Book: Dark Rivals: Age of Expansion



Dark Rivals: 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

Thanks for reading

Author Notes - Amy DuBoff

Author Notes - Michael Anderle

Amy Duboff Series List

Amy Social Links

Michael Series List

Michael Social Links

DARK RIVALS

Uprise Saga: Book Four

By Amy DuBoff and Michael Anderle






Dark Rivals: Age of Expansion




A part of

The Kurtherian Gambit Universe

Written and Created

by Michael Anderle


DEDICATION


To all the explorers who travel the galaxy with their imagination.

The possibilities are endless.


— Amy


To Family, Friends and

Those Who Love

To Read.

May We All Enjoy Grace

To Live The Life We Are

Called.


— Michael


DARK RIVALS

Team Includes


BETA / EDITOR BOOK 


Kurt Schulenburg

Curtis Johnson

Ron Gailey


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


Kelly O’Donnell

John Ashmore

Sarah Weir

Larry Omans

Micky Cocker

Daniel Weigert

Peter Manis

James Caplan

John Findlay

Kelly Bowerman


If we missed anyone, please let us know!


Editor

Jen McDonnell

DARK RIVALS (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, February 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 the Dyon 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

Denise Ortaga – FDG head of security

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)

Trisha Mercer – Administrator in Nezaran government

Fiona Wyles – Former assistant to Chancellor Heizberg

Edgar – Government worker (formerly under direct alien influence)

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


NTech

(Research company based on Nezar)

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

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


Dyons

(Telepathic alien race with former base in the Gidyon System)

Nox (formerly infiltrated FDG headquarters)

Reya (formerly infiltrated Nezaran government)












CHAPTER ONE


Lieutenant Ava Landyn peeked out of the office door into the hallway. There was still no sign of security reinforcements.

“Sorry, Dave,” she said to the poor sap bound in stasis cuffs on the office’s floor. “Looks like your buddies are still out at lunch.”

He muttered something through his gag. Though the words were unintelligible, the profound displeasure in his tone came through just fine—not surprising, given that his taste buds were getting acquainted with the flavor of his own sock.

“I told you we wouldn’t do anything if you cooperated and kept your mouth shut,” Ava replied to his mutterings. “You had to keep talking.”

“Dude should be thanking you for not going all mind-control on him,” Nick said while he worked at the terminal next to Samantha.

Dave’s eyes widened.

“Yeah, that’s right, buddy,” Ava said, casting what she hoped was a menacing glare. “I could make you dance to whatever tune I wanted to play, if you force my hand. Just stay nice and quiet while we finish our work.”

The bound security officer remained motionless and silent in his place on the floor.

Ava nodded with satisfaction. “That’s more like it, thank you.”

>>My, you’re in a mood today!<< Ruby interjected in Ava’s mind.

You heard him! No one makes fun of my red hair, she replied to the AI.

>>I feel sorry for anyone who tries. You were across the room and had him on the floor faster than I’ve ever seen you move.<<

I’m finally getting the hang of these new nanocytes. May as well put them to good use.

Ruby made her equivalent of a sigh. >>Right, that’s the best possible use for those abilities.<<

Hey, gotta start somewhere!

Compared to some of their ops, the mission had thus far gone according to plan. Dressed in office attire with light armor underneath, her team was meant to blend in with the other workers, accomplish their task, and then leave before anyone was the wiser. Dave’s presence had been an unforeseen complication when they reached the datacenter control office deep within the facility, but one underpaid, untrained guard didn’t stand a chance against one of the FDG warriors, let alone Ava’s team of four.

While Ava recognized that Dave was just doing his job, and she’d likely been harder on him than necessary, she couldn’t help being on edge. It’d been calm in the month since the incident in Gidyon with the Dyons. When things seemed to be going well, it almost certainly meant a crisis was right around the corner.

“I’m almost in,” Nick reported, looking over the information displayed on the eight monitors arranged on brackets above a glass desk along the wall opposite the door.

“These encryptions are deceptively tricky,” Samantha commented from the terminal next to him. She tugged at the neck of the blouse under her pantsuit.

“One of these days, we’ll come across something that challenges you,” Ava said.

“Can’t wait.” Nick glanced over his shoulder at her. “And we’re in.”

“Good work.” Ava approached his computer station while Edwin took over covering the door. “So, what are we dealing with?” she asked.

“Shockingly, not all of the company’s dealings have been as above-board as they’d like us to believe.” Samantha scanned over the information displayed on the main screen.

It was exactly the information they’d come to retrieve—financial transaction records, cargo logs, personnel assignments. There was no way Protheon would be able to deny smuggling charges with the FDG having that information in hand.

Ava crossed her arms. “Are there any corporations that aren’t up to no good?”

Nick began transferring the data to an external drive. “Few and far between, that’s for sure.”

“We’ve got company,” Edwin whispered from the doorway. He readied his multi-handgun on the sonic stun setting.

Of course we do.” Ava sighed.

Her team wasn’t supposed to be in the Protheon corporate headquarters, and it was critical that no one trace the infiltration back to the FDG. Dave could say whatever he wanted, but there was nothing to connect Ava’s team to the covert military arm of the Etheric Federation. If too many people showed up and started asking questions, though, it would become exponentially more difficult to hide the reason for the intrusion.

“Transfer is complete,” Nick stated from the terminal. He disconnected the external drive.

Ava pulled her multi-handgun from the satchel that was part of her professional-looking business disguise. She tucked the weapon in the back waistband of her pants, under her blazer. “Make sure your digital tracks are covered,” she told Nick and Samantha while moving toward to door. “I’ll see if I can get rid of the visitor.

Edwin stepped aside. “Good luck.”

Ava nodded, then peeked outside to see what they were up against.

A frazzled-looking businessman was marching down the hall in their direction, a frown painted on his face, and a tablet clutched in his hand.

Ruby, do you have anything on this guy?

>>Mark Elmer, middle manager in the Shipping division. I don’t see anything on his calendar to explain his presence in this part of the building,<< the AI replied.

Maybe he’ll go right past us, Ava suggested. If we close the door and are quiet—

“Who would be accessing those files?” Mark muttered while consulting his tablet.

Great, there goes that theory. Ava composed her face in a pleasant smile, then ducked out from the communications room and closed the door behind her.

“Oh, hey, Mark! Nice to see you again,” she greeted him with a wave.

The man stopped in his tracks. He gave her the once-over of someone trying to place a face with a name. “Uh, hi. Haven’t seen you for a while,” he replied after a pause. “Do you… work over here?”

“Just consulting on some projects,” Ava replied. How do I get rid of this guy? she asked Ruby.

>>I thought that’s what you were doing!<<

Well, fuck. She smiled. “I think I heard something about pizza in the lunch room.”

>>Ava, is this seriously your plan?<< Ruby did not sound amused or the least bit confident.

Food is a great motivator! If I can distract him…

“I’m vegan,” Mark replied.

Shit. Is there vegan pizza?

>>Ava! This isn’t working.<<

It was time for a different tactic.

“Are you here about the security notice?” Ava asked, shifting gears.

Mark frowned. “Yes. You got it, too?”

She took a step toward him and dropped her voice. “Look, I’m not even ‘officially’ working on this project, but I said I’d keep an eye on this while—”

Ruby, who’s a higher-up mentioned in those files we just pulled? Someone who may be busy with other things.

>>Darlene is on vacation until the end of the week, according to the Out of Office notice on her email.<<

“—Darlene is out of town,” Ava continued out loud. “I was hoping to take care of this quietly. I don’t want her to lose faith in me, I really need this job.” She bit her lip and tried to look meek.

>>You don’t do ‘helpless’ well,<< Ruby commented.

Yeah, well, if it works to get rid of this guy without me having to mind-control him or bash his face in, it’s worth a shot.

Mark’s scowl deepened. “What did you say your name was? I can’t recall if we’ve met.”

That was a fail. Ava slipped her right hand behind her back. “Shelly. I’m new.” Internally, she continued her conversation with Ruby. Is it possible for you to trigger the facility’s fire alarm?

>>Yes, I’m connected to the system. But I feel the need to remind you that our instructions were to keep a low profile.<<

It’s a little late for that. Our best chance is a major distraction.

“I’d like to see your credentials,” Mark requested.

Ava patted her chest and hip with her left hand. “Darn, I think I left my badge at my desk.”

>>Would you like that alarm now?<<

Yes, please!

A blaring siren erupted in the hall, causing Mark to jump.

“What the…?” He looked up at the flashing red light.

“Oh shit!” Ava exclaimed. “Are they here? Darlene warned me…”

“Who?” Mark asked, clearly perplexed.

“She didn’t tell you?” Ava swore under her breath. “Look, there’s no time to explain. You have to check on the backups. We can’t be found here.”

Mark glanced in the direction he’d come from. “Shit. All right.”

“Good luck.” Ava acted like she was going to hurry away in the other direction. She took several steps, then glanced over her shoulder to make sure Mark was leaving.

When he turned a corner, Ava headed back to the room where her team was hiding out.

>>Huh. That was either some smooth talking, or that guy isn’t the brightest,<< Ruby said.

 Ava smirked. Generic phrases let people autocomplete the thoughts with their worst fears. In the absence of food motivators, it’s an old standby.

>>Except with this alarm, security is going to be on high alert. I don’t think you’ll be able to talk us out of the rest of this.<<

Don’t worry, I have a plan.

Ava was certain Ruby wasn’t going to like that plan, so she decided to keep the details to herself for the time being.

As soon as she opened the door, she was greeted by three handguns pointed in her direction.

Her team lowered the weapons when they saw it was her.

“What the fuck did you do?” Edwin asked in a low voice.

“I improvised.” Ava turned her attention to Dave on the floor. “Sorry, buddy, looks like we’re going to have to shoot you after all.” She readied her multi-handgun. Her team quickly cleared the blast cone.

She fired a sonic blast, and Dave’s head lolled to the side as he fell unconscious.

Samantha raised an eyebrow. “Care to explain?”

“No easier way to clear a path than by posing as the heroes trying to help the injured guy,” Ava replied with a mischievous grin.

Edwin sighed. “I’ll get his arms.”

Nick groaned. “Widmore is going to give us so much shit about this.”

“Relax, everything is under control.” Ava returned her handgun to the back of her waistband. “Follow my lead.”

She stepped back into the hall. What’s our optimized route to get out of here?

>>One hundred meters to the left, then take a right, go down the ‘D’ stairwell to the ground floor. You should be able to slip out with the other evacuees,<< Ruby replied.

Perfect. She nodded. “This way,” she told her team.

Edwin and Samantha followed behind her, carrying the unconscious Dave, with Nick bringing up the rear.

As they took the first turn in Ruby’s directions, they encountered a group of seven Protheon workers, headed for the same stairwell.

“Stars! What happened to him?” one of the women exclaimed when she saw Dave being carried.

“The alarm must have spooked him,” Ava replied. “Must have tripped and hit his head. We found him on the floor like this.”

The woman’s face dropped. “The elevators are locked down. Can you get him down the stairs?”

“I’ve got him, don’t worry,” Edwin said. The warrior took Dave’s full weight, slinging his legs over one arm and cradling his shoulders with the other.

“I’m sure a medic will respond to the alarm,” Ava said to the group of Protheon workers.

“Go on ahead,” a man in the group said, gesturing Ava’s team toward the stairwell.

“Thanks.” Ava ran ahead to prop the door open while Edwin carried Dave through.

She exchanged glances with Samantha while she passed through the open doorway with Nick.

>>I know how she feels,<< Ruby said. >>Someone could realize we don’t work here at any moment.<<

Our forged credentials have gotten us this far. Besides, we don’t have any other options. A roof extraction was a no-go, and it’s not like there’s a backdoor we could take. Going out the front is our only play.

>>But having more people see us?<<

Sometimes it’s easier to hide in plain sight, Ava replied.

They descended the staircase from their current position on the sixth floor. The Protheon facility was like any of the private industry structures Ava had ventured into over her career with the FDG, with sophisticated common areas and emergency stairwells cast in plain concrete with steel stairs. She could have been anywhere, for all the distinguishing features of the stairwell. In some ways, that was a  poetic expression of her covert ops activities—same mission, different bad guys, different place.

Despite Edwin carrying Dave, the group made fast time on the descent. The Protheon employees were only a few steps behind, so Ava elected to remain silent.

When they reached the bottom of the stairwell, Samantha opened the doorway and ushered Edwin through, followed by Ava and Nick.

Ava scanned the lobby, looking for the right place to deposit Dave.

Employees were pouring out of other stairwells into the lobby, and the bank of elevators had a red ‘X’ above each door. Half a dozen employees dressed in orange vests were shouting instructions for people to head outside.

That’s as good a target as any. Ava bobbed her head toward one of the orange-vested women nearest their stairwell, and she broke into a light jog, headed in that direction.

Edwin followed her lead.

“He just collapsed!” Ava exclaimed as she approached the target woman with Edwin.

The warrior set Dave on the floor.

“Did you see what happened?” the woman asked, concern clouding her face and she looked over Dave’s unconscious form.

“No, but we thought we should get him out of there when we heard the alarm,” Ava said. “I’ll see if I can find a medic. Check over there,” she said to Edwin, nodding toward the corner of the lobby opposite their current position.

“Stay with him,” Edwin told the woman.

The Protheon worker knelt over Dave while Ava and Edwin disappeared into the crowd.

Ava lost sight of her team in an attempt to blend in with the flow of traffic heading outside.

Shit, we weren’t supposed to get separated, she said to Ruby.

>>Everyone knows the rendezvous. Just get us there.<<

The throng of people flooding from the fourteen-story building directed Ava out through the lobby doors into a well-landscaped pavilion. A fountain filled the center of a circular drive, which led to the main roadway, a kilometer to the east.

She blinked in the sudden midday sun—a harsher light there on Darcar than she was used to in her home system.

People gravitated toward a grassy field to the left of the entry driveway, presumably a predetermined evacuation site.

Ava, however, headed toward the left as inconspicuously as she could, toward a pathway that led through an opening between two low hills to the employee parking lot. There was no cover available between Protheon’s entry and the path, but she walked with purpose.

Ten meters ahead of her, she spotted Nick and Samantha hustling in the same direction.

“You can’t head home. We need to do a roll call!” a man shouted behind Ava.

Is he talking to us?

>>Pretend you don’t hear him,<< Ruby suggested.

Ava picked up her pace.

“Hey!”

Stars, he’s persistent! Ava hazarded a glance behind her.

The man was jogging in her direction. “Meeting area is back this way,” he called.

Nick and Samantha were almost to the pass between the hills. Once inside, they’d be able to disappear.

Ava spotted Edwin twelve meters to her right, following the edge of the circular drive. She didn’t notice anyone watching him at the moment, so the best bet was to allow him to make a clean escape.

She stopped. “I already checked in with my floor marshal,” she stated without turning around.

“We need a headcount,” he insisted.

Except I’d be an extra. Ava took a slow breath, noting that Edwin was about to pass into the pathway between the hills. “My dog is in my car. I need to walk her,” she said.

“Wha…?”

Ruby, how do you feel about trying out my new super-speed?

>>We haven’t practiced enough. This isn’t an advisable time to experiment.<<

It’s the perfect time.

Ava bolted for the pathway. Her perception shifted so every footstep seemed like it was in slow motion relative to her surroundings. She looked back over her shoulder and saw the man raising his hands in frustrated protest, but the movement was barely perceptible.

She returned her focus ahead and ran. Though the world around her didn’t seem to move, each of her steps was at a normal running pace from her vantage. In what seemed like six seconds, she caught up to Edwin, just as he was rounding the bend in the pathway between the hills where he would be hidden from the pursuer.

Ava returned to normal speed. Her heart pounded in her ears—not from exertion, but from exhilaration.

Edwin did a double-take when she appeared next to him. “How did you get here so fast?”

“Putting my new abilities to use. Come on, we need to hurry.” She continued running alongside him at a brisk, human speed.

Nick and Samantha were waiting at the entrance to the employee parking lot, which spanned an acre.

“We’ll be all over the security footage,” Nick muttered as soon as Ava was within earshot.

“And they won’t be able to connect us to anything, aside from the mock profiles behind our forged credentials. That’s precisely why we had visitor badges,” she replied.

“I’m going to vote against future ops where we have to dress like this,” Samantha said with a downward glance of distaste at her attire.

“Agreed.” Edwin flexed in his business suit. “We’re supposed to be covert ops, not playing dress-up and impersonating people.”

Ava sighed. “It’s not like this was the first time we’ve done this.”

“Yeah, well, I guess I got used to being shot at,” Samantha replied. “And getting to shoot back.”

“That’s definitely more fun,” Edwin agreed.

“Well, that is precisely what’s going to happen if you keep standing here and complaining. Move!” Ava shooed them toward the back of the parking lot, where their stealthed pod was waiting for them.

As they approached the pod, Nick made entries on his wrist controls to drop the back hatch open. They piled inside, and Nick and Samantha went to the cockpit, while Ava and Edwin strapped into the back.

“So things didn’t go quite as we planned, but we got what we came for,” Ava commented.

“Glad it’s your job to explain that to Widmore,” Samantha said while she powered up the pod.

“It won’t be an issue,” Ava assured her team. At least, I hope not.

>>It could have gone better,<< Ruby interjected. >>You took some unnecessary risks.<<

Maybe they’re right—I’ve gotten used to the firefights, too.

>>We need to work on your appetite for drama.<<

Except, Ava wasn’t sure she wanted it to go away.

She decided to keep that notion to herself.

The pod lifted off from the ground, and its gravitic engines launched it toward space.

Stealthed in orbit, the Raven was awaiting their return. The pod slipped into its berth in the belly of the larger ship.

“Good work, team,” Ava said while disembarking the pod. “I’ll see you after my debrief with Major Widmore.”

“I’m telling you, he’s going to be pissed,” Samantha said with a slow shake of her head.

Ava shrugged. “Maybe, but I doubt it.”

“Here’s the drive.” Nick handed their bounty to her. “Hope it goes well.”

“Thanks. See you in a few.”

Ava jogged toward the ladder that led up from the bay to the middle level of the ship, which housed the galley, living quarters, and Widmore’s office.

“What the fuck was that alarm about?” Widmore demanded as soon as Ava’s head cleared the floor of the ladder shaft.

She gulped. Okay, so maybe this won’t be as easy a conversation as I thought.














CHAPTER TWO


“Hello, sir.” Ava finished scaling the ladder and rose to her feet on the deck, clasping her hands behind her back.

“My office. Now.” Major Widmore stormed down the hall.

I know we deviated a little, but isn’t he overreacting? Ava asked Ruby.

>>I’m sure you’ll know his exact thinking at any moment.<<

Ava wasn’t particularly eager to find out.

She followed the major into his office and closed the door.

Widmore stood behind his desk, resting his hands on the top and leaning forward. “Please explain to me how and why you evacuated the entire facility that you were supposed to be in and out of without causing any disturbance?”

Ava took a slow breath and met his gaze. “Well, sir, we had to abandon the original plan as soon as we got inside. Our badges got us through the front door just fine, but when we reached the communications room, it was occupied.”

“Dealing with one individual should be well within your skillset.”

“Yes, sir.” She nodded. “He was belligerent, but we easily subdued him. I glanced at his mind and quickly determined he didn’t know anything pertinent to our mission, so we bound and gagged him. Samantha and Nick proceeded to retrieve the information.”

“What about the alarm?” Widmore prompted.

“We got some unexpected additional company, so I improvised.”

The major wiped his hand down his face. “Lieutenant, going from one bound individual to triggering an evaluation alarm for a whole building isn’t just improvising, it’s changing the whole fucking plan.”

“The more people who came to question us, the more quickly our cover would have fallen apart. The quickest and fastest way to get out was to be among the many other people who were leaving.”

“Except you were seen parting ways from the group of evacuees. Plus, we had very intentional reasons for sending you in the way we did. This disturbance upset plans beyond this one operation.”

Ava looked down. “You didn’t inform me about those other activities, sir.”

He glared at her. “I shouldn’t have to. If you had followed orders, it wouldn’t have been relevant.”

“With all due respect, sir, plans need to change on the fly more often than not. If there were critical activities tangential to this op, then telling me would have allowed me to make a more informed decision.”

Widmore sighed. “Ava, I know this has been a difficult month and a half for you, but your new abilities don’t entitle you to break the rules. We have a chain of command and mission orders for a reason. Consider this your official warning.”

Is he serious? Threatening to bench me because we pulled the fire alarm?

>>Ava, don’t talk back. Nod and smile,<< Ruby cautioned.

This is absurd, right? He—

>>Now is not the time or place. You’re still on an endorphin high. Nod and smile. You can have a conversation with him when you’ve mellowed out.<<

Ava took a deep breath. “Yes, sir. Understood.”

“I expect your full written report in four hours. Dismissed.” Widmore sat down in his chair with a huff.

Why don’t we keep the details of this meeting between us for now, Ava suggested to Ruby.

>>Works for me.<<

She exited the major’s office and then headed for the washroom. The only thing worse than getting reprimanded by her superior officer was having it happen while she was out of uniform. Getting back into her shipsuit was top priority.

Just as she was reaching toward the washroom door’s handle, the hallway lights flickered.

“The fuck…?” Ava froze.

>>Power fluctuation,<< Ruby reported. >>No apparent cause in the ship’s real-time performance report.<<

Maybe it was a glitch.

The lights flickered again. This isn’t normal.

>>Ava, I recommend you get into your shipsuit immediately, in case we lose life support.<<

I was just thinking the same thing. Ava quickly opened the door and raced into the washroom.

The three members of her team were drying off in the showers.

“Don’t suppose you saw the lights flicker?” Nick asked.

“It was doing it in the hall, too,” Ava confirmed. “Power fluctuations shipwide.”

“I told you it wasn’t the steam messing with the overhead fixture!” Samantha ran toward her locker.

“Get dressed,” Ava encouraged her team. “It might be nothing, but if we have an issue, we need to be prepared.”

“Fucking great.” Edwin ran for his own locker.

Nick followed suit.

“How’d it go with Widmore?” Samantha asked while she dressed.

“Fine,” Ava replied, pulling her own shipsuit from her locker. “We’ll get in our mission reports and explain what happened.”

Samantha eyed her. “He was pissed, wasn’t he?”

Ava kept her gaze focused inside her locker. “We accomplished our mission.”

“Yep, thought so.” Samantha finished securing her shipsuit and closed her locker door. “I’m going to take a nap. Wake me up if the ship is rapidly decompressing.”

“I’ll join you,” Edwin said, following her from the washroom.

Nick hung back and waited for the door to close behind their two comrades.

“Are you okay, Ava?”

She finished securing her shipsuit and then slumped against her locker. “I messed up again. That’s two major fuck-ups in two months, since this fucking Hochste thing.”

“You’re being too hard on yourself,” her friend responded. “Not to sound like a dick, but you were far from perfect before.”

“Yeah, thanks.” She scoffed and shook her head.

“I mean that you’re hyper-aware of everything now,” he continued. “All of us have made plenty of mistakes and wrong calls on ops over the years, but now you’re scrutinizing every action because you’ve undergone this change. Are you honestly saying that Widmore never gave any reprimands before this transformation?”

Ava thought for a moment. “I guess he did.”

>>You had four ‘harshly worded’ performance reviews prior to my pairing with you,<< Ruby stated.

And you still elected to join me?

>>You were too fascinating a case for me to pass up,<< the AI replied. >>Plus, I knew I’d be getting involved with someone a little out there when you agreed to our pairing without an interview. I was able to go over your records, but you didn’t know a thing about me beforehand.<<

Widmore and Kurtz recommended you; that was enough.

Ruby was silent for a moment. >>If Major Widmore’s opinion carries so much weight that you’d allow him to select an AI for you, no wonder you take his criticism of your performance to heart.<<

Yeah, I guess I do, Ava realized.

She returned her attention to Nick. “You’re right. I’ve always been worried about letting my team down, but I worry about it more now. While I’m figuring out this new self, I have to hold myself to a higher standard.”

“There’s being cautious, and then there’s crippling yourself with self-doubt,” Nick replied. “After you showed the Dyons who was boss, you seemed so confident.”

“And then I remembered that cockiness gets people killed, so I adjusted my attitude.” Ava crossed her arms. “But maybe I swung too far in the other direction.”

“No one is perfect, Ava.” Nick stepped over to her and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Hochste or not, you’re still human. No one expects you to always be right.”

“But I’m expected to not pull alarms in buildings where we’re not supposed to be, apparently,” Ava muttered.

“Hey, it got us out of there. I thought it was—”

The lights cut out.

“Shit!” Ava groped in the dark for the emergency kit next to the lockers. Even with her new enhanced vision, there wasn’t enough light for her to see anything.

“Why aren’t they coming back on?” Nick asked. His question was followed by a bang on the locker doors, as his hand found them for spatial reference.

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

Ava’s fingers finally located the latch to the emergency kit, and she opened it. Inside, she felt around for the cool, metal cylinder of a flashlight.

“Watch your eyes,” she warned, then clicked on the device.

Red light flooded the washroom.

“We still have gravity,” Nick observed. “What might—”

The main lights flickered on again.

Ava blinked rapidly as her eyes adjusted. “This whole being-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-on-a-malfunctioning-spaceship thing isn’t working for me.”

“That makes two of us.”

“Attention,” Rod, the Raven’s captain, announced over the central comm system. “You’ve no doubt noticed the power fluctuations over the past five minutes. We have reset the central command modules, and all systems appear to be functioning properly. We will alert you if we detect any anomalous activity. In the meantime, please proceed as normal. Thank you.”

Ava and Nick looked at each other.

“Uh, that makes it even weirder, yeah?” she said.

He nodded. “What aren’t they telling us?”

She shook her head. “I have no idea, but I can’t wait to be back home.”


*     *     *


After the second flicker of the overhead lights and the touch-surface desk, Colonel Tyson Kurtz was certain something in FDG headquarters was amiss.

He rose from his desk and jogged to the office door, peeking out into the hallway. Sure enough, the flickering extended everywhere he could see from his vantage. What the fuck is going on?

Kurtz returned to his desk and activated the comm. “Denise, are you seeing this?” he asked.

“If you mean the power fluctuations that aren’t showing up in any of the system performance dashboard, then yes,” Denise Ortaga, the security chief, replied.

“Is it internal or an external attack?” Kurtz questioned.

“I’d tell you if I knew. We’re trying to figure it out.” Denise paused. “Shit, Colonel Walton is calling.”

“I’ll be standing by if you need me,” Kurtz said.

“Yes, sir.”

The comm link ended.

If Marcie Walton is calling the chief of security, then something is definitely going on. Kurtz frowned.

He hated having to sit back and wait for instructions, but he could offer no assistance or insights to the technical specialists. All the same, he felt like he needed to do something.

Unexpected anxiety gripped his chest. He hadn’t experienced that feeling since—

No, it’s not possible… He froze in the middle of his office, on his way back to his desk. The disquiet tickling the back of his mind was the same unease he’d felt when Nox had jumped into Jared—when the Dyons were close and attempting to exert their control.

He dismissed it. They’re gone. And they controlled people, not computers.

Such flashes of panic hit him occasionally, when something seemed amiss. He would think he had come to terms with his experience of being possessed by an alien captor, but then he’d have a random reaction like this, and be reminded that he wasn’t over it at all.

Traces of the trauma lingered, and would continue to linger. He’d been through an ordeal that had changed him.

Separate the anxiety from the facts, he told himself.

In this case, the facts were that FDG headquarters was experiencing a computer glitch. There was nothing to point to the Dyons, or any other foe. More likely, it was a bad connection at one of the power relay nodes—or whatever it had been when the same thing happened a year prior. Machines were fallible, but they’d fix this issue just like they’d fixed every other malfunction.

With his mind set at ease, Kurtz settled back behind his desk. The lights hadn’t shuddered for two minutes. If there was cause for future concern, they’d let him know.


*     *     *


Home at last. Ava breathed a sigh of relief.

Returning from a mission had always been rewarding, but it was even more special now that Luke was a permanent resident at FDG headquarters. Though they’d only been together for two months on this second go-around, their history together as teenagers had allowed them to quickly fall into the routine of an established couple.

In that tradition, Ava was pleased to find him waiting for her outside the doors to her quarters.

“Hey, you,” he greeted with a warm smile that lit up his violet eyes.

Her heart melted in spite of herself. “Hey.”

She had learned many years before that a sense of ‘home’ was more about the company she kept than any particular physical location. And Luke had become part of that home. Being with both him and her FDG family completed her world.

Luke drew her in for a kiss as soon as she was within arm’s reach. “I missed you.”

“Missed you, too.” Ava palmed open her door using the biometric lock. She ushered Luke inside.

“How did the op go?” he asked, following her direction.

“We got what we needed, but we made a bit of a scene.”

He chuckled. “That’s becoming a trademark of yours.”

“Yeah, it is.” She closed the door and dropped her travel bag on the ground. “Problem is, we’re supposed to be covert ops.”

“No offense, but your new abilities don’t exactly help you blend in.”

“Honestly, I think that’s part of my problem.”

Ava collapsed on her bed, and Luke sat down next to her.

“Did you want to talk about it?” he asked.

“Not right now, but thanks.” She smiled weakly. “I had hoped things would get back to normal as soon as I had Ruby to help regulate my transformations, but the new ‘normal’ isn’t quite what I’d thought it’d be.”

Luke tilted his head. “What were you expecting?”

“I dunno.” She looked down. “I didn’t think I’d have to keep proving myself.”

His brow knit. “You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone.”

“I do. Constantly. I had wanted to show that I’m not a liability even after these changes, but instead, I keep finding evidence that maybe I am.”

“Try to talk some sense into her, Luke,” Ruby chimed in over the audible comms. “I’ve been attempting to get her to hear reason for the past six hours, but she won’t snap out of this funk.”

“I’ve been careless and impulsive since I got these nanocytes,” Ava shot back. “That’s reason to be concerned—especially since you’re supposed to be the one keeping an eye on me, but you keep saying everything is okay.”

“Isn’t the fact that I’m telling you you’re fine the reassurance you need? I do question you when I feel it’s prudent,” Ruby replied.

Concern flitted across Luke’s face. “I’m not sure if I should get involved in this or not…”

“Ruby is butting in on personal time when she shouldn’t,” Ava stated.

>>Fine, I’ll leave you be,<< Ruby said privately. >>But we need to get to the bottom of these feelings, Ava. You’ll never be able to maximize the use of your new abilities if you keep having these doubts.<<

Yeah, I know, Ava acknowledged. “Sorry, I don’t mean for you to get caught in the middle of things with me and Ruby,” she said to Luke.

“Sometimes I feel like I have two girlfriends now.” He laughed.

Ava snorted. “Oh, stars! Right! Don’t say that to Ruby when she’s not under explicit instructions to stay quiet.”

Luke eyed her. “Do I detect a hint of jealousy?”

“That would require me to have a concern about her taking you away from me. Since we share this body, she wouldn’t get very far.”

“I also know better than to date other scientist-types,” Luke said. “Get two biologists together, and you can really overanalyze a relationship in the wrong ways.”

“Speaking from experience?”

“Second-hand. I watched it go down while I was in grad school. It wasn’t pretty.”

Ava winced. “Yikes.”

“I’ll take this complementary thing we have going on. It works.” He took her hand.

“Well, good, because I don’t particularly want to share you.”

“Stars, you are jealous!” Luke laughed.

She blushed. “I can’t help it! You got me started down the mental path of someone trying to take you away from me, and—”

Luke looked her in the eyes. “Ava, I love you, but you’re being crazy right now. And I mean that in the nicest way possible.”

“I am, aren’t I?” She sighed.

He stroked the side of her face. “You seem off. Did something happen?”

“Nothing that should have me acting like this.” She thought about it. “I dunno, there’s just this… feeling.”

“That doesn’t give me a lot to go on.”

She groaned. “I know. Just…” She stood up from the bed and paced in front of him. “This is going to sound even more nuts, but I’ve been fighting this feeling of impending doom.”

“Ava…”

“I know! I know. But you asked, so there it is. I keep fearing I’m going to do something that’s going to get people hurt. So whenever there’s a little glitch, or whatever, my first thought is, ‘This is the thing that’s going to bring my new world crashing down.’ ”

Luke stood up and wrapped his arms around her. “You’re driving yourself crazy over nothing.”

Is it nothing? I sounded an alarm today as an exit strategy for a covert op.”

“That actually sounds like a brilliant way to get out of a building.”

She frowned. “Yeah, see, that’s what I thought. Widmore disagrees.”

“If that’s the only thing that’s bothering you, then you are really making a bigger deal out of it than you should.” Luke caught her gaze. “We all do things that, in retrospect, we would have done differently. Learn from the experience and move on.”

“I know. That’s what Ruby has been saying.”

“So listen to us.” He smiled. “What’s the point of surrounding yourself with smart people if you ignore everything they have to say?”

“Okay, okay.” She returned his smile. “Sorry I was acting weird. I think it’s just one of those days where a bunch of little things have added up, you know?”

“I’ve been there. Don’t worry about it.” He gave her a light kiss.

She kissed him back, then pulled away to retrieve her travel bag from the floor. “I need to take a quick shower. I didn’t get one on the Raven because of this weird power fluctuation. Didn’t want to be without my suit in the event it turned into a bigger issue.”

Luke’s face dropped. “When was that?”

“Right when we were leaving Darcar. So, like, six hours ago. Why?”

“We had some flickering light action here at headquarters right around then,” Luke revealed.

“This is not helping the paranoia I’m trying to keep at bay.”

Luke placed his hands on her upper arms. “They didn’t make an announcement, there was no alarm, and we’re still alive. It’s probably nothing. Forget I said anything.”

Ava nodded. “Right, coincidence.” She forced a smile. “I’ll get cleaned up, and then maybe we can grab dinner later?”

“Sounds great. I have a couple things to finish up at the lab, but then I’m free for the rest of the night.”

“Okay, I’ll message you in a bit.” Ava kissed him. “Thanks again for talking some sense into me. You’re much better at it than Ruby.”

“I’ve also known you a lot longer.”

“You do know me well. Maybe too well.” She narrowed her eyes playfully.

Luke smiled back. “Ah, the gift of history—being able to use your own arguments against you.”

“Watch it, mister. That goes both ways!”

“A fact I know all too well. See you soon.” With a parting hug, Luke went to attend to his remaining tasks.

Sorry, Ava said to Ruby when they were alone. Sometimes I need to hear things from a source outside my own head.

>>That history does mean a lot. We’ll get there. I can’t compete with someone you’ve known for a decade.<<

Thanks, Ruby. I do value your opinion. I’m just stubborn.

The AI laughed in her mind. >>That’s putting it mildly.<<

Ava paused. Not to feed back into my worries, but do you know any more about that power fluctuation here at headquarters?

