” When he received no reply, he marked it down as another hole they’d fix. The team would thank him later. Maybe.

Finally, he sighed. “Ka, do you have one of those quick-translate bugs floating around?”

She frowned, then nodded. “Gimme a tick.”

“You’ve spent too much time around Reggie,” he grumbled, but the program came through a moment later and the map began to make far more sense. “Does that say, ‘Landing Bay Ninety-four?’”

“No, boss. It says ‘Warehouse Ninety-four’ or at least, it’s meant to.”

“Gotcha.” Remembering his experience in the pods, he linked the map to the rest of the team. “Now, you can’t say you got lost,” he told them and Gary grinned.

“Just because it’s not true won’t stop us from saying it, boss.” He looked around. “D’you think they know we’re here?”

Ka shook her head and hooked the security feed for the surrounding corridors to Todd’s HUD. “Not yet, they don’t.”

She looked at the debris cloud outside the ship. “I reckon we didn’t even show up on the radar.”

“What about the cameras in here?” Todd asked.

“Already taken care of, boss…” Her voice faded as she examined the schematics.

She wandered back to them, her head still in her HUD and only Drusilla’s hand on her arm kept her from walking into one of the loads that had been tied down.

“Wow,” she murmured, “there’s a ton of crap on this ship.”

“How long do you think it will take them to come and patch the hole?” Piet asked as he moved onto the third fighter.

“Hopefully longer than it takes you to rig the next ship to explode,” Reggie snarked.

“Nope,” Ka interrupted. “I’d say you have five minutes max while they cycle the doors in the corridor and open the warehouse. “We’re about to have company, boys.”

Drusilla nudged her.

“Oh, come on, Dru. We’re all boys here, right?”

The girls snickered, and Todd signaled everyone to hunker against the walls.

“Can you get us in on their comms?” he asked as Ka slid in beside him.

“I can try.”

“Good. Get down the back and do that. Dru, make sure she has the time she needs.”

The two women moved down the line and the Marines waited, their tense gazes fixed on the lights above the door like a pack of hunting wolves.

The first Dreth through was so busy staring at the gaping rent in the dreadnought’s hull that he was a half-dozen paces in before he realized anything was wrong. The two who followed were four steps in when they registered the four human fighters occupying the space that should have held the spoils of half a dozen previous raids.

They closed the distance between themselves and their commander and both put a hand on his shoulders and pushed him down as they scanned the room.

“What is it?” their leader snarled and turned toward the door.

His eyes widened when he noticed the silent Marines arrayed in unmoving lines on either side of the door. Todd’s bullet took him through the faceplate before he had time to say anything more, and Gary and Angus eliminated his guards.

By that point, the Dreth repair team had started through the door. Some back-pedaled at the sound of weapons fire and the sight of the human warriors. Others dragged up the blasters they’d slung across their chests.

Jimmy thrust a vibro-blade into one’s spine and Henry shot another point-blank in the faceplate. Both men were closest to the door and led the charge into the corridor, followed by Gary and Angus. Across the warehouse floor, Reggie dropped the bag and Piet swore.

Todd could only imagine how difficult it was for their teammate to rig the explosives but so far, the Dreth hadn’t seen him and he’d work as fast as he could. The rest of the team had to give him the time he needed.

“Ka, how’s it coming?” he asked over their private comms.

“Nagging won’t help you, boss. You’ll know it when it’s done,” she sing-songed in reply.

“Can you stop them calling for help?”

“I gotta hack their comm lines, first,” she told him sweetly, and he had the impression she might shoot him if he interrupted her again.

“That'd be a no, boss,” Gary told him in case he hadn’t already got it, “but they’ll think twice about letting all their atmosphere out, so we might have a little time.”

“Do you have any idea how we’ll get into the aired section of the ship?” Jimmy demanded a second before a grenade detonated at the far end of the corridor.

“Don’t break the doors,” Ka told them. “If you do that, we’ll vent everything all over again.”

“Including the surprise you asked for.” Piet’s voice joined them over the comms channel.

“Yeah, don’t vent that,” Reggie added. “He’s fixing these babies up real nice.”

Todd had no doubt Piet was.

“You heard them, boys. Don’t break the doors. We need out of this section and I really want to make that entry hole bigger.”

He ran into the corridor to give the rest of the team a hand. With the Dreth cleared from the warehouse, all that remained was to eliminate what remained of the repair crew and get out while the getting was good.


Chapter Fifty-Five

“Hrageth’s balls!” roared through Todd’s headpiece and he winced.

“Is that clear enough for you, boss?” Ka asked and adjusted the volume hastily.

“Definitely,” he conceded and didn’t wince when the next expletive involved something “Tegorthan.” “I don’t think they’re very happy with us. What’s the welcoming committee like outside?”

They’d reached the corridor and locked the warehouse down.

“Thirty-five minutes,” Piet told him when he was done, “to allow for the ‘airlock’ to cycle.”

The airlock consisted of the warehouse door and the corridor.

“Gary, you’re on point. Take us to the bridge.”

The Englishman grinned. “This way, boss,” he directed and chose a door.

Ka groaned. “Of course you have to choose the corridor with the most Dreth.”

“It can’t be helped, sweet cheeks. Now, cycle me a door.”

She complied and Piet lobbed a grenade through as soon as it was wide enough. The sound of heavy footsteps followed as the waiting Dreth scattered from the metallic ping of the grenade as it bounced along the deck.

“Cover!” he shouted and they flattened themselves along the wall as the grenade exploded with a roar and warriors bellowed with pain.

“Now you’ve pissed them off,” Reggie muttered, and Gary glared at the demolitions man.

“Good one, asshole.”

Piet shrugged. “The corridor was full,” he said simply. “Now, it is empty. You are very welcome.”

“Move!” Todd bellowed, and the team leapfrogged through the door.

Gary and Reggie took the lead, with Jimmy and Drusilla to provide covering fire. Between them, the four killed the wounded Dreth and made the rest keep their heads down.

“This way,” Gary told them and picked a path between bodies until he reached the first intersection. “Piet, you’re up.”

“I don’t know, Gary. Are you sure you want me to piss them off more?” the man asked as he jogged forward.

“Hells yes, you boom-oriented bang bunny. Piss them off much more.”

“My pleasure.”

This time, he threw three grenades in quick succession—one before he began to cross the intersection, one as he sprinted across the open space and drew fire from the waiting Dreth, and the final one as he reached the cover of the other side and flattened his back against the wall.

Gary watched the carnage and stared at him.

“Did I do something wrong?”

“No…no, you pissed them off perfectly…uh, but now they’re dead.”

“And you’re complaining?”

His teammate raised his hands and led them around the corner. “Not complaining,” he admitted, “only wondering what we’re going to shoot.”

“I don’t have to throw any grenades at the next corner if it offends you.”

Drusilla teamed up with Reggie and shouldered her rifle in favor of the vibro-blade. Gary teamed with Piet and Ka. He looked across at Dru. “It is on!

“It had better be,” she told him. “We got a shit-ton of company coming.”

“And me wivout my best china,” Gary quipped and his accent took on a touch of London gutter. He fired a short burst at the Dreth team that appeared around a corner ahead of them, tucked Piet in behind him, and nodded to Ka.

“You’re up.”

She stepped out, slid around him, and spun the two blades she’d acquired. More Dreth appeared, some from around the first corner and some from one a little farther ahead. Roars of anger sounded from behind them.

“Methinks they might have been attached to someone you smeared, Piet.”

“I’ll tell them it was all your idea,” the man retorted, readied his rifle, and made sure the underslung grenade launcher was loaded.

“Whatcha got there?” Gary wanted to know, and he grinned.

“Alternating frag and Willy Pete,” he replied. “What we don’t shred, we’ll burn.”

“No magic?”

“I’m saving those for a special occasion.”

“Give me some warning if you decide it’s time. I’ll need time to change into my whites.”

“It’d be a waste of time with you,” Reggie retorted. “They’d be browns in no time.”

“Says the man who leaves a trail into battle,” Gary retorted and swung Ka as she yanked her blades free of the lead Dreth’s armor.

“Don’t you mean out of it?” Angus asked as he dropped back with Piet to cover the team’s rear.

“That too, but he craps himself all the time and not only when things get crazy.” Gary worked one side of the corridor, while Reggie worked the other. Drusilla and Ka pivoted around each other as they wove around the bodies they’d created.

“Whatever makes you feel better, mate,” Reggie told him. “But don’t ask me to plug the next hole you are exsanguinating from.”

“Oooh. Exsanguinating! Big words from the colonial scumbag.”

“Says the Old Country guttersnipe.”

“Mate, my ancestor’s fingers were sticky but they never got ʼem caught in the till. Somefing yours coulda learned from.”

“Incoming!” Angus’s warning was accompanied by the younger Marine raising his forearm in front of himself as he activated the force shield built into his armor.

The smell of blood and burnt flesh seeped slowly through their suits’ filters.

Gary gagged. “Man, someone needs to tell the girls to lay off the barbecue.”

Jimmy laughed. “Come fight with me if you can’t take it, wee man.”

“I’ll ‘wee man’ you.”

“Got to get me back home, first,” Jimmy told him and something in the man’s tone made Todd glance at him.

There was a hole in the Scotsman’s armor at hip height. He caught his team leader’s worried look.

“You can patch it when we stop,” he snapped.

“If you fall over on me before we get there, I’ll kick your ass all the way back,” he warned.

Jimmy raised his rifle and fired past his head. “You got yourself a deal, boss.”

“Hey, Gary. Where the fuck is this command deck?”

“Down four and forward six,” the man shouted as more Dreth burst through the walls ahead. “Well, that’s damned inconvenient.”

Piet and Angus had cleared the corridor behind them, and the explosive expert looked around to take in the situation ahead.

“Jimmy!” he cried. “Throw me!”

“Jimmy, don’t you dare,” Ka shouted but it was too late.

He had caught sight of his teammate sprinting toward him and already dropped to one knee to cup his hands to form a stirrup. Piet’s foot landed on his interlaced fingers and he hefted the smaller man up and along.

“Did you know he could do that?” Henry asked as the man flattened himself into a dive and rolled as he landed between Ka and Drusilla. He came to his feet ahead of them and drew two snub-nosed blasters from side holsters.

Crossing his arms and locking the blasters level, he began to fire. The rapid rate of shooting was quickly followed by the hollow boom of exploding cartridges and high-pitched screams and squeals of pain.

“Oh, man, that is inhumane,” Henry grumbled and his pace faltered.

Dru ran forward. “The boy’s been holding out on us,” she snapped, and Todd had to agree. Piet hadn’t shown anywhere near this level of nimbleness in the scenarios.

If he recalled correctly, the man had stuck close to his heels once the demolitions had stopped. This—he stared as the blasters began to fire grenades—was entirely new.

“When the fuck did he have the time to modify his weapons?”

“I’m not sure he did modify them, boss. He pulled the side holsters out of his locker and said it had been a long time. To be honest, I thought he had a real special relationship with them, the way he touched the harness.”

“I don’t need to know.” He groaned, relieved that Ka and Drusilla had caught up to the explosives expert and that Gary and Reggie had already slid into the rooms on either side. There had been a squad of Dreth in each but there wasn’t anymore.

The team flowed through both rooms and covered one another as they made sure there weren’t any more warriors hiding amidst the banked computers.

“Ka,” Todd called, “what can you do here?”

“I dunno boss.” She glared at Piet. “Most of the equipment is full of holes if you know what I mean.”

“So, nothing?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You have until I plug Jimmy’s hole.”

“Man, I wish you’da thought to do that two nights ago, boss. Talk about a walking environmental violation.”

“I thought that was Henry.”

Todd pulled the Scotsman into a sheltered corner and kept an ear on the team as they set up an overwatch on him and Ka. Once again, Dru stood close as Ka went to work on one of the few computer stacks that didn’t smoke.

“Let me take a look at that,” he said and unsealed the panel in the armor’s frame. “Well, fuck me.”

Jimmy wheezed a laugh. “I think you’ve been turned down before, boss, and for the same reason.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re all a handful of funny fuckers. Hold still. This is gonna sting.”

“Give it a minute, Lance. You’re gonna need to hit me with this first.”

He passed him an autoinjector.

“Those are for emergencies.”

“Are you sayin’ you want to carry me home?”

Todd didn’t argue. He took it and jabbed it home, stapled the hole closed, and covered it with quick-patches before he closed the panel.

“It won’t help you if they manage to put a solid where the last one went, but anywhere else…”

“Gotcha, boss,” Jimmy wheezed. “Gimme a minute. There’s the lad.”

“We don’t have a minute,” Gary interrupted them. “We need to move.”

Todd didn’t bother to ask why. He merely hauled the wounded man to his feet and gave him his rifle. “Are you good to go?”

“Better than I was before, boss. Let’s go kick some hairy Dreth backside.”

“Gary, get us out of here.”

Piet walked back and tapped Ka. “Time to go,” he told her and pivoted abruptly as movement on the far side of the room caught his eye.

Before Drusilla could ask what he’d seen, he’d raised his rifle and fired into the back wall—which was when they all realized it wasn’t there. The walls in the room beyond had matched with those of this room so well that none of them had noticed the hole.

They noticed it now, though, as Piet sent a stream of bullets through it and then switched to grenades.

“No!” Ka shouted and slapped the muzzle down.

Fortunately for them all, he pulled his finger off the trigger in time to avoid bouncing a grenade at their feet. He turned on the woman.

“What did you do that for?”

“Don’t argue,” Drusilla snapped. “Move now. Fight later.”

“Done,” he agreed and covered them as they all returned to the corridor.

“Do you care to tell me what that was all about?” he demanded as they passed the next bulkhead and Ka secured it behind them.

“Yeah, dumbass. The next wall over was an outer hull. I didn’t want that close a view of the stars.”

He checked the map in his HUD and blushed. “My bad.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

On the command deck, the captain’s attention was drawn by the latest Federation Navy maneuver.

“They fell for it.”

His second in command smirked. “That’ll keep them out of the way. There’s no way for them to return without a recharge of their engines. They’ll have to bomb the planet to get it back.” His voice dripped with satisfaction.

The captain indicated a small squad of Federation ships fighting to maintain their formation. “Except for those. They haven’t left yet.”

“There is no way for them to get free,” his second observed. “We’ll take their ships and break their bodies in the pits.”

Nodding at his words, the captain watched as the fleet he’d amassed gated in. The six ships he’d set against the first convoy had only been the bait. Not that he’d told them that when he’d sent them out, of course.

While none in the fleet came anywhere near his size and there was only a handful as big as a destroyer, the sheer number of ships could more than take care of the remaining vessels. He turned to the comms tech.

“Make them understand that I want those ships intact,” he ordered and proceeded to assign the fleet their boarding targets.

The swarming pirate ships didn’t have it all their own way, however. A Naval corvette vented atmosphere as the two vessels assigned to its capture closed. He watched as the ship shuddered and her engines died and made a note to commend the captain.

That had been a concentrated EMP burst.

To his surprise, the corvette fired retro-thrusters along the length of her hull and brought her guns into position to release a punishing broadside into the two hostile vessels. He gaped as holes appeared in their hulls and one of them lost the grappling cannon it had been about to fire.

