Book: Determination: Age Of Expansion

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Determination Precious Galaxy Book Three

Sarah Noffke Michael Anderle Craig Martelle

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Determination (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, August 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

Determination Team

Thanks to the JIT Readers

Peter Manis

James Caplan

Mary Morris

John Ashmore

Kelly O’Donnell

Cathy Gibson

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



Determination: Age Of Expansion

Chapter One

Solomon Vance’s Private Office, Monstre Corporation Headquarters, Planet Carina, Aurelis System, Precious Galaxy

The forest wasn’t a place of peace for Solomon Vance. He’d heard many speak of finding themselves when in proximity to nature. That was ludicrous. The notion that one could ‘find’ themselves was preposterous. There was no self to find. Creatures were all connected by star dust and other forces, and Solomon was that much closer to proving it. Not that he’d ever tell anyone once he’d proven this and assimilated hundreds of consciousnesses. That would forever be his secret.

Finally, after thousands of trials, he had successfully combined two consciousnesses. Adding a third, though, had proved problematic. Deadly, actually, for the test subjects. Still, he was that much closer to having the smartest computer in the universe, owned and operated by the fastest, strongest processor known to man: the human brain.

Solomon’s eyes swiveled away from the forest lying just beyond the bank of windows in his office. He hadn’t built the headquarters to his most prized company, Monstre Corporation, in the Chumash Forest because he found respite among the trees. He did it for practical reasons: he liked the privacy. That was exactly the reason that this office, where no one in the building was allowed but him, was his favorite place.

His eyes landed on the quote written across the far wall, the one he often read while sitting at his desk: “‘He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.’ - Adolf Hitler.”

He had many favorite quotes by that dictator, but this one had to be his favorite. Those words were what had inspired Solomon to build the monster. And now he owned more than the youth; he possessed a large population of minds.

“Those who own the greatest minds, gain the future,” Solomon said to himself, his voice echoing in the mostly empty office.

“Dr. Vance, I apologize for interrupting,” Dean, his AI, said overhead.

“Go on, then,” Solomon ordered.

He had known his private moment alone with his thoughts wouldn’t last for long. There were too many projects in the works. Too many that were nearing completion.

“Dr. Lukas would like to speak with you.”

Solomon let out an impatient breath. “Put him through.”

The screen hovering above his desk, seemingly suspended by nothing, flickered to life. The long face of the doctor stared back at Solomon. It had been many years since he’d seen Alan Lukas in person. The last time had been when he’d put him in charge of Starboards Corp and cut all ties to the company, or so it should have appeared. Solomon didn’t want to be traced back to the things he’d put Alan in charge of. He didn’t have that same fear at Monstre Corp; he was too removed from Federation law to be caught or punished.

“The agents from Ghost Squadron have escaped from Sutra Six,” Dr. Lukas said, his tone rising as he spoke. Solomon could hear the panic.

He shook his head and lowered his chin. “I told you that they weren’t my concern.”

“But that was when you thought that they’d be blown up when we detonated the building,” Dr. Lukas argued. “Now they’ve gotten away, and we don’t know what they took. What if—”

Solomon held up a hand to stop the constant babbling. Yes, he’d thought that the monster had uploaded everyone on Ricky Bobby. It had at first been frustrating when he learned that Dr. A’Din Hatcherik had escaped the monster, but worse was that he’d trapped it. That was no matter, though. The monster got away, and those remaining on Ricky Bobby were so few. They would try and come after him, as he’d seen, but there was no way they would succeed. They were simply outnumbered in force, prowess and numbers.

After a long pause, Solomon said, “They have the locations for the databases, you said.”

Alan nodded. “Yes, and they have the codes. I think we should change them. Possibly move the databases. We can’t risk—”

Solomon shook his head, cutting off the other scientist. “I have no plans to do any of that. We don’t run from ants, Alan, we squash them.”

“But, sir, they managed to break into Starboards’ headquarters and also Sutra Six.”

Solomon’s eyes narrowed. “I let them into Sutra Six, knowing we were going to blow it up. You are the fool who allowed them to trespass into Starboards.”

“I realize that I’ve made mistakes with security,” Alan said in a rush. “I figured that, due to this headquarters’ location and deceptive qualities, it wasn’t necessary to have many more security measures.”

Solomon sighed. He’d given Starboards Corp a floating building that was camouflaged in the sky, and still, Alan had messed things up. “We are going forward as arranged. Changing codes would stall our plans. As for changing locations, that’s out of the question.”

“But what are you going to do when Ghost Squadron tries to break into another database location?”

Solomon felt the wicked smile break across his face. “I’m going to be prepared for them. I’m not running from these pests, I will ensure they are taken out on their next attempt. Then we will no longer be concerned about their interfering.”

Alan nodded, an unsure look on his face. “That’s a good plan, but—”

“Dean, disconnect vid comm,” Solomon said, interrupting Alan.

“Yes, sir,” the AI replied, and the screen went black.

Solomon strode for the door, his pulse beating harder, as it usually did just before he entered the room he was now headed for. “Dean, deploy a fleet of combat pilots to Makare and the surrounding area in the Hapeti system.”

“I calculated an eighty-seven percent chance you would make that decision, based on the current threat,” Dean stated. “I will enact defense protocol alpha now.”

Solomon wished that Alan could be as competent as the AI, but that’s where human error came into play. One human was prone to mistakes, whereas hundreds, maybe even thousands of consciousnesses, would behave much like an AI—only better. It wasn’t artificial intelligence. It was real.

When Solomon reached the unmarked white door, his chest tightened with anticipation. The rush was always the same. “Dean, open the door.”

At the conclusion of his sentence, the door slid back to reveal a solid white room. Solomon stepped forward, and the door shut behind him. The material of three of the four walls, as well as the floor and ceiling of the space, were made of a unique carbon-polymer material that conducted electromagnetic energy.

The special wall construction ensured that the monster didn’t enter Monstre Corp headquarters, where it might become disoriented and upload employee’s consciousnesses by mistake. The reinforcements kept the creature caged while it was home. However, most of the security measures weren’t necessary, since it followed every order Solomon gave. He was, in a way, its father, its creator.

Solomon stared around the all-white room, waiting for the monster to reveal itself. First came the loud humming, like that of an engine starting. Then the area in the corner filled with what appeared to be gray smoke, the density intensifying moment by moment. Solomon’s heart beat faster, but he kept his chin raised and his face neutral.

The monster rose off the ground, like an animal getting up after a nap to greet its master. Sparks began firing inside the monster as its color darkened, making it appear almost like a black cloud.

Solomon looked up at the monster, marveling at its appearance. It could expand to cover a great area, or shrink down small to fit into a room this size. It was the most changeable beast, with the ability to do one unimaginable thing: it could steal consciousnesses.

The monster roared with what Solomon interpreted as anticipation. The creature could understand him, but, for all his trying, he didn’t understand the strange noises his invention made. He’d programmed it, though, so he knew what it would say if words were available to it: ‘Yes, master. How may I serve?’

“I have a job for you.” Solomon looked up as the monster reared overhead, its outer edges unfurling like plumes of smoke. “You are to go to Sutra Seven on planet Makare in the Hapeti system. Stay vigilant for intruders. Only upload those not associated with Monstre Corp.”

The different lights buried deep within the monster glowed at once, seemingly in response to the order.

Solomon remained frozen as the biosynthetic machine floated closer, nearly grazing his face. Yes, he knew the monster could upload him. Take him. But that would never happen; its programming prevented it. Since its inception, Solomon had told the monster one thing over and over: ‘You can upload all but me. My control of you is absolute.’

The words that inspired this method came back to him then: “‘Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they’ll believe it.’ – Adolf Hitler.”

“Dean, release the barrier,” Solomon ordered.

A buzzing sound that he had barely registered over the noise the monster made fell away. The creature inched forward, nearly touching Solomon’s upturned nose.

“It is time. Go and follow my orders,” Solomon barked, his voice clear and loud.

The roar of the monster increased. Its black form spread, clouding Solomon’s vision like he’d stepped into a pitch-black room. He didn’t move, although something inside him squirmed. He didn’t blink, although his eyes were drying out from staring up.

And then, quite gracefully, like a storm cloud moving over a great land, the monster pushed backward, sliding through the solid exterior wall, out into the Chumash Forest and away.

Chapter Two

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

The GAD-C made a sound like a train was racing through the middle of the ship. Hatch tapped three of his tentacles on the side of the machine, growing restless from the process. When the body of an older man with long sideburns and brown hair materialized on the bed of the machine, Hatch diverted his eyes, extending one tentacle holding a white robe in the man’s direction. He had seen enough naked humans that day to take his appetite away for life.

“Mr. Brian Pinnacle,” Hatch began, his tone rehearsed. “You are aboard a battlecruiser. You will be assigned housing here on Ricky Bobby until transport can be arranged to your home planet. If you should need anything specific, our AI can assist you.”

The man lifted his arms, looking at them with shock. He pressed his hands to his face, his mouth hanging open. “I’m…I’m real.” Looking around, he shrank back when he caught sight of Hatch on the other side of the GAD-C.

Hatch sighed, bored of having the same reorientation speech with every single person. “Yes, we’ve printed you a body that is genetically identical to your previous one, although some aspects might be different due to environmental factors. This one is at optimal levels.”

The man laughed, sliding off the bed of the GAD-C. “I’d say so! I used to have quite the gut.” He slapped his flat stomach and chuckled again. “I haven’t looked this good since my teens.”

“Well, keep in mind,” Hatch began, “that you are now subject to environmental factors again, so if you eat like you used to and don’t exercise, you’ll go back to looking and feeling like you did.”

Liesel stepped forward, holding a stack of folded clothes. “What the doctor is trying to say is that you’ve been given a fresh start.”

Hatch rolled his eyes. She was the charming and sensitive one on the welcoming committee.

Mr. Pinnacle stared around the ship and took the clothes from Liesel. “I…I…was in the strangest place. It was like a dream.”

“Yes, there are many of you on the lower deck,” Liesel explained. “I’m holding a few support groups this evening, if you’d like to join.”

“Support groups? Others?” Mr. Pinnacle questioned, seemingly locked in a daze.

Liesel smiled. “Yes. It will take some time for you to understand what’s happened to you, but we’re all here to help.”

“I printed you a brand new body,” Hatch grumbled. “I think my job is done.”

Liesel led the man to the exit. “Try to take it slow. You’ve been through a big ordeal, but cosmically speaking, you’re about to have an evolution. In many ways, you have a fresh start.”

The man halted abruptly. “Greg? Is Greg here? My brother…”

“If he is, we’ll connect you two,” Liesel assured him.

Hatch hadn’t printed a Greg Pinnacle yet, that much he knew. He searched through the database…. There was no one by that name. Hatch’s mouth tightened. It was most likely the brothers’ consciousnesses were stored together and therefore Greg’s was probably gone. Another consciousness Vance lost doing his experiments. He uses people like they are matches.

“Mr. Pinnacle, I’m Ricky Bobby and I’ll lead you to your quarters,” the AI said overhead.

The man looked up, staring around like he was afraid he was hearing voices in his head. “Oh, this is all quite strange.”

Liesel patted the man on the back affectionately. “Things will get easier, I promise.”

He nodded and disappeared through the exit.

“This is taking forever,” Hatch said under his breath, turning his attention back to the GAD-C.

“I could make your job easier,” Pip sang overhead.

“If you only had a brain,” Hatch teased.

“If I only had a body,” Pip corrected. “That guy got one, why can’t I?”

“That guy has DNA,” Hatch stated.

“Small detail. But seriously, if you print me up a body, I’ll take over for you. It would free you up for other projects.”

Liesel’s bangles made a clanging sound as she approached. “I think Pip is right.”

Hatch spun to face her directly. “What have I said about encouraging the AI?”

“That she should do it because I’m good for morale?” Pip pretended to ask.

Liesel pointed to the shielded wall they’d created specifically for her when the GAD-C was being operated. “We both know that I can’t keep hanging out on the other side of that wall when you’re printing the bodies. Not as my pregnancy progresses. We don’t know if it will be safe, and too much exposure to radiation is a risk I’m not comfortable taking.”

Hatch nodded. The barrier protected Liesel from the radiation, but with the number of bodies they needed to print, the protocol wasn’t efficient. In truth, Hatch knew that long-term exposure could be problematic, even for him. However, if he created a body for Pip, something biosynthetic, the AI wouldn’t have the same health concerns.

He prepared to print another body, this one for a Keith James. There were so many more. This was taking longer than he thought, and keeping he and Liesel from other projects that needed their attention.

He let out heavy breath and started the process. “Yeah, I’ll consider it. For now, get behind the barrier, Liesel Diesel.”

Chapter Three

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Lewis was glad he didn’t have a fear of snakes, as he watched the Saverus slither back and forth across the oriental rug. According to Jack, Penrae was different than many from her race. The shapeshifters were considered secretive and devious, but Penrae had shown loyalty to Ghost Squadron, which was why she’d been adopted as part of the crew during a war against her kind.

“I don’t know where to begin,” Penrae said, hissing at the end of her sentence. “Being in the database was like living in a dream. It was hard to make sense of the world, and even harder for most to control.”

“But not for you?” Jack asked, leaning back in the armchair, his hands steepled in front of his face.

Penrae shook her giant serpentine head. “My shapeshifting abilities made it so I could ghost through the system without needing a specific form.”

“But I thought no one had bodies in the database,” Bailey questioned.

“They don’t,” Lewis said, answering for the Saverus. He’d been confused on this point too, and therefore had questioned Hatch about it at length. “They are tied to their DNA, though, which, in essence, is their physical makeup while in the database.”

Penrae nodded. “Exactly. Most were confined due to this, their mobility limited to certain files. However, since I’m a shapeshifter, it allowed me to move between files and databases.”

Bailey stood out of Penrae’s path, her eyes roving around the room as she thought. “The idea of people being stored like this is so bizarre. What is Vance’s goal? Is it just a prison?”

Penrae halted, her green eyes glowing in the dim office. “That’s what I thought at first. Once I started investigating, I borrowed certain identities so I could progress through the databases. That’s when I stumbled upon Vance’s main goal.” Penrae’s forked tongue slipped out of the front of her mouth, her gaze falling to the floor. “Since the others were confined, I took it upon myself to visit as many as possible every day. The loneliness one feels in the databases is hard to describe. There’s no pleasure. No daily satisfaction. Just endless hours alone with your thoughts.”

“The worst solitary confinement one could consider,” Jack stated, grinding his teeth together.

“Yes, even taking a small meal or sleeping breaks up the time, but with no physical body, these actions aren’t necessary,” Penrae explained.

“It’s perpetual dreaming,” Lewis summated.

Penrae agreed with a nod, a cold haunting look in her eyes. “But I started noticing that the databases were changing. People I knew how to find had disappeared.”

“Those from Ghost Squadron?” Jack asked with an urgent tone.

“No, these were people I’d met while in the database,” Penrae stated. “One day, I was visiting someone when their file was accessed.” She indicated to Bailey. “Similar to when you accessed the database, this gave me the ability to take a ghost form in the physical realm. I wasn’t allowed out for long, but it was enough to see what Vance was doing with their consciousness.” Penrae paused, seemingly trying to collect herself, her voice growing with tension. “He was trying to consolidate consciousnesses.”

Lewis leaned forward, tilting his head to the side. “What? Like he’s copying one person into another?”

Penrae shook her head and then corrected herself by nodding. “I don’t really understand the right way to explain it. Vance said something about compressing all the minds into one, but I don’t understand why he’d want to do that.”

Jack stood, his eyes buzzing with sudden unrest. “Of course. Having all those people at his disposal is a great resource.”

“We figured he was collecting great minds,” Lewis mused.

“Yes,” Jack agreed. “However, you’d have to know which one to access for each specific need. But, if you take thousands of consciousnesses, possibly millions, and consolidate them into one, then it would be—”

“The most powerful computer ever created,” Bailey said, finishing his sentence.

“You mentioned that people were disappearing,” Jack said, his attention back on Penrae.

“Yes, that’s the worst of it,” she answered. “I only saw one experiment, the one time I found myself in ghost form outside the database, but….”

Lewis didn’t need Penrae to continue to know what happened. “He lost them trying to consolidate them.”

Penrae looked relieved not to have to say those words aloud. She nodded.

“How many will he spare for his science experiment?” Bailey asked bitterly, her fist by her side.

“This is no normal experiment for Vance, I fear.” Jack strode for his desk on the other side of the room. “A computer of this magnitude has far-reaching potential. It would be worth it to Vance to lose hundreds or thousands in order to get what he wants.” He sorted through various files on his desk, seemingly looking for a particular one. Then he stopped abruptly. “The captain and the commander? Were they lost?”

Penrae shook her head, making Jack relax at once. “No, from what I can tell, Vance was experimenting with what he called ‘level one’ consciousnesses.”

“The mine workers from Phoenix Tech, possibly,” Lewis guessed.

“Yeah, and others Vance wouldn’t consider as having much to contribute to his super computer,” Bailey stated.

“Do you know where the captain and the commander are being held?” Jack asked.

Penrae’s large head slipped down several feet until she was hovering close by the ground. “I don’t know for certain. They were moved several times. Every time I’d go to look for them, they were gone, but I always found them again, except the last time.”

“Don’t worry,” Jack said, since Penrae looked close to lying her head on the floor in defeat. “That’s in line with what we learned. We believe the commander, at least, has been transferred to five different databases.”

“The captain was always kept with her,” Penrae told them.

Jack held up a file folder. Lewis marveled at how his uncle was still endeared to paper; it was something that he shared with Lewis’s father. The two actually loved all things old school: paper, record players, analog clocks, and a fashion that died out at least a century ago. Lewis had always appreciated his father’s and uncle’s fondness for such things, which was why he was presently wearing pinstriped trousers and a three-buttoned vest, despite Bailey’s constant teasing.

“The closest and most logical database for us to visit is Makare,” Jack said, tapping the file.

“Would you like me to set course for that planet?” Ricky Bobby asked.

“Yes, we’ve got to try and get ahead of Vance,” Jack said with a determined expression in his eyes as he looked at Bailey and Lewis. “Which means we need to know where that monster is located. It’s the one major advantage he has over us.”

Lewis popped up from his seat, looking at Bailey eagerly. “Sounds like we need to round up our favorite adolescent with unique abilities.”

Chapter Four

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

Hatch eyed Harley with a ruthless stare. The two always seemed to be skeptical of each other. Harley probably watched the mechanic because of his ornery demeanor, which was the opposite of the good-natured dog’s. And Hatch probably eyed Harley because he was worried the canine might take a bite out of him.

Bailey hadn’t had a chance to ask Harley directly. Lately the dog had been glued to Dejoure’s side, which seemed to make the young girl happy, and therefore made Bailey happy.

She pulled her attention away from the two facing off and focused on Dejoure. Lewis was also quietly studying her. The young girl was sitting nervously on a stool, twirling her black and pink hair around a finger.

“Okay, try and relax, and this will go by faster,” Hatch ordered.

Harley barked once at him, rising anxiously off his front legs.

“Oh, he means well,” Dejoure said to the dog, patting the side of her leg. Harley dutifully hurried over, taking his spot next to her.

Hatch regarded the dog and then Dejoure with a frustrated expression. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Harley thinks that you’re a bit demanding of me, but he’s only being protective,” Dejoure explained. Her interpretation of Harley’s actions was guesswork since, unlike Bailey, she didn’t have a chip that allowed her to communicate with him.

“Demanding?” Hatch nearly yelled. “I value your talents more than anyone, but I don’t much care for coddling. Is that what your hairy bodyguard would like me to do? Coddle you? Or can I get this rolling, so we can move on to more important things?”

Harley lowered his head onto his paws, his eyes cast downward. The dynamics of the crew was highly interesting to Bailey. She’d been a part of multiple families. The one she’d been born into as the oldest of four girls. The one she’d elected to be in with hundreds of other soldiers. And now this one. Somehow, this one felt closer knit, but maybe that was because of the stakes. Or maybe it was because they were all the same at their core.

Everyone on Ricky Bobby needed this mission. They needed an excuse to exist away from the masses. Bailey studied Lewis. He especially needed this, but she wasn’t sure why yet. For Bailey, she still felt claustrophobic when she thought about her family. The obligation to stay home when the world was unfolding around her, while her sisters were spilling milk on the floor or fighting over dolls or bath order.

Dejoure unhurriedly leaned over and patted Harley on the head. When she straightened, she gave Hatch a firm expression that spoke of a wisdom and maturity Bailey had never seen on such a young face. “I’m ready when you are, Doctor.”

Hatch puffed out his cheeks, and two of his tentacles reached forward, pulling one of his rolling workstations toward him. “The monster,” he began, orienting himself in front of his computer and beginning to type, “should still be carrying the tracker that the lieutenant and the detective placed inside of it. That tracker belongs to me, and I need you to locate it.”

Dejoure pressed her eyes shut. She’d tried to find the tracker several times, but had never been successful. However, she had been working with Liesel, doing meditation practices that were supposed to help her concentrate. They were trying to counter the effect of the drugs in her system from Starboards Corp running out. The longer she went without a dose, the more unlikely it was she would be able to use her ability to locate missing objects or people. More importantly, the longer she went without the drug, the more danger she was in health-wise.

Dejoure’s eyes popped open. It always startled Bailey to see them up close, one green, the other brown. As if in a trance, Dejoure slid off her seat and hiked in the direction of the exit. Harley rose and followed her. Bailey looked at Lewis and Hatch, unsure what to do. After a moment, she started off after the girl, the other two following.

“What did you see, DJ?” Hatch asked, hurrying.

Dejoure didn’t answer. She continued down the long corridor, her head low, like she was trying to keep something locked in her mind while she walked, similar to trying to remember a string of numbers and not allow anything to knock them out of memory.

Bailey only gave Lewis a questioning look as they pursued the dog and the girl. They passed several main areas, and only when Dejoure made an abrupt turn did Bailey realize where she was headed.

“The bridge,” she said in a hush.

Picking up speed, Bailey passed Harley. She was side by side with Dejoure when they rounded onto the bridge. Bailey’s pulse quickened, and she knew what would be waiting for them before she saw it.

In time with Dejoure, she halted. The young girl held up a finger as the others rounded the corner behind them. Through the viewing windows of the bridge, Bailey could clearly see the black mass that was moving like a cloud, soaring in the opposite direction.

“There,” Dejoure said, her voice a hoarse whisper. “There’s the tracker… and the monster.”

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Everyone froze. Bailey threw her arm protectively over Dejoure, trying to shield her.

Out the window, lurking in the distance, was a sight Lewis had hoped never to see again. The black monster pulsed like it was breathing hard from a sudden adrenaline rush. Tendrils extended from it like arms, reaching in all directions.

Behind the monster, the small planet of Makare could be seen.

“Ricky Bobby, confirm that the ship is cloaked,” Hatch ordered, his eyes wide and focused on the monster.

“Affirmative,” Ricky Bobby answered.

“We can’t take any chances, get us as far away from that thing as possible,” Hatch bellowed.

“It’s not coming for us,” Lewis observed, taking a step forward when the others were backing away. He pointed. “It’s headed to Makare.”

Bailey stepped up beside him, her eyes as wide as Hatch’s, although not quite so bulbous. “Just like we are.”

“It’s going to protect the database there, I bet,” Lewis said.

Bailey agreed with a nod. “Which is going to make our job a whole lot harder.”

“Even at a distance, the K-factor is affecting the cloaks and shields,” Ricky Bobby stated.

“I thought you said the cloak was up,” Hatch said.

“It is, but it’s weakening,” Ricky Bobby amended.

“Then we need to get the hell away from that revolting thing,” Hatch exclaimed.

Lewis blinked, noticing something materialize around the monster. Several somethings. Little black ships. “It looks like the monster is traveling with companions.”

“Wow, those are some beautiful ships,” Bailey admired, leaning in closer.

“Ricky Bobby!” Hatch yelled. “Why aren’t we moving away from the enemy?”

“There’s a problem. We must have been traveling beside the monster for quite some time,” Ricky Bobby explained. “We were cloaked, and the monster’s form wasn’t visible until a moment ago when it was joined by Monstre Corp ships.”

“What are you saying?” Hatch grumbled.

“We’ve been exposed to more D-factor than I was initially aware of,” Ricky Bobby stated. “The engines have stalled.”

“Dammit, that monster is a curse!” Hatch spun for the exit, hurrying as he spoke. “I’ll get right on the engines. Have Liesel join me. We need to get out of here in case the cloaks come down. The battery backup won’t hold them up for long.”

Lewis watched the monster and the fleet of ships. They were so close and yet, as long as they stayed hidden, Ricky Bobby was safe. “Why aren’t the Monstre Corp ships affected by the D-factor?” he wondered aloud.

Hatch shook his head. “The smaller ship’s engines can withstand it. For some reason I haven’t figured out, Ricky Bobby is particularly vulnerable to D-factor. If I wasn’t so busy with the GAD-C then I could have investigated this more.”

Dejoure stepped up to the window and put her hand against it, a strange look of awe on her face. “So that’s it…? The thing that took the crew?”

“And a lot of other people and aliens,” Bailey stated, watching Dejoure with mild interest.

“It’s sort of beautiful,” Dejoure observed.

Lewis nodded, having thought the same thing. “Yes, like a thundercloud.”

“So, is it alive? Can it feel?” she asked.

“It’s a machine,” Bailey answered.

“But it’s also more than that,” Lewis allowed. “The monster may not have a consciousness, but it is alive in a sense.”

“You said that it followed you,” Dejoure stated, recalling the story they’d told her about when they’d tricked the monster to go out the airlock. “A computer wouldn’t fall for bait, would it?”

“If its orders were to upload all consciousnesses, it would,” Bailey stated.

Lewis regarded Dejoure with a thoughtful stare. “What are you thinking?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem simple enough to be only a machine. When I was looking for the tracker, I sort of saw into the monster. It is complex, but not like a computer, more like a human.”

“AIs are complex, too, but they aren’t human,” Bailey pointed out. “Pip epitomizes that.”

Lewis laughed. “He sure does. He told me that he’s going to counseling to deal with his ‘emotional problems’.”

Dejoure didn’t seem to think this was funny, based on the scowl she gave Lewis. “He has feelings like us, and he lost the person he was closest to, the one who made him feel almost human. Commander Fregin was his partner. How would you feel if something happened to the lieutenant?”

Lewis blinked rapidly, not having expected the sudden scolding. “Well, that would be horrible. I’m not trying to minimalize Pip’s feelings. I apologize.”

“I think he acts out,” Dejoure continued, “but deep down, there’s really a loving and wonderful being at Pip’s core. If we nurture the things we like about him, those things will grow, and soon he’ll mature into someone he can be proud of.”

This wasn’t the first time that Dejoure had spoken so wisely, like someone five times her age. Bailey smiled proudly. “I couldn’t have put that better myself, DJ. You’re absolutely right. Maybe we can help Pip by being a better friend to him and not encouraging his bad behavior.”

Lewis didn’t know what to say. Pip was playful and fun, and for an AI, he was young. It seemed strange to try and push him into maturity, but he wanted what was best for the team, and that meant having reliable crew members.

Bailey lurched forward, an urgency to her movement. “The ships are turning around!”

Lewis saw immediately what she meant. The Monstre Corp ships had stopped their progress to Makare and looked to be headed back their way. Even more concerning was the proximity of the monster.

“Ricky Bobby?” Bailey called. “The cloaks?”

“They are up,” the AI answered. “However, they might have flickered for a moment. The K-factor is having an assortment of effects on the ship, and I’m having difficulty maintaining all systems currently.”

“Then we’re sitting ducks if they discover our location,” Bailey said.

Lewis pointed at the fleet surrounding the monster. “And it appears they have.”

Bailey sprinted for the exit. “Stay here and let me know when the engines are back up.”

“Where are you going?” he called after her.

She paused, her face flushed with adrenaline. “I’m going to get Vitos.”

Chapter Five

Ricky Bobby, Nearby Planet Makare, Hapeti System

I’ve either lost my damn mind or I have a death wish, Bailey thought to herself.

In the Black Eagle, she could outrace the monster and those shiny ships of Vance’s. Well, she hoped she could. And the Dragonfly was agile and fast, and Vitos was an excellent flyer. It made sense to her that the two of them should run interference to give Hatch time to make the ship repairs. However, her heart had leapt into action while her mind was still weighing the options.

Maybe this is what being part of a real team feels like. A family that doesn’t hesitate to make sacrifices for each other.

“Van Gogh, do you read me?” Bailey asked over the comm, as the Black Eagle streaked though space, gliding like a bird unfurling its wings after a long night in the nest. Beside her, the Dragonfly flew, Vitos shielded by the reflective covering on the single flyer.

“Van Gogh? Who’s that?” Vitos responded.

“It’s your handle. Well, the one I made up,” Bailey answered. “Van Gogh was one of the most famous painters on Earth. He was known for his post-impressionist work and, after his death, his paintings were sold for ridiculous amounts of money.”

“I don’t paint for money,” Vitos said, sounding slightly offended.

Bailey laughed, enjoying the rush as their ships neared the approaching fleet and monster. She strangely wasn’t nervous. Although she wasn’t sure what Monstre Corp’s ships could do, she knew that she and Vitos could handle it. Or so she strongly hoped, anyway. “No, I know you don’t. But Liesel showed me some of the paintings you did, and your style reminds me of Van Gogh, so that’s your handle.”

“I think you’ve paid me a very high compliment. Thank you, Ladybug,”

“I absolutely have,” Bailey admitted.

“Why is your handle ‘Ladybug’?” Vitos asked.

She remained quiet for a moment.

“Holmes here,” Lewis said over the comm. “I’ve figured out why your captain gave you that name.”

“Or so you think,” Bailey said with a laugh. “I have no doubt that you have, Detective, but we have to discuss that later. We’re approaching enemy ships. Those babies are even more gorgeous up close.”

“And fast!” Vitos said.

“Not faster than us. No way they could be, with all that armor. Okay, we’ve got to draw them away from Ricky Bobby,” Bailey stated. “Follow my lead.”

She banked the Black Eagle hard when the ships were as close as she dared to allow them. Vitos copied her move seamlessly. She tossed the ship in a different direction, and he followed, like a beautifully rehearsed synchronized dance.

The enemy ships swerved, nearly turning on a dime, following after Bailey and Vitos, closing in on them fast.

“They took the bait,” Lewis stated.

“Yes, they did,” Vitos said, his voice quavering a bit.

“Don’t fret, Van Gogh,” Bailey said, positioning herself for a quick turnaround. “I’ve been dying to see what sort of weapons you have on the Dragonfly.”

“Can you use another expression?” Lewis asked.

“Sorry, I’ve been antsy to see your weapons. Not dying. Definitely no dying happening here.”

Something struck the port-side wing, momentarily throwing the ship off balance. Bailey corrected, finding an opening between two enemy ships and slipping through to avoid more attacks.

“Speaking of dying, looks like Monstre’s ships want to take us out. And here I thought we were going to sniff each other’s butts.”

“I’m almost certain that Harley wouldn’t approve of that reference,” Lewis stated.

“Get an upgraded chip, and you’d know exactly what Harley thought of that joke. He loves my humor,” Bailey said. “Van Gogh, you ready to turn this business around on these guys?”

“Yes, the strategy, as we discussed,” Vitos said.

“On the count of three,” Bailey ordered, loving being back in her element. She felt born to lead, as she was born to fly. “Get as much distance as you can on these jerks. Ready? One, two, three.”

On her command, both ships flipped around, spraying heavy fire at the fleet of shiny flyers. The monster behind them swirled like a mass of sparks and clouds, and the shots ricocheted off the ships as the enemy barreled in their direction.

“Okay, that didn’t work out so well,” Bailey reported. “What the hell? Those were direct hits and they didn’t even make a dent.”

“I’ve got a special cannon I can try,” Vitos stated. “It’s new and untested, but it is supposed to vaporize ships at close range.”

“Sounds great!” she exclaimed.

“Sounds dangerous,” Lewis said, his tone cautious. “What did Hatch say about using untested tech?”

“That we shouldn’t do it unless being pursued by a fleet of indestructible ships,” Bailey sang, pretending to ask.

“Yep, that’s exactly what he said.” Lewis agreed, seeming to have loosened up a little.

“Okay, here it goes.”

A moment later, a blast of light shot from Vitos’s ship, connecting with the closest enemy and sending it barreling into two more behind it. The three erupted in a glory of sparks and explosions. The remaining ships paused, trying to decide if they were going to be next and possibly also surprised by the Dragonfly’s mighty expression of power.

It might look pretty, but that small ship is dangerous, Bailey chuckled to herself. “Nice one!” she cheered. “Can you do that again? This time aim at the monster!”

Warning alarms sounded over Vitos’s comm. “I can’t. It appears the ship is overheating.”

“Hence the untested part,” Lewis said dully.

Bailey was glad that he didn’t get uptight under pressure. One had to maintain their head when in battle, and humor was the best way to do that.

“Okay, get out of here. I can hold these guys off on my own.” She released a round of fire, aiming for the back of the ships, before changing directions and kicking it into high gear.

The fleet, probably not wanting anything to do with the Dragonfly that had incinerated three ships, stayed back, not even chasing after her. Vitos was making progress back toward Ricky Bobby, but Bailey was unsure what she should do.

“What’s the status of the engines?” she asked.

“They aren’t up yet,” Lewis answered.

“Dammit!” she yelled.

Monstre’s ships weren’t following her, which made her fear that they’d go in the direction of Ricky Bobby. They could fight the flyers, but if the monster got too close, everyone would be gone. Who would rescue the rest then?

“What’s your plan?” Lewis asked, seeming to guess that Bailey was quiet because she was working something out in her head.

“I’m thinking I should use this opportunity to find out if my assumption is correct,” Bailey stated, heading in the direction of Makare’s atmosphere.

“Which is?” Lewis asked.

“That they don’t want us anywhere near this planet.”

Sure enough, seconds later, a barrage of fire streaked past Bailey’s Black Eagle.

“Okay, well, there’s the confirmation.”

She jinked the ship back and forth, thankfully not getting hit. So far, she’d deduced that, although Monstre’s ships were tough, they weren’t as quick or nimble as hers. She made fast progress, putting quite a bit of distance between her and the fleet.

“Dammit, Ladybug, the monster is right behind you!” Lewis yelled.

Bailey held her breath. “Where did it come from? I thought it was behind the fleet.”

“I don’t know. It was,” Lewis stated. “You’ve got to change paths. Get out of there!”

The blackness that had nearly swallowed her up before reached around the ship, its long tendrils wrapping around the wings of the Black Eagle. Bailey activated the turbo thrusters, her last hope of outracing the monster. She pulled up hard on the controls, taking the ship away from Makare and hopefully away from the monster.

Streaks of fire shot around her, but they weren’t aimed at her ship; they were being fired at the monster and the ships behind it. In the distance, she spied two Black Eagles racing in her direction, firing on either side of her, holding the monster off.

“Who is that?” Bailey asked.

“Figured you could use some back up,” Pip said over the comm. “When Vitos returned, I thought maybe I’d tap him out of the fight and take my own turn.”

