Book: Endless Advance: Age of Expansion



Endless Advance: Age of Expansion

CONTENTS


LMBPN Publishing

Dedication

Legal

Locations and Cast

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

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Veiled Designs

Author Notes - Amy DuBoff

Amy Duboff Series List

Amy Social Links

Author Notes - Michael Anderle

Michael Series List

Michael Social Links

ENDLESS ADVANCE

Uprise Saga: Book Two

By Amy DuBoff and Michael Anderle






Endless Advance: Age of Expansion




A part of

The Kurtherian Gambit Universe

Written and Created

by Michael Anderle


DEDICATION


To all the Kurtherian fans.

Without your unwavering support,

this book would never have been possible!


— Amy


To Family, Friends and

Those Who Love

To Read.

May We All Enjoy Grace

To Live The Life We Are

Called.


— Michael


ENDLESS ADVANCE

Team Includes


BETA / EDITOR BOOK 


Kurt Schulenburg

Curtis Johnson

Ron Gailey


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


Micky Cocker

Kelly O’Donnell

Kimberly Boyer

John Findlay

Sarah Weir

Joshua Ahles

Daniel Weigert

John Ashmore

Larry Omans

Tim Bischoff

Peter Manis

Mike Pendergrass


If we missed anyone, please let us know!

ENDLESS ADVANCE (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, December 2017


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







LOCATIONS


Force de Guerre headquarters – located in Dren Cluster

Alaxar Trinary (planets: Nezar, Coraxa, Alucia)




CAST


Force de Guerre (FDG)

Ava Landyn – Lieutenant, team leader

Edwin Caites – Private, Ava’s team

Nick Rixon – Private, Ava’s team

Samantha Matthew – Private, Ava’s team

Luke Carter – Geneticist/Scientist, Ava’s significant other

Tyson Kurtz – Colonel

Marcus Widmore – Major, Ava’s commanding officer

Denise Ortaga – FDG head of security

Doctor Dwyer – Lead medical doctor for FDG headquarters


Alucian Alliance

(member world of Etheric Federation)

Alistair Connors – President

Karen Carter – Press Secretary, former Nezaran spy (sister of Luke Carter)


Nezaran Coalition

(independent world)

Cynthia Heizberg – Chancellor


NTech

(Research company based on Nezar with a branch on Coraxa)

Andrea Mason – Director of NTech’s lab on Coraxa (deceased)

Jared Frey – Andrea’s research assistant at the NTech lab













CHAPTER ONE


Eyes weren’t supposed to glow orange. Ava Landyn was positive about that fact, and she was especially sure her eyes should be nothing other than hazel.

She backed away from the bathroom mirror. What the fuck happened?

Ava’s mind poured over the events from the last several days—her infiltration of the NTech research facility, her struggle with the mad scientist, Andrea, and… the prick on her wrist.

“Oh fuck,” she whispered.

Her medical exam had come back clear. Everything had seemed fine until this moment. But Andrea must have given her the treatment she had been working on in her secret lab—a new strain of nanocytes to turn her into a Hochste.

But Ava didn’t want to be anything other than herself, let alone some freakish Were-Vampire with fifteen-centimeter claws, rapid healing, super speed, and a penchant for blood. Well, admittedly, the healing and speed would be perks, but the bloodlust might be a problem.

Luke! With sudden panic, she remembered her ex-boyfriend turned second chance lover waiting in her bed. Her hopes to rekindle the relationship would most certainly meet a premature end if she slashed Luke’s face off.

She slammed the door to the bathroom and locked it.

“Everything okay in there?” Luke called from the next room, having roused to the sound of the slamming door.

“Uh… We might have a problem,” Ava replied.

“What is it?”

“Um….” She thought about what to say. Well, can’t exactly hide fucking orange glowy eyes. She swallowed. “So, remember when you thought you saw Andrea slip me a shot while we were fighting in the lab?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, looks like I was dosed after all.”

Running footfalls sounded in the other room. “Ava, what’s happening?” His voice was just on the other side of the door.

Ava looked in the mirror. “My eyes are orange.”

“Ava! What…?”

“Nothing else seems off, though,” she added. “But I saw what those things did in the lab. If I transform completely, I don’t know if I’d be myself. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Well, a tiny bathroom isn’t the best place for you to be right now. We need to get you somewhere where we can run tests and figure out what’s going on.”

“Luke, you are being entirely too calm and rational right now considering I just told you I might be a fucking Were-Vampire!”

“Losing my shit won’t help you.”

God, she wished she could kiss him through the door. I am never letting this guy go again. She took a deep breath. “Thank you.”

“Now, if I recall, Melissa remained human so long as she was calm,” Luke continued. “I know you’re freaking out right now, but take slow, steady breaths and clear your mind.”

Ava did as she was instructed. Her heartrate slowed, and she felt she was in control.

After a minute, she looked in the mirror and saw the orange was fading from her eyes.

“That worked! Fuck, why is this happening?” She unlocked the door and slid it open.

Luke was waiting for her on the other side. His brow was furrowed, and his violet eyes searched hers. “Look normal to me now.”

“I don’t want to be a Hochste.” She wrapped her arms around him, and he held her close.

“It’s all technology. We can find a way to fix this, or at least to keep you from turning against your will.”

“Don’t make promises you might not be able to keep.” She pulled away. “Let’s get me into a holding cell while I’m myself. No telling what might happen next.”

“Right.” Luke took her hand and squeezed it. “I’m here for you no matter what, okay?”

Ava placed a hand on the side of his face. “Thanks. Nice job talking me down.”

“I have a gift.” He gave her a quick kiss.

She ran her fingers through his hair, savoring the contact. There was no telling when they might be alone and close together again.

“We should get dressed,” she murmured as their lips parted.

They put on their shipsuits in silence. Thoughts of her future flashed through Ava’s head. As much as she wanted to think that Luke’s advanced training in genetics would help save her from this apparent affliction, she had little hope there would be a treatment for her. To the best of her knowledge, once someone had nanocytes in their body, the technology was there for good. Whatever she was becoming, that would be the new her.

When they were dressed, Luke extended his hand. “I’m with you. It’s going to be fine.”

She entwined her fingers in his. “I hope so.”

They walked through the FDG headquarters station, going from the lower left arm of the star-shaped structure to the medical facilities in the center of the station.

Upon reaching the reception area, Ava released Luke’s hand and stepped forward. “I am submitting myself for placement in quarantine.”

The intake nurse’s eyes widened. “What for? Have you been exposed to a contagion?”

“No, nothing like that.”

“Then why do you suggest quarantine?” the nurse asked.

“Because a few minutes ago I had orange, glowing eyes, and I might turn into a Were-Vampire any second.”

The nurse took a step back. “I’ll get the doctor.” She ran across the room.

“It’s just my fucking luck.” Ava sighed.

“On the positive side, now we know what Andrea gave you, at least,” Luke pointed out. “I was worried it might be some sort of sleeper attack thing where we’d forget there was ever a problem, and then ten years from now someone would say just the right words to activate you, and you’d go on a murder spree.”

“Still might go on a murder spree with this whole deal.” Ava circled her face with her index finger.

“You won’t lose touch with yourself.” Luke looked her in the eyes. “We’ll get through this, Ava.”

She was about to respond when the nurse ran back across the infirmary with the doctor who’d given Ava a medical all-clear not an hour prior.

“What seems to be the problem now?” the doctor asked.

“Well, Doctor Dwyer, I looked in the mirror and my eyes were glowing orange.”

The doctor frowned. “They’re not now.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that,” Ava replied. “And the Weres in the FDG aren’t always wolves or in their Pricolici forms, either.”

“You think you’re a Were now?” Doctor Dwyer asked skeptically.

“No, I think I was injected with Hochste nanocytes.”

The doctor stared at her blankly.

“Did you not read the mission report?” Ava took a calming breath. “You know what, just lock me up and call Colonel Kurtz.”

“Wh—” the doctor began.

Ava set off across the infirmary toward the isolation chambers she’d seen on her previous visits. “I’ll just see myself in.”

Luke and the doctor followed her.

“I can’t say I’ve ever had a patient so insistent to be quarantined,” the doctor said.

“It’s best not to argue with her when she’s made up her mind,” Luke advised.

“And you are?” Doctor Dwyer asked.

Luke hesitated and looked to Ava. They hadn’t placed a title on their relationship status yet.

“Luke Carter, the FDG’s newest genetics researcher,” Ava replied for him. “And he’s with me.”

“As in, to be locked up, as well?” the doctor prompted.

Ava sighed. “No, as in a partner—someone with vested interest in my wellbeing. If I’m not myself, I give permission for him to speak on my behalf.”

Luke met her gaze, his mouth parted with surprise.

She gave him a smile of affirmation as she reached the quarantine chamber’s entrance. The plexiglass box was on par with the facilities Ava had seen in the NTech search labs, and she was confident it would be able to hold her even if she lost control in Hochste form.

Doctor Dwyer made an entry on the keypad next to the chamber, and a transparent door slide open with a hiss.

Ava stepped into the entry tunnel, which ran the depth of the room parallel to the main space. “We’ll talk this through with Colonel Kurtz.”

She pressed the button inside to cycle the chamber. The exterior door closed and an interior panel in the side of the tunnel slid open. Though the setup was equipped with bolts, no security lock protocols were presently engaged.

Ava stepped into the room and walked up to the front window next to the entry tunnel. She placed her hand on the plexiglass.

Luke touched his fingertips to hers on the other side of the barrier. “I’ll meet with my team here. We’ll figure this out.” His voice sounded hollow through the filter of the comm system.

“You need to talk to Jared,” Ava told him.

Luke scowled. “I want nothing to do with that piece of shit.”

“He helped Andrea do whatever was done to me. If it can be undone, he may know how.”

He nodded. “All right, I’ll make the arrangements to interview him.”

“No, not interview,” Ava shook her head. “Interrogate. And if he doesn’t want to talk, I’ll pull the answers straight out his head myself.”

“Oh fuck!” Luke jumped back from the glass.

“What?”

“Your eyes…”

Ava turned away and retreated into the room, willing herself to calm. You’re still you. You’re in control.

She placed a hand on her stomach and took slow, steady breaths with her eyes closed. Nothing in the outside universe mattered. She was alive, and she was happy.

The tension released from her body.

When she turned back around to face Luke, he smiled and nodded.

“Back to normal,” he confirmed. “I believed you, of course, but seeing it for myself…”

She smirked. “You mean, you don’t like the glow of hellfire in my eyes?”

“It’s, uh, a bit disconcerting.”

“You’re tellin’ me.” Ava sighed. “Is that doctor ever coming back with Kurtz?”

“I can go check,” Luke offered.

“I’d like it if you stayed. You can talk me down again if I start to turn. I don’t think any of us want to find out what would happen if I do.”

Luke’s face paled, but he stepped up to the window. “You’re not like those other people they experimented on. You’ve been trained, and conditioned—”

“They were Weres, Luke. They at least had an understanding of what it was like to transform into another type of being. I might have my connection to the Etheric with my telepathic abilities, but that’s not the same thing. No amount of FDG training could have prepared me for this.”

“Regardless, I’d wager that you’re at least twice as stubborn as any Were. You won’t lose yourself as easily as you seem to think.”

“Yeah, I’ll show them how it’s done.” Ava forced a smile, but she had her doubts. I should have known some fucking shit like this would happen. Everything was going too perfectly. She released a long breath and suppressed the negative thoughts. No, I’ll beat this.

As she returned to a more rational state, Ava spotted Colonel Kurtz and Doctor Dwyer approaching from the direction of the infirmary.

Luke stepped back from the glass, giving a nod of deference to the colonel.

“Ava, what seems to be the trouble?” Kurtz asked.

“I believe Andrea gave me a dose of the Hochste nanocytes,” she replied. “I don’t know why it didn’t show up in my medical exam.”

The colonel seemed surprisingly calm. “You said your eyes have changed? They seem normal now.”

“I saw it, sir,” Luke interjected. “They seem to change when she’s distressed.”

Except I wasn’t upset when they changed the first time, Ava realized. “Aroused might be a better characterization. And no, I don’t mean ‘turned on’. I was happy the first time it happened. It could be tied to any strong emotion.”

“That’s possible,” Doctor Dwyer mused. “Weres must achieve a certain degree of arousal to force a shift.”

Ava frowned. “Suppressing my emotions isn’t exactly my strong suit.”

“We’ll research the nanocytes and determine if there’s a way to reverse the effects. Even if there isn’t, you can certainly gain control of the new abilities,” Kurtz jumped in. “As a Were myself, I can attest that modifications do have their benefits.”

“Sir, it’s one thing to be born a certain way—or to make a conscious choice to be modified—but I didn’t sign up for this,” Ava’s pulse spiked. “I’ll make my own choice about what’s beneficial to me, thank you!”

“Huh. Well that is fascinating,” Kurtz said while Doctor Dwyer’s jaw dropped.

“My eyes have changed again, haven’t they?” Ava’s voice sounded wrong to her ears. In fact, all her senses were off. She suddenly had a more acute awareness of her surroundings—from the breathing of those on the other side of the glass, to the air scrubbers filtering the air within the chamber.

Luke swallowed and took a step back. “It’s not just your eyes this time.”

Fuck me. Ava looked down at her hands, which were now covered in coarse hair and ended in razor-sharp claws. When she let out a sigh, it came out as a growl. She felt numb, as if in shock. “I expected to feel it…”

“And you can talk!” The doctor’s eyes widened.

“You’re still…you?” Luke questioned.

“Yep, can’t say I have murdery impulses. Well, no more than I would after Edwin has uploaded a new one of his videos,” Ava replied. Her voice still sounded strange.

She turned from the window to see if there was a mirror somewhere in the chamber.

At the back, she found a door into a compact washroom. Above the sink there was a mirror, but she didn’t recognize the face staring back at her.

The coarse hair extended up her neck and covered most of her face. Her jaw had elongated into a short snout, and her teeth had reshaped into pointed fangs. The orange glow of her eyes was now overshadowed by a heavy brow, which curved into a menacing glower.

Okay, so I can understand why they’d take a step back. Ava tapped one of her fangs with her claws. Holy fuck, I have fangs and claws!

Despite her initial declaration that she had no interest in being modified, she did have to admit that it had some appeal. For the entire time she’d been with her all-Were team, they had been stronger and faster than her. They’d never admit it to her face, but she knew there were times when they wished they could race ahead and get the mission done in their own way. But with a regular human—and their commander, no less—they were limited in what they could do.

If she had all their skills, and more, well… that would make her indispensable. Maybe this is a good thing—

Her nerves ignited as though she were being incinerated. A raspy cry escaped her wolf-like lips as she collapsed to the ground in writhing agony.

“Ava!” she heard someone shout in the distance.

Shouts of protest followed, and then the hiss of a sealed door opening.

Firm hands gripped her wrists, and another set cradled her face and stroked the top of her head.

“Stay with me,” Luke murmured.

She could tell it was his touch. Scared and confused, she willed herself to return to him—to return to herself.

The pain receded, and her senses dimmed. Slowly, she opened her eyes.

Luke was bent over her, supporting her head in his lap. Doctor Dwyer and Colonel Kurtz each held one of her wrists, which they released when they saw her open eyes.

“What happened?” Ava murmured.

“You transformed and everything seemed fine, then we heard you scream, and I came running in,” Luke explained.

“Damn fool,” Kurtz muttered. “She’d have sliced you to ribbons with those claws while flailing about if we hadn’t run in after you.”

“You’d just leave her writhing on the ground?” Luke shot back.

“We need to run some tests,” Doctor Dwyer said as he rose to his feet. “It’s encouraging to see you remained lucid when you first transformed, but clearly something is amiss.”

Ava sat up with Luke’s help. “You think?”

She felt a draft at her back and reached around her side to feel the tattered remains of her shipsuit. As a precaution, she placed one arm firmly across the front of her torso while she stood up to prevent the garment from falling off completely.

“I appreciate you coming in to check on me,” she said to Luke, “but I could have seriously injured you.”

“I couldn’t just stand by and watch,” he replied.

“Very touching, but we need to commence testing before you have another seizure, or whatever that was,” Doctor Dwyer interjected. “I know you won’t like this suggestion, but I feel it would be best if we restrain you on the bed. That way, we can work on you without risk of harm to us or yourself.”

Ava nodded. “I’ll hate it when I’m like this, but you got lucky this last time. I saw those claws—those’ll do some damage.”

“The bed restraints are designed for Weres, so they should hold,” the doctor said.

“Better add stasis cuffs, too,” Ava countered. “We know those worked on the Hochste down on Coraxa. If I can do the same sort of phase shifting through the Etheric as them, conventional restraints might be useless.”

“Good point,” Kurtz concurred.

“I’ll lend any assistance I can with testing,” Luke offered the doctor. “I’m still not up to speed on the nanocyte side of things, but I can advise on the biological interactions.”

Doctor Dwyer inclined his head. “I welcome any help. Hochste are new to me.”

“This case is a priority” Colonel Kurtz stated.

The doctor bristled. “I give the best possible care to all my patients, sir.”

Ava stepped over to the bed and sat down, holding her shipsuit around herself.

“I’ll get you a new uniform like the Weres use,” Kurtz told her and headed for the door.

“Oh, thank you, sir.” Ava bit her lower lip. Shit, if the colonel is running errands for me, I really must be in bad shape.

“I’ll grab the sampling kit,” Doctor Dwyer stated and exited with Kurtz.

Luke took Ava’s hands when they were alone. “Are you feeling okay now?”

“Yeah, I think so. This is all so… sudden.”

He stroked the side of her face. “Just to be clear, I don’t regret coming here to the FDG, even if my girlfriend is now some sort of super-mutant.” He grinned.

Ava punched him lightly in the arm.

He laughed. “Were it anyone else, I’d be concerned. I don’t doubt it’ll be a challenging transition, but I think you’ll be just fine. And I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

“You sure about that? You didn’t sign up for this.”

“Positive.”

Ava squeezed his hand. “I’m glad you’re here.”

The door hissed as Doctor Dwyer returned, testing kit and stasis cuffs in hand. “All right, Ava, let’s figure out what’s happening to you.” He held up a comically large syringe and a metal rod Ava really didn’t want to get to know on an intimate level.

She gulped. “Yay.”














CHAPTER TWO


Colonel Tyson Kurtz entered the supply room and located a rack of shipsuits. He normally would have ordered support staff to do it for him, but he was driven by an impulse to handle the matter himself—to find somewhere private.

You care for your subordinates, I can tell, a voice said in Kurtz’s mind.

Kurtz froze in the center of the enclosed room. The fuck…? Who—

There, there, no reason to be frightened. You and I will be such good friends, the voice soothed.

Kurtz wanted to run for help, but his limbs wouldn’t obey his commands. His heart pounded in his ears.

You’ve been a good host, a voice replied in his mind, but it’s time for me to be in charge. I must make sure Ava matures into who we wish her to be.

A memory roused deep within, striking Kurtz with a sharp pain.

His pulse quickened as memories flooded back to him. None of it made any sense. He saw himself doing things he’d never dream of doing.

What’s happening? He gripped his head. Who are you?

I am one of many. We found Coraxa long ago, used it as a place to learn and grow. We have since moved, but now the time has come to expand.

I went to Coraxa for one mission and you hop aboard like I’m some type of transport? Kurtz breath was ragged. Get the fuck out!

The voice chuckled. Oh, no. I’ve been here for much longer than Coraxa.

The jumble of memories began to clear in Kurtz’s mind.

He had traveled to Nezar—a trip three years prior he remembered—but these recollections were different. He had meet with Chancellor Heizberg, and she was also not who she appeared to be. She was like him, a puppet being directed by some unseen force.

Kurtz saw himself meeting with each of the subjects he’d interviewed during his recent interrogations to gather information from them, and to subvert them through telepathic influence. For years, he’d been manipulating them behind the scenes.

And then there was Andrea’s escape at the NTech lab, when he’d stood by while she took out everyone around him. They were working together—until she was killed. She had been a willing participant, following directions issued by their masters. But the mission didn’t end with her death.

Kurtz and Heizberg were there to finish the job.

Do you understand now? the voice asked.

I see that you’ve been with me since Nezar, but no, I don’t understand how this is possible.

If Kurtz had had any control over his body, he’d try to carve the being out of him on the spot. But instead, he could only stand there motionless in the supply closet, desperately trying to process the harm that had been caused by his hand.

Don’t struggle now. You wouldn’t want to harm us, the voice cautioned.

He was still unable to move. Are you in my head?

Yes, in a sense, the voice affirmed. But I am one with you.

Leave! Kurtz shouted in his mind. I’ll slice you out myself.

I rather like it here. You are a man of influence, though I could help you become even more. You’ve already been so useful with directing our other tools.

What are you after? Kurtz asked the voice.

We have much to discuss, the voice replied. It’s time we get to know one another. 

Kurtz listened as the alien being filled the gaps in Kurtz’s memory about everything he had done over the past three years. He wanted nothing more than to turn himself in, but he was now a passenger in his own body.

As far as Kurtz could tell, transforming Ava into a Hochste was all according to plan. Whose plan that was, exactly, remained a mystery to him. All he knew for certain was that the entity inside him wasn’t working alone. Beyond the Nezaran Chancellor, who was also being controlled by a similar entity, there were a number of willing collaborators and others who had been subverted. He didn’t yet understand how the aliens’ abilities worked, or the extent of their power, but he knew they meant harm.

Yet, Kurtz’s only option for the time being was to go along for the ride. If he tried to resist too much, his possessor pushed him further to the back of his consciousness where Kurtz couldn’t even see what was happening. As long as he remained quiet and unobtrusive, he could at least remain apprised of the unfolding situation. Maybe he’d be able to inject little bits of influence here and there. Even the smallest act might make a difference at the right moment.

Fortunately, at least the alien being understood the importance of keeping up appearances. Acts like getting Ava a new shipsuit to accommodate her condition were an act of caring compassion the being would not have voluntarily elected to do, but Kurtz was able to convince him it would be out of character to not offer. The being listened, and that gave Kurtz hope.

While Ava might be struggling, Kurtz would be adjusting to his own situation. He needed to help her now, but maybe one day, she’d be able to help him, in turn.

What’s been set in motion cannot be stopped. The alien leered over him. At least you will be on the winning side.

Kurtz allowed the alien its feeling of superiority. His chance would come. How do I address you?

You may call me Nox, the voice replied.

Kurtz had heard that name before. He thought back to the first interrogation he’d conducted for the recent investigation. That was Major Ellis’ supposed contact, wasn’t it?

Yes, a role you played so well.

Kurtz shuddered as he thought back to the interrogations over the past several days—the people he’d subverted without even knowing what he’d done, or how he’d done it. And now they’d suffer because of his actions.

You’re a tool, just like them, Nox said with a mental jab.

Kurtz ignored the entity’s statement.

We shouldn’t keep Ava waiting. Nox directed Kurtz back to the infirmary.

When he arrived, he saw Doctor Dwyer was completing his examination of Ava, and Luke had a blood sample in hand.

Ava smiled when she saw Kurtz. “I was surprised when you offered to get me a new suit yourself, sir. Recent moments have made me especially grateful for someone who offers help in a way that doesn’t involve jamming something in me or taking something out.”

A playful look passed between Ava and Luke, and she smirked. “Well, maybe it’s not all bad,” she added so quietly that only Kurtz’s Were hearing picked it up.

“If you want a treatment for this condition, then this is a necessary part of the process,” Doctor Dwyer said, having missed the innuendo.

“This shipsuit is designed for Weres, to accommodate a transformation.” Kurtz handed the garment to Ava. He could feel Nox’s annoyance with the human banter.

“Thank you, Colonel.” Ava paused. “I know I’m under quarantine, but I’d like permission to speak with Major Widmore.”

Kurtz tensed. “Why?”

“I just want to keep him in the loop, sir. My team will be wondering where I am.”

“Yes, of course.” Kurtz nodded.

“Thank you, sir.”

“I should get going on this analysis,” Luke said in the ensuing silence.

“As should I. Try to stay calm and relaxed,” Doctor Dwyer advised.

Ava eyed the restraints next to the bed. “Yeah, I’ll try.” She ran her hands over the shipsuit. “I need to get dressed first.”

“I’ll secure you after you change,” Kurtz told her. “Please proceed with your tests,” he told Luke and the doctor.

“Yes, sir,” Doctor Dwyer nodded and left.

“I’ll come back to check on you soon,” Luke told Ava.

“See you then.” She rose from the bed and headed for the washroom.

Kurtz waited for her with his hands clasped behind his back.

You and your frail forms. So many precautions needed to keep you safe, Nox commented.

At least we have our own bodies.

But isn’t it more evolved to be able to be anywhere or in anything?

Kurtz didn’t have a good response to that. Maybe the being inside him was more advanced, but that didn’t give it the right to take over the body of another sentient individual.

Ava emerged from the washroom wearing the new shipsuit, carrying the tattered remains of her old one. “Well, sir, the outer layer is a little bigger than regulation specs,” she tugged on the loose fabric at her stomach, “but it’ll get the job done.”

“We must always be prepared.”

“Yes, sir.” She paused. “Sir, may I speak freely?”

“Granted.” Nox mentally rolled its eyes.

“I’m wondering how you do it,” Ava continued. “How do you define your identity when you transform from one being into another?”

If only she knew how apt of a question that was for us, Nox commented.

“I don’t think of it as going from one being or another, but rather as two facets of the same being,” Kurtz recited at Nox’s direction. “Yes, the external appearance is a significant change, and some of the internal feelings and senses are different, too, but it’s still me. Is it really so different when you transform from soldier into lover? Or commander into daughter? Those parts of us exist at all times, but we filter our surroundings based on the context of whatever role we’re playing in a given moment.”

Ava nodded. “Hmm, I hadn’t thought about it that way.”

Kurtz had to admit, Nox answered better than he would have himself.

“I was not born a Were, but I have been one for long enough that I can’t imagine what it would be like to become something else after so many years in one form—”

Yeah, right, Kurtz quipped to Nox in his mind.

“—but I do appreciate what it’s like to have your responsibilities change. I worked my way up in my career just like everyone else, and I’ve gone from one warrior among many to being one of the senior officers. With each advancement came a new sense of identity.”

Kurtz looked Ava in her eyes. “You, Ava, are now advancing, as well. You have been gifted your whole life, and you’ve used those gifts to help the FDG accomplish what few others could have done. Now, you’ll have even more skills to bring to bear. I am confident you will master these new attributes and be truly one of a kind.”

Ava shifted on the bed. “I appreciate that, sir, but I don’t know if I’d keep these abilities, if given the choice. I know there are benefits, but there are also risks.”

“You must keep them.”

Ava frowned and inched back on the bed. “May I ask why, sir?”

Kurtz softened and smiled when Nox realized his statement had been too forceful. “Rather, you should take some time to become one with your new skills before you dismiss them for the long-term, if the modifications could even be undone. It’s only been, what, half an hour? That’s not enough time to consider the pros and cons of the situation.”

“I guess it’s not.”

“Get some rest, Lieutenant. Luke and Doctor Dwyer will be able to tell you more about your options soon enough.”

“Right.” Ava swung her legs up onto the bed, and she reclined, placing her hands at her sides. “I hope they can tell me how to stop random transformations more definitively than just stay calm.”

“You’ll gain control soon enough. I have no doubts.” Kurtz cinched the bed’s restraint cuffs around her wrist, then added a stasis cuff for good measure.

“I thought you’d be more concerned about me being a potential security risk.”

Kurtz secured her other wrist in cuffs. “You’re plenty secure now.”

“But what about my telepathic abilities? How might that blend with the Hochste?” Ava asked.

Kurtz smiled. “We’ll find out soon enough.”


*     *     *


Ava watched Colonel Kurtz leave the room. Something about him seemed different from the man she’d known before the mission to Coraxa. She couldn’t place what exactly, but it seemed unlikely the security-conscious officer she’d known would be content with having her in a couple of restraints on a bed in the middle of FDG headquarters. After all, she was carrying unknown nanotech inside her, and that could do anything.

Ava expected him to have flipped his shit when he learned about her condition but, instead, he seemed calm. But not just calm, almost… pleased.

That’s not possible, Ava dismissed with a shake of her head. Right?

She couldn’t think of a reason to justify his behavior. More likely, he was acting normal and it was her perception that was off.

She squirmed around on her bed to get comfortable, but there was no way she was going to feel at ease while strapped down. Moreover, there were too many uncertain thoughts running through her head.

I trust Luke to figure out what’s going on with me, but maybe Kurtz is right. Maybe this is something for me to embrace rather than run from. Ava hated the idea of such a fundamental life change being thrust upon her with no warning, but it wasn’t like she’d planned on having telepathic abilities, either. She was shocked, and then she adapted.

Except, with special skills came the likelihood she would be used—just like the people on her home of Coraxa wanted her to become a Reader, and just like the FDG used her now for their covert investigations.

She was a willing participant in the latter, but how many new ‘special assignments’ would she get if she were a telepath and a super-warrior? She might get sent in on her own.

But her team was her family. She wanted to stay with them and to work together. It’s what made her work fulfilling. With new abilities, that dynamic would certainly change.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the plexiglass window looking out into the hall. She looked over to see Doctor Dwyer holding up a handwritten sign.

Why the fuck would he be writing something out on a dry erase board rather than typing it? In true doctor fashion, his handwriting was almost indecipherable. She squinted at the script to make it out: ‘Kurtz isn’t who he seems.’

Ava’s heart dropped. She shook her head with confusion.

Doctor Dwyer erased the message on the whiteboard and wrote another: ‘Play along.’

Before she could question him, the doctor departed.

What the hell was that about? Ava released a long sigh and nestled into her pillow. If the colonel was indeed not who he seemed to be, then things would be getting very uncomfortable, fast. He was a senior officer, and not a lot of people in the FDG would have the authority to detain him on suspicions alone. The doctor better have some sort of evidence to support the odd behavior of handwritten notes.

Ava groaned. And the day had gotten off to such a good start.












CHAPTER THREE


Luke’s setup in the FDG lab was a far cry from his previous arrangement at NTech, but he hadn’t exactly had time to do any customizing. Colonel Kurtz had indicated that Luke would have a budget to purchase anything he might need to continue NTech’s nanotech and genetics research in a more civilized and ethical fashion, but having a budget meant little without also having the time to acquire those materials.

He looked over the equipment at his disposal and frowned. This won’t get the job done.

The lab had also come with two assistants, who’d been pulled off related research assignments with medical applications. They watched Luke from their chairs on the other side of the room.

“Something wrong?” Jack asked.

“You don’t have a sequencer,” Luke replied. “How am I supposed to run any sort of analysis without a sequencer?”

“Well, we sorta do,” Tess countered. “It’s just not the type you’re used to. She rose from her chair and crossed the seven-meter space to a console along the wall near Luke. She opened a door in the console and produced a half-meter square box.

“And that is…?” Luke prompted.

“The old-fashioned way of doing things,” Tess replied. “Breaks everything down and tells you how it ticks.”

“Organic analysis? I thought the Federation had all the latest tech.”

“Well, many labs do,” Jack responded, “but this kind of research hasn’t historically been a part of the FDG. This is old.”

Luke groaned. “Using this, we’ll have to translate the components to their digital representations to create an expression model.”

“Unless you know of another sequencer, then this is what we have to work with,” Tess replied with a shrug.

“I know exactly where we can get one, but I don’t know if they’ll allow it.” Luke crossed his arms.

“Where?” questioned Jack.

“The NTech lab on Coraxa.”

Tess screwed up her face. “Wasn’t that place condemned after your op?”

“It wasn’t my op, it—” He shook his head. “Never mind. Yes, it was condemned, but that was to keep the locals out. Lots of debris and equipment where a person could get hurt. But if you know your way around, there’s lots of good tech to be obtained.”

Jack frowned. “But that’s private NTech property.”

“Yes, which is why I said they might not allow it.”

Tess scrunched her nose. “Even with transit time to the Alaxar Trinary, we’ll still save time versus an organic analysis.”

“My thoughts, too,” Luke agreed. “If I can get permission to go.”

“Give it a shot,” Jack said. “We’ll get going on the organic sampling in case you can’t make it.”

“Maybe I can find us some other goodies, too.” Luke smiled. “Thanks for jumping in to help with this.”

Jack shrugged. “The chance to study a whole new type of modified human? That’s not something any sane scientist would pass up.”

Luke’s eyes narrowed. “I happen to care very much for this particular human. Her name is Ava, and she’s not just a subject.”

Tess grinned. “Ooo, I see what kind of assignment this is. We’re not just here for science, but we have to save the love of our boss’ life.”

Jack chuckled. “That’s a nice little bit of motivation.”

Luke sighed. “She’s not…” No, he wouldn’t kid himself. Not after the years he’d tried to forget Ava and pretend that a career was enough. Some bonds were too strong and ran too deep. They’d been lucky to meet each other young, but it was before they knew what it meant to be a partner to someone, and they’d tossed it away. Now, they were back together, and he wouldn’t let her go again. He saw in Ava’s eyes—even when they were crazy Hochste orange—that she felt the same way. Luke had to do everything he could to either make Ava’s new condition bearable for her, or find a way to reverse it.

He looked to his team members. “Yes, she means a lot to me. More than science, I’m here as someone who wants her to have the best future she can. I hope you’ll help me give her that.”

Tess nodded. “Hell, I’d have done it for just the science. But I’m a sucker for a love story.”

“As long as I get an equipment upgrade at the end of this, I’m game for whatever,” Jack said.

Luke smiled with satisfaction. “Then I have an NTech lab to raid.”


*     *     *


The voice in Kurtz head had been quiet since their chat in the supply closet, when everything had become so clear. Kurtz’s understanding of his guilt cast recent conversations in a new light, and he felt a twang of remorse for the fates the other Force members would suffer as a result of his actions.

But Nox had a vision, and Kurtz was powerless to deviate from that plan. It had all been explained to him with such conviction that he almost believed it was the best course. Almost. Kurtz was determined to resist, yet he was now a passenger in his own body and mind.

From deep within himself, he sensed his body returning to his office—a place that was as much his home as any residence he’d ever had as a child. He looked around the place with new eyes, absorbing the details for what was now an unrestricted control room from which to orchestrate plans with civilization-scale impacts.

It’s so impersonal, Nox commented. Then again, you are a loner.

You already know everything that’s in my mind, yet you still comment and ask questions, Kurtz replied.

Come now, Tyson. What did I say before? We are to be the best of friends.

Then tell me, Kurtz demanded, how many others have I subverted?

Nox gave him a mental tisk. I can’t give away all my secrets, can I?

So, you probably won’t tell me how many others there are like you.

There are… enough.

What are you after, aside from these new vessels to allow you travel across the worlds? Kurtz asked.

We are hungry.

For what?

In time, it will become clear, was Nox’s only response.

When there was no further commentary from his unwanted companion, Kurtz turned his attention to catching up on communications that had stacked up while he was gone.

He scanned through the list of electronic messages, mostly copies of memos to keep him in the loop rather than anything requiring direct action. One particular message, though, caught his eye. It was from the alias account he’d used for his written correspondence with the Alucian president: >>Chancellor Heizberg may not be herself. Possible connection to the subversions within the FDG. Investigate immediately.<<

Kurtz read the message and frowned.

Oh, can’t let anyone else see rumors like that! Nox said.

How long has the chancellor been subverted? Kurtz tried to ask, but the presence controlling him pushed the thought to the back of his mind.

Don’t worry yourself. You’ll be in good company soon.

Kurtz watched his hand select the message and send a generic acknowledgment, then delete the original.

See? It’s nothing at all, Nox said. Now, what else do we have?

The next message that caught Kurtz eye was Colonel Walton’s agreement to the sentencing recommendations for the three individuals who had violated security. Colonel Walton deemed the punishment appropriate.

It grated on Kurtz’s soul that he had been the one to subvert the others and they were being punished because of it.

The lieutenant and major both had motivations Kurtz had been able to exploit through subtle telepathic prodding, and some mysterious helpers behind the scenes made sure those promises related to outside had been delivered. With Alan, though, Kurtz had simply implanted a command for the tech to do his bidding and then forget anything had been done.

The part of Kurtz that was still himself hated the abuse, but he was overpowered by Nox’s pleasure.

The more Kurtz resisted his companion’s actions, the more he was pushed into the background. For sheer desire of self-preservation, he allowed Nox to guide him.

All the other messages could wait for another time. There was a more pressing matter.

Nox’s presence filled Kurtz’s mind. You must guide Ava in her new abilities. Prepare her for us.


*     *     *


Major Marcus Widmore had lost good warriors over the years, but having one transformed into a new type of being was a novel experience. He scowled as Colonel Kurtz relayed the news about Ava’s uncertain condition.

The colonel was surprisingly calm about the whole thing, so maybe it wasn’t as big of a deal as it sounded. But Widmore knew Ava, and he was certain that no matter how calm she might appear on the outside, she’d be filled with uncertainty and concern over what this change meant for her.

“I’d like to talk with Ava,” Widmore said when Kurtz finished his explanation.

“She already requested to speak with you,” Kurtz assented. “I think she wanted you to fill in her team.”

“Oh, right. Not looking forward to that conversation.”

“She’s alive and doesn’t appear to be in any immediate danger. I look at this as an opportunity,” Kurtz stated.

Widmore was taken aback. “Sir, our people aren’t commodities. I suspect Ava didn’t want this. We have to do what’s best for her.”

“Oh, of course. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.”

“Well, I’ll check in on Ava and see how she’s doing. I trust we’ll take whatever actions will support her best interests,” Widmore stated, “but I do recognize that she’s a valuable asset to this organization, sir. Telepaths are hard to come by, and having additional augmentations would make her that much more valuable.”

“Yes, her care is our top priority.” Without another word, Kurtz departed Widmore’s office.

Widmore took a moment to gather his thoughts, then headed for the infirmary.

When he arrived in the medical center, Widmore headed for the quarantine rooms in the back, where he had been informed Ava was being held.

His chest constricted when he saw her strapped to the medical bed like a criminal. “Ava…” He stepped up to the window.

“Hey, Major. I don’t think I’m about to rip your face off if you want to come in to talk,” she greeted.

Widmore entered through the containment tunnel and approached her bed. “Why did they strap you down like this?”

“I changed earlier and then blacked out in some sort of seizure. This is as much for me as it is to make sure I don’t hurt anyone.” She stared down at her feet. “I like to think I’ll be able to hold onto myself, but I’m not sure I can.”

“We’re all here to help you,” Widmore tried to assure her, but he really had no idea what he could do aside from offer moral support.

“I wanted to talk about my team,” Ava said. “It’s important.”

