Book: Investigation: Age Of Expansion

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

Investigation Precious Galaxy Book Two

Sarah Noffke Michael Anderle Craig Martelle

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

Investigation (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 © 2018 Sarah Noffke and Michael Anderle

Cover by Jeff Brown,

Cover copyright © LMBPN Publishing

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

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

LMBPN Publishing

PMB 196, 2540 South Maryland Pkwy

Las Vegas, NV 89109

First US edition, July 2018

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


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

Author Notes - Sarah Noffke

Author Notes - Michael Anderle

About Sarah Noffke


Books By Sarah Noffke

Books By Michael Anderle

Connect with The Authors

Investigation Team

Thanks to the JIT Readers

John Ashmore

Mary Morris

Peter  Manis

Kelly O’Donnell

Micky Cocker

If I’ve missed anyone, please let me know!


Jen McDonnell

To Suzie for encouraging me.

To Diane for reminding me.

To Pavi for celebrating every win with me.

I owe many a success to the support of my friends.


To Family, Friends and

Those Who Love

To Read.

May We All Enjoy Grace

To Live the Life We Are



Investigation: Age Of Expansion

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

Chapter One

Monstre Corporation Headquarters, Planet Carina, Aurelis System, Precious Galaxy

The sound of Solomon Vance’s shoe made a sharp clacking sound as he tapped it on the white tile floor. His mother used to tell him that patience was a virtue. She was constantly spouting clichés that were inherently false.

Currently, Solomon’s patience was at an all-time low, as he stared at the back of the head of the scientist who sat at the main control center.

“We’re going to try it again,” he ordered.

Susan turned, her loose bun nearly falling out from the movement. “But sir, don’t you think we should make some changes to the process first? We lost two consciousnesses with the current protocol.”

“You’re fired,” Solomon spat, his lips forming a hard line.

Susan’s mouth popped open with alarm. She would know he wasn’t kidding, but it had to be a hard reality for her to accept. Thirteen years she’d worked for Solomon; he’d recruited her right out of school. Maybe this snap judgement was a result of his low patience, but he wasn’t about to go back on it.

“But, but, but—”

Solomon cut her off with a curt shake of his head. “You know better than to argue with me.”

“Yes, sir, I only thought—”

“Maybe it is you who lost the consciousnesses,” Solomon interrupted.

Susan shook her head furiously, visibly shaking. “I only did what the protocol dictated.”

Solomon put his back to the scientist, his eyes on the distant corner of the all-white room. “Dean, prepare the memory wash chamber immediately. Susan Gibbons will be there very soon.”

“Yes, sir,” the AI answered overhead. “The chamber will be ready in two and a half minutes.”

When Solomon turned back, he was revolted by the sight before him. Susan was crying, her nose turning red and tears streaming from her eyes.

“Oh, and Dean?”

“Yes, sir?” the AI replied.

He ran his hand absentmindedly down the sleeve of his suit jacket, smoothing it out as if there were wrinkles. “Send in another level-four scientist to replace Susan.”

“I anticipated this and have already paged Bruce James,” the AI informed him.

Solomon released a steady breath. Why can’t everyone be as efficient, he wondered.

“Sir, please,” Susan begged. “Please give me another chance.”

He shook his head. “You know the rules.”

“But my memories,” she argued.

This only confirmed for Solomon that he had made the right call. Susan had forgotten her place at Monstre Corp. She thought her opinion mattered. That Solomon tolerated insubordination.

“Your memories are the property of Monstre Corp. You know that.”

“Please let me keep them,” Susan begged, more tears falling. “I promise I won’t talk. I won’t tell anyone what happens here.”

Solomon released a sadistic smile. “There’s only one way for me to ensure that.” He lifted his hand, his silver ring with the gnarly-headed monster catching the light as he pointed. “The memory wash chamber is expecting you.”

A loud wail echoed from Susan as she turned, hurrying for the entrance with her head down. The glass door opened as she neared, and Bruce James, a thin, young man, held it open for her. If he was curious about why Susan was crying, his face didn’t show it.

Bruce strode over to Solomon, his chin even. “You wanted to see me, sir?”

Solomon pointed to the seat Susan had vacated. “I need you to run the consciousness transfer process.”

Not missing a beat, Bruce pulled out the chair, sat down and began typing. “Which consciousnesses should I use?”

Solomon turned toward the row of windows that overlooked the Chumash forest, a place that had been reported to have high levels of radiation and was therefore uninhabited and classified as a no-fly zone. Obviously the forest was safe; he’d planted the reports about the radiation levels. It was the perfect location for his headquarters, with views of endless forest and protected from spying eyes. The building, a flat structure, blended into the landscape, even at the top of one of the highest peaks.

“Use two level-one consciousnesses,” Solomon ordered, staring at his own reflection in the window.

His long forehead was lined with wrinkles, but his eyes were still youthful. His bald head reflected the light above. He ran his hand over his scalp, enjoying its smoothness.

Bruce typed on the keyboard, pulling up a file. “I have two miners from Phoenix Tech.”

“That will work.” Solomon turned, his eyes swiveling up to the large screen.

Bruce double-clicked the mouse, pulling up a 3D image of a face. It rotated, the man’s eyes widening, trying to look around.

“Hello! Is anyone there?” the man on the screen asked.

Solomon placed his hands behind his back and lowered his chin, giving Bruce a commanding glare.

The scientist cleared his throat. “Bob Howard, can you hear me?”

“Hello! Yes! Where am I?” the man yelled, his face showing his stress, as wrinkles sprang to his eyes.

“Hold on,” Bruce ordered, typing. The image of Bob Howard disappeared, replaced with the 3D graphic of another face, a man about the same age as the first.

“Tom Culver,” Bruce stated. “Can you hear me?”

The man blinked rapidly in astonishment before a grimace took over his face. “Let me out of here! What have you done?”

Solomon gave Bruce a forceful nod. The scientist agreed silently, pulling up both images on the screen. The faces rotated, looking around but not actually being able to see anything. A copy of their physical bodies was stored in the database, locked in their file with a sample of their DNA, should they ever need it. However, it wasn’t necessary to grant them a body in the database. It would only confuse things.

“Okay, I’ve only got to erase the physical composition of the first subject,” Bruce said, leaning over the keyboard and typing. A cursor ran over the image of Bob Howard, erasing him one line at a time.

“What’s going on?” Bob asked, his voice frantic.

Bruce turned to Solomon, a proud smile on his face. “Don’t worry. I have them muted.”

“I’m not worried,” Solomon said flatly.

Aggghhh!” Bob yelled. “Something is happening to me!”

Bruce shook his head, tapping his fingers on the desk, his eyes intent on the smaller screen in front of him. “You’re not feeling anything. I’ve only deleted your physical composition files.” Bruce looked up at Solomon with a laugh. “Maybe he feels a little naked.”

Solomon’s face remained stony. “Now copy his consciousness into the second subject.”

Bruce’s smile dropped as he looked back at the screen. “No problem.” He jabbed at a few keys. “That should do it.”

A progress bar popped up on the screen, starting at ten percent. Solomon watched as it increased, everything in Bob Howard’s consciousness downloading into Tom Culver’s.

That had been a part of the plan from the beginning, besides having a database of brilliant minds. The end goal was always to have all the minds compressed into one; the single smartest mind of all time at Solomon’s disposal. A computer powered by actual minds, and Solomon as the sole user.

A red box popped up on the screen. Just like before.

The white words were a bold contrast against the red of the box. ‘Transfer failed’.

Solomon let out a sigh. Again, they’d lost two more consciousness. The transfer of one mind seemed to overload the other, killing them both.

“Let’s try it again,” he ordered, turning again to look out at the serene forest, where the trees towered, the giants of this land.

Chapter Two

Bridge, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System, Precious Galaxy

The black gaseous monster drifted like fog on the wind, covering distant stars as it progressed. The battlecruiser kept a safe distance from the biosynthetic beast to ensure that it didn’t sense it was being followed.

Dr. A’Din Hatcherik stared out the viewing windows of the bridge, his mind wandering.

“Did you hear what I said?” Jack Renfro asked.

Hatch waved a tentacle up and at his back dismissively. “Yes, of course. If we stay far enough away, the monster can’t take down our shields.”

“And with the cloaks, it shouldn’t know that we’re following it, correct?” Jack asked in confirmation.

“Yes, that’s right,” Hatch affirmed.

Lewis had tired of observing the beast. At first it had been fascinating to watch the strange organism float through space, headed toward the unknown. The monster moved like seaweed on the surface of the ocean, drifting with the waves. After a while, it had simply made the detective sleepy.

Jack clapped his hands, startling Lewis back to attention. “There’s our star student.”

Dejoure strode onto the bridge, Harley unsurprisingly by her side. She looked up, blinking in surprise, like she wasn’t sure who the chief strategist was referring to. “Hey.”

“Ricky Bobby, can I get the image of DJ’s drawing?” Jack asked, rolling up the sleeves of his blue button-up shirt.

The girl smiled when her drawing of the Precious galaxy popped up on the main screen.

“Here you are,” Ricky Bobby said overhead.

“Thank you.” Jack looked up at the screen before turning his attention to DJ. “Thanks for joining us. After studying this in relation to the Precious galaxy, I have a few questions for you.”

DJ pulled herself up to sit on the strategy table, which was dark. Its light hadn’t shone since Lewis set foot on the ship—since the crew of Ghost Squadron had disappeared.

“What is it?” she asked, letting her legs dangle over the edge, and slipping her small hands under her thighs like she was cold.

“You emphasized five points in the galaxy,” Jack began, “which are connected by this zigzagging line, both in your drawing and in the galaxy. It’s apparently a gas of some sort. I’ve determined the points to be five separate systems. My question is, what is the significance of these systems?”

Dejoure looked down with uncertainty, kicking her feet back and forth.

“You were trying to find Commander Fregin,” Lewis reminded her, trying to help the kid out. “Are those points related to her whereabouts?”

Dejoure’s green and brown eyes swiveled up, a bit of hope in her gaze. She nodded. “I think so.”

“So those are places where the commander has been?” Jack guessed.

“Or maybe it’s where she is,” Bailey offered.

“You can’t be in five places at once,” Lewis said, shaking his head.

“If you’re in a shared computer database, you can,” Bailey countered.

Hatch turned around, pointing a tentacle at his star student. “That’s exactly correct, Lieutenant. It’s most likely that the five points are where the databases are connected. Maybe the commander’s consciousness has been transferred from database to database.”

Jack nodded, combing his hand over his chin. “Okay, I could buy that. So Vance has locations all over this galaxy.”

“I suspect that Vance has picked this satellite galaxy because he can dominate it,” Hatch stated.

Jack pushed off from the console he was leaning against, now standing tall. “We have a lot of exploring to do. We need to find out exactly why he picked something so far out of Federation territory. That’s my next objective. I’m going to start researching these five different systems, and determine the most likely location for a database.”

Hatch waddled away from the bank of viewing windows. “And I suspect that the Precious galaxy isn’t as far from Federation territory as we might think. It nearly killed us to get here, but I’ve got a hunch that there’s a shortcut between this galaxy and the one we call home.”

Lewis’s eyes skipped to Bailey, who was returning his curious look.

“Oh?” Jack questioned.

Hatch pointed at the monster framed in the viewing window. “That awful beast didn’t slingshot off a blackhole to get here in record time. I’m pretty certain of that. I’ve been running some tests and found a huge spike of energy on the outer rim of the Precious galaxy, although it’s lessening by the hour.”

“Do you think the monster came through a gate?” Bailey asked.

Hatch nodded proudly at her. “Yes, and although a gate of this nature should be incredibly difficult to maintain, I’ve found something else of interest.”

“Now is not the time to quit talking,” Jack said with a laugh. “Continue, doctor.”

“There’s a high level of doromantinium where the energy spike registered,” Hatch explained.

“So you think that D-factor was used to create this gate,” Lewis stated.

Hatch pretended not to hear this observation. “You see, I believe that this gate was made using D-factor.”

Jack cut his eyes at his nephew, suppressing a grin. “Then it appears that the mineral has many uses.”

“Yes, and to be honest, this ship can’t slingshot back to Pan galaxy without suffering major repercussions,” Hatch stated.

Dejoure rubbed her temples. “Our brains would all be scrambled.”

Everyone on the bridge laughed from the unexpected joke. The girl looked down, blushing.

“Yes, and I’d prefer to keep my brain intact,” Jack stated, continuing to chuckle.

“So it would serve us to find this gate,” Hatch concluded.

“Did you say you had a general location?” Bailey asked.

Hatch nodded. “I inferred it from the five points on DJ’s drawing. If a pilot would be willing to go to those coordinates and look around, I think that person would be able to locate the precise location of the gate.”

Bailey smiled. “I can definitely take a Q-Ship out to explore.” She looked to Lewis. “You up for some investigative work?”

Before he could answer, Harley barked loudly, gaining everyone’s attention.

Lewis smiled at the dog, thinking how handsome and intelligent the creature had become, having benefited from a full enhancement after being injured in an accident.

“Why yes, and I daresay we could use Harley’s keen eyes.”

Chapter Three

Q-Ship, Cacama System

“So what am I looking for, again?” Lewis asked, pushing back in his seat, his hand gripping it tight as they sped out into the star-filled space.

Bailey knew he still wasn’t comfortable with her flying, and she covered her grin. “A gate is virtually invisible, but it becomes visible and changes colors when viewed from different angles, turning blue, green, red, or whatever.”

“That’s going to be hard to find,” Lewis stated, staring out the bow windows.

Bailey knew what he meant. The Precious galaxy was unlike any place she’d ever been. Space wasn’t black punctuated with stars here. Pink, blue, green and purple gas wove around the sparkling stars. This place is named appropriately.

“You two keep your eyes out,” she encouraged, throwing a look back at Harley, who was dutifully staring around.

She wasn’t sure why the canine had requested to come along, but she enjoyed having him present. She’d grown up with dogs at her grandmother’s cottage. They didn’t judge her and, better than that, even made her relax a bit. When the dogs were around, she was never so eager to ‘get up and do things’, as her sisters called it. Instead, she’d lounge with the long-haired shepherds, dozing in the grass.

“We’re approaching the area where the energy spike was recorded,” she reported.

She pulled back on the controls and abruptly arranged her face into a startled look of surprise, shooting her eyes down at the gauges. She caught Lewis tense up beside her; he was watching her. Of course he is. He’s always watching everyone.

“What is it?” he asked, leaning forward.

“The energy spike has affected the engines,” Bailey lied. “They’re stalling.”

“You know what to do, though, right?” Lewis asked, gripping the armrest harder.

Bailey gave him an incredulous look. “I’ve been flying for all of two minutes. Of course I don’t know what to do!”

She let the Q-Ship tumble, enjoying the way the momentum made her stomach turn. That was always when the adrenaline released, pushing her harder.

“Pip?” Lewis asked, pushing back even further into his seat, his face drained of color. “Are you there? Can you help?”

“I’m here,” Pip answered, sounding bored. “Help with what?”

“The engines! They’ve stalled!” Lewis yelled.

The ship spiraled now through infinite space, tumbling end over end.

“I show that the engines are fine,” Pip stated. “And that the lieutenant is full of bullshit.”

Bailey pulled back on the controls, steadying the ship once again. She cracked a smile. “Oh, that’s right. The engines are fine—I was reading the wrong gauge. Silly me.”

Lewis sat up straighter, casting an evil glare at Bailey. “You were messing with me? Why?”

She allowed a laugh to fall out of her mouth. “To encourage you to have a little faith in my piloting skills. I might be new to this, but I was born to fly. You don’t have to be so nervous.”

Lewis shook his head, letting out a heavy breath. “You’re brand new to this, and even if you’re good at flying, a small mistake would cost us big.”

“Cost you big,” Bailey joked. “I’d die doing what I love.”

“Very funny—”

Harley’s abrupt barking cut Lewis off, and the detective’s eyes followed the dog’s to the port side of the ship.

“Do you see something?” Bailey asked, looking back at the dog.

He barked again, more adamantly.

She changed the course of the ship.

“I think I see it, too.” He pointed. “Head over there.”

“I don’t see anything,” Bailey admitted.

“You have to look at it just right,” he explained, his voice tight from the angle of his head. “Continue going forward.”

“Like this?” she asked, blinking ahead at the strange bluish-green space.

“Veer to port side,” Lewis ordered.

Bailey did as he directed.

Harley barked in the back.

Lewis turned to him, nodding his head. “Yeah, I know.”

“You know what?” Bailey asked desperately. “What is it?”

Lewis lifted his head up. “What happens when you go through a gate?”

Bailey thought for a moment. “Well, you transport to wherever it leads.”

“Okay,” Lewis said with a smile. “Get ready for that. We’re going through.”

It suddenly felt like the ship had been swallowed up and spit down a drain. It spiraled, the force causing Bailey to grip the controls tighter. It wasn’t like the feeling she’d get when the ship jumped or was transported. This was an inside out feeling. It must have been a result of the type of gate Vance created which was different than Federation protocol.

Bailey blinked, and the pastel skies were replaced with the blackness of space she’d always seen when flying.

She let out a breath, suddenly realizing she was holding it. “We’ve gone through a gate? This is the Pan galaxy?”

Lewis peered down at the nav computer. “Yes, I believe so.”

“I can confirm that this is the Pan galaxy,” Pip chimed in overhead.

Bailey checked her instruments. Thankfully, everything seemed to be in working order. “Pip, will you please record the coordinates for that gate location?”

“It’s already been done, Ms. Manners,” Pip said. “No wonder Hatch likes you.”

Lewis laughed, looking all around the space, which was so different from Precious. “He likes her because she’s pretty.”

Bailey’s eyes reflexively widened. She whipped around and shot an accusatory look at Lewis. “That’s not true.”

Lewis shrank back, a horrified look on his face. “I didn’t mean I think you’re pretty. I was only saying—”

“I don’t care what you or anyone else thinks,” Bailey nearly yelled. “But don’t you ever say that I get favors or lose them based on my looks. If Hatch likes me, it’s because I’m a damn good soldier and have earned that respect.”

Lewis studied her for a moment, seeming to regain his composure. He nodded, sitting taller. “Yeah, of course. I’m sorry. I was only joking.”

Bailey shrugged him off, turning back to the controls.

All her life, it had been the same. She was either penalized for being pretty, or treated better for it. Not that she was complaining that her features were considered attractive, but it was a hell of game trying to be a respected soldier when her commanding officer called her ‘princess’, or thought she wasn’t tough enough for an assignment.

“Shall we go back through, so we can return and give Hatch the good news?” Lewis asked, his tone cautious.

“Yeah, sure.” Bailey turned the ship around, enjoying how smoothly it moved.

“And you can collect your gold star,” Pip teased.

Bailey shook her head. “Harley found the gate, and Lewis directed me to it.”

“It was a team effort,” Lewis said proudly.

The ship slipped through the gate, and everything around them was covered in solid darkness for a moment. It was strange not to see distant stars of the Pan galaxy or the pastel gases of Precious. The space inside the gate was the in-between.

“Cloaks are down,” Pip stated.

Bailey scanned her instruments. “Is everything okay?”

“Yes, it’s only that maintaining the cloaks is not advisable after gating multiple times,” he informed her.

Bailey shook off the nausea that always accompanied gating. Most thought that pilots didn’t get sick from flying…that wasn’t true. They only recovered quicker than most.

A bright light covered the ship as it shot out into the Precious galaxy. Bailey took back the controls and overcompensated for the vibrations they were experiencing after exiting of the gate.

A blast of red spilled across the starboard of the ship.

“What was that?” Bailey asked, her eyes darting down to the radar. Three ships were headed toward them.

“They are unidentified, but appear to be hostile,” Pip stated. “Enemy fire approaching.”

“ ‘Appear to be hostile’?” Lewis said sarcastically. Thankfully he didn’t look as nervous as before.

“Can you establish a link to one of the ships?” Bailey asked.

“I’m afraid that they have communications blocked,” Pip said.

Bailey let out an annoyed breath. “So they don’t want to chat. They only want to try and shoot up our ship. Big mistake, assholes.”

Bailey spun the ship around to face the approaching enemies. Their spacecraft were unlike anything she’d seen before. They resembled dragonflies, with the bow appearing as an insect’s head, and the port and starboard extended out like long wings. The stern was long and narrow, and the entire ship was a reflective blue and green, patterned like butterfly wings.

“Whoa,” Lewis said, homing in on the three ships. “What are they? Where are they from?”

“I’m searching for an answer to that question,” Pip stated.

“How about you take over the guns instead,” Bailey suggested. “I’m going to call these guys’ bluff. If they think I’m going to tuck tail, they’re absolutely wrong.”

Harley sounded an irritated bark from the back.

“Sorry, buddy. I meant we’re not a bunch of scaredy cats,” Bailey joked.

Harley barked again, this one full of excitement.

“Okay, I’ll take over the guns, but just so you know, I’m sort of a Rambo,” Pip stated.

“Give ‘em hell.”

Bailey banked the ship, coming in between the enemy craft. Pip released a barrage of fire, knocking out the first ship with decisive hits. It exploded on impact, bits of the wings flying out in all directions.

Bailey pitched the ship twenty-six degrees. The other two enemies were apparently taking the attack on their friend personally, and were flying after her with a vengeance.

“Oh, they wanted to play until you stood up and they realized you were taller,” Lewis said with a triumphant laugh.

Bailey darted out of the line of the ship’s fire, quickly swerving back and forth. “Pip, are you going to help me out?”

“I was waiting for you to give me a clear shot,” Pip stated. “I can’t do much when you’re fleeing.”


She slowed the thrusters, nearly halting the ship. The enemy aircraft shot in front on either side, not having anticipated the change. The Q-ship released two missiles, which quickly found their targets. With the close proximity, the dragonfly ships didn’t have a chance to respond, and they exploded.

“Nice job!” Lewis praised, looking at Bailey victoriously.

Harley barked excitedly in the back.

Letting out a relieved breath, Bailey set the ship on course for Ricky Bobby. “Yeah, that move worked out better than I thought.”

“Now I wonder who we blew up,” Lewis mused, the glowing debris from the ships reflecting in his eyes.

Chapter Four

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

A heavy expression had settled on Jack’s face. His hands were steepled in front of his mouth, and his fingers nervously tapped together. Lewis had expected a sort of kudos for finding the gate and taking down the enemy ships. Instead, Jack had called he and Bailey into his office, and remained quite serious as they sat in silence.

“I’ve found the information you requested,” Ricky Bobby stated overhead, interrupting Jack’s constant tapping.

He looked up, relieved. “Very good. Who were the attackers?”

“The ships belong to the Tuetians,” Ricky Bobby said.

An audible sigh fell from Jack’s mouth as he dropped his hands to the surface of the desk. “Okay, thanks. I suspected as much. I can take it from here. Will you pull up the visual?”

“Yes, of course,” the AI stated, and an image popped up onto the screen behind Jack’s desk.

Onscreen was an alien that had many insect attributes. The creature’s face was rounded and smooth, as if it were wearing a mask. Its huge, faceted eyes bulged from both sides of its face. At the back of the head, shoulders and legs there were sharp angles like curved claws. It wore armor on its torso and legs, the latter of which were divided into multiple tarsomeres.

“Something about this alien species bugs me,” Lewis said, earning an annoyed glance from Bailey.

Jack laughed softly. “The Tuetians do bear an odd resemblance to insects. We know a little about them, however, we have no intel on why they would have attacked your ship unprovoked.”

“Could there be territorial laws in this system we’re unaware of?” Bailey asked.

Jack shook his head. “That’s the thing. This system—the whole galaxy, for that matter—is mostly uncharted. Information on populations are unclear, but habitable planets are fairly scarce. I’m guessing that is precisely the reason that Vance chose this location for the databases. There’s still more questions than answers at this point, though. That’s why I need you two to do more investigating.”

Lewis leaned forward, his interest piqued. “We need to hunt around and find out where Vance has been, and if there’s been any unusual activity in those places.”

Jack nodded. “Exactly. And I’ve found where I’d like you to start.”

An image popped up on the screen of a planet featuring green terrain, with blue oceans streaking around the masses of land.

“This is a small planet in the Cacama system,” Jack began. “It has warm climates year-round, but steady rainfall and a stable atmosphere with breathable air.”

“Sounds like paradise. You think it’s the most viable location in this system for one of the databases to be housed?” Lewis asked his uncle.

“Yes, and I’ve determined where the most populated area is. Most of the planet is covered in farmland, but there is a hub where government buildings and other, more advanced facilities are located.”

Lewis knew many ways to determine if someone was lying. Jack wasn’t displaying any of the signs; his behavior was subtler, but the way his eyes darted side to side and his body changed movements halfway through indicated that he was hesitant about something.

“So what is it about this planet that has you concerned?” Lewis asked.

Bailey shot him a look of surprise. Maybe she hadn’t picked up on Jack’s tells, but Lewis was a master at observing that which a person was trying to hide.

Jack’s eyes dropped to the surface of his desk, where a file lay closed. “This planet is known as Tueti.”

Bailey’s eyes closed briefly as the realization came to her. “And its natives would be known as the Tuetians.”

Jack nodded solemnly.

“As in the insect-aliens who attacked us without provocation?” Lewis asked, a laugh in his voice.

Jack continued nodding.

“So we have to go make nice with the natives that we blew out of the sky?” Bailey summated.

The tension that had been gripping Jack since he’d learned the identity of the enemy loosened, and he gave a slight smile. “Exactly. That shouldn’t be a problem, right?”

Lewis looked at Bailey. “Maybe we start with an apology?”

She scoffed. “They fired on us first. Let’s go down there and find out why they are so hostile, and then see what they know about Monstre Corp.”

“I suspect the two might be connected,” Lewis mused.

Chapter Five

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Various objects flew out from behind the shelves at the back of the lab. Dejoure cringed when a mysterious electronic item skidded to a halt beside her feet.

“If you’re not prepared to conduct your tests on me, we can postpone,” she offered, conscious that her voice was shaking.

Hatch turned around, his eyes peering at her from behind a shelf. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m simply getting all the equipment together.”

“Oh, okay. Is this going to hurt?” Dejoure asked.

“Probably not,” he muttered, continuing to toss random electronics overhead. Many of them smashed in various places. “Wait, are you a wimp? If so, this will hurt.”

“I’m tough,” Dejoure said, sticking out her chest and wishing her voice didn’t sound like it was wavering. “I pulled out all my teeth on my own.”

Again Hatch’s wide eyes blinked back at her from behind strange objects on the shelf. “I’m not sure that makes you tough so much as stupid.”

“It should be noted,” Pip interjected, “that human children lose their first set of teeth, and then grow adult ones.”

From where she stood, Dejoure noticed Hatch’s cheeks puff slightly. “I’m well aware of the stages of human development.”

“Oh…okay,” Pip stated. “Well, just so you know, when you make my body, I want to be a mature human. No baby teeth.”

“ ‘Mature’? As in middle-aged or senior?” Hatch asked, making a ton of noise as he continued to sort.

“ ‘Mature’ as in a six-pack for abs,” Pip said.

Dejoure giggled. She hadn’t ever met an AI, so she had no idea they had such colorful personalities. No one on Ricky Bobby was anything like the hollow shells of people at SB. Those people wouldn’t know a joke if it tied their shoes together and slapped them in the face. However, the crewmembers of Ricky Bobby were each different and unique and, in her opinion, completely awesome.

Hatch waddled out from behind the shelf, holding a small object. “I found it.”

“What’s that?” Dejoure asked.

“It’s a…” he began, but thinking better of it, he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. It’s science.”

Dejoure tied her arms in front of her chest. “I’m not stupid, you know.”

Hatch shook his head. “No, you’re a twelve-year-old human who obviously knows everything.”

“Well, you’re the one who wants to run tests on me, so I obviously know more about some things than you do,” she countered.

All Hatch’s tentacles went slack as he looked at her. Then he puffed out his cheeks in irritation. “Kid finds a single clue and thinks she’s Albert Einstein.”

“Albert who?”

“Exactly!” He disappeared behind another set of shelves. “I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere.”

Dejoure’s eyes darted around as she seriously considered going somewhere. There were a billion places to hide on this ship. She thought she could trust Bailey and Lewis, and probably even the hippie engineer and the guy in the suit. However, she wasn’t sure about Hatch; especially because she’d had enough experiments and tests run on her at SB. She didn’t mind being used to help find the crew of Ricky Bobby, but she wasn’t sure about this grumpy Londil who kept regarding her like she was a science project.

“How are you doing, Dejoure?” Pip asked overhead.

She looked up, surprised. “You pronounced my name right.”

“Naturally,” he stated. “I can speak hundreds of languages, and an even wider range of dialects. Your name isn’t tough; it’s only that the others don’t know how to roll their Rs.”

The girl covered her mouth with her hand as she laughed.

“Do you want some advice about dealing with Hatch?”

She nodded, and then, wondering if the AI could see her, she said, “Yes, that would be great.”

“Ask him about his wives,” Pip stated.


“Oh yes, he has many,” he informed her. “It’s common for Londils, and there’s nothing that Hatch likes better than to talk about his wives. He’ll get all dreamy, so get ready for it.”

“Okay, thanks!” Dejoure said, just as a noise echoed from behind the shelf.

A moment later, Hatch materialized pushing a cart full of equipment.

“Okay, I’m going to hook some sensors up to your head,” he began. Then he paused, a serious look on his face. “Is it okay if I shave off your hair?”

“No!” Dejoure protectively grabbed her black locks.

“Oh, fine.” Hatch waved a dismissive tentacle at her. “I can do it without having close contact to the sensors. Still, I don’t get why you humans have such a deep connection to your hair.”

Still gripping hers, she said, “It individuates us.”

Hatch gave her a sideways look as he extended a tentacle in her direction, which held a sensor attached to a wire. “That’s a big word for an orphan.”

Dejoure froze as the sensor stuck to her forehead. “Orphans still know how to read, you know? I used to read all of Mrs. Hinez’s books; she was the warden at my last orphanage. As soon as she was done with one of her mystery thrillers, she’d hand it off to me. She mostly liked mysteries and romances, but I convinced her to start reading more science fiction.”

Hatch’s tentacle paused right in front of Dejoure’s face, blocking her view of anything, the sucker on the backside seeming to stare back at her. He moved it to the side, giving her a look. “That was smart of you.”

“Thanks. I also like plays,” she admitted, talking faster now. She could feel the sensor sticking to her head. “And I’ve read some poetry that’s nice.”

“I think I’ve heard enough,” Hatch said, shaking his head. “You should have stopped at science fiction.”


“I’ve only got to attach a few more sensors, and then I’ll need you to focus on finding something I’ve lost.”

“What are you trying to do? Why aren’t you having me look for the Commander?” Dejoure asked.

“Because the last five attempts haven’t worked,” he explained, sticking more sensors to her head. “There’s something blocking you. My job is to determine how your skill works; then I can enhance it.”

“Enhance?” she asked, nearly stuttering.

“Don’t worry, kid. I won’t hurt you.”

“Okay.” She closed her eyes as a few more sensors were stuck to her head. “So tell me about your wives.”

After a moment, Dejoure realized she didn’t feel anything else being placed on her. She opened her eyes to find Hatch staring at her narrowly.

“Pip!” he finally bellowed. “Did you tell her to ask me about those blood-suckers?”


“I-I’m sorry,” Dejoure stammered “I didn’t know it was a sore subject. I was only—”

Hatch shook his head. “You were set up by the evil AI.”

“Oh, well, I won’t ask you about your wives again.”

Hatch’s cheeks filled with air and indignation. “I don’t have any wives. Not anymore. None of them liked that work came before them. They enjoy their comfortable lives, not caring if a hole gets shot through the galaxy and it swallows us all up.”

Dejoure swallowed, not knowing how to respond.

Hatch waddled closer, shaking his head. “Dammit, Pip! I’ll give you a body, then have your head for this.”

The girl couldn’t help but laugh. “He’s sort of mischievous, isn’t he?”

Hatch turned on the equipment on the cart, nodding. “Yes, Pip is unlike any other. And that’s another good word.”

“Thanks,” Dejoure chirped. “I like words.”

“They have power, you know?” he commented, flipping several switches.

“That’s what Mrs. Reece used to say; she was the caretaker at my second foster home. She wouldn’t allow me to say the bad ones.”

Hatch nodded approvingly. “Good for her. The crew of this ship all speak like they’re sailors.” He looked around, a cold, haunting look on his face. “Well, they used to…when they were here to speak.”

“Well, aren’t they sailors…in a way?” Dejoure challenged.

“Maybe. Sort of. We fly on a battlecruiser, but we don’t have to talk like we’re uneducated.”

“But what if using bad words in the right way makes you smarter?”

Hatch regarded her for a long moment before shaking his head. “That’s a notion to consider another time. Right now, I want you to focus on finding my trifield meter. I misplaced it.”

Dejoure closed her eyes, focusing the way she did when looking for a lost object. In her mind, she saw a desk drawer begin to glow. The compartment was on the other side of Hatch’s lab.

She opened her eyes and pointed. “It’s over there.”

Hatch regarded the monitor and sighed. “No reading. Let’s try again.”

“What do you mean, ‘no reading’?”

“Exactly what I said,” he grumbled. “There’s no unusual brain activity, which means that the sensors aren’t placed right, or I need a more invasive way of measuring.”

Dejoure gasped, pressing her hands to her head.

Hatch shook his head. “Come on. I need you to focus. Can you find my stunning grenades?”

Again, she closed her eyes. A moment later, she saw a visual of a box sitting under the rubble that Hatch had thrown from the shelf.

“It’s over there,” she said, indicating the mess in the corner.

The mechanic watched the screen, a look of disappointment taking over his features. “Yeah, this doesn’t seem to be working.”

“Maybe we should try finding something farther away,” Dejoure suggested.

Hatch considered this for a moment and then nodded. “Fine. Help me find my apprentice, Knox Gunnerson.”

Dejoure closed her eyes, thinking she’d get a vision.

Blackness remained behind her closed eyelids.

She opened her eyes, disappointment filling her stomach. “I’m sorry. I don’t know where he is.”

Hatch shook his head. “I figured it was a long shot. Well, I don’t know what to do. I can’t get any information on how your skill works.”

Desperate to be of help to the crew, Dejoure pressed on the sensors attached to her head, trying to make their connection firmer. “Let’s try again. Maybe we can get a reading.”

The Londil tugged at one of the wires, pulling a sensor off her head with a popping noise. “No, this is no use. Maybe you should go take a nap, kid.”

She narrowed her eyes and puffed out her cheeks. “I’m not a baby that needs naps.”

Hatch didn’t scold her angrily, like she expected. Instead he laughed, a full, heavy chuckle. “I meant that you should try to nap because your dreams are premonitions.” He spun around and waddled away, pushing the cart. When he was back at the shelf, he turned to face her again, still laughing. “Nice jab though. That was a first. You’ve got spunk, kid. I’ll give you that.”

Chapter Six

Loading Bay, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Sebastian the ferret scampered across the top of the Q-ship, looking down at Liesel and Hatch standing on the deck. Bailey stood nearby, watching the engineers with mild curiosity.

“Did we repair all of the body damage?” Liesel asked the ferret.

The animal nodded before crawling down the side of the ship.

