Book: Covert Talents: Age of Expansion



Covert Talents: Age of Expansion

CONTENTS


LMBPN Publishing

Dedication

Legal

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Endless Advance

Author Notes - Amy DuBoff

Amy Duboff Series List

Amy Social Links

Author Notes - Michael Anderle

Michael Series List

Michael Social Links

Covert Talents

Uprise Saga: Book One

By Amy DuBoff and Michael Anderle






Covert Talents: Age of Expansion




A part of

The Kurtherian Gambit Universe

Written and Created

by Michael Anderle


DEDICATION


To my husband, Nick, for enabling me to follow my dreams


— Amy


To Family, Friends and

Those Who Love

To Read.

May We All Enjoy Grace

To Live The Life We Are

Called.


— Michael


COVERT TALENTS

Team Includes


BETA / EDITOR BOOK 


Kurt Schulenburg

Eric Haneberg

Curtis Johnson


JIT Beta Readers - From each of us, our deepest gratitude!


Kelly O’Donnell

James Caplan

Joshua Ahles

Kimberly Boyer

John Findlay

Paul Westman

Peter Manis

Larry Omans

Keith Verret

Micky Cocker

Nick Rayl


Editor

Jen McDonnell


If we missed anyone, please let us know!

COVERT TALENTS (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 © 2017 Amy DuBoff,  Michael Anderle & Craig Martelle

Cover by Andrew Dobell, www.creativeedgestudios.co.uk

Cover copyright © LMBPN Publishing


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


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


LMBPN Publishing

PMB 196, 2540 South Maryland Pkwy

Las Vegas, NV 89109


First US edition, November 2017

Version 1.01, December 2017


The Kurtherian Gambit (and what happens within / characters / situations / worlds) are copyright © 2017 by Michael T. Anderle.












CHAPTER ONE


Lieutenant Ava Landyn raced down the barren concrete corridor. “Retreat!” she shouted into her comm.

Behind her, footsteps echoed from deeper within the underground facility. Too many footsteps.

So much for a quick in and out operation, Ava thought with a grimace, followed by a smirk at the unintended innuendo.

A shout sounded behind her, then a spray of plasma fire lit up the hall. Ava’s HUD politely informed her that enemies had been detected nearby. Really fucking helpful, thanks.

She ducked behind a collection of pipes protruding from the wall. It was terrible cover, but she’d take what she could get.

Glancing toward the exit, she noticed Edwin peeking around a bend in the corridor.

“I thought I ordered a retreat,” Ava said over her comm.

“That was before you got yourself cornered,” Edwin Caites, one of the three massive Were warriors on her team, replied. “No one gets left behind.”

Ava couldn’t help grinning behind the blacked-out faceplate of her helmet. She loved Force de Guerre honor, especially in a time like this. “Lay down some cover fire on my mark. I’m going to try some fancy footwork.”

“You’ve got it.”

“Now!” Steeling her resolve, Ava bolted from behind the pipes.

Her powered armor propelled her down the hall while plasma blasts flew in either direction. She’d only gone three strides when a new warning flashed on her HUD—the concentrated enemy fire was about to overload her armor. Without thinking, she spun in a series of swift circles to diffuse the load on the suit’s electrified skin.

After seven awkward strides of spinning and skipping, Ava made it to the corner where Edwin was hunkered down. She leaped the final step to safety.

“Ma’am, you are a graceful angel,” Edwin said over the comm. His opaque helmet hid his face, but there was no mistaking the amusement in his voice.

“We speak of this to no one.” Ava snatched a concussion grenade from a pouch on her tactical belt and tossed it back down the hall, then pressed herself against the wall.

Edwin followed her lead.

A moment later, Ava’s HUD lit up with a flash and heat signature. The helmet muffled the explosion, but she could feel it reverberate through the wall at her back. Try walking away from that, fuckers! That’s what you get for denting my new armor.

Dust and debris flew down the corridor. When the particulates began to settle, Edwin poked his head around the corner.

“Clear,” he announced. “You do realize that your entire run down the hall is documented on my combat recorder, right?”

“And that will be filed with the mission report and shown to no one.” Ava glared up at the huge warrior through her faceless helmet.

“Yes, ma’am, I’d never think of sharing the galaxy’s best blackmail video of all time.”

Liar. The video would be uploaded to the galactic net before dinner. She’d be a viral sensation.

Ava rolled her hazel eyes. “At least select a tasteful song to set it to, okay?”

Edwin bust out laughing again. “I was thinking it’d go great with—”

The walls shook anew with a concussive boom and series of thuds.

What the hell was that? Ava swapped places with Edwin and refreshed the info display on her HUD. When she checked the hall around the corner, she was greeted by the sight of a mech twice her height.

And it looked angry, as enemy mechs tended to when dangerously close.

“Hello to you, too,” Ava said as kinetic rounds flew from the gun mounted on the mech’s right shoulder.

She took off full-speed down the side hall with Edwin riding her ass, encouraging greater speed.

“I thought this was supposed to be an abandoned civilian research facility!” Edwin shouted.

“Yeah, well, our intel was wrong.” Ava reached an intersection and turned to the right, in the direction her HUD indicated was the exit.

“Rixon, Matthews,” she raised the two other members of her team on the comm. “We’re coming out hot.”

“Looks like you’re having quite the party, ma’am,” Samantha Matthews replied. “But we’re nowhere near the exit. I have a direct link into the local net. I think I can lower a blast door and seal off that section.”

“Do it, for fucksake!” Ava reached another intersection, this time turning left. “ETA on that—”

“Done! You’re about to pass through the threshold…”

Ava spotted the thick, metal strip in the ceiling and along the walls. As soon as she and Edwin passed through, the blast door began to lower.

The mech let out a synthesized scream as it charged for the door. A handful of kinetic rounds made it under the metal slab before the shield was secured, but Ava and Edwin flattened themselves along the side walls of the corridor to stay out of the path.

Thuds sounded against the blast door, but there was no way the mech could get through the meter-thick barrier.

Ava let out a long, deep breath. “That could have gone better.”

“We do have some good news,” Nick Rixon offered over the comm. “When you had to abort the data retrieval at the alpha location, we set out to access the beta target. Location is secure. Plan B is still an option.”

“Good.” Ava sighed as she determined their relative position on her HUD. Provided there weren’t any more unexpected mechs waiting for them, it should be a straight shot past some research labs. “We’re on our way.”

Edwin took point as they jogged down a side hall toward Samantha and Nick’s location. The corridor was lined with doors, and a handful of the labs had observation windows. The rooms inside looked to be sterile chambers, some of which had exam tables in the center surrounded by an array of equipment. At least no one seemed to be around in this section of the supposedly abandoned facility.

“Creepy much?” Edwin commented.

Something about the stark white environment and empty medical rooms made Ava’s skin crawl. “I’m with you,” she replied, her eyes scanning every surface for potential threats.

On cue, an overhead light began to flicker.

I’m really starting to hate this place. Ava suppressed her nerves and stayed focused on the mission at hand. “I hope that data archive has answers and I didn’t scuff up my new armor for nothing.”

She frowned at the newest pit on the left arm of her sleek, black armor, which was sustained during the latest volley of kinetic rounds.

“Better dents in the armor than holes in you.”

She couldn’t argue with that.

The corridor terminated in a set of double-doors. Edwin cautiously cracked open the right door and peered into the hallway beyond.

“Uh… You’ve gotta see this.” He stepped into the room and held the door open for Ava.

Her breath caught in her throat as she took in a hallway lined with holding cells. Clear plexiglass covered the fronts of the tiny rooms, each containing a cot, toilet, and sink. The rooms looked like they’d been used.

There had been people here.

She stepped up to the nearest cell and examined its interior. Her HUD picked up gashes in the white plastic of the side wall. Those are claw marks!

“Now, Edwin,” Ava began, “let’s stay calm—”

She didn’t get a chance to finish. A growl came from her companion over the comm, and he ripped off his helmet.

He turned the gaze of his glowing yellow eyes toward Ava. “There were Weres here.”

 “I know, and we’ll figure out what was going on,” she replied in a calm, level tone. The last thing she needed was for him to shift into his hybrid man-wolf Pricolici form and go on a rampage.

Edwin growled again and sniffed the air. “This scent is strange. I can’t place it.”

That was good news. No one familiar would mean he’d keep his cool.

Sure enough, the yellow faded from his eyes. He looked down at the helmet in his hands. “What do you think they were doing here?”

“Nothing good.” Ava took a calming breath. “Come on, we need to get to the others. There’s no knowing if anyone else will show up to make things difficult.”

Edwin nodded and slipped the black oval helmet over his head. Without another word he jogged down the hall, keeping watch to either side in case someone—or something—was in one of the cells.

Ava followed him at a slight distance, running through the possibilities in her head. Those stupid fuckers in intel. They throw out shit and we have to clean up the mess.

The assignment was supposed to be simple: scope out an abandoned Nezaran research facility on the remote moon and scour the data archive for any reference to the Alucian government. Like many of the worlds outside the Etheric Federation, not everyone wanted to play nice one hundred percent of the time. The Nezarans had been particularly obstinate of late and were looking for any opportunity to pick a fight with their Alucian neighbors.

As universal peacekeepers, the Force de Guerre—known as the FDG—were called off-the-record to run some interference and keep the situation from escalating. Ava’s team in particular specialized in gathering information that no one knew was being gathered. The geeks in the safety of headquarters, light years away, analyzed it to determine what it meant. They’d change the information into intel, turn it around, and send Ava on another wild goose chase to fulfill their never-ending hunger for information.

At least, that’s how it was supposed to work. Throwing grenades tended to undermine the whole stealth thing.

However, the FDG clearly hadn’t been given the whole story. Whatever was going on, Ava would get to the bottom of it—even if her armor did have to get some scrapes along the way.

After eighty meters, the corridor of cells opened into a square room filled with what appeared to be monitoring and surveillance equipment. An archway at the back led to another passageway.

According to Ava’s HUD, the two other members of her team were in an adjacent room. She swept her gaze around while she walked toward the door, recording it for later review. Maybe they could get more clues if the data archive didn’t have the complete story.

She exited with Edwin and traversed the short distance to the room where Samantha and Nick were waiting. The door was ajar.

Instead of just Nick and Samantha, though, there was a middle-aged man tied to a chair. He was wearing a white jumpsuit and looked pissed.

Ava stopped in the doorway. “You didn’t tell me you had company.”

Samantha shrugged. Her helmet was off, exposing her slicked-back blonde hair that offset her dark complexion. “Well, I said we had secured the beta location. We just need a little help with the rest.”

“I thought you’d hacked into the local net?” Ava asked.

“We did,” Nick confirmed, shaking his head of close-cropped dark hair, “but the data we’re after is locked up behind some kind of firewall with encryption I’ve never seen before. Without spending hours on this, getting a password is our best shot.”

They certainly didn’t have hours. It was obvious why the man was strapped to the chair.

Her team was looking at her. They knew what she could do—it was why she, a mere human, was the leader of a team of warriors a head taller than her with the ability to transform into half-human, half-wolf Pricolici with fifteen-centimeter claws that could eviscerate an enemy, strength that could crush bones, and the ability to heal rapidly. For all Ava’s weakness and comparatively small stature, she could do what no one on her team—what few others in the FDG—could do. She could read their captive’s mind and extract the information they needed.

Ava swallowed. “I don’t have the authorization.”

Samantha glanced at the man tied to the chair. “Then, ma’am, we are unable to access the encrypted files and fulfill the mission objective within time constraints.”

Protocol existed for a reason. Telepathy and mind-control were a slippery slope, and specific rules were the only way to keep things civilized. But the mission was at stake.

Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Ava nodded to her team. “All right, I’ll do it. We need to know what was happening here—for the sake of the FDG. Someone wasn’t honest about why we were sent here.”

Relief filled the faces of her warriors.

The man in the chair shrank back. “Wait, what are you going to do?” he asked, a quaver in his voice.

Ava popped the latch on her helmet and slid it over her head. She massaged the fingers of her gloved hand over her scalp to fluff the pixie cut of her red hair. “You’re going to tell me the password to access that encrypted information one way or another.”

The man shook his head. “I don’t know it.”

It didn’t take a telepath to know he was lying.

“Are you sure you want to do this the hard way?” Ava questioned.

He didn’t reply.

“All right.” Ava took a step forward and focused her hazel eyes on him. He tried to look away, but Nick placed his hands on either side of the man’s head to make him face forward.

“What is your name?” Ava asked the man in his mind.

“Stewart,” came the response.

Good, he hadn’t been trained in any mental blocking techniques, like the ever-present guards Ava maintained around her own thoughts. This would be easy.

Ava dove into his mind using the methods she’d been training in since she was a child. Her homeworld of Coraxa was known for the unique properties of the natural ecosystem, where animals across the world shared telepathic bonds linked through the Etheric. When humans settled on the world and consumed the native resources, they found that certain members of the population developed telepathic abilities of their own. No one was sure exactly how the abilities worked, but much about the Etheric was a mystery.

Coraxa’s colonists and ecosystem had been studied for generations. Despite those efforts, it was still impossible to predict who’d develop abilities—there was no apparent genetic link, and no one born offworld had ever developed the abilities, even when fed a diet of plants and animals from Coraxa. Given that unpredictability, it was considered an honor to have telepathic gifts emerge.

Gifted from a young age, Ava had been recruited into the FDG at eighteen with the promise of using her abilities for good. Most of the time, she believed she was able to make a difference for the better. But times like this, when she had to violate someone’s mind against their will, turned Ava’s stomach.

It’s for the mission, she reminded herself.

She deftly navigated the layers of Stewart’s mind, seeking out information residing just below the surface of his consciousness. Funny thing was, the more someone wanted to hide something, the easier it was to locate.

Ava found the information related to Stewart’s work. “What is the password?” she asked in a soothing mental tone.

He struggled against her for a moment, then gave in. The alphanumeric string filled her mind, and she memorized it.

“Thank you,” she told him, then retreated.

As soon as she broke eye contact with Stewart, he took a sharp intake of breath. “How did you do that?”

“Wouldn’t we all like to know,” Ava replied, then stepped over to the computer terminal. She entered the password she’d extracted from Stewart’s mind.

The display screen flashed acceptance of the access code.

Samantha grinned at Nick and Edwin. “She’s good.”

“I don’t want to make a habit of it,” Ava said under her breath. “Where’s that external drive?”

“I’m on it.” Nick plugged in a portable drive to copy the encrypted files off the local network.

Ava scanned over some of the folder and file names, but the technical terminology may as well have been in another language. Combing through the information was someone else’s problem.

“What do we do with him?” Edwin asked with a nod toward Stewart.

“Will someone come looking for you?” Ava asked the captive.

“They should be here any minute,” Stewart replied.

“Then we leave him,” Ava concluded. “And we get out of here ASAP.”

“Transfer is at ninety-two percent,” Nick reported.

Ava nodded. “Gear up. We’re busting out of here as soon as it’s done.” She slipped her helmet back on and verified that no new enemies had yet registered on the sensors feeding into her HUD.

“Done.” Nick extracted the drive and handed it to Ava.

She placed it in a secure compartment in the breastplate of her armor. “Good job, all. Let’s get out of here.”

Edwin, Samantha, and Nick headed out the door.

“You shouldn’t dig into this,” the prisoner cautioned before Ava left the room.

“Why?” she wondered.

The man shook his head. “Unless you want to be in the middle of a war, you should leave well enough alone.”

“Are the Nezarans planning a move against the Alucians?”

Stewart barked a laugh. “You think this is about the Nezarans?”

“Well, this is a Nezaran facility—” Ava began.

“Right, yeah. Have fun with those files.” Stewart shook his head.

“No, tell me.” Ava took a step back into the room, fixing her gaze on Stewart. She reached out for his mind.

“We have company!” Edwin shouted over the comm.

Answers would have to wait. She tore her gaze away from Stewart and assessed the enemy situation on her HUD. It was only five soldiers, but they were between her team and the exit.

Ava detached her plasma rifle from the holster integrated into the back of her armor. Looks like we’re shooting our way out.












CHAPTER TWO


Ava took a blind shot over her shoulder while she ran. “Remind me to yell at the boss for sending us in here without backup.”

“We weren’t supposed to meet any resistance,” Samantha said while taking a quick shot at one pursuer.

They were trying to incapacitate rather than kill, but the enemy was being a pain in the ass about it. Ava’s team had been able to force the enemy into a side hall so they could go around them to access the exit, and they were running for their lives.

A plasma beam streaked past, two centimeters from Edwin’s head. “Play nice!” he spun around and shot the offending pursuer in the leg.

Ava brushed her left hand over the drive tucked away in her armor. Whatever we have here, they don’t want us to leave with it.

Too bad.

They reached the secondary entrance they’d flagged as an emergency egress point while planning the op. Fortunately, the facility didn’t seem to be fully staffed with security or they would have been trapped.

Ava ushered her team through the exit and laid down one more barrage of suppressive fire to buy seconds for the run to their landing pod on the surface of the barely habitable moon.

The team piled in through the back hatch, and Ava took the controls. Even before the pod’s door had sealed, she lifted the craft from the ground. The gravitic engines launched the craft on a steep, upward trajectory at a dizzying speed. They slipped off their helmets and allowed themselves to relax.

“That was close.” Nick released a slow breath as the artificial gravity kicked in.

Samantha slumped back in her seat. “Didn’t they run any thermal scans of the facility before we went in? It should have been obvious it wasn’t abandoned.”

“Yeah, someone certainly knew it wasn’t,” Ava replied. “But they lied on the report so we’d go in anyway. Whatever information we have, someone wants it very badly.”

“Don’t accidentally drop the drive and smash it to bits,” Edwin jested.

“No worries. It’s right up against my boobs—I protect that region at any cost.” She patted her chest.

Edwin cast her a sidelong glance.

Ava narrowed her eyes with playful challenge. “Yes, warrior, that’s closer than you’ll ever get to them.”

He shrugged. “I will continue my admiration from a respectful distance in the shower.”

Samantha smacked him upside the head.

“What? Yours are nice, too,” Edwin added.

Samantha exchanged an exasperated eye-roll with Ava and left it at that. It’s not like the ladies hadn’t done their own comparisons of their male counterparts—they were just more discreet with their conversations.

Operating on auto-pilot for the rest of the short voyage, the pod looped a quarter of the way around the moon before meeting up with their stealth interstellar FDG ship, the Raven. At four hundred meters long, it was just large enough for a small crew to not go crazy if they were cooped up for more than a week or two. The back third was mostly engine, and a cargo hold underneath the matte black vessel provided berthing for two pods.

The pod directed itself into an open bay door protected by a containment field. As soon as the pod was on the deck in its usual slot, a door slid closed over the hold’s opening.

“Time to go hand over the loot.” Ava rose from her seat at the controls.

Edwin’s eyes gleamed. “I have to, uh, file my report with the combat data.”

Ava sighed. “Damn it, that’s right…”

“What now?” Samantha asked.

“You’ll see soon enough,” Ava grumbled, shooing her team from the pod.

She parted ways from them when they headed for the showers so she could debrief with their field captain. She’d been under Major Marcus Widmore’s command for the past two years, and he was her favorite commanding officer to date in her nine years with the FDG. Though he’d been rough on her at times, he was fair and had never sent her into a mission without a thorough, accurate briefing. Until today.

Widmore was in his office behind his compact desk. He leaned forward in his chair. “I saw the footage—”

Ava slammed her hand on the interior control panel to close the door. “With all respect, sir, what the fuck?”

“I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have sent you in there alone if my intel had been accurate.” Widmore looked genuinely contrite.

Ava’s shoulders slumped. “We weren’t properly equipped for a firefight like that. We almost…”

“But you made it out.” He leaned forward in his chair. “Were you successful?”

“Yeah, barely.” She retrieved the portable drive from the pocket on her chest and tapped it against the open palm of her left hand. “What is this?”

“I don’t know for sure. The higher-ups have been tight-lipped about the whole thing.”

Something about his tone indicated he might know more than he was letting on, but Ava was too tired to argue. “The guy I spoke to said this wasn’t just about a potential civil war with Nezar. Whatever it is, there’s some fucked up shit going on down there.”

“I got that impression.” Widmore took the drive from her and stared at it in his hands. “Right before you docked, word came down that they’ve increased the security clearance on the op.”

“Retroactively? That—”

“I know. Just… Let’s see how this plays out.”

Ava searched his face. He did know something else he wasn’t saying, but she could see the consideration in his eyes. Whatever he wasn’t saying, it was because he believed it was in her best interest for her not to know. “Yes, sir.”

He nodded. “Now, get cleaned up and rest. We’ll debrief back at HQ.”

***

Colonel Tyson Kurtz reviewed the information extracted from the NTech lab. It confirmed his worst fears.

Damn it! Those sick bastards don’t know when to stop. As he flipped through the pages of lab reports on his tablet, his face paled the more he saw.

They were going to lose containment on the situation if they didn’t act fast.

NTech, the preeminent research institution in the sector, was based on the planet of Nezar.

The Nezaran Coalition was the most aggressive of the three planets in the Alaxar Trinary that were near the border of current Etheric Federation territory. A group of Torcellans and humans had set out to the fertile system, colonizing Nezar, Alucia, and Coraxa.

While Alucians valued peace and harmony in the Torcellan way, Nezarans had followed in the grand human tradition of conquering and expanding.

Caught in the middle was Coraxa, a lush garden-world with such unique properties that once other races learned of its existence, they searched for ways to exploit it and its people.

As a policy, the Etheric Federation didn’t get involved in civil disputes. However, Alucians had expressed a desire to join the Federation, so the tension with Nezar was a concern. Kurtz himself had gone to meet with the leadership of the Nezaran Coalition three years prior, and they insisted there was no cause for concern. All the same, the FDG was poised to step in covertly if the situation continued to escalate—and it was undoubtedly trending in that direction.

Kurtz dialed President Alastair Connors of the Alucian Alliance. Few individuals had a direct line to someone in such a position, but Kurtz’s task demanded the utmost discretion, and that meant no intermediaries.

The president answered after ten seconds, his piercing violet eyes and white hair from his Torcellan heritage contrasting against the dark background of the room. “Colonel, do you have news?”

“The team was able to retrieve the data archive, sir. It’s not good.”

President Connors sighed. “What did you find?”

“They’ve completed their first human trials.”

“This is a goddamn nightmare.” He wiped his hands over his face. “Is the FDG prepared to take action?”

“We’re standing by to assist, sir, but we’re in a tough spot so long as Alucia isn’t officially in the Federation.”

“I know, I’m working on it.” The president paused. “They’ve built a new lab on Coraxa. We need to get someone on the inside to find out what they’re doing in there.”

Kurtz nodded. “I know just the person.”

***

The hot water washed over Ava’s body, releasing the tension in her muscles from the last several hours. She could use more than that, but it would have to wait until she was back in her private cabin at FDG headquarters. No need to add any more ammunition to Edwin’s arsenal.

She turned off the shower and stepped out, wrapping a towel around herself. The shared bathroom was large enough for six people at once, but she had the place to herself at the moment.

I wonder if we’ll get any answers back at HQ? Given the major’s reticence, she doubted it. But she could hope.

Ava dressed in a clean shipsuit, her standard garb while on any spaceship or station. The interior elastic material fit snuggly against her body like a second skin, providing protection in the event of a rapid decompression. A black outer layer offered pockets and weapon holsters for practical use, and quick-release pouches in the collar and around the cuffs contained an emergency helmet and gloves to complete the pressure suit. Given the amount of tech packed into the garment, it was surprisingly sleek and flattering—though it always did take several minutes to get used to each time she put it on.

Her team was waiting for her in their shared quarters down the hall. The four of them had slept, eaten, and trained together nearly every day of the week for the past four years, and it had made them as tight knit a group as any in the FDG.

Having three Weres on her team only added to that. They were a pack. Ava was honored to be a part of that group—to be one of them, even though she didn’t have the Kurtherian nanocytes that granted their extraordinary abilities to change forms and heal.

Though she was officially in command, any time they weren’t on an active op, she would rather just be one of the team. They were friends, and that friendship kept them safe when it mattered most.

“Learn anything?” Nick asked as soon as Ava stepped through the door. He was perched on his bunk above Edwin’s, to the right of the compact room.



“Squat.” Ava closed the door and leaned back against it.

Samantha, on the upper bunk to the left, tilted her head, her eyes flashing the slightest hint of yellow. “We can’t do our job effectively if they keep secrets from us.”

“Don’t I know it.” Ava shook her head.

“We can’t let it happen again,” Edwin growled.

“What am I supposed to do? Marcus was fed bad intel—he didn’t know, either. We have to go in and do what we’re told. We’ve trained to be prepared for anything, and we showed that today.”

The large warrior crossed his arms, highlighting the substantial muscles under his tight t-shirt. “I still don’t like it.”

“Well that’s the nature of the job. Quit moaning,” Ava shot back.

She pushed off the door and took the two steps to her bunk. “We got the job done today. That’s what counts.” She collapsed on the mattress.

Edwin eyed her from his bunk across the narrow gap between them. “By the way, the video will be paired with ‘She Can Move’.”

“That song is terrible.”

“But oh so appropriate.”

Ava rolled over to face the wall. Edwin was lucky he was half a meter taller than her or he’d have a boot in his face.

She quietly plotted the manner of her retribution—a practical joke that would leave Edwin begging for mercy. He’d never see it coming.

***

Moving into Stage Three so soon wasn’t part of the plan, but Andrea Mason didn’t have a choice. With the project accelerating, she’d need to do some swift housekeeping.

She strode down the hall with her lab coat fluttering behind her, examining the specimens to either side of the corridor. Early in her career, research subjects had been living, intelligent beings; now they were only tools.

One of the female specimens glared at her from inside its cell as she passed. “You can’t keep us here. Let us out!”

Andrea stopped and pivoted on her heel. It figured that one would speak up. “We can do whatever we please. You should have read the contract more closely.”

“No contract could justify holding innocent civilians captive like this for… stars know how long it’s been!”

“Oh, but you’re our employees.” A devious smile touched Andrea’s lips. “It’s all laid out very clearly in the contract. If the work demands you become permanent residents, then it’s within our rights to enforce that clause.”

The woman in the cell snarled. “I never signed up to work here!”

“But you chose to immigrate to this world. Like I said, the terms were clearly stated.”

“That agreement was two thousand pages long! No one could be expected to read—”

“That’s too bad.” Andrea resumed her walk past the cell.

Deep down, she knew she was being a heartless bitch, but it was part of the job. When she began working for NTech right out of her graduate program in genetics, a new universe of ethics opened up. No longer was it black and white, good and evil of science and morality, but rather endless shades of gray. To advance, one must push the boundaries of established norms.

Sometimes, testing those boundaries meant inconveniencing a few people. But for the good of the science, and for the Nezaran Coalition, she had a duty to take whatever steps were necessary to achieve the desired ends. In this case, that meant crafting a new tool to carry her people into the future.

Andrea reached the ‘observation room’, as they had dubbed the administration center for the subterranean lab. A series of computer stations were arranged in the center of the room, with monitors mounted to the walls displaying footage of the holding cells and treatment rooms. A door to her right led to the rest of the facility, and one on the left provided access to a lab space.

Tim was seated in a rolling chair amidst the central stations. He did a full spin in the chair and stopped, facing her. “Please tell me we get to do something, already. I’m going out of my mind down here.”

“Your wish has been granted. We have clearance to proceed with Stage Three.”

“About time.” Tim did another spin in his chair. “The locals have been asking questions again, you know.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. They always were a nosy bunch, given how they are.”

“It’s what makes them so perfect, after all.”

Andrea examined the other scientist. “Does it ever bother you?”

He raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“What we’re doing here. Permanently changing people’s lives.”

He shrugged. “I do think about it sometimes, but my job requires me to remain objective.”

“Yes, it does,” Andrea emphasized. She joined him in the center of the room and activated the control panel, navigating to a video she’d pulled from one of the surveillance cameras the night before.

The video popped up on the screen closest to Tim’s chair—just a still image of a holding cell, paused on the first frame.

“Now, Tim, I have always valued how you follow the science. In the five years we’ve worked together, I have only gained respect for your capabilities as a geneticist. But for as great as you are with the science, I feel you are equally prone to misplaced sympathies.”

Tim’s face paled. “Andrea, I don’t know what you saw, but it’s not what you think.”

“I’m not so sure.” Andrea’s eyes narrowed and she tilted her head, never taking her gaze off of him. “See, if we’re moving into Stage Three, I can’t have even the slightest hesitation. Everything we’ve done up to this point will have been child’s play by comparison. My team’s loyalties must be unquestioned.”

Tim sat up straighter in his chair. “Right, of course. You have no reason to doubt me.”

“I really wish that were the case.” Andrea started the video.

Aside from an advancing time-stamp, the video didn’t change for several seconds. Then, a woman appeared at the front of the cell—the same woman Andrea had confronted several minutes prior. That brief conversation had confirmed what she already knew from the video. Her spirit was alive and well because she had hope for freedom. It could only mean one thing.

Five seconds later, Tim appeared in the frame, rushing toward the cell. “It won’t be much longer,” he said in the footage.

“I can’t take it anymore,” the woman pleaded. “Please, just unlock it. I’ll find my own way out.”

“You’d never make it. Next week—it’s all arranged.”

She wiped a tear from her face with the heel of her hand. “I guess I’m in no position to argue.”

“It’ll be okay, Melissa. Trust me.”

“I do.”

Tim placed his palm against the plexiglass covering the cell entrance, and she held up her own hand to mirror his.

He lingered for two seconds before hurrying away outside the camera’s view.

Andrea stopped the video, shaking her head with disgust at how easily Tim had lost focus of their mission. Young humans were far too prone to whims of the heart. It was pitiful.

She glowered over Tim. “I think that’s exactly what it looks like.”

Her associate rolled backward in his chair. “I can explain—”

“Whatever you were going to say, it’s not good enough. I’m sorry, Tim, but with Stage Three coming, you’re just too big of a liability. It’s a shame.” Her eyes ignited, glowing red.

“No, I—”

Tim’s cry cut off in a garbled choke as Andrea’s hand wrapped around his throat. “For what it’s worth, I’ll miss you,” she told him, his hands grabbing her arm as she pulled him out of his chair and up to her waiting teeth. His eyes lost their fear as they rolled back in his head, his body going limp as she continued to drain him of his blood.

Minutes later, she dropped his body back into the chair. “Waste not, want not,” she murmured. Alas, it was so difficult to find good assistants.

She released her hand, and his lifeless body lolled to the side, the chair entering a slow spin.












CHAPTER THREE


The following morning, the Raven arrived at the FDG’s base, a space station in the Dren Cluster. A series of Annex Gates made interstellar travel easy and quick, provided a ship had the right clearance to get fast-tracked in the queue. Being in the FDG did have its perks.

“Are your mission reports filed?” Ava asked her team as they debarked from the Raven.

“Yes, ma’am,” Edwin replied. “There has been a full report of the mission.”

Nick and Samantha snickered.

Ava rolled her eyes. That damn video—

Her comm pinged in her ear. It was a summons to Colonel Kurtz’s office.

Under normal circumstances, Ava would have cursed the stars for needing to endure an audience with one of the most notoriously rigid, domineering officers in the FDG. This time, though, she wanted answers. If getting answers meant turning the charm up to eleven with that Were hardass, she’d do it.

“I need to go meet with the brass,” she told her team.

Samantha’s eyes sparked. “I wonder if he liked your dancing?”

“Hey, that mission is classified,” Ava reminded them. “If command catches wind that you leaked classified documentation, don’t expect me to save your necks.”

Momentary panic flashed across Edwin’s face, then he relaxed. “You almost had me for a second.”

Damn it, she really did care about her team too much, and they knew it.

“Just… don’t push your luck. I’ll see you later.” She jogged away.

The administrative section of FDG headquarters was situated at the center of the star-shaped space station, where it would be the most protected in the unlikely event of an enemy assault. Each arm of the star configuration contained a central concourse leading to starship berths and bays for the significant complement of fighter craft.

Ava hopped in a car along the maglev track running the length of the concourse where the Raven was docked to expedite her trip to the center of the facility. Knowing Kurtz, he wanted her in his office a minute before he even sent the summons.

At the central hub, she hopped off the car and jogged the rest of the way. She paused to make sure her shipsuit was in regulation compliance, then knocked on the door.

“Enter,” a baritone voice called from within.

Ava plastered on her most professional smile and entered. “Hello, sir. You wanted to see me?”

“Have a seat, Lieutenant.” Kurtz gestured toward a metal chair across from his desk.

“Thank you, sir.” She sat down but didn’t bother to get comfortable. Prior experience with that particular seat had revealed it was impossible.

“I understand that you ran into some trouble at the NTech lab.”

He has such a way with understatement. Ava nodded. “Yes, sir. Our intel said the facility was abandoned, but we encountered armed guards and a military-grade mech.”

“A mech? Indoors?”

“Barely fit in the hallway, sir.”

Kurtz frowned. “I’m glad your team was able to fulfill the mission objective despite those setbacks.”

‘Setbacks’? That’s how he’s going to play it? Ava leaned forward in her chair, forearms resting on her knees. “Sir, may I speak freely?”

He gave the hint of an exasperated sigh but quickly composed himself. “Permission granted.”

“Someone doctored the mission brief.”

Kurtz studied her. “What makes you say that?”

“The resistance we encountered wasn’t some new arrival that walked in moments before us. They had been there, and there wasn’t any shielding around the facility to have hidden the thermal outputs. Someone knew that facility was occupied, but the FDG would not have received data retrieval authorization for an active private lab. They wanted us to think it was abandoned so we’d go in.” Ava leaned back and crossed her arms.

“I can’t deny the possibility,” Kurtz said after a ten-second pause.

“Was it you, sir?”

The colonel’s eyes widened, taking on a hint of yellow. “Why would I put one of my best teams at risk like that?”

“Because you knew we could handle it, like we did.”

“You have a unique ability, Ava.” Kurtz folded his hands on the desktop. “Few others would have been able to get the password for those files.”

That was a roundabout admission of guilt, if ever there was one. But why? “Before we left, the man I… ‘interrogated’… indicated that there’s something going on with the Nezarans, and potentially beyond that.”

The colonel swallowed. “The FDG’s responsibility is to assess threats and carry out orders in the best interest of the Etheric Federation. You have performed admirably in retrieving information to support those goals.”

If the FDG hadn’t worked out, Kurtz would have made one hell of a politician. Ava flashed a prim smile. “Happy to do my part, sir.”

Kurtz steepled his fingers. “It’s been, what, nine years since you joined the FDG?”

“Yes, sir. Coming up on ten in two months.”

He nodded. “I can tell you’ve been around long enough to know when a superior officer is dodging your questions.”

No shit. Ava decided a shrug was the best response.

“Well, your observations at the NTech lab support a larger pool of evidence we’ve gathered over the past eight months. We’re at the leading edge of a crisis.”

That was surprisingly candid. Ava came to attention. “Sir…?”

“We’ve been tracking a group of researchers in NTech performing illegal genetic experimentation,” Kurtz explained. “The lab you infiltrated was one of those facilities, and the data you retrieved is documentation of the experiments.”

“What kind of experiments?”

“We believe they are trying to make a hybrid—bringing together the traits of Weres and vampires.”

Ava’s mouth involuntarily dropped open. “A… Were-vampire? I thought the nanocytes were incompatible. Once you had one—”

“That had always been our belief, yes. It would seem NTech has discovered—or gained access to—a way to program a new strain of nanocytes. Using some of the old technology from the two Kurtherian clans, they are bypassing the incompatibilities that caused the two types of nanocytes to attack each other. NTech’s reports refer to this new group as the Hochste.”

Were-vampires? What the fuck would a person like that be able to do?! Ava shifted in her chair. “Sir, why are you telling me this?”

“Because we fear that the Nezaran Coalition intends to use these Hochste to attack Alucia, which will soon be a member of the Etheric Federation. We want to stop that conflict before it starts.”

“Of course. But I—”

Kurtz fixed her in a level gaze. “The FDG needs you to go back to Coraxa, Ava. NTech has established a new lab. We need you to find out why.”

Ava worked her mouth, unsure what to say. She hadn’t been back to her homeworld since she left as a teenager.

While the FDG’s promises of using her abilities for the greater good had resonated with Ava, not everyone in her community had seen it that way. Some considered it a waste of her gift, others an adulteration. Her family had begged her not to leave, but the opportunity to travel the stars was too much for her to pass up. She’d left them all behind. The FDG was her life now.

“Sir, why would NTech set up a lab on Coraxa?” Even as Ava voiced the question, she already knew the answer. Whatever gives the planet its special connection to the Etheric, they want it.

Nezar and Alucia had argued over claim to Coraxa since the system was colonized. NTech, though, was a private company and could tread where government could not.