“Of course, I’m listening.”

“It’s really important,” she emphasized, looking him in the eyes.

Widmore caught on and repositioned so she could look at him straight-on. A moment later, he felt a presence in his mind.

“Doctor Dwyer came by a few minutes ago. He held up a handwritten sign that said ‘Kurtz isn’t who he seems. Play along.’”

“I don’t understand,” Widmore replied.

“Have you noticed anything odd about his behavior?”

“Come to think of it, he did seem rather unconcerned with what’s happened to you. I’d dismissed it as being his usual detached way.”

Ava swallowed. “That’s what I thought, too. But he told me to embrace this. Who says that to someone who’s been infected with something untested?”

“No FDG officer I know,” Widmore told her. “I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“I really appreciate you coming to see me,” Ava said aloud. “So, my team… Unless they’ve decided to be heartless asses, they’ll be worried about me. Will you let them know I’m okay?”

“Of course. I’ll relay a message. I might be able to get them added to the visitor list since you’re not actually under quarantine.”

Ava’s gaze passed over her restraints. “I’d rather they not see me like this.”

Widmore nodded. “I understand. I’ll let them know you—”

“Major Widmore, sorry to interrupt.”

Widmore turned around to see Luke standing on the other side of the plexiglass. “I heard you talking about Ava’s team. I have a proposition.”

“And what is that?” Widmore asked, stepping away from Ava’s bed toward the window.

“I don’t like where this is going,” Ava interjected from the bed. “Each of you have way too much blackmail on me. Not sure I want those social circles to blend.”

“If you want out of those restraints faster, then you might want to hold that thought,” Luke replied with a wan smile. “Major, I’d like to take Ava’s team back to the NTech lab on Coraxa to extract some equipment.”

“That’s not ours to take,” Widmore protested.

“It’s specialized and can’t be purchased from any old supplier,” Luke continued. “It’d have to be custom commissioned, and that would take weeks. Without it, we’re looking at three days for each test we run here, and we’re not going to get what we need the first time. Those tests can be performed in half an hour with the equipment I want to retrieve.”

Widmore considered the proposition. “Come to think of it, our official investigation requires a deeper dive into NTech’s research practices. I believe we need to send in a team to procure additional evidence from the facility for examination and testing here at FDG headquarters.”

Luke smiled. “I’d like to volunteer myself for that assignment.”

“Very well. Approved,” Widmore said. “And yes, Ava’s team would make for excellent support on the mission since they are also familiar with the facility.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll leave as soon as possible.”

“I don’t like the idea of you going back there,” objected Ava.

“It’ll be quick. Just grab the equipment and go,” Luke told her.

“That’s the plan, right. But what about NTech? You think they’ll really just let us condemn the lab and not come for their equipment? It’s only been a few days since our raid. I imagine they’ll try to reclaim it right at the time you’d be showing up.”

“Which is why he’ll have a team of elite Force warriors accompanying him,” Widmore countered. “Like I said, this will all be above board as part of the FDG’s official investigation. They won’t have grounds to bar entry from the facility.”

Ava frowned. “It’s not getting in I’m worried about, sir. It’s getting back out.”

“I said I’d do anything to help you, Ava, and this is what I have to do,” Luke told her.

Widmore looked Ava in the eyes. “If we want to run detailed analyses to find out what’s going on inside you—or Kurtz—then this is what we need.”

She sighed. “You’re right. This isn’t just about me.”

“Agreed?” Widmore asked aloud.

“All right,” Ava conceded. “I appreciate everyone being so willing to jump in to help me.”

“We always take care of our own.” Widmore stepped toward the door. “I’ll keep you apprised.”

Ava tugged on her restraints. “You know where to find me.”


*     *     *


“I don’t expect them to answer to me,” Luke said to Widmore as they walked toward the quartered housing for Ava’s team. “I know I’m an outsider.”

“Ava trusts you, so they’ll trust you by extension,” the major replied.

“As long as they can help move around heavy equipment and handle the shooting if NTech gets nasty, we’ll be just fine.”

“They have been known to move around some heavy things now and then,” Widmore said with a smirk. “And they’ll work even harder knowing it’s for Ava.”



The two men reached the door to the shared housing for the three members of Ava’s team. While Ava roomed with them when they were on ops and traveling in the Raven, Ava had her own quarters at the FDG base since she was their senior. The three Weres shared a cabin in headquarters and were happy to remain together, from what Ava had relayed to Luke.

Widmore knocked on the door

Edwin answered. “Major, is everything okay? We were surprised to get your message about a meeting.”

“We have some things to discuss. May we come in?” Widmore requested.

Edwin sized Luke up, then stepped aside.

Luke smiled at Edwin and the other Weres as he entered. He could sense their gazes on him, feeling out his intentions. Regardless of what Widmore had said about their trust for Ava extending to him, Luke was certain he’d have to earn their trust, and he intended to do just that.

The cabin was simply appointed, with two beds parallel against the right wall and one across the back, supplemented by a table and four chairs in the front left corner of the room. A door at the midpoint of the left wall presumably led to a washroom.

“We’re here about Ava,” Widmore began.

“Is she okay?” Edwin sat down on the bed closest to the door, and Nick came to join him.

Samantha took a seat at the table with Widmore and Luke. “Why isn’t she here with you?”

Luke swallowed. “She’s being held in isolation at the moment.”

The Weres’ faces paled.

“Sir, what’s going on?” Nick asked Widmore.

“We believe that the NTech scientist, Andrea, injected Ava with the Hochste nanocytes,” he replied.

“No, that’s not…” Samantha shook her head.

“She’s not like the others at the lab,” Luke hastily explained. “She fully transformed once and seemed to retain herself, like you do in your Pricolici states.”

“So she’s, what, the Stage Four subject?” Edwin asked. “This is fucked up.”

“I know it is,” Widmore stated. “However, that’s the situation we’re facing. We’ll get what information we can from Andrea’s assistant, Jared, but Luke also needs some equipment from the NTech lab to run testing on Ava’s modifications. It just so happens we, uh, need that very same equipment to further our investigation into NTech—which Luke will oversee.”

The Weres nodded their understanding.

“And we’re going in with Luke to get it?” Samantha guessed.

“If you’ll join me,” Luke confirmed. “I’m not as tough as Ava, but I’ll do my best to keep up with you. We’ll get in and out as quickly as possible.”

Edwin crossed his muscular arms. “I’m guessing the urgency means you think NTech might come looking to reclaim what was seized.”

Luke nodded. “We still have no idea where the orders came from in the organization. Andrea may have been acting on her own, or there are others in NTech who’ll want to continue the same research.”

“And it could extend to the Nezaran government,” Nick pointed out.

“Exactly. Or even beyond.” Widmore spread his hands on the table. “This stays between us, but it’s possible Andrea didn’t subdue you on her own.”

Samantha scowled. “But who? We were surrounded by FDG guards and—”

Widmore held up his finger to silence her. “This stays between us. I’ll watch over Ava while you’re gone.”

The Weres inclined their heads.

“When can we leave, sir?” Luke asked.

“I’ll have the Raven prepped for you,” Widmore replied. “You can be underway in an hour.”












CHAPTER FOUR


After an hour of being tied down, Ava was already regretting her agreement to be bound. She felt like herself, as much as she knew that could change with a second’s notice. But for now, being in complete control of her faculties, it was annoying to be treated like a vicious monster.

To make matters worse, she was alone. When she’d suggested being tethered, Luke had at least been there for company. Now, there was only the background hum of mechanical equipment and an infernal beep coming from an unknown piece of equipment.

“Hello?” Ava called out. What I wouldn’t give to get a television in here…

Thirty seconds later, a nurse appeared at the window. “Is everything okay?” she asked.

“I’m going to go stir-crazy. Can I get a book, or a tablet, or something?”

“Sure, we have some tablets for patients. I’ll be right back.” The nurse disappeared from view.

Not sure how I’ll use the damn thing with these cuffs on, Ava realized. She sighed. The years of being out in the field had made her so impatient with sitting still. Not to mention that Luke was off having an adventure without her.

She chuckled, realizing the error in her thinking. There was no way Luke was going to have a good time—not with her team. In fact, he was probably as pinned down as her, even if it wasn’t with physical restraints.

Ava made a cluck of pity on Luke’s behalf as she thought about what must be going on. I hope he’s up for a workout with those guys. 

The nurse returned with a tablet after a minute. “Now, how are we going to make this work?” she mused, assessing Ava’s tethers.

“Maybe you could prop it up on my lap, and then find a separate mouse I could use for navigation?” Ava suggested.

“Good idea.” The nurse got to work arranging a pillow to cradle the tablet. “Don’t worry, dear. We’ll take good care of you until this is resolved.”


*     *     *


Luke dropped his travel bag on the bunk Ava typically used while traveling on the Raven.

The three other members of the team were settling into their own bunks, watching him stow the minimal items he’d brought with him. Ava wasn’t exaggerating about the pack mentality and how they treated outsiders.

He finished and sat down on his bunk. “Thanks for not objecting to me coming with you on this mission,” he said to them with what he hoped was a warm smile.

“You know the equipment we need to get. It’s the smartest move for the mission to have you along,” Samantha said.

“We’re doing this for Ava,” Nick responded without looking up from his own activities.

Luke nodded. “I wouldn’t expect otherwise.” He paused. “I know it’s probably strange for you to think of her being in a relationship with anyone.”

“She was gone for less than a week and came home with a guy. Yeah, it’s a little weird.” Samantha hopped down from the bunk over Luke’s bed. “How well could she possibly know you?”

Luke’s brow furrowed. “Wait, she didn’t tell you about our history? I thought you knew.”

“She said you were a friend and went back a long way. What else is there to know?” Edwin asked.

“Uh…” Luke let out an uncomfortable laugh. “We dated for four years, when we were teenagers. I thought we were going to get married when we were finished with school, but she ran off to join the FDG instead.”

The three Weres’ mouths dropped open.

Samantha crossed her arms. “So, this was a reconnection, not a new thing.”

“Yeah, you could say that.” Luke nodded.

“Huh.” Samantha climbed back up on her bunk.

Luke looked around the room. “Are we good?”

The warriors shrugged.

“Yeah, you treat Ava right and we’ll have your back,” Nick said. “But do anything to hurt her, and you answer to us.” He punched his right fist into the open palm of his left hand.

“Gotcha.” Luke rose from the bed. “Well, I’m going to get myself acquainted with the ship. I’ll see you later.”

He departed the cabin and sealed the door behind him. When he was alone in the hall, he released a long breath. Dealing with her parents is nothing compared to these three. Thank the stars she doesn’t have brothers, too.

Luke wandered down the metal corridor of the residential section in the compact vessel. There were only four cabins, making for cozy living arrangements compared to the spacious environment he was used to on Coraxa. If it weren’t for his time in dormitories while he was in school on Nezar, he doubted he’d have lasted a day on the ship.

The residential hall opened on one side into a small galley. The room was empty while the flight crew prepped the spaceship for departure, so Luke took the opportunity to scope out the rations he’d be consuming for the next few days.

Cabinets along the wall adjoining the hallway were filled with dry goods, and a refrigerator contained meat, vegetables, and an assortment of beverages. All things considered, it was a far better selection than he would have expected. Coraxa’s ecological abundance may have spoiled him, but it was looking like he certainly wouldn’t go hungry with the FDG.

A stovetop, oven, and tables with seating for sixteen completed the galley. Luke grabbed a handful of mixed nuts from a container in one of the dried goods cabinets and sat down at the table to eat his snack, oriented so he could look out the bank of windows on the back wall.

As he was brushing the excess salt from his hands, a man’s voice came over the central comm system. “Approaching Federation Frontier Station 7 Annex Gate.”

Luke rose from his seat to get a better view out the window, hoping to peek at the gate. He could just make out the edge of the ring and the warped space within its boundaries.

Crossing galaxies in moments… It’s still difficult to believe. He watched with wonder as the ship slipped through the event horizon. Time elongated for a moment as they entered the wormhole, and the ship emerged on the other side at the Onyx Station hub.

The ship then headed for a different gate that linked to their destination—the gate near Luke’s home system. It was located at an intermediary point between four systems, one of which was the Alaxar Trinary of Luke’s birth. Two of the others were uninhabited and used for resource mining, but the third had a permanent ban on entry. Luke wasn’t sure why, but he’d been taught from a young age to avoid Gidyon.

Once the Raven passed through the second Annex Gate, it boosted toward Coraxa in the Alaxar Trinary. It would take the better part of a day to reach the destination at sub-light speeds, so Luke decided he may as well finish his self-guided tour of the ship and figure out how to pass the time.

Luke left the galley and continued down the corridor, which terminated in a ladder, extending up and down. A sign pointing upward indicated the bridge, and he imagined the captain and pilot wouldn’t like an uninvited visitor. So, he went down.

He got off at the first landing, which looked to be a combination of social space and administrative offices. Workout equipment dotted the room, along with a game table, couch, and an expansive screen on the wall.

Two men were seated on the couch, watching a video.

“Hey,” Luke greeted. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Hi,” one of the men replied with surprise. “And you are…?”

“Luke Carter. I used to work at the NTech lab we’re going to investigate.”

“Ah, okay, right. You’re the one Lieutenant Landyn was partnered with on the last op,” the second said.

“Yeah. We grew up together on Coraxa.” Luke moseyed over. “How do you know her?”

“Gil, mechanic,” the first man said, pointing to himself with his thumb, then the other man, “and Sven, support systems engineer. Basically, we have nothing to do as long as everything is going right.”

Luke nodded. “Sounds like a good gig.”

“Except when it’s not.” Gil shrugged.

“How do you pass the time?” Luke asked. “I’ve spent my whole life on planets. Being cooped up on a spaceship is strange to me.”

“Well, there’s the gym, and the video library, games… But honestly, you want to pick up a hobby. Sven over here has written three novels.”

Sven dismissed the statement with a flip of his wrist. “Novel is too fancy a term. They were space adventure stories about the team on this ship, as told from the boring perspective of a support systems engineer.”

Luke smiled. “Sounds like a prime opportunity to make yourself the hero.”

“No one would read about me.” He crossed his arms and nestled deeper into the couch. “Not saying I didn’t do that, though.”

“I’m sure I’ll figure out something to do.” Luke looked back toward the ladder, debating whether or not to check out the level below to see what else there might be.

“You can join us here, if you like. We were just about to play cards with the team before we eat,” Gil offered.

“Like poker? I can’t say I’ve played much.”

Sven got a devious glint in his eyes. “That’s not a problem.”

Unfortunately for Sven, Gil, and the members of Ava’s team, Luke’s assertion that he was unfamiliar with poker was a ruse. Many a night in grad school had been spent competing for prize money to fund a night off-campus, and he’d honed some skills. No need for him to elaborate on his past experience, though. They’d find out soon enough.


*     *     *


The winter sunlight shining over the Alucian capital was all the sweeter knowing that the Alucian Alliance was now a member of the grand Etheric Federation. President Alastair Connors smiled with satisfaction as he surveyed the city. We have a bright future ahead of us.

A knock sounded on his office door.

“Come in.”

The door cracked open, and Karen Carter poked her head in. “Hello, Mr. President. Do you have a moment?”

“Certainly. Come in, Karen.” Connors gestured to the visitor chair across from his desk and took a seat in his own. “Is this about the integration guidebook?”

“No, but that’s coming along well,” Karen replied.

When the Alucian Alliance had signed the agreement to become an official vassal of the Etheric Federation, new opportunities opened for the Alucian people. President Connors had asked Karen to draft a summary of those new benefits for citizens to use as a guide. The further they got into the project, the more details they uncovered that Connors knew needed to be documented. All the same, he was excited by the knowledge of the opportunities that would be available to his people in coming generations.

Karen sat down in the visitor chair and folded her hands over her tablet on her lap. “Actually, sir, I’m here about Chancellor Heizberg.”

“Oh, yes.” Connors looked down a sighed. “I reached out to the FDG. My contact said he’d look into it.”

Connors had been around politicians long enough to know when a person was dodging a request, and he imagined those same tells extended to members of the military. Given the information Connors had imparted about the Nezaran chancellor potentially being subverted, he would have expected immediate and decisive action. A casual ‘look into it’ statement didn’t come across that way in the slightest.

Karen frowned, clearly thinking the same thing. “Is there anyone else we can go to?”

“I’m hesitant to take too many backchannels. We’re in enough of a political wedge as it is after signing the vassal agreement without representative sign-off.”

“But this is a serious threat, sir. If Heizberg is compromised…”

Connors nodded. “I agree. But it’s possible the FDG is taking a more covert approach. I don’t want to step on toes.”

“Would you like me to do the toe-stepping for you?” Karen offered.

“What do you have in mind?”

“Well, my brother went to work with the FDG after the NTech lab on Coraxa was shut down. I could see if he can find out whether an investigation is underway.”

Connors smiled. “That’s a handy connection to have. But hold off. I’ll try a more direct strategy first.”

“I’ll be standing by.” Karen rose.

“Thank you, Karen. I’m glad to have you on my side.”

She inclined her head. “I’m sorry there was ever a time I wasn’t.”

Karen departed, leaving Connors alone with his thoughts.

He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. Why would the FDG defer an investigation into Heizberg? The most obvious explanation was that they already knew something and didn’t want to share. If that were the case, he—and Alucia—might not be as safe as he thought.












CHAPTER FIVE


Ava thumbed through the entertainment selection on her tablet. Despite having an entire galaxy’s worth of content at her disposal, she still couldn’t find anything to watch.

With a heavy sigh, she turned off the tablet with a click of the remote mouse they’d rigged up for her. Bedtime, I guess. Not that I’m tired after all those naps. Luke needed to hurry up and get that equipment she needed or else there might not be anything of her mind left to save.

She chuckled to herself. Wow, I’m a terrible patient.

Ava was willing to give herself some leeway, though, considering that Doctor Dwyer’s tests had all come back inconclusive. She wouldn’t know the extent of her modifications until Luke had a chance to complete his analysis of the new nanocytes. That could take days.

The thought of waiting in limbo that long upset Ava all over again, so she closed her eyes with the hope that sleep would pass the time.

She was just beginning to doze off when a knock sounded on the window.

Ava cracked one eye open. “Colonel Kurtz?”

“Good, you’re awake. It’s time we chat.” He kept his gaze fixed on her as he passed through the containment tunnel into the room.

When the door hissed open, Ava tilted her head questioningly. “Sir, I thought you’d be in bed by now. It’s late.”

“Just wanted to check on you.” Kurtz stopped at the foot of her bed. “Since it’s just the two of us, no need for all the formality.”

Maybe Doctor Dwyer is on to something. This doesn’t sound like the colonel at all. “I appreciate you stopping by.” Not really, but Ava figured that’s what people in her circumstances should say.

“When I sent you on that mission, I didn’t expect events to unfold this way.”

“Well, a lot of things didn’t go according to plan.”

“I have to say, though, when it doesn’t work out like you envision, that’s when you learn a lot about yourself as a leader. I’ve learned more about myself in the last few days than I ever knew I could.”

Ava grunted. “Aside from what happened to me, things didn’t go that badly. We still took down the lab and got the woman behind it all.”

Kurtz frowned. “Yes, though that was quite unfortunate she met such an untimely end. I would not have expected Luke to jump in like that.”

“Caught me by surprise, too. Not that it changed things. Andrea still gave me that shot.”

“Speaking of which,” Kurtz walked slowly along the side of the bed, “have you experienced any other transformations?”

“Nope, just relaxing here.”

“Perhaps you should try? There’s no way to master new skills without practice.”

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s really advisable in this case.”

Kurtz stopped midway along the bed near her knees. “Have you ever talked to your team about what it’s like being a shifter?”

“Not really, no. Why?”

“Hmm, that’s surprising.”

Ava shrugged as much as she could in the restraints. “They haven’t asked me about being a telepath, either. We are the way we are.”

“Well, speaking from my own experience,” the colonel continued, “there’s a moment when you first transform where it’s so new and scary that you’re not sure you ever want to do it again. Except, that act of transformation is a fundamental part of your identity. You need to push through the fear to come into your full self.”

“Except I didn’t choose to be a Were—let alone a Hochste. This isn’t some grand cultural heritage for me to embrace. What happened to me is the product of illegal nanocyte experimentation, end of story.”

“Many advancements are an accident, like my transition to being a Pricoloci after a routine Pod Doc procedure on board the War Axe. It took the Vampire Valerie to subdue me, but I learned how to control it. History shows that those who seize opportunity hold the power.”

Ava studied Kurtz. She took a slow breath, trying to seem like she was considering his words. “Maybe it is a good thing, but it’s going to take time for me to adjust to the idea. I hope you’ll be patient with me.”

Kurtz looked like he was going to say something else, his face contorting around his eyes and lips. After five seconds, he nodded. “Of course. Sleep well.” He stiffly exited the room.

What the hell is going on with him? Ava sunk into her pillows. And what does he want from me?


*     *     *


Something was most definitely off. Widmore watched Kurtz storm out from the infirmary after his brief chat with Ava. The man I’ve served under for the past decade wouldn’t stop by just to check in on someone, no matter their condition. He’s always been strictly business. Unless…

Widmore would never get answers watching from a distance. He walked through the darkened infirmary to the quarantine area at the back. Ava’s eyes were closed, but she was restless on the bed.

“Ava?” he asked softly through the comm at the window.

Her eyes flew open. “Who— Oh, Major. What are you…?”

“I saw Kurtz was here. May we speak?”

“Yes, please!” She sat up in the bed as much as she could.

Widmore went through the tunnel and approached her bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine, sir. No other random transformations.”

“And what did Kurtz want?”

Ava bit her lower lip. “It’s strange. Multiple times today, he’s talked about me embracing this change. He wants me to learn to control it.”

“What you told me before is looking more likely,” Widmore admitted.

Ava looked him in the eyes. “If he’s listening to this…”

Widmore submitted to her telepathic link. “Clearly we’re on the same page here.”

“Do you have a plan?”

Widmore shook his head. “Not yet, but I’m working on it.”

“Do you think he’s reporting to the same boss as Andrea was? If they were working together, it would explain how she got away.”

“A connection is likely. But what that connection is, I’m not sure yet.”

Ava frowned. “I really don’t know what to do about these modifications.”

Widmore wasn’t sure if the statement was genuine or if it was for the good of Kurtz potentially listening in on their conversation. “The decision is yours, Ava, assuming they are able to come up with a countermeasure. If you want to keep it, we’ll adapt. If you want to go back to the way things were, no one will question it.”

“You know what it’s like being the comparatively frail human among Were-warriors. I’d be lying if I denied there being some appeal to being physically powerful like them.”

“Brute strength isn’t the only kind of power.”

She shrugged. “I know. But I am out in the field. It’d come in handy.”

“You’re actually considering this?”

“Something Kurtz just told me rang true. Any change is scary, but I don’t know what I can do or how this will affect me unless I give it a try.”

Widmore nodded. “As long as you’re under my command, I’ll support whatever decision you make. We can seal off one of the sparring rooms and you can test out your new form, if you’d like.”

Ava cracked a smile. “Thank you, sir.”












CHAPTER SIX


The NTech lab looked untouched since Luke had last seen it two days before, with the exception of the Nezaran landing craft no longer occupying the employee parking lot. The FDG landing pod set down at the end of the lot closest to the lab.

“It’s so weird. I feel like I was just here,” Edwin jested.

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Luke hopped out of the landing pod and stretched.

It’d been a long day of travel on the Raven and it felt great to be on solid land again. Only three days and I was already missing being planetside. Not a great start for his new FDG career in space.

The warriors opened up the back of the pod to prep it for their mission. Though the craft wasn’t a cargo vessel, the equipment Luke was after should fit in the rear cargo area that was typically reserved for mission-specific tech and armaments. They’d left most of their gear on the Raven, since they didn’t expect to encounter any resistance in the lab now that it had been cleared. Each team member wore standard body armor and carried a multi-handgun, but with any luck, even those wouldn’t come into play.

Wearing armor felt strange to Luke after spending his whole career in either business clothes or a lab coat. He had no interest in being in the middle of combat, but he’d certainly rather spend time in awkward attire than have a gaping hole through his chest.

“You don’t think anyone from NTech has come back here, do you?” Luke asked the group.

 “No signs I can see from here,” Edwin replied. “If you’re wondering about why we’re wearing armor, it’s because we never go anywhere unprotected. We’d be in powered armor if we thought we were going to face opposition.”

“I do have to say, it’s much nicer here on Coraxa when I’m not being shot at,” Samantha said with a grin.

Nick rolled his eyes. “You’re not kidding anyone, Sam. You love a good firefight.”

She placed a hand on her hip. “A good firefight, yes, which is one I’ve already won. If the enemy is still shooting, or hasn’t even started yet, there’s nothing good about that!”

Edwin rolled a hovercart out of the pod. “I think most people would say they’re in it for the win.”

“Except maybe the Nezarans,” Nick replied. “Or it seems that way since they never do.”

Luke frowned at the man. “Let’s just focus on the mission.”

The Were warrior straightened. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to touch a nerve.”

“Look, I know Alucia is in the Federation now and Nezar is on the outside, but Coraxa has equal ties to both worlds. I went to grad school on Nezar. I have nothing against the people themselves,” Luke explained.

Samantha patted Nick on his shoulder. “In other words, we should all try to get along and be civil. Come on.”

The four of them traversed the path from the parking area to the ruined entryway of the lab. Plastic sheeting was affixed to the building frame to seal the openings where windows had been before the firefight. Stone fragments and glass shards littered the walkway and flowerbeds around the entrance.

“Glad I wasn’t in the middle of this,” Luke murmured.

Edwin shrugged. “It wasn’t as bad as it seems from this aftermath.”

“Still, I’m looking forward to getting back to our roots with covert entry,” Samantha said.

“With you there!” Nick agreed. “Darting through the shadows, hacking into computer networks.”

She smiled. “That’s the life.”

When they reached the plastic sheeting, Edwin produced a utility knife from a belt pouch and sliced a slit down and along the bottom edge to create a diagonal flap. He slipped through the opening with the hover cart and activated a light mounted to the front of his tactical vest.

“Yeah, doesn’t look like anyone’s been in here,” he announced. “Come on in.”

The rest of the team followed him.

Nick crouched to the ground at the entrance and set a small electronic device on the floor.

“What’s that?” Luke asked.

“Sensor,” the warrior replied. “If anyone comes inside, we’ll get an alert.”

“That’s rather handy.” Luke led the way toward A Wing on the right side of the lobby.

The A Wing security arch had fared better than the one to B Wing, but with the power disconnected from the building, it was just lifeless ornamentation.

Luke clicked on the light on his chest as they approached the double-doors leading into the wing, which were still propped open from the prior infiltration.

The stark white corridor was creepy in the dark stillness. Luke listened for anything moving in the shadows, but the place was empty. He tried to shake the feeling that they were being watched—well aware of how many security cameras had been watching him every day at work before—but he knew that was silly.

They reached the lab where Luke had conducted the bulk of his research before the FDG raid. With a pang in his chest, he saw the family pictures still on his coworkers’ desks.

“When do you think people will be allowed to gather their things?” Luke asked.

“Tough call,” Samantha replied with a shrug. “The FDG has been talking with NTech about what went on here, but I don’t know the details. I imagine whenever they reach an accord, NTech will get the facility back, and it’ll be up to them who they let in, if anyone.”

“So much of Tribeca was counting on this lab as part of the local economy.” Luke shook his head. “Shame it had to be mothballed.”

“It could still re-open,” Nick pointed out. “Like you said, there were plenty of people like you who were doing good work. If the FDG determines that NTech isn’t corrupted at its core, then they can get right back to what they were doing—the good parts.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Luke set aside the thoughts about his former coworkers and started to make a mental inventory of the items they needed to retrieve. “It’ll be a tight fit on that cart, but I think we can grab everything in one trip.”

“Good, because I can’t say I’m fond of this place.” Samantha poked at the arm of a task light on the island in the center of the room.

“All right, we need to grab this bioconverter,” Luke said as he walked across the room with a freestanding piece of equipment a meter and a half tall and a meter wide and deep. “It’s heavy.”

Edwin leaned against the device and it barely rocked up on its back edge. “Yeah, no shit.”

“We’ll get it together.” Nick placed one hand on the front and back on one side with Edwin on the other.

With a grunt, the two men scooted the device forward a centimeter.

“Okay, so it’s not exactly mobile,” Edwin wheezed.

“Sorry. I can help,” Luke offered.

“No, no, we’ve got it.” Nick’s eyes flashed to yellow as he and Edwin muscled the equipment forward again, then tipped it on its back edge to get the front over the lip of the hovercart. “1… 2… 3!”

They heaved it up, the cart dipping momentarily while the hover controls adjusted to the weight change. The two warriors slid the bioconverter to the back of the cart to make room for more.

“Good job. What else?” Samantha asked.

“You’re not going to like this, either.” Luke directed the three Weres through the lab, grabbing two more oversized items and a number of smaller tools he figured would be easier to take rather than procuring elsewhere. Frankly, he didn’t care if NTech ever got the equipment back, even if it was legally their property.

When the hovercart was loaded down, Luke made a final circuit of the room to make sure they had everything he’d need.

His gaze rested on his office. “Mind if I grab one more thing?”

“If it’s small and you can carry it yourself, go for it,” Edwin said.

Luke jogged over to his desk. Placed on the corner was the statue he’d received as a graduation gift from his parents. The metal planet sat atop a pedestal. While it had no commercial value, the gift had come at a time when Luke wasn’t sure where life would lead him, and his parents had said the whole universe was there for the taking. He’d attached those words to the planet sitting there on the pedestal and had vowed to find himself the life he’d dreamed about. Even though that life was now in space, he’d still have this planet to remind him of home.

“That it?” Edwin asked.

“Yep, ready to go.” Luke nodded.

“Okay, let’s—” Nick cut off. “Well, that just figures.”

“What?” questioned Samantha.

Nick consulted a screen mounted to the underside of his wrist. “We have company.”












CHAPTER SEVEN


Luke swore under his breath. The last thing they needed were trespassers giving them a hard time while the FDG team tried to leave the lab with a cart full of irreplaceable equipment. “Who’s here?”

Nick reviewed the details on his wrist read-out. “Looks like signatures for two individuals. Vibrations registering on the sensor I left by the front door.”

“Not an army, at least,” Samantha muttered.

“No, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hurt us,” Edwin replied, readying his handgun. “Let’s move the cart closer to the entry and find a secure location to leave it. We can scope out who it is out there.”

Samantha nodded, and then drew her handgun, set to the sonic stun setting. She led the way down the hall with Nick while Edwin pushed the hovercart.

When they neared the door to the lobby, they turned off the lights on their armor.

“Let me get the cart,” Luke suggested. “I haven’t practiced much with guns.”

Edwin nodded and stepped aside for Luke to take over. The Were drew his weapon and shimmied around the cart to join his teammates.

“Any guesses on who they might be?” Samantha whispered.

“Could be anyone from NTech officials to curious locals,” Nick replied. “NTech is more likely, but I really hope it’s the latter.”

They ran their hands along the wall for guidance in the near-blackness. Half a dozen meters from the exit, they directed Luke to park the cart.

Samantha, Nick, and Edwin crept forward down the hall. They gestured for Luke to stay back, but he was curious to see who’d come to the lab. He followed them forward with his handgun at the ready, hoping he wouldn’t have to use it.

Edwin passed by the others and pressed his back against the side wall. “All right, I can make out two figures,” he whispered to the team. “Doesn’t look like they have on armor—or, at least not powered armor.”

“We can take on two, if we have to,” Samantha whispered.

“They’re just standing in the middle of the lobby talking,” Edwin relayed. “I can’t hear them from here.”

“Can you listen in using the sensor?” Luke asked.

Samantha shook her head. “We could in our powered armor, but we don’t have the right comm setup here.”

“They’re still talking,” Edwin reported.

Nick looked back over his shoulder to Luke and Samantha. “Do we wait it out or announce ourselves?”

“This place is under an FDG-instituted lockdown, so we have every right to be here. I say we step forward but leave the cart for now,” Samantha replied.

“Sounds good to me.” Nick stood up. “Wait here in the corridor until we give the all clear, Luke.”

He nodded, pressing his back against the side wall. He inched forward with the Weres until he had a view of the lobby, then stopped to observe while they prepared to head out.

“Hello!” Nick called as he turned on his suit’s light. His weapon was drawn, but he had it pointed down. “What can we do for you?”

The two figures in the lobby came to attention.

“Who are you?” the first asked in a mid-range voice that could be male or female. Luke couldn’t make out any distinguishing physical features in the dim light shining through the plastic sheeting.

“We’re representatives from the FDG,” Nick said. “Per the notice posted outside, this site is under active FDG investigation.”

“We need to ask you to leave,” the second figure stated in a lower male voice.

“Please identify yourselves,” Edwin requested as he stepped forward to join Nick.

“You have no authority here,” the first person replied.

“Actually, we do.” Nick tensed, raising his weapon the slightest measure. “State your name and business.”

The second person scoffed. “Get out of here and leave us alone.”

“Can’t do that.” Edwin raised his weapon.

Samantha took the opportunity to step forward. “Hey, guys, what seems to be the trouble?”

“These trespassers don’t want to play nice,” Nick told her.

“Trespassers?” The second person laughed. “We can’t trespass on our own property.”

“You’re NTech?” Samantha prompted.

“Probably easiest for you to think of us that way, yes.” The first person said. “And we’re here to assess this fucking mess you made of our investment.”

“That will have to wait until after the investigation is complete,” Nick said. “Please leave.”

“No,” the first person said. They took a step forward into the pool of illumination from Nick’s light, highlighting an ageless face of a woman with pale green eyes framed by dark hair.

Luke’s heart skipped a beat. Fuck! That’s the Nezaran chancellor!

The voice was so familiar now that he’d identified her. The man, though, he couldn’t place. It was possible he was somehow connected to NTech and out of the public eye.

But why is the Nezaran chancellor here on Coraxa in a condemned NTech lab? He needed to make sure the FDG team knew who she was. Or, maybe it was better for her to think she’d remained anonymous.

Shit, what do I do? Luke stood against the wall, paralyzed with indecision. He ran through the most likely scenarios and decided he couldn’t just stand by and do nothing. Not after what NTech had done to his home. If the Nezaran government had a hand in that, they didn’t deserve any degree of anonymity or excuse.

Luke took a deep breath and stepped out from the shadows, turning on his light. “Madam Chancellor, please forgive my companions. They aren’t from this system.”

The chancellor came to attention. “Then you must be.”

The Force warriors dropped the aim of their weapons.

“A Coraxan native,” Luke confirmed, “but I went to school on Nezar.”

“As many do.” She evaluated him. “But now you align yourself with the FDG.”

“I aim to serve my people in the best way I can, and I have deemed that to be through service to the FDG, now that this NTech lab has been exposed for what it was. Ma’am,” he added as an afterthought.

“Oh, so you worked here?” The man’s dark brown eyes looked Luke over, and his lip curled under a moustache.

“I’m a research scientist. I know what went on here, and I’ll keep working with the FDG to make sure no one else falls victim to the inhumane research practices that were going on behind the scenes.”

The chancellor turned to her male companion. “You hear that? It was inhumane.”

He chuckled. “Funny, since there was so little humanity involved.”

Nick raised his weapon again. “I don’t care who you are. No one talks about what happened at this site like it was okay. Not on my watch. Now why are you here?”

“We already told you. To inspect,” the chancellor stated. “The Nezaran government has significant holdings in NTech, and it’s our right to audit our assets.”

“Not buying it,” Samantha said. “Sorry, ma’am.”

“You’re making a mistake by trying to detain us,” the man said.

Edwin squinted. “I dunno. We’re not the ones with guns pointed in our faces.”

The chancellor chuckled. “What, you think we’d come alone?”

The plastic over the building opening billowed with a gust of wind outside. The low rumble of an engine vibrated the structure.

“We’re here to reclaim our equipment,” the man said. “If you refuse to leave, I’ll have you forcibly removed.”

Luke took a step back toward the A Wing corridor. I need to get that cart.

“Where do you think you’re going?” the chancellor asked.

“Consider it my severance package.” Luke ran across the lobby.

Before he’d gone four steps, a heavy form slammed into his back, knocking him to the ground.

The air was forced from his lungs as he landed heavily.

An arm looped around his neck. “Should have walked away when you had the chance.”

Luke gasped for air as the arm tightened around him. Mind racing, he clawed at the man, but he didn’t have the strength to overpower him.

Then, Luke spotted his globe figurine out of the corner of his eye. He snatched the base from next to him and drove the point of the pedestal backward.

The man cried out in pain and released Luke.

Coughing, and with a hand on his throat, Luke grabbed the globe part of the figurine and scrambled across the floor away from the man. When he looked back, he saw the man holding a hand over his right eye where he’d been struck by the point.

Luke was about the smash the man’s head with the metal sphere of the globe when he remembered he had the stun gun. He tucked the figurine into his vest and then trained the weapon on the man. “Who are you?”

“It doesn’t matter. You won’t be around long enough to tell anyone.”

Luke pulled the trigger, and a sonic wave swept over the man. He fell limp on the ground.

A quick check over his shoulder confirmed that Edwin, Nick, and Samantha had the chancellor subdued, so Luke made a run for the hovercart they’d left in the hall.

He activated the controls on the back and pushed it forward at its top speed—barely above a walking tempo with it so weighed down.

Edwin ran over to help push it. “Sorry! We couldn’t shoot him without knocking you out, too.”

“I’m not completely helpless.” Luke leaned into the cart.

“This isn’t going fast enough.” Edwin stopped pushing. “We need to get out of here before whoever it is coming down in that ship shows up!”

“We can’t leave this here!”

Edwin hesitated. “It’ll help Ava?”

“I hope so.”

The warrior nodded. “Okay, bring it as quickly as it will go. I’ll scout ahead and try to hold them off with the others.” Edwin ran toward the entrance.

Luke lay into the hovercart and willed it along. This isn’t the time for technology to fail me.

Ahead, the sound of pounding footsteps echoed through the lobby as the three Weres ran to get into position to evaluate the opposition. Luke peeked around the bin to see the three warriors duck through the slit in the plastic sheeting.

The chancellor and her companion were still passed out on the floor. Luke wished they had time to interrogate them, but there was no chance.

Finally, he made it to the plastic sheeting. When he tried to push the cart through, though, the top snagged on the triangular top of the opening. He attempted to force it through, but the heavy plastic didn’t want to rip under the minimal thrust the hovercart was able to muster while weighed down.