>>I looked up the records as soon as he mentioned it. It was dismissed as a faulty converter.<<

But it’s weird, right? The timing with the Raven?

>>I agree that it is,<< Ruby replied. >>But I can’t venture a guess at what a connection between the two events might mean.<<

 So, pretend like it’s nothing?

>>Right now, it is nothing,<< the AI pointed out. >>We have noted curious data points, but until there is enough information to perform an analysis, we cannot draw any correlation, causation, or trends.<<

Ava chuckled. Luke may be better at appealing to my emotions, but you can win any battle of logic.

>>Thank you, Ava. That’s a touching compliment.<<

One of these days, I’ll learn I should never try to argue. But her stubbornness was too engrained. A lively discussion was part of the fun.












CHAPTER THREE


I wish Ava weren’t so hard on herself, Luke thought while he made his way back to the research lab. I’ve only been here for two months. My external validation shouldn’t be necessary.

There was more to it than just those two months, though. The history that afforded them immediate comfort with one another also brought with it the potential to fall into old habits.

He was sure she didn’t realize it, but Luke suspected that her recent transformation—and her reconnection with him—had triggered Ava to reflect on her past, perhaps all the way back to her original decision to join the FDG. The validation she was seeking for her recent command decisions was likely rooted in a deeper desire to validate her career path; she wasn’t questioning a single decision, but rather every decision leading up to that recent moment. He’d been catching hints of it over the past two months, and seeing her ongoing evaluation of her own command decisions reinforced his hypothesis.

In his short time observing Ava in the FDG, he had no doubt that she was in her element. There was no reason to question her decision to join the Force, because it was where she belonged. Somehow, he needed to help her recapture her confidence.

Tackling that challenge would take time, however. Her confidence needed to be rebuilt from within. All he could do for now was be supportive in her moments of doubt, in the way he knew she would be for him. Mutual trust, respect, love—their foundation would see them through any future trials they may face.

Luke traversed the halls to his lab. Though it was nearing the end of the day, Tess and Jack were still absorbed in their monitors when he arrived.

“Welcome back,” Tess greeted. The stickers around her screen had continued to multiply over the past month, to the point that a rainbow space pony had become a permanent fixture on any document she happened to have open on the screen.

“Sorry to have ditched you in the middle of the analysis,” Luke replied.

“I know better than to ignore a girlfriend’s call. You’re good,” Jack said with a slight smile, glancing up from the monitor at his own immaculate workstation.

“Latest model finished running a couple minutes ago,” Tess reported.

Luke came to attention. “Did you look at it yet?”

“Nope, waiting for you.”

“All right, let’s take a look.”

Luke had been analyzing material samples from the Gidyon System for the past month, scouring fragments from the dwarf planet for any genetic or biological remnants. They’d also looked at samples from the gas giant to gain a better understanding of how the bioamplifier functioned.

All of their research had made it painfully clear how little they knew. With each dead-end analysis, new questions had opened up that led down increasingly convoluted lines of reasoning. But, whenever Luke was ready to admit how much they didn’t know and leave things be, they’d make a discovery that would drive them forward.

Right now, he needed one of those wins.

“Well, shit.” Luke whistled through his teeth.

Tess shook her head with wonder. “When did finding nothing become so exciting?”

The most recent round of assessment had been a shot in the dark: running a comprehensive comparison of the materials they’d already catalogued in Gidyon against the list of minerals and biological samples from worlds in the Federation’s database. Getting access to that database alone had required Kurtz pulling some strings, but the permission had been granted earlier that week.

In the time since, they’d been running batches of data, trying to locate the sources of the materials found in the artificial world, since the minerals mined from Nezar and Coraxa could only account for a fraction of the dwarf planet’s volume. They figured that tracing back those materials to other sources may offer some insight into where the Dyons had originally come from, or what kind of places others of their kind might target in the future, if there were more.

What the analysis revealed, however, was that none of the samples could be traced to any known world.

“They’re from the outskirts,” Luke murmured. “Way outside Federation space.”

“Or maybe even outside this galaxy,” Tess emphasized.

“But how did they travel?” Luke mused aloud. “We have yet to see any evidence of a propulsion system.”

“Assuming they travel through normal space,” Jack chimed in from across the lab. “I mean, they communicate telepathically through the Etheric. Who’s to say they can’t move through the Etheric, too?”

“Teleporting? It’s one thing for a person like Bethany Anne to do it, but a whole planet-sized thing?” Luke shook his head. “That’s crazy, right?”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “More crazy than body-snatching telepathic nano-aliens that live in kilometer-deep pits?”

Luke sighed. “I keep resetting my definition of ‘out there’, and then promptly forget that reality and craziness are now one in the same.”

“It’s our burden.” Tess smiled. “I would like to note, however, that we got an almost-hit on one of the organisms in the mix on that gas giant.”

“Really? That’s new.” Luke tilted his head.

“I don’t think it’s an origin match, but rather an indicator of type. The microorganisms from Gidyon were definitely manufactured, but I think they were modeled after the sort that have thrived on Rylon II and Salwell IV,” she continued. “As far as we know, the life of those gas giants came about through natural means—which suggests that there could be other systems in the outskirts of the galaxy where similar life has emerged.”

“That doesn’t help explain how the Dyons learned to manipulate those genetic codes to modify the microorganisms for their own needs,” Luke said.

“But it does support our working hypothesis that the Dyons only adapt technology and biology they come across, rather than generating anything truly original of their own,” Tess replied.

Which doesn’t bode well for them having gotten their hands on our external processor. Luke wouldn’t dare say that aloud to anyone, especially Ava. It was that field mistake that had precipitated her regular questioning of her command decisions. Even her successful takedown of the dwarf planet in Gidyon using only her telepathic powers hadn’t been enough to reaffirm her abilities as an FDG officer in her mind.

Everyone had hoped that the external processor had been destroyed in Gidyon along with the planet, closing the issue. But if Jack’s hunch was correct, and the Dyons maintained a connection with the Etheric that extended beyond remote mind control, then they could have communicated the details of the computer operations at the core of the Federation’s technology. Any groups of Dyons that existed elsewhere might now have that information.

Luke suppressed the thought, knowing that following the hypothetical would only generate as yet unfounded fears about his civilization being conquered by new, invisible, alien overlords.

“Well,” he pushed back from his computer terminal, “I guess we can definitively say now that we know the Dyons come from somewhere remote and unexplored.”

“New life, unlike anything discovered elsewhere.” Tess was almost radiant from the revelation.

Luke had learned over the past month that she specialized in xenobiology, which in retrospect seemed obvious, given the comments she’d made in their previous collaborations. It was also no wonder she’d accepted him as a team leader, given he came from Coraxa—regarded as one of the most biologically diverse and unique worlds within the grasp of the Etheric Federation.

“Exciting stuff,” Luke agreed. “I wish we had answers to offer, but at least now we know to look outward to learn more, rather than inward.”

“Yes, there is that.” Tess was silent for a moment. “Do you think they’ll come back?”

Jack snorted. “Would you come back, if someone blew up your planet-sized base?”

That could have been the equivalent of a tiny outpost, for all we know. Luke decided to keep that thought to himself, too.

“If they come back, at least we know more about them now. Between the sound frequency and the chemical mixture to dissolve the mineral, that’s a decent defensive strategy.”

“I hope so.” Tess’ tone lacked its normal enthusiasm.

“Did you find something else?” Luke asked her, wondering where the change in mood was stemming from.

“Just thinking back to that weirdness with the lights earlier. Last time something went wonky in headquarters, Kurtz was possessed by Nox.”

“We’ve checked him, he’s clean,” Luke assured her. “And we’ve checked everyone else.”

Tess opened her mouth like she was about to make a counterpoint, but she nodded instead.

“Let’s not worry about that right now,” he continued. “I have a couple of things to finish up, but then let’s call it an early night.”

“Works for me,” Jack replied.

Tess smiled. “You owe me a drink! I told you the Dyons were from outside Federation territory.”

“Yes, you did,” Luke conceded. “Time I pay up.”


*     *     *


After a month on Nezar, Karen had acclimated to the warmer environment. She still hated it—and would complain about the heat every chance she got—but at least it no longer wiped her out the second she stepped outside a building.

Her temporary office space inside the Nezaran government building in the city was beginning to feel more like her own than the desk waiting for her back on Alucia. Based on the quizzical look President Connors gave her each time they checked in, she was sure he suspected as much, too.



The twice-weekly video calls provided a chance for her to update him on her progress in rebuilding the Nezaran government, after it was gutted following the revelation that the Dyon alien Reya had been in control of the Nezaran chancellor. Karen had thought it would take a week, maybe two, to identify appropriate individuals to fill the power vacuum left by the removal of the planet’s leaders; in her prior experience, someone was always eager for a chance to advance.

This time, though, no one was rising to the occasion.

The only people who’d demonstrated genuine interest in her efforts were Trisha, Fiona, and Edgar, but the latter two had made it very clear they had no interest in being chancellor. While Trisha hadn’t outright rejected the idea, she didn’t have the résumé to support an appointment quite on that level.

After a month of interviews and searching for other candidates, Karen was beginning to wonder if she’d need to look offworld to find someone.

As she met President Connors’ gaze over the vid call for their check-in, she pondered whether it was finally time to share that concern.

“Was there something else?” Connors prompted. He raised a fair eyebrow above his violet Torcellan eyes.

“Well,” Karen began, “we’ve spent most of our time talking about infrastructure, and getting trade between Alucia and Nezar back on track. And while those operations have resumed, and seem to be going well, there’s still the issue of restoring the government leadership.”

“I thought you were conducting interviews with potential candidates?”

“Yeah…” she hedged. “I mean, I have been, yes. But I’m pretty much out of people to talk to.”

Connors folded his hands on his desktop. “Are you being too picky?”

She laughed. “Oh, I wish that was the case! No, sir, I set bare minimum qualifications to get an initial list going—there are some baseline credentials we can’t compromise. But everyone I’ve talked to who meets those basic requirements isn’t interested.”

“I find that difficult to believe. Every time I run for re-election, there’s always some new contender, however unqualified, eager to unseat me.”

“That’s just it, sir—I can’t find someone qualified who wants it. A handful of disgruntled miners have come forward with vocal opposition to the current system, demanding we launch a military assault on Alucia or relocate to Coraxa.”

The presidents’ eyes widened. “Really? I haven’t seen anything about that.”

Karen cracked a smile. “Well, I am the press secretary, remember? I know how to contain an unfavorable story.”

“I agree that we couldn’t have someone with that level of bias in command, but I’m concerned that there’s still a vocal separatist movement on Nezar. I thought that most people on the world had begun advocating for unity in the Alaxar Trinary as soon as Heizberg’s influence was removed.”

She nodded. “Publicly, yes. But there are going to be those that disagree, no matter what topic, or where it is. It’s the voice of hundreds versus tens of thousands.”

Connors leaned back in his chair. “What do you propose?”

“I…” Karen faded out. This is as good of an opening as I’ll get.

She took a deep breath. “I believe we need to think bigger than Nezar, sir. If no one on this world wants to step up as a leader, then perhaps it’s time we consider a unified government for the Alaxar Trinary.”

“Hmm.”

I expected more of a reaction than that…  Karen eyed him. “Sir?”

“I’ve been wondering when you’d make that suggestion.”

She smiled. “Was it that obvious that’s where things were headed?”

“Inevitable progress,” he replied. “I’ve given it some thought. The Alaxar Trinary would have greater negotiating power and presence with the Federation if we were three worlds, rather than just Alucia as a single planet. One political leader as the face of the system, with a leader for domestic issues on each of the three worlds—perhaps with a ‘governor’ title.”

“ ‘Governor’ might be an easier sell than ‘chancellor’,” Karen acknowledged.

“Moreover, the restructure would simplify the trade agreements. You mentioned that the lingering hang-ups are all related to tariffs.”

She nodded. “And with a unified government, there’d be no reason to try to make money off of each other.”

“Precisely.”

“Hmm.” Okay, so maybe there’s more depth to that reaction than I thought.

“See if you can subtly present the idea and gauge the response. If it’s favorable, we can discuss a more formal political strategy to gain public buy-in.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll speak to you next week.” Connors ended the call.

Karen slumped back in her office chair, pivoting around to gaze out the window.

I think he already has someone in mind for the Nezaran governor, she mused while watching the people go about their lives on the streets below. And I think it may be me.

She wasn’t sure how she felt about that idea. While her qualifications did exceed the minimums she’d established for her interview purposes, she hardly considered herself a qualified candidate. She wasn’t born on Nezar, and she didn’t embody the culture of the world.

Plus, she’d already sworn her allegiance to Alucia.

Connors knows that. He wouldn’t consider me for governor. Her initial thought seemed ridiculous the more she thought about it.

However, the change in title offered new flexibility in the job qualifications. Karen ran through the candidates she’d previously dismissed. The governor should be a native of Nezar—someone with a vested interest in the world. She had yet to come across anyone who cared as much as Trisha Mercer.

Stars! Though Trisha wasn’t quite ready for chancellor, she would be great as a governor, if I could convince her.

She had the makings of a leader who could be embraced by the people—born to an average middle-class family, volunteered with charities, and had earned her present position in the government through hard work and dedication. Moreover, she had a good heart. While she could use some toughening, the right foundation was there.

All Karen had to do was persuade her to take the job.


*     *     *


Repairing trust after an op that didn’t go well was a tricky endeavor, but also a critical component of making sure her team was ready for anything. Having had time to reflect on the Protheon mission and the decisions she’d made in the field, Ava was confident she’d made the right calls, given the information at her disposal.

The matter was worth a follow-up discussion with Major Widmore, though she’d have to be careful to keep the conversation from devolving into an ‘I told you so’ exchange. Her unique abilities didn’t change her position in the chain of command.

As soon as she had showered, Ava decided that she should talk with the major before her dinner with Luke. The longer she delayed the conversation, the more awkward it would be.

She checked one of the monitors along the hall walls and saw that Widmore was in his office, right where Ava had hoped he’d be.

She traversed the station along the familiar path, organizing her thoughts.

When she arrived, the door was open, and Widmore was working at his desk.

He glanced up. “Lieutenant, what brings you by?”

“Sir, I wanted to discuss the last op. We didn’t end our previous exchange on the best of terms.”

He nodded. “Come in and have a seat.”

Ava stepped into the office and closed the door behind her. “I apologize for dropping in unannounced.”

“Not at all. I’m glad you came by.”

She looked down at her hands, then brought her gaze up to meet Widmore’s. “Sir, I wanted to apologize for my behavior earlier. I acted rashly without regard for the consequences.”

The major softened. “After going through the mission recording Ruby provided from her observations, I’ve reevaluated my stance. With more people converging on your location, it was unlikely you would have been able to retreat without needing to shoot others.”

Ava’s heart leaped. “Sir?”

“You have good instincts, Lieutenant. I shouldn’t have doubted you.”

>>See? Told you,<< Ruby said in Ava’s mind.

You got me.

“Thank you, sir. Having your trust means a great deal to me. I hated to think that I let you down.”

“I’ve always been hard on you, Ava, but that’s because I know you can take it. Even before the changes from these nanocytes, you were capable of more than you gave yourself credit for. What you lacked in physical prowess, you more than made up for in spirit. You would never have had this command if it wasn’t for your quick thinking. I shouldn’t have passed judgment without understanding the scenario.”

“All the same, this was an important reminder that our actions aren’t isolated,” she replied. “I acted in the interest of my team in that moment without concern for the ripple effects.”

“It did complicate other matters, I won’t lie,” Widmore admitted. “However, the information you retrieved will allow us to set it right. No long-term harm done.”

“I’m relieved to hear it, sir.”

“I’ve said before that you should trust your instincts. It would do me good to remember my own words.”

She smiled. “Yes, sir.”

He smiled back. “Thank you for stopping by. I’ve always appreciated your strength of character to approach conflict head-on.”

“Gladly, sir. I’ll be standing by for our next assignment.”

“It might be a few days. We’re having the Raven checked out. Apparently, the issues we experienced weren’t isolated.”

Ava frowned. “Luke mentioned that there was an incident here at headquarters.”

“Reports from other ships, too,” Widmore revealed. “The technical team is looking into it. Nothing we can do for now but wait for their report.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have a good night, Ava.”

Ava bid him farewell. As she opened the door, the lights cut out for a second, then re-illuminated brighter than their typical output.

Widmore’s desktop screen flickered between its normal data display and bit of gibberish code.

Ava’s gaze met Widmore’s. “Shit, what now?”












CHAPTER FOUR


Kurtz exited the administrative wing of FDG headquarters on his way to the officer’s mess. Another day down, another crisis averted.

Who was he kidding? Saving the galaxy was a ’round-the-clock job.

He smiled to himself. Wearying or not, he wouldn’t choose any other life.

The lights cut out.

Fuck, not again.

Before he had time to react, the lights returned at maximum output. He shielded his sensitive Were eyes from the sudden brightness.

Power surge?

But no controls would have the illumination at those levels.

Kurtz stepped over to the nearest information screen on the corridor wall, but stopped in his tracks when he saw foreign code scrolling across the screen.

His heart leaped into his throat. We’ve been hacked.

FDG headquarters’ security had never been compromised—not on this level. For that matter, not even an outpost had fallen under enemy control. And if they had control of the computer network, they could easily get inside.

Without hesitation, Kurtz sprinted toward the corridor leading to the operational command center of headquarters.


*     *     *


Luke powered down his workstation for the day, relieved to finally be finished with the most recent round of Gidyon sample testing.

“Team happy hour!” Tess exclaimed. “It’s like we’re bonding, or something.”

“Calling attention to the fact kinda ruins the magic,” Jack replied.

Luke smiled to himself. It felt good to be a part of a group again. He hadn’t spent enough time at the NTech lab of Coraxa to connect much with his coworkers, so he hadn’t been on a proper team since grad school on Nezar.

“Ava will likely join us later on,” he said. “So, Jack, try to keep the ‘weird science experiment’ talk to a minimum, okay?”

“Hey, I can conduct myself like a reasonable person. I mean, nanocytes aren’t everything. There are recessive genetic traits to talk about, like her red hair,” Jack replied.

Luke laughed. “Dude, you really don’t want to go th—”

He stopped short when the lights turned off.

Instead of complete darkness like he expected, there was a subtle blue glow illuminating the lab.

The darkness lasted only a split second. When the lights returned, they were so bright, he had to squint.

“Did you see that glow?” he asked.

“Yeah, I did notice something,” Tess concurred. “What was it?”

“Hit the switch.” Luke instructed.

Jack, who was closest to the controls, turned off the overhead lights.

There were a few low lights from ambient equipment, but a distinct blue glow was coming from elsewhere.

Luke looked around for the source of the light and was surprised to see it emanating from the rack containing the samples from Gidyon.

His brow knit. “Uh, did they do that before?”

“Fuck if I know!” Jack exclaimed. “But that doesn’t look good.”

Luke looked closer. “Wait, is that moving?”

The mineral fragments were crawling up the sides of the test tubes and congregating near the corks. There was no mistaking that they were trying to burrow through.

“Shit, can it get out?” The panic was evident on Tess’ face even in the low light cast from the glowing samples.

“Better question: what could it do if it does get out?” Jack asked.

Luke didn’t want to find out.

“We need to get it in something more secure,” he said, his mind racing about what that might be. He scanned around the room. “The glove box! Come on.”

Luke raced toward the rack, grabbing a pair of tongs from a canister of tools on his way.

Jack grabbed another set of tongs while Tess opened the top of the glove box, a one-meter-wide transparent cube with built-in rubber gloves on two walls, which was used for handling potentially contaminated materials. It didn’t come into play too often in their research activities, but the thick plexiglass walls stood the best chance of anything in the lab at containing the tiny particles.

Luke and Jack each grabbed test tubes with the tongs and gingerly transplanted them to the bottom of the glove box. Tess closed the plexiglass hatch over the four glove openings as an extra precaution.

“Was this stuff alive the whole time?” she murmured.

“Depends on your definition of life,” Luke replied while transporting another vial.

“Crawly, glowy things certainly seem to fit the definition,” Jack said. “Not that I’m crazy about the idea of a bunch of rock that had been exposed to the vacuum of space suddenly being able to spring into action like this.”

“Is it too far a leap to hypothesize that it’s connected to whatever is going on with the lights on the station?” Tess ventured.

“With this timing, no,” Luke replied. He placed another test tube in the glove box; only three more to go.

Tess wilted. “That means it’s…”

“Fucking Dyons,” Jack completed for her.

“But computers!” Tess objected.

“They got one of the external processors,” Jack reminded the two scientists. “If they’re as good at reverse engineering as it seems like they are, then it’s no surprise they figured out a hack.”

“But where are they? Is this telepathic?” Tess’ eyes were wide with worry and wonder.

Luke placed the final sample vial in the glove box, then swung the top lid closed and latched it. “I have a feeling we’re about to find out.”


*     *     *


“Fuckity fuck,” Ava said under her breath.

“Theory, Lieutenant?” Widmore asked as he shielded his eyes from the overly bright lights.

“Weird happenings on both starships and in headquarters? Someone or something has hacked into our central control systems,” Ava replied.

 “I figured as much. Care to hazard a guess at whom?”

“I really want to be wrong, but I’d put money on the Dyons taking advantage of the tech we inadvertently left them.”

>>I hate to concur, but I do,<< Ruby said in her mind. >>This is bad.<<

“Fucking fantastic,” Widmore said in a low voice, shaking his head. “We need to get to central command. If it is them, you’re our best chance at opening a dialogue.”

“Yes, sir.”

They set off at a fast jog from the office, following the main corridors on a direct route to the control center at the heart of the star-shaped station. Other warriors in the halls quickly moved out of their way. A few tried to ask questions, but Widmore ignored them all. Ava followed his lead.

A dozen meters from the control center entrance, Ava spotted Colonel Kurtz approaching from the opposite direction.

“Sir,” Ava acknowledged.

“Lieutenant, Major,” Kurtz greeted with a curt nod. “It would seem we were due for another crisis.”

“All to keep us on our toes, sir,” Ava replied. She forced a smile, but on the inside she was terrified to find out what they were up against.

Kurtz was the first through the entry door, followed by Widmore. Ava reluctantly followed.

The round room was abuzz with activity. Communications techs were yelling at each other across their consoles, arranged in two concentric circles around the room, and officers were barking orders. Ava tuned out the din in an attempt to identify any information about what was going on. Nothing stood out, aside from a list of errors flashing in red on the broad screen mounted to the back wall.

Ruby, you have anything? she asked.

>>Systems are down. We’re locked out.<<

Can you get in?

>>Not alone,<< Ruby replied.

Ava stepped up next to Widmore, while Kurtz ran over to talk with the other senior officers gathered in the center of the room.

“Sir, Ruby said the controls are locked.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Widmore murmured. “I thought we were dealing with a telepathic enemy, but this…”

“They don’t just manipulate biology. Technology, too,” she replied. “But I didn’t see a computer hack coming, either. Fuck, I’d really hoped they were all dead.”

“Me too.”

Ava looked around the room. “Until we can put a face to these things, I can’t do anything here. But I do happen to know two of the best hackers around.”

Widmore looked at her under his brow. “Hack our own computer network?”

“If we’re locked out, what other choice do we have?”

“All right, get them up here,” Widmore agreed.

Ruby, do you have access to communications? Ava asked in her mind.

>>No, everything is locked. It’s a small miracle we still have life support.<<

“I’ll need to find them in person,” Ava told Widmore. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

He nodded. “I’ll relay your recommendation to the other officers. If it’s a go, we’ll be ready for you when you return with Nick and Samantha.”

“Yes, sir.”

Ava raced from the control room toward the corridor leading to the residential arm housing her team. She’d normally hop on the maglev, but with the power fluctuations, getting trapped in a transport car was too great a risk. Besides, with her new abilities, running was a breeze.

She tore past the confused warriors traversing the halls in an attempt to find answers, deftly navigating the corridors until she reached the part of her trek where she needed to go vertically.

I’m going to guess that taking the lift is a bad idea.

>>If you thought being trapped in a maglev car was bad, pretty sure an elevator is on a whole other level… literally.<<

Ava rolled her eyes. Ruby, that was a terrible pun.

She reached the ladder access shaft, which was two meters from the main elevator bank. Twisting the lever to the side, she swung the hatch door open. She peeked inside. It was a long way up—nine stories to her destination.

Keep my palms from sweating, will you?

>>With your new grip strength, it won’t matter.<<

All the same, falling to our death would be a lame way to go.

She made quick time up the ladder and unbolted the access hatch on the destination level.

Her team’s quarters were forty meters down the main corridor and off a short side passageway.

Please be here, Ava wished silently to herself. She knocked on the door.

To her relief, the bolt unlocked after five seconds, and the door opened a crack. Nick peered back at her.

“Ava?” He swung the door open fully.

“Hey.” She spotted Samantha and Edwin seated at the table. “Thank the stars you’re here! We need you.”

The warriors came to attention.

“What’s going on?” Samantha asked.

“Pretty sure the Dyons hacked into our central network,” Ava stated.

“Fucking external processor,” Nick swore.

“Yeah, I knew that was going to come back to bite our asses in a bad way,” Ava said. “But beating ourselves up again won’t help. Our immediate concern is we’re locked out of our own systems.”

“Shit, really?” Samantha stood up.

“My crazy suggestion was for you two to try to hack in,” Ava continued. “They’re waiting for us back at the command hub.”

Samantha cast Nick a look bordering on pure glee. “It’s what we always dreamed of doing.”

Nick’s eyes were bright with equal wonder. “The ultimate test of skill.”

“Yeah, happy for you, and all, but this isn’t for bragging rights,” Ava stated.

“Oh, but there’s going to be so much bragging,” Nick replied with a grin. He ran to the locker at the foot of his bunk to retrieve his equipment kit. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go!”

“What should I do?” Edwin asked from the table.

“Wait here. We don’t need the muscle right now,” Ava told him. “I’ll be in touch as soon as we get the comms working again.”

“Good luck,” he replied.

Ava led Nick and Samantha back to the ladder she’d ascended.

“Ugh, I hate ladders,” Samantha commented as soon as she saw the narrow chute.

“We use ladders all the time,” Nick said with an eyeroll as he climbed inside.

“That doesn’t make me detest them any less!” she shot back while following him.

Ava groaned and waited for Samantha to descend enough so she could enter. Sometimes, those two… she commented to Ruby.

>>Geniuses always have their quirks.<<

Yet another thing to be careful saying around them. I made the mistake of calling Nick ‘brilliant’ once. He spent the next week referring to himself as a ‘demigod’. Ava began descending the ladder.

>>That seems like a bit of a leap.<<

If there is a leap to be made, they’ll find a way.

>>Your team is very strange, Ava.<<

Not like I’m the image of normalcy myself.

Ruby paused. >>That’s a good point.<<

At the bottom of the ladder, Ava took the lead for the run back to the command hub. To her surprise, Nick and Samantha were more winded than her when they arrived.

“Wait here for a moment,” she told them, both to give them an opportunity to catch their breath and so she could get final clearance on her hacking plan.

Ava entered the command room to find that the shouting had stopped. Now, it was almost silent. Somehow, that made it much worse.

She spotted Kurtz and Widmore standing at the center of the room with the other senior officers, including Marcie Walton.

If this suggestion is going to get shot down, it will be in spectacular fashion, Ava said to Ruby.

>>Even the highest commanders are still people,<< Ruby pointed out.

People or not, it was still intimidating.

Ava gathered her courage and approached the group. “Sirs.” She gave a differential nod.

Colonel Walton evaluated her. “I heard you want to try hacking our own computer network.”

Ava met the colonel’s level gaze. “Yes, ma’am. If the techs are unable to gain access through other means, maybe Nick and Sam can help.”

“So much for keeping those two out of trouble.” She sighed. “I didn’t think it’d come to it, but our other efforts have yet to yield results. Have them proceed. Just… try not to break anything.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ava acknowledged. She saluted, then ran back to the hall to retrieve her team members.

“We’re a go,” she told them. “Colonel Walton said not to break anything.”

“Psh, Kurtz was on Marcie’s tac team when we were still on Earth, and she knows what we can do,” Samantha replied. “We always leave things more organized than we found them.”

“Except when we really fuck something up,” Nick whispered.

“Shh!” Ava lowered her voice. “Don’t do that.”

Nick waved his hand. “I’m ninety-nine point seven percent sure we won’t cause irreparable damage.”

“It’s that point three percent that worries me,” Ava muttered. “I’ll leave you to it.”

She stood at a distance with her arms crossed while the two tech specialists got settled at adjacent workstations along the curved outer wall.

“Wow, they really did a number on the system,” Samantha muttered while she tried to gain access to the locked directories.

“This encryption pattern is familiar,” Nick mused. “Definitely resembles what we encountered in Gidyon.”

Ava’s heart sank. As if we didn’t have enough evidence already that the Dyons were back. 

Well, shit, she said to Ruby.

>>You always suspected there were more of them. This isn’t a complete surprise.<< The AI caught herself. >>Well, the computer system hack is, but not the return of the Dyons.<<

I can’t help but feel like this is my fault, Ava groaned in her mind.

>>You have such a savior complex.<<

Yeah, well, I defeated them once and I can only imagine I’ll be expected to do it again.

Ruby laughed. >>You could desert—go find a tropical beach and hang out until this blows over.<<

And miss all the action? No way.

>>Yep, thought so. Save the day once and it goes to your head.<<

Doesn’t help that you’re in my head, egging me on.

>>And you love it.<<

“Damn it!” Samantha exclaimed, returning Ava’s attention to the events in front of her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Our normal tricks aren’t working,” the warrior replied. “Just need to beat it into submission, nothing to worry about.”

“Maybe we should have brought Edwin after all,” Ava said in an attempt to lighten the mood.

Samantha chuckled. “When in doubt, hit it with a hammer, right?”

“Or shoot it with a plasma rifle,” Nick countered. “The glow of melting computer innards is rather beautiful.”

Ava snickered to herself. She was always impressed by how the two could maintain witty banter while typing. Sometimes she thought it even made them work better.

After several seconds of silence, Nick sighed. “Remember when we were joking back in the Protheon facility about getting a real challenge? Well, we got it.”

“But you can get in, right?” Ava asked cautiously. She’d never doubted her team’s abilities in all their years working together. Five minutes tops, they could get into anything. The fact that they’d passed the seven minute mark was a testament to the severity of their present situation.

“Yeah, of co—” Nick cleared his throat. “I think so.”

Fuck, he has never not had a firm ‘yes’ answer before, Ava said to Ruby.

>>I’ve been trying to help out, and it’s a mess in there,<< the AI replied. >>We’re making progress, but the encryption keeps morphing. Two steps forward, one step back kind of thing.<<

But you’ll be able to get ahead of it?

>>Well, we have to before it gains complete control of the life support systems, don’t we?<<

Ava gulped. Sorry, I’ll leave you to it.

Her concern deepened as the minutes passed. Even Nick and Samantha were relatively quiet, aside from the occasional comment or profane outburst.

Ava glanced over every so often at the officers in the center of the room, but their frowns prompted her to turn away. Nick and Sam will get this. They’re the best.

>>All right, we’re close,<< Ruby said in Ava’s mind, breaking the relative silence. >>A dozen EIs have been working with us to isolate the malicious code.<<

Don’t just isolate it—destroy it!

>>We will,<< Ruby assured her, >>but we’re running a trace first to find out where it came from.<<

As much as Ava didn’t want bad news, they needed that information. The Dyons had launched an assault on her home. That meant war.

“Communications are back online!” a comm tech announced from a workstation near the center of the room.

“So are environmental controls!” another tech called out.

A moment later, the lights returned to normal illumination levels, and the flickering on the control panels subsided.

“Status!” Colonel Walton demanded.

“No reports of damage to the station or personnel injuries,” the comm tech continued. “All mechanical systems check out.”

“Then what the hell happened?” Kurtz asked.

“It’s a signal,” Nick chimed in. “Remote interference.”

“One source broadcasting to FDG assets in this quadrant of the galaxy,” Samantha added. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Colonel Walton frowned. “What’s the source?”

“It’s beyond the border of Federation territory. The Alaxar Trinary is the closest named system,” Nick replied.

Fuck me, Ava swore in her mind.

>>It’ll be okay,<< Ruby tried to soothe her. >>We’ll stop them, just like last time.<<

“There’s a scouting sensor array in the vicinity,” Nick continued.

“I can try to patch in a visual feed,” the comm tech said. “Resolution won’t be good at that range, though.”

“Do it,” Kurtz instructed.

A minute passed while Nick, Samantha, and the comm tech tried to resolve the sensor data. Finally, the holographic display at the center of the room illuminated with the pixelated image of a sphere.

“What is it?” Ava asked no one in particular. “A probe?”

Nick shook his head slowly. “No, a ship?”

Kurtz paled. “What’s the scale of this?”

“The diameter is seven thousand kilometers,” the comm tech reported.

Ava nearly choked on her own breath. “That’s the size of a planet!”

“Where the fuck did it come from?” Kurtz questioned. “How did we miss its approach? The gravity signature alone of something that size would have an effect on the surrounding systems.”

“How in holy hell does something that large move?” Colonel Walton added.

The comm tech worked her mouth. “There’s no record of the object before fifteen minutes ago. I don’t have an explanation. And… the space around it isn’t reacting like it should around an object that size.”

“Shit.” Kurtz turned away from the group of officers for a moment. He took a deep breath, then pivoted toward Colonel Walton. “How would you like to proceed, ma’am?”

“Send a scout ship on a recon mission. Let’s get some intel on this beast.”












CHAPTER FIVE


Of all the fucking things that could happen… Kurtz jogged back to his office.

A reconnaissance ship had been deployed on an intercept course with the Dyon planet-ship. They’d have more information soon, but in the meantime, Kurtz’s mind ran wild with the awful possibilities for what the Dyons could do with a vessel that size.

He’d thought they were done with that particular race of foes—he’d needed them to be. The invasion of his mind was the most personal battle he’d ever had to fight, and knowing that there were more of the beings still out there, stronger than ever, resurfaced those terrible memories he’d tried to forget.

For all their resources, the Federation didn’t have a ship on the same scale. That didn’t mean their weapons weren’t more powerful, but it did make Kurtz wonder what else might be lurking out in the depths of space.

More than physical opposition, though, there was the question of the mind. Back when they’d first crossed paths with the Dyons, it had appeared that specific neural pathways made of a resonant mineral needed to be present in the mind to create a telepathic receptor, or TR. Only those who’d ingested the mineral and had the TR could be taken over remotely by the alien consciousness. However, in the assault on the Gidyon System, all FDG warriors present—aside from Ava—had become paralyzed in a telepathic grip.

