Book: Terminal Fallout



Terminal Fallout



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Ruins of the Galaxy Book 7: Terminal Fallout

Copyright © 2020 by Variant Publications, Hopper Creative Group

Book design and layout copyright © 2020 by JN Chaney

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living, dead, or undead, is entirely coincidental.

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Version 3.0

1st Edition





Terminal Fallout






Book Seven in the Ruins of the Galaxy Series


J.N. Chaney Christopher Hopper


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Book Description


Terminal Fallout

Ruins of the Galaxy #7

A dying planet's citizens cry out for rescue, but no one can save them all.

With the Galactic Republic in Ruins, and Capriana Prime uninhabitable after Moldark's assault, Magnus and his team are left to pick up the pieces. Hundreds of thousands of refugees need to be evacuated before time runs out.

But the Gladio Umbra aren't without their own problems.

In desperate need of rest, Colonel Caldwell arranges for the gladias to take refuge on a neutral planet. But Moldark's defeat prompts several key team members to reassess their roles and make decisions that will dramatically shape the Gladio Umbra's future.

Meanwhile, lingering questions remain about Master So-Elku as he amasses strength on Worru. Magnus is forced to decide what can be done to stop the Luma leader and his relentless quest for power.

That is, if Magnus can keep his team together.



Contents


Previously

Prologue

Part I

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Part II

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Part III

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Character Reference

Acknowledgments

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About the Authors


Previously


Last time in Ruins of the Galaxy Book 6: Imminent Failure…

The Galactic Republic’s capital planet of Capriana Prime suffered an orbital assault by Moldark and the Paragon fleets. In a heroic attempt to save the planet, Magnus and the Gladio Umbra tried to raise the planetary defense shield, both from Elusian Base and inside CENTCOM in the Forum Republica, but were ultimately unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, above the planet, Commodore Seaman and First Fleet turned on Moldark’s forces, severely hindering the dark lord’s orbital attack. This decisive action was thanks, in large part, to Willowood, Piper, and the rest of the Gladio Umbra mystics working to free the minds of the naval commanders and their sailors.

Magnus also defeated Ambassador Bosworth while trying to get the gladias away from the capital. However, Magnus’s exfil shuttle was knocked out of the sky by a devastating orbital strike against the capital city. The team had no chance of survival until Piper rescued Magnus by raising the transport from the ocean floor.

In the end, Colonel Caldwell’s and Commodore Seaman’s combined forces succeeded in routing the Paragon fleets, leaving only a few enemy ships to jump out of the system.

With Moldark presumed dead, and the Paragon destroyed, attentions now turn toward rescuing Caprianian survivors and sorting through the future of a galaxy without the Galactic Republic.


Prologue


Terminal Fallout

“Spread out,” Magnus said. “And stay alert.”

Something old lived in this jungle, and Piper was pretty sure it wanted to eat her. She rode atop Magnus’s BATRIG, watching the Gladio Umbra fan out among ferns and tree trunks. The members of Granther Company rode in their imposing mechs, while Taursar, Hedgebore, and Paladia Companies moved on foot. Everyone’s Novian armor was beat up, and several members had died in previous battles. Still, the Gladio Umbra had a mission to accomplish, and if there was one thing Piper knew about Magnus, it was that he wouldn’t stop until his objectives were complete.

Beams of light moved back and forth to the constant sounds of insects and roosting birds. Mist fell from the tree canopy while wisps of fog hovered over the ground. The smell of rotting wood and damp soil brought to mind memories of long walks in the woods with her parents. But those walks hadn’t been scary—not like this one was.

The gladias had been hunting their prey for hours. Or was it days? She couldn’t remember. Everything seemed to blend together. All she knew was that the deeper Granther Company’s mechs thumped into the woods, the more scared she felt.

Something snapped behind her.

Piper spun around to see Mr. Abimbola in his BATRIG. His mech had broken a downed tree limb in two.

“My apologies, Miss Piper,” Abimbola said over VNET. “I did not mean to startle you.”

“It’s okay,” she replied. But really, it wasn’t okay. She had the strange sensation of being watched, like there were thousands of pairs of eyes examining every step the Gladio Umbra took. But that only made sense—lots of things live in this jungle. Of course they’d be watching a group of warriors who didn’t belong.

Magnus looked up at Piper as she sat perched on his shoulder. “You okay up there?”

“Sure, Mr. Lieutenant Magnus, sir.”

“Sure?” He wrinkled his face. “You don’t sound very convinced.”

“I’m just a little nervous, is all.” She wished she still had Talisman. He was nice to hold when she felt afraid.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” Magnus said, looking ahead. “Don’t you worry.”