Liesel looked at Hatch with a wide smile on her bright face. “Looks like the ship is ready to go.”

The mechanic shook his head, with slight annoyance in his round eyes. “That creature can’t really understand you.”

She unclipped one of the jumper cables from her baggy overalls, and used the clamp to pin her hair back. “I assure you he can. We have a connection.”

“You have a screw loose, is what you have,” he grumbled.

The ferret arrived at Liesel’s feet and rose onto its back legs.

She withdrew a treat from her pocket and knelt down, offering it to Sebastian. “I’ve got another one of these for you if you’ll check to see if I left my notebook on the Q-ship while I was doing repairs.”

Sebastian ate the treat, and took off, running up the open hatch door and disappearing into the ship.

“You mean that book that you waste your time coloring in when there’s other, more important concerns?” Hatch’s tentacle stretched over to a nearby workstation to retrieve a small case.

Liesel laughed. “It’s a book of mandalas, which are a mystical guidance tool used for creating a sacred space.”

One of Hatch’s tentacles reached out and picked up a wrench strewn on the deck. “This is a tool. And we have navigational systems for guidance; though it’s a lost cause. I’ve been all over several galaxies, and there is no sacred space. Only endless blackness with mysteries to be solved.”

Lewis strode up and paused next to Bailey, amused at the two mechanics’ exchange.

Liesel reached out like she was going to fondly pat Hatch, but reading the warning look on his face, she retracted her hand. “I think underneath all that cynicism is a soul yearning for transcendentalism.”

“Which proves you shouldn’t be allowed to think.” Hatch dropped the wrench he’d grabbed onto a workstation. “Have you repaired the backup servers that the monster destroyed?”

“Actually,” Lewis interjected, “I think it was the heat that destroyed the servers, not the monster.”

Hatch looked at the detective with a sour expression. “How do you get anything done when you’re constantly obsessing over semantics?”

“I’m good at multitasking,” Lewis said with a wink.

“I really think we should come up with a different name for the creature,” Liesel proposed. “Something that doesn’t have such a negative connotation.”

Hatch looked up to the ceiling. “Kill me now.”

Bailey strode forward, unable to stay out of the conversation any longer. “Well, it was made by Monstre Corp, so it makes sense to call it a monster.”

“Finally, someone who uses logic,” Hatch stated.

“Speaking of the monster,” Ricky Bobby chimed in, getting everyone’s immediate attention. “I’ve been tracking its path.”

“Haven’t we been following that same path?” Bailey asked.

“Yes, and it appears that the monster has been going in a giant circle,” Ricky Bobby observed.

Bailey’s brow furrowed. “Why would it do that?”

“Maybe it’s on a temporary mobility,” Liesel offered.

Hatch’s eyes closed for a half beat as he sighed. “What the hell does that mean?”

“Temporary mobility is the politically correct term for walkabout,” Ricky Bobby said. “Liesel is inferring that the monster is living a nomadic lifestyle.”

“Why in the world would it do that?” Hatch asked.

“Many times, when we don’t know where we are going, it is helpful to go back to where we came from,” Liesel mused.

“Hence a circle,” Bailey guessed, eyeing the calculating expression on Lewis’s face.

“The monster isn’t experiencing a spiritual rite of passage.” Hatch’s voice rose, a product of his irritation. “But if you’d like to take a trip to visit it, you two can color man-whatevers together while you braid each other’s hair.”

Not missing a beat, Liesel said, “I don’t think the creature has any hair.”

“What’s that look for, Harlowe?” Bailey asked, watching the detective.

“The monster is self-aware,” Lewis stated. “But not like you all are thinking. It’s going in a circle because it knows we’re following it.”

Bailey looked to Hatch, who looked surprised. “That actually makes a lot of sense,” the mechanic admitted.

Lewis grabbed the lapels of the jacket he wore and rocked forward on his toes. “Why, thank you.”

“If it knows we’re following it, then why isn’t it coming after us?” Bailey wanted to know.

“Because it can’t find us,” Hatch explained. “We have the cloaks up, but it’s still possible that it can sense it’s being followed, and doesn’t want to lead us back to Monstre Corp, or wherever it’s headed.”

“Which makes the monster more intelligent than I thought,” Lewis mused.

“Ricky Bobby,” Hatch began. “Back off the monster and determine if it changes course.”

“Okay, but it might get away,” Ricky Bobby warned.

Hatch shook his head. “That’s a risk we’ll have to take.”

“Have you figured out a way to find D-factor?” Lewis asked.

Hatch shook the case. “No, I was too busy upgrading your comms so that Pip could be paired with you on the next mission. You’re welcome.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re only one Londil,” Lewis said with a laugh.

Bailey took the comms case from Hatch. “With eight tentacles,” she teased, wearing a slight smile.

He gave her a mock look of offense. “Creating a way to find D-factor will be my next project. I don’t suspect it will be that difficult.”

Bailey slipped her comm pieces out of the case and then handed the container to Lewis. “But if we lose the monster, could you use the tracker we attached to it?”

Hatch shook his head. “I’ve tried multiple times, but I didn’t have enough time to test the tracker, and I don’t think it’s working.”

“But the tracker does belong to you,” Bailey pointed out.

Hatch gave her a confused look. “Yes, I made it.”

“And in a way, it’s lost…” Bailey pressed.

The realization dawned on Hatch’s face. “DJ should be able to find the tracker.”

Bailey placed the comms into her ears. “Which means you’ll find the monster.”

“Why didn’t I think of that?” Hatch wondered as he waddled away.

“Well, hello, beautiful,” Pip said over the comm.

“Ugh, don’t call me that,” Bailey complained.

Lewis gave her a questioning look. “Call you what?”

Bailey pointed to the comms he’d taken from the case. He put them in his ears.

“And hello to you, handsome,” Pip said.

Lewis laughed. “Oh, this is going to make visiting Tueti more interesting.

Chapter Seven

Q-Ship, Planet Tueti, Cacama System

Green, rolling hills stretched out to the horizon, neatly lined with hundreds of rows, crisscrossing over the acreage.

“Damn, that’s a lot of farmland,” Bailey said, slowing the ship as they explored the terrain.

“Yeah, apparently most of the planet looks like this,” Lewis stated, reviewing the notes that Jack had given them.

“You should feel right at home here,” Bailey teased. “Maybe we can find you a pile of manure to shovel.”

Lewis batted his eyelashes at her. “Wow. That would really be swell.”

“Why, exactly, were you working on a ranch?” she asked him again.

She’d pretended to let the subject go after Lewis closed up about why he’d quit being a detective, but she kept casually trying to bring it up again.

He shook his head. “I thought it would be fun.”

“Shoveling shit?” Bailey asked. “You thought that would be fun?”

“Well, I thought that taking care of animals would be, you know, fun, rewarding work,” Lewis stated.

Bailey nodded. “I can see that. For me, kicking fugitive ass is very rewarding work.”

“Animals are simple. They can be playful or mischievous, but I’ve never met one that was malicious.”

“Unlike the human that you were running away from,” Bailey inferred. “What was her name again…? Melanie?”

Lewis tensed. “That’s not what I was doing. Melanie had nothing to do with me quitting the business,” he lied.

“But you said that she used to mess with you,” Bailey reminded him. “Was she your partner?”

Lewis let out a breath, trying to figure out how to best throw her off her line of questioning. If she dared, she could find the information on Lewis on her own. His name was on every blacklist. Lewis guessed that she hadn’t had a chance to look—or that she did know, but wanted him to divulge the secrets on his own.

“No,” he finally answered. “Melanie wasn’t my partner. Well, she was, but it was different.”

“Like you two were romantic?” Bailey asked coyly, batting her eyelashes.

Lewis shook his head. “No…I mean, yes. But more different than that. I was training her.”

“And then she messed with you? How?”

Lewis pointed to a set of buildings in the distance, grateful for the timing. “Hey, those are the headquarters we’re looking for.”

“I see it,” Bailey stated, slowing the ship. “How did she mess with you? What happened?”

“Nothing,” Lewis quipped.

Even if Bailey had read the reports, she wouldn’t know. Only Lewis knew that.

Bailey pursed her lips and looked at him. “You know, you can pretend that you quit because you wanted to, but detective work is your passion. One doesn’t run away from their passion unless they have a good reason.”

Lewis turned to face her directly. The best way to escape the truth was to offer a different one. He didn’t have to lie, he only had to create a smoke screen around the information he was hiding. She would fill in the details.

“Look, when I finished school, I quit my internship, which was promising to lead to a lucrative position. I went to a bakery that I often frequented. It was owned by a sweet couple who always had flour on their faces and messy hair. I begged them for a job. They sympathized, and gave me the early shift making the daily pastries and serving espressos. I did it all at that small shop. Made pastries, cut the bread, served the customers. Do you know why I did that when I had been trained as a management consultant?”

Bailey shrugged, landing the ship while listening intently.

“Because I needed a change. I thought that running a bakery would be romantic and inspirational,” Lewis stated, the smell of fresh baked sourdough bread hitting his olfactory senses as he recalled the long-ago memory.

“And was it? Did it inspire you?” Bailey asked.

Lewis laughed suddenly. “Hell no. It was back-breaking work. But it took me out of the boredom of project management, which was stealing my soul.”

She nodded slowly, her eyes off in the distance, like she was relating with a memory of her own.

Lewis knew he didn’t have to say anymore. Bailey would be thinking that he had done the same with the ranch job. This was how the human mind worked. The way he saw it, he didn’t have to lie if someone invited him to do something he didn’t want to do; instead, he could say, ‘I have a meeting’. The meeting could be at a completely different time, it didn’t matter. Semantics were a waste of time for Lewis.

“So, here’s a thought,” Bailey began. “If you spent time working in a bakery, why can’t you cook worth shit, forcing us to rely on DJ to keep us fed?”

Lewis laughed. “Well, cooking and baking are very different. Cooking is an artform, whereas baking is chemistry. I didn’t finish my story; the nice couple fired me after two months because my scones were always too tough and my brioche too dry.”

“How come you can say ‘brioche’ but you can’t say DJ’s name?” Bailey asked.

Lewis was about to answer when he felt something tickle the back of his ankles. He pulled up his feet and looked down.

Under the console, he spotted two beady eyes.

“What is it?” Bailey asked, having noticed his sudden movements.

He reached down and picked up the small ferret, holding Sebastian in the air. “Looks like we have a stowaway.”

Chapter Eight

Government Center, Planet Tueti, Cacama System

“You’re insane,” Bailey spat, looking at the rodent-thing that Lewis was dangling in front of her face.

“Yes, obviously, but back to the matter at hand.” He laughed, holding Sebastian up higher. “Literally, the matter at hand.”

Pip laughed overhead. “He’s a master of puns.”

Bailey, unimpressed, shook her head. “Don’t encourage him.”

“Come on, Bay,” Lewis coaxed. “It’s a good idea.”

A cold shiver ran down her back, and she froze, realizing she was now giving him a punishing look.

She couldn’t help it. That nickname…that’s what her family called her. Only them.

“Call me ‘Bailey’ or ‘Lee’ or ‘Lieutenant’. Don’t ever call me ‘Bay’.”

Lewis paused, a question written on his face before he nodded. “Okay. I still think we should take the ferret with us.”

“You’ve provided zero valid reasons for this,” Bailey stated.

“He helps Liesel,” Lewis reasoned. “Maybe he can help us collect intel.”

“We aren’t Liesel, and neither of us speak Ferret, or whatever she does to communicate with that thing.” She regarded the squirming, long, rat-like animal with hesitation as it fought in Lewis’s hand.

“Yes, but Sebastian is obviously intelligent,” Lewis noted, cuddling the creature to his chest. “We know that much. He might come in handy. We don’t know what we’ll find, we only know that the Tuetians are a bit hostile.”

Bailey shook her head, rising out of her seat. “Cool. You bring a ferret to deal with the hostile natives. Meanwhile, I’ll bring a few guns.”

“We need them to talk to us. How are they going to do that if they feel threatened?” Lewis questioned, putting the ferret in the inside pocket of his wool jacket.

The lieutenant paused, as if an idea was occurring to her. “Good point. I’ll leave the rifle, and bring concealed weapons.”

Lewis sighed. “Fine. You use your guns; I prefer stealth.”

Bailey turned, looking at him incredulously. “ ‘Stealth’? You’ve got a ferret in your pocket.”

“He’s a secret agent ferret.”

Finally she laughed. She didn’t fully trust Lewis yet—mostly because she knew he was hiding something—but there was something inherently likable about the guy.

She picked up the cloaking belts and handed one to Lewis before strapping her own around her waist. Peering out the bow windows, she squinted. “Finding a way into this government area will be tough.”

The large area was gated off by a tall, electric fence, and inside the perimeter were several buildings. Strolling the grounds were several insectile Tuetians.

“There has to be a way in there,” Lewis stated, putting on his belt.

Bailey shot him an annoyed glance. “Obviously, detective.”

He activated the belt and disappeared. “I’m only saying they get in there somehow. You don’t have to be mean about it.”

She offered the cloaked figure one last smile before disappearing herself. “You know I get feisty before a mission.”

“I do,” he agreed. “It’s kind of fun.”

Bailey opened the hatch for the ship, and bright sunlight spilled into the space. “Hold onto your ferret. We’re entering alien territory.”

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

“How can there be no gates into the headquarters?” Bailey asked after they had walked the perimeter three times.

The grounds were too small, otherwise they would have considered landing the Q-Ship inside the space and not dealing with the fence at all.

“Maybe the gates are hidden,” Lewis pondered.

“Well, let’s wait until someone tries to enter. Then we will know.”

They parked by the landing field, where several dozen dragonfly ships were lined up in rows. Hopefully soon one would land, and the occupant would enter the facility, showing them the trickery.

“Seems like you two could use some entertainment while you wait,” Pip said over the comms.

“I actually like the silence,” Bailey teased, her form invisible beside Lewis.

“How many blondes does it take to change a light bulb?” Pip asked.

“Hey…” Bailey said, a warning tone in her tone.

“Only one, but she’ll break ten bulbs before figuring out that they can’t be shoved in,” the AI said with a laugh.

“I’m a blonde, Pip,” Bailey whispered.

“Noted, you want more blonde jokes,” he replied. “I’ll take care of it, but right now, I’m on a light bulb kick.”

“Awesome,” Bailey said flatly. “We have a ferret, an AI who wants to be a stand-up comedian and no way to get into this facility.”

“Stand-up! I wish!” Pip crowed.

Lewis couldn’t help but laugh at the eccentric AI. “All right, give us another light bulb joke.”

Pip made a sound like he was clearing his throat. “Okay, how many stock brokers does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Oh, be careful,” Lewis said, tensing. “My dad was a stock broker.”

“Two!” Pip exclaimed. “One to take out the bulb and drop it, and the other to try and sell it before it crashes.”

Lewis shook his head. “I totally take offense to that joke. My father was an honest man.”

“And just like that, I’ve offended the entire audience.” Pip sounded dejected. “I’ve got to work on my material.”

“Did you say that your dad ‘was’ a stock broker?” Bailey asked. “Like he changed professions?”

Lewis shook his head again, but, realizing that Bailey couldn’t see him, he said, “No, it’s only that—”

He was cut off by the arrival of a speeding ship, lowering to the ground, and it was the second time in recent memory that Lewis was grateful for a timely interruption. He didn’t like to talk about his dad. There were no secrets there, but it might lead back to why he’d quit his detective work…well, had been pushed out of it.

“A ship,” Bailey whispered.

“Okay, let’s see how this witchcraft works.” Lewis looked to the fence, which was seamless.

A Tuetian exited the ship, pulled off its helmet, and placed it back in the cockpit before moving away from the craft. The alien walked fluidly, thanks to the several joints in its legs. At its back, the insect’s wings beat rhythmically. The blue, green, and gold creature was making strange chirping noises as it stared absentmindedly at a pad in its gloved hands.

When the Tuetian was close to the fence, its wings beat rhythmically and carried it off the ground, allowing it to fly up and over the fence, landing on the other side.

Lewis looked in Bailey’s direction, not seeing her. “Well, we should have figured that one out way before now.”

“Dammit,” Bailey spat. “How are we going to get in there? I can’t fly.”

“I can’t either.”

“Oh no, really? How about your magic ferret? I thought he would come in handy for something. Can he fly?” Bailey teased.

Lewis ran his hand over his cheeks, thinking. They needed to get into that facility if they were going to find answers. But based on what he knew, these Tuetians were protective, and took security seriously.

He lowered his hands, an idea dawning on him. “Hey, Lieutenant.”

“Hey, Harlowe.”

“Don’t be mad at me for doing this.”

“Doing what?” she asked nervously.

Lewis deactivated his cloaking belt.

“What are you doing?” Bailey hissed.

“You can go back to the ship if you want to,” he told her, just as alarms went off all over the grounds. As he had expected, this area was being monitored, and he’d been spotted immediately.

“Are you crazy?” she asked, as soldiers holding guns strode out of the building, many of them taking off and flying up to clear the fence that stood between them and the intruder.

“We can’t get in there as is.”

“So you’re going to get yourself caught?” she whisper-yelled.

“Well, we need information. I figure the best way to get it is to ask,” Lewis stated.

Bailey was shaking her head when she materialized. “Says the freaking detective.”

Chapter Nine

Government Center, Planet Tueti, Cacama System

Vitos Rigar had returned from his patrol of the asteroid belt, when two figures materialized out of nowhere beside the border fence. They were strange aliens with pale, smooth skin, small eyes and no wings, and they were both quite hairy on their heads.

Are these humans? Vitos wondered to himself. He’d heard about these aliens, especially lately, with all the activity on the asteroid belt. But during all his patrols, he’d never seen a human, or any other activity of significance. There was the regular mining shuttle, and the black mass that now moved around their planet, but the Tuetians didn’t think those were anything to be concerned about. His patrol job existed only to ensure that the humans stayed away from Tueti, and it appeared he’d failed at that.

Vitos had hesitated to alert the general upon seeing the trespassers suddenly materialize; he had to be sure of what he’d seen. He flew to the other side of the border, and saw them out of the corner of his eyes, but it wasn’t good enough. He took a step forward, curious and interested in the aliens, but the security guards raised the alarm, rushing by him and interrupting his moment to study them.

“Apprehend them,” General Fisk commanded, striding for the fence as his guards flanked him.

He withdrew the contrivance emblazed with his crest. It controlled everything in the Lagoon. General Fisk ran his thumb over the roller ball on the device, a thin object that also featured two buttons. The border fence made a loud buzzing sound as the electricity was turned off, and then it creaked before parting at a joint and folding back in on itself several times.

There, in the clear open space, stood the humans, blinking back at the general. Vitos didn’t understand why they weren’t running. The female’s hand hovered by her hip, her eyes sharp and searching. The male, however, didn’t appear as tense.

Vitos followed behind the guards, curious as to who these humans were. They didn’t fit the description for the hostile ones who had recently made contact with the general.

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

Bailey lifted her hands into the air as the fence, which had appeared seamless, parted in front of her and Lewis, folding back in on itself. Guards holding bulky guns flew over the fence and landed on either side of them, while four more Tuetians strode through the new opening.

“You do remember that these aliens shot at us before?” she asked Lewis.

He had his hands up, too. “Yes, and I’m intent on figuring out why they saw us as a threat.”

“By turning ourselves in?”

“Trust me on this, Lieutenant.”

Those were sore words, considering she knew he was hiding some deep, dark secret.

The guards moved in closer, crowding them into a circle, and Bailey noticed how strangely beautiful the Tuetians were. Their armor was sleek, their body resembled the thorax of a dragonfly, and their three-jointed feet made them appear ready to take flight at any moment. Each was covered in bright, iridescent colors: blues, greens, reds, yellows and oranges.

“Search them for weapons!” the Tuetian in front of the group approaching on foot yelled.

Suddenly surrounded by flapping wings, Bailey backed up until she was back-to-back with Lewis. She felt something brush up against her leg, and dared to look down.

Sebastian was poking his head out of Lewis’s pocket, then spilling over the top of it to disappear through the shuffle of feet.

Dammit, we’d better get that ferret back, or Liesel will be devastated.

When a gun was suddenly pointed straight at her head, Bailey forgot her concern for the ferret; she’d worry about him later. Lifting her hands higher, she allowed a towering Tuetian to pat her down. He found the guns on her hip, waistband and leg.

“Put those guns someplace safe,” Bailey said to the alien. “I’m rather fond of them.”

The Tuetian pretended he didn’t hear her as he turned and strode away with her weapons. Maybe he didn’t have the same translator chip as she did, as well as everyone in the Federation.

“Well, that went well,” Lewis joked, as two guards grabbed him by either arm and tugged him toward the large building in the center of the fenced area.

Two more guards grabbed Bailey, pushing her forward beside Lewis. She knew she could have kept her cloak active, but she couldn’t allow him to be captured alone. She had to admit that, although turning themselves in was a huge risk, the plan was valid.

As they neared, she noticed a moat flowing around the structure, and observed some other buildings nestled at the back. The stone structures themselves were remarkably plain, though rectangular windows stretched from the ground to the roof in long, thin stripes, almost resembling the abdomen of a bee.

“I have a blonde joke for you,” Pip said over the comms.

Bailey’s eyes widened. She’d forgotten that Pip was there.

“Not right now,” she said in a hush.

“Oh, what, are you busy getting abducted?” Pip asked, a laugh in his tone. “You’ll find imprisonment to be quite boring. Then you’ll be begging for some jokes.”

Not wanting to bring any attention to the fact that she was wearing a comm, Bailey didn’t say anything. The guards, who apparently didn’t understand personal space, were crowding her on either side, pushing her into the strange building.

The humidity doubled when she entered the space. The sound of trickling water could be heard like music throughout the large, brightly lit atrium, and she felt like they were outside, by a body of water, though the stone floor under her feet told her otherwise.

She noticed that Lewis was also busy taking in every single detail as they were led through the large area to a set of rooms. With a bit more force than Bailey thought was necessary, the guards shoved them into a small room with a table and a couple of chairs, nothing more. She thought it strange that, even in a distant galaxy, an interrogation room looked like an interrogation room.

Lewis eagerly rubbed his hands together when the guards shut the door. “Now we’re in business.”

Bailey rolled her eyes at him. “We’re locked in a holding cell.”

“You were going to spend all day trying to figure out how to get into this fortress,” he stated, arms crossed. “I got us in here in no time.”

“You got us caught in no time.”

He held his arms wide, a proud look on his face. “We’re in the belly of the beast. Now we have to figure out how to extract the information.”

Bailey patted her hips, missing her guns already; it was probably better that she didn’t have them now, since she might shoot Lewis.

“And after we get this information, how do you supposed we’re going to get out of here?” she asked sweetly.

“That,” Lewis said, putting his head against the nearest wall to listen, “is for you to figure out. I’ve got other things to think about.” He knocked on the wall, still listening.

“What are you looking for, a stud? About to hang a picture?” she joked.

The detective shook his head before knocking again.

“So, how about that blonde joke now?” Pip asked.

Bailey sighed. “I was actually hoping you’d use your proximity to try and hack into their systems.”

He ignored her. “I find that laughter can really release tension and keep us all doing our best,” Pip said.

“I’m not tense,” she argued, running her hands over the only door in the room.

The door they’d come through didn’t have a handle. It was open when they were brought in, and had closed automatically when the guards left.

This is going to complicate things.

“True, you’re much cooler under pressure than I would have thought,” Pip told Bailey. “Your heart rate is much steadier than the detective’s.”

Lewis turned around, an annoyed look on his face. “I’m calm. I’m trying to find something.”

“Any clues on what you’re looking for, Holmes?”

He shook his head, continuing to knock on the wall.

“Okay, so how do you keep a blonde busy for two days?” Pip asked.

Bailey pushed at the automatic door, checking how it responded. “How?”

“Give her a piece of paper that has ‘please turn over’ written on both sides,” Pip said with a laugh.

Bailey’s eyes fluttered with annoyance. “I’m the dumb blonde, but Harlowe is over there knocking on the wall.”

“I have jokes about redheads and brunettes, too, but let’s be honest: blondes are more fun,” the AI stated. “Oh, by the way, I’ve found a way into the Tuetians’ computer system. Downloading information right now.”

“Great!” Bailey said, hopeful this wasn’t all going to be a bust. Now they had to find a way out.

“Interesting facts,” Pip began. “This place is called the Lagoon, and is home to six hundred highly-trained Tuetians.”

“Have you found anything that can help us get out of here?” Bailey asked.

“No. To be a bit of a Debbie Downer, your options are quite limited,” he admitted. “The doors and fence are operated by a remote system. There is an override, but it’s a bit of a long shot.”

Bailey wanted to kick the door, but let out a deep breath instead. “What’s that?”

“The general, a Tuetian by the name of Manes Fisk, has the sole override. They call it a contrivance,” Pip explained.

“You learned this all by accessing their system?” Bailey asked.

“Actually, I learned all that by hacking into the security system and peeping in the break room,” he admitted with a laugh.

“If you can hack into the system, then why can’t you open this door and get us out?” she asked.

“Were you asleep when I said there was only one override?” Pip asked.

“But you said that the system was controlled remotely,” she argued.

“Yes, but manually from a control station hooked into the security camera system,” Pip said.

“Well, that’s significantly unhelpful.” Bailey pushed her back up against the wall, searching for options.

“Now to be Positive Pip, there’s some good news,” the AI said.

“I could use some,” Bailey said, watching as Lewis continued to knock on the wall.

“The Tuetians obviously didn’t know what your belts were for, so they didn’t think to remove them,” Pip stated.

Bailey’s eyes shot downward, awe taking over her face. “Mother fondue! That’s right. Harlowe, did you hear that?”

Lewis looked up, distracted. “What?”

“The belts. We still have them,” Bailey repeated. “If we can get out of this door, we can activate the belts and get out of here.”

He didn’t look impressed as he focused back on the wall. “Still can’t get over the fence.”

She shot him a scathing look. “How about I try throwing you over it?”

He shook his head, again off in thought. “I don’t think you’ll get me high enough to clear it.”

“Pip, you can fly the ship, right?” Bailey asked.

“I can, but there’s not enough space to land it,” Pip determined.

“We don’t really need you to land it,” she qualified.

“Well, I’ve gone ahead and taken the liberty of disabling the security camera in the room so the Tuetians can’t listen in on our cunning plans,” Pip stated.

“Smart thinking,” Bailey said approvingly.

A squeaky noise echoed from up high, and she spun around, scanning the room. Lewis was looking victoriously up at a vent; behind the grate were two beady eyes.

“That’s what you’ve been doing?” Bailey asked. “Calling the ferret to us?”

Lewis pulled one of the chairs over to the vent and stood on it. “Well, I suspected that he’d try and find us, so I gave him a way to do so.”

“When did you become a ferret whisperer?” she asked.

He shrugged. “I’ve always been good with animals. A horse was my best buddy at the ranch. His name was Gatsby.”

“Why? Because you wanted him to have a horrible ending?” Bailey joked.

Lewis took off his watch, pulling a hidden blade from the back of the buckle.

“Hey, you got to keep a weapon,” she whined. “No fair.”

He winked at her and loosened the screws on the grate with the blade, maneuvering the grate off enough to pull Sebastian free. “Because he was passionate and a real romantic at heart.”

It took Bailey a moment to realize he was still talking about the horse.

The sound of approaching footsteps echoed in the hallway, and she straightened, taking a step away from the door. The ferret ran up Lewis’s arm, disappearing back into his jacket pocket, and the detective replaced the grate as the door opened.

Chapter Ten

Lagoon, Planet Tueti, Cacama System

A Tuetian who wore several medals on his uniform stood in the open doorway, his gaze directed at Lewis, who was still standing on the chair. “If you think you’ll be able to escape through the ventilation system, you’re wrong,” he told him.

Lewis looked down, ensuring Sebastian was neatly hidden away, while feeling over his body. “Dammit, if I could only lay off the donuts and lattes.”

“That’s General Fisk,” Pip informed Lewis and Bailey.

Bailey cut her eyes at the creature, a curious look on her face.

“Also, just so you know, I’ve reactivated the cameras so he won’t grow suspicious.”

“Who are you?” the general asked, strolling into the room, the door closing automatically behind him.

Lewis climbed down from the chair. “We mean you no harm. We only came to get information.”

“We aren’t friendly to humans, or willing to cooperate,” the general said. “Your kind should have realized that by now; we made our warning clear. This is a violation.”

Lewis looked at Bailey, who returned his intrigued expression. “I think you have us mixed up with someone else,” he told their visitor. “We’re new to the Precious galaxy, and have been tracking a monster created by Monstre Corp.”

At the mention of this, the Tuetian’s eyes brightened. “Take a seat.”

Lewis did as he was ordered, taking a seat in the metal chair. Bailey also complied.

When the general was seated across the table from them, he leaned forward. “What do you know of Monstre Corp?”

“That’s actually why we came here,” Bailey began. “We wanted to know what you could tell us?”

The alien seemed to consider her for a moment, then he shook his head. “We aren’t in the business of sharing information. It does us no good.”

“Well, then maybe you’ll let us go,” she said lightly. Pip had already accessed their systems; they had what they needed.

“Where is your ship?” the alien asked.

Lewis looked to Bailey. She smiled discreetly. “What ship?”

“How did you get on this planet?” General Fisk asked.

“Teleportation,” she said slowly, an idea coming to her.

General Fisk stood suddenly. “Recently, three of my best pilots were shot down. Do you know anything about that?”

Bailey gave Lewis a confused expression. “I haven’t heard anything. Have you?”

He shook his head. “It was probably Monstre Corp. Seems like we’re on the same side. If you tell us about your dealings with them, maybe we can help.”

General Fisk’s wings beat angrily. “I don’t trust Monstre Corp, and I don’t trust you. Until you’re ready to disclose how you got onto Tueti, you will remain here. In the meantime, I have a crew searching for your ship.”

“We don’t have a ship,” Bailey lied. “We used a special program to generate our consciousnesses on this planet. We’re not really even here; it’s more of an out-of-body sort of experience.”

Lewis was impressed that she’d come up with the cover so quickly.

However, the general wasn’t so easily enthralled. He straightened, striding for the door. “Consider your ship destroyed. I made my promise, and I intend to keep it; trespassers on Tueti will be punished.”

The door opened, the sound of trickling water filling the space momentarily. The Tuetian didn’t offer them a last glance as he exited.

When the door shut, Lewis let out a deep breath. “Pip, are the…” He paused, not willing to finish the sentence, just in case.

“I’ve deactivated the cameras again, but not for long. We don’t want them to get suspicious,” the AI reasoned.

Lewis smiled, looking down at the ferret by his feet. He’d felt Sebastian crawl out of his pocket, and had had trouble maintaining a neutral expression, not wanting to give away the animal’s presence.

Bailey looked around, her eyes searching. “Well, that was incredibly unhelpful. Now it’s only a matter of time before they find our ship.”

“It wasn’t as unhelpful as you think,” he said, picking Sebastian up and taking the small device he was holding.

“What’s that?” she asked, although by her hopeful expression, she already seemed to know.

“This is the contrivance,” Lewis stated. “Our ticket out of here.”

Chapter Eleven

Lagoon, Planet Tueti, Cacama System

“How does it work?” Bailey asked, peering at the fob-sized device in Lewis’s hands.

He looked it over, careful not to touch the two buttons on the front or the roller ball on the side. “I’m not sure. Technology isn’t really my thing. I’m sort of old-school.”

She regarded him with mock disbelief. “No kidding. I couldn’t tell.”

“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” he asked defensively.

She pointed to the wool jacket he wore over a Mr. Rogers-esque sweater. “Oh, I’m only wondering when you’re going to give your grandfather back his clothes.”

Lewis tugged the lapels of his jacket, holding them proudly. “Well, I wanted a cool, shiny suit, but they said you got the last one. And I like these clothes; they are warm and fit my cozy nature.”

Bailey shook her head at the detective, then took the contrivance from him and turned her attention to it. “This looks like it works the same as a mouse.”

“You mean it scurries around at night and steals cheese?” he asked.

She closed her eyes for a beat, suppressing a laugh. “No, I mean a mouse for a computer. I bet you point and click. And the roller ball allows you to scroll through options.”

“I guess there’s only one way to find out,” Lewis stated, activating his cloaking belt.

Bailey did the same, grateful that their tech wasn’t having the same glitches as when they went to Starboards Corp. She pointed the contrivance at the door, and clicked the button on the right. To her relief, the door slid back, revealing the hallway, and the sound of sprinkling water greeted her ears.

“So far, so good,” Lewis noted.

Bailey waited until she was in the hallway, and then said, “Are you out?”

“I get that I’m slow, but I’m not a sloth,” Lewis retorted in a hush over the comm.

The short hallway was empty.

Bailey pointed the contrivance at the door, and clicked it again. The door shut. “Try and keep up, Holmes. We’re headed for the exit.”

“I’ll play the available camera footage on a loop, but it will only work for a few minutes,” Pip said over the comm.

Bailey was going to agree that they should hurry, when she stopped abruptly.

The large atrium spread out before her, filled with Tuetians jostling in different directions. Instead of using stairs or elevators to get to higher floors, the Tuetians flew up from this ground level, and there was a lot of traffic. Getting through the area without bumping into someone and drawing attention was going to be difficult.

“Hug the perimeter, Ladybug,” Lewis said over the comm.

Bailey eyed the walls that enclosed the atrium. Going around to the exit would take twice as long, but Lewis was right; most of the activity was happening in the center of the area.

“Copy that, Holmes,” she acknowledged in a whisper, grateful that the sound of trickling water, flapping wings and chatter drowned out their steps.

She slipped up next to the stone wall and slid along it, making fast progress. When they got to the exit, Bailey saw the grassy path to the fence. Thankfully, the area in front of the building was significantly less populated than inside. There were a few guards doing patrols, and a few more flying in from the other side of the fence. But even these few witnesses were problematic; the grass was lush and thick, and Bailey had no doubt that their footsteps wouldn’t go unnoticed by those with keen eyes.

“Holmes, we’re going to have to step quickly on our toes,” she stated over the comms.

“I was thinking the same thing,” Lewis replied.

“Quickly, not carefully,” Bailey joked, remembering the several minutes it had taken him to make it across Starboards’ headquarters while cloaked.

“Do you want me to come and pick you two up?” Pip asked.

“No,” she answered. “We’re coming out to you. There’s no way we could get onboard here without attracting attention.”

“Then what’s your plan?” Lewis asked.

“I’ve got the contrivance,” Bailey reminded him. “I’m going to open the damn fence.”

“ ’Cause that won’t attract any attention,” he teased with a laugh.

“Relax, I’m only going to open it a little. Be ready.”

“I’m totally ready. Let’s make it a race.”

Bailey released a smile no one could see. “You’re on, Holmes.”

“Ready,” Pip commanded excitedly. “Set. Go!”

Bailey sprinted forward, hardly feeling her feet touch the ground. She ran with high knees, on her toes, not allowing them to touch for long before springing forward with the next foot. If there was one thing she was best at, it was running. She’d been doing it all her life; she couldn’t stay still. It was like there was a ticking time bomb inside of her, and it would go off if she was idle for too long.