“Now, it will go hard for them,” he murmured as Dreth warriors pinwheeled into space. “Vengeance will be called for.”

Survival pods exploded from the other side of the corvette and were picked up by rescue shuttles braving the battle to gather as many of their people as they could.

“Don’t they know we’d collect their lost for them?” his second asked and amusement edged his words.

The captain nodded. “They know,” he told him darkly. “That is why they try so hard to rescue them. They still have hope.”

The officer shrugged. “That is a trait we can crush out of them.”

He bared his tusk. “You will be surprised. Look at that.”

One of the Federation destroyers had pushed out from the protective cover of the other ships, caught one of the trading vessels in its tractor beam, and reversed the thrust on its engines to sink into cover and drag the civilian ship with it.

“Should we stop it?”

“Why?” he asked. “It’s not like they can save them. If it gives them comfort and stops them from firing, let them. If any of them make a break for it, attack them. They can be stopped.”

A flotilla of three corvettes broke from the rest of the fleet and dove beneath their compatriots to come up under the front lines of Dreth pirate vessels. They separated enough to slide between two pirate vessels and released a barrage of missile and laser fire as they passed.

The Dreth response was immediate. Grappling hooks surged from the sides of the ships on either side. Two missed, but a third caught the corvette’s flank and pierced her hull above the engine room.

The captain drew a sharp breath as the tiny ship was pulled up short and then into the side of the pirate vessel that had snagged it. The ship that had missed its first shot fired again and pierced her other side.

“She is ours,” his second noted as the second Dreth vessel maneuvered close and impacted hard enough to make them wince.

The other two corvettes pulled up hard and tried to find clear sky beyond the massed pirates. One was almost cut in half by laser fire from one of the pirate destroyers and was grappled shortly after. Dreth shuttles launched to secure the life pods.

The third corvette found a clear patch and circled again, trying to rejoin its fleet.

“They won’t make it,” the captain observed and indicated the three slightly larger pirate ships rising to flank it.

As the center hostile fired into the corvette’s belly, a voice echoed across the fleet. The captain clapped his hands over his ears only to realize the voice was audible inside his mind.

Listen to the song of the Valkyries and the hail of the Phoenix as she screams from the ashes to protect her people. Feel the black eyes of Death turn their attention on the children of ruin. It is time you learn who is Fear Incarnate.

As the voice faded and left a sense of cold hollowness in its wake, proximity alarms clamored in a warning.

“Sir! There’s a ship—there’s a ship. Right there!”

The scans shifted to show a Federation destroyer materializing in the midst of his fleet. It was like nothing he had ever seen and was covered in lines of rectangular shapes that morphed into spikes. As they leapt away from the ship, the scanners matched the ship’s outline with the one vessel he had not expected to see.

“No! That can’t be!” the captain roared. “She cannot be here.”

But she was and her ship erupted into a mass of fire as missiles launched from every surface and lanced out to vaporize the pirate ships surrounding her. He watched, horrified, as the missiles did their work and then reached through the debris of the closest kills to take the ships beyond them.

By the time she had shifted to the weapons installed inside her hull, the Ebon Knight stood alone in an ever-expanding field of debris.


Chapter Fifty-Six

Todd slid under the sword blade and fired back over his head. He missed the pirate with the sword but caught the one behind him as the Dreth slashed at Ka’s unprotected back. He stamped a boot down hard to stop his slide and twisted to face the way he’d come as he rose.

Calmly, he fired twice more to bring down a second hostile and attract the undivided attention of a third. The Dreth surged toward him and swung into the next stroke. He continued to fire and aimed at the seams in the warrior’s armor until his blaster ran out of charge. Ka came to his rescue.

Free of opponents, she spun and sliced through the back of the Dreth facing Angus before she darted forward to thrust her blade through the one who harried Todd.

“I saw a node point,” she told him, breathing hard.

His eyes widened and she pivoted, parried the blade of the pirate who attempted to take advantage of her inattention with one hand, and shot him with the stubby blaster she held in the other.

“Piet says he’ll make me one if I like it.” She laughed and felled another adversary. “I love it!”

“Where?” he asked, and he wasn’t asking about the blaster.

“The corner behind the pirate in blue.”

“Gotcha. Me and Gary will deal with the pirate. You see what you can do with the node.”

Ka grinned, twisted, and used her blade to deliver a jolt of power through the knee joint of the Dreth’s powered blue armor. The blade bit deeper than intended and lodged in his knee. He bellowed in surprise and looked down, which was all Gary needed to press his blaster into the softer armor below his chin and fire into his helmet.

The top of the helmet gave and sprayed the nearby combatants with a combination of green, grey, and red. The fighters barely noticed. Todd’s team was covered in blood, to start with—most of it not their own—and the Dreth simply ignored it.

The conflict took place in one of the outer corridors and both sides had gone to hand weapons in favor of not depressurizing the ship where they were standing. Ka’s armor had a deep tear from the lower chest to the hip so she’d switched to the blaster but powered it down as best she could. It was difficult to find a setting that would penetrate armor without also penetrating the ship’s hull.

The Dreth paid scant regard to the fact that she was female. The ones who had tried to subdue her were dispatched with speed, and their comrades had taken note. She and Drusilla were given the accord any male would receive and they were entirely oblivious to the honor.

As Todd engaged the next pirate and allowed Ka to ease over to the pillar, Dru slipped in a patch of gore. She gave a yip of pain as she stopped the slide and her knee twisted one way while her foot went the other.

This time, Gary slid under the Dreth’s blade and brought his own sword up to parry the strike that would have taken her head. Reggie came in from the side using a two-handed strike to hack at the armor protecting the top of the Dreth’s spine.

He didn’t quite make it through and lifted the blade away for another swing, which gave Jimmy room to move. The Scotsman’s blade bit deep and he landed a boot in the stricken Dreth’s side to shove him clear.

Dru finished it when she plunged her blade into the hostile’s chest and used it to push herself upright. She caught Gary’s look of concern and thumped a fist into the side of the armor encasing her knee. A tiny whimper escaped her as it locked around her leg.

“The docs’ll be as mad as hell when we get back,” she told them through gritted teeth, “but I won’t slow you down.”

She turned with them and they formed a barricade facing outward around Ka.

Todd left them to it and tapped Piet. “Fall back to Ka,” he ordered. “Work with her.”

The man nodded without moving his gaze from his opponent. “On three, boss?”

“Three!” he shouted, dragged the smaller man back by his collar, and stepped into the Dreth’s next blow to immediately block it with his sword. The demolitions man twisted out of his grasp, stabbed the Dreth facing him in the stomach, and ripped the blade up as he passed.

The team leader made a note to ask the man where he’d fought. It might not be nice manners in a culture where old battles brought old nightmares with them, but he had to know. At the very least, it would help to manage his skills better.

He glanced back quickly to confirm that the man slid between Gary and Dru, then flicked through the closest surveillance cams. They’d defeated this squad of Dreth but there was sure to be another on the way.

“Two minutes, Ka,” he told her when he found them.

“How many, boss?” Gary asked.

“Ten—two heavies and the rest in leather.”

It was the one thing he’d noticed as they fought. Not all the pirates were in space armor. Many wore the more traditional versions found on their homeworld. He wasn’t sure if it was because of the status of having killed the animal that gave its skin or if the Dreth had simply lost the manufacturing ability to make more.

Either way, he was grateful. It meant they had the advantage of better armor and stronger weapons against more experienced opponents that were taller, heavier, and usually had longer reach.

“Small mercies,” he murmured.

“What?” Henry asked.

He shook his head. “I was thinking we should be thankful for small mercies,” he explained.

The two heaviest armored Dreth came into view, and his teammate gave him a weird look. “Yeah, boss? Tell me more.”

Todd studied the pirates who approached side by side. They took up the entire corridor and blocked their comrades from view. He swallowed hard.

“The rest aren’t in power armor?”

“Gee, boss. Trust you to piss the man upstairs off,” Ka commented.

“What d’you mean, the man upstairs? In case you hadn’t noticed, we are upstairs and he doesn’t seem to be home.”

Ka sighed. “Well, he’s around here somewhere.”

“If you see him, tell him he’d better choose a side really bloody soon, then,” Gary interjected. He looked at his sword and then at the two armored Dreth. “Well, fuck this.”

Deactivating the blade, he stowed the weapon in his belt, drew the blaster he’d slung across his chest, and thumbed the controls. “I have only one thing that’ll work on these motherfucking monkey-humping shit stains.”

One of the armored Dreth laughed. “I’ve been called worse.”

“Junket-pumping, pecker-headed, motherfucking fuck knuckle?” Gary ventured.

The Dreth raised the rifle built into its armor, the smile evident in its voice. “Nope.”

The Marine fired six shots in rapid succession. The first one struck home while the next five were still in flight. The Dreth didn’t manage to bring his weapon to bear. To Todd’s surprise, the man glanced at Ka. “Hit it, princess!”

“Who are you calling princess?” she demanded but she didn’t hesitate and tapped a quick command sequence on the tablet she’d hooked into the wall.

The six darts lodged in the power armor sparkled and a web of power surged over and through the suit.

As it did so, Gary fired again and Todd backed away. Henry looked at his weapon as if to work out which selection his fellow-Marine had made.

“Sixth one around,” Ka called. “Henry!”

The man made the selection and brought his weapon up. He fired another six darts into the Dreth, aiming for the opposite side and lower on the pirates’ thighs and bellies. “Ready!” he called.

She tapped again and the Dreth toppled, their cries of pain audible through their helmets. Her chuckle was pure evil and she calmly adjusted the commands. The Dreth began to scream and Henry flinched.

“No…” he murmured, his voice low with sadness and regret, and thumbed the selector again. He moved forward and seemed oblivious to the Dreth who stood, stunned, behind their fallen champions.

As he reached the downed champion, one of the Dreth began to react. Todd was almost too slow to save him but caught the shift of the hostile’s hands as Henry kicked the Dreth’s powered arm up and exposed the seam underneath.

As the man pressed the rifle muzzle into it and fired a short burst angled across the pirate’s chest, Todd fired past him and eliminated the pirate who had almost brought his blaster to bear. The sound of his shot was consumed in the cacophony of Henry’s fire, but the Dreth flinched as the rounds passed him.

For a moment, he thought his teammate had been jolted out of his madness, but Henry turned to the other Dreth and repeated the process, and Todd had to fire hard and fast and hope he missed the man. If he’d hesitated, Henry wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Hardened space armor or not, the hail of rounds that were aimed at him would have killed him, especially since his armor was damaged. Gary came forward and worked around the other side to deal with the Dreth he missed.

Between them, they had him covered. Todd nudged the save-log bar to remind himself to follow up on the incident later. It was the first sign of squeamishness he’d ever seen from the man and he wanted to know what had caused it.

Gary nudged him. “Talk to you later,” he said and walked up to where Henry now stood, his rifle on high guard as he scanned the corridor.

“Done, boss,” Ka called, “and you’re gonna love it.”

Todd cast a look at the fallen Dreth. “I already do.”

“Nah, seriously, boss. There are Navy systems in here.”

“The pirates have Navy systems?”

“Yeah, boss, but I don’t think they know what they have. They’re pirates, remember? Not Navy.”

“And?”

“And? Let me think about it, okay, but I’m sure there has to be something we can do with this that they can’t.”

More shouts interrupted them, and Gary caught hold of Henry and guided him back. “Come on, mate. You’re with me and you’re facing the wrong way. We’re on point.”

They pushed on to the next junction and took the formation that had worked so well in the simulator—and it was a good thing, too. This time, there were almost as many hostiles as there had been in the seventh wave and the team knew exactly what to do.

With the corridor clear, Gary led them to the stairs. Ka jammed the door behind them, and Piet stopped long enough to slap a charge against the next one.

“If they come through here, they’re in for a nasty surprise.” He grinned and ran on.

The next three levels passed in quick succession, but Piet’s tablet began to beep.

“Fuck,” the explosives expert muttered. “We need to hustle.”

“How much of a hustle?” Todd wanted to know.

“We have three minutes to be five hundred meters closer to the center.”

“Well. Fuck. Me.” Gary was not impressed.

“Dammit, Piet!” Todd snapped and the Marine raised his eyebrows.

“You told me to set it. I gave us an extra five minutes and now, we’re down to two-point-five.”

“I hate you,” Reggie muttered and kicked the door open without giving Ka a chance to take a peek at what lay beyond.

She and Todd jerked him back as bullets shredded through the space he’d been about to step into.

“Goddammitall to hell!” Angus cursed and yanked two grenades from his belt. He glanced at Ka and she nodded, showed two fingers, and pointed to the left, then three and pointed to the right. Piet snugged up close to the wall and angled himself so he could aim in the opposite direction to the other man.

“Now!” she told them.

Piet fired using the launcher slung beneath his rifle, and Angus lobbed the first grenade. It all went smoothly until Angus’s second grenade bounced off the door jamb and over their heads to plummet down the stairwell.

“Of all the butterfingered, wet-arsed, clumsy trollops!” Gary yanked the door open and bolted into the corridor as soon as the first four grenades detonated.

The rest of the team followed him while they released a barrage of gunfire. They were grateful to find the Dreth stunned or down, although only Henry’s quick thinking saved Todd from the rounds fired from farther back.

He activated a force shield and hauled the team leader into cover. Reggie and Gary fired past them and the pirates fell. Behind them, the stairwell erupted in a muted roar.

“Two minutes,” Piet called and Gary swore.

“Nothing like a little fucking incentive to haul arse,” he shouted and sprinted down the corridor.

“You’d better hope nothing drops out of the ceiling,” Reggie called, but he was on the Englishman’s heels when Gary took the first turn toward the center of the ship.

Behind them, another chime rang and Piet called again.

“One minute thirty.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

On the bridge, the Dreth pirate captain watched disaster unfold. He ignored the reports coming from inside the ship, less concerned with a band of rogue Marines running around the dreadnought than he was with the havoc being wreaked by the Ebon Knight.

She fired more than normal rounds and now, the Navy had joined her.

They didn’t fly alongside her. Oh no. None of their pilots were that stupid. What the Tegorthan turdlets were doing was hanging on the edge of the Dreth fleet and firing opportunistic salvos as the Knight carved large hairy chunks out of his forces.

His forces. Hrageth be damned!

“Fire on that ship!” he bellowed, and the weapons tech shot him a worried look and bent hurriedly over his board.

“Well?” the captain shouted a few moments later. “Where are my missiles?”

The Dreth hunched over and gave him a frightened look. “I— We can’t, sir.”

He bolted out of his seat and stumbled back as the captain approached.

“We’ll hit our own, sir. Our missiles won’t get through…” He backed away slowly until he reached the wall. Only then did he look his captain in the eyes and wait for whatever punishment was coming. “Your will,” he said and held his leader’s gaze as he laid his fist over his heart.

The captain turned away abruptly. “Get back to your seat. Order the crews that if they see a shot, they are to take it.”

“Yes, sir!” The weapons technician forced himself to move as if his captain would actually allow him to return to his post.

He was pleasantly surprised when he arrived but he took nothing for granted. They were at war, and while he had acted to preserve his captain’s fleet, he had still failed to obey an order. There would be repercussions.