“But I do worry.” A shiver went down her spine. “I worry about you, and shydoh Awen, and my grandmother, and the Mr. Colonel. I worry about Rohoar and the other doggies, and I—”

“That’s a lot of worrying for one little girl, you know.” Magnus shot her a smile. “Leave some for the rest of us, would you?”

She laughed, but it was half-hearted. “Okay, Mr. Lieutenant Magnus, sir.”

The undergrowth became denser as the unit moved on until Magnus eventually ordered Granther Company out of their mechs. “We’ll go the rest of the way on foot.”

Magnus helped Piper off his shoulder and set her on the ground. Then he opened the BATRIG’s chest and climbed down the small ladder to join her. “Let’s go. Keep your eyes open.”

Magnus took her by the hand and led the team up a steep hill covered in thick bushes and slippery rocks. Piper pushed vines out of the way as she hurried to keep up with Magnus. He was good about hacking most of the vegetation away with his knife. Only once did he struggle with a particularly resistant vine—until Piper realized it was a large snake. She yelped and jumped back while Magnus slashed at the serpent’s body. Then Magnus grabbed the snake with one hand and cut through the neck with his blade. The body writhed as Magnus hoisted Piper onto his shoulders and stepped over it.

“I don’t like snakes,” Piper said, patting Magnus on the head.

“Me neither, kid.”

Magnus continued to slash at more vines as the Gladio Umbra moved up the hill. She liked being on his shoulders. She could see more, and it was a lot easier.

The path was so steep, and the distance so long that Piper could only assume they were climbing a mountain. Helmet-mounted lamps pierced the darkness and made whole plants glow green. And the rocks got bigger and bigger until Magnus was forced to put Piper down and help her climb over giant boulders.

When the trees cleared and the gladias reached the top, massive shadows blotted out purple stars along the horizon. Piper blinked, trying to figure out what she saw. It wasn’t until the Gladio Umbra shined their lights on the objects that Piper made out the shapes of vine-covered ruins. Wide stone columns supported roofed entrances, while towers and walls formed maze-like roadways. Tall pyramids stood in the distance, and Piper thought she could see gaps near their top where starlight peeked through.

“What is this place?” Piper asked.

“I don’t know,” Magnus replied. “But I think we’ll find what we’re searching for here.”

Blaster fire erupted from one of the pyramids. Bolts streaked toward the Gladio Umbra along the front line, and several gladias fell. Piper screamed, but the sound was lost among the whine of more blaster fire coming from a high tower, and still more as enemies emerged from the covered arcades.

“Take cover,” Magnus yelled, helping Piper run toward a cluster of boulders.

“It’s the Paragon, isn’t it,” Piper said. She tried to slow her breathing, as Awen had taught her, but Piper was so scared. It felt like the enemy was closing in all around her, and there was nothing she could do about it.

“Yeah. Looks like it.”

But even as Magnus said the words, Piper wondered if it really was the Paragon at all. Her skin got cold, and a dark sensation washed over her little body.

Magnus took his NOV1 from his back and fired around the rocks. His weapon lit up the night air in bright flashes, and Piper plugged her ears against the loud noise. Then Magnus threw a VOD and yelled something, but Piper couldn’t understand him. Two seconds later, the ground shook. Piper tripped, but Magnus grabbed her by the arm and kept her from hitting the ground. Still, her knee scraped against some stones. “Come on, Piper. We have to get in there.”

Piper looked to where Magnus pointed. At the far end of a long columned corridor in the middle of the ruins was a dark doorway. Two red torches lit the entryway. A shudder went up Piper’s spine.

“We need to make a run for it,” Magnus yelled over the sounds of the firefight. “I’ll protect you. Just be brave.”

Piper nodded. “I will.” But her acknowledgment had nothing to do with courage. The truth was, she was terrified, but she didn’t want to let Magnus know that.

Magnus stepped out from behind the rocks and started firing. His blaster swept left and right, and moved up and down, taking out enemies wherever he pointed it. Meanwhile, he clutched her hand in his gauntlet and pulled her forward. Piper ducked and did her best to keep up. But Magnus was running really fast, so it wasn’t long before they were under the covered corridor that stretched back to the doorway.

To her right, Piper saw Rohoar slashing at shadows that moved between columns. He lunged into a plaza and took on a dozen of the enemies, tearing through them with his sharp claws and razor-like teeth.

To her right, Abimbola fired a hip-held weapon that spat torrents of blaster bolts into the night. She couldn’t imagine any enemies getting past him. But still, her heart was anxious.

Explosions blew huge chunks of stone from the roof above her. Dust bits bounced off her head and shoulders, and she coughed several times. More blasts of fire leaped from the stone courts on either side of the corridor, tossing bodies into the star-filled sky.

