Book: Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

Obliteration Precious Galaxy™ Book Four

Sarah Noffke Michael Anderle Craig Martelle

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

Obliteration (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

A Michael Anderle Production

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

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

LMBPN Publishing

PMB 196, 2540 South Maryland Pkwy

Las Vegas, NV 89109

First US edition, September 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

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Author Notes - Sarah Noffke

Author Notes - Michael Anderle

About Sarah Noffke


Books By Sarah Noffke

Books By Michael Anderle

Connect with The Authors

Obliteration Team

Thanks to the JIT Readers

Mary Morris

Kelly O’Donnell

James Caplan

John Ashmore

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



Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

Chapter One

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

The tentative stares of the directors made Solomon Vance’s head cramp with frustration. The fall of Starboards Corp had unnerved them. He wished he didn’t need the two men sitting across the table from him—he wanted to be able to operate without their help, but he knew that every leader had to have an army and people to carry out the general’s orders.

His eyes rose to read the quote printed over the door to the board room: ‘If you want to shine like the sun, first you want to burn like it. -Adolf Hitler’.

Yes, every great man needed an army. They needed those who would follow blindly, having been manipulated into total compliance. Dr. Lukas was superb at that, but he was gone, as was everyone at Starboards Corp. Solomon smiled to himself. The timing couldn’t have been better. He’d offloaded the company just in time.

“This is a logistical nightmare,” Frank said, leaning back and crossing his meaty arms in front of his chest.

“I agree,” Daniel stated. “Moving the two database locations here will cost a fortune, not to mention that, to do it right, we’re going to have to be extremely careful.”

“And quick,” Solomon stated. “That rogue squadron knows where the locations of the databases are. They’ve already taken databases from two of the Sutras. I won’t risk them stealing more.”

“But we can increase security at each location,” Frank argued. “That would make the most sense.”

Solomon turned, putting his back to the two men, and faced the bank of windows. The evergreen trees of the Chumash Forest stretched on farther than he could see. An ocean of green, swaying like waves in the wind.

“I’m not going to chance it,” he said to the men.

He could feel their tension rise. Daniel had the bad habit of breathing through his mouth when he got angry, sounding like a rundown furnace.

“Sir, if I may—”

“You may not,” Solomon snapped, cutting Daniel off. “I’ve made the mistake of underestimating this disparate, leftover crew from Ghost Squadron. I won’t do it again. I want the remaining databases moved to this facility immediately.”

Solomon was certain that the silence that followed was filled with defiant looks from both Daniel and Frank. They’d given their input, but he’d made his decision. These two men might be disappointed, but they weren’t going to argue. They valued their lives too much.

“Sir?” Dean, the AI, interjected overhead. “There’s a call for you from Melanie Myers.”

Solomon spun around to face Daniel and Frank, giving them a pointed look. They were already shuffling to their feet before his chair stopped moving.

He waited until Daniel had closed the large oak door to the board room before speaking. “Go ahead and put her through, Dean.”

“Yes, of course, sir,” he answered. The large screen on the closest wall sprang to life. The image of Melanie Myers stared back at him. She was a beautiful woman by anyone’s standards, but looks didn’t win any favors from Solomon. He valued intelligence and power above all else, and Melanie had displayed those traits from the beginning. Only a formidable force could have obtained such a large etheric diamond. One that now belonged to him.

Solomon cleared his throat, unaffected by the scowl that Melanie wore on her face. “Is there something you want? Do you have more you wish to trade with me?”

Melanie’s dark eyes narrowed as she leaned forward, closer to the camera. “You know damn well that the etheric diamond was all I had to offer, and now I have nothing.”

Solomon sighed. Drama was not entertaining to him. “You still hold the proprietary licenses on all of Starboards’ patents. That alone is of great worth.”

“What good does that do me without the infrastructure? It’s obvious that the value was in the Starboards facility, and now that is gone.”

“It was most unfortunate that nothing could be salvaged from the building,” Solomon said, thinking fondly of one of his first companies.

Of course, no one knew he owned Starboards Corp. He’d always hidden behind a board of directors or a puppet he employed as the spokesperson for the company. It wasn’t until Melanie approached him that he considered fully offloading the organization.

He rose from his chair, shaking his head. “You’ll just have to rebuild.”

“I was never interested in building a company,” Melanie stated. “The plan was to take over an already thriving corporation.”

“‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry’,” he stated, making for the door.

“I’m prepared to make you a deal.”

Solomon paused. He lifted an eyebrow and turned to face the screen once more. “I’m listening.”

“I do own the patents for all of Starboards’ technologies,” Melanie began. “And I’m guessing you wouldn’t want that falling into just any hands.”

Solomon shrugged noncommittally. It was better for him to not betray his true feelings on this matter.

“I will trade you back the patents in exchange for something else,” she stated.

Solomon’s laugh was cold and lacking any humor. “You want me to buy back my own patents? I have no use for them, or I wouldn’t have sold them to you.”

Melanie’s ruby red lips pursed. “We traded,” she corrected. “And we both know that the technology is still of use to you, and you’d rather it not fall into Federation hands.”

He released a long breath. “And what do you want in exchange for this?”

“A small fleet of combat ships and pilots,” she said with conviction.

Solomon’s eyes widened with surprise before he could stop himself. “Why does it sound like you’re preparing for a war?”

“Because that’s exactly what I’m planning.”

“Wouldn’t you rather trade the patents for money?” he asked, incredibly amused by this woman and the way she operated.

Melanie shook her head. “I can get money anywhere. What I want is power.”

“And you plan on taking it by force, is that right?”

“Yes. Then I’m going to squash those who have wronged me,” Melanie said, her eyes on fire with anger.

Solomon had to give it to her; she was as hungry for control as he was. And she was crafty and relentless. Even if she failed, it would be worth watching this play out. He exacted his own battles more strategically, but he still liked watching a good bloodbath.

“Send me over what you require. You might have yourself a deal,” he said, before turning and leaving the office, leaving Melanie staring at his retreating back.

Chapter Two

Tueti, Cacama System, Precious Galaxy

There were few things General Fisk enjoyed more than the smell of wet clay. It reminded him of his childhood, growing up by the eastern river banks that snaked between the coffee plant fields and the Cheseboro mountains.

General Fisk lowered the bottle spiked with the scent of wet clay he enjoyed so much. This had been a part of the therapy he’d been prescribed to calm his nerves. He squinted from the morning light, looking toward the east. His childhood home was only a short flight away, and yet he was too busy to go back. The constant demands of leading the colony had started to take its toll. He wasn’t as young as he used to be.

Managing production standards while also ensuring the colony stayed strong wasn’t as easy as it once was. The young Tuetians were different. Their work ethic was lacking. It was a growing problem, and General Fisk no longer wanted to be in charge of instilling discipline. It was time to step down, he feared.

He sniffed the bottle, suddenly short of breath.

“General Fisk, sir?” a voice called over the comms.

He let out a hot breath. “What is it?”

“Doing patrols in the northeastern quadrant, and I’ve spotted Monstre Corp ships.”

He narrowed his beady eyes in that direction, but the sun was too bright, making it hard to see much. Besides, from the Lagoon, he was too far away to make out a ship.

“Are you sure it’s Monstre Corp? It could be those pesky, trespassing humans,” General Fisk said.

“I’m sure, sir. And wait—”

A loud explosion echoed over the comm.

General Fisk froze. “What’s going on?” he demanded.

“It’s—I—fire—we—surrounded.” The guard’s voice cut in and out.

General Fisk kept his eyes honed on the northeastern quadrant, looking for the cause of the disturbance. “What’s happening?” he asked again, fear drumming in his head.

“Sir—we’re—the ships—attack.”

The General was already off the ground, his wings beating fast, his heart even faster. He was nearly to the border fence when an explosion lit up the horizon. A giant cloud of fire and smoke rose into the air and quickly spread.

Chapter Three

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System, Precious Galaxy

Raking the sand in the desktop meditation garden was doing little to calm Jack’s nerves. Liesel had recommended it, since his stress mounted higher with each passing day the crew wasn’t returned to Ricky Bobby.

Though we are closer. They had Knox, and who knew who else was in the database they’d recovered. They’d find out soon, but it wouldn’t be the captain and the commander. He knew that much. Vance was protecting them in one of the more remote databases.

“Wouldn’t we need a tree in order to make a tree fort?” Lewis asked Bailey as the two entered Jack’s office.

“I think DJ just wants something like a tree fort,” Bailey answered. “We can improvise.”

“What’s this about?” Jack asked, pushing the meditation garden to the corner of his desk, knocking some of the sand out. He tensed. So much for relaxing. The mess the garden made was going to make his stress worse.

“DJ has made a wish list, one item being a tree fort,” Bailey explained.

“So you have taken her up on her request to be adopted?” Jack inquired.

The two nodded. “It’s a bit of an untraditional arrangement, but we’re sort of untraditional ourselves,” Lewis said.

Bailey laughed. “Says the guy wearing a three-piece suit.”

“Well, my black combat suits are all dirty,” he remarked, waving a hand at her. “Maybe I can borrow one of yours.”

“No, but if you want one of Pimping Pip’s Apparel T-shirts, I’ll get you one,” she offered, still laughing. “I saw one that would be perfect for you. On the front, it reads, ‘You’re Killin’ Me Smalls’.”

Lewis grimaced. “I’ll pass.” He turned his attention back to Jack. “We were hoping you’d help us facilitate the adoption paperwork.”

Jack nodded, trying to keep the smile off his face. “Does that mean you’re sticking around once this mission is over?”

His nephew released a breath, and absentmindedly checked his watch. “As long as I can clear my name.”

“Consider it already done,” Bailey said with confidence.

“And you as well, Lieutenant?” Jack asked, as he thought about how recruiting these two had been one of the smartest decisions he’d made. They worked together seamlessly and exemplified comradery.

Bailey looked around the office, smiling softly. “Yes, I think this is a good fit for me.”

He nodded. “I couldn’t agree more.” He motioned to the seats in front of his desk; Bailey stayed standing while Lewis took the seat. “Speaking of DJ, I’m a bit unnerved by your report from Makare. Did she really control the monster?”

“We’re not absolutely certain what happened,” Lewis admitted, picking a piece of lint from his trousers. “She gave it a speech, trying to empower it, and then she surrendered.”

“And the monster simply retreated?” Jack asked in disbelief.

“Yes, but we’re not sure why,” Bailey answered. “DJ says that she could feel the monster’s emotions and felt like it understood her.”

Jack rubbed his hand over his forehead. “That’s bizarre. I didn’t think the monster could be reasoned with.”

“Well, as we’re all aware,” Lewis began, “DJ isn’t like the rest of us. I’m guessing if someone else had tried to tell the monster off, they’d have been uploaded. However, DJ has a strange bond with the thing.”

Jack pulled the meditation garden back toward himself and again picked up the small rake. “I want to have her tested for a new skill.”

Lewis gave him a curious look. “Do you think she can talk to nonhumans? Like animals and other unique creatures? She does talk to Harley without the chip.”

Jack shook his head. “I think she speaks a unique language, one that we all know but rarely understand.”

“Empathy?” Bailey guessed.

Jack nodded, pulling the rake through the white sand, making a pattern. “Yes, I believe she’s empathic, which is why she could understand the monster. And understanding it is the first step to controlling it.”

“There is evidence of that,” Lewis said, his eyes on the garden, as the smooth sand turned to waves. “The monster simply left even though the three of us were standing there. It seemed changed by DJ’s words.”

Jack sighed. “Which is reason enough for me to authorize her to accompany you on your next mission to the databases on Harsu.” He read the hesitation on Lewis’s face and held up his hand to stop him from interrupting. “I know that it’s not an ideal situation, and you’d both prefer if DJ were not put in danger. However, she has an advantage that could keep you all safe. I suspect that Vance will have the next two databases heavily guarded and will be expecting you. Our cover is blown, since he no longer thinks we’re dead.”

“We could fake our deaths again,” Bailey joked.

Jack smiled up at her. “Something tells me he won’t fall for it a second time.”

“Jack?” Ricky Bobby called overhead. “I have an urgent message from the CEO of Precious Galaxy Coffee Company.”

“Yes, what is it?” he asked, sensing the tension in the AI’s voice.

“It’s the planet of Tueti. It’s under attack by a fleet of Monstre Corp ships.”

Lewis was standing before Ricky Bobby finished his sentence, his eyes wide. “Why would they do that?”

“Mr. Pruitt is unclear,” Ricky Bobby told them. “But he asked if we could help. He’s sending his own ships, but they can’t make it there as fast as we can.”

“The Tuetians and the coffee fields could be all gone by then,” Bailey stated.

“But this could be a trap or a diversion,” Lewis countered.

Jack nodded. “It might, but ignoring it isn’t a chance we can take. Ricky Bobby, set a course for the Cacama system. We’ve got to help.” He looked at Lewis and Bailey meaningfully. “Can I count on you two to lead this mission?”

From the look on their faces, they didn’t really need to answer.

However, Lewis said, “Of course. We’re ready to spring into action.”

Chapter Four

Q-Ship, Tueti, Cacama System, Precious Galaxy

The northeastern hemisphere of the small planet of Tueti was ablaze with fire when Bailey flew the Q-ship closer to the surface. She could only imagine the pain the sight before them caused Vitos. He and Pip flew behind the Q-ship; Pip was flying a Black Eagle, and Vitos, the Dragonfly.

The Monstre Corp ships reacted immediately at the sight of them, swooping up from the ground in their direction. Bailey brought down her cloaks, hoping to intimidate the enemy. There were only half a dozen Monstre Corp ships, yet they’d already done quite a bit of damage.

“Why are they focusing their attacks on the coffee bean fields?” Vitos asked over the comm.

“It’s Tueti’s source of wealth,” Lewis replied.

“But the headquarters is our place of power,” Vitos stated.

Bailey looked over to the west, where the large facility rose up from the ground, surrounded by the border fence. That was where they’d been captured and where Vitos had first seen them.

“Van Gogh, we’re going to have to investigate motivation later,” Bailey said as three of the six crafts disappeared from view. They’d jumped, just like before. “Casanova, be on guard for those ships. They are going to materialize any second.”

“Can I just say I really love that handle,” Pip stated. “It suits me.”

One game of Texas Hold’em was all it took for Pip to win his handle. “You were cheating, I’m pretty sure,” Bailey stated.

He scoffed over the comm. “You take that back, or I’m not inviting you to my next fondue party.”

Bailey searched the space around Tueti, tensely waiting for the three Monstre ships to pop up. “I take it back. Seriously, if I find you having a fondue party without me, I’m giving you a wedgie.”

“Oh, she plays dirty,” Pip said. “I like it.”

“Van Gogh and Casanova, position yourselves to attack those other ships from different angles,” she ordered.

This had been the reason for bringing the single flyers. The Q-ship could hold up in a major attack, but even with all its advancements, it didn’t have the maneuverability of the smaller ships.

“You got it!” Pip yelled loudly over the comm. The two ships sped forward, headed for the enemy.

“Where are the Dragonflies?” Bailey wondered aloud. “The Tuetians have their own fleet.”

“Looks like a few have already been shot down.” Lewis pointed to the fields which were engulfed in flames, black smoke rising from large stacks of debris.

Bailey’s eyes darted in the direction he indicated, and she spied the wreckage. Fallen ships.

“Dammit! What’s Monstre’s problem?” Bailey erupted in anger at the sight of the flyers, shot down over their own land.

On three sides of the Q-ship, the Monstre Corp crafts materialized. Bailey dropped the ship down to avoid the rapid fire erupting from the enemy.

Lewis reacted immediately, sending a barrage of attacks back in their direction. Bailey tried to position them so he could get a straight shot, but with the three ships so close, it was impossible.

The enemies blasted the stern of the ship with turbolasers.

“Fire the cannons on their asses,” Bailey ordered.

“I’m trying, but—”

A blast rocked the ship, interrupting Lewis. He gripped the weapon control, trying to steady it, but the three ships disappeared again.

“Oh hell!” Bailey yelled. “Not again.”

“Didn’t Hatch make the same mod to this Q-ship as he did to Ricky Bobby, so we can jump in close proximity to planets and such?” Lewis asked.

“Yeah, he actually got the idea from these guys,” she answered. “Guess we should thank them. I would if I could find them.”

“Or catch them,” Lewis added.

Bailey looked at him questioningly.

He nodded, seeming to have read her thoughts. “Do it. That way we have an advantage over those jerks.”

Bailey started the jump sequence, positioning them close enough that they would have a good vantage point of the fight, but far enough away that they wouldn’t be easily seen.

“Jump commencing on my count,” she announced, planning the jump so they would be facing the right direction. She hovered her finger over the red button and gave Lewis a tentative look. “Three, two, one.”

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

It wasn’t easy for Vitos to see the Dragonfly ships scattered across the scorched fields; however, it did motivate him with a fire he’d rarely felt.

He swerved back and forth, narrowly missing getting hit by the multiple attacks from the ship behind him.

Pip had two of the ships chasing after him, but looked to be enjoying the cat and mouse game, circling back around when he got far enough away from them.

“Come on, fellas,” he said over the comm. “You’re not even trying.”

“What are you doing?” Vitos asked, wondering what the logic was in keeping up the chase rather than just taking the ships out.

“I’m trying to buy some time,” Pip explained. “I’ve already fired off a few shots, to no effect. These ships have strong shields. But I’m running diagnostics on them right now. I’ll let you know when I find out where their weak point is.”

Vitos veered sharply, nearly colliding with a missile that had come out of nowhere. “The sooner the better. I’m not sure how much longer I can hold this guy off.”

Pip’s Black Eagle shot straight up, nose-first, and spiraled back down, headed for the ground. He pulled up at the very last moment, careening away from the enemy ships. They hovered at a safe distance, probably confused by the strange air show he was putting on for them.

“I’ve got it!” he exclaimed victoriously.

“Good,” Vitos said with relief.

A blast hit his ship straight on, severely weakening his shields. The weapon he’d used at Makare had burnt out, otherwise he would have used it to blast the enemy.

“What is it?” Vitos asked Pip. Panic filled his voice.

He couldn’t help it. He feared these would be his last moments alive, that he’d die ironically on the planet he’d wanted to escape for so long. His home.

“Our weapons aren’t strong enough to penetrate their shields,” Pip said rapidly.

Vitos’s hopes plummeted. “How is that possible?”

“These aren’t like any flyers I’ve seen before,” Pip explained. “K-factor is definitely involved in their construction.”

“What do we do?”

“The good news is their weapons are strong enough to blow them out of the sky.”

“How is that good news?”

“Come on!” Pip cheered. His ship seemed to dance across the sky, as the two Monstre ships followed close on his tail. “All we have to do is get them to fire on themselves.”

“And we do that how?”

“We confuse them,” Pip said brightly. “Bring that bad boy following you over here. I think if we coordinate our flying, we can tie them up like a Christmas bow.”

“And in the process, they’ll be firing on each other,” Vitos said, connecting all the dots.

It was a good plan, though it relied on precision flying. He was silently grateful Pip was his partner in this mission.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

“Ha ha!” Bailey exclaimed. “They don’t like it when we pull their own trick on them.”

The Monstre Corp ships had jumped in formation, positioned to surround the Q-ship again. The only problem was that the Q-ship was no longer there.

“I see you’re playing hide-and-seek,” Pip said over the comm.

“Casanova, I see that you’re playing some strange game of keep away,” Bailey replied.

“Keep watching if you want to see a delightful show,” Pip said.

“Wish we could, but we’re going to have to jump back into action,” Lewis stated.

“Okay, well use your cannons,” Pip informed. “It’s the only thing that can penetrate their shields.”

“Copy that.” Bailey initiated the jump sequence. “Holmes, you ready to shoot down those pretty ships?”

“It’s a lifelong dream,” Lewis said with a wink.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

“It’s working!” Vitos exclaimed. “They just shot at each other.”

The Dragonfly and Black Eagle had done some quick flying, interchanging positions like they were braiding their jet trails. They looped around when the enemy ships were nearly on top of them, and dove underneath them in opposite directions. The ships were constantly firing, so they blasted each other, knocking two of the three ships out. They exploded in a magnificent array of reds and oranges, contrasting beautifully against the blue sky. It filled Vitos with sudden inspiration for a paint palette, but he shook off the distraction and refocused.

“Okay, that was fun, but we have a problem,” Pip stated matter-of-factly.

“I can do math,” Vitos said, swallowing the tightness in his throat. “We need two ships to knock each other out, but all we have is one.”

“And one is the loneliest number,” Pip sang.

“What are we going to do?” the Tuetian asked. “Should we bait it and lead it over to the other three ships where Lady Bug and Holmes are?”

“That’s a good idea, but no, I think there’s a more direct way to get this guy gone,” Pip said.

“Which is?” Vitos said, banking hard to avoid colliding with the attacks from the lone ship.

“Well, I said we don’t have the weapons to take that puppy out, but in a way, we do.”

Vitos’s brow scrunched with confusion. “I’m not following you.”

“The Black Eagle could be considered a weapon in itself,” Pip explained.

Vitos’s heart froze. “No…”

“If I fly this baby right at that ship, it will definitely bring down their shields and nick their paint,” Pip said with a laugh. “Oh and blow them to smithereens. This will most definitely end in a fiery blaze.”

“No, Casanova!” Vitos exclaimed. “You’ll die too.”

Pip giggled. “You forget that my life works a lot differently than yours. I utilize etheric energy and, more importantly, I have a body that can withstand a nuclear explosion.”


“I’ve made up my mind,” Pip said, cutting him off. “Clear off, Van Gogh. Looks like the others could use your help. Go run interference.”

Vitos looked in the direction of the other ships. The Q-ship had jumped and was firing its cannons at the enemy. They were also taking serious damage from the turbolasers on the Monstre ships.

“Okay, but are you sure?” he asked.

He didn’t know if it was cowardly to allow Pip to do this, or if it was the right thing to do. He believed that the AI would be okay, but there was no certainty. He was willing to blow himself up, all to take out a single flyer. It felt diabolical. But they had no other options.

“I’m absolutely sure,” Pip said confidently. “I’ll see you on the ground. I’ll probably need a lift.”

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

“Those damn turbolasers have knocked out our shields,” Bailey stated.

“Not to mention the cloaks are toast,” Lewis said, firing a cannon. They only had two more shells left. That would be enough, if these flyers didn’t blow them out of the sky first.

“Van Gogh?” Bailey asked over the comm. “Why are you headed back in this direction?”

“It’s Casanova,” Vitos answered, an unmistakable sadness in his voice.

“What about him?” she asked.

“I’m taking one for the team,” Pip stated. “See y’all on the flipside.”

His ship changed direction, barreling straight for the enemy that had been racing after him. The pilot swerved in an attempt to avoid the collision, but Pip copied his movement, racing straight into the Monstre Corp ship.

“No!” Bailey yelled, but it was too late.

An explosion filled the sky so bright it hurt Lewis’s eyes. Pieces of the ships rained down on the fire-filled grounds. It was impossible to discern them from each other. They landed with another violent volcano of explosions.

“Casanova!” Bailey yelled into the comm. “Do you copy? Casanova!”

There was no answer.

Bailey swung around to face Lewis, panic on her face. “What was he thinking?”

The detective kept his hands on the weapon controls, firing off their second to last cannon shell.

“He said he’d be alright,” Vitos said over the comm.

Bailey kept her focus as she maneuvered the Q-ship, although she was obviously shaken. “I’m not sure how anyone could have survived that.”

Lewis gulped. He wanted to agree, based on what he saw at the crash site on the ground. However, instead he said, “Pip will be fine. He wouldn’t have done it otherwise.”

Bailey nodded, but didn’t look convinced. “Van Gogh, can you get this asshole off my tail? I can’t get us positioned for an attack with both these jerks on us.”

“I’m on it,” Vitos answered, doing some fancy flying that Lewis had never seen him do before.

He must have picked up a few tricks from Pip. The thought of the AI on the ground, and the uncertainty of his fate, filled Lewis with instant dread.

“With our shields down,” he began, “I think we need to rotate our armor so we don’t have too many vulnerable areas.”

Bailey nodded. “That’s a good call. When did you…yeah, nevermind…” She trailed off, not making her usual jab. Her eyes fell on the burning mess on the ground. It was monopolizing her thoughts, too.

“I’ve got one last cannon shell,” Lewis stated.

“And there’s two of them,” she stated.

“Maybe we can take them both out if we line it up right,” Lewis suggested.

The look on Bailey’s face communicated her exact skepticism, but she said, “Yeah, we have to try something.” She released a breath. “Van Gogh, can you get the ship following you within the blast radius of the first enemy ship?”

“I can try,” Vitos answered. “Can you give me a countdown?”

“Yeah, on my mark.” Bailey shot Lewis a tense look and nodded.

He grazed his finger over the control, readying for the launch.

Bailey flipped the Q-ship around, maneuvering to face the two enemy flyers. “Three, two, one.”

Vitos swerved behind the first ship, the second Monstre Corp ship hot on his tail.

Lewis fired the cannon and held his breath, unable to do anything but watch. Bailey flew them out of the first ship’s line of fire, but Lewis kept the craft in his sights. The shell was moments away from making contact, and the second ship was in the perfect position to be hit by the blast radius.

They watched the shell explode a safe distance away, having been shot down by the first ship.

“Dammit!” Bailey howled, hammering her fist down on her leg.

They were out of options. There was no backup. They were all that Ghost Squadron had, and they weren’t enough.

“We still have weapons,” Lewis stated, injecting hope into his voice. “We just have to keep trying to break down their shields.”

Bailey nodded, defeat evident in her eyes. “Yeah, I’ll get you in position for an attack.”

“Guys! I’ve got bad news.” Vitos’s voice vibrated with tension.

Bailey was busy steering the ship back around to face the enemy, but Lewis saw the problem.

“Is that a torpedo?”

“Yes!” Vitos yelled. “They just launched it!”

“Dammit,” Bailey yelled. “Get out of here, Van Gogh.”

“What about you?” he asked.

“We’re going to try and outrun it,” she told him.

“Try?” Lewis questioned.

“That sucker is close and targeted on us. I don’t think we can chance a jump with all this damage,” Bailey stated, hitting several buttons. “But the Q-ship is designed to drop its armor. That should allow us to pick up some speed.”

“Let’s do it,” Lewis agreed, realizing this was a huge risk. Without the armor, they would be toast if they got hit by that torpedo, but they were probably toast anyway, if they didn’t try an escape route. “Maybe the torpedo will redirect and go after the falling armor if we drop some flares to try and confuse the infrared targeting system.”

“Maybe,” Bailey said, but she didn’t at all sound convinced.

A loud clanking sound echoed as the ship rattled. The armor unfolded from the ship, falling away less than gracefully. The ship picked up speed immediately, and Bailey dove the ship low, steering with incredible finesse. The torpedo swerved around the armor, not falling for the trick.

“Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!” Bailey said in quick succession.

Even with her fancy flying, the torpedo was still gaining on them. They were out of options. In a matter of seconds, the projectile would connect with its target, the Q-ship, and they’d join Pip on the ground.

Lewis wanted to say something to Bailey. Tell her he was glad she was his partner. End things the right way. Say goodbye.

“Hey,” he began.

“Save it, Harlowe,” Bailey barked, rocketing the ship back up. “We’re going to try and jump.”

“I thought you said—”

“What choice do we have!” she yelled.

He nodded. “Let’s do it.”

Bailey initiated the sequence. “Jumping in three, two—”

A bright explosion rocketed them forward, filling the sky behind them with fireworks.

Lewis spun around, trying to determine if they’d been hit. The ship was intact. They were alive. He looked at the radar. The torpedo was gone. It had been blown up.

Before he could wonder one more second, a fleet of ships materialized all around them, firing at the enemy. The ships were emblazoned with the Precious Galaxy Coffee Company logo.

Dave had come to the rescue.

Chapter Five

Tueti, Cacama System, Precious Galaxy

After the last Monstre Corp ship had been shot down, Bailey landed the Q-ship a safe distance from the fires and wreckage. She was the first out of her seat and speeding down the ramp to the crash site before any of the others had landed. Several crashed ships lay spread across the fields.

Bailey held up her arm to shield her eyes from the smoke billowing in her direction. “Pip! Pip!” she yelled, running through the battlefield of wrecked ships. Fires were burning all around and it was getting increasingly difficult to breathe. The smell of burned wood and beans made the experience even stranger.

She spun around. She was in the heart of the wasteland and couldn’t even see the Q-ship, she’d run so far. An explosion knocked her forward, catapulting her into a burning tree.

She jumped away, trying to get as far from the new growing fire as possible. That’s when she realized she was on fire.

Bailey rolled to the ground, trying to put out the flames. When she was certain she wasn’t on fire anymore, she rose, but then quickly changed her mind. The air lower to the ground was a little easier to breathe.

Crouched, she made progress, searching around for a ship that looked like a Black Eagle. The ground, still on fire in places and generally hot, burned Bailey’s hands as she strode forward.

She passed Monstre Corp ship after Monstre Corp ship, none of their occupants alive. The sight of bodies hanging half-ejected from demolished ships did nothing good for her spirit. She opened her mouth to scream out for Pip again, but sucked in a ton of smoke, and was sent into a coughing fit.

Even being upgraded, Bailey couldn’t tolerate these conditions much longer. And the fires were growing… Soon she’d be trapped.

Her pulse froze when she came around a Monstre ship and found the Black Eagle. It was hard to make out much with the fire blazing, but the ship was split in two. She couldn’t see the inside through the flames.

Then the fire sputtered and burst, sending a gust of hot wind in her face. She covered her nose and mouth against the hot ash that swept in her direction, and choked back tears. There was no way she could get to that ship. And there was no hope that Pip could have survived such a hot fire.

Why did he think he was so invincible? Things that fall from the sky and get engulfed by plasma don’t survive. Still she forced herself closer. She had to try.

“Pip,” Bailey said, a little weaker than she intended. Her fear was taking over.

The blaze from the ship was intensifying second by second. She couldn’t stand the heat much longer.

Maybe when the fire dies out. Maybe then we can search the wreckage. Maybe Hatch can fix him. He has to be able to.

Filled with defeat, Bailey shook her head. She felt helpless. How could they have allowed Pip to do something so crazy?

“You came for me,” a familiar voice said, barely audible over the sound of the crackling fires.

Bailey spun around to find Pip standing several feet away, a wide smile on his face. His piercing blue eyes were bright, the firelight dancing in them. He didn’t have a scratch on him, although his jet black hair was a mess, and his clothes were torn and burned in numerous places.

“Pip!” she exclaimed, racing forward and throwing her arms around his shoulders. “You’re okay!”

He hugged her back with a bit more force than was necessary. He still wasn’t used to his strength. “Of course I am. I told you all I would be.”

Bailey peeled away, pointing at the ship. “But the Black Eagle…”

“Is demolished,” he finished with a laugh. “Hatch is going to be pissed. I always wreck his stuff.”

“But you survived?” She could hardly believe it.

“Naturally,” Pip said with a proud smile. “I’m the best thing Hatch has ever made. Seemingly indestructible. However, my favorite T-shirt is ruined, and I’m pissed about it.”

He pulled the garment away from his chest, looking down at it with disappointment. It read, ‘You matter. Unless you multiply yourself by the speed of light squared…then you energy’.

“I still can’t believe it.” Bailey stared around the field of crashed ships, her eyes watering. “Nothing else survived.”

“I still can’t believe you came looking for me,” Pip stated. “It makes me feel important. Like I’m a real person.”

Bailey grabbed his arm and yanked him forward, back in the direction of the Q-ship. “You are a real person.”

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

First, Lewis had to worry about Pip. Now he had to fret over Bailey and whether she’d gotten herself stuck in the fire.

He turned to Vitos, who seemed to understand his concern.

The Tuetian nodded. “I’ll go look for her… them.”

“Are you sure?” Lewis asked, worried that he might have trouble flying and crash into one of the fires.

