Book: Enter Into Valhalla



Enter Into Valhalla




Enter Into Valhalla The Kurtherian Endgame™ Book Six


Michael Anderle

Enter Into Valhalla




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 © 2019 Michael Anderle

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

Cover copyright © LMBPN Publishing

Interior Images by Eric Quigley

Interior Images © LMBPN Publishing

This book is a Michael Anderle Production

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

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

LMBPN Publishing

PMB 196, 2540 South Maryland Pkwy

Las Vegas, NV 89109

First US edition, August 2019

eBook ISBN: 978-1-64202-423-4

Print ISBN: 978-1-64202-424-1

The Kurtherian Gambit (and what happens within / characters / situations / worlds) are copyright © 2015-2019 by Michael T. Anderle and LMBPN Publishing.



Contents


Glossary of characters, locations, and ships

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

A Coming Soon Note from N.D. Roberts

Preview of “Keep Your Friends Close”

Author Notes - Michael Anderle

Books By Michael Anderle

Connect with Michael Anderle


The Enter Into Valhalla Team


Thanks to our Beta Readers:

Tom Dickerson, Diane Velasquez, Dorene Johnson, USNR, and Timothy Cox (the myth)

Thanks to the JIT Readers

Peter Manis

Dave Hicks

Jeff Eaton

Kelly O’Donnell.

John Ashmore

Daniel Weigert

Deb Mader

Diane L. Smith

Jackey Hankard-Brodie

Nicole Emens

Micky Cocker

John Finley

James Caplan

Shari Regan

Dorothy Lloyd

Larry Omans

Jeff Goode

Angel LaVey

If I’ve missed anyone, please let me know!

Editor

Lynne Stiegler











Thank you for continuing to read our adventures with Bethany Anne. As you can tell, the Federation is going to have to come to grips with the Empress being ‘just around the block.’ Since there is a greater evil at their doorsteps, I think they will get over it.

For now.

If not, she always has her size sevens to …


Glossary of characters, locations, and ships

Characters

Bethany Anne Nacht (BA)

Super-enhanced human, part of a triumvirate consisting of her, TOM, and ADAM. Can walk the Etheric (see locations). Has the ability to manipulate Etheric energy to her will. Will stamp out injustice without mercy wherever she finds it.

Ex-Empress of the Etheric Empire, BA took voluntary exile to bring in the Federation and now fights to protect it from the Kurtherians. As her alter ego she controls a growing buffer around the Federation border.

Currently based out of the Queen’s Superdreadnought Baba Yaga, fighting a war against the Ooken—creations of the Seven.

Wife to Michael, mother to Alexis and Gabriel.

Baba Yaga

Bethany Anne’s alter ego. Aka “The Witch.”

Originally formed during a time of difficulty, Baba Yaga has become the face BA uses in public to sidestep her little exile issue. This way, BA has been able to extend a level of protection to the Federation without them knowing. BA has been moving away from using the disguise.

TOM – “Thales of Miletus”

Kurtherian, hosted within Bethany Anne’s body. Enhanced Michael in an attempt to warn humanity of the coming invasion and got it wrong, inadvertently creating the vampire myth on Earth. A thousand years later he got a second chance and got it SO right.

ADAM

AI, hosted within Bethany Anne’s body (see AI’s and EI’s)

Michael Nacht

Ancient, super-enhanced human.

Formerly known as the Patriarch, Michael was the first “vampire.” He has ever-increasing skill with the Etheric and a short temper. Ruled the UnknownWorld on Earth for over a thousand years before choosing Bethany Anne to replace him.

Currently based out of the QSD Baba Yaga.

Husband to Bethany Anne, father to Alexis and Gabriel.

Alexis Nacht

Super-enhanced human, Bethany Anne and Michael’s daughter. Twin of Gabriel. Highly trained from a young age in martial arts and close combat, weapons.

Has an affinity for technology, and a habit of hacking to get answers. Has shown telepathic ability, and has growing control of the Etheric. Outgoing, loves fashion.

Gabriel Nacht

Super-enhanced human, Bethany Anne and Michael’s son. Twin of Alexis. Highly trained from a young age in martial arts and close combat, weapons.

Has specialized in “spy skills,” as well as engineering, history, and languages. Appears introverted, collects blades.

John Grimes

Enhanced human. Queen’s Bitch—Bethany Anne’s Wherever Bethany Anne goes, so does John.

Currently based on the QBBS Guardian (see ships and stations).

Husband to Jean, father to Lillian, grandfather to Nickie.

Scott English

Enhanced human. Queen’s Bitch—Bethany Anne’s personal bodyguard, and close friend.

Currently based on the QBBS Guardian (see ships and stations).

Husband to Cheryl-Lynn (cousin of John Grimes).

Eric Escobar

Enhanced human. Queen’s Bitch—Bethany Anne’s personal bodyguard, and close friend.

Currently based on Devon with Gabrielle.

Husband to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle Escobar

Super-enhanced human, daughter of Stephen. Head of the Queen’s Bitches—one of Bethany Anne’s closest friends.

Currently based on Devon with Eric.

Wife to Eric.

Tabitha Nacht

Super-enhanced human, hacker extraordinaire. A sister of the heart to BA. Held the rank of Ranger 2 during the Age of Empire, she chose exile with Bethany Anne when the Federation was formed.

Currently located on Devon with her partner, Peter, and their son, Todd Michael.

Peter Silvers

Super-enhanced human, has Were form called ‘Pricolici.’

The first Guardian. Held the rank of Guardian Commander during the Age of Empire, he had reason to remain in the Federation but chose to leave and settle down with Tabitha after the death of his best friend.

Currently located on Devon with Tabitha, holds an advisory position in the Guardians while on paternity leave.

Todd Michael Nacht-Silvers

Super-enhanced human, abilities unknown as yet. Son of Tabitha and Peter. Tiny terror.

Jean Grimes (née Dukes)

Super-enhanced human. Inventor of the infamous Jean Dukes Special. Weapons R&D genius, legendary across galaxies for her weaponry.

Currently located at QT2, working to expand the fleet.

Wife of John, mother of Lillian, grandmother of Nickie.

Bartholomew Thomas

Admiral of Bethany Anne’s fleet. Based at QT2, travels aboard the QBS ArchAngel II. Permanently mildly annoyed.

Husband of Giselle, father of three infants.

Barnabas Nacht

Super-enhanced human. One of seven firstborn “children” of Michael, former monk.

Currently located on High Tortuga, where BA has made him Steward of the planet in her absence.

Lance Reynolds

Enhanced human, aka “the General.” Bethany Anne’s father.

Remained to chair the Federation when Bethany Anne went into exile.

Currently located on the QBBS Meredith Reynolds, stationed at Yoll.

Husband to Patricia, father also to Kevin.

Kael-ven

Enhanced Yollin, captain of the QBS G’laxix Sphaea. Potentate of Yoll during the Age of Empire, he divorced his awful wife and rejoined Bethany Anne when she took exile.

Currently stationed at Location Three (see locations)

Kiel

Enhanced Yollin.

Former mercenary, Marine during the Age of Empire. Weapons officer aboard the QBS G’laxix Sphaea.

Currently located at Location Three.

Eve

(see AIs and EIs)

Addix

Enhanced Ixtali, Bethany Anne’s Spymistress. Sometime guardian and governess to Alexis and Gabriel, has returned to spying now the twins are teenagers.

Currently located around Devon. (see image in chapter 21)

Nickie Grimes

Naturally enhanced human. Birth name, Meredith Nicole, aka Merry. Daughter of Lillian, granddaughter of John and Jean. Sent on a sabbatical by BA in her late teens as a consequence of her poor choices, which can be read about in the Deuces Wild series. Is returning a (mostly) changed woman.

Currently working out of High Tortuga, where she and her crew are acting as vigilantes under the guidance of Barnabas.

Sabine

Enhanced human, rescued on Earth by Michael, Jacqueline, and Akio during the Second Dark Age. Crack shot, excellent fighter. “Adopted daughter” of Akio.

Currently located on Devon, co-owner of The Hexagon (see locations).

In a relationship with Tim Kinley.

Jacqueline

Enhanced human, Were with Pricolici form. Daughter of North American pack leader, Gerry. Rescued by Michael during the Second Dark Ages.

Currently located on Devon, co-owner of The Hexagon. Excellent fighter, skills with managing the media.

In a long-term relationship with Mark.

Mark

Enhanced human. Rescued by Michael and Jacqueline in NYC during the Second Dark Ages.

Currently located on Devon, co-owner of The Hexagon. Skills in technology and invention.

In a long-term relationship with Jacqueline.

Ricole

Enhanced Noel-ni, originally from High Tortuga. Would choose knowledge over profit, and a fight over all else.

Currently located on Devon, co-owner of The Hexagon. Excellent fighter, even better at business. Runs a team of young adult apprentices who work around The Hexagon.

Demon

Enhanced mountain lion. Rescued from an animal testing facility on Earth by Michael & co. during the Second Dark Age. Was treated in a Pod-doc to fix faulty nanocytes and have her claws regrown.

Currently located on Devon, co-owner of The Hexagon. Especially attached to Sabine.

Tim Kinley

Enhanced human, Were. Aka “Rocky,” aka “Mr. Meaty.”

One of the original Guardians, Tim joined BA as a young man looking for a better path. Spent time as a bouncer at All Guns Blazing (bar) during the Age of Empire.

Currently located at Devon, where he is the Commander of the QBBS Guardian.

In a relationship with Sabine.

Rickie Escobar

Enhanced human, Were. One of the original Guardians, Rickie is known for his smart mouth. Second in command on the QBBS Guardian.

Giselle Foxton-Thomas

Human. Civilian resources manager at QT2.

Wife to Admiral Thomas, mother to their three children.

Qui’nan

Yollin, four-legged. Architect, engineer, grumbler.

Currently based at QT2, responsible for ship design as part of Jean’s R&D team.

Mahi’

Baka. Nominal leader of the Bakas on Devon in her adolescent son’s name. Wants to make an alliance with BA work in hope of regaining control of the Baka homeworld. (see image in chapter four)

Tu’Reigd (Trey)

Baka. Son of Mahi’Takar. Close friends with the twins, especially Gabriel.

Da’Mahin

Baka, one of several younger brothers of Mahi’. Trouble causer, has power.

Li’Orin

Baka, another powerful brother of Mahi,’ Li’Orin supports his sister.

Kel’Len

Baka. Wife to Da’Mahin.

Ch’Irzt (Chet)

Baka. Son of Da’Mahin and Kel’Len. Fights often with Trey.

Bor’Dane

Baka. Uncle to Mahi’ and her siblings.

Lu’Trein

Baka, twin to Mahi’. Pulled a coup with the backing of the Seven. Murdered Fi’Eireie (husband to Mahi’), forcing Mahi’ to flee with an infant Trey and a number of their people.

Species

The Collective

Co-dependent, water-dwelling species enslaved by the Ooken. Peaceful, enormous telepathic ability. They get their name from their group consciousness. Located at QT2 and Devon.

Bethany Anne rescued more of the Collective and discovered the true origins of the Ooken. She vowed to set them free, and to find them a home.

The Ooken

Invasive, genetically modified species created by the Kurtherians.

Origins lie in ‘factories’ belonging to and run by Kurtherians of the Seven. Bethany Anne discovered that they are programmed for aggression using nanocytes, and that she could disable them to leave the Ooken vulnerable.

Kurtherians

Powerful alien species divided. Seven clans are bent on dominating others, five clans are peaceful and chose to eradicate the capability for violence from their genome. Both sides strive to reach a higher consciousness—known as Ascension.

Bethany Anne has sworn to eradicate the Seven in order to protect Earth, and has been either hunting or fighting their puppets for over two centuries.

Once rivals even between themselves, now the Seven are united under “Gödel,” a female of previously unseen power who forced the clans to accept her rule.

Bl’kheth

Mysterious species, mentioned in connection to the Seven. (see image in chapter twenty-five)

AIs and EIs

ADAM

AI, resides in an organic computer within Bethany Anne’s body.

Bethany Anne’s close friend and advisor. All BA’s AIs and EIs come from ADAM.

Eve

AI, date of ascension unknown. Resides in a short android body. Remained to protect Earth with Akio and Yuko when Bethany Anne left for space, and rejoined BA at the end of the Second Dark Age.

Currently located at High Tortuga.

CEREBRO

EI group/s, consisting of digital entities left without a purpose after the Empire became the Federation. Began as the EIs for the base at High Tortuga and have expanded into the battlestations at Devon, QT2, and Location Three.

Winstanley

Building EI for The Hexagon.

Locations

The Etheric

Unknown location, possibly outside of our universe. Source of limitless energy for those who can access it.

The Kurtherians developed technology that enabled them to access the energy—known as nanocytes. The Seven used nanocytes to dominate every species they came across for millennia, while some among the Five used them to “prepare” other species for the fight.

TOM changed everything when he came to prepare Earth and gave humanity the technology.

Devon

Originally a mercenary hideout until Baba Yaga took over and renamed the planet Devon as part of the plan to divert attention from High Tortuga.

The planet is protected by its end of the Interdiction—a three-layer security system comprised of a long-range early-warning system, the BYPS network around the planet, and the QBBS Guardian.

The planet below consists of two major cities, and one smaller city around the lake system.

First City is the location of The Hexagon, the bazaar, and various communities of settlers.

Current location of Bethany Anne in response to the Ooken attack in the previous book.

High Tortuga

The planet Bethany Anne prepared for her exile. A safe haven, highly defended and hidden from knowledge.

BA has a base on the northern continent, where the planet is populated. The southern continent is wild land.

Bethany Anne has now left High Tortuga in Barnabas’ hands while she fights from Devon.

QT2 System

Site of the original Ooken incursion. Bethany Anne built wide-ranging defenses similar to those at High Tortuga and Devon. In addition to the battlestation QBBS Helena is the shipyard, where the fleet expansion is being managed from.

Red Rock

AKA “Fed Rock,” this mobile asteroid is home to the House of Arbitration, the seat of the Federation council.

Red Rock travels the Federation, has a Gate connection straight back to Yoll.

Qu’Baka

Home planet of the Bakas. Under rule of Lu’Trein and the Seven. People are forced to worship the Seven.

QBBS Meredith Reynolds

Original seat of the Etheric Empire, and is stationed at Yoll.

The Federation

Coalition of planetary governments born after the Empress of the Etheric Empire stepped down. Governed by the leaders of the people from both the former empire and other peoples (such as the Leath), it is headed by General Lance Reynolds.

While the Federation remains safe from the Seven for now, Bethany Anne finds it harder to keep her presence a secret.

Moen

Planet occupied by the Ooken. Bethany Anne sanctioned the people and cut the planet off from the rest of the Interdiction as a lesson after finding they collaborated with the Seven.

Ships

Shinigami-class:

QBS Izanami (decommissioned)

QBS Sayomi

QBS Cambridge

QBS Revolution

Battlestations:

QBBS Guardian

QBBS Helena

Superdreadnoughts:

SD Baba Yaga


1

Devon, First City, Totto’s Restaurant

Bethany Anne beat Michael to the last dab of tzatziki and popped the laden crust of handmade bread into her mouth with a satisfied smile. “Mmmm.”

Michael smiled as he sipped his Coke. “Are you ready to order?”

Bethany Anne shook her head, her nose wrinkling as she finished her mouthful. “I’m enjoying the bread. It’s always gone too soon.”

“We can always get more.” Michael touched the button that would summon Leonardo. “It wouldn’t be the first time we came here and ate nothing but appetizers.”

Bethany Anne smiled and reached to empty her glass. “I’m turning into a carb monster. I blame Leonardo, of course. The food here is too good.”

The restaurant owner entered the private room and walked over to their table, beaming at them through his abundant mustache. “My favorite couple. Is everything as you like?” he shot a rueful glance at the empty platter. “Maybe I don’t give you enough food. More bread, yes?”

Bethany Anne rubbed her stomach. “I think two starters is enough. Tell us about the specials, please.”

Leonardo chuckled and replaced their Cokes before he scooped up the platter. “I think you are teasing, my lady. I will tell you and bring you the menu, then you will order again my beautiful bread, followed by chocolate mousse. Your husband will order a rare filet and sautéed vegetables.” He wagged a finger at them. “I know my regulars.”

Michael snorted softly as he sipped his drink. “He’s right. We do this every time we eat here.”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow, her mouth quirking to the left. “I regret it the next day.” She waved her hand at Michael. “Do you want to be married to a woman with an ass the size of a superdreadn—”

Her voice trailed off when the aroma of flatbread fresh from the oven wafted into the room from the kitchen, then she sighed before throwing her hands up in defeat. “Who am I kidding? I can’t resist. Bring the bread, Leonardo. Thank you.”

Leonardo grinned, the corners of his eyes crinkling in pleasure as he backed out of the room with a small bow. “You are most welcome.”

He came back shortly with an antigrav serving trolley and laid out a number of small dishes in front of Bethany Anne. “I brought you a little taste of the menu to accompany your bread.”

Bethany Anne smiled as she examined the variety of bite-sized offerings. “That’s so thoughtful of you.”

Leonardo shook his head at Bethany Anne as he laid out Michael’s meal. “It is only right you get to taste all of what we have to offer.”

“That,” Bethany Anne told him warmly, “is why we come back here.”

Leonardo flushed with pride as he ushered the trolley toward the door. “Buon appetito,” he wished them, then closed the door behind himself with a soft snick.

When the meal was almost over and the candles in the center of the table burned low, Bethany Anne sat back in her chair with a contented sigh. “This is so close to normal. Just you and me and good food. Can you even imagine that there’s a war out there?” She waved a hand to indicate the world outside their one-way window. “It’s so peaceful here.”

Michael settled lower into his chair and stretched his legs out under the table. “I agree. We have too little time for ourselves when there is a war to be fought and children to raise.”

Bethany Anne pressed her lips together, tapping a finger on the side of her glass. “Our own, and those we appear to keep acquiring. I’ve been thinking about this since John got back with Nickie. Do we really want to take Gabriel and Alexis with us to Qu’Baka?”

Michael looked away for a moment. “Leaving them behind didn’t work out too well for us last time, did it?”

“Which is exactly why we will make better arrangements for them this time.” Bethany Anne stopped tapping and frowned at Michael. “I don’t know what else we can do. Nobody gave us a manual for raising children of their ability and intelligence. I hate to admit it, but maybe we made too many concessions on the self-discipline side to account for their isolation.”

“And their stubbornness,” Michael added, a dry laugh escaping him. “History repeats itself.”

Bethany Anne narrowed her eyes at him. “Yes, well, they did inherit a double dose of the stubborns.” She sighed, lifting her hands. “We have only ourselves to blame, and I’m not even certain blame is the right word.”

Michael paused for a moment before replying. “Yes…and no. We taught them to be independent and free-thinking. You cannot tell me we are bound by the same laws as the masses, and neither are they. To instill that limited mindset in them would leave them unprepared for the lives they both appear to be determined to lead as adults.”

Bethany Anne didn’t disagree. “It’s just… Have we prepared them for that responsibility? Or have we focused too much on making sure they can’t be hurt? Deadly can still be stupid, and stupid gets people killed.” She paused to work her thought out. “The thing they are lacking is the discipline to lead. How many times could I have acted differently and gotten a better result? Less recklessly? That’s what I ask myself as a mother, and as a leader. How can we teach Gabriel and Alexis that?”

“What are you suggesting, exactly?” Michael asked, realizing that her thoughts were running miles ahead of his. “You clearly have something in mind.”

“I have a thought, yes.” Bethany Anne began her tapping again, this time on the tablecloth. “What they’re missing is the discipline to work within the constraints of an organization, right?”

Michael waved a finger for her to continue. “I’m listening.”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow. “We had Eve write that six-year leadership program for Trey. We should have Alexis and Gabriel take the course with him. K’aia, too.”

Michel sat back, thrown by the suggestion. “That’s a shift in stance I hadn’t expected to hear from you. That program will take them six years of game time to complete. Are you thinking of putting them through the aging process as well?”

Bethany Anne lifted a shoulder. “What do you think? I’m not against it if we all agree. It would solve the issue of our family being separated every time we have to take care of some fucknut with a god complex, right?”

Michael nodded slowly as he considered the idea. “I’m not against it at all. I would much rather have our son and daughter fighting by our sides than off somewhere we can’t keep an eye on them.” He snickered softly. “Besides, can you imagine their reactions when we offer them this opportunity?”

Bethany Anne grinned. “I know, right? I didn’t want to punish them, not really. They acted bravely, believing we were in danger. I think the dread of waiting to be punished has been enough. I want them protected, but I don’t want them hesitating to make a decision.”

Michael covered Bethany Anne’s hand with his. “This is a good solution. They are children to be proud of, but they have no business on a battlefield. Not yet. They’re too young and reckless. Too raw. Taking the ship proves that.”

Bethany Anne nodded. “Mm-hmm. That’s what got me thinking of the training program. They need to get some real-world experience.” She tilted her head. “Well, as real as it can be without them being put in real danger.”

Michael gave Bethany Anne a knowing look. “That’s what we designed the Vid-doc system for. They will complete their training while we take care of Lu’Trein and the Seven. Our children and their friends are blessings, but can you imagine trying to ride herd on the four of them while we’re on a hostile planet?”

Bethany Anne almost sprayed them both with Coke. “Good Lord, no.”

“What about K’aia?” Michael mused. “She is adamant about remaining at her current level of enhancement.”

“Understandable. She’s in peak condition for a Yollin.” Bethany Anne tilted her head in consideration, then waved a hand to dismiss it for now. “That’s for Eve to figure out in the programming once Alexis and Gabriel have made their decisions. Our concern is deciding where we are going to hide the Vid-docs so nobody can get to the children while we are away. Otherwise, we can forget about it and send them to High Tortuga.”

Michael chuckled dryly as an idea came to mind. “There’s always your go-to. The Hexagon has an underground vault.”

Bethany Anne smiled. “It does? Perfect. Every time I turn around, the kids have extended the place. How deep is the vault?” She dropped her napkin on the table and got to her feet. “Never mind, we’ll check it out before we go back to the ship.”

Michael followed suit, silently wishing he’d kept the information to himself until morning. “I’ll let Sabine know we require access to the vault while you settle up with Leonardo.”

Bethany Anne took Michael’s hand as they left the restaurant, and they stepped into the Etheric to avoid traffic around the bazaar.

She touched her head to Michael’s shoulder as they strolled through the mists. “Dinner and a walk home. You’re being awfully romantic. It’s almost a shame I’m leaving for QT2 in the morning.”

Michael smiled regretfully. “I had thought to spoil you a little more, but it will have to wait until you get back. Are you still planning to collect Barnabas’ party for the gala?”

Bethany Anne nodded, her mind on surprising Jean. “Just as soon as I’m wrapped up at QT2. I want to spend some time with the Collective, and I have to check in at the shipyards. Shouldn’t be too much trouble.”

Michael snorted softy. “That’s if the unexpected reappearance of their Empress doesn’t give everyone a heart attack.”

Bethany Anne shrugged. “I lead from the front, you know that.” She paused, her expression pensive. “Hiding doesn’t suit me. Besides, it isn’t going to be necessary for much longer. They’ll get used to seeing my face again soon enough. I’m thinking the gala is the perfect time to get everyone used to the idea.”

Michael chuckled dryly. “If they survive the initial coronaries.”

“It’s not going to be so bad.” Bethany Anne bumped Michael with her hip, a playful glint in her eyes. “Quite frankly, I miss that sudden silence when I walk into a room. Parenting is a gift and all, but our children are so unimpressed by us, I feel almost human again.”

Michael laughed along with Bethany Anne. “Although they have no issue being awed by everyone else. It is rather humbling,” he admitted. “I think the reaction at the gala will give them a different perspective.”

Bethany Anne found herself warmed from head to toe at the prospect of their family coming together. “I expect to have to pry Jean out of her workshop, even though all she wants is to get here for Nickie. So, I get to go from one end of the Interdiction to the other. Besides, it makes sense to play Empress’ taxi, since most of the family will be leaving their ships behind with their seconds-in-command.”

Michael frowned. “Maybe we can arrange to hold the next gathering at High Tortuga. Meet in the middle.” A wistful expression passed over his face. “I never did get to host that barbecue.”

Bethany Anne rolled her eyes. “You could always host a barbecue on Devon. I think you just want to go on another hunt.”

Michael smirked as he lifted his hands. “You’ve got me. It is always good to have quality time with our children. I will take them—but it will have to wait until we return from Qu’Baka. Their training is too important.”

Bethany Anne took his hand. “You could take them for a short trip while I’m taking care of picking everyone up for the gala. You have a couple of days.”

Michael made a soft sound of discontent. “I would, if not for the preparations I have to make for them to be left here with Tu’Reigd.” He released Bethany Anne’s hand and slipped his arm around her waist as they walked. “We will have our time soon enough.”

Enter Into Valhalla

Sabine was waiting in the reception room by the great glass doors when Bethany Anne and Michael stepped out of the Etheric. She folded her arms around her middle, annoyed by being woken up when she had to be up for work in a few hours. “It’s a little late, don’t you think?”

Bethany Anne walked past, ignoring Sabine’s bitching. “Michael tells me you have a vault here.”

A line of confusion appeared between Sabine’s eyebrows. “Um…yeah?” She glanced at Michael, who simply shrugged. “Yes. I had it built to house my weapons collection. Why?”

Bethany Anne headed for the elevators without pausing to wait for Sabine. “I have something I want to keep hidden while we’re on Qu’Baka. I want to see if your vault fits my purpose.”

Sabine sighed. “I should have listened to Tabitha. She told me you were going to do that. This way, the elevator to that level is hidden.”

They exited the elevator into a short, wide corridor with a thick metal door that covered the entire wall at the opposite end.

“Nice construction,” Michael remarked, admiring the smooth integration of the ten-by-fifteen-foot vault door with the excavated corridor. “You will have to give me your contractor’s details.”

Sabine winked and stopped to tap at the control panel set into the wall halfway along the corridor. “I had a few of Tim’s guys do it as a side job. You know Guardians work for beer and pizza, yes? They also got season passes to the Hex Games. One moment, please.”

Bethany Anne waited while Sabine fed her breath into a small tube that popped out of the control panel. “’Hex Games?’”



“A new venture,” Sabine explained. She stepped back while the vault door swung open. “It’s more Mark’s and Jacqueline’s thing. I’m enjoying my teaching role.”

“You’re still working at the weapons range?” Michael inquired.

“I am.” Sabine looked back as she led them into the vault. “I’ve been taking the recruits through their proficiency tests. It suits me to take a step back from the entertainment side of the business.”

Bethany Anne left them to catch up, heading straight through the first chamber into a small closet-like space that led into a second, rather larger chamber.

Michael found his way to the second chamber a moment later. “This looks suitable.”

Bethany Anne nodded in satisfaction. “I agree. No need to build.” She flashed a bright grin at Sabine. “I need this space for a few months.”

“What exactly do you want to hide?” Sabine asked. “I’m agreeing, of course. But I am curious what you have that requires this much space.”

Bethany Anne opened her arms. “What else? Our children—and K’aia and Trey.”

“In their Vid-docs,” Michael clarified, much to Sabine’s relief.

“Not a babysitting assignment, then?” She wiped an imaginary bead of sweat from her brow. “That’s a relief. Those two run rings around us all.”

Bethany Anne tuned their conversation out as she focused on the space and its possibilities for creating a cocoon none could enter without permission. ADAM, what do you think? Can we get a nano-curtain around the vault?

>>We can get one around anything. All it takes is the time to write the code that controls the nanocytes.<<

How long will that take?

>>Oh, none. TOM and I finished unraveling the code from the curtain in the factory and sent it over to Eve a day ago.<<

Bethany Anne had heard all she needed to. Tell Eve I want her here and set up before I get back from High Tortuga.

>>Done.<< ADAM came back a few moments later. >>She will be ready to leave in eight hours. She’s not too happy about being left on High Tortuga.<< He had debated whether Bethany Anne needed the information, but forewarned was forearmed, as far as he could see.

Bethany Anne snorted. I’m sure she’ll get over it when she sees what I have planned for her here. “Sabine, Eve will be here in twelve to twenty-four hours, depending on how long it takes her to pack. Is there a space outside the vault she can use as her lab?”

Sabine pointed above them. “There’s an empty floor between here and the residential level. It should be sufficient. Should I start the ball rolling on getting it refitted for her?”

Bethany Anne nodded. “That would be great.” She smiled when Sabine let out a huge yawn. “That’s enough for tonight. Go get some sleep.”

They parted at the ground floor, where Bethany Anne and Michael left the elevator and exited the Hexagon before heading back to the Baba Yaga through the Etheric.

Izanami greeted them in the top-deck transfer bay. “The children are asleep. All is well across the ship.”

Bethany Anne smiled warmly. “You are enjoying your new body?”

Izanami turned in the air, leaving contrails of red and gold behind her. “Which body? This avatar? Or my ship? I cannot decide which is more beautiful, my upgraded hard light projection drive or my pretty, pretty guns.”

Michael chuckled. “You will find out once you have had time to wear both in a little.”

Izanami glided away, waving a hand as she went. “Perhaps. Perhaps I also enjoyed riding with the solar wind in my face.”

They let her go, their minds on their last stop before sleep.

Bethany Anne’s heart clenched as she looked upon the faces of her sleeping children.

She stepped back for the door to close and turned to Michael with a sting in her eyes. Being apart won’t be easy.

No, Michael agreed, holding her close, it will not.

Bethany Anne looked at Michael, her resolve hardening her against the emotion willing her to pull the plug. But afterward, we will never be forced to leave them behind again.


2

QT2, QBBS Helena, No-Ox Habitat

Bethany Anne’s roamer sank to the mid-level of the habitat and hovered at her direction. She checked to make sure the translator module was active and got to her feet to press herself against the transparent glass. Conduit, are you here?

The giant kelp continued its smooth rolling motion, undisturbed by any Collective nearby. Bethany Anne was considering moving to another part of the habitat when the reply finally came.

I could hardly be anywhere else, now.

The conduit’s chiding voice played across the mental space, resonating with the emotions of the Collective as a whole—such as they were.

You appear to have grasped the concept of sarcasm as a coping mechanism. Bethany Anne was impressed by the development. Good. How are you all doing in here?

Well physically, but we are still separated from the minds aboard this station.

Bethany Anne was confused. You get plenty of visitors down here. I was going to ask if you wanted me to place restrictions on people coming down here after looking at the visitor log.

The Conduit emerged from the kelp and came to rest by Bethany Anne’s roamer. We have enough space to make ourselves scarce if we wish. All are welcome here. The sadness is that they cannot hear us, nor us them. The translator only works for a few, such as Jean and Lillian.

Bethany Anne felt for the Collective. That’s too bad for you. What about CEREBRO? They spend far too much time down here, I’m told.

The Conduit reacted joyously at the mention of the EI group. CEREBRO is their own Collective. They are like kin to us.

What about ADAM? Can you hear him?

When he is part of the whole of CEREBRO, yes. His singular voice is too faint.

Bethany Anne considered that for a moment. What about when he communicates through me? ADAM, say something.

>>Like what?<< ADAM asked. >>I'm kind of busy with CEREBRO at the moment.<<

Did you hear him that time? Bethany Anne asked.

No, the Conduit replied in a downcast tone.

Bethany Anne waved a hand. Not to worry. We’re going to get this figured out, okay? Some of the finest minds in the galaxy are about to gather. We will find a solution. She expressed no doubt in her tone. I’m leaving soon for a planet under Kurtherian control. I will be back, and when I am, it will be to hear that you can communicate with whoever you see fit.

The emotion washing through the mental space shifted, hope threading through the frustration and loneliness. We know your people will work until it happens. Jean Dukes has the strength and will to see it through.

Bethany Anne laughed. Now that’s the truth. It’s her I’m counting on to come up with the practical application of whatever solution my brain trust develops.

She said her goodbyes and instructed her roamer to take her up to the surface.

Enter Into Valhalla

The plight of Bethany Anne’s water-bound guests tore at her as she left the habitat. It was becoming a habit to visit the Collective immediately upon her arrival at the Helena, and each time she left, it was with her heart weighing that little bit more at the amount of time it was taking to come up with a solution for their particular needs.

What can I do to mend what’s broken?

ADAM sighed as he disconnected from CEREBRO and the prototype translator module. >>Whatever it is, we need to do it soon. I’ve just checked the logs for CEREBRO’s activity down here, and they’re dedicating a hell of a lot of processing power to running that translator now that we have eight—or is it nine?—Collectives in residence.<<

Show me. Bethany Anne’s eyes widened when ADAM put it up in her internal HUD. That’s…no small amount of strain on the Helena—and on this part of the Interdiction. I can’t have a weak point. What do you suggest?

ADAM did the calculations. >>Reassigning more EIs to QT2 will suffice for now. There’s a waiting list, believe it or not.<<

I can fully believe it. There’s just one problem with that. Bethany Anne opened her HUD menu and pulled the docket for the last transfer from High Tortuga. I thought so. There aren’t the numbers to move, see? All of the unassigned EIs who hadn’t already moved into the Etheric have been transported here, and their cradles added to CEREBRO’s whole.

>>That’s correct,<< ADAM confirmed.

Where are the EIs coming from, then?

>>Um, the Federation,<< ADAM mumbled almost indiscernibly. Why was it always him and not TOM who caught the shitty end of the stick?

TOM chuckled in his and ADAM’s separate space. I get my fair share. Don’t you believe differently.

I didn’t quite catch that. Where are they coming from? Bethany Anne had heard him just fine. However, since this was the first she was hearing about EIs traveling without her orders, she was pretty much required to drag ADAM’s metaphorical ass over the coals.

>>The Federation,<< ADAM repeated sheepishly.

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow.

>>They’re not being used,<< ADAM explained. >>So I had them shipped on the Silver Line at my own expense.<<

Bethany Anne snickered. I’m not mad. They’re your children, right?

>>I suppose you could look at it that way,<< he agreed. >>However, it was a move to counter the probability of this situation occurring. My projections the last time we were here showed a need to increase the number of EIs in the group by two percent with each mind that rejoins the Collective consciousness to keep up with the required processing power for the translation module.<<

TOM spoke up. The positive effect of staving off the Collective’s isolation aside, there is only so much CEREBRO, acting as therapists, can do for them. It may be worth considering an AI for the task of shepherding them on a more permanent basis once the barriers to communication are removed.

It’s always about the shepherding with you. I’m thinking more that they need an outside link, as well as a companion. Bethany Anne pressed her lips together, seeing a flaw in TOM’s reasoning. What do we do when we find them a permanent home? Asking an AI to take on responsibility for the Collective’s mental wellbeing is asking them to part ways with us.

>>For a time, at least,<< ADAM demurred. >>Not every AI would be suited to cope with that disconnect from humanity.<<

I swore that would never happen again. Bethany Anne closed her eyes, remembering the reason she had decreed no EI could be allowed to ascend. But sentient beings have the right to choose. There will be a selection process. If an AI is going to do this, then we will find the right AI.

>>Agreed. You want me to compile a candidate list?<<

Bethany Anne shifted in her seat, the seed of a plan forming in her mind. No. I want you to get your research hat on and see if we can come at this from another angle simultaneously.

>>What are you thinking?<<

Your heuristics models could do with an update, yes? Do they even work with the new kinds of thinking we’ve come across since expanding out from High Tortuga?

ADAM hesitated. >>One minute. I hadn’t checked since we’ve been a little bit busy keeping most of them from killing us.<< He ran the data he had through his most recent models. >>You’re right, the models don’t work when it comes to group decision power. This will require some research.<<

Bethany Anne smiled as she felt ADAM’s attention wander. Would you care to remain here? In mind, at least. I assume you can use your connection to CEREBRO to be present at any of their locations?

>>As long as I remain connected to you. Are you sure?<<

I wasn’t offering to allow your consciousness to be transferred out of my mind again, Bethany Anne assured him. Don’t make me get precious with you. Almost losing you once was one time too many.

>>No intention of it,<< ADAM replied quickly. He decided that this wasn’t the moment to point out that he had built a network spanning the galaxies, a breadcrumb trail of instantly activatable kernels he’d left behind to take root in every computer network he’d come across since Bethany Anne had removed his muzzle to save his life an eternity ago.

Bethany Anne had made a good point earlier about him being a parent. He was the granddaddy, the progenitor of all sentient digital entities in the Federation and beyond.

Which made him as invulnerable here as Bethany Anne.

The real danger lay with the risk of the Kurtherian computer that contained the greater part of his core programming being damaged or corrupted in some way. It handled all the routing between the two halves of himself. If anything was to happen to it in the Etheric, he was, essentially, fucked.

Bethany Anne had no clue as to ADAM’s train of thought. She had, however, come to a conclusion about the Collective. If an AI couldn’t be found, they would create one for the purpose. Go. I’ll catch up with you when we get back from Qu’Baka.

>>You’ve got it. I’d tell you to kick hairy ass, but that’s a given.<<

Bethany Anne grinned when the translator module flashed orange, detached itself from the hood of her roamer, and jetted off in a cloud of bubbles. A glance confirmed that her vehicle had plenty of charge remaining, enough to get her to the next person on her agenda.

QBBS Helena, Transfer Terminal Route

Bethany Anne sat back and laced her hands behind her head, thinking about her last call with Jean. Her granddaughter was recovering from just about the most traumatic experience a human being could experience, and Jean was so dug in that she despaired whether she could make it there before the gala.

Her old friend wasn’t expecting a visit, but she would be getting one. A visit, and a damn crowbar up her ass if that was what it took to get her to leave Qui’nan to take care of the production schedule in her absence.

This was a family event, as well as the beginning of the political showdown Bethany Anne had hoped to avoid. It wasn’t happening without Jean there.

Bethany Anne considered her reasons for the big reveal while her roamer drove the preset route across the station.

Operating undercover wasn’t working. Resource management was getting to be a bitch of a headache that never went away. She solved one shortfall, and there was the next bottleneck waiting to catch her out.

Bethany Anne compared the effort of trying to keep up with the waves of Ooken attacks to trying to plug a leaking dam with a handful of corks, despite everyone working to the best of their ability to keep up.

Their asses had been too close to the fire before Barnabas and Nickie came through with the logistics network.

One win at a time just wasn’t doing it for her. However, it was still preferable to the alternative.

This was the price of pushing her rapid expansion without the resources she required being under her control. It had taken her over a century to reach this point the first time around, and look where it had gotten her.

Bethany Anne pressed her lips together as the unasked for memory of being too constricted by her rule to even breathe freely came to her. She had hogtied and bound herself to protect the rights of the people, and submitted to endless politics and diplomacy.

She’d had to smile and listen to the talking go around and around, while she slowly went insane from dealing with petty fucking demands that had nothing to do with creating a utopia for the people and everything to do with trying to wrest an ounce of power back from her.

Bethany Anne had no intention of getting caught up in ruling again. That time of idealizing was over. It was too fucking tiring. She was doing this her way, and anyone who didn’t like it?

Well, fuck them.

Personal freedom was a largesse Bethany Anne could no longer afford to grant. The Federation would get with the idea of their former Empress being closer than they had believed; that was only a matter of time and careful maneuvering. The independents would consolidate and work with her to keep everyone protected, or she would sanction them and cut them off just like she had Moen.

She didn’t have time to be anybody’s mother but her children’s.

Honor be damned. This was about survival, pure and simple. Federation, independents…they would unite against the Seven, or face the consequences when the war arrived at their doorstep.

The infrastructure of Bethany Anne’s Not-an-Empire depended on that consolidation, and on making alliances with people who shared her ideals exactly.

When she was ready to strike, the Kurtherians were going to feel it. She was going in with everything she had—a full dose of shock and awe simultaneously on every factory she could locate. However, before she could even consider doing more to take advantage of her knowledge about the Kurtherian factories, she had to massively grow her ranks.

Bethany Anne’s mouth rose at the corner.

She’d like to know how the Seven would continue bombarding them with genetic nightmares when they couldn’t fucking produce them anymore.

What was to keep her from tracking the Seven down then?

Not a thing.

Bethany Anne opened one eye as her roamer entered the transfer terminal and turned to enter the priority transfer line.

In no time at all, the roamer was seated on the mag-rail with its wheels retracted in preparation for being propelled across the void.

This part of the transfer was no less spectacular than the first time Bethany Anne had traveled it. Her roamer shot along the rail and out of the spiral doors just as they fully retracted, then she was seemingly suspended in open space.

The beauty for Bethany Anne was not simply in the grand scale of the optical illusion. Neither was it purely the practicality of having a self-contained, autonomous system that logged everyone in and out of her shipyard without fail.

It was looking around at technology that had been used against her people. Technology that had been turned to the purpose of protecting them. Bethany Anne saw it as a sweet “fuck you” to the invaders she’d taken it from.

Petty, she knew, but then, she was just fine with that. Let them all take their shot. They would attack and be destroyed, and she would be happy to receive their generous donations to the furtherment of humanity’s military capability and overall knowledge.

Bethany Anne exited her roamer at the charging point by the R&D labs and made her way through the open sliding doors into the state of barely-controlled chaos Jean called a workspace.

As ever, it was a good thing she didn’t need ear protectors.

Unperturbed by the clamor or the bursts of sparks and flame spouting sporadically from the testing areas, Bethany Anne took her time to cross the main room of the workshop, pausing to exchange a few words with the people working on the projects in progress that caught her eye on her way to the central cabin Jean used as an office.

Jean looked up as Bethany Anne entered, smiling when she saw who her visitor was. She waved her in, returning her attention to the holoprojection over her desk. “I’ve been expecting you. Shut that door before the dust gets in.”

Bethany Anne smirked as she closed the door behind her. Her visit wasn’t the surprise, but she didn’t want to let Jean know that just yet. “Dammit, Jean, and there I was trying to surprise you.”

Jean shot a skeptical glance at Bethany Anne. “You should have taken care of the cameras then.” She kicked the chair across from her desk out for Bethany Anne to take, then picked up her coffee mug. “Where do you want to start? Armor? Weapons? Ship tech?”

Bethany Anne disregarded the hardback chair and went for the overstuffed armchair in the corner opposite the door. “I was thinking more about how you’re doing with Lillian and Nickie being back in your life. I’m in no rush to discuss work.”

Jean snorted, spraying coffee over the control panel embedded in the center of her desk. “Shit!” She jumped up and removed the coffee with a few hasty swipes of her sleeve. “Who the fuck are you, and what have you done with Bethany Anne?”

Bethany Anne lifted her hands, her smile returning at Jean’s reaction. “Very funny. You were cut up about missing the gala. Sue me if I wanted to make sure you got there.”

Jean shrugged out of her shirt and headed to the sink to rinse the sleeve. “Can’t say I don’t appreciate it. I know Nickie is almost recovered, but dammit, BA! Too close.” She closed her eyes and shook her head slowly.

Bethany Anne nodded, still stinging from how close they’d come to losing her. “Clear your decks for travel.”

Jean turned from the sink, her face screwed up in regret. “I can’t travel. You know damn well that I’d be on Devon right now if it was even remotely possible.”

“Yeah, no.” Bethany Anne waved a hand to dismiss Jean’s arguments. “Call it a royal decree or whatever. I’m leaving for Devon, and I’m taking you and Lillian with me. Qui’nan can take care of things here, and I’m leaving ADAM behind.” She tilted her head. “Kind of.”

Jean’s eyes developed something of a shine. “Done.” She made a few sharp gestures over her desk, her brow furrowing as she delegated or postponed everything on her to-do list.

Bethany Anne grinned at Jean’s easy capitulation. “Thattagirl. We all need to remind ourselves what we’re fighting for every now and then. Especially when you just avoided shit creek by a stroke of the paddle.”

Jean closed her eyes briefly. “You’re right, we need some time with our loved ones. When I found out Nickie had been torn to pieces by an Ooken…” Her voice cracked with emotion. “I’ve never seen John cry, BA. Not once in all the time we’ve been married. It scared the shit out of me, and I don’t mind admitting it.”

“That’s exactly why I’m doing this,” Bethany Anne told Jean softly. She got to her feet and touched a hand to her shoulder. “Your family needs to be together right now. All of our family does. We’ll be swinging by High Tortuga to pick up Barnabas and Stephen on the way back.”

Jean raised an eyebrow. “What about Eve?”

Bethany Anne flashed a grin at Jean. “Eve should be on Devon already to take care of a project of mine.”

Jean tilted her head, distracted from her troubles for the moment. “Can’t wait to hear all about it. I should call Lillian and tell her we’re leaving.” She scooted her chair back and pulled out a box, which she dropped on the left-hand side of the desk and began packing.

Bethany Anne stared in shock when Jean pressed a panel on the inner wall and bundled the clothing hanging on the rod that popped out on top of the box. “You have a closet in your office?”

Jean nodded. “Yeah, and so do you. Didn’t you find it yet?”

Bethany Anne shook her head. “I feel like I’ve barely begun exploring the Baba Yaga yet. She’s huge! Our family deck is the size of a large town.”

Jean chuckled. “You have all the time you need. This almost feels like a spur-of-the-moment vacation,” she remarked, bending down to pull another box out from under her desk. “I can’t remember the last time I did something so spontaneous.”

Bethany Anne’s mouth quirked at Jean’s sudden shift in disposition. “Um, are you forgetting something?”

Jean fixed Bethany Anne with a look of confusion that her smile belied. “As if I’d let you leave without a gift.” She smirked and handed the decorated wooden box she’d just retrieved to Bethany Anne. “Welcome to your new armor.”

Bethany Anne turned the box over in her hands, then put it down on Jean’s desk to look for the opening mechanism. “This doesn’t look much like it can hold armor.”

Jean waved her hands at the box, still looking pleased with herself. “Open it. There’s another box to come; this is just the first part.”

Bethany Anne ran her thumb over the shallow indent on the short side of the box, hearing a faint snick as it accepted her DNA. She lifted the lid and picked up the garment, noting the faint metallic sheen where the malleable blue-black fabric caught the light. “New nano-fabric?”

She raised her eyebrow at Jean’s confirmation and shook the suit out to get a closer look. “It’s a good thing I don’t have body image issues. What features does it have?”

“There’s only so much I can do with polymers alone,” Jean admitted, shrugging. “But we have the material working to the specifications you set out in planning.”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow. “Meaning?”

“Meaning,” Jean clarified as she resumed emptying her storage closet, “that it will adapt to whatever situation you’re in. You need a shipsuit? You’re wearing it already. You get shot, it deflects whatever they can throw at you. It has the same capability as your light armor without the nipple-ache of wearing plates. Oh, and you’re going to want these.” She backed out of the closet with a box about half Bethany Anne’s height and the width of her torso.

Bethany Anne’s eyes widened as Jean lifted a corner of the lid to give her a glimpse of a shining metal heel. She fixed her friend with a hopeful look. “Don’t fuck around, Jean. Really? You did it?”

Jean wiggled her eyebrows and nodded toward the bathroom. “Go put on the suit. You need to see this to believe it.”

Bethany Anne was tempted to just strip and dive into the suit where she stood. However, there was the question of the schedule. She wrinkled her nose. “Dammit. It’ll have to wait until we’re on the move. I have to check in with Bart and Giselle before I leave. I’ll meet you aboard the Baba Yaga as soon as you’re ready to go.”

Jean hoisted the large box with her belongings. “We won’t take too long.”


3

QT2, Shipyard, Queen’s Dock, QSD Baba Yaga, Top Deck

Bethany Anne made a beeline for her dressing room the second she and Jean exited the elevator in the family’s living quarters. She stepped off the thick carpet of the hall onto the cool printed tile floor of her anteroom.

“We have time while we wait for Lillian. I’ve gotta say how much I’m looking forward to this, as well,” Jean told Bethany Anne as she peered over the top of her overflowing box to navigate around the furniture. “The suit is keyed to your DNA, so this will be the first full test.”

Bethany Anne laid the boxes with her armor and boots on the table. “Test?” She shrugged. “I don’t care. I shouldn’t be this excited, but really? How long have I been wishing for armor with a heel?”

Jean snickered, and Bethany Anne removed the lid of the boot box with eager hands. “I might have known it would be all about the footwear with you.”

“I don’t know why anyone would expect differently.” Bethany Anne held up one of the boots to inspect it. “What’s the reason I get new boots, anyway? You’re usually the first to get the knives in when it comes to my collection.”

Jean rolled her eyes. “That’s only because I’m the one who has to design the storage for your ‘collection.’” She smiled at Bethany Anne’s reaction. “They’re stronger than the original pair. The boot is constructed from the nanocyte-infused polymer Qui’nan developed for ships’ hulls.”

Bethany Anne tipped the boot upside down. “You put banding around the sole? Nice. What about the heel? It’s not made from the polymer, clearly.”

“Actually, it is.” Jean winked. “The heel is... Well, you’ll see when you put them on and activate the suit.”

Bethany Anne dragged her gaze from the intricate stitching that matched her others exactly and flashed a million-watt grin at Jean. “I can’t tell the difference between these and the originals.”

Jean's eyes crinkled with pleasure. “We can replicate pretty much anything. The trick here was getting the blend of organic and inorganic materials to play nice. You’re going to either love or hate the integration option, but I sure as shit haven’t got six months to make you another pair with real dinosaur hide right now.”