Magnus ran on and on, pulling Piper behind him, until they arrived at the doorway which was bathed in torchlight. The lights made her think of two red eyes set beside a gaping black mouth; only this throat lead down a long staircase that descended into the mountain’s bowels.

“Come on,” Magnus said, tugging on Piper’s arm.

But she wouldn’t budge. It took her a second to come up with the nerve to resist him. “I don’t think we should go, Mr. Lieutenant Magnus, sir.”

“But we have to, Piper. It’s the only way to stop him.”

“I’m scared.”

Magnus knelt in front of her and flipped up his visor. “So am I, Piper. But fear doesn’t mean we avoid what we must face.”

“And must we face this?”

Magnus nodded as his lips bunched up under his nose. “Yes. We must.”

Piper swallowed and stood up straight. “Okay, then. Let’s go.” Then she descended into the darkness with Magnus.

Terminal Fallout

Piper screamed as she sat up in bed. Her sheets were wet.

“Miss Piper,” came a soft voice from the ceiling as the room’s light began to glow. “Are you all right?”

Piper clutched her chest, trying to catch her breath. She looked around the room as if expecting to see the long dark of the stairs leading to the evil she could not escape. But she wasn’t there anymore. She was here, in her quarters, onboard the Spire.

“Azelon?” she asked.

“Yes, Piper. I am here.” Hard-light emitters around the room sparked to life, and Azelon appeared beside Piper’s bed. “Your vital signs are showing—”

“We can’t go down there,” Piper said, reaching out and grabbing Azelon’s wrist. “We’re not ready. We can’t.”

Azelon tilted her head. “Forgive me, Miss Piper, but I am unable to discern the implied location from your statement. It seems you’re having what TO-96’s data defines as a human nightmare. As per standard protocols when dealing with such things, I wish to inform you as follows.” Azelon’s hand reached out and began mechanically petting Piper’s hair. “There, there, it was just a bad dream. Everything is going to be just fine.”

“No.” Piper leaned away from Azelon’s touch and tried to shake the bot’s wrist, but the limb wouldn’t budge. “It’s not a dream. It’s real.” She felt something sting her knee. The sheet had bound itself to her skin. Piper pulled the fabric back and saw a blood stain on it. Her knee, the one she had skinned in the dream, was bleeding.

“Miss Piper,” Azelon said, pointing toward the injury. “When did you suffer that abrasion?”

“I told you, Azelon. It’s real. And it’s gonna happen. But we can’t go down there. We just can’t.”

“Again, Miss Piper, I wish to console you in ways that will lower your blood pressure and reduce your—”

“You can’t cancel me, Azelon.”

“Console.”

“You can’t.” Piper pulled away and curled up in her blanket. She hated crying. Only babies cried. But she couldn’t help it. Because everyone she loved was going to die.


Part I


Terminal Fallout


1


Terminal Fallout

From the outset, the meeting with the Galactic Republic’s surviving senior leaders seemed fragile, as if a sudden breeze might throw everyone into a rage and send blaster bolts flying. It was a good thing, then, that the dialogues were conducted via holo emitters and not in person. Still, the separation did little to ease the tension on the Spire’s bridge.

Magnus didn’t blame Commodore Seaman for his anxiety or suspicion. The man and his counterparts, which included Brigadier General A.H. Lovell, 1st Republic Marines, and Seaman’s Flag Captain, Lani DiAntora, were charged with the impossible task of leading a government in ruins. The Republic had changed. Forever. And according to Galactic Republic law, Seaman, as highest-ranking member of the navy, was also the defacto leader of the Republic until new officials could be elected. Magnus couldn’t begin to imagine the weight the man was carrying.

As far as First Fleet knew, the Spire was just one more enemy eager to crush the Republic. While nothing could be further from the truth, Magnus was aware of all the other factions that would undoubtedly attempt to fill the power vacuum left by the crippled Galactic Republic. So Seaman and his people had every right to be suspicious. Hell, if Magnus was them, he would be downright scared splickless. It was only a matter of time before the challengers arrived. Given the Republic’s long list of enemies, Magnus imagined Commodore Seaman would be sleeping with one eye open from now on.

“I would ask you where you’ve been, Caldwell, but I suspect neither of us has time for the full explanation,” Lovell said. His deep baritone voice and dark complexion connoted a strong and imposing presence—holo emitter or not.

“No, we don’t.” Caldwell chewed on a nub of a cigar, which was soggy from his saliva. “Nor do I think you’d believe a damn word of it. Suffice it to say, we’re here, and we’re ready to help however we can.”

“Help?” Commodore Seaman raised both eyebrows until his forehead was a mass of wrinkles. “Pardon me, Colonel, but the last anyone knew about you was that you’d betrayed your division on Worru and led two companies against Republic and Luma units. Now you show up here and think that just because you helped stem the tide of a rebellion among the Republic’s fleets that everything can go back to normal? Without repercussions?”