In the meantime, he would do his best to earn the captain’s mercy. He worked the boards, knowing his superior watched every firing solution that came together and crumbled before it could be resolved.

Over a dozen Dreth ships survived to fly a little longer that way.

In the meantime, the Witch’s ship continued to dance and pivot in the middle of the fleet. Even worse was the way she waited until the ships had her surrounded and vanished as they fired.

On the third incident when the ships destroyed their own vessels, he groaned and bowed his head in frustration. “Of all the stupid, tark-brained spawn of Tegortha—”

“It would be better to kill that bitch than take the planet!” the captain declared and sent a jolt through him as he laid a hand on his shoulder. The weapons tech raised his head in time to see the Ebon Knight reappear and fire a double-sided salvo at the closest vessels before she descended through the fleet.

She left a series of explosions in her wake. Then, the Witch came into play.

“Tegortha’s hoary tits!” the captain cursed and pounded his fist on the weapons console before he stormed away.

Behind him, the weapons officer scrambled to undo the damage and detonated the missiles that fired before he could abort the launch. The rest of the command crew watched in horror as blue lightning leapt away from the Witch’s ship to wind around the closest pirate vessels.

It constricted around their hulls before it surged to their neighbors and left burning husks in its wake.


Chapter Fifty-Seven

“One minute.” Piet’s countdown continued.

“Motherfucking crazy arse-munching, turd-eating, sonuvabitch!” Henry shouted.

It was the most vocal any of them had heard him, and Reggie broke into wheezing laughter.

“Oh, drop dead, you crazy colonial bastard,” Gary sniped. ‘He wasn’t even creative with that one.”

“How about you tark-livered, lizard-eating spawn of Tegortha?” Angus tried and angry rumbles greeted him from the other end of the corridor.

“Thirty,” Piet chanted. “Twenty-nine, twenty-eight—”

The target bulkhead came into view. It was, of course, blocked by Dreth.

“Run, you crazy motherfuckers! Run!” Reggie screamed, glanced over his shoulder, and wave. his arms in panic as he raced toward them.

The truth was that he wasn’t panicking but hopeful.

“Run!” he shouted again, as they glanced uncertainly at each other. “Goddammit! I said run!”

“Twenty-four, twenty-three—”

The Dreth showed no sign of vacating the doorway.

Reggie looked back over his shoulder. “Are you sure it’s this bulkhead?”

“This one. Twenty—” Piet called.

The Dreth exchanged glances and raised their rifles.

“Oh, fuck it all to hell. So much for being subtle,” Reggie yelled. “Piet! You’re up.”

He dodged to one side as his teammate raised his rifle and began to fire grenades. Jimmy and Angus ran on either side of him to hold him steady and keep him on his feet. The rest of the team kept pace.

“If those fuckers explode as we get there, you and I will have words,” Ka warned as the first grenade soared through the air.

“Fifteen—”

The Dreth took one look at the missiles that rocketed toward them and bolted.

“Great! So we’re blowing up the ground we want to reach for safety,” Gary griped. “Why?”

“Because we’re Maarriiines!” Jimmy and Reggie yelled as the grenades exploded ahead of them. Several of the Dreth in the rear were caught in the blast and fell.

“Eight… Seven… Six…”

“Oh, shut up!” Gary screamed as Ka hurtled past the bulkhead, hooked her hand around the edge, and turned to slap her hand down over the control.

“Four…”

The panel didn’t respond, and she retrieved a screwdriver and undid the housing. Todd noticed the almost imperceptible tremor in her fingers but she didn’t let it slow her.

“Two…”

It took another second to hook her tablet in and send the command.

Piet’s “One…” coincided with a not-so-distant rumble and the sound of the doors closing. The sealed lights in the corridor flashed yellow and then orange.

Dreth appeared on the other side of the door. They were running for their lives and their eyes widened when they saw the sealed bulkhead. Todd almost felt sorry for them but gunfire sounded from behind him and he lost the sentiment immediately.

The team dropped as one and rolled away. They fetched up against the walls and bounded to their feet to return fire. Piet lobbed another two grenades and the Dreth raced away.

“Gary! Which way?”

“This way.” The Englishman led them at a rapid trot down the corridor.

The pirates tried an ambush, but it was rushed and clumsy and the team was amongst them before they could find their aim. A bullet glanced off Drusilla’s shoulder and one pounded into the armor covering Angus’s thigh.

Neither one penetrated, but the two Marines faltered. Ka caught hold of Angus, and Henry did the same for Drusilla. Once their teammates were steadied, they released them, leveled their rifles, and fired as they charged.

These Dreth were not armored anywhere near well enough to withstand the high-powered projectiles that drilled into them and they went down in a spray of blood. Their bodies landed heavily on the deck.

Gary led them left and almost immediately right. He came to a halt and flattened against the wall when he reached the next intersection.

“It’s around that corner.” He gasped and dragged in a breath. “But we might have a problem.”

“Talk me through it,” Todd ordered and the man turned to Ka.

“Tell me you were able to hack the systems in this sector.”

She shook her head and he glanced at the team leader. “Watch this,” he instructed and pulled an empty grenade pouch off his belt.

Todd watched as he tossed the pouch into the intersection and his eyes widened when it vaporized.

“Well, fuck me swinging,” Reggie murmured.

Gary looked at him. “Er…no.”

Reggie scowled. “Hell’s bells, mate. It wasn’t an offer.”

The other man snickered.

“Bloody Englishman,” Reggie complained. “Give the bastard an inch and he—”

“He’ll complain he’s been robbed of five,” Jimmy finished for him.

Reggie blushed. “Fucking Scotsmen.”

Todd looked at Ka and Piet. “Okay, it looks like you’re both up.”

With a loud rattle, pieces flew off the corner of the closest wall. Gary turned to Ka, his mouth agape. “Don’t tell me you don’t have control of the cameras in this section, either?”

She shook her head. “They have localized support. I think there might be a wet-wire somewhere close.”

“Command deck?” Reggie suggested, and Ka frowned.

“I’da thought they might be separate. Somewhere quiet where they wouldn’t be distracted by little things like space battles or Marines running rampant through their ship.”

“This somewhere quiet…” Angus asked. “Would it give access to the command deck?”

She shrugged, retrieved her tools, and began to unscrew the panel below the camera. “That would depend.”

“On what?”

“How the hell would I know? I’m not Dreth.” She caught the first screw and moved on to the next.

“I thought some things were universal.”

“I’m not a tech, either,” she retorted.

Todd refrained from pointing out that she made a damned good one as he watched her set the panel aside and tuck the screws into her tool pouch. “Gimme a boost?”

Gary sighed and laced his fingers together. “Here ya go.”

Ka stepped lightly into his cupped hands and he straightened. He wobbled somewhat but Jimmy and Reggie laid arms across his shoulders and he steadied. “Thanks, guys.”

Drusilla leaned against the wall beside them, her face pale and her injured leg resting stiffly in front of her. Todd looked over at her. “Are you okay?”

The woman nodded, her lips pressed tightly together. “Like I said, the docs will be pissed. How about you, boss? She hefted her rifle and glanced both ways along the corridor. “Are your shoulder blades still itchin’?”

“No. Yours?”

She looked troubled and scanned the corridor once more. “I have this feelin’.”

He followed her gaze and unease stirred in his gut. He pulled himself slowly to his feet. Henry saw him move and followed suit. “What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Point.” Henry looked above them and opened fire to stitch a neat line of holes in the ceiling above their heads.

Roars of agony followed and blood dripped down like rain. A trapdoor gave way and a Dreth warrior fell through, followed by three others. Todd wondered why they’d waited but no more appeared aside from the quartet.

Four, huh? Given the havoc his team had wreaked so far, he would have tried to wait them out too. The remaining three raised their weapons and Reggie and Jimmy took their arms from around Gary’s shoulders.

“If you drop me, you’re dead,” Ka told him, and he froze.

“Piet,” she added, “I think there’s another node at the foot of this column. Do you want to be a sweetheart?”

The older Marine grunted. “I am nobody’s sweetheart,” he told her, “but for you, I can do this thing.”

“Ta, mate.”

While the two techs worked, Todd and the others cleared the overhead walkway in their section of the corridor. He eyed the bodies hanging over the edges and looked at Reggie. “Boost me.”

Angus tapped him. “Me first, boss. People care if you fall over.”

He frowned and the young Marine took advantage of his hesitation, slapped Reggie on the shoulder, and bounced into his hands. His teammate boosted him up and he wasted no time in heaving the bodies over the edge. He stalked the edges of the walkway and Todd tensed as he drew closer to the intersection.

Angus unbuckled an empty canteen from his belt and tossed it into the junction. They both breathed a sigh of relief when the canteen rattled to the ceiling panels unharmed. The team leader relaxed slightly.

“Give me a minute, boss.” Without waiting for permission, Angus turned the corner and stepped out of sight. Seconds later, there was a grunt followed by a thud, and Todd lost patience. “Boost me,” he commanded, and Reggie took one look at his face and did as he’d been told.

Jimmy boosted Reggie next, and then Henry, and the two Marines turned and pulled their bigger comrade into the space. Together, the four edged around the space to where they could hear the sound of a desperate but almost silent battle.

Angus was locked in a struggle with a Dreth warrior. They’d both caught hold of each other and neither one of them intended to let go. Looking at the size of the knives they wielded, Todd couldn’t blame them.

The way they held each other limited the amount of damage they could do. The second one let go, the other would be able to deliver a significant strike. In Angus’s case, it was the difference between life and death.

The pirate not so much, regardless of the difference in armor. Todd took a moment to aim and shot the Dreth in the head.

“Sonsabitches need to learn to keep their goddamned helmets on,” he snapped and holstered the pistol as Angus stared at him in shock. He ignored the look. “What else is in here?”

They took turns going through the space. Below them, Ka gave a hearty chuckle. “Now, we’re cookin’.”

Reggie looked at Todd. “You’d better get down there, boss. That girl sounds like she’s about to start breakin’ shit.”

“Yeah,” he agreed and hurried to return to their entry point, “and I don’t want her to start without me.”

The guys all exchanged glances and scuttled after him.

“Us neither,” Reggie explained when he looked at them.

“Whatcha got?” he asked when he arrived as Gary lowered Ka to the ground.

She and Piet looked at him with grins that made a pixie look innocent.

“You know how I said there were Navy systems in here? Well, I think this one is the best.”

Piet rubbed his hands together with glee, his eyes shining with kid-level excitement. Todd gulped. “Spill it, Ka. I’m dying of suspense, here.”

“There’s a suppression gas delivery system in here and it’s fully fueled.”

He looked from her to Piet and back again. “The next thing you’ll tell me is that it explodes.”

They both nodded and their grins widened.

Their expressions were warning enough and he groaned. “Don’t make me regret this.”

Gary snickered. “It looks like you’re already regretting it, boss.”

“Don’t remind me.” He turned to where Ka and Piet knelt side by side and examined the inside of the wall again.

It might not have been so bad, except that they whispered and passed each other tools and the occasional giggle escaped to haunt him. He caught Gary watching him and rolled his eyes.

The man was right. He was regretting this but he couldn’t think of anything else that would get them into the command center with as much chance of success.

“Please don’t blow up anything important,” he muttered, and Ka turned her head.

“We’ll do our part, boss, but you still hafta get us past the autocannons and lasers on the door.”

He stared at her. “Give me an updated version of the schematics in this area, and I’ll show you exactly how we’re gonna get through. I kinda like the idea of having a couple of autocannons watching my back.”

She arched an eyebrow. “You do? In that case, I gotta hand it to you. You’d have to be one of the few.”

“Not pointing at me.” He smirked. “Looking out for me.”

“Boss, I’d look out for you, too. You’re not a nice man to cross.”

Todd wanted to ask what gave her that impression but decided he didn’t want to know. She was right. He wasn’t a nice man to cross and that actually surprised him. For a moment, he wondered what had changed.

Gary tapped his arm. “So, boss. How are we gonna do this magic trick?”

He slid an arm around his shoulders. “Gary, I’m so glad you asked.”

The Marine groaned and the team leader pointed to the ceiling space. “I need you to find me a way onto the command deck.”

“From up there?” Gary asked and Todd beamed.

“Of course from there.” The man tapped Jimmy. “I need a boost.”

Drusilla looked at Todd and then at the boys. “If you don’t need me down here, boss, I’ll go, too. You won’t want to wait for me later.”

“A gentleman always waits for a lady,” Reggie observed, and Dru pointed her sword at him.

“Don’t make me come over there.”

Gary sniggered as Jimmy boosted him. The two were clearly trying to work out how to get Jimmy up when Reggie slapped him on the shoulder. “Me next.”

Once he was up, the three of them pulled Drusilla aloft and then Gary and Reggie hauled Jimmy into the space.

“Do you know how far these spaces go?” Gary’s voice drifted down a moment later.

Todd frowned. “Why?”

“Because they’re not on the schematics and they’re partitioned like the corridors. And we might have company real soon.”

“How soon?”

“I’m not sure if the tech-heads will be done.”

“Find me a path. We’ll be quick,” Todd vowed and hoped he wasn’t making promises he couldn’t keep.

He glanced at Ka and Piet. The two techs worked with quick, careful movements to alter things around the piping in the wall. He noted the different color of the tubes and decided it was a good thing they knew what they were doing.

The situation also added another item to the team’s training list. This would have gone much faster with more hands.

Above him, Jimmy and Gary worked around the intersection to the bulkhead at the other end of the crawlspace. Seconds later, Gary’s voice whispered through the comms.

“I sure could do with a bomb bunny right now.” The urgency in his voice sent fingers crawling down Todd’s spine. He was about to give the order when Piet tapped him and sounded almost apologetic.

“I need a boost, boss.”

He obliged and the demolitions man hurried to where Gary and Jimmy crouched on either side of a door. “How long?”

The door started to cycle.

“Five seconds. Maybe less.”

“Fast and dirty. Get back.”

The two men moved as Piet fished in another pouch and hauled a tube out.

“The boy’s been holding out on us,” Gary murmured.

“No. I know you,” the man grumbled as he traced a very quick line around the door. He held the tube up to the observation port in the center and deliberately squirted more of the contents on the glass.

“That will make them think,” he commented with satisfaction and began to pull up the ceiling panels.

“They’re Dreth,” Gary argued as if that explained it all, and Todd decided the man needed time learning more about the warrior race. That kind of underestimation would get him killed. And if it didn’t, his attitude would.

“What’s that for?” the man asked when he finally noticed what Piet was doing. Jimmy had already reached the right conclusion.

“Fook!” He got alongside Piet and hauled the panel up as he yelled at Gary. “Get your ass down there and lock the other door.”

Todd took another look at Ka.

“Almost done, boss.”

“I’m gonna need you on the door.”

“There’s no time. Besides, they’ve brought a cutter. Locks won’t hold them.” From the sound of her voice, she was more inside the wall than in the corridor and Todd sighed.

Now he remembered what he didn’t like about techs. They were damned hard to keep alive. If they weren’t in a world of their own, they were focused on the job or slowed the rest of the team down while they tried to keep them alive.

He didn’t say anything but raised his rifle and aimed at the door.

“Toss me the tube,” Gary demanded and Piet hesitated. Jimmy plucked it from his fingers and flung it down and the man went to work.