Based on that experience, it would seem the TR was necessary for long-distance telepathic control, but the Dyons had the potential to exert some measure of control over anyone at close proximity. Any ship, any crew sent to intervene, might find itself incapacitated before they had a chance to act, if they got too close.

The obvious answer was to send a ship piloted by an EI or AI, but with the revelation that the Dyons could also now hack into the secure FDG network, a ship would likely suffer the same fate as a biological crew.

They have us cornered. Though Kurtz hated to admit it, he couldn’t ignore the reality. They were up against an opponent they didn’t yet know how to fight.

But while they tried to find a weakness, there were people in immediate danger.

The alien planet-ship was three days away from the Alaxar Trinary at its present velocity, and it would be visible on the system’s long-range scan well before that. Kurtz had no interest in finding out what would happen when it reached the system, but until they learned how to stop it, they needed to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

As soon as he reached his office, Kurtz brought up the contact information for President Connors of Alucia. The computer warned Kurtz that it was 02:00 local time in the Alucian capital city, but the warning couldn’t wait. He initiated the call.

Twenty seconds passed.

“Colonel?” President Connors answered over a voice-only connection.

“Sorry to contact you in the middle of your night, but this couldn’t wait,” Kurtz replied. “We have a developing situation.”

The president groaned. “What kind of situation?”

“The Dyons are back,” Kurtz revealed. “This time, they have a ship headed toward the Alaxar Trinary.”

He breathed a sigh of relief. “A ship! I thought you were about to say they have a fleet.”

“The ship is seven thousand kilometers in diameter.”

Silence.

“H-How…?” Connors stammered

“We don’t know, but considering the ship is two-thirds the size of Alucia, I wanted to give you as much advance notice as possible,” Kurtz continued. “My best guess is that the vessel was emitting a signal to mask its presence while it made the approach—similar to the interference we observed in the Gidyon System. A dark patch on scan doesn’t stand out unless you know to look for something.”

“So they could have been in transit for years, or…” Connors took a shaky breath. “What kind of offensive capabilities does the ship have?”

“I’ll know more in a few hours. Don’t worry, this is a top priority for the FDG, and we’ll do everything in our power to keep your system safe.”

“That’s it? You wake me in the middle of the night to tell me a planet-sized ship is headed for us, but ‘don’t worry’?! How the fuck am I—”

Kurtz took a slow breath. “Mister President, would you rather it surprise you in another eighteen hours, when it shows up on the long-range scans from your system’s sensor array? You wanted to be kept in the loop. This is it.”

“We’re defenseless,” Connors shot back. “How do you expect me to react?”

“Like a world leader,” Kurtz said, firm. “I’ll dismiss your attitude as a product of being awoken in the middle of the night, but next time we talk, I expect to have a rational discussion. To get through this, we need calculated, coordinated action.”

Connors took a deep breath. “You’re right. Thank you for reaching out right away.”

“I’ll be in touch as soon as I know more.”

“Thank you.”

Kurtz ended the call.

As much as Kurtz disliked emotional outbursts from those in positions of authority, he didn’t blame Connors. Were he in the president’s position, he probably would have sworn a whole lot more.


*     *     *


Karen awoke to an incessant chirp coming from the desk in the living room of her temporary apartment.

What time is it? She glanced at the clock on her nightstand and saw that it was 04:07. Who would be calling me at this hour?

The chirp was more annoying than usual, which she attributed to the hour. However, when she hauled herself out of bed to check the notification, she realized that the sharper tone was because the communication was flagged as high-priority.

It was coming from the Alucian capital, and it was only 02:07 there.

Shit!

Karen hurriedly wrapped a robe around herself, then answered the call.

President Connors appeared on her monitor, dark circles under his eyes and hair unkempt. “I spoke with Colonel Kurtz at the FDG,” he said. “They’ve detected a Dyon ship headed for our system.”

Karen’s heart leaped into her throat. “What?!”

“I don’t have any more information at this time, other than that it’s huge—roughly the size of Nezar.”

She shook her head, mystified. “That’s…”

“I didn’t want to believe it myself, but the FDG wouldn’t relay false information.”

“We’re completely fucked,” Karen breathed. “Here we thought we defeated them, but that was just the warmup round so they could see what defenses we had to offer.”

“That was my first impulse, too, but we can’t give into that way of thinking. The colonel said not to worry, so they must be working on a plan,” Connors told her.

“So, what, we pretend everything is okay? I wish I didn’t know.” She smoothed back her light brown hair from her face. What could we possibly do in defense? If we evacuate everyone, where would we go?

A vice tightened around her heart. No, there wouldn’t be an evacuation; there weren’t enough ships in the system to transport all the citizens. They were trapped on their worlds, subject to whatever horrific fate the Dyons had planned.

President Connors straightened in his seat. “Someone on Nezar needed to be informed, and you’re the closest thing the world has to a leader right now.”

“I’m not—”

“Karen, I need you to keep a level head. I’ve seen you under pressure before. You can do this.”

She took two slow breaths and nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Now. I don’t know what the FDG is planning, but I wanted to give you a heads up so that you would have time to process the situation. When we get our directions, we’ll need to be a calm presence of authority above the inevitable chaos.”

“What about Coraxa?” Karen asked.

“Do you know Mitchell Korwen?”

“Not personally, but he’s been Tribeca’s mayor since I was a teenager,” Karen replied. “If you’re asking if he would be a good point of contact, then yes.”

Connors nodded. “I’ll reach out to him.”

“How long before the ship is visible on scan?”

“Less than eighteen hours. It will arrive in three days.”

Karen swallowed. “Okay. Let’s hope the FDG has their plan before then.”


*     *     *


“Giant fucking planet-ships,” Ava muttered. “These Dyon bastards must have some kind of inferiority complex with a constant need to overcompensate for their nanoscopic size.”

Across the conference table, Luke and Widmore chuckled, but Kurtz looked decidedly less amused.

“We’re looking for actionable theories,” the colonel stated.

“Sorry, sir.” Ava looked down.

“Joking aside,” Widmore began, “it is pertinent to note the scale of the vessel. Its sheer enormity says a lot about its potential use.”

“That’s a good point,” Kurtz agreed. “Something planet-sized is probably dealing with planet-scale concerns, rather than any matter involving an individual.”

“Yes, but we can’t rule out an individual-scale component,” Ava said. “Based on what we observed in Gidyon, it’s possible that this ship might also contain a soldier factory.”

Kurtz gave a grim nod. “But with this ship, they could abduct the entire population of a planet.”

“Hell, the Alaxar Trinary has so few full-time residents that they could take everyone in the whole system,” Ava said without thinking, only to immediately realize that those weren’t faceless victims—they were her friends and family.

Luke exchanged glances with her, clearly realizing the same thing. “For that matter,” he said, “this structure isn’t bound to surface area in the same way that a planet is. Looking at the volume potential of the structure, it could reasonably hold the population of dozens of systems.”

“Or the entire thing could be a mega-weapon,” Ava countered.

“Whatever it is, it was able to interface with the station and FDG ships,” Luke said. “It also activated the debris we collected from the Gidyon System.”

“What do you mean?” Kurtz asked.

“The dust was glowing… and moving around in the vials. It wasn’t able to get out, but it definitely wanted to do something other than sit in a test tube.”

The colonel frowned. “What’s going on with it now?”

“Went dormant again as soon as you got control of the computer system,” Luke replied.

“Hmm.” Ava crossed her arms. “You think that has anything to do with the flickering monitors? I wonder if the hack caused the computer equipment to emit a signal that activated it.”

Luke nodded. “A reasonable hypothesis.”

“And the source of that signal is this new ship, I presume?” Widmore said.

“The ship’s appearance and the impact on the FDG fleet would suggest as much,” Kurtz replied. “But there’s more to this ship than a transmitter, and it falls to us to determine the potential function of the vessel. The engineering report from the survey ship highlighted some key components that may offer clues.” Kurtz adjusted the three-dimensional holoprojection of the spherical ship floating above the center of the table.

Eight circular recesses highlighted around the sphere’s equator, then the view zoomed in on one to show it as a cross-section. The apparent circle was actually a cylinder.

Ava tilted her head. “That’s… weird.”

“The mechanical components suggest that these cylinders can extend outward,” Widmore observed. “There are slots ringing each.”

Indeed there were. Ava tried to count them, but quickly lost track.

>>Seventy-two in each,<< Ruby supplied for her.

That’s a lot of… whatever those things are.

Across the table, Luke was scowling at the holographic projection. “I can’t wrap my head around this scale. I keep looking at each of those cylinders and thinking it’s something manageable, but they’re each a hundred kilometers apart.”

Widmore shook his head. “ ‘Mind-boggling’ would be an understatement. Those tiny-looking slots are, what, a kilometer each? It looks like nothing.”

Wait a minute… Ava did a double-take at the model. Hey, Ruby, we’ve encountered a kilometer-long cylinder recently, haven’t we?

>>You don’t mean the pits on Gidyon and Nezar, do you?<<

That’s exactly what I was thinking.

>>Maybe,<< the AI agreed. >>Go ahead. It’s your idea to bring up.<<

You think it’s stupid.

>>No, I think it fits surprisingly well. I just don’t like the implications.<<

Ava cleared her throat. “So, um, crazy idea… What if each of those slots were to hold a pit like the ones in Gidyon and Nezar? Eight around and nine deep.”

Luke slumped in his chair. “Fucking hell.”

Kurtz spread his hands on the tabletop. “What makes you suggest that, Ava?”

“Nothing aside from scale, sir,” she replied. “We observed two structures approximately one kilometer deep with an interior diameter of four meters, and this thing happens to have slots one kilometer long and twelve meters wide. You asked for ideas, and mine is that that contraption is a giant core sampler. I don’t know if it inserts the pits or takes them out, but there you have it.”

Widmore did the math. “If they only need one per system to get a foothold, then…”

“Our little happy corner of the galaxy is in a shitton of trouble if that ship is left unchecked,” Ava completed when he trailed off.

“If I may add,” Ruby said over the audible comms, “these cores—if that is, indeed, what they are—make up only a fraction of the ship’s function.”

Kurtz nodded, bringing up a different set of highlighted plans.

This version of the holographic model focused on a series of short towers ringing a single, tall tower. Four protrusions around the central grouping looked to be folded mechanical arms, but the exact nature and purpose were unclear.

“I’ve got nothing,” Ava said.

“If there was one component of this ship for population transport, we can assume there would need to be a means to craft a new home,” Ruby continued over the comm. “I’ve run this configuration through the FDG database, and it is most likely some form of weapon.”

“A weapon that’s six hundred kilometers in diameter?” Kurtz scoffed. “It’s absurd.”

“The scale doesn’t change my assessment of the information at my disposal. That said, my specialty is in biomedical applications, not military weaponry.”

“Same here,” Luke said. “I’m a—”

“Geneticist, we know,” Kurtz cut him off. “But the people sitting in this room are the resident Dyon experts, regardless of our backgrounds. For better or worse, our hunches related to these guys have a good track record of being correct. So if Ruby thinks this is a weapon, then I’m inclined to proceed accordingly. And, assuming it is, it’s not just a planet-killer—it’s a system-killer.”

“To what end?” Ava threw up her hands.

“Raw materials,” Luke murmured. He sat upright in his chair, chuckling to himself. “Of course.”

“Care to enlighten us?” Kurtz prompted.

“All of their structures are manufactured, right? That requires raw materials. Mining raw materials is highly time- and labor-intensive. It’s way easier to smash a target to bits, scoop it up, and sort through the matter after the fact.”

“A weapon to blast worlds apart, then a processing plant, or whatever, to extract the useful materials?” Ava clarified.

“Something like that,” Luke replied. “But it’s a guess.”

“I agree with the assessment,” Ruby stated over the comm.

Ava groaned. “Problem is, that next ‘target’ is Luke’s and my home system.”

Luke’s face flushed. “Kinda like to keep it from getting destroyed, if we can.”

“Agreed.” Ava looked over the holographic ship. “So how do we stop this thing?”












CHAPTER SIX


Kurtz looked Colonel Walton in her eyes. “Last time, every ship with an Arti-Sun weapon was detained, but I hope you can find an available one for us this time.”

She smiled. “I was thinking the same thing the moment we realized this was the Dyons. I’m granting you temporary command of the Hellfire.”

Wow, the Hellfire? That will do very well, indeed. It was the newest dreadnought in the FDG fleet, and it packed a serious punch, Arti-Sun or not. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“It will be waiting for you at Onyx Station.”

“I’ll arrange transport right away. I suggest that Ava Landyn accompany me, in the event we’re able to make telepathic contact.”

The other colonel nodded. “This may be our only chance to learn more about them. Good luck.”


*     *     *


Ava lay on her bed next to Luke, staring up at the ceiling. “It’s just so stupid-big.”

“I know, I can’t fathom it, either.” He sighed.

“I don’t understand how that thing could move around,” she continued. “I mean, it didn’t have any visible engines.”

“Beats me.”

“Maybe it uses the Etheric in some way?”

“We do know that they use telepathy through the Etheric, so it’s possible.” Luke agreed.

“Stars, I really wish we didn’t have to deal with this right now.” She shook her head.

“I know, but you’ll figure out a way to best them, just like you did before.”

Ava appreciated the confidence in his tone, but she couldn’t quite muster up the same level of enthusiasm. The last encounter with the Dyons had taken a lot out of her, and she wasn’t eager to go through the experience again—let alone with an even bigger, meaner-looking base of operations.

“Thank you for always believing in me,” she said after a pause.

“Always.” Luke took her hand.

 “Even Colonel Kurtz was worried. I don’t think I’ve seen that before.”

“It is a pretty tense situation. I don’t envy those in charge.”

Ava repositioned to rest her head on his shoulder. “They’re going to look to me for a solution. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do what I did last time.”

“Sure you will.”

“I dunno, maybe. But I don’t want to. I had to go to this dark place in myself—fueled by an anger and bitterness that’s not truly a part of me.”

Luke swiveled to look at her. “That wasn’t all of it, from what you told me.”

“Love and happiness? That’s never triggered a transformation for me.”

“You’ve also never tried.”

She released a heavy sigh. “I guess it’s time I embrace this change and start having it work for me, rather than the other way around.”

“Now, that’s the kind of attitude that I’d expect to get results.”

“You’re pretty good at these pep-talks.”

“If only the ones I gave myself worked half as well.”

Ava was about to reply, when the comm chirped with an incoming communication. She sat up to check the screen set into the wall next to the door; it was from Colonel Kurtz.

She held up her finger for Luke to hold this thought, then accepted the voice call. “Colonel.”

“Ava, we have clearance to use the Arti-Sun weapon on the Hellfire against the Dyon ship. But before we resort to those extremes, I’d like to make one final attempt at contact. Meet me at Berth 17 for immediate departure.”

“Yes, sir. I’m on my way.” She cast a wide-eyed look of surprise at Luke.

“See you soon.” Kurtz ended the call.

“The Hellfire? Holy shit.” Ava whistled.

“Fancy?” Luke asked.

Very fancy. One of the new super-fuck-up-the-bad-guys ships, if the rumor mill is correct.”

Luke smiled. “Sounds like your kind of starship.”

She grinned back. “Doesn’t it? Man, my team is going to be so envious they don’t get to see the action firsthand.”

“I’ll be sure to document the events for their review,” Ruby said over the room comm.

“Not the same, but it will have to do.” Ava caught herself. “Shit! I need to pack.” She jumped off the bed, running to the dresser along the back wall to retrieve some undergarments for the trip.

Luke sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. “I know I don’t need to say it, but—”

“I’ll be careful.” She gave him a quick kiss. “Should only be observation, and maybe a telepathic, ‘You guys suck’.”

“I hope it is that straightforward. It’d be nice to put these guys squarely in the past.”

“Agreed.” Ava grabbed a spare shipsuit and shoved it in her travel bag.

>>Toothbrush,<< Ruby reminded her.

Right, thanks. Ava dashed into the bathroom to retrieve her toiletry bag.

Once it was stowed, she did a quick mental inventory. “Okay, that should be everything.”

>>Check,<< Ruby confirmed.

“I’ll see you in a couple of days,” she said to Luke, giving him a parting kiss, slow and deep. “Stay out of trouble.”

“That’s my line!” He smirked.

They exited her quarters. After another quick kiss, she jogged toward the designated berth for the transport ship.

Kurtz was already on board and running through the pre-flight checks when she arrived at the vessel. She almost laughed out loud when she saw it was the Lisbeth II—the same vessel Kurtz had commandeered while under Nox’s influence a month prior.

“Hello, sir,” she greeted. “Didn’t think I’d find myself on this craft again.”

“Welcome aboard,” Kurtz replied. “When I saw it was available, I couldn’t resist. I feel like I owe the ship an apology, after what happened last time.”

“I understand the sentiment.” Ava stowed her travel bag in a cubby at the back of the cockpit.

“Besides, we won’t need it for long. Just a quick hop to Onyx Station, and then we’ll board the Hellfire.”

She took a seat in the co-pilot’s chair. “Thank you for inviting me along. I’ve been wanting to see one of those new dreadnoughts up close.”

Kurtz flashed a rare smile. “Me too, for what it’s worth. But this mission is out of necessity, not sightseeing.”

“Of course, sir.”

Kurtz finished the pre-flight checks and then undocked the vessel from its umbilical—properly, unlike Ava’s daring flight through the vacuum in her emergency suit. She had to say, this journey was off to a much better start.

The ship glided through the black on the way to the Annex Gate at Frontier Station 7. Minutes dragged on in silence.

Am I supposed to make small-talk? Ava asked Ruby.

>>That’s up to you. It’s not like there’s a particular FDG policy written for this exact situation.<<

This is so fucking awkward. The last time we were on this ship together, I had him shackled to the floor and he was snarling at me.

Ruby laughed.

Not helpful, Ava groaned in her mind.

>>Sorry. Picturing him snarling on the floor conjured an amusing image.<<

He was having a pretty bad day.

>>Certainly sounds like it.<<

But, seriously, do I just sit here in silence? How long is the voyage to Onyx Station? Ava asked the AI.

>>One hour and three minutes remain until the estimated arrival time.<<

Ava sighed inwardly. Yeah, that’s way too long to sit here without saying anything. I think? Gah, I don’t know.

>>If you want to talk, then talk.<<

But he’s the colonel.

>>You’re acting like you’ve never had to make friendly conversation with a superior officer before.<<

Not one I once shackled to the floor! Or whose mind I dug around in.

>>Admittedly, the dynamic is not ideal,<< Ruby concurred. >>Just talk to him, Ava. You’re overthinking it.<<

Ugh, fine.

She took a deep breath. “So, sir, how have you been since we removed Nox from your head?”

>>Smooth, Ava. Way to ease into it with a light topic.<<

Kurtz looked taken aback for a moment, then smiled slightly. “You know, it’s refreshing for someone to just come out and ask. Most try to dance around it.”

“Sorry, I—”

“Don’t apologize, it’s a fair question. I’ve been happy to be myself again, but I’ve had a lot of reflecting to do on what occurred while I was under Nox’s influence. You, of all people, understand what it means to be directed by a mind that’s not your own.”

She looked down. “I do often think about what it’s like afterward, for people I’ve controlled. Most aren’t a true enemy, just someone working for the wrong side.”

He nodded. “That’s a burden we carry as FDG warriors. We fight for justice and try to determine the moral right, but there are still multiple sides to any conflict. You have the makings of a true officer, with your disposition to see that our truth is not absolute. What we perceive to be the correct path might be someone else’s worst nightmare.”

“It’s amazing to think about how perspective can change so much. When I was younger and getting ready to leave Coraxa, it seemed so clear.”

“Youth has a way of making things more black and white. By the time you get to my age, it’s all shades of gray.” He chuckled. “In fact, I think that’s the real test of maturity, regardless of chronological age. When you can place yourself in the position of another person, with views opposite your own, and understand their feelings and motivations—only then are you truly ready to lead people on your own side.”

“I guess I got a leg up with that, being able to actually be in someone else’s mind,” Ava realized.

“You did, but you’ve also paid attention and learned from the experience. I knew another telepath once, years ago. Not as powerful as you, but he could glean the thoughts of others in a general sense, and also sense emotions in a way that made him excellent at detecting lies. He must have interrogated more than a hundred people by the time I met him. I once asked him if he’d noticed any trends in those interviews, and the only thing he had to say was, ‘When you have a person cornered, they’re only in it for themselves.’ I thought that was one of the saddest things I’d ever heard—that that’s all he took away.”

Ava leaned back in her seat. “Wow, that is bleak. And I have to say, I disagree with his assessment.”

“What’s your experience been?”

“Venturing inside someone’s mind is intimate. Sometimes I see the things that they don’t want to readily admit to themselves. In some cases, the person never wanted to be in the position they’re in—whether it be because of crappy job prospects, a familial obligation, or even forced servitude. Those people bend easily when I request information from them. They were never invested in keeping the secret, so they give it up without much of a fight. That doesn’t mean they’re in it for themselves.”

“Lack of conviction should be an excuse to abandon duty?” Kurtz questioned.

“No, sir, I didn’t mean to suggest—”

“This isn’t about us or the FDG,” he hastily added. “It’s only a thought exercise, one officer to another.”

Ava tapped her index finger on the seat’s armrest. “Well, to that, I guess I’d argue that you can’t have complete loyalty without belief.”

The colonel nodded. “The difference between having a job versus a career.”

“Yeah, exactly. Unlike the people who’ll cave at the first sign of pressure, there are also true believers,” she continued. “Anyone of true conviction will stand by their mission and the greater purpose. Those are the people where I really have to dig, and they’ll fight me every step of the way. When someone is convinced that their mission is the only right way, they will do everything within their power to see it through.”

“Those are the kind of people we try to cultivate in the FDG.”

“And it shows,” Ava agreed. “I’ve never questioned that anyone here has doubts about the work we’re doing.”

“Except those moments when one wonders if the career is what they were meant to do.”

The statement caught Ava off-guard. “Sir?”

Kurtz smiled. “I’ve been there, too, Ava. That decade mark is a funny thing—makes you wonder how many different directions your life could have gone, had you made other choices.”

“I want to be here, sir.”

“I know you do. But I also recognize that look you got in your eyes when you learned that your home system was in danger. As loyal as you are to the FDG and as much as you have made it your life, you can never sever your allegiance to your home—not completely.”

“These recent missions have affected me in a way I didn’t expect,” she admitted.

“Not to mention a new companion, offering even greater reminders of those times past,” Kurtz added.

Ava’s brows drew together. “I would never allow my relationship with Luke to compromise my performance as an officer.”

“I didn’t mean to imply that it would. In fact, I think it’s those kinds of personal ties that make a person work even harder. It’s people that have no love, no home, nothing bigger than themselves, that concern me. When someone is really only in it for themselves—that’s cause for worry.”

“So, that telepath you knew, was he only interrogating those kinds of people?” Ava asked.

“Hell, maybe he was. But I still think it’s sad that he generalized those impressions and applied them to everyone.”

“I agree, but…” Ava faded out, second-guessing her thought.

Kurtz raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Well,” she continued, “I was going to say that telepathic reading isn’t an exact science. It’s actually quite subjective. As much as I try to get a clear, accurate impression, I can’t help getting some overlay of my own emotions.”

“Makes sense.”

“So, with a person like your old friend, I can’t help but wonder if it was him who was dissatisfied with his work—that his bleak view of other’s people’s motivations stemmed from having no passion or conviction in his own life.”

“An astute observation,” Kurtz replied. “A month after we met, he up and left one day, no explanation. None of us ever heard from him again.”

“Wow.”

“I like to think he did eventually find something fulfilling in his life. What he was doing certainly wasn’t it.”

Ava nodded. “I can see how this line of work could bring a person to the edge. You can’t only be in it for yourself.”

“No, you can’t. I’m glad that Luke came back into your life when he did. It’s funny how the universe has a way of delivering what we need, even when we don’t yet realize anything was missing.”

She laughed. “I’ve had that thought, myself, more than once over the past six weeks.”

They made small-talk for the remaining hour, including Kurtz recounting a tale from years before, when he had worked with Colonel Terry Henry Walton himself. His daughter, Marcie, headed up Kurtz’s and Ava’s division of the FDG, while Terry Henry—or TH, as his friends called him—ran the infamous Bad Company, an elite black ops group.

Such tales always reminded Ava how young she was compared to some of her colleagues. With modifications and enhancements thanks to Kurtherian technology, a person could live for hundreds of years without aging. Many of Ava’s colleagues who looked close to her own age were, in fact, decades older. Her own teammates, for that matter, were her senior, in terms of their age and time in the FDG. It was only her unique telepathic skills that had landed her in charge.

Not that telepathy was everything, but being able to read minds and control people’s actions did have its perks.

The Lisbeth II passed through the Annex Gate and completed its voyage to Onyx Station. With numerous Annex Gates, the station was a convenient hub for transit to almost anywhere in the galaxy. Ava hadn’t spent much time on the station itself, but its reputation as a gathering place for all sorts was widely known.

After docking, they gathered their travel bags and then wove through the pedestrian traffic to the docking location of the Hellfire. Windows on the outer wall of the concourse provided a view of the vessel as they approached.

“Holy shit,” Ava whispered as she took it in.

The dreadnought lived up to both the size and ferocity of a ship in its classification, with sleek lines that managed to be both breathtaking and menacing. Substantial artillery was positioned around the ship above its heavy plating. The gem, though, was the Arti-Sun weapon mounted in a hidden recess below the bow—a beam weapon with enough oomph to level a fleet or destroy a planet.

Considering that they had a planet-sized problem, it was the correct tool for the job.

“Have you ever had field command of a dreadnought before, sir?” Ava asked while they approached the gangway.

“No. But, between us, I always wanted to.” His eyes were bright with the kind of excitement a child might display before receiving a long-awaited birthday present.

Were it anyone else, Ava might have mistaken his enthusiasm for being power-hungry. Having glimpsed inside Kurtz’s mind, though, she had no doubt that this was a dream come true for him—a career aspiration finally come to fruition, even if only for a few hours.

“I can’t say I’d want the responsibility of being in command of all those people’s lives,” Ava replied.

“I wouldn’t want a ship full time,” Kurtz agreed, “but I don’t think anyone who works for a space fleet hasn’t fantasized at least once about captaining a ship for a day.”

She smiled back. “All right, you have me there.”

In Ava’s case, her fantasy had begun at the age of seven. At the time, her fantasy ship had been purple, and also included a cocobera petting zoo. She had never shared that with a soul, and she wasn’t about to start now—especially with Edwin on the prowl for new blackmail material, after her stunt the prior month.

At the top of the gangway, a sentry was standing guard.

“Colonel Tyson Kurtz, reporting for duty,” Kurtz stated.

The sentry saluted. “Sir, the captain is expecting you. Take the lift three meters to your left up to the bridge.”

Kurtz and Ava saluted back, then headed down the corridor to the lift the sentry had specified.

The interior was a significant step up from the utilitarian furnishings on the Raven, with the Hellfire sporting recessed lighting along the coved ceiling, blue accent colors along the bulkheads, and even the occasional nebula photograph.

They entered the lift, which was sized to hold eight people. Kurtz selected the bridge from the interior control panel next to the door.

“If you never have another dreadnought command, sir, at least you can say this one was super fancy,” Ava said.

He chuckled. “And I have a witness!”

The lift doors opened into a lobby area with a bench and potted plant. To the left was a set of double doors marked as the bridge.

Kurtz took a deep breath and strode toward the doors, which opened automatically as he approached.

Ava followed him inside.

The bridge was every bit as sophisticated as the rest of the vessel, with the added component of having an expansive viewport wrapping around the far wall of the room, overlooking the bow. The starscape beyond was visible through a holographic overlay displaying the ship system status.

A middle-aged woman with chin-length, dark hair pulled into a half-ponytail rose from her chair in the center of the bridge when Kurtz and Ava entered. “Colonel Kurtz, you made good time.” She stepped toward the entry door and extended her hand.

Kurtz shook it. “Captain, it’s a pleasure to meet in person.” He released her hand and turned to Ava. “Captain Edith Vera, I’d like to introduce you to Lieutenant Ava Landyn.”

Vera’s eyes widened for a moment. “The Lieutenant Landyn from the Gidyon incident?”

“You heard about that, ma’am?” Ava asked, extending her hand for a shake.

The captain grasped it and looked in her eyes. “You destroyed a dwarf planet using only your mind. News about that sort of thing gets around.”

Ava blushed. “Oh.”

>>It’s good attention,<< Ruby commented, breaking her long silence.

Why didn’t you mention people were talking about me?

>>You didn’t ask, and you also seemed distracted enough as it was. You didn’t think that no one would take notice, did you?<<

Ava shrugged in her mind. I dunno. Gidyon is the middle of nowhere. What happens there doesn’t really impact the rest of the galaxy.

>>Some actions are more important than where they take place.<<

What’s that supposed to mean?

>>That you’re no longer an anonymous telepath working with a small team in the FDG. Some members of the broader Etheric Federation have taken notice.<<

Like wh—

Ava’s private conversation was interrupted by Captain Vera returning to the center of the room with Kurtz.

“Transit time to intercept is thirteen hours,” Vera was saying. “You’re welcome to get settled in while we get underway.”

Ava looked down at her travel bag in hand. She was coming up on a full day without rest, and the prospect of sleep was tempting.

Kurtz picked up on her cue. “You go on, Lieutenant,” he said. “The captain offered me a personal tour of her ship, so we’ll be out of pocket anyway. Sleep well, and I’ll see you when we arrive.”

“Yes, sir.” Considering what they’d be up against when they arrived at their destination, Ava needed to be as sharp and rested as possible.












CHAPTER SEVEN


Between a tour of the Hellfire, a nap, and his general excitement, the thirteen hours of transit time flew by for Kurtz.

As they made the final approach for the intercept with the Dyon ship, Kurtz settled into the command chair at the center of the bridge, with Captain Vera to his right and Ava to his left. The lieutenant still seemed mystified about being at the center of the action, but Kurtz couldn’t imagine having anyone else along. If the op went sideways, he wanted to have the one person who’d ever initiated contact with the Dyons at his side.

The overlay on the viewport at the front of the bridge was set to a magnified image of the void ahead. At the limits of visual range, a dull, spherical mass was coming into view.

With minimal light of its own and no stars nearby, the sphere would be almost invisible, were it not for the enhancements offered by the holographic overlay.

“Well, it doesn’t look so bad from this distance,” Ava quipped.

Vera chuckled. “Yeah, wait until we’re right up next to it.”

“I have no intention of getting that close, after what happened to the fleet in Gidyon,” Kurtz stated, standing up. He clasped his hands behind his back. “Lieutenant Landyn, see if you can make contact.”

“We’re kind of far out, sir,” she replied. “But I’ll try.”

Ava focused ahead at the image of the Dyon ship, getting a faraway look in her eyes.

It’s amazing how she can do those things, Kurtz thought from the seat next to her. We’d be lost right now if it wasn’t for her.

After a minute of intense concentration, Ava’s attention returned to the inside of the bridge. “I dunno, sir, it’s weird.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Eh.” Ava frowned at the image of the Dyon ship. “I didn’t exactly get through to them, but it wasn’t a lack of contact, either. The easiest way to describe it is that they were ignoring me. But… the presence wasn’t like I experienced before, on Gidyon.”

Kurtz’s brow knit. “What do you mean?”

“There were more of them.” She shook her head. “No, that’s not the right way to put it. Communicating with Reya or Nox was like talking with a single presence. The contact on Gidyon was like hearing a chorus—distinct voices speaking together. But this ship here… it’s like there are layers. I guess the best analogy would be a song. They were contributing to the same piece of music, but playing different parts in the harmony. Players, instrument groups, sections, all adding up to one orchestra. Only it was out of tune.”

“In that case, is there a conductor?” Kurtz asked.

“Not that I’ve been able to identify. Everything I’ve observed indicates that they’re falling into whatever role is necessary. Even though there are individual minds, they work together as one, which means they must have some sort of brain. We saw that central column thing in Gidyon, so I can only imagine this mammoth thing has something like that, too. Target that regulating hub, and the orchestra won’t know what song they’re supposed to be playing.”

“We’re almost in firing range,” Vera interjected. “Did we come here to study them or destroy them?”

Kurtz hesitated. If there’s a way to get through to them and open a dialogue, this is a chance to learn about a fascinating culture unlike any other.

He caught Ava’s gaze, bidding her to open a telepathic link.

“Sir?” she questioned in his mind.

“Is there any chance of making meaningful contact? Do they just need time to warm up to you?”

“Sir, my honest assessment is that they think we’re a lower lifeform unworthy of their attention. I don’t think any amount of outreach will make a difference,” Ava replied in his mind. “I’m also painfully aware of the ticking clock while this system-killer ship marches toward my homeworld.”

“We won’t let it get there.” Kurtz broke eye contact to sever the connection.

“We’re in range,” Vera stated.

The spherical target took up half the front viewing area without artificial magnification. They were twice as far back as the FDG fleet had been from the dwarf planet in Gidyon; Kurtz hoped it was far enough.

“Target the Arti-Sun at the Dyon ship’s main tower,” he instructed the weapons tech.

“Aye,” the young man acknowledged. “Ready on your mark, sir.”

Stars, let this be the right move. Kurtz nodded. “Fire.”

A shudder rippled through the ship as the death ray shot toward its mark. At that distance, it would only take one second for the beam to strike.

The beam shot extended as a bright light against the black of space. Kurtz watched it, heart in his throat.

This is the only way.

He braced for the impact.

The beam simply fizzled out of existence. No explosion, no vaporization… nothing. The Dyon ship was unscathed.

“What happened?” he demanded.

The weapons tech stared at his console, his face contorted with confusion and concern. “The weapon fired to specification.”

“Traces of radiation near the target impact site,” the scan tech said.

“Was it a shield?” Vera speculated.

“No, ma’am, I don’t think so,” the scan tech replied. “I think the structure… absorbed the blast.”

Kurtz’s stomach dropped. “What?”

“The radiation is now dissipating around the outer shell of the ship. I’m reviewing the readings from the moment of impact, and it’s like the shell is modulating to an opposite frequency to cancel out the energy beam. That, or…” She faded out before gathering herself. “Another possibility is that it somehow diffused the blast to the Etheric plane.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Ava muttered, slumping in her chair.

Kurtz wished he could join in her reaction, but he was the commander. “Fire again. It may only have been a one-time trick.”

“Aye, sir,” the weapons tech acknowledged. “Firing.”

Another shudder rocked the ship as the ray fired for a second time.

This has to work…

Kurtz’s chest constricted when the second beam fizzled out.

“Looks like we can add ‘death-ray-proof’ to the list of ways the Dyons have made life miserable for us,” Ava stated.