“You don’t exactly have a lot of options right now, Commodore,” Caldwell said. “So if you’d like us to go—”

“That’s not what I said.”

“But I believe that was his implication, wasn’t it?” TO-96 asked from the bridge overlook landing. “Or maybe he means to capture us?”

Awen hushed the bot with a finger to her lips. But several other crew members gave TO-96 nods.

“That’s what I thought,” the bot said in his version of a whisper.

The rest of those present on the Spire’s bridge included lead members of Granther Company, namely Abimbola, Rohoar, Zoll, Bliss, and Robillard. Willowood, Forbes, and Nelson represented Paladia, Taursar, and Hedgebore Companies. Rico and Ezo stood for Fang Company, Cyril, Berouth, and Gilder for Drambull’s support and intelligence company, and Azelon for Raptor Company—the Gladio Umbra’s version of naval operations. Azelon would normally have invited Flow and Cheeks to attend this meeting, but they were still responding negatively to the Jujari and would, therefore, be briefed later. Sootriman was also present but seemed distant after the significant losses her Magistrate squadron suffered. Everyone watched as Caldwell stood before holo-images of the Republic’s three highest ranking officers.

“I’m trying to figure out why we shouldn’t arrest you and your rogue Lieutenant,” Seaman said. But Lovell seemed to give the commodore an apprehensive glance.

“Arrest us?” Awen said, stepping down from the second level and making her way to Caldwell. Magnus tried to caution her, but she ignored him. “I beg your pardon, Commodore, but I don’t believe you’re in any position to threaten us.”

“Who’s there?” Seaman demanded, apparently unable to see much past Caldwell’s body.

“Put her on the call,” Caldwell said with a quick wave to Azelon.

“As you wish, sir,” the bot replied.

As soon as a pale blue light shined down on Awen, she lifted her chin and spoke in the tone Magnus remembered from when they had first met on Oorajee. “My name is Awen dau Lothlinium, former Luma ambassador to the Jujari.”

“You,” Seaman said, his eyes wide. “You have caused—”

“Let her speak,” Caldwell said, pulling the cigar from his mouth. “Or you and I are gonna have words that will have a lasting negative effect on both your ego and your reproductive performance, Commodore.”

Seaman looked confused and stunned before nodding at Awen to continue.

“Commodore,” Awen said. “I need not remind you that your primary concern is not investigating the validity of any purported stories, true or otherwise, about Colonel Caldwell or Lieutenant Magnus, but it is the consolidation of your remaining fleet assets and the immediate rescue of Capriana Prime’s survivors. Every second we waste here means innocent lives are lost.”

Seaman looked at Lovell, who gave the slightest raise of an eyebrow. When the general didn’t say anything, Seaman nodded toward Awen. “Be that as it may, former ambassador, we have no option but to treat you as unknown independent agents operating illegally within Republic space, and we are, therefore, duly empowered by the Valdaiga Accords to commandeer your starship and its crew until such time as the senate may investigate—”

“Look around you,” Awen said, taking a step forward. “There is no senate, sir. There’s no jury to hear our case, no judge to sentence us. It’s gone, Commodore. All of it. So the best thing any of us can do right now is to save lives while there’s still time. If you want to arrest us later, fine. But right now, we are the least of your worries.”

Magnus felt a sudden wave of pride wash over him as Awen silenced the commodore. It wasn’t often that he got to watch her do her whole diplomatic ambassador thing, but damn, was it glorious. Especially when it was used on someone besides him. When Awen believed in something, when her mind got made up, mystics help anyone who stood in her way.

“You’re the one who called us,” Caldwell said to Seaman. “So what do you want?”

The commodore ran a hand down his naval uniform and sniffed. “Miss dau Lothinium’s assessments are correct. We have an urgent need to rescue survivors on the far side of Capriana Prime, as well as to investigate the status of several Second Fleet ships that failed to depart the system. Their communications systems were damaged in the battle, which necessitates boarding parties.”

“Then what are you asking us?” Caldwell said, clearly toying with the commodore.

General Lovell cleared his throat. “If you have the capacity, resources, and willingness to assist us on either front, we would be grateful.”

“And what’s in it for us?” TO-96 interjected from the overlook level.

Caldwell smiled at the bot and then at Magnus. “I don’t call him Brass Balls for nothing,” the colonel said, winking at Magnus. Caldwell turned back to Seaman. “You heard the bot. What’s in it for us?”

“Well,” Seaman said, appearing to search his head for options. “If you are able to help with either of those objectives—”

“We can help with both, Commodore.”