He was nowhere near as neat as his counterpart and the tube ran out before he was halfway round. He slapped it into the gel he’d run around the door frame. “Up—now.”

Jimmy reached, Gary jumped, and Piet helped as soon as the Scotsman had hauled the Englishman up. The panel dropped into place behind them and they raced to the corner.

Todd took one look at their pace and crouched in front of Ka. Henry came alongside him, and they activated their shields and tucked in tightly behind them.

“Done,” Ka announced as the Dreth began to cut their way through.

“I thought you said you—” was as far as Todd got before the explosive detonated and the door blew toward them.

“Brace! Brace! Brace!” Henry shouted, and they both tensed and waited for the impact.

It never came. Instead, they heard the rattle of the autocannon rounds peppering the door and then the wall.

The team leader glanced up.

“Non-directional blast.” Piet’s explanation sounded almost apologetic.

Gary was suspiciously silent, and Todd decided the man needed a crash course in explosives—or a simulation where he was blown up numerous times. Right now, though, the man probably simply needed a change of armor.

It’s the same thing, right? he thought but didn’t say it. He caught movement as one of the bodies on the other side of the hole groaned.

Snapping his rifle to his shoulder, he slapped Reggie.

“Go! I’ll cover you.”

Footsteps sounded over the ringing in his ears. They were followed by a thump and he looked up. Jimmy hung over the edge.

“Do you need a hand?”

Reggie knelt and cupped his hands to throw Ka up for Jimmy to catch. He waited until she was clear while Todd put two rounds into the first head he saw raise from the floor.

He felt the man beside him hesitate. “Go!”

Reggie backed up a couple of steps and jumped. Servos whined and rocketed three more rounds down the corridor. “Move your asses!”

“Boss—” As Jimmy said his name, Piet opened fire from the other end of the walkway.

“Boss,” the Scotsman repeated as Todd stared in disbelief. “Todd!”

Hearing his name snapped him out of it, and he stretched upward and let Jimmy haul him into the space. As he followed the man along the walkway, he couldn’t help but stare at the scene at the other end.

Piet dangled through the ceiling panel with Gary and Angus clinging to his feet. The idiot had angled his rifle across his body and fired haphazardly through the hole where the bulkhead had been.

Grenades hurtled into the corridor beyond. Some bounced off walls and others thumped into the bodies scattered on the floor.

“Up.” Piet’s voice started calm but soon became urgent. “Up…up—up!”

Angus kicked the panel off him and Gary heaved to yank the technician’s head and body through the gap and hold him against his chest. He didn’t stop moving but dragged the man back as fast as he could.

Angus let the ceiling panel fall back with a thump and reversed after them while he activated his shield and kept it between them and the gap.

They’d almost reached the corner before the nearest grenade exploded and they all froze.

The ceiling panels rippled and holes appeared in those closest to the door. Angus’s shield sparked. Todd didn’t give them time to process exactly how close they’d come to dying.

“Gary! Where’s my way through?”

“Well, boss, since you’re askin’ so nicely…”

The man led them to a small panel in the back wall of the space they’d found before.

“It’s a maintenance hatch,” he told them and led them cautiously through.

Ka tapped his shoulder when they reached the other side. She glanced at her tablet and then at Piet. “We have five…four…three…”

Todd was mystified, but he trusted her. After all, she and Piet had said they had a surprise.

She caught his worried look and smiled reassuringly. Her partner hurried over and she showed him the tablet. It wasn’t often the technician smiled, but he this time, he did. The team leader began to worry in earnest.

“Tell me you won’t break something essential,” he pleaded, and shouts of alarm drifted up through the ceiling of the space beyond.

Ka held her hand up and made patting motions in the air. Her smile turned from reassuring to evil. “Wait for it…”

Piet crept forward and she caught his arm before he got too far. He turned, his face angry, and there was a sudden rumble. The ceiling panels lifted and the shouts turned to brief screams and quickly disintegrated into choking gurgles.

She released her teammate’s arm. “Make sure your suits are sealed.”

Todd glanced at the tear in hers and noticed the tape covering the rent. He glanced at the rest of the team and saw that Jimmy, Gary, and Reggie’s armor all sported similar patches. The four of them each held up a roll of silver sealing tape.

“Piet brought extras,” Ka explained, and he added another item to the checklist for their next mission.

They finished patching and Gary led them out over the framework that reinforced the bridge. He pointed to a ceiling panel and subvocalized his next communication.

“We have a ten-foot drop, but that’ll put us directly in the middle.”

“I’d rather come in behind the captain’s console,” Todd told him and the man rolled his eyes.

“You coulda told me that to start with, boss.” He pointed. “Over there.”

He motioned for him to lead the way and they all moved quickly to a section of wall close to the entry point. Todd raised his eyebrows. “Really?’

“He’s a little to your left, but I assumed you wouldn’t want to come down on top of him.”

He thought about arguing but decided the man might have a point. The last thing he wanted was to land on a fully armored Dreth captain having a bad day. Coming down beside one would be interesting enough.

Piet moved to the indicated panel and laced it with the contents of another tube. Todd got ready to run, but the explosive expert merely stepped back and gave the count with silent fingers. When his hand clenched to a fist, there was a flare of light around the panel and it fell to the deck below.

“Go! Go! Go!” Todd shouted, slid across the ceiling, and used the armor to enhance his grip as he took hold of the edge and dropped over it.

He swung and landed under the ledge in a crouch. Ka and Gary alighted on either side and they pivoted to take in the scene around them.

Many of the Dreth hadn’t worn helmets. Hell, half of them hadn’t even been in armor. He gulped, glad his suit was sealed. The suppressant hung around them, barely visible as wisps of white and most of the Dreth were down.

The rest stood and gaped, momentarily frozen at the sight of nine fully armed and armored Marines dropping into their command center. They were the ones who’d snapped their helmets closed in time to avoid the worst of the gas’s effects.

Their hesitation was all the time the team needed. Henry fired as he plummeted and his knees folded as he hit the floor.

“Mind the outer hull!” Reggie yelled as one of his own bullets clipped the forward view screen. “No grenades!”

“Don’t shoot my controls!” Ka shouted and eliminated the two closest Dreth, their light-weight survival suits no match for the high-powered rounds she put into them.

The team went to work and continued to fire as they closed with the still groggy Dreth who’d begun to fumble for their weapons.

The team leader ignored them. The captain was one of those who’d managed to close his helmet, although he’d apparently been a little slow and fallen. As the team opened fire, he scrambled to his feet.

Todd shot him in the back but didn’t penetrate the armor. Across the command center, Gary was in hot pursuit of a Dreth warrior who ran toward an all too familiar silver column, and Henry had shot the one closest to it.

“Fuck.”

The Dreth captain turned and caught sight of Todd as he fired again. He zeroed in on him and drew the war-blade hanging at his side. “Get off my ship!” he roared and attacked.

The Marine dived to one side, came up, ducked, and pivoted. Activating the armor’s force shield, he blocked the downstroke that would have cost him an arm. The pirate stepped back and centered his blade to take a middle guard as Todd drew his shorter weapon.

For a moment, he regretted asking to come down close to the console but he had no more time to regret anything as the captain swung again.

Warnings flashed in his HUD as the Dreth pounded on the shield. Todd thrust his blade forward only to have it skate over the hardened chest plate.

And where the fuck does a Dreth get that kind of quality? he wondered as his shield took another hit and died.

Fuck!

In desperation, he tried for a seam, only to have the blade slapped away with an armored glove.

Double the fucks!

He released the blade, drew the shorter blaster he carried, and pressed it into the seam he’d targeted with the sword. As he did so, he wrapped an arm around the Dreth’s waist to keep himself steady and pressed himself hard against the captain’s chest.

This brought him under the blade and he fired as he tried to push the massive warrior back. The captain grunted but remained upright and changed his hold on the sword so he could bring it point-down into his adversary’s back.

I’m not sure if the armor will stop that, Todd thought and locked his arm in place as he pulled the blaster back from the seam, thrust it under the captain’s chin, and fired again. The slugs stuck and the blaster jammed.

Crap.

He was caught completely off guard when Drusilla tackled him from the side and barely registered Piet’s gleeful shout of, “Fire in the hole!” as they sprawled together.

Dru pinned him down as a small explosion erupted behind them and the Dreth captain gave an agonized roar.

She looked over her shoulder, then slapped him on the chest. “It’s gonna be a mess to clean up but your girlfriend won’t have our hides for getting you killed,” she told him.

“Steph’s never gonna know,” he informed her and hauled himself to his feet. “Because we’re not gonna tell her.”

The look she gave him was full of disbelief, but he ignored it.

“The bridge is secure,” Jimmy announced as the autocannons sounded outside.

“Not quite,” Gary replied and looked at the ceiling.

“Fix it,” Todd ordered and left them to resolve it. “Ka, Piet, you’re with me. The rest of you, fix that hole and get this place cleaned up.”

As the team hurried to obey, the technicians came over. “What’s up, boss?”

“We need to fly this thing.”

Their jaws dropped.

“Come again, boss?” she asked.

He glared at her. “You heard. I’ll take the command console. Ka, see what you can do with piloting and navigation. Piet, I need you on shields and guns.”

They frowned at him but didn’t argue and he went to study the captain’s boards.

“It sure would be nice if we could read Dreth now, wouldn’t it?” Piet snarked a few minutes later.

Ka dumped her overlay into his HUD.

“Thank you. Better late than never.”

“Don’t make me come over there.”

“Do it when you’ve worked out how to fly this monster.”

When she didn’t answer, Todd glanced over to make sure she was okay. He relaxed a little when he saw her head bent and a deepening frown as she started to move her hands across the console. More gunfire sounded, followed by a clang, several short explosions, and more Dreth screams from outside the command center.

Silence followed and Todd turned back to the controls in front of him. He had started to make sense of them when several heavy thuds drew his attention to the entry, and he watched the team return. Henry slapped Dru on the shoulder and she doubled over.

She fell onto her side, shaking and making breathless snorts that sounded close to tears. For a moment, he thought she was injured but then realized she was laughing so hard she was crying.

“You are one crazy motherfucker.” Henry sounded almost admiring.

Gary dropped to his knees, howling with laughter. “Did you see the looks on their faces?”

Jimmy shook his head and moved to the nearest dead pirate. Reggie caught Todd’s look.

“You don’t wanta know, boss. You honestly don’t wanta know.”

“You know I’ll find out when I watch the footage from the suit cams,” he told him as they pulled themselves together.

The man grinned. “Yeah, boss, but that’s later. Trust me, later is good.”

He wondered why as they proceeded to drag pirate bodies into a neat stack against the forward wall.

“Will this be a long flight, boss? Because this pile is gonna stink in a day or two,” Gary asked.

“I doubt it.” He kept working. The controls almost made sense. He tried to tweak one and Ka looked sharply at him. “Do that again.”

He complied and her face lit up. “I think I’ve got this now.”

There was a chorus of groans from the team and more than a few “uh-ohs” as well as one “bloody female drivers.”

“I heard that, Gaz. You and me are gonna talk when we’re done.”

“You keep promising.” He waggled his eyebrows.

“I am gonna kick your ass,” she declared.

“And I’ll help,” Jimmy added.

Gary rolled his eyes. “What is it with you girls all sticking together?”

“It’s us Marines sticking together,” the Scotsman scolded.

“Yeah,” Ka told him. “I’m gonna prove there’s a reason the Navy shouldn’t let us fly.”

“Uh…” Todd began and she snapped a look in his direction. “Do I have a say?”

She smirked. “Sure you do, boss. You can tell me which way and how fast.”

That was too much for Gary, who got halfway through an “ooh” before he collapsed into laughter.

“Go find a mop and bucket,” Todd snapped at him. “I want the slip and trip hazards gone by the time we arrive.”

He turned to Ka. “Get us into the fight. Those Navy kids need our help.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

“Don’t say that,” he argued. “I don’t want anyone getting any bright idea about giving me stripes. I like working for a living.”

He glanced at Piet. “We’re gonna need guns by the time we get there.”

“I’m working on it.”

From the captain’s boards, he could see that he was but that other sections of the ship were fighting him. “Ka…”

“Not right now, Captain. Flying…”

He thought about reprimanding her but realized he shouldn’t. The dreadnought was responding to her commands and came about slowly.

Across the battlefield, it was finally noticed and the course change caused alarm in the Naval ships that fought to keep the pirates at bay.

The surveillance office on Scanmer’s Arrow tapped his screen and his keyboard and his eyes widened in alarm. “Captain, we have that big bastard incoming.”

On the pirate ships, there were whoops of glee.

“Now, we shall crush them,” the captain of the R’grath Engeck declared. “Not even the Witch can stand before Hromgarth’s Rage.”

The mood would have been entirely different had they known that Hromgarth was dead, his spine shattered by the cutting charge Piet had detonated against his back and his torso shredded by the sections of heavy armor forced through it by the blast.

As it was, the Marine team didn’t celebrate their victory. Henry, Angus, and Piet were hunched over the weapons’ console, each one with a tablet hooked in.

“Are you there yet?” Todd asked and eyed the ever-shrinking distance between the dreadnought and the pirate fleet.

Angus narrowed his eyes. “Like hacking weapons systems was something we planned to do.”

“I’ll add it to the training schedule,” he promised him. “You can go first.”

“As if.”

Gary snorted. “Getting a little ahead of yourself, aren’t you, boss?”

“Yeah. Don’t we have to survive this first?” Reggie argued. “I mean, you, me, this lot, all on board a mostly broken ship, heading into battle with no gun support and a Navy that’ll soon be shooting at us.”

Todd flipped his hand at them. “Minor details.” He pointed at the pirate fleet on the view screen. “Ka! Ramming speed!”

Angus glanced at Henry. “Did he say ramming speed?”

Witch Of The Federation IV

On Dreth, chaos reigned. Warriors charged down the streets to be stopped by house champions. In one case, the family cook joined their ranks, skillet in hand. Dreth lords joined their servants. Household armories were opened to all.

The Telorans had friends on-world, and those friends had joined the fray.

“Kneel to the Telorans!” they demanded.

“Kneel and our world will be spared.”

“Kneel or die.”

“Never!”

“Dreth live free.”

The battles raged through the planetary capital. Houses that had been traditional enemies joined ranks to hold the Teloran sympathizers at bay. This would have worked better if the enemy had stuck to the standards of honor, but they didn’t.

Instead of meeting their opponents openly, they struck from the shadows and came over the rooftops and garden walls to set buildings alight and strike their enemies from behind. Some slaughtered their way to the rooftops and fired on the defenders from there.

The worst came with Teloran weapons and descended into the square facing the Dreth Coalition Council. Inside the council building, the Gathering was in an uproar with Teloran supporters attacking their fellow councilors.

Bodyguards and public servants fought to protect their masters or each other. Some of the guards were caught by surprise when their masters declared their support for the aliens. Others died as their house companions thrust poisoned blades between their ribs.

Blood ran down the aisles and along the council seats as the insurgents were killed. Alarms sounded through the city and the councilors called for assistance and learned of attacks in other cities.

“We fight for the future of our world,” the head councilor intoned. “We fight for the future of our race.”

He raised his voice. “We fight for Dreth!”

