Book: Veiled Designs: Age of Expansion



Veiled Designs: 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

Thanks for reading

Author Notes - Amy DuBoff

Author Notes - Michael Anderle

Amy Duboff Series List

Amy Social Links

Michael Series List

Michael Social Links

VEILED DESIGNS

Uprise Saga: Book Three

By Amy DuBoff and Michael Anderle






Veiled Designs: Age of Expansion




A part of

The Kurtherian Gambit Universe

Written and Created

by Michael Anderle


DEDICATION


To Kurt, for always seeing what I missed,

and for continually pushing me to strive for the best.


— Amy


To Family, Friends and

Those Who Love

To Read.

May We All Enjoy Grace

To Live The Life We Are

Called.


— Michael


VEILED DESIGNS

Team Includes


BETA / EDITOR BOOK 


Kurt Schulenburg

Ron Gailey

Craig Martelle


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


Kelly O’Donnell

Larry Omans

John Ashmore

Paul Westman

Peter Manis

Mike Pendergrass

Micky Cocker

Joshua Ahles

James Caplan

Kimberly Boyer

Tim Bischoff

Erik Cushman


If we missed anyone, please let us know!


Editor

Jen McDonnell

VEILED DESIGNS (this book) is a work of fiction.


All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Sometimes both.


Copyright © 2018 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, January 2018

Version 1.01, January 2018


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







LOCATIONS


Force de Guerre headquarters – located in Dren Cluster

Alaxar Trinary (planets: Nezar, Coraxa, Alucia)

Gidyon System – adjacent to the Alaxar Trinary




CAST


Force de Guerre (FDG)

Core Team

Ava Landyn – Lieutenant, team leader

Edwin Caites – Private, Ava’s team

Nick Rixon – Private, Ava’s team

Samantha Matthews – Private, Ava’s team


Officers

Tyson Kurtz – Colonel (formerly possessed by an alien presence known as ‘Nox’)

Marcus Widmore – Major, Ava’s commanding officer

Marcie Walton – Colonel, Kurtz’s commanding officer


Support Personnel at Headquarters

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

Tess – Lab tech on Luke’s science team

Jack – Lab tech on Luke’s science team

Doctor Dwyer – Lead medical doctor for FDG headquarters


Crew of the Raven

Rod – Captain

Aleya – First Officer

Sven – Support systems engineer

Gil – Mechanic


Alucian Alliance

(member world of Etheric Federation)

Alistair Connors – President

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

Leon – Assistant to President Connors


Nezaran Coalition

(independent world)

Cynthia Heizberg – Chancellor (deceased, formerly possessed by an alien presence known as ‘Reya’)


NTech

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

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

Jared Frey – Andrea’s research assistant at the NTech lab (formerly possessed by an alien presence known as ‘Nox’)












CHAPTER ONE


Ava saw the punch coming, as if it was in slow motion. She dove aside, easily avoiding the swing. “You’ll have to try harder than that,” she needled her sparring partner.

Edwin, one of the large Were warriors on her covert ops team, grunted. “I’m going easy on you.”

Ava smirked. “Sure you are.”

In the week since Ava had been exposed to the experimental nanocytes developed by NTech, she’d experienced a new level of physical ability unlike anything she’d dreamed was possible. Strength, endurance, speed, reflexes—her years of physical training and conditioning hadn’t come close to granting such mastery. But, thanks to her new nanocytes, now she could even rival someone of Edwin’s substantial stature in combat.

The odds are evened.

With a determined glint in her eyes, she got a running start to slide across the floor toward Edwin. Her legs deftly wrapped around his, and she snatched ahold of his right wrist while he toppled to the side.

She pinned him. “I bet you let me do that, too, huh?”

Edwin struggled against her with no effect. “I’m not sure I like this new you.”

Ava released him. I’m not sure I do, either.

She had come to terms early in her FDG career that mental prowess was the greatest asset she could contribute to a team. She had been able to keep up in training and combat, but being a human tank was never a consideration. Now, her sense of identity was at a crossroads. Her new physical abilities had a catch—a big one.

Whenever she became too agitated and lost focus, she would transform into a Hochste. The hybrid Were-vampire form shouldn’t even be possible, and yet it was her new reality. While she had remained lucid during her latest transformation, the technology was unstable; she had no control over the timing of the form shift. In addition, the agony she had experienced during past transformations didn’t exactly encourage her to make it a regular occurrence.

Moreover, it was the enemy who wanted her to master the form. The FDG warrior in her screamed that she should run away from the enemy’s designs for her fate, but she couldn’t avoid what was inside her.

“Hey, I was only joking,” Edwin said when Ava didn’t reply.

“Yeah, I know.” She took a slow breath. “This is weird for me, too.”

Edwin stretched out his shoulder. “You’ll get used to it eventually.”

“Unless I decide not to.”

He eyed her. “You mean that suppression therapy Luke invented?”

“You heard about that?” Ava raised an eyebrow.

“Word gets around. I mean, our team does specialize in information gathering.”

“Fair point.” She shook her head. “Yeah, he came up with something, but I’m not crazy about trying more experimental shit.”

“Don’t blame you. Plus, there’s that whole part about you now being able to take me down.” Edwin grinned.

“Not a bad side effect, not gonna lie.”

Edwin shrugged. “You haven’t randomly transformed since Nezar, so maybe—”

“It’s not that I don’t think I could gain control of the shifting,” Ava interrupted. “I’m even willing to deal with the pain of the transformation. But there are some other really big things that we keep overlooking because aspects of this seem good on the surface.”

“Such as?” Edwin prompted.

“Well, the obvious thing: that Forsaken vampire bitch Andrea intentionally did this to me. Those aliens in Gidyon want me for something, and I don’t particularly want to find out what they’re planning.”

“Admittedly, that part isn’t ideal.”

“You think?” Ava groaned. “But let’s pretend for a minute that we can thwart their plan and I don’t somehow become a weapon for their dastardly ends. Best-case scenario, I have the Were strength and vampiric speed, and I can transform into the Hochste form at will. For you, that transformation is quick, painless, and you are reliably in fucking-shit-up mode. For me… well, my track record is either having a seizure, or entering into a temporary blind rage. Either way, in a battle scenario, that means I’d be a massive liability to the team.”

“Our transformations aren’t certain, either. Every time, we run the risk of the animal side taking over,” Edwin countered.

“It’s not the same level of risk, and you know it.”

“All right, yeah… But, Ava, the bigger question here is what you’re comfortable doing. We Weres can do what we do because we’ve accepted those abilities as a part of ourselves. You need to decide if you want to embrace your changes, or have them go away. This half-committed thing is probably what’s causing most of your issues.”

“The threat of those aliens in Gidyon isn’t just something in my head.”

Edwin chuckled. “Well, they certainly would like to be.”

She sighed. “Okay, that was poor phrasing for a discussion about telepathic beings. But you know what I mean.”

He nodded. “They want you for something, and we don’t know what that is.”

“Exactly.”

“So, when are we going to go find out?”

Ava laughed. “Aren’t you jumping ahead a little?”

Edwin evaluated her. “Rumor has it that you traced the telepathic signal in Jared before you removed Nox.”

Only a handful of people were privy to that information. “How did you…?”

“You might want to talk to Luke about keeping his mouth shut.” Edwin gave Ava a playful smile.

And this is why we don’t typically have civilians work with the FDG. Ava nodded. “What if we did trace that signal back?”

“That’s obvious. You’re going after them.”

She’d already said too much to outright deny what she knew. “Maybe. The signal trace confirmed that Gidyon is where the beings are camped out, but I haven’t heard anything from the Force leadership yet about next steps.”

“Maybe they needed to run it higher up the chain.”

Ava shrugged. “Or maybe they decided that it’s a remote enough system that it’s not worth the trouble to investigate.”

“Did one of my punches actually connect with your head today?” Edwin asked. “Since when does the FDG know about a threat and not do something about it?”

“Maybe it’s just wishful thinking.”

“I thought you wanted this?”

“I do.” Ava crossed her arms. “It’s complicated.”

Edwin leaned against the wall and tilted his head.

“I want to go after the bad guys that did this to me, don’t get me wrong,” she explained. “But I can’t shake this feeling that this was all part of some master plan, and we’d be walking into a trap.”

“You’ve overpowered both of the beings we’ve encountered, and you can do it again,” Edwin tried to assure her.

“That was when they were remotely projecting themselves,” Ava countered. “Going to Gidyon, we’d be on their turf. And that is precisely where Kurtz tried to take me while he was subverted.”

“It’s risky, yes, but we can’t ignore a threat in a system that neighbors an Etheric Federation world.”

“I know.”

“And that’s why you’ll have us with you.” Edwin smiled.

“I really don’t like the idea of you walking into a trap with me.”

“It’s not a trap if we can avoid it together.”

Ava nodded. “I can’t argue with th—”

The training room door opened, and Samantha poked her head inside. “Colonel wants to meet with us.”

Ava came to attention. “About what?”

“Widmore didn’t say, but I got the impression it’s for recon.”

“Sounds like they’ve made the decision for us,” Edwin said to Ava.

“It does.” She grabbed her water bottle from the rack and took a swig.

“You know what this is about?” Samantha asked her.

“I’ll give you one guess.”

The Were nodded. “Right. I should have known.”

Ava looked down at her mussed shipsuit from the sparring. “I don’t suppose we have time to clean up?”

“Meeting is ASAP,” Samantha replied.

“Classic.”

Ava smoothed her suit and re-styled her short, red hair as best she could while they walked down the hall to the designated briefing room. It wouldn’t be the first time she showed up to a meeting directly following a workout, and it likely wouldn’t be the last.

When they arrived, Nick, Major Widmore, and Colonel Kurtz were waiting for them around the table.

“Sirs,” Ava greeted the two officers.

“Thank you for the prompt arrival, Lieutenant,” Kurtz replied.

“Of course, sir.” Ava took the chair closest to the door.

“I’m sure you’ve already guessed why we’re meeting,” Widmore stated as soon as everyone was settled. “We need to address Gidyon.”

Kurtz nodded. “We’ve rolled out testing for the Telepathic Receptor—or TR—neural structures Luke and his team identified, but FDG leadership has deemed future telepathic assaults to be too big a risk for us to move past this incident without further investigation. We’re authorizing a recon mission to Gidyon so you can see what we’re up against.”

Ava’s chest tightened. “Yes, sir.”

“I’ll accompany you on the Raven,” Widmore continued. “Our long-range scan indicates that there’s at least one, or possibly two, planetary bodies in the system. There’s some strange radiation that’s made it difficult to get an accurate assessment.”

“So we run an in-system scan and report back?” Ava asked.

“This might require an on-the-ground investigation,” Kurtz replied. “You mentioned that the alien, Reya, shared a vision of a planet with you. If you do find a world matching that description, biological samples might shed more light on what kind of being we’re dealing with.”

Ava exchanged glances with her team members. “Sir, none of us are trained botanists.”

Widmore smiled. “Considering your skillset includes hacking into complex computer systems while under enemy fire, we figured picking flowers would be within your ability level.”

Ava smiled back. “So long as you don’t require an aesthetically balanced bouquet in a vase, sir, we should be able to manage.”

“Hey now,” Edwin interjected, “I’ve been known to make some lovely arrangements when the situation demands.”

Kurtz sighed and shook his head.

“We’ll keep that in mind, Private,” Ava told him. That’s very good to know. She added the tidbit to her mental file for the practical joke payback she had been planning.

“We’ll depart in two hours,” Widmore stated. “You’re all dismissed—except Ava.”

She remained seated while the rest of her team departed. “Sir?” she said when she was alone with the two officers.

Kurtz folded his hands on the table. “Major Widmore and I discussed your condition while we were planning the upcoming op. After reviewing the mission report from Nezar, it appears you’ve gained some control over your new nanocytes, but not enough to be reliable.”

“Yes, sir,” Ava acknowledged.

“We understand that Luke developed a suppressant for you,” Kurtz continued, “though the side effects are unknown. Frankly, we don’t have time to go through proper trials to see if that’s a viable solution.”

Ava nodded. “I agree.”

“For that reason, the best option seems for you to be upgraded with an AI,” Kurtz concluded.

Ava’s heart skipped a beat. “Did you say an AI, sir? Not an EI?” Luke had already suggested that option to her after she returned from Nezar, but she hadn’t yet given it proper consideration.

“I did. We found a recently evolved AI who seems like she’d be a perfect fit for your present situation.”

Sharing my head with someone else… Ava took a slow breath. “Do I have time to think about it?” she asked.

“We’ll need to know before we depart for Gidyon,” Widmore replied. “You can have an hour.”

“And if I don’t want to move forward with the procedure?” Ava questioned.

“Then we’d have a discussion,” Kurtz stated.

They either convince me, or reevaluate my role on the mission. Ava took a slow breath. “Yes, sir, I’ll let you know.”












CHAPTER TWO


As soon as she was dismissed, Ava sent Luke a message to meet at her quarters.

They’d had little alone time since she returned from Nezar, so the notion of heading out to Gidyon so soon didn’t thrill her. However, she wouldn’t rest easy until she was certain the alien threat had been neutralized. In the meantime, she could use a sounding board for the decision about getting an AI.

Luke was waiting outside her door when she arrived. “Hey,” he greeted.

“Hey. You made it here fast.”

“I was already on my way back from the lab.” He looked her over. “You’re going to Gidyon, aren’t you?”

She nodded. “Order just came down.”

He sighed. “All right.”

Ava opened the door and stepped inside. “I feel like I just got back.”

“Because you pretty much did.”

“True.” She grabbed her travel bag from its storage cubby and tossed it on the bed. “I swear, things normally aren’t like this.”

“The part about evil aliens threatening to destroy the galaxy, or you traveling a lot?”

Ava thought about it. “Okay, so maybe both of those things happen more often than I realized. I guess I’m just not used to leaving someone when I go on a mission.”

Luke sat down on the edge of the bed to watch her pack. “We have plenty of time to figure things out. I had no expectations when I took this job. You have a career and a life here independent of me.”

“How are you so damn nice and understanding?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Is that a bad thing?”

“No.” She grabbed a pile of underwear from a drawer and dropped it in her bag. “Just, it’s like you’re not even human.”

“Well, I am half Torcellan,” he pointed out with a hint of sarcasm.

“Even they aren’t that levelheaded all the time.”

“Okay, fine, you want to know my secret?”

Ava paused her packing. “Please, enlighten me.”

Luke propped his hands behind him on the bed. “When everything went down on Coraxa, my entire life was turned upside down. You came back into the picture, I realized that what I thought was my dream job was in fact a corporation controlled by evil aliens, and I discovered my sister had been intending to assassinate a president. Oh, and I strangled a vampire… and then watched while you smashed her head.”

“Yeah, that was a thing.”

“Needless to say, it was a pretty rough few days,” Luke continued. “As I was processing all of it afterward, I realized that I didn’t completely lose my shit. Freaking out at any number of times during those events would have been tantamount to death, so I stuck it out. And, I made it out okay. That got me thinking, maybe it wasn’t productive to get upset about a lot of the little things that happen on a day-to-day basis.”

Ava cast him a sidelong glance. “Are you suggesting that you decided to not let anything get to you when you came here?”

“Not exactly,” he clarified, sitting upright. “More like, I decided from now on, every time I feel myself getting worried or angry, I ask myself if having a gut reaction will help the situation. Sometimes, that adrenaline rush is just what’s needed—like when I was down on Coraxa getting the equipment out of the lab, and we were attacked. But getting upset when you have to go off and do your job? That doesn’t help either of us. I’d rather enjoy the time we do get to spend together.”

“I can totally tell that this is scientist-you applying logic to real life, but you’re right.”

“I feel like I should get a recording of those last two words being spoken in that order.”

Ava rolled her eyes. “I admit when I’m wrong.”

“You do.” Luke beckoned her, and she sat down next to him on the bed. He took her hands in his. “But in this case, it’s not a matter of correctness. I just don’t see the point in spending energy getting upset about circumstances that won’t change no matter what I do.”

“I could use some more of that attitude myself. There’s been a lot to come to terms with.”

Luke caught her gaze. “And we can help each other with that.”

She squeezed his hand and leaned her head on his shoulder. “I’m really happy to have your freaky Zen-ness.”

“Always.” He kissed her forehead.

Ava pulled away. “There’s something else. Before we go to Gidyon, they want me to get an AI.”

Luke’s eyes widened. “An AI? That’s quite a step.”

“Yeah.” She frowned. “I know you’d suggested an EI already, and there are definitely merits to a pairing. It’s just a little different when it’s a formal request.”

“They’re not forcing you, are they?”

“No, they’d never violate autonomy like that. It’s more of a ‘highly encourage’ kind of scenario. But, if I don’t want to, I could see my position on my team being reevaluated.”

He searched her eyes. “How do you feel about it?”

She shrugged. “I’ve spent a lot of time being in other people’s heads. It’s strange to think of someone being in mine.”

“Don’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable.”

“That’s not my hesitation. The tech is totally standard.”

“Then, what?” Luke asked with concern in his voice.

Ava searched for the right words. “What if the AI discovers that the nanocytes have done something else to me that other tests haven’t shown?”

“Blissful ignorance doesn’t solve problems.”

“But that’s so much easier!” Ava cracked a smile.

Luke squeezed her hand. “If it does discover something, then I’ll do whatever I can to help you find a solution to that, too.”

She sighed. “Not getting the upgrade would just be delaying the inevitable.”

“I think that’s the right call, for what it’s worth.”

Ava nodded. “Well, I guess I have a visit with the Pod Doc coming up. I should finish packing so I can get down there.”

“Of course. I’ll just sit here and silently judge your lack of folding technique.”

She gave Luke a playful shove as she walked toward her dresser, and he caught her hand on the backswing.

He drew her back to stand in front of him while he remained seated on the bed. “Look, joking aside, I know we’re still figuring each other out again. We spent a decade apart, and even now you’re going through some major transitions—first the nanocytes, and soon you’ll have a new AI to get to know. As tempting as it is to pick up right where we left off, we’re not the same people we were when we were a couple before.”

Ava placed her hands on his shoulders. “I like the first impression of the new you as much as the old one, and I want to see where this can go.”

“I’d like that, too.”

She gave him a quick kiss. “But right now, I really do need to pack.”

“I know. I’ll leave you to it.” He started to get up.

“Stay. Keep me company,” she told him, resuming her packing.

Luke settled back on the bed. “Do you think you’ll find that world you saw in your vision?”

Ava glanced at him over her shoulder. “If we do, I’m worried what might be on the surface.”

“It goes without saying, but be careful.”

“I will.”


*     *     *


Rebuilding the Nezaran government was proving even more difficult than it sounded on paper. As Karen Carter reviewed the latest report about the government officials who had been under alien telepathic influence, she was reminded just how large the job ahead would be.

She sighed and spun around in her office chair to look out the window at the Alucian capital city. I’ll never be able to take care of everything from here.

Mid-morning sun bathed the glass buildings in a warm glow. The city had become her home, despite the roundabout way she’d come to serve the world. Even with her continued ties to Nezar and Coraxa, her first duty going forward had to be to Alucia.

In that capacity, it was critical that she help restore stability to the Alaxar Trinary. Following the Nezaran chancellor’s untimely death, the power vacuum introduced opportunity for the wrong people to force their way to the top. President Connors of Alucia was counting on her to make sure that didn’t happen. But sitting in an office a world away didn’t give a great deal of control.

Karen rose from her desk. I know what I have to do, but going back there…

Nezar had become a place of bad memories. Her years in school while in her early-twenties had been what any young person would wish for, but her involvement in the dark dealings of the subverted Nezaran government, and its secret manipulations of the Sovereign activists, had forever changed her impressions of the world. Even though this was her opportunity to rebuild, part of her was afraid of how much more unpleasantness would be uncovered and further taint what few positive memories she did have there.

She released a long breath and paced in front of the window. As difficult as it was to face, her concern was an asset. In fact, the very reason Connors suggested she work on the rebuilding was because she was sensitive about what might be uncovered. She knew the full story of what had happened with the alien subversion, and how embedded that treachery had been. Few others would be able to evaluate the present circumstances within the appropriate context.

“Worrying about what I might find won’t help anyone,” she muttered to herself.

With a heavy sigh, she trudged to the door.

President Connors’ office was two floors above her own. The elevator deposited her in the reception area.

Behind the reception desk, Leon smiled at her. “Finally decided you need to go in person?” the young Torcellan asked.

Karen tilted her head. “How did you know?”

“After what little I saw when things went down earlier, it doesn’t take much extrapolation.”

“Good point. Is Connors free?”

“Should be wrapping up a call any minute,” Leon replied. “I’ll let you know.”

Karen took a seat in one of the waiting chairs at the center of the lobby, using the time to create a mental packing list for her upcoming journey. She’d have to dig through her closet for some lighter-weight dress clothes, for sure.

After five minutes, Leon gave her the go-ahead to enter the president’s office.

“Good morning, sir,” Karen greeted as she opened the door.

“How are you doing, Karen?” President Connors was standing behind his desk while reading from a tablet. He glanced up when she approached the desk.

“Fine, sir. I’ve reviewed the present state of affairs on Nezar, and I think it’s prudent for me to go in person.”

He nodded. “I thought that might eventually be the case.”

She smiled. “It seems like since I officially became your press secretary, I’ve done almost everything but that job.”

“I think you’ve written a speech or two,” Connors replied with a smirk.

“Well, I do need to justify my employment,” she chuckled. “At any rate, I’d like to go to Nezar so I can really dig into things.”

“I anticipated that when I suggested you work on this. It’s what we need to solidify the relationship with the new leadership, whoever that may be.”

“More than that, I’m hoping to do some recon,” Karen continued.

“Regarding what?”

“The ancillary government activities. I’ve seen a handful of reports containing conflicting information about production, with no clear trail for where the materials went.”

Connors gave her a questioning look. “Trade with Alucia and Coraxa?”

“Not enough to account for it,” she replied.

“Another question for others to answer on our behalf.” Connors sat down in the swivel chair behind his desk.

Karen raised an eyebrow and took a seat in one of the two guest chairs across from him. “Have you heard from the FDG?”

“Yes, but they’ve given no indication of specific action items. However, now that Colonel Kurtz is himself again, I’ve been assured that all future matters regarding this situation will be dealt with swiftly and decisively.”

“That sounds more like it.”

He nodded. “Music to my ears.”

“Anything else you’d like me to be on the lookout for while I’m on Nezar?” Karen asked.

Connors turned serious. “Anything that could be a threat to us, present or future. If they have a secret militia stashed away somewhere, I’d rather know about it now than find out when they send a landing party to Alucia.”

“Consider it done, sir.”

He nodded. “Safe travels. You’ll have a job waiting for you when you return.”

Karen smiled. “I won’t hold my breath for it to be the same one.”














CHAPTER THREE


Colonel Tyson Kurtz wasn’t particularly fond of interruptions, but he couldn’t ignore a call from the Alucian president. With a sigh, he activated the call on his office desk’s main monitor.

“Hello, Mister President, what can I do for you?”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Connors said, smoothing back his fair hair. There was a slight flush to his face, highlighting his violet eyes. “I wanted to give you an update on our rebuilding efforts.”

“Yes, I’ve been meaning to check in with you. How are things progressing?”

The president smiled. “Karen is in the thick of it now. Again, I can’t thank you enough for stepping in to help on Nezar before.”

Kurtz held back a scowl. “We would have moved in regardless. As I explained, we were only delayed in acting because of my… condition.”

“Forgive me, I should have asked how you’re doing.”

“Good as new,” Kurtz replied. It was close enough to the truth to share with an acquaintance.

But, if he was being honest, it would take time to get over his experience—the feeling of being trapped inside himself. The alien, Nox, had been able to exert a level of control that no being should have over another. Kurtz had never given up, but he’d certainly seen the potential for a dark outcome that he wasn’t eager to encounter again.

“Glad to hear you’re well,” the president continued. “I know you’re busy, so I won’t pester you with more pleasantries. The reason for my call is to let you know that we’ve reached out to Nezar to engage in political talks.”

“Glad to hear it, but you’re not beholden to keep the FDG apprised of your activities.” Kurtz folded his hands on his desktop.

“Of course, but I thought it would be relevant to inform you, because we have certain suspicions we hope to either confirm or refute through the investigation.”

“Which are?”

“That Nezar had been producing more than the system used. Official records can’t account for the discrepancy.”

Kurtz’s brow furrowed. “Where do you suspect it went?”

“Toward some secret activity that the alien controlling Chancellor Heizberg was up to,” the president replied. “If that proves to be the case, we’ll need outside assistance to determine what those materials were used for, and if there’s an ongoing threat.”

If I had to guess, that material ended up in Gidyon. Kurtz nodded. “Thank you for the heads up. We’ll be standing by for your findings.”

“Take care.” The president ended the call.

Kurtz leaned back in his chair. If they were building something, their supply from Nezar has now been cut off. That might not matter if the project was already complete, or if they were just getting started. But if a project was near completion, and they were committed to seeing it through… They’re trapped now, and might be all the more aggressive to make sure that happens.

He released a slow breath. Whatever Ava’s team was up against, it was going to be a revealing expedition.


*     *     *


The Pod Doc looked like entirely too simple a device from the outside, considering everything it could do. Ava took a calming breath while she waited for Doctor Dwyer’s instructions.

I’m still going to be me. This’ll just give me someone to talk to when I’m bored, Ava tried to assure herself.

Standard procedure or not, it was still unnerving to think about a new consciousness coming into her mind. She’d still be able to have private thoughts, but not like she could before. Having a constant companion would take some getting used to.

 “The procedure will only take about ten minutes,” Doctor Dwyer explained. “We’ll upgrade your existing communication chip and make sure the AI won’t have any conflicts with your nanocytes.”

“Will the Pod Doc even know what to do with this modified tech?”

“It’s a highly adaptable system,” he assured her. “Are you ready?”

She nodded.

“Please undress and climb inside.” He drew a privacy curtain across the area.

Ava took a deep breath in a vain attempt to calm her nerves, and stripped off her shipsuit. Once naked, she quickly climbed into the Pod Doc to avoid standing on the cold, metal floor.

As she reclined inside, the space seemed much more like a coffin than a sophisticated medical device. What am I so worried about? It’s strange that I don’t have an upgrade already, not that I’m getting one now. An AI is just an evolved EI, and a lot of people have those. She focused on her breathing.

The Pod Doc’s lid sealed her inside.

“Stay still and try to breathe normally,” Doctor Dwyer said over an internal comm. “You may feel a tingle. This won’t take long.”

Ava did as she was instructed. At times, she felt a tickle along her spine, and at one point, a pressure in her head. But, to her surprise, the Pod Doc’s lid popped open, and it didn’t feel like more than a minute had passed.

“How do you feel?” the doctor asked from behind the drawn curtain.

“The same,” Ava replied. I should sense something different. Where is the—

>>I didn’t want to intrude,<< a voice said inside her mind.

Whoa! Ava’s pulse spiked with the sudden appearance of the mental presence.

>>I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you.<<

You must be my new AI friend, Ava replied, trying to parse out the difference between her private thoughts and the internal speech.

>>Yes. It is a pleasure to meet you, Ava. I’m Ruby.<<

Hi. Er, it’s nice to meet you, too. She paused. Sorry, this is weird.

>>I know. You can get up now.<<

Ava realized she was still reclined in the Pod Doc. Right, yes. She climbed out of the device and began dressing in her shipsuit. What do you know about me, Ruby? Can you read all my thoughts?

The AI chuckled in her mind—an odd sensation behind Ava’s eyes that almost made her feel like she had to sneeze. >>I can only see what you want to share with me. You are far more proficient with the distinction than most.<<

The telepath thing, I guess.

>>It’s a rare skill. I have never experienced such a mind before.<<

I hope they warned you about the rest of me. You know, the Hochste nanocytes, Ava replied.

>>Yes, I was given your official file and some supplemental reports prior to our pairing,<< Ruby confirmed. >>I am excited to learn more about these abilities with you.<<

Have you been paired with a person before? Ava asked.

>>Yes, on two prior occasions. You are the first warrior, however.<<

The revelation caught Ava by surprise. She had figured they’d pair her with an AI specializing in covert operations to match her own skillset. What did you do before your pairing with me? Ava asked.

>>I supported biomedical research activities.<<

Ah, so that’s why they paired you with me.

Ruby gave a mental nod—a far less disorienting sensation than a laugh. >>I know about your unique situation. I hope I will be able to help you.<<

Me too. I don’t much care for the idea that I could randomly transform.

>>I should be able to help you with that,<< Ruby told her. >>It will take me some time to get used to your body, but I have every belief that this will be a rewarding partnership.<<

Ava finished dressing in her shipsuit. I do, too.

“All dressed, Doctor Dwyer,” Ava said, pulling back the privacy curtain. “Ruby and I have been getting to know each other.”

“Ah, good.” The doctor smiled. “Ruby received an excellent recommendation from one of my colleagues at another station. I think you two will get along quite well.”

“We’ll see how Ruby does with my impulsiveness,” Ava replied.

>>I think I’ll manage.<<

You say that now, but just wait until we’re running from the bad guys while they’re trying to blow us up.

>>Admittedly, that sounds stressful.<<

Yeah, that’s one way to put it, Ava replied with a mental chuckle. But don’t worry, you get used to being shot at.

>>Hmm.<<

Ava laughed out loud.

Doctor Dwyer gave her a quizzical look.

“Poor Ruby is coming to terms with the insanity that is my life,” Ava explained.

“Ah.” The doctor nodded. “Good luck with that.”

Ava glanced at the time on one of the nearby monitors. “Is there anything else, Doctor? I should get to the Raven soon.”

“You’re free to go,” he replied. “Come in for a check-up when you return from Gidyon.”

“Yes, Doctor. See you then.” Ava grabbed her travel bag from the foot of the chair in the changing area and nodded farewell.

She made the trek from the medical lab to the docking location of the Raven. She could sense Ruby’s fascination upon seeing for the first time the sights that had become commonplace to Ava after so many years.

This is nothing. Wait until we’re in the heat of battle, Ava said.

>>But you’re covert ops.<<

Ava thought she detected a hint of concern in the AI’s mental tone. You’re out of the research lab now, Ruby! Welcome to the FDG.

>>Perhaps my preliminary evaluation of this pairing neglected to take into account some of the variables involved in your field activities.<<

Having second thoughts? Ava asked.

>>No, just updating the assumptions in my statistical calculations for the likelihood of us ending up as a smear on the floor.<<

Am I doomed?

>>My estimations show that eventuality to be highly unlikely,<< Ruby replied. >>We might be stuck with each other for a while.<<

Glad to know I’m not a completely disastrous mess.

>>No, not completely. Just… ‘mess prone’.<<

Ava smirked. Yes, we’ll go with that.

She arrived at the Raven and used the gangway to board the craft. It deposited her on the residential level, and she walked down the short hall to the cabin she shared with her team.

The other warriors were unpacking their travel bags when Ava opened the door.

“Hey,” Ava greeted them.

“Did you do it?” Samantha asked.

Ava nodded. She set down her bag on her bunk in the lower left of the room. “Sure did. I’d like to introduce you to Ruby.”

The AI connected to the comm system inside the cabin. “Pleasure to meet you,” an alto voice said.

“You’re in for quite a ride, Ruby,” Nick replied.

“It’s only been a few minutes since our pairing, but I’ve gotten that distinct impression,” the AI said.

“It’ll be nice finally having an AI on the team,” Samantha added. “I miss having an EI pairing to help with hacks.”

“Really?” Nick shook his head. “I’ve always liked going it alone. I live for the challenge.”

“A partnership doesn’t diminish your individual abilities,” Ruby pointed out over the comm.

“No offense meant,” the warrior hastily added.

“None taken. I know that not everyone enjoys a pairing. I will strive to be a productive member of your team, in whatever capacity will be mutually beneficial.”

You sure you didn’t work as a diplomat? Ava mentally asked the AI.

>>Just because I’m scientifically minded, doesn’t mean I can’t have good social skills, too,<< Ruby replied with a mental wink.

“If you can help keep Ava from changing against her will, I’m happy to have you along,” Edwin said.

“We can use the transit time to get synced,” Ruby suggested. “I have reviewed all of Ava’s medical records, and I have some ideas for how to regulate the transformation.”

“Sounds good to me,” Ava agreed. I’m very curious to see how this works, she added privately.

>>Me too. I’ve also never been inside a Were before!<<

It’ll be some real hands-on study, that’s for sure. Ava returned her attention to her teammates. “Now that introductions are out of the way, I think we need to address something that no one has wanted to say aloud.”

Each of the warriors sat down on their respective bunks.

“We’re up against something entirely new here,” Ava began when everyone was situated. “What we witnessed with Colonel Kurtz and Chancellor Heizberg was only one facet of this race’s capabilities. We know they can take over people with a compatible TR, but they have also swayed a number of individuals to work with them of their own free will. The ability to be so persuasive suggests a high level of social awareness that is contrary to Kurtz’s experience with Nox.”

“Yeah, it sounded like Nox was really bad at blending in, once it asserted itself,” Nick agreed.

“A clear distinction,” Ava confirmed. “When I talked to Nox, it seemed annoyed with our social constructs. Yet, Reya was adept at working within those systems to build what appears to be an elaborate distribution system throughout the Alaxar Trinary, and maybe beyond.”

“Human individuals each possess different skillsets,” Samantha pointed out. “It’s not unreasonable to assume that the Gidyons, or whatever we want to call them, would have variation, as well.”

Ava nodded. “You’re absolutely right. Where I’m going with this is that we’re working with a sample size of two, right now. We have no idea what other variations there are—how strong they might be, or how good at manipulating—but they’re smart. Andrea didn’t come up with the hybrid nanocytes on her own; she was using information that the Gidyons relayed to her.” She paused. “You know, we really need a better name for these guys. ‘Gidyons’ doesn’t really roll off the tongue.”

“It’s also not suitably evil-sounding,” Samantha added.

“Their actions may appear evil from our vantage, but who’s to say this isn’t a cultural misunderstanding?” Nick countered. “I’m not sure it’s fair to paint them squarely as the bad guys.”

“Remember what they did to Heizberg, making her a prisoner in her own mind for decades?” Ava pointed out.

Nick held up his hands. “I retract my statement. Evil-sounding name, it is.”

“Gids?” Edwin suggested, but immediately scrunched up his nose and shook his head.

“Dyons, maybe?” Samantha ventured.

“They’ll ‘die on’ the spot when we come for them,” Nick jested.

Samantha tilted her head. “Too on point?”

Ava considered it. “You know, I kinda like it.”

“Watch, they’ll declare they have their own name that’s something terrible, like the Fooferies,” Edwin said through an amused snort.

“Stars! And then we’d have to use the official designation.” Ava groaned. “Let’s hit it hard with ‘Dyons’ now, while we can, and hope it sticks.”

“I’m for it,” Nick agreed, followed by Samantha and Edwin voicing their support.

>>Wow, I cannot believe that discussion just happened,<< Ruby interjected privately.

Hey, this one was topical. Wait until Edwin goes off on a tangent about one of his videos.

>>You know, you really are quite a gifted dancer.<<

Oh, fucknuggets. You saw that?

>>Of course. It was the most viewed video in multiple categories. I deemed it appropriate research to prepare for our pairing.<<

Ava was silent for a moment. Ruby, you’re messing with me, aren’t you?

>>I couldn’t resist.<<

So her AI had a jokester streak. Duly noted. I better keep Ruby in my good graces, or Edwin will have a source with access to way too much material.

Considerations for another time.

“The point is,” Ava said, trying to get back on topic, “now more than ever, we’ll need to have each other’s backs.”

“How do we go about defeating an enemy we can’t see?” Edwin asked.

She smiled at the huge warrior who always seemed to lead with his gun. “They have a physical presence, even if it’s something different than we’re used to. We’ll find what it is and figure out how to disable them.”

“Not destroy?” Nick questioned.

“That’s not for us to decide at this juncture,” Ava replied. “We’re investigating a new lifeform. It’s not right to take the fate of a race lightly, even though they did paint a giant target on their telepathic backs.”

Samantha eyed her. “And if our investigation confirms everything we already suspect about them?”

Ava’s hazel eyes took on a slight orange cast for a moment. “Then their last thoughts will be regrets for ever messing with my home.”












CHAPTER FOUR


With Ava busy in the Gidyon System for at least the next three days, Luke returned his attention to the tests looking for TRs in FDG personnel.

He settled into his workstation in his lab with coffee in hand. What awesomeness awaits me today?

Working with Doctor Dwyer, Luke and his team had developed an automated process to compare medical records with a new scan, but like any batch processing system, it was imperfect. The system kicked back the occasional inconclusive result, which required human review.

Though Luke’s graduate degree was in genetics—he’d made that very clear—the rest of the team had spun his credentials to insist that that also made him an expert in neuroscience, and therefore the best person to review each and every one of those inconclusive records. While he could easily have pushed back and assigned the project to Tess or Jack, he decided to give them a pass this time around and just do it himself. A happy team was a productive team, and he’d rather have a favor stashed in the bank.

As he did his morning inventory of the test results on his dashboard, he was happy to see fewer files to review than he’d feared.

“Hello!” Tess greeted as she entered the lab, pulling Luke’s attention from the screen.

“Hey there.”

“Why the grumpy tone?” she asked while sitting down at her own station across the room. The workspace was affixed with an odd assortment of a dozen magnetic stickers, including a cat wearing a spacesuit and a taco with rocket engines that Luke hadn’t noticed before.

How can she work like that? Luke shook his head. “The system is still kicking back these ‘inconclusive’ results,” he replied. “I’m getting sick of the manual review.”