However, what Ava had witnessed on NTech’s remote moon lab had made it clear something else was going on besides sanctioned research.

“We trust you’ll get to the bottom of it,” Kurtz responded after giving her a moment to reflect. “You have authorization to use any means necessary.”

“No restrictions, sir?” That was a first. Even in the most critical missions, Ava had always been held to strict rules of engagement about which forms of telepathic influence were allowed—a code she followed even in her personal life. If they were granting access to the dark side, the situation was very dire indeed.

Kurtz inclined his head. “We need this handled quickly and quietly.”

“That’s what my team does, sir.”

“Your team won’t be going with you on this one—at least not for the initial recon work.”

Ava’s eyes narrowed. “Sir, but—”

“We feel that a more… local contact would be beneficial for the mission.” His tone was final.

Ava sighed inwardly. “Of course, sir. I’m happy to work with anyone.” She hoped the statement came out with a straight face. In truth, she’d joined the FDG so she’d be among the esteemed elite, rather than being partnered with whatever poor sap happened to be assigned to a random project. Her patience for idiots lasted about as long as her tolerance for poor musical accompaniment to viral videos.

“When your name came up for the assignment, our local government contacts remembered you. They located someone with the appropriate qualifications who already appears to be an acquaintance of yours. He’ll serve as your liaison.”

Just my fantastic luck… Ava braced herself. “Oh, and who’s that, sir?”

“Luke Carter.”

Oh, shitbiscuits. “Um.”

Kurtz raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“That’ll be… fine, sir.”

Luke Fucking Carter. That figures. It had been more like ‘fucking Luke Carter’ a decade prior, before Ava dumped him with no notice to join the FDG.

“Excellent. You’ll depart on a transport to Coraxa this afternoon,” Kurtz stated. “We’ll assess the right time to bring in your team once you have the lay of the land.”

“Yes, sir.” She stood, her head swimming with the possible scenarios for how her reunion with Luke might go.

“Good luck.”

“Thank you, sir.” I’m going to need it.

***

Partnering Ava with Luke was an underhanded move, but Kurtz knew this op would need every advantage it could get.

With the necessity for Ava’s team to be on the sidelines for the first phase, she’d need someone she could trust. An ex, while not ideal, meant an automatic level of familiarity that could never be achieved with a stranger. Couple that with Luke’s degree in genetics, and he was the perfect counterpart to accompany her in an undercover investigation of the NTech facility on her homeworld.

It was obvious Ava wasn’t happy with the arrangement, but she’d adapt. She always did.

Kurtz turned his attention to his own task: finding the mole in the FDG.

Ever since the official investigation into NTech began eight months prior, little bits of information hadn’t added up. Nothing on the scale of the botched mission data for Ava’s team, but enough that he’d been suspicious.

Now, with the safety of his people and the fate of the Alaxar Trinary on the line, they needed to stem the problem. Fast.

He tapped his fingertips together while he thought. If the mole is working with the Nezarans, we have to bait the trap. What information would a potential opponent want to know?

An idea popped into his mind. He tried to dismiss it as too risky, but it persisted. Before he could question it further, Kurtz touched the comm link icon on his touch-surface desktop. “Cindy, please draft an order for Bravo Company to depart on the Zepher tomorrow at 06:00 for a patrol of Nezar’s moon. However, do not distribute the communication.”

His assistant took a moment to respond. “Sir, I see no prior record of that deployment.”

“There hasn’t been. Just save it in the public folder—I’ll talk to Colonel Walton.”

“Understood, sir. Anything else?”

“No. Thank you, Cindy. Let me know when it’s ready.” Kurtz ended the comm link.

The idea now fully formed, he called up Spencer Thoreau, the head of FDG digital security. “Spencer, I have a favor to ask.”

“What is it, Colonel?”

“The public folder where we queue deployment orders before the release—can you turn on tracking for everyone who views that folder?”

“Sure,” Spencer replied. “What are you looking for?”

“A pattern. Can you send me a log of the views every hour?”

“Yeah, I can set up an automatic report for you.”

“Excellent. And is there any chance you can give me access to view the outgoing communications from the facility?”

Spencer hesitated. “Half of it is classified as personal information. We don’t make a point of listening in on conversations between our warriors and loved ones back home.”

“I don’t need the content, just the precise data use for any files transferred within the facility and outside.”

“Just file size, huh?” The security specialist thought for a moment. “I think I could configure a dashboard for you. Is there something I should be aware of?”

“I’ll let you know as soon as I determine that,” Kurtz told him. “When can you have the dashboard ready?”

“Give me fifteen minutes.”

Now that’s FDG efficiency. “Thank you, Spencer. I’ll keep you posted.”

“I’m on it.”

No sooner had Kurtz ended the comm link than a message from Cindy popped up on his desktop that the mission brief was ready.

He pulled up the file and attached a dummy set of encrypted orders and a manifest—information that would be easier to forward rather than transcribe into a different communication. After closing out the file, he made a note of the specific file size, then added a tracker to it. Even if the perpetrator stripped away the tracker—as any competent individual would—he’d be able to see if a data packet that size began circulating. Of course, there were no guarantees that the information wouldn’t be relayed in some other manner, but the short timeframe would prompt distributing the message to collaborators as quickly as possible.

He leaned back in his chair. Now we see who bites.












CHAPTER FOUR


Ava stared out the shuttle window at the Coraxan landscape before her.

Pristine mountains rose above a fertile valley, which contained a sprawling forest and a river that wove its way toward the ocean to the east. The unique environmental properties had prompted officials to declare ninety-nine percent of the planet protected land, and her hometown of Tribeca was the largest of only three settlements on the planet.

Due to the covert nature of her mission, she was being dropped off in a civilian shuttle from the orbiting spaceport. Also on board were a group of tourists from Alucia—the obnoxious kind that found obvious features to be the most fascinating thing ever.

The couple across the aisle from Ava was particularly insufferable, making a point of explaining to one another how the hills were different shades of green the farther away they were in the distance. Ava found herself counting prime numbers to keep herself distracted from the inane comments while they landed.

She had just reached three thousand one hundred eighty-seven when the shuttle finally came to rest on the ground.

Across the aisle, the woman pointed out the window at a grove of trees along the edge of the landing pad. “Are those, like, parasites?”

“What do you mean?” her husband replied.

She scrunched up her nose. “That white poofy stuff on them. Is it some kind of growth?”

Ava barely resisted smacking her forehead. “Uh, I think that’s just a flowering tree.”

“Oh, really?” The woman tilted her head. “Huh.”

I’m going to strangle her if I don’t get off this shuttle right now! Ava unbuckled her harness and quickly grabbed her travel bag before the tourists could make it into the aisle.

The side hatch dropped open, and Ava stepped out.

A warm breeze ruffled her short red hair, and she took a deep breath of the fresh air.

Thanks to the limited number of inhabitants and the strict tourism limitations, the planet was one of the most pristine colonized worlds in the galaxy. Ava felt fortunate to have grown up in a place with such natural beauty, and it irked her that tourists took it for granted that they could waltz in like they owned the place while meanwhile trashing their own planets. If she had her way, Coraxa would have much stricter visitation rules—no ‘ecotourists’ who couldn’t identify a flowering tree.

At the bottom of the gangway, Ava paused to assess her surroundings. She had been told someone would come to meet her but had no details beyond that.

No one jumped out at first, but then she spotted him—Luke Carter. Tall and fit, with sandy hair from his human father and mesmerizing violet eyes from his Torcellan mother, Ava instantly remembered why she’d fallen for him all those years ago.

Thoughts of their time spent together on Coraxa as teenagers surfaced—begging her to reminisce about simpler times. Ava ignored the temptation. She didn’t need a distraction from her mission.

She strolled over to him and gave a casual nod. “Hey.”

“Hi, Ava, it’s good to see you.” His voice still had just the right timbre.

Snap out of it, Ava! she snarled at herself. You’re an FDG officer. You’re better than this. She took a deep breath and smiled, trying to look calm as the military officer she’d become. “You, too, Luke.”

“Everyone was pretty surprised to hear you were coming home.”

“Yeah, well, I needed a vacation. Not many places better to unplug than here.” Her cover story was thin, but it should serve its purpose. While Luke knew the real reason for her visit, it was best to keep up appearances in the public setting.

“Your timing is good. I almost had to leave the planet to find work, but then this new NTech lab opened up.”

“That’s right, you went to school for genetics. I guess it’s ‘Dr. Carter’ now, huh?”

Luke’s smile enhanced his already luminous eyes. “You should still call me ‘Luke’. My position isn’t nearly as fancy as it sounds.”

Still humble as ever. She nodded. “I’m glad it worked out for you.”

“Not much had changed around here since you left, until NTech set up shop. You know how Coraxa is.”

“I do.” She nodded while looking over the dissipating crowd. “I guess we should get going…”

“Right. I have a car parked at the lot,” Luke replied and began strolling toward the small check-in terminal.

“So, how’s life?” Ava asked.

“Parents are doing well. Karen moved to Alucia two years ago and hasn’t looked back.”

“That’s right, I do remember her being more of a city girl.”

“She’s working in politics now, if you can believe it. Last time we talked, she was interviewing for some position on the press staff for the president.” Pride filled Luke’s voice while he talked about his elder sister.

“That’s great!”

He smiled. “Yeah, she was really excited.”

They passed by the terminal and entered the small parking lot. Luke headed for a blue two-door vehicle parked in the second row. Its lights flashed as they approached.

“And you—aside from the new job, anything of note?” Ava questioned as she opened the passenger door.

“Not really.” Luke shrugged as he slid into the driver’s seat. He resumed when Ava was seated and doors were closed, “Since I graduated from grad school on Nezar, I’ve been focused on getting my career established. I didn’t expect to stay here, so I’ve been keeping to myself.”

Is that a roundabout way of letting me know he’s single? Ava smoothed her hair behind her ear and secured her seatbelt. “I know what you mean about focusing on career.”

Luke placed his hands on the steering wheel but didn’t start the vehicle. “Ava, what does the FDG want with this NTech lab?”

“I’m just here to gather information.”

“No, you’re here to decide what information you want me to gather. I want to know what it’s for.” He stared at her, studying her features as if trying to determine if she’d tell him the truth or not.

“I’m here to make sure NTech’s work is all above board.” At least that was half-true.

“Ava…” He tilted his head questioningly. “This isn’t going to work if you’re not honest with me.”

“You know the details are classified.”

“Of course, but you have to give me a little more.”

She sighed. “Fine. We recently investigated another NTech operation that was… questionable. We’re concerned that this facility might be working on that same project, and I need you to use your position at the lab to get me in as a visitor so I can check it out.”

Understanding passed across his face. “Right, and they sent you because of your unique gifts in that information-gathering department.”

“Being a native was part of it, yeah.”

“Well, I’ll tell you right now, I don’t have access to most of the lab. They have all the operations compartmentalized, and clearance to different areas goes along with that.”

“I can find my way,” she assured him.

He sat in silence for several seconds. “What happens if your suspicions are confirmed?”

“My team comes in, and we shut it down.”

“This is NTech, Ava. They won’t take kindly to the FDG showing up at their door.”

“We’ll bust the door down whether they invite us in or not.”

He took a deep breath and started the electric engine. “You never used to think about things that way.”

“A lot has changed.” Ava was proud of who she’d become and wouldn’t hide behind memories of who she was before the Force.

 “I guess people do go in different directions, like you said when we last saw each other.” Luke directed the car toward the road leading away from the port.

An unexpected pang struck her heart. “I couldn’t stay here and just be a Reader, making a living off tourist tips.”

“I get that, but there were other—”

“The FDG has been good for me, Luke. I don’t have regrets.”

He focused on the road ahead. “Good.”

Ava bit her lip. Even without glimpsing his mind, she could tell Luke still had a flame burning for her even after all this time. That really wasn’t what she needed to hear. Despite what she said, she did regret never letting the relationship run its natural course. No one she’d met in the FDG came close to what they’d had together. But as much as she wished they could rekindle that romance, they were in different worlds now. Despite this brief intersection.



She set the thoughts aside. She had a job to do. “I need to get in a workout, or maybe some sparring. Would you know a place?”

“As a matter of fact, I’ve taken up Fizic Proma. You’re welcome to come to the gym with me.”

“I never pegged you as one to get into martial arts.”

He shrugged. “I’m not the same person I used to be, either.”

Ava eyed him. “All right. I’ll see what you’re made of.”

Luke grinned. “I think I might even be able to show a Force warrior a thing or two…”

***

The capitol building for the Alucian government rose above the surrounding city, its gleaming metal façade and blue glass reflecting the afternoon sun. From her office on the seventh floor, Karen Carter was able to see the bottom portion of the tapered structure, sloping down the enclosed garden surrounding the base of the building. It all seemed so shiny and pristine from up here, but over the last two years on Alucia, she’d learned the inner workings of government were anything but.

Karen tucked a loose strand of sandy hair behind her ear and tapped her stylus against her touch-surface desktop, thinking through the implications of the latest message in her personal email: >>The next phase has begun. Be ready.<<

She had been ready since the day she left Coraxa. Everything she’d done had led to the position she now held, giving her access to the most senior members of the Alucian government. That position placed her in the center of powerful political machinations with opposing goals.

On the one hand, the Etheric Federation offered a measure of political stability and access to resources unlike anything her people had ever seen. Becoming a ratified member of the Federation would mean her people would want for nothing.

However, the Alucian Alliance and its frienemy neighbor, the Nezaran Coalition, disagreed about what their place would be in the Etheric Federation. The Alucians were all for becoming a permanent vassal, but a growing number of Nezarans favored complete independence. A shared economy between the two planets meant that only one planet joining would disrupt the balance for everyone.

As far as Karen was concerned, continued independence was worth that temporary upset.

She knew what happened if transit between worlds became open to all—how her beautiful home of Coraxa would be overrun by tourists and Federation scientists seeking to exploit the planet in the name of scientific research. Beyond that, she couldn’t trust that a galactic entity like the Etheric Federation would have any respect for a little three-planet system like her home. Her people would be swallowed up and exploited.

They would be better off if the Alaxar Trinary was on its own. The only obstacle was Alucia.

An incoming voice-only call lit up on Karen’s desktop. The caller details were marked only as ‘Unknown’. She knew exactly who it must be.

She answered. “You shouldn’t be contacting me at my office like this.”

“It is almost time for action. Are you ready?” the digitally distorted voice replied.

“Of course. But I thought the next phase was still months away?”

“We decided an expedited approach was needed. The details aren’t important.”

Karen frowned. Her collaborators never seemed keen on sharing the details. Until she pressed. “What does this next phase entail?”

“A deliverable that isn’t your concern.”

“But what—”

“You must play your part,” the voice cut her off. “Can we count on you?”

Her face flushed, and she took a deep breath. “Yes.”

The call disconnected.

Karen wiped her sweaty palms on her gray pencil skirt. Her role was critical, and she knew her people were counting on her. One day soon, she would kill the President of the Alucian Alliance.

***

Data could lie, but the story these particular data forensics told might just be twisted enough to be true.

Kurtz evaluated the trail left by his dummy file. He had anticipated the file would be relayed directly from the FDG servers to some outside recipient, likely in the Nezaran Coalition. However, not one but four individuals had viewed the file and then subsequently forwarded it on.

One of the forwards was a legitimate fleet order, so Kurtz dismissed it. The other three, though… He was up against more than just one collaborator, and it was obvious from the transmittal records that it was not toward the same ends. The test he’d designed was a little too enticing. He may have inadvertently accelerated a civil war.

Damn it! Why now? The Alucian Alliance had been so close to signing the official vassal agreement with the Etheric Federation. He needed to come clean so they could get ahead of the situation—if that was even possible.

Kurtz grunted his frustration as he pulled up the contact details for the Alucian president.

Alastair Connors answered almost immediately. “Colonel Kurtz, I didn’t expect a call so soon.”

“I’m sorry to bother you again, Mr. President, but my investigation has taken an unexpected turn.”

“Oh?”

“I’m afraid the leak isn’t isolated just to someone in the FDG feeding information to the Nezarans. It appears that there’s a contact in your very administration, and that individual is connected to a contact in one of the major news outlets.”

The president frowned, the flush in his face making his hair appear even whiter. “What would be gained from that?”

“Indirect control. If the FDG needs to take military action, our stealth movements could be preempted with a public news article. It’s a great way to control what we can do with any effect—stay quiet when our movements are beneficial for their agenda, or expose us if it’s not in their interest.”

“There have to be more effective ways to intervene.”

“Yes, but by adding a public disclosure component, they gain significant leverage.”

Connors considered the argument. “That means an article might be being written right now.”

Kurtz took an unsteady breath. “Yes, sir, and it won’t tell a good story.”

“Why, what bait did you use?”

“For a fleet to mobilize at Nezar’s moon.”

“Fuck!” The president turned away from the camera and shook his head. He breathed out through his teeth and then turned back. “How bad is it?”

“That depends on how closely someone looks. The orders were never officially signed off by Colonel Walton. However, if someone is interested in sensationalized news media, that detail is probably irrelevant.”

“Well, that’s just fucking great.” The president rubbed his violet eyes.

“I apologize, sir. I didn’t anticipate this contingency when I designed my test. The intent was to see if Nezar mobilized a military response for a fleet that wouldn’t be there. But if this false information becomes public, they’d declare that the FDG is making a decisive military move.”

“Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse…” Connors paced in front of the camera. “Someone in my own administration could bring the entire agreement with the Etheric Empire crashing down.”

“I’ve pulled the document and issued a cancellation.”

The president groaned. “That doesn’t matter. If someone wants to use those original orders against us from the inside, they’ll do it. People only look at headlines, so real fleet or not, we’d be facing an unchecked outcry of public opinion on how to handle the situation.”

Kurtz hung his head. “I’m sorry, sir. I never thought we’d have to worry about anything on the Alucian side.”

“Neither did I.” He sighed. “I’ll need to make a statement. We can’t have public opinion questioning the vassal agreement at this late stage.”

“In better news, the test was successful. I know where the leaks are, so this won’t be an issue in the future,” Kurtz offered.

“Assuming those are the only leaks.”

One step at a time. “Yes, sir.”

“Fix this.” The president ended the call.

Kurtz slumped back in his chair. This went sideways at record speed…

His worst nightmare escalated to a whole new level of hell when an incoming communication request illuminated on his desktop. Colonel Walton was calling. Oh, fuck.












CHAPTER FIVE


Ava’s hometown of Tribeca had grown since she left, but it had retained the quaint charm of stucco building finishes and extensive greenspace even within the urban center.

She and Luke chatted as they drove to a new residential suburb located next to the recently constructed NTech lab. The residential neighborhood consisted of compact one- to two-bedroom cottages that shared common outdoor space.

“Only about half the homes are occupied so far,” Luke explained as he pulled up in front of a cottage in the middle of the development. “I reserved one for you near mine so we can debrief more easily.”

“Great, thanks.” Ava stepped out of the car and stretched while taking in her surroundings. The grounds around the cottage were landscaped with long-stalked red flowers, and the lawn wrapped around a central fire pit and patio area. “It’s beautiful here.”

“Sure beats those tin cans you live in.”

Ava frowned. “You might be surprised how nice some ships are these days.”

“And those luxury yachts are what you travel around in with the FDG?”

“That’s beside the point.”

Luke chuckled. “Thought so.”

She retrieved her travel bag from the car’s trunk and followed Luke to the cottage’s entrance.

Luke unlocked it with a keycard and handed it to her. “Home sweet home,” he said.

“No biometric lock?” she questioned.

“We use keycards at the lab, too. Easier to visually check from a distance.”

Ava shrugged. “Whatever works.”

She peeked inside the cottage. The compact living room contained a couch, entertainment center, and a kitchenette. A door adjacent to the kitchen led to a bathroom, and another to a bedroom. “This looks good, thanks. I shouldn’t be here long.”

“Why do I have a sneaking suspicion that when you’re done with this investigation, I’m going to be out of a job?”

Ava leaned against the doorframe. “I hope that’s not the case, but I’ll do anything I can to help you find another position if it comes to that.”

“I’m not worried about finding other employment. I’d just hate to think that I was a part of something that was in some way dangerous or harmful.”

“In my time in the FDG, I’ve learned corruption has many layers. Even if one NTech lab is up to no good, that doesn’t mean the organization as a whole is bad, or that people who work for them are enemies. A small handful of people can set the tone for much larger issues.”

“So you think whatever is going on here is an offshoot of the organization?”

“We’ll know soon enough,” she replied. “But, Luke… I need to know that you’ll be honest with me. If I find something that’s not right, can I count on you to help me do whatever needs to be done—shut down the lab, file documents with the Nezaran government, whatever?”

He searched her face. “I’ll do what I think is in the best interest of Coraxa.”

“Then I think we should be on the same page.” She nodded.

He cracked a smile. “I’m looking forward to seeing you at work. You always enjoyed a challenging investigation.”

“This is a little different from a school research paper,” Ava replied with a smirk.

“Everything is always more fun when up against a shady organization with interstellar security on the line.”

“Let’s not go too far! It may be nothing.”

Luke crossed his arms. “Ava, we both know you wouldn’t be here if it were ‘nothing’. You’re here because there’s already an issue.”

She looked down. “And that’s why they picked you to be the local contact. Not much makes it past you.”

“Which is why it’s so surprising to hear that NTech may be up to something. In the two months I’ve been at the lab, everything has seemed completely legit.”

“It often does,” Ava murmured.

“But if it’s not, I want to know. And I want to make things right. This is my community—the last thing I want is for there to be a poison in our midst.”

She nodded and gazed into his violet eyes. “That’s why I joined the FDG. I wanted to root out the bad and make things better. Just so happens that the scale of those assignments goes beyond the scope of one city or planet.”

“I get it.” He looked like he was about to say something else, but then he took a step back. “I’ll let you get settled in. I told the lab I’d head over in a couple of hours to check on the progress of some analyses, and you can tag along.”

“Ah, the ‘old friend visiting from out-of-town’ routine.”

“The very one.” Luke looked her over one more time. “See you at 15:00.”

Ava watched him enter a cottage two away from hers. She stepped the rest of the way into her own residence and closed the door, dropping her bag on the ground.

The upcoming visit to the lab should help to fill in gaps in the narrative running through her mind. What is NTech after? Who are they working for? With any luck, the answers would be straightforward.

She chuckled to herself, knowing better. There were no easy answers.

***

Not surprisingly, Colonel Marcie Walton had ripped Kurtz a new one for posting unendorsed deployment orders. Kurtz was still reeling from the conversation, but he’d gotten out of it with his rank and most of his dignity intact.

After he’d explained the reasoning behind his approach to rooting out the mole, the colonel had seen fit to let him correct the issue himself. Good intentions, and all that. All the same, he was on notice. He needed to address the known leaks and make sure any other as yet undiscovered collaborators would have a difficult time relaying anything useful.

Kurtz’s first visit was to the head of FDG internal security, Denise Ortaga. Given the tricky situation, he had to make sure the events unfolded in the proper sequence.

He took the elevator down one level to the security division’s main operations center and strode toward Denise’s office, across the lobby filled with surveillance screens. She was absorbed in an image on her monitor when Kurtz knocked on the doorframe.

Denise looked up, startled. “Oh, hello, Colonel. What can I do for you?”

“It’s urgent, and it’s more than a quick conversation,” he replied.

“Have a seat.” She gestured to the single chair in the front corner of the room.

Kurtz closed the office door and dragged the chair up to her desk. “We have a leak. Well, actually three that I know about.”

“This have anything to do with that monitoring dashboard Spencer set up for you?”

“You know about that?”

“I’d be a pretty shitty head of security if I didn’t recognize a trap when I saw one.” Denise cracked a slight smile. “So, who took the bait?”

“No one I know personally, though their names and faces are familiar. I checked their personnel records and there were no red flags before this incident. A low-level comm officer, a lieutenant with one of our special ops teams, and a major assigned to security oversight.”

Denise’s brow furrowed. “What’s the major’s name?”

“Samuel Ellis.”

“Sam? That’s…” she faded out. “He’s never given me any reason to doubt him.”

Kurtz leaned over the desktop and placed his right palm flat against the surface. When a prompt appeared, he entered his password to log into the system. He navigated to the record of the data packet’s transfer. “You can see Ellis’ access of the file here—a document he’d have no reason to open. The tracker was stripped, but if you note the file size, you can see a matching document was forwarded from Ellis’ account to a server in Nezaran territory four hours ago.”

“I can’t argue with the evidence, but I don’t understand why he’d do this,” Denise said.

“I have a hunch, though it would make things even more complicated if I’m right.”

“What is it?”

“That these three incidents are independent of one another. Multiple forces are at work toward different ends.”

Denise’s frown deepened. “Why do you suspect that?”

“Because the recipients of these data packets are so diverse: a media outlet on Alucia, the Nezaran military, and the new NTech lab on Coraxa.”

“What if they are connected?” Denise speculated.

“Then I have no idea what the endgame might be.”

She nodded. “Only way to find out is to detain each of them for questioning. If there’s a link, we’ll find it.”












CHAPTER SIX


After a short nap on the couch, Ava awoke with a clear mind, feeling refreshed. The air and unique energy on Coraxa always had a revitalizing effect, and it was only after a decade away that she realized just how much she’d missed it.

She took a shower to wash off the travel residue and changed into a dress. A girly dress—with a flower print. She hadn’t worn anything but a military uniform or powered armor in… she couldn’t even remember how long.

Ava blow-dried and styled her short hair. It wasn’t until she saw herself in the dress that she missed the long hair she’d sported in her pre-FDG days. But long, flowing hair had no place in uniform when she needed to cram her head into tight helmets. Her pixie cut was pushing the boundaries of regulation as it was.

She hurriedly finished dressing and stepped outside to get some fresh air while she waited for Luke to come over. The afternoon sun warmed her face as she faced it with her eyes closed, slowly rotating her arms to get even exposure.

“I bet I can find you a lounge chair,” Luke’s voice interrupted her sunning.

Ava’s eyes shot open. “I don’t think I’ll have much time for relaxing. Figured I should get in a few seconds while I could.”

“Well, you are supposed to be here for some R&R,” he pointed out. “I’m just trying to help you look the part.” He grinned.

“You always were good at bending the rules.”

“Me? I’m very by-the-book.”

“Uh huh, says the person who calculated a weighted average of all assignments in his classes to figure out the bare minimum score necessary on the final to get an ‘A’ in the class.”

Luke shrugged. “That was just efficiency.”

“Rule-bender.”

“Efficiency-hater,” he shot back with a daring grin.

She laughed. After all these years, the repartee is alive and well. As much as she wanted to needle him further, there was no point in starting something she knew she couldn’t finish. “I guess we should get you back to the lab.”

“Right.” He headed for the car. “You look really nice, by the way.”

Ava looked down at herself. “Thanks. Hopefully I don’t need to rearrange anyone’s face today, because these shoes are a far cry from combat boots, and I am not sure if blood would come out of this dress’ fabric.”

“If you need to do that, then I don’t think your undercover op would be off to a very good start.”

“You bring up a valid point.” Ava climbed into the car and buckled her seatbelt. “To that end, what should I know about this place?”

Luke focused out the windshield and started the engine. “I feel like you’ll ignore everything I have to say.”

“Try me.”

He sighed and pulled out of the driveway onto the road. “It’s all pretty standard. Most workers, like me, started about two months ago, after construction was complete. NTech brought in their own construction crew from offworld as well as their own senior management. There’s a front reception area and, as far as I can tell, three wings to the facility. I work in the A Wing, which is to the right when you enter through the lobby. We have an administrative area with computers for data processing, a cafeteria, and there are some private rooms for interviews, medical procedures, and the like.”

“What kind of medical procedures?” Ava prompted.

“Minor tissue samples, mostly. As a geneticist, I’ll occasionally work with a specific subject. All we need is a cheek swab, but it sets the patients at ease to have a room that looks official.”

“I could see that.”

“As for the B and C Wings, they’re devoted to nanotech research and biomedical engineering, respectively.”

Nanotech research sounds awfully close to nanocytes… “Anything else beyond those three areas?”

“Not that I know of, but I can’t definitively rule out the possibility.”

“In that case, there’s almost certainly something else, especially considering that they went out of their way to bring in their own construction crew.”

“Based on what little you’ve told me, that’s sounding more and more likely.”

“What about the staff?” Ava asked.

“Handful of locals like me,” Luke replied, “paired with the NTech corporate senior managers, and some specialists from various academic institutions.”

“Anyone of note?”

“I haven’t met him personally, but I heard there’s a pretty well-known nano researcher over in B Wing who specializes in biomedical applications.”

That sounds about right. Ava sighed. “I don’t suppose you have clearance to access that area?”

“No, but I can at least get you a visitor tour of A Wing where I work.”

Ava clasped her hands. “Luke, you’re the best.”

“The FDG better be standing by for an evac in case this goes south.”

“Don’t worry, they’ll have our backs. As long as you stick with me, you’re golden.”

They drove the rest of the way to the facility in virtual silence, though Ava made occasional comments about new developments along the road that hadn’t been there when she’d last seen her home city.

The NTech lab itself was set into a hillside of the valley containing the city of Tribeca. From the outside, it looked to be only a one-story structure, with a white stone façade and tinted glass that reflected the afternoon sun. Half a dozen armed guards were stationed out front, and the roof featured a remote-operated gun.

“Um, Luke… You didn’t tell me about the gun mounted outside to welcome your visitors.”

“Oh, right. I guess I’ve gotten used to it.”

Ava smoothed her dress with her hands. “Luke, a giant fucking assault gun is not a normal thing to have above the main entrance to a civilian research facility.”

“Yeah, that was a little unnerving at first…”

“‘Unnerving’?! Are you fucking serious? This is insane!” Ava exclaimed. She took a deep breath. She looked back over at her companion with a more level expression. “This just means I might have to get more creative than I’d initially anticipated.”

“I have no doubt you’ll manage.” Luke parked the car in a marked employee lot to the left of the main driveway.

The parking lot was situated in an open field at the base of the hill housing the lab facility. Several boulders embedded in the surrounding field had been arranged to form the entry for the lot, and a path wove around the edge of a circular drive leading up to the entrance.

Luke turned off the car, and they stepped out.

“Now, who am I again?” Ava prompted, testing that Luke would default to her cover story.

“A childhood friend. You’re on leave from the FDG after a challenging op, and are looking to reconnect with your homeland so you can re-find yourself.”

She shrugged. “Close enough. Lead the way, buddy ol’ pal.”

He rolled his eyes at her and proceeded down the path to the lab’s entrance.

As they approached, the guards out front stiffened.

Luke held out his ID badge. “Returning from a long lunch. A friend of mine is in from out-of-town; I’ll check her in at reception.”

The guard closest to them nodded and waved them through without the slightest break in his permanent scowl.

“Really went all out on the welcoming committee,” Ava commented once they were beyond earshot.

“Believe it or not, he’s way more charismatic than the other guy.”

Ava scanned around the overhang above the entrance while she passed underneath, noting a full suite of optical and thermal sensors. If that was any indication, there would be a host of additional equipment hidden within. She’d need to have a legitimate reason to come back—one that would afford her some freedom.

Luke approached the reception desk that sat a dozen paces inside. He smiled at the cute blonde behind it. “Hi, Martha. My friend Ava here is visiting for the week, and I was hoping to show off my new digs. Could you help me out with a visitor pass?”

Martha looked Ava over. “We have a strict visitation policy—”

“Is there anything you can do? I’ll stay with her the whole time, and just in the general access areas.”

“Really, I just want to see if the lunch room is as nice as he tells me it is.” Ava winked. She brushed her hand against Luke’s arm. And damn, his bicep was as firm as it looked through his shirt. He’ll make a good sparring partner, she thought. That, and— She cut off the thought. Focus.

Martha glanced down at her desk. “We do have a special friends and family pass, but you’ll need to check out by 17:00.”

“More than enough time,” Luke said with a bright smile. “Just you wait and see about that lunch room,” he teased Ava.

“Yeah, yeah.” She gave a playful roll of her eyes.

“You two are just too cute.” Martha giggled. “Now—Ava, was it? I’ll just need your palm print on this panel and a quick photo to get you your ID.”

Great, biometrics logged in internal record. So much for sneaking around and not leaving a trace. She plastered on her best fake smile. “Great, no problem.” She placed her hand on the designated panel atop the reception desk and looked into the indicated camera for her glamour shot.

“Perfect.” Martha made some entries on her keyboard. “And I’ll just need you to sign this waiver.”

Text appeared on the desktop in front of Ava. “What does it entail?”

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Luke whispered.

Undercover op or not, I’m not signing away my body to science if they’re trying to pull some shady shit. She scanned over the agreement. It wasn’t quite handing over her soul, but it was close. “This is quite the agreement, Martha.”

“I’m afraid agreeing to those terms is necessary for me to issue a visitor badge,” the receptionist replied.

Fuck, I guess handing over my body is what I did when I signed up for the FDG, anyway. Ava placed her thumbprint on the appropriate box for her digital signature, and the screen turned green.

“Great, we’re all set. Just one second.” Martha swiveled around and grabbed an ID card printing from a machine on the shelf behind her. She scooted back to her desk and handed the card to Ava. “Now, don’t lose this. Be sure to return it to me when you’re done with your tour.”

Ava clipped the badge to the front of her dress. “You’ve got it, Martha. Thanks for your help.”

“Enjoy your time!”

Luke headed to the right, toward a security archway. He flashed his badge at the guard standing next to the arch and was beckoned through.

Ava smiled at the guard while she pointed to her badge and went to follow Luke.

The guard held up his hand to stop her. “Please remove the ID card and hand it to me, miss.”

Yep, definitely not waltzing in here without an express invitation. Remaining calm, she did as she was told.

The guard studied the ID and consulted a hidden monitor on a kiosk in front of him. “Says here you’re active duty FDG.”

“On personal leave at the moment,” Ava replied.

“No foreign military is allowed into the facility.”

Ava glanced at Luke. “Oh, come now. We’ll all be part of the Federation soon enough, right?”

“They issued her credentials. The system would have flagged her if it was a problem,” Luke interjected.

“You a native of Coraxa?” the guard asked Ava.

“I am.”

“Ah, that’s it. Locals are an exception.”

She breathed an inward sigh of relief. “I’m excited to see what new industry has come to my hometown,” she said with a cheery tone to mask the sarcasm behind her words.

“Enjoy your visit.” The guard handed back her badge.

“Thanks, have a good afternoon.” Ava stepped through the archway after Luke.

They passed through a secured entry and entered a white hallway lined with doors.

“That was way more intense than I expected,” Ava said as soon as the outer door was closed.

“Lots of IP in there. Just want to make sure nothing walks out that’s not supposed to,” Luke replied. An upward shift in his eyes indicated that he was filtering his response for the benefit of the surveillance system.

“I appreciate their dedication.”

Luke picked up his pace. “It’s a top-notch group.”

“You’re just saying that because you work here,” Ava jested.

“Hey, I never said the opinion wasn’t biased.”

“Yeah, whatever. Get this tour going.”

Luke led her down the hall to an intersection and took a left. The hall opened into a common room filled with round tables. A buffet line was set up along the back wall, and the right wall was an expansive screen depicting nature images ranging from majestic landscapes to little fuzzy critters.

He held out his arm in grand fashion. “I present you, the cafeteria.”

Ava had made up the lunch room ruse at the front desk, but she did have to admit the room beat the mess hall at FDG headquarters hands down. “All right, I’m impressed.”

“But I know what you really wanted to see was my workspace.” Luke crossed the cafeteria, heading for a door on the opposite wall.

“Just curious how you spend your day,” she replied for the camera’s benefit. And getting some time on the network wouldn’t be all bad…

After a brief walk down the hall beyond the cafeteria, the corridor terminated in an open space filled with workstations. A dozen individuals were scattered around the room, and they looked up with curious expressions when Ava entered.

“Everyone, this is my friend Ava,” Luke introduced. “She’s an old friend of mine. We grew up together.”

“Oh, another Coraxan native?” a thin man with dark complexion commented from a nearby station.

“Yeah, I am,” Ava replied.

“You have any of those special gifts everyone’s always talking about?” he asked.

“She does,” Luke replied before Ava had a chance to stop him.

“Really?” the man’s eyes widened. “What can you do?”

“Oh, nothing too special,” Ava replied, casting a silencing glare toward Luke.

“One of the gifted, huh?” a musical female voice said from across the room. “Now that’s something I have yet to see.”

“Dr. Mason!” Luke’s face flushed. “I wasn’t expecting to see you over here.”

“You know how I like to make the rounds.” The raven-haired woman fixed her gaze on Ava. “Who’s your friend?”

“Ava, ma’am,” she replied. “And you are…?”

“Andrea Mason. You might consider me the director of this facility.”