“For Dreth!” the surviving councilors and their guards roared in response. They ran to the entrance, intent on joining the fray, only to be met by the guards at the door and dragged back.

“Treachery!” Gravach shouted, but the guards denied it.

“You cannot fight for Dreth if you are dead,” the chief of security replied. “I want you to lead us. I want you to live another day. Come with me.”

The guard dragged him up the stairs leading to the council chambers and paused once when the councilor ripped his arm free of his hand.

“What is the meaning of this?”

The security chief pointed back. “I want you to live.”

Gravach glanced back and watched a sparkling black haze engulf the entrance. The walls disintegrated and each stone imploded to dust as if it were eaten by some invisible creature. Lights shattered and carpets smoked and vanished.

The cloud reached the rearmost Dreth and one died screaming as the flesh boiled from his bones and his bones crumbled to dust. Those ahead reached back to pull the ones in greatest danger out of its immediate reach.

“Come with me if you want to live,” the security chief insisted, seized his arm, and dragged him forward.

The rest of the coalition followed and all ran faster now to stay ahead of the devastating sparkle.

“What is that?”

“Do you remember the Witch’s conjuring when she fought for the right to defend us?”

Gravach felt ice fill his chest. He remembered.

“Hrageth’s balls and Tegortha’s heart! We have to stop it.”

“We’ll circle back but you cannot shut it down if you are dead.”

The wall ahead of them disintegrated.

“Someone is very determined to kill us,” he noted, but the security chief was already dragging him down another corridor.

“We can make it if we run.”

It was as optimistic as anything Gravach had ever heard, and he noted the colors on the security chief’s cloak. “You’re House K’Leth, aren’t you?”

“Vishlog is my nephew.” The chief didn’t slow but he heard the pride in his voice.

They emerged into the Dreth night.

“They caught many houses at table,” the guard told them. His voice was bitter and the head councilor wondered who he’d lost. He didn’t ask and dreaded the news from his own estate. The rulership of Dreth would have been singled out for special treatment and he doubted any were spared.

It tore his heart but he shoved the pain aside, glad the traditions had not banned weapons from the coalition. The reasoning was that allies should be able to walk armed together with no fear of betrayal.

That did not work so well, he thought as he recalled the events in the Coalition Hall, and he wondered how the discussion would go after. If there is an after.

They came around the corner of the building and burst from cover with a united shout of fury. Those operating the Teloran weapon looked up in shock, but those who stood guard reacted more quickly.

The security chief released Gravach’s arm and the two attacked side by side. This close to the weapon, they felt fury and outrage. Adrenaline spiked through them and they raced into battle.

Above the planet, Stephanie paused. Negative emotion boiled at the edge of her consciousness and it took her a moment to realize it wasn’t because of the pirates.

“Dreth!” she murmured and her eyes widened. She looked up and caught Captain Pederson’s eye.

“Dreth,” she repeated and watched his face twist in sympathy.

He gestured at the Navy ships. “If you leave, they will die.”


Chapter Fifty-Eight

The Ebon Knight spun on her own axis, slid through space, and fired with every turret she had.

“Aaaaand…jump!” Emil commanded and heard Cameron’s squawk of protest down the line.

He looked at Stephanie. “We need to let the engines cool,” he told her. “Can you hold it?”

“I got it,” she answered and didn’t look at Lars or Vishlog, both of whom were frowning.

Emil glanced at them. “Does she?”

Their gazes flicked over her and they nodded, but neither of them looked happy.

“I’m fine,” she told them and the Knight crackled with sapphire and amethyst fire.

The captain looked like he might follow with another question, but the comms tech looked in his direction and he stilled, obviously fielding a message via his internal comms. His face paled.

“Put it up on Main. Small screens only, please.”

Four small screens arrayed themselves down the side of the main viewscreen. Each displayed a section of the capital. One showed the strange device set up in the plaza in front of the Dreth Coalition Council Hall.

Stephanie closed her eyes. “I’m trying to concentrate here.”

From the outside, it looked as though the lightning tightened around the Ebon Knight’s hull before being abruptly released. As it arced out to the pirate ships that attempted to encircle the Knight, she opened her eyes.

Her jaw dropped and Emil was quick to respond.

“It looks bad down there, but if they lose their battle, we only lose the capital,” he told her. “But if the Navy loses, they will lose space.”

He watched as she processed it and her jaw worked silently as she started to respond but thought better of it. When he was sure she understood, he continued.

“I’d rather handle a guerrilla war than be on the ground dodging more rocks.” He looked at Vishlog for support.

The Dreth warrior had remained silent throughout the exchange, but his face was hard and the tusks on his lower jaw were showing. Seeing Emil’s glance, he nodded.

“It is your Navy who taught us the saying, He who is at the bottom of the gravity well hates his life.”

Lars was horrified. “Is that a Navy maxim?”

The captain shook his head. “No, merely a tactical reality.”

Vishlog gave Emil a sour look. “It might be true, but that does not mean I like it.”

“Sir! They’re closing!” The alert from the surveillance tech brought their attention back to the screens.

Despite the efforts from the Naval flotilla, the pirates continued to focus on the Ebon Knight and thus far, it had only been the ship’s nimbleness, sheer aggression, and constant gating that had saved it. Now, it looked as though the pirates would make one last concerted effort to eliminate the Witch.

As the Navy started to turn towards the incoming pirate behemoth, more and more of the smaller Dreth vessels targeted the Knight.

Jonathan finished turning the ship and sent her nose down to avoid the first missiles directed toward her engines. His second maneuver gave the weapons teams enough time to destroy most of the incoming barrage and for the shields to be shuffled into place.

“Shields to port. Full shields,” Captain Emil ordered. “Ship ascend and corkscrew me starboard. On my mark…”

“Aye aye, captain,” replied two voices, the Knight’s calm and feminine and Jonathan’s slightly hoarse with fatigue.

“Mark!”

The pilot worked the boards and the ship slewed and shuddered as the missiles impacted on her port shields. Lights flickered and scans shouted in alarm.

“Sir! Incoming starboard!”

The forward viewscreen showed one of the Dreth pirate battleships plowing through the parting ranks of the pirate fleet.

Knight!” Jonathan yelled and tapped rapidly on the keyboard.

The Knight’s response was as calm as before. “Understood, LC Wattlebird.”

Cameron was not even close to calm. “We don’t have the juice to shield that side.” His frantic message crackled through the comms.

“Understood, Chief.” Their response was a ragged duet.

“She’s preparing to fire.”

“Understood.” Again, the Knight and her pilot spoke in eerie synch.

“Chief Hargreaves, we will commandeer your engines,” the Knight informed him and the Chief’s outraged yelp was lost to the sudden surge of power—and a palpable wave as the pirate vanished in a violent flare of orange light.

“Scans,” Emil demanded and gaped at the space where the pirate had been while he tried to look beyond it.

Witch Of The Federation IV

On the edge of Meligorn space, the Hrageth’s Favor paced The King’s Warrior. Both ships moved at flank speed but only the Warrior had close to thirty mages standing on its observation deck in the tightest circle they could form.

Tethis had been joined by the other two Teachers who had taken Stephanie through her trials for recognition as a Meligorn Master, Master’s Ashgren and Melistar. They stood equidistant around the circle with an equal number of teachers and students between them. All were focused on what Tethis had to say.

“We need to join together,” he told them, “and combine our energies to draw the kinetic energy from both ships and transform it into MU or eMU to create a gate to another system. I know this is new to you, but I’ve seen you practice and you are all more than capable of managing the energy transformation.”

He looked at them and met the gaze of each one. “You can do this. Trust each other. Trust the magic and stay focused.”

They nodded and he continued. “You all understand the theory of the gate and you’ve been able to follow me through the exercises, so I know you can shape the magic as it’s needed. I know you can blend your magic with each other’s magic, and I know you understand how to feed magic into another’s control.”

He caught looks of doubt around the circle and smiled. “And I will guide it. We need to gate The King’s Warrior to the System of Dreth to save that world. Dreth needs The King’s Warrior to save her. The Witch needs us there, or she will fall. And you have proven you can. Are you ready to leave Hrageth’s Favor behind?”

“Earth and Meligorn bleed,” they replied, having adopted the Meligornian battle cry and modified it for themselves. “For Dreth,” they added.

“Good,” Tethis told them. “Remember, only The King’s Warrior is to go through the gate, and she is to arrive with very little forward momentum. Remember the people inside.”

Again, he received a round of affirmatives and he clapped briskly.

“Then let us begin.”

Energy built around them as gMU and kinetic energy were drawn in and MU and gMU were woven together and directed out. Tethis worked alongside to pull in as much gMU as he could and weave a complicated combination of eMU and Mu for the other mages to bind their magic to.

As they worked, he guided their magics together and built the portal. “Stand by for transfer,” he told V’ritan, and a gleaming circle formed in front of The King’s Warrior.

At the same time, Hrageth’s Favor slowed and came to a complete stop as the gate opened. Tethis spun kinetic and gMU together and wrapped The King’s Warrior in power as he guided the ship into the gate.

They were halfway through when he felt the magic begin to waver and one of the students crumpled. The mage twisted his magic around what they had fed into the spell and stopped their energy from draining away, breaking the connection between caster and energy as he did so.

Without that separation, they could have lost both the mage and the energy they had given, and the Warrior needed it to make the transition safely. As he thought it, he felt another ripple run through the magic and then a third. The spell shuddered.

The old mage drew on the gMU from both systems to hold the gate open and tether the magic to the spell. He also managed to successfully separate the students so that the spell would take nothing more from them but not lose what they had already given.

One by one, the students fell and then their teachers toppled. The other two Masters did what they could to shore up the gate, but they’d never used this quantity of energy before and the effort taxed them to the edge of their endurance until they were forced to let go or lose themselves.

Tethis was aware of them collapsing, even as he fought to hold the spell together enough for The King’s Warrior to complete its passage. As soon as she was clear, he let go.

It wasn’t the controlled release he’d planned and he gasped as the remaining energy rebounded out of the spell and unwound to dissipate through him. His vision blurred and shook and he sagged.

His last thought was relief that the Meligornian medics were moving in without waiting for his signal. Melistar saw him fall and pushed shakily to her feet.

A healer rushed over to help her and Ashgren and she let them, relieved when Tethis was lifted and carried to the nearest stasis pod. The Warrior’s chief healer came to her. “Master, is he…”

She guessed the question he did not want to ask and crossed to the pod. “He’s not dead yet,” she told him, “but it depends on his spirit.”

The healer breathed a sigh of relief and placed a solicitous hand under her elbow. “Let me help you to a pod.”

Melistar did not argue and turned her head to observe the viewscreen in the medical center as she arrived. The space outside the ship was chaos.

Dreth pirates attacked what looked like a small fleet of Federation Navy ships huddled together, and the Witch’s ship, the Ebon Knight, danced in a circle of its own and fired at any pirate that drew near.

“We made it, then?” she asked as the healer settled her into the pod, and his face lit briefly.

“Yes, Master, and it looks like we’re in time, thanks to what you did.”

“What Tethis did,” she corrected, “for without him, we would have failed.”

The healer smiled reassuringly and closed the lid. “Sleep, now,” he told her. “No doubt we will need your assistance when you wake.”

He breathed a sigh of relief when she closed her eyes and he was able to seal the pod around her. “Give her at least six hours,” he instructed. “Twelve if you’re able.”

His assistant nodded and the man turned away. He glanced at the viewscreen as he did so and noticed the Witch’s ship had pivoted once again and that blue lightning streamed from its hull.

“I wonder if she even knows we’re here,” he murmured.

On board the Knight, Stephanie glanced at the forward viewscreen and breathed a sigh of relief. The King’s Warrior had gated into the same position the Dreth destroyer had been vaporized in. The purple and blue outline of Tethis’s portal explained its destruction.

“It’s about time, old man,” she murmured and comm’d the Meligornian ship.

King’s Warrior, this is Stephanie. I need to speak to Tethis.”

She waited and was about to repeat her request when the reply came back loud and clear.

“Stephanie, we regret to inform you that Master Tethis is not present to accept your communication.”

“He’s not what? You tell him to move his old bones—”

“I…cannot. Please stand by. We are entering combat.”

The link died and she stared at the forward viewscreen, puzzlement etched on her features.

“V’ritan?” But the link remained closed and no one replied.

Fear rolled through her and her eyes darkened. She glared at the pirates on the screen as the Warrior opened fire and a dozen hostile vessels dissolved into light. A few more increased power and altered their trajectories away from the battle, and the Morgana growled.

“Not so fast.”


Chapter Fifty-Nine

Lars’s gentle touch pivoted Stephanie and the Morgana who blazed in her eyes. He flinched.

“V’ritan has this one covered,” he told her and gestured at the devastation being wreaked on the Main screen, “and you’re needed on Dreth, remember?”

He tried to ignore Emil’s anxious look in his direction but forced himself to focus on the woman before him. Steph was still there, but the Morgana floated immediately below the surface. He could see her in the darkness bleeding into her eyes.

“Keep it together, Steph,” he urged. “We need you.”

“No,” she replied. “Dreth needs me. Tell me the team is standing by.”

“They’re waiting in the shuttle.”

The words had barely left his mouth before he, Stephanie, and Vishlog were in the shuttle, too.

“Gather round,” she ordered and called Brenden and Avery from the cockpit. “That includes you two.”

When they arrived, she looked at everyone. “Tool up here and make sure you have what you need on you. This is our ready room. Vishlog, make sure you have a good grip on the cats.”

Brenden stirred as though to return to the cockpit and she caught his arm. “We’re not flying down.”

Frog paled, but she left no room for argument. “You have three minutes.”

They were ready in two, and she opened a portal in the passenger compartment and led them through it and into a space they’d never thought to see again in combat—the Dreth Fortress of Fire and Respect.

“Fuck me,” Frog groaned, and Vishlog gave him a sharp look.

Stephanie had taken them to the heights, the place where they’d stepped out to receive the honor of Dreth after defeating the champions.

“Frog!” she snapped and Morgana made the edge of her words brittle. “I need lights and I need a broadcast and I need it now.”

He hurried to one side, where he’d noticed a door set into the wall. “Please be logical. Please be logical. Please be logical… Yes!”

The consoles and controls looked like the ones he’d expect from a production room on Earth and he discovered that he could look out over the crowd and arena through the broad window that ran the length of the room.

From the outside, it blended with the rock but inside, it was clear. It was the perfect platform for picking out interesting incidents in the crowd or working out where the most interesting knots of combat might be in the arena and a tall seat with a control desk overlooked it.

“Suweeet!” he exclaimed and turned slowly until he found the room he was after.

It was tucked into the far wall and had its own window looking into the space in which he stood.

“Manager’s office,” he muttered and hurried to it. The door was locked but not for long. He had the control panel housing off and the insides recalibrated in no time.

Stephanie and the rest of the team drifted inside after him, and Vishlog released the cats. Bumblebee bounded immediately to the window overlooking the arena and put his feet up on the sill, and Zeekat clambered into the chair above to dangle his feet over the edge and survey the coliseum like he owned it.

“Steph.” Frog drew her attention to the room he’d opened. “What d’you need?”

She hurried over to join him and the two of them soon had the Fortress lit and broadcasting.