Turning once she got to the fence, she pointed the contrivance at it, and prepared to slip through.

“I’m here,” she whispered.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Lewis panted over the comm.

“Oh, guess I won then. Are you still on your way?”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” he whispered.

“You need a whole minute?” Bailey shook her head. “We’re gonna start running sprints daily when we get back on the ship.”

“I’m here,” Lewis said, his voice echoing from nearby and over the comm. “And don’t you forget that it was my secret weapon that got us out of there.”

“There you go again, calling a squirming animal a weapon.” Bailey turned to the fence. Up close, she could see the hinges that opened each section, creating a gate. “I should be able to open it enough for us to slip through without anyone noticing.”

“Just in case, we’d better haul ass to the ship,” Lewis said.

She sighed. “Does that mean I should carry you?”

“Ha-ha,” he said humorlessly. “I’ll make it, but how are we going to find the ship?”

“You know the general location of the ship?” Pip asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

“Okay, I’ll open the hatch as you approach. It’ll stick out, in this landscape,” the AI commented. “I’ll have the ship ready to go.”

“Okay, then on the count of three,” Bailey stated, holding the contrivance in her hand, her finger hovering over the button. “One, two, three.”

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

General Fisk had declined Vitos’s offer to assist in the investigation of the trespassers. He’d ordered him to turn in the report on his patrol, and retire before his next shift.

Vitos didn’t want to return to the upper decks, where everyone would be gossiping about the humans; he had been the closest when they materialized. He’d been the first to see them, even if he didn’t raise the alarm.

Instead of flying to the upper decks, Vitos returned to his ship. If anyone asked, he’d say he was pulling the log off the radar, but he really wanted to sit in the cockpit; it was his favorite place to think. The team always teased him that he felt the most comfortable in the Dragonfly because it was the one place he could fly.

He grimaced as the common jabs streamed through his head:

‘Who walks the best amongst us?’ one of the guys would tease. ‘Vitos, because he can’t fly.’

‘Hey, Vitos is coming with us—that means we’ll see at least three crashes.’

‘Let’s fly in formation—or, as Vitos makes it, a chaotic mess.’

He’d been hearing such barbs since he was young.

Tuetians were born with wings and an instinct for flying. Although Vitos’s wings had been examined several times and a flaw was never found, for some reason, he’d always struggled to fly for too long. He could make it over the border fence, or up to the higher decks, but flying long distances had always been a challenge. But in the Dragonfly, he could fly without concern for making such dumb errors.

Still, piloting wasn’t where his passion lay. His parents had wanted him to be a farmer, like them, but that also wasn’t of interest to him. For Vitos, it was painting that spoke to his heart. He wanted to be an artist.

But art wasn’t appreciated on Tueti; it was considered frivolous. He’d heard of other, alien cultures that appreciated such things, though. That was why he’d enlisted, and how he found himself under Commander Fisk’s leadership. Now, he wasn’t any closer to his dream, but at least he wasn’t plowing fields and being told to get his head out of the clouds.

When his mama would say that, it always made his siblings laugh.

‘He wishes he could have his head in the clouds, but he’d just wreck,’ one of them would say.

Vitos let out a loud breath, slamming his hand into the side of the cockpit. He looked up, the bright sunlight almost obscuring his vision, but it looked like the border fence had parted. He sat up straighter. It wasn’t a trick of the light; it was open at least two feet.

He bolted forward in his seat as the fence began to close again. He stared around, looking for Commander Fisk, but the grounds were mostly empty, save for two guards who were headed in the opposite direction.

Someone had come through the gate, but there was no apparent reason to open the border. Actually, the capture of these humans had been the first time Vitos could remember seeing the fence open.

“Wait!” he said to himself, his heart beating fast.

His eyes scanned over the grassy area in front of him. It seemed an impossible consideration, but it was also the only real explanation.

Vitos fired up his Dragonfly, doing a quick system check. He’d recently had a heat sensing technology installed; the engineers had warned him that the software wasn’t up to specs yet, and that it shouldn’t be used until they’d worked out the issues, but Vitos couldn’t resist. This was the perfect opportunity.

He turned on the penetrator heat sensor unit, staring at the screen as the it scanned back and forth across the grounds. It was a new technology that the Tuetian had developed for a recent threat. The sensor picked up on a nearby Dragonfly that had recently landed. It also found the guards who were about to cross behind the border. And then, quite remarkably, the heat sensor revealed two figures. Without wings.

He looked up, staring in the direction that the radar indicated. He saw only a flat, grassy lawn that stretched out to the mountains in the distance.

Can the radar be wrong, he wondered. There is nothing there. How could the figures be invisible?

Looking down at the reading, he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. The fence had opened, and the radar clearly showed two figures advancing farther away from the Lagoon.

And then there was something else. A large vehicle…something that resembled a ship.

Vitos shook his head, looking up. He still couldn’t see anything.

Then out of nowhere, it was like a door had been opened up in the middle of the sky. He couldn’t make out what it was, but there had definitely been something there and then it was gone. He checked the radar. The figures were gone. The vehicle was rising off the ground.

It’s leaving!

Without a thought, Vitos prepared his Dragonfly for flight. When it was ready, he paused, considering sending a message to the general, but the radar showed that the ship was getting farther away.

He shook his head and sped after the trespassers.

Chapter Twelve

Loading Bay, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

“I’m telling you, I’ve searched. There isn’t one,” Pip said overhead in the Q-Ship, as it glided down onto the deck of Ricky Bobby, an almost perfect landing.

“There has to be at least one funny brunette joke,” Bailey teased.

“There isn’t,” Pip insisted.

“Why can’t you take a blonde joke and switch it to say ‘brunette’?” Lewis asked.

Pip scoffed. “Detective, that’s not how this works. The material is inspired by the blonde; it cannot be simply reassigned.”

“Riiight,” Lewis said, rolling his eyes. “What was I thinking?”

“Well, this is fun and all, but can you take a break to send Ricky Bobby the information you got on Tueti?” Bailey asked, enjoying being back onboard the ship.

It was strange that in such a short period of time, it had started to feel like home. Bailey didn’t think she could say that about any other place…ever.

“Yeah, fine,” Pip agreed with a sigh. “I’ll do boring work.”

Lewis looked at Bailey, amused. “We need to find him a very special job. Something that works to his strengths.”

“Do you mean writing comedy sketches for one of the traveling troops in our home galaxy?” she asked, strolling for the open hatch.

He shrugged. “Well, maybe something that keeps him closer to us.”

“You guys like me,” Pip said in a sing-song voice.

Bailey shook her head, smiling at Hatch, Jack and Liesel, who stood in the distance, regarding the returning partners anxiously. They just don’t know we were successful yet.

She and Lewis had completed the mission; that felt good. Hopefully, they would now be able to determine where the databases were located.

“Pip has a lot of information, and is uploading it as we speak,” Bailey said in greeting.

Jack crossed his arms in front of his chest, mirroring the stance of the other two team members with him. “Then why has a Dragonfly followed you back?”

Bailey spun around, suddenly confused. The loading deck was empty.

“What are you talking about?” she demanded.

Hatch’s tentacles uncrossed, flying into the air like streamers in the wind. “It’s there, but we can’t make contact; it keeps jumping around on the radar. We caught sight of it once you got close, but then it disappeared.”

“I wasn’t aware that we were followed,” Bailey stated. “We had the cloaks up the entire time.”

Hatch dismissed her explanation, his face brightening. “Well, good news on the success of the mission. And we have the cloaks up now, so it shouldn’t be a concern.”

“It’s probably one of the Tuetian on patrol,” Jack agreed amiably.

Liesel’s eyes were heavy when she looked up at them, and Lewis walked past Bailey, digging into his pocket.

“You look upset,” he said to the chief engineer.

She chewed on her thumbnail, her gaze darting across the ground. “Sebastian is missing and he’s not in any of his normal hiding places. I know it’s silly, but…I miss him.” After a moment, she forced a slight smile. “I’m sure he’ll turn up…”

Lewis pulled the ferret from his pocket. “He absolutely will. Sorry we couldn’t relieve your stress earlier; we didn’t realize we had a stowaway until we were underway.”

“ ‘Bastian!” Liesel exclaimed, grabbing the ferret.

He immediately snuggled around her neck, and nuzzled his face behind her ear.

Lewis laughed. “He was my secret weapon. The lieutenant thought I was crazy.”

Bailey agreed with a nod. “You are, but yes, the ferret sort of saved our asses.” She looked down at her holster with a frown. “My weapons appear to still be in the custody of the Tuetians.”

“That’s why you need weapons that come back to you,” Lewis stated.

You do,” Bailey corrected him. “I’ll stick with guns.”

“You two can borrow Sebastian for a mission anytime,” Liesel stated, a wide grin on her face. “I’m glad you brought him back safely.”

“I’m glad we got away from the Tuetians,” Bailey said. “They were not at all cooperative.”

“Speaking of the Tuetians,” Ricky Bobby said overhead. “One of their ships has appeared at the stern, and is preparing to land.”

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

If he had only been using the heat sensor, the Dragonfly would have been fine. However, Vitos had also activated the enemy radar scrambler. He’d been warned that both upgrades were new, and shouldn’t be used yet. He’d thought the engineers were overreacting.

Staring at the blinking warning light, he realized they hadn’t been exaggerating.

[System failure], the screen read.

The ship vibrated under Vitos, making him think it would split in two at any moment. He dared to activate the heat sensors again, and sparks shot from the dashboard. He shielded his face, making a silent plea.

He wasn’t sure why he’d chased after the humans; he wanted to say it was to protect his own, but he knew that wasn’t true. It was his damn curiosity. It always got him into trouble.

He slapped at the sparks, trying to quell the fire. By the time it was mostly contained, he realized that the small ship had disappeared. To his astonishment, it had been replaced on the sensor by a giant one.

Vitos looked out over the bow of his ship, not seeing anything in the distance; though the sensors clearly displayed something huge and ship-shaped giving off a heat reading.

More sparks shot up from the dash, and the ship lurched downward sharply.

This is it, Vitos thought.

He was too far away from any planet to land. There was only one option: he had to try and land on this alien ship.

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

“I didn’t spot the spacecraft until it was already too close,” Ricky Bobby explained. “It jammed the radars somehow.”

“What do we do?” Lewis asked, looking around. A screeching sound filled the air; a noise that made his teeth ache. “How do we prevent this?”

Bailey strode off, shaking her head. “We don’t. It’s only one measly ship.”

Lewis looked at the others, shaking his head. “What is she doing?”

Hatch shrugged, not looking at all concerned. “I don’t know, but she’s right. If this terrorist has dared to enter our ship, then they’d better get ready.”

“What if it’s like the robot ship from Starboards Corp, and is armed with a bomb?” he pressed.

“Then you’d better back up,” Bailey stated as she rejoined the group, a giant gun in her hand.

“Where did you get that?” Lewis asked.

“I had it stashed for just such an occasion,” Bailey said, cocking the weapon.

“How could you have anticipated such an occasion?” he asked incredulously, covering his ears from the increasingly deafening screeching noise.

Something shot in from the back of the loading dock, a blur of movement, smoke and fire. Sparks shot up from the deck as a single-person flyer streaked across the ground, and rammed into the back of the Q-Ship that Bailey had parked with ease.

The crashing of metal echoed throughout the loading dock, making everyone but Bailey step back and cover their ears.

The lieutenant took a dangerous step forward, her large gun trained on the side of the enemy ship, which was rocking back and forth as it settled. There appeared to be a fire brewing in the cockpit.

A hatch opened, and smoke billowed forth, masking the vehicle as its pilot stepped out.

“Hands—or whatever you’ve got—UP!” yelled Bailey as she dared to take another step forward.

A figure stepped out of the smoke: a Tuetian with his hands held high above his head.

“Don’t shoot. I come in…well, curiosity.”

Chapter Thirteen

Loading Bay, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Bailey ran her gaze over the alien as he waved the smoke out of his face, choking from the flames building inside his craft.

“You trespassed onto our ship and crashed into my craft…out of curiosity?” she asked, holding the gun up higher, ensuring he saw it.

“I saw you two leaving Tueti,” the alien said, pointing to her and then Lewis. “I used the heat sensors that the engineers said weren’t ready, and then, to keep you from seeing me, I used the radar scrambler they also said not to use.”

Hatch waddled forward, shaking his head as he stood next to Bailey. “Just goes to prove that you should never doubt your engineer.”

“That ship looks close to exploding,” Liesel exclaimed, running forward with an extinguisher.

“Yeah, I almost didn’t make it,” the alien admitted.

“Who else is headed here?” Bailey asked.

The Tuetian shook his head. “No one. Just me. I never told the general.”

“You’ll forgive us if we have trouble believing you,” Bailey stated.

“He’s telling the truth,” Lewis said, stepping up to stand on her other side.

Liesel was busy extinguishing a fire that had sprouted on the outside of the ship, but the one in the cockpit was still going strong.

Jack appeared with another extinguisher, and pushed it into the alien’s hands. “Take care of the fire,” the chief strategist said with authority.

The Tuetian didn’t argue, only covered his mouth and ducked back into the cockpit. A loud streaming noise ensued.

Bailey gave Lewis a tentative expression. “What do you make of this?” she asked.

“He wasn’t lying when he said he was alone,” he repeated.

“So, what, you can communicate with ferrets, and you’re a lie detector for aliens?”

“The cues that someone gives when they are lying are universal,” Lewis told her simply, as more ash and smoke enveloped the ship.

The alien coughed as he rushed out of the craft. “It’s out…I think.”

“Great,” Hatch stated, passing Bailey and Lewis to stand squarely in front of the intruder. “Now get back on that ship and get out of here.”

The Tuetian’s large eyes widened even more. “B-b-but the ship’s engines are nearly fried. I don’t think they’ll make it that far.”

“Not our problem.” Hatch shrugged.

“But what if the ship can’t make it back and I crash?” the alien asked fearfully.

“How do we know there isn’t a tracker on that ship, or a bomb?” the mechanic asked.

“I’ve sent Sebastian to check,” Liesel interrupted.

Hatch shook his head. “That’s not the point. This alien has trespassed on our ship.”

The Tuetian pointed at Lewis and Bailey. “They trespassed first, on my planet.”

“We came in peace to find information,” the lieutenant clarified, still holding her gun at the ready. “It was your people who locked us up, giving us no choice but to escape.”

“Look!” the alien yelled, his wings fluttering. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t responsible for them locking you up, and when I saw you escaping, all I did was follow you. I’ve never met humans, or whatever you are.” His eyes darted to Hatch.

Bailey turned to face the others. “I say we drop him off on his planet. Maybe with a faulty parachute.”

Hatch agreed with a nod.

Jack, on the other hand, didn’t look so sure. “What if he can offer some insight?”

“Pip already got access to their system,” Bailey reminded them.

“That’s true, but—”

“Pip and I are sorting through that information now,” Ricky Bobby interrupted. “So far, it seems to pertain solely to Tuetian local affairs. There is nothing that we can link to interactions with Monstre Corp.”

Jack turned to Bailey and Lewis. “It appears he could be an asset, after all.”

“Fine,” Bailey snapped, keeping her eyes on the alien. “But I vote we put him in the brig.”

Jack nodded his head curtly. “I think that’s a good idea. Will you do the honors, since you’re holding the big gun?”

Bailey agreed, motioning with her weapon. “March, Mr. Curiosity. If you’re staying with us, then we’re keeping you locked up.”

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

“Do you want to do Good-Cop-Bad-Cop?” Bailey asked, standing outside the brig.

“Sure, but I call Good Cop,” Lewis said, popping up the collar of his jacket to cover his neck.

Bailey scoffed. “Why do you get to be Good Cop?”

“You wanted to drop this alien back on his planet using a bad parachute.”

Bailey nodded, remembering the comment she’d made in haste. “Yeah, but I have a feeling this Tuetian isn’t going to talk to the Bad Cop.”

“And what? You have to be liked?” Lewis asked with a laugh.

“Maybe Good-Cop-Bad-Cop isn’t the right approach with this one,” Bailey mused, changing her mind.

“Well, let’s think about what we know,” Lewis began, his tone switching to ‘detective’ mode. “This alien is the curious type, which doesn’t seem normal for the Tuetians.”

“Yeah, they weren’t at all curious about us. Only territorial.”

He nodded. “I suspect that’s for a reason.”

“We know that he takes dumb risks,” she supplied.

“Yes. I also don’t think he’s aligned with his people,” Lewis noted.

“Why do you say that?” Bailey asked.

“He said he wasn’t responsible for locking us up, and he wasn’t lying when he said he only followed us. But I’m certain his orders would have been to report our escape.”

Bailey considered this. “Yeah, that’s definitely rebellious behavior.”

Lewis placed his hand on the button that opened the door for the brig. “Alright, let’s play to these characteristics.”

“Rebellious and curious,” Bailey summated, and patted her gun. “And if all else fails, I’ll threaten to shoot him in the foot.”

“Good call.”

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

The Tuetian was pacing back and forth in his cell when Lewis and Bailey entered. He halted and regarded them with a cautious stare.

Lewis stepped forward, pulling a chair from against the wall as he did so. He turned it around and took a seat, pressing his chest into its back. Unsurprisingly, Bailey chose to remain standing, her hands behind her back, and chin lifted.

“I’m Detective Lewis Harlowe.” He motioned to his partner, “And this is Lieutenant Bailey Tennant.”

“Hi,” the alien squeaked, like he’d suddenly lost his voice. “I’m Vitos Rigar.”

“Nice to meet you,” the detective said politely. “What do your friends call you?”

Vitos looked around, an uncertain expression on his round face. “Uhhh…’Vitos’ is fine.”

Lewis nodded. Not a rebel. An outcast. He put an easy smile on his face. “I bet you want to know what the members of this ship do,” Lewis said, an easy smile on his face.

The Tuetian’s wings buzzed, as a light flickered across his eyes. “You’re not with that company, that much I can figure out.”

“Do you mean Monstre Corp?” Bailey asked.

The Tuetian shrugged. “I think that’s the name. I haven’t personally met anyone from there, but I heard they were hostile, and guarded by a black mass.”

Bailey’s eyes sparked and shot to Lewis.

“Black mass?” he questioned. “Did this thing come down to your planet?”

“It’s been all over the Cacama system,” the alien told him. “We heard reports that it went to Pochli, and the entire population disappeared. A team was sent out and confirmed that there was no one left on the planet.”

“But the…‘black mass’ came to Tueti?” Lewis asked.

Vitos nodded.

“Why didn’t anything happen to you?” Bailey inquired.

“You mean, why didn’t we all disappear?” he asked.

“The crew of this ship vanished when the black mass came here,” Bailey explained, trying to offer a piece of information out of goodwill.

Vitos’s mouth popped open. “You’re trying to find them, aren’t you?”

“What can you tell us about this corporation?” Lewis asked, instead of answering the intruder’s observation.

“They showed up several months ago,” Vitos began. “First we saw the black mass, and then we heard the rumors about Pochli. Then the asteroid belt changed.”

“Changed how?” Bailey asked.

His wings flapped nervously. “From the mining. That’s when General Fisk set up a meeting with one of the corporation’s representatives; it didn’t go well. There was a fight. Casualties. The general demanded that the corporation leave our planet, and told them that if they came back, there would be problems.”

“And have they returned?” Lewis asked.

Vitos shook his head. “No one has. Not until you two arrived.”

This provided more unanswered questions than information. Why were the Tuetians not affected by the monster? What was Monstre Corp doing in the Cacama system? They would need to know more.

“I understand that I came here by an unorthodox method,” Vitos stated. “I’m sorry for that. But I promise to be of help, if you’ll let me. You’ve lost your crew; I’d like to offer what I can.”

“Why?” Bailey asked, a strong cynicism in her voice.

“Because…” Vitos said, his tone uncertain. He cleared his throat, attempting to bolster his confidence. “When those from Pochli disappeared, my own did nothing. I thought that cowardly, but that was the general’s decision. He made the agreement with the humans on the asteroid belt to leave the matter alone and keep to ourselves.”

“What do you want in return?” Bailey wanted to know.

The alien shook his head, confusion heavy in his gaze. “I only want a chance.”

“A chance at what?” Lewis probed, his tone sensitive.

“A chance to do the right thing.”

Chapter Fourteen

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

“Don’t worry, the doctor did this to me, too,” Dejoure assured Vitos, who had sensors attached to his head.

“But his head isn’t covered in hair, making this test a lot easier,” Hatch grumbled, bustling around the two.

Bailey looked away from the Tuetian ship, which they’d started calling the Dragonfly.

“Can you keep that light up, please?” Liesel asked, pulling her head away from the ship’s exposed engine.

“Sorry,” Bailey said, refocusing.

She’d been helping Liesel study the ship—which was actually very innovative, according to the chief engineer. Meanwhile, Hatch was studying the Tuetian to try and find out why the monster didn’t affect him or his species.

It hadn’t taken much convincing to get Vitos to submit to inspection; only the promise of a few stories about humanity’s history, and some details on what Hatch was. The alien was full of questions, though Bailey could tell he was holding back from asking everything he wanted to know.

“Do you think that your kind are worried about you?” Dejoure asked him, shifting on her feet like it was hard for her to stay still.

She is a kid, Bailey had to remind herself. Her own sisters had never been still, usually fidgeting around nervously. The thought of them made her chest tighten with nostalgia. She shook it off, trying to listen to the Tuetian’s reply.

He appeared to be debating his answer. “I’m not sure they’ll notice I’m gone. Not for a while,” Vitos said. “Not until it’s time to do ground patrols.”

“Why would they notice then?” DJ asked, a thoughtful look on her face.

“Because if I’m not there, they have no entertainment,” Vitos stated bitterly.

Her brow furrowed. “They make fun of you?”

Bailey smiled at the girl’s intuitive nature.

“Yes, but they have every right to. I’m sort of a joke.” He motioned to his wings, and frowned. “I’m not a good flier.”

“So?” Dejoure demanded. “No one should ever be made fun of.”

“I-i-it’s fine,” Vitos stuttered, obviously not used to being lectured by a tiny human. “I’m a freak. Tuetians can fly starting shortly after birth. The doctors have examined my wings and there’s nothing wrong with them. However, for some reason I’ve never been able to fly but for short distances.”

Hatch looked up, eyeing the Tuetian’s wings with slight curiosity.

“But you can fly,” Dejoure said, her tone adamant.

He shook his head. “Tuetians can fly long distances and up to great heights. During patrols, I usually have to take breaks, or I’ll knock the others out of formation. It’s hilarious.” The alien laughed coldly, but Dejoure wasn’t the least bit amused.

She crossed her arms in front of her chest, wearing a scolding expression. “That’s not at all funny,” Dejoure said. “We shouldn’t be teased for something you can’t control. Mrs. Hinez always said that only those who don’t feel good about themselves make fun of others.”

“Mrs. Hinez doesn’t know everything,” Hatch argued. “There are certain things that are off-limits, of course, but a little good-hearted teasing ensures we don’t take ourselves or others too seriously.”

“You’re only saying that because you were never really teased,” Dejoure said stubbornly. “You’re a know-it-all scientist who can do anything because you have extra appendages.”

He turned slowly, giving her an annoyed stare. “Right, because nerds have never been the butt of a joke.” Hatch focused back on the equipment he’d hooked Vitos to. With his attention on the monitor, he said, “Another good word. Appendages.”

“Do I get ten points?” Dejoure asked playfully.

“Yes, fine,” he said dismissively. “Take ten points.”

“No fair!” Pip complained overheard. “I’ve been trying to organize a point system for good behavior, and you always turn me down!”

“Deflating your spirit gives my life purpose, Pip,” Hatch muttered, leaning close to study the monitor.

“That’s it!” the AI yelled. “I’m taking ten points from you, Doc!”

“Oh, no, don’t,” Hatch said with a fake groan, obviously not at all concerned.

“Oh yes. Keep it up, and it will be another five,” Pip warned.

Lewis walked up beside Bailey, his attention also focused on the exchange over by the examination area. “When did this become Hogwarts?” he asked her.

Ensuring she was still holding the light properly for Liesel, Bailey chuckled. “Pip would definitely be in Slytherin, if it was.”

“I heard that!” Pip yelled. “It’s so unfair. You write a few dozen orphan jokes, and everyone thinks you’re evil.”

Dejoure’s mouth popped open with disgust. “You came up with a bunch of orphan jokes?”

“Well, yeah, but the lieutenant said they weren’t funny enough, so I’ve been working on them,” Pip said.

Bailey’s eyes were suddenly hyper-focused on what Liesel was doing with the engine, but she could feel the girl staring at her. “I told him they were in bad taste.”

“Actually, I believe you said, they weren’t ‘punchy’ enough,” Pip recalled.

The lieutenant scoffed, trying to cover the warmth spreading up her neck. “Come on, DJ. Who are you going to believe? Me or that Slytherin?”

“Since I don’t know what a Slyth-whatever is, I’ll believe you,” Dejoure said.

“If you all would shut it for one minute,” Hatch began, “I’m trying to conduct research.”

Vitos pushed back in the chair, an apprehensive expression on his face. “Who is Pip?” he asked Hatch.

“Oh, Pip is the AI that was attached to our commander, Julianna Fregin. When she was uploaded by the monster, they were separated and Pip stay here since he isn’t a living being. He is the second AI on the ship, Ricky Bobby being the one in charge of the battlecruiser.”

Vitos head revolved, wonderment in his eyes. “This is an interesting place.”

“It’s home,” Hatch said dismissively. “What I think is interesting, is you.”

“What did you find?” Lewis asked, looking at the screen next to Hatch.

“I think I’ve figured out…why the monster can’t upload Tuetians,” Hatch stated, his voice careful as he studied a readout that was printing next to the monitor. “I’ll have to look into it further, but I hypothesize that the monster has difficulties uploading Tuetians because of the unique structure of their brain.”

“What does that have to do with it?” Bailey asked.

“I wasn’t able to study the monster extensively, but I did learn that it hooks into certain areas of the brain in order to enact its process,” Hatch explained. “These are specific areas that the Tuetians don’t have.”

“Are you saying that, in this case, having a tiny insect brain is a good thing?” Pip asked.

Dejoure’s hand shot to her open mouth. “Teasing! What did I say about teasing?”

“That it builds character and should be encouraged?” Pip pretended to ask.

“No!” the girl exclaimed. “I said that it wasn’t nice to tease others for things they can’t control.”

“Oh, well, Slytherins have really bad hearing,” Pip said flippantly. “But does that mean we can tease others for things they can control? Like Hatch’s grumpy attitude is within his abilities to change, and yet he acts like he’s got a stick up his—”

“I wouldn’t finish that sentence, if I were you,” the Londil warned.

“Honestly, I’m not certain how to finish that sentence,” Pip stated. “I’m a bit perplexed regarding the Londil anatomy. Do you even have an—”

“And that’s the end of that conversation,” Lewis said, cutting the AI off.

Hatch nodded appreciatively. “I think what we’ve learned is that the monster was designed to upload human consciousness.”

“That’s right, it didn’t work on the AIs,” Lewis recalled.

“Exactly, although I suspect the monster can upload other species, since it was almost successful with me,” Hatch amended.

“But the monster might struggle with uploading certain aliens?” Bailey asked.

Hatch stared off, deep in thought. “So it would appear.”

“Something else of interest is the construction of this ship,” Liesel spoke up, taking the light from Bailey with a smile.

Hatch looked over, his attention suddenly on the chief engineer. “What have you learned?”

“Well, we named this ship accurately,” Liesel stated. “Much like a dragonfly, this ship has excellent flying maneuverability, much of its design resembling a helicopter, but it also has spacecraft capabilities.”

“That is interesting,” Hatch mused.

“And much like our friend, here,” she continued, extending a hand to Vitos, “the ship’s visibility is almost three-hundred-and-sixty degrees.”

“How do you know that about Vitos?” Hatch asked.

Liesel blinked at him blankly. “Well, isn’t it obvious?”

Bailey studied the Tuetian, its head dominated by large eyes that covered the sides and part of the back of his skull.

“Plus, dragonflies are my spirit animal, so I know a lot about them,” Liesel added.

Hatch let out an annoyed breath. “For several seconds, you had my respect as a scientist—then you went and blew it with hippie talk.”

Seeming unaffected, the engineer shrugged. “It’s really a well-designed ship. I should be able to have it repaired fairly quickly.”

“Okay, you do that,” Hatch said, taking the sensors off Vitos, whose wings were twitching at his back.

“What’s a ‘spirit animal’?” the Tuetian asked, unable to hold in the question any longer.

“It’s something dumb, akin to astrology,” the doctor grumbled, shaking his head.

Undeterred, Liesel smiled. “Actually, a spirit animal is something you feel close to, that you associate with. Maybe it’s another form you take in your dreams, or an animal that calls to your desires.”

“Dumb, like I said,” Hatch reiterated, pulling the rest of the sensors off Vitos, and pushing the cart back toward his workstation.

“Everyone has a spirit animal, and finding out what it is can be really fun,” Liesel enthused.

“How do we do that?” Dejoure asked.

“I’ve found an online quiz,” Pip cut in.

The girl crossed her arms in front of her chest. “I’m not talking to you right now.”

“And yet I’m talking to you,” Pip said.

“You don’t need a quiz,” Liesel stated. “Instead, think about your strongest attributes, and what animal embodies them.”

“Could my spirit animal be a human?” Vitos asked.

Pip burst out laughing overhead.

“Don’t laugh,” Dejoure scolded.

Liesel smiled, leaning down to pick up Sebastian. “Your spirit animal is whatever you want it to be. Mine is a dragonfly and a ferret.”

“I don’t think I have a spirit animal,” Bailey said, not able to think of one that she fully associated with.

“Maybe you need to take that quiz,” Lewis said, winking at her.

“Oh, what’s yours?” Bailey asked him.

He puffed up his chest proudly. “A Palomino horse.”

“This quiz is dumb,” Pip complained. “I got a whale.”

“What? How did that happen?” Bailey asked.

“It says I’m easily lost in my own imaginative efforts,” Pip related.

“I think a whale suits you perfectly, then,” Liesel said, putting Sebastian on her shoulder.

“I think it does, too,” Bailey said mischievously. “I totally see you insulated with thick blubber.”

A loud gasp echoed overhead. “Are you calling me fat?” Pip asked.

“I totally am,” Bailey said.

Dejoure chuckled, her one green and one brown eye sparkling.

“Hey, I thought you didn’t approve of teasing,” Pip protested.

Dejoure continued to laugh. “You’re an AI who doesn’t have a body.

“I still have feelings!” Pip exclaimed.

“What goes around, comes around,” Bailey said, winking at Dejoure.

Chapter Fifteen

Dining Hall, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Vitos picked up the English muffin dripping in hollandaise sauce, and eyed it with an uncertain expression before laying it on the table next to his plate.

“What are you doing?” Dejoure scolded.

She was wearing a blue apron and holding a pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice in one hand; her other hand was fisted on her hip. She was a great cook, which was her contribution to the team, along with her light nature and quick wit.

The alien looked down at her. He was so much taller than she was, even seated. “I don’t eat stuff like that.” Vitos pointed at the offending breakfast.

“Fine, don’t eat it, but keep your food on your own plate. That’s good manners,” she told him, filling Bailey’s glass with juice.

Lewis cracked a smile at the lieutenant across the table. Dejoure had begun to come into her own since they moved into the Precious galaxy, and it was quite entertaining to see.

“M-m-manners?” Vitos asked, an innocent expression on his face.

“Yes. You know, rules that you follow to be respectful to others,” the girl stated.

Vitos scratched his head. “Well, I haven’t eaten you; I think that’s pretty respectful. We’re taught to eat others’ young.”

Dejoure only pursed her lips and held up the juice. “You don’t want any of this, do you? I’m guessing if you don’t eat bread then you’re probably not into fruit. Is that right?”

Vitos shook his head. “I’m carnivorous. Just the eggs and bacon are great, thanks.”

“You don’t really eat people, do you?” Lewis asked, pushing his hash browns around on his plate, sopping up the egg yolk. The eggs Benedict, a favorite of his, was incredibly good.

Vitos shrugged. “I mean, I don’t, but I’m not going to say it’s impossible. Though we prefer smaller prey; usually something small enough to be caught while in flight.”

“You catch your food while flying?” Bailey asked.

Vitos’s chin dropped. “Well, I don’t, but the hunters do. I flunked out of that group fairly fast. I think they only kept me in patrols because, with the current threat, we needed extra guards.”

“And you can fly the Dragonfly,” Lewis added, licking his fork.

“We call them F535s,” Vitos stated.

“Yeah, I like ‘Dragonfly’ better,” Bailey said.

“So, can you tell us more about this threat and, specifically, the asteroid belt?” Lewis asked.

“I can try.” Vitos picked up a piece of Canadian bacon with his hands, but caught a punishing look from Dejoure, and dropped it back on his plate. Tentatively, he grabbed the fork, struggling to hold the utensil.

“I can’t believe DJ is giving our new arrival etiquette lessons,” Bailey said to Lewis from the corner of her mouth.

He smiled back.

“I don’t mind,” Vitos said in a rush. “I want to learn how you all operate—it’s so different from the Tuetians. You show emotions and all act different.”

“Versus?” Bailey said, allowing the question to hang in the air.

“The Tuetians are not encouraged to have distinct personalities,” Vitos explained. “We are taught conformity. We’re very utilitarian, which I’ve always found boring.”

“Yeah? You don’t like their ways? What are you into?” Lewis asked.

“You’re going to laugh,” he said, shame on his smooth face.

“No, we won’t,” Dejoure encouraged.

Vitos pushed his plate away, his chin down. “I’ve always wanted to be a painter. Art isn’t something we’re taught, so I don’t know where I even got the urge. I guess I read about it from other alien cultures. I used to make paint from dried flowers and make pictures of the landscapes. That’s why I was sent to the infantry to work under General Fisk; artistic expression is considered wasteful.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Dejoure said, sitting down at the table and pulling her own plate toward her.

“I know… I should have been spending my time working in the coffee cherry fields, like I was told to,” he said shamefully. “Instead, I wasted morning light. But that really is when the rays of the sun look their best.”

“Coffee?” Lewis asked, his curiosity piqued.

“Yes, that’s our largest export,” Vitos explained. “There are several planets who harvest the fruit to create Precious Galaxy Coffee.”

Lewis hadn’t had a good cup of coffee since leaving Ronin. Suddenly, he had the urge to explore these other planets.

“Anyway, I brought much trouble on myself, toiling away painting instead of working,” Vitos said, a sadness in his voice.

“Nooooo,” Dejoure lamented. “It’s ridiculous that you were told not to follow your passion. I think Liesel Diesel taught painting classes to the crew of this ship; maybe she can help you.”

Vitos shook his head nervously. “I really shouldn’t. I need to be of assistance to the detective and the lieutenant. That was my promise.” He gestured to Bailey and Lewis

“So does that mean you want to stay onboard Ricky Bobby?” Bailey asked.

Vitos nodded at once, adamantly. “Yes! If you’ll have me. I can fly the F535…I mean, the Dragonfly. And I’ll tell you what I know about what’s happened in the Cacama system since the arrival of the black mass.”

Lewis leaned back, folding his hands behind his head. “Okay, go ahead.”