“Well, it’s a lovely place you have here,” Ava said. “I can’t believe how much has changed since I was last in Tribeca.”

“NTech always hopes to leave a positive impact on our communities,” Andrea said with too-sweet a smile. “I’ve been so curious about the abilities of the native population here.”

“We’re not exactly native,” Ava corrected. “Our people colonized here the same time as the other human- and Torcellan-occupied worlds in this sector.”

“Of course. And that makes it all the more fascinating that you so rapidly developed your unique connection with the Etheric.” She folded her hands in front of her. “How old were you when your gifts emerged?”

Ava shrugged. “Around eight.”

“That’s young, isn’t it? You must be very talented.”

“There isn’t necessarily a link between the age when abilities emerge and their strength,” Ava said, skirting the truth. While it wasn’t always linked, in her case that had very much been the reality. Whereas the average age for a first Reading came around twelve, the early emergence of abilities had given her extra time with the elders to learn and study the craft.

Had she stayed with them, she likely would have been the most powerful Reader in two generations.

“I didn’t mean to imply,” Andrea said in that sickening sweet tone. “You must forgive me—I’ve never had the chance to meet anyone of your talents before.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ve met far more interesting people than me.” Ava took a subconscious step back and instinctually bolstered her mental guards.

“We were in the middle of our tour, ma’am,” Luke said, seeming to pick up on Ava’s discomfort. “We have to be out of here by 17:00.”

“Nonsense. We wouldn’t be here without the support of the Coraxans,” Andrea replied. “Ava, you’re welcome any time.”

“That’s very generous of you, ma’am. Thank you.”

“In fact,” the director continued, “I’d love to have the chance to meet with you in a more formal capacity.”

The question caught Ava off-guard. “Uh… Well, I’m here on vacation, actually.”

“I’d compensate you for your time, of course. I’d just like to understand better how you do what you can do.”

The last thing I need is the director of this freakshow tracking my every move. Ava gave a polite bow of her head. “I appreciate your interest, but I’m—”

“That’s a generous offer, Dr. Mason,” Luke cut in. “I think that might be just what Ava needs to reconnect with herself. That is why you came back here, right?” he asked while turning toward her.

Ava resisted the urge to punch him in that gorgeous jaw of his. “Yes, just what I need,” she responded to him tightly, and returned her focus to the director. “Thank you, Dr. Mason.”

“Call me Andrea, please.” She flashed a smile bordering on predatory. “Come in with Luke tomorrow morning and we’ll get to know each other.”

“Can’t wait.”

“If you’ll excuse me.” Andrea passed by them with a nod of farewell and disappeared into the hall.

Ava glared at Luke and mouthed, “The fuck…?”

He took her by the arm and led her toward a private office. “Now, Ava, aren’t you looking forward to being a guest in this facility? You’ll get to see so much more of it.”

“Yes, right alongside the director.”

“Dr. Mason is very busy, unfortunately. I doubt she’ll be able to spend all her time with you.”

Ava caught on. And might leave me unattended in a place I couldn’t access otherwise. There were no guarantees, but it was worth a shot. She chose her words carefully in case anyone was listening in. “I look forward to whatever time with her I can get.”

Luke looked around the room. “So, anyway, this is my office.”

The room was approximately three meters square and contained a desk, a holographic workboard, and two visitor chairs.

“It’s nice.” Ava eyed the desk. “I bet with a setup like this, you don’t have to leave to access all the files you might need for a project.”

“My login is restricted, of course, but the facility is networked.”

What I wouldn’t give to have Samantha or Nick here right now, Ava lamented. Her own hacking skills were nothing to dismiss, but her FDG teammates were the real masters. She only nodded in response.

***

Andrea smiled to herself as she walked away from the lab’s latest visitor. In all her research, she hadn’t had access to someone of Ava’s talents; it was the one gap in her otherwise rigorous exercise of the scientific method. With all the potential knowledge to be gained, Ava might be an unmodified human worthy of Andrea’s attention.

She strolled to her office deep within the facility—down the secret D Wing only a select few knew how to access. Andrea had overseen the design and construction personally to make sure it fulfilled her vision.

The observation room only had a single occupant: a brown-haired man named Jared who had replaced Tim after his unfortunate ‘accident’.

“Jared,” Andrea addressed as she walked through the room, “I’d like you to look into a new visitor for me.”

“Who, ma’am?”

“First name is ‘Ava’. You should be able to find out the rest from her records at the front desk.”

Jared made several entries on his monitor. “Full name is Ava Landyn. According to her public biometric records, she’s active duty FDG.”

“FDG?” Events weren’t unfolding quite how Andrea had anticipated, but it made sense, given the break-in at the moon lab several days prior. She crossed her arms. “Does it say anything about her past assignments?”

“No, sorry, ma’am. There’s a note that she’s on leave at the moment, but otherwise the details of her service records are classified.”

“Of course. Anyone working in military intelligence can’t have their mission history out there on display.”

“Would you like me to look into her?” Jared offered.

Andrea shook her head. “It doesn’t take much speculation to figure out what a telepath with the FDG might specialize in.”

Jared’s eyes lit up. “Oh, she’s one of the gifted?”

“So I’ve heard.”

A slow smile spread across the other scientist’s face. “That makes things interesting.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Andrea had a feeling Jared was going to work out much better than his predecessor. “Keep an eye on her. She might be just the case study we’ve needed.”

“I will.” Jared paused. “And what about that information regarding the FDG mobilization around Nezar?”

“Not an immediate concern. We must focus on our task at hand. Our benefactors won’t wait much longer.”

She moseyed across the observation room to the corridor containing the holding cells for her test subjects.

The one hundred Werepeople had taken years and significant resources to apprehend, but studying their nanocytes had given Andrea the breakthrough she needed to begin manipulating the technology. Coupled with the technical specifications furnished by her outside collaborators, she had been able drill down to the base level of nanocyte programming and design.

The Kurtherians were incredible at math, but they didn’t seem to share in some of their core beliefs, and certainly didn’t share a desire to merge their nanocyte programs.

The whole concept must have been anathema to them.

When she compared the nanocytes of the Weres with her own, which granted her vampiric abilities, she had finally determined the common elements. During Stage Two of the trials, her vampiric abilities had been merged with Were traits. The treatment had only taken in two individuals, but those results still brought a smile to her face.

Andrea approached the front plexiglass wall of Melissa’s cell—the spirited Were who would have had Tim free her and unleash the unstable nanocytes into the universe. “How are you feeling today?”

Melissa glared back from her cot. “Where’s Tim? I know you found out about us.”

“I’m afraid Tim no longer works here.”

“What did you do to him?!” Melissa launched toward the plexiglass. Her nails had transformed into claws by the time she struck her hands against the transparent wall. Her eyes raged orange, and her mouth contorted into the beginnings of a vicious snout.

“I killed him with my bare hands.” Andrea flashed her eyes red to taunt the other woman.

Melissa snarled and raked her claws against the glass. “I’ll fucking kill you, bitch!” The words were barely intelligible in her half-transformed state.

“He didn’t even put up a fight.”

The pale gown that clothed Melissa ripped as her shoulders broadened, and a dark coat grew to cover her pale skin. She howled in agony and raked the walls of her cell, her claws tearing ribbons from the white plastic sheeting. The speed of her movements seemed to accelerate until she was almost in two places at once.

It was vampiric speed, if Andrea had ever seen it.

Andrea accelerated her own perception to better observe the Hochste’s movements. The fluidity and deadly force was a more perfect hybrid of abilities than she could have ever hoped to achieve.

After two minutes of struggling, Melissa collapsed to the floor panting. She returned to her human form, her gown in tatters.

“Thank you for the demonstration. It was quite enlightening.” Andrea turned from the glass. “You’ll be reunited with your Tim soon enough.”












CHAPTER SEVEN


What the hell is the FDG up to? The classified fleet orders that had passed through Karen’s desk on the way to the media had left her confused and worried. There wasn’t supposed to be any military action against the Nezarans—at least, not yet.

She drummed her fingers on her desktop, trying to decide what would happen next.

With the negotiations to become a vassal to the Etheric Federation in full swing, any political or military move would be magnified—it’s what they had been counting on with Karen’s placement in the president’s office—but any unanticipated actions also threatened their plans. The timing needed to be right.

The shared history of the Nezarans and Alucians forever tied the two groups together, tracing back to when the alien worlds had been settled by humans and Torcellans as their people blended. With the Alucians committed to joining the Federation, the Nezarans had little choice other than to go along for the ride—unless they took drastic action.

Karen’s role would do just that—a presidential assassination staged to look like a betrayal by the Federation. If handled correctly, it would be enough to reverse the discussions and guarantee the system’s independence.

But that groundwork would all be undone if the Federation wiped out Nezar before Alucia had a chance to withdraw from the vassal agreement.

Karen knew how much was riding on her, but the latest development with FDG activity could make all of her preparations moot. An FDG move against the Nezarans meant that Alucia and Nezar were no longer being treated as an inseparable pair—one was in the Federation and the other was out. If the Nezarans were left on their own… it wouldn’t go well.

Uncertainty got the better of her, and she sent an encrypted message to her anonymous contact: >>Does this change the timeline?<<

The reply came back a minute later: >>We will let you know when to act.<<

She bit back her frustration.

“Karen Carter,” the voice over the intercom interrupted her brooding. “Your services are needed in the president’s office.”

Her heart leaped. They just told me to wait! Then she remembered her place and the other job she was there to do. “On my way,” she replied.

Karen grabbed her tablet and hurried from her office.

She took the elevator up two floors to the president’s suite, swiping her hand over the biometric lock. In seconds, the doors opened to a lobby floored with marble. Holographic overlays of news reports scrolled across the left wall. To the right, a slim young man of Torcellan descent sat at a reception desk.

“Hi, Leon,” Karen greeted. “The president wanted to see me?”

“Yes, go right in.”

Karen took a steadying breath and walked straight ahead to the double-doors, passing by two security guards dressed in black. They nodded to her.

She rapped on the door.

“Come in.”

Swinging the door inward, Karen composed her face in a polite smile. “How may I assist you, Mr. President?” She closed the door behind her.

The roomy office had windows looking out over the city and the ice-filled river along the southern border. Afternoon winter sun cast long shadows across the icy landscape, illuminating the city in an uncharacteristic warm glow. The reflecting light gave the president a vibrant appearance, which was at odds in Karen’s mind with her knowledge of his imminent death.

“I need to prepare a statement,” President Connors replied.

Karen activated her tablet. “Subject, sir?”

“That damned information leak about the FDG making a move on Nezar.”

“What do you mean, sir? I thought—”

“Those weren’t genuine orders,” the president grunted. “Fucking colossal miscommunication.”

It went without saying that particular phrasing wouldn’t make it into the press release. “How do you want to play this, sir?”

Karen would need to put her own spin on it, regardless of what was released in the official statement. Someone had intentionally fed her false information. If that wasn’t genuine, how much else has been doctored?

She swallowed and gripped her stylus tighter.

President Connors stroked his chin. “We need to look unified. The Alucians and Nezarans settled our homeworlds of ice and fire at the same time, and we are bound to each other. We must stand by one another and approach the future with our mutual interests at the forefront. Though we have not always agreed on every matter, we have made great strides toward establishing that shared vision for a better future. With the opportunity to bind our great nations to the Etheric Federation, we will soon be able to take an even greater step forward.

“The rumors about FDG fleet movement toward Nezar are false. Alucia stands with Nezar now and into the future. We would not have reached this stage of negotiations with the Federation if we did not believe it would bring us a better future, and we will continue in good faith knowing that our new allies can be trusted with our lives.

“No false rumors will come between us. Alucia and Nezar will soon be united with the Etheric Federation, and a new era can begin.”

Karen took notes while he spoke. The messaging fit with her needs as perfectly as it would placate Connors’ critics.

“Excellent, sir. I’ll get this drafted right away.”

He nodded absently. “Thank you, Karen. I’m glad to have you on the team.”

That opinion wouldn’t last much longer.

“Of course, Mr. President. I’m happy to be of service.”

***

“Are you sure you want to sit in on this?” Kurtz asked Denise.

She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. “Are you honestly questioning whether the head of FDG security would want to skip an interrogation with someone suspected of leaking information?”

“I see your point, Major,” Kurtz conceded. “For the sake of transparency, have you faced security breaches like this before?”

“Never three independent incidents at once. If past events have shown me anything, it’s that not all motivations are completely malicious.”

“I doubt any of these leaks are justified.”

Denise gazed at him levelly. “Try to keep an open mind, sir. You have to understand the intentions in order to best understand why the leaks happened, and how to prevent them in the future.”

The colonel waited, as she looked like she wanted to say more.

“Take, for instance, an incident some years back where a comm tech was recruited by an outside contact to relay classified transcripts.”

“To what end?” Kurtz questioned, his eyes narrowing.

“Political agenda, like so many things are. The recipient wanted information about the inner workings of the FDG to use as sound bites for their campaign.”

“That seems like an awful lot of trouble.”

Denise cracked a smile. “Well, it’s actually kind of funny how it went down.”

“That doesn’t sound like a humorous situation.”

“Oh, you’d think that… But it was the transcripts the comm tech got. It’s all connected to how she was ultimately caught.”

Kurtz studied her. “Okay, I’ll bite. What were the transcripts?”

Denise rubbed her hands together. “As you know, the internal communications system is a catch-all platform for official military orders and any personal business. As a culture, we don’t want to place higher value on personal or professional privacy, so it all gets the same level of encryption.”

“Right.”

“So, this new comm tech didn’t seem to realize that the tagging on communications gets stripped away during the encryption process—it’s part of the decoding that happens on the receiving end. She came across this message talking about a plan of attack. Five units were set to converge on a target codenamed ‘Red 7’. Now, I don’t know how familiar you are with Corsica, but the seventh planet in the system is red in color, commonly called ‘Roja VII’.”

“Oh, I see where this is going…” Kurtz cracked a smile.

“You’ve got it. The comm tech has been watching deployment orders for weeks, waiting for something juicy to come through. When she sees that there’s an attack being planned against a civilian population, it’s the kind of sound bite this politician really needs to perfectly drive home their point. However, all those dire war plans were really about making sure ol’ McGavin had a great birthday party in the mess hall.”

Kurtz sighed.

“It gets better! The comm tech can’t just sit back while such an unconscionable, brutal act toward civilians unfolds, so she freaks out. The attack is going to go down any minute, and no one is responding to her messages. She decides to track down Colonel Walton himself.”

“Oh no…”

“Oh yes! The colonel is, naturally, at the very party discussed in this woefully misinterpreted communication. Comm tech bursts into the mess hall shouting, ‘Colonel! I demand you call off the attack on Roja VII!’ Colonel Walton looks back at the tech, understandably confused, and explains that there’s no planned attack on a peaceful world in the Federation. Comm tech insists that she’s seen the order and soon everyone will know about the FDG’s treachery.

“At that very moment, Cindy—who was interning in the colonel’s office at the time—comes in with this layer cake and way more candles than the fire code allows. She tried to duck around the comm tech, but the tech manages to fling her arm at just the right angle to launch the whole flaming tower straight into the air.”

“What a waste of perfectly good cake.”

Denise shook her head. “That’s the crazy thing! This cake must have gone a good half-meter in the air, but somehow the comm tech caught the damned thing perfectly intact. Once it was safely on the table, the tech got grilled about what she was so upset about. When they realized that the comm tech had been conspiring with an outsider, Major Tanaka was about to court martial her on the spot, but Colonel Walton was so happy the cake had made it that he decided to give her another chance and consider her lesson learned.”

“Wow.” Kurtz chuckled.

“I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t been there to see it myself.”

“Who was the comm tech?”

Denise smiled. “Me.”

“Seriously…?”

“Disillusioned youth.” She shrugged. “I’d like to sit in on the interview and give you my best estimate of whether they’ll do it again. Discipline is your purview. Security is mine, and I’ve failed in that we’ve had a leak. I need to earn my keep.”

“I understand.” Kurtz nodded. “I have to warn you, though, I don’t think we’ll have any cake.”

“That’s a damn shame, but probably for the best.”

Kurtz chuckled. “Denise, you are full of surprises.”

The two officers met up with a pair of warriors—not that Kurtz would need any help handling their intended human prisoner.

He led the way to the holding cell where the first of their three perpetrators was being held. Given the seriousness of the violations, Kurtz decided it was best to start with the major, especially since part of his role included oversight of Denise’s security team.

“Major Ellis,” Kurtz clasped his hands behind his back as he approached the cell, “we’d like to have a word with you.”

“Colonel! What’s this about?” The major ran up to the plexiglass.

“We’ll have a private chat.” Kurtz nodded to the two warriors, and they opened the cell door.

Ellis turned around and placed his hands behind his back so the warriors could cuff him. “There must be some mistake.”

“We’ll see.”

The two warriors led Ellis to an interrogation room twelve meters down the hall and cuffed him to a bar welded onto the table. When he was secure, the colonel and the chief of security entered.

“I apologize for the handcuffs, Major Ellis, but the nature of our accusations requires a degree of caution,” Kurtz said as he paced on the far side of the table.

Denise leaned against the wall next to the door with her arms crossed, gaze fixed on the major.

“Sir, I don’t know what you think I—”

“You forwarded a deployment order to the Alucian government, did you not?” Kurtz asked.

Ellis took a slow breath. “Yes, I did.”

“Care to enlighten us as to why?”

The major’s eyes shifted between Kurtz and Denise. “Those reasons aren’t important.”

“That isn’t for you to decide!” Kurtz snarled. His eyes took on a yellow sheen and his uniform tightened around him as he began to shift into his Were form.

 “Okay, okay!” Ellis shrank back in his chair.

Kurtz returned to his human appearance. “Who were you working for?”

“I don’t have any name, I swear it. I received a message three years ago while I was on my way home from leave—from a group advocating Alucian unification. I grew up on Alucia, as you’ve no doubt seen in my file, and I’m sick of the petty arguments between Alucians and the Nezaran Coalition. They asked me to keep an eye on things in the FDG and let them know if there was ever something that might question the peace. I’ve only relayed four pieces of information in those three years. An offensive posture toward Nezar was something I couldn’t let slide.”

“Major,” Kurtz halted his pacing and leaned forward on the table. “You shouldn’t have been looking in that folder in the first place.”

“With all due respect, Colonel, it’s a public folder. As a member of the security team, it’s my duty to take a random sampling of documents from across the servers to make sure there are no malicious files.”

“That excuse won’t cut it,” Denise interjected. “Software takes care of that sampling.”

“And I’m the person who makes sure the software is doing its job,” Ellis shot back. “Regardless, I didn’t hack into a folder where I wasn’t supposed to be. You can accuse me of transmitting content outside the FDG, but don’t tell me that I went digging somewhere unauthorized.”

“Maybe so,” Kurtz agreed. “However, I believe you know more about this mystery organization. Tell me.”

The captive looked down at his bound hands. “I honestly don’t know much more than I’ve already said. But it might be worth noting what I don’t know.”

Kurtz slammed his palms on the table top. “Don’t give me that shit, Ellis! You’re a disgrace to the uniform, sharing the Force’s secrets—”

Ellis stiffened. “I know my career is probably over, so take the information or leave it. I tried to find the organization, but they’re ghosts! As far as I can tell, there is no organization doing the things that they’ve claimed to have done.”

“Then why did you keep feeding them information?” Kurtz demanded.

“Because the first information I sent was acted upon in a way I agreed with, as were the others. It wasn’t until this most recent incident that things seemed… off.”

“Deception always bites you in the ass,” Kurtz grumbled.

“Sir, you’re not listening. If this group isn’t actually part of the Alucian sphere, then who are they?”

“You tell me, Major.”

“I wish I knew. But I can say that they seem to want peace with the Nezarans, and that sounds good to me.”

“Except that you swore your allegiance to the Etheric Federation.” Kurtz stared down his subordinate. “Or have you turned against your oath?”

“My dedication to the Federation will never waver. I’m just not sure that bullying others into joining us is the answer.”

“You think we’re ‘bullying’ the Alucians and the Nezarans into joining the Federation?”

Ellis shifted in his chair. “This arrangement has left the people divided. What choice do Alucians now have but to become a vassal? You’ve eliminated every other option unless they want to start a civil war.”

Kurtz perched on the edge of the table. “Major, you’ve missed the entire point of the Etheric Federation. When we look beyond our political boundaries, we become more. By demonstrating that your allegiance is greater to your home nation than to the Federation, you’ve told us that you don’t support that vision of unification.

“And on a final note, the FDG doesn’t have anything to do with expanding the Federation. That’s the politicians’ job. We fill a supporting role, or have you forgotten that, too?”

“I support the Federation, even if you don’t believe me.”

“You have your convictions, I’ll give you that.” Kurtz rose from the table. “Unfortunately, those convictions don’t align with the integrity demanded of our FDG officers.”

Ellis shook his head. “Then I want nothing more to do with this organization.”

Kurtz glared at the captive. “You turned against us! You made a conscious choice to leak classified information. I don’t care how you want to justify it—you didn’t uphold your duty to the Force.”

Denise took a step forward toward the table. “You don’t believe you’ve done anything wrong, do you?”

“I did what I had to do.”

Kurtz shook his head. “Ellis, your service record spoke of loyalty, but I think you were just good at hiding your dishonor. You’ll remain in custody until formal charges can be rendered, but rest assured, we won’t put you in a position of having to decide who to give our secrets to.”

The major’s shoulders sagged as he looked away from the rage in the colonel’s eyes.

Kurtz stormed out of the room, followed by Denise.

He walked ten meters down the hall away from the two guards standing to either side of the interrogation room door.

“Think he’s being honest?” Denise asked.

Kurtz closed his eyes and took calming breaths. “Tell me what you think.”

“I think he thinks he’s being honest, at least. But something doesn’t feel right to me,” she started. “Claiming that he’s been feeding information to a phantom group was a bit of a stretch.”

“Actually,” Kurtz countered, “that was probably the truest statement of them all. It’s his motivations that don’t make sense. Not to sound like a recruiter ad, but people are fiercely loyal to the Federation’s mission—pursuit of the greater good. That’s why Colonel Walton forgave your indiscretion; you were trying to help people you thought were being unjustly harmed.”

“But Ellis’ interests were in service to a specific nation.”

“Exactly. People like that don’t make it into the FDG in the first place.”

“Do you think he was faking it all along?”

Kurtz shook his head. “No. Without genuine commitment, a person would never have the motivation to make it through basic training, let alone fifteen years of service. I think that chance encounter Ellis mentioned he had while on leave wasn’t just a chat.”

“Like, mind control?” Denise frowned.

“I won’t rule out any possibility. All I know is that man we spoke to wasn’t talking like an FDG officer.”

“I guess we need to talk with the others and see if they’re acting the same way.”

“Yes, we do. I’ll defer final judgment on wrongdoing until we know if they’ve been compromised. These ideals might not be their own.”

Denise wrapped her arms around herself. “If they’ve been programmed to think and act in certain ways, then who else may not be themselves?”

Kurtz released a long breath. “I’m concerned what the answer to that question might be.”












CHAPTER EIGHT


Ava stepped out of Luke’s car outside her cottage. “Thanks for seizing that opportunity today. I think I’m so used to being covert that I’m blind to the ‘easy way’.”

Luke closed the driver’s side door and leaned his forearms on the top of the car. “Nothing about this way will be easy, either. Don’t kid yourself.”

“I’m not. They’ll be watching me even closer than you. At least this way, I won’t have to make up excuses to be there.”

He smiled. “You mean the pleasure of my company wasn’t enough incentive?”

“This isn’t a social visit, Luke.”

He jogged around the car toward her. “Official Force business or not, we’re still old friends.”

She softened. “You’re right. Present circumstances aside, you’re Louie.”

“Oh, god, no one’s called me that in years!” Luke exclaimed through a chuckle. “I always hated that nickname.”

“But you let me get away with using it, anyway.”

“Because I knew if I tried to get you to stop, you’d just turn it into sport. It was easier to find it endearing.” He brushed his hand down her arm, and his fingers brushed against hers.

Their eyes met.

Ava drew a deep breath and stepped back toward her cottage. “I shouldn’t keep you from your evening.”

“Nonsense. Have dinner with me.”

“Luke…”

“I insist. Besides, pretty sure those cupboards are completely bare. If you want to eat—and I know how you like your dinners—you’ll need to subsist off those of us who actually live here.” He cocked his head. “Whaddya say?”

“All right, fine,” Ava yielded. Damn, I’m entirely too motivated by food. Not that the company was a deterrent…

“Wow, that didn’t take much.”

“Admittedly, you had me at ‘eat’.”

He shook his head and laughed. “Ava, you’ve hardly changed a bit.”

“That’s Lieutenant Hardly,” she jested. “Don’t forget that I can disarm you fifty different ways in two seconds flat. A fact I intend to demonstrate at the gym later.”

“…You say to the person who you could control with a bat of your eyelashes when we were sixteen.”

 “Granted, that ‘you’ wasn’t you specifically.”

“Relax, I’m just giving you a hard time.”

Isn’t that my job? Ava mentally slapped herself. God fucking damn it, stop being a raging hornball! “What’s on the menu for tonight?”

“I’ve been slow-roasting a pork tenderloin for the last eighteen hours, and I gathered greens from my garden. I just have to throw a loaf of bread in the oven, which was crafted from a sourdough starter passed down in my family for five generations.”

Ava’s mouth dropped open. “You shouldn’t have…”

“Oh, good! Because we’re just having noodle packets.” He grinned. “God, Ava, I have a doctorate in genetics and regularly work eleven-hour days in a subterranean lab. You won’t find a master chef over here.”

Smooth. She sighed. “You know, noodles sound just fine.”

***

Ava awoke the following morning with a grin after the evening with Luke. It had been years since she’d had a proper night of relaxation, and she could think of few people who offered better company. Luke was a perfect gentleman, as always. Ava knew all too well just how hard that was to find.

Still, the mission came first. After the business with NTech was straightened out, she could revisit the past.

A knock sounded on Ava’s front door while she was blow-drying her hair. “Coming!”

She finished up and ran for the door in the low heels she’d paired with slacks and a long-sleeve blouse. Luke isn’t supposed to be here for another five minutes!

Except it wasn’t Luke at the door.

“Mom, Dad? How did you—”

“Ava!” her mother exclaimed. “Why didn’t you tell us you were coming back to visit?”

Yet another complication I don’t need. “This isn’t a vacation.”

“I don’t care why you’re here,” her father said. “We haven’t seen you for ages. We’ve missed you.”

Ava deflated. “Luke told you I was here, didn’t he?”

“We’re still good friends with his parents. They mentioned it to us,” her mother confirmed.

That little… Way to keep things undercover, Luke! Ava took a step back into the living room and left the door open for her parents to enter. There was no way they would leave without getting some semblance of an explanation. “I know I should call more often. The Force keeps me busy.”

Her father closed the front door behind him. “Such a waste of your gifts.”

Ava’s eyes narrowed. “No, Dad, a waste would have been staying here and playing games with tourists. I am out there helping the rest of the galaxy.”

“Come on, Harold, arguing won’t get us anywhere,” Ava’s mother soothed, placing a hand on her husband’s arm.

“Don’t pretend you haven’t thought the same things, Ruth.”

“I’m just happy to be back in the same room with our daughter now,” she said and held out her arms to Ava. “Truce.”

A smile broke through on Ava’s face. “Yeah, truce.” She stepped forward and embraced her mother.

Ruth rocked Ava back and forth. “Whatever brought you back here, I’m glad to see you doing well.” She pulled back from the hug and brushed her fingers along Ava’s short hair at her temple.

“No long braids in the Force,” Ava replied to the unspoken question.

Her mother nodded and silently admired her.

“Don’t keep her all to yourself.” Harold wrapped Ava in a bear hug.

“It’s good to see you too, Dad,” she mumbled into his shoulder. He released her after twenty seconds. “I’m sorry I haven’t stayed in touch. So much of what I’m working on is classified.”

“You’re okay. That’s the important thing,” her mother said. “Let us take you out to lunch. We can catch up.”

“I’d love to, but—”

“Oh, sorry to interrupt.”

Ava turned to see Luke standing in the doorway. “…we have to get over to the NTech lab,” Ava finished her statement.

Harold frowned. “What are you doing over there?”

“Working on a special project,” Ava replied.

Luke shifted on his feet and held up a white paper bag. “I got you a scone for the road.”

 “Thanks.” She took one of each of her parents’ hands. “I need to take care of some business, but once I’m done with this mission, we can spend some time together. I promise.”

Ruth pulled her in for another hug. “We’ll look forward to it.”

She parted ways from her parents, feeling simultaneously relieved that the overdue reunion was out of the way and also nervous for how she’d answer their inevitable questions about what she’d been up to for the last decade. There was no easy way to explain that she’d been trained as a killer and had been involved in pivotal events that had impacted thousands of lives. Even if they professed to be proud of her—which she wasn’t sure they would—she knew their perception of their little girl would be forever changed.

They said their goodbyes, and her parents climbed into their vehicle, waving while they backed out.

Once the car was down the driveway, Ava sighed and fixed Luke with dagger eyes. “You shouldn’t have told anyone I was here.”

“Don’t pull that ‘undercover op’ shit, Ava. Your cover is you returning home. It’d be suspicious if you didn’t see your parents while you were back here reconnecting with your roots. I put the word out there because I knew you wouldn’t do it yourself.”

Ava huffed. “Give me that scone, Puppetmaster.”

He chuckled and handed over the bag. “Don’t worry, I have no intention of controlling your life or pretending I know what’s best for you. I just know NTech and how they think. That’s why I’m here to help.”

“I know, thanks. Most of my recent missions have involved fucking shit up with Were warriors and plasma rifles, so I’m still remembering how to do this whole subtle infiltration thing.”

“Remember faster, because we have to get to the lab.”

She scowled playfully. “What do you take me for?”

“Yes, your majesty, I know you’re a pro. Come on, you can eat in the car.”

Ava grinned. “Good, because I was going to anyway.”

She had devoured the scone by the time the car had made it out of the housing complex to the main road. While she licked the orange frosting from her fingers, she gazed out the window at the surrounding hills and the wispy clouds drifting through the sky.

Sky. It had been years since she’d spent any appreciable time on a planet. Space had become her home. Yet, being back on Coraxa and feeling real gravity underfoot, breathing fresh air, she realized that she did miss being planetside. Perhaps future assignments would afford more time on the ground.

They arrived at the NTech parking lot and then got out and walked the short path to the facility’s entrance.

Once inside, Ava approached the reception desk. “Good morning.”

“Hello, Ava,” Martha greeted. “I have your visitor badge for you.” She handed it over the counter. “I’ll let Dr. Mason know you’re here.”

“No need to bother her,” Luke said. “I can get Ava oriented to whatever assignment Dr. Mason wanted her to work on.”

“I was given specific instructions.” Martha made entries on the desktop in front of her. “You can get to your duties, Dr. Carter. I’ll keep Ava company while she waits.”

Ava gave her friend a nod to let him know it was all right.

He acquiesced. “Very well. Maybe I’ll see you at lunch?”

“I’ll let you know,” Ava said. “If not, dinner.”

He smiled. “Have a good day.” He headed for the security arch into A Wing.

“Any more to these orders Dr. Mason left?” Ava asked the receptionist.

“No, but your badge now has access to C Wing.”

“What’s in there?” Ava already had a rough idea based on Luke’s orientation, but she was curious how Martha would reply.

“It’s some of our most exciting technology. You’re in for a treat.”

“Looking forward to it.”

When Martha didn’t say anything more, Ava began milling around the lobby, making note of the security details and points for entry or emergency egress. While sleek and architecturally stunning, the place was built like a fortress. But every fortress had its vulnerabilities.

“Enjoying the view?” Andrea said from behind Ava.

She turned to greet her. “I was admiring those pendant lights. Were they made by our local glass craftsmen at Trileo Studio?”

“Good eye. They were,” Andrea confirmed. “We tried to bring as much local flavor to the facility as possible. NTech is grateful to have been welcomed to Coraxa with such open arms.”

Like anyone had a choice, I’m sure. Ava smiled. “That’s great to see. So, what did you want to meet with me about?”

“Come. We’ll talk in private.”

Andrea led her to the security arch on the left. Rather than leading to a door-lined corridor, like in A Wing, this wing entrance was a featureless hallway that led to an elevator door.

“Your secret lair?” Ava asked.

“Hardly.” Andrea pressed the call button. “Due to the nature of the research in this division, we constructed the lab four stories underground to minimize external interference.”

The logic was sound, but the hairs on the back of Ava’s neck stood up when the elevator door opened. If I don’t go with her now, I’m out for good. She steeled her nerves and stepped into the elevator car.

Only a single button, for ‘Sublevel 4’, was on the control panel.

They rode down the four floors in silence. When the doors opened, the temperature was a couple degrees cooler than on the surface, even though Ava detected the telltale signs of environmental controls.

“I have a lab set aside for us to chat in,” Andrea said as she stepped into the corridor.

This area more closely resembled A Wing, but Ava was still on edge. She didn’t like being in a place with only one way out.

“Dr. Mason—er, Andrea—may I ask why you’ve taken an interest in me rather than any of the Readers here on Coraxa? I’m hardly the only telepath around here.”

“Oh, I have spoken with others. I’m curious to see how an extended time away from Coraxa has impacted your abilities.”

A slight pitch in her tone gave her away. She’s lying.

Ava had been given complete authority to use any means necessary for investigation, so she may as well take advantage of that freedom. She prepared for an assessment of Andrea’s inner thoughts.

Invading someone’s mind turned her stomach, especially for someone who hadn’t actually done anything to wrong her—yet. Still, the NTech lab was up to something, and there wouldn’t be an easier way to find out what that was other than to read the lab director’s thoughts.

However, when she reached out toward Andrea’s mind, Ava was met with only a blank wall.

The fuck? She tried to push through, but the barrier was impenetrable, even for her advanced skills.

“That’s not polite,” Andrea said without breaking stride.

“Oh, shit.” The words slipped out before Ava could stop herself.

She’d only heard of one group aside from the Readers on Coraxa capable of such thorough mental blocks, due to their own telepathic abilities. But that meant Andrea had to be a vampire, and almost none existed. Certainly none with Andrea’s disregard for human life. That meant one thing: Andrea had left Earth before Bethany Anne’s departure, and that meant her conversion had never been corrected. She’d still be the blood-sucking vampire of lore.

“You’re…” Ava began.

“Yes, a vampire,” Andrea completed. “And no, I don’t burst into flames in sunlight. You shouldn’t be so surprised—I’m not that different from the Weres you’ve no doubt encountered during your time in the FDG.”

“So you’ve read my file.”

“Of course I have. Why else do you think I was so eager to chat with you? You are quite a fascinating individual, Ava Landyn.”

Ava’s pulse spiked. She tried to settle it, knowing the vampire would be able to pick up on the slightest changes to her breathing or heart rate. Shit! Did I tip her off during our last meeting? She couldn’t remember if she’d tensed or hesitated while responding to any questions.

Holy fuck, this is not a good place to be! She was down four stories with no way to get in touch with anyone. Luke knew where she was, but if they suspected he’d betrayed NTech by bringing Ava here… Or was he working with NTech and had betrayed her?

Her hands curled into fists, ready to fight for her life if she needed to.

“Are you all right?” Andrea asked, pausing in the middle of the hall.

“What are you going to do to me?” Ava demanded.

Andrea stared at her for five seconds then broke into a musical laugh. “What, do you think I brought you down here to lock you up like a lab animal?” She placed a hand on Ava’s shoulder and looked her in the eyes. “Ava, I just want to learn more about your abilities. You needn’t worry.”

The words were genuine, as far as Ava could tell, but it was all way too suspicious. This woman was hiding something, and Ava could tell she somehow fit into a larger plan. But there was no way she could take on a vampire single-handedly. She needed to play along.

“Sorry, I just get a bit claustrophobic underground.”

“Even after all your time in space?”

“We have windows. It’s a weird psychological quirk, what can I say?”

Andrea smiled. “One of the great things that makes us human.”

Says the vampire. Ava held out her hand. “Lead the way.”

They traversed another fifteen meters of hall and then turned to the left. Andrea opened the second door on the right. It was to a stark white five-by-five meter room with a table and two chairs in the center and a computer panel along the back wall.

“Have a seat.” Andrea walked to the computer and began navigating through a menu.

Ava selected the chair with the better view of the door. “You’re not big on color around here.”

“The white brings some brightness to the space, though, don’t you think?”

“I guess it does.”

Andrea stopped her entries on the touchscreen and turned to face Ava. “Have I done something wrong by inviting you here?”

All right, time to try a straight approach. Ava shrugged. “I know you’re busy and must have a lot of other, better things to do than talk with some FDG officer visiting Coraxa on leave. I’m curious what you’re working on that would make me a priority.”