Vitos didn’t look deterred, though. “Don’t worry. I got this.” He rose off the ground, straight into the air like a helicopter, then zoomed over the wreckage, his large eyes scanning the grounds. With the same grace he used to fly the Dragonfly, he zoomed back and forth, dipping down low and rising into the air with impressive accuracy.

Something had shifted in Vitos when they’d broken into the last database facility. Lewis believed Pip was behind that, injecting the Tuetian with confidence. And now the AI was gone.

Lost, Lewis told himself.

“Hey!” a voice yelled from the line of Precious Galaxy Coffee ships that had landed. Beside them were a couple of Dragonflies which had recently joined.

Hurrying over was a Tuetian that Lewis had pickpocketed the last time he’d seen him: General Fisk. Behind him were several uniformed pilots who appeared to work for PGC.

“Hey!” Lewis called back at him. “I’m looking for my friends.” He pointed to where Vitos was circling the fields.

“You are with Ghost Squadron?” the general asked. “Mr. Pruitt said he called backup.”

“Yes, we came as soon as we could.” Lewis indicated to the Q-ship.

“I thank you,” General Fisk said. “My colony thanks you.”

“And Precious Galaxy Coffee,” one of the pilots said at the general’s back. “Dave asked that I extend our gratitude.”

Lewis nodded absentmindedly, his attention focused on the burning field where Bailey had disappeared.

“Is there something we can do to help?” the general asked, realizing the human was distracted.

“Maybe,” Lewis said. “Vitos is searching.”

“Vitos?” the general echoed with a curious tone.

“There!” Vitos yelled from the sky, pointing to a section in front of them obstructed by fallen trees and wreckage.

As if cued, Bailey and Pip ambled through the debris, Bailey looking overwhelmed by the smoke, soot covering her face and hair. Pip, on the other hand, appeared quite spritely, bouncing on his toes as he walked.

“There you are!” Lewis exclaimed.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Pip said. “You were worried too?”

“Very much so,” the detective stated, looking Bailey over as she came closer. “Are you okay?”

She picked up a section of her hair, eyeing it. “My hair got singed, but yeah, I’m fine.”

Vitos landed beside the group, his eyes darting straight to the general. A few other Tuetians had joined them, many of them regarding him with intense curiosity.

The general stepped forward. “Vitos Rigar, you’ve returned. I heard that you left here on your own, instead of having been abducted like we originally thought.”

Vitos bowed his head. “Yes, General. I took my ship to chase after these two humans when they escaped Tueti.”

The general looked over both Bailey and Lewis. “And you found them, I see.”

“I apologize,” Vitos began. “I never meant to—”

“You can fly now,” the general observed, motioning to where Vitos has been flying over the wreckage.

“I can, sir.”

“And you returned to help save your planet, is that right?”

Vitos nodded. “Of course, sir. I could not allow it to be attacked by Monstre Corp.”

The general looked out at the hills that were burning in various places. “Yes, they have done a lot of damage, but we will replant. We will regrow.”

“I have no doubt,” Vitos replied.

“And I’d like your help with that,” the general said, holding his chest up high.

“Oh, sir, I—”

General Fisk swept his arm in the direction of Vitos’s Dragonfly. “I watched you flying from the ground. It was very impressive. And even now, you seem so much stronger and more confident than I remember.” He looked over the Q-ship with curiosity before giving his attention back to Vitos. “It appears your time away from us has done you good. Maybe we should encourage more of our kind to explore, rather than be confined to Tueti.”

“My time away has given me much valuable experience,” Vitos agreed humbly.

“I can see that. You showed great bravery facing the Monstre Corp ships.” The general’s wing beat, but not with the energy of the Tueti standing behind him. “If it weren’t for you and Ghost Squadron, we would have lost so much more. PGC would not have made it in time to help.”

Vitos bowed. “We were happy to be able to help.”

The general bristled. “The way you say ‘we’ makes me think you are with Ghost Squadron now, and not a citizen of the colony.”

Vitos rose, a new confidence on his face. “That assumption is correct.”

The general looked around cautiously, like suddenly realizing they had an audience. He stepped closer to Vitos. “This is not the place for this, but if you stay, we could discuss opportunities for you. Positions that will take you to higher ranks.”

“Sir, I—”

“I’m not as young as I once was and I need the best to train for when it’s time for others to rise to leadership,” the general said, pausing for a moment. “Wouldn’t you want that, Vitos? The chance to lead the next generation? The chance to protect Tueti as you did today?”

Vitos’s wings stopped beating. He looked to Lewis and Bailey, but they couldn’t help him. This was his decision, not theirs.

“I appreciate that, sir. Tueti will always be my home,” Vitos said, his voice growing stronger as he spoke. “However, my place for now is with Ghost Squadron. I’ve pledged to help them, and I won’t quit until the mission is completed.”

“And when it is done?” the general asked.

Again, the artist’s eyes skirted to Bailey and Lewis, and this time they both gave a slight nod. “Then I will stay as long as they’ll have me.”

“But, Vitos, this is your home,” the general argued. “You are a strong flyer now. You’re an expert pilot. I see in you great potential.”

Vitos nodded proudly. “And it’s because of these people.” He indicated to Bailey, Lewis and Pip. “Although this will always be my home, my place is out there.” His wings beat rhythmically as he threw his arm wide to the sky. “I belong among the stars, on adventures with those very different from me. I thrive on our diversity.”

The general nodded reluctantly. “I see I can’t change your mind.”

“I hope you understand,” Vitos said.

“I, in fact, do,” the general stated. “I only ask that if we ever need your help, you come back, as you did today. For all our strengths, at the end of the day, we are farmers and not true warriors.”

Vitos’s wings buzzed as he rose an inch off the ground. “Always, sir. Whenever you need us, we shall be there.”

Chapter Six

Medical Center, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

“I give up,” Bailey said to Dejoure. “What hand is it in?”

“Just guess,” the girl implored.

“Okay, that one.” The lieutenant pointed to Dejoure’s right hand.

DJ beamed, turning her fist over and opening it up to reveal that it was empty. “Wrong, it’s in the other one.” She opened her left hand, and a small, black, plastic spider sat on her palm.

“Why spiders?” Lewis asked, leaning against the far wall.

Dejoure shrugged. “It’s all I had for the trick. I’m going to put a bunch of them in Pip’s bed.”

“When you put a fake rat in his closet, he screamed so loud I heard him from my room,” Bailey remarked.

Dejoure giggled. “I have so many things planned for him. Just you wait.”

“As long as it’s just good fun and no one is getting hurt,” Lewis said, sounding rather fatherly.

Bailey flashed him a look and he rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean. Keep it clean and safe.”

“I have the results of the test,” Ricky Bobby interjected.

“Go ahead,” Bailey encouraged.

“With an eighty-seven percent probability of accuracy, I can say that Dejoure displays an aptitude of being empathic,” the AI stated.

Dejoure closed her fingers around the plastic spider and pulled it to her chest like it was a comfort animal. “What does that really mean?”

Lewis kicked off the wall, standing straight. “It means that you can read other people’s emotions.”

“But can’t most people read others’ emotions?” she asked. “Just look at someone’s face.” She pointed to Bailey. “For instance, you’re irritable from low blood sugar. And you, Lewis, are exhausted from a lack of sleep.”

Bailey blinked back at the girl. “I don’t think most could be so specific. Your gift truly allows you to see what people are feeling and why.”

Dejoure shrugged. “It just started recently, but yes. It feels like I can read people’s thoughts, although it’s not really their thoughts.”

“Feelings come from thoughts,” Lewis explained. “If you can pick up on those, you’re at a serious advantage.”

Dejoure stared down at the floor with uncertainty. “Is it okay for me to have this gift? Will others be mad at me for knowing things?”

“I think it’s wise to not advertise your skill,” Bailey stated.

Lewis agreed with a nod. “And I would advise you to be thoughtful about how you can use it. We always have a choice whether to abuse our skills or employ them for good.”

“It feels like an invasion of people’s privacy to know their feelings,” Dejoure said weakly.

The detective yawned. “I can’t argue with that logic.”

“I think I have a way to help with that,” Ricky Bobby stated. “I have been researching strategies to help an empath shield their skill.”

“How would that work?” Bailey asked.

“It’s a tool, in essence,” Ricky Bobby reasoned. “Right now, Dejoure is using it all the time because she’s not aware of an alternative. However, I can teach her to put it away when she doesn’t want to employ it. That would be most advisable anyway, since empaths become easily drained.”

Dejoure sighed loudly. “It is a lot sometimes. Everyone on the ship is my family, but you all have a lot of emotions, and it can be overwhelming.”

“Imagine when there’s three hundred people on the ship,” Lewis stated.

She shivered at the idea.

“Yes, I think teaching DJ how to put her skill in a toolbox and only use it when necessary would be good,” Bailey stated.

“Then we should get started right away,” Ricky Bobby said.

Bailey nodded, strolling past Lewis toward the exit. “Come on then, let them get to work. You and I have investigating to do.”

Lewis yawned again as he followed her out.

“Would you stop yawning?” she asked as they headed out into the corridor.

“Why, does it make you yawn?” His eyes were watering from suppressing another.

“No, come on. I long ago mastered that so-called contagion.”

“Of course you have,” Lewis joked. “How do you put up with us lowly mortals?”

“It’s tough,” Bailey answered. “Now why are you so tired?”

“I was up all night trying to piece together information on Monstre Corp.”

“Specifically why they attacked Tueti, when they had a truce?” she grumbled.

“I don’t have enough facts, but I believe that Melanie is behind it,” Lewis reasoned. “I know I’m biased, but—”

“No, it makes the most sense,” Bailey interrupted. “Vance doesn’t have a reason to want to piss off the Tuetians, but Melanie is out for revenge. She’s been ruined. And those were the same type of ships that came to Starboards Corp before we blew it up.”

“So she still might have resources,” Lewis figured. “And she’s the most likely candidate for someone who would want to destroy Precious Galaxy Coffee.”

“And how better to do it then take out their fields?”

“That was my thought,” Lewis affirmed.

“We should warn Dave,” Bailey stated. “I know he has incredible technology and security, but he should still be on guard.”

“I agree,” Lewis replied. “And I think we need to find out what the etheric diamond can be used for. Maybe Vance is going after Tueti.”

“Yeah, if we know what the diamond does, then we can confirm or rule out that option.”

The detective nodded as he yawned. “Looks like it’s time we paid Hatch a visit.”

“And then you’re taking a nap. Enough of this sleepy business.”

Chapter Seven

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Cacama System

Standing back, Hatch admired the ’55 Chevy Nomad. It had taken them longer than expected to restore the car. He’d been saving the job for a special occasion, and he could think of no better reason to celebrate than that Knox had been returned.

He now turned his focus to Knox, who stood a few feet away with a wrench in his hand and a satisfied grin on his face.

One of the reasons the restoration had taken longer was that both of them seemed to be enjoying the job more than usual, and they didn’t want it to end too soon. Hatch had even made them redo the paint job three times, until it was the right shade of candy apple red. Now it was so perfect, he almost wanted to take a bite out of it.

Hatch extended his tentacle and fondly swiped it over the black tuck-and-roll upholstery. The car was perfect now, and only Knox Gunnerson could have helped him restore it. Knox did things the right way; the way Hatch had taught him. He wasn’t tarnished by bad practices.

“She’s a real beauty,” Hatch said. “Good work.”

Knox’s pale face flushed, his ears even growing pink. “Thanks. I was afraid I’d be different now, you know? After the upload. I thought I might have lost some of my skills.”

Hatch shook his head. “Nah. It doesn’t work like that. Who you are and what you can do is within you. It can’t be lost or taken away.”

Knox combed his greasy hands over his black mohawk, weighing it down slightly. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“Do you still think all this is luck? Your position and knowledge and being here on Ricky Bobby?” Hatch didn’t usually like to have such a deep conversation, but Knox was different… and having him back had opened something up inside of him. He realized how much he valued the guy. He didn’t want to take others for granted ever again, if he could help it.

Knox shrugged. “A little bit,” he replied.

“What have I told you about confidence?”

“That I should have it,” Knox replied bashfully.

“Damn straight,” Hatch hollered. “Hell, some of the most successful people I know haven’t got a lick of talent, but they think they do. But son, you’ve got real skills. You just got to believe in yourself.”

Knox gulped and nodded. “I think I should check that I installed that carburetor right.” He took off for the car.

Hatch sighed. “Do what you got to do.”

The boy would get there eventually. Hatch would see to it personally.

“Well, look at my new sweet ride,” Pip said with a whistle, ambling up next to Hatch.

“Stay away from her!” the Londil ordered. “I value this car more than your life, and will end you if you so much as breathe on it.”

Pip looked offended, an expression he’d carefully mastered already. “I wreck one of your cars, and you never let me live it down.”

“Need I remind you that you destroyed a Black Eagle using my plane like a missile?”

“Need I remind you that it totally worked?” Pip fired back.

“Still, we can’t go around using ships like they’re weapons.”

“I think we have to take it on a case by case basis,” the AI countered. “In that case, I had no other options if we were going to defeat the enemy.”

Hatch agreed with a nod. “Sure, I guess you’re right.” He glanced down at Pip’s pants. “What in the hell are you wearing?”

His face lit up with a grin. He had on a pair of extremely baggy, tie-dyed pants. “These are hammer pants. You might prefer to call them ‘parachute pants’.”

“I’d prefer to never have to look at them again. They look like something Liesel Diesel would wear.”

The chief engineer, who was busy repairing the Q-ship they’d taken out on the mission, looked up. “Pip, your pants look really comfortable. I’d definitely wear those.”

“Of course you would,” Hatch said, rolling his eyes at her. He pointed at Pip’s T-shirt. “Now that shirt I can actually appreciate.”

“Thanks!” Pip looked down at his T-shirt and smiled. It read, ‘If you believe in telekinesis, raise my hand’.

“I can have one made for you but change ‘hand’ to ‘tentacle’, if you’d like,” Pip offered.

“I wouldn’t like,” Hatch stated.

“Right, you’re going to stick with that nude look. I appreciate that. I would too, but the ladies would never get anything done.”

“Is there a reason that you’re bothering us?” Hatch asked.

“Yes, it’s my birthday, and I was hoping you’d help me hang streamers all over the ship.”

“No, it’s not,” Hatch said, noticing M’din Tillous enter.

She hadn’t spoken to him since she’d been printed. If hostile stares accounted for anything, then they’d had many meaningful interactions. Presently, she flashed him a scowl before turning her focus to a workstation on the other side of the Q-ship.

I have to get her a different lab to work in.

“No, it’s not. You’re right,” Pip agreed. “I’m out of Bio Plus. We used the last of it to print Knox.”

Hatch grumbled to himself. Bio Plus was what the GAD-C needed to print bodies for those in the database they’d recovered.

“Well, it will take a little while to get more. I can’t just buzz down to the corner store and pick some up. We might have to wait until we get the other databases. There weren’t that many consciousnesses in the last one they recovered.”

“I realize that Bio Plus isn’t easy to get, and I realize that the Precious galaxy isn’t really our territory for buying such stuff.” Pip pulled up the tablet he was carrying. “But I think it would be worth finding a quick source. Look who I found in the database.” He handed the tablet to Hatch.

His eyes widened with surprise when he read the name. “Another Ghost Squadron crew member.”

“Two, actually,” Pip stated. “And just think how much we could benefit from their expertise.”

“The options have already occurred to me.” Hatch turned his attention to the engineer. “Liesel Diesel! I have an important job for you.”

She looked up, irritation heavy on her face. Since the pregnancy, she hadn’t looked like her usual self. “I thought you wanted me to work on the Q-ship.”

“I changed my mind,” he stated. “I need you to locate a supply of Bio Plus and quick.”

She sighed. “Yeah, I guess I could do that.”

At Hatch’s back, Tillous loudly cleared her throat.

“Good,” Hatch stated. “And abandon your strict, hippie morals. We might have to use a shady source.”

“But the Federation regulates—”

“I know that, but do you see the Federation anywhere close to here?” Hatch threw his tentacles wide. “We don’t have the time to travel back to Federation territory to get the legit stuff.”

Again, Tillous made a sound like she had something stuck in her throat.

Liesel’s face pinched with frustration. It was a strange expression that Hatch had never seen her wear. “I was only thinking—”

“That’s the problem. We don’t have time to think this over or hesitate. I don’t want any of that karmic debt bullshit,” Hatch went on, his voice rising. The urgency to have the crew back was suddenly stronger than ever. It had started with Knox, and now there were others they could print.

“Yeah, I get your point,” Liesel said dryly. “I’ll get right on it.”

Tillous coughed sharply behind them. “I think that the doctor forgot to say ‘please’, as well as a lot of other things.”

Hatch swung around to face her. It was strange to be face to face with another Londil. Even stranger that it was one he knew so well—yet, a lot of time had passed. She can’t be the same as I remember.

“I don’t believe I did say ‘please’. We are working on a tight timeline, and I don’t have the luxury of injecting pleasantries into my orders.”

“You could have at least been polite about it,” Tillous stated, swelling slightly.

“Ask anyone on this ship.” Hatch again threw his tentacles wide and nearly hit Pip. “I’m not known for my politeness. I get things done, and that’s because feelings aren’t really a concern for me. Liesel Diesel knows that we have an important objective, and she’s going to help us get it done, isn’t that right?” Hatch spun to face the engineer.

The woman tugged on one of her braids and shrugged, her eyes focused on the floor. “I don’t really mind.”

“See there!” Hatch said triumphantly to Tillous.

“Although a good clearing of your chakras might help with the stress that triggers your demeanor,” Liesel added.

Hatch’s cheeks puffed out. “Bio Plus! We need it!”

Liesel nodded and hurried off without saying another word.

“Really,” Tillous said, her tone heavy with disapproval. “Your management style could use a lot of work.”

“I’ve told him that,” Pip stated.

Hatch flashed him an angry scowl.

“And then I realized that I was incredibly wrong,” Pip said quickly, trying to cover his blunder. “Man, was I wrong. Hatch is perfect in every way, and we should all try to follow his lead.”

“Ordering a pregnant woman around without any concerns for her feelings?” Tillous questioned.

“Liesel likes the way I talk to her,” Hatch argued. “She gets me. You didn’t see her complaining. And her pregnant state shouldn’t factor into the equation.”

“Not everyone is a machine like you, A’Din!”

“Why are you in my business?” Hatched yelled. “Aren’t you supposed to be working on security protocols, like I asked?”

Undeterred, Tillous moved forward, putting only inches between them. “Yes, but I’m working on it because Jack asked me to do so, not you.”

“Whatever it takes!” Hatch felt the heat rush to his face. “Maybe I’ll get him to order you to stay quiet!”

Tillous batted her long eyelashes, a quiet anger simmering in her eyes. “I remember when you used to treat others with respect and value their emotions, but that was a long, long time ago.”

Hatch was aware that Knox was watching this display, as well as Pip, who looked rather amused. He was about to say something to really burn Tillous, when Bailey and Lewis entered his lab.

He deflated, unable to fire off his insult. “What you remember about me is irrelevant. We have work to do,” he said in a hot whisper before turning around and waddling off in the other direction.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

“Do you have the feeling that we’ve interrupted something?” Bailey asked Lewis in a hush.

His eyes skirted between Hatch and the new Londil, Tillous. “Yes, all indications would lead me to that conclusion.”

“What do you two want?” Hatch asked, more irritation in his voice than usual.

Lewis admired the car behind him. He didn’t know much about automobiles, but he could still appreciate one.

“Wow, that’s a bitchin’ ride,” Bailey said, hurrying over to the car.

Hatch’s apprentice, Knox, stepped aside when Bailey leaned in under the hood for a closer look. He was a shy character with kind eyes. Lewis thought he must be incredibly even-tempered and intelligent to have a position alongside Hatch.

“Yeah, it’s a—”

“Chevrolet Nomad,” Bailey said, cutting Hatch off. “I told you my dad was into cars. He taught me a little bit, and since then, I’ve been studying up on them here and there. It helps me understand how the ships work, sort of, if that makes sense.”

“It absolutely does,” Hatch said proudly. “It’s through appreciating where we came from that we can make greater strides toward the future.”

“Well put,” she praised. “Is that a 427 engine?”

Hatch’s tension subsided slightly. “You know it is.”

“Why does she get to be so close to the car?” Pip asked, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “She lost the armor on the Q-ship.”

“But she brought back the spacecraft intact, didn’t she,” Hatch retorted. “Where, Pip, is the Black Eagle?”

Pip’s eyes looked back and forth. “What’s that? Ricky Bobby, you need my help with something? I’m coming.”

“I didn’t hear him call you,” the mechanic stated.

“We have a private line,” Pip explained. “It’s an AI thing. You wouldn’t get it.” He waved as he retreated.

Hatch shook his head, looking slightly amused. He turned his attention to Lewis and Bailey. “What brings you two to the lab?”

“We wanted to know what you could tell us about etheric diamonds,” Lewis stated.

This got Hatch’s attention. “An etheric diamond. Those are quite rare.”

The detective nodded. “Exceptionally so. But what if we told you that Vance just got his hands on the largest one known?”

Hatch combed one of his tentacles over his chins. “I’d say that we were in trouble.”

“Why? What can it be used to do?” Bailey asked.

“Well, as I understand it from Penrae, Vance’s mission is to consolidate the uploaded minds into one,” Hatch began slowly, thinking as he spoke. “Honestly, that didn’t bother me all that much. He’d have a super computer, which would make him powerful, but he’s already that.”

“How does the etheric diamond change anything?” Lewis asked.

“It a power source,” Hatch stated. “And taking what we know about Vance, there’s a very obvious reason he’d want the diamond.”

“It’s not that obvious to me, so do tell,” Bailey said.

Hatch nodded. “Right. Well, I might be wrong about this, but I think the etheric diamond could be used to bring the computer to life.”

Lewis scratched his head. “Like an AI?”

“Sort of.” Hatch’s tentacle reached over to the touch sensitive screen in the corner, drawing out a quick picture of a computer. “In my spare time, I’ve been studying up on the theory of this super computer, as well as contemplating everything I know about Solomon Vance. I worked with him years ago, and unfortunately, I’ve got an idea of how bizarre his thinking is.”

“Not so unfortunate for us, though. This information will help us,” Bailey stated.

“True. But many of my interactions with him left me with chills. Even then, he was a diabolical character.” Hatch drew a picture of the diamond and then a stick figure of a man. “Now, taking what I know about the diamond’s potential, the computer, and Vance, I think it’s safe to assume this is what he’s up to.” Hatch put plus signs between all the pictures. On the other side of the man he drew an equals sign. “If we put this all together, what do we get?”

“Vance is going to put the super computer inside of him?” Lewis asked in disbelief.

Hatch set the marker down. “It’s only a theory, but it makes sense. He’s crazed for power and control.”

The detective studied the rough equation. “But how would that work?”

“Like you said, he’d be like an AI, fueled by the etheric, but with access to the knowledge of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of minds,” Hatch explained. “However, the etheric diamond changes things slightly. Vance wouldn’t just have the information that’s stored in the minds, but also their abilities.”

“Wait, are you saying that he’d possess their powers?” Bailey asked.

Hatch nodded. “I believe so. If someone had a photographic memory, then he would too. If they were telepathic, he would be as well. The possibilities would be unlimited.”

“So he’s going way beyond the best Pod-doc upgrade,” Bailey said.

Hatch let out a long sigh. “Yes, if I’m correct, Vance is trying to make himself into a god.”

Chapter Eight

Q-Ship, En Route to Planet Harsu, Osol System

It was hard for Bailey to wrap her mind around Vance’s ultimate goal. She knew he was motivated by power, all the crazies were. However, she was starting to believe that Vance planned to control the masses through any means necessary. Stealing minds and possessing them wasn’t enough. He had to use them to overpower the rest.

Vance was hiding in the Precious galaxy, but this was a man who wanted extreme power, which meant his ultimate target had to be the Federation.

Lewis and Bailey had concluded that Melanie had to be behind the attack on Tueti. It didn’t fit with Vance’s mission, now that they knew more about the etheric diamond.

Chilled by the latest revelation about Vance, Jack ordered the team to go after the next database on planet Harsu. Bailey, like Lewis, didn’t love the idea of Dejoure going on the mission, however, they all agreed that it was in everyone’s best interest.

“Can we get a quick rundown of Harsu?” Lewis asked, looking back at Pip, who sat next to Dejoure.

Pip’s eyes did that thing they did when he was off connecting to the network, pulling information, or communicating with Ricky Bobby. “Yes, it’s a mining planet. I’ve gone ahead and done a scan of the terrain, and it is mostly uninhabitable at this point.”

“That is all in line with a Monstre Corp location,” Bailey said, steering the ship closer to the planet. “He doesn’t like anyone else around to interfere.”

“I’ve set our course for where I believe is the most likely area for a facility to be located,” Pip continued. “The scans show some activity in this area as compared to the rest of the planet, which is mostly deserted.”

“But you said it was a mining planet,” Lewis stated.

“Emphasis on ‘was.’ The planet has since been thoroughly mined, and all the resources depleted,” Pip explained.

“So are you taking us to an old mining facility?” Bailey asked.

“Yes, although I’m unsure if that’s where the database will be,” Pip stated. “I’ll know more when we land.”

“Which will be soon.” Bailey scanned the terrain as she guided the ship through the atmosphere. Harsu was an ugly planet consisting of mostly grays and browns. There was no vegetation, and dark clouds hung all around.

“Think I found the mining facility.” Lewis pointed to a crater where there were huge piles of rock and dirt. On the northern side was a giant, dilapidated building.

“How charming,” Bailey said, sarcasm heavy in her tone.

“Something doesn’t seem right about this,” Lewis mused.

“You always say that, detective.”

“And I’m usually right,” he pointed out. “Vance’s facilities are always shiny and pristine.”

Bailey nodded. “With an all-white interior. Yeah, I know what you mean.”

“Do you want me to stay on the ship?” Dejoure asked, her voice small and quiet. She sensed Bailey’s and Lewis’s hesitation about having her on the mission.

Bailey cast a tentative look at Lewis. “I think it’s better if she comes along.”

“Better for us, in case we encounter the monster, but not better for her,” he qualified.

“Well, we also don’t know what is out there that could be a danger to her if we leave her alone,” Bailey countered.

“On our cloaked ship, you mean?”

He’s arguing with me. In front of Dejoure. I’m going to knock him out the next time we spar. Bailey shook her head, realizing that they sounded like parents already, bickering.

“Jack wanted her on the mission, that means she comes along,” Bailey stated with confidence.

She could tell that Lewis didn’t know how to argue with that. He nodded.

“The reading from the Q-ship’s sensors indicate that the air is acceptable,” Pip informed them.

Bailey looked out at the vast wasteland as she landed the ship. “But the real question is, is there a Precious Galaxy Coffee shop around here?”

Pip, who was already out of his seat, pointed. “Yeah, I think it’s over there beside that heap of garbage.”

Lewis gave Dejoure a serious look. “Do you sense the monster close by?”

She closed her eyes, softly humming. She’d explained that it helped her block out the others’ emotions when she was searching for something specific; one of Ricky Bobby’s techniques from his training.

She opened her eyes. “No, I don’t think so. But I’ll keep monitoring.”

“Good girl,” Bailey said, the first one to the back of the ship. She pulled two blasters from the armory and handed one to Pip. “Do you think you can handle this?”

He rolled his eyes. “You do realize that my hands are lethal weapons. What do I need with that?”

The lieutenant shrugged. “I just figured if you wanted to do any long-range attacks, this would come in handy.”

Pip pursed his lips in appreciation. “Yeah, good point. And that way I don’t risk destroying another T-shirt.”

“Yes, that one is a treasure.” Bailey pointed at the black and white shirt he was wearing:

‘Do not read the next sentence.

You little rebel. I like you.’

Bailey checked on Lewis and DJ before lowering the hatch door. A cloud of brown dust billowed in their faces as soon it was opened all the way, and the planet smelled like burnt rubber. The air was humid and hot.

“Is that a legit tumbleweed?” Bailey asked, pointing to the large ball that rolled past the ship.

Pip laughed. “We aren’t in Kansas anymore.”

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

A thick lock was the only deterrent to getting into the large warehouse. Bailey was going to take care of it with her pistol, but Pip thought better of making the noise and potentially attracting attention. Instead, he pulled the lock off with a simple jerk of his wrist.

The smell of decay and rot that swam from the warehouse when they opened the doors made them all shrink back. Lewis had never been so overwhelmed by an odor. It felt like it coated his mouth and would forever cling to his being.

“Are we sure they mined resources here?” Bailey asked. “It seems more like an abandoned slaughterhouse.”

She was referring to the hooks that were lining one wall, reminiscent of the type that hung from the ceiling of a butcher house.

“I think those are for attaching the anchors.” Lewis indicated the large chains that ran across the floor and ended wrapped around a giant piece of equipment.

“Yeah… I know this is usually your line, but there’s something not right about this place,” Bailey said.

Lewis couldn’t argue with that. He squinted through the darkness. It was hard to make out anything further than a couple of feet away. Small slivers of light poured from the cracks in the exterior wall, but whatever was toward the middle of the facility was cast in complete blackness.

“We’re going to need a light,” he stated.

“That’s my job. I’m on it.” Dejoure lifted a large flashlight and clicked it on.

A figure only fifteen feet away threw its arm up to shield its gray, rotting flesh. The creature screamed, its mouth hanging open to reveal black teeth. Its red eyes flashed with anger, and the thing leapt in their direction.

Bailey lifted her gun and fired round after round, but the beast kept coming, undeterred by being riddled with bullets.

“The head!” Lewis yelled.

Bailey, out of ammunition, dropped her blaster to the ground and pulled her pistol from its holster. She shot the monster once in the head, sending it to the ground.

Tentatively, Bailey reached down to retrieve her empty weapon. She turned to the group, her eyes roaming over the area around them.

“Is that what I think it is?” she asked, referring to the fallen body.

Lewis nodded. “Yeah, I believe that’s a zombie.”

Chapter Nine

Mining Facility, Harsu, Osol System

The group knitted together, back to back.

“Do you think there’re more?” Dejoure asked, and surprisingly, her voice was trembling. She’d shut off the light, casting them in darkness again.

“You know how the old saying goes; ‘where there’s one zombie, there’s more’,” Pip said, scanning the area.

“I haven’t heard that one before,” Bailey stated, positioning Dejoure so she was in the middle of the group.

“I don’t suppose you can pick up on the zombie’s emotions to tell us where they are located,” Lewis asked in a tentative voice.

“I don’t think so,” Dejoure answered.

“Yeah, it’s not like they are really alive,” he concluded.

“Okay, so we shoot for the head,” Bailey stated, deciding they needed a plan. “DJ, you flash the light. It seems to momentarily disorient them.”

“Like rats,” Pip stated.

“Wait, you want to keep going forward?” Lewis asked.

“Harlowe, you’re not afraid of some brain-eating zombies, are you?” Bailey teased.

“Of all the things I’m afraid of, that’s at the top of the list,” Lewis replied.

Bailey sighed. “We must face our fears.”

“I’ve got a reading on the place now,” Pip informed them. “The Monstre Corp facility isn’t here.”

“Well, there you go,” Lewis said with finality, turning for the exit.

“It’s likely that the facility is under the warehouse,” Pip said, further deflating spirits.

“Say what?” Bailey asked.

“I’ve been able to access some schematics that I think are from Monstre Corp,” Pip began. “If I’m correct, then the access tunnel to the facility is somewhere in this warehouse. We’ll take that underground passage for a mile to the site.”

“And there’s no other way into the facility?” Lewis asked.

“Not that I’m seeing,” Pip stated. “The facility appears to be under a large swamp of some toxic substance, and there’s no way through that.”

Bailey looked around the dark warehouse, wishing her eyes would adjust to the blackness. “Does anyone else appreciate the hilarity of this all?”

“That would be a big fat no,” Lewis stated.

“Okay, so we’ve got to find this entrance,” Bailey said. “Pip, any ideas?”

“I do have an idea,” he answered. “You three go back to the ship, and I’ll look for the facility.”