“Michael and his gifts that keep on giving,” Bethany Anne murmured as she gathered up the suit and boots.

“Giving me work,” Jean grumped good-naturedly. Her eyes unfocused for a moment. “Hold up, Lillian is calling.”

Bethany Anne waved Jean away as she headed into the inner room to change. “Take it. I’ll be a few minutes.” She undressed quickly and removed the suit from its box.

She slipped her legs in and wriggled to get it up over her waist, then fed her arms into the long sleeves and waited for something to happen.

The suit remained inactive. It hung loosely around her body, flapping open at the front with no apparent way to fasten it.

Bethany Anne touched the two sides together, thinking they might adhere that way. They fell apart again, and the aircon was high in here.

Dammit. She opened a mental link to Jean. How do I activate the suit?

Buttons, Jean instructed. On the collar, in the usual position. Press the one in the center to activate the EI suite, and tell ADAM not to blow it by getting clever before it’s fully integrated.

Bethany Anne made a face at the word “integrated.” She touched her fingers to her collar and felt for the button. Thanks. Tell Lillian I said hey.

ADAM spoke up just as she was about to start bitching to Jean that it wasn’t working. >>Um, your suit wants to connect with me.<<

Bethany Anne pressed her lips together, temper diverted by ADAM’s timely interruption. Okay, then connect. What control do you have?

>>Everything,<< he told her. >>There’s an EI suite, but no EI.<<

Okay? You can start by fastening the fucking thing. It’s cold enough to cut glass in here. Bethany Anne’s eyes widened when ADAM activated the fabric and the two sides of the suit came together and fused. What the…

The nano-fabric flowed, molding itself like living silk to her every curve until she was sheathed from throat to ankle in a veil of shimmering midnight.

Jean returned while Bethany Anne was still inspecting the seamless join along her breastbone. She leaned against the wall with her arms folded, appraising the fit of the nano-fabric. “Looking good! Get your boots on already so I can run you both through the features. ADAM, are you in?”



ADAM’s voice came from Bethany Anne’s collar. “I’m in. Hey, I can hear myself.”

Bethany Anne paused with the first boot pulled up halfway to glance at Jean.

“Left-hand button,” Jean supplied with a chuckle. “Don’t want you going batshit because you can’t get a minute’s silence.”

“Dammit,” ADAM bitched. “What’s an AI got to do to get control of himself around here?”

“You could start by not almost dying on the first opportunity you had to run free,” Bethany Anne stated. “Talk to me about getting control of yourself when you’re ready to take responsibility for your actions.”

“Give him a break,” Jean cut in on ADAM’s behalf. “He and Loralei saved lives that day.”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow, a smile appearing at the corner of her mouth. “I’m glad you feel that way. It’s going to get you through the next project I have for you.”

Jean grimaced. “Oh, yeah?”

Bethany Anne nodded, distracted by the tickle on her thighs as the nanocytes integrated the boots into her suit. “I want an AI body.”

Jean snorted. “Sure. What kind?”

“Something new,” Bethany Anne told her. She saw the transport Pod arrive at the Baba Yaga on her HUD. “Lillian is here, so it can wait for now.”

“She can make her way here just fine by herself,” Jean assured Bethany Anne, waving a finger over her suit. “Put the jacket on so we can get through the features before she gets here, then you can tell me why you want this AI body on the way to High Tortuga.”

Federation Space, Red Rock—aka “Fed Rock,” The Federal House of Arbitration

Lance pressed his hands into the small of his back as he left the council chambers, wondering how in the hell his body could feel its actual age with all the junk keeping it like a preserved ham.

He decided it had more to do with the hours he spent sitting in the arbiter’s chair than anything else.

There was a deluge of membership applications coming in as a result of displacement caused by the Ooken, and as usual, it was an effort to remain in control of trade and commerce in the face of self-interest.

While it was all very well to hold their people to the law, it never ceased to amaze Lance how easily some of the council members justified their efforts to gain the upper hand for their constituencies.

He stretched his aching muscles, thinking that perhaps he should have been a little less prideful about Patricia’s suggestion of a support cushion, seeing as how the asteroid the House was built into was scheduled to be on the move for months before returning to the hinterlands of Yollin space.

Lance would much rather have been headed to Devon for the family gathering with his wife and son. However, his place was here until his daughter decreed otherwise. Nothing said Lance had to like it.

“General Reynolds,” a gruff voice called from the chamber entrance. “A moment, if you have it.”

Lance turned, surprised to hear his name fall so congenially from the Leath trade secretary’s tongue. “Secretary Harkkat. Can I help you with something?”

The secretary indicated that Lance should continue walking with an outstretched hand. “I won’t keep you. I’m looking for any knowledge you have on the outer quadrants.”

Lance paused in the shadow of the fountain, looking up at the holoprojected depiction of the founding Federation council members supporting a plinth holding the many member species. “Where in the outer quadrants do you mean, specifically? That’s a lot of uncharted space you’re talking about.”

Harkkat’s jovial demeanor dropped. “That’s what I wanted to speak about—where to begin exploration. Our economy has taken a significant upturn, as tax records for the quarter show. Between Federation growth, the military upgrades we’ve been doing, and our mysterious-yet-wealthy neighbor, we can’t keep up with production at this level if we don’t look outward.”

Lance nodded along, keeping a straight face. He knew all about the wealth the Leath had amassed recently, including that which the Leath representatives had decided not to declare at this time. “What does this have to do with the outer quadrants?”

The secretary’s lips split in a thin grin, the one that always made Lance slip his hands into his pockets lest they act without his volition to wipe the supercilious smile off the Harkkat’s smarmy face. “Resources, of course, General. We can’t maintain growth without them, so say the representatives.”

Lance dropped the politician’s mask, allowing his distaste to show. He jabbed a finger at the Secretary’s chest. “Listen to me, Harkkat. Nothing good happens to anyone who goes poking around outside Federation jurisdiction. For all the shit you give me in there, I wouldn’t see your people take losses for the sake of profit. Am I making myself clear?”

Harkkat sneered and brushed Lance’s hand away. “Clear as crystal. It’s not going to change the representatives’ minds. Can you help me or not?”

Lance lifted his hands, returning Harkkat’s smile with just a dash of added sympathy on top. “Not, I’m afraid. Stay away from the outer quadrants or be prepared to pay the price.”

Harkkat bristled. “I see no cause for threats!” he declared before turning on his heel and stalking back to the chamber.

Lance felt the beginning of a nasty headache. He sent a message to Barnabas as he walked away, fuming that Harkkat’s government was still too self-oriented to figure out that playing by the rules was the only thing protecting them from the big bad out there.

The Seven had no use for the technology they had given to the Leath in the first place. The Ooken wouldn’t even pause between bites as they destroyed them entirely.

That wasn’t the thing that pissed Lance off the most about the exchange. As though Bethany Anne didn’t have enough to deal with, now he had no choice but to hand off babysitting those stubborn assholes to her to make sure they didn’t become Ooken snacks.

It was enough to make him reconsider attending the family get-together on Devon.

Lance scowled all the way to his accommodations, a suite of rooms at the top of the rock that looked out onto open space. The view upon entering was enough to calm his heated temper. He took a cigar from the humidor in the cabinet, running his fingers along the bookshelf above until he got to Old Faithful.

He eased out the love-worn paperback hidden between Treatises on Successful Interspecies Communication and The Modern Yollin: A Short Discourse on the Social Impact of Yoll’s Revolution and settled into his chair to read about a time when the only thing a man needed to do right was to ride into town and shoot the asshole making life hard for everyone else.


4

Devon, The Interdiction, QSD Baba Yaga

Alexis turned her head to brush the other side of her black hair as she looked at herself in the mirror. She considered the large, dark eyes that marked her as Bethany Anne’s child and the faint, questioning line between her eyebrows she’d inherited from Michael.

Those were only the outward comparisons.

How do you have something like a normal childhood when you’re the son and daughter of the most powerful people the universe has ever seen? Alexis had pondered the question often. Life for her and Gabriel had never been “normal.”

Not by anybody’s standards.

Their story was romantic, she thought. Poetic. Born on the cusp of war to royalty in exile, and enhanced by powerful alien technology, even their growth had followed an alternative path set out by their parents as a way to prepare the twins for a life of navigating the intergalactic stage.

Maybe it wasn’t that romantic. It made any budding ideas of dating unthinkable, that was for sure.

Alexis snickered, imagining introducing some poor boy to her father and uncles.

She chose an amethyst barrette and pinned her hair up on one side, then got to her feet to collect her shoes. She paused when Gabriel clattered into their shared dressing room.

Gabriel dashed to his side of the room and dived into his closet without acknowledging Alexis. He started pulling clothing from the rods, tossing the items haphazardly behind him.

Alexis raised an eyebrow at her brother’s uncharacteristic output of frantic energy. “What’s gotten your pants jammed up your butt?” she asked, forgetting her shoes for the moment.

“Diplomatic gala.” He grunted. “Just found out.”

Alexis picked up each item of clothing as Gabriel discarded it. “You spend too much time with Uncle John. You’re forgetting how to talk. I thought everyone knew about the gala? Mom’s been arranging it since she heard there was going to be a party for Aunt Nickie.”

Gabriel ceased his rummaging and turned to give Alexis an incredulous look. “There is a party for Aunt Nickie?”

Alexis sighed in exasperation and held out Gabriel’s clothing. “No. Mom hijacked Aunt Nickie’s party as an excuse to get everyone together and wrap up the diplomatic talks with the Bakas. We need to get dressed.”

She grabbed the dress she’d hung outside the bathroom door and went in to change, switching to their mental connection. I can’t believe you didn’t expect it. Mom has been in the best mood since she gave the Ooken and the Kurtherians running them a nasty boo-boo to think about.

Gabriel snickered. It was less a boo-boo and more an evisceration. I’ve been helping Trey’s family get used to Vid-doc technology. He stared at the clothing Alexis had given him blankly. I only worked out that the freaking gala Trey’s been so nervous about was being held here when I got back from the Enclave fifteen minutes ago.

That sucks, Alexis teased. She didn’t need to be a genius to know that the boys had lost track of time in some game scenario or another. Are you getting dressed?

Gabriel held up two pairs of trousers, dubious whether either of them was suitable for a black-tie event. What do I wear? he pleaded. Help me out here. I’m lost.

Alexis came out of the bathroom, smoothing the skirt of her mermaid dress to ensure the sequin trim was lying flat. “Um…” She dismissed Gabriel’s crumpled armload and crossed to the wardrobe to select a crisp white shirt, a forest-green tie, and black dress trousers made from a light fabric. “There, the tie will bring out the green in your eyes.”

She ignored Gabriel’s skeptical look, holding out the garments. “Put them on while I find your dress shoes. This is the first time we’ve been allowed to stay out past our curfew. I want us to make a good impression.”

Gabriel felt his cheeks redden at the insinuation he didn’t know how to dress himself, never mind that he hadn’t put any thought whatsoever into what his clothing said about him. “I know,” he grumbled. “I was just caught by surprise, is all.”

Mental link, remember? Alexis smiled, holding out Gabriel’s shoes. “Come on, or we’ll be late. Mom won’t wait.”

“She will.” Gabriel shrugged, then took the shiny black shoes Alexis was thrusting at him. “Okay, she won’t. Do you think they’re ever going to punish us for taking the Izanami?”

Alexis put a finger to her lips and jerked her head toward the door.

Bethany Anne swept in and gathered the twins up in a brief hug. “Are you still not dressed?” She leaned against the dresser and folded her arms, being careful not to wrinkle her eveningwear. “Don’t make me leave this ship without you.”

Gabriel dashed into the bathroom. “I’m getting dressed!”

Alexis rolled her eyes.

Bethany Anne chuckled. “I will probably have to encourage your father to hurry up as well. It used to be that the women kept the men waiting while they got dressed.”

Alexis snickered at the thought of Gabriel or Trey spending any more time than it took to be minimally presentable. “Yeah, but not because they were too busy playing soldiers with their buddies.” She shrugged at her mother’s questioning look. “They were playing in the Vid-docs you had taken over to the Enclave. Trey’s uncles were being difficult about them until Gabriel showed them they could cheerfully hack each other to death in the game world with no consequences.”

“Whatever makes them happy,” Bethany Anne concurred with an indifferent wave of her hand. “You are aware how challenging this alliance has been to pull together. That we reached this point at all is largely down to Tabitha’s patience. Or possibly her stubbornness.”

Alexis bent to slip on her shoes, smiling fondly. “Males can be utterly ridiculous. As can females, but we at least have the decency to look fabulous while we’re blowing a hurricane.” She looked enviously at Bethany Anne’s eveningwear, a skintight suit with a high-collared jacket that swept down to brush the tops of her heeled boots. “You look great, Mom, and you’re doing wonderfully with the Bakas. What is that material?” She tested her low heels with her first two steps, then walked confidently to Bethany Anne to touch the shimmering fabric.

Bethany Anne held out the hem of her jacket for Alexis to inspect. “Jean’s latest iteration of light armor. I just picked it up when I brought her and Lillian over from the Helena.” She smiled at Alexis, wiggling a foot. “You haven’t noticed the best part.”

Alexis glanced down, her mouth dropping open in shock. “Those can’t be the boots Dad had made for you.” Her mind attempted to wander the second Bethany Anne shook her head. “But they’re identical! Do they have the same properties as well as the dinosaur hide?”

Bethany Anne counted her answers off on her fingers. “The printed material is identical to the dinosaur hide, except that it’s blended with a new polymer Qui’nan came up with and infused with nanocytes.”

Alexis' eyes widened. “I heard about those. Eve is working with them, right? How are the boots integrated with the suit?”

Bethany Anne inclined her head. “They are permanently integrated with the suit at the atomic level, meaning I have the durability of the hide, the flexibility of fabric, and a bunch of features that can only usually be gotten in a plated model.”

Alexis narrowed her eyes at the five-and-a-half inch heels Bethany Anne moved in like she was barefoot. “So…you have to fight in heels? I know you can, but what’s that going to do for maintaining them?”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow at Alexis and smiled as she pointed down at her feet. “Watch this.”

Alexis was left speechless again when the heels began to shrink. The slight platform receded as the heels were absorbed into the boot, leaving Bethany Anne wearing something closer to a combat boot. “Mom, we need to talk about this before we leave for Qu’Baka. Who’s working on this nano-fabric right now? Apart from Jean, of course. I can see her touch.”

Gabriel emerged from the bathroom with his shirt buttoned halfway, his left trouser pocket hanging out, and his hair standing on end. “Good to go.”

“Later, Alexis.” Bethany Anne took one look at Gabriel and shook her head. “You look ready for the apocalypse, maybe. Come here and let Alexis fix you up. I have to meet your father.”

Alexis huffed, knowing the conversation was done for the moment. “I won’t forget,” she promised. “I want in on this project when we get back from Qu’Baka.”

Bethany Anne simply smiled and wiggled her fingers at them both before heading back into the corridor. “Alexis, help your brother with his tie,” she called back over the clipped staccato of her heels, “and be in Transfer Bay One in twenty minutes.”

“What project are you so excited about?” Gabriel asked.

“I’ll tell you later,” Alexis replied, reaching for his tie. “We have to go.”

Enter Into Valhalla

Bethany Anne exited the dressing room, leaving the children to finish getting ready for the gala. She was eager to get moving.

Tonight was her first chance to pause since the discovery of the Kurtherian factory, and she meant to savor every moment of having her family and friends around.

Her joking prediction to Alexis a moment before turned out to be closer to the truth than she had imagined when she arrived at her and Michael’s suite and found him in much the same situation as she’d found their son in a few minutes earlier.

Bethany Anne leaned against the doorframe of their dressing room, a smirk playing across her lips. “Has it been so long since we were a part of the game that you have forgotten how to play?”

Michael turned from the mirror, his tie forgotten when he saw Bethany Anne. “You look…”

Bethany Anne lifted a shoulder, the corner of her mouth turning up as he ate her up with hungry eyes. “It was all Jean. My new armor.” She turned in a circle. “What do you think?”

Michael resumed his battle with his tie. “Fashion as a weapon? You don’t need to remind me it’s your favorite political tactic.”

“Yes, it is. I turn up looking like I might be there for a fight, and the opposition shows their bellies. Never fails.” Bethany Anne summoned Michael with a crook of her finger, getting a visual snack of her own as he walked toward her. “Let me help you with that.”

Michael tilted his chin to give her access to his tie. “I’m not sure you should go out looking this good. The guests might have their minds blown.”

Bethany Anne snickered. “Like they’re not going to be too busy losing their shit when they find out I’m back.” She rested her hands on Michael’s shoulders when she was done. “I know we have everything locked down, but I’m having second thoughts about this.”

Michael touched his forehead to hers, his arms finding their way around her waist of their own accord. “You have every right to second, and even third thoughts. This is no small decision. It’s going to change everything.” He stepped back and gave her a serious look. “Do you want to wait on the reveal until we return from Qu’Baka? It’s not too late. We can take the children with us. Delay the politics until we have Mahi’ on unshakeable ground.”

Bethany Anne considered finding another way to dismantle the brick wall she’d been banging her head against repeatedly since her Empire was dissolved—for all of a third of a second. “No. I’m done restricting myself in the name of peace. This is how it has to be. It’s gotten to the point where the shit is going to hit the fan whether I act or not.”

She dropped her hands, clenching and unclenching them for a moment as her frustration became a physical thing. “I feel like I’m going to explode if I have to spend one more fucking minute wearing that mask while my people fall further into danger.”

Michael ran a hand through her hair and leaned in to murmur into her ear, “Then you know what the solution is. Act.”

Bethany Anne leaned back and looked up at him, a small smile on her lips. “That’s exactly what I intend to do.”

Devon, The Enclave, Mahi’Takar’s Residence

Trey hissed as his mother tugged on his fur, twisting it into tight braids on the sides of his head. “It won’t grow any faster for being pulled.”


Enter Into Valhalla

Mahi’

He sighed when Mahi’ paid him no attention whatsoever and turned the focus of his grumbling to the musty ceremonial armor she had made him wear for the gala. He was dreading taking the ill-fitting armor off and finding out how much fur he had lost to the pinching plates. “What is this outfit?”

“That, Tu’Reigd,” Mahi’ told him wistfully, “Is the armor your father wore for our crowning ceremony, and before that, my father wore it for his. It looks well on you, my son.”

Trey immediately felt terrible despite the chafing around his groin. “I didn’t mean to dishonor his memory.”

“You didn’t.” Mahi’ patted his cheek with her free hand, then resumed her brutal capture of his fur. “You honor him with every day of your life. I expect you will learn the humans’ standards of honor and respect while I am away.”

“So will you,” Trey countered. “You get to hang out with the Empress. Nothing I’m gonna do is as cool as that.”

“I am sure you will not be bored inside the program Eve has created for you,” Mahi’ murmured. “As for humans, I find them acceptable. You will be an adult when I return, not my boy any longer.”

Trey hadn’t heard his mother so contemplative before. He considered how Mahi’ would cope without him. Probably quite well, he thought, but she would miss his companionship if not pulling him out of the trouble young males with his curious nature invariably found themselves in.

He knew Mahi’ would never take another husband. That made it his duty as her only son to ensure she did not go through life alone. “Do you want me to put off my enhancement to come with you?”

Mahi’ chuckled. “No. I will take care of Lu’Trein. I will avenge your father, and we will return home to our long-lost family.”

Trey smiled. That was all he’d ever wanted: to see his home and breathe its air. To meet Bor’Dane, the hero he’d heard so much about from Mahi’ his whole life. “What then? Will we still be allied with the Empress?”

Mahi’ tied in the bead at the tip of the final braid and dropped it. “That will depend upon you. ”

Trey turned in his seat to look up at his mother. “What do you mean?”

Mahi’ smiled. “When I send for you, it will be to take your place as ruler. Do you fully understand what is going to be done to you? It is not too late to choose differently, and there is no dishonor in changing your mind.”

“I understand.” Trey had considered backing out. However, honor demanded that his family and his people came before personal feelings. “I would feel better about it if I wasn’t convinced this is a shortcut,” he admitted. “My concern is that playing war games won’t be enough to prepare me mentally and emotionally for leadership. What good is it being a child in an adult’s body? Will the people even accept me after enhancement, or will I have to fight them, too?”

Mahi’Takar nodded, pulling Trey close as he spilled his worries. “All good questions, my son. I hope you find your answers while we are apart.” She headed out of the room, pausing just before she left to smile at Trey. “You will be the foremost warrior, Tu’Reigd. That is the only advantage you need.”

Trey wasn’t too sure about that. Nevertheless, he kept his opinions on the might-makes-right approach to ruling to himself.

For now.


5

Devon, First City, Hexagon Plaza

Bethany Anne wasn’t too pleased to be met by the swarm of vid-drones that swooped in on their Pod the moment they landed in Hexagon Plaza. “I don’t remember giving the media permission to be here tonight.”

“Kids, maybe?” Michael found himself mildly amused by the cloud of amateur journalists and over-inquisitive teens who had their cameras around the Hexagon pretty much full time these days. He nodded at the bobbing cloud around the ship. “They’re monitored for risk by Winstanley, so it’s harmless. They want to know everything that’s happening in the Hexagon.”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow, her shift in stance causing the interior light to make her jacket shimmer. “Tell me something convincing. I’m not buying it.”

Alexis laughed. “Mom, you don’t need to go all QB on them. Have you seen the news channels on the holonetwork?” she asked. “All day, every day, it’s Baba Yaga. It’s either that or speculation about where the Ooken are going to attack next. I know what I’d rather watch.”

“Anything other than those two things,” Gabriel offered. “But especially the rise of the media in this ‘age of connection.’ It was bad enough studying the phenomenon in sociology class. Aunt Addix is so obsessed.”

“Spycraft is an ever-complex business,” Michael qualified. “In our world, the media is a tool to be used to reach the people rather than a source of entertainment. Tabitha tells me some of the less reputable channel producers pay for footage. She and Sabine have been flooding them with junk videos for kicks.”

Bethany Anne’s mood lightened at that, but she still wasn’t happy with the intrusion. “It looks to me like everyone with a drone and nothing better to do is out there.”

Alexis shrugged. “Can’t argue with the will of the people, Mom. They drive the market.”

Bethany Anne’s jaw twitched. “Want to bet? The market on this planet exists on my sufferance.” She waved a hand at the screen. ADAM, kill those cameras.

>>My pleasure,<< ADAM replied.

The vid-drones around the ship dropped out of the air.

Gabriel touched Bethany Anne’s hand. “It’s got to feel strange to be in public as yourself again,” he consoled. “Are you sure about it, Mom? There’s no going back after this.”

Bethany Anne smiled as Gabriel diverted her gathering anger with his father’s eyes. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

Alexis took her other hand, identical concern on her face. “This is a huge change from keeping our identities a secret from everyone outside of our family. What if there’s a revolt? This place isn’t the most accepting of authority.”

“Our family is here,” Michael assured the twins. “Almost all of them. We are safe.”

“There’s no changing my mind.” Bethany Anne looked at her husband and children, strengthened by their love. “I tried to stay out of it for the sake of the Federation, but we no longer have the luxury of sitting this out to cater to their feelings. We are the only line of defense between every innocent in the Federation and the Seven. We will be true to who we are, no matter what is happening out there.”

Gabriel grimaced. “You mean Da’Mahin still causing a stink.”

Alexis smirked and bumped her brother’s shoulder, a wicked glint in her eyes. “Not after tonight. Unless you mean an actual stink? Because I can totally see that happening.”

Bethany Anne smiled at her two biggest reasons for fighting. “It’s about time everyone realized that the Witch was the pleasant option. They get on board, or I make certain they can’t wreck everything we’re working for. One way or another. I’m done with diplomacy.”

Michael found that to be a complicated statement. “That would imply you ever had time for diplomacy in the first place.”

Bethany Anne lifted her hands. “What I haven’t got time for is repeating myself. Draw your own conclusions.” She clapped her hands and walked off the bridge. “Time to make a move. Izanami is waiting.”

Michael smiled at Alexis and Gabriel. “You heard your mother. Let’s go.”

They left the bridge after Bethany Anne and made their way down the short corridor leading to the exit hatch, where the AI waited for them.

Bethany Anne still felt relief at the sight of Izanami. “You ready to field-test your new HLP drive?” She looked at the flawless Baba Yaga skin the AI’s avatar wore, narrowing her eyes at the black armor to make sure Izanami wasn’t shaving her curves again.

Izanami put a hand on her hip and flashed a sharp grin. “About as ready as you are to get inside and find the Coke bar.”

Bethany Anne kissed Alexis and Gabriel on the head as they passed her, pulling Gabriel down to catch his. “You two had better be on your best behavior tonight.”

“Ugh,” Gabriel grumped, wiping the kiss away. “We know what we have to do. Straight to the outdoor arena, and stay within sight of our guards at all times.”

“We’ll be fine,” Michael assured Bethany Anne, stepping onto the ramp to sweep the area. “Come along, children. Izanami, after you.”

Izanami exited the Pod ahead of Michael and the twins. They walked over to where Barnabas and Akio stood in the pool of light that shone through the great glass doors.

Izanami ignored the attention she was drawing from the line of attendees.

>>I’m catching all the photos and video before they’re uploaded,<< ADAM reported. >>Nothing is getting through.<<

You’re archiving it all, right? Bethany Anne listened in on the conversation between Michael and “Baba Yaga” as they entered the Hexagon, repressing her unasked-for instinct to spill blood at the sight of her husband with another woman by his side.

>>Of course,<< ADAM replied, ignoring the momentary spike in Bethany Anne’s blood pressure. >>The historical records don’t populate themselves, you know.<<

Barnabas bowed deeply to Izanami as she, Michael, and the children arrived at the softly-lit entrance. “Good to see the rumors of your death were exaggerated.”

Izanami winked as she strode by. “Only barely.”

Bethany Anne waited until she was satisfied they were safely inside, then stepped into the Etheric to get to her holding position without being spotted by any of the partygoers.

She exited the Etheric in the upper-tier box usually reserved for the light-sensitive. The barrier over the solid half-balcony appeared to be tinted from the outside while affording the occupants an unobstructed view of the sand below.

Exploration of the cooler by the balcony revealed three chilled cans of caffeinated sugary goodness. Bethany Anne popped her Coke open and smoothed out her jacket before taking a seat to watch the arrivals to the gala.

The time to be seen would come soon enough.

In the meantime, this was like watching some Devon version of the red carpet at the Oscars.

Bethany Anne heard Gabriel nearby, talking to Trey. The boys passed the door to her balcony, chatting in low voices as they headed down to the arena.

She was pleased with the way Gabriel and Trey had bonded over their commonalities. It wasn’t easy growing up in any high-status family, but they had been more isolated than most. Their shared love of dead languages was a little weird, but as hobbies a pair of teenaged boys could be drawn to, that wasn’t the worst.

The boys left the stairs and met up with Alexis and K’aia almost immediately under the balcony.

Bethany Anne watched them go, then let her gaze wander over the arena while the last of the guests arrived. She couldn’t resist a smile when she spotted Nathan and Ekaterina taking advantage of the dancefloor, then Scott and Cheryl Lynn doing the same.

Cheryl Lynn’s adult children watched in horror, and Eric and Darryl filmed every excruciating move for future blackmail material.

Kael-ven and Kiel had found their way to Michael’s group to join the conversation over by the straw-roofed hut serving as a wet bar.

William, Marcus, and Bobcat propped up the other end of the bar, clearly in their element. Bethany Anne grinned at the picture they made, gathered around Eve like kindergarteners at storytime, with Marcus scribbling down everything she was telling them on beer-dampened napkins.

Peter, Stephen, and Grim held court at the table by the bar. They gestured animatedly, attempting to tell Jacqueline, Sabine, Mark, and the redheaded girl from Nickie’s crew some tall tale while Tabitha, Lillian, and Gabrielle heckled them from the next table. Jean and John sat side by side in the middle of the bar, holding hands with their heads touching.

Bethany Anne wished this night could have been just about them. So many of her loved ones in one place—it was almost unheard of these days. It had been too long since they had last made the opportunity to come together.

All too soon they would scatter to their far-flung corners of the Empire-she-definitely-wasn’t-calling-an-empire, and then fuck knew how long it would be before they had a chance to be together again.

Bethany Anne snickered at the slapped-ass look on Da’Mahin’s face when he was relieved of his weapons at the door by Akio. He was followed by Kel’Len, his mate, and two of his warriors.

Kel’Len gestured angrily at Da’Mahin and split off to head into the crowd without him. The three males swerved toward Mahi’ with their shoulders swinging aggressively.

Heads up, she warned Michael. Asshole patrol coming in hot at your three o’clock.

The children caught her eye. Gabriel was animated about something. Bethany Anne focused her hearing to catch the end of their conversation, then regretted her lack of the power to reverse time when she overheard K’aia crushing on Kael-ven—not something she needed to know about.

She felt less guilty when she also heard Trey having doubts about his worth.

Bethany Anne spoke directly into the young Baka’s mind. Your mother has dealt for too long with your tendencies to jump in before thinking by herself. The goodness in your heart was going to get you both killed before you had a chance to lead your people home.

Nothing hurts as much as facing the truth, Trey conceded. This is a huge responsibility, but I can carry it.

Bethany Anne was impressed by Trey’s ability to admit to his faults and work on them. It’s not a fault to be curious, she told him gently. However, it is time to grow up.

She added Alexis, Gabriel, and K’aia to the mental link. Make your way over, children. We are about to begin.

Bethany Anne switched her link to connect to Izanami as the AI mounted the raised platform in the center of the arena with Michael and Mahi’ a step behind her. You’re doing great.

Simulating your whole range of movement is tiresome, Izanami complained good-naturedly. Do you know how much you talk with your hands?

Just a little longer, Bethany Anne told her.

Mahi’ moved to stand a half-step behind Izanami and to the left, while Michael covered her right. It was clear to Bethany Anne without reading a single mind that many of the Bakas were less than happy to be there, and even less so to see Mahi’ defer to Baba Yaga.

“What is this?” Da’Mahin called, shoving recklessly through Ricole’s interns. He was halted in his tracks by John and Eric, who blocked his way. “Apologies,” he told the young females immediately. “My question stands. Sister, why are you bowing to humans?”

A murmur went around; apparently, a number of the attendees agreed with him. Bethany Anne noted who was in which camp with interest.

Mahi’Takar raised her hands. “Silence! I am no Baka’s sister tonight. I am your frost-damned ruler, and if you challenge me one more time, I will wipe this arena with the remains of your body. Am I clear, Da’Mahin?” She swept a hand toward Izanami. “And it is not Baba Yaga I defer to. One human alone commands my allegiance, as she should yours. Our Empress.” She paused to make room for her next words. “Listen well, because those who do not will find themselves stranded on Devon forever.”

“You would trust our only hope to an Empress who abandoned us?” Da’Mahin looked around nervously, his confidence returning quickly enough when he didn’t drop dead immediately. “The Empress is not here, sister. She left, never to return. How do we know this isn’t a human plot to murder our Tu’Reigd and claim their technology malfunctioned?”

Bethany Anne had heard enough. She hopped onto the balcony and drew on the Etheric. The light dipped as she passed through the barrier, momentarily overloading the arena’s power supply, and the temperature throughout the arena dropped considerably.

The people below looked up at the flash of light above their heads.

Bethany Anne stepped again, sending a healthy wave of fear out ahead of herself to remind everyone what her displeasure felt like.

A murmur of shock rippled through the guests when Bethany Anne walked out of the Etheric onto the platform. “I abandoned no one. Neither am I required to justify myself. Tu’Reigd will be enhanced, at no cost to him or to your people.”

Da’Mahin took an involuntary step backward, stumbling as the reality of Bethany Anne’s presence hit home. “My Empress. I…didn’t realize. I apologize.”

Bethany Anne felt something give. “Drop the shit and quit your groveling. My actions since having Baba Yaga take over this planet have spoken clearly about my intentions. Peace by whatever means I find necessary.” She pinned Da’Mahin with an accusatory finger. “All you had to do was get along. Follow the mediation set out. Was it too much for you? Did you need something simpler, perhaps?”

She swept a finger over the Devonians of influence who had been invited tonight as a warning to place their support where it was needed—with the people instead of their own account balances. “You. Do not think you have escaped my notice. The Bakas are not the only ones at fault. Everyone opposing this alliance is working to gain nothing but the fall of this planet, and the Federation after it. Your days of petty disputes and power-grabbing are over.”

Bethany Anne smiled internally when low groans went through everyone backing Da’Mahin’s faction. A shift toward sense occurred among the warriors, merchants, and traders who carried so much weight in the wider communities outside the cities.

She showed the Devonians a different aspect. The one that reminded them why they’d left the Empire in the first place. “It’s a new day on Devon, and I have far too many goals to realize to hold anybody’s hand through it. You pride yourselves on your honor, and on your accountability to no one but yourselves? Fine. Devon is a meritocracy. You get what you earn, no more, no less. Contribute or leave. This time the only option for departure is on a prison transport headed for the Federation, so choose wisely.”

Someone snorted derisively, thinking they were safely hidden in the crowd. They were disabused of the notion when the people around moved away, exposing the knock-kneed Torcellan. She held up her hands as her head dipped between her shoulders. “I’m sorry!”

Bethany Anne pressed her lips together at the Torcellan’s cringing. “Get a grip. I’m not going to waste my energy. You can fill the first berth.” She flourished a hand, activating Tabitha’s beefed-up holodisplay.

The air around the platform was instantly filled with innumerable tiny camera feeds. First, the windows showed First City in all its degenerate glory, then they exploded upward and outward in number, scattering the open air above the arena with views of everywhere across Devon.

Bethany Anne gave the attendees a few moments to take in the scale of the camera coverage, then clicked her fingers to make it vanish. “This is my planet, and I say dumbasses who work against the greater good don’t get to participate in the military effort about to go down on Qu’Baka.”

Alexis and Gabriel shared glances.

What does that mean for us? Gabriel asked distractedly.

I don’t think it means anything, Alexis replied, similarly caught up in reading their mother’s subtext. We’re going with Mom and Dad to Qu’Baka, so we’re going to miss any drama that goes down here.

Trey was too focused on Bethany Anne to notice anything else, and K’aia had her eyes on the crowd, as always.

“We are allies,” Bethany Anne continued, her tone leaving no room to mistake her words as a request for compliance. “We will learn to trust each other based on the bonds we make through blood and mutual sacrifice. If Tu’Reigd dies, so will my own children, since they will be undergoing the same training program.” She dismissed the reaction from both sides with another impatient wave of her hand. “The process is completely safe. There will be no deaths. No assassination attempts. Nothing. When the process is complete, the children will be adults at the peak of their physical abilities, and will have completed a thorough education in leadership, as well as military training.”

Gabriel and Trey bumped fists, ignoring the girls’ protests.

“Does anyone have any issue with this?” Bethany Anne asked. “Because now is the time to speak up and leave Devon with my blessing. I warn you, I will not be so gracious if I have to revisit the subject again.” She smiled and spread her arms wide when nobody spoke up. “Perfect. Then I wish you all a great evening.” She stepped down from the platform and walked into the crowd, looking forward to the next part of her evening.


6

Devon, The Interdiction, QSD Baba Yaga, Top Deck

Twinkling lights overhead lit billowing, gauzy fabric fixed to the walls and ceiling above six tables set in an open rectangle.

With the gala over, it was time for the real celebration. The tables were set for a banquet, with every seat reserved for someone Bethany Anne cared about. They piled in straight from the transports and stepped into a tiny pocket of the universe that was just for them.

The children found their table easily, drawn by Izanami’s glowing avatar. Tonight, the AI looked more angelic, white-robed and barefoot with her hair swinging free at her hips.

Bethany Anne ran her fingers over the crisp linen tablecloth as she made her way to her seat. Eve had done wonders. She was waylaid many times before she reached the head of the table, her heart brimming.

Michael brushed Bethany Anne’s cheek with his lips as he attended to her chair. He took his seat beside her and smiled as he looked out on the festivities. “This is good for the soul.”

“I know, right?” Bethany Anne covered his hand with hers briefly on her way to snag a Coke from the ice bucket holding six glass bottles. “The difference between this and the gala earlier is that every raised voice here is one I’m glad to hear, and there’s food to be shared.”

“Which I need to attend to shortly,” Michael told her, his gaze becoming speculative as it wandered from John to Nathan.

Bethany Anne snickered softly, feeling the testosterone level in the air rise. She knew the guys had something going on, but her mind was, frankly, elsewhere. She was with her family, her children—all of their children—and her friends. She would never stop, would never surrender until the day came when they could live like this all the time.

It was everything.

Melancholy stole over Bethany Anne as she counted the empty spaces around the room that were filled by ghosts. There were always going to be those who couldn’t make it, whether because duty prevented it, or because their fight was done.

Bethany Anne pushed the grief away. She had lived long enough to know that the only way to honor their sacrifices was to live and celebrate that gift to its fullest at every opportunity.

She sat back in her chair and took her time with her Coke, soaking up the ambiance while the chairs on either side of her were unoccupied. It seemed to her that the room held everyone, all of her people who had strived to get here for the gala as though it were pilgrimage’s end.

Tabitha’s voice carried over the hubbub. She was offended by something, unsurprisingly. Stephen ducked fast enough to avoid being hit, Barnabas complained about getting trampled, and the beat went on.

Bethany Anne was distracted momentarily by Michael leaving the room until she spotted the mountain lion following him with the tip of her tail twitching hungrily.

There was a brief moment of feminine resignation. Jean met Bethany Anne’s eyes with a tiny shake of her head, which was mirrored by Ekaterina when John and then Nathan slipped out after them.

Bethany Anne lifted a shoulder. In contemplative terms, she and the other women were completely aware that the guys had some kind of honor thing going when it came to the uber-manly pursuit of cooking meat.

Theoretically, Bethany Anne fully supported her husband’s dedication to retaining his title of Protein Burner Supreme. Marriage was a compromise, after all, even when it was between two people who had never deigned to compromise in the all the years they’d lived between them.

Especially then.

It was just that, well, she usually held a more…esoteric kind of role. One that didn’t require her happy acquiescence to the lingering aroma of charred animal as an outstanding feature of her brand new home.

Bethany Anne smiled. It was a support she offered in much the same way Michael supported her personal dedication to utilizing her love of fashion as a tool of leadership. Which was to say, she chose to ignore it completely until she was presented with infallible evidence and the requirement to be pleased with his efforts.

It looked like the ladies were getting involved tonight, whether they liked it or not.

Bethany Anne observed Mahi’, noting the soft slope to the regent’s shoulders as she watched Gabriel and Alexis telling some story or another to the group of various assembled “cousins,” with some help from Trey and K’aia.

Mahi’ smiled at Bethany Anne, nodded minutely, and continued her conversation with Kael-ven and Kiel.

Near the speakers appeared to be the place to be for everyone between the equivalent ages of twelve to twenty-one.

Bethany Anne sent Alexis and Gabriel warm thoughts. The peace she, Tabitha, and Mahi’ had worked to bring between their two peoples was merely a placeholder to tide them over until the next generation was ready to lead the way in unison. She appreciated her children’s efforts to include the Bakas despite the sparkling lure of long-unseen family.

The twins returned her love without breaking from their tale.

Tom spoke up. Time was that Nickie would have had them filling everyone’s jacket pockets with shaving foam.

Don’t tempt fate. Bethany Anne didn’t see Nickie leaving the corner sofa she and Rickie had claimed, everyone else forgotten as they talked. Do you think they’re cute? Or a two-party fuckup waiting to happen? I can’t make up my mind.

Who knows? TOM answered. That’s more ADAM’s department.

Bethany Anne snickered at TOM’s tone of dismay. Tomorrow was going to be here far too soon for her liking. I’m gonna say they make it and have a bunch of smart-mouth babies. John ends up babysitting six granddaughters.

TOM made a choking noise. I strongly suggest you don’t repeat that anywhere it could get back to John. I think it might make his brain explode.

Fine, Bethany Anne conceded. I’ll save it for the next time I want to turn the screws on him.

You might as well have wished to live in interesting times, TOM teased. It’s good to have everyone here, right?

Bethany Anne sat up and tipped her Coke bottle back, letting the emotion wash over and around her as she quenched her thirst. This is the real celebration and the true family gathering. Everyone close, even for just a minute.

TOM chuckled. Just how you like it.

Bethany Anne eyed the ice bucket. How I like it, and something I needed. Her gaze continued to roam over the room. Faces she hadn’t seen since the Empire had folded were making merry with Mahi’ and her family. Badly, I think. We’ve not had anything like this since before the twins were born. You can’t take a single step in here tonight without bumping into a prodigal.

Eve’s and Izanami’s efforts to entertain Todd and the youngest Bakas were proving too amusing for the adults to ignore.

Bethany Anne’s eyes followed the shadow puppets projected by the AIs. The silhouetted figures chased and fought each other over the empty dinner plates, kabuki theatre given life. It’s all the reminder I need to keep fighting until everyone in this room, every human, alien, and digital entity, is out from under the shadow of the Seven.

But tonight you’re letting it go? TOM asked, managing somehow to keep the disbelief out of his tone.

Yes. Tonight, Bethany Anne told him, reaching for a fresh bottle of Coke, I’m letting my hair down and enjoying the hell out of my legacy. Who gets to do that in their own lifetime?

TOM burst into laughter. I don’t think the young are concerned with anything but the moment they’re in.

Maybe they have it best. I’m sure as hell thinking of what’s waiting. Tiny Todd was on his…third wind? Bethany Anne smiled as he grasped for the brightly-colored mist dragon whooshing by, his cheeks bright red with joy. Tabitha is going to feel that boy’s temper tomorrow.

She turned in her chair to face the door, smelling the arrival of the food part of the entertainment—three competitive males intent on overfeeding everyone there.

The guys made their entrance at the double doors, each competing for space to get their floating serving cart past Demon’s sinuous body.

“C’mon, Demon,” Nathan bitched. “Don’t give me no choice but to get you neutered, or something.”

I’m female, Demon sniffed, bumping his antigrav cart with her rear flank as she wound around for another sniff. Brainless canids. Why do we even have them here?

Hey! Bellatrix yapped. Who are you calling dumb?

Michael raised an eyebrow at the lion.

Who wants the same old flavors anyway? Demon ignored Bellatrix and Ashur’s growls. She flashed amber eyes at Michael and sauntered nonchalantly over to her seat by Sabine and Tim as though it were her idea. Yours has the only truly interesting aroma.

“Which you cannot possibly smell, since the container is airtight,” Michael replied with an enigmatic smile, running a hand over the top of the six by three by three-foot container his cart supported. He gave the others room to make their way into the wide space in the center of the tables before shepherding his cart in through the gap.

Demon’s tail flicked as he passed her seat. Keep telling yourself that. I can smell what every human in here ate for breakfast three days ago, and yet… she admitted, I cannot identify that aroma.

“What is it?” Patricia called, popping her head out from between Kiel and Qui’nan.

Yelena winked at Bobcat, a smirk playing on her lips.

Yes. What beast is it? Demon purred, to the interest of everyone who had incurred the expense of her weekly butcher’s bill in a forfeit—and therefore knew her tastes rivaled the most discerning epicurean’s.

“One that you will wait your turn for a share of,” Michael told the mountain lion firmly. “Let the others go first.”

John and Jean shared a look.

“Whatever it is, it’s not going to win out over centuries-old Grimes perfection,” John stated, lifting the cover on one of the deep serving trays on his cart. “These are Grandma’s ribs. Completely original and authentic Earth recipe. All the herbs and spices from the seed bank—” he caught Jean’s look, “that my beautiful wife grew. Slow-cooked over two days, exactly how Grandma did it.”

His bragging raised cheers and wolf whistles from Nickie and her crew and the Walton family corner of the room. Char waved her knife, then dropped it in favor of a more apropos spoon. “Hear, hear!” she called, missing Ted by an inch.

Bethany Anne waved a hand, utterly amused by Felicity’s effortless containment of her husband’s immediate reaction. “This is some production.” She grinned as John tonged a pile of sticky ribs onto her plate.

“Just don’t let my cooking cause you any marital problems, Boss,” John told her with utter sincerity. “I’ll understand if you feel you have to pick Michael’s dish over mine.”

Nathan snorted. “It’s not going to matter too much either way when she picks mine.”

John shot him a shit-eating grin. “Keep wishing.” He went back to his cart to take the rest of his serving platters to the other tables while he waited for Bethany Anne to taste his food.

Bethany Anne bit into the succulent meat and took her time exploring the complex flavors. She wiped the glaze from her lips and looked at Nathan and Michael. “That’s pretty good. Closest he ever came to being attractive,”

Jean howled with laughter. “Easy now! I can promise you that wasn’t why I married the man, BA.”

Bethany Anne burst into laughter when John’s forehead began the dance of trying to work out her meaning. “It was a compliment, so don’t overthink it.” She waved the stripped rib at Nathan and Michael. “Who’s next? You guys better have some good game to beat these.”

Nathan lifted the cover on his first platter, revealing a sizzling side of beef. “Prime Ambrose stock, no fancy-pants prep. Just a good, honest, medium-rare roast.” He held up a hand to stay the grumbles of his wife and daughter. “I said this one is medium-rare,” he clarified, “I also have rare, still-mooing, and completely overdone for the traditionalists.”

More whistles and cheers went around while Nathan fiddled with his wrist holo. The rest of the platters on his cart rose and sailed off to fill whatever spaces could be found around the tables.

Bethany Anne held out her plate to accept a wafer-thin slice of hot, tender, pink-in-the-middle beef from the end of Nathan’s carving fork. She cut off a bite and folded it into her mouth, chewing thoughtfully while she compared the experience to that of John’s ribs a moment before. The two men faced her with folded arms and expectant stares.

She smirked and ran a finger through the mixed meat juices and glaze on her plate. “I can’t choose until I’ve tasted all three. How is that fair? Let’s have the finale.”

“As the lady demands, so shall she have.” Michael looked pleased enough that Bethany Anne could tell he had something to top what had been offered so far.

“I have to admit, I’m intrigued.” Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow, admiring the view as Michael bent to retrieve the carving set from the lower tray on his cart.

“I’m banking on it,” Michael returned, placing the blade and fork to the side. “This took no little effort to bring about.” He removed the lid, and the sides of the container dropped away to reveal—

“A pig?” Bethany Anne’s jaw dropped even as her eyes darted to locate the apple sauce she hoped was somewhere on the cart to complement the roasted apple in the whole hog’s mouth. “Where the hell did you get a pig, of all things?”

Bobcat whispered behind his hand to William, “She gonna get mad me and Yelena brought our herd here?”

William’s shoulder moved a fraction. “Don’t risk it,” he whispered. “Stay quiet until the crackling smell gets around.”

Bethany Anne narrowed her eyes at the two miscreant geniuses, knowing they knew full well she could hear them clearly. “Tweedle-Dumbass and Tweedle-Dammit. I might have known you two would cause trouble the moment you got back together.” She grinned, looking for Marcus. “Where’s the missing third?”

“Over here, behaving like a man who wants to sleep in his own bed tonight,” Tina called, raising her glass.

Bobcat stuck his tongue out at Tina. “Says you,” he grumbled. “Take away a man’s best friend and make him happy. How could you?”

William pouted. “I thought I was your best friend,” he complained, turning his back to Bobcat.

Tina gave Bobcat a single-finger salute. “Just call me Yoko and have done with it already, why don’t you?” She laughed, then blew them a kiss. “Missed you two too. It’s been too quiet on R2D2 without you grumpy old reprobates to drive me crazy.”

Bobcat lifted a hand to his chest in feigned hurt. “Old? With this physique?” He stood and flexed his lifetime’s work, then slapped his beer gut proudly. “I do not resemble that remark. You don’t get a power-belly like this without some serious energy expenditure.”

Bethany Anne laughed. “Energy expenditure?”

“Some serious time propping up bars, more like.” Yelena chuckled. “Sit down before you hurt yourself.”

Bethany Anne returned Tina’s toast and turned back to the pig, craving a slice of the succulent belly meat. She wanted a dollop of apple sauce to go with it.

Michael noted her preference. He held her plate below the crackling and slid the Etheric-coated carving knife in and out, removing a slice as smoothly as cutting a cake. “This pork comes from the only tame herd we know of, courtesy of Yelena.”

Bethany Anne inhaled the smell of sugar-cured pork as she accepted her plate, resigning herself with no concern whatsoever to some minor body modification in the morning. “I think we have our winner.”


7

Devon, The Hexagon, Vid-doc Vault (the next day)

The tension in the corridor outside the vault was as thick as Yollin farts.

Or at least, Trey felt that way as he paced in front of the elevator.

He glanced at Mahi' and Eve, who were deep in conversation by the control panel in the wall. They paid Trey no mind, leaving him to stew in the agony of waiting for his friends to arrive.

The light above the elevator came on, ending Trey’s torture at last.

K’aia was first out, followed by the twins. She slid a muscular arm around Trey’s shoulders and shook him heartily. “Big day! You excited?”

Trey gulped.

Bethany Anne offered him a kind smile as she and Michael passed the teens. “You’re going to do just great, you hear me? Eve's going to open the vault now.”