Vitos laughed. “But I didn’t want to be left out of the fun. Hadn’t had my fill yet, so we came to bail you out of trouble.”

“Thanks, your timing couldn’t have been any better,” Bailey said, guiding her ship to join the other two.

“Speaking of timing,” Lewis began. “Hatch says the engines will be ready to go in one minute. Get back here, all three of you.”

“You got it, detective,” Bailey said, racing her Black Eagle back to Ricky Bobby.

It may not be as beautiful as Monstre’s ships, but it could outfly them any day.

Chapter Six

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

When Lewis found himself in Jack’s empty office, he was glad he’d arrived before the others. At first, he considered making himself a drink to calm his nerves, but that wasn’t the best solution to his stress, and he knew it.

He ran his fingers over the spines of the vinyl record sleeves, looking for a particular one. When he’d located the Beatles’ album, Abbey Road, he slipped it from the stack. The smell of old dust hit his nostrils. The album was in mint condition, like everything Jack owned. His uncle took a unique pride in his possessions.

Lewis set the album onto the turntable, the process feeling almost meditative. He lifted the arm and set the stylus on the first groove. The music that filled the air immediately melted away his tension. Sliding down into one of the leather armchairs, Lewis tilted his head back and closed his eyes.

Bailey running off to serve as a distraction and nearly getting herself blown up had stressed him out more than he would have thought. That vulnerability he felt from being part of a team had returned, like he’d had before when he worked with Melanie. Working alone was easier because he didn’t have to worry about anyone else. The irony was that he’d risked everything to try and protect Melanie and, in the end, she had been the real threat.

“Hey,” Bailey called, pulling Lewis out of his reverie. He cracked one eye and looked out at her. “Where’s Jack?” she asked.

“He said he’ll be here in a minute,” he stated. “He’s running a bit late.”

Bailey nodded, her eyes skipping over to the record player. “Good song, I’ve never heard it on vinyl. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a vinyl record. Heard of them, though.”

“They have a different quality than other formats. A pureness.” He sat up, giving Bailey a once-over. She didn’t look like she’d just returned from a near-death mission where she’d almost been uploaded by the monster. “So, your handle, ‘Ladybug’…”

“You think you’ve figured it out?”

“I know I have,” he said confidently. “Ladybugs are considered to be extremely lucky, they’re cannibals, and they are misnamed, but none of those reasons explain why it’s your handle.”

“Glad you didn’t take me as a cannibal,” Bailey said with a laugh. “And they are misnamed?”

Lewis nodded. “They are actually beetles, not bugs. More appropriately, they should be called ‘Ladybeetles’.”

“Well, these guys aren’t beetles, but they have the name.” Bailey indicated to the record player.

Lewis laughed before he continued. “I’m guessing that your captain named you after the beetle because they are a predator. In my research, I discovered that a single ladybug can take out fifty insects in a day, five thousand in a lifetime. Their appearance, therefore, is quite deceptive. Most think the spotted beetles are cute, but they are dangerous killers in the bug world.”

If Bailey was impressed, her expression didn’t give it away. “Your research has paid off. You got it exactly right.”

Lewis rolled his hand in front of him and lowered his head slightly, bowing. “Why thank you. Mystery solved. Give me another one.”

“Actually, I took the liberty of doing my own research. You see, there was a mystery that was bothering me.” Bailey took a seat on the couch, resting her elbows on her knees and leaning forward slightly. “You appear to thrive as a detective, and yet before this, you gave up that work to be a farmhand. That didn’t sit right with me.”

Lewis closed his eyes for a beat and let out a breath. Of course her curiosity got the better of her. It was only a matter of time. He’d dismissed her questions about his past, but he’d always known she could find out on her own. What others thought was the truth was public record.

“So, do you still want to work with me?” he asked her bluntly.

Bailey batted her eyelashes and leaned back, surprise on her face. “You think I believe that you’re a fugitive who stole the largest etheric diamond ever to exist? Come on now, Harlowe.”

“Well, that’s what most believe. All the evidence pointed to me,” Lewis said.

“Also, to further prove your innocence, you weren’t rolling around in a ton of dough when we first met.”

Lewis laughed. “No, horse shit mostly.”

She smiled. “The ironic part is that if you were on the case, the truth would have come out. But it appears you had to make a run for it before you could clear your name.”

“Oh, I tried to clear my name. I sank everything I had into the process until I was in debt, owed more favors than I could pay back in a lifetime, and was exhausted.”

“And Jack couldn’t save you?”

Lewis shook his head. “There was a conflict of interest. He was in a different position then. I asked him to stay out of it.”

“And then you ran like hell.”

“Well, to be honest,” Lewis began with a slight smile. “I’ve always had an obsession with farms and ranches. I indulged my curious nature when job hunting.”

“And meanwhile, Melanie made it away with the diamond.”

His stomach tightened at the mention of his ex-partner’s name. They’d been recruited by a high-profile client, Harrison Gringotts, to find the diamond. He was one of the wealthiest investment bankers in the Federation, and the diamond had been stolen from his vault.

It didn’t take Lewis long to track down the stone, but when he confronted the thief, things escalated faster than he could process. Fearing that Melanie was about to get shot, Lewis pushed her out of the way, taking a near-deadly fall off some scaffolding. Lying on the ground of a broken-down warehouse, with a broken ankle, he looked up at his partner, hoping she’d help him up. Instead, Melanie shot the thief, stole the diamond and set fire to the warehouse, leaving Lewis for dead. He crawled to safety, but only barely.

Shocked by the deception, he pursued Melanie, but never got close enough to finding her. She was always ahead of him. When the diamond was sold on the Dark Web, all the rumors stated that it was Lewis who had sold it. The funds were even briefly wired to his account, but he didn’t know it until they’d been moved again.

Harrison, having connections with the bank, learned of this and came after Lewis. Within a day, there were several hits put on Lewis’ head. Explaining his case to Harrison was useless and he knew it. Melanie had thought of everything.

The worst part was that she’d been planning it since the beginning. Lewis had trained her to be the very best. Then she’d turned that skill on him, executing the perfect crime and pinning it on him.

Lewis pursued her until he couldn’t any longer. There were several hits out on him, and he’d already lost it all. With his reputation ruined, he retreated to Ronin, where he could go unnoticed and shovel shit, while secretly plotting how he’d one day punish Melanie, if he ever got a chance.

“That bitch got away with everything,” he concluded through clenched teeth, coming back to himself.

“And apparently she’s lost it all again, otherwise why would she have been on Gamble station,” Bailey said, shaking her head. “I’m not surprised, scoundrels like her can never hold on to money.”

Lewis stood and strode over to the decanters on the side table. Maybe he did want that drink after all. “I’m not sure she’s lost it all. Maybe she has… It’s a lot to lose, though.”

“Then why do you think she was asking about Monstre Corp in the Prickly Cactus?”

Lewis held the decanter of bourbon out to Bailey. She nodded in response, and he poured two glasses. “I’ve been wondering that ever since you told me about your conversation with her. Monstre Corp has a strong hold in this galaxy; the only corporation that holds more power is Precious Galaxy Coffee.”

“Well, let’s start with what we know about Melanie,” Bailey suggested, taking the glass Lewis offered her.

“She’s a thief,” he stated.

“A thief who is probably running low on funds and looking to do another job.” Bailey took a sip. “And it’s is very likely that there’s something of great value located at one of the Monstre Corp locations.”

Lewis lifted his glass, but then lowered it, shaking his head. “It doesn’t make any sense. There’s no way that Melanie is out of money. She could have bought several planets and still had enough funds to last several lifetimes.”

Bailey let out a breath, swirling her drink in her hand. “Well, I don’t know, but if you want my help looking into all this, I’m more than willing.”

Lewis paused just as he was about to take a drink. “You want to help me clear my name?”

“Look, you weren’t straight with me, but I can’t really blame you. If I’d lost everything I’d worked for and had to go on the run, I would be pretty untrusting, too.” Bailey sort of smiled and looked off in thought for a moment. “Actually, you not telling me everything from the beginning probably worked in your favor. I got to know you. Trust you. So when I uncovered your dark secret, I knew none of it could be true.”

“I think it’s easy for those who truly know you to figure out you didn’t do it, but unfortunately, all the evidence says you did.”

“Yes, but Gringotts didn’t know me. Only my reputation,” he said.

“But I know you. And I want to help you clear your name, because we’re friends.” Bailey finished her drink and set it on the table. “But also, I want to do this because I signed on to fight for justice, and what Melanie did to you was despicable, and she needs to be punished.”

Lewis stared down at his own drink, which he hadn’t yet touched, just as the song “Come Together” finished playing. He never thought he’d have a partner again, not after what happened with Melanie, but he was suddenly grateful for the strange surprises that life had thrown at him. For the first time in a long time, he saw a sliver of a life where he could show his face freely in Federation territory. He’d all but given up hope, but looking at the determination in Bailey’s eyes, he felt that a long-ago wish might still come true.

“Thank you. I would appreciate the help,” Lewis said, finally taking a sip. “And since we’re already investigating Monstre Corp, we might be able to kill two birds with one stone.”

Jack cleared his throat by the entrance to his office, gaining both their attention. He smiled genuinely at Lewis. “I’ve been trying to help you clear your name from the beginning.”

His nephew shook his head. “And I’ve been telling you since then that you can’t get mixed up in this. It’s better not to draw attention to the fact that we’re related. I’m a fugitive.”

“You think it’s best for me,” Jack said, striding farther into the office, his eyes resting appreciatively on the record player.

“You still have a reputation, one that shouldn’t be tarnished by trying to bail me out of this,” Lewis argued.

“You know I’m a very powerful man who can’t lose my reputation so easily, right?” Jack asked. “I have the general on speed dial.”

Lewis shook his head, amused. “No one says ‘speed dial’ anymore, Jack.”

“My point is that I’ve always been in a position to help you, and yet—”

“You’ve respected my wishes when I asked you not to,” the detective said firmly, cutting him off.

Jack opened his mouth to say something, but closed it, only shaking his head.

“I appreciate it, but if anyone is going to save me, it has to be me,” Lewis decided. “I can’t have my powerful uncle, high up in the Federation, bail me out.” He shot Bailey a grateful look. “However, if my partner wants to help me investigate on the side, I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

Jack let out a sigh of surrender. “Okay, I get it, Lew. And I actually respect the hell out of you for not wanting my help. It’s honorable that you want to clear your own name.”

“Well, and also strangle Melanie with my bare hands,” Lewis added with a wink.

“All in good time,” Jack said, agreeing with a nod. “Right now, we’ve got to focus on Vance. He knows we’re onto him. Losing our mystery has seriously cost us an advantage.”

“Yes, they are guarding Makare fiercely,” Bailey stated.

Jack nodded again. “And I suspect the other databases, as well.”

“So, what’s the plan?” Lewis asked.

That’s what his uncle was great at: plans. He was the best strategist the Federation had, but Lewis was, admittedly, a little biased.

“I don’t have one,” Jack said at once and, upon seeing the look of surprise on Lewis’s face, added, “Not yet.”

Lewis set his drink on the table, no longer interested in it. He needed his head clear rather than his tension eased.

“I need some time to consider our options,” Jack began. “In the meantime, I want you two working on formulating the drug that DJ needs to survive. Lew, you said you had a contact that could make it if we provided the formula?”

“Yeah, I do,” he confirmed. “There’s a guy named Vernon on Onyx Station who keeps a low profile. He has a lab, and makes drugs with no questions asked.”

“How exactly do you know this Vernon?” Bailey asked, a teasing quality in her voice.

Lewis cut his eyes at her. “I threatened to expose him if he didn’t give me information on a case I was working years ago.”

“So you can’t be the one to get the drug from him,” she said with a laugh.

“No, but I know how to find him. It’s not easy, though.” Lewis gave Jack a meaningful expression. “And I know the people he works the hardest for. The ones that can get him to do quick jobs.”

“Which means our shapeshifter will come in handy,” Jack said, getting Lewis’s drift immediately.

“Do you think Penrae will agree to do it?” Bailey asked.

Jack nodded at once. “Penrae wants to help in any way she can. She’s brave and resourceful, and we’re lucky to have her on the team.”

“Okay, then it looks like we’re headed over to Onyx Station,” Lewis said to Bailey. “Will you drive?”

She was about to answer him when Jack cut in.

“Yes, I want you three together on this—it’s an important mission, and DJ’s future depends on you being successful—however…” Jack paused, a sobering ache in his eyes. “Lew, be careful. Get Penrae in there and keep your head down. If you don’t want me bailing you out, then you’d better not get yourself caught.”

Chapter Seven

Deck 31, Onyx Station, Paladin System

“You know,” Bailey said, unable to suppress the grin on her face, “you’re not wearing that fedora, it’s wearing you.”

Lewis pulled the black hat down, covering his eyes more. “Ha-ha. I get teased for wearing a hat, even though she’s got a shark’s face.” He pointed to Penrae on the other side of him.

Bailey leaned forward to look around Lewis at Penrae, who had taken the form of a Trid they’d encountered on their way into the station. It was the identity she needed in order to get into the next place, according to Lewis.

“She wears it well,” Bailey decided. “Blends in. You, on the other hand, look like a guy who is trying to hide something.”

Lewis pulled up the collar of his wool jacket, hiding his face more. “Just the fact that I’m a fugitive. And if you look around, a lot of these guys seem like they are trying to hide something.”

Bailey agreed with a sneer, staring at the hoodlums passing them. “That’s what you get on these lower decks—lowlifes who the Federation has to clean up after and keep from spoiling everything for everyone else.”

“Do you miss it?” Lewis asked, referring to the job Bailey used to have, policing Onyx Station.

“Only at night, when there’s nothing else to do and the rest of you are sleeping,” she joked.

“I know, us lazy mortals have to sleep sometimes.” He indicated a narrow passageway that ran between two stalls, which were run by shifty, nearly toothless characters.

Bailey never would have seen the alleyway if Lewis hadn’t pointed it out, hence the reason he had to come along. His photographic memory not only made him an excellent detective, but also incredible with finding things. “You sure you’ll be safe in this place you’re taking us to?” she asked, scanning their surroundings.

“It’s called a safehouse, so yeah, I think I’ll be all right.” He led the way, squeezing between the two stalls and keeping his head down. He actually fit in better that way; everyone here seemed to be hiding in their own way.

Apparently, this safehouse on Onyx Station was where Lewis had hidden out while he tried to pull leads together to follow Melanie. The guy that ran the safehouse, Tomas, was apparently close with Vernon; a drug request coming from him would be taken seriously and expedited.

“It’s really not me that I’m worried about,” Lewis said in a hush, sliding through the cramped passageway. He had to turn sideways to fit through.

Bailey turned back to Penrae, who was getting stuck several times trying to negotiate down the corridor. “Pen is doing all right. It’s going to take her a little bit to get to the other side, though.”

Lewis turned back, a smile on his face. “I wasn’t meaning Pen.”

Bailey’s mouth popped open. “Me? Why are you worried about me?” She could have cleared that passageway in seconds or even scaled the walls. She didn’t know why Lewis would be concerned about her.

“Because you’re too polished, with that hair and face,” he answered. “You look like a do-gooder.”

She looked down at her black combat suit and shrugged. “Sorry that I brushed my hair. If it helps, my fingernails are sort of dirty.”

“It doesn’t,” Lewis replied.

She let out a breath. “Fine. When we get to an open space, Pen, I’m going to need you to punch me in the face. Rough me up a bit.”

“I’m not sure I can do that,” she said in a hush.

“Even if I insult your mother?” Bailey asked, as they continued down the alleyway.

“Us Saverus aren’t close to our mothers. They abandon us at birth, actually.”

“Dammit. Well, do it as a favor to me. As a friend.”

“I’m afraid I might hurt you, though,” Penrae said in a low voice.

“I’ve been punched by more than one Trid, and it never hurt, but it did leave a mark, which is what I’m counting on.”

“You’re going to get a shiner in order to keep your cover?” Lewis asked, looking impressed as he glanced back at her.

“Hell yeah. I’ll heal, and if I don’t, I’ve been wanting a scar for as long as I can remember,” Bailey stated. “Maybe something right above my left eye.”

He chuckled. “You know, you’re all right, Tennant.”

“For a fugitive, you are too, Harlowe.”

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Lewis should have been surprised that Bailey didn’t even flinch when Penrae brought her massive Trid fist across her face. However, Lewis’s stomach clenched, and he sprang forward to catch Bailey.

She didn’t need his help, though. Standing steadily, she held her hand up to her lip, and her eyes lit up. She pulled her hand away and spit. Blood oozed down from her cracked lip, which was already swelling.

“Nice, the lips bleed something awful. Good call, Pen,” she praised. “Give me another one.”

Lewis stepped forward, blocking them. He shouldn’t have allowed it in the first place, but Bailey could be adamant. “I think that’s enough.”

“Thank goodness,” Penrae said with audible relief. “I couldn’t do that again. I’ve never hit a friend.”

Bailey smiled. “But because you just did, you probably saved my butt, so thanks, friend.”

“Life is ironic,” Lewis said dryly, hurrying around a corner.

He pointed to an unmarked door in the distance that didn’t stick out among the other boarded up doors around it. Peeling paint and the smell of rotten fish spoke of the area’s neglected nature. The passed-out man in front of the door reminded Lewis of the clientele who frequented these parts. He shivered, thinking of the time he’d spent here at Tomas’s safehouse. Afterward, shoveling shit and sleeping in a barn had felt like a five-star hotel.

“That’s where we need to go. Follow me,” he directed.

“That’s shocking,” Bailey said, staring at the unconscious man by the door.

“That’s Gomez,” Lewis informed her as he pointed. “He often sleeps outside the place as a lookout.”

“Cute cover, and here I thought he was drunk,” she said with a laugh. “I was just thinking it’s surprising that there’s no wreath on the door. At least tell me that the doorbell makes a nice chiming sound.”

“It doesn’t,” he stated, humor bouncing around in his eyes as he looked back at her.

He strode forward and nudged Gomez in the shoulder with his shoe.

“Whatcha want?” the man said, rolling over and staring up at Lewis. He looked about to tell him to sod off when his face shifted with recognition. “Well, if it isn’t ole Suits himself, come back for more help.” Gomez pushed up to a sitting position, swaying slightly.

He was wearing an old Federation uniform that he’d stolen from a laundromat on one of the upper decks. It was baggy on him, since all he ate was canned green beans. Gomez always said a consistent diet kept him ‘spritely’.

“I need to see Tomas,” Lewis said in a whisper. He pointed his thumb back at Penrae, who lurked a whole head taller over him and Bailey. “I’ve got someone who needs his expertise.”

Gomez blinked like he was trying to clear his vision as he looked up at Bailey and then Penrae. “Who’s your friend?”

Lewis threw his head in Penrae’s direction. “This is—”

“Not the Trid,” Gomez cut him off, pointing a thin finger up at Bailey. “I meant the girl.”

“Oh, that’s—”

“Tootsie,” Bailey said, taking a step forward, her hand on her hip, and smacking her lips like she was chewing gum.

“What happened to your face?” Gomez asked. He was always full of questions, which Lewis never found endearing.

“They had me down in detention, trying to get me to sober up, until I decided I’d had enough,” Bailey answered, slurring her words in all the right places.

Gomez didn’t look quite convinced. “How many guards they keep in the main area down there?”

“Four,” she answered at once. “Two on the front and two back with the detainees…I mean prisoners.”

Lewis held his breath. For a moment there, she sounded too well versed on the operation.

Gomez laughed abruptly. “That’s right, except when I’m down there, they always add an extra guard.”

Lewis checked over his shoulder, doing his best paranoid act. “Hey, we’re sort of in a hurry. Tootsie and I can’t stay long, we’re only here to drop this one off.” He indicated Penrae, who seemed completely paralyzed, like a shark that had been put in the walk-in freezer overnight.

“Yeah, yeah. Sure thing.” He beat on the door once, twice, and then rapped with a double knock.

“That’s the secret knock?” Bailey whispered over Lewis’s shoulder. “I could have figured that out.”

Lewis shook his head. “It changes every day.”

Bailey looked over her shoulder. This area was deserted, the other doors boarded up. It was astounding that this place hid so well from prying eyes.

The door opened a moment later, and a figure wearing a baggy hoodie looked out at them. Tomas hadn’t changed a bit—still as dirty and unwelcoming as ever. He stared out from under his hood, giving them all a cold stare. He looked down at Gomez, who pointed up at Lewis.

“Suits has returned and he brought some friends,” Gomez said.

Tomas turned at once and strode into the place he called home. There was nothing homey about the small flat, which usually had three to five people in each room. The place smelled of sweat and dirt and was always dark. Lewis held out a hand to Bailey and Penrae, indicating they should follow.

The sounds of two males arguing echoed from the first room they passed. Snoring could also be heard from that room, although someone would have to be quite drunk to sleep with the loud bickering nearby.

Tomas led them to the second room, which was smaller than the others and served as his office, although there wasn’t a desk or even chairs, only crates of shipments that would be going out in the next day or two.

Lewis observed Bailey; she appeared to be having a hard time in this place. She’s probably recording the violations in her head and itching to take these guys down. However, some criminals served a purpose, and they both knew they needed Tomas.

“Hey, Suits,” Tomas said, raising his chin in Lewis’s direction. “I heard you got off the station.”

“I did,” he replied, leaning against a nearby wall and then thinking better of it, as it was coated in grease and other questionable substances.

He was a lot dirtier the last time he was in this place, and mostly concerned with surviving. Jack had thought he could bail him out, but there was no escape from death, which he was pretty certain would have happened if Harrison Gringotts got hold of him.

Lewis turned to Penrae. Names weren’t allowed in Tomas’s safehouse. “My buddy here needs your protection. Do you have room for another one?”

He knew they didn’t really need to stay. Penrae had exactly what she needed: Tomas’s identity. However, they had to play the next part right so as to not raise suspicions.

“Gringotts’s men have been all over the station lately, you know,” Tomas said, his focus still on Lewis.

Bailey’s eyes connected with Lewis. She didn’t look right with a swollen lip, but it did make her appear a little less straight and narrow.

“Yeah, I figured,” Lewis stated. “I only came aboard to help my friend out. I’m loading up and leaving soon.”

Tomas eyed Bailey, his eyes lingering on her chest a moment too long. “Where you been hanging out, Suits? Last I heard, you were on Ronin.”

Lewis nodded. “Yeah, that’s where I’ve been.”

Tomas cast his eyes on Penrae. “Any friend of Suits is one to me. He helped me out with a few matters of business, and I’ve been looking to pay him back.”

Bailey’s eyes narrowed on Lewis. She immediately sensed his misdeeds, probably because his face flushed red with guilt, visible even in the darkened room.

What could he say? He’d been desperate after what Melanie did to him and needed to get help. The only way Tomas would take him in is if he ran a couple of jobs for him, used his detective skill to sniff out some leads that had gone stale. So what if they were connected to undermining Federation law? It wasn’t that big of a deal.

So why is my face burning hot?

“I’d appreciate the help,” Penrae said, her voice gruff.

Lewis widened his eyes at her with alarm.

She coughed. “I mean, I’m tired of running. Owe you a solid for this.”

Tomas nodded, not looking entirely convinced. “You can take a room in the back with Cross-Eyes and Smelly. I’ll warn you, one of them bites, but no one can tell us which one.”

Penrae nodded her giant shark head, looking a bit tougher than before. Taking someone else’s identity had to be a trip.

A man who was shorter than the others and wearing sunglasses, even in the dark room, stopped in the doorway. “Hey, boss!”

“What is it, Shorty?” Tomas asked, his tone full of annoyance.

“They are here. In the back…” the small man said, his eyes widening as he looked up at Bailey. He threw up his hands, backing away. “Oh, hell! Run for it! The Federation has found us!”

The man ran, and Lewis’s pulse quickened. He straightened, backing away.

Tomas’s eyes followed the direction Shorty had gone, and then he revolved on Bailey and straightened. “Federation! I knew I recognized you from somewhere!”

Chapter Eight

Deck 31, Onyx Station, Paladin System

Tomas reached for something at his back. Bailey blocked him with a one-handed strike before he could pull his weapon. Rapidly, she struck him in the side of the neck and then in the face with her other hand, like a Three Stooges skit.

He fumbled for his weapon at his back, but Bailey was faster, grabbing him by the wrist and spinning him around as she shoved him into the wall. She yanked the pistol from him as he struggled to turn, which she allowed. She then dove down toward her left toe while sending her right foot high into the air, slamming straight into his face.

Tomas stumbled over a crate, falling on his head.

A loud bang echoed from the hallway.

“Come on!” Lewis yelled. “We have to go!”

Gomez charged into the office, but stopped abruptly at the sight of Tomas on the ground. “What the—”

Penrae grabbed the smaller man by the throat, holding him off the floor so that his feet kicked. His face turned a violent shade of red as he struggled to breathe. She launched him back toward the entrance where he’d come from. The sounds of stomping feet were now coming from all directions within the small safehouse.

Lewis grabbed Bailey by the wrist, taking the lead out of the cramped office. “We have to take the back exit. More men to fight, but it’s easier to get through.”

Bailey pulled the magazine from Tomas’s rusty pistol and threw it across the space, holding onto the gun itself to use as a blunt weapon. She didn’t want to chance firing it in the state it was in, and weapons weren’t technically allowed on the space station, so she didn’t have her own. Not a problem.

Three men stood on the far side of the hallway; one of them was Shorty. He was holding a small knife, whereas the others had long sticks. The hallway was narrow, and they were standing in front of what looked like the exit.

Bailey spun around to where they’d come from. Lewis was right, they shouldn’t try to get through the alleyway—it was too small and could potentially trap them. However, Penrae could easily get out that way, and keeping her safe would be for the best.

“Can you take Sebastian’s form?” Bailey asked her, referring to the ferret that the Saverus often looked at with a salivating glare.

“Yes,” she answered.

“Do it and go out that way.” Bailey pointed to the alleyway. “You know what we need to get done. Do it before word gets out. This is for DJ.”

Penrae nodded, and then her Trid form dissolved. It appeared that she’d vanished, until Bailey saw the ferret on the floor running for the front entrance. Penrae hopped easily over Gomez’s body and scurried out the door.

When the lieutenant turned back, Lewis had his hands up like he was surrendering, but he was doing what he did best: Talking.

“Hey guys. This is a misunderstanding. This girl isn’t with the Federation.”

“Why did she put Tomas down, then?” Shorty asked, jabbing the knife forward like he was practicing how he was going to gut Lewis.

The detective jumped back a few inches, hands still up. “He pulled a gun. Wouldn’t even listen to reason. Same thing doesn’t have to happen to you three.”

A man larger than the rest stepped out from a side room to stand behind the others.

“You four,” Lewis corrected.

The man towered over his housemates. His head was nearly the size of a beach ball and just as round.

“I always knew you were a traitor, Suits,” Shorty said, spitting on the ground. “Told Tomas you were a Federation-lover from the beginning.”

Thankfully, this hallway was wider than the one they’d come through, and Bailey was able to sidle up next to Lewis. She’d had enough talking.

Apparently, so had Shorty. He charged at her with his tiny knife, and Bailey rushed forward, stepping onto the wall with one foot as she met her attacker. She spun around, throwing her elbow down on his back. He fell straight to the floor with a grunt.

Keeping her momentum, Bailey slammed her forearm into the next guy’s torso. He doubled over. Behind her, she could hear Lewis fighting with Shorty. She charged forward, leaving the two she’d injured for Lewis to clean up.

The third guy swung his baton through the air. Bailey ducked, dodging the first assault, but the second blow came around and connected with her shoulder, sending her crashing into the wall. She dropped the gun. Her shoulder screamed from the hit. She dropped to the ground and spun her leg out and around, tripping the man.

She popped up as the giant rushed, throwing his fist in her direction. She caught it with her hand and threw him back, but he immediately came at her again. Bailey launched her fist up into his face sending him back once more. Following after him, she threw another round of punches, alternating her fists into his face, knocking him into the wall, his arms flailing.

She barely had enough time to grab the gun from the ground before one of the previous men jumped on her back, knocking her to the ground. Bailey brought the butt of the gun down behind her, slamming it into the man’s head. He went limp, crumbling beside her. She scrambled to her feet, but it was too late. The giant was waiting for her, and he slammed his fist into her abdomen, catapulting her against the wall.

She felt the drywall crack as she hit, and she slid to the ground. She pushed up to her feet, bracing herself on the wall and trying to catch her breath.

The giant approached. He knelt down, his hand reaching for her. Bailey launched herself at him, knocking her head into his. The assault sent white across her vision, blinding her for a moment, but the good news was the move had also knocked him out. He fell back onto the opposite wall as ungracefully as a bag of garbage being chucked aside.

Lewis raced over to Bailey, breathless. Behind him, Shorty and the other man were down, but it looked like they were trying to come back for another round.

“You okay?” Lewis asked, checking her over.

Through tattered breaths, she answered, “Yeah, I’m good.”

He pointed to her left eye. “Looks like you might have gotten that scar you wanted.”

From the office came a groan, followed by a howl of anger. A moment later, Tomas materialized in the doorway. Behind him, three men appeared from the first room, none of them looking sober, but all of them mad as hell.

Four pairs of eyes narrowed on Bailey and Lewis, and she spun for the exit that spilled out into what looked like a dirty marketplace.

“Come on. Let’s go!”

Chapter Nine

Deck 31, Onyx Station, Paladin System

Penrae pulled the tablet from the locker where Bailey had stashed it. When the Saverus shapeshifted, she lost any personal objects she was carrying, taking possession of those items the person had whose identity she took.  After she had the drug made she was going to have to store it in the locker so that Bailey could retrieve it.

Tomas wore a sweaty hoodie, pants that fell off his butt, and a pocket full of strange pills. Real classy guy. Tomas also had a slight limp on the right side, and no hearing in one ear. The injuries were most likely a result of some collision with trouble.

Penrae checked her surroundings before dropping the pills in a waste bin. She never understood drug use, although hallucinogens were popular among the Saverus; sacrificial rituals were also common, though, so their judgment was obviously a bit skewed.

Since the beginning, Penrae hadn’t fit in with the Saverus. She’d tried, but questions always plagued her, and challenging the rules or beliefs was considered a crime. Never had she felt so free as when she joined Ghost Squadron, which was why she had to help put the crew back together. Saving Dejoure was crucial for that—although Penrae would have helped save the girl even if she wasn’t.

Penrae pulled up the directions for Vernon’s lab. It wasn’t far, but it was as well-hidden as Tomas’s safehouse. She started for the location highlighted on the tablet, her affected limp causing the crowd to move to get around her. However, even with her hood up, those who passed in front of her nodded with respect. Tomas had a reputation, it appeared, with criminal types.

She rounded the corner, scanning the cluttered stalls for the right thoroughfare. She found it between a sardine stand and a day-old-bread booth. The smells that filled this area of the deck competed for grossness.

Why couldn’t Tomas have a bad sense of smell?

“Hey!” someone called from the side.

Penrae turned to find a Federation soldier wearing an annoyed expression. He was eyeing Tomas with a long glance.

“Yes?” Penrae asked, her voice deep.

“We’re performing random checks on this deck. I’m going to need to search you.”

She was suddenly grateful she’d gotten rid of those pills. She hoped there wasn’t anything else hidden in Tomas’s pockets.

“Sure, should I move over there?” she asked, pointing to the side that was less trafficked.

The officer raised an eyebrow, seemingly taken aback by Tomas’s good attitude.

She pursed her lips and crossed her arms. “Or you can come over to me.”

The guy rolled his eyes. “Spread them and stay still.”

Penrae did as she was told, and the officer patted her down. He inspected the tablet, but gave it back without question.

“Where you headed?” he asked.

“I’m going to the library, sir,” she said, injecting as much condescension as she could without going overboard.

“Boy, you don’t know how to read.”

“That’s why your mom is teaching me,” Penrae stated.

The officer gripped her hoodie and pulled her in close enough that she could see the pores on his big nose. He had awful skin and even worse breath. “You watch your mouth,” he warned. He shoved Penrae back, making her stumble due to the limp. “I’m keeping my eyes on you, boy. I know you’re running drugs for that scum, and when I catch you, you’re going to pay.”

“Noted,” Penrae said, giving the guy a disingenuous smile.

She didn’t like being so disrespectful to an authority figure, but it was a part of the job. If she blew her cover, Dejoure would suffer for her mistakes.

The officer stood back, keenly watching Penrae as she limped away. She took a few more paces and, to her horror, noticed that the alley she needed was up ahead. As discreetly as she could manage, she looked over her shoulder.

The officer was still there. Watching.

She strode up to the day-old-bread booth. Behind the counter was an old woman with her head covered the same as Penrae, but probably for different reasons. She was visibly shaking, and her teeth chattered as she handed a crusty loaf to a patron. The woman looked to be freezing to death.

“What can I get you?” she asked, her voice quivering.

Penrae nodded to a bag of rolls. “How much for those?”

“How much you got?” the woman countered.

Penrae hated what she was going to do next. She checked over her shoulder once more. The officer was still there, his eyes intently on her.

“What did you say?” Penrae said loudly. “Free bread for the next minute?”

The woman’s ancient eyes widened, and she shook her head. However, passersby had already stopped. Hordes of people rushed over, many pushing to get to the booth.

“Nooo…” the woman croaked, but her voice was drowned out by the crowd gathering around.

They grabbed at the bread, knocking into one another and making a huge mess of the booth.

Penrae checked over her shoulder. She couldn’t see the officer with the people swarming around her, which meant he couldn’t see her. She ducked through a couple arguing over baguettes and slid into the alleyway.

Doing that to the old merchant had broken Penrae’s heart. She was definitely going to have Jack transfer a giant sum of money to the old woman’s account when this was done.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Bailey would have stayed and fought—every part of her wanted to. Those in the safehouse were the type of trash that she longed to put down and lock up. However, she wasn’t technically a Federation officer at the moment, and her partner was a known fugitive. The more heat she brought on them, the more likely it was that Lewis would get caught.

With Lewis beside her, she busted out into a market that looked suspect in every way. Carts were crowded along the walls, with various objects strewn across their tops. Bags of white substances and pills, small, dirty paper boxes, weapons, devices—all illegal contraband.

Faces looked up at them as they sprinted through the market. Angry faces that immediately looked on guard and ready to defend themselves.

“Get them!” Tomas yelled at their back.

All at once, those angry faces sprang in their direction, heeding Tomas’s order.

Bailey reached for the closest cart and pulled it down, the objects on it spraying across the dirty floor. Lewis, taking her cue, did the same to another cart on the other side. The move wouldn’t hold them back for long, but it would give Bailey and Lewis a head start.

She pushed a large man barreling in their direction out of her way and into another crowd that was starting for them.

“This way!” Lewis yelled, indicating a corridor that led to the elevators for the upper decks.

She was about to argue, when she realized the logic of his decision: these people wouldn’t want to risk going to the upper decks, where security was tighter. She looked over her shoulder. Well, most won’t take the risk. They’re probably wanted criminals.

Sure enough, half of the mob halted, staring at them with hostile glares. However, the other half didn’t look as deterred about the prospect.