“Then perhaps we will not press charges.”

“Perhaps?” Caldwell had his cigar out again.

“So long as we are able to corroborate your stories and find them to be in alignment with Republic interests.”

“The damn Republic would be gone already if it wasn’t for us,” Robillard said between his teeth. Magnus was about to hush the man, but Abimbola beat him to it.

Caldwell looked around the bridge, apparently to gauge whether there was consensus or not. “What say you? Help these bastards out in exchange for not getting arrested?” Magnus knew this was just for show. The Spire was the most capable ship in protospace, and nothing in First Fleet posed a threat, at least not in their present condition. Azelon could jump the Gladio Umbra out of the system in the time it took Seaman to zip up his suit. Still, Magnus wanted to help the survivors on Prime; they were his people, after all. And if they could salvage sailors from Second Fleet—or what was left of it—he’d be the first to sign up.

“Sounds good to us, Colonel,” Magnus said, based on everyone’s nodding heads and smiling faces. “We’re ready to go where you send us.”

Caldwell seemed to consider Magnus’s declaration with a certain level of suspicion. Magnus furrowed his brow, ready to question the colonel, but the old man turned back to address Seaman.

“We’re also going to need safe passage to a planet with an orbital spaceport to resupply on,” Caldwell said. “My crew is going to need some shore leave too, and we have a few survivors of our own that will need settling, preferably on a neutral planet, and one far from any possible fallout given the Republic’s pending dissolution.”

Seaman worked his jaw. Magnus couldn’t tell what rankled the commodore more: Caldwell’s gratuitous requests or his assumption that the Galactic Republic was doomed. “You do realize that until such time as we can determine your intentions, fulfilling these will make us guilty of aiding and abetting an enemy of the—”

“They’re not the enemy,” DiAntora said, speaking for the first time.

All eyes turned toward the Sekmit. While her naval uniform hid most of her hair-covered body, her feline-like face, hands, and flicking tail left no doubts as to her species.

“I sense goodness in them,” DiAntora continued, looking first to Seaman and then to Lovell. “And their intentions are pure.” Then DiAntora squared with Caldwell. “I offer you Aluross, cattery of the Sekmit. Our orbital stations will be able to accommodate your ship’s needs, and my people’s survivor policies rival those of any system in the quadrant.”

“She’s not wrong,” Awen said to Caldwell.

Magnus knew that the Sekmit were famous—or notorious, depending on who you asked—for inviting marginalized species to seek asylum on Aluross.

“Lani, no,” Seaman said. “You don’t know if—”

“We accept,” Caldwell replied before Seaman could say anything further.

Sidelined by his own captain, Seaman ran his tongue over his teeth and then composed himself. Magnus was sure DiAntora would be reprimanded later. But her boldness meant the Gladio Umbra would have somewhere safe to rest after they helped Seaman regain command and rescue Prime’s survivors.

“Commodore,” Caldwell said. “You and I can work out details for the survivors with Azelon. As for you, General Lovell, I will leave Captain Forbes, Lieutenant Nelson, and Master Willowood at your disposal for assisting the boarding parties.”

While Magnus had thicker skin than most, he couldn’t help but think that the colonel had just sidestepped him. “Colonel, sir,” Magnus said in a hushed tone.

“Stand down, Adonis,” Caldwell whispered.

Magnus knew better than to argue with the man. “Yes, sir.”

“One more thing,” Caldwell said to Seaman.

“Yes?” Seaman seemed simultaneously grateful and annoyed with the colonel.

“Regarding the attack on Prime, were you aware of Robert Blackman’s or Gerald Bosworth’s involvement?”

Whether or not Seaman would share information remained to be seen. But based on the stone-cold face that the commodore gave Caldwell, Seaman knew both names—and knew them well.

“We have every reason to believe that all senators and ambassadors stationed in the capital were lost in the orbital strikes,” Seaman said.

“I never mentioned they were a senator or ambassador, Commodore,” Caldwell replied.

The corner of Seaman’s mouth twitched. “Those names are commonly known.”

“And yet you still didn’t answer my question, sir.” Caldwell pulled the cigar nub from his mouth and flicked it away in disgust.

Seaman took a deep breath, shoulders rising and falling.

But before he could answer, General Lovell interjected. “We have reason to believe that the senator and the ambassador were working covertly with Admiral Kane. We also believe the assault was coordinated with help from inside CENTCOM. But as the commodore has suggested, that is the least of our worries, given the casualties. We are grateful for your assistance, William.”

Caldwell seemed to take Lovell’s word much better than anything the commodore would have given him of the same sort. This was, no doubt, due in part to the branch loyalties that permeated the Republic. But Magnus guessed it was more because Lovell and Caldwell had a history together, and the old cigar-toking war hero knew when a general was telling him to back off.