“That’s not a very good idea,” she retorted.

“I can’t be eaten alive by zombies, so I thought it made sense,” Pip said.

“Although I appreciate your repeated noble behavior,” Bailey began, “I’ll remind you that last time you couldn’t enter the database facility because of the technology in use there.”

“I agree with Bailey,” Lewis stated. “And we’re a team. As much as I don’t like the idea of going down into a potentially zombie-infested tunnel, I’m not thrilled about the idea of leaving you on your own.”

“But I can’t be hurt,” Pip argued.

“There are ways you can be hurt that aren’t on the surface,” Dejoure said in a low voice. “Your emotions are a strong component of who you are, and trauma can stem from being left alone to face danger. The uncertainty of what could lie ahead is enough to scare you right now, and would leave a lasting effect.”

Pip shook his head at her. “Oh, you intuitive little girl. Fine, fine. You all can come along, but let me take the lead. I think the tunnel is over there.” He pointed into the darkness.

Bailey pulled a small light from her holster, holding it alongside her gun. “I’ll have your backs. Lights on, DJ.”

The flashlight sputtered before shooting a solid beam into the center of the warehouse. The place was cluttered with old equipment, and various pieces of junk were spread all over the floor. Things were overturned, and glass shards littered the floor. The signs of a struggle were everywhere.

They walked in silence, everyone tensely staring around. Bailey was surprised that they made it twenty yards without a single issue. Maybe there was only that one zombie here. Bailey checked their backs. So far, so good.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

A groan echoed from behind a large machine in the center of the dark space.

Pip froze. He pointed to his chest and then in the direction of the noise. The group nodded. He started forward, disappearing around the machine. A guttural scream. The sounds of scratching. Two gunshots.

A moment later, Pip rematerialized, a smile on his face. “That was easy.”

Howls, like a hoarse monkey screaming, echoed all around the warehouse. The shots had definitely woken the rest of the zombies. The closest scream was up high. Bailey directed her gun to the top of the large machine to find a zombie standing, looking down at them. The thing was almost naked, although no discernable body parts could be made out in its condition. Bailey fired, knocking the zombie back. It rolled off the machine and to the ground, where its body made a gross squishing sound.

Lewis and Pip were busy fighting a group of zombies who had charged from different directions. Dejoure flashed the light back and forth between them, trying to help them both.

Bailey joined the fight, sliding up next to Lewis. He’d fired on a zombie twice, missing the head. She dropped the flashlight and pulled out her other gun, double fisting. She fired, exploding the head of the zombie that Lewis had been shooting at. Then she shot several more zombies, highly aware that there were more approaching from the other side.

“DJ! Light to the left!”

The girl swung the light, and three zombies flinched from the brightness only a few feet away.

Bailey pivoted, pointing one gun at the new zombies and continuing to fire at the ones on Lewis’s side. Her flashlight had fallen in the perfect place, illuminating that area.

The first zombie went down without a problem. The other two scattered, darting behind the equipment.

Lewis fired on his zombies three more times, and the warehouse fell eerily silent.

Bailey’s eyes searched, waiting for the two zombies that had retreated to rematerialize. “Pip, how’s your area?”

“All clear,” he answered.

“Harlowe?” she asked.

“So far I’m clear.”

“I’ve got two that are playing hide-and-seek,” she stated, gesturing their direction.

Lewis bent down and retrieved the light. “When did zombies start using strategy?”

Bailey shook her head. “I don’t know. I thought they just went after brains, despite any danger.”

“Well, the lot I picked off came at me even though I was firing; they weren’t even trying to avoid certain death,” Pip stated.

“Hmmm…” Lewis mused.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

The sound erupted from a drilling machine, like it had suddenly been started up.

Bailey swung that direction, her eyes narrowing at the machine. There was nothing around it.

An engine began humming behind her, and she spun. Something darted away, disappearing into the shadows.

“These zombies aren’t like the others,” she observed.

“No, they’re playing with us,” Lewis stated.

A conveyor belt started up beside them, making Dejoure jump. “Why are they turning everything on?” she asked.

“So we can’t hear them coming,” Bailey stated. The zombies sounded like an old car starting up when they were approaching, their bones grinding on bones.

“It’s also a distraction technique,” Lewis added.

“But to be able to turn on the conveyor, they have to be in the control room.” Pip indicated to a room at the top of a stairway that looked out over the warehouse.

“Does that mean, we have a whole lot more smart zombies to face?” Dejoure asked.

“Not necessarily,” Bailey said, remembering going to work with her father a few times. He’d worked as a miner for many years and often told her how the equipment worked. “It can be turned on manually. I’m guessing the remote controls burned out a long time ago; they want us to think we’re surrounded, but I’m guessing we only have two fast-footed zombies to take out in this area.”

Pip fired suddenly. A zombie flew back from its crouched position on the conveyor belt.

“One, actually,” he corrected.

The drill suddenly stopped its constant ticking.

“There,” Lewis said in a whisper, indicating the machinery’s direction with his light.

Bailey shook her head. “No, that’s what it wants us to think. It’s on a timer.” She swung around in the opposite direction, scanning the area.

“DJ?” she whispered.

Sensing what she wanted, Dejoure directed the light. The zombie screamed, but it didn’t shrink back at the sight of the light like the others had. It bolted forward.

Bailey and Pip fired, but the thing moved so erratically it was hard to get a straight shot on it. It was approaching too fast, making incredible progress.

Dejoure screamed, dropping the flashlight. It rolled under the conveyor belt, and the team was cast in darkness.

Bailey and Pip kept firing in the dark, although Pip’s vision gave him the advantage.

Lewis darted over, holding his light. The zombie wasn’t there.

“Where did it go? Did we get it?” Bailey asked.

Pip shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

Bailey holstered one of her guns and dropped to her knees, reaching down low to retrieve the light Dejoure had dropped. It was wedged between two poles. She grazed it with her fingertips, sending it farther away.

The stand of the conveyor belt was blocking the way.

She pushed her shoulder into it, trying to negotiate one more inch so she could reach the light. The zombie reached out of the darkness from the other side of the conveyor belt, clawing her arm.

Bailey scrambled backward, dropping her gun. The thing crawled out, screaming and moving so quickly that Bailey was certain it would pounce on her before she could get to her feet. She fumbled for her gun as she kept moving backward, but she couldn’t get it out.

One shot. Half of the zombie’s head flew back behind it, while the rest of the creature fell forward on what was left of its face. Bailey looked up to where Lewis stood, his gun in one hand and the light in the other.

He let out a heavy breath and gave her a cautious expression. “You okay?”

She nodded, tasting bile in her mouth. “Yeah, I think so. It just scratched me.”

“Let’s hope you’re not contaminated then.” He extended a hand to her.

She took it, allowing him to help her up. “My nanos should protect me.”

“Guys,” Pip called, a few feet away. “I found the entrance to the tunnel.”

Chapter Ten

Mining Facility, Harsu, Osol System

The underground entrance looked like it had been reinforced to fortify it against a nuclear explosion.

“Can we get through that?” Bailey asked, holding the large light that Dejoure had retrieved.

Bailey had told the girl not to worry about getting it back, as she was still shaken from being attacked. However, Dejoure, who was overly apologetic for dropping the light in the first place, didn’t listen.

“I can pull that door off, no problem,” Pip stated.

“The question is do we want to,” Lewis said. “What if the facility is holding more of those smart zombies?”

“I think it’s a risk we’re going to have to take,” Pip said, constantly looking around, checking for more monsters.

“Maybe it’s safer inside, since it has the big door,” Dejoure reasoned.

Lewis wasn’t so sure. Something told him that Monstre Corp was behind the zombies, but he’d need more information to back up that assumption.

“So how are you going to get through?” Bailey asked. “The old rocket-punch technique, like at the last facility?”

Pip bent over and wrapped his hands over the edges of the thick metal. He tugged once, pulling the six-inch-thick door clear off the tunnel and tossing it several yards. It made a loud clambering sound when it landed.

“Or, that works too,” Bailey said with a tight laugh.

Lewis had been watching her, and she kept inspecting the scratch on her arm. She wanted to believe that her nanos could protect her, but he knew that a worry was taking over her sense of reason at this point. They needed more information about these zombies.

Bailey aimed the flashlight down into the tunnel. The light reflected off a shiny, white floor. “Think this is our place.”

“Me first,” Pip stated, taking the ladder and heading down.

Lewis stared around the warehouse, staying vigilant for zombies.


How strange had their life gotten that they were fighting zombies like it was some post-apocalyptic dystopian age? He reminded himself that the other big danger was a biosynthetic monster that uploaded consciousnesses. There were all sorts of strange dangers where Monstre Corp was concerned.

“All is clear down here!” Pip called up.

“After you,” Bailey said to Dejoure.

The girl nodded, taking the ladder.

“You next, Harlowe,” the lieutenant ordered.

“Yeah, fine,” he said reluctantly. “But if it was safe down there before, it isn’t now that we don’t have a door to this tunnel. Zombies from the warehouse could get in.”

“Good point,” Bailey stated. “Scold Pip when you get down there for showing off and tearing off the door completely.”

“Will do.”

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

“Well, this is definitely a Monstre Corp facility,” Bailey said.

The tunnel was round and narrow. it was all white, the trademark of all the known database locations.

“So I’m guessing we’re going straight,” Dejoure said, flashing the light ahead. The tunnel started at the ladder and led in only one direction.

“Yes. The schematics show that it’s a straight shot to the facility,” Pip answered.

“Do your schematics show if there are any zombies waiting for us up ahead?” Bailey asked.

Pip shook his head. “And this is not the place I’d like to meet any zombies.” He was crouched down to fit through the tunnel, his head brushing against the top.

A grotesque rattling sound echoed from overhead. Bailey looked up to see a zombie clambering in after them. She whipped out her gun, shooting it several times. To her horror, being ripped up by bullets knocked the monster back but didn’t take it out.

She backed up, trying to get a better view of the beast. It dropped straight down into the tunnel with a surprising stealth. Bailey shot once more, putting a bullet straight through its brain.

She slapped her hands to her ears to stop the ringing. Shooting in the tunnel was like being inside a drum at a rock concert. Everyone else was doing the same, except for Pip.

“If anyone was wondering if there are more zombies up there, the answer is yes,” the AI said casually.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Bailey encouraged, pushing Lewis forward, trying to get as far from the body of the zombie as possible.

“Are you sure?” Lewis asked, studying her. “Whatever is up ahead might be worse.”

“Might, but that’s a chance we’ll take,” she decided. “Pip, if you encounter any zombies, can you tear off its head? I don’t think I can handle more gunfire down here.”

He flashed her a smile. “Sure, and then I’ll roll the head like a bowling ball.”

“Is anyone else wondering why there are zombies on a mining planet?” Dejoure asked when they’d been walking in silence for several minutes, everyone on-edge, listening for foreign noises.

“It is particularly bizarre,” Pip stated.

“Maybe something they were mining here had a contagious effect,” Dejoure mused.

“That’s a good assumption, but it’s unlikely,” Pip began. “They were mining a simple metal found on Harsu. Nothing I’ve come across states that it should have had such an effect on humans.”

“But there could be other elements here, maybe,” Dejoure argued in a whisper.

“We never want to cross off our options,” Lewis said supportively.

“And why would Monstre Corp put their facility entrance here?” Bailey wondered.

“Because their owner is eccentric and has a flare for locations,” Pip answered. He halted abruptly. “Light, please.”

Dejoure stepped forward, flashing the beam of light in front of her. Ahead was a thick glass barrier door, and on the other side was a crowd of crazed zombies, clambering to get through.

“So if anyone was wondering if there are zombies in the facility, the answer is yes,” Pip said matter-of-factly.

Bailey stepped forward while keeping an eye on their backs. “Maybe that’s where they were made, and they’ve gotten loose accidentally.”

“Do you suppose they took out the staff in there?” Dejoure asked.

Lewis shrugged, diverting his eyes.

Bailey thought it would be best to make light of things. “At least we don’t have to fight security guards! Only zombies. Same thing, just a different name.”

“And tactic,” Lewis added.

Bailey turned to Pip. “How do you suppose we get in there and take them out?”

“It’s unlikely that I can tear every one of their heads off before they become a problem for you all,” Pip said. “However, I have access to the facility’s system; we have found Sutra Four. I think I can trigger enough alarms in various places that I can distract the zombies, drawing them away long enough for us to get through and get to a larger area up ahead. Then we can battle them there.”

Bailey looked at the zombies, clawing at the glass and leaving bloody marks behind. A chill ran down her back. “Okay, I think that’s about the best plan we could hope for.”

She turned to face Dejoure. “I don’t condone giving children weapons, especially since you’re untrained.” She pulled the bag of marble-like grenades from the side of her holster. “However, you can’t go in there without some way to defend yourself.”

“You don’t believe in giving children guns, but you’re giving her grenades?” Lewis questioned.

She flashed him a challenging look. “Got any better ideas?”

“Not really,” he answered, defeated. “Give her a good orientation.”

“Aim, twist, throw,” Bailey said to Dejoure. “Got it?”

She nodded, her eyes wide. “Yes, I can do it. Don’t worry about me.”

“Yeah, right,” Bailey said with a wink.

“The good news is you can put your flashlights away,” Pip stated.

“Oh?” Lewis questioned.

“Mission: Security Mayhem commencing now,” Pip stated. Bright lights flickered on the other side of the glass, making the zombies under it shrink away.

Water sprayed down on them from sprinklers overhead, further making them back away from the area. One looked over his shoulder, before lumbering in the opposite direction.

“That would be the alarm from the eastern wing,” Pip said proudly.

The other zombies limped after the first zombie into the darkness of the facility.

“Wow, that was strangely easy,” Bailey said, tentatively.

Pip extended his hand and snapped his fingers. “And ‘open sesame’.” The thick glass door clicked, opening out an inch. “And just like that, we’re in.”

“Just like that,” Bailey said, looking at Lewis.

He sighed. “Yeah, now we just have to fight a handful of zombies.”

Chapter Eleven

Mining Facility, Harsu, Osol System

Pip turned off the overhead sprinklers as they entered Sutra 4. He also lit up the entire place, which was a relief—fighting zombies in a darkened warehouse had been about the hardest thing Lewis had ever done.

The blaring of the sirens overhead pierced Lewis’s already sensitive ears. He thought his eardrum might actually be ruptured from Bailey firing the gun in the tunnel. Luckily, the facility was much larger, and the insulated walls would absorb the sound of their gunfire instead of amplify it.

“Stick together,” he ordered loudly, as they entered the first set of hallways.

“What?” Dejoure asked, looking up at him.

Ahead, he could see where the zombies had retreated, leaving behind fresh bloodstains in the direction of the eastern wing.

“Stick together!” he said again.

Dejoure’s face scrunched with confusion.

The sirens stopped, and the sudden silence made Lewis feel like he’d gone deaf.

“There,” Pip said, sensing their problem.

Lewis nodded. “I was saying we should stay together.”

The first zombie materialized around the corner, having heard them. It growled, hobbling on a pair of mutilated legs. Lewis lifted his gun, but before he could squeeze off a shot, Dejoure had hurled a grenade in the zombie’s direction. Her throw was surprisingly good, launching the grenade straight at the beast.

“Cover!” she yelled.

Everyone but Pip covered their faces. The explosion a moment later sent pieces of zombie in all directions.

“Well, that was effective,” Pip said, amused.

Bailey picked a piece of zombie off her shoulder, grimacing. “Yeah, although messy.”

“Sorry, I was just happy to finally be in the game,” Dejoure stated.

The other zombies, alerted by the explosion to the presence of fresh meat, materialized around the corner, one of them crawling, and the others snarling viciously as they kicked past the remains of the other zombie.

“The one on the right is mine,” Bailey called.

“The left,” Lewis announced, taking dibs.

“I’ll take Crawly-McCrawlerson,” Pip said.

The three took aim, firing in unison. Their shots ripped clean through the zombies’ heads, knocking them back into the walls and floor. Motionless. Harmless.

Lewis turned to the hallway at their back, the one that led the other way. “Think there’s more down here?”

Pip nodded. “Possibly. But what should be in that direction is the databases. It’s the only area large enough to hold them.”

“What’s that way?” Bailey asked, pointing to the eastern wing where the zombies now lay.

“It appears to be a set of science labs,” Pip informed them.

“Where they create zombies?” Lewis mused.

“It’s possible, but their holding area is this way.” The AI pointed to the other hallway that led to the databases. “There’s a set of rooms with reinforced walls. I’m guessing that’s for the zombies.”

“So Vance really made these creatures?” Dejoure asked, looking at the dead bodies. Lewis wished she didn’t have to see this. He wished a lot of things for her, but that was not the life she’d been given. He liked to think this was preparing her for greatness.

“It seems so,” Pip said, waving at them to follow him down the hallway. “Another of his pet projects.”

“But why zombies?” the girl asked.

Lewis thought about what they’d recently learned about Vance, about how the etheric diamond might play into things. “Maybe these are failed attempts to create a super human.”

Bailey shot him a look, realizing he might be on to something. “Yeah, I bet that’s it.”

“And, what, they’ve gotten loose?” Dejoure asked. “What about security?”

Pip stopped at the junction for the next hallway. He raised his weapon and fired.

“Zombie?” Bailey asked.

His eyes were fixed on something in the hallway. “Well, I’m definitely not skeet shooting, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

Lewis stepped around the corner to find a zombie laid out on the floor at the end of the hallway. “Nice shot.”

“Thanks,” Pip said. “The holding room is that door ahead on the right.”

To Lewis’s surprise, the door hadn’t been yanked off its hinges. There were no signs of struggle, like claw marks on the door. As he neared, he noticed the empty room was lined with chains, reinforced into the wall, but the restraints hadn’t been severed or broken. They lay calmly against the wall, open cleanly.

Lewis turned to the others at his back, his mouth hanging open. “They didn’t escape. Monstre Corp let them go,” he said darkly.

“Why would they do that?” Bailey asked. “This is Monstre Corp’s facility. Vance would need access to it.”

Lewis looked at Pip. “Where are the databases?”

Pip pointed to the hallway. “I’ll show you.”

Lewis nodded, hurrying after the AI. He knew what they’d find, and it soured his throat. There was only one reason that Vance would freely let loose poisoned monsters.

Pip held his hand in a presenting manner when they arrived at a set of double doors.

Lewis paused, letting out a deep breath.

That was enough time for Bailey to take the lead. She stepped forward, kicking the doors open. They gave way easily, already partially open. To Lewis’s disappointment, they found exactly what he suspected.

The databases were gone.

Chapter Twelve

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Osol System

When Bailey and Lewis entered Jack’s office, they found Jack and Liesel each staring at the other with their hands on their hips, a quiet anger radiating between them.

“Uhhh…” Lewis began. “We came as soon as Ricky Bobby cleared Bailey.” He indicated the lieutenant’s wrapped arm.

Jack’s attention snapped to them, hiding away some of his tension with a fake smile. “Right, yes. I need to speak with you two.”

“How are you?” Liesel asked Bailey, a thoughtful look on her face.

“Well, I get to brag at parties and say I’ve been scratched by a zombie,” Bailey joked. “It’s fine, though. Apparently, the zombies were all chemically created and therefore weren’t contagious. They could have bitten us, and we’d have been fine—well, unless they ate our brains. Then we’d be dead.”

“And dead is the worst,” Lewis said, studying Jack. “Then you’d be a cold corpse.”

Jack was trying to arrange his face into something neutral, but the tension under the surface was leaking through. Liesel was much better at acting normal when stressed.

“And corpses are useless, it would kill me to be that,” Bailey said with a laugh. She mimicked a zombie, holding her arms out and stomping her feet.

Liesel smiled at Bailey and Lewis. “Except in yoga. Shavasana, also known as the ‘Corpse Pose’, is an important position.”

Bailey sighed. “Yeah, I could go for lying flat right now. Maybe even a nap.”

“Actually, in yoga, Shavasana is considered the hardest pose, the one we work for,” Liesel explained. “Stillness is not something that comes naturally for us. Silence, too, is hard for us to handle when the mind is constantly distracted by the ego.”

Lewis noticed Liesel’s eyes drift to Jack before returning to Bailey.

“Yeah, that seems about right,” Bailey said with a laugh. “Amen to that.”

Liesel waved, making for the doorway. “Well, I’ve got to go find Bastian. He’s doing some wiring work on the lower deck.”

“Of course he is,” Bailey said under her breath. When Liesel was gone, she looked at Lewis. “What are the chances that the ferret is just chewing through the interior of the ship, and we’re none the wiser?”

Jack forced out a tight laugh. “I know it seems strange, but I can attest that Sebastian is every bit the assistant that Liesel believes him to be.” He held his arm out wide, welcoming them into his office. “I’m sure you both would like to take a seat after that tiring mission.”

To Lewis’s surprise, Bailey took the offer, plopping down on the couch and putting her feet up. “I don’t mind if I do,” she said, putting her hands behind her head.

Lewis had rarely seen her sit when she wasn’t piloting a ship or eating.

Jack forced a smile at his nephew, and he nodded, taking one of the armchairs.

“So, Vance set a bunch of zombies loose in Sutra Four, did he?” Jack asked.

“Yes, we think he was hoping they would take us out,” Lewis stated, recalling what they’d learned investigating Sutra 4.

“And the databases are all gone?” Jack asked.

“Yes, we checked the entire facility,” Lewis answered. “It looks like they were newly pulled, but I’d need to do more forensic work to confirm that.”

Bailey shook her head. “But we’re not going back to that planet, ever. We left a few zombies there in the warehouse, making the decision as a group to hightail it out of there, rather than stay around to annihilate them.”

“I don’t blame you.” Jack shook his head. “Zombies. Now I’ve heard everything.”

“We’re guessing they were Vance’s failed efforts on his way to create a super human,” Lewis explained.

“Aside from being rabid, did they seem to have any extraordinary skills?” Jack asked.

“There were two whose intelligence was intact, however, they still had an irrational tendency for violence,” Lewis said.

Jack chuckled. “Maybe you judged them without a fair chance. Did you try to reason with the zombies? Maybe they were just really hungry and trying to ask for a ration.”

Lewis looked at Bailey with mock seriousness. “Oh no. Do you think we stereotyped the zombies?”

She held up her arm. “No. I stand by our decision. It was one of the intelligent ones who scratched me.”

Jack laughed again, seemingly trying to break up his own tension. “There’s another facility on a planet in the Vaikona system. Do you think the databases have been removed from there, too?”

Lewis nodded. “I would assume so. It might be worth checking out, but I’d guess that Vance has moved the databases, now that he knows we’re after them.”

“The question is where.” Jack combed his hand through his hair.

“Monstre Corp has a headquarters, supposedly, right?” Bailey asked.

“Yes, but we haven’t been able to uncover anything about it,” Jack answered. “Hatch is currently working on something that might help with that.”

“That means we’re currently at a standstill,” Bailey said, disappointment in her voice.

“It would seem so,” Jack replied. “But that might be for the best. You both should rest up. As soon as we have a lead, I’m going to send you out again.”

Bailey popped up to a standing position, looking wide awake suddenly. “Rest. Sure. I’m totally on it.” She trotted for the door and spun to face the two. “You coming, Holmes?”

Lewis shook his head. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

Bailey disappeared with one last smile.

“She’s probably going to go run a few laps and benchpress DJ a few times,” Lewis said with a laugh. “That’s how she rests.”

Jack joined in, nodding. However, with Bailey gone, the stress he’d been hiding surfaced immediately.

“So, you and Liesel…” Lewis let the sentence hang in the air, unfinished.

Jack let out a sigh. “Yeah, sorry you walked in while we were in the middle of an argument.”

“Do you want to discuss it?” Lewis knew that, although his uncle wasn’t a talker, he was a strategic man who knew that talking things through was one of the best ways to find solutions.

Jack resigned with a sigh. “Sure, but I’m not sure where to begin.”

“Well, why don’t you start with what’s wrong.”

Jack made for the decanter on the side table. He lifted a glass, offering a drink to Lewis, who nodded. “Just about everything is wrong,” he said, pouring two drinks.

“There’s a first. Jack Renfro is exaggerating,” Lewis said with a laugh.

The surname didn’t feel like it belonged to him anymore, although it had once been his name too. He’d lived a different life when he was Lewis Renfro. That was before he had become a detective, before he’d wanted to distance himself from his family so he could make his own reputation, not living in his uncle’s and father’s shadows.

Ironically, now he was working for the very man whose coattails he hadn’t wanted to ride.

Jack handed him the whiskey neat, offering him a weak smile with it. “I realize I sound a bit melodramatic. Since I was a child, I’ve had my life planned out. Everything I did had purpose. I’ve never been one to be spontaneous, or do things based on feelings.”

Lewis took a drink. “No, that was Dad.”

Jack agreed with a nod. “Exactly. I was the logical one. The one who planned.”

“And then you met Liesel,” Lewis guessed.

Jack pointed at him with the same hand his glass was holding. “Bingo. And now it’s like I’m on a rollercoaster where I don’t know where I’m going, or when the next dip is going to happen. I didn’t even think about it, I just fell for her. And then she moved into my quarters, and now we’re having a baby… None of that was planned.”

“And it terrifies you because everything that’s ever gone right in your life has always been a part of the master plan,” Lewis stated with confidence.

Jack looked around. “This position. My education. Everything I have has been a result of careful strategizing.” He took a seat, looking down at the oriental rug like it was speaking to him in a foreign language. “Do you know that Liesel doesn’t want to find out the sex of the baby? She doesn’t want to pick names. She doesn’t even want to plan the nursery.”

“That must be giving you hives,” Lewis commented.

“It is.” Jack shook his head. “I’ve already mapped out the best schools for the child, whether it’s a boy or girl. I’ve been reviewing different schedules for caregiving, and reading all the books about sleep training.”

“And meanwhile, Liesel wants to wing it, is that right?”

“She says that parenting is an instinct that we can’t understand before we have a child.” Jack took a sip. “If the child is a boy, I want to name him after Thomas, but Liesel won’t even have the discussion with me. She says it’s impossible to know what a person’s name is before they’re born, before we meet them.”

Hearing his father’s name brought a fondness to Lewis’s chest. “I’ve heard that argument before.”

Jack drained his glass. “I just don’t know what I was thinking. I mean, I apparently wasn’t. I jumped into this relationship with a person who couldn’t be more different from me.”

“And you’re worried that you’ve made a mistake,” Lewis supplied.

Jack nodded, a cold chill in his eyes.

“These are big decisions,” Lewis began. “I won’t diminish that. However, I’m confident that you two can find a compromise. Maybe you can find out the sex, but wait to name the child. And what if you figure out a schedule based on your work schedules, but leave some flexibility in there to shift things when the child is actually here? Take a little bit of her style and mix it with your own.”

Jack seemed to consider this. “Yeah, that might work.”

“I think it will do better than work,” Lewis stated. “I think it will ensure that your family flourishes, because, you know what, Liesel is the yin to your yang. You two are polar opposites, and—if you haven’t figured this out already—she’s Dad.”

“Yeah, I did recognize that, although I maybe didn’t want to admit it. She’s just like him, doesn’t fold her socks or floss every night.”

Lewis laughed. “And you two flourished together. Remember?”

“If it wasn’t for Thomas, I don’t know where’d I be. I would have burned out long ago. He used to order me to sit down and relax.” A sorrow that Lewis hadn’t seen in a long time fell on Jack’s face. “I’m sure you know, I’ve been lost since his death.”

Lewis nodded. “How could you not? Twins are two parts of a whole. And not that he can ever be replaced, but now you have Liesel. She might drive you crazy, but if you figure out how to compromise, she might be the very person who keeps you together.”

Jack smiled. “As usual, you’re right. I think I’m being a bit too rigid.”

“And you know what else?”

Jack’s eyes widened with curiosity.

“I think you’re really good for Liesel. You help bring structure to her chaos. You bring balance to her life, just as she does for you.”

Jack tilted his head, the stress seeming to melt away. “I think that’s what the best partnerships do. It’s one of the reasons I know you and Bailey will inevitably be successful with this mission. You complement each other’s abilities.”

Lewis remained silent, hoping Jack was right. They had to bring the crew back. All of them.

Chapter Thirteen

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Osol System

“Oh, no!” Hatch bellowed, shaking his head at Knox. “Not you too.”

Knox whipped his head around, looking behind him like Hatch could have been talking to someone else. He turned around when he found nothing but mounds of parts at his back.

“What?” He pointed to himself. “Me? What did I do?”

Hatch pointed at Knox’s T-shirt. “You’ve jumped on the Pimping Pip’s Apparel bandwagon.”

Knox looked down at his T-shirt, and a smile surfaced on his face: ‘I can jump off a building in a single bound…once’.

“Oh, well, I thought it was pretty funny,” he explained. “Pip has a good selection.”

Hatch shook his head again. “How that man has enough time to run a T-shirt business with everything else I’ve assigned him beats me.”

“I think it’s because he doesn’t sleep.” Knox went straight to work on the detector that was sitting on the workbench.

He, unlike Pip, needed to sleep, but he’d refused to take a break since they’d started the new project. This mission was personal for all of them, but a bit more so for Knox. Hatch had wanted Knox returned at any price, but once he was, he remembered what he’d forgotten, who he left behind, and it was written in the young apprentice’s eyes every time he worked: heavy bags below and constant blinking, like he was trying to clear his vision. Everyone was working tirelessly on this mission.

It was a first for Hatch that he couldn’t berate others for slacking.

“I don’t know what we’re missing,” Knox said, frustration in his voice as he studied the detector. “I’ve tested this a ton and can’t figure it out.”

Hatch reached over and picked up the device, but kept his eyes on Knox. “You realize that you’re useless to me if you exhaust yourself.”

Knox seemed to think about this for a moment. “I’m fine. Really.”

“You’re not, or you would have clearly seen that the alignment is wrong.” Hatch held up the detector, having spotted the problem from across the lab.

The boy threw his palm to his forehead, frustrated. “I’m sorry. I should have seen—”

“No, there’s no way in your current state you could have,” Hatch explained. “Since everything has set in, you haven’t slept—which is key for cognition, believe it or not.”

When Knox had first been printed, he’d been in high spirits. While they’d worked on the Nomad, he’d been unusually happy. However, as the situation facing them had sunk in, Knox grew restless, worried.

“We’re going to recover every one of the crew,” Hatch said, a rare sensitivity in his voice. “He will be there.”

“But what if Vance lost him with his experimenting?” Knox questioned.

“Your father is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. Vance wouldn’t have experimented with consolidating his mind,” Hatch explained. “He’ll wait until he’s perfected the process before using Cheng.”

Hatch had filled Knox in on what Vance was up to. As soon as he knew the truth, the realization that his father, who had also been aboard Ricky Bobby at the time of the upload, might be lost, he hadn’t been the same.

“But what if we’re too late?” he argued.

Hatch had been wondering the same thing. It was impossible to know if Vance had been successful. Had the databases been moved, or had they been used? Every day that passed made it feel like the rest of the crew was getting pushed farther out on the plank. Had they already been forced to jump into shark-infested waters?

Instead of communicating his own fears, Hatch said, “What Vance is trying to accomplish takes time. He couldn’t have perfected the process yet.”

Knox didn’t look reassured, but he forced a nod. “Yeah, I’m sure you’re right.”

He had already lost his father once, years ago. They’d only been recently reunited. Hatch realized that he’d been selfish to want Knox back, and not think of the pain he’d feel, worrying about who was still missing.

“I’m going to work on the detector, and I want you to go and rest,” Hatch ordered. “Don’t come back to my lab until you’ve slept.”

“Okay,” Knox agreed, reluctantly backing toward the exit.

“See, I knew you had some sensitivity left in you,” Tillous said at Hatch’s back.

He rolled his eyes, summoning the patience to face her.

“You’re supposed to be looking for workarounds to Monstre’s security systems,” he stated.

“I am,” Tillous said. “I just happened to also notice that you’re nice to that boy.”

“He’s been through a lot,” Hatch said.