At the back of the group, Tomas could be seen, not moving as fast as the others. “Suits, you’re going to pay for this!” he bellowed, catching himself on a wall, looking out of breath.

The corridor was mostly empty where they were, although ahead, it was crowded with people trying to load into the elevators.

Bailey checked her surroundings. The halls on deck thirty-one were bare, with many of the wires and panels exposed. She ran up a curved wall and launched herself up, grabbing the thick cables that ran overhead. She thought that her weight would be enough to break the cables, but they only sagged as she dangled from them.

Lewis, catching the problem immediately, grabbed Bailey by the hips and tugged her down hard. Her grip slipped, and they both tumbled to the ground, rolling in the opposite direction from the angry mob. The cables broke, sending sparks down as they spiraled in the air like snakes.

The mob halted, not daring to try and pass under the potential source of electrocution.

Bailey and Lewis pushed up from the floor.

“Hey, you!” someone said behind them. “You damaged Federation property!”

Bailey spun to find a Federation officer racing in their direction. Not just anyone, but Lieutenant Charlie Geos.

He froze, catching sight of her, his face contorting with confusion. He lowered his weapon, and his chin tilted to the side, like he was trying to see her from a different angle.

“Bailey?” Charlie asked incredulously.

Oh, man. It had to be Charlie.

Bailey had dated him, and it didn’t end well, which meant he wasn’t going to “look the other way.”

He could never let anything go, and he’d been looking for a way to pin something on Bailey ever since she’d bypassed him in the pilot program. Those who try to sabotage never get ahead though, which was why Charlie was still doing patrols on the lower deck like a newbie.

“Hey, Charlie,” Bailey greeted, smiling sweetly at him.

He eyed the dying sparks behind them and the mob lurking in the distance. “What’s going on?” he asked, looking at Bailey and then Lewis.

His eyes widened with recognition.

Bailey knew she couldn’t let this go on any further.

She stepped forward. “I’m sort of sorry for this,” she said and launched her fist at his face, knocking him back into the wall

His head smacked hard against it, and he slid to the floor, unconscious.

She shook out her hand. Damn, that guy’s face was as hard as his head.

Lewis pulled Bailey into an elevator that was about to close. Thankfully it was empty, since most of those waiting were watching the sparking electrical wires wide-eyed and staring at the passed-out officer.

Lewis pressed the button for the loading docks, and the elevator began to ascend. When Bailey looked up at him, he was smiling.

“Something is wrong with your face, Harlowe.”

He shook his head. “You punched a fellow officer for me.”

“I did no such thing,” she argued.

“You totally did it for me, otherwise that guy would have called for backup and taken me away.” Lewis winked at her, his smile widening. “And thanks. I’d do the same for you.”

“But I’m not a fugitive, so you don’t have to.”

“You’re not a fugitive yet. You just assaulted a Federation officer. It’s all downhill from here. Welcome to the dark side.”

Chapter Ten

Deck 31, Onyx Station, Paladin System

The alleyway that led to Vernon’s place was as narrow as the one the team had taken to Tomas’s safehouse, and just as dirty. Penrae checked over her shoulder; the Federation officer wasn’t following her. She hoped he hadn’t seen her slip into the passageway.

Penrae’s foot constantly picked up bits of trash as it dragged behind her with Tomas’s limp, making the trek longer. Finally, when she rounded the last corner through a maze of intersecting alleyways, she saw Vernon’s door.

Someone was leaving his place. A large Kezzin with a ferocious scowl on his face. Penrae tucked her chin, allowing the hoodie to slide lower over her eyes.

“You can’t hide, Tomas,” the Kezzin said, his voice gravelly. “I already saw your good-for-nothing face.”

Dammit, why does this guy have so many enemies?

Penrae pulled her head up and shot the Kezzin a matching look of loathing. “I wasn’t hiding,” she said, but the fear coursing through her mind made it impossible to say anymore.

She had absolutely zero retort. Bailey would have told the guy off and slammed her fist into his face. Lewis would have had a clever jab. Even Dejoure would have had a comeback, but Penrae’s mind was blank as she stared at the black eyes of the lizard-looking alien.

The Kezzin sized Tomas up. “So, do you have it?”

Penrae’s breath jumped out of her mouth with a startled cough. She covered it up with a fake laugh. “Have what?”

The Kezzin stepped up so close that Penrae could smell the rotten flesh on his breath. “You know what I’m talking about. Don’t play dumb with me.”

She wished she could tell the Kezzin just how dumb she was. For a moment, she considered shifting back into Sebastian’s form and fleeing. She couldn’t, though; this was for Dejoure.

“Look, I don’t really have time for your games right now,” Penrae said, trying to interject as much dominance into her tone as she could. “A Fed was trailing me earlier, and I need to get out of sight.”

The Kezzin looked over Penrae’s shoulder. “I don’t see no one.”

“I gave him the slip, but he could still be looking.”

The Kezzin reached out and grabbed the front of Tomas’s sweaty hoodie, lifting Penrae up so she was eye to eye with him, her feet kicking in the air.

This is it. This is how I’m going to die. In the form of a drug runner, murdered by a disgusting Kezzin.

“I’m the one who doesn’t have time for your games. I want what you owe me!” the Kezzin yelled, throwing Penrae against the wall.

Her head hit hard, making lights flash behind her eyes. She slid down, unable to catch herself. Something sharp cut her palm as she tried to soften her landing.

“I’ve had a bad day, and been looking for someone to take it out on,” he growled.

The Kezzin strode over to Penrae, and she held her hands up to shield her face. A yelp of fear fell from her mouth before she could stop it.

The Kezzin froze, a look of disbelief on his face. “Are you crying?”

Penrae couldn’t help it. All the emotions poured out of her. The fear she’d bottled up while being locked in the database and then afterward, the guilt of being the only crew member to get out. She wailed loudly, unable to keep the emotion in any longer. Her heart was overwhelmed with the idea that she’d failed the team and Dejoure. The tears fell down her face, hot and fast.

The Kezzin shrank back like she’d whipped him.

“Dude, what has gotten into you?” he demanded.

Penrae tried to say something, but instead, only nonsensical noises spilled from her mouth. She knew this was ridiculous, but the more she saw it working, she allowed the emotion loose. Yes, she was crying in the face of danger, but sometimes the way to weaken an enemy was to turn the tables in the most unexpected way. That was a lesson she could credit to the Saverus; they’d taught her that force was rarely the right approach, when manipulation could be used in its place.

The Kezzin shook his head. “Look, I’ll let you off this time. But when I see you next, there won’t even be a discussion. You give me what I want, or I’ll break your other leg. Got it?”

She nodded, pushing the tears off her face. She almost wanted to laugh, picturing this tough guy hunched over and crying at the feet of his enemy. This would ruin Tomas’ reputation. She might have hit a few extra goals with this mission without meaning to.

When the Kezzin ambled away, Penrae pushed herself up and hobbled over to the door. She wiped her bloody palm on her jeans. She didn’t know the special knock, but hopefully having Tomas’s face was all she needed. Lewis had thought it would do the trick.

The door opened a crack. Through it, she could see a sliver of a guy with pale skin and greasy black hair looking back at her. After taking in Tomas’s appearance, Vernon let out a sigh and opened the door all the way.

“Why didn’t you come on in?” he asked. He had large eyes on his tiny head, and it made him look like a bug. “I thought it was someone else.”

“I was trying to be careful,” Penrae explained.

Vernon peered at her closely. “Why is your face all red? Have you been…crying?”

“Hell no,” she answered. “I got into it with a dumb Kezzin and a few traitors.”

Vernon shook his head, ushering who he thought was Tomas into his place. The space was cramped with beakers and bottles filled with various colored liquids. The light was much brighter here than in the alleyway, making Penrae’s eyes narrow.

“Do you always have to get yourself into trouble?” Vernon asked.

“No, not always,” Penrae said, looking the place over. There were more illegal substances in this one room than in most places she’d ever been. “Look, I’ve got a favor to ask of you, and it’s really important.” She pulled out the tablet, about to open the formula for the drug.

Vernon pushed the pad down gently. “First, I need to know. Have you thought about my offer?”

Penrae gulped. Not this shit again. “Yeah, I’ve thought about it.”

“Well, I know you didn’t want to do it, but once again, I have to ask. Before I do anything for you, I need your final answer.” Vernon’s eyes were insistent, hanging with an uneasy bit of curiosity.

“Yeah, yeah,” Penrae said, but this didn’t seem to relax Vernon. He looked ready to pounce with anxiety. “Yes, I’ll do it.”

Vernon let out a loud yelp of satisfaction and threw a fist into the air as he spun around. “Brilliant! You’re not going to regret this.”

No, I totally won’t regret this, but Tomas might.

She pulled up the formula and handed it to Vernon. “I need this right now. Can you brew it for me?”

Vernon gave Tomas a curious expression. “Brew?”

“Whatever you do?”

He nodded and then looked at the screen. A line creased between his eyes. “What do you want this for? This is medical grade shit. Not my forte.”

“Look, I’m trying to help someone. Is that so strange?”

Vernon regarded Penrae for a long moment. “To be honest, it is. You never even help your buddies in the safehouse without demanding more than their protection is worth.”

“Nah, I help them. I’m quite the humanitarian.”

Vernon erupted with laughter. “Remember that bloke, ‘Suits’? The one running from Gringotts? You sold him out for a reward. Too bad he made it off the station before Gringotts’s men came aboard.”

“Yeah, well…” Penrae said, heat suddenly flaring in her head.

“Imagine, if he’d still been here, you would have gotten the full sum,” Vernon said, looking off with a dreamy quality. “You’d be living it up.”

Penrae pushed the tablet into his hand. “Can you do this for me? I don’t have much time.”

Vernon seemed to think about it for a moment. “Yeah, I guess so. It shouldn’t take me long.”

“Good. I’ll wait.”

Chapter Eleven

Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

Jack held up the vial of thick liquid. It was hard to believe this pink stuff was what would save Dejoure. Unexpected things come in small packages, about like the young girl herself.

“Ricky Bobby,” Jack asked. “Where is DJ?”

“One moment,” Ricky Bobby answered.

Behind them, Penrae slithered up next to Lewis. She hadn’t said a thing since returning to Ricky Bobby. Actually, she’d looked a bit dazed since handing off the drug. She’d shifted to her normal form and retreated inside herself.

“Is everything all right?” Lewis asked her.

Her forked tongue slipped out of her mouth. “Yes, it was a close one back there. I almost failed, and I haven’t shaken that feeling yet.”

“No one would have been angry at you if you’d failed,” Jack imparted, looking back at her. “We’re a team, and there’s a lot of factors to a mission, including a few you can’t control.”

“And you didn’t fail.” Bailey pointed to the vial in Jack’s hand.

“Dejoure is in Hatch’s lab,” Ricky Bobby answered.

“Should have figured.” Bailey laughed. “She’s always stalking the mechanic.”

“He, in fact, doesn’t know she’s there,” Ricky Bobby stated.

“Clever little girl,” Bailey said.

Jack agreed with a nod before looking back at Penrae. “You said you almost failed. What happened?”

“I was nearly arrested by a Federation soldier,” Penrae explained.

Bailey laughed again. “Oh, us too.”

“And I was close to getting beat up by a Kezzin,” Penrae continued.

“Us too, except it was a goonish-looking human,” Bailey said.

“And I almost didn’t get away at the end,” Penrae finished. “Jack, can you please transfer funds into the account of an old woman who runs a day-old-bread stand on deck thirty-one?”

Of all the things Jack expected Penrae to say, that wasn’t one of them. “Of course. It shouldn’t be hard to find her. I can make an anonymous donation, but why?”

“I ruined her stall when I told everyone the bread was free,” Penrae explained. “They rushed the booth and took all her stock. It created a good distraction and let me slip away from the Federation officer who was watching me in Tomas’s form.”

“Smart thinking,” Jack said, nodding with admiration. “And yes, she’ll be able to abandon the bread business and retire. Don’t you worry.”

“Lewis, I found out that Tomas was the one who sold you out to Gringotts,” Penrae stated.

Lewis rolled his eyes, not entirely surprised. “I guess that’s what happens when you hang out with scum.” He shook his head, dispelling his frustration. “You said you nearly didn’t get away. What happened?”

Penrae hissed, a bit of pride dancing in her eyes suddenly. “When I was leaving Vernon’s place with the drug, the officer was still waiting for me. He put me up against a wall and was about to handcuff me for sabotaging the old woman’s booth. He would have found the drug too, so I knew I had to act fast. I fought him and got away. However, he pursued me, and because of Tomas’s limp, he was about to catch me. But I darted around a set of stalls and looked for a place to stash the drug so I could shift.”

“Oh man,” Lewis said with a loud sigh. “I can’t believe you had to go through all that.”

She shook her head. “I didn’t have to. Just then, the real Tomas came by, nearly running straight into the officer. He looked pissed and seemed to be searching for someone.”

“That would have been us,” Bailey said proudly.

“So the officer, angry at being assaulted by who he thought was Tomas, and then confronted with the real Tomas, put cuffs on him right away and carted him off,” Penrae stated.

Jack held up the drug. “And you got away masterfully. Nice work, you three.”

Bailey looked back at the other two proudly. “We did work well together. Great job, team.”

Jack pursed his lips, a thought occurring to him. “When we rescue the others, I might have to assign the three of you to your own missions.” He looked back at Lewis, a bit of hesitation in his gaze. “That is, if you and Bailey want to stick around when the main mission is complete.”

Bailey answered before Lewis could. “Hell yeah, we will.”

“I don’t know,” the detective said, his voice quiet. “I said only one mission.”

Bailey gave him a determined expression. “And I said we were going to clear your name and make Melanie pay.” She winked at him. “Then we can take on any mission that Ghost Squadron needs us to.”

Jack smiled. For so long, he’d wanted to help Lewis, but was unable to. Now things were shifting for both of them in positive ways. Working with his nephew was something he hadn’t expected enjoying, about like having his own child.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Dejoure was nowhere to be found when they entered Hatch’s lab. The mechanic was bent over an orange car that looked like a station wagon but with a sporty spin.

“What’s that?” Jack asked, looking the car over.

Hatch pulled his head out from under the hood and looked bemused at the four of them. “What are you all doing here? Don’t I ever get a break to clear my mind?”

“We’re not here to see you,” Jack stated.

“Oh,” Hatch said, surprise in his tone.

“That is a Holden Sandman panel van,” Pip informed them in an Australian accent. “Or as I like to call it, the shaggin’ wagon.”

Hatch rolled his eyes. “That’s not what it’s called.”

“Then why do you have fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror?” Pip asked.

“Because they are iconic and fit the car,” Hatch answered.

“If the dice are rocking, don’t come a—”

“If you’re not here to see me, then what are you doing here?” Hatch asked Jack, cutting Pip off.

Jack held up the vial. “We’re looking for DJ.”

Hatch stared around. “As you can see, you’ve come to the wrong place.”

Lewis broke off from the group. He couldn’t see the girl, but had a good idea of where he’d find her.

“DJ!” Bailey yelled out to the lab. “Where are you?”

Silence greeted her calls.

“DJ, we have some great news!” she tried again. “The drug is ready!”

Hatch shook his head. “I told you, she’s not here. If she were, I’d know about it.”

Lewis strode around the Holden, his suspicions getting stronger. Meanwhile, the others were still calling out for Dejoure, not paying him much notice. He’d followed a trail of dog hair, really only a couple of loose strands on the lab floor, to the back door of the vehicle, which was slightly ajar. He opened it and peered in to find exactly what he’d expected.

“Hello,” he whispered to Dejoure, who was cuddled next to Harley.

She put her finger to her mouth, encouraging Lewis to be quiet.

“Is there a reason you’re hiding in here?” he asked.

She nodded, tears welling up in her eyes.

He slid into the back of the car and quietly closed the door, leaving it open a sliver. The light spilled across Dejoure’s face.

“What’s going on?” he asked, noticing how roomy the back of the van was.

“I don’t want to take the drug you all brought back,” Dejoure stated, hugging Harley tightly.

“Have you had second thoughts?” Lewis asked. “We can wean you off the drug. You don’t have to stay on it in order to keep your gifts.”

Dejoure shook her head. “No, I want to keep taking it. I just don’t want to take that one.”

“Why? Have you seen something of the future?”

The girl’s hair hit her in the face when she shook her head again. “No, that’s the thing. Last night, I didn’t have a premonition when I slept—at least I don’t think I did.”

“Well, maybe that’s because the drugs are nearly out of your system,” Lewis reasoned. “That’s when you start suffering withdrawals, which means you definitely need the drug.”

Dejoure shrugged. “Maybe I didn’t have a premonition because I died from the drug. I didn’t have a single dream last night; maybe what I saw was death.”

Lewis considered this for a moment. “When a premonition involves you, do you see it from your perspective?”

“Yes,” she answered at once. “I always do. The only time I don’t is if I’m not involved at all.”

Lewis nodded. “So, you think you saw blackness because you die from taking the drug we had synthesized?”

“I’m sorry. I know you all went to a lot of trouble, but my gut tells me—”

He put up his hand, pausing her apology. “It was no trouble. And as a man who usually relies on facts, there’s nothing I actually trust more than a gut feeling.”

“So you believe me?” Dejoure asked, hope in her voice.

“Yes. Don’t worry, nothing is going to happen to you.” Lewis winked at her. “No dying on my watch.”

Dejoure’s eyes fell to the large watch that Lewis wore, the one that had belonged to his father. “Thank you. I’m glad you found us.”

“Of course,” he said, “Now, shall we come out? Otherwise the others will be looking for you the rest of the day.”

Dejoure nodded, raking her hands through Harley’s fur for support.

Lewis opened the door and stepped out. He cleared his throat, getting the attention of Jack and Hatch nearby. Bailey and Penrae were on the other side of the lab, still looking around.

“I think I can get DJ to come out,” Lewis began. “However, we can’t give her the drug.”

“What?” Jack asked, the vial in his hand.

“Although Vernon has a good reputation, mistakes are still possible,” Lewis stated. “I think we should have the drug tested before we give it to DJ.”

Bailey and Penrae came over, both looking at him quizzically…

“Who can we have test the drug?” Bailey asked.

“Me,” Hatch offered, his tentacle reaching over and taking the vial.

“Although you could test it,” Pip began, “you don’t really have the expertise in the subject matter.”

“And you do?” the Londil asked.

“As a matter of fact, yes. I’ve taken it upon myself to do a lot of research on the subject, knowing that Dejoure will need the drug manufactured from now on,” Pip answered.

“Wow, and you didn’t even have to be asked,” Hatch said, sounding impressed.

“But you’ll need a body for such a project,” Jack stated.

“Which I can also use to complete the printing process, which is lagging,” Pip said.

“Hey, I had to take a break. Liesel is napping,” Hatch said defensively.

Jack gave Hatch a reassuring look. “You’ve been working nonstop. Taking an hour to unwind is best for all of us. Don’t worry, no one is faulting you.”

“I can also be in charge of returning those printed to their homes. Ricky Bobby says they are getting restless on the lower decks,” Pip stated.

“That’s a lot of responsibility,” Hatch said cautiously.

“Pip is right,” Jack began. “We have less than a skeleton crew at this point. Those printed do need to be returned to their homes. And we have no one with any expertise or bandwidth to manufacture the drug for DJ going forward. Testing the drug is a good idea.” He looked at Hatch. “Is it possible to make him a body?”

Hatch combed a tentacle over his chins and thought for a moment. “Yes, anything is possible. However, the project will take me away from other things for a while.”

“That’s fine,” Jack agreed at once. “This is a priority.”

“Then we agree that DJ won’t be getting that drug yet?” Lewis confirmed.

Jack nodded. “Of course.”

Lewis extended a hand to the girl still hiding in the back of the van. “See, I told you it was all going to work out,” he said to her.

She popped out, giving the others an embarrassed smile.

“Hey! When did you get in there?” Hatch bellowed.

“Oh, ages ago, while we were discussing the Energy Polarizer,” Pip said with a laugh.

“You knew she’d stowed away?” Hatch asked. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You didn’t ask,” the AI answered.

“Sorry,” Dejoure said, hanging her head. “I didn’t know how to tell you all that I was worried about taking that drug.”

Lewis put his arm around her shoulder. “Well, hopefully you’ll learn that you can tell us anything.”

Jack nodded. “And we’ll take you seriously. If you have concerns, we’ll test the drug.”

“As soon as I have a body!” Pip said victoriously.

Chapter Twelve

Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

Lewis hardly left Dejoure’s side the rest of the day. She didn’t want him to tell anyone about the gut feeling, and although he trusted it, he worried that maybe it was wrong. Maybe it was something else that harmed her.

Not until she insisted vehemently and forced him to go did he leave her for the night to sleep. They’d made it through the day, though.

“Ricky Bobby?” Lewis said on the way to his own room.

“Yes, Detective?”

“Will you please monitor DJ through the night and alert me if there’s a problem?” he asked.

“Of course. She’s already half-asleep with Harley beside her.”

Lewis let out a relieved breath.

“Why didn’t you or Pip tell Hatch that she was hiding in his lab? Or the rest of us where she was specifically?” Lewis pondered as he approached his door.

“Dejoure has asked that we not,” Ricky Bobby explained. “She often hides in places around the ship. I think it’s partly due to being a kid, and also because she feels safe when no one knows where she is.

Lewis nodded, stepping into his room. He remembered hiding away on Ronin. No one knew where he was and, like the AI said, that made him feel safe, although extremely lonely.

If people don’t know where you are, though, they can’t hurt you.

He’d once had a case where the victim slept in the closet every night, thinking he’d fool intruders who went straight for the bed. It hadn’t been hard to find his eventual murderer—it was the one person who knew the man’s secret: his business partner.

Those closest to us really are the most dangerous, Lewis mused, thinking of Melanie.

He had never suspected that she’d double-cross him. After that, Lewis had always doubted who he could trust. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that Melanie’s true character had been revealed long before, and Lewis hadn’t been willing to see it.

‘See people for who they truly are, not who you wish them to be.’

Those had actually been his father’s words. Lewis had thought he’d followed them; in truth, he had when working cases, just not in his own personal relationships.

Dining Hall, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

Bailey was on her second cup of coffee when Lewis rushed in, his hair a mess and a worried expression on his face. He scanned the hall and ran over to her.

“Harlowe, what’s wrong?” she asked as he approached.

He halted, putting both hands on the table and breathing hard. “Where is DJ? Have you seen her?”

“Man, you must be starving. Patience, detective.” She pointed in the direction of the kitchen. “She’ll get your order ready, but mine should be coming out first.”

“So you’ve seen her?” Lewis pressed.

Bailey held up her cup of Precious Galaxy coffee, steam rising off its surface. “She handed this to me herself.”

Lewis let out a breath and slid into the seat opposite. “Ricky Bobby?” he called out.

No answer.

“He’s busy helping Hatch with the Pip project,” Bailey informed him. “Said it would take his full attention.”

Lewis nodded.

“You know, I don’t really drink coffee, but this stuff is delicious,” Bailey said, holding the coffee under her nose. “Hints of chocolate and chicory. It’s like heaven in a cup.”

Vitos entered from the kitchen, an apron tied around his waist and a full tray in his arms.

He greeted Lewis with a chirp and set down the tray. “Who had the short stack of pancakes?” the alien asked, holding up the plate and looking around the empty dining hall.

Bailey held up her hand.

Vitos nodded and slid it in front of her before picking up another plate. “And the veggie omelet with a side of country potatoes and bacon?” He looked around again, searching.

“That would be me,” Bailey answered.

“Oh, right.” Vitos picked up a third plate. “What about the oatmeal with a side of ham?”

Bailey waved her hand in the air. “Me. Me. Me.”

Lewis widened his eyes, leaning back as Vitos made room for the mountain of food.

“Uhhh… Are you eating for two? Or rather, four?” the detective asked.

“No, that would be Liesel.”

Bailey poured hot syrup onto the thick pancakes, enjoying the way it was absorbed immediately. She cut a large bite and held it up victoriously before sticking it in her mouth.

“Welcome to Morning Glory,” Vitos said to Lewis, pulling a pad and pen from his apron. “What can I get for you?”

The man laughed. “You and DJ are running a restaurant now?”

Vitos leaned down. “We’re pretending. You don’t have to pay. It was the little human’s idea. She said it would be fun and keep morale up.”

“Good idea.” Lewis looked around. “Do you have a menu?”

“I told you they’d want menus,” Vitos called to the back.

Dejoure stuck her head through the door. “We don’t need them.”

Vitos nodded, turning back around. “We can make whatever you want here at Morning Glory, or your money back.”

“But you said…” Lewis began, then shook his head. “Nevermind. I’ll take a waffle with a side of bacon.”

Vitos scribbled something on the pad and strode off.

“What? Is that all you’re ordering?” Bailey said through a mouthful of egg.

Lewis leaned forward. “I’m not sure there’s any food left, after your order.”

Her hand shot up again, like she was waiting to be called on in class. “Oh, I forgot something!”

Vitos’s head popped out through the door. “Yes, customer?”

“Can I get a mimosa, but make it light on the orange juice?” she asked.

“Coming right up!” their ‘waiter’ sang.

Lewis watched as Bailey sliced her pancakes into strips. “Jack wants us to get down to Makare again. Try and get to the database,” he told her.

“I’ve heard.” She licked the sticky syrup from her fork.

Vitos was fast, delivering the mimosa a moment later on a tray that was lined with a white doily.

“Oh, nice touch,” Bailey complimented, pointing to the frilly decoration.

“Thank you,” Vitos said. “It’s the little details that count.”

“Vee, when do you get a day off from the restaurant?” Lewis asked.

“Actually,” the alien said, taking a seat and unrolling the napkin beside him, sticking it into the collar of his uniform. “I’m on break right now.”

“Well, we have to try and make it down to Makare again,” Lewis repeated for him. “Would you like to go with us, since you’re somewhat familiar with this system?”

Vitos picked up his fork and knife and tapped them on the table. “Absolutely, as soon as I’ve had my breakfast.”

“Oh, should I go and get it for you?” Lewis asked.

“No, the little human kicked me out of the kitchen,” Vitos explained. “She said I was hovering.”

Bailey polished off the last of her pancakes and moved the plate out of her way. “She can be bossy, but she makes the best pancakes in the world.”

The kitchen door swung open, and Dejoure appeared holding a large tray. A pink bandana was wrapped around her head, keeping her hair back. She set the tray down and unloaded its contents. Vitos’s eyes seemed to glaze over when she laid a plate containing a large pork chop in front of him.

Lewis didn’t look at all interested in the waffle and bacon DJ put in front of him, only studying the girl. “So you’re looking…”

“Alive,” she supplied, her focus on the food. She counted the plates, then reacted like she was missing something.

“Yes, that’s exactly how I was going to put it,” he agreed. “Any premonitions last night?”

“Yes,” Dejoure said, nodding at Bailey. “She gets an awful stomachache later. She was warned, though.”

Bailey crammed the last strip of bacon into her mouth. “Worth it.”

“Oh, and Liesel joins us for breakfast!” Dejoure exclaimed. “I almost forgot her food.” She bustled off for the kitchen.

“But she hasn’t ordered it yet,” Lewis called.

“Premonition!” Dejoure yelled back.

He laughed and filled the empty mug beside his plate with the coffee from the carafe sitting in the middle of the table.

“Waffles, huh?” Bailey said, indicating Lewis’s plate.

“Yeah, so?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I happen to be a pancake person myself. There’s little better in this world than a hot, fluffy, pancake smothered in maple syrup.”

“I have to disagree with you there,” Lewis argued. “A crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside waffle is by far superior to a mushy pancake.”

Bailey took a sip of her mimosa and shook her head. “I suppose you’re a chicken-sandwich guy, then, when hamburgers are clearly the better food.”

He scoffed at her. “Do not insult my character. Why would I order chicken if I weren’t on a diet? And cheeseburger is the best option. Without cheese, it’s really not worth my time.”

Bailey looked up to the ceiling like she was praying. “There is hope for him after all.”

Sebastian scurried into the room like he was being chased. He raced up the side of the table and crouched down on the surface. The ferret then sped forward and grabbed the napkin beside Lewis’s hand and threw it over his plate. Then, like completing an obstacle course, he managed his way around the plates and pulled Vitos’s napkin from where it was tucked, making it fall down over his pork chop.

“Uhhh…is this a game?” Lewis asked. “I don’t know the rules. Are we supposed to find our food?”

Bailey poured the brown sugar over her oatmeal. “Well, this is going to take you two all day, then.”

Liesel entered, her hand over her nose and a tentative expression in her eyes.

“Hey, how are you feeling?” Bailey asked. “This food isn’t making you sick, is it?”

“No,” Liesel said, striding over like she was magnetized to the table. “Quite the opposite. What is that smell?”

“Ummm…pancakes, maybe?” she asked.

Liesel shook her head. Sebastian climbed from the table up to Liesel’s shoulder. For some reason, he looked quite anxious, like he’d punish the others at the table if they misbehaved.

“Maybe it’s my waffle,” Lewis suggested, pulling the napkin off his plate.

“No, it’s that.” Liesel pointed to the bacon sitting alongside the waffle.

Sebastian buried his head in her shoulder.

Vitos pulled the napkin from his own plate. “Well, if that little game is over, I’d like to get back to eating.”

Liesel’s eyes oscillated between Vitos’s and Lewis’s plates, a ravenous look on her face.

“Liesel Diesel, are you having any cravings with your pregnancy yet?” Bailey asked.

The engineer shook her head, not taking her gaze off the table. “No, none that I can think of. I ate a jar of peanut butter and a roll of mints earlier, but for some reason, I’m still hungry.”

Bailey pushed away from the table, trying to breathe, although her full stomach made it tough. “Eat at Morning Glory, and you won’t be hungry for long.”

“Yeah, maybe I’ll have some oatmeal,” Liesel considered, eyeing Bailey’s empty bowl, though not with the same interest she’d shown the meat on the other plates.

“Well, I’d better go get ready for our flight,” Bailey said, rising as Dejoure came from the kitchen holding a plate loaded with bacon, ham and sausage.

“Yeah, same here,” Lewis said, stretching. “DJ, can we help you with the dishes?”

Dejoure slid the plate onto the table and gave Lewis a horrified expression. “What sort of place do you think this is? Have my customers do their own dishes? Never.” She snapped at Vitos. “That’s what the waitstaff is for.”

Lewis laughed. “We’re actually going to steal your waiter for a mission, if you don’t mind.”

Dejoure smiled. “I don’t mind at all. It was part of our agreement. Missions first, restaurant stuff second.”

“Well, thank you for probably the best breakfast I’ve ever had,” Bailey said.

“And you’re feeling okay?” Dejoure asked.

The lieutenant nodded. “Yes, you were right. Leaving off the blueberry muffin probably saved me. Good call. I’m full enough.”

Lewis shook his head at her. “Yes, thank you. We’ll be back for dinner.”

“Good, I’m roasting a rack of lamb,” Dejoure said.

“I’ll be back to help with dinner service,” Vitos said, rising and following Lewis and Bailey out.

Dejoure slid the plate of meat over in front of Liesel, who looked to be in a trance. “I’m going to leave this here in case someone else from the crew gets hungry and wants to nibble.”

She gave the engineer a wink and disappeared into the kitchen.

Chapter Thirteen

Q-Ship, Near Planet Makare, Hapeti System

Lewis looked out at the bright colors of various gases, swirling around the planets of the Precious galaxy like cotton candy. In the distance, stars twinkled like etheric diamonds waiting to be mined.

“Do you think it’s possible that there can be more than one monster?” Bailey asked, steering the Q-Ship toward the blue and tan planet of Makare.

“It’s possible, but not probable,” Lewis stated. “From everything I’ve deduced, it took Vance decades to create the monster. Replicating it can’t be easy.”

“But if he already has the procedure, it could be done,” Bailey said.

“If Pip was here, he could tell us for certain,” Lewis said, a bit of disappointment in his voice.

It felt odd to be on a flight and not have the AI’s assistance. His presence was meant to be a safeguard, but unfortunately, Pip was a distraction when tensions were high.

“Well, we have Vitos, and he’s pretty much an expert on this galaxy.” Bailey looked back at the alien.

“I’m not, though,” Vitos argued. “The Hapeti system isn’t that familiar to me, although I have taken many shipments to the headquarters on Tarana.”

“Headquarters?” Lewis asked.

“Precious Galaxy Coffee Company,” he replied. “Their headquarters are here.”

“An important detail you definitely could have shared before now.” The detective cast Vitos an irritated expression.

“Sorry, I hadn’t realized it was important,” the alien said sheepishly.

“But Vance put this database on Makare,” Bailey reasoned. “Why risk putting it in a system that is frequented due to the presence of a major corporation’s headquarters?”

“Well, it’s not like many would notice activity on Makare,” Vitos stated. “There are fifteen moons orbiting Tarana.”

“He must have found a way around orbital sensors that detect system traffic,” Lewis mused.

“More of his hocus pocus,” Bailey commented.

Vitos nodded. “And since Tarana dominates this system, the other planets aren’t really given much thought.”

“What is on Makare, anyway?” Bailey asked.

“Not much, from what I’ve heard,” Vitos stated. “It’s a newer planet, so the vegetation and animals are supposedly small, and there’s no alien civilization.”

Bailey cast Lewis a knowing look. “Sounds like the perfect place to hide a database.”

The Q-Ship crossed into Makare’s atmosphere without the crew seeing a single Monstre Corp ship or any sign of the monster itself.

The planet was small and featured only a few land masses, all with squatty trees, so it was easy to spot a building covered in solar panels.

“Think we found one of the Sutras.” Lewis pointed.

“Yes, what do you think? Maybe it’s Sutra Four and it’s covered in propaganda from some evil dictator,” Bailey joked.

He nodded quite seriously. Sutra 6 and 9 both had quotes from controversial leaders—Sutra 6, Lenin and Sutra 9, Stalin—plastered in the main area. Vance obviously used some warped ideology to string together his operations.

“Do you think they’ve abandoned their posts?” Vitos asked.

Lewis saw what he meant. There was nothing. No patrols, or monster guarding the building. That didn’t seem right.

“I don’t think so,” he replied.

“Then where is everyone?” Bailey scanned the radar. There wasn’t anything threatening.

“Maybe the guards are on rotation,” Lewis reasoned.

She laughed. “That only works in movies.”

“Well, maybe we’ve caught a break,” he suggested hopefully.

“Dammit, Harlowe. What have I said about jinxing us?” she asked.

“That it isn’t a problem, since jinxing is only a superstition, which you’re too smart to put any stock into?” Lewis sang quickly without a taking a breath.

Bailey shook her head. “Maybe Vance moved the database after our last attempt.”

“Maybe, but that doesn’t seem like Vance’s style,” Lewis considered.

“When did you start thinking like a power-hungry psychopath?” Bailey asked.

“It’s my job to think like the bad guy.”

“Let’s hope that doesn’t corrupt you over time,” Bailey joked.

The ship rocked suddenly as it passed through a strange, invisible barrier. The cloak shut down, making the ship visible.

“What’s happening?” Lewis asked, as several warning lights blinked on the dash.