“Thank you, Alvin,” Caldwell said. Magnus had never heard anyone use the general’s first name before. Hell, he didn’t think anyone but the man’s mother knew it, and even that was in doubt. “One more question. You mentioned Admiral Kane. Do you have any reason to believe he survived?”

“That is a matter of Republic security,” Seaman interjected before Lovell could reply. But it wasn’t long before the commodore softened. “We are reviewing footage of the battle to ensure our initial assumptions were correct, but we believe the Admiral went down with the Black Labyrinth.”

“And we’re doing the same,” Caldwell replied. Then, in what was clearly a gesture of good faith, he added, “And we’ll share our findings with you if you’d like them.”

Seaman nodded. “Thank you, Colonel. We would appreciate that.”

“Not a problem. Now”—Caldwell pulled a fresh cigar from his left breast pocket and slid it under his nose—“let’s say we get this barnstorming party started before some son of a bitch liquors up their momma and misguidedly secures themselves a new sibling. Shall we?”




2


Terminal Fallout

“I’ll leave you to coordinate ship boarding operations,” Commodore Seaman said to General Lovell. “But keep an eye on those traitors. I don’t trust them.”

“I’ll have my people watch them closely,” Lovell replied but then hesitated.

“What is it?” Seaman asked.

“I have a history with Caldwell. He doesn’t do anything without a damned good reason, David.”

Seaman studied the general’s face. Lovell was only trying to be helpful. “That is all, general.”

Lovell turned without another word and walked toward the bridge elevator.

“The rest of you, prepare for geosynchronous equatorial orbit above Sor Sabatha. I want all fleet ships not directly supporting General Lovell in formation with us. Maintain shields and continue to scan for vessels entering the system. Nothing moves without my consent.” He paused to make sure his words were understood. “Proceed.” Then he turned to DiAntora. “My quarters.”

“Yes, Commodore,” she replied and followed him off the bridge.

Terminal Fallout

Seaman sat behind his desk, staring across at DiAntora. He held the woman’s eyes without blinking, but she did the same, seemingly impervious to intimidation.

“How can I be of service, Commodore?” she asked.

Seaman sat back and then pointed past her toward the bridge. “For one, don’t ever do that again.”

“Do what, sir?”

“Come on, Lani. Don’t be coy with me.”

“If you’re referring to my offer of assistance—”

“You made a unilateral decision, usurped my authority, and offered haven to known criminal agents operating in Republic space.” Seaman stabbed his finger on the table as he spoke. “And in so doing made us culpable in their activities, most of which we still have no idea about.”

“David, I was—”

“No, you don’t get to David me right now. Not after that. That was reckless and showed a complete disregard for the chain of command. And you know better.”

DiAntora finally blinked. Once. But her feline face was unmoved.

Seaman pushed his chair back and walked to the window. The Fortuna was moving away from Capriana while the atoll burned on the horizon like pools of magma floating over a blue canvas.

“I’m sorry,” DiAntora said behind him. “It was wrong of me.”

“You’re damn straight it was.” Seaman folded his hands behind him and then sighed. He wanted to be angry with her, but hearing her apologize took the edge off his anger. After all, it wasn’t her he was upset with, nor was it Caldwell or any of his rogue agents. “It’s this damned genocide.”

“Sir?”

Seaman took another deep breath—his eyes fixed on Prime. “I feel the weight of…” He didn’t know how to describe it. “Of everything. Crushing down on me. So many lives.”

A hand rested on his shoulder. Seaman hadn’t even heard DiAntora get up or move across the floor.

“I am with you,” she said, her words soft and comforting like a summer evening’s breeze. “And I did not intend to dishonor you with my suggestion to the Colonel. I only meant—”

“To provide a solution.”

Seaman looked back at her, and DiAntora nodded. “Yes.”

“It was a good solution.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“David. Just David. I’m sorry about all that.”

“It’s understandable.” She paused and flicked her tail once. “You really think they’re here to cause the Republic harm?”

Seaman swallowed. “No. But I also don’t know what good they’ve done. For all we know, they caused all this. Maybe not intentionally. But carelessness is often as dangerous as wickedness.” He looked back to Prime and felt a wave of grief clutch his chest.

“No one but Moldark caused that,” DiAntora said. “And we both know.”

“Then why not offer to rejoin the Republic and make it right?”

DiAntora pulled her hand back. “You really think it’s that simple for them?”

“You taking their side?”

“No. But I remember reading both inter-branch memos about Magnus’s and Caldwell’s supposed acts of treason.”

“And?”

“And they don’t add up. We’re talking about two of the Marine’s most distinguished pedigrees, and they both turn on the Republic within weeks of one another?”