“Well, we weren’t allowed to investigate Pochli,” he began. “That’s when the representative from the asteroid belt was sent and there was a battle.So I can’t tell you what’s on that planet, but I can tell you that the corporation on the asteroid belt didn’t want us going there.”

Bailey shot her partner a pointed look. “Sounds like they’re hiding something.”

Lewis agreed, glancing down at his watch. “Well, they uploaded the entire population of the planet, so they don’t have any witnesses to worry about. They are definitely hiding something.”

“But you say they came from the asteroid belt?” Bailey asked.

“Yes, that’s where we first noticed activity,” Vitos explained. “On my patrols, it seemed they were mining, but I never got a good look. We were forced to keep a distance, due to our agreement.”

“Mining, eh?” Lewis asked.

Bailey gave him a curious expression. “You think they have a store of D-factor on the asteroids?”

“There’s only way to find out,” he sang.

“Wait, you’re thinking of going to the asteroid belt?” Vitos asked, worry in his voice. “You can’t do that. That’s where the black mass was and then these guards took over. They are fierce.”

Lewis smiled at Bailey. “We’ve met the black mass head-on.” He proudly threw his thumb in her direction and said, “No one is fiercer than this one.”

Dejoure shadowed his movements and words, like they had rehearsed it.

Everyone at the table looked at her in bewilderment.

She dropped her hands in her lap, her eyes wide. “What?”

“How did you know I was going to say that?” Lewis asked, studying the girl.

Her cheeks grew red. “It was in a dream.”

Vitos leaned forward, his long arms going wide. “What? She can see the future? Can all human children do that?”

Bailey laughed. “No, DJ is an anomaly.”

Dejoure slid her napkin across the table in Vitos’s direction. “Here you go.”

He gave her a puzzled expression. “What’s that for?” he asked, throwing out his arms.

Lewis didn’t need that question answered because he saw the trajectory of the waving limbs, but it all happened too fast to stop.

Vitos’s left arm knocked into the pitcher of juice that was sitting on the side table, knocking it to the ground. The commotion caught everyone’s attention, but when the pitcher settled on the floor, they were all looking at Dejoure, awestruck.

“You saw that in your dream last night, too?” Lewis asked.

She nodded, her eyes on the puddle of juice on the floor.

“You should probably start logging your dreams in the morning,” he suggested.

“But it’s usually something insignificant, like a pitcher falling over,” Dejoure argued.

“Usually,” Bailey parroted. “But you never know when you’ll see something that we can stop or intervene or benefit from. If we can see the future, then we need to be able to use it.” She looked to Lewis for confirmation.

He nodded, patting Dejoure lightly on the shoulder. “She’s right. What you have is a gift and if we have a rearview mirror of the future, we shouldn’t let it go to waste.”

Chapter Sixteen

Q-Ship, Asteroid Belt, Cacama System

Floating in the middle of a cluster of smaller asteroids was a giant rock, which at a distance, appeared like all the rest. However, one side of this particular rock was completely covered by a space station that glowed brightly, indicating the life within. There were even larger asteroids rotating in the belt, that were covered in mining equipment.

Monstre Corp had definitely been busy here.

“What did you call him?” Vitos asked, leaning forward in his seat, a nice chirping quality to his voice. Bailey and Lewis had agreed that he should come along, since he had experience cruising around this asteroid belt on rounds.

“Who?” Lewis asked, looking back at the alien.

“This.” He pointed. “He’s a harley named ‘Dog’?”

Lewis laughed. “No, he’s a dog named ‘Harley’.”

“Don’t you have animals on Tueti?” Bailey asked, expertly maneuvering the cloaked Q-Ship around the asteroids.

“We do, but they are small and considered food,” Vitos said, eyeing Harley. “Is that why you have him?”

Harley barked, his protest obvious in his tone.

“No, he’s like a part of the family,” Bailey told the alien. “I’m guessing y’all don’t have pets?”

“We keep schools of fish and other aquatic life in aquariums, but those are to feed our young,” Vitos said.

Bailey shot Lewis a sideways look. “Not a warm and fuzzy species, are they?”

“The Tuetians regard emotion as a waste of energy,” Vitos said, agreeing with a nod.

“But you’re not like that, are you?” Lewis inquired.

“I’ve tried to do what is expected of me, but I’m a lousy member of my society,” he admitted, hanging his head. “I’ve gotten punished many a time for singing, and you already heard about the painting.”

“You can sing?” Bailey asked, immediately curious.

“Oh yes,” Vitos said proudly. “I have what I think is a beautiful singing voice. All Tuetians do, but we’re told it is strictly for attracting a mate, and should never be done in public.”

“The old ‘only sing behind closed doors’ mentality,” Lewis said with a cold laugh.

“I’d like to hear you sing sometime,” Bailey said, quickly adding, “for platonic reasons.”

Lewis turned to her with a sideways smile. “I’m surprised. I took you as the interspecies-dating type.”

She rolled her eyes at him, slowing the ship. “Just you wait. I’m going to find you a female Londil to hook up with.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but the docking stations are on the third level,” Vitos informed them, pointing at the space station built into the asteroid.

“But we can’t stay docked there, even with the ship cloaked,” Bailey reasoned, angling the ship into the narrow docking area. “Pip, are you ready to take over, once we’re onboard the station?”

“Huh, what?” the AI said overhead.

“What are you doing?” she asked. “You sound distracted.”

“I’m playing Second Life, or, as I like to call it, ‘My First Life’,” Pip replied.

“Is that a video game?” Lewis asked.

“Yes. My avatar kind of looks like you, with the stubble and the great hair,” Pip told him. “However, I have better cheekbones.”

The detective rubbed his hand over his cheek, offense written on his face. “What’s wrong with my cheekbones?”

“Nothing, nothing,” the AI sang. “They are perfect, for people who like understated features.”

“I’m going to assume you’re trying to get under my skin, and not respond to that,” he decided.

“Oh, and my avatar has a six-pack,” Pip added.

“I have abs,” Lewis argued.

“Oh, I know. I watch you. I watch all of you,” Pip said, a teasing quality to his voice.

Bailey looked at Lewis with an odd expression, but he waved her off. “He’s confined to Hatch’s lab, the Q-Ships, and the comms. There’s no way he’s watching us all the time.”

“Whatever you have to tell yourself,” Pip said.

“Anyway, if you’re done being a creep—”

“I’m not,” he interrupted Bailey. “It’s a lifelong practice.”

“As I was saying,” she continued. “Are you ready to take over the controls? You’ll need to find somewhere safe, where you can still pick us up quickly.”

“Oh, you want me to come back and get you?” Pip asked.

Bailey looked back at Vitos. “Do you think you can fly this ship? I trust you more than our AI at this point.”

Pip laughed. “I’ll come back for you. Don’t worry your pretty little head.”

Bailey grimaced, a line forming between her blue eyes. “Call me pretty again, and when you get a body, you’ll get a brand new black eye.”

“Me-ow!” Pip exclaimed. “Watch out, Harley. There’s an angry cat onboard.”

“We’ll be docking soon,” she continued urgently. “Do you have a connection to the traffic control?”

“Yes,” he chirped. “This space station is called ‘Sutra 9’, and I’ve put in a dozen requests for docking by a set of ships that don’t exist.”

“That’s supposed to draw attention away from our momentary docking?” Bailey asked.

“Yes, it’s like I’ve prank called them,” Pip explained. “They’re going to be busy trying to figure out what’s going on; by the time they realize it’s a hoax, the Q-Ship will already be off again.”

“That was a smart idea,” Lewis commended.

“I’m full of them,” the AI said smugly. “Now, get ready to bolt. The diversion won’t last long.”

Bailey eased the ship into the docking station, waiting for the seals to match. When they were in place, she locked their position to the connector at the hatch. “Okay, we’re all set.”

Lewis stood, giving Vitos, and then Harley, a wide smile. “Well, you two have fun. We’ll be back soon… hopefully.”

“Wait, you’re leaving the dog with me?” Vitos asked.

“Yes, try not to eat him,” he joked. This produced a disgruntled bark from Harley. “I’m only kidding,” he told the dog. “Besides, you can defend yourself.”

“Harley likes to come along on these short trips,” Bailey explained to the Tuetian. “You should keep him company. He can help you learn about humans, as dogs are considered man’s best friend.”

Vitos looked at the dog, seemingly examining him for some special trait. “How is he your best friend?”

“It’s an evolutionary thing,” she said dismissively. “Goes back to the wolf. I’ll explain later, when we have more time.” She opened the hatch, staring out to the connecting corridor that led into Sutra 9. “Sit tight. We’ll be right back.”

Sutra 9, Asteroid Belt, Cacama System

“Did you have to say those words?” Lewis asked Bailey, as they both tried to activate their cloaking belts.

“We’ll be right back? Is that what you mean?” She was struggling to get the belt to work, as was he.

“You realize you’ve jinxed us.”

“Oh, okay,” Bailey said in a hush. “Mr. Just-the-Facts detective is suddenly superstitious?”

“It appears that the detective’s superstition might be warranted in this instance,” Pip said over the comms. “I’m reading high levels of doromantinium.”

“That is what they are mining here,” Bailey concluded.

“Which, like with the ship, interrupts the belts’ cloaking abilities,” Lewis guessed.

“Bingo,” Pip sang.

“So now we’ve got to sneak around this space station completely visible,” Bailey summed up, looking like she was trying to wrap her mind around this change in plans.

“And to make things even more fun, the cloaks on the Q-Ship stopped working when I left Sutra 9,” the AI added.

“Is a high level of etheric energy causing the problem?” Lewis asked.

“Yep,” Pip said. “It’s like rubbing sandpaper against sandpaper; the frequencies cancel each other out.”

“Not to mention they make an awful sound,” Bailey joked, pulling her gun out of her holster. “Looks like we’re going to have to tiptoe a bit more carefully.”

“Which means I shouldn’t announce our arrival, like I did on Tueti?” Lewis pretended to ask.

“Yeah, don’t get us caught again, Harlowe.”

He scoffed. “Of course not. I didn’t bring my handy secret weapon.”

“Pip, can you give us any indication as to where the database could be located?” Bailey asked. “This station is quite large.”

“I’m sensing a bigger power source on the upper levels,” he reported. “It could be where they house the database.”

“Great,” Bailey said, about to step off the ship.

“Or it could be where the monster is hanging out,” Pip proposed mischievously.

Bailey gave Lewis a look over her shoulder before continuing forward. “Okay, we’ll be right back.”

Chapter Seventeen

Sutra 9, Asteroid Belt, Cacama System

Lewis was unsurprised to find that the hallway outside the connector was a stark white tunnel. The white walls and ceiling were almost indistinguishable from the white tiled floor.

Looks like Monstre Corp and Starboards used the same decorator.

Pip had masked the airlock cycle on the station side of the connector to prevent security from being alerted to the intrusion.

Bailey halted, listening, her gun at the ready.

“The stairs will be on the eastern side of the station,” Lewis whispered to her.

She looked around, confused. “How do you know that? Did you find some clue?”

He tapped the small map fixed to the wall next to the door they’d come through. “Yes, an ancient artifact used by our ancestors.”

She glanced at the map. “Oh, very funny.”

“Okay, your job is to keep us safe, while I look for the clues that will get us there faster.”

“Well, then we’d better move it, because someone’s approaching from that second hallway.” She pulled Lewis down the first connecting corridor, which was lined with windowless doors.

“If we keep cutting back and to the right, we should get to the stairs,” Lewis told her as he tried to keep up. She moved like a fish in water.

“Problem is that we’re sitting ducks in the damn hallways,” she grumbled, hurrying.

He knew what she meant. They were both dressed in black, standing out sharply in their all-white surroundings. He wondered if the workers here dressed in all white, like those at Starboards Corp.

Solomon Vance must have a thing against color.

Bailey picked up speed, leaving the detective behind. He considered running, but feared his shoes would make too much noise on the tile.

Glancing behind her to check his progress, the lieutenant gave him an incredulous look. “What are you doing back there?”

“How do you do that?” he asked, breathing hard.

“Do what?” she asked.

“Move so quickly. It isn’t right.”

She whipped around to look ahead. When she turned back, there was a worried look on her face. “Someone is coming.”

She opened the nearest door, and darted through, pulling Lewis in with her. Closing the door at once, they looked around to find themselves in a small office. A wiry-haired man was sitting behind a desk.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” The man’s face turned a shade of violet, which contrasted greatly against his white long-sleeved shirt. He stood up from his chair.

“We’re here to do an inspection,” Bailey said, putting her gun away as she strode over to the little man.

“No, you’re not!” he yelled, backing up, fear in his eyes.

She laughed. “No, we’re not.”

She moved quickly, her hands shooting up and pressing into the side of the man’s throat, knocking him firmly to the wall. He flailed in her arms, but she didn’t seem to notice. His face grew redder, and then his eyes closed, and he quit fighting her.

“Did you kill him?” Lewis asked.

Bailey shook her head. “He looked like he could use a nap, so I put him to sleep.”

“How long will that last?”

“Not long enough,” she said, pulling ties from her belt to bind the man’s hands.

Lewis pressed his ear to the door, listening to the footsteps in the hallway. “I think we can head back out soon.”

“Okay, let’s hustle to the stairs,” Bailey said, propping the guy up, like she was afraid he’d get a stiff neck if he lay hunched. He kept sliding over into an awkward position, and she kept straightening him.

“Do you want to get him a pillow or should we go, lieutenant?” Lewis teased.

“When I knock you out, I’m leaving you as is,” she said, striding over to the door.

“Don’t you mean, if you ever knock me out?”

She shook her head, her fingers on the door handle, and her eyes intense. “No, I mean when.”

The hallway was empty again. As they moved through, they came to several intersections. Lewis would point in the direction he thought they should go, and they’d keep moving. He may not be fast, but he was good with spatial navigation. They made it to the stairwell without meeting anyone else. Bailey and he had assumed, and now realized they were right, that security on the inside of Sutra 9 was minimal. Vance had assumed he’d taken out most threats. That had been the reason for going after Ghost Squadron in the first place. And the location of this station, provided most of the security. It wasn’t a place just anyone could find.

Looking up, Lewis was overwhelmed by the number of levels towering above them.

“Well, the good news is that most foot traffic will take the elevator; we should have the stairs to ourselves,” Bailey said, setting off. “The bad news is that it might take you forever to reach the top. Look alive, Harlowe.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, hiking up the metal stairs. “I’m slow. I get it. Soon I’m going to find your shortcoming, and tease you mercilessly.”

“When you do, let me know what it is,” she requested, already two flights ahead of him. “I’ve yet to find one.”

“Humility,” he stated with a laugh. “You’ve got the humility of a peacock.”

“Hey, fun fact,” Bailey said, reaching out to him over the comm because she was so far ahead. “A peacock’s call sounds like a small child screaming. I don’t think I like you referring to me as a peacock.”

“Actually, if you pea-brains knew anything, you’d know that a female peafowl is called a peahen,” Pip said over the comm.

“I wasn’t actually saying that she’s a peacock,” Lewis stated, breathing hard as he nearly reached the top. “I was only relating Ladybug’s humility in those terms.”

“Whatever,” Pip said, his voice dull. “You two hurry up. With the ship’s cloaks down, I’m having trouble dodging the patrols.”

“They’re still down?” Bailey asked.

“Intermittently,” the AI qualified. “There are certain locations that apparently have more D-factor than others. I’ve only found a few pockets where the cloaks work, but due to the orbital force in the asteroid belt, they shift often.”

“All right, I’m here,” Lewis said when he reached the top.

Bailey was propped beside the door, a smile on her face. She stood straight and pulled it open, looking antsy. After peering through, she looked back at Lewis. “No monster.”

“Anything else?” he asked.

“A hallway that leads to the right, and one that leads to the left,” she replied.

“Well, in that case, I know exactly where to go.” He negotiated around her, striding out the door.

“Where?” she whispered, following.

“All roads lead to Rome.”

In truth, he needed a bit more to go off of before he could get his bearings. He ran his hands over the white wall as they progressed, taking in the corridor up ahead. Another hallway intersected. As soon as they arrived at the juncture, he knew which way to go.

“We’re going to take a right,” Lewis stated.

“How do you know?” Bailey asked.

He pointed to the ground. A few scuff marks that were almost too hard to see littered the hallway. “That path has more traffic.”

“Which means more people and chances of being caught,” she pointed out.

“Yes, but this main area is home to a large power source, which is likely the database,” Lewis countered. “We’ll have to find a way to avoid a fight.”

“Who said I wanted to avoid it?” she asked.

The detective held up a hand as they neared the next bend. He lifted his watch, pressing a button on the side. Its face turned into a mirror, and he angled it to show them what was in the next hallway. There was one guard, stationed outside of a door.

Lewis turned to Bailey, held up one finger, and indicated over his shoulder.

She nodded, pulling something from the pouch attached to her belt. She held a blue marble, pinched between her fingers.

Lewis lifted one eyebrow, regarding her confusedly.

Nodding, Bailey, turned the two halves of the marble in opposite directions, and threw the tiny ball around the corner. A moment later, the floor shook followed by a soft thud. The explosion had been soundless.

Lewis held up his watch, using the mirror setting again to see the guard lying face-down on the ground.

“What was that?” he asked.

“A concussion grenade,” Bailey said proudly. “Hatch gave me a few toys.”

“I like toys,” he pouted. “Why didn’t I get any?”

“I think he was afraid you’d hurt yourself.” She slipped around the corner, and sidled up against the wall as she made her way to the door.

“There’s going to be more guards and personnel inside,” Lewis warned her.

Bailey pulled a few more of the grenades from her pouch, handing two to Lewis. “Let’s take out the room with these.”

Lewis took the grenades, putting one in his pocket.

“I thought you were worried I’d hurt myself?”

“If you do, I’m not carrying your ass back to the ship.” Bailey shrugged, then tensed beside the door. “On my count, we enter. You take the left side, I’ll take the right.”

Lewis nodded, readying the grenade.

“One, two, three.” Bailey opened the door soundlessly and stepped into the next room, leaving ample room for Lewis beside her. She’d already thrown two grenades by the time he’d sized up the room.

There were four personnel on his side. He twisted the grenade apart and threw it in the middle of the workers, who were regarding him with confused stares. Lewis shielded his face when the grenade went off a moment later, and all four slumped over at their workstations.

“Nice aim,” Bailey praised, looking at his side of the room.

He strode forward, examining the large space. “I figured why use two when I only needed one?”

“Show off,” Bailey stated, hurrying over to secure the administrative workers on her side of the room. There were also four there.

This was definitely a control room. The area was lined with computer terminals, and at the front was a large viewing screen that looked out beyond the space station. Over the top of the window were the words, ‘Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. – Joseph Stalin’.

“Wow; insight into Vance’s inspirations,” Lewis said, pointing to the quote.

Bailey looked up, having bound four of the eight workers. “Well, we knew he was power-hungry.”

“And now we know he is soulless.” The detective sighed, nudging one of the unconscious guys to the side and taking a seat at his workstation.

Luckily the guy’s computer was still open, which made the next bit a lot easier. Lewis began browsing, trying to figure out exactly what Sutra 9 did.

“Did you find the database?” Bailey asked, binding the four people on Lewis’s side of the room.

“The one with probably several thousand consciousnesses? Oh, yeah. It’s sitting right here on this guy’s desktop,” he joked.

“Ha-ha,” she retorted, taking care of the guy at Lewis’s feet.

“Try searching for something called ‘Project Anarcho’, or something similar,” Pip stated over the comm. “I’ve hacked into their communications, and picked up several instances of that phrase.”

“ ‘Project Anarcho’,” Lewis said, typing. “Like anarchy?”

“More like anarcho-syndicalist, a popular idea under Marxism and Leninism,” Pip informed them.

“And now we know that Vance is motivated by politics as well as power,” Bailey said, finishing binding the last person.

“Well, he obviously has a giant distrust of the Federation, or he wouldn’t have betrayed us,” Lewis reasoned.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you identify with the Federation,” Bailey noted, leaning over his shoulder and reading the screen.

“I usually consider myself a lone wolf, but yes, I support the queen and all that she’s built,” Lewis stated.

He’d once felt abandoned by it all, when his father died, and there was no one to track down his murderer. That’s when Lewis had decided to be a part of the justice he sought, and took matters into his own hands. But he eventually realized that he was letting this personal tragedy color his opinion of something that was much bigger than he was.

“There!” Bailey pointed at the screen.

Lewis opened the file, scanning its contents. “There are five databases?”

“One of them being on Pochli,” Bailey said, reading.

“And none of them here,” Lewis finished, tapping his fingers. He suddenly connected the dots. “Hey, remember when DJ drew the map of Precious galaxy, and told us it was where Commander Fregin was located?”

Bailey nodded, her eyes still on the screen. “Yeah, I remember.”

“Maybe that’s because of the five different databases,” he reasoned. “What if her consciousness has been copied to each, or transferred between?”

Bailey looked down at Lewis, her eyes wide. “And that’s why DJ saw those specific locations.”

Lewis pulled the proximity drive from his pocket, and set it next to the computer as he started to copy the files for Project Anarcho. “We can try mapping the five locations when we return, and see if they match DJ’s drawing.”

“My instinct tells me they will,” Bailey said, turning around.

A noise echoed outside the door to the room.

“Oh, shit. I think someone found the downed guard,” she said.

Lewis tapped his hands on the desk, watching the progress bar. “Just a few more seconds, and we’ll have the database locations.”

“Pip, we need you to come and pick us up,” Bailey ordered. “We’re going to require a quick getaway.”

“I’m ready!” he called back.

Outside the door, voices were yelling. Boots hit the floor at a run.

“Ten more seconds,” Lewis relayed, his hand hovering over the proximity drive, ready to grab it and run.

Bailey pulled both her guns from their holsters, checking them. She gave Lewis a cautious glare. “You ready to go out there guns blazing?”

The computer beeped. He grabbed the drive, and jammed it into his pocket, standing up tall. He pulled his own weapon from his holster, enjoying the cold metal in his hands.

“Hell yes. I’ll go right and you go left.”

Chapter Eighteen

Sutra 9, Asteroid Belt, Cacama System

The rush of adrenaline was like candy in Bailey’s veins. This was what she lived for. The buzz. The moment right before the fight. The taste of vengeance in her mouth.

She salivated at the thought of taking out the soulless followers of Monstre Corp.

In the hallway, she could hear voices as the enemy prepared to ambush them. Monstre Corp knew they’d been invaded and, by the sound of it, they didn’t appreciate the trespassing. But honestly, they’d made it too easy. They thought that Ghost Squadron was gone, that their monster had taken out all potential threats.

Bailey lifted her guns in front of her chest, and shook her head. Monstre Corp is wrong, and they are going to pay.

She slammed her shoulder onto the button for the entrance door, and the divider slid back. Before those on the other side could register the open door, Bailey whipped around the corner, guns pointed to each side, and fired. Her head swiveled as she spotted her targets and picked them off. First, she took down three soldiers on her right, and then two others on her left. By the time the troops figured out what was happening, she’d already taken out their first line of defense.

She slipped back into the control room, pressing against the wall as she reloaded.

“Did you save any for me?” Lewis asked.

With her head back, she nodded. “Ready?”

“Yeah, let’s get the hell out of here. The décor in this place is going to make my eyes bleed,” Lewis said, angling his back against Bailey’s.

They stepped out together, firing in opposite directions. Although the guards were equipped with armor, Bailey quickly identified the weak spot in their covering, knocking out four more targets.

Her hallway was clear. She turned to find Lewis taking down the last soldier on his side. “Good work,” she praised, stepping over the fallen bodies. The soldiers were dressed in muted white uniforms, with matching guns. They all had a little red on them, now. “What’s the quickest way back to the docks?”

The detective indicated the hallway on his side. She nodded, following him. Bailey had noticed that Lewis had an instinct for direction, almost like his brain wrote the blueprint for a building upon entering. She hoped he wouldn’t be too egotistical to ask for directions, if needed, but was grateful in this instance he didn’t need to. She didn’t think the Monstre Corp soldiers would be very helpful.

She heard the soldiers approaching before they materialized around the next corner. She picked off the first one, killing him instantly, and then slid up against the wall, pulling Lewis beside her. The second soldier peeked out, but Bailey was faster, shooting the guy in the leg to knock him to the ground. She hurried over and kicked his gun away from his hand, then knocked him unconscious.

Lewis reached into his pocket and pulled out the other concussion grenade, twisting it and throwing it back the way they’d come in one movement. A moment later, there were several thuds as bodies hit the ground.

“Nice,” she called, putting her back against the door to the stairwell.

She pushed through and whipped her gun around, searching the space. The landing and next flight of stairs were clear, but below, there was a thundering of footsteps.

Lewis looked at her, levity in his eyes. “You have any more of those grenades?”

“You read my mind,” Bailey said, reaching into her pouch, and retrieving three red orbs—explosive grenades that hopefully would clear the stairwell.

She handed one to Lewis, and said.

“How about we throw one together and then you throw the last a moment later?” Lewis said, he reopened the stairwell door, and took a step into the hallway. In concert, the pair twisted their grenades and tossed them over the rails.

They had ducked back into the hallway before the detonation rocked the ground under their feet, sending smoke up from the lower levels. Bailey listened for movement, thinking maybe they wouldn’t need to take any more defensive measures.

A moment later, the thundering on the stairs resumed, coming closer.

She rolled her eyes, and twisted the third grenade before tossing it through the door. It rolled down the first set of stairs before it exploded.

The detonation forced Bailey back against the wall, nearly making her trip over a fallen guard. The soldier she’d shot in the leg was conscious again and reaching for a radio on his belt. She shot the radio, making the guy jump back. He was fine—mostly—but the radio on his hip was in pieces.

Lewis looked at her in awe.

She shook her head, disappointed. “Seriously, Monstre Corp can build into the side of an asteroid, but they don’t have comm technology? What’s wrong with this place?”

“I think it’s the D-factor,” Lewis observed, looking about.

“Our comms work,” she reasoned.

“They were built by Hatch.”

She nodded, opening the door to the stairwell and listening again. It was silent.

“Come on,” she encouraged, starting forward and taking the steps three at a time.

Lewis picked up his pace, staying right behind her, though he paused several times to check their back.

Bailey rounded the second to last flight, and the door in front of her opened. She caught the flash of a white uniform, and didn’t hesitate; pulling up her gun, she shot the guard who came into view. Before she’d made it down to the landing, the door began to open again.

She leapt down the rest of the stairs, and crashed into the door, knocking back the person on the other side. A grunt followed the impact.

“Do you have any more grenades?” Lewis asked, joining her.

She shook her head, struggling to keep the guards on the other side of the door from busting through. A close ambush like this would be deadly. She dug her heels into the ground as she pushed her back harder into the door.

Lewis wasn’t helping; he was actually getting undressed, slinging off his belt, and looking up at the ceiling.

“What exactly are you doing?” Bailey grunted.

“Trying to decide if that pipe is strong enough,” he answered, indicating the fixture that ran from floor to ceiling beside the door. He seemed to be making calculations as he appraised it.

A thud from the door nearly knocked Bailey forward. “Enough thinking. Just do it,” she demanded.

Lewis sprang forward and wrapped his belt around the door handle, and then secured it around the pipe. He tugged one last time before giving Bailey a confident nod. “That should work.”

“Let’s not stick around to see,” Bailey strained out. She took a deep breath and sprinted away from the door, giving it one last glance as she rounded the corner of the stairs below.

The door appeared to be holding.

“There’s going to be a crap-ton of guards on this floor,” she said when they reached the door to the docking level. “What are we going to do?”

“We think we’ve got you covered,” Pip said over the comm.

“What do you have in mind?” Lewis asked, wondering what the AI and the Tuetian had been up to in their absence.

“We’ve been keeping them pretty occupied,” Pip explained. “You’ll see what I mean. Oh, and keep your head down if you don’t want to get burned.”

Lewis gave Bailey a tentative look. “Well, I’m curious as hell. Shall we?”

She nodded and pulled back the door.

To her surprise, the hallway was empty. In the distance, she could hear men yelling, their screams punctuated by loud explosions.

“This way,” Lewis stated, running around Bailey and taking them to the docking station.

A jolt nearly knocked them both off their feet. Bailey steadied herself against a wall while she waited for the ground to stop shaking violently underfoot. “What was that?”

That was me,” Pip said victoriously. “It’s hard for them to fight something they can’t see.”

“You’ve got the cloaks back up?” Bailey inferred.

“Kind of, but not really,” he replied unhelpfully. “Thank goodness I’m an amazing pilot.”

“Keep it up,” Lewis stated. “We’re almost there.”

“Okay, we’re going to swing around and get you; it’s going to be a bumpy ride, though,” Pip warned. “It’s a good thing this station isn’t used to combat, or we’d be goners.”

Sirens blared overhead as the lieutenant and the detective hit the home stretch. Bailey was sure that more guards were going to surface from the connecting hallways, but the place appeared to be empty. She couldn’t understand where everyone had gone.

Sliding to a halt, she looked through the window to the connector they’d come through. There was something moving on the other side. She pulled up her gun, ready for an assault.

“We’re here,” Pip sang over the comm.

“Holy chalupa! Thank the stars,” she celebrated in relief as she opened the door and sprinted onto the ship.

A blast knocked her to her knees. Lewis stumbled into her, sending her straight to the ground, and his body weight pressed on top of her. The detective rolled to the side, managing to pull the hatch closed, although the ship was still rocking violently.

“Okay, the cloaks are officially down,” Pip said overhead. “We’ve got to hightail it.”

Lewis secured the hatch, then turned around to help Bailey up. She declined his offered hand, pulling herself up using the shaking walls.

“Vitos, do some of that fancy stuff again,” Pip suggested.

From her place in the back, Bailey noticed that Vitos was in the copilot’s seat, manning—or bugging—the guns. A blast from the Q-Ship rocketed into the station as they disembarked, lights flashing in the distance all around them.

“What did you do?” Bailey asked, eyeing the explosions on the neighboring asteroids.

“We decided that the best way to get you out was to cause a diversion,” Pip said proudly.

Vitos had a smile on his face as he looked back over his shoulder and translated, “We blew up a bunch of their mining stations.”

Chapter Nineteen

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Lewis thought Jack should be congratulating them. Instead, he was pacing behind his desk.

“Are we waiting on Hatch?” Lewis asked.

Jack halted and gave him a curious look. “Why, yes. How did you…” He trailed off as his eyes drifted to the strange chair sitting next to where Bailey stood. It wasn’t of a design that a human could comfortably sit in, but a Londil would probably fit in it fine. “Right, you are a detective,” he said with a hollow laugh.

His uncle was stressed, but Lewis couldn’t determine why…well, besides the fact that Pip and Vitos had blown up a bunch of mining sites in the asteroid belt, most likely alerting Vance to the fact that they were on the loose and gunning for him.

“We no longer have the element of surprise,” Jack said, echoing Lewis’s thoughts. “Vance is going to be on the lookout for us.”

“But we do have the locations for the databases,” Lewis countered.

A shadow fell across Jack’s face. “About that…”

The detective bolted forward, worry pounding in his chest. “Those were the locations for the databases, weren’t they?”

To his relief, his uncle nodded. “They appear to be. And as you suggested, I had Ricky Bobby plot them on the map.”

“Do they match DJ’s drawing of the Precious galaxy?” Bailey asked.

“They, in fact, do,” Ricky Bobby confirmed overhead.

Lewis shook his head. “That kid is something else.”

Jack agreed with a nod. “She definitely is.”

“If the locations work out, then I don’t understand,” Lewis said tentatively. “You seem concerned about something.”

“I’m concerned about a lot of things,” Jack began. “But the biggest issue is—”

“Go get some rest! I want you back on ship repairs ASAP,” Hatch hollered over his shoulder as he waddled into the room. He turned to look at the three, shaking his head.

“What’s going on?” Jack asked as Hatch climbed into the special, Londil-appropriate chair.

“Damn Liesel Diesel got herself sick,” Hatch muttered. “If she didn’t eat only vegan fare, this probably wouldn’t happen.”

“There are actually many benefits to not eating animal products,” Jack reasoned.

Hatch gave the chief strategist one long look of disgust. “Do not tell me that, like most whipped men, you’ve adopted your girlfriend’s diet?”

Jack shook his head. “I’m not whipped, and it’s not a diet. Veganism is a lifestyle.”

Hatch threw up a few tentacles, his eyes rolling back. “Oh, you have! And here I thought you were a respectable man.”

“I’ve found that I have a lot of energy, since changing what I eat,” Jack stated.

“I have a lot of energy, and all I eat is fish—an animal product,” Hatch countered.

“You and I are different species, and therefore have different requirements.”

“Is Liesel okay?” Bailey asked, interrupting the feud.

Hatch nodded. “I guess so. She probably has a stomach bug.”

Jack’s face flushed red. When his eyes connected with Lewis, he resumed pacing.

“I don’t show that she’s contracted any virus,” Ricky Bobby chimed in. “Actually, her exam shows that she—”

“She probably ate some fruit or vegetables that went bad,” Jack said, interrupting the AI.

“Actually, I think the cause of her illness is—”

“We’re low on fresh foods! We should make a supply run soon,” Jack cut off Ricky Bobby again.

“No one on this ship has time to go buy groceries. There’s only a handful of us as it is, and we all have jobs,” Hatch grumbled.

“We can get away for a bit to load up,” Bailey offered, motioning between Lewis and herself.

Jack paused, a protest in his eyes. “We need you two working on the databases.”

“You mean the databases that we can’t get into?” Hatch spat.

“What? How do we know that?” Lewis asked.

Jack let out a loud breath. “The information you retrieved from Sutra Nine revealed that each of the databases is protected by an encrypted code.”

Lewis nodded. It would explain his uncle’s heightened stress; however, it didn’t explain why the picture of his uncle’s twin brother, Lewis’s father, was turned face-down on the shelf behind him.

“Oh. Well, where are the codes kept?” Bailey asked. “Are they on Sutra Nine? We can go back, but something tells me we’re going to need more guns.”

Jack shook his head. “The information stated the codes are kept at a separate facility. It would make sense that the locations for the databases and the codes wouldn’t be together. It’s Monstre Corps’ way of safeguarding the theft.”

“How do we find them, then?” she asked.

“The bigger question is how are we going to get the consciousnesses trapped in the database back into a physical form?” Hatch mused, combing a tentacle over the top of his head.

“Aren’t we jumping ahead a bit?” Lewis questioned.

“I don’t think so,” Jack replied. “We don’t know where to find the codes, but we know where the databases are located. However, even if we had the codes, we still don’t know how to free the minds that have been stored.”

“Their bodies disintegrated when they were uploaded,” Hatch explained. “That’s the easiest way I can put it. They were converted to energy, which was used to fuel the process. In order to get someone back out, we’re going to have to—”

“Get them a new body?” Bailey interrupted, awe written on her face.

“Sort of,” he answered. “We’re going to have to recreate their old bodies.”

“Suddenly I’m glad that our job is to find these mystery codes, hidden somewhere in the galaxy and we don’t have your responsibility, Hatch,” Lewis said with a laugh.

“Is it possible that Vance has the means to put people back in their bodies?” Bailey asked.