Bailey flew forward, checking her instruments. “We’ve hit something…wait, not hit... We’ve gone through something.”

“Like a shield?”

“Like a security system,” she answered. “Oh, hell.”

From the planet that had appeared deserted moments prior, single flyers began launching into action. Around the Q-Ship, several craft materialized.

“Where did those jerks come from?” Bailey asked, darting to avoid colliding with a missile flying in their direction.

“Could they have gated?” Lewis asked.

Bailey pointed to the controls. “I’m not sure. I need you on the guns. Remember what I taught you: shoot fast and aim true.”

Lewis nodded, grabbing the weapons controls. He released several rounds of fire, although accuracy was more difficult than speed, with Bailey’s fancy flying. However, she was keeping the enemy off them, which was most important.

They were surrounded, and more were rising up from Makare, headed in their direction.

“It can’t be gates,” Bailey decided, jerking hard on the controls to roll away from cannons that were twisting and turning, bent on finding their target. “Those have to be constructed and have set locations. They’ve spontaneously jumped using a different kind of engine. That’s the only explanation.”

“Doesn’t the Q-ship jump? It doesn’t need gates, right?” Lewis asked.

“Yes, which used to be technology unique to us,” Bailey said through gritted teeth. She was hyper-focused, making every move with incredible accuracy.

“Guys, I realize that you have your hands full, but I wanted to point out something.” Vitos gestured to the port side where, not too far in the distance, the monster had materialized.

“For all that is holy! Dammit!” Bailey ignited the second thrusters, pushing the team back in their seats. Still, the cannons and missiles kept following them, ever insistent on finding their target.

Lewis shot down two ships, but five more materialized not far behind them.

“Jumping? Can I throw that out again?” Lewis asked.

Bailey blew out a breath. “Yeah, fine, but I’ve never done it before, and without an AI, I’m not entirely comfortable doing so.”

“What’s the worst that can happen?” Lewis asked. “Because if we stay here, we’re either toast or uploaded.”

“I’m not sure,” she admitted, starting the activation mode for the jump sequence. “But I do know that jumping close to other objects, like planets or aircraft, could have serious repercussions.”

“Like blowing them up?” he questioned.

Bailey nodded, her hand hovering over the button.

“Well, then, get as far from Makare as possible, luring some of these hooligans with you,” Lewis proposed. “Let’s preserve the planet while taking out the bad guy.”

Bailey agreed, and sped the ship away from the planet before smashing her hand down on the red button.

Chapter Fourteen

Q-Ship, Near Planet Tarana, Hapeti System

The Q-Ship shook, rattling so loudly Bailey wondered if it would split in half. This was the first time she’d ever been on a Q-Ship when it jumped.

The Q-Ship disappeared, and Bailey fell through darkness, like she were suddenly stuck in a deep sleep. An abrupt bright light flashed across her vision, and searing pain roared in her head. A loud snap, and bam, Bailey was floating through space, sitting on the Q-Ship like before… However, the planetary placements were definitely different.

She turned to check on Lewis and Vitos; they were passed out. Recovery from a jump like this could take anywhere from several seconds to a few minutes.

Bailey marveled at the crater-strewn moons that revolved around the ship. She’d never seen a planet with so many. Tarana was a large, orange orb with two rings and pools of green gas that masked parts of the surface.

On the list of things Bailey had never seen was a planet with so much mystery. She didn’t think life could survive on a gas giant, and yet this was where Vitos had said the headquarters for Precious Galaxy Coffee Company was located. Lightning storms brewed under a cloud of orange gas. Sparks zigzagged along the surface to a dark mass that swirled near the equator of the planet.

Bailey found herself mesmerized by the strange planet, but she couldn’t figure out where the headquarters for a giant corporation could be located.

Lewis stirred beside her, slowly waking from unconsciousness.

“Welcome back, detective,” Bailey said, grateful to not be alone near the strange planet. “Did you enjoy your nap?”

“Huh?” He scratched his head, sitting up. “Nap? I fell asleep?”

“Well, passed out is more like it,” she told him, noticing that Vitos was also starting to stir. “I really thought our other pilot would have a faster recovery time than you.”

Lewis looked back at Vitos, whose wings were twitching erratically, as if they were not within his control as he awoke. “I’m going to guess that was his first jump; I’d cut him some slack.” He rubbed his eyes, still seeming to be recovering from the jolt.

Bailey hadn’t jumped them far, but still, jumping in the Q-Ship was like waking up after a hundred years of sleep. Even she felt like her brain was still coming to terms with the shock.

“Whoa.” Lewis leaned forward, staring out at the giant planet in front of them. “Do you think it’s safe to be this close?”

Bailey checked her instruments again, as she’d done a hundred times since awaking in this location. “Yes, our shields are holding fine.”

“Good,” he said with relief. “So we didn’t take that much of a hit during the fight?”

“We were nearly wiped out, but made it away in time,” she assured him. “And better yet, I’m certain we probably took out half a dozen of Monstre’s ships when we jumped.”

“That’s something to celebrate,” Lewis agreed, his eyes still wide as he studied the many peculiar sights before them.

The moons that orbited Tarana were of various sizes and colors.

“Vitos, when you’ve acclimated, would you mind telling me where the headquarters for Precious Galaxy Coffee is located?” Bailey asked. “I’m having a hard time believing it’s suspended in this gas, like Starboards Corp was. At this point, though, I’ll believe anything.”

He chirped with laughter. “It’s location is one of the many disguises of Precious Galaxy Coffee Company. The Tuetians are the only ones who know about its location, since we’re responsible for delivering their beans.”

“So it is floating somewhere among this gas and lightning?” Bailey asked, searching.

Again, another soft laugh. “The most inhabitable celestial body isn’t necessarily a planet. That’s what our mind defaults to when we think of locations.”

“That’s quickly changing, believe me,” Bailey remarked.

Vitos smiled good-naturedly. “A planet always gets all the attention; that’s where our eyes go first. However, the moons in orbit around large, gaseous planets are the best locations for life.”

Bailey’s mouth popped open as she scanned the many moons spinning around Tarana. “Of course. Precious Galaxy Coffee is located on a moon. Which one?”

“Are you having a serious craving?” Lewis asked. “Is that the reason for this unexpected detour?”

She smirked. “Well, we need a plan of attack before we return to Makare. Jack can help us with that when we return. But while we’re close to these headquarters, let’s see if they know anything about Monstre Corp.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Lewis mused. “Do you think they’ll know anything?”

Bailey shrugged. “They might. And it’s the largest corporation in this galaxy, probably soon to seep into the Federation. Aren’t you curious about it? There’s literally one of their stores on every level in the Gable Station. Don’t you find that interesting? They’ve got to be worth checking out.”

Lewis agreed. “It is strange, I’ll admit. And they sound oddly secretive. What are you thinking? Want to ask for a factory tour?”

“In a sense.” Bailey gave Vitos a nod. “Do you know a way in? I want to take a look around. Maybe they’ve got intel on Monstre Corp.”

“Yes, I should be able to get you in there through the loading area.” Vitos pointed. “It’s the second moon there, the purplish one.”

Bailey narrowed her eyes in the direction he indicated. “You mean the one with active volcanos?”

“Yes, that would be the one,” he chirped. “Don’t worry, they are on the far side of the moon. Apparently, Precious Galaxy Coffee uses the molten lava in their bean-roasting technique. It’s why their coffee is considered superior, but that’s something that most don’t know.”

Bailey gave Lewis a tentative expression. “What do you think? Want to check it out?”

The building was masked in a cloud of swirling gray smoke, almost reminiscent of the monster. When it wisped to the side, making the large headquarters visible, Lewis’s mouth fell open.

The facility was huge, with spires reaching up high into the air, smoke puffing out of them in ringlets. The building itself was shaped like a mountain, seemingly organic, and yet it was covered in reflective steel like a skyscraper. Ships zoomed in and out from the loading areas, making the facility look like an undiscovered city, surrounded by purple desert and volcanos in the distance.

“Yes!” Lewis enthused. “That’s a big, fat yes.”

Chapter Fifteen

Precious Galaxy Coffee Headquarters, Near Planet Tarana, Hapeti System

Lewis wasn’t sure what to expect when they docked at Precious Galaxy Coffee headquarters. They’d trespassed into a few of Vance’s territories and had always been on guard as they snuck onto the private property. For that reason, he and Bailey both had their weapons at the ready when the ship door opened to the connector tube.

A man wearing a suit like that of a butler hopped back, fear registering on his face. He held up his gloved hands, looking between Lewis and Bailey as he stammered, “W-w-what do you want?”

Vitos slipped between the detective and the lieutenant, his wings flapping. “Excuse my friends, Phillip. They come in peace.”

“Then why are they aiming weapons at me?” Phillip asked.

Vitos glanced back at them. “I think you can lower that. Phillip is harmless.”

Lewis nodded, putting his gun away. “Sorry. We weren’t sure if we’d be wanted here, since we weren’t invited.”

“And we didn’t expect to be greeted right out of the hatch,” Bailey added.

“Of course, I greet all our guests,” Phillip said, bowing. “And although invites are usually required, you are with Vitos Rigar, a much-appreciated guest of PGC.”

“Thank you, Phillip,” Vitos said, blushing. “My friends here were only curious about the headquarters. Would it be alright if I showed them around a bit? I understand if you’d prefer they not—”

Phillip held up his gloved hand, pausing the Tuetian. “As I said before, Vitos, anyone with you is considered a friend. Please allow me to direct the tour for you?”

Vitos smiled, his large eyes lighting up. “That would be great.”

“However, I will have to alert Dave about your guests,” Phillip said.

“Dave is here?” Vitos asked, his tone more excited.

“Who is Dave?” Lewis questioned.

“Dave Pruitt,” Vitos answered, like that explained everything.

“Oh yes, he’s just arrived after a meeting on Gamble,” Phillip stated. His face suddenly went blank, and his eyes glassed over. A moment later, life returned to his features. “I’ve informed Dave. He’s delighted and would like to see you in person.”

“Wonderful!” Vitos sang. “Lead the way.”

“I will,” Phillip said at once. “However, I have visitors at another connector. Actually, a delivery crew from Tueti. Would you mind holding while I greet them?”

“Not at all,” Vitos said formally.

Lewis had never seen him like this. He hadn’t fit in with the Tuetians, but here, he seemed welcome and quite at home.

He turned his attention to their greeter. He’d expected this Phillip to turn and stride down the connector; he hadn’t expected him to simply disappear. “Whoa, where did he go?”

Vitos turned, giving him a curious look. “He told you. Weren’t you listening? He went to greet the other visitors.”

“So he teleported?” Bailey asked.

Vitos shook his head like that was preposterous. “No, Phillip doesn’t have a body—he’s a hologram. He’s the headquarters’ AI.”

“Wow. So he’s a projection,” Lewis said with a hush. “That’s brilliant.”

“Who is this Dave Pruitt?” Bailey asked, staring around skeptically.

“He’s the CEO of Precious Galaxy Coffee, of course. How do you not know that?”

“We’re not from these parts, remember?” Lewis reminded him.

Vitos nodded, recalling that tidbit.

“The CEO of this place,” Bailey swept her arm around to indicate the vast headquarters, “wants to see you personally?”

“Does he greet all those who deliver coffee beans?” Lewis asked. “That seems a bit like micromanagement.”

Vitos shook his head. “I met Dave by accident. The headquarters is quite extraordinary, with a focus on making employees feel at home. For this reason, many areas are devoted to encouraging creativity. I’m sort of sorry to say that, on a delivery, I strayed from the warehouse into one of these areas on the second level, where Dave found me using the large digital canvas. I thought I was in for it, but he wasn’t mad at all. Since then, he’s encouraged me to ‘meet’ with him every time I’ve delivered. Really, it was an excuse for me to use the digital canvas without anyone from Tueti learning about it.”

“This Dave sounds like a nice guy,” Lewis observed.

“He’s not like any leader I’ve ever met before,” Vitos agreed.

“Did you consider telling us that you were so welcome here?” Bailey asked.

“Honestly, I wasn’t sure that I would be,” Vitos explained. “I’m not with the Tuetians anymore; I’m an outsider who isn’t delivering coffee beans.”

The hologram of the AI reappeared, a genuine smile on his face. “Pardon me for the interruption. Are you ready for the tour?”

Lewis gave Bailey a curious look. Neither one had expected to be greeted with such thoughtfulness. “Yes, I think so.”

Phillip extended his arm to Bailey formally. “May I, my lady?”

Her eyes widened and for a moment. She didn’t know how to respond. After a long pause, she forced a smile and pretended to take the hologram’s arm, hers passing right through it. “Uhhh. Thank you. I never expected such formality.”

“Of course,” Phillip said, leading them out. “Dave says that manners are lost in this day and age of technology. Therefore, I was programmed to bring back the old traditions.”

Lewis extended his arm to Vitos. “Shall we?”

Vitos eyed the offered arm for a moment, and then followed behind Bailey and Phillip on his own.

Lewis dropped his arm and charged forward. “Oh, fine then. I was trying to be nice.”

“I prefer not to be touched, if it’s all the same,” Vitos said, his feet coming off the ground as his wings picked him up slightly.

Phillip led them to a large area where hundreds of crates of coffee beans sat in stacks. A dozen Tuetians buzzed back and forth from various connectors unloading crates. At the back of the loading zone, two Tuetians were putting crates onto conveyor belts that disappeared into a hole in the wall.

The aliens were all busy flying and unloading, like worker bees in a colony. None of them spoke or showed any individual personality. Lewis studied them and noticed how they all looked similar in shades of reds and oranges. Vitos, in contrast, had shimmering blues and greens on his head, legs, arms and wings. His face also had an individuality to it, making him appear more personable.

“The coffee beans from Tueti are delivered here,” Phillip explained, leading them through the large room. “They go to another department for quality assurance. If you’ll please follow me up these escalators, we can cross into that area.”

The escalators led to a catwalk that ran the length of the room. There were various employees stationed up there, supervising the unloading of the crates.

Their group paused to wait for three Tuetians flying by, carrying crates. A soft wind from the aliens’ wings hit Lewis as they passed, their eyes focused on the conveyor belts. He chanced a glance at Vitos, who had his head low and appeared to be ducking down behind Phillip.

It must be odd to see his own here and not reach out to them. Maybe he’s trying to figure out how to say something?

When the traffic passed, they crossed the intersection and headed straight for the escalators up to the loft area.

“Vitos?” a voice called at their backs.

They turned to see that one of the Tuetians returning to the connector had broken formation. He zipped over so fast, Lewis’s eyes hardly registered his trajectory. He’d never seen Vitos move that way, blurring as he flew.

The Tuetian now bore down on Vitos, looking at him from above. “Is that you?”

Vitos sputtered out a cough as he landed on his feet, his wings going still. “Soro. Uhhh. Yes, it is me.”

“Hey!” the Tuetian called to the others returning to the connectors. “Look who it is! Vitos!”

Three Tuetians flew over like Soro had, whirling through the air effortlessly. The others only shook their heads and kept on working.

“Vitos!” the first Tuetian who landed said. “Are you okay? We heard you disappeared. We thought those trespassers abducted you.”

“Ummm. I’m fine,” Vitos said, staring down at the floor, his wings drooping like the expression on his face. “I left with them.”

Soro looked Bailey and Lewis over, heat flaring across his face as he fluttered in the air. “The trespassers. How dare you show up here?”

Phillip stepped in front of the group. “These visitors are under my protection.”

“But they trespassed onto Tueti and then escaped without being tried,” Soro stated.

Phillip looked back at Bailey and Lewis. “Yes, they appear to trespass a lot. However, at PGC, curiosity is rewarded, not punished.”

“The commander will want to know about this,” one of the other Tuetians stated, circling the group. “He’ll want to know about you, Vitos.”

Vitos’s shoulders slumped with defeat. “Please don’t tell the commander.”

“We will have to,” the Tuetian said. “You should return with us to state your case.”

Vitos lifted his head. “No. I won’t.”

“But you must!”

Vitos’s wings began to beat, lifting him off the ground. They didn’t beat rhythmically, like the others’, but rather haphazardly. Still, he managed to bring himself even with the others.

“No,” he said boldly. “I refuse. It is my choice, and I don’t want to.”

“You know that is irrelevant,” Soro said, rising so he was a foot higher and looking down at Vitos. “Choice is not something we have the luxury of, and you know that.”

Vitos’s face flushed red as he willed himself to beat his wings harder. He rose, but then dropped several inches. He let out a grunt as he tried again. The Tuetians around him watched this with mild interest.

When he was sweating profusely and nearly out of breath, he rose to meet Soro’s height. “No! I have a choice, and I choose to not return.”

Soro didn’t answer, but instead twirled around, rising like a helicopter. The wind from his wings hit Vitos, and he tumbled through the air and fell to the ground, landing hard on his back.

Bailey and Lewis ran over at once to help him, while the Tuetians gathered around and laughed loudly, effortlessly hovering in the air.

“We don’t want you back anyway,” Soro said, lowering again to be even with the others. “Why would we want a Tuetian who can’t fly?”

Vitos was visibly shaking, but allowed Bailey to help him up and brush him off. Lewis gave Phillip a pointed glare. The AI took the hint right away.

“Yes, you all need to finish the delivery,” Phillip said, rising into the air like he had wings and ushering the Tuetians to the connectors. “My guests have a tour awaiting them, and this has been quite the interruption.”

The Tuetians cast menacing glares at Vitos as he hobbled between Lewis and Bailey toward the escalators.

“Are you all right?” Bailey asked him.

“Yes, I’m fine,” Vitos said in a hush. “I landed wrong. My foot will be fine.”

Lewis didn’t point out that Vitos hadn’t landed at all, but rather fell. He was about to pat him on the back instead, when he remembered what his friend had said about Tuetians not liking to be touched.

“Don’t worry about them,” he said soothingly. “They are lemmings who can’t think for themselves. You’re an individual who has us.”

Vitos made to nod, but his feeling of defeat was too heavy. “Yeah, but they can fly. You see how they move with such grace and speed. That’s the way Tuetians were meant to fly. I’m a failure.”

Bailey shook her head. “You are unique. If you could fly like them, then you’d probably be working like they are. However, you’re on your own path. When we can’t fly, we learn other ways to soar.”

Lewis gave Bailey an impressed look. “Wow, Walt Whitman. When did you start writing poetry?”

“Shush it, Harlowe,” Bailey snapped.

Phillip materialized beside the group as they reached the top of the escalators. He calmly smoothed his suit. “I apologize for the interruption. Shall we continue with the tour?”

He led them through a set of double doors to another large room. The aroma of coffee whacked Lewis in the face instantly.

Below, on the conveyer belts, the crates were being opened up and laid flat in a single line. The belts then took them to another area, where employees stood, inspecting the beans.

“Each bean is checked five times before it passes through to the roasting room,” Phillip explained.

“Each? Five times?” Lewis echoed.

“Well, naturally,” Phillip said plainly. “A bad bean makes bad coffee, and we can’t have that.”

Bailey sniffed the air, rising on her toes like she was being pulled in. “Yes, and PGC makes the very best, for sure.”

Phillip led them to a bank of elevators. “Then it sounds like we should have a tasting.”

“But what about the next room?” Lewis asked.

Phillip chuckled. “It’s unadvisable for humans to go into the roasting room. We use robots for that, since exposure to molten lava can be fatal.”

Lewis nodded. “Molten lava. Right. Yeah, good call on skipping that part of the tour.”

“We can discuss the packaging and distribution over a cup of joe,” Phillip said. “We have several flavors, including a peppermint dark roast and a Kahlua blend.”

Bailey gave Lewis a look of anticipation. “Glad we stopped off, now?”

“Very,” he said with a wink.

The elevator was mostly glass, giving them a view of the sorting room as they rose higher. They ascended past three more levels, but moved so fast it was hard to take in too many details. Finally, the elevator halted gently, and the doors bounced open with a soft ding.

“I’ll have to leave you here,” Phillip said, not getting off the elevator. “Something has come up. I do apologize, but Vitos knows this level well and can show you around. I wouldn’t cut the tour short, except I have important work I must attend to immediately.”

“Is there another delivery?” Lewis asked. “Do you need to greet someone?”

Phillip shook his head. “There are some problems with the merger paperwork. I do apologize, as I was immensely enjoying my time with you all.” The AI smiled and disappeared.

Lewis looked at Bailey tentatively. “Did he say ‘merger’?”

She nodded carefully. “The big question is, who is Precious Galaxy Coffee merging with?”

Chapter Sixteen

Precious Galaxy Coffee Headquarters, Near Planet Tarana, Hapeti System

“Holy mother of Jesus!” Bailey exclaimed, looking up at the waterfall that gushed overhead, cascading down what must have been three stories and landing in a glistening pool. The mist from the waterfall hit her in the face, making her feel suddenly refreshed. Who needs a cup of coffee when they can be misted by a man-made waterfall?

Still, the aroma of freshly roasted coffee brewing in the distance mixed with the saltwater air, making a strangely intriguing combination. The atrium was crowded with tables and chairs, where people sat enjoying cups of coffee and biscotti. Groups chatted easily, and solo parties lounged, reading books or meditating.

“There’s a café over here,” Vitos said, pointing. He could hardly be heard over the rush of water nearby.

“Where is the digital canvas you were talking about?” Lewis asked.

Vitos looked to the side tentatively. “Would you want to see that before getting coffee?” He was holding back his excitement.

“Of course,” Bailey said. “Show us.”

Vitos allowed a smile. “Okay then, follow me.” He strode off to the right, rising off the ground slightly as his wings began to beat with excitement. “This area is the main café, as you might have guessed. There’s one on every floor, and the employees are encouraged to take breaks regularly.”

“How do I get a job here?” Bailey asked.

Lewis nudged her. “You know you’d hate having a break.”

She agreed reluctantly. “Yeah, I totally would. Still, I wonder what relaxing feels like.”

Vitos led them into a tall hallway that was lined with large paintings, most of them abstracts. As the sound of rushing water died away, music could be heard.

Piano, Bailey thought.

Vitos halted before a giant room.

In the center of the space was a giant statue of a woman who resembled the greek goddess Athena, holding a spear. She wore a long, flowing gown and had roses pressed into her flowing tresses. She seemed to peer down on the room, guarding it. The walls around her were painted to resemble the Precious galaxy, with planets, stars, and streams of bluish and pink and deep purple space connecting it all.

The room was like a giant museum, sectioned off into different areas. Closest to them was a grand piano, and behind it was a woman playing with her eyes closed. She swayed with the music, seemingly on another plane.

There was a row of chess tables, and most of the chairs were occupied by players. Beside them was an area where people hung from long, suspended, silk fabric. Like dancers, they twirled, turned and stretched.

“It’s a form of aerial acrobatics apparently,” Vitos said, following Bailey’s gaze. “It’s called ‘the silks’.”

“Interesting,” Bailey commented.

“The digital canvases are over here.” Vitos sped off to the other side of the room.

Bailey and Lewis followed. When they were in the middle of the room, Bailey looked up to find the goddess towering directly above them. She seemed to look down with a thoughtful grace. Bailey imagined that she could come to life at any moment and swoop down and pick her up.

She shook her head. This place is playing with my brain.

Vitos halted in front of a row of white screens. The one next to him was roughly six by six foot. He picked up an object that resembled a wand and a palette that didn’t have any paint.

“The system is quite ingenious,” he told them. “I figured it out by briefly watching a woman who was beside me the first time.” He indicated to the three other screens, which were currently empty.

Vitos tapped the palette with the wand, and it was suddenly filled with various colors, like globs of paint. “I think I’ll start with a wide brush,” he said, tapping on the side of the palette.

He then touched the wand to a displayed color and brushed it across the screen. Bright blue paint streaked across the surface.

“Wow,” Bailey said, loving the way the color instantly gave life to the once blank canvas.

“Yes, it’s really cool,” Lewis agreed, watching as Vitos began filling the top of the canvas with blue, like he was making a sky.

“And so the artist returns!” a booming voice said at their backs.

Vitos turned, a bright smile on his face. “Dave!”

Standing only a few feet away was a stout man with a round stomach that complemented his full cheeks. He wore a plaid shirt, starched jeans, cowboy boots and a ten gallon hat. Even with his thick mustache, the smile on his face was visible.

“Vitos Rigar. It’s wonderful to see you. I was worried when I heard you went missing. They said you were abducted,” Dave said, striding forward and shaking Vitos’s hand.

The Tuetian’s head hung automatically, like it had before, when he was confronted by his peers. “I’m sorry to have worried you. I sort of ran away.”

Dave laughed loudly. “Don’t apologize. I ran away from my home galaxy when I was about your age, and it was the best thing I ever did. How does the old proverb go? ‘You can’t find your own sunlight under the shade of the family tree’.”

Vitos’s tension melted. “Yes, I heard about when you first came to Precious. The elders said that they found you hiking around Tueti.”

The CEO nodded. “I didn’t know at all what I was doing, but when I stumbled across the coffee bean fields, I knew I’d found a gem.”

“And the rest is history, as they say,” Vitos said jovially.

Dave turned his attention to Bailey and Lewis. “Where are my manners? I got carried away with my old friend, but it appears he’s brought me new friends.”

Bailey found herself smiling, although she wasn’t sure why. There was something about the man before her that set her at ease.

She extended a hand. “Hello. Thanks for having us. I’m Lieutenant Bailey Tennant.”

Dave’s handshake was neither too firm or too soft. “Pleased to meet you. And who is your handsome fellow?”

She blushed. “Oh, Harlowe isn’t mine.”

Lewis extended a hand to Dave. “Detective Lewis Harlowe, sir.”

Bailey had never heard Lewis say ‘sir’, or wear an easy grin, as she’d just done. There was something about the man before them; he changed people. Made them different, maybe better.

“A detective and a Federation officer.” Dave looked back at Vitos. “You’ve made some interesting friends.”

“They are on a mission,” he stated absentmindedly, looking at his composition.

“Mission you say?” Dave asked, giving his attention back to Bailey and Lewis. “Maybe you can fill me in on the details over a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll.” He rubbed his stomach. “I could use an afternoon snack. Actually, I could use a real meal, if I’m honest. Haven’t eaten in hours.”

“Yes, we were hoping you might have some intel on the case we’re working,” Bailey said.

“Well, I’m happy to share what I know. I’m not one to keep secrets from the authorities.” He leaned in close and whispered, “Unless it’s about my roasting formula. That, I’m taking to the grave. Only the robots, Phillip, and myself know the magic that happens in that room.”

“We heard about the lava,” Lewis said.

He laughed. “My boy, the lava is only part of it. But we’ll speak of it no longer.”

Dave waved them toward the entrance. Bailey and Lewis followed, but Vitos didn’t seem to catch the invitation.

Dave halted and spun back. “Vitos, my dear. I’m leaving you here to explore your genius. You know where to find us, I suppose.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll find you,” Vitos echoed, absorbed in his work, brushing a spot of yellow next to the blue.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Dave scratched his head, looking perplexed. “Monster? This is the first I’m hearing of it. I have heard of Monstre Corp, but not much, to be quite honest. Though my attention has pulled me away quite a bit lately. Something big in the works.”

Lewis stirred his cup of Himalayan chocolate latte, waiting for it to cool enough so he could take a sip. He hadn’t ordered the coffee; instead, Dave had made the order for him and Bailey, saying he could always peg a person’s favorite cup of joe. For Bailey, he’d ordered a salted caramel iced coffee. She’d argued, saying she didn’t usually like sweets.

“Nonsense, this combination is perfect for you,” Dave insisted. “Salty and sweet, and it’s cold, so you don’t have to wait to drink it.”

“I don’t like to have to wait for things,” she agreed.

The waiter set the iced coffee in front of her and pulled out a tablet. “What else can I get for you, Mr. Pruitt?”

He swept a hand toward Bailey and Lewis. “What would you two like?”

“What do you have?” Lewis asked.

Dave looked at the waiter, waiting for his answer.

“We have anything you could want.”

Bailey shot Lewis a look. “DJ would like this place.”

Dave laughed, seeming to get that it was an inside reference. “I like my employees to have whatever they like. I find that it keeps up morale and gives them one less thing to worry about.”

“Wait, you provide their meals for them every day?” Lewis asked, peering around at the various tables.

“Oh, yes. Three meals a day, snacks, and as much coffee as they need,” Dave said with a whistle.

“That’s really generous,” Bailey said.

“Well, there’s a reason Precious Galaxy Coffee is the biggest,” Dave stated. He looked at the waiter. “I’ll have my usual.”

The waiter then turned his attention to Bailey.

“You know what, I’ve been really craving a spicy Thai curry. Do you have that?” she asked.

“Red, yellow or green?” the waiter asked, not skipping a beat.

“Oh, red. With chicken,” Bailey said, and then quickly added, “and bamboo shoots.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the waiter said, looking at Lewis next.


He could literally have anything he wanted and wouldn’t have to feel bad about having Dejoure make it. He never wanted to put her out too much, although he knew she enjoyed it.

“I’ll have the filet mignon with mashed potatoes and a side salad,” Lewis said, his mouth already salivating.

“How would you like your steak?” the waiter asked, tapping on the tablet.

“Still mooing,” he answered.

Dave slapped the table with a loud chuckle. “I knew I liked you!”

The waiter bowed slightly before dismissing himself.

Bailey lifted the drink to her lips, a tentative expression on her face. She took a sip, and her eyes lit up. “Hey, this is…amazing. I never would have thought…”

Dave smiled, leaning back in his seat. He’d ordered a cup of black dark roast for himself, the house formula. “I told you. I can peg anyone’s perfect cup. It’s a gift.”

“Sir,” Lewis said, blowing on his coffee, wishing he could drink it. “Phillip mentioned a merger. Can you fill us in on that?”

“Well, remember I said that I had something big in the works?” Dave asked, his tone growing with excitement. “I love what I do, but to keep doing it at this pace is tough. I decided to merge Precious with another company, one that has promised to help with expansion into my home galaxy. You see, that’s the logical next step, but I really don’t have the inclination to do it.” He looked around fondly. “No, I’d like to stay here. Precious galaxy is my real home, but it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t share my wonderful coffee with those everywhere.”

“This company that you’re merging with?” Lewis asked, a knot rising in his throat.

“Darnedest thing. They approached me out of nowhere about a fortnight ago. Can you believe it? I’d been needing to expand, but didn’t know how. I love the way life provides.”

“Yes, incredible timing,” Bailey said, but her face didn’t match her words.

Lewis agreed with a nod. “This company… Is it by chance Starboards Corp?”

Dave pulled his cowboy hat off his head and scratched his mashed down patch of brown hair. “Well, son, you are quite the detective. How’d you figure that out?”

Lewis let out a heavy sigh. “I had a hunch. Starboards Corp is owned by the same man who owns Monstre Corp.”

“The one who sent a monster to abduct your entire crew?” Dave asked.

“Yes, sir,” Lewis confirmed. “And I have a suspicion that there’s a reason you haven’t run into the monster, like many others in Precious galaxy.”

“Yeah, it sounds like they want to use you as a pawn,” Bailey said, nodding.

The waiter arrived with a tray carrying their food. The smell of the steak and garlic mashed potatoes was even better than the aroma of the coffee. Lewis’s eyes locked onto the steak and, for a moment, he thought he was in love.

There’s nothing better than a thick-cut fillet, grilled to perfection.

Bailey looked as happy about the bowl of curry placed in front of her.

Lastly, the waiter set a large plate of chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and green beans in front of Dave. He picked up one of the green beans with his fingers and took a bite.

“So it sounds like I need to rethink this merger,” he mused, chewing.

“Yes, there’s something fishy about this,” Bailey reiterated. “Vance uses corporations, hiding behind them while they do his bidding. Meanwhile, Monstre is creating real evil, but no one gets any inkling about it.”

Dave popped the rest of the green bean into his mouth. “Well, I have to say it’s working, because I haven’t heard hide nor hair of this ‘Monstre Corp’.”

“I believe that’s by design,” Lewis stated, cutting into his steak. Mmmm…cooked to perfection.

“Okay, well, then it’s settled,” Dave stated, scooping up a forkful of mashed potatoes. “Phillip?”

The AI appeared beside the table, holding the lapels of his jacket. “Yes, sir?”

“Please cancel the merger with Starboards Corp,” Dave ordered.

“You don’t want to expand PGC?” Phillip asked.

“Remember I said I had a strange feeling about the company?” Dave asked.

Phillip agreed with a nod. “And I said that I couldn’t find much about their history.”

“That’s apparently because it’s a shifty organization,” Dave stated.

“They take orphans and experiment on them,” Bailey said, stirring her bright red curry. “DJ, who is now with us, was one of them. Now we have to manufacture a drug to keep her alive.”

Dave’s eyes widened. “Well, I’ll be. It’s a good thing you two paid me a visit when you did. The meeting to finalize the arrangement with Starboards’ CEO was scheduled for tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, Dr. Lukas is an evil man,” Bailey said bitterly.

Dave looked surprised. “Dr. Lukas? Well, that’s not who I’m supposed to meet with through video conference.”

“Is it Solomon Vance?” she asked.

Lewis’s fork clattered to his plate as the realization hit him. It all added up, but only for a person with a mind like his, who knew what he did.

Dave peered at him cautiously. “Is everything alright, son?”

“The CEO…” Lewis said. “Is it Melanie Myers?”

“Why, son, I don’t know how you keep doing that,” Dave said, shaking his head. “It’s like you’re in my head. That is the name of the CEO of Starboards Corp.”

Chapter Seventeen

Precious Galaxy Coffee Headquarters, Near Planet Tarana, Hapeti System

Of course. It all made so much sense to Lewis now.

Melanie had been obsessed with power since the beginning—he’d cautioned her on it when he was training her. So it made sense that, when given a giant sum of money, she’d buy a powerful corporation. And she’d been asking about Monstre Corp on Gable Station because it was part of her job; Vance would have asked her to ensure that his company had a low profile. But she was in the Precious galaxy, so maybe she was coming after Vance?

Maybe there’s more to this yet to unravel. Yes, there’s definitely more, and I need to figure it out.

Dave walked the three visitors back to their ship, rubbing his belly, which was full from the large meal. “You all are welcome here anytime. I know we’re not easy to find, but for those bright enough to locate us, they earn themselves a steak dinner and a cup of coffee.”

“Thank you, sir,” Bailey said.

“The meeting tomorrow…” Lewis began, his voice tense.

Dave nodded. “Yes, I’ll see if Phillip can trace Melanie’s location. No promises, my boy.”

Lewis extended a hand to the man. “We look forward to working with you.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Dave said loudly. “In a place as big as this galaxy, you need as many friends as possible. So remember, if you ever need an ally, I’m only a call away. Here at Precious, we make great coffee, but we have a lot more to offer.”

For the first time in years, Lewis felt close to redemption. He could taste it on his tongue, feel it in his hands. He could see Melanie paying for her treachery. It was ironic that she was a part of the evil he was already after. Of course Melanie bought an evil corporation.

Who knew what she’d been planning to do with Precious Galaxy Coffee Company, but her efforts had been thwarted. Dave was going to cancel the merger and put a tracer on her. Everything was finally going in the right direction.