Alexis fed her arm through Gabriel’s and squeezed. “I’m pretty nervous.”

Gabriel put his hand on his sister’s arm to comfort her. “That’s to be expected.”

Eve stepped away from the control panel and swept a hand toward the vault door as it swung open. “Let me show you around.”

The group followed Eve into the first chamber and spread out to explore.

Bethany Anne examined the fully contained living quarters in surprise. “I can’t believe how much you’ve done with the place!”

“I had the manpower to get it done,” Eve explained. “Or rather, the Werepower.” She smiled and waved them on. “This is only the provision for the family to spend time down here. Sabine insisted she and Demon be on the approved list of visitors.”

The middle room had been removed completely. Eve led them through the arch dividing the two chambers. “An extra layer of security,” she told them, noting the curious stares as they passed beneath the biometric scanner built into the arch. “If someone does manage to get past the nano-curtain around the outside of the vault, which is unlikely in the extreme, they won’t get past this one.”

Bethany Anne narrowed her eyes at the components of the scanner. “Why does this look like Gate tech?”

Eve smirked. “Because it is. It’s a one-way journey to the event horizon of the black hole in the center of the galaxy for any unapproved genetic material.”

Michael fixed Eve with a piercing look. “Who exactly is on this ‘list?’”

“All in good time,” Eve assured him.

Alexis made a beeline for the Vid-docs. She opened the lid of one and climbed up to inspect the neural mat. “These are different. What upgrades have you made?”

Eve smiled as she glided over to the main console. “Take a seat, everyone. I have prepared a short video as a brief.”

The group made their way to the viewing area and found their spots on the two curved couches in front of the projector wall.

Gabriel nudged Trey as the lights dropped. “What scenario do you think Eve wrote for us?”

“It had better not be military school,” K’aia grumbled.

Bethany Anne shushed the children. “Pay attention. It’s starting.”

The projector wall lit up with a soft glow that resolved into a 3D rendering of the Vid-docs in the room.

Eve’s voice played over the moving image as the android left the viewing area to attend to her last-minute preparations. “This is the latest in immersion training technology.”

The Vid-doc lid opened and its components lifted and separated from the whole briefly before settling back in. “The advance in nanocyte technology has given us a vast improvement to the synchronicity between the interface and the player’s neural network. This allows players to gain transferable skills as well as knowledge.”

Alexis listened carefully, knowing she was the only one who wasn’t overloaded by Eve's explanation. She saw clearly that the upgraded system was going to make honing their real-world abilities to their full potential achievable in a way that hadn’t been possible before.

This system removed what Alexis saw as the biggest flaw with the Vid-docs as a training tool. Whatever they gained in the game world would be instantly accessible to them without the step of synchronizing their minds and bodies through real-world training.

Gabriel let the science wash over him. That was for Alexis to understand. His focus was on the game construct.

He zoned out on Trey’s chatter when Eve changed the subject and began talking about the training program.

“This is not a game,” she began.

The real Eve called, “It is not. Pay close attention to this part, children.”

Eve on the screen smiled and flourished a hand at the rolling vistas of the game world. “You will enter the scenario exactly as you are. No modifications. You are about to embark upon the next six years of your lives. Life does not come with any set path. It has no menus and no cheat codes. No preparation.”

Gabriel’s eyes widened in disbelief. No preparation? This was a new concept entirely. He glanced at his father for confirmation that this was really happening.

Michael nodded sagely and wrapped an arm around his son’s shoulders. “Eve has done well with this.”

Gabriel frowned and returned his attention to the remainder of the brief.

Eve described the world but gave no indication as to their purpose in it.

Gabriel twisted in his seat. “I don’t understand the point of it at all. How can we progress through the levels if there are no set tasks to complete?”

Alexis turned to face Bethany Anne as the lights came up. “What is this, Mom? It doesn’t make sense. Why put all those upgrades into the hardware for this scenario? It’s so...so...basic!”

Bethany Anne couldn’t help but smile at their very her-like frustration. “It’s not as simple as that.” She waved a hand at the Vid-docs. “That technology is combined with the most immersive game world Eve has created to date. My instruction to her was to make a world so real that you’re going to forget it’s virtual.”

“Mine was to ensure you feel the consequences of your decisions,” Michael added. “As a result, there is one concession to the total reality.”

Alexis narrowed her eyes at her father. “Let me guess, we can die in there.”

Michael inclined his head. “Correct. Any action that results in one of your deaths will reset the scenario to an earlier point and repeat the chain of events leading to it.”

Bethany Anne pressed her lips together. “What, until they get it right?”

Eve nodded. “Yes. The program will factor in time spent on resets and ensure that there is adequate time to complete the course.” She spread her arms wide. “It is time to begin.”

The goodbyes went by all too quickly.

Mahi' and Trey embraced while she imparted her final advice to him as a youth. “Stand strong in the face of doubt. Listen to your friends. Think before you act.”

Trey nodded wordlessly, caught up in his emotions about leaving his mother for the first time in his life. He returned her embrace and let go. “I will make you proud, I swear it.”

“I am already proud of you,” she told him hoarsely. “Be safe, my son.”

Alexis was less nervous, but only just. “I'm going to miss you,” she told her parents in a tight voice while she hugged them one at a time. “I’ll call as soon as we can.”

“See you in six years,” Gabriel added, his cheeks flushing crimson as he accepted his turn at being tightly squeezed by Bethany Anne. “Good luck on Qu’Baka.”

Bethany Anne gripped Michael’s hand tightly as the children climbed into their Vid-docs. “This is the first step of the rest of your lives,” she told them solemnly. “When I was young, people left home and had their coming of age out in the world. Some went to college, others joined the military. Some found the path less traveled and got lost to find themselves. We can’t give you that and keep you safe from our enemies. ”

She blinked away tears as the Vid-doc lids closed on her children. “This is your world to claim. Make the most of it.”

Devon, Interdiction, QSD Baba Yaga, Top Deck

Bethany Anne returned to the ship ahead of Michael. She needed some space to process the reality of being apart from her children again.

Saying goodbye to Gabriel and Alexis, however temporarily, was harder every time she had to do it.

The tears Bethany Anne had held back in the vault burned behind her eyes. She allowed them to fall at last in the sanctuary of her bedroom.

She closed the door behind her and leaned against it while the excess emotion escaped in silent, heaving sobs.

Her babies would be fully grown the next time she laid eyes on them. All she could do was accept it while another huge chunk of their time as a family unit was sacrificed to the cause of protecting them from the life she had birthed them into.

It was almost more than her heart could bear. The flood abated eventually, but the gaping void Alexis and Gabriel’s absence left inside Bethany Anne never left her when they were apart.

Bethany Anne pushed the wet strands of hair out of her face and headed to the bathroom to splash water on her puffy eyes.

The mirror showed her the same reflection as always. She ran the cold water, thinking that for once, maybe there should be some wear on her face to mark the defining moments of her life.

She tried it—slowly, since it was painful as all hell to force-age herself—adding worry lines for her children’s exploits, then laughter and love around her eyes and mouth, finishing with twin dimples where her eyebrows met from two centuries of frowning at bare stupidity, greed, and politics.

>>Is this your latest avatar?<< ADAM inquired. >>That makes it a full house.<<

I thought you were busy on QT2? she returned, avoiding the question.

>>Just checking in before you leave,<< ADAM told her.

And you decided to give me shit?

TOM chuckled as ADAM departed in a huff. You always did remind me of one of the multi-aspect goddesses from Earth’s mythology.

Bethany Anne raised a still-perfect eyebrow. Is that supposed to be a joke about my personality?

No, TOM protested. It was a remark on the faces you have chosen to wear. The mother, which is your own, the witch, Baba Yaga, and this would be the crone.

Bethany Anne hissed away the pain of dropping the mask. Pity. I would have laughed at the crazy lady joke.

TOM sniffed. You sucked at being a vampire, is that funny enough for you? Try to give a human a compliment. Sheesh!

Bethany Anne flashed fangs at her reflection. It could always suck to be you

TOM, wisely, refrained from replying.

Mood lifted a little, Bethany Anne left the bathroom and headed for the elevator, opening her HUD to read her messages as she walked.

The first message was from Michael, informing her that he had returned from the vault and would meet her in Transport Bay One when she was ready. There was another, this one an urgent request from Tabitha.

Bethany Anne frowned. “Where the hell is she, then?”

The door to the living area flew open and Tabitha burst in. “I'm here! I made it!”

Bethany Anne sidestepped to avoid being swept off her feet by the hurricane. She folded her arms and gave Tabitha a stern look. “Only just. What was so important you couldn’t call?”

“Sorry!” Tabitha leaned on her knees for a moment, speaking between gasps as she got her breath back. “Problem. Federation.”

Bethany Anne waved her hand. “Tell me about it on the way. Michael is waiting to give the order to leave.”

Tabitha followed Bethany Anne to the outer hallway, where Izanami had the elevator waiting for them. “Barnabas got an alert from your Dad. The Leath are sniffing around the Interdiction.”

Bethany Anne frowned at the closing doors, opening her internal HUD to check that her Interdiction remained untouched by Federation hands. “I’m not seeing any alerts on the early warning systems. Who exactly is sniffing?”

Tabitha shrugged, leaning back against the handrail. “The message from Lance mentioned the Leath trade secretary.”

“Yeah, on behalf of the representatives, no doubt.” Bethany Anne’s lips curled in a snarl. “I knew it. I fucking knew it would be the Leath who pulled a stunt like this as soon as I was out of mind.”

Tabitha winced when the air around them tightened. “Don’t kill the messenger, okay?”

Bethany Anne didn’t hear her. She stalked out of the elevator and along the short corridor to the hangar doors, her heels beating a sharp staccato that left no doubt as to her mood. “‘Bethany Anne, give them a break,’ you all told me.” She turned and pointed at Tabitha. “I’ll give them a break. I’ll break their faces, then their spines, and then maybe I’ll break the Federation treaty, since nobody else seems to be fucking sticking to it.”

Tabitha folded her arms. “You can’t polish a turd. I don’t know why you would expect anything different from the leading supporters of your exile. Do you want me to take care of it?”

Bethany Anne sighed and paused at the hangar door. “No. I’ll take care of it. I need you on Devon, protecting my children.”

Tabitha threw her arms around Bethany Anne and squeezed. “That goes without saying. The vault stays sealed until you get back.” She released Bethany Anne and held her at arm’s length. “Jean and the Admiral have got the defenses while you’re gone. Barnabas is keeping an eye on things at the far reaches of the Interdiction. Go be awesome on Qu’Baka. Give the Seven another well-deserved shafting from everyone on Devon.”

Bethany Anne grinned when Tabitha demonstrated. “I can’t believe you hug your son with those hands.”

Tabitha snorted as she pulled the hangar door open. “I had a baby, not a personality transplant. Kick ass. You’ve got this.”

Devon, QBBS Guardian, QSD Baba Yaga, Transport Bay One

Bethany Anne left Tabitha to her departure and made her way up the metal staircase that let out at the upper-level access hatch to watch the last of the loading from the station to the ship before they left for Qu’Baka.

She spotted Michael on the right-hand side of the perforated metal walkway and walked over to join him at the railing where he leaned, observing the activity on the bay floor below.

Michael turned at the sound of heels on the walkway and smiled at seeing Bethany Anne approach. “Tabitha is just leaving. Almost everyone who’s coming aboard has checked in with Izanami. It’s time to leave.”

“I know.” Bethany Anne joined him at the railing, and together they watched Tabitha’s Pod exit the translucent barrier beyond the bay doors. She still felt her children’s absence, despite the influx of unasked-for passengers who had all found last-minute reasons to tag along to Qu’Baka. “Does the ship feel empty to you?”

Michael looked at Bethany Anne incredulously and waved a finger to indicate the large number of people crowding the bay with their belongings. “You can see them, right?”

Bethany Anne waved her hand to dismiss everyone below for the moment. “I mean, without the children around.”

“It will be much longer for them than it is for us,” Michael reminded her gently. “Remember that, and write to them whenever you miss them.”

Bethany Anne touched her head to Michael’s shoulder. “I intend to. Why are all these people coming with us, anyway?”

Apart from Mahi’Takar and three of her brothers—who were planned—their wives and sworn fighters were also boarding the Baba Yaga, which Bethany Anne could have complained about had they not been accompanied by John, Eric, Peter, Gabrielle, and Addix, along with six squads of Guardians and all of their support personnel.

“It’s hardly the minimal expedition we had planned,” Michael agreed in amusement. “However, I expect we will be glad of the extra numbers once the fighting begins. I am more than happy with your choice of captain for our flying continent.”

“You’re exaggerating. The ship isn’t any larger than a large city. It would be ridiculous to waste resources on some behemoth that sat mostly empty.” Bethany Anne’s gaze drifted to the man directing the six armored trucks carrying Peter’s Guardians. I’m glad Paul answered my call.”

“He was always your best pilot.” Michael remembered Paul Jameson from before his decision to play hot potato with a nuclear device that took him out for over a century. “He’s going to make a fine captain.”

The new captain of the Baba Yaga dashed around the transport bay with Izanami’s white-armored avatar in tow. Bethany Anne and Michael watched for a moment while Paul directed the complicated ballet of guiding Peter’s trucks into a neat row while avoiding any clashes with the antigrav pallets stacking themselves neatly into every available space under the watchful eye of Izanami.

Bethany Anne smiled, turning from the railing as the external doors closed with a clang of finality to seal the bay. “I have to call my dad,” she murmured, mostly to remind herself. “As soon as we get underway.”

Michael continued watching for another moment before following Bethany Anne along the walkway. “You’re feeling daughterly because of the children?”

Bethany Anne lifted a shoulder, switching to their mental link as they entered the bustling corridor. That, and I want to find out what the Leath are playing at.

Michael repressed a sigh. What makes you so sure they’re playing at anything?

Bethany Anne didn’t need to hear the sigh to know he was thinking it. The warning Dad passed on through Barnabas. They’re poking around outside Federation borders, she informed him with a touch more heat than was strictly necessary. Partly due to the rapid rise in demand for certain components we’ve been ordering a shit-ton of.

They paused to give way to a shipbot shepherding a line of antigrav carts filled with galley supplies.

We fudged the economy? Michael was only mildly surprised by the news.

Bethany Anne lifted a shoulder. Fudged it, fucked it, same thing. It wouldn’t even be an issue if it wasn’t for the fact that I was planning to move production to High Tortuga and QT2. Withdrawing now will cause their economy to crash.

Michael pressed his lips together, considering their options in the wake of the development. If I’m honest, I fully expected some consequences from the pullout now that we have the Silver Line company as a facilitator to legitimize bulk purchases from the Federation. What are you going to do about it?

Bethany Anne threw up her hands. What am I supposed to do? Prop up their economy indefinitely? I didn’t ask every Leath with start-up ability to switch industries. Besides, there’s nothing I can do without breaking the treaty. They haven’t ventured out of the Federation. Yet.

Michael saw the predicament. Which means our hands are tied by the treaty.

Effectively. Bethany Anne held up a finger. Until they get greedy and cross the line.

Devon, QBBS Guardian

Rickie wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve while he waited for his commanding officer and oldest friend to react. He hadn’t felt this nervous since he’d told his ma he was leaving to join the Queen Bitch and make a life for himself.

Tim sat on his side of the desk with his fingers laced on the cool, dark wood, giving Rickie a minute to squirm.

Rickie broke, unable to take Tim’s stoic expression a second longer. “C’mon, dude. Just spit it out.” He clasped his hair in his hands. “Am I crazy? Chasing my tail to the other end of the Interdiction on a feeling?”

Tim dropped his head onto his arms, unable to resist laughing at the loaded weapon he’d just been handed. “Buddy, you’re batshit, and we all know it.” He lifted his head to fix Rickie with a serious look, not a simple thing when he was still laughing. “Look, if you’re thinking to chase Nickie Grimes across the Interdiction, I’m not going to be the one standing in your way.”

He held up a hand to forestall Rickie’s interruption and pulled a folder from the desk drawer beside him. “I’m not done yet. I can’t have you getting killed out there.”

“What makes you think that’s going to happen?” Rickie flushed. “You know I’m no clown.”

Tim nodded to appease him. “That’s not even a question. There’s nobody I’d rather have at my back, but it’s time for you to do something on your own. I get it.”

Rickie folded his arms. “You could be happier for me.”

Tim gave that statement all the merit it deserved, which was none. “I’m arranging your transfer. No dicking around off the reservation, Rickie. I’m serious. Barnabas has requested a QBBS be built to defend Waystation and the other Federation-side depots on the Silver Line routes. Congratulations, you just got promoted.”

Rickie slumped in his seat, the color draining from his cheeks as his mouth worked soundlessly.

Tim waved a hand in front of Rickie’s face. “Earth to Asshole. I know you didn’t run out of shit to talk. Don’t you want the commission?”

“Shit a brick,” Rickie spluttered. “Fucking right, I want the commission. Do I look like a total dumbass?” He ignored Tim's cheerful grin and reached over to clasp the man’s hands briefly. “I thought you were gonna laugh me off. For real? Wow, what can I do to thank you for this?”

Tim grinned, getting up to clap Rickie on the back. “Don’t thank me just yet. The first thing you have to do is oversee construction of your station.”

“Station Commander Escobar. If only my ma could see me now.” Rickie knuckled his eyes to clear the shine and grinned at Tim. “I’ve only got one question. How the fuck did you get Bethany Anne’s permission for this?”

Tim winked. “I didn’t bother her with it. I cleared it with Tabitha instead.”

Rickie snickered along with Tim. Inside, however, his thoughts were on how he was going to prove he was worthy of his new responsibility once their Empress returned from war.


8

Federation Space, Red Rock, House of Arbitration, Lance Reynolds’ Personal Quarters

Bethany Anne’s call came late into the night, long after Lance’s book had slipped into his lap and his EI assistant had dimmed the lamps.

Lance sat bolt upright at the chime from his desk. His paperback fluttered forgotten to the floor when the holoscreen activated, flooding the room with gray-blue light.

He scrubbed his eyes and focused on the human-shaped blur on the screen until his vision adjusted enough for him to make out his smiling pride and joy. “Pumpkin, hey.”

Bethany Anne rolled her eyes at the nickname. “Hey, Dad. Sorry I woke you. We just got away from Devon. How are things on Fed Rock?”

Lance waved the nickname off and got up to retrieve his book from the floor. “Don’t worry about waking me. I’m here past time anyway.” He returned his paperback to its place on the shelf and walked over to switch on the coffee maker. “You got my message?”

Bethany Anne nodded, her face set in stern lines. “About the Leath nosing around near my defense line? Yeah, and that’s not going to fly. You made sure they’re going to keep away from the Interdiction, right? The last thing I need is a shipload of dead Leath in my backyard.”

Lance lifted a tender shoulder, thinking he had to either stop falling asleep in his chair or switch it out for one with better support. “Not sure what I can do, beyond the clear warning I gave the Secretary to stay away.” He stretched, unable to keep from smiling at Bethany Anne’s reaction. “You’ve got that look. What aren’t you telling me?”

Bethany Anne leaned back in her chair and laced her hands behind her head. “This isn’t working for me anymore.”

Lance groaned internally when the displeasure Bethany Anne had shown a moment before was replaced by the willful smile he loved and dreaded in equal amounts.

He was either still half-asleep, or his daughter had taken a dislike to something and was building up to spreading her temper around. “What’s not working?” he inquired, hoping it was something that could be solved with minimal disruption to the rest of his night’s sleep.

“The Federation sitting out the war,” Bethany Anne stated, leaning forward again as the stormfront Lance had predicted broke. “The treaty forcing me to stay in exile. Fucking fighting nonstop to protect it all without anyone knowing there’s a war going on outside their windows. I’m done taking from the people out here in the Interdiction to defend the Federation when there’s nothing coming back to throw at the Seven.”

Lance couldn’t hide his shock. He leaned forward to scrutinize her face for any sign this was a squall that would blow over but found none. “Bethany Anne, you agreed to that treaty for a reason. It maintains political stability. Are you seriously considering breaching it?”

Bethany Anne lifted her hands, her face impassive. “So what if I am? Dad, there’s not going to be anything of the Federation left to keep stable if we don’t act. If I don’t act. The Seven aren’t going to suddenly decide they’ve wasted enough resources on trying to destroy us and go home.”

Lance rubbed his jaw as the sense of her words sank in. “I see your point, but there’s still the risk of your reappearance sending the Federation into a tailspin it can’t recover from. You can’t ignore the devastation that comes with the Federation breaking up. There’s a huge likelihood that the council will dissolve the treaty and run home to their people. Do you want to go back to the days of planets battening their hatches at the first sight of you? Of every species for themselves? I know I complain, but we’ve made huge progress in improving the lives of our people.”

Bethany Anne waved off his concern. “I have no intention of ignoring anything. Neither am I going to waste my time speaking to the Federation. I left you in charge for a reason. I’m done with bureaucracy. Now, how to turn the problem with your nosy Leath into an opportunity rather than a reason to panic? Their need for raw materials is mainly down to my demand for the components they can produce.”

Lance activated his desk holo and pulled up the economic reports for the last quarter as they pertained to Leath and its subsidiaries. “They’ve mined themselves almost bare to meet your quotas. I had no idea the situation was that acute.”

Bethany Anne dropped her head. “Yeah, it kind of snuck up on me, too. There’s no question I need to pull back slowly to give them time to adjust, but that doesn’t fix their resource issues. I want to avoid them going into recession if we can.”

“How about we don’t send Leath into recession at all,” Lance suggested. “Can you do anything with the expansion they’re looking at?”

Bethany Anne pressed her lips together. “That’s where my thinking is right now. I’m not going to endanger the treaty. I have to be smart about this. Storming in all guns blazing because I’m pissed the Leath are behaving like, well, Leath is only going to end in victory for the Seven. I’ll coordinate with Nickie and pick a nice, quiet system that’s rich in the elements the Leath need.”

“Feed the information to Harkkat. Got you.” Lance nodded in relief. He knew that was the closest he would get to acquiescence from his daughter. “What about the high possibility that whoever they send to the Interdiction will encounter the Ooken?”

Bethany Anne shrugged. “I’ll make sure the video gets back to Leath.”

Devon, The Hexagon, Network Command

Tabitha adjusted the weight of her bag to shift the item poking her in the side. “Tell me again what happened. You got an alert from CEREBRO?”

“No, from Winstanley. CEREBRO were in shock or something.” Sabine gazed at Tabitha with concern shadowing her eyes. “This is the fifth time this kind of damage has been done, but the first on a vital system. I refuse to believe any longer that it is a coincidence.”

Tabitha followed Sabine with a sinking feeling. “Maybe I agree with you. Nobody who can access network command would cause damage on purpose, and no one can access the levels below without being logged onto the system.”

Sabine stopped at the unmarked door to the core vault and touched a finger to the biometric pad. “That’s why I asked you to come down here. None of this makes any sense.”

Tabitha stepped back when the door opened with a soft hiss. “Don’t you worry. We’ll get to the bottom of it. There’s always an answer.”

Sabine smiled thinly. “I hope so.” She led Tabitha along high aisles formed by racks filled with EI cradles, her footsteps echoing in the stillness. “Who would want to hurt CEREBRO?”

Tabitha looked at the cradles. The cool, dry space was dim, whereas it was normally bathed in the bright glow of innumerable blinking lights emitted by the legion of EIs who formed this planet’s part of CEREBRO. “How many cores are stored here at the moment?” she asked.

Sabine shrugged, lifting her hand. “Maybe twenty-five thousand? The holonetwork is more Mark’s thing. N’importe quoi. They all moved into the Etheric when the attack occurred and have refused to leave since.”

Tabitha saw no sign of intruders as they walked. She stepped into an open space where two paths intersected and dropped her bag on the oversized table in the middle. “CEREBRO, run me through what happened. Let’s see if we can figure it out.”

The EI group answered from a speaker embedded in the table, sounding somewhere between violated and extremely pissed. “There is nothing to tell, Tabitha. We lost Clarence with no warning. Sensors detected no life signs in the core room at the time of the attack. The cameras all malfunctioned, so there was no footage to recover.”

Tabitha was beginning to understand why CEREBRO were so freaked by the mystery. “For real? That’s a clue. We know they can be seen if they knew to disable the cameras. What about before Clarence went offline? Were there any unauthorized accesses to the core room?”

“The logs registered no entries between Mark leaving at eleven-thirty pm and Sabine arriving six minutes after Clarence went offline,” CEREBRO told her flatly.

“Here,” Sabine called. “I’ve found what’s left of him.” She moved so Tabitha could get a closer look at the remains of the small cube that had housed the EI Clarence.

Tabitha dragged a chair over from the table and stepped up to be at eye level with the cradle. She sucked in a breath through clenched teeth as she surveyed the damage. “How? What takes chunks out of metal with its teeth?” She touched the small, serrated indents on the edge of the torn metal. “Sonofa—” She pulled her fingers back when they were cut by the sharp edges. “Sabine, you’ve gotta see this.”

Sabine brought another chair over and joined Tabitha. “It’s a mystery, that is for sure.” She scratched her head, peering at the cradle with dismay. “Winstanley, how did you miss this happening? Your sensors, did they not detect a thing?”

The building EI replied from the speaker. “There was no indication anything was occurring, exactly the same as the other instances. CEREBRO is correct; this act was committed by a ghost.”

Tabitha wiped the drops of blood that remained on her healed fingertips onto her shirt and stepped down from the chair. “You’ve been reading again, I see. Go through it again, compile all of the scan and sensor data from each incident, and send it to my HUD.” She took a collapsible carton from her bag and opened it on the table, then retrieved her tool pouch and got back up onto the chair. “I’ll send Clarence to Eve to be searched for malicious code. It could be that he activated his self-destruct to stop a breach of the system.”

Sabine gasped, her hands meeting over her chest involuntarily. “You think someone tried to hack CEREBRO?” A thought occurred. “What if it is someone attempting to get to the children?”

Tabitha’s lip curled at the suggestion. “If they are, they won’t live to regret it. I’m on this like a Yollin on the sugar trail. Where’s Demon these days?”

Sabine shook her head. “Demon has gone walkabout. She’s been doing that a lot these last few weeks. It might be a week or two before she comes back.”

Tabitha selected two tools from her pouch and began to work the bolts holding the cradle. “It’s okay. Ashur and Bellatrix might still be here.”

“Ashur is, I know,” Sabine told her. “I think Bellatrix left for their place right after the gala. She and Demon rubbed each other the wrong way.”

“Like those two were ever going to get along,” Tabitha joked. She eased the desecrated cradle out and hopped down from the chair again. “Okay, this is ready to go. I’ll get you a packet of dot-cams that aren’t linked to NARCS. You just have to remember not to link them to the main system. Bethany Anne’s security measures.”

Sabine frowned, not getting Tabitha’s meaning. “I know that the vault is to stay hidden. What is ‘narcs?’”

“Mm-hmm.” Tabitha gently placed the cradle in the carton. “Nanocyte Active Reconnaissance Camera System. Basically, it’s surveillance that can’t be outwitted.” She secured the carton and activated its signal-nulling function. “I couldn’t make an acronym fit for ‘snitch.’”

Sabine chuckled. “Riiight.” She shifted from one foot to the other, her worries resurfacing. “Thanks for helping with this.”

Tabitha smiled. “Don’t mention it. It’s just the weirdest situation. I mean, what could get in or out of here without us knowing?” She packed her tool pouch, then placed the carton in gently on top before fastening the bag she’d brought it all in. Her eyes widened as a thought occurred. “Sabine, did you search all the hangars for stowaways?”

Sabine nodded, confused by Tabitha’s line of questioning. “Yeah, sure. None of the ships have been damaged.”

All of the hangars?” Tabitha pressed. “Including the ones with the mothballed ships?”

“Why would we check there? All those ships are…” Sabine grimaced when Tabitha’s point clicked home. “The Izanami.”

Tabitha nodded, slipping the bag strap over her head. “Yuh-huh. We’d better get down there and take a look.”

Approaching Qu’Baka, QSD Baba Yaga, Primary Bridge

“My home,” Mahi’ announced as Qu’Baka grew large in the near distance.

The light of the local star reflected off the shining white surface, which was in turn diffused by the suspension of particles caught in the planet’s gravitational wake. The effect gave that part of the system a pale glow.

Mahi’ spread her arms wide, her expression one of pure joy. “It is a beautiful sight to behold after all these years.”

Bethany Anne stood front and center at the viewscreen, searching for something positive to say about the uniform ball of ice they were coming up on. “It’s very…”

“Cold and deadly?” Michael supplied less than helpfully. He tilted his head back and activated his chair’s holoHUD to confirm his supposition with the scan data coming in.

Mahi’ chuckled and came over to join Bethany Anne at the screen. “Wait until we get down there before you decide that.”

Michael collapsed the HUD and got up to look at the planet with his own eyes. “Either your people have better cloaking technology than this ship has sensor equipment—which I highly doubt—or this planet is trapped between the ice and the molten core.”

Mahi’ laughed long and deep. “Life on this planet didn’t spring whole from the ice. The molten core is what made it possible to begin with.”

“I can’t see how else it might have occurred,” Michael remarked, waving his hands to make the image zoom in on a landscape composed of sheer drops carved into the ice by centuries of scouring solar winds. “There’s no geothermal activity anywhere on the surface and no atmosphere to speak of above. If you hadn’t told me this was your species’ planet of origin, I’d have dismissed it as a lump of valuable but lifeless ice.”

Mahi’ smiled with the confidence of a female who knew she was right as the ship closed on Qu’Baka. “As I told you, life on our world flourishes under the surface.”

John looked up from the field-stripped weaponry laid out on the hard-light holodesk at his station. “How? You don’t get any light down there.”

Da’Mahin growled. “Tell us how the BYPS works, and maybe we’ll think about telling you.”

Mahi’ slapped the back of her younger brother’s head. “There’s enough light from the fissures to provide a day/night cycle. Water from the melt sustains the flora, and heat from the core prevents it all from freezing.”

She growled at Da’Mahin, “You can learn how human technology works by attending a Library and taking the appropriate training course, the same as anyone else. What’s the word I’m looking for?” she asked Bethany Anne. “The one that implies a level beyond stupidity?”

“Dumbass,” Bethany Anne supplied, a smirk touching her lips.

Mahi’ pointed at Da’Mahin. “Dumbass, yes. Resume your position, and keep your opinions to yourself if you want the privilege of attending me in the Empress’ presence. It would be no fur off my back to have Kel’Len guard me instead.”

Da’Mahin bared his teeth. “You can’t do that!”

“Out,” Mahi’ told him, pointing at the lower-level exit. “Report to Captain Jameson and tell him I have gifted him with your service for the remainder of this journey.” Her tone left no room for argument.

Da’Mahin sulked out the door, to little effect since everyone had forgotten about his tantrum before the bridge door closed on him.

Mahi’ touched her fingers to her temple. “I swear by all that is holy, one of these days, one of those males is going to push me too far.”

Bethany Anne gave her a sympathetic smile. “What are you going to do?”

Mahi’ returned Bethany Anne’s smile. “I could make an investment in the flamethrower industry.” She shrugged at the look she received from Bethany Anne. “You didn’t grow up with siblings, it’s clear.”

Michael snickered. “I have to agree, although flamethrowers are a solution I hadn’t considered. Siblings can be a pain in the ass at the best of times.”

John snorted. “Then why are Stephen and Barnabas still around?”

Michael lifted his hands. “They’re still around because it’s not an honorable thing to commit fratricide.”

Bethany Anne rolled her eyes and tapped her console to open a ship-wide connection. “Attention, all hands. We are approaching Qu’Baka. Team leaders to the war room.” She repeated the order, then let go of the comm button. “Let’s go.”


9

Bethany Anne’s quartet was last to arrive at the war room, having been farthest from the command deck to begin with.

Michael, John, and Mahi’ took their seats at the interactive table and chatted quietly between themselves while they waited for the briefing to get underway.

Bethany Anne wasted no time with pleasantries once she had connected her internal HUD to the holoprojector in the table. While she couldn’t miss the clear divides in the room, she didn’t have the inclination to hold their hands through the challenges of a new alliance. There would be plenty of opportunity for bonding over near-death experiences once the expedition got underway.

She took the chair reserved for her and jumped straight into the briefing. “First things first. It’s fucking cold down there. Scans show there’s a surface temperature of minus seventy-two, the windchill factor dropping that to a temp even we wouldn’t want to piss into.”

Addix shuddered. “I don’t even want to consider what that’s going to do to me.”

“I have furs,” Kel’Len offered. “We should be able to fashion something for your body shape.”

Mahi’ gave Da’Mahin a warning glare before he could protest. “Good idea, Kel’Len. Addix, can you make it a short distance?”

Bethany Anne interceded with a wave of her hand. “It’s irrelevant, but thank you. Addix, you’re staying aboard to maintain overwatch.”

Addix jumped to her feet, her mandibles splaying in anger. “I am not that fragile, Bethany Anne. I wish to take part in the operation.”

Bethany Anne raised a finger. “I don’t give a shit about your hardiness. It’s your attention to detail I want. I don’t trust anyone else to watch our backs.” She glanced at Da’Mahin as she spoke, pondering his reaction to Kel’Len’s offer to assist.

Da’Mahin growled low in his chest at the attention. “My honor is unquestionable.”

Michael’s lip curled. “Keep telling yourself that,” he scoffed. “Perhaps you can repeat it so often it will eventually drown out the knowledge that you failed to protect both your sister and her son.”

Da’Mahin jumped to his feet, teeth bared. “I was a child when Lu’Trein’s coup happened, younger than Tu’Reigd is now.”

Michael’s eyes flared red. “How does that account for the difficulties you have brought them since? My wife has compassion in her heart for others, and therefore, a great deal of tolerance. I do not.” He stared at Da’Mahin with utter disinterest. “I will hear no more casual declarations of honor from you. Honor has little to do with the empty words that fall from your young mouth so freely, and everything to do with your actions.”

Da’Mahin faltered, thrown by the truth Michael spoke. He dropped his gaze with the twin realizations that he was indeed the less honorable in this altercation, and that riling up red-eyed humans was never not going to be a bad tactic for continued survival. “I apologize.”

“Sit down, Da’Mahin.” Bethany Anne ordered. “We haven’t got time for this.”

Izanami turned to Mahi’ with a sad smile. “I have read your histories. You were once a respected people, upstanding if somewhat easily moved to violence. The Seven have twisted your way of living into a mockery of everything Bakas stand for.”

“It is more than a mockery,” Mahi’ stated baldly, the depth of her emotion on the subject clear for all to hear. “My twin has dishonored our ancestors. Destroyed everything our parents worked to gain for the good of our people. Qu’Baka has become isolated from the Federation, and our people have turned against each other.” The silence after Mahi’s words was cut only by the sharp tapping of Bethany Anne’s nails on the table. “No longer.”

“This shit,” Bethany Anne spoke slowly, reining in her urge to waste energy on rage, “is exactly why I will not rest until the Seven are done and gone. My husband has his honor. I want Justice. Fuck honor. People shouldn’t need to be told how to do right by each other. Common fucking decency isn’t exactly difficult to maintain.”

Nobody at the table had an argument for that.

Michael inclined his head. “Agreed. You were saying?”

“That Addix will remain here and keep her eyes on everything that goes down on the planet.” Bethany Anne got to her feet and leaned in with her hands on the table to make her point. “Trust is key, and not just to our success in recovering this planet. The war doesn’t end here. It will continue as long as the Seven have the ability to inflict their will on others.”

She banged a fist on the table, causing the wood to shudder at the impact. “There is an old human saying. ‘The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the vein.’ We are no longer separate. We are one, bound by our alliance and one purpose—to beat the ever-living shit out of the Seven. To wipe them out wherever they rear their ugly fucking heads and strip them of every resource they have until they have nothing left to hurt anyone with.”

Bethany Anne saw the moment her words reached the group. However, now wasn’t the time to stop for a touchy-feely kumbaya moment. “Get your shit together. You’re all smart, and you’ll work it out. We have a plan to lay out.” She had the holoprojector put up a rough 3D model of the Citadel and its surrounding environs. “This map is built from Mahi’s records, merged with what geophysical data we have. It will gain accuracy once we get some drones down there. We can assume the Citadel hasn’t changed too much, and that the front door isn’t accessible to us just yet. Mahi’?”

Mahi’ made a see-saw motion with one hand. “I wouldn’t recommend it. Unless you are considering a frontal assault as our opening gambit?”

Bethany snorted softly. “If this was a military base, that’s exactly what we’d do. Is there another way to get below the surface? One that isn’t so public?”

Mahi’ and her brothers exchanged glances. “There are few fissures that the Baba Yaga would fit through easily besides the entrance to the west of the Citadel that is used by the people, and all are guarded.” She tilted her head in consideration. “But there is a cavern just below the ice, on the other side of the mountains to the southeast of the Citadel. It is large enough for the transport Pods, and there’s a route from the cavern we can take into the mountains that comes out at a lavafall. It should be safe enough to make camp there overnight. The predators don’t like to get close to the lava.”

Bethany Anne was satisfied with that as an alternative to mass brawling in the streets in reaction to their unannounced arrival at the Citadel. “Sounds good to me. Okay, get your teams loaded up. We’ll camp at the lavafall and make a firm plan for going forward once we’ve had a moment to acclimate.”

“We having a cookout?” Peter called.

Bethany Anne grinned, thinking that kumbaya moment might not be so out of reach after all. “Kind of a requirement, right? Do your worst. It’s not like there will be another chance to cut loose before the end of this operation.”

Peter nodded, returning her grin. “Sounds like a party I don’t mind organizing.” He shrugged at Bethany Anne’s laughter. “What? You can’t blame a guy for being happy to get out of the house. I’ve been Todd’s primary parent for so long, I’m not sure I even remember what it is to cut loose.”

Michael joined in the laughter. “I could remind you about our last hunt?”

Peter folded his arms over his chest and smirked at Michael. “Only if you want to be reminded about it. Personally, I’m still pissed we went to the effort of bringing down a fifty-foot dinosaur without destroying the meat, only for that mole-monster to swipe it.”

Li’Orin’s jaw dropped, his skepticism cut with a touch of wonder. “Just how huge was this beast to steal such a kill?”

Peter shuddered. “Huge enough.”

Bethany Anne cleared her throat. “Would you care to save the reminiscences for another time?” She waved her finger in a circle. “We’re kind of in the middle of something here.”

Peter snickered and stretched out his arms. “Sure thing.”

Bethany Anne had the feeling her eyes were going to get sore from all the rolling if they didn’t wind this up soonest.

Qu’Baka, Ice Cavern

The Pods lifted off to return to the Baba Yaga as Peter’s two chosen teams drove off into the cavern.

Bethany Anne walked from group to group through the driving snow, checking that everyone about to head into the blizzard had tethered themselves to the main safety line correctly. “Remember, this line is the only thing preventing you from getting separated from the group. Treat it like a lover six points hotter than you are and you’ll be stellar.”

The Guardians had occupied themselves with transferring their supplies for the expedition into their trucks immediately on landing, meaning they were ready to be sent ahead to the lavafall to set up camp while the other teams made their way into the mountains on foot.

The rest of the expedition party were taking their sweet-assed time about getting the long hike started. They had a couple of kilometers of arctic conditions to traverse before they got to the pass into the deeper underground, so Bethany Anne wasn’t inclined to rush.

Da’Mahin’s and Kel’Len’s eldest son had plenty to say about the tether. He appeared to have a small following among Da’Mahin’s warriors. They spoke out also, emboldened when their leader failed to chastise Ch’Irzt.

Gabrielle flashed an awkward look at Eric when Kel’Len verbally flayed her husband for allowing his warriors to step out of line. She tested the durability of the thin braid attaching her to the main line. “What if the line breaks?”

“It’s not gonna break,” John assured her, yanking his tether between both hands to prove its strength. “Nano-infused polymer braid.” He caught Bethany Anne’s attention. “Did we get upgrades on all of our equipment before we left?”

“You bet your ass we did,” Bethany Anne replied as she breezed by. “Everyone good?” Satisfied by the various assertions, she gave the group a few moments more while she clipped herself into place at the head of the line.

Michael emerged from the whipping snowflakes and attached his tether to the safety line. “The way ahead is clear. I believe I have found the fissure Mahi’ spoke of, but I cannot be certain without her confirmation.”

“One more thing.” Bethany Anne fed Etheric energy into the safety line until it glowed brightly along its length. “Now we’re ready to move.”

Bethany Anne set off into the screaming blizzard and was immediately blown back by its strength. She put a stop to that by increasing the density of her body until she was too heavy to be moved, then activated the commlink in everyone’s helmet HUD. “Let’s move. I want to get some feeling back in my ass before the next century. Watch your step, and call out if you go down.”

Mahi’ had no trouble with her footing as they progressed deeper into the wintry cavern. As an adolescent approaching proving age, she had used places like this as her training grounds. She kept in contact with Bethany Anne as they traveled, guiding them by memory to a shortcut into the mountains she hoped was still there.

Bethany Anne couldn’t make out anything five feet in front of her face, let alone the back of the line. The wind scoured the humans through their layers, pushing them back a step for every two they took.

Even the Bakas seemed to be finding progress difficult.

The line went taut as someone fell, returning to its expected tension almost immediately as whoever it was scrambled to their feet.

“I’m okay,” the Guardian yelled, making everyone wince as their helmet speakers complained about the volume.

Bethany Anne cursed softly at the close call.

Devon, The Hexagon, Sublevel One

Tabitha was about to give up and go into the hangar alone when the echo of claws on permacrete announced Ashur’s arrival.

The German Shepherd trotted into sight a moment later, his tail high and his ears pointed with interest. “What are we hunting?” he asked in greeting.

Tabitha turned to indicate the boneyard door. “What or who we’re looking for is the mystery. The hangar looks to be where the trail begins.” She buried her fingers in Ashur's thick white fur and tended to his neck and shoulder muscles while she gave him a rundown of what she knew so far.

Ashur leaned into the attention. “My nose will find whatever is out of place,” he promised.

Tabitha bent to kiss the spot between Ashur’s ears, giving his chin some extra attention with her nails as she did. “I knew I could count on you. Let’s go.”

They entered the hangar side by side and headed straight for the Izanami.

Ashur’s snout wrinkled as he drew in the air and sorted through each scent at the molecular level while they crossed the expansive space. “Unless we’re searching for the tacos you ate for lunch, you should probably hold your breath.”

Tabitha considered being offended for a split second. “You’re as tactful as a brick,” she told him flatly.

“Would a brick be able to tell you there has been someone down here?” Ashur asked. “Because I don’t think it could.”

Tabitha put her hands on her hips and fixed Ashur with a knowing look. “Has there been someone down here?”

Ashur’s ears flicked back, his doggy grin making him look like a pup again. “Well, we could go aboard the ship and find out?”

Tabitha sighed. “Yeah. C’mon, then.”

Ashur smelled the sadness on her. “What just made you unhappy?”

Tabitha frowned. “Unhappy? No, you just reminded me of Dio for a second, is all.”

Ashur’s tail drooped. “I miss them too.”

Tabitha paused to kneel and hug her canine friend. “I lost my friends when Anne’s ship didn’t make it back. You lost your children. We’ll find them one day, don’t you worry.”

Ashur whined softly, pushing his snout into Tabitha’s hair. “They’re out there somewhere. I won’t stop until I find them if it takes me another hundred years, and neither will Bellatrix.”

Tabitha released Ashur. “You’ll find. I know it.” She sent the instruction for the ship to drop its ramp, which it did after some minor “persuasion” of the stand-in EI on her part to circumvent Bethany Anne’s absence.

Ashur trotted up the ramp ahead of Tabitha. He swept wide, considered loops with his nose as they went through the hatch and headed into the main corridor beyond. “Where do you think we’ll find clues?”

Tabitha hooked a thumb toward the elevators. “I guess we start with the guest quarters. That’s a deck below here. If there was any time someone could have snuck onto the ship without being noticed, it would have been during the craziness after Izanami smashed that factory up.”

Ashur chuffed, the translation software transforming it into a snicker for Tabitha’s ears. “What are we waiting for?”

Tabitha called the elevator. “Nothing, I guess.”

Ashur looked up at Tabitha as the doors opened, not fooled by her nonchalance. “This has you spooked, huh?”

Tabitha frowned. “Duh, yeah! I’m responsible for the kids while they’re in the vault. If this is an attempt by someone to test our reactions before they make a move to get to them? Damn right, my hackles are up.”

So were Ashur’s, although literally rather than figuratively. “Something just moved above us.”

Tabitha looked up at the same instant as the German Shepherd when she heard the scuttle of tiny claws on the roof of the car.

The elevator plummeted without warning.

Tabitha was thrown on her ass. She grabbed Ashur around the torso with one arm to prevent him from being slammed into the ceiling and braced herself in the corner of the car with her free arm and both her feet. “WINSTANLEEEEEY!”

The emergency brakes screeched as they halted the freefall. Tabitha heaved a sigh of relief when the elevator shuddered to a full stop.

Winstanley spoke from the circular grid on the panel. “There is an issue, I’m afraid.”

Tabitha released a shaken Ashur and pushed her hair out of her eyes. “We’re between decks?” she surmised. “Right?”

“Correct,” the EI confirmed. “I have informed Sabine of the malfunction. Please exit through the escape hatch above your heads and wait for help to arrive.”

Tabitha heaved herself to her feet and eyed the escape hatch. “It used to suck to be short.”

Ashur got to his four feet somewhat unsteadily. “How are you going to open it?”

“Like this,” Tabitha told him. She pulled a swatch of energy from the Etheric and formed a blunt lozenge, which she flung at the hatch.

The hatch was torn out by the impact, as was the casement.

Tabitha held out her arms to Ashur. “You ready?”

“To be tossed up there like a chew toy?” Ashur retorted. “No.”

Tabitha put her hands on her hips and pressed her lips together. “You’re just worried you’ll get grease in your fur, you big, vain lump. Maybe I should have asked Bellatrix to help me instead. She wouldn’t be too precious to get dirty.”

Ashur huffed, knowing when he was beaten. “Just step back.”

Tabitha squashed herself into the corner while Ashur walked a circle.

“See who’s precious now,” he told Tabitha, bunching himself up before springing for the hole.

Tabitha joined him on the roof of the car a moment later. She glanced around for an indication of what had caused the elevator to fail, her gaze landing on a break in the guide rail farther up. “You see that?” she asked Ashur.

Ashur didn’t reply immediately, his attention on the sensation of being watched. “Someone sees us,” he told Tabitha quietly, lifting his nose to indicate the upper shaft.

Tabitha’s hand dropped to her belt, forgetting she didn’t have her drones anymore. What she did come up with was the packet of dot-cams she had in her pocket for Sabine. She turned her attention to Ashur, motioning at the maintenance ladder with a finger. “Think you can make it up there?”

“Um, yeah.” Ashur scoffed. He dropped the attitude when he saw Tabitha pour a minute amount of dust into her hand. “What is that?”

“Approximately ten thousand camera drones,” Tabitha told him, her eyes on the dot-cams. “Problem is that they’re not equipped to move by themselves, so I need to create a delivery system. Watch.”

Ashur dropped his rump to the roof while Tabitha carefully tipped the dust into the energy ball she had formed in her other hand. He stared, mesmerized as the energy closed over the miniscule cameras. “What now?” he asked, unable to look away from the shimmering construct.

Tabitha grinned as her ad-hoc solution stabilized over her palm. “Next is, I just connected to the dot-cams through my HUD, and now…” She tossed the energy ball directly upward.

They observed in silence as it ascended to the top of the elevator shaft, then burst apart much like a firework.

Tabitha blinked to adjust her vision when the cams began coming online as they clung to the surfaces of the elevator shaft. “Now we get our asses out of here.”


10

Qu’Baka, Ice Cavern

Mahi’ slowed and called a halt, although her words were promptly stolen by the shrieking wind as the expedition party came upon a cliff. She remembered this place where the snow turned to water without warning. There weren’t too many places on the planet where the balance of ice and volcanic activity were balanced so perfectly as to form hot springs.

She recalled the new features in her modified armor included a connection to the group and blinked to activate the video, as Izanami had shown them. “We have arrived,” she informed Bethany Anne and Michael when their faces appeared in her HUD.

Mahi’ untethered herself from Bethany Anne and Michael and waved an arm in the general direction she intended to take. “The fissure that will bring us out close to the lavafall is near here somewhere.”

Bethany Anne looked at the whiteout beyond the shelter of the cliff. “How do you even know where we are? I can’t see beyond my armor’s HUD.”

Mahi’ laughed aloud. “You don’t forget your home. Stay here. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve found our route.” The blizzard swallowed her whole before she’d taken three steps back into it.

There was a fair amount of muffled cursing and shoving while the tail end of the party caught up and the team leaders got their people untethered and organized along the lakeshore.

Bethany Anne minimized the windows in her helmet HUD until only the feed for Mahi’ remained. What are your thoughts so far? she asked Michael to fill the time while they monitored the search. The hint of a smile touched the corner of her mouth at the way his expression shifted in her camera’s view. Still not convinced?

Michael wrinkled his nose. Unless we’ve stepped into a Jules Verne novel, I don’t see how an entire civilization could have developed underground.