“Well, if anyone was wondering whether you still have a heart, the answer is yes. It appears that you’re just picky about whom you show your compassion to.”

“Tilly, I—” Hatch sealed his mouth shut suddenly, mortified that he’d called Tillous by the name he’d used for her long ago. “Dr. Tillous,” he corrected, “I have many hearts, but none of that is pertinent to your mission. Have you made progress?”

She stared at him for a long, uncomfortable minute. “You know what I really wanted from you?” she asked, a tenderness rising to the surface.

Hatch sighed. “Do you need materials for your project? You can put in a request.”

Tillous let out a frustrated breath. “No, I mean all those years ago.”

He didn’t like where this was going. At all. He diverted his eyes, wishing he could teleport himself somewhere else.

“I wanted an apology,” Tillous finally said. “You left. Canceled our union. Fled.”

“I took a high-level position for the Federation, protecting our planet and, more importantly, our galaxy.”

“You left,” she repeated. “And you didn’t look back—and, more importantly, you didn’t even apologize.”

“That’s why you’re mad?” Hatch asked, irritation making his voice rise. “You do realize that apologies are just words. Silly words that we subscribe meaning to.”

“I said I’d go with you,” Tillous said, almost in tears. “And you just left.”

Hatch closed his eyes.

He remembered the conversation well. Thought about it in dark moments. Since the moment he’d met Tillous as a young Londil, he’d been looking for a way to escape from her. To end things. It wasn’t because she was awful or unintelligent; quite the opposite. She was someone he could see himself being with for a long time. He could imagine losing himself in their relationship. He almost did. And then the Federation called… the opportunity he’d been looking for finally showed up. He took it and fled, just as she said, never looking back.

Hatch opened his eyes, arranging his face into stone. “I don’t know what to tell you. I had to leave.”

Tillous’ eyes swelled with tears.

Hatch couldn’t stand this. He looked anywhere but at her.

“I don’t understand,” she pleaded. “We were good. Happy. And—” She looked up, catching something over his shoulder.

Hatch turned to find Lewis entering his lab. He had never been so happy to see the detective. “There you are, Lewis! I have something to show you.”

Tillous muffled a cry as she scampered out of the lab, veering around Lewis as she left.

Lewis looked uncomfortable as he watched her leave. He stiffly walked over to Hatch. “Jack said that you were working on something.”

Hatch couldn’t help himself; his eyes locked on Tillous’ back. He shook off his overwhelming frustration and regret, and focused on Lewis. The detective gave him a curious expression that seemed to look straight through him.

“Don’t ask,” Hatch grumbled.

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Lewis retorted. “I’ve had my fill of relationship stuff for the moment.”

“Dr. Tillous and I don’t have a relationship,” Hatch stated.

Lewis nodded. “But you used to.”

“Keep your observations to yourself, detective.” He held up the detector. “I might be close to finding Vance and Monstre Corp’s headquarters.”

“What’s that?” Lewis asked.

“It’s a device that should be able to locate the energy that the etheric diamond puts out—and something that size will give off a sizable amount of energy,” Hatch explained. “Furthermore, I’m certain it’s the only one in the Precious galaxy, so we won’t be led off course.”

“Wow, Gringotts should have hired you to find the diamond originally,” Lewis said, impressed. “You would have found it faster and saved me a lot of trouble.”

“Yes, I’m aware that you’re a wanted fugitive.”

“How long have you known?” he asked.

“Since the beginning,” Hatch admitted.

“Figures. I’m not sure who I thought I was fooling, keeping it a secret.” Lewis’s gaze dropped to the detector. It worked similarly to the equipment they’d used to track the monster originally, it just was looking for something different now. “When do you think it will be ready to go?” Lewis asked.

Hatch shrugged. “Maybe in an hour or a few days. I’m still testing.”

Lewis rubbed his hands together. “Good. We’ll be ready. This is what we need after losing the databases. We have to get to Monstre Corp before it’s too late.”

Hatch nodded, thinking of Cheng. Thinking of the crew. Time was more of a factor than ever.

He responded to Lewis with a look of determination. “I’ll get it working as fast as I can.”

Chapter Fourteen

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Osol System

Liesel had come through with a store of Bio Plus, and right in time. Bailey was aware that printing bodies for those in the databases was time sensitive. No one knew how long the consciousnesses could survive intact after being transferred. She’d sensed Pip’s tension when she asked him about it; apparently, besides Hatch’s apprentice, there happened to be other crew members in this small section of the database.

Bailey, unable to take Jack’s orders and rest, had volunteered to help Pip with the printing.

“How is she doing?” Pip asked Bailey when she reentered the lab, having walked the newest printed person to their personal quarters.

“Disoriented,” Bailey answered. “But she’s hopeful, and I think that’s a good sign.”

Pip nodded. “She’ll feel better soon. Very soon.”

Today he was dressed a little more conservatively compared to the leather chaps he’d sported over jeans the day before. He wore a pair of scrub pants and a T-shirt that read, ‘Always give 100%. Unless you’re donating blood’.

“Are you ready to do this?” he asked.

Bailey picked up the file for the next subject and flipped through it. “So you say this guy is key to our mission?”

“I think he is,” Pip answered.

“How so?” she inquired. His file wasn’t large… apparently, most of his work had been classified and undocumented, even while in Ghost Squadron.

Pip checked the settings on the GAD-C. “I think he can finally stop the monster. Hatch was able to subdue it with a virus, but that’s really not his specialty. There’s got to be another option that stops the upload process.”

“Shouldn’t we be looking for an option that takes the monster out completely, rather than just renders it useless?”

Pip looked up from his work, a thoughtful expression on his face. “I realize that it seems logical to simply kill our enemies so we never have to fear them. However, there are two important factors here. The first is that I don’t believe the monster is our enemy. Dejoure has demonstrated that recently. It’s a soldier working for Vance.”

“Unfortunately, I’ve had to take out many who worked for the bad guy,” Bailey explained.

“True,” Pip agreed. “However, the second thing is that we don’t completely understand the monster. I’m not sure that I’d feel right about destroying something that is such an enigma. I think the better option is to prevent it from uploading anyone else. Then we can decide the next step.”

“I like your careful consideration approach,” Bailey said. “It’s not as radical an idea as I would have thought, coming from you.”

He smiled. “Yes, I realize that my conservative style isn’t what most would expect.”

“You’re an enigma too,” Bailey stated.

Pip pointed to the barrier wall. “Get in your place, goggles down. And no peeking before I tell you.”

She nodded, following orders. “Right. No looking at naked men while on duty.”

“But what you do on your own time is fine by me,” he told her, winking.

Bailey slid behind the wall, waiting for the loud hum of the GAD-C. Even with the protective goggles on, the brightness of the machine still made her squint. The printing didn’t take long, but transferring the consciousness was apparently a delicate process that couldn’t be rushed.

She tapped her foot, shifting her weight back and forth, waiting for the GAD-C to quiet down. Several minutes stretched on, in which she grew more restless. With nothing to do, she dropped down for a few pushups. Since the upgrade, she’d had more energy than she knew what to do with. Most nights, she found herself staring up at the ceiling, unable to sleep. That’s when she’d come to Hatch’s lab and found Pip volunteering to be his assistant, since he didn’t sleep either.

On her thirty-seventh pushup, the GAD-C’s loud drumming sound subsided.

“Welcome back!” Pip boomed.

“Where am I?” a male voice asked.

“Hatch’s lab, of course.”

“Right, and who are you?”

“I’m your favorite AI,” Pip said.

“I can hear you,” Ricky Bobby said overhead.

“Pip?” the guy asked. “Is that you?”

“Oh yeah,” Pip answered. “I’m cute, aren’t I?”

Bailey, guessing that is was safe to come out, trotted around the wall. Wrapping a white robe around his body was a young guy with blond hair. He squinted at her when she approached.

“This is Lieutenant Bailey Tennant,” Pip said, presenting her.

The guy leaned forward, blinking at her and Pip. His hands felt his face, turning his head to the side, confused. “Wait, I don’t need my glasses to see. I don’t understand.”

Pip smiled. “You’re as good as new, so no, for the moment, you won’t need glasses. You will continue to age and deterioration will happen.”

“I have so many questions.”

Pip nodded. “I’m sure you do.” He turned to Bailey. “This is Chester Wilkerson, supreme hacker. The master of the dark web and, most importantly, the one who will help us subdue the monster.”

Chester stared around the lab, but he didn’t appear to be looking at the space. “I had the strangest experience. I was alone. It was like a dream.”

Pip gave Bailey a knowing expression. “They always say the same thing, don’t they?”

She nodded, extending a hand to Chester. “Hi. It’s nice to meet you.”

He didn’t seem to hear her, instead he blinked down at the floor.

“Bailey is one of the people responsible for rescuing you and Marilla from the database where you were trapped,” Pip explained.

Chester looked up suddenly. “Did you say ‘Marilla’? Is she here?”

Pip’s face lit up with a smile. “Yes. She’s in her room—”

Before the AI could finish his sentence, Chester hurried for the exit, his white robe billowing behind him.

Pip shot Bailey a sneaky look. “They’re adorbs.”

“Who’s next on the list to print?” she asked.

Pip’s eyes glassed over as he retreated into his systems to check. He returned a few seconds later. “No one else from Ghost Squadron.”

“That’s too bad,” Bailey admitted. “It’ll be nice to have new people on the ship.”

“Old people,” Pip corrected. “Chester and Marilla were some of the first members that the captain and commander recruited.”

“Yes, sorry,” Bailey said. “I forget. It’s sort of a strange situation. I only know this ship the way it’s been the last few weeks: deserted.”

Pip’s light smile seemed to say that he understood. He pointed to the GAD-C. “Would you like to help me prep the machine for the next printing, assistant? Chester is going to need some time to reorient himself before we can put him to work.”

Bailey nodded. “You got it, boss.”

Chapter Fifteen

Intelligence Center, Ricky Bobby, Osol System

“How have you not heard of Chester Wilkerson?” Lewis asked Bailey as they strode through the empty corridors.

She shrugged. “How have you?”

“He’s considered one of the best hackers in the Federation. He’s highly sought after and stealthy as hell, nearly untraceable.”

“None of that was in his file,” Bailey pointed out.

“Hence ‘stealthy’ and ‘untraceable’.”

She laughed. “For a guy who worked outside of the Federation so much, you know a lot about Chester.”

“It’s my business to know things.”

“I thought it was a detective’s mission to figure things out.”

“Did you and Pip finish printing everyone from the database?” Lewis asked, changing the subject.

She nodded. “Yes, and they are all being sent back to their homes. What a strange tale they have. Many are returning to families who don’t know what happened to them.”

“They probably assumed they died,” Lewis said.

“And then to find out that they are back and brand new,” Bailey said with awe. “It’s sort of chilling.”

Lewis agreed, but didn’t say anything as they rounded into the hacker’s office. He remembered finding it when he and Bailey were new to the ship. It had been strange to study the different work areas, but it had been an effort to understand how the people who had occupied them operated. He’d tried to piece together the crew by studying their spaces.

Seeing Chester swivel around in his seat now sort of felt like Lewis was watching a ghost come to life. The hacker halted when he caught sight of the detective and the lieutenant. His light-colored hair was spiked up, and he was already wearing Pimping Pip’s apparel. Lewis laughed after reading the T-shirt: ‘I before E, except after C…that’s weird’.

“Well, howdy,” Chester said cheerfully, standing and extending a hand to them. “I do believe I owe you both a thank you.”

Lewis shook the guy’s hand. “Our pleasure. I’m Detective Lewis Harlowe. It’s nice to meet you.”

Bailey, who had already met the hacker, pointed to Chester’s workstation. “Lewis stole some crackers that were on your desk, just so you know.”

Lewis gave her a look of annoyance. “Wow, really?”

Chester laughed. “Not a problem. Glad someone got to enjoy them.”

“So did Pip explain what we need from you?” Lewis asked.

Chester nodded, taking a seat again. “Hack into a biosynthetic organism.” He held up a finger. “Not just any organism, but the one who uploaded everyone on this ship. That’s a hell of a motivator.”

“Do you think it’s possible?” Bailey asked.

Chester’s blue eyes sparkled as he thought for a moment. “It’s possible, but it’s going to be one of the hardest hacks I’ve done.”

“Why is that?” Lewis inquired.

“I read Hatch’s notes on how the monster interacted with the virus he uploaded to trap it in the ship originally,” Chester began. “It appears that it was able to fight the attack, building up an immunity to the virus over time. Toward the end, according to the report, the monster had nearly beaten it.”

“That’s bizarre and makes the monster even more perplexing,” Lewis said.

“Yeah, it must have a unique antibody system,” Chester explained with enthusiasm. “To hack into the monster and sever its ability to upload is going to be a challenge; I need to figure out its programming.”

“Is there something we can do to help?” Bailey asked.

Chester combed his long fingers over his chin, thinking. “Possibly. I need to better understand how the monster works… it’s made of a substance called D-factor?”

“Yes, and it’s lethal to our cloaks and shields,” Bailey explained.

“And usually the engines,” Ricky Bobby added.

Chester nodded. “That’s good to know. Understanding its programing would be key, but I’m not sure how I can do that without studying the monster itself.”

“Which we wouldn’t advise unless you’re DJ,” Lewis said.

Chester looked up. “DJ? Who is that?”

“Oh, she’s the ship’s chef—a ten-year-old with psychic gifts. She’s sort of our charge,” Lewis said.

“Not ‘sort of’,” Bailey said with a sigh.

“Sorry,” Lewis apologized. “We’ve only recently taken formal responsibility for the child.”

“And she is the only one who has confronted the monster and survived,” Bailey stated. “She’s an empath and was able to establish a connection with it.”

Chester’s eyes widened. “Really? That could be what I need. Would it be possible to talk to DJ?”

“She understands the monster’s emotions, not its programming,” Lewis countered.

Chester teetered his head back and forth. “When we’re talking about a being of this sort, it’s kind of semantics. We are all programmed, and do you know what the basis of that neural networking is?”

“I’m going to guess emotions,” Bailey answered.

“That’s right,” Chester said. “It’s not a lot to go off of, but if I can piece together different parts of the monster, I might be able to find a solution to our problem. Currently, I don’t have enough information.”

Bailey looked at Lewis, a question in her eyes. “I’m fine with him talking to DJ.”

He agreed, consenting with a nod of his head.

“That’s fascinating,” a woman’s voice said at their back.

Lewis turned, picking up on the familiar sound of Vitos’s buzzing wings. A moment later, he entered behind a young woman with dark brown hair.

“We actually aren’t from Tueti originally,” Vitos explained. “Our home planet was destroyed over a century ago, so our ancestors relocated.”

“Which is why Tueti is mostly covered in land with some water sources, instead of the other way around,” the woman said, awe written on her face.

“Yes, our home planet apparently was sixty percent water before it was destroyed,” Vitos said.

“Mar, my love,” Chester said, holding his hand out in Lewis’s direction. “Have you met Detective Harlowe?”

Marilla looked at the three—she had not seen them until that moment, as she was too engrossed in her conversation with Vitos. “Oh, sorry. And no. Nice to meet you.” She pushed a piece of hair behind her ear and smiled.

“Mar is an archeologist and anthropologist, as well and has many other talents,” Chester said proudly.

“I’ve been talking to Vitos about the Tuetians,” Marilla told them. “I haven’t had the opportunity to study this species, and they’re quite fascinating.”

“Vitos, I didn’t realize that Tueti wasn’t your original home,” Lewis said.

He nodded. “It’s true. We colonized the planet once it was deemed as being the best fit in the system for us.”

Lewis thought about this for a moment. “Wow, it continues to amaze me how different species adapt to survive.”

“Like the monster!” Chester exclaimed, spinning around and typing furiously. “It’s adapting to survive.”

“Do you think you’re on to something?” Bailey asked.

“Maybe…yes…we’ll have to see,” the hacker said, deep in concentration. “But thank you all for the unintended inspiration. It might have triggered an idea.”

Chapter Sixteen

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Osol System

“Waiting around is starting to get to you,” Jack observed, watching Lewis fidgeting on the other side of the desk.

He stopped his leg from bouncing and put down the file he’d been reviewing. “It’s not easy to read reports and not be out there doing something.”

Jack slapped down a stack of papers and sighed. “Welcome to my world. Strategizing is more about sitting still and analyzing than doing.”

“But without people like you, this would be a very different place.”

Jack smiled. “Apparently, Bailey is driving Pip crazy, following him around and asking what else she can do to help. I’d intervene, but he sort of deserves it.”

Lewis pushed up from his chair and began pacing, needing to expend his nervous energy. “Hatch is working on the detector. Chester is studying the monster to find a way to hack it. Meanwhile, the rest of us are just waiting around. There’s got to be something we can do besides train, spar and exercise. Some place we can investigate.”

“I already had the other database location checked by Ricky Bobby,” Jack explained. “Vance moved that one too, as you expected.” He sighed, his eyes on his desk. “And I can’t send you away, in case a lead comes through.”

“I get it,” Lewis acquiesced. “I just need something to do.”

“I have a call from Dave Pruitt from Precious Galaxy Coffee,” Ricky Bobby suddenly rang out overhead.

Jack spun around to face the screen that hung behind his desk. “Put him through.”

A moment later, the round face of the CEO of PGC materialized on the screen. He was wearing his cowboy hat and a Cavender tie around his neck. He looked the same as when Lewis had met him, except his smile was replaced by acute worry.

“Jack. Lewis,” Dave said, acknowledging them both with a quick nod. “I apologize for calling on you again. PGC is under attack.”

“What?” Jack asked. “By Monstre Corp ships?”

Dave nodded. “I thought we could handle it, that we could defend ourselves, but I was wrong. They stormed the headquarters, not even giving us a chance, and fired on my people. I’ve been forced to retreat but it won’t last long.” He looked up like he’d heard a sudden noise. “I’m not sure what they want, but their forces will overrun us soon. My employees…I worry for them. They aren’t equipped to fight.”

Jack was already nodding his head before Dave was done speaking. “Fighting is what we do best. I’ll send in reinforcements right away.”

“Thank you,” Dave said, relief in his eyes. The monitor went blank again.

Jack turned around to face Lewis. “Well, you were looking for something to do.”

Lewis nodded. “I was and now I think I know exactly who is behind this.”

Chapter Seventeen

Precious Galaxy Coffee Headquarters, Near Planet Tarana, Hapeti System

Bailey looked over at Lewis every few seconds. His jaw was clenched, and his eyes honed on the headquarters ahead. Fires burned bright along the expansive Precious Galaxy Coffee headquarters.

“We don’t know that it’s her,” Bailey said in a hush so that Vitos and Pip couldn’t hear her in the back—well, probably just Vitos. There was no keeping secrets from Pip.

Lewis flashed her a heated glare. “Of course we do. She’d want to ruin Dave for backing out of the merger.”

This battle was personal for Lewis, which was going to be risky. Emotions made people irrational. Less strategic. Bailey worried that he’d act without thinking, as intent as he was on punishing Melanie.

Bailey cared more about clearing Lewis’s name than him getting vengeance, but she knew that he needed closure. He’d never truly rest while Melanie was free.

An explosion rocked the western side of the headquarters, where most of the docking stations were located.

Bailey spun around in her seat, looking back at Vitos. “Where is the next best place to dock? Hopefully something a bit off the radar. We don’t know how widespread the invasion is.”

Another explosion rocked the headquarters, again where the docking area was.

“They’re probably trying to prevent anyone from coming in to rescue people,” Vitos said, an unmistakable sadness in his tone.

“Is that where the fleet ships are located?” Lewis asked.

“Yes. It’s also where the suppliers dock,” Vitos answered. He pointed above the headquarters, where a spire rose taller than the rest. It had a gold orb on the top and a dull steel base, like a magic wand. “That is Dave’s personal quarters, and there’s a private docking station there.”

“Can we get access, or will it be locked down?” Bailey asked.

“I have communicated with Dave, and he said Phillip will grant us access,” Pip said.

He had established a comm link with the CEO so the team could stay up-to-date on what was happening inside the headquarters. Apparently, twenty to thirty armed soldiers had taken the entire building by surprise. PGC wasn’t a place that was equipped for violence.

Bailey flew the cloaked Q-ship up to the spire, her eyes scanning for the docking area.

“It’s camouflaged for secrecy,” Pip supplied, seemingly understanding she was lost. “At the base of the sphere, you’ll see a reflective section.”

Bailey guided the Q-ship around the cylinder, studying it. The brushed steel didn’t reflect any light. They’d made a complete loop and she had started to rethink the whole thing. Maybe the secret docking station is located in a different spire.

“It’s there!” Lewis pointed up at the area where the seam of the massive gold orb met the shaft.

If Bailey hadn’t been looking for something, she would have ignored the small light that was glowing much like a reflection off the metal. As she lifted the ship to where the light was, she saw that the beam was the size of a pinhole.

“Okay, now what?” she asked. She didn’t see a seam or anything indicating that the opening of a secret door would allow the ship into the docking area.

“Phillip is ready for us,” Pip said. “Fly straight forward.”

“Into this giant, metal shaft?” Bailey asked in disbelief.

“Yep!” he answered.

“Are you crazy? We’ll take it out, and our ship too,” Bailey argued.

Pip shook his head. “The solid appearance of the shaft is an illusion. It’s actually an open docking area, but we can’t see it. Phillip says to fly straight through, underneath the light, and we’ll be fine.”

Bailey shot Lewis a tentative look. He nodded in encouragement.

“Okay, let’s hope the AI hasn’t been compromised and is now trying to kill us.” Bailey inched the ship forward, holding her breath when the bow of the ship was about to hit the metal.

It disappeared through the large cylinder, which was easily five times as wide as the Q-ship. Bailey couldn’t see the bow of the ship anymore, as inch by inch, more of it was getting swallowed.

“Far out,” Pip said, a laugh in his voice.

Bailey shook her head. “If only Dave spent his money on guns rather than cool technology.”

“Speaking of guns,” Lewis began. “We are seriously outnumbered.”

“When has that ever mattered?” Bailey threw her thumb back in Pip’s direction. “He counts for like ten people, so I say we’re fine.”

The look on Lewis’s face spoke of his skepticism. They didn’t know what they were facing, and spread out in the headquarters, it made for too many variables.

The Q-ship passed farther into the docking area, illuminating several smaller ships. Bailey steered them to a connector, smoothly anchoring the ship.

“Besides, Harlowe, we have shiny new Hatch weapons,” she said, patting the giant gun the mechanic had surprised her with. The others also had new guns, with various advantages.

“Okay, let’s just stick together,” Lewis said, letting out a long breath.

“Actually, I was thinking that since the warfare seems so widespread…” Bailey trailed off as soon as Lewis flashed her an angry glare. “Hey, I’m only trying to be efficient,” she replied defensively.

“Phillip is waiting for us,” Pip informed them. “He says he has a report.”

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

The connector emptied into a small area featuring one elevator. The floors were red marble, and the walls and elevator gold. It looked like one of the most beautiful hotel lobbies Lewis had ever been in, with its intricate crown molding… although he realized this wasn’t a hotel.

Phillip materialized in front of the elevator. Like last time, he was wearing a butler’s suit with white gloves and a bow tie, his hair parted on the side and slicked back.

“Phillip, what’s going on?” Bailey asked.

The hologram’s eyes fell on the large gun in her hands, and he smiled. “I’m glad you brought reinforcements, we’re going to need them.”

“Where’s the main fight?” Lewis asked.

“In the docking areas and the warehouse,” Phillip explained. “I’ve tried to keep the attackers at bay by shutting down different sections, but I haven’t been entirely successful. They were able to blow up the doors to the elevators and infiltrate a few levels.” The corners of Phillip’s mouth sunk low. “They have taken an entire floor of employees hostage.”

“What do they want?” Bailey asked. “If they’re trying to destroy the headquarters, why take hostages?”

Phillip blanched at the questions. “They want the corporation, of course. Dave is locked up here and can’t make a decision.” Phillip pointed up to where the large, gold orb sat above them. “He won’t allow any more of his employees to die. If you can’t contain the situation, he’s ready to sign over PGC.”

“But someone can’t take the company by force,” Bailey complained. “That’s ridiculous.”

“She nearly has,” Phillip said. “Our fleet has been disabled. The only combat personnel we employed were the first ones taken out. There are only civilians left, and Dave isn’t willing to sacrifice them for the company.”

“But don’t you see that she’s going to kill everyone, even if she gets her way?” Lewis’s face burned hot. The radical tactic reeked of Melanie. She didn’t care who got hurt on her way up the ladder; she’d kill the innocent if that got her what she wanted.

“She needs our employees to run the organization,” Phillip reasoned. “Dave believes that, if he makes a deal with her, she’ll release them.”

“First, we need to try to end things,” Bailey stated. “Give us a chance to overpower them.”

“I can only give you seven and a half minutes,” Phillip stated. “I’m sorry, but there are immediate threats. Dave has little time to make a decision.”

Bailey tapped the button for the elevator and gave Lewis a stern expression. “We split up. That’s the only way.”

Chapter Eighteen

Precious Galaxy Coffee Headquarters, Near Planet Tarana, Hapeti System

The employees were being held on the third level. According to Phillip, they were heavily guarded. Getting to that level was going to be tricky.

Most of the attacks were still going strong in the warehouse, where the enemy was trying to create a stronghold. It would only be a matter of time until their efforts progressed and Dave was unsafe, as well as the employees hiding on the upper levels at his orders.

When Phillip informed them on the elevator ride that the person giving the orders was also in the warehouse, Lewis clicked the button for that level. Bailey flashed Pip a pointed look.

“I’m going with you,” the AI said, and quickly added, “That’s where the strongest forces are, which is where I need to be.”

“I guess that means we have to save the innocent,” Bailey said to Vitos.

He chirped his consent.

“This elevator entrance is camouflaged, just like the docking entrance,” Phillip explained. “You should be clear to exit on the third level, but you’ll meet enemy forces shortly after. They have most of the third floor locked down, and have been ordered to shoot the innocent if there are any interventions.”

Lewis deserved this go at Melanie, but suddenly, Bailey longed for a chance to punch that woman in the face. Treating innocent people like pawns was a tactic only cowards used.

The elevator slowed at the third floor. There were two more stories above, but they would soon be locked down by the enemy forces, if Bailey and Vitos weren’t quick.

Bailey turned, looking back at Lewis in the elevator. She waved using her big gun. “Lewis, keep your head on. Remember that you’re smarter than she is. Don’t fall for her manipulation.”

He pressed his lips together and nodded. “Don’t die, Bailey.”

“Same to you,” she said as the elevator doors began to close.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

“This elevator will come to rest on the first level,” Phillip stated.

“That’s where we need to be,” Lewis said.

Phillip held up a white gloved finger. “However, this elevator is on the opposite side of the headquarters, in the western wing, which is off limits to everyone but Dave, myself, and the robots.”

“We’re going to the roasting room?” Lewis asked, shocked.

Phillip nodded solemnly. “I’m afraid there’s no way to avoid it. This is Dave’s personal elevator. Only he ever uses it, except in this instance.”

“Is it safe?” Lewis asked. “I thought that the beans were roasted over lava by robots because of the danger involved.”

“Yes, and also to protect the formula,” Phillip explained. “But, Dave did walk through the roasting room on the way to work. It was invariably one of the many reasons for his success.”

“Okay, so we need to make it across the roasting room, past the sorting area, and to where the fight is still being waged,” Pip stated.

“Yes. I’ve granted you access to the building schematics, but you’ll still have to rely on me for surveillance,” Phillip stated, looking Pip over.

“That’s fine,” the AI answered.

Phillip’s eyes ran over Pip’s arms several times. “So you’re real, are you?”

Pip lifted his arm and flexed. “Indeed I am. But you’re a cool hologram with a bit more flexibility than me.”

“Yes, but you can really feel things, do things,” Phillip said, a sadness in his eyes.

“The grass is always greener,” Pip said thoughtfully.

The elevator slowed, and the blast of heat that hit Lewis made him suddenly feel parched. He pulled his gun from the holster, ready for a fight.

“No one is in the roasting room,” Phillip informed them. “That’s always been where our security is tightest.”

“To keep the secret formula safe,” Lewis guessed.

“Yes. So you’re safe here until you pass through the next door.”

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

“We’ve made it this far, but now we need a way to keep the employees safe while we take out their captors,” Bailey said.

“It sounds like what we need is a diversion,” Vitos buzzed.

Like most of PGC headquarters, the third level was open, with high ceilings. Bailey looked up at the high ceiling now. She could hear shouting in the distance, but two sets of walls separated her and Vitos from the hostages and their captors. However, up high, the ceiling was open, with a breezeway running between the different rooms.

Desks and large, fluffy couches were arranged sporadically throughout the space. The corporate office resembled more of a home.

Before Bailey could say anything, Vitos flew up to the rafters that ran at least thirty-feet above them. When she was about to protest, he held his hand to his mouth, silencing her. He pointed to her big gun and then ahead.

Okay, so he’s the distraction, and I’m the big gun. They’d both have to be quick enough that no one got killed.

Including them.

Chapter Nineteen

Precious Galaxy Coffee Headquarters, Near Planet Tarana, Hapeti System

Lewis didn’t know how, but he was simultaneously hot and cold when he entered the roasting room. The heat made him sweat under the collar as soon as he stepped onto the catwalk. However, a draft of icy wind passed over the backs of his hands, making him shiver from the cold sweat.

The smell of berries was incredibly strong, which further perplexed him. He wasn’t sure at first what he was seeing. Although time was crucial, he still paused, trying to understand the scene before him.

Below, in the roasting room, coffee beans passed on a conveyor belt through an opening in the wall. The machine sent them up over a grate that passed over huge vats of glowing orange, bubbling lava. Robots supervised the process, directing the beans to go back over the lava for additional roasting, or move on down the grate. After being roasted, the beans passed giant blocks of blue ice. Every few seconds, a robot would shoot a blast of air over the ice, cooling the beans.

From there, the beans were directed to a chute that dropped down into the packing facility in the basement, where they would be prepared for distribution.

The room was a cacophony of creaks and shushing sounds as the robots worked like elves in Santa’s workshop.

Lewis walked through the room mesmerized, taking in the various stations, a thought unwinding in his mind.

“Phillip, can these robots be reprogrammed easily?”

Beside him, Pip flashed him a curious look. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“If it has to do with winning, then yes,” the detective replied.

Phillip materialized in front of them. “Yes, I control all of the robots.”

“I know this involves the secret formula, but what is the ice all about?” Lewis asked.

“It comes from the glaciers on one of the many moons that orbit Tarana,” Phillip explained. “It’s unlike any other—if you were to taste it, you’d think you were eating a berry slushy.”

“And therein lies the secret,” Lewis said victoriously. “Don’t worry, this is safe with me.”

“How does it stay frozen in here?” Pip asked.

Phillip smiled. “The ice has a special chemical property that keeps it solid no matter what. It’s more of a living creature than an element, and it’s actually very rare, but we have exclusive access to the moon where it’s found.”

“And the lava?” Lewis asked, formulating a plan.

“It is readily produced on this moon,” Phillip answered.

Lewis nodded. “Okay, I have an idea, but it’s going to require you reprogramming one of the robots.”

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

Each time Vitos’s wings effortlessly took him up into the air, his heart lightened. How many Tuetians took flying for granted? Not him. Soaring high above Bailey was a true gift. Unlike before, there wasn’t a moment when his wings missed a beat or knocked into each other, sending him crashing to the floor.

Vitos landed gracefully on a beam, balancing easily up high as his wings fluttered. He let out a breath and looked down at Bailey on the ground, hiding behind a wall. She nodded to him. Without saying a word, they’d communicated a whole host of information.

Vitos faced forward. Hunched on the ground were roughly twenty employees, their heads down, and tense, whispered words transpiring between them. They were crammed up against a tall bank of windows that looked out on the strange landscape of the moon. Three guards on the other side of the room marched by the crowd, keeping them at bay. The employees didn’t look remotely like they’d challenge the guards. Most had their shoulders slumped and eyes closed, like trying to find a happy place.