The director glided toward the table and took the seat across from Ava. “NTech selected Coraxa for our research because of the unique properties of this planet. People have dedicated decades of their lives to cracking its secrets, but no one has been successful. I want to do what no one else has done.

“You are an anomaly among your people—no other Reader has left. We know babies born offworld do not inherit their parents’ abilities, so why are you able to live offworld and retain them? As a scientist, that’s one of the most intriguing case studies I’ve ever come across.”

Ava had to admit that she had always been curious about that phenomenon herself. While she didn’t like the idea of being dissected in a lab, if Andrea could offer some answers while Ava conducted her own investigation, she’d love to know.

“How did you get involved in genetics research?” Ava asked.

Andrea rose from the table and resumed her entries on the computer. “I began as a nanoscientist, actually. I was always fascinated by the interplay between technology and biology.”

“Was that before or after you were turned?”

“After. Carrying nanocytes in my own blood, I wanted to learn more about how they worked.”

“They draw energy from the Etheric, right?”

The doctor nodded. “And each… strain, if you will, produces different properties for the individual. I’ve dedicated my life to learning how that differentiation happens.”

That certainly sounds like the mission brief from Kurtz. If NTech does have a new strain of nanocytes for the Hochste, this woman is behind it. She leaned back in her chair. “What have you learned?”

“That the Kurtherians were far smarter than any of us.”

“They had it going on, didn’t they? But they weren’t smarter, just more advanced. Surely you’ve learned something about the nanotech.”

“Oh, of course.” Andrea flashed her a smile. “It’s all very technical, though. I won’t bore you.”

Pressing any more would sound suspicious, so Ava switched gears. “How does Coraxa fit in?”

“I’m interested in the connection to the Etheric,” Andrea replied. “If we can understand what about Coraxa results in such Etheric sensitivity, then we can, by extension, get that much closer to isolating those properties within the nanocytes.”

“That’d probably be the discovery of the century—if not the millennia.”

“Perhaps now you’ll understand why I’ll go down any research path available to crack that code. I hope you’ll lend a hand.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you, Ava.” Andrea walked to a cabinet on the right wall and pulled out a cylindrical contraption and a transparent box filled with what appeared to be medical electrodes.

“This equipment is designed to measure Etheric energy. I’d like to expose you to some stimuli and test your response,” the doctor explained. She placed the cylinder on the table. “Would that be all right?”

I’m committed to the course now. “Of course, go right ahead.”

Ava sat rigidly while Andrea affixed the electrodes around Ava’s head, on the upper part of her chest, and to her wrists.

“Excellent. We’ll begin in a moment.” Andrea disconnected one of the monitors on the computer to use as a tablet.

Taking a deep breath, Ava nodded. She trusted in her own mental blocks and would only reveal whatever would get her toward her desired ends with Andrea.

The lights dimmed to half-brightness when Andrea slid her hand along the edge of the tablet screen. A holographic representation of Tribeca appeared above the cylinder.

“Do you recognize this location?” Andrea asked.

“Yes, of course. It’s this city.”

“And what is your connection to this place?”

“It was my home. I grew up here.”

“And now?”

Ava thought for a second. “It’s still the place where I spent my childhood, but it’s no longer my home.”

“How do you feel looking at this image?”

“Nostalgic, I guess.”

Andrea tilted her head. “Why is that?”

“Answers were a lot clearer when I was young.”

The doctor made a note on her tablet. “Physically, how does it feel to be back here?”

Ah, now we’re getting down to it. Ava folded her hands on the tabletop. “It was energizing when I stepped off the shuttle, if that’s what you mean.”

“Can you recall how it compared to when you lived here?”

Honestly, Ava couldn’t. It had been so long since Coraxa was her home, now she was only a few steps removed from being a tourist herself. “This place has been a part of me since I was conceived. Leaving didn’t change that, but I feel… fuller here than I do anywhere else.”

Andrea nodded and set down her tablet. “With many subjects, I can easily talk around my real questions. That’s not the case with you.”

Ava smiled. “It is my job, after all. My guess is that you’re trying to gauge how my connection with the Etheric changes based on where I am?”

“Yes, and specifically, Coraxa as a power source, of sorts.”

“When it comes to people developing an Etheric connection,” Ava replied, “I’ve always thought of Coraxa as more of a nursery than a creator. Based on my own experience and stories I’ve heard from others, it seems like this place can take a seed of potential and let it flower. Someone with no genetic potential won’t spontaneously develop abilities here and, assuming those abilities are hereditary, their children won’t, either. But for those who do have the genetic potential, it can be unlocked here.”

The NTech scientist nodded.

“Now,” Ava continued, “given that abilities take a generation or two to show up, there must be something here that saturates a person over time. Water, soil, the electromagnetic field—I have no idea what. Or maybe it’s not any one thing, but rather a unique confluence of features that have made this place possible.”

It was more than Ava had intended to say on the subject, but she was genuinely curious to get the scientist’s take on her homeworld.

“That’s a very astute observation, Ava. I like that nursery analogy.” Andrea turned off the holoprojector and raised the light level. “What I find most interesting, though, is how your brain responded when shown a picture of Tribeca. There was increased activity in the cerebral structures my research has shown are most connected to Etheric potential.”

Ava’s heart leaped. “Really?”

The doctor inclined her head. “This suggests to me that, for those who were ‘nurtured’ here, there is an enduring connection.”

“I guess so…” So much for this being a straightforward assignment! Now I want her research to continue. Ava suppressed the thought.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to set you up in a lab with a more advanced Etheric reader while you run through some telepathic exercises. I’m curious how much energy you draw, and how that compares to others I’ve interviewed.”

“Yeah, sure,” Ava agreed, though she wasn’t crazy about being down in the subterranean lair longer than necessary.

“I prepped a setup, just in case. I’m pleased you were able to so quickly confirm my suspicions.”

That goes both ways, Doctor, Ava thought as she rose from the table and followed Andrea into the hall.

The second exam room was two doors down on the left. This one was equipped with a single padded chair and a table at the center of the three meter square room, completed with acoustic tiles. On the table sat a guinea pig in a glass atrium.

“Um…” Ava’s gaze shifted between the rodent and Andrea. “What…?”

“Ah, yes.” Andrea beckoned for Ava to take the chair facing the guinea pig. “This room is outfitted with advanced monitoring equipment that will supplement the readings gathered through your electrodes. We found it to be an invasion of privacy to have telepaths read other humans, so a guinea pig serves as a stand-in.”

Ava plopped into the chair. “I hate to be a poor sport here, but I can’t mind-read a guinea pig.”

“It’s not so much reading a mind, but attempting to.”

“So… you want me to bore into the soul of a creature with the brain the size of a grape?” She let the sarcasm really shine through with her tone.

Andrea smiled, stepping to the door. “It’ll only take an hour or so to gather the necessary readings.”

Ava stared into the guinea pig’s black eyes. It cooed at her.

She sighed. Fuck my life.












CHAPTER NINE


Kurtz leaned back in his chair across the interrogation table from the second suspect.

The young lieutenant’s gaze was darting around the room, trying to spot the potential monitoring equipment.

Does she think she can break out, or does she want to work a deal under the table without others knowing? Kurtz glanced back at Denise and she shrugged.

“I asked you a question, Lieutenant,” Kurtz reiterated.

“Yes, I transmitted that file outside of the FDG secure servers,” Lieutenant Morgan replied at last.

Kurtz leaned against the table, allowing his eyes to flare yellow. “Why?”

Morgan didn’t flinch, and her own eyes transitioned to yellow in defiance.

Young Weres could be so frustratingly stubborn. “Why?” he snarled inching closer to her.

She shook her head and looked away. “If you’re going to court martial or execute me or whatever, just get it over with.”

Kurtz backed away and took a softer approach. “Morgan, I don’t want this to end badly for you. If you had a valid reason for violating those orders, it may change the punishment.”

“We all make mistakes,” Denise offered.

“Oh, this wasn’t a mistake.” Morgan scoffed. “I knew exactly what I was doing.”

“You’re not leaving this room until you provide some indication about the why,” Kurtz stated. “If you don’t cooperate, we’ll bring in one of the telepaths.”

That got her attention. “It was about my parents. They’ve… had a hard go of it. I joined the Force to get out of that life, and I send money when I can. But it’s not enough.”

“So you were… selling this information?” Kurtz prompted. The notion that some citizens didn’t have the resources they needed to have a comfortable life was foreign but not unknown to him, being born on a world fully in the Etheric Federation. Worlds on the outside—or in transition—didn’t have it so well.

“No. Well, not exactly. They said that they’d help my parents if I just fed little bits of information here and there. Nothing too classified, just some mission briefs. They said it was a ‘heads up’ to give them a chance to take action, if ever it was needed.”

“And who’s ‘they’?”

“Some government official with the Nezaran Coalition.”

Kurtz groaned inwardly. That confirms the suspicion that these leaks are independent. First the Alucians, now the Nezarans… “Do you have a name?”

“They went by Nox.”

Kurtz glanced back at Denise.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Denise said and left the room.

“So, this Nox, can you tell me any more about him… or her?”

“Their voice was distorted the one time we spoke. The other communications were all text.”

“How did you meet?”

“Three years ago at a spaceport. It was during some R&R after a field training op,” Morgan replied.

Same timeframe as the major, Kurtz mused. “Is that when you spoke?”

“No.” She crossed her arms. “It’s strange. I can’t remember exactly how the meeting happened. All I know for sure is I got a note that directed me to a bar, and there was a package waiting for me. I looked over the offer, and it said what I’d have to do and that I’d never have to worry about my parents again. It was a pretty dire situation at the time, so I couldn’t refuse.”

“Your parents are doing better now?”

“It’s not glamorous, but they’re way better off than they were.”

Kurtz nodded and placed a hand on his chin. “Have they ever spoken about their benefactors?”

“No, there’s never been any direct contact. I tried tracing some of the supply shipments sent to their home, but it all led to ghosts.”

If it is a government official, they might have the means to mask the origin. But is there a common thread connecting the leaks? Part of Kurtz was excited for the challenge, but the implications were concerning, to say the least. Either two people had coincidentally similar experiences at the same time, or there was a third-party at play to maneuver two governments against each other. Two incidents didn’t constitute a pattern—he’d still have to speak with the third suspect and see if that filled in any of the missing pieces.

“Lieutenant, I understand your desire to help your parents, but this is a serious offense.”

She bristled. “I don’t regret it. I’d do it again.”

“Integrity and honor above all.” Kurtz rose from the table. “I’ll contemplate whether you get a court martial or not.”

“Just leave my parents out of it.”

“The FDG is a humanitarian organization. We’d never do anything to harm civilians.” He exited and turned her over to the guards waiting outside the door.

Denise was hurrying back down the hall, tablet in hand. “Get anything else?”

“No,” he replied. “Damn shame. I hate to see a career thrown away like that.”

“She made her choice.”

“That part about not remembering the meeting…”

The security chief nodded. “It did sound similar to the circumstances of Major Ellis’ recruitment.”

“I agree, and the timing is close.”

“Well,” Denise sighed, “if there is someone in the Nezaran government who’s connected to all this, their real name isn’t ‘Nox’.”

“I figured as much.” Kurtz crossed his arms. “We could request detailed receipt records to see where the file went within their system.”

“This close to signing a vassal agreement? Acting suspicious and showing a lack of trust might not go over so well.”

Kurtz frowned. “I’m beginning to wonder if that was the whole point of this.”

Denise’s face paled. “That is the easiest explanation.”

“Except the question remains, who’d want this deal to fall apart?”

***

By the end of the hour with her new rodent friend—which she’d named Mr. Fuzzers—Ava had developed an insatiable craving for carrots.

Fortunately, Andrea informed Ava that she was free to go, if she wished, while Andrea’s team analyzed the test results. Thoughts of fresh salad from her favorite café in Tribeca had Ava salivating, but she couldn’t take the rest of the day off from the mission. Hopefully NTech’s cafeteria had a good selection of veggies.

“I don’t suppose I could come back tomorrow to go over the test results with you?” Ava asked, easing into her real question.

“Of course. This is as much to educate you about yourself as it is for me to learn about the nature of your abilities.”

“Speaking of that, I’ve always been curious about the genetics side. Might I be able to spend some time in the lab with Luke Carter?” Ava made a point to keep her breathing and heart rate calm and level while she asked. She hoped that any tells would be interpreted as a crush rather than her planned deception.

“Genetic analysis? With your military background, I’d think you’d be more interested in biotech—our rapid healing aids, or muscle augmentation.”

Ava flashed a disarming smile. “Well, yes. But I get so much of that in the course of my day-to-day life that it’s so… impersonal. Looking into genetics is something I’d be doing for me. Plus,” she lowered her voice, “I wouldn’t mind a little extra time with him, if you know what I mean.”

The doctor chuckled. “I still remember what it was like to be young. I see no harm in you shadowing him.” Her gaze lingered on Ava just a moment too long.

She definitely knows I’m up to something. Nothing Ava could do about it now. “Great. Are we done here?”

“Yes.” Andrea showed her to the door. “I’ll have an escort bring you to Dr. Carter.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.” Ava followed her into the hall.

The doctor stopped after two paces and turned to Ava. “A word to the wise: don’t abuse this generosity, Ava. You do not want to get on my bad side.”

“I’d never think of it.”

***

President Connors swiped his hand across his desk to minimize the news reports. Press statement or not, rumors were still floating around that the FDG had planned to attack a civilian resistance group on Nezar until some hero had uncovered their sneaky plan. He hated how truths became twisted so easily.

With the FDG being the covert ops arm of the Etheric Federation’s military, groups previously in support of joining the Federation were now questioning that union, citing this incident as a reason to distrust the Federation rather than become its vassal.

Others saw the display for what it was and were even more enthusiastic about joining the Etheric Federation so they could close the divide for good.

Connors groaned. Being president at the center of the madness made for a challenging position. No matter what he did, he was going to piss off someone. But if he didn’t take action, he risked his people being on one side of a civil war that had no basis in reality.

“Send up Karen,” he told Leon, his assistant. He needed to make a formal statement. Not just a press release this time, but a speech.

Karen arrived three minutes later carrying her customary tablet. “Yes, Mr. President?”

“It’s time we have a heart-to-heart with our citizens.”

She tilted her head questioningly.

Connors clasped his hands behind his back and began pacing. “We’ve lived in a state of transition for the past one hundred years. Alucians and Nezarans differ only in our name, yet we continue to provide reasons for disagreement. That divide will tear us apart and destroy our greatest chance for an elevated future unless we come together and commit to a new approach.

“Officially joining the Etheric Federation won’t change who we are—it will afford us the necessary stability and resources to be our best selves. Culture will flourish, and we’ll finally be able to set aside the petty disagreements that have plagued our people for the past century. For this reason, I move for immediate ratification of Alucian Alliance’s vassal agreement with the Etheric Federation and move for the Nezaran Coalition to do likewise.”

His press secretary’s mouth dropped open. “Sir, that’s…”

“You’re the wordsmith, Karen. I’m sure you can come up with a way to soften the blow. But that’s the message.”

She took a shaky breath. “How do you want this delivered?”

“I’ll say it myself. Have a speech draft on my desk by the end of the day. We’ll make the announcement at 07:00.”

Karen gave a reluctant nod. “Yes, sir.”

Connors watched her leave then walked up to his window and gazed out over the city. He had no way of knowing how the speech would be received, but he was certain he was about to make history.

***

Ava knocked on the outer glass wall of Luke’s office. “Hey. Look who you couldn’t get rid of.”

Her friend glanced up from his work in surprise. “How’d you get over here?”

She shrugged. “I convinced Andrea to let me shadow you.” She had more to say, but it couldn’t be said aloud where others might be listening in.

Gazing into Luke’s eyes, she formed a direct telepathic link. “Pretty sure Andrea’s going to have security watching me like hawks, so I need you to run interference for me,” she told him.

He got a look on his face that only an old friend who knew her too well could get. He formed a response in his mind, “What are you planning?”

“Just a little poking around. Nothing too invasive.”

He sighed. “What have you seen so far?” he asked aloud.

Ava leaned against the edge of his desk and grabbed a small metal planet model from the desktop next to her. She tossed it back and forth between her hands. “I got to spend the last hour in Wing C communing with a guinea pig.”

Luke’s face scrunched up. “Wait, what?”

“You really don’t want to know.”

He took the metal planet from her and set it back in its holder. He resumed eye contact with her to continue their telepathic conversation. “Okay, so Wing C. You’ve already been somewhere I’ve never had access to. I doubt hanging out here with me is going to get you anywhere.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t have a computer down there.”

“Ava, you cannot use my computer to hack into the NTech system,” Luke said in a terse mental tone.

“When you agreed to be liaison for this mission, you committed to help me out with anything I needed to undercover the target information. Right now, that’s use of your computer.”

“You’re going to get me fired—or worse.”

“The very fact that you’re worried about an ‘or worse’ is precisely why we have to do this.” She paused. “But what makes you say that? You didn’t give any indication of danger before.”

“I…” He crossed his arms. “It’s probably nothing, but I overheard someone in the break room this morning mention that one of their acquaintances from the employee housing community wasn’t around the last two mornings. They normally commuted together.”

“Where’d this person work?”

“That’s the only reason I’m mentioning it now. I guess it was some sort of ‘special assignment’ connected to B Wing in some way.”

Ava raised an eyebrow. “Is that suspicious somehow?”

“Not unto itself, no. But when I looked him up, Tim Masters, there was no employee record.”

“So either he’s been ghosted, he’s attached to some secret division, or both.”

Luke wilted in his chair. “You’ve got it.”

Ava got a devious glint in her eyes. “Hey, I think there’s some really involved genetic model you need to show me on your computer. Maybe teach me how the software is used? Might take some hands-on learning on my part.”

“Yeah, I’m happy to give you a demonstration,” Luke replied aloud, then added in his mind, “Damn it, Ava, you better help me find a new job when this is all over.”

“I’m sure we can work something out.” She shooed him from his chair and sat down.

Luke grabbed the visitor chair and pulled it up next to her. “Here, let me pull up an example file for us to walk through.” He leaned over and brought up a menu with some genetic sequences and displayed one on the main monitor, which was visible from outside the office. He then cleared part of the interactive desktop to give her a covert place for her hacking work.

“I doubt I’ll get very far,” she muttered. “I’ll need a passcode to get into anything secure without drawing attention.”

He caught her gaze. “Are you suggesting doing a Reading of someone?”

“If I have to. Unfortunately, Andrea’s the only person I’m certain would have such a passcode, but she’s impossible to read.”

Luke’s brow wrinkled with confusion.

“Oh yeah, by the way, Andrea is a vampire.”

“What?!” He then continued telepathically, “Like, an actual…?”

“I know you’ve been briefed about the Unknown World and know about the Weres we have in the FDG. It’s similar technology, except I think Andrea must be from Earth, from the time before Bethany Anne left—a Forsaken.”

“How do you know she’s even a vampire?” Luke asked, his eyes wide with wonder.

She smiled over her shoulder at him. “How do you think?”

“Shit, Ava. You tried to read her mind? She’s probably expecting you to do exactly what you’re doing!”

“Which is why we have to move quickly. But until she tips her hand, I’m staying the course. I don’t have another choice.”

Luke released a long breath and ran his fingers through his light brown hair.

“Relax,” she told him. “Just show me this genetic model of yours.”

Ava tuned out Luke’s half-hearted explanation of the model while she returned her attention to tunneling through the NTech computer system. Eventually, she reached a quartered off section of the network. “My, my. What have we here?”

“That’s a lot of data,” Luke commented out loud before he caught himself. “Must be some serious models, or videos—something—to be hogging that much space.”

“Like a whole secret division.” Ava gnawed on her lip. “I need to find out where it is, physically.”

“Ava…”

“Stop. Support or no comment at all.”

He nodded.

“Now, when do people normally head home for the day?”

“Around 18:00 most days. Why?”

“Because once most people go home, the cleaning crew steps in. And if anyone knows secret doors in the facility, it’s the people operating in the background.”

“Even if you find a door, how do you expect to get in?”

“We find someone with the right access.” She smiled.

Luke shook his head. “I never should have agreed to this.”

“No take-backsies.” Ava patted his arm. “We’ll go on an expedition after lunch. Maybe we can catch one of the early cleaning crew.”

“For the record, I do not endorse this plan.”

Despite his grumblings, Luke proved to be a good sport for the rest of the morning while Ava counted down the minutes to their lunch break. Her desire for a salad had continued to intensify.

At last, he escorted her to the lunch room, which she’d seen briefly during her tour the prior afternoon.

The room was filled with people from across the division. What Luke didn’t need to know was that Ava had no intention of tracking down one individual to give her a lead. If there was anyone around that wing who knew something relevant, there was a good chance they’d pass through the lunch hub at some point in the next half hour.

“Forgive me if I’m not too talkative,” Ava said while they got in line. “I’m ravenous. That test this morning really did a number on me.”

“Sure, don’t worry about it,” Luke replied.

Ava cleared her mind and began reaching out to those around her, sensing for any indication about their position or access. So soon after leaving their stations, current work assignments were at the forefront of their thoughts, making her task far easier than it would have been at any other time.

Most were low-level techs, but there was the occasional manager. Ava dismissed the first forty people in a matter of thirty seconds, then moved onto the next wave. By the time she was up to the front of the buffet line, she’d vetted close to two hundred people and had encountered no one promising.

Feeling disheartened, she prepared a salad with extra carrots and radishes before finding a seat along the side wall with Luke. She kept her mental scan running in the background.

“I don’t recall you being much of a salad person,” Luke commented when they were settled at the table.

“I’m normally not. It was that fucking guinea pig…”

He almost spit out his first bite of sandwich.

“Yeah, laugh all you want.” She stabbed into a piece of carrot and bit off a chunk. Damn, that’s satisfying.

Ava was trying to think up another witty retort when someone’s thoughts caught her attention in the background.

She zeroed in on a man just entering the cafeteria. He wore a white lab coat, like half the other employees, and had a brisk gait that was offset by a twitchiness in his hands. The man kept his gaze straight ahead until he reached the queue line.

“Whatcha up to?” Luke asked.

“Shh, nothing.” Ava blocked out her companion while she attempted to read the newcomer’s mind.

His thoughts were scattered and disorderly, but several impressions came to the forefront for Ava. The first was that he looked down on those around him—perceiving the other workers to be nothing more than menial cogs. Beneath that, he was working on something important. They were about to make history, and he’d get to be a part of it. The final impression was that whatever experiment was underway had a danger unlike anything else the man had previously encountered. Not only were the subjects dangerous, but he had to tread carefully with his own position.

‘Subjects’? Are they doing experiments on people here? Ava was pulled back to the outside world by the sound of a plastic tray clanging to the ground.

“Sorry!” a woman said while bending down to pick up the spilled contents.

Another woman chuckled and bent down to help her. “Collisions are bound to happen now and again, don’t worry about it.”

Ava had a moment of panic when she realized she’d lost sight of the man, but she quickly spotted him seated at the end of a table on the other side of the room.

Keeping one eye on him, she returned to her salad.

Luke gave her a questioning gaze from across the table. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Nothing I won’t reveal in due time,” she said around a mouthful of salad.

A slight shake of his head was Luke’s only reaction. He resumed eating his sandwich in silence.

Ava finished her meal two minutes before the man across the room, but she remained seated until he rose to clear his tray.

She stood and grabbed her own tray. As she tossed away the waste, she timed her movements so she’d be able to leave right after the man.

“You go on ahead back to your office. I’m going to… stop by the restroom,” Ava said to Luke.

He rolled his eyes. “You will do nothing of the sort.”

“What did I say earlier about supportive statements?”

Luke threw up his hands. “Fine, but I warned you.”

“I’ll be careful.” Ava jogged lightly across the cafeteria and into the hall where the man had gone.

She paused at the corner and peaked around nonchalantly. The tech was still going straight ahead.

Stepping as quietly as possible, she hurried down the hall to catch up with the tech before he reached the next intersection. He took a right.

Ava crept forward and waited to see the man’s next move. Her glance told her it would be obvious, since there was only one visible door down that segment of hallway. However, when she chanced a second look, she saw the back wall of the hallway pulling aside to allow the tech through.

A placard on the hidden doorframe read: ‘Wing D – Restricted Area. Authorized Access Only’.

Ava shook her head. Those sneaky bastards.

The door wouldn’t stay open for long. She made a run for it.

After two steps, a firm hand caught her arm. Instinctively, Ava grabbed the wrist and twisted it to bring her would-be assailant to their knees.

“Ow, Ava!” Luke exclaimed.

“What are you doing here?” she hissed, releasing his arm.

The door was beginning to close. It was now or never. She took another step toward it, but Luke grabbed her again, looking into her eyes.

“Not now,” he pleaded in her mind.

Damn it, he was right. She couldn’t go in without an exit plan. Ava groaned. “Well, this confirms they’re up to something.”

“And we shouldn’t be here. Andrea may decide she’s had enough of your skulking around at any moment.”

“Thanks for coming to find me! I got turned around,” Ava said aloud, and Luke released her arm. She caught his gaze again. “As soon as I figure out how to get in and out of there myself, you won’t be able to stop me.”












CHAPTER TEN


Andrea reviewed the footage of Ava’s near-infiltration of the D Wing. She scowled at the monitor.

“What do you want to do about her?” Jared asked.

“There’s not much that we can do,” Andrea replied. She rose from her seat with a huff and paced behind her chair in the observation room.

“We could detain her.”

“If we do, the FDG will know something is wrong and they’ll come after her. Our forces are strong, but we can’t compete with the military resources of the extended Etheric Federation.”

Jared frowned. “So our cover is blown. That’s it?”

“No, of course I won’t give up that easily. I’m thinking.” Andrea continued her pacing.

With how easily unmodified humans could be manipulated, there had to be an elegant solution. Ava herself was an important part of that equation. The strength of her natural abilities, coupled with her training, made her a prime specimen with which to test the penultimate stage of their experimentation. Unfortunately, that wasn’t yet complete. They’d need one final push to bring their plan to fruition.

“I have an idea,” Andrea said to Jared as the plan formed. “It’s not without its risks, but it’s the best way to keep the operation on course. We’ve been on borrowed time since the FDG discovered our other lab.”

Jared crossed his arms. “Forgive my bluntness, but why didn’t you take additional precautions when you moved the subjects here?”

Her lips curled into a smug grin. “We have fail-safes in place—no need to worry. And besides, the Federation’s eyes were on this system enough as it was with the vassal agreement being so close to signing. We’re trying to keep a friendly face, remember? If I had denied Ava access, we’d be in exactly the same place we’ll be in a day or two, anyway—at least this way, we get those extra days to prepare. And Ava.”

“You intend to use her as the test subject for Stage Four?” Jared asked.

“She’s perfect, don’t you think?”

He nodded with consideration. “Already trained as a solider… She’d probably put on a great show.”

“It would be an excellent template to build upon. I believe our collaborators would be pleased.” Andrea placed her hands on the back of her chair, lost in thought.

“Have you ever met them—in person, I mean?” questioned Jared.

“No, but they pull some very powerful strings. If we deliver on our promises, we will be well compensated. They always take care of those who play their part.”

“How will we get her out of here, though?”

Andrea smiled. “Through the front door, of course.”

“Assuming by that point we’ll be surrounded by the FDG, how are we supposed to do that?”

“When I say our friends pull some powerful strings, you must trust that they are powerful strings indeed. I’ll share my plan, and all will be taken care of for us.”

Her colleague let out a slow breath and nodded. “I trust in our work and your word. Tell me what I need to do.”

***

“So, what’s the plan for today?” Luke asked as he turned off the car in the NTech parking lot.

Ava gazed at the lab’s entrance, aglow in the morning light. “It’s probably best you don’t know.”

“That dangerous, huh?” Luke slumped back in his seat and unfastened the safety belt.

“I can’t give you any specifics, knowing Andrea is a telepath. Let’s just say I need concrete proof of wrongdoing in order to pull in the FDG without it turning into a political disaster.”

“Have you been paying attention to the news reports? There’s already a major political upset underfoot with this system.”

Ava had watched President Connors’ address while she was getting ready in the morning. The call for peace and to finally become an official vassal of the Etheric Federation aligned with her own political leanings, but she was saddened to see counterarguments pour in from commentators after the speech ended.

Her home system was fairly isolated compared to the core worlds in the Federation. While the three planets offered sufficient resources to maintain a good quality of life, their relatively low population would be an issue in the long-term. Exactly two college-level institutions existed in the Alaxar Trinary, limiting career options, and the relative self-sufficiency required many people to fill roles in manual labor or service.

Given the level of technology available, everyone should have been able to pursue more advanced work, if they desired—but the imbalance in population relative to the necessary functions to keep their little civilization running meant many people were held back. Nezar had raised the issue on numerous occasions, but the gentle Alucian people were content to allow their future to unfold at a slower rate. They were very young worlds and still needed to find their own identity.

Joining the Etheric Federation would supply some of that culture, and the resources necessary for even growth that would provide greater opportunities to all citizens. It was the greatest argument against the Nezaran’s bid for independence, and why the position of unification would win out in the end.

But the path to get to that resolution was messy, as the birth of so many nations was. The Alucian president’s words would not sway everyone. With any luck, those objections would subside once final agreements were signed.

“Those reports of FDG military action were proved to be false rumors,” Ava replied after a moment of reflection on Luke’s question. “The news outlets are making a big deal out of nothing.”

“That’s the news for you,” he said.

“Just remember, I’m covert ops—whenever we can keep it that way, at least. Unless things go completely sideways, no one should ever know I was here.”

“Andrea already knows,” Luke countered. “Every time you step foot in the facility, you put yourself at greater risk.”

“I can handle myself.”

“I don’t doubt your ability to kick ass and take names. Hell, my shoulder is still sore from when you almost took me out yesterday.”

She flashed a semi-apologetic smile.

He waved it off. “I’m fine.”

But Andrea is a vampire, for fucksake. She’d eviscerate, not dislocate a shoulder. Ava’s doubts must have been written on her face, because Luke just raised an eyebrow and tilted his head in response.

“She might be dangerous,” Ava continued. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I need proof of what’s going on in there. The Force is counting on me to get the job done.”

“Perhaps I can find someone on the inside who’ll help you out…”

“Why didn’t you mention that possibility before?”

“It didn’t occur to me until last night. I got to thinking about what you said regarding the ‘hidden’ jobs—cleaning staff and the like.”

“Right. What about them?”

“Well, I might know a guy. He has zero technical aptitude, and I was thinking any collaborators would need to have some grasp of the tech we were investigating, so he didn’t come to mind. But this guy is all about keeping people fed and happy.”

“Are you talking about a lunch server?”

“Indeed I am. Think about it—if there are people being held captive, they have to be getting some kind of nutrition. And that food needs to get routed through somewhere.”

“You may be onto something.”

Luke nodded. “We’ll pay him a visit this morning.” His face lit up. “Oh, and I got you a present.”

A present? Please tell me this isn’t for our three-day anniversary… “What for?”

“It’s so terribly romantic—a privacy bubble.”

“You mean a close-range cloaking module? That’s military-grade tech. Where did you—”

Luke shook his head and pulled out a palm-sized device from his jacket pocket. A seam ran around the perimeter of the metal rectangular object, with a wheel and three buttons on one side.  A tiny logo was on the underside.

“You forget that all military tech makes its way onto the civilian market in dumbed-down form,” he said. “This one is used by ecotourists to get close to wildlife without scaring them off—it records a visual of the surroundings and plays that back along with noise-cancelling waves around a holographic static field bubble on a loop, so you can talk within it and from the outside it’ll just look like you’re sitting there. The loop won’t hold up to close examination, but anyone glancing at a video feed shouldn’t get immediately suspicious.”

Some women might swoon for flowers, but Ava was a sucker for a good gadget. And pastries—Luke had nailed that one the previous morning.

She took it from him, noting that the operation looked identical to the FDG’s devices she’d used throughout her career. “This is going to be so unbelievably handy. Thank you.”

He tore his gaze away and stared out the windshield. “We should probably get inside.”

“Right.” Ava unbuckled her seatbelt and reached out to open the car door.

“Ava…” Luke grabbed her nearest hand, stopping her. “Be careful in there today.”

She gave his hand a squeeze. “I will.”

They climbed out of the car and entered the lobby.

With the cloaking module tucked into her pants pocket, Ava strode toward the security arch after Luke. He flashed his ID and passed through first.

When it was Ava’s turn, the guard held up his hand. “The Director would like to see you.”

Shit. Ava’s stomach dropped, but she gave the guard a polite smile. “Really? She’s already been so generous with her time.”

Luke paused on the other side of the archway, looking uncertain about what to do.

“You go ahead,” Ava told him, making eye contact. “If you haven’t heard from me by lunchtime, call the FDG,” she added telepathically.

“I’ll see you later,” he acknowledged, trying to hide his worry but not quite succeeding.

“Where should I meet the Director?” Ava asked the guard.

“Head through the B Wing arch. Someone will meet you inside.”

This is why I shouldn’t bother making plans. Ava nodded her understanding and strolled across the lobby to the other arch positioned next to the reception desk.

“The Director asked for me?” she questioned the guard at the B arch, and he gestured her through.

She held her breath while she passed underneath the scanner, but it didn’t seem to flag her cloaking module. Small blessings.

Ava continued walking forward, and a set of double doors automatically opened for her with a hiss, revealing an all-white hallway similar to the others she’d encountered in the rest of the facility.

A lone man with short, brown hair and gray eyes was walking toward her down the hall. “Ava?” he called out.

“Yes, hi.” She recognized him as the scientist she’d seen in the cafeteria the previous day, whom she’d tried to follow into D Wing. This can’t be a coincidence.

“I’m Jared,” he greeted, extending his hand when he was close enough. “I work with Andrea.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” she lied, and pumped his hand. “Andrea wanted to see me?”

“Yes, she’d like to chat with you later about your test results. But first, I wanted to conduct a follow-up examination.”

“What for?” Ava’s tone had more bite in it than she intended, and she took a deep breath, putting on a smile that she hoped was friendly. “Sorry, didn’t get sufficient caffeination this morning.”

He chuckled. “We’ve all been there. I can get you a cup of coffee to sip on while we meet. This way.”

Jared spun around and walked back in the direction he’d come from.

“Have you been with NTech long?” Ava asked while she fell into step beside him.

“Going on twelve years now,” he replied. “This is my first opportunity to work with Dr. Mason, though. She’s something of a living legend in this industry.”

I guess it makes sense, when you can live for hundreds of years and acquire the knowledge of multiple lifetimes. Ava thought it best to keep that speculation to herself until she confirmed Jared knew about the Unknown World and its vampires and Weres. “But I take it you like working for her?”

Jared nodded. “She has a commitment to fulfilling her vision unlike anyone else I’ve ever encountered. It’s infectious.”

This guy’s all-in—no leaked information coming from him by choice. Fortunately, I don’t need his consent. Ava nodded. “I appreciate someone committed enough to do whatever needs to be done.”

They halted outside a door, and Jared swung it open, revealing a windowless room with two chairs on either side of a table—similar to the first room where Andrea had taken her.

“I’ll get you that coffee while you get settled,” Jared offered.

“Nah, don’t worry about it.” Ava stepped inside. “I’m supposed to be on vacation, after all—I’ll just take a nap.”

Jared gave an abrupt nod. “Very well. Please, have a seat.” He took the chair on the far side from the door for himself.

Ava eased into her chair. “So, what kind of testing is in order for today?”

“I’d like to run a detailed blood analysis. I believe that your telepathic abilities might be tied to a form of nanocytes we’ve never been able to detect before.”

“What makes you say that?”

“When I went over the results from your test involving the guinea pig—”

“Yes, that…” Ava grunted.

“—I was surprised to see a… connection between you and the rodent. While we knew such connections existed between life on Coraxa, the mode has been a mystery. This latest analysis used some new experimental visualization technology. It revealed a sympathetic resonance between a unique structure in your and the rodent’s brains, which I believe is responsible for telepathy.”

That explains my hankering for carrots. Ava crossed her arms. “What does that have to do with nanocytes?”

“I analyzed the guinea pig, which was raised here, in comparison to those bred offworld. That structure isn’t present in life not native to Coraxa—and upon further examination, the structure did not have the same markers as the other organic material in the creature. This suggests that perhaps the structure is formed as a result of nanocytes existing throughout this ecosystem.”

“Wait, you dissected him?” Horror spread across Ava’s face. She’d done her fair share of killing in the FDG, but Mr. Fuzzers… Her hand clenched into a fist under the table.

Jared cocked his head. “Don’t tell me you actually developed an affinity for the creature?”