“Fire a volley of torpedoes,” Kurtz ordered. He suspected it would be useless, but they needed to try.

Half a dozen trails raced across the magnified overlay on the viewport. Upon impact, a tiny explosive plume erupted and was immediately extinguished.

“Damage assessment?” he asked.

“Negligible,” the scan tech replied. “It’s almost like the ship is healing itself.”

“Would you like to try a plasma beam?” the weapons tech questioned.

“No.” Kurtz returned to his seat. “We’re going to need another approach.”


*     *     *


Well, that was anticlimactic, Ava said to Ruby while the colonel fumed in his chair.

>>This is highly concerning.<<

Ava sighed wistfully in her mind. You dream of firing a death-ray all your life, and then it doesn’t do a damn thing. That sucks any way you look at it.

>>I’m failing to see why you’re making light of this situation, Ava. The Alaxar Trinary is in grave danger.<<

It’s my own bizarre way of coping. It’s either use humor, or lose my mind from worry and fear.

>>This explains your sarcastic streak,<< Ruby observed.

Mystery solved.

When Kurtz made no further comment about the thwarted attack on the Dyon planet-ship, Ava spoke up.

“I think we need to go on board, sir. Rather, I need to.”

Kurtz scoffed. “Enough jokes, Lieutenant. We need an actionable plan.”

“I’m serious, sir,” she insisted.

He looked like he was about to dismiss the statement again, then nodded. “Captain, is there somewhere the three of us could talk?”

“My office is right off the bridge.” She rose from her seat. “Colonel, I recommend we withdraw and follow the Dyon ship on a parallel course.”

“Agreed.”

“Quinn, set in our new course and await further instruction.”

“Aye ma’am,” the helmsman acknowledged.

Vera directed Ava and Kurtz to a door in the center on the starboard side of the bridge.

The room was furnished with a couch, a desk, and four chairs. Vera extended her arm for Kurtz to take first pick.

He sat down in one of the chairs with view of the door, and Vera took an adjacent seat, leaving Ava the couch along the wall.

“Now what was this insane notion of yours?” the colonel asked Ava.

Great vote of confidence, Ava thought to Ruby.

>>Can’t say I blame him,<< the AI shot back.

“It’s not as crazy as it sounds, sir,” Ava began.

“I don’t see how it’s not.” Kurtz crossed his arms. “For starters, that structure is large enough that it would take days or weeks to get anywhere on foot.”

For a normal person, maybe. Ava leaned forward with her elbows on her thighs. “That’s assuming the destination was somewhere deep inside. I’m not suggesting I go in to plant a bomb at the center, just find an access point where I can interface with the structure to disable whatever is keeping the Arti-Sun beam from doing its thing.”

“If I may interject,” Vera said, steepling her fingers, “why would you volunteer yourself for such a mission? Sounds more like a job for a team of warriors.”

“Ava has certain… augmentations,” Kurtz replied on her behalf. “But, all the same, they’ve been able to grab you before. I saw the first mission recording from Gidyon—you barely made it out.”

“That was before we knew about the disruptive frequency,” Ava said. “That’s not something they can adapt to, like the beam weapon. They need it to survive. It’s their weakness, and we need to exploit it.”

“You want to do what you did in Gidyon?” Kurtz asked.

She shook her head. “No, that took everything I had and it was a fraction of this size. And there’s no way we could get enough chemicals. What I was thinking for this is to create a temporary vulnerability so we can follow through with the Arti-Sun plan.”

“How?” questioned Vera.

“If it’s like the dwarf planet, there will be significant defenses,” Kurtz added. “You’d be stuck in a matter of minutes, and we’d have no way to rescue you.”

“I don’t have the specifics worked out, just a general idea,” Ava replied.

>>Oh boy, this’ll be good…<< Ruby said in her mind.

“It would have to be me alone, because I’m the only one who’s been able to stand up to telepathic control,” Ava continued, undeterred by her AI companion. “The part about the particles being able to form bonds is a problem, but not if we can figure out a way to disrupt the frequency—maybe by charging the skin of a suit.”

“Assuming that works, isn’t there still an issue of how long it would take to get anywhere, once inside the ship?” Vera pointed out.

Ava looked to Kurtz. “That might not be an issue.”

The colonel nodded. “Captain, perhaps it’s time I fill you in on exactly what it is Ava can do.”












CHAPTER EIGHT


Once Captain Vera got over the shocking revelation about Ava’s Hochste state, she’d quickly changed her tune regarding the viability of Ava’s proposal.

>>I still think it’s madness, probably because I have to go along for the ride,<< Ruby said when they returned to Ava’s temporary quarters.

I won’t force you to do this. If you don’t think there’s a chance this could work, I won’t go.

Ruby was silent for several seconds. >>I believe that the risk to the Alaxar Trinary outweighs the risk to us as individuals. Provided you can establish a sufficient safeguard against being grabbed, I agree that we should proceed.<<

Are you sure about this, Ruby? Ava asked. Once we’re committed, there’s no turning back.

>>Ava, when Colonel Kurtz and Major Widmore were interviewing me about a potential pairing with you, I told them that if I must lose my life to give others a chance, it would be a sacrifice I would gladly make. Now, faced with that reality, I stand by my word.<<

Ava smiled. No wonder they recommended you.

>>I wish we’d had the chance to get to know each other before our pairing, but it has been a pleasure spending this past month together. All the same, I’d like to look back on this and laugh about ‘that time we did a crazy thing that saved the day’.<<

We will, Ruby.

With her AI committed, the next step for Ava was to get the remainder of her team in place. She sent a message to Major Widmore requesting a meeting with Nick, Samantha, and Edwin at the top of the hour.

When the designated time arrived, Ava settled in front of the computer terminal in her quarters for the teleconference, which would be relayed through the Annex Gate.

“Hello. Thank you for meeting on short notice.”

“Was the explosion spectacular?” Edwin asked, stars in his eyes.

Samantha punched him in the shoulder. “Do you think she called us here to talk about what an awesome view it was? The plan didn’t work, obviously.”

Widmore cast them a stern look across the conference table. “Ava, please fill us in.”

She nodded. “You’re right, Sam, the plan was a bust. Turns out the Dyons figured out a way to absorb the weapons fire, maybe by venting it into the Etheric.”

Everyone on the other end of the conference call leaned forward, eyes wide.

“Nothing has ever stopped that weapon before,” Widmore murmured.

“Needless to say, it caught us by surprise,” Ava replied. “We don’t know the ‘how’, but the Arti-Sun may as well have been a flashlight, shining into a black hole.”

“Well, fuck.” Nick crossed his arms.

“Pretty much. So, new plan,” she continued. “I know you’re not going to like it, but I want to go into the ship to access its central systems. I can plant a device to allow you to tap in remotely. You hack it, disable their defenses, and we blow them up. Simple.”

Her team stared at her blankly.

“You do realize you’ve lost your mind, right?” Nick said. “Go onto the ship… alone? Not a chance.”

Widmore shook his head, clearly agreeing with the candid assessment.

“I’ve thought it through,” Ava countered. She gave them an overview of her plans for a suit design to make herself untouchable.

By the end of the explanation, only Samantha looked semi-convinced. “There’s still any number of ways you could be captured or incapacitated. It’s not worth the risk of going in alone.”

“Going in with a team is a bigger risk,” Ava insisted. “While I have a chance of making it through, it’s a certainty that you would fall under telepathic control. Not worth it to even make an attempt.”

“I don’t like it,” Nick maintained.

“You don’t have to like it. I need you standing by to execute a remote hack. You and Sam are the best. With your skills and the Hellfire’s weapon, the Dyons don’t stand a chance.”

“There’s one part you haven’t covered,” Widmore spoke up for the first time since the beginning of the conversation. “What’s your exit plan?”

“That will be a moving target,” Ava replied.

“We never send a team in without an exit strategy,” the major stated.

“We won’t even know the way in until I find it,” Ava replied. “Can’t really plan a way out until we know where I’ll be coming from.”

He shook his head. “Unacceptable.”

>>He’s right, Ava,<< Ruby said in her mind. >>It goes against military procedure for us to go on this mission without having an exit.<<

What if it had to be one-way?

Ruby considered the question. >>I would still join you—but I don’t think it’s necessary to take that approach. There’s a strategy for us to succeed and still live to fight another day. We just need to figure out what the way is.<<

Things are pretty awesome right now. I guess it wouldn’t be fair of me to break Luke’s heart a second time.

>>No, it would not.<<

All right, let’s go over the schematics again and see if we can’t make sense of this planet-ship.

Ava returned her attention to the conference call. “Okay, let me get your thoughts about this beast, and see what we can figure out.” She shared a three-dimensional model of the Dyon ship, based on what the Hellfire’s scan suite had been able to piece together, combined with the preliminary survey data.

Several details that had been missing from the long-range scan they’d viewed in headquarters changed their impression of the ship’s operations. While the specifications about the cylinders remained unchanged, the information regarding the configuration of protrusions and the central tower-like structure had taken on significantly more detail.

What had previously looked like a solid tower was, in fact, a tower with an opening at the base. That opening had allowed the scan to get a better look inside, which had revealed a series of passageways, leading to a cavernous space, twenty-three kilometers below the tower.

“That looks a whole lot like a scaled-up version of the cavern we encountered on Gidyon,” Samantha observed.

“My thought, as well,” Ava said. “And near as we can tell, this structure in some way functions as a hub. That means there has to be some way to interface with the ship from here.”

“That’s a really big assumption, Ava,” Nick said. “If you get in there and it’s not like we assume, you’re going to be shit out of luck.”

“He’s right,” Widmore agreed. “The structure in Gidyon was likely influenced by the collaboration with the Nezaran government and NTech. There’s no telling what kind of tech might be in this other thing.”

“I mean, it’s a fucking planet-sized ship!” Edwin exclaimed.

“I know it sounds crazy,” Ava replied, keeping her tone calm and level, “but we have already weighed the risks. Ruby and I agree that the threat to the Alaxar Trinary is too great for me not to try this. Colonel Kurtz agrees.”

“I ca—”

“No,” Ava cut Edwin off. “This isn’t up for negotiation.” She paused. “Sir, may I speak freely?”

Widmore nodded. “I think you already have been. Go on.”

“All of you have a home somewhere,” Ava began. “You joined the FDG so you could make sure that your people would always be safe. Well, right now, my homeworld is about to be blown up by a group of aliens that doesn’t even know what it’s like to be an autonomous being with a body and loved ones. They’re after raw minerals and a group of slaves they can possess and throw into battle with the express intent of inflicting as much suffering as possible.

“I don’t know if this plan of mine will work, but there’s no fucking way I’m going to sit around and hope we come up with a solution in time to save them. My entire career in the FDG has prepared me to do whatever is necessary to protect those I love, and that’s what I’m doing now. Don’t try to stop me. It isn’t your decision to make.”

She looked at her friends’ drawn faces on the screen in front of her. “You don’t have to like it, but I hope you’ll help me. This plan has a lot better chance of success if you do your part.” She focused on Widmore. “But, sir, I don’t want this to be an order for anyone on the Raven. I want the team to be committed to this of their own accord.”

After a moment of silence, Samantha nodded. “You know I’ll always have your back.”

Nick and Edwin murmured their agreement.

“You have my support, as well,” Widmore said. “I’ll pilot the Raven myself, if I have to.”

“We’re just used to being the tough ones,” Edwin said. “Our little Ava went and got all badass on us.”

She smiled. “I did, didn’t I?”

“She won’t be alone,” Ruby chimed in over the comm. “I’ll keep her out of trouble. After all, it’s my body, too, now.”

“Very true,” Nick said. “I’m not sure how well we’ll be able to hack this thing, but I’ll give it my all.”

“Thank you.” Ava flashed a heartfelt smile at her team. “I wouldn’t be considering this if I didn’t know I had you for backup. Tell me what you’ll need to make a remote connection, and we’ll make the arrangements.”

“They have a bunch of shielding, right?” Samantha said. “So you’d need to tap into a console that’s wired into the ship’s external communication array.”

Ava frowned. “Sounds straightforward enough… if we had any idea where that was or what the components look like.”

“Yeah, well, you should at least figure that much out before you go running in there with glowy eyes and claws out,” Nick responded.

“Working on it,” she said. “Get yourselves to our location. I’ll take care of the rest.”


*     *     *


“I think Ava may have lost her mind,” Kurtz said, “but it happens to be a type of crazy I like.”

Major Widmore smiled back at him over the screen mounted to the wall in Kurtz’s temporary quarters on the Hellfire. “I must admit, sir, I was surprised to hear you’d endorsed it.”

Kurtz smiled. “Ava can be very persuasive. But, truth be told, we don’t have a lot of options here. We literally fired the biggest gun we had, and it did nothing. With no way to ramp up, we need to think smaller and more targeted. Sending in a larger team would be a surefire way to get people killed. Ava’s unique abilities at least give her a shot at accomplishing the mission and getting out alive.”

“She has yet to truly test the limits of her new abilities.”

“Nothing like trial by fire.”

“The ultimate test of autonomy.”

“Indeed. If the team pulls this off, promotions are definitely in order,” Kurtz said. “It’s long overdue. The three members of Ava’s team should be sergeants by now, after everything they’ve been through.”

“I heartily support an advancement. With the team operating on its own the majority of the time, rank hasn’t come into play. They know the chain of command within their unit, and that’s all they’ve ever needed.”

Kurtz nodded. “All the same, each of them should be running a unit or training the next generation.”

“I’d hate to break apart such a high-functioning team, but there would be a lot of value in distributing their skills,” Widmore agreed.

“Then there’s Ava.” Kurtz shook his head. “I have no idea what we should do with her.”

“The present team dynamic no longer reflects the best use of her skills. However, planning out a future path for her is a discussion I think she should be a part of—after we’ve dealt with the Dyons.”

“Without a doubt,” Kurtz agreed. “She has great things ahead of her, I have no doubt. I’ll be honored to look back and say I was here for this event. This upcoming encounter will be one for the history books.”

“A daring plan, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Ava and the rest of her team. But, all the same, what are our contingencies if it doesn’t work?”

“I’m making arrangements to have some backup precautions in place,” Kurtz said. “Planetary shields. The generators likely couldn’t withstand a long-term assault, but it might buy some extra time. And, if nothing else, they will offer peace of mind to the civilian population.”

Widmore nodded. “One can never underestimate the value of psychological well-being. Maintaining order on the affected worlds will be critical.”

“It will, but that’s not your concern. I’ll make the necessary preparations in the Alaxar Trinary while you’re in transit.”

“Yes, sir.”

“There is one thing I need your help coordinating,” Kurtz said. “We’ll require a way to interface with the ship in the event our normal wireless or hardwire connectivity methods don’t work. There’s a specialist on Luke’s team who works with bioelectric interfaces, yes?”

“I believe so.”

“Get the team on the issue. I want a backup strategy ready, if it’s needed.”

“Consider it done, sir,” Widmore acknowledged.

“Thank you, see you soon. We’ll have everything else ready for the team when you arrive.”












CHAPTER NINE


Un-fucking-believable. Karen raced into the open area at the center of the government office space that had been functioning as the headquarters for her operations, dubbed ‘Command Central’. The nickname was a little overkill, but everyone in the office knew what it meant.

The sun had yet to rise for the day, but she’d already been awake for hours. Since receiving the alert from Connors about the impending attack, she’d been coordinating with FDG representatives about receiving delivery of FDG defensive tech to augment Nezar’s standard planetary shield, which deflected minor space debris.

The rest of her team had yet to arrive. Her message in the wee hours of the morning had no doubt alarmed them, but she’d kept the reason for the early meeting to herself for the time being. Some news was better delivered in person.

Karen powered up the conference table while she waited, and loaded in the schematics for the new planetary shield components.

While she queued up the final pieces of her forthcoming presentation, Fiona wandered in. Despite the early hour, she still had her trademark polished appearance.

“Karen, what’s going on?” she asked.

“I’ll go crazy if I need to repeat myself for every person who walks through the door. Have a seat—I’ll explain soon.”

Fiona cracked a smile, though her face was lined with worry. “I guess that was the wrong question. A better one may be, ‘how bad is it?’ ”

Karen cast her a level gaze across the conference table in response.

“I guess the fact that you called us here for an 04:30 meeting says it all.” Fiona slumped into a chair without her usual poise.

Trisha was the next to arrive, at almost the same time as Edgar and Marcy, who’d both been serving as managers on various special projects to restore the government. The remaining half-dozen staffers trickled in over the next three minutes.

When the ten attendees were seated, Karen stood up at the head of the table.

“Thank you for coming in so early. I asked each of you here because I know you can be trusted. You each played a part in the Dyon eradication last month, so I don’t need to fill you in or impress upon you how dangerous they are.”

With that, everyone’s faces paled. A few people swore under their breath.

Fiona sat, calmly as ever, with her hands folded in her lap. “Did you find more of them?”

“Not exactly,” Karen replied. “More, they found us.” She brought up an image of the Dyon ship, which Kurtz had relayed from the FDG’s scans.

The ship appeared as a meter-wide sphere hovering above the center of the conference table. At that size, the dish suspected of being a weapon looked like little more than a child’s toy.

“Is that a planet?” Trisha asked, tilting her head.

“No, looks like a probe,” Edgar replied. “See those mechanical components?”

“You’re both right, in a way,” Karen cut in. “This graphic doesn’t give a good sense of scale. In reality, this thing here is the same size as Nezar.”

Trisha’s jaw dropped. “No way.”

The frown Fiona had been sporting since the image appeared deepened. “So this is why we were called here. Is it the Dyons? Is this coming our way?”

Karen nodded grimly. “I won’t pretend to make this anything other than what it is. There’s a planet-sized ship headed for this system, and we believe the intent is to harvest the natural resources of these worlds.”

Gasps sounded around the table.

“What does that mean, ‘harvest’?” Trisha asked.

“Everything is speculation,” Karen said. “All we know for sure is that the object is on a direct course for this system, and it’s the Dyons. Based on what we’ve seen them do already, it’s not a leap to say this ship is capable of much, much worse.”

The attendees all started asking questions at once, and Karen held up her hands. “I know you want answers, but talking over each other or panicking won’t help us prepare. Let me finish going over the plan, and then you can clarify your responsibilities to help see us through this crisis.”

They returned their attention to her, but most still squirmed in their seats.

“The Federation is sending augmentations of our existing planetary shields,” she continued. “While Nezar isn’t officially in the Federation, it’s fair to say that we’ve been courting each other for the past month. Since Alucia is a member world and is facing the same threat, the decision was made to outfit the three worlds in our system with the same technology, as to not leave one a more enticing target than the others. We need to be unified to get through this.

“However, these shields are only a precaution. The FDG is presently launching a strategic assault on the Dyon ship. I don’t know the details, so don’t bother asking, but I’ve been assured that there’s a high chance of success. Assuming it is successful, the ship won’t get anywhere close to us.

“Getting the FDG tech installed is going to take all of us working smart. We have a lot to do to get the pieces in place. A handful of FDG tech specialists will be here to oversee the installation, but they aren’t enough to get it done. You’ll each have assignments for gathering the resources and coordinating the necessary pieces. Trisha and I will oversee the operation from here.”

Fiona advanced the presentation. The holographic image changed to a schematic of a field generator. Nine such devices were positioned at equidistant points around the planet.

“Each of the rest of you will be responsible for overseeing the installation of the upgrades at one of the sites, serving as a liaison with the FDG on behalf of the Nezaran government. This is the critical part: only you and the FDG tech will know what these upgrades are for. We don’t have time to conduct a proper briefing for the maintenance workers at the outposts, and dropping the news like this would result in widespread panic. Your job is to go there and act like everything is routine.”

Fiona raised her hand slightly, and Karen gave her a nod of consent. “Won’t it be pretty obvious that this isn’t routine, what with the FDG showing up to help, and the fast timeline?”

“A good-faith gift from the Federation, on behalf of Alucia’s recent joining,” Karen replied. “Or, that’s what’s we’ll tell them, if asked. The FDG was coming to install Alucia’s standard shield upgrade, as part of the arrangement, and they’re on a tight timeline to complete it before moving on to other projects. For all anyone on Nezar knows, the Federation always moves this quickly.”

“And what is the timeline?” Fiona asked.

“Right.” Karen took a deep breath. “We have three days before the ship arrives in the system. The FDG transports with the shield components will be here this afternoon, giving you time to travel to the generators and build some rapport with the workers.”

“Half a day won’t get us much bonding,” Edgar said.

Karen shrugged. “So bring some cookies. A few hours is better than nothing.”

She made rapid entries on the touch-surface tabletop. Briefs popped up in front of each of the attendees.

“There are your post assignments,” she continued. “I know some of those are the kind of locations you’d never want to visit in your life, but thank you in advance for taking one for the team.”

Edgar looked up at her, his eyes wide with concern. “The equator?”

“Yeah, I know. A little toasty down there. But the shuttles will dock inside, you’ll be fine.” She cast her gaze around the table. “The assignments include your transportation details. Review the file. Come find me if you have questions, but it’s better if you figure out an answer for yourself. You’ll be in charge on the site, so get used to it. Dismissed.”

She leaned against the side wall of the conference room while everyone departed.

Only Fiona stayed back. “Keeping Trisha here? Why not me?” she asked when they were alone. Her tone wasn’t angry, more surprised.

“I would love to have you here, Fi, but the generator outside the capital is the control station for the entire network. I don’t want to worry about it getting messed up.”

Fiona crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes slightly. “There’s more to it than that.”

“This really isn’t the time to discuss it,” Karen said, pushing off the wall.

The other woman blocked her path. “This is about the government leadership, isn’t it?”

Karen checked that no one was close enough to listen in. She sighed. “Okay, yes, there is a political component to this. I talked with Connors, and he’d like to make a play for a presidency over the three worlds, with a governor on each. I think Nezar needs a local face. Since you’ve made it clear you don’t want the top spot, I think Trisha is the best choice.”

“So, you want her here at the center of operations, to see if she can handle it, and if she can, to get others used to seeing her in that role.”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“Does she know you’re doing that?”

Karen shrugged. “If she does, she hasn’t indicated as much. I’ve never seen her express interest in having a bigger leadership role, but she’s also never dismissed it as directly as you have. What better trial run than a crisis?”

“She did keep her cool with the Dyon situation last time around, and she knows the operations inside and out.”

“Her résumé is a little light on authoritative positions, but at this point, that doesn’t matter. She’s smart and committed—the rest can come with time and experience.”

Fiona nodded. “I’d vote for her.”

Karen smiled. “Well, if she can win you over, then she’s a shoo-in.”

“All right. I guess we should probably save the world, then, so she actually has a planet left to govern.”

“Not a bad idea.”

Fiona took a deep breath. “Okay, I’ll get to it. See you on the other side.”

“Good luck. We’ll be in touch.”

Karen cleared any evidence of the meeting’s content from the conference room, then headed to her office. She verified that everyone was clear on their assignments, then set about making the final logistical arrangements for the arrival of the FDG shield equipment.

An hour later, when the sun was finally beginning to peek over the horizon, her desktop chirped with an incoming communication from Alucia.

“President Connors, I didn’t expect to hear from you again today,” she greeted.

“I wanted to make sure that everything was on track,” he replied. “Did you get everything you need from Colonel Kurtz?”

“Yes, the installation project is underway,” Karen said. “They took the news better than I feared they might.”

“You showed them?”

“It didn’t seem right to hide the details. What better way to impress the importance of their actions than to show what we’re up against?”

He nodded. “I agree. Mitchell Korwen, on the other hand, seems like he’d be better suited to living under a rock.”

“Uh oh.” Karen’s brows drew together. “What happened?”

“Well, I reached out to him earlier, right after I spoke with you. It was the middle of the afternoon local time on Coraxa, so he was in his office. I expected it to be a civil call from one leader to another, but he laughed when I told him.”

“That doesn’t sound very mayoral.”

“To say the least.” Connors sighed. “I emphasized that the situation wasn’t going to go away on its own, but he still seems… reluctant to take it seriously.”

Karen rubbed her eyes. “I didn’t think it would be a problem. He always seemed so level-headed while I was growing up.”

“Age can do strange things to people.”

“Or maybe he was never the leader I remember him being as a kid.”

She had fond memories of her youth, and, admittedly, there was never much conflict on Coraxa. The biggest issue they’d ever faced in Tribeca was having too many traveler visa applications during the peak summer festival season. Someone in Mayor Korwen’s position needed to be a friendly face, a mediator, not a person responsible for addressing extreme safety concerns related to planetary affairs. Perhaps his years of such low-stakes governing had made him blind to a genuine crisis.

“Where do things with Coraxa stand now?” she asked.

“The FDG will be arriving with its shipment in three hours. At this point, I’m not positive he’ll offer any local assistance. If he doesn’t, the number of conversations we’ll need to have to get that equipment installed in time would delay us—to the point that I don’t know if we could complete the install before the Dyon ship is due to arrive.”

Karen swore under her breath. “Do you want me to talk with him? I don’t know if it would make a difference, but maybe hearing from a local would help.”

“At this point, I will happily explore any option. Please, do what you can.”

She nodded. “All right. I’ll get back to you soon.”

Ugh, Mayor Korwen… why are you being difficult? She wiped her hands down her face.

She had no idea how best to approach him. He had always been a fixture in the small Tribeca community. With the town’s economy built primarily around ecotourism, his role as a leader amounted to sporting a friendly face for visitor’s brochures more than any real civic responsibility.

She wasn’t sure if years of dealing with such minimal concerns had made him soft, or if he was just in denial about the danger his world now faced, but she couldn’t allow Coraxa to be in harm’s way. If she had to go to her homeworld herself to make sure it was protected, she’d hop on the first available ship.

Having never spoken with the mayor directly, Karen contacted the reception desk at Tribeca City Hall and requested a transfer.

“Who shall I tell him is calling?” the receptionist asked. “This line is marked as Gilbert Jern. You don’t sound much like a Gilbert.”

“No, I’m using his office. My name is Karen Carter,” she replied. “I’m the press secretary for President Connors of Alucia.”

“This is a Nezaran access code.”

“It’s complicated. Please, I need to speak with Mayor Korwen right away.”

The receptionist took a slow breath. “One moment.”

The line went quiet for five seconds, followed by a beep, as the video call connected on her monitor.

“Hello?” an older man answered. His white, bushy eyebrows were even wilder than Karen remembered.

“Mister Mayor, my name is Karen Carter. I grew up in Tribeca.”

The mayor placed a pensive hand on his chin. “Philip and Martha’s daughter?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Ah.” He nodded. “There aren’t many half-Torcellan children, let alone two in one family. I remember you and your brother.”

“That’s us.” She smiled. “Well, I’m working with President Connors now on Alucia, though I’m currently on assignment on Nezar. I understand that the president has already reached out to you regarding a security threat to our system.”

“Ah, yes.” The mayor scoffed. “And you thought if I heard from a local, I might listen closer to what was being said?”

“Forgive my frankness, sir, but this isn’t a matter of opinion. An alien ship the size of Nezar is three days from entering the Alaxar Trinary. If it arrives, and augmented shields aren’t active on Coraxa, the planet is at extreme risk of destruction. All you need to do is authorize the installation of the equipment upgrades at the generator outposts.”

“There are two key facts you’re not taking into account, young lady.”

Karen resisted rolling her eyes. Oh, this will be good.

“First, I’m the mayor of Tribeca—I don’t speak for the whole planet.” He leaned forward toward the camera integrated in his monitor. “Moreover, Coraxa isn’t a Federation world. Are we to trust that this equipment installation doesn’t come with strings attached?”

“Membership status in the Federation has nothing to do with this. Why would you turn down protection from a threat?”

“All I see is a holographic image. For all I know, this is a ploy to give the Federation a backdoor into taking over Coraxa to exploit its unique properties. There might not be an alien ship at all!”

Karen stared at him with disbelief. “You think the Federation would mislead you like that?”

“I know nothing of the Federation, other than they deal in wars and try to sway entire civilizations. Coraxa is a small, peaceful world. We need no part in such things.”

“I can appreciate your position, Mister Mayor, but time necessitates that I be blunt: if the Federation wished to take over Coraxa, they would simply take it. Allowing them to install equipment doesn’t change anything, other than protect the planet from the real threat.”

“I don’t appreciate your tone.”

“Well, I don’t appreciate you refusing to participate in this project.” Karen glared at him. “I recommended President Connors reach out to you because I thought you would be able to help. I see that I was sorely mistaken.”

“I know you grew up here, and your parents have always been upstanding members of this community, but you left home long ago, Karen. You are now a citizen of Alucia, and I have no innate trust in you.”

This was a mistake. Karen took a deep breath. “I only want what’s best for Coraxa.”

The old man shook his head. “You have other worlds to worry about now.”

“The Alaxar Trinary will be united, whether you go along with this plan or not. The certainty, however, is that if you don’t cooperate, we will come by force, and you’ll have no say in the future dealings of the world.”

He scoffed. “You have no authority.”

If power is what motivates him, then I need to hit him where it hurts. Karen curled her lips, eyes narrow. “Not on my own. But, unlike you, I have made friends with very powerful people. They care about the system’s well-being, too. That equipment is getting installed, no matter what you do now. Whether or not you have a political future in Tribeca, however, is still up for discussion.” Karen folded her hands on the desktop. “So, I’ll ask you again. Will you facilitate the FDG’s access to the shield generation stations?”

The mayor sat up straighter in his chair. “When you put it like that, perhaps this is the time to start a relationship with the Federation on the right foot.”

“I’m so glad to hear you’ve reconsidered. The FDG techs will be in touch when they arrive. Select nine staff to serve as liaisons with the maintenance team at the stations—keep the reason for the installation need-to-know.”

The mayor nodded. “Fine. But if the Federation wrongs us, you’ll need to live with the fact that you did this to your home.”

“Yeah, I’ll know I saved my home. I can live with that just fine.”












CHAPTER TEN


Luke had told himself he’d get used to Ava going off on missions, but that was easier said than done. As the hours passed without hearing from her, he found himself growing increasingly concerned that something was wrong.

This should have been a quick op—get there, blow the ship up, come home. Why the delay? He didn’t have an explanation.

Even Jack and Tess were quieter than usual. As much as he tried to dismiss his worry, it kept nagging at him.

“Should we have heard something by now?” he asked them as the afternoon turned to evening.

Tess turned around from her station. “I don’t want to feed any concerns you may have, but yeah, I kinda did expect there to be something on the local Net by now.”

“Blowing up a massive planet-ship is a pretty big deal,” Jack agreed. “Footage of that would be circulated as soon as it was available.”

“Unless they opted to keep it covert, so no one got freaked out about there maybe being others out there,” Luke replied.

The two lab techs exchanged glances. “Yeah, no,” Jack said.

Even Luke didn’t buy his own rationale.

“Just because they haven’t fired on the ship yet doesn’t mean anything is wrong,” Tess added. “And regardless, I’m sure Ava is fine.”

“Yeah, I know.” He slumped in his seat.

“Special assignments like this are always the worst,” Tess said. “I dated a warrior on one of the special ops teams for a while. I eventually got used to him going off on routine missions—protection detail, retrieval, what have you. But every so often, he’d go out and wouldn’t tell me anything about the mission. Whenever he said he was heading out but got really quiet after he told me, I’d know it was one of those… the sort that sometimes not every member of the team would come back from. I hated every second he was gone.”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “When was this? You never mentioned him before.”

“We were only together for about five months, and it was before you and I met. I guess it never came up.”

Not sure if that was meant to be helpful, but it wasn’t. Luke turned back to his workstation. “Like you said, I’m sure she’s fine.”

“Sorry, I—”

Tess cut off when the door suddenly opened.

Major Widmore popped his head inside. “Good, you’re all here. I need you to do something for me.”

Luke came to attention. “Of course, sir.”

The major stepped inside and closed the door behind him. “What I’m about to tell you doesn’t leave this room.”

The three scientists nodded.

“The Arti-Sun weapon had no effect on the enemy ship,” Widmore revealed.

“Fuck! Really?” Jack exclaimed.

“Obviously, we don’t want word of that getting around. We have a new plan, which involves going aboard the alien ship to form a direct interface. If we can temporarily disable the countermeasures, we can use the Arti-Sun and end this.”

Luke’s stomach dropped. “Who’s going aboard?”

“Ava volunteered.” Widmore held up his hand. “And before you say anything, I objected, too. She made a clear case for why she’s the only person equipped to go, and I begrudgingly have to agree.”

Even without being a part of that conversation, Luke knew exactly what reasons she would have cited. And it did make sense… He hated that.

“What’s this favor you need?” Luke asked, trying to focus on the things that were within his control.

“I need you to go over the scans from the ship—I’ll get you access to the latest data collected on the Hellfire. Our plan hinges on being able to interface with the alien ship so Nick and Sam can hack it, but it’s unclear if we’ll be able to make a standard connection, either physical or wireless,” Widmore explained. “I’d like you to apply what you’ve learned about the structures in Gidyon to see if you can devise a backup method of interfacing with the Dyons’ systems.”

Tess looked at Luke across the lab. “We could use the Gidyon debris.”

He nodded. “Yeah, and look at the logs from the headquarters hack to isolate the signal that activated it.”

“I should be able to establish a datalink on that frequency,” Jack said.

Widmore smiled. “Sounds like you have it handled. We’ll need your solution in twelve hours.”

Luke sighed. Of course they do.

But it was for Ava, so they had to make it happen.


*     *     *


With her team in transit, all Ava could do was wait for their arrival. However, sitting around idly wasn’t her style.

She rolled onto her back on the bunk in her temporary quarters. She had the room to herself, but it was less than three meters wide and four deep. If she spent another minute cooped up, she was going to lose it.

Ugh, there has to be some sort of gym on this behemoth of a ship, right? she asked Ruby.

>>Yes. Two decks down and aft. I was about to suggest we go.<<

Feeling a little antsy yourself?

>>Actually, my reasoning was that this is our only opportunity to practice intentional transformations before we enter the Dyon ship,<< the AI replied.

Ah, that’s a good point.

Ava hadn’t considered that part of the plan. With an electrostatic skin in place over her armor, the Dyon particles would be unable to latch onto her and secure her to the ground like they’d done on Gidyon. She’d been so focused on that physical element that she’d been neglecting the telepathic component.

When presenting the idea, she had brought forth the pertinent fact that she could resist succumbing to telepathic influence, unlike others. However, she’d forgotten why.

It wasn’t a unique resistance thanks to her own telepathic skills, or a natural ability. Rather, it was a byproduct of shifting to and from her Hochste state. While other Weres would potentially be able to minimize the effects of the telepathic influence by shifting, the key differentiator was the overlay of her telepathic strength. Though neither component was sufficient unto itself, the combination of the abilities was enough to break the Dyons’ telepathic bonds, and Ruby’s presence ensured that she would always be able to transform when she needed to.