Luke dug through the pouches on his belt looking for a utility knife. He found one in a compartment on his left hip and frantically cut away the extra plastic to fit the cart through.

Just as he finished, gunshots sounded in the direction of the parking lot. The three FDG warriors were nowhere to be seen.

Edwin ducked around the corner of the building back into Luke’s view. “Leave the cart! We have to go now!”

“But—”

“It’s about survival now.” Edwin ran back around the corner and joined in the exchange of kinetic rounds.

Luke took one final look at the stack of equipment, and then left it behind to join his team. He’d be no help to Ava if he were dead.

He slowly approached the corner where he’d last seen Edwin and peeked around. The team members were hiding behind landscaping features that provided minimal cover from a group of two dozen enemy soldiers.

Oh shit! How are we supposed to make it back to the pod? Luke unholstered his handgun. He was barely comfortable shooting while standing still, let alone use it while running for his life. “I’m here! What do we do?” he called to his team just loud enough to be heard.

“Pod is on its way,” was Nick’s only response.

What does he mean by that? Luke’s question was answered when he saw the landing pod making its way over to the team. He spotted a likely landing spot only fifteen meters from the main door to the building.

“Back it up,” Luke called back. “I can make a straight shot with the cart. That equipment is why we came here.”

“Do it,” Samantha said without taking her eyes off the approaching enemies.

Luke dashed to where he’d left the cart in the doorway.

Inside, he saw the chancellor and her companion beginning to stir, so he gave them another shot with his handgun after confirming it was on the stun setting.

He swung around the back of the cart and began pushing it forward at its pathetic top speed. It tore through the plastic sheeting, and he made a straight run for where the pod would supposedly land.

Weapons fire continued just around the corner.

“They’re close enough!” Nick yelled, and the low boom of the sonic blasters sounded.

Kinetic gunfire ceased, and Nick, Edwin, and Samantha barreled toward Luke.

Together, they pushed the cart forward, their combined strength driving it forward faster than it could handle on its own power.

The pod descended from the sky in front of them, its back hatch falling open moments before the group reached the ramp.

They pushed the cart inside, and Nick was at the controls in a matter of seconds.

Luke gripped a handhold next to the door as the pod lifted off the ground while the back hatch was still closing.

“That was way too close.” He leaned against the wall as the hatch closed.

“We’re lucky they tried to advance on us—couldn’t fire the pulse guns at the distance they were before.” Samantha took a deep breath. “Did we get everything?”

“I think so.” Luke checked over the cart. It looked good.

“Shouldn’t have gone back like that,” Edwin said. “If we hadn’t been able to knock them out at the last second, you would have been shot to bits on that run.”

Luke stared him down. “I came here to complete a mission. That’s precisely what I was doing.”

Nick cracked a smile. “We might make an FDG warrior out of you yet.”












CHAPTER EIGHT


If there was anything President Connors couldn’t stand, it was inaction. He drummed his fingers on his desktop, trying to suppress his frustration about Colonel Kurtz’s dismissive response to his warning regarding Chancellor Heizberg.

How could he not take this threat seriously? The Nezaran military might be nothing compared to the Etheric Federation’s forces, but they’re only hours from Alucia! Don’t they want to protect us? After all, that was the impetus for Alucia joining the Federation. If Connors didn’t get backup when he needed it, what was the point?

He rose from his chair and paced across the office, hoping to clear his head. Worry clouded judgment, and he needed to maintain rational thought in order to be a good leader.

But, a good leader would go out of his way to protect his people, even if it meant being forceful.

No taking ‘no’ for an answer. With his mind made up, Connors returned to his desk to open a secure Etheric comm link with FDG headquarters. I’ll talk to Kurtz if he won’t take action on his own.

The call took almost a minute to connect. Colonel Kurtz appeared on the holoscreen above the president’s desk. “President Connors, what may I do for you?”

“Hello, Colonel. I wanted to follow up regarding that message I sent you the other day.”

Kurtz frowned. “Like I said, I’m looking into it.”

“Well, Colonel, that’s not good enough for me. I need assurances that this matter will be investigated swiftly and thoroughly.”

“With all respect, Mr. President, that isn’t your demand to make.”

Connors bristled. “Alucia is a member of the Federation, and we are facing an immediate threat within our system. Nezaran forces can reach us in a matter of hours, and I have reason to believe their chancellor is under outside influence with intent to harm Alucia. Looking into it on your own timeframe won’t work.”

“Just because your planet is now in the Federation doesn’t mean you get free rein of our resources. It’s my responsibility to determine the most urgent threats and allocate our forces accordingly. Right now, you’re not the top priority.”

“Then I’d like to speak with the leader of the FDG.”

Kurtz chuckled. “Mr. President, if you think going over my head will help your case, you’re sorely mistaken.”

That’s it? We’re on our own? Connors stared levelly at the colonel. “This isn’t the attitude I’d expect from an officer in the Force.”

“Then perhaps you need to reset your expectations.” Kurtz ended the call.

Connors leaned back in his chair and scoffed. It was like he was talking to an entirely different person than the man he’d worked with in the previous months regarding the NTech investigations. Unless…

His pulse spiked. “Karen!” he called over the intercom. “Come up here right away.”

“Coming, sir,” she acknowledged.

She arrived less than two minutes later. “Sir, what is it?”

“I may know why the FDG didn’t act on our information.”

Karen took a seat across from Connors. “Why?”

“I have nothing more than a hunch to go on, but it’s possible Colonel Kurtz is under the same influence as Chancellor Heizberg.”

“Stars!” Karen’s face drained. “Are they working together?”

“Maybe not together, but possibly for the same side.” Connors spread his hands on the desktop. “Whatever’s going on, they don’t want others butting in.”

“Then that’s exactly what we have to do.”

The president evaluated her. “That’s a dangerous proposition. If someone as high-ranking as Kurtz has been subverted, and hasn’t been caught, then he has authority to take actions that could easily wipe us out. Having the FDG as an enemy would be exponentially worse than the Nezarans.”

“But we’re members of the Federation now!”

“Yes, but if Alucia is declared a threat? They’d just as soon turn against us.”

Karen crossed her arms. “So we’re trapped.”

“No, we just have to get creative,” Connors replied. “It’s time you reach out to your brother. There has to be someone in the FDG who’ll help us.”


*     *     *


The landing pod ascended at a steep angle through Coraxa’s sky toward its rendezvous with the Raven. Luke remained standing next to the hovercart as the pod was too small to fit around it to get to his seat.

Once in space, the pod maneuvered to the underbelly of the Raven and slipped into its berth.

The hatch dropped open once they were safely inside.

“I’ll get this into storage.” Luke directed the cart down the ramp over to the cargo area.

Samantha followed him. “Despite what Edwin said, we’re all happy you went back for it. The mission comes first, especially since it’s for Ava.”

“I’ll do right by her,” he said.

“Good.” Samantha backed away and formed a V with her index and middle fingers, pointing them to her eyes, and then to Luke. “Because we’re watching you.” She smiled and climbed the ladder with the other warriors.

Luke shook his head and chuckled as he strapped the cart to the cargo bay’s grated deck.

When he was finished, he climbed the ladder to the common area. The members of Ava’s team were nowhere to be seen, but Gil and Sven were on the couch again.

“Hi,” Luke greeted.

“Oh, hey.” Sven pointed upward. “You got a call while you were down on the surface.”

“From whom?”

“Dunno.” Sven shrugged.

Curious, Luke climbed the ladder and headed for his cabin. He’d made it three meters down the hall when someone called his name from behind.

Luke turned to see a woman descending from the bridge.

“I’m Aleya, the first officer of the Raven,” she greeted. “You had an urgent call from Alucia. We said you’d call back when you were on board.”

“Who was it?” Luke asked as he walked toward her.

“Your sister, Karen.”

“Karen? Why would she be calling me here?” Luke wondered aloud.

“It was important enough that they routed it to us. Said she’d only talk to you. We have a private communications booth up on the flight deck.” Aleya scaled the ladder.

“Thanks.” Luke followed her.

The upper level of the Raven was more compact than the residential and rec levels below, as it was housed inside a protrusion at the top of the vessel. The ladder led to the side of a central corridor. Toward the nose, a door sealed off the bridge. To the aft, a small social area was on one side of the corridor, complete with a booth and table, and beyond were doors to enclosed rooms.

Aleya indicated the first room. “Comm system is all set up for you. Sister said you’d know her direct line.”

“Thank you.” Luke inclined his head and went into the room.

The space was only two meters square, but it was equipped with a holoscreen and two padded seats.

He sat down and entered in Karen’s contact information for Alucia.

She answered after twenty seconds. “Luke, thanks for getting back to me so quickly.”

“I was on an op. What’s so urgent?”

“You on an op?”

“Yeah, it’s a long story.” Luke shook his head, not wanting to explain what was going on with Ava, if he even could. “So, why’d you call?’

“I wanted to follow up regarding a message President Connors has sent Colonel Kurtz.”

Luke crossed his arms. “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

“No, but you’re close to Ava, and Ava is in Kurtz’s chain of command, right?”

“Yes, but it’s not like she can just ask about his private conversations with the president,” Luke pointed out. Not to mention the suspicions that Kurtz isn’t himself. Yet another thing he didn’t want to explain to Karen.

“Well, we relayed a rather important piece of information, and it’s being dismissed—even to President Connors’ face.”

Luke’s breath caught. “And this only went to Colonel Kurtz?”

“Yes.”

Shit. Luke leaned back in the chair and sighed. “If Kurtz didn’t act on the information, then he had a reason.” And the information didn’t match with the goals of whatever influence he’s under.

His sister eyed him. “Luke, do you know something?”

“What is this information, anyway?” Luke hedged.

She swallowed. “Is this communication encrypted?”

Luke checked the details of the comm link. It would route through FDG headquarters, which meant there’d be a record someone of Kurtz’s rank could access. “Not well enough,” he told her. “But the fact that we’ve already had this much of the conversation won’t make a difference.”

Karen nodded. “What we told Kurtz is that the Nezaran Chancellor might be under some kind of influence.”

That explains what she was doing on Coraxa today. Well, part of it. Luke groaned. “There are people I can trust. I’ll pass on the message.”


*     *     *


Ava couldn’t take being strapped down any longer. It had been two days since a workout and she was losing her mind.

Getting agitated will only make it more likely I transform. I need to work off this energy more productively. She took a calming breath and pressed the call button they’d placed near her right hand.

“Doctor Dwyer, may we have a word?”

“I’ll be right there, Ava,” the doctor acknowledged.

He entered through the tunnel three minutes later. “Is everything all right?”

“No,” Ava admitted. “I don’t think being strapped down here is the answer. I thought I might keep transforming randomly, but there hasn’t been so much as an eye glow since that last incident.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Let me use one of the sparring rooms. Put four Were guards at the door. If I transform and lose control, they can subdue me with a sonic blast.”

The doctor considered the request. “I don’t have any medical grounds to hold you in quarantine. Those safety measures seem appropriate for the circumstances.”

Ava perked up. “I can go?”

“I know Colonel Kurtz would approve, so I don’t see why not.”

She looked into the doctor’s eyes and asked telepathically, “Why did you tell me Kurtz isn’t who he seems?”

Doctor Dwyer hesitated. “We shouldn’t talk about it.”

“This telepathic link is the most secure communication there is. Tell me. Pretend like you’re giving me an exam.”

He took an unsteady breath and began going over Ava to check her restraints, making eye contact on occasion to maintain the telepathic link. “He thinks I don’t remember, but I do.”

“Remember what?”

“Right before you came for your medical check-up, after getting home from Coraxa, Kurtz came to see me,” the doctor explained. “He told me to delete the test results showing your new nanocytes and to forget I saw anything—or that I’d talked to him. And I did, until I saw you transform. The memories slowly came back until I realized what the colonel had done.”

Ava’s heart skipped a beat as she thought through the implications of the revelation. “Have you been able to test him?”

“No. I didn’t want to give any indication that I suspected something was amiss,” the doctor replied. “We shouldn’t be talking telepathically now.”

“We have to go to someone about this,” Ava urged. “Major Widmore. I trust him with my life, especially with my current state.”

“Whatever happened to the colonel, it must be recent. He’s always been a reliable member of the Force.”

“I’ve never doubted him, either, but something has been off since this last op…”

“The ability to exert telepathic orders—especially to alter memory—isn’t something he should be able to do,” the doctor added.

“What could enable that kind of skill?”

“I can’t think of a single thing that we have access to within the FDG.”

“So that leaves…?” Ava prompted.

“Alien,” the doctor asserted. “Though I can’t explain who or what it might be.”

“Well, shit.” She sighed inwardly. “I’ll meet with Major Widmore as soon as I can. We’ll figure out what’s going on with Kurtz.”

Doctor Dwyer nodded and broke the telepathic connection. “No further symptoms, Ava. I think that workout you requested is just what you need.”

“Thank, you, Doctor.”

“I’ll arrange an escort for you to the training room.” The doctor departed.

Ava sat in quiet contemplation for the next twenty minutes, thinking about every alien species she’d encountered in mission notes over her decade-long career. Some Vampires had telepathic abilities, like Andrea, and there were a handful of others. But in each of those cases, it was either an innate skill or someone was transformed, like with nanocytes in the case of Vampires. For someone to appear to be themselves was a whole new situation. She couldn’t think of an explanation.

A new alien foe. Well, that’s fantastic. She groaned. It was shaping up to be quite the week.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a complement of guards arriving outside the containment chamber.

“Lieutenant Landyn,” the largest of the four Weres said, “we’ve been directed by Doctor Dwyer to take you to one of the sparring rooms for a workout.”

“I’m thrilled to hear it, Private,” Ava replied. “Have you been apprised of my condition?”

“Yes, ma’am. We’re prepared for any contingency.” He patted a sonic handgun on his hip.

“All right. Now get me out of here!” Ava smiled and jangled her restraints.

The four Were warriors entered. Two cautiously released her restraints while the other two stood by with their sonic pistols at the ready.

Ava had to admit it was disconcerting being on the receiving end of a weapon. It wasn’t a comfortable change.

When the final cuff was disconnected from the bed, the warriors directed Ava to her feet and placed new shackles on her for the walk down to the sparring room.

“My friends are going to wonder what kind of crazy shenanigans I got into over the weekend to end up being escorted by you guys,” Ava jested as they bound her wrists behind her back with stasis cuffs.

“I bet we could come up with an epic story if you’d like, ma’am,” the lead Were offered.

She grinned. “Nothing yet. We should keep people guessing. Helps with my mystique.”

They led her from the containment chamber and through the infirmary. Workout facilities were located near the residential sections of headquarters but also in designated team training areas within the outer reaches of the facility. They headed to one of the lesser used areas to minimize the number of potentially prying eyes, not knowing if she might transform.

As they worked their way through the facility, she found herself questioning whether or not she wanted to transform. As frightening a prospect as it was, she was curious about what she might be able to do. All the same, she recognized that Colonel Kurtz had wanted her to do just that, and following the advice of a potentially subverted individual under unknown alien control was a bad move.

By the time they reached the entrance of the workout room, Ava had decided to fight the transformation to the best of her ability. If Kurtz wanted her to gain mastery, then the opposite course of action was what she needed to do.

The guards ushered her inside the ten-by-ten meter sparring room, which had pads arranged on the floor in the center and various weapons and other training implements along the side walls, including racks of free-weights.

“Give me forty-five minutes,” Ava told the guards.

“Yes, ma’am.” The lead guard undid Ava’s stasis cuffs, and then went to wait in the hall with his colleagues.

Ava grabbed some weights off the rack and began her usual rep routine. It felt great to get her blood moving after sitting nearly stationary for two days. She moved on to body weight exercises and combat forms.

Twenty minutes into her exercise, Ava noticed something was off. The weights and movements that were historically her most challenging were coming to her easily.

She looked in the mirror on the back wall of the room, but she appeared normal, no glowing eyes, even. Is this like the strength the Weres always seem to have?

It was entirely possible she just had excess energy after doing nothing for days. She was about to continue the workout when one of the guards poked her head into the room.

“Ma’am, we were just informed that Luke Carter is back with the Raven. He wants to see you.”












CHAPTER NINE


Colonel Kurtz paced across his office against his conscious will. It was curious that the being controlling him, despite not having a body of its own, liked to pace as it thought.

They’re on to us, Nox muttered in Kurtz’s mind.

On to you, maybe, Kurtz clarified. You haven’t been doing a very good impersonation of me.

All your official procedures… it’s wearisome.

Kurtz made no indication, but Nox had inadvertently given him a gift. The alien had disclosed an annoyance, which presented a weakness for Kurtz to exploit. He just had to find the right opportunity to use the FDG’s regimented structure as a means to get him the help he needed. His unwanted tenant was about to get an eviction notice.

Your interest in Ava will be your undoing, Kurtz said, hoping to provoke a reaction. He had found that when Nox was emotional, the alien’s grasp loosened.

Indeed, Nox’s energy moved to the surface, giving Kurtz room to flex within the inner recesses of himself.

I am in control, Nox insisted.

The FDG will come for you. They’ll kill me rather than allow a subverted officer to live.

Your people value individual lives too much to do that.

Kurtz wasn’t positive what would happen to him when he was found out, but he would rather die than compromise the FDG’s security. He’d already caused enough inadvertent damage as it was. They will kill me, and you’ll die with me.

This work is too important to abandon, Nox replied.

You said Ava had to be delivered to your benefactors, though. How can you deliver her if you’ve been eliminated?

Nox was silent for several seconds. She must embrace her abilities. Someone must be here to give her guidance.

Your presence won’t make a difference either way. By remaining here, you’re only putting yourself at risk, Kurtz insisted. As soon as they discover you inside me—which won’t be long now since they already suspect—you’ll either be removed or we’ll both die. Neither option gets Ava wherever you want to take her.

Then I will do a better job of blending in.

The damage is already done. Kurtz raised as much of a mental presence as he could muster. If you want to succeed with this mission, then you have to run. Hide and wait for Ava to come into her own, then retrieve her.

You’re lying to me. You have your own intentions.

Kurtz gave a mental shrug. That’s your call. I’m a prisoner in this body regardless. 

I suppose you would suggest the option that keeps you alive, Nox said.

Of course. My own life is most important to me, Kurtz lied.

Then perhaps a change of plan is needed.

We’ll need a ship, Kurtz urged, shifting his language to promote a sense of team. Even faking it disgusted him, but he had no intention of letting the alien get its way. He’d play along just enough to get Nox in a vulnerable place.

Will they let us go without a fight?

If we’re quick, Kurtz replied. Do you know somewhere safe to go?

Yes, there is a place, Nox acknowledged. If you can get us out of here, I will take care of the rest.

Let me have control. I’ll get the ship.

No! Nox swelled in his mind. Don’t mistake my acceptance of your warnings for trust. I merely agree that it’s not safe to remain here.

Then I’ll tell you where to go, Kurtz responded in a calm mental tone.

Kurtz relayed the directions to Nox—first a list of items he’d need, since Nox tended to forget that Kurtz required things like water, food, and clothing, and then directions for where to head with a travel bag. The plan wasn’t up to the standards Kurtz demanded of himself in the FDG, but he couldn’t think about it too much, lest Nox discover his intentions.

The instructions entailed walking to one of the remote docking wings like he was on official business, and then commandeering one of the craft. It was unclear where Nox planned to go from there, exactly, but that didn’t matter to Kurtz. If he had his way, they’d never make it out of FDG headquarters.

Nox allowed Kurtz to lead the way to the docking wing, though Kurtz could tell his movements were being regulated.

He passed by several warriors in the halls, and they nodded to him with respect. Despite Nox’s annoyance, he returned their gesture with nods of acknowledgment. Nox would know that’s how he’d behave normally, and he needed to play the part.

As Kurtz anticipated, the docking wing entrance was staffed by two guards at a reception desk.

“Privates, I need a transport ship for immediate departure,” he ordered.

“Sir, no request has been filed—” the first guard began.

“I’m ordering you now,” Kurtz continued without missing a beat. “Direct me to a free vessel and I’ll take care of the rest.”

The two guards looked at each other, but they weren’t in any position to question an order from a colonel, however irregular.

“The Lisbeth II is available,” the second guard stated after consulting a monitor behind the desk. “Berth 23.”

“Thank you.” Kurtz stepped through the doorway before the guards could ask for further clarification. His plan hinged on getting to the transport ship.

Beyond the door, a corridor branched in either direction. Airlock doors along the outer door led to gangways, which extended to the docked ships. Control panels next to each doorway indicated the docked vessel. Kurtz continued to the left until he saw Berth 23 and double-checked that it held the Lisbeth II.

Kurtz then used the control panel to enter dummy deployment orders. He added just enough detail to satisfy Nox’s watchful eye, but the alien was unfamiliar with specifics of FDG policy. The moment any authorized personnel reviewed the orders, they’d know something was amiss.

Are you finished yet? Nox asked in an agitated tone within Kurtz’s mind.

Do you want this done right or done fast? he replied.

The alien backed down just the slightest measure.

Kurtz finished inputting the dummy orders, and then cycled the airlock.

He stepped through, and the door sealed behind him. The ship was a straight shot down the gangway. Windows along the side walls afforded a view of the vessel. The Lisbeth II and its sister ship were small craft suitable for little more than system-hopping on a day trip. However, it would serve Kurtz’s need just fine as a single passenger—not that he had any intention to go far.

You do know how to operate this craft? Nox asked.

Of course. All officers receive basic flight training, but all these ships operate on autopilot, anyway.

It was a true statement, so Nox would never detect the lie hidden within. Operating the craft out in the open black was straightforward, but the undocking procedure was layered with tedious process—the kind of activities Nox was eager to overlook.

Once Kurtz was on board, all he’d have to do was intentionally mess up a few commands and they’d lock him down, and then they’d see the error-riddled orders. Nox could take over control and say whatever he wanted, but there’d be no way to get out of the situation without a thorough med eval. It was Kurtz’s best chance to be freed from the prison within himself.

With the plan tucked safely in the recesses of his innermost mind, Kurtz stepped aboard the Lisbeth II. He passed through the ship’s airlock and cycled the inner door. He located the cockpit at the end of a short hallway to the left and took a seat in the command chair. He began powering up the craft.

You’re keeping something from me. Nox’s words were accompanied with an icy vice around Kurtz’s mind.

No, I’m—

Kurtz didn’t have a chance to object. He was instantly immobilized within himself, just as he had been when Nox first asserted itself. But this wasn’t the time to admit defeat. Kurtz had to fight it. This might be his only chance to make it out alive.

You’ll never win! he shouted in his mind and lashed out toward Nox.

The alien was caught off-guard by the resistance as the two battled for control over Kurtz’s limbs. His right arm flailed in front of him, sweeping across the touchpanel for the ship’s controls.

A hum filled the air as the engines revved, straining the ship against the docking clamps that were still engaged at the end of the gangway. They wouldn’t hold for long.


*     *     *


Ava hurriedly stowed the free-weights she’d been using for her workout. Did Luke get what he needed so he can figure out what the hell is going on with me?

She placed her wrists behind her back as she approached the waiting Were guards.

“Major Widmore instructed us to take you to a conference room where he and Luke will meet you,” the guard said while cuffing her.

“Lead the way.” Ava nodded to the door.

Five minutes later, Ava was deposited inside the conference room. It wasn’t equipped for prisoner securement like an interrogation room, but the guards looped her cuffs through the support beams of the table, which was welded to the floor. Ava had to lean forward at an awkward angle, but it was still better than the confounded bed.

As the guards finished up, Major Widmore entered, Luke right behind him.

Ava smiled. “Hello, sir. Welcome back, Luke.”

“Hey.” Luke looked like he wanted to run over, but he restricted himself to a friendly smile in the major’s presence.

“How’d it go on Coraxa?” Ava asked him.

“That’s an interesting story. I asked Major Widmore to join us so I could explain what happened.”

The major closed the door and adjusted some controls on the touch-panel mounted to the wall. “This room is secure. No one can listen in.”

Luke nodded. “So, we got to Coraxa and everything started out fine. Equipment was loaded and we were on our way out. Then Nick got an alert that two people had entered the NTech lobby.”

“Who were they?” Major Widmore asked.

“That’s why I was so insistent we meet. I have no idea who the man was, but I instantly recognized the woman as Chancellor Heizberg of the Nezaran Coalition.”

Ava’s breath caught in her throat. “The Nezaran Chancellor was touring a condemned NTech lab?”

“Precisely. Things got especially awkward when a group of well-armed soldiers showed up and started shooting at us.” Luke frowned.

Widmore leaned back in his chair and released a long breath. “That confirms whatever NTech was up to had ties to the government.”

“Yes, sir,” Luke acknowledged, “but I’m afraid it might extend beyond the Nezaran government.”

“What makes you say that?” Widmore questioned.

“I talked to my sister after the op. She’d reached out while we were on the planet’s surface. If you recall, she works for the Alucian president. They suspect Heizberg has been subverted, which fits with what I saw. However, President Connors had relayed this information to Kurtz, and the colonel dismissed it. That makes sense, if what Doctor Dwyer suspects about Kurtz is true.”

Ava shook her head. “It’s not just suspicion anymore. I’ve had enough weird conversations with him over the last two days to draw my own conclusions.”

Major Widmore sat in quiet contemplation. “Kurtz led the investigation into the recent security breach. It’s possible some of the people involved were innocent, and he pegged his own actions on them.”

“I was just about to suggest the same thing, sir,” Ava said.

The major nodded. “We need to detain Colonel Kurtz. He has too much authority to let him maintain free rein of this facility.”

Ava’s gaze passed between the major and Luke. “And you need to keep a close eye on me, too. Kurtz came to speak with me and suggested I embrace these Hochste abilities. Whatever NTech was up to, I think modifying me was part of their plan, and Kurtz’s job might be to make sure I turn out how they hope.”

Luke paled. “Colonel Kurtz may have helped Andrea escape.”

“Or, at a minimum, not stopped her,” Ava said. “In any case, the longer we talk here, the longer this base is in danger.”

Widmore rose from the table. “I’ll speak with Colonel Walton right away. And, Ava, as much as I want to trust you, I agree that it’s too risky for you to be unsupervised until we understand exactly what was done to you. We can forgo the restraints, but I’d like you to stay on lockdown.”

“Yes, sir, I understand.” Not being lashed to the bed would at least be an upgrade. Though, she very well might be wishing for the bed if she had another seizure or whatever it was.

“Stand by for further instruction,” Widmore ordered. “And it goes without saying that you speak of this to no one.”

“Yes, sir,” Ava and Luke both acknowledged.

The major left the room.

One of the guards entered. “Your cuffs, ma’am.”

“Thanks.” Ava rubbed her wrists as soon the guard removed the shackles. “Give us another minute, Private.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The guard closed the door behind himself.

Ava took the opportunity to take Luke’s hands. “I’m glad you made it back in one piece.”

“Those NTech guys were trying hard to make sure that didn’t happen.” He shrugged it off. “Can’t say I’m eager to be in combat again, though.”

“I’m all for you being my scientist guy back here at HQ.”

“That I can do.” He leaned in and gave her a kiss. “And I need to get going on that testing.”

“Yes, please tell me what’s going on. I haven’t had so much as an eye-glow in the last two days.”

“There’s no reason to believe there would be any kind of consistent expression of traits. It’s actually surprising you were able to exercise any degree of control when you were on the verge of changing before.”

“I hope you don’t want me to intentionally change, because if that’s what Kurtz wants, it’s probably the last thing I should do.”

“We’ll make that determination once I’ve completed a full model of your current genome and bloodwork.”

Ava scowled at him. “Scientist you is so impersonal.”

He smiled. “Rest assured, you’ll be my favorite test subject.”

“Yeah, well—”

An alarm interrupted Ava.

Luke jumped. “What’s that for?”

“Nothing good.”


*     *     *


Major Widmore stopped midstride when the alarm sounded. The fuck?

He ran to the nearest control panel and entered his credentials to view the details for the alert. Someone was trying to force an override to release a transport ship from its grapple. If the alarm was sounding, that meant the station was at risk for a decompression.

What kind of idiot would be trying to launch a ship without disengaging the docking clamps? Widmore grumbled internally.

No trained warrior, that’s for sure. So either someone had forgotten all their training, or the pilot was under duress.

Regardless of the reasons, that docking wing needed as many Force personnel as possible to get the situation under control.

Widmore ran down the corridor.












CHAPTER TEN


Ava dashed to the conference room door. “We need to find out what that alarm is for.”

“Should you be, you know, out and about?” Luke asked behind her.

She was torn. Feeling like herself at the moment didn’t mean she wasn’t actually under some form of influence. But if there was an emergency situation, stars be damned if she was going to be locked in a holding cell while the facility was in crisis.

Ava looked over her shoulder at Luke. “Right now, the most pressing danger is whatever is causing that alarm.” She opened the door and found the four guards waiting outside, looking concerned. “Private, what’s the alarm about?”

“There’s a notice about pressurization failure, but that’s all I know, ma’am,” one warrior replied.

The station might depressurize? Ava’s heart leaped. They’d trained for that kind of emergency, but she never dreamed she’d have to put those skills to use. “We need to get to a control center.”

“Ma’am, we’re supposed to bring you back to Medical.”

“Those orders came through before there was a fucking alarm telling us we all might die!” Ava shot back.

“Uh…” Luke paled.

“Might be an exaggeration. Hopefully.” Ava stared down the private barring her path. “I’ll have the good doctor here to escort me,” she said, gesturing toward Luke.

“Right, yes,” Luke said to her relief.

“I’m… I’m not sure—”

“Private, the circumstances have changed. I’m not an enemy being detained, this was a voluntary isolation. Either let me out now, or I’m going to force my way out.”

The warrior reluctantly stepped aside, and his comrades parted.

“Thank you.” Ava passed through the opening and headed to the left toward the nearest control room.

“You know I can’t do squat to stop you if you lose control,” Luke whispered when they were beyond earshot from the guards.

“It won’t come to that.”

Ava jogged down the hall with Luke close behind. The control room was around a corner a hundred meters from the conference room. She tried the door, but it was locked.

“Damn,” she muttered while fiddling with the controls on the touch-panel.

“Can you override it?”

“Yes, but it won’t be easy. The depressurization warning has sealed all the doors.”

“Yeah, again, that sounds like something I should be worried about!”

Ava ignored Luke’s concerns for the time being, focusing on the task at hand. She couldn’t make an informed assessment of their circumstances until she knew exactly what they were up against.

After two minutes of trying various overrides for the door lock, she finally found an authorization that worked. The bolt unlocked with a satisfying clang, and then the door hissed open.

As soon as the door opened a crack, a large wolf stuck its nose through the opening toward Ava. Paws connected with Ava’s shoulders, and she fell backward onto the deck.

The wolf shoved its snout in her face and barked, sending a spray of drool across Ava’s face.

“The fuck?” Ava shoved the wolf off of her, noting the name badge on its adaptable pressure suit. “Larry, how could you let yourself lose focus like that?”

Larry the wolf dropped his head and looked up at her with regretful eyes.

Granted, an unexpected alarm was a stressful situation, but Ava would have expected a Force warrior to fight harder to keep the animal side of his self from taking over.

She wiped the wolf spittle from her face and dashed to the control panel on the back wall.

The entire touchscreen was covered in slobber and paw prints. “Damn it, Larry!” Ava glared at the wolf.

He whined and dropped his head further.

“Holy shit.”

Ava grimaced as she ran her fingers through the sticky puddle of drool to access the menu. “Fool tried to get the door open with his nose.”

Larry barked.

“Don't try to explain now,” she told him without taking her eyes from the controls.

He plopped onto the deck and crossed his front paws.

Luke glanced between Larry and Ava, shaking his head.

She chuckled to herself as she searched for details about the lockdown, remembering what it had been like when she first joined the FDG and had to get used to being around Weres. It wasn’t often that one of the warriors would shift when they didn’t intend to, but sometimes it was poor timing to the point of being comical.

Her amusement faded the moment she located the source of the alarm. “Oh, shit…”

Luke ran up next to her, searching the screen. “What is it?”

“A ship is trying to break away from the station while the docking clamps are still engaged. It’ll rip a hole in this section if it gets free.”

“Why would someone—”

“No one in their right mind would.” Ava took a steadying breath. “Kurtz.”

“Kurtz-Kurtz or alien-Kurtz?”

“For all I know it’s a fight between the two of them.”

Luke crossed his arms. “What do we do?”

You are going to stay here in this room with Larry here. The room will remain pressurized even if the rest of this arm of the station loses atmosphere.”

“Ava, no, you’re not going up against—”

“I’ll find Widmore or someone on my team.”

Luke spread his arms. “You can’t just leave me here!”

“I can’t bring you along, either. I need to get to the colonel. No one else knows what’s going on with him, so they’d be liable to either shoot him on sight or let him go,” Ava insisted. “I need to help bring him in unharmed.”

“And then what?”’

“You figure out how to get that thing out of him.”

“Me?!”

“Hey, you signed up to be the FDG’s greatest new scientific mind.”

A flush crept into Luke’s face. “Yeah, for genetics research! And let’s not forget I’m already trying to solve what’s going on with you.”

“That can wait. The colonel needs our help, and fixing whatever happened to him means we might be able to help the Nezaran Chancellor, too.”

“Ava—”

“I’ll be fine. And you’ll be safe here. Remember the safety briefing about the pressure suit, should you need it.” She gave him a quick kiss. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Before Luke could object further, she ran out the door into the corridor. She resealed the door behind her.

The endangered docking wing was up two decks, so Ava ran to the nearest access ladder, knowing the elevator would be locked.

She scaled the rungs and ran down the hall toward the docking location as soon as she reached the top.

Two bewildered guards stood behind the security desk at the wing’s entrance.

“What’s going on?” Ava demanded.

“Don’t know, ma’am,” one replied. “Colonel Kurtz came by a few minutes ago, and then Widmore—”

The deck shuddered, accompanied by a groan of grating metal.

“Get yourselves to a safe place,” Ava instructed. She opened the wing door. “Make sure this is sealed behind me.” She ran through.

The sound of grinding metal echoed down the corridor. The sound was coming from the left, so Ava ran in that direction. After passing by five airlocks along the curving hall, Ava spotted Major Widmore up ahead making furious entries on a touchpanel. “Major!”

He glanced in her direction. “Ava? What are you—”

“Is it Kurtz?” she asked.

“Yes, he signed out a ship. The orders are complete nonsense.”

Another shudder wracked the station as the ship strained at the end of its gangway.

“Why didn’t the clamps release?”

“It’s strange.” The major shook his head. “Only half of the undocking procedures were followed. He knows better.”

Kurtz knows better. But if he’s not in control…”

“Either way, we need to stop him.”

“That’s why I’m here, sir. But I’m surprised I beat the security team.”

“How did you get here so fast?” Widmore asked.

“Ladder.”

“Well, others will make their way up here, but it’s going to take some explanation about what’s going on. Those are questions I don’t know how to answer.”

“Too much of that going around.” Ava assessed what the major had been doing with the airlock door, seeing he was midway through a poorly executed hack of the overrides. “May I, sir?”

“Please.” He stepped aside. “I was never much good at this.”

“That’s why you have a team, sir.”

She got to work redoing Widmore’s attempt to override the seal. “Almost got it…”

The lock released and the doors began to part—just as another shudder reverberated through the station.

“Suit, now!” Widmore shouted.

On reflex, Ava activated the emergency deployment for the gloves and helmet on her pressure suit. The collar unfurled and a clear dome enveloped her head while gloves formed around her hands.

Ava was sucked through the opening between the airlock’s door panels.

She careened straight down the ruined gangway. The smooth walls sped by her, offering nothing to grab. Before she could react, she passed through the splintered end where the ship had ripped away.

For an instant, everything was quiet and still.

Only a dozen meters ahead, the transport vessel was pulling away, its side airlock still open. Ava had no control of her trajectory, but the gangway had sent her on a course straight for the ship’s open airlock. She’d have one chance to stick the landing.

One excruciating second passed in the vacuum of space. Time stood still for Ava as she tumbled through the black toward the ship’s airlock, her heart pounding in her ears. She held her breath, bracing for the impact.

She clipped the edge of the airlock on her way through the door. Pain radiated from her right shoulder as she cartwheeled to the side. She struck the other side of the chamber and desperately reached for a handhold. Her first grasp came up empty, but she managed to loop her fingers through on the second attempt.

Ava held on for dear life.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a black form hurdling toward her.

“Widmore!” she shouted, though she knew he couldn’t hear her.

He flew past her and struck the back wall. Ava held out her hand, and he grabbed it on the ricochet, providing just enough leverage to swing toward the wall and grab a handhold.

Widmore pounded on the emergency hatch seal, and the airlock door slammed shut.

The artificial gravity engaged, and Ava was slowly pulled toward the floor.

A gauge on the back wall turned green, indicating atmosphere had been restored to the chamber.

She pressed the controls on her neck, and the helmet and gloves folded back into her suit. Widmore did the same.

“Holy shit, that was close,” she told him.

“That wasn’t exactly what I had planned.” The major took a deep breath. “I guess we’re on our own.”

“Still two against one.”

“Except he’s a Were… and whatever else.”

“We can find a sonic blaster and take him out.”

“Not unless we find some noise cancelling earbuds. Gun like that will echo like crazy in a small ship like this,” Widmore countered.

“Then what do you suggest, sir?”

“We tackle and shackle the old-fashioned way.”

“Why am I not surprised you’d say that?”

“It’s been too long since I’ve been in the thick of action.”

Ava grinned and released the inner door. “He’ll know we’re here, but we still have numbers on our side.”

“That we do. Lead the way.”


*     *     *


Nox glowered at the computer screen. How did they make it on board?

Members of the Force are quite industrious, Kurtz replied. He tried to hide the satisfied smile in his mind.

He’d been afraid that the ship had broken free too quickly, before anyone had a chance to board. The fact that anyone had made it inside the airlock was a near-miracle, but he’d take it.

The question now was whether they’d be able to subdue Nox without harming his body. He was certain Nox would rather die than be captured. Death wasn’t on Kurtz’s itinerary for the day.

You should hand yourself over now, if you want to live, Kurtz told the alien.

Why ever would I do that? I’ve won.

They’ll have the door to the bridge open in a matter of minutes.

A course has already been set. By the time they override the controls, we’ll be among my people.

A bang sounded on the door.

Kurtz knew they’d never try to bust through the steel. That was an alert for him, if there was any part of himself. His friends were coming.

I sense you getting your hopes up, Nox said. You’re only setting yourself up for disappointment.

Where are you going to meet your people?

Gidyon.

Ah, so that’s why no one goes to that system.

One of the reasons.

And the other? Kurtz prompted.