No one talks about Mr. Fuzzers that way! Ava barely kept her fury in check. “I’m not big on killing creatures in the blind name of science. For food is one thing, but—”

“Oh, it was far from a meaningless death. The data we collected was very illuminating.”

“I’m sure it was.” Ava slipped the cloaking module from her pocket and set it in the center of the table so it could begin recording. “Now, what were you saying about this nanocyte structure?”

Jared ignored her question, staring at the device. “What’s that?”

Just need to buy some time while it records enough to loop. Ava tried to sit as still as possible. “It’s my optical stimulator for light therapy—space can get pretty depressing, you know. I need my treatment mid-morning and don’t want to forget.”

“A walk outside in the sun might do you well.”

“Oh, I’m sure it would, but there’s something I wanted to show you in here.”

Jared’s eyes flitted to the device. “Is it that?”

“What? Oh, no!” Ava forced a laugh. “That device has nothing to do with it—pretend it’s not there. Actually, I thought it might be interesting for you to experience some of my abilities firsthand. That seems better handled in one of your labs, so I figured I wouldn’t be outside at my normal treatment time.”

“That actually does intrigue me.” Jared leaned forward. “I’m curious about what you can do.”

“What’s easiest to demonstrate is a direct neural link.”

He sat upright in his chair. “On second thought, this probably isn’t the best time.”

That’s right, he should be worried. I can control him and he knows it. “Are you sure? I promise to be gentle.”

His gaze drifted downward, then back up to her face. “We should probably stick to my planned tests. Perhaps another time.”

“That’s a shame.” Ava had been counting the seconds. It wasn’t a ton of footage, but it’d have to be enough. “Well, I guess I can delay my treatment. I’ll put this away so we can get started.” She reached out for the device on the table and slowly drew it toward her, all the while covertly manipulating the dial on its side to trim the footage to the middle segment of the recording, from when they’d been sitting still. That way, the holographic projection wouldn’t begin or end with her arm extending. Once complete, she activated the cloak.

Her skin prickled as an electrostatic field radiated out from the device, and then a second wave as the holographic outer layer and noise cancelling effect initiated.

“What the—” Jared was about to bolt from his chair, but Ava lunged across the table and looped her right forearm behind his neck, slamming his head down on the table. He grunted, dazed from the impact.

Ava took the opportunity to dive into his mind, locking him in a telepathic vice while she returned to her chair. She leaned forward with her palms flat on the tabletop. “What is in D Wing?” she asked aloud and in his mind.

He resisted—more than most would be able to. Perspiration formed on his brow as he fought against the intrusion. “I won’t tell you.”

“I command you. What is in D Wing?”

His breath became ragged, gasping as she tightened her hold on him.

“Tell me,” she ordered again.

“Research,” he replied at last. “Genetics research.”

“What have you done?”

“A new strain. The Hochste.”

The statement confirmed that the research was the same as that in the other NTech facility. Now all Ava needed was some tangible evidence so the FDG could move in. She may have been given authority to use any intelligence-gathering tactics necessary, but it’d be her word against that of a powerful organization.

“Where is the entrance?”

“There is one in each wing.” A shudder ran through him as he fought to regain control, but he was powerless in her grasp.

“How do I get in?”

“A code and scanner.”

“What is the code?”

He relayed a number string, then added, “But there is a biometric scanner. You’ll never make it through.”

Ava thought about her options. “Is there anyone watching us right now?”

He resisted answering, his eyes almost beginning to roll back in his head. “No, I was your designated monitor.”

A smile crept across Ava’s face. “Underestimated me again,” she muttered. “All right, Jared, we’re going on a little field trip.”












CHAPTER ELEVEN


Ava tightened her telekinetic grasp on Jared as he struggled in the seat across the table from her.

“Wha…” Jared’s words faded to a faint rasp. “What are you doing to me?” he questioned in his mind.

“Just controlling you the way I have no doubt you’ve been controlling your ‘subjects’ for stars know how long. And you’re going to help me get everything I need to bring you down.”

Hatred filled his eyes, accompanied by fear and worry. No, it was disappointment. This was a man who firmly believed in his work, however misguided it may have been. Ava could appreciate his dedication—she felt the same way about her own work—but that didn’t give him a pass. No one would get away with perverse experimentation on her watch.

“You’re going to do everything I tell you,” Ava told him, “and if you try to tell someone anything is wrong, I’ll command you to stab out your own eyes and then slit your throat.”

He nodded. With her inside his mind, there was no doubt that he believed her.

“Now stand,” she ordered, switching over to telepathic commands since they’d be stepping outside. She deactivated the cloaking field, now irrelevant after he’d confirmed that no one was watching at the moment, and returned it to her pocket. It might come in handy wherever they were headed.

Jared unsteadily rose to his feet and stumbled toward the door.

“Relax.” She tried to send him soothing mental tones. “No need to be concerned. I won’t hurt you if you cooperate.”

Ava checked over Jared’s appearance. Fortunately, the whack on his head didn’t seem to have left much of a mark, except for a little redness. It probably wasn’t enough to draw attention.

“Lead the way,” she instructed.

Jared opened the door and stepped into the hall, his movements appearing far more fluid than they had initially. His innate twitchiness worked to her advantage, should any security guard happen across footage of them walking down the corridor.

The halls were empty, and Ava walked just slightly behind Jared, as if he were leading her of his own free will.

He traced a path deeper into the facility, down two extended corridors.

Damn, how big is this place? The facility seemed entirely too large for the workforce she’d seen, or for the population of Tribeca, for that matter.

“What are all these rooms?” Ava asked telepathically when her curiosity could no longer be contained.

“Storage,” Jared stated.

At the risk of doing something out of character for someone on a tour, Ava tried one of the door handles, but it was locked. “Open it.”

Jared complied using his keycard and handprint, his face twisted into a grimace of resistance.

Ava’s chest constricted when she saw the contents of the room—racks of weapons. What the fuck? She glared at her informant. “What’s going on here?”

“Preparations.”

“For what?”

“For war.”

Well, yeah, that much was obvious. Ava bit her lip. “Against whom and with what army?”

“Anyone who resists,” was all Jared told her in his mind. A spasm wracked his body. She couldn’t push him further, lest she be unable to use him for the critical task ahead.

“What else do you have here?” she asked him, hoping for just a little more.

“Weapons, armor… soldiers.”

Now, soldiers… that was what Ava was really after. “Are those soldiers your test subjects?”

Jared swallowed. “Yes, in D Wing.”

“Take me to them.” Ava closed the door to the storage room, and it relocked automatically. If this many rooms are filled with armaments, how many soldiers do they plan to have? When she started doing the math, she didn’t like the answer.

They continued down the hall. At a right turn, they reached a seemingly dead-end corridor similar to what Ava had encountered earlier in A Wing. “Open it,” she commanded.

Jared accessed a concealed control panel and placed his palm on it, then tapped a code on the screen.

The back wall slid horizontally, revealing a corridor beyond.

“You won’t get away with this,” Jared managed to say in his mind.

“Spare me the cliché villain-speak. More leading, less hollow threats.”

Beyond the false wall, the architectural aesthetic took on a decidedly different feel. Rather than shiny, white surfaces, the corridor was bare concrete. This was clearly an area that didn’t need to keep up appearances about being a cutting-edge tech firm; it was strictly utilitarian.

Hesitantly, she followed Jared inside. The immediate interior was a four-way intersection, with sealed doors marked ‘A Wing’ and ‘C Wing’ to either side.

What concerned Ava about the bare-bones look of the place was that there were no signs of the supplemental amenities found in the rest of the facility, such as markings on doors to indicate maintenance crew storage rooms. It was entirely possible that the operations in this wing were wholly self-contained, and she’d be on her own if she became trapped. While she was confident the FDG would come for her, she had no way to be sure they’d arrive before NTech did… whatever it was they did to people who didn’t support their vision.

“Who has access to this wing?” Ava asked her informant, deciding that she’d rather know exactly how screwed she’d be if she was caught.

“Myself, Andrea, the Security Chief, and two caretakers,” Jared replied inside his mind.

“Are we alone in here right now?”

“Yes, Andrea is in C Wing, the Security Chief only responds to emergencies, and the caretakers only come in early-morning and night.”

She relaxed her mental hold on him just the slightest measure, knowing no one was about to barge in on them. “And who or what do those caretakers look after?” she asked aloud.

“The subjects,” he replied.

That’s the ticket. “Take me to them,” Ava instructed.

A grimace flitted across Jared’s face, but he sped up his pace down the corridor.

The featureless outer corridor continued for one hundred meters before it took a bend. Ten meters beyond the turn, the hall opened into a square room that bore closer aesthetic resemblance to the outer areas. An island of computer stations was situated in the center of the room, and monitors lined the side walls. Doors were centered on the left and back walls.

Ava’s heart dropped as her gaze passed over the monitors—those on the right wall provided a live feed of the activities in the outer facility, documenting all the places where Ava had spent time over the last day and a half. Whatever she had thought she’d gotten away with during her investigation, it was almost certain that they’d been watching and waiting to see exactly what she had been sent there to do.

She glared at Jared.

He nodded. “We know who you are and why you’re here.”

“Then why let me stay?”

“Because you’re unique.”

Before Ava could ask him to elaborate, she noticed the images on the monitors mounted along the left side of the room to either side of the door. “You fuckers…”

The monitors displayed what must have been two hundred holding cells, half of which contained a person. Based on claw marks marring many of the plexiglass front walls, they weren’t just ordinary humans, but rather Weres.

“How many people are here?” she demanded. My team is going to lose their shit when they see this—probably Kurtz, too.

“We have one hundred subjects in this facility,” Jared revealed, unable to answer her requests with anything but the truth.

“And what are you doing to them?”

“Making them more.”

“Cut the mad scientist shit! What have you done to these people?!”

Jared took a step back. “We gave them a nanocyte treatment to enhance their innate abilities.”

That was the previous stage of research Kurtz indicated in the mission brief. So what are they really up to now? Ava glared at the scientist. “You’re holding back, Jared. This will get very uncomfortable for you if you aren’t honest with me.” She tightened the vice on his mind.

He cried out in pain, gripping his head. His knees buckled, but he managed to remain standing.

Ava eased off. “What are you planning to do with them?”

“We began by administering nanocytes that expressed vampiric traits into Weres, finding a way to merge the tech to allow expression of both abilities. The intent, though, was to develop a new strain of nanocytes that will provide both Were and vampiric abilities to someone with no previous abilities.”

Oh, fuck… So this new line of Hochste aren’t just enhanced Weres. They want to be able to turn anyone into a hybrid! Ava’s heart pounded in her ears. Jared had said they wanted her because she was ‘unique’—she had no interest in sticking around long enough to find out how they wanted to exploit her.

“Have you completed these new nanocytes?”

Jared’s face twisted while he tried to resist answering her question, but she stabbed a telepathic spire into his mind. “Over there!” he blurted out, pointing toward a door she hadn’t noticed before.

“You first,” she said, following him across the room.

The scientist grimaced when he reached the door and pulled it open.

A moment later, Ava understood why. Inside was a sophisticated laboratory like something out of a movie from the old video archive from Earth—test tubes, culture incubators, a laboratory glove box, and the obligatory array of microscopes and monitors displaying gibberish to Ava’s untrained eye.

“This is where you keep all the secrets, eh?” she commented.

Jared grunted in response, wringing his hands.

“Where are the nanocytes?”

He shuffled across the room and grabbed a vial from a sealed case.

Ava snatched it from him. She held the vial up to the light. The contents were a slightly thicker consistency than water and had a metallic sheen, but it was otherwise unremarkable to the naked eye. “Will this work on anyone?”

“That’s what the tests were to find out.”

I can’t let them use this. “Where’s the rest of it?” Ava asked.

Jared was about to respond when a comm embedded in Jared’s jacket chirped. “I’m coming back from C Wing. I’ll see you in the lab.”

Ava recognized it as Andrea’s voice. Oh shit, I need to get out of here! There was no time to do anything with the other nanocytes—frankly, she didn’t even know how to destroy them. Getting the sample to the proper authorities had to be her priority.

There was just the problem of what to do with Jared.

“Out, now!” Ava directed him back out to the main room. She tucked the vial of nanocytes into her bra for safekeeping.

When Jared reached the island of computer stations, she inclined her head for him to sit.

“Now, Jared,” Ava said, staring into his eyes, “I need you to forget everything we did here today.” Even knowing that the man had done some horrific things, she still hated what she was about to do.

“I remember…” he murmured.

“Not for long.” Ava dove into his mind, searching for his recent memories that had yet to be encoded into long-term storage. While it was possible to strip the deeper memories, as well, it was a much more time-consuming and delicate process. Since it had been less than an hour, taking care of his short-term recollections should be sufficient.

It took her a matter of seconds to find what she was looking for. She destroyed the memories related to entering D Wing and made selective edits to those related to their prior conversation, making it appear as though they’d chatted and he simply decided to leave.

Someone of Andrea’s skills would be able to identify the alterations, but, with any luck, it would take her some time to become suspicious. Ava just needed an hour or two.

To hedge her bets, she left a final instruction for Jared to begin an observation of one of his subjects. The task should delay him and stave off Andrea’s suspicion while Ava took care of her remaining business.

“Get to it,” she told Jared, and then she took off at a jog toward the exit.

This better work, or I think I’ll be the next one in a holding cell. Ava gulped.

She broke into a sprint down the straight corridor through which she’d entered and slowed only when she reached the security door. She briefly considered going straight to A Wing to meet up with Luke, but there’d be no log of her entering through the lobby arch, and it might flag her on the way back out. It was better to keep things looking as proper as possible.

Fortunately, no ID badge was required to exit, and the B Wing door began sliding open as soon as she tapped on an indicator mounted on the wall.

 She peeked out into the hall. Clear—for now.

There was no knowing which hallways might be under surveillance by security personnel at any given moment, so she took a brisk but controlled pace toward the building lobby by following the exit signs. At last, she made it to the outer door.

Just as she had made it past the security arch, she saw Andrea emerge from C Wing.

Ava quickly spun around to hide her face, but it was too late.

“Ava? Hello!” Andrea called out.

Shit! Ava composed a pleasant smile and turned back to greet the director. “Oh, hi! I finished up with Jared and was just about to go see Luke.”

“How did the test go?”

Oh, fucknuggets. It’s going to be pretty damn obvious our conversation was cut short when there’s no record of the test Jared was supposed to perform. Ava shook her head. “Please don’t be disappointed, but I had a little too much to drink at dinner last night and I have a headache that just won’t quit. I wasn’t feeling up for telepathy. Tomorrow?”

Andrea evaluated her. Ava could feel the other woman’s prodding at the wall around her mind, but Ava held the shield firmly in place.

After several seconds, the director nodded. “Of course, I understand. Tomorrow will be fine.”

“Thanks.” Ava glanced toward A Wing. “Luke is waiting for me—there was some model he was excited to share with me.”

“By all means. We’ll talk later.” Andrea’s eyes narrowed just the slightest measure as she inclined her head, then walked toward the arch into B Wing.

Ava breathed a tentative sigh of relief and resumed her route to A Wing.

The security guard waved her forward, but then frowned and held up his hand. “Ma’am, may I see that device in your right pants pocket?”

Why is the cloaking module a problem now when I got through just fine this morning? She slipped the metal rectangle from her pocket. “This? It’s just for sightseeing—I’m heading out on a tour straight from here this evening.”

The guard took the module, his gaze lingering on a minute imprint of the manufacture’s logo. “Ah, yeah. I did one of those when I transferred in. Have fun.” He handed the device back to her.

“Thanks, I will.”

He waved her through.

Letting out a long breath, Ava hurried down the main entrance corridor for the wing and followed the route to Luke’s work area.

When she entered the open common space for the lab, three of the techs were working at the central computer stations, and Luke was holed up in his office.

She jogged to his office and tapped on the glass.

Luke looked up from his work and waved her in. “How’d it go?” he asked when she stepped inside.

“Oh, it was lovely.” Ava closed the door behind her and pulled out the cloaking module. She let it sit on his desk to record. “How’s your morning been?”

“Great… you know, work-y,” Luke replied. He looked into Ava’s eyes. “How long do you need for the loop?”

“More time than we have right now.” She activated the device. “We’re in even deeper shit than I realized.”

Luke sighed. “Why am I not surprised?”

“They’re gearing up for a war,” Ava said. “I don’t know against whom, but they have all sorts of armaments, and I think the genetic engineering might be for some sort of super-soldier.”

“Fuck…” Luke’s face drained.

“What equipment do you need to analyze on the capabilities of nanocytes?” she asked.

“Uh… That’s not really my specialization,” he replied.

“It gets to be now. Grab whatever you need. We’re getting out of here.”

Luke sighed. “Granted, I can figure out how to run an analysis. But that equipment isn’t mobile, Ava. I’d need to adapt some of the stationary components in this lab.”

“How long will it take?”

“I can probably complete a rudimentary analysis within half an hour.”

That’ll be cutting it close…  With any luck, Jared wouldn’t squirm his way free before then. “Do it. Work as fast as you can—I need to know what abilities these soldiers may possess.” Ava pulled out the vial from her bra. “I got this.”

“Fuck, Ava! Where did you…?”

“I’ve been busy.” She returned it to inside her shirt. “Get what you need to take the sample and bring it back here.”

Ava deactivated the module while Luke grabbed the necessary equipment. When he returned, they refreshed the cloaking module to represent Luke’s office with him working on the computer and her nowhere to be seen. In reality, she was camped out behind his desk out of sight from anyone passing by the glass wall exposed to the rest of the lab.

She knew she could have bolted the moment she had the opportunity to get out, but the analysis was too important. The FDG needed proof to intervene as soon as possible—transporting a physical nanocyte sample for analysis, getting the results, and preparing for action would take two days or more. Those captives might not have that kind of time, if her hunches about Andrea were correct.

“Analysis in progress,” Luke told her in the safety of the cloaking module’s field.

“I have a sneaking suspicion what it’s going to say.”

“We’ll know soon enough.”

Ava set her jaw. No one messes with my home. If Andrea thinks she can get away with this, she has another thing coming.












CHAPTER TWELVE


Only one suspect to go, and Kurtz had more questions than answers.

In preparation for his final interview, Kurtz had looked into the detailed personnel files for all three suspects to corroborate their claims about the timing for when they were first approached by their mystery contacts, to see if there were any commonalities. Both the lieutenant and the major had indeed been on leave three years prior, on the dates they claimed in their written statements. The lieutenant had passed through the station that supported FDG transit, when extra capacity was needed, and the major had been passing through a station that handled thousands of passengers.

The two incidents were within a day of each other. Kurtz remembered that timeframe because the unit he was attached to had just completed a major op. They needed to route through the ancillary station while FDG headquarters dealt with some repairs to the fleet. Never before had there been damage on a scale sufficient enough to mess up docking orders.

But more than ships, they’d lost some good people on that op. It wasn’t an occasion he’d soon forget. It was those events that ultimately precipitated his investigation into NTech, and had set the tone for the last three years of his career. He now needed to see it through to the end.

Returning his thoughts to the review of personnel records, Kurtz noticed that the third suspect—a comm tech named Alan Goert—hadn’t left FDG headquarters during that same timeframe. That wasn’t to say he hadn’t been contacted by the same group at some other time, but it was a wrinkle in the near-pattern that had been forming.

Kurtz sighed. It’s all still circumstantial coincidence. What is the thread that ties it all together?

He didn’t yet have an answer, but perhaps the final interview would reveal the clues he needed.

Denise met Kurtz outside the interrogation room, the same space they’d used for the previous two conversations. The other suspects were still being held in the brig until the investigation was complete.

So far, Kurtz hadn’t heard anything that would support leniency, should they be court martialed. They had been acting in accordance with a moral compass, but they’d still violated FDG procedure and were a security threat. Kurtz wasn’t happy that he would have to make the decisions that would dictate the fate of their lives when he was done with his investigation, unless he could determine for sure that their minds were under someone else’s control. More importantly, he had to find out how to remove the foreign control.

“I hope this guy’s got some better dirt,” Denise commented while she looked in the tiny viewing window into the holding room.

“Don’t hold your breath.”

Denise flashed a smile. “You might be surprised what kind of crazy shit comm techs overhear.”

He chuckled. “Want to take the lead on this one?”

The security offer shrugged. “Yes, sir, I’ll give it a go, if you don’t mind.”

“Be my guest.” Kurtz held out his hand for her to enter the room first.

The suspect, Alan, was seated at the table with his hands already cuffed to the securement bar. He watched Denise and Kurtz enter with wide-eyed distress. “Sir, ma’am, what’s going on? They’ve been holding me for over a day, and no one will explain.”

“I apologize for the delay in this conversation,” Kurtz began while gesturing for Denise to take the sole chair across from Alan at the table. “We deferred this chat to see if any contrary evidence would surface, but I’m afraid the leak stopped as soon as you were in custody.”

Alan swallowed. “I don’t know what you think I’ve done, but I promise you I haven’t done anything to hurt the FDG.”

“Nothing is that isolated,” Denise said, taking over. “What may be innocuous to the FDG could have greater implications for the Etheric Federation. That’s why we have a chain of command. Break that chain, and there are problems.”

“I’ve never broken chain of command, at least not knowingly,” Alan insisted. “This must be some kind of misunderstanding. What do you think I’ve done?”

“No need to put on a show, Alan. We know what you did.”

“I…” The helpless man looked to Kurtz when he realized Denise wasn’t going to budge. “Sir, you have to believe me. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Denise folded her hands on the table. “Then how do you explain your user account being tied to secure FDG information being transmitted outside of our network?”

Alan’s eyes widened further. “What? No! I’d never!”

“We have a record of the action, so that isn’t up for debate. What we’d like to know is why you did it.”

The comm tech shrank back in his chair. “I’d never betray the FDG like that. Either you were looking at the wrong thing or someone is trying to set me up.”

“Can you think of anyone who’d want to frame you?” Kurtz asked.

Alan shook his head. “Well, no… I mean, I’ve tried to be friendly, you know? We’re family here. I try to get along with everyone.”

A nice sentiment, but he’s lying about something. He must be. Kurtz crossed his arms and scowled at the captive, allowing just a hint of yellow to creep into his eyes for extra intimidation.

The comm tech continued drawing into himself. “Who did the information go to? Maybe they could tell you more. They’re the ones you should be going after!”

“It was routed to an NTech facility,” Denise revealed. “Do you have any ties to the organization?”

Alan thought for a moment, then shook his head slowly. “I’ve heard of them, of course, but I don’t think I know anyone there. I’m not from that system.”

“Have you ever visited there?” Kurtz asked.

“No, never.”

Denise glanced back at Kurtz then returned her attention to the suspect. “Do you have a history of memory loss?”

Alan paled. “Whoa, hold on! You’re not suggesting that I did this and don’t remember? That’s crazy! I’m telling you, someone must have set me up.”

“Answer my question, please.”

“No, I don’t have a history of memory loss. And you’ll see I have a great service record and have always done my part for the Force. I’m one of the last people you should be investigating.”

Perhaps we do need to vet the evidence further. It is possible someone else was using his credentials. Kurtz nodded. “We’ll take your statement under advisement. Please understand that we’ll have to hold you until this matter is resolved.”

Alan worked his mouth, but then bowed his head, shoulders rounded. “Do what you have to do, sir. But let me know when you find the real guy, because I have a thing or two I want to say to him about messing with me like this.”

Denise stood. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“Please hurry,” Alan pleaded. “I’m going crazy cooped up in that cell.”

“We’re doing our best,” she acknowledged, and then followed Kurtz into the hall.

The two sentry guards entered to retrieve Alan while Kurtz and Denise stepped down the hall to debrief.

Denise frowned. “You know, I think he honestly believes he’s innocent.”

“I didn’t detect any deception, either. That doesn’t change the fact that it was his login credentials that transmitted that data.”

“Could someone have hacked his profile?”

“You know more about the security safeguards than me.”

She nodded. “Well, it’s unlikely, but certainly within the realm of possibility that someone used his account without his knowledge.”

“Is there any way to confirm it was actually him?”

“There are internal cameras in all the communication rooms. We could pull up the feed covering his station and see if he was the one sitting there.”

“Do it,” Kurtz ordered.

Denise led him back to her office. She plopped down in the chair behind her desk to pull up the footage while Kurtz remained standing.

After three minutes of navigating menus and searching through the security archive, Denise located the right feed and displayed it on her main screen.

Kurtz shook his head. There was no mistaking that the person working at the terminal was Alan. “It bothers me how easily he lied.”

Denise released a long breath and leaned back in her chair, steepling her fingers. “Like I said earlier, he does honestly believe he didn’t do anything. It doesn’t come off like a lie if he thinks he’s telling the truth.”

“But he did it.” Kurtz pointed to the screen.

“What if he has no memory—or an altered memory?”

“That is the question, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t say there was a straightforward answer, Colonel. We have three events, each connected to politically charged situations that won’t be easy to smooth over. Discovering the leaks was just the first step.”

“The pattern, though…”

“Colonel, I’m no longer convinced there is a pattern. A few details line up in two of the cases, but that alone isn’t enough to make a compelling case.”

“I’ll give you that,” Kurtz agreed, “but those details also add up to more than I can ignore.”

Denise smoothed her hands over the pants of her shipsuit. “I want there to be a connection, too, because then it will all make sense. But sometimes, people just act for themselves. What I said when we started this investigation may be wrong—it really might just be coincidence. These could be three separate incidents that just happened to come to a head at the same time.”

“Even if that’s the case, how do you explain Alan’s lack of recollection of his actions?”

“Maybe he was drunk-subterfuging?”

Kurtz scowled at the security chief.

She laughed. “Sorry.”

“I can think of half a dozen ways to explain memory issues, and none of them paint a very good picture. Someone wanted this covered up.”

“It’s like some evil alien overlord is messing with us tiny humans, just to see how long it takes us to go mad.”

That’s it! Kurtz leaned against the cool, metal wall. He shook his head, letting out a weary breath.

“I’m joking.” Denise’s brow knit. “Wait, what is it?”

“These incidents all seem disconnected, but that was by design—you’re right, we weren’t thinking big enough. The commonality is that each deals with one facet of the system containing Nezar, Coraxa, and Alucia. Each incident addressed one of those planets.”

“Okay, I agree that there are connections to the three planets within the same system, and that probably is a factor. But we still don’t know what it’s about.”

“That system, of course.”

Denise sighed. “Well yes, but what about it?”

“If there are two opposing forces, then the target is most likely what’s caught in between.”

“Coraxa?”

“All the signs point back to that planet. We’ve known for years it’s special.”

“It is—no argument. But then how do the incidents connect? It might just be two sides playing political games against each other.”

“No, after what I’ve seen, I think this is the work of a third party.”

“Someone on Coraxa, perhaps?”

“No, more removed than that,” Kurtz said.

Denise raised an eyebrow. “I really was joking about evil aliens.”

“As unlikely as it sounds, it’s the solution that ties everything together with the neatest bow.”

“Solutions aren’t always neat and tidy.”

“True,” Kurtz conceded, “but offer me another explanation.”

“I…” Denise faded out. “Okay, I’ve got nothing. But I don’t get the motive. Why would these aliens, or whoever, be after Coraxa? Why fuel a civil dispute between Nezar and Alucia?”

“That is what remains to be seen,” Kurtz replied. “But Coraxa, for the time being, is the center of the action.”

***

Andrea strode into the observation room deep in the heart of D Wing. Looking around at the monitors, she noticed that Jared had gone to speak with one of the subjects.

Just as well. I have an overdue chat of my own. She strolled into the corridor with the line of holding cells and stopped in front of her latest acquisition.

The man was in his thirties, and with his thin build and prematurely aged skin from too much unprotected time in the sun, he hardly looked like someone with the fortitude to last with her.

He inched back on his cot. “Why have you brought me here?”

“For some very important work,” Andrea replied, depressing the door control to slide it open. “Come with me.”

With her vampiric speed, she rushed in through the open doorway and pinned the man’s arms behind his back.

He gasped when he realized what she’d done, and offered no resistance when she prodded him out of the room, realizing he was powerless in her grasp.

Andrea could hear his racing heartbeat and smell an extra sweetness in his blood from the Etheric energy of his native Coraxa coursing through him. Her grandparents may have considered him a delightful snack, back before more civilized ways were developed to extract Etheric energy than to drink pure blood. But, those ways were less effective, less efficient.

And certainly less enjoyable.

The high from taking the energy directly out of the blood and the immediate access to power was a drug to her, one that constantly required Andrea to push off her immediate desires to satiate her lust for blood and seek her long-term goal.

No matter how tasty the snack.

She directed him to an experimentation room with a clear outer wall and no furnishings. Claw marks along the right wall gave clues to the room’s previous occupants, and the man quaked on his feet, hugging himself. “What are you going to do to me?”

“Make you better.” Andrea extracted a syringe and the vial of nanocytes she’d been carrying in her lab coat pocket since morning.

Inserting the needle into the top of the vial, she drew what amounted to no more than four drops of the solution. As small a quantity as it appeared, when administered directly into his bloodstream, it contained enough nanocytes to permeate his body in half a day.

Andrea jumped into super-speed again and wrapped the man in a choke-hold, inserting the needle into his jugular before he knew what had happened. She released him and raced out the door, dropping back to normal speed when she pressed the door controls to seal him inside.

The man reached for his neck. “What was that?”

“Hopefully, the next phase of human evolution.” She smiled at him.

He held his hand over the puncture site and stumbled back toward the far wall. He collapsed against it then slid to the ground. Within seconds his hand had dropped from his neck, and he curled up on his side, falling fast asleep.

Good, he got the full dose in his bloodstream. There were other ways to dose a recipient with the nanocytes, but the alternate methods took much longer to take effect. She didn’t have any time to spare with this experiment. By morning, she’d know if the treatment resulted in any bonuses for those with extra Etheric sensitivity—a test case to see if the residents of Coraxa would be as useful as she hoped. While the nanocytes should be able to transform anyone, any opportunity to maximize those returns would be well worth taking.

There was nothing more to do with the man until morning, so she headed back toward the observation room.

After five steps, her comm lit up with an alert: someone had accessed restricted files and was caught by an automated security sweep. She had no doubt who it might be.

***

 “Is it finished yet?”

“No, Ava. For the fourth time, the analysis is not complete, and I’ll let you know as soon as it is,” Luke groaned.

Ava scooched back under Luke’s desk with a huff. How fucking long does it take to analyze a bunch of nanoscopic technology that no one has ever encountered before? She frowned. Damn it, even she knew she was being unreasonable.

“I’m sorry, Luke,” she murmured. “I just want to get out of here. I keep expecting an army to walk in and grab me any second.”

“Maybe you should go,” he suggested. “I can finish up here and then meet you back at the cottage.”

“No, absolutely not.” She tried to give him a firm look of superior finality, but it was decidedly difficult from her hiding place on the floor.

Luke smiled down at her. “You’re kinda cute when you’re trying to be all tough.”

Trying to be? Let’s not forget how I dropped you.”

“I think you have some pent-up aggression you need to release.”

Ava thought about it. “You know, this is the longest I’ve gone in a very long time without sparring with one of the Weres on my team. That makes for one exhausting workout.”

Luke’s smile faded. “That isn’t some sort of euphemism, is it?”

“What? No! No, no, no. Those guys are like brothers to me.” She tilted her head, eyes narrow. “Why?”

“Nothing.”

A little jealous, eh? Ava concealed her smirk.

Luke came to attention. “Analysis is done!”

“About time!” Ava emerged from her hiding place just enough to view the computer screen.

“Oh… this isn’t good.” Luke paled.

Ava stared at the information on the screen, but it may as well have been alien code. “What? I have no idea what I’m looking at here.”

Luke touched on some sequences in the analysis. “Okay, so I’m not a nanotech guy, right? I don’t have a clue about how to break down the machines to their components and analyze what they’re supposed to do. So what I did was something of a workaround. We have the different divisions of NTech, each with their own specialization. But we’re an integrated company, so we need to know how those different components interact.”

“Right, what about it?”

“I tricked the system. I told it I was working on a genetic model and needed to know how this nanotech would impact my patient, since it would influence my genetic therapy treatment plan.”

Ava sat back on her heels. “All right, that was creative.”

“You can stroke my ego later. If this analysis is right, we have a huge problem.”

“Lemme guess… Were-vampires.”

Luke’s jaw dropped. “How did you…?”

“There were suspicions based on some information we gathered at another NTech lab. And when I saw that they were holding the Weres here, it was pretty much guaranteed that it was all connected. I also maybe sorta mind-read one of the secret researchers a little bit ago.”

“Ava!”

“The details aren’t relevant. This analysis is exactly what I need to get to the FDG so they can move in. Can you save it on an external drive?”

“They’ll be looking for any drives leaving the facility. Those security arches work both ways.”

“What about the hard drive on the cloaking module?”

“Yes, that could work.” Luke reached for the device. “Stay hidden and stay quiet.”

Ava pinched her thumb and index finger and drew them across her lips while she tucked back under the desk.

Two agonizing minutes passed while Luke synced the module’s hard drive and established a link to transfer the complex model. It was unlikely they’d be able to access the information on just any old computer, but Ava was confident the FDG would have the means to reassemble the data packet.

“Got it!” Luke whispered. “We can leave any— Oh, shit.”

Ava frowned. “That sounded like an especially bad ‘oh, shit’.”

“The system just sent up a red flag. These sequences must have been marked to send a notice if they were accessed.”

“What does that mean for us?”

“A bunch of really big, well-armed security guards are headed straight for us.”












CHAPTER THIRTEEN


“Oh, fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Ava scrambled to her feet.

“We can’t be here, Ava,” Luke said, his voice pitched with fear.

Ava pulled herself together. “Grab whatever you need. We need to get the hell out of here.”

Luke shut down the equipment in his office and then they began marching as quickly as they dared toward the exit. No more than four meters outside Luke’s office, they were stopped by one of the techs on Luke’s team—Marty, based on his ID badge.

“Heading out early?” Marty asked.

Is he a stall tactic or just lonely? Ava didn’t care to find out either way. “Sorry, I just came down with a major migraine and Luke is taking me home.”

“Yeah, I’ll drop her off then be right back,” Luke said, playing along.

Marty frowned. “That’s what’s going on, huh? When I saw you crawl under Luke’s desk, I thought something else was up.”

Luke blushed. “Uh…”

“Maybe I worked myself into a headache.” Ava wished she could have waited around to see Marty’s reaction, but she took off at a brisk walk toward the exit.

Based on the redness of Luke’s face, however, she guessed that Marty’s jaw had hit the floor.

They broke into a jog as soon as they were out of the common area of the lab.

“Fuck, Ava, that alert was tied to my work station. There’s probably a hold on my badge.”

She glanced over at him. “I’m not leaving you behind no matter what. You’re a member of my team.”

He nodded his understanding, but the worry remained on his face.

Footfalls from multiple pairs of heavy boots sounded from down the perpendicular hall between them and the exit.

Aaand there are the guards. Ava looked around for a potential hiding place and spotted a supply closet two meters up ahead. She tapped on Luke’s shoulder and pointed.

He bolted to it with her and they slipped inside, closing the door softly.

Just enough light leaked in from around the edges of the door for Ava to see Luke’s rigid form as he braced for them to be found. Standing a mere half-meter apart, she had the urge to hold him for comfort, but she didn’t dare move a muscle.

She held her breath as the guards—she counted six—passed by, showing no break in their pace to indicate they’d spotted them in the closet.

After a count of thirty, Ava cracked the door open. The corridor was clear.

“Marty will point them back this way any second,” she whispered. “It’s now or never.”

“What about my ID badge when we leave?”

“I’ll take care of it.”

Before he could question what she had planned, Ava made a flat-out run for the exit. Two strides short of the door, she dropped to a jog.

“Shit!” she shouted while she burst through the doors. “Why didn’t you tell me what time it was?!” She glared at Luke.

“Sorry?”

“Sorry won’t cut it! I’m going to be late for my wildlife expedition. What kind of vacation is it if I don’t get to go to the petting zoo?!” She stormed through the security archway. “Can you believe this shit?” Ava said to the security guard.

The guard looked at her, bewildered. “I wouldn’t worry about it, ma’am.”

“You too? All you men are the fucking same!” she shouted.

To her relief, Luke took the chance to dart through the archway.

“I better make it by the check-in time, or you’ll never hear the end of it.” She gave one last glare at Luke for good measure and turned back to the guard to make sure he was still watching her and not his monitor. “And don’t you dare pretend you don’t want to snuggle with a baby cocobera!”

She spun back toward the door with a grand flourish and ran outside.

Luke ran after her, and they didn’t slow until they reached his car. He used the remote unlock, and they piled inside.

“Oh. My. God,” he said while starting the engine. The car sprang to life, and he sped to the exit. “That was epic.”

Ava wiped her hand down her face. “If Edwin ever gets ahold of that footage…”

“Who’s Edwin?”