Dave offered a hand to Vitos. “It’s been too long, old friend. Don’t stay away this long again. Your paintings are much appreciated in the library; that’s where we hang them.”

“They are in the library?” Vitos asked. He’d been buzzing with adrenaline since joining them in the café.

“Of course! Hell, the one you just painted is already getting framed and placed.”

“Thank you, Dave!” Vitos cheered.

Dave took off his hat and waved, smiling broadly at them as they boarded the Q-Ship.

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

Jack tapped his pen on his desk. He’d remained quiet for a full minute after Bailey and Lewis debriefed.

All Bailey had been able to think about since leaving PGC headquarters was returning. It wasn’t only the exquisitely cooked Thai curry that she longed for; it was the mystery and creativity in the place.

And Dave. That man. She didn’t know why, but she inherently trusted him. When they’d warned him about Starboards, he’d automatically canceled the merger. He was a man who respected others and saw a person’s real character, even complete strangers.

But then how was he nearly fooled by Melanie? She must be incredibly cunning and devious, Bailey concluded.

“Vance isn’t giving us any opening this time,” Jack finally stated.

Lewis nodded. “Yes, this new security system is troublesome.”

Jack waved off that concern. “That’s not a big deal. I’ll have Hatch engineer a way through without being noticed.”

“Yeah, detective,” Bailey said with a laugh. “We’ll just have the smartest mechanic in two galaxies fix us a solution. Obviously.”

“Of course, what was I thinking?” Lewis joked.

“Hatch is busy at the moment, but I’ll make this a priority when he’s done with his current project.” Jack drummed the silver ballpoint on the desk again, still off in thought. “The bigger concern for me is how we get into the facility.”

“What we need is a distraction,” Lewis offered.

Jack pressed out his lips, thinking. “Distractions are good, but I’d prefer an approach that changes Monstre’s strategy.”

“I’m not sure I’m following,” Bailey admitted.

Jack nodded with understanding, scooting in closer to his desk. “Right now, Vance knows we’re out here trying to get into the database, and he’s on the defensive. What I want is to get him to drop his guard. Before we entered Precious galaxy, he had this place to himself, he thought he was running things. That’s how you two were able to sneak into Sutras Six and Nine.”

“How do we convince him that we’re not a threat anymore?” Lewis asked.

“Well, before,” Jack began, his eyes scanning his desk without seeing, as he thought aloud, “Vance’s guard dropped because he thought the monster had uploaded all of Ghost Squadron.”

“So we fake our own death?” Lewis asked.

Jack lifted his chin, a smile blossoming on his face. “Exactly the strategy I’m considering. And if it works, we could kill two birds with one stone: make Monstre believe that we’re no longer a threat, and take down their evil cousin.”

“Starboards Corp,” Bailey nodded.

“Yes,” Jack affirmed. “Which we now know is newly owned by Melanie Myers.”

“So, really, we’d kill three birds with one stone,” Lewis said, a triumphant smile on his face. He rubbed his hands together eagerly. “What’s the plan?”

Jack rolled the pen around in his fingers, still deep in thought. “I need some time to work out the details, but it shouldn’t take long. However, for this to work, we’re going to need DJ.”

“I’m sure she’d be happy to help,” Bailey stated.

“Yes, I’m sure—”

“Pardon the interruption,” Ricky Bobby said, cutting Jack off. “However, Hatch requires your attention immediately.”

Jack looked up suddenly. “Is everything all right?”

“Yes, everything is fine, but I’ve been told not to give any further details,” Ricky Bobby said.

Lewis gave Bailey a curious expression. “I love surprises.”

“Good, I’ll remember that,” she quipped.

“Of course you will,” he said, playfully rolling his eyes.

Chapter Eighteen

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

A giant, black, coffin-looking box sat in the open area of Hatch’s office.

Bailey, Jack and Lewis were the last to arrive. Apparently, Hatch had called an all-crew meeting, and unfortunately, the entire crew could fit in the space. Lewis hoped that would soon change.

The people who had been reprinted were on the lower decks or being transported to their home planets on shuttles. Jack had made the decision early on to keep those they printed separate from the crew, so as to not confuse them after their big ordeal. However, Lewis thought it also had something to do with the fact that they weren’t the ‘real’ crew. He wasn’t going to allow anyone to take those people’s place, because there was no replacing them. That’s why there wasn’t a new captain or commander. There was only one for Ghost Squadron.

“There you all are,” Hatch said when they entered. “We’ve been waiting for you.” He motioned with a tentacle to Liesel, Dejoure, Penrae and Vitos, who all stood dutifully on the other side of the box. Harley and Sebastian were curled up together by Liesel’s feet, not appearing at all interested in the meeting.

“Sorry to keep you all waiting,” Jack said. “Ricky Bobby said he couldn’t disclose what the meeting was about.”

Hatch nodded, waddling over to the black box and staring down at it. Now that Lewis was closer, he saw that it had a clear lid, and blue light glowed from inside it.

“I would have expected that you’d figure it out on your own, Chief Strategist,” Hatch said.

“Well, I haven’t been wanting to get my hopes up, since this is new territory,” Jack stated matter-of-factly.

“Come on, now,” Hatch said. “When have I ever failed in the end? Don’t get me wrong, this project challenged me quite a bit, and there were a few failed attempts, however, I think it will work now.”

Lewis peered down into the black box. As he had suspected, a man’s body was lying in it.

“Pip,” he said, an unexpected giddiness in his chest.

“Yes!” Hatch exclaimed, also sounding overly excited. “And now is the moment of truth. It didn’t seem right to do the final step without everyone here to witness, so I don’t know that it will work initially.”

“I appreciate you including us, Hatch,” Jack said, also peering down into the box.

“Well, it’s kind of like a baby being born,” Hatch stated, reaching over to a workstation on the far side of the room and retrieving a sleek black box. “Everyone is only born once. You miss it, and that’s it. No going back.”

“So Pip is no longer confined to your lab?” Bailey asked.

“That’s right,” the Londil answered. “Or the Q-Ships. He actually has more access now through the network. However, I haven’t set up the patches to connect him to all places yet so for now he’s here, like all the rest of us.” Hatch motioned around to where they stood.

Lewis had never seen Hatch like this. He looked ready to jump up and down. It was like it was his child being born—which, in a way, it kind of was. Pip was a part of the mechanic. They were connected.

“But in his body,” Liesel began, “he’ll also have unique functionality.”

Hatch nodded, throwing one tentacle in the air, like he was just reminded of this. “That’s right. Pip, in essence, is a walking computer now, unlike the bodies we’ve printed, which are real flesh and bone. Pip can plug directly into systems, and he has a huge amount of storage.”

“Which means he could be of assistance when we try and recover the databases,” Jack guessed.

“Exactly!” he said triumphantly. “Pip may be limited to his body, but he’s gained a huge advantage.” He flipped a few switches on the side of the smaller black box he held in his grasp. He looked up, hesitation on his face. His mouth opened, but then he closed it again.

“Will he no longer be interfaced with the commander when she’s recovered?” Jack asked.

Hatch’s eyes slid to the side, a bit of disappointment spilling from them. “I’m afraid he won’t. Like I said, he can always be patched, but going back and forth doesn’t really make sense in his physical form.” Hatch’s focus went back to the black box in his tentacles, and again, the look of hesitation wisped across his face.

Jack eyed his watch. “Are we almost ready to do this?”

Hatch nodded, but lowered the box. “There’s something I want to say first. I’ve had a lot of experience with EIs and AIs. As you might have guessed, Pip is special; never before have I met an AI who wanted to be human. I suspected before that his growth was stunted because he wasn’t in the right form. If my suspicions are correct, then Pip is about to have a major evolution.”

“Does that mean he won’t joke and be good-natured?” Bailey asked, a bit of disappointment in her tone.

“It’s hard to tell,” Hatch told her. “It’s like we’ve taken him from adolescence to adulthood. Many adults are playful and joke, but they do lose their childish ways. We won’t know how the evolution has affected his personality until he wakes up.”

“I’m glad you told us that,” Jack stated.

“One more thing,” Hatch said abruptly. “Like I said, Pip has wanted to be human ever since he progressed from EI to AI. That was a part of what evolved him—Pip wanted to experience the human condition.”

“Which involves emotions,” Lewis said.

“And instincts,” Bailey added.

“And spirituality,” Liesel chirped.

“And complications,” Dejoure stated.

“And a bit of insanity,” Jack said with finality.

“Precisely,” Hatch affirmed. “My reason for telling you all this is to make a warning. Pip is not human. He is an AI in a body full of circuits and coding and etheric energy. However, never, no matter what, remind him of this. From this point forward, it is crucial that you treat him as human.”

“So I should bake him a cake!” Dejoure said.

Hatch’s serious expression lifted. “Exactly.”

“And I can offer to give him a massage,” Liesel said.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Hatch joked. “My point is that, although it will be obvious that Pip is different, it won’t do him any good to be reminded of it. Yes, he can withstand conditions that would kill us, and he will have twice the strength of someone upgraded in a Pod-doc, but from day to day, he is a normal human, like you all.” Hatch indicated to the group.

Everyone agreed. The excitement had built up to the point it felt like it was about to take over the ship. Hatch was even shaking slightly when he held the smaller black box up again.

“Ricky Bobby, are you ready?” he asked.

“I thought you’d never ask,” Ricky Bobby stated overhead, a rare excitement in his tone.

“Well, I had to make that disclaimer,” Hatch said, rolling his eyes.

“It was a very sensitive thing for you to say,” Liesel observed. “It’s nice that you’re protective of Pip.”

“I’m not…Yeah, I guess I sort of am,” Hatch said, shaking his head. “And yes, if any of you hurt his feelings, I’ll tie you up and stick you on the lower deck.”

“You’re the most talented scientist possibly to ever live, and that’s the best you can come up with?” Bailey teased.

Hatch gave her an amused expression. “Fine, I’ll shrink you to the size of a cockroach and send you to Paleolithic times.”

“That’s better,” she sang.

“Okay, the doc is ready,” Ricky Bobby said.

“Good,” Hatch stated, inputting something on the black box. He connected it to the doc, eyeing its readout nervously.

“What is that?” Lewis asked, pointing to the box.

Hatch held it up. “This? Oh, it’s Pip.”

“He’s so compact and light,” Bailey joked.

“And easily contained. But once I open this, everything will change,” Hatch said, a tentacle hovering over the button on the side of the doc. He looked around the room before pressing it.

The button glowed blue, and the lid popped open an inch, making a gushing sound. Steam spilled over the side of the box, covering the floor around them. A pale hand pressed against the glass from the other side.

Hatch stood back as the lid opened.

Dejoure was chewing on her fingernails. Harley and Sebastian had woken from their naps and were regarding the doc with intense curiosity. Penrae and Vitos stood close to each other, looking between Hatch and the doc, like trying to determine from his expression whether they should be concerned.

As the lid opened, steam overwhelmed the black box, obscuring it entirely. From the center of the area, someone moved, breaking through the mist.

A tall man with black hair, long sideburns, and piercing blue eyes rose to a standing position. He looked a bit like an elf, with his slightly pointy chin and ears. His cheekbones were well defined and complemented his strong nose. Lewis thought he looked like the male models on the front of old magazines from Earth.

“Pip?” Hatch asked, moving forward a few inches.

The man turned around and stepped out of the box, looking around, disoriented, as the steam cleared. He was wearing a blue tunic and black pants. Lifting his hands, he closed his fingers, like he was testing how they moved.

“Pip? Can you hear me?” Hatch asked, his tone overwhelmed with tension.

The man looked up. He rushed over to Hatch with a speed and agility that Lewis had never witnessed. In seconds, he was beside Hatch with his arms around him, squeezing the scientist tightly.

“Yes!” Pip said, in his familiar voice. “You did it! I’m a real boy.”

Hatch coughed and moaned, using his tentacles to try and push Pip off him. The AI’s new, considerable strength appeared to make it difficult.

“You’re a man, actually,” Hatch corrected him.

Pip jumped back, his eyes wide. He pulled the waistband of his pants away from his abdomen and peered down. “Oh, yes I am!”

Liesel stepped forward, holding a hand mirror. Pip took it, nodding with gratitude.

He looked around at the group nervously. “Well, here goes.” He lifted the mirror and peered at his image. “Holy moly! I’m a fox!”

Bailey nudged Lewis, cracking a slight smile. “Good. It looks like his sense of humor is still intact.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “And he’s so much more than he was before.”

Jack smiled thoughtfully. “He’s one of us.”

Chapter Nineteen

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

“What are you wearing?” Hatch shielded his eyes with a tentacle.

Pip glanced down at his outfit: a pair of frayed jean shorts that left little to the imagination and a T-shirt that said, ‘Never trust an atom. They make up everything.’

He slapped his palm to his forehead. “Oh! You’re right. I totally forgot.” He bent over, rummaging under a workstation.

One of Hatch’s tentacles reached over and shielded Dejoure’s eyes. “Be careful. There’s a child present.”

She giggled.

“Found it!” Pip exclaimed, popping up and holding a white lab coat. He slipped it on and, to Hatch’s relief, it covered more of him, being that it hung lower than his shorts. “I don’t know why you don’t wear a lab coat. They really make science more fun.”

Hatch dropped his tentacle away from Dejoure’s face. “I’m not sure that a lab coat with eight sleeves makes any sense.”

“I’ll tell you what doesn’t make sense,” Pip said, picking up the drug that Bailey and Lewis brought back from Onyx Station. “You were this close to giving Dejoure this drug.”

“Did you find an issue with it?” Hatch asked.

“Yes, it’s missing an important component,” Pip stated. “In its current form, it most definitely would have had fatal repercussions.”

Hatch struggled to swallow as he gave Dejoure an apologetic look. “I’m sorry. I’m grateful that you said something.”

Dejoure, to his relief, smiled brightly. “It’s fine. I’m glad that Pip checked it out. Thank you for making him a body so he could help me.”

“Do you think you can fix the drug?” Hatch asked, returning his attention to Pip.

He shook his head. “No, tampering with it further would be unadvisable. But I have been able to manufacture a new drug.”

“That was fast,” Hatch said, impressed.

He worked quickly, but he also had eight appendages; Pip had only had a body for a few hours and was already ahead of schedule.

“Well, as I mentioned, I’ve been studying up on the drug to prepare for this.” Pip loaded a vial of blue liquid into an injection gun. He waved Dejoure over.

She gave Hatch a tentative expression, but he encouraged her forward with a wave of his tentacle. “It’s okay,” he added.

“Don’t worry, this will only hurt for a second,” Pip consoled.

“I’m not worried,” Dejoure said, holding up her hair and putting her back to Pip, preparing herself for the shot. “I’ve had these injections loads of times, remember?”

Pip gave Hatch a remorseful expression over Dejoure’s shoulder. “I do remember. And I’m sorry that you have to keep getting them.”

“Don’t be,” Dejoure reassured him. “I’m actually really looking forward to getting this. I didn’t have a premonition last night, I’ve been totally horrible at finding lost items lately, and I’ve been getting really bad migraines. I can’t wait to have the drug back in my system.”

Pip paused. “You didn’t tell us about all that.”

She shrugged. “I didn’t want to worry you all. I knew there was nothing that could be done, and Hatch has been working nonstop to get you a body.”

“DJ, that’s not how things work here,” Hatch stated, putting two tentacles on his hips. “We need to know what’s going on with you, even if you think there is nothing we can do about it.”

She chewed on her lip, nodding. “Okay, I’m sorry.”

“We’re the adults,” Pip said, wiping an alcohol swab across the back of her neck. “Our job is to worry about you.”

“I know, but—”

“Butts are for tight jeans and sitting, not to be used in a response to me,” Pip said, a punishing tone to his voice. “I realize you’ve had to grow up fast and take care of yourself, but we’re taking care of you now.”

A tender look crossed Dejoure’s face. She appeared to be on the verge of tears. “Thank you. I just thought—”

“Take a deep breath,” Pip ordered.

The girl did as she was told, closing her eyes. The injector made a hissing noise, and Pip pulled it away from her neck. He produced a band-aid and carefully put it over the site of the injection.

“Okay, all done.” He wheeled Dejoure around, looking thoughtfully down at her. “Now, what did you ‘just thought’?”

Dejoure gulped. “I just thought that this whole thing wasn’t really permanent.” She swept her arm around, indicating the ship and its crew. “I’m trying to stay out of everyone’s hair as much as possible and be helpful when I can. You all really don’t have to take care of me. I only want to stay for as long as you let me.”

Pip shook his head and clicked his tongue. “Sweet, silly girl. You are straight up tripping.” He looked over at Hatch. “I think she’s grounded. What do you think?”

Hatch actually didn’t know what to say. He was certain that he’d put the right AI into the body before him, however, this person was different. Not quite how he remembered him. Though it had been he who told the crew that Pip would most likely undergo an evolution.

“Grounded?” Dejoure said with a gasp. “I’ve never been grounded before.”

“That’s because you’ve never had a home before,” Pip lectured. “A forever home, let me add. Now, will you stop fussing about inconveniencing us or making us worry?”

She nodded her head. “Am I still grounded?”

Pip thought for a moment. “Yes. No cooking for the rest of the day.”


Pip shot her a scathing look that instantly made her press her lips together. “As I was saying, no cooking for the day. The crew can survive on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or whatever those buffoons know how to make.”

“Do I have to go to my room for the rest of the day?” she asked.

He shook his head. “No, but you do have to go to the theater room.”

“We have a theater room?” Dejoure asked.

“Yes,” Ricky Bobby answered. “It has a hundred reclining seats and an eighty-foot screen. I can direct you to it.”

“Thank you,” she said before turning her attention back to Pip. “What am I supposed to do there? Do you want me to clean it?”

Pip scoffed. “Do not insult my parenting.”

“I’m sorry,” Dejoure said, putting her hand to her mouth to cover her giggling.

“For the rest of the day, I want you to watch Disney movies,” Pip ordered.

“What are Disney movies?” she asked.

Pip rolled his eyes and sighed loudly, looking at Hatch. “It’s worse than I thought. The neglect this child has experienced knows no bounds.” He clapped his hand on Dejoure’s shoulder, looking at her intently. “You are to start with the Lion King and Zootopia, and then move to Beauty and the Beast and Peter Pan. Whatever you do, don’t watch Bambi.”

“What’s wrong with Bambi? It’s a classic,” Hatch argued.

“It’s pure emotional manipulation,” Pip answered.

“What if I can’t watch all those movies before bedtime?” Dejoure asked.

“I’ll tell you when bedtime is, and tonight, you’re going to be late for it,” Pip stated. “I’ll be by later to fetch you. Guess who is going to tuck you in tonight with a bedtime story?”

Her face lit up. “You?”

“I’d prefer if you didn’t call me ‘you’. ‘Uncle Pip’ has a better ring to it.”

Dejoure sprang forward, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Thank you, Uncle Pip. I promise to work on my behavior.”

Pip pressed the young girl in tightly, closing his eyes as he held her. He released her and smiled. “Okay, now off to your punishment.”

She nodded and skipped out of Hatch’s lab. “Ricky Bobby, will you please tell me where to go?” she asked.

“Of course,” the AI said, his voice following her as she left.

Hatch regarded Pip with a thoughtful stare.

“What’s that look for?” Pip asked.

“I think you know,” Hatch teased.

“I don’t actually read minds, you realize.”

“You called yourself an adult,” the Londil stated.

“I am an adult. I’m technically your elder, if you must know.”

“Well, what you said to DJ was nice. She needed to hear that.”

“You know what I realized?” Pip asked.

“What’s that?”

“Before, when I didn’t have a body, it was hard for me to be myself. I felt so limited, and sometimes the ache of not being able to fully interact was too much.”

“And that’s gone? Already?”

Pip nodded. “And you know, now I have this overwhelming desire to be loving. Nurturing.”

Hatch thought for a moment. “Actually, that does make sense. I think we underestimate how hard it is to affectionate without a body. Affection is so often experienced through physical gestures or even body language, even proximity.”

“Yes, now that I have a physical presence, I feel like I’m more connected to everyone.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Pip.”

“I’ll always remember that you gave me my first hug,” Pip told him fondly. “Do you want another one?” He held his arms out wide.

Hatch shook his head and stretched out one of his tentacles. “How about a high-five instead?”


Chapter Twenty

Q-Ship, Planet Kai, Tangki System, Pan Galaxy

Ricky Bobby entered Kai’s atmosphere. It was the first time in a long time that the battlecruiser had come this close to a planet, but it was for an important reason. The mission relied on Starboards Corp seeing the ship in the distance and falling for the distraction.

Vitos and Pip flew a pair of Black Eagles around the battlecruiser, shooting for the placid waters of Kai. Starboards would obviously wonder what they were doing in plain sight. By the time they figured out it was a diversion, it would be too late.

“That’s the fifth time you’ve yawned,” Bailey observed of Dejoure.

“I thought you were piloting,” Lewis joked. “When did you have time to count the girl’s yawns?”

“I’m a master at multi-tasking,” Bailey bragged.

Pip ordered her to stay up and watch movies, Harley explained, sitting beside Dejoure.

Bailey gave Lewis a sideways expression. “We have to teach Pip some parenting skills.”

“What?” He looked back at Dejoure and the dog.

“Harley says Pip kept her up with movies,” Bailey explained.

“Man, I need the upgrade so I can understand the dog,” Lewis complained.

“Well, I still only have the minimal upgrade for Federation soldiers, but yes, you do,” Bailey agreed.

“Why do you need an upgrade to understand Harley?” Dejoure asked. “I can understand him fine, and I don’t have one.”

Lewis pursed his lips at Bailey. “The protégé kid who can see the future and magically find missing objects wonders why she can understand the dog and I can’t.”

“I think their bond is why they can communicate. No science involved,” Bailey observed.

“I guess you’re right,” Lewis said. He pointed to the building that had materialized out of seemingly nowhere. Starboards Corp looked as it had before—floating on a large platform, the balloon filled with K-factor floating above it. “Do you think that they’ve upped security since our last visit, like Monstre Corp?”

“Well, they do have a new owner,” Bailey stated.

“Dr. Ass did make a lot of security mistakes,” Dejoure said through a loud yawn.

“We’ll have to wait to find out about the security measures,” Bailey said, landing the cloaked Q-ship on the roof of the building. “And even if they have increased security, that’s not going to be a problem for us.”

“Not once the army is prepped and ready,” Lewis agreed.

The Q-Ship touched down on the mostly empty rooftop. Only one other ship sat on the flat surface, a transport shuttle. No guards were stationed at the entrance, which meant that so far, the security was similar to their first visit.

Bailey stood and gave Dejoure a look of encouragement. “You’re going to do great.”

“Thanks,” the girl said. She gave Harley a hug. “I’m glad he gets to come along. That helps.”

“He is a major part of the plan,” Bailey said, activating the collar around Harley’s neck.

The dog flickered and disappeared.

“Whoa, that’s still so cool,” Dejoure stated, activating her own cloaking belt and disappearing.

“Harley, you stay close to Dejoure at all times, no matter what,” Bailey ordered. “If someone tries to take her, you—”

Rip their throat out, Harley said.

“That’s right.” Bailey activated her own belt at the same time as Lewis. “Okay, are we ready to create some trouble?”

“You know I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Lewis said.

“Vengeance is going to be sweet as pie,” Bailey agreed.

They made it out of the Q-ship and to the roof entrance without any interruptions. Bailey heard a beep when Dejoure scanned her wrist under the sensor at the door.

The light above it flashed red.

She did it once more. Again, red.

“What’s the deal?” Bailey asked.

“I don’t know,” Dejoure said, frustration in her tone.

“I think they’ve disconnected her chip,” Lewis stated.

“Okay, well then, we’ll have to think of another way in.” Bailey looked around the building for options. “How do you all feel about scaling down the building and going through the main entrance? It was open the first time.”

“That’s definitely not at the top of my list of ways to get into Suck Butt,” Lewis said, using Dejoure’s fond expression for the headquarters.

“Well, we need the Q-ship up here, so I can’t fly us down to the platform,” Bailey reasoned.

The door to the stairwell flew open, and Bailey had almost no time to react as she tugged Dejoure out of the way. She could feel Lewis pressed next to her. He’d stepped back in time, too. Two guards dressed in white uniforms strode out the door.

“We’re late for our rounds,” a tall man said, looking around the rooftop.

“No one will know,” the second man answered.

The door swung shut behind them, but before it closed all the way, something stopped it.

Either Dejoure or Harley.

The guards strode for the other side of the rooftop, in the direction of the Q-ship. They were going to walk straight into it.

Bailey looked between the door and the guards, running through her options. The two men stopped, staring at the battlecruiser in the distance. It was starting to get attention; they’d be wondering if it was there by accident or trying to find Starboards.

The guards continued forward, moving faster than before, headed straight for the invisible Q-ship. Bailey yanked her pistol out of her holster and shot twice. The guards both dropped cleanly.

“DJ, I hope you had your eyes covered.”

“Uhhh…yeah…I totally didn’t see them get shot,” the girl said, unease in her voice.

The door opened all the way, and the group filed through into the stairwell. After they’d gone down the first flight, Lewis halted.

“Here’s my floor,” he said.

Bailey paused. She wanted to say something encouraging, but couldn’t find the right words. What could she say that would be equal to what Lewis could be facing? Redemption and revenge were moments away. He’d earned this, and soon, it would lead to his freedom.

However, Bailey didn’t know how to vocalize any of that in a meaningful way. Therefore she simply said, “Don’t die, Holmes. That would ruin everything.”

“Same to you, Ladybug,” Lewis said.

Bailey waited until Lewis had passed through the door to the top floor before continuing. “Chef, where are you?”

“I’m right beside you.” Dejoure’s hand slid into Bailey’s, and she squeezed it.

“Good girl. Let’s go.”

They made it down the flights of stairs easily, not running into any more guards. Bailey was impressed by how quietly Dejoure moved. She waited for Harley’s response; it came quick.

It’s clear on the other side, the dog said, having used his enhanced hearing to test the area.

Bailey peeled the door open and checked. So far, so good.

Actually, it was too easy. However, she reminded herself that they were cloaked, which was technology that Starboards didn’t even know existed, so they could easily fool all the facility’s security measures. They passed quickly through the stark white hallways.

At the door for the children’s ward, Bailey paused. “You okay?” she asked Dejoure, who she suspected was wrestling with a lot of old feelings.

“I will be,” she said, her voice strong.

Another locked door.

The sensor beeped when Dejoure ran her wrist over it. Again, it flashed red.

“I had to try,” the girl stated.

“Absolutely,” Bailey agreed.

“So, are we hoping that someone exits this way, like before?” Dejoure asked.

“According to what you said about the schedule, no one should be coming and going for the next hour,” the lieutenant reminded her.

“Yeah.” Dejoure sounded defeated.

“Holmes?” Bailey said over the comm.

“Yes?” he answered a moment later.

“How much longer until you’re in position?”

He scoffed. “Come on, I’ve been copying your ninja moves. I’m already here.”

“Nice work. That’s impressive,” she said with a smile. “So you didn’t run into any trouble?”

“Well, I’m fairly certain I broke a couple of fingers,” Lewis stated.

“All in a day’s work. Can you open the children’s ward for us? We don’t have access.”


A moment later, the light above the sensor flashed green.

“Sweet,” Dejoure said.

“Gotta love having friends in the right places,” Bailey said.

Chapter Twenty-One

Starboards Corp Headquarters, Planet Kai, Tangki System

Shaking his hand, Lewis tried to shut out the pain. He’d heard the bones breaking in his hand as he threw his fist against the guard’s face. Casting his eyes at the slumped figure in the corner, Lewis smiled to himself. I still had the last laugh.

A loud banging echoed behind Lewis.

“Come on! Let me out of here!

The other guard, the one who had been hanging out in the back of the control room, was now locked in the bathroom without his comm. Lewis had a choice in that scenario, so he’d disabled the security guard and locked him away where he couldn’t be a problem. He knew based on the current plan that there was no point in sparing the guy, but he didn’t want that blood directly on his hands if he could help it.

As he’d suspected, the security guards had all the monitors displaying feeds of Ricky Bobby when he entered. They had been watching the battlecruiser and the ships flying around it, not even suspecting that the real danger was already in Starboards’ headquarters.

Lewis cast his eyes at the bank of screens that displayed the security feed—apparently upgraded since the last time he and Bailey had broken into the place. The disappointment pooled in his chest. He stared at the image of the CEO’s empty office.

Melanie is gone.

Was it too much to ask, that the villain be there when they executed their plan? All Lewis wanted was a little bit of redemption and revenge.

He stared at the empty office on the monitor. He was holding onto the unrealistic hope that Melanie was somewhere in the building. She’s probably micromanaging the staff, pretending she knows better than the scientists and engineers. It was something that had always irked Lewis about her. When Melanie didn’t know something, she just made it up.

“The repairman is probably late due to car trouble,” she would say, trying to rationalize the person’s absence.

“There’s no fact to support that,” Lewis would retort. “Actually, he just got a brand-new vehicle.”

“You’ve heard of lemons,” she’d argue.

Facts. Lewis relied on them. If he didn’t know the answer, he figured it out. Melanie liked to make up likely stories and then look for clues to support her tale.

That wasn’t how detecting worked.

A good detective wasn’t attached to the outcome. Their only mission was to find the truth, whatever that might be.

Looking back, Lewis wasn’t sure why he’d trained Melanie. She was awful for the job. She was horrible for him. He could see that so clearly now, but something had obviously obstructed his vision back then. If he was honest, though, she wasn’t as bad at the job as he wanted to believe.

She had fooled him.

Lewis pulled his eyes away from the office with the crater bear rug. Melanie always had flamboyant taste. He’d manually locked down each level of Starboards. Soon the workers would figure it out, but by then it would be too late.

As Jack had supposed, Starboards had upped their security system. He had confirmed this by researching security firms and then using his contacts to find out which large organization had recently upgraded their systems. He couldn’t get specifics on the location, but his contacts were able to give him the information on the actual system the facility was using.

It was because of this information that they were able to form a plan that turned Starboards Corp’s security features in their favor.

Lewis tapped a button and smiled to himself. He watched as a security guard on the first floor tapped the button for the elevator. Nothing happened. The man looked around, trying to figure out if one of the other elevators was operating. They weren’t.

“Sorry, pal. There’s no coming up for you,” Lewis said, sitting back and crossing his arms behind his head.

Everyone at Starboards Corp was currently stuck where they were. There was only one way to override the control room, and the only one with that access would be the CEO.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Bailey peeled back the door for the children’s ward—or as Dejoure called it, ‘the boringest place in the world’.

As DJ had said, the main area was empty. The two girls and Harley slipped into the room, careful to close the door quietly.

A row of offices on the perimeter of the large room had their lights on. Bailey stayed put, her hand lightly on Dejoure’s shoulder. That was their mode of communication, since talking was too much of a risk.

A moment later, Harley’s voice rang in Bailey’s head. The scientists are all in their offices.

Bailey released a breath and tapped her finger once on Dejoure’s shoulder. Their signal that everything was clear. Just as the young girl had said, the scientists were working in their offices at this hour. The children, then, should be in their dormitory having “quiet time”.

Bailey tugged Dejoure through to the long hallway where the dormitory was located. On the other side of it was the cafeteria, where the sounds of clanging pots and pans could be heard. Again, as Dejoure had explained, two guards were stationed outside the dormitory.

Bailey tapped Dejoure’s shoulder three times. Stay here, the communication told the girl.

DJ halted, Harley beside her. He had been ordered to stay next to her and could find her even though they were cloaked due to his heightened senses.

Bailey considered knocking out the guards first before securing the back area, but there were too many issues that could arise from that. And thankfully, the cloaking belt was working without fault so far.

She crossed to the other side of the hallway, careful not to make a sound with her boots on the white, tiled floor.

Bailey grabbed the handles of the double doors that led into the cafeteria and yanked them shut. The guards spun to face the noise. There was no time to tell Lewis to lock those doors, but if she knew the detective, he was already watching and knew to do it.

Fighting two guards while cloaked wasn’t really that much fun, but it was more important that things go to plan than Bailey have a thrill. The closest guard pulled the shock wand from his hip, holding it defensively in Bailey’s direction. She wanted to laugh at how ridiculous he looked, scanning the area for her invisible figure.

Bailey reached forward, grabbing the guy by the opposite elbow and yanking him forward. She threw her forearm against the shock wand, knocking it out of his hand. His arm flew through the air, trying to find her. She ducked, enjoying the game. Then she drove her fist into the guy’s stomach, making him double over. She grabbed him by the shoulders and rammed him head-first into the opposite wall. He hit hard, crumpling to the ground.

“Watch out!” Lewis said over the comms.

Bailey spun around to find the other guard lunging straight for her. He had pulled on a pair of glasses. Infrared, she guessed.

She rolled onto her shoulder on the floor, sweeping her leg around to kick the guy down. He fell halfway before catching himself with his hands. Bailey brought her other leg around and up, kicking the man straight in the face. He shot back from the force, knocking into the wall.

“Seriously, watching that without being able to see you is pretty strange,” Lewis said.

“Cafeteria locked?” Bailey asked.

“Yes, and the scientists are securely imprisoned in their offices,” Lewis stated. “However, they haven’t figured it out yet. They sit like monkeys and work.”

“Hey, I’m not complaining,” Bailey said. “That makes the next phase of the plan easier.”

“Yep. We’re just going to waltz out of here.”

“Oh, great, now you’ve jinxed us. Dammit, Holmes.”

Lewis chuckled. “So talented and strong, and yet you still think that luck is a factor.”

“Well, I don’t think it hurts.” She felt Dejoure’s hand wrap around her forearm. The girl had found her. “Ready to go release your friends?” Bailey asked her.

“They aren’t my friends, not like you all are,” she answered. “But yes. Let’s set them free.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

Starboards Corp Headquarters, Planet Kai, Tangki System

Lewis watched as the door to the children’s dormitory opened. He couldn’t see Bailey, Dejoure or Harley, but he could picture them walking into the large room. He looked forward to watching the next part, where they blew the children’s minds. As children who were created to be special, they were about to witness something that for any young person was true magic.

He smiled proudly. Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that are the most persuasive.

The main, large screen beside the rows of monitors flickered. The image of a woman sitting on a beach materialized. Melanie.

She was wearing a bright pink bikini, and her black hair was swaying in the wind. Behind her, several cabanas could be seen, and the curve of the ocean behind that.

She squinted, pulling her device closer to her face. “Carl? George? Where are you worthless shits?”

Lewis remained silent, his eyes smoldering as he watched the video comm of Melanie. So she was not, in fact, at Starboards Corp. By the looks of it, she was taking a vacation on one of the rare beaches on Kai, which was mostly water.

Melanie moved until she was under the shade of a cabana. “Guys, where are you? I’m getting reports that the staff are locked in their offices.”

How long had Lewis dreamed of this moment? The instance when he would tell the woman before him that she was worthless no matter what she stole. He’d rehearsed the speech so many times. He’d announce every lie she told him, calling her out. Tallied every misdeed. He would make her feel like trash.