I’m surprised you don’t know already. It’s—

The door flew open. Kurtz was on the ground before he had a chance to react.

Nox struggled against Major Widmore’s grasp on his arms while Ava grabbed his ankles.

Just need a little more time, Nox said. How about something to keep them busy?


*     *     *


Ava swiveled her hands to better hold Kurtz’s writhing form. “The cuffs, Major?”

“Working on it,” Widmore grunted while slipping one of Kurtz’s hands through the stasis cuffs they’d grabbed from the supply locker outside the airlock.

The first cuff cinched around the colonel’s wrist, and Widmore hurriedly jammed the man’s hand into the other.

Ava was just about to force his knees up so they could lock his ankles when the shape of the colonel’s legs began to change. They bulked and lengthened in her grasp, his boots and suit flexing.

“Major, he’s—”

“Yeah, I got that,” Widmore muttered while staring down a Pricolici snout.

“Shit!” Ava shouted as Kurtz’s booted feet kicked free of her hands. One foot struck the side of her head, and she tumbled toward the wall.

The Pricolici roared, slamming the back of a clawed fist into Widmore’s face.

Blood poured from the major’s nose, but he threw his weight against the Were. “Ava, the cuffs!”

Still dazed, Ava dove onto the colonel’s legs and forced his knees to bend.

Widmore strained against the Pricolici, reaching out the tether to loop around its ankles.

Just a little more… With a surge of strength, Ava got Kurtz into the necessary position, and the cuffs cinched tight. She dropped the anchor to the deck, locking Kurtz in place.

Ava scrambled backward and rose to her feet. “You know, that actually went better than I expected.”

Widmore wiped the blood from his upper lip. “Easy for you to say.”

She looked at the flight controls. “Never mind. I retract my statement.”












CHAPTER ELEVEN


Ava groaned. Well, that’s just fantastic.

“What is it?” Widmore glanced over at her from the communications console.

“We’re on a heading for the Annex Gate. The nav system has a destination set in the Gidyon System,” Ava replied, returning her gaze to the navigation screen.

“So?”

“That’s a… bad place to go.”

Kurtz, still in his Pricolici form, snarled on the floor and jangled the cuffs.

Widmore frowned. “You need to be more specific.”

“I don’t know what’s there, Major,” Ava admitted, “but everyone in the Alaxar Trinary knows to not enter Gidyon. It’s the adjacent system.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’ll have the ship turned around in no time.” He looked over Ava’s shoulder at the controls. “Oh.”

“Yeah, I was about to get to the part about the nav override triggering a life support failure.”

“How the hell did he rig this so quickly?”

Ava grimaced. “He didn’t get to be a colonel for nothing.”

 “Fuck!” Widmore scanned the panel. “Can you undo it?”

“Honestly? I’m not sure, sir. But in the interest in being productive, yes.”

“I’ll take it. What can I do to help?”

“I don’t suppose you have study notes from the nav system programming final exam on hand, do you?”

Widmore shook his head. “Nope.”

“Well, then I guess we need to get into the communications system.”

“Now that I might be able to help with.” Widmore leaped over Kurtz so he could access the communications console on the side of the room. “I’ve had to rewire these a time or two in my day. I should at least be able to get a distress call to HQ.”

“If you can manage it, Sam or Nick might be able to talk us through how to create a back door into the system so we can undo the nav lock.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

While Widmore got to work, Ava tried to regain control of the ship.

She tended to think of the colonel as being mostly a paper-pusher, but she had to admit that the work on the system had been genius. Tying the life support to navigation was no small feat, especially in such a short time. But, being a rush job, the work was imperfect.

“Sir, I think I may have something,” Ava said.

“Good, because I was able to get a distress signal to headquarters, but any kind of text or voice communication is a no-go for now.”

“I think we can do a system reset to wipe out the current destination without permanently disabling the ship like he intended,” Ava continued. “Problem is, that means we’ll lose life support for that time.”

“How long for a reboot?”

“Six minutes.”

Widmore smiled. “No problem! Plenty of air and it won’t get cold for a lot longer than that.”

“Yes, sir. That’s not my concern. Trouble is if the system doesn’t come back on afterward.”

“The FDG will have a ship here before that becomes an issue. Besides, we have our suits.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I sense another ‘but’.”

Ava nodded. “Whoever the alien was going to meet, my guess is they’ll want him back.”

“You think they’ll come for him?”

Him… or me. “We don’t know anything about this enemy, sir.”

“You’re right, we can’t rule out any possibility. But we need the facilities at the base to figure out how to get the alien presence out of him.”

On the deck, the Pricolici’s snout receded. Kurtz stared up at them. “He said he can’t be removed,” he stammered.

“Colonel?” Widmore leaned down toward him. “Are you—”

Kurtz cried out in agony and spasmed. “He’s mine now. You’ll all be.”

Widmore straightened. “Ava, hold on that system reset. I have another idea.”


*     *     *


Kurtz writhed on the ground as Nox regained control.

Never betray me again or there won’t be any of you left, Nox snarled in his mind.

Clearly, the alien still didn’t understand the FDG even after spending three years in Kurtz’s head. A warrior wouldn’t be consumed so easily.

Above him, Ava and Major Widmore were talking urgently. As much as Kurtz wanted to listen to their conversation, it was taking every bit of his concentration to maintain his place near the front of his consciousness.

Ava bent down and looked him in the eyes. “Colonel, are you in there?” she asked telepathically.

“You can’t help me,” Nox replied on his behalf.

Kurtz shoved him aside. “I’m here! Don’t let him tell you otherwise, Ava.”

Ava smiled. “You’ve got it, Colonel. I’ll do whatever I can to help. But right now, you need to help me. How do we undo the navigation lock?”

Don’t you dare try to tell her, Nox threatened.

You have no leverage, Nox. There’s nothing you can do to this ship that won’t kill you, too, or Ava, and I know how important she is to you.

“Sorry, Nox, but I have to side with the colonel on this one. I see you for what you are.”

Nox’s surprise was palpable. “You can hear us?”

“Yeah, the whole telepathic thing.” Ava cocked her head. “Don’t understand us humans as well as you thought, huh?”

“Your abilities won’t get me out of him,” Nox spat back.

“Maybe not, but guess what—I don’t need Kurtz to tell me anything. Push him back as much as you want. I can see your recent memories, Nox, and everything I need to know about the nav system is right there. I know exactly what I need to do.”

“You… you can’t!” the alien stammered. “How…?”

Ava shrugged. “Maybe modifying me wasn’t such a good idea after all.”


*     *     *


Widmore watched Ava as she bored into the colonel’s mind, her gaze as intense as he’d ever witnessed.

He had no idea if she was making any progress, but it was worth a shot. No sense in risking a reset if it wasn’t necessary.

“The nav command…” Ava said, her voice strained.

Widmore came to attention. “What do we need to do?”

“Go into the main nav directory and enter the following code.” She listed off an alphanumeric string to him.

“One sec.” Widmore did as he was instructed. As soon as the final digit was entered, a command window popped up. “There’s a prompt for contingent relays. I have no clue what that means.” He frowned at the screen.

“Is there a default setting?” Ava asked.

“Yes.”

“Okay, select that. Then things will get tricky. You need to do a physical bypass of the life support system using the wiring under the console.”

Widmore nodded. “Just don’t tell me we have to reverse the polarity.”

A smirk curled Ava’s lips. “If only that worked as well as it always seems to in the old movies.”

The major dropped to his knees and peeked under the nav console. The metal plate covering the circuitry had already been removed, and it looked like several wires had been spliced together with crude junctures.

“I think I see the problem,” he muttered. “Which ones do I change?”

Ava frowned. “I keep getting an image of a blue wire.”

Widmore swore under his breath. There were at least four blue-ish wires he could see. “You’re going to have to be a lot more specific.”

“You know, the blue—”

“Ava!”

She tore her gaze from Kurtz’s prone form. “I’ll have to look at it myself. I can see it, but Nox keeps trying to cloud my perception.”

“Nox? Is that what took over the colonel?”

“That’s what it calls itself. It’s some sort of conscious presence, but I can’t tell what kind of physical form it might possess.”

“We can deal with that later.” Widmore pointed to the hanging wires. “First, what do we do with that?”

“Right.” Ava dropped to her back and began sorting through the wires, her brow furrowed.

Widmore sat back on his heels and allowed her to complete the task without interruption. He was fortunate to be surrounded by such talented colleagues, and Ava was truly one of the best. If he had to be stuck with someone on a ship headed into unknown territory, she was at the top of his list for a partner.

After two tense minutes, Ava finally dropped her hands to her side and sat up. “Okay, I think that should do it.”

“How sure are you?”

She shrugged. “Enough that I’d rather try to power on the system and see if this works than find out why Gidyon is off-limits.”

“Fair enough. Proceed.”

“Here it goes.” Ava took a deep breath and activated the control panel. She half-closed her eyes as though bracing for an explosion.

Widmore took a step back.

The console beeped, and green lights illuminated across the display.

Ava grinned. “Good news, sir. We’re not going to die.”

“Have you regained control of the nav system?”

She tapped on the menu and nodded. “It appears everything is responding.”

Widmore took a step toward the pilot’s chair. “Well done. Let’s get back to—”

An alarm sounded, echoing in the compact chamber.

“What now?” Widmore’s pulse spiked.

Ava’s face drained. She began cycling through the ship’s systems to identify the issue. “Sir, we’re venting atmosphere.”

“Where? How?”

On the floor, Kurtz chuckled to himself. “Stop trying to override the nav controls and I’ll halt the leak.”

Ava scoffed. “Have you forgotten about our suits?”

“You might want to look at it more closely,” Kurtz replied.

Widmore looked down at his suit and was horrified to see a gash running along the side of his torso. It must have been ripped in our fight earlier, he realized. So much for having a functional pressure suit.

“You’ll die with us,” he told Kurtz.

“Oh, no, this venting is at a very specific rate. There will be enough air for two of us to live until we make it to our destination. If you don’t want to decide who lives and dies, then stop resisting.”

“Too late. Course is already set back to the FDG base,” Ava replied.

“Is it, now?” Kurtz smirked. “Then why haven’t we turned around?”

Widmore ran to look over Ava’s shoulder at the controls. “The destination is still set to Gidyon.”

“I changed it!” Ava re-entered the FDG base and the system reset again. “It keeps overriding it.”

Fuck! Widmore took a steadying breath. “What are our options?”

“We could try the full system reset, but after seeing this, I’m not sure it will work. At a minimum, I imagine we’ll lose life support, like we feared.”

“Do it.”

“But, sir, your suit…”

“I’ll get the patch kit. We can’t go through that Annex Gate,” Widmore said with a tone of finality.

Ava nodded and turned her attention to initiating the reset.

Widmore stepped around Kurtz to access the back storage area of the ship. The patch kit was where it should be in a cabinet near the entry airlock. The materials hardly looked like something that would hold up long-term, but it would have to do.

By the time he was finished placing the adhesive strips along the tear, Ava had completed the preparations for the reset.

“Ready?” she asked.

“You’re making a mistake,” Kurtz objected from the deck.

“If you don’t want us to do this, then that means it’s exactly what we should be doing,” Widmore shot back. He nodded to Ava. “Proceed.”

“Here it goes.” She initiated the restart sequence.

All the mechanical and electrical systems cut out, leaving the cockpit in darkness. The artificial gravity released, and Widmore slowly floated upward. His stomach turned over, but he took calming breaths to settle his senses.

He waited to the count of sixty before concern began to set in. “Why hasn’t it come back on?”

“I don’t know,” Ava replied through the black to Widmore’s right.

Great, we’re going to be floating out here until we freeze. That kind of thinking wouldn’t solve the situation. “How visible are we out here powered down?”

“Not very.” Just the slightest hint of concern edged into Ava’s voice. “Do you think the FDG will have sent a rescue ship?”

“That’s my hope. I did get off the distress call before the shutdown.”

“Good, and we haven’t altered course.”

“All the same, we’re a speck in the black. We need to activate the emergency beacon.” Widmore shook his head. “Which was probably right below the patch kit. I wasn’t thinking.”

“We all have a few things on our minds. Don’t worry about it,” Ava assured him.

Kurtz yanked against his restraints on the floor. “But will the FDG find you first?”

“They’re the best,” Widmore stated. The base isn’t far. They should be here soon.

Feeling his way through the dark, Widmore worked through the door into the open area surrounding the airlock. He followed his mental map of where he’d just been, feeling in front of him for a latch to the cabinet. There was no way he’d be able to locate and activate a beacon on feel alone, but there was one item he knew exactly how to find if he could just get the cabinet open.

His hand found the handle in the dark, and he pulled. The door popped open. He ran his fingers along the inside of the door. A cool cylinder met his probing touch.

“Watch your eyes,” he warned Ava. With his own eyes closed, he activated the flashlight.

Red light illuminated the cabin, casting an eerie glow in the small space.

Widmore checked below the patch kit, finding nothing. He moved on to the adjacent cabinet.

“Who outfitted this place?” he grumbled aloud.

“I don’t think this ship was ever meant to venture out on its own,” Ava replied from the adjacent room.

Widmore opened another cabinet, and his light found its mark: an orange box with all manner of emergency markings. “Got it!”

Without hesitation, he activated the device.

He carefully propelled himself back toward Ava in the cockpit. “Now we wait,” he said once inside the room.

Kurtz scowled below where he was secured to the bottom deck.

“What will we tell everyone about the colonel?” Ava asked.

“I’ll think of something. Maybe that he was exposed to a contagion and needs to go into quarantine,” Widmore suggested.

“Why not the truth?” Ava asked.

“Maybe. But we don’t want mass hysteria with people accusing each other of being subverted just because someone is acting a little off or having a bad day. We’ll need to be clear about the extent of the telepathic control.”

Ava frowned. “But we don’t know that yet.”

“My concerns exactly.” Widmore sighed. “Like I said, we’ll think of something.”

They waited in relative silence for another five minutes until a shudder ran through the ship.

Widmore’s heart leaped as he saw the interior of a cargo bay envelop the Lisbeth II, complete with the FDG emblem printed on the wall.

“Thank the stars!” Ava relaxed.

“All in a day’s work,” Widmore said with a grin. He was drawn back to the deck as the artificial gravity of the larger ship took over.

Ava didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm. “There’s still the concern about the aliens—or whatever they are—coming for him.” She glanced at Kurtz.

“The Dren base is one of the most defensible locations we have at our disposal. Until we understand the situation, I think it’s the best place we can be,” Widmore replied.

She nodded.

Widmore took a deep breath as he regained his footing. “All right, Lieutenant. Let’s go home and have a chat with this Nox.”












CHAPTER TWELVE


“Any word back from the FDG?” President Connors asked Karen as soon as she stepped into his office.

“No.” She closed the door. She wished she had information to bring him, but after her brief conversation with Luke, she’d been unable to raise any of her contacts.

“Damn it.” Connors sank into his chair. “If Colonel Kurtz is subverted, do you think there are others?”

“Maybe. Who’s to know?” Karen walked over to sit across from him in one of the visitor chairs.

“It’s times like this when I wished Alucia had a bigger military presence.”

“We’re in the Federation now. They have that muscle to bear on our behalf.”

“And what good does that do when they won’t return our calls?” Connors grumbled.

“I know, sir,” Karen said in a calm, even tone that belied her private concerns. “We could reach out to the Federation governance instead.”

“No time to jump through those administrative hoops. Nezar could attack us at any moment. If the FDG isn’t responding to this matter, who’s to say anyone else in the Federation would come to our aid in time?”

Karen wished she had an answer. “We have an agreement with them. We need to trust in our new alliance.”

The president eyed her. “Do you really believe that?”

She was about to give a vague deflection but stopped herself. “The Federation values autonomy. We can’t go running to them with every problem.”

“Especially if the FDG has subverted members of its own leadership.”

“Yes, sir. My concerns, as well.”

“So, we need to take matters into our own hands,” Connors mused, steepling his fingers.

“We don’t have military might, but there is one thing more valuable.”

“Information,” Connors completed for her.

“Precisely.”

“But to gather information of sufficient value, one would need access to places no Alucian in their right mind would dare enter.”

Karen tilted her head. “Not all of us are Alucian.”

Connors dropped his hands to the desktop. “I wasn’t suggesting—”

“No, sir, I know you weren’t. But I am.”

He stared at her with intrigue in his violet eyes. “What are you thinking?”

Karen leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs. “Well, I was initially sent to Alucia through an organization secretly working on behalf of the Nezaran government. The position afforded me a number of government contacts. One, in particular, remained a… I wouldn’t call him quite a friend, but more than a casual work acquaintance.”

Connors raised an eyebrow. “A romantic entanglement?”

“No, nothing like that. He was something of a mentor to me.” She paused. “We’ve spoken since I took this new job with you. He expressed an interest in working together again, should the circumstances align.”

“That would be impossible so long as Nezar remains outside the Federation.”

Karen nodded. “But perhaps that offers a reason for a visit. The topic of Alucian and Nezaran relations remains a critical subject regardless of the outside political pressures.”

“They still want the system to remain independent. I doubt they’d be receptive to discussion of unification.”

“No,” Karen agreed, “but I can tell them what they want to hear.”

“Paint yourself a traitor to me?”

“It would fit with my original mission objective. For all they know, this promotion within the Alucian government was all a ruse to get close while I remained loyal to my origins.”

Connors paled. “That’s just the scheming talking, right?”

She gave him a reassuring smile. “Sir, when I pledged myself to you, I meant every word. Alucia is my future. I promise.”

He didn’t look entirely convinced, but he nodded.

“The cover story would make for an ideal entry back into the Nezaran ranks. It would grant me access.”

“That it would,” Connors mused. He looked her over. “This would be dangerous for you.”

“It will, sir, but I owe it to you and Alucia to take a risk.”

“I can’t ask you to do this.”

“I’m volunteering.”

He considered her offer. “What would be your strategy?”

“Get in, gather some information, and provide assistance for the FDG to get inside.”

“Would they truly infiltrate a foreign nation’s capital building?”

Karen shrugged. “It’s an easier sell than infiltrating, say, this building on Alucia. Outsiders are enemies, allies must be treated as friends. You wouldn’t walk into a friend’s house uninvited.”

“But with an enemy, you do whatever is necessary to protect your own interests.” Connors nodded, tapping his fingertips together. “So you go in, pave the way, and then…?”

“I get them Chancellor Heizberg.”

Connors frowned. “I know that’s the end game, but if the plan fails…”

“We’ll have the FDG fully engaged by that point. They’d be obligated to come to our aid.”

“I hate making plans contingent on so many hypotheticals.”

“Isn’t that the root of politics, anticipating potential moves and countering future actions three steps ahead?”

Connors smiled. “Three steps would be child’s play.”

“You’re in agreement, then,” Karen replied with a slight smile of her own.

“You’re confident in your contact? What would you tell him?”

“That I have a close working relationship with you, which provides access. There are either possibilities to improve diplomatic relations through the official channels, or I can work through backchannels to get the Nezarans what they really want.”

“The independence of the entire Alaxar Trinary.”

“Precisely. And my bet is that they’ll use any means necessary to accomplish that goal.”

“Agreed.” Connors sighed. “But what if the FDG refuses to move in after you’ve laid the groundwork?”

“That’s the beauty of the plan,” Karen replied with a smile. “If the Nezarans try anything underhanded with me, that means that I, an Alucian citizen—a member of the Federation—will be in danger. The FDG will be obligated to intervene.”

“Forcing their hand to act won’t win us any favor.”

“Easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.”

Connors chuckled. “That adage is always irksome on the receiving end.”

“At least by the time we have to beg, we’ll have something to show for it,” Karen pointed out.

“If all goes well, yes.”

Karen looked the president square in his eyes. “Let me do this, sir. I think it’s our best chance to spur action before the Nezarans can mount an offensive against us.”

“Make the arrangements,” he consented. “But I expect you back here unharmed. I’ve grown rather fond of your speech writing.”

“Yes, sir. I have many more yet to write.” She rose from her chair.

“Good luck.” Connors paused. “And if this is meant to be disguised as an official diplomatic engagement, you should take Leon,” he suggested.

“I can’t in good conscience bring someone else into that level of danger.”

“Not into the facility,” Connors clarified, “just a ship in orbit of the planet. Someone through whom to relay information. He can be trusted.”

She nodded. “Good idea, sir. I’ll speak with him.”

“Be careful. I’ll see you soon.”

Karen departed with a deferential nod. She stopped by Leon’s post at the reception desk on her way out. He was surprised by the request, but in the style of any good assistant, he asked only enough questions to ensure he had the correct information to complete the travel arrangements.

After receiving assurance that her transportation would be arranged, Karen return to her office to have the more difficult conversations.

Her first call was to Luke, her best chance of getting through to anyone with the Force. She entered the direct line he gave her but got no answer. She tried again.

Finally, the video feed activated. “Karen, what is it?” he demanded by way of greeting.

“Hello to you, too.”

“This isn’t a great time.” Luke’s violet eyes had a hint of red.

“What’s wrong?”

“There’s a… situation here,” her brother replied.

“What—”

“I can’t talk about it, Karen. Tell me why you called so I can get back to my work.”

For a moment, she had second thoughts about telling him her plan. She hated to see her younger brother so distressed, and what she was about to say would only make matters worse. But, for the sake of Alucia—and Coraxa, by extension—she knew what she had to do.

“Luke, I’m going to Nezar,” she stated.

He processed the words for a full ten seconds. “You’re… What for?”

“If the FDG won’t take action, then we have to.”

Luke groaned. “The Force will take care of Heizberg, Karen. We’re dealing with a more urgent issue right now, but it’s next on the list, I promise.”

“Good, then I’ll be in place when they’re ready to move in.”

“Karen, don’t be stupid.”

“No, I’m being smart. You think the FDG—however good they are—can just walk into a secure government facility and take the chancellor without bringing all manner of grief down on themselves?”

He stared back at her. “Yes, that is exactly what they do all the time. It is literally their specialty.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“That’s not my problem. Stay on Alucia. We’ll take care of this.”

“Well, I’ve talked with President Connors. This is how we want to proceed.”

“Karen, don’t,” Luke cautioned. “The subverted members of the government may have telepathic abilities. They’ll know you’re lying to them.”

“Good thing Ava taught us about mental guards when we were kids then, huh?”

“Maybe those can stand up to a casual gleaning, but if someone really wants information—”

“If it comes to that, then it’s already too late.”

“Precisely why you shouldn’t do this!”

She shook her head. “It’s easy for you to be dismissive from your place there, removed from the day-to-day life of people over here. Nezar could attack us and we’d be defenseless!”

Luke massaged the bridge of his nose. “Karen, you’re being reactionary and rash. There’s more going on here than you know. Let us deal with this the right way.”

“I’m going to Nezar,” she insisted. “I’ll be in touch once I’m in position.”

“No, don’t—”

“Pass on my message to whoever it is that makes decisions. We’ll fix the system together.” She ended the call before he could protest further.

The call could have gone better, but she got the message out. She had every confidence Luke would tell the right people to light a fire under the FDG’s galactic ass.

Hopefully, her next communication would be more productive. With her heart pounding in her ears, she dialed Nezar.

“Hi, Dominic,” she greeted. “Would you still like to work together?”












CHAPTER THIRTEEN


Ava had never been so relieved to return to FDG headquarters. While she’d been on her share of dangerous missions over the years, an impromptu spacewalk was at the bottom of her list for how to have a good time.

Warriors on the rescue ship, the Vortex, had detained the colonel on Major Widmore’s orders. They’d raised eyebrows when they saw the prisoner in question, but said nothing and did as they were told just like they were trained to do.

Now back inside headquarters and heading toward an interview room, Ava could begin reflecting on the day’s experiences. Her own transformation. Kurtz’s alien parasite. Violation of her home. She wished she could take the afternoon to unwind, but duty demanded she remain focused.

Guards escorted the colonel two paces ahead of her, with Major Widmore walking to her left.

The major also seemed shaken by the day’s experience, though he gave little external indication. Ava had worked with him enough, though, to notice a slight flush to his cheeks and elevated pulse.

Oh, shit. I shouldn’t be able to hear his pulse, she realized.

Her own heart pounded in her ears. She still felt so much like herself that the changes she was undergoing could be forgotten when the right distraction came along, yet it was too much for her to ignore.

“Sir,” she said tentatively, “I don’t know if I should stay out there. Maybe I should go back into quarantine. Knowing that Kurtz was part of my change—that this was planned—it makes me even more dangerous.”

 “I understand your concerns, and I share them,” Widmore replied. “But you’re the only person who’s been able to communicate with whatever it is inside Colonel Kurtz.”

“Isn’t that all the more reason to be suspicious of me? Maybe me being able to communicate with it is a form of influence itself.”

“You overpowered it on the ship,” Widmore pointed out.

“Unless that’s what it wanted.”

Widmore frowned. “Maybe we can’t trust what’s happening to you, but we won’t get anywhere without more information.”

“What if it lies and I can’t tell the difference?”

“You did fine work today, Lieutenant,” Widmore replied after a slight pause. “Trust your gifts and your instincts.”

Ava’s stomach twisted. “I’m a liability.”

“You’re also our best shot at getting through this, risks or not.”

She nodded. “Yes, sir.”

As much as she wanted to protest further, Ava knew he was right. They needed a telepath to get through to the real Kurtz within, and she was the only person with the skills and clearance to get the job done.

They reached the room that had been set aside for the interview. Filled with a hybrid of typical interrogation utilities and the necessary setup for a medical evaluation, the room reminded Ava of the places she’d encountered while undercover in the NTech lab on Coraxa—circumstances she’d rather forget.

Widmore leaned toward her when they entered the room. “Are you okay?” he asked.

She took a deep breath to clear her mind. “Yes, sir. I’ve got this.”

He gave her one more appraising look. “All right.”

The guards secured Kurtz’s hands around a metal pole in the center of the room so he was standing with his back against the pole.

Doctor Dwyer stepped forward from a monitoring station at the back wall. “Colonel, we’re going to run some scans,” he stated.

Kurtz—or rather, Nox inside him—sneered at the doctor. “Your tests won’t tell you anything. You’ll never understand what I am.”

“Our science is more advanced than you seem to think,” Dwyer stated, unruffled. He began attaching sensors to the colonel’s head and neck.

“We need to find out how he got… possessed, or whatever it is,” Widmore said.

“We will, but first I need to see if we can detect whatever is inside him. If there are others, we need a way to test,” Dwyer replied.

“What will these sensors reveal?”

“Hopefully, some indication of a physical manifestation of the presence.” Dwyer finished adhering the sensors, and then he grabbed a long wand with a sensor array along one edge. He ran the wand from the colonel’s head to toes across his front, and then repeated the motion along his back.

Ava crossed her arms as she watched from near the entry door. Kurtz’s smug expression was so unlike his normal self, especially under the circumstances. She couldn’t imagine what it must be like for him to be trapped inside his own body while something masqueraded as him.

Doctor Dwyer returned to the monitoring station and activated the sensors. A representation of a man’s body appeared on the monitor behind him. “Hmm.”

Widmore examined the monitor from next to Dwyer. “Do you see anything?”

“His heartrate and neural activity are elevated, but there isn’t any obvious foreign growth in him,” Dwyer replied.

“I can’t believe I was actually hoping there’d be a worm attached to his spinal column,” Widmore muttered.

“That would have suggested a more obvious course for treatment,” Dwyer agreed. “As it stands, though, we’ll need to run bloodwork to look for microscopic elements.”

The major frowned. “How long will that take?”

“At least half an hour to get preliminary results, but I have no idea how deeply we may need to dive. This is clearly something our standard tests don’t look for.”

Kurtz barked a laugh. “Such simple creatures you are.”

“I’m certain you aren’t as advanced as you’d like us to believe. It’s all science,” Dwyer replied. He prepared a syringe. “Hold still,” he instructed, gripping the colonel’s arm. He drew a vial of blood, then stepped back. “I’ll begin analyzing this.”

“Bring in Luke and his team,” Widmore instructed.

The doctor’s brow knitted. “Aren’t they busy working on a cure for Ava?”

“It might be connected,” Widmore said. “We need to explore this angle first.”

Ava’s heart dropped, but she understood. An unknown alien presence was a security risk for the entire base—and beyond.

Doctor Dwyer nodded his understanding, then departed with the syringe.

Widmore turned to Ava. “Lieutenant, while the analysis is underway, see if you can glean any information about how Nox infected the colonel.”

She inclined her head. “I’ll do my best, sir.”

Kurtz watched Ava with creepy calm as she approached.

“Colonel, I know you’re in there,” she stated. “We’re going to get you back.”

“I already told you, it’s a futile exercise,” Nox said on Kurtz’s behalf.

“See, I don’t think so.” Ava positioned herself so she could look directly into Kurtz’s eyes. She could see the difference now, when Kurtz was present versus Nox having control. Whenever she spoke with the alien, it was as though a light was missing from within—the ultimate uncanny valley effect with a living, sentient being. She held back a shudder. “You’ve been found out. You have nothing left to gain from remaining inside him.”

Kurtz chuckled. “Oh, don’t I? Every time you react, you tell me more about you. Whatever harm you wish to cause him, it won’t hurt me.”

“But you have nowhere to go,” Ava stated. “If you cooperate, you may be able to go free.”

The colonel raised an eyebrow. “First, I know better than to think you’d ever let me go. I know all your secrets now. No matter what you may promise me in an attempt to save your friend, I’d never be allowed to leave.”

Ava glanced at Widmore, and he nodded.

“That may be so, but that doesn’t mean life has to be uncomfortable for you,” Ava continued.

Kurtz scoffed. “If I were to vacate this body, you’d make every effort to kill me. I’m far too dangerous for you to keep around.”

“But—”

“Oh, Ava, you’re making all the wrong assumptions,” Kurtz interrupted. “What makes you think I’m even in this body?”

“What?” The question caught Ava completely off-guard. “I’m talking to you now. I’ve felt your presence.”

“A presence, yes. But you understand so little of what I am.”

Is that even possible? She’d never considered there wasn’t an actual being within Kurtz. The notion that its physical presence could exist elsewhere and what she was communicating with now was simply a telepathic projection was… terrifying.

“Sir, can I talk to you for a moment?” Ava asked Widmore.

He nodded his consent and stepped into the hallway with her. “What is it, Lieutenant?”

“He might not be physically inside Kurtz, sir.”

Widmore’s scowl creased his brow. “How could that be?”

“I can’t even hazard a guess. But if there is some way that these beings can gain remote control of a host—”

“They could be in anyone,” Widmore completed for her.

Ava nodded. “That’s my fear, sir.”

“But they’re not. I mean, we’d know, right?”

“I don’t think we can assume anything.”

“Shit.” Widmore wiped his hands down his face. “But Nox knows, right? You can see his thoughts, just like any other.”

“In theory, yes. But it’s not anyone else. There’s no way of knowing if its thoughts operate the same way. For all I know, it could be able to think a lie and I’d never know any difference.” Ava swallowed. “Like I said, maybe it’s only making me think I’m directing the conversation just so it can gain complete control over me.”

“I don’t think that’s the case.”

“Why sir?” Ava questioned. “You’re acting like everything is normal with me, but something serious happened. I can’t be trusted.”

The major studied her face. “You were able to glean what it’d done with the ship earlier today.”

“That may have been a ruse. Maybe it wanted to get back to headquarters.”

“Then why try to leave?” Widmore questioned. “Why expose itself in the first place? It could have remained hidden and never tried to escape.”

Ava shrugged. “Sir, I’m just speculating here. I don’t have answers.”

“Neither do I,” Widmore admitted. “But I have my instincts. And right now, my gut tells me that this alien presence wants to possess you, but it can’t. I’ll be keeping close watch while you see this through.”

“I don’t want anyone to get hurt because of me,” Ava murmured.

“The very fact that you can express that concern assures me you’re still yourself,” the major told her. He reached for the door handle. “The truth will reveal itself in time. For now, all we can do is gather as much information as we can. Find out what Nox knows and we’ll try to corroborate that information with verifiable facts.”

“Yes, sir.”

Widmore nodded and opened the door, gesturing Ava through.

“Have a nice little chat about me, did you?” Kurtz asked.

“You’re our favorite topic of conversation, don’t you know?” Ava returned to her place facing the colonel. “Now, I believe you were about to tell me all about yourself.”

“I think I won’t,” Kurtz replied.

“Like you have any way of stopping me.” Time to put that theory to the test. She stared into his eyes, preparing to bore into the shared mind to root out what was Kurtz and what was the alien.

“It’s a valiant effort, Ava, but I’m in control here,” Nox said in her mind.

“You’re not stronger than me,” she replied. “I’ll find out the truth whether you volunteer it or not.”

“Only if I’m here to tell you. Good luck.” Nox’s presence disappeared.

“What the…?” Ava wondered aloud. She searched Kurtz’s mind through his eyes, but there was no hint of Nox—or of Kurtz within. It was as though everything had shut down and was inaccessible.

“What’s going on?” Widmore demanded.

“He’s… gone,” Ava stammered.

“The alien?”

“Yeah, but not just him. I don’t sense Kurtz anymore, either.”

Widmore rushed forward and waved his hand in front of Kurtz’s bank face. “Colonel?”

“That won’t do anything.” Ava shook her head. “He was telling the truth about not really being here.”

“That doesn’t explain Kurtz.”

Ava wet her lips. “Whatever this race is, they clearly have a deep grasp of consciousness. If they can project themselves into someone, there’s no reason they can’t take someone and bring them elsewhere.”

Widmore paled. “But that’s—”

“It’s all science, sir. Electrical impulses, chemistry. Add in some Etheric energy and it’s not even a stretch.”

The major took a steadying breath. “Okay, so the more important question is, how do we get Kurtz’s consciousness back?”

“By figuring out whatever it is that tethers a consciousness to a specific individual. Nox is paired with Kurtz in some way. He wasn’t jumping around to anyone he wanted. If he could do that, he never would have allowed himself to be captured.”

Widmore crossed his arms. “Assuming this is a two-way corridor, we lure Kurtz back and figure out how to sever the connection?”

“That’s what I’m thinking, sir.”

“How do you call to someone who can’t hear you?”

Ava cocked her head. “You activate the transmitter. If we can find a physical manifestation of that link, we might be able to activate it.”

“But Dwyer didn’t find any physical evidence, and you were just saying that Nox doesn’t have a corporeal form.”

“The scan may not have been looking for the right thing.”

Widmore eyed her. “What do you know?”

“I saw a bit of research on Coraxa that might be applicable here.”

“Then go offer what insights you can to the research team. I’ll stay with the colonel and alert you if his state changes,” Widmore said.

“Yes, sir. We’ll try to have you answers as soon as we can.”

Ava stepped out of the interview room, her mind reeling from the last interaction with Nox. How do you defeat an enemy you can’t see?

She took a moment to lean against the wall, focusing on her breathing to regain her center.

“Ava! I just heard what’s going on.” Luke ran toward her from down the hall.

Her heart leaped when she saw him. “I was about to come to see you.”

His face darkened. “I have news, too.”

“Did Doctor Dwyer talk to you about Kurtz?” she asked.

“Yes, he just stopped by and told me to pause my research into your new nanocytes so I can focus on analyzing Kurtz. I’ll never get anything done if we keep shifting objectives!”

She waited for him to take a calming breath before responding. “I know there’s a lot going on. Was that your news?”

“No.” He groaned. “Promise not to freak out?”

That almost always means it’s freak-out-worthy. Ava frowned. “Why would I?”

“Karen called. She’s going to Nezar, to get inside the government.”

“She… what?! Of all the impulsive—”

“Oh, I know. When I tried to tell her she was being an idiot, she hung up on me. Real mature, right?”

“She’s going to get herself killed!”

“As much as I want to be angry with her, I’m worried.” Luke took a shaky breath. “She concocted some insane plan to embed herself with her old contacts so she could help you get in. You grab the chancellor, then get out together.”

“That’s…” Ava shook her head. “The Nezarans may take it as an act of war. Karen infiltrating them on its own would be grounds, but capturing the chancellor…”

He nodded. “She wouldn’t see reason. The Alucian president apparently didn’t have faith that the FDG would take action without some additional incentive.”

“Like they know anything about our capabilities.” Ava rubbed her eyes. “Shit, I really didn’t need anything else to worry about.”

“It’s not your job to get her out of this mess.”

“Except it kinda is.”

Luke looked her over with concern. “Ava, are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

It was a lie, and he knew it.

Luke enveloped her in his arms, and she happily buried her face in his chest. “You’re who I’m worried about the most,” he murmured into her hair. “You should be relaxing, not out—”

Ava pulled out of the hug and held him at arm’s length. “This is what I do, remember? I know what I can take. I’m okay.”

Reluctantly, he nodded. “I’ll get used to it eventually, though I don’t have to like it.”

She gave him a quick kiss. “Thank you for your concern, but we have work to do.”

“Right, the alien.”

“The colonel is in far more immediate danger than me. That’s priority.”

“You’re my priority.”

Ava looked him in the eyes. “Luke, you’re in the Force now. This is about what’s best for the FDG, not us personally.”

After a moment, he nodded and released a slow breath. “I’ll get back to figuring out what’s going on with you as soon as I can.”

She took his hand and squeezed. “I know you will. But don’t let me be a distraction. Whatever has taken control of Kurtz is likely the same type of entity that’s controlling Heizberg. Figure out what’s going on with him, and maybe we’ll have a solution for how to help her, too.”

“Okay.”

“Now, I may have some information that didn’t seem relevant before,” Ava continued. “Let me tell Widmore about Karen, and then why don’t you show me this lab of yours?”












CHAPTER FOURTEEN


“I don’t get it,” Luke muttered half to himself. He pushed back from the workstation in his lab and crossed his arms.

Next to him, Ava had been watching him perform the analysis of Kurtz’s scans. “So, you don’t see anything amiss?”

“No. There don’t appear to be sufficient neurological variations to account for Kurtz’s present condition.” Whatever was going on inside Colonel Kurtz’s head, it was unlike anything Luke had ever seen before. After reviewing the results of Kurtz’s medical exam, he was left with more questions than answers.

“It would seem telepathy doesn’t take that much physical real estate,” Jack added.

“But we’re not talking about just telepathic control, right?” Luke said. “This is a whole consciousness.”

Jack extended his hand in the air, palm open. “What is consciousness?”

Luke scowled at him. “You’re not helping.”

“Settle down, boys,” Tess interjected from her workstation on the opposite wall. “There are a lot of unknowns here. We need to be systematic.”

“Griping about the monumental task is all part of the process.” Luke smirked.