“One of the guys on my team. He’s made it his personal mission to document my best moments and post them for all the universe to see.”

Luke smirked despite the tension from the last half hour. “So I can find you online?”

Oh, fuck. Now I’ve done it.

***

Andrea scowled at the NTech Security Chief, Tucker. “What do you mean they walked out the front door? There was a flag on that account!”

“Yes, ma’am. There was apparently a… distraction,” the chief replied with a quaver to his voice. He stood a full head taller than Andrea, but he’d turned into a scared puppy the moment he saw her eyes flare red.

“Then go find them.” She emphasized each word, rising onto her toes.

Tucker took a step back. “I’m afraid our jurisdiction doesn’t extend beyond the lab, ma’am.”

Andrea held in a curse. “Are you going to follow my orders, or do I need to go after them myself after I rip out your fucking—”

“Doctor, what happened?” Jared wandered into the room, looking dazed.

She pivoted her rage to her assistant. “About time you showed up! What took you so long with that subject?”

“I’m… not sure.” Jared swayed slightly on his feet and brought a hand to his temple.

Andrea turned to face him. “What do you mean?”

“I…” He looked around, as though to get his bearings in a place that should have been familiar. “I went to see Ava, we talked, and then I went to interview the subject.”

Andrea frowned. His tone was too measured and mechanical. “How did your talk with her go?”

“She… wasn’t feeling up to the interview and left early.”

That much matched up, but clearly that wasn’t the whole story. “Jared, I need you to be honest with me.” She looked into his eyes, using the pathway to bore into his mind.

The confusion Jared was expressing externally matched his inner thoughts. He was thinking about his most recent actions, and there was a clear memory of him outside one of the holding cells, but everything between their morning briefing and that most recent memory was… blurry.

Ava was good—very good—but this was a rush job. Frankly, Andrea expected better.

“We’ve been compromised,” Andrea stated.

“What… how?” Jared asked.

“By you, obviously.” She groaned. “Little Ava is bolder than I’d given her credit for. She must have taken control of you and implanted a memory in an attempt to cover her tracks.”

“I wouldn’t…”

“But you did, Jared. This is why we haven’t tried to experiment on telepaths. They’re too unpredictable. Fuck!” Andrea paced next to the computer console. This development was a wrinkle in their plans, but not a disaster.

Jared’s face flushed with a combination of anger and embarrassment. “We’ll find Ava.”

“Tucker here was just saying how that’s outside of our jurisdiction.” Andrea glared at the Security Chief.

“What did I do while I was under Ava’s influence? We might have grounds for an emergency intervention,” Jared said.

“I was just thinking the same thing.” Andrea accessed the nearest computer terminal and brought up footage from Jared’s meeting with Ava.

She watched as Ava placed a device on the table, and then the two occupants just appeared to sit there for two minutes.

“What were you doing?” she questioned Jared.

“I don’t remember.”

Then, Ava’s arm suddenly withdrew from the center of the table—even though it had been at her side a moment earlier—and she and Jared rose from their seats and headed for the door.

“You weren’t watching them?” she hissed at her security officer.

“I had one of my men watching, but it didn’t seem out of the ordinary at the time,” he replied. “There wasn’t a physical altercation.”

Andrea swore under her breath. “And then where’d you go?” She searched through the other video feeds until she found the one for the hallway outside. “Well, that’s fucking great. You led her right here.”

The footage ended when Ava and Jared entered the observation room—one of the few areas in the facility not under surveillance. She’d have to extrapolate. “If it were me, I’d question you about what we were doing here, and then you’d point me to… the lab.”

She glided across the room and opened up the secure room, going straight for the most prized item. Sure enough, a vial of the latest nanocytes was missing. “God fucking damn it!”

Had she had any less control, she would have smashed everything in the room. Her hands balled into fists, her nails digging into her palms. She took a deep breath in a vain attempt to calm herself.

“Bring her here!” she demanded as she stormed back into the observation room.

“But the authorization—” Tucker started to object.

“We have all the grounds we need for emergency support. Proprietary tech has been stolen from this facility, and we’re within our rights to get it back.” She stared down the two men. “But we’re not stopping there. We have less than a day to complete this assignment, or all our years of research will have been for nothing. Round up everyone on the list you can find.”

Tucker swallowed. “That—”

“We haven’t received the results from the latest subject—” Jared objected.

“I don’t want to hear another fucking excuse! Submit the request to NTech HQ. We make a move tonight at 23:00. Get all the backup we can get.”

“But—” both men began.

“Do it!” she screamed.

Tucker nodded his understanding and departed to issue the orders.

“This will paint an even bigger target on us,” Jared said once they were alone. “The FDG will undoubtedly move in.”

 “Then let them.”

“And if the nanocytes don’t take?” Jared questioned.

“All we need is one viable subject to bring to our benefactors. One of them is sure to be what we need. It’ll work. And if it doesn’t, we still have a backup.”

“Ava?”

Andrea’s eyes narrowed. “Yes. She’ll be sure to come, once she realizes we have her parents. We’ll grab her then.”












CHAPTER FOURTEEN


Ava’s heart rate had finally normalized by the time they pulled the car up outside her cottage.

The peaceful little community had been a refuge from the danger she faced each day inside the NTech lab, but now she wasn’t sure anywhere on Coraxa would be safe.

Luke seemed to be thinking the same thing. “They’ll come for me, won’t they?”

“NTech doesn’t have jurisdiction outside of their premises.”

“Like that’ll stop them.”

Ava couldn’t bring herself to lie. “We stick together. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“What can the two of us do against the entire NTech security force?”

“We’re not alone.” Ava climbed out of the car. “We call in the FDG and beat the shit out of anyone who tries to stand in the way of us rescuing those captives.”

“And until they get here?”

“We watch each other’s backs.”

Ava opened the front door to her cottage and beckoned Luke to follow her. She jogged into the bedroom and grabbed her travel bag from where she’d stashed it in the closet. Tucked away in an inside pocket was an encrypted comm system.

She set it on her bed and sat down on the edge of the mattress while Luke looked on from the doorway. After activating the device, Ava waited for its signal to sync with the FDG’s systems through the Etheric connection linked between the Annex Gates.

“This is FDG Command,” a woman answered. “Please confirm your field auth.”

Ava stated her alphanumeric field identifier for the op.

“Greetings, Lieutenant Landyn. What can we do for you?”

“I have the evidence in hand. Request immediate direct action mission for hostage liberation and extraction.”

The woman on the comm didn’t reply for several seconds. “Transferring you to Colonel Kurtz.”

“Ava, what’s your status?” Kurtz asked after a ten second pause.

“Physically unharmed, Colonel, but my identity has been compromised, and they are coming for me. NTech has definitely been up to no good. I have a sample of the nanocytes—about to send you an analysis.” She pulled out the cloaking module from her pants pocket and connected it to the dataport on the comm system. Navigating to the appropriate subdirectory, she attached the files to an encrypted datapacket and sent it on its way.

“What’s the situation?” Kurtz asked while he waited to receive the files.

“Their research is well into human trials. They have a number of people being held deep within the facility—around one hundred.”

“And the facility defenses?”

“Light on personnel, but they’ve got enough small arms and ammo for an army stored in the facility. There’s a choke point at the entrance, and artillery above the one and only door. My cover was blown and I don’t know how much time we have.”

 “We can have a team there by 05:00. Ah, receiving the datapacket now,” Kurtz acknowledged

He was silent for a minute while he reviewed the analysis. Then, he let out a long breath. “I’m no geneticist, but even I know to be scared by this shit.”

“Yes, sir. It’s terrifying to think about what soldiers like that could do.”

“If the hostages have indeed been ‘turned’ into one of these Hochste, they may not be entirely themselves. This might not be a situation where the hostages greet us with open arms.”

“We’re FDG, sir. We can handle anything,” Ava replied. “But you better send the powered armor.”

“You’ll get all the warriors we can muster and the best tech we have to get those people out unharmed. I’m coming there myself to oversee the extraction.”

Ava glanced over at Luke with surprise. “Sir, you’re coming here?” She hadn’t known him to go into the field for years.

“After what I’ve been dealing with here, this one needs a personal touch,” Kurtz replied. “See you at 05:00. Check in at 23:00 to confirm our landing coordinates.”

“Acknowledged.”

“FDG Command out.”

The connection terminated.

Ava rose from the bed and took a deep breath. “I hate that we have to wait until morning.”

“What more can we do?” Luke said. “We’re two people and you’ve seen what they have in there. I’d be next to useless, aside from maybe hitting someone over the head with a chair, and we’d be going against a group of possibly unstable Were-vampire hybrids that may or may not have an insatiable lust to tear our faces off.”

 “We need to make ourselves scarce until tonight, in case they come looking for us.”

“You did say something about the petting zoo,” Luke replied with a chuckle. “Though, I guess we should avoid the place you said we were going.”

“Like Andrea would believe that for one second. That actually sounds like the perfect cover.”

He smiled. “All right. Let’s get you some quality time with a baby cocobera.”

They made the drive into the countryside outside of Tribeca, to the nature preserve with the most tourist activity. Staying in a crowd was likely the best way to stay safe for the time being, so Ava had no qualms about losing herself in play with the fuzzy baby animals of her native world.

The animals of Coraxa had a natural affinity to her, being a telepath, and Ava soon found herself the envy of the tourist children when she got the most attention.

The park closed to visitors at 17:00, so they were forced to head back to civilization. In the interest of staying in a well-traveled place, they went to the town center and did some window shopping before getting dinner at one of Ava’s favorite restaurants from her youth. By 22:30, they were one of only two couples left in the restaurant. As it was approaching the designated check-in time, they decided to return to their cottages for a shower and rest. If anyone had wanted to come looking for them, they would have certainly done so already, although it was likely the place was being watched.

Ava instructed Luke to stay by the car while she checked out her cottage to make sure there were no unwelcome visitors. She scouted the perimeter and saw no sign of forced entry, then did a sweep inside. For good measure, she also examined Luke’s place. Both checked out.

“I can’t wait until this is over,” she groaned after meeting up with Luke. “If there’s anything I hate, it’s not feeling secure in the place that’s supposed to be my home base.”

“I don’t know how you deal with this on a regular basis. Two days, and I feel like I’ve had enough,” Luke admitted.

“You’ve been handling the situation really well.”

 “I buckle down when I have to.”

“You do. I’ve always appreciated that about you.” Their gaze met for a moment, but she tore her eyes away. “Well, those cocobera are adorable, but that musk really lingers. I’m going to clean up and change.”

Luke looked down at a paw print on his pants. “Yeah, I should do the same. I’ll meet you back here in fifteen for the call.”

“I don’t think we should split up,” Ava said. “Safety in numbers and all that. I’ll go with you to get your stuff. We’ll get cleaned up in my room where there’s less clutter to hide cameras and those kinds of things.”

Together, they walked to Luke’s cottage. He picked out some items while Ava watched from the doorway, her gaze darting outside toward the darkness beyond the lights. She couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being watched.

Once packed, Luke brought a small bag to the doorway and motioned for Ava to lead the way. She scanned the darkness of the surrounding neighborhood while they walked to her cottage, but there was no sign of anyone lurking nearby.

They both searched for intrusive monitoring equipment inside Ava’s residence, but turned up nothing. As far as Ava could tell, the place was untouched.

Feeling more secure about their location, Ava speed-showered then dressed in casual pants and a fitted long-sleeve shirt. She waited by the comm system while Luke got cleaned up.

He finished quickly, looking refreshed after a shower and dressed in clean clothes.

“Nothing yet,” she reported. “Should come through any minute.”

Sure enough, forty seconds later, the comm lit up with an incoming communication. “This is FDG Command. Please confirm your field ID.” It was Kurtz’s voice.

Ava stated her identifier again.

“All right, Ava, we’re in transit. I have confirmation from local authorities for a landing site between Tribeca and the NTech lab. It should give us a good position to get into all the places we’ll need to be as quickly as possible. Sending the exact map now. Is there anything else you need?”

“Just my team and my suit,” she confirmed.

“You’ve got it. See you at the landing site at 05:00. FDG Command out.”

Ava opened the map and showed it to Luke.

“I know the place,” he said. “I guess now we wait.”

She nodded and tucked the comm equipment away.

They went out into the living room.

Thinking about the op, Ava found her anger from earlier returning. “I hate seeing people taken advantage of like this.”

“I do, too. But the best thing we can do for them right now is wait for your friends at the FDG to arrive so we can take care of this properly.”

I hate being so fucking helpless! These telepathic abilities don’t count for shit when it comes to a fight. Her heart pounded in her ears. “Those captives might not have all night. Andrea could—”

“Yes, they’re in danger, but we can’t single-handedly do anything to save them. We hunker down here for the night, just like you said. We stay together. I can’t in good conscience let you do anything else so reckless that you might get hurt,” Luke said. He placed his hands on her shoulders.

She tried to look away, but he bent his head to catch her gaze. “I’ve already spent too long with regrets about what I should and shouldn’t have done with you. I won’t add another.”

“Luke, this isn’t the time.”

“This is exactly the time. I won’t lose you again.”

Luke gently brushed his hand across her cheek. His violet eyes conveyed all his fear and worry for the danger they faced. And, deeper, the love he still felt for her, even after all this time.

Searching within herself, she realized she still felt it, too. But this wasn’t the time to give into lust. “I can’t. Not now.”

“Is there some regulation against you having a relationship?”

“No, but—”

Ava was interrupted by shouts of fear in the distance. “Did you hear…?” She ran to the window.

 “Yeah. What—”

More shouts sounded, followed by a loud bang of metal on metal.

“Shit, what’s going on?” She peered into the darkness, searching for any sign of the disturbance.

“There, those lights.” Luke pointed through the gap between two houses to the left.

Sure enough, lights were bobbing between the houses one street over. Based on the height from the ground and the speed, Ava could hazard a guess for what they were up against. “I think that’s an assault mech!”

Luke’s face drained. “As in armor and guns and—”

“Stop gawking. We need to run!” Ava grabbed her bag containing the comm and dashed to the door.

“I’ll get the car,” Luke called to her.

“No, it’s too conspicuous. We go on foot.” They bolted through the door and took off at full speed away from the cottage.

Behind them, sounds of the mech’s rhythmic steps were accompanied by shouts from people, some barking orders and others crying with fear.

Ava wove between the cottages in the opposite direction from the commotion, trying to stay in the shadows. Luke stayed close while they ran, only slowing occasionally to check over his shoulder for any sign of pursuit.

When they reached the edge of the residential neighborhood, Ava deviated from the main road, into the brush. She had a vague recollection of the area from when they’d driven by in the car, and if she remembered correctly, the brush gave way to thick forest sixty meters from the road.

Her eyes began to adjust to the dim moonlight now that they were away from the inhabited area, and she could see the outline of the forest up ahead. Just need to get to somewhere we can regroup. We’ll figure it out, she assured herself.

The brush transitioned into ferns at the edge of the forest, and vines hung in their path. The thick tree canopy blocked most of the moonlight, so Ava had to rely on feel to move forward. What I wouldn’t give to have a Were with me right now…

She slowed, picking her footing carefully. After five minutes of gingerly moving deeper into the forest, she saw the faint silhouette of a felled tree that had all the makings of a good camp bench.

“This should be hidden enough,” she said to Luke, keeping her voice to a whisper.

“What’s your plan?” he whispered back.

“I… don’t have one yet. I figured they’d send their security people—total asshats, by the way—or maybe a Were after me, or us. But a midnight mech visit wasn’t something I’d anticipated.”

Luke’s frown was just barely visible in the dappled moonlight. “So why were they going after other residents?”

Ava ran her hand along the log to make sure there wasn’t anything squishy, and then crouched down behind it, using it for cover as she rested her arms on top of it. “That depends on who the ‘they’ are. I’d normally say that it would have to be military to have a mech like that, but I saw one at another NTech facility.”

“You think NTech might be going after civilians?” Luke’s voice was laced with fear and worry. “Our families…”

“They may have just been conducting a search, since there’d been a security breach. Why we weren’t the first stop, I don’t know.”

“Or they’re taking people.”

Ava hadn’t wanted to admit that possibility to herself, but deep down she knew it was the most likely. “As much as I want to go back and see what’s going on, getting ourselves caught won’t help.”

Luke crossed his arms and crouched down next to her. “That’s a reversal.”

“Well, you were right earlier. And that’s the one time you’re going to hear those words uttered in that order, so savor it.”

He chuckled and extended one arm around her.

She leaned her head on his shoulder. “We have a little over five hours to make it to the rendezvous point. It’ll be a significant hike on foot, especially since we’ll need to move slowly in the dark.”

“I know some back roads with good brush cover that’ll get us there.”

“Having a local contact does come in handy.”

“I wish we were going to head away from the danger, rather than toward it.”

Ava patted his knee. “An FDG warrior is almost always running toward the conflict.”

“I’m sure I’ll get used to it.”

Ava looked up at him. “We should probably talk about this, once we’re not in immediate fear for our lives.”

He dropped his arm from around her. “Yeah, of course. I didn’t mean—”

She found his hand and entwined her fingers in his. “Just because I can’t think about it right this second doesn’t mean I don’t want to.”

Luke relaxed. “Good.”

“Our priority is to stay out of NTech’s sight and get to that rendezvous.”

He shook his head. “I can’t believe I ever trusted NTech.”

“I would have, too, in your position. We grew up with their tech keeping us safe from the time we were kids. And I doubt the entire organization is corrupt—most of the people working at the local lab here are probably doing good work that will help people across the galaxy.”

“While a handful are hurting hundreds instead. And now they may have gone after our friends and family…”

Ava placed her hand on the side of his face and gazed into his eyes. “We’ll get them back. Don’t worry.”

He nodded and took a deep breath.

She stood. “We should get closer to the Force’s landing site. We can find another place to hide once we arrive.”

“Right.” Luke rose to his feet and brushed off some moss from his pants. “We should be able to make it in two or three hours. The path I’m thinking is the long way around, but I’d rather not come face-to-face with one of those mechs.”

“I fully endorse this plan. I’ve already been shot at once this week, so my quota is filled.”

Luke shook his head and set out into the dark.












CHAPTER FIFTEEN


Karen reviewed the latest coded message that had arrived while she slept: >>It is almost time. Soon the FDG will move against Nezar, and you will have your opportunity to take action against the Alucian president. Be ready.<<

She cleared the sleep from her eyes and sat up in bed. The years of preparation had all come down to the coming moments.

Her stomach lurched with the thought she’d soon kill a man who’d been a leader and mentor to her, but she knew it was for the greater good. She needed to protect her home at any cost.

***

Luke’s route through the back roads proved to be a more strenuous slog than Ava had anticipated. Three hours passed under the moonlight while they hiked along the side of the road, ready to dive into the bushes and tall grass a pace away if they spotted anyone approaching from across the valley’s flat terrain.

“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Ava grumbled, swatting an insect that had been circling her for the past kilometer.

“Yes, we’re almost there,” he insisted.

“That’s what you said an hour ago.”

“This time I mean it and I’m not just saying it to placate you.”

Touché. Ava shut her mouth—more to keep the bug from flying in than because she was done grousing.

They tramped along in silence for another half hour before Luke finally halted. “That clearing over there,” he pointed toward a field on a low hill half a kilometer to their right, “is the location indicated on your map.”

“Finally!” Ava checked the time on the comm; it was coming up on 03:30. “And with more than an hour to spare.”

“You should never doubt my punctuality.” Luke smiled, but it was clear he was tired.

“Let’s find a little hollow where we can rest,” Ava suggested. She wasn’t thrilled about the idea of going into a combat scenario on no sleep, but that’s what stims were for. Even a short nap was better than nothing, though.

“That should be a good spot up ahead.” Luke indicated a grove of trees one hundred fifty meters from the landing area.

“Perfect.”

They left the side of the road and slipped into the trees. A small interior clearing offered just enough room for them to lie down on the ground.

“You rest, I’ll keep watch,” Luke told her.

“You really don’t have to—”

“I’ll get to kick back and watch everyone else do all the work once the FDG arrives. Rest.” He sat down cross-legged.

Ava dropped her bag next to him, and she positioned herself with her head propped on the bag. Luke stroked the top of her head while she got settled on the uneven ground, and then allowed her to nap undisturbed.

She drifted in and out of consciousness while she struggled to filter out the unfamiliar sounds of nighttime Coraxan wildlife, but she bolted awake the moment she heard the rumble of approaching engines.

“That sounds like an FDG landing craft,” Ava said, shaking off her grogginess.

Luke was on his feet, gazing up at the sky. “It’s big.”

She rose and stood next to him, following his sightline to the craft descending through the wispy cloud cover. “A big craft to hold the big guns.”

After checking to make sure no items had dropped out of their pockets while they had been seated on the ground, they left the grove of trees and headed for the vessel coming in for a landing. Output from the ship’s thrusters flattened the surrounding grass, and Ava held Luke back until the engines wound down.

Within a minute, a broad door in the side of the craft dropped open. The first people to emerge—already adorned in powered armor—were Ava’s team.

She beamed at them. “About time you showed up! I’ve had an insufficient dose of minion-bossing in my diet.”

Seeing that the surroundings were safe, Samantha removed her helmet. “That would explain why I’ve been feeling so empowered…”

Edwin and Nick slipped off their own helmets.

“Sounds like you got yourself in the middle of a right proper mess,” Edwin commented, eyeing Ava.

“Yeah, well, things were going too well. Had to tend to our job security needs.” She grinned at him.

“Who’s your friend?” Samantha asked while looking past Ava.

“Right.” Ava waved Luke forward. “This is Luke Carter, my local contact for the op. We go back a long way.”

“Uh huh…” Samantha cast her a knowing look, a smirk playing on her lips. “Well, nice to meet you, Luke. Samantha.”

Edwin and Nick introduced themselves in turn.

“Fair warning,” Ava said, “the three of them are Weres, so if one of them calls dibs on the last piece of cake, let them have it.”

Luke swallowed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Samantha smiled sweetly, but some yellow crept into her eyes. “And it goes without saying that we protect our pack. Ava’s one of us, so if you mess with her, we’ll take it very personally.”

“Yay, everyone’s met and we’re all best friends!” Ava held up her hands in a mock cheer before turning serious. “I need to talk with the colonel.” She headed for the landing craft’s door.

Luke cautiously passed between the Were warriors as he followed Ava. They sniffed him as he passed by, and he picked up his pace. “Are they always that intense?” he whispered to Ava while they walked up the ramp.

“What, that? That was nothing. They must get a good feeling from you—the last guy they thought was trying to get into my pants ended up cowering in a corner within thirty seconds.”

“Holy shit…”.

Ava shrugged. “Yeah, didn’t work out.”

At the top of the ramp, she spotted Colonel Kurtz and Major Widmore going over orders for a group of forty warriors in powered armor.

“…and remember, there are civilians in there, so be selective with your fire,” Kurtz was instructing. “We risk our lives so others may live in peace. Let’s get Coraxa back into the rightful hands of its people.”

“Sir,” Ava greeted.

“Lieutenant, I’m glad you made it,” Kurtz replied with a nod, turning toward her.

“It’s been a crazy night.” Ava sighed. “There was some sort of raid on the town. Not sure if it was NTech or Nezaran military, but we think they took additional civilians—either as hostages because they knew you were coming, or as test subjects.”

Widmore scowled. “They must be desperate, to make that kind of public move.”

Ava nodded. “The captives they have in there—we can’t assume they’ll all be friendlies.”

Kurtz took a deep breath. “Understood. The order is non-lethal force wherever possible.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll get my gear on.” Ava said. She awkwardly reached into her bra. “Oh, and this is the physical sample of the nanocytes I collected from the lab.” She handed it to Kurtz.

“Thank you,” Kurtz acknowledged, tucking it into a compartment on his armor.

“What about him?” Widmore asked while examining Luke. “We could use his insights into the facility layout.”

“Oh, I really don’t—” Luke began.

“The facility is very segmented,” Ava cut in. “I’ve probably been to more areas than Luke at this point. I suggest he waits back here, and let the warriors handle it.”

“Very well, but gear up,” Widmore instructed. “I won’t have a stray blast take anyone out if one of the teams brings any action back this way.”

Luke took an unsteady breath. “Right, of course.”

“Everything’s in here.” Ava passed by the rows of armed warriors, toward the craft’s prep area, and Luke followed her.

“I didn’t think I’d be anywhere near the fighting,” Luke said.

“If we do our job well, you won’t be. Armor is just a precaution.” She checked that no one was nearby, then whispered, “I would like to keep you in one piece.”

“I’ll do anything that helps me stay that way.” He smiled back.

Ava found her newest set of powered armor propped in a nearly empty rack inside the prep area. There were six other backup suits, and she found one that would be the best fit for Luke. She detached the weapons, since he wasn’t rated to fire them, just leaving the armored body shell and helmet.

“You ever been in something like this before?” she asked him.

“No, never.”

“Well, it’s straightforward. It’ll augment anything you do. The pressure sensors for grip are pretty smart, so you don’t have to worry about accidently crushing bones if you go to shake someone’s hand—unless you push it. When you make a movement, if the sensors detect excessive force, they’ll automatically stop. You can override them by continuing the action, but it will stop at each step.”

“Got it,” Luke acknowledged.

“Walking is easy—just take a natural stride and the gyros will balance the suit. If you break into a flat-out sprint, a spring system will kick in to boost your speed—your legs won’t actually move any faster, but each stride will cover a lot of distance. I wouldn’t recommend trying that on your first go around.”

“Considering my plan was to sit quietly in the corner, I don’t think that will be a problem.”

“Sounds good to me.” Ava popped off the helmet and pressed the load button on the armor’s chest plate. The torso, arms, and legs split open to receive an occupant. “Come on, step in.”

Luke slowly backed into the armor, positioning his arms and legs to match the angle of the suit’s limbs. When he made contact with the back interior, the armored plates folded around him. “Whoa!”

“Oh, yeah. Should have warned you that it pressurizes. These work as EVA suits in a pinch, but they’re not rated for long-term vacuum exposure.”

“It… tingles.” Luke stood still with his arms out at an awkward angle from his sides.

She mounted the helmet to its holding clip on his left shoulder. “Move around. The pressure will adjust.”

He circled his arms and took a cautious step. Then another. “Okay, this really isn’t that bad.”

Ava smiled. “That’s the spirit.”

She hurriedly donned her own armor, which had been custom-fitted for her. The suit included some stealth tech that wasn’t standard on all combat armor, though it was looking like she wouldn’t get to put that to use until the next op. This one was going to be a firefight, despite their best intentions. She checked the charge on her plasma rifle and stowed it in the designated slot on her back, and then grabbed a multi-handgun for the holster on her thigh—one of her favorite weapons, capable of firing kinetic rounds and sonic blasts to daze enemies. Two concussion grenades in her belt and some extra kinetic rounds completed her loadout.

“Ready?” Ava asked Luke. She mounted her own helmet to her shoulder until she got the comm frequency for the op from her team.

“Good to go.”

They exited the prep area. Upon returning to the open space at the top of the ramp, they found it empty. Kurtz’s voice carried from outside, so they descended the ramp.

“Ready for duty,” Ava said to Kurtz and Widmore when she spotted them on the grass several meters from the landing craft.

“Good, almost ready to make our move,” Widmore replied.

“What do we know about the situation, sir?” Ava asked.

“It looks like this might be related to a larger political move. Someone seems to want a conflict to escalate between Nezar and Alucia,” Kurtz explained. “The Nezaran government is taking the FDG’s presence here as a sign that the Alucians are only signing a vassal agreement with the Etheric Federation so that we’ll take out Nezar and claim this whole system for ourselves.” He paused, a grimace flitting across his face. “While we were landing, I received a confidential tip that Nezar has launched a battleship toward Alucia.”

Widmore looked at the colonel, eyes wide. “I’m shocked they’d do that.”

“How long before it arrives?” Ava asked.

“At its current speed, seven hours. But that trip can be made in far less if they boost hard,” Kurtz said.

“Oh, shit, I have to warn Karen!” Luke exclaimed. “Have you told Alucia about the ship?”

“Until their vassal agreement is signed, we can take no official military action. We’re skirting the rules enough by being here on Coraxa.” Kurtz shook his head.

“What about an unofficial notice?” Luke pressed. “My sister works in the president’s office.”

“Their people deserve time to prepare for an attack, if there is going to be one,” Widmore said. “I think a tip like that is just what’s in order.”

Kurtz deliberated for longer than Ava would have expected, but he eventually nodded. “Do it. You may use the comm room on the landing vessel, but be sure to tie the message to a local civilian code.”

“Yes, sir!” Ava raced with Luke back up the ramp.

“I never wanted her to take that job,” Luke muttered. “Politics in this system are such a mess.”

“That’s probably why she took it, you know. She wants to make a difference.”

“I guess you two always did have that in common.”

When they reached the communications room, Ava dismissed the comm tech and created a civilian-coded feed, like Kurtz had instructed. “Do you know your sister’s direct contact?”

“Yeah.” Luke entered the necessary information on the screen.

“Okay, this should just take a minute to connect.” Ava initiated a video call. She checked the local time in the Alucian capital; it was 10:15 local time, so she should be available.

After thirty seconds the call connected, and a woman in her early thirties matching Luke’s hair and eye coloration answered. “Hello, this is— Wait, Luke? Is that you?”

“Hey, Sis,” he greeted with a smile. “Remember Ava?”

“Wow, yeah… What are you doing back on Coraxa?” Karen asked.

“Long story,” Ava replied. “We’re calling to pass on some information that you need to get to the president. It didn’t officially come from us.”

Luke’s tone turned solemn. “The Nezaran Coalition launched a battleship that’s headed for Alucia.”

Karen’s face drained. “No, that’s not possible. This isn’t how it was supposed to go…”

“I know it’s difficult to believe that it’s come to this after years of trying to find peace, but you need to have the people of Alucia prepare for a potential attack,” Ava urged.

“No, you don’t understand…” Karen shook her head.

“Karen, the media has it wrong,” Luke told her. “Whatever you think you know about what’s been going on the past few days, it’s not the whole story.”

Her brow knit. “What do you mean?”

“The FDG isn’t making a military move against Nezar,” he explained. “They’re only concerned with NTech.”

“The research company?”

“Yes. They’ve been working on genetic experiments.”

Her face paled. “Regarding what?”

“Super-soldiers,” Ava replied. “NTech has been working for someone. We don’t know who, but they’re powerful—powerful enough that they’ve been able to get away with keeping more than a hundred people captive for experimentation. The FDG is moving in, but it’s to shut the lab down and get those people out of there. Now that we’ve forced their hand, NTech has convinced the Nezaran government to take preemptive action.”

“My god.” Tears filled Karen’s violet eyes.

“Sis, are you okay?” Luke asked.

“I think I’ve been played,” she murmured.

Ava examined the other woman on the screen. “What are you talking about?”

“I was sent to Alucia to get close to the government.” Karen wiped a tear from her cheek. “My… my role was to take out the Alucian president.”

“What?!” Ava and Luke shouted simultaneously.

“I’m not going to go through with it now, obviously. But the plan was to assassinate him and blame it on the FDG, undermining the vassal agreement and keeping the entire Alaxar Trinary out of the Federation.”

Ava’s stomach turned over. “That’s a pretty fucked up plan.”

Karen ignored the comment. “I’ll talk with the president and see if we can stave off an attack and keep things from spiraling into a political shit-show.”

“Good luck. Talk to you on the other side,” Luke said and ended the call.

“Assassinate the president? Is she out of her mind?!” Ava exclaimed.

Luke scoffed. “That is not the woman I grew up with.”

“Shit, me either.” Ava took an unsteady breath. “I can’t wait to get the fuckers who’ve orchestrated this madness.”

“That makes two of us.”

Ava stepped toward the door. “All right, let me give Kurtz and Widmore the update. We need to shut down that lab.”












CHAPTER SIXTEEN


Karen stared at her desktop in silence. I just admitted I was about to murder a head of state. Hearing the words out loud made her realize just how misguided she’d been. Assassination wasn’t the way to bring about a better future.

She reached for her desk drawer, realizing that her hands were shaking. Inside was the syringe she’d been given by her secret contact for the purposes of the impending deed. She’d hidden it under a stack of hardcopy reports no one was likely to go looking for. The slim, metal case looked like something an old-fashioned fountain pen might be presented in as a gift. Karen pulled the box from its hiding place and examined the contents. It was just like she’d left it.

No, someone has been playing me. I can’t trust one side over the other like I’d wanted to. Everyone has their own agenda. I’m not helping my world if I’m just a tool in some master plan. She rose from her desk and dropped the case and syringe into a hatch set on the back wall, which led to an incinerator—one perk of being in a government office dealing in sensitive information. I won’t use this. Not now or ever.

Karen took several calming breaths. It was time to really make an impact.

She left her office with nothing in hand and took the elevator to the level containing the president’s administrative suite.

Leon was in his customary position behind the reception desk. “Hi, Karen. I don’t have you on the president’s calendar for today.”

“It’s an urgent matter—can’t wait,” she said, not breaking stride.

The two guards outside his office tensed as she approached.

Karen spread her arms. “I have critical information regarding Alucia’s safety. Please let me pass.”

The left guard held up his finger and then knocked on the door. He stuck his head inside and said something. After five seconds, he swung the door open and gestured for Karen to pass.

“Thank you.” She nodded to him.

Inside, the president was seated at his desk. “Karen, what information do you have?”

She closed the door behind herself. “Sir, I’m sorry to interrupt.”

Connors frowned. “We’re in the middle of a crisis here. If this is a new issue, I’d rather not know yet.”

“It’s connected—regarding the Coalition. They’ve sent a battleship toward Alucia.”

“Fuck! They wouldn’t…”

Karen swallowed. “This isn’t an official tip, but it’s coming from a source I trust. They knew we wouldn’t be able to pick up a single craft on our scan.”

“Whoever your friends are, we’re indebted. I’ll reach out to the chancellor right away and see if I can get to the bottom of this.” He activated his desk.

“That’s not all, sir.” Her stomach turned over.

“I’m listening.”

“Sir…” Karen searched for the words. There was no right way to put it—may as well go all-in. “Sir, I originally was sent here to kill you.”

The president’s face drained. “What?”

Karen held up her hands to show she was unarmed. “But I’m not going to do that. I realize now that I was manipulated into thinking about my world as an individual entity and that remaining isolated was the best way forward. I believed that with all my heart, and much of me still does. But I’ve just learned that NTech has been working on a project using the natural resources of Coraxa. Those enemies have been working to pit Nezar and Alucia against each other so that they may claim Coraxa for themselves. For what end, I have no idea. But I do know that the only way we can stand up to an opponent like that is by unifying, not separating.”

Connors’ hand hovered over his desktop. “I should call security on you.”

“I’ll understand if you do. But I beg you to trust in my conviction to save my world.”

He studied her. “We both share Torcellan ancestry. They believed in peace and goodwill—and forgiveness. Against any advice I’d receive, I will give you a chance to regain my trust.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Sit in on this call with the chancellor. I could use another set of ears.”

Karen took a seat across the desk from the president. If anyone was worthy of her loyalty, it was him.

***

Allowing his would-be killer to remain in his presence had put President Connors in an odd mood. On the one hand, it saddened and terrified him to think that this woman he’d trusted had only worked her way into his employ so that she could end his life. On the other hand, he was flattered and humbled that she’d alter long-held convictions because she believed he was worthy of her following. He’d need time to process the development, but right now he needed to focus on finding out why the Nezaran Chancellor had authorized a battleship to advance on Alucia.

“Pay attention to her wording,” Connors instructed Karen while he prepared the call. “We need to determine if she’s lying, subverted, or just really does hate us that much for whatever reason.”

“I’m ready,” Karen confirmed.

Connors activated the connection. Let’s hope she even picks up.

He watched the call status on the desktop readout. It had been acknowledged by the chancellor’s administrator, and appeared to be on hold. Come on…

Fifteen seconds later, the call was accepted in the chancellor’s private office.

Chancellor Cynthia Heizberg’s dark brown hair and pale green eyes were opposite to Connors’ own coloring. Fitting that her personality was also a stark contrast. “President Connors, I’m surprised to hear from you.”

“Really? I thought one of your battleships heading for my planet was a worthwhile reason for us to have a chat.”

“What?” She shook her head and cracked a smile. “You must be joking.”

“According to my scan data, it’s no joke at all.” Stars, I hope Karen’s contacts had this right—we have no physical proof.

The chancellor leaned forward, her hands folded on the table. “Connors, I can account for all my ships. Can you?”

He faltered. “You know Alucia’s space military barely has a ship between them.”

“And Nezar’s is not so large that one battleship could go rogue without me knowing.” She looked down, then back up at him. “I have confirmed—as I already knew—that they are berthed at the stardock. If there’s a ship heading toward you, it’s not one of ours.”