“How much longer?” one of the guards dressed in white asked, yelling through the archway that led to another set of loft-like offices.

“I’m waiting to hear from the boss,” someone answered.

The guy sighed, looking bored as his eyes returned to the crowd.

From up high, Vitos could see an identical situation in the next set of rooms. The enemy had this floor locked down, but they were looking for ways to access the next two floors, where the rest of the company’s employees were housed. It was good that Phillip controlled the security of PGC, but how long would that last?

Vitos had never considered himself brave. He’d run away from more fights than anyone he’d ever known. And when faced with the hard option or the easy one, he always took the latter, choosing to hide away his creative impulses rather than be himself. However, looking down at the overly confident guards who were holding innocent people against their will, he was filled with a pride he’d never experienced. He suddenly felt strong. Invincible. Destined to be a hero.

The Monstre Corp forces had promised to kill the innocent if Dave attempted to thwart their efforts. However, they couldn’t do anything about someone who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Vitos stepped out, hovering in midair, and progressed forward, like a bird that was unaware of a plague taking over the ground below it.

“Hey! What’s that?” one of the guards yelled.

It was time to do something that Vitos had dreamed about doing on a stage: act. He held up his hands as his mouth popped open with surprise. “Ack! What’s going on?”

The three guards held up their guns, thankfully hesitating. “I thought we contained all of the flying things on the lower levels,” one in the middle said.

“Me too.”

“Get down here, or we’ll be forced to shoot.”

“Oh, sorry…I’ve been taking a nap in the rafters,” Vitos said, grateful that he’d thought to turn his holster around so they couldn’t see his gun.

“Now!” one of the guards yelled.

“What’s going on?” someone yelled from the adjacent room.

“Nothing, we’ve got it handled,” a guard called back. He refocused his attention on Vitos. “Come here. We have a place for your kind.”

My kind, Vitos thought. Oh yeah, I’ll come down there all right.

He flew lower and, when he caught a sliver of Bailey hiding around the corner, paused.

The guards tensed, holding their weapons straight at Vitos. Two were still aiming at the crowd.

That won’t do.

“I’m not sure I should come down there,” Vitos said.

The other two guards jerked their weapons into the air, joining their fellows in aiming at him.

Perfect, he thought, his hand twitching by his side.

“Shoot him,” the first guard said.

Vitos darted upward, flying fast as they unleashed a hail of bullets on him. All the bullets flew safely below his feet.

He pulled out his gun as Bailey slipped around the corner, firing her giant gun. The blast was like a shockwave, knocking two of the closest guards back and sending them into the other three. The angle of the planned attack was perfect, and the mound of guards careened into the wall.

Three of the men immediately pushed themselves up, trying to get untangled from the other two, who were unconscious.

Vitos shot twice, taking down two of the enemies before they could get their guns up.

The employees remained quiet, pushing back farther into the wall.

Bailey ran forward, knocking the butt of her gun into a guard struggling to get up. He slumped immediately.

“What’s going on over there?” someone called again from the other room.

“Nothing,” Bailey answered, her voice deep, impersonating one of the guards they’d knocked out.

She waved Vitos forward to the next room, urgency in her eyes. He knew why. Her charade wasn’t going to fool anyone for long. She didn’t at all sound like a man.

Bailey directed the frightened employees to the route she and Vitos had come in through, encouraging them to remain quiet. Once they were out of that room, Phillip could help them get to the safety of the upper floors.

Vitos looked down on the other room, similar to the last, and took another breath.

Same act, different audience. Hopefully it will go as smoothly.

Chapter Twenty

Precious Galaxy Coffee Headquarters, Near Planet Tarana, Hapeti System

Lewis knew that the action couldn’t be delayed any longer. He pulled his weapon from his holster. He’d never felt entirely confident shooting a gun until working with Bailey. He may not have her accuracy, but he was self-assured and that was the key in battle.

He shouldn’t have been surprised when Pip slid around him as they approached the door to the sorting room, taking the lead.

The AI yanked open the door, barreling through like a steamroller. Two guards were patrolling the catwalk, and their heads jerked up at the sight of Pip. Lewis ducked as the guards fired on them, shooting straight at the AI. However, Pip continued forward, catching the bullets in the chest.

Perplexed, the guards exchanged looks before continuing to fire. They backed up as Pip neared, the rounds bouncing off him. He reached out, grabbed the gun of the closest guard, yanked it out of his hands, and smacked it against the side of his head, sending him over the edge of the catwalk to the ground, where he landed neatly on the conveyor belt. Unconscious, the guard traveled down the far end of the belt, heading for the roasting room.

The remaining guard backed up, cowardly fumbling for the door to the other room, as he was now out of bullets.

Pip clicked his tongue three times and shook his head. “I can’t have you going through there and spoiling the surprise. We’re the fun you all ordered. You did order fun, right?”

The guy’s face drained of color, and he trembled. He launched himself over the side of the catwalk, landing in the sorting area. The robots responsible for sorting picked at the guard, making him scream from the torture.

Pip turned to Lewis, a calm expression on his face. “Well, are you coming?”

The detective strode forward. “I’m not sure if I’m needed at this point. Let me at least get a shot or two off before you take out the rest of them.”

“Oh, you have your job and you know it,” Pip said with a wink.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

The next room wasn’t as easy as the first. Vitos was able to divert the guards from firing on the crowd by being a buzzing, moving target.

He zipped around, shooting and darting away from bullets as Bailey took out the enemies on the ground below him.

Bailey’s big gun made it a cinch at first, taking out two to three enemies at once. However, the noise the blast made attracted more attention from the adjacent room.

Three guards rushed in. Bailey fired the giant gun, but nothing happened—it had overheated and needed time to cool down. She looked ready to drop her big gun and grab her holstered weapon.

Vitos yelled from the air. “Hey, dummies! Up here!” He shot at them, grazing one on the shoulder and shooting one in the foot.

Bailey butted her big gun into a guard that was rushing at her like he was a battering ram. She shoved him into the guard behind him, pinning them both to the wall. Another attacker grabbed Bailey around the neck, as the ones she had pinned struggled to reach for her. She brought the big gun around, knocking the guard off her. The ones she’d released jumped on her. She pivoted on her back foot and brought the other up into the air, across the first guard, kicking him into the second.

“Go! Go! Go!” Vitos encouraged the crowd of employees under him, ushering them through the archway, the way they’d come. Most had to duck to avoid getting involved in the fistfight.

Bailey was holding off the guards, distracting them enough that they didn’t give the employees shuffling by much notice.

Three of the guards had her cornered. She spun around, wiping a bit of blood from her mouth. Her big gun lay in the corner, too overheated to be of use. She whipped out her pistol in a blur, but one of the hoodlums kicked it out of her hand. Bailey dove at him with vengeance.

Vitos couldn’t figure out where to fire without putting Bailey in danger. He nervously watched from the air, feeling helpless. He was considering coming down, when a new gunman entered, crouched down, and shot in his direction. Vitos swerved to the right, feeling the rush of the bullet by his head.

He fired on the uniformed guard, who now smoothly ducked back behind the archway where he’d come from.

Vitos needed to get to the powerpack. He zipped back and forth, trying to remain a moving target, while his eyes alternated between making sure he was reloading his weapon correctly, and looking for the shooter. When the enemy slipped around the wall again, Vitos was just pulling his gun back up. He hovered in the air, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The shots connected with his target, just as the enemy’s fire ripped through his wing, shattering it and bringing him to the ground hard.

“Vitos!” Bailey yelled.

She shoved one of the men back from her, throwing a roundhouse kick across his face. She spun, sending her fist into the only remaining man’s face. He toppled over the bodies of the others.

Bailey ran over, her face stricken with worry. “Are you okay?” she asked Vitos, looking over his shoulder at his wing.

Vitos did the same and was regretted it immediately.

His right wing was gone. The pain set in, a howling force that burned him from the inside out. Vitos couldn’t tell if it was from the physical pain of losing the wing or the emotional trauma of knowing he’d never fly again when he’d only just begun.

Chapter Twenty-One

Precious Galaxy Coffee Headquarters, Near Planet Tarana, Hapeti System

Pip peeled back the door for the storage area, Lewis at his back. The scene before them was such utter chaos that no one noticed them behind the door. Lewis thought that also must be why they hadn’t heard the gunshots or the guard still yelling from the torture of the sorting machine.

Guards hustled back and forth holding guns. In the far corner, at least a dozen Tuetians were hunched on the ground. Over them hung a net that sparked with electricity. They were unable to move from the torture.

Lewis wanted to spring forward right then and do something, but sensing this, Pip pressed him back. With his eyes, he indicated the opposite direction.

There, standing in the middle of a group of men dressed in white uniforms, was Melanie Myers. She wore a long, black leather jacket and knee-high boots. Her dark hair was slicked back, and her eyes narrowed on a single figure.

“Phillip or whatever your name is,” she began. “We need access to the other floors, as well as whatever is through there.” She pointed without looking in Lewis’s direction.

“The roasting room is forbidden to outsiders,” Phillip answered.

“I’m no longer an outsider,” Melanie stated. “This is the last time I will ask you to let us in. Don’t say that I didn’t give you a chance.”

Phillip blinked at Melanie dully. “Your threats, although frustrating, have no bearing on me. My job is to keep PGC secure from outsiders. That is what I’m doing.”

Melanie sighed loudly. “And you, like so many others, have underestimated me.” She turned to face an older man with a creased forehead who was typing on a tablet. “Is it done yet?”

“Almost. I just need to…” The man trailed away. “It’s a little harder than I thought.”

“Are you going to be able to do it or not?” Melanie yelled, rounding on the man.

“Yes, I assured you that I could,” he answered sheepishly. “Just another minute.”

“You said that an hour ago,” Melanie said, venom in her voice.

“Dave has offered to meet with you through video comm to hear your terms,” Phillip stated.

“Terms?” Melanie laughed. “I don’t have terms, this isn’t a negotiation. This is my company. And when I find him, he’ll be dead.”

“I assure you that PGC is not up for trade. I will personally defend—”

“And… done,” the man said, tapping the tablet three times, each of his actions definitive.

Phillip shot him an annoyed look, put off by the interruption. “As I was saying…” The hologram flickered. He looked around with confusion. “I-I-I…wh-wh-what…h-h-happening?”

“What was that about PGC? How will you protect it when you’re being deleted?” Melanie asked in a sing-song voice.

Phillip looked around. Blinked. Held up his hand. Flickered again. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. The expression on his face spoke of his fear, of his determination to fight. But then he disappeared, and Lewis knew it was too late.

Phillip, the AI who ran all aspects of PGC, was gone.

“All systems are now under my control,” the man beside Melanie reported.

“Good,” she chirped. “Unlock the other levels and take control of the employees. I want them held until it’s official. Where are Dave’s chambers?”

The man referenced the tablet and pointed in the direction of the sorting room. “It looks like they’re through there. Actually, you can access it from the eastern end of any of the floors. Apparently there’s a secret elevator up to his office.”

Thankfully, Lewis and Pip were only peeking through a crack in the open door at that point, so Melanie didn’t see them when she looked in their direction with satisfaction on her face. “The roasting secret. Now I finally get to find out what’s so special about Precious Galaxy Coffee. Fitting, since I’ll soon own the company and all its secrets.” She started up the catwalk and in the direction of the door, giving Lewis and Pip only seconds to scramble out of the way.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

“Vitos,” Bailey ventured, trying to keep the fear out of her voice.

His right wing wasn’t dangling like the other one, it was gone. Green blood soaked the back of his uniform. More heartbreaking than that was the look on his face.

“It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.” Bailey tried to console him, but she could feel the insincerity of her words. “Can you walk with me? We need to make sure that everyone has gotten off this level and check the other areas.”

Vitos nodded like a robot. He pushed up from the floor, his hands pressing into the puddle of green blood.

Bailey retrieved her big gun, trying not to look back at Vitos too many times as she hurried to the next area.

After scanning their current floor, she was relieved to find that there were no more guards. They arrived at the elevators, Vitos leaving a trail of blood behind him.

“Phillip?” Bailey asked, waiting for the AI to materialize. When he didn’t, she tried again. “Phillip, we need your help. We need to know where the concentrations of enemy soldiers are.”

When there was again no response from the hologram, Bailey gave Vitos a look of confusion.

“Where is he?”

Vitos simply pointed at the elevator numbers. The lower floor lit up as the elevator took off from there. It passed by the main level.

Bailey tightened her hands on her gun. “Do you think it’s coming here?”

Vitos shook his head. “If Phillip isn’t answering, I’m thinking the elevator has access to the upper levels.”

Bailey lunged forward, tapping the ‘up’ button. According to Phillip, she’d need his permission to take it there. But the button glowed green. Not a good sign.

The elevator slowed, about to open. Bailey tensed. Beside her, Vitos held his gun.

When the doors opened, Bailey froze, taking in the image as quickly as her mind could: there were five Monstre Corp men holding weapons. They unleashed a barrage of bullets, but Bailey ducked behind a desk and fired. The impact of the shockwave from her gun knocked all of the guards back.

She stood up from her cover, pleased with how the small compartment of the elevator amplified the effects of her weapon. Behind her came a sputtering cough.

Bailey’s insides squirmed. Bracing herself, she turned. Her heart sank.

She thought that Vitos had also dived behind the furniture beside the desk, but if he had, it didn’t protect him. His shoulder was covered in blood. He lay on his back, holding his arms across his chest.

No. Not again. Not more pain and suffering for Vitos, Bailey thought.

She hurried over to him, stooping down low. She lifted up his head when he began coughing more. Blood could be pooling in his lungs, she worried. “Vitos, it’s all right,” she said in a low voice.

His glassy eyes dimmed. His head lolled.

“Vitos, can you hear me?”

A soft chirping sound echoed from his throat. “I’m here, Lieutenant.”

Bailey smiled. “Okay, we’re going to get you somewhere safe, so I can get you help. You have to tell me where ‘safe’ is, though.”

Vitos pointed up at the ceiling.

“The upper floors?” she asked.

He nodded weakly.

“Perfect.” She slipped her hands under him. “I hope you don’t mind if I carry you.”

He laughed, but it sounded all wrong.

Bailey righted her feet. Took in a breath.

Behind her, she heard the sound of fabric rubbing against something. A click. A step.

Damnit, I missed one of them.

She froze.

Her gun was…she’d never get to it in time. She was going to be shot down again, but this time in the head where she couldn’t recover. She slowly started to remove her hands from under Vitos.

Another step.

I have to do it now.

A loud gunshot.

Bailey looked down. She was alive. Vitos was alive…well, mostly.

She spun, not finding what she expected. One of the uniformed soldiers lay flat, blood staining his white uniform. Standing to the side was Dave Pruitt, a six-shooter in his hand, and his cowboy hat on his head.

“Dave!” Bailey exclaimed. “You saved me!”

He nodded solemnly, his gaze jumping to Vitos. “Is he okay?”

Bailey wanted to say yes, if nothing else but for Vitos to hear. Instead, all she managed was a shrug. “He will be. We need to get him help. Phillip didn’t respond.”

“No, I know.” Dave hurried over. “That’s why I came out of safety. There is no more security. Phillip is…well, he’s gone.” The look that fell on Dave’s face echoed like a morose drumbeat across the space.

“The upper levels,” Bailey said, making for the elevator. She pulled the bodies out, clearing room for Vitos and Dave. “We need to get him up there.”

Dave nodded. “I have staff who can help him.”

Bailey slipped her arms under Vitos again, giving him a reassuring look. “Can you stand?”

A low buzz echoed in his throat, which she took as a ‘yes’.

“Okay, then on ‘three’,” she said, preparing to pull him up. “One, two, three.”

Bailey helped him to his feet. He was surprisingly strong, considering how much blood she knew he’d lost. She led him to the elevator, where Dave was already holding the door open.

“Take him up to get help,” she told Dave.

His face contorted with confusion. “You’re not coming?”

Bailey shook her head. “No, the fight is below. That’s where I’m most needed. Don’t worry Dave, we’re not losing this one.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

Precious Galaxy Coffee Headquarters, Near Planet Tarana, Hapeti System

Sprinting so fast her surroundings blurred, Bailey progressed the way they’d come. She hurried into the elevator, glad not to have to share it with frightened staff members. It appeared that they’d gotten up to the supposed safety of the upper level.

Bailey slammed her fist on the button for the main lobby. The descent felt extra long, especially as the images from the first floor came into view through the clear walls of the compartment. Bodies were strewn throughout the battlefield of the open foyer, which had felt like a sanctuary on their last visit.

There were three guards stationed where she could see them. She realized that, much like the camouflage of the docking station, the elevator was invisible to them. She could see out, but they couldn’t see in.

She knew she had to clear this level. This was where the battle had gone after Monstre had taken over the factory area. Then they’d taken the employees hostage.

Bailey was grateful that the elevator made no noise when it halted on the main floor. From her hiding place, she picked the best angle to fire the big gun. She determined that if she fired at the guard in the middle, the blast radius should hit all three of them.

She released a breath and fired, the shockwave knocking her back slightly. The man in the middle fell. The other two merely stumbled to the side from the assault.

The gun was too hot to use again for a little while. She threw it to the ground and pulled both pistols from her holsters. The thugs looked around, trying to find the source of the blast. Bailey wanted to play with them a little longer, but time was of the essence.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

Peter Stanley had never regretted his decision to work for Precious Galaxy Coffee Company. Not until today.

Lying against a wall, holding his midsection, he’d tried his best to act dead. It didn’t take much acting, since he was pretty certain that if he’d been shot an inch more to the left, he would really be dead. He pressed his fingers into the wound, feeling the pressure in his abdomen.

Peter had never been a hero. He was an accountant. And yet, when the forces had stormed PGC, he’d stepped in front of Betty, the head accountant. She reminded him of his grandmother and smelled like her, too.

They’d shot him for his act of heroism and taken Betty up on the elevator, along with everyone else that didn’t resist. Those that refused, those that fought back… well, they were around Peter, lying in puddles of their own blood. Good people. Brave individuals. And what would they have to show for it if Dave lost Precious Galaxy Coffee?

The three soldiers who Peter had been trying to fool for what felt like hours with his possum act were chatting about the weather on a planet called Carina, when the one in the center was blasted back and knocked unconscious.

Peter’s eyes opened wide. He couldn’t help it. If he was going to die, he wanted to see it happen.

From the solid wall on the far end of the atrium, the figure of a blonde woman in a combat suit stepped. Gracefully, she pulled up two guns, firing one at the uniformed monster who had shot Peter. Before he hit the floor, she aimed and fired, taking out the other uniformed monster.

The woman thundered through the middle of the atrium. Peter wanted to yell to her, to warn her, but he couldn’t bring enough oxygen into his lungs. Soon, though, he saw that his warning wasn’t necessary.

The warrior strode through the main level, picking off the hoodlums stationed around the area, not even giving them a chance to react before blowing them back. Within seconds, she’d cleared the entire main level.

If angels were real, Peter believed he’d just seen one. He closed his eyes, finally feeling it was safe to rest. Help had come.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

Pip dived over the side of the railing of the catwalk like an acrobat, rolling onto the floor below Lewis. He gracefully pushed through the opening in the wall where the conveyor belt came through from the other side.

Lewis stepped back several feet, unsure if this plan was going to work.

A moment later, the door he’d been peeping through opened, and Melanie stepped through. She halted at the sight of Lewis. She turned, but the assault on the other side pushed the door shut.

Pip had gotten into place in time, and he was currently blocking Melanie’s guards from following after her. In a matter of minutes, they’d all be dead anyway. But Melanie was here, left for Lewis to deal with.

“Oh god,” she groaned. “What are you doing here?”

The wave of anger took Lewis by surprise. Strangely, an ache erupted in his ankle—the very one he’d broken trying to save her, not realizing she was going to double-cross him and leave him for dead.

“More importantly, what are you doing here?” he demanded. “This is not your corporation. We stopped the merger.”

Melanie took a step forward, and Lewis copied the movement.

“I should have known you and that little witch of yours were behind stopping it,” she snarled. “I was only planning on punishing Dave Pruitt for pulling out of our agreement, but looks like I’ll be taking my frustration out on you.”

Lewis pointed to the door behind Melanie. “You and what army?”

The sounds of struggle echoed from the next room, some of them shaking the walls. Melanie pulled a gun from the inside of her jacket and pointed it at Lewis.

He’d completely expected that from her, so he ducked and fled for the door to the roasting room. She fired, her bullets hitting the catwalk and the walls around him.

Lewis kept running once he made it to the other room, finding his place just before Melanie kicked open the door. She shook her head at him, but her attention was soon pulled in the direction of the strange robots, roasting coffee beans and cooling them down.

“What is this?”

“Why don’t you just make something up?” Lewis asked. “That’s what you do when you don’t know the answer, right? You don’t care for facts. You don’t try to find the answer. You make it up. And if you want something, you don’t try to earn it. You just take it.”

Melanie faked a yawn. “You’re so pathetic, with your principles and do-gooder behavior. I never understood why you couldn’t just be bad, even a little bit.”

Lewis watched as the claw of the robot swung around, right on time. It had taken him and Pip about three minutes to reconstruct the machine for this mission; it would be the best three minutes ever spent, if this worked. Hopefully even without Phillip, the new programming is still in place.

“And I never understood why you wanted to roast in hell,” he retorted, trying to keep his expression neutral. Damn, she’s in the wrong place. He took another step back.

As he suspected, Melanie made up the space, brandishing her gun. She was going to have to get closer to shoot him; they both knew her aim was terrible. Another skill she refused to improve.

Work was for other people, not Melanie.

“Why did you come here?” she demanded. “Did you really think you and your new partner could stop me?”

Lewis smiled as the claw reached forward at lightning speed. It pushed Melanie forward from its movement, nearly knocking her out of its grasp, but Lewis lunged forward and pushed her backward.

She gasped just as the claw closed around her body. Melanie dropped her gun and struggled against the claw’s grip, until the robot quickly picked her up and rotated out over the vat of lava, lining her up to drop just between the grates of coffee beans.

She froze, holding on to the metal robot for dear life.

This would only hold her for a minute—long enough for Lewis to get what he wanted.

“What are you doing?” Melanie said, pulling her feet up closer to her body. From that distance, the heat had to be melting her boots; her face was already red. The beans passed over fast enough that they didn’t burn and were cooled immediately, but being suspended overhead for more than a few seconds had to be excruciating.

“I just want to talk,” Lewis said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “Why don’t you tell me what happened to the etheric diamond?”

“Are you serious? This is about that dumb diamond? So what? I stole it. So what? I framed you for it. There’s nothing you can do. Now let me out of here!” She kicked her legs, trying to pull herself up.

The claw opened a bit from the resistance. Her eyes widened.

“Careful now,” Lewis teased.

A loud bang echoed from the adjacent room, and Melanie’s face brightened with hope.

“My guards will be here soon. If you get me out of here, I won’t have them kill you.”

He laughed. “You forget that I know you’re a liar.” He looked in the direction of the noise. “And you also don’t know my friend Pip. He’s unstoppable. Your men are probably all dead… that’s just the celebration party starting.”

“Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” Melanie cried, yanking her feet up.

The minute was up. The claw would come back soon.

Lewis pulled out his gun, ready to take his ex-partner prisoner. Her confession had been recorded by the cameras that Phillip had activated on the walls. The ones that were usually disabled.

He was one step closer to being freed of the crime.

Melanie pushed hard on the robot, cursing it. The claw opened. Shook. Melanie slipped down several inches. She yelled.

Lewis’s eyes widened. “Hey!”

“Get me out of here!” Melanie shrieked.

He looked around. There was no way for him to get close. “I don’t know what to do!”

“Dammit! Lewis, you’re such a loser!” Melanie began looking around too and swinging her legs. “I’ll get myself out of this without you. Then you’re dead.”

She swung like a child on playground equipment, but they’d reconfigured the robot, and it didn’t look to be holding very well.

The claw sagged several inches. Melanie gasped. Swung again.

When she was almost forward, probably about to try and leap clear of the vat, the claw broke cleanly, dropping its pieces—with Melanie attached—straight down into the lava.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Precious Galaxy Coffee Headquarters, Near Planet Tarana, Hapeti System

Dave strode through the main level, stopping at the sight of damage like he was paying respect. Bailey shot Lewis a look, both of them walking a few feet behind the CEO of Precious Galaxy Coffee.

She’d found Lewis apparently moments after Melanie’s fall, staring at the vat of lava, his hands pressed on the railing of the catwalk.

She’d known that, as much as he wanted Melanie dead, he was never going to kill her. No, her demise had been her own doing. In the end, she’d made her own grave.

The injured had been taken up to the fifth level where, unsurprisingly, they’d get the best, state-of-the-art treatment. PGC had suffered many fatalities, and although their spirit might be fractured, Dave was holding strong.

Then Bailey remembered Phillip, and gulped.

She took the spot beside Dave when he started forward again. “What will you do now?” she asked, needing to fill the silence. They’d been walking through the wreckage for almost an hour.

Dave looked surprised she was there. “Oh, we will rebuild. We will erase the signs of battle and replace them with something that doesn’t trigger old memories.” Dave pulled his hat off his head and rubbed his matted-down hair. “And I’ll invest in better security, something besides Phillip.”

“About Phillip,” Bailey started, but Dave paused her with a hand.

“Not now.” There was a deep sadness in his eyes.

“Well, I’m sorry for your loss,” she said.

He nodded. He looked at Lewis. “You know the secret behind the roasting.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” the detective promised at once.

Dave shook his head. “No, it’s a silly secret to keep. Precious Galaxy Coffee isn’t successful because of its roasting technique. Well, not really. We’re a success because of how we run our business, and that won’t change.”

Bailey agreed. She’d seen Dave’s bravery when he’d saved her and Vitos and she’d seen the way he’d greeted every staff member after the fact. He was a person who cared about others, not just about the money. Those kinds of businesses flourished, maybe because of karma, or maybe because what they created was a product of who they were.

“Besides, my boy,” Dave said, looking at Lewis. “You’re going to need that video footage to clear your name. I guess it’s time the secret was leaked.”

Lewis grimaced, probably recalling the horrible death that had happened after the footage.

“Come on, my friends.” Dave waved them toward the elevator, which was still spattered with blood. “Let’s go check on Vitos. There are many others I’d like to see, as well.”

“Wait!” Pip yelled at their backs.

They spun to find the AI, his clothes battered, but not a scratch on him. It was because of him that the Tuetians had all been freed so quickly. They’d been treated for minor electrical shock and sent back to Tueti on the two ships in the docking area that weren’t damaged in the fighting.

“Dave, I’ve done it,” Pip said, a wide smile on his face.

“I thought you said it would take longer?” Dave placed his hat back on his head.

“I thought it would, but the backup systems you have are incredibly well constructed. I’ve learned a thing or two studying them.”

Dave clapped his hands together, a soft smile bristling under his mustache. “It’s not me. That’s thanks to Phillip.”

The hologram appeared next to the three. “Yes, sir? Did I hear my name?”

“Phillip?” Lewis and Bailey said in unison, their voices filled with amazement.

“I thought you were deleted,” Lewis stated.

Phillip straightened his tie and bowed. “I was, my good sir. But Pip was able to upload a backup. I have them recorded every—”

“Ten seconds,” Pip stated, finishing his sentence. “That’s some impressive backup systems you’ve created.”

Phillip winked. “What can I say? I can’t bear the thought of missing anything. And I don’t think I could sleep at night if I abandoned Dave.”

Dave laughed. “Same here, Phillip. I can’t run this place without you. I’m glad we didn’t lose you today.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

Dining Hall, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

It had been Jack’s idea to have the luau. Hatch was still working hard on finding Monstre Corp, Chester had been working nonstop on his side of the mission, and Tillous was putting forth an incredible effort, even though she was new to the crew.

However, the rest of the crew didn’t have the same demands; they were in limbo, waiting. But after the Precious Galaxy Coffee mission, many of them needed something to lift their spirits.

Lewis studied the fruit display that Dejoure had put together. She’d carved pineapples so that they resembled palm trees and even fashioned leaves to make their canopy. The entire spread was as visually pleasing as it was tasty.

Hibiscus flowers filled the spaces between dishes, which consisted of roasted pork glazed in a sweet, tangy sauce, and sides of rice, various salads, soft, fluffy breads and so many decadent cakes and cookies, beautifully decorated.

“Hey, Lewis,” Bailey said, tearing the flesh off a rib. “Are you going to eat that?” She indicated to a slab of meat on his plate.

“Don’t you have enough?” he joked, gawking at her plate.

“That’s the last rib,” she complained.

Lewis sighed, handing her the meat.

She finished off the one she was working on and made quick work of his. “Can you believe that man over there took out ten of Monstre Corp’s guards in less than two minutes, while apparently singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?”

“I can hear you,” Pip replied, spinning around and sticking his hands on his hips. “And that was how I timed myself. The goal was to finish them off before the song was over.”

“Which you did easily,” Bailey commended.

Pip was wearing a grass skirt and a lei around his neck over his T-shirt, which read, ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s your favorite color of the alphabet?’

Lewis laughed, looking around. It was still such a small group, especially since Hatch, Chester and Tillous were working. However, it was good to see his uncle out of his office. He and Liesel were in the corner, giggling over different names they came across in the baby book. Every now and then, when she didn’t think he was looking, Liesel would steal a bite of his Hawaiian pizza. What Lewis found even more endearing was that Jack would lean down slowly to grab his punch and take an extra long drink, probably to give her enough time to pull off the steal.

“Pigs in a blanket,” Dejoure said, coming by holding a tray.

Lewis eyed the finger food. “Are these luau-appropriate menu items?”

Dejoure shrugged. “Beats me. Honestly, this was all guess work.”

Bailey grabbed a handful, cramming one in her mouth. “Seriously, you need to go into event planning and catering. You have a special knack, DJ.”

The young girl beamed. “Thank you. And since I haven’t seen you all day, you should know that I have brushed my teeth, done my math homework, and picked up a new hobby.”

Lewis popped a pig in a blanket in his mouth. “What’s that?”

Dejoure pointed to Harley, who was dutifully following her around. “I’m teaching Harley circus tricks.”

“Because you’re planning on running away with a troupe?” Bailey asked.

The girl shook her head. “Nope. Can’t get rid of me that easy. But I do love the circus.” She then leaned in close. “When he shows up, don’t show him pity. He doesn’t want that.”

Lewis and Bailey exchanged looks of confusion. “Sorry?” Lewis said, scratching his head.

Dejoure gestured to the door. “In my dream last night, I saw Vitos sad at this party, and it was made worse when you two gave him too much sympathy. Let’s just say that things won’t go well and he’ll never get to open his gift.”

“Gift?” Bailey asked.

Dejoure pointed to a table on the other side of the room. “The one that Dave sent.”

Bailey wrapped her arms around Dejoure’s shoulder, pulling her in close. “How did we end up with a child who’s so wise?”

DJ smiled, her face turning a shade of pink. “I’m pretty sure you’re the ones who are a figment of my imagination.”

Lewis was about to add something probably slightly lame to the conversation, but then Vitos entered. His left shoulder was bandaged, and his right wing gone, but the stitches looked to be clean and healing well.

Everyone looked up when he entered. He halted and looked down at the ground, seeming to rethink coming to the party.

It was Penrae, in the form of Pip, who strode over and grabbed Vitos’s hand. “There you are. Now that you’re here, we can cut the cake.”

Vitos slumped slightly. “I don’t eat cake. You could have had it without me.”

Penrae shook her head at him. “I don’t eat cake either. I think it’s more about the celebration.”

“What’s there to celebrate?” Vitos asked solemnly. Since his injury wasn’t life threatening, the Pod doc hadn’t been an option available to him.

Pip slid up next to Penrae. “Can I just tell you that you’re looking especially handsome today?”

Penrae bowed. “Thank you.”

Bailey elbowed Lewis. “Okay, let’s go over. But remember, don’t act weird.”