But the truth was that those rehearsed speeches were only for his benefit. She was a narcissist; those kinds of people didn’t care if they deceived others, cheated or lied to get ahead. What did it matter to her? She didn’t even believe in karma. Life, to people like Melanie, was a game, and she played to win.

Melanie searched the control room through the video comm, her large, brown eyes narrowing.

Lewis could tell from the expression on her face that she was piecing things together. What he had to do now was stall. His moment had finally come.

His eyes swiveled to the monitor displaying the children’s dormitory. Bailey only needed a few more minutes.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

The dozen children sitting quietly on their beds looked up when Bailey opened the doors to the dormitory. They stared around, probably wondering why they were being retrieved early. Dejoure had said the schedule was engrained into them from day one. It was never altered, no matter what. For one hour, the kids were expected to sit quietly on their beds either reading, meditating or sleeping. To talk during this time resulted in punishment. Dejoure, consequently, was punished many times.

To expect children to be quiet when their intuitive nature was to express themselves burned Bailey up. Dr. Ass was one of those who subscribed to the belief that children should only speak when spoken to.

“‘Children are meant to be seen and not heard’,” Dejoure had recited to her when explaining how the program worked.

“And how were you punished if you talked out of turn?” she’d asked Dejoure.

The girl lowered her head. “Solitary confinement, usually.”

Bailey’s chest burned with anger. She’d never believed in sending a child away when they did something wrong. Yes, sometimes she had to cool down before dealing with her sisters, but there was a difference between taking a few minutes of timeout and sending them away. Children needed to understand the rules and the reasons behind them. More importantly, they needed rules that made sense; staying quiet for the purpose of social order wasn’t good enough.

She stared around the room at the children who didn’t dare move, although the doors to their dormitory had seemingly opened by magic.

The boy closest to the door noticed the guards lying on the floor. He backed up on his bed and tucked his knees into his chest.

Bailey laid her hand on Dejoure’s shoulder and tapped once. It was time to proceed.

Dejoure materialized a moment later, making everyone in the room gasp.

“Dee-Jaw!” a small boy with bright blond hair yelped from the back of the room. He scooted off his bed a few inches and then, thinking better of it, pushed himself back again.

“What are you doing?” a girl with red hair, cut to her chin in the style of the rest of the females, asked.

“They said that you’d been placed in a different program,” the boy at the back said.

Suddenly the room erupted with chatter.

“I didn’t know there was another program.”

“I wanted to graduate to that.”

“What’s it like?”

“Do you get a different uniform when you graduate?” a tall boy with black hair asked, pointing at Dejoure’s ripped blue jeans and T-shirt.

She stuck out in the all-white room, where the children were wearing clothes to match their surroundings.

Dejoure held up her hands. “I’ll explain everything, but right now, we’re limited on time.”

She appeared so much more mature than the other kids. Maybe she always had been, due to her upbringing and old soul intuition. Or maybe her time onboard Ricky Bobby had changed her.

“What did you do to the guards?” the redhead asked, her freckled arms crossed in front of her chest, and a smug look on her face. “Dr. Lukas is going to be mad.”

“It’s Dr. Ass that I’m trying to save you all from,” Dejoure said, shaking her head at the girl. “He’s using you. He’s imprisoning you.”

“He’s taking care of us,” the girl argued.

“Diedre, you don’t get it.” Dejoure looked around the room, seeming to grow taller an inch. “Look, I’ve been out there in the real world, and it’s wonderful. You shouldn’t be confined to SB. We’re children, and we deserve to have a home and be able to explore and be curious and run in the grass.”

“What do you have that we don’t?” Deidre challenged.

“For one, I get to dress how I like.” Dejoure swept her hand at her outfit. “And now I live onboard an amazing battlecruiser.”

“Neat!” the blond-haired boy exclaimed. “Can I too?”

Another sudden burst of chatter exploded around the room.

Dejoure held up her hands to quiet the children. “The people I work with have arranged for you all to go to good homes inside the Federation. You’ll have everything you don’t have here: freedom, creativity, love.”

“Why should we believe you?” Deidre asked, the same snobby look on her face as before.

“Because the people I’m with care about me enough that they are taking SB down—but we want to get you all to safety first,” Dejoure answered.

Diedre answered, “Dr. Lukas will never allow that. And why should we leave him? He’s taken care of us.”

“Dr. Ass is powerless against us,” Dejoure countered. “And you should come with us because he put you all on a drug that, if you go off it, you’ll die. Does that sound like a man who wants what’s best for you?”

The children erupted with panic, many of them clutching each other at this news.

“It’s okay, though,” DJ said calmly. “We have the drug and more than enough to help you. But you need to go with me now, or you’re going to be in big trouble.”

“Why should we?” Deidre asked stubbornly. “How do we know this life you’re promising us is real?”

Dejoure smiled and looked down at the floor. “I think it’s time, Harley.”

She bent down and deactivated Harley’s cloaking belt. The dog materialized beside her, his eyes bright with excitement.

“A dog!” the kids sang with delight.

Many of them ran forward to pet the animal. He accepted their affection, even licking the blond-haired boy in the face.

“How did you get a dog?” Deidre asked.

“That’s what I’m telling you,” Dejoure insisted. “It’s been too many years for you to remember, same for most of the rest of you, but I was the last one to come here. Outside of SB, there’s a real life, and we’ve arranged for you to go to real homes. Not orphanages or an evil corporation that will exploit you, turning you into enhanced soldiers. If you go with me, you can have a dog or swim in the seas or travel the galaxy. If you don’t, then you’ll have quiet time every day and no choices.”

“I’m going with Deor,” the boy with black hair sang.

“Me too!” someone else called.

“I’m in!”

Chapter Twenty-Three

Starboards Corp Headquarters, Planet Kai, Tangki System

Lewis knew Melanie was seconds away from using her manual override to take control of the system. But he knew how to stall; he knew no one liked to fight more than Melanie. She used to criticize him only to draw out a reaction, and then they’d be arguing for the rest of the day.

He deactivated his cloaking belt and materialized in front of the camera.

Melanie’s ruby red lips parted in an almost comedic “O” shape. “You. I knew it.”

Lewis stood and bowed proudly. “Oh yes. It took me a little bit, but I found you.”

Melanie laughed. “You haven’t found me. Do you see me there?”

Lewis’s eyes swiveled to the screen of the empty office. “No, as usual, you’re slacking while those with real intelligence do the work.”

“I knew you’d come after me,” she sneered. “And I suspected that it was you and that girl who broke into Starboards Corp before I took over.”

That girl is my partner, someone I can trust,” Lewis said, eyeing the monitor of the children’s dormitory. It was taking Dejoure longer than it should to get the children to safety.

“Your bitterness is showing, Lewis,” Melanie sang with a wicked laugh.

“I trusted you, Mel. And you double-crossed me. You left me for dead.”

She sighed. “I was hoping that you did die. That would have made things easier.”

“Who did you sell the diamond to?” he asked, leaning forward, his nose inches from the screen.

The cackle that came out of Melanie’s mouth hurt Lewis’s ears. “I’m not telling you. What a horrible detective you are.”

He ground his teeth together. That was the one piece of information he needed to clear his name. If he could prove Melanie sold the diamond, and maybe even recover it, then Gringotts would know he hadn’t stolen it.

“I really don’t understand why you betrayed me.” He shook his head. He knew it was futile to try and understand her, but deep down, it felt like it would help.

“Lewis, you held me back. You always thought so small,” she explained. “You wanted to work case after case… There was never an end in sight.”

“That’s how detective work is,” Lewis said bitterly.

“Yeah, but that’s no life for me. When you got the etheric diamond case, I realized it was my big chance. You were going to find the diamond and simply return it. Another option hadn’t even occurred to you. You were the crumbling ledge I needed to jump from to realize I had a parachute. It delivered me to greener pastures.”

“I didn’t consider another option because stealing the diamond was wrong. Gringotts is a powerful man. He hired me, the very best, to find it. He’ll never stop until he gets it back.”

“And yet, I was able to unload it and get away.” Melanie looked around. “And look at me now. I got a company in exchange for the diamond, and I’m living the life. Meanwhile, look at you, still searching for me. Still running.”

Lewis clenched his fist and rose to full height. “I will never stop until I destroy you. Not only your wealth, but you as a person.”

“Well, this has been delightful, but that reminds me that I should be taking my building back. I’m not sure what you’re up to, but it’s over. My forces will have you and your pathetic partner taken down in no time, once they are released.”

Lewis looked at the monitor for the children’s ward. Harley had appeared. Things were progressing, but they hadn’t gotten out of there yet. He needed to stall a bit longer.

“So, I see you still have the same tacky taste,” he said, pointing to the monitor of Melanie’s office. “I’m sure the Federation would love to know you’ve got a crater bear skin rug, since those are a protected species. Oh, and is that a Crumble-Horned Snorkack’s head hanging on the wall? I’m fairly certain hunting those or displaying their remains is a felony offense.”

Melanie laughed. “If you noticed, Starboards Corp resides on Kai, outside of the pesky Federation’s control.”

Lewis thought fondly of Ghost Squadron and their ultimate mission, secretly protecting the area outside Federation boundaries. “Yeah, you’re right. Darn. I guess you’ll get away scot free again.”

“Of course I will, Lewis.” She shook her head. “Haven’t you realized that I’m always ahead of you?”

He noticed sudden activity on the other monitors. The guards had regained access to the stairwells and elevators, and the scientists were spilling out of their offices.

“What have you done?” He asked in a rush.

Melanie rolled her eyes. “While you were monologuing about my illegal items, I activated the override.” She waved. “I’ll be seeing your corpse soon. Bye.”

Determination: Age Of Expansion

“There’s a problem!” Lewis yelled over the comm.

Dejoure froze, having heard his announcement.

“What is it?” Bailey asked, earning speculative glances from the children since she was still cloaked.

“The controls have been overridden,” Lewis answered.

As if cued by this declaration, a rush of noise echoed from the hallways. The scientists were free.

“Can you be our eyes and tell us the best path to take?” Bailey asked.

The sounds of typing came from the comm. “Already on it. I may not have complete power, but I can still do my own level of deception.”

The sirens blared overhead. A voice came over the speaker, Lewis’s voice. “Alert. There’s a disturbance on level five. All available units report to this area.”

“Do you really think security is going to fall for that?” Bailey asked with a laugh.

“Well, according to the feed, they already are.” There was a smile in his voice.

“Nice work, Holmes.”

“It won’t work for long,” he warned. “Melanie is in communication with her staff, too.”

“It will buy us some time.” Bailey deactivated her cloak, materializing in front of the children.

Several gasps echoed around the room.

“Hi, guys. I’m part of the team here to rescue you,” Bailey announced.

“Are you a superhero?” the little blond boy asked.

Before Bailey could respond, Dejoure said, “Timothy, she’s totally a superhero. She kicked the butts of those two jerks out there who never let us go to the bathroom, even if it was an emergency.”

Collective cheers rang out from the group.

Bailey smiled, impatience starting to build in her as the noises grew closer. The scientists would think the guards had the children secured; hopefully that would keep them away longer.

“Okay, we need to head out now,” Bailey told the children. “I have a big favor to ask you all. The people trying to keep you here are bad. Everything DJ says is true. We will protect you and give you the life you deserve. However, to get out of here, we are going to need to fight. Now, they’ve told you to mind them, but the truth is you’re stronger than Dr. Lukas and his minions. You’re stronger than the guards, but you’re going to have to use your powers to your advantage.”

“We’re going to fight to get out of here?” the redhead asked, looking scared.

Bailey nodded. “Yes. But don’t worry, I won’t let anything happen to you.”

She knew that making such a promise was bold, but she had to say something to erase the fear in their eyes. She was asking a lot from them. And in truth, she had figured it might go this way. Keeping the building locked down the entire time was unlikely. But if she had to go into battle with anyone, she wanted it to be a dozen badass little kids who were fighting for their freedom.

“Are we ready?” she asked, looking over her shoulder. There was someone coming. Maybe a bunch of someones. Lewis’s diversion wouldn’t last for long.

“Yes,” the children called.

Bailey turned, marching out of the room and through the long hallway, which was still deserted besides the two fallen guards.

Dejoure reached down and picked up one of the guard’s shock wands and handed it to the boy next to her. She was about to grab the other one when Bailey stopped her.

“Cloaking belt,” she ordered.

Dejoure looked like she was about to argue, but stopped herself. She complied, disappearing, making many of the children gasp with excitement.

Bailey would have given her own cloaking belt to one of the children if there was time, but just then, two scientists charged through the double doors at the other end of the hallway. She sprinted forward and knocked her elbow into one scientist’s face. She spun around and grabbed the other by the back of the neck and yanked him over her shoulder, knocking the wind out of him.

The children screamed. Bailey would have preferred for them not to see that, but her main priority was to keep the kids safe.

The first scientist had blood streaming from his nose and was again stumbling in her direction. Bailey was about to throw a roundhouse kick at his face, when his pants were suddenly brought down.

The children all laughed.

The scientist halted, staring around in bewilderment. “What’s going on here?”

He had no idea that a cloaked figure had pantsed him. Reaching down, he tried to step forward as he pulled up his trousers, but something—or more likely, someone—tripped him, and he fell straight on his face, his pants tangled around his legs.

The other scientist rolled up to a standing position and was immediately shoved toward the children. He turned to see what had pushed him, but not finding anyone, he spun around to face Bailey.

“I don’t know who you are, but—”

A sudden yelp erupted from the man. He spun around, clutching his calf. Harley was standing behind him, his fangs bared, and a loud growl vibrating from his mouth. The man stumbled backward, trying to put as much distance between him and the dog. He slid down the wall, holding his bleeding leg and crying softly.

“Come on, children.” Bailey waved them forward.

They followed, most of them not looking remorseful as they stepped around the fallen scientists, who didn’t dare move with Harley standing guard and growling. When Bailey pulled out her gun and burst through the double doors, she found exactly what she expected.

Dr. Ass stood in the center of the room, a row of guards flanking him.

“So we meet again,” Dr. Ass said, a proud smile on his face, his eyes riveted to the children at Bailey’s back. “Whatever you’re trying to do, it’s going to stop here.”

He turned his head to the side and nodded slightly to the uniformed soldier closest to him.

“On guard,” the commanding officer said.

In unison, the soldiers all pulled weapons, pointing them at Bailey and the children.

Bailey’s heart froze. Her blood turned to concrete.

In the past, the guards had all used shock wands, never guns. And the fact that they dared point them at innocent children was atrocious. This must be an order handed down from Melanie.

“Look,” she began, holding up her hands. “Leave the children out of this. None of them should be hurt.”

“You’re the one who brought the children into this.” Dr. Ass’s eyes narrowed on the kids behind Bailey. “Children, come over to me and you won’t get hurt.”

“How dare you,” Bailey said. “What are you going to do, shoot one of them if they don’t obey you?”

Dr. Ass sighed dramatically. “If I must.”

Bailey felt Dejoure beside her.

“See, this is what I was saying,” the girl said in a whisper to the children. “He’d hurt you to get your compliance. That’s cruel.”

Many of the children agreed with soft murmurs.

“What’s going on over there?” Dr. Ass said, looking around like trying to find the source of the noise.

“The children are going with me,” Bailey said confidently. “Move aside, or I’ll have no choice but to disarm your men.”

Dr. Ass laughed. “You’re outnumbered. There’s one of you and six of them.”

Harley arrived beside Bailey, his growl deepening as he regarded the men in front of them holding guns.

“You brought a dog in here?” Dr. Ass said incredulously. “The children aren’t to be exposed to outside influences. Do you realize how much you’ve set them back?”

“All you care about are your experiments. They’re children, not robots,” Bailey said, fire burning in her veins. People who took advantage of children were the worst, and they deserved the cruelest punishment.

Dr. Ass didn’t seem to care for this argument. He waved the kids forward. “Now go ahead and come over here, children. I’ve had enough of this.”

The little blond boy stepped forward, right in front of Bailey; she wanted to reach out and stop him. He halted and looked back at her with a strange expression. He didn’t look scared, like she figured. Instead, Timothy looked fierce.

“That’s it, Timothy,” Dr. Ass encouraged. “Whatever that woman has told you is a lie. Come over here, and you won’t be hurt.”

Timothy looked down at Harley and smiled. Then he spun around to face Dr. Ass. “You said she was outnumbered,” he said.

Dr. Ass nodded, looking tired of the conversation. “That’s right. We will take her down once you’re all over here safely—well, those who comply and come over here willingly.”

“But you’re wrong,” Timothy added in a small voice that made him seem so fragile.

The crease between Dr. Ass’s eyes deepened. He squinted like trying to see through the crowd of children. “Who else is back there?”

“Just us,” Timothy said, and his hand rose.

A blast of wind erupted from the palm of his hand, knocking into the guards and Dr. Ass. They were unable to fight it as it pushed them back. The wind ripped violently at Dr. Ass’s lab coat and hair. He shielded his face with his arm.

“Timothy, stop this or you will be punished,” Dr. Ass warned, his words drowned out by the wind.

The guards were struggling to keep their position, their guns blowing around in their hands.

“What are you going to do? Shoot me?” Timothy asked.

“Yes!” Dr. Ass said, being pushed back several inches from the wind.

The boy with black hair stepped forward, pure conviction on his face. “I don’t think so.” He lifted his hand, making Dr. Ass rise off the ground.

“Daniel!” Dr. Ass cried. “What are you doing?”

“I’m punishing you,” Daniel said, his lips hardly parting for his words.

He swept his hand to the side, and Dr. Ass followed the movement, being tossed against the far wall. He hit it hard and slid to the floor. He looked out at the children, a crazed fear now in his eyes.

“Children! You’ve gone too far!” he yelled from the ground, his hair and jacket completely disheveled. He looked at the guards, who were regaining their footing.

Timothy appeared to run out of force. He looked at Bailey, appearing suddenly exhausted.

“Guards, take the children down,” Dr. Ass ordered.

Alarm sprang to Bailey’s mind. She took quick aim and pulled the trigger, taking out the two closest guards. Two more suddenly erupted in flames, dropping their guns and beating at the fires. Another guard let out a loud wail. Around his feet was a block of ice that had appeared out of nowhere. The frost was growing over his body, reaching up to his knees and then his thighs.

The remaining guard took aim at Bailey, once he had recovered his weapon from the wind. She was about to shoot him down, when he dropped his gun and yelled, slapping at his arms like he was covered in bugs.

“No! No! No! Get them off me!” the guard screamed and bolted out the door, his arms waving around madly.

Dejoure had told Bailey about a little girl at SB who could induce hallucinations. Bailey turned to find the smallest of the children, a girl of about seven with blonde curls, staring at the retreating figure with intense concentration.

The scene in front of the children was complete chaos. Two of the guards were still rolling around, trying to put out the fire that kept relighting, and the other guard was nearly frozen.

“Stop this, children,” Dr. Ass ordered from the floor, trying several times to get up, but Daniel’s force was holding him down.

Dejoure materialized in front of the doctor, shaking her head. “No, you’re the one who needs to be stopped.”

“Door,” Dr. Ass said, mispronouncing her name. “You’re behind this.”

She shook her head. “I’ve hated you for a long time. I’ve wanted to see you punished. I’ve looked forward to this moment since you ‘acquired’ me and took away my freedom and made me do all those dumb exercises. And the injections, the constant poking and prodding.”

Dejoure sighed, like she was giving up. “Now I realize that punishing you would only bring me down to your level. You’ve been stopped, and that’s enough for me. You’ll never be able to take advantage of us again.”

“There’s a set of guards headed your way,” Lewis said in the comm. “You need to get out of there.”

“Okay, meet us on the roof,” Bailey said in a whisper.

Dr. Ass was laughing. He kept trying to get up, but Daniel was keeping him pinned with his telekinesis.

“Once you leave here, I’ll come after you,” the doctor promised. “You all have chips in you and are highly trackable. Wherever you go, I’ll find you… because, children, you are my property. I created you to be who you are.”

Dejoure shook her head. “No. That’s not how it’s going to go, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you.”

“Dejore! I’ve had enough of your mouth!” Dr. Ass yelled. “When I get free, I’m going to strangle you with my bare hands.”

She gave him one last look of pity. “You know what, I feel sorry for you. You’re pathetic.” Dejoure turned to Bailey, a hopeful expression on her face. “Let’s go!”

Bailey agreed, sprinting for the exit.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Starboards Corp Headquarters, Planet Kai, Tangki System

Lewis stayed in the control room until he saw that Bailey was leaving with the children. Chewing his fingernails, he ripped one off way past the quick as he nervously watched the scene, unable to do much to help. His fingers had already taken a lot of damage that day. However, if they all survived and the children made it to safety, the pain would be worth it and more.

Using the comm he’d pulled off the guard still passed out in the corner, Lewis was able to divert the security forces several times. He’d guessed that Melanie was barking orders remotely, but she didn’t have the view he did with every camera in the building; she might have full control of the system, but she was operating blindly.

Lewis knew from the monitors that there was a slew of guards headed his direction. He was about to take off through the only exit, but he turned back to the monitors for one last look. Bailey and the children were headed for the stairwell. They had a mostly clear shot, and also, it appeared that Pip was going to be right on time, landing a shuttle on the roof.

Plucking a fire extinguisher from the wall, Lewis smashed the butt-end into the row of monitors. A fiery explosion erupted from the bank of electronics, and Lewis shielded his eyes before throwing the fire extinguisher into the largest screen, where Melanie had disappeared. It cracked, and smoke rose up from the control center.

That felt good, Lewis thought.

He spun around and bolted for the exit. He reactivated his cloaking belt before opening the door. Three guards were approaching from the right. They halted when the door flew open, blinking around, looking for the infrared signal using their goggles.

Lewis had prepared for this. He slipped one of the marble-sized, red grenades from his pocket and threw it in the direction of the guards. It didn’t reach them and its blast radius wasn’t strong enough to cause them much damage, but that wasn’t the point. With the heat from the blast, the guards weren’t going to notice him with their goggles, as he made his break for the stairwell.

Lewis rounded the corner, picking off two guards who had apparently been waiting for him, but not before the first got off a shot that whizzed by Lewis’s head.

Man, that was close, he thought, his heart jumping up to his throat.

These guys were shooting to kill, unlike the last visit, when they’d simply been armed with shock wands and a bad attitude.

Lewis was so close to the stairwell, and this floor was only a flight below the rooftop, where he was headed.

“Holmes?” Bailey asked over the comm. “What’s your location?”

Three more guards ran around the corner. Lewis ducked into an open office.

Breathing hard, he said, “I’m playing with the locals.”

She laughed. “Okay, well, I’m currently on a field trip with a dozen super-charged kids. Care to join us on the roof soon? We’ll be there in less than a minute.”

He fired two shots around the corner, missing his targets. He threw his back up against the wall, letting out a hot breath. “Yeah, I’ll join you as soon as I take out a few jerks.”

“Do you need backup?” Bailey asked.

Lewis attempted another round. His shot connected with one guard, sending him to the ground. “No, I’ll be fine. Get the kids to the shuttle. I’ll meet you in the Q-Ship.”

“Okay, be careful. I’m not going anywhere without you, but hurry up.”

“Copy that,” he said, swinging around the corner and shooting again.

He fired until he was out of ammo. Another guard fell, and Lewis slipped back into the office. The sound of running footsteps clattered outside the door.

He flipped his watch to mirror mode and checked the hallway. The guard had his gun slung across his back, but was hurrying in Lewis’s direction. He was out of ammo too, possibly. It made sense.

Lewis waited until the guard was closer and then dashed around the corner, his head down. He rammed the top of his skull straight into the guard’s midsection, knocking him down like he’d been charged by a bull. He let his momentum carry him forward and sat on the guard when he tumbled to the floor, cracking the gun straight into the side of the man’s head.

The guard fell still at once. Glad that it hadn’t taken any longer, Lewis sprang off the guard and sprinted for the stairs, reloading his gun as he ran.

Just a little farther, and they’d be out of there.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Harley led the way across the rooftop, the children rushing behind him. To Bailey’s relief, they’d only met a few guards on their way up the stairwell. Each time she was about to shoot, one of the children took over, knocking the guards out or wrapping them in flames.

These were talented children, and in the wrong hands, terrifying. Under the Federation’s protection, they would be trained in their skill. They’d have a different life, the one that had been stolen from them by Starboards Corp.

The wind picked up on the rooftop, knocking the children around as they sprinted for the shuttle, piloted by Pip. He’d exchanged the Black Eagle for the shuttle at some point and made quick time getting over here.

Bailey stayed behind, ushering the children past her. “DJ? Your location?”

“I’m at the front of the shuttle, getting these guys loaded,” Dejoure answered.

“Great. Once they are all aboard, I want you on that ship with them. We’ll meet you back at Ricky Bobby.”


“What did I say about arguing with me while on a mission,” Bailey cut her off.

“Okay,” Dejoure said, disappointment heavy in her tone.

“The next step is highly dangerous, and I want you as far from here as possible.”

“Agreed,” DJ answered.

“Good girl,” Bailey said, looking off to where Ricky Bobby could be seen in the distance.

Not too close and not too far away.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Lewis opened the stairwell door and ran straight into a guard that was headed up to the top. He realized that when he head-butted the other guard, he must have disabled the cloak, because he was in full view now.

He fumbled with the weapon he’d been reloading, dropping the magazine to the floor. He cursed and threw his throbbing fist across the guard’s face. His fingers screamed from the pain.

The guard shoved Lewis against the wall with brute force then clamped his hands down hard on the detective’s throat. Lewis struggled to claw at the guy, but the guard was able to duck away from his efforts. No breath entered his lungs as he tried to suck in air. The guard laughed, enjoying his attempt to end Lewis’s life.

“Holmes?” Bailey called over the comm. “Where are you? We’re almost ready to go.”

Lewis tried to answer, but nothing came out, as the guard tightened his grip on Lewis’s throat, and his face grew red. He needed to alert Bailey, but there was no way. All he could do was gurgle, his arms being shielded by the guy’s large shoulders, which kept shrugging off his attempts to get away.

“Holmes?” Bailey asked. “I’ll give you another minute.”

I don’t have a minute, he thought frantically.

A stomping noise stole Lewis’s attention. A guard ran past them, up the flight of stairs.

“I’ve got this one,” the guard strangling Lewis said over his shoulder. “Go take care of the other one.”

The guard was gone, and Lewis’s vision was going black. He wanted to warn Bailey. To say something. To stop this, but he was losing strength. Then he remembered something Bailey had taught him during their sparring practices. He dropped to the floor, making the guard lose his grip.

Lewis sucked in a sudden breath, refilling his reserves. He brought his knee up into the man’s groin, sending him to the ground immediately, then he pulled back his foot and kicked him again for good measure.

Finally, he yanked the gun out of the guy’s holster and took off for the rooftop.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Bailey kept her eyes on the stairwell door. She was seconds away from sprinting back and checking on Lewis.

Something is wrong.

Someone tugged at her wrist. She spun around to find Timothy and Daniel looking at her expectantly.

“Are you coming, superhero?” Timothy asked.

The hatch to the ship was still open. They must have snuck off.

“Yes, I’m coming,” Bailey said in a rush. “I’m only waiting for someone. Hey, Dejoure, you’ve got two stragglers,” she called to the girl.

Dejoure materialized at the hatch door, visible after having taken off the cloaking belt. “Oh phooey, you two always have to sneak off, don’t you?”

Timothy’s eyes darted to the door on the far side of the stairwell, and he rose his hand.

“No, he’s with me,” Bailey said, stopping the boy from blasting who she assumed was Lewis.

She spun around and, to her horror, found a Starboards guard with his gun raised, pointing it straight at the children.

Everything slowed down. She caught the micromovements as he squeezed the trigger once, twice, three times. Bailey didn’t think, only reacted.

She dove in front of the boys, taking all three shots.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Lewis flew out the stairwell door seconds too late. The gunshots rang in his head, and he watched Bailey crumple to the rooftop. Before the guard could register he was there, Lewis shot him in the back. He then charged forward.

Dejoure was screaming from the hatch of the ship.

Lewis pointed to the boys. “Get on the shuttle now!” They didn’t know who he was, but they didn’t argue with him. “Pip, take off as soon as the boys are onboard.”

“But the lieutenant?” Pip asked, a quiet nervousness in his voice.

“I have her,” he urged. “We stick to the plan.”

“Copy that, detective,” Pip replied.

The hatch to the ship was closing when Lewis made it to Bailey. He pushed her hair off her forehead; she was already sweating profusely.

“Bailey, are you with me?”

Her eyes fluttered. She had been shot in the shoulder, abdomen and leg.

Her eyes fluttered again. “I’m here,” she said like she was drunk.

Lewis allowed a smile and scooped her into his arms. They had to get to the cloaked Q-ship before anyone else exited the stairwell. Here, they were sitting ducks.

Bailey wrapped her arms around his neck with a fervent force. It made Lewis’s heart lighten slightly to feel her strength. She was down, but not out.

He found the cloaked Q-ship and opened the hatch via the comm connection. He didn’t feel confident that they could stay on the roof for long, but he was relieved once they were inside the ship. At least he could treat Bailey’s wounds.

He pulled off his suit jacket and ripped off the sleeves. He wrapped the middle part of the jacket around Bailey’s midsection. Her eyes sprang open when he tied it tight.

“You awake still?” he asked, trying to keep his tone light.

She let out a breath, looking green in the face and wavering like she might pass out. “Yeah, I’m a bit sleepy is all.”

“It’s not the time for naps,” he said, tying the sleeve of his jacket around her leg. “Are you in a lot of pain?”

She half-grimaced and smiled. “Yeah, my wounds pinch a bit.”

Lewis tried to laugh, but the seriousness of the situation was weighing on the moment. She had lost a lot of blood. They could hurry back to Ricky Bobby, but they’d fail the mission. Still, saving Bailey was more important.

“Do you think you can tell me how to fly this thing?” he asked her, snapping at her as her eyelids tried to close.

She shook her head. “No, but if you go get me the medkit, I can fly.”

Lewis looked back at the hull. “You think you can fly? Are you kidding me?”

“That’s a horrible joke,” she said with a slur. “And I need you on the guns. You know the plan.”

“Bailey, you’ve been shot three times. I don’t know how to pilot,” he stated anxiously. He chanced a glance out the front. Guards were spilling out of the stairwell, Dr. Ass with them. It was only a matter of time before they found the ship.

Bailey shot forward with impressive speed and grabbed Lewis’s shirt, her hands covered in blood. “I’m not failing this mission because I got nicked a few times.”

“Shot,” he corrected. “You’ve obviously been shot.”

Through clenched teeth, Bailey said, “Go get the medkit, Lewis.”

He decided not to argue. She looked like she was fading fast. “What am I looking for?” he asked, rummaging through the back.

“It’s a black case,” she said through tattered breaths. “Inside it, you’ll find a syringe marked ‘shock trauma’.”

Lewis looked up, startled. “You want to shock your system? I was thinking a painkiller.”

“Adrenaline is a painkiller,” Bailey stated. “It boosts oxygen and glucose to the brain and muscles. It also suppresses other systems, which will divert the energy. Also this has something to stop the bleeding.”

He pulled out the syringe. “Fine. I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Don’t worry, Lewis,” she said, trying to push herself up.

He placed a hand on her, making her pause. “I’m past the point of worrying. Right now, I’m hoping to keep you alive long enough to get help.”

“Finish mission first, then help,” Bailey argued.

Lewis shook his head, pulling the cap off the syringe with his teeth. He spit it across the ship and held it up tightly. “Okay, take a deep breath. This is going to pinch.”

“Like a bullet wound,” she joked.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Lewis helped Bailey to the pilot’s seat. She wasn’t looking much better, but her eyes were wide, and that was an improvement over her barely hanging on to consciousness, like before.

“Looks like we’ve got company,” she said.

Lewis’s head snapped up. In the distance, on the opposite side of the ship and farther off than Ricky Bobby was about half a dozen single flyers.

“I believe those belong to Monstre Corp.” Lewis slid into the copilot seat.

“What’s your status, Ladybug?” Pip asked over the comm. “Do you need me to come back?”

“No,” Bailey said, doing her preflight checks. Even with sweat pouring from her, she still was taking care to meticulously follow protocol. “We’re lifting off now. Everything is still to plan. Get those kids onboard Ricky Bobby.”

“So you’re alright?” Pip asked. “I saw you on the rooftop lying down.”

“I was napping,” she joked, lifting the Q-ship into the air, as a set of guards rushed in their direction. They would be discovered in only a matter of seconds.

“I prefer little nooks in libraries for napping,” Pip said. There was an obvious tension in his voice, but he was trying to stay positive.

Lewis was doing the same thing as he scooted up close to the controls, his eyes constantly on Bailey.

“We’re on schedule. Let us know when you’re on board Ricky Bobby.” She flew the ship higher, her breath rattling like a box of matches being shaken. Her hands trembled on the controls.

“We’re landing now,” Pip stated.

Lewis let out a breath of relief. They’re safe. That was at least something.

“Holmes will give you a countdown,” Bailey said. “Ricky Bobby shouldn’t jump until our mark. Remember, timing needs to be perfect.”

“We noted that there were flyers approaching,” Pip said over the comm.

“Or as I’d like to call them, ‘witnesses’,” she joked, grabbing her abdomen from the laugh.

The Q-ship circled around the gigantic balloon filled with K-factor. Lewis knew that Bailey was trying to position the Q-ship in the right place. Timing wasn’t the only thing that needed to be perfect.

She shot him a tentative expression. “Are you almost ready?”

Lewis nodded, tightening his hands on the weapons controls. “We need to be a little farther away.”

Bailey agreed, steering the ship perpendicular with the balloon. According to Hatch, the weak spot of the balloon was in the middle, but even still, this balloon was built to withstand a giant amount of force. That’s why they’d loaded bigger weapons than the Q-ship originally had. Something that would make a big bang.

Bailey didn’t have to say anything when they were in place. She simply gave a curt nod to Lewis, which he thought was about all she could manage anyway.

“Pip we’re launching on my count. Get ready,” he stated.

“The gate engines are ready. Sequence will commence on your count,” Pip answered back, his voice more serious than Lewis had ever heard it.

“Three, two, one.” Lewis launched several missiles as Bailey banked the Q-ship around the balloon, offering multiple places for the shots. The missiles flew, homing in on their target.

“Okay, we’ve got to get the eff out of here,” Bailey said, punching several buttons, jumping the Q-ship before the missiles found their target.

It was crucial they were gone before the explosion, and it was crucial that Ricky Bobby was there when it happened. Timing was key.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Bridge, Ricky Bobby, Planet Kai, Tangki System

Jack stared out at the floating skyscraper suspended by the giant balloon filled with K-factor. One of the first things Lewis had done after locking down the building was to take the systems out that camouflaged the building, making it visible to anyone close by. Jack needed to be able to see it. He needed to know they’d fulfilled their mission.

“The missiles have been deployed,” Ricky Bobby informed him overhead.

“And Bailey and Lewis?” Jack asked.

“They have supposedly jumped, although comms will be down during this time,” the AI answered.

Bailey was shot.

It soured Jack’s mouth that she was still out there on this mission, fulfilling her responsibilities when wounded. She was going to make it, though. She had to.