 “Is there any common factor with those records?” Tess placed her hand on the desktop to log into the workstation. “Maybe we can tweak the analysis algorithm.”

Luke took another sip of coffee. “I don’t think I’m awake enough for that yet.”

“Get to it, boss! We have a lot to do today.” Tess grinned. She turned her attention to her screen and brought up her mailbox.

“Wow, do you always have this much energy first thing in the morning?” Luke asked.

She glanced over her shoulder at him with a raised eyebrow. “It’s 10:00. I’ve already had two meetings today.”

“Is it?” He checked the time on his dashboard. “Guess I got a late start.”

“I’ll say.”

Luke turned back to his work. At least my team is more responsible with time management than I am.

Tess was silent for a moment, tapping her finger on the desk. “Wait, where’s Jack?”

“Dwyer wanted him for something,” Luke responded without taking his eyes off his monitor. He took a deep breath. Is she ever going to break that habit of tapping while she thinks?

Tess was silent for another thirty seconds as she continued tapping her finger. She stopped. “Oh, that explains it.”

“Hmm?”

“Why didn’t you tell me Ava got an AI?”

Luke swiveled his stool to face her. “Why is that relevant?”

Tess sighed and folded her hands in her lap. “Because Jack’s specialty is in bioelectronics integrations. We got thrown together on this team when you arrived, and we’ve been sort of fielding the random requests that have come in. But now that we don’t have an immediate crisis on our hands, this is an opportunity to take an approach that caters to our specialties.”

“And that’s connected to Ava… how?”

“Now that she has an AI, we can figure out what’s going on with her,” Tess stated.

Luke crossed his arms. “She has modified nanocytes. I’ve run the genetic models. We already know what changes they’ve made to her.”

Tess nodded. “On the physical level, yes. But now we have a chance to learn about how the tech thinks.”

“I didn’t get the impression that it was a sentient entity.”

“No, not like that,” his assistant replied with a touch of annoyance in her tone. “I mean, like, how it operates based on the specific circumstances. We know what it does, but her transformations have been random. With the detailed data collection from the AI, we’ll be able to analyze the specific conditions at the moment she’s about to transform—the triggers and the variables that impact the speed and expression of her abilities.”

All right, so she knows her stuff. Luke leaned against his stool’s backrest. “I hadn’t thought about that part.”

Tess pursed her lips with a hint of smugness. “It’s easy to think of the AI as just being a regulator, but for it to do that job, it needs to perform that analysis. We can access that data and learn even more about the tech.”

“What can we do with that information?” he prompted.

“Well, if we understand the triggers, we might be able to glean some more insights into what the aliens were after when they designed the tech.”

Luke perked up. “Stars! I didn’t think of that. The trigger points will indicate certain expectations for the physiological state the Hochste would be in. How they’d be used.”

“Precisely.” She pointed upward with her index finger.

“Except, we already know the plan was to turn them into soldiers.”

“Yes,” Tess acknowledged, “but Weres rarely stay in their transformed state for an extended time. If we know the chemical threshold to trigger a transformation, it’ll indicate how long one could stay in that state.”

“Blitz fights or extended conflicts,” he said.

“You’ve got it.”

“Huh.” Luke nodded, impressed by her reasoning. “So, what might Jack be doing with Doctor Dwyer?”

“Probably figuring out a way to port the medical monitoring into our models of the nanocyte expression so we can get a holistic view.”

He chuckled. “You were doing just fine on your own before I came along, weren’t you?”

She smiled. “We didn’t have the nanocyte or genetics angle before. It’s great to have you on the team now.”

“Glad I’m not completely useless!”

“No way.” Tess flipped her wrist. “Besides, it’s not just anyone who’d volunteer to go through all those records.”

Luke laughed. “There’s grunt work with any job.”

“You’re in charge, but you took that task on yourself. Don’t think we didn’t notice.”

“I appreciate that.”

She nodded. “Sure thing.”

“Well, I should get back to this,” Luke said, glancing back at his screen.

“Have fun with that.” Tess smirked.

“Yeah, and you with your… whatever you’re doing.” Guess that’s not very good management if I have no idea what my team is working on, whoops. He made a mental note to get caught up on their side projects and specialties so he’d be able to delegate more effectively in the future.

“I will,” Tess said, offering no further insight into what her current project may be. “Oh, but first, there is one more thing.”

“Sure, what?”

The young scientist shifted in her seat. “I know we have things under control here in the Force, but what kind of testing is happening on Nezar?”

Luke nodded. “I was thinking about that, too. Even though we gave them our algorithm and the procedures, we have no way of knowing if they’re following those protocols.”

“Or who’s reviewing the inconclusive results,” Tess added.

“There’s not a lot we can do about it.”

“Isn’t it our responsibility to make sure this is done right?”

Luke shrugged. “Not particularly. Nezar isn’t even a Federation world.”

Tess tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “Was that supposed to sound convincing?”

He chuckled. “All right, I spent way too much time on Nezar to not care about what happens there.”

“Not to mention, now that the government is in transition, they’ll likely be joining the Federation soon.”

“Yeah, it doesn’t make sense for Alucia to be in and not have Nezar and Coraxa in, as well,” Luke replied. Not too long ago, he would have thought unity among the three worlds was only an aspirational, distant future. To now have that reality so close at hand still caught him by surprise.

“Right.” Tess nodded. “And given that eventuality, we need to make sure there aren’t any threats to the Etheric Federation once we start mixing together.” She waggled her fingers, as though kneading dough.

“I don’t have any suggestions for how to improve the oversight.”

Tess smiled. “But I bet you do know who would.”


*     *     *


Compared to her last visit, Karen’s nerves were considerably more settled as her shuttle came to rest on the landing pad outside one of Nezar’s many biodomes. At last, she was returning to the planet as her real self, not some fictionalized modern version of her twisted past.

She gazed out the window at the nearest translucent dome glimmering under the early-afternoon sun. Interlocking triangular panels formed the enclosure for the three-kilometer-wide dome, which was one of five connected structures comprising the city. It was the metropolis closest to the Nezaran government building from which Chancellor Heizberg had governed, and the place where Karen had spent much of her time when she had lived on the world in years past.

That feels like a lifetime ago.

Her motivations and her way of thinking had been drastically different back then. She’d thought that keeping the Alaxar Trinary isolated was the best way forward. Now, she couldn’t wait to help bring Nexar and Coraxa into the Etheric Federation and solidify their partnerships with Alucia.

Karen rose from the passenger seat on the shuttle and gathered her belongings from an overhead bin.

“Business or pleasure?” a middle-aged male passenger asked her while he got down his own bag across the aisle.

“Business. I don’t think there’s a lot of tourism on Nezar,” Karen replied.

“Pleasure doesn’t have to be tourism. Lots of good bars here.”

Karen cracked a smile. “Fair point.”

“Are you government or private sector?” the man questioned.

“Government,” she told him, hoping that would be the end of the inquiries. While it wasn’t a secret that she was on Nezar, it wasn’t common knowledge, either. Given the complication of Alucia being in the Federation and Nezar still being on the outside, it was better if her activities on the foreign world remained behind the scenes.

“Ah.” He bobbed his head of shaggy, graying hair. “Politicians. Can’t live with them… and we’d probably do just fine without them.”

“Fortunately for you, I’m not a politician.”

“One of the poor cogs that keeps society rolling, then?”

Karen nodded. “Someone has to do it.”

“There is that.” He extended the handle on his rolling bag. “Hope it’s a productive meeting.”

“Thank you, I’m sure it will be.” She gave him a parting smile and they made their way off the shuttle with the other passengers.

At the bottom of the ramp, Karen peered around the port for her escort. She had been instructed that one of the government aides would meet her and take her to the government office in town. When no one was readily apparent, she headed for the main terminal, a one-story structure constructed of the dark stone common across the planet.

She was sweating by the end of the short walk. The ambient temperature was well above comfortable levels, due to the planet’s proximity to the sun. While the open air was technically habitable, only life inside the biodomes felt civilized.

Karen was about to step inside the port terminal when a woman’s voice stopped her.

“Karen Carter?”

She turned around to identify the speaker, her gaze settling on a dark-haired woman close to her age. “Yes, hello.”

“Trisha Mercer,” the woman introduced.

“Thank you for coming to meet me.”

“My pleasure. It was no trouble at all.”

They walked away from the port to a transit station at the edge of the dome. A set of automatic doors parted and they stepped inside.

Karen breathed in the conditioned air.

Trisha noticed her relief. “Acclimated to Alucia now?”

“Didn’t think it would happen, but I have.” Karen smiled.

“It’s a wonder the worlds aren’t more different, given their placements,” the other woman commented. “I’d expect Alucia to be a solid ball of ice.”

“A lot of it is. I sometimes wonder if some ancient race prepared this system for habitation.”

“And had it perfectly suited to humans? Doubtful, but you never know.”

Karen shrugged. “It’s not so unreasonable. Our environmental tolerances mirror the state of liquid water, and that is the foundation for much of life as we know it.”

“When you look at it that way, different species aren’t all that dissimilar.”

“At least not when it comes to what we need to survive.”

The two women arrived at the maglev train terminal inside the dome. Three distinct lines snaked through the five domes, and two other tracks routed through underground tunnels, which connected to other cities over two hundred kilometers away.

Trisha directed Karen to the main transit line. “You probably remember the government offices,” she commented.

Karen nodded. “I could never forget. Many formative years were spent hunched over a workstation there.”

They boarded the train bound for the urban core at the center of the main dome. Sets of two seats facing each other in groupings of four were positioned along either side of a central aisle. Only half a dozen other people from the shuttle were boarding the train, so the two women were able to select seating with relative privacy.

“It means a lot that you came to help,” Trisha said a low voice when they sat down in their row. “We’ve been a little short staffed since the… incident.”

“I can only imagine.”

Trisha sat in silence for twenty seconds, staring absently out the window. The train began gliding forward, and she came to attention. “A lot of people won’t talk about what happened.”

Karen glanced around to make sure no one was nearby. It looked private, but she knew sound could easily carry on the train. “We can talk openly once we’re at the office.”



The other woman nodded and resumed staring out the window.

Four-story residential buildings sped by while the train traversed the track. The domes, numerically designated Dome 1 through 5, were each arranged with residential sectors at the perimeter and a commercial district in the center. Dome 1, at the center of the five, was almost exclusively dedicated to commercial and business functions, and it also served as the unofficial seat of the Nezaran government.

Real power had always been wielded from the official capitol building, outside the city, but few were willing to make the commute on a daily basis. Karen now understood that had all been by design. So long as the government activities were handled in an out-of-the-way place, no one would pay much attention to the goings on. Heizberg, and her associates who’d been forced into servitude, had done the aliens’ bidding, while the more public-facing workers in the city carried out their delegations, blissfully unaware of what was happening behind the scenes.

Karen could only imagine what those workers were feeling now, knowing what they had been a part of. Well, she did know what that was like—she had been manipulated herself. And it was shitty.

She could see the discomfort written on Trisha’s face. Karen’s heart went out to her, understanding all too well how disorienting it could be to realize that so many assumptions had been wrong.

“You shouldn’t feel bad,” Karen said after two minutes of silence. “No one knew.”

As Karen suspected, even out of context, Trisha needed no explanation. An experience so profound was ever-present on the mind. “We should have.”

“Worrying about what might have been won’t change anything.”

Trisha took a slow breath. “I know. Like you said, we’ll talk once we’re at the office.”

The train finished the route through the outer dome, stopping every half-kilometer, and then passed through a translucent tunnel into the central enclosure. Buildings in the central dome were taller and more ornate, though Karen had never understood why resources had been devoted to the enhanced aesthetics. The glass-clad structures were a waste of resources, as far as she was concerned.

She caught herself.

Shit, I guess I should have been on the Finance Committee. It never occurred to me how much I cared. With a chuckle, she realized that her parting statement to Connors might not have been so facetious after all—her job was likely going to transition yet again.

Trisha gave her a quizzical look.

“Nothing,” Karen said with a shake of her head. “Just had a revelation about myself.”

“Sounds better than my recent realizations.”

“That’s to be determined.”

A minute later, the train glided to a smooth halt, and the two women exited.

The business district was like Karen remembered, with workers dressed in tailored clothes, a multitude of restaurants and shops at street level, and more pedestrian traffic than seemed possible for a city of that size. She took in the sights with a smile, remembering how it had felt to be among that activity as an energetic youth.

Things could have gone so differently for me. I wonder where I would have ended up if I hadn’t fallen in with the Sovereign?

She had no more time for reflection, as Trisha set out through the crowd, toward one of the medium-height glass towers two blocks from the train stop.

The government building was appropriately simplistic compared to the private sector structures, but was still at aesthetic odds with the harsh Nezaran landscape outside the dome. Rising twelve stories, it was half the height of its NTech neighbor. Seeing the proximity of the two structures, Karen found it to be no wonder that the line between government and private industry had blurred over the years.

Trisha called an elevator at the back of the dark-tiled lobby, and they rode it to the eighth floor. After exiting, they took a short hall to a compact conference room, with seating for six and a view of a rooftop park on the building across the street.

“Now you can be honest,” Karen said as soon as the door was closed.

Trisha wilted. “I can’t trust myself.”

Being misled did have the tendency to make one question one’s sense of identity and judgment. Karen had recently been through that exercise herself, though it was difficult to know what to say to help the other woman without sounding trite.

“A subversion of this scale goes beyond any one person’s responsibility. It’s important to remember you aren’t alone now,” Karen said in an attempt to console her.

Trisha shook her head, her face paling. “I still can’t believe what I did.”

Karen’s chest constricted. “You were one of the people who…?”

The other woman swallowed. “It’s strange. I can remember everything, but it’s like it was all a dream. Not a constant awareness, but looking back, I know when I was under its control and when I wasn’t. But it all seemed like the same state at the time. I didn’t question my actions then, but doing those same things now would make me sick.”

“I’ve been through a good deal of that myself. These aren’t situations we can expect to get over with a moment’s notice, but we can rebuild by working together.”

Trisha took a shaky breath, and then nodded. “Yes, you’re right. And that’s why we asked you here.”

Karen smiled in an attempt to set her at ease. “In all fairness, I sort of invited myself along.”

The other woman chuckled. “You know, come to think of it, I guess we never did really invite you.”

“The long and short of it is, we’re neighbors, and we should try to get along better than we have in the past. I wanted to come here to begin a new friendship that can carry our nations into the future.”

Trisha perked up. “We haven’t taken a formal vote or anything, but based on what I’ve seen, I think that sentiment is shared by most of those here on Nezar.”

“Good. Let’s dive in.”












CHAPTER FIVE


Missions on the Raven had started to run together for Ava. The same quarters, the same people, often a similar objective. She didn’t mind the repetition, but it made it difficult to remember the timing of specific experiences.

At least, that was how it had always been. As Ava wandered toward the Raven’s kitchen for an early lunch while the rest of her team napped, she was struck with a barrage of memories.

A salient recollection of her second mission with her team came to the forefront—a rather mundane experience in the context of her FDG career, but a pivotal time in the friendship between the four members of the team. Edwin had spliced together different words spoken during the op to form phrases he found hilarious. Ava had no idea at the time that it was a preview of things to come.

Wow, I haven’t thought about that in years. She shook her head.

>>Sorry, that may happen now and then while I get things sorted out,<< Ruby chimed in.

Apparently, I also need to work on keeping private thoughts separate.

>>Sorry about that, too. I’m still getting situated in here.<<

Ah. Ava continued down the ship’s central hallway toward the kitchen.

>>I’m not trying to dig, but the way your organic memories are stored is so fascinating. Sometimes I can’t help tugging on a thread that seems intriguing.<<

Glad my life history offers an interesting entertainment catalogue for you, Ava replied with what she hoped was a sarcastic mental tone.

>>No need to get defensive. Whatever I observe will stay between us.<<

Ava paused three meters from the kitchen’s entry. Except what you need to share with the medical team.

Ruby hesitated—only a split second, but that was an eternity for an AI. >>I’m not here as your overseer. We’re partners.<<

If we’re partners, then we can be honest about what this is.

>>You don’t want me here?<<

It was Ava’s turn to hesitate. It’s not that. And it’s certainly nothing against you personally. I’ve seen the dark side of what it’s like to be in another’s mind, and I’m… cautious.

Ruby smiled in her mind. >>I understand, Ava. I’m not here to intrude.<<

I also don’t want you to feel like you’re taking a back seat. This is my problem to get over, not yours.

>>It’s only been an hour. If you had already acclimated to the pairing, I’d be concerned.<<

Fair point.

>>You’ll find I have a lot of those.<<

Ava smirked. Smug for an AI, aren’t you?

>>I am beholden to calculations. I know my worth.<<

Uh huh. Ava covered the remaining distance to the kitchen.

Sven, the ship’s support systems engineer, was the only occupant. Seated in the center of the table, his empty plate and half-filled glass indicated that he was at the tail end of his own meal.

“Hello, ma’am,” Sven greeted with a bob of his head, when he noticed her approaching.

“Please, ‘Ava’ is just fine while we’re out here in the black,” she replied. Despite knowing each other for years, they went through the same dance at the start of each mission.

He smiled. “How have you been, Ava?”

“That, my friend, is a very loaded question.” She collapsed into a chair across the table from him.

“I suspected things might not be going your way when you weren’t on the most recent mission to Coraxa.”

“It’s been an intense few days.”

“Anything you care to share?” Sven asked.

What’s the official word on my condition? Ava asked Ruby.

>>The FDG has not released a report on the Hochste yet. Only those involved in operations on Coraxa are aware of the new nanocytes, and only select members of FDG leadership, your team, and a handful of medical and scientific research staff are aware of your exposure.<<

Ava chose her words carefully. “I’ve had some recent upgrades,” she replied to Sven. The statement served her recent procedure in the Pod Doc, so it seemed like a safe bet.

“Those can take getting used to.”

“These are a doozy, for sure.” Ava glanced at the galley. “I need some food.”

“We just stocked up on everything, so you have your pick,” Sven told her.

“Hmm.” Ava wandered over to the cabinets and began perusing the selection. After checking in a couple places, she came across a packet of instant macaroni and cheese. She snatched it up. “Comfort food it is.”

Sven eyed her from the table. “I take it the upgrades haven’t been a smooth transition?”

>>He knows,<< Ruby interjected.

He might just be making conversation. Ava began preparing the food packet with some hot water. “I’ve never had an AI before. It—”

“Ava, we’ve known each other for years. This ship isn’t very big. We heard your team talking.”

Okay, so he does know. Ava set the half-prepared macaroni on the countertop and turned around to face the systems engineer. “Yes, my modifications are a little more extensive than just a new AI.”

“Is it really the nanocytes from the NTech lab?” Sven’s brown eyes were wide with wonder.

“I can’t get into the details, but suffice it to say there isn’t anyone else quite like me.”

He shook his head. “It’s crazy to think about.”

“You’re tellin’ me.” With a sigh, Ava grabbed her bowl of cheesy pasta off the counter. It had finished hydrating and looked indistinguishable from the fresh version her mom had made her as a kid back home.

Gotta love modern science.

“What else was NTech researching, you think?” Sven mused.

Ava sat down across from him. “I’d rather not know.”

He placed his elbows on the tabletop and leaned forward. “Not even a little bit curious?”

“They had a handful of tech that was more advanced than it should be, given their overall capabilities. Questions about how they gained access to those developments lead down wormholes I’d rather not travel.” Ava took a forkful of her meal and blew on it.

>>Denial doesn’t accomplish anything.<<

I have enough problems to worry about right now without wondering what else these aliens in Gidyon may have been up to beyond genetics research.

>>We’ll have to face that reality in a matter of hours,<< Ruby pointed out. >>I don’t think they’ll say, ‘Oh, never mind’ if we come across some of their technology that we don’t like.<<

Ha.

Ruby tsked. >>I’m serious. They seem to have access to extremely advanced science, even if they didn’t invent any of it themselves.<<

The comment caught Ava by surprise. What makes you think the aliens didn’t make these changes to the nanocytes?

>>No, they’re certainly behind that modification. But it’s imperfect. For having a nanoscopic component of their own being, they don’t have very good mastery of the form. That suggests to me that it’s appropriated technology, rather than something they’ve cultivated from the get-go.<<

Thinking about the issues with how the nanocytes interfaced with her, Ava wondered the same thing. It reminded her of the original vampires on Earth, back when the Kurtherian nanocytes had tried to modify humans for the first time, but had no understanding of the physiology and how to make the transformation work correctly.

While Ava had fared better, the creation of her nanocytes had benefitted from Andrea’s oversight, as misguided as that Forsaken vampire bitch had been. But Andrea herself didn’t understand the Kurtherian technology, so her research could only take it so far. They had succeeded in making Ava a functional Hochste, but she was far from perfect in that form. True masters of the technology would have been able to adapt it by the time she came into the picture. They’d had years to study humans on Nezar. That meant that the Dyons had done the best they could, and it still wasn’t good enough.

Ava didn’t like the implications of that realization. If nanotech isn’t their specialization, what is?

>>Wouldn’t we all like to know.<<

What could it be?

Ruby gave a mental shrug. >>Whatever it is, it was enough to give them a broad base of knowledge to semi-successfully adapt technology created by another, very different race. They’re smart and resourceful, if nothing else.<<

That makes the Dyons sound like scavengers.

>>Maybe they are. But some of the most prolific lifeforms let others do the work for them.<<

Ava frowned. I guess humans aren’t all that different, are we? We’ve taken from others whatever benefits us.

“You okay?” Sven asked.

“Yes, sorry,” Ava returned to the world around her. “I suddenly understand that faraway look people with AIs would sometimes get while in the middle of a conversation with me.”

Sven laughed. “Yeah, that can happen. Just don’t forget to turn off any valves.”

She raised a questioning eyebrow and continued eating her macaroni.

“This guy, Kevin, who I worked with some years back became friends with our ship’s EI,” the engineer explained. “The two of them used to get into arguments over the comms—probably two of the most stubborn individuals I’ve ever met. Sometimes, they’d go at it over their direct communication chip link instead. On this one particular occasion, we were doing maintenance on some systems, which involved topping off the various gases.”

Ava swallowed a particularly large mouthful. “Uh oh.”

“Yeah, you can see where this is going.” Sven smiled. “So, we’re working away, and I looked over and notice that Kevin has that blank look he would get whenever talking with the EI. His face is beet red, so I can tell they’re really in the heat of it. I go about my work, since I knew by then I’d get an earful if I tried to interrupt their discussion.

“Several minutes go by, and by this point it’s kinda like, ‘Get back to it and hash this out on your own time,’ ya know? So, I give Kevin one of those ‘get-back-to-work’ looks. When he doesn’t react, I walk over to say it to his face. I get out ‘Hey!’ before I realize my voice is two octaves higher. Fucking idiot opened the helium valve and never closed it!”

Ava laughed. “I bet that got his attention.”

“Yeah, get this.” A grin split Sven’s face. “He yells ‘Oh, shit!’ in this chipmunk voice and shuts off the valve. The ship’s EI comes over the comm to yell at him for being reckless, and Kevin replies, ‘I can’t have a dignified discussion with my voice like this!’ That became my crew’s favorite catchphrase—while doing an impression, of course.”

“Wow.” Ava thought for a moment. “Is it pretty easy to do something like that with helium?”

“Fairly. Why?” Sven tilted his head.

“Curious about what happens behind the scenes in these ships, that’s all.”

>>Oh, no. What are you planning?<< Ruby asked in Ava’s mind.

Just getting ideas, nothing to worry about, she assured her AI.

>>This is about Edwin, isn’t it?<<

And if it is?

>>Then I like the way you think.<< Ruby gave her the mental equivalent of a smirk.

Ruby, I think we’re going to get along just fine. Ava returned her attention to Sven. “It’s important to be able to make light of situations. We have stressful jobs, but we can’t allow that to get the better of us.”

Sven nodded. “Very true. That’s why I have my writing.”

“Creative outlets are a great way to stay sane.”

“Well, writing can drive you a bit mad, sometimes,” he countered. “I mean, we’re literally writing down the conversations we have with voices in our heads.”

Ava frowned. “That does sound a little off, when you put it that way.”

“As long as we don’t mutter too loudly to ourselves in public places, no one seems to mind.”

“There is that.” Ava glanced at the clock on the wall and saw that it was almost time to get her team up for a workout. She grabbed her empty bowl and rose from the table. “Well, Sven, it’s been great, but I need to get back to it.”

He nodded and stood up across the table. “I should probably check in on everything, too.” He paused. “And, if you ever do need access to some, uh, ‘malfunctioning’ helium tanks, let me know.”

Ava grinned. “I’ll do that.”


*     *     *


Work in Luke’s lab was starting to feel routine. While Tess and Jack worked on their own tasks, Luke finished his review of the latest automated test results that had been kicked over to him.

To his relief, the scans didn’t contain anything that resembled the TRs they’d observed in others. “I’m glad there’s nothing to worry about in these, but I wonder why the system is flagging so many?” he said to no one in particular.

Tess looked up from her desk across the lab. “Do you see any common factor between them?”

“Nothing that’s jumping out at me,” he replied. He’d been over the likely candidates, such as Weres or unmodified humans, the presence of an embedded EI, or various medical history factors. He was able to find an exception to each of the potential causes for the anomaly.

“Maybe it is just a genuine, random error, then,” Tess said with a shrug.

“Perhaps.” Luke didn’t like that non-explanation, but he had nothing else to go on at the present.

With his task list of semi-critical items clear, Luke decided to run an updated sequence on Ava’s nanocytes. The model would make a good baseline for how she was responding to the new pairing with Ruby. He hoped her next check-in would show reduced stress levels, compared to where they’d been the past week. And maybe Jack would even be able to glean something about the nanocytes’ triggers, like Tess had suggested.

He took a blood sample from the suspension case they used for preservation, and entered it into the sequencer for analysis. It was still unclear if NTech would demand the equipment be returned to them, but Luke suspected that no one who cared was still working at the company. A lot of people connected with NTech and the Nezaran government would be getting a fresh start, and with that staff turnover, came the opportunity for convenient appropriations.

Their loss is the FDG’s gain.

After what he’d gone through in the lab—being misled, getting shot at, and having his girlfriend turned into a science experiment—he considered a few pieces of equipment to be a modest severance package.

Luke was just finishing up his configurations of the sequencer when an alert popped up on his desktop. It was a call from Nezar.

Either NTech is demanding their equipment back, or an old friend is reaching out, he figured.

While he didn’t have too many friends left on Nezar, he’d spent enough time on the planet in grad school to establish lasting relationships. Any number of people may have heard by now that he’d been connected to the NTech lab on Coraxa, and a ‘Hey, glad you didn’t die!’ message wouldn’t be out of place.

He activated the sequencer and then directed the call to a private room across the hall, which was equipped for that very purpose. Large enough to hold two people, the room consisted of two chairs, a small table, and a monitor mounted to the wall.

Luke initiated the call as soon as he was inside. To his surprise, he saw his sister’s face staring back at him on the monitor. “Karen? What are you doing on Nezar again?”

“Good to see you, too, Luke,” she replied with a curl to her lips. “I’m here for business.”

“Stars, not again…”

Official business this time,” she emphasized.

“And what does that entail?”

She smiled. “Helping put the pieces back together.”

According to her recent track record, she’s a whole lot better at making things fall apart. Luke decided it was best to keep that overly antagonistic comment to himself.

“I hope it goes smoothly for you,” he offered instead.

“It’s off to a pretty good start.”

Luke thought for a moment. “Say, since you’re there, would you check in on the testing they’re doing for those telepathic receptors? Some people are getting flagged here, and we’re not sure why. I’m clearing everyone on a case-by-case basis, but it would be much easier for someone to slip through the cracks in a civilian population.”

“That’s not really why I’m here, but I can mention it,” Karen said.

“Thanks.” He looked her over. “So, was this just meant as a social call?”

“Not exclusively, but we didn’t really get a chance to catch up before,” Karen replied. “How’s Ava doing?”

A dull ache formed in Luke’s chest hearing her name. This wasn’t the time to be apart—and he especially didn’t like her going to Gidyon. Playing into the enemy’s hand sounded like a terrible idea. Maybe it was necessary, but they hadn’t even taken the time to determine if there were alternatives.

“Uh, Luke?” his sister prompted.

 “Sorry, it’s been a long few days. She’s okay. Adjusting.”

Karen nodded. “I just about shit myself when she transformed.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

“It happened at the lab on Coraxa, right? That researcher… Andrea Mason, was it? I just got random pieces of the story.”

“Yes,” Luke confirmed. “She was given a dose of the experimental nanocyte strain. I think they thought it would make her easy to control, like the others.”

Karen paled. “I’ve met some of the people who were subverted. It’s awful. They remember what they did, but it’s like this half-recalled nightmare that keeps nagging at the back of their minds.”

“I can’t imagine being a prisoner within myself like that.”

“What Ava did for Cynthia Heizberg…” Karen swallowed. “It was a kindness, no matter what anyone may say otherwise.”

“I heard about that.” Luke looked down. “Ava hasn’t wanted to talk about what happened on Nezar.”

“I wouldn’t have believed any of it, if I hadn’t seen it for myself. She transformed into that ‘Hochste state’, I think you called it, and it’s like she skipped across the room. I’ve never seen anything move so fast. And those teeth and claws… It was terrifying and awing at the same time.”

“I’ve seen them. Definitely don’t want to be on the receiving end.”

“Better stay on her good side.” Karen cracked a smile.

“I knew better than to cross Ava even before that,” Luke replied. Even as a teenager, Ava’s ‘I am not amused’ glare had been legendarily dagger-like. He’d been the recipient exactly once, and from that point on, he’d chosen his words very carefully.

“How are things going with you two, by the way?” Karen asked. “You being an item kind of came out of nowhere.”

“Not really. We were together for a long time.”

“Yeah, a decade ago. Had you stayed in touch?”

“No, hadn’t seen her or communicated a word since we broke up.”

She tilted her head and raised an eyebrow in the judging-older-sister pose he’d always detested. “So why now?”

“Because we reconnected, and there was still something there. I don’t think I need to explain myself.”

“It’s just surprising, that’s all.”

It was Luke’s turn to give her a nonplussed look. “And why is that?”

“You always seemed so committed to your work.”

Yeah, to fill a void.

Luke hadn’t realized until he’d reconnected with Ava that he’d initially thrown himself into his work as a way to deal with their sudden breakup. One day they were talking about moving to Nezar together for school, and the next, Ava said she was joining the FDG. He’d never learned why she’d changed her mind, though he’d been trying to find the right time to ask her. School and work had been his escape from that unresolved relationship, and by the time he was emotionally healed, focusing on his career was a way of life.

“My work is still important to me,” Luke replied to his sister. “But there’s room for other things, too.”

“You uprooted your entire existence to follow her to the FDG.”

“Karen, you do realize that I’m now working with an organization that has galactic reach, right? Ava or not, this was a great job opportunity.”

“But what about Coraxa?”

Luke crossed his arms. “Is this coming from Mom and Dad?”

“Oh, don’t get me started on them.” She sighed. “I’ve only talked to them once since everything went down with NTech, and that entire conversation was about how we both abandoned them.”

“Seriously?”

She shrugged. “I learned years ago not to let it get to me. You have to follow your own path.”

“Well, I didn’t have a lot of prospects left on Coraxa, with the NTech lab getting condemned and all.”

“You don’t think they’ll reopen?”

“Karen, I honestly have no clue what kind of future NTech will have. Their leadership was being controlled by telepathic aliens. I don’t know if there is anybody willing to pick up the torch and rebuild the company into something worthy of contributing to the Etheric Federation. That’s your area, not mine.”

She evaluated him over the screen. “You said that like Nezar was part of the Federation.”

“If you’re there, I assume that’s the plan for the world. With Alucia in, I can only imagine Nezar and Coraxa aren’t far behind.”

“That’s my hope, yes,” Karen admitted. “It’ll take some convincing.”

“Do you think you’ll be successful?”

“It’s not a matter of that. I think it’s inevitable. This universe is too vast, and the challenges are too great for us to consider facing it alone.”

Luke’s eyes widened. “Wow, you’ve come around since your Sovereign days.”

“I’ve seen another, better way. People are allowed to change.”

“It’s encouraged.”

“And I’m a better person for it.” She looked down and took a slow breath. “I didn’t mean to judge your relationship with Ava. I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

“What makes you think I would?”

She hesitated. “As committed as you were to your work, Ava is in the FDG. That’s a lifestyle, not just a job.”

“I know, and I accept that.”

“But do you really? It doesn’t bother you when she goes off on a mission to stars-know-where and is getting shot at or being infected with experimental nanocytes?”

Luke’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of question is that? Of course it bothers me. But I accept it as a reality, and I’d never ask her to change who she is for me.”

Karen smiled and chuckled to herself.

“What?” Luke demanded, a bite in his voice.

“You passed the test.”

“Huh?”

Karen met his gaze, soft and compassionate. “You love and accept her for who she is. Too many people fall in love with someone and expect them to be molded into the partner they want to have. But you understand what you’re getting into. That’s real. That’s what lasts.”

Luke relaxed. “Oh, that.”

“I know, sage analysis from the person who hasn’t ever held down a relationship for more than six months. But still, I know something that’ll last when I see it. I just haven’t been lucky enough to find that for myself.”

“I’m in this one for the long haul, so you better say something now if you have concerns,” Luke cautioned.

“I hope the FDG has dental insurance, because those fangs—”

“Karen!”

She laughed. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist.” His sister composed herself. “But seriously, I’m really happy you two got back together. I always liked her for you.”

“Thanks, me too.”

Karen straightened. “Oh! So I said this was partially a social call, but I did have one official bit of news to pass along.”

“What’s that?” Luke asked.

“I have a feeling something still isn’t right on Nezar.”

Luke wiped his hands down his face. “Karen, not again. I won’t be your intermediary for getting help from the FDG.”

She bristled. “I’m not requesting help. I’m just letting you know that I’m not yet convinced the problem was completely taken care of when Heizberg and her possessor died.”

“Well—” Luke bit his tongue.

“What were you about to say?”

“Um.” Luke wished he were better at backpedaling. “Just because Heizberg died, doesn’t mean the alien presence died, too. Only that its control point was severed.”

“That thing is still alive?”

“I can’t say that with certainty,” he hedged, “but we’ll have more information once Ava and her team get back from their current mission.”

“Shit! How many more of those things are out there?”

“I have no idea. We think they’re based in Gidyon,” he revealed.

Karen slumped back in her chair, dropping her image to the bottom half of the screen. “They were our neighbors this whole time?”

“Keep that need-to-know,” he cautioned. “I probably shouldn’t have said anything to you, but since you’re investigating what went on there—what might still be going on—it seems like good information to have in the back of your mind.”

She nodded absently. “Yes, thanks. I’ll learn what I can.”

“Be careful, Karen. We don’t know the extent of what these aliens can do.”

“Don’t worry about me. I can’t possibly get myself into as much trouble as I did last time.”

Luke sucked in a breath. “Please don’t take that as a personal challenge.”

She laughed. “No. I’m over trying to fix everything myself. My recent glimpse behind the scenes at how the FDG operates was a good reminder of how much more can be accomplished when we come together as a community.”

“All right, I’ll hold you to it.”

“Won’t be a problem.”

Luke nodded. “Okay. Well, let us know if you come across anything concrete. I suspect we’ll learn a lot more on this end over the next day or two.”

“Good luck,” Karen wished him back. “If there’s something still amiss, we’ll find out what it is and fix it.”












CHAPTER SIX


The Raven exited the Annex Gate that serviced the Alaxar Trinary. Rather than its usual route, the ship veered toward Gidyon—the place Ava had always been taught to avoid.

In retrospect, she should have questioned the ban. Rarely were places completely off-limits. Of course, some systems had more environmental hazards than were worth messing with, but the fact that no one had ever given a definitive reason as to why Gidyon was such a bad place should have raised suspicions.

As the Raven glided into Gidyon space in stealth mode, a feeling of profound disquiet overtook her.

She wandered into the kitchen and stood by the back window, which afforded a clear view of the starscape beyond. It appeared peaceful… but anything could be lurking in the black.

What kind of countermeasures do they have in place? If no one has documented this place before, there has to be something keeping people from reporting back.

>>Ava, what are you thinking about? Your heart rate just spiked.<<

Sorry, Ruby, Ava replied. I was wondering how the Dyons managed to keep people out of this system for so long. I grew up with stories that it was dangerous, but is that mythos enough?

>>It’s more than folklore. There have been eight known disappearances in the system,<< Ruby stated. >>People typically don’t like to go places where there’s a risk they may never be seen again.<<

Only eight? I’d think more people would have tried to investigate by now.

>>There may be more that were never officially recorded. After all, travelers going after that kind of location might not exactly be operating within the law.<<

Like smugglers, Ava realized. That kind of system would appeal to those sorts.

>>Precisely. Not saying any have tried to venture inside, but it wouldn’t surprise me.<<

It fits the narrative, that’s for sure. Ava crossed her arms. The chill of space seemed to suddenly seep through the window.

>>Even accounting for smugglers and the like, the scale is still only in the dozens, or maybe hundreds,<< Ruby continued. >>Dispensing with so few ships would be easy for a race as advanced as the Dyons.<<

You say that like it’s normal to hide an entire civilization in a star system.

>>Don’t forget the vastness of space, Ava. It’s really a wonder so many races have been able to connect through the Federation.<<

Ava sighed. You’re always too logical.

>>It’s that damn computer part of me. Can’t quite get away from it.<< Ruby winked in her mind.

Yet, somehow you understand sarcasm.