Even with that winning combination, though, there were still risks. Ava had only transformed completely a handful of times before—mostly due to a lack of adequate practice space at FDG headquarters and on the Raven—so Ruby didn’t yet have sufficient data to regulate her physiology to its optimal performance. The only way to gather that data was to go through the exercise.

Tell me where to go, Ava said to the AI. We’ll kick everyone out of the gym and see what we can do together.

>>I suggest an empty cargo bay instead. It’s a much larger space,<< Ruby countered. >>Plus, the gym walls are padded, and that seems like an unfair fight against your claws.<<

So going up against riveted metal is better? I might chip a nail!

>>Since when do you care about that?<<

Ava smiled. I’m joking, Ruby. Seriously, though, I’ll need to be careful with any walls. I don’t want to break or dull these nice points. They’re too good for slashing.

>>I’m not sure what, exactly, you think you’ll be slashing over there on the Dyon ship, but I suppose this practice session will also be a good opportunity for you to exercise some self-restraint. Don’t drag your claws along the wall. Problem solved.<<

But what about trailing a nail as I advance toward my enemy, to strike fear into their hearts?

>>I think maybe you’ve been watching too many old videos with the crew on the Raven.<<

Don’t underestimate showmanship. It’s an art.

>>Uh huh.<<

Ruby directed Ava toward an empty cargo bay in the bowels of the dreadnought. The ship was enormous compared to the Raven—or most other ships she’d been on.

Despite its size, it managed to maintain the feeling of a place where people could live for an extended amount of time. Subtle decorations on the walls and furnishings in the common areas lent a communal atmosphere, which was evident in informal gatherings between groups of warriors.

Several individuals cast her an evaluating look as she passed through the halls, and a few nodded in greeting. She smiled and nodded back, but none of the exchanges lasted for more than a second.

Do they know who I am? she asked Ruby.

>>Some might, but don’t let it go to your head. I suspect most of those looks are because the ship is so big—they can’t decide if they’ve seen you before or not.<<

Oh yeah, good point.

>>I did promise that I’d have a lot of those.<<

Ava chuckled in her mind. And you have followed through.

The corridor leading to the cargo bay access door was empty, aside from two workers making plans for after their shifts ended.

Should we be planning our own party?

>>Might be getting a little ahead of ourselves,<< Ruby replied in her  mind.

I’m telling you, knowing that there’s a cake waiting for us would be extra motivational.

>>For you, maybe. I don’t have a mouth.<<

Vicarious enjoyment, and all that.

Ruby sighed. >>If that’s what gets you fired up, go for it. I think you already have another, more compelling, reason to complete this mission quickly.<<

Ava smiled to herself. She’s right. Luke is waiting for me. As much as she loved cake, Luke would win out every time. Interpersonal bonds trumped all.

Even so, the cake doesn’t hurt, she replied to Ruby.

>>If what’s happening in your brain right now just thinking about eating it is any indication, I would never stand between you and the real thing.<<

Upon reaching the designated location, Ruby got a lock override for the door from the ship’s EI, and they entered.

To Ava’s surprise, the entry led to a balcony overlooking the open space. The room stood three decks tall, seventy meters wide, and a hundred deep. Along the back wall, a massive hatch provided direct access for loading in cargo. Completely empty at the moment, it would provide unobstructed training ground to hone her transformation skills.

She descended the side stairway one story to the deck. Ready to give it a go?

>>Yes. Let’s start with a simple shift.<<

Ava took a deep breath and centered her mind. Her previous shifting attempts had been made while she was in an agitated state, specifically at times when she was angry. Such potent emotions clouded judgment, though, and she needed to learn to transform without losing her cool.

Ruby began altering the chemical mixture in her body and brain to mimic the state that had triggered past transformations. With the physiological change, Ava had the sudden urge to punch something, but she kept the impulse in check.

I’m in control. I dictate what I do with these powers.

Tingling spread from her fingertips and forehead toward her core. She looked down at her hands and saw coarse hair extending from under her shipsuit’s sleeves, and her nails had thickened and elongated into razor-sharp claws.

I don’t feel any pain, she commented to Ruby.

>>I’m blocking it in your brain. I haven’t been able to figure out why it causes you discomfort when the other Weres don’t experience it, but I can at least push it to the background.<<

Thanks.

Ava flexed the augmented muscles on her arms and legs when the transformation was complete, her shipsuit taut around her broader shoulders. While not as strapped as the Weres on her team in their Pricolici form—likely due to the vampire influence of her new physiology—she stood at least eight centimeters taller than normal, and her limbs were thicker and more toned.

She opened and closed the elongated jaw of her short snout, running her tongue along the back side of fangs where her incisors used to be.

Even her senses were enhanced—the metallic scent of the filtered air, picking out minute scuffs on the deck tiles from where a crate had been dragged, or even the faint echoes of the conversation in the hall that had previously been undetectable.

The amount of sensory input at her disposal threatened to overwhelm her, so she did her best to block it out and focus on her own physical state.

All right, let’s see what I can do.

As a baseline, she began by jumping straight into the air. The first attempt was a little under two meters, close to her standing height.

>>Based on your muscle configuration, I believe you’ll see the best results with a running start toward a leap,<< Ruby recommended.

Ava ran halfway across the depth of the bay, then turned back to face the elevated entry platform. I apologize in advance if this fails miserably.

>>It’s the only way we’ll learn! Go for it.<<

She took off at a brisk jog, careful to hold herself back from going into vampiric speed mode. Ten meters from the platform, she bumped up the pace a notch, then leaped for the platform.

The air whooshed past her as she extended her clawed hands for the railing. It was so close—almost within her grasp. Her claws grazed the bottom lip of the platform.

Oops.

She plummeted downward.

The deck met her face and chest, knocking the air from her lungs. “Ow,” she moaned, rolling to her side.

>>Why didn’t you land on your feet?<< Ruby chastised.

Lost my bearings, I guess. I was so sure I was going to make it.

>>You dialed back a little too much.<<

Ava rose to her feet and gingerly rubbed her sternum, careful to keep her claws angled away from her flesh. Yeah, I got that. 

>>You’re not hurt. Let’s go again.<<

For the second attempt, Ava took a faster pace and also waited an extra stride before pushing off the deck. This time, she sailed through the air and was able to easily grasp the upper rung of the railing.

>>Good. Again.<<

Ruby had her complete the exercise another five times at various speeds and leap points to establish the variables.

>>Now, try leaping over the top of the railing,<< she instructed.

The first two attempts resulted in Ava’s face becoming acquainted with the deck of the entry platform, her foot having caught while trying to clear the rail.

“Oof.” Ava picked herself off the deck. “I didn’t think this exercise was going to beat me up.”

>>You’ll heal in less than an hour, quit complaining.<<

Are you sure you weren’t a drill sergeant in a past life?

>>Quite sure, but it does sound like it would be fun to push bodies and minds to their limits.<<

‘Biomedical specialist AI’ just moved to the top of my list of drill sergeant types you don’t ever want to get, for what it’s worth.

>>Oh, this isn’t boot camp, Ava. You get me all the time, and I’m in your mind so I know exactly how much you can take. Now, jump off this balcony!<<

With a heavy sigh, Ava complied.

>>Sprints, far wall and back.<<

She dashed across the room, closing the hundred meters in a second.

Truth be told, she didn’t mind being put through her paces. It was exhilarating to finally be able to let loose outside the context of facing down an enemy gun, to practice in a place where failure didn’t mean death for herself or her teammates.

Ava hadn’t had such a free session in years. She regularly trained with her team, sure, but she’d always had something to prove to them, with her smaller stature and no physical modifications. With them, she’d never wanted to misstep, so she always played it safe.

Alone in a room with Ruby, however, she could fall on her face repeatedly, and no one would know.

>>Good. Quick rest, and then we’ll go again,<< Ruby told her.

Ava stopped to stretch.

“Impressive,” a voice said from above, startling her.

She spun around to see Colonel Kurtz looking over the railing. “Sir! When did you get here?”

“A minute ago, maybe. I could barely tell it was you, you were moving so quickly. That, and the fangs, of course.”

Right, that.

Ava reverted to her human state. “I wasn’t expecting anyone to look in on this session,” she said, once her usual self again. At least he hadn’t shown up while she was a crumpled heap on the deck.

“I thought you might like some company,” Kurtz said. “Maybe some sparring? There aren’t many Weres on board.”

>>I have most of the data I need to guide your state while we’re in the ship,<< Ruby said. >>The next set of sprints was intended as a means to keep your heartrate up for an extended time, but sparring would work just as well. Actually, you could practice going from human to Hochste while in combat.<<

Ava tilted her head as she looked up at Kurtz. “What would it do for my career prospects to land a few blows on a colonel, sir?”

He smiled back. “You sound awfully confident you’ll be able to hit me.”

She smirked. “You saw that blur running across the floor. Still want to extend the offer?”

“What kind of officer would I be if I shied away from a challenge? Bring it on.”

She waved him down. “All right, sir, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”












CHAPTER ELEVEN


Kurtz winced as he eased into the desk chair in his temporary quarters. While he’d expected Ava to have speed and strength on her side, he had figured he’d still be able to hold his own next to her. He hadn’t yet decided if he was pleased or miffed that she’d bested him in both his human and Pricolici forms without breaking a sweat.

Considering that the future of an entire system is presently in her hands, I can only count her prowess as a win for all of us, he decided, setting aside his bruised ego.

The sparring session had been an opportunity to check on her state of mind, how she was handling the stress of having an entire mission hinging on her. She had given him no cause for concern; if anything, she seemed to be in good spirits, considering.

That bolstered his confidence in the mission being successful, but he couldn’t neglect the contingency plans.

Beyond the danger to the Alaxar Trinary, the FDG was at risk. The Dyons had broken in once, and though they’d been blocked from reentering the system for now, the aliens could potentially get an infusion of new resources from Alaxar that could bolster their strength. As sickening as it was to think about that potential, Kurtz needed to make sure the FDG finished getting its own augmented defenses in place.

He established a secure comm link to FDG headquarters and initiated a video call with Denise.

The chief of security picked up. “Sir, what can I do for you?”

“How much have you heard about my mission on the Hellfire?”

“I know it’s connected to the Dyons and the attack on headquarters, but not much beyond that.”

“Well, it’s time I explained,” he replied.

She nodded her understanding while Kurtz laid out the details for the first iteration of the plan to take out the Dyon ship. When he got to the part about the Arti-Sun not working, Denise’s composure broke.

“It what?!” she exclaimed, her eyes bugging out. “Sorry, sir, it’s just…”

“I know, I haven’t been able to make proper sense of it myself. But we are about to implement a plan to disable those countermeasures, which we’re hopeful will allow us to use the weapon. If we can’t for whatever reason, though, we’ll need a way to keep FDG headquarters and the ship’s computers from being hacked again, to ensure we have a secure command center from which to command our counterattack.”

“Network patches are in progress.”

“Is there anything else we can do?” Kurtz asked. “I know this is far from my area of expertise, but they’ve broken through the digital security once. Are those patches a certain fix?”

Denise was silent for a moment. “You’re right. We were approaching this from a ‘this should work’ standpoint rather than reengineering the system to make it a surety.”

“My guess is you don’t have time for a complete overhaul.”

“No, we definitely don’t—at least not before that ship hits the Alaxar Trinary.”

“Any ideas, or are we in wait-and-see mode?”

She sighed and shook her head. “Sir, I wish more than anything I could offer a solution that would set our minds at ease. Truth is, though, they got their hands on some of our best tech. The FDG on its own doesn’t have the resources to implement long-term safeguards. The system needs to be rebuilt from scratch, and that will take the original programmers months to complete, if we go that route.”

“In other words, taking out the enemy is our only viable security measure,” Kurtz concluded.

“Yes, sir, that is my professional opinion. Otherwise, if they come for us, there’s not much we’d be able to do to stop them.”

He scoffed. “The perfect storm of components to hit all our vulnerabilities at once.”

“And, to be clear, those weak points are very minor. But our security was designed to keep out the kind of enemies we know. Dyons don’t operate like them. When they got access to that external processor, we gave them the keys to the backdoor.”

Blowing up Gidyon was supposed to take care of that problem. Are there more of them out there besides this one ship? Kurtz nodded. “I’ll leave you to finishing the patches, then. After we get through this successfully, we can work on that overhaul.”

“Yes, sir. We’ll do our best.”

Kurtz ended the call, then swiveled around in his chair to stare out the window.

The alien planet-ship appeared no larger than her fist at their pursuit range, a dull gray sphere against the velvet blackness. Aside from its size, it didn’t look like much—maybe an industrial colony ship, but certainly not the potential system-killer that it was.

When he thought about the threats facing the Federation, his biggest concern had always been a massive fleet augmented by armored foot soldiers. Perhaps venturing from another galaxy, this foe, in his nightmares, would present an overwhelming force the Federation would have no way of defeating. His imaginings always led to the Federation and the enemy fleet squaring off against one another, but he didn’t know if they’d fight until the bitter end or find another solution.

The Dyons defied that worst-case scenario vision. This was a single, massive ship, capable of travel from system to system within the Federation, capable of wiping out those worlds.

He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but Kurtz was terrified that their preparations would be for nothing. Any ship capable of negating an Arti-Sun blast would certainly be able to cut through planetary shields. No matter what protective tech they gave the worlds in the Alaxar Trinary, it was only for show, something to make them feel better—something to give them hope.

In reality, the alien ship could level everything that the Federation had been working so hard to build.

Ava has to succeed.

Kurtz hated to put pressure on one individual, but it all came down to the ensuing hours. If the mission failed, they’d be in serious trouble.


*     *     *


“This is nuts, right?” Luke said to his team. “I mean, communicating with a bunch of dust?”

“No and no,” Jack replied. “Actually, I feel pretty dumb now.” He pulled his hands out from the rubber gloves in the glove box containing the sample vials of Gidyon debris.

“I’d think you’d be used to that state.” Tess smirked.

Jack playfully narrowed his eyes. “Sure, laugh all you want, but you didn’t think of it, either.”

Luke raised an eyebrow. “What are you talking about?”

“All the assessments we’ve been doing for the last month. We were testing all the wrong things,” Jack replied.

“Please, enlighten me.” Luke crossed his arms.

Jack flourished his hand. “Well, for starters, we were focused on where the debris was from—cross-referencing mining records, radiation patterns, and the like. The entire time, we assumed the material was dead.”

Luke’s brow knit. “It’s… rock.”

“Wrong!” Jack declared triumphantly, pointing his right index finger into the air. “This entire time, the material was something other than what we thought. Each one of those little granules is part of a linked system. They may have started out as raw rock fragments, but they’ve been imbued with a connection to the Etheric. When that signal ran through headquarters, the fragments remembered what they used to be in the dwarf planet and were trying to rebuild it. However, as soon as the signal went away, they returned to their dormant state.”

“How does that conversion process happen, from raw mineral to… whatever these things are?” Luke asked.

“Beats me.” Jack shrugged. “Ultimately, it’s irrelevant. What matters is that we now know that every little granule here has the ability to communicate with others of its kind.”

Luke perked up. “Great! That means Ava doesn’t have to go inside that thing to establish a connection.”

Jack winced. “Not exactly. I said ‘communicate with,’ not that any given point could act as a transmitter.”

Tess nodded. “The materials are different, but it’s still part of a larger collective. Just because the cells in our bodies work together, doesn’t mean all of them can relay sensory feedback.”

“Okay, so we still need to tap into the brain,” Luke surmised, wishing he hadn’t let himself get temporarily hopeful.

“Not the brain, necessarily, but at least a nerve,” Jack continued. “Working with these granules will let us learn how to speak the language—building on the frequency we recorded while they were active before, we can see if the particles respond when we feed it data. But once we figure out how to talk to them, we’ll still need a connection to a central node that has a direct link to the other components.”

“And how do we identify one of those nodes on the ship?” Luke prompted.

“There should be a reaction,” Tess jumped in. “The entire purpose of this mission is to disrupt the ship’s systems, not make friends with it, right? So all we’d have to do is feed it some poison. If the reaction is localized, the particles will just be filler material. But if the effects of that poison are observable elsewhere, it’s tapped into a ‘nerve’. Once that location is identified, Ava will know where to plant the hacking tool.”

Luke looked between the two techs. “Sounds great, but if each of these particulates have some degree of smarts and they can move around into different shapes, how do we make sure the hacking equipment stays connected? The ship could just spit it out.”

“Uh…” Jack scratched his head.

“We could disguise it,” Tess suggested. “If we can isolate what makes the particles appear dormant and disconnected, maybe we can give the hacking gizmo a skin that will make the ship think it’s just another component.”

“That sounds awesome. But how?” Luke asked.

“Frequency patterns,” Jack said, getting a distant look in his eyes. “Hold on, I think I have an idea.”

He ran back to his work console and started making furious entries on the desktop.

“Should I be doing anything?” Tess asked tentatively.

“Probably best to let him work,” Luke replied. While his own skillset had certainly broadened in recent weeks, this wasn’t a job for a geneticist or a xenobiologist.

Luke and Tess returned to their own stations, while Jack worked on whatever brilliant solution had come to him. After twenty minutes, the researcher finally pushed back from his desk.

“Damn, I’m good.”

“All right, Jack, tell us how amazing you are,” Tess said with an exaggerated eyeroll.

“Well,” Jack grinned, “I went over the frequency patterns we’ve observed across various media. While many of the signals appeared to be the same as in our prior analysis, there were… undertones to some of them, which were only apparent when looking at the signals together. I cross-referenced those against the Hellfire’s sensor data, and I believe I’ve devised three signals that will interact with the engineered structures within the alien vessel.

“The first is, essentially, a ‘don’t-mind-me’ signal, like the general matter puts off. I think we can use this to disguise the hacking device so the ship doesn’t see it as a threat.

“The second frequency is a counter-wave that should function like a poison. It’s not an exact opposing frequency to break apart the structure, but it will disrupt the bonds. Ava can use this to trace the nerve fibers. I believe this would also be an effective frequency to use in the skin of Ava’s suit, so they can’t grab her.”

 “Question,” Tess said, partially raising her hand. “If we charge Ava’s suit with a  frequency that disrupts the bonds like that, wouldn’t she, you know, fall through the floor?”

Jack frowned. “That could be a problem, yeah.”

“But maybe not at a lower intensity,” Luke jumped in. “If it was set to more of a ‘pulse’ rather than a constant, it could keep her from sinking into the ground without them being able to grab her.”

“Better yet, if the intensity could be modulated around zones of her suit—pulsing on her the bottom of her feet, but stronger above,” Tess added.

Jack nodded. “It could work, but that would take some time to configure.”

“Then we still have more work to do,” Luke stated. “What was the final frequency? You said there were three.”

“Only our all-access pass.” Jack grinned. “I located the communication channel. It’s similar to the background hum we observed in Gidyon, but with some slight variation—like a dialect. Activate that baby, and it should give the hacking team an open backdoor into the central operating system of the ship.” When he concluded, he folded his hands in his lap, still grinning.

Luke blinked twice. “I don’t know what to say.”

“He’s fishing for a compliment,” Tess advised. “I have to admit, despite acting like an ass most of the time, you do have a stroke of genius in you.”

“Really good work. It would have taken me forever to figure that out, if ever,” Luke added. “Thank you.”

Jack bowed in his chair. “Glad to be of service.”

 “All right, let’s give the Hellfire an update, and then we need to figure out how to make the frequencies work as a suit skin,” Luke said. Hopefully it will be enough to keep Ava safe.












CHAPTER TWELVE


“Shit, did you get that report from the north polar station?” Trisha said, running into Karen’s office.

“Just saw it in my inbox,” Karen replied. She pulled up the message from Eric, the Nezaran government liaison assigned to the station:

>>Onsite maintenance crew refuses to cooperate with installation. Please advise.<<

“Ugh.” Karen slouched in her chair. “Have you tried calling?”

“I thought you’d want to be on that.”

“Trisha,” Karen sat up straighter and folded her hands on the desktop, “you know these issues as well as I do. You don’t need my permission.”

“I wasn’t sure what to suggest,” the other woman replied.

“What do your instincts tell you to do?”

“Have a video call with the station manager. If he won’t see reason, then politely excuse him from his duties. Except, if it comes to that, his staff might feel the same way. Some backup muscle may be needed.”

Karen nodded. “Given that, how do we proceed?”

“Conduct the call to evaluate the severity of the situation. If there’s still conflict, send a military unit to facilitate future discussions.”

“Except…”

Trisha took a deep breath. “No one can know why we’re doing this, or why it’s so important.”

“So, how do we proceed?” Karen asked again.

This was Trisha’s test, whether she realized it or not. There was no better opportunity for Karen to see how she handled pressure than to throw her straight into the fire.

Karen was surprised at her own handling of the situation. She’d encountered her share of crises over the years, but nothing even close to the scale of looming planetary annihilation. When it came down to it, though, there were common elements to every problem. A secret was a secret, orders were orders, and a timeline was a timeline. The magnitude of risk may change, but she was used to meeting critical deadlines—even if past stakes had only been getting a file uploaded in time for the morning news.

Trisha was newer to the crunch, but she had a good head on her shoulders. Karen waited for her to arrive at the logical conclusion for their specific situation.

“If we do need to call in military support,” Trisha continued after several seconds, “we need only explain who needs to be detained. We have a representative onsite who can provide more details at their discretion.”

“Exactly.” Karen smiled. “See? You don’t need me.”

“Will you still sit in on the call? I think it would carry more weight to have a Federation representative present.”

“Of course, but you should lead the discussion. I’ll only jump in if necessary,” Karen agreed. I don’t think my younger self would even recognize my new willingness to delegate! Not that the actual conversation will necessarily go that way.

“I’ll get it set up. My office in five minutes.” Trisha rushed down the hall.

While she waited, Karen quickly checked in with Edgar at one of the shield stations on the equator. Despite a smooth start to the project, his latest report had three items flagged in red and two in yellow, indicating issues encountered with the installation checklist.

Fucking great.

She called Edgar.

“You just got my report, didn’t you?” he asked by way of greeting.

“What happened? I thought you were already past those points in the installation.”

“Yeah, we were,” Edgar replied. “We got the equipment in place just fine, but our system won’t talk to it.”

“We tested for that. It was fine.”

“What can I say? Technology. It worked in the tests, but it doesn’t work in the field.”

“Well, shit.” Karen’s face flushed. “You’re the furthest along of any of the stations, so this is about to become a system-wide issue.”

“I figured as much.”

“Do the FDG techs have any ideas?” she asked.

“They have some sort of software patch in mind, but one of the techs objected, saying that it may be compromised. When I pressed, they didn’t elaborate.”

“That sounds bad.”

“Doesn’t it? Not sure if a software security issue is better than no shield.”

Karen shook her head. “Not no shield. We do have one already, even though it’s not designed to repel heavy weapons.”

“Should I tell them to forget it?”

“Hold on, I’m thinking.” Karen rubbed her eyes.

The physical components fit—that was definitely the trickiest part. The matter of having two computer systems talk to each other wasn’t an insurmountable barrier. If the only way to have the two systems integrate was a patch that would leave the system vulnerable to potential security issues, then there needed to be some kind of intermediary system that would enable the integration without the security risks.

“We need a translator,” Karen stated.

“This isn’t a language barrier issue—”

“No, I mean for the computers. We need a third system that can talk to both of them, but that has a firewall to mitigate the security concerns.”

Edgar’s eyes lit up with understanding. “Okay, yes, that might work. But I have no idea how to do that thing you just described.”

“Neither do I, but between NTech and the university, there has to be a computer expert somewhere who can figure it out.”

“I imagine so, but—”

“I’m late for another meeting. Get started on researching some local experts in the industry. I imagine it’s a very short list.”

“All right,” he agreed.

“I can help you reach out as soon as I’m done with this other discussion,” Karen said. “Good luck.”

She hung up before he could think of another question to which she didn’t have an answer.

Her mind switched back to the issue with the north polar shield station. If they were already having difficulty getting the techs to agree to the equipment installation, trying to sell a software interface was going to be even harder. At least now she knew about the issue before entering the discussion.

Karen raced down the hall to Trisha’s office and found that the call was already underway. She slipped through the door as quietly as possible.

“Karen Carter, the Alucian press secretary and our Federation liaison for this project, has joined us,” Trisha introduced as Karen came into the frame.

“Please excuse my tardiness,” she said, taking in the faces of those on the other side of the video call.

To her relief, a digital overlay of translucent nametags were floating above the heads of the three individuals on the screen, stating their name and role. Eric, the government rep dispatched to the station, Karen knew already. A brunette woman named Gwen was marked as the lead FDG tech for the installation, and the station manager was a scowling man named Bernard.

“So, Bernard,” Trisha said, “what seems to be the trouble?”

“It’s against policy to accept equipment for installation without a signed order from the Nezaran chancellor.”

“I appreciate your dedication to policy, but there is no Nezaran chancellor at the moment,” she replied. “Eric is functioning as an authorized Nezaran government representative in this matter. His word should be regarded with the weight of an order from the former chancellor.”

“My duty is to maintain a secure perimeter for Nezar.” Bernard directed a glare at Karen. “I don’t know how an outsider ended up in charge, but I will maintain my directive until a new chancellor is in place to give me new orders.”

Karen tried to relax her appearance, but she was too tense from thinking about the issue with Edgar for it to change much. “That kind of dedication is admirable, and Nezar is lucky to have you. However, there isn’t going to be a new Nezaran chancellor.”

Trisha shifted in her seat. “Nothing is decided yet.”

“No one wants the job.” Karen shrugged. “It’s funny, isn’t it? One chancellor dies, and not a single person wants to take over the position. The truth is, Bernard, Nezar has been without a designated leader for the past five weeks. Doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in the government, huh? But things haven’t fallen apart. The reason it hasn’t is because of the great work people like Eric and Trisha are doing.

“If they were behind some devious scheme, working with the Federation to bring Nezar down, they could have carried out any manner of subversive attacks already. Instead, the Federation is offering to upgrade our shields to help keep us safe. Considering that we don’t have much of a military, or even a dedicated leader making economic and governance decisions for us right now, I don’t think it’s wise for us to turn down a gift when it’s offered.”

The man sat in silence for five seconds, working his mouth. “Did you assassinate the former chancellor so the Federation would come here?”

Karen scoffed. “No. It was nothing like that.”

The official communications about what had happened with Chancellor Heizberg had been as vague as possible to give answers without revealing the truth. For all most people knew, outside the remaining government leadership and a handful of staff at NTech, the chancellor and other officials had been engaged in subversive activities behind the scenes, conspiring with the Sovereign to transform the world into a dictatorship and launch a civil war within the Alaxar Trinary. Most people had accepted the story and taken the side of unity, but a few—as seemed to be the case with Bernard—were attracted to those separatist ideals and resisted the notion of becoming a Federation world.

There was no evidence Karen could present that would change Bernard’s opinion of Heizberg; fallen idols had a way of always being infallible. She could, however, maybe show him that the Federation wasn’t the evil menace he’d convinced himself it was.

“Do you remember the history of our system?” Karen asked him.

“Of course. We all learned it in school.”

“Then you’ll recall that the humans and Torcellans who settled here began as citizens of the Federation—back when it was still the Etheric Empire. They came here as independent colonists, but all of us have ancestors in the Federation. They aren’t the enemy; they’re our long-lost family.”

Bernard wet his lips. “Our ancestors left for a reason. They wanted to get away.”

“Did they?” Karen countered. “Maybe they had a sense of adventure and found themselves way out here on their own. Did they really intend to sever ties, or was this location just so remote that they lost touch with the core worlds?”

“Maybe.”

Karen nodded to Trisha. She’d softened him up, but Trisha needed to be the one to drive the argument home.

“The point is, Bernard, that ‘insiders’, ‘outsiders’, ‘enemy’, and ‘friend’ are subjective terms based on your current perspective,” Trisha said. “But I am certain that the settlers of this system intended for us to be united across our three worlds. That makes Alucia our friend, and as a member of the Federation, that means the Federation is our friend, too, by extension.”

He crossed his arms. “Nice speech, and maybe you do have a point, but that’s not the issue at hand. Why are you so insistent about these upgrades?”

“Safety and security,” Trisha replied. “I can’t say more than that right now, but I give you my assurance as a citizen of this system that the Federation’s intentions are honorable. Please, assist the technicians with this installation.”

“What happens if my crew and I refuse?”

Trisha folded her hands on the tabletop. “Then you will be removed from your posts by force. I don’t want it to come to that, because I feel that would be the start of a civil war. Our people don’t need to be torn apart—we need to be united.”

He eyed her. “I know there’s something you’re not telling us.”

“I guess we’re acting like a real government now, then.” Karen smiled. “You wanted your new chancellor? Well, Trisha here is as close to a political head of state as we have right now. Are you going to listen to her, or do you want to resist and put the people of this world at risk?”

Bernard sighed. “What choice do I have? Install your damn equipment.”

“Thank you.” The tension went out of Trisha. “You won’t have any reason to regret this.”

“I hope not.” Bernard rose from the table. “I guess we have a lot of work to do.”

“Yes,” Eric agreed. “Gwen, let us know how we can help.”

The video feed cut as the team at the polar station got to work.

“Well done,” Karen told Trisha.

“Me? You did a lot of the talking.”

More than I intended. So much for keeping my mouth shut. Karen smiled. “You closed the deal.”

She lit up. “I guess I did, didn’t I?”

“I knew you could do it.” Karen glanced toward the door. “You have everything under control. I need to attend to some other matters.”

Trisha’s face drained. “What’s going on?”

“Oh, that new tech we just convinced them to install won’t do jack shit unless we devise a new interface between the software systems.”

“What?!”

“Hey, I never said this would be simple.”

Despite the setback, Karen knew they’d find a way. They had to.












CHAPTER THIRTEEN


>>The Raven just arrived,<< Ruby informed Ava in her mind.

Almost go time.

She felt energized after the sparring session with Kurtz and her subsequent practice. Getting to stretch her legs, both in a literal and figurative sense, was a welcome change from being cooped up in her cabin.

She tried to keep her mind off the mission ahead by thinking about how powerful her new abilities made her feel. Dashing across a cargo bay in a split second made for good fun, but getting to fight back against an enemy threatening her home would bring an even greater sense of satisfaction.

>>Are you nervous?<< Ruby asked. >>I’m surprised you aren’t showing more physiological signs of stress.<<

I’m excited, if anything. Yeah, it’s scary, but we get to be the first ones to go inside a ship from stars know where. That’s pretty incredible.

>>Yes, that’s true. The scientist part of me is fascinated to see what we can learn, but that’s overshadowed somewhat by the statistical odds of something going terribly wrong.<<

I thought you knew by now that your ‘models of doom’ aren’t helpful—or even accurate. Based on how often you think I’m about to get turned into a pile of goo, shouldn’t it have already happened by now?

>>That’s what worries me. The odds will catch up eventually.<<

Or you need to add in some new variables, Ava countered. You consistently neglect one critical factor.

>>What’s that?<<

Determination. Heart. Whatever you want to call it. You can stack the odds against me all you want, but I’ll always beat them.

Ruby chuckled. >>You’re right. I need to add ‘the Ava factor’ into the equation.<<

Make sure that makes it into an official report somewhere. It has a nice ring to it.

While the Raven docked in the Hellfire’s hangar, Ava made the trek to the belly of the ship so she could greet her team.

Standing at fifteen decks tall and nearly a kilometer in length, the massive bay looked cramped with the four-hundred-meter-long Raven on board. Rows of fighters covered a third of the deck, and racks of spare parts were suspended in a complex storage scheme near the overhead.

She entered on a mezzanine at the midpoint of the room. Technicians were locking the final docking tethers into place. Two dozen additional workers were standing by at various stations throughout the hangar.

Seeing them at their posts, Ava realized that the ship was on alert—ready for battle. She’d been almost exclusively in her cabin or training in the empty cargo bay, so she hadn’t noticed the preparations taking place around her.

If I fail, those fighters and this ship are the last line of defense for the Alaxar Trinary.

With the thought, the reality of what she was about to do really set in.

Shit, Ruby, I had to go and think about it.

>>We’re going to be fine, Ava. With that new variable added to my model, we now have a ninety-nine point nine percent chance of success.<<

Ava frowned in her mind while she descended the stairway to the hangar deck. What about the other zero point one percent?

>>You’re a significant factor, my dear, but I’m still a scientist. Nothing is an absolute certainty.<<

All right, fair enough.

At the bottom of the stairs, Ava jogged the hundred meters to the base of the telescoping gangway that workers were putting in place to allow easier access to the Raven.

The hatch in the side of the ship opened, and Edwin poked his head out. “Wow, this is weird, docking fully inside another ship.” He spotted Ava. “Oh, hey!”

“Welcome aboard,” she greeted with a wave. The uneasiness in her stomach settled a little seeing a familiar face, but not enough to relax her again.

>>Want me to adjust your neurochemistry?<< Ruby offered.

Not now. Maybe some pre-op jitters will be good for me. I think I was starting to feel a little too invincible.

Samantha, Nick, and Major Widmore followed Edwin down the gangway. They took in the cavernous hangar with reserved wonder.

“Ma’am, you’re out of your mind,” Edwin said as he approached her.

“Missed you, too.” She smiled back. “I know this plan is a little out there, but that’s how we roll.”

“Aside from the part about you going in alone,” Nick replied, crossing his arms.

“I still don’t like it one bit,” Samantha added.

Behind them, Widmore cleared his throat. “I believe we have a briefing to attend?”

“Sorry, sir.” Edwin headed for the hangar exit on the deck level.

Ava fell into pace next to Widmore at the back of the group as they headed for the door. “Thank you for believing in me, sir,” she said.

“You really shouldn’t be thanking me. My endorsement of this plan doesn’t mean I like it. But, I respect any warrior who would volunteer to put their life on the line like this. We have a high bar for what constitutes the call of duty, but you’re exceeding even that.”

“I kind of have to. I’m the only one who can go in there.”

“You are, but that doesn’t change the courage required to rise to the occasion.”

“All in a day’s work, sir.” She smiled.

“You’re a fine officer, Ava. You’ll have a great future here in the FDG.”

Assuming I make it out of this alive.

The thought was intended to be private, but Ruby must have picked up on her shift in mood.

>>We’re going to do this, Ava. It’s scary, but it’s not impossible. We have the best people to help us succeed.<<

You’re right. We’ve got this.

Ava and Widmore caught up with the rest of the team, and she led them to the conference room where Kurtz was waiting to brief them.

The room was situated on the outer bulkhead of the ship, and an expansive window offered a terrifying view of the alien ship.