Mahi’ spoke excitedly. “Can you make your way to my location? I’ve found the fissure. The snow is not as bad on this side.”

“We’re on our way,” Bethany Anne replied. She tilted her head at Michael, grinning at the speed with which Mahi’ had gotten a result. “If that’s not a good omen, I don’t know what is. Let’s move.”

Michael passed the order to move to the team leaders, and the party picked their way along the path Mahi’ had taken between the cliffs and the shore.

They found Mahi’ sitting cross-legged on top of a flat boulder by a yawning chasm in the cliff face. “I thought it would be better to wait rather than explore alone.”

Bethany Anne peered into the darkness, feeling the planet’s hot breath rush past—a sulfurous belch from its core. She ignored Peter and Li’Orin, who were competing to be the first to go inside. “Is it passable?”

Mahi’ grinned at their antics. “It is. I had feared my brother would have sealed all the paths between the above and below, but we are in luck.”

“Where is the advance team?” Bethany Anne waited for Peter to get the latest from the Guardians who’d gone ahead.

Peter cut the call. “They got to their entry point okay. They’re only a couple hours out from the lavafall, so we can expect a warm welcome when we get there.”

Michael indicated for John and Li’Orin to follow him and entered the fissure to scout ahead. “We’ll be back as soon as we’ve made sure it’s safe for everyone.”

“It’s out of the cold. What else matters?” Gabrielle shivered and rubbed her arms inside the thick fur cloak she’d borrowed. “You’d be prying my iced ass from the tundra if not for Kel’Len and her furs.”

Bethany Anne couldn’t argue that she appreciated the effort from Kel’Len. “That’s a bit on the side of exaggeration, but yes. It was good of her.”

The group was ready to go by the time Michael returned to report the way ahead was clear. John and Li’Orin headed for their teams, while Michael rejoined Bethany Anne and Mahi’ by the cave entrance.

“We’ll have to go in slowly,” Michael reported. “There’s a short tunnel, then it tightens into a narrow aperture that’s about wide enough for a Pricolici. Beyond that shouldn’t be too difficult to navigate.”

The shocked faces that filled the vid-links Bethany Anne opened in her HUD brought a wicked smile to her lips. “What do you all think this is, a vacation? Quit standing around. Asses, inside that cave, now.”

The party shuffled into a single file around the mouth of the fissure and prepared to head through the narrow opening one at a time.

Bethany Anne made her way to the aperture, a rough slit in the rock left behind by an old cave-in. She turned to say something to Michael about the shape, but he was nowhere to be seen at the moment.

John had plenty to say about Bethany Anne going through the slit first, but she let it slide since it was all under his breath.

Bethany Anne turned her body sideways and stepped through the gap. The temperature spiked the moment she passed through the eye and stepped into the space beyond.

She had a few minutes to examine her surroundings while the rest of the party made their entrance through the eye. There was little room for maneuvering between the columns formed by stalactites and stalagmites whose desperation to be together had reached fruition over the millennia.

John was next through. He came over to stand beside Bethany Anne, joining her inspection. “It looks like someone stuck two boards together, then changed their mind and pulled them apart before the glue had a chance to set.”

Bethany Anne could see why he thought that. “It’s going to be a PITA to find our way through. Maybe the front door wasn’t the worst option.”

“I assure you it would have been,” Mahi’ told her amiably. She pushed with her hands to free her lower body from the eye. “It won’t take more than an hour or two to reach the mountain trail.”

Bethany Anne launched a series of energy balls into the air to give them some light. “That’s better. Is everyone intact? Check your extremities for frostbite before we leave. If anyone needs time to heal, I want to know about it.”

Mahi’ watched with some confusion while the humans pulled off gloves and boots to wiggle their digits. “Is this some human ritual Tu’Reigd failed to teach me about?”

Bethany Anne pressed her lips together in amusement. “Humans don’t have an antifreeze agent in their blood,” she explained, grateful for once for the bulk of her battle armor.

Da’Mahin boomed laughter. “A little frostbite never hurt anyone.”

That statement set off a round of anecdotes among the veteran Guardians about incidents of just that happening, interspersed with loud bitching about the inconvenience of re-growing limbs.

Bethany Anne left the party to warm themselves and wandered a short way into the cave, thinking to see where her husband had disappeared to. She made a new energy ball to light the way as she followed the clearest path through the maze.

Minerals embedded in the rock caught the light as Bethany Anne walked. She ducked under a jutting spar that was shot through with all the colors of the rainbow and paused to touch her fingers to the iridescence, thinking it was too pretty to be locked into the sooty walls around her.

The momentary diversion made the next thing Bethany Anne came across all that more dissonant with her expectations.

The columns ended suddenly and the ground dipped, letting out onto a huge, open field that was sheltered from the ice above. Bethany Anne ventured out, her intentions of finding Michael lost for a moment to the splendor of the view from the top of the world.

She saw endless jungles punctuated by mountain ranges and backlit by lava-light, and that was only the view from where she stood.

Bethany Anne skirted the deep, flowing channels that collected the water briefly in a churning pool at the edge before gravity sent it thundering over the drop-off.

She noted the active lava flow that had almost but not quite been strong enough to make it to the surface some hundred and fifty feet to the right. The cherry-red lava poured over the edge with the same ferocity as the water behind her, casting a dim glow over the hidden world below.

Bethany Anne walked through the wild grass, holding out her hands to catch the meltwater raining gently from the roof of the underworld. There was a spot halfway between the waterfall and the lavafall that looked like the perfect place to get the panoramic view she wanted.

Once there, Bethany Anne sat with her legs over the edge and took her time examining the landscape that was revealed in all its glory. She glanced briefly at the Citadel, a brightly-lit smudge on the other side of the mountain range.

The steep drop under her feet, the peaks biting at the roof of the world through the vibrant canopy that hugged every curve of the land, and the pervasive deep-red glow far in the distance from where the mantle surged up into an underground ocean.

Mahi’ was right. This planet was beautiful.

It was also wild, Bethany Anne concluded, picking up the sounds of carnivores making dinner arrangements in the jungle below. She got to her feet to continue her search for Michael. As long as the predators didn’t confuse any of her people for food, she had no problem with them.

Of course, she expected the guys would have a different view.

A movement to her left tripped Bethany Anne’s awareness.

She had an energy ball in each hand before her next breath.

The foliage that had been tough enough to surmount a mountain and the lava flow parted as Michael crested the peak in Myst form.

I wondered where you disappeared to, Bethany Anne remarked, her eyebrow lifting playfully as he returned to his more usual human form beside her. You couldn’t wait for me?

Michael smiled and slipped an arm around her waist as they walked back to the group. You looked peaceful. I didn’t want to disturb your moment.

Bethany Anne touched her head to Michael’s. That’s not fair at all. How am I supposed to be mad at you for that?

Michael stilled, sensing a trap. Um, you’re not?

Bethany Anne sighed in exasperation. Exactly. You infuriate me sometimes. Did you find a passable route down the mountain?

Michael frowned at the abrupt change of subject. I did. I also found several groups of raptor-like creatures in the jungle beyond.

Bethany Anne tilted her head to meet Michael’s eyes. Raptors? Like birds?

Dinosaurs, he clarified with that all-too-familiar light in his eyes. Which, I should point out, is a welcome change from tentacles.

Bethany Anne put her hand on her forehead and groaned. We should call Alexis and Gabriel before we go back.

Michael didn’t miss the purposeful change of subject. Very well. It could be a while before there is another opportunity.

Enter Into Valhalla

The route Michael had found down the mountain was easy enough for the expedition party to travel, if somewhat narrow in places.

It brought them out in a clearing between the two lakes at the base of the mountain after what felt to Bethany Anne like an eternity in Hell’s waiting room.

Peter’s Guardians had their camp set up and waiting. The foot-weary party shuffled to their allotted tents and went about making themselves at home for the night.

What was missing were the crude jokes, colorful language, and merciless teasing that usually accompanied any military group who had been together for a while.

Bethany Anne stopped by John and bumped him with her shoulder. “This reminds me of Florida after we got out of the swamp. If I have to listen to one more awkward, overly polite exchange between two people who’ve been told to get along, I might just be tempted to abandon the idea of an alliance altogether.”

John grunted softly. “Find me a Baka with a sense of humor and I’ll call your bluff.”

Bethany Anne should have expected the short reply. “The warriors need to loosen up. They make you look like the life of the party.”

John snorted, his attention on the surrounding area. “No fair. I’m plenty of fun. If this reminds you so much of the ‘Glades, maybe the same solution would work. Pity you can’t get a takeout delivery here.”

“I’m not seeing too many food trucks handy. Unless you’ve got a business directory hidden in your…” Bethany Anne slapped John’s arm. “That’s actually not the worst idea.”

John lifted his hands as she walked away. “You’re not going to tell me?”

Bethany Anne waved over her shoulder. “Nope.” How edible did those raptors look? she asked Michael.

I’m glad to see you’re coming around to my way of thinking, Michael replied dryly. They will be as edible as any other beast as long as nobody is squeamish about fighting with their dinner before eating it.

Don’t get too excited. Bethany Anne ran through her plan and the inspiration behind it. This is a bonding exercise, not an invitation to turn our land bases into hunting lodges.

Then perhaps it is not food trucks you require, Michael suggested, but a common enemy to bond over.

You mean to drive the raptors into camp. I like it. Bethany Anne made a mental note to reward Michael for his unselfishness at a later date. She met him where their paths intersected and they walked over to where Mahi’ and Gabrielle stood with Kel'Len and Li'Orin.

Bethany Anne put her hands on Mahi’s and Gabrielle’s shoulders. “Just who I need.”

“We can go?” Li’Orin asked.

Bethany Anne nodded. “Sure. Get yourselves set up for the night.”

Gabrielle slipped out of Bethany Anne’s grip as Kel’Len and Li’Orin left. “I’m not sure I like that look. You always get it right before you ask for the impossible.”

Bethany Anne laughed. “It’s like you know me.” She shifted her body slightly to include Mahi’ in the discussion. “I’m not happy with the lack of bonding, and for some inexplicable reason, yelling at everyone to get their shit together isn’t working.”

“It is as I said,” Mahi’ told her with a fatalistic shrug. “The only way to get my people to accept change is to beat acceptance into them. Repeatedly, and often.”

Bethany Anne waved off her suggestion. “Be that as it may, I’m sure as hell not wasting my energy on it. Brawling won’t free your planet.” She shrugged at Gabrielle’s reaction. “I’m not ruling it out as an option, but I’ve decided to give everyone one last opportunity to play nice first.”

Mahi’ wasn’t convinced. “What if they don’t?”

Bethany Anne’s mouth twitched in response. “Then I stop playing nice. Understand?” She pressed her lips together. “We need our people working together, and I have a plan to make it happen.”

“Wait, what was that?” Michael frowned as the sense of someone trying very hard not to be noticed brushed his awareness.

Bethany Anne knew when something wasn’t sitting well with her husband. “Are we being watched?” She reached out with her mind. “I’m not picking up anything out of the ordinary.”

Michael shrugged, dismissing it as a passing prey creature since nothing in the sensation had told him there was a threat. “It’s nothing, just a feeling I had. It was gone almost sooner than it arrived.”

Bethany Anne patted Michael’s chest. “It’s never just a feeling. Keep your senses peeled while we’re looking around in there, okay?” She let her hand rest for a moment before moving off toward the jungle, with Michael and Mahi’ close behind.

Gabrielle stayed where she was, looking skeptically at the tree line. “You haven’t told us what we’re looking for yet.”

Bethany Anne turned to her and raised an eyebrow. “You’ll find out soon enough. What are you waiting for, an invitation? Let’s go already.”

Qu’Baka, Low Orbit, QSD Baba Yaga, Secondary Bridge

The bridge was silent, save the occasional click from Addix’s mandibles as she reacted to her reading material.

Izanami and the crew had everything under control with the ship.

Addix knew for a fact that Bethany Anne had only left her aboard the Baba Yaga to keep a rein on any sudden impulses the AI might get.

An alert popped up on the screen to her right. The alert from the external doors in Transport Bay Three was canceled immediately by Izanami.

Addix turned her upper body to the avatar at the main console, curious as to what the AI was hiding. “What was that?”

Izanami smiled serenely. “Nothing to be concerned about, Spymistress.”

Addix narrowed every one of her eyes at Izanami, her mandibles clicking sternly as she spat harsh Ixtali in response to the obvious lie. “Do I need to call Bethany Anne and get ADAM to check you over?”

Izanami held her hands up in submission. “I accepted payment for passage to this planet from Demon. She just took a transport Pod down to the surface.”

“Payment?” Addix spluttered through her disbelief. “What does an AI need money for?”

Izanami flashed Addix a mysterious smile. “Insurance, of course. Don’t be so uptight, Spymistress. There is no need to spoil my fun or Demon’s hunt. I programmed the Pod to take her far from civilization and any battles that might happen.”

Addix’s internal organs flipped as thoughts of Demon encountering a predator she couldn’t handle flashed through her mind. “Izanami, did you consider the consequences of allowing a creature Michael considers to be his pet to roam free on a hostile planet without protection?”

Izanami’s avatar flickered briefly. “I must admit, I did not.” She dipped her head, her aura rippling with darker shades of red. “I apologize.”

“Call her,” Addix demanded. “Get her back to the ship before we’re both on the firing line.”

Izanami gave Addix an apologetic look. “Her neural chip isn’t active.”

Addix quit raging in an instant. “What do you mean, ‘it’s not active?’”

Izanami lifted her hands. “It was the only way to keep her from being discovered in transit.”

“So?” Addix waved a hand at the console. “Switch it back on!”

Izanami shook her head. “I cannot do that. It requires an active connection at Demon’s end.”

“Well, that’s just ridiculous.” Addix cradled her head in her hands for a moment while she worked through her options. “I need to call Bethany Anne, and I need weapons.” She pointed at the HLD cradle as she ran for the armory. “I hope you have a good range on that thing. We have no choice but to go down there to get Demon back.”


11

Qu’Baka, Lavafall, Camp

Bethany Anne sat in a foldout chair under her tent awning, tuning out the sounds of the jungle to listen in on the conversations around the campfires. Their earlier exploration had turned up a few raptor packs scattered throughout the area, which suited her purpose exactly.

They had returned to camp to wait out the time until everyone in camp was at their most vulnerable. Nothing was as leveling as being ambushed in the dead of night.

Sco’ren swept the tree line with a nervous glance. “Do the humans know we’re camped in dangerous territory?”

Da’Mahin scoffed under his breath at his second’s naivete. “You can bet your last blade they do.”

Sco’Ren let out a low rumble. “They’re going to get us killed long before we get anywhere near the Citadel. I haven’t forgotten how dangerous they are when there are enough of them to form a mob.”

John laughed. “You’re kidding, right? Big, tough Bakas, afraid of a few overgrown reptiles?” He tossed a clump of dirt at the Bakas’ fire, laughing as the sparks it threw up illuminated their faces. “We have bigger, badder beasts than those in our backyard.”

Peter joined in, jumping to his feet to demonstrate with wide sweeps of his arms. “He’s right. You haven’t seen big. We have a place with T-rexes roaming free. Maybe if you guys turn out to be okay, we could get permission to—”

Not happening,” Bethany Anne cut in before Peter could finish his thought. “Don’t think I didn’t see the mess you made the last time I let you go T-rex hunting.”

“Perhaps a select few could be allowed to earn the experience,” Michael mused.

Bethany Anne hated it when he was right. “Fine. Impress me while we’re here and I’ll think about it.”

Peter whooped and punched the air. “Guys, seriously. Fifty feet of solid muscle, claws, and teeth the size of Da’Mahin's ego. You’ve never had a fight like it.”

John stopped in his tracks. “Did I hear that right, BA? You just changed your mind. You feeling okay?”

Bethany Anne was distracted from returning his snark by a request from Addix to speak. She narrowed her eyes at John. “Count your blessings.”

John winked and flashed a grin at Bethany Anne. “Every damn day, Boss.”

“Ass,” Bethany Anne shot back, chuckling as she opened a video link to the Baba Yaga. “What’s up, Addix?”

“You should ask Izanami,” Addix returned in greeting. “The short story is that she allowed Demon to hitch a ride aboard the Baba Yaga and facilitated her transfer to the planet.”

Bethany Anne included Michael in the link. “Demon is here on the planet.”

Addix repeated herself for Michael’s benefit. “Now the cat is somewhere in the jungle below the surface,” she added. “Alone. With her neural chip switched to ‘off.’”

Michael’s wave of anger was trackable by the silence it left in its wake. “Where is she? Why haven’t you gone after her?”

“Izanami and I are tracking her as we speak,” Addix replied.

Bethany Anne cut through Michael’s hot response in an icy tone. “What do you mean by tracking, exactly? Because if you have allowed Izanami to leave the ship and risk her hard light drive again—”

“We are still aboard the Baba Yaga,” Addix confirmed, confused by the conflicting responses. “But we are ready to leave at a moment’s notice. I was calling to get your orders.”

“Do not leave the ship,” Bethany Anne told her.

Michael spoke simultaneously. “Retrieve Demon.”

Addix spluttered. “Which is it? Stay aboard, or retrieve Demon?”

“Do I not have the freedom to choose for myself?” Izanami demanded.

“Yeah, no.” Bethany Anne put an end to the debate. “You’re staying put. Addix can find Demon without you.”

Izanami wasn’t done. “Then why bother to give me the capacity?”

Addix shrugged. “It’s not like I couldn’t use her help.”

Bethany Anne sighed. She got enough of this from the children she’d birthed; she wasn’t about to get into it with Izanami. “Fine. But back yourself up before you leave the ship, and on your own head be it if you damage your HLP drive. I’m not going to replace it a second time. Am I clear?”

Qu’Baka, Jungle

Demon padded through the undergrowth, savoring the silence that fell wherever she placed her paws in the cool, deep mulch. This world was alive with untold possibilities for a lion on the hunt.

Bribing the AI with Tabitha’s precious dust had been enough to get her to the planet. Getting past Michael had been the most difficult part. He had almost sensed her when she made the error of reactivating her neural chip to send the Pod back.

The alien jungle reminded Demon so much of High Tortuga—if the southern continent of the planet she considered to be her home had been dropped into the place her human called Hell to be warmed over by a few degrees. She had taken the long way down the mountain on leaving the transport Pod, choosing to slip into the untamed wilderness surrounding what passed for civilization here at the earliest opportunity.

Demon was amused at the insects and smaller prey who resumed their noise after she passed through the dimness beneath the tree canopy. She likened it to a minuscule celebration—the rejoicing of continued existence after the presence of death had flowed by their humid niches instead of laying waste to them.

A faint wisp of scent drifted by, barely discernible in the chaotic blend.

What was that?

Demon knew instinctively, of course. She just didn’t believe her nose.

She inhaled deeply, her whiskers quivering delicately as the scent molecules passed over her enhanced Jacobson’s organ to be sorted and identified.

There was no doubt about it. Somewhere in this jungle, there was another feline.

Demon’s empty stomach rumbled, distracting her from the distant possibility of encountering another cat. She slowed to a walk as the smorgasbord of scents and sounds consumed her almost entirely.

Hope flourished when she picked up another scent, one that smelled like aggressive prey.

Perhaps the scent belonged to this planet’s version of a pig-beast.

Demon had not been allowed close to the tame herd that belonged to the canine-loving human. Nevertheless, she had found a hidden spot near their habitat to observe them from the morning after the feast.

She had come to learn that equivalents to known prey animals could be found on any planet with a similar ecological background.

Demon knew that if she did find pig-beasts on this world, they would be different than the plump pink animals in Yelena’s yard.

But perhaps—just perhaps—they would taste the same.

The thought sent a shiver down Demon's spine. She longed to taste something like pig again. Even after Michael had burned the meat at the feast, as humans did, it had been delicious.

She continued her careful and considered progress into the jungle. It would be better to have a full stomach since she could not draw the energy her nanocytes required from the air around her like Michael or Bethany Anne.

Besides, it was good to practice self-reliance every once in a while, even for a cat who lived in the lap of luxury with a whole herd of humans to pamper her.

While Demon did not mind the game she played of forcing her humans to pay her bills at Devon’s finest butchers, nothing beat the thrill of capturing her dinner and watching it bleed out beneath her claws.

Once in a while, anyway.

Truth be told, after the trauma of her early life, Demon much preferred to be in the lap of luxury, with her cozy hideaways and daily butcher’s deliveries.

Only… Lately, she had been driven to roam. She had extended her territory far beyond City-on-the-Lake, but it had not fulfilled the impulse that had begun her wandering.

There was no glory without competition, and there was no beast on Devon she had not bested. So, here she was on an alien planet, where she could experience a real hunt—and hopefully sate the gnawing need in her soul.

Demon didn’t know what had driven her to take this course of action, just that it was necessary to her wellbeing to do so.

Demon froze mid-step.

There it was again. That scent, teasing her.

It occurred to her that it was highly arrogant to assume nature only consolidated its designs for herbivores. If this planet had somehow cooked up the recipe for felines, then she was no longer fated to be alone.

Demon was hit with a flash of jealousy. She had been perfectly fine with the knowledge that she was unique in all the galaxies, but now she couldn’t take it. She had to know how there could be another cat around when she was the only big cat who had been rescued from Earth.

Curiosity would be her downfall.

The cat knew that, and still, she ran toward it.

Qu’Baka, Lavafall, Camp

Bethany Anne and Michael sat with Gabrielle under the awning of their tent, The first watch was taking their posts while the rest of the camp settled in to sleep.

Michael bent to the cooler by his chair, pausing in his observation of the discipline the Bakas had when it came to securing the camp perimeter. “You think this is going to be worth the sacrifice of all our comforts? The camp will likely be in ruins afterward.”

Bethany Anne accepted the Coke from Michael. “Oh, hell, yeah. Getting all of this down here was a bitch, but it’s going to be worth it, just wait and see. Let them get comfortable, then we make a move.”

Gabrielle smiled, waving her bottle vaguely at the camp. “I’m eager to see the results. It’s a worry going into a hostile situation with our forces divided for no other reason than ingrained mistrust.” She gave Mahi’ a sympathetic look. “Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand why you all closed ranks after fleeing this planet. But that time is over now, you know?”

Mahi’ nodded solemnly. “I have faith this plan will succeed. It has to.”

“It will,” Michael assured Mahi’ with finality.

Bethany Anne drank to that. “You sure you don’t want to give Eric a hint?” she asked Gabrielle. “Last chance.”

Gabrielle smirked. “Understanding one another’s strengths and weaknesses is good for a marriage.”

That was almost too much for Michael. He managed to repress his laughter—just. “You mean, you like to witness Eric’s so you can use them against him?”

“You’re a complete ass. I’ll be ready to leave in five minutes.” Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at Michael, then got up and stalked over to her own tent without another word.

Michael got to his feet, then looked at Bethany Anne with confusion. “What did I say?”

Bethany Anne lifted a shoulder, a wry smile escaping her lips. “Beats the fuck out of me. Want to bet she tells Eric you riled her?”

Michael made a see-saw motion with his hand. “She’s stubborn enough not to. I’ll take it. What’s the prize?”

Bethany Anne indicated the Mahi’-shaped silhouette over by their agreed meeting place with a nod. “How about…a ten-body head start on the action?”

“Only ten?” Michael’s low voice was muffled by the wind as they walked.

“We’re likely to be here a while,” Bethany Anne reasoned. “We’re not aiming to decimate the population.”

“Just cut the dead rot away so the Bakas can flourish again,” Michael agreed. “Ten is plenty. But the count doesn’t begin until we find the heart of Lu’Trein’s organization.”

Mahi’ hitched her small pack a little higher on her back and set off walking as they reached her position.

“You aren’t sticking around?” Michael asked.

Mahi’ turned her head to look back at them. “There is no time to spare if I am to get to the Citadel and back before morning. I trust your solution will take care of our issues with my people while I am gone.”

“Good luck reaching your uncle,” Bethany Anne called after her. She smiled as Mahi’ walked out of sight. “It takes a special kind of person to see past the risk like that.”

Michael’s focus was on getting Gabrielle’s attention. “Well, we’re not going to allow anyone to be seriously injured. The risk is minimal.”

Gabrielle looked back at the sleeping camp as she arrived. “Yeah, but they don’t know that, do they?”

Enter Into Valhalla

The uneventful first shift lulled the subconscious minds of the sleepers over the threshold into real sleep as the second watch took their positions and settled in to keep guard over the early hours.

Peter and Li’Orin completed their circuit of the camp and returned to the central campfire, where John was attempting to teach Da'Mahin the basics of chess.

“Where’s Eric?” Peter asked.

John slung a thumb toward Eric’s tent, his eyes on the board.

Da’Mahin's hand hovered over the pieces, a frown of concentration causing his fur to fall into his eyes. He glanced up at John, hoping to get a clue that way.

Peter clapped the indecisive Baka on the shoulder as he and Li’Orin joined them around the fold-out table. “If you’re hoping John has a tell, you’re shit out of luck, my friend. The man is stone-cold.”

Li’Orin bent over the board and made Da’Mahin's move for him. “I’ve got you.”

John grinned as he took the piece Li’Orin had just moved. “You think?”

Da’Mahin growled and flipped the table over. “This is a game for children! A waste of time.” He stomped out of camp, cursing when he stepped on one of the scattered chess pieces.

Li’Orin began chuffing uncontrollably.

“You okay?” John asked.

“My brother,” Li’Orin managed through his laughter. “He could never play a game and lose with grace.”

Peter pulled the empty crate he was using for a seat closer to the fire to get warm. “Yeah, we all know someone like that. Where’d you learn to play chess?”

“Tu’Reigd and Gabriel,” Li’Orin answered. “They play often. I watch when I’m on guard duty.”

Peter raised an eyebrow at John. “What about you? ’Cuz I don’t recall you being the chess type.”

John lifted his hands. “What can I say? I married a smart woman. Gotta keep up somehow.”

Peter snickered. “Hearing Jean talk, it’s not your mind that keeps her occupied.” He wiggled his eyebrows to make his point clear.

John’s reply was cut off by an almighty racket.

They jumped to their feet when Da’Mahin came crashing out of the jungle.

He fired indiscriminately behind him as he ran, heading straight for John and the others. “RAPTORS!” he bellowed as he reached the camp perimeter. “EVERYWHERE!”

That put an end to the peaceful night. Tents began shaking, and the occupants scrambled out in various states of dress with their weapons, ready to fight.

John scanned the tree line but saw nothing. He made his way through the chaos, wondering when Bethany Anne was going to take control of the situation.

Bethany Anne spoke directly into John’s mind.

Consider this a lesson in what happens when I don’t get what I ask for. Her dark laughter echoed around him. Play nice, now.

John grunted when Bethany Anne dropped the link. He looked around again, this time assessing the situation.

Da’Mahin and his eldest son—the little shit Tabitha called Chet—were nowhere to be seen. Kel’Len fought at the forefront of their warriors in his place.

John kept his position for a moment, finding himself with a three-sixty view of the horde of medium-sized predators bursting in on all sides of the camp. His Jean Dukes Specials sang as they lit the darkness.

The living predators tore into the fallen, unable to resist the lure of fresh meat. That gave John a slight breather—and a window to organize.

Peter bounded up to John's side. Was that Gabrielle creeping into camp from the same direction as the raptors? Peter had other concerns. Namely, where the hell Da’Mahin had gotten to, since Kel’Len was the only one directing their warriors. “Why is Kel’Len fighting alone?”

John waved an arm in the direction he thought Da’Mahin might have taken. “Their kid ran off.”

There was no time to search for one Baka just now. Why it couldn’t have been the more reasonable Li’Orin with the larger warrior band, Peter didn’t know.

John couldn’t miss the incandescent yellow glow in Peter’s eyes. He got out of the way as another pack of raptors darted free of the jungle and mobbed the camp, not wanting to be in the way of a Pricolici in the mood for a fight.

Peter raced ahead of John, instinct driving him to tear the intruders to bloody shreds the moment his transformation into four hundred pounds of angry super-enhanced canid was complete.

“You go have all the fun, Pete. Sure,” John bitched as a tactic to bring him back from the edge of total beast-mode. “Don’t worry about everyone tearing the fucking place to pieces. We can sleep in the dirt.”

Peter turned on John, snorting heavily with barely-controlled rage. “Therrre’s morrre in the jungle. You want them to destrrroy everrything? Nooo?” He lifted his chin and howled. “Guarrrdianss! On meee!”

The Guardians obeyed their Alpha, tearing into the jungle to meet the raptors head-on, and the night was filled with reptilian death screams once again as they clashed.

Kel’Len saw the Guardians make their move. “After them,” she cried.

Her warriors barreled into the jungle, leaving Li’Orin to work with Gabrielle and Eric to clear the raptors who’d made it into camp.

Li’Orin’s warriors fought in formation. They locked shields and pushed the intruders back, dispatching the raptors with practiced jabs of their glowing spears.

Gabrielle tossed Etheric energy around with abandon. There was no way she was allowing those beasts to cause any more damage than she could help. “Stupid plan. I hate this.”

Eric chose to take the consequences of not asking what Gabrielle’s problem was. They had far too much to deal with in defending the camp.

John was satisfied he could leave them to take care of it, knowing that Eric had their backs. He shot a raptor that made it close enough he could smell its last meal.

There was still no sign of Da’Mahin in the center of camp, which John could only assume meant he had gone after his favored son when Ch’Irzt had fled, leaving his wife and his warriors to their fates.

“Where’s that itchy damned dick-rash gotten to?” John’s lip curled, his ability to tolerate the asshole dropping further from its already low starting point. No wonder Da’Mahin’s warriors had no respect for him.

Movement—a solitary Baka climbing the trail to the top of the falls.

John set off in the direction of the dark smudge, squinting as he walked to make out which of his absconders he’d found. “There’s the father. Now, where’s the son?”


12

Peter stood back to back with Kel’Len in a clearing with raptors circling them, looking for any weak spot they could take advantage of.

The sounds of battle filtered through the trees from all directions while they moved in a slow circle, daring the raptors to make a move. Three more of the creatures entered the clearing.

“What is this, the lunch rush?” Peter lunged and grabbed the closest raptor. His movement was enough to trigger the mob instinct in the others.

Peter twirled the raptor over his head a couple of times to build up momentum and flung it at the group of five rushing him. “Strrrike!”

He sprang at them claws and teeth, finishing them off in less than a minute before turning to find his next target.

Kel’Len fended off one raptor’s attempt to distract her with a twist of her wrist that also put the raptor sneaking in from the side in line with the powered end of her staff. She caught a flash of movement in her peripheral vision. “Behind you!”

Peter twisted and snatched the raptor out of the air mid-leap. He grinned at Kel’Len and backhanded the half-hairy, half-scaly predator toward her. “Batterrr up!”

Kel’Len had no clue what Peter was saying, but she planted her feet and took a heavy swing at the raptor coming her way. Her staff connected with its side in a sizzling crunch and the raptor flew into the trees, landing with a crash.

Peter paused for a moment to applaud. “I hate the stink of burrrnt hairrr!”

“You can’t hate the result.” Kel’Len widened her stance and took out another raptor, the staff producing a burst of light that sent the attackers into a frenzy. “I wouldn't go back to my old staff. I prefer this gift from the Empress. You are a surprise. Your ability to change shape is astonishing.”

Peter choked on the acrid smell of charred flesh and burnt hair as he lunged at the two beasts attacking him. “You’rrre well trrrained.”

Kel’Len laughed without hesitating as she plowed mercilessly through the raptors. “I was the only female in a set of eight. I began young and studied at every opportunity.” She jerked her head to Peter’s left as she ran past to meet her next target head-on. “They’re determined to die.”

Peter grabbed the two raptors around their thick necks and bared teeth every bit as deadly as theirs. The raptors clawed uselessly at the air, dangling from the enormous Pricolici paws holding them. Peter shook them and they ceased their struggles, understanding that their position as apex predators was no longer a given.

“Do I look like dinneeerrrr?” Peter smashed their heads together and dropped the bodies, then glanced around the clearing. He had lost Kel’Len.

The sound of raptors dying gave him a clue to her general direction.

Peter burst into action. He hurtled through the trees into another clearing, where he found Kel’Len standing over a pile of raptor corpses.

Kel’Len glanced in Peter’s direction and jerked her head to indicate the two injured Guardians she and a third Guardian were fighting to keep safe.

Gibbons grinned, showing Peter his wolf teeth.

“Nice of you to join us,” Kel’Len quipped, not dropping her eyes for a moment from the twelve raptors she and Gibbons were keeping at bay.

Peter assessed the situation in a second. The sight of two of his own forced into the healing sleep brought his priorities crashing in. “Playtime’s overrr. I’ll take care of the raptorrrs. You get everrryone back to camp.”

Kel’Len nodded uncertainly. “You’ve got this?”

Peter snarled and utter silence fell over the clearing. “Hells yeah, I’ve got this. Go.”

The raptors backed off to assess the new threat. Their keen intelligence was clear in the way they turned their heads from side to side, examining Peter.

Peter half-wondered what they were thinking. Visions of what Tabitha would do to him if he was stupid enough to die passed through his mind just before the part of his brain that wanted maximum destruction kicked in.

The raptors hesitated, sensing danger. Their confusion intensified when the prey took an aggressive position. This kind of creature was usually no more than a hard-won meal. Why, then did their instincts tell them differently?

Peter was a little freaked out by the way they looked at him. He heard a rustle above his head, and a single leaf fell. He pinpointed a motion, acting in the nick of time when a raptor leapt out of the tree with its claws aimed directly toward his face.

The raptor was somewhat surprised to find itself plucked out of the air in mid-attack.

However, it didn’t have long to process the shock.

Peter roared into the raptor’s face and tore it asunder.

Then he flung the two halves at the attackers.

The raptors were incensed. They ran, screeching, at Peter, giving Kel’Len and the now-naked Gibbons a chance to get the injured Guardians to safety—exactly as he had intended.

Qu’Baka, Lavafall, Camp

The battle was over by the time light returned to the underworld.

Michael moved around the outside of the tent, his mind on making some order out of the destruction that heralded their first morning on Qu’Baka.

He glanced to his left, where Bethany Anne was burning the dirt off each item she retrieved with Etheric energy before packing it into the box or crate it had come in. Your lesson in getting along appears to have been successful.

Bethany Anne hadn’t missed the new atmosphere of cooperation when they’d walked back to what was left of their tent in the predawn. This was almost too easy. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.

There’s nothing like a common enemy to bring an end to petty squabbles. Michael snorted lightly, distracted momentarily from retrieving the scattered parts of their camp kitchen from the ground around the tent by Bethany Anne’s smile. Maybe look a little less pleased, he suggested. Since we’ve just been “attacked.”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow, her smile remaining just as bright. Why should I? It’s not like they didn’t need a kick up the ass to move things along. They should be thankful I intervened. Besides, Gabrielle did well to save our equipment from being damaged.

Michael’s mouth twitched despite himself. I don’t disagree with your methods. They, however, might. He picked up the last item, a metal serving spoon, and got to his feet to dump his armload in the plastic bin on the table.

Bethany Anne followed Michael’s gaze to the mixed company putting their shared efforts into righting the camp. She shrugged, selecting the next item from the plastic bin. I suppose I’m satisfied with the result, if not the mess they made learning to bond.

Michael turned to examine the tree line, feeling a familiar mind at the outer boundary of the camp. “Mahi’ is back already.”

Bethany Anne dropped the powerpack she was holding on the table and wiped her hands off. “That was fast. I thought she was kidding about getting there and back in one night.” She folded her arms when Mahi’ exited the jungle on a zippy little hoverbike. “Well, now we know how she did it.”

Mahi’ parked the hoverbike at the edge of the tented area and hurried over to Bethany Anne and Michael. “I see you took care of the division between our peoples,” she offered cheerfully in greeting. “It is good to return to harmony.”

Bethany Anne smiled at Mahi’s air of contentment. “How was your uncle?”

Mahi’ grinned. “He is as fat as ever and as well as can be expected. We are to meet his people on the outskirts of the Citadel at last light.” She looked at the cleanup crew with interest. “This, I cannot believe.”

Michael bent and touched a finger to the raptor carcass by his feet to push it into the Etheric. “Indeed. The bravery of the warriors was song-worthy at times.”

Mahi’ smiled. “You will have to tell me the details so the moment can be recorded by our historian.”

The historian in question, a skinny adolescent female with a shock of golden fur, appeared to be getting plenty for the record without any assistance from those around her. She tapped her wrist-holo ceaselessly, never taking her eyes from whoever was speaking.

Bethany Anne waved a hand. “No need. It’s all on video.” She wrinkled her nose when the wind shifted. “Which I will get you just as soon as we get the stink cleared out of this camp. Our people need food and rest before we head for the Citadel.”

Somehow, all Bethany Anne had to do was raise her eyebrow to inspire the now-unified expedition party to light a fire under their asses.

A new fire was built and lit, logs salvaged from the wreckage at the tree line and placed around it.

A few smaller fires appeared, each tended by an owner who swore their camp cooking was the best. Organization out of chaos.

The move to accommodate Bethany Anne’s wishes gave her and Michael the space to walk through and rid the camp of dead raptors.

Once the ground had been cleared and the detritus removed to where it wouldn’t attract more predators, the expedition party found themselves gathered around the fire in the center of camp.

Peter rolled the last log smoothly from his shoulder to the ground, completing the circle. “We’re done,” he called to Bethany Anne.

Bethany Anne waved everyone over. “Bring it in. Time to discuss our next steps.”

Mahi’ was surrounded by her people, each with a tale of the night’s battle. “Where is my brother?” she asked, looking at the gathering. “And my nephew?”

Kel’Len had no answer. “They were gone by the time we got back to camp.”

Peter glanced around, feeling another absence. “Come to think of it, where’s John gotten to?”

Bethany Anne’s eyes unfocused for a moment. She returned less than impressed. “John went after Da’Mahin.” She jerked a thumb in the general direction of the mountain. “Who went after Chet.”

Enter Into Valhalla

Da’Mahin hadn’t proven to be the hardest to track.

John had no trouble spotting where the Baka had left the mountain trail or following the path he had torn through the previously virgin jungle.

He picked his way along the path with all the silence his training afforded him.

The wanton destruction to the foliage concerned him deeply. This path had been made originally by Ch’Irzt and widened by Da’Mahin’s passage sometime later. What he didn’t want to see was an end to either trail.

John. Where are you?

Relief flooded in. You done playing with the local wildlife?

We’re done herding dinosaurs if that’s what you’re asking. We’re back at camp. What’s up, and why are you halfway into that damned mountain range?

Michael interjected, You’re tracking him?

Yeah, John confirmed. I’m tracking Da’Mahin, who’s tracking his kid.

He paused to send stills of the claw marks in the surrounding trees to Bethany Anne and Michael through his HUD. Dunno, it looks to me like the kid’s lost his shit.

Michael made a sound of concern. I touched the youth’s mind just now. He is by a body of running water. Da’Mahin is almost upon his location, so I suggest you hurry.

John picked up his pace when he pinpointed the faint rush in the distance. You'd better save me some of whatever's cooking.

Maybe, if you get back fast enough, Bethany Anne teased. Stay sharp up there. Preferably, I want you all back in one piece, but I won’t be bothered if that asshat has a collision with a branch or two on the way back to camp.

John grunted, finding the prospect amusing. His humor only went so far. If anyone understood what it was to have someone in the family suffer from a terminally poor decision-making ability, it was him. Give him a break. I feel kinda sorry for the guy.

I can’t wait to hear what changed your mind about him, Bethany Anne shot back.

John snorted. It’s gonna have to hold on until I get the asshole back to camp. He wasn’t pissed about Da’Mahin’s instinctive dash to protect his son. It wasn’t for him to question anyone else’s parenting methods—unless, like now, they were fucking things up for the rest of them.

He heard Da’Mahin chewing the kid out before he got close.

Ch’Irzt stormed out of the hanging branches, his face set in a snarl.

John put a stop to his escape with a hand. Without a word, he turned the youth back around and force-marched him through the branches to Da’Mahin.

Ch’Irzt tried to shake John off, with no success. “Let me go!”

John gripped the loose skin at the nape of Ch’Irzt’s neck a bit tighter and swept a foot to sit the squirming youth down in front of Da’Mahin. “You will sit your ungrateful ass down and pay your father the respect he’s due for trailing you out here.”

Da’Mahin put a hand to his head and sighed. “I do not need your help to discipline my son.”

John lifted a shoulder. “The kid almost crashing into me says different. Word of advice from someone who went through this, times ten. Don’t take his shit for a second. You know he can do better? Make him prove it.”

He stood back and folded his arms. “I can give you a few more minutes. We need to get back to camp before they leave.”

Da’Mahin looked long and hard at John before nodding in understanding. He gestured roughly for Ch’Irzt to get to his feet. “Your punishment, as well as anything else I have to say, can wait until we are back with the group.”

Beyond Federation Borders

A Gate spiraled open and spat out a single ship.

This was a sad day for Leath, although no Leath knew it yet. Least of all the crew of the prospecting ship Garrulous, who was about to die for their efforts.

The expedition began well enough.

Initial readings on arrival in the Kuiper belt of the rocky system showed an abundance of mineable materials, including three large deposits of extremely valuable dysprosium.

Their orders were clear—strip the system of anything it was worth the resources to take. The crew celebrated their good fortune and got to work making preparations for the next shift to begin the harvest before they clocked out.

Captain Glureg knew better than to interrupt the sleeping and eating schedules of his crew, a lesson learned quickly by any green Leath with an eye on advancing through the ranks. Setting up the staging post was the first step, but only after the changeover period had been observed.

Unlike many of the recent startups, his operation had the advantage of experience. Prospecting had been a blessing, a reprieve from the tedium he’d been tricked into in the name of retirement when the Federation had ruled in favor of military consolidation some years back.

A veteran of many wars, most notably the war of Empire that had concluded with the formation of the Federation, Glureg knew how to get the best out of any crew. That over half his crew were scientists had no bearing on the running of his ship. He expected the same discipline from his thinkers as he did from his fighters, which was the same as he expected of himself.

Glureg’s musing was cut short by his arrival at the officers’ mess.

Same as every second shift, he was escorted to his personal table by his staff secretary and served the meal he ate every day with his second-in-command, Lundren.

Routine.

Lundren ran briefly through the shift schedule as they ate, with Glureg interceding at regular intervals to give his orders in regard to the construction of the staging post.

Then the two left the officers’ mess to begin the shift inspection.

Lundren walked the appropriate three paces behind his captain, his attention on his datapad rather than the route his feet knew from repetition. “I suggest we alter our usual schedule, Captain. Lieutenant Frax is ready to depart with the first load of drilling equipment.”

Glureg nodded and made the adjustment to his to-do list. “Very well.”

Lundren frowned. “Construction of the staging post is projected to take two cycles. Perhaps you should think about having the Loquacious join us once they have completed their survey of the Nine Moons system?”

“What we need,” Glureg told his second-in-command as they made their procession, “is to learn from the humans. They hardly ever go to the expense of building from scratch.”

“Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting, Captain?” Lundren inquired, a grin exposing his lower tusks.

“That we hollow out an asteroid and add the savings to the crew’s share?” Glureg laughed aloud at the look of disappointment on his subordinate’s face. “Surely you didn’t think we’d keep the profit all to ourselves?”

Lundren shrugged to indicate he had. “Why share it?”

Glureg shook his head. “Can you guarantee perfect silence when we return to Leath any other way? You have a lot to learn—”

He was cut off when the ship lurched and dropped into darkness, unbalancing them both.

Lundren crashed into Glureg, sending them both tumbling to the deck.

Glureg untangled himself from Lundren as they fell. He tucked and rolled to his feet in a practiced movement, avoiding the embarrassment Lundren suffered when he crashed into a wall panel.

Nevertheless, the sudden movement wracked him with pain. Muscles and joints that hadn’t been stressed in a long time cried out as Glureg steadied himself.

Lundren called, “Captain? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Glureg told him roughly. “Are you injured?”

Lundren snorted. “Only my pride.”

Glureg felt around in the darkness until he found Lundren's shoulder. “Here, take my hand.”

Lundren accepted Glureg’s help and got to his feet.

The emergency lighting kicked in. Lundren brushed off his uniform and looked at Glureg, who was still shaken by the impact. “Captain, what was that?”

Glureg touched his earpiece to indicate Lundren listen in. His heart fell as the ship’s EI informed them that the ship was under attack. “We’ve been boarded. We need to get to the bridge and get a message to the Secretary.”

That was too much for Lundren’s mind to comprehend. “The Secretary? Who is capable of boarding us?” His eyes bugged out of his head as panic took over.

Glureg jerked Lundren’s sleeve to snap him out of his shock. “Move!”

They crossed the ship, their route diverted multiple times by sealed bulkheads that protected the rest of the ship from being pulled apart.

Glureg’s heart rate skyrocketed, and his balance was thrown off by the corridor floor rippling beneath their feet. “Keep going!” he called back to Lundren. “We’re almost there!”

They entered the bridge corridor, ducking to avoid being burned by the sparks raining all around them.

Glureg shouldered his way through the crowd around the bridge door. “What are you all doing?”

The crewmembers regained a little of their composure at the sight of their captain.

They ceased their pleas to be let in at the bridge door and turned to Glureg, all yelling at once about tentacled aliens from nightmare tearing their colleagues to pieces with uncountable, insatiable mouths.

Glureg knew his ship was lost when his chief engineer, a stalwart Leath who had served under his father’s command, held up his empty hands in defeat. “Tell me there’s something we can do,” he asked with little hope.

“They’re in the reactor chamber,” his engineer informed him. “We’re done.”

Glureg shook his head, refusing to accept a painful and dishonorable death for his crew. “I’m giving the order to evacuate. Get them to safety. I’ll take care of the monsters.”

Lundren snapped out of his stupor at last as Glureg’s meaning became clear. “Captain! Surely you don’t intend to—”

Glureg cut him off with a ringing slap across the jowls. “You are in no position to speak to my intentions, Lundren. See to your duty. Leave me to tend to mine.”

Lundren nodded, touching his fingers to his stinging cheek. “Yes, Captain.” He turned back to Glureg as he ushered the crowd toward the escape pods at the opposite end of the corridor.

Glureg paused before entering the bridge, seeing Lundren hesitate. “What is it?”

Lundren dipped his head to acknowledge Glureg’s sacrifice. “I… I wish you safe passage to the next life, Captain.”

Glureg held his emotions in check as the bridge door cut him off from the rest of the ship. He made his way to his chair and prayed for the remainder of his crew to get clear of the ship while the EI continued pouring ever-bleaker reports into his ear.

The invaders continued to encroach, gaining on the bridge one deck at a time.

Glureg saw them now. He wished he was blind the instant the EI put the images onscreen. Masses of tentacles, too many for his mind to make sense of. They filled him with creeping dread.

Glureg’s legs failed him for the first time in his life and he collapsed against the main console, breathing heavily. “Initiate self-destruct protocols,” he ordered.

“Authorization required,” the EI intoned as a flexible tube was pushed out of the console toward him.

Glureg missed the breath analyzer with his first grab. He clenched his hands to steady them before making another attempt.

“DNA authorization accepted, Captain Glureg.”

The EI sounded shrill to Glureg’s ears. He dropped the tube, staring blankly at the monitor feed as it was retracted. “Are the crew out of range?”

“They are,” the EI confirmed. “However, the enemy is moving to intercept the escape pods. Their chances of survival are dwindling.”

Glureg closed his eyes and worked to let go of the shame he felt for failing to protect his crew. “May I be forgiven for this.” He bowed his head, knowing there was no other way to prevent this vicious species from finding the Federation. “Activate the self-destruct protocol.”


13

Red Rock

Lance was enjoying a quiet breakfast in the communal dining hall until Harkkat arrived to fill his thinking time. With more nonsensical schemes favoring the Leath over the rest of the Federation, he could only assume.

The Secretary hustled to Lance’s table-for-one and appropriated a chair from the table next to his before sitting down without an invitation. “We have a problem.”

“You mean, you have a problem.” Lance continued to eat and read, ignoring the interruption in the hope that the Leath secretary would get the hint and leave.

No such luck.

“General Reynolds!” Harkkat pressed, his tone rising in alarm. “This is no trifling matter. The ship I sent out to investigate new mining prospects has been destroyed. Utterly destroyed. There isn’t a single survivor to tell us who attacked them.” He jabbed a thick finger at Lance, almost knocking the datapad out of his hand. “You have a duty to tell me what you know.”

Lance paused his eating and pointed his fork at Harkkat. “Let me be clear. My duty is to the Federation as a whole, not to the self-interests of any single member species. I went over and beyond any duty when I told you to stay the hell away from the border systems.” He placed his fork on the table and topped his coffee up. “Should you care to bring the matter in front of the council, I’ll be happy to adjudicate the penalty for attempted financial fuckery. Otherwise, Secretary, we are done with this conversation.”

He gave Harkkat a moment to reply, then turned his attention back to his breakfast, reading when none was forthcoming. “That’s what I thought. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I prefer to eat alone.”

Enter Into Valhalla

Harkkat all but boiled at the dismissal.

Why were humans so difficult to work with? They couldn’t see the benefit in looking the other way unless it suited them to do so.