“I admit, it is a bit convenient,” Seaman said.

“Convenient for someone who wants to frame them, in Magnus’s case, or who’s threatening them, in Caldwell’s.”

“But Caldwell was on Worru, not Oorajee.”

“And you’ve never been suspicious about the Luma’s leader?”

“So-Elku?”

She nodded.

Seaman chuckled once. “I trust him less than Caldwell.”

“My point exactly.” DiAntora moved to stand directly beside Seaman, staring out the window as she did. “While we might not know details about the Colonel’s operations since leaving Worru—”

“Not to mention where they got that ship.”

“Agreed,” she said. “We at least may conclude, with a high degree of certainty, that they would not have helped us defeat Moldark unless they were committed to saving lives, regardless of what banner they herald.”

“Sounds like you have them all figured out.”

“Hardly.” DiAntora’s tail whipped again, lightly brushing his back. “But I know they mean us no harm and are, more than likely, fighting for the same things we are, but forced to do so by unseen constraints.”

“You’re saying I should give them the benefit of the doubt.”

“Yes. And, in light of all you’re carrying, let me help ease your burden.”

Seaman didn’t answer right away. He still didn’t like that Caldwell was operating independently of the Republic, nor that the Republic had issued arrest-on-sight orders against Caldwell and Magnus. But Seaman also trusted Lani’s judgment, especially in light of all he was carrying.

“I’m tired, Lani,” he said, working his jaw with one hand. “I don’t just mean fatigue. I mean, my soul feels tired in a way that I can’t even explain.”

“I feel it too,” she said. “May I offer a word of advice?”

Seaman smiled, knowing she’d offer it regardless of what he said. “Sure.”

“Remember that you’re not alone.”

Seaman looked down. The words were so simple. But something about them had an incredibly reassuring effect. It was like he was five years old again and scared of the dark. His mother had just flicked on the light and chased the monster from his closet. Then she invited the family dog to sleep at his feet.

“Thank you,” he said and reached for her hand. They stood there, holding hands for a few moments before Seaman spoke again. “I believe in the Galactic Republic. It’s not a perfect system. But it’s gotten us this far. And I don’t want anything more to happen to it. I fear it’s on the brink as it is.”

“And that’s admirable, David. No one would fault you there.”

He turned to her. “But they would elsewhere?” He had a feeling that DiAntora was going to argue that was not what she meant, but it was.

True to her word of always being honest, she nodded. “Only nearsighted captains go down with their ships if there is a lifeboat with an empty seat.”

He looked back at Prime. “You’re saying the Republic’s sinking.”

“I’m saying it doesn’t look good. Whether or not it sinks depends on those who make up its body. If the systems choose to remain faithful, then the Republic lasts. But should they choose another way—”

“Then we have no way to stop them.”

“Nor should we,” DiAntora said. It was a bold statement, but one he understood. “Our navy cannot protect them, and our senators cannot represent them. I’m sure Lovell has already begun recalling Marine forces throughout the quadrant. Unless people empower the Republic to be the Republic, there is no Republic.”

“You sound like my government professor,” Seaman said.

“But better looking?”

“I don’t know.” Seaman winked at her. “Mrs. Douglas could be a real cougar when she wanted to.”

DiAntora smiled. “Listen, I admire how much you love the Republic. Your loyalty is one of the things I like most about you.”

Seaman eyed her, but she dismissed the unspoken request for further explanation with a shake of her head.

“But if the Republic falls, we have to ask ourselves who we are without it.”

“I’m not sure I can answer that,” Seaman said.

“You don’t have to, at least not yet. But there may be a time that you will, and, as your friend and your Flag Captain, I’m here to help you prepare to answer it.”

How had he been so fortunate to work with such an incredible woman? His short temper about her offer to Caldwell aside, Seaman was deeply grateful for her and felt indebted to her. But naval code would not permit him to say or do what he wanted to show that appreciation. “Thank you, Lani. I—”

DiAntora leaned over and kissed him on the lips. It lasted only a second, but it was enough to leave him speechless. His feelings for her were growing stronger, and she’d clearly just capitalized on that—which means hers are too. Right? But the more he got to know her, the more he realized just how much of a mystery she was. That kiss meant that if he wasn’t willing to break the rules, apparently she was. Between her offer to Caldwell and this sudden breach of protocol, maybe the woman was less conventional and more unpredictable than he’d assumed. Which begged the next question: what other rules was she willing to sidestep?

“I’ll begin coordinating the rescue efforts with the surface,” DiAntora said as if nothing had transpired between them.

“Yes,” Seaman said, still trying to sort through her show of affection. “Thank you.”

“I’ll be on the bridge, Commodore.”