“I don’t act weird,” he said, pretending to be offended.

“Yeah, right,” she fired back.

“Hey, Vitos,” Lewis said, trying to sound casual. “You’ll love the roasted pork. Dejoure put together a ton of good meat options for our festivities.”

“I’m sure I will,” Vitos said, looking up at the group. He seemed to weaken inside, break slightly.

“Hey, guys,” Bailey said, “You all should have seen Vitos at PGC. He was amazing, flying around…” Her face flushed, and her eyes widened.

Dejoure shook her head and disappeared.

“I’m sorry, Vitos,” Bailey said. “I was merely trying to relay how great you were. If it wasn’t for you, I would have been toast.”

“Actually, if it wasn’t for Dave, we would have been toast,” Vitos pointed out.

Bailey laughed, seeming to ease up. She slapped Lewis. “Hey, have you seen a six-shooter?”

He shook his head.

“This guy saves the day, standing there like a real cowboy, holding a shiny Smith and Wesson six-shooter. I thought I was in an old western,” Bailey said with a laugh.

Vitos laughed too, making Lewis’s heart lighten slightly.

Dejoure reappeared beside Vitos, holding a large package. She slid it onto the closest table. “Speaking of Dave, he sent you a present. Will you open it?”

Vitos looked around, like waiting for permission.

“Do it!” the group urged.

Vitos pulled the card off the top of the package, which was wrapped in paper reminiscent of one of Vitos’s paintings in bright blues, greens and yellows. His eyes scanned the card, and he stiffened as he neared the end.

When he was done, he shoved the note into Lewis’s hands, stepping up to the package.

Lewis peered down, silently reading the thick card which smelled of coffee beans.

Dear Vitos,

A true friend is someone who doesn’t just fight beside you in battle. They help you heal your wounds after the war. This is a prototype that PGC has been working on for a while, one of my many side missions. I guess I’ve always envied the Tuetians and their ability to fly, and I wanted to experience that. Maybe one day I will. However, my experts tell me that this should work for you. Please let me know if it does; all I’ve ever wanted is for you to soar.



When Lewis looked up, Vitos had pulled the lid off a box with Dejoure’s help. From a pile of tissue paper, he pulled out what looked like a broken wing. Lewis looked down at the card and then looked back up. It wasn’t a broken wing at all—it was the other part of a whole.

Dave had made a prosthetic wing for Vitos.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

Hatch had never been more proud of someone in all his life. He stood back, gazing at the Q-ship.

“I’m not sure it’s going to work,” Knox muttered, hurrying around the ship with grease comically smeared down both his cheeks.

“It’s going to work,” Hatch stated definitively.

“I don’t know, it’s kind of a long shot.” Knox crouched under the Q-ship, checking the sensors for the billionth time.

“It’s a brilliant idea,” Liesel said from the other side of the ship, where she and Sebastian were redoing the wiring.

Hatch couldn’t see Knox’s face, but he was guessing he was probably blushing. “I can’t take the credit. It was actually Penrae who gave me the idea. Not only do the Saverus shapeshift, but remember those ships they had when we fought them?”

Hatch nodded. “Yes, their ships shapeshift too.”

“Well, I don’t know how they do that,” Knox said, his voice muffled as he worked. “I mean they can become anything. However, I was thinking, and it occurred to me that the Q-ship could take on a couple of different appearances if needed.”

“So when this works, we won’t have to worry about the cloaks coming down when they go after Monstre Corp,” Hatch said.

“Which will invariably happen because of the monster,” his apprentice stated.

“Right. But we don’t need cloaks if we can spoof the enemy into thinking that we’re one of them,” Hatch continued.

Knox stood, looking at Hatch with that familiar uncertainty. “I’m not sure if I have the design right for the Monstre Corp ships. It’s just what I could garner from photos they took on Tueti.”

“It’s going to be fine,” Hatch reassured him.

The boy shrugged, his eyes drifting off.

Hatch would have enjoyed working on the project with Knox, but his attention had to remain on getting the detector working so they could locate the etheric diamond. If they didn’t have that, then finding Monstre Corp would be impossible and none of this would be necessary.

Hatch waddled around the Q-ship, his eyes running over its exterior. “Liesel Diesel, have you upgraded the weapons?”

“Not yet, but I will,” she replied.

“Well, we don’t have much time,” he grumbled. “Get on it after the wiring.”

Liesel spun around, a grimace on her face. “I think you meant to say ‘please’.”

Never having seen less than a peaceful expression from Liesel, or heard her talk like this, Hatch froze. Finally, he recovered. “Don’t tell me what I mean.”

Liesel stood, leaving Sebastian on the floor, fumbling with his wires. She placed her hands on her hips and lowered her chin. “Hatch, I’m the Chief Engineer for this battlecruiser. That’s the position you hired me for. I’m not your subordinate, I’m your peer, and if you don’t start treating me like it, we’re going to have problems.”

The Londil opened his mouth. His eyes widened.

Usually he’d have a reply, but he was speechless as he looked into the raging eyes of the usually calm hippie. He thought about her words. He had picked Liesel, thought she was the best. From the beginning, he’d worried that she would make him less relevant to the crew. Maybe that was the reason he treated her the way he did. He didn’t talk to Knox in the same way…

He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “You’re absolutely right. I’m sorry.”

The smile that lit up Liesel’s face instantly melted away her former tension. “Thank you. I forgive you.”

Hatch didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t asked for forgiveness, but it did strangely make him feel better to know that Liesel wasn’t holding a grudge.

“Will you please upgrade the weapons when you have a chance?” he asked.

She nodded cheerfully. “Absolutely.” Her eyes darted to the corner as she nodded proudly.

Hatch turned to find who she was looking at. Tillous stood by her workstation, a defiant look on her face.

So Tillous took it on herself to empower Liesel.

Hatch should have known. He didn’t think that Liesel was wrong to stand up for herself; for a while, Hatch had known that he was bullying her. However, it burned him up that Tillous was meddling, and that she would have heard the apology. He could almost hear her saying, ‘See, saying you’re sorry isn’t that hard.’

His face flushed hot as he hurried back around the other side of the ship to where Knox was still working. He didn’t need to apologize to Tillous. She was making too big a deal out of this. It was so long ago.

And I don’t need her forgiveness, he told himself.

Hatch was hoping that Knox hadn’t heard the exchange with Liesel, but it was evident by the look on his face that he had.

“How much longer until you’ll be ready to test?” Hatch asked him, hoping to gloss over the tension.

Knox thought for a moment. “A few more hours, if I work nonstop.”

Hatch nodded.

Knox’s eyes cut over to watch Tillous trudge out of the lab, Liesel beside her and the two talking quietly.

Hatch wanted to yell, ‘Fine, go take a break!’ However, he clapped a tentacle down on the urge. It was just Tillous making him crazy.

“What’s her story?” Knox asked.

Hatch shook his head, wishing he could simply dismiss the discussion. “She’s a security expert who designed some of the Federation’s most secure locations.”

“Yeah, I knew that,” Knox said, pushing up to a standing position. He wiped his greasy hands on his jeans. “That’s why we have her working on breaking Monstre Corp’s security systems. Where was she uploaded from?”

Hatch shook his head. “I’m not certain.”

“Oh,” Knox said with surprise.

Yes, anyone else, and Hatch would have found out the information. However, he’d tried to limit what he learned about Tillous. After he took the job of working for the Federation, she was later assigned to a different sector. They were never in close proximity, but the idea that she was working for the Federation too made it all the more awkward. She went on to have quite the career, making a name for herself.

Hatch had told himself that he quit working for the Federation because of the red tape or the bureaucracy, but if he was honest with himself, it was because of Tillous. She was transferred to his location, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to bear seeing her every day. He quit that day and hadn’t looked back.

Then Ghost Squadron had recruited him. He thought that working for Ghost Squadron would keep him safe, keep him away from all his old skeletons. He’d been wrong. Ironically, the Londil he’d been avoiding all these years was the one he needed in order to complete the final mission.

Life is annoying.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Intelligence Center, Ricky Bobby, Hapeti System

Chester was crouched down in front of a bookcase, pulling paperbacks from the shelf, when Bailey and Lewis entered. Bailey knew that Dejoure was working with Chester to better understand the monster, but she was confused as to why the girl was sitting on the floor, a stack of books in her lap.

Chester held up an Anne of Green Gables book and flashed a smile. “Seriously, one of my favorite young adult classics. It’s not fantasy, which is preferable, but Anne gets herself into lots of trouble.”

“I’ll read it,” Dejoure said at once, adding the book to her stack. “I like fantasy too.”

Chester winked at her. “Of course you do. You have good taste. What about paranormal?”

She nodded.

“What’s your favorite? Witches, vampires, werewolves or Dream Travelers?”

Dejoure thought for a moment. “I’m sort of partial to Shadow Hunters.”

Chester slapped his leg and smiled. “And just like that, my opinion of you heightens.”

“I didn’t realize you two were starting a book club,” Bailey said, gaining both of their attention. Marilla looked up from her computer screen as well.

“Those two have been discussing books for over an hour,” she said. “I think Chester has found someone who enjoys reading as much as him.”

“I do love to read,” Dejoure agreed. “I have to admit, I thought you’d be more into video games.”

Chester rose to a standing position. “Oh, don’t you be mistaken. I play my fair share of games, but only ones that have a good story. It’s always about the story, no matter whether it’s games, books or movies.”

“I’m guessing that, since you two are discussing classic literature, you’ve long since figured out our monster issue?” Lewis said.

Chester helped Dejoure pick up the large stack of books at her feet. “You know work always comes before play. Of course we’ve got a strategy.”

Dejoure smoothed out her T-shirt, another from Pimping Pip’s Apparel. It was like a craze taking over the ship. This one read: ‘Dear Math, I’m not a therapist. Solve your own problems.’

Dejoure picked up a paperback and partially covered her face with it. “You two aren’t going to like the solution, though.”

“Why?” Lewis asked. “Does it involve you risking your life, per usual?”

She nodded.

Lewis crossed his arms over his chest. “Alright, let’s hear it.”

“I’m not one to take avoidable risks,” Chester began, “but from what I understand about the monster, proximity is going to be very important.”

“Of course,” Bailey said, a hint of laughter in her voice.

“I think I’ve discovered a way to disable the monster’s uploading function,” Chester stated.

“You think?” Lewis questioned.

Chester shrugged. “It’s new territory. There’s no way to test it until we’re in battle, if you will.”

“And DJ has to get close to the monster for this?” Bailey asked.

Chester nodded. “If she can get close enough, I can remotely establish a link and upload new software, reprogramming the monster… theoretically.”

“I could have done without that last word,” Lewis groaned. “It makes me lose confidence in this plan.”

“Don’t worry,” Dejoure encouraged. “The monster isn’t going to upload me.”

“How can you be so sure?” he asked.

“I don’t know…” She trailed off, her cheeks turning pink. “I know this sounds silly, but I think the monster sort of has a crush on me.”

Bailey couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re absolutely forbidden from dating, especially a diabolical monster… forever.”

Dejoure joined in. “I told you it sounds silly. It’s just that the monster is lonely. I think it wants companionship, but how can it find that when there’s nothing like it out there? The poor thing is all alone, the only one of its kind.”

“And you think when you communicated with it, understood it, that it developed feelings for you?” Lewis asked.

Dejoure’s shoulders rose and stayed there. “I don’t know. It’s still hard for me to understand my gift.”

Chester picked up the book on top of Dejoure’s stack and held it up. It was a battered copy of Wuthering Heights. “Maybe he wants to be your Heathcliff.”

“Oh, he’s a romantic,” Marilla said, still at her computer, engaged in work.

Bailey had forgotten she was there. She was always working, head down, attention focused, but she was also apparently always listening.

“Yes, dear Mar, just like me,” Chester said and placed his hand on his chest. “‘You know that I could as soon forget you as my existence’.”

Dejoure giggled, covering her mouth with her small hands.

“So this is the plan, is it?” Lewis asked, an edge to his voice. “We’re going to have DJ get close to the monster so we can reprogram it?”

Chester set the book down and smiled, his grin like that of the Cheshire cat, wide and mischievous. “Truly what we’re doing is setting it free so that it will no longer be a monster. Imagine what it will become then.”

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Jack Renfro’s Office, Ricky Bobby, Aurelis System

Jack’s office had never been so full. It was probably because Hatch and Tillous were both taking up a large portion of the office, neither of them looking at each other. Lewis had noted from the beginning that Hatch became more tense when the other Londil was around.

Vitos and Pip stood in the back of the office, the AI making adjustments to Vitos’s new wing. He hadn’t returned to his normal positive demeanor, but hopefully his healing was on the way.

Dejoure sat on the floor next to Harley, whispering something in his ear. He pulled away and nodded his head at her in response. A sneaky smile spread on her face, probably at the thought of some scheme she was concocting to scare Pip with a fake rat or snake.

Penrae had taken the form of Bailey, which made it slightly confusing, since she was standing next to the lieutenant, talking about the mission details. However, Lewis could easily tell which one Bailey was, even if Penrae had taken on her identical appearance. In a short time, he’d catalogued most of Bailey’s nonverbal cues. He knew that when she was pretending to listen but was really off in thought, she scratched her arm absentmindedly. When she was nervous, she pinched her mouth to the side. And when she was teeming with excitement but trying to hide it, she wiggled her shoulders back and forth.

He wasn’t surprised to see her doing this now. The mission was close, the final one. It was like a party for her. She lived for the battle. For the chance to save people and bring them justice.

Jack cleared his throat, bringing all eyes to him as he stood regally behind his desk. “We are currently entering the Aurelis system, where Dr. A’Din Hatcherik believes Monstre Corp’s headquarters is located.” He inclined his head to the Londil, who nodded.

“That’s correct,” Hatch began, turning to face the group. “Using the detector, I’ve found a large concentration of etheric energy on the planet of Carina.”

An image of the entire Precious galaxy popped up on the screen behind Jack.

“Thank you, Ricky Bobby,” Hatch said, noting the image. He extended a tentacle across Jack’s desk and pointed at a large black cloud that hung between the Cacama and Aurelis systems. “I’ve only just updated this map, adding this dark, dense cloud of dust. It blocks light and, in essence, serves as a perfect barrier.”

“Which would be great if you’re trying to hide a planet,” Lewis mused.

Hatch nodded. “The planet of Carina wasn’t even mapped during our scans because of its place behind a dark nebula. It was only after I picked up the frequency responses the detector received that I looked closer and realized what I was seeing.”

“Good work. Thank you, doctor,” Jack commended before turning his attention to the rest of the group. “From what I’ve discovered, Carina is an obscure planet; we wouldn’t have readily found it, if not for Hatch’s technology. The small planet has no alien population, and its original inhabitants were supposedly wiped out by a catastrophic storm.”

“A storm that resembles the monster?” Pip guessed.

The image on the screen changed to a picture of a mostly green and blue planet, orbited by two moons.

“Yes. The planet has also been deemed to be mostly uninhabitable, though we don’t believe that to be the case,” Hatch stated. “The air quality will need to be further tested, but from what I’ve deduced, it should be fine.”

Ricky Bobby zoomed in on the image, blowing up a section that was miles of forest. Nestled inside the forest, nearly invisible to the naked eye, was a large building sitting on top of a peak, perfectly blended in with its surroundings.

“This is Monstre Corp,” Jack stated, indicating the spot in the image. “It is in the Chumash Forest, which the official records state suffers from high radiation levels.”

“Those trees look fine to me,” Bailey observed.

Jack nodded. “That was our thought, too. When reviewing the information on this system, we found some discrepancies in the public records.”

“Almost like the records had been planted by someone,” Lewis said.

“It seems so transparent, now that we’re looking directly at it, but that’s the thing about Vance,” Jack stated. “He knows how to manipulate information so as not to raise suspicion.”

Bailey pointed at the image of the building, which was an architectural masterpiece, with its organic arches and mountain peaks that resembled hills and evergreen trees. “I appreciate that Vance didn’t slaughter trees to build his fortress, but it doesn’t look like there’s a lot of room around the building to land the Q-ship.”

In fact, the trees were so snug around the building, it was difficult to see where they ended and the building began.

“The trees are quite dense throughout the Chumash Forest,” Jack told her, a smile springing to his face. “However, you’re not going to have to worry about landing the Q-ship near the facility.”

“Since the monster will most likely be nearby, and will just disable the cloaks and shields anyway,” Hatch qualified, “Knox and Liesel are currently working on last minute tweaks to the Q-ship that will let it change its appearance to resemble that of a Monstre Corp ship.”

“What? A shapeshifter ship?” Bailey said in disbelief.

Penrae smiled wide. “That’s impressive.”

“I agree,” Hatch said proudly. “All Knox’s idea, but I believe it will work.”

“Definitely an ingenious idea,” Jack stated, clapping his hands together. “So you see, you’re not going to have to worry about landing the Q-ship. Instead, you’re going to fly it straight into the headquarters.” He pointed to the back of the building. “We believe it to be right over here.”

“But once we pass through, they’re going to know we’re a foreign ship,” Bailey argued.

“No, that’s where Dr. Tillous comes in.” Jack pointed in the Londil’s direction. She bristled from the sudden attention, her cheeks warming.

“Uhhh, right. Yes, I’ve figured out a way to bypass this security protocol at Monstre Corp, as well as a few others you might run into,” Tillous said, her voice growing with confidence as she spoke.

“Very impressive,” Jack commended. “We couldn’t pull this off without you. Hatch was right to have you printed right away.” He looked at the scientist and smiled. “You knew that Dr. Tillous was the key to our success. Good work.”

Hatch’s cheeks puffed slightly before he turned his head away, his attention suddenly on something on the ground like it was of high importance.

Jack rubbed his hands together, an eagerness in his eyes. “I think that will do it. The strategy and detailed plans have all been sent to you.” He then cleared his throat, wavering a bit. “I could tell you all how important this mission is, but you already know. I could remind you that you’re putting yourself in danger for many others, but that’s obvious. What I don’t think you know, or that bears repeating, is that I can’t think of a better team to pull this off.”

He stared around, his eyes making contact with each of the others. “I’ve worked with the best. The crew you’re going to save is top notch; however, it’s you in this room who have the skills necessary to complete this nearly impossible mission. I know our numbers are small. I know we’re in new territory. However, you all are diverse, with your own unique skills.” Jack’s eyes rested on Dejoure for a moment. “You’ve worked together seamlessly, which is important.” His gaze drifted to Lewis and then Bailey. “We came together against many odds and have come so far. When we beat Vance and rescue the crew, as well as many others, we’re going to prove that teamwork perseveres. We’re going to prove that it takes skill and comradery to overcome any challenge, not money and power.”

Jack smiled softly. Took a breath. Nodded at the group. “You’re a small team. Tiny, by Federation standards. However, if it were me being held hostage in that database, I’d choose you, the smaller team, to rescue me.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Aurelis System

This was the hardest part for Hatch: waiting. He’d done everything he could. He’d found the location of Monstre Corp. His apprentice had masterfully innovated a new ship design. Liesel Diesel had brought her own exemplary skills to the process, helping Knox to complete it in record time. Knox and Liesel were loading the Q-ship and putting it into position. The crew was preparing.

All Hatch could do now was wait.

He twisted two of his tentacles together, looking around the lab, hoping a project would jump out at him. The DeLorean was usually his go-to project, but he couldn’t work on that without Knox.

“You care about them,” Tillous’ voice said from the entrance.

Hatch nearly jumped, his nervousness seeking to bound out of him. He spun to face her. The overhead lights reflected off her turquoise coloring, making her shimmer slightly.

“What are you talking about?” he demanded.

“The crew,” she answered.

“I don’t…” he muttered, shaking his head. “I mean, I want them rescued and printed.”

“I meant the team going to rescue Ghost Squadron.” Tillous waddled farther into the lab, a knowing in her gaze.

“I don’t want them to die, that’s all.”

Tillous shook her head, a challenging look on her face. “I don’t think so. I’ve been watching you—”

“I’ve noticed.” Hatch bit on the words, cutting her off.

“You’ve changed,” she observed. “You’re not as hard as you used to be.”

“I am, too!”

Tillous laughed. “Hatch, you never cared much for others, preferring to work rather than socialize. Hell, you left me without even looking back… but you’re different around the crew; you care. That boy, your apprentice, you genuinely have a deep affection for him.”

“He’s been through a lot,” Hatch muttered. “And he’s a smart kid, deserving of my respect.”

Tillous nodded. “That’s good.”

The silence that hung between them felt like a heavy fog seeking to smother Hatch. He wanted to turn around and busy himself with a project, but he was frozen, staring at Tillous.

“What Jack said about you printing me…” Tillous let her sentence hang in the air, an expectant look on her face.

“Yeah, well, I knew you’d know security detail better than the rest,” Hatch stated, digging one of his tentacles absentmindedly into the floor.

“That’s nice of you to say. Probably one of the highest compliments I’ve ever gotten from you. I know you don’t think much of me.”

His hearts beat fast. That’s what she thinks? That I don’t think much of her? Her intelligence was second only to his. Tillous was the smartest recruit decision the Federation had ever made.

“Anyway, I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, moving past him. “I’m going to move my workstation, now that this mission is almost complete. Jack has allotted me a new space, although I won’t be here for long.”

“Why? Where are you going?” The questions fell out his mouth before he could stop them.

She paused. “I’ll need to return to my work with the Federation. I don’t have a family to return to, but I have commitments, and that amounts to the same thing.”

She never married. That, for some strange reason, perplexed Hatch. He hadn’t allowed himself to think about that since she’d returned to his life, but now he’d wondered how he hadn’t been curious.

“Besides,” Tillous continued. “I know you don’t want me here. You have your reasons, and I’ve come to respect that.”

“Right,” he stated, his focus on the floor. She thought that he hated her, and that was why he left her all those years ago. She believed, because he’d made her think it, that he didn’t want her.

Tillous moved off behind her workstation, hurrying to box up her supplies. She didn’t have much, only what Jack had supplied her with for the current mission; she was probably accustomed to having a giant lab with the Federation. That’s what she was going back to.

Too fast, she had loaded up her stuff and was heading for the exit.

Hatch hadn’t moved. His mind was racing with old ideas and fears. Things he hadn’t allowed himself to think about for a long time.

“I’m sorry,” he blurted out as Tillous reached the threshold of his lab.

She spun around, blinking at him in surprise. “What’s that?”

She didn’t appear to be playing with him. She looked around in genuine confusion, like she’d forgotten something. Maybe she’d misheard him.

“All those years ago, I’m sorry for leaving you.” Hatch’s throat was trying to close up on him. He tried to breathe, and found the small task to be a huge feat. “I didn’t tell you why and I’m sorry.”

“You got a position,” Tillous said matter-of-factly. “I get it. I’ve forgiven you. Being in close proximity lately, I’ve had to.”

Hatch shook his head. “Yes, I wanted the position, and I’m glad I took it. I’ve been able to do so much…” His words trailed away as Tillous’ face grew impatient. “Anyway, I regret not telling you that I was scared to get married.”

Tillous laughed. “If the rumors are true, you’ve been married several times and have quite a few children.”

Hatch dismissed that with a wave of his tentacles. “Those were relationships of convenience. And yes, I have more children than one Londil should, but they are grown now.”

Tillous pushed the box she was holding onto a table and, gracefully, two of her tentacles found her hips. “Do you have a point in telling me all of this?”

Hatch felt himself shrinking. He tried to stand tall. Tried to feel brave when that was definitely not true.

“Tillous, I was afraid to marry you.”

“Because I’m not good enough,” she said dismissively. “I get it.”

Hatch shook his head. “No, because of out of everyone I’ve ever met, you’re the only one who is good enough.”

“What?” She looked completely stunned.

Oh, I’ve done a masterful job of convincing her she doesn’t matter to me, Hatch silently scolded himself.

“I was afraid that if we got married that I’d…well, I know it sounds strange, but I was afraid of losing myself. I thought that my attention would get distracted and I wouldn’t work as hard.”

Tillous pointed at herself, her mouth hanging open silently. “Because of me?”

He could only manage a nod. His mouth was dry, and he desperately wanted to sit down. Possibly take something to induce sleep. Deep, dreamless sleep.

A brilliant smile that Hatch hadn’t seen in ages spread on Tillous’ face. “A’Din, I can’t believe what an absolute idiot you are.”

That made Hatch laugh. “You might be the first one to ever call me that, but I agree. At least in this instance.”

“You know I wanted my own career,” she reminded him.

“And you’ve made quite the name for yourself,” he praised.

“I’m not much a fan of getting lost in another, or allowing them to become too absorbed in me.”

“I know,” Hatch said meekly. “I realize it was a strange fear. Unrealistic. But I was younger then.”

“So what are you saying? Have you changed in your old age?”

His face burned hot. He didn’t know what to say. He had changed, and he knew what he wanted, yet he was still afraid.

Damn matters of the hearts! They were the hardest to understand. He could split particles and disassemble an engine, but he couldn’t understand his own desires, or allow himself to have them.

“I’m not sure what I’m saying,” he finally said, feeling rather foolish. He expected an angry look to cross Tillous’ face… That’s why he was so perplexed when she nodded with understanding.

“How about this?” she began. “Why don’t we start over?”

“From when I printed you?”

Tillous shook her head. “No, from the very beginning. A clean slate.”

Hatch didn’t know how something so simple could work, but it absolutely sounded like the best solution. It kept him safe, and also absolved him of his mistakes. Best of all, it meant that Tillous was willing to give him a second chance.

“Okay, I think that will work,” he finally said, extending a tentacle in her direction. “My name is A’Din Hatcherik.”

Tillous reached out, gingerly wringing his tentacle—a greeting Hatch hadn’t performed in quite some time. “Pleased to me you, A’Din. I’m M’Din Tillous.”

Hatch smiled, elated by something he hadn’t expected: the freedom a new beginning brings.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Q-Ship, Aurelis System

“It’s kind of fun being bait,” Bailey remarked.

She flew the Q-ship Knox and Liesel had upgraded around an asteroid belt, spotting planet Carina in the distance. This strategy meant that Vance would learn that Ghost Squadron was closer than ever, and he may even deduce that they knew where his headquarters was located. However, by then it would be too late.

Besides, Bailey reasoned, sometimes you have to give something up in battle.

“I don’t think the worm ever thinks being on the hook is fun,” Lewis stated, scanning for enemy ships.

“I like this plan,” Dejoure exclaimed excitedly. “It seems like something superheroes would do.”

Bailey looked back and smiled. “You’re definitely a superhero.”

“We’re like the X-Men,” Pip said. “Which makes Jack Professor X.”

“And Vance is Magneto,” Dejoure added.

“Question,” Vitos called from the back. “How long does it take for this ship to change appearances?”

Bailey looked at Lewis and shrugged. “Not sure. This is sort of untested. Time was a factor.”

“Knox modeled the process after the Saverus ships,” Pip explained, “so the shift is pretty instantaneous.”

“So Saverus ships can become anything?” Vitos asked.

Penrae nodded. “Yes, any type of craft or vehicle.”

“This one is limited to the design of the Monstre Corp ships,” Bailey imparted. “Knox said it’s like the ship has a Halloween costume it can change into.”

“But in the future,” Dejoure mused, “I bet it will have lots of costumes.”

“Damn, that would be cool,” Bailey said, noticing how tense Lewis was beside her.

“Where are the Saverus?” Vitos asked Penrae, who sat behind him.

“No one really knows,” she stated. “They disappeared. That’s typical for my race, though. My ancestors had us hidden for centuries; most thought we’d gone extinct. Later, we became a myth who some thought never existed in the first place.”

“Wow, that’s so strange,” Vitos exclaimed.

“Yeah, but I never really fit in with them,” Penrae said shyly. “They are a vicious species and very self-serving… not to mention their practices are a bit unorthodox. I’m better now that I’m with Ghost Squadron.”

“I can relate,” he admitted. “I think we are born to a race, but we aren’t bound to it.”

Bailey smiled back at the crew. “I think we make our own family.”

Lewis nodded nervously. Bailey knew he was still struggling with the long-term ramifications of committing to taking care of Dejoure. For him, it all rested on whether he gained his freedom, which wasn’t guaranteed even with Melanie’s confession. They both knew they needed the diamond to buy his freedom. Strangely, it was the object that had directed them to Vance that would undo all of Lewis’s problems.

“And we got a fish,” Bailey said, indicating the Monstre Corp ship that had materialized, jumping close by. It fired on them, its attacks fast and unrelenting. “Hold onto your seats.” She swung the ship back and forth, avoiding getting hit.

“We need more ships.” Lewis’s hands tensed on the weapon controls.

“Right, which means don’t shoot down this one,” she ordered. “Just try and keep him off our asses. We need his friends to join him.”

“And there they are,” Pip called as three more Monstre Corp ships materialized.

“Perfect,” Bailey sang. “Now it’s a party.”

“Put on your costume!” Dejoure exclaimed.

Bailey had said that the process was untested, but the next few steps were crucial, so she’d practiced them at length in the little time they’d had to prepare. She flew the Q-ship in an arc, lining it up with precision. The four Monstre Corp ships raced after them, continuously firing.

Bailey whipped the ship around suddenly, heading in their direction. Seeming to fear that, like Pip, she was going to sacrifice the Q-ship to take them out, the ships broke formation, scattering.

Bailey jumped the Q-ship. She immediately activated the spoof mode, transforming the exterior to look like the Monstre Corp ship. It was mostly an illusion of lights and mirrors, but the effect should be enough to fool them. The ship materialized next to the enemy just as two more joined the mix.

Things couldn’t be going better.

“Well, that was perfect,” Lewis exclaimed, echoing Bailey’s thoughts.

After a long few minutes, the ships seemed to have decided that the Q-ship was gone, and they made for their home planet. The Q-ship flew closer to Carina. In the distance, the Monstre Corp headquarters stood, a foreboding presence in a sea of green forest.

“Ready to bring this baby in?” Bailey called to the crew, steering the ship toward the docking station of their greatest enemy.

This was it. The moment of reckoning.

Chapter Thirty

Monstre Corp Headquarters, Planet Carina, Aurelis System

The disguised Q-ship glided into the loading dock. Tillous’ security hacks helped them fool the various electronic identifications that would have happened on their approach.

The brightness of the white lights made Lewis squint. It was like the loading dock was preparing for a photoshoot, it was so startlingly bright from the lights and the reflectors stationed all around.

Bailey parked the Q-ship among the row of enemy craft. There were a dozen, which meant her extra one didn’t stick out. This plan wouldn’t have worked if Monstre Corp only had a few ships. She gave Lewis a tense look while they waited for the other combat pilots to exit. When the last had gotten out of their ship, Lewis turned back to Penrae and nodded.

The shapeshifter was already at the hatch, which was slightly open. Within range of the closest pilot, Penrae shifted, taking on the man’s appearance before placing a comm in her ear and an external file in her pocket. She nodded before slipping through the door, but hung back, pretending to inspect her ship.

When the pilots had all exited, Penrae’s voice echoed over the comm, “I’m headed to the main control hub.”

“Copy that, Traveler,” Lewis said, using the handle Penrae had picked for herself. He gave Bailey a reassuring look. “So far, so good.”

She shook her head. “Stop doing that jinx business.”

He stuck out his tongue; his attempt at loosening up. “You know I only do it to annoy you.”

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

Penrae took on three different appearances as she progressed through Monstre Corp, shedding ones that were lower level in favor of higher ranking officials. She was currently the director of security, which she thought was probably the best one to keep for the rest of the mission. She had to remove the comm and file before each shifting so that she could keep hold of them.

“I have the schematics for the facility,” Pip said over the comm.

Penrae froze. “Yes?”

“It’s two levels down, on the main floor.”

She nodded and spun around, trying to figure out which way to go. The hallway was a long stretch of white, with no indicators of what lay ahead. She turned back around to find a man standing squarely in the center of the passageway, giving her a scrutinizing look. He wore a black suit and a tie to match, and had a bald head and a long face, which radiated power.

“Kevin?” the man called. “Why are you here?”