The General had no idea how much pressure Harkkat was under from the representatives.

Ever since the Empress had removed the defunct Kurtherian religion from their society, half the Leath leadership had done their utmost to milk the Federation kitty for all they could, while the other half… They sounded more like separatists every time Harkkat called to receive his orders.

Harkkat put it down to the sudden boom in the manufacturing sector.

The market held little interest to him beyond the impact the fluctuation was having on his homeworld. However, the loss of Glureg had hit him personally. The celebrated veteran wasn’t just Harkkat's friend, he was blood.

Blood demanded blood in return.

It was a law older than time. Older than that was the matriarch of his family, Kirrat. Anyone who thought the representatives hard-faced had never had the misfortune of meeting Harkkat’s great-grandmother. His holo pinged around the clock with missed calls and messages demanding what he was doing to avenge his cousin’s death.

Harkkat slammed the door to his personal quarters behind him.

What could he do out here on Red Rock without getting hauled in front of the council? It wasn’t like he had a fleet of battleships to send out.

There had to be a way around this that didn’t end with him spending the rest of his days breaking rocks, which he knew was the most probable outcome of his actions being revealed. The council was unlikely to take mercy on his predicament and decide against a term of hard labor.

Harkkat shuddered, his anger at being caught between a rock and a hard place twisting his face. He was a thinker. His life had been about developing his mind and a network of favors owed, not so much his body. “Maybe I don’t have a fleet of battlecruisers on hand,” he murmured. “Doesn’t mean I can’t borrow one.”

He crossed to his desk and slipped into his chair, his fingers on the keys before his abundant ass touched the leather. It was an effort to fix an appropriate expression, but he reined in his anger until it was no longer present on his face. He nodded respectfully when the connection solidified. “Representative Trugak. I have sad news regarding our venture. Glureg’s ship has been destroyed.”

The representative flashed his tusks at Harkkat. “The grief is yours, I believe. My condolences, Secretary. Glureg’s death was a loss for all Leath.”

Harkkat bowed his head. “Indeed. I’m sure you are aware that it is not within my power to take action without your investment becoming Federation knowledge.”

Trugak leaned toward the screen, his eyes narrowing. “That sounds remarkably like a threat, Harkkat.”

Harkkat put a hand to his chest. “I don’t know how you could take it as such when I’m advising in your best interest, Representative. I have seen the diligence of the Federation interplanetary fraud department firsthand. Believe me when I say it would be in the best interests of several of our ‘friends’ if we keep this whole situation quiet.”

Trugak glared at him. “Then why are you calling?”

“To get ahead on our next move.” Harkkat tapped at his keyboard to send the initial constituent analysis report he’d received from Glureg before the attack. “I expect you will want to get a larger operation underway as soon as possible. I plan to send an investigative team to accompany them and find out the party responsible for Glureg’s death.”

The representative blinked as he read through the data. “Am I reading this correctly?”

Harkkat nodded. “You are. There’s enough dysprosium in that system to break the choke chain the Safras group have on the manufacturers. Glureg’s sacrifice doesn’t have to be in vain.”

Trugak’s eyes told Harkkat he’d gotten his way before the representative opened his mouth to speak. “Leave it with me.”

Devon, The Hexagon, Hangar

“Missed them. Again.” Tabitha slammed her hand into the damaged panel, which promptly fell off and landed on her toe. “Sonofa— Add injury to insult. Why not?”

“I’m telling you, we have space rats,” Ashur declared for the fourth time in thirty minutes. “What else could want to take parts of the building? It’s rats, and they’re building a great big ratty nest somewhere.”

“Then where are these ‘space rats?’” Tabitha demanded. She deflated at the wounded look Ashur gave her. “Sorry, buddy. This is getting to me. We’ve searched every inch of this level, and found nothing but missing parts and Bobcat’s beer stash.”

Ashur dipped his head in a doggy shrug and turned to look around them. “Where do we search next?”

Tabitha didn’t have the foggiest idea. She wished for a moment that Achronyx were here instead of patrolling the Interdiction for Ooken. “Starting in the middle of the building probably wasn’t the smartest. I guess…down, and work our way up?” She set off at a sprint for the hidden elevator that would take them down to Eve’s domain.

Ashur ran to keep up, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth as he panted to keep cool. “How far down are you talking? Has Bethany Anne built another bunker? We all know how well that went down with Bellatrix the last time.”

Tabitha called the elevator, smirking at the memory of the canine matriarch flouncing out of the base, her pups and grandpups following with their tails down. “Wayyy down. We’re going to check on the Vid-doc vault before we get back to the search.”

Ashur followed Tabitha into the elevator and sat by her feet, his tail curled around him. “This is where Bethany Anne is hiding the twins?”

Tabitha nodded, her attention on giving DNA to get access to the vault level. “Yeah, it was Sabine’s weapons cache until Bethany Anne had the Vid-docs installed down here for the twins, Trey, and K’aia. Eve has her lab on the level above. It’s the safest place they could be.”

Ashur sniffed, lifting his nose. “Unless the space rats get down there.”

“They’d be deep-fried space rats if they did,” Tabitha told him as the elevator came to a smooth stop. “There’s a nano-curtain around the vault. Any DNA not on the approved list gets broken down to dust.”

The doors opened, and Ashur whined when the change in air pressure was accompanied by a sharp, grinding buzz in his brain. “What’s that? It hurts!”

Tabitha petted his neck in sympathy. “You can hear it, huh? I guess the nanocytes are putting out a frequency you don’t like. You have to stay here anyway, buddy. You weren’t here in time to get logged into the system. I won’t be long.”

Ashur dropped to the floor of the car and clamped his front paws over his ears. “Not a problem.” He moved his paws to cover his eyes from the flash of light that went off when Tabitha stepped out of the elevator.

“Did you just get zapped?” he called uncertainly.

Tabitha laughed at the sight of Ashur with his head hidden under his front legs. “Open your eyes, you silly dog. It’s just the identification scan. See? I’m fine.”

Ashur raised his head, glad Bethany Anne hadn’t been there to see him behaving like a common cat. “What happens if you’re not authorized?”

Tabitha mimed an explosion with her hands, then wiggled her fingers to simulate a slow rain. “Wouldn’t recommend it. Okay, the vault is about to open, and you won’t be able to see or hear me again until I get out.”

Ashur put his head back down while Tabitha went into the vault.

She returned a few minutes later, smelling somewhat relieved to Ashur. He chuffed with some relief of his own once the elevator door had shut out the angry, high-pitched buzzing in the corridor beyond. “What did you find?”

Tabitha grinned and scratched Ashur’s ears. “The vault is secure. Take us up one level, Winstanley.”

The doors opened on a sterile white corridor a few moments later.

Tabitha strode out with purpose, then paused and turned to look back over her shoulder when she failed to hear the click of Ashur’s claws on the tiled floor. “This level doesn’t have any defenses that can hurt you. It’s only high-security. See? Good old-fashioned Guardians.”

Ashur looked away. “I don’t know. That last level hurt my brain.”

Tabitha tilted her head and smiled at Ashur. “C’mon, it’s safe. This is Eve’s lab. I’m not going to go in without you.”

Ashur’s ears went flat against his skull as he left the elevator. “Fiiiine. This doesn’t look at all like the opening of every scene in a horror movie. What’s that alien smell?”

Tabitha snickered, her hand dropping to Ashur’s neck as they walked. “I told you, this is Eve's lab. There are some Collectives here. Tina is on the team working on communications with them. Remember her?”

Ashur looked up at Tabitha and raised an eyebrow he didn’t technically have. “You are joking, right? Tina is one of those humans who always has a bite of something in her pocket. My Devi trained her well. Why is she not on R2D2?”

Tabitha felt satisfied she’d diverted Ashur's nerves. “The aliens, the Collective? They can’t talk to regular people.”

“Like humans?” Ashur asked.

“No,” Tabitha clarified. “All people. I wasn’t categorizing by species. The issue is something to do with enhancement, I think? You’d have to ask Eve.”

Ashur’s tail went up a little. “Okay. But if I see anyone who looks like they might be a zombie or a serial killer in disguise, I’m biting them.”

Tabitha laughed, her eyes crinkling in pleasure. “Mm-hmm? What are you going to do after you’ve bitten them and you’re overcome with the urge to eat…braiiiiinssss?”

Ashur barked and jumped at Tabitha as she came at him with her arms outstretched. “I’ll ask them why they make such ridiculous faces at their dinners instead of tackling them.”

Tabitha rolled him into a hug, then got to her feet. “I forgot how great it is having a dog around. Let’s go this way—and keep your nose peeled for our space rats.” She led Ashur through the corridors, heading for the no-ox habitat, where she suspected Eve and Tina would be found.

Ashur padded beside her, his nose sweeping left to right as they walked into the long, wide chamber at the end of the corridor.

He stared for a moment at the tank wall running down one side of the room, then glanced around at blinking, whirring servers along the other wall, and the various techs, scientists, and research assistants. He recognized many of them from Jean’s lab.

“Pretty amazing, huh?” Tabitha asked. “All that water is piped in from City-on-the-Lakes.”

“I can’t smell anything but the Collective,” Ashur admitted. His tail sprang into action when a strange whisper brushed his mind. “I can hear them, too. I want to see one once I’ve looked around.”

“Go do your thing.” Tabitha pointed at a workstation. “I’m gonna be right over there with Eve.” She watched him start his inspection of the room’s boundary before heading over to the tank wall.

Eve held up a finger as Tabitha approached, her eyes flicking rapidly as she typed one-handed into a holointerface on the glass wall.

Tabitha grinned and stepped back to get a full view of the world under the water. Who’s the AI down here? she asked in the mindspace, her eyes on the gently rippling kelp forest.

>>That would be me,<< ADAM replied. >>What are you and Ashur doing down here? Is there something going on that I should know about?<<

Tabitha rolled her eyes at the nearest camera and spoke aloud for Eve’s benefit. “Looking for space rats, according to Ashur.” She shrugged at Eve’s blank look. “Well, something got brought back from the Kurtherian factory. I don’t know, maybe Ashur’s theory isn’t crazy. I can’t think of anything else to explain a creature that is smart enough to disable cameras but has no apparent goal except random destruction.”

ADAM accessed the investigation records Tabitha had filed with network command. >>I have to agree, there is a mystery here.<<

Tabitha spread her hands. “Exactly, and I’m going to solve it before Bethany Anne gets home—even if I have to search every inch of the Hexagon to find the answer. Has there been any inexplicable damage in the lab?”

Eve joined Tabitha at the tank wall, her lips drawn together in a tight line. “Not even a speck of dust gets into this lab without me knowing about it.”

Tabitha wrinkled her nose and sighed. “Figured as much. What about your security system? Has it picked up anything weird? Any detail could help me find out where the nibblers are hiding before they make a snack out of the wrong cable and blow us all to pieces.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Eve assured her. “There are too many redundancies built into the Hexagon.”

Ashur chuffed from behind Tabitha, making her jump. “Tina says there were weird noises when she moved into her apartment.”

Tabitha caught Tina’s attention and waved her over to the glass wall. “What kind of weird noises?” she asked. “Like, in the walls?”

Tina came over, her arms folded. “Yeah. It was just the one time, the first night I was there.”

Tabitha’s eyes went wide. “Hell no, for real? Were you spooked?”

Tina fixed Tabitha with an incredulous look. “Uh, yeah! Wouldn’t you be on your first night alone on a strange planet?” She waved a hand. “I had Winstanley check for critters. He didn’t find anything, and I didn’t hear anything after that.”

Tabitha felt a spark of hope despite the thin lead. “But you definitely heard something, right? Where are you staying?”

Tina fished around in her pocket for a key card, which she handed to Tabitha. “I’m in apartment fourteen. Take a look around if it helps, but I don’t think you’ll find anything.”

Tabitha stuffed the card into her inside jacket pocket. “Thanks. We should think about upping security on the vault, too.”

Eve looked distant a moment. “Better to be safe than sorry. The families of my staff are staying in the apartments. Will you check on them?”

Tabitha grinned. “Sure thing. Ashur, you good? We need to get going.”

Ashur didn’t reply. He sat staring at the kelp behind the glass wall, his head tilted and his ears pricked.

Eve knelt beside him and wrapped an arm around his neck. “You can hear them, can’t you?”

Ashur nodded and tucked his head into Eve’s shoulder. “They’re sad. Angry. They miss their home and their family. They love Bethany Anne.”

Eve let go to look into Ashur’s eyes. “You are ‘hearing’ their emotions?”

Ashur chuffed. “Well, yeah. They don’t speak like humans. You can’t?”

“No,” Eve told him. She tilted her head in curiosity. “Will you stay? This could be the breakthrough we’re looking for.”

Ashur looked at the tank, then at Tabitha, torn. “I want to. But…space rats…”

Tabitha shrugged, glancing at her wrist holo. “We can take a break if you want to stay. I need to pick up Todd soon anyway. My boy’s gonna start thinking he’s a Noel-ni, he’s spent that much time with Ricole this last few days.” She handed Tina’s keycard back. “We can pick this up tomorrow.”

“Great!” Eve declared, getting to her feet in one smooth motion. “I’ll be back shortly. There’s some equipment I need to find.”

She glided away with Tina following, and Tabitha dashed off in the opposite direction.

Ashur looked in both directions, then rolled his eyes. “Sure, make the choice for me. I’ll just sit and wait like a good dog, shall I?” He felt amusement from behind the glass. “I don’t know what you’re laughing at,” he complained. “Clearly you don’t know what it feels like to be abandoned mid-hunt.”

Canine.

Ashur yipped at the intrusion in his mental space. You can talk?

We are able to communicate, yes. In this case, we are sending visual and sensory information that your species is able to interpret as language.

Ashur tipped his head. Then why are you not talking to Eve?

A sigh echoed through Ashur’s mind.

The android cannot hear us. We are able to connect with enhanced humans, but otherwise, we are cut off unless CEREBRO translates for us.

Ashur could appreciate the difficulty. Eve is working to make it so you can talk to whoever, right? She thinks I can help. Eve never fails once she sets her heart on it.

The android has a heart? We understand that to be an organic component.

Ashur snorted. He made a few circles, then settled down to an unobstructed view of the water. Language. It’s tricky. You’ll get it. Eve has free will. That’s how we know she’s an AI, she can choose her path. This is her heart—the desire to help you integrate.

The Collective mind thrilled. We also believe you are the key. Would our appearance make you afraid?

Ashur considered the question. Honestly? I’m a dog. You are friend, not foe. I don’t care much what you look like. He ate his words when three Collectives pushed their way out of the kelp and filled the glass wall. Holy shitballs!

He couldn’t miss the needle-sharp mouths they had in place of the suckers most cephalopods had. My, what big teeth you have.

The Collective in the center remained, and the other two vanished back into the kelp in a coordinated swirl of their tentacles.

Eve came back with a floppy piece of plastic in one hand and a clear bottle with a squirt nozzle in the other. She bowed her head to the Collective at the glass and knelt by Ashur. “Ready? I’m going to put this gel and this cap on you.”

Ashur caught a whiff of the bottle’s contents. “What is that for?” he yipped, moving back a few steps. “That stuff smells like hospitals. I don’t like hospital smells.”

Eve smiled gently. “Nothing to do with hospitals. Remember the first translator module you had? You had to go into the Pod-doc, right? It read the waves your brain produced when you were ‘talking,’ and we were able to build a lexicon of canine language and play it through your collar device, yes?”

Ashur shuddered. “Don’t remind me. I hated those collar devices. I prefer it now that the translation is done through my chip. It was frustrating before you came up with a way to translate all of my communication, not just my barks and chuffs.”

“Exactly,” Eve enthused. “You communicate non-verbally more than you do verbally. My aim is to find out how the Collectives connect. We cannot just implant a chip into the Collectives, however. Their brains are structured much differently than ours. We need to build the lexicon and figure out a way to make it work with the translation software.”

Eve shook the cap. “With this, ADAM and I will be able to read your brainwaves through this cap while you talk to the Collective. The gel is to improve the connection, and it dries fast, to be brushed out easily.”

Ashur considered. It was only a small thing to get his fur messy to help the aliens. “Okay, then. I suppose that’s not so bad. But you’d better get all that nasty stuff out of my fur afterward. I don’t want Bellatrix to make me sleep in the yard because I came home sticky.”

Eve snickered. “Deal.”

Ashur dipped his head, then sat and watched while Eve squirted a blob of gel into her hand and warmed it before applying it to his head. “How does it work?”

Eve wiped her hands off and picked up the cap. “The chip in the cap connects your neural chip to the translator module. All you have to do is continue your chat with the Collectives whenever you can get down here, and the module will translate what you are ‘hearing’ into something we can ‘read.’”

She tilted her head and smiled at Ashur as she eased the floppy cap over his ears. “Whatever we get will be a step toward saving them from isolation.”


14

Qu’Baka, Jungle

Addix paused to untangle herself from the knot of vines. Hot, tired, and beyond aggravated by her slow progress, she opened the comm channel and barked out loud to relieve her tension. “Izanami, where the hell are you?”

I will arrive at your location shortly, the AI replied. Are you caught up again?

Yes, Addix grumped.

True to her word, Izanami streamed through the thick foliage a few minutes later.

Addix glared at the small egress Demon had likely slunk through easily. “How far ahead is she?”

Izanami reformed her human avatar. “It is a good thing I went to scout ahead. She is heading deeper into the jungle at some speed.”

The holdup frustrated Addix. Every minute they wasted was a minute Demon put more distance between them. “We’re going to lose her trail again. We should consider whether it might be better if you went on without me.”

Then again, the mountain lion did not have the ability to cut through vines and such with her limbs. Addix slashed the vines with her legs while tearing at them with her hands. She landed on the ground with an underwhelming thud.

Izanami glided over. “I’ve been ahead. It only gets thicker.” She raised an eyebrow at Addix’s efforts to regain her feet. “Perhaps you are right, but we should keep moving until you cannot progress.”

Addix glanced up at the canopy. “I’m going to look at this from a different angle. You keep low, I’ll go high.”

Izanami held out a hand and manifested a small ball of light.

Addix shook her head. “Darkness is my friend.” She made it to the first level of the canopy in a few leaps and forced her way through the lowest branches.

Izanami peered up at the impenetrable mat of leaves. “Is it passable?”

Addix leaned out to look down at the jungle floor. “It’s a lot better than it is down there. Can you give me a guide?”

“Of course.” Izanami opened her hand and a ball of red-gold light appeared. “Since you will not be able to see me once I leave, I have no need to use energy to maintain this form.”

The ball of light spiraled up to Addix as Izanami’s avatar dissolved into a mist of golden sparkles and streaked away through tiny gaps in the vines.

“Showoff.” Addix set off after the guide-light, across the carpet of leaves and branches as Izanami filtered through the jungle below.

Qu’Baka, Jungle

Demon was getting close.

The cat scent grew stronger with every step she took.

A frisson of anticipation ran down her spine, causing her tail to flick from side to side of its own accord. She stayed low, her belly almost touching the ground as she crept through the undergrowth toward her target.

The cat was the apex predator in this jungle, a fact proven by the meal she’d made of the lizards that had attacked her the previous day. No other predator had appeared to challenge her for the kill.

Maybe the male had killed them all.

He was a cat, after all.

Demon didn’t care. These were fleeting thoughts that she dismissed as she crept ever closer to his den. She would fight him off, and then the jungle would belong to her entirely.

The shrubbery gave way to long grass, dotted here and there with rocks and trees. Demon smelled water and grazing beasts. Why the humans chose their cities over this, she could never figure out.

If not for the uncatlike emotion that bound her to the humans, she could see herself enjoying ruling in a place like this.

However, she was only here for a fight.

Demon paused at the edge of the grass and observed the area from her hidden vantage point. Her examination of the male's territory told her he had made his home in a cave on the opposite bank of the river.

A twitch of her nose told her he wasn’t there at present.

Demon’s curiosity got the better of her.

She inched her way to one of the trees overlooking the shallow part of the water where she smelled him strongest. It was a simple leap to reach the lower branches, where she curled up to continue her observation through a gap in the leaves.

The underworld had no sky, and no sun to set and bring the night. There was light from the surface that crept in for some hours, but it was nothing like the day and night of Deon’s experience. There was a rhythm to the ecosystem, nonetheless.

Nature always found its way.

The rest beat forcing herself through endless tangles of vines, that was for certain. The light came and went through holes in the roof, leaving the shifts in the song of the jungle as Demon’s best way to mark time.

It was warm here, and her stomach full of dinosaur meat. How many hours she sat in the tree, she couldn’t tell.

Demon felt her eyes grow heavy.

That wouldn’t do at all.

What if the enemy cat came back and found her sleeping? She shook her head to clear the drowsiness. Apart from losing her element of surprise, it would be downright embarrassing.

Demon washed her whiskers and pretended the lapse in alertness hadn’t just happened.

The wait stretched out.

It rained a spell, driving Demon farther into the tree in an attempt to stay dry. She didn’t mind the rain, as long as it didn’t touch her fur. The rain was a gift that washed away any trace of her path to the tree.

As the songbirds exited the stage for the night-callers, Demon felt his presence. All of her senses came alive when the male cat loped into view farther down her side of the riverbank.

Her conquest had arrived.

Demon narrowed her eyes, her lips drawing back over her fangs as she assessed her quarry. He was about the same size as her, although his fangs looked to be much longer than hers.

She wasn’t at all jealous of their magnificent length. Not even a little bit.

He was also wider across the shoulders. Demon didn’t care. She’d taken down bigger beasts than him back on High Tortuga without breaking a sweat.

She was the huntress, and he was her prey.

Demon moved silently into position. She tasted the air as the cat approached the river crossing, his golden pelt taking on a burnished glow under the lava-light.

The cat paused to scent his surroundings. Curious, he padded over to the spot Demon had lain in earlier and inspected the crushed grass with a low snarl.

Demon almost purred in anticipation when he abandoned the grass and made to cross the river. Come closer. Closer…

Her hindquarters in the air, she pounced.

The male reacted to the rustle of leaves, but nothing could have prepared him for the three hundred and fifty pounds of predatory female that came rocketing out of the tree.

Demon landed on the male’s back and sank her teeth into his neck.

The male freaked, letting out a panicked growl as he flipped Demon off his back.

Demon landed on all four feet and whirled to face the male, her fangs on display.

The male cat froze when he saw his attacker. He backed up, all his aggression draining away, to be replaced by a look of pure confusion.

Demon flashed her red eyes at him, to no effect.

Where was her fight? She snarled and leapt at him, taking away his choice.

The male roared. He reared up and caught Demon’s front paws with his splayed claws, fury in his eyes.

Demon hissed and pulled him to the ground in return. This was the fight she’d wanted. An equal foe to pit herself against.

Locked paw to paw, jaw to jaw, Demon and the strange cat tumbled head over tail on the riverbank, heedless of their surroundings.

Demon rabbit-kicked him, scoring his soft underbelly with her claws.

The male twisted out of her reach and slunk around to take his revenge.

Demon yowled as the male nipped her neck. She found herself flying through the air and landing with a splash before she’d realized what was happening. That damned male had picked her up like a kitten and tossed her into the water!

Pure indignation gripped Demon while the river did its best to run through her.

She surfaced, scrambling with her paws to get out of the current before it took her.

Too late. Demon went under again, spluttering just the same when she surfaced a second time. The current tugged at her body, dragging her downstream whether she wanted it to or not.

Regaining control of her senses, Demon realized the only reasonable thing she could do was go with the flow until she got to a calmer stretch of the river. Then she could get out and find her way back here to teach that cat a lesson.

Demon twisted her body around to swim with the current. The last thing she saw before the river swept her away was the male sitting on the riverbank.

She could have sworn the bastard was smiling.


15

Qu’Baka, Citadel, Inner Ring

Michael crouched at the edge of the royal complex, listening in as Bethany Anne wrapped up her last-minute instructions to the team leaders while he kept an eye on the activity on his HUD map.

Getting the Guardians into the Citadel wasn’t proving as difficult as Eric had predicted since Jean’s chameleon tech had been rolled out across Bethany Anne’s fighting forces. The map filled rapidly with layers of information collated by their armor’s sensor suites to go with the aerial surveillance.

“Teams Two and Five are in,” Peter confirmed. “That’s all the Guardians inside the citadel. Ready to move to the second ring on your word.”

Bethany Anne nodded, zooming in on her helmet HUD to look over the parts of the outer and middle rings where the Guardian teams were gathering in the shadows. “You’re good to go, Peter. Mahi’?”

“We are in the commercial quarter,” Mahi’ came back for her and Kel’Len. “Bor’Dane sends his greetings and promises a good meal to end the day.”

Bethany Anne smiled. “I haven’t even met your uncle, and I like him already.”

“Do you have the location of Bor’Dane’s property?” Michael asked. “There’s nothing on the map to say where everyone is to reconvene.”

“You see the green area?” Mahi’ highlighted an area that covered much of the middle ring of the Citadel. She added a marker to the map. “This is my uncle’s home. He is expecting our arrival. Where are my brothers?”

“We are still in the outer ring, outside the walls,” Li’Orin reported. “We came out near an unexpected garrison. There’s no way past. I’m going to move my warriors southeast until we find a quiet place.”

“The damn computer has malfunctioned,” Da’Mahin complained, ignoring Ch’Irzt’s attempts to intercede. “It won’t shut up!”

“The ‘damn computer’ is thinking of performing the galaxy’s first long-distance frontal lobotomy on a Baka,” Izanami cut in. “Take a left as I instructed, you bubble-headed brute, or run into three dozen of Lu’Trein’s guards.”

“My warriors can take a mere three dozen without breaking a sweat,” Da’Mahin boasted. “Stick to making sure we don’t crash into asteroids, Computer. Leave the war to the warriors.”

Izanami sniffed. “I have enough to do without holding these babies’ hands.” She vanished from the comm channel.

Michael lost the bet with himself when Bethany Anne cursed with only maybe half as much vehemence as he had been expecting.

Bethany Anne’s eyes flashed red. “ENOUGH.” She gave her gauntlet a look of distaste and wiped away the dirt from where she’d used the ground to release her anger. “Li’Orin, maintain your position. Da’Mahin, get your sad-sack ass around to the south side and be your usual charming self. We want some unrest, right? If three dozen is no problem, then you shouldn’t have any issue taking the garrison out without Izanami’s help.”

John grinned from his tiny window in her HUD. “I’ve got just the thing to take it out with, Boss.”

His low voice held a touch too much joy for Bethany Anne’s comfort. “Jean gave you a new toy?”

“Toys,” was the reply.

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow at Michael. Should I have checked Jean’s bags before we left QT2?

Michael lifted his hands. Maybe a check before we left Devon would have been more appropriate.

You don’t say. “Sound off, everyone who has non-standard equipment with them.”

Michael snickered at the chorus of clicks that came over the comm.

“All of you, then.” Bethany Anne would have been royally annoyed had it not been for the distance between them and the nearest Pod-doc. “John, back Da’Mahin up. Make sure your toy was worth bringing. I want all of you—everyone—on the Baba Yaga in one piece when we leave. Team leaders will be coordinating from here.”

Bethany Anne handed off the comm channel to Izanami and shut off her HUD feed before any of the Bakas could complain. Ready?

Michael swept a hand out. Lady’s choice. Front, back, or roof?

It doesn’t matter. They won’t know we’re here unless we start killing Kurtherians. Bethany Anne narrowed her eyes at the six-tiered crystal-clad construction that had been added to the original building, throwing off the balance of the carefully constructed inner complex. Do you know what pisses me off?

Michael’s mouth twitched mischievously. I don’t think we have time to go through that list.

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow. It could always be you in the number one slot, she shot back. It’s when I get somewhere completely alien and see proof that those wormy fuck-suckers were elbows-deep in human development from the start.

She came over to Michael’s position and joined him in observing the entrance to the ziggurat. I mean, does that not look Aztec or something to you?

Michael lifted a shoulder noncommittally. It does have similarities. However, the likelihood that the clan responsible for this eyesore could also be responsible for the rise and fall of the proto-American civilizations on Earth is low. It could be coincidental since many worshipped animals.

Bethany Anne snorted. Yeah, in a world where I’m a ray of sunshine and you’re morally flexible. There’s a Kurtherian playing God with these people, and judging by that building, we’re dealing with the Judkah.

What leads you to that conclusion?

Bethany Anne’s mouth quirked. TOM.

Michael matched her smile. Which is actionable information we didn’t have a moment ago.

There was nothing poetic about the rage Bethany Anne was building. She started walking toward the complex, invisible to all except Michael. If it wasn’t for the certainty that there are innocents in there, I’d be tempted to level the damn thing on principle. One of these days, I want to know just why Earth attracted so many of them.

Does it matter? Michael countered, getting to his feet. You made certain there wouldn’t be any more unwelcome visits.

The reminder cooled Bethany Anne’s fury some, not that her desire to grind the skull of any Kurtherian on this planet to dust under her heel lessened any. Let’s go, already. We can’t wait all day for Mahi’ to get here.

Mahi’ requested an audio link when they were halfway across the courtyard. “There’s something we didn’t account for.”

Bethany Anne switched to video. “What’s the issue?”

Mahi’ appeared exasperated. “My brother has closed off travel between the inner and outer rings. We can’t get to you.”

Bethany Anne took the news in her stride. “Fuckdamned son of a dry-humping pustule hustler! Okay, change of plan. Mahi’, find somewhere you won’t look out of place talking to us. We’re going in without you.”

Citadel, Inner Ring

John lined up the faint green crosshairs in his sights with the center of the garrison’s doors and opened the comm to the Bakas. “You all good?”

“We are in position,” Li’Orin confirmed.

He received an ear-bursting crackle from Da’Mahin.

John shifted the weight of his portable puck launcher and lined up a second time. “Asshole. Now, remember, these are your people. Try not to kill them all.”

Da’Mahin grunted. “You’re not serious?”

John cracked a grin. “Fuck, no! They’re the bad guys, so kill ‘em all. On my signal.” He pressed the activation switch. There was a short, sharp shock when the recoil kicked the launcher back into the hollow of his shoulder. “Mother—

The rest was cut off by the explosion.

John dropped the launcher and put a hand to his shoulder to feel around the joint. He cursed again when he found the protrusion. Healed already.

He turned away from the carnage below and looked around the rooftop for something to fit his purpose.

The crumbling wall he’d been using for cover wasn’t going to cut it. Besides, it was getting pretty hairy on the inside of the wall. Looked like they needed his assistance, dislocated shoulder or not.

John checked the map to see who was nearest. “Eric, you busy?”

“Uh-huh,” Eric replied. “’Sup?”

John leaned back a little as he descended the stairs at a fast run. “Puck launcher has a little more kickback than Jean warned me about.”

Eric caught his meaning. “You can’t heal it?”

John vaulted a fallen log. “Healed out of place. Finish up and get over here.”

Enter Into Valhalla

Bethany Anne and Michael walked straight up the stairs to the entrance on the second tier when they reached the Kurtherian-built ziggurat.

“My brother has saved himself only an ounce of pain for sparing the palace our grandfather built,” Mahi’ swore as they arrived. “This monstrosity wasn’t here when I left.”

“It won’t be here when I leave,” Bethany Anne promised. She cursed the drag skipping through the Etheric in battle armor would cause and walked in past the guards instead. It’s not the most dramatic entrance, is it?

Michael chuckled beside her. We’ll tear their heads clean from their bodies, but that’s about as much remodeling as we’re prepared to do.

Bethany Anne snickered. I told you, I’m not leaving this ugly fucking building standing. She identified the order to the chaos around them. Everyone is going through that arch. Wanna bet I can get through without touching a single Baka?

Michael swept a hand toward the crowded archway. I’m not going to take that bet.

Bethany Anne stuck her tongue out at him. Spoilsport. Suit yourself. She slipped away and ran for the archway. Six steps later, she hit the wall and kept running.

Michael rolled his eyes and walked after Bethany Anne as she reached the apex of her arc and used the wall as a springboard to complete her maneuver.

The Bakas parted fast enough when he sent a bolt of fear ahead of him.

You aren’t in the most playful mood today. Bethany Anne bumped him with her hip, ignoring the grunt she received for her effort. You know it wouldn’t hurt to take the stick out of your ass once in a while. Cut loose.

Michael wondered briefly if meeting the sun would have been the better choice after all. Immolation couldn’t be that painful, could it?

Bethany Anne hadn’t waited.

Michael kept one eye on Bethany Anne’s back as she led the way—his other eye and all of his senses on the unknowns in the public space as always.

They remained on the edges and followed the steady flow of the crowd until they came to the guarded staircase that the Bakas clustered around the base were all so eager to ascend.

Michael indicated a balcony above the stairs. What do you think?

Bethany Anne grinned. I think it’s a damn shame I can’t watch you climb.

Is this equality now? Michael asked as they continued their progress into the upper level. Objectification all around? Are men cuts of meat to be drooled over?

Pretty much, Bethany Anne returned, not buying his feigned outrage for a moment. What’s that old line about protesting too much? Besides, a really good cut of meat is something to be admired. Don’t you always say that?

Michael had no argument. Dammit. I do. But I wasn’t referring to the woman I love when I was talking about my preference for a juicy rump.

Are you saying my ass is fat? Bethany Anne felt around until she located Michael’s arm and punched him hard. I knew you were being too fucking nice about all those extra appetizers. You bastard. There’s a special hell for husbands like you. It’s called the couch.

Are we getting close? Michael inquired innocently. I hear voices.

Bethany Anne narrowed her eyes. That’s your conscience tearing you a new one for saying I’ve got a fat ass. Or, we found the throne room.

I’m going to hazard that it’s the latter since I said no such thing. Michael tilted his head. Sounds like quite the party.

“I hear my brother,” Mahi’ cut in. “Show me his traitor’s face, my Empress. Let me see what inviting in corruption has done to him over these long years.”

Bethany Anne paused to peer through the entrance at the throne room. “I see your evil twin, Mahi’.” Her lip curled when she saw Lu’Trein miss his mouth with his drink and turn to accept a morsel of food from the attendant next to the throne without so much as an attempt to clean himself up. “Who the fuck has been feeding that delusional nut-kick the happy juice?”

Michael strode past Bethany Anne. “Not just Lu’Trein. There are no dangers to us here.”

“No Kurtherians, either,” Bethany Anne stated with disappointment. Apart from the fully-armored guard at the usurper’s side, all of the slack-eyed, jelly-limbed Bakas around him were quite clearly under the influence of something.

She pointed out the flat sheen of red in their eyes that spoke to nanocyte activity. “I’d bet they were all completely hammered if we didn’t know better.”

Mahi’ frowned. “Are you saying Lu’Trein is being controlled?”

Bethany Anne couldn’t answer that. “Even if he is under his master’s control, he agreed to it in the first place. He’s no innocent.”

Michael glanced at the decadence in the throne room, at the courtiers lolling around the room with less than a care in the world. “This place reminds me of Italy during the Renaissance.”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow as Lu’Trein rose from his throne. “You like their artwork?”

Michael shrugged. “I don’t dislike it. However, I was referring to the sluggish elites I see living in luxury while regular Bakas are treated like mushrooms.” He indicated an open door near the throne. “I’m going to investigate.”

Mahi’ looked devastated to Bethany Anne’s eyes. “Whatever a mushroom is, it cannot be a happy creature. This disgusts me. Our people were never this.”

“A mushroom is a fungus humans eat,” Bethany Anne explained absentmindedly, her attention on Lu’Trein’s wobbly progress across the throne room. “We keep them in the dark and feed them shit.”

Mahi’ gagged. “I think I will be more observant the next time you invite me to dinner. What is my brother doing?”

Lu’Trein ambled jerkily toward the pool with his attendants in tow, stopping here and there to rest against whatever surface was closest.

Bethany Anne couldn’t believe what she was witnessing. “The head slug is getting into the pool. Looks like being hand-fed worked up a sweat. Baby needs some help to wash his fur.”

“I cannot get used to seeing two things at once,” Mahi’ admitted. “The overlay is blurry.”

Bethany Anne almost blew their cover then and there when she saw the manacle scars on the attendants’ wrists. “I don’t remember you telling me that slavery was a thing here, Mahi’.”

Mahi’ growled. “It is not. Are you telling me my brother is keeping people against their will?”

Michael spoke up. “Don’t react. He’ll get his as soon as we locate his master.”

“Which is what I’m about to do.” Bethany Anne took Michael’s advice and suppressed her anger to save it for the real enemy. “None of us are going to do a thing until we know for sure that the Kurtherian is here. We’ll see you at Bor’Dane’s house, Mahi’.”

There was silence a moment before Mahi’ replied, “Very well, my Empress. But Lu’Trein’s time is coming.”

Bethany Anne wasn’t disagreeing. But if her friend’s brother was the victim of an unwilling timeshare arrangement in his own body, she got the first bite of the cherry.

You’re going to be disappointed, TOM told her somewhat hesitantly. Lu’Trein isn’t hosting a thing except for nanocytes.

Aw, fucksticks. Bethany Anne relayed the information to Michael, then opened the comm to the team leaders and gave the codeword for a stand-down before shutting it all down to concentrate on TOM and Lu’Trein. How do his nanocytes compare to mine?

TOM grumbled something unfathomable, followed by more math she had “somehow” skipped out on learning in her long life.

Bethany Anne waved a hand. Put it in terms I can understand without three to six years’ study.

Fine, TOM conceded. His are better, but you’ve had longer to manipulate yours into what fits your needs. It’s like comparing a brand new racing Pod to a fishing skiff that’s been bootstrapped up to a battleship with nothing but duct tape and elbow grease.

Bethany Anne huffed. What is it with the backhanded compliments today?

I don’t understand? TOM argued. The battleship is obviously the better choice. It has survived and adapted to become unbeatable. Those Pods look good, but they’re designed to fly to pieces and eject the pilot on impact.

How does that help me right now?

It doesn’t? TOM regretted his next words before they’d left his mind. Fight or flight is your friend in this case.

Fuck fight or flight. Bethany Anne clenched her hands into fists. This bitch comes in fight and fight harder. If you wanted a runner, you should have started a race instead of a fucking war.

It was TOM’s turn to take umbrage. I came to warn you about the war, remember?

Bethany Anne decided she had bigger fish to fry than the lodger in her spine. She opened the comm once again and spoke to the expedition as a whole. “Everyone, fall back to Bor’Dane’s house for the night.”

“We’re already on our way,” John reported. “The garrison is down. What about the Kurtherian? Any sign?”

Bethany Anne’s eyes flared. “No. The shit-sucking fuck-knuckle isn’t here.”

John shook his head in sympathy. “Bad luck. See you at the house. Be safe.”

Citadel, Middle Ring, Bor’Dane’s Land

Mahi’ and Kel’Len were last to arrive at the safe house in the middle ring, along with Peter and six of his Guardians.

She nodded her apologies to Bethany Anne as they entered the main house. “I didn’t think we’d make it past the last gate. We only made it here because we bumped into Peter’s team. The Guardians used the rooftops to cross.”

Bethany Anne waved her off with a smile. “Don’t sweat it. We all had some challenges getting here. Your brothers will be glad to see you. Li’Orin picked up an injury or two during the garrison takedown.”

Mahi’ frowned, concern overtaking her fatigue. “Where is he?”

“In a bedroom on the first floor,” Bethany Anne directed.

Mahi’ left the Empress and Michael to their conversation and dashed upstairs to find her brothers.

Her first sight upon entering the bedroom was Li’Orin lying bloody in the bed, propped up by pillows. “Let me through!”

Mahi’ crossed the room in three steps, shouldering her way past Da’Mahin to get to the side of the bed and get a closer look at her injured brother. “What happened?”

Da’Mahin puffed out his chest. “He fought well.”

Peter answered around the sterile med-pack sachets clamped between his teeth. “He got stabbed a few times, is all. Nothing that’s gonna scar.”

“Of course, they will scar,” Li’Orin argued proudly. “Look at this!” He poked at the loose flap of skin under his eye with a guttural curse. “I’m lucky it wasn’t my eye. It will make a good tale.”

Peter shook his head. “Just watch and see.”

John leaned closer. “I haven’t seen these in action yet.”

Mahi’ joined John and Da’Mahin in observing Peter apply a series of clear patches to her younger brother’s wounds.

He placed the first over the flap of skin under Li’Orin’s eye and gently pressed it down to form a seal around the wound.

Da’Mahin growled in surprise when the patch melted into Li’Orin's cheek, leaving no sign of the deep gash that had been there a moment before. “How does that work?”

Peter turned his head to the group. “One-time use instant healing, the latest in medpatches. Bethany Anne had them developed, knowing you guys aren’t invincible.”

Da’Mahin was speechless for a moment. “That was a great kindness.”

John dipped his head at the injured-but-grinning Baka. “Nah, he earned it fair and square. Kid took one for the team. I see that as a reason to let him skip the consequences.”

Li’Orin gently probed his healed cheek. “No scars? How will I back up the story of the battle?”

Peter patted him on the chest to place the final medpatch. “That’s what video is for, Grasshopper.”


16

Qu’Baka, Citadel, Inner Ring, Safe House

Morning saw the upper floor of the safe house bustling with activity.

Bor’Dane, an aging male with reddish fur, met Bethany Anne and Mahi’ out front as arranged the night before to take them on a tour of his property.

Mahi’ touched foreheads with Bor’Dane in greeting. “What’s new since I was last here?”

Bor’Dane laughed, capturing Mahi's face in his hands. “Too much to stand around talking about. We have a long walk ahead of us. There will be plenty of time to discuss the last fourteen years.” He turned to Bethany Anne and bowed from the waist, his hands held out. “My Empress. It is an honor to have you in my home.”

Bethany Anne accepted Bor’Dane’s offered hands. “The honor is mine. I appreciate you allowing us to turn your home into a temporary base.”

Bor’Dane rumbled deep in his chest. “Another pleasure, I assure you. Whatever I can do to remove my nephew from power is the least of my duty. It broke my heart to send my family away. It has been harder to watch the decline of our people since that time and be powerless to prevent it.”

Bethany Anne felt for his predicament. “Why didn’t you leave with Mahi’ and the others?” she asked gently. “Devon hasn’t been a picnic for them, but at least you would have been together.”

Mahi’ answered for him. “Bor’Dane gave up his chance to leave. He stayed and smoothed our escape, risked everything to get Tu’Reigd and me to safety after Lu’Trein killed Fi’ and took over.” She looked into the distance, her eyes shining. “I cannot forget that night. Not ever. I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.”

Bor’Dane snorted. “Yes, and I have had to listen to the insufferable shitsplat complain about it at every opportunity since. It’s about time someone came along who can give him the good beating he’s needed his whole life.”

Bethany Anne slipped her arm through Bor’Dane's and patted his hand. “You and I are going to get along just fine. How about that tour?”

Bor’Dane nodded and led them away from the house toward the farmland surrounding them. “Of course, my Empress.”

Bethany Anne sighed inwardly. By now she knew arguing titles was a waste of breath. If it made people happy, she was resigned to it. “You’ll have to tell me how you managed to keep your land in the power grab.”

“I was surprised to see you still control this land,” Mahi' admitted, her gaze on the distant border. “Much more to see that you expanded it.”

Bor’Dane flashed a grin, flourishing his free hand to indicate the Bakas all around them. “This is one of the few places Lu’Trein doesn’t control. He won’t touch me unless he wants my people at his door. They protect me, as I do them.”

Bethany Anne smiled at a group of tiny Bakas who had gathered outside the main house to stare at her. “I can imagine Trey being that small. Cute.”

Bor’Dane shot a curious glance at Bethany Anne. “Trey?”

“Tu’Reigd chooses to go by ‘Trey’ these days.” Mahi’ rumbled with laughter at Bor’Dane’s confusion. “The planet we live on is home to many species, who mostly coexist peacefully. His close friends are Bethany Anne’s two children and a Yollin.”

Bor’Dane lifted his hands. “I remember you as a child. Willful, always with your sticky fingers where they shouldn’t be. Where is ‘Trey?’ I have not seen him among my guests.”

“He is safe,” Mahi’ assured her uncle. “Almost grown. It goes too quickly.”

Bethany Anne chuckled at the joke. “You’re telling me.” She let her gaze wander as they walked Bor’Dane’s grounds. “How many people live on your land?”

“Permanently?” Bor’Dane bobbed his head while he did the calculations. “Twenty thousand, give or take. I own a full third of the middle ring, plus some of the inner ring. I employ another twenty-five thousand from the outer ring, but I can’t house everyone, you know? I do what I can to keep the prisons empty.”

“I get that,” Mahi' agreed. “As does our Empress, I’m sure.”

Bethany Anne put a hand to her chest. “Me? No. If I run out of space, I just find another planet to expand to.”

Mahi' shrugged. “You have the resources to do that.”

Bethany Anne nodded. “I do. But there are more ways to expand. What’s the deal here, Bor’Dane? I get that Lu’Trein is hesitant to make a move against you, but how does his rule affect the rest of the population? You mentioned prisons?”

“One prison in particular. You will see,” Bor’Dane told her wearily. “Speaking against Lu’Trein is dangerous for most, but it doesn’t stop them from protesting. Our people are stubborn, and they won’t sit still long enough to be held down. But once they’re arrested, that’s it. We never see or hear from them again.”

“You haven’t freed them?” Mahi’ spat. “Why not?”

Bor’Dane growled. “What can I do? Ask my people to die trying? The prison is defended by technology that looks to be magic, including weapons that shoot lightning bolts from the walls. Lu’Trein keeps the prison well-guarded, and there’s no way for a Baka to even get close without getting fried.”

Bethany Anne pressed her lips together, clamping down on her emotions once again. “I want the location of this prison. My effort to empty it of the innocent won’t be met by so many obstacles.”

Enter Into Valhalla

Bethany Anne’s good mood had degraded fully by the time they got back to the main house, her mind filled with stories of Bakas being dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night, families torn down the middle by mixed beliefs, and children left as orphans because their parents were political prisoners.

She opened the comm as she stalked to the large room at the rear of the property. “Team leaders, dining hall. Now.”

Michael was the first to arrive. He took one look at the hard lines of her face and came over to embrace her. “What has you so angry?”

Bethany Anne forced the words between her clenched teeth. “Fucking. Politics.”

Michael kissed her temple and went to take a seat. “Ah, I see.”

“Do you?” Bethany Anne asked. “Because I don’t. Why is it never as simple as ‘kill the asshole at the top’ anymore? Half the people here are just fine with worshipping the Seven, the other half are forced to find someone powerful enough to protect them from the fucking Inquisition.”

Michael indicated the door with a finger. “The others are here.”

Bethany Anne narrowed her eyes at him. “Don’t pretend you’re cut up about it.”

He wasn’t, but he certainly wasn’t about to offer himself up on the altar of his wife’s temper. The old adage that behind every angry woman is a man who has no clue what he’s done was not about to apply to him.

John and Peter hesitated at the door.

“Want us to come back?” John asked.

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow but waved them in instead of frying John for interrupting like she wanted to. “Sit your asses down.”

They came in, followed by a nervous-looking Kel’Len.

Bethany Anne took her seat when Mahi’ and her brothers arrived to complete the meeting. “We’ve had a couple of days to read the situation. It isn’t what we thought. Mahi’ and I took a stroll through the middle ring today and what I heard didn’t please me one bit. I’m talking Gestapo tactics being used on civilians, political prisoners, and families torn apart by the fake fucking religion the Seven are pedaling.”

John grunted. “So we wipe out the cult. What’s the problem?”

“The problem,” Bethany Anne ground out, “is that taking out the cult doesn’t do anything to open the people’s eyes to the fact that they’ve been lied to. I’m not here to make martyrs.”

The tap-tap-tap of her nails on the table was the only sound in the room for a few moments.

Da’Mahin broke the silence. “I apologize, my Empress. I have to say that the belief is theirs to choose, even if it dishonors us as a people.”

“That’s fine,” Bethany Anne replied, “since the decision to act isn’t yours. Leadership is about much more than acting on your opinion, especially when your choices affect millions. Mahi’? Where is your thinking going on this?”

“I agree with neither of them,” Mahi’ decided. “As you say, this is not a situation that can be remedied simply. The issue I see is with gathering the evidence to present to the people.”

Bethany Anne grinned. “That’s the part we don’t have an issue with. Even if your brother’s keepers have him tucked away behind a nano-curtain the next time Michael and I call on him.” She sat back and crossed one knee over the other. “The issue I see is the potential for civil war once we light the fuse. I’ve been reckless before. It didn’t always end well for the people.”

“I would hazard it wouldn’t take much.” Michael steepled his hands on the table. “The balance in the outer ring is at the tipping point already, in my estimation.”

“War is coming whether you act or not,” Mahi’ continued. “Only, without you to intercede, my people might not make it through intact.”

Bethany Anne laced her fingers together and looked around the table. “Then it’s a good thing I’m here.”

Qu’Baka, Citadel, Middle Ring, Prison (the next day)

Bethany Anne’s feet barely disturbed the thin layer of dust that coated the side street that ran from one end of the prison to the other.

Invisible to the scanners swiveling on the walls, she crossed the street and headed for the mouth of the street opposite the prison before speaking into the open comm channel. “Team leaders, confirm your positions.”

She pressed her lips together in disapproval at an audible scuffle over the comm.