“Chancellor, please forgive the accusation. My information—”

“You have always distrusted us.” Heizberg’s eyes narrowed. “I wonder if perhaps we shouldn’t claim your planet and be done with this.”

“Cynthia, we both know—”

“Oh, so first name familiarity, eh? Not this time, President Connors. I know the FDG is staging at Coraxa. This was all a distraction so you can make a play for Nezar. Well, we’re not going down without a fight, that’s for damned sure.” She ended the call.

Connors slumped back in his chair. He glanced at Karen. “No, I don’t think I need a second opinion on that.”

Karen looked ill. “Sir, I would trust those who told me that information with my life.”

I’m not sure how much value she puts on a life, given what she was going to do to me. But he didn’t see deceit in her eyes.

“Your contacts may have been misled themselves. Maybe this was the real plan all along.”

“My god…” Karen hugged herself.

“We only have one option.” Connors took a deep breath. “I need to sign the vassal agreement with the Etheric Federation.”

“Right now?” Karen paled further.

“We need immediate military support. If Nezar wants war, I want the biggest fucking military we can get.”

***

All told, sixty new subjects had been added to Andrea’s collection. Unfortunately, not a single one of them had responded to the first treatment in the way she’d hoped, nor had the man she’d tested earlier that day.

“Worthless! Every one of them. They have all the same markers. Why isn’t it taking?” she mused aloud, not expecting a response.

“I think I’ve identified the problem,” Jared replied from the adjacent workstation. He had dark circles under his eyes from working through the night, but his passion was stronger than ever.

Probably trying to make up for giving away all their secrets, if Andrea had to guess. “What is it?”

“We missed one sequence in our splicing. The nanocytes are still looking for one Were marker in order to activate. We need to strip out that remaining reference, and then it should work.”

There were thousands of lines of genetic code programming within the nanocytes. It wasn’t surprising they’d overlooked one tiny segment. “Except it’s worthless to us without a subject. It’ll take two weeks for the nanocytes to clear from the blood of this batch. I was so certain it would work…”

“I was, too. I’m sorry I let you down again.”

“Oh, Jared, a pity party will win you no favor. Redeem yourself through the work.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He turned back to his work station. “I’m completing the corrections now. We should have a new batch of nanocytes ready within half an hour.”

“Finally, some good news.”

The question remained, however, for who to test it on. Subjects were all disposable, but she was running out of time and needed to maximize her investments.

While she could find just anyone—perhaps even Jared, himself, if she got desperate—she’d much rather find a native Coraxan. If her estimations were correct, such a person would possess far stronger abilities than someone with no innate Etheric connection. A Reader, in particular, would make a most excellent prototype to bring to her benefactors, even if that would be over-selling the product a bit. After all, that was the nature of sales.

Andrea still had her eye on one Reader who she’d be all too eager to turn into her pet. And if the FDG landing vessel parked a kilometer away was any indication, Ava would be walking right through the front door and into her hands any minute.












CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


“All right, fucking-shit-up mode activated,” Ava said to her team while detaching her plasma rifle from her back.

“Be careful in there.” Concern filled Luke’s face, but his tone was confident. Ava felt that much more energized.

Samantha cast another appraising look between Ava and Luke. “It’s the enemy that should be worried.”

“You mess with Weres, you mess with the best tac team in the whole fucking Force de Guerre.” Edwin’s eyes took on an amber cast. “And we won’t stand for injustice.”

Nick laughed. “You sound like a recruitment ad.”

“I would make a great spokesperson, and you know it,” Edwin said with a grin.

“Or there’s Ava’s latest video entry,” Samantha offered.

Ava rolled her eyes while she grabbed her helmet from the mount on her shoulder. “I have a very long memory, my friends. Payback is cumulative.”

“It’s all empty threats. Secretly she likes it,” Nick said.

“I guess you’ll just have to wait to find out.” Ava slipped on the helmet, and her vision was replaced by the view on her HUD. “Comm test?”

Her team slipped on their own helmets and sounded off.

“Check clear,” Ava acknowledged. She turned back to Luke and activated the external speaker on her armor. “See you soon.”

He nodded. “I’ll be here.”

Ava returned the suit settings to internal comms and then loped down the hill in the direction of the NTech lab. Her unit and three other teams of four fanned out in formation.

Another two dozen FDG warriors had gone ahead to scope out the opposition from inside a tree grove that stretched between the landing area and NTech. Her team slowed as they entered the trees, eventually arriving at the other side of the grove near the NTech entrance. The advance teams had taken up positions along the tree line.

Ava pressed her back against a tree with sightlines to the door and peered around the trunk.

The lab’s parking area nearby was now occupied by a matte gray transport ship. Two military-grade mechs were patrolling the entrance, accompanied by eighty visible soldiers, plus the automated assault gun on the roof.

“Well, those weren’t there before,” Ava said on the private channel to her team.

“Yeah, figured you probably would have mentioned that,” Nick replied.

“What do you think—NTech private security or Nezaran military?” she asked.

Samantha peeked around her own tree. “Tough call. I don’t see any distinguishing marks on the ship or mechs.”

“My guess is mercs, and not Bad Company mercs,” Nick chimed in.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Ava replied.  She switched over to the common band for all teams present. “Looks like the welcoming committee sent us our favorite kind of gift basket. Let’s go for a meet and greet, but try not to damage the goods.”

Acknowledgements lit up on the periphery of her HUD. She took a deep breath and centered her mind. “Go!”

As one wave, the forty FDG warriors dashed across the darkened plane toward their target.

The mechs’ thermal sensors picked them up first, and they pivoted their mechanized firing heads toward the group. Both fired an RPG, but the team’s distributed formation made the mechs’ aim ineffective, and the grenades detonated on open ground between two warriors.

The Force warriors shook off the blast and continued their charge.

Enemy guards opened fire with a mix of kinetic rounds and plasma blasts, illuminating the battlefield in a purple electrical glow. With the strobing weapons fire, the action unfolded in freeze-frame motion before Ava’s eyes, and her HUD adjusted to minimize the fluctuation in light level.

She spotted a clear path to the right that would take her near some rock formations, and she sprinted down the hillside, firing at the ground near the enemy guards in the front line to drive them into a tighter clump.

Sensing that the grenades hadn’t hit their marks, the mechs switched to plasma beams. Two beams shot out from each mech, slicing scorched trenches through the ground.

Fucking beam weapons! Ava dove and rolled to the side to narrowly miss one of the glowing beams as it crisscrossed in a random pattern across the field.

Her powered armor’s integrated electromagnetic field could deflect plasma fire for short durations, but more than a solid second of exposure and the nanocarbon would be as good as butter.

Butter… food. Damn, now all I can think about is how I haven’t eaten since dinner! Ava leaped to avoid another beam arc and took cover behind a boulder protruding from the ground five meters away. The sooner this is over, the sooner I get breakfast.

She took aim with her plasma rifle around the edge of the boulder, firing a shot into the rotator plate between the first mech’s upper weapons array and main body. The mech lurched backwards as a shower of sparks and smoke erupted.

The second mech pivoted its beams toward Ava’s position.

That wasn’t part of the plan! She ducked behind the boulder just in time to avoid a clean plasma sweep through the air where her head had been moments earlier. The rock wouldn’t last another three seconds.

“I need some cover!” she shouted into her comm, then dashed out from behind the boulder to the left.

Her team responded in force, laying waste to the second mech and then finishing off the first.

The next critical target was the gun on the roof—no armor-melting plasma rounds, but a couple high-powered ballistic rounds could be even more dangerous when their aim was true.

Ava strafed down diagonally toward the entrance door. Her fire combined with the team’s quickly tore the gun to shreds.

Seeing their main line of defense deteriorating, most of the armored guards pulled back to the main entrance door, but others held their ground; some brave souls even began advancing toward the approaching warriors.

“Non-lethal shots,” Ava reminded her people over the common channel. They switched over to handguns.

The warriors took aim with sonic blasts, but the guards appeared to have in-ear comms, and the weapons had no effect.

Damn it, just had to make things difficult! Ava switched her handgun to kinetic rounds and ran to a rock twenty meters from a group of five guards who’d opted to seek cover in some shrubs. Bad move, fellas.

Ava lined up a shot using the aim assist on her HUD and fired a kinetic round, catching one guard in his right thigh.

He dropped to the ground with a yelp, scrambling to get his rifle back in firing position. His comrades quickly traced the shot’s origin to Ava’s position, but she let loose four more shots before any of them could fire. If these guys were military, then the Nezaran armor had nothing on the FDG’s.

Unfortunately, shooting the guards in their legs only served to immobilize them. She needed them unconscious, but so long as their comms remained in, the sonic stun mode on her weapon was useless.

Two of them squeezed off poorly aimed shots in her direction, and she shot both of them in the arm.

Ava cycled through the comm frequencies until she spotted an active channel not controlled by the FDG. This must be them. She opened a link. “So, I really don’t want to hurt you because I know you’re just the hired help, and probably underpaid, at that. If you want to take out your comms, I’ll just knock you out and we’ll call it good. Otherwise, I’ll put a bullet in each of your arms. Up to you.”

One guard laughed, “Is this a fucking jo—”

Ava shot him in his right arm. “No joke.”

He let out a cry of agony and ripped out the comm earbuds with his good arm. His companions followed suit.

“There! Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?” Ava shouted at them using her external comm. She switched her handgun to the sonic pulse mode and fired.

The rest of the FDG warriors had already dealt with the remaining guards around the door. Ava ran toward one of the guards who was still conscious. She kicked his rifle away from where it had dropped next to him.

“Who do you work for?” Ava asked the guard, pointing her handgun in his face for good measure.

“NTech hired us!” The man cowered with one hand in the air while the other gripped his bleeding knee.

“Yeah, no shit. But who are you?”

“My name is Anders,” he replied.

Ava groaned. “No, who do you work for? Nezaran military, merc…” She couldn’t form a direct link in his mind due to the full helmet on her armor, but she sent out a subtle telepathic prompt to facilitate his response.

Anders swallowed. “My unit was drafted from the Nezaran military. We’ve been stationed in a moon base for three years—get a call out on ops now and then, like today.”

“Always for NTech?”

“Recently, yes, but there have been others. I don’t remember the names.”

His tone indicated he was speaking the truth, so Ava released her hold on him and removed the pistol from his face.

“Time for a new career,” Ava told him.

Twelve FDG warriors were working their way through the mercs, applying holding cuffs that would anchor them to the ground, with their hands and feet tethered behind their backs. It would be damn uncomfortable with bullet wounds, but that’s what they got for resisting.

Ava handed over the guard she’d questioned to her comrade and met up with the rest of her team at the entry door.

Well, what was left of the entry door. The previous engagement had shattered even the ballistic glass and left scorch marks and holes along the once pristine back wall.

“That’s convenient.” Ava walked right in.

***

 “Shit! What are we going to do?” Jared paced across the observation room, distracting Andrea from her work.

“Let them come. This is a necessary phase of our plan,” she soothed.

The newest test subjects were locked in their holding cells, useless to her after the mistake with the nanocytes. Andrea needed her new subject to come looking for her.

But first she had to lull the FDG into a false sense of security. They’d need a challenge to overcome—a distraction to make them feel victorious so that the next phase could unfold just like she and her collaborators had planned.

“Release the Stage Two subjects,” Andrea instructed her companion.

“But they… We’ll be ripped to shreds! And then they’ll be on the loose!”

“We’ll barricade ourselves in the back lab and then wait for the heroes to arrive. They’ll take care of the rest.” She calmly rose from her seat and strolled toward the sealed room.

Jared sat in stunned silence.

“Or stay here. I don’t really care,” Andrea added.

He hurried after her.

All they needed was one viable sample. That was the deal with the collaborators. Once Ava was transformed and had a grasp of her abilities, she could be presented as the deliverable that would ensure Andrea’s bright future. All the pieces were almost in place.

***

Colonel Kurtz didn’t like the way things had gone so far. It was one of those hunches he just couldn’t shake—the kind he’d gotten on critical ops his entire career. But this… this was even more intense. He was certain this was one mission for which he shouldn’t be on the sidelines.

Needing to clear his head, Kurtz excused himself from the communications hub set up outside the landing craft.

He released a long breath and began pacing toward the far side of the ramp. As he came around the slope, Kurtz spotted Luke Carter staring into the dark in the direction of the NTech lab.

“Can’t see much from here,” Kurtz said by way of greeting.

“Yeah, I know.” Luke sighed. “I don’t want to be in there, but I also don’t like being left out here.”

“You care about her, don’t you? Ava.”

Luke swallowed. “I’d given up on ever having anything with her a long time ago, but now I’m not sure what the future holds.”

“Didn’t quite expect that turn when I set her up with you as the local contact for this op,” Kurtz said with a chuckle.

“Maybe it was inevitable.”

“Well, if you go down that route, you’ll need to get used to her being in situations like this.”

“I know. That prospect doesn’t thrill me, but we can’t have career decisions control all aspects of our lives.”

“FDG is life, for many.”

“And for Ava?”

Kurtz shook his head. “Ava will always find a way to have what she wants. If that’s you, you’re a lucky man. And if she decides that your dirt under her fingernails…” The colonel chuckled softly. “In that case, I wouldn’t want to be you.”

“We’ll see what happens after this is over.”

“Indeed.”

They stood in silence for a minute, staring into the dark.

“We could use you in there,” Kurtz said. “Once we have the access codes from the director, you’d be an asset to help navigate the computer network and retrieve the relevant information. No one on my team is particularly versed in genetics or nanotech, so it’d be difficult to know what’s important.”

Luke hesitated. “Ava told me to stay here.”

“Once the all-clear is given, it’ll be perfectly safe.”

“All right,” Luke agreed after a short pause.

Kurtz nodded. “I’ll tell you when. Standby to standby.”












CHAPTER EIGHTEEN


The NTech lobby was clear, but Ava knew Andrea wouldn’t have only one line of defense. “There have to be other guards,” Ava said over the internal comm system to the warriors inside. “Not that it was an insignificant force out there, but that transport ship can hold way more.”

“The facility is set up in wings, correct?” Nick asked.

“Yeah, behind those three doors there,” Ava pointed to the access points around the lobby, “and the hidden D Wing. My guess is the additional guards are camped out in each of those hallways.”

“Waiting for us to go in?” Samantha speculated.

“If they’re smart—” Ava cut off when she heard the telltale clink of a concussion grenade hitting the tile floor.

She dove to the ground, facing toward the exit. A blast rippled through the air, rattling what remained of the windows. The pressure wave caused the inner padded layer of her armor to cinch protectively around her.

Ava landed hard and skidded across the floor. Her armor filtered out the worst of the grenade’s punch, but her ears were ringing slightly. She looked behind her to see where the weapon had come from and saw that the door to C Wing was ajar.

“C Wing!” she shouted over the comm. “Anyone hurt?”

Acknowledgements lit up on her HUD that there were no injuries, and the warriors dispersed around the lobby to find the best line of sight to the enemy.

Ava pressed her back against a concrete support column and took a quick look at the enemy’s position. She moved her head back behind her cover and then brought up the still image on her HUD. The door to C Wing was now half open, indicating that guards were likely behind the two partially open doors to either side of the passageway. Given the fortress-like construction, the doors were likely rated to withstand the kinetic weapons she had on hand; however, concentrated plasma fire was sure to do the trick.

While the intent was to limit casualties, force needed to be met with force.

“Let’s drive them to the back of the hall. It ends in an elevator, so they won’t have far to go,” she told her team.

She grabbed both concussion grenades from her belt clip and lobbed them through the opening. That ought to get them away from the door.

A second later, Ava heard a stampede of footsteps as the guards ran further into the corridor, away from the grenades. They exploded just beyond the opening.

“There’s no exit! May as well come out now with your hands up,” she called to the guards while the debris settled. No response. “Well, I offered.”

With a signal over the comm, the FDG released a barrage of sonic blasts, advancing toward the open corridor.

To Ava’s consternation, she didn’t hear any guards drop to the floor. “They might have sound-cancelling comms in,” she told her team, switching her gun to kinetic rounds.

She was about to reposition to get a better look down the corridor when a miniature armored assault mech sped into view from down C Wing. You have got to be kidding me! Without hesitation, Ava whipped her plasma rifle from her back and fired on the mech.

Her team had done the same, and the gun mounted to the top of the mech became a glowing molten mass. Disarmed, the mech reversed its treads and zoomed back into the corridor at full speed.

Shouts rang out from the corridor, followed by a crash, an explosion, and the screech of rending metal.

What the…? Ava peeked from behind the support column. No guards were visible, so she switched her handgun back to the sonic setting and advanced.

The C Wing entrance was in ruins, with a black scorch mark running its entire length where the molten mech must have rubbed against the surface when it sped past. Two guards writhed on the ground with burns, and moans from others indicated that there were more injured up ahead. Ava removed the comms from the two barely conscious guards near her and knocked them out with a blast from her gun.

Edwin and Samantha passed her by to scout the hall.

“Oh, shit!” Edwin exclaimed from up ahead.

With the two guards disabled, Ava ran to meet him.

Her eyes widened when she saw a pile of guards to either side of the hall, seemingly torn apart by a frag grenade—and a mech-shaped hole in the elevator doors. “Damn… Did they try to blow the thing up?”

Samantha shook her head. “Looks like it. Got themselves instead.”

Ava inspected the two piles of guards, but didn’t see any life signs. “Tough break. Should have come out when I offered.”

“I’m not sure that could have sucked more.” Edwin let out a long breath then nodded toward the elevator. “Think it’s still operational?”

“Might be. We should disable it,” Ava suggested.

With Edwin’s help she pried open the doors, and found that the elevator car wasn’t on their level. She shined a light from her armor downward and saw the mech crumpled four stories down. “That’s not going anywhere.”

For good measure, she blasted the guidance track in the wall of the elevator shaft with her rifle.

The plasma blast instantly melted the metal at the back of the shaft, making it impossible for the car to rise if there was anyone still down there. Presumably, there was access to the area through D Wing; they could go searching for survivors that way.

“Nothing left to worry about here,” Ava announced. “Let’s go for the rest.”

Upon re-entering the lobby, Ava skirted the front reception desk for cover. She gestured for one of the FDG warriors behind a support column near the front door to blast the doors with a specialized breaching gun he had custom-fitted in his armor. A projectile flew from his armor and spread across the door on impact. When the surface was covered, the substance solidified in an instant, shattering the door.

Cries of surprise sounded from within the hall as NTech guards backed away from the opening.

Ava sent out three rapid sonic pulses from her handgun, stunning the guards—who apparently only had in one earpiece for their comms, so they could better listen for the inevitable attackers. The guards dropped to the ground.

Warriors ran in to clear the fallen enemies from the corridor and secure them.

While they worked, Ava scanned the corridor for any signs of additional guards, but she saw no heat signatures or electrical signals beyond the environmental norm. “Looks like this one is clear.”

“We have movement in A Wing,” Edwin announced.

The doors parted with a hiss, and then a man shouted, “Don’t shoot! We’re coming out.”

“Surrendering?” Ava asked over her suit’s external comm.

“Yes!” the NTech guard said, coming into view. “We heard what was going on out here… and we’d rather not get shot in the arms.”

Ava lowered her weapon slightly while still keeping it trained on them. “Seriously, guys? Where’s your professional integrity?”

He shrugged. “We’re not getting paid enough for this shit.”

“I respect your honesty.” Ava waved him forward with her off hand, and he was followed by another six men and five women.

“What are you going to do with us?” one of the women asked.

“Lock you up front until we’re finished here, and then there’s a major and a colonel outside who probably want to talk with you,” Samantha replied. She waved the guards toward the exit with her gun.

They were received by a team who applied the securements around their hands and ankles, and then anchored them to the ground.

“Yeah, this is way better without a bullet wound,” the first male guard commented.

“Smart thinking.” Ava gave him a thumbs-up. She switched back to internal comms. “All right, team. Time to move in. We’ll go scope out the situation in D Wing and then send for backup once we know what we’re up against,” Ava instructed the FDG warriors assembled in the lobby. “We’ll go through B Wing, since I know that route best. I’m passing a route now.” She transferred the instructions over the secure connection.

“Hopefully there aren’t any more of those damn mechs lurking inside,” Samantha mumbled.

Nick chuckled. “But they make for such good target practice!”

Ava stowed her rifle and readied her multi-handgun on the sonic blast setting. “Focus, team.” She led the way toward B Wing’s arch.

Like the rest of the lobby, the arch had sustained damage during the shootout. Sparks flickered as Ava passed through, but it still let out an angry beep accompanied by a red light.

She smirked behind her helmet’s faceplate. “I think they already knew we were here, armed and dangerous.”

“Effective system,” Edwin jested.

Ava swung what remained of the doors wide and propped them open with the nearby debris to facilitate a swift exit, should they need it—or for their backup to run in.

The white halls were silent and empty. They used the external comms on their suits to call out every dozen meters, in the event a captive was being held somewhere. There were no replies.

After three minutes, Ava’s team reached the seemingly dead-end corridor that led to the secret D Wing. Opening that door would be slightly more involved than anything around the lobby.

Samantha evaluated the wall. “I say we just blow it.”

“I guess we’re already in pretty deep with the property damage. One more hole won’t hurt.” Ava backed her team up.

She and Edwin fired their plasma rifles, cutting a crude archway clear through the wall. The reinforced material was thirty centimeters thick, and it took several blasts to get through each segment. After seven minutes, it appeared to be cut clean through.

“Lemme try it.” Edwin approached the wall and gave it a firm kick. Then another.

The interior piece of the arch dropped backward with a thud and a reverberating clang.

Ava smiled. “Nice work.”

Edwin swapped his rifle for his handgun and passed through the archway, followed closely by Ava and the other two members of the team.

“We’re coming up on the holding area,” Ava said using the internal comms. “I didn’t go through it before, but I saw it on some monitors. Keep your cool.”

It was hard enough for her to see anyone held against their will, but after Edwin’s reaction in the last facility, she knew the Were members of her team would be especially sensitive to the plight of their brethren.

“We’ve got this,” Edwin replied.

They had advanced another five meters down the corridor when an inhuman shriek echoed down the hall.

“What was that?!” Edwin halted.

Ava grimaced. “If I had to guess, one of the Hochste.” She held her handgun at the ready. “Keep moving forward.”

The enhanced audio receptors in Ava’s armor detected approaching footsteps—what sounded more like bare feet than boots. Her HUD confirmed the approaching forms a second later. They were moving far more quickly than even a Were should. Two of their heat signatures kept disappearing and reappearing.

“Is anyone else’s HUD glitching?” Edwin asked.

“That’s not a glitch… Run!” Ava about-faced and sprinted toward the exit.

Proximity alerts flashed across her HUD. Before she could react, something swatted her legs out from under her.

She stumbled to the side, smacking the wall and then falling to her back.

On top of her was what looked like a Pricolici with luminescent orange eyes. Its wolf-like snout was contorted into a snarl, baring elongated teeth designed to tear flesh from bone. The creature’s arm was raised to swipe its fifteen-centimeter-long claws across Ava’s neck.

She tried to raise her weapon, but her arm was pinned under the creature’s other arm.

A sonic blast rippled through the air.

The Hochste recoiled in pain and retreated down the hall, disappearing for a meter before reappearing.

What the…? Ava looked around and saw a pack of large wolves, robed in tattered medical gowns, barking and snarling down the corridor. Her team was busy subduing them with sonic blasts. Ava rose to her feet and joined in.

“You okay, Lieutenant?” Nick asked.

“Yeah. Thanks to whoever got that thing off me.”

“You’re welcome,” Edwin replied.

Twenty-six unconscious wolves lie about the hall. They began transforming back into their human forms.

“There were two that weren’t like the others,” Samantha commented.

“I think those must have been the Hochste,” Ava surmised. “I guess the procedure didn’t take like it was supposed to.”

“How many total captives are there?” Edwin asked.

Ava shook her head. “Jared said one hundred, but I wasn’t able to confirm. More than are in this hallway, for sure, from what I saw on the monitors. And that’s not counting however many were taken from town last night.”

“The four of us can’t subdue that many if they’re all this aggressive,” Nick stated the obvious.

“We should fall back and come in with a bigger team and more concussion grenades,” Ava suggested.

“Hey, she’s coming around!” Samantha approached a woman lying near her. She kept her distance and had her weapon ready to fire. “Do you know who you are?”

The young woman startled awake. “Yes, I’m… I’m Emmie.” She sat up. “Where am I?”

Ava stepped toward her. “You’re in an NTech lab. Do you remember anything?”

“I’ve been in a cell, I think.” Emmie grasped her head. “Where’s Melissa? She was…”

“I don’t know—” Ava cut off when she noticed the other people rousing.

Questioning murmurs filled the hall.

“It looks like they’re themselves,” she told her team using the internal comms. “Let’s start the evac.”

Keeping their guns ready just in case anyone started to revert, Ava’s team shepherded the captives toward the exit.

“We’re coming out with twenty-six right now,” Ava messaged operational command and the warriors waiting in the lobby. “We’ll need concussion grenades and backup to continue the search.”

Ava’s group was in the final stretch of hallway leading to the lobby when she saw Colonel Kurtz, Luke, and a dozen warriors approaching.

“Luke! What are you doing in here?” Ava asked on a private channel.

“Kurtz thought I should come along as a guide to help access the computer network for evidence, now that things have settled down,” he replied.

“It isn’t safe yet…”

“If this armor is good enough to protect you, then it is for me, too.”

Ava looked down at herself and realized that a new set of claw marks had been raked across her chest. That settles it—this new set is officially ‘broken in’. “But I have weapons,” she countered his statement.

“And I have you.”

Good point. She sighed. “Okay, just stay vigilant.”

While they had been talking, two of the guards had begun directing the prisoners toward the exit, while the others prepared to press forward toward D Wing.

“Sir, I suggest you and Luke hang back while we clear the path,” Ava suggested.

Kurtz nodded and allowed Ava’s team to lead the way back.

The supplementary warriors handed two concussion grenades to her and to each member of her team. She stashed hers in a pouch at her waist.

They broke into a jog and kept the pace until they reached the point in the D Wing hall where they’d first encountered resistance. Her HUD indicated that no one was lurking around the first bend.

After the turn, the hall opened into the observation room. An open doorway on the left wall presumably led to the holding area.

“Should be through here,” Ava directed.

“And back there?” Kurtz asked.

“That’s a lab room—one egress point. I suspect Andrea and her accomplice, Jared, are holed up in there.”

Kurtz nodded. “They’re not going anywhere right now. I’ll keep watch with a couple warriors while you take care of the captives. Then we can deal with them.”

“Yes, sir.” Ava continued toward the holding corridor.

The open doorway provided a peek of the cells. The first two cells Ava could see were empty. She stepped through the opening and passed by a three meter segment of storage cabinets to either side, and then the passageway split in two directions. Cells lined both sides of the hall, and the doors to those on the left were open. At the end of that section, two Hochste were facing off against half a dozen wolves, behind which humans were huddled together.

“Some help?!” one of the humans shouted when he saw Ava.

Without hesitation, Ava fired sonic blasts with her handgun at the two Hochste. It took four blasts to take them down; the wolves behind them looked worse for the wear, but they dropped to the floor with grunts.

A wolf at the front of the group shifted back to his original form, a middle-aged man with dark hair. “They couldn’t be reasoned with,” he murmured.

“Are you injured?” Ava asked, stepping forward.

“Nothing that won’t heal,” he replied.

“Let’s lock up the Hochste until we figure out how to get them to change back,” Ava said to Edwin and Nick when they came up behind her.

The two Weres secured the large creatures in cuffs and anchored them inside cells on opposite sides of the hall.

Ava spotted the door controls and sealed them inside, just in case they were able to break free.

The other wolves had shifted back into their human forms, as well.

“What happened to the others?” a woman asked.

“They’re outside with our people. They attacked us while transformed, but they seemed fine once back in their human forms,” Ava replied.

“Probably thought you were one of the guards,” the first man said. “They opened all the cells at once. We were all agitated and in our Were forms, but the others were different—they’re like animals in that state. Vicious killers. We all ran for the exit when the cell doors opened, but then the Hochste, as you call them, came charging back, and we ended up trapped here.”

“We’ll get you to safety now,” Ava assured him. “More of our people are in the next room. They’ll get you out.”

“Thank you.” He bowed his head. “I don’t even know how long I’ve been here… or where ‘here’ is.”

“This is the planet Coraxa,” she told him. “We’re with the FDG.”

He looked surprised. “The Federation is involved?”

“Well, the FDG. The whole point is sorta that it’s not official,” Ava corrected.

The man nodded. “Whoever you are or why you’re here, thank you. We owe you our lives.”

Murmurs of thanks passed through the crowd.

She smiled. “It’s what we do. But if you’ll excuse us, I need to find the others. They took some locals last night.”

“Other section of the hall,” the man said with a nod down the corridor. “I saw them brought in.”

She jogged toward where he’d indicated while the prisoners filed out into the outer administrative area.

The first few dozen cells were empty, but then Ava found smiling, relieved faces pressed against the plexiglass walls. They were speaking, but no sound escaped. The comms must have been muted.

She checked down the length of cells to make sure everyone was okay, and to make sure that everyone had seen that help had arrived. Her heart skipped a beat when she reached a cell containing her father, and then another holding her mother.

Ava tore off her helmet, and her parents pressed their hands against the plexiglass. She held one of her hands out to each while looking around for a master door release, but none was to be found. She held up her index finger and then ran back to the white room.

“I found the others!” she announced. “Where’re the door controls?”

“This might be the right time to track Andrea down,” Kurtz suggested.

“Yes, we’re well overdue for an honest chat.” Ava turned to Luke. “Will you go wait with the remaining prisoners in there to the right? My parents are among them. They’ll recognize you—without the helmet, of course. We should have the door open in just a few minutes.”

Luke slid off his helmet. “Got it.” He jogged into the holding corridor.

Ava glared at the lab door the warriors had been guarding. “Now for Andrea.”












CHAPTER NINETEEN


Ava stormed toward the lab door. “If Andrea thinks she can get away with hiding in here because we won’t root her out, she has another thing coming.” The control panel next to the door was nonresponsive. This isn’t a room we can shoot our way into without risking too much damage. We need to examine that tech.

“Nick, a little help with an override?” Ava requested.

“I’m on it,” her teammate replied, jogging over.

Before he had a chance to interface with the control panel, the door suddenly slid open.

Ava instinctually took a step back, drawing her weapon.

Andrea stood in the doorway, her hands raised in defeat. She still wore her white lab coat and seemed unfazed by having multiple weapons pointed toward her. “You have me.”

“Yeah, you’re fucking right we do—” Ava began.

“No need to berate someone who willingly turned themself in,” Kurtz interjected. He approached the room. “You’re Andrea Mason, the director of this facility?”

“I am,” Andrea acknowledged. “My assistant and I became trapped in this lab when our medical patients broke free. They were in some kind of frenzy.”

“Your ‘patients’?!” Ava laughed. “We have all the evidence we need against you. You can drop the benevolent doctor act. You were what caused these poor people to turn vicious.”

Andrea’s eyes narrowed the slightest measure, focusing on Colonel Kurtz. “You must believe that I did what I thought was right, to help advance us.”

Kurtz grunted. “I don’t think so. We value the independence of people and the chance for them to choose what happens to their own bodies. Forcing genetic modification is never justified.”

“And if I told you they consented?” Andrea asked.

“I wouldn’t believe it,” Ava spat. “You’re finished.”

The director stepped forward through the lab’s doorway with a very reluctant-looking Jared following behind. FDG warriors kept handguns trained on the two scientists.

Andrea composed her face with a prim smile. “Then I suppose you should just take me away. I have nothing more to say to you.”

Jared moved aside under the watchful eye of a warrior.

“Oh, no! You’re not getting off that easily,” Ava said, rounding on Andrea. “You’ve been keeping people captive in a secret underground lab and think you can just get away with, ‘Oh, guess everyone knows what’s going on now, sorry’? No. You’re going to explain who you’re working for and what you meant to get out of this—”

Colonel Kurtz held up his hand to stop Ava from continuing.

Andrea shook her head. “Oh, Ava, it’s really too bad you didn’t want to learn more about yourself when you had the chance. So much passion that could have been directed into something more meaningful.”

“What I’m doing here is plenty meaningful. We just helped free more than a hundred people who would have been abused until they lost your interest and were discarded.” Ava scoffed. “For someone who seems to think of herself as a higher being, you sure know how to act like the lowest of the low.”

“Think what you will. There are stronger powers at play here than just me. Removing me won’t alter the work that’s been done.”

 “Then we’ll find all your other labs, and whoever you’re working with, and stop them, too,” Ava told her.

The colonel turned toward Ava while the warriors stayed alert with weapons trained on the vampire.

Ava looked him in the eyes. “Let me force her, sir. ‘Any means’. This mission isn’t over, not by a long shot!”

“Do your worst, Lieutenant,” the colonel replied, then directed the two warriors, “Shackle that thing.”

“Your energy and conviction is something to be admired,” Andrea said as the warriors cuffed her from the front and shackled her legs. “You are certainly welcome to try, though you won’t be successful.”

Challenge accepted. Ava took a step toward her. “I have a way of getting things done.”

“Perhaps you will. I should tell you, though…” Andrea reached out toward Ava as though to cup her bound hand around her ear to whisper a secret.

Ava quickly stepped back. “Yeah, vampire-near-neck is a no-go.”

Andrea smiled. “Never mind, then. Maybe you’re better off not knowing.”

“Uh, Lieutenant…” Samantha cut in during the break in conversation. “The cell doors?”

“Right!” Ava’s original task came back to her. “Log into the computer system, Andrea. I could force you, but we both know it will end the same way.”

Andrea rolled her eyes. “You really think I’ll just hand over the keys that easily?”

The three members of Ava’s team removed their helmets and simultaneously transformed into their Pricolici forms, their specialized body armor flexing around their muscular frames. They advanced on the scientist.

Ava smirked. “I’m thinking you might.”

Andrea looked the three Weres up and down like she couldn’t be bothered with them, but she sighed. “No need to be that way about it.” Her eyes flashed red for a second, then she took a step toward the computer console in the center of the room.

The three Weres stayed on her heels with Ava close behind. They watched over her shoulder while she logged into the system, then immediately prodded her away from the computer before she could try anything nefarious.

“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Ava asked.

“Oh, you have no idea,” the other woman replied. She looked to Colonel Kurtz. “You have access to my systems. Are we done here?”

Kurtz met her gaze and nodded. “We’ll finish the interrogation at FDG headquarters. I’ll escort her out.” The colonel motioned for the warriors who weren’t on Ava’s team to take charge of the prisoner.

“We need to secure him, as well.” One warrior nodded toward Jared, who’d continued to stand still while the assigned guard stood menacingly over him.

“Yes, we’ll release the remaining prisoners and move out,” Kurtz agreed. “Ava, why don’t you and Luke begin going through the computer system and pull out the relevant information?”

 “Yes, sir, we’re on it,” Ava acknowledged. She scanned over the panel and located the controls for the cell doors. A master switch was divided into left and right sections. She activated the unlock for only the right, remembering the two Hochste they had left in the cells to the left.

“Should be open now,” she announced. “And you should check on those two other captives we subdued earlier to see if they’re back in their human form.”

“Hochste?” Kurtz prompted.

Ava nodded. “I hope whatever Andrea did to them can be undone.”

The scientist scoffed in response.

“Maybe Luke can take a look at the research and see what he can figure out,” Ava suggested.

“Excellent,” Kurtz agreed.

Voices carried from the holding area while the townspeople began to file out. Ava spotted her parents in the middle of the crowd with Luke. They smiled at her and she ran over to them.

“I’m so sorry to have put you in danger!” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know they—”

“This had nothing to do with you, sweetheart,” her mother soothed. “You got us out. NTech would have done what they did whether or not you were here.”

“I’m glad you’re okay. Did they do anything to you?” she asked her parents.

“They injected us with something, but there has been no signs of a change. Someone overheard them say something about an error in the coding, and that we were useless until it left our systems,” her father replied.

“We’ll verify with the experiment logs and testing.” Ava smiled at them. “I’m sure it will be fine.”

“Still feel like myself!” her father patted his chest. “But hungry.”

Ava’s stomach growled. “That makes two of us. I’ll be busy for a while, but maybe we could get a late lunch or dinner?”

“We look forward to it.” Her mother reached up to brush the hair from Ava’s forehead.

“See you soon,” she told them. “Luke, can you help with the data extraction?”

“Sure. I’ll get started.” He walked over to the console.

Ava’s parents took each other’s hands and followed the last of the townspeople out the exit.

Four warriors entered the holding area to retrieve the Hochste.