“Yeah, yeah.” She chuckled and crossed her arms. “But seriously, what gives? I’d expect there to be all sorts of weirdness going on inside him.”

“I was hoping that would be the case, too,” Ava said, “but this matches our preliminary assessment.”

Jack let out a long breath. “It’s not that surprising. After all, it went unnoticed for three years.”

“That, and he was altering his own medical records,” Luke pointed out. “The changes were subtle, but there was a definite shift in neurochemistry.”

“True,” Tess conceded, “but beyond that, who’s to say that there needs to be anything physically different to enable control? Ava’s just like the rest of us, right?”

Luke nodded. “That’s true. They’ve never found a medical reason for Coraxan telepaths to—”

“Actually, that’s not quite true,” Ava cut him off. “I didn’t want to bias your assessment before, but I might be able to point you toward physical evidence of telepathic abilities.”

“And you’ve been sitting on that information while we prattled on here?” Luke questioned with a raised eyebrow.

“It may be nothing, so I didn’t want to send you down a pointless path if you had any other promising leads.” Ava leaned her arms on the high table in the center of the room. “Things got dicey back at the NTech lab, so I never told you the details of my meeting with Jared. He and Andrea had found a part of my brain that seemed to resonate with the telepathic output, or something.”

Luke perked up. “Do you remember where that was?”

“More or less.” Ava approached his workstation and examined the monitor. “Here, I think.” She traced her finger between the left inferior frontal gyrus and the supramarginal gyrus.

“That’s right in the speech and sensory centers,” Luke assessed. “It’d make sense.”

“Huh. Well look at that,” Tess said. “I can’t believe we all missed that.”

“What’d you find?” Jack prompted.

She pointed to a slight dark spot in Kurtz’s neural scan, which branched between the two areas Ava had identified. The line was no more than a hair’s width, and they’d dismissed it as a defect in the scan.

“Could that tiny structure really be responsible for such complete telepathic control?” Luke mused aloud.

“Well, there’s nothing else out of the ordinary here,” Jack replied. “If that’s the only thing different, then it must mean something.”

 “Hmm.” Luke’s eyes met Ava’s. “Maybe it’s time we have a chat with Jared.”

She nodded. “I was just thinking the same thing.”

“How soon can that be set up?” he asked her.

“Probably right away. I think Widmore has been looking for a verbal punching bag to use to decompress from earlier, so I’m sure he’d jump at the chance.”

“Do you think I could sit in and try to get his input on this analysis?” questioned Luke.

“I’ll ask,” Ava replied and slipped from the room.

Jack watched her go. “She seems to be taking everything in stride.”

“She’s always had a knack for that.” I’d be losing it if I had an unknown alien presence inside of me. Luke sighed. And here I am one of the few people who could maybe help her, and I have no idea where to start.

Regardless of how helpless he felt at present, he had a job to do. Ava and Kurtz were both counting on him to find a solution.

“All right,” Luke said to his team, turning back to the business at hand. “That neural connection is a physical thing. What’s it made out of?”

“Tough to be certain without taking a physical sample,” Tess said, “but this density analysis looks suspiciously like the nanocyte sample Ava brought back from NTech.”

“Except that Jared saw a neural structure in her scan before she was infected,” Luke countered.

“And nanocytes aren’t supposed to clump together like this,” Tess pointed out.

Luke nodded. “True. We already know there are multiple strains of nanocytes, and everything on Coraxa and in NTech’s research deviates from what we’ve seen elsewhere. Whatever aliens were working with Andrea must have figured out how to modify the original Kurtherian technology.” He looked at his team. “What if the Coraxan telepaths were made?”

Tess placed her hand on her chin in an exaggerated thinking pose. “How could we have missed nanocytes in the Coraxan population?”

“Yeah, that would come up in medical exams, right?” Jack added.

“Not if there’s a type our computer systems don’t recognize, or if they’re inactive in some way.” Luke shifted in his chair. “I mean, it’s too big of a coincidence that Ava would have something identical to Kurtz. All of this tech originated in the same system.

“Holy shit,” Tess whispered.

Jack’s eyes bugged out. “Is that possible? That the telepaths on Coraxa are all controlled by the same aliens?”

Luke groaned. “No! That’s not what I’m suggesting at all. I’m wondering if maybe the aliens are from Coraxa, or inhabited it at some point. Maybe they left something behind on the planet that affects certain people.”

“Right, yeah.” Tess flushed slightly. “We’d have to compare the colonel’s neural scan to Ava’s to be sure.”

Luke nodded. “And we should get on that.”

“Agreed. But let’s not forget, Kurtz isn’t Coraxan,” Jack interjected. “How would he have been exposed?”

“I don’t know,” Luke told him. “But if we’re right about this neural structure being nanocytes, we can develop a test to see who might be under telepathic influence.”

Tess stared at him solemnly. “But if that structure is some kind of receiver, doesn’t that mean Ava is susceptible to control herself?”

Luke hadn’t wanted to consider that possibility, but he couldn’t ignore the potential. “We can’t rule anything out. But we do know that she’s faced off against the alien presence and won. Maybe being a telepath herself changes the dynamic.”

Jack nodded. “Okay, so we’re looking for evidence of telepathic ability in people with no history of it. Should be easy to cross-reference with old medical exams.”

A message popped up on Luke’s workstation. It was from Ava: >>Widmore agrees we should talk to Jared and see what he knows. We could use your expertise to ask the right questions about the neuroscience.<<

>>I’m in,>> Luke wrote back. >>Where should I meet you?<<

Ava sent a map to him, detailing the destination and an optimized route.

Luke smiled. >>Thanks. You remembered I still don’t know my way around here.<<

>>No sense getting lost. See you soon.<<

Luke looked up at his team. “We got the go ahead to talk with Jared. Can you two try to work out an automated way to check for that telepathic structure?”

“Sure,” Tess agreed, “but we really need to give it a name.”

Jack nodded. “We do. I already can’t stand ‘the structure’ as a nickname, and I’ve only been using it for five minutes.”

“What about ‘telepathic receptor’, or TR for short?” Luke suggested.

Tess and Jack looked at each other and shrugged.

“Works for me,” Tess said.

Luke smiled. “It’s got a name, so now you can solve it.”


*     *     *


Ava glared across the interview table at Jared. He was being entirely too calm for the situation. He should be afraid right now. What happened to the twitchy man from Coraxa?

Behind her, Widmore shifted as he leaned against the wall. “You may as well talk, Jared. You know what Ava can do to you.”

“Do your worst,” the scientist replied.

Ava could sense Luke’s concern from his place next to Widmore. Even though they’d grown up together, he had never witnessed the darker side of her abilities up close. Part of her didn’t want him to see that side of her, but if they had any chance at a future together, she needed to bare her full self—whatever that self was now.

Ignoring those around her, Ava spread her hands on the tabletop and stared into Jared’s eyes. “Tell me what you know about Coraxans’ telepathic abilities.”

“There’s not much to tell,” he replied.

“We saw an artificial neural bridge between the left inferior frontal gyrus and the supramarginal gyrus,” Luke interjected. “What do you know about the expression of telepathic abilities in that region?”

“We saw it in a number of Coraxan creatures, but never anywhere else,” Jared explained.

Ava glared at him. “Is that how the aliens were controlling Andrea?”

The scientist laughed. “Andrea? She was never under telepathic control.”

“So, she was a willing participant?” Ava prompted.

“Most of us were. It was important work. We were the ones willing to do what no one else would.”

Ava shook her head. “That kind of thinking has always led humans down a dark path.”

Widmore stepped forward. “Some collaborators were willing participants, but these aliens have taken over others against their will. Who are they? What are they after?”

Jared stiffened in his chair. “I only know about our work.”

“You’re not telling us everything.” Ava stared into his eyes.

“I’ve said all I care to share.”

“You know I don’t need your permission,” she cautioned.

He glared back at her. “I’ve said all I’m going to say.”

“Suit yourself.” Ava bored into his mind, peeling back the layers of his consciousness that so thinly veiled his inner mind.

The information she sought was there for the taking, if she could locate it. A lifetime of memories and knowledge spread out before her. Random connections led to tangents of the mind, with the timeline of experience having no bearing on how the history was organized. She would have to dig, and the more Jared resisted, the more it would hurt.

He cried out in pain as she began the process. She was vaguely aware of Widmore’s and Luke’s discomfort in the distance, but that was their issue to overcome. This was her job, and she was good at it.

Minutes passed as Ava dug through the disjointed archive of Jared’s experience, seeking the time when he was at NTech’s lab on Coraxa. He had to have seen something, talking about something with Andrea, which would offer insight into their present predicament.

In time, she found an impression of Coraxa and traced the thread back to a bundle of memories. Flashes of Andrea came to the surface, of working with her in the NTech lab and committing their atrocious experiments on the innocent Weres and Coraxan citizens. Jared had been a willing participant in it all.

But he wasn’t there from the beginning.

“Damn it,” Ava said aloud to the observers. “Jared didn’t come to Coraxa until later. I don’t think he arrived much before me.”

“He seemed to know an awful lot for being a latecomer,” Luke said.

“Yes, he was definitely involved in some way before,” Ava agreed. “I’ll have to do some more digging to find out where.”

She returned to her prodding, searching for another thread that would lead her to earlier in Jared’s career, when he had first been corrupted. He had been a willing participant with the aliens, she could feel it. When she’d probed Kurtz’s mind earlier, she felt the strife of his situation. Here, though, Jared was all-in.

He had handed himself over to control years ago, even if he wasn’t an active host. She should have sensed that when she controlled him briefly while back on Coraxa, but it wasn’t something she had been looking for. Now, though, understanding the context, she was struck with a pang of pity for how misguided he’d been.

Ava tugged on the various threads leading from Jared’s time on Coraxa, searching for the one that would yield the answers she sought. Eventually, one caught her attention: a connection straight to NTech’s headquarters on Nezar.

She separated her mind from his just enough to relay the information to the observers. “He worked for NTech at their headquarters. Someone in the senior leadership brought him in—a man. They told Jared he had a special part to play.”

Ava watched the memories play in her mind’s eye as she lived through Jared’s eyes. His recollection was hazy, and she struggled to make sense of the images and feelings passing through her.

“They gave him something,” she continued. “The man gave him an injection. He couldn’t see it, but he felt it. That must be how they transfer the nanocytes.”

“So, like when Andrea stuck you with that syringe?” Luke asked from behind.

Ava relived the memory again. “I think so. The strange man handled it like a precious commodity. I don’t get the impression it’s something they give to just anyone.”

“That limits the number of potential hosts,” Widmore assessed. “Good for us.”

“Yes,” Ava concurred, “but this also means we have a bigger issue on our hands. This wasn’t just the actions of Andrea going rogue on Coraxa, NTech’s leadership is involved.”

“I wonder…” Luke mused. “I saw a man with the Nezaran chancellor on Coraxa. What are the chances it’s the same man you just saw in this memory?”

Ava shook her head without breaking eye contact with Jared. “Pretty high, and I bet you he’s an NTech exec.”

Widmore groaned. “So, NTech and the Nezaran government are both compromised. What a mess.”

“Fortunately, the FDG just happens to specialize in fixing that sort of situation,” Ava said with a slight smile.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” the major cautioned. “We know how they get the nanocytes in, but how do we get them out?”

Ava combed through more memories, seeking any indication of a weakness. “Tell me,” she demanded of Jared, echoing the thought throughout his mind.

“They’re always so hungry,” he replied at last. “They feed on the darkness within us.”

She almost dismissed the thought at first, thinking it too ridiculous, but she sensed truth in his statement. They thrive on suffering, she realized. No wonder Andrea, one of the Forsaken, made such a perfect ally.

“Then how do you drive them out?” Ava pressed.

“You must starve them,” he replied. “Change the neural chemistry. So long as there is stress and loneliness, they can survive. In a serene mind, they can be driven out.”

Something stirred underneath Jared’s consciousness, just out of reach. It snarled at Jared as he revealed the secrets that were never supposed to be shared.

Ava’s heart jumped into her throat as she felt Nox’s presence stir. “Shit, it’s here!”

“What?” Widmore demanded.

“Nox,” Ava explained. “I can feel it.”

“How did it get out of Kurtz?” Widmore questioned.

Ava began to connect the pieces in her head. “If it never was physically in Kurtz, it can jump bodies… but maybe only to an extent.”

“My team is developing a test for the neural markers that indicate the telepathic receptor—or TR, as we’ve dubbed it for now,” Luke cut in. “Jared will make the perfect test case.”

Widmore took a step toward the door. “Then there’s no time to waste. Let’s get him to your lab.”

“I suggest we bring Kurtz, too, sir,” Ava said. “If we started to drive Nox out, it may start jumping between potential hosts.”

“What if there are others beyond those two?” Widmore asked.

“It’s possible, but I’d say unlikely,” Ava countered. “If I were an alien looking to gain leverage, Jared is the last person I’d jump into. He’s a captive completely at our mercy. If he jumped from Kurtz into him, I’d wager it’s because he had no better option. His ability to take control has to have something to do with that TR Luke’s team identified.”

The major nodded. “I’ll agree with that logic. That means this base is probably free of other potential hosts.”

“And this is going to sound weird, but the key to beating these guys is to be… happy,” Ava said tentatively.

Widmore eyed her. “Please explain, Lieutenant.”

“The nanocyte structure that they build requires a certain neural chemistry to remain intact. It’s the kind of chemical cocktail that comes from emotions on the negative side of the spectrum. If you’re happy, the chemistry shifts.” She glanced at Luke. “This would explain why they could never get ahold of me. Despite all the craziness going on, I have the new—or, renewed—relationship bliss thing going on.”

“Then why do you still have telepathic abilities?” Widmore asked.

“Well, just because this TR appears in the same place, that doesn’t mean the mode of creation is the same,” Luke replied. “There’s still some mysterious ‘X factor’ with Coraxa. Whatever alien tech is in Kurtz and Jared right now likely isn’t the same tech as what enables abilities in Coraxa’s Readers—or at least not the same brand of it.”

“Yeah, no one is going around sticking mopey Coraxan kids with syringes full of nanocytes, I’m sure of that,” Ava added. “Whatever causes those abilities is a more natural means.” She looked over at Jared. “He doesn’t know, but Nox does.”

“I don’t think our alien friend is in a sharing mood,” Widmore said.

Ava stared into Jared’s eyes. “What do your people want with me, Nox? What makes Coraxans so special?”

The alien didn’t reply.

“Tell me, Nox!” Ava demanded. “Are you from Coraxa?”

The alien resisted, but she lashed at the entity’s mind until she found the answer she sought. There were more of the beings, but not in a sense of life Ava understood.

She felt the alien’s memories—shared across the consciousness of many. They had been one with the network of life on Coraxa long ago. It had allowed them to expand their consciousness in a way they’d never dreamed. But the process left something behind. Even after they left Coraxa, their remnants remained, and those had changed the people on Coraxa. Those remnants were the source of Ava’s telepathic gifts.

Her heart caught in her throat. “Where did you go? Back home?” She was desperate to know more, to understand how she came to be.

Nox ignored her pleas, but her determination drove her deeper into its mind. Eventually, she saw an image of a vast, empty space.

“Coraxa was not the first, and it was never meant to be the last,” Nox finally admitted. “When the humans and the Torcellans came along, we saw a new opportunity to venture as autonomous beings. They were our chance to once again be among the stars. They took us to a new system where we could grow.”

Ava shook her head. “Gidyon. And you told your hosts to spread the word for no one to ever go there, so you could grow undisturbed.”

Nox tried to hide its thoughts from her, but Ava could sense the affirmation.

“Why?” she pressed. “What did you need from Nezar and Coraxa?”

The alien’s resolve buckled, and it submitted it. “We sought a new vessel to carry us—one joined with the Etheric so that we may exist beyond this physical plane, even as we move through it in an isolated body. And soon, we will have the template for that new vessel.”

That’s what they want me for, Ava realized. She broke the telepathic link. “Nox just confirmed that its kind was on Coraxa, and ‘remnants’ are what caused our telepathic abilities.”

Luke scowled. “That’s going to require a hell of a lot more investigation.”

“Tell me about it.” Ava sighed. “Short version is, whatever makes someone actively controllable is different than those of us born with telepathic potential.”

“So, you are immune?” Widmore questioned.

“Maybe not completely, but enough.” Ava’s shoulders rounded. “I still don’t know if I trust myself.”

“No, that explains it!” Luke exclaimed. “Ava, I think you’re just fine when it comes to this.”

“Why?”

He stroked his chin. “Think about it, the aliens can exert control over great distances, but you require eye contact do to a reading. The TR connects the right neural pathways to enable telepathy, but it’s like an offline version of it.”

“What about Kurtz’s influence over others here?” Widmore asked.

“My guess is that the alien could exert close-range telepathic control through direct eye contact, like Ava. But beyond that, it’s limited to a host with a suitable TR,” Luke replied.

Ava nodded. “That seems to be the case.”

“Got it,” Widmore said. “And how does that impact Ava’s susceptibility for control?” He eyed her warily.

“To extend the analogy,” Luke replied, “she has the offline version. Her receiver isn’t compatible.”

Widmore nodded. “I’ll have to trust the science.”

“It backs up my observations,” Ava told him. “My abilities don’t have the same volatility in neural chemistry. We need to get everyone in a good mood until we confirm that no one else has a TR.”

Widmore chuckled. “Great, so the solution to all our problems is to play love ballads over the loudspeakers throughout FDG headquarters.”

“Yeah, pretty sure that would horribly backfire.”

“But in all seriousness,” Luke interjected “if this is a matter of neurochemistry, that’s an easy fix. We can try a few neural cocktails and see if the TR in Kurtz dissolves.”

“That sounds like a genuine plan.” Ava cracked a smile.

“That it does,” Widmore agreed. “Let’s save the colonel.”












CHAPTER FIFTEEN


Kurtz’s sense of self was just out of his grasp. Before, when Nox had taken control, Kurtz had remained aware of his surroundings, his body, his individual thoughts. But now, he was adrift.

He had no idea how much time had passed in his bizarre state of nothingness, or if he was within himself or outside. As much as he searched for a sense of direction, there was nothing to see.

And so he waited, as patiently as he could, for a sign.

I’m still me, he tried to reassure himself. I wouldn’t be thinking these thoughts if I weren’t. But where am I?

The waiting was torture, but he had no choice.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the darkness began to clear.

Kurtz strained to orient himself in his surroundings, as though looking through a thick fog. Sights and sounds were distorted, but he was able to make out enough to determine he was somewhere within FDG headquarters.

Good, I’m among friends. Relief flooded through him, startling him with the sensation. I can feel again!

It was a very promising sign, indeed.

Too much was still indistinct for him to draw conclusions about his present circumstances, so he continued to wait in the fading blackness.

Then a warm presence brushed up again his thoughts. “Colonel, are you there?”

Ava. Kurtz could feel her. “Yes, I’m here!” he replied.

“Nox jumped into Jared,” Ava explained. “I was able to find out some more about how the aliens maintain control. They manipulate your neurochemistry. We’re trying to counter the effects now.”

“Tell me what you need me to do.”

Ava chuckled in his mind. “This is going to sound ridiculous, sir, but I need you to think happy thoughts.”

“Pardon?” the colonel replied in a skeptical mental voice.

“The aliens thrive on negative energy. We’re giving you a healthy dose of the happy brain drugs right now, but you’ll need to help the process along.”

“I never would have guessed that.” Kurtz soaked in the information. “How did you figure that out?”

“We were able to get some information from Jared. Turns out his bad attitude was by design.”

“Come to think of it, Nox’s power over me waned whenever I held a strong sense of hope.” 

“Love, hope, it all undermines their strength.”

Kurtz laughed in his mind. “I knew being in love with my work would pay off.”

“That’s the spirit, Colonel. I’ll be right back. We’re going to up the dose.”

Ava vanished from his mind.

A moment later, Kurtz was hit with a rush of energy. His fingers and toes tingled, the sensation creeping up his arms until it enveloped his core. He breathed in a deep breath, filling the lungs he could once again feel and control of his own accord.

The cloud lifted from his vision. Ava stood next to a medical bed, on which he was reclined. Luke and Doctor Dwyer were engaged in frenetic discussion at a nearby computer terminal. At the foot of the bed, Major Widmore looked on with a concerned expression that was just beginning to turn toward one of relief.

Ava leaned forward and stared into Kurtz’s eyes. Her mental presence cut through the intense rush from the drugs. “It’s working, Colonel. You’re doing great.”

Kurtz thought back to his career in the FDG, surrounded by the friends who were his family. Terry Henry and the purple-eyed Werewolf Charumati who always believed in him and supported him. Colonel Marcie Walton, his boss and friend. Cordelia with her glowing blue eyes and quick smile. No matter what adversity he faced, they were always there to help each other.

Ava fed into his thoughts, willing him to continue.

“That’s it!” Luke said from across the room. “It’s breaking apart.”

Sudden pain radiated through Kurtz. “Argh!”

“What’s happening?” Ava questioned.

“It looks fine on screen,” Doctor Dwyer replied, “but his blood pressure just shot up.”

“You’re okay, Colonel,” Ava tried to soothe. “Keep thinking those happy thoughts.”

“You think positive thinking is enough to stop me?” Nox sneered.

Kurtz recoiled. “No, stay away!”

But the alien mind wasn’t inside Kurtz this time, he realized. He was only a visitor at the edge of his consciousness, much like Ava.

“You’re finished, Nox,” Ava jeered back. “We know your weakness now.”

“This conflict hasn’t even begun.”

Just as suddenly as it had arrived, Nox vanished.

“Blood pressure is normalizing,” Doctor Dwyer reported.

Luke smiled. “The TR is no longer showing up on active scan.”

Kurtz took a slow, steady breath. The oppressive weight that had been bearing down on him for days was gone. “Well, that was something.” He chuckled. “I never thought I’d be so excited to talk again.”

Ava beamed. “It’s good to have you back, sir.”

Kurtz cautiously sat up on the medical bed. “I hope it goes without saying, but I apologize for anything I may have said or done while under Nox’s influence.”

“Of course, sir. Think nothing of it,” Widmore acknowledged with a nod.

“Much of it’s a blur, but what I do remember isn’t particularly friendly,” Kurtz continued. “Nice work stopping that transport ship before anyone was seriously injured.”

Widmore cracked a smile. “Most action I’ve seen in years.”

“Did you learn anything else about where Nox was trying to take you, or what it was after?” Ava asked, always one to focus on the mission at hand.

“He activated me so I could watch over you,” Kurtz replied bluntly. There was no sense in skirting the issue.

The lieutenant looked down. “I figured as much.”

“He kept referring to you as a template for whatever his people are planning. I don’t know who or what they are, exactly, but Gidyon is their stronghold.”

Ava exchanged glances with the others in the room. “We know. And as concerning as that is, we have a more pressing issue. It’s come to our attention that the Nezaran chancellor has been compromised.”

Memories of the deleted communications flooded back to Kurtz. “I wanted to tell you so badly, but…”

“Nox was very strong, sir. I barely got the upper hand, and I’ve been training in mental combat for most of my life. It wasn’t you doing those things,” Ava soothed.

Kurtz knew she was trying to help, but the words offered no comfort. He’d allowed himself to become a liability to the organization he’d sworn to protect. Time and a renewed commitment to service were the way to make peace with what had happened.

He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and hopped down. “Dwyer, I need to be cleared for duty. Is there any reason to suspect I am still subverted?”

The doctor looked to Ava.

“I detected no lingering presence in him,” she replied, “but we don’t know if it could come back.”

“The TR is completely dissolved,” Luke added, “but, likewise, it might not stay gone.”

Doctor Dwyer nodded with consideration as he listened to their advice. “In my professional opinion, Colonel, you are presently not under alien influence. However, I must request that you come in for a scan twice per day until we can determine if there’s a chance for reemergence. This might not be over yet.”

“Agreed,” Kurtz stated.

“Otherwise, I see no reason to hold you here between those check-ins, especially given the unique insights you can offer about the enemy,” Dwyer concluded.

“Thank you.” Kurtz turned to Widmore. “I need to brief the leadership on this situation. Tell me everything you know about the situation with the chancellor.”


*     *     *


Ava felt drained after her venture inside Kurtz’s mind, but there was no time to rest.

At Kurtz’s insistence, the group immediately adjourned from the lab to a conference room so they could discuss potential next steps for the colonel to present to FDG command. As they walked toward the meeting space, Ava took the brief opportunity to process the recent events.

She didn’t want to let on to the others just how far gone Kurtz was when she’d finally been able to make contact. Whatever Nox did, it was only Kurtz’s sheer willpower and dedication to his position that had kept him from being forever lost within himself. A weaker individual may not have been so fortunate.

Facing that kind of power to manipulate matters of the mind was a new challenge for her. Even though she’d spent the majority of her life as a telepath, tasks involving those skills had always come easy to her. Never before had she faced a foe she couldn’t read or control.

It scared her. In a position where she had historically lacked physical might compared to her comrades, she’d always had that one advantage. Now, her physical capabilities were a major wildcard and she was up against telepaths more powerful than herself.

Figures this would happen right when I have the most to lose. Her thoughts drifted to her team and the fulfilling life she’d built in the FDG, and how having Luke with her now offered a chance to make it even more. The future may be uncertain, but she had a lot to fight for. And she wouldn’t give up.

“What do you think, Ava?” Kurtz asked.

Oh, shit, was I supposed to be listening? Ava quickly returned to the present. “I’m sorry, sir, I—”

The colonel cracked a wan smile. “Quite all right, Lieutenant. I think we’re all a little distracted after what we’ve just been through.”

“All the same, sir, I should have been paying attention. What was your question?”

“More of a comment,” Kurtz continued. “This alien presence is too significant a threat to be ignored. Though Nezar isn’t in the Federation and shouldn’t otherwise be our problem, to leave the Nezaran leadership unchecked may introduce future complications for us.”

“I agree, sir,” Ava said. Being only a lieutenant didn’t carry much weight in most matters, but she was honored that Kurtz acknowledged she could make a contribution when it came to the unusual nature of this enemy.

“A plan is already in the works,” Widmore chimed in. “Luke’s sister, Karen, who now works as the press secretary for the Alucian president, took it upon herself to travel to Nezar.”

“This is the same woman who you called when we were on Coraxa, correct?” Kurtz clarified.

Luke nodded. “Yes, sir. She has a frustrating tendency to take matters into her own hands.”

“I’m getting that impression.” The colonel frowned. “If we send in a team to apprehend the chancellor, Karen might be a liability.”

“But she could also be an asset,” Widmore advised. “Having someone on the inside could facilitate us gaining entry to the capital without causing a scene. We have no idea how many people may be subverted within the government. An outsider is really the only person we can be sure is clean.”

They reached the conference room, and the members of the party spread around the table. Widmore activated the desktop to bring up the notes he and others had gathered about the developing situation.

Ava took a seat next to Luke and scanned over the files. She noticed a file for the chairman of NTech.

“That’s him,” Luke said, pointing to the file. “That’s the man we saw with the chancellor in the NTech lobby on Coraxa.

“Who else knows about this?” Kurtz questioned.

“The rest of Ava’s team was with him,” Widmore replied. “I haven’t officially filed a mission brief given everything that’s happened, so aside from them, just the people in this room know.”

“Let’s keep it that way,” Kurtz instructed. “If word gets out there are aliens capable of taking over someone’s mind, we could face a situation of mass hysteria. Further, we don’t need to bring down a political shitstorm on ourselves about all the reasons we shouldn’t get involved in Nezar’s affairs. We need to take care of this before it becomes a bigger issue, end of story.”

“We’re with you, sir.” Widmore nodded.

The colonel folded his hands on the tabletop. “Good. I know your trust in me must be shaken after how I was taken over by Nox, but I intend to earn back that trust.”

“It could have happened to anyone, sir,” Ava said. “I’ll be the first to let the proper authorities know if I detect anything out of place.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. And I’ll be sure to check in with Doctor Dwyer and Luke regularly to monitor for any signs of resurgence. Telepathic assessments won’t be possible while you’re on Nezar.”

“Sir?” Ava’s brow knit.

“We don’t know how many aliens there might be, or what their end game is. The Hochste were intended to be new hosts for them, and you, Ava, were supposed to be a prototype to present to a benefactor of some sort. This is bigger than just the Nezaran government, but we do know that Chancellor Heizberg is an important piece of the puzzle. I want you to retrieve her and do for her what you’ve done for me.”

“Could you maybe prepare a serum for the chancellor that could be used in the field to dissolve the TR?” Widmore asked Luke. “That would mitigate some risks.”

Luke frowned. “I wish we could, but the neurochemistry levels need to be monitored too closely for us to guess at dosing. Outside of laboratory conditions, a serum might do more harm than good.”

“So we need to bring her back here,” Ava concluded.

Widmore sighed. “An extraction, it is.”

 “Sir, if I may…” Ava waited for Kurtz’s nod of approval. “We don’t know when Heizberg was subverted. The chancellor persona might actually be the alien influence.”

“That occurred to me, as well,” Kurtz replied. “If that’s the case, then the Nezarans will be given the opportunity to select a new leader.”

“Yes, sir,” Ava acknowledged. “I still don’t know if it’s a good idea for me to be out in the field, though. If they want me so badly, should I really go to one of their bases of operation?”

“I have to agree, Colonel, the timing is very suspect. What if Nox emerged when it foresaw this sequence of events? There might be a trap on Nezar,” Widmore said.

“I can’t dismiss that possibility. However, I wasn’t aware that Karen had plans to travel to Nezar, which means Nox wasn’t, either. We have an insider who gives us a distinct advantage.” Kurtz leaned forward. “Trap or not, we’re in agreement that the Nezaran government can’t go unchecked. Since such an op can’t be officially on the books, it would be great if the Ghost Squadron was available for maximum plausible deniability, but they’re not. That leaves us. It’s a risky op, yes, but I’ve never known warriors to shy away from danger.”

“Were the circumstances any different, I wouldn’t, sir,” Ava continued. “But what if I were to lose control and change? Infiltrating the base will already be challenging enough as it is.”

Kurtz chuckled. “And were the circumstances any different, I’d agree with you. However, you’re the only telepath we have with sufficient ability to handle these aliens. You may be a wildcard, but you’re also mission critical.”

Ava took a slow breath. “Yes, sir. I’ll do my best.”

The colonel swept his hand across the desktop to clear the workspace. “Now, we have an infiltration to plan.”












CHAPTER SIXTEEN


Some mission planning sessions left Ava energized to get into the field. The latest meeting had quite the opposite effect.

As soon as they were dismissed, Ava beckoned for Widmore to hang back. “Sir, may we have a frank discussion about this plan?” she asked.

“All right.” He motioned her back into the conference room and closed the door. “What’s on your mind?”

“This mission has no chance of going according to plan. The assumptions we’re making about the Nezaran government building are most likely wrong, we have a single ‘in’ who may or not be able to offer any leverage or insights, and I barely have any confidence in my own ability to keep it together.”

“You’ve never been one to question your abilities, Ava.”

She stared at him wide-eyed. “That was before they turned me into a fucking Hochste!”

“Fine, you want a frank discussion?” Widmore crossed his arms. “I don’t think you should be out in the field. My responsibility is to keep all my warriors safe. Having you out there with Nick, Sam, and Edwin puts them at greater risk. But Kurtz was right about you being mission critical. We’re dealing with a group of telepathic entities, and you’re the only person who’s proven herself capable of assessing that threat in a meaningful way.”

“Gah!” Ava clenched her fists and paced in a small circle. “I hate not being able to trust myself!”

“You’re in control now. You need to have faith you’ll maintain that control when it matters.”

She checked herself, realizing that letting her emotions get the better of her only made a slip more likely. “I’ll be with my team. If anyone can keep me grounded, it’s them.” Though I wish Luke were coming along, too.

“Once we have Heizberg in hand, we can figure out how deeply this alien conspiracy runs. Hopefully by then, Luke will also have identified treatment options for you.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But, Lieutenant, I can’t take your ability to maintain control on blind faith. I’m going to have Doctor Dwyer prepare a sedative for your team to have on hand, just in case.”

She nodded. “That would make me feel better.”

“I’m sure it won’t come to that.”

“Always be prepared,” she reiterated.

“Right. Now, was there anything else?”

Ava shook her head. “No, I said what I needed to say for my own peace of mind. Thank you, sir.”

“Okay. Let’s go brief the rest of the team.”

The challenging circumstances still weighed on Ava’s mind, but knowing there was a contingency plan to make sure her team would be safe assuaged her biggest fears. Now, her foremost concern was if she’d be able to stand up to the entity that had overtaken Heizberg.

Ava and Widmore walked to the shared residence of her teammates, and she knocked on the door when they arrived.

Nick answered. “Major. Ava! You’re out of quarantine.”

The others jumped from their bunks.

“How are you feeling?” Sam asked.

“I’m good,” Ava replied. “May we come in?”

“Of course.” Nick stepped aside.

Ava stepped inside and sat down at the table, while Widmore remained standing by the door.

“Ava’s condition is still uncertain,” Widmore stated. “However, the circumstances demand her involvement in a more serious matter. We were able to successfully remove the alien presence from Colonel Kurtz, as far as we know, but the information we learned about the aliens points to an infiltration throughout the Nezaran government. We need to apprehend Chancellor Heizberg.”

“Are we going to Nezar?” Edwin asked.

Ava nodded. “We’ve planned a covert infiltration. Karen is going to establish herself with the government, and she should be able to help get us in. We’ll need our stealth gear and your hacking wizardry to get the access we need.”

“That’s what we do best,” Samantha said with a smile. “Is it just the four of us?”

“Yes, core team,” Widmore acknowledged. “I’d like to accompany you on the Raven, but I think it’s best if I stay home for this one to keep an eye on things. We’re keeping the colonel’s past subversion very need-to-know, and he’s requested I shadow him to look for any out-of-place behavior.”

“Not a bad idea,” Nick assessed. “Based on what we saw from the chancellor while we were on Coraxa, these aliens are not to be underestimated.”

“As for us,” Edwin chimed in, “what’s the infiltration plan?”

Ava and Widmore talked the team through the strategy they’d devised with Kurtz, Luke, and Doctor Dwyer. The combination of covert ops, science, and pure luck would be a challenging combination to pull off, but overcoming such odds was part of what made her job so thrilling.

“Is Karen going to be enough help on the inside for us to pull this off?” Samantha asked when they were finished with the explanation. “Nick and I can override the locks, sure, but people are going to see those doors open, even if we’re in stealth armor. And Karen is a visitor there, herself. Can she really clear the way?”

“I could get someone under my control,” Ava suggested.

Widmore shook his head. “No, save your abilities for dealing with the chancellor. The less they see you in action before that encounter, the better.”

Ava nodded. “Understood, sir.”

“Sir, back to my point about the infiltration…” Samantha cut in. “What kind of help can we expect?”

Widmore folded his hands. “We haven’t been able to communicate with Karen since she went undercover, but she may not be perceived as an outsider. After all, she was originally sent to work with the Alucians by Nezarans.”

“Yes,” Ava conceded, “but as far as Nezarans would be concerned, Karen defected. She was sent to assassinate the Alucian president, and… well, he’s still alive. Plus, she’s now publicly his press secretary.”

“Well, the FDG’s supposed information leak changed the assassination plan,” Widmore pointed out. “She didn’t have the opportunity to kill him, or so she could say. Besides, Kurtz was her contact, not anyone on Nezar. As far as the rest of the government is concerned, she was following his orders, and he may have instructed her to back off. She can go back to her original group and say she wants to return to the good work they were doing and now has a better position to leverage toward that end.”

“Counting on an untrained, non-military contact for such a dangerous undercover operation is a big risk, sir,” Nick cautioned.

“Right, but she’s all we have.” Widmore looked around the table. “I don’t think we can trust anyone in the Nezaran government right now.”

“All right, so we only rely on ourselves to get in and get out,” Edwin said with his usual assurance. “Simple.”

“I have every confidence you’ll pull it off.” The major smiled. “You leave in an hour.”


*     *     *


Having full control of his own body again was deeply satisfying in a way Kurtz could never have imagined, but part of him felt empty. As much as he’d detested Nox’s presence, he’d become accustomed to having a companion in his mind. Though he’d only been consciously aware of Nox for a matter of days, the alien’s time as a hidden passenger for the three years prior had left a lasting impact.

How could such a clear invasion of my mind be something I miss? Kurtz shook his head. No, it wasn’t that he missed Nox, it was that he had become used to having constraints around his consciousness—in the way that a newborn enjoyed being swaddled. He was now his own person again and he needed to embrace his independence.

And, moreover, he wasn’t alone. The reason he temporarily felt isolated was that Nox had forced him to withdraw from those who’d always rounded out his life, all his friends in the FDG. To regain the sense of fullness, he only needed to reintegrate himself.

He smiled at the thought of being able to participate in those relationships again without an unseen force manipulating him behind the scenes. Good times were ahead in the coming months and years.

In the meantime, though, there were loose ends to tie up.

Kurtz headed for Luke’s lab. He suspected the young man already had designs on further research into the alien tech, but it was important to set some ground rules.

When he arrived at the lab, Luke was talking with his two associates. They cut off their conversation as soon as they saw Kurtz.

“Sir, what can we do for you?” Luke asked by way of greeting.

“I wanted to thank you again for helping to break the alien’s hold over me,” Kurtz replied.

“Of course, Colonel. I only wish we’d known sooner.” Luke studied him. “Doctor Dwyer and I believe we have calibrated a scan to make it easy to monitor your condition.”

“We’ve adapted that to the routine medical exams for all warriors to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Tess added.

“Good work,” Kurtz acknowledged. “I take it you’ve used scans of Jared to test the new systems?”

Luke nodded. “I know he’s a prisoner and not a test subject, sir…”

“That’s why I’m here,” Kurtz rested his elbow on the counter of the central workstation. “Regardless of what atrocities Jared helped commit, he’s still a person with rights. We can’t keep him as an experimental tool for our own gains.”

“I would never think of it,” Luke replied. “The thing is, though, we can learn things by studying him that we can’t gain through any other means.”

“I’m well aware. I recognize my former state makes me rather biased, but we need to understand the magnitude of this threat. Can anyone become subverted by touch, or is the procedure more involved?”

“We were just wondering the same thing, sir,” Jack said.

Kurtz took a slow breath. “I can give you two days to study Jared. That aligns with our vetting time for suspects in any investigation. To continue study beyond that point would violate our ethical codes of conduct.”

Luke glanced at his team. “That doesn’t give us much time, but we’ll make the most of it.”

Kurtz stepped back toward the door. “Good. I want to know how to take these aliens down.”