Jack shook his head. “I don’t believe so. From everything I’ve learned about Vance and Monstre Corp, they want the consciousnesses for whatever reason. I don’t think he’d invest in the means to put people back together.”

Hatch puffed out his cheeks. “I agree. We will, but it’s not going to be easy. We need a 3D printer of sorts, that’s fueled by Bio Plus.”

“Bio Plus?” Lewis asked.

“It’s made from a wide array of organic matter that has all been combined and distilled,” Hatch explained. “A composite of human material, if you will.”

“So this 3D printer is a real thing?” Bailey asked.

“It will be, once I build it,” Hatch said proudly. “I started on a prototype some time ago, but abandoned my efforts. It’s called a GAD-C and uses etheric energy and DNA, to generate a body after linking to a consciousness.”

Bailey smiled wide. “Wow. That sounds promising.”

Hatch nodded solemnly. “It was, but it’s lacking a component.”

“The Bio Plus?” she asked.

“No, I’ve got plenty of that,” he waved a tentacle in dismissal.

“Who doesn’t?” Lewis joked.

Looking not at all amused, Hatch said, “The GAD-C requires a second fuel source, but I’m at a loss for what that could be.”

Jack slid into his chair, looking defeated. “It appears we are at a dead end.”

“Hatch is going to figure it out,” Bailey assured him, a lightness in her voice. “And we’re going to find the codes.”

“How?” he asked, appearing more crestfallen with each passing moment.

“Isn’t there a space station close by?” Lewis asked, remembering something that Vitos had told him.

Jack looked to Hatch, who returned his confused expression.

“I can confirm that there is a space station called Gable,” Ricky Bobby stated. “It serves as a hub for multiple systems.”

Lewis slapped his hands together. “Perfect. We’ll go there and ask around, see if anyone can tell us anything about where else Monstre Corp has been. We’ll also load up on supplies.”

Jack nodded, his eyes distant. “Okay, but you two be careful. Monstre Corp will be watching for you.”

Bailey stretched, looking enlivened by the upcoming adventure. “I hope they are. But they’re not going to catch us.”

Hatch slid out of the seat, waving at Bailey. “Follow me to my lab. I have some more weapons for you.” Bailey’s eyes lit up, and the mechanic continued. “Those grenades came in handy, I hear.”

She cracked a smile as she let him lead her away. “Yes, they were a lifesaver. Literally.”

When they were gone, Lewis took his time stretching to a standing position. Jack didn’t seem to notice Lewis lingering in his office as he poured over a file on the side of his desk.

“Uncle Jack?”

“Yeah?” he replied, his head down as he turned the pages.

“Do you want me to get you anything while I’m at Gable?”

Jack shook his head. “Only information on the codes.”

“So nothing for the baby, then?” he asked with a proud smile.

His uncle looked up, shocked. “How did you know?”

Lewis hadn’t been sure at first, but then he’d put it together. It wasn’t just that Jack wouldn’t let Ricky Bobby reveal anything about Liesel’s condition. It was the picture.

His father had always told Jack how rewarding it was to have children. He’d pressured him to one day have a family, but Jack had been adamant that it wasn’t right for him—he said his job wasn’t conducive to that life. The brothers had fought about it until Lewis’s father’s death.

Lewis now pointed to the turned down photo. “There’s only one reason you wouldn’t want to see his face.”

Jack looked back at the frame lying flat, and let out a breath. “It’s true. I feel like he’s mocking me. Lecturing me. Telling me it’s for the best.”

Lewis sort of laughed. “He might be. But wherever Dad is, he’s probably over the moon that you’re going to be a father.”

“Yeah, well, my point of view hasn’t changed on the matter,” Jack said, his face grave. “I can’t have a child. What we in Ghost Squadron do is too dangerous; evidence of that fact is that we’re currently down roughly three hundred people. We’re having to send our detective and combat pilot on a supply run. The timing couldn’t be worse.”

“There’s usually never a good time for these things,” Lewis stated, remembering that his father once said the same thing.

“You sound like him,” Jack said, a bit of fondness flickering to his face.

The detective’s gaze dropped to the ground. He never thought himself much like his father. His dad had been a good man, through and through. An incredible judge of character. Lewis was learning, but if he’d had his father’s brilliance earlier on, he wouldn’t have made so many mistakes.

“What does Liesel say?” Lewis asked.

Jack shook his head, a small smile on his face. “She says everything happens for a reason, and that children come through when they’re ready, not when we are.”

Lewis laughed. “Mom will like her.”

“Yes. I don’t deserve her or this child, but…”

“You deserve a lot more than you think,” Lewis said, smiling down at his seated uncle. “It’s true that you have a dangerous job, running this ship and working for the Federation. But that also makes you well-equipped for protecting and teaching a child.”

“I don’t know,” he said, chewing on his lip absentmindedly. “A ship isn’t really the right place to raise a baby. Liesel and I both work nonstop, and we’re always traveling, off on some adventure.”

Lewis strode for the exit. “Sounds to me like this ship is the perfect place. You have a team of built-in babysitters to help you, and what better education for a young mind than to travel through galaxies?”

“Yeah, maybe…” Jack said, pushing to a standing position. “Thanks for not saying anything when everyone was in here, unlike Ricky Bobby, who almost leaked the news.”

“Liesel told me I could,” the AI said simply. “And I was only relating facts.”

“You need to learn a little discretion,” Jack said irritably.

“Look, Uncle Jack,” Lewis began. “I realize this new situation doesn’t fit into your mold, but sometimes the thing you think you don’t want, is exactly what you need.”

“Sounds like you’re speaking from experience.”

He nodded. “I thought I was done with detective work. I was worried that if I ever returned, it would bring back my demons.”

“It hasn’t?” Jack asked.

“Oh, it has,” Lewis admitted. “But I’ve also remembered how much I love it; it’s the only thing that makes me feel completely alive. And that’s worth facing down any demon.”

Chapter Twenty

Gable Station, Cacama System

“What can you tell us about this station?” Bailey asked Vitos as they prepared to enter Gable Station from the docking area.

“I’ve never been here, to be honest.” Vitos looked around uncomfortably. “This is one of our exporters, and the location of one of the largest coffee distributors.”

“I can’t wait to get a cup of brew,” Lewis said, closing his eyes with a dreamy look.

“You won’t have a problem with that,” Vitos stated. “There’s a Precious Galaxy Coffee shop on every level in Gable, from what I’ve heard.”

“People love their coffee,” he agreed.

Bailey shook her head. “I don’t.”

“You don’t drink coffee?” he asked her.

She strode down the corridor, two guns holstered on her thigh. “I am naturally energetic. Coffee only makes me jittery.”

“I wouldn’t say that to anyone else,” Lewis said with a laugh. “Most won’t find it endearing that you’re overflowing with energy, on top of everything else.”

Bailey swung around, her eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”

“Only that you’re Ms. Perfect, with your records and schooling and…” Seeing the look on Bailey’s face, Lewis decided shutting his mouth was a good idea.

“If you want to keep your teeth, I wouldn’t call me ‘Ms. Perfect’ again.”

His hand shot to his mouth. “I would prefer to keep everything, including my dignity, so no hitting.”

She shook her head and turned back around. “Watch yourself, Harlowe.”

“Yoooou watch yourself,” Lewis said playfully, no real conviction in his voice.

Vitos slapped him on the arm as he passed him. “My money is not on you.”

Lewis laughed. “Thanks, buddy.”

Deck 13, Gable Station, Cacama Station

The space station wasn’t as clean and organized as Onyx; it actually looked like the place where Onyx’s rejects went. Aliens of various species cluttered the corridor. A couple of Trids were huddled in front of a currency exchange booth, their tones terse as they kept checking over their shoulders.

Bailey had to resist the urge to question the aliens and check their identification. Her training was hard to ignore when there were so many criminals around. It was almost painful for her not to shake down every lowlife she passed.

“Looks like a great place to pick up a date,” Pip said in her comm.

“You mean it looks like a great place to pick up an STD,” she muttered.

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” the AI asked.

“I’m here to find those codes,” Bailey argued.

“No reason we can’t have a little fun.”

“What do you consider fun?” she dared to ask.

“Maybe a little gambling, a drink in a dive bar, possibly a fight…” Pip related.

Bailey nodded proudly. “We aren’t so different after all.”

“You sort of stick out, though,” he observed.

Bailey realized the moment they’d stepped into the busy corridor that he was right. She didn’t look like she belonged there, with her shiny, black suit and clean nails. Most passersby were gawking at her and Lewis as they trudged past. Surprisingly, Vitos didn’t draw any attention; there were quite a few Tuetians already on the station.

“Oh, fiddlesticks, and Jack told us to lay low,” Bailey said, fake smiling at a gang of Kezzin who were leering at her.

“Maybe try walking a little dejected, and lower your chin like you’ve got something to hide,” Pip suggested.

“I’m not a freaking criminal,” she argued.

“I know that! I’ve been over your file fourteen times and can’t find a single offense,” Pip said. “You never even stole a piece of candy from the store as a child.”

“Why would I have? It’s wrong.”

“You know, most people don’t like a goody-two-shoes,” the AI told her.

“I’m about to turn off this comm link,” Bailey threatened.

“If you’d let me finish, I was saying that most don’t, but that they’re all dumb. I adore someone with a moral compass as strong as yours.”

She shook her head. “Okay, pipe down. I’ve got to play nice with some criminals.”

“Start with an insult,” Pip advised. “You’ve got to prove you’re the bigger dog.”

Bailey ignored him, looking for the right group of thugs to approach. She started forward, heading for an especially rough looking pack of Trids.

“What are you doing?” Lewis cut off her path, sliding right in front of her.

She looked up at him, a scowl on her face. “I’m doing what we came here for. Looking for information.”

“Coffee first, investigation second,” he said, a dimple surfacing on his left cheek as he smiled.


“Hey, I’m the detective,” he argued. “I’ll sniff out the location of those codes, just humor me a bit.”

Bailey was going to protest, but decided it wasn’t worth it. They’d all been missing out on things since taking this case; if Lewis wanted a cup of coffee, she could indulge him this once.

“Fine, but I want a martini. One made right.”

His eyes widened. “Say what? Are you implying my martinis are lacking?”

She shrugged. “Where do you get this cup of coffee?”

He pointed down the long corridor, and addressed their companion. “Hey, Vitos, you were right; Precious Galaxy Coffee has the market cornered here.”

On the far end of the passageway, Bailey could make out a black and pink neon sign emblazoned with the words, ‘Precious Galaxy Coffee’.

“Good, and there’s a bar next door.” Bailey set off, pushing her way through the slimy scoundrels.

Unlike on Onyx station, weapons weren’t banned here. That was a good thing for her, and a bad thing for all the creeps sneering at her.

“Hey, honey,” one of the greasy Trids called out to her as they passed. “I bet that hair of yours smells good. Why don’t you let me sniff it?”

“Why don’t you keep your fish breath to yourself!” she yelled.

Lewis grabbed her arm and pulled her through the crowd, away from the catcaller. “Hey now. No one is going to want to talk to us if you piss everyone off.”

She shrugged. “He had it coming.” She checked their surroundings, and pointed to a building. “Seriously, there’s a Precious Galaxy Coffee shop right here and over there?”

He looked in the direction she was indicating, and saw she was right. It was like the chain had exploded little babies everywhere.

“I’ve heard it’s for high-traffic hours,” Vitos explained. “That way customers don’t have to wait as long.”

The smell of roasted coffee wafted out into the main area. It had a strangely alluring quality that Bailey appreciated. Suddenly she was taken back to her childhood. Sunday mornings, watching cartoons while her parents shared a pot of coffee, and breakfast baked in the oven. Maybe coffee isn’t so bad, if my parents enjoyed it so much.

“Damn, that line is long,” Lewis stated, pointing to the line of aliens snaking out the door of the first shop.

Bailey pointed to the other coffee shop. “That one looks shorter.”

Lewis nodded, heading in that direction.

“Meet me over here when you’re done, Harlowe.” She indicated the bar next to the first shop.

“ ‘The Prickly Cactus’,” he read the green neon sign above the bar. “Sounds classy.”

“I’m sure they put umbrellas in the drinks,” she joked. “I’m going to be working. Join me when you’re done.”

“You’re going to get sauced,” he teased.

“Hey, you’re the one who has a no-drinking policy while working, not me,” she replied, turning and heading into the dive bar—which smelled like peanuts and sliced onion. Gross combination. Let’s see what other nasty things I can find.

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

“Sweet baby cheeses.” Lewis took another sip of the dark roast coffee. The smooth flavor of the Tueti blend was unlike anything he’d ever had. “This stuff is amazing!”

Vitos sniffed at his own cup of coffee, not at all impressed. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“You ever had this primo stuff before?”

“Why would I have coffee from anywhere else?” the alien asked. “PGC is the best, and has the monopoly on coffee. There are sources from other planets, but they’re considered laughable.”

Lewis pushed through the throng of people and aliens, careful not to spill his large, black coffee. He was a traditionalist at heart: no sugar, no milk. And don’t even get him started on the gross flavor syrups.

“I think the lieutenant had the right idea,” Vitos decided, looking toward The Prickly Cactus. “A cold marmalade daiquiri sounds much better than this hot coffee.”

“If I wasn’t worried what dragonfly germs and strange diseases I might contract, I’d totally take your coffee.”

Vitos gave him a look of offense. “I don’t have any diseases.”

“That you’re aware of,” the detective countered. “As an insect, you might be a carrier of something deadly, like Lyme disease or malaria. I can’t take the risk.”

Vitos shook his head. “I’m not really an insect. We’re distant relatives.”

“And I’m not a monkey. We’re only distant relatives.”

“Funny, you look like a chimpanzee in a trench coat,” the Tuetian joked.

“Oh, I think I spotted Bailey across the crowd.” Lewis pointed. “Why don’t you fly over there real quick…Oh, wait. You can’t.”

Vitos laughed, his large eyes that took up most of his head flashed with mock anger. “Very funny. I’m telling the small human that you made fun of me for things I can’t control.”

“No, don’t do that.” Lewis stood up on his toes, trying to get a better of view of Bailey. She was on the other side of the bar talking to someone. “She thinks I’m cute, and that’s good for my confidence.”

“What’s wrong with your confidence? I don’t think you’re lacking for any attention.” He nodded to a group of women who were gawking at Lewis as he passed. Two of the girls giggled as they batted their fake eyelashes.

“They’re enamored with your pretty colors,” Lewis said dismissively.

“Looks like the lieutenant is already busy searching for leads,” Vitos noted, gazing in Bailey’s direction.

The detective followed the Tuetian’s eyes, and saw that his partner did seem to be engaged in a conversation, though the other party was obscured by a rather large man. The guy moved finally, and the person Bailey was talking to came into view across the busy bar.

Lewis dropped his coffee. The lid busted off, and hot liquid shot all over his pants and those around him.

“Watch what you’re doing!” a woman in a short black skirt said, backing up, wiping the coffee from her legs. A moment before, she’d looked like she was working up the nerve to talk to Lewis; now she looked ready to beat him over the head with her handbag.

Lewis shook his head, sure he’d been seeing things. He again looked at the person next to Bailey.

He blinked. His eyes had to be betraying him. But as he neared, the familiar features of the woman’s face did not change. It’s her!

“Melanie!” he dumbly yelled, pushing around aliens, trying desperately to get to the other side of the congested bar.

Melanie gazed up, her dark brown eyes looking around blankly.

I shouldn’t have called out her name; that just warned her she’d been spotted. What was I thinking?

Melanie’s red lips parted dramatically when her gaze landed on Lewis. He pushed through a large group, the last that separated him from her. She didn’t hesitate. She jumped up on top of the bar and, with no one blocking her path, ran easily along its length to the other side, away from Lewis. When she reached the end, she leapt off and pushed through the mass of people blocking the far exit.

Lewis lurched forward, pushing through the crowd to try and follow her. However, her display had caused quite the stir, and most were moving in the direction she’d run, anxious to see where she’d disappeared.

“Did you see that?” the woman in the black skirt asked her friend, knocking hard into Lewis.

He continued to push through the crowd, yelling as he did. He negotiated around a group of Tuetians, nearly taking off one of their wings.

“Melanie! Get back here!”

Even as he yelled, he knew it was useless. He’d seen her face when she’d recognized him. How long had she been running, eluding him? He never expected that she’d be in a different galaxy.

He poured out of the bar into the only slightly less crowded corridor. A sea of aliens jostled in all directions, and he swept his head back and forth, trying to spy his target’s long, black hair, flying behind her as she fled. Even as he narrowed his eyes, he knew it was too late. Melanie had done what she always did best. She’d run.

Chapter Twenty-One

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Bailey had been polite, not saying anything on the way back to Ricky Bobby about the disturbance that Lewis had made at The Prickly Cactus. After his outburst, they all knew that no one was going to talk to them about Monstre Corp, or anything else.

Bailey had tried to question a Trid with a nose ring, a Kezzin who smelled like old lunch meat, and a man who kept looking at her boobs. No one had known anything more about Monstre Corp, or so they’d said. More likely, they valued their lives more than helping a stranger.

She suspected that Monstre Corp had gotten many of those on Gable Station into the Precious galaxy. Otherwise, how would they have made it over such a long distance? She guessed the corporation’s gate had gotten a lot of action, thanks to Vance’s lofty goals. She had to figure out what those were.

After a few hours of getting called every bad name in the galaxy, and nearly punching a few Trids in the face, Bailey had given up.

Lewis and Vitos had met her at the Q-Ship. The detective’s face was red, his hair matted with sweat. He gave her a cautious look as they boarded, but she decided to wait to question him, sensing that he wouldn’t want to talk in front of Vitos.

Having slept and been refreshed, Lewis looked much better, though he still looked agitated. Actually, he looked a lot like he did when they’d first met, a cynical expression etched across his face. That’s when Bailey had first heard him call out that girl’s name. Melanie.

She strode up to where Lewis was leaning against the far wall, his arms across his chest and his eyes low. They both watched as Hatch worked under the hood of a burnt orange Land Rover. He’d told Bailey when she asked that is was a Series 2A, but she wasn’t sure what that meant, only that it looked old.

She hadn’t liked reporting to Jack that they’d returned from Gable with no leads for the codes. However, it made her feel slightly better to find the doctor busying himself with a side project.

He’d explained it was how he cleared his head. She hoped it would help; she knew he was stuck on the plans for the GAD-C.

“So, you ready to talk about it?” she asked Lewis in a low voice.

He nodded in Hatch’s direction. “The fact that an octopus man is changing the spark plugs in an antique car? Yes, thanks for acknowledging the elephant in the room.”

“Melanie,” Bailey said plainly, carefully watching the detective for cues.

“Who?” Lewis asked, his brow furrowing.

“The name you’ve yelled out twice now,” she stated, cutting past his games. “Apparently the woman I was talking to in The Prickly Cactus, who, upon seeing your face, knocked every drink off the bar in order to get away from you.”

Casually, he pressed out his lips, pretending to think. “None of that rings any bells. I was busy chatting up a woman in a mini skirt.”

“Was that before or after you spilled your coffee all over her?” she asked.

“Damn stuff was hot. I apologized.”

Bailey drew her attention back to Hatch, who was reaching under the vehicle with two tentacles, while the rest worked under the hood. “Do you want to know what Melanie said to me?”

“You mean the person you were talking to?” Lewis asked. “I didn’t realize you’d caught her name.”

“I didn’t.”

“Oh, well, good on you for getting right to work. Did you find any leads?”

“I hadn’t gotten to work yet,” Bailey said, slightly exasperated. “Your mystery woman approached me. She gave me a compliment, which I ignored. Related how disgusting the clientele was in Gable, to which I hardly replied. Then she asked me if I knew anything about a corporation by the name of Monstre.”

Lewis’s tamed expression cracked, his eyes widening slightly as he looked the other way. “That’s interesting.”

“That’s what I thought,” she agreed. “To my astonishment, this stranger beat me to the questions I was going to ask.”

“What did you say?” he asked, his head turned clear around so that Bailey couldn’t read his expression.

“I didn’t have a chance to say anything. We were interrupted by some nut-job yelling ‘Melanie’. You’ll remember what happened next.”

He nodded. After a moment of silence, she got to the point.

“People don’t flee like that woman did unless they are in trouble. And you can keep up the act, but I saw you run after her. Did you track her down?”

There was a long pause before Lewis shook his head.

“She looked as surprised to see you, as you were to see her,” Bailey recalled.

“It’s been a long time; I wanted to catch up. I guess she was nervous and got spooked.”

Bailey disagreed. “She didn’t look like she was nervous, so much as fleeing for her life.”

She thought back to how, in a short period of time, she and Lewis had become a good team. He played well off of her, and she appreciated the asset of his keen eyes. However, this had been the challenge from the beginning; Lewis was hiding something.

Bailey had assumed it involved his ex-apprentice, this Melanie. Lewis had said he’d been training her when something went wrong. However, Bailey hadn’t realized until yesterday that he was mad enough to kill her over whatever had happened. That’s what she’d seen from across the bar; a heat akin to murder in Lewis’s eyes.

“You said that you’d been training Melanie,” she remembered, trying again to lure some answers out of him.

For the first time since the conversation had started, Lewis turned and faced Bailey straight on.

“She owes me money. That’s all.”

“So she isn’t the reason you quit the detective business?” she challenged.

A sobering urgency stole any joy in Lewis’s eyes. “I never blame anyone for the things that happen in my life. She was a mistake. What happened afterward was my fault.”

“Well, as your current partner, I’d like to know why you quit.”

“Sure,” he agreed, his usual lightness gone from his expression. “As soon as you tell me what you’re running from.”

Bailey’s mouth popped open without her permission. “Me? I-I-I’m not.” She couldn’t believe she was stuttering.

“Really?” he challenged. “You were recruited against your will for a secret mission, and you hardly even questioned it. Notice that everyone on board Ricky Bobby all have one thing in common, Lieutenant: we’ve all been uprooted. Yet none of us look homesick—you, especially.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady, covering the fact that Lewis might have detected something in her. “I’m here because this mission is worthy of my attention.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” Lewis stated. “However, you can call from the ship to anyone in the other galaxy and yet you don’t seem to have anyone to ring.”

Bailey studied him. Does he know?

He might have been good, but some secrets are buried deep enough that no one, not even the best can find them.

“Fine, don’t tell me why you quit the business,” she said flippantly.

Lewis nodded, looking victorious. “Then don’t tell me why you’re an island, Lieutenant Tennant.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Harley ran over, a welcome interruption from the intense staredown that Bailey and Lewis were having. The dog was followed by Dejoure and Liesel, who was resting her arm thoughtfully across the young girl’s shoulders.

“Is everything okay?” Bailey asked, giving Harley some attention.

“Everything is fine, but as Jack requested, DJ has been logging her dreams,” Liesel explained, pulling her arm away.

“Why are you lot clogging up my lab?” Hatch asked, waddling over, holding a socket wrench in one tentacle. “Isn’t there somewhere else you can braid each other’s hair?”

Liesel smiled, though she still looked a little green from her sickness. Bailey took a step back, not wanting to catch whatever bug the chief engineer had.

“DJ had another premonition last night, and I thought it might be of interest,” Liesel stated. “Jack is away on business, so I brought her to you.”

DJ looked to be trying to swallow. Her black hair was pinned behind her large ears, and she’d replaced the white uniform from Starboards Corp with ripped jeans and a baggy T-shirt. “It’s nothing,” she said dismissively. “Really, the dream doesn’t make sense. I don’t want to waste any of your time.”

“That makes two of us, kid,” Hatch grumbled.

Liesel patted the young girl’s shoulder. “Go on, then. Let them decide what to do with the information.”

“Well, I dreamed that I was with you two, prowling around Starbaords Corp,” she began, gesturing to Bailey and Lewis.

They looked at each other.

“What were we doing there?” Lewis asked.

“It’s silly.” Dejoure shook her head, her hair hitting her in the face. “It might have been a regular dream.”

“How can you tell the difference?” Hatch asked.

“Well, sometimes I can’t,” she admitted. “But usually, a premonition is the last dream I have before I wake up.”

Hatch rolled his eyes and groaned. “Oh, this is ridiculous. That’s like saying a lost object was found in the last place you looked. When you wake up is relative. What if you went back to sleep? Would the next dream be the last one, and therefore the premonition?”

Dejoure shook her head stubbornly. “No, it’s not like that. I know it sounds weird, but the premonition dreams wake me up. There’s like a loud bang that goes off after I have them. I can never go back to sleep after that, no matter what time it is.”

“So in this dream you had,” Lewis spoke, trying to get them back on track. “The three of us went back to Starboards Corp?”

She nodded shyly. “And usually my premonitions happen soon after the dreams, like the next day.”

“Tell them why you went to Starboards Corp,” Liesel encouraged.

The girl cleared her throat. “Well, that was the weird part. We were looking for codes for something.”

The socket wrench fell out of Hatch’s tentacle, clattering to the ground and startling Harley. He pressed in closer to Bailey’s leg.

“Did you tell her about the codes?” Hatch demanded of Liesel.

She shook her head. “Of course not. DJ came to me with this dream, since Jack is out. He’s been logging the other dreams.”

“What else happened in the dream? Did we find the codes?” Bailey pressed.

“I’m not sure,” Dejoure responded.

“Did you see where we looked?” Lewis asked.

DJ blushed the way she usually did when talking to Lewis, pink spreading over her freckled cheeks and the bridge of her nose. “It was a level I’ve never been on before.”

Two of Hatch’s tentacles wound together like a braid. “Finally a lead! We have a breakthrough. About damn time.”

“Wait.” The detective looked sideways at Hatch. “You think we should go to Starboards Corp to find the codes?”

Hatch shrugged. “I think it’s worth looking into. DJ saw it in a premonition without having prior knowledge of the codes.”

“But how can we take a clue from something that hasn’t happened yet?” Bailey questioned. “How did we know to go to Starboards Corp in the first place? From a premonition?”

Lewis agreed with a nod. “The initial idea had to come from somewhere.”

“It occurred right now,” Hatch said, pointing down at the deck. “The premonition told you to go to Starboards Corp, so that’s where you go to find the codes.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Bailey said. “What if it’s wrong?”

“It does make sense,” the mechanic reasoned. “In relativity of simultaneity, things can happen in a different order, depending on the position you’re observing them from. That means two different events can be seen three ways: X comes first, and then Y, or X and Y happen at the same time, or—as in this case—Y occurs first, and then X. Simply put, the future can precede the present and the past.”

“Is this, like, space-time continuum stuff?” Lewis asked, scratching his head.

Hatch huffed. “Let’s just say it’s physics. You don’t have to understand it for it to be at work in your life. Honestly, most don’t comprehend it because it explains the true magic in our lives.”

“So you’re saying that DJ had the dream, and that led us to Starboards Corp? There was no other lead?” Bailey asked.

“Who’s to say.” Hatch shrugged. “It’s a chicken-or-the-egg paradox.”

“Does that mean you two are going?” Dejoure asked.

Liesel adjusted a too-tight bracelet, that sat above her wrist. She had a matching one on the other arm. “Actually, in the premonition, you said you were there too, DJ.”

“You do have the chip that can get us in there,” Bailey reasoned, her eyes still on Liesel.

Dejoure pressed her fingertips to her temples, closing her eyes. “Yeah, but I can’t really remember what all happened in the dream.”

Liesel pulled a thick piece of parchment from the front pocket of her overalls. “Which is why I copied down the dream. They are slippery fish that will get away from you the moment you catch them.”

She handed the piece of paper to Hatch, who eyed her skeptically. “Are you feeling better, or are you still sick?”

She smiled. “I’m fine. No contagion. I’m only wearing these sea bands to help with nausea.”

Hatch hesitated, not taking the paper. “I thought you said you were better?”

“I am, but it appears I’ve got a little motion sickness. The sea bands use acupressure to help relieve that.”

Hatch took the paper, his lips pursed. “The fact that I’ve hired a chief engineer who gets motion sickness on a spaceship and relies on acupuncture to relieve it really makes me question my own credibility.”

“It’s nothing, I assure you,” Liesel said. “It’s my feminine nature making me a bit more sensitive right now.”

“Yeah, well, your types are quite complicated. Can’t be as robust as us males,” Hatch said, looking over the paper.

“Actually, I was reading that females of every species outlive the males due to their XY chromosomes,” Dejoure stated.

Hatch lowered the paper, peering over it at the child. “You mean men don’t live as long due to ex-wives,” He handed the paper to Bailey. “Looks like you have to sneak into a high-security area. Unfortunately, I don’t have all of the cloaking belts working, so I advise you go undercover.”

Bailey took the paper, looking at Dejoure. “Can you help us with that?”

She nodded proudly. “I can totally give you makeovers. The key is you have to act robotic and soulless.”

Lewis lifted his arm at the elbow like it was on a hinge, and pivoted mechanically, while speaking in a monotone. “We can do that.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

Q-Ship, Enroute to Starboards Corp, Kai, Tangki System

“So…Liesel, eh?” Bailey said, giving Lewis a wink.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said in a hush. “Can you be more specific?”

Bailey looked over her shoulder toward the back of the ship, where Dejoure was rubbing Harley’s head and telling him a story about some chipmunk fairies. “I was only alluding to her new condition,” she said discreetly.

“You know?” Lewis asked.

Her mouth popped open. “Of course I know. I’m not a detective, but I can put a few things together.”

“Right. Well, Jack hasn’t come to terms with it yet. But he will,” he explained in a whisper.

“Oh, I love gossip! I have been a bit sheltered, stuck in Hatch’s lab,” Pip said overhead. “Tell me more. What’s going on with Liesel Diesel?”

“Nothing,” Lewis said quickly.

“Come on, guys!” Pip complained. “Don’t leave me in the dark.”

“Hey, how about we play a game,” Bailey suggested, steering the cloaked ship toward the seemingly invisible Starboards headquarters.

“I’m in!” Pip sang. “I love games.”

She shot Lewis a clever smile. She knew how to distract someone.

“Your choice then, buddy,” Lewis offered.

“Okay, we’re playing two truths and a lie,” Pip stated. “You figure out my lie in order to win a bajillion points.”

“Dammit, I really want to win now,” Bailey said.

Pip made a sound like clearing his throat. “Here they are: I’m sort of a card shark. I once wrecked a car into a nuclear weapon. And I speak twenty languages.”

“The second one is a lie,” Bailey answered.

“Egghhh!” Pip said, sounding like a buzzer. “Incorrect. It’s the third one; I speak way more than twenty languages. You see what I did there? I hid the lie in a truth.”

“So, you really wrecked a car into a nuke?” Lewis asked.

“Oh yeah,” Pip said. “Hatch was pissed! It was his car.”

Bailey laughed. “Okay, Harlowe. Your turn.”

Lewis narrowed his eyes at her. He knew what she was playing at. She’d be after him for information on Melanie from now on. “Fine. Here’s mine: I’m the youngest of five children. I play the violin. A monkey once stole my wallet.”

“You don’t play the violin,” Pip answered with finality.

“Come on,” Lewis said, shaking his head in disappointment. “I used your trick. I’m an only child.”

“It’s all about the details,” Bailey chirped. “DJ, you want to play this game?”

Dejoure poked her head forward. “Sure, but it might take me a second to think of some stuff. Let’s see…. Okay, here’s mine: I once delivered a baby on top of a mountain. I was the reason that bitcoin went under. And I had a pet otter that saved my life from a deadly snake.”

Lewis gave Bailey a look of disbelief. “Wow. Those are all pretty good. I almost don’t know which one is the lie.”

“Lie…?” Dejoure asked. “I didn’t know we were supposed to make something up. I thought it was three incredible facts about ourselves.”

Starboards Corp, Kai, Tangki System

It was strange for Dejoure to be returning to Starboards Corp. She kept thinking that she’d wake up and realize her time on Ricky Bobby was a dream. Since her honest admissions on the Q-Ship, she was getting weird stares from Lewis and Bailey; she hoped they wouldn’t change their mind about her and leave her behind.

“Ladybug, you’re walking with too much pep in your step,” Dejoure muttered over the comm as the trio strode out of the Q-Ship, and joined the mass of scientists and administrative employees filing out of the shuttle.

She’d helped the team plan for this visit to the floating headquarters over the Kai Ocean, telling them when the first, second and third shift would arrive. She only knew that because of the rotation she’d seen from the wing where they kept the children. Once she’d been “adopted” by Starboards, she’d never been permitted to leave, unlike the employees who were flown in daily.

Bailey looked over her shoulder, but couldn’t see Dejoure next to her, since she was the only one wearing a cloaking belt. Finally, her dream had come true. She was invisible.

“Less pep,” Bailey whispered. “Got it.”

“And don’t have your shoulders back so much,” Dejoure stated in a whisper. “Hunch them like you’re dejected and about to go into your soul-sucking job at Suck Butt.”

Bailey nodded. She didn’t look like herself, dressed in the white lab coat and slacks. Her normally flowing blonde hair was fashioned into a tight bun. Lewis looked even stranger in his white lab coat and glasses. His hair was parted down the middle and slicked back with too much gel, taking away from its normal body.

The two filed into line with the others, acting the part brilliantly. When they got to the front, Dejoure slipped beside them, running her wrist over the scanner twice, once for Bailey’s access, and another for Lewis’s. They were in, but there were so many more obstacles ahead of them.

Dejoure was unsurprised that the people around Bailey and Lewis were silent as they huddled into the elevator right off the entrance. She hadn’t missed the stale personalities at SB. It was like their unique traits had been dissected and removed from them and replaced with Styrofoam.

Dejoure much preferred Ricky Bobby, where there was always an adventure and no one told her what to do. Now she had a cool new alien, Vitos, she could ask questions of and learn from. And she couldn’t wait until the baby was born—but no one knew about that yet. She only did because of the premonition she’d had the other day, before they made her start logging dreams. It was one of those rare premonitions that looked a long way into the future. She’d only had those a couple of times, and they were always of importance.

Bailey and Lewis’s elevator arrived as Dejoure was exiting the stairwell. She had to be careful, making sure she waited to open the door when she knew only they were around.

The codes she’d seen them get in the dream were through a double set of doors on the far side of the hallway. However, the problem was that her access wasn’t going to get them into the restricted area. That hadn’t worried Hatch, though. He’d said, ‘if they got in there in the dream, it meant they found a way in reality’.

This stuff hurt Dejoure’s brain, but she trusted the scientist, so she went along with it.

“We’ll just walk that way,” Lewis said from his place in front of Dejoure, looking all around. “I’m sure something will happen soon.”

He’s probably looking for a clue. Hoping for the way into the department.

“Yep, just walking,” Bailey said, her tone growing tense. “Getting closer. No magic keys yet.”

Trust Hatch, Dejoure thought.

He’d said that time wasn’t linear. The idea fascinated her, but before he could elaborate, he’d been interrupted by Ricky Bobby with an update about the monster. That took precedence, obviously.

She liked the word ‘precedence’, but not as much as she liked the word ‘dichotomy’. Most words didn’t sound like what they were, but the good ones did.

The door to the restricted area opened, and Dejoure sucked in a breath. That man.

She’d hoped she’d never again see Dr. Lukas—or Dr. Ass, as she called him—or hear his condescending voice. Yet there he was.