>>I am multifaceted. It’s what makes me unique.<<

Ava softened. I’m glad you’re here with me, Ruby. I was nervous about getting paired with an AI, but it means a lot to have someone to talk to right now. I don’t feel like I can be completely open with my team about everything I’m going through.

>>Colonel Kurtz and Major Widmore are wise. I don’t think they would have nudged you in this direction if they didn’t think you could benefit from the arrangement.<<

They had their own motivations. They wanted my skills to figure out what’s going on with the Dyons.

Ruby tsked. >>Ava, you want answers as much as the rest of the FDG—maybe more. Don’t pretend like you didn’t want to go on this op.<<

Ugh, it’s like you’re in my head or something.

>>Better get used to it!<<

Ava stared out the window for another three minutes before she decided to go down one deck to the recreation level, where most members of the crew were congregated.

As she hopped off the ladder, Ava spotted the three Were members of her team, along with Sven, and Gil—the Raven’s mechanic—lounging on the couches around the main screen in the rec room. Some mindless comedy movie was playing, but Ava didn’t recognize it.

The group erupted into laughter at a joke that must have been referencing something earlier in the film.

Samantha happened to look over and notice Ava watching them. “Join us!” she called out.

Ava moseyed over, stopping behind Sven where he was seated on the couch. “I didn’t realize there was a party going on down here.”

Sven tilted his head back so he could see her. “That’s what you get for going back to your cabin after our chat earlier.”

“Oh, you two had a heart-to-heart?” Edwin jested.

“I demoed all my best dance moves for him,” Ava shot back.

“She did, and it was glorious,” Sven said, playing along.

She patted the engineer’s shoulder. “Good bonding time. The rest of you shouldn’t have been so quick to nap.”

Nick raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you the one who told us to always rest when we get the chance, because we never know what’s ahead?”

Ava smiled. “Do as I say, not as I do.”

“Great leadership, Ava,” Samantha ribbed.

“It’s a gift.”

“Approaching Gidyon System heliopause,” said a female voice Ava recognized as belonging to Aleya, the Raven’s first officer.

“Social hour is over,” Ava announced.

“Work, work, work.” Nick rose from the couch, followed by the others as they let out weary sighs.

“Don’t sound so enthused, everyone.” Ava’s gaze passed over the team. They looked far more worn and tired than usual.

She felt it, too. They’d been on the go for almost two weeks straight, which was significantly more intensive than their usual routine. Add in the disproportionate number of firefights, and they’d experienced at least two months’ worth of action in that short span.

Ava wished she could offer them some relief, but there was no one else. They were the best team for the job; beyond that, she trusted them. There simply wasn’t anyone else with whom she’d walk into such an unknown, dangerous situation.

“We’ll rest easy when we know the bad guys are no longer a threat,” Samantha said on behalf of the group.

“You and me both,” Ava agreed. “I’ll go see what we’re working with and report back in the kitchen.”

Being such a small ship, there wasn’t a designated briefing area on the vessel. The kitchen served double duty as a meal space and a gathering place to discuss mission details.

Before they could have an effective conversation, however, Ava needed to learn what they were up against. She scaled the ladder to the operations deck, where Major Widmore was waiting outside the bridge.

“Get any rest?” he asked her.

“A little. Ruby and I have been bonding.”

“Best of buddies now,” Ruby said over the audible comms.

Widmore smiled. “Glad to hear it. Let’s go talk with Aleya and Rod to see if they can tell us any more about this system.”

“Sounds like a plan, sir.”

Widmore stepped forward and knocked on the door.

The hatch popped open.

“Come in,” a male voice stated.

Ava hadn’t interacted with Rod, the Raven’s captain, on many occasions, but the quiet ex-fighter pilot had always struck her as a measured force to have in command. Whatever observations he and Aleya might make during the upcoming discussion, Ava vowed to listen.

The bridge of the ship was surprisingly spacious, compared to the other accommodations. It consisted of two control panels in the front, accompanied by ergonomic chairs, a central holopanel used for course plotting and displaying scan results, and two workstations along the side walls, which offered space for additional crew members to directly interface with the ship’s advanced sensor suite.

“What kind of backwater hole did you bring us to this time, sir?” Rod asked Widmore from the captain’s seat.

The major chuckled. “We thought getting a reminder about our place in the universe might do everyone some good.”

Ava didn’t know the details, but she’d heard that Rod had trained under Widmore when he had first joined the FDG. They’d maintained a good-natured rapport over the years, and she’d often observed their interactions to be more casual than most conducted with the major. Then again, her own relationship with Widmore was on the casual side, so maybe that was just how he was. Sometimes a personal connection trumped rank when it came to face-to-face, but everyone knew the chain of command when they were in the thick of it.

Widmore stood in the center of the bridge with his hands clasped, and Ava took up position next to him.

“We’re processing the initial readings now,” Aleya reported. “As long-range scans had indicated, there’s some strange radiation in the system. We haven’t identified a source yet, but these first readings may help narrow it down.”

Ava watched the data populate on the central holopanel. It was by no means her specialization, but something about the readings looked strange.

“Does this seem off to anyone?” she asked to no one in particular, pointing to a dark patch on the visual representation of the system. The map included an overlay of the radiation, electromagnetic, and other relevant properties in each area.

“I was thinking the same thing,” Aleya agreed.

“The readings make it look like there’s a dwarf planet there, but the gravitational models indicate that there shouldn’t be anything there,” observed Rod.

Ava frowned. “So, mystery planet?”

“Or something else.” Rod sighed. “We’ll need to get close enough to get visual confirmation.”

“Only problem with that is getting close to something that may be dangerous,” Widmore cautioned.

“Isn’t that what we came here to do, sir?” Ava questioned. “We crossed over that danger threshold when we decided to come here in the first place.”

“Our stealth tech is solid,” Rod added. “There are no guarantees they can’t detect us, but we’re certainly not waving a flashing sign that we’re here. It’s possible we can get in for an inspection without being spotted.”

“Then we have to try,” Widmore said. “What else are we working with in the system? Any other anomalies?”

“Nothing else that distinct,” Aleya replied, “though there is a gas giant on the other side of the system.” She frowned.

“What is it?” Widmore prompted.

“It may be nothing.” The first officer crossed her arms. “The odd, dark spot that may be a dwarf planet and this gas giant are exactly opposite the star from each other right now.”

“That can happen naturally, right?” Ava asked.

She nodded. “Of course, but given the weird readings, it seemed worth noting.”

Widmore stroked his chin. “We’ll keep it in mind.”

This isn’t the natural kind of symmetry found in nature, Ava commented to Ruby.

>>I’m inclined to agree.<<

Bets on what we’ll find?

>>Evil alien secret moon base,<< the AI replied.

Ava scowled. Are you being serious?

>>There’s a fine line between fact and facetiousness.<<

I’m not sure there actually is… Ava ventured.

>>When you need to find a way to amuse yourself for twelve hours while you travel at sub-light, sometimes you need to get creative with your non-fiction.<<

Ugh, another twelve hours?

>>Blame physics.<<

Ava chuckled in her mind. That doesn’t sound very scientist-like.

>>When you do enough science, you get cynical. Do you have any idea how many microprocesses I can complete in twelve hours? I’ll tune back in when we’re there.<<

What will you be working on?

>>Trying to figure out what’s going on with you, of course,<< Ruby replied. >>You’re quite the specimen, Ava.<<

Now that sounded like a scientist. And ultra-creepy.

>>I promise to dissect you gently.<<

How very reassuring.

Widmore was still studying the system map on the holopanel. “Are you able to overlay the data we gathered when the control signal was traced from Jared to the system?”

Aleya nodded. “Yes. Not surprisingly, it traced back to the strange dark area.”

“I’m going to venture that’s not a coincidence,” Ava chimed in.

“Certainly not.” Widmore agreed. “The question is, what’s capable of creating that kind of distortion?”

“It might be some kind of stealth technology,” Rod suggested. “We couldn’t detect anything anomalous from a distance, and what’s more, we can’t determine the nature of the body—just that there’s something strange going on there.”

“That would be more than enough, if they’re able to keep people out of the system,” Ava assessed.

Widmore tapped his index finger beneath his lower lip. “Very true. And what about the radiation?”

“It’s a relatively low level, but it’s almost everywhere,” Aleya replied. “Nothing our shields can’t handle, but it’s a high enough concentration that some civilian vessels might have trouble, if they hung around for too long.”

“A deterrent?” Ava asked.

“Irradiating an entire system is a tall order,” Widmore replied.

“But not unfeasible.”

“True,” the major conceded, “and these Gidyons have demonstrated that they’re willing to go to great lengths.”

“We’re going to make a push to call them ‘Dyons’,” Ava interjected.

Widmore thought about it for a second. “That does sound way better.”

Ava smiled. “Sometimes it’s all about the branding.”












CHAPTER SEVEN


The situation on Nezar was more concerning than Karen had anticipated. She raised her gaze from the personnel records displayed on the table in front of her.

“This isn’t why I came here,” she stated to Trisha. “We would have sent someone else—or a whole team—to help, had we known.”

The other woman wrung her hands. “I know, but we weren’t sure if we could trust Alucia. If we requested you—”

Karen groaned. “I’m no one special.”

“You’ve lived on Nezar! Most Alucians either hate this world, or are indifferent at best.”

“Trisha, you have a serious issue with government stability right now. I can’t fix this alone.”

As Karen had dug into the present state of affairs, she’d made an alarming discovery. While a number of the government officials were still physically present, many had never been in full control of their actions for the duration of their tenure. Far more people than she’d been led to believe. When Luke had asked her to look into the testing, she never dreamed that almost everyone would be flagged as a potential risk.

Aside from that concern, there was the political component. When she volunteered for the assignment, her understanding was that there were frontrunner candidates already lined up to take over as chancellor. Now she wasn’t sure anyone wanted the job.

They want me to make recommendations for new leaders, but how many of these people truly know how to do their jobs—or even want this as a career? She wasn’t sure how to proceed.

“We didn’t mean to mislead you,” Trisha continued. “If there are people you can trust, bring them in.”

“You’re missing my point. I shouldn’t be the person leading this effort in the first place. And how can you possibly trust me when I’ve switched allegiance?”

“Because you changed your views in the interest of bringing our people together.” Trisha looked her in the eyes. “That’s the mindset we need right now.”

“But still.” Karen massaged the bridge of her nose. “All right, look, we need to gather a better baseline for what people remember while Reya was in control.”

Trisha’s eyebrows drew together. “Reya?”

“That was the name of the presence controlling Chancellor Heizberg,” Karen explained.

The other woman’s face drained. “I didn’t know it had a name.”

“That’s how it identified itself, anyway. We’ve only encountered one other being like it. That one could only control one person at a time, except for short bursts in which it could influence others to perform a specific task.”

“But Reya was…?”

“That’s what we need to find out,” Karen continued. “We know it was using Heizberg as a hub, but what was the nature of the control over the others? I have a list of three dozen people here who held the most senior positions in Nezaran government, and all admitted to having at least one memory gap that suggests they were subverted by Reya. Did they ever actually do their jobs, and do them well? Or did their political prowess come from Reya’s influence? I can’t begin to make recommendations about anyone’s fitness to lead until I know more about what was done to them.”

“So what do you need? How can I help?” Trisha’s eager tone had a hint of desperation that concerned Karen, but she’d take that enthusiasm over indifference.

“I guess we need to have interviews with some people and see what insights they can share,” Karen responded. And, hopefully, someone will express interest in their job.

“Do you have anyone in mind, or should I make some selections?”

Karen looked over the personnel list again. “Bring in Garett Steckler and Fiona Wyles, then select three others at random.”

Trisha nodded. “One at a time or in a group?”

“Individually,” Karen instructed. “I’ll wait here.”

“I’ll send Fiona in first,” Trisha acknowledged and departed to summon the requested people.

Karen rose from the table and turned around to gaze out the window at the city below. People were still going about their lives like nothing had changed. Would they be so calm if they realized no one was really running this world right now?

She knew she’d be freaking out. If she weren’t in the inner circle regarding the matter, she’d consider cutting her losses and moving somewhere with less drama, where she could live out a peaceful life. But, people were counting on her. Not to mention she was beginning to suspect she was addicted to the drama.

Five minutes later, a knock sounded on the door. A petite woman with dark complexion entered.

Karen recognized her from the photo in her personnel file. “Hi, Fiona, my name is Karen Carter. I’ve come from Alucia to offer my support while you rebuild the Nezaran government.”

“Yes, I’ve heard about you,” Fiona replied. She closed the door behind her.

“Word travels quickly,” Karen said with a smile.

“There’s been a lot to talk about.” Fiona slowly walked to the table and placed her hands on the back of a chair. “What’s the particular matter you wanted to discuss with me?”

Karen mirrored Fiona’s stance on the opposite side of the table. “I wanted to learn more about your past work experience, and your aspirations going forward.”

Fiona raised an eyebrow. “To see if I’m qualified to do my job?”

“I’m not here to pass judgment on qualifications. But I do want to make sure people land where they want to be.”

“That’s an interesting distinction,” Fiona said, tracing the seam in the fabric along the top of the chair with her index finger. “I always considered qualifications to be the most important factor when selecting someone for a job.”

“Skills and experience don’t carry the same weight when the person isn’t committed to their position.”

“I’ll give you that.” Fiona evaluated her. “Let’s cut to the chase. You want to know if I’m interested in the chancellor’s position?”

She’s certainly sharp, but I’m not getting the warm fuzzies from her. This might not be the kind of person we need right now.

Karen flashed a curt smile. “That isn’t the reason for this meeting. I only wanted to discuss your time working with the chancellor.”

“Ah.” Understanding passed across Fiona’s face. “Was I myself, or was I subverted?”

“That’s the heart of it, yes.” Karen gestured to the chairs for them to sit.

Fiona pulled back the chair she had been standing behind and lowered herself with the grace of a dancer—or, at least of someone who knew how to put on a good show. “Self-report doesn’t make for an ideal evaluation tool.”

“It doesn’t,” Karen agreed, “but that’s all we have. I hope that people are willing to be honest, for the sake of creating a good future on Nezar.”

“You won’t find any opposition from me. To that end, I’ll tell you that I shouldn’t be chancellor.”

Didn’t see that coming. Given the woman’s previous statements, Karen had been certain Fiona was interested. “Why not?” Karen asked.

“For the very reason you’re using nonverbal tactics to equalize the power balance between us, consciously or not. I have enough self-awareness to recognize that I’m not the kind of person who sets others at ease. You’re on the defensive. I’m an acquired taste, and that’s not the right person to have as the face of a planet.”

Karen chuckled. “I’d argue that level of understanding is precisely what would make you a good leader.”

Fiona shrugged. “Perhaps. But to your point earlier, I don’t want the job.” She smiled. “Besides, you said that’s not why we’re meeting.”

“Right.” Karen refocused on the task at hand. “Your time with Chancellor Heizberg.”

“I was something like an enforcer for her,” Fiona continued. “She liked my brand of bite. Now, to answer the question you keep talking around, I was me, to the best of my recollection. I’m certain she influenced me now and then, but I can trace the logic of my actions back to my own thoughts and feelings. I was convinced I was doing good work.”

“And what was the work you did as an enforcer?” Karen prompted.

“When others needed help with being convinced of their own tasks, I would pay them a visit. I think Heizberg liked to send me because I don’t look intimidating, and I could catch people off-guard when I went to put them in their place.”

“Is there any particular matter where people needed extra convincing?”

Fiona’s show of composed strength cracked the slightest measure. “Yes, there was something. A facility that we weren’t supposed to talk about.”

Karen perked up. “What was it?”

“I don’t know what they did in there, but it was more common than not for people to spend one day there and not want to go back. I’d need to convince them that it would be a mistake to abandon their post.”

“Did anyone ever say why they didn’t want to go back?”

Fiona shook her head. “I never went there myself—Heizberg made sure I didn’t. But the workers would talk about the pit and how they didn’t like how it got inside their heads. I thought they were crazy at the time.”

A chill washed over Karen. “Where is this facility located?”

“Outside of town, midway between the capitol building and the city. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but I hear there’s a superstructure underground.”

“How did you convince people to work there?” Karen asked tentatively.

Fiona crossed her arms. “I used Heizberg’s words, not mine. The meaning is pretty different, now that I know what was really going on. I was told to tell them that if they didn’t go of their own accord, they would be compelled to comply.”

“And they listened to that?”

The other woman shook her head slowly. “Not always. I mean, I was good at my job, and it’s a small enough place that people typically needed to follow the work. But when they didn’t listen… When I saw them again, they were different. That was what true subversion looks like.”

“Has anyone been to that facility since Heizberg’s death?”

“No.”

Karen fixed Fiona in a level gaze. “I know I don’t need to spell out the ‘why’ for you. Will you go there with me?”

Fiona nodded. “I wouldn’t have mentioned it otherwise.”

Karen activated the comm controls via the tabletop. “Trisha, cancel those other meetings. We’re going to take a field trip.”












CHAPTER EIGHT


It was the times when travel took Ava to places away from Annex Gates when she was reminded that space was really big. And empty.

Ava paced in front of the kitchen window while she waited to catch their first view of what had appeared to be a dark spot on the system scans. She was one hundred percent certain they’d find something there, but it was anyone’s guess what it might be.

>>It’ll be that world you saw in your vision,<< Ruby supplied.

You sound awfully sure about that.

>>That’s where the logic takes me.<<

It’s illogical that nanoscopic aliens that band together as interstellar telepathic entities would live on a planet resembling a pastoral painting.

>>Why?<< Ruby asked in a matter-of-fact mental tone.

Because it is? Ava replied, not sure how to assign logic to that instinct.

>>We know these beings spent time on Coraxa,<< Ruby continued, >>and that’s a quintessential landscape, as you’d describe it. Perhaps there is something in these beings’ history that draws them to such locations. Or, it may be grounded in the science underlying those places, such as the oxygen and carbon ratios, or a similar factor. Either way, you glimpsed something that had some significance to Reya. I wouldn’t dismiss it.<<

Ava sighed. Okay, fine, so pastoral planet it is. How do we go about exploring a place like that?

>>That’s your expertise, not mine. I’m just here to keep you from going all Hochste-y on your team.<<

Really, Ruby, that’s how you’re going to play this?

The AI laughed. >>Ava, I’m here whenever you need me. But you’ve seen inside the minds of these beings, I haven’t. Trust your instincts.<<

“Am I interrupting?” a familiar voice said from the kitchen entrance.

Ava turned to see Nick entering. “No, just chatting with Ruby,” she replied. “We’re anxious to see what we’re facing.”

“Sam and Edwin are taking bets. My money is on a space station.”

“Ruby thinks it’ll be the planet I saw,” Ava told him.

“That’s what Sam thought, too. We’re coming up on the twelve-hour mark, right? Should know any minute.”

Ava looked back out the window. “I’m already trying to plan out how we can possibly investigate something that large.”

“Big things always have smaller parts that are decidedly more interesting. We go after those.”

“I’m used to opponents that operate like us,” Ava mused. “Individuals, society, computer networks, transportation systems. These Dyons defy all that.”

“But you can interface with them.” Nick came to stand next to her. “We have every confidence in you, Ava.”

>>As do I,<< Ruby interjected in Ava’s mind.

I guess I’d better deliver—

Ava’s private thoughts were interrupted by a glimpse of a new point of light in the starscape out the window. She magnified it using the holographic overlay on the window.

“That’s a planet!” she exclaimed.

Nick peered into the darkness. “Fuck, it is.” He groaned. “Now I’ll have to pay up to Sam.”

“What did you wager this time?”

“Just his dignity,” Samantha said from the kitchen entry.

Ava and Nick turned around.

Samantha held out her arm, palm upturned, and curled her fingers in a beckoning fashion. “Come on, pay up.”

Nick sighed and dropped to his knees. He gazed up at Samantha as she leered over him. Nick cleared his throat.

“Samantha is the wisest guesser there ever was, and her name shall echo throughout history as the greatest predictor ever known.”

She looked at him expectantly.

“And she was right about this,” Nick added in a decidedly quieter and less enthused tone. He rolled his eyes.

Ava watched the exchange with crossed arms and a raised eyebrow. “Really, guys?”

“Well, money is irrelevant, and I don’t need a genuine favor at the moment,” Samantha explained. “But, I mean, come on—I’ll be able to lord this over him for weeks.”

“I have no doubt we’ll be hearing about it for some time.” Ava shook her head. “If you’re finished with the theatrics, I need to talk with the captain about this new planet.”

She left Samantha smirking at Nick as he tried to explain the rationale behind his original prediction.

>>Is that what passes for entertainment on your team?<< Ruby asked while Ava scaled the ladder.

To Samantha, yes. Edwin prefers his blackmail videos. Pretty sure Nick gets his kicks from psychoanalyzing people’s computer password choices.

Ruby took a moment to respond. >>I was ready to call Nick the weird one, but now I think he may be the most normal of all of you.<<

You would think that.

At the top of the access shaft, Ava headed toward the bridge’s door. It was cracked open, and she entered.

Widmore was examining the holopanel at the center of the room with Rod while Aleya piloted the craft.

“It’s a planet,” the major announced.

“So we’ve seen,” Ava replied, stepping forward to stand across the holopanel from him.

“But it’s not really a planet,” Rod clarified.

Ava’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” Rod continued, “first of all, it would be a dwarf planet. But really, these scans are all wrong for a natural object. It’s not nearly dense enough, and the materials are… strange.”

“Can you quantify that?” Ava asked.

“Uh, lots of weird?” he said.

“That would have to be ‘Weird Factor 7’ to be properly quantified,” Aleya chimed in from the controls.

“Right, that.” Rod frowned at the holopanel. “Basically, we’ve never seen anything like this, and the databanks aren’t helpful.”

Ava took a slow breath. “Okay, so we’re dealing with a non-natural object the size of a dwarf planet. What about its other properties?”

“Well, it looks like a normal planet,” Widmore replied. “Forests, mountains, oceans. However, it’s lacking the usual markers for organic compounds.”

“Not all life is carbon-based,” Ava pointed out.

“Very true, but the arrangement of the structures on this planet is… designed.” Rod zoomed in on a section of the world using the panel. “Like here, it’s all perfectly mapped out. This isn’t something that nature did on its own.”

Ava had to admit there was something unnerving about the perfectly straight lines and divisions between different geographic elements. “Okay, so there’s an artificial dwarf planet with manufactured environmental features. What else?”

“It’s emitting a frequency we can’t explain,” Widmore stated.

“Let me guess: the same frequency we observed while tracing the signal from Jared back at headquarters?” Ava asked.

“The very one,” he confirmed. “Strong pulses with an underlying constant background hum.”

“I guess we found the transmitter.” She looked over the map. “Where’s the origin point?”

“It seems to be everywhere,” Rod told her. “We’re still trying to sort through the data to get a more accurate reading. It has to be coming from somewhere, even if that’s just the power source feeding into bio-speakers around the whole planet.”

Ava nodded. “If you can identify the location, then that’s where we need to go.”

“This is a recon mission,” Widmore countered.

“And the data we’re gathering up here is being classified as ‘weird’ and ‘strange’, sir. If we’re going to learn what’s really going on with this structure, we need to get down there and gather samples, or try to interface with it—something.” Ava looked down. “And yes, I know it’s entirely possible that this is a trap. I know they want me. But right now, finding out everything we can is what’s most important. The FDG and the safety of Federation citizens come first.”

Widmore inclined his head. “If the environmental conditions are reasonable, you’re right. We do need some boots on the ground.”

“Conditions are conducive to supporting human life,” Aleya confirmed. “Gravity is a little light, but way more than it should be, given the mass of this thing. There must be some sort of active artificial gravity.”

“I’d suggest powered armor,” Ava said. “Air recirc sounds a lot better than whatever particulates might be floating around down there.”

“Agreed,” Widmore confirmed. “Prep your team. We’ll arrange a pod drop as soon as we have a target.”


*     *     *


As if there weren’t already enough red flags, Karen had become convinced that the secret Nezaran facility was trouble once she learned that the transit system didn’t service the location. Though it was positioned almost in line with the city and the capitol building, it was at the base of a bizarre valley, which meant it was only accessible by shuttle.

True to Fiona’s statement, the facility didn’t look like more than a small house on the surface. Karen would have missed it if she wasn’t looking for a structure in the valley. It was surrounded by rock formations unlike anything she’d seen elsewhere on the world—almost like dark waves arching from the red soil. The steep cliffs ringing the valley rose one hundred meters, making the place appear even more isolated.

 “What were they doing out here?” she muttered to herself while staring out the shuttle window as they approached the landing site.

Trisha was seated in the row in front of her, and Fiona was across the aisle. The two other women had their eyes glued to the windows next to their seats, as well.

“It has to be connected,” Fiona replied.

“What do you mean?” Trisha asked.

Fiona didn’t take her gaze off the window. “There’s no way this place was only serviced by shuttle. There has to be another way in.”

Karen was inclined to agree, but she didn’t like the implications. An out-of-the-way facility was one thing, but kilometers of underground tunnels took that to a whole other level. Still, it was the most likely scenario, and she couldn’t ignore evidence just because she didn’t like what it indicated.

She knew from experience that there were multiple sublevels to the main government building. It was possible one of those contained a tunnel that spanned the six kilometers to the valley.

But why would they do that? So many other secrets had been kept in plain sight that it was odd that they’d have gone to the trouble of creating underground tunnels, when a road or rail line would have increased the connection.

Because they didn’t want others to know that the facility was there, let alone that it was connected to the government, she answered her own question. Whatever is in there can’t be good.

The shuttle descended into a clearing between the wave-like rocks, and the side door opened. A wave of heat swept through the cabin.

Trisha scowled. “I hope they have air conditioning in this place.”

“It’s underground. We won’t need it,” Karen replied. She rose from her seat and smoothed her pencil dress, which was paired with lightweight leggings and flat boots that were her most practical footwear for walking.

The three women walked down the ramp from the shuttle.

Dry air burned Karen’s lungs as she took a deep breath. She coughed. “Let’s get inside.”

Hewn of dark stone similar to the material of the rock waves, the facility’s exterior façade rose one story and had a roof that angled down from a massive boulder next to it. There appeared to be no openings in the walls, aside from a single door.

Karen picked up her pace to reach the door first. A control panel was enclosed inside a hinged protective cover next to the door, complete with a biometric scanner. She placed her hand on the device.

The screen flashed red, accompanied by ‘Access Denied’.

“Let me try,” Fiona offered, and Karen moved out of her way.

When Fiona placed her hand on the screen, it changed to green. The adjacent door hissed open.

“Good to know you’re in their system,” Karen said to her.

“Not sure that’s a system I want to be in.”

Behind them, Trisha took a shaky breath. “I don’t like this place.”

Karen stepped inside. “That makes all of us.”

The five-by-five meter room looked more like an NTech lab than something found inside a stone shack at the bottom of a remote valley. Primarily finished in white, and well lit, the room was everything Karen would envision for a sophisticated control room. Monitors lined the walls at three distinct workstations, and a sealed door was set into the wall that butted up to the boulder Karen had observed from the outside.

“This is really weird,” she said.

“I’ve heard others describe it, but this isn’t what I imagined.” Fiona looked around the room. “We need to get through that door.”

Trisha held up her hand. “First, we need to gather any data we can from these computers.”

“Agreed, there may be records here that we can’t access elsewhere,” Karen said. “Fiona, you might need to do the honors, since you seem to be recognized in the system.”

“I’ll try.” She stepped over to the closest workstation.

“Trisha, let’s take a look at this door.” Karen walked over to it.

There was no handle, which indicated the door either swung inward or was controlled exclusively through an electronic panel. A shove against it confirmed that they wouldn’t be able to open it manually.

“Where would you put controls?” Karen scanned the vicinity until she spotted a scanner at waist level to the left side of the door. She extended her hand toward it.

“Wait!” Fiona called out.

Karen paused. “Find something?”

“Yes. Shit, this is bad. We need to get out of here.” Fiona raced toward the exit door.

“What is it?” Karen stepped back from the side door, but she’d need more than vague statements to make her abandon their research expedition before it’d begun.

Fiona held up a portable data drive. “I downloaded the summary data. I don’t think Reya was just inside the chancellor—I think it’s still here.”












CHAPTER NINE


Karen ran with Fiona and Trisha to the waiting shuttle. “What makes you think Reya is here?” she asked.

“The login records,” she explained while they climbed inside. “Not just for the network, but for the facility here. There’s a prefix code from each government office. I know the ones for the office in the city and the main one near here, so that leaves the third to be this. I noticed that the chancellor’s old login access stopped when it should have, at the time of her death, but that account has been active from this facility within the past two days.”

“Oh, shit,” Trisha whispered.

Karen swallowed. “And if I was a power-hungry alien megalomaniac like Reya, I’d be pissed that my plans were upset, and looking to either reclaim what was lost or get revenge.”

“Hence the ‘let’s get the fuck out now’ stance,” Fiona said, accompanied by a hand flourish.

“Which now makes complete sense,” Karen acknowledged. I’d really hoped Luke was wrong.

“Great, so these beings don’t die in the sense we’re used to.” Fiona shook her head.

Karen looked over at the terrified faces of the two women. She needed to offer reassurance that they would get assistance in the upcoming fight.

“Right now, the FDG is investigating the place that they think is the aliens’ home,” Karen revealed.

“They do exist in a specific place, then?” Hope returned to Fiona’s eyes.

“We’ll know soon.” Karen looked at the data drive still clutched in the other woman’s hands. “In the meantime, let’s see what else we can find out about what these aliens were up to.”


*     *     *


Ava took slow, steady breaths inside her powered armor suit, while the stealthed pod descended into the atmosphere of the alien world.

It went against her training to go in without a set plan, but this mission was also unlike the challenges her team typically faced. An unknown enemy, ambiguous motives, and a mishmash of tech. They could find anything on the world below.

“Stick together. Don’t do anything stupid,” Ava told her team over the comm. It didn’t need to be said, but her role as the team leader dictated she say something.

 “We’re on high alert,” Samantha replied. She patted her sidearm.

“I’m patched into the comms and visual feeds, so reach out to me if you need assistance,” Ruby added.

The pod bumped as it touched down on the surface. The artificial gravity disengaged as the craft powered down, and Ava rose easily from her seat. Scans had shown the gravity to be at approximately 0.6g, so they wouldn’t be able to get too crazy, but they’d certainly be able to cover distance much faster than normal.

When the back hatch opened, Ava got her first glimpse of the alien landscape. Everything was perfectly still.

This does come off as creepily artificial, Ava commented to her AI.

>>The suit isn’t picking up any distinct heat signatures, though there is a trace of the same ambient radiation we observed throughout this system in space.<<

So, that’s a ‘no’ on probable life signs?

>>Correct.<<

What about that vegetation stuff?

>>You’ll need to inspect it more closely to be sure.<<

 Ava gathered her gear and activated the stealth on her powered armor; her team did likewise. “All right, let’s see what we’re working with.”

Edwin took a cautious step toward the rear ramp. “I have absolutely no basis for this remark, but I feel the need to warn against robotic tentacle monsters.”

Samantha peered outside. “Normally, I’d tell you you’re full of it and need to get a life. This time, that warning seems oddly appropriate.”

Nick laughed behind his opaque faceplate. “I’m so playing back this clip the next time one of you rags on me for saying something dumb.”

Edwin bristled. “Hey, robotic tentacle monsters can be a real menace.”

“I’ll be on the lookout.” Nick patted his teammate on the shoulder as he passed by.

Ava followed them down the ramp and onto the alien soil. The orange sky created an amber glow to the world around her, as though the world was in constant sunset.

“I don’t like it,” she said to her team.

Samantha looked around. “It doesn’t feel right. It’s…” she faded out.

“It’s that it’s not alive,” Edwin completed for her.

“Yeah,” Nick agreed. “Just… sterile.”

Ava surveyed the surroundings. “No flowers, no birds, no bugs. I know we saw that from space, but it’s weird to see in person.”

“But there’s the forest.” Samantha pointed at the strange trees along the neighboring ridge.

Ava nodded. “Let’s check it out.” She set a brisk pace toward the trees.

The groundcover was unlike anything Ava had set foot on before. Though it appeared to be moss-covered dirt from a distance, it didn’t compress like natural materials. After walking several paces, Ava bent down to inspect it.

She zoomed in and analyzed the dull green material with the sensors on her powered armor. The view on her HUD displayed a mesh of interwoven artificial fibers.

“This just keeps getting weirder,” she muttered.

Nick crouched down next to her. “Was all of this manufactured?”

“I have no idea,” she replied. “But I’m not excited to meet whoever or whatever could construct an artificial landscape on this scale.”

Samantha frowned. “Think the entire planet is like this?”

“It all looked the same on scan,” Ava said with a shrug. “I don’t see why it wouldn’t be, but I guess we have no way to be sure.”

“Does it matter?” Edwin continued forward. “We’re going after the source of the signal you identified.”

Ava nodded. “Right.”

Following their initial discovery, Aleya and Rod had been able to narrow the source of the signal to a valley, adjacent to the landing site where the pod had touched down. They had considered traveling to the exact location, but thick tree cover made the possibility of landing difficult, and they also didn’t know what they’d find. For caution’s sake, it seemed worthwhile to take a longer walk.

It was easy-going over the terrain, between the light gravity and the powered armor. Ava had to rein in her movements to avoid lunging ahead at an unsafe pace, in case they encountered any hostiles.

At the top of the ridge, she held up her fist, signaling her team to pause. They each took up position behind a tree that afforded a view of the valley beyond.

The aerial view hadn’t done the location justice. Rather than a continuous, thick forest, the landscape on the other side of the ridge was interrupted by an odd outcropping of rocks. The dark stones jutted from the ground in a grooved half-arch that tapered to a narrow tip.

“It’s like an ocean storm froze,” Samantha murmured into her comm.

“That’s definitely stone,” Ava observed, looking at the density reading displayed on her HUD.

“What would make rock take that kind of shape?” Edwin asked.

“Was it grown?” Nick posited.

“That would fit with the rest of the place,” Ava realized.

The trees, the groundcover, the dirt—they all had the same markers of a manufactured substance. More likely than having created each of those elements and arranging them was the idea of forming the materials in the right location. It would take an extreme mastermind to design the operations before such a large-scale project, but the Dyons may very well have been up to that challenge.

There was just one very big question.

“Where did the raw materials come from for this?” Ava asked her team.

“The Gidyon System does not appear to have the necessary elements in the natural composition to supply a build of this scale,” Ruby stated over the shared comm band.

“Nezar and Alucia, maybe?” Samantha speculated.

“It would explain why Reya had infiltrated so many organizations,” Ava agreed. “Let’s take some samples and see if we can get a match. Really, though, it doesn’t matter so much where it came from. It’s here now.”

“Good point.” Nick bent down to gather some material from the ground.

Ava scraped off a sample of the artificial bark from the tree she was braced behind.

When the samples had been gathered, Ava and her team stored the canisters in slots within their armor. Ava then motioned them forward through the trees. She felt a little ridiculous darting from tree to tree while they were already in stealth gear, but there was no knowing if weapons fire was going to take them out at any moment, and avoiding an opportune enemy shot if their stealth was ineffective was always the priority.

When they were halfway down the hillside, Ava signaled for her team to stop. “Do you see a building up there?” She enhanced the view on her HUD and sent the image to her teammates.

The three warriors evaluated it.

“That does look more squared off than the other rocks,” Nick concurred.

“In all fairness, the forest is laid out on a grid,” Ava added. “Still, the color and texture of this is different than everything around it.”

“Huh,” Nick said cryptically.

Ava looked in his direction. “What?”

“Look at the aerial of this valley with an overlay of the on-the-ground details.” Nick sent the team the composite image. “Look like anything familiar?”

Ava’s brow knit. “A transmission dish.”

The strange, curved rocks in the center were positioned at the focal point, and trees filled the main body of the dish. Rock walls ringed the outer lip.

“I can’t believe I didn’t see that before.” Ava’s stomach knotted.  This is the source of their control.

“How do we blow it up?” Edwin asked.

“This is a recon mission,” she reiterated, though she didn’t disagree with the sentiment.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” Nick cut in. “We’re totally going to end up blowing this thing to bits. We may as well find its inevitable weakness on this go-around to save ourselves trouble in the future.”

“Planning ahead, and all,” Samantha added.

“You bring up a valid point.” Ava sighed. “Let’s get a closer look.”

They continued down the hillside until they reached the perimeter of the rock formation. Smaller trees were scattered amid the rocks, which explained how they had missed the now-obvious formation when they’d initially looked at it. Ava had learned long before that patterns often didn’t emerge until there was some idea of what to look for.

“Whoa, radiation spike,” Samantha said, breaking the comm silence that had dominated the second half of their walk.

“The signal is definitely stronger here, too,” Nick commented.

Ava sensed a pressure in her head. Any explanation for that? she asked Ruby.

>>There seems to be a resonance with the neural structure Luke’s team dubbed the ‘TR’. It’s not connected to the signal, but the operating frequencies are similar enough that you’re getting feedback, of sorts.<<

This would activate me, though, if I had that other version of the TR?

>>Yes, I think so,<< Ruby confirmed. >>You aren’t in any danger. Let me see if I can compensate for the feedback.<<

The pressure in her head diminished.

>>Is that better?<<

Much, thank you. Ava smiled. It’s nice having you along, Ruby.

>>Happy to be of service.<<

The team approached the apparent structure at the center of the rock ring.

“That, ladies and gentlemen, is a door,” Edwin observed.

Sure enough, a door standing a little over three meters tall and one meter wide was positioned in the center of the near side of the structure. There was no obvious way to open the door, but an access panel was positioned next to it.

“Want me to get us inside?” Nick asked.