Ava wasn’t sure four would be remotely sufficient if the creatures were in a mindless rage, but she figured they’d come for backup if it looked like it was going to be a problem.

Two minutes later, the four Were warriors returned escorting a ragged-looking woman and a muscular man.

The woman’s face dropped when she caught sight of Ava. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“I’m fine,” Ava reassured her. “This armor is built to take a beating.”

“Even still—” The woman cut off when she saw Andrea. “You! You bitch!” She tried to charge the scientist, but the warriors stopped her.

“Get her out of here!” Ava instructed when she noticed the woman’s eyes taking on an orange cast.

The guards hurriedly complied.

Andrea watched her go with a surprisingly smug expression.

“She knew you.” Ava evaluated Andrea. “Did you do something extra-special to piss her off, beyond just being your charming mad-scientist self?”

“Poor Tim got too attached to her before his accident. Melissa didn’t take the news of his passing well.”

Ava barely resisted attacking Andrea herself. She took a deep breath while she waited for the guards escorting the Hochste to get a sufficient head start.

The colonel watched his warriors go. “I’m afraid I’m going to need your team. You and Luke keep working on the computer. Privates?”

“With pleasure,” Edwin said while he, Nick, and Samantha positioned to flank Andrea.

The remaining warrior went ahead with Jared, then Ava’s team followed Andrea, and Kurtz brought up the rear.

Once they were out of sight, Ava allowed herself a moment to relax. “How can anyone be so cold?”

“It’s like she’s lost track of what it means to have a free life,” Luke replied from the computer monitor. “She was a bit detached when I interacted with her before, but I never saw anything like this.”

“At least she can’t hurt anyone else.” Ava came around the middle of the computer station so she could see what Luke was working on. “Is everything unlocked?”

“Yeah, I’m working my way through it now. I found a summary report that indicates there were only two semi-successful Hochste conversions from the Stage Two trials, so that explains Melissa and the man… didn’t catch his name.”

“And then Stage Three was converting a non-Were person into a hybrid. But it sounds like they didn’t get it quite right.”

“Thank god. I wouldn’t want to think about what would happen if a strain of nanocytes like that got out.”

“No kidding.” Ava slipped off the gloves of her powered armor so she could type more freely. “I’ll help you look around. We need all the information we can get to see if we can reverse whatever was done to these people.”

***

Connors stared at the signed digital document in front of him. With its submission, the Alucian Alliance was officially part of the Etheric Federation. The Alucians and Nezarans were no longer just two governments fighting over a third world in their small system; his people were now amongst the most powerful force in the known universe. Whether his neighbors would be willing to join with them remained to be seen.

Karen had remained across the desk from Connors while he made the final arrangements for the signing. Her face was drawn and her arms were crossed.

“Do you think this was the right call?” Connors asked.

“I’m probably not the best person to be asking, considering that I was ready to kill in order to keep anyone in this system from joining the Federation.”

“That’s precisely why I want to know what you think.”

She considered the statement. “Yes, I do believe this was for the best. The mentality that we should remain separate is an old way of thinking that won’t move us forward. Unity is what’s best.”

Achieving that unity would be a long road, Connors knew, but his people might not have had a future if he’d continued to delay a decision. With Heizberg on alert, the entire Nezaran fleet could be directed toward Alucia at any moment. It would only take several well-placed shots to level the cities on his world, should they choose to take such aggressive action.

“I hope the Nezarans see reason,” he murmured.

“They’d be foolish to move against a Federation world. Even if the Federation didn’t directly retaliate, they could still make life difficult and unpleasant. These three worlds need each other—Nezar on its own isn’t sustainable.”

“It’s funny how interdependent current worlds have become. To think that your human ancestors lived so long on one planet…”

“And the Torcellans on their homeworld, in ages past,” Karen pointed out. “Advancement causes us to rethink how we interact with the rest of the universe.”

“True.” Connors took a deep breath. “I’m anxious for the Nezaran’s response. The Federation’s warning to halt their ship should have been received by now.”

“Yes. I wonder—”

The desktop lit up with notice of an incoming call.

“And there she is!” Connors tapped his desk to accept the video call from the Nezaran Chancellor. “Madam Chancellor, I trust you have received news of our joining with the Federation?”

The woman glared at him through the screen. “Yes, we did indeed. I’m surprised you’d let them sway you so easily.”

“This was a long time coming. But they didn’t force our hand—you did. I won’t let my people live in fear of your military threats. You’d be foolish to take any action against us now.”

“And you think that by signing an agreement we want nothing to do with, you will improve our relations? Bah!” She threw up her hands. “You’ve just signed an extension of your slow decline.”

Connors kept his tone calm and measured. “I know the resources of your world just as well as you know mine. We are better off together than we are apart. The Federation is not what you think of them; they don’t seek to control or meddle in our lives. What they provide is access. Our people can seek education and employment on worlds throughout the galaxy, and beyond. We can be among ancient races and learn from their wisdom to better ourselves. To remain isolationist is to condemn our people to a narrow life of tedium, when a whole universe of possibilities exists out there for the taking. Why are you so bent on keeping us here by ourselves?”

The chancellor’s face twisted. “I… I—” she sputtered, unable to complete the words.

“Chancellor, are you all right?” Connors asked.

Karen’s brow furrowed with concern across the desk.

“There’s this compulsion,” the chancellor said at last. “I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. Everyone in our government does. It’s just the way we are. We must stay alone.”

“That defies logic. You must have a reason why,” Connors pressed.

“I understand that at a rational level, but something else within me is compelled to keep us alone.” The chancellor’s pale green eyes were wild, as though she were accessing some part of herself that she hadn’t recognized before.

“Where does this compulsion come from?” Connors questioned again. Something is going on here… She’s always seen reason, even when she doesn’t agree. A ‘compulsion’ isn’t the reasoning of a sane person.

Chancellor Heizberg’s face suddenly transformed to a neutral expression. “President Connors, you must forgive my statements earlier. I was distressed over this discovery that you have joined as a vassal to the Federation. I must take time to process this development. You need have no immediate fears of Nezaran military action.” The call ended.

Connors’ mouth dropped opened. “What the fuck just happened?”

Karen shook her head side to side. “I have no idea, sir. It was almost like she was… possessed.”

“That was my thought, too. But… how?”

“I don’t know, sir,” Karen murmured. “But if she is under the influence of someone, or something, it would connect with the information leaks.”

“Fuck!” Connors groaned. “There is no way to predict what she might do. Who could we even tell about this?”

“What about your contact at the FDG?” Karen suggested. “They have the resources to investigate a matter like this covertly and figure out what to do.”

“Yes, I suspect that’s our best option.”

Karen nodded. “In the time being, we should prepare a statement informing our people of the vassal agreement. There’ll be some dissent, I’m sure, but what you said to Chancellor Heizberg right now makes a very compelling argument: the universe is theirs if they want it, and if not, Alucia will always be a home, if they wish.”

“Yes, let’s make a statement. I’ll ask the FDG to look into Nezar’s government as soon as the situation with Coraxa is resolved.”

Karen leaned forward in her chair. “I was thinking for the opening line, ‘You now have the means to make your own future’.”

Connor smiled. “I like it.”












CHAPTER TWENTY


Kurtz followed the other Were warriors at a distance, watching Andrea’s movements. She glanced back at him on occasion, as if waiting to see if he would say something else.

What would I possibly have to say to her outside of an interrogation room? He kept his gaze ahead, trying to ignore her.

After a minute, and several more glances, Andrea finally let out a loud sigh. “Fine, then I’ll make the move.” Her cuffs seemed to fall to the ground of their own accord.

She moved faster than Kurtz could track, knocking Nick’s and Edwin’s heads together, throwing Samantha to the ground, and tackling the other warrior leading Jared. Unfortunately for Jared, he was pinned under the warrior’s armor when he fell.

In the blink of an eye, Andrea grabbed cuffs from the warrior’s waistband and tethered the FDG warriors to the floor, then ripped out the comm systems from their armor.

Kurtz watched the attack happening before his eyes, frozen in place.

Does she have me under some sort of telepathic influence? It was possible. He knew of other vampires who’d possessed such abilities, but he’d never encountered one. All he knew was that he was trapped inside his own body, and it made him furious.

Andrea finished securing the warriors and stood up.

“A little help?” Jared called, unsuccessfully trying to pry the heavy, unconscious warrior off him.

“No, this must look convincing. Stay quiet.” She turned to Kurtz, then shoved him against the wall. “Don’t go anywhere.”

***

“Ooo, this is good!” Ava said, dragging another collection of lab reports into a ‘best of’ directory she was compiling. “And by ‘good’, I mean these people are fucking monsters.”

“Yeah, I’m getting the impression that the higher-ups at NTech are an unsavory lot,” Luke agreed. “I feel sick that I was working for them.”

“You didn’t know. And what you were working on wasn’t this.”

“Yeah, but still…” he shook his head. “I have some making up to do.”

“I think there’s a lot of that to go around.” She paused her typing to brush his forearm.

“Ava Landyn! I still have that secret to tell you.”

Ava’s heart leaped when she saw Andrea in the doorway in full-on vampire mode—red eyes, teeth extended, elongated nails that tapered to a point. “The f—”

Andrea was on top of her before she could react, wrestling her on the floor.

Even with Ava in powered armor, the vampire’s strength was a fair match. But without her gloves, Ava’s hands were useless for punching or grabbing. Instead, she tried to elbow Andrea off her and get in a jab with her knee, but the vampire’s reactions were always one step ahead.

“Stay… still!” Andrea’s movements were a blur as Ava struggled to get free.

A cool prick registered on Ava’s wrist, and she twisted her arm away.

“You’ll make quite the prize,” Andrea whispered. Then louder, “I’ll make you mine.”

 “The fuck you will!” Luke appeared behind Andrea and looped his arm around her neck, twisting it with the strength of his powered armor.

Her head jerked at an unnatural angle with a sickening pop. He released her, and her body dropped to the floor, her head lolling to the side with her mouth agape in shocked horror.

She’s a vampire, she’ll heal! Ava scrambled to her feet. She should subdue her—cuff her and place her under armed guard—but Ava knew that Andrea would never reveal her secrets through interrogation. Andrea had tried to kill her, had ruined the lives of hundreds of others… and she’d do it again if she ever got free.

“So long, bitch.” Ava stomped her foot onto Andrea’s head, splattering it across the floor.

She stumbled backward, chest heaving. Her hands were shaking uncontrollably.

“It’s okay. It’s over,” Luke whispered to her, placing a reassuring arm around her shoulders.

“Bitch didn’t know when to give up.”

Luke averted his gaze from the corpse. “She won’t be coming back from this one.”

“Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have done that. But I couldn’t let her get away with what she’s done…”

“She had it coming,” Luke agreed. He looked her over with concern. “Are you okay, Ava? It looked like she was messing with some sort of syringe.”

Ava touched the spot on her wrist where she’d felt the cool prick. It was a bit tender, but she felt fine. “She might not have been able to dose me, with all the tumbling around. I don’t feel any different.”

“Given what went on here…”

“I’ll go in for a full medical screening as soon as we’re back at FDG headquarters. Our doctors are the best—the whole science support team, actually.”

He still looked worried but nodded.

“What the hell…?” Kurtz appeared in the doorway, a welt on his forehead.

“Colonel!” Ava exclaimed. “What happened? Andrea—”

“She overpowered us, knocked everyone out,” the colonel explained. “The others are rousing now. I came back as quickly as I could. She said she was coming for you.”

“Yeah, she certainly tried.” Ava looked down at the bloody mess at her feet. “Didn’t go so well for her.” I feel bad for whatever maintenance tech has to clean vampire brains out of my boot treads…

Kurtz grunted. “So much for being able to interrogate her.”

“Sorry, Colonel. That thought wasn’t front and center while she was trying to kill me.”

“Based on what I’ve found so far, Jared will be able to offer valuable insights,” Luke offered. “Not sure if he was connected to the boss like Andrea, but in terms of the tech, he knows his stuff.”

“And honestly,” Ava added, “she was never going to talk. A vampire like her would be impervious to any interrogation technique we could throw at her.”

“Then perhaps it’s for the best.” Kurtz tore his gaze away from the body. “Finish the data transfer and meet us outside.” He departed without another word.

“Was he angry?” Ava asked Luke when her superior officer was gone. “I can’t tell if he was angry.”

“I think he was embarrassed that she escaped.”

Ava took a deep breath. “I’m not happy about that, either. Any of what’s gone on here.”

He took her hand. “You sure you’re okay?”

“We’re alive—can’t complain.”

Luke smiled back at her. “All right. But you have to go to Medical as soon as we’re finished.”

“No more worrying.” Ava returned her attention to the computer console. “Let’s finish transferring this data. I can’t wait to get out of here.”












CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE


The sun was well above the horizon by the time Ava and Luke emerged from the NTech facility.

Andrea’s body had been removed while they worked, and Samantha had had the foresight to bring them some protein bars to munch on when she returned to the lab to help out. The three of them had transferred all the information they could find related to the genetic experimentation to external drives, prepping the data for the arduous analysis process. Samantha had gone ahead with the drives while Luke helped Ava do one final sweep of the lab. With everything now shut down and secure, they could finally begin processing the night’s events.

Ava shed her powered armor as soon as she was outside, seeing that no one else was in their combat gear. “I’d like to distance myself from what happened this morning as much as possible,” she said while staring at the red smear on her boot.

“Same.” Luke stepped out from his own armor. “I don’t know how you do it.”

“Today was the exception, not the rule,” Ava replied. “Normally it’s ‘covert’ ops, not ‘blow up the front door and smash people’s heads in’ ops.”

“An important distinction.”

“We like to think so.”

He smiled at her. “So, what now?”

She released a long breath. “In order of personal preference? Shower, proper breakfast, and decompressing time.” Let’s see if he takes that hint.

“We were about to have an important discussion before we were interrupted last night,” he replied, picking up on her meaning.

“One I look forward to finishing.” She flashed a winning smile. “I also promised my parents lunch or dinner together today—no need to sit in on that, unless you want to.”

“Of course, I’d love to come along.”

And he likes my parents. God, now I’m suspicious that he was engineered himself. She beamed. “All right, it’s a date.”

Ava excused herself from Luke so she could check in with her team. Edwin, Samantha, and Nick were gathered under a temporary overhang that had been erected near the landing craft.

“That was intense,” Nick said when he saw Ava approaching.

“Yeah, two firefights in a week is a bit much,” she agreed. “You all okay? I know Andrea did a number on you earlier.”

Edwin shook his head. “That vampiric speed is something else. I was blacked out before I even saw her move.”

“Samantha filled us in on what happened while we were out,” Nick added. “Sounds like things got a little up close and personal for you.”

“I showed Andrea what was what.” Ava grimaced.

Samantha place her hand on Ava’s shoulder. “Better this way—can’t trust someone like that.”

“I know.” Ava rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. “And once we know more about what was done to those poor people…”

Nick nodded. “I talked to some of them while we were debriefing. They were from all over. NTech must have been at it for months.”

“We need to find out if there are any other places like this. I hate to think there’s anyone else being held against their will,” Ava said.

“You’re in luck.” Edwin smiled. “Delivering justice for the disenfranchised happens to be the FDG’s specialty.”

She grinned back at him, the weight on her lifting. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I gave the data drives to Major Widmore,” Samantha said in the ensuring pause. “The colonel seemed a little distracted.”

“Thanks. That knock on his head was probably harder than he wants to admit,” Ava replied.

“We Weres do take our pride very personally,” Edwin pointed out.

“Seeing a big lug like you get knocked over had to have made him feel a little better,” Ava needled.

Edwin grunted. “Andrea just caught me by surprise.”

“Uh huh…” Ava walked away. She knew how much he hated being left hanging.

Luke was just coming over the crest of the hill, and she jogged up to him. As she neared, she saw he was frowning.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I just saw them transporting a giant ‘Condemned’ sign to the lab.”

“Oh.” She crossed her arms. “I imagine the facility will be under investigation for some time. I’m sorry things had to go down this way.”

“Well, I guess I really am out of a job,” he muttered.

“This one, maybe,” Kurtz said, coming up behind them.

“Sir.” Ava nodded to him.

“You showed great initiative on this mission,” Kurtz continued. “We could use a person like you in the FDG.”

Luke’s violet eyes widened with surprise. “Are you… offering me a position?”

“I am, indeed. What do you say?” The colonel looked around. “It’s a beautiful planet, I’ll give you that, but there aren’t a lot of other opportunities here for someone with your training.”

“I’m not much of a warrior, sir. After today, I’m certain I don’t have the stomach for it.”

“Oh, no no. The position I had in mind was on the R&D team. The nanocyte research they were doing here was woefully misguided, but elements of it would go a long way toward helping us get the most out of our warriors. You could continue your research with the backing of the Etheric Federation’s resources.”

“I—I don’t know what to say,” Luke stammered.

“ ‘Yes’ would be a good answer.” Kurtz smiled.

Luke glanced at Ava. “I’ll let you know soon.”

Kurtz’s gaze flitted between Ava and Luke. “I look forward to your acceptance.” He left them to their discussion.

Ava kicked her toe into the dirt.

“Whaddya think?” Luke asked her.

“It’s your decision,” she said.

“The FDG was always your thing. I don’t want to cramp your style.”

“You joining the FDG as a researcher doesn’t change anything.”

He took her hand. “What if I want it to?”

 “Not gonna lie—the prospect of going back to headquarters without you kinda sucked.”

“So you’re good with me joining?”

“Fuck yes!” She threw her arms around his neck and whispered in his ear, “I’d like to keep you around for a little longer.”

Over Luke’s shoulder, across the lawn, she saw Edwin tap Nick on the shoulder and point to Ava. Samantha’s and Nick’s mouths dropped open, and Edwin chuckled. In true form, Edwin grabbed his helmet and activated the combat recorder.

Ava shook her head with exasperation, then locked Luke in a passionate kiss. May as well give them something film-worthy.


***

Representatives from the Alucian media were waiting patiently in the lobby of the capitol building for President Connors to take the podium. He checked himself over, and Karen gave a nod of approval.

He nodded back and stepped into place. Amidst the reporters were citizens from all walks of life, anxious to hear the urgent statement he’d make this afternoon.

Connors took a deep breath and began. “You now have the means to make your own future. When our ancestors set out generations ago to settle this system, it was to start a new life that would enable them to achieve their dreams of freedom and prosperity. But that hasn’t always been the case. We have been at odds with our neighbors and competing for what no one should rightfully control.

“There is another way. The Etheric Federation stands as a beacon of unity and empowerment. They do not seek to control or dictate, but rather to share and offer mutual benefit. Some of us have lived in fear that joining with the Federation would consume the heart of our culture. That isn’t the case. What they offer is for us to make that culture all it can be, and to learn and grow as we continue to refine our identity and shape the future we want for coming generations.

“We have argued amongst ourselves about what the best way forward is, but I couldn’t allow civil conflicts to continue escalating. I made the decision that, as your elected leader, I feel is most representative of our people’s wishes, and that will give us the best chance to achieve the future vision we share.

“That act was to sign Alucia as a vassal of the Etheric Federation.”

The crowd erupted in a cacophony of questions, cheers, and a few shouts of protest.

Connors held up his hands to quiet them. “I know this won’t please everyone, and while I would have preferred for this to be handled through our democratic process, we were short on time. Political tensions are running high, and Coraxa continues to be a point of contention between the Alucian Alliance and Nezaran Coalition. I feared that any delays in signing this agreement may have resulted in hardships for our people. This should be a time of joy for what’s to come, not of worry that danger is lurking around the corner.

“As a vassal, we now have all the protections of the Federation’s military. We have their science, their schools, and their transportation network. The limitless possibilities of the universe are now within reach,” he smiled. “Though that might be a bit too poetic. Through it all, we will still be Alucia. We come from human and Torcellan heritage, but we are Alucians now, and will remain Alucians in the Federation. Let us celebrate!”

Connors took a step back from the podium as the crowd cheered once more—this time drowning out any ‘boo’s that may have been uttered. He soaked in their enthusiasm, thankful that his announcement seemed to have been taken as a positive move.

He leaned in toward the microphone again. “I’m sure you have many questions about the timeline for integration—where there will be any—and the specifics of what expanded services will now be available. My office will be preparing a detailed statement in the coming days. For the time being, enjoy the knowledge that good things are ahead. Thank you!”

While the reporters in front shouted questions, Connors made a quick retreat with Karen.

“That was wonderfully delivered,” Karen told him. “I was watching their faces, and I think the consensus is positive.”

“We’ll see how the analysts pick it apart.”

“Given the situation with Nezar, this remains the right call,” Karen assured him.

“I hope others come to see it that way, too.” Connors let out a long breath. “Now that that’s over, I must attend to some other business.”

“Yes, sir, of course.” Karen shifted on her feet.

“Was there something else?” he prompted.

She crossed her arms and looked down. “I confessed a planned treasonous act to you earlier. What will become of me?”

“You said you no longer had plans to kill me. Does that remain the case?”

“Knowing what I know now, I would protect your life by giving my own,” she replied.

“Then what could have been never was, and so shall never be.”

Her face screwed up for a moment while processing the words, then smiled. “Need anything else today?”

“No, take the evening for yourself. I suspect we’ll be at it bright and early tomorrow. If you’re up for it, I’d like you to lead the compilation of the statement regarding the new agreement and its benefits.”

Karen inclined her head. “I’d be honored, sir.”

“Excellent. Have a good night.” He waved her farewell.

Connors returned to his office for one final task before he could rest easy for the night. The conversation with the Nezaran chancellor still had him on edge.

He knew Colonel Kurtz was likely still on Coraxa dealing with cleanup, so he sent a secure email communication for him to address once he was back at FDG Headquarters.

He kept the message concise: >>Chancellor Heizberg may not be herself. Possible connection to the subversions within the FDG. Investigate immediately.<<

Alucia may now have the FDG’s protection, but they weren’t out of danger yet.

***

Ava hopped off the medical exam bed. “So, nothing anomalous?”

“All clear,” Doctor Dwyer replied.

“Great.”

The Force doctor opened the door. “Rest up. Your stress indicators were higher than I’d like.”

“You should know by now that’s normal for me.”

“Doesn’t mean it should be that way,” the doctor chastised. “Rest.”

With Luke being here, I’m not sure how much sleep I’ll be getting in the near future, but releasing tension, I can do. She hid her smirk. “Yes, Doctor.”

Ava wound her way through the station’s corridors, taking a leisurely pace to her quarters. It was more of a home to her than Coraxa had been in years, but she now had the most important piece from her former home here, as well. While perhaps not a perfect arrangement, things were pretty damn good.

She found Luke leaning against the wall outside her quarters. “How’d it go?”

“Healthy as can be. Though, I am under strict medical orders for some stress relief.”

He grinned. “Say no more.”

Indeed, few words were spoken over the next half hour. As she basked in the afterglow of the lovemaking, it was clear that the doctor’s prescription for stress relief had been filled.

“I missed you,” Ava murmured into the crook of Luke’s arm.

“I missed you, too.” He kissed her forehead.

Ava traced her finger down his bare, toned chest. “I don’t really know how to do relationships.”

“I’m out of practice myself, but I think the fact that we’ve been missing each other even after a decade apart indicates things will be just fine.”

“Won’t argue with that.” She nestled closer to him.

They lay together for a while longer until Luke dozed off. Ava eventually dragged herself out of bed and wandered into the bathroom.

She cupped her hands under the cool water and leaned over the sink to splash her face. As she wiped the water away, Ava gazed into the wall mirror. Her heart skipped a beat. Gone were the hazel eyes she’d had her whole life—her irises were glowing orange.

“Well, shit.”


FINIS

Book 2 (Endless Advance) is available for pre-order now! However, the pre-order is at the book’s full price of $3.99, so only order it now if you want to buy Amy an extra cup of hot chocolate to keep her powering through Book 3 :-D. We’ll run a special launch sale of $0.99 for one day following the book’s release on December 11, so sign up for Amy’s mailing list to be notified!

books2read.com/endless-advance


Covert Talents: Age of Expansion

Author Notes - Amy DuBoff

Written 09/26/17


Thank you for reading this first book in the Uprise Saga!

This was more than just a novel to me—it was an entire change in my life. I literally quit my “day job” so I could work on this series, which was crazy-scary and awesome all at the same time. Thank you to my amazing husband, Nick, for supporting me in this crazy endeavor. I am so very lucky to have him as my best friend and life partner. I’d dreamed of being an author since I was a little girl, but I never imagined I’d be able to take that plunge at this point in my life.

Wow, it’s still surreal for me to be writing a series in such an iconic universe! I can’t express enough thanks to Craig Martelle and Michael Anderle for giving me this opportunity.

You might say that the stars aligned so I could work on this project. I’d been following the 20Booksto50k Facebook group for some time and was eager to become a part of the Kurtherian Universe family. After a particularly disheartening day at my former day job, I sent Michael Anderle a message out of the blue asking for a spot on his team. In gracious Michael fashion, he not only replied was willing to talk to me about it. Cue happy dance!

We ultimately arranged for me to work with Craig Martelle as a mentor, given his extensive experience writing in the story universe. This was great, as I was already acquainted with Craig and we’d worked together on a couple of anthologies. We dove into fleshing out the concepts, and thus the Uprise Saga was born.

Beyond Michael and Craig, I’d like to thank everyone in the extended LMBPN family for their support and friendly welcome. Special thanks to Jen McDonnell for editing, Andrew Dobell (and Estrany) for the awesome cover, and to all the JIT readers. I’d also like to thank Eric, Kurt, Curtis, and Deborah for their tireless beta reading assistance.

Thank you again for reading, and I hope you will continue reading the Uprise Saga as Ava’s story unfolds!

***

Did you enjoy this book? Please write a short review for me on Amazon! Even one or two sentences goes a long way toward helping the visibility of the series.

Please join my join my mailing list, or you can follow me on Facebook since you’ll get the same opportunity to pick up the books on that first day they are published.

If you have any comments, shoot me a note at [email protected] I always love to hear from readers and I try to respond to every email I receive.

Read more from Amy DuBoff




Cadicle: An Epic Space Opera

With adventure, telekinesis, romance, and intrigue, the Cadicle series spans sixty years across three generations as one family challenges destiny to win a war where enemies are not always who they seem.

Covert Talents: Age of Expansion


"Appealing characters and detailed worldbuilding draw the reader into a tale of politics, sabotage, kidnapping, telekinesis, and clones. [...] DuBoff weaves together sympathetic characters, an intriguing plot, devious villains, exciting space adventure, and hopes pinned on a chosen savior."

Publisher's Weekly


Unknown to modern-day Earth, the galaxy-spanning Taran Empire is in the throes of an interdimensional war…

Cris Sietinen, heir to the most influential High Dynasty in the Taran Empire, was born with prohibited telekinetic abilities. Determined to be true to himself, sixteen-year-old Cris leaves his privileged life on Tararia with hopes of joining the TSS, the only organization to offer a sanctioned telekinesis training program.

But being an Agent in the TSS isn’t what he imagined. After years of service, Cris discovers his family is at the center of an elaborate galactic conspiracy orchestrated by the governing Priesthood.

Genetic engineering, political manipulation, and preordained destinies converge when Cris and his son Wil learn of a secret interdimensional war against the mysterious Bakzen. But the real enemy may be far closer to home. With knowledge of the Priesthood’s hidden agenda and its disastrous ramifications for the Taran Empire, Cris and Wil embark on a mission to save their civilization from certain destruction.


Start reading the complete seven-book series today in Kindle Unlimited!


Not a KU subscriber?

Get Book 1 (short prequel) for $0.99: smarturl.it/getcadicle1

Or get the bundle of Books 1-3 and save: smarturl.it/getcadicle123


Complete Cadicle Series

Volume 1: Architects of Destiny

Volume 2: Veil of Reality

Volume 3: Bonds of Resolve

Volume 4: Web of Truth

Volume 5: Crossroads of Fate

Volume 6: Path of Justice

Volume 7: Scions of Change


Short Story Contributions to Anthologies 

Brewing Trouble (Pew! Pew! Volume 1)

Stealing Trouble (Pew! Pew! Volume 3)

Self-Perspective (The Expanding Universe Volume 2)

The Unsung Heroes of Sublevel 12 (Explorations: Colony)

Another Day in Paradise (Crisis and Conflict Anthology)

Amy DuBoff Social

For a chance to see ALL of Amy’s new book series

Check out her websites below!


Amazonwww.amazon.com/author/amyduboff


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Websitewww.amyduboff.com


Author Notes - Michael Anderle

Written November 19, 2017


First, THANK YOU for reading all through the story, and now through the author notes, as well!


My first introduction to Amy Duboff was seeing the occasional thread or post in the 20BooksTo50k FB group. Then, when speaking with Craig Martelle, he called her the “Queen of Space Opera.”

So, that’s how I think of her – The Queen of Space Opera. Of course, he called himself Lord of the Cosmos (LOTC) as well - so there you go.

Craig is a man that will throw around superlatives for a lot of people. Me? He made me a bastard mayor in one of his sci-fi books and killed me off.


Because that is what author friends do to each other.

Back to Amy. She was going to write in the Age of Expansion “months away” as she finished her own project and I think took a trip around Europe with the aforementioned superlative husband Nick. In all seriousness, I can’t explain to you how much supportive spouses / significant others means to those of us who write and work on these little indie publishing businesses.

Either way, ‘months away’ has become ‘days away’ and now we sit on our chairs, biting our fingernails hoping the fans and readers love the characters and the new stories!

When I read Amy’s author notes this morning, it was the first time I realized that she quit her job due to the opportunity to work with us.

Queue anxious music for me here!

A couple of months ago, I received the first 3,000 words for this book. Whenever this happens with a new collaborator, it is always an anxious moment for me. Receiving Amy’s first 3,000 words was no different.

Would I like it? Would it draw me in? Would I have to explain it didn’t work, and what I though needed to be changed? (A step I hate doing.)

I’ll let you know in a minute.

When authors ask me how to write a book that sells, I tell them to write the first 3,000 words, and offer it to genre readers.  Offer the readers only three (3) scores to provide feedback:

1 – “Where the hell is the next page?”

2 – “It’s good, just not my cup of tea.”

3 – “I couldn’t finish it, sorry.”

If the 3,000 words isn’t a #1 choice… Then try again. When you hone in on that “Where the hell” result? Do it about 25 times and you have an unputdownable 75,000 word novel.

I’m very happy to say I was able to give Amy a #1 result. When I read the opening, I was trying to go to the next page only to eventually remember there was no next page.

#Sonofabitch!

Amy has worked with Craig on the Age of Expansion integration with her story and characters, Andrew Dobell on her covers, Jen McDonnell with her editing and countless others she mentioned in her author notes, and others she doesn’t know about who continue to help LMBPN Publishing (my indie publishing group) move forward.


However, NONE OF US would be allowed to work on these stories if it wasn’t for you and the other fans who support us, review us, connect on Facebook and tell your friends, so thank you most of all.

(For those who have only read this series, please give me a moment to speak to those who have been around the Kurtherian Gambit Universe for a while.)

Some have asked where Bethany Anne fits into the Age of Expansion and I answer it like this:  The Kurtherian Gambit (Books 01-21 of Bethany Anne’s story (#20 due Christmas 2017, #21 due Valentines Day / 02.14.18) are a version of Star Wars.

I’d like to think Episodes IV-VI (the original trilogy), but that is just me hoping we don’t seem like Episodes I-III.

When Bethany Anne finishes in Book 21, only the first part of her job is complete. She will need to finish the other part, and that will start her version of Star Trek.

Except, she won’t travel with a single ship, and she won’t be relatively harmless. There are a lot of Kurtherians to deal with, and they won’t play nice, either.

Bethany Anne will be seen from time to time in the Age of Expansion stories, so look out for her.

Right now, I’m working with two individuals (Jens the project owner / lead and Jurgen, another fan who is helping significantly) to translate Death Becomes Her and Queen Bitch into German. To sell effectively into the German Market, we aren’t planning to go all-in on Amazon. Why? Because the German speaking market (GAS – German, Austria and Switzerland among others) do not run on Amazon nearly as much as the US does.

We can reach a LOT of the English speaking market (worldwide) with just Amazon. Not true for German and other languages. I think the method that the Tolino Allian (think of them as a Kindle competitor – now owned by KOBO) implements is fascinating.

However, we (LMBPN) have no plans at this moment for stepping out of the Kindle Unlimited association with Amazon for stories written in English.


However, for non-English books? The future is open.

I’ll try to continue providing insights that we learn as I write these author and publisher notes.  I hope you enjoy the insights – but more importantly, I hope you love our characters.

Ad Aeternitatem,

Michael Anderle

Michael Anderle


Kurtherian Gambit Series Titles Include:




First Arc


Death Becomes Her (01) - Queen Bitch (02) - Love Lost (03) - Bite This (04)

Never Forsaken (05) - Under My Heel (06) - Kneel Or Die (07)


Second Arc


We Will Build (08) - It’s Hell To Choose (09) - Release The Dogs of War (10)

Sued For Peace (11) - We Have Contact (12) - My Ride is a Bitch (13)

Don’t Cross This Line (14)


Third Arc (2017)


Never Submit (15) - Never Surrender (16) - Forever Defend (17)

Might Makes Right (18) - Ahead Full (19) - Capture Death (20)

Life Goes On (21)






The Second Dark Ages


The Dark Messiah (01)

The Darkest Night (02)

Darkest Before The Dawn (03)

*with Ell Leigh Clarke*




The Boris Chronicles

* With Paul C. Middleton *


Evacuation

Retaliation

Revelation

Restitution 2017




Reclaiming Honor 

* With JUSTIN SLOAN *


Justice Is Calling (01) 

Claimed By Honor (02) 

Judgement Has Fallen (03) 

Angel of Reckoning (04)

Born Into Flames (05)

Defending The Lost (06)

Saved By Valor (07)

Return of Victory (08)




The Etheric Academy

* With TS PAUL *


ALPHA CLASS (01) 

ALPHA CLASS - Engineering (02) 

ALPHA CLASS (03) Coming soon




Terry Henry “TH” Walton Chronicles

* With CRAIG MARTELLE *


Nomad Found (01)

Nomad Redeemed (02) 

Nomad Unleashed (03)

Nomad Supreme (04) 

Nomad’s Fury (05)

Nomad’s Justice (06)

Nomad Avenged (07)

Nomad Mortis (08)

Nomad’s Force (09)

Nomad’s Galaxy (10)




Trials and Tribulations

* With Natalie Grey *


Risk Be Damned (01) 

Damned to Hell (02)

Hell’s Worst Nightmare (03) coming soon


The Age of Magic


The Rise of Magic

* With CM Raymond / LE Barbant *


Restriction (01) 

Reawakening (02)

Rebellion (03)

Revolution (04)

Unlawful Passage (05)

Darkness Rises (06)

The Gods Beneath (07)


The Hidden Magic Chronicles

* With Justin Sloan *


Shades of Light (01)

Shades of Dark (02)

Shades of Glory (03)

Shades of Justice (04)


Storms of Magic

*With PT Hylton*


Storm Raiders (01)

Storm Callers (02)

Storm Breakers (03)

Storm Warrior (04)


Tales of the Feisty Druid

*With Candy Crum*


The Arcadian Druid (01)

The Undying Illusionist (02)

The Frozen Wasteland (03)

The Deceiver (04)

The Lost (05)


Path of Heroes

*With Brandon Barr*


Rogue Mage (01)


A New Dawn

*With Amy Hopkins*


Dawn of Destiny (01)

Dawn of Darkness (02)

Dawn of Deliverance (03)


The Age of Expansion


The Ascension Myth

* With Ell Leigh Clarke *


Awakened (01)

Activated (02)

Called (03)

Sanctioned (04)

Rebirth (05)

Retribution (06)

Cloaked (07)

Rogue Operator (07.5)


Confessions of a Space Anthropologist

* With Ell Leigh Clarke *


Giles Kurns: Rogue Operator (01)




The Uprise Saga

* With Amy DuBoff *

Covert Talents (01)


Bad Company

* With Craig Martelle*

The Bad Company (01)


The Ghost Squadron

* With Sarah Noffke and J.N. Chaney*

Formation (01)




Other Books




Etheric Recruit

*With S.R. Russell*


Gateway to the Universe

*With Craig Martelle & Justin Sloan*






The Revelations of Oriceran


The Leira Chronicles

*With Martha Carr*


Waking Magic (1)

Release of Magic (2)

Protection of Magic (3)

Rule of Magic (4)




SHORT STORIES


Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 01 (7.5)

You Don’t Touch John’s Cousin 


Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 02 (9.5)

Bitch’s Night Out


Bellatrix: Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 03 (13.25)

With Natalie Grey




AudioBooks


CLICK HERE TO SEE ALL LMBPN BOOKS ON AUDIBLE


Available at Audible.com and iTunes


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