Edwin stopped in his tracks as soon as he saw it. “Holy fuck,” he whispered under his breath.

“Yeah, it’s big,” Ava whispered back.

“That’s an understatement.” Samantha shook her head. “It looks like a normal ship from here, but I know we’re nowhere close to it.”

“Please take your seats. You can gawk later,” Colonel Kurtz stated. He took the chair at the head of the table.

Ava quickly found her seat on the far side of the table, facing the door, leaving the side with the view out the window for her teammates. She’d already had her fill of looking at the enemy target.

“We’ve had a number of teams working on various components of this plan, and it’s time all the pieces come together,” the colonel began. “We are the core team. Ava will be inside the enemy ship, I’ll be in command of the Hellfire, and the rest of you will be on the Raven, hacking the alien ship.

“The plan is relatively straightforward. The Raven, being smaller and with stealth capabilities, will approach the enemy vessel and maintain active signal cancellation to prevent the Dyons from gaining control of the ship or crew. Ava will take a stealthed pod from the Raven and dock with the alien vessel. She will then proceed inside to plant a backdoor in the first node with ship-wide communication she can identify, which the team on the Raven will use to hack in and disable the alien ship’s defenses. The Hellfire will then use the Arti-Sun to destroy the target.

“Of course, executing the individual parts of that plan will be challenging. The purpose of this meeting is to identify and fill in the gaps in our tactics.”

When he concluded, Kurtz looked around the table. “This is an open discussion; please speak freely. The first matter for us to discuss is the point of ingress.” He brought up a holographic model of the alien sphere. “Ideas?”

“I think it needs to be near that collection of towers,” Ava said. “I’ve been over the model several times, and three potential access points have jumped out. The first is here.” She glided her finger across the touch-surface desktop to rotate and zoom the image, focusing on a shadowed area at the base of the central tower. “You can’t see it very well in this image, but there’s what looks like a hangar bay entrance here in the shadows. There’s a smaller doorway that I could bring the pod through.”

“Question.” Nick’s hand shot up. “Is there atmosphere in this thing? Are you going in an EVA suit or powered armor?”

“Uh…” Ava glanced at Kurtz and Widmore. “I was going to get to that later, but I think I need to go in some light body armor. There is an atmosphere inside, and it’s clean—no signs of nasty diseases floating around. The abilities I’ve been practicing with Ruby are better than what I could do in powered armor. It would just hold me back.”

“You intend to be in the Hochste state for this mission?” Kurtz asked.

“Not while I need to do precision work with my hands, of course, but movement will be a lot faster in that form.”

He nodded. “I suspected you’d suggest as much. Ruby will need to monitor your vitals for any sign of contagion, but there are distinct advantages to going in without a closed suit.”

“I’ll be on high alert,” Ruby acknowledged over the audible comms.

“So, not having a suit,” Ava continued, “I need a place to set down inside, or where I can get a seal. That first location I pointed out offers a direct way inside, but going into a massive hangar might not be the best approach.

“That’s why I identified this second option.” She rotated the image again, this time to a recess at the base of one of the outlying towers. “Each of these secondary towers offers direct access deeper into the ship, based on our scan data. This one, though, and the one opposite, also have corridors leading to the central tower. Twenty-three kilometers beneath that central tower is the chamber containing a node like we saw on Gidyon.”

“With the interface Luke’s team developed, you won’t have to go all the way down there,” Widmore interjected. “But finding a corridor that connects to the central node will almost certainly give you the right channel to tap into.”

She nodded. “Looking at those design specs is what gave me the idea. My initial thought was I needed to find the most direct route to physically get to the center, but that design should enable me to stay relatively close to the surface.”

“My concern with the entire plan is that we can’t fire until you’re clear from the alien ship after the equipment is in place,” Kurtz said. “We may not have a very long window between gaining access and when they figure out how to block us.”

“And the deeper I go, the longer it will take to get out. Yeah, I know.” Ava sighed. “That’s what led me to the third option.”

The colonel tilted his head. “Which is?”

“I take the pod in through one of the cylinders. The top is open to space, but the artificial gravity holds atmosphere inside at the bottom, just like on a planet. I can take the pod down and be close to the core without having to worry about docking doors and all that. Being closer to the pod also means I could make a faster escape after the equipment is in place.”

“A quick exit is critical,” Kurtz stated. “I don’t like the idea of you being near so many of those ‘pits’, or ‘nests’—whatever they are—but the logistics of that location make the most sense.”

Ava inclined her head. “I agree, sir.”

“With the access point established, the only remaining preparation is testing the frequency generators for Ava’s suit and the hacking module. Any questions before we adjourn?” The colonel looked around the table.

“How long will it take us to get clear of the blast zone?” Widmore asked.

“Based on the planned holding distance from the alien ship and the Raven’s maximum acceleration, you will need a minimum of three minutes and twenty-seven seconds to clear the lethal range of the Arti-Sun blast,” Ruby replied over the comm.

The major nodded. “We’ll call it four minutes to be safe. We’ll need to time it just right, so the hack corresponds with the time we’re at a safe range.”

“That will be nearly impossible to plan, but we’ll do our best,” Samantha said.

“Any other thoughts?” Kurtz asked.

Edwin raised his hand. “After we beat these guys, do we get another party?”

See? Told you cake is an excellent motivational tool, Ava said to Ruby.

>>I stand corrected.<<

Kurtz chuckled. “I think we can arrange something. Dismissed,” he said to the attendees, but nodded toward Ava to indicate she should stay.

His eyes met hers as the last team member left the room. “I would be remiss in my command duties if I didn’t ask you one last time: are you sure about this?”

“Absolutely,” she replied without hesitation. “I trained for this. I’m ready.”

Kurtz rose from the table. “Very well. Let’s begin.”












CHAPTER FOURTEEN


“You’re really going in only wearing that?” Nick asked while eyeing Ava’s light armor.

She grinned back. “Isn’t it stylish?”

“Fashion isn’t my reason for asking.”

Ballistic padding covered her torso, elbows, and knees, but the rest of her was completely exposed, aside from the minimal protection offered by her shipsuit. To freely transform between her Hochste and human states, though, the flexible attire was necessary.

Ava patted Nick on his shoulder. “I appreciate your concern, but there aren’t big scary guys with guns inside this ship. The dust particles won’t be able to get me with the charged suit skin, whether it’s powered armor or this stuff.”

“All the same, you’re bringing your sidearm,” Widmore said.

She smiled. “I’d never think of going anywhere without it.”

Samantha stood up from the console where she’d been working. “All right. Let’s give this a test run.” She shooed everyone away from Ava. “I apologize in advance if the intensity isn’t right.”

An electric shock ignited Ava’s skin. “Ow!”

The sensation of jabbing needles receded, but she still sensed a lingering charge.

“Whoopsy.” Samantha blushed. “Overdid it there a little.”

“I take it you weren’t trying to electrocute me.” Ava rubbed her hands along her forearms in an attempt to diminish the strange tingling sensation.

“The charge needs to be strong enough to flow through the entire suit, without being so strong as to do that,” Samantha replied. “Getting an even intensity across all zones is tricky.”

“Ever thought of starting low and ramping up?” Ava looked at her friend from under her brow.

“Yeah, well, if you’re so tough now, you can take it.” She smirked. “Let’s try this.”

Another charge tickled Ava’s skin, but it was more of a background hum.

“I can definitely tolerate this level,” she reported.

“Coverage looks good,” Nick observed from a station next to Samantha’s. “Let’s see how that plays with the module.”

The device they’d constructed for the remote hack was a black box the size of Ava’s two hands. A prong on one side would serve as a physical jack, which would offer a more secure connection than tapping in through the wireless network. To keep the ship from expelling the foreign device, its shell would be charged with the same frequency as Ava’s suit.

Unfortunately, they would have no assurances that the countermeasure worked until they were on board the ship.

Nick hooked the test equipment up to the device and powered it on, then returned to his computer.

“Charge looks to be evenly distributed and holding,” he reported from his station.

“Fingers crossed.” Samantha disconnected it, then handed the device to Ava for her to stow in her cross-body satchel.

“There’s also this,” Nick said, grabbing a similar-looking device from his desktop. It was half the size of the main module. “This is a signal booster, of sorts. You shouldn’t need it, but you can place it in a central location as a signal relay, if we’re unable to connect directly with the main device.”

“Got it.” Ava placed it in her bag next to the module. “Anything else?”

“Don’t die,” Edwin advised.

“My number one checklist item,” she said, miming the action of checking the item off an imaginary list in front of her.

“Then we’re all set,” Nick said with a smile, but she could see the worry in his eyes—in everyone’s eyes.

“I’ll be fine,” she assured them. “Back before you know it.”

Samantha ran over and gave her a hug. “Good luck.”

“Thanks. Let’s head out.”

They gathered their equipment and climbed aboard the Raven. Ava immediately headed to the pod she would be taking to the alien ship. From the cockpit, she watched Nick, Samantha, and Edwin set up a workstation in the bay using equipment appropriated from the Hellfire. Meanwhile, Widmore went to observe the activities from the bridge with Rod and Aleya.

Once she was situated in the pod, Ava watched a video feed from the Raven’s helm on a holographic overlay of the pod’s front viewport.

How are you doing with all this, Ruby?

>>Feeling as confident as I ever will. It’s times like this when it’s beneficial to not have the same emotional range as humans. I can be objective about the mission.<<

 Ah, ‘the mission’! How far you’ve come in just a few weeks. Before, you were all about your science labs.

>>A new universe has been opened to me. I think being in your mind has made me a vicarious adrenaline junkie.<<

It is rather addictive.

The view on the holographic overlay changed from the belly of the Hellfire to a starscape. It swung around, and the alien ship came into view.

They sped toward it. At first, the ship didn’t appear to be getting much larger. As they neared, however, it rapidly filled the screen. Horizontal and vertical bands became more distinct. Though it had appeared to be relatively dull from a distance, there were actually tiny lights dotting the structure.

What kind of illumination is that? Are those windows?

>>No, I think it’s glowing,<< Ruby replied.

The same kind of bioluminescence as in the pits?

>>I believe so, but…<< Ruby uncharacteristically faded out. >>Given the distance we still are from the vessel, each of those points of light is a kilometer or more in diameter. I don’t know what they might be.<<

When the alien ship took up the entire viewport, the Raven dipped toward the southern pole.

“Comm check?” Nick said in Ava’s earpiece.

“Loud and clear, she replied.

“Confirmed,” Ruby added. >>And double-checked,<< she added as a non-spoken communication over the link.

You can relay my thoughts, right? Ava checked with her.

>>Yes, if you think something to me, I can pass it on.<<

That might be better than us talking out loud.

>>Agreed.<<

The Raven neared the southern pole, closing in on the location of one of the massive cylinders embedded in the alien ship.

“Thirty seconds until departure,” Widmore said over the comm. “May the stars be with you.”

“See you soon, sir.”

Ruby set a countdown clock on the pod’s HUD, and Ava took several slow, deep breaths.

At zero, the pod dropped from the Raven’s belly through the electrostatic shield. Once in the vacuum, the pod’s gravitic engines kicked in, and it sped toward the narrow entry to the alien ship at the top of the target cylinder.

Rather, it had appeared narrow from a distance. As the pod approached, the scale of the alien ship hit her full force. Tiny specks on holo models were now two-kilometer chasms, and the larger features were the size of continents.

How the fuck did they build this thing?

>>Like their other structures—they grew it,<< Ruby replied. >>They must have mined multiple worlds to make this one, given the uniformity of the elements. You can’t find these concentrations on one planet.<<

I can only hope they weren’t inhabited.

>>Best not to think about it. Focus on the fact that this ship won’t be able to hurt anyone else.<<

The end of the cylinder was a cap suspended two kilometers above the main surface of the ship. It had appeared dark inside from a distance, but Ava now saw a subtle blue glow coming from within.

Stars, I hear them!

Voices washed over her—the same cacophony she had experienced in her first telepathic attempt. Only, the song had changed. Curious and ethereal before, it was now dark and bent on destruction. The Dyons were hunting, and the Alaxar Trinary was their prey.

As the pod entered the ship, millions of minds turned their attention to Ava.

“You cannot hide from us,” they said. “Your ship is masked, but we see you.”

A chill gripped her chest. Fuck, Ruby, there are so many of them!

>>Don’t listen. They can’t touch you. Taunting is all they have.<<

“Such a waste of a mind. You think you can stop us, but there is nothing you can do,” they sneered.

“Nice try, but I know exactly what I’m doing.”

They continued to pester the back of her consciousness, but she blocked them out and did her best to focus on the pod’s progress.

The diameter of the cylinder spanned ten kilometers. Ava wouldn’t have been able to see the sides if it wasn’t for the distinctive blue glow that looked almost like polka dots in the dark. As they got deeper inside, she realized that each of those dots was actually the top of one of the rock core ‘pits’ they had observed on the planets, which were slotted into racks on a forty-five degree angle. The racks around the cylinder weren’t filled, but there were at least two dozen of the pits.

Though the Dyons didn’t have physical eyes, she felt like they were watching her as the pod descended past each.

At the bottom of the massive cylinder, the HUD displayed the presence of an oxygen and nitrogen atmosphere, now thick enough to be within breathable tolerances for a human. Noticing that more of the pits were slotted into the racks where the atmosphere was thicker, she speculated that perhaps the Dyons thrived on that mixture themselves.

Twenty kilometers down, the pod came to rest on the deck of the cylinder, sinking slightly into the groundcover.

What is this? she asked Ruby.

>>It looks to be a substance similar to the moss-like material we observed on Gidyon.<<

I guess it’s time to find out if I really can breathe this air, huh?

>>I detect no reason why you wouldn’t be able to. And believe me, I am being very conservative in my analysis. The whole sharing a body thing, you know.<<

It does bring me peace of mind that you have a vested interest in keeping me alive.

>>I don’t envy the decontamination you’ll have to go through after this, just in case, but that skin buffing will give you a great glow for the celebration party.<<

Yay, I think? Ava rose from the pilot’s chair and headed to the back hatch of the pod.

>>Not to pressure you, but we are on a ticking clock here… and we’re not sure when time will run out.<<

I know. Ava took one final, calming breath. Let’s do this.

She hit the release on the back hatch.

The door lowered to the soft ground. Ava descended it, scoping out her surroundings. Ruby fed a mental overlay to her, functioning like a HUD without the need for a helmet.

There isn’t that pressure that messed with my head on Gidyon, Ava observed.

>>I believe the frequency surrounding your suit is neutralizing it. However, I’m cancelling out the remaining effects.<<

Just don’t dial it back as much as you did last time.

>>Don’t worry, I’m not,<< Ruby assured her. >>The passageway we need is to the left.<<

Got it. Ava spotted the opening seventy meters away.

She took a moment to look upward at the expansive cylinder around her. She was but a tiny speck in the mammoth enclosure. Space was twenty kilometers above her, and the Raven was four minutes at maximum thrust. She was alone.

Not alone. There’s Ruby, and I have my mission.

Ava transformed into her Hochste state while she dashed toward the passageway.

The practice on the Hellfire had honed her understanding of her new body. As her legs pumped her across the spongy ground, she knew precisely how far and how fast she could run without needing to rest. She could go a long way, and she’d need all of that stamina to make it through the mission.

The passage appeared to be made of stone, like the corridors from Gidyon. The dull, dark material was smooth, yet had a rippled pattern running its length.

As she neared it, the stone began to disintegrate into a cloud.

Oh, shit, here we go!

>>Suit is active, and there’s a shield around the pod. Keep moving.<<

Ava headed straight into the swarm.

The particles looped around her, trying to latch on, but they were knocked back each time. A one-centimeter-thick air pocket surrounded her entire body. The particles were so close to her eyes that she had to resist the urge to keep swatting them away, but they couldn’t come any closer. She was protected.

She ran full speed down the passageway, following Ruby’s map in her mind. It was too dark to see clearly, even with her augmented vision, so she activated a light that was affixed to the front of her armor.

The light cast a blue halo in front of her, illuminating the particle swarm that kept following her, undeterred by the field that kept them at bay. They made it almost impossible to see, so she relied on the sensor data Ruby was feeding into her mind.

Two hundred meters down the passage, she reached an intersection. Which way?

>>Uh…<< Ruby floundered.

What is it?

>>This layout doesn’t match the map.<<












CHAPTER FIFTEEN


What do you mean it doesn’t match the map? Ava demanded. I thought the sensor data you used to create it was being gathered in real-time?

>>Some of the environmental conditions are, yes, but it’s being applied to the model that was developed using the Hellfire’s sensors.<<

Ava thought for a moment. That was only a couple of hours ago. Why doesn’t it match?

>>There are two potential explanations. The first is that the sensor data was wrong. The second is that things have changed since then.<<

Changed? How would that be possible?

>>If this ship was grown, there is no reason that it would need to stay in one static form.<<

It never changed when we were analyzing it before.

>>There wasn’t an invader on board then,<< Ruby pointed out. 

Fuck, you’re right. Ava’s heart dropped. It might be shifting around as a strategy to keep us from getting anywhere. It can’t stop us because it can’t grab us, but it can force us to run in circles.

>>That is the more likely of the two explanations.<<

Shit!

Ava looked down the two potential paths. Either one was likely to lead them to a dead end. They’d need to find a way to make forward progress somehow.

I need to tell the Raven what’s going on. She tried to open up a mental comm link. Nothing.

Ruby, why can’t I connect?

>>Communications appear to be blocked. I can’t get through, either.<<

Fuck! Then we need to backtrack to the pod. Ava turned around.

The passageway she had just come through was gone.

Um… that’s not good.

>>Uh oh.<<

Not helpful, Ruby! What do we do? Are we trapped in here?

>>There is always a way, you know that. The first priority is establishing contact with the Raven. We have the signal booster, we just need to figure out where to place it.<<

Ava took a calming breath, wishing the particles would stop buzzing around her face for two seconds so she could think in peace.

Okay, if we can’t get through to the Raven using our communications equipment in its raw form, then we need to tap into the alien ship.

>>Nick and Sam are the master hackers, not me.<<

Their hacks require dropping the ship’s defensive net. All you need to do is piggyback on a signal connected to the external sensors—I bet even I could do that.

Ruby smirked in her mind. >>I see what you’re doing… that was a challenge.<<

Do you accept?

>>Yes. Head to the right.<<

Friendly competition had a way of getting results with her team, and Ava was pleased to find that it even worked with her AI. She wasn’t proud of resorting to such tactics, but the direct challenge would keep both of them focused. If she let herself think about being trapped in the giant alien ship—

She snapped her focus back to the passageway.

Get to the sensors. Alert the Raven. Destroy the enemy ship.

One step at a time.


*     *     *


“Any word from the Raven or Ava?” Kurtz asked his comm officer on the Hellfire’s bridge.

“No, sir.”

No news is good news, I suppose. He settled back into the command chair.

“There is another matter,” Captain Vera spoke up from the chair to his right. “The alien vessel is almost within range of the Alaxar Trinary’s in-system sensor array.”

Kurtz closed his eyes. Fuck.

The issue was twofold.

Foremost, the system’s residents would be able to see an approaching planet-sized object. Best-case scenario was they’d be curious and want to know more; worst-case, there’d be widespread panic that they were about to die.

A secondary issue was the Hellfire and its capabilities. While most in the FDG were aware of the Arti-Sun weapon, the technology was kept as secret as possible. New cultures finding out about it tended to result in General Lance Reynolds getting a headache, and anyone with half a brain knew better than to be on the receiving end of the general’s wrath. However, if the residents of the Alaxar Trinary witnessed the engagement with the Dyons and saw the Arti-Sun fire, it would open up a shitstorm of questions about what kind of weapon had been powerful enough to destroy an enemy ship of that size.

Kurtz didn’t want to answer to General Reynolds about how secrets related to the Federation’s tech got out. He needed a solution that would keep the Alaxar Trinary safe, and would also prevent anyone seeing something they weren’t supposed to.

“May I use your office?” Kurtz asked the captain.

“Of course. May I ask for what purpose?”

“To call my contact on Alucia. I have an idea for how to address our problem, but I need to get a status update first.”

“Understood. We’ll be standing by.”

Kurtz entered the captain’s office, heading straight for her desk. He took a seat, then initiated a call to President Connors.

The president’s face appeared on the screen, looking slightly confused. He relaxed when he saw Kurtz. “Colonel, hello! I didn’t recognize the credentials on the call.”

“Yes, apologies. I’m borrowing office space on a ship. I wanted to check in on the status of the shield installations.”

Connors nodded. “It’s coming along. We’ve had some technical barriers to overcome. I believe we’re finished with all but one station on Alucia. Coraxa was delayed due to some… political issue, but we worked through that, and the installation is underway. I believe Nezar is almost complete, as well.”

“Do you have a timeline for when it will all be done?”

“Probably twenty minutes for Alucia. I’m not sure about the other worlds. You’d have to ask Karen.”

“I will. Could you forward me her direct contact details on Nezar?”

Momentary surprise flitted across the president’s face, but he leaned forward to swipe his hand across his desktop. “Sent.”

A notification window popped up on Kurtz’s screen with the requested information. “Thank you. Now, what was the issue with Coraxa?”

“There were reportedly some trust concerns concerning the Federation. Again, Karen was a part of those conversations, not me.”

“You’ve put an awful lot of faith in her.”

“She’s risen to the occasion. Shocking that she’s in this position now, considering she was originally sent to Alucia to kill me, but I’ve always believed everyone deserves a second chance. The founders of our system came to seek a fresh start, and it’s important we honor that legacy.”

Now we need to make sure they have a future to build upon. Kurtz nodded. “A touching sentiment, and one I agree it’s important we all remember. Now I need to check in with Karen.”

“Of course. Thank you again for sending the shields. It’s set my mind at ease, knowing we have an extra layer of protection.”

If only he knew how little protection they’ll offer against what’s headed their way. But that was the power of hope.

“The Federation will gladly protect our own. I’ll be in touch if I have any updates.” Kurtz ended the call.

The last part was a lie. If Ava’s mission failed, it was unlikely the Hellfire would be able to do anything to stop the Dyon ship before it reached the system. Is it better to give warning, or to let them live their last moments in peace? He didn’t know the answer.

Setting the dire thought from his mind, he called Karen on Nezar.

It took thirty seconds for her to pick up. Though he’d never spoken with her before, there was no mistaking the violet-eyed woman as Luke’s sister.

“Karen, I’m Colonel Kurtz with the FDG.”

“Oh!” Recognition passed across her face. She tilted her head. “I thought you’d be older.”

“Modifications.” He waved his hand dismissively. “I wanted to check in on the status of your shield upgrades.”

“Right, yes.” She sighed. “It’s been a challenge. First, this one station manager somehow got it in his mind that it was his sole purpose in life to prevent us from installing any Federation tech. We eventually convinced him, but it was a delay. And then we had to solve the interface problem, which set us back again—”

“By how much?”

“No serious delays. We’ll be finished with everything in about two hours. So, almost there.” She gave a weary smile.

Two hours? The Dyon ship will be in range before then. Kurtz tried not to let his concern show. “Are any of the installations complete?”

“Seven will be within the next half-hour. It’s just that north polar one that got pushed back.”

“And what about Coraxa?”

“Half are complete, and I think the others will also be done in about two hours.” Her brow knit. “Why? I thought we had another two days before the ship gets here?”

“You do. And again, it should be disabled well before it ever reaches you. I wanted to make sure everything was proceeding according to plan.”

She shrugged. “About as close as anything ever does around here.”

“Good, thank you for the update. We’ll be in touch soon.”

As soon as the call was terminated, he leaned back in the chair and massaged the bridge of his nose. Will enough of the new shield be active in time?

He returned to the bridge, where Vera was waiting with a quizzical look.

“Find out what you needed to know?” she asked.

“Yes and no,” Kurtz replied. “What do you know about planetary shields?”

“They… shield planets,” the captain replied in a tone that sounded more like a question than a statement.

“I have a specific question, if you have a specialist on board.”

“Lieutenant Uther in engineering, sir,” the helm officer chimed in. “We went through the academy together. He knows his stuff.”

“Thank you. Please open a comm channel to him.”

“Open, sir,” the communication tech acknowledged.

“Lieutenant, what would it take to adjust the opacity of a planetary shield?” Kurtz asked.

A slight smile touched the corners of Vera’s lips as she caught onto his plan.

“Not much, with our current models, sir,” the lieutenant replied over the comm. “They’re configured to be able to account for star color spectrum so we can have green vegetation on worlds that otherwise wouldn’t support it.”

“How many of the nine generators need to be active to sustain a shield?”

“Depends on what you need it to do. For protection, all of them give the best defense. You could probably get away with five of the nine, if it’s only a matter of having a field up—to block some minor debris or tint the color.”

“Could you make it so people on the surface wouldn’t be able to see the sky?”

“Sure, with a little tweaking,” the engineer confirmed.

“Good. I have a project for you.”


*     *     *


Karen frowned at her computer screen. “Strange.”

“What is it?” Trisha asked, looking up from the tablet she’d been working on in Karen’s office.

They had been going over the final checklist items for the shield installations for the past half-hour. All but the north polar station upgrades were complete, and Karen was ready to call it a night.

However, the latest message from the FDG threatened to prolong her already very long day.

“I just got a notice that they’re about to push a new software packet out to the shield system,” Karen said. “It says it’s some sort of test protocol. We might experience some ‘visual disturbance’.”

“What does that mean?” Trisha scrunched up her nose.

“Beats me.” Karen brushed her fingertips along her hairline. “I thought we were almost finished.”

“Sounds like there’s nothing for us to do with this, though. We can sit back and let the Federation do their thing.”

Karen barked a laugh. “If only it was that simple! ‘Visual disturbance’ means people are going to notice. They’ll start asking questions about what’s causing it, then we’ll need to explain that we took tech from the Federation, and it’ll be a landslide from there.”

Trisha slumped. “Oh, I didn’t think about that part.”

“I didn’t spend too long in public relations, but what little exposure I did have demonstrated how quickly people will latch onto even the most minor issue. If it’s something bigger, we’ll have a major incident on our hands.”

“Trading one crisis for another.” Trisha sighed.

“Welcome to politics.”

“We should send out some preemptive alert,” Trisha suggested. “If we tell them that we made some shield upgrades, and will be testing out some things, maybe no one will question it if something unusual happens.”

“Now you’re thinking like a politician,” Karen replied with a smile. “Why don’t you draft the communication, and I can review it to add a little extra spin in our favor?”

“Perfect. I’ll have you something shortly.”

As soon as the other woman was gone, Karen reread the note from the FDG. So, there was an ulterior motive with that equipment installation after all.

A looming physical threat may be one reality, but she suspected that this ‘visual disturbance’ was an effort to hide something they didn’t want citizens to see. Whatever they were covering up, she had no choice but to trust them, now that the equipment was installed. I hope this was the right call.












CHAPTER SIXTEEN


Ava eyed yet another dark passageway looming before her on the Dyon ship. Are you sure this is the right way?

>>You’re looking at the same map in your mind that I am. If you have another suggestion, by all means, make it.<<

Tensions had been running high as Ava raced through the alien vessel. Just when she felt like they were making progress, she’d realize that they’d gone in a huge circle.

The ship was changing around them. She didn’t know when it happened, but one minute a passage would be open to her, and the next it would be gone. While she kept trying to witness it happening to see if there might be a way to stop it, she had yet to be looking in the right place at the right time.

A small blessing, at least, was that the swarm of particles that had been following her when she first entered had finally dissipated. However, a dozen or so specs were still following her movements, perhaps to keep an eye on her. As long as they stayed away from her face, she could ignore them.

Sorry, Ruby. This is just really frustrating.

>>I know, but whining won’t get us to our destination any faster. We need to get that communication relay in place.<<

That’s what I’m trying to do, but these fuckers have other plans, she thought to herself.

The fact that even Ruby was getting the AI-equivalent of anxious had Ava on edge. The mission was supposed to be straightforward: get in, follow the path, install the tech, and get out. Now she couldn’t even follow a path to her destination. She wasn’t sure what was worse… that she didn’t know the way in, or that she had no idea how to get back out.

The mission comes first.

It was her mantra, and it was even more critical with the fate of her home system on the line—and every system the Dyons may visit thereafter. Failure wasn’t an option.

Ava halted. We need to try something different.

>>What do you suggest?<<

Have you looked at how the passageway openings are changing? Is there any pattern?

>>Let me see.<<

A hum filled Ava’s mind as Ruby’s attention was drawn away from cancelling the environmental effects of the Dyon ship. The whispers she’d first heard on their approach in the pod beckoned at the edge of her consciousness.

>>Hmm, it isn’t as random as it seemed,<< Ruby said after a minute. >>It appears that sections of the ship are rotating rather than transforming. The sections are on a grid, and those pieces will slide around like a puzzle.<<

What’s the purpose of that?

>>Well, it’s proving to be an effective means of keeping an intruder from getting where they are trying to go.<<

Ava’s heart dropped. Or it’s directing us to where they want us to go.

>>I don’t like that hypothesis.<<

Yeah, can’t say I do, either. Ava eyed the three directions she could go from the intersection. Can you use the movement pattern to our advantage? Can we beat it?

>>I haven’t been able to make a clear determination yet.<<

As long as we stand still, that gives them time to plot against us. We need to keep moving. If Ruby wasn’t going to make a suggestion, then Ava would need to follow her instincts. And her gut told her to go left—deeper into the ship.

She ran through the mouth of the dark passage, the pool of illumination cast from the light on her suit dancing across the rippled surface. The oppressive quiet, aside from her own footfalls, and the rock-like material all around her gave the impression of being underground in a cave, rather than on a spaceship. Then again, when the ship was the size of a planet, maybe that distinction was meaningless.

The three-meter-wide passage opened into a fifteen-meter-diameter cavern with an overhead twice the height of the previous chambers Ava had been inside. Rather than the two-direction fork she was used to seeing, there were three options in addition to the one she had entered from.

In her ‘keep moving’ efforts, she dashed across the open space, toward the leftmost passage.

>>Wait,<< Ruby stopped her. >>There’s something different about that direction.<<

Different is good, right? We want to break this cycle.

>>There are heat signatures I can’t explain,<< Ruby said. >>I don’t think we should go that way.<<

Fine, then what do you suggest?

>>Straight ahead. I believe there’s a vertical shaft you can jump down. We need to get to a lower level.<<

Okay, Ava conceded. She altered her course to head for the passage directly across from where she’d entered the chamber.

The passage narrowed from three meters to two after the entry.

Why does this feel like a funnel of doom?

>>You jest, but…<<

Ruby!

>>I’m positive we’re not walking down the esophagus of a giant space worm, so at least there’s that.<<

How very reassur—

Ava stopped short at the lip of a steep ramp. Is this that shaft you were talking about?

>>The very one,<< Ruby confirmed. >>Good news is that you should be able to easily climb back up, at that angle.<<

Getting out is a good thing. Ava peered into the darkness below, shining her light on it as best she could. Detect anything that will result in instant-death or impalement if I slide on down?

>>I don’t think so.<<

Ruby, you need to work on your phrasing. Ava returned to her human form, thinking it best that she not have claws to unintentionally impale herself with if she landed hard, and then took the leap.

She skidded down the steep incline along the rippled rock. The frequency generator worked against her; with it keeping the rock from getting any traction on her, she had no friction to slow her down.

By the bottom of the three-story slide, she was going way too fast.

Oh, shitsnacks.

The bottom was in sight. She brought her knees to her chest and pivoted into a horizontal position, tucking her limbs in to roll as soon as she hit the stone floor. She braced for impact.

To her surprise, the slide deposited her on a squishy, fibrous floor similar to the covering on the bottom of the pit where they’d landed the pod.

She rose to her feed, unharmed. Well, that was convenient.

>>Um, Ava…<<

She snapped her head around to look behind her. Glowing eyes were peering out of the shadows in every direction.

>>I think I figured out what those heat signatures were on the upper level.<<

Fuck, Ruby! What are these things? She snatched her multi-handgun from its holster, her arms outstretched and ready to fire.

One of the creatures stepped into the pool of light radiating from her suit. Slinking forward on all fours, it was two meters long and stood as high as Ava’s chest at its shoulder. The skin was coarse, mimicking the texture of the stone walls, and its four orange eyes bore a similar glow to Ava’s own when she was in her Hochste state. Its wide jaw was curled back into a menacing snarl, exposing ten-centimeter-long fangs.

>>I believe this must be the result of one of the Dyons’ previous ventures into genetic modification. They made guards for themselves, to stop any fleshy intruders who might make it past their other defenses.<<

Fucking perfect. Ava readied to pull the trigger and the closest creature advanced.

>>I don’t think that handgun is our best shot here,<< Ruby said. >>You wore that armor for a reason.<<

Ava returned the weapon to its holster. You’re right, I did.

Adrenaline coursed through her, and she gave into her raw emotion. Claws extended from her own fingertips, and her face contorted again into a snout with fangs as sharp and deadly as the ones around her. Coarse, protective hair covered her exposed skin. She was ready for battle.

Ava dove for the lead creature, slashing her claws across its face. They sliced through the creature’s eyes, splattering blood across its rough skin.

Holy shit! Why haven’t I been using these claws in battle all along?!

>>Probably because you normally don’t want to eviscerate things.<<

Oh, right, that.

The lead creature recoiled from Ava’s assault, snapping its jaws in a blind attempt to grab her hand.

Ava brought her arm around and raked her claws across its throat.

It yelped in momentary pain, then dropped to the ground, dark blood pouring from its wound.

Another snarl called Ava’s attention behind her to her left, and she dove to the side just in time to avoid another creature’s lunge for her.

How many are there? she asked Ruby, having not tallied the eyes peering from the darkness.

>>With each creature having four eyes, there are eight. That matches the thermal readings from your suit’s sensors.<<

Okay, then seven more to go.

Ava rolled to her back and skewered the second beast as it completed its charge for her. She hurled it to the side as a third joined the fight. The beast snapped at her, spraying spittle in her face as thick saliva oozed from its jowls.

Guess the suit doesn’t repel these guys, too.

>>They’re biological, not a construct of the mineral used to form the rest of the structure.<<

What I wouldn’t give for a face shield right now! Ava wiped the back of her left wrist across her slobber-covered face, using her right hand to jab claws into the creature’s muscular neck.

It yelped with surprise, recoiling enough for Ava to slip out from under it.

She leaped to her feet and slid her claws down the side of its neck to bleed it out before it could attack again.

Three down.

Two more vaulted toward her at the same time, one for her legs and another for her neck. She instinctually turned sideways, and the action of the assault around her crawled to slow motion.

With her new perception, she was able to twist her legs out of harm’s way, bringing up her right knee in a powerful thrust to knock the bottom creature off-balance so it would fall into the path of the top assailant.