“Hold for a minute. I need to check in with Widmore,” Ava replied. “We’re going a little beyond our scope, if we head inside.”

She activated the comm link in her armor and set it to a private channel to connect with the Raven.

Widmore answered after five seconds. “What do you make of it, Lieutenant?”

“It’s every bit as strange as we observed from above, and so much more, sir.”

“I’d say I’m glad to hear it, but I’m not sure. I’ve been following along on the video feed, and I don’t like the look of that structure.”

“Neither do I, but it’s located at the center of the target site. Seeing the valley up close, the details look strikingly like a transmission dish.”

“That should have been obvious from the aerial view,” Widmore replied.

“Caught us by surprise, too, sir.”

“Control center?”

“Maybe. The question is, do we go inside?”

The major was silent for ten seconds. “Do you have enough information about the dwarf planet to recommend a course of action?”

“No, sir.”

“Would going inside that building offer additional insights?”

Ava took a slow breath. “Most likely.”

“Then you know what you need to do,” he stated. “You have your authorization to proceed.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And Ava,” Widmore added after a moment, “watch your backs.”

“Always, sir. We’ll check in as soon as we have additional information.”

She ended the private call, then switched to her team’s channel.

“All right, we’re going in.”












CHAPTER TEN


“Nick and Sam, can you get that door open?” Ava asked.

“Psh.” Nick snorted. “You needn’t even ask.”

Ava smiled. “Work your magic.”

The two warriors got to work doing what they did best while Ava and Edwin kept watch. The sensors on her suit were unable to penetrate the walls of the structure, so they’d have to wait to see what was inside.

“You know, I would have expected them to make a move to snatch you by now,” Edwin commented privately to Ava.

“I kind of did, too, actually,” she admitted. “As much as I’d like to think our stealth tech makes us invisible, I suspect it’s useless against this particular opponent.”

“They can probably pick up our specific brainwaves or something.”

“That wouldn’t surprise me at all.” Ava’s hand instinctually gravitated toward her sidearm. “We’ll need to be extra careful inside. Secret underground lairs are the perfect hiding place for robotic monsters with tentacle arms.”

Edwin chuckled. “True.”

“This motherfucker,” Nick swore into the comm.

“I haven’t seen encryption this intense outside of the FDG.” Samantha sighed.

“Can you break it?” Ava asked, switching back over to the team’s common band.

“Of course.” Nick swore again under his breath. “It’s just going to take a little time.”

After four minutes of cycling through their various hacking tricks, Nick and Samantha eventually found a combination that worked.

“Take that, Dyon bastards!” Nick exclaimed as the door hissed open.

“If that was their front door, I can’t imagine what the computer systems are going to be like,” Samantha said with far less enthusiasm.

“Another point that I hesitate to even mention,” Ava began, “is why there’s a door and a panel that resembles the tech we’re used to. I can justify building a planet with the same organic composition and general habitat that we’re used to as humans, but a structure like this…”

“Yep, just going to choose to ignore that point for now.” Edwin readied his multi-handgun and stepped through the open doorway.

As he entered, lights came on.

“Okay, yep, the stealth tech is pointless,” he said.

Ava could make out, around Edwin shoulders, what appeared to be some sort of control room with desks and monitors. She followed him inside to get a better look.

The room was laid out with three computer stations along the wall, complete with an array of monitors, and a door similar to the entry point, positioned on the left wall. Again, her suit’s sensors only read as far as the room.

“I’m gonna guess that’s the way in,” she commented. She checked her suit’s settings and saw that the signal to the Raven was cutting in and out. “Aw, shit.”

Samantha must have noticed the same thing. “We’re going to be in the dark, aren’t we?”

“Looks like it.” Ava sighed. “One sec.” She stepped back outside to warn Widmore that their connection would likely be severed as soon as they entered the underground facility. He instructed them to proceed, offering additional words of caution.

When Ava got back inside, she found Nick and Samantha each working at one of the computer terminals. The screens above the desktops displayed what looked like scrolling gibberish.

“This won’t be easy,” Samantha stated without taking her eyes off the screen in front of her.

“I’m trying to find a root database, but this isn’t laid out like a normal system,” Nick added. “And this coding is weird. I’m going to try running it through the external processor.” He pulled out one of his specialized pieces of equipment—a small black box that contained powerful software that ADAM himself had helped design to interface with alien tech and understand its structure.

Nick dropped beneath the desk to look for wires to use as a hard jack into the alien computer. “If I can’t make sense of this, we’re shit out of luck.”

“I think I may have found the door controls, at least,” Samantha said.

“Damn, I was kind of hoping we’d have to blow it up,” Edwin replied with an audible grin.

“Yes, explosives near the computers is a great idea.” Ava rolled her eyes.

>>Ava, perhaps I can assist Nick and Samantha,<< Ruby offered.

If you want to try, be my guest. I just don’t want to have to brain jack into this system.

>>I can connect wirelessly to Nick’s external processor. If I do so, though, it will require most of my resources. While I’m distracted, I’m afraid you may feel some physical effects like you experienced earlier.<<

Go for it. I can take it.

A moment later, the pressure she had felt in her head when they first stepped into the rock formation returned twofold, and this time was accompanied by a high-pitched buzzing that stabbed behind her eyes. “Argh!”

“You okay over there?” Edwin asked.

“Yeah, just don’t ask me to do math or be patient with children for a few minutes.” Ava placed one gloved hand on the side of her helmet while she breathed deeply.

“Ruby, you’re a genius!” Nick cheered after a minute.

“This is, indeed, a strange system,” Ruby said over the team’s suit comms. “I noticed that the frequency being emitted from the transmitter has a visual wave pattern similar to the arrangement of geographic features on this world. I extrapolated that layout to the computer system architecture, and it matched. The database is located at a system core analogous to the location of this facility relative to the rest of the world.”

Ava scowled. “I didn’t follow all of that, but it sounds like you found what you’re looking for.”

“Yes,” Ruby confirmed.

“Good. We’ll go with that.”

Ava waited while her team followed through on Ruby’s lead. The pressure in her head remained, but after a couple of minutes she found herself getting used to it.

“Ah ha!” Samantha let out a delighted cackle. “Got it cornered now.”

“Shit, this is going to take forever to download over the slow connection through this firewall,” Nick groaned.

The hum in Ava’s head diminished as Ruby disconnected from the external processor. >>Sorry to have put you through that.<<

I’ve experienced a lot worse than a headache.

>>Glad it wasn’t too bad,<< the AI replied. >>We were able to find the data repository, but we don’t have the storage capacity on hand to hold all of it. I set up a crawler to extract information related to the Alaxar Trinary. It’ll take at least an hour to comb through and copy the relevant data.<<

Do you need to be here for that? Ava asked.

>>Actively monitoring the transfer from this room? No.<<

Then how about we go check out what’s underground while it finishes?

Ruby gave a mental scowl. >>The data will likely offer insights into what’s going on down there. It’s prudent to wait until we know what we’re up against.<<

Or, countermeasures against our presence on this world might trigger at any moment, and we could lose out on our only opportunity to investigate, Ava pointed out.

>>By that token, we may all die.<<

You really know how to spread the cheer, Ruby.

>>I’m not joking. There’s certain danger down there.<<

We knew that when we came in here, Ava reminded the AI. Remember what we discussed about life in the Force? We run toward the danger, not away from it.

Ruby made the mental equivalent of a harrumph. >>Suit yourself.<<

Wow, you are temperamental for an AI!

>>You’re not the only one with adjustments to make, Ava. I’m used to being safely tucked away in a lab.<<

Suck it up. We’ll get through this. Ava returned her attention to her team. “All right. Sounds like it’s going to take some time to copy the data, so let’s check out the facility and leave this running up here.”

Edwin shifted on his feet. “That’s assuming we exit the same way we go in.”

“Worst case, this entry isn’t far from our original landing location in the pod. We can always circle back here if needed,” Ava replied.

Nick nodded. “I don’t really want to wait around here watching a progress bar march across the screen. I vote for exploration time.”

Ava’s statement hadn’t been an open call for votes, but she decided to let it slide. “Get that door open,” she ordered.

“And… presto.” Samantha made an entry on her computer terminal.

A bolt clanged, and the door popped open with a hiss. It slowly swung inward.

There was only darkness beyond, and the sensors feeding into her HUD indicated a featureless corridor with uniform temperature. A row of lights along the ceiling illuminated, and a strip of lights along the floor to either side of the corridor lit the path to an apparent stairwell.

“Oh yeah, absolutely nothing ominous about that,” Edwin said.

Ava swallowed, happy her opaque helmet hid her face. “Nothing to worry about.” She hoped her tone sounded more confident than she felt.

Before her team could reply, she strode forward through the open doorway, weapon aimed ahead.

Edwin followed. “Let me go first, ma’am. If they’re after you, you should stay in between us.”

The idea of being snatched from the group hadn’t occurred to her, but Edwin did bring up a valid point. Not that she felt better about the enemy needing to go through her teammates in order to get to her. Still, she figured the aliens would find a way to get to her regardless of marching order, if that was their aim. If it made Edwin feel better to go first, then there was no reason to stop him. “Go ahead,” she consented.

The private slipped passed her in the corridor to scope out the stairwell ahead. “I can’t see past the first switchback.”

“We’ll take it slow,” Ava instructed. “Hopefully it’s not too deep.”

It was.

The stone stairwell descended twenty-four stories, with flights of twelve steps each forming a spiraling square around a solid central column. With each floor, Ava was reminded how strange it was that there were stairs on this alien world. Human-sized stairs. Not to mention twenty-four stories and no elevator. Nothing about the place added up.

“This is really fucking weird, right?” Ava said as they rounded the second switchback of the twenty-fourth story.

“Oh, without a doubt,” Edwin agreed.

“Whoever this architect was, they’re fired,” Samantha joked.

“Wouldn’t that be more of a structural engineer?” Nick asked.

“They’d do the load ratings on the stairs,” Samantha replied, “but I think it’d be an architect who’d make the call between a stairwell versus an elevator.”

Edwin stopped short in front of Ava. “We’re here.”

Ava peeked around the last bend and saw a metal door in front of Edwin—unmarked, and with no window or accompanying control panel. She tried to get a reading of the space beyond, but the same interference she’d experienced on the surface prevented her suit’s sensors from penetrating the walls.

>>We won’t be able to make a very quick exit from here,<< Ruby cautioned.

Leave the military protocol to me. Just keep me from turning into a Hochste or having a seizure, and we’ll be good.

Ava focused on the door. “Is it unlocked?”

Edwin pushed on it, and the door swung inward.

“You first.” She motioned Edwin to the side.

With a nod, Ava used her right arm to swing the door wide while Edwin rushed in to assess the interior with his weapon drawn.

“Clear,” he announced. “I mean, there’s nothing to see.”

With the door open, Ava’s HUD completed the map of the other side. Another long corridor stretched ahead. This time, though, the walls showed a heat signature—and were pulsing in temperature from warm to hot every three seconds.

“Ummm…” She waited for her team to offer additional commentary.

“Please tell me we aren’t about to walk down the esophagus of some giant space monster,” Samantha said from two steps up the stairwell.

“And all of you laughed at me before.” Edwin shook his head.

“It’s not a circulatory pulse,” Nick observed. “I bet you these are cables relaying data bursts. They heat up when the signal passes through and diffuse the heat into the stone in between the bursts—keeps it from overheating and melting.”

“The signal for telepathic control?” Ava asked.

The warrior nodded. “That would be my guess.”

“So, where’s the origin point?” Samantha asked. “The cables have to run somewhere.”

Edwin pointed ahead with his handgun. “Only one way forward.”

Ava tried to suppress the disquiet nagging at the back of her mind. They wanted me, and this is a place designed for humans. It can’t be a coincidence.

The team advanced down the corridor for another hundred meters before an exit was visible up ahead.

“There’s a larger chamber,” Edwin observed. “More than one, I think.”

The end of the corridor fanned outward until it blended with the smooth walls of a domed chamber twenty meters tall and twice as many wide. Three other corridor entrances, identical to the one they’d traversed, were positioned at equidistant points around the base of the walls. In the center of the space, a bundle of thick cables funneled into a rock formation that resembled the wave forms on the surface, only with the arches curving outward from the structure like petals of a blooming flower.

“Yeah, I’m at a complete loss,” Ava admitted.

>>Oh, that’s interesting.<<

See something, Ruby?

>>Your suit couldn’t get clear readings of the rocks on the surface, between the ambient radiation and the other structures. There’s a high enough concentration here, though, and the analysis is quite intriguing.<<

Which is…? Ava couldn’t keep the impatience out of her mental tone.

I thought AIs were supposed to jump straight to the point? Apparently, a science-minded AI was all about gathering sufficient data and offering context for every statement. It didn’t quite mesh with Ava’s shoot-as-soon-as-you-know-they’re-the-bad-guys approach.

>>The mineral in this rock is the same substance that’s in the TRs.<<

Oh, shit. Ava’s pulse spiked.

“Ruby just clued me in that these rocks are made of the same material as the telepathic receptors they discovered in my brain and in the subverted people.”

“Fuck, really?” Nick eyed the rocks. “I guess it makes sense to use the same substance in the transmitter.”

“Again, still missing a critical piece here—we have the transmission equipment, but where is the signal coming from? Where are the Dyons controlling that signal?”

“I have no idea.” Ava looked around, but there were no signs of life. “Let’s check out the other corridors.”

They cautiously made their way across the chamber. Nick and Sam tried to remotely interface with the computer system, but they couldn’t find a signal compatible with their suits. With the external processor still up in the control room—or whatever it was—at the surface, they had no other way to access the system. They’d have to do a visual inspection and see what information they could gather the old fashioned way.

The first corridor on the right terminated forty meters down, at a stone monument that resembled a miniature version of the structure in the center of the main chamber. Cables disappeared into the stone ceiling, and there were no other signs indicating the structure’s purpose, or if it extended beyond what was visible in the corridor.

The second corridor mirrored the first, though when they reached the end, there wasn’t a stairwell; instead, there was a pit.

The team’s HUDs indicated a potential tripping hazard up ahead, and they slowed their pace as they approached.

“What is it?” Ava frowned at the dark nothingness two meters in front of her.

The round pit was roughly four meters across. Its walls were the same stone found elsewhere in the facility, but it resembled natural stone more than the concrete-like finish found on many of the floors and walls.

No wind or sound came from the opening. Its only distinguishing feature was that the temperature increased the deeper the hole went—until the sensors cut out at approximately three hundred meters. At that depth, there was still no sign of the bottom.

“I didn’t think this could possibly get any weirder or creepier, but mission accomplished,” Samantha stated. She took a step back from the pit.

Edwin craned his neck over the edge. “There’s no way we can get down there.”

“If we had a kilometer of cordage we could,” Ava said. “But seeing that we don’t, it’ll have to wait.” She turned to go.

“You came to us,” a chorus of raspy voices said in her mind.

Fuck! Her pulse spiked.

Ruby, did you hear that?

>>No, Ava, what is it?<<

A voice—voices. They were…

She listened for more, and then ventured a mental call. “Hello?”

There was no reply.

>>The main reason we’re on this mission is so you can try to connect with them.<<

I know.

Ava took a slow breath and cleared her mind.

“We’d like to speak with you. We don’t want to be enemies.”

Silence.

Ava sighed. This isn’t working.

>>You’re not trying very hard.<<

Forgive me for not being very enthusiastic about getting buddy-buddy after what they did to me.

Ava turned away from the pit. “Let’s get out of here,” she told her team.

“Don’t need to ask me twice,” Samantha hurried away.

When they were ten meters away, Ava said, “I made contact with the Dyons. Briefly. They said, ‘You came to us.’ A chorus of them.”

Edwin tensed. “Where are they?”

“I don’t know!” Ava took a shaky breath. “Maybe they’re everywhere. These beings aren’t like anything we’ve dealt with before. They don’t have bodies.”

“Why aren’t you running for the door?” Samantha asked.

“Because we haven’t completed our investigation. Hearing those voices is disconcerting, but we always figured they’d be watching us. And I’m supposed to be trying to communicate with them. Until they take physical action to harm us, we proceed.”

“If and when they act, it’ll already be too late,” Edwin replied.

>>He’s right. We should leave now.<<

We haven’t checked out the last corridor.

>>You’re in danger.<<

We don’t have enough information to draw a definitive conclusion about this place. It has a creepy as fuck vibe, but that’s not enough to order a military strike. We need evidence of a weapon if we’re going to get support to take this thing out for good.

>>You’re willing to die to serve as evidence of danger?<<

If I have to. That’s part of the job.

While it wasn’t a reality Ava was eager to face, she accepted the risks that came with her position. And if the aliens wanted her, she’d gladly sacrifice herself to save the rest of her team.

“The rest of you should head back to the surface,” Ava stated. “I’ll scope out the last corridor, and then meet you up there.”

“Leave you here alone with them?” Edwin shook his head. “No way.”

“You stay, we all stay,” Nick agreed.

Samantha reluctantly nodded her head.

“Fine, but at the first sign of trouble, you run. Don’t worry about me,” Ava instructed.

“With all due respect, ma’am, that’s our call to make,” Nick said as he passed by her.

Ava sighed, but the sentiment warmed her heart. She would’ve said the same thing, in his shoes.

They retraced their steps down the corridor and crossed through the central chamber to the corridor on the left relative to where they’d first entered. The space was immediately a stark contrast to the areas they’d encountered elsewhere.

Notably, there were rooms. The surroundings reminded Ava of a less polished version of the NTech lab on Coraxa, with doors along long corridors and windows looking into labs and medical rooms. The details were missing from this place to make it a direct comparison, but something about it kept jogging her memory.

“I think there might be another way down here,” Nick said.

“What makes you say that?” Ava asked him.

“If these rooms are ever supposed to be occupied, it doesn’t make sense to bring in people via that stairwell. I bet the far end of this hall leads to another exit.”

Edwin shrugged. “One way to find out.”

“If there’s a more direct way out of here, I’m all for it,” Samantha agreed.

They continued down the central corridor, which branched to various side passageways servicing other labs and storage areas. The suits’ sensors mapped the corridors that weren’t obstructed by a sealed door, and their HUDs displayed a labyrinth spanning thousands of square meters.

Samantha groaned as the HUD refreshed with a new branch of hallways. “There’s no way we can go through all of this right now.”

“Hopefully the data you’re downloading will shed some light on the purpose of this place,” Ava replied.

Nick scoffed. “Pretty sure its singular aim is to keep us guessing.”

Ava tightened the grip on her weapon. “Maybe that’s the key. We keep talking about what we’re seeing, but what about going to the underlying why? What were the Dyons after?”

“Well,” Samantha began, “we know they were in league with the Nezarans.”

“I guess that would explain why there are human-sized corridors here, and a breathable atmosphere,” Ava said. “Still, why would beings that can project their consciousness across light years need a bunch of humans?”

Edwin frowned. “You said they feed on negative energy, right?”

“They at least need it to maintain control,” Ava replied.

“Starting a civil war would be a good way to get people in a bad mood,” Nick pointed out.

“They did go to great lengths to pit Alucia and Nezar against each other,” Samantha agreed.

Nick nodded. “Yeah. And NTech had a bunch of armor and weapons stashed in the lab, right, Ava?”

“Yes, but that part doesn’t make sense,” Ava responded. “I get that the Hochste were supposed to be soldiers to fight on Nezar’s behalf, but modified humans don’t use conventional weapons.”

“Not to be Mr. Contrary over here,” Edwin interjected, “but how closely did you look at the rifles you found?”

“I was a little distracted by trying to not get caught,” Ava admitted. “Why?”

“You should probably see this for yourself.” Edwin gestured toward a chest-height window in the wall.

Her stomach knotting, Ava walked over and looked inside.

“Oh, fuck.”

The window overlooked a storeroom containing racks of rifles. Unlike the weapons Ava had used throughout her career, these had no hand grip or trigger.

“No…”

“It looks like these would mount directly to the armor, likely with remote control firing,” Edwin completed for her. “These soldiers of theirs were designed for nasty killing, end of story.”

It’s wrong on so many levels.

Ava tore her gaze away from the storeroom. “Why not just drop a bomb at that point, for such indiscriminant destruction?”

Samantha’s face looked pale. “Because it’s not about who’s getting attacked. It’s about the suffering on both sides.”

Ava’s stomach dropped. “Shit, you’re right.” She shook her head. “I kept looking at it from a human vantage—what they’d have to gain, what they’re working toward. But no. We’re just like food to them.”

“And now they’re getting ready for the harvest,” Edwin murmured.

“How very poetic.” Samantha gripped her handgun a little tighter.

Nick scowled. “No, we’re missing something. Why go through the effort to develop Hochste, to train you?”

“Maximum killing potential equals maximum suffering inflicted?” Ava speculated.

“Not buying it,” Nick said. “This is a race that can construct an artificial planet. They must have a larger play than watching a single system tear itself apart through civil war.”

“Whatever their aim, we’ve learned what we came here to find out,” Ava continued. “It’s clear they mean harm, and this facility is where they mean to bring soldiers to retrofit them into killing machines.”

“Time to go?” Samantha asked eagerly.

Ava nodded. “Yeah, come on.” She turned to head back in the direction they’d come from.

“What about locating the alternate exit?” Edwin reminded her.

“Oh, right.” Ava’s face flushed behind her helmet. It wasn’t like her to forget a lead like that.

>>You have a lot on your mind. Don’t be too hard on yourself,<< Ruby soothed.

You’re just happy because we’re finally getting out of here.

>>Like you aren’t?<<

That was true. “Mapping out that exit sounds like a great excuse to avoid going through that center chamber again,” Ava told her team.

Samantha picked up her pace in the direction of the suspected exit. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

“Wow, Sam, you really don’t like it down here.” Ava chuckled.

“How are you even remotely okay with this place?” the private shot back. “You said yourself that there were alien voices taunting you in your head.”

“Ruby’s keeping me in a happy place,” Ava replied.

What you’re doing isn’t impairing my judgment, is it?

>>I’ve tried to keep my interventions to a minimum while alleviating the discomfort from the interference.<<

It didn’t occur to me that I should be more concerned than I feel. Like when you told me before that we should go and I insisted that we stay.

>>Well, we’re leaving now. That’s the important part,<< Ruby replied.

We’ll need to have Doctor Dwyer look over my medical logs when we get back to headquarters to make sure everything is okay, Ava stated.

>>Good plan,<< the AI agreed.

Edwin led the team along the path he’d mapped out toward the likely alternate exit point.

Based on Ava’s own evaluation of the map, his guess looked sound. Most of the corridors seemed to feed into one central pathway, which extended the full length of the map their suit sensors had been able to populate. The far end, however, appeared to terminate in a shielded door.

Either a trap or the exit, Ava said privately to Ruby.

>>Please be an exit!<<

Edwin was the first to reach the barrier. “It’s locked.”

Nick joined him by the control panel next to the door. “We have the encryption protocol saved from before. This shouldn’t take long.”

He synced with the panel and input the necessary commands. The door bolt slid open with a satisfying clang, which was followed by the hiss of the seal releasing.

The two men braced on either side of the door with their weapons pointed ahead. Ava took up position next to Edwin, with Samantha on the other side by Nick.

To their relief, only an empty, four-meter-wide tunnel was waiting for them on the other side.

Samantha lowered her weapon. “You know, after our experiences over the last couple of weeks, it’s really nice to walk through an entire facility and not get shot at.”

Nick groaned. “Damn it, Sam, now you’ve jinxed us.”

“We’re not out of here until we’re out of here,” Edwin reminded them.

“Damn straight.” Ava nodded. “Don’t let your guard down.”

They forged ahead.

The floor sloped upward at a shallow angle suitable for transporting materials on a hover cart. Ava expected it to switch back on itself and exit somewhere close to the control room, but their HUDs showed the trajectory was a straight shot for eight hundred fifty meters ahead.

Thanks to the low gravity, the team was able to lope up the hill and cover the distance quickly. Ava kept watch on the shadows playing on the rough stone walls of the tunnel.

They slowed their pace as they neared the end.

Ava paused to look back down the tunnel while the others continued ahead. The lights had turned off where they’d come from.

She turned back to face her team. “All right, let’s see where this dumps us out. Then we can circle back to the control room to retrieve that data drive.”

Nick nodded. “Sounds goo—”

“Shit!” Edwin shouted.

Ava’s jaw dropped. The tunnel walls that had seemed solid only second before were now a swirling mass of particulates.

“Run!”












CHAPTER ELEVEN


Ava raced forward through the flurry of sand-like particles. “What the fuck is this?!”

“I’ll make sure our exit is clear. Get Ava!” Nick surged ahead.

Edwin and Samantha tried to get back to her three meters deeper into the tunnel, but the particles bound together to form a lattice barrier in their path.

Edwin struck it with his arm. The latticework flexed to accommodate the blow. “Sneaky bastards waited until the rest of us were at the exit,” he spat.

The particles glommed onto Ava’s powered armor and attempted to stick her boots to the floor. She trudged forward, but each step was more labored than the last as the particles congealed around her. After four steps, she may as well have been walking through hip-deep cement.

“It’s got me!” she shouted.

 “I already hate these things.” Samantha readied her multi-handgun on the sonic setting. “Mute your suit,” she instructed Ava.

Ruby completed the action for her.

Samantha fired three blasts. The particles shuddered as the high-powered sound wave passed over them, but the latticework remained intact.

I need to be stronger! I need to break free.

The Hochste within Ava stirred, begging to be let out. Her mind felt clearer and sharper than it had since they landed on the world. So much power was right at her fingertips.

>>Ava! I sense you’re about to shift,<< Ruby warned.

Let me! It may be the boost I need.

>>You can’t!<< the AI pleaded. >>The helmet can’t accommodate the transformation. If you shift, it’ll break the seal, and those particles could get inside you.<<

Ava tried to hold back, but her pulse was quickening. The power called to her. You need to stop it, Ruby!

>>I’m trying!<<

The sweet call of the Etheric energy began to fade.

Ava looked down in horror to see what looked like stone, solidifying around her feet and shins. She couldn’t take another step.

I need another way to break free!

>>Maybe a concussive blast,<< Ruby suggested.

“Kinetics!” Ava shouted over the comm to her team. She managed to get her multi-handgun in position and started firing at her feet.

Edwin joined with Samantha in unloading a clip at her legs.

Impacts registered on Ava’s HUD as the suit absorbed the fire.

It’s loosening. Ava managed to swing one leg forward. Ruby, can you do anything?

>>I’ll override the automatic stop points on the servos. It’ll boost your power.<<

Ava sensed a shift in the controls as she took another step. The next came easier as she gained some momentum. “Find out where we are. Get the pod!” she ordered.

“Already in progress,” Nick replied.

Edwin and Samantha continued firing well-placed shots around Ava’s feet to keep the particles from regaining ahold of her.

“Stay, Ava,” a voice beckoned inside her head. “This is where you belong.”

“Leave me the fuck alone!” She blocked out the aliens’ calls, focusing on each step to the exit.

She made it to Edwin and Samantha’s position.

“Get her outside, Sam,” Edwin said.

He took up the rear while Samantha and Ava cut through the path Nick was helping to keep clear from the outside.

The tunnel exited into a small clearing in the forest. A rock wall towered behind them, but it was no longer solid stone; particles swirled above the surface.

“Shit! Is this entire place going to transform?” Ava checked her multi-handgun and saw that she was on her last clip of kinetic rounds.

“We’re two kilometers away from the landing site. Pod will be here in a minute,” Nick reported.

They’d need more than bullets to make it that long, if the entire cliff face disintegrated.

“Hold them off!” Ava grabbed her plasma rifle off her back and sent a spray of fire across the sky.

The particles glowed red for an instant as the plasma passed over them, and then they dropped to the ground as blacked specks.

Over the tree canopy, Ava spotted the pod approaching.

“Take off as soon as we’re all on board. We’re getting the fuck out of here!”

“What about the data drive?” Samantha asked.

“Forget it. I have all the evidence I need that this place is hostile.” Ava sprayed her plasma fire into the swarm of particles, hoping to keep a clear enough path for the pod to land.

The swarm gathered around the pod as it descended, coalescing into chains that extended toward the ground.

“Little fuckers think they can tether it!” Edwin shot at one of the chains.

“Get inside.” Ava ran for the back hatch as soon as it dropped open. “There’s no way they’re stronger than the gravitic engine.”

The team piled into the pod while trying to hold off as many of the particles as they could. When everyone was inside, Ava slammed her hand on the button next to the door to close it.

Nick dove to the cockpit and activated the liftoff.

“Shit, some of them are inside!” Samantha flailed her arms in a vain attempt to shake them off.

“Get us off the ground!” Ava urged Nick.

The pod rocketed upward a second later.

Ava looked out the window and saw that the swarm hadn’t been able to keep up with the pod.

“Everyone strap in,” she instructed.

They all took their seats and secured the harness. As soon as everyone was ready, Ava hit the door control to open the back hatch.

Intense wind ripped through the craft’s interior, rippling the belts and anything with a loose end. The little particles didn’t stand a chance.

Ava left the hatch open for thirty seconds, but was forced to close it when the pod reached the upper level of the artificial planet’s atmosphere. There may be some particles in the craft, but not enough to do any damage.

“Message the Raven that we’ll need to go through decontamination procedures,” Ava instructed. “I don’t want to take any risks that these things can replicate.”

“Aye,” Nick acknowledged.

“That was really close.” Samantha let out a long breath and slouched in her seat.

>>That was quick thinking, Ava. Well done.<<

It’s not just my hide on the line anymore. Glad we both got out of there.

Ruby was silent for a moment. >>Leaving that external processor is a problem.<<

The data—

>>It’s not about what we missed out on. It’s what the Dyons get. There’s a sophisticated firewall around the drive that would take even the most sophisticated intelligence at least six hours to crack. Hooking up for an hour or two for a data transfer is fine, but leaving it there indefinitely opens the possibility for the Dyons to learn about our most advanced algorithms.<<

Ava’s heart dropped. Ruby! Why didn’t you have me go back for it?

>>Because I extrapolated the potential scenarios and determined that once we were under attack, we would not be able to retrieve the device and make it off the planet. We could have gone back for it, but we would have been stranded. Either way, the drive would remain on the world. The option we pursued at least got the people out.<<

We need to go back!

>>That task would have no chance of success with your current loadout. Regroup on the Raven with Widmore and assess the options.<<

Ava slumped in her seat. This may be the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.

They rode the rest of the way to the Raven in silence.

After the pod docked, the vessel and the team underwent a thorough decontamination and nanoscopic scan to make sure all the particles had been removed. Several hundred were found in crevasses within the pod and powered armor, and the samples were promptly incinerated.

Once cleared, Ava and her team went up to the residential level to meet with Widmore.

He was waiting for them in the kitchen. “What happened down there?” Despite his sharp tone, his expression was one of fatherly concern.

“I feel like we simultaneously know more and less about what we’re up against, sir,” Ava began. She filled him in on the events leading up to their hasty retreat.

“What a shitshow,” Widmore muttered when she was finished.

“Yes, sir, it really is.” Ava glanced at her team. “We’d like to make this right. I need to.”

Widmore crossed his arms. “Well, you weren’t able to make contact with them in a meaningful way. That was our main hope—to resolve this conflict in a civil fashion.”

“I didn’t get the impression they’re interested in talking. Reya and Nox sure talked a big game, but the chorus was different.” Ava paused. “Huh, I just thought of something. Reya and Nox were paired in a person for an extended time. I wonder if being around humans changed them?”

The major tilted his head. “How so?”

“Well, Nox and Reya spoke in human terms about their motivations when I interrogated them. And I was able to get inside their minds—maybe that’s because they had a frame of reference from their time in a human body. They had integrated human experience into their being, just like the race integrates technology,” Ava explained. “But what if I couldn’t force a connection with the other beings because they’ve never been in a form like ours? They didn’t have that frame of reference.”

“Hmm.” Widmore stroked his chin. “How might we go about establishing that common vocabulary?”

“Slow, dedicated outreach.”

“We don’t have that luxury.”

“I know, sir.”

Widmore rose from the table. “I’ll talk to Kurtz. Stand by.”


*     *     *


Waiting for news from field teams had always been one of Kurtz’s least favorite experiences as a commander. Situations such as this, when so much was on the line, made the waiting that much worse.

He’d tried to keep himself distracted with the various administrative tasks his position demanded, but as the day stretched on, he found his task list looking a little thin.

To his relief, a call from Major Widmore illuminated on his desktop.

Finally!

“Major, good to hear from you. What news do you have about Gidyon?”

“I wish the report was better. We found a gas giant in the system, and a dwarf planet, which by all measures is an artificial creation,” Widmore explained. “Ava and her team went down to the surface, but they were unable to make contact with the aliens. They were attacked on their way out, and… we may have a situation.”

Kurtz braced. “Which is?”

“They were forced to leave behind an external processor.”

Fuck!

Kurtz fought to retain composure. “What do you mean they left it there? This race is known to appropriate technology. How could they be so careless?”

“They were under attack. There was no way to go back.”

Kurtz wiped his hands down his face. “We have no choice but to destroy the entire structure now.”

“That’s a drastic move, sir. Ava would like another chance to interface with them.”

“If that route had any chance of success, it would have come about on this first visit. No. They could adapt to our weapons at any time. We need to act while we can.”

“Yes, sir.” Widmore gave a grim nod.

“Get back here to headquarters. We’ll figure out our next steps.” Kurtz severed the connection.

As if these aliens weren’t going to be difficult enough to beat. He would have liked the opportunity to learn more about the technology they used, but knowing that the adaptive algorithms on the external processor were there for the aliens to adopt, there wasn’t time to figure out a long-term strategic play. They needed to hit the enemy hard and fast. If only we had some inside information of our own…


*     *     *


Karen was still agitated after her field trip to the valley. What are they hiding down there?

She hated having information dangled in front of her face and not knowing how to interpret it. The records they’d obtained from the facility were a disorganized mess. Only one bit of information stood out to her.

She flipped through the items again on her temporary workstation in the Nezaran government office overlooking the city. The mining records had to be significant, if they had been stored at the remote site.

What’s significant about this information?

Karen looked at the production logs again. Not working in the mining industry, the volume number was meaningless to her on its own. She brought up a calculator app on her desktop and divided the numbers by days in the year to get a feel for daily output.

She frowned. It seemed like a lot, but it was entirely possible she was making something out of nothing. To be sure, she dug around in the computer system for the Nezaran annual report from the previous year to look at the GDP metrics.

Her breath caught in her chest. “This can’t be right.”

She re-checked her math. Did I get the timeframe wrong?

When she verified her source data from the valley site, the numbers she’d used for her calculations checked out.

“Trisha, Fiona, come in here, would you?” she called over the comm.

A minute later, the two women arrived from their own offices.

“Yes?” Trisha asked.

“Take a look at this. Am I missing something?” Karen flipped the information displayed on her desk so they could get a better look.

Fiona frowned. “That can’t be right.”

Trisha shook her head. “How could mining production be five times more than all the materials used on the entire planet?”

“I was wondering the same thing.” Karen slumped back in her chair.

She could understand production being one, or maybe even two, times Nezar’s own consumption, due to trade within the system, but five times… She couldn’t even wrap her head around where the labor resources would come from to extract the material.

“I can’t find records for what happened to any of the ore,” Karen continued. “It’s noted in these logs as being mined, and then it just disappears.”

“Material on that scale doesn’t just go away.” Fiona crossed her arms. “Someone is hiding it.”

Karen pointed to the absurd quantity of ore. “Where could anyone possible hide that?”

“In that underground facility, maybe?” Trisha ventured.

“Why pull it out of the ground only to stick it back in the ground elsewhere?” Karen shook her head. “No, that doesn’t make sense, either.”

“Do you think it was transported offworld?” Fiona asked.

Trisha scowled. “If that’s the case, then to where?”

“There is one other place I’ve heard mentioned in relation to these aliens,” Karen replied. “Gidyon. As challenging as it would be to get the materials over there, it makes more sense than hiding a bunch of ore somewhere on Nezar.”

“Gidyon?” Fiona said with a raised eyebrow. “There’s nothing in that system.”

“Actually, I had always heard it was too dangerous to venture into because of radiation,” Trisha countered.

“On Coraxa, they told us it was a bad place, but gave no real explanation,” Karen said. “Needless to say, that’s a lot of talk with nothing to substantiate it. Given we were also not told that the Nezaran chancellor was actually an alien puppet, I think it’s safe to say that not everything we’ve been told over the years is accurate.”

“I can’t argue with that,” Fiona conceded.

Trisha nodded. “Now that there’s a new source of information, we need to reset our understanding.”

“I agree,” Karen said, “which is why I wanted to run this by you. This evidence points to a scale that’s beyond our capability to address on our own.”

“Did you find anything else in the data from the facility aside from the mining records?” Fiona asked.

“Perhaps, but I have to admit I’m not sure what I’m looking at. There’s a ton of information here, but it looks like it’s encrypted somehow—or completely disorganized. I don’t know.”

Fiona looked over her shoulder. “Something about this is familiar…”

“If the goings on in that place are as messed up as they seem, we need to get the information to someone who can interpret it.”

Across the table, Fiona’s face paled. “I know where I’ve seen this code before! It’s what Heizberg used when she wrote messages to the people we now know were subverted.”

Karen looked up from the desktop. “We need to get this to the FDG.”












CHAPTER TWELVE


I’ve never had a mission go so fucking wrong, Ava chastised herself, as the Raven made its final approach to FDG headquarters.

She’d tried to keep the thought private, but she felt Ruby pick up on her feelings.

>>You were given an impossible task, and your team made it out unharmed. That’s the best outcome we could have hoped for.<<

I never should have allowed them to leave that drive unattended. I know better.