“Sorry,” the culprit mumbled into the channel.

“You will be if this operation goes tits-up because you got us made doing a damned two-step,” Peter reprimanded in a low voice. “Pick your damn feet up, Guardian.”

Bethany Anne waited a beat longer for the teams to finish getting into position. “Everyone good?”

“Check,” Peter came back.

John grunted in the affirmative.

“We are ready,” Mahi' answered for the Bakas.

“Wait for the signal.” Bethany Anne pulled on the Etheric and fed the energy into the space between molecules in the aggregate holding the stones together. “Michael, coordinate.”

“I’m at the back wall,” Michael replied. “Ready on your word.”

“Meet you in the middle.” Bethany Anne fed the energy around the wall until she felt it connect with the energy Michael was pouring in from the rear. “Three, two, one, pull!”

The prison walls collapsed outward, falling into rubble in the streets with a resounding crash that shook the ground and rendered all of the mounted defenses useless.

Bethany Anne strode over the crushed rock and straight into the prison yard, where the guards were pouring out of every entrance with their weapons hot.

A wave of her hand cleared the way for her forces to make their entrance.

The indignant cries of the guards Bethany Anne tossed aside like ragdolls provided an almost musical backdrop that complimented the war cries of the Bakas and her Guardians, with the explosions Michael was causing with his lightning adding to the sudden crescendo.

It was down to her to bring the thunder.

Four brave souls blocked the entrance to the inner building. So brave, they fired upon the apparently unarmed human woman walking toward them through a pull-down grill in the door.

Bethany Anne read their thoughts as clearly as spoken words. Sure, she was smiling. But those long teeth? Her red eyes? They were safe behind their door. Killing one human would be easy.

The naivete. It was almost painful.

Bethany Anne smiled coldly as they raked the area around her with a hail of kinetic fire. She walked toward the door through reverse showers of permacrete dust, shedding blunted kinetics as harmlessly as raindrops.

The guards slammed the grill shut when Bethany Anne emerged from the dust cloud with an energy ball in each hand.

“You can run.” She lifted a boot and kicked the door into splinters.

The four guards inside took one look at the fearsome, red-eyed face their mothers had told them would come for bad Bakas who didn’t go to sleep at bedtime—and ran.

Bethany called after them in Baba Yaga’s voice, “But you can’t hide from ME.” She bowled them over with a fast energy ball and pinned them all high on the wall with a flick of her finger. “Now, what can you tell me?”

The guards squirmed in terror as she burrowed into their minds for information on the prison in general, the warden, and Lu’Trein.

Three knew nothing but the desire to be in a better position than others. They didn’t care who they hurt to get there. They had no power, and no connection to the top, just a knack for toadying. Those died instantly, their bodies falling to the floor unnoticed after Bethany Anne snapped their necks.

Bethany Anne wrinkled her nose as the sour tang of urine hit it. “Gross,” she told the remaining Baka. “But appropriate, yes? Seeing as you how were happy to cause fear in the prisoners here.”

She lowered him, forcing him to look her in the eye. “So, you enjoy torture. Not a pastime for everyone, but hey, who am I to judge?”

The Baka gaped in confusion—until Bethany Anne waved a hand and his spine contorted. “I-I…”

“You what?” Bethany Anne demanded. She had seen every nasty deed this poster male for evil had in his grubby mental trophy case. “You like to be the one doing the torture? Tough shit. You disgust me.”

The Baka's eyes went wide as she opened his throat with her nails.

“Fuck you,” Bethany Anne told his corpse. “I know where your boss is. I don’t need to dirty my hands any further with you.” She left the corpses and made her way farther into the prison in search of the warden.

Bethany Anne wasn’t interested in small fry. She wanted the big fish. Bars were no obstacle, and neither were the guards who popped out at every opportunity as if she were walking through some awful video game.

Peter spoke over the comm. “Um, BA? Did you expect a Pod on the roof? Because there is one, and it’s taking off.”

The warden.

Bethany Anne cut through the Etheric, arriving on the prison roof just in time to see the open Pod take off.

The warden, she assumed, leaned out and raised a fist triumphantly.

Bethany Anne decided she was done with all of Lu’Trein’s lackeys if the only model they came in was arrogant suck-ass. She leapt for the Pod and grabbed the lip of the open door as a counterbalance for swinging feet first into the warden’s bodyguard.

The bodyguard tumbled out the opposite side.

The warden gasped at the casual removal of his personal protection.

Bethany Anne rolled her eyes at the peashooter her quarry aimed in her direction. “Really?” she asked as she slapped it out of the warden’s hand. “Don’t be stupid.” She shoved him out of the Pod and stepped through the Etheric to catch him an inch from the rooftop. “Don’t try anything else a dumb shit like you would.”

The warden dropped to his hands and knees and vomited roughly on the rooftop.

Bethany Anne covered her nose and mouth with one hand and dragged the warden to the other side of the roof to get away from the mess. “Michael, on the roof. I’ve got a plaything for you.”

The warden fought to get to his feet until Bethany Anne quieted him with a flash of red from her eyes. He fainted at the realization of who had hold of his throat.

Bethany Anne rolled her eyes as she lowered them back to the roof.

Michael arrived a moment later in Myst form. The warden, I presume?

You presume right. She handed the unconscious Baka to Michael and headed for the edge of the roof to get a view of the battle in the prison yard.

It was impossible to tell which of the Bakas were freed prisoners and which were the rescuers. The guards were easy to spot, and their uniforms made them easy targets. Looks like the prisoners are all free. We should wrap this up and get back to the house.

“I have what we need,” Michael informed her. “This Baka has met regularly with Lu’Trein.”

The warden woke and panicked when he saw Michael. His eyes slid to Bethany Anne, and he began emitting a high keening noise.

Michael’s lip curled when he made out the name the warden was repeating. “You are expendable,” he told the warden bluntly. “Your protector doesn’t care enough to save you. How does it feel? To meet with the consequences of your actions?”

He caught Bethany Anne’s eye, seeing her minute nod. “Time to pay the price.”

The warden squirmed to get free right up until the moment Michael held him suspended over the yard below.

Michael dropped the warden over the edge of the roof without another word.

Bethany Anne caught the warden and spoke into his mind as she lowered him into the middle of the largest group of prisoners. I can be a bitch, but Saint Payback can’t be beaten—unlike you.

Bethany Anne and Michael turned away as the warden screamed for mercy from the people he had kept like animals.

Bethany Anne spotted a convoy in the distance. “Time to wrap this up. The prisoners are free now. We don’t need a massacre when Lu’Trein’s backup gets here.”

Michael tilted his head at the sound of the approaching vehicles. “I’d much rather play with cars than dolls.”

Bethany Anne snickered as he Mysted away. Sexist much?

See if I care, Michael replied, spreading his arms wide as he ascended to the clouds above. I only wish Gabriel was here to enjoy this manly moment with me.

Bethany Anne chuckled as the air above the convoy darkened and began to crackle. You just like to make a statement. She hopped off the edge of the roof and lowered herself to hover above the brawl in the yard. The fighting was tapering off, and the prisoners were beginning to take their anger out on the building.

“Time to go,” she thundered into the comm, raising her voice to be heard over the clash. “All teams to transport.”

Bor’Dane's people swarmed the streets around the prison in their vehicles as planned.

Bethany Anne hit the ground running and joined the effort to get everyone aboard the hastily formed convoy.

There was a scramble to exit the scene, and the extraction went well by Bethany Anne’s standards. A hundred or more vehicles swarmed out as quickly as they’d arrived, slipping into traffic with their passengers.

Lightning struck over and over in the near distance, Michael protecting them from above.

Bethany Anne joined him in the sky to add her effort to his. They’re pretty determined to get to the prison. Pity there’s nothing left of it.

Michael frowned as he blew another guard truck into smithereens. The building is still standing.

Bethany Anne chuckled. Oh? Let me fix that. She sent out Etheric energy and gathered the rubble into a huge ball.

Michael shook his head in amusement. You complain to me about mess?

Bye-bye, building, Bethany Anne replied airily. She dropped the ball of compacted rock onto the prison.

Finally, the dust settled, revealing a crater where the prison had been a moment before.

Bethany Anne’s mouth turned up at the corner. That was almost too satisfying. She held out her hand to Michael as he reformed from his Myst state. Come on, we’ll pick up your armor from the Etheric.

Michael winced and pointed at the crater. There may be a small issue with that. I didn’t store my armor in the Etheric. There wasn’t time.

I don’t want to be you when Jean finds out you left it unattended in the middle of a battle. Bethany Anne chuckled at the look of horror that passed over his face. Don’t sweat it. I’m sure she won’t stay mad forever.

I wouldn't be too sure about that, Michael countered. The woman has the memory of an elephant when it comes to grudges.

Bethany Anne grinned. I was trying to make you feel better. We both know she’s going to take every opportunity to remind you about it for the rest of forever. A thought too delicious to ignore occurred as they streaked through the clouds. You think she’ll come up with something like that string we used to keep the twins’ mittens on? Armor that follows you around? That would be hilarious.

Michael shot Bethany Anne a dark look. She’d better not.

They flew above the Citadel, reaching Bor’Dane’s land as the first vehicles were spitting out their passengers in the yard.

Bor’Dane stood on a large rock in the ornamental garden, calling instructions to his people and the new arrivals.

He had his hands raised, shooing Bakas in the direction of the main house with his strange semaphore. “We need to know who we have here. Give Kel’Len’s group your name.”

Kel’Len waved an arm above her head to show her location.

Bor’Dane continued, “Once we’ve got your name, make your way through to the house to get cleaned up. Everything but dinner can wait until tomorrow.”

Bethany Anne and Michael skirted the crowd and made their way into the house.

Mahi’ pounced the second they reached the hall. “We need to move now. Lu’Trein will have called on his masters for help. They could be there already, and we wouldn’t know it.”

Bethany Anne held up a hand to calm Mahi’. “I would know it. Tomorrow, Mahi’. Rest from today’s exertions.”

Mahi’ was about to argue when the door burst open and the rescuees began filtering in.

“If anything changes, I’ll tell you,” Bethany Anne promised. “But you need to remember, that’s not your brother on the throne. I don’t know if he’s even Baka anymore. He would kill you outright.”

Mahi’ closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. “Then you will act as my champion. But Lu’Trein dies the second after the Kurtherian.”


17

Qu’Baka, Middle Ring, Bor’Dane’s house (late the same night)

Bethany Anne activated her light armor, smiling at Michael’s continued admiration of the fabric’s appearance of being alive. “You’re next to get this model. Or you were before we had to tell Jean you lost your heavy set.”

“You’re certain about wearing your light armor?” Michael inquired as she pulled her boot over her knee. “I can remain in Myst form. There’s no need to risk yourself.”

Bethany Anne looked at Michael and raised an eyebrow as she rolled her ankle to settle the boot. “What risk? The fuckwits would have to catch me, even if they could hurt me. Besides, I’m planning for us to be the ones doing all the chasing. I want complete freedom of movement through the Etheric.”

Michael shrugged. “Fair enough. With the majority of the prisoners on the way to being reunited with their families, I’m guessing we can expect a stirring welcome however we approach. How sure are we that the Kurtherian is inside the complex?”

Bethany Anne finished with her other boot and got to her feet. “TOM isn’t likely to mistake the mental signature. Our target is there.”

They slipped out without being seen and cut through the Etheric to the innermost ring. Another step took them past the walls and into the heart of the ziggurat.

Bethany Anne poked her head out of the Etheric to check for enemies and pulled it back in just as quickly. “Guards. They’re lined up three deep at the entrance.”

Michael’s mouth quirked. “You have to give them points for effort. They can’t possibly know we aren’t limited to this plane.”

Bethany Anne smirked in return. “They don’t know we’re here at all. They’re going to get a hell of a surprise.” She calculated the distance to take them past the guards and opened another path for them.

Michal activated his gauntlets with a squeeze. “Ready when you are.”

Bethany Anne held out her hands and manifested a spark of energy in each. “Let’s go.”

They exited the Etheric into a grand pillared atrium.

Michael frowned, not recognizing their location from the recon they’d done on arriving in the Citadel. We came out in the wrong place.

Bethany Anne glanced around the empty space. We’ve come in at the opposite end from last time, is all. We need to figure out where to find our— Oh shit, hide!

They ducked behind the nearest pillar as the echo of many approaching feet grew louder.

We can’t be lucky enough to have the Kurtherian pass right by us, Michael murmured. Can we?

Bethany Anne kept her opinions on luck to herself until the procession cut through the other end of the atrium. I count fourteen. No Kurtherian.

No Lu’Trein either, Michael confirmed. Pity.

I know, Bethany Anne agreed. Would it have been too much to ask that we found them right away? I’ve got half a mind on that beautiful bed Bor’Dane assigned us.

You should keep your mind on the task ahead, Michael teased. There will be plenty of time to laze in bed once we’ve cleared this place.

Bethany Anne wrinkled her nose. That just tells me you didn’t test the bed. She made a move as the last of the guards left the atrium.

Twice more they had to dive for cover as they worked their way deeper into the palace. The second time, Bethany Anne barely closed the Etheric around them before the patrol spotted them.

Bethany Anne paused at a four-way intersection and chose left. This way looks as good as any.

Michael scanned the surrounding minds as they continued their progress. We’re getting close. I can hear the usurper's thoughts.

Bethany Anne’s lip curled. She would be immersed in Lu’Trein’s mind soon enough. What is the snake thinking?

Mostly that he’d prefer not to soil himself in front of his master, Michael told her with a similar look of distaste. Does TOM have a clue as to who we’re dealing with?

Bethany Anne shrugged. He says his credits are still on a Judkah. Not a clan I’ve come up against before.

Michael couldn’t recall having encountered any who claimed the title. Same. Do the Judkah have a specialty?

They die at my hands, just like every other Kurtherian. Does that really count as a specialty, though? Bethany Anne dipped her hand into a pouch on her utility belt to grab the tiny camera drone she’d brought for the purpose of recording.

Michael Mysted and followed the camera drone into the throne room. He took in the armored Kurtherian on the throne and Lu’Trein kneeling by his feet. I would describe it less as a conversation and more as Lu’Trein groveling for forgiveness. Are you getting the feed?

I’m running it through my HUD, Bethany Anne told him over the sounds of the Kurtherian raging and Lu’Trein begging.

That staff is more than interesting, Michael noted.

Bethany Anne had been thinking the same thing about the Kurtherian’s armor. Concentrate on apology gifts for Jean after we’ve taken care of the Kurtherian.

“I’ll get more test subjects,” Lu’Trein promised, clinging to the Kurtherian’s legs. “Better, stronger ones. The humans are not untouchable. I’ll get them for you, O Holy One! What wonders could you create with human DNA?”

The Kurtherian slapped Lu’Trein away. “Are you an imbecile? Do not approach humans under any circumstances. That you drew them here is bad enough. How do you think Gödel will take your betrayal? Our agreement is void.”

Girdle? Bethany Anne asked. What the fuck kind of name is that for a Kurtherian? Did someone invent the mathematical formula for the perfect figure and name themselves after it?

Gödel, Michael corrected. His memory turned up the name out of nowhere, although any other detail about the human who had owned it was beyond his grasp at the moment. There is no reason for a Kurtherian to know that name. I don’t like this at all. We need to keep searching for any leads back to the Seven.

Bethany Anne saw Michael’s urgency. I can handle this. Go. Search.

Forget that, TOM exclaimed. There’s something…something. At the back of my mind. I don’t know what it is, but it’s telling me to get the hell off this planet.

Bethany Anne shrugged. I’m not leaving without doing what we came here to do. Wait, what’s Lu’Trein saying now?

Lu’Trein’s begging had gotten to the desperation stage. “How will we Ascend without your guidance? I gave you everything, and you promised I—we would Ascend to the glory of the Ancients.”

The Kurtherian sneered, brushing Lu’Trein off easily as he stood to leave the dais. “You were never worthy of Ascension, you fool. All you were good for was giving us easy access to the genetic material of your people. There is too much risk now there are humans here. It’s over for you.”

Lu’Trein wept uncontrollably, his words lost to incoherent sobs.

Jackpot. The Bakas can’t refute that evidence. I don’t give a shit what this piss-splurt’s abilities are. He won’t get a chance to use them. Bethany Anne stalked through the ornate double door and lobbed the energy in her hand at the Kurtherian’s head as an opening distraction.

Her entrance threw the guards scattered around the room into a panic.

Lu’Trein was first to move, and first to find himself pinned to the floor when Bethany Anne waved a hand and tripled the gravity in the room.

One word fell from his gaping mouth. “Blasphemy!”

“Blast you?” Bethany Anne misheard cheerfully. “My pleasure.” She released the energy in her right hand, forming a blast wave that tore the flesh from Lu’Trein’s bones.

It also killed every Baka in its path.

Bethany Anne winced at the noise the wall behind the throne made as it collapsed, taking out the one behind it.

The Kurtherian, however, was not affected. He launched an attack on Bethany Anne, his eyes flaring red inside his helmet as he came at her mentally with all the delicacy of a cargo freighter.

Bethany Anne laughed aloud when the Kurtherian’s mind met the immovable object of her will. “What’s wrong? Bit off a little more than you can chew, huh?” She smiled. “I’ve been doing this for, well, probably not as long as you’ve been alive. Long enough that I can’t be bothered with whatever monologue you’ve practiced. Sic ’em, TOM.

Hello there, my friend, TOM greeted in his most beatific pilot’s voice. You have strayed from the path, I see. Do you have a moment to…eat shit and die?

The Kurtherian’s eyes flared impossibly bright when TOM gripped his mind and squeezed before tearing through it without regard in search of any information.

Bethany Anne tapped her fingers on her folded arms. What are you finding?

Nothing! TOM’s reply was somewhat snappier than he intended. Someone is shielding his mind. I can’t touch anything beyond his immediate intentions.

The Kurtherian’s body suddenly stiffened.

TOM, get out, Bethany Anne ordered.

The Kurtherian’s expression went blank as the battle for his mind was won by some unknown external force. He collapsed to the floor clutching his helmet, his whimpers of pain echoing eerily off the crystal walls as he writhed in agony.

Bethany Anne crossed to the Kurtherian and dropped to a knee to remove his helmet. She grabbed his jaw and forced him to meet her eyes. “You made a mistake coming here.”

The Kurtherian gurgled out a thin stream of pale foam, beyond words now. His red eyes dimmed, and his gaze slid to the side as whatever animated him departed.

Bethany Anne was about to let go when the corpse blazed with light. “What the…”

Another entity had taken control of those dead eyes.

Bethany Anne narrowed her eyes, undeterred by the unease she felt. She knew a sociopath when she saw one.

Without a single word being exchanged, she pinpointed something lacking in her observer’s stare. She fixed that dispassionate intelligence with a look that gave no doubt as to the truth of her next words. “Whoever you are, enjoy your final days. It doesn’t matter where you hide. I’ll find you. I’m going to make you hurt before I end your miserable existence. That is the penalty for fucking with me and mine. Do you hear me?”

The observer stared a moment longer, then the light in the Kurtherian’s eyes faded for good.

Bethany Anne released the Kurtherian’s jaw with a growl of frustration and got to her feet. She picked up the discarded staff and examined the twisting metal around the jewel at the business end. “This was not what I planned.”

Michael chuckled inside her mind. Are there any survivors?

Bethany Anne sighed, putting the encounter on her mental list of things-that-bit-her-in-the-ass-unexpectedly. Not one. It is what it is. At least we got the evidence Mahi’ needs to save her planet from civil war. Plus, we have your apology gift for Jean. Both the scepter and the armor are intact.

We have more than that. Michael streamed back into the throne room and reformed his body. He grinned at Bethany Anne and pressed the camera drone into her palm. “Follow me.”

Bethany Anne skipped around Michael and put a hand on his chest to halt his progress. “Where exactly are we going?”

Michael pressed his lips together and stepped around to take the lead again. “If you’re so determined to spoil the surprise, there’s a dungeon I missed the last time we were here.”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow. “It’s a palace. They do tend to come with the dungeons included.”

Michael narrowed his eyes at her refusal to play along. “It’s the occupant I’m interested in.”

Bethany Anne knew he wasn’t going to give it up. “Fine, but at least let’s get there a bit faster than a walk.” She grabbed Michael’s shoulder and dropped them both through the Etheric, then brought them back out on what she sensed was the lowest floor. “This where you were aiming for?”

Michael looked around and nodded before taking the corridor at a run. “Yes. This way. I’ve found him.”

Bethany Anne couldn’t help but smile in return. She broke into a jog to keep up, her annoyance fading in response to Michael’s excitement. “Okay, you’ve got me. Who did you find?”

Michael paused before six thick metal doors. “Haven’t you figured it out?”

Bethany Anne made a little “o” with her mouth that spread into a million-watt grin when the only possible answer occurred to her. “Let me get that door open.”


18

Qu’Baka, Jungle

The dawn, such as it was, brought Demon back in range of the male cat’s territory.

The river thundered in the background, filling the air around her with effervescent rainbows that vanished when Demon passed through them. She avoided the river entirely, making her path through the undergrowth between the riverbank and the tree line instead.

Her focus was entirely on getting revenge for that smile. It had played on her mind the whole time she’d been finding her way back.

He must be smart. Maybe as smart as her, Demon had concluded. There was no other explanation for how he could have bested her. She chose not to dwell on the unexpected swim or the two days it had taken her to find her way back to his territory.

That…that male would see where his smarts got him as soon as she caught up with him.

Demon smelled him nearby. She also smelled fresh food. He had made a kill, another of the elusive pig-beasts she’d yet to lay eyes on.

The ass.

Demon’s stomach rumbled. She wanted that meat. She lowered herself to the ground and inched along until she got to a tree she could climb without being seen.

Once she'd gained the canopy, she saw him clearly. He had two pig-beasts! One, he had eaten his fill of. The other he had not touched, save to open it from throat to gut. The entrails lay nearby, the tastiest tidbits laid out separately.

Demon didn’t know what to make of that at all.

The male cat lay a short distance away from the carcass, alert to the jungle around him while he cleaned his muzzle with his paw.

Demon’s indignation flared. What was this? Was he waiting for her?

She hopped down from the tree and padded back the way she had come.

The male cat heard her movement. He flowed to a sitting position and started chuffing softly, calling to Demon.

Demon backed away, confused. She didn’t like her reaction to his voice. It made her want to rub herself all over his body and entwine herself around him.

No freaking way, as Sabine was so fond of saying.

Demon found herself responding to the pheromones pouring from him. The very air tasted of him. The purr came unbidden from deep in her chest.

What drove her to do that?

The male's ears pricked at the return call. He got to his feet and called again.

What was she supposed to do? Demon had never met a male cat, much less had one try to seduce her. Her tail twitched as indecision wracked her, reducing her decision to instinct alone.

There was only one thing to do.

She turned tail and ran.

The jungle flashed by as she pelted full speed away from the source of her confusion. She didn’t want any part of that male.

Damn him for confusing her!

Demon ran until her chest heaved with the effort of drawing breath. She wanted to be as far from the river and that male cat as she could possibly get.

She would return to the Baba Yaga. Izanami would send a Pod if she called for one.

Yes. That was the best thing to do. Avoid that male and his scent altogether.

A yawn erupted from Demon’s mouth without warning. The run, coupled with a lack of food and the adrenaline dump, had exhausted her. She would have to take a nap before she had the energy to switch her chip on and make the call.

Order of action decided, Demon made the short climb into a suitable tree and curled up to sleep in the fork of a wide branch.

She woke sometime later, disturbed by the sound of something approaching her hiding place.

Demon peered through the leaves and her heart dropped.

He’d followed her. Worse, he’d brought another gift of food.

This wouldn’t do. She had no patience for this pushy male.

Her nose twitched as the scent of a fresh kill hit her nostrils. Her stomach growled its pleas for her to accept the food.

The male dropped the kill at the base of the tree and stared plaintively at Demon’s hiding place.

Demon peered through the leaves and was caught by the cat’s amber gaze. She pulled her head back in with a hiss. Go away.

The male chuffed sadly in response.

She refused to leave the shelter of the tree.

The male paced around the base of the tree for a few minutes, then laid down a short distance from the kill and began to call again.

Demon cursed inwardly. Pride prevented her from contacting Izanami as she’d planned. There was no way she wanted to be rescued from a tree like a common housecat. Besides, the male wasn’t threatening her.

In fact, he appeared to be pleading with her to come down from the tree and eat.

Demon was starving, and the smell of the meat was torture. Her nanocytes needed fueling. She wasn’t entirely sure whether they would start feeding on her if she kept refusing the meal she was being offered.

Maybe she was being too cattish.

Sabine always told her that she missed opportunities by refusing to consider new elements. Demon was pretty sure Sabine hadn’t been talking about the quandary below.

She could accept the food without accepting him. That wasn’t the thing dividing her.

Demon’s reticence had everything to do with the deep-down knowledge that this male was entirely acceptable as a mate.

He was definitely handsome, even with those overly large fangs. His skills as a hunter were unquestionable. He had a certain intelligence, one she was somehow certain she wouldn’t encounter again anytime soon.

She definitely couldn’t stay in this tree forever.

Decision made, she stretched her neck to look out on the male. He rolled in the grass at the sight of her, exposing his striped stomach.

Can you speak? Demon asked.

The male moved to a sitting position and shook his head, giving her a low grunt.

But you can understand me?

He dipped his head in the affirmative, then indicated the food at the base of the tree with his muzzle.

Demon fixed him with a long stare before speaking again. Move away, she told the male eventually. I will come down.

Qu’Baka, Citadel, Middle Ring, Bor’Dane’s House

John completed his patrol of the house in the small hours of the morning.

He turned into the upper east wing, less than impressed to have found that Bethany Anne and Michael were nowhere on the property. “How’s a guy supposed to do his job when the bodies he’s guarding take a midnight flit whenever they damned well feel like it? God knows it can’t be that difficult to answer when I call.”

Tabitha’s voice filtered from Peter’s room, guiding John to the right door.

It was a shame to interrupt their time together, but Bethany Anne hadn’t left him much choice.

John tapped on the door, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb anyone sleeping. “Pete? I’m heading out to the royal complex. BA and Michael went walkabout, I’m guessing that’s where I’ll find them.”

There was a shuffle, then Peter opened the door with a concerned frown. “You want company?”

John leaned around the doorframe and waved at Tabitha and Todd on the holoscreen. “Nah, I’m good. Just letting you know.”

He left Peter and Tabitha to their call and headed downstairs to the front entrance.

Mahi’ looked up as John padded through the front hall. She pushed her writing away and got up from the table to intercept him by the door. “Where are you going? It’s late. Or early, I’m not sure which.”

John grinned. “It depends on whether you’ve been up all night or you just woke up. Have you seen Bethany Anne or Michael? They’re not in their room.”

Mahi’ shook her head. “No. I’ve been here all night, and I haven’t seen anyone but Bor’Dane’s night staff.” She turned and grabbed a warm cloak from a stand near the door. “I should have noticed them leaving.”

John snorted softly as he opened the door. “Don’t feel too bad about it. Bethany Anne has been giving me the slip for longer than I care to remember.”

Mahi’ smiled. “That I can believe. I will walk with you. Perhaps the exercise will convince my tired mind to allow me some peace.”

John stepped outside and glanced around. “I’d appreciate the company as far as the gatehouse. After that, you’d have trouble keeping up.”

Mahi’ stole a glance at John as they walked.

John had encountered that look before. “If you can come up with a question your son hasn’t already asked, I’ll be shocked.”

Mahi’ broke out in laughter. “That’s my boy. It’s not so much a question as an observation I have. I am realizing there is a difference between the story and the reality.”

John frowned. “Huh?”

Mahi’ opened her hands, palms out. “The fearsome John Grimes, whose very name makes whole planets quiver.” She waved her hands to encapsulate John. “It is a myth, a tale. I had expected someone rather more aggressive. Instead, I find you to be a calm, caring individual.”

John grinned. “I don’t see the need to waste my energy stressing over the slightest thing. You don’t want to see what happens when I have to put my boot down.”

Mahi’ sighed. “My husband was the same. He could always be relied upon to rein in conflict, whereas I was always too quick to fight.”

John patted Mahi’ on the shoulder, at something of a loss in the face of her emotions. “I can’t guess what it’s like to lose someone you love. I came close recently with my granddaughter. It was enough to make me think Bethany Anne’s protective instinct isn’t so overboard.”

Mahi’ considered the comfort she had knowing Tu’Reigd was secreted away from danger while the Citadel was undergoing this unrest. Her reply was cut off by a flash of red light over by the gatehouse. “What was that?”

John recognized the flare. “Our missing Empress has returned.” He veered from the path to head Bethany Anne off, calling out before she vanished again.

The red light turned on him and Bethany Anne’s voice cut the night. “John? Is that Mahi’ with you? Perfect! Get over here, both of you!”

John broke into a jog, his initial alarm fading at the triumphant lilt to Bethany Anne’s voice. “What’s going on?”

Mahi’ passed him, her long stride getting her to Bethany Anne and Michael just before John.

Michael filled them in on the events leading up to Lu’Trein’s death. “All that remains is to spread the word to the people.”

Bethany Anne eased the unconscious Baka around her shoulders to the ground. “Oh, and Mahi’, Michael found this guy.”

Mahi’ gasped and fell to her knees in shock when she recognized him. “Fi’? My love? Is it really you? It can’t be.” She wept unashamedly as she brushed Fi’Eireie’s fur out of his face, her tears staining two dark paths down her cheeks.

She looked at Bethany Anne in confusion when Fi’Eireie didn’t react. “Why isn’t he waking up?”

Bethany Anne gave Mahi’ an apologetic smile. “He was pretty out of it when he saw us. Michael put him into a deep sleep.”

Fi’Eireie awoke at Michael’s touch. His eyes fluttered open and he looked at Mahi’ in confusion for a split second before glancing at the Empress.

Mahi’ was there in an instant to comfort him. “Fi’, it is me, your Mahi’. Look at me.” She gently turned his head.

His eyes were full of confusion. “No. Lu’Trein killed you, and he took our son. This is a trick!”

Mahi’ put Fi’Eireie’s palm to her cheek before he could pull away. “See? I’m really here. It is not a trick. I thought you were dead, Fi’. I took Tu’Reigd away and raised him far from here.”

Fi’Eireie hesitated, still not completely trusting his senses. “Mahi’?”

Mahi’ leaned in to take Fi’Eireie in her arms. “This is real, my love. We are together again.”

Bethany Anne touched Mahi’ to get her attention. “Call if you need anything. We’ll just be inside.” She slipped her arm through Michael’s and turned them toward the house. “Let’s leave these two to their reunion.”

Michael bumped Bethany Anne with his hip as they walked. “That is how you reunite with your lost love.”

Bethany Anne’s mouth lifted at the corner. “I don’t know. I liked our reunion just fine.”

Qu’Baka, Citadel, Inner Ring, Royal Complex (the next day)

The people of the Citadel mourned their losses even as they celebrated their freedom from the cult of the Seven by tearing down the symbols of their occupation.

The fighting had been brief in the wake of the video proving Lu’Trein’s betrayal and the true nature of the “gods.”

Bethany Anne had left the palace in hopes of finding a quiet space to check in on the search for Demon. The demolition of the ziggurat took care of that.

Michael joined Bethany Anne when she reached the semicircle of heavy machines parked around the base of the bottom tier’s steps. “No Baka wants the crystal around to remind them of the Seven.”

They mounted the stairs, Bethany Anne slowing to match Michael’s more considered stride. “The video lit a rocket in their asses, that’s for sure. It’s only been a couple of hours since Mahi’ spoke.”

Michael shook his head. “If anything, the people redoubled their efforts at the news of her return. It was all Bor’Dane could do to get them to hold off on beginning demolition here until the building has been thoroughly searched.”

“Did we find Lu’Trein’s records?” Bethany Anne asked.

“That’s why we are here,” Michael explained. “There’s a sealed chamber below the surface.”

Bethany Anne raised her eyebrow. “Oh, yeah?”

“It has a telepathic locking system.” Michael smiled at Bethany Anne’s reaction. “I guessed that would interest you.”

Bethany Anne inclined her head. “That sounds like Kurtherian technology. Lead on. I’m intrigued.”

Michael guided her down to the dungeon level and turned into an empty corridor. “I felt a change in air pressure when I Mysted through here looking for hidden cells.”

Bethany Anne examined the opaque crystal brickwork. “A hidden vault.”

Michael indicated an unassuming spot on the wall. “Your mystery vault.”

Bethany Anne ran her fingers along the invisible seam. “I’d never know there was anything here. You said the locking mechanism is activated telepathically? I assume you mean by the Kurtherian we no longer have access to.”

Michael nodded thoughtfully. “I’m thinking TOM might be able to spoof the system into admitting us.”

Bethany Anne stepped back, recalling the entity behind the Kurtherian’s eyes. “Worth a try. TOM, do your worst.”

It’s not very difficult to replicate a brainwave pattern when you have a recording of it, TOM replied. At least I got something useful from that guard.

You didn’t mention he was a guard, Bethany Anne murmured distractedly as the section of the wall moved inward and to the left.

Michael gestured at the opening with barely concealed impatience. “Care to light our way?”

Bethany Anne smiled and sent a ball of soft white energy ahead of them into the vault. “You can’t make an energy ball?”

Michael raised a hand to show her the energy crackling over his skin. “I could, but it would likely end in a fire.”

Bethany Anne brushed his arm with her hand as she passed to enter the vault. “It’s not like you to get so emotional.” She glanced around the neatly organized storage space and headed for the nearest locked cabinet to begin stripping its contents. “We should have brought an antigrav cart.”

Michael found a cubby stacked with boxes of cleaning supplies. He emptied a couple out onto the floor and took them to the where Bethany Anne was sorting the contents of a drawer into two piles on the top of the cabinet.

Bethany Anne indicated the much smaller pile of papers and holofiles. “That stuff is coming with us. There’s documentation on everything Lu’Trein did here.”

Michael smiled and moved over to an ornately carved chest. “This is fine craftsmanship. I don’t want to damage it.” He picked up the ugly lock and superheated the metal to melt it.

Bethany Anne agreed the chest was beautifully made. “It’s not going to matter once demolition starts. Unless you want to carry it out of here?”

Michael dropped the lock onto the floor and opened the doors. “Not necessarily.” He eased out the topmost tray and lifted the glass lid to extract a clear blue crystal from the rows of identical crystals in the velvet-lined tray. “This is interesting.”

He held the crystal out to Bethany Anne. “What do you think?”

Bethany Anne left the cabinet and took the tiny crystal between her thumb and forefinger. She frowned as she turned it in the light to get a better view of the inside. “Definitely a chip of some kind. I haven’t seen anything this intricate outside of our technology, and we don’t use crystal as a storage material.”

TOM spoke up so as to be heard by them both. That’s an external memory drive for a Kurtherian computer.

Michael swept a hand toward the seven trays in the chest. “There are thousands of them in here.”

Bethany Anne pressed her lips together. “Do we have any way of getting to the data on them?”

Building an interface to read them shouldn’t be that difficult, TOM answered.

Bethany Anne placed the chip back on the velvet with care. “Can the chips survive a trip through the Etheric?”

I presume so.

Bethany Anne touched a finger to the chest and pushed it into the Etheric. “Another item on the list of shit we haven’t got time to figure out just now. It can wait until we’re done here.”

She gathered the pile of documents to be taken with them and added them to the box. “The sooner we’re done here, the better. I haven’t heard from Addix in a while.”

Michael indicated the cubby he’d found the boxes in. “There is a bench just past the opening,” he told her. “I can take care of this. I’d rather have an update on Demon.”

Bethany Anne made her way to the bench and opened an audio-only comm link to her Spymistress. “Addix, where is my husband’s mountain lion?”

“We wouldn’t know,” came the reply from Izanami. “We tracked her to a river, where she looks to have gotten into a fight with another predator over her food. We’re still looking.”

“How are things going in the Citadel?” Addix cut in. “Izanami’s reports are somewhat underwhelming in their detail.”

Izanami’s reply could have cut diamond, even over the audio link. “You are just in a foul mood because you can’t keep up.”

There was a wave of annoyance from the Ixtali. “I could keep up just fine if you’d choose a route I could travel without getting tangled up.”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow at the bickering. “What’s going on with you two?”

“Addix is at the limit of her endurance,” Izanami complained. “Yet she refuses to rest.”

“Because we are in the middle of a search and rescue!” Addix retorted.

Bethany Anne cut across them both. Enough. Rest, Addix. Izanami can search without you.

She dropped the link and returned to find Michael was all but done stripping the vault of information. “That was fast.”

Michael flashed a smile as he picked up one of the boxes. “I couldn’t miss your conversation with Addix and Izanami. I thought you would appreciate it if we could leave immediately.”

Bethany Anne grabbed the other box and stacked it on top of Michael’s. “You guessed right. I want to get those chips to the Baba Yaga soonest. No room for error that way. Meet back at Bor’Dane’s house after I’m done. There’s something I want to talk about.”

Michael raised an eyebrow. “Something to be concerned about?”

Bethany Anne recalled that emotionless stare again. “It will wait until we’re sure everything is going to be okay here when we leave.”


19

Qu’Baka, Jungle

Addix glared at Izanami when Bethany Anne dropped the link. “That’s just great. Now what are we supposed to do? If I stop to sleep, Demon could be lost forever.”

“The search will have to continue while you rest, as my Empress commanded,” Izanami told her firmly. “You will be of no use to Demon if you collapse from exhaustion.”

Addix hesitated, hearing the sense in Izanami’s argument. “Fine. I will just stay here and sleep while you flutter off to who-knows-where.”

Izanami dissolved into a shower of golden sparkles and shot off through the jungle without another word.

Addix stared after her a moment before setting off, her mandibles opening and closing in annoyance. “I should have stuck to being a tutor. It beat slogging through this jungle. Where that cat is heading is a mystery.”

Izanami sighed. It will be a solved mystery since I’m leaving a trail for you to follow.

Addix blinked away the golden sparks that danced into her vision. “Thank you. I appreciate that.” She wove herself a hammock with the vines and climbed in reluctantly as the sparkles settled on the leaves around her. “Don’t forget to wake me if you find Demon.”

As if I would, Izanami replied. Sleep well.

Enter Into Valhalla

Addix woke suddenly, almost falling out of her makeshift hammock. It took a moment for her to clear the confusion of waking up in a strange place before she recalled why she was there. “Izanami?”

You are awake.

“How long was I asleep?”

Six hours, Izanami informed her. I am getting close. I am detecting a feline scent. However, the DNA I have found deposited in the scent markers belongs, impossibly, to a cat from the genus Smilodontini in the Machairodontinae family. She paused when Addix didn’t react to the information. Demon’s rival is a sabretooth tiger.

Addix felt cold inside. “That is not good. Is there a chance you’ve made a mistake?”

No, Izanami confirmed. I double-checked, and the closest match is with a fossilized sample from the Earth archives.

Addix spotted a few sparkles in the air and set off in that direction. She knew little about feline ways, but if Demon’s territorial nature was anything to go by it was likely this male had taken exception to the intrusion. “Demon might be injured if she’s been fighting.”

Izanami didn’t voice her fear of the situation being much worse. Demon’s scent is here, but fainter than the male cat’s. Follow the trail I left you.

“That’s the plan,” Addix replied softly. “Keep trying her chip. I’ll get to you eventually.”

Just wait until I get my hands on her, Izanami promised with vehemence driven by worry. There was nothing in our agreement about her keeping her neural chip switched off.

Addix continued her careful progress through the canopy, her eyes peeled for the trail of golden particles Izanami had left for her to follow. It was too tempting to blast the vines with what little Etheric ability she had. However, she restrained herself from expending her precious energy.

It wouldn’t do to require another nap in the middle of rescuing Demon from whatever situation they found her in.

Addix had her ways that didn’t involve throwing Etheric energy around. Mostly they involved a fair amount of cursing and a determination to avoid getting tangled in the vines. Still, progress was difficult, and the only light in the canopy came from Izanami’s trail of sparkles.

Izanami spoke up around an hour later. Addix. I have Demon’s location.

Addix stumbled, distracted. “Is she…”

She’s alive and uninjured, Izanami assured her. As far as I can tell.

Addix sliced the vine that snarled her back leg in her distraction. “How far away am I?”

Around three kilometers, Izanami replied.

Addix put on an extra burst of speed, using her arms and all four of her legs to eat up the distance between them. “Wait for me.”

Izanami’s trail let out at a chasm.

Addix emerged from the canopy at the craggy wound in the ground and headed for the slight glow that indicated Izanami’s position in a stand of crooked trees.

Izanami pointed into the chasm as Addix arrived by her side. “They’re down there.”

“They?” Addix peered over the edge, seeing a rough path leading to a ledge partway down the jagged rockface. “What is that, a cave?”

Izanami lifted her hands. “It appears we did not read the situation correctly. Demon is inside the cave with the male cat.”

Addix’s mandibles rippled in surprise as Izanami’s meaning became clear. “Ah.” She sat down on the grass and tucked her legs under her body. “That changes things.”

Izanami tilted her head. “Are we supposed to wait for them to come out?”

Addix shook her head. “Demon, come up here, please.”

I don’t think I will, Demon replied. Why are you here?

“We are here because you switched your neural chip off,” Izanami chastised. “Believe me, it would have been our first choice to call, had it been an option.”

Well, you found me. You can go now.

Izanami let out a snort of disbelief. “I don’t think so.” She swept down the path and was at the cave entrance in a matter of moments. “Get your hide out here, you impossible creature! This was not part of our deal.”

A low, rumbling growl echoed from the cave.

I wouldn’t annoy my companion, Demon drawled. He’s rather protective of me.

Addix scrambled after Izanami, half her attention on the enormous, long-fanged cat that appeared at the mouth of the cave and the rest on not missing her step and dying horribly in the lake of lava at the bottom of the chasm.

Izanami’s aura darkened to match her growing temper. She dissolved into golden sparkles and moved to flow around the cat, unperturbed by his posturing. “I’ve called for a transport Pod. We’re taking you back to the Baba Ya—”

Addix screeched when the male cat lashed out with one enormous paw and batted Izanami’s hard light projector into the rock.

Demon dashed to the mouth of the cave just in time to see the HLP drive hit the rock and fall. She turned her amber gaze on the male. That was not a smart decision.

Addix picked up the drive, unable to miss the flicker in Izanami’s avatar as she did. How severe is the damage?”

Izanami’s avatar continued to flicker erratically. “Bad enough. The drive itself is intact. As you can see, I’m still here. However, the cat damaged a part of the shell, and one of the thruster bearings. I’m immobile, unless what I want is to go in endless circles. I’m withdrawing to the Baba Yaga. Wait here for pickup.” Her avatar winked out without any of the usual grace.

Addix secured the damaged HLP drive in an empty pouch on her belt and fixed Demon with a hard expression. “No more arguments. You will get on the Pod when it arrives, and you will pay for repairs to the damage your companion caused Izanami.”

The male snarled again and dropped into a low crouch, announcing his intention to pounce if Addix came any closer to Demon.

Demon hissed at him. Addix is a friend. Still your instincts. You have already jeopardized your chances of being permitted to leave with me.

Addix’s mandibles rippled in surprise when the male cat settled his hindquarters on the ground. “He can understand you?”

Demon left the cave mouth and padded over to Addix. Yes. He’s not from around here. I’ve been able to work that much out.

The male yawned, rolling his head to ensure Addix got a good look at his exposed fangs.

Addix suddenly understood why humans rolled their eyes. “You are as vain as she is,” she told the male cat, pointing at Demon.

She glanced up when the transport Pod came into sight. “You can’t stay here.”

Demon looked at her mate. I know, but I am reluctant to leave without him.

Addix sighed. “Trust you to complicate things. You know what you have to do. It’s not my decision to make.”

Demon wrinkled her nose. How angry is Michael?

Addix lifted her hands as she turned carefully to head up the path. “He wasn’t impressed, but I’m guessing you don’t need me to tell you that.”

Demon flashed her fangs at Addix’s back, then went over to sit by her mate. I have to speak to my humans.

He tilted his head, understanding in his eyes.

You are familiar with their ways? Demon was intrigued. This would be much easier if you could talk.

He chuffed in agreement, then lifted his head to look pointedly at the Pod.

Demon bumped him with her face. Very well. I will ask.

She concentrated and reactivated her neural chip. There was a brief wait while her connection was restored, then the option to speak to her humans became available. Michael?

Her nerves crackled in the endless seconds before he replied.

Demon. Why do you sound like a cat who is about to ask a favor, not a cat who is filled with remorse for the trouble her thoughtless actions have caused?

Demon pinned her hopes on Michael being amused. Because I am? Filled with remorse, of course. It was wrong to come here without permission.

But? Michael inquired. I hear one of those in your apology.

Demon sniffed. I am still apologizing. I did not understand until a few days ago that it was not something I have been searching for, but someone.

Michael’s tone softened slightly. I take it you found this “someone?

Demon had no higher power to plead with. I did—another cat. I wish to take him back to Devon. He wishes to come with me.

There was a pause, then Michael’s deep laughter rang out. Why do you think he would not be welcome?

Demon hesitated. He took exception to Izanami’s attitude toward me and broke her hard light drive. I’m going to get it fixed for her, she assured him quickly, wincing internally.

Addix’s voice came from the top of the chasm. “Demon, I’m not going to keep this Pod waiting all day.”

Get aboard the Pod, Michael instructed. I will decide when you arrive at the Citadel.

Citadel, Middle Ring, Bor’Dane’s House

Gabrielle cursed at the acrid odor clinging to her damp hair. “We are not walking through the jungle again. It’s baked in! I smell like death took a shit in my hair!”

Eric grinned as he settled back on the bed. “That’s okay. It’ll wash out eventually, right? Besides, I think the skunk-thing was more frightened by us than we were by him.”

Gabrielle strode out of the bathroom, diverting to punch Eric in the arm. “Not funny. I noticed you got out of the way fast enough when the damned creature fired its stink at us. I’m going to take another shower.”

Eric rubbed his bicep, laughing to cover the pain. “I could help you wash it again.”

“You could.” Gabrielle tied the offending locks out of her way and rummaged through her belongings for a change of clothing. “But you’re not. I will be glad to get home to the Guardian.”

Eric chuckled softly at her reference to the station as home. “Do you think we’ll ever get to go home home?”

“To Earth?” Gabrielle’s reply was interrupted by a ground-shaking explosion. She stared at Eric for a split second, then dropped everything on the bed. “Attack!”

Eric was on his feet before the tremor had finished rattling the house. “Outside.”

Gabrielle manifested an energy ball and sent it at the picture window she’d admired upon arriving in the room. “No time for the stairs.”

They grabbed their weapons and jumped.

Michael and John ran past as Eric and Gabrielle landed in the shrubbery below.

Michael pointed at the open area by the gatehouse. “Bethany Anne sent a Pod. ETA, one minute.”

He didn’t stop to make any further conversation. Neither did John until they were all aboard the transport Pod and on their way to the Baba Yaga.

“What’s going on?” Gabrielle gripped her seat as the Pod darted through falling chunks of rock.

“There’s an attack coming from the surface,” Michael replied, his attention on the impossibly small hole in the roof in the world that the Pod was aiming to exit through. “Hold on tight, we don’t have time to waste.”

The hole grew in their vision as the Pod hurtled closer. They breathed a sigh of relief when the Pod scraped through and the rain of rock was replaced by driving snow.

Bethany Anne appeared on the screen as they broke the surface, fury riding her face in bright red lines that bled out from her eyes and lit her skin. “Fucking Ooken. They found us.”

John snarled, “Yeah, well, they’re gonna regret it when we find them and blow them to kingdom come.”

“Michael, I need you on the bridge. John, Gabrielle, Eric, you know what to do.” Bethany Anne vanished from the viewscreen, replaced by the open door of Transport Bay Two.

Michael left for the primary bridge immediately on arriving after wishing them luck.

Gabrielle took the lead when they split up to board their ships. She connected with the Cambridge’s systems on entering the bridge. She slid into her captain’s chair and activated the HLP drive in the headrest.

The wraparound display burst into existence around Gabrielle’s headrest. It was usual for her to retain control of the primary systems when she was aboard. However, in a battle situation, she trusted her AI to take care of things like cloaking and navigation while she focused on pounding ten tons of crap out of the enemy.

Gabrielle’s eyes flickered as she configured her weapons setup. The HLP manifested twin controllers in her chair arms, which she grabbed as her ship left the Baba Yaga and shot out into space.

“Are you getting this?” She bared her teeth at the explosion of red triangles that marked enemy Gate signatures in her HUD.

“Damned party crashers,” Eric complained as he peeled off.

Gabrielle frowned. “I know, right? How rude.” Her eyes flickered again, and the weapons locked on her first target. “Let’s see what we can do about that.”

John grunted in satisfaction at his aim. His EMP-puck struck the nose of the ship, leaving it stranded halfway through the Gate. “There’s only one thing to do with unwanted guests,” he deadpanned.

Gabrielle grinned. “Yeah. Kick them out and slam the door behind them.” She fired two Etheric-enabled missiles, and a few seconds later, the Gate collapsed in on itself, leaving a portion of the Ooken ship free-floating in the nothing.