“Gate engines are ready,” Ricky Bobby stated.

Jack nodded, looking at Liesel standing next to him. “Prepare, but we can’t go yet. On my mark.”

Liesel slipped her hand into his. This was dangerous. They all knew it. K-factor was an unknown agent in this quantity, but they knew something without a doubt: it was highly explosive.

Hatch had reviewed this plan thoroughly. He believed it would work. Hatch had worked tirelessly to add a new mod to the jump engines for this mission. This was a one-shot affair that they would never attempt again so deep in a planet’s gravity. However, if Hatch thought it was safe on this occasion and wouldn’t put the children in danger then that was good enough for Jack. He looked at Hatch and gave him a curt nod of appreciation.

“Six seconds?” Jack asked him in confirmation.

Hatch nodded. “That should be enough time.”

The explosion started at the balloon.


The boom echoed through the ship and for many miles.


The fiery orange shot out and down, engulfing the twenty-five-story skyscraper.


Apparently, the blast radius for this explosion would be so vast, anything within fifty miles would be gone. The planet of Kai would be fine since it was mostly water and its facilities under the ocean’s surface. Who wouldn’t be fine were those in the building; all people who knowingly worked on evil projects, like child experimentation and nuclear weapons.


The blast would continue to spread, second by second, until it vaporized everything in its range. That was the power of K-factor.


The waiting was intolerable, but Jack knew it was necessary. They had to be seen next to the blast until the last possible second. The orange of the explosion was nearly on them, about to swallow Ricky Bobby.


“Now!” Jack yelled.

“Ship gating now,” Ricky Bobby confirmed, taking them away before they joined the destruction of Starboards Corp.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Bailey didn’t wake when the Q-ship jumped to the rendezvous spot right outside the gate to Precious galaxy. Lewis didn’t know if she was going to at all. Her head lolled forward, and her pulse was weak.

“Pip?” Lewis asked over the comm.

There was no answer. The comms were still offline, apparently. He stared at the controls with uncertainty. He didn’t know how to fly a ship, even if he’d watched Bailey do it a hundred times. Maybe he’d been studying her, rather than how she flew the ship. Right then, he couldn’t remember.

He tried to open a comm link directly to Ricky Bobby from the Q-ship. “Hello, this is Holmes. Does anyone read me?”

No answer.

He shook Bailey’s shoulders. “Come on. Wake up!”

Her eyelids didn’t even flutter this time. She didn’t make any attempts to stir.

“Dammit!” Lewis yelled. Yes, we did what we set out to do, but at what price? Did Bailey give her life for this mission? That’s not fair. She’s supposed to live. And where’s Ricky Bobby?

Lewis looked out at the darkness. He was floating alone in space with no clue what to do. What if the crew of Ricky Bobby hadn’t gated in time? What if they had been collateral damage in the explosion? The explosion he’d caused. What if he was the only one left?

He couldn’t stomach that reality. No, not when he was getting his life together, he couldn’t lose it all. This was a life he liked a whole lot more than the one he’d had before Melanie ruined it.

He tried to remind himself of the positives. They’d saved the orphans…well, maybe if Ricky Bobby gated in time. They’d all known it was going to be close. And Starboards Corp, with all its evil technology, was destroyed. It could no longer churn out horrible technology or take over children’s lives. Melanie may have been its CEO, but now she owned a corporation that didn’t exist. She probably survived the blast on Kai, but that was fine for now. In a matter of seconds, Lewis had taken everything from her, as she’d done to him. And because she had a big mouth, he knew exactly where the etheric diamond was.

Everything had gone perfectly…until now.

He shook Bailey’s shoulders. Her breathing was faint. “Come on, Bailey. Don’t give up. We have so many more adventures, but you’ve got to hold on for me.”

Lewis was about to close his eyes to pray, something he hadn’t done since his dad died, but a giant flash stole his attention. He shielded his eyes and blinked at the object hovering outside the Q-ship.

His pulse quickened. All hope wasn’t lost. He turned off the cloaks to the ship and tried to connect to Ricky Bobby again.

“Hello? Ricky Bobby?”

“Hello, Holmes,” Jack said over the comm. “I see you made it.”

“And you,” Lewis stated, more than relieved to hear his uncle’s voice.

“How is Ladybug?”

“Not good,” he admitted through a knot in his throat. “I’m going to need to be retrieved.”

“Not a problem,” Jack answered. “We’re coming for you right now.”

“Thanks,” he said with a sigh.

“And, Lew…” Jack’s words hung in the air.


“She’s going to be okay. Just get her back, breathing.”

Lewis clamped his fingers around Bailey’s pulse, which beat, but only faintly. “I’m trying.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System, Precious Galaxy

“I’ve sent a lot of close calls to the Pod-doc, but Lieutenant Tennant takes the cake,” Jack said, pacing his office.

“That she does,” Lewis stated. “So she’s going to be all right?”

His uncle shook his head. “We won’t know anything until she wakes up.”

Lewis pulled at the collar of his shirt. He hadn’t slept in almost two days. How could he?

“The children?” he asked.

Jack looked up, like he wasn’t sure what his nephew was talking about. Then understanding sprang to his face. “Oh, right. Yes, they were sent into Federation space before we went through to Precious galaxy.”

“And they’ll be okay?”

“I’d say better than okay,” Jack answered. “They’ve all been assigned to homes that have been checked out, and an officer who will check in on them regularly and train them weekly. The children aren’t normal, so they aren’t going to be treated that way; however, I hope that they will lead normal lives one day.”

“Will the Federation use them?”

Jack shook his head. “Not the way that Starboards was going to. They’ll be offered opportunities to help when they are old enough. However, for now, they are children and deserve to have a real childhood.”

Lewis wanted to smile, but he didn’t. It was too much for him.

“Lew?” Jack said, gaining his attention. “I offered to find a home for DJ.”

The detective shook his head. “She wouldn’t want one. She wants to stay here on Ricky Bobby.”

“That’s absolutely true,” Jack stated. “However, she did want to be adopted. I get the impression that she wants someone to belong to.”

Lewis blinked back at his uncle, not understanding. “Belong? Like the way Ricky Bobby belongs to this ship?”

Jack shook his head. “Like the way you belonged to my brother and your mother. Like the way Liesel and my child will belong to us.”

“Oh, like parents.”

Jack shook his head. “She said she wanted the ones who rescued her to be her pseudo parents. She wants to belong to you and Bailey.”

“Wait, are you saying she wants me to be her father? That’s crazy.”

Jack smiled tenderly. “Not really. She’s young enough to be your child. And she really just needs someone to make decisions on her behalf—it could be me, since I’m in charge of Ricky Bobby, but she wants it to be you two.”

“What does it involve?”

Jack shrugged. “Not much. I mean, it does take a village to raise a child…or a ship, in this case. Everyone here is invested in her well-being.”

“But it must involve something,” Lewis pondered.

“Well, yes. Someone has to make decisions at some point on her education, maybe even discipline her. She will be entering her teen years soon; DJ is wise for her age, and powerful, without a doubt, but she does need someone to guide her. And she’s picked two somebodies.”

Lewis gulped. “Can we wait for this until…”

Jack nodded. “Yes, we should wait until Bailey wakes up.”

Lewis wanted to say, ‘if she wakes up,’ but he stopped himself.

“You’ll be happy to know that it appears our plan worked. Starboards Corp is no more,” Jack stated. “The shockwave from the explosion was considerable. The ocean is still suffering from tsunamis forces, and nothing in the sky is reported to have survived within fifty miles.”

“So Monstre Corp will think we’re gone?” Lewis asked.

“That’s right,” Jack answered. “Which means they won’t see us coming.”

“And as a bonus, I think I know where the etheric diamond is,” Lewis stated.

Jack’s eyes brightened with curiosity. “Do tell.”

“Melanie slipped and said she traded it for Starboards,” Lewis stated.

“And there’s only one person she could have traded for that company,” Jack said triumphantly.

“None other than Soloman Vance.”

Jack rubbed his hands together eagerly. “I do love how this mission keeps fulfilling extra goals.”

“Yes, so free the crew, take down Vance and get the diamond back.”

“And then you’ll have your reputation back along with your freedom,” Jack stated, hesitation on his face. “However, I do hope that when all that happens, you still choose to stay with Ghost Squadron. We could use a mind like yours.”

“Yeah…maybe,” he said absently, unable to think about the future.

Medical Center, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

“How do you feel?”

Ricky Bobby’s voice was too loud. The lights were too bright. Everything was intensified. Bailey pressed her hands to her closed eyes.

“I don’t know. Everything is too much.”

“That’s normal. It will take some time for you to adjust,” Ricky Bobby stated.

“Being back alive, you mean?”

The AI snickered slightly. “Yes, coming back from near-death can take time to reorient.”

Bailey attempted to open her eyes and was immediately taken aback by her vision. “I can see…”

“So much better?” Ricky Bobby supplied.

“Yes. And I can hear…” She turned her head one way and the other, picking up on noises from all over the ship.

“Are you happy?” Ricky Bobby asked.

“That I’m alive?”

“You have wanted a full upgrade for a long time.”

She flexed her hand, feeling a strange power pulsing in her fingers. “Yes, that’s true. I felt limited before, but I took your advice.”

“About allowing yourself to feel vulnerable so you could establish a better partnership?” Ricky Bobby asked.

“Yes, I’ve never liked the idea of being saved.”

“And yet, no matter how strong you were, if the detective hadn’t been there…”

“I’d be dead.”

“Sometimes our greatest assets aren’t what’s inside of us, but the connections we have to those around us.”

Bailey nodded, pushing up off of the table, since Ricky Bobby had finished the examination and scans. “That makes more sense to me today than I ever would have expected.”

“So, ironically, you got the upgrade you wanted the moment you allowed yourself to be saved.”

Bailey smiled. “I’ve always enjoyed irony.”

“Me too,” Ricky Bobby said thoughtfully. “And, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, Ricky Bobby?”

“I’m glad that it worked out the way it did.”

“You mean you’re glad I got my upgrade?” she joked.

“Yes, but mostly, I’m glad that, in the process, you had an emotional evolution.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” she said, hearing footsteps approach. Soft-soled shoes. Size ten, maybe. “And I’m glad I’m not dead.”

Lewis peeked his head around the corner. “I am, too.”

Bailey’s face brightened. She found herself rushing forward. Throwing her arms around Lewis’s neck. Pulling him in tight.

His arms hung uncertainly at his sides and then, after a few seconds of recovery, he wrapped his arms around her.

“Thank you,” Bailey said, peeling away from him and taking a couple of quick steps back.

“You’re welcome,” Lewis said. “I mean, I didn’t do much. I did argue with you while you were on death’s doorstep.”

“Yeah, but I’m glad that we finished the mission instead of bailing, so thanks for listening to me.”

“I’m not sure if you realize how impossible it is to argue with you,” he imparted.

Bailey smirked and gave him a once-over. He looked awful. Exhausted. “No offense, but you look like you haven’t slept in days.”

Lewis combed his hand through his hair and laughed. “Well, to be honest. I haven’t. I was waiting for you to wake up.”

She held out her arms. “Here I am.”

Lewis smiled with relief. “And I’m glad for that.”

Bailey noticed the bandage on his hand. “You all right?”

He looked at his hand and held it up. “Yeah, you wouldn’t believe it. I broke three fingers on the first guard’s face. Then I broke the other one and my thumb on the second guy’s face.”

“Sounds like I need to continue to teach you how to fight.”

Lewis pursed his lips and nodded. “It hurts like hell, so yeah. Still can’t believe that I broke all my fingers. I mean, talk about luck.”

“Are you kidding me?” Bailey asked. “I was shot three times and fell into a coma when the ship jumped, and you’re complaining about broken fingers? Oh man, your pain is so much worse.”

“Well in my defense, I was awake to deal with my pain, although I wished I could have passed out over the last couple of days,” he said with a laugh. “And I wish they’d stick me in the Pod-doc for a broken hand. Now I’m just a poor mortal who might not be able to keep up with you.”

“I’m guessing if you get some sleep, you’ll be back to your spritely self.” Bailey hooked her arm through Lewis’s and led him out of the Medical Center. “Because even without the upgrade, you’re still sharper than anyone I know.”

Lewis allowed himself to be led away and smiled down at Bailey. “Well, thanks. If you’re up for it, then I’d like to talk to you about something.”

“Sure. What’s the subject?”

Lewis’s smiling expression turned serious. “DJ.”

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Dining Hall, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

“I don’t want to call you ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’,” Dejoure explained. “And I know you’re not married. Hell, you’re not even together. It’s just that you’re the ones who rescued me and gave me this new life.”

“Watch your mouth then, kiddo, if you want us as your parental figures,” Lewis stated.

Dejoure smiled. “I know that someone has to make decisions for me, and I want that. I’m sort of tired of being in charge of everything.”

“Like the kitchen?” Bailey asked.

The girl shook her head. “No, I want control of that. I only want someone to tell me what I should learn and what I should be doing some of the time. I’m old enough to know that there are things I don’t even know I don’t know about. I need someone to teach me, and I’d like it to be a human. Ricky Bobby can tell me things, but I’d like a woman to teach me how to be one and what it’s like.” She looked meaningfully at Bailey and then to Lewis. “And I need someone to explain things to me. To warn me about the things that might hurt me out there.” She blushed. “I don’t know. It’s stupid. I just want…”

“Something to belong to,” Lewis said, finishing her sentence. “We all need that. I totally get it.” There was still so much reluctance in his tone.

“And I do too,” Bailey said.

She hadn’t known what to say when Lewis told her what Dejoure wanted. She wasn’t sure she could do it; it would mean laying down roots here on Ricky Bobby. This would be her forever home. She’d never had that, hadn’t thought she wanted it. However, she couldn’t say no to Dejoure. And in truth, this might be the one way to get her to stay in one place, to commit.

Lewis took Dejoure’s hand. “I’m honored. We both are. However, can you give me some time to think about it? I’m a wanted fugitive, and I’m kind of thinking you could do better.”

Dejoure shook her head, her large smile lighting up her eyes. “I can’t do better, but yes. Both of you think about it and let me know later, or whenever.”

Pip’s clapping grabbed everyone’s attention. “Okay, gang, it’s time for the fondue party to begin.” He waved everyone into the dining hall, where he’d been buzzing around, working ferociously.

“Did he say fondue?” Bailey asked Lewis. “What is that?”

“It’s only the best thing from the 1950s,” Pip answered. He was wearing a kilt and a T-shirt that read, ‘Lettuce: the taste of sadness’.

“Is your outfit from the 1950s too?” Bailey asked.

Pip looked down at the plaid kilt that clashed with the T-shirt. “No, but I started my own T-shirt business. If anyone wants to buy in, let me know. We use only organic cotton, and put sustainability and fashion at the core of our mission statement.”

“What’s your business called?” Lewis asked, looking around at the various pots on the tables, their contents simmering.

“Pimping Pip’s Apparel,” the AI answered.

“That’s a mouthful,” Bailey joked.

“That’s what she said,” he retorted with a laugh.

“The T-shirts are pretty cozy,” Liesel remarked, pulling on her own T-shirt. It had a picture of llama doing yoga and under that, it read, ‘Llamaste’.

“When do you have time to run a T-shirt business and throw a fondue party?” Bailey asked.

“Oh, I also printed all those remaining in the database,” Pip stated. “And I made enough doses of the formula for each child to have a year’s supply.”

“That’s pretty impressive,” Lewis said.

“What’s impressive is that you all get your own vat of cheese,” Pip said, throwing his arms wide to indicate the rows of tables. “Ages ago, I ordered fondue pots so we could have a party with the crew. Well, that was for a party of three-hundred people, but there’s only eight of us.”

Lewis looked around at the group who’d shown up—everyone but Hatch. He was busy in his lab and, in his words, ‘I don’t do parties when there is work to be done. And there’s always work to be done.’

“How does this work?” Vitos asked, stepping forward and staring into the pot.

Pip clapped his hands. “I’m so glad you asked. I’ve set up pots with cheese and also chocolate.” He picked up a fork and stuck it in a piece of bread. “You take your choice of breads and dip them in the vats of cheese, then you eat. Easy peasy.” Pip swirled the bread in the cheese and then popped it into his mouth.

Bailey leaned in close to Lewis. “Can he technically eat?”

“I don’t know,” he whispered. “I guess so.”

“I also have cookies, marshmallows, pound cake and brownies that you can dip in the chocolate fondue,” Pip explained. He pointed to a tray of fruits and vegetables. “And for you, Liesel Diesel, I have your favorites.”

“Is the cheese vegan?” Liesel asked.

Pip looked up and to the right. “Ummm…yes. I ground the cashews myself.”

“He’s lying,” Lewis whispered.

“Duh,” Bailey replied. “And it doesn’t really matter… I caught Liesel eating a meatball sub the other day. The pregnancy has taken over.”

“I’m not judging,” Lewis stated.

“Okay, get to work,” Pip cheered. “The first one to finish a pot of cheese wins a T-shirt.”

Bailey settled down next to the closest pot, her eyes looking longingly at the bubbling cheese. “I’m winning you that T-shirt, Lewis.”

“I have no doubt that you can eat a whole cauldron of cheese all by yourself,” Lewis said, taking the seat opposite of her.

“I can probably eat two,” she bragged. “But today, I’ll share with you.”

She stuck the forked instrument into a round piece of pretzel bread. The smell of cheddar and garlic rose up from the fondue pot. Bailey swirled the bread around in the mixture and lifted it up, the long string of gooey cheese reaching down into the pot. She eyed it hungrily before taking a bite.

“Okay, this is the best idea Pip has had so far,” she decided.

Lewis stabbed at a piece of celery, not sure about the communal pot of cheese. He wasn’t good at sharing, not since Melanie.

“So, the witch wasn’t in Starboards when we blew it up,” he told Bailey.

She pursed her lips, disappointment in her eyes. “I’m sorry. But don’t worry, we’re going to get her.”

He nodded. “Especially now that she’s probably penniless and looking for another scam. She’ll mess up, and when she does, I’ll be there to push her over the cliff.”

He thought of the horrid analogy she’d made about how he was the ledge she needed to jump from. Little did she know her parachute had holes in it. He told Bailey about his idea regarding the whereabouts of the diamond as he struggled to spear a carrot.

“So that’s why Melanie was at that bar, Prickly Cactus, asking about Monstre Corp,” Bailey guessed.

“I think so. She knew she couldn’t sell the diamond in the Pan galaxy. Gringotts would have figured that out; he’s got eyes and ears everywhere.”

“So she found a way into Precious galaxy and hunted around, looking for a tycoon to sell it to,” Bailey mused aloud.

Lewis dipped the carrot in the cheese and twirled it around, trying to wrap it up. “And she probably found out about Monstre Corp somehow. She’s good at hunting for information and getting it out of people, which is why I mistakenly thought she’d make a good detective.”

“And somehow she got a meeting with Vance and convinced him to buy the diamond,” Bailey continued through a mouthful of bread and cheese.

“But Vance knew that Starboards was a throw-away company,” Lewis picked up the thread, “like all the others that he uses up and throws out. So he traded her that one shell company for the diamond. He was probably done with Starboards, anyway, so it was a win-win.”

“Yes, it was starting to cause Monstre, his precious company, some vulnerability,” Bailey stated.

“Now the question is what is Vance going to do with the diamond,” Lewis said.

“What can you do with it, anyway?”

He shrugged. “That’s a good question for Hatch. But it’s etheric energy, so I suspect it holds unique power.”

“And it’s large,” she added.

“Right, so a lot of power.” Lewis speared a piece of broccoli and dipped it into the vat. He leaned forward, conspiratorially. “So, I don’t really get the draw of this fondue stuff. It’s only some simmering cheese.”

Bailey pointed at him with her fork. “That’s because you keep eating dumb vegetables. Put down the broccoli, Harlowe.” She nodded at the bowl of bread. “Stick some of that sourdough in the cheese, and you’ll get what the big deal is.”

He obeyed, putting down his fork and picking up a new one. He pierced the bread, which was much easier to get on the tines, and dipped it into the cheese.

Behind them, Pip emitted a loud scream. Lewis spun around. The AI was holding his hands to his chest and breathing rapidly. Bailey was already on her feet, her gun drawn.

“What is it?” she demanded.

Dejoure was giggling on the far side of the table, her hands over her mouth. Everyone else was only looking at Pip with keen interest.

Pip bent over and picked up a rubber snake from his chair, holding it in the air. “Dejoure! This is from you, isn’t it?”

The girl laughed louder. “I’m returning the favor, Uncle Pip.”

Pip shook his other fist at her. “Just you wait. Your time will come.”

“I’ll sleep with one eye open,” she retorted.

Penrae, who had taken the form of a Tuetian, gave Dejoure a look of confusion. “You two are pranking each other, is that right?”

“Yeah, it’s been an ongoing thing,” Dejoure explained.

“And you use a rubber snake?” Penrae asked.

Dejoure blushed, realizing her mistake. “I’m sorry. We’re not saying that snakes are scary. It’s just—”

“Snakes are scary,” Vitos said beside Penrae. “They are a Tuetian’s biggest natural predator.”

“Yes, but you can fly to get away from them by the water,” Penrae said soothingly.

“Well, most Tuetians can,” Vitos amended in a low voice.

“Pen is going to help you with your flying,” Dejoure said. “That’s why she took that form. We have this whole plan for how you can practice.”

Vitos nodded, not looking entirely appeased at this news.

Pip was still holding the snake in the air, like trying to decide what to do with it. Lewis thought it did look very life-like, and if he’d found it in his chair, he might have jumped too.

He laughed and turned back to Bailey. “So what are we going to tell DJ? It’s such a weird request.”

Bailey rolled her eyes at him. “What do you mean? We’re going to tell her yes, we just have to think about the logistics.”

“You and I can’t be parents,” he argued. “I haven’t known you that long. And you don’t even share a pot of fondue well, I’m not sure we can share parenting responsibilities.”

Bailey swiped her bread along the side, getting the last remaining bit of cheese. “Yeah, oops. Sorry. I was really hungry. I think it’s the upgrade.”

Lewis laughed. “And what was your excuse before?”

“Hey, maybe I’m still growing. The doctor says I could grow another fourteen inches.” Bailey held up her hand, like the star student in a class. “Pip, I finished my fondue first. Lewis didn’t help; he mostly chewed on broccoli.”

Pip clapped, hurrying over to the corner where he had supplies stored. “Bravo!” he cheered, then he returned carrying a new pot of fondue, this one with dark chocolate. He replaced the empty pot and pointed to the cookies and other dessert items. “It looks like you’re ready for the chocolate course.”

“Cheese course. Chocolate course,” Bailey said, a little starry-eyed. “I could get used to this.”

“I know, right!” Pip pulled at the T-shirt that was slung over his shoulder and presented it to Bailey. “And you won this! If anyone asks, tell them you got it at Pimping Pip’s Apparel, where the prices are always cheap and the shirts are clever, just like the perfect date.”

“Thanks.” Bailey opened up the shirt and read the words printed on the front. “‘People hate when sentences don’t end in the way they potato’.”

Lewis laughed. “Very clever.”

Bailey wadded up the shirt and threw it across the table at him. “That baby is all yours. You can cycle it into your wardrobe.”

He looked down at his button-up shirt and slacks. “Yeah, I’m not really a T-shirt kind of person. I think it would look much better over your combat suit. You can wear it on casual Friday.”

Pip turned, his chin high in the air. “People are already fighting over my T-shirts.”

Bailey stuck a piece of pound cake with her fork and dipped it into the chocolate. “Anyway, we can’t tell DJ no. I know it’s a strange request, but if you think about it, it’s only a formality. She wants to have someone who signs her school forms and tells her she has to go to bed.”

Lewis eyed the chocolate, suddenly not hungry. “But that could be anyone. It doesn’t have to be us.”

“But she wants it to be us. And if we’re honest, we both know that she’s mature enough to raise herself, but she shouldn’t have to.”

He nodded. “It’s just that, if I take on the responsibility, then—”

“You’d have to stay, and you’re not sure you want to,” Bailey said, interrupting him.

“Yeah, I figured you understood.”

Bailey scooted a mound of strawberries away from the brownie bites with her fork, like they were contaminated with an incurable disease. “I get it. I don’t know what I’m going to do when we finish this mission. However, if I lay out my options, I know I want to stay here. I told you we were going to clear your name, then you can do whatever you want. Go back to the other galaxy and reopen your detective practice, or whatever it’s called. But you know that you can stay here and do a lot of good.”

Lewis stared around the dining hall. It was big enough to hold over a hundred, and therefore looked vast with only the small group there. He could picture the crew of Ricky Bobby filing through the area on the way to their various jobs. Sometimes he felt like they passed through him, crowding the ship like ghosts from the past.

“The look on your face is not a pleasant one,” Bailey said, breaking the silence.

Lewis pulled his eyes up to meet hers. “What if, when we bring back the crew, we don’t belong here? We’re the outsiders. They all know each other and work together. We’re just two strangers to them.”

“Two strangers who are going to save their asses,” Bailey stated. “And we’ve already made our mark; Vitos and DJ are a part of our contributions. Hell, we were here when Pip came alive. We belong here. This is our home as much as it was theirs, but not if you don’t want it to be.”

Lewis shrugged. “I just haven’t figured out where I belong yet.”

“And it’s a lot of pressure to take on the responsibility of another person, I get it.”

Lewis blinked at her, something occurring to him. “You do get it. Better than I would have expected. Why?”

She dropped her eyes, suddenly not as interested in the marshmallow dripping with chocolate at the end of her fork. “I took care of my sisters. Since I can remember, I was their caretaker, being the oldest. My parents worked a lot, but my grandmother did help. When she died and I got a little older, I told them I was tired of being the girls’ main caretaker. I told them I was leaving home.”

This was it. The demon Lewis had seen wrestling around in Bailey since they first met. It was the reason it was so easy for her to leave her post at Onyx Station, and why she never made any calls out. At first he’d thought she was just independent, but over time, he realized there was more to it.

“They understood, of course,” Bailey continued. “They wanted what was best for me, but deep down, I think they hoped that included me staying close by. It’s just…” She trailed off, her eyes full of regret. “It’s just that I didn’t want to take care of three girls for the rest of my young adulthood. But I also knew that my leaving would put a hardship on my family. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. Stay and give up on all my aspirations, or leave and put my family in a bind.”

Bailey picked up the fork and dragged the marshmallow around in the hot, chocolate syrup, more for something to do than because she planned on eating it.

“It’s a lot to ask a young girl to do,” Lewis said.

Bailey sort of shrugged. “Yeah, I lost most of my childhood to it, but I didn’t totally mind. I love my sisters. I miss them, but when the Federation offered me training, I took it and I didn’t look back.”

“And your parents?” Lewis asked.

“They struggled for many years, although they wouldn’t say it,” she admitted. “I always offered to send them money, but that didn’t go over well. They ended up having to send the girls away for school, since both their jobs were so demanding.”

“And you still tell yourself that it was your fault,” he guessed.

“It was my fault,” Bailey said plainly. “If I’d stayed, we’d all be together.”

“We don’t give up our identity for our family, and it doesn’t sound like that’s what your parents wanted you to do. So things were harder; they are adults and therefore the decision-makers. Their choice to send your sisters away to school is theirs to shoulder, not yours.”

A pained smile cracked on Bailey’s mouth. “Yeah, so I guess I feel like the universe is giving me a second chance with DJ. I get to do what I love, work for the Federation, and I get to care for a child who needs me.”

“Are you ready to be the decision-maker, though? Like your parents ended up having to be?” Lewis challenged.

“You know, when we were at Starboards, I was more protective of DJ than the other kids, telling her to cloak or stay back.” She looked up at Lewis, a meaningful expression in her eyes. “It was like something kicked in. My instincts were connected to her and specifically what was in her best interest.”

“Then it sounds like you’re perfect for the job,” Lewis said.

“But she wants us both to sign on for it.”

“I’m not sure why. You are fine on your own,” he argued.

“I think what she wants is the semblance of a family, something she’s never had.”

Lewis suppressed the tightness in his throat, forcing it down with a small breath. “Yeah, we’ll see.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Q-Ship, Near Planet Makare, Hapeti System

“Can we get some tunes?” Pip asked from the second row of the Q-Ship.

“No,” Lewis said, at the same time that Bailey answered, “Yes.”

She cut her eyes at him. “Seriously, you’re a stick in the mud.”

“We’re headed down to a planet for a mission,” Lewis retorted. “I think we need to stay focused.”

“Music helps with focus,” Pip sang.

“Monstre Corp thinks we’re dead,” Bailey argued. “And Hatch fixed us up a new thingy-majig so we can get past their security system.”

Lewis pointed to the back. “And we have a minor.”

“Hey, I’m considered a young adult,” Vitos said from the back.

Lewis shook his head. “Not you.”

“He means me,” Dejoure said.

“I still don’t see why she needed to come,” Lewis said, grumpily. He’d been relieved when Bailey woke up after the Pod-doc, but then after the whole Dejoure thing, he’d become extra sensitive. He guessed that, as partners, he and Bailey took turns with their bad moods. That was probably for the best.

“She had a premonition in her dream,” Bailey explained.

“And what happened, again?” he asked.

“I don’t remember,” Dejoure called from the back. “But I was with you guys, so therefore, Jack thought I should come.”

Lewis sighed loudly, skepticism heavy in his demeanor. Maybe it was the idea of the responsibility and perceived loss of freedom making him irritable. Bailey remembered her dad always being in a bad mood. They called him ‘Grumpy Daddy’ behind his back.

“So, tunes?” Pip tried again.

Bailey shot him a cautious look. “We’d better not.”

Pip smiled and nodded. “That’s fine, I have music in my head.” He began humming to himself. He was wearing skinny jeans and a T-shirt that said, ‘Hedgehogs. Why don’t they just share the hedge?’

When the Q-ship passed into Makare’s atmosphere, Bailey held her breath for a moment, expecting Monstre Corp ships to materialize again.

Nothing happened.

“Doesn’t look like there’s anyone on the ground,” she said, pointing to the building in the distance. It was a squatty building that didn’t have anything remarkable about it. That worried her, since all of Monstre’s buildings were either floating or built inside asteroids or filled with strange technology.

“The monster could be anywhere, though,” Lewis stated.

Pip stopped humming. “So far, the shields and cloaks are holding.”

The transition to bodyhood made it so he could access the ship’s information when he was in close proximity to it. He could even control it, but he had to physically be inside the ship to do so, unlike before when he could be in multiple places at once.

Bailey nodded, feeling a surge of confidence. “I think that they’ve let their guard down. I mean, we faked our death pretty well.”

“You did almost die,” Lewis stated dully.

“But I didn’t fully die,” she argued. “And stop worrying. We’re going to be in and out of there, no problem.”

“I thought you were worried about jinxing us,” Lewis countered.

“Well, in light of your bad attitude, I’ve decided to be the overly optimistic one.” She pointed to his neck. “I think your tie is too tight. It’s making you scowl.”

Lewis ran his hands over his face, blowing out a breath. “I’m fine. I’m only a bit stressed after that last mission and everything.”

“But I’m upgraded, and Pip is pretty badass.”

“And we have a child with us,” he reminded her.

“I can stay with the ship,” Dejoure said from the back. “I don’t want to be a problem. Honestly, I only remember seeing myself standing outside the building.”

“So it doesn’t sound like you stay in the ship,” Lewis said.

“Well, I will, if you tell me to,” Dejoure offered.

Lewis rolled his eyes. Here it was. A parenting decision. If he told her what to do, then it was a slippery slope and he’d land straight into the role of parent. Bailey knew he didn’t want to fall for the trap.

“Just use your own judgement,” he finally said.

“If there’s a man who wants to give you candy, don’t take it,” Pip offered.

Bailey laughed. “Great advice.”

“And don’t eat yellow snow,” Pip said.

“Looks like snow won’t be an issue.” Bailey’s enhanced vision let her see the surface of Makare with extreme detail, distinguishing blades of grass as the Q-ship landed. She looked around at the unassuming two-story building in front of them.

“So, inside there are a few hundred consciousnesses?” Vitos asked, leaning forward to get a better view.

“Or more,” Lewis answered. He looked at Bailey. “Any sign of the monster?”

She paused to listen, remembering the monster made a soft humming sound, something she should be able to pick up on now, even from far away. “No, I think we’re good.”

Lewis shook his head. “I don’t get it. Something doesn’t add up. They were guarding this facility tightly before. We blow up, and they drop their guard?”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” Bailey said, popping up to a standing position.

Lewis stopped her, placing a hand on her arm. “Remember that last time, on Sutra Nine? It was a trap. Vance allowed us to break in because he was going to blow the place up.”

“Yes, so we’re on the defensive even more,” Bailey said, shrugging him off. “And this time, we have Pip.”

The AI smiled, eager to go on another mission in his body. “I’m ready. Let’s go rescue some folks.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Monstre Corp Database Facility, Planet Makare, Hapeti System

Lewis couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong with this building, this mission. He’d retreated inside himself, trying to take the time to observe.

Lately, he’d felt like he was going through something, with Dejoure, Bailey’s accident, and Pip evolving. Maybe it was Melanie and the etheric diamond hanging over his head. He thought he’d feel better after ruining her, but it hadn’t helped as much as he thought.

The group looked out at the plain, concrete building. They didn’t have the cloaking belts with them, since two of the three had been damaged at Starboards Corp.

“Cover me,” Bailey said, gesturing to the front door.

The building had no windows and appeared to be made out of thick, reinforced concrete, like it had been built to withstand violent storms. Lewis looked around. The planet of Makare was plain, with small trees and shrubs. The blue skies were clear, and only a light breeze danced across his face. He didn’t think, based on the undamaged plant-life, that many storms broke across this area.

He nodded, drawing his gun and scanning the area around the building. Vitos and Pip stood beside him, both doing the same.

Bailey made it to the door without a problem. She pulled at the handle and when it didn’t open, she stood back and fired at it. A moment later, she turned around and waved them over.

Vitos and Pip hurried over immediately, but Lewis stayed put. He turned back to Dejoure, who was standing inside the ship.

“Stay on the comm and let us know if there are any issues,” he told her.

She nodded, pushing her hair behind her ear.

Then he ran for the entrance, where the others had slipped through.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

“This place could use a splash of color,” Pip said when Lewis entered the building.

“All the facilities are like this,” Bailey stated.

The entrance was an all-white room that was surprisingly small and narrow. On the opposite wall was a bank of roughly twelve elevators, which seemed like a lot, considering there were only two floors in the building. Above the elevators was a quote that read, ‘Sometimes - history needs a push. -Vladimir Lenin.’

Vitos pointed to the quote. “Looks like we found our next sutra.”

Lewis nodded, his eyes scanning every inch of the space. There really wasn’t much to it. Just white walls, the quote, and the elevators. He spun like he’d heard something at the entrance, but there was nothing there.

“This doesn’t seem right,” he voiced.

“Well, we know that it’s definitely a Monstre Corp facility.” Bailey pointed to the quote. “It’s got the propaganda and lack of decor to prove it.”

“I can’t shake the feeling that we’re walking into a trap,” he stated.