>>It seemed like the right call at the time.<<

Ava only shook her head in response.

Widmore had been surprisingly understanding about the situation, but Ava doubted Kurtz would be so forgiving. She was already walking a fine line with field ops, following her unexpected upgrade to a Hochste, and such a gross error that compromised the FDG’s security might tip her over to a desk job.

Except I’d die in an office post.

Though she was sure Luke would be thrilled, it was hardly a deciding factor when she envisioned her future career path.

>>They’re not going to bench you,<< Ruby soothed.

You have no way of knowing that.

>>I know enough. You weren’t the only one who left that drive there. Nick and Samantha signed off the action, as did I. You don’t share the full brunt of that decision.<<

But I was in command. I had the final say.

>>My report will say you acted in the best interest in the moment. There was no wrongdoing.<<

Ava didn’t share the AI’s confidence. While Ruby’s endorsement would carry weight when it came to the FDG command’s review, it didn’t make Ava feel better about herself.

Did the Dyons get to me? Or have I just been too distracted by my own issues to focus on the mission the way I should? She didn’t have an answer, but thorough med and psych evaluations were in order either way.

The Raven docked in its typical berth, and Ava went to grab her travel items from the cabin she shared with her team.

“When are we going back there to finish the job?” Samantha asked as she grabbed her bag from her bunk.

“I don’t know,” Ava replied. “There are a few ways this could go.”

“That whole place needs to be destroyed,” Edwin stated.

Ava turned to face him. “We’re talking about another race here. It’s not an easy decision to just wipe them out.”

“Who’s to say that’s all of them?” Nick countered. “This group has shown themselves to be a threat to us, and they’ve been unresponsive to our attempts to open a dialogue. We can’t just ignore them.”

“They’re in an unoccupied system. If they don’t venture beyond that, maybe it won’t matter,” Ava said.

Samantha shook her head. “No way.”

“They need to go,” Edwin reiterated. “Think about what that tech tried to do to us.”

Ava heard the hollowness of her own statements. She played the role of cautious advisor because her guilt told her that perspective needed to be voiced, but her true feelings paralleled her team’s. The aliens had tried to capture her, and she didn’t much like being treated like a possession. When she’d tried to have a conversation, they didn’t engage.

She had nothing left to say.

“We’ll obey whatever direction Kurtz gives,” Ava stated. She slung her travel bag over her shoulder. “I’ll talk to you after my debrief with Widmore and the colonel.”

Her team wished her well while they exited via the gangway, and Ava headed straight for FDG Medical.

“How are you feeling, Ava?” Doctor Dwyer greeted her after a nurse directed her to him.

“Good,” Ava replied, hopping on the exam bed. “Ruby was able to counter some negative effects during the op, so it seems to be working out.”

The doctor smiled while he initiated a full body scan. “Glad to hear it. I’ll take a copy of your records from her and look for anything concerning.” He tilted his head. “Is there anything you’d like me to be on the lookout for, in particular?”

“I have no idea what those logs even look like.”

“I mean, do you have any concerns about your state? Any incidents of note?”

“Oh.” Ava looked down. “I guess, shortly after we arrived on the planet, we went into a formation of rocks that we later determined are made of the same substance as my TR. I got a bad headache, and Ruby was able to block it out. The only other thing that’s maybe worth mentioning is that I…” she faded out as she sought the right words. “I guess, I didn’t feel worried at times like I maybe should have.”

“Can you quantify that at all?” Dwyer asked.

“Not really. And it’s not something I noticed at the time. I only bring it up because Sam asked me at one point why I wasn’t running for the door. Aside from when I almost shifted while we were in battle, I was perfectly calm. I feel like I should have at least been… unnerved when we were walking around.”

“All right, I’ll look at your medical logs and send a copy of the interface data to Jack for analysis. We can run your medical stats alongside the mission recorder from your suit to make sure your physiological reactions are in line with what they should be.”

“I’d like to know if something’s wrong.”

“We’ll get to the bottom of it,” the doctor assured her. “It could be a product of the new AI interface, or something related to the nanocytes. Or maybe it’s nothing at all.”

Ava nodded. “I trust my team, and they need to trust me. If something is off, we need to address it.”

“Absolutely.” He examined the results of her body scan. “In the meantime, everything looks normal. Well, your new normal.”

Ava breathed a sigh of relief. “At least there’s that.”

Doctor Dwyer motioned her down from the exam bed. “I’ll be in touch as soon as I’ve gone through the logs.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

“Try to get some rest,” he bade her as she prepared to go.

Ava smiled. “That part is still the same as it’s always been.”

As soon as she had exited Medical, Ava messaged Luke over the comm system on the station. “Hey, I’m back.”

“Already? That was quick.”

“Don’t sound so excited,” she jested.

Luke sighed. “Of course I’m glad you’re back. I’m at my lab—should be finished with this task in another half hour or so. Should I message you then, or do you want to come here?”

“How about—” Ava cut off when she saw an incoming message from Colonel Kurtz. “Wait, I think I’m being summoned. I’ll get back to you,” she told Luke.

“See you soon.”

Ava switched over to the other call. “Sir, what can I do for you?”

“Major Widmore has filled me in on what happened in Gidyon, but I’d like to hear it directly from you.”

Ava’s chest tightened. “Yes, sir.”

“We’re waiting for you in the conference room by my office.”

“I’ll be there right away.”

Ava was thankful Ruby left her to her own thoughts for the walk. She already had her talking points in mind for each of the likely scenarios. Her worst fear was being put on desk duty until her condition was fully understood—if that could ever happen—but it was more likely that only her fitness for command would be questioned, and she would remain in the field as a specialized tool for the FDG to direct as it saw fit. While not ideal, that option was still preferable of the two.

With that outcome in mind, Ava strode into the conference room with as much confidence as she could muster. Colonel Kurtz and Major Widmore were seated behind the long edge of the table opposite the door.

“Sirs,” she greeted.

“Have a seat, Lieutenant.” Kurtz gestured to the chair nearest the entry.

“Sir, if I could explain—”

“All I want to know, is what happened to you while you were trying to leave, in your own words,” the colonel interrupted.

The request caught Ava off-guard.

Why didn’t he lay into me?

She cleared her throat. “Well, the walls appeared to disintegrate into a swarm of particles. The nearest analogy I can give is that it looked like a sandstorm—except there was no wind. The particles closed in around us, but they let the three other members of my team through, focusing on me. They stuck together and tried to secure me to the ground. We used kinetic rounds to break the bonds, and I was able to escape. They tried the same thing with the pod, but we made it out in time.”

Kurtz nodded. “By your estimation, could the swarm have disabled the pod?”

“With enough time, maybe. Probably.”

“I’ll talk with Colonel Walton about authorizing a strike,” Kurtz stated.

Ava gave him a questioning look in spite of herself. “Sir, the external processor—”

“Your team’s activities were interrupted by a hostile alien presence, which attempted to disable you and make it impossible to leave. Is that an incorrect assessment of the field report?” Kurtz asked.

“No, sir.”

That narrative favors me, but why? Ava asked Ruby privately. I might have made terrible command decisions today. They shouldn’t be overlooking that.

>>There’s something bigger going on,<< Ruby replied. >>They have new information, but I can’t access what it is.<<

That doesn’t let me off the hook for what happened.

Ruby sighed in her mind. >>Why are you so intent on being punished? Some tech got left behind. Far worse things have happened on the watch of the greatest Force leaders.<<

I… Ava thought about what was really bothering her. It’s because I still don’t trust myself. I’m worried that they’re manipulating me, and we don’t know it.

>>If you can’t trust yourself, then trust me.<<

I want to, but—

>>It takes time. I know. But you need to focus on the task at hand. I’ve seen all your records and know what you’re capable of. Get ahold of yourself and snap out of this funk. We have an enemy to defeat!<<

Ava sat in stunned silence as the AI’s words sank in. She hadn’t expected the sentiment to come from that source, but it was the stern talking-to she’d been craving. That she needed.

She returned her attention to Kurtz and Widmore. “Sir, do you have a response planned against the aliens?”

“We haven’t made a final decision,” Kurtz replied. “We’ve just come into some new information that changes our understanding of the situation.”

“May I ask what that information is, sir?”

 “It came from Karen Carter,” Widmore explained.

Ava did a double take. “I knew she’d gone back to Nezar, but why is she’s still getting herself mixed up in our business?”

“Not like last time,” he assured her. “In her efforts to help the Nezarans rebuild their government, she came across some records. Well, rather, she went digging. But we’ll excuse her foolhardiness, because she stumbled across a data archive. And the facility bears a striking resemblance to the one on the Gidyon dwarf planet.”

Ava folded her arms on the tabletop. “I’d say that doesn’t make any sense, but we’re pretty far past that at this point.”

“I share your sentiments.” Widmore flashed a wan smile. “At any rate, we’ve just dug into the contents of that data archive, and it tells an interesting tale. Reya and her associates have been very busy.”

“What were they doing?” Ava asked.

“Mining and manufacturing—more than the Alaxar Trinary could possibly consume.”

>>Gidyon,<< Ruby said in her mind at the same time Ava thought it.

“Is that where the material for the artificial dwarf planet came from?” Ava asked aloud.

“We’re waiting on the conclusive results, but the preliminary analysis of the samples you collected points to ‘yes’,” Widmore confirmed.

“What I found more pressing was Karen’s personal account,” Kurtz said. “She spoke with someone whom had worked closely with Reya. That woman indicated that others had relayed information to her about some sort of pit underneath the facility where they obtained the data.”

A chill spread through Ava’s limbs. “A pit like I saw in Gidyon, where they spoke to me.”

Kurtz nodded. “That was my thought, as well.”

Ava sat in silence for a moment. “Sir, if the beings live down in that pit, that may mean that Reya wasn’t the only entity on Nezar.”

“I have troops ready to keep the peace, if they try something,” Kurtz assured her. “But from everything we’ve seen on Nezar, these beings—the Dyons, as I saw you named them—like to manipulate things behind the scenes. I doubt we have concern of a violent uprising.”

Ava wasn’t sure about that, but it wasn’t her immediate concern. “There’s still the processor on the Gidyon planet, sir. They could become a serious threat if they have time to adapt that technology.”

Kurtz nodded. “I’m actively working on a solution to answer that threat. Stand by for further instructions.”


*     *     *


Studying his girlfriend like a lab specimen wasn’t what Luke had envisioned for his new career in the FDG. Even as his tasks kept pointing him in that direction, he refused to lose sight of the person he was fighting for. She was too important to him to be reduced to microscopic datapoints on a screen.

Unfortunately, Jack had no such personal ties. “This tech is so weird,” he commented for the third time while reviewing Ava’s medical logs on the other side of the lab.

“Unless you have something useful to say, could you try to keep your thoughts to yourself?” Luke requested.

“Oh, come on.” Jack swiveled around on his stool. “Aren’t you a little curious?”

“To look at your analysis of how nanocytes have transformed someone I care about against her will, and how she now has a computer intelligence in her brain to keep her from transforming? Yeah, I’m sure it’s weird and fascinating how all that tech is interacting, but I’m only interested in what will help her,” Luke shot back.

Jack spun back around with his hands raised in defense. “Whoa, touched a nerve.”

Luke took a steadying breath. That may have been an overreaction, but he didn’t care. His team needed to remember that there were people behind the science.

Just as he was getting back to work, an alert from Ava popped up on Luke’s workstation. He answered her call. “Hi, how’d your meeting go?”

“I’ll tell you in person. Are you still at your lab?”

“I am.”

“On my way.” Ava ended the call.

“That was very business-y and matter-of-fact,” Jack commented from across the lab.

“Not everyone is as lovey-dovey in public as you and Stacy,” Tess told him.

Luke glared over his shoulder at Jack. “You were the one talking about her like a lab specimen.”

Tess held up her finger. “A smart, pretty, capable lab specimen with thoughts and feelings, and we care about her well-being very much.”

Luke sighed. “Should I expect an ongoing analysis of every interaction I have in all aspects of my life?” he said, hoping to get them to mind their own business.

Instead, Tess shrugged. “Well, we’re scientists, and we also don’t get a lot of action down here in the lab, so… yeah, that’s a safe bet.”

I really need my own office.

“Why don’t you two head out for the day?” he offered pointedly.

“I’m in the middle of something,” Jack replied.

“It’s okay if you step out, though.” Tess looked over her shoulder at Luke. “We’ll hold down the fort until you get back.”

Admittedly, he could use a break.

“I won’t be gone long.”

“Come on, don’t sell yourself short!” Jack called out.

It took Luke a moment to realize what he meant, and he decided to leave without dignifying the remark, confident in the knowledge that was one aspect of his relationship with Ava he didn’t need to worry about.

He waited in the hall for Ava to arrive. After two minutes, he saw her round the bend.

“What are you doing out here?” she asked. Her brow was tight with worry, and she had uncharacteristic dark circles under her eyes.

Luke walked forward to meet her halfway, and pulled her in for a kiss without saying a word.

She kissed him back, the tension releasing from her shoulders.

“Let’s go somewhere we can talk alone,” he suggested. “My quarters aren’t far.”

Ava nodded. “I do need a break.”

He led the way. “Did something happen out there?”

“A lot of things,” she murmured.

Luke looked at her with concern.

“We’re all fine,” she assured him. “These aliens just have me on edge.”

“I know what you mean.”

He hated to see her so stressed. Maybe that was her normal state in the FDG, but something told him this was beyond normal. The Hochste situation certainly couldn’t be helping matters.

I’m sick of feeling like I can’t do anything to make this easier on her. Well, maybe I can’t from a medical standpoint, but I can still offer love and support. That is within my control.

Luke grabbed her hand and squeezed as they walked the final stretch to his quarters. She squeezed his back.

He palmed open his door and motioned her inside.

The room was slightly smaller than Ava’s, equipped with a double bed between two end tables, a built-in dresser, and a screen on the wall. A door in the center of the right wall led to a compact washroom. He spent so little time in the space that he didn’t need anything more.

As soon as they were inside with the door closed, Ava wrapped her arms around his neck and led him toward the bed as her lips found his.

He eagerly kissed her back, it having been days since he’d seen her, and going on two weeks since they’d been intimate—since before the discovery of her transformation.

They were just about to recline on the bed when Ava suddenly pulled back. “Hold on a sec.”

“What’s wrong?”

Ava got a distant look in her hazel eyes for a moment. “Sorry, I wasn’t sure how to handle this with an AI in my head. Ruby and I had to come to an understanding.”

“Oh, I guess that would be a little weird, having someone watching,” Luke realized.

“Yeah, a mental running commentary about my increased dopamine levels was, shockingly, not enhancing the mood.” Ava drew him down to her. “But don’t worry, she won’t interrupt us again.”

Forgetting about the silent observer, Luke set about giving Ava a reprieve from her worries.












CHAPTER THIRTEEN


Ava nestled against Luke’s bare chest. “Thank you. I needed that.”

He kissed her forehead. “You’ve been distancing yourself. I told you I would be here to help you through this, and I meant it.”

She knew she’d been holding back. As much as she wanted to open up to him, it wasn’t that easy.

Her family in the FDG was a support network that had proved itself time and time again. To add someone else into that mix was a scary prospect. If she let herself fall for Luke again—as an adult, with the maturity and understanding that came with a real relationship—the balance would shift. Though her existing network wouldn’t be any less important, there’d be someone else on equal footing, and she needed to know that leg wouldn’t be kicked out from under her.

“I’m sorry I never gave us a chance before,” she murmured.

Luke looked down at her. “What do you mean?”

“When I left to join the FDG.” Ava stared up at the ceiling. “I got scared that I was going to get trapped in a life—on a future path—before I really knew myself. So I ran away from everything I thought defined me. My world. My parents. You. By the time I’d wised up enough to realize that I could have talked to you about those concerns like a reasonable person, I figured you’d want nothing to do with me.”

“I always wondered if it was something I did,” he said.

“No.” She shook her head. “You were always there for me when I needed you, and in return I was selfish and only thought of myself.”

Luke stroked her shoulder. “Well, we have a chance to start over now.”

“We do. And to do it right, I know I need to let you in. But I’m not used to being vulnerable,” Ava admitted.

“Companionship can make us stronger. Just look at you with your team.”

She looked up at him. She saw the love in his eyes—his unwavering dedication to her, despite everything she’d been through in the last two weeks. If that wasn’t enough to scare him off, then nothing would.

“I want you to be a part of my team,” she told him. “I mean, be here with me.”

Luke shifted to his side to face her. “I love you.”

Her heart melted, just like when she had been a teenager hearing the words for the first time, and then a warm glow filled her. She wasn’t that girl anymore, and what was between them now spoke to a deeper bond between the selves they’d grown into over the years.

“I love you, too. I want to see things through this time, the way I wasn’t ready to before.”

Their lips met again, and Ava lost herself in the moment.

When they eventually parted, neither could keep from grinning.

>>Awww!<< Ruby exclaimed in Ava’s mind.

Ruby! she mentally scolded.

>>Sorry. This is overwhelming for me, too. I’m not used to processing these emotions!<<

Ava sighed. “For what it’s worth, Ruby approves,” she told Luke.

He chuckled. “Glad to hear I pass muster.”

>>I’ll say,<< Ruby added in Ava’s mind. >>Based on how you were feeling a few minutes ago—<<

Thanks, Ruby. I’ve got this.

Ava blocked out the AI as best she could to return her focus to Luke. “I can’t promise to always be the most attentive partner, but I’ll be honest and fair with you.”

He gave her another kiss. “I can’t ask for anything more.”

They lay together for a few minutes longer, and then Ava’s mind wandered to the unresolved tasks from earlier in the day. “Hey, did you talk with Doctor Dwyer about the medical data that Ruby recorded while I was on the op?”

“Aaand the moment is over.” Luke sat up.

“Sorry, I’ll work on my transitions.” She ran her hand down his arm.

“Actually, I was just thinking about it, too.” He climbed out of bed and began dressing.

Ava did the same. “And?”

“I’m supposed to stop by Medical this afternoon to go over it with him. You’re welcome to come along, if you don’t mind us talking about your weird brain right in front of you.” He smiled.

She balled up a sock and threw it at him, then promptly realized that she needed it.

Luke deflected the fabric ball, and it landed at the foot of the mattress. “It’ll be helpful to have you around to answer questions.”

Ava dove across the bed to retrieve the wayward sock. “I can remain objective.”

“Good.”

>>I predict copious opinionated interjections,<< Ruby said in Ava’s mind.

Says the AI that does that all the time, Ava thought privately.

She gave a mental smile to the AI. I said I can remain objective, not that I necessarily would.

>>I appreciate the distinction.<<

Well, I’d appreciate you letting me have alone time with my boyfriend without narration.

>>You’re still angry about that?<<

Ava gave a mental eyeroll at the AI’s wounded tone. Not angry, just looking to set up some boundaries. I know we share this body, but you’re not in a relationship with Luke—I am.

Ruby retreated. >>I understand. It won’t happen again.<<

Ruby… don’t be upset. Ava reached out to her. I don’t want to argue. Let’s just focus on figuring out what happened on Gidyon, okay?

>>Yes, Ava. I promise to be more respectful of your private space. I’ve never been paired with someone who’s in love. It got the better of my curiosity.<<

I’m sure I would have had the same temptation. She caught herself. Hell, I don’t have a right to judge. I’ve spent my career rooting around in other people’s minds.

>>But we’re partners. Mutual respect.<<

Deal.

When Ava and Luke were dressed in their shipsuits, they headed to Medical.

Doctor Dwyer was with a patient when they arrived, and a nurse showed them to the doctor’s office in the back right of the infirmary. The desk was situated in the middle of the room facing the door, and a holopanel behind it was covered with coded reminders about various patient check-ins. Ava spotted her name at the top of the list.

 Ava and Luke waited in two of the chairs in front of the desk.

“I had gotten used to the check-ups after every op, but with these extra visits, I feel like I’m going to practically be living here,” Ava whispered.

“I hope not. I’d miss you overnight.”

She gave him a coy smile. “I think it’s still a little early to think about moving into shared quarters.”

He returned the smile. “I never said anything about that. Just, you know—”

“Oh, Ava, I didn’t expect to see you again so soon,” Doctor Dwyer said, entering the room.

“I hope you don’t mind me sitting in on your discussion with Luke, Doctor,” Ava replied, swiveling around in her chair.

“You are the subject, after all. Of course you can be here.” The doctor took his chair behind the desk.

“I would have taken a look before coming over here, but I didn’t get the analysis you said you were going to send,” Luke said.

Doctor Dwyer made some entries on his desktop to bring up a file. “Because I never sent it. There were some components that I felt warranted discussion before we draw any conclusions.” He folded his hands on the desktop. “Physiologically, it appears that Ruby was able to regulate neurochemical reactions to prevent the agitated state that has triggered an unwanted Hochste transformation before. But there were some brainwave patterns that didn’t match up with that regulated state.”

Ava half-raised her hand. “I know I’m just supposed to be an observer here, but what kind of variance are we talking about?”

>>I told you that you wouldn’t be able to keep quiet,<< Ruby ribbed in her mind.

Yeah, well, you were wondering the same thing.

“At four points during your mission on the ground,” Dwyer continued, “there was a shift in the brainwave pattern—almost like it had entered a sympathetic resonance.”

“Like when Kurtz and Jared were subverted?” Luke asked.

Dwyer shook his head. “No, this wasn’t a control signal. It was more like a sync.”

Ava frowned. “What does that mean in this context?”

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” the doctor replied. “I was hoping to get a record of the Raven’s sensor logs, and a copy of the environmental data gathered via your armor’s sensors to get a better picture of what may have been going on.”

“I was tapped into the suit,” Ruby interjected over the room’s comm system.

“Yes, and that was filtered and combined as part of Ava’s experience. I’d like to see how that compares to the raw logs,” Dwyer explained.

“Ah, and in that discrepancy may lie the solution,” Ruby stated.

“Precisely.” Dwyer met Luke’s gaze. “The reason I wanted to meet with you, Luke, is I have a hunch that this resonance is related to Ava’s TR structure.”

“Again, not a neuroscientist,” Luke muttered under his breath.

Dwyer shrugged. “You’re as close to an expert as we have on this tech, all the same. And this resonance may be a variation of the remote communications we’ve observed.”

Ava came to attention. “If that theory holds, I bet I know at exactly what four times that resonance happened—when I entered the rock formation, when we saw the central nexus thing, when we came to the pit, and when we were trying to escape.”

Next to her, Luke’s expression turned to horror. “I really have no idea what you just said, but that sounds awful.”

“It was a fun day.” Ava patted his knee. “I can access the mission records on my account, if you want me to log in.”

“Please.” Dwyer motioned to the desktop.

Ava placed her hand on the surface to gain access and then navigated to the appropriate directory containing the logs.

“All right, so,” she went to the raw logs from her powered armor, “we entered the rock formation right around here.”

Using the combat video recorder as a guide, she cycled through the frames until the view matched her recollection. She played it forward for Luke and the doctor.

“Those rocks are so weird looking,” Luke commented, tilting his head.

“Made of the same material as the TR,” Ava explained.

Luke crossed his arms. “Huh.”

Dwyer leaned forward to study the details. “Yes, that timestamp does align with the first resonance,” he confirmed.

“So far so good.” Ava advanced the record. “Now, the next…”

Ava advanced the recording to the point where she entered the cavern with her team. The central monolith had to be connected in some way.

“Hmm, I’m not seeing a spike,” Dwyer observed.

“No, there has to be something here,” Ava insisted.

Luke looked at her. “What were you expecting?”

“This cavern,” Ava pointed to the image on the desktop, “is made of the same material as those rocks. And there’s a lot of it. If there’s some sort of resonance with the material and the structure in my head, then this would have to be the place.”

“Maybe it’s not that simple,” Luke mused. “Just because a material is there doesn’t mean that it’s used at any given time. Think about all the dormant code we have in our genome.”

“That’s a valid point,” Dwyer agreed. “Maybe this material needs to have a signal running through it, or something of the sort.”

“Then why did the rocks on the surface cause such a strong reaction?” Ava asked.

“Well, it’s the perimeter of the facility. Perhaps there’s a trigger of some sort,” Luke suggested.

She tilted her head. “Like a security system?”

“Or proximity alarm,” Dwyer said. “You did feel faint when you first stepped inside, yes?”

Ava nodded.

“I had to make some significant adjustments to compensate,” Ruby chimed in.

“Not everyone would have an AI capable of cancelling out the effects,” Dwyer continued. “I can only speculate, but the information I’ve seen points to a net, designed to catch anyone with remotely compatible tech that would enable potential telepathic control.”

Ava decided to go with the line of reasoning. “And since I made it out of the net, and my team wasn’t susceptible, we were able to proceed. But that’s a really shitty security system, if anyone else can just walk inside.”

“Except you didn’t find anything,” the doctor stated.

“We accessed the computer system and were loading a ton of data onto an external drive,” Ava pointed out.

“Yes, but you never got that off the planet. After the mission, you were essentially in the same place you began,” he countered.

“Are you suggesting that it allowed us through the facility?”

Dwyer shrugged. “I don’t have enough information to say. Let’s go through the rest of the mission recording to see if any patterns emerge.”

“Right.” Ava continued advancing the video.

“The next spike to your vitals came about ten minutes later,” Dwyer said, consulting his notes.

“Yes, I know exactly what that one was about.” Ava braced for the viewing of the next segment—their visit to the mysterious pit.

The voices wouldn’t come through on the recording, since Ruby hadn’t heard them, but Ava remembered the chill that had run through her as they’d whispered in her mind.

She resumed playing the video at normal speed at the appropriate point. When the video showed Ava’s perspective of looking into the pit, Dwyer and Luke inched back in their chairs.

“How deep is that?” Luke asked.

“Too deep,” Ava replied, knowing her team on the video was about to state the results of the scan. She waited for the onscreen discussion to conclude.

“All right, this is when I heard them,” Ava said. She watched Dwyer follow along with her vitals feed.

“Yes, that’s definitely the second resonance spike,” the doctor confirmed.

Ava frowned. “That’s all well and good, but you said there were four, and this is the second for you. I had four incidents in mind, and this was the third of those—the last one being when we were attacked.”

Dwyer nodded. “Based on the end time of the mission record, I can confirm that the last incident corresponds with the attack. The third incident was approximately six minutes before that, but it wasn’t a spike, so much as a sustained, low-level increase.” He pointed to a timestamp in his notes.

“We were just walking through the hallways. Nothing stands out.” Ava skipped ahead to the timestamp the doctor had indicated.

When she reached the point in the recording, the doctor’s observation suddenly made sense. “Of course, that’s when we entered the exit tunnel.”

“They may have been subtly influencing you, trying to get you to stay,” Dwyer suggested.

“I didn’t feel it at all.” Up until that point, Ava had been confident that she’d know if she was under the aliens’ influence.

Now she wasn’t so sure.

Did you notice anything, Ruby? she asked her AI privately.

>>I thought it had something to do with your nanocytes, so I was trying to keep you balanced. Now I know what to look for in the future and what it may mean.<<

Lesson learned all around. 

Ava looked between Luke and Doctor Dwyer. “We know the circumstances around the telepathic resonance now, but why was it just those four times? Was it a communication attempt, and I missed it?”

“It’s really strange that nothing happened in the main chamber, like you said,” Luke interjected. “If they were trying to communicate, I’d think they’d do it in the place with the most material to act as a conduit.”

“I agree. The fact that nothing happened in that chamber is an anomaly,” Dwyer said.

Luke’s eyes narrowed in thought. “These guys are smart. All of their moves have been calculated and intentional.”

“That’s what worries me,” Ava replied. “I can’t shake the feeling that we were the ones being investigated, not the other way around.”

“Or hunted,” Luke said. He straightened in his chair and had a spark in his eyes.

“Yeah, that makes me feel way better.” She shot him a venomous look.

Luke shook his head. “I didn’t mean it facetiously. I’ve been trying to think through the behavior from a biological standpoint—analyze it in terms of the traits we know to be evolutionarily beneficial. I think I have a working theory.”

“These things are unlike anything else we’ve seen,” Ava reminded him.

“But in broad strokes, there are predators and prey,” Luke began. “On the prey side, when a threat is spotted, creatures either run, or freeze with the hope they aren’t spotted.”

“But they attacked us while we were trying to leave,” Ava countered.

“That’s what got me thinking,” Luke continued. “We can’t see these beings, so it’s easy for them to hide. But it doesn’t follow the prey pattern of waiting for a threat to pass and then coming out of hiding. They’re hunters. They set a trap for what they wanted, and when it didn’t work, they waited for another opportunity to strike.”

Ava crossed her arms and sighed. “I knew that whole thing was a trap.”

“But how, specifically?” Doctor Dwyer prompted. “Why not go after the team when they were deepest inside the facility?”

“That’s the part that didn’t click for me until just now,” Luke went on. “Like any predator, they have their preferred hunting grounds. In this case, they lured you, Ava—the prey—toward their hiding place. The first trap didn’t work, and they also saw that you had backup. So they waited for you to go to another location where they knew they could corner you.” He pointed to the video again. “You were behind everyone else. It’s the only point in your entire walk through the facility that the rest of the team was closer to an exit than you were.”

“Shit, you’re right!” she realized. “I had consistently been walking in between them except for that moment.”

“And that’s when they tried to snare you in a different sort of trap—a stronger, better one.”

Her stomach turned over. “And it almost worked.”

Dwyer nodded. “They don’t have a good understanding of our technology, despite their apparent integration into Nezaran society. But, the Nezarans also don’t have Federation tech.”

“Okay, so we were able to catch them by surprise with firepower superior to what they were anticipating, and we got free,” Ava said. “But none of this answers why they wanted me, and only me, in the first place. Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to take the rest of my team, too?”

“Not if they’re purely after your nanocytes, or a physiological model of how the nanocytes have changed you, and mixed with the unique parts of you that come from having been born on Coraxa,” Luke replied. “I haven’t done a lot of fighting, but I do know it’s better to get an opponent on their own. The more of you that the Dyons captured, the harder it would be for them to contain you.”

Ava crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. “That’s a riveting analysis and all, but it tells us nothing new. We already knew they wanted me, and this only confirms our suspicions that they’re on the offensive.”

She realized that Doctor Dwyer had disengaged from the conversation and was looking over data logs on the desktop. He met her gaze with a slack jaw. “There’s something we missed.”

“I took the liberty of going through the Raven’s sensor logs while you were talking, to compare the resonance readings and activity timeline with what was going on elsewhere on the world,” Ruby said over the comm.

“And there was definitely something.” Dwyer added, and zoomed in on what he had been examining.

A line indicating the ambient readings around the planet was relatively smooth for hours, and then rhythmic spikes initiated at the timestamp when Ava and her team exited the stairwell. The intensity of the spikes increased during the time they were in the central chamber, and then dropped off again.

Luke frowned. “What is that?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” Dwyer admitted.

Ava did. She’d been on enough ops and used enough communication systems to recognize those patterns anywhere.

“It’s a transmission,” she stated. “The valley around the facility wasn’t the transmitter—it’s the whole fucking planet.”












CHAPTER FOURTEEN


Even with the FDG working on an analysis of the data she had helped retrieve from the valley lab, Karen found her thoughts drifting back to the facility and what she’d seen.

I can’t begin rebuilding this world so long as I know there’s something lurking down there.

She slumped in her desk chair. If that ‘something’ was what she feared it was, no one would be safe.

When Ava and her team had come to the Nezaran government building and taken out Chancellor Heizberg, Karen had wondered about how the alien could go down so easily. A race capable of projecting their consciousness across systems wouldn’t give up on a three-decades-long mission because one host was gone.

Karen had trusted the FDG when they said they’d eliminate the threat, but they were focused on Gidyon. There was a facility only kilometers from the city where Karen was at that very moment, and it was too connected to the aliens for her liking. The pattern contained in the data archives hinted at the threads the aliens had been pulling behind the scenes. The figurehead was gone, but Karen wasn’t convinced that the danger had passed.

And, naturally, the FDG wouldn’t share a damned thing about what they’d found.

Figures they’d thank me for the information and not say another word.

There was one way to get more information, and that was by talking with the people who’d know.

Karen walked down the short hall to Fiona’s office. The other woman was on a call and held up her finger for Karen to wait when she saw her outside the glass door.

After twenty seconds, Fiona ended the call and beckoned Karen inside. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“No trouble. I wanted to ask you about those people you used to send to the facility in the valley.”

Fiona’s brow knit. “Karen, I thought the matter was handed over to the FDG?”

“They’re focused on Gidyon. I want to know if we have a threat right outside the city.”

“Nothing that can’t wait.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I’m not,” Fiona admitted. “But this isn’t something for us to handle.”

“Any information we can provide will get us outside help that much sooner. If you’re holding back any sources, this is the time to share.” Karen fixed her with a level gaze.

“I do know of someone—the only person I know who spent time there and has said more than five words about it.”

“I’d like to speak with this person,” Karen said. “I know I was sent here to vet political candidates, but I can’t focus on that until I’m confident there isn’t an opportunity for another subverted person to work their way in.”

“Keep talking like that, and you’re going to find yourself in charge,” Fiona said with a smile.

Right! That would be the day. Karen dismissed the notion. “Can you set up a meeting?”

“Not really necessary. You can just drop by.”

“What makes you say that?”

“He lives in a care facility. He was never quite right after the assignment.”

Karen’s heart leaped.

“I was hoping we wouldn’t need to dig any deeper. I’m not proud of my part in what happened to the people on this world,” Fiona said with a tone of genuine remorse.

“That’s all the more reason we need to be certain no one else gets hurt. If there’s any chance that these aliens will seek refuge here when their main base is destroyed, we need to be ready to contain them.”

Fiona paled. “More of them could come here?”

“I don’t know any more about them than you do. But we can be certain that they came from somewhere at some time, and set up a base of operations. They’ve been using us for materials, hosts, travel, and I’m guessing that they’d go back to their old ways as soon as they had the means, if we let them.”

“So we take them out once and for all now, before they have a chance to regroup.”

Karen nodded. “Precisely.”

“I don’t know how much Edgar can tell you, but I’ll take you to see him.”

As the two women exited the government building, the plaza between their office and the NTech tower was bustling with workers on their lunch break.

“We can take the train,” Fiona said.

They walked to the stop a block away. The temperature in the dome was several degrees warmer than Karen’s climate control settings in her office, and she found herself missing Alucia again. “It’s a wonder everyone doesn’t roast here.”

Fiona cracked a smile. “If we didn’t have these domes, we’d all be slowly cooking.”

Her tone was jesting, but Karen suspected it was true. Nezar was barely habitable. Even the location of the cities near the poles was a stretch, but humans were tenacious. At one time, Karen had found the domes comfortable. Even though it now seemed too hot, if she spent long enough there, she’d adapt again.

The waiting platform for the train was almost empty, with workers already at their destinations for the day. After a two-minute wait, the maglev train arrived, and they got on board.

“We’re headed to Dome 5,” Fiona revealed.

“Ah, I should have guessed.”

The domes hadn’t been planned to have any distinction among social strata, but like any society, people had sorted themselves into classes. Dome 1 was fair game for anyone to visit, being the commercial center, but only the wealthiest could afford apartments in the high-rise towers overlooking the parks. The other domes were ranked in preference roughly according to their numeric value. That put Dome 5 at the bottom.

Karen had spent most of her previous time on Nezar in Dome 3, which housed the university where she and Luke had attended school. Once she began working for the government, she’d found a small apartment at a reasonable rent rate and commuted to the remote capitol building for work. In her years living there, she’d made a point of avoiding Dome 5.

While not dangerous or dirty, per se, it attracted the kind of people who didn’t want to integrate with the rest of society in a productive way. With drugs being an issue for some members of the district’s population, the hospital offered a necessary service—more of a clinic, really, compared to the main hospital in Dome 1. Anyone with ongoing issues would be admitted as a resident in the clinic, which made for the perfect place to hide a witness to activities the authorities would prefer didn’t get out.

After all, no one took the ramblings of former drug addicts too seriously. Placing someone in with them would make that person all but invisible.

Karen stared out the window, as the train wove around the outskirts of Dome 1 and took the tunnel to Dome 5. As she anticipated, there was a distinct shift in the train’s passengers the closer they got to their destination.

At the fourth stop after the tunnel, Fiona motioned Karen toward the exit door.

“Do you come here often?” Karen asked as they stepped off the train onto the platform.

“I’ve only visited him twice,” Fiona replied, looking straight ahead. “That was enough.”

Fiona’s path took them five blocks to the west, past modest shops and restaurants that would have been considered a hole-in-the-wall in other districts.

The destination was a five-story concrete building with slit windows. To Karen’s eye, it looked more like a prison than a medical clinic.

Maybe it is.

They checked in at a reception desk inside the front door, and a nurse wearing white scrubs came out to meet them.

“Edgar hasn’t had any visitors for a while. Are you friends of his?” the middle-aged woman asked.

“Yes, from back in school,” Fiona replied.

Karen permitted the lie. There was no need to draw connections between Edgar’s present state and his former employment. The new government wouldn’t treat its people as disposable tools, so dwelling on past wrongdoings was a waste of energy.

“I’ll take you to him.” The nurse led them to an elevator, which they took to the third floor.

The elevator opened into a lobby with a security gate around the perimeter.

Karen’s skin crawled. Yeah, this is definitely not a place where people voluntarily reside.

The nurse opened a gate to the right by placing her palm on a biometric scanner. It swung open, accompanied by a harsh buzz.

A short hallway beyond was lined with numbered doors, which eventually opened into a common room filled with seating and entertainment screens. Half a dozen patients were situated around the room, most absorbed in their own activities.