*     *     *


Two days would hardly be enough time to run all the testing scenarios he’d like, but Luke was glad they’d be able to use Jared to a positive end after all the harm he’d caused.

After working for hours straight, Luke had his team take a short break. He needed to see Ava off on her mission, and he knew Tess and Jack would work smarter after a power nap.

“How’d your team react to the plan?” Luke asked Ava while he watched her toss items into her travel bag.

“Excited for the thrill of the challenge,” she replied. “I still wish Karen weren’t in there. As helpful as she may be, I hate having to worry about civilians.”

“She can take care of herself pretty well.”

“I know resourcefulness runs in your family, but this isn’t any old enemy we’re up against.”

Luke nodded, thinking back about all the times Karen had talked herself out of tough spots while they were kids. “At least she’s adept at mental guards. She’s in a better position to protect herself than most would be.”

“This is true.”

“By the way, we’ve been given two days to study Jared before we give him the same neural cocktail we used on Kurtz. Dwyer and I should be able to develop an effective treatment for Chancellor Heizberg once you get her back here, assuming it’ll be more difficult than helping the colonel.”

“If it’s even possible to get the alien presence out of her.”

“I thought I was supposed to be the skeptical scientist here. Why the ‘if’?” Luke asked.

Ava leaned against the wall. “What if the longer the being is in someone, the more difficult it is to remove?”

Luke nodded. “So, we have no way of knowing how long the chancellor has been subverted—or if she’s been someone else all along.”

“Heizberg has been the chancellor since we were little kids…”

“Exactly. If she’s been an alien that whole time, how much of the original her would be left? She may have been a young woman when she was first taken over, for all we know.”

“What would you do in that case?”

“Bring her back here and see if there’s anything we can do for her. At a minimum, she’ll have information.”

Luke took a step toward Ava, seeing the concern in her eyes. “Do they want you to extract that information?”

She shook her head. “I may as well be benched. Widmore has forbidden me from using my abilities until we have a better understanding of this transformation.”

He could sense her frustration and see the annoyance written on her face, but Luke had to acknowledge that Ava shouldn’t be going anywhere. Aside from his own feelings about her and his desire to see her safe and secure, the scientist in him recognized that Ava had undergone a transformation. Too much was still unknown about the extent of those changes. She should be under close observation, not out in the field where there were so many variables.

Why is Widmore okay with this? Luke asked himself, though he already knew the answer. Ava was part of a team, and that team’s skillset was unique. That team was stronger when it was intact. They stuck together no matter what, and her precarious position was worth the risk because her going along kept the team together.

All the same, he had a responsibility to say what no one else seemed willing to bring up. “I don’t like the idea of you going into a dangerous situation like this, Ava. If you started to change—”

“This again? When you agreed to come back to the FDG with me and give this relationship a try, you knew what my day-to-day job entailed. Don’t ever try to stop me from doing that job,” Ava shot back.

Her tone stung, even though Luke knew she was right. He had understood exactly what he was getting into. Her career was her first love, no matter how much she cared about him, too. But the circumstances had changed. This wasn’t just about her being in the Force. She, herself, was undergoing a change that transcended job responsibilities or relationship status. Duty may come first, but not at the expense of individual identity.

“I would never stand between you and the Force, Ava,” Luke said in what he hoped was a calm tone. “My concern is that we still know so little about what’s going on with you.”

“You said yourself that I’m too stubborn to let this thing get the better of me.”

“I did, yes.”

“So, everything’s fine,” Ava stated.

“No, it’s not fine! Colonel Kurtz was subverted by some sort of alien parasite, Chancellor Heizberg is in the same situation, and a Vampire psychopath made you a medical experiment—”

“Luke,” Ava placed her hands on his arms, “I know you mean well, but this isn’t helping.”

He looked into her hazel eyes. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to be concerned.”

“No, it’s not, but I haven’t had any transformations since that one. I can’t live the rest of my life on a maybe. My life here is about taking action, and I adjust when I have to. Right now, the Force needs me out there with my team.”

Luke looked down. “I didn’t mean to stop you. I’m just afraid of what may happen when you’re put in a stressful situation. Those are the kind of circumstances where something in you could trigger.”

“I appreciate your concern, but let me worry about me. Study my nanocytes when you finish with Jared.

“All right,” Luke agreed. “But promise me you’ll be careful.”

Ava gave him a kiss. “I always am.”


*     *     *


A wave of heat struck Karen as soon as the shuttle door opened. She blinked as the dry air hit her eyes.

I’d forgotten how hot it can get here in the summer. She walked down the shuttle’s ramp onto the landing platform next to the Nezaran capital building.

Unlike the glass tower housing the Alucian government, the Nezaran capital building was only two stories and hewn of black stone. The higher temperature from the planet’s proximity to the sun dictated architecture to match the extreme landscape.

Alucia, as a cool world rich with sea life, provided the water to sustain Nezar’s agricultural industry under massive biodomes. Plant life flourished in the intense sun, when temperature in the domes was regulated. The mutually beneficially arrangement of Alucia provided fish and water while Nezar provided plants and metal ores from the planet’s many mines was the foundation of the Alaxar Trinary’s economy.

Now, though, with Alucia in the Federation, Nezar was facing a future on its own—a future that wouldn’t be sustainable with their current operations.

Karen had sworn allegiance to Alucia and the Federation, but she still cared about her Nezaran neighbors. She’d gone to school on the planet and had many friends still living there with young families of their own. If those people were being led by an alien outsider working toward its own twisted ends, then she needed to do everything she could to help stop that menace. It was the only way she could start making up for her deceit.

She looked over the capital building, her jaw set with determination. Inside was an enemy lair, and she had to make an opening for Ava’s team to come in to free the Nezaran people.

“Is it always this hot?” Leon asked from next to her.

Karen glanced at the Alucian president’s assistant coming down the ramp behind her. President Connors had entrusted Leon with the secret of Karen’s true mission, and he’d rendezvous with the FDG ship once it arrived to serve as a political liaison while Karen and Ava’s team were on the inside. That way, if anything started to go poorly, Leon could give an unofficial heads up to President Connors rather than having an official FDG communication on the record. After all, the FDG should have no business on Nezar, especially in terms of taking military action. The more communications handled via backchannels, the better.

“Not quite this hot,” Karen replied to his comment, “but Nezar is a veritable hellscape compared to our icy Alucia.”

“No wonder they have such an attitude problem. I’d be angry all the time in this heat, too.” Leon wiped beads of perspiration from his brow with the back of his hand.

“You might be onto something there.” Karen took a step away from the shuttle and turned around. “I’ll be in touch as soon as I can. The Force spaceship should arrive tomorrow.”

Leon nodded. “I’ll be waiting for them. Good luck.”

He returned to the shuttle and sealed the door. The ramp retracted with a whir as the engines wound up.

Karen walked toward the government building’s entrance while the shuttle took off behind her. Even passing into the building’s shadow, the oppressive heat barely lessened.

“Hello,” she called to a sentry posted at the entrance. “I’m Karen Carter. I’m here to see Dominic Thoreau.”

The sentry consulted the HUD on his helmet. “I see you on the list. Reception will direct you inside.”

“Thank you.” Karen nodded as she passed by.

The revolving door cycled to allow her inside. She breathed in the cool, conditioned air. It was still at least five degrees warmer than the interior temperatures she was used to on Alucia, but at least her lungs didn’t feel like they were burning.

A man and a woman were seated behind a reception desk directly ahead. Both were of pure human heritage, based on their darker features, and they examined Karen with interest.

“Hello. Dominic Thoreau should be expecting me,” she told them. “I’m Karen Carter.”

The female receptionist made an entry on her console hidden behind the counter. “Take the elevator on the left down to Sublevel 4. Mr. Thoreau will meet you there.”

Karen inclined her head and walked across the lobby to the elevator door. She pressed the call button. Five seconds later, the elevator doors parted, and she stepped inside.

To her surprise, the elevator’s control panel had destinations listed all the way to Sublevel 22. What the Nezarans lacked by way of a skyline, it seemed they made up for underground.

The elevator zipped to its destination of Sublevel 4 in a matter of seconds, and the doors parted to reveal a well-appointed lobby space complete with hydroponic plants, padded seating, and holographic wall art.

A man with dark hair and blue eyes approached from the left hallway feeding into the lobby. “Karen, I didn’t expect to ever see you back on Nezar.”

“Unforeseen developments have forced a change,” she replied. “It’s good to see you, Dominic.”

“Likewise.” Dominic held out his arm. “Come, we’ll talk in my office.”

She followed him down the wood-paneled hall to an opaque glass door at the end. The office beyond was sleek and modern with a black sofa and glass coffee table near the door, a small conference table, and a wooden desk near the left wall.

Dominic gestured to the couch, and she took a seat while admiring the high-definition screen across the entire side wall. The image was presently set to a tropic seashore.

“Beats a view out the window, doesn’t it?” Dominic commented.

“That it does,” Karen agreed.

“So, what brings you here?”

“I’m looking for a new way to continue our original work.”

Dominic placed his arm along the back of the sofa and crossed his legs. “That plan was undone when Alucia joined the Federation.”

“Thus realizing the threat we’ve feared for the sake of the Alaxar Trinary. If we wish to keep the dream of independence alive, this is the time we must act.” Karen mirrored his position on the couch, looking the older man in the eyes. “I’ve come to aid in those efforts. The question is, do you still hold those same convictions?”

“The Nezaran government has never thought otherwise. It’s Alucia that abandoned us.”

“Circumstances beyond my control, as you well know,” Karen replied.

“What do you propose now?” Dominic asked.

“Well, for starters, we need to make sure the Federation leaves us alone.”

“And how do you suggest we do that?”

Karen smiled as she prepared to tell the lie that was sure to get her back in the Nezarans’ favor. “By finally taking out Alucia and claiming this entire system for ourselves.”












CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


Ava set down her travel bag on her bunk. Her team’s cabin on the Raven felt different now that she was leaving Luke behind at FDG headquarters. She’d been on so many missions recently that the small ship was beginning to feel more like home than her actual cabin, but now someone was waiting for her elsewhere.

The shift didn’t alter how she perceived her team or her commitment to the FDG—they would always be her extended family—yet, she now had a new sense of grounding. Someone beyond the people she fought alongside cared for her, and that would make her fight even harder to make sure she made it back home.

Samantha entered the cabin, interrupting Ava’s thoughts. The Were cast her a wary glance as she swung her bag onto her bunk above Ava’s. “Out of quarantine for good?”

“Who knows? But I hope so.”

“How are you feeling?”

“No different than before Coraxa. That’s why this is so frustrating.”

Samantha nodded. “It’s weird transforming for the first time.”

“The one time it happened, it was so fast I didn’t even feel it. But then… I don’t know, something wasn’t right. It hurt.” Ava sat down on her bunk.

“It doesn’t for us. Then again, you’re not exactly a Were.”

“No, I’m not.” Ava gazed up at the warrior. “I need the three of you to keep an eye on me.”

“We always do.”

“This is different. It’s a risk for me to come with you. Take care of yourselves first and foremost.”

“No one gets left behind, Ava,” Samantha stated.

“Just…” Ava looked down and took a deep breath. “I couldn’t bear it if I inadvertently hurt any of you. You’ll use those sedatives if—”

Her friend bent her head to catch Ava’s gaze. “It won’t come to that. We’re all going to get through this mission, just like we always do.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I know I’m worrying about nothing.”

“Hey, if your worrying keeps us safe, I have no complaints.” Samantha smiled. “The guys already headed to the gym. Care to join us?”

“Yes! That’s exactly what I need.” Ava rose from her bunk, and the two women stepped into the hall.

“I have to admit I’m curious,” Samantha said while they walked. “You said you don’t feel any different right now, but have your new nanocytes impacted you in other ways?”

“You mean like strength and speed augments?”

The warrior nodded.

Ava shrugged. “I did notice a change when I went to the gym earlier, but I don’t know to what extent. I guess you’ll have to test me.”

“I believe that can be arranged.” Samantha got a devious glint in her eyes.

They descended the ladder to the recreation deck below.

“Are you kidding me?” Nick was saying to Edwin as the two women approached.

“I shit you not,” Edwin replied.

“What’s this, now?” Ava asked.

Nick gave a dismissive wave. “Edwin was just saying that the video of you dancing down the hall has reached Number One video in three different categories.”

Ava raised an eyebrow. “Really, guys? We’re worried about the entire system—or sector—getting overrun with bodysnatching aliens, and you’re talking about that video?” She rose to her full height. “Which contains classified footage, need I remind you.”

“The video was scrubbed of anything identifiable, don’t worry,” Edwin replied. “And besides, it’s not like we have a lot else to do for the next day while we’re in transit.”

“Oh, nothing like, say, reviewing the mission brief?” Ava asked.

“It was three paragraphs long. Already read,” Nick said.

“Or memorizing the facility layout,” Ava continued.

Edwin cast her a sidelong glance. “We don’t have one.”

Ava crossed her arms. “Fine, then checking over your weapons and armor.”

“Done and done.” Edwin folded his hands in his lap. “I think the real issue is you don’t want us talking about the video.”

The rest of the team looked at her questioningly.

“We’re overdue for a workout. Move!” Ava ordered to change the subject.

“That would be a yes,” Nick whispered to Edwin intentionally loud enough for her to overhear.

She ignored them and walked straight ahead to the weight machine. Oh, revenge is going to be so, so sweet.

“Back to dodging our questions, Ava?” Edwin asked with a glint in his eyes.

“Oh, don’t think for a second I’ve forgotten about all of your teasing. Your time will come.” Ava set the weight machine at slightly above her standard setting and took the bench.

“I’m ready for anything,” Edwin replied.

“Keep telling yourself that.” Ava grabbed the bar on the weight machine and pulled. There may as well have been no resistance at all. “Oh, great.”

“Whoa, did you just…?” Nick commented, catching notice of Ava’s attempted workout.

“Okay, so when I said I noticed a change earlier, that may have been an understatement,” she admitted.

“Shit, I’ll say. It’s like there was nothing there.” Edwin crossed his arms. “How much do you think you can do?”

“I dunno.”

Edwin and Nick each grabbed a weight to add to the machine while Samantha watched with her arms crossed.

Ava didn’t blame her being a little apprehensive. The Weres were used to Ava barely keeping up with them, not being on the same physical level—or even more.

When the new weights were in place, Ava gave the machine a cautious test pull. She felt more resistance than before, but the bar still rose easily.

“Okay, so not a fluke,” she muttered.

“That’s fifty percent over your previous personal record,” Nick observed.

“And I’m confident I could double it,” Ava replied. “But, I’m not sure I want to. There’s no telling when these new nanocytes might freak out. Maybe it’s best to leave well enough alone.”

“Let’s see if you can match my PR, at least,” Samantha suggested.

Ava nodded her consent.

The two men added additional weights to the machine. Such quantities had always struck Ava as comical when she viewed it as an outside observer, but now she was struck with a mixture of excitement and apprehension at the thought of mastering those weights herself.

If I can do this, then I’ll no longer be the weakest one on the team. But is that power worth the uncertain future? Ava gripped the handholds and pulled.

Nothing happened. Or, it didn’t feel like it.

“Uh, Ava…” Nick backed away from her along with the other members of the team.

“Ah, shit.” Her mouth felt strange to her.

Then, the pain hit.

Ava’s limbs burned, and her fingers felt like they were splitting apart. Her pulse pounded in her ears, blocking out everything except for the burning throughout her body.

At the edge of her consciousness, she felt herself collapse to the floor on her hands and knees. She gaped at the claws extending from her fingertips, and the hair that now ran up her arms underneath her shipsuit.

She glanced behind her and saw that Edwin had a syringe in his hand. He was inching toward her while Nick and Samantha came around her other side.

“No, don’t,” Ava managed through labored breaths. “I need to control it.”

She still had her mental faculties about her, there was that. If she could think like herself, then there had to be a way to control the transformation, at least to an extent. But the pain… Is it getting worse?

The previous time, she hadn’t even realized she’d transformed until after it happened. Now, even seemingly after the transformation was complete, the pain persisted. Something was most definitely wrong.

“Argh!” Ava forced herself back onto her haunches, willing her heartrate and breathing to normalize. She pictured the peaceful forests of Coraxa, serene spacescapes, a delicate flower—rotating through the images that helped her center her mind when she needed to concentrate.

Slowly, the pain receded. She watched her hands as she continued to sit on the floor, waiting for them to return to her normal human flesh. You have this. You’re in control, she kept repeating to herself. You’re still you.

The hair on her hands disappeared into her skin, and the claws retracted. She marveled at how the augmentations seemingly merged back inside her, even though the transformation drew on Etheric energy that extended beyond the visible plane. Experiencing a physical transformation like that made for a much more powerful experience than just drawing on that energy for her telepathic abilities.

She hadn’t been able to appreciate the wonder before due to her fear and anger over the unbidden changes. But taking a moment to process the experience now, she felt as though she’d just witnessed something special that demanded her respect, even if it was still terrifying.

“Well, shit.” Edwin whistled through his teeth. “You weren’t exaggerating before.”

Samantha swallowed. “Those orange eyes are really unnerving.”

Ava rose to her feet. “Sorry about that.”

Nick worked his mouth for a moment. “You were still yourself. You didn’t lose control. We have nothing to worry about.”

Just because I haven’t doesn’t mean that I won’t. Ava kept the thought to herself, knowing it wouldn’t do anyone any good to dwell on negative scenarios. She needed to maintain a positive outlook. To that end, she elected to also keep the discomfort she’d experienced during the transformation to herself.

“Edwin, thank you for being ready to do what needed to be done,” Ava told the private.

He nodded. “I’m glad it wasn’t necessary.”

“Me, too.” She looked over the other members of her team. They still looked understandably nervous, but they were decidedly less tense in appearance than they had been a minute prior.

“Well, I think I’ll pass on the rest of that workout,” she said with a slight smile.

Samantha eyed her. “Yeah, I was thinking that might be the case.”

“You go ahead and finish yours,” Ava told her team. “I’ll—”

“Nonsense,” Nick interrupted. “We all got in a good set earlier today. We should do something else together. It’s been days since we’ve been able to have some fun as a team.”

“What about cards?” Edwin suggested.

Nick and Samantha both groaned loudly.

“You’re only suggesting that because you weren’t horribly beaten,” Samantha said.

Ava caught on. “Oh, you played with Luke, didn’t you?”

Nick glared at her. “He’s a menace to civilized society.”

“Told us he was an amateur,” Samantha grumbled.

“Yeah, he’s one of the best,” Ava said with a chuckle. “I’d say I should have warned you, but Edwin’s video channel on the Net is a bit too populated with footage of me to have much sympathy for you enduring an embarrassing defeat.”

“At least we have a fighting chance against you,” Nick told her.

Ava cracked a smile. “We’ll see about that.”


*     *     *


The specifics of Karen’s plan for how to take out Alucia were vague at best. But for the purposes of her conversation with Dominic, details didn’t matter. It was the spirit of her words that carried the heft, and it was precisely the message Dominic wanted to hear, tailor-made just for him.

He nodded with satisfaction as Karen finished her explanation, just as she’d hoped he would.

“I have to say, I was unsure of where your allegiance landed after how the last couple of weeks have played out,” he told her.

“I understand your reservations,” she replied. “This was the soonest I could make it back here. I thought it was prudent to maintain my position on Alucia to further our long-term objectives.”

“Foresightful, indeed.” Dominic nodded.

“As I indicated, this next phase will take some careful maneuvering so as not to draw the Etheric Federation’s wrath.”

“That might be an overly melodramatic characterization.” Dominic leaned back in the couch. “The Federation can’t feel that much loyalty to such a new vassal.”

“Or they’d feel even more,” Karen countered in order to support her larger arguments. “They spent resources bringing us into the fold, and I can only imagine they’d be upset to have anything happen to Alucia before they had the chance to get a return on their investment.”

“Alucia has so few resources compared to the Federation as a whole.”

“That’s precisely what I’ve been saying,” Karen replied with a smile. “We both know this has never been about Alucia. It always comes back to Coraxa.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “I’d hoped that we could come to a peaceable solution where Alucia could survive, but you’re right. This is the only way.” Dominic rose from the couch. “We’ll need to present the plan to the chancellor for approval.”

“Would you like me to write a brief?” Karen offered.

“No need. Come with me and you can present it yourself.”

Karen’s pulse spiked. “I wasn’t expecting to meet with the chancellor directly.” Shit! That’s probably the most powerful telepath of them all. How are my mental guards supposed to stand up to that?

If she was to be honest with herself, she knew they wouldn’t. She also recognized that she’d made a huge error in her assumptions about how events would proceed on Nezar. Her plan had always been to use Dominic as an intermediary. To be asked to communicate directly with the chancellor was an honor, but it also exponentially increased her personal risk.

“You’ve put a lot of thought into this. You deserve some facetime with the top decision-maker,” Dominic told her.

“Thank you, that means a lot,” Karen lied. I should have anticipated this possibility. This is what I get for rushing in.

Chastising herself wouldn’t change the present situation, though, so she set the thought aside.

“Come with me.” Dominic led her out of his office.

The location of the chancellor’s council chambers were well known to Karen from her previous time working in the Nezar government building, but the location seemed much more confined within the structure now that she wasn’t confident she’d have a clear path out.

She and Dominic took the elevator up to Level 2 above the surface, and then passed through several administrative wings within the squat government building before they arrived at the outer entrance to the chancellor’s chambers. Guards waited outside the doors—the only armed guards Karen had seen beyond those posted at the outer entrance—and they stiffened when she approached.

“Name and appointment?” the guard on the right asked.

“Dominic Thoreau. I don’t need an appointment,” he replied.

The guard conferred with a screen mounted next to the door. “Go ahead.”

The second guard swung the entry door open so Karen and Dominic could enter.

Inside, a spacious anteroom was furnished with two couches facing one another, a coffee table between them, and artwork around the walls. The most notable feature of the room, however, was a bank of broad windows along the right wall. Due to Nezar’s harsh climate, transparent windows needed to be thick enough to withstand temperature fluctuations and impacts from debris blown during high-wind storms.

Such materials were expensive—especially for such large windows—so the use of reinforced viewing glass was often reserved only for spacecraft. However, there was something to be said about the government making a show of its people’s supposed prosperity, so few expenses were spared while designing the main reception room for visitors.

Karen looked upon the furnishings with a suitable level of admiration without gawking, to which Dominic responded with a knowing smile.

“This is your chance to enter the Nezaran elite, Karen. Loyal civil servants can go far.”

The loyalty part was where she was going to run into trouble, at least when it came to which master she pledged to. She nodded. “I’m here to serve.”

Dominic took a seat on the couch with a view out the window, and Karen sat down beside him.

As soon as they were settled, a door on the back wall, to Karen’s left, opened, and the Nezaran chancellor emerged.

Cynthia Heizberg had a strong presence about her, even from a distance. Knowing what she did now, Karen wondered if that stemmed from the alien controlling her or if it was that spark that had attracted the alien to Heizberg as a host in the first place.

Karen and Dominic rose out of respect when the chancellor entered, and she gave them a nod.

“Chancellor, thank you for taking a meeting without notice,” Dominic said. “I just had a rather intriguing conversation with Karen here, and I think you’d be interested in what she has to say.”

Heizberg’s gaze turned to Karen as she gracefully lowered herself to the couch across from the two visitors.

Karen could feel the chancellor skim her mind. I serve Nezar. Alucia stands in our way, she thought to herself as a cover for her inner thoughts. She wasn’t sure her mental guards would hold up to intense scrutiny, but she may as well put up the best show she could.

The chancellor lingered for several moments, then Karen felt her mental presence withdraw. “And who are you, Karen?”

“Karen Carter, ma’am. I’m from Coraxa, but I attended school here on Nezar. I began working with the government as an intern, and I quickly realized Nezar’s culture more closely aligned with my own ways of thinking than my homeworld.”

“Yet, you are now the Alucian president’s new press secretary, correct?” Heizberg raised an eyebrow.

Karen nodded. “A little over two years ago, I was approached by the Sovereign. I was sent to Alucia to get close to the administration so that I could kill the president, should the need arise.”

“I am quite familiar with this organization and the intent,” Heizberg revealed. “I’m the one who established their mission statement.”

Karen had suspected as much, but she was surprised the chancellor would so readily admit it. “A cause I believe in, ma’am. I’m still upset that the president moved forward with joining the Federation so quickly. I didn’t have a chance to act.”

“You maintained your close place. Why?” the chancellor asked.

“That’s why I invited Karen here to speak with you,” Dominic interjected. “She presented a plan that would give Nezar permanent independence.”

Karen nodded. “In my time working on Alucia, I had contact with the FDG—a covert ops organization ancillary to the Federation’s military. I learned through those interactions that the Federation is somewhat selective about the matters they get involved in. A world such as Alucia doesn’t have much to offer and, therefore, will take a lower priority when it comes to dealing with potential issues. If Nezar were to make a direct move against Alucia, the Federation could easily overwhelm us, wipe us out. But what we want is for the entire system to be left alone. We need to make the Federation distrust Alucia itself. If the Federation decides Alucia should not be a member, they’d leave and never come back.”

Heizberg nodded. “And I take it you have a strategy to make that happen?”

“I do. Now, what could little Alucia do that would be a threat to the powerful Federation?” Karen asked rhetorically.

Heizberg glanced at Dominic, then gave Karen a questioning look.

“You threaten their connection to their empire: the Annex Gate,” Karen continued. “Stage Alucia as trying to maintain control of the gate. Supply shipments can come in, but no tourists or any other visitors promised through the agreement with the Federation. The Federation will assume Alucia was disingenuous in their intentions about the free and open exchange of resources as a member world, and the Federation will withdraw.”

The chancellor leaned back on the couch. “That is a very interesting plan, indeed.”


*     *     *


Luke and Doctor Dwyer studied the monitor inlaid in the lab’s wall.

“What’s next?” Luke asked the FDG doctor.

No one had explicitly instructed them to continue conducting research into the mysterious nanotech that had created the TR in Kurtz’s brain, but having Jared in custody offered too great a research opportunity to pass up.

“This is your lab, I’m just here as a consultant,” Dwyer replied.

“You know the FDG’s operations, though. I’m little more than an outsider.” Luke turned back to the tray where they had the sample of the live nanocytes collected from Jared.

They had an array of chemicals on hand to add to the sample to gauge reactions. It was how they had determined the baseline mixture to give Kurtz, but Luke was interested to see what would happen if they went the opposite direction with the dosing.

To maintain as much scientific rigor as possible, they had been adding controlled amounts of the chemicals in sequential order. The findings supported their initial observations that neurochemicals associated with positive emotional experience suppressed this particular strain of nanocytes while those linked with sadness or aggression maintained the nanocytes’ functions.

Luke was particularly interested to find out how the nanocytes behaved when introduced into a new host. Of course, they couldn’t actually expose a person to the nanocytes, so his study was restricted to what he could observe in test batches and within Jared. The latter research option, however, was temporary. Kurtz had given them two days to make as many observations as possible before curing Jared just as they’d done for Kurtz.

Doctor Dwyer eased into one of the tall chairs at the workstation. “I’m used to dealing with alien tech—almost everything the FDG uses is alien in origin, Kurtherian or otherwise—but this,” he pointed to the graphic on the screen, “is something else entirely. I see familiar components of the technology from many of the advanced races we’ve come across, but this configuration is unique.”

“What could it mean?” Luke asked.

The doctor took a deep breath. “If I had to speculate, I’d say that the tech is so similar because this other race has adopted pieces from those other cultures.”

“That… could be a major problem.”

“Yes and no,” Dwyer continued. “On the one hand, that means they’ve encountered other races at one time or another and taken some of that technology for their own use. But on the other hand, we’ve never encountered them before. That indicates to me that they’re either reclusive or can easily be overpowered. In either case, that means we can win the fight.”

“If we can find them,” Luke pointed out. “They’re in Gidyon, but if they have no bodies, what do we look for?”

“There is that issue, yes.”

Luke nodded. “It concerns me that their base may be so close to my home system.”

“On the flip side, that proximity is what made your home the way it is. We know the tech is alien in origin, yet it’s markedly similar to seemingly naturally occurring neural structures in native Coraxans. Add in that your people in the Alaxar Trinary never venture into Gidyon despite it being the neighboring system, and the entire situation sounds like a conspiracy orchestrated by this master race.”

“Especially since we know they have embedded themselves in the Nezaran government.”

“Precisely.” Dwyer sighed. “What we do with this information… I don’t know what to suggest.”

“Well, we may not be able to investigate its origins right now, but we can still learn more about its behavior,” Luke advised.

“Particularly the mode of transmittal. I’d like to be certain we won’t have new subverted officers walking around with no notice.”

“No kidding.”

“In the meantime,” Dwyer continued, “I think I have enough data to devise a vaccine, of sorts, to prevent the nanocytes from being able to create a TR.”

“That’s a major step forward.” Luke paused. “What do we say about the nature of the nanotech?”

The doctor shrugged. “What else can we say? It’s alien and it’s dangerous. We can treat the symptoms here, but to stop the menace, they’ll have to go to the source. Once Ava’s team gets the chancellor, we’ll know where that is.”












CHAPTER EIGHTEEN


The Raven dropped into orbit of Nezar in full stealth mode. Ava had been on a number of missions that required a silent approach, but never before had she gone after a world leader with her team.

“Great, we’re here!” Samantha said with thick sarcasm. “How are we supposed to get in touch with Karen?”

“That’s a very good question,” Ava mused. “So long as we remain stealthed, she won’t even know we’re here.”

Nick nodded. “And if we’re not, the Nezaran government won’t be pleased to see the FDG coming to intervene.”

“Precisely. And Karen would know that,” Ava replied. “She had to have left us some means to get in touch without giving away our position.”

Edwin snorted. “That’s assuming she thought it through.”

“True. This is the same person who ran off to a world controlled by telepathic aliens without getting clearance from anyone,” Nick agreed.

“She’s impulsive, but she isn’t stupid.” Ava mentally ran through the options. A transmission of some sort was a possible means to relay information, but that could be intercepted by anyone. That meant a sentient intermediary was far more likely.

Her team must have been thinking along the same lines, because Samantha asked, “Do we know if she came alone?”

“Haven’t a clue. But she indicated that the Alucian president signed off on her coming here, so I’m guessing he’d know.” Ava headed for the ladder, which would take her up two decks to the small communications room.

“Are you going to contact him directly?” Nick asked.

“No, I’ll let Colonel Kurtz handle that.” Ava scaled the ladder, leaving the rest of her team in the lounge room.

She entered the small communications room and opened an encrypted channel back to FDG headquarters. In the past, she wouldn’t have ever reached out to Kurtz directly, but there was no sense in wasting time going through Widmore with this matter.

Kurtz answered her video call after ten seconds. “Ava, are you still on the Raven?”

“Just arrived, sir, but there wasn’t exactly a welcome mat laid out for us. Would it be possible for you to reach out to the Alucian president? He may know how to get in touch with her.”

“Ah, apparently you didn’t get my message,” the colonel replied. “President Connors relayed information about the transport ship Karen used to get to Nezar. One of his administrative assistants, named Leon, is waiting for you in orbit. He can provide the specifics.”

Ava checked the incoming communication log, and sure enough, the colonel had forwarded instructions to them an hour prior. “I’m sorry, sir. I should have checked before I reached out to you.”

“I know you have a lot on your mind, but stay sharp, Lieutenant. We’re counting on you.”

“I know, sir.”

“Talk to Leon and finalize your approach plan. You have clearance to use him as a point of contact while you’re on the surface, and he can relay back to us. The encrypted signals will draw less attention if they’re going to a known ship.”

“Can he be trusted, sir?”

“I have the Alucian president’s word.”

Considering that President Connors trusted Karen and she was an assassin sent to kill him, I’m not sure the man is a great judge of character. Ava nodded. “We’ll use our best discretion for communications.”

“Good luck on the surface. I’ll be awaiting your report.” Kurtz terminated the communication.

Ava sighed. This entire op is a shit show through and through.

She was used to improvising and adapting to situations with questionable intel, but the combination of complications in this case were starting to add up. Even though she was never one to back down from a challenge, there were many more lives than her own on the line. The more complications, the more dangerous it would be for everyone. She and her team would need to be more vigilant than ever.

After taking a minute to clear her head, Ava reviewed the contact details in the message Kurtz had forwarded. The instructions provided a specific channel and encryption protocol—everything she’d need to make contact. She entered the requisite information and waited for a response.

The video feed resolved on the wall-mounted screen. A young man of Torcellan descent was seated at a communication station similar to her own. “You must be Ava,” he stated.

“I am,” she confirmed. “And you must be Leon.”

He nodded. “I apologize for communicating like this. It was the best solution Karen and I could come up with on short notice.”

“She should never have gone to Nezar.” Ava glared at the man through the screen.

“The decision was made before I ever became involved. Alucia has had some… difficulties with authorities coming through for us recently. President Connors agreed we needed to take action.”

“Karen going down to the surface isn’t going to solve anything! She’s just putting herself in harm’s way and making things more difficult for us.”

“You’d never be able to gain access to the building without her.”

Ava’s eyes narrowed. “Leon, I know you’re just the messenger and Karen is to blame for this half-assed whatever the hell she’s doing. But neither of you has a clue what the FDG is capable of. Next time, stop her from being stupid.”

Leon waited in silence for Ava to finish. “What can I do to make you feel better about this?”

“Nothing.”

“Well,” Leon spread his hands on the tabletop, “then let me explain to you how Karen has prepped everything for you.”

Ava slumped back in her chair. Maybe I was too quick to pass judgment. She nodded for Leon to proceed.

He cleared his throat. “So, Karen worked closely with a man named Dominic when she was employed as a Nezaran administrator. As I understand it, he officially holds a place in the Nezaran government, but he’s the main liaison with the underground group responsible for all the advocacy for Nezaran independence, the Sovereign. The government pulls the strings for the actions this group carries out. He got Karen her place in the Alucian Alliance.”

Ava eyed him.

“Yes, I’m aware of why she was originally sent to Alucia,” Leon revealed. “The president granted her an official pardon, and I processed the executive order.”

“And you still trust her coming back here?”

He nodded. “I spoke with her at length during the trip over. She’s changed her thinking. I believe in the right for people to learn and grow.”

“I agree.” Ava paused. “All right, so she’s convinced Dominic that she wants in again. How does that help my team get to the chancellor?”

“Because the Sovereign collaborate more closely with the government than most realize, even those who know about the arrangement. Dominic, and now Karen by extension, regularly lets members of the Sovereign into the capital building for strategy meetings. They have a back entrance for that occasion, and it’s the only time the security system is deactivated, so there isn’t an official record. Karen will have access to that meeting schedule and can tell you exactly where to go to avoid the security system.”

Ava crossed her arms. “That’s great, and all, but we have stealth suits. We need to get down there as soon as possible, not wait for one of these meetings to happen.”

“There’s one tonight.”

“Oh.”

“Karen sent me a datapacket with the details,” Leon continued. “Would you like me to forward it?”

“Okay, I have to admit, that will be helpful, but this doesn’t forgive the fact that she ran in without clearing her plan with the FDG.”

“You can bring that matter up with her yourself in…” Leon checked the time, “three hours. She’ll be waiting for you at the entrance to the council chambers.”

An indicator on the screen blinked as the datapacket transferred to the Raven.

“Thanks, Leon. I’ll have the crew relay any relevant information once we’re down in the field. Be prepared to rendezvous back at Alucia.”

“We’ll be standing by. May the stars be with you.”


*     *     *


The meeting with the chancellor had gone surprisingly well. Karen had presented the details of her plan, and the chancellor had asked precisely the right questions to show that she was engaged with the idea. The execution of the plan would be tricky, but Karen knew it would never come to that. She only hoped the Nezaran government officials didn’t suspect the giant stall tactic it was in reality.

Everything seemed to be going to plan, though, considering Dominic had shown her to a previously unoccupied workstation to serve as her office space.

Now seated at the desk in the back corner of a room filled with cubicles, she assessed her surroundings.

I need to look like I’m working. How closely will they be monitoring my communications? she wondered.

In an effort to look productive, Karen made some entries in a text document to serve as a record for her conversation with the chancellor. She saved the notes to the server that handled the coded communications related to the Sovereign. Everything was presented as official Nezaran government business using a complete vernacular where terms were interchanged in such a way that a discussion of a new water pipeline could really be a conversation about positioning mercenaries to seize an Alucian supply cache.

The vernacular came back to her as she typed. She would have needed to layer in more subtleties were the notes for a plan she intended to carry out. As it was, though, it only needed to be good enough to pass a cursory inspection.

When she’d completed the plan overview, Karen peeked over the edge of her cubicle to see if any of her coworkers were paying attention to her. They all appeared to be absorbed in their work.

I better do this while I have the chance. Karen took a deep breath and began the riskiest part of her venture yet.

It was one thing to lie to a person, but quite another to try to fool a computer. To access the information, she needed to relay to Leon, Karen set up a fake contact in the system, posing as a collaborator for the Sovereign. The guise was thin, but she could only do so much under the circumstances.

Under the pretense of verifying meeting details for this fake contact, Karen navigated through the logs, looking for the coded message about the meeting scheduled for that night. The time matched up with the information she’d already forwarded to Leon.

For her previous information relay, she’d used a direct, encrypted databurst—explainable since it was common knowledge she’d arrived on an Alucian ship and would need to communicate with the captain about her future travel plans. That was a one-time excuse, though. For this relay, she needed to be far craftier.

Her best option was to piggyback a generic message on the official orders from the Nezaran government to her ship about its orbital pattern. Such messages were sent every hour to foreign vessels, so she had ample opportunities. However, slipping her own personal message into an official communication was as challenging as it was risky.

Here it goes, Karen thought as she began her subtle modifications to the next scheduled outbound message. It didn’t need to be much, just a generic ping to Leon to acknowledge she’d confirmed her previous intel, per their agreement. Assuming he’d been able to make contact with Ava, the FDG team should land on the planet in another hour.

There was nothing more for Karen to do before then.

She slouched in her chair while she reviewed the notes she’d typed up. Reading it back, she was pleased to see that her proposed plan didn’t seem completely ludicrous.

With that matter settled, she was just about to invent a new task for herself when the sound of approaching footfalls drew her attention.

Karen craned her neck to see who was coming. To her horror, she saw three guards wearing body armor.

Oh, shit! Karen ducked back into her cubicle. Being in the back corner, she had nowhere to run except straight past the approaching soldiers. Did that latest communication to Leon give me away?

Her mind raced, trying to think of how she’d explain her actions.

She held her breath while she prayed to the stars that the guards weren’t coming for her. Of course, she couldn’t be so lucky.