“I don’t want anyone to block me,” she declared. “Can you work it so they have to get the signal?”

“I can to start with, but if I’m fighting with you and they lock us out, I won’t be able to fix it.”

“Do what you can.”

Frog sat and went to work. It didn’t take him long and he gave her an anxious look. “It’s fast and dirty and I don’t know how long it will hold.”

“Will it give me the next five minutes?”

He nodded and a sly grin twisted his lips. “It should give you a half-hour—longer if their defense teams are busy.”

Stephanie remembered what she’d seen on the broadcast. “They’ll be busy and a half-hour is a good start. Now, hack me into every comms network you can.”

His eyes went wide and he gulped. “Comms… Got it.”

Frowning, he bent to the boards a second time, aware of her pacing the room like a caged lion and of the team going over their gear one more time in the room beyond. The task turned out to be both simpler and more complex than he expected.

“There!” he said when he was done. “Press broadcast when you’re ready.”

She turned away from where she’d paused to watch the team prepare and smiled as she looked over his shoulder. “It’s time to bring the fight to them.”

Frog stepped away from the console and gave her room to work.

“Dreth!” she began. “I see you fighting in the streets. I see the Teloran sympathizers fighting without honor, too afraid to face their opponents, exactly as they are too afraid to stand up to the aliens wanting to steal their world. They are so afraid that they forget the traditions and forsake their culture in the same way they forsake their people.”

His jaw dropped, and Vishlog turned with a snarl. She smirked.

“I see warriors unmanned enough to betray their world, using alien weapons to destroy those they swore to protect. I see the cowards of Dreth shooting their betters in the back, betraying their masters, and murdering children out of fear.”

“I challenge you. Come to the Fortress of Fire and Respect. If your world is to die by your hand, at least win the right to betray it. Come and face me. Come and face any who would defend Dreth and those who live in the iron of her arms.”

She paused and watched intently as Frog brought up the screens showing chaos in the streets, relieved to see some of the attacking Teloran sympathizers breaking from the battle to head to the tower. Others hadn’t, so she leaned into the microphone.

“I see some are Dreth enough to take the challenge, but I see others too tark-livered and trembling to keep their armor dry and clean, and more still screaming as their manhood flees. It is no wonder you have chosen to be slaves when you could have stayed free. You are the cursed of Tegortha, not even fit to be eaten by the demon you used to fear.”

More Dreth broke from their battles and roared toward the fortress. In the transmission room beyond, Lars and Johnny glanced nervously from her to the arena below. Stephanie snickered.

“I will see you in the arena if you are not too tark to face me. I will see you and help you redeem yourselves in Tegortha’s eyes, although even then, she might not take you.”

More Dreth shook their fists and raced toward the fortress.

“Those who refuse to come are not worthy of a human executioner, let alone being food for Tegortha’s belly.”

That was enough for the remainder. Any not insulted by her words followed because their fellows had changed the battle. Stephanie mocked them with laughter and bent once more to the mike.

“Oh…and if you want Meligorn? You’ll have to snatch it from my cold, dead fingers.”

She straightened and walked out to where the team waited. Frog followed silently.

“This way,” she commanded and opened a portal to the arena below. The team ran through and she looked for the cats. “Now, boys!”

Zeekat sat up with a yawn, and Bumblebee extended his forepaws and stretched, his tail in the air.

“Now!” the Morgana commanded and they flattened their ears. Zeekat leapt down to stand beside Bumblebee and they stalked past her and through the gate, their fur standing on end.

Stephanie followed and they stepped out onto the arena’s sand as the massive entry door burst open and the first Dreth raged through.

“We will take Meligorn while your blood is still warm!” the warrior roared.

“Wrong answer,” she told him and sent a small blue fireball in his direction.

He sidestepped it and laughed as more Dreth followed him into the arena. They spread out into a wave attack against the team and bellowed their war cries. The cats roared in reply before they raced out and around the team to come in at hostiles from the sides.

Garach remained beside Frog, Marcus, and Vishlog as Lars and Johnny teamed up and Avery and Brendan formed a second duo.

Stephanie’s second fireball rocketed into the Dreth’s mouth while he laughed at her miss. Both fireballs exploded at the same time. The second disintegrated the warrior’s head, and the first annihilated the Dreth behind him.

She recalled the shards of negative power she’d felt from the world and that she couldn’t draw any more energy from her environment. To do so would risk blowing herself apart unless she could keep the nMU around her from the more positive energies within.

How did I do it the last time? she wondered but decided it didn’t matter yet.

The team defeated the first wave. Their light battle armor withstood most of the attacks the Dreth threw at them and their shields dissipated the others. Frog pulled Garach out of the path of a particularly violent downswing, which unfortunately put the young Dreth in the path of another warrior.

The kid didn’t flinch. He trusted his uncle implicitly, launched into motion, and parried the hasty swipe his new opponent took at him with ease. Without slowing, he slid between the warrior’s legs and twisted to slash at his exposed tendons as he passed.

He was up and on his feet before his opponent fell with a shriek. Garach left him to Vishlog’s mercy and spun away to whip the short, curved edge of his blade across the belly of another warrior en route to a third. Frog met him as he parried another attack and the two of them drove their blades deep into the Dreth’s gut.

The boy laughed as he kicked the hostile off his sword and turned so he was back to back with Frog.

“I never dreamed I’d be fighting here,” he rasped, and Frog was dead serious as he replied.

“Neither did I.”

“But you already did.”

“Yeah. And I thought that would be the last time.”

Stephanie chuckled and delivered several spinning discs into the next wave of Dreth. Purple and blue spun like buzz-saw blades to fell her opponents like trees. Roars and bellows were punctuated by the sickening crunch of bone and the wet sound of tearing flesh.

By the third wave, Garach’s excitement had dulled to a faint buzz. The thrill of fighting in the arena so young had given way to the desperate need to survive and keep his uncles and brothers alive. All around him, he could see the team in battle.

Vishlog, Frog, and Marcus fought with reckless abandon, Lars and Johnny with savage, brutal efficiency, and Brenden and Avery in silent concert. If it weren’t for the swords and blasters involved, it might have been some kind of ballet.

The fourth wave brought a surprise.

“What the fuck is that?” Marcus muttered as he fired at close range and felled his sword-wielding opponent.

He pivoted and fired across his waistline to eliminate the warrior who barreled in from the side, while Frog and Garach closed ranks on a third. Vishlog stood a little apart and worked the space around him with two Dreth blades.

The warrior was clearly in his element.

At Marcus’s question, though, the team glanced toward the door and their moment of distraction cost them. Vishlog caught a blaster bolt across his shoulder, and Garach a fist that careened him into the dirt.

Frog barely avoided the blade that threatened to spill his guts to the sand, but he danced back barely in time.

“Thanks a lot, bro!”

They kept half an eye on an ominous-looking contraption as it was carried into the arena and set down on the sand.

“We need to destroy that,” Brenden told them, and he and Avery began to ease their way out of the fight so they could maneuver toward it.

Their first warning was when their opponents glanced at the machine and tried to break away. It was also the only warning they got. As the revolutionaries scattered away from in front of the weapon, the team followed them and split up to make it difficult for the operators to aim.

Clear of attackers, Stephanie stood with her feet apart and stared at it. Her eyes narrowed as the machine came to life, then widened. “Get clear!” she yelled and began to fire energy balls in rapid succession at the two Dreth.

To her surprise, other insurgents leapt in front of the deadly balls and disintegrated into flesh and bone as they exploded. The machine hummed and fired and she flung herself prone. Behind her, a section of wall exploded into dust and savage emotion boiled over them.

Garach felt worse than he had after he’d treated Amy and Elle as inferiors. Vishlog gave the evilest chuckle any of them had ever heard, and Lars and Johnny felt the hollowness of loss. Frog groaned.

“I will kill every single one of those evil-minded motherfuckers with my bare hands,” he declared savagely.

The young Dreth glanced at Marcus, and they both came alongside the shorter man.

The weapons team prepared to fire the machine again and Steph laughed, the sound of it almost as bad as the one Vishlog had made earlier. “So, this is the way you’ll play it…”

“Fuck,” Lars said, but he sounded more tired and beaten than alarmed.

Johnny slapped him on the shoulder. “We’ve got this, bro.”

The team leader sighed. “Yeah, we do.”

They began to move toward the machine and drew the attention of the Dreth between them and their target. Several fired and the two men broke into a run and surged into them as if they had a death wish. At the same time, Avery and Brenden struck.

“Tark loving turdlets,” Stephanie taunted as her team circled and pushed forward. “Dregs of Tegortha, refuse of a million sewers, heirless males of a forgotten line—”

The machine fired again.

This time, she stood before it and her hands moved as she drew the energy around her. Garach glanced back and noticed that she didn’t seem to take it in but wound it over her skin like a shroud and raised it before her to catch the energy that approached.

The bolt struck the magical construction of nMU she held up and flared along it. She laughed and Morgana’s darkness crisped its edges as a second one came through the door.

Before it could be turned and readied, she returned the energy they’d fired to spill it through the lines of Dreth around the machine, and then into the weapon itself. The refracted wave of power did not stop there.

As the first weapon exploded, Stephanie wove the nMu released from its shell into what remained of her spell, pushed it farther, and directed it into the machine at the arena’s entry. It overflowed into the Dreth who attempted to push their way past it.

The second machine erupted and she took its energy and expanded the devastation, laughing as the arena wall dissolved and the incoming Dreth with it. That bought them a little time but the Teloran sympathizers didn’t stop.

They continued to attack and the team backed up to form a tight knot from which they could defend themselves and each other. Above them in the broadcast booth, the machinery did what it was programmed to do and sent out a constant stream of their battle.

Across Dreth, more viewers gathered around their screens to watch the Witch of the Federation do exactly what she had told them she would—fight for their world. Now, they held their breath as her team drew together and sank onto the sand to rest.

The explosion of the two Teloran weapons had given them a little breathing space and they took the time to eat, drink, and tend each other’s wounds. The young Dreth with them helped where he could and caught the imagination of his peers.

They watched as the shortest human on the team pulled a tablet out of its protective pouch and passed it to the Witch. Together, the two of them pored over it, their words broadcast to a world in need of heroes.

“They’ll be here in another five minutes,” Frog told Stephanie, and she wiped a tired hand across her face before she studied the screen.

“This will totally suck.”

“Are you all right?” the leader of the team asked as he looked over her shoulder and frowned, and everyone held their breath as they waited for her reply.

“Sure,” she reassured him. “I can pull the energy but each time I do, Morgana gets a little more power. Here on Dreth, I’m losing the control I have over her.”

On the screens around the world and on the ships returning to the planet, Dreth insurgents climbed the hill to reach the fortress. As the first scrambled over the rubble she had created, the Federation Witch got to her feet.

“Take as many as you can from a distance,” she told her team as the insurgents filed into the stands above them as well as advanced onto the sand.

The team didn’t argue but opened fire and the cats roared from the edges as they fought the tethers Vishlog had driven into the sand. No one wanted them amongst the enemy when Stephanie brought an nMU net down on top of them.

Neither feline appreciated the plan, and they strained against their harnesses and roared in protest.

The audience held its breath as several of the insurgents fired in return, but the Witch had an answer. She fired lightning in the same way she had from the Ebon Knight only this time, she swept the magic into a swirling mass above her head and released it in chains to strike her opponents with ruthless efficiency.

It didn’t take the insurgents long to realize that their best chance of survival was to remove her from the equation—and that they couldn’t do that from a distance. They surged down from the stands and vaulted the low barrier lining its edge to drop to the sand. There, they threw caution to the wind and sprinted hard to reach her before the magical weapons could end their existence.


Chapter Sixty

The boom of a dropship entering Dreth’s atmosphere cracked through the sound system like thunder. It was followed by more.

The Morgana glanced up to see what it was but the night sky hid the craft as deftly as any cloud.

“If they fire on us, they die,” she declared and drew more nMU around her hands. Shadows trailed her body like shifting mist streaked with power.

The answer came as dropships overshadowed the broken edge of the arena and Dreth in heavy armor ziplined down around the edges of the arena. Searchlights split the night as drones were dropped by the vessels and flashes of fire lanced like focused lightning from shadows too solid to be a cloud.

The thunder of rapid-fire cannons sounded from the back of the arena and insurgents screamed and fell. Those facing Stephanie pivoted to look back at the new threat, then forward at the beleaguered team.

“Tell me the colors,” Vishlog demanded and dragged Frog behind him.

“Colors?”

“The armor. What color?”

“Armor?” Fatigue dulled the guard’s voice and Garach pulled the man’s tablet out of its pouch while he shielded his body with his own.

“On the vid, Uncle,” he instructed. “You can shoot more assholes when you’re done.”

“That’s not language you should use,” Frog told him but pulled the live feeds up as he spoke.

The kid grinned. “I learned it from you.”

He had no answer for that and instead, focused on finding Vishlog’s answer. “A kind of bright reddish-brown with orange and green here and there.”

The warrior gave a whoop and charged into the surrounding insurgents. “House Karnach stands for Dreth!” he shouted.

Another voice boomed in response. “And House K’Leth!”

“House Gravach!”

“And House Xagroth!”

The shouts echoed around the arena followed by a rapid-fire exchange. Dreth insurgents exploded, their armor no match for the large caliber rounds wielded by the champions in heavy battle armor.

The Teloran allies fell like grain at harvest and the Morgana laughed at their demise.

Witch Of The Federation IV

The autocannons exploded as Todd evacuated the team. He led them through the jagged rent in the command center wall and into the empty corridor beyond.

“Dammit, Ka, you could have warned me,” he told her as they began to run.

“How was I supposed to know they could override the bridge from an auxiliary data center?”

“Well, you were the one who pointed out all the cool Navy stuff on board.”

“Yeah, but these are pirates. They don’t know their buttholes from their nasal cavities. There is no way they should know how to work this shit.”

“Navy stuff is shit, now?”

“It’s what you get from hiring the lowest-bidding contractor.”

“That’s it! I need a hacker on my team,” he declared. He hadn’t meant to say it out loud and she almost stopped running.

“I hope you don’t think I’m the Marine for that job.”

“Why not? You’re brilliant.”

“You make me do hack-work and I’ll make your service record look like a shagfest, every species and preference included.”

“Plan your revenge later. Right now, I need you to find me a way off this ship.”

“Do you know how hard it is to operate a tablet at a run?”

“And I thought you were talented… Gary! Jimmy!”

“Hey! I like my feet touching the ground,” she protested seconds later as she was lifted into the air.

Jimmy grinned. “You find us a way off this heap of shit and we’ll put your feet down. Deal?”

“Fine! But the least you could do is hold me steady.”

“Ah, quit your bitchin’ and type.”

“Reggie, find me a…a Dreth-free sprint zone,” Todd instructed.

“Like we’re out for a Sunday jog, boss?”

“I don’t jog on Sundays but sure, whatever fills your fancy.”

“There are many things that do that, boss, but you and jogging aren’t one of them.”

“Got it!” Ka shouted, and Reggie led them into an empty conference room.

They paused for a breather as Gary and Jimmy set her down and Henry and Dru covered the door.

“Where?” Todd asked and she pointed.

“What the fuck is that?”