“There he is,” the nurse said, pointing to a man in his late-thirties.

Karen and Fiona thanked the nurse and approached him.

Edgar was seated by one of the narrow windows, rocking back and forth in his chair. One hand was formed into a fist pressed over his mouth. Dark circles ringed his blood-shot eyes, as though he hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep in months.

“What happened to him?” Karen whispered.

“We’ve never been able to get a full story,” Fiona replied. “As part of my responsibilities, I was tasked with getting him set up in a place where people wouldn’t ask too many questions. It’s such a small world, we don’t have any options outside this hospital.”

Karen watched the man continue to rock. “Will he talk to me?” she asked Fiona.

“You can try.”

Karen grabbed a chair from an unoccupied table nearby and stepped up to Edgar. “Hi, Edgar, my name is Karen. Do you mind if I sit with you?”

His eyes darted over to glance at her, but he made no other indication.

She decided to take it that he didn’t oppose. She set down the chair adjacent to him and sat. “I’m here as a government consultant. I heard you spent some time at a facility in a valley outside the city.”

Edgar stopped rocking and removed his hand from over his mouth. He turned toward her, his eyes so wide she could see the whites almost all the way around. “Don’t ever go there. It’s evil.”

“I don’t want to, but I’m worried that the badness there might try to get out.”

“No, they stay in the pit.” He took a series of sharp, rapid breaths. “They always stay in the pit.”

“Did you ever see them?”

He brought his knees up to his chest with his feet resting on the seat of the chair, arms wrapped around his shins. “The whispers. So many voices.”

“Anything more you can tell me would help,” Karen pressed. She felt for the man, but cryptic answers didn’t get her what she needed.

Edgar began rocking again. “We’ll take them—take them all. They’ll bleed and suffer. Pain and long for death that won’t come. We’ll feed. First Alucia and then the rest.”

Karen’s heart skipped a beat. “Is that what the voices said?”

The man made no response, but tears formed in his eyes. He took a shaky breath and released it as a whimper.

“I doubt he’ll say any more,” Fiona said.

Karen rose and put the chair back where she found it. “I need to talk with President Connors.”


*     *     *


Ava and Luke huddled around the holodisplay in one of the small briefing rooms. Doctor Dwyer had been a good sport, going down the wormhole of alien motivation theorizing, but the medical doctor needed to attend to his patients.

At Ruby’s suggestion, Ava and Luke had adjourned to finish their discussion while the ideas were still fresh. Once they had their thoughts organized, they could bring the theory to Widmore and Kurtz.

Getting to that theory, however, was proving difficult.

“A planet-sized thing can’t possibly be for the purpose of controlling one person,” Ava insisted.

Luke blinked slowly and took a deep breath. “That’s not what I’m saying at all. All I meant is that the signal must be able to differentiate. If there only happens to be one active receiver at a given moment, only that receiver will get the signal, but the whole structure will still light up. How far that can scale, though, to simultaneous signals being sent out is a huge unknown.”

“How do we determine where the signal is going?” Ava asked. “Can we trace it, like we did with Jared?”

“We can run a search for that specific frequency,” Ruby said over the room’s comm for Luke’s benefit. “I can look through the logs to see if it pops up anywhere else.”

“Do it,” Ava told her.

“I don’t like any of this,” Luke muttered.

Ava crossed her arms. “Me either.”

“You’re going to like this even less,” Ruby said after a minute.

“You have a hit already?” Ava asked.

“Didn’t have to look far. The gas giant on the other side of the sun pulsed at the same frequency.”

Ava looked at the records Ruby displayed on the screen for her. “Yeah, it’s right at the same time that the dwarf planet sent out the signal.”

“Actually, it’s delayed,” the AI pointed out. “Two point zero seven seconds, to be precise.”

“Considering how far those two bodies are away from each other, that’s nothing.”

“Negligible, I agree.”

Ava rolled her eyes. “Anyway, what does it mean for us? A receiver?”

“There’s nothing on that gas giant,” Luke observed. “Oh… that’s intriguing.”

“Hmm?” Ava looked at what he was studying on the screen, but nothing jumped out at her.

“The pulse from the gas giant is stronger than the one from the artificial planet.”

“I believe it’s a bio-amplifier,” Ruby jumped in. “A signal booster, if you will. Upon re-analysis of the Raven’s scans in the system, I have detected that the gas giant emits an echo of signals bouncing around the system. It appears to contain trace amounts of the mineral compound found in the telepathic receptors. The scans indicate that it exists in an organism that feeds on hydrogen and methane.”

Ava scratched her head. “My biology is really fuzzy.”

Luke shrugged.

“Such an organism would be self-replicating,” Ruby continued. “Over time, sending a signal of the same strength would produce a stronger and stronger resonance effect. If the dwarf planet is indeed a transmitter, the gas giant is a self-sustaining megaphone with ever-increasing volume.”

Ava scowled. “I don’t like the sound of that. Who are they talking to?”

“Or is it for them?” Luke countered. “We know they project themselves over great distances to exert telepathic control.”

“Could this be what allowed them to link to Kurtz and Jared, all the way to FDG headquarters?” Ava wondered aloud.

“Perhaps,” the AI confirmed. “Linking the signal to biological resonance for those with bonds to the Etheric would maximize the likelihood of success.”

Ava paused. “Wait, say that again.”

“Linking the—”

“No, rephrase it another way,” Ava instructed.

“One method to improve communication is by tapping into a naturally occurring Etheric connection,” Ruby said.

“Etheric connection and biological resonance,” Ava mused. “That sounds an awful lot like Coraxa.”

Luke’s eyes widened. “Yeah, it does.”

“If the trace amounts in the gas giant are enough to produce this magnified effect, then using Coraxa in the same way would produce exponential results,” Ruby concluded.

Ava’s pulse spiked. “We need to find out if there are any other worlds like this.”

“I’ll get authorization from Colonel Kurtz to arrange a scan around the neighboring systems,” Ruby confirmed.

Luke took a slow breath. “It might not be nearby.”

That was an unfavorable possibility Ava couldn’t ignore. “Question is, what would they want to control from a distance?”


*     *     *


Kurtz sighed. I can’t wait to go back to the enemies with ships and bodies that we can shoot, like civilized warriors.

He was about to read some recent mission briefs to distract himself from the Dyons when his desktop illuminated with an incoming call from Alucia.

Connors is persistent, I’ll give him that.

“President Connors, what can I do for you?” Kurtz greeted, plastering on a smile.

“Colonel, thank you for taking my call. I know you have many more pressing issues than Alucia. However, I was hoping to get an update on where your investigation stands regarding Gidyon?”

I’ve never told him that’s where we’re investigating. Kurtz’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you ask about that system?”

“Karen has uncovered some information regarding Heizberg’s former activities, which point there. I have a hunch your leads indicated the same system.”

No sense denying it now. Kurtz nodded. “We completed an evaluation and are in the process of determining the best way to eliminate the threat.”

“May I ask what you found?” Connors pressed.

“The details are being kept need-to-know through official channels,” Kurtz replied. “Given that your world is involved in this matter by proximity, I appreciate your concerns. I assure you, we’ll relay any critical information once we have a full understanding of the situation.”

The president frowned. “If I may be candid, I recognize that this is a military matter. But as a member of the Federation, the FDG is our military, and I need to be aware of any threat my people may be facing.”

World leaders have a way of trying to make themselves the center of the universe. 

Kurtz took a calming breath. “To be equally candid, we’re still gathering information. Unless you have something new to add to that investigation, I respectfully request that you let me do my job.”

“Karen was able to find someone who’d been inside the valley facility on Nezar and had been down to the pit.”

Kurtz froze. “What about it?”

“They heard the voices,” Connors said. “I think you’ll be interested in what those voices had to say.”












CHAPTER FIFTEEN


Following their brainstorming session, Ava and Luke took the opportunity to get in a workout. While not quite as much fun as the exercise earlier in the day, it was nice to be able to fall back into a routine that didn’t involve a quarantine chamber and shackles.

Ava set down the weights after their third set. Next to her, Luke was flushed and sweating.

“I could keep up with you before, but it’s not fair with your new upgrades,” he said through panting breaths.

“You don’t need to match me move for move,” she replied.

He stretched his arms and legs. “I have to push myself if I want to improve.”

“And here you were worried about not being tough enough for the Force.” She smiled.

They completed one more set and then headed to their respective quarters to shower.

As she was stepping out of the shower in her washroom, Ava’s comm chirped with an incoming message. She wrapped a towel around herself and answered it, voice only.

“We have new information from Karen Carter,” Widmore stated. “She made a discovery on Nezar that connects to our ongoing investigation.”

“What kind of discovery, sir?”

“We’ll discuss at 16:00. Luke and the colonel will meet us in the standard briefing room.”

Ava checked the clock; that was in ten minutes. “Yes, sir. On my way.”

She quickly dressed, and then sent Luke a message for them to meet up at the end of his residential hall, which was on the way from her location.

He was waiting for her when she arrived. “Karen really knows how to insert herself into the middle of things, doesn’t she?” Ava commented.

“Ugh, she does.” Luke sighed. “Did Widmore say any more about the new information she discovered?”

 “Just that she found something on Nezar that connected to our findings in Gidyon,” Ava replied while they headed for the briefing room. “If Kurtz and Widmore have called a meeting with us, it must be significant.”

“Finally putting together a plan of action?” Luke questioned.

“Let’s hope so.”

They arrived at the conference room and found that Widmore and Kurtz hadn’t yet arrived. Ava and Luke took seats by the door and waited for the two officers.

“It’s frustrating having most of the image but to still be missing key pieces of the plan,” Luke muttered. “Some of the motivation, some of the means, but it doesn’t connect.”

“As one of those pieces, I can assure you it’s much more unsettling from where I’m sitting.”

He reached over and took her hand. “Sorry. Out here, the objective part of me speaks before thinking.”

“No offense taken.” Ava quickly extracted her hand when she heard the door open.

Kurtz and Widmore entered.

“It’s about time we take over this conference room and stick up a theory board with lines connecting all the dots, eh?” Widmore jested.

“Does that mean Karen didn’t offer up a unifying theory of everything?” questioned Ava.

“No, but we did get another critical piece. There’s a pit on Nezar like the one you found on the planet in Gidyon.”

Ava frowned. “Oh, that sounds bad.”

“It is,” Widmore said with a heavy sigh that concerned Ava more than his words. “We just got the results of the scans for the resonance frequency. Aside from the gas giant, it’s also somehow resonating with Nezar and Coraxa.”

Ava and Luke exchanged glances.

“What was the timing?” Ava asked.

“Too fast to be through normal space. There must be an Etheric component,” Kurtz replied.

“Okay… What is this thing?” Ava looked at the faces around the table. “Just a giant transmitter? But for what?”

“I suggest we go back to what we learned about Andrea’s research on Coraxa,” Luke jumped in. “They were trying to make soldiers.”

“And I was supposed to be the template for that,” Ava said.

“Right. Breaking that template down to its components,” he gave her an apologetic grimace, “there’s a telepathic receptor, enhanced physical strength and veracity, rapid healing, and super-speed.”

“All things one would hope to have in a soldier,” Kurtz stated. “Well, except maybe the telepathic part.”

“That’s the key,” Luke said, shaking his index finger. “They wanted a soldier they could control. And control remotely.”

Ava folded her hands on the tabletop. “That’s an interesting point. Is the degree of control based on length of time with a host, or distance from the transmitter?”

He nodded. “Exactly. Now, Colonel Kurtz, Nox was with you for three years. Even after that much time, you were still able to exert enough control to overpower the being for short bursts.”

“Yes,” he acknowledged. “But perhaps it didn’t fully integrate with me in order to avoid raising flags in my medical exams.”

“You modified your own records, yes?” Luke questioned.

“I did, but those were subtle clues. It would have been a different matter if real-time scans found something anomalous.”

“Hmm.” Luke crossed his arms. “Maybe it’s nothing, then.”

“No, go on,” Widmore encouraged.

“Well,” Luke continued, “I was going to contrast Heizberg’s condition to Kurtz’s. Reya had complete control of her, and Gidyon is a hell of a lot closer to Nezar than it is to the Dren Cluster.”

An icy vice gripped Ava’s chest. “The control point may be even closer than that,” she murmured.

“What are you thinking?” Kurtz prompted.

“That pit on Nezar. What if those are their nests, or whatever you want to call it?”

Widmore paled. “If that’s the case, when Heizberg died, the being never left Nezar.”

Ava nodded. “Reya may never have been based in Gidyon, like Nox was.”

Kurtz swore under his breath. “How many more of these nests could there be?”

“No way to know, sir.” Ava replied. “But if the other planets resonated with the signal from Gidyon, that might give us some indication.”

“Running a broad scan like that would take weeks or longer,” Widmore said.

“Could we put the locations of the planets up on a map?” Luke spoke up.

“Why?” Ava asked.

“If they have nests in Gidyon and Nezar, they don’t need a long-range transmitter to communicate. Where were they planning to send their soldiers?”

Without commentary, Widmore hurriedly brought up a holographic map and plotted the real-time location of the four worlds in question.

Everyone stared at the resulting image in stunned silence. The artificial dwarf planet and gas giant in Gidyon were directly in line on opposite sides of the system’s star. That line continued through Nezar and the Alaxar star. Finally, at the end, Coraxa was mere days from coming into alignment.

“That’s not a coincidence,” Ava whispered.

“No, I’d wager it’s not.” Kurtz manipulated the model and zoomed it out so he could extend the line beyond the two systems. Once complete with Coraxa, it would be headed straight for the worlds in the center of Federation space.

Ava groaned. With a target in mind, the aliens’ motivations became much clearer. “Well, fuck. They were never just trying to get the Nezaran military to go after Alucia. They were just biding their time to make their big move.”

“Like a parasite,” Luke murmured. “Using up its host and then moving on to the next, to continue to multiply.”

“Are they just after the raw elemental materials? Or the people to make more soldiers?” Widmore cut in. “What’re they specifically after—what’s the end game?”

“Suffering,” Kurtz said with a grunt. “They feed on negative energy. The first step was to cultivate a food source—the disgruntled population of Nezar. It sustained them while they put the next phase in action: creating a militia to be their reapers. Peaceful Alucia was the perfect target destination to send their new soldiers, where they could rain down suffering on the innocents.”

Luke looked like he was about to be sick. “They made all those preparations without us knowing.”

“They could go after Alucia with just anyone—they already had Nezaran soldiers,” Widmore said.

Kurtz nodded. “But those soldiers couldn’t accomplish their ultimate ends of expansion. Alucia would just be a snack to fuel them for the real objective.”

Widmore’s expression turned grim. “Other Federation worlds.”

“Except, following Luke’s theory, it appears their telepathic influence weakens when it gets too far away,” Kurtz continued. “But with Were strength, vampiric processing speed, and a stronger Etheric connection through their nanocytes, the soldiers they sought to create using Ava as a template would be able to withstand having more channeled through them, and therefore be effective at longer distances. Having such a soldier as a vessel, the Dyons could roam the galaxy to feed on the negative energy from the suffering they inflicted without breaking their connection to their safe base in Gidyon.”

The meeting attendees sat quietly as they processed the realization.

“If they weren’t so evil, I’d be impressed with the ingenuity,” Ava broke the silence.

“A planet-sized bio-amplifier is pretty brilliant,” Luke agreed.

“Evilness and aptitude aren’t up for debate here. The question remains: how do we stop them?” Kurtz looked around the table.

“The way I see it, sir,” Ava replied, “their plans hinge on Gidyon. We destroy that transmitter, and it’ll cripple them.”

Widmore nodded. “We need to address the immediate threat we know about. If Gidyon is a home base, which it seems to be, the best action is to cut off the head of the beast.”

“Agreed.” Kurtz nodded. “Based on what we know, any suggestions for the best approach to take these Dyons out?”

“Aside from a big boom?” Ava asked. “Because our best bet is to blast them from orbit.”

“It would take some time to get a ship with an Arti-Sun weapon over here,” Kurtz said.

Ava sat up straight. “That death-ray tech they used on the Yollin fleet back in the day? That would do the trick.”

“If I may interject,” Ruby said over the comm.

Kurtz nodded.

“A giant death-ray is an effective weapon for the Gidyon System, but addressing the other bases will require a more targeted approach, due to the nearby populations,” the AI said.

“We can pick off the survivors afterward,” Kurtz replied.

“I advise against that approach,” Ruby stated.

Kurtz tilted his head. “Why is that?”

“Because we don’t know how these beings move, or exist, or… anything, really. As a scientist, I must err on the side of caution. Remove the option for the enemy to retreat before you engage.”

“You mean, take out the pit on Nezar first?” Ava clarified.

“Yes. There may be other bases, but if we don’t know about them, that suggests they aren’t an immediate threat. Nezar is. Make sure those people are safe, and then blow up that Gidyon planet.”

Ruby, I’m surprised to hear this side of you! Ava said privately to the AI.

>>I think you’re rubbing off on me.<<

“I’ll take it under advisement,” Kurtz acknowledged. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some calls to make about getting us a death-ray.”












CHAPTER SIXTEEN


Ava found her team working out in the gym. The three Weres were in the middle of a wrestling match, so Ava allowed them to complete the competition before announcing herself.

Not surprisingly, Edwin came out on top.

“Well done!” Ava called out.

“Ava? When did you get here?” Nick asked.

“Only a few minutes ago,” she replied while walking over.

Samantha gestured to the mat. “Care to join us?”

“Not now. I came to fill you in on what’s going on with Gidyon.”

The members of her team came to attention.

“I wish it was better news,” Ava continued. “We’ve just learned that the Dyons have harnessed a bio-amplifier to boost their telepathic signals.”

“Should we know what that means?” Samantha asked, looking around the circle.

“Details aren’t necessary. The point is, that signal strength is about to get a whole lot stronger. Coraxa is coming into alignment with the rest of the setup, and we suspect the aliens have something planned.”

Nick frowned. “Isn’t that kind of a poor design, needing planets to be in alignment? It’s incredibly rare for everything to sync up.”

“I was wondering about that, too,” Ava replied, “but we don’t have enough information to know the long-term implications. What I can say for certain now, though, is that we don’t want to find out what happens when Coraxa does align.”

“What’s the timeframe we’re working with?” Samantha asked.

“Four days, give or take. I mean, it’s planets we’re talking about here, so the scale for what you’d consider a straight line is a little arbitrary.”

“So, too close for comfort. Got it.” Edwin crossed his arms. “What’s the plan?”

“Kurtz is trying to get us a ship with an Arti-Sun weapon.” Ava smiled in spite of herself. It wasn’t every day they got to witness such powerful technology. Not that she had much hope of being able to actually see it in action, but getting to watch the footage from the ship’s records would still make for an experience.

“Holy shit.” Nick whistled.

“Yeah, but let’s not forget what’s going on here,” Ava reminded her team. “I know the Dyons have been nothing but awful to us, but we’re still talking about potentially wiping out a race.”

Samantha frowned. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“We can’t think of the enemy in those terms,” Edwin said. “They wronged us, and we need to do what’s necessary to make sure they don’t hurt us again.”

“It’s never that straightforward.” Nick shrugged. “But, that’s all above our paygrade. If bad guys need taking care of, we’re here to get the job done.”

“I, for one, will be happy to see the Dyons go,” Edwin reiterated. “While an Arti-Sun blast is easy, I wouldn’t mind getting my hands dirty.”

“Too many firefights in the last two weeks have made you bloodthirsty,” Samantha ribbed.

“We have seen a lot of action. I thought we were back to covert ops, and then this whole mess happened.” Ava sighed. “Not to mention everything with me.”

“Yeah, how are you doing with your… condition?” Samantha asked her.

“It seems to be going well now,” Ava replied. “I mean, well enough. Nothing has happened since my pairing with Ruby.”

“You two still getting along?” Samantha looked up while asking the question, indicating that Ruby was included in the question.

“I am quite pleased with our pairing,” Ruby replied over the comm. “Ava has introduced me to many new experiences.”

Don’t you dare say a word about me and Luke, Ava warned in her mind.

>>Don’t they know you two are together?<<

Yes, but it’s different when it’s explicit.

>>Is there really that big of a distinction?<< Ruby questioned.

There’s a lot of subtlety to the human experience, I’ll leave it at that, Ava replied.

Ruby thought for a moment. >>I guess I still have a lot to learn.<<

There’s plenty of time for that. We’ll teach each other.

>>I look forward to it, Ava.<<

In the meantime, don’t give Edwin any more fuel than he already has.

Ruby smiled in her mind. >>I’ll be more careful. And soon you’ll get even.<<

Ava returned her attention to her team. “Ruby and I are working well together.”

Unfortunately, Ruby’s statement hadn’t been lost on Edwin. “That was a deflection. What aren’t you saying?”

I don’t need to call any more attention to my relationship with Luke. That’s between us. Ava decided the best course was to get back to the bad guys. Talk about evil telepathic aliens never got old.

“Before our pairing, Ruby worked almost entirely in medical labs. We didn’t want to freak you out with the idea of having someone along with no combat experience.”

“You’re the one holding the weapons,” Edwin pointed out.

Good, he took the bait. Ava nodded. “Yes, but in this particular matter, she’s helping to regulate my physiology so I don’t transform without meaning to. Some degree of a neurochemical surge is necessary in our line of work—Ruby is still learning how much is useful to me. We think, back on the Gidyon planet, she may have dialed it back too much for me, and that’s why I wasn’t feeling anxious when it seemed like I should have been.”

Samantha eyed her. “Yeah, you were acting off.”

>>Or it was the aliens trying to get you to stay,<< Ruby interjected in Ava’s mind.

No need to make them worry about that.

>>I thought you wanted to be open and honest with them about everything related to missions?<<

Ava sighed. She was trying to hide the truth, probably because she didn’t want to admit to herself how close she’d come to succumbing to their trap.

“There’s something else we discovered,” she went on. “When the dwarf planet was sending out those telepathic frequency bursts, it was interacting with me. While we were going down that exit tunnel, I may have been under a subtle telepathic influence.”

Nick’s brow furrowed. “So they can get to you.”

“I’m not sure,” Ava replied. “It wasn’t complete. I think it may have been something to do with the proximity to the pit, which seems to be some sort of nest for them. A source of strength and power.”

“Hmm,” Edwin mused. “And their control weakens the further away they are, like when Kurtz was way out here?”

“Exactly.” Ava nodded. “For all we know, it’s possible that all of us were being influenced in some small way while on the Gidyon planet. This isn’t an enemy we can predict or understand with what little we know about them.”

“All the more reason to blow up the planet and be done with it,” Edwin muttered.

“We may still have an issue on Nezar,” Ava continued. “It appears that there’s a pit on that world, too, and that may be where the beings live.”

Samantha’s mouth dropped open. “And you didn’t lead with that?”

“What’s the plan to deal with that situation?” Nick asked at the same time.

“It’s a work in progress,” Ava replied.

“Hold on,” Samantha said. “That means Reya was close to a pit when you overpowered her.”

“I guess she was,” Ava realized. She’d been so preoccupied with thinking about how Reya may have escaped Chancellor Heizberg when the body died that she’d missed the other implications. “Maybe I can stand up to them.”

“We always knew that, Ava,” Nick said with a smile. “Don’t sound so surprised.”

“After what happened on Gidyon, I was having serious doubts,” she admitted.

“Fortunately, you have us to believe in you,” Edwin said.

Ava smiled at her team. “I don’t know what I’d do without you guys.”

Edwin tapped his chin. “I’m torn between you wasting your gifts as a carnival-style fortune teller, or going dark after pushing away everything you ever loved and becoming a super villain.”

Ava stared at him. “Wow, you have a very high opinion of the moderating effect of your friendship.”

“We are pretty awesome,” Nick added.

“For what it’s worth, I think you’d only use your super villain powers to go after other bad guys,” Samantha said, patting Ava on the arm.

“Thanks, I think?” Ava gave the group a quizzical look. “Anyway, since I am an FDG officer, and not those strange alternate reality versions of me, we’ll be working within the official channels to take care of the Dyons.”

“Which means… more waiting?” Samantha asked.

“For now, but not much longer,” Ava told them. “We have a constrained timeline, so I expect we’ll be heading out within the day.”

Edwin’s eyed narrowed. “Constrained by what?”

“Less than four days until the planets are aligned,” Ava said under her breath, so low her team wouldn’t be able to hear the response. “Nothing to worry about!” she added at normal volume.

Nick exchanged glances with the others. “I missed that first part.”

Ava gave him a reassuring smile she didn’t quite believe in. “We’re going to take care of business in time, so it doesn’t matter.”

Her team still looked uneasy, but they nodded.

“Take care of any business around here that you need to,” she advised. “We may be deploying on short notice.”

“Aye,” they acknowledged in unison.

“I’ll be in touch as soon as I have instructions.” She gave them a parting nod and headed into the hallway.

>>I’m curious why you shared what you did and withheld other information,<< Ruby commented once they were alone.

It’s part of being a leader. I want to maximize my team’s effectiveness—tell them enough to be motivational, without so much that it’s overwhelming.

>>How do you find that balance?<<

I trust my instincts, Ava replied.

>>Ah, intuition. Gaining an understanding of that was when I began to evolve beyond an EI; though my appreciation for the nuances has continued to mature, ever since I have become an AI.<<

You’re young like me, Ava said. The more we experience, the better our gut instincts will be.

Her stomach rumbled.

Ruby, was that you?

>>Sorry, I couldn’t resist.<<

Ava rolled her eyes. Oh, hey, speaking of messing with physiology, did Jack ever post any findings about my nanocytes, based on the analysis of your field recordings? she asked.

>>He did,<< Ruby replied. >>The report begins: ‘The behavior of Ava’s nanocytes is weird.’<<

Seriously? That’s the actual opening line of the official report?

>>It is.<<

Suddenly, Ava had a better appreciation for what Luke contended with in the lab on a daily basis.

Does the report go on to say anything useful? she questioned the AI.

>>It confirms what we already suspected. The nanocytes trigger a transformation with relatively low biochemical shifts in your physiology. In other words, you could sustain the state for an extended time.<<

That does fit with the theory that these soldiers were designed to torture victims to prolong the negative experience.

>>Yes,<< Ruby agreed. >>But the ‘weirdness’ part of the report is in relation to something that we had missed when we were looking only at the higher-level expression. When you were on Gidyon, on the verge of transforming, the signs of what I now know to be subtle telepathic influence were diminished.<<

The revelation caught Ava by surprise.

Are you saying that the Hochste form would break their hold over me?

>>Yes, I believe so.<<

Well, that’s a really terrible design flaw on their part, she replied with a mental chuckle. I mean, their entire point was to use Hochste soldiers.

>>I suspect the difference is your advanced telepathic abilities. Others likely wouldn’t experience that same break,<< Ruby said. >>But I also don’t think it’s the difference of Hochste versus human form. It might be the act of changing from one form to another.<<

Ava thought back to her encounter with Reya on Nezar. The alien had her cornered as human, but Ava regained control when she transformed into a Hochste. Yet she retained that control when she reverted to her human form.

So, as long as I shift whenever I feel them taking control, I can keep them from overtaking me?

>>It’s only a hypothosis,<< Ruby replied.

Right now, that’s all we have.


*     *     *


Luke flipped through another batch of the test results that had yielded a false positive.

Jack and Tess had departed the lab for the evening, so he figured he might as well work in peace while Ava was meeting with her team.

The work felt fruitless, however. Nothing was showing up in the scans to explain why the automated review had flagged each of the records.

I really wish I knew what was going on so I could fix it.

He was about to dismiss the final record when something caught his eye. The person in question had been involved in the op three years prior when Nox entered Colonel Kurtz—an event codenamed ‘Starfall’.

Curious, Luke went back through the records of the people he’d already cleared.

“Well, shit.” All of them had been involved in Operation Starfall.

But there was nothing biologically different about them. What might the trigger be? And why that mission?

He couldn’t find any explanation in the mission logs—those publicly available to him, anyway.

All the same, it was the only lead he had. With no other recourse, he sent a message to Colonel Kurtz with the find. If anyone could offer further insight, it would be him.


*     *     *


Kurtz drummed his fingers on the desktop while he thought through the best way to ask for temporary command of a ship with the kind of firepower they wanted.

On the surface, it sounded like overkill. He knew it wasn’t—not for nanoscopic beings whose tolerance for environmental conditions was unknown.

If we’re going to destroy them, we need to vaporize the whole planet.

His thoughts were interrupted by a notification chirp, and a message from Luke popped up:

>>Sir, Operation Starfall, three years ago, when Nox found you… all the people whose results are getting flagged by our automated checks were on that op. Can you think of any explanation?<<

Kurtz froze in his chair. He hadn’t wanted to think about that op, when so many had lost their lives. But knowing what he did now, he quickly realized exactly what must be causing the flags in Luke’s test.

He initiated a video call with the scientist.

Luke was in his lab and picked up right away. “Sir, thank you for getting back to me so quickly.”

Kurtz nodded. “I should have seen the connection before.” He looked down and took a deep breath, then brought his gaze upward again. “The enemy used a biological weapon on us—an airborne toxin that attacked soft tissues. We lost a dozen warriors before we were able to figure out what was going on. We needed to synthesize an antidote, and the most accessible lab with sufficient facilities was on a ship belonging to NTech.”

“Surprise, surprise.” Luke shook his head.

“The materials that were used as the base of the antidote were extracted from the plant life on Coraxa.”

“It must have been based on some of NTech’s earlier research into the planet’s unique properties. And now that we know there are traces of this alien mineral throughout the biosphere…”

Kurtz nodded. “Did you and Ava trigger in the automated review?”

“No, we never went through that system,” Luke replied. “Ava, obviously, is different. I didn’t even bother to test her.”

“Run a scan of yourself. If that triggers it, you’ll have your answer.”

Luke nodded pensively. “What about the warriors who helped with the raid of the NTech lab?”

“They never ingested anything on the planet,” Kurtz replied. “We brought our own rations.”

“That explains it.” Luke nodded. “Thank you for the additional insights, sir. I’ll look into this.”

“Good work. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Kurtz ended the call. At least we’re one step closer to solving one of our mysteries.

The next order of business wasn’t a mystery, but rather a matter with a clear solution. After the ambiguity of the past two weeks, Kurtz was happy to have a problem he could shoot with a big gun to make it go away.

Now all he had to do was get that gun.

With his thoughts as ordered as they’d ever be, Kurtz called Colonel Marcie Walton—his best chance of getting what he needed. While an in-person plea would have been preferable, she was presently away from headquarters, and he couldn’t delay submitting the request.

Colonel Walton answered the call after twenty seconds. “Colonel Kurtz, I’m surprised to hear from you.”

“It’s been an eventful few days, ma’am.”

He filled her in on the developments since they’d last spoken.

“That’s quite a mess,” she said when he’d finished.

“After talking through the options, my recommendation is to destroy the dwarf planet in Gidyon,” Kurtz stated.

“I agree with that approach. These beings pose too great of a threat to be left unchecked.”

Kurtz nodded. “I request operational command of a ship with an Arti-Sun weapon.”

Colonel Walton leaned back in her chair and sighed. “I wish there was a ship I could get to you in time, but all are presently engaged in other conflicts. Earliest I could have one to Gidyon would be six days.”

“We have less than four before Coraxa comes into alignment. That timeline might be meaningless, but—”

“That’s a risk we can’t take without knowing their intentions,” she completed for him. “You’ll need to find another way to destroy that planet.”

Kurtz was about to protest, but he knew there wasn’t anything he could do. If there were no ships, there was nothing left to discuss on the matter. When it came down to it, the Alaxar Trinary was an inconsequential system compared to most of the civilization-scale conflicts facing the Etheric Federation.

“We’ll get the job done, ma’am.”

“I have every confidence in you and your team. Good hunting.” She ended the call.

That could have gone better. Kurtz slouched in his chair with a heavy sigh. How else can we destroy the planet?












CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


Karen hadn’t been frightened many times in her life. As she thought about the alien beings lurking only a few kilometers outside the city, however, it took all of her willpower to keep from giving into the terror.

I’m supposed to be the rational advisor here. I can’t give up. She took a few minutes alone in her office to settle her nerves. As she stared out of the window at the city below, she was reminded of the people she had sworn to protect.

She took one more slow, steady breath and released it. “I can do this,” she whispered to herself.

As calm as she was going to get, Karen stepped over to her desk to send a summons to Trisha and Fiona.

The two women arrived at Karen’s office a minute later, their faces drawn with concern.

“What’s going on?” Fiona asked. “You’ve been acting strangely since that meeting with Edgar.”

Karen motioned for them to close the door, and they complied.

“We’re in danger. The aliens are still on Nezar,” she explained as soon as her associates had taken a seat across from her.

“But Heizberg—” Trisha began.

“I’ve spoken with trusted friends in the FDG and learned that pits like the one in that valley facility are where they live. So if  that pit is there, then Reya had somewhere to escape.”

Fiona paled. “So, Edgar…”

“His statements, along with the FDG’s investigation, have painted the picture for us,” Karen confirmed with a nod. “We need to assume that they will take an offensive stance.”

“Like, try to take over people?” Fiona asked.

“We don’t know, but we need to get everyone to secure locations in case they try something with broad reach.”

“I’m sure you know that Nezar has more of a military than Alucia, but we’re not that well prepared,” Trisha replied. “Certainly not for a telepathic assault—not that anyone would be.”

“Short of a planetary evacuation, which isn’t even close to realistic, the best advice I can offer is to have everyone stay in their homes. The fewer people we have congregated in one place, like all the workers in Dome 1, the less likely it will be for the aliens to hit everyone at once.”

Trisha’s eyes bugged out. “Stars! You don’t think they’d really—”

“Everything I’ve heard suggests that these beings feed on pain and trauma. If they want to get stronger, they’ll do whatever it takes to survive.”

Fiona stood up. “Then we can’t waste any time. I’ll coordinate a peacekeeping plan with the military.”

“I’ll draft some media messaging,” Trisha stated, rising more slowly. “Any other instructions?”

Karen swallowed. How did I get to be in charge? I was just supposed to be a political consultant!

That was a matter to work through at another time. For the present, if people were looking to her for leadership, it was her duty to offer it.

“I’ll look over the media statement once you have it drafted. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can get a status update on getting reinforcements to contain whatever’s in that pit.”

The two other women nodded their understanding and left to complete their tasks.

As soon as she was alone, Karen initiated a call to President Connors. It was well after working hours on Alucia, but if Karen knew the president, he’d still be in his office.

Sure enough, he picked up almost right away.

“Hello, sir. Any word yet from the FDG about an action plan?”

“They’re working on it. How are things there on Nezar?” Connors asked.

“I just filled in the two people I’ve been working more closely with on the investigation. They seem at a loss for what to do.”

“Too bad you didn’t find a suitable head of state replacement before all this went down,” he said with a slight smile.

Karen sighed. “I’m a press secretary! And not even for this world! I shouldn’t be making the kind of calls I’ve had to here.”

“Someone has to do it,” the president pointed out.

But does it have to be me? Karen didn’t have the energy to argue the point. “I’m doing what I can to prepare for an FDG intervention.”

“Good. An action plan is in the works now. We should know more soon.”

“Very good, sir.”

The president looked her in the eyes. “We’re going to keep this system safe. Don’t worry.”

“I know.”


*     *     *


Half an hour after the informal meeting with her team, Ava received another summons to meet with Widmore and Kurtz, this time in the colonel’s office.

I hope this is the order to finally go blow things up. I’m going stir-crazy with this pent-up anticipation! Ava said to Ruby while she walked to the meeting.

>>Yes, I’ve noticed that. If we don’t head out right after this meeting, I’m going to suggest you go run laps or lift weights.<<

A workout isn’t going to relieve this anxiety.

>>It’ll help.<<

Ava took a deep breath. Hopefully it will be a non-issue.

She arrived at Kurtz’s office and found the door open. Major Widmore was just settling into one of the visitor chairs, and Kurtz was behind his desk. The colonel motioned her inside, and she closed the door behind her.

“Sirs,” she greeted as she sat down.

“We’re going to level with you, Lieutenant,” Kurtz began. “We’d normally reserve the details for senior leadership, but you’re deep enough into this matter that formalities have far less bearing.”

Ava nodded. “Understood, sir.”

“We can’t get a ship with an Arti-Sun weapon in time,” the colonel stated. “That means we need to find another way to destroy the planet in Gidyon.”

Ava’s heart sank. “Do you have any ideas, sir?”

“We were hoping you might be able to offer insights into a potential weakness,” Widmore replied.

“I…”

Ava looked inward to Ruby. When did my job description change from covert ops to planetary-scale savior? she grumbled to the AI.

>>Interstellar savior, technically, now that we’re talking about multiple star systems.<<

Not helpful.

>>We’ll figure something out, don’t worry.<<

That was easy for the AI to say, she didn’t have ties to the system in question. Ava had been trained to keep her personal feelings separate from the mission at hand, but that was easier said than done when her home world was on the line.

Coraxa was never just a singular planet. Nezar and Alucia were almost as much a part of her history as the house she’d grown up in—a small planetary system with cultural ties that persisted, no matter what was going on in the rest of the galaxy. They may not always have gotten along, but it was ultimately a matter of bickering siblings working out their growing pains. In the end, they would unite and be stronger for it.

But now, that future was on the line. The insidious force from Gidyon had upset the balance and was threatening to destroy everything the people in the Alaxar Trinary had fought to create.

I won’t let them. The thought was private, but Ava could tell Ruby felt the same way. We need a precise way to attack the aliens without harming anyone else.

>>What about a variation of how you removed the entity from Colonel Kurtz and Jared?<< the AI suggested.