He hurried out the door, letting it close behind him, and froze. His gaze looked past Bailey and Lewis; maybe she was being crazy, but it seemed to be directed straight at her.

“What are you doing here?” he barked.

Dejoure nearly squeaked with fear, but kept the noise locked inside herself. She peered down. She was still cloaked, but worried that maybe he could somehow see her.

“We are here for our shift,” Bailey said, her tone different from how Dejoure had ever heard her sound. It was sweet, flirtatious.

“I haven’t assigned any new members to this team,” Dr. Ass said.

DJ didn’t know why, but she decided to move forward, getting closer to the jerk who had ordered her around, ordered everyone around, was always barking orders.

“It’s a new reassignment,” Lewis stated with confidence. “It’s just come through to cover some project modifications.”

“Your superior approved this?” Dr. Ass asked.

Dejoure drew so close to the uptight administrative jerk that she could feel his body heat.

“Yes, you can see for yourself,” Bailey said, again with that soothing tone. “It’s all in the project notes.”

“I’m going back to my office now,” Dr. Ass said. “Why don’t you two follow me, and we’ll look into this matter? I can’t have any unauthorized personnel on this project. If you’ve been reassigned, I need proof.”

A knot tied itself in Dejoure’s throat. She could feel Bailey and Lewis fumbling, but she had to block them out, so she didn’t pay attention to Bailey’s reply which came next. Instead, she reached out, her hand shaking. Her fingers hesitated an inch away from the badge clipped to Dr. Ass’s pants pocket. She had to be careful, precise. With a quick movement, she unclipped the badge, but held it where it was.

Dr. Ass looked down, having felt the movement. He turned around to see nothing. Dismissing the sensation as a fluke, he turned back to Bailey and Lewis.

Dejoure had to be fast. She inched around behind Dr. Ass, and when he wasn’t looking, slipped the badge into Bailey’s hand.

To DJ’s relief, Bailey didn’t even hesitate. She took the badge like she’d expected to be handed the object all along.

Holding it up, covering the picture on the front, Bailey told the doctor, “Actually, I can make your job easier, here. When reassigned to the project, our clearance levels were also changed. I’ll show you.”

She strode over to the badge reader, shaking her hips more than usual, adding a provocative hint to her walk. She swiped the badge in front of the reader, and it dinged before a light glowed green.

“See?” she said.

Dr. Ass coughed. Snorted. Shook his head. “Right, well, I’ll still need to confirm with the project records, but go on in. You need to get started right away.”

“Of course,” Bailey cooed, keeping the door open for Lewis.

Hatch had faith that science would work in our favor. Dejoure slid in between the lieutenant and the detective as they made their way into the restricted area, marveling that the doctor had been right.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Restricted Area, Starboards Corp, Kai, Tangki System

It didn’t need to be stated that they had to be quick. Still, the urgency was written on Bailey’s face when she looked back at Lewis. She pointed between them and mouthed, ‘split up’. He nodded. That was smart because they needed to maximize their time.

The lab was all white. Shocking, Lewis thought, blinking the brightness away. He had trouble determining where the scientists in white lab coats stopped, and where the counters began. It was like Starboards Corp had camouflaged their employees. Or maybe color was too bold for them and complicated their evil agenda.

“Hey, you,” a short woman built like a circus performer called up to him.

Lewis looked down at the tiny lady. “Yes?”

“What are you doing here, Mr. Heathcliff,” the woman asked, reading his name badge.

Dejoure had helped them to design the lab coats to match the style of the ones at Starboards Corp, with embroidered name tags. Lewis had used his familiar naming device for picking his alias: characters from his favorite novels. That’s how he’d named the animals at Underwood Farms.

“I’ve been assigned to this project,” he said, injecting a bit of smugness into his tone, like he shouldn’t be questioned.

“Which project?” the woman asked. Her name was Scarlett Robin.

A first name for a last name. How very boring.

“I’m not sure I’m at liberty to share that information with you, Ms. Robin,” Lewis said, grabbing the lapels of his lab coat importantly.

Her cynical expression dropped, replaced by a look like they shared a common understanding. “Oh, K-factor, then.”

Lewis lifted an eyebrow, regarding her with a skeptical stare. “You’re on the K-factor project?”

He had no idea what the hell he was doing, but he plowed ahead, hoping K-factor was as important as D-factor.

“Of course,” Ms. Robin said. “We could use fresh eyes to determine how to increase the manufacturing process for kantarium. Production needs to double.”

“Double?” he echoed, intentionally keeping his questions short. Others were more likely to fill in details if the questions were broad.

“Yes, due to the increased activity at this headquarters, and as a precautionary measure, Dr. Lukas wants a larger store of K-factor,” the scientist said.

Lewis nodded, trying to quell his excitement. If K-factor was what he thought it was, then he’d hit the jackpot. “Point me in the direction of my source terminal, and I’ll get right to work.”

The woman directed him to a station between two scientists bent over a desk, their eyes inches from the clear screen displaying holograms. “All the project files are on that terminal.”

“Got it,” he said, keeping his expression neutral although his insides were doing a happy dance.

He was careful not to smile at the scientist who looked up at him when he took a seat. Starting up the computer, he cast a look at Bailey, who was on the other side of the room, an anxious expression on her face.

Lewis eyed his watch. They didn’t have long until Dr. Lukas found out they were imposters. He pulled the proximity drive from his coat pocket, carefully palming it so no one noticed. He rested his hand beside the computer, rhythmically tapping his fingers as the machine started up. According to Dejoure, the scientists were searched for weapons and other devices like proximity drives before they boarded the shuttle to transport them to Starboards Corp. However, Lewis and Bailey had taken their own transport, which meant they were both armed and completely dangerous.

Lewis opened the files for K-factor and had to contain the howl of excitement that wanted to escape. The diagram on the front of the project showed the balloon that towered high above Starboards Corp, suspending the massive skyscraper over the ocean.

Hatch is going to kiss me when I bring back these files.

He tapped his hand on the desk, earning the attention of a mousy-looking woman on the other side of him. Quickly, he dragged a box over the progress bar on the screen so she couldn’t see he was copying files. When she gave him a quizzical expression, Lewis lowered his chin and regarded her with a flirtatious stare from under hooded eyes. As he hoped, the young woman blushed, pressing her hair behind her ear, and smiled at him. He winked and returned his attention to the screen.

On his right shoulder, he felt a light tapping. He turned his head. There was nothing there—well, nothing he could see, anyway.

That was the signal from Dejoure. It was time to go.

Lewis spotted Bailey striding for the exit, catching the attention of many of the scientists as she passed. She wasn’t great at going incognito, since it was hard for most not to notice her.

He needed another minute to complete the download. He drummed his hands on the workstation again, earning him an annoyed look from the man on his other side.

Again the tapping on his shoulder, this time more adamant.

Lewis turned. Bailey was at the exit, staring at him with urgency. He nodded, pulling his hand back to his pocket and depositing the proximity drive. Quickly, he closed the windows on the screen. The download hadn’t completed, but it would have to be good enough.

When he rose, Ms. Robin looked up, giving him a punishing stare. “What are you doing?”

“I’ll be right back,” he lied.

“It’s not a scheduled break,” Ms. Robin said, her tone reprimanding.

Lewis caught sight of Bailey on the far side of the room, her eyes wide. “I think I’ve been assigned to this project by mistake. I’m going to see my supervisor.”

“What? But you—”

The push at Lewis’s back made him nearly stumble. He decided to start forward before Dejoure dragged him out of there.

“I’m sorry. But there’s been a mistake,” he said again, hurrying for the exit.

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

Dejoure had to keep herself from laughing as she pushed Lewis. Most adults would have punished her for doing such a thing, but Lewis would know she was protecting him.

Still cloaked, she slid up next to Bailey, who marched through the double doors, ignoring the stares from the other scientists. Dejoure was relieved to find the hallway empty. Jogging, Lewis joined them a moment later.

“Seriously, Harlowe,” Bailey said as he closed the door and let out a giant breath. “You’re the slowest person I’ve ever met.”

“I had to explain to that woman where I was going,” he said defensively.

She shook her head.

“How did you get out of there without being questioned?” Lewis asked, hurrying to keep up as they made their way to the stairs.

“I told them I’d been sent for quality assurance,” Bailey answered.

“They believed that?” he asked incredulously.

Dejoure laughed. “They pretty much threw their reports and data at her.”

“For a girl who doesn’t want to be judged by her looks, you sure know how to bat your eyelashes at people,” Lewis remarked.

I don’t want to be judged by sex appeal.” Bailey pointed to her name tag. “But I’m okay with Taily Bennant doing it.”

The detective laughed. “Ingenious naming device.”

“Thanks. You can use it and be Hewis Larlowe,” she offered, carefully checking around the corner.

“I think I’m good with ‘Heathcliff’,” he said.

“How about you, DJ? You could be…” Bailey looked around, like she was trying to find the cloaked girl. “What is your last name, anyway?”

“Flournoy,” she replied. “Dejoure Flournoy.”

“Damn that’s a mouthful,” Lewis remarked.

“Okay, I’m not even trying to mess with that one,” Bailey stated.

“Yeah, I picked my last name,” Dejoure said proudly.

“Nice choice. It does sound like music,” Lewis said.

Bailey shot her hand back, making them both halt. They were only a few yards from the door to the stairwell when a thundering sound echoed all around them.

Bailey pulled her gun from the back of her waistband as Dr. Ass strode around the corner, a slew of guards at his back.

The uptight administrator tied his arms across his chest as he halted. “I don’t know where you two came from or what you’re up to, but it stops now.”

Footsteps echoed from the stairwell right before several guards materialized holding shock wands. Dejoure had never seen anyone shocked with them, but she had a feeling that was about to change.

Behind them, another set of guards came around the corner, menace on their faces as voltage pulsed at the end of their wands.

Lewis pulled his gun up and faced the guards. They all inched back, having come face-to-face with a long-range weapon.

Dejoure knew that Bailey was a badass and Lewis was smart enough to get himself out of most situations, but they were outnumbered and surrounded. She didn’t know how they were going to pull this off, unless they had a secret advantage…like an invisible accomplice.

“Oh no,” Bailey said, pursing her lips. “Please don’t tell me that you didn’t see we were reassigned projects? Damn human resources screwed up our paperwork again.”

Dr. Ass rolled his eyes.

Oh, he is not impressed. DJ wondered if he was going to start lecturing; he loved his monologues.

Before joining the crew of Ricky Bobby, Dejoure would have been terrified to do what she had in mind. However, if Bailey and Lewis were caught, she would be stuck here; she had to pull out all the stops.

“Apprehend them,” Dr. Ass ordered.

The guards at their back started forward.

Bailey pulled something from her pocket and threw it to the ground. She was so fast, all her movements were a blur. A small, black cube landed on the ground a few feet from the guards. They stopped, regarding the box with uncertainty. When nothing happened, they continued forward.

A loud, piercing sound rang through the air, and a sonic pulse shot out in all directions from the cube, making it rise into the air halfway between the ceiling and the floor. A strange, reflective wall formed from the cube, resembling a bubble.

“Get them!” Dr. Ass ordered.

The guards stepped forward, tentatively reaching out for the bubble wall. Their hands were stopped as if they had encountered a real, impenetrable blocker.

“Sir, we can’t,” the first guard said. “We’re stuck.”

Bailey spun around, she and Lewis both pointing their weapons at the men in the doorway of the stairwell.

“No, you will not be getting away,” Dr. Ass said, taking a step forward, which the guards followed.

The doctor stumbled, falling down like a sack of potatoes, having tripped over Dejoure’s invisible, outstretched leg. The guards behind Dr. Ass tumbled over him. Dejoure couldn’t help but laugh.

Meanwhile, Lewis and Bailey were battling the men in the stairwell.

Dr. Ass pushed himself up, looking around and shoving the guards off him. “Who else is here?” he demanded. He reached forward like a blind man trying to find his way, and his hand nearly grazed Dejoure’s face.

She ducked and grabbed one of the shock wands from the guards, and stuck it into the back of Dr. Ass’s leg. He yelled out in pain and fell to the floor, convulsing. She hadn’t known what the weapon would do, but she hadn’t expected that.

The guard she’d stolen the wand from was now searching for her, as were his mates. She swerved to the side, nearly getting caught. Another guard lunged in her direction, but she pulled up the wand, and put it into his chest. Doing so made her position traceable, and two more guards looked ready to pounce on her. She waved the wand through the air, more for show than as an offensive tactic, and then threw it over their heads, like she’d leapt high above them. Like dumb dogs, they watched its trajectory.

“Come on!” Lewis yelled from the stairwell.

Dejoure spun, sprinting for the exit. She caught a glimpse of the guards on the other side of the hallway, still stuck behind the brand new, almost invisible wall, the cube hanging suspended in midair.

She made it to the stairwell, and was instantly overwhelmed by the sight of all the bodies.

“I’m here,” she squeaked, looking around the landing.

“Don’t worry,” Lewis said gently, holding out a hand. “We only knocked them out.”

She took his hand, and he pulled her up the flight of stairs to where Bailey was waiting. A blast rocked the floor, sending them all forward. Lewis looked to Bailey, who smiled.

“That was the bubble cube wall,” she said proudly. “The barrier is down, but we’ve left no trace of the tech that kept those jerks at bay.”

“Smart thinking,” he stated.

“Hatch is brilliant,” Bailey agreed, pushing open the door to the rooftop. She had her gun at the ready, and fired six times before turning back to her team. “All is clear. Unfortunately, we can’t simply leave everyone unconscious.”

Dejoure nodded, rendered speechless by the adrenaline and the stark reality of being part of the fight. She didn’t want anyone to get hurt, but she was realizing that sometimes it was necessary.

She would always do whatever it took to make it home to Ricky Bobby.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Lewis danced into the lab like he was listening to an upbeat tune in his head. When he was in front of Bailey, he spun around and threw his arms wide.

“Who put Skittles in your cornflakes?” she asked.

Lewis shook his head. “DJ made me french toast, actually. But this is my happy dance to celebrate locating the files for the K-factor, which is the super-secret stuff Starboards Corp uses for their magic trick with the building.” Lewis lifted the collar of his shirt, proudly. “My stock just went up.”

“I wouldn’t go cashing any checks yet, hotshot,” Hatch called from the far side of the room, peering at the main screen of his workstation.

“What’s a check?” he asked.

“It’s an archaic form of payment,” Pip answered.

“I don’t get it,” Lewis stated.

“He’s saying you’re writing checks that your ass can’t cash,” Pip informed him.

“That’s not what I was saying,” Hatch muttered, his focus on his computer. “Don’t speak for me, AI.”

“Wait until you resort to online dating,” Pip threatened. “Then you’ll be begging me to come up with sweet words for you.”

“Why would I online date?” Hatch asked absentmindedly, probably sorting through complex formulas and data while trying to maintain a conversation at the same time.

“Why wouldn’t you?” Pip asked. “I can write an online profile like no one’s business. Mine reads: ‘Ladies look no further. I’m the real deal. I value high ethics, a healthy lifestyle and a pure heart. My mother says I’m a catch; my granny says she can’t wait to bake lasagna for a special lady. Watch out. If I fall in love, I’ll marry you’.”

“None of that is true,” Hatch muttered, unimpressed.

Bailey laughed. “You don’t have a mom or a grandmother…do you?”

“Of course not, but women love men who value the monarchs of the family,” Pip said.

“Is that profile really getting you action?” Lewis asked.

“Well, it would if I had a body,” Pip stated with a deliberate cough. “I’ve gotten a ton of swipes, but I have to keep putting off the ladies and coming up with phony reasons for why we can’t meet.”

“Why don’t you tell them the truth?” Hatch asked, swiveling around and waddling away from his workstation. “Tell them that you’re part of a covert squadron who has lost their crew, and are hard at work protecting the Federation.”

Pip sighed. “That’s so lame. I’d rather tell them I don’t have a body.”

“Well, when you do have a body, I don’t forsee you getting an opportunity to meet up with a succubus,” Hatch stated. “We have important work to do here, and we aren’t exactly operating in secure locations.”

“My dating app works based on location,” Pip said. “You’d be surprised how many hotties there are in the Precious galaxy—although I’m not into Tuetians. I can’t date anything that has bug eyes.”

“Okay, the project files we brought back on K-factor?” Lewis interrupted, trying to bring attention back to the matter at hand. “Is there a problem?”

“So far, they are a good start,” Hatch stated. “I wouldn’t go off dancing and breaking your arm patting yourself on the back, but you did okay work, kid.”

Lewis nodded, accepting a kudos from the scientist, however small.

“The files you got show their current process for manufacturing kantarium, which, as you stated, they were trying to innovate,” Hatch explained. “And I can absolutely see why; it’s a mineral they synthesized that, when heated, turns into a gas. It’s definitely what they use in the balloon that holds up the headquarters. However, the process for manufacturing it is incredibly complicated and takes a long time. I hypothesize that they will run out of the mineral in the next year if they don’t find a better method.”

“That’s not good for them,” Bailey stated. “Although I wouldn’t mind that evil corporation falling into the ocean—once we rescue the children, of course.”

Hatch agreed with a nod. “The chances of that are pretty high, because the mineral is highly unstable and explosive. However, it’s also valuable and exactly what I’ve been looking for. I think it could be the second fuel source for the GAD-C.”

“That’s great!” Lewis exclaimed.

The sour look on Hatch’s face drained the sudden excitement. “It would be great, but I’m missing an important element in order to produce K-factor on my own.”

Bailey lowered her chin, and took a guess. “Kantarium.”

Hatch nodded. “Right in one. I need the mineral in order to fully understand its composition. I think the dumb scientists at Starboards have missed an opportunity to improve their process. If I had the mineral, I’m sure I could substantially cut down the length of time it takes to manufacture it, but with only working project notes, I’m at a loss. It is too unstable for me to try and reproduce it using their protocol, which I don’t trust.”

“So we need to find a sample of K-factor.” Lewis combed his hand over his chin, thinking.

“Yes, that is an important next step,” Hatch agreed. “However, thanks to the lieutenant, we have the codes for the databases. Great work.”

Bailey smiled proudly. “It wasn’t that hard; thanks to the bubble cube wall, our job was a lot easier. That’s incredible technology.”

Lewis agreed with a nod, giving her a sideways look. “Yeah, when were you going to tell me you had that awesome bit of trickery?”

“It was a surprise,” she said simply.

“I was definitely surprised,” he admitted, chuckling. He wasn’t mad about the secret; he knew that Hatch liked to covertly share his tech with the combat pilot. “I thought we were doomed there for a minute. If it hadn’t been for the cube and DJ’s quick moves, we might have been.”

“So you’re ready for us to go to the location of the first database, even though the GAD-C isn’t ready?” Bailey asked Hatch.

“My hopes are that you can take the database while we locate a sample of K-factor,” he told her, but he didn’t sound confident. “I don’t like the idea of waiting, especially since Starboards and Monstre both know that we’re on their trail. If they find out you took the codes, they could change them.”

Lewis and Bailey nodded, exchanging looks. That made sense. But they were both ready for the next phase, even if it was the most dangerous thing they’d done so far.

“And it’s even more important that we make progress, since the monster has disappeared,” Hatch said in a hush, turning back for his workstation.

“Say what?” Lewis asked.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” Hatch asked, a reluctance in his tone. His attention was on his computer. “We backed off the monster, and it somehow disappeared. We are tracking the direction it went, but it’s obscured by a strange black cloud on the fringe of the Precious galaxy.”

“How do we know that cloud isn’t the monster itself?” Bailey asked.

Hatch shook his head. “This cloud is huge. Way too big to be the monster. Anyway, if it still has the tracker, we might have hope. I’ll work with DJ to find it, but in the meantime, we need to make progress. Otherwise, I fear that, without the monster in our sights, we are in a dangerous position.”

Bailey turned to Lewis, her eyes bright. “Ready to go and find the first database?”

“Hell yes!” He looked at Hatch, winking at him. “I’m going to make you even prouder this time.”

Hardly paying attention, Hatch muttered, “Whatever, kid.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

Loading Bay, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Liesel’s legs were the only part of her that was visible as she worked underneath the Dragonfly.

“Bastian, will you hand me the hybrid crossover valve for the coolant?” the chief mechanic asked, extending a hand out from underneath the ship.

The ferret popped up on his hindlegs, his eyes bright, like he was eager for the task.

“Are you sure you should be working under the ship in your condition?” Vitos asked, kneeling next to Liesel and looking up at his ship. It was all that he had from home, and yet it was enough.

The mechanic wheeled out from under the Dragonfly and looked up at him. “What do you mean?”

Vitos tilted his head to the side, a blatant look on his face that said ‘quit the show’.

“Oh, you know?” Liesel looked down at her midsection. “Did Ricky Bobby tell you?”

“I did not,” the AI chimed overhead. “Jack has asked me not to share the information until after the first trimester…possibly the second.”

Liesel took the valve from Sebastian and laughed. “I think he’s hoping we can wait until the baby is actually here to spill the news to Hatch.”

“The Londil will be upset about you procreating?” Vitos asked.

He still didn’t understand how things operated on this ship. Humans were strange, and the Londil was an enigma. Vitos thought he acted grumpier than he was, but there was an obvious, deep-seated problem that Hatch was overcompensating for. Something to do with matters of the heart.

Liesel patted the ferret’s head, and smiled. “I have a feeling that he’ll worry about where my priorities will be. We are beyond short-handed at the moment, and in the midst of a huge mission.” A curious look crossed her face. “How did you know I was pregnant?”

He chuckled. “It’s sort of obvious to me, but my senses are acutely attuned for such things. I have an incredible sense of smell, and Tuetians are especially good at detecting changes to physical makeup. It’s how we are able to find game and fresh bodies of water. For instance, we wouldn’t hunt a pregnant female, because that would be a poor long-term decision. We might feast for a day, but it takes out several potential prey.”

Liesel laughed. “I’m glad I’m not on your food chain. Have you considered a plant-based diet?”

Vitos’s light expression dropped. “I don’t think that would work for me. Tuetians need protein.”

“Tofu is a wonderful source…” Liesel stopped and looked down at the ferret, who was tugging on her pants. “Yes, you’re right. I should stop pushing my lifestyle on others.” She gave Vitos a thoughtful expression. “My apologies. I completely understand your dietary choices and support them, even if they don’t work for me.”

He didn’t know what to say. Tuetians weren’t allowed to have such a divide in choices; as such, he’d never known this level of tolerance.

Liesel looked back at the Dragonfly. “This ship is really incredible. I should have it up and ready to fly soon. Then what will you do? Will you return to Tueti?’

Vitos’s chin dropped, and he regarded the deck with uncertainty. “I would prefer not to. I know that it is my home, and that I should want to return. And that I have no reason to want to stay here. I mean, there’s nothing for me here, and Tueti is my home, but…”

Liesel popped up to a standing position. The ferret, which would have been dinner for Vitos in other circumstances, climbed up her pant leg and continued on, finally settling on her shoulder. “Vitos Rigar, we don’t choose our homes; they call to us, like a song. It seems to me that you’re not completely like your own. That was the case for me once, and that’s when I decided I could choose my own family.” She looked around, a haunted expression on her smooth face. There was suddenly a quiet pain in her eyes. “This ship is my home. It wasn’t at first, but over time, I found my family here. Now I hope to bring them all back.”

“I want to help with that,” Vitos said, quickly, without thinking. “I’m sorry… I don’t even know those who used to be here, but helping Ghost Squadron feels like a worthy mission. I’ve never done anything I could be really proud of. I’ve never lived anywhere that I could be myself. This kind of feels like it could be that. A fresh start.”

“I hear you like to paint,” Liesel said after a moment, a sneaky look on her face. “What if I told you that I’ve set up a full art studio on one of the lower decks?”

Vitos’s mouth dropped. His body lifted a few inches off the floor, his wings beating without his permission. “I’m not sure what to say. Are you telling me that as an offer?”

She nodded. “Of course. The art studio is open to whoever wants to use it. You’re welcome to go down there anytime and express yourself.”

Vitos still didn’t know what to say. He’d never been allowed to paint freely. It was something he’d hidden and was made to feel ashamed of.

“Vitos,” Ricky Bobby called overhead, “Jack would like to see you in his office right away.”

Every muscle in his body tensed. Was this the moment his hopes would be snatched away, and he was thrown off the ship? Was this the end?

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Lewis stared at the image of the rotating planet on the screen. It was mostly white, being that it was covered in snow and ice. Vitos entered Jack’s office, looking a bit sheepish.

“Oh, good. There you are,” Jack said, clapping his hands and waving Vitos into the office. “I had something I wanted to discuss with you.”

The Tuetian looked like he was close to being spooked, his wings fluttering at his back. Bailey gave Lewis a curious look, having noticed the alien’s tense demeanor.

“Discuss?” Vitos asked. “Did you hear that the Dragonfly is almost repaired? Is that what this is about?”

Jack shook his head. “That’s great news, though, and might come in handy in the future. I bet we could use it to fool Monstre Corp—throw them off so they don’t think it’s us investigating them.”

“So you don’t want me to take it for a one-way trip to Tueti?” Vitos asked.

Jack’s head tucked back on his neck in a sudden gesture of confusion. “A one-way trip to Tueti? No, that wasn’t a part of my plan. Did you want to return to your planet? I was under the impression that—”

“No, I definitely don’t want to… I just thought…” Vitos trailed off, staring down at the oriental rug underfoot.

“I’m not in the business of making anyone on this ship do anything against their will,” Jack stated confidently. “If you want to stay, we will find a job for you. If you want to return to Tueti, we will wish you well. All that we ask is that you not endanger us or our mission by giving information to those who could use it against us.”

Rapidly, Vitos shook his head. “No, I’d never do anything to harm Ricky Bobby or its crews. You have my full loyalty. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to stay…at least for a little while.”

Jack smiled warmly. “Stay as long as you like. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a part of the team now. We have a way of acquiring unique talent in the most accidental methods.”

Lewis thought of DJ and how she’d pretty much insisted that they take her with them when they were at Starboards Corp the first time. It was because of her that they knew the crew was in the Precious galaxy. Actually, without hers or Vitos’s help, they wouldn’t be as far along as they were.

Jack pointed to the rotating planet on the screen behind his desk. “Vitos, do you recognize this planet?”

The alien chirped. “Of course. That’s Pochli, the planet whose entire population disappeared.”

“Yes, and it’s the location for the closest database,” Jack stated. “Ricky Bobby has been doing a lot of research on the planet, but I was hoping that you could tell us the real logistics. Have you been there?”

Vitos shook his head. “I haven’t but I was prepped for the mission in case the first team that went to investigate needed back up. There are intense winds on Pochli that make flying into the atmosphere difficult, and ice storms made it difficult for our team to land.”

“Why would anyone choose to live on Pochli?” Bailey asked. “It doesn’t sound like a safe place.”

“The Pochlians lived on the southern hemisphere, which is habitable on the surface six months out of the year. They mostly lived underground,” Vitos explained. “That’s why we weren’t initially concerned about them. However, communication over their coffee bean supply was nonexistent, so an investigation was launched. That’s when we found out about what I know now is Monstre Corp.”

“What do you know about the northern hemisphere of Pochli?” Jack asked.

“It’s a dangerous place, riddled with lots of tectonic movement and aftershocks,” Vitos stated. “The natives all moved south a decade ago, when the north was deemed uninhabitable.”

Jack nodded. “Well, in true Monstre Corp fashion, it appears that they’ve put a location there.”

“How is that possible?” Vitos asked.

“Monstre Corp, much like Starboards, doesn’t play by the same rules as the rest of us.” Jack tapped his fingertips on the surface of the desk, an amused expression on his face. “It almost seems that the more impossible a location is, the harder they seek it out.”

“Yes, a floating building, and a facility built into the side of an asteroid,” Lewis recalled. “If they weren’t so secretive, they’d get a lot of attention for their ingenuity.”

“I second that,” Jack agreed. “Unfortunately, their imagination is our concern. Like you said, Vitos, most dwellings in the south are underground. However, Ricky Bobby has been scanning the planet, and he found a large, relatively new facility in the north.”

“How is that possible?” Vitos asked.

Jack shook his head. “We’re not sure. From the aerial footage, it looks like a regular building, but I’m guessing that appearances are deceiving.”

“Can you discern the security?” Bailey asked.

“It’s minimal,” he answered. “A shuttle carrying approximately a dozen individuals flew in a few days ago, and dropped off its passengers. They’re probably on a two-week rotation, by the looks of it.”

“We can handle that,” Bailey stated confidently.

“I’m not concerned about the personnel at this facility, although I think you shouldn’t underestimate them,” Jack warned. “My concern is the servers themselves. Human and alien consciousness are stored in these databases, so it won’t be as easy as using a proximity drive to download them. I’ve spoken to Hatch, and it’s possible that Pip can assist with transferring some of the data—sorry, consciousnesses. However, I think that a better plan would be to secure the location and take the servers themselves. We can’t risk harming the consciousnesses with a transfer.”

“Moving servers?” Bailey asked. “That’s pretty hefty business for the two of us.”

Jack agreed with a nod. “That’s where Vitos comes in.” He turned his attention back to the alien. “We need as much help as possible with this mission; unfortunately, we are severely understaffed for a mission of this size.”

“I can go!” the Tuetian exclaimed at once.

Jack smiled. “I’m glad to have your willingness. We really could use your help. I have no idea how many servers there are, or how many of those are storing consciousnesses. We’re walking into this blind. But the good news is that after investigating this first facility, we’ll know more about what we’re up against.”

“And maybe we’ll discover where to find the K-factor,” Lewis said hopefully.

“Yes. First step is to get the servers, and the second is to find a way to reprint our people.” Jack shook his head, shivering slightly. “That doesn’t sound right at all, and yet that’s what we’ve come to.”

Lewis agreed. If they were going to beat Monstre Corp, they had to get used to the unexpected. Additionally, they had to be even more imaginative than Solomon Vance.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Q-Ship, En Route to Pochli, Cacama System

Ice crystals had formed around the edge of the bow’s viewing window. Bailey leaned forward, squinting through the thick winds that barreled over the Q-Ship, bringing with them snow and ice. She’d flown through asteroid belts and various other conditions in space, but this was testing her on a new level.

A clattering echoed overhead.

“What was that?” she asked, looking at the radar.

“The beginning of a really gnarly hailstorm,” Pip informed her. “Looks like there’s baseball-sized hail headed your way.”

“What about the shields?” she asked.

“They are intact; however, a few dozen hits, and they’ll be down. There has to be some factor here that is weakening the shields, and with this hail storm they will take quite a beating,” Pip stated.

Lewis leaned forward, peering through the viewing window. “It looks like a sheet of ice is heading our way.”

“Yes, unlike the asteroids, these babies are close-knit and don’t fall in a predictable formation,” Pip said.

“What’s your advice for getting through this storm?” Bailey asked, holding the controls steady as the hail increased in size, battering the ship.

“Step on it!” Pip exclaimed. “The only way to make it through this storm is to outrun it. If you get stuck in the backend, you’re screwed.”

“Thanks for sugarcoating it.” Bailey checked the route. They weren’t far from this facility, but the clattering was increasing moment by moment.

“I’ve located a cave large enough to store the Q-Ship,” Pip reported.

“What about us, though?” Bailey asked.

“Did you bring an umbrella?” he questioned.

Lewis looked at Bailey, hiding a smile. “Oh, shucks. I left mine at the house, dear. You?”

She nodded. “Looks like we’re doing the ole ‘run-like-hell’ method again.”

“Don’t get hit in the head by one of those hail balls, or your hair is going to be a mess,” Pip said lightly.

“Not to mention my brain,” she joked.

There was something about Pip’s light nature that made these missions easier. He took away the edge with his playfulness. She never expected to appreciate such an accomplice, but now she couldn’t imagine not having him there with them, although she was never going to tell the AI that. They wouldn’t hear the end of it.

A loud thump assaulted the top of the ship. Bailey swerved, feeling like she was flying blind, not being able to see the assault coming from overhead. All she could do was fly and dart around the larger balls of hail falling in front of the ship.

“So, Vitos,” Pip began, drawing out the Tuetian’s name. “Is it true that your kind mate while flying?”

He chirped nervously from his seat in the back. “Uhhhh…”

“You don’t have to answer that,” Lewis told him. “Please ignore Pip’s strange nature. We all do.”

“I mean, if you do, and you can’t fly…well, then…” Pip continued, undeterred.

“It’s not a requirement for the mating process, but yes, the act can be done in the air,” Vitos replied.

“Ouch, so it’s probably hard for you to get much action then, huh?” the AI asked.

Bailey rolled her eyes. “Pip, is there anything that is off-limits for you?”

“Your momma,” he answered.

“Well, that’s nice, there’s something that you respect,” Lewis stated.

Pip laughed. “Oh, not your momma, Harlowe. Tell her she left her undies at my place.”

Lewis smiled wide. “Did you say ‘undies’?”

“Do you have a place?” Bailey asked, strangely enough having found a rhythm to flying through the hailstorm all of a sudden.

“Irrelevant,” Pip chirped. “And yes. Panties. Drawers. Skivvies. Does one of those work better for you?

“I prefer ‘underthings’,” Lewis joked.

“How very proper of you,” Pip said. “And your cave is coming up on the left.”

The ice debris knocked against the bow of the Q-Ship, nearly blinding Bailey. However, now that they were closer to the surface of Pochli, she could tell that it was mostly covered in snow and ice. A mountain range ran to the stern side of the ship, all the peaks piled high with snow. To the northeast, a small, square building sat in a clearing. It was so unassuming, Bailey thought for a moment that Jack might have made a mistake. Maybe it’s an abandoned building that the Pochlians emptied when they fled south.

Lewis seemed to be struggling with the confusion, too, as he peered intently at the structure. “There’s something off about it.”

“It’s not touching the ground,” Vitos stated from behind them.

Lewis looked back at him. “You can see that far?”

“Yes, and it appears to be hovering.” He pointed.

Bailey blinked in the direction of the facility. It was hard to tell, since the building was white and so were its surroundings, but there was some sort of visual anomaly.

“That would make sense,” Lewis mused. “How better to avoid the tectonic activity?”

“Not have the facility touch the ground,” Bailey answered.

He nodded. “Exactly. But the outside of the building must be made of something incredibly tough to withstand the storms here.”

“More of Monstre Corp’s magic,” Bailey mused.

She lowered the cloaked ship, pointing it in the direction of the cave ahead. The mountain range shifted, and Bailey swung around, trying to determine what was going on. Then she realized the mountains were rumbling.

She turned to Lewis, and together they said, “Quake.”

“Glad you’re not on the ground right now,” Pip sang.

“Yeah, this place is crazy dangerous,” Bailey agreed, watching as the mountains grew still again.

“Guess what happens here after a quake?” Pip asked.

“Avalanche.” Lewis pointed at a large mountain as the snow on its peak trembled.

There was a loud crack. The snow and ice crumbled like powdered sugar, slipping down the side of the mountain, and crashing down. A cloud of white rose into the air as more snow ran off the peaks. The cave that Bailey had been headed toward was suddenly obstructed by a wall of snow.

She blew out a breath. “Okay, I’m making an executive decision. Pip you’re going to have to keep the ship hovering next to this facility. The cave won’t work.”