“It’s a ship, captain,” she told him, but he was too intrigued to correct her. “A really old Federation ship.”

“Navy?” he asked hopefully, and she shook her head.

“Short hop cruiser. Some dude’s private yacht.”

“Seriously?”

“Will it do?”

“Yes.”

“Then seriously. It’s the best thing in there.”

“And we can fly it?”

“I can,” Jimmy admitted. “Holiday job when I was younger.”

Todd breathed a sigh of relief.

“Lead the way, Ka. You and Reggie are on point.”

He stowed the tablet as they headed to the door.

“All clear?” he heard her ask as he hesitated and looked at the tablet again.

“Clear,” Dru confirmed, “but not for long.” They entered the corridor at a run.

“Hey, Ka!” Reggie said as Todd ran after them, pacing Dru as she began to move again.

“What?”

“Can this thing do the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs?”

Todd groaned. “Parsecs is distance, not time,” he corrected as the leaders dragged them into an elevator and Ka hacked the controls.

Seconds later, he had a visual of what waited for them at the next stop. It took a moment to register that it was absolutely nothing.

“Hell, we didn’t kill that many,” he protested and stepped cautiously into the corridor outside.

“Enough that they’re cautious,” Ka told him and flashed him another visual taken from the security cameras. “But they won’t be for long.”

“Parsecs is distance, not time,” Reggie muttered. “Is he serious?”

“Who the fuck knows?” Gary retorted. “It is the Toddster.”

“You have a point,” he admitted and shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. We’re here.”

“How long do we have?” Todd asked and she paused.

“What?”

“You set her on a collision course, right?”

“The pirate ship? Yeah,” she told him. “And I managed to lock them out of that long enough that they won’t be able to avoid it.”

“And you said you weren’t a hacker.”

She scowled. “I’m warning you, boss. Don’t go there.”

Ka hacked their way through the security door on the hold and jammed it shut behind her. “Nothin’s comin’ through that,” she said with satisfaction.

“How about us going back out of it?” Gary asked, aghast.

The woman paused to look at him, surprised, and glanced at Todd. “I thought you said we had to get off the dreadnought? You know, before it crashed.”

“Yup,” he replied and led the way to the cruiser set up in a netting cradle. “But we have to be able to fly this thing first.”

She jerked a thumb at Jimmy. “You’d better hope this cretin can do what he says he can because we don’t have time to find another option.”

“Did you notice any?”

“Not particularly.” She smirked.

They circled the ship and avoided the chain tie-downs as they looked for a way up onto it. Todd breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the scaffolding on the other side. “Let’s go, ladies.”

Ka looked at Dru. “Ain’t no ladies here, captain. Are there, Dru?”

Drusilla shook her head. “Nope. Not a one.” She frowned and looked at the guys. “Unless you count Gary. Yeah, definitely a lady, that one.” Her voice took on mock-British tones. “Spot of high tea, love?”

The man refused to take the bait and clambered past them up the scaffolding and opened the access panel. “Do you think it’s locked?” he asked, his accent thicker than ever.

“Suck it and see,” Ka advised as she climbed up beside him.

He gave her a sour look but tried the outer hatch anyway. It opened smoothly and she whistled.

“That’s nice movement for an old tub like this.”

“Old?” Reggie asked as he scampered up beside them and stretched back to help Dru. “I thought you said this was a luxury yacht.”

“It is but it’s old—built about thirty years ago.”

“So, older than you, then?”

“Shut your mouth,” she snapped and stalked inside. Todd entered last and glanced around the hold as stepped in.

He located the security camera at the last minute, hurried inside, and hauled the door closed behind him.

“We really need to go now,” he told them. “They had surveillance in the hold. I assume they know we’re here.”

“Does this thing come with guns?” Angus asked.

“Does it matter?” Ka retorted as she and Jimmy raced to the cockpit.

“D’you think its fueled?” Gary added.

“You’d better bloody hope so.”

Gary sighed and headed out of the control room.

“Where are you going?”

“I gotta cut her loose,” he said. “Which means find a torch, reset the hold to null grav, open the outer doors…”

Ka gave an exaggerated sigh. “I can do all that from here.”

The Englishman gave her a quizzical look. “But you’re not a hacker.”

“I never said I was.”

Gary kept going but Todd called him back.

“Give it a minute,” he advised when the man returned. “Jimmy will give you something useful to do while you wait.”

The Scotsman shot him a startled look but sent Gary and Reggie to check the engine room and the biosystems.

“They’re self-explanatory,” he explained. “It would be nice to know what kind of shit we’re about to get ourselves into.”

“Piet,” Ka called. “I’m gonna need you.”

The demolitions expert gave the team leader a wary glance. “I’m not sure I should. I don’t want to be a hacker either.”

“I have you marked down for second already,” he informed the man with a smirk. “You have nothing to lose.”

Piet’s mouth twisted in disapproval and went over to Ka. “Thanks, boss.”

Todd pulled his tablet out and watched for movement in his HUD as he flicked through the accesses Ka had already given him. He was surprised when two more appeared on the screen.

“Tinker with those, Captain. See what you can come up with.”

He thought about reprimanding her for insubordination but decided to let it slide. Right now, they were all on edge. The handy timeline she’d patched through to their HUDS displayed the pirate fleet looming and the ships nearest didn’t seem to realize that the dreadnought wasn’t slowing and wouldn’t actually stop.

Both were much smaller than the enormous ship, one being about the same length as a corvette and the other more the size of a missile boat. And didn’t he hope that neither of them was armed as well the Navy vessels that size.

Ka tapped madly for another twenty seconds and he looked at the systems she’d sent him. He couldn’t make heads or tails of either of them and was hesitant to try pressing anything. When she had finished what she was doing and saw he’d done nothing, she huffed out another sigh.

“Sometimes, you simply gotta poke it, boss. These systems don’t operate themselves.”

“But…” he began and narrowed his eyes as the screen flashed with a half-dozen tiny touches.

She smiled. “There you go, the outer hatch is open.”

The tiny craft rocked as the hold depressurized and she looked around. “Keep your suits sealed,” she advised. “Jimmy, how are those engines looking?”

“Good, actually, considering this ship’s last flight was a year ago. The pirates left them fueled and shut them down easy.”

Angus snorted. “Preserving the resale value,” he suggested and Jimmy shrugged.

“Does it matter?”

Gary and Reggie poked their heads into the cockpit. “Can we go now?”

Again, Ka looked at the Scotsman. “Are you ready?”

He flexed his fingers and focused on the control board. “As I ever will be.”

She made two light touches on the tablet she’d hooked into the cruiser’s systems. Todd could only guess that she’d somehow managed to use them as a bridge into the dreadnought’s systems—or that she’d never truly disconnected when she left the control room.

Whichever it was, it didn’t matter. He returned his attention to the battlefield displayed in the HUD. It was dangerously close.

“Get us out of here,” he ordered as the closest pirate ship realized the dreadnought had no intention to slow.

Its engines flared and thrusters fired along the side closest in an effort to push the little ship out of the giant’s path. Power thrummed through the deck beneath his feet and he looked up.

Jimmy focused on the boards and the forward viewscreen now showed the outer hatches open. “Seal this compartment,” Todd ordered and signaled Gary and Reggie inside.

“Trying to keep all the bodies in one place, boss?” Reggie asked.

“Something like that.” He leaned against the rear wall and all the team bar Ka and Jimmy came to stand beside him. Together, they watched as the Scotsman’s careful maneuvering pushed them sideways out of the hold.

Proximity alarms clamored the second the yacht lurched into clear space, and their pilot thumped the top of the console. Todd was about to ask him why when the panel he’d struck popped clear and a small steering column rose out of it and clicked in place.

“This is more like it.” The Scotsman chuckled and tilted the half-wheel.

The small craft responded nimbly to the controls and heeled over and Jimmy laughed again. “Oh, man, someone gave this wee beasty a ton of love.”

Todd couldn’t help smiling at the man’s glee, but what he saw on the forward viewscreen and in the HUD killed the smile immediately. The dreadnought slid past above them and Jimmy steered the luxury vessel under her in the opposite direction.

Todd wanted to ask him what he was doing but he already knew. The man used the dreadnought’s shadow to conceal them while he plotted a path through the pirates to the Navy contingent.

The only problem was that there wasn’t one.

Gary’s face was white. “We really don’t have any guns on this thing, do we?”

He swallowed and shook his head in response.

The scene being broadcast from the dreadnought’s command center became cluttered. Of the two pirates in its immediate path, only the one who’d managed to take evasive action was able to get out of the way in time.

The other one saw its danger too late and the dreadnought struck it in front of the engines and ripped through fuel lines and the life-support section. Things buckled and tore and seconds later, the curve of the bigger ship’s hull bulldozed into the engine itself.

The resulting explosion savaged a hole in the dreadnought’s bow and released a shockwave that sent the yacht spinning. Dru, Gary, Reggie, Angus, and Henry slid down the wall and pressed firmly against each other for balance.

Todd was tempted to join them but he didn’t want to lose sight of Ka or Jimmy. She had caught hold of the console to keep herself upright and the Scotsman was braced and clinging to the steering column with both hands.

He got the yacht stabilized and pointed in the right direction and grinned, looking over his shoulder. “You all owe me a pint.”

Gary stood and the others scrambled to follow.

“See?” Jimmy crowed. “We’re ho— Oh, fook.”

Gary had high-fived Reggie and turned to high-five Dru as Jimmy spoke. He froze and stared at the big Scot.

Todd looked up and his heart sank. The pirate vessel that had avoided the dreadnought’s approach had come about. The yacht’s control boards squealed, and amber lights flashed.

Jimmy gave him an apologetic look. “She has us dead to rights, Todd. I’m not gonna be able to avoid it all.”

He knew what the man was saying. One missile would be enough to finish them off and they had no shields and nothing to retaliate with.

Reggie sighed and looked around at his team. “Well, sometimes you won’t win the draw.”

Ka echoed his sigh, her face bleak. “It’s been a good run, people—” She stopped as if she’d run out of things to say.

Todd scanned the HUD display and then the forward viewscreen in search of alternatives.

“Never count us out,” he told them, and they all looked at him with varying degrees of disbelief.

Gary opened his mouth as if to ask him what he meant and the light around them dimmed.

Jimmy looked up and swore again. “Well, fook me—”

His jaw dropped and their comms came alive.

“This is The King’s Warrior to Federation vessel. What did you name this ship?”

There was a pause as if the speaker was checking the yacht’s name again. “Are you serious?”

Ka snickered and Todd grinned. The Warrior’s communications officer was replaced by someone else. “Todd, is that you in there? No one else I know would use that Star Wars reference.”

He looked over at Ka and she grinned as he answered. “Hello, V’ritan. Yes, this is the flying copyright infringement.”

He paused and choked down a sudden swell of emotion “Damn, it’s good to hear your voice,”

Witch Of The Federation IV

On Dreth, Morgana was in full reign. She surveyed the devastation around her and the Dreth in power armor and curled her lip. “Now, we take the Telorans from the skies,” she declared.

Lars extended a hand but power crackled a warning over her skin. “Now, Lars,” she snarled. “Not later and not at your leisure, but now.”

Vishlog stepped forward. “When we are rested,” he began, “then—”

He ended his sentence in a yelp as lightning curled over his body and jolted him back a step. The look on her face was pitiless, and her eyes were soulless pits.

“I will brook no argument,” she announced. “Those who are too weak to continue can always end their journey here.”

One of the nearby warriors turned his head. “Admiral! We need you.”

She followed his gaze. “Yes, Admiral, we need you. I trust you have a ship in orbit.”

Jaleck arrived and worry creased her brow. “Stephanie?”

The Morgana laughed and raised goosebumps on the skin of everyone who heard her. “She is here but in no condition to speak. I believe she and I disagree on a few salient points.”

“Perhaps you should listen to her,” Jaleck began, and the smile left the Witch’s face.

“I don’t think so. Tell me, is your shuttle standing by?”

The admiral ignored her and looked deep into the ebony darkness of her gaze. “Stephanie?” she called. “Stephanie Morgana?”

The Morgana stared in return and a mocking smile lingered on her lips.

Jaleck ignored her. “Stephanie? We need you.”

The Dreth bit her lip and hoped this worked. She didn’t want to imagine what it would be like for the girl if the Morgana proved too strong for her to regain control. Not with what she intended to say next.

“It’s Tethis,” she forced herself to say and had to swallow her own emotion. Hrageth’s balls, but the negative energy is wreaking havoc on my self-control.

She tried again. “Tethis is in stasis. The other mages weren’t strong enough to hold the gate for the Warrior and he saved them from the backlash.”

Sadness rocked her and she paused again. Tegortha’s breath, but she’d grown fond of the old mage in the short time she’d worked with him.

Her voice cracked. “He won’t come out of it on his own. We—he needs your help.”

Again, she stopped, at a loss for what to say next. Whatever it was, it was the only chance Tethis—and their Stephanie—had.

In the end, she kept it simple. “There is one chance only—and that’s you.”

The Morgana uttered a frustrated scream and Stephanie’s eyes flashed blue. Looking into the admiral’s face, she nodded. “I’m here.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

They left the battlefield without delay. Jaleck and her four strongest champions took the team into their own shuttle, while the rest of her forces helped with the clean-up. Stephanie was exhausted, but she remembered to shed the nMU before they reached orbit.

As soon as she was sure she’d emptied the last of it from her hands and around her body, she began to draw gMU and spin it into MU and eMU. Lars watched her and a worried frown creased his forehead.

She caught his eye. “Don’t go there, Lars. You know I need to do this.”

He sighed and nodded. “Sure thing, Steph. I’ll take care of the team.”

For a moment, he looked like he was about to say more but decided against it. By the time the shuttle had docked, she was ready. “Take me to him,” she commanded and Jaleck complied.

It might have crossed the Dreth admiral’s mind to knock the girl out, but if she did and Tethis died, she would never forgive her. More importantly, Jaleck would never forgive herself.

With an almost apologetic look at Lars and the team, she guided the Witch to Tethis’s pod and helped her settle beside it. Three days later, she was still there, propped against it as she fought to stay awake and continue a slow steady feed of eMU and MU to the mage inside.

She caught furtive movement at the open door and couldn’t bring herself to scold the men who peeped anxiously through—provided they didn’t try to move her before she was done. Wearily, she rested her forearm on the pod’s lid, laid her head against it, and stifled a yawn as she shifted a little.

Her eyes fluttered closed and she fought them open, pushed herself upright, and checked the flow of energy.

“And I thought I was stubborn, child.” The unexpected voice had her on her feet so fast she almost fell. Instead, she turned her awkward stumble into a turn and leaned both hands on the pod.

“Tethis?”

“No, I am the ghoooost of Tethis,” the old mage replied. “Who in Selene’s name else?”

“Tethis!” Her cry of joy brought the hurried steps of the chief healer and his assistants. They hovered in the background as she stared at the pod and spoke to the old mage.

“You scared me. I thought… I heard…” Fatigue crowded her, and her lashes hung heavy with tears. Her fears weighted her voice.

“It’s good to see you too, Stephanie, but don’t you need to sleep?”

“I… You almost died.”

“I thought it was my time,” he told her, his voice gentle. “Imagine the stories that will be told about me, now. You stole my amazing ending.”