Her time perception returned to its normal flow, and the two creatures collided with a yelp, just as she’d intended. She was about to finish them off while they were dazed, but searing pain radiated from her left calf.

Ava looked down to find that another creature had darted from the shadows to sink its teeth into her.

She plunged her claws into the base of its skull, splattering blood across her face. Its jaws opened, and the lifeless form toppled to the side.

The two creatures who’d initially attacked her had regained their bearings, and rounded on her while the one remaining beast she had yet to engage stalked her from behind.

Ava faked them out—taking one step forward as though to attack—but she ducked and pivoted to go for the one behind her. She slid across the floor and drove her fingers into its chest as it lunged. The carcass continued forward on momentum, offering a shield for Ava, and she twisted back to her feet to face the two creatures charging her.

They leaped over the body without missing a step, their eyes fixed on their prey.

>>Duck!<<

Ava listened to Ruby without hesitation.

The creatures had already leaped, unable to change direction midair.

Time slowed down for Ava as they passed overhead. She brought her hands up and plunged her claws into their sternums, opening them up the entire length of their bellies as they passed overhead. Blood and innards spilled over her in a hideous, dark red wave.

The bodies collapsed on the ground behind her.

Cautiously, Ava rose to her feet, wincing as she put weight on her injured leg. Was that all of them?

>>I don’t see anything else on the thermal,<< Ruby replied. >>That was good fighting.<<

Ava looked down at her wound. Though I didn’t get out unscathed.

The puncture wounds from the fangs were deep, but the rest of the damage was superficial. With her new healing abilities, they wouldn’t take long to close.

>>I’ll be on the lookout for any more. Can you walk?<<

Yeah, just a flesh wound, Ava replied while shifting back into her human form. We need to keep moving.

She blocked out the carnage around her to assess the layout of the new level. It was a mirror of the chamber she’d been in before the passage leading to the ramp—fifteen meters across, with a total of four passageways, one of which was the ramp.

Which way? she asked Ruby.

>>Middle,<< the AI replied. >>We’re almost to the access point.<<

Ava ran forward as best she could on the injured leg, trying to favor it so it would heal faster.

The middle passage was three meters wide, identical to the other corridors she’d encountered on the strange alien vessel. It extended for nearly one hundred meters before fanning out into a larger cavern with a wave-like rock tower at its center.

I imagine this is it?

>>It is. Time to see if it’s connected to the core of the ship.<<

Ava wiped the blood from her hands as best as she could on the outer thighs of her pants, then reached into her carrying bag to retrieve the signal booster her team had given her.

Where should I place it?

>>At the base of that central structure, I suppose. If any component in here has tendrils connecting to other parts of the ship, it will be that. I’ll trace the signal to see where it leads.<<

Ava put the box in position.

Bits of rock tried to rise up over it, but the rock disintegrated into particles as soon as it made contact with the tuned shield around the device.

It’s still so weird to see the rock move like that, she said to Ruby.

>>I wish we had a safe way to study this lifeform. It’s a unique wonder.<<

It is. The murdery impulses are a major problem, though.

>>I can’t disagree with that.<< Ruby paused. >>Hmm.<<

Ava sighed. I have come to associate that vocalization with bad things.

>>Well, it’s not good.<< Ruby was quiet for another three seconds. >>Rather, there is some good news. The tracer signal Luke’s team likened to ‘poison’ does work. I’ve been able to trace the network conduits linking this node to the rest of the ship. Unfortunately, it doesn’t connect to the core operating module that controls the defenses.<<

I thought we were just going to this one so we could get out a signal to the Raven?

>>Yes, though I had hope we might get lucky. The worse news is that this node doesn’t connect to the communications systems, either.<<

Ava’s blood pressure rose. Then what the fuck does it do?!

>>I’m working on that. Nothing about this ship is as predicted. I need a few more minutes—there’s a lot of data to process.<<

So we’re trapped and still have no way to communicate.

>>Maybe.<<

Ava walked in a small circle and took a slow breath. Completing this mission is my first priority, but it does concern me that we keep getting deeper into this ship. We’ve already been in here longer than I anticipated, and at this point, I honestly don’t know how we’re going to get back out in time—assuming we do get the equipment in place.

Ruby didn’t reply.

This is the part where you’re supposed to tell me everything is going to be okay… Ava prompted.

>>Oh, I didn’t expect that,<< Ruby said at last.

I really can’t handle any more vague statements right now. 

>>I have made a significant discovery about how this ship operates, and extrapolated that to an explanation for the Dyons’ behavior as a race,<< the AI explained.

Ava stopped pacing. Go on…

>>In the FDG’s attempts to understand the structure, we have been approaching it like a ship. For that matter, we have been thinking about the Dyons as individuals with their own motivations, as we observed with Nox and Reya.

>>In reality, though, this ship operates like an organism, not a mechanical ship—except the nervous system is disaggregated in a way I have never encountered before. I had expected there to be one core that controlled everything, but instead there appears to be a node for each major function. I now believe that the Dyon ‘nests’ or ‘pits’ are incubators for the specialized systems. It is where the beings learn to blend together into one voice.<<

Shit, so calling them a ‘nest’ wasn’t far off… it’s a nursery.

>>Yes, I believe that would be an apt analogy.<<

Ava crossed her arms. But what about all the evil shit going on? Possessing Kurtz, Chancellor Heizberg, the plot with the Hochste…

>>That’s what I was trying to figure out. That plot doesn’t fit with the collective design of a craft such as this. I was quiet for so long because I was running through the scenarios of why that may be. This ship’s design demands a cohesive community to operate it, but none of the pieces on this ship are talking to each other. We have observed strong individualist tendencies at odds with the collective.<<

Ava wanted to scream at the AI for taking so long to explain. What did you figure out?!

>>This group has gone rogue.<<

That was it? The big explanation?

Ava shook her head. What in the stars are you talking about?

>>It explains everything. A group within the Dyons decided they wanted individual expression. A scouting party set out to learn and grow—precisely what Nox explained to you. They settled upon Coraxa, a world rich in the mineral they needed to propagate. When the humans and Torcellans settled in the Alaxar Trinary, it was a chance to spread beyond Coraxa. They began growing new nurseries to grow their numbers, launching a plot that would feed them the negative energy they needed to make them stronger.

>>Except they weren’t alone in their interest to break away from the rest of the collective. They needed to get a signal to their collaborators back home, wherever that may be, and relay that they had a foothold into the rest of the galaxy. This ship may have been waiting hundreds or thousands of years to receive that message. So, the Dyons in Gidyon built the massive transmitter we observed. We had assumed it was pointed inward toward Federation space, but I believe we had it backwards all along.<<

Ava allowed the words to sink in. It’s only been a month since then. If it was broadcasting into deep space, how the fuck did the ship get here so quickly?

>>We have no understanding of the propulsion system on this craft. It is entirely possible that it has some form of gate tech. It did appear seemingly out of nowhere, after all.<<

Well, shit. Huh. Ava uncrossed her arms and stared up at the rock node. So, in theory, once we take out this ship, we’ll be done with the rogue Dyons.<<

>>Presumably. If there were others, I’d expect those carrier slots in the cylinders to be full. The fact that this ship is empty indicates that they pooled their resources and set out to grow their numbers.<<

Right, hence the plot with taking over the Alaxar Trinary. But… who are the other Dyons?

>>I can offer no insight into that,<< the AI replied.

I guess it doesn’t matter. Ava shook her head. Back to the critical items now. Assuming this ship is controlled by a group of rogue Dyons, and none of them want to play nice—which may be why the ship’s parts aren’t talking to each other—that doesn’t help us access the systems we need to access.

>>No, it doesn’t,<< Ruby agreed. >>I probably shouldn’t have even brought this up now. It’s not relevant to our mission.<<

Actually, it’s given me the beginning of an idea.

>>Please share, because I don’t have a suggestion for how to proceed.<<

Were you able to identify what this node is responsible for? Ava asked. If it’s not communications, then…?

>>Structural control.<<

Meaning?

>>I believe this node is what’s controlling the internal movements of the corridors.<<

Ava laughed. Oh, shit, really? That makes it way easier! I was about to suggest some crazy convoluted thing with hacks, tricks, and whatever other nonsense.

>>Okay, so what do you have in mind?<<

Ava smiled. All we need to do is tell this node exactly where we want to go.












CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


“Status!” Kurtz ordered.

“No word from Ava or the Raven, sir,” the communications tech reported. “I have detected no friendly signal within the alien ship.”

She should have been in touch by now. Kurtz drummed his fingers on the armrest of his command chair.

Infiltrating any enemy compound always came with the risk that communications would be lost inside. Usually, there was some means to counter the interference. The device Nick had designed should have allowed Ava to tap into the alien ship’s own communications array, but clearly something had gone wrong.

With the communications blackout and no other sign, they had no way of knowing if she would be able to complete her mission, or even know if she was alive. Kurtz only had his faith that she wouldn’t give up.

Regardless of his concern for her safety, they were out of time. The Dyon ship would be visible in the Alaxar Trinary within five minutes. Even if Ava were to make her exit at that moment, an explosion wouldn’t happen until it was well within visual range.

“Send the override order to the shield generators in the Alaxar Trinary,” he instructed.

Captain Vera nodded, then leaned over the edge of her chair to access a console next to her. “Sent,” she confirmed.

“Now we wait.”


*     *     *


A warning flashed across Karen’s computer monitor.

Is this it? She’d been waiting for the moment of truth—what, exactly, the FDG’s ‘visual disturbance’ would be with their alleged ‘test’. The warning about an offworld signal tapping into the control module for the shields indicated that she was about to find out.

She hit the comm on her desk. “Trisha, did you get the alert?”

“Yeah, the packet is still downloading. It should be live in two minutes.”

“I’ll meet you in Command Central.”

She jogged down the hall past the bullpen of cubicles to the bank of windows on the far wall. The windows overlooked the courtyard between the Nezaran government building and NTech headquarters. More importantly for the present, it offered a clear view of the sky through the top of the translucent biodome.

It was twilight, and the stars were beginning to show alongside two of Nezar’s three moons. The deep blue sky had a slight haziness to it from a nearby windstorm, but otherwise was perfectly clear.

“Anything yet?” Trisha asked, coming up behind her.

“No. I’m not even sure what to look for.”

“Maybe it will be nothing.”

Karen shook her head. “I doubt that. The fact that they gave a warning at all means it will be significant. If anything, those kinds of announcements downplay the reality.”

Trisha crossed her arms. “Well, we distributed our press release about the ‘test’. I just sent an alert to the news networks that it was about to begin. It should be on every screen momentarily.”

Karen peered down at the massive reader board above the NTech lobby entrance. Sure enough, there was a red crawler along the bottom of the screen stating that a planetary shield test was in progress.

Murmurs of surprise sounded around the room.

She returned her gaze upward in time to see an opaque spot in the upper atmosphere above the city, which was slowly growing. It spread across the shield like a pool of paint flowing around a sphere. Wherever it covered, the moonlight dimmed only a small measure, but the stars and moon were completely obscured.

“I was expecting some flickering!” Trisha exclaimed. “This…”

“I know why the FDG is doing it, but I don’t know how we explain this to the public.” Karen shook her head.

“Why block out the night sky?”

“Well, on the one hand, they’re doing us a favor by hiding the planet-ship from view of the people on the surface. Dealing with the handful of people in the spaceport above the shield is way easier.”

“That’s true.” Trisha nodded. “But you think there’s another reason?”

“Yeah, the real reason. They’ve been evasive about how, exactly, they intend to take down that absurdly big ship. Whatever weapon they have that’s capable of that level of destruction, they don’t want anyone to know what it is—or that they even have it. If no one sees it, it’s hearsay.”

“I guess we’ll need to keep our mouths shut, too.”

Karen released a long breath. “Sometimes it’s a burden, having more information than anyone else and needing to keep it to yourself. Personally, though, I’d rather keep a secret and know the truth than blindly follow on the outside.”

“I’m with you there.”

“Ma’am?” a tech said from one of the nearby cubicles. “Daily News has someone on the line asking to do an interview about this shield test.”

Karen smiled at Trisha. “Why don’t you take this one?”

“I don’t know…”

“It should come from a local. If they interview me, it might make them more suspicious.”

Trisha sighed and nodded. “All right.”

“Come on, let’s jot down some talking points.”


*     *     *


Ava frowned at the code running through her mind. Okay, so maybe telling the node where we want it to take us wasn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped.

Whenever she watched Nick and Samantha work on a hack, they’d made it look easy. As an AI, Ruby had innate skill in computer-related endeavors, but the Dyons’ programming language was as alien as their lifeform.

We might need to try something else, Ava suggested.

>>No, you’re right. This is the best strategy. I know there’s a way we can tell this ship to move this node to where we need to be, or at least how to open a pathway right to it.<<

They’d already been working on it for fifteen minutes. The clock was ticking down too quickly.

Ruby—

>>Wait, I’ve got it!<< the AI exclaimed. >>Watch this magic.<<

The ground trembled, and a hole appeared five meters to the left. Descending into the depth was a perfectly formed spiral staircase, made of the same stone-like material that was present throughout the ship.

Ava gaped at the creation. You are amazing! I’d ask you how you did it, but I don’t think I want to know.

>>Take the gift and go! The program is still running, and it will open a path for us back to the pod, too.<<

That’s a long way up now.

>>But it won’t be. I have programmed the bottom of the cylinder to lower to the level of the core. It should be a straight run for us, and then we can fly out.<<

Damn, that would have been such an easier way to get in!

>>Hindsight, and all that. We never could have hacked it remotely. They could override my commands at any time, though. We need to hurry. Nick and Sam can keep it active for us once they get remote access.<<

Can you? Keep it open, I mean?

>>Not without an additional processor. Your mind is amazing, Ava, but it doesn’t have the resources for an ongoing hack like that.<<

Understood. What about the device? She looked down at the box still resting on the ground by the column.

>>I’m using it to temporarily keep the doorway open. Leave it.<<

Without further delay, Ava raced down the stairs.

After the equivalent of twenty stories, her legs were burning, despite her augmentations. Rapid healing or not, she suspected she’d be feeling all the running around tomorrow.

She descended another fifteen stories before she finally spotted the bottom. To her right, she saw a surprisingly straight tunnel that faded into darkness.

>>That’ll be our exit,<< Ruby explained. >>Head left. We’re almost there.<<

Ava ran in the indicated direction, her movements feeling odd over the flat ground, after spending so much time on the stairs.

How deep are we now?

>>Don’t think about that. We have our exit plan,<< Ruby replied.

The left path led through a corridor the scale of the other chambers she had encountered thus far. The ceiling curved above her fifteen meters up, transitioning into rippled walls. The floor was the same spongy covering of interwoven fibers that she’d encountered in the depths of the ship, and it gave extra bounce to her step as she ran.

After half a kilometer, the broad passageway flared outward at the entrance to a chamber that dwarfed the others.

>>This is the core,<< Ruby stated as Ava entered.

A central column of rock rose in the center of the chamber, adorned by what looked like petals of a blooming flower, crafted from the same stone. It towered at least a kilometer high, but Ava couldn’t get a clear reading on the top.

 >>This node is connected to the rest of the ship,<< Ruby explained. >>Communications, defenses—we can get it all from here.<<

So, we patch in, and then Nick and Sam will keep it locked down while we escape?

>>That’s the plan.<<

Okay, tell me where I hook this up. Ava pulled the main module from her bag.

She jogged toward the central column, listening for any enemies that may be lurking in the shadows. In a space so large, anyone could be watching her without her knowledge.

The fibrous groundcover thickened closer to the column, and Ava was soon sinking in, up to her mid-shin. Thanks to the field around her suit, the fibers moved from her path with every step. Without that, though, she feared it would be able to swallow her up in moments.

>>Put it in physical contact with one of the data conduits. That will give a backup connection in case the wireless interface fails.<<

How do I use this tracer thing to find it? Ava asked.

>>I’ll add a visual overlay for you. This might be a little… disorienting.<<

Ava’s vision distorted in a pixelated flash. When it cleared, there was an eerie purple glow to the environmental features around her. Some spots were bright, and others were almost black.

What is this?

>>Electromagnetic field overlay. The brighter the spot, the more energy is running through it. You see that conduit in the central column?<<

Ava nodded. It stood out from the others, both in brightness and thickness. That’s this node’s primary connection with the rest of the ship, isn’t it?

>>That’s my best guess, anyway. We’ll know right away if it works or not.<<

Ava slogged through the moss-like fibers toward the part of the bright conduit that appeared to be closest to the surface. When she reached out her hand, it sank into the bed of flexible fibers, and then touched stone underneath.

Can you dim the visual overlay? I need to look at this.

The purple faded from her vision.

Sure enough, the conduit she needed to access was deep within the column, without any discernable access point. Are you sure we need a physical connection?

>>Without it, I fear the ship will be able to override the wireless signal much faster. It may buy us a minute or two, but seconds could make the difference.<<

All right, time to get creative. Ava returned the module to her bag. 

She stuck her hand into the mat of fibers covering the stone column, working them inward and tearing away the covering to expose the stone underneath.

>>It needs to be in contact with the conduit inside.<<

I know, Ava replied to the AI.

She pressed her fingertips into the rock. They sank in slightly, where the field around her suit made contact with the stone, breaking apart the bonds that held it together.

Can you turn up the intensity?

Ruby smiled in her mind. >>Why didn’t I think of that?<<

An electric spark shocked Ava’s arm, but she blocked out the discomfort. Curling her fingers into a fist, she punched into the stone.

Her hand disappeared into the column, up to her wrist.

This is super weird…

>>Don’t go too deep!<< Ruby warned. >>We don’t want to disrupt the conduit itself.<<

The electromagnetic overlay returned to Ava’s vision. She could see the outline of the shield around her hand and where her fist was in relation to the conduit. She’d need to go as deep as her elbow to reach it.

She worked her arm in until her fist was brushing the edge of the conduit. Then she dragged it downward to create a vertical slit in the column wall large enough to slip the module inside.

While sliding her right arm up and down to keep the opening from closing, she readied the module in her left hand.

Ava quickly withdrew her right arm, then grabbed the module and carefully slid it into place, the pronged end pointed toward the conduit. The rock stayed clear of the field surrounding the device.

When the prongs were in contact with the conduit, Ava slid her arm out from the opening.

That was a little more… intimate than I was expecting.

>>Yeah, I’m not going to take the bait and degrade into a conversation riddled with innuendo. I need to hack into this comm system.<<

Good plan, Ava agreed.

Ruby was silent for two minutes while she became acquainted with the network.

>>And we have contact! Tapped into the communication system now. Pinging the Raven.<<

A moment later, a chirp sounded in Ava’s comm.

Raven, can you hear me?” she asked.

“Ava! Thank the stars,” Widmore replied. “It’s been over two hours. What happened?”

“Ran into some moving passageways and mutant rock-dogs. The usual.”

The major was silent. “Are… you okay?”

“Yes, sir. I’m at one of the inner nodes now.”

“Wait, what?” Nick said, jumping on the communication link. “You were only supposed to tap into one of the conduits running to the node.”

“Yeah, well, that plan didn’t work. It was a great idea, but this ship is all kinds of fucked up.”

“What do you mean?” the major asked, concern evident in his tone.

“The components aren’t integrated in the way we had anticipated,” Ruby supplied. “I have come to believe that this group of Dyons is a rogue faction.”

“Meaning there are other Dyons?” Widmore clarified.

“Possibly, sir. This is all speculation,” Ava responded. “But this ship isn’t built-out. It’s like a bunch of disaggregated parts were thrown together by a group of people who don’t want to work together.”

“I’m not sure I follow, Lieutenant…”

“I’ll explain once I’m back, sir. The important part is that we needed to get to this central node in order to access the necessary parts. Ruby has a wedge in the door for you.”

“Yes! I see the access point,” Nick said.

“It’s going to take some time to trace the defensive controls,” Samantha said, speaking up for the first time in the conversation.

“Good, because we’ll need some time to get out of here,” Ava said. “It’d be nice to have a chance to get back to you before the Hellfire blows this thing.”

“You might want to be careful about vocalizing those plans,” Widmore cautioned.

“Pretty sure they picked up our intention when the Hellfire attacked last time.”

“We have your back. Get out of there, ma’am,” Nick said.

>>Handoff is complete,<< Ruby reported in her mind. >>Let’s see if that pod made it to where it’s supposed to be.<<

“I’ll see you soon,” Ava told her teammates. She muted the comm.

What do we do if it’s not?

>>We get to find out how fast you can climb.<<

Ava ran toward the open passageway leading in the direction of the pod. She’d gone no more than four steps when a chorus of voices filled her mind.

“Where are you going, Ava? We’re not finished with you yet.”












CHAPTER EIGHTEEN


Ava froze in her tracks—not restrained by a physical force, but by a command in her mind.

Shit! Ruby, how are they doing this?

Her heart pounded in her ears. They hadn’t been able to overpower her—not since she faced off against Reya on Nezar, when the Dyon was inside Chancellor Heizberg.

>>I don’t know. I can’t sense it. I’m sorry, Ava, there’s nothing I can do. You have to fight it.<<

Help me shift!

>>I’m trying, but there’s something blocking it.<<

Fuck. She tugged against the invisible restraints binding her, but she couldn’t trace where they were coming from. It was as though the air in the room had congealed around her.

Her mind raced as she thought about the possibilities—what might make this encounter different than the others.

Ruby, are there any foreign bodies inside me? Did that creature inject me with something when it bit me earlier?

The AI was quiet—too quiet for Ava’s liking.

You found something, didn’t you?

>>There is something, yes,<< Ruby replied. >>I didn’t detect it before because it wasn’t active.<<

I’m guessing it is now.

>>It appears to be made up of the same mineral as the telepathic receptors, only this nanotech is carried in the bloodstream.<<

You have to disable it.

>>I don’t know if I can.<<

I’m frozen, here! 

“You don’t need to fight it, Ava,” the chorus of voices said in her mind. They spoke together, but there were distinct tones layered in the statements, like they wanted to talk together but weren’t well-rehearsed. “You’ve run for so long, you’ve never even heard what we have to say.”

“Fine, then talk,” she replied, with no genuine intention of hearing them out. The moment she had the upper hand, she would be out of there and on her ship, headed back to the Hellfire, and then they’d blow these Dyon fuckers into oblivion once and for all.

The bonds holding her loosened ever so slightly, allowing her to place her foot, which had been left awkwardly in midair when she was frozen midstride, on the ground.

“You assume we are the enemy, but you know nothing of us.”

“I don’t know where you come from,” Ava retorted, “but around here, we have an ancient expression that states ‘actions speak louder than words’. I know you communicate telepathically and all, but the same principle still applies. So let’s go over what you’ve done—that I know of. First, there was holding a bunch of people prisoner. Then there were the people whose bodies you stole for your own. And then there’s the whole part about forcing genetic modifications on people. You can say you’re not our enemy, but that’s pretty damn antagonistic.”

The chorus laughed. “Is it wrong to enslave animals for slaughter and consume a lesser being? You do it all the time.”

“That’s for food—for our survival.”

“As you are to us.”

Well, shit. They caught me in a logic loop I can’t talk my way out of, she said to Ruby.

>>Don’t tell me what they’re saying actually makes sense.<<

Without getting into an argument about the nature of sentience, they have essentially asserted that we are to them what cattle are to us.

>>You can’t reason with a being whom perceives such a disparity between our stations in this universe.<

No, I can’t. But hubris has a way of coming back to bite someone in the ass.

Ava returned her attention to the aliens. “If humans and others like us are so inferior to you, then why bother talking to me?”

“We left our physical forms long ago, but some of us have come to miss the pleasures of a corporeal existence,” the chorus replied.

“Yeah, well, that doesn’t give you an excuse to go take whatever body you see fit.”

“We do not wish to take the form of those we have seen. They are imperfect and lack a sufficient connection to the Etheric. We wish to move at will.”

“Part of your being lives in the Etheric, then?”

“You would not understand the nature of an existence that isn’t tied to one place or time.”

“Time?” Ava’s heart leaped. “Are you suggesting that you’re four-dimensional beings?”

The chorus laughed again. “You humans and your simple concepts. All you must know is that we have been seeking a vessel to return us to our corporeal roots—one which we may inhabit for as long as we see fit, jumping between bodies and gaining power from their use.”

“You mean sending a soldier into war and gaining pleasure from its pain.”

“Pain and anger… Those have always been the greatest fuels. The others never agreed, but that is why they have remained weak.”

“What others?” Ava asked.

She and Ruby had discussed the possibility at length over the past month, speculating about other Dyons who were drawn to the positive emotional spectrum for their fuel. Ruby’s discovery about the ship earlier in the day had supported that theory, but this was the first admission from a Dyon that there might, indeed, be others with a counter point of view. It was a glimmer of hope that defeating this ship might offer a lasting chance at peace, and not just another reprieve until a bigger assault, as had been the case between the battle at Gidyon and the appearance of this ship.

The chorus chattered amongst itself for a moment—a cacophony Ava couldn’t begin to decipher. It would seem there was some disagreement regarding the other Dyons.

“The others have no ties to us,” the chorus replied at last. “They remain one, but we are many.”

“Yet you still speak as a ‘we’,” Ava pointed out, hoping to get some kind of rise out of them.

“And you speak of your nations as if all citizens are one, even though you emphasize individuality. Are we not afforded the same distinctions?”

“An interesting argument, given how flippantly you disregarded individual life when it came to inhabiting Kurtz and Heizberg.”

“Necessary pawns to further our ends.”

“Yeah, well, maybe we aren’t as simple as you think we are. You insist on your superiority and the worth of your life over ours, but we continue to best you.”

The chorus closed around her like a dark cloud. “When you destroyed our world in Gidyon, we learned from you. You can’t stop us now.”

Ava ignored them. Is the comm link still up? she asked Ruby.

>>Yes, the device is functioning perfectly.<<

I was hoping you’d say that.

She smiled at the Dyons inside her mind. “Yeah, see, you talk a big game, and yet you haven’t been able to stop us. Are you going to deny that I stuck my hand right through your walls and planted that device? You can make all the threats you want, but the fact remains that you can’t remove that module, or you would have done it already. For all your talk of ‘we’ and your collective, you’re so intent on destruction that you’ve forgotten how to work together. And that’s where we have you beat. We are driven by bonds of love and duty—and those will always be stronger than anger and hate.”

“We have you, Ava. If you could have escaped, you would have done so by now.”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong.” She smirked. “I’ve been stalling.”

In the background, Ava had been keeping part of her mind focused on the comm link to the Raven while giving her mini-speech. The link grounded her, offering a tangible connection to her friends—her work family—for whom she’d do anything. That bond had always been a force to use against the Dyons, and it was no different now.

When transforming in the past, she had often used anger as her fuel. This time, she was building her reserves on the positive spectrum. She was going to beat the Dyons, and it would be on her terms.

With a surge of energy, she snapped the invisible bonds holding her, using the momentum to spur a transformation into her Hochste state.

The Dyons were caught off-guard, the chorus crying out in her mind with surprise and anger.

“You can’t hold me,” she told them. “You may be many, but the strength of individuals working together for good will always be more powerful than those seeking destruction.”

Her body elongated and thickened into the powerful fighting beast that had always been in her heart, even when she didn’t have the physical form to match. Now she was complete, and she was going to make sure this bad batch of Dyons wouldn’t be able to harm anyone again.


*     *     *


“We have a connection!” the comm tech on the bridge of the Hellfire exclaimed.

Kurtz jumped up from his chair.

“Patch me through to the Raven.”

Major Widmore appeared onscreen, standing four meters to the side of Nick and Samantha, who were seated at workstations in the vessel’s hangar.

“What’s your status, Major?” Kurtz asked.

“We just made contact with Ava. I have good news and bad,” he replied. “She was able to install the device, and my team has successfully infiltrated the vessel’s systems. However, we haven’t yet gained access to the defensive systems that previously prevented the Arti-Sun from performing.”

“We figured this wouldn’t be instantaneous. You just need more time?”

“Correct, sir. Ruby gave us a big head start, and we’re close.”

“I don’t see what’s bad about any of that.”

“It’s not about the hack, sir. Ava needed to venture deeper into the ship than we’d anticipated. She’s presently more than twenty-three kilometers beneath the surface.”

Kurtz’s heart sank. “Is she on her way out?”

“We… think so.”

“Major?”

Widmore shook his head. “We lost verbal contact with her shortly after we established the connection with the ship’s system. The comm link is open but muted.”

“Then let’s find her! If you’re patched into the ship’s systems, then surely you can locate her.”

“It’s taking all of our computer resources and know-how to keep the backdoor open. Ruby added in some extra measures that we hadn’t accounted for.”

Kurtz’s brow knit. “Like what?”

“She seems to have reprogrammed the internal layout of the ship.”

“How is that possible?”

“We’ll need to wait for them to get back here to explain, sir. But the point is, the ship has a mind of its own, and it’s rather angry about what we’re doing to it.”

“Sir!” the helmsman interrupted. “The alien vessel increased velocity.”

“Match its speed,” Kurtz said.

Next to him, Vera paled. “Estimated time to arrival in the Alaxar system decreased by seven hours at our new speed.”

Shit, if we get any closer than six hours, the debris field will be too close to the system to hide. “She’ll need to be out in the next hour,” he replied.

“Hopefully it will be less than that, sir,” Widmore said, having overhead the conversation. “I don’t think Nick and Sam will be able to hold off the counter-defenses for more than another twenty minutes, even with EI assistance.”

“Don’t underestimate us, sir,” Nick said with a slight smile from the workstation behind him. “We could do this all day.”

“You’re being a showy ass,” Samantha countered with bite in her tone, eyes narrowed. “We’re barely holding it together. Be honest.”

“Okay, yeah, things could be better,” Nick admitted.

“Sir, we’re to the final security block,” Samantha continued. “Once we break through this, the ship’s defenses will come down. After we execute, we’ll have five minutes tops.”

“Can you hold here?” Kurtz asked.

Nick and Samantha exchanged glances. “For a little while, but we can’t say for how long,” he replied.

“Is the Arti-Sun ready to fire?” Kurtz questioned the weapons tech.

“Yes, sir, standing by.”

FDG warriors are prepared to die for the greater good. Ava entered that ship knowing full well she might not make it out again. The way of the warrior. Honor. Courage. Commitment. The ideals that Terry Henry Walton had established as the foundation of the FDG.

But it wasn’t just her in there; Ruby was along for the ride. Though created through alternate means, hers was a sentient life, all the same.

Two for a system.

The math was easy, but he wouldn’t throw away two lives while there was still a chance to save everyone.

“Your orders, sir?” the weapons tech asked.

Stars! I can’t fire on her—not until it’s our last resort. He switched back to the comm link with the Raven. “Continue to hold.”

“Yes, sir,” Widmore confirmed. “The Dyons are putting up a hell of a fight, but we have the upper hand for now.”

“And there’s no way to Ava’s position?”

“Not without putting our other efforts in jeopardy. We’re waiting for acknowledgement that she’s at the pod.”

Shit, where is she? Kurtz nodded. “Alert me as soon as she’s en route, or if the Dyons are at risk of regaining control of the defensive systems.”

“Stand by,” he addressed the weapons tech. “We need to give her every moment we can spare.”












CHAPTER NINETEEN


Telepathic bonds tried to pin Ava, but she slashed them back with a mental scythe. “I’m not some lab specimen for you to possess!”

“You are so close to what we need to become something more. With a form such as yours, and the superior intellect of our collective, we can dominate. We can make you one of us.”

“I have no interest in joining your freaky cult!” she spat back as she ran. She morphed between her human and Hochste forms, ever-changing to prevent them from getting ahold of her again.

“But don’t you want to be part of something more? We can see into your mind—your heart. You are able to connect with other minds in a way that no one else of your kind can. You’ve always been alone, despite the connections you’ve convinced yourself are enough. But we see it—we sense how you want to be part of something bigger than yourself.”

“Don’t you get it?” She scoffed in her mind. “I am part of something bigger than myself. The FDG, the friends and family I have, the love of my partner—having those things does make me more than what I am on my own. I don’t need to kill and dominate others to achieve that.”

“You’re so restricted! They are weaker than you. We made you something more, and yet you continue to answer to them.”

“They’re my friends. I continue to work with them because I care about them and the rest of the people in the Federation. Personal sacrifice is what allows our people to prosper as a community.”

She reached out her mind toward the Dyons, probing to see what fueled them. The hate, the anger, the need to possess—it had to have come from somewhere.

The emptiness swirled in the ethereal space that existed between her mind and the collective consciousness of the ship. Looking at it cohesively, she could sense the disparate parts that Ruby had picked up on in her digital analysis. The hundreds of Dyon nests were striving for the same thing; ironically, that goal was to separate.

Ava tried to understand the underlying motivation. Her quest for inner truth was what had made her so effective at her job in the past, looking into people’s minds to identify what drove them. Appeal to that inner desire, and the person was hers to command.

As she looked into the collective mind of the Dyons, though, it was strangely empty. The thirst for pain that fueled them permeated every thought, but beyond that… there was a void.

To her surprise, her heart softened.

This thirst for pain wasn’t driven by a fundamental, biological need; it was a reflection of what they already felt—isolation, loneliness. They sought to prolong that state of being because they no longer remembered another way to live.

“How did you get to be so bitter?” she asked them. “Why do you seek out pain while others of your kind thrive on love?”

“There is no other way!” the chorus screamed.

Ava understood now. She had seen their inner self. This group was angry and bitter at the universe—essentially, immature teenagers acting out at the worlds. They were dissatisfied with their own existence, having not yet come into their own, and so they sought to make others suffer, and be a part of their own perceived suffering.

She felt sorry for them, to have stooped to that level. Such an ancient, powerful race could have been so much more, but hubris had been their undoing. Power, ambition… though their intentions came from a place of self-improvement, they were blinded by a singular focus on dominance.

To thrive, one needed to understand the larger context of their actions.

Examining the Dyons made Ava appreciate that much more what the Etheric Federation had done. To bring together so many different people who could have been enemies was one of the greatest accomplishments in the galaxy, across all time. It was a foundation from which they could grow toward a future with greater equity and justice.

“Are you sure you won’t reconsider?” she asked them. “This is your last chance to stand down.”

“If you won’t join us, then you will die with the rest!”

Well, that’s a pretty clear answer, she said to Ruby.

>>Negotiations didn’t go well?<<

You can’t reason with people who refuse to acknowledge there’s another side. We’ve done everything we can. They chose this for themselves.

She never took death lightly, but she readily acknowledged it was a part of war. And right now, it was her duty to stop the war with the Dyons before it claimed more innocent lives.