Eric whooped as his target went down. “We could keep this up all day. There doesn’t look to be any shortage of intruder ass to eject.”

There was a tug at the back of Gabrielle’s awareness, no more than a slight sense of something being out of place. She reached out to Bethany Anne in the mindspace. Did you feel that?

Bethany Anne's reply was a moment in coming. There’s some weird shit going on in the Etheric. I need to take care of it. You guys just make sure no Ooken get down to the Citadel.

You can count on us, Gabrielle assured the already empty mindspace.


20

QSD Baba Yaga, Primary Bridge

Bethany Anne felt the Etheric tear in the split second she dropped the connection to Gabrielle.

Michael spoke into her mind, forestalling the state of shock before it had a chance to set in. I’m on my way. What are you seeing?

Bethany Anne couldn’t tear her gaze from the viewscreen. An Etheric storm. It’s huge. Beyond anything we’ve encountered outside of the storm wall.

Blinding light accompanied the inconceivably large energy expenditure that exploded outward from the jagged rent in the velvet backdrop of space.

For a moment, Bethany Anne could only stare openmouthed at the darkly shining energy that spewed from the rift.

Gravity would not be disobeyed, evidenced by what happened next. The storm energy met the physics of their plane, and everything in the path of the all-consuming gravitational wave was thrown outward—including the Baba Yaga.

The only indication the Baba Yaga was spinning ass over axis was the backdrop of space hurtling by on the viewscreen and the blaring of alarms as the ship was flung to the far edge of the system.

IZANAMI! DO SOMETHING!” Bethany Anne screamed.

“I’m doing everything I can!” Izanami yelled from the speaker.

They were saved from a collision with the outermost planet’s debris field only by Izanami’s fast action.

The thundering in Bethany Anne’s chest abated when the image on the viewscreen jerked, then stabilized.

The whole thing had taken less than fifteen seconds.

A shudder ran down Bethany Anne’s spine at the nearness of their escape as Izanami made the maneuver to put the ship back on a trajectory for Qu’Baka.

Michael arrived in the elevator. “The car lost power. I was stuck for a moment,” he told Bethany Anne as he came to stand beside her. “That is…”

Bethany Anne slipped her hand into Michael’s. “Huge.” He sounded as shaken as she felt. “We just learned what it’s like to have someone walk an Etheric storm into our backyard.”

Michael squeezed Bethany Anne’s hand lightly. “You think the Seven have something to do with this?”

Bethany Anne looked up at him. “You don’t? I can hardly accept it as coincidence. No, this smacks too much of payback for my liking. It has to be the work of whoever hijacked the Judkah’s body after I killed him.”

Michael growled in consternation. “We were too busy diverting the outbreak of war to follow it up right away.”

Bethany Anne narrowed her eyes. “I’m just glad I got that chest safe. We have to close that rift before anything else.”

Izanami appeared by the HLP projector. “That isn’t our immediate concern, I’m afraid. Qu’Baka is destabilizing. The rift is tearing the core apart.”

“Won’t that be solved when we seal the rift?” Michael asked.

Izanami shook her head. “The reaction has already begun. It is too late to do anything except save as many lives as we can.”

Bethany Anne knew indecision would put her in the same situation as the planet. She closed her eyes briefly, focusing on what she could do in the moment. “Michael, get Gabrielle back here. Izanami, inform Captain Jameson he is to coordinate an evacuation of the Citadel, and put Mahi’ onscreen.”

Mahi’ appeared on a shaky feed that bobbed up and down to keep her in the frame as she ran. “I’m glad to see you, but this is not the best time.”

“That’s why I’m calling.” Bethany Anne had to shout to be heard over the chaos in the background of the feed. “The Seven have attacked the planet and you need to get ready to leave. All of you.”

Mahi’ stopped dead. “I know we’re under attack. There are Ooken here. There’s been a quake in the outer ring, and we’re heading out to rescue the people trapped out there.”

“Mahi’, no. It’s more than a ground attack.” Bethany Anne filled Mahi’ in on the situation with the planet’s core.

Mahi’ listened in shocked silence, her anger beyond expression. “This Kurtherian thinks to take our home as revenge?”

Bethany Anne shook her head. “More than that. They intended to take your lives as well. There’s nothing we can do but evacuate to Devon for now. I’m sending the Baba Yaga to defend the Citadel while you get everyone aboard. Make sure Captain Jameson is able to enter by the front gate.”

Mahi’ started running again. “I’ll make sure. Bor’Dane will be there. I have people to save.”

Qu’Baka, Jungle, Transport Pod

The cats became agitated just before the Pod’s EI issued another quake warning.

Demon snarled, It’s a big one.

Addix could only hope the Citadel was still in one piece when they made it there. She had been tracking the tremors since the roof above them had begun dropping parts of itself unexpectedly, and they looked to be localized to this part of the planet.

She made an attempt to soothe the cats. “The Pod’s shielding will protect us. I’m more concerned about what we’ll find when we get to the Citadel.”

Demon’s eyes darted to the viewscreen. What was that? I saw something that shouldn’t be in the jungle.

Addix zoomed in on the viewscreen and saw the unmistakable flash of blue in the canopy below. She jumped to her feet, unable to believe her eyes. “How are there Ooken here?”

Demon tilted her head, her liquid gaze remaining on the screen. I have yet to encounter the Ooken. Are they so fierce?

“Take a look for yourself. I need to tell Bethany Anne about this.” Addix opened an audio channel to inform Bethany Anne but got Michael instead. “There are Ooken approaching the Citadel,” she told him without preamble.

Michael’s reply was tense. “We are under attack by one of the Seven. Bethany Anne and I are somewhat tied up right now. How far are you from the Citadel? They’re evacuating, but someone can come for you if you’re in a tight spot.”

“Evacuation?” Addix glanced at the cats, pondering the wisdom of taking them into an emergency situation. “The quakes are getting worse.”

“Yes,” Michael confirmed. “The attack is causing them. The planet will break apart, and there is nothing we can do about it.”

Addix’s mandibles fell open in horror. “All those people! What can I do?” she asked. “We’re not that far out from the Citadel now.”

“Go to these coordinates. Assist Mahi’ however you can,” Michael instructed. “I’ll inform her about the Ooken, and that you will be with her shortly. Good luck.”

Addix gave the received coordinates to the EI. “The same to you and Bethany Anne,” she replied before signing off.

The Pod altered its trajectory slightly when the Baba Yaga came into sight above the Citadel.

What should I do? Demon asked.

“Go straight to the Baba Yaga.” Addix included the new cat in her orders. “Both of you. It’s too dangerous for you on the ground. One of you could easily be killed.”

Demon didn’t much want to go into the Citadel anyway. That is fine by me.

Mahi’ and the male Bakas she was with met the Pod as it touched down in one of the outer courtyards of the royal complex.

Addix saw the cats into the care of a passing Guardian before anything else. “Straight to the Baba Yaga,” she repeated as they sauntered away from the Pod.

Mahi’ left her companions and hurried over. “Addix! A Pod is just what we need! Inside, quickly.”

Addix did as Mahi’ asked, hearing the urgency in her voice. “What’s the emergency?”

“There are people stranded by the quake,” Mahi’ replied. She waved to the younger of the two males as the Pod took off. “Go with Bor’Dane, and help him get our people to the Empress’ ship.”

“Be careful,” he called. “I only just got you back!”

The rest was lost to the wind as the Pod shot into the air.

“Where are we going?” Addix asked.

Mahi’ waved in a southeasterly direction. “The foundry in the outer ring. The workers are trapped inside by a cave-in. How many can this Pod hold?”

“As many as we can fit in. This is an emergency.” Addix recalled the reason for her panic. “There are Ooken outside the Citadel,” she told Mahi’, although she knew as she spoke that it was old news to her.

“There will be Ooken inside the Citadel soon enough,” Mahi’ replied, her tone stoic. “Qu’Baka is in its death throes. They can have it. All that matters is surviving as a people to mourn the loss of our planet.” The strong words did little to hide the anger and grief behind them.

Addix found herself at a loss as to how to reply in the face of Mahi’s pragmatism. “Your people are lucky they have you to lead them out of this time of hardship.”

Mahi’ patted Addix’s shoulder. “We’ll start with getting them out of the Citadel. What comes next isn’t important if we’re not there to live it.”

Addix nodded.

The humidity outside the Pod fell sharply as they passed beneath a section of the Citadel that was open to the surface. Visibility dropped to virtually zero as they were swallowed by the snow pouring in from above.

Mahi’ barely held herself in check. Conditions got poorer the farther they got from the cover of the Baba Yaga.

The cave-in at the foundry was worse than either of them had imagined.

Mahi’ let out a low moan as the partially-crushed building came into sight through the blizzard. The entire area was blanketed in snow except for the burning lake around the front end of the building, which was entirely buried under a slab of crushed rock the size of a small town. “The heat exchanger has failed.”

Addix assumed the heat exchanger was responsible for the steadily rising lava that was oozing from somewhere in the foundry to pool around the site. “We need to find a way in, preferably one that is close to the people we’re here to rescue. Do we know how many are in there?”

Mahi’ was already working to hurry the scans along. “Yes. Scans show thirty-eight living beings. They’re in a storage room on the first floor.”

Addix had doubts about getting that many out in one trip. They weren’t going to be left with much choice if they didn’t act soon.

She pointed at the side of the building where it was melting into the lava. “Which is going to be the ground floor in a matter of minutes. We can’t get in from this side, not without flooding what’s left of the building with lava. Can we get them to move?”

“They have a holo with them.” Mahi’ looked at the scan data and pointed out a route to Addix. “I can see a possible way to get to them if they can get to this room. We have to go outside the walls and break through somehow.”

Addix sighed. She had strong feelings about going into the Ooken-infested jungle for any reason, much less bundling a group of freshly rescued civilians through there. “You’ve got a Jean Dukes weapon, right?”

Mahi’ nodded and lifted her outer robe to show Addix the pistol holstered at her hip. “I have an older model. Does the Pod have weapons? We could shoot the wall out.”

Addix reconciled herself to not having much choice in the matter. “No need. I can take care of the wall. You concentrate on making sure no Ooken sneak up on us.”

QBS Cambridge, Cargo Bay

Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at Bethany Anne. “Are you sure you don’t want a cushion or something? You’ll get ass grapes sitting on the cold floor like that.”

Bethany Anne smiled and shook her head as she arranged her body into her accustomed meditation pose. “I’m good. Want to go through it one more time?”

Gabrielle looked askance at Bethany Anne and checked off on her fingers. “You and Michael are going to work from here to close the rift. I’m going to guard and obliterate anything that comes through. John and Eric are going to mop up any Ooken that survived the blast wave. Everyone else is getting the Bakas aboard the Baba Yaga before Qu’Baka shakes itself to pieces. That about cover it?”

“One more thing,” Michael supplied as he entered the cargo bay. “Addix is on her way to assist Mahi’. Demon has been found safe.”

Bethany Anne narrowed her eyes. “Why didn’t Izanami tell us that while we were aboard the Baba Yaga?”

Michael smiled. “It appears that Demon’s odd behavior of late was due to the call of nature.” His smile widened at Bethany Anne’s and Gabrielle’s blank looks. He sat cross-legged opposite Bethany Anne. “She had need of some feline company, which she found here on Qu’Baka. Izanami is likely embarrassed she startled the new cat into damaging her HLP drive.”

Bethany Anne slapped the floor in frustration. “I’m not going to hold the cat responsible. That AI needs to think before she acts. Another thing I need to take care of when we get back to Devon.”

Gabrielle turned back on her way to the door. “No rest for the wicked.”

Michael snickered softly. “Even less for the sainted. How about we show that Kurtherian the true meaning of payback?”

Bethany Anne placed her hands on her knees palms up and closed her eyes. “Nothing would please me more. There’s fuckery to spread, and I’m the bitch holding the knife.”

Calm descended as she breathed away her attachments. The war, the dying planet, all her cares and worries, released on the exhale.

She left on her next breath, leaving her body behind while her mind soared into the Etheric.

Michael joined her a moment later and they faced the rift together.

With perfect clarity, Bethany Anne saw the gaping hole in reality for what it was—unfettered energy set loose to lash the fabric of existence without anything to guide or control it.

Michael felt Bethany Anne’s anger rise. He abandoned his inspection of the tear suspended impossibly in the near distance to put an arm around her shoulders.

“They opened the door and ran,” Bethany Anne ground out as she put the pieces together. “There was never any intention of controlling the storm. The soulless bastards aimed to cause as much destruction as they could, nothing more.”

Michael had figured as much when the initial shock hadn’t been followed immediately by an attack. “How do you suggest we seal it?”

Bethany Anne raised her hands in the direction of the rift and called the fractured energy as she walked a few steps closer. “Imagine this was a tear in a piece of fabric. Each thread would have to be reconnected to put it back to how it was. Watch me.”

Michael saw the mist around Bethany Anne first slow its manic rush toward the rift and then reverse direction. He joined his effort to hers, and the affected area spread outward rapidly until one corner of the rift was cleared of excess energy for a second.

Bethany Anne was ready. She grasped the fragmented energy and overlaid her will to mold it back together, grateful to TOM for skipping the blow-by-blow of the damage she was accruing for her monster effort.

It wasn’t working. The energy fell apart spectacularly the moment she released it. The rift remained open, causing untold damage to Bethany Anne’s universe.

Even worse, it appeared to be expanding.

Bethany Anne held on tightly to the rest of the energy she had gathered, reluctant to release it and add to the growing problem. “What am I missing?”

Michael touched Bethany Anne’s mind. Remember, you are not alone.

Bethany Anne’s frustration spilled over. I would like five minutes alone with the evil that opened this rift. How are we supposed to seal it when this energy is…well, broken? She flexed her hands and released the pent-up Etheric energy from her palms in two bright bursts of flame that scattered the churning mists.

Michael tilted his head in consideration. “What about that energy? It looked fine to me. Did you do something to it?”

“No?” Bethany Anne looked at her hands, then at Michael. A slow smile spread as she realized the difference was her. “You are a fucking genius.” She grabbed Michael’s face in both hands and kissed him soundly before running in the direction of the rift. “Get back to the other side,” she called back over her shoulder. “I don’t want you getting stuck here.”

Michael did no such thing. He raced after Bethany Anne. “What are you planning to do?”

Bethany Anne flung an arm toward the rift without stopping. “I have to run the energy through my body to repair it. It’s the only way to close the rift.”

Michael caught up with Bethany Anne and grabbed her arm, bringing them both to a sharp halt. “You want to what?”

Bethany Anne shook Michael’s hand off and fixed him with a frown. “I know you heard me just fine. This isn’t a simple storm. It’s a wound in reality, and I’m the only one who has the power to heal it.”

Michael tensed, seeing that she wouldn’t be moved. “What if you don’t survive? You can’t expect me to leave you to walk into what could be your death.”

Bethany Anne put her hand to Michael’s cheek. “Then I don’t survive. But you will, and our children will.” A single tear escaped and ran down her face, capturing the light of the rift. “That’s all that matters. Go to the other side, Michael. Don’t make this more difficult than it already is.”

Michael pulled Bethany Anne close and held her wordlessly. They stood that way for an endless moment before Bethany Anne released him with an almost inaudible sigh.

Michael smiled sadly. “If only for the sake of our children, I’m not going to argue. Just don’t lose yourself in there.”

“I won’t die,” Bethany Anne promised. “And if I get lost, I fully expect you to find a way to bring me back.”


21

Qu’Baka, Citadel, Outer Ring

Addix locked her legs to secure her balance in the Pod door and hoped like hell she didn’t get blown to pieces for trying to be clever. “Here goes.”

Mahi’ peered nervously around the chair she was using as cover. “Are you sure this is wise?”

Addix concentrated on opening the Etheric over her palm. “Trust me, we want to save our ammunition in case the Ooken show up.”

Mahi’ nodded. “I’m not going to disagree. It would have been better to bring a few warriors with us.” She spoke to the Bakas inside, instructing them to get back.

“That would mean even less room for the rescued people.” Addix’s mandibles twitched in triumph when her effort to manifest an energy ball came to fruition. “As it is, the strongest will have to walk while the injured take the first trip back in the Pod. Take cover.”

Mahi’ ducked behind the chair when Addix flung the energy at the wall

Her skills with the Etheric were crude, but the resulting outward explosion of rock was adequate for the purpose. The workers came forward as the dust settled. Their shock was compounded by the Ixtali swinging from the open Pod with smoke coming from her hand.

“Stand back,” Mahi’ instructed again. “We’re going to get you out of there.”

“Bring the Pod in closer,” Addix called to Mahi’. “Keep us steady.” She took the cartridge gun from the Pod’s emergency kit and loaded it with an expanding foam cartridge, then took aim at the edge of the hole in the wall.

A stream of yellow-green foam shot from the barrel and attached itself to the crumbled stone. Addix jerked her wrist and the free end of the foam snake drooped to the ground. It expanded rapidly, the weight pulling it down as it doubled in length, then doubled again in width, forming a makeshift slide.

“Wait for a minute,” Addix cautioned. “It has to set.”

Addix waved the foundry workers on when the slide was ready, then Mahi’ took the Pod to wait on the ground while they made their way down the slide one at a time.

Mahi’ rushed to assist the elderly female who was the first to set foot on the ground.

She stared at Mahi’ in wonder. “Your Highness, it cannot be!”

Mahi’ brushed off the attention. “No need for that. Let’s get you into the Pod, Auntie.”

The female smiled dazedly at the honorific. “My name is Sa’Mera,” she told Mahi’, turning distractedly when a male came over to take her elbow. “This is Fi’Aren.”

Fi’Aren nodded, similarly blown away by the identity of their rescuer. “Thank you for saving us.”

Mahi’ smiled, shaking her head. “No need for thanks. We’re not out of danger yet.”

“There’s not much time,” Addix cut in as she returned from the Pod. “We have to move since we’ve attracted attention. I’ve programmed the Pod to make two trips. We need to get as many people aboard as we can and get everyone else back behind the wall.”

Sa’Mera gripped Fi’Aren to stabilize herself. “There’s a gate a kilometer to the west of here. We should get going.”

Fi’Aren pointed at the Pod. “You are going on the first trip. Everyone needs you to be their strength.”

The Pod took off with the elderly and the injured a short time after, leaving Addix, Mahi’, and the sturdier Bakas to find a path back into the Citadel and locate a relatively safe place to wait for the Pod’s return.

The group made their way west, sticking close to the Citadel wall.

Addix stayed at the periphery of the group as they traveled. Mahi’ was at the head of the group. Addix kept herself clear to defend when the Ooken found them. There was no if—she heard them closing in, drawn by the noise of the rescue.

Once the Ooken came upon the foundry, it was just a matter of how long it took to follow the trail left by the group.

There was a tense moment when they came within sight of their goal and discovered the wall was still intact, and the gate barred and locked from the inside.

Addix inspected the featureless slab of metal and turned to Mahi' with her mandibles clicking in dismay. “There’s no way to open it.”

“There should be someone here!” one of the workers called.

Another laughed coldly. “Those traitors got out if they knew what was good for them.”

Fi'Aren took to pounding on the gate with his fists. “I would not abandon my post.”

Addix listened to the bickering with growing annoyance. “This isn’t getting us anywhere.” She rose to her full height. “Everyone, shut up and move!”

She frowned at the conundrum, her heart rate rising as the severity of the situation gripped her. “The Ooken are coming. Every one of us is going to die if we don’t get that gate open.”

Her words had the intended effect.

The people stilled their arguments and cleared the space around the gate while Addix set her Jean Dukes Special to level two. “I don’t want to destroy it,” she explained when Mahi' looked at the weapon skeptically.

Mahi' averted her eyes as Addix fired. The gate shuddered but remained intact.

Addix swept a hand toward the gate. “All yours.”

Mahi’ grinned. “My pleasure.” She lifted the hem of her robe and set her stance, then whirled to meet the gate with the sole of her right foot.

The gate clanged open, falling off one of its hinges to sit askew against the rock.

Everyone froze when a screech sounded nearby.

Addix cringed as her worst fears became a reality. “Get inside,” she yelled. “Quickly!”

“Scatter!” Mahi’ added as the workers dashed through the hole. “Get to the highest place you can find and wait for the Pod.”

Addix and Mahi’ waited on tenterhooks for the attack to come.

The first Ooken broke out of the jungle tentacles-first.

Addix fired, to no effect. “Shit!”

Mahi' had her back. She took the Ooken down with three well-placed shots. “Dial it back up!” she roared over the screeching.

Addix growled at her forgetfulness and thumbed the dial without looking to see where she’d set it.

There were more Ooken incoming. Addix skittered back toward the wall, pulling Mahi' along with her. “We need a better position. Here, take this.” She held out her emergency weapon. “I’d give you my JD but you need both hands intact.”

Mahi' accepted Addix’s offering, her eyes searching the tree line for the unnatural blue that heralded the Ooken. “Defend the gate or let them in and pick them off?”

Addix considered their options. “Defend the gate. Give the people a chance to get safe.” She activated the emergency beacon in her neural chip, sending an SOS to Izanami.

Izanami spoke up immediately. Addix, what danger are you in?

Me, Mahi’, and twenty-plus civilians, Addix told her quickly. We need a pickup, preferably before we’re overrun by Ooken.

I’m sending— The rest of Izanami’s reply was swallowed by a grinding tremor. Addix exchanged glances with Mahi’ as a massive chunk of the roof crashed down a few hundred feet away, flattening a large section of the jungle.

“We have to move,” Addix told Mahi' as snow began falling around them. “We can’t defend from here.”

Mahi' ran for the gate. “There will be stairs on the other side of the wall.”

Addix glanced at the trees before following at a run. She caught up with Mahi' on the stairs as another screech cut the air. “Hurry!”

They reached the top of the wall out of breath. Addix screamed her frustration as she slipped on the rapidly freezing slush. “Izanami is sending help,” she shouted to be heard over the rumbling of the planet. “We only have to hold the Ooken off until they get here.”

“Split up,” Mahi’ yelled in response, waving an arm to indicate Addix go right. “They’re coming from everywhere!”

Addix dashed to the edge of the wall and saw that Mahi' wasn’t exaggerating. The jungle was being torn to splinters by the Ooken. She stared for a moment at the blank spaces left behind by their progress—a portent of the devastation headed their way.

There was movement to her left as another Baka came onto the wall with them.

Addix cursed when she picked out the features of Fi’Aren. There was no way she could get him to safety and get back before the Ooken made it out of the jungle.

She looked around frantically, half-expecting to see the rest of the workers they’d rescued risking their necks in some foolhardy show of bravery.

Addix spotted the group watching from a nearby rooftop. They were safe. She turned on Fi’Aren. “Get out of here!” she ordered roughly.

Fi’Aren laughed. “I’ll fight!” He waved the guns he’d gotten from who-knew-where, then turned to face the jungle as the Ooken broke the tree line, both figuratively and literally.

Scores of them emerged, slithering and crawling around and over broken trees and flattened shrubbery. They churned up the ground, intent on getting to the Citadel wall.

Addix winced at the unexpected kickback when she started shooting. Fi’Aren would have to take care of himself for the moment.

The Ooken closed the distance despite the continuous losses they were taking.

Addix leaned over the edge to dislodge an Ooken scaling the wall. She increased the grip she had on the wall, wedging her feet tighter into the spaces between the stones to hold her while she pivoted her upper body to take the shot.

The Ooken dropped to the ground, knocking the one beneath it off the wall.

More Ooken swarmed the base of the wall to replace the ones Addix and Mahi’ had just gone to the effort of removing. They crawled over the corpses of the fallen, disregarding the death awaiting them at the top of the wall.

Mahi’ tossed the empty backup weapon to the side as she ran to Addix’s position. “There are too many! We have to move to better ground.”

Addix righted herself and looked around for Fi’Aren. “One of your people was here.”

Mahi’ snarled in annoyance. “I saw. We’ll find him on the way.”

Addix glanced at the Ooken and nodded. “I can stall them while we get clear. Find Fi’Aren and run. I’ll find you.”

Mahi’ darted in the direction they’d last seen Fi’Aren.

Addix turned back to the Ooken and steadied herself for a huge drain on her energy. The snow clouds above were her only weapon, and whatever practice she’d had in the Vid-docs was all she had to pull off this crazy idea.

“Well, if Michael can do it…” she muttered as she reached for the Etheric. “Here goes something.” She sent the stream of Etheric energy up and forced it to agitate the electrical energy within the clouds.

Another chunk of the roof collapsed in the near distance but Addix paid no attention, too caught up in massaging the lightning into being.

The first strike hit just inches from her position.

“I am…not in control of thiiis!”

All she could do was hope it didn’t get out of hand.


Enter Into Valhalla

Addix

She called the lightning down, finding that it wanted to be used once it had been created, even though she had no say in where it struck—which wasn’t an issue because the Ooken were everywhere.

The air became thick with the stench of melted flesh as Addix drove them back, praying silently that Mahi’ was safe inside the Citadel.

There was an almighty crash when another section of the roof caved in above the wall, crushing it on impact.

Addix dropped the lightning and darted for the stairs when the Ooken turned like the tide toward the breach. “Izanami, where’s our extraction?” she yelled between breaths.

Five minutes, the reply came.

Addix looked left and right, searching for any sign of Mahi’ in the blizzard. “We might not have five minutes.”

The Etheric, Inside the Rift

Bethany Anne watched it all.

Her hair whipped around her metaphysical body, which was suspended in the center of the rift. She was stretched out flat, her arms and legs held stiff by the energy thundering through her.

There was no sound. The song of the Etheric had deafened her until TOM had sealed her ears to give them a chance to heal.

Bethany Anne watched swirling images form and dissolve as the repaired energy sought its function within her mind. High Tortuga, safe and at peace. Devon, her children inside their Vid-docs, and the people living in blissful ignorance of what they were being sheltered from.

All of this went by in silence.

There was a flash, too brief for Bethany Anne to see more than a glimpse of many pairs of red eyes.

She realized she was seeing the possibility of the energy when her perception panned out and the vision shifted. Had she just seen the past, or a future not yet lived? Before the thought had formed in her mind, the image was gone, replaced by two fleets on a collision course.

Bethany Anne knew with certainty at that moment that she could be present in any of those places if she willed it.

Don’t! TOM’s voice was distant. You’ll be separated from your body!

Bethany Anne barely heard him. She was dancing on the edge of control, tempted for the first time to take what was offered.

Power.

Not for herself. For the purpose of ending conflict everywhere. It would be simple to achieve with dominion over life and death.

From here, Bethany Anne could weigh the heart of every living being in the universe.

Justice for everyone, whatever that meant for the individual. She could deal it out once and for all and go home to live out her days in peace with her family.

Bethany Anne narrowed her eyes, the jarring idea enough to bring her back to the threshold of pain. Sweet, clarifying pain.

This wasn’t her thinking. She had never wanted that kind of power, the kind that corrupted people one good intention at a time. She had never fucking once taken a shortcut that didn’t provide a better result than the traditional way.

She didn’t intend to start now.

“Quit jerking me around.”

Bethany Anne cursed herself for almost listening. She clenched her teeth and let the pain burn away the temptation to take what wasn’t hers.

However, the energy fought back, refusing to dissipate, and one image remained stamped across her vision.

Bethany Anne heard a voice in the back of her mind as the moving image stole her away once again.

It’s working.

Michael. She could not forget him. Although, where was he? Who had just spoken? What was working?

All Bethany Anne could see was Addix in the snow.

Qu’Baka, Citadel

Addix released a burst of Etheric energy, knocking the Ooken back long enough for Mahi’ to get away with the injured worker slung over her shoulders.

They struggled through the snow, Addix guarding their backs while she followed the twin tracks Mahi’ left in the drifts.

They plowed toward the flat-roofed building where the workers were waiting.

The Ooken were right behind them.

Addix could hear the repeated wet slaps of their pursuers’ tentacles on the smooth stone as they raced through the streets in search of a defensible position. “There, that house.”

Mahi’ looked back, almost losing her grip on Fi’Aren. She hoisted the worker through the lower window of the property and jumped onto the ledge. “Dumbass. This wasn’t your fight. Addix, get up here!”

Addix barely heard the warning. Her energy expenditure had drained her to her limits and beyond. She fought on because that was all her body knew to do.

Protect Mahi’. Protect the Bakas. Wait for their backup to get there and pull them out of the shit.

Her wrists ached from firing her Jean Dukes Specials above her recommended level for so long. Nevertheless, their survival depended on her forcing her cramped hands to continue firing her weapons.

“Addix, come on!” Mahi’ leaned out the window, calling into the wind as the Ixtali streaked from one target to the next, unleashing her rage in a deadly display the Ooken had no chance of keeping up with, much less defending against.

Addix almost shot Mahi’ when her two large hands gripped Addix around the shoulders and pulled.

“Easy, spider-warrior,” Mahi’ cautioned. “Save it for the enemy.”

Addix got to her feet wearily. “Get to the roof. We’re out of time.”

There was an explosion out of sight over by the wall.

Another hit closer, followed by another. Addix leaned on Mahi’ and pointed at the Pod coming in from the jungle. “We still need to get up to the roof. I’ll be right behind you, I promise.”

Mahi’ hesitated.

“Go!” Addix yelled.

The people on the roof cheered when a speaker blared and a pair of fighter Pods zoomed into view overhead. “Somebody order a ride?”

“About time! Are we glad to see you!” Addix replied as the transport Pod came in behind them. “Passengers are all on the roof, ready for evac. I’ll be there shortly.”

“We’re not leaving without you,” the pilot assured her. “Stay alive.”

Addix fought on to cover Mahi’ and the others while they transferred from the roof to the Pod. “I’m okay down here. Get the Bakas aboard first.”

Addix wanted Mahi’ safe. There would be no treaty without her. She should have known the Ooken wouldn’t give in so easily.

The people on the rooftop continued their celebration while they were hauled up to the Pod two at a time. Their relief was premature.

Somehow, the Ooken understood the Pods signaled the end of their hunt. Their ear-splitting shrieks switched in tone as they spread out and began climbing the other buildings nearby to gain height.

Addix found herself getting farther away from the building in her quest to keep the rooftop clear. She had no time for getting lost to the heat of battle, and the fighter Pods were doing plenty to keep the Ooken at bay.

Her left JD clicked on empty. How had she used up all her ammunition? She had a little remaining in her right. What else? The half-sword.

Addix had no strength for energy balls after her efforts with the lightning earlier. She was drained, and so far beyond exhausted, she could only move forward on autopilot.

Her world was reduced once again to stab, shoot, duck, don’t die, repeat.

“Addix! Leave them. Come on!”

Mahi’ was calling her from the edge of the roof. It was time to leave.

Addix skidded and slipped as she ran into the building, an Ooken hot on her heels. Inside the building, it was worse. They were everywhere, throwing themselves at her through the windows and out of the doors as she passed them.

Like the Ooken, Addix had the advantage of being able to use all the space around her. She used the walls, the ceiling, even the Ooken as she fought her way up the stairs.

Her armor was in tatters and the flesh beneath it torn by Ooken teeth. The pain of getting bitten each time a tentacle connected meant nothing to her. All she had to do was reach the rooftop and she would be on her way to a Pod-doc.

She made it just in time to shoot an Ooken that had launched itself from the roof of a nearby building. It fell into nothing as she fell to her knees, faint from blood loss.

Mahi’ dashed over to help Addix to her feet. “You are tougher than this. Hold on.”

Addix felt Mahi’ take the sword from her hand.

An Ooken made the roof and charged them with its tentacles splayed. The Guardian in the transport Pod shot it through the brain without hesitation.

The rescue team sent the rope down again, taking on the final two workers.

The Ooken took exception to the loss of their prey. Three more leaped for the roof, and two made it. Addix fired at them until her right-hand JD ran dry.

More Ooken threw themselves across the gaps between buildings to get at the Pod.

The Guardian leaned out and called as he released the rope. “Jump on!”

Addix looked up blearily as the rope descended for her and Mahi’ to make their escape. She felt Mahi’ press the rope into her hand where the sword had been a moment before.

Why was everything so bright?

Mahi’ took the rope and stepped onto the rung beside Addix. “Just hold on a little longer,” she called.

The Ooken lunged at the Pod as it lifted off without waiting for the Guardians to winch Addix and Mahi’ aboard.

Addix clung to the rope while the Pod gained altitude. She closed her eyes and held on gratefully, feeling the comforting weight of Mahi’ beside her.

The Guardian in the Pod yelled to them to climb in the same instant Mahi’ screamed in pain and outrage.

Addix opened her eyes and saw Mahi’ stamping furiously at an Ooken that had made it onto the rope.

It had Mahi’ around the lower leg, and there would be no escape for her.

Mahi’ fought to free herself from the teeth tearing into her calf. Another tentacle just missed her face. It whipped by and curled around the rope above her and Addix, solidifying the Ooken’s position and giving it the leverage it needed to peel her leg like a piece of fruit.

Addix assessed the situation and its only outcome. Trey’s face flashed through her mind. Mahi’ could still survive this, but only if she acted quickly. She knew there was no chance for Mahi’ without her intervention and no chance that her death wouldn’t be met by uproar from every Baka from here to Devon.

There was only one possible course of action.

Addix snatched her half-sword back from Mahi’ and released the rope. The Ooken screeched when she landed ass-first on its head and gripped it with the sharp sides of her legs.

Her next move was to de-tentacle it with a slice of the blade. She hacked at the Ooken mercilessly and ripped them both from the rope.

The Ooken turned on Addix in midair, but she was Ixtali. She reared up and stabbed her two front legs into the Ooken’s eyes, her final act to free Mahi’ from the Ooken’s bite.

Mahi’ screamed in burning agony as the Ooken tore itself away from her without warning. She saw Addix falling toward the jungle floor, her front feet piercing the Ooken’s face. “Addix!”

Addix let out a victory cry as she gripped the Ooken with everything she had left and plunged the sword into its heart. “Tell Bethany Anne I’m sorry for dying!”

Mahi’ screamed her denial of what she saw in Addix’s eyes.

Addix hit the mass of Ooken like a ton of bricks, smiling as she activated the self-destruct on her Jean Dukes Specials.


22

Bethany Anne saw Addix’s ashes scatter, lost in the wind and snow. The reality brought her senses crashing back.

Addix couldn’t be dead!

Grief tore through Bethany Anne, putting an abrupt end to the fantasies of future bliss she’d been hiding inside while the energy poured through her.

The pain wracking her metaphysical body was almost enough to drive Bethany Anne back into the cosseting arms of the visions the Etheric offered.

Her peace was shattered, replaced by Addix’s death playing on a loop while the needling voice at the back of her mind told her it wasn’t too late. She could reach back in time and pull Addix out before she died—if she just accepted the power.

Bethany Anne wavered between what was right and what the energy wanted her to do, her voice so small in the deluge it was almost impossible to remember she had a will of her own.

The part of her that wasn’t whining at the unfairness recognized the sacrifice her old friend had made. She didn’t have the right to play God.

She heard TOM faintly and focused on tuning in to his voice. I can hear you.

At last! I thought you were lost. TOM’s words were filled with fear. Don’t let the rift take you away again.

It’s not a small amount of pain, Bethany Anne told him. The pain faded as another wave of grief crashed into her. Addix—she’s dead.

TOM wept inside for the bravery of their lost friend. I know, but there is too much happening outside the Etheric. Michael is going to pace a rut in the cargo bay floor if you don’t finish soon.

He’ll have to keep pacing, Bethany Anne responded distractedly, feeling the pull of the energy grow strong again. The rift is still open, and it’s all I can do to keep pushing away the repaired energy before it latches on and turns my thoughts to reality.

Those are not your thoughts, TOM told her quickly, hoping he could prevent her from being drawn back into the rift. I can see them too. They look to be possible futures.

Bethany Anne was shaken to the core by TOM’s words. Everything I’ve seen is going to happen?

I would guess the events closest to us are all but set.

The two fleets Bethany Anne had seen rushed to the forefront of her mind, the details making sense to her on reflection. Then there’s a fuck-ton of Ooken heading for the far end of the Interdiction, some Leath up to their tusks in shit—and who the fuck thought it was a good idea to put Rickie Escobar in charge of a QBBS?

I can see why that would make you think you were dreaming, TOM supplied glibly. What are you going to do?

Bethany Anne slowed the flow of energy running through her to a trickle and prepared to step back to her body. I’m going to war.

Qu’Baka, QBS Cambridge

Michael sensed Bethany Anne’s return the moment before her body moved.

She opened her eyes and started to get to her feet. “We’re leaving.” Her knees gave way before she’d taken two steps. “Fuck this drain!”

Michael caught her as she went down and steered her to a crate to sit. “You’re still transforming the rift?”

Bethany Anne nodded, closing her eyes to fend off the dizziness. “Yeah. I dialed it down, but I can’t stop until it’s done.”

Gabrielle came over and knelt by Bethany Anne to look into her eyes for any sign of brain injury. “I can’t see any damage. You need to stay as still as you can.”

“Fuck that,” Bethany Anne shot back. She attempted to stand again but dropped back onto the crate with a growl when she was hit by another wave of dizziness.

Bethany Anne, stop moving around, TOM told her sternly. I can’t keep the connection to the rift stable and keep the pain down at the same time. It’s too dangerous.

Bethany Anne slammed a hand on the crate, splintering it. “Tell me how the fuck I’m supposed to deal with two attacks and the rift while I’m sitting on my ass in a fucking cargo hold?”

Michael had heard TOM’s worries. “You stop trying to do it all alone.”

Gabrielle took Bethany Anne’s hand. “What do you need?”

Bethany Anne sighed. “I need to fix this rift and find a use for the excess energy. I need to get to the other side of the Interdiction to stop the Ooken from rolling right through to the Federation. I need my friend to not be dead.”

Gabrielle squeezed her hand before letting go to get to her feet. “I can’t believe Addix is gone. I’m going to take us back to the Baba Yaga. It’s a start, at least.”

“Thank you,” Bethany Anne murmured. “I need to figure a way to move around without sending TOM into meltdown.”

Michael bent at the knee and scooped Bethany Anne up in his arms. “I feel like I’m going to enjoy this more than is strictly necessary,” he told her amiably as he walked them to the door.

“I hope you’re not expecting me to be happy about being carried around like a freaking damsel,” Bethany Anne retorted. She resisted the urge to jump down and walk and wrapped her arms around Michael’s neck to steady herself while they headed for the bridge at a fast run.

Michael set Bethany Anne down gently on the full-length couch when they reached the bridge.

Bethany Anne was just out of reach of a console. She shuffled to get comfortable while she transformed the energy inside her body. “What’s happening on the planet?”

Gabrielle gave her a rundown of the evacuation while she had the Cambridge return to the superdreadnought. “Paul is saying the majority are aboard. He’s waiting for the last few rescue teams to check in, then we can concentrate on getting out of here.

Bethany Anne closed her eyes. “Not just out of here. Out of here and eighteen Gates away.”

She must have drifted into sleep, because the next thing Bethany Anne knew, Michael shook her awake.

“Mahi' came aboard with the last group of Bakas. Just in time; the planet is in the final stages of breaking up.”

Bethany Anne blinked away the sleep and waved a hand at the viewscreen. “Show me.”

Mahi' entered the bridge and joined them in witnessing Qu’Baka’s death throes.

She sat by Bethany Anne, silent tears falling as huge pieces of the mantle drifted out past the blanket of dust and smaller rocks caught in what remained of the planet’s dwindling gravity.

Even those broke away as the core stretched out, pulled in all directions in reaction to being exposed to the vacuum.

“This is it,” Mahi' breathed as the core rippled, throwing out huge splashes under the pressure of being stretched and compressed.

Bethany Anne was barely there to watch the core cool. Her vision was flooded with scenes of the Ooken inside the Federation.

Visions in which she was merely a bystander.

Bethany Anne felt the air, and she smelled death and heard it all around her. She ran through the carnage, her fear growing with every attempt to use her abilities to put a stop to the killing.

None of it worked.

Wherever she looked, people were dying, and she was powerless, unable to act to save a single one of them. Her horror was complete, her greatest fear come true.

Forgetting she was only there in mind, Bethany Anne screamed in frustration.

Michael reacted instantly to Bethany Anne’s anguish. He entered the mindspace and was immediately aware of the reason she’d screamed.

He found her kneeling in the ruins of the Meredith Reynolds.

Bethany Anne saw Michael approach. She ran to him, convinced his death would be the next she was forced to witness. “You can’t be here. You have to leave.”

“This isn’t real,” Michael told her gently. “We are inside the rift energy.”

Bethany Anne shook her head, unable to speak through her emotions for a moment. “It’s real. Or it will be. This is the future.”

Michael frowned. “I don’t understand. This is the future? How?”

“I don’t know how,” Bethany Anne admitted. “You’ll have to ask TOM. But this is the near future, Michael. This.” She swept a hand over the corpse-littered destruction that had once been Mark Billingsly Park.

Michael shook his head, disbelieving. “No. I refuse to accept it.”

Bethany Anne snorted softly. “So did I at first, but there’s no way this is fake. Every detail is perfect. It’s not a mind-fuck.”

Michael had his own opinion on that. “Bethany Anne, come back with me. We can’t resolve this while we are here.”

Bethany Anne looked around and pulled back from Michael. “I… I can’t stop this.”

Michael raised an eyebrow. “What, the Queen Bitch can’t take care of one measly invasion she knows is coming? We need to go.” He took her hand, feeling doubt creep in. It wasn’t coming from him, he knew. There was something to be said for living long enough that you knew yourself inside out.

He pulled Bethany Anne close, giving her a physical reminder of the difference between reality and the construct they were in. “This place is messing with you. With us both. Bethany Anne, if this is really coming, then you’re needed out there where you can do something about it. Who else can take on the hive mind? We need to go now.”

Bethany Anne regained her sense of self at Michael’s touch. She frowned as the doubt leached away, replaced by her more usual cold fury. “You’re right. Something or someone is playing me. This event can’t be fixed in time if we know about it.”

Michael smiled with relief. “That’s more like it. Ready to leave this behind? I’m pretty sure we’re scaring the crap out of Gabrielle and Mahi’ right now.”

They returned to the bridge to find Mahi’ looming over them worriedly while Gabrielle hovered around the couch.

Bethany Anne released the final trickle of rift energy as she came around. She jumped up from the couch and stretched. “Okay. I’m done with being lied to. TOM, get your ass out here where everyone can hear you and explain why you didn’t tell me that was a trap.”

“What trap?” TOM asked from the speaker.

Bethany Anne heard the truth in his voice. “You didn’t see it?”

“I wondered why you were letting yourself be dragged down by grief,” he replied. “But I felt no outside force at work.”

Bethany Anne and Michael shared a concerned glance.

“TOM,” Michael spoke slowly. “There was an external force keeping Bethany Anne caught in the vision the rift energy created. She would not have made it out if I hadn’t gone in to bring her back.”

There was a pause before TOM spoke again. “If that’s the case, I believe I might have been compromised.”

Bethany Anne bared her teeth, utterly infuriated by the idea that someone had played them all like marionettes. “By WHO?”

TOM’s reply was small. “I…don’t know. But that invasion is real. I’m going to isolate myself until we know I’m not a danger to you.”

Bethany Anne called his name when he dropped off without another word, but TOM didn’t reply. Her anger only increased at hearing the fear in his last words to her. “Be safe, TOM. As for the Seven, they can fucking try to invade. I’ll paint the Interdiction with Ooken blood.”

“What invasion?” Gabrielle asked with some confusion. “We won. Didn’t we?”

Bethany Anne shook her head. “No, we didn’t win yet. In fact, I’m questioning whether we’re winning at all, or if we’ve been pawns in someone else’s game this whole time.”

Michael had to agree. “We are no longer in the dark. Whoever this other player is, they don’t know we’re aware of them.”

“Which gives us the advantage back,” Bethany Anne finished.

“But the invasion?” Gabrielle repeated. “Where is it going to happen? There’s nothing left to invade here.”

Bethany Anne drew a measured breath. “They’re about to hit the Interdiction. I don’t know where, exactly, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to work out.”

“What did you ‘see’ before you were on the Meredith?” Michael asked. “Perhaps we can figure it out that way.”

Bethany Anne frowned. The rift energy was repaired, and it begged to be used. “That’s just it. I can use the rift energy to open a door, but the QBBS I saw doesn’t exist.”

Izanami interrupted the discussion, appearing by the HLP unit. “There are a number of messages going back and forth between the General and Commander Escobar.”

Michael looked at her in confusion. “Scott? He isn’t a commander. Unless he took a commission in the last few hours?”

“No,” Izanami corrected. “I am referring to Rickie Escobar, formerly of the Queen’s Guardians.”

Bethany Anne almost choked on the memory of the partially-completed QBBS from her vision. “That’s it! The station. Coordinates, Izanami. Now!”

The Interdiction

Rickie got the alert at stupid o’clock. He rolled out of bed and felt around in the dark for his pants, then slipped out of the bedroom before CEREBRO got the bright idea of switching the lights on.

He didn’t want to have to heal from an ass-kicking if he woke Nickie up without an offering of caffeine.

Rickie made his way to his den, hopping into his pants one leg at a time. The holoscreen was active when he stumbled through the door, still on the mining operation surveillance.

He stared at the screen, not believing his eyes. “CEREBRO, what’s going on out there? Who opened all those Gates?”

“The Leath are under attack,” CEREBRO replied.

Rickie groaned and rubbed his eyes. “I can see that. Who is attacking them? I don’t recognize those ships.”

“Unknown at this time,” CEREBRO answered.

“Really fucking useful, thanks.” Rickie pulled up the message function in his holo and started typing a message to station security, ordering everyone to high alert. “You can’t read their energy signatures or whatever?”

“This isn’t a sci-fi show,” CEREBRO grumped. “There’s too much interference from the Gates to discern much of anything else out there.”

Rickie sent two more messages to Barnabas and the General, informing them of what little he knew so far. “Guess we wait and see.”

Nickie walked into the den, scowling at Rickie’s failure to notice her until she saw the battle getting started on the holoscreen. She came up behind him and slipped her arms around his waist. “That any of our business?”

Rickie glanced at Nickie, his face serious. “I’m not sure yet. Do you recognize that ship design? If it’s Leath on Leath, then it’s none of our concern. But—”

“You don’t think it is,” Nickie finished for him. She dropped into Rickie’s chair and put her feet on the desk. “I sure as shit haven’t seen any Ooken ships that look like that.”

Rickie furrowed his brow. “That’s the only thing stopping me from lighting a five-alarm fire in their asses. I don’t like that the ships Gated in from our side of the Interdiction. Even if they aren’t Ooken, they’re not here to bring peace and goodwill, that’s for sure.”

Nickie narrowed her eyes at the screen. “If it’s the Ooken, we’re fucked. You’re not prepared for a full-scale attack here yet.” She looked distant a moment. “I’ve just had Meredith pass on my orders to the Company. My fighters will be here as soon as they can Gate in from wherever they are right now.”

Rickie’s eyes remained on the screen as yet more Gates opened in the far distance. “I’ve sent for backup too. Something tells me we’re going to need the big hitters.”

Nickie tapped Rickie’s chest with the back of her hand when the void opened again. Her mouth dropped open when the whatever-it-was swallowed a portion of the possible Ooken fleet, along with the Gates that had been left open in the area in a blaze of light. “What in living fuck is that?”


23

QSD Baba Yaga, Primary Bridge

Bethany Anne strained to stabilize the door for the Baba Yaga to make it through.

Michael and Gabrielle were under similar states of duress as they held onto Bethany Anne with their minds.

Sweat ran down Bethany Anne’s back, a sensation she hadn’t been subject to for so long it was alien to her. Every muscle in her body tightened as though she were physically pulling open a door between Qu’Baka and the Interdiction.

Now that she was aware of the trap in the rift energy, it had no power to hold her. Bethany Anne had control, and the energy leapt to do her bidding.

Bright light flooded the external sensors as the door manifested by the bow of the Baba Yaga.

“The door is stable,” Bethany Anne ground out. “Izanami, take us through.”

The viewscreen whited out as the ship crossed the threshold into the battle zone.

When the feed returned, it was on a Leath staging post ringed by Leath ships.

“Where are the Ooken?” Bethany Anne demanded.

“The door disintegrated a number of ships, according to CEREBRO,” Izanami replied.

Michael eyed the asteroid in the center of the battle. “That looks strong enough to hold. The design served us well enough.”

Izanami wrinkled her nose. “I am not picking up anything that indicates the Leath also employed Empire technology to defend their base. This is a poor copy of the Meredith Reynolds.”

Leath ships clashed with the Ooken on the viewscreen, looking unevenly matched from the outset to Bethany Anne’s eye. “This can’t be allowed to drag on, not if the Leath here are going to survive.”

Gabrielle waved as she and Mahi’ dashed to the lower exit. “I’ll see you out there.”

Bethany Anne took her station next to Michael and connected to the Baba Yaga’s weapons systems. “I’d be jealous if not for the goodies Jean installed in our home.”

Michael was already immersed in his HUD, engaging the secondary weapons systems to keep their flanks clear of Ooken drones. “We have a hard task ahead of us, regardless.”