Oh shoot, I’m supposed to know who this is.

Penrae wore a white guard’s uniform. The other people she’d shifted into had also worn white. This man, though, stood out in the stark white hallway in his black suit.

Could this be…?

“Sir, I’m needed for a meeting,” she said, striding over to who she believed to be Solomon Vance.

If the cold contempt in his eyes were credentials, then he was definitely one of the most evil men she’d come in contact with. However, according to Jack’s research, most all who worked at Monstre Corp were soulless; that was a requirement for the work they did.

“How would you have a meeting right now when you’re supposed to be in my office giving a briefing?”

Dammit. “Sorry, sir. That’s what I meant. I’m on my way to your office for a meeting.”

“Get up there right away,” the man ordered. “I’ll be up there momentarily.”

Penrae eyed the door in front of the man she firmly believed to be Solomon. There was no marker on it, but something in the way he kept eyeing it told her there was something important in there.

“Yes, sir,” she said, putting her head down and hurrying the other direction.

“Is there a reason you’re going that way?” Solomon called from the other side of the hallway.

She froze. Turned. Managed an apologetic smile. Either this would work, or she had screwed up everything. “I have to use the restroom, sir.”

Solomon studied her for a moment, his eyes seeming to dissect her. Then he nodded his consent. “Don’t delay. I’ll be up soon.”

“Yes, sir,” Penrae said, hurrying in the direction of the restroom.

Chapter Thirty-One

Monstre Corp Headquarters, Planet Carina, Aurelis System

Solomon Vance had not once seen his director of security, Kevin Neil, smile. He also didn’t know what he’d be doing on this level, which was solely devoted to the etheric diamond; it was off limits to anyone not working on the transfer project.

Maybe Kevin was only checking security. It is his chief responsibility, Solomon reasoned.

Running his wrist over the sensor by the door, he waited for it to open automatically. The lab was busy with activity, all the personnel working furiously to meet today’s deadline.

They were running out of time—a Ghost Squadron ship had recently been spotted in the Aurelis system. That was a first, and not a good sign. Solomon had never experienced such an excruciating pain in the ass as those rejects that remained with Ghost Squadron. Nothing he’d done yet had blotted out the fools. His patience was running out.

That was one reason that he’d agreed to help Melanie Myers with her campaign against Precious Galaxy Coffee Company. He firmly believed the scheme would have gotten them away from Monstre Corp, maybe even taken them out. But no. And he’d lost half his fleet and a good number of soldiers taking that risk. Not to mention Melanie, an entitled asset, had also been lost.

In the middle of the large room sat the thing Melanie had given him in exchange for Starboards Corp. The large etheric diamond rotated, suspended in a clear glass case, held up by various gases. Twice, they’d tried to transfer the energy from the diamond to the super computer housed on the top floor.

Solomon ran his eyes over the transfer cables, built to hold the incredible power the diamond had stored. Before taking possession of the stone, Solomon hadn’t realized that it was a rechargeable battery. He’d worried that, in their attempts to perfect the transfer project, it would be drained. He was pleased to find out that he’d had no reason to be concerned.

Solomon snapped his fingers, gaining the attention of the busy scientists. Cleo Ruby, the head of the transfer project, hurried over, her brown hair whipping back.

“Update,” he ordered, when she was close enough.

“Sir, we’ve made progress,” Cleo reported. “The most recent tests measure that a steady amount of power is being sent to the computer.”

Solomon arched an eyebrow, instantly skeptical. “How much?”

Her gaze dropped. “It’s low still. Anything too high results in complications.”

Solomon growled in protest. The super computer was making progress, now housing over one hundred consciousnesses. He’d even started to upload stronger minds, ones classified as levels three and four, with psychic abilities. The true test, to be able to transfer those to a person, still seemed a long way out without a power source.

“The deadline is today,” he declared.

“I realize that, sir,” Cleo began. “We only need a little bit more time. I’m sure by tomorrow, we can—”

“Today,” Solomon barked. “Have it ready by today.”

Chapter Thirty-Two

Monstre Corp Headquarters, Planet Carina, Aurelis System

“His eyes are black, and his head bald,” Penrae whispered over the comm as she neared the main level in the stairwell.

“That fits the description Hatch gave me,” Pip said over the comm.

“Seriously, I was almost toast,” she said, finding comfort in having the team on the comm. “I felt like he could look right through me, into my soul.”

Pip laughed. “I didn’t realize that Saverus had souls.”


Penrae halted at the door to the stairwell. She wasn’t sure what was on the floor where Solomon had found her, but she suspected she wasn’t supposed to be there. At least the main floor would be her domain, as she was in the form of the director of security.

She pulled open the door and strode out into the white hallway. The building seemed mostly deserted, but as she passed door after door, she realized that most of the employees were locked away, doing the devil’s work.

“It’s going to be the last door on your right,” Pip informed her. “There’s a security scanner by the entrance.”

Penrae nodded to herself, not answering. When she got to the door, she looked over the uniform of the security personnel, searching for a badge of some sort.

“If you haven’t guessed it yet, your access is in your wrist,” Pip stated.

Penrae turned her wrist over, not seeing a bracelet or band of any sort. “On my wrist?”

In,” the AI corrected.

Oh, right. She scanned her wrist over the security reader, and a moment later, the door opened.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

Solomon Vance entered the meeting room adjacent to his office, his mind still on the etheric diamond. They were so close, after all this time, and yet they weren’t. If they couldn’t supply the energy, then the new project would fail. Yes, he’d still have a super computer, but not the direct access he’d hoped for. Longed for.

Kevin, Frank and Daniel all stood as he entered the meeting room. Solomon turned his focus on Kevin, who didn’t look any different than when he’d seen him a few moments prior, except for his demeanor. He appeared more like himself now, his face stone and his hands tensed by his side.

“What were you doing on third floor?” Solomon asked him.

The other directors’ eyes skirted to the side, looking at Kevin indirectly.

“Sir?” Kevin asked. “I’m not sure what you mean?”

“A moment ago,” Solomon stated. “I ran into you on the third floor.”

Kevin’s beady eyes narrowed as he leaned forward. “Sir, I really don’t know what you mean.”

Solomon straightened, his nostrils flaring. “Dean, I want a report of a security detail. Was Kevin on the third floor a moment ago?”

Either the man was lying and going to pay with his life, or something was amiss.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

Penrae slipped into the main control room quietly. Still, the two men behind the control panels looked up before snapping to standing positions and saluting.

She nodded dismissively at the men. “I need you two out of here. I’m updating security protocols, and it’s highly classified.”

The men’s faces scrunched up with confusion. She had to admit it wasn’t a very good lie, but it was vague enough that there wasn’t anything inherently wrong with it. Penrae had learned that from training with her own; Saverus were taught masterfully how to deceive, but their training was so ingrained that most of her race didn’t know when to stop lying.

When the two men hadn’t moved, Penrae said, “Now.” Her voice was clear and loud, full of authority.

“Yes, sir,” the two men said in unison. They shuffled for the exit, keeping their eyes low.

Penrae didn’t waste a moment, pulling out the file that Tillous had given her. It would override the facility’s current security protocols, blocking any remote access. Most importantly, it would give the team an all-access pass to Monstre Corp’s headquarters.

“We’re all set,” she said over the comm, scanning the cameras.

Currently, she was the only one who had access to the footage. Her eyes skipped to the closed door. She only hoped it remained that way.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

“I can’t access the security footage, sir,” Dean reported a moment later.

Solomon stiffened. “What? Why not?”

“I’m not sure, sir,” Dean answered. “There appears to be a new security protocol blocking my access.”

“How is that possible?” Solomon questioned. “You have full control over this facility.”

“Not at the moment, sir,” the AI stated overhead. “I’ll have to do a diagnostic test to determine what is going on.”

“How long will that take?”

“It should only take ten to fifteen minutes.”

Solomon closed his eyes for a beat. When he opened them again, he focused on Kevin. “You are to remain here until we figure out what is going on.”

“But, sir, if there is a security breach, I should—”

“If there is a security breach, you might be at the heart of it. Stay here.”

Solomon strode for the door. If Ghost Squadron was here, he’d deal with them once and for all, and this time, he’d do it himself. That was the only way to ensure the job got done properly.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Monstre Corp Headquarters, Planet Carina, Aurelis System

The loading dock was empty when the team exited the Q-ship, or so they thought. A lone pilot was vaping behind one of the Monstre Corp ships. He looked up with surprise at the sight of Bailey.

She lunged at him as he pulled back. The pilot wasn’t fast enough for Bailey. She grabbed both his shoulders and yanked him down as she brought her knee up into his face. A cracking sound echoed, followed by a stream of blood. Bailey brought her foot around, taking out his legs and sending him down to the deck.

“Guys, can I get a cleanup on aisle five?” she whispered.

Vitos was the first to stick his head around the Q-ship to see what she’d done. Bailey stood with one foot on top of the pilot, who squirmed weakly.

“Sure,” Vitos said, hurrying over. “I can tie him up.”

Bailey nodded, looking down at the injured pilot. “Seriously, vaping? You get how bad that is for you, right?”

The guy looked unable to answer, as blood streamed down his nose and into his mouth.

Bailey simply shot him a look of disappointment as she hurried off. Lewis caught up with her, giving her an amused smile.

“You have blood on your boots.” He indicated with his pinky finger.

She looked down and cursed. “Let me guess, my hair is out of place too?”

He looked her over. “Nah. Somehow, you manage to kick butt and still keep your tresses untangled.”

“It’s because I made a deal with a wizard,” she replied.

“I should have figured.”

Pip slid up next to where they were stationed by a ship closest to the exit, Dejoure at his side. “You two are adorable in battle.”

Bailey nodded, her gun up. “It’s our thing. It’s how we break the tension.”

“I break the tension with my good looks and witty banter,” Pip stated.

“And your overflowing modesty,” Bailey quipped.

“Yes, that too,” Pip sang in a whisper.

“Guys, I have to get out of the control room,” Penrae said over the comm. “Security is headed this way.”

“Will they be able to tell yet that we’ve blocked access?” Lewis asked.

“No, but the AI will, according to Tillous,” Penrae answered.

“Can you tell us where we’re headed?” Bailey asked. “Since you’ve got eyes on the specifics?”

“Yeah, my schematics aren’t specific about the projects,” Pip added.

“The super computer is on the top floor,” Penrae reported. “The monster—at least, I think it might be the monster—is on the fourth level. And the diamond is on the third.”

“Can you see the monster?” Dejoure asked.

“I can’t,” Penrae answered. “But that level has far more security measures than the others. I’m making a guess.”

“Good enough,” the girl stated.

“Traveler, I want you to meet Van Gogh on the third level,” Bailey ordered. “You two go after the diamond.”

Lewis shot her a cautious look, but nodded his consent. They needed the diamond, and they were going to have to rely on Vitos and Penrae to get the job done.

“Copy that,” Penrae stated. “I’m on my way.”

Vitos flew off toward the main door, his prosthetic wing working in perfect rhythm with his natural one.

“Dejoure, you and Pip go after the monster,” Bailey said. “Pip can protect you if you run into any personnel, and you can protect the rest of us if the monster gets pissed off.”

The two nodded before taking off for the door.

Bailey gave Lewis a tame smile. “That leaves the top floor for us. Are you ready for this?”

Lewis pulled out his gun and offered her a look of pure conviction. “Let’s end this.”

Chapter Thirty-Four

Monstre Corp Headquarters, Planet Carina, Aurelis System

Pip and Dejoure entered the fourth level without encountering anyone. The headquarters reminded Dejoure immensely of Starboards Corp. It had the same technology guarding the doors and the same color scheme that she had hated from the moment she arrived.

Life without color isn’t a proper life, she thought. And browns and tans didn’t count as color either. No, color was the pink and purple in her hair, or the yellow on her T-shirt, which read: ‘Always be yourself! Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman’.

“This way,” she whispered to Pip when they came out of the stairwell.

He shot her a curious expression.

“I can feel the monster,” she explained. “Either there’s a very apathetic, slightly suicidal individual who feels overly controlled up ahead, or it’s the monster.”

“Wow, you get quite the reading, don’t you?”

Pip stepped in front of Dejoure, taking the lead. He did so right in time, because, just then, two security officers strode around the corner. They were deep in conversation, but took a second look upon seeing the pair of intruders at the end of the hallway.

The first man pulled up his weapon, pointing it right at them. “What are you doing here? Hands up.”

To Dejoure’s surprise, Pip put his hands in the air. “Hey, no problem, but don’t point a gun at a child.” He shook his head. “Actually, you shouldn’t point one at me, either.” He looked back at Dejoure and mouthed, “Duck.”

She did as she was told, slipping back into the stairwell as Pip bolted down the hallway. Too curious, she peered around the corner, wincing when bullets streaked by from the security officers firing on Pip.

The AI grabbed the first officer around the neck, taking the gun he was holding and firing at the other man. He fell, and Pip twisted the neck of the officer in his grasp. When he dropped him, Dejoure stepped out of the stairwell.

Pip looked up at her, an apologetic expression on his face. He toed the closest man and said, “They’re sleeping.”

“It’s a bad place for it.” She didn’t look at the men as she approached.

When they reached a corner, Pip encouraged her back protectively. After he’d checked that all was clear, he waved her forward.

“The monster is in there.” She pointed to the only door on this wall.

Actually, it was the only door on this floor. She thought it might be all that was housed here; the walls were thick and extra reinforced to keep the monster contained. It didn’t like its prison, but it didn’t know anything else.

Dejoure pressed the button beside the door, which, like at Starboards, opened all the doors that were accessible. Nothing happened.

She turned to Pip, giving him a quizzical expression. “I thought we were supposed to have full access?”

“I’m sure we do, but the monster has extra protection,” he theorized while encouraging her to get back.

“Are you going to do that kung fu punch thing again?”

“Brute force is a part of my resume, but don’t forget that I’m wickedly intelligent, too.”

“I could never forget that,” Dejoure said, checking over her shoulder.

She wasn’t sure why she felt so vulnerable; she was with the strongest person she knew. But everyone could be defeated, if they were not careful.

Pip pried off the button Dejoure had tapped to reveal a mess of wires. He pulled a knife from his pocket and severed a few, making sparks explode from the wall. Dejoure jumped back, but Pip didn’t move. He only winked as he tugged on the wires, making the door slip back, revealing a giant, empty room.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

As they snuck up the stairwell to the top floor, Lewis was reminded of one of their first missions, their trip to Starboards Corp where they’d met Dejoure. He was the one who had insisted she come with them when they left. He seemed to know even then that she was a part of their group, their family.

How far they’d come in such a short time.

Bailey slipped back the door to the stairwell and shrank back immediately. The shots that followed told Lewis that they’d been spotted. He also suspected that this floor was more guarded than the others.

The door opened and, to his surprise, Bailey reached around and yanked the man in white forward, slamming her body into the door, crushing him. He dropped the gun he’d been carrying.

“Follow me,” the lieutenant told Lewis, using the man’s body as a shield as she held him up and stepped into the hallway.

Shots rang from the other end of the hallway, riddling the body of the man Bailey carried. She shot over his shoulder in return, taking out two men.

Lewis simultaneously peeked around the corner, catching two shooters on that side. He fired twice before sliding back into the stairwell.

Bailey looked back and forth and dropped her human shield. “Good shot. We’re all clear.”

A bullet whizzed between them, making Lewis jump back. Bailey, looking rather annoyed by this, spun around and fired several times, not lowering her weapon until she was satisfied she’d taken out her target.

“Okay, now we’re all clear.”

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

Solomon knew it. They’d been invaded. According to Dean, his guards were falling fast. First Starboards, then Precious Galaxy Coffee, now Monstre Corp.

Ghost Squadron had met their match. This was the end for them. He’d delayed too long, his scientists had been too careful, but the computer was ready enough. Yes, it only contained one hundred consciousnesses, but that was enough for now. He’d continue the upload after he finished these invaders off.

Solomon had dismissed the scientists who’d been in the super computer lab, and the cowards had taken the back stairwell. Many of his employees would flee, he knew, not wanting to be part of this inevitable fight.

Taking a seat on the throne he’d had constructed for the next phase, Solomon glared at the computer that held the consciousnesses. Everything they knew, he would know. Every mental strength they possessed, he would too. He would be more powerful than any other man, and this was only the beginning. There was so much more he could do.

“Dean, ready the etheric energy transfer,” he ordered, placing the wires around his head. There were several nodes that had to be placed precisely, but he didn’t have time to be overly critical of his approach.

“Yes, sir,” Dean answered. “It is ready to fuel the transfer at your order.”

Solomon laid his head back on the rest and clamped the restraint into place, securing himself in the chair. He looked at the quote that hung above the door to his lab and smiled to himself. These were the words he lived by. The ones he would die by.

‘If you win, you need not explain, but if you lose, you should not be there to explain! -Adolph Hitler’.

“Begin the transfer,” he ordered, closing his eyes.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Monstre Corp Headquarters, Planet Carina, Aurelis System

Dejoure wasn’t immune to the monster. She knew that. It was a diabolical being that had strange tendencies, just like humans did. Even the sanest man can crack.

This time, Dejoure held Pip back, stepping into the room first. Holding up her hand, she encouraged the AI to stay where he was. She didn’t know why, but she sensed that she needed to do this alone.

The monster sort of trusted her. And the only way to keep that trust was to prove her vulnerability to it.

As soon as she’d taken two steps into the room, the loud vibrating started. In the corner of the white room, a grayish smoke began to stir. Lightning sparked in midair as the roaring grew louder.

“Monster?” Dejoure said, taking another step forward.

She instantly knew it didn’t like that name. It might be a product of Monstre Corp, its greatest asset, but it was much more than that. Dejoure felt all this like they were her own emotions.

“What do you want me to call you?” she asked as the monster took full form.

It loomed over her, taking up most of the large room, its organic form swirling as the gears inside of it flashed in and out of view.

Dejoure closed her eyes, focusing on the message she felt tapping inside of her like Morse code. She felt an emotion opposite of what she’d felt from the monster seconds prior; she was suddenly full of peace and calm, overwhelmed with serenity.

Her eyes sprang open. “Tranquil,” she breathed.

The creature pulsed as if to say, ‘Yes, I like that.’

She beamed, wanting to extend a hand and pet the being like she would Harley. “Okay, your name is ‘Tranquil’.”

“I don’t mean to break up the bonding moment,” Pip said over the comm from the hallway. “However, I’m out here kicking butt, so maybe you want to speed up this shindig.”

Dejoure gulped. The next part felt weird. Wrong. She was close enough. All she had to do was alert Chester, and he would remotely upload the new software. But doing that without telling Tranquil was like someone changing her without her permission. Even if they were erasing one of her bad qualities, she should still have a say so.

She cleared her throat and looked up at the creature. “I have a friend who wants to help you. Right now, others see you as a monster, but—”

Tranquil’s form darkened as it roared louder.

Dejoure covered her ears from the sound that shook her chest and made her teeth shiver. “I don’t see you that way, but that’s because I can feel you!”

The sound softened, but not much.

“What you can do, uploading others, is wrong.” She held up her hand to stop the creature from reacting to this. “You’re not wrong. What you can do is wrong, and it’s because of who made you. That’s not your fault.”

Tranquil swirled, a confusion of emotions assaulting Dejoure with each passing second.

“My friend can change you, make you better, less harmful to others,” she explained.

She could feel the uncertainty pulsing through the creature.

She stood back and held up her arm. “I’m here to free you; you can go right now, if you want. The barriers that hold you inside your prison are down. But if you want me to change you so that you don’t hurt anyone anymore, I’ll do that before you go.”

The creature felt that freedom wasn’t real. That it was bound to its maker.

Dejoure shook her head, wanting to cry from the conflicting feelings crashing inside her. “He made you, but you’re not bound to him. And if you change what you can do, then you’ll be brand new, something he had nothing to do with. You’ll be made the way you see yourself. Full of peace.”

Tranquil shrank in size until it only took up half the room. The creature was so beautiful, it tightened Dejoure’s chest. It was wind and rain and lightning all mixed together. It was a calm storm, moving over placid waters. It was an anomaly.

Something suddenly occurred to her. A realization so powerful that she wanted to shout with excitement. Taking away the creature’s ability to upload wasn’t for others’ benefit. It was for its.

“That hunger, I can take it away from you,” Dejoure offered. “That’s what causes the conflict in you. That’s what keeps you tethered to this place. However, I can change that… I only need your permission.”

In the hallway, gunshots fired. A loud bang echoed against the wall. Pip could be heard telling off whoever he was beating up. Still, he couldn’t hold everyone off forever. Even if he could, Dejoure didn’t like putting the AI at risk.

Tranquil rose into the air, turning so black that Dejoure couldn’t see through it.

She thought that she’d angered the creature, but it didn’t upload her as she expected. Instead, it sent her a message that felt like acceptance.

She felt a clear, resounding ‘yes’ in her head.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

This diamond was the key to Lewis’s freedom. The detective had told Vitos that much, and the Tuetian wanted more than anything to help him with that. It was Lewis and Bailey that had given him his freedom, shown him a new life. They were some of the first friends he’d ever had.

Penrae had shifted into the form of Solomon Vance. His black eyes now stared at the door to the room where they believed the diamond to be. She looked to be mustering up her courage.

Swallowing, her hand hovered next to the button. “I can do this. I’ll just—”

Sirens blared overhead, cutting off her words. She looked at Vitos with alarm. He gave her an urgent look, and she pressed the button, sending the door open.

With an authoritative walk, Penrae strode into the room, Vitos beside her. Scientists scrambled all over the area, gathering supplies, making for the door.

In the middle of the room, suspended in a clear case, was one of the most beautiful objects Vitos had ever seen: a giant, sparkling diamond. A prism of colors shone off the gem, sending dazzling light in all directions.

“There’s been an invasion,” Penrae announced. “You all need to evacuate. This area needs to be secured. Get out now.”

“Sir?” A woman with dark brown hair rushed over. “Dean said the transfer process has started. What are you using it for?”

Penrae narrowed her eyes at the woman. “That’s none of your business.” She pointed to the door. “Now get out.”

The woman stumbled backward, her mouth hanging open. “But I should warn y—”

“The diamond is in danger,” Penrae said, her mouth hardly parting for the words. “I must secure it before we’re overrun.”

“That’s what I need to tell you,” the woman urged. “If you—”

“If you do not leave at once, this moment will be your last,” the Saverus threatened.

Vitos pulled his pistol up, pointing it straight at the woman. If she was wondering what a Tuetian was doing at Monstre Corp, her face didn’t show it. She nodded roughly at Penrae and turned, sprinting for the door. She was the last one to leave the area, leaving Vitos and Penrae alone with the diamond.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

“Are you done yet?” Dejoure asked Chester over the comm.

“Just another minute,” he answered.

The sirens going off had made the creature more stressed. It wanted to leave. To float away. To be free.

“We’re almost done,” Dejoure cooed in a soothing voice. She lifted her hand, but hesitated when the creature came forward, stepping back a foot.

It could still upload her; she could feel that it was still conflicted on who it was and what its purpose was. That would be the case until it was changed.

The creature dropped a couple of feet, its disappointment at being rejected beating like a drum, loud and clear.

“Okay, I only need to do a reboot and it will be complete,” Chester stated.

“You’re going to reboot it?” Dejoure asked, trying to keep the fear out of her voice.

“It’s a good thing,” he told her. “That’s when all the changes will take place.”

The girl nodded, looking straight at the creature. “You’ll be right back with us. I promise. Then you can start a new life.”

The monster rose into the air, sounding like a train passing overhead.

“It’s started,” Chester reported.

At that same moment, the creature dropped to the ground, losing all its color. Dejoure leapt forward, falling to the floor on her hands and knees. “Tranquil!”

“Don’t worry, it should come back any second now,” Chester assured her.

Dejoure didn’t want to tell the hacker that she could feel the doubt in his voice. This was all new territory. There was a chance that the creature didn’t come back. That changing its programming had killed it. Dejoure could never live with herself if she’d convinced the creature to make this change only to take its life.

She felt the tears in her throat aching to be released. She felt around on the ground where the monster had been, thinking that maybe she could touch it, bring it back to life with her hands.

There was a spark in front of her vision. A soft humming filled the air.

Dejoure pushed up to her feet, trying to make sense of the form materializing in front of her. It wasn’t the grayish black shape of the creature, this was soft blues, pinks and greens swirling together, resembling the strange appearance of the Precious galaxy. The creature was back and, if at all possible, it was more beautiful than before.

“Tranquil,” Dejoure said in amazement, tears in her word.

The creature hummed louder, a sound like a rushing waterfall. She felt the peace inside Tranquil, and it was a real emotion, not just a desired one like it had been before.

Unafraid this time, Dejoure reached out a hand. The creature moved like a breeze over the ocean, smooth and graceful. When it touched her hand, she felt a bond unlike any she’d known before. The creature connected with her for the briefest of moments, sending her an overwhelming message of gratitude.

“You’re welcome,” she said as Tranquil swam toward the door, lingering there for a moment before disappearing.

Chapter Thirty-Six

Monstre Corp Headquarters, Planet Carina, Aurelis System

After taking out six guards, one who was particularly resistant to the idea of dying, Bailey and Lewis made it to the ominous door—the one Penrae had directed them to from her memory of the layout, based on her time in the control room.

Holding her gun on the door, Bailey cut her eyes at Lewis. “Why do I get the feeling this is too easy?”

“You mean why aren’t there more guards or some trap?” Lewis asked.

She nodded.

“Well, let’s remember what we know about Vance,” he suggested. He held up a finger. “He’s strategic.”

“Which means if we can get into this room, is it possible that he wants us in there?” Bailey asked.

“Let’s not dismiss ourselves, though,” Lewis said. “We’ve come in and taken down most of his guards. I think we need to remember that he’s desperate.”

Bailey’s mouth dropped open. “Which means…”

The idea must have dawned on Lewis at the same time, based on the expression on his face.

“You ready to face possibly the worst villain known to man?” the lieutenant asked.

A grin broke across his face as he slid up next to her. “Of course, partner. Where you go, I go.”

“Good,” Bailey said. “Because it’s going to be a heck of a story to tell the crew, and I don’t want to do it alone.”

Lewis tapped the button beside the door, but as they both suspected, the entrance didn’t budge.

“It appears you wish to enter the main lab,” a mechanical voice said overhead.

Vance’s AI.

“Hey, there,” Bailey called. “Yeah, we’re selling girl scout cookies and wanted to see if Vance would like to buy any. Is he home?”

Lewis shook his head at her but still smiled.

“Dr. Vance is expecting you,” the voice said. “He will be ready to see you in three minutes.”

Bailey gave Lewis a pointed stare. “I vote for not waiting for this diabolical genius to be ready.”

Lewis agreed with a nod. “That’s my vote, too.”

“Casanova, any ideas on how to get into a locked door?” Bailey asked over the comm.

“Hey, there,” Pip replied, his voice strained like he was in the middle of something. “Yeah, pull the button off and match the red and green wire.”

“And if we don’t have superhuman strength?” the detective asked.

“Oh, then just shoot it,” Pip answered. “That should short circuit the system, which will either open the door or lock it down for good.”

Bailey shrugged at the questioning look Lewis gave her. “What do we have to lose?”

He lifted his gun and shot the button for the door three times. Smoke billowed from the electronic button. There was a solid few seconds where Bailey concluded that the tactic hadn’t worked, but then the door slid back, revealing a cavernous room.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

Solomon’s body convulsed under the intense pressure. He’d never felt so many sensations at once. It was pain and also relief. It was pleasure and also discomfort. He felt full and also empty at the same time. He felt the universe pulsing within him, a giant force that he held the reins to.

The super computer, bursting with consciousnesses and fueled by the etheric diamond, downloaded into Solomon, filling his mind with the powers and knowledge of one hundred others.

His jaws clenched together. Sweat rolled off his head and down his back. His eyes bulged under his closed eyelids.

He could hardly take anymore.

“The process will be complete in three minutes,” Dean declared overhead.

It’s working!

The etheric diamond was doing it. Transferring everything to him. Soon he would be more powerful than any human alive.

It’s the mind that wields power, after all, not the body.

Gunshots pulled Vance out of his victorious coma. The one full of agony and also pride. He opened his eyes to find his surroundings too bright. The air stung. His tongue felt burned.

He was almost complete. Only another couple of minutes.

Two figures stepped into the room.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

“How do we get it down?” Penrae asked Vitos.

The diamond was encased in a glass tube, grayish gas circulating around it. Wires streamed from the case up to the ceiling, where they disappeared.

Vitos stared at the various computers, wondering if one of them could release the diamond.

“There’s not even a door on the container,” Penrae continued as she walked around the diamond, still in Vance’s form.

“They had to have a way to get it out,” Vitos stated.

“Not if they weren’t planning on moving it,” Penrae replied. “The case was probably built for it.”

Vitos lifted his gun, thinking that was the only option.

“No!” Penrae darted over, her hands waving over her head.

Vitos lowered his weapon. “Have any better ideas?”

“What if it shatters?”

“But aren’t diamonds the toughest material in the universe?” he asked.

Penrae nodded, but then shook her head. “Diamonds are hard, but also brittle. With enough force, it could splinter.”

Vitos deflated. “That won’t do. It has to be in pristine condition. Otherwise, the detective…”

Penrae agreed with a nod. She gracefully took the gun from Vitos, and he allowed it, even though he didn’t know what she was doing. He’d trusted her from the beginning. She was like him; different from her own.

“I’m going to shoot the glass, Vitos,” Penrae began. “And you’re going to swoop in and catch the diamond before it drops to the ground.”

“Me?” Vitos asked incredulously, pointing at himself. “But I don’t know if I can get it in time. What if I can’t, and it shatters? What if my wings aren’t fast enough?”

Penrae gave him an annoyed look which was exaggerated by Vance’s dark eyes. “Come on. How many times do you have to prove yourself? It’s getting a little tiring.”

“But my new wing…”

“Is perfect and it’s going to work just like the other one,” she insisted.

“That one wasn’t always so good,” Vitos said morosely.

He knew he was wasting time, he knew he had to do this. And he knew that Penrae was right. He just kept putting himself in a position where he doubted himself. Heroes had to continuously face challenges always with a “can do” spirit. It’s the cowards of the world that constantly forget their own greatness.

Penrae’s eyes took on an urgency when a loud humming sound filled the corridor. “Come on, Vitos. Get into position. We need to hurry.”

He flew over to the diamond, his feet brushing the ground. The new wing was wonderful, working seamlessly with his other. It occurred to Vitos in that tense moment that his wings had always worked perfectly. It was only his thoughts that had handicapped him.

He gave Penrae an adamant nod to indicate that he was ready.

She scooted to the side, angling the gun so she’d shoot the side of the case and not the diamond itself. “On my count,” she called, her voice clear and loud so as to be heard over the strange humming sound that was growing louder. “One, two, three!”

Penrae fired the gun. She peeled back from the explosion of glass as Vitos sped forward. He knew that the glass could damage his one remaining real wing, but he didn’t think about that. Instead, he kept his eyes on the large diamond, speeding toward it like a bullet, his arms outstretched.

It was falling fast and was hard to make out with the explosion of gas leaking out with it. The glass was everywhere, but Vitos flew, twirling through the air, rolling over on his back and flying upside down, his wings propelling him while also staying safe from the glass. The sharp shards cut his arms and face, but his wings were fine and speeding him quickly onward.

The diamond was almost to the ground. Vitos picked up speed, flying faster than he could ever remember. His hands reached. Everything was happening so fast, and yet he was slowing it down in his mind, seeing it in slow motion.

He spiraled, his arms catching the diamond just before it hit the floor. It was heavy, heavier than anything he’d ever carried, but he told himself he could do it. He believed he could.

Vitos spun around again, flying upside down, the diamond clasped in his arms across his chest. He flew up, getting away from the glass and gas and straightened to a standing position, hovering in the air. He looked down at Penrae, victory bounding out of his chest as he clutched the most valuable diamond in all the world, the one he’d rescued for his good friend Lewis.