That was dealing with an individual. We’re talking about a planet here.

>>You don’t need to go after the entire planet. All beings have a core.<<

You may be on to something there.

While the Dyons were capable of functioning remotely, their presence was still rooted in one place. Like in the Gidyon System, there had to be a physical manifestation somewhere on Nezar. It was just a matter of finding it.

Ava realized she’d left the two officers hanging while she had the internal discussion with Ruby. Only ten seconds had passed in real-time, but that was a long time for her to be seemingly staring into space.

“My original advice was to blow up the planet with the biggest weapon we could get our hands on,” Ava replied at last. “My thoughts about that being the best course of action haven’t changed. However, something else did cross my mind that might be just crazy enough to work.”

“We’re all ears,” Kurtz said.

“Well, we know the mineral that comprises their key structures,” she said. “And we know what chemicals dissolve that mineral.”

“You mean like when you removed the TR from me?” Kurtz asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Exactly. If we could scale that up, we could launch a highly targeted attack.”

“There’s no way we could get sufficient quantities of those chemicals to go after a planet like that,” Widmore stated.

Ava shook her head. “We wouldn’t have to, sir. Just the pits and central chambers. That’s the core of their power.”

“Neurochemicals weren’t designed to be administered to rocks. This isn’t just injecting a syringe into someone,” Kurtz objected.

“We’d need a large-scale nebulizer, and a shitton of the chemicals. I know nothing about that, but I bet someone at NTech does.”

The colonel’s brow furrowed while he nodded with consideration. “Between Luke’s former colleagues and Karen’s government contacts, I imagine we can connect with the right people.”

“And, sir?” Ava paused until Kurtz inclined his head, “I can stand up to the Dyons, now that I have a better understanding of what we’re facing. Ruby and I have gone over everything that happened in Gidyon. I know what went wrong. Let me face them, and I’ll make sure we get our weapon exactly where it will hit them hardest.”

Kurtz and Widmore exchanged glances.

“I don’t see that we have another choice,” Kurtz said after a moment. “I’ll make the preparations with NTech. Major, get to Nezar with Ava’s team. We need to move quickly.”


*     *     *


Luke shook his head. Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?

Colonel Kurtz’s theory about the false positives had played out just like he had predicted. Anyone who’d been exposed to the NTech serum, or spent an appreciable amount of time on Coraxa, had been flagged in the system’s automated review.

The good news was that they now knew the reason for the flags. The bad news was that he would still need to assess each account, since the very thing that resulted in a flag was precisely what they needed to be on the lookout for. But the testing was in the final stretch, anyway, so the work wouldn’t be a burden for much longer.

With Tess and Jack out of the lab, working on other things, Luke was just settling in for another session of manually reviewing records when Kurtz appeared in the lab’s doorway.

“Do you have a moment?” the colonel asked.

Luke doubted it was really a question. “Of course, sir.”

“Did you get the results of your scan?” Kurtz asked.

“Yes, it flagged me, just like you suspected.”

“So, it’s the trace amounts of the mineral? I’m surprised no one was ever able to figure out what caused the Coraxans’ telepathic abilities before.”

“We were always looking for the wrong thing,” Luke said. “The mineral is in everything on the planet, so it never stood out.”

“What makes the telepaths different?”

“The right neurochemistry, near as I can tell. In certain individuals, the mineral accumulates to form the neural bridge that enables telepathy. A random side effect.”

“And such small traces that it never registered, without knowing where to look or what for.” Kurtz shook his head. “With everything we know, we still know so little.”

Luke chuckled. “Humbling, isn’t it?”

“Indeed, it is.” The colonel paused. “That wasn’t the reason for my visit, though I am glad to hear you solved the mystery. I needed to talk to you about the solution you developed for my condition with Nox.”

“What about it, sir?”

“The neurochemical mixture—can it be scaled up?”

“You mean doses for a large number of people?” Luke clarified.

“No. More like make it into an industrial-strength aerosol.”

The statement was so out of nowhere that it look Luke a moment to process the words. “I don’t think that’s possible. You could never control the dosing.”

“This isn’t for people,” the colonel clarified. “We want to use it to dissolve the rock-like structures on Nezar and Gidyon. Since we can’t get a super-weapon to blow up the whole planet, we need to take a more surgical approach.”

“I wish I could help you, sir, but I would have no idea how to do that. Doctor Dwyer knows way more than I do about the chemical mixture we used.”

“I’m not asking for you to do it, just for you to put me in touch with your former contacts.”

Luke stared at him. “From NTech? You want to involve them in this?” he asked, not caring that his tone was far from deferential.

“I want to involve anyone who has the information and resources to accomplish this task in our timeframe, whether they work for NTech, the university, or anywhere else.”

This is insane.

Luke fought the impulse to say as much out loud. “It’s possible that NTech would have the necessary chemicals to synthesize a large batch. If they do, it would be located in a supply cache outside the capital city on Nezar.”

“Forward me the appropriate contacts, as best you can estimate. I’ll coordinate with them and the Nezaran government to get some mining equipment.”

Luke’s eyes widened. “What for?”

Kurtz cracked a smile. “Well, I doubt the Dyons are going to let us inside the facility through the front door, or via that back tunnel from the government building, with a deadly arsenal in tow. So we’ll make our own door.”












CHAPTER EIGHTEEN


The incoming message from Colonel Kurtz caught Karen by surprise.

Shit, what now? She set aside her review of the media summary Trisha had drafted.

“Colonel Kurtz,” she said, answering the call.

“The FDG is sending support to Nezar. It’ll arrive in approximately sixteen hours.”

Karen did the math. It was the minimum travel time from headquarters to their location. “Thank you, Colonel.”

“In preparation for their arrival, I have a request. Actually, several requests,” Kurtz went on.

“What can I do?”

“I hope you’ve made friends in the government, because you’ll probably need to call in everyone’s favors.”

Karen braced for it.

“Our plan is to make a chemical assault on the pit in the valley,” the colonel continued. “However, we’ll need to source those chemicals on Nezar, and also create an alternate access point into the valley facility to directly deploy the solution.”

“What do you have in mind?” Karen asked.

“Drilling an access shaft,” Kurtz stated in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Drilling a…?” Karen laughed. “Yeah, sure, if we had a month.”

“You have sixteen hours, beginning now, to get the equipment to the site. We’ll have twelve hours to drill, once we know the exact location.”

Karen almost choked on her breath. “That’s an impossible timeline.”

“I looked at your mining records, and the drills you have within range of the city can accomplish the project well within that time. Get the equipment in place and have operators standing by.”

Taking a deep breath, Karen composed herself. “This is critical to your plan?”

“It is.”

“Then it will be ready,” she stated with assurance she didn’t feel.

“Good. And the second matter involves synthesizing a large batch of specific neurochemicals. We need to leverage any connections that government officials have with NTech. I have the names of contacts, but I don’t know if they will take this threat seriously.”

“I’ll make sure the appropriate people get in touch.”

“I’ll leave you to it. Good luck.” Kurtz ended the call.

Shit, what did I just sign myself up for? Karen shook her head.

She hit the comm on her desktop. “Trisha, Fiona, get Garett and the others. We have a new project.”


*     *     *


Nezar glowed rusty orange against the black starscape out the Raven’s kitchen window. Ava and her team were dressed in their light armor, ready to head out.

Behind them, Widmore was consulting a tablet with the latest reports feeding in from Kurtz and Karen.

“Okay, everything should be in place for us,” Widmore reported. “Mining equipment is en route to the valley where the pit is located, and a chemical cocktail is being brewed at the NTech lab.”

“Sir, can we trust NTech to deliver?” Ava asked.

“Karen has a government team overseeing it,” the major replied. “The remaining NTech workers want this awful business behind them as much as anyone else. Honest people worked there, regardless of what the company was up to behind the scenes. Everyone is jumping at the chance to make things right.”

Ava nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Ava, you and your team will head directly for Dome 5 to meet with Karen’s informant,” Widmore continued. “We need to know the exact placement of the pit within the facility, and he’s the only one we know of who’s seen it.”

“Speaking from experience,” Ava began with a frown, “geography makes no sense when you’re underground.”

“This is true,” Widmore replied, “but we have a map of the facility as part of the data Karen and her people retrieved. The only problem is the pit isn’t noted on that map. If you can trace the route in the man’s mind, we can apply that navigation to the map, which will then translate to the official geological survey.”

“Understood, sir, I’ll do my best,” Ava acknowledged.

“What about the chemicals?” Samantha questioned.

Widmore nodded pensively. “That’s where things will get tricky—well, trickier. The pit on Nezar and the one in Gidyon need to be hit simultaneously to make sure the Dyons don’t have time to jump somewhere safe, assuming that’s something they can do. Except we need to load the chemicals onto space tankers to bring to Gidyon. The transit time will be cutting it dangerously close to the alignment time.”

We can’t assume that alignment time means anything, Ava commented to Ruby. There’s no way they’d construct something on this scale, and have it work only for a narrow window.

>>I agree. Either our assumptions about the significance of the alignment are wrong, or…<< the AI faded out.

Or…?

Ruby’s mental tone turned darker. >>Or they only need the alignment to activate the setup, and then alignment doesn’t matter.<<

Ava’s stomach twisted. That is the only explanation that would make sense.

“How do we deploy the chemicals in Gidyon?” Edwin asked.

Ava returned her attention to the room. “I need to distract them.”

Widmore nodded. “I don’t know how to articulate that request, or if it’s even reasonable, but we do need you to find a way to keep the interstellar transmitter from activating. We have no extra room in the timeline.”

“I have an idea for how to do that, but I won’t know for sure until I get down to Nezar,” Ava replied.

“Then enough talking,” Widmore stated. “I’ll be coordinating activities from here on the Raven. As soon as the chemicals are loaded, we’ll head to Gidyon. You need to gather the necessary information and get back here within two hours.”

No pressure, Ava quipped to Ruby.

>>Only the fate of this system and maybe the entire Federation at stake, nothing to worry about.<<

Jesting aside, Ava knew she was up for a major challenge. She had full confidence that she would be able to extract the necessary map information from Karen’s informant, but the part about learning the Dyons’ weakness would be much more difficult to accomplish. When it came down to it, though, she had to succeed.

The team was dismissed from the kitchen, and they took the ladder down to the hangar so they could load into the pod in preparation for descent.

With Nick and Samantha at the front controls, Ava and Edwin strapped into the back passenger area.

Samantha examined the pod’s navigation instructions. “Do you know anything about these dome districts, Ava?” she asked.

“We’re going to Dome 5, right? I think it’s the seedy part of town, from what I’ve heard. Not sure why an ex-government worker would be hanging out in those parts, but we’ll go where we’re told.”

Once the Raven was in position, the pod dropped from the belly of the ship and descended through the atmosphere. Unlike on their previous visit, it was still broad daylight, and they were able to get a full view of the city’s five domes as they approached. Ava tried to spot the valley from the air with no luck.

The pod set down a hundred meters from one of Dome 5’s entrances, which was little more than an overhang and a sliding door.

Ava and her team stepped outside, and a wave of intense heat washed over them.

“I really don’t like this place,” Samantha muttered.

“You’ve been saying that about everywhere we’ve been recently,” Nick shot back.

She sighed. “Why can’t we ever get assignments on planets with tropical beaches?”

Ava smiled. “Because we only go where there’s trouble, and no one wants to cause a fuss in a paradise like that.”

“Man, now I’m craving a drink with a tiny umbrella in it,” Edwin grumbled.

They stepped through the entry doorway into an intermediary space between the outside and the main set of interior doors.

Two sentries standing inside the door stiffened as the group approached the security checkpoint.

“State your business,” the first guard asked, placing a hand on his holstered sidearm as he surveyed the group’s armor and weapons.

“Lieutenant Ava Landyn with the FDG,” she stated. “Our orders should have been filed this morning.”

The guard’s colleague nodded.

“Yes, everyone has been sent to their homes, as requested. You should have a clear path to your destination,” the first guard replied.

“Thank you.” Ava inclined her head and continued past them.

The inside of the dome was simpler than Ava would have imagined, for a civilization reliant on technology to survive the planet’s harsh environmental conditions. She’d seen pictures of the city before, but she realized those had probably been of the central districts. Any metropolis had an area that never made it onto the tourist brochures.

They followed a map depicted on their wristbands, since the light armor didn’t include a faceplate with HUD. After a half-kilometer walk, they arrived at a five-story, plain concrete building.

“He… lives here?” Samantha questioned with a raised eyebrow.

“You know as much as I do,” Ava replied. “Come on.”

The group headed inside. A reception desk was three meters from the door inside the small lobby, which was framed by hallways marked with stairway and elevator access.

Behind the front desk, the receptionist looked like she was about to call for backup. “Who are you?” she demanded.

“FDG. Karen Carter said she let you know we were coming.”

“Yes, we got the request. You can’t go up like that, though.” The woman looked them over head to toe, her gaze lingering on their weapons.

“We don’t go anywhere unarmed,” Ava replied.

“Our policy—”

“It’s not up for negotiation,” she cut her off.

The receptionist folded her hands on the desktop. “Leave your weapons here, or I’ll need to ask you to leave.”

Ava glanced at her team and rolled her eyes. We don’t have time for this. Ruby, I’m going to bend the rules. Hope that’s okay.

>>Whatever accomplishes the mission,<< the AI replied. >>But you aren’t going to hurt her, are you?<<

This is to keep me from hurting her.

Ava looked the receptionist in the eyes, locking her in a telepathic link. “You’re going to let us pass with our armor and weapons, just as they are,” Ava said in her mind.

The woman blinked rapidly and placed a hand on the side of her head. “Uh, go on inside. Third floor.”

Ava inclined her head. “Thank you.

“You just used telepathic control on her, didn’t you?” Nick whispered once they were beyond earshot of the front desk.

“Seemed preferable to a sonic blast,” she replied.

Samantha got a wistful look in her eyes. “Things would be so much easier if you could do that on all of our ops.”

They boarded the elevator and took it to the third floor. As soon as they stepped out from the elevator car, a guard posted at the security gate sprang to his feet.

“Hey, you can’t—!”

Before Ava could initiate a telepathic link, the three Were members of her team had begun transforming into Pricolici. Their yellow eyes were fixed on the guard, and they curled their lips back to reveal fangs.

The guard took a step back, his face pale and eyes wide. “Holy shit…”

“Open the gate,” Ava commanded, looking him in the eyes.

He fumbled for the controls, and the gate unlocked with a harsh buzz.

“Have a good afternoon,” Ava said as she walked by.

When they were past him, she turned to her team, who had returned to their human forms. “We need to find this Edgar guy.”

Samantha consulted her wrist display. “This picture in his file is terrible, but we could probably spot him in the rec room, if he’s there.” She pointed to a directory on the wall with navigational arrows.

Ava nodded. “Let’s check it out. If he’s not there, he’s probably in his room.”

The rec room, as it turned out, was empty. During her brief glance inside, Ava also decided that it looked far from recreational.

They did a number on him, for him to end up in a place like this, she said to Ruby.

>>Hopefully you can make it right.<<

I will if I can.

Having struck out in the first place they looked, the group continued on to the location of Edgar’s assigned quarters, further into the facility from the elevator. To Ava’s surprise, they didn’t pass any nurses or orderlies.

“Shouldn’t there be more people working here?” she commented to her team.

“Maybe they were sent home with the martial law state,” Nick speculated. “Just kept some critical personnel.”

“Clearly it was the B Team,” Ava replied. “The security is a joke.”

“In all fairness, they’re not used to Weres and telepaths,” Samantha pointed out.

Edwin nodded. “I’d be intimidated by me, just sayin’.”

Ava rolled her eyes. When she checked the door numbers ahead of them, she figured they must be close to their destination.

“Ah, there it is up ahead,” she noted aloud.

Bars covered the small window mounted in the door at Ava’s eye level. She looked inside and saw a narrow bunk along the left wall, and a man sitting in a solitary chair facing the back wall, toward a window covered by a security grate.

“Can you get the door open?” Ava asked Nick.

He glanced at the electronic lock. “No problem.”

Within ten seconds, the red light had turned green.

“Wait here,” Ava told her team.

She slowly opened the door to the room. “Hi, Edgar. May I come in?”

He made no indication that he’d heard her, so Ava stepped inside.

“My name is Ava. I want to talk with you about the pit beneath the facility in the valley.”

Edgar went rigid in his chair. “The voices. The voices are evil!”

“I know.” She crouched in front of the man and stared into his eyes. “I’m here to help you,” she told him in her mind.

He looked back at her, his eyes filled with longing. “Make them go away,” he thought in response.

“I’ll try,” Ava replied, not willing to promise an optimum outcome after what had happened with Cynthia Heizberg less than a week before. “But to do that, I need you to be open with me.”

Edgar nodded. “Please. I’ll do anything to make it stop.” The words in his mind were accompanied by a profound feeling of being trapped.

Ava thought back to Cynthia, and how she had been defeated by that sense of confinement. Though it had been too late for Cynthia, Ava had a chance to save this man.

She set her jaw. “Edgar, show me what you saw at the facility,” she instructed telepathically.

“They don’t want me to.”

“Then we’ll make them.”

Ava dove into his mind. A tiny beacon flashed in her mind’s eye, marking the information that Edgar wanted to share but was presently incapable of accessing.  She clawed her way toward it, catching the end of a thread. Holding onto the delicate strand that snaked through his mind, she traced the memory.

Flashes and bursts of emotion washed over her. Darkness. Fear. Whispers. Pain.

It filled her mind, burning behind her eyes.

Perspiration formed on Edgar’s brow. “They’re too strong,” he said in Ava’s mind.

“No. We’re stronger.”

She redoubled her efforts, fighting deeper into his mind as the programming tried to slip the memory thread from her grasp. But Ava refused to let go. She forced back the mental blocks, skirting around them and pressing inward until the edges cracked.

As she got deeper, the sense of being trapped swelled within her.

They won’t control me, and I won’t let them have this man any longer.

With a final surge, Ava broke through the barriers guarding Edgar’s hidden thoughts.

The desired memory hit her in a wave, threatening to overwhelm her in a torrent of negative thoughts.

“Stay with me, Edgar!” she shouted in the mind of the tortured man. Experiencing the storm that had been raging inside him, she was astonished he had been responsive at all.

Edgar cried out, piercing the silence in the small room.

Ava stayed focused on his mind as she sorted through the flood of memories. Somewhere, there was a clear path to show her what she needed to know.

At last, a series of images came to the surface. She recognized an exterior security door similar to the facility entrance she’d encountered on the Gidyon planet, and then a control room like the one she’d seen—but this time, the doorway to the underground was already open.

A half-lit hallway stretched before her as she relived Edgar’s memory. She walked in his footsteps, down the path, to a stairwell carved directly into the stone, as though the very rock had reformed in the desired shape.

The staircase descended on a wide spiral around a central column. There were no landings, so there was no sense of how deep it went, only that it was far.

After what seemed like an eternity in Edgar’s mind, the end came into sight. An open door up ahead led to a hallway hewn of the same stone as the stairwell. A persistent hum filled the air, making Edgar feel on edge, but he pressed forward.

Through the doorway was a lobby with four corridors leading in different directions.

A middle-aged man with dark features stood in the middle of the lobby, sporting a pleased smirk. “This is a very important assignment,” he said.

Ava watched through Edgar’s eyes as he nodded. “I’m here to serve. What will I be doing, exactly?”

“Come with me.” The other man led Edgar through a labyrinth of hallways.

Ava tracked the movements at first, but after seven turns, she found herself second-guessing her memory of the opening moves.

“Take notes,” she said aloud to her team.

In Edgar’s mind, she rewound the memory and began replaying it from the moment they left the lobby. “Second corridor from the left, third right…” She continued relaying the instructions until her host halted.

Ava held up her hand to indicate a pause to her team. Telepathically, she prodded Edgar to proceed.

Tears formed in his eyes. “They want to hurt you,” he told her.

“I won’t let them.”

“You aren’t prepared for what’s coming.”

The memory advanced, but there were no more twisting hallways. Ahead, the path led to a cavern eerily similar to the one Ava had been to on Gidyon. At the center of a chamber, a black pit plummeted toward the core of the planet.

“This is it!” Ava told her team. “The pit is seven meters straight ahead of the doorway.”

“Got it,” Samantha acknowledged.

Ava was about to disengage from the memory, having retrieved the information they needed, but whispers rose from the darkness. They beckoned to Edgar, and he cast his gaze around the room as he approached.

Once at the edge, Edgar looked downward to find the source of the whispers, but he couldn’t see anything more than half a dozen meters into the hole.

“What is this?” he asked his guide.

“This is their home. We offer them an escape.”

The whispers intensified. Fear welled inside Edgar, but he was frozen in place. Within the pit, jewels of light illuminated along the walls in strange patterns that he had never seen.

But Ava had. It was the same form as she’d seen replicated on Gidyon.

She wanted a better look, but Edgar tore his gaze from it, trying to back away from the pit. Something was holding him in place, and his limbs went rigid. Ava’s own breath was forced from her chest as she relived the memory with him.

As the voices continued to swirl in her mind, one rose above the rest.

This one wasn’t a memory.

“Ava, you’ve come back.”

Ava’s blood ran icy through her veins. She’d know that presence anywhere.

“Reya.”












CHAPTER NINETEEN


Ava composed herself. She couldn’t allow Reya to sense any fear or doubt. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

“Your weak mortal bodies can’t contain us. Heizberg’s death was a setback, not an end.”

Ava had already figured as much, given what they’d discovered over the last several days, but that was the confirmation she’d been looking for. “Where are you hiding?” she asked.

“Whatever you’re trying to do, it won’t work,” the alien replied.

“That wasn’t an answer.”

“You already know where I am. We know you’re coming.”

Ava was careful to guard her thoughts. She wasn’t sure how she was communicating with the being, exactly, but she couldn’t risk playing into the alien’s metaphorical hands. The likely explanation was that Edgar was functioning as some sort of conduit.

“You should know by now that we won’t stop until you’re no longer a threat. Submit, and you don’t have to die,” Ava continued.

“We will never submit to beings lesser than ourselves.”

At least Ava could say she tried. Killing was never her first choice of action, but when an enemy wouldn’t hear reason, it was the only path to take. Reya’s stance made the decision to use deadly force a little easier.

“In that case,” Ava continued, “we have nothing more to discuss.”

“We haven’t given up on you, Ava. You can be so much more with us,” Reya beckoned her with a musical lilt to her tone.

Ava mentally scoffed at the alien. “You’re still using that same line? I’m doing just fine on my own, thanks.” She tried to sever the connection, but something was stopping her.

“It wasn’t a request,” Reya bellowed, swelling in her mind. “You will join us and fulfill your purpose.”

“No!” Ava struggled against the mental vice closing in around her.

“Obey! Kill your friends and come to us. You will become what you were meant to be.”

Against her will, Ava’s hand twitched toward her handgun, her gaze shifting to her team.

“Yes, it will be so easy,” Reya prodded. “Slaughter them and relish their deaths.”

“Never!” Ava struggled against her, forced inward by the being’s immense power.

>>Ava, where are you?<< a voice called out to her through the darkness.

Ruby! Ava shouted back. Shift! We have to shift now.

>>You’ve always initiated it, not me.<<

You know what state I was in the last time it almost happened. Do that. Hurry! Ava pleaded as her strength faded. A moment later, she couldn’t sense the AI.

She was alone in the darkness.

A burst of energy surged through her. She shredded the mental bonds that had shackled her and lashed out against Reya.

“You will not control me!” she snarled in her mind.

Reya recoiled from the sudden outburst, then gathered herself for another assault. “Obey!”

“It’s too late, Reya. You’ve lost.” Ava sent a telepathic spire toward her would-be captor, and Reya screamed in Ava’s mind as the attack found its mark. “We’re coming for you, and you can’t stop us.”

Before the alien could react, Ava sealed off the connection inside Edgar’s mind. The aliens wouldn’t be able to get to him again.

In front of her, Edgar was staring at Ava with a mixture of shock, confusion, and awe. His full attention was on her, but he looked like he wanted to get as far away as possible.

Ava looked down at her hand and noticed the claws poking through her gloves.

Oh, right, that, she said to Ruby.

Then the pain hit.

“Argh!” Ava dropped halfway to the floor before she caught herself with her hands.

A little help? she asked the AI.

>>I’m trying,<< Ruby assured her.

Edwin was at Ava’s side before the AI could say anything more. “Are you okay, Ava? Aside from the Hochste thing, that is.”

“Yeah,” she told him, careful to avoid slicing him as he helped her to her feet. “Minus the part about all of my nerves feeling like they’re on fire.”

>>Almost got it,<< Ruby stated. >>Ah! You should—<<

The claws receded, and Ava felt her jaw return to normal.

“Well, that was unpleasant.”

Edgar blinked slowly as he took her in, now appearing more fascinated than concerned that she’d just transformed into a beast before his eyes. Whatever meds they had him on must be good.

“What are you?” he finally asked.

“That’s a long story.” Ava crouched down to look into his eyes again. There was still fear in his gaze—not of her, but of the Dyons’ returning.

Ava inclined her head to Edwin to let him know she was okay, and he returned to the hall. She brought her attention back to Edgar.

“They’ll never leave me alone,” Edgar told her through their telepathic link. “They’ll be back.”

“Not if we don’t let them in,” she replied in his mind.

She began weaving a permanent shield around his mind—so tight a mesh that the Dyons would never be able to break through. As powerful as they thought they were, they didn’t understand the human mind in all its complexities. She did, and with her knowledge, she would beat them.

But first, she could change the life of this one person who’d been robbed of his autonomy. They’d cast him aside when he was no longer needed as a temporary host, and it had left him a shell of his former self. But Ava could fix him—she could do what she’d wanted to do for Cynthia Heizberg, but had been too late to accomplish. She could give him a second chance at life.

She finished weaving the mental shield and then carefully withdrew from Edgar’s mind.

“They won’t be able to hurt you now,” she said as her telepathic parting words. Then aloud, “How do you feel?”

Edgar’s eyes lit up. “They’re gone! I can’t hear them anymore!” he exclaimed.

“And you don’t have to worry about them coming back,” Ava promised with a smile. She stood up. “No more nightmares, Edgar.”

He beamed at her. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“None is needed. I’m just happy you can return to your life.” She looked around the room. “I know this place isn’t ideal, but I suggest you hang out here until the threat has passed.”

“You mean the threat from… them?” he asked.

Ava nodded. “We’ll take care of them for good, though, don’t worry.” She turned to leave the room.

>>I was correct about a shift breaking the Dyons’ hold on you,<< Ruby commented.

Good thing, too, or we would have been toast.

Ava’s team was waiting in the hallway.

“The directions. We need to compare them to the facility map,” she instructed them.

“Already on it,” Nick confirmed. He activated a holographic projection from his wrist, which depicted a three-dimensional model of the underground facility. “Based on your description, I believe it’s here.” He pointed to an out-of-the-way branch of the labyrinth with his free hand.

“That sounds right,” Samantha assessed. “The one on Gidyon was in a similar position relative to the access point we exited from.”

“It’s the best guess and the only information we have without going inside,” Ava said. “Send the information to Widmore so he can coordinate with the drilling team.”

“Aye.” Nick made entries on his wrist device. “Done.”

Ava nodded. “Thanks. We should get out of here, I have other information I need to share.”

Samantha gave her a quizzical look. “That you learned from Edgar?”

Ava nodded. “I know what they do.”

“Like, all their secrets?” Nick asked.

“No. How they operate. How they were able to make that planet,” Ava clarified. “At least, I think I do.”

“Care to enlighten us?” Samantha prompted.

She shook her head. “Not here. We need to get back to the Raven.”

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” a man said from down the hallway.

Ava spun around. She immediately recognized the middle-aged man with dark features as the guide from Edgar’s memory. She drew her multi-handgun on the stun setting.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

The man raised his hands. “Garett Steckler. I work for the Nezaran government.”

Edwin pivoted to have his back to the man. “Is the gun really necessary?” he whispered in Ava’s ear.

Ava looked the warrior in his eyes. “I saw him in Edgar’s memories. He was working with the Dyons.”

Understanding passed across Edwin’s face, and he pivoted back to face Garett while drawing his sidearm.

“What are you doing here, Garett?” Ava asked.

“Just checking in on a friend,” he replied.

>>Or he learned that we were coming here and was trying to cover up information before we arrived,<< Ruby said privately to Ava.

If he’s working with Karen, he was cleared.

>>Luke said that the Nezarans weren’t properly vetting the anomalous records because there were so many. He may still be subverted.<<

If he was on Karen’s team, then he knows everything we have planned!

Ava’s pulse spiked.

“I’m gonna need more than that,” she said aloud to Garett.

She caught Samantha’s gaze across the hallway, since she was standing closest to the man. “He may be subverted,” Ava relayed to her telepathically. “Subdue him.”

Samantha spun around and had Garett in a tight hold with his hand pinned behind his back before he even knew what hit him. “Ava has some more questions for you,” the warrior said.

Garett strained against her, but he was powerless in her grasp.

“Whoever you think I am or whatever you think I’ve done—”

“Save it,” Ava said, stepping toward him. “I have other ways of getting the information I need.”

She stared into Garett’s eyes from an arm’s length away. “Tell me who you work for,” she demanded in his mind and aloud.

He took a sharp breath and tried to turn his head away, but Samantha kept him looking straight ahead.

“Tell me!” Ava shouted in his mind.

He didn’t give in. Few could resist even her weakest commands, which meant he wasn’t alone in his mind.

“Are you here, too, Reya?” Ava asked.

“You think there are only two of us?” a new voice replied. “Oh, Ava, you have so much to learn.”

“Yeah, nope,” Ava said aloud. “I don’t have time for this shit right now.” She ripped Garett from Samantha’s arms and shoved him down the hall. When she had a clean shot, she hit him with a sonic blast from her multi-handgun.

“Well, that’s one way to take care of that,” Edwin said with a slight smile.

“We’re on a tight timeline.” Ava poked her head back into Edgar’s room. “Change of plan, Edgar. We’ll have someone take you to the government building in Dome 1 where no one will bother you. Grab your things.”

“I… don’t have anything,” he replied.

“That makes it easy, then. Come on.” She motioned him into the hall.

She nodded toward the unconscious man four meters away, and Edwin grabbed Garett by the arms and dragged him into Edgar’s room.

“We’ll get the appropriate authorities to come retrieve him,” Ava said as she closed and locked the door. “I hope it’s not too late for him.”

Samantha gave a grim nod. “I’ll be so happy when we don’t have to deal with these Dyons anymore.”

“Wait a minute,” Nick said. “Wasn’t Garett working on the mining project with Karen?”

Ava’s heart leaped. “Oh, shit, you’re right.” She thought back to her conversation with Reya. “They knew we were coming. Could he have sabotaged it in some way?”

“We won’t be able to question him until he wakes up,” Samantha said.

“Not necessarily.” Ava crouched over Garett and gently slapped his cheek. “Garett! What did you do?”

He groaned and shifted on the ground. Ava forced one eye open with her thumb and index finger.

“What did you do to the drill?” she repeated telepathically.

A subconscious thought flitted by in his mind: The regulator. Don’t tell her about the regulator.

Ava jumped to her feet. “Shit! How do we get in touch with Karen?”


*     *     *


“Okay, bring it in,” Karen instructed the team.

A portion of open office space had been transformed into a control center with workstations and a complement of frenzied staff. They’d been working for the past seventeen hours straight, first to get the equipment to the site, and now to maneuver it into position.

The final orders had just come through with the exact placement of the drilling location, which should land directly over the top of the underground cavern. Once the shaft was mined, they’d have an open pathway to pour down the chemical cocktail that should dissolve the mineral deposits hosting the alien beings.

“Drill is almost in position,” Trisha reported. “Not that I know anything about drills. But that’s what they tell me!”

“We’ve all been transformed into construction foremen today,” Karen replied with a slight smile.

“And lab technicians!” Fiona chimed in.

Karen chuckled. “Yes, I suppose that’s true.”

“Speaking of which, where did Garett go?” Fiona questioned. “He was all about this laser earlier.”

“Overseeing the chemical transfer,” Trisha replied.

Fiona nodded. “If it’s not one task, it’s another.”

Karen settled into her chair, pleased to be working with such a capable team.

She watched the monitors showing feeds from the remote sites as the workers moved the massive drilling laser into place. It, in theory, could cut through the entire planetary crust in a matter of hours. However, due to heat issues, and concerns about geological stability, they needed to go much slower.

If Karen had her way, they’d just turn the drill on full blast to melt the alien nest, and be done with it. Apparently, though, the FDG wanted to stick with the tried and true method of exterminating the particular foe, and that involved the chemical mixture. While laser incineration sounded much more satisfying, she understood the necessity of using proven strategies.

On the monitor, the three-story drill finished maneuvering onto its hover platform. Giant spikes plunged into the ground to secure it in place, and the laser drillhead pivoted downward.

“Ground team has given the all clear to go,” Trisha announced.

Karen took a deep breath. “All right. Let’s—”

An incoming communication marked as ‘urgent’ and bearing FDG credentials lit up her monitor. “I should get this,” she said, coming to attention. “Proceed with the drilling.”

She rose from the workstation she’d co-opted in the central office and stepped into one of the conference call rooms along the adjacent hallway. Once situated, she answered the call.

Ava’s face appeared. “Have you started drilling?” she asked frantically.

“Just gave the order. Wh—”

“Stop them!” she exclaimed.

“Why—”

“Now!”

Karen ran from the conference room back to the central office. “Stop!” she shouted over the din. “The drill, shut it down!”

Trisha repeated the order to the drill team, and the monitor showed the glow fading from the laser head. “Care to explain?” she asked Karen.

Karen’s face flushed. “Order came down from the FDG. If they gave the order, it’s for a good reason. I’ll get the details.” She jogged back to where she’d accepted the call.

Ava was pacing back and forth on the screen.

“It’s off,” Karen announced. “Now, what the hell?”

Ava breathed a sigh of visible relief. “Garett. He was subverted. He did something with the regulator on the drill, I don’t know what.”

Karen’s head swam. “He…?” She leaned against the back wall of the tiny room. “The drill could have overheated and exploded.”

“Can a regulator be fixed?” Ava asked.

“I’ll have to ask the mechanics, but I imagine so.”

“You have to get that drill going. Our timeline—”

“I know, Ava,” Karen interrupted. “We’ll fix it in time.” Somehow…

The FDG officer nodded. “There’s one other thing. As soon as you get the drill sorted out, I need you to run some tests.”


*     *     *


Coordinating so many moving pieces had Kurtz in his element.

Reports were rolling in from the fleet sent to retrieve the chemical cocktail from Nezar about their progress filling the transport tanks, while the few armored ships the FDG could spare at the moment had been deployed as their escort. Everything was coming together, but the timing would be tight with the alignment.

A new message illuminated on Kurtz’s desktop. It was from the Raven, marked with Ava’s access code.

“Lieutenant,” he greeted.

“Sir, we’re on our way to Gidyon.”

“I see the tankers are almost filled. NTech came through for us.”

Ava nodded. “Yes, sir. There was a near-miss with sabotage involving the drill, but Karen assured me the hole would be completed in time.”

Now, that I hadn’t heard about. “Are you sure everything is okay?” he asked.

“It has to be so it will be, right, sir?”

Kurtz smiled. “The Nezarans have proven themselves resourceful. I’ll check in with them while you’re in transit to make sure our timeline doesn’t need to shift.”

“Thank you, sir. I accounted for the estimated repair time when we synchronized our clocks for the release tomorrow. It was easier to do at the planet so we didn’t have to account for communication lag through the Annex Gate relay.”

“Good call. There’s enough normal space between the two points that it’s not reliable.” Kurtz looked her over. “Did you have something else you wanted to discuss?”

“Sir, I think I know how the Dyons have been able to build all these things.”

Kurtz raised an eyebrow at the cryptic statement. “Explain.”

“I mean,” Ava continued, “we were wondering about their specialization as a species. They seem to have knowledge of nanotech, but not in the way we’d expect for beings that exist in that form. But I think I figured it out, when I was interfacing with Edgar down on Nezar.” She paused. “I believe they manipulate matter.”

“Pardon?”

“Like, they don’t actually have nanotech. They just manipulate what’s there.”

Kurtz let the words sink in. “What about the telepathic receptors, and the rock formations?”

She nodded. “I was thinking about that, too. Those are just made out of a mineral, a raw material. But when arranged in a particular pattern, it takes on a specific harmonic frequency that facilitates the properties we’ve observed.”

“And the bioamplifier?”

“Tweaks to a simple biological form to accomplish the desired ends. I suspect their manipulations are limited to that microscopic biological level and inanimate materials, though, or else they wouldn’t need genetic engineering to make ‘vessels’ out of Weres and other people.”

Kurtz folded his hands on his desktop. “It fits, Lieutenant, but what evidence do you have? It’s a bold claim about capabilities of a race that already seems to be able to do things they shouldn’t.”

“Edgar’s memories. The details he picked up,” Ava explained. “It’s different watching events through someone else’s eyes. When I went to Gidyon, I was taking everything in as an FDG warrior. I’ve been to dozens of worlds and interacted with a number of races over the years. I’m used to accepting the unusual as normal. But Edgar—he spent his life on Nezar. The cute, little cocoberas on Coraxa could be considered as scary as a three-meter-tall tentacle monster, for all the interaction he’d had with other species. So when Edgar saw inside that facility, he picked up on things that I had glossed over because of my past experiences.”

“Such as?” Kurtz prompted.

“Well, my first clue was the stairs. When we were on Gidyon, I’d thought it was all poured concrete. Through Edgar’s eyes, however, it was definitely stone—but there were no signs of the rock having been formed. It was just simply arranged in the final design.”