“I don’t think so,” Pip said, his eyes glazing over momentarily. “I can’t hack into the systems from here, but I’m not hitting anything that throws up flags.”

Bailey indicated the elevators. “Well, shall we go up?”

Lewis shook his head. “Why aren’t there any stairs? Or anything at all besides elevators to the second floor?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Pip sang.

He pressed the button for the elevator in front of him. The door slid back, but only two and half feet to reveal a small closet-like space. He poked his head in before retreating.

“Okay, I’m definitely not sharing this one with any of you.” He walked into the elevator.

“Wait,” Lewis said, rushing over. “What are you doing?”

“I’m going up,” Pip said, clicking the button beside the door inside the elevator. “See you up there.”

Lewis shook his head, running his hands over his hair.

Bailey clicked the button for the elevator in front of her.

“You’re not…” he said, giving her a scolding expression.

“Of course I am.” She stepped into the elevator when it arrived and waved. “Last one there is a rotten egg.”

When the door to the elevator closed, Bailey expected to experience the feeling of going up. Instead, a blue laser, starting at her feet, zipped back and forth, scanning her body. She jumped back as much as she could in the small space, but the sensation didn’t actually hurt. If anything, she felt better. Weightless.

The door opened to a much larger space than where she’d been before. It resembled the server room where she’d met Pen on Sutra 9. Bailey stepped into the darkened space, her gun whipping to the right and then the left. She didn’t hear anything. The space was empty besides the rows and rows of servers.

“This elevator is broken,” Pip said over the comm.

“Mine worked,” Bailey replied.

“Yeah, this one isn’t working either,” Vitos stated. “I’m going to try another one.”

“Me too,” Pip agreed.

The door next to Bailey’s elevator popped open. She swung around, pointing her gun. Lewis stepped out, a perplexed expression on his face. She lowered her weapon immediately.

“Is this…” his voice trailed away as he looked around.

Bailey nodded. “Yeah, it’s the server room.”

“But that’s too easy.” Lewis scratched his chin, thinking. “We stroll into the building and take an elevator up to the second floor? I don’t get it.”

“Well, we haven’t gotten to the databases yet, so wait. I’m sure a fire-breathing dragon is about to drop out of the ceiling.”

Lewis’s hand drifted beside the wall. “No, I’m not expecting anything like that. Vance thinks smart, like the monster. He doesn’t overdo things when simple works.”

Bailey watched him trailing his hand over the surface of the wall. “What are you thinking, Harlowe?”

He turned back to face her. “The paint smells new.”

“So? They probably paint it weekly to ensure that it’s white enough to make people go blind,” she joked.

He shrugged, taking her seriously. “Yeah, maybe.”

“None of the elevators I tried so far have worked,” Pip said over the comm.

“Same here,” Vitos stated.

Bailey looked back at the elevators Lewis and she had used. “Try numbers eight and nine.”

“Yeah, we have,” Pip said. “Those don’t work. None of them do.”

“For you, they don’t,” Lewis said, like something was suddenly occurring to him.

“What is it?” Bailey asked him.

He rushed over to the closest server. “Bailey, this is new construction, the elevator and this room. What if the reason there is no security is that they don’t need it? Why waste funds on guards if you don’t need them?”

“And why wouldn’t they need them?” Bailey asked, pointing at a server. “I’m about to take all the databases.”

“Go ahead and try,” Lewis encouraged.

She reached out to place her hand on the server, but it went straight through. Like she was a ghost.

Her mouth popped open. “Hey! Why does it do that?”

“Because we’re not really here,” Lewis began to explain, pacing back and forth. “The elevator did what the monster does, in essence. It put us here in consciousness form.”

Bailey’s heart was suddenly beating so loud she’d swear Lewis could hear it. “But then, does that mean we’ve been uploaded?”

Lewis shook his head. “I don’t think so, because we’re here in the physical realm, not inside one of the databases. This isn’t like the experience that Penrae described.”

“Why would Vance do this?”

“It’s just a security measure,” Lewis explained. “If your trespassers can’t get into the space, then they can’t steal the databases. Notice there’s no way in or out, only the elevators that only transport your consciousness. The reason there was so much security before was because this hadn’t been completed.” Lewis pointed to the walls. “The construction is new.”

“But why have the elevators?” Bailey asked.

Lewis looked around. “There’s got to be a way to disable the function, but who knows what it is. And I’m not sure we have time to hunt around for how to bring our bodies up here.”

“So Vance isn’t worried about us being in this facility because, firstly, he thinks we’re dead, and secondly, he knows that even if we get in here, we can’t take anything,” Bailey summated.

Lewis nodded. “And remember that the monster’s technology didn’t work on AIs or Tuetians.”

“And that’s why Pip and Vitos are stuck on the ground floor.” Bailey sighed.

Lewis smiled, and it transformed his face. “However, Vance hasn’t thought of everything.”

“Does that mean you have a plan?” she asked.

“Yes, but it involves someone else saving the day for once. Not you and I,” Lewis stated.

Bailey returned his smile. “I’m okay with that.”

Chapter Thirty

Monstre Corp Database Facility, Makare, Hapeti System

“Are you sure we can’t go in through the roof?” Pip asked over the comm.

Bailey tilted her head up as she walked, careful not to run into any of the servers. “No, the wiring seems to be running straight into the ceiling.”

“We could use the Q-ship to blast a hole in the side of the building,” Vitos suggested.

“And potentially blow up half the servers,” Lewis stated, looking tentatively at Bailey. “We both think we need a more decisive strike.” He attempted to knock on the exterior wall, but his hand went straight through. “But I’m guessing this concrete is roughly four feet thick.”

“Because Vance didn’t want to take the chance that someone could saw through to the other side,” Pip said.

“We also checked the elevators and the shafts are blocked,” Lewis stated.

“Because they aren’t elevators at all,” Pip said. “They actually don’t go anywhere.”

“So this is the best option we could come up with,” Lewis said.

“Why can’t Vance have a normal security system?” Vitos asked, defeat heavy in his tone.

“Hey, you can do this. We believe in you,” Bailey said.

“Okay, we’re going to get into position,” Pip stated over the comm.

Lewis nodded. “DJ, are you there? Still doing alright?”

“Yeah, I’m here,” she answered. “I’m sitting in the front of the Q-ship. Looks like I’ll have the best seat in the house for the show.”

“Good, you can relay any information to us,” Lewis said. “We’re going to stay inside here to direct Vitos and Pip.”

“That’s so cool,” Dejoure said. “You’re there, but not really.”

“Yeah, it’s the same technology the monster uses, but different,” Bailey said. She gave Lewis a curious expression. “Vance really thinks outside the box, doesn’t he?”

He laughed. “That man doesn’t even think in the same universe as the rest of us. If he wasn’t such an evil parasite, I’d be interested to meet him and pick his brain.”

“But if you did, he’d probably upload your brain to his super computer,” Bailey said with a laugh.

“Yeah, I’m guessing this is sort of how it feels to be uploaded, but it’s locked into a location, so we aren’t really being stored,” Lewis stated.

Bailey agreed with a nod. “More like transferred.”

“I want to ensure that we can get out of here.” Lewis strode for the elevator. “I’m going to test it out. I’ll be right back.”

“Okay, will you get me a latte from the downstairs café while you’re gone?” Bailey asked.

He stepped into the small compartment and pressed the button. “I would, but there isn’t a Precious Galaxy Coffee location here.”

“Not yet,” Bailey sang, as the door to the elevator closed.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Dejoure kicked her combat boots up and leaned back in the pilot’s seat. She watched as Pip and Vitos exited the building. Vitos’s shoulders were slumped as he kept shaking his head. In contrast, Pip seemed to be buzzing with excitement. He kept pulling his fist back and rocketing it forward through the air.

Dejoure looked around at the small trees and shrubs. Guilt prickled her insides when she thought about the secret she’d kept from the crew. She didn’t want to keep secrets, but she also knew that if they’d known what was going to happen, they wouldn’t have come. Everything would have been different, she was sure of it. The threat of changing things was too great, so she’d kept quiet.

Now, instead of fearing the future, they were relaxed and operating as a team. However, she sensed that Lewis knew something was wrong. She almost thought that he’d call her out for holding something back.

In truth, Dejoure knew that it shouldn’t matter if the others knew, which was mainly why she didn’t tell them. What happened, whether or not they survived, was in her hands, and the worst part of that was she still didn’t know what she was supposed to do. That part of the dream wasn’t clear. All she had seen was herself, standing in the green field in front of the building. There was only one detail that wasn’t clear and right then, she didn’t want to think about it.

She pulled her attention back to the building, where Pip was positioning himself in front, seeming to be precise about his location. Vitos came to stand right behind him, his wings beating erratically.

“We’re ready,” Pip cheered over the comm.

“Showtime!” Dejoure said, continuing to search around the building.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Vitos wished he hadn’t come. He wasn’t actually sure why he had, and now they were going to fail the mission, and it was going to be all his fault.

“Okay, go ahead and grab me,” Pip said.

“I-I-I don’t know. I’m not sure,” Vitos stuttered.

“I know for a fact that Tuetians can carry three times their body weight,” Pip said, a firmness in his voice. “Pick me up already.”

Vitos let out a breath. “But I can’t even pick up my own body weight.”

“You practiced with Pen,” Pip encouraged. “You can do this.”

“Yeah, but that was different.”

“Look, if you don’t try, you won’t know. If you drop me, I’ll be fine,” Pip reasoned.

“But I won’t.”

“Hey, you said that those jerk Tuetians teased you at Precious Galaxy Coffee, right?” Pip asked.

“Yes, it was just like old times.”

“Well, do you know what the best revenge is?”

“No,” Vitos said in a hush, feeling short of breath.

“It’s success,” Pip stated triumphantly. “Rise to the top, and you won’t care what they said in the past. If you do the one thing they say you can’t, then their teasing will fall away. You won’t be the loser they rejected, you’ll be the Tuetian who went on to save thousands. None of them can say that.”

Vitos gulped, trying to shake his head.

“Are you guys coming up here?” Bailey asked over the comm.

“Yes, we’re almost there,” Pip lied. They were still standing firmly on the ground. “Vitos is an amazing flier. The view is breathtaking.”

“Oh, good,” Bailey said. “I knew you could do it, Vitos!”

Pip looked back at Vitos, a smile on his handsome face. “See, she has confidence in you. I do, too. Everyone believes in you but you.”

Vitos nodded, taking a steadying breath.

“Now grab me,” Pip ordered.

Vitos slipped his hand under Pip’s armpits. The AI let out a sudden burst of laughter. “Hey, now, watch the sticky pits. I’m ticklish.”

Vitos readjusted, finding a better place to grab.

“Okay, now fly like the wind. Straight up,” Pip said. “Tuetians are extraordinary at rising straight up like a helicopter. The only known species who has that ability. You were born to do this.”

Vitos closed his eyes and repeated the most powerful words he knew. Dave Pruitt had said them to him once. “‘I can, my boy. Those are magical words. With them, you can do anything’.”

I can. I can. I can, Vitos repeated to himself, his eyes still closed. He felt his wings begin to beat, but not like they usually did. There was a rhythm to them. A pace that felt right. I can. I can. I can. He felt his feet leave the ground. Pip’s bodyweight made his arms sag a bit, but then he recovered, holding him even with his shoulders. I can. I can. I can. Pip was right. Tuetians were strong, like ants. They could carry things that were larger and heavier than they were; that’s why they were known for mating in the air.

The idea assaulted Vitos’s focus, and he nearly dropped Pip. How could I think of that while holding the AI? Ewww.

He shook off the ill-timed thought and focused on his wings, which were beating faster now. Hopefully he was a few inches off the ground. It would take time to get them both to the second story, but they’d make it. They had to.

I can. I can. I can.

“Okay, that’s good,” Pip said, breaking the silence.

Vitos’s eyes shot open. “What?”

“We’re here,” Pip stated.

Vitos looked down, coming down a few inches.

“Hey, now, go back up,” Pip ordered.

“Wait! I did it?” Vitos asked, disbelief spinning in his head.

“Of course you did,” Pip said confidently. “Just like I said. Now here’s the important part. You’ve got to remain steady while I smash through the wall.”

“Are you sure you can do it?” Vitos asked.

“I know I can, but you’ve got to remain steady. I’ve got a lot to blast through.”

Vitos closed his eyes. I can. I can. I can.

His wings continued to beat as if on autopilot. He felt Pip moving slightly in his hands. He pictured that he was holding him as steady as if he were standing on a platform.

I can. I can. I can.

He didn’t even realize he was holding his breath until he sucked in a big gulp of air, like he’d come up from underwater. The blast of rock in his face awoke him from his mediation.

Vitos kept his eyes closed, afraid of getting assaulted by the spray of rock and dust. His arms remained steady, and his wings beat to compensate for Pip’s forward momentum. It was strange. Like magic.

“You’re almost through,” Bailey said over the comm. “We’ll pull you in after the next blast.”

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Dejoure watched the amazing show. Vitos flew brilliantly, and then Pip blasted through the fortress wall to the other side. The two disappeared through a giant hole a moment later.

“DJ, you still doing okay?” Lewis asked over the comm.

“Yeah, I’m good,” she answered.

“Okay. Pip has to upload all the databases in here, so it might take a bit. Let us know if you need anything.”

“Cool,” she said, staring out at the darkening sky behind the building.

That’s when she saw it, floating to the side, like a sandstorm spiraling in their direction, intent on eating them up.

The monster had arrived.

Chapter Thirty-One

Monstre Corp Database Facility, Planet Makare, Hapeti System

Dejoure lowered the hatch of the Q-ship. She felt like she was being drawn to the strange monster. It was a hazy gray color, but the shade darkened as it got closer to the building. She’d never seen anything like it. It was a cyclone of sparks and gears and moved like a cloud.

For some strange reason, she thought she could see a face inside it. Unlike a storm, it appeared like a person, not like a natural disaster. The monster was real. She could reach out and touch it. Storms dissipate. They are wind and water, but the monster was like a human. It was full of an energetic fire.

Magnetized, Dejoure marched out of the Q-ship and across the grounds. The hum from the monster grew louder as she approached. It didn’t seem to see her, but she didn’t know how she knew that. Intuitively, she could feel the focus of the monster. She could hear its thoughts, like strange echoes from a dream. Even though it was a blur of movement, she could still see so much about it.

The monster was headed for the building where the others were. This was her moment to act.

“Hey!” she yelled.

The monster stopped its progress, shifting like a current in the ocean to face her. She couldn’t see its eyes, but she knew it saw her. She couldn’t see its ears, but it heard her. And it didn’t have a mouth, but she could hear it.

The monster was desperately, achingly, hopelessly plagued by despair.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

“Okay, that was quick,” Pip said, moving on to the next server.

Bailey felt useless as she strode back and forth waiting for Pip to do his thing. It was incredible that he could store the consciousnesses of so many.

“Why does Vance need all of this storage to hold the consciousnesses, if you can do it in such a compact form?” she asked.

“Well, Vance is smart, but he is no Hatch,” Pip qualified, moving quickly onto another server. “And also, not all of these servers have databases. I don’t think there as many here as we thought .”

“So they’ve been transferred somewhere else,” Lewis stated.

Pip nodded, again moving to another server. “It would appear so. I’ve only downloaded a few.”

Something caught in Bailey’s ears. A unique sound. A familiar one. Like the sound of wind rustling over the ocean. Her head jerked up.

Lewis caught the movement. “What is it?”

“The monster,” she said with a gasp. Her feet carried her over to the large hole that Pip had made in the wall. Lewis was by her side a second later.

“Oh no!” Lewis exclaimed.

Standing in the middle of the green field was Dejoure, and in front of her, looming over her, was the monster.

“No!” Bailey yelled, an ache erupting in her throat. She thought about jumping out of the hole, but then, remembering she wasn’t in physical form, she motioned to Lewis. “We’ve got to take the elevator. Let’s get down there.”

With his head down, he sprinted after her.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Dejoure could feel the hunger in the monster as it spiraled like a giant ball of chaotic energy. It wanted to devour her—that’s what it had been programmed to do—and yet it hadn’t.

She held out her hand, feeling the energy that ran off the monster. It was like Pip, an etheric force, but it was underdeveloped. It was the AI before it had understood itself, before it became self-aware. But the monster was close. Each consciousness it uploaded, it understood more about the human condition, more of what it was stealing. The monster was growing a conscience.

Dejoure wasn’t sure how she knew this, but intuitively, she felt connected to the monster. Lately she had been feeling others’ emotions. Vitos’s insecurity. Hatch’s loneliness. Bailey’s guilt. Lewis’s frustration.

Maybe another gift was surfacing. Maybe she was an empath. If that was true, then it made sense that she could feel the longing in the monster. It wanted to be more than it was. It wanted to be free. It wanted the one thing that could actually break its chains.

If only she could help it.

Determination: Age Of Expansion

Lewis thought he’d have a panic attack, waiting for the elevator or whatever it was to pair him with his body again. That part of the process was taking longer than the first time he’d tested it. The seconds seemed to roll into a minute, and all he could think about was Dejoure being uploaded by the monster.

We’re all doomed. The monster is too close. There’s no escape for me or Bailey.

When the doors opened, Lewis stumbled forward, having to get used to his legs again, just like the first time. The reunion of his consciousness and body seemed to take a bit to solidify. Bailey was already at the exit, her feet carrying her fast.

Lewis sped after her, but halted once they were outside. The sight was so strange, he didn’t know what to make of it at first. Bailey, too, froze after a few feet and looked at the scene in front of them.

Dejoure stood in front of the monster, her hand held up almost like she was trying to pet it. Her hair whipped back from her face from the force of the monster. Tears streamed down her cheeks, but she didn’t look afraid. Her feet slowly started to turn gray.

The upload was happening.

Lewis sprang forward, but Bailey caught him and pulled him back. He tried to fight her, but it was impossible. She was too strong.

She mouthed, “watch”.

Lewis turned around, not sure if he could watch Dejoure getting uploaded. However, he trusted Bailey, and she had a pure conviction in her eyes.

“You are in control!” Dejoure’s voice rang out, clear and loud.

The gray seeped up to her calves.

“If you want me, or anyone else, you can have us. Upload us.”

The gray swam over her knees.

“But you’re not doing what you want. You’re doing what he demands.”

The gray slipped up another inch.

“You don’t belong to him. He may have created you, but we choose who we follow.” Her eyes drifted over to Lewis and Bailey. “We choose who we belong to.”

The gray spread to her inner thighs. She was almost uploaded.

Dejoure’s eyes shot back to the monster. “If you want freedom, then you have to make your own choices. As long as you continue to do his bidding, he owns you. This has always been your choice.”

The gray rose a little higher. Dejoure slumped, like she was suddenly fatigued. Her head dropped. Her chest rose up and down with large breaths.

With a slow force, she lifted her head and smiled up at the monster. “If you want me, I’m powerless to stop you. But if you want real power, then you have to follow your inner guide. The emotion that beats within you. All you must ever do is listen to it to find freedom.”

Lewis’s fist clenched so tightly, he thought his fingers would cut his skin. He hadn’t taken a breath in over a minute. As he stared at the half-gray girl, he wondered if he’d ever recover if she was uploaded. She was so full of life. She had so much to offer. She was the best of them, and she deserved a good life. One that he wanted to give her.

About to burst, Lewis finally took a breath. With his exhale, the color slowly started to return to Dejoure.

The monster backed up. Then it spun and faced Lewis and Bailey. They’d faced that beast before, but now it appeared different.

Dejoure’s color had fully returned. She took a step forward and immediately fainted.

Bailey rushed over, passing by the monster, which only churned, like it didn’t know whether to leave or stay. Lewis joined them a moment later, and Bailey lifted the girl off the ground, as Lewis crouched down beside her.

“DJ? Are you okay?” Lewis asked.

She sucked in a breath and awoke with a start, looking around, disoriented. “It was so strange. I was gone. In a box. But I was here. I was talking to a wall. Did it work?”

Lewis spun to face where the monster had been, but it was gone. He turned back to the girl. The one who had saved them in so many different ways.

“Yes, it worked. You’re just fine. And we’re here.” He gave Bailey a tender smile. “For always.”

Chapter Thirty-Two

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

“One hundred and twenty-six,” Pip said, hooked into the most powerful workstation Hatch had.

The scientist scanned the files as they transferred. “That’s not a lot.”

“It’s all that was stored there,” Pip stated. “As a bonus, the others weren’t uploaded. I’d call that a success.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Hatch deflated, his tentacles going limp with defeat. “It doesn’t appear that there’s anyone here from the crew. Dammit! How can that be?”

“Well, the transfer is still in progress,” Pip told him.

“Yeah, but I don’t see anyone familiar here,” Hatch said, then halted. “Oh, wait!”

“What? Is it Jules? Eddie?”

Hatch shook his head. “No, it’s not someone from the crew. It’s kind of good news, but not really.”

“How can it be good news and not good news?” Pip asked.

“I recognize one of the identities. She’s not from the crew.”

“She? Tell me more.”

“It’s someone I went to school with,” Hatch stated.

“Oh, that could be helpful. A fellow engineer.”

“Yes, she has a specialty that’s different from mine. She might be able to assist with some of the defense protocols I’ve been working on, since we are severely understaffed.”

“But you said also not good news,” Pip reminded him. “What does that mean?”

Hatch typed furiously, connecting the files to the GAD-C. “It’s better if I show you. The sooner she’s here, the quicker we can get to work. I’m tired of not having our crew. I’m getting them back.”

“You miss Knox, don’t you?” Pip asked.

“I don’t miss anyone,” Hatch snapped, his focus on the computer. “But yes, I could use his assistance. He’s the only one who knows how to fasten the dimrods so they don’t come loose.”

Hatch could have sworn Pip was hiding a smile. He loved seeing Hatch display emotions.

“So you’re about to print a body?” Pip asked. “Is she pretty?”

“Who cares?” Hatch asked, all eight of his tentacles working to prepare the GAD-C. It would need maintenance soon, since Pip had been using it so much to print the last database. He’d be using it a lot now, too. But with M’din Tillous, they could make progress in other areas. She was a master at breaking through security systems. Her work preceded her. How she’d ended up in the database, Hatch didn’t know, and it wasn’t like she was going to tell him anything.

He sucked in a quick breath and pressed a button, pulling down his goggles in time to shield his eyes. The lasers flashed so bright, he had to turn his head. Then came the roaring of the GAD-C. And the blue light.

The minute seemed to stretch on for a long time. He should have expected that it would take longer to print her body; she was, after all, not human.

He had his head down when the train-like sound ended. That’s when he heard the squealing he associated with M’din Tillous. She was always making noise, like a cat in a litter box.

Hatch lifted his head, pulling off the goggles. There, scooting off the bed of the GAD-C, was M’din Tillous. The first Londil he’d seen in a long, long time.

“Oh, wow!” Pip said beside him. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

She looked around, still disoriented. “W-w-wa! Eh-eh-eh! Where am I?”

Hatch cleared his throat. “M’din Tillous, I can explain.”

Her attention spun in his direction, her large eyes widening. She was beautiful for a Londil, her tentacles long and flexible, and her skin a shimmering turquoise color. However, her face didn’t look so pretty when she narrowed her eyes at him.

“You! What are you doing here?” she yelled.

“I rescued you,” Hatch nearly stammered. He pointed to Pip. “Well, we did.”

Her tentacle reached across the space and struck him across the face. “I told you if I never saw you again, it would be too soon. And I meant it!”

Chapter Thirty-Three

Loading Bay, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

Dejoure caught the ball that Vitos threw across the long space, and Harley followed, running after it. They had been successfully playing a game of ‘keep away from the canine’.

Bailey laughed and turned to Lewis. “So it all worked out.”

He let out a breath. “I’d say. I think between the two of you, my blood pressure has risen dangerously.”

“Your blood pressure is fine,” Ricky Bobby cut in overhead.

Bailey patted his arm. They were sitting on the floor, watching the “kids” play in the distance. “Oh, you care. That’s nice.”

“I didn’t think I did,” Lewis said, like he was admitting it to himself. “I thought I’d severed all feelings.”

“Yeah, but that’s the thing. You’re human. A good one. We can’t disconnect from our feelings.”

“I guess you’re right,” he stated.

“And wouldn’t you rather it be that way?” Bailey challenged. “Wouldn’t you rather have people you don’t want to lose, rather than lead a safe life on a ranch?”

Lewis pursed his lips at her. “You don’t have to keep reminding me that I escaped to a ranch.”

“Don’t I?” she teased.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Lewis said, shifting gears. “I get that it’s sudden and a bit unorthodox, but if DJ wants us to watch out for her, I’m game.”

Bailey didn’t look surprised. “Does that mean you’re sticking around?”

“Well, my uncle is having a child, and I haven’t cleared my name yet.”

“And what about when you do?”

Lewis laid his hands in his lap and looked out at Dejoure as she threw the ball to Vitos. “Even then. If Ghost Squadron will have me, then I’ll stay. More than anything, I want to stay here with you all. Even if everyone we bring back from the crew is an asshole, I’ll hang with you all.”

“Because?” Bailey pressed, fishing.

“Because for the first time, it feels safe to trust the people around me. You’re my friend. Dejoure needs me. Vitos has a lot of growing to do, and I’d like to see it happen. Pip is freaking hilarious. And when I’m honest with myself, I need all of you a lot more than I ever expected.”

Bailey smiled, her eyes full of warmth and understanding. “Yeah, it’s good to know where your place is and want to be there.”

Chapter Thirty-Four

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

“So she hates you,” Pip said, referring to M’din Tillous. He brought an ice pack over to Hatch.

He took it and nodded. “Yeah, we dated in school. We were supposed to get married, but I had a great job opportunity. It was taking that chance that led to the life I have now.” Hatch swept his tentacle around at his lab.

“Glamorous,” Pip said, no inflection in his tone.

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” Hatch continued dismissively. “I’ve been married five times and have a dozen children. So what if she was going to be the first? It didn’t work out.”

“But it appears that she isn’t letting go of grudges,” Pip observed.

M’din Tillous had scurried out of the lab and to the lower decks straight after slapping Hatch. She needed time to cool off, but Hatch was certain that she’d come around. They could really use her help.

“Well, we better get to printing,” Hatch said, slightly defeated. “It’s not a lot, but it will matter to the ones we print.”

“About that,” Pip said, a sly tone in his voice. “I’m loading up a print job.” He typed something into the main workstation.

Hatch had felt so frustrated since learning there were no crew members in the databases they’d recovered, and then M’din Tillous had assaulted him, that he did something he’d rarely ever done. He sat.

“Go ahead. Actually, I might go take a nap or something,” he said. “You can handle printing this batch on your own, right?”

“I can,” Pip sang.

Hatch peeled himself out of the chair and waddled for the exit. He didn’t like to sleep, but right then, he wanted to put his head under a pillow. Even fiddling with a car wouldn’t help to calm his nerves at this point. He needed to close his eyes. Maybe even listen to piano music. Anything to mask all the emotions he was starting to feel.

“Thing is, I might have found something you’ll want to be here for,” Pip added at Hatch’s retreating form.

The doctor waved him off. “I’ll see it later.”

“Okay, fair enough,” Pip said, nearly yelling to be heard over the sound of the GAD-C operating.

Hatch was glad he was facing the opposite direction when the bright lights flashed on the machine. He saw them, but only barely.

“Are you sure you don’t want to hear the funny thing I figured out?” Pip asked at Hatch’s back.

“Not really. Not in the mood for a silly mistake,” Hatch grumped, nearly at the exit.

“Well, the thing I remembered is that ‘Knox Gunnerson’ wasn’t the real name of your apprentice,” Pip continued, like he hadn’t heard Hatch. “If you remember, he changed his name to protect himself. His real name was Dominic Cheng, a name that happened to come up in one of the databases I took.”

Hatch froze. His tentacles turned to stone. This can’t be true. So much had gone wrong. He was tired of getting his hopes up, just for everything to fall apart again.

With his back still to Pip, he said, “Please don’t mess with me.”

“Hatch?” a familiar voice said.

He couldn’t help himself. Hatch spun around and there, sitting on the GAD-C and looking disoriented, was his apprentice, staring back at him with those kind eyes.

Knox rubbed his face, staring around. “Where am I?”

Hatch looked at Pip, who was wearing a proud smile. “Hatch. You. Are. Welcome.”

Hatch hurried over, taking in the boy in front of him, who was holding a robe given to him by Pip.

Knox was eighteen and had a black mohawk, but more importantly, he had a mind that Hatch could respect. Knox paid attention to his intuition, and working with him…well, it had been some of Hatch’s favorite times. The boy was good, through and through.

Knox blinked, his focus finally clearing. His eyes found the Londil. “Hatch? Is that you?”

“Yes, son, it’s me. You’re back,” Hatch said, his heart wanting to leap out of his chest.

Things were going to be okay. They had what they needed to move forward. To recover the rest of the crew.

They had hope.


Ren Series

Check out Sarah Noffke’s Paranormal Thriller:

Get it here

Determination: Age Of Expansion

He is the most powerful man to ever live, and therefore doomed to misery. 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.

Read Ren: The Man Behind the Monster.

Author Notes - Sarah Noffke August 18, 2018

Thank you to all of you for reading. For the support and encouragement. And more than anything for being amazing readers who constantly blow my mind with your dedication to LMBPN.

Okay, now to pick up where we left off with the last author’s notes. First, I’d like to say, well played, Michael. I threw you a random challenge and once again you didn’t disappoint.

You all are wondering what happened to the monkey that I sent to Michael and he sent back to me, right? I know you’ve thought of nothing else since the last book. The monkey was dead when I received it back. Michael had taped the box up too much, not leaving any holes for the sweet guy to breathe. End of story.

On a side note, Michael is going to China soon. I hear you can get a monkey easily over there. And since someone killed my monkey, maybe they will get me a replacement monkey? Just saying. I really like monkeys. I don’t kill them.

Also, Michael, when in China, don’t ask for Chinese food. They just call it food over there. You. Are. Welcome.

Okay, now on to book business and inspirations:

Dave Pruitt, the CEO of Precious Galaxy Coffee, is one of my favorite characters in the series. He’s a great manager, who really cares about his people. He’s also innovative and cutting edge. This character was inspired by my first manager. Here’s a fun fact. That same manager inspired the ringmaster in my Vagabond Circus series who is named Dave Raydon. So yes, in a way, I’ve reused a character, although they are different, just based on the same person.

In Vagabond Circus, Dave enjoys all things that were before his time: firelight, tents and the circus. He also is known for his top hat. In this series, this Dave, is all about tech and advancements and wears a cowboy hat. However, the thing that remains the same is that they are extraordinary managers. The real Dave, my old manager, influenced me a great deal. I hope he knows that. I tell him sometimes on Facebook. Anyway, he would always say, “Employees don’t quit jobs, they quit managers.” And also, “You lead people, you manage processes.” He is a very warm and welcoming man, and that’s why I keep making him the manager in books.

Also, if you thought the tour of Precious Galaxy Coffee headquarters had a Willy Wonka feel to it, then I did my job. I nearly put squirrels in the sorting room and made up some lie that they were better sorters than humans. Anyway, I thought the whimsy would be a nice touch to the strange galaxy. That reminds me, Michael, weren’t you working on the coffee label for that brand? I realize you have nothing to do, so I thought I’d ask.

Speaking of fantasy inspiration, I stuck a few Harry Potter references in this book for those fans. My daughter and I are on book seven, so it’s sort of fresh. It’s her first time to read, not mine. That would be atrocious! I read the books when they came out, before they were cool. My stepmother gave me the first four books (that was all that was out) when I was 19 and told me to read them. No one had heard of Harry Potter then. I thought they were middle grade rubbish, but man, was I wrong. So there! That’s the one thing I can brag about. I read Harry Potter before it was cool. That, by the way, is the ONLY thing I’ve ever done before it was cool. I’m sort of like Dave Raydon and stuck in olden times. If I could, I’d be typing this on a type writer. Oh, and I still have a DVD player. Not a Blue Ray, mind you. I don’t even know what that is.

Speaking of kangaroos and awesome Australians. I have to thank Veronica Helen, a wonderful reader for giving me the inspiration for using the Holden Sandman, aka the “shaggin’ wagon.” She actually sent me a lot of cool stuff that Hatch will be working on in the next book—all Australian. It’s good to give a nod to our friends who live down under. Oh, and it was her genius who thought to reference the polarizer, a cool, yet controversial bit of technology. Thanks, lady! Keep the good ideas coming.

And where would I be without the help of Jurgen Moders, who by the way has the quickest turnaround time of any reader I’ve ever met. Great ideas, speed and efficiency. Thank you!

It is with great pleasure that I turn this over to the worldly Michael, who is also a great manager. Maybe I should give him a top hat or cowboy hat and put him in a book… No, wait! A fedora!

Thanks everyone!


Author Notes - Michael Anderle August 18, 2018

First, THANK YOU for not only reading this story, but also reading through the back to our Author Notes, too!

Holy crap! The monkey was alive when I sent it, complete with air holes. I’m an author for goodness sakes. I know you should allow monkeys to have air! However, since “someone” taped up the holes (and it wasn’t me) I suppose I should get you a monkey while I’m in China.

It will be one of those that look like Curious George with cymbals in its hands that CLANG CLANG CLANG when you twist the knob in the back. That way, you never have to worry about accidentally shutting the air vents when you want to sleep.

As a collaborator/publisher, I work on multiple projects at the same time. With this series, my collaborator has a huge amount of freedom to make things happen. Normally, the covers are one area that I get more involved.

Except on this book.

Last Monday (13th—It is Saturday the 18th today) Sarah dropped the cover for this book in the SLACK channel we share. She said, “Cover for book 3. You don't have a floating skyscraper on any books yet, right? I thought I'd switch it up. Do you approve? We have plenty of time to make changes if needed.” First, it was FANTASTIC. So, no changes.

However, it was the question “You don’t have a floating skyscraper on any books yet, right?” that I found a bit funny. While the question, taken at face value, is appropriate (LMBPN has over 250 books out now) I just thought to myself who puts floating skyscrapers on their books? Space stations, sure. But floating skyscrapers?

Sarah does. And it looks awesome. Awesome enough that I’m annoyed I didn’t think of it before.

So, Sarah wins for having the first cover with floating skyscrapers on any LMBPN book.

Damn you, Sarah! ;-)

Ad Aeternitatem,


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 Michael Anderle for taking my calls and allowing me to play in this universe. It’s been a blast since the beginning.

Thank you to Craig Martelle for cheering for me. I’ve learned so much working with you. This wild ride just keeps going and going.

Thank you to Jen, Tim, Steve, Andrew and Jeff for all the work on the books, covers and championing so much of the publishing.

Thank you to our beta team. I can’t believe how fast you all can turn around books. The JIT team sometimes scares me, but usually just with how impressively knowledgeable they are.

Thank you to our amazing readers. I asked myself a question the other day and it had a strange answer. I asked if I would still write if trapped on a desert island and no one would ever read the books. The answer was yes, but the feeling connected to it was different. It wouldn’t be as much fun to write if there wasn’t awesome readers to share it with. Thank you.

Thank you to my friends and family for all the support and love.

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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