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Monstre Corp Headquarters, Planet Carina, Aurelis System

Something is wrong!

The surge of knowledge had stopped. Solomon went from feeling a strong magnitude of force to feeling nothing at all.

He blinked, trying to will the transfer to continue. He suddenly knew so many things that he hadn’t before. There were solutions that he hadn’t considered. Ideas that were brilliant and beautiful.

His mind could will the transfer to continue. His mind could snap a person in half.

And there happened to be two people he’d like to practice that on.

Obliteration: Age Of Expansion

Lewis didn’t know what he expected to see, but the man sitting in the strange chair with wires protruding from his head wasn’t it.

Vitos had informed them over the comm that they had the diamond, and Lewis had ordered he and Penrae to get to the safety of the Q-ship.

“No matter what, don’t return to the building. We’ll meet you once we’re done with Vance,” he’d told Vitos before they stepped into the room.

Solomon Vance sat with his thin arms extended over the arms of the chair, lying limply to the side. His bald head lolled, and sweat flooded his face and suit. The man had a bald head and a thin frame. On his hand, he wore a large ring with a gaudy monster on it.

Behind him was a large bank of windows that overlooked the Chumash Forest. The green that seemed to stretch endlessly was the first color Lewis had ever seen in any of Vance’s buildings, and it framed the man in a strange way.

“Solomon Vance,” Bailey said, her voice a welcome sound over the strange humming that filled the air. It didn’t sound bad, like the monster, but still it was ominous. “Under Federation law, you’re under arrest for murder, treason, theft… Well, you broke just about every law.”

She moved into the room, her gun held at the ready, and her eyes scanning the space. Lewis took the other side of the room, but there wasn’t much to see. A computer. A table. A couple of chairs. White walls. A Hitler quote. Pretty standard for Vance.

Lewis would have thought that the man in the chair was dead if not for the ever so slight rising and falling of his chest.

Bailey, on the other side of Vance, gave Lewis a questioning look. Neither of them knew what to do next. They’d expected a fight. A giant. A weapon. Not a passed-out man who looked ready to tumble out of his chair.

He nodded to her. Maybe things are going to be easier than we thought. Then he flinched. Did I just jinx us? He laughed inside, realizing that the lieutenant had rubbed off on him.

“Vance, I’m going to cuff you,” Bailey told him. “Don’t try anything, or my partner will shoot you in the head.” She holstered her weapon and grabbed the cuffs from her belt. “We’ll call it an accident, and absolutely no one will care.”

She went in to cuff Vance, and Lewis felt a tug on his gun. It pulled him forward an inch. Bailey shot him a curious look.

Lewis blinked, wondering if he was imagining things. Suddenly, the gun was jerked completely from his hands and sent flying across the room.

Bailey jumped back, going for her own weapon. However, before she could reach one, both were pulled from her holsters and thrown backward like they were speeding bullets themselves. They smashed into the glass wall, cracking it.

She and Lewis exchanged looks of horror. Vance had been successful. He’d transferred the consciousnesses into himself. Those powerful minds.

He’s telekinetic.

And telepathic, a voice said in Lewis’s head. It wasn’t his voice, it was Vance’s.

Very slowly, the detective moved to stoop to the ground so he could retrieve the gun at his ankle.

I wouldn’t do that, Vance said in his head.

Lewis didn’t listen. He dropped to the ground, but before he could get the gun, an invisible force picked Bailey up and slammed her against the back wall.

“Bailey!” Lewis yelled, darting to a standing position. He wanted to run to her, but he was paralyzed. Frozen.

His eyes could see and his lungs could breathe, but that’s all he was allowed. He couldn’t even open his mouth to protest. It was just like when he’d been teleported. When this all began.

Bailey pushed back into the wall, feeling the back of her head where she’d hit it. Her hand came back covered in blood. She could move, but for how long? If Vance could control their bodies and get into their minds, it would only be a matter of time before they lost this battle. If Lewis could call for Pip or the others… but he was paralyzed.

Bailey gripped her head suddenly, folding into a ball. A scream erupted from her mouth. “Stop it! Get out! Don’t!”

What’s Vance doing to her? Torturing her with thought or with force? It didn’t much matter, since Lewis had no idea how to help. For all the brains he possessed, he didn’t know how to get them out of this.

Then he remembered that his thoughts weren’t private anymore. Vance was listening. More importantly, Lewis remembered that his thoughts were his own creation.

Bailey cried out like her insides were on fire. If Dejoure were there, she’d know how much that pained Lewis to hear. However, his thoughts told a very different story.

I wish he’d finish with her, Lewis thought. I want my turn to battle Solomon Vance. That weak man who can’t even hold his head up.

As if on cue, Bailey stopped screaming. Her breaths were loud and heavy, but she wasn’t screaming. Hopefully she wasn’t in pain anymore. Residual moans echoed from her mouth as she pushed up from her curled position.

Vance’s arms raised like they were robotic. You wanted to face me, did you?

Lewis was transported across the floor like a pawn in a chess game until he was standing directly in front of Vance.

Like a zombie waking, Vance lifted his head. His bloodshot eyes seemed to glow as they studied Lewis.

You thought you could ruin me, the man said, his voice hoarse in Lewis’s head. You have no idea who I am.

With a jerk, Vance yanked the contraption off his head. He rose to a standing position with a force that, seconds prior, he hadn’t seemed to possess.

From the corner of his vision, Lewis spied Bailey stirring, her feet moving under her.

Vance’s hand rose, and Bailey flew into the air like she had wings. Then, with a flick of his wrist, Vance sent Bailey flying into the bank of windows. The sound of cracking thundered throughout the room.

Lewis wanted to scream; his mouth parted ever so slightly. He was breaking out of Vance’s control. He could do it. He had to!

Bailey slid down to the ground. The glass splintered up to the ceiling and then broke, glass raining down on her. She covered her head and crouched, covering herself from the shards. Bailey was still in the building, though, and hadn’t gone out the window, as Lewis had feared she might.

Cool air, laced with the smell of pine trees, drifted through the room.

Panting, Bailey made to push herself up from the ground. She had several cuts on her hands and face, but her nanos were repairing her.

What they needed was a distraction. Lewis wished he could communicate that to Bailey. He gave her a look; sometimes she could read him. Was this one of those times?

Lewis’s fingers twitched by his side. I’m breaking free! He was afraid that Vance had heard that thought, but the man swung around to face Bailey instead.

“What have you done?” he yelled at her.

She rolled her shoulders back, lifting her chin high. “I’ve blocked you from my head; you’re not as powerful as you thought. We must have disrupted the transfer. Oops.”

Lewis wanted to laugh at her audacity in this moment, but he kept his focus on breaking free, just as she had. Solomon couldn’t know it, though. He clenched his fist.

“Break free of me?” Vance laughed, a hollow, achy sound. “How about now?”

Bailey lifted into the air and floated backward until she was hanging precariously over the side of the five-story building. Her feet kicked. Her eyes widened in shock.

“Yes, you’re so free of me,” Vance taunted.

Lewis wiggled his foot. Bent his knee. How was he going to get Bailey back inside?

Put her down, and we’ll give you back the diamond, he thought.

Vance spun around, still suspending Bailey in the air. The diamond. You think you’re going to get away with my diamond? he said in Lewis’s head, his voice callous.

It’s not yours. And we already have it. We’ve also freed the monster, Lewis thought. He could hardly believe that the diamond would buy Bailey’s freedom, but he had to try it.

A yell that sounded like thunder echoed from Vance’s mouth. “You all will pay.”

Our team is already gone with the diamond. They were told to leave once they had it, Lewis lied. On our orders, they will return.

Vance rotated to face Bailey again. “Call your team and tell them to bring me the diamond.”

Although she was at his mercy, Bailey crossed her arms and shook her head. “Put me down safely over there.” She indicated to where Lewis stood.

Vance growled, but a moment later, Bailey began to move, flying over to Lewis’s position. He shouldn’t have been surprised when she flew into the wall next to him. Vance wasn’t very gentle with her.

“Call your team,” Vance ordered. “Then I’ll deal with you.”

The humming sound that had been intermittent grew louder, coming from the outside. It sounded like a strong gush of wind roaring through the trees.

“Fine,” Bailey said, brushing herself off as she got away from the wall.

She could move freely, no longer under Vance’s spell; he couldn’t get in her head like he could with Lewis. That’s why he was focusing all his attention on her… he believed Lewis was already paralyzed under his control.

By the time Lewis lowered to the floor and retrieved his gun, it was too late. There was nothing Vance could do to stop him. He brought his weapon up and fired repeatedly, the bullets ripping through Vance’s shoulder, then his arm, then his chest.

Vance stumbled back, wind ripping through his suit. He clutched his chest in disbelief and looked up at Lewis like he was offended. The laugh that echoed from his mouth was all wrong.

Then the gun flew out of Lewis’s hands and landed across the room with the others.

You think you can kill me? Vance asked in Lewis’s head.

It was then that Lewis realized there was no blood; Vance was wearing armor.

He picked one of the bullets from his shoulder and flicked it across the room. You might as well give up, Vance advised.

Lewis wished he’d been more focused and shot Vance in the head. His eyes skirted to the guns that were too far away.

“Call your team,” Vance ordered again, “and then you die, you worthless pieces of shit. Your efforts will never be enough to kill me.”

The humming grew louder. Lewis and Bailey didn’t say a word.

Vance held out his arms, indicating the building around him. “I built this!” The wind whipped in from the outside, which was only a few inches away, and billowed his trousers. “What have you built? You’re nothing compared to me.” He laughed so loudly that it drowned out the humming. “I am Solomon Vance, the creator of Monstre Corp. The most powerful man to ever live.”

Lewis stepped in close to Bailey at the sight of the monster, which had appeared behind Vance… Though it didn’t look like the monster anymore. It was smaller and brighter in color, but for some reason, a fury still brewed within it.

Vance didn’t see the creature. He was laughing too loudly, his arms extended. “I am Solomon Vance, and you are nothing. I have built all of this.”

He turned and froze at the sight of his creation. “There you are! What have they done to you?”

The monster must have communicated with Vance, because a moment later, he turned around. “How dare you change my monster.”

Dejoure stepped into the room right beside them, her fist clenched by her side. The sight of her nearly made Lewis jump, and he wanted to yell to her to get out, but she marched forward with a force he’d never seen in her.

“That is not a monster!” she yelled at Vance. “It’s a beautiful creature, and it doesn’t do your bidding anymore.” Dejoure looked at the creature and nodded. “Do it, Tranquil, and then you’ll truly be free.”

Vance spun around, his arms wide. “What? What is this about? You’re not free! You belong to me!”

The creature rose into the air, its form taking up most of the window. Its humming grew so loud that everyone but Vance covered their ears, and Vance’s shouting could no longer be heard as he ordered the creature to stop.

Tranquil rolled forward like a thunderstorm, sparks shooting within it. The creature was a dark cloud again. Then it swooped forward and enveloped Vance.

He screamed. Fought. Yelled so loud he was louder than his creation, which was a furious tornado of wind.

It sucked him out of the broken window and tore off across the forest. Solomon Vance’s screams echoed across the vast distance, filled with agony and torture. His calls stretched on for what seemed like a long time, until they disappeared, replaced by the calm sound of the wind.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Aurelis System

Solomon Vance might be gone, but the dangers that had plagued the crew weren’t over. The team had been successful in moving the databases from Monstre Corp to Ricky Bobby; however, the consciousnesses that Vance had consolidated and transferred to himself were lost.

Hatch and Chester had tried to recover them, but there was no way to untangle them from each other.

The tension in the room was palpable as Hatch worked. Jack gave Bailey and Lewis a heavy expression. His face said what his words hadn’t: it wasn’t clear whether the captain and the commander, as well as the rest of the crew, were lost. They could have been in with the consciousnesses that had been consolidated, now lost forever.

“I can’t do this with all of you goggling at me!” Hatch yelled, ushering everyone but Pip from the lab.

Bailey steered Dejoure out of the room. “How about we go get you something to eat?”

The girl looked up at her. “I’m the one who feeds you.”

Jack laughed at this, but his face grew serious when they were in the corridor. He spun around to face Bailey, Dejoure and Lewis, halting them suddenly. “Actually, I want to say something informally.” He knelt and looked up at Dejoure. “I understand that you were the one who finally banished Vance.”

Dejoure shook her head. “It wasn’t me. It was Tranquil.”

Jack smiled. “Well, it couldn’t have happened without you. Unfortunately, we reserve the Federation Rose of Honor for military members who show great courage in battle. But if I could, if I were allowed to, I’d select you to be the first child to ever receive the award.”

Dejoure’s mouth popped open, and her hand flew to her chest. “Me?”

Jack nodded. “This war wouldn’t have been won without you. Facing the monster…Tranquil…saved us all.”

“And we were out of options,” Lewis reasoned. “It was only a matter of time before Vance defeated us.”

Jack rose, giving both Bailey and Lewis looks of appreciation. “You did it. I knew you would.”

“We don’t know that we have returned the crew,” Bailey argued.

Jack gave her a sympathetic smile. “No, but we will know soon. And you stopped Vance. You helped to make the Precious galaxy safe once more. The Federation owes you a great debt of gratitude.” He teetered his head back and forth. “However, that’s not how Ghost Squadron works. We don’t get praise. We are awarded no medals, although I wish that weren’t true.” He looked down briefly at Dejoure. “The only ones who know we’ve made the universe a better place is us. I hope that’s not a problem for you.”

Bailey looked sideways at Lewis, elbowing him in the ribs. “We don’t need a trophy.”

“I’ll settle for my freedom,” Lewis added.

Jack’s face lit up. “Yes, thank you for returning the etheric diamond. It has been returned to Harrison Gringotts with a testament from the general that it was you, Lew, who returned it.”

“But it was a team effort,” he argued.

Jack shook his head. “You found the diamond originally, even if you were double-crossed. I think your team will be okay with you taking the credit, since it clears your name.”

“Of course we are,” Bailey urged.

“And since you did complete the job, the funds have been directed to your bank account, which has been reinstated, along with all of your citizen rights,” Jack explained.

“Wait, I was paid for the job?” Lewis asked, his eyes wide. “But that’s—”

“A very healthy sum of money.” His uncle beamed, slapping Lewis on the shoulder thoughtfully. “Again, good work, you three.”

The chief strategist turned, striding off, leaving Lewis staring at his retreating back, awe still written on his face.

Bailey hooked one arm through Lewis’s, and her other one around Dejoure’s shoulder. “Looks like Papa Lewis is taking us to dinner.”

Dejoure giggled. “I could also use a new pair of shoes,” she added.

Lewis shook his head, looking up at the ceiling. “What have I gotten myself into?”

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Hatch’s Lab, Ricky Bobby, Aurelis System

“Are you nervous?” Hatch asked Pip.

The AI shrugged. “No, why would I be?”

“Because you’re you,” Hatch answered. “And you have a body.”

Pip looked down at his body and smiled. “It’s a good one. Thank you again.”

“If you want to thank me, you can stop wearing skirts,” Hatch stated.

“It’s a kilt,” Pip corrected. “And I like them because they provide air conditioning, if you know what I mean.”

The Londil grimaced. “I know what you mean.”

Pip was wearing a red, white and blue kilt that matched his T-shirt, which read, ‘Dear Algebra, Stop asking us to find your X. She’s not coming back.’

Hatch looked over to the corner of his lab. “I hope you don’t mind that I printed Cheng first.”

Pip’s gaze followed Hatch’s, where Knox and his father were sitting, catching up. It was the second time they’d had a reunion of this sort. Hopefully it would be the last.

“Fathers and sons should be reunited before anything else,” Pip stated. He turned his attention to the database and smiled. “They are all here.”

Hatch nodded, a smile breaking across his face. “Jack will be pleased. I just didn’t want to tell anyone until they were actually here. I couldn’t bear it if something happened and they’d gotten their hopes up.”

“But nothing has gone wrong so far,” Pip reminded him. He chewed on his lip, a tentative expression in his eyes. “When you printed her, did she ask about me?”

He had stepped out of the room for the two most important printings. He said he wasn’t ready to show himself yet and wanted to wait to do it until after they were oriented.

Liesel, of course, was in charge of orientation, as it came naturally for her. She’d taken the recently printed members to their quarters where they could dress and ‘wake up’, so to speak.

“We only have two hundred of the crew left to print, and then it will be done,” Hatch said, trying to distract Pip. His nervousness was flaking off him.

“Only two hundred,” Pip said with a laugh. “That won’t take me long. It’s the other several thousand from other planets that’s really going to take some time.”

“We will get there, though,” Hatch consoled him. “The point is that they’re safe and will be returned to their old lives.”

“Or find new lives,” Pip offered.

“You asked me to alert you,” Ricky Bobby stated overhead.

“Thank you,” Hatch said.

Pip straightened, his eyes on the entrance to the lab.

When Commander Julianna Fregin entered, Hatch saw Pip sway slightly, like he was going to fall over. That was his person. The head he’d shared… And now he was his own person.

Hatch’s hearts swelled from the thought.

Julianna looked around the lab, taking in the space. It had changed a lot since she’d last seen it. However, she hadn’t changed at all. She was still strong in her black uniform, similar to Bailey’s. Her jaw was set with determination and matched her eyes. Julie’s brown hair hung below her chin. She didn’t look much like Bailey, but to Hatch, they were very much the same. And just as he predicted, it took a mind like Julie’s to find her and bring her back. And Lewis didn’t do too badly, either.

The captain was the next to materialize, Eddie Teach. He had large shoulders and a strong build. His dark brown hair was gelled back, and he had an easy grin on his face. Lewis, conversely to Bailey, was nothing like the captain—that’s because Hatch wasn’t going to allow Jack to make that mistake again.

Hatch laughed to himself. He didn’t always get along with the captain, but he’d come to respect him, even if he was overly silly at times.

With long strides, Julianna and Eddie crossed the space, arriving in front of Hatch.

“Welcome back,” Hatch said, aware that Pip was fidgeting at his side.

“Thank you…” Julianna looked around. “It’s good to be back… Strange, but good.”

Eddie stretched his hands over his head and yawned loudly. “Feels like I’ve been asleep for a year. What have I missed? Federation fall apart without Ghost Squadron?”

Hatch shook his head. “We brought in a few recruits to take over in your absence. You will soon have the honor of thanking them in person.”

Eddie clapped his hands together and laughed. “Did you bring in a salty old-timer to rescue us?”

Hatch raised an eyebrow and considered saying something, but decided against it. “You’ll have to see for yourself. But before you do, there is someone I want you to meet.” Hatch presented Pip beside him.

Stiffly, the AI extended a hand.

Julianna didn’t take it, but instead waved cautiously, looking around distracted. Coming back to the world wasn’t easy, Hatch knew. There was also something else that was probably plaguing her.

However, Eddie wrung Pip’s hand, smiling broadly. “Pleased to meet you. And thank you for your part in rescuing us.”

Pip opened his mouth to say something, but looked incapable, his eyes on Julianna, which was obviously making her nervous. He gulped and nodded instead of answering.

“Yeah, thanks,” Julianna said, turning her attention to Hatch. “There’s something I was wondering about. My connection with Pip was severed when I was uploaded. Do you know where he is and how I can get him back?”

Hatch was having a hard time keeping his excitement contained. “I do know where he is, but you can’t have him reconnected.”

“What?” Julianna nearly yelled. “I can’t? Why not? Is he okay?”

Hatch released a smile. “I’d say so.”

The commander looked perplexed. “Well, can I talk to him? I have so much I want to say. I’ve missed him and want to tell him that.”

“I believe you just did tell him that,” the doctor said, enjoying this game too much.

Julianna slapped her hand to her forehead. “Oh, that’s right. He’s connected to your lab.”

Hatch shook his head. “No, Julie. He’s right here in front of you.”

Julianna tilted her head to the side like she hadn’t heard Hatch right. Then her eyes snapped onto Pip. Widened. Her mouth fell open.

“Pip? Is that you?”

The AI smiled so wide, it looked like he might break his face. “It’s me, Jules.”

“You have a body?”

Pip nodded at least ten times.

“We needed a few extra hands around here with you all gone,” Hatch explained.

Eddie laughed loudly. “So you finally made Pip a body! That’s great!”

Pip didn’t seem to notice Hatch or Eddie, his eyes still centered on Julianna. “I’ve missed you too.”

The commander smiled, an expression full of joy and relief. Her face turned to shock when Pip shot forward at lightning speed and hugged her, picking her up off the ground and spinning her around.

“Oh, wow,” Julianna said, her voice muffled. “You’re strong.”

“And a hugger!” Pip exclaimed.

“You’ll get used to that,” Hatch muttered, leaving the three to have a proper reunion.

He had many more to print. Then he planned to take a little break.

Chapter Forty

Dining Hall, Ricky Bobby, Aurelis System

Dejoure pushed her macaroni and cheese around on her plate, not at all looking interested in eating it.

“Not up to your standards?” Lewis inquired from beside her.

“I make mine with extra sharp cheddar cheese,” she replied.

Bailey nodded, pushing her plate away. “I agree, yours is way better.”

The dining hall was bustling with crew members, most catching up after their ordeal, recalling their accounts of the upload. It was weird for Lewis to see almost every table filled, but only because Lewis remembered when it was a ghost town. For the crew, this was normal. And one day, it might feel normal for Lewis too. He hoped so.

“You know, I’m sure the staff wouldn’t mind if you snuck into the kitchen every now and then and cooked up a meal for us,” Bailey said.

Dejoure’s face brightened.

“After you’ve done your homework, though,” Lewis added.

Vitos pointed at them, his wings buzzing. “You two are like good cop and bad cop.”

“I’m the good one,” Bailey affirmed.

“No kidding,” Lewis said with a wink.

“These guys over here? These are kids!” a voice exclaimed.

Lewis looked up to see two people hurrying over to them, Pip at their side.

The man looked back at Pip and then over to Lewis, Bailey, Dejoure and Vitos. “These are the ones who rescued us? These young ones?”

“Well, and Penrae too,” Pip answered.

Lewis and Bailey stood, both instinctively knowing who the two strangers were in front of them. “It was a team effort. We couldn’t have done it without everyone on Ricky Bobby, Chester and Hatch’s team included.”

The captain extended a hand. “I’m Captain Eddie Teach, and it’s an absolute honor to meet you.”

Bailey and Lewis shook his hand, introducing themselves. Eddie waved to the woman beside him. “And this is Commander Julianna Fregin.”

She nodded at them, not extending a hand. “Thank you for what you did. I understand that you’ve had quite the adventure in the Precious galaxy.”

“We fought zombies!” Dejoure exclaimed.

Eddie looked down at the girl, his face lighting up. He elbowed Julianna in the side. “We’ve got a kiddo on the ship now! Harley is going to love this.”

The dog, who had heard his name, peeked his head up from under the table.

Dejoure petted him and smiled. “Harley is my best friend.”

“What a smart kiddo,” Eddie said. “She knows how to pick them.”

“If you like having kids on the ship, then you’re in luck,” Pip said in a sing-song voice.

Julianna swung around and faced him. “What? Who?”

“I can’t tell. It’s their secret to share,” he said in a teasing voice, referring to Jack and Liesel.

“Well, I’m just over the moon that we have young blood on Ricky Bobby,” Eddie said, looking at Lewis and Bailey. Then his eyes fell on Vitos. “And also…”

“A Tuetian,” Lewis said, and then he introduced Vitos, who chirped excitedly when Bailey explained how Vitos fought bravely against Monstre Corp.

“It sounds like you’re another wonderful addition to the team,” Eddie cheered before his face went slack. “You will be staying with us, won’t you, Vitos?”

The Tuetian nodded. “If you’ll have me, I’d really like that.”

“Of course. I’m hoping that all of you are staying.” Eddie’s arms spread wide.

Lewis didn’t even hesitate to answer for them. “Yes, we absolutely will be.” He looked at Bailey and Dejoure. “This is our home now.”

“But I’m not sure about kiddos fighting zombies, moving forward,” Eddie said and then quickly added, “Although that sounds great.” He looked at Julianna. “Why don’t we ever get to fight something cool like zombies?”

“What about that giant worm we fought?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Zombies make for a better story.”

Bailey put her arm around Dejoure and tugged her in tightly. “The detective and I agree that DJ shouldn’t be on the front line of battles, but we might find occasions where she’s of great help. She’s not your average ten-year-old.”

Eddie winked at Dejoure. “I knew it. Do you have superpowers?”

“Only three for now, but I might get more,” she answered matter-of-factly.

Eddie giggled, looking at Julianna. “‘Only three’. This one is too much.”

“If you’ve lost anything, she’s your girl,” Bailey said proudly.

“Or need to see the future,” Vitos added.

“Or read someone’s emotions,” Lewis stated.

Julianna shook her head, looking overwhelmed. “Wow, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“I’ll say.” Eddie whistled and leaned in to the group. “Who is the new Londil with Hatch?”

“Oh, that’s Dr. Tillous,” Lewis explained. “She also helped with the final mission.”

“And she and Hatch…?” Eddie asked.

Bailey smiled. “They are reconnecting.”

The two Londils were on the far side of the dining hall, a place that Hatch had never been seen before. He was rarely out of his lab.

“Are they sharing food?” Julianna asked.

“Fish stew,” Vitos said, sniffing and giving a look of distaste.

“Oh! It’s back!” Dejoure exclaimed, pointing to the viewing window on the far side of the dining hall. She hurried over, the others following behind her.

Floating in the darkness of starry space was the creature. It was a cloud of blues, pinks and greens, lit up by the shocks of lightning inside it. The creature swirled like a cloud, moving gently through space.

“What is that?” Julianna asked. “It’s beautiful.”

“That,” Lewis said, pointing, “is nothing to worry about.”

“That’s Tranquil,” Dejoure supplied.

“It’s the creature who uploaded you,” Bailey explained.

Both Eddie and Julianna looked stunned, probably paralyzed by fear that their months of confinement would be repeated.

“Its maker, Solomon Vance, made it a monster, but the creature had different plans for itself,” Lewis explained. “It was given a choice and it decided to change. Tranquil can no longer upload anyone.”

“It just wants to be free,” Dejoure stated.

Lewis looked at Bailey and Vitos, a smile spreading across his face for his friends. The ones who believed in him. Who’d helped him to earn his own freedom.

“All anyone ever wants is to be free,” he agreed, a great fondness in his voice.

“And now we all are,” Eddie said jubilantly.

The group stared out the viewing window, watching the beautiful creature traverse through space.

Lewis was grateful for this moment. Grateful to have been recruited for the mission he didn’t want, but that he needed. Grateful that his uncle had believed in him. He was glad for second chances. Everyone here needed a second chance: Bailey, Dejoure, Vitos, and the captain and commander. But no one needed it more than Lewis.

Everything worked out for the best in the end. Strangely, getting lost had brought everyone together.

The End

Ren Series

Check out Sarah Noffke’s Paranormal Thriller:

Get it here

Obliteration: 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 September 14, 2018

Thank you for reading. Thanks for supporting LMBPN. And thanks for being awesome. I can write books, but it means nothing if you’re not there to pick them up. It’s a big deal that you read these books. Not something I take for granted.

Michael said something to me that got stuck in my brain in a bad way. First off, because I can never directly get to a point, let me say that it was still summer while I was writing this book. The Pacific Ocean, only 20 minutes from my door step, has been unusually warm. I should be worried about global warming, but instead I’ve been looking for every excuse to get to beach. And there was summer concerts and Netflix. Damn Netflix and it’s freaking convenience! This is my way of stating that I’ve been distracted.

Anyway, one day Michael and I are talking about writing speeds for books and he says, “It would take me six weeks to write a book if I took four of those weeks off.” So yeah, that statement is funny, but it sunk into my subconscious and took hold. It takes me about two weeks to write a novel that’s between 50 to 70k words depending on the genre.

I’m great at procrastinating and with deadlines. If something is due, I’ll stay up for 48 hours to get it done pretending that I scored speed from the high school student who lives next door. (Please keep in mind that I can’t even drink coffee because I naturally have too much energy. If I go to bed as early as 10 pm, I’m most assuredly going to get up by 2-freaking-am because my mind thinks that 5 hours of sleep is quite enough. My body would love to snooze for eight hours, but I’m not sleeping beauty.)

And shockingly, I’ve digressed.

Ever since Michael made this comment, my subconscious has had me on a nutty schedule. Keep in mind that LBMPN allows me to set my own publishing dates for the most part. So I put something a month out, giving me plenty of time to write the book, have it edited and go through the channels. I start working on it, then get distracted by damn Facebook, shiny objects and pretty colors. The next thing I know, I have three days to finish three-fourths of a book. So anyway, you wonder how this story ends? I finished the book on time even after the distractions of ocean breezes and slumber parties with Lydia. I wrote something like 35k words in two and half days, which really messed me up. I couldn’t figure out why I only wanted to eat Doritos and watch cartoons for a week afterwards, but I think I do now.

In all seriousness, I have a lot of people to thank for this book. Someone who has become absolutely crucial as a beta reader and inspiration is John Ashmore. He’s been science-ing the hell out of the books. And thank goodness. He’s the one who gave me the idea for the ’55 Chevy Nomad.

Also, on the list of awesome inspirers is Tracey Byrnes. Back when I was actively taking ideas for upcoming books she gave me the inspiration for Knox inventing a camouflage that spoofs enemy ships. I held onto that idea until this book and it worked out perfectly. Thank you!

Thank you to Jurgen Moders for all the awesome help with this book and the series. He’s responsible for the maps, the series title and a lot of the inspiration. Thank you to Jessica Andrews for all the input on the cover. And also for being one of my biggest supporters! So grateful for my awesome friends.

I’ve told you all where the inspiration for Bailey came from—my daughter. The pranks that DJ and Pip play on each other was inspired by her. Seriously that kid almost gave me a heart attack when she put a rubber snake in my car seat. Like in what world would I even think a cobra would be hanging out in my car? And yet I screamed when I found it.

Something you don’t know is that Lewis was inspired by the most loved character from my solo series: Ren Lewis. He’s a detective of sorts with super powers. I thought it would be fun to revisit the character in a way. I get a lot of requests to do another Ren book and I’m not yet interested, but I decided to slightly bring him back without the mind control and bad attitude. Actually, I have something in the works that’s totally Ren-ish. He is my alter ego, so if you like his jerk prose, then you’ll love the new series that’s coming out in a brand new (to me) genre.

Also, you might wonder where I got the idea for Dejoure. Well, the little girl was just random inspiration and I dearly love her. However, her namesake comes from my Pilates instructor, although the spelling is different. I thought it would be fun to have a name that no one but the AI’s could pronounce. My instructor goes by DJ, and she’s a lot of fun and responsible for helping me stay sane with painful exercises.

I’ve really enjoyed writing this series. This book will be closing it out, although we never know what might come from the new team. John has been giving me a lot of great ideas! So many books to write! So many distractions!

Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoy!

Author Notes - Michael Anderle September 18, 2018

THANK YOU for not only reading through this story but through Sarah’s Author Notes to mine, as well!

I find it interesting to see something I mentioned (the six weeks’ comment) and learn how it resonates with someone. It isn’t often you find this relatively soon and from an unexpected direction.

For myself, I never procrastinate…


Oh, sorry <wiping tears of laughter from my eyes.> I am so not that person. As evidenced by my telling Sarah I’m capable of taking six weeks to do a two-week project.

However, she mentioned something I find VERY true. The ability to keep up writing is inversely proportional to how hard and how fast you had to pound out the last book or books. I know one person who put out a few books in a few days each for a year and is now suffering a six-month burnout period unable to write.

Fortunately, I love what I do. So, I’m usually working about 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. The amount of stuff I DON’T like to do is small with this business (because I have help), and the rest I’m trying to give to my accountant ;-)

Soon, I shall be ONLY doing that which I love… And I’ll be able to fly and cook perfect omelets, too.

If you don’t see Sarah Noffke books for a little while, that’s because I encouraged her to do another project – so you can blame me ;-)

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:

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