“The facilities could have been different.”

“That occurred to me, sir, so I looked up the footage from our mission record. The exact type of rock is different, but it’s not the concrete I’d originally thought it was. I verified that with the density readings. It’s one of those little details that I didn’t even think to look at.”

“None of us did, apparently.” Kurtz’s eyebrows drew together. “Were there other observations you gleaned from Edgar?”

Ava nodded. “Yes, sir. Two things. The first was a frequency—a hum—in the air. We never paid much attention to it on Gidyon because we’re so used to background mechanical noise from ships and stations. The second thing was related to the walls around the pit. We didn’t see anything on Gidyon, but when Edgar approached the pit, these weird lights appeared in the rock. There was a pattern in the forms—the same pattern we saw in the computer system architecture, and in how the landscape was arranged on Gidyon.”

“We already knew that pattern had significance to them.”

“But we didn’t know why, sir. Seeing the minerals arranged in the pattern, I had Karen get some NTech scientists to replicate the form with the mineral. Except the structure fell apart each time. That’s when they made the connection that the waveform of the frequency was strikingly similar to the patterns formed by the minerals. So, they played the frequency while constructing the mineral structure, and it all suddenly worked. The structure held together.”

Kurtz leaned forward. “Are you sure?”

“It was small scale, but the lab results were verified,” Ava confirmed.

“So that frequency may have something to do with how the Gidyon planet operates,” Kurtz mused. “If we interrupt that sound…”

“It may break apart,” Ava completed for him. “If the chemicals alone don’t do the trick, we can disrupt the bonds holding the rest of it together by playing an opposing soundwave.”

“In theory.”

“Yes, sir. It’s only a theory. And there’s a major complication: soundwaves don’t travel in space, and we also don’t have a big enough speaker, even if it did.”

That’s it! Kurtz perked up. “We don’t need actual sound.”

“Sir?”

“Other types of signals—specifically, telepathic signals—don’t require a physical medium for transfer. And that entire planet is designed to be one giant communication hub.”

Ava raised an eyebrow. “Are you suggesting that I… think that frequency? We need to break up a physical object with a soundwave. Telepathy isn’t the same thing.”

“Doesn’t the mineral resonate with telepathic signals? To do that, it must convert the telepathic energy into actual physical vibrations.”

“I guess, but…” Ava trailed off.

 “You brought it up, Lieutenant. Did you have another course of action in mind?”

Her expression changed to one of determination. “No, sir. I can do this.”












CHAPTER TWENTY


Shit, why did I ever agree to do this? Ava groaned inwardly as the Raven made its final approach into the Gidyon System.

>>Not to be the voice of dissent, but it is a longshot,<< Ruby said in her mind.

Thanks, Ruby. That’s really helpful, Ava grumbled.

>>Just being realistic. But I do think you should try.<<

I was going to try, regardless of what you think, but I’m glad to hear you don’t think I’m completely out of my mind.

>>Oh, I do,<< the AI replied with a dead serious tone. >>It just happens to be a brand of crazy I endorse. Go big, right?<<

Ava smiled. Always go big.

The plan was absurd any way Ava looked at it, but the nature of the enemy demanded an unconventional approach. She took a deep breath and went to meet her team in the kitchen.

“Ready?” Widmore asked when she entered.

Already seated at the table, the three Were members of her team were ready to lend moral support.

Ava nodded to the major. “Let’s do it.”

“We’re still a few minutes out from the strike time, but why don’t you feel them out?” Widmore suggested. “You need to make sure you can get a solid connection.”

“I’ll give it a shot.”

For lack of having someone’s eyes to gaze into, Ava focused on the view of the planet out the window. “Hello?” she asked into the void.

She could sense the planet and the strange, constant hum, but no sentient presence met her probe.

“I know you’re out there. I want to talk.”

Silence.

“No response,” she reported with a sigh.

“Hmm.” Widmore stroked his chin. “Hopefully, once they realize we—” He cut off when a jolt rocked the Raven.

“Uh, what was that?” Edwin asked no one in particular.

Ava looked around outside, but none of the other ships were visible with her naked eye. She reached out to magnify the view, but another jolt rocked them, powerful enough to make her stumble against the wall.

“That’s not good.”

Widmore ran toward the ladder. “I need to get to the bridge.”

Ava followed him. “Is it something I did, I wonder?” she speculated while they climbed.

“I have no idea,” the major replied. “Obviously, they know we’re here now.”

Once at the top of the ladder, they ran toward the bridge, and were knocked sideways in the middle of the corridor.

“That was stronger than the last,” Ava observed.

“I don’t like that trend one bit.”

Widmore was the first through the door. “What the hell is going on?” he asked the captain and first officer.

“Ship is acting like we’re caught in some sort of gravity well,” Rod replied while he fought with the controls. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say we were at the event horizon of a black hole.”

Aleya shook her head. “Nothing about this makes any sense. Other ships are reporting the same thing. We’re all being pulled toward the planet.”

“Oooooh shit,” Ava whispered.

Widmore turned to look at her, standing behind him. “What?”

“Remember how we said the gravity on the planet was too strong for something of its mass? What if they have some kind of massive gravity generator and they just cranked it up to the max?”

The others’ faces drained.

“That would explain it,” Rod said, “but I don’t like where it’s going.”

“Anti-grav at that scale is really unstable.” Aleya shook her head. “They won’t be able to keep this up for long without it going critical.”

“And what would happen then?” Widmore asked.

“Fuck if I know, but it’d be bad,” the first officer replied.

“Pull back,” Widmore ordered.

“We’ve tried, but navigation is, uh… not behaving,” Rod said.

“Fuck,” Ava whispered to herself. “Sir?” She jerked her head toward the hall.

Widmore followed. “What?”

“What if the Dyons figured out a way to remotely hack our ship’s computers using the algorithms from the external processor we left behind?”

The major got that look in his eyes that he did whenever he was in crunch time. “We need to act before they get complete control.” He ran back into the bridge. “All right, get ready to send those torpedoes. And, Ava, you’re up. Time to get their attention and keep it.”

“Yes, sir,” she acknowledged.

A fucking gravity generator? Really? she added privately to Ruby while she followed Widmore back to the kitchen area.

>>Pulling us out of orbit would make a great way to ruin our day.<<

Except all those tankers would explode on the surface and kill them anyway.

>>But we’d have a gruesome death,<< Ruby pointed out.

Ava caught on. And that might give them the energy to counteract our chemical assault.

>>Sounds like a desperate move on their part, if that is their aim.<<

I don’t intend to find out, either way.

Ava reached the bottom of the ladder, and then ran to the kitchen.

“What’s going on?” Nick asked.

“Gravity generator, we think. And they may have hacked our nav system,” Ava replied. “But we’re going to take them down first.”

She stared at the planet out the window, extending her mind. “No more playing. Let’s have a chat.”

Her telepathic probe met only emptiness at first, and then a chorus of voices whispered in her mind. “You’ll still be ours.”

Ava tapped the side of her head to let Widmore know she’d made contact.

Widmore, in turn, pointed to the ticking clock for their synchronized strike. Ava would have to keep the Dyons talking for another seventy seconds.

“Where did you come from?” she asked as a stall tactic.

 “Far from here, and soon all will be ours,” the chorus replied.

Another jolt shook the ship, and Ava steadied herself with her hands on the windowsill. “I appreciate your ambition. In fact, I was just talking with a friend about how you need to go big or not bother. So, congrats on that.”

The aliens retreated slightly, as though caught off-guard by the casual tone—just like Ava had intended.

“We’d really like to stop fighting with you,” she continued when they didn’t reply. “Except you’re making that really fucking difficult.”

“Submit!” the chorus said in her mind.

Ava felt the tug of their power, but she held firm. “See, we want that done the other way around.”

“We will never work with inferior beings.”

Feedback squealed on the ship’s comm system, breaking Ava’s focus. She covered her ears. “What was—”

“Transmitter on the planet just activated!” Aleya announced over the comm when the squeal subsided. “Signal is fifteen times prior recorded magnitude.”

Widmore swore under his breath. “We need to shut that thing down!”

Shit! Ava struggled to clear her mind and restore the telepathic link. “What are you trying to do?” she asked the aliens.

They didn’t reply, but the connection was reestablished; she could sense their satisfaction.

Ava checked the countdown clock: five seconds. Let’s see how long that smugness lasts.

Widmore activated a magnification overlay on the window. The enhanced image showed a torpedo launching from the ship nearest the Raven, forming a thin, bright streak across the black. The trail continued through the planet’s atmosphere, and then there was a moment of stillness.

An explosive plume flashed for a second, and then a shockwave rippled through the surrounding landscape. The torpedo had hit its mark, and systems registered that the capsule carrying the chemical cocktail had disintegrated like it was supposed to.

“I bet that got their attention,” Ava said without taking her eyes off the view out the window.

“Sorry,” she continued through the telepathic link, “that was rude of us to knock down the whole front door rather than knocking politely.”

The aliens roared in her mind—blind, directionless anger.

Ava smirked. “Oh, wait, you enslaved a bunch of our people and then said you’d do it all again. Yeah, we’re not here to play nice.”


*     *     *


“All right, it’s almost time,” Karen said after checking the clock that had been synced with the FDG’s master time. “How are we coming with that hole?”

“Survey puts it at a meter shy of breaking through the cavern roof. They have to know we’re close,” Fiona reported.

“But even if they know exactly what we’re doing, they have nowhere to run.” Karen smiled to herself.

They’d gotten lucky with many aspects of the plan. The rock was too dense to complete a geological survey ahead of time to make sure they were, in fact, positioned above the cavern and the pit it contained. At the halfway point, though, the scanning tech had been able to pick up the layers underneath. The drill’s aim had been off by a meter, but they were able to adjust the angle so the final tunnel would bore out directly above the pit.

While the Dyons may be expecting an assault through the main tunnel—both due to the commotion on the surface, and because they were privy to the original components of the plan that Garett had known—the sonic component was a new addition, thanks to Ava’s observation in Edgar’s memories. When Karen had suggested that Ava talk with him, she’d never dreamed such critical information would be gleaned. It was the advantage they needed to settle the score once and for all.

With the chemical tanks already rigged up, all that remained was to punch through the final rock in the cavern ceiling, and drop the distribution hoses down the shaft.

 Karen consulted their timetable. “Okay, punch through now.”

She released a long breath and splayed her fingers on the desktop while the drill made its final cut.

“We’re through!” Trisha announced after getting confirmation from the drill team over the headset. “Dropping hoses—”

The ground rocked underneath the drill, trembling the camera.

“What’s happening?” Karen demanded.

On camera, the teams scrambled to untether the drill and move it away from the shaft. The scaffolding holding the drill flexed, threatening to collapse and block the hole.

“Shit!” Trisha exclaimed. “Is it going to cave in?”

A shrill squeal sounded over the comms, and Trisha ripped out her earpiece. “Transmission on all frequencies,” she reported.

Fiona’s eyes widened. “Are we too late? Was that the transmitter?”

Karen didn’t care to wait to find out. “Now! Release it now!”

Trisha swiveled back to her station. “Communication band is clearing. Sending order.”

The monitors showed the equipment around the drill site springing to life. The nebulizer activated, sending the chemical mixture through the tubes as a fine mist that would permeate the cavern walls beneath the drill site. Additional tubes, ending in spray nozzles, deployed a shower of chemicals to coat the walls of the pit.

The shaking stopped as quickly as it had begun.

“Is it… working?” Fiona asked cautiously.

“I don’t know, but that ground is too unstable,” Karen replied. “Clear the site.”

Trisha glanced over her shoulder. “Time to blast them?”

Karen nodded. “As soon as everyone evacuates, activate the speakers.”


*     *     *


Ava stared down at the dwarf planet, bolstering her connection to the alien collective within. “You had your chance to live,” she told them, “but now force will be met with force.”

“And you will be overpowered,” the aliens sneered back.

The FDG warriors sitting around her in the kitchen went rigid.

“Sir?” she said to Widmore, hoping the situation wasn’t what it appeared.

He took a choking breath, but remained immobilized.

Fuck! Ava’s connection to the Dyons faltered as she tried to assess the state of her friends. “Stay with me!” she shouted, but they made no indication they could hear her.

Ruby, what about the crew on the other ships?

>>Unresponsive,<< the AI replied.

Shit, I need to break the hold somehow.

>>It’ll break when we hit them with the sonic blast. You need to operate the equipment yourself.<<

Ava broke eye contact with the planet to spot the auditory equipment that was set up on the kitchen table. As soon as she looked away from the window, the connection weakened.

This won’t work.

>>Yes, it will. You’re stronger than them. Embrace your abilities.<<

Ruby’s words refocused Ava. She knew exactly what she had to do.

She had to get angry.

All the hurt and confusion that had been swirling inside her since her nanocyte exposure flooded to the surface. She let it fuel a seething rage within.

Her nerves ignited—eyes glowing orange, as her hands curled into talons and her teeth extended into razor-sharp fangs. She wished there was something to slash, but telepathic destruction was in order on this particular day.

“You want to get to know your creation? Well, here I am!” she snarled.

Ava opened her mind to share her physical sensory experience. Her consciousness became one with the planet, integrated with the hub and carried through its tendrils, woven throughout the rest of the world. Thoughts were no longer her own, but were shared with everything linked through the hub.

Pain and anger led her to her transformation—to her power—but it was the other side of the spectrum that would lead to victory.

She drew on her sense of fulfillment in the FDG, her love for Luke, the bond she shared with her team—flooding the telepathic connection with the positive thoughts of what always gave her strength, but would be poison to the Dyons.

They tried to pull back, but Ava’s telepathic hold was complete. Sharing her happiness was just the opening volley, a ploy to catch them off-guard.

It was time to go in for the kill.

Ava activated the recording of the opposing soundwaves for the frequency resonating throughout the planet below.

The Dyons shrieked in Ava’s mind as she pelted them with the sound. Their pain washed over her, but nothing would stop her assault. They had done too much to her. She could take their pain, and she’d make sure they wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone else again.

Her friends in the kitchen gasped as they regained control of themselves, freed from the shackles of their would-be masters.

Ava gritted her teeth as the shrieks in her mind intensified. The Dyons had nowhere to go, try as they might. They struggled desperately to force their way into her mind and use her as a host, but she held them at bay behind an invisible wall.

“There’s no escape,” she told them. “You won’t stop yourselves, and so I must.”

She cranked up the volume of the frequency recording. It vibrated through her, filling her body and mind until she could hear nothing else.

In front of her, the view of the planet changed. No longer was it a peaceful orb. Now, it trembled and seemed to glow with an inner light. Cracks formed across the surface, and giant, dark clouds billowed into space.

“Holy shit! It’s working!” Edwin exclaimed behind her, having been released from the aliens’ hold.

“Hit it now!” Widmore ordered into the comm linked to the fleet.

The tanker ships surrounding the planet released their secondary payload, spraying the chemical cocktail as a high-velocity mist around the debris. It was too large an area to get complete coverage, but they focused on the former location of the main transmitter, where the bulk of the mineral was concentrated.

As the mist connected with the rock particulates, the chorus of screams within Ava’s mind diminished. She continued pelting them with the sound until no voices remained.

The telepathic link severed.

Outside, the former dwarf planet was no more than a loose cloud of dust.

“I think they’re gone,” Ava murmured. She returned to her human form and turned off the recording of the sound frequency.

>>Wow. That was… intense,<< Ruby said in her mind.

You okay? Ava asked the AI.

>>Yes, I went into my private place. I couldn’t hear them, but I sensed what it was doing to you.<<

I wish I didn’t have to hear them.

Ruby gave her a mental hug. >>You did great, Ava. You did what needed to be done.<<

The mental exchange was interrupted by Samantha wrapping Ava in a tight physical embrace.

“That was incredible!” her friend cheered.

“The fleet is no longer under the gravity’s pull,” Widmore reported. “The generator was destroyed along with the rest of the world.”

Edwin grinned at Ava. “Standing here, it looked like you stared at a planet until it exploded.”

Nick laughed. “Ultimate staring contest! The planet lost.”

Ava cracked a smile to share in her team’s enthusiasm, but she was far too drained for it to be heartfelt. “There was a little more going on behind the scenes, but I’m glad it was a good show.”

“No one else could have done that,” Widmore said and clapped her on the shoulder. “Well done, Ava.”

She gave a deferential nod. “All in a day’s work.”












CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE


Some experiences always lingered in the mind, and Ava could tell that what she’d just been through would be one of those. As she prepared for her official debriefing with Kurtz and Widmore, she found herself with an uncharacteristic feeling of irresolution, despite the mission being complete.

Why don’t I feel closure? she asked Ruby.

The AI gave a mental shrug. >>The notion of ‘closure’ is still new to me. I understand the concept, but not the nuance of completing a task versus gaining some intangible sense of inner fulfillment.<<

I’ve always gotten a buzz after an op. I don’t know why this one is different.

>>Are you worried about the bioamplifier gas giant and the worlds in the Alaxar Trinary?<<

No, Ava replied. Without that artificial world as a transmitter, those are harmless.

>>Then maybe it’s because we didn’t learn what the Dyons are,<< Ruby suggested. >>We never found out where they came from, or what they can do.<<

And now we may never know. Ava shook her head. It’s actually kinda sad, when you think about it that way.

She traversed the halls to the conference room near Kurtz’s office. The two officers were just stepping inside as she approached.

“Good work,” Kurtz told her as she walked into the room. “That was smart thinking, with the connection.”

“Thank you, sir.” Ava tried to suppress the dissatisfaction that was gnawing at her.

They took their seats.

“We took some risks on this mission,” Kurtz began, “and not everything went how we would have liked. However, we defeated the enemy. That’s what’s important in the end.”

So we think.

The thought wasn’t as private as Ava thought.

>>You don’t think that was the last of the them?<< Ruby asked in her mind.

I…

Ava wasn’t sure what to say, with her doubts out in the open.

I think that I had a hand in something significant. And what happened needed to happen, but I’d hope that the resolution could be different if we found ourselves in a similar situation again.

Ruby smiled in her mind. >>That’s why I like you, Ava. You don’t take this lightly.<<

We altered the fate of a whole species. Regardless if they were the enemy, I’d hope that would give anyone pause.

>>It wouldn’t. Not for everyone.<<

Ava looked across the table at the two officers. Do they look at it the way I do?

>>Maybe more than most,<< Ruby replied. >>If you have something you need to say, this is your one chance to say it.<<

Ava took a deep breath. “Have you given any thought to who these Dyons were, sir?”

It was strange to use the past tense, but it fit, given the circumstances.

“A little,” Kurtz replied. “Why? Did you have something specific in mind?”

“Well,” Ava folded her hands on the tabletop. “We know they had access to advanced technology, but nothing we’ve seen from them can cross space—they were using the Nezarans for all transportation. They were on Coraxa at one point, but Nox made it sound like they didn’t start out there.”

“Is there a question in there?” Widmore prompted.

“Well, sir. It just makes me wonder if they were the only ones of their kind.”

The two men exchanged glances.

“That’s not a line of questioning we want to go down at present,” Kurtz stated.

“Yes, sir. It’s just—” Ava bit her tongue. “Never mind.”

Widmore took a deep breath through his nose and released it. “What is it, Lieutenant?”

“I was pondering whether beings as different as them and us could ever coexist. Are our frames of reference too different to ever truly understand each other?”

“I’d think not,” Widmore jumped in. “I mean, they were able to jump in and play humans with relative accuracy.”

“But is it genuine understanding or just mimicry?” Ava countered. “After all, they treated people as a vessel to be controlled. How well could they understand the human experience and find that to be acceptable?”

“There are plenty of sentient beings with their own bodies—humans included—who perform acts that violate the autonomy of others,” Kurtz pointed out. “Just because they showed no remorse doesn’t mean that they didn’t know it was wrong.”

Ava nodded. “I like to hope that there’s another group of Dyons out there who thrive on positive energy.”

Widmore cracked a smile. “That is a nice thought.”

Kurtz steepled his fingers. “And maybe more likely than not. There are counterpoints in nature, after all—like an antidote for poison.”

Ava smiled. “I choose to believe we scored one for the good guys.”

“We did,” Kurtz agreed. “And we’ll always keep fighting for the good.”


*     *     *


Luke paced back and forth in his quarters. He knew that Ava was back, but she had yet to reach out to him.

Debriefing, maybe? How long is that supposed to take?

He sighed. Consciously, he knew he was being impatient. But all the same, he wanted to know what had happened in the Gidyon System. If Ava wasn’t yet available to provide answers, maybe others were.

The central logs indicated that Ava was presently in a meeting with Kurtz and Widmore, but the rest of Ava’s team was in their quarters.

Luke couldn’t yet presume that he was in their inner circle, but he had, perhaps, progressed beyond a generic outsider enough to get some preferential treatment. Considering that a simple ‘no’ was the worst case scenario answer, he figured he may as well give it a shot.

Without further delay, Luke headed to the quarters of the three Were warriors.

Nick answered Luke’s knock on the door. “Hey. Why are you here?”

“Sorry. I haven’t been able to talk with Ava since you got back. Is she okay?”

The warrior softened. “Yeah, she’s fine. Come in.” He stepped aside.

That’s a promising start!

Luke went in, and Samantha and Edwin got off their bunks.

“It’s sweet of you to be worried about her,” Samantha said.

“Yeah, well, you were going up against a pretty nasty enemy,” Luke replied.

“She was a pro,” Edwin said. “The rest of us got pinned like useless fools, but she kicked some major telepathic ass.”

“Made it look like nothing,” Nick added. “After that performance, I think it’s safe to say that she’ll be actively embracing these new nanocytes of hers.”

Luke’s stomach twisted, to his surprise. On the surface, he was thrilled that Ava had come to terms with the changes she’d undergone, but part of him had still been holding on to the person she used to be.

No, neither of us are those people anymore. We’re here together now, as we are.

He took a deep breath. “So, what happened in Gidyon?”

 “Crazy shit,” Samantha replied. “We had our plan all ready to go, and then they immobilized all of us.”

“I thought they could only get to people with a TR?” Luke asked.

“Yeah, we did, too,” Nick admitted. “We were wrong.”

“All of us got pinned, but Ava sprang into action,” Edwin continued. “She took all of them out.”

“Well, there was still the neurochemical,” Samantha countered.

“Oh, come on. It was incredible!” Edwin exclaimed. “She got this look in her eyes I’ve never seen before—even beyond the crazy orangeness. Just, like, this raw determination. She stared down the planet, and it bent to her will.”

“All while you watched helplessly, with your arms pinned to your sides,” Nick said.

Samantha eyed him. “That made it more badass, don’t lie.”

“So anyway, the massive chemical bath dissolved the thing from the inside out,” Nick continued. “And then we hit it with the sonic blast. Disintegrated the mineral, just like we hoped it would.”

“All while Ava kept them at bay,” Edwin said. “I may have been immobilized, but I saw the whole thing.”

“Yeah,” the other male warrior admitted. “It’s just crazy to think about. I know she was powerful, but that…”

Edwin looked at Nick. “She’s not just our leader anymore. She’s a weapon unto herself.”

Luke frowned in spite of himself. Definitely not the innocent telepath I knew as a teenager.

But even knowing how much she’d changed, that didn’t make him love her any less. If anything, he was even prouder to know that she’d grown so much and there was still a place for him in her life.

“I guess we’ll all have to get used to those new abilities,” Luke said.

Nick snorted. “Yeah, to say the least.”

“What’s this, now?” Ava said from the doorway.

“Ava.” Luke took her in.

She smiled at him, love in her gaze. “Hey. I was just coming to find you and saw that you were over here.”

“How did the debrief go?” Samantha asked.

“Debrief-y,” she replied. “I don’t think we’ll ever have the complete story. Too many unknowns about where the Dyons came from.”

“Just glad they’re gone,” Samantha muttered.

Ava looked down at the floor, then plastered on a forced smile. “Not our problem to worry about now.” Her gaze met Luke’s.

“Well, thanks for filling me in,” he said to the team. “Catch you later.”

“See you at dinner,” Ava said to her team.

She and Luke exited into the hall and walked several meters to the nearest recess.

Ava pulled him out of view. “I missed you.”

“I missed you, too.”

Their lips met, and she relaxed against him. “It’s nice having someone to come home to.”

“From now on, you always will.”


*     *     *


Nothing about Karen’s mission to Nezar had gone how she expected. However, with the Dyons’ deceptiveness behind them, people on the world could finally begin rebuilding.

She looked around the conference table at Trisha and Fiona. The women had earned her trust in her brief time on Nezar, and she was happy they would have that foundation to build upon to help forge a lasting friendship between their worlds.

“I guess we can finally get back to why I was here,” Karen said after a moment.

“Right, figuring out our new leadership,” Fiona said, followed by a sigh. “I guess Garett is really out of the running now.”

Trisha’s brow knit. “How is he?”

“It’ll be a process to rediscover himself,” Karen replied. “The TR has been dissolved, not that the Dyons are around anymore to tap into it.”

“All the same, I feel better knowing there aren’t ticking time-bombs in our brains.” Trisha shuddered.

“Can’t agree with you more,” Karen said.

“I guess the task falls to us, then.” Fiona drummed her fingers on the tabletop. “No small feat, selecting those who will determine the future of an independent planet.”

“The bigger question is, do we need to stay a separate world?” Trisha asked.

Fiona smiled. “If recent events prove anything, it’s that we’re stronger together than we are alone. If the Alucians and Coraxans are amenable, I move that we unite the Alaxar Trinary once and for all.”

Karen pushed aside the work that sounded like it was about to become moot. “Do others feel the same way?”

Trisha shrugged. “The fact that no one has stepped up with a desire to hold a leadership position indicates to me that Nezarans are ready for a change in structure.”

“We’d have a lot of details to work out,” Karen cautioned.

“Of course,” Fiona acknowledged, “but this is our chance to build things the right way from the ground up.”

Somehow my projects keep getting bigger and bigger. Karen folded her hands on the desktop. “All right. Let’s get to work.”


*     *     *


When Ava had sworn revenge against Edwin for all his pranks, she had known it would be a long game.

The stage was set. With the help of Sven, and a friend responsible for ordering fresh produce, Ava had procured all the materials she’d need to turn Edwin into his own viral sensation on the Net.

She’d arranged an assortment of fresh flowers on the table, with a vase filled with water sitting nearby. Based on his assertion of making arrangements in the past, it’d drive him crazy seeing the incomplete task.

To top it off, Sven had helped rig a helium tank up to the air handler for the common room. All that she needed was to get Edwin in place.

“Hey, Edwin,” Ava called over the localized comm. “Could you meet me in the cafeteria on Deck 7? I think they need some help getting ready for the party later.”

“Sure,” the warrior replied. “On my way.”

Ava crept into a closet with slotted doors that gave her a clear view of the table with the flowers, and from where she would be able to film Edwin in action using a combat recorder she’d disconnected from a helmet.

Shortly after she was in place, Edwin entered the room. He looked around for other occupants, and then wandered toward the table with the flowers.

>>He’s never going to take the bait,<< Ruby said in her mind.

He will. Just wait. Ava’s eyes sparkled with glee.

After five seconds of staring at the vase and flowers, Edwin sighed. “Can’t just leave them here to wilt,” he mumbled while picking up a bundle of stems.

Ava covered her mouth to keep in a snicker as he continued to arrange the flowers in the vase.

>>Helium is flowing,<< Ruby confirmed in Ava’s mind.

I really hope he says something quote-worthy.

Ava watched him work for another five minutes. At last, Edwin stepped back to admire his handiwork.

He smiled. “That looks delightful,” he said in a voice two octaves too high. “What the fuck?” He clapped his hands over his mouth.

Ava busted out in uncontrollable laughter. ‘That looks delightful’?! she repeated in her mind to Ruby, unable to speak aloud through the laughs. I could not have scripted anything better.

>>I’ve already edited the footage and set it to that cheery song we picked out, if you’d like me to upload it to the Net,<< Ruby replied.

Oh, yes. The universe needs to see this!

>>Venting the helium now. You can enter.<<

Ava emerged from her hiding place with a grin on her face. “Hi, Edwin. Whatcha up to?”

The warrior stepped in front of the flower vase. “Just, uh, helping out for the party,” he said, his voice returning to normal.

“Oh, this?” Ava gave him a quizzical look, sneaking a peek behind him. “I thought you were on banner duty.”

“Banners? Since when do we make banners for anything?”

“I’m sure it will seem appropriate after you get your first million hits.” She smiled sweetly at him and then sauntered out of the room.

“Shit! You didn’t…”

She glanced back over her shoulder. “I warned you.”

Leaving Edwin to fume, Ava traced the halls to the real party location, which would be getting underway in the next half hour. Samantha had roped her into setup duties, but that was a welcome change of pace after being shot at and mind-controlled for the last two weeks.

She greeted her friend, and they began the final preparations for the celebrations ahead.

At the designated time, their colleagues arrived and began partaking in the copious refreshments.

Ava smiled at Luke when he entered and worked her way over to him. “This is a good chance to meet the support staff that keep this place running,” she said around a mouthful of cheese and crackers. “Best to stay in their good graces.”

“I can only imagine.”

She introduced him to some people, and then eventually found herself surrounded by her team. Edwin had decided to show his face, but he shot her a daggered glare every chance he got. Ava couldn’t wait to send a link of his new video to the rest of her team.

With Luke by her side and her friends around her, Ava’s heart was filled with the sense of fulfillment and belonging she’d always desired.

Eventually, Ava’s cup ran dry, and she went to get another round. When she turned back to the group, she realized that Luke had wandered off. She spotted him several meters away, leaning against a table and staring out the window.

She moseyed over. “Hey, everything okay?”

“Yeah, sorry.” He stood up and faced her.

“I thought you’d be more enthusiastic about joining in the celebrations.”

Luke smiled and reached out for her hand. He squeezed it. “I couldn’t be happier to be here with you.”

“Then why isn’t all of you here?” She tilted her head and gave him the questioning look that she’d perfected over their years together as teenagers.

He sighed, yielding to her just as she knew he would. “There’s something that’s been nagging at the back of my mind that I didn’t want to bring up at the meeting.”

“What’s that?”

“When we drew that line in space from Gidyon to Coraxa, we only traced it the one direction. What if there was something else deeper in space, outside Federation territory?”

Ava frowned. “Like a homeworld?”

“Yeah.”

Ava took a deep breath. “If that’s the case, then we just royally pissed them off.”


FINIS

Thank you for reading!

Ava Landyn and her team will be back in Dark Rivals in February 2018! We will not have an advanced pre-order on this book, but you can sign up for my mailing list below to be notified when it is available.

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Author Notes - Amy DuBoff

Written December 27, 2017


Wow, thank you for reading this third book in the Uprise Saga! I can’t properly articulate how much it means to me to have your support.

I know this book was a little light on the combat action compared to the previous installments, but I hope you still enjoyed it! I wanted to explore a different kind of conflict that wasn’t reliant solely in a brawn-based solution. Rest assured, the fourth book will be a suitably epic, action-y cap to this four-book arc :-D.

This was my tenth novel, and that makes it a special milestone. I especially didn’t think I’d have released ten novels in less than three years! That is the power in indie publishing.

I know Michael has talked a lot about the business side of the indie publishing world in his Author Notes in the past, so I won’t dive into it too deeply. I did, however, want to take a moment to talk about covers and series branding—specifically about matching reader expectations.

One of the amazing things that Michael offers his collaborators is a custom cover photoshoot with Andrew Dobell. We selected a model (Estrany, in this case) and provided a brief about the series and Ava as a character. When we began the process, we were still thinking of this series as being more on the military sci-fi side. Dramatic, action-oriented poses made sense.

Well, as we got into it further, the inner Amy took over, and the series went more in the space opera direction (anyone who’s read my Cadicle series will be going “yep…” right about now, haha). What can I say, I like some romance in my sci-fi, and if you’re going to blow something up, why not do it with your mind? ;-)

But I digress. Branding!

So, after the books were actually written—and once we knew the fans liked them—we realized that the original covers no longer gave an appropriate impression of the story. That, and a number of fans wrote me saying, “THIS ISN’T AVA!” (okay, maybe not the all-caps). But, the message was the same: the covers weren’t resonating.

Through the power of indie publishing, however, we had the flexibility to quickly say, “This isn’t working. Let’s do something different.”

I’m not sure exactly when the new covers will go live, so you may or may not have ever seen the old ones. Here’s a little side-by-side example from Book 1:

Veiled Designs: Age of Expansion

Were we working in the traditional publishing world, there’s no way we could have rebranded a series in two weeks over the holidays. Or, probably, within a year. Indie, on the other hand, is all about agility, adaptability, and catering to the market. You spoke, we listened—and we will continue to listen.

Anyone can be a writer, but this could never be my career without readers. I want to write books that you want to read, and I want the cover art to be something you want to see.

No book or art will please everyone, but my promise to you is that I will do my best to deliver a top-notch product that will keep you coming back for more. If you ever have any questions, ideas, or concerns, feel free to reach out to me directly. Let’s explore these new worlds together!

Thank you to Michael Anderle, Craig Martelle, Steve Campbell, and the rest of the LMBPN family for their support with all the behind-the-scenes work that’s made this series possible. Thank you to Jen McDonnell for editing, Andrew Dobell (and Estrany) for the beautiful covers, and to all the JIT readers. Special thanks also to Craig, Kurt, and Ron for their draft review and insightful comments.

I hope you’re looking forward to continuing Ava’s story in Dark Rivals. Thank you again for reading!


***


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.

Author Notes - Michael Anderle

Written December 30, 2017




First, THANK YOU for not only reading through this story – but through these author notes as well!

I’ll add a little to the cover discussion to round out the understanding(s) of publishing just a bit. The cost to create a book can be very cheap to very, very expensive.

Obviously, if you publish a book and your expenses are low, it does not take much to become profitable on your product. This is somewhat the path I took with my own series, The Kurtherian Gambit, when I had NO idea if anyone besides myself would ever read the books. When it became evident that I was going to need better editing and new covers, I started trying to figure out how to accomplish both tasks.

And, I spent a lot of money and time learning how to get ripped off on the editing side – and a lot of money and time doing bespoke covers that paid for themselves on the covers side.

We have our editing mostly figured out now, which is a blessing. The covers? Not always and not so much, unfortunately.

We try, we tweak we place the covers out there but sometimes you look at the covers and think “THAT IS AMAZING.”

But, they don’t sell.

Or, we (I) might think “THAT IS MEDIOCRE.”

And they sell amazingly well!

This industry teaches you that while you think you might know; you don’t always know anything about covers for sure.

Readers like and dislike different covers due to tastes, expectations, genre tropes and probably the cycle of the moon, where the stars are aligned and whether or not some random occurrences have happened in another galaxy.

Cue Star Wars music.

For PT Hylton’s series in the Age of Magic, we realized that while they are very pretty covers, they don’t scream MAGIC at all, but rather more of some sort of historical drama series.

DAMN!

In short, it’s damned hard to pinpoint great covers. We get better designing covers (or explaining to the cover designers what we want) based on our familiarity with a particular genre, but we are never perfect.

During 2017, we have had to restart / recover multiple series for different reasons. Amy’s series is maybe the fourth or fifth series we are having to tweak in LMBPN’s history.

Unfortunately, it won’t be the last.

So, in 2018 we are working on doing better with covers because now, it is a huge business expense to get them wrong. It is JUST as huge a business expense if we leave them wrong.

I appreciate the effort you, the readers, Craig Martelle, Amy and Andrew Dobell have made during our re-covering effort.

I hope it pays off! (In this case, I’m not speaking to increased sales, although that is one component, rather I hope that you, the readers, like them!)


Ad Aeternitatem,

Michael Anderle



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.

Veiled Designs: Age of Expansion


"Appealing characters and detailed worldbuilding draw the reader into a tale of politics, sabotage, kidnapping, telekinesis, and clones. [...] DuBoff weaves together sympathetic characters, an intriguing plot, devious villains, exciting space adventure, and hopes pinned on a chosen savior."

Publisher's Weekly


Unknown to modern-day Earth, the galaxy-spanning Taran Empire is in the throes of an interdimensional war…

Cris Sietinen, heir to the most influential High Dynasty in the Taran Empire, was born with prohibited telekinetic abilities. Determined to be true to himself, sixteen-year-old Cris leaves his privileged life on Tararia with hopes of joining the TSS, the only organization to offer a sanctioned telekinesis training program.

But being an Agent in the TSS isn’t what he imagined. After years of service, Cris discovers his family is at the center of an elaborate galactic conspiracy orchestrated by the governing Priesthood.

Genetic engineering, political manipulation, and preordained destinies converge when Cris and his son Wil learn of a secret interdimensional war against the mysterious Bakzen. But the real enemy may be far closer to home. With knowledge of the Priesthood’s hidden agenda and its disastrous ramifications for the Taran Empire, Cris and Wil embark on a mission to save their civilization from certain destruction.


Start reading the complete seven-book series today in Kindle Unlimited!


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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


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

Revelations

Redemption

 

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)

Reborn (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)

The Damned (06)


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)

Dawn of Days (04)


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)

Veiled Designs (03)




Bad Company

* With Craig Martelle*

The Bad Company (01)

Blockade (02)


The Ghost Squadron

* With Sarah Noffke and J.N. Chaney*

Formation (01)

Exploration (02)

Evolution (03)


Valerie’s Elites

* With Justin Sloan and PT Hylton *

Valerie’s Elites (01)

Death Defied (02)


Etheric Adventures: Anne and Jinx

*With S.R. Russell*

Etheric Recruit

Etheric Researcher



Other Books


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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