The three soldiers turned down her aisle. Two stopped three meters from her while the other continued ahead until he blocked the entrance to her cube.

“Karen Carter.” It was a statement not a question.

She swallowed. “Is there a problem?”

The burly man scoffed. “That depends on whether or not you want to cooperate.”

“I’m here as a servant to the Nezaran government. Why wouldn’t I?”

The guard shook his head. “It really didn’t take long for you to confirm our suspicions.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Karen insisted, even as an icy chill gripped her chest.

“Did you think we were that stupid? That you could contact an Alucian ship without us knowing?”

Karen bristled. “Yes, of course I’m communicating with that ship! I was sent here on official Alucian business, and I need to keep up appearances. I have a designated contact on that vessel. I wasn’t hiding anything from you.”

The guard consulted with the colleagues. Another guard nodded.

“All the same,” he continued, “we need to take you in for further questioning. Standard procedure. If you have nothing to hide, then you don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Have you talked to Dominic about this?”

“He’s the one who requested we take you in,” the guard replied.

Karen’s heart dropped. “He—”

“Well, it wasn’t me, exactly,” Dominic said from behind Karen.

She spun around to face him. “I just got here! Why are you—”

“Oh, Karen.” Dominic leaned against the cubicle divider of an adjacent workspace. “Did you honestly think you could get back in with us this easily?”

“I was loyal—”

“Oh, at the time, yes,” he agreed. “But we know you’re one of the Alucians now. We’re not sure who you’re working with, precisely, but this was all a ploy to gather information, no?”

“Dominic, you know me.”

“I knew you, Karen. But you are no longer the young woman I mentored. Whatever happened on Alucia was not a setback to our plans. You turned against us. When you showed back up here with that bold plan, I suspected you weren’t being genuine with your motivations. Only the chancellor could determine if your intentions were honest, so she read you. And Karen, you have not been very forthcoming.” Dominic locked her in a piercing stare.

Karen’s heart pounded in her ears. They weren’t supposed to find out so quickly. I thought I’d have more time….

She should have known her cover was blown the moment she went to meet with the chancellor. Of course, she’d never get an audience like that, regardless of the plan she had presented. Dominic had been playing her the whole time.

“What happens now?” she asked, realizing it was pointless to resist. Being too obstinate might make them inclined to kill her on the spot, but if she feigned cooperation, perhaps she’d be able to buy herself some extra time by being potentially helpful.

Dominic scoffed. “What do you think will happen, Karen? We’ll learn what we can from you, and then it’ll end for you the same way it ends for anyone who’s opposed us.”

Yeah, with that kind of thinking, no wonder people have a tendency to defect. It was a little late for that sentiment. If they already suspected her of being a traitor, may as well play up that story.

“Yes, I was sent here to relay information back to Alucia,” Karen admitted.

“Ah, finally some honesty.” Dominic perked up.

His willingness to believe the lie revealed a valuable piece of information to Karen: he wasn’t subverted by one of the aliens, at least not under permanent control. She might be able to slip some little lies through. I’ll see how long I can keep them off the FDG’s trail.

Dominic took a step for her. “You know, that’s the only reason we didn’t arrest you the moment you walked into my office. There’s no way you’d come here completely alone, so it was much more valuable to let you lead back to your co-conspirators.”

“They haven’t done anything to wrong you,” Karen shot back.

“As individuals, no, but matters of war are almost never about the citizens themselves. We’re all driven by a sense of duty and answer to the moral code of our ideals. Unfortunately for anyone collaborating with you, our definition of victory calls for total dominance.”

Karen swallowed. “Have you ever taken a step back to ask why? Do you know who you’re working for?”

“That’s why it’s always been such an easy decision,” Dominic replied. “We are such simple, moral creatures. How could we not answer to such superior beings?”

“They’ve brainwashed you.”

He chuckled. “Oh, no. They’ve been kind enough to show us how much better we can become.”

Karen stared at him with disbelief. “Is that all that Nezar is now? A planet dedicated to helping some outside race exert its superiority?”

“It’s not like we wouldn’t get anything in return.” He smiled. “We’re so close to being able to turn our simple race into the warriors we were meant to become. The ancient technology has been there, and they took it and built upon it. With their intellect and our physical forms, we will rise.”

“I think you’re underestimating your opposition.”

Dominic cocked his head. “If they want a fight, then let them bring it.”


*     *     *


“All right, team, we have everything we need to complete this op without coming under fire,” Ava said while she loaded into the landing pod with Edwin, Nick, and Samantha.

“Then why do we have the big guns?” Nick asked with a smirk.

“Because we’re totally going to get shot at,” Edwin said loudly while cupping his hand over his mouth to mime a whisper.

Ava chuckled. “You know the drill.”

Samantha took her seat at the pod controls next to Ava. “What happens if we get captured?” she asked.

The team didn’t broach the topic too often, even on the riskiest missions. Even though there were the official protocols on the books, each situation called for a tailored approach, given the relatively likelihood of backup arriving, the sensitivity of the information they were sent in to extract, or other factors. They were all prepared to give their lives in the line of duty, but facing that possible mortality was always different than the hypotheticals.

“We don’t get caught,” Ava told the private. “There’s no reason all of us won’t walk out of there just like we come in.”

Samantha nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

Ava kept her own nerves to herself, knowing that expressing her misgivings about their ill preparation wouldn’t help her team. At least Leon had relayed Karen’s confirmation of the landing plan. That part was on track, if nothing else.

When everyone was strapped in, Ava powered up the pod. “Here we go!”

The pod dropped out of the Raven’s belly. The engines boosted it at an angle toward the planet as soon as it was clear of the craft. Its stealth tech would make the craft almost impossible to spot during its descent.

Ava and the rest of her team remained silent for the initial approach, their gazes fixed out the windows to get the lay of the land.

“It’s so barren,” Samantha commented once they were low enough that details in the landscape began to come into focus.

“Nezar is closer to the star than most inhabited worlds,” Ava replied. “It’s not a place where you want to get stuck outside without a suit.”

“All that dust and rock.” Nick shook his head. “I can’t imagine why anyone would settle here when Coraxa was an option.”

Ava shrugged. “I never understood it, either. Coraxa is the Goldilocks world of the system, yet everyone fights over Nezar and Alucia.”

Samantha frowned. “At least Alucia has an abundance of water. This…”

“To each their own, I guess.” Ava said. “We’re not here to pass judgment on the settlement.”

Edwin smiled. “No, but it does support the argument that the creepy alien dictators are crazy if they selected this world over others.”

“All right, I can’t argue with that,” Ava agreed. “But you’d be surprised how nice Nezar can be inside the biodomes. It’s not like people live out here in the wasteland.”

“Then why is the government building out here all unprotected?” Nick asked.

Ava glanced at him. “I had always thought for security reasons, but I now suspect that the motivating factor was always secrecy.”

Samantha nodded. “Funny how things come into focus in retrospect.”

“Ain’t that the truth?” Ava stared out the window at the dark stone building sprawling across the landscape in the distance.

“Wow, this really is remote,” Nick said, taking it in.

“Are those the city domes on the horizon?” Edwin pointed toward several reflective points toward their right.

“I believe so,” Ava said with a nod. “I’ve only ever been once, and that was on a civilian transport.”

Edwin tilted his head. “Yeah, can’t imagine a native Coraxaner like yourself would come here when you lived in such a picturesque place.”

“Coraxan,” Ava corrected.

“What?”

“Not Coraxaner.” Ava shook her head. “Never mind.”

The pod set down behind a rock outcropping a kilometer from the capital building. Ava and the team moved to the back of the pod and checked their stealth armor.

“Everyone ready?” she asked.

“All set,” the three warriors acknowledged.

“And you have the…?” Ava prompted.

They all patted compartments on their hips containing a sedative.

“We won’t need it, but we’re ready,” Samantha assured her.

Ava secured the pod while the others scrambled up the side of the surrounding rock outcropping to get eyes on their destination. She joined them on the lip of the ridge. “How’s it look?”

“Clear, as far as we can tell,” Edwin replied.

“Then let’s go,” Ava ordered.

The four warriors loped across the harsh landscape, keeping to the shadows of rocks as much as possible. Stealth armor or not, there was no need to run right out in the open in case the enemy had some means of spotting them.

They covered the one kilometer quickly. As they neared their destination of the back-entry door, Ava motioned for Edwin to take point and scope out their final approach. She waited with the other two members of the team behind a boulder.

“Two guards are posted outside,” Edwin reported into his comm. “There’s cover on the approach. We should be able to get close enough for a sonic blast.”

“Do it. We’ll cover you.”

Edwin slipped ahead while Ava jogged along several meters back with Samantha and Nick to either side. They darted to the various rocks along the way.

When he reached the boulder closest to the door, Edwin took cover and aimed his multi-handgun at the two guards, set to sonic stun. He fired.

The two guards dropped to the ground.

Ava ran forward with her own weapon drawn in case additional guards emerged from the building. “Okay, I’ll enter the code Karen gave us for the door.” She located the access panel next to the doorway and keyed in the code.

Nothing happened.

She tried it again. A red light illuminated.

Shit! She glanced at the other members of the team. “Nick, think you can crack it?”

He hesitated. “Sure, but what does it mean that this information was wrong?”

More than Ava wanted to admit. “We proceed with the mission.”

“All right.” Nick jogged forward, drawing the compact digital device he used to access computer terminals. He synced the device with the keypad.

“I don’t like this,” Edwin muttered under his breath.

“This reeks of a trap,” Samantha added. She tightened her trip on her weapon.

“We’ll fight our way in if we have to.” Ava pressed her back against the side wall, ready for action.

“Almost got it,” Nick said. “There!”

The light on the access panel turned green, and the internal door lock clanged open.

Nick swung the door open with one hand while aiming his weapon with the other.

Edwin ran up behind him, staring down his sights. “Looks clear,” he reported, then paused. “Did you hear that?”

Ava listened. “Shit, they’re coming!”












CHAPTER NINETEEN


Ava motioned her team backward around the cover of the building. “Hold your fire.”

She listened to the swift footfall in the hallway. It halted just inside the door. “Do any of you have line of sight on the enemy?” she asked her team.

“Negative,” Edwin replied. “I can see where they found cover, though.”

Fuck, there’s no way to handle this without making a scene. She took a deep breath. “Toss in a flash grenade.”

Nick glanced at her. “That will give away our posi—”

“Do it!”

Edwin pulled out a grenade from his belt and activated it. “Not like they don’t already know we’re here.” He tossed it inside.

The hallway was bathed in white light as the flash grenade detonated. The guards inside stumbled from their hiding places, dazed.

Ava and her team fired into the hall, striking the guards with the sonic beams. Half a dozen armored soldiers dropped to the floor.

A volley of kinetic rounds buzzed past Ava.

“Back to cover!” she shouted into the comm.

Nick and Samantha took the left side of the entry door while Ava and Edwin braced themselves on the right wall.

“This is off to a great start.” Samantha seemingly stared into the surrounding terrain while she assessed the enemy’s positions on her HUD. “Six disabled, another four firing from seventeen meters back.”

Ava confirmed the survey on her own HUD. “We need to secure a position inside.”

“The air is clear when they aren’t firing. They won’t be able to see us in the suits,” Nick observed.

“Not until we’re right on top of them.” Ava crept into the corridor.

The drywall along the hallway was now pitted from the kinetic rounds. Better the walls than her armor.

She picked her footing carefully around the unconscious guards, jogging between the minimal cover afforded by recessed doorways.

Ava tried the handle on the first door she encountered, but it was locked. All right, straight ahead it is. She advanced, trying each door with the same result. By the time she reached the final door, she was a mere three meters from the four guards hiding in a hallway T-intersection.

There was no way to get a direct shot, but she could see her targets just beyond her sightlines.

“I’m going for it,” she told her team.

Without hesitation, she sprinted through the intersection, firing a perfectly aimed sonic blast into the perpendicular hallway as she passed by.

The four guards dropped to the floor before they knew what hit them.

“All right, that worked rather well,” Nick admitted over the comm.

“Not exactly a best practice, but whatever works.” Ava edged back to the intersection and looked down. The HUD showed the way was clear. “Let’s find a communication room. The original plan is off. We need to find out what went wrong.”

They made their way down the hallway, scouting for an access terminal. Eventually, Samantha spotted a dataport that might yield some answers.

Nick hooked up his digital interface and burrowed into the system. “There’s a communications room about ninety meters away down a couple corridors to the left.” He sent the map to the team’s shared HUD overlay.

“Looks like a pretty easy route,” assessed Edwin.

“That’s our best bet to get deeper into the database,” Samantha said. “If we can get to that room, we can likely procure all the access codes we’ll need to get into the chancellor’s chambers.”

“Agreed,” Ava said with a nod. “Reinforcements are almost certainly on their way.”

Not a moment later and the sounds of scuffling footfalls carried down the corridor.

“Shall we?” Nick held out his hand in the direction they needed to go.

“Time to test out this stealth tech for real.” Ava ran ahead.

Twenty meters down the hall, she spotted their opposition. The soldiers stayed mostly to the middle of the corridor, leaving a narrow margin along either side. When she was almost to the soldiers’ positions, she pressed herself into the narrow recesses of a doorway. The guards passed her by, leaving a clear path down the hall.

“Like a pro,” Samantha said with an audible smirk.

“Get your asses over here,” Ava told her team.

Using her technique, the three other FDG warriors slipped past the guards.

Edwin chuckled into the comm. “Poor bastards won’t know what to do when they can’t find us.”

“Let’s not get cocky. This is far from over.” Ava jogged down the corridor along the course Nick had indicated on the map.

They saw no other people in the halls on the rest of the way to the communications room, but Ava suspected others must be close.

Outside the communication room itself, Ava used the sensors on her suit to look through the wall. “Two occupants,” she told her team.

“Sonic blast may mess with the equipment,” Samantha cautioned.

“Then we lure them out.” Ava beckoned for Nick to crack the security lock on the door.

“What’s your plan?” Samantha asked while her colleague worked.

“Stealth tech is great and all, but sometimes to get results, you need to do things the old-fashioned way. Follow my lead.” Ava smiled, even though her team couldn’t see it.

As soon as the door lock clicked open, Ava stomped her booted foot against the door. It flew open. She deactivated the stealth on her armor and pointed her gun through the door. “On the ground!” she demanded over the external comm.

The two occupants dropped to their knees and then lay down, their hands up in the air in front of them.

“See? Easy,” Ava said on the private comm channel.

Edwin and Nick grabbed the two techs by their wrists and dragged them into the hall. As soon as they were clear from the sensitive equipment, Edwin hit the techs with a sonic blast to knock them out.

“I have to say, I really love these guns.” Edwin said.

Samantha patted him on the shoulder. “Oh, and you handle it so well.”

Edwin cocked his head. “That sounded dirty.”

“Did it? You must be desperate for some attention.” Samantha sauntered back into the communication room.

Ava sent her a private high-five over her HUD.

Edwin grabbed the two techs and dragged them back inside the room, closing the door behind him.

“Stealth back on,” Ava told her team. She adjusted her suit settings, and the others did the same. “I’ll contact the Raven to let them know what’s going on.”

Nick and Samantha immediately got to work hacking into the system.

Ava opened up a secure connection to their ship using the suit’s comms. She filled the captain of the Raven in on the arrival so he could keep FDG command apprised of the situation.

“Can’t say I’m surprised,” he replied when she was finished.

“Me either, but we’ll adapt. Given that, Leon and the Alucian ship should probably get out of here,” Ava advised.

The Raven’s captain nodded. “I’ll pass on the message. Be careful down there.”

“Talk to you soon.”

Ava terminated the connection. She watched over Nick and Samantha’s shoulders while Edwin kept guard.

“We’re in,” Nick reported after two minutes.

“Wow, this is really segmented,” Samantha observed while she browsed through the database. “Either they have a lot of dealings with public infrastructure projects that never get constructed, or there’s some sort of code at play. It looks like there’s a public-facing part of the government, and then… whatever this is.” She pointed at the screen.

“I was thinking the same thing,” Nick agreed. “There’s clearly a part of the database that’s used for real administration, and then another part that’s likely related to the work the Nezarans are doing for their alien overlords.”

“And you say I’m the one with the flare for the dramatic,” Edwin commented from next to the door.

“The alien overlords are more real than I’d like,” Ava interjected.

“Holy shit, yeah, they are!” Nick exclaimed. “Take a look at this.”

Ava read over the text he was pointing to on the screen. “Is that a record of NTech’s research projects?”

“Yeah, it is. And half of these projects are using tech that seems to have mysteriously appeared,” the warrior explained. “Whatever is going on here, Ava, it’s definitely beyond just NTech and the chancellor. The entire government is in on it.”

So much for taking out the chancellor and single-handedly eliminating the threat to this system. Ava took a slow breath. “Okay, so how do we determine which members of the government are involved and who’s doing the normal business around here?”

“Can we assume there’s a distinction?” Samantha asked.

“Maybe we can’t,” Ava realized. “I mean, Karen didn’t know anything was amiss when she was working here.”

“So, maybe all of the administration is being controlled by the aliens, but that doesn’t mean that everyone performing those tasks knows what they’re doing,” Nick said. “If no one knows any better, anything could be made to look legitimate.”

“We’ll need to vet everyone after this is over,” Ava agreed. “Only a test to look for the TR Luke identified will reveal who’s been completely subverted.”

“Willing collaborators may be worse,” Samantha grumbled.

“I can’t disagree with that. But I think anyone who’s gone along that willingly, knowing what they’re doing, will be easy to spot,” Ava told her.

“Speaking of collaborators…” Nick interjected. “I think I found out what happened to Karen, but you’re not going to like it.”

“Oh, shit.” Samantha slouched in her chair.

Ava looked at Nick’s terminal. Displayed on the monitor was footage of a woman a few years older than Ava strapped to a chair in a concrete-walled room. “Fucking great. Looks like Karen got herself found out and caught.”

“They must have realized she had defected for good,” Samantha murmured.

“Of course, they did!” Ava groaned. “It was idiotic of her to think she could fool them.”

“What do we do?” Nick asked.

Ava took a slow breath. “First, we go for Karen. Then the chancellor will have some explaining to do.”


*     *     *


The room was dark and surprisingly cold. Karen’s thoughts were fuzzy, but she knew she was still on Nezar. I must be somewhere… underground?

“Ah, you’re awake.” A female voice pierced the darkness.

“Chancellor?” Karen questioned, trying to see who’d spoken.

“I have to give you credit for trying,” the voice continued. It was decidedly female, but there was a quality to the voice that didn’t come across as quite human to Karen’s ear. Whether it was the adrenaline clouding her judgment or something much more deeply rooted, Karen had the distinct impression that her captor was not the woman with whom she’d spoken only hours before.

“What did you think you would accomplish here?” the voice asked.

“If you want me to share my secrets, then at least show your face,” Karen shot back.

“Such vigor! It’s a shame you weren’t willing to work with us. You could have been such an asset.”

“Is that all you have to say?” Karen flexed her hands, realizing they were bound behind her back.

“I won’t ask you again. Why are you here?”

The question was as much in Karen’s mind as she heard it spoken allowed. It bored into her, demanding a response. She tried to fight it, but the compulsion was too strong to resist.

“I’m—I’m here to learn,” she stammered.

“Learn what?” the voice snarled in her mind and out loud.

“What you are doing here. So we can stop you.”

The voice chuckled. “Of course, you are. The foolish always think we can be stopped, but you never know where to look.”

Karen strained against her restraints in her chair. “If others keep coming for you, I’d think you’d eventually take the hint.”

“You really are more spirited than most. Or very stupid. If you truly understood who I am, you’d never speak to me in that tone.”

“Then tell me!” Karen glared into the darkness.

Finally, a light faded on in front of her. The chancellor stepped forward.

“You shouldn’t meddle in what you don’t understand.”

Karen glared into the woman’s green eyes. “If you think I have so much potential, then try me. Maybe I’ll see it your way if I understand.”

The woman stared back. Karen could feel her assessing her mind. “No, you’ve already decided. There’s no swaying you.”

“Then just kill me.”

“Oh, Karen, no.” The chancellor took two more steps forward. “Don’t you get it? You’re still a Coraxan. The rest of you don’t have nearly the potential of the Readers, but you’ll do just fine.”

Cold realization closed in around Karen. “You want to turn me into one of those… Hochste.”

“At least you’re trainable, I’ll give you that.” The chancellor stepped forward until she was only fifty centimeters in front of Karen. She extended her hand and ran her index finger down Karen’s face. “I hope you can also learn to be patient.”

They’ll come for me soon. I can get out of this. Karen tried to keep her thoughts to herself.

A smile touched the chancellor’s lips. “Yes, they’re already here. But no, Karen, there will be no escape for you. We’ve been expecting your friends. It’s what we counted on.”












CHAPTER TWENTY


Ava couldn’t shake the feeling that her team was being watched. “These hallways are too empty,” she said into her comm.

“It is the end of working hours,” Samantha replied. “But yeah, I know what you mean.”

They had made it out of the wing where they’d initially entered the building and were now traversing a hallway on the ground level that would lead them to a stairwell. The chancellor’s administrative chambers were on the second story, but the maps indicated an underground facility centered below.

According to the information Karen had passed along, the meeting with the Sovereign would take place in an underground conference space. However, considering that Karen was now strapped to a chair, and Ava’s team had been welcomed by armed guards, everything they thought they knew going into the op was clearly bad intel.

Ava had to trust her instincts, and those told her to check the chancellor’s office. This is probably the very trap they want us to walk into, but these aliens are also cocky bastards. The chancellor will want to witness our supposed defeat herself, and that’s when we’ll get her.

Four warriors against an unknown number of Nezaran soldiers would make for difficult odds. However, Ava was confident in her team’s superior tech and training.

“Shit!” Nick froze behind her.

A second later, Ava noticed the issue. The stairwell they were headed for wasn’t a closed stairwell the way it had looked on the map—it was actually an open lobby, and it was filled with people.

“Ah, fuck.” She evaluated the lobby on her HUD, expanding the view to see the upper level. It appeared that the people on the ground level were office workers getting ready to leave for the day, while there were at least two armed guards posted outside a sealed door upstairs, which led to the chancellor’s chambers.

“Your orders, ma’am?” Edwin prompted.

Ava weighed the options. “We need to get upstairs. The guards are almost certainly looking for us, but I doubt all of these workers are in on it. With the stealth suits, we should be able to slip right through the crowd and walk up the stairs.”

“That’s… a little crazy,” Nick replied.

“Hiding in plain sight, right?” Ava said. She wasn’t sure she believed it, but they didn’t have a lot of options. If nothing else, it was unlikely the Nezaran soldiers would open fire in a crowded room. At least, she hoped they wouldn’t.

Samantha shifted on her feet. “Maybe there’s a back way?”

“No, there isn’t,” Nick admitted. “I don’t like this plan, either, but this is our only way up there.”

“Problem with one way up is there’s only one way back,” Edwin chimed in. “The chancellor might not even be up there.”

Ava nodded. “You’re right. It’s a worthwhile risk if we know we can get to our target, but we don’t. Is there any way we can determine the chancellor’s position before making a move?”

“That really depends on the computer system,” Nick replied. “If they were expecting us, all of the information we’re seeing may be fabricated to tell us what we want to see.”

“There has to be something that can’t be faked,” Ava insisted.

Samantha tilted her head. “Well, there may be.”

Ava turned to her. “What do you have in mind?”

“We can trust the sensors on our suits. We’d have to compare those readings with what we observe on the central computer system,” Samantha explained. “Of course, we’d need a significant boost to see through that many layers of concrete.”

“I see where you’re going with this,” Nick mused. “I have an idea.”

“I’m all ears,” Ava said.

“I think I can patch my suit into the facility’s internal security system. Based on what I saw in the communications room earlier, the security authentications aren’t very sophisticated. We can use the facility’s sensors to collect data, and the suit will reconcile the inputs.”

Samantha nodded. “Yes, that could work. Reports can easily be doctored, but the sensory processor in our suits can tease out what’s real.”

“And how does that get us Heizberg?” Ava asked.

“Oh, you’re forgetting how good I am,” Nick replied. “Once we narrow down where she might be, we just look at the video feeds until we see her.”

“And if there aren’t video cameras in that room?”

“There will at least be a computer or desktop with an integrated camera we can activate remotely. If there isn’t, then we scan for audio and locate her voice signature.”

Ava nodded. “Okay, try it.” She followed Nick back in the direction they’d come. “If this doesn’t work, we’re going to have to shoot our way in.”

“When have I ever led you astray?” Nick grinned back at her through his helmet.

The warrior did have an exceptional record of quick thinking and creative solutions. At present, Ava was far more inclined to trust him than herself, even if the plan did sound a little crazy.

Nick led them to a private office he’d spotted on the map, which was equipped with a terminal that offered direct access into the security system, likely belonging to a security officer. Getting past the firewall would take some work, but that wouldn’t be a problem for the tech-savvy warrior.

“Give me a few minutes,” Nick said as he got settled in at the workstation. He began pairing his suit with the console in anticipation of the sensor integration.

Ava kept an eye on her HUD while she waited. It still didn’t seem right that there had only been guards at the entrance and they hadn’t seen others since. Moreover, the stun effect of the sonic blasts would have worn off minutes before, yet there had been no general alarm. “What the fuck is going on here?” she muttered to no one in particular.

“Is there anything Nezar offers over other worlds?” Samantha asked.

“This planet’s resources are a bigger topic than what’s happening in this facility,” Ava countered.

“Maybe not,” the warrior continued. “If the aliens made a point of placing people in key positions of power within the government, maybe it was for some other end.”

Ava considered the statement. “For the sake of argument, yes, Coraxa or Alucia are far more habitable worlds. Nezar is different in two ways—its people, and the amount of metals in its soil.”

“What do you mean about the people?” Edwin asked.

“The culture here,” Ava continued. “It’s more… aggressive than the other worlds in this system.”

“Just like the neural chemistry in Kurtz and Jared,” Samantha completed for her.

“When I was inside Kurtz’s mind, I sensed Nox’s hunger. I didn’t know for what at the time, but I’m beginning to think the aliens feed on—this is going to sound weird—negative energy.”

“It does sound a little weird,” Samantha agreed, “but too many observations are stacking up at this point. So, couple a chronically bitter population with an abundance of metals and that sounds like evil aliens ramping up their forces.”

“Come to think of it, all those coded logs did point at much higher mining activities than would be needed for a population this size,” Nick interjected without looking up from his work at the desk.

“Mining Nezar and manipulating its people, but for what end?” Ava questioned.

“Expansion or war, most likely,” Edwin speculated.

All the pieces began falling into place in Ava’s head. “The Gidyon System is close enough that it wouldn’t take too much effort to transfer materials from Nezar to there. So, this is just an outpost.”

Samantha crossed her arms. “Great, so taking out Heizberg won’t even get us the real bad guys.”

“Not necessarily. She’ll likely have all the information we need to locate who she’s working with,” Ava said. “I never thought this would end with her.”

“Good,” Nick cut in, “because she’s not alone.”

“You located Heizberg?” Ava rushed over to look at the monitor on the desk.

Nick pointed to several dots on the map, displaying the data that had been filtered through his suit’s sensors. “She is up on the second level, but not exactly where we were headed. This section is walled off from the rest of the building and appears to have direct access to the underground levels.”

Ava studied the map. “Is that a doorway from the chancellor’s chambers?” She indicated a break in the fortified wall.

“I think so,” Nick replied. “If we go in that way, we’ll need to pass by two sets of guards. I suggest we go down and come up through here.” He traced a path with his index finger along the screen.

“The way in isn’t too far from here,” Ava observed.

“No, and now that I’m in the security system, I can block their ability to pick up any traces of our stealth suits.” Nick’s voice hinted at a smile behind his opaque faceplate.

“You really are good.” Ava smiled back.

“Don’t stroke his ego,” Samantha cautioned.

“Oh, this is just praise for my unmitigated awesomeness,” Nick shot back. “Relevant maps and a real-time feed from the facility security system are being routed to your HUDs now.”

Samantha sighed. “Show off.”

Once Nick had returned the desk to look like how he’d found it, Ava motioned her team into the hall. She jogged toward the back entrance Nick had identified.

Fifteen meters down the corridor, she heard approaching footfalls and the faint scuffing sound of tactical gear rubbing against body armor.

“I think those guards are finally awake and back after us,” Ava warned her team.

“They can’t see us,” Nick assured her. “As long as we don’t run into them, we’re as good as invisible.”

“They can’t have gone far!” one of the guards said down the hall. “They disappeared from the feed in the chief’s office.”

The voice was getting closer.

Ava halted her advance and pressed herself against the side wall. A moment later, a group of soldiers came around the nearby corner, headed straight for her.

“Never should have let them make it inside,” another soldier grumbled.

“Their tech wasn’t supposed to be this good,” the first replied. “We’re not just dealing with the Alucians anymore.”

The six armored guards passed by, coming within half a meter of brushing against Ava. She kept her cool and waited until they were well past before she moved.

“Let’s get to the chancellor’s position,” Ava told her team while she resumed the jog toward their destination.

Upon reaching the supposed back doorway to the stairwell, Ava was unable to see the entrance. “Is this it?” she asked Nick.

“Yeah, must be a hidden panel,” he replied. He walked back and forth twice in front of the location. “This part of the panel is definitely narrower.” He ran his gloved hand over the surface.

“There have to be controls somewhere.” Samantha joined him in the search. “Ah! Here’s an access port.”

The two warriors used their interface tools to hack into the door lock. After thirty seconds, the wall clicked, followed by a hiss as the panel swung inward.

“Well, so much for keeping our location secret,” Edwin said.

“I tried to block the security notice, but no guarantees,” Nick said. “Better hurry.”

They slipped through the opening, and Ava pressed the control next to the door to close the panel. The stairwell was unadorned concrete with cast concrete stairs and a metal railing. It extended down at least five stories, but the motion-activated lights were off so Ava couldn’t see the bottom.

Their destination was the level above, though, so she sprinted up the stairs.

At the top, Edwin took the lead, his gun drawn and ready. He peeked around the corner. “I see two guards at the access door,” he reported. “No additional locks.”

The visual confirmed what Ava saw on her HUD. “We’ll need to get as close to the chancellor as possible without being seen. Once we have her in custody, we’ll have a bartering chip for getting out of here.”

“I see four guards inside with her,” Nick reported.

Samantha hugged the side wall as she crept forward. “There are more in the advanced room.”

“Take out the two soldiers outside with a sonic blast,” Ava ordered.

“Aye.” Edwin fired off two rapid shots, and the guards dropped to the floor.

“Go!” Ava ran forward with her team. They took up positions on either side of the door. “Let’s see if we can lure the others into the open.” She tapped on the door with the butt of her handgun.

A moment later, the door cracked open and a guard stuck her head out. “Is everything—”

Ava shot her with a sonic blast.

The woman dropped to the ground in the threshold, forcing the door open the rest of the way.

“Oh, shit!” Nick swore.

Ava’s HUD updated. The room on the other side of the chancellor’s chamber didn’t have four soldiers, but a dozen.

“Damn it, they must have been masked in the system and our suits couldn’t read them through the walls,” Nick said.

“Okay, so shooting our way in was a bad idea,” Ava realized.

Gentle footfalls approached the doorway, and Heizberg came into view. “If you attack me, Karen dies.”

Ava held up her hand for her team to remain motionless and silent.

“I know it’s you, Ava. I can feel you.” Heizberg stepped over the fallen guard’s body.

How do we get Karen? Ava slowed her breathing, even though she knew it wouldn’t make a difference to the suit. Her heart pounded in her ears, and the chancellor stepped within a meter of her position, looking straight at her.

“Your mind is very powerful. It’s a shame you won’t use it to its full potential,” the older woman stated. “Are you ready to embrace your new self, Ava?”

Ava swallowed. I will never become the monster she wants me to be.

A presence appeared in her mind. “Ah, there you are!”

Shit! Ava tried to block the alien, but she couldn’t force it back.

“At last we meet, Ava. No need to be scared now.”

In front of her, Heizberg smiled. “Perhaps you need some additional motivation. They’re here!” she shouted.

Inside the meeting room, two more guards entered, framing Karen. Her hair was mussed and her pantsuit was wrinkled, but otherwise she looked unharmed.

“If you value your associate’s life, you will show yourselves,” Heizberg stated. “I won’t ask again.”

Ava closed her eyes and took a slow breath. “We can’t let a civilian get hurt. Disable the stealth but don’t disarm,” she instructed her team over the comm.

She deactivated her own armor’s stealth, then immediately said over the external comm, “All right, Heizberg. Let’s talk.”












CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE


Standing face-to-face with the chancellor, Ava could feel the strength of the alien presence within her. Anyone other than a true telepath could easily mistake that power for the magnetism of a natural leader, but Ava knew better. There was more to this woman than just charisma.

Unfortunately, to learn more about the presence within, Ava couldn’t play it safe. The being had allowed a temporary mental connection, but Ava had no chance of forcing her way into Heizberg’s mind without an optical link.

She reached for the release on her helmet.

“What are you doing?” Samantha hissed over the team’s internal comms.

“To take out the alien, I need to get to Heizberg herself,” Ava replied. “Telepathy is our only way out of this.” She undid the helmet’s latch and slipped it from her head.

A pleased smile touched the chancellor’s lips. “Ah, so now we can really meet.”

“I’m who you’re really after. Let Karen go,” Ava demanded.

“So you can shoot all of us and leave? No.” The chancellor shook her head. “The only way your team is getting out of here is if you stop treating me like the enemy, Ava.”

“Sorry, but holding civilians at gunpoint isn’t really helping your case,” Ava retorted.

“A necessity driven by your stubbornness. You say you are willing to hand yourself over in exchange for her, but you have no genuine intention of doing so.”

It wouldn’t take a telepath to know that much. No one who made that offer ever really meant it. The statement was a stall tactic. In any other negotiation, Ava may have been able to exert some small measure of telepathic influence to make the subject believe her. This time, whatever she said, the chancellor would see right through it.

Thinking back over her career, Ava realized it was rare for her to be truly open and honest with anyone. Careful word choice and omissions were a part of any human communication, conscious or not.

Now, though, she wouldn’t have anything to hide behind. She would have to face the unshielded mind of this unknown enemy.

“Spoken words are never going to achieve a resolution to this standoff,” Ava stated, looking directly at the chancellor.

“At last, some truth,” the older woman replied. “Let us get to know one another.”

A presence returned to Ava’s mind. “Such wasted potential. You can be so much more.”

“Who are you?” Ava replied, trying to trace her way back to the alien’s mind. She could feel it in the distance, deep within Heizberg, but there was a wall around it.

“I am what allowed you to be.”

“That’s not an answer!” Ava shouted in her mind. “You want to lead me, so show your true face.”

A mental image of a landscape appeared. Ava didn’t recognize the world as any place she’d been, though the elements were familiar—forest over gently rolling hills, a lake, mountains in the distance. It could almost pass for Coraxa if it weren’t for an orange tint to the sky.

“What is this place?” Ava asked. “This doesn’t tell me who you are.”

“But it does,” the presence replied. “Open your mind.”

Hesitantly, Ava allowed herself to delve deeper into the image. What Ava had taken to be trees now looked strange to her. They were rooted in the ground and branched like the organic foliage she knew from her home, but these structures were too rigid. A breeze passed through, yet no branches swayed.

“These are mechanical,” Ava observed.

“Not quite, but also not wood. It is our… home.”

The mental image zoomed out, showing that the forest was arranged as a circle nestled within the valley. The trees formed an intricate pattern, almost like Ava was looking at circuitry. The forms were so familiar. She wracked her memory about where she’d seen the image—sometime recent.

“This is what we saw in Kurtz’s mind!” Ava exclaimed telepathically.

“Before, you saw the receiver. This is the transmitter.”

“It’s massive.”

“One individual is easy to control.”

Ava’s chest chilled. Their plan was always to build an army.

And, of course, there would need to be a way to control that army. With the right control network, one individual couldn’t only possess a remote target, a whole group could be under a single individual’s command.

Ava swallowed. “Why are you showing me this? Now I know what I need to destroy.”

“You will never reach it.”

“When are you going to get that you constantly underestimate us?”

The presence chuckled in her mind. “We are far older than you, and we have the knowledge of dozens of lifetimes. It is you who underestimates us.”

Regardless of which side was mistaken—or both—Ava needed to get answers. She could reasonably guess the world she had been shown was in the Gidyon System, but that didn’t explain what the beings were or how they operated. A biomechanical forest that doubled as a massive transmitter could point in a number of directions.

“Do you have bodies of your own?” Ava asked after a brief pause to collect her thoughts.

“Such simple vessels… so limiting,” the presence replied.

“I’ll take that as a no.”

“Your vantage is so narrow for what it is to be an individual versus one of many. The vessels we will create will bring the best of all forms.”

The image of the forest faded from Ava’s mind. “So, you are one of many… and one in the same?”

A sense of affirmation filled Ava’s consciousness. “A single individual can never compare to what we are.”

“But I met Nox. It spoke as an individual, just as I am speaking with you now.”

“Distinctions are never so simple. Even now, Ava, don’t you find yourself wondering where one ends and another begins?”

Ava’s surroundings distorted—first a flash, and then everything began to stretch away from her. She became but a tiny speck amid a vast network of minds. The powerful consciousness around her bore down, forcing her back into herself.

“You still think you can stand up to us?” the presence bellowed inside her.

Ava cowered within herself, unprepared to face a consciousness of that magnitude.

“Even a fraction of one of us can overtake you,” it sneered. “You will be our tool.”

The presence closed around Ava’s mind, gripping her in the way it had taken over Kurtz, Heizberg, Jared, and stars knew how many others. It had her trapped, and it knew it.

No. I’m more than this.

Ava stood her ground, forcing the entity back to the edges of her mind. She was still confined, but she was far from consumed. “Is that all you have?”

She drove her own telepathic spire into the alien consciousness, looking for clues about who it was and how she could manipulate it.

The walls Ava had detected around the enemy mind were cracking. She forced her spires through the weak points while taking as much care as she could to not cause permanent damage. Heizberg—the real Heizberg—was in there somewhere, and she had to find her.

Once inside, Ava began stripping away layers of consciousness, sorting the thoughts and feelings of the possessing entity versus the native mind. However, much to her distress, she found all of the recent thoughts had originated from the alien. Heizberg was nowhere to be found.

“Where are you?” Ava called out as she dug deeper. She received no reply.

But even though Heizberg was missing, Ava detected the core of the other consciousness. “Ah, there you are!”