“What about the storm?” Lewis asked. “The ship will get hit.”

Bailey pointed to the structure, which wasn’t being pelted with hail. “The building appears fine. Let’s go find out why.”

“I’ve determined that there’s a mostly invisible dome protecting the facility,” Pip stated.

“Well, any ideas how we’re getting through it?” Bailey asked.

“Keep flying in that direction,” he ordered. “I’m working on it.”

“Keep flying?” she repeated. “Like, go straight for the protective dome and possibly ram straight into it?”

“Yep, that sounds good,” the AI answered. “Now shush. I’m doing big-kid stuff.”

Bailey looked at Lewis tentatively. They were quickly nearing the facility. She liked the idea of not having to cross this terrain on foot, but she had no idea how they’d get past an invisible dome. Now that they were nearing it, though, she could see the hail spraying off the protection—which was several yards above the top of the building—and bouncing away, gathering in piles at the bottom. Another quake rocked the land, making everything but the building shift.

“Okay, got it,” Pip said overhead.

“Got what?” Bailey asked, slowing the ship. “How are we getting past the barrier?”

“Keep flying,” he stated.

“But what’s—”

“This is a trust exercise, Lieutenant,” Pip interrupted. “You don’t need to know the how. Just trust me.”

Bailey looked at Lewis, who gave her a reassuring nod. “He’s earned it.”

“Are you sure?” she asked. “He was making rude jokes about your mom a little bit ago.”

Lewis laughed and pointed. “Looks like we’re about to come up on the dome.”

Bailey held her breath. From this distance, she could see the barrier, which looked like a window screen with tiny holes. She couldn’t help but slow the ship, afraid they were about to collide into it.

“Full speed ahead, Lieutenant,” Pip commanded. “We got this.”

She let out a hot breath, and sped the ship up again.

It raced through the surface of the dome, and seemed to get stuck for a moment, like when a shoe steps in gum and is momentarily slowed by the stickiness. Then the ship sped forward, like it had been released from the mess, coming to an abrupt halt over the roof of the small building.

“What was that?” Bailey asked.

“I figured out the security code that Monstre Corp’s ships use when passing through, after I made the well-educated guess that they couldn’t risk bringing down the barrier for each ship,” Pip said proudly.

“You figured it out?” Lewis questioned.

“I guessed,” Pip clarified.

“How did you do that?” Bailey asked.

“I actually put in almost ten thousand options at once. Apparently, one of them worked,” Pip stated.

“What if one of them hadn’t?” Lewis asked.

Pip laughed. “Then we would have some explaining to do when Hatch found out his ship got wrecked.”

“If you can crack security so easily, then why did we have to risk our asses for those codes for the servers?” Bailey asked.

Pip sighed. “The dome has a four-digit security code, hence ten thousand possibilities. However, the databases have a thirty-four-digit code. You can imagine that cracking that would take me quite a bit longer.”

Bailey centered the ship over the top of the building, lowering it until it was only a couple feet off the ground. “Okay, fair enough.”

“That’s what I thought. Okay, we have arrived at Sutra Six,” Pip stated.

“What’s Monstre Corp’s thing with sutras?” Bailey rose and grabbed her weapons.

“Maybe Vance has a strange connection to some sort of philosophy, which he then uses to propel his evil mission,” Lewis guessed.

Bailey nodded. That was the best she could think of, too. They were about to find out firsthand. She looked at Vitos, and then at Lewis. “You guys ready?”

They both nodded, pulling on thick jackets.

“I’ll keep the engine running,” Pip sang. “Don’t freeze your balls off out there.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Sutra 6, Planet Pochli, Cacama System

Man, it’s bloody cold, Lewis thought. All the mucus in his nose had frozen solid as soon as the first cold blast knocked him in the face.

Bailey waited until the hatch door was lowered all the way before stepping forward. She blinked from the rush of icy wind. “Looks like we’re going to have to rappel down the side of the building.

“Riiiiiight,” Lewis said, drawing out the word. “And you do that how?”

She held up a bundle of rope. “You follow my lead.”

Vitos stepped forward and then shrank back. “Cold isn’t really a good thing for my species.”

“Well, be glad you don’t have to fly, then,” Bailey consoled. “I’ll get you guys down this building safely, promise.”

“And then we knock at the front door?” Lewis asked.

They really hadn’t discussed getting into Sutra 6; the facility had been sort of a mystery up until now.

“Oh, sure.” Bailey patted at her gun. “I’ll knock with this.”

Lewis reminded himself that there were servers in this building that held thousands of consciousness. He had no qualms with taking out those who would imprison innocent people. And that was good, because it appeared they were going to have to waste some assholes.

They strode out of the safety of the ship, and the hatch closed, allowing the craft to completely disappear. Although the cold whipped across their faces, they were safe from the pelting of hail overhead, which Lewis was grateful for. The storm hitting the dome sounded like rain beating the metal roof of the barn at Underwood Farm. It had always been a peaceful sound, but under these conditions, it had the opposite effect.

“The good news is that the cameras are all pointed at the ground, so our cover isn’t blown yet.” Bailey pointed her weapon at the corner of the building and fired once, the silencer muffling the sound.

The security camera perched at the edge of the building exploded. Taking her lead, Lewis aimed his own weapon at the adjacent corner and fired. Another camera exploded.

“That should be good,” Bailey decided, strolling forward. “We’ll go down on this side. It’s where I spied an entrance.”

Lewis watched as Bailey secured the rope to the side of the building, anchoring it to a reinforced beam. She checked it several times.

“Shouldn’t we have a harness or something?” he asked.

Bailey smiled mischievously. “We should, but I left mine at home.” She looped the rope under her leg and around one shoulder, holding the tail behind her back, and the front of the rope with her other hand. “We’re using the old-school method.”

“Oh…I’m not so sure about this.” Vitos backed up, shaking his head.

Bailey laughed. “It’s pretty safe, as long as you don’t lose your grip. But there’s definitely no real safety.”

Vitos slung off his coat, tossing it over the side of the building. His wings beat rapidly.

“What are you doing?” Lewis asked.

“I’m going to take my chances with flying,” he answered. “I’ve got roughly a minute before my wings freeze up, so I’ll see you two at the bottom.”

“But I thought you weren’t good at flying,” Lewis asked.

“I’m not good at going up or forward, but I’m excellent at going down,” Vitos said with a laugh. “I’m an expert at it.”

He didn’t even give them a last look as he stepped over the side of the building. He immediately dropped, and Lewis rushed forward in fear. A moment later, the alien rose up, his wings keeping him afloat. He looked over his shoulder, a relieved smile on his face. Then he lurched forward, dropping several feet.

“Get to the ground already,” Bailey ordered in a hush.

Vitos complied, ungracefully dropping several inches at once a few times, until he’d reached the ground. He landed on the frozen terrain with a thud, falling to his hands and knees.

Bailey turned to Lewis. “Okay, my turn and then you. It’s pretty easy. Watch what I do, and you’ll be fine.”

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

Once on the ground, the strangeness Sutra 6 had given off from a distance was explained. It did, in fact, hover a couple of feet off the ground. Lewis assumed that it was due to the same gravitic engines that Starboards Corp used in the base of their headquarters. However, since the building only needed to be held aloft a short height, it didn’t need the K-factor balloon.

“We better get in there fast before another tremor hits,” Bailey said, gesturing to the building.

The guys nodded.

Bailey had definitely made rappelling look easy. Lewis had nearly died upon heaving himself over the side of the building, but caught himself. By the time he was halfway down the side of Sutra 6, he thought he had the hang of it.

He was wrong, and crashed down on the hard ice.

“You all right?” Bailey asked, rushing over to him.

He rubbed his behind where he’d landed on it. It wasn’t a long fall, so he was fine, although his ego was injured. “I’m okay.”

“Let’s get moving.” She pointed to a nondescript door. “There’s the entrance. Looks like we need a security badge or code to get in. Pip, any help there?”

“Yes, I can give you roughly ten thousand codes to try,” Pip answered matter-of-factly over the comm.

Bailey shook her head, pulling her gun from her holster. “Nevermind. That will take too long.” She nodded to the security panel, which was covered in a clear, protective shield.

Lewis strode forward and popped the cover up. The panel included a keypad and an access reader.

When he’d backed off, Bailey lifted her gun, giving Lewis a sideways smile. “I think they are going to know we’re here after this.”

He nodded, pulling up his gun. Vitos did the same at his back. “I’m ready for that,” the detective assured her.

She fired at the panel, and sparks shot from it. Then the door clicked, granting them access. That was the thing about these high security buildings; they always had an override. Hatch had taught them that. It was the simple solutions that worked best.

Bailey pulled the door back, and Lewis was astounded at how simple the next section of the building was. Yes, it was unsurprisingly a white floor accompanied by white walls. However, it was furnished like the trailer on a construction site. There was a small desk in the corner, and a television overhead playing reruns of an Earth show. He thought it might be ‘I Love Lucy’.

The smell of Precious Galaxy Coffee was strong in the air. A cup sat on the desk, steam wafting up from its surface. On the other side of the room was a row of file drawers, their surface cluttered with odds and ends.

Footsteps raced from the hallway on the other side of the rectangular room. “What’s going on?” a man yelled.

He was barely in view when Bailey lifted her gun and shot once. The man flew backward from the attack, hitting the floor and smearing blood on the ground as he traveled.

They quickly checked the small room. It was clear.

Bailey slid up against the wall to the right, and Lewis and Vitos went to the left. When they reached the end, Bailey chanced a look around the corner. Gunshots streaked close by their heads.

Lewis changed the settings on his watch, turning it into a mirror and angling it so he could see. There were two shooters: one low on the right, and one low on the left. He signaled to Bailey, and she nodded. He checked the hallway closest to him. It was clear.

He covered Bailey as she shot at the two shooters, and after one volley, she had them both down.

The area suddenly felt too silent, after the rapid gunfire.

“I say we split up,” Bailey whispered. She indicated to the right. “I’ll go this way and search for the servers. You two go that way and stay on the comm.”

Lewis looked down the long, dark hallway that led to who knew what. He didn’t like the idea of splitting up, but they had limited time and a lot to accomplish. “Okay, but let us know if you find the servers. We’ll do the same.”

Bailey made to nod, but instead her head rotated in a circle, like she’d changed her mind. She withdrew a few of the BCW, the bubble cube wall, devices from her pocket. “Take these, they might be helpful in a pinch. But in most cases, shoot first and ask questions later.”

Lewis took the devices with a wink. “Be careful yourself. You might be a badass, but you’re still human.”

Vitos coughed discreetly. “Which makes me what? A god?”

Lewis laughed, motioning for the Tuetian to follow him. “A giant fly on the wall.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Sutra 6, Planet Pochli, Cacama System

“Do you think the baby will take after me?” Pip asked over the comm.

Bailey halted, an eyebrow arching. She stared down the hallway, listening for noise. “Baby?” she whispered.

“Oh, don’t pretend,” Pip fired. “I overhead you and the detective talking about Liesel. I only pretended I didn’t get the gist. I’m clever like that.”

“I’m kind of busy right now,” she reminded him, sliding up against a wall and checking around the corner. Where is everyone? She expected more people in this facility.

Behind her, she heard a small click. Spinning around, she caught sight of a man stepping into the hallway on the far side. She fired once, and the guy fell to the ground.

“You know, you do remind me of her,” Pip stated, not at all sympathetic to Bailey’s situation of trying to be covert.

“Who?” she asked impatiently, striding over to the fallen man’s body to check the room he exited.

“The commander. Jules,” Pip said, his voice suddenly full of pain. “You don’t put up with bullshit, like her, but also, you don’t take yourself overly seriously.”

“Well, I’ll take that as a compliment.”

She checked the small office where the man had come from. Empty. There were two other offices.

“You should. I mean, it’s why Hatch picked you,” Pip said, his voice a little lighter than before. “So, the baby…”

Bailey kicked the door to the first office open. A man sat at a desk, his eyes widening with horror at the sight of the lieutenant. She grimaced as she pulled the trigger, hitting him straight in the head.

How do these people live with themselves, knowing they are running a prison here?

“What about the baby?” she asked, glad to have Pip to take her mind off the murder she was forced to execute.

“Well, I think it will take after me,” he began. “Have my sense of humor. Maybe my adventurous nature. Who knows what else.”

Bailey shook her head as she eyed the last office in the hallway. She lifted her boot and slammed the door open. Empty.

She let out a breath, striding back the way she’d come. “I’m not sure why you think the baby would take after you. You’re not really involved.”

“You know, I do have feelings.”

“Pip, it’s not your baby,” Bailey reasoned, careful to keep her voice sensitive. The last thing she needed was for the AI they were relying on to get in a sour mood and refuse to help.

“I know, but we’re all a family, so it sort of is,” he countered. “I’ll be like its adopted father.”

Bailey came to where the hallway dead-ended. One last door. She placed her fingers on the handle, and took a deep breath. “That’s true, you’ll have many ways to influence the child.”

“I’m looking forward to having new life on the ship,” Pip decided, a new cheerfulness in his voice.

“Yes, but first we need to get the old life back.” Bailey turned the handle and swung the door open to the last room.

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

It was hard for Lewis to compute that he was exploring a secret facility with an insect-man by his side. He threw a cautious look at Vitos when they came to another bend. The Tuetian had character, and more importantly, he was the curious type. Lewis liked people who were full of wonderment.

He angled his head to the right, indicating that the alien should take that hallway. Vitos agreed with a nod, holding up his strange Tuetian gun. It was bulkier than the weapons he and the lieutenant used, and were apparently not as powerful. However, Vitos said that it worked better for his hands, which were oddly shaped in comparison to a human’s.

Vitos swung out, firing almost at once. Gunshots rang out from the other side of the hallway, and before Lewis could cover him, Vitos had spun around to fire again. He finally lowered his weapon with a proud smile, giving Lewis the all-clear.

Damn, Lewis thought in awe. The gun might not be as powerful, but Vitos was fast and agile with the weapon. That counted for something.

As they approached a set of doors at the end of the hallway, Lewis picked up on a strong chemical smell. It prickled his nostrils, and made him want to cover his face.

“I smell it, too,” Vitos said, watching him. “That isn’t natural.”

A laboratory door sat at the end of the corridor. Lewis checked the offices on the way, only to find them vacant. He assumed most of the personnel were in the lab at the back.

“Put away your weapon,” he ordered, thinking of something Hatch had related about K-factor.

Hatch had told them that the mineral was highly volatile. If that’s what they were manufacturing here, then the last thing his team would want to do is go into this lab, all guns blazing.

Vitos shifted with surprise. “Are you sure? My combat skills aren’t strong.”

Lewis nodded. “I’m sure. Neither are mine, but we’ve got to be smarter than these horses’ asses.”

Vitos agreed, securing his gun in his holster.

“On the count of four,” Lewis said, leaning back on his heels and steadying himself.

“Four? Don’t you mean three?” Vitos asked. “Is that a human thing? We always go on three.”

Lewis winked. “It’s a me thing. I like to change things up.”

“I like it,” Vitos said at his back.

“You take the right. One, two, three, four.”

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

A cold chill knocked Bailey in the face when she opened the door to what she knew now was the server room. The area was dark, but she could see large servers running the length of the space. At the front was a control station and a large screen. Three scientists looked up from where they were huddled around the same workstation.

Bailey fired, killing the first. She needed to reload, but there was no time for that. She holstered her gun as she strode forward. The two remaining assholes froze, panic written on their faces. She picked up the closest scientist, a woman shorter than she was, by the throat, and threw her backward. As soon as her hand was free, she launched a punch into the midsection of the last scientist. He hunched over, but stayed standing.

Picking up a clipboard from a nearby station, Bailey brought it down over the man’s head, sending him to the floor. She caught the woman rising from the ground, pulled her other gun, swung around, and fired. The shot hit the woman in the chest, and she flew back, landing in a heap next to a computer terminal.

Bailey kept her gun up as she searched around the other terminals. There were roughly a dozen in this room.

“I won’t be able to download or transfer the contents of the databases from this many servers,” Pip informed her over the comm.

Bailey let out a frustrated breath. “Then what is our option?”

“We may not need them all; maybe only one, and we can consolidate,” Pip stated. “Link me to the main workstation.”

“How do I do that?” she asked, pulling the chair out from the terminal in the center.

“You have to insert your finger into the main drive,” Pip stated.

She rolled her eyes. “Seriously? You think I’m a moron?”

“Just checking,” the AI said with a laugh. “I didn’t know, maybe you’d fall for that.”

Bailey checked over her shoulder, swearing she’d heard a noise.

“If we were linked, then I could do it by proximity,” Pip informed her. “Since we’re not, you have to insert the chip Hatch gave you into that station. It should give me remote access.”

Bailey did as she was told, listening over the humming of the servers for noises behind her. It was hard to believe that on one or more of these servers, real consciousnesses were trapped. She couldn’t even fathom living inside a database. How strange that must be.

“Okay, I’ll need a minute,” Pip said, code suddenly running across the main screen.

“I’m glad you know what you’re doing,” Bailey said, turning to the large room at her back.

Something didn’t feel right. She’d checked the space, but she still felt like there might be someone there she hadn’t caught. Her hair raised on the back of her neck—a feeling that always told her to be on guard. Someone was watching her. She knew it.

She scanned the area for cameras, but there were none.

“Oh, there you are,” Pip said triumphantly.

“What? What did you find?”

“People…but no one I recognize.” His tone sank with disappointment.

“Keep checking,” Bailey ordered, tentatively taking a step forward.

She peered around the first row of servers. Only blue and red lights blinked back at her.

“Spaghetti and meatballs! There’s someone I recognize,” Pip crowed.

Bailey halted. “Who is it? The captain? The commander?”

“Nah, but I’ll keep checking. There aren’t as many here as I would have thought.”

Bailey nodded. There were four other locations. It was possible that the crew of Ricky Bobby were spread out, or being held somewhere else.

She took another step, peering around a server. It didn’t make sense that someone would be here, yet Bailey couldn’t shake this feeling that she was being watched.

“I can consolidate all these consciousness into one database and put it on a shared server. That’s the safest method for transport.”

Bailey turned her head, thinking she’d seen something out of the corner of her eyes. When she looked, there was only darkness. “How exactly are we supposed to get this server out of here?” she asked.

“I’m working on a strategy for that,” Pip stated.

“And you’re keeping it a surprise, are you?”

“I’m working out the logistics before I unveil my genius plan.”

Bailey hardly heard him. Something had definitely materialized in the room. She caught it in her peripheral. Is it possible that I’m surrounded? It didn’t make sense.

Knowing she had to be fast, she feinted turning to the left, and quickly brought up her gun and swung to the right, catching the entity that was stalking her.

Bailey’s hand shook. Air hitched in her throat. Her mind struggled to comprehend what it was that she’d come face-to-face with.

Chapter Thirty

Sutra 6, Planet Pochli, Cacama System

Lewis tightened his fist as he threw open the laboratory door. To his disappointment, the two scientists in there seemed to be waiting for them.

One threw a beaker at his head, and he ducked. The glass broke on the wall behind him, and a yellow cloud shot up from the ground where the beaker had hit. Acid began eating at the white tile.

Lewis spun around and launched himself at the scientist, who was now empty-handed. He barreled into the man, knocking him to the ground, and punched him in the throat.

Behind him, he heard Vitos struggling. Glass breaking. A man grunting. Wings fluttering.

Lewis was using his knees to pin the scientist’s arms down. He struggled, but was able to keep his hands tight around the man’s neck. He didn’t want to kill the guy, but not because he didn’t deserve it…Mostly, he thought the scientist could come in handy.

When the man started to lose consciousness, Lewis stood and grabbed him by the foot, dragging him to the back where he’d spied a large, walk-in closet, most likely where they kept extra supplies. He pulled the man into the closet and stepped over him, deliberately not shutting the door. Instead he pulled the BCW from his pocket, a black cube that was heavy for its size. He released the safety and pressed the smooth button on the bottom before tossing it on the ground inside the closet. Walls that were refractive like bubbles spread out around the cube as it rose into the air, creating the perfect cage for the scientist who had tried to burn off Lewis’s face.

Vitos was hiding behind a lab counter, ducking to hide from the continuous assault from the other scientist, who kept throwing nearby objects at him. The man picked up a vial of a familiar, yellow liquid. Lewis opened his mouth to warn Vitos, but before he could, the scientist had launched it through the air at him.

Vitos was inches away from being doused in the lethal liquid when he rose into the air; the glass broke under him, in the place where he’d stood. He zoomed forward, his wings steadily carrying him, and dropped down onto the scientist who didn’t have a moment to react.

Vitos grabbed the man by the jacket and shook him. Then he reared his head back and opened his mouth. He lunged, sinking his teeth into the man’s neck—though he didn’t suck or feast. Instead, he dropped the man as quickly as he’d grabbed him, and looked up at Lewis with blood on his face.

“Impressive,” Lewis said, a little grossed out by the sight.

Vitos wiped his mouth with the back of his arm. “It’s a common hunting technique on Tueti. Sever the main artery.”

“Smart,” Lewis said, finally taking a moment to study the lab.

Printed across the back wall were the words: ‘A lie told often enough becomes the truth. – Vladimir Lenin’.

He pointed. “There’s our sutra. Man, Vance is a strange character. The figures he worships aren’t the most notable in human history.”

“It’s true that we can accurately be judged by the ones we admire,” Vitos stated, carefully stepping over a puddle of blood left by the scientist he’d killed.

Behind the almost invisible wall, the scientist Lewis had knocked out began to stir.

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

For a moment, Bailey thought she’d stepped in front of a mirror. That would be the most likely explanation for why a copy of herself was standing only a few feet away. The only problem was that she was holding a gun, and the image was staring at her with her hands by her side.

“What are you?” Bailey asked, noticing that the image of her was transparent.

The imposter raised a hand, looking it over. “Finally, I have a body…well, almost.”

Bailey lifted her gun for emphasis. “I asked you a question. What are you?”

“I’m not a what. Are you the one who trapped me?” the figured demanded, heat flaring across her face.

Wow! Bailey had no idea what a bitch-face she could have when angry. Damn, I look mean.

“It wasn’t me!” she protested.

The figure stepped forward. “Then why are you holding a gun on me?”

“Because you look just like me!” Bailey exclaimed. “How are you doing this?”

“If you didn’t imprison me, then what are you doing here?” the imposter asked, looking around like she was trying to get oriented. Her eyes found the dead scientists.

“Pip? What’s going on?” Bailey asked over the comm.

The figure turned, her eyes widening. “Did you say ‘Pip’? Are you with Ghost Squadron?”

Bailey didn’t know if she should answer or not. Staring at her own image was tripping her out. “Pip!”

“Hey. The transfer is complete. Sort of took my attention there for a moment,” he answered.

“Okay, so do you want to take a second to tell me why I’m staring at an image of myself?” Bailey asked, her gun still pointing at the figure.

“Oh, that’s Penrae,” Pip said, sounding not at all concerned. “She’s the only one from Ghost Squadron that I could locate in the database.”

Bailey squinted at the transparent image. “You’re with Ghost Squadron?”

“Yes, but they aren’t here,” the woman said.

“Why does she look like me?” Bailey asked Pip.

“Ask her where the crew is,” Pip ordered, ignoring her question.

Bailey decided to lower her gun. “Where is Ghost Squadron?”

“They are spread out. Most are in two larger databases,” Penrae answered.

“Dammit!” Pip complained.

“Now someone tell me why you, Penrae, look like me,” Bailey demanded.

“I’m more curious how she’s the only one in this database,” Pip mused.

Penrae looked at Bailey with an amused expression. “Did he tell you?”

Bailey sighed. “No, he’s being a jerk.”

Penrae laughed. “That sounds like Pip.”

“What’s going on? Why do you look like me, and why are you the only one from Ghost Squadron in this database?” she asked.

“The answer to both of those questions is that I’m a shapeshifter,” Penrae answered, her form flickering.

“Of course!” Pip exclaimed. “That makes perfect sense!”

Bailey didn’t get it. “What, so you’ve taken the form of me. Does that mean you’re free now?”

Penrae shook her head, worry growing on her face. “No, and I can’t maintain this shape long. When Pip opened the database, it granted me a new freedom. I found your identity and used it to come out, but I’m not real…not yet.”

“You need a physical body,” Bailey guessed.

“Yes, though because I can shapeshift, whatever happened to us didn’t affect me the same way,” Penrae explained. “I’ve been ghosting through the different databases every time they’re opened for a transfer. Or, in this instance, when Pip accessed them.”

“That’s brilliant!” the AI yelled.

Bailey’s eardrum was assaulted by his excitement. She pulled at the comm as her ear rang.

“Are you here to rescue me?” Penrae asked.

Bailey nodded and then shook her head. “We’re trying, but we still have a lot to figure out.”

“You have a strong body,” Penrae noted, regarding the form she’d stolen. “Do you have a name, new member of Ghost Squadron?”

“I’m Lieutenant Bailey Tennant.”

Penrae smiled wide. Bailey didn’t think her own face had ever given such an uninhibited grin, which made seeing it on the face of her imposter weird.

“Those in this database will be happy to return home,” Penrae told her.

“You’re in contact with them?” Bailey asked.

Penrae nodded. “Yes, but it’s a strange place in the database. It’s cold and dark and you feel like a ghost. We don’t eat or sleep or have anywhere to go. We bump into each other, but most of the ones here keep to themselves.” Penrae stared down at the ground, a longing in her eyes. “It’s very lonely.”

“I’m sorry,” Bailey said, at a loss for words.

“Ask her who these people are?” Pip encouraged.

“First, have you figured out a way for me to get the server and database out?” she asked him.

Penrae seemed to know she was talking to Pip, because she remained quiet.

“Yes, the logistics are nearly complete. I don’t know if it will work, though,” Pip waffled. “How attached are you to the detective? Could we leave him behind, if need be?”

“No, Pip. That’s not an option.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll come up with a plan that involves keeping the detective. What about the alien?”

Bailey shook her head. “We’re keeping both of them.”

“You’re so very ambitious. Fine, fine.”

Bailey lifted her eyes, still startled by the experience of talking to herself. Well…sort of. “Penrae, who are the people in the database? Pip doesn’t recognize them.”

“They are the natives to this planet, the Pochlians,” Penrae answered. “I learned from ghosting through the different databases that they were the first to be uploaded. Monstre Corp made mistakes, though, and not all of them made it, unlike with Ghost Squadron.”

It was good news, that everyone from Ghost Squadron was among the databases, but Bailey was unnerved by the loss of the natives of Pochli.

“How many are in the database here?” she asked.

Pip answered first. “Less than a hundred.”

Bailey swallowed, her eyes off. “And how many were there originally?”

Pip didn’t answer.

Finally, Penrae said, “They’ve lost many. More than any civilization should ever have to endure.”

“All for a damn experiment!” Bailey screamed, heat burning in her head. She was about to continue, but the large screen above the workstations flickered to life, interrupting her.

She stared back at an unkind face. The last time she’d seen that man, she’d had the upper hand. In this instance, she wasn’t so sure.

Chapter Thirty-One

Sutra 6, Planet Pochli, Cacama System

Lewis squatted down, staring at the scientist on the other side of the transparent wall. His knees were folded to his chest, and his eyes were searching the closet. The first thing the dipshit did upon waking up was try and throw objects at Lewis. All his projectiles just hit the wall, and bounced back at the guy’s feet.

“So, here are your options,” Lewis began casually. “You can live in there for the foreseeable future. We can let you out, and you can join your friend here.” Lewis pointed at the dead man on the ground. “Or you can cooperate with us, and we’ll let you go.”

“What do you want?” The man’s eyes focused on the blood puddled around the other scientist.

“Ever hear of kantarium?” Lewis asked.

The man’s cheek twitched ever so slightly, and he shook his head. “No, what’s that?”

“You’re lying, which means that my friend here,” Lewis pointed at Vitos, “is going to sever a major artery of yours. How does that sound?”

Vitos took a step forward, his eyes buzzing with heat.

The scientist shuffled backward. “Fine, what do you want to know?”

“If I wanted to take a sample of kantarium without killing myself, how would I do that?” Lewis asked.

The man’s eyes dropped to the yellow liquid on the ground a few feet away. It was still eating through the floor, sending up mustard-colored smoke.

“Surely, you’re not so stupid as to suggest that I take the liquid form of it,” Lewis stated. “Please remember, asshole, that your life depends on this. Give me the wrong answer, and my friend eats you. Hurt us, and you could stay locked in there forever.”

“Th-th-the mineral,” the man stuttered. “You need the mineral form of it. That’s the most stable.”

Lewis spun around, searching the lab. “And if I was in the market for this rock, where would I look?”

He didn’t need the dumb man to answer him. He spotted a tray of gray rocks that were sitting in yellow dust. He looked at the scientist, who had noticed where his gaze had landed.

“That’s not it!” the man exclaimed.

“Are you sure?” Lewis asked. “Or were you told to protect this mineral with your life?”

“We only have a small store, and my future depends on creating more of it,” the man said, his tone begging.

Lewis shook his head, clicking his tongue. “You don’t get it. Your future does depend on you delivering this mineral, but not to Solomon Vance.”

“He’ll kill me! You don’t understand,” the man howled. “If I help you! He’ll kill me!”

Lewis tilted his head to the side, his curiosity getting the better of him. “Why would you work for someone like that?”

“H-h-he promised to pay us,” the man said. “Better than any job we could get in the Federation.”

Lewis pressed his hands together, putting them to his mouth. So that answered his burning question. Most working for Vance were motivated by greed and their own selfish gains.

He looked at Vitos. “Search for this mineral.” He pointed to the gray and yellow rocks. “We are taking all of it.”

Vitos went straight to work, searching the drawers that lined the wall, finding a few stores of K-factor. “Looks like we’re in luck, boss.”

“No! You can’t do that!” the man yelled.

Lewis turned, facing the scientist. “You don’t get it! You got off easy. You could have shared the same fate as your colleagues.”

The man shivered, shaking his head. “No, they got off easy. You don’t get it.”

Lewis was about to ask him what he meant, when he was interrupted by a transmission over his comm.

“Holmes. There’s a problem,” Bailey said in a rush.

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

The face of Dr. Lukas—or ‘Dr. Ass’, as DJ called the administrator—appeared on the screen.

Bailey froze, suddenly finding her gun useless.

“And so we meet once more,” Dr. Ass said.

“Yeah, sorry we had to leave so abruptly the last time, and skip the proper introductions,” she quipped.

“I know exactly who you are, Bailey Tennant,” Dr. Ass said, leaning in so close, she could see up the guy’s giant nostrils.

“And you’re the soulless jerkwad who experiments on children.”

“How is Dejoure?” The towering figure of the man’s head took up most of the screen, dwarfing Bailey’s in size. “Has she started to get sick yet?”

Bailey rolled her eyes. “Don’t try your manipulation on me.”

“Manipulation?” Dr. Ass asked, feigning innocence. “The subjects in Dejoure’s ward were on a new drug that would help enhance their skills; once it wears off, she’ll go through withdrawals. It won’t be pleasant for the child.”

“He’s lying,” Pip said, but he didn’t sound convinced. “We’ll find out whatever it is. Don’t allow him to get to you.”

That was easier said than done. The way the doctor regarded Bailey made her feel vulnerable, though he was merely on a computer screen.

“And what do we have here?” Dr. Ass asked, his eyes darting to Penrae.

She disappeared at once.

“Oh, well, that’s no matter. Whatever you think you’re accomplishing stops now.”

Bailey laughed. “We’ve already killed everyone in Sutra Six. We’re the ones in control.”

Dr. Ass matched her laugh, but his was full of bravado. “You didn’t really think we’d allow you to stroll into our facility and take what belongs to us, did you?”

“You can’t own people!” she yelled at him.

Dr. Ass shook his head, looking amused. “Of course you can. Everything can be possessed.” He tapped the side of his head. “It’s all about utilizing the right resources.”

“We’re going to rescue the people here at Sutra Six, there’s no stopping us.”

A smile formed on Dr. Ass’s face, but it lacked any joy. “You really don’t get it. A small facility with minimal security on an abandoned planet…Dr. Vance knew that any rescue efforts would start here.”

Bailey’s pulse quickened. She wished Pip would say something to reassure her, but he was deathly silent.

“Sutra Six was a throwaway location,” Dr. Ass continued. “It was our first effort. An experiment. We lost quite a few, trying to figure out how the upload worked, but that’s no matter now. All the kinks have been worked out.”

“Why are you telling me this?” she asked.

Dr. Ass shrugged. “Because it doesn’t matter. We’ve already deployed the self-destruction protocol for the facility. Dr. Vance knew you’d try the codes there. It’s really no loss for us; we’ll lose a little, but we get rid of a pesky nuisance.” Dr. Ass leaned forward. “You have three minutes before detonation. Do say goodbye to Detective Lewis Harlowe for us.” He pulled up his watch and smiled. “I’d do it myself, but it appears you’re out of time. Rushed goodbyes are the worst.”

The screen flickered and then went black.

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

There was a desperate urgency in Bailey’s tone. Lewis took a deep breath, trying to remain calm. He knew that was for the best. So far, they’d completed one of their two agendas. The rest will go smoothly, he assured himself.

“What are you doing? Where are you?” Bailey asked him over the comm.

“I’m in a lab, torturing a scientist, and loading up on K-factor. You?” he replied.

“I’ve located the database, but we have to get out of here, now!”

“What’s going on?” he asked, taking a tray of K-factor from Vitos, as the Tuetian grabbed another.

“Dr. Lukas from Starboards Corp just came on the video comm,” she said, breathing hard. “They’ve initiated the self-destruct for Sutra Six. We have less than three minutes to get out of here.”

Chapter Thirty-Two

Sutra 6, Planet Pochli, Cacama System

“Are you sure this is going to work?” Bailey asked Pip over the comm.

“I’ve run a few simulations, and it has a seventy-two percent chance of success,” Pip stated.

Bailey let out a hot breath. She’d never been a C-student. “Okay, do it!”

“Get back,” Pip warned.

Bailey took cover at the back behind a server. Lewis and Vitos ran into the server room carrying large bins.

“You brought the K-factor with you?” she asked them incredulously.

Lewis had appeared looking proud, but the expression quickly faded as he took in her face. “Either we die, or we get out of here successfully,” he reasoned.

She shook her head, pulling him down and motioning for Vitos to join them. A moment later, an explosion rocked the side of the building.

All three covered their heads and ducked away from the heat.

“It’s already started?” Lewis asked when the explosion died away. “I thought you said we had three minutes!”

“That’s what Dr. Ass said.” Bailey pointed. “We have to wait a few more seconds for the debris to settle.”

“Why did the doctor man tell you that you have three minutes?” Vitos asked. “What’s his incentive?”

“It’s a fear thing,” Lewis said. “It’s better if he makes our last minutes alive tense as hell. Psychological trauma on top of fatal peril.”

“But in this case, it works in our favor,” Bailey said, fanning the smoke away from her face. “We know that we have a little more than two minutes to load that server with the database into the Q-Ship.”

Lewis looked in the direction she was pointing. The Q-Ship lowered down, hovering in view of the gigantic hole in the side of the building. “You want to take our last two minutes to load a giant server into the ship, and you got on me for lugging around the K-factor?”