Ava broke the telepathic connection with the Dyon collective. Driven by her desire to return to her loved ones, she sprinted toward the exit.

As Ruby had promised, the corridor was a straight shot. The question was if the pod would be waiting for her at the end.

>>I have the pod’s homing signal!<< Ruby announced.

Stars, that’s a relief!

>>One problem, though. The ship only restructured to bring the pod down to a level even with the top of the main chamber, not the bottom deck.<<

Ava’s heart skipped a beat. That’s almost a kilometer up! Maybe more.

>>I’m trying to work out a path to get there. Nick and Sam are in the system, so I have access to an accurate real-time map.<<

Can you have them move the pieces around to get the pod to this level?

>>The computing processes are at bandwidth capacity with the backdoor opening into the network. We’ll need to bootstrap our escape.<<

We’d so better get some sort of medal for this.

The map in Ava’s mind updated with a red line tracing through a series of corridors on a zig-zagging incline, with one notable exception.

Uh, Ruby, that’s a fifty-meter-tall vertical shaft.

>>Yes.<<

How am I—

>>You have claws, remember?<< Ruby interrupted. >>You punched straight into the stone before, and you can do it again.<<

Considering that she didn’t have an alternative idea, Ava followed the new course.

She retraced her steps down the broad passageway, then took a sharp right down a narrower passage into the chamber with the vertical shaft in the middle. The area beneath the shaft was covered with an especially thick patch of the spongy fibers.

This ship design doesn’t make any sense. 

>>I believe these chutes were used by the biological guards we encountered earlier.<<

Think there are more of them?

>>Almost certainly. Whether or not we will cross paths, I don’t know.<<

Until they were right in front of her, there was no point in worrying about what may or may not be around the next bend.

She looked up at the shaft, four meters above her. That’s a hell of a leap.

>>You can make it with a running start. You’ll need to dig your claws in and haul yourself up. I ran the models based on the baseline I established in training, and you can do this.<<

Ava drew a deep breath. Okay, here it goes.

She took six rapid strides toward the shaft, pushing off with her knees on the final step. She launched into the air toward the opening.

The stone was barely within her grasp. She extended her arm and thrust her claws into the stone. As she made contact, her momentum carried her past her mark, causing her claws to slip.

She swung her other arm upward and plunged it into the stone to steady herself. However, the field around her slowly began to disintegrate the stone, and she slid downward.

You need to adjust the intensity! she shouted to Ruby in her mind.

>>I’m trying…<<

Only four centimeters remained between Ava’s claws and the bottom of the shaft.

Her downward slide slowed, but didn’t stop completely.

You need to adjust the field around each hand as I move. Ava withdrew her right claws and swung herself upward to grab above her head. When her claws were locked into place, she repeated the motion with her left. After two more laborious swings, she was finally able to secure her feet on the stone ripples underneath her.

She looked down. Psh, easy.

>>Climb!<< Ruby shouted.

Looking upward, Ava realized how far fifty meters was. I suddenly miss those stairs from earlier.

>>Less lamenting, more vertical motion. Nick and Sam won’t be able to hold off the defenses for much longer.<<

Ava raced up the vertical rock face, using her claws and feet to propel her upward. Once she got in the rhythm, she accelerated into super-speed.

She rocketed out of the top and into the center of a chamber. Three passageways fanned out in opposite directions. The map flashed in her mind, pointing her up a ramp to the right.

Ava charged toward the opening, but her feet were knocked out from underneath her midstride.

When she caught herself with her hands, she looked back to see a beast like the ones she’d encountered on her way in. It rounded on her, fangs bared.

Shit, where did that come from?

>>Apparently they have been waiting for us.<<

I’ve had enough of this shit! Ava slashed at the beast, raking her claws across its side.

The beast yelped and recoiled, its hindquarters only a step from the shaft’s lip.

Ava kicked it in its wounded side, knocking it down the opening. That’s how it’s done!

>>Ava… look behind you.<<

Two dozen beasts crouched in the shadows, ready to pounce. The four luminescent eyes above each of their powerful jaws were filled with bloodlust. One daring creature slinked forward, snarling at Ava.

“If you won’t join us in life, then your death will bring us pleasure,” the chorus of Dyon voices whispered at the edge of her consciousness.

Nope.

Ava sprinted for the passageway leading to the pod. She could hear the pack of creatures loping behind her, but she kept her attention ahead.

>>You can outpace them, but we need time to get inside the pod,<< Ruby warned.

Ava already felt like she was running as fast as she could, but she pushed even harder. The world around her changed—almost like it was skipping forward. Features in the passageway that had seemed far away were suddenly next to her.

Ava didn’t know what was happening, but she didn’t care. All that she knew was she had to put distance between her and her attackers, and her pod was right up ahead.

The Dyons still beckoned at the edge of her mind, asking her to stay. The tone of their most recent pleas had soured, changing to a request for her to stay so that they could ‘dissect’ her and ‘revel in her suffering’.

It wasn’t a good sales message.

She burst into an open chamber, the stone walls extending upward farther than she could see. At the center of the open space was her pod, seemingly undamaged. It still rested on the fibrous material they had landed on, but everything else was different.

On her final approach to the craft, Ava peered upward, and that’s when she noticed faint pinpricks of light.

You sunk the ground around the pod, she said to Ruby.

>>When you can reprogram the insides of a ship, sometimes the simplest solutions are the best.<<

Ava raced into the back hatch of the pod and closed the door. She wasn’t sure how far behind her those creatures might be, and she didn’t want to find out.

>>They’ll be here in thirty seconds,<< Ruby supplied as she powered up the pod and tapped into the navigation controls. >>We’re clear of them, but Nick and Sam are on their last legs. The Dyons will regain control within four minutes, and we’ll lose the window to launch the Arti-Sun attack.<<

Cutting it awfully close.

>>Those little delays added up,<< Ruby said as the pod shot upward toward open space. >>I’ll get us to the Raven as fast as I can.<<

Millions of voices called out to Ava as the pod zoomed through the cylinder and up into open space. She ignored them, letting out a little laugh. As she relaxed, she returned to her human form. That was the craziest thing I’ve ever done.

>>I’ll celebrate when we’re out of blast range.<<

Ava noticed the countdown clock in the corner of the pod’s front viewport. The arrival time to the Raven and the opportunity window for the assault on the Dyon ship were only seconds apart.

We’ll make it. A whole four seconds to spare!

Ruby didn’t reply.

The Raven came into view up ahead, and few things had ever been a more welcome sight in Ava’s life. However, her joy was cut short when she saw the telltale signs of the engines igniting.

Fuck! They’re about to leave without us.

>>Bay door is still open. I’m taking us in!<<

Ava secured her harness, then held her breath and gripped the armrest. We have to make it back. We’re so close now…

She had been willing to give her life for the mission when it was about venturing into the unknown, but now that she was so close to success and safety, she wanted nothing more than to be back with her team… and to see Luke again.

The Raven went from a distant speck to taking up the pod’s viewport in an instant. They were coming in way too fast to dock.

Oh, shit, we’re not going to make it… Ava’s heart dropped.

Then the Raven rolled to the side and began accelerating away from the pod, matching its trajectory.

Wait, they’re going to line up with us so we can get onboard! she realized.

>>Only a fighter pilot like Rod would think of that.<<

Ava remained silent while Ruby made the necessary adjustments to pull off what by all accounts should be an impossible maneuver. The remaining distance between the two craft closed quickly, and the pod came into alignment with the bay entrance. She half-closed one eye and braced.

A bang, followed by the squeal of grinding metal, assaulted Ava’s senses. She was knocked sideways, and would’ve been sent tumbling from her chair, were it not for her harness holding her in place.

The pod came to rest in an emergency net.

Ava breathed a sigh of relief. Looking out the front viewport, she saw her team’s temporary workspace a mere four meters away. Without the emergency net, her teammates would have been a splat on the bay wall—and her, too, for that matter.

Ruby, I never want to do that again.


*     *     *


“Pod just reached the Raven!” the helmsman announced.

Kurtz straightened in his chair. Only three minutes and twenty-seven seconds to go. Nick and Sam need to hold on.

“Maintain your position,” he ordered. “Shields in the Alaxar Trinary are still tinted?”

“Yes, sir,” the communications tech acknowledged.

“Prepare to fire the Arti-Sun on my order.”

“Weapon is charged, sir,” the weapons tech stated.

Kurtz watched the progress of the Raven onscreen. Despite its actual speed, it appeared to be lazily approaching the Hellfire across the vast span between them.

He couldn’t believe Widmore had authorized the reckless pod retrieval. As much as Kurtz wanted to see Ava home safely, having the pod come in hot like that had put the entire mission at risk at the last second. If any of the calculations had been off, the pod could have easily careened into Nick and Samantha’s workstations.

They had made it, though, and they were about to blast the Dyon bastards out of existence.

“Thirty seconds to clearance from blast range!” the helmsman updated.

Almost there…

The final seconds ticked down onscreen. Kurtz took a deep breath right before it reached zero.

“Fire!”

The floor rumbled as the Arti-Sun blast shot across open space to the Dyon ship. The energy beam collided with the vessel, lancing through it with a spectacular plume of blue light. Secondary explosions rippled through the ship as it collapsed slightly. A bright flash in the center of the ship whited out the screen at the front of the bridge.

When it cleared, fragments from the Dyon ship were hurtling outward, and the energy orb at the center of the ship swelled to encompass them. As the orb slowly contracted, no sign of the vessel remained.


*     *     *


Ava collapsed to the floor of the Raven’s bay as she stepped out of the pod, gripping her head.

Millions of minds screamed in agony. Somehow, she was still linked with them.

>>What’s wrong?<< Ruby asked frantically.

So… many… Ava could barely form the words in her mind.

When Gidyon had been destroyed, she had felt the Dyons’ pain in their final moments. But that was only one nest; this Dyon ship had hundreds. Each of the millions of minds within the collective consciousness cried out in one last bid for life.

It sucked Ava in. Her invisible ties to them bound her mind to theirs, and as they faded, she found herself on the edge of an abyss staring into nothingness.

She tried to shift again, to break her hold, but she couldn’t feel her body.

Ruby! She wasn’t sure if the call escaped her private mind.

The darkness closed in around her.

>>Ava!<< The AI was there, somewhere in the distance.

Ava tried to reach out to her, only she had no bearings. She was falling inside her own mind.

Then a new presence emerged.

The Dyons’ voices of hate and pain were gone, replaced by a distant chorus that drew her back toward her physical self.

Her eyes shot open, and she picked herself up off the ground.

>>Ava, are you all right?<<

Yeah, I’m fine now.

Edwin and Widmore ran toward her, as Nick and Samantha rose from their workstations, their faces drawn with concern.

“What happened?” Widmore asked, offering to help her the rest of the way to her feet.

“I need to decontaminate before anyone touches me,” she told him, standing upright on her own. “I think the Dyons had some sort of hold on me up until the end. They’re gone now.”

He nodded. “The ship has been destroyed. It’s over.”

“Thank the stars!”

“It was fucking spectacular!” Nick grinned.

On the screen set up behind the work area, a video of the sphere’s explosion was replaying on a loop. Ava watched the beam slice through it, and saw the secondary explosion vaporize the entire structure. She had to admit, it was a sight to behold.

Samantha looked her over. “You look like you’ve been through hell. Is that blood all over you?”

“There were some… obstacles,” she replied. “I spoke with them briefly, when I was in the core. This was a rogue group. The ship had the last of the Dyons who held those ideals.”

Widmore released a long breath. “This is going to be an interesting debrief.”

“That’s for sure.” Ava shook her head. “If you don’t mind, I’ll go shower now.”

The major looked her over. “It would be inhumane to stand in your way.”

“Hugs after you’re not covered in… that,” Nick said, tracing his finger through the air from Ava’s head to feet and back.

“Rock-dog blood. Don’t you think it goes well with my hair?” Ava smirked. She had yet to see her own reflection, but she could only imagine the horror show.

“We’ll see you soon. Well done,” Widmore told her.

She climbed up the ladder and headed to the washroom. As she started to strip down, a bright chorus of voices suddenly spoke in her mind.

“Thank you. Now we are free.”

She jumped with surprise. “Are you the others?” Her hearted pounded in her ears, but the fear only lasted a moment.

A warm glow filled Ava as the distant alien presence embraced her. She had no idea where they were in space, but in that moment, they were connected across the light years.

Joy washed over her—an elation so complete that the world around her melted away. She basked in the warm light surrounding her mind.

“Who are you?” she asked them.

“We are life. Love, compassion, hate, greed—we understand the spectrum of experience. Some of us, unfortunately, fell to the darkness that lives within us all. But now, thanks to you, they are free of their burdens, and we may build anew.”

“We didn’t know if there were others. I’m sorry we destroyed this ship and the world in Gidyon. I—”

A sense of serenity filled Ava’s mind. “We understand what you did was necessary. You tried to stop them through other means first. Not everyone would have been so compassionate when faced with such a challenge.”

“I wish it hadn’t come to that.”

“The cruelty that was in them is not our way. It needed to be stopped before it spread.”

Ava nodded. “I’d hoped there were others of your kind with different motivations. There’s so much we want learn from you! Your technology, everything you know—”

“You are still a young race,” the chorus interrupted. “It is not yet time for us to share all that we can offer, but we’ll be watching you from afar. We see what your Federation has done for this galaxy, and we know its inhabitants are in good hands—especially yours.”

The warm glow began to retreat from her mind, and she braced for the inevitable internal void when it left her. However, even as she sensed the presence loosening its connection to her, the feeling of fulfillment didn’t diminish.

“A parting gift,” the voices said. “Keep protecting those in need.”

As quickly as they had arrived, the alien minds vanished.

“Wow,” Ava murmured aloud.

>>Something unusual just happened,<< Ruby said. >>New information appeared. It’s like you have a new memory, except there’s no record of it ever happening.<<

What is it?

>>I believe it’s instructions for how to control your nanocytes.<<

Ava’s heart leaped. You can make it so it won’t hurt? I won’t lose control?

>>I don’t want to make promises, but my preliminary review suggests that is the case, yes,<< the AI confirmed.

With those abilities, what will I be able to do?

>>It will be an adventure.<<












CHAPTER TWENTY


As Ava exited the docking concourse at FDG headquarters, a group of two dozen warriors cheered and clapped.

Uh, what? None of the people looked familiar to her.

>>The video of the ship’s destruction was shared within the FDG. Your team was cited as carrying out the op that made it possible,<< Ruby explained.

No one ever gathers like this.

>>The circumstances were different.<<

The AI did have a point. Most missions took place almost exclusively in the field, with little support from headquarters. In this conflict with the Dyons, however, the fight had come inside the facility’s walls. Though the battle itself was fought in a remote location, the victory rang as a shared triumph—the vanquishing of a foe that had impacted the lives of everyone in that division of the FDG in some way.

“Man, I could get used to this hero’s welcome all the time,” Edwin said with a grin.

Ava smiled back. “Don’t let it go to your head.”

“Too late,” Nick ribbed. “Pretty sure he’s already updated the bio on his main Net video account with ‘galactic savior’ as his official job title.”

She scrunched up her nose. “Wasn’t that on there already?”

Samantha laughed. “Oh, Ava, you should know by now that Edwin’s ego knows no bounds.”

“Formal debrief will be in thirty minutes. See you then,” Widmore said as he passed by Ava and her team.

“Yes, sir,” she acknowledged.

They took a couple of moments to thank the warriors who’d come to greet them, then headed toward their quarters to drop off their travel items before the meeting.

Ava was surprised Luke hadn’t been waiting for her at the concourse, but she found him standing outside her quarters in his usual fashion. “There you are.”

“Ava!” He ran to her, arms outstretched, and held her close. “I’m so relieved you made it out of there,” he murmured into her hair.

“Being entombed in an alien death-planet-ship-thing wasn’t high on my list of preferred ways to die.”

Luke pulled back enough to look her in the eyes. “Are you okay?”

“Better than okay—especially now that I’m back home.” She kissed him deeply, happy that he’d staged the reunion in a more private location.

Ava unlocked her door and showed him inside. “Is it true that word is getting around the FDG about what happened?”

“Not around around, but a fair number of people know. I think a few people started talking about it before it was made clear that it’s classified information.”

“Doesn’t surprise me.”

Luke sat down on the edge of her bed. “What happened after the ship was blown up? Your message was really cryptic.”

She joined him on the bed. “There are more of the Dyons—or whatever they’re actually called. The others aren’t like the ones we met, though. They’re good, and kind, and they see what we’re doing in this galaxy, and wish us the best.”

“Advanced, then?”

So advanced. Between us, I don’t think we have a proper frame of reference yet to understand a lifeform like theirs.”

“After everything I’ve seen, that doesn’t surprise me.”

She took his hand. “But it’s over. The bad ones are gone.”

Luke cupped his free hand on the side of Ava’s face, and gave her a slow kiss. “What now?”

“First up, I have a debrief in twelve minutes.”

He dropped his hands to his sides. “Of course you do.”

“But after that, I honestly don’t know. More missions and… whatever, I guess?”

>>Tell him about the information you got from the other Dyons,<< Ruby prompted.

“Oh, I have something science-y for you to work on,” Ava continued. “I, uh, sort of ‘communed’ with the good counterparts of the Dyons, and they passed some information on to me. Ruby thinks it’s a fix to my nanocyte problems.”

“That’s… very interesting.”

“Yeah, so you should probably check that out.”

He nodded. “I’d definitely like to take a look.”

“Okay, how about I swing by the lab after the debrief?”

“Sounds good.”

They parted ways with another kiss, and then Ava headed to the designated conference room.

She settled into her place at the table, across from Colonel Kurtz and Major Widmore, with the three members of her team to her right.

“To state the obvious, all of you have done amazing work over the past several days,” Kurtz began. “You have demonstrated time and again how dedicated you are to your positions. You truly rose to the occasion, and you have the FDG’s sincere gratitude.”

“Of course, sir. Just doing our jobs,” Ava replied, and her team murmured their agreement.

The colonel nodded. “Well, let’s go over exactly what happened.”

The team members each recounted their version of the events. Ava was surprised to hear how close her team had come to losing control while stalling for time as she made her way back to the Raven. By the time they were finished, she was convinced that anyone else would have left her to die. She owed them her life many times over.

Kurtz took it in silently, nodding and making occasional notes in shorthand on the touch-surface tabletop. When every member of the team had completed their report, he smiled.

“These reports have confirmed my impressions of the events.” He looked to the three warriors on Ava’s team. “It’s long overdue, but effective immediately, you’re all promoted to the rank of corporal.”

The three warriors exchanged glances.

“Thank you, sir,” Nick said, “but doesn’t that mean we’re supposed to be squad leaders or something?”

“Rank is based on the needs of the FDG and the leadership positions we fill. Because of your work in special operations, none of you was afforded the opportunity to lead a squad. We know you could, and much more. We haven’t held up our end with advancements the way we should have, and it’s time that was corrected.” He smiled. “We bumped you up a rank, but if you keep performing the way you always have, I imagine more advancements will be forthcoming until your ass is strapped to a desk, just like mine. Then, it takes a crisis like this to escape—not that it’s all bad. Keep that in mind as you move up.”

Ava beamed at her team. “Congratulations, Corporals.”

They wouldn’t say it out loud, but Ava could tell at least one of them was thinking something along the lines of ‘about damn time’.

“As for you, Ava,” Kurtz continued, “it’s about time you were promoted to captain.”

Her heart skipped a beat. “Thank you, sir.”

>>Congratulations, Ava! Very well deserved,<< Ruby said in her mind.

Widmore smiled. “How many times do you have to prove your courage, commitment, and can-do attitude before you get something for your continued sacrifices?”

“I will fulfill my duty to the best of my ability.”

“To that end, we’ll need to reevaluate the best use of all of your skills moving forward. We’ll figure out your assignments in the coming days,” Kurtz continued.

Are they going to break us up? Ava asked Ruby.

>>I don’t know any more than you, yet.<<

“Yes, sir, we’ll be standing by,” she said aloud.

“Now, go celebrate. You’ve earned it,” Kurtz said with a smile. “I heard there’s going to be cake.”


*     *     *


Karen settled into the chair across from President Connors’ desk. After more than a month away from Alucia, it was strange to be back in the place that had not long before been her home away from home.

“Quite an exciting month!” Connors said, smiling behind his steepled fingers.

“Drama I am very happy to now have behind me.” Karen sank into her chair.

“Has Trisha called you in a panic yet?” He smirked.

“Only twice, but I was able to talk her down both times.”

“Good. I know you wouldn’t have recommended her for the Nezaran governorship if she couldn’t handle the position.”

Karen nodded. “There’s no one else I’d feel more confident having in her role, especially with Fiona as her second-in-command. She’s dedicated and sharp.”

“I agree, that’s a winning combination. Plus, she supports unity within the Alaxar Trinary.”

“Another benefit, for sure.”

Connors tapped his fingertips together. “There is someone who’s proven less than supportive on that front.”

Karen tilted her head quizzically.

“Mitchell Korwen.”

“Right…” She let out a long breath, thinking back to her conversation with the mayor of Tribeca. It was unfortunate that she’d needed to resort to threats, but at least the matter had been resolved in time.

“As we move forward with unification,” Connors continued, “having someone more agreeable would expedite matters considerably.”

“Yes. Who do you have in mind?”

“You, actually.”

Karen laughed. “Yeah, right.”

“Can you give me a good reason why not? We have always emphasized the need for local representation in the political arguments we’ve made with these recent events. You’re a Coraxan native of both human and Torcellan descent, and you’ve lived on all three worlds in this system. I can think of no better person to serve as a representative of Coraxan interests while understanding the larger context of the political landscape.”

She worked her mouth. “I’m not sure what to say…”

“You can start by accepting the role. Play bashful if you like, but I know you want this. In all your changes of allegiance, your commitment to Coraxa has never wavered.”

“I don’t know how you’ll get the other representatives on the world to go along with it.”

Connors smiled. “Let’s just say I’ve already made a few calls to vet the idea, and I don’t think there will be any issues.”

Karen thought for a moment. “Sir, I would be honored.”

“Excellent.”

“Then there’s also the matter of transitioning you to president of this system, once Coraxa and Nezar are officially brought into the Federation.”

“Formalities. And maybe someone else will want to run for that position. I’m happy I was able to get us this far, no matter what the future holds.”

She took a deep, satisfied breath. “A united system, finally.”

“We have a bright future together.”


*     *     *


Ava drummed her fingers on her crossed arms. Luke and Jack had been absorbed in their computers for the past five minutes.

“What do you—?” she started to ask, but Jack suddenly pushed back from his station.

“This is everything we were missing before,” he stated. “All the biological interactions with the tech, the control mechanisms, it’s all here.”

“What does that mean for me?” Ava asked.

“It means my initial assessment was correct,” Ruby replied over the lab’s comms. “With this guide, I’ll be able to control your transformations as effectively as Weres can. But it requires an AI, so it’s unlikely that use of the tech will become widespread.”

“The super-speed is a nice bonus beyond the traditional Were traits, though,” Ava said.

Jack grinned. “Fuck yeah! You’re on the road to total badassery.”

“Hmm.” Ava slumped in her chair.

Luke’s brow knit. “Why don’t you seem happy about that?”

“I am. Just…” She took a slow breath. “I guess I’m worried about what this means for my team.”

“They’ll be a whole lot safer,” he replied.

“Yes, and that’s great. But with their promotions, and now me having these new abilities, I’m concerned that the higher-ups are going to separate us.”

“A fascinating conundrum.” Jack rose from his station. “And I’m sure you two will have a riveting discussion about it, but I’m gonna go ogle this data. I know how Luke hates it when I dissect your weird tech in his presence.”

“Ava has expressed displeasure when I do that, as well,” Ruby chimed in over the comm.

“Shocking that talking about me like a science experiment doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies,” Ava muttered.

“Knock yourself out, Jack,” Luke said to his coworker as he departed the lab.

“See ya.” Jack waved goodbye, then closed the door behind him.

Ava rolled her eyes and sighed.

“At least he’s useful.” Luke shrugged. “Now, I believe we were at the part where I was supposed to offer some insightful words of wisdom about life transitions and how friendships transcend current work assignments.”

She smiled. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

“I thought so.” Luke crossed his arms and frowned. “Damn, I’ve got nothing.”

Ava raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

He grinned. “Nah, I’m just messing with you.” He extended his arms toward her.

She took his hands, and he drew her in for a kiss.

“Look,” he said when they parted, “I know change can be scary and sad and all those other feelings we try to avoid, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need in order to grow and really come into our own. Even if your team structure changes, and the type of assignments you go on isn’t what it has been for the last ten years, it’s a chance for you to try something new. A decade is a long time to stick with one thing.”

“Way to instill confidence in your girlfriend that this thing we’re doing is long-term,” Ava replied with a mock glare.

“Poor phrasing. In some matters, a decade would only be the beginning.”

She ran her fingers through his hair. “It’s hard to believe it’s been a fourteen-year path to get here. Would you ever have guessed we’d end up in the FDG, if someone had asked you when we were teenagers, living on Coraxa?”

“Stars, no!” he laughed. “I think I was still planning to be a veterinarian back then.”

“That’s right! You had that master plan of working at the petting zoo at the Tribeca Nature Preserve.”

“It would have been fun.”

“Yeah, it would have.” She shook her head. “And I would have been a Reader, entertaining tourists with mind-reading tricks. Ugh, but I would have hated every second of it.”

“This life in the FDG suits you—helping people, going on adventures, making a real difference in others’ lives.”

Ava gazed into his eyes. “As much as I enjoyed it before, something was always missing. Now, having you here, I have everything I ever wanted.”

He brushed her hair back from her forehead. “No matter what happens with your team, I’ll always be waiting here to welcome you home.”

She smiled. “When you put it like that, tackling those future unknowns doesn’t sound so bad.”


FINIS

Thank you for reading!


We hope you enjoyed reading these four books in the Uprise Saga!

Did you like what you read? Please write a short review on Amazon! Even one or two sentences goes a long way.


Check out Amy DuBoff’s other books on Amazon: www.amazon.com/author/amyduboff


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Author Notes - Amy DuBoff

Written January 27, 2018


Thank you for reading this fourth book in the Uprise Saga! I feel incredibly lucky to have such passionate, engaged readers.

Working on this project has been a great learning experience for me. When I started on the Uprise Saga, I had seven novels in my backlist, along with a handful of short stories and a couple of novellas. Now, having another four-book series, I feel like I’m beginning to build an author brand.

I talked in the Endless Advance author notes about my attraction to the metaphysical, and the more I write, the more I realize I’d like for such superhuman abilities to be an ongoing theme in my stories. I want to try on different flavors of those elements, ranging from hard sci-fi to more fantasy-magic interpretations. I love the idea of pushing the boundaries for what it means to be human.

Now that I have four additional novels under my figurative belt, I hope to further develop this emerging brand.  From a reader perspective, I want you to have confidence that you know what you’ll get in my books. I learned a ton about plotting and how to draw a reader in while writing Uprise Saga, and I look forward to bringing these new skills to future projects.

Where does that leave things regarding an Uprise Book 5?

Ava could go in many directions, and for now, I will let you envision the future you’d like her to have. As a new author, I want to push myself to try new things, and I have several new projects I am excited to work on in the coming months. For that reason, we will be pausing the Uprise Saga at these four books.

If you have enjoyed my storytelling and writing style, I hope you’ll consider checking out my future series. First will be a trilogy that I’d classify as “space fantasy”, which will feature a female lead—fun space adventure, with a combination of high-tech and magic; this is tentatively titled the Reset Trilogy, and the first book is called Crystalline Space. After that, I will be working on some other collaborations, and then I’ll get back to a Cadicle 2.0 series (tentatively titled the Taran Empire Saga). All of these are things I’ve been wanting to write forever, and I’m super excited to be in a place where I can work on them. I hope you’ll come along for the ride!

Sincere thanks to Michael and Craig for their coaching, and for giving me the opportunity to write in this world and launch my author career. They both have amazing vision, and it’s been an incredible experience to see what’s possible to achieve when you build a great relationship with your readers. I hope to embody this in my own career, and to one day be able to pay their mentorship forward to other authors.

 Thank you also to Jen McDonnell for editing, Andrew Dobell (and Estrany) for the beautiful covers, the entire LMPBN team for their tireless support, and the incredible JIT team. Special thanks also to Ron, Curtis, and Kurt for beta reading. I am so fortunate to work with such a great team!

And thank YOU for reading and being a part of this author journey with me! I hope we can go on many more adventures together.


***


Want to learn more about my upcoming projects? Please join my mailing list, or you can  connect with me in my Facebook group to find out what I’m working on and notified about upcoming books.

If you have any questions or 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 January 29, 2018


First, thank you for not only reading this story, but reading the author notes here at the back as well!

When Craig Martelle said that he had corralled the amazing Amy DuBoff for our little Universe he told me like this: “Mike, I have Amy DuBoff writing a series with us. We are talking Amy ‘Queen of Space Opera’ DuBoff!”

And now, I know why.

It’s ALWAYS a blessing to help other authors and to find out from Amy that Craig and I had even a small part to play in her career has, I assure you, surprised me. But, I’m ok with these types of surprises.

Thank you Amy for being a part of ‘The Biggest Indie Universe!’


The Biggest Indie Universe

Recently, I decided to do something just a bit audacious. I chose to create some ads for The Kurtherian Gambit Universe which call it “The Biggest Indie Universe.”  At the time I did the ad, we had 105 books, 28 audiobooks, 11 omnibuses and 16 authors.

(Note: Books.  I know of one that has 20,000 words titles, but I don’t (personally) count 20,000 stories as books but rather titles.)

By the time this book comes out, I think we will be at 106 or possibly 107 and perhaps another audiobook to add to the total.

And we haven’t stopped.

We have plans for many more books, and hopefully an amazing arc in 2019 that will bring many of our authors back for a one or two book special event.

If the fans are still reading and we can pull it off.

I’m just a little over two (2) weeks away from releasing book 21 Life Goes On. This is the story a LOT of the (admittedly female) fans are waiting for.

This is the story where Bethany Anne goes back to Earth and meets up with Michael. She creates a religion (not on purpose) and then starts the NEXT set of adventures, which kick off the Age of Expansion.

Basically, connecting the previous age (the 150+ years post WWDE) with the Age of Expansion where this series resides.


Future Plans

This month (January 2018) is the end of our first year of serious collaboration efforts with so many writers. LMBPN Publishing (my company) has engaged with over twenty-five (25) authors now, and we have on tap another five ahead.

Plus, skunk works projects.

Now, we are slowing down (just a little.)

One of the projects that I started (but in no way completed – because completion was an effort by Sarah, Natale, Stephen, Lynne and others) was an effort to allow fans who have wondered ‘can I write a story?’ when they read my story.

As in: “Can I write a story, and become published?”

I’m super excited to share that the first Kurtherian Gambit “Fans Write for the Fans” Anthology was released a few days ago.  I’d like to think I was the first Indie Author to do this and even if I wasn’t, it was worth it.

(Good chance I’m just ignorant of the true first group to do it and my hats of to the first!)

Already, many fans have allowed their inner muse to be released and shared their work in the Facebook group (feel free to join the group, and check it out.) For most new authors, it is HARD to allow others to read our work because it opens ourselves to criticism.

But, the fans of the Kurtherian Gambit have been a special breed of awesome.

They have supported each other and encouraged those who want to get that story out of their head, and into a book by helping with beta reading, encouragement, and advice when asked.

Our plans are to do the next Fans Write for the Fans book in about 4 months. Which means if you have ANY interest in helping to read, support or write, get your ass over there!

LMBPN pays each published author $250.00 and you get an invaluable education on some of what it takes to become an Indie author.


Kurtherian Gambit WIKI

Wondering what the hell what’s-his-faces name was in book 04 of TKG?  Check out the beginning of the wiki here: https://sites.google.com/site/kurtheriangambit/home

Thank you to Karla Kay, John Raisor and Chrisa Changala (and of course, Lynne Stiegler) for their work on this project.

I could not have done it without you!

(Now, we are working on moving the project to a full-time server…which is to say I’m asking questions like “point me to where you need me to purchase web hosting and I’ll happily get the hell out of your way.”

I was once a technologist. I’m really, really happy not to be that person anymore.

Thank you, ALWAYS, for blessing us with your time, and your support for our stories!

Ad Aeternitatem,


Michael

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.

Dark Rivals: Age of Expansion


"Appealing characters and detailed worldbuilding draw the reader into a tale of politics, sabotage, kidnapping, telekinesis, and clones. [...] DuBoff weaves together sympathetic characters, an intriguing plot, devious villains, exciting space adventure, and hopes pinned on a chosen savior."

Publisher's Weekly


Unknown to modern-day Earth, The Taran Empire is fighting a secret interdimensional war... and they're losing.

Cris Sietinen joins the Tararian Selective Service to hone his latent telekinetic abilities, but being an Agent puts him at the center of a galactic conspiracy.

The Empire is waging a generations-long war within a hidden dimensional rift against the Bakzen, a mysterious race with advanced telekinetic abilities. But the governing Priesthood has its own secret agenda. The only hope for victory is the prophesied Cadicle—foretold to have powerful abilities unlike any other.

With the future of their people at stake, Cris and his family must face the ultimate questions of duty and morality to save their civilization from certain destruction.


Start reading the complete seven-book series today in Kindle Unlimited!


Not a KU subscriber?

Get Book 1 (short prequel) for $0.99: smarturl.it/getcadicle1

Or get the bundle of Books 1-3 and save: smarturl.it/getcadicle123


Complete Cadicle Series

Volume 1: Architects of Destiny

Volume 2: Veil of Reality

Volume 3: Bonds of Resolve

Volume 4: Web of Truth

Volume 5: Crossroads of Fate

Volume 6: Path of Justice

Volume 7: Scions of Change


Uprise Saga

(with Michael Anderle)

Book 1: Covert Talents

Book 2: Endless Advance

Book 3: Veiled Designs

Book 4: Dark Rivals


Short Story Contributions to Anthologies 

Brewing Trouble (Pew! Pew! Volume 1)

Stealing Trouble (Pew! Pew! Volume 3)

One Last Job (The Expanding Universe Volume 3)

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

Facebooksmarturl.it/facebookamyduboff

Twitterwww.twitter.com/amyduboff

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 (01)

Retaliation (02)

Revelations (03)

Redemption (04)

 

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)

Bourne (08)


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)

Dark Rivals (04)


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)

Degeneration (04)


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)

Theft of Magic (6)

  

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


Challenges: Frank Kurns Stories of the Unknownworld 04 

With Natalie Grey



AudioBooks

 

CLICK HERE TO SEE ALL LMBPN BOOKS ON AUDIBLE

 

Available at Audible.com and iTunes



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