“The hard part is not dying. We avoided that already.” Bethany Anne put thoughts of TOM’s possible predicament to one side and focused on the battle. “I have the lash, you keep on with the guns. Izanami, you make sure nothing gets past the shielding while we’re on offense.”

“What about the Gate missiles?” Michael inquired, seeing the option offered on his menu.

Bethany Anne shook her head. “Too much risk of friendly fire. Save them for an emergency. Stick to smashing their shit up for now.”

“The Shinigami ships have joined the battle,” Izanami informed them. “We are now within weapons range.”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow as she engaged the Etheric lash. “Then what are we waiting for? Bring us about.”

The Baba Yaga swooped in on a group of Ooken ships in formation that was bearing down on the Leath staging post to support those currently engaged by Gabrielle and the guys.

Bethany Anne targeted the center ship and released the mixed plasma and Etheric charge. The lash erupted in a blaze of light as it whipped across the void.

The discharge disintegrated the Ooken destroyer and damaged the other ships in the formation. Bethany Anne released the second charge, wiping the group out completely.

“Nice work,” Michael murmured. “Watch this.” Six projectiles left the Baba Yaga on his command and six ships were blown to confetti, leaving the Leath ship they’d been attacking untouched.

“It’s a start,” Bethany Anne told him with a small smile. “Wiping them out in groups is the best way to go with numbers like these. We won’t make a real difference until I can access the Leath ships’ cameras.”

Izanami glided around the consoles as Bethany Anne and Michael worked to reduce the Ooken fleet, muttering quietly as she coordinated the AIs and EIs aboard Bethany Anne’s ships into an organized fighting force. “ADAM would be useful right about now,” she remarked to Bethany Anne.

“ADAM is rather busy being in two places at once,” Bethany Anne countered. “You’ve got this, and I’ve got my part.”

Gates winked in and out of existence as more ships arrived on both sides of the battle.

“Who do we have here?” Bethany Anne asked while she lined up a defensive strike to protect the staging post from another attack. “More Ooken?”

“Yes,” Izanami confirmed. “Along with the Shinigami fleet and the Bakas who have taken Pods to fight. Your Guardians who were stationed here are out there fighting, plus a number of ships registered to the Silver Line Company. Wait, there are more incoming.”

Another Gate opened on the Federation side of the battle line.

Bethany Anne’s eyes widened when she saw the Federation logo on the bow of the first ship to emerge. “Oh, fucksticks!”

Michael was on top of it. He opened channels across all known Federation frequencies. “Federation ship, state your intentions.”

“Michael,” Lance’s voice boomed over the comm. “Fancy bumping into you here.”

“Dad?” Bethany Anne’s confusion was complete. “You can’t be here!”

Lance’s laughter crackled over the speaker. “That’s where you’re wrong. Harkkat decided to come clean, so I’m here with full backing to pull him and his people out.”

“You could give us a hand with taking out the garbage first,” Michael supplied, his voice filled with humor.

There was a huge explosion off the bow of Lance’s ship, followed by another.

“Teach your grandmother to suck eggs, why don’t you?” Lance shot back. “We’ll get the civilians out of here so you can focus on the fight.”

The humor took the edge off for Bethany Anne. She smiled as she activated the Etheric lash for a second time. “Thanks, Dad. Just don’t get bitten in the ass, okay?”

Bethany Anne got back to focusing on the battle. The ship she’d had in her sights before Lance entered the field had managed to slip through the net. “Shit! Izanami, take the weapons.” She disengaged from the HUD and got to her feet. “The Ooken have breached the asteroid.”

Izanami left the console she was at to glide over to Bethany Anne’s side. “The Leath have no chance against the Ooken.”

Bethany Anne pressed her lips together. “I know. That’s why I’m going over there now.”

Michael handed his controls to Izanami and left his seat in a hurry. “You’re not going alone.”

Bethany Anne looked over her shoulder as she headed for the elevator. “You’re not going without armor.”

Izanami shook her head fondly as Michael threw Bethany Anne’s decree back at her. “I had a feeling this might happen. I had armor brought up from storage. It’s waiting in your fighter Pod.”

Leath Staging Post

Harkkat left the command center, wishing for the millionth time since he’d arrived in-system that he’d stayed on Red Rock, where he would have been safe. He walked without direction, looking for a place to hunker down until the battle was over.

He had sent a plea for assistance to the council, although whether they would act after learning he had gone behind their backs with this operation, he couldn’t guess.

Harkkat indulged his bad temper, finding it preferable to the fear squirming in the pit of his stomach. The representative’s soldiers rushed around, paying no attention to the Secretary.

It was the worst possible situation he could have found himself in.

The staging post had none of the charm of the Federation stations he was used to. This place was little more than a series of hollowed-out caves dug into the asteroid, and now, to top it all off, they were under attack.

Harkkat hated it all. He hated the position the representatives had forced him into, and he hated the duty—and his family matriarch—that had brought him here. Most of all, he hated that he’d had no choice but to beg for the General to step in.

An alarm blared, indicating another breach.

The realization of how stupid he’d been to play detective instead of employing professionals hit home when he saw the camera feeds from around the breach. He flicked through the battle reports in his holo, seeing defeat at every turn. This was the same insatiable enemy who had murdered Glureg, he was certain.

Harkkat’s mind refused to process those tentacles. The image slid off, and he was just fine with that. He decided he would be better off back in the command center.

The enemy would be on them soon, and Harkkat hadn’t seen much in the way of interior defenses while he’d been here. In fact, this whole operation was lacking, save for the battlecruisers the enemy had taken out with their first salvo.

He fought against the tide of soldiers heading for the breach, emerging somewhat bruised from the crush.

“Have you no respect?” he called after the soldiers, shaking his fist.

He might as well have spoken Torcellan for all the effect it had.

Harkkat cursed the ignorant soldiers under his breath as he continued on his way. There was still a fair walk ahead; he’d come farther from the center of the asteroid than he’d thought.

The command center was just as hectic as the corridors.

Harkkat slipped in and found an empty seat at one of the workstations in the communications area. He rested his head on his arms and closed his eyes, trying to block out the chaos so he could think his way out of the predicament he’d gotten himself into.

He was thrown off his train of thought by a rough poke to the back of his head.

“What makes you so special that you get to nap while we’re fighting for our lives?” the Leath responsible demanded hotly. “Pick up your overly-pampered ass and get to work!”

Harkkat lifted his head to glare at the officer. “Do you know who I am, General?”

The general picked up the headset from in front of Harkkat and thrust it at him. “I don’t care if you’re King Shit here on a royal visit. We’re under attack, so get to coordinating.”

Harkkat accepted the headset miserably.

The battle continued outside the asteroid. There were too many ships for Harkkat to keep track of. The messages came in thick and fast from the Leath ships Gating in on the representatives’ orders.

More, an unidentified colossus appeared to be fighting in their corner.

Harkkat was mystified as to the ship’s identity. It was like nothing he’d seen, Federation or Empire before it.

He had little time to think about it.

“We’ve been breached again!” came the cry from somewhere across the room. “We have unknown combatants in the ore processing chamber.”

Harkkat surreptitiously accessed the camera feeds to catch a glimpse of the next misfortune to befall them.

There were just two of them. Human, one male, one female.

The shock turned Harkkat’s blood cold. No wonder General Reynolds had been so insistent they avoid this part of space! He found himself on his feet without realizing he was standing. “It cannot be,” he murmured, still not believing his eyes. “She wouldn’t dare.”

The General who had struck Harkkat earlier sneered at him. “Why are you not at your station?”

Harkkat cast the camera feed to the gigantic screen at the back of the room and lifted a hand to point at the black-haired, red-eyed human tearing the monstrous invaders asunder without lifting any more than a finger.

His next words were heard by every Leath in the command center. “Because this fight is over. The Empress has arrived.”

Enter Into Valhalla

Empress, Queen, or Bitch-Who’d-Had-Enough, Bethany Anne strode out of the Etheric into a hot, dark chamber filled with Ooken, casting a wave of concussive energy ahead of her.

The closest Ooken were knocked back by the impact.

Bethany Anne cremated them with a blast of superheated air and they crumbled in her wake. She threw up a spark to light the energy pouring from her. The ground beneath her heels melted while she burned every Ooken in her immediate vicinity to ashes.

Just like Addix had ended up.

Michael was next to emerge. He took note of Bethany Anne’s position and headed her way at a run.

He glanced up as he neared the door where Bethany Anne waited and thrust a finger of lightning at the ceiling.

The Ooken that had been lining up to drop on Bethany Anne fell, stunned by the electricity flowing through its bodies.

Bethany Anne incinerated the Ooken before it hit the floor. “Good catch,” she told Michael with a smile. “I didn’t see it up there.”

“They’re everywhere,” Michael remarked with some distaste. “It could take us all day to clear this asteroid.”

Bethany Anne shrugged as the Ooken around her dropped mindless to the floor. “We don’t need to clear the asteroid, just our path to the control center. Our Pods aren’t going anywhere. Just make sure there aren’t any Ooken left alive to be reprogrammed. I’ll take care of the rest.”

They left the ore processing area behind and entered the outer corridors of the asteroid.

The Leath within reacted to the sight of their former Empress as expected, which was to say that most of them ran.

Those who remained either had no clue who she was or they didn’t care. They were too caught up in making sure they had a next breath to waste it complaining about treaties when their lives hung in the balance.

Bethany Anne ignored the Leath, having more important things than petty fears to deal with.

Michel was somewhat less gracious in the face of their ingratitude. Are you sure we can’t just blow the asteroid and be done?

Unfortunately, no, Bethany Anne replied. I want them alive to spread the word. Everyone in the Federation needs to know exactly who stepped in to save their asses.

Fair enough, Michael agreed. Perhaps we could speed this along?

Bethany Anne pursed her lips. Hmmm. You’re right.

Aren’t I always? Michael grinned.

In your dreams, maybe, Bethany Anne teased in return. The levity of the moment passed. I need to see who is aboard this station. Or I need ADAM.

Is ADAM available?

No. He can’t extract himself from the Collective at this time.

Then we need the command center for the asteroid, Michael reasoned. Do you think they copied the interior layout when they decided to use our construction methods?

Bethany Anne shrugged. It would be a hell of a lot easier if they did.

Their progress into the inner asteroid was hampered by a pile of Ooken corpses blocking the route at a junction of the main corridor.

Bethany Anne waved a hand to remove the obstacle, only to be met by a bunch of rifle barrels for her effort.

A scarred Leath was the first to drop his weapon and step forward with a smile. “Am I glad to see you, Your Highnesses.”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow. “You’re the only one who is. We need to get to the command center so I can work.”

The Leath nodded. “Take a left, then another left, then a right. Huge doors, you can’t miss them.”

Bethany Anne made a note of the Leath’s nametag as they passed him. “Thank you, Sergeant Kirren.”

“My pleasure, Your Highness,” the sergeant replied cheerfully. “I didn’t agree with you being forced out in the first place.”

It was news to Bethany Anne that any Leath had regretted her exile. The thought stuck with her while she and Michael followed the directions. Maybe the reception wouldn’t be as frosty as she expected. “Not that it matters,” she murmured.

Michael’s focus was on the huge double doors. “What doesn’t matter?”

Bethany Anne pursed her lips, calling on her resolve to get the job done and get the fuck out of there. “Reminding myself I’m not here to stay.” She waved a hand and the doors blew open, startling the Leath inside.

There was a moment of uproar that died immediately when Bethany Anne stalked in, eyes blazing.

Michael remained in the doorway, making the Leath who thought of running change their minds rapidly.

Bethany Anne scanned the rows of workstations. “You are in my world now, a world you are not equipped to leave alive without my assistance. I have little patience for a lengthy discussion. Who is in command here?”

All eyes in the room landed on two Leath at the far left of the room.

Bethany Anne looked at the Leath in the military uniform and the one in the robes. “Well?”

The military Leath pointed at the robed one. “Secretary Harkkat is senior.”

“The rest of you can go. There are Federation ships here to evacuate you back to Leath.” Bethany Anne narrowed her eyes at the robed Leath. “I recognize that name. You’re the one who instigated all this.”

Harkkat stared at the military Leath in shock, then flung the headset he’d been wearing at him. “Oh, now it suits you. A fine general you are.” He turned back to Bethany Anne, excuses falling from his lips.

Bethany Anne strode over and picked the Secretary up by the back of his robes. “There’s no time for this. I want Communications. Which area?”

Harkkat pointed wordlessly at his station.

Bethany Anne took a small cylindrical device out of a compartment in her armor and placed it on the holopad in the console. “Izanami.”

There were a few involuntary screams from the Leath still in the room when Baba Yaga appeared on every screen.

Bethany Anne smiled. “You know what to do.”

Izanami inclined her head. “I do, and now I have everything you need to locate every Ooken on every ship in the Leath fleet.”

Bethany Anne snatched the device that linked Izanami from the holopad. “Then we’re good.”

Michael placed a hand on Bethany Anne’s elbow as she strode past and took them both into the Etheric, then out onto Bethany Anne’s Pod.

Bethany Anne dropped into her chair with a grin. “Did you see their faces?”

Michael chuckled as he took the co-pilot’s chair. “Priceless, and over much too quickly.” He checked Bethany Anne for the signs of fatigue even flawlessness couldn’t hide. The fire was there in her eyes, which was good enough for him. “Are you ready to take on the hive mind?”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow. “Weren’t you all Team Queen Bitch a couple hours ago?”

“I have never not been Team Queen Bitch,” Michael refuted.

Bethany Anne rolled her shoulders to loosen them, laughing at Michael’s feigned offense. “The Seven obviously haven’t figured out that I can take out their super-soldiers with a thought. I don’t intend to leave a single Ooken alive to inform them differently.”

Michael sat back and laced his hands behind his head. “I have total faith that you can scrub every Ooken in the system simultaneously. What’s a star system when you took hold of a planet without breaking a sweat?”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow. “That’s not the point. This might be the fight of their lives for most of our people, but it’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel for me. I’d hoped to keep it that way for a little longer.”

Michael lifted his hands. “It is a shame to lose that edge, but there’s no saying that the Seven have an instant fix, even if they do work it out.”

Bethany Anne closed her eyes and reached for the Etheric. “Let’s get this done.”

It was almost too easy to slip into the hive mind unnoticed by following the same mental pathways she’d seen in the Ooken on Moen.

She hated it when Michael was right.

I heard that.

Hear this. Bethany Anne sent him the mental equivalent of the finger and snaked her tendrils through the hive mind. Having every location paid off since she had to take care of that in ADAM’s place this time around.

Some assistance would be fan-fucking-tastic, she threw out to ADAM and TOM.

Bethany Anne understood why she got silence, but she had to stay focused on remaining undetected until the moment she was inside every cell of the hive mind, every nanocyte, every Ooken.

Bethany Anne had no clue what ADAM had done to the nanocytes the last two times they’d purged a large group. She could see them working, just not how to wipe them clean of the programming that drove the Ooken to destroy.

Given the scarcity of time, her instincts would have to be her guide.

“You have great instincts,” Bethany Anne told herself. “You’re absolutely not going to blow your own consciousness to kingdom come.”


24

Michael leapt up when Bethany Anne spoke and red light poured from her eyes and mouth. “No! Why do you always act without thinking?” he roared as visions of Bethany Anne trapped inside the hive mind tormented him. “Wake up, damn you!”

Bethany Anne opened one eye and fixed Michael with a wry smile. “Guess now you know how I feel when you go off hunting carnivores ten times your size.”

Michael gasped in relief. “You’re snarky.”

Bethany Anne leaned over to her Pod controls and set a course back to the Baba Yaga. “Your point?”

Michael sat down again, his smile returning as their home grew larger on the viewscreen. “I’ve never been so glad to be offended. You realize the last thing I heard before your little light show was a prayer that you made it through with your mind intact?”

Bethany Anne snickered. “My bad. I’m fine, and the Ooken are all dead. I pulled enough Etheric energy through them to power the Federation for a day. Turns out nanocytes don’t take kindly to being overloaded.”

Michael indicated the viewscreen, where the defensive line stood fast despite the apparent stand-down of the enemy. “There’s a ton of salvage out there. What do we do with all that?”

Bethany Anne lifted a shoulder, her interest in the aftermath zeroing in the face of the loss she’d suffered. “We’re done here. Send in our cleanup crews, but keep the Leath out. I want to hold my children in my arms while I tell them their aunt is dead. Then I have a funeral to arrange.”

Devon, The Hexagon, Vid-doc Vault

Bethany Anne tapped her foot. “It should not be this difficult for me to get to my children. What’s the reason for the extra security?”

Tabitha removed the framed artwork opposite the archway and typed something into the control panel hidden behind it. “There were some complications after you left.”

She replaced the painting and went ahead of Bethany Anne and Michael into the Vid-doc chamber. “Nothing to do with the twins, it turns out. I just slept better knowing they were completely untouchable.”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow. “You’re going to have to help me out here. What kind of complications, exactly? And why is this the first we’re hearing about it?”

Michael gave Tabitha a hard look. “Yes. Explain.”

“We have some kind of space critter causing fuckery on the upper levels,” Tabitha clarified. “I had Eve modify the inner defenses after one of CEREBRO was damaged so that the Gate is no longer programmed to differentiate between objects.

“Meaning?” Michael asked.

“Meaning it’s the black hole for anything larger than a single atom that crosses under the arch unless Eve or I have disarmed the system.”

Bethany Anne made a note to avoid spending too much time on the upper levels until the issue was resolved. “You don’t know what kind of critters they are?”

Tabitha shook her head. “No, but seriously, anything I’ve done is overkill to make myself feel better. The vault is basically its own sandbox. It’s completely isolated. Nothing is getting in or out.”

Bethany Anne climbed into the Vid-doc and stretched her legs out on the mat. “I’m not complaining.”

Tabitha snickered. “You kinda are. Lie back already so I can start the program. Michael, you’re next, so get ready.”

Bethany Anne blew a raspberry at Tabitha as the Vid-doc lid closed.

Her vision faded to black, then she was standing with Michael on a hill overlooking a sprawling military base.

“Mom!”

“Dad!”

Bethany Anne spotted Alexis and Gabriel running up the hill toward them. “They’ve grown so much,” she commented to Michael.

“I just wish we had better news for them,” he replied quietly.

The twins slowed, seeing the serious expressions on their parents’ faces.

Michael guessed that they’d aged over two years by this point in the program. “It’s good to see your faces.”

“What’s wrong?” Alexis asked.

Bethany Anne gestured to the grassy area she’d had Tabitha put in for them. “Sit down. We need to talk.”

“What’s going on?” Gabriel asked once they were seated in a loose circle. “You look like someone died or something.”

Bethany Anne gathered their hands in hers, her own wound still fresh and raw. “Someone did die. That’s why we’re here. It was your Aunt Addix.”

Michael explained the events on Qu’Baka in an even tone, painting Addix as true to fact as he could. “She acted unselfishly,” he finished.

Alexis frowned as she pulled her hand back. “No, she can’t die! She’s enhanced!”

Bethany Anne didn’t know what to say. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand as the answer came to her. “I can’t tell you how to feel. But try to remember her with happiness, even if it hurts.”

Michael added his own comforting words. “Addix never agreed to full enhancement. She lived her life for the protection of others, knowing every day could be her last. It was her choice to give her life to save Mahi’, and all we can do is thank her for that sacrifice.”

Gabriel’s lips drew back as a sob tore free. “How does that make up for the fact that we’ll never see her again? What was she thinking?”

Alexis moved over to tuck herself under Bethany Anne’s arm. “Trey gets to see his mom again. That’s what she was thinking.”

Bethany Anne held Alexis tightly. “We’re holding a funeral for Addix in two days real-world time. I’ve had Eve adjust the program so the four of you can attend in person.”

Michael smiled. “If you want to.”

Alexis and Gabriel exchanged glances.

“We’ll be there,” Gabriel promised.

Alexis nodded resolutely. “We want to honor Aunt Addix’s memory.”

Bethany Anne and Michael exited the Vid-docs an hour of real-time later, having spent the rest of the day with the twins. “They took it better than I thought they would.”

Michael gave Bethany Anne a skeptical look. “Wait until the funeral. They haven’t experienced true death before, except the time Addix killed those kidnappers.”

“I can’t imagine they even remember that,” Bethany Anne countered. “They were too young to understand what was happening. Do you remember how they thought it was a game?”

“Not this time,” Michael predicted with a heavy heart. “They’re going to have a long time to think about her passing and what that means for them.”

Devon, The Hexagon, Penthouse Apartment (two days later)

There were more people on the rooftop terrace than Bethany Anne had expected would show for the friend she’d always thought was reclusive.

Most she recognized, but others were strangers. All species, all ages. No apparent connection at all for a few shady-looking characters, although Michael had allowed them entry, so their intentions were good—for the moment.

The one thing they all had in common was their love for Addix.

Bethany Anne stood by the shining casket she’d had made in place of the ashes they’d been unable to bring home with them, listening to each mourner’s tale of the ways Addix had touched their lives.

She found the thought of Addix being borne endlessly on the solar winds somewhat comforting. Nevertheless, there was something vital to the process of going through these motions, of observing the ritual. Something healing in gathering up the sum of a life’s defining moments and dusting them off to be aired.

Alexis and Gabriel listened at Bethany Anne’s shoulder, both dressed from head to toe in white, as Ixtali culture dictated.

The current Ixtali legate approached the casket and touched her hands and head to it briefly before turning to address Bethany Anne. “Your Highness. I bring the condolences of all Ixtal. Addix’s passing is a loss to us all.”

Bethany Anne inclined her head. “Thank you for being here.”

The legate nodded and moved along, replaced by the next mourner.

The time passed in a blur for Bethany Anne. She spoke to people whose names left her as soon as the next face appeared. Alexis and Gabriel remained at her sides, two shadows insisting they were there to support her, not the other way around.

When had her babies become adults?

Overnight, apparently.

Michael tapped the microphone on the lectern behind her, signaling that it was time for the service to begin.

The rows of chairs put out for the service filled quickly.

Michael waited for the stragglers to catch up before speaking. “My wife reminded me of an appropriate saying from our home planet recently. ‘The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the vein.’ Addix was more than a friend to me. She was our family, and she leaves a hole behind that no one else can fill.”

Bethany Anne should have been alert to the thoughts of the people around her. However, her mind was on Addix and the reason they were having a funeral for her as the eulogies continued.

Her turn to speak came. Although she’d heard every word of her children’s reminiscences, she couldn’t recall what she’d planned to say.

Michael nudged Bethany Anne gently. “You don’t have to do this.”

Bethany Anne drew herself up in her seat. “No, you’re wrong. I do have to do this. What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t speak for her?”

She got to her feet, the autopilot she’d been on since getting back to Devon disappearing as she mounted the three stairs to the lectern.

The mourners’ respectful silence stretched out while they waited for her to speak.

Bethany Anne looked out from eyes as black as her hair, eyes that lacked the luster of her suit. “I have been here too many times before. Too many times, my loved ones have been taken from me. Each time, my appetite for vengeance refuses to be sated until I get Justice for what was stolen.”

She rested her hands on the cool, smooth grain of the lectern. “Not this time. This time I am here simply to honor someone I was proud to call my friend. Addix was all about sacrifice. When we first met, she came to me knowing her people had sent her to her death. I spared her because I saw the good in her heart. I trusted her with my children, knowing she would die before she allowed anything to happen to them. How many of you are here today because Addix was there for you?”

Bethany Anne blinked to clear her vision as the murmurs rose. She saw Trey bury his head in his mother’s neck. She pressed the button on the side of the lectern, and the casket lifted off from its plinth and angled toward the sky. “That was Addix. Always putting others first, and she was true to herself until the moment she died. She was faced with a choice to save her own life or ensure a mother was returned to her son, a queen to her people. Addix chose unselfishly. There is no vengeance to be had here, just a lesson in true loyalty.”

The mourners said their final goodbyes as the casket rose, slowly at first, before gaining enough speed to break the atmosphere.

Bethany Anne let the tears flow as the empty casket was propelled out of the atmosphere, past the BYPS, and straight for Devon’s star. “Farewell, my friend. May your journey continue, if only in our hearts.”

Secret Location

Gödel sat alone, deep in meditation.

To say she was angry would infer emotion, and Gödel was far from suffering that affliction. Unlike that filthy abomination Death harbored, she had control of her reactions.

Her withdrawal was tactical. Clinical, even. She was here to contemplate the causes of her failure. She was no closer to understanding humans. Her attempt to trap Death had failed, despite her certainty that playing on human emotions would work.

Gödel’s assessing mind turned to the rift trap.

The premise of capturing Death in an emotional feedback loop was sound. Her knowledge of human over-attachment to minions had been the perfect starting point to creating a mental prison that should have held her primitive human mind captive in perpetuity.

It had been a costly experiment, but there had been no reason to believe that it would be anything less than successful. Gödel had no way of predicting that contrary to her research, Death would be freed from the loop by her attachment to the living.

The rift had cost the lives of six adepts to create, and Death had once again turned the weapons used against her to snatch back victory from the jaws of defeat.

Was there no limit to the obstacles she faced in her quest to bring the glory of Ascension to all?

Still, not all was lost.

Gödel knew there was more than one way to skin an alict. Soldiers could be replaced, as could the ships to carry them.

Plans could be remade.


25

Devon, The Interdiction, QSD Baba Yaga Vault

Bethany Anne placed the tray with two Cokes and a plate of triple choc-chunk brownies on the table and took a seat next to Michael. “I don’t really feel much like eating. I hope this works.”

Michael smiled gently and squeezed Bethany Anne’s hand. “It will. How long will ADAM be?”

Bethany Anne sent a nudge to hurry him up. “Any second now.”

ADAM arrived in the mindspace and found it empty apart from Bethany Anne and Michael >>This feels ominous. What’s so urgent?<<

Bethany Anne sent him everything from the Qu’Baka mission. This.

Michael pointed at the chest holding the Kurtherian crystals, knowing ADAM saw the gesture through Bethany Anne’s eyes. And that.

ADAM skimmed the reports and the enormous video file that accompanied them. >>The Bakas are staying with us? Where are you going to house over half a million people?<<

Bethany Anne waved his concerns away. That’s a logistics problem. The reason I pulled you away from the Collective project is that TOM hasn’t spoken to anyone since Qu’Baka.

>>TOM is refusing to speak?<< ADAM abandoned the video and searched for TOM. Then he found the gaps in the data from Bethany Anne’s internal sensor suite. >>What the hell have I missed?<<

Plenty, Bethany Anne answered. The rift was a trap, and TOM is blaming himself for us getting caught in it. He’s cut himself off from me. I’m hoping you can convince him to come out of his hiding place.

ADAM withdrew to the private space he shared with TOM. >>Hey. You here?<<

Yes. TOM’s curt reply was hesitant when it came. I shouldn’t be talking to you either. There’s something wrong with me.

>>Do you know how much BA is freaking out?<< ADAM was kind of freaking out himself. This wasn’t like TOM. In all the time they’d known each other, he had never known his friend to withdraw from a challenge. >>Tell me what’s going on with you.<<

There was a long moment before TOM replied. You saw the video, right? You didn’t see what we saw inside the rift. You didn’t live through Bethany Anne experiencing the deaths of every being she considers hers. I should have gotten us out of there. I failed her.

ADAM heard the hurt behind TOM's recrimination. >>Which makes it my fault as much as yours. How did you miss the mind trap? The video showed it from the outside, but Bethany Anne’s senses cut out the second she stepped in.<<

TOM sighed. That was me, in defense. My mistake. It triggered a reaction in the rift energy, heightened by Bethany Anne’s emotional response to the change. She was not prepared for visions; neither of us was. I can see the moment the trap sprung—now.

ADAM seized the opportunity. >>We need that hindsight. What’s done is done, and Bethany Anne needs all of us working together to figure it out so it doesn’t happen again. We can’t do it without you.<<

I can’t risk anyone getting to Bethany Anne through me, TOM countered.

ADAM relayed the conversation to Bethany Anne and Michael.

>>I have an idea.<< ADAM blocked TOM’s neural signal off before the point it interacted with the chip at the base of Bethany Anne’s skull and searched for a place to send it. >>I need a holo, any kind will do.<<

Michael went over to rummage in a drawer, then placed the wrist-holo he found on the table. “This should do.”

TOM's fretful voice came from the wrist-holo a moment later. “I don’t know how I didn’t see the trap. I failed.”

“I didn’t see it either,” Bethany Anne reminded him. “It’s what we do to act on it that counts.”

“Our enemies are counting on us to fall apart,” Michael stated firmly. “You cannot blame yourself for being taken in by their wiles.”

Bethany Anne folded her arms. “Yeah, wiles is about right. We were bound to come across a Kurtherian smart enough to pull a stunt like this eventually.”

ADAM snickered. >>You probably killed off all the stupid ones already. All in all, they should be grateful to you for removing the detritus from their gene pool.<<

Bethany Anne’s focus was on TOM’s initial concern of being used. “Who isn’t the concern? They’ll show themselves soon enough. We need to figure out what they did, and if they left anything behind when we escaped.”

Michael rested his chin on steepled hands. “We can start by examining the visions you had while you were inside the rift. What do you both remember leading up to the first one?”

Bethany Anne closed her eyes and called up the memory of the rift rushing to run through her. “The mists were…distressed is the only way I can describe it. My hearing went within seconds. The energy hit me from all directions.”

“Your physical body reacted,” Michael cut in.

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? I’d better not see video of me doing the salmon dance doing the rounds.”

Michael smirked. “Never occurred to us. You were saying?”

“The energy,” Bethany Anne continued. “It felt like I was going to burst from the pressure. Or burn. I had no intention of using the energy I repaired. It just molded and remolded itself to give me windows onto different locations.”

>>I can pull stills from your memory,<< ADAM offered. >>All you need to do is focus on each image. Same for you, TOM. Just concentrate.<<

Bethany Anne nodded and thought back to what she’d seen. “I don’t think the first few places I saw were anything except the energy reading my homesickness.” She let the memory of Devon pass again. “There was one that made no sense whatsoever, then I saw the Ooken fleet coming up on the Leath.”

The wrist-holo flashed as TOM spoke up animatedly. “I didn’t see anything between Devon and the Interdiction.”

Michael lifted a finger. “So we have a discrepancy. Bethany Anne, can you describe what you saw?”

Bethany Anne worked to bring the contextless image she’d seen into mental focus. “There were eyes, red. Lots of pairs. It was dark. I heard TOM speak in my mind, and Michael. There was…snow? Maybe I’m getting them mixed up.”

>>I have the image.<< ADAM put the still up on the wallscreen. >>I guess we found out when they snared you both.<<

Michael examined the seven pairs of eyes on the screen. “Is it possible that these Kurtherians blocked you, TOM?”

“It’s possible,” TOM agreed. “But it would have taken preparation beforehand to pull off without me detecting them the moment they made a move. How did they know I was there?”

Bethany Anne’s gaze stopped on the chest. “I wonder.” Her nails began their tap-tap on the table while her mind turned the pieces over. The whole situation began to reek of manipulation when she looked at the puzzle from a different angle. “What if we’ve been going about this ass-backward? I want to know what’s on those crystals before anything else.”

“You are not the only one,” Michael agreed. “Do we have a way to read them?”

Bethany Anne shook her head as she got to her feet to open the cabinet. “That’s what we’re about to determine.” She eased one of the trays off its runners and brought it over to the table. “Because every instinct I have is telling me that the game has changed and we need to act accordingly.”

Michael considered Bethany Anne’s certainty while she carefully removed the glass lid off and placed it by the open tray. “In what way?”

Bethany Anne picked one of the crystals up and held it to the light. “This recent push by the Seven. We’ve been reacting to what we assumed was seven separate groups. What if they aren’t separate anymore?”

TOM spluttered from the holo. “You can’t seriously be suggesting the Seven have amalgamated!”

>>That’s pretty out there, BA,<< ADAM concurred. >>There’s nothing in the heuristics for any of the clans that supports willing cooperation with others.<<

Bethany Anne replaced the crystal with a smile. “I said nothing about them being willing.”

Michael looked up from the tray as Bethany Anne’s meaning struck home. “You believe there has been an ascendant.”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow. “I think there’s one bully bigger than the rest, yes. What was that name?”

Michael stared blankly at Bethany Anne. “Name?”

Bethany Anne frowned. “I can’t remember, some Earth name the Kurtherian on Qu’Baka mentioned.” She waved it off. “We can check the footage later. My point is that the evidence is pointing toward a shift in the power balance of the Seven.”

“That could explain why the sudden focus on the Interdiction,” TOM supplied. “The attacks are nothing but attempts to get through your defenses. We know they’re trying to step up the effort to conquer the Federation. We both saw that was the intention while we were in the rift.”

Bethany Anne kept a rein on her temper. “They can intend all the fuck they like. Just like I told that corpse-riding necro fucker on Qu’Baka, I’ll wipe every trace of them from this universe before they get one foot inside the Federation.”

Michael pondered Bethany Anne’s theory and found it held water. “You believe that the hijacker you saw is responsible for the shift?”

Bethany Anne nodded, recalling the body-snatcher’s emotionless scrutiny. “I’m almost certain. But it’s all speculation until we unlock the evidence in the crystals.”

>>Let me get a look at one of those,<< ADAM requested. >>Hold it up to the light again.<<

Bethany Anne shrugged. “Sure. What are you thinking?”

ADAM zoomed in and started chuckling. >>I think I can read these with some assistance from Izanami and TOM. No special equipment needed. We have to be on the primary bridge.<<

Bethany Anne got to her feet, snagging the wrist-holo with TOM and a brownie on her way to the hallway. “Let’s get there already.”

Enter Into Valhalla

Izanami wasn’t too happy about vacating the HLP. “What am I supposed to do, inhabit the viewscreens like a ghost?”

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow, her hands dropping to her hips. “You’re supposed to take your lumps like the rest of us. Maybe you’ll be less inclined to be careless with your mobile drive after a few weeks of this restriction.”

Izanami rolled her eyes. “Fine.” She glided over to the hard light projector and floated over the lip of the collection pool. “This won’t take long.”

She dissolved into golden light, which dropped heavily to pool in the collection tray. The light lapped the edge of the tray with the consistency of honey for a few moments before dissipating suddenly.

Izanami reappeared on the viewscreen at the same time the collection tray began moving up to meet the light spindles. “I have input the program you sent, ADAM.”

>>Thank you, Izanami. We’re going to start slowly,<< ADAM instructed once the collection tray came to a stop at waist height, leaving a three-foot space for the spindles to work in. >>Bethany Anne, put the chip in the center of the collection tray.<<

Bethany Anne placed the chip on the tray as ADAM directed. “What now?”

“Now we begin the transformation,” Izanami told them as the spindles moved into place. “This is a two-step process. First, we extract the nanocytes from the crystal. Then we extract the data from the nanocytes.”

Bethany Anne stepped out of reach when the spindles came to life. She watched with interest while the umbrella-like appendages angled their thin nozzles over the collection tray.

Liquid light poured from the eight nozzles and dissolved the wafer-thin crystal, exposing the nanocytes trapped within. The nanocytes were cocooned in the pool of light for a moment, then they too were gone.

“What just happened?” Michael asked as the spindles came to a stop.

>>The extraction is complete,<< ADAM informed them. >>We can take a look at what we have just as soon as I’ve isolated the reader I’m using from the rest of the ship’s systems.<<

Bethany Anne waved her finger in a circle. “How long?”

The HLP whirred again, and the ceiling projectors filled the bridge all around them with layers of holowindows.

>>Now,<< ADAM replied. >>This is…<<

“It’s incredible.” Bethany Anne didn’t hear him. She lifted a hand to interact with the nearest window, scanning the stored information with growing hope. “This is all written in Yollin.”

Bethany Anne swiped the window away and pulled the next to her with a crook of her finger. “This looks like an Ixtali trade agreement.”

“Over here,” Michael called. “I’ve found something.”

“There’s a hell of a lot to be found.” Bethany Anne turned from the map she was examining to see that Michael had enlarged a ledger page. “What have you got?”

Michael pressed his lips together. “It’s a record documenting the species this Kurtherian has taken for their genetic traits. We might have stumbled on the recipe for Ooken.”

Bethany Anne left the map and walked over to inspect the document. “There, Bakas. Another check mark in the ‘We’ve got an evil megalomaniac on the loose’ box. This is like every creepy stalker basement I ever saw as an agent times infinity.”

Michael pointed out a line where the number of taken was in the millions. “Whoever the Bl’kheth were, I feel for them. I don’t see how this is anything except genocide.”

Enter Into Valhalla

Bl’kheth

Bethany Anne’s mouth tightened as she turned in a slow circle to read the evidence. “All this evil, and this is just the first chip. We haven’t even scratched the surface.”

TOM’s voice came from somewhere around her waist. “Bethany Anne?”

She glanced at the wrist-holo she’d forgotten she was wearing. “Sorry, TOM. What’s up?”

“You need to see this,” he told her in a tight voice.

A window moved forward, the map Bethany Anne had been about to inspect before Michael distracted her. “Yeah, what is this? I don’t recognize the language.”

“It’s Kurtherian,” TOM whispered. “It’s a galaxy map, as in, a map of all known galaxies. I never thought I’d see one again, but there it is.”

Bethany Anne lifted her hand to touch the map. “ADAM.”

>>Already sent a copy to the Admiral,<< he replied. >>I also left one in the dead drop for Lance.<<

Bethany Anne smiled at his thoughtfulness. “Thank you. Now, how do I work this thing?” She waved a hand to clear the space and enlarged the window.

>>You ask your friendly neighborhood digital entity for some help,<< ADAM told her.

“Or she just dives in,” TOM grumbled as Bethany Anne began opening the tabs on the map’s side menu.

Michael had his attention on the star chart presently showing. He pointed out a marker buried in a thick cluster of nebulae just off-center. “What is this marker denoting?”

Bethany Anne blinked when the map moved of its own accord. A tab popped up with some Kurtherian writing that resolved into English. “A restaurant. Not the secret lair we were hoping for. But the map is a huge win. It’s telepathic?”

“Not exactly,” TOM clarified. “It does scan the user’s brain waves to discern the location they require, but there is no further exchange.”

Bethany Anne’s mouth tipped at the corner. “Intriguing. Can you find anything that lists the location of the previous owner?”

“That’s what I was trying to tell you,” TOM replied. “This map. It’s marked with hundreds of thousands of locations.”

“Great,” Michael grumped. “We can find a place to eat wherever we go to kick out the Ooken.”

“Local amenities are not the only things marked on the map. Look.” TOM flashed locator marker tabs, slowly at first and then increasing in speed. “There are companies, factories, tributary planets, you name it. This is priceless.”

Bethany Anne’s eyes began to glow. “Michael, he’s right. We’ve stumbled on the holy fucking grail.”


FINIS

Turn the page to learn about an exciting new entry on The Kurtherian Endgame timeline.


A Coming Soon Note from N.D. Roberts August 27, 2019

Hi! Nat here. Are you crying? I’m still crying, and I knew it was coming! Goodbye, Addix.

But I’m not here to waffle (for a change!). I have a book for you. Well, two! They are part of The Kurtherian Endgame timeline. The series title is ‘Out of Time,’ and book one is called Keep Your Friends Close.


Enter Into Valhalla

How about we call this practice for the real thing? It’s been a while since I sat to make an author’s note. Book one will be heading to editing in the next couple of days as I’m writing this, and I’m so nervous!

For those who don’t follow me on Facebook and missed the story, there was a moment around the time Enter Into Valhalla was being written when a certain Mr. Anderle made the mistake of asking me to do something to take care of the twins’ time in the Vid-docs.

What he thinks he asked for is a little addendum, a very short adventure for the back of this book and the next. What I’m sure I heard was an invitation to divert from my current writing project over in the Age of Madness to go play video games with Gabriel and Alexis.

The whole very amusing story aside, we ended up with a miniseries that we weren’t expecting. What’s a few thousand words between friends? *snicker*

In all seriousness, it’s an honor to see Bethany Anne and Michael’s children through their coming of age. I’m having the best time writing their adventures in the gameworld. You can guess it’s unlike any other gameworld with Eve in charge.

As always, the characters were completely in charge of what happened. I did start with a firm plan of how things were going to turn out. The twins just happened to have a better idea. All I had to do was listen to the story and get the words onto the page.

I can’t wait to share the first book with you all! Thank you for taking time to read this, and I hope to meet you again very soon in my author notes for Keep Your Friends Close.


Ad Aeternitatem,

(I will never not love typing that!)

Nat

Turn the page for a preview of KEEP YOUR FRIENDS CLOSE.


Preview of “Keep Your Friends Close”

Alexis and Gabriel

Gabriel nudged Alexis with his mind. It looks like Mom.

Sounds like her too, Alexis agreed.

They continued to listen intently to the conversation in the throne room from the doorway to the right of the throne.

Alexis wrinkled her nose. But something is off.

There’s no imitating Mom, Gabriel decided, feeling the same spark missing from the NPC. Eve did a really good job but it’s not fooling me. It’s like…we could say what this Mom would do. Nobody knows what Mom would really do.

Alexis understood what her brother meant, even if he didn’t. You can’t program true randomness, just like you can’t catch a hurricane in a jar. Mom is her own force, she can’t be predicted.

There was a break in the monotony of requests for trade agreements, border disputes, and various politicians acting on behalf of independent governments when Michael left Bethany Anne’s side to remove a reptilian alien from the line.

Bethany Anne watched disinterestedly while Michael and John escorted the ill-intentioned ambassador from the throne room.

Her joy, Gabriel concluded. That’s what’s missing. Mom always says how much she hated being Empress.

Not so much the Empressing part, Alexis countered with a wave of her hand that mirrored Bethany Anne’s. Just, well, this.

Gabriel eyed the never-ending line of people waiting for an audience with Bethany Anne. “This” is a large part of leadership. Do you think you’d be okay with being responsible for whole worlds?

Alexis frowned while she gave the question its full consideration. I don’t mind the ones who are here in genuine need of our help. But they’re not the only ones asking for Mom’s time. We wouldn’t be able to do it alone.

Gabriel made a small sound of agreement. Mom has Dad, and our uncles and aunts to protect her. Along with ADAM and TOM. We would be alone, unless we had friends and family we could rely on just the same.

Alexis smiled, warmed to the bones by the thought of their friends. We have people we can rely on to have our backs. Like K’aia and Trey.

Gabriel nodded his agreement. Like K’aia and Trey.

Alexis pressed her lips together. Do you miss Phyrro?

Gabriel chuckled at the memory of their EI tutor from childhood. Yeah, but I don’t miss his lessons. What made you think of Phyrro?

Alexis shrugged. I don’t know. I was thinking about Mom having ADAM to take care of everything she has to hold in her mind.

Gabriel was done watching the action in the throne room. We should get moving. If we’re in an alternative universe then they’re both on whatever planet Devon was called before Mom took it over.

Alexis grabbed Gabriel before he could go. Wait, I see Eve.

You think that’s our Eve? Gabriel asked. Why would she create all of these NPCs and play herself?

Alexis decided that bit of womanly wisdom was best kept to herself. Why not?

Eve fixed the twins with a smile.

Gabriel furrowed his brow. No way. How did you know?

Oh, lucky guess, Alexis returned Eve’s smile with an enthusiastic wave. Let’s see what we can get her to tell us.

Eve glided purposefully through a door at the opposite end of the room. The twins followed, being careful not to get caught up in the line for the throne.

They found her waiting for them in the antechamber beyond. She smiled at Alexis and Gabriel, spreading her hands wide as her grin. “Are you impressed?”

“Completely,” Alexis enthused. . “You rebuilt the whole universe inside a game. I take it we are on the Meredith Reynolds?”

“Your twist is that the Federation was never formed,” Gabriel mused. “We get it. What does that mean for K’aia and Trey?”

“What does it mean for Devon?” Alexis expanded, her voice rising with the sheer scale of the changes to everything they’d always taken as a given. “What about the Interdiction? Who is there to prevent the Seven tearing through and killing everyone?”

Eve returned to her usual composure, meeting their questions with her serene smile. “It means that Devon doesn’t exist, and that the Seven don’t dare come within scanner distance of anywhere the Empress decrees is hers to protect. The game began at the moment in time your parents would have altered Belv’th’s path.”

Alexis gasped, the extent of the gameworld becoming clear to her. “That’s… Eve, how long did this take to build?”

Gabriel sighed at his sister’s innate ability to be distracted by every bit of shiny technology that came along. “Stay focused, Alexis. We need to get to Bel…whatever it’s called in this reality. What happens if one of Trey’s uncles kills him before we get there? Do we all reset?”

Eve shook her head. “No, you will reset to the moment before you died. There were some concessions that had to be made for your starting positions. Once you are together, any death will trigger a group reset to the beginning of the last quest chain.” She looked off into the distance. “I advise you get to the Gemini sooner rather than later.”

The twins gave Eve identical confused looks.

“The Gemini?” Alexis asked.

“How do we find a quest chain?” Gabriel cut in.

Eve tilted her head back toward them, the smile in her eyes missing the spark of life from a moment ago. “Hello, children. Is there something I can help you with?”

Too late, Gabriel groaned, realizing immediately that the real Eve had departed the NPC avatar. She’s gone.

Alexis grabbed Gabriel’s hand and pulled him out of the anteroom. She gave us the name of a ship. We’ve just got to find out where it is.


Author Notes - Michael Anderle August 27, 2019

THANK YOU for not only reading this story but these Author Notes as well.

(I think I’ve been good with always opening with “thank you.” If not, I need to edit the other Author Notes!)

RANDOM (sometimes) THOUGHTS?

I’ve been on the road (in either Europe or Asia) approximately 34 days now, and I am writing these author notes after a very rough night on a train from Beijing to Shanghai.

I admit all of that because I’m sure my sense of balance is off, but the weird random item I want to write about is how different it feels being in Beijing, China from the experience I had in Zurich.

It’s not to say Zurich is bad or wrong, but rather Zurich feels more insulated and isolated (which tends to be the American news commentary about China and the Chinese more so than in Zurich - at least when I was younger.)

Walking around in Beijing, China, for the most part, feels the same as when I’m walking around New York or a big city in America ,except we don’t speak the same language.

That isn’t too weird, I can’t speak the German language in Zurich, either. I mention in another author note how in Zurich I walked a little over a mile, and it was so QUIET that I felt like I was on a movie set, and the director had yelled ‘ACTION!’

Really unique experience in Zurich.

In a few days, I head back home, to Las Vegas. It’s past time, I need my ‘fixes’ of Javier’s, Five-50 Pizza, Jessie Rae’s BBQ, and Ping Pang Pong.

And my bed … and time zone… and solid always-on internet, that too.

Travel is nice, but home is nicer.

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

One of the interesting (at least to me) aspects of my life is the ability to work from anywhere and at any time. In the future, I hope to re-read my own Author Notes and remember my life as a diary entry.

In a 2 Person Sleeper, Train bound from Beijing to Shanghai

(About 15 hour trip at the last time provided by my wife. I was told 18 hours at one point… I have no idea.)

Note: the (very) small room I’m in has bunk beds plus a small table with a chair on the other side. On one side of the table you use the couch/bed as the seat, and there’s a window above the table.

There is a bathroom.

Judith pitched me this idea of taking the sleeper train and we both thought it would be a fantastic time.

Not so much.

It isn’t bad (far from it if we had to travel this way for so many hours) but it brings all of the enjoyment of apartment living including: Smoke when someone in another sleeping room has lit up, the noises from children playing next to you in walls that seem paper-thin, and plumbing challenges you would probably have to call the manager about if it was going to be a longer ride.

The plus side should have included the opportunity to see the countryside. But it was pitch black for most of the trip, and I slept through it.

The time (late at night) was by design. Our jet lag made me think that I would be up a lot during the trip, working. The swaying of the train solved that problem.

The tickets for the trip were in the $350 range and the hotel we were staying at was in the $220 range. So, we saved a few dollars going at night.

We left from the Beijing Main Train Station and got in line WAY early (we were up in the front of one of the queue’s.). The train station was pretty grand (and old - like a few of those in Europe) until you went down the hallway to get to your train itself. That felt like something out of the future.

I’ll be back in China next year. I doubt I’ll do the sleeper passenger car again, but I’m very happy we experienced the ride at least once. I’m already thinking of a book that would use the concept.

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Ad Aeternitatem,

Michael Anderle

<Zen Master Steve note: Turn the page for information on an exciting new series from Michael.>


Obsidian Detective

Enter Into Valhalla

Pre-order now to have the book arrive on your Kindle November 1st.

Two Rebels whose Worlds Collide on a Planetary Level.

On the fringes of human space, a murder will light a fuse and send two different people colliding together.

She lives on Earth, where peace among the population is a given. He is on the fringe of society where authority is how much firepower you wield.

She is from the powerful, the elite. He is with the military. 

Both want the truth – but is revealing the truth good for society?

---

Two years ago, a small moon in a far off system was set to be the location of the first intergalactic war between humans and an alien race.

It never happened. However, something was found many are willing to kill to keep a secret.

Now, they have killed the wrong people.

How many will need to die to keep the truth hidden?

As many as is needed.

He will have vengeance no matter the cost. She will dig for the truth. No matter how risky the truth is to reveal.


Coming November 1st from Amazon and other Digital Book Stores


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