Bailey sprang forward. “If we don’t, everyone on them will be gone forever. We are their last hope.”

The hatch to the Q-Ship lowered. “You’re going to have to get rid of some stuff in order to make it fit,” Pip yelled from the ship.

Bailey was already on it, unbolting the third row of seats. “Get rid of all of those crates.” She indicated to the hull.

“What’s in them?” Lewis asked, pushing the crates out of the back of the ship.

“Life support crap,” Bailey answered.

“Oh, right,” he said, a laugh in his voice.

“You have a minute and a half,” Pip informed them.

Bailey struggled with the seats, but finally got them unattached. She shoved them in Lewis’s and Vitos’s direction, nearly knocking them over. “That should give us enough room.”

“Which server is it?” Lewis asked.

Bailey gazed in bewilderment for a moment. Everything looked so different after Pip blasted a hole in the side of the building. She blinked, realizing that precious seconds were slipping by. Lights flashed on the front of the closest server not damaged by the explosion.

“That one!” she called.

Vitos and Lewis sped over, grabbing the sides of the giant server. It budged, but just barely.

Bailey sped out of the ship and traversed to the back side. “We’ve got to tip it over.”

She rocked her body weight into the tower, and it tipped forward. Lewis and Vitos caught it before it crashed to the ground, and Bailey picked up the backend and lifted it, her legs automatically moving forward.

Everyone grunted, dragged down by the enormous weight of the server. Bailey knew that nearly a hundred people would weigh a lot more than this, but she never imagined she’d carry this many to safety. She hoped this was a rescue mission and not a death sentence. Her boot hit the ramp of the ship, and she let out a breath of relief.

Only a little farther.

“I’m not sure it’s going to fit,” Vitos stated.

“It will fit,” she encouraged. “Come around here and help me.”

Both Lewis and Vitos joined her in the back. She gave Lewis a worried stare, sweat dripping into her eyes.

“It will fit,” he said, repeating her words.

She nodded. Then she took a deep breath and pushed with everything she had. The server sped forward before quickly getting caught on something.

It was hanging half out of the ship.

“You have less than forty-five seconds,” Pip called.

“Come on!” Bailey yelled. She angled her head down, pressing with all her might.

“We have to go!” Vitos yelled.

“No, if we go now, the server is toast.”

Lewis had said exactly what Bailey was thinking. He grunted, angled his shoulder into the back of the server and pushed. The tower rocked over something on the deck, and then shot forward, clearing the rest of the space.

“Hell yeah!” Pip exclaimed. “Now get your asses in this ship!”

Bailey clambered over the side of the ship, dropping down into the cockpit with Lewis on her heels. She pulled on her belts as the hatch closed, and Vitos slid into his seat. With a single look back, Bailey ignited the boosters, raising the ship into the air. She activated both thrusters.

“This is going to be a bit faster of a takeoff than you’re used to,” she warned them.

“Do what you have to,” Lewis stated, buckling himself in.

Bailey’s head shot back when the ship sped forward, barreling away from Sutra 6. They were at the edge of the dome when an explosion rocked the ship forward.

They continued speeding ahead unharmed, precious cargo safe in the back.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Every time Jack had tried to speak, he’d resorted to shaking his head again. He seemed both elated and distraught.

He finally blew out a breath and looked up at Lewis, his eyes red. “You made it back. That’s what counts most. And you did a damn fine job.” An abrupt laugh spilled from his uncle’s mouth. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. I put you on this case for a reason. I knew it was going to be dangerous, but dammit, you were nearly blown up.” The laughter stopped abruptly. “You almost got yourself killed, trying to get that server in the ship.”

“Jack, you know how I work,” Lewis stated, crossing his ankle over his knee, his argyle socks winking out from under his trousers.

“Hell yeah, I do. You’re your father’s son, through and through. He wouldn’t have left those innocent people behind.” Jack stood, again shaking his head.

Lewis wasn’t sure what the problem was. He’d done his job. Actually, the team had delivered a bit more than they’d bargained for. Hatch was astonished to get such a large supply of K-factor. Not only did he have enough to start the manufacturing process, but there was a sufficient supply to power up the GAD-C.

“Lew, I realize that I send soldiers on jobs all the time, knowing they are risking their lives, but…” Jack gazed at him, an urgency in his bloodshot eyes. “I care about every single person I’ve sent out there to defend the Federation. How could I not? And some, I knew wouldn’t come back, but it was for a greater purpose. Something bigger than me. Bigger than them. It’s never easy to make those decisions. However, today, this all hit closer to home.”

“You’ve never had to send your own flesh and blood out there,” Lewis said, realizing what was going on with this uncle.

“You’re the last surviving piece of your father. My twin.” Jack swallowed, his hands clamping onto the back of his chair. “And one day soon, I’ll have a child. What if they go on to work for the Federation? I hope with every fiber of my being that they will, but what if I have to order them to go out there, knowing they’ll get blown up?”

“Sometimes great soldiers don’t come home; there’s no avoiding it,” Lewis stated, feeling the tenderness of the moment in his throat. “However, today, I came back safely—and not by luck. You taught me. Dad taught me. I returned because I had damn good training. Your child will have that benefit, too.”

Jack let out a breath, hanging his head. “Yeah, you’re right. It’s too early to think about, but still, that’s all that cycles through my head lately.”

“It’s never too early to think about how to best to protect those we love,” Lewis stated.

Whether his uncle could admit it or not, he wanted this child. He just didn’t know how to allow himself to want it. He was probably afraid that the moment he did, some adversary would swing in and snatch away his happiness.

Lewis knew how that felt. Happiness is a trap, and the second you fully embrace it, the dark clouds steal it away.

A knock stole both of their attention.

“Hey, Hatch says he’ll have an update soon,” Bailey said from the doorway.

Jack straightened, faking a smile. “That’s good news.”

“I was hoping to get a report about DJ,” Bailey said, looking between Jack and Lewis, a scrutinizing expression on her face. She knew she’d interrupted something heavy.

“I’m currently analyzing the scans I completed,” Ricky Bobby stated. “I’ve classified the drug she was given, and can confirm that she will suffer withdrawals when it has passed from her system.”

“Can we keep her comfortable through it?” Jack asked.

There was a long silence. “It’s unclear whether she’ll survive the withdrawals.”

“Then we have to find it,” Bailey said with urgency.

“I’m already working on the formula to synthesize the drug,” Ricky Bobby stated. “However, you’ll need someone who is experienced with pharmaceuticals to create it.”

“I know just the person,” Lewis blurted out.

Bailey gave him a careful expression. “Oh? You have experience dealing in drugs?”

“I know some people,” he clarified. “They are used to discretion.”

“How long does DJ have?” Jack asked.

“She’s fine for a few weeks,” Ricky Bobby stated. “It’s important to note that, if we go this route, we have two options. She can continue on the dosage, or take enough to be safely weaned off the drug.”

“Seems like an easy option to me.” Bailey looked between Jack and Lewis. “A child shouldn’t be dependent on a drug. She won’t always be young; we can’t have her dependent on this for the rest of her life.”

Jack nodded. “Yes, a safe withdrawal would be my vote, as well.”

“There’s a catch,” Ricky Bobby said.

Jack’s head rolled down again, his shoulders slightly hanging in defeat. “Go on then.”

“Without the drug, Dejoure will undoubtedly lose all her psychic abilities,” Ricky Bobby stated.

Lewis slid down in his chair. This wasn’t so cut-and-dried, like most things in life weren’t.

Jack shook his head. “Well then, the decision must go to DJ. I refuse to make that call for her.”

“I don’t want to give them up,” Dejoure’s voice sounded from the entrance.

Everyone turned to look at the girl, who was dressed in ripped jeans and a baggy T-shirt. She’d dyed a strand of her black hair pink and purple; more surprising than her individualized appearance was the smile on her face.

“I want to be of help to Ghost Squadron, and I can’t do that if I don’t have my gifts.”

Bailey stood and strode over to the girl, kneeling down before her. “That’s not true. You’re brave and intelligent, and you possess so many gifts.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Dejoure said proudly. “But with my psychic abilities, I’m a super-secret agent. I want to keep them.”

Bailey looked back at Jack and Lewis for reassurance.

Jack cleared his throat. “I said this to Vitos, and I meant it: I won’t force anyone on this crew to do anything. DJ, you’re young, but I’m not in a position to make this decision for you. If you want to stay on the drug, then that’s your choice.”

Dejoure nodded, her smile sparking her eyes. “That’s what I want. And don’t worry, I feel fine. It took the other kids they lost at least three months to feel their withdrawals, so I have loads of time.”

Lewis found himself standing. “What? Are you saying that Starboards Corp intentionally put children through that? Why? To see what would happen?”

She shrugged. “They were test subjects. As were we all. But yes, some were taken off the drug. I guess to see what happened.”

Bailey stood, shaking her head, and giving Lewis a look that he thought he understood. “We’re going to get that drug first, then we’re gonna go after Dr. Ass. He doesn’t get to experiment on children anymore.”

Lewis couldn’t help but smile, although the severity of the moment should have made him tense. That’s exactly what he’d thought the look on Bailey’s face meant. “I completely agree. Starboards Corp has to be stopped. I think it’s time someone popped their balloon.”

“Hatch has asked that I page you all,” Ricky Bobby said overhead. “He thinks he is ready.”

Jack looked at his watch, the one that matched Lewis’s, the one he’d inherited from his father. “In true Hatch form, he’s ahead of schedule.”

Chapter Thirty-Four

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Hatch had celebrated so many accomplishments. He’d built ships, weapons, devices that made holes in space and time. However, there were few things that stacked up to this moment.

He stood back, looking at the GAD-C, allowing a rare smile to form on his face. “What a beauty,” he said to himself.

“I think it needs some fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror,” Pip said overhead.

Hatch rolled his eyes. “It’s not the DeLorean.” He ran his tentacle over the bed of the machine. It was white with blue lights outlining the large surface. Overhead was a series of lasers and lights, all specialized with a technology unlike anything he’d ever created before.

“The DeLorean,” Pip said fondly. “I look forward to taking that baby for a spin.”

“Only once you get a body,” Hatch stated. “And we’ll see about you driving one of my cars. Remember what happened the last time?”

“It was a tiny scratch.”

“Doesn’t matter. Speaking of the DeLorean, I look forward to getting back to that project. The car still can’t get up to the right speed.”

“When will you get back to it?” Pip asked.

“When my apprentice is returned, of course,” Hatch said, pulling his tentacle back from the machine. A rawness covered his insides at the thought of Knox Gunnerson, locked away in a dark database.

“I meant when do I get a body?” Pip asked.

“Oh, of course this is about you.”

“Look, if you make me a body, think about how much more help I can I be to you,” the AI reasoned.

“I can only think of all the trouble you’ll get yourself into.”

“You’re about to make bodies for almost a hundred people,” Pip pointed out. “Why can’t you make one for me?”

“Because they supply the magic ingredient: DNA,” Hatch explained.

“Oh, well, you’ll figure something out,” Pip stated, as the entirety of the crew of Ricky Bobby entered the lab.

Hatch looked at them, for a moment disbelieving that these were the only beings on the ship. Liesel Diesel. Jack Renfro. Lieutenant Bailey Tennant. Detective Lewis Harlowe. Vitos Rigar. Dejoure Flournoy and of course, Harley.

They may not have been a big team, but already they’d made huge strides. Hatch felt pride for the individuals before him. Most would have failed at the obstacles they’d had to face to recover from this tragedy, but not this team. They were honest, brave and smart. He and Jack had done well to pick Bailey and Lewis, and the evidence was before him.

Hatch regarded the server and database that currently housed the consciousnesses of almost one hundred individuals. It was the retrieval of this machine and the K-factor that had made the next steps possible.

“May I present to you all, for the first time ever, the GAD-C,” Hatch stated, presenting the machine with two tentacles. “I haven’t had a chance to test it because there’s only one way to do that.” He picked up seven pairs of goggles, and passed them out to the crew. “Here, put these on.” Hatch lowered a pair over his own head to protect his eyes.

“Do you think it works?” Jack asked, looking over the polished product.

It was quite the beauty, although Hatch already realized he’d have to pare down the design going forward. There was no way that Bailey and Lewis could lug this around to each of the database sites. It was also unrealistic for them to bring back the servers.

No, printing will have to happen on the spot. Hatch laughed to himself. Monstre Corp probably thought they would cut them off by changing the codes to access the consciousnesses. But they were about to have the one and only key they needed to get access to the servers: a single consciousness that had been in all the databases. She alone would hold the access.

“I’m certain it works,” he told Jack. “However, there’s only one way to find out.” He turned three knobs exactly and flipped four switches. “Pip, send through the file for member 001.”

“Sending over file for Penrae,” Pip said exuberantly.

The overhead lights of the GAD-C flashed so brightly that it nearly sought to blind him, even with the protective goggles. The bed of the machine lit up. For a moment, it was too bright to see anything. A loud sound like a train speeding through the ship echoed from the GAD-C. Sparks shot from the side of the machine, which was the size of the server. Hatch waved away the smoke, not fearing this result. There were still bugs to be worked out, but that shouldn’t have significant effects on the outcome.

He stepped forward, four of his tentacles waving the smoke away from the GAD-C. The noise died away, and the lights dimmed.

“Did it work?” Jack asked, lowering his goggles.

“I’m not sure,” Hatch said, and for a rare moment, he was seriously concerned he’d failed.

It wouldn’t be a first, but it would go on record.

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

Bailey coughed from the smoke. It smelled of the strange minerals that Lewis and Vitos had taken from Sutra 6. She observed that Hatch looked more worried than she’d ever seen him.

“Hello? Issss anyone there?” an unfamiliar voice—marked by a hiss—asked.

Bailey found herself moving forward, trying to get a better look. She jumped back when the head of a snake popped out of the smoke. However, Hatch let out a relieved laugh.

“It worked!” the mechanic exclaimed.

Bailey blinked as she caught full sight of Penrae. She was, most straightforwardly put, a giant snake. Her red scales reflected the light, and her green eyes glowed through the smoke.

“I can’t believe it! I have my body back,” Penrae exclaimed, slithering completely off the GAD-C and standing a foot above the rest of them.

Then she cycled through the different people in the room. She shifted into the sweet appearance of Dejoure, and then to Liesel. She flickered into an image of Jack, and then of Lewis. For a brief moment, she took on Vitos’s appearance, and then to Bailey, Harley, and finally, Hatch.

“Thank you!” Penrae said, which sounded strange in Hatch’s voice. “Thank you for rescuing me and getting my body back.”

“If you have your body back, why are you taking on everyone else’s?” Pip asked.

Penrae laughed. “I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I’m just so excited.” She shifted back into her snake form, which wasn’t as menacing, since Bailey had studied up on her.

Apparently, she was of the Saverus race. They had a nice grace to their moments, almost rhythmic.

“Penrae,” Hatch began, an erratic excitement in his voice. “You’ve been in the other databases, right?”

“That’s correct. All five,” she answered.

“Then you’ll be able to tell us who is where?” Hatch asked.

“I can try, although they do move things around.”

“But you’ll have access to them, I assume.”

“Yes, and I can tell you everything that I’ve seen and heard, ghosting through the databases.” She shivered. “Monstre Corp is an awful place.”

Hatch nodded. “What you will offer us will be invaluable. It’s exactly what we need in order to rescue the rest of the team.”

Penrae looked around. “I still can’t believe I’m back. It hasn’t been that long for me, according to what you all told me about the timeline. However it felt like I was gone for decades.”

“Yes, what about the rest in the database?” Bailey asked. “They’ve been trapped much longer.”

“I have enough K-factor to print them, then we will have them returned to Pochli,” Hatch stated.

“It will take a while to rebuild them; getting them back to their lives is only the first part of that,” Jack said.

“It would seem that we still have a huge mission to fulfill, but there’s much to hope for,” Liesel said, taking a step forward. “The GAD-C is going to offer that new hope to those who have been lost.”

“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” Pip sang overhead. “Hold it right there. K-factor could have adverse effects on someone with your condition.”

Everyone froze.

Well, everyone but Hatch, who looked around in confusion.

“Whoops!” Pip said sheepishly.

“Condition? What do you mean? Her motion sickness? No, K-factor wouldn’t have any effect on that, Pip. Now, if she were pregnant…” Hatch trailed off, realization dawning on his face.

Bailey looked around, trying to find a way to escape.

“Hey there, Bailey, you want to go research leads?” Lewis asked, tugging on her arm.

Dejoure clicked her tongue at Harley, encouraging him away. “Let’s go play fetch, boy.”

Vitos offered an arm to Penrae, but then seeing that she had no arms, he lowered it. “May I show you around the ship? My name is Vitos.”

“I used to live here, you know?” Penrae said with a laugh.

Most of the crew had made it to the exit by the time Hatch bellowed, “How many of you knew that Liesel was pregnant?”

Bailey turned to see that Liesel and Jack hadn’t moved. Instead, they were looking quite red-faced.

“Uhhh….” they all said in unison.

“I’m the only one who didn’t know?” Hatch exclaimed, throwing several tentacles in the air.

“Well, in our defense, we were afraid you’d be angry,” Pip said.

“Angry! Angry?” Hatch yelled, his face pink. He puffed out his cheeks, and deflated a bit.

Liesel reached back, taking Jack’s hand.

“Look, Hatch,” Jack began. “I get that the timing isn’t the best, but—”

“The timing! This isn’t about timing!” Hatch exclaimed. “We’ve lost almost everyone on the ship. Angry! I’m not angry. I’m furious!”

One of his purple tentacles extended toward Liesel. She recoiled a bit.

“We’ve lost so much,” he continued, his tone adamant, “and you all dared to keep something worth celebrating from me?”

Liesel let out a breath, a smile sparking out of her laugh as she leaned forward. She took the tentacle Hatch offered her, wringing it sweetly.

“Liesel Diesel, of course the timing isn’t great,” Hatch stated. “But how could you think I’d be mad? I might be a lot of things, but you should know, I do all of this,” he circled his tentacles around, gesturing at the whole ship, “because I value life above all else. After we’ve lost so much, how could I not be happy for you to expand your world?”

Jack stepped up beside Liesel, hugging her tightly as he regarded Hatch fondly. “You know what, I think that’s exactly what we all needed to hear. Me especially.”

Bailey smiled at Lewis. They had a long way to go to rescuing Ghost Squadron, but if the last few days had shown them anything, there was hope.

She looked at Penrae and smiled inside. One down, two hundred and ninety-nine to go until Ghost Squadron was back.



Have you read the Ghost Squadron series from Sarah Noffke and Michael Anderle? Book one is FORMATION and it’s available in ebook, print, and audio at Amazon.

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

Available Now at Amazon

Author Notes - Sarah Noffke Written June 18, 2018

Thank you for reading another installment in this new series! Here’s something I forgot to mention in the first set of author notes: Jurgen Moder named this series. He wanted it to have the double meaning like Queen Bitch has in the German translation. It translates to “Mother of the Night” in English, which has a nice bit of double meaning, much like Precious Galaxy.

I really enjoy having Jurgen’s help. He reached out to me a few times and hopefully he noticed I wasn’t just open to his feedback, but welcoming to it. Since then he’s really become a wonderful help. We discuss story/cover ideas, he comes up with planet/system names, and sometimes he just assures me that I’m not insane (although, I think he’s lying to be nice).

As I wrote this installment in the series, I was reminded that this was the same time last year when I first started writing for LMBPN. I’d written 18 books before then, all on my own. I acutely remember this was the time of year I started writing for LMBPN because I moved my office downstairs due to the July heat. This year, I moved my office to the kitchen table and had a flashback of last year, writing the first books in my Oriceran series.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first started that series, but I knew that I needed to try something new. My solo books were doing well, but managing them and continuing to produce was making me crazy. I was also at a time in my life when I couldn’t afford to be crazy. I’ve said this before, and it deserves to be said many more times: LMBPN makes my life easier. There are certain things I’m good at and certain things I need to work at. However, I read a book this last year that spoke about unique abilities (UAs). The book said that we should work toward a lifestyle where we are putting most of our efforts into our UAs and farming out the rest. I want to believe my UA is writing. Marketing, email management, website building, social networking, etc are all things I can do, but they aren’t in my wheelhouse.

You are wondering where I’m going with this. I’m getting there.

So this time last year, I’m having a conversation with Michael Anderle, which by the way, my daughter keeps trying to come up with a nickname for him. She liked Mr. Tiger, but I told her that made no sense. She then came up with Manderle, but he said that had already been used. Well, we are about being original. So we’re back to calling him Mr. Tiger. I have no idea why she chose that, but as an aside, she calls Jurgen, Mr. Alligator, also for no discernible reason.

And so I digress. Mr. Tiger and I are chatting one morning. Let me back up slightly though. You’re wondering if I understand story structure right now. Bear with me. The day before this phone call was when the divorce for my marriage of 10 years was finalized. In California, divorces take at least six months. Mine took over nine, like an over-ripened baby. My ex-husband, because he was destined to be such, asked me if I’d go to a celebratory dinner to cheers to our divorce. I was like, isn’t that like wearing party hats at a funeral? Anyway, I go to dinner and he tells me a lot of things, but one was that I should rethink this author business since I needed to support myself and our daughter. I’d been doing it for almost a year, but he assumed I was living on fumes and I wouldn’t make it long term as a writer now that I didn’t have his support, especially in Southern California. I left dinner without saying goodbye.

So the next morning, Mr. Tiger calls and we chat for the first time. I’m trying to understand what this Oriceran business is he keeps talking about. Meanwhile my ex-husband starts knocking on my door to apologize for telling me that I’ll go poor writing. I ignored him and gave my full attention to Mr. Tiger and he decided to give me a shot writing for LMBPN. Later, I remembered thinking, my old life was knocking at the door, while a new opportunity for the future was on the phone.

As I said before, LMBPN makes my life easier and a year ago, it did it at exactly the right time. Now I get to focus on my UA, which has made all the difference.

Anyway, I never take for granted the opportunity I’ve been given. I always appreciate the support and encouragement of those at LMBPN, Mr. Tiger’s especially.

Also since we’re talking about safari vehicles, I want to thank Phil Dent for giving me the suggestion of using a LANDROVER Series 2A in the book. It was on a thread of suggestions readers gave me for cars that Hatch has on board Ricky Bobby. I need to run a few new threads of those soon since I’m running low on reader’s suggestions. Always feel free to message me with those ideas. I’m open to hearing them.

Okay, story time is over for me, for the moment. But no worries, here’s Mr. Tiger to tell you a great tale, the best part is the punchline. Oh! And the monkey! Just wait until he gets to the part with the monkey.

Without further ado, Mr. Tiger, ladies and gentlemen.


Check out Sarah Noffke’s Science Friction Werewolf Thriller:

Alpha Wolf, Olento Research Series, Book 1

Investigation: Age Of Expansion

Twelve Men Went Missing

Six months later they awake from drug-induced stupors to find themselves locked in a lab. On the night of a new moon, eleven of those men - possessing new gifts of speed, strength and inhuman powers - break out of their prison and race through the streets of Los Angeles. They disappear one by one into the night.

Werewolves Are On The Loose

Mika Lenna - a powerful dream traveler and head of Olento Research - wants to control the world. To do that, he must create an army of assassins. Capturing the twelve men was easy, as was experimenting on them while keeping them in drug-induced stupors. But now all hell has broken loose - wolf-like men have been spotted across the nation, leaving fatal attacks in their midst. Mike must tear every city apart until his invaluable werewolves are back under his control.

The Race Is On

The Lucidite Institute's main mission is to save the world from injustices. Their best agent, Adelaide Lewis, needs to find these mutated men and protect them and society, and fast. Adelaide realizes that she has to find the Alpha Wolf. Only once she's located him can she stop whoever is behind this experiment to create wild beasts out of human beings.

Alpha Wolf has a taut storyline combined with action-packed scenes. This spellbinding YA supernatural fantasy is a must read for the young and not so young alike.

Get Alpha Wolf here.

Author Notes - Michael Anderle July 23, 2018

First... What Monkey??? (Ok, I’m going to make shit up. I think my collaborator set me up.)

Second, which is usually first, is THANK YOU for not only reading this story, but following us here to the back, as well!

All right, so when Ms. Crockoshite was offering me some advice a few months ago, she offered to provide me with a pet.

I didn’t want a pet. Hell, I didn’t need a pet, but for some reason Crockshite was absolutely, positively sure I did.

Therefore, I did was any decent law-abiding friend does – I totally forgot about her nonsense.

So, when I came home one day, there on my front doorstep was a box.

Not any box. Oh no, this box was that soft whitish-yellow pine with air holes that says "quarantined" or some shit in white letters on a red background. I’ve no idea what it really said because I totally ignored the warning.

What guy ever pays attention to the red stuff? That is absolutely going to get us to "push the red button", ‘"ignore the red tape"… you get the idea.

So, I open this box to find a little guy inside. It had white fur with black fur around its eyes.

An albino monkey…kinda. (Honestly, if I didn’t know better (but I do) I would have said it was a raccoon.) It looked up at me with pitiful eyes and while my lips were pressed firmly together, annoyed, the eyes cut through my hard, tough exterior and melted the little bit of tenderness I had in me.

I picked it up and carried the little bugger inside.

After providing some food for the white fluff tail (bananas, what else?) It got some energy and started exploring.

And by exploring, I mean it started grabbing shit out of the cupboards and flinging them, screeching, and making an insane racket. After it busted two glasses and embedded a shot glass in my TV, I cornered it.

Next thing I know, it raced across the floor, jumped to my leg (DAMN that hurt!) and raced up and stopped, perched on my back.

My eyes narrowed in understanding.

Walking with said monkey still perched, I went into the kitchen, and grabbed the four bananas and an apple (hope monkeys like apples) and went back to the front. I tossed the apple and three of the bananas into the box and then, using the last, teased it from my back into the box.

Two seconds and a bit of cursing later, I had the monkey back in the box.

I wrote “Rejected, Return to Sender” on that box and drove it up to the late-night mail center, sending that monkey back to Crockoshite.

Now, you can ask HER what she did when she received the monkey back.

That night I rested easy, knowing it wasn’t on my back.

Ad Aeternitatem,


(P.S. – We have more stuff coming, including a whole new FUN series which has nothing whatsoever to do with vampires, werewolves, or magic users and will be delivering the goods fall of 2018.)

About Sarah Noffke

Sarah Noffke, an Amazon Best Seller, writes YA and NA sci-fi fantasy, paranormal and urban fantasy. She is the author of the Lucidites, Reverians, Ren, Vagabond Circus, Olento Research and Soul Stone Mage series. Noffke holds a Masters of Management and teaches college business courses. Most of her students have no idea that she toils away her hours crafting fictional characters. Noffke's books are top rated and best-sellers on Kindle. Currently, she has eighteen novels published. Her books are available in paperback, audio and in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.

Acknowledgements Sarah Noffke

Thank you to the readers. Since I’ve entered the world of KGU readers, my life has seriously changed. You all are incredibly supportive, loyal, thoughtful and fun! I have the best times interacting with you and listening to your suggestions.

Thank you to Michael Anderle for being a seriously awesome guy. People say that about other people, but I truly mean it. Michael really wants everyone to succeed and I love writing for LMBPN because of that! And many more reasons.

Big thank you to Jurgen Moders for all the help with this series. He’s the guy responsible for the maps and also for helping me figure out ways around road blocks. Also Jurgen was the first reader and made my editor’s job a lot easier. Thanks for all the help!

Thank you to Jen for doing the edits and keeping me sane. I know I’m supposed to know where commas go, but I seriously forget daily. Thank you to Andrew and Jeff for the cover work. You guys are awesome.

Thank you to the JIT team for all the input. Your suggestions are really great. More than anything, you all help me to sleep at night knowing your keen eyes are catching errors. It’s wonderful having your help and expertise.

Thanks to Craig, Steve, Jami and everyone at LMBPN who makes the books happen. It truly is a team effort.

Thank you to my friends and family who put up with my odd hours. I can’t do this without your support and encouragement. My lovely daughter, Lydia, is my muse. I enjoy sharing with her ideas from the book and she always gives me new ideas for stories.

Thank you to everyone for the inspiration, thoughtfulness and love. A book truly is the accumulation of experiences, poured on to the page and there’s been so many who have been a part of that.

Books By Sarah Noffke

Sarah Noffke, an Amazon Best Seller, writes YA and NA sci-fi fantasy, paranormal and urban fantasy. She is the author of the Lucidites, Reverians, Ren, Vagabond Circus, Olento Research, Soul Stone Mage, Ghost Squadron and Precious Galaxy series. Noffke holds a Masters of Management and teaches college business courses. Most of her students have no idea that she toils away her hours crafting fictional characters. Noffke's books are top rated and best-sellers on Kindle. Currently, she has thirty-three novels published. Her books are available in paperback, audio and in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.

Check out other work by this author here.

Ghost Squadron:

Formation #1:

Kill the bad guys. Save the Galaxy. All in a hard day’s work.

After ten years of wandering the outer rim of the galaxy, Eddie Teach is a man without a purpose. He was one of the toughest pilots in the Federation, but now he’s just a regular guy, getting into bar fights and making a difference wherever he can. It’s not the same as flying a ship and saving colonies, but it’ll have to do.

That is, until General Lance Reynolds tracks Eddie down and offers him a job. There are bad people out there, plotting terrible things, killing innocent people, and destroying entire colonies. Someone has to stop them.

Eddie, along with the genetically-enhanced combat pilot Julianna Fregin and her trusty E.I. named Pip, must recruit a diverse team of specialists, both human and alien. They’ll need to master their new Q-Ship, one of the most powerful strike ships ever constructed.  And finally, they’ll have to stop a faceless enemy so powerful, it threatens to destroy the entire Federation.

All in a day’s work, right?

Experience this exciting military sci-fi saga and the latest addition to the expanded Kurtherian Gambit Universe. If you’re a fan of Mass Effect, Firefly, or Star Wars, you’ll love this riveting new space opera.

*NOTE: If cursing is a problem, then this might not be for you.

Check out the entire series here.

The Soul Stone Mage Series:

House of Enchanted #1:

The Kingdom of Virgo has lived in peace for thousands of years…until now.

The humans from Terran have always been real assholes to the witches of Virgo. Now a silent war is brewing, and the timing couldn’t be worse. Princess Azure will soon be crowned queen of the Kingdom of Virgo.

In the Dark Forest a powerful potion-maker has been murdered.

Charmsgood was the only wizard who could stop a deadly virus plaguing Virgo. He also knew about the devastation the people from Terran had done to the forest.

Azure must protect her people. Mend the Dark Forest. Create alliances with savage beasts. No biggie, right?

But on coronation day everything changes. Princess Azure isn’t who she thought she was and that’s a big freaking problem.

Welcome to The Revelations of Oriceran. Check out the entire series here.

The Lucidites Series:

Awoken, #1:

Around the world humans are hallucinating after sleepless nights.

In a sterile, underground institute the forecasters keep reporting the same events.

And in the backwoods of Texas, a sixteen-year-old girl is about to be caught up in a fierce, ethereal battle.

Meet Roya Stark. She drowns every night in her dreams, spends her hours reading classic literature to avoid her family’s ridicule, and is prone to premonitions—which are becoming more frequent. And now her dreams are filled with strangers offering to reveal what she has always wanted to know: Who is she? That’s the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out. But will Roya live to regret learning the truth?

Stunned, #2

Revived, #3

The Reverians Series:

Defects, #1:

In the happy, clean community of Austin Valley, everything appears to be perfect. Seventeen-year-old Em Fuller, however, fears something is askew. Em is one of the new generation of Dream Travelers. For some reason, the gods have not seen fit to gift all of them with their expected special abilities. Em is a Defect—one of the unfortunate Dream Travelers not gifted with a psychic power. Desperate to do whatever it takes to earn her gift, she endures painful daily injections along with commands from her overbearing, loveless father. One of the few bright spots in her life is the return of a friend she had thought dead—but with his return comes the knowledge of a shocking, unforgivable truth. The society Em thought was protecting her has actually been betraying her, but she has no idea how to break away from its authority without hurting everyone she loves.

Rebels, #2

Warriors, #3

Vagabond Circus Series:

Suspended, #1:

When a stranger joins the cast of Vagabond Circus—a circus that is run by Dream Travelers and features real magic—mysterious events start happening. The once orderly grounds of the circus become riddled with hidden threats. And the ringmaster realizes not only are his circus and its magic at risk, but also his very life.

Vagabond Circus caters to the skeptics. Without skeptics, it would close its doors. This is because Vagabond Circus runs for two reasons and only two reasons: first and foremost to provide the lost and lonely Dream Travelers a place to be illustrious. And secondly, to show the nonbelievers that there’s still magic in the world. If they believe, then they care, and if they care, then they don’t destroy. They stop the small abuse that day-by-day breaks down humanity’s spirit. If Vagabond Circus makes one skeptic believe in magic, then they halt the cycle, just a little bit. They allow a little more love into this world. That’s Dr. Dave Raydon’s mission. And that’s why this ringmaster recruits. That’s why he directs. That’s why he puts on a show that makes people question their beliefs. He wants the world to believe in magic once again.

Paralyzed, #2

Released, #3

Ren Series:

Ren: The Man Behind the Monster, #1:

Born with the power to control minds, hypnotize others, and read thoughts, Ren Lewis, is certain of one thing: God made a mistake. No one should be born with so much power. A monster awoke in him the same year he received his gifts. At ten years old. A prepubescent boy with the ability to control others might merely abuse his powers, but Ren allowed it to corrupt him. And since he can have and do anything he wants, Ren should be happy. However, his journey teaches him that harboring so much power doesn’t bring happiness, it steals it. Once this realization sets in, Ren makes up his mind to do the one thing that can bring his tortured soul some peace. He must kill the monster.

*Note* This book is NA and has strong language, violence and sexual references.

Ren: God’s Little Monster, #2

Ren: The Monster Inside the Monster, #3

Ren: The Monster’s Adventure, #3.5

Ren: The Monster’s Death

Olento Research Series:

Alpha Wolf, #1:

Twelve men went missing. Six months later they awake from drug-induced stupors to find themselves locked in a lab. And on the night of a new moon, eleven of those men, possessed by new—and inhuman—powers, break out of their prison and race through the streets of Los Angeles until they disappear one by one into the night. Olento Research wants its experiments back. Its CEO, Mika Lenna, will tear every city apart until he has his werewolves imprisoned once again. He didn’t undertake a huge risk just to lose his would-be assassins. However, the Lucidite Institute’s main mission is to save the world from injustices. Now, it’s Adelaide’s job to find these mutated men and protect them and society, and fast. Already around the nation, wolflike men are being spotted. Attacks on innocent women are happening. And then, Adelaide realizes what her next step must be: She has to find the alpha wolf first. Only once she’s located him can she stop whoever is behind this experiment to create wild beasts out of human beings.

Lone Wolf, #2

Rabid Wolf, #3

Bad Wolf, #4

Books By Michael Anderle

For a complete list of books by Michael Anderle, please visit:

All LMBPN Audiobooks are Available at and iTunes

To see all LMBPN audiobooks, including those written by Michael Anderle please visit:

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