The alien swelled in response to her direct contact, making itself appear as large as possible within its host. “This is only a part of me. You won’t be able to drive me away.”

“She’s not yours to control. Leave!”

“She has been mine for longer than she ever was herself. Do not meddle in what you don’t understand.”

Ava’s heart leaped. “How long has it been?”

The alien ignored her. “You are no closer to leaving here with your colleagues, Ava. Admit my superiority and I will consider letting them go.”

“After you’ve shown me what you are? There’s no way I can ever trust you.”

“Then I will make you.”

Ava was thrust back from the chancellor’s mind in an instant. A high-pitched scream rattled in her skull, seemingly coming from everywhere at once. The vibration seeped into her, crawling under her skin and burrowing deep within. The deeper it went, the stronger the scream became, until the vibrations became so intense it felt like physical bonds threaded through her.

They snaked their way upward and embedded in her mind, burning their way to their destination.

A fire ignited behind Ava’s eyes, searing her nerves as the burn radiated down her arms and legs.

The scream warped into a deafening buzz that overwhelmed Ava’s hearing. Her vision closed in around her. She had no sense of place or purpose, only rage welling within.

Kill. Destroy. Make them suffer.

She wasn’t sure if the thoughts were her own or were being projected into her mind.

Show them what you are now.

She was hungry, so very hungry, to feel the others’ pain—to drown out her own.

Her vision all but red, she rounded on the faceless forms around her. They stood in her way, but they wouldn’t for long.


*     *     *


The guards to either side of Karen froze with fear. They raised their kinetic weapons, but their fingers twitched on the triggers, as though held back from firing by some unseen force.

Karen stumbled backward away from them. What the…?

In front of her, Ava writhed in apparent agony. A snarl escaped her lips, revealing double fangs growing from her mouth. Her face distorted as it transformed into a muzzle.

What the fuck is happening?! Karen’s back hit the wall. She shimmied sideways, not taking her eyes from Ava.

A mere three meters away, the woman she’d known since childhood was unrecognizable. Coarse hair now extended down her neck, and her armor had flexed to accommodate an enlarged, muscle-bound frame. The ends of her gloves had folded back, allowing fifteen centimeter claws to poke through like razor-sharp talons.

The creature’s luminescent orange eyes fixed on Karen’s position.

“This isn’t you, Ava,” Karen murmured. “It can’t be.”

She knew about the hybrid creatures NTech had experimented with, and that the FDG had Were warriors, but what stood in front of her… she couldn’t process what she was seeing.

“Get down!” a man shouted at her.

She ducked just in time to miss a sonic blast from one of the FDG soldier’s multi-handguns ripple through the air. The guards who had escorted Karen into the room dropped to the floor.

Dazed, Karen turned to see another of the FDG warriors advancing. His multi-handgun trained on Ava.

“Wh—what’s going on?” Karen stammered.

“Ava was exposed to the Hochste nanocytes,” the man explained. “I’m Edwin. I’m on her team. Get behind me.”

Karen tried to suppress her fear as she scrambled behind the large, armored warrior. She positioned herself between the wall and Edwin, her back toward the corner.

Ava pivoted to follow Karen’s movements. She kept her distance from Edwin, but she bared her fangs in aggression.

“Is she going to kill us?” Karen asked.

“Certainly looks like she wants to.” Edwin raised his weapon. “But we won’t let that happen.”

He took a step forward. “Ava, if you can hear me in there, you need to get ahold of yourself.”

“That’s not going to work,” a female warrior said, coming up next to him. “She lost herself this time.”

Edwin reached for a compartment in his armor and produced a compact syringe. “Help me subdue her, Sam.”

The Ava-Hochste leaped back from them, spinning toward a cluster of the frozen Nezaran soldiers. She closed the distance in a split second, moving so quickly it almost looked like she’d skipped through space. Before Karen could blink, the creature had backhanded the soldiers, knocking them to the ground, unconscious.

The female warrior took a sharp breath. “Was that coincidence, or…?”

A second later, the Ava-Hochste rounded on Chancellor Heizberg, staring straight into her eyes.

Edwin shook his head with disbelief. “Stars, it is still her!” He looked at the syringe in his hand. “I think we can find a better use for this.”

His companion nodded.

The two warriors ran toward the chancellor, leaving Karen alone by the wall. She looked on as they and their third warrior companion converged on Heizberg. Edwin thrust the syringe into the chancellor’s jugular and emptied the contents.

Heizberg swayed on her feet for a moment, then fell flat on her back.

Narrowing its orange eyes, the Ava-Hochste stepped forward to stand over the chancellor, one leg to either side of her hips. She stared down at the prone woman. “No more games.”












CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO


Ava knew she wasn’t herself, but she swore to control the rage that had overflown from her only moments before. It didn’t need to be channeled toward destruction. Instead, she could use it for power.

I am stronger than the darkness, she told herself. Its presence doesn’t change who I am.

Though others the aliens had encountered may have been easily swayed, Ava sensed she was different. She recognized how the gifts she had possessed since birth were a byproduct of these aliens. That linked her to them, in a way. They couldn’t fully possess her because she was one of them.

The realization came to her slowly as she grazed the surface of the chancellor’s mind. The answers were locked away, just out of reach. She had to find them, so she could not only get in touch with her new self, but to save the innocents she had sworn to protect.

As she stood over the chancellor’s incapacitated form, Ava knew appearances were deceiving. Inside the chancellor’s body, a consciousness was very much awake. And it was time to talk.

Ava snapped a mental cage around the presence within. “Who are you?” she demanded.

This time, the alien was caught off-guard by not having the upper hand. “You may call me Reya,” it replied.

“All right, Reya. What the fuck do you want?”

“What we have always wanted—to grow stronger.”

Ava tightened her mental restraints. “Well, time to rethink your strategies. You’ve messed with the wrong people this time.”

“The plans are already in motion. Eliminating me won’t change a thing.”

“It’ll get you off this planet and out of the mind of this innocent woman. I’ll count that as a win.”

The alien gave a mental sigh. “It’s not that simple, Ava. You know it’s not just me.”

Ava felt a tug on invisible tethers extending from Heizberg. In her mind’s eye, she saw the network throughout the Nezaran government—dozens of hosts for this Reya presence or its as yet unseen associates to possess at will—and to the head of NTech.

It all linked back to Heizberg. She was the foundation of the conduit leading back to the alien base a system away. If that conduit could be severed…

How do I cut the connection without hurting the host? Ava knew she’d need Luke and Doctor Dwyer to dissolve the TR in the woman’s brain, but perhaps a telepathic block would be possible as a short-term solution. If Ava could locate Heizberg within, she’d have an ally to suppress the alien presence through a simultaneous assault on two fronts.

She dove through the alien’s consciousness, searching for pathways into what lie underneath.

“What are you doing, Ava?” Reya questioned, a hint of concern slipping into its mental tone.

“I already told you that you don’t belong here,” Ava replied. “I’m going to get you out.”

“I know what you’re trying to do, but you won’t like what you find,” Reya cautioned.

“I’ll take my chances.”

Ava dived deeper, stripping away layers of tangled memories. I know she’s in here somewhere.

Reya tried to block Ava’s search, though all the barriers were easily overcome. Ava was in control—if only temporarily—and she had a mission to complete.

In time, she found herself deeper inside the chancellor’s mind than she’d ever ventured in another. Raw emotion flooded through her. Pain and suffering—the fuel Reya and her kind so desperately desired. And she’d had her own power source buried within as Cynthia Heizberg had remained trapped inside herself. The greatest torture of all was to have witnessed decades of abuse perpetrated by her own hands. Hands she couldn’t control.

There, in the deepest depths of her mind, Cynthia still looked on with horror.

“Chancellor!” Ava exclaimed, rushing toward the mental form of the weary woman.

“That isn’t me,” came a weak reply.

“It’s okay, ma’am. We’re going to bring you back to our lab and get it out of you.”

The mental projection of the woman looked up at Ava. “It will never be gone. It’s been in me for too long.”

“That’s not true. You’re still here. That means there’s more than enough left to save.”

“No, you don’t understand.” Cynthia shuddered. “I wouldn’t even have a life to go back to.”

“You can always start over,” Ava tried to assure her.

“No. I’m just a remnant, an echo of what was. I died when it took me over.”

Ava recoiled from the woman’s bitterness. Never had she felt such darkness and defeat. “I… We can find a way to help you.”

“If you want to help me, then let me die,” Cynthia pleaded. “Please, kill me!”

Ava pulled back further as the woman clawed at her. “Make it end! Kill me! I can’t live in this prison any longer!”

Her moans filled Ava’s consciousness, begging for death to release her.

Memories of the time spent imprisoned in her own mind swirled around Ava, offering scattered glimpses into a lifetime of lies. She had been so young when Reya took her, no more than twenty years old. Ambitious and bright, she was the perfect host to manipulate toward gaining ultimate control.

Cynthia hadn’t wanted that life. She had always hoped for peace in her home system, and to unite. To have watched for decades as her alien possessor tried to tear the system apart had destroyed her every day.

All feeling, all sense of hope had been stripped away. This tiny nugget was all that remained of her former self—an ember reignited for one brief moment before it was to be extinguished forever. And she was begging for Ava’s help to finally do something on her own terms.

“I can’t kill you,” Ava told with a heavy heart. “I can’t give you what you ask.”

“No, please! You’ll never be able to get Reya out. Some of it will always be stuck here, eating away. I can’t go on like this. There’s nothing left for me.”

“I’m sworn to protect.”

“Then protect me from this monster.”

Even if Ava could stomach killing an innocent for their own long-term wellbeing, she couldn’t be responsible for the execution of a foreign head of state. Personal beliefs aside, that wasn’t a decision she could make on the FDG’s behalf.

“We’re going to get you back to headquarters, and they’ll—”

Cynthia sobbed in her mind. “No more prisons. Let it end.”

Ava was crippled by indecision. She felt the woman’s suffering as if it were her own, and she understood the wish for death. Were the roles reversed, she’d want it for herself.

As she assessed Cynthia’s state, Ava was horrified to see how far the alien had embedded in her. It wasn’t just one localized place in her brain, but she had foreign structures integrated throughout her body. Her entire nervous system was affected. Even if it was possible for Doctor Dwyer and Luke to flush the alien presence from her body and make it so it couldn’t come back, Cynthia’s original organics had withered. The damage was done. They might be able to restore her mind, but the best prognosis would be to remain a prisoner in a useless body.

“I have nothing to live for,” Cynthia murmured. “No friends, no family that is my own. I want it to end.”

Ava wished she could make the woman’s suffering go away, to take back the decades of torture. She could rid them from her mind, but that would be no better than what Reya had done.

One thing was certain: Ava couldn’t do nothing. She made up her mind.

“I can’t kill you, but I can give you a few moments of yourself,” Ava said.

Cynthia nodded in her mind. “Thank you. When I’m gone, you stop them.”

“I will.”

Ava kept a mental tether on Cynthia as she withdrew from her mind. Around her, the three members of her team stood with their weapons drawn, watching intently. Karen was still crouched in the corner with an expression of terror and fascination. Ava looked at her hands and saw she had returned to her normal human form.

“I need you to turn around,” Ava told her team.

“Ma’am—” Edwin started to object.

“That’s an order,” she stated.

Reluctantly, the three warriors turned their backs to her.

Ava stared into the chancellor’s eyes, tracing the tether back to Cynthia within. “Be free.”

The chancellor shuddered, and then gasped. Her eyes went wide and wild, fighting through the sedative. “I’m—!” She rolled to her side and crawled toward a disabled soldier two meters from her. Hands shaking, she grabbed a utility knife from the soldier’s hip pocket. She looked toward Ava. “Thank you.” Cynthia drew the blade across her throat.

Ava squeezed her eyes shut and turned away.

“What the fuck?” Nick exclaimed.

“Holy shit.” Samantha sucked in a deep breath.

Edwin’s eyes searched hers. “What did you do?”

“I freed her,” she replied. “I gave her a few moments as herself. That’s what she wanted.”

Edwin lowered his weapon. “We were supposed to bring her back for questioning!”

“She’d suffered enough.”

A pool of blood formed around Cynthia’s body as the life faded from her.

Ava swallowed. “We should—”

Choking moans sounded around the room, and half of the guards spasmed on the floor. Five seconds later, they became still, and their eyes slowly opened.

“What happened?” one murmured.

“Where am I?” another asked.

The one closest to Ava, whose knife Cynthia has taken, reached for his gun. “Who are you?” He spotted the chancellor’s corpse. “The fuck?”

Ava’s warriors reactivated the stealth mode on their suits.

She located her helmet several paces away and made a run for it. She dove the last two paces as one of the guards fired. The blast barely missed striking her in the shoulder.

Ava hit the ground and rolled to the side, sliding her helmet over her head in one smooth motion. She activated the stealth tech.

The guards grunted with momentary confusion, but then began tracing her likely path.

On her HUD, Ava saw the members of her team darting for Karen’s position.

Edwin was the first to reach her. He grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet.

Karen recoiled from the cold, invisible touch at first, then realization passed over her face. She followed his directions toward the door.

Ava fired a warning kinetic shot into the ceiling with her multi-handgun, then switched back to sonic mode. “Don’t follow us.” She shot off three sonic blasts around the room, hoping to hit as many guards as possible with the wide spread.

The other warriors were headed for the back door.

“No,” Karen stopped them. “Out this way.” She pointed for the door through which the guards had entered.

“That’ll lead out to the landing above the main lobby,” Nick objected.

“Which gives us the straightest shot to outside. Trust me.” Karen jogged ahead.

Ava made a run for it. “Come on!”

The adjacent room was empty, since all of the guards had entered the meeting room when the conflict began. Ava ran to the door on the right wall, which her HUD indicated led to the lobby. She tried the door handle but it was locked.

There was no time to crack the security. Ava pulled her rifle from her back and started shooting.

The lock exploded in a satisfying spray of melted shrapnel.

“That’s one way to open a door.” She kicked her armored boot against the pulverized surface and it flew open. She holstered the rifle.

Cries of surprise sounded from downstairs. Ava spotted the open stairwell to her left. At the top, two guards had their weapons leveled in her direction.

Thanks to the stealth armor, her exact position was invisible. She held up her hand to stop her team from coming through the opening.

Ava fired a sonic blast with her multi-handgun at the guards, and they crumpled to the floor.

“All right, there are mostly civilians downstairs, but more guards are certainly on their way,” she said to her team. “Stay around Karen. Move quickly.” She headed down the stairs.

“What just happened in there?” Samantha asked over the comm, following Ava down.

“Those soldiers and head of NTech were linked to Heizberg,” Ava explained. “When she died, the alien no longer had a host to support her telepathic link here.”

“But Nox jumped from Kurtz into Jared.”

“Nox wasn’t embedded like Reya here—that was this one’s name. It was too large and complex to go into someone else. Nox was like an infant by comparison.”

“Fucking fantastic,” Nick muttered.

When they reached the switch-back landing on the stairway, Ava paused to make sure no one was about to try to blow their heads off. Fortunately, the lobby’s occupants appeared to have scattered when they heard gunfire upstairs.

“Okay, at the bottom, we head through those doors,” she pointed, following the indicators on her HUD, “and then it’s a relatively straight shot out the front door.”

“Should I have the pod meet us around this side of the building?” Nick asked.

Ava nodded. “Do it.” She noticed a new proximity alert flash across her vision. “And bring it close. I imagine we’ll be under fire on our way out.”

The rest of her team noticed the alert on their own HUDs.

“I’m on it!” Nick said, bolting down the stairs.

Samantha positioned herself between Karen and the incoming enemy, weapon raised.

“Go for the door, I’ll hold them off,” Ava instructed.

The three warriors descended the final steps, and Ava crouched behind the base support column.

Her team passed through the door a second before the first guards came into view.

“One target detected through—” The guard never got the chance to finish his statement.

Ava lobbed a flash grenade into the corridor, followed by a burst of sonic blasts.

The soldiers stopped their advance for a moment, but as the scene cleared following the grenade, it was clear they were still standing.

Shit, they must have put in noise-cancelling comms. Ava judged the distance to the exit doorway. It wasn’t far, but she could make it in a sprint.

“Someone is still here!” one guard shouted. He tossed a smoke grenade into the center of the room.

Ava bit back a curse as the fine smoke filled the room. Her suit was great at making her blend in with the surroundings, but having anything like smoke in the air would result in a big warrior-shaped hole.

She had a split second to act. With no other choice, she ran for the door. Though her suit did its best to mask her movement, the air was already too thick with debris, and she was running too hard for the sound canceling to have full effect.

The first volley of kinetic shots hit the back of her armor a meter from the doorway. She raced through and slammed the door closed behind her.

Her team was pressed against the sides of the hall.

Edwin looked at his chest plate, which had been sticking out just enough to deflect a bullet and keep Karen from taking a shot to her head.

The woman’s breath was ragged as she processed what had just happened. “Oh, shit.”

“Yeah. These friends of yours aren’t very nice,” Ava said. “This door won’t hold, come on!”

They took off at full speed. Karen began to fall behind, so Edwin scooped her into his arms.

Ava would have previously been winded by the sprint, but she found she was easily able to keep up with her team as they made the final push toward the exit.

A door slammed open somewhere behind them, but she didn’t bother to look. More soldiers were no doubt coming, and they’d keep coming so long as there was anyone left standing.

“Home stretch!” Samantha cheered.

Ava could see the exit on her HUD. Unfortunately, she also saw a line of Nezaran guards blocking their path.

“Fuck! We can’t get line of sight on that many!” Samantha exclaimed. “Sonic is out.”

There was no way to make it to the exit door through the open space without getting too holey for Ava’s liking.

“The pod will be here in one minute. If it sits out there, they’ll blow it up and we’ll be really stuck,” Nick cautioned.

“Are you still patched into the security system?” Ava asked him.

“Yeah, but I’m pretty sure they know we’re right fucking here.”

“Can you feed sonic feedback through their comms?”

Nick considered her suggestion. “I can try.” He made some rapid entries on his mobile tablet. “If this works, we’ll know right about—”

The soldiers in the lobby simultaneously raised their hands to their ears, trying to rip out their comms.

“Go!” Ava shouted.

Her team raced across the open lobby while the guards were temporarily distracted. Samantha shot out the door lock and busted it open with her shoulder to clear a path for the others.

Twenty meters from the building’s exit, their pod was on the final descent to the dusty ground.

They closed the remaining distance in a mad dash amid kinetic rounds, with Edwin shielding Karen against his chest.

The group piled into the pod, and Ava hit the door controls. Nick ran to the front of the craft with Samantha. The pod lifted from the ground, and the gravitic drives rocketed it toward space.

Ava collapsed into one of the passenger chairs and removed her helmet. “That was way too close.”

Edwin lowered Karen from his shoulder, and she slumped into a chair across from Ava.

“Thank you for getting me out of there,” she murmured.

“That was so…” Ava shook her head. “Never put us in that position again.”

Karen looked down at her hands. “I was only trying to help.”

“Well, next time leave it to the professionals.” Ava fluffed her red hair with her fingers.

The other woman paused. “Is the chancellor really dead?”

Ava gave a solemn nod. “I suspect the alien is gone rather than dead, its consciousness back to whatever world they come from. That was what had control of the Nezaran government and NTech. Those officials are their own people again.”

Karen nodded.

“Politics you can do. Stick to that,” Ava advised with a slight smile.

“Yeah.” Karen chuckled. “I don’t think I’ll be leaving my office any time soon.”

“Approaching the Raven,” Nick advised from the cockpit.

Ava took a slow breath. “This will be another fun mission brief to write.”

Karen gave a sheepish look to the team. “I don’t suppose I could get a ride home?












CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE


Luke held Ava in a quiet embrace. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked her again.

“Yes, I’m fine.” She smiled at him. “I feel better than I have all week.”

He released a long breath. “Okay.”

Her accounts of the events on Nezar had been alarming, to say the least, but he knew he better get used to her harrowing tales of near-death. In all fairness, he’d been shot at multiple times that week, too. The era of being a lab jockey is officially over.

Luke released Ava from the hug and looked her over again. “I still don’t know what to make of Heizberg, one being controlling that many people.”

Ava leaned against the hallway wall outside Luke’s lab. “It was in her, not just possessing her.” She looked down. “I wish we’d been able to bring her body for you to examine.”

“Part of me is relieved.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to do that examination, either.” Ava wiped her hands down her face. “Has Jared been through the extraction yet?”

Luke shook his head. “Dwyer was running one more round of tests before we do. Our time to work with him is up in a couple of hours.”

Ava got a glint in her eyes. “You know that world I told you about, the one Reya showed me?”

“Yeah.”

“What if we could find it?”

Luke frowned. “Somewhere in Gidyon, right?”

“But systems are huge, and we have no idea how many planets there are or how large those planets may be. What if we could locate the exact position of that forest that was sending the telepathic commands?”

“I don’t like where this is going.” Luke crossed his arms. If she knows that exact location, she’ll almost certainly try to go there.

“If we don’t take them out, then what happened to Nezar could happen somewhere else.”

“Yes, if your assumptions are correct, in theory, it would be possible to trace the telepathic signal controlling Jared back to its origin,” Luke yielded.

“Then let’s find it.” Ava grinned.

“You should pull in Widmore and Kurtz,” Luke suggested. “I’m not sure what kind of record we’ll be able to make of the location.”

“Yes, good call. They should probably witness this firsthand if they’re going to authorize a mission later.”

“My thoughts exactly. Not that I think you should be the one to go on said mission.”

She flashed a sweet smile. “I like knowing that you care.”

While walking toward Luke’s lab, Ava sent the two commanding officers a message about what they had planned, and they sent affirmation that they’d come to meet them.

Luke still wasn’t enamored with the idea, but he recognized that if he didn’t help, they’d just find someone else who would. He’d rather be in the loop than not.

Jack and Tess were waiting in the lab when Luke and Ava arrived. Jared was strapped to a mobile medical bed, in a drug-induced half-sleep. Two warriors stood guard over him.

“Uh oh, looks like more testing is afoot.” Tess eyed Luke suspiciously. “What are we doing now?”

“Finding an alien homeworld so we can show them what’s what with the Etheric Federation,” Ava replied on his behalf.

“Ah, I can endorse that plan,” Tess said. She paused. “How exactly do we do that?”

“Jared.” Luke stated.

“Well, yeah, we figured that much,” Jack interjected. “But how?”

“We have a working theory that the TR is a receiver for a remote telepathic signal,” Ava explained. “We want to see if we can trace that signal back to its origin.”

“I had found myself wondering the same thing,” Colonel Kurtz said from behind her. He was standing near the doorway alongside Major Widmore.

“Sirs,” Luke greeted.

“We’re here as observers,” Widmore said. “Please, proceed.”

If only I had a clue about how to do a trace like that. Luke looked to Ava for help.

“We need to isolate the frequency of the telepathic link. It’s energy transfer, just like our remote communications systems. Find the frequency, then tune a comm console to those specifications and see where it leads,” Ava stated.

Jack held up his hands. “I’m going to be honest, that’s really outside my specialization.”

Tess nodded. “Me too.”

Kurtz thought for a moment. “Let me get Denise in here.”

Luke and Ava began prepping the setup while they waited for the security chief to arrive. Since she had been briefed on the situation with the aliens, and had spent time as a communication tech earlier in her career, she was the best choice to bring in on the task.

Once she arrived, the compact room was filled to capacity.

“Quite the party happening in here,” Denise said with a smile as she shimmied into position.

She assisted Luke and Ava with configuring the communications equipment to run a trace on different frequencies. When it was ready, everyone turned to Ava for the next steps.

“All right, I’ll get Nox talking,” she said.

Luke watched as she bent over to look into Jared’s eyes. The captive went rigid under her intense gaze.

“Where are you?” Ava said in the tone Luke had come to associate with a telepathic command.

The communications equipment next to the bed lit up as it processed the signal.

“Definitely getting something here,” Denise said as she looked over the inputs. “We need a little more to get it fully calibrated.”

“I’ve seen the world,” Ava continued in her commanding tone. “Show me where it is.”

She leaned in. “I can feel Nox’s presence trying to run, but it has nowhere to hide inside Jared’s mind. Its only option is to retreat along the path back to its base.” Her eyes narrowed. “Show me!”

Luke watched the struggle on Jared’s face as Nox was seemingly torn between its mission in Jared and returning to the safety of its home.

Denise kept a close eye on the communication console as it continued its search. “Okay, getting telemetry now.”

Luke looked over her shoulder at the readings, though most of the content was meaningless.

“It’s in Gidyon for sure,” Denise reported. “There’s something there. It’s a strong signal. I can’t be sure if it’s a planet or just a space station, but I have close enough coordinates that you should be able to find the exact location with an in-system scan.”

Ava withdrew from Jared’s mind. “Is that everything you need, sir?” she asked, looking to Kurtz.

“It is,” he confirmed.

“Now,” Widmore said. “I suggest we sever that connection for good. We wouldn’t want them hearing all our plans.”


*     *     *


Karen sat down in the visitor chair under the watchful gaze of President Connors.

“Okay, so that could have gone better,” she stated the obvious.

Connors leaned back in his chair, fingers steepled. “When I agreed to you going to Nezar, I thought it was to help the chancellor, not instigate her death.”

“I know, sir, but she died years ago. This was a necessary tragedy.”

He nodded. “A chance at a new beginning for us, indeed.” He paused. “I think you should participate in discussions with the new heads of state.”

“I had a hand in their previous leader’s death. I’m not sure how well that would go over.”

“That’s not in the official record,” Connors pointed out. “You know what really went on there before. That insight will be valuable when it comes to instituting a structure to keep this from happening again.”

Karen shifted in her chair. “Have any new Nezaran representatives been nominated yet?” she asked.

“No, but I heard it’s in the works. NTech and several other companies are also going through a reorganization now that the alien influence is no longer present.”

“Did they get a final count on the number of people who’d been subverted?”

“Over one hundred, in one capacity or another. They’re rolling out a testing program to test for the TR your brother’s team identified.”

Karen released a sigh of relief. “With that resolved, we can finally move forward.”

“Indeed. Now that circumstances surrounding the Nezaran’s opposition to joining the Federation have come to light, the matter has been reopened.” Connors cracked a smile.

“Finally, a chance for peace.”

“It’s what we’ve all wanted, isn’t it? Even if we went about it in different ways.”

Karen slumped back in her chair. “Being back there, I can’t believe the things I did then.”

Connors smile broadened. “Impressionable youth.”

“And so horribly misguided. There’s such a huge difference between cultural identity and autonomy. They aren’t mutually exclusive.”

“Our little Alaxar Trinary will find our voice, I have no worries,” the president replied. “We will remain Alucia, and hopefully Nezar can reestablish itself in a new image for the future.”

“I would like to be a part of that, sir, if they’ll have me.”

“I’ll make the suggestion as soon as it’s appropriate. You’re one of the few who’ve touched all three worlds in this system in a meaningful way—lived on each, knows the quirks and preferences. That will go a long way toward opening a productive dialogue.”

Karen smiled. “I look forward to being of service.”

Connors nodded. “We have a long road ahead yet, but now we’re on the right path.”


*     *     *


Ava swiveled back and forth on a stool in Luke’s office. The others had departed for the night, and most of the equipment had been shut down. She looked Luke over in the subtle blue glow cast from a screen.

“What aren’t you saying?” she asked him.

He’d been distracted since her return from Nezar, but he had yet to make a clear indication as to why.

“Dwyer and I spent some time looking into your condition while you were away,” he said at last.

“Right, that.” Since her more controlled transformation on Nezar, she felt a new sense of confidence in the abilities, at least insomuch as she wasn’t going to accidentally kill her loved ones. The agony she’d felt during the recent transformations, though… that was a problem.

“I have good news and bad,” Luke continued.

“You know, me. Always the bad first.”

He nodded. “To put it bluntly, I don’t think we can remove the nanocytes from you.”

Ava’s heart skipped a beat. She’d suspected as much, but part of her had been holding out hope she could be free of the modification entirely. It was a much easier decision to walk away than to decide if she should take advantage of enhancements that were so unpredictable and painful.

“What are my options?” she asked, trying to remain objective.

“Well, though we can’t remove the nanocytes, it might be possible to deactivate them.”

“Would I go back to how I was before, then?”

He drummed his fingers on the countertop. “I’m honestly not sure. I ran a model using the equipment we got from the NTech lab, and the results were inconclusive.”

“So, I’ll be a freak for life.” She sighed.

“But you’ll be my freak.” Luke smiled at her.

“You’ll still love me when I have fangs and claws?”

He chuckled. “Well, I might have to kiss you more carefully under those conditions, but yes,” he stepped forward and stroked the side of her face, “I’m in this with you. It doesn’t change a thing.”

Ava pulled him in for a hug and leaned her head against his chest. “I’m glad I don’t have to go through this alone.”

He held her close. “You’ll never have to again.”

After a minute of quiet reflection, Ava pulled away. “How would this suppressant thing work?”

Luke walked across the lab and grabbed a vial from a rack. “I don’t know how effective this will be. It’s just a first attempt. It’d be administered through a standard shot.”

Ava nodded. “One time, or ongoing?”

“Depends on how you respond,” he replied. “I talked with Doctor Dwyer. You have established you aren’t a danger to yourself or others with this new condition, so it’s entirely up to you if you want to undergo the treatment.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“There is one other option,” Luke continued after a moment.

Ava raised a questioning eyebrow.

“You could get an E.I.”

“I don’t know about that.” Ava crossed her arms. “We decided when I first joined the Force that it would be a little much to have another voice in my head on top of the whole telepathy thing.”

“I don’t doubt it, but an E.I. could help regulate you—probably a whole lot better than the suppressant we came up with.”

Ava nodded. “I guess it’s time to reevaluate.”

“I support whatever you decide.”

She swiveled on her stool. “What would you do in my position?”

“I haven’t felt what you’ve felt. It’s not fair to say.”

“From a medically objective standpoint, then,” she prompted.

He sighed and leaned against the counter, facing her. “If I suddenly had super-strength and speed, I think I’d want to learn to master those abilities, even if it was painful. Those kinds of skills could come in handy. If an E.I. could help you achieve that, it’s worth serious consideration.”

“I was thinking the same thing. I’m glad to know there are options.”

“It’ll be here, whenever you make up your mind.”

She took her free hand and drew him in for a kiss. “Those decisions can wait.”


*     *     *


Kurtz leaned back in his office chair. Almost back to routine. But first, we have one more matter to attend to.

With a better understanding of the alien threat they faced, it was time for action. FDG command needed little convincing that the situation warranted a suitable resource investment to mitigate the threat efficiently and permanently.

All the same, they were dealing with new aliens. It wasn’t the Federation’s way to go in and wipe out an entire race without a damned good reason. Taking over the bodies of several individuals was an egregious offense, certainly, but it could also be attributed to cultural differences and a lack of understanding about autonomy.

As much as Kurtz wanted to rush in and destroy the alien’s ability to transmit telepathic signals, he couldn’t let his own personal bias cloud his professional judgment.

A knock sounded on his door.

“Come in, Major,” he greeted Widmore. “Thank you for joining me.”

“Of course, sir. What was it you wanted to discuss?”

Kurtz steepled his fingers. “I was hoping to get your take on these aliens and the new discovery of this world of theirs.”

“Ah.” Widmore lowered himself into one of the visitor chairs. “Whether I think we should go after them?”

Kurtz nodded.

“I do, sir. I wouldn’t normally advocate for intervening in alien matters, but they’ve made their business ours.” He paused. “What did the leadership say?”

“They’ve authorized a recon mission to get a lay of the land. Depending on what we find, we’ll take necessary action.”

“Ava’s team?” Widmore prompted.

“That was the other matter I wanted to discuss. Is she ready to be back out in the field?”

Widmore let out a long breath between his teeth. “She’s not her old self, but she’s been cleared by Medical.”

“What about your gut instinct?”

The major folded his hands in his lap. “Given what we’re up against, I think she’s the only person for the job.”


FINIS

Ava Landyn and her team will be back in Veiled Designs! You can pre-order it at full price, or you can join my email list and I’ll let you know when it publishes so you can pick it up for 99 cents. I appreciate the few extra nickels, especially if you can’t wait and want the book at midnight on January 4th. Thank you for reading Endless Advance. I know you’ll like the next story in the Uprise Saga.

Preorder Endless Advance Here.


Endless Advance: Age of Expansion

Author Notes - Amy DuBoff

Written November 30, 2017


Thank you for coming on this journey with me! I can’t express how much it means to have your support.

When I set out to write this series, I always wanted it to be for the fans. I read through the reviews of the other Kurtherian spin-off books to get a feel for what readers were craving.

In particular, one common theme I noticed on the Ascension Myth books was that some readers missed the prevalence of Weres found in the core series. So, as I began sketching out my book concepts, I knew I wanted to give proper face time to Weres and other modified human characters. But, having characters is just one level. A foundational element of the Kurtherian Gambit universe is the technology that makes modified humans possible, and to really do that justice, I needed to dive deeper.

I started thinking about the ancient, underlying Kurtherian technology, and I found myself wondering about other advanced races that might be out there. Had any other entities stumbled across the Kurtherian tech and tried to understand it?

These thoughts eventually led me to the perennial concept of a scavenger race that absorbs others’ tech and repurposes it for their own ends. There are classic examples of this in other sci-fi, such as the Borg in Star Trek or the Replicators in Stargate, but I found myself leaning in a slightly different direction for this alien foe. I wanted something that would push the boundaries of how we tend to think of life and get away from a being in its own mobile body.

If you’ve read my Cadicle series, you know I tend to wander into the metaphysical with my writing. I spend a good deal of time in that series on telepathy, telekinesis, and astral projection. Maybe it’s because I was a psychology major, as well as being the daughter of a psychologist, but I can nerd out for hours thinking and talking about the mind and how it relates to physical form.

So, combining the Kurtherian tech with my own interests, the idea of Nox and its kind began to take shape—a race curious about physical experience, but not autonomous beings unto themselves. It’s a new challenge to have an enemy that one can’t readily see or put in any one place. With a character like Ava and her unique skills, it only seemed appropriate for her to face an adversary that complemented her exploration of consciousness.

At any rate, that’s a little backstory about how Uprise Saga came into being. I’m thrilled you’re reading it, and I hope you’re enjoying the ride!

Thank you to Michael Anderle, Craig Martelle, and the rest of the LMBPN family for helping to bring this series to life. There’s an old adage that writing is a solitary endeavor, but this amazing community has proved otherwise.

Special thanks to Tim Marquitz for editing, Andrew Dobell (and Estrany) for another fantastic cover, and to all the JIT readers. I’d also like to thank Craig, Kurt, Curtis, and Ron for beta reading and making sure I was doing the story universe justice.

Stay tuned for Veiled Designs as Ava’s story in the Uprise Saga continues!


***


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.

Endless Advance: 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 Taran Empire is fighting a secret interdimensional war... and they're losing.

Cris Sietinen joins the Tararian Selective Service to hone his latent telekinetic abilities, but being an Agent puts him at the center of a galactic conspiracy.

The Empire is waging a generations-long war within a hidden dimensional rift against the Bakzen, a mysterious race with advanced telekinetic abilities. But the governing Priesthood has its own secret agenda. The only hope for victory is the prophesied Cadicle—foretold to have powerful abilities unlike any other.

With the future of their people at stake, Cris and his family must face the ultimate questions of duty and morality 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 December 6, 2017


Hello!

First, let me thank you for not only reading the story but also Amy's author notes and now to my own, as well!

As the creator of the Kurtherian Gambit Universe, I always enjoy learning what each new collaborator wants to write into the universe based and their interests.

Amy's enjoyment of the mind and all of the aspects that come with it are incredibly intriguing. Well, at least to me. Personally, I do not have near the background and experience which Amy has to do this subject justice. However, I do believe that our mind holds more abilities that we have yet to unearth. It feels like what our knowledge of the sea holds.

We think we know. We have it mapped out, but we truly CAN'T know, since we haven't been through everything.

Amy mentions her Cadicle series, and you can find the link to it right here:

https://www.amazon.com/Amy-DuBoff/e/B00TT9JK7C/

I encourage you to check out her other books, and other stories that she has written to get a better flavor for everything Amy writes.

She is, after all, Queen of Space Opera!

;-)

For me, the reason that the Weres are not a big portion of my stories is that they never grabbed my attention as much as vampires do. So, if there were ever a t-shirt choice with #TeamWere or #TeamVampire, it wouldn't take much for me to grab the #TeamVampire t-shirt and wear it proudly.

However, Amy doing the Weres justice in the stories pleases me to no end.

Right now, I have just finished chapter 9 of my own Kurtherian Gambit story, Capture Death. It is due to come out on Christmas day, and I am sweating a little bit about everything that needs to get accomplished for it to come out on time.

However, this isn't the first time I've been in the situation.

After each book is finished, I keep telling myself, "Next time, I'm going to do this smarter!"

Apparently, after over 20 books I have yet to figure out the proper process.

Or rather, I have yet to force myself to write every single day as I should.

Should you desire to become an Indie Author (or Traditionally Published), I would suggest getting into the habit to write at least 250 words day in, and day out. Get into that habit before you start this business and it will pay dividends far into your future.

If this is your first foray into the Kurtherian Gambit Universe, you have a lot of stories to look forward to. We hope that at least some of the genres you enjoy reading are represented amongst all of the different series we have on tap which includes: Space Opera (obviously), military sci-fi, paranormal, post-apocalyptic dystopian and fantasy / techmage.  We are working on possible romance titles and more Sci-Fi in 2018.

For those asking what my typical day is, I can only say "they change."

So far, I've written 1,500 words in my next book. These author notes and I have another author notes to write plus another two chapters to hopefully get done in my book (which is about 5,000 words), pick up my wife from the airport, and record two or three author notes for audiobooks with Ell Leigh Clarke.

It is a busy life, but a wonderful one. I would be remiss if I didn't thank you for all of the blessings you reading our books bring us, each and every day.

Ad Aeternitatem,


Michael

Books by Michael Anderle

For a complete list of Kurtherian Gambit Universe

 books please click this link.


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)


 

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)


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)

Rebirth (08)


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)

 Endless Advance (02)




Bad Company

* With Craig Martelle*

The Bad Company (01)


The Ghost Squadron

* With Sarah Noffke and J.N. Chaney*

Formation (01)

Exploration (02)


Valerie’s Elites

* With Justin Sloan and PT Hylton *

Valerie’s Elites (01)



Other Books


Etheric Adventures: Anne and Jinx

*With S.R. Russell*

Etheric Recruit

Etheric Researcher



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)

Dealing in Magic (5)


 

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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