He tried to sound indignant and failed and she sank into her seat.

“I…no. We can’t afford to lose you, yet. You have miles to go.”

“Yes,” he replied tartly, “but you sound as if you might drop where you stand.”

“This is not about me,” she protested and tried to be cross when she felt weak with relief. “You shouldn’t have—”

“What?” he challenged. “Been a hero?” Before she could reply, his voice took on a teasing note. “Been like you?”

That surprised a giggle out of her and he continued. “Don’t you scold me for almost leaving you behind. Imagine how I’ll feel if you collapse and cannot be woken because you did not rest until you’d brought me back.”

Stephanie sniffed and managed another half-choked laugh.

“Go,” Tethis urged her. “You need a bath and I need to get out of here and have real food. They have the most amazing chefs aboard The King’s Warrior.”

His words made her smile again, but she stood and hesitated as she looked at his pod.

“I know you’re still there, Stephanie,” he told her, and his voice softened. “Thank you for waking me. Now, go and sleep. I’ll be here.”

“Alive?”

“Yes, alive, when you wake up again.”

She took a step back to allow the healers to begin the process of extracting him. A wave of tiredness overtook her and she almost stumbled but managed to regain her balance long enough for Lars and Vishlog to reach her. Todd trailed in their wake.

The Dreth caught her before she toppled again, and she managed a tired smile at them both, vaguely aware of a third face in the background.

Third? Frog? Couldn’t be. Too tall… Familiar, though. Someone I should know… She tried to open her eyes but sleep dragged her under as Vishlog swept her off her feet.

As he cradled her close to his chest, the Dreth gave a sudden sniff and screwed his face up.

“She smells like a darlaqt,” he muttered and Todd looked at him in bewilderment.

“Is that anything like the inside of a tan tan?”

At the sound of his voice, Stephanie frowned. Her eyes flickered but didn’t open, and Vishlog didn’t notice.

“The Star Wars creature Bo Skywalker cut open?” the warrior asked and turned toward the door. Todd nudged him, pointed at Stephanie, and held his arms out.

“That’s Luke Skywalker. You’re confusing him with Luke Duke’s brother,” he explained as the Dreth passed her over carefully.

As he wrapped his arms around her, Todd wrinkled his nose. “Whoa! What happened?”

Lars rolled his shoulders in an elaborate shrug. “Oh, you know, the usual. A big fight at the Fortress of Fire and Respect, her being the only chance to save Tethis when we got back, no time to change between—a regular day really.”

He stifled a yawn and glanced at her to see if she’d realized who was there, but the girl was completely out of it. He snickered and gave his two companions a mischievous look. “She’s gonna hate us when she wakes up.”

Todd looked worried, but there was no way in all the stars he would give her to anyone else. He’d waited for this moment ever since he’d been told she was on board and she was right where she should be—even if she reeked of battle sweat and blood and had no idea he was there.

Lars left him seated at her bedside and headed to the team’s quarters, rolling his eyes at Vishlog.

“I wish I could be there when she wakes up.”

The big Dreth smirked. “That’s what security cameras are for.”

Witch Of The Federation IV

On Earth, in a small office linked to the darkest parts of the web, five figures sat around a conference table. Their laptops were open and their headphones on, and their voices were screened except from each other.

“He wants what?” one of them snapped. Her voice was a hard alto that matched the glitter of her eyes.

“Forget that,” an older voice interrupted. “What is he doing calling us? He’s supposed to be dead.”

She looked at the figure seated farthest from her at the bottom of the table. “You told me he’d had a visit from Emerald and died as a result.”

The figure on her left snickered. “He always did underestimate that girl.”

“And yet we could never recruit her,” the older voice pointed out and all amusement stopped.

“He sent a list,” the young man at the end of the table explained. “I’ll forward it.”

There was silence as he did exactly that. It was a silence that stretched as they read the contents, then the older voice spoke again. “Are you sure it’s him?”

“He has all the right access codes and passphrases,” the young man said, but his voice rose anxiously as he checked through the contact, trying to find any fault with it.

“Everything is in order,” he confirmed a short time later. “That’s what he wants and he says he’s willing to pay almost top dollar—”

“Top dollar,” the older female snapped. “If he wants it so badly—it has to be top dollar.”

The young man relayed her response and waited. A moment later, there was an audible gulp from the end of the table. “He says his price is his offer and if he has to tell you twice, he’ll…uh, nail your nuts to a board before offering you a knife to slit your wrists.”

The room stilled before a hard laugh rolled down the table. “This is the real guy.” The woman chortled. “Anyone else would have caved.”

She sobered and looked around the table. “So, how will we get this?” She tapped her screen. “Most of it is on the prohibited or restricted materials list.”

After a moment’s pause, Alto answered. “I have three contacts we can use—and we should probably use all three. They don’t know each other but they are smart. If we put all this through only one of them, they’re likely to work out what he wants it for and we’ll be up for the compromise fee.”

Her gaze swept around the table. “I’d rather not give Tex that kind of power.”

“How long for delivery?”

They inspected the list once more before Alto replied, “I can have it a week earlier but we won’t tell him that. A little swing room never hurt.”

“Will you use the subway again?”

“For Aries. For Leo, I’ll use the ice-cream vendor. But Aquarius will need a freightliner—the scrap metal yard for that one, I think.”

“I concur.” One of the men at the table spoke for the first time. “I have a source for items ten and ninety-two if that helps split the list further.”

“I’d appreciate that. Your timeframe?”

“The same as yours, only I might use pizza and a lost babysitter for mine.”

Alto snickered. “They’d have to be very lost to be in that area at that time of night.”

“Who says they’ll go to the warehouse?”

“Ooh, do tell…”

“Not this time. Perhaps at dinner?”

“Only if it comes with a show.”

“I’ll text you the details.”

The older woman sighed. “When you two have quite finished arranging your date.”

Across the city, BURT snickered, and Ms. E’s eyes glinted with amusement. Tex’s office, whole and unburnt, sat around them in pristine condition. He raised fluted crystal toward her, and she nudged it with a tumbler of oak-hued whiskey.

Taking a sip, she observed the AI over the rim of the glass. He was smirking.

“What is it?” she asked and took another leisurely sip.

“You,” he smiled. “The Underworld’s new Dark Lord.”

She almost choked on her next sip. “And they will remember me forever.”

A soft chime disturbed the scene and she drained the rest of the glass and placed it firmly on the corner of Tex’s desk. As she stood, she glanced at BURT. “Let me know if the call comes back.”

He nodded and let the warehouse setting fade as she returned to the pod. Her parting words echoing around him.

“I almost hope they make me come and kill them.”


Chapter Sixty-One

“Are we really sure it’s him?” The question dropped between them in a hard tone and unease rippled into the ensuing silence.

“What do you mean?” The woman who responded was older, but her voice was equally as hard.

“You know exactly what I mean,” Alto snapped. “Is the person we’re dealing with really Tex—or is it someone else?”

“Are you serious? If he even knew we were discussing this, we’d all be dead.”

“But he doesn’t, does he? And you have to have your doubts.”

“I don’t.”

“But you really do. Am I right?”

More silence followed, during which she was studied with a wary gaze. After several heartbeats, the older woman sighed and her shoulders sagged. “I don’t know how you discover these things.”

“And I’m not telling, but that’s not what’s at stake. This person we’re dealing with— They don’t feel right, and we’ve all been in the business long enough to trust our feelings. What has your spidey senses tingling?”

“Our last shipment was short.” This was greeted by a collective gasp, but the older woman continued. “We didn’t try to hide it. Obviously, we’re not that stupid. We took what we had to the drop point and told him outright.”

“He was there?” a young man asked, his voice borderline scandalized.

The speaker shook her head. “No, he was conspicuously absent as usual, but he could see us and spoke to us.”

“I never knew Tex to take such a hands-on approach, before,” Alto mused, and her older colleague shot her a sharp glance.

“Exactly. The driver said he drove in, found a camera, and addressed it directly while the co-driver uncovered the load to show Tex the truth of what he was saying. Both men thought they were dead.” She paused and looked around at the others. “To be honest, so did I.”

“You mean he isn’t?”

Again, the speaker shook her head. “No. He told Tex we were one short of the ordered load, showed him the invoice altered to match the cargo we’d brought, and all the speakers said was for him to continue.”

Eyebrows raised around the room. “And?”

“So the driver told him the extended timeframe, and Tex told him to get back in the cab while his people unloaded.”

“There were people?”

“They came out of the shadows, all masked, and got to work. The driver says they moved like operatives.”

“Spies?”

“No, the other kind—the ones who shoot first and ask questions later.”

“Tex has gone up in the world if he uses that kind of muscle now. Those guys usually only consent to carry guns.”

“Yeah. Well, these unloaded the truck and cleared the warehouse. One of them held a gun on my people until the others were done. The driver says the guy got a call, slapped the side of the truck, and signaled my man to leave.”

“What? They let him go? They didn’t go after him?”

“Not so far and that was a week ago. We almost have the rest of the shipment for him, but we’re gonna be a day late.”

The young man gave a soft whistle. “Man, you really like living dangerously, don’t you?”

The speaker snapped a glare at him. “No. I don’t, and my driver doesn’t either. He’ll go because I’ll kill him if he doesn’t and he loves his family. Tex will only kill whoever’s there and I’ve guaranteed that his wife and kids won’t go without, but he’s put his will in order and he’s not a happy man.”

She caught the looks from those around her and returned them. “What? Go ahead and tell me you’d do anything differently.”

One by one, they looked away.

When she spoke again, her voice sounded older and more bitter than usual. “And don’t tell me you haven’t noticed anything as well.” She pointed at another of the men. “Go on. Why don’t you explain what that look was for when you walked in?”

Of the two men present, he was the oldest and he returned her gaze with arched eyebrows. “Do you really want to know?”

She nodded so he glanced across at Alto. The other woman nodded as well. When he looked at the other two, they stared intently and waited for his reply.

He sighed. “Fine. The pizza delivery guy got an order for three Hawaiian, one pepperoni, and a supreme with three sides of garlic bread, twenty donuts, and a chocolate cake. He was intercepted before he reached the drop point and given a fifty-dollar tip with Tex’s compliments.”

His expression was grim as he shot the older woman a worried look. “That observation about operatives… Yes, they were, and high-end ones at that.”

The younger man whistled but his older colleague wasn’t finished.

“It gets better,” he told them. “The babysitter was given the address of a mother of five who greeted her at the door with a smile, a wave, and a list of instructions as long as your arm, one of which was not to answer the door. You can imagine her surprise when she came out from tucking the twins in for the fifteenth time to discover two men blocking the corridor who demanded the delivery.”

Alto frowned and chewed on her lower lip. “Tex doesn’t have a sense of humor.”

“No, and he’s never interfered with the way we manage our drops. He’s never cornered or changed the locations our people need to go to, and he’s never changed the playing field at the last minute like this.”

“So?” She tapped her fingers impatiently on the arm of her chair.

“If it is a new player,” the older man said, “they’re very, very good.”

“You’re not seriously suggesting we simply let them have the top position uncontested, are you?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m merely saying if it is someone new, they’re very, very good and we need to be careful. My people have never been uncovered before—and there have been those who tried. We need to act with caution.”

“And then crush them?” Alto suggested and smiled sweetly.

The grin he gave her in reply was devious and evil in intent. “We smear them so badly their memory will make hardened criminals shudder.”

“You sound like you’ll enjoy this.”

His reply was cut short by the older woman. “And if it isn’t?”

She met their startled expression with a warning look. “If it’s still Tex and he’s changed his routines, there might be a good reason for it. What if he’s responded to some other threat? Or is testing loyalties? You all know what he’s like.”

They blanched. They did know what he was like.

The older man’s expression sobered. “We’re gonna have to be really careful about this.”

“But we will investigate it…won’t we?” Alto asked.

They nodded and fell silent as they tried to think of exactly how they could determine if the person behind the orders was Tex or if it was someone else—without incurring the crime boss’s wrath if he still held power.

It was their youngest member who broke the silence.

“Well, we know how he likes quality materials, right?”

“He also liked like agreements to stay the same,” Alto said, “and he’s been more lenient lately.”

The man shrugged. “So? What if we deliberately put sub-standard materials in the next shipment—”

“What?”

“Are you suicidal?

“No, which is why we follow the shipment with the good stuff so that we can prove we were only testing who he was. You know Tex. He’d appreciate a little caution like that, right?”

Alto and the older woman contemplated his face while they turned his plan over in their minds.

“Besides,” the young guy continued, “we’re all fairly sure we’re not dealing with Tex, right? If we had the tiniest reason to believe it was him, we wouldn’t even have this discussion, would we?”

He looked at them, his eyes almost pleading. He sure as shit didn’t want them to have this discussion if they had the slightest inkling that the man was still in power. He really was nowhere near as understanding as he tried to paint him.

The fact that he hadn’t killed the driver and then driven the truck through one of Alto’s better-known businesses for failing to deliver according to the request was completely out of character. Tex had been fair when it came to business, but not meeting a commitment by the deadline?

Not a hope in hell. There had always been an example. Always.

As for playing with substandard materials… Man, even he wasn’t brave enough to yank that particular chain. The last time someone had tried to slip something subpar past Tex had been two years before—and the results still caused him to shudder.

There had been casualties. The crime boss who’d tried it hadn’t lived past the hour in which the shipment had arrived and neither had his family or any of his lieutenants. Not even the ‘protected’ ones in law enforcement. The young man shivered.

“You’d better hope it’s not Tex,” Alto said, watching him, “because it’s your ass that’s on the line.”

His heart sank. He’d assumed it might come to that, but he’d hoped not. He grimaced. “Fine. Whatever.”

He ducked his head to make it hard for her to read his expression. There was no way in all the living hells of this world that he would risk his business for this little experiment.

Firstly, because he wanted to survive and secondly, because if the person in power was not Tex? Then they were good enough to maybe hold their own against all comers—and he wasn’t.

The best he could do was hope he’d survive the experiment and get to keep some of what he had. No. Alto might not know it, but she and her boyfriend were the ones who’d take the fall. He had it all worked out.

Witch Of The Federation IV

Todd leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He could still taste her on his lips. The scent of her and her smile lingered behind his consciousness.

He sighed, opened his eyes, and pushed off the elevator wall. Damn, but he’d hated leaving her behind.

The elevator slowed and he swallowed the hollow sadness that threatened to engulf him. He raised his head, thumped a palm against the wall, and suppressed the memories stirred by the hospital’s antiseptic scent.

Not too long before, he’d been in a place like this. He knew what it was like to be discharged and on his own. There was no way he would let his people go through that.

“They’re big boys, now,” Stephanie had told him when he’d mentioned where he would go first.

“Two of them are girls,” he’d corrected her, and she’d raised her eyebrows.

“Should I be worried?”

The look he’d turned on her had all the certainty in the world. “Not a chance. They’re my team. You’re my girl.”

That had earned him more arched eyebrows and she’d drawn back. He’d had to reach out fast to snag her around the waist and pull her against him. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise,” he told her as he stooped to capture her lips in another kiss.

It had left them breathless and he smiled at the memory. The elevator jolted to a stop, however, and brought him abruptly back to the present.