He squared his shoulders. “As you were.”


3


Terminal Fallout

Awen took Magnus by the arm, more as a reflex than a conscious decision. Somehow, it just felt like the right thing to do. She was tired, and her heart ached. Given everything they had been through and the horrors they had witnessed, Awen needed some relief, some small way to escape it all. Holding Magnus’s arm brought her a measure of comfort, no matter how small.

“Find yourself a seat, people,” Caldwell said, turning to address the bridge as soon as the call with Seaman terminated. “We’ve got splick to discuss.”

As the leaders sat in the various crash couches around the room, Magnus caught Caldwell’s attention. “Colonel, sir. You don’t want Granther Company helping with the boarding parties?”

“No, son. I’ve got something else for you. Hold your whores and take a seat.”

“Yes, colonel.”

Awen pulled Magnus toward a three-seat crash couch on the bridge’s starboard side. As soon as they were settled, Caldwell began.

“All right, folks. We have ourselves some new missions, thanks to the Commodore and General Lovell. And we are going to do our absolute best to serve them. Peoples’ lives are on the line—civilian lives on the surface, and sailors and Marines on those ships—and they need our help.

“We came here to stop Moldark from hitting Prime. But we failed. I don’t mean to insult you, or to minimize the incredible effort you put forth. It’s just the facts. Sometimes you get stuck with the wrong end of a hedgebore prod, and that’s the way things go. But now we have a chance to do some good, and I’ll be damned if that son of a bitch takes even more lives in his death than he already took in his sick twisted life. La-raah?”

“La-raah,” the group replied as one.

Caldwell moved his cigar to the other corner of his mouth. “As stated on the holo call, Forbes and Nelson, you’ll provide support to General Lovell with Taursar and Hedgebore Companies. Likewise, Willowood, I want you and Paladia Company there to keep our gladias safe. But keep your wits about you. Who knows what kind of brainwashing job Moldark did on those poor sailors. And if we can salvage them, do so. I want you trying to undo anything you encounter, just like what you did with Piper before. Clear?”

“Of course, William,” Willowood said.

“Good.” Caldwell winked at Willowood.

Awen tilted her head in curiosity. Her master was on a first-name basis with the colonel—when had that happened? And winking—from Caldwell?

“As for the rest of us, we’ll use the Spire and all our shuttles to transport survivors. Azelon, we’ll be relying on you with Raptor and Drambull Companies to coordinate efforts with Seaman’s recovery strategy. Optimize every square inch of the ship if you have to.”

“Understood, sir,” Azelon replied.

“And Fang Company?” Ricio asked.

“You’re on loan to Granther Company,” Caldwell said, looking to Magnus. “Lieutenant, your orders are to make contact with DiAntora’s people on Aluross and then situate Balin and Giyel dau Lothlinium, and Ricio’s wife and son, Celine and Arthur. And make sure Jules gets squared away and paid in full as per your commitment to her.”

Given everything that had just happened, the fact that Caldwell had not only memorized the civilians’ names but also wanted to make good on the reimbursement to Jules for the sea skimmers showed incredible leadership on Caldwell’s part. It was a rare person who could keep a team moving forward while honoring individual dignity. Awen’s respect for him was growing by the day.

“Colonel, wouldn’t our skill sets be better suited to securing Second Fleet?” Magnus asked.

“Under normal circumstances, yes. But you have a second mission once on Aluross.”

Magnus raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything. Awen figured the Marine in him knew to sit and wait for the order to come.

“Rest, Lieutenant.”

For some reason, Awen felt a profound sense of relief at hearing those words come as a command. Perhaps more than anyone else in Granther Company, given her unique abilities to view people from within the Unity, Awen knew that the elites—as they were called—needed time to rest after back-to-back action over Oorajee and Capriana Prime. In fact, she didn’t even need the Unity to see the emotional and mental fatigue on people’s faces. And in a military community where everyone sucked it up and carried on, the only way Magnus was going to slow down was if he was ordered to.

“Your people have seen enough action,” Caldwell said to Magnus. “You’ve also suffered team losses. Either of those things on their own would merit time away, but combined? Hell. It just means you’ve all earned yourself a break.” The colonel looked around the room. “I’m proud of you, Granther Company. So your orders are to rest up. And I’m putting Awen in charge for the time being.”

“Me?” She pulled her head back and then glanced over at Magnus.

“You’re an ambassador, aren’t you?”

“Was, Colonel.”

He smiled. “For the Luma, maybe. But you’re an ambassador for the Gladio Umbra now. So when you’re negotiating for accommodations for the civilians, you’ll include quarters for Granther Company, as well as make preparations for the rest of us to join you when we wrap up things over Prime. Everyone’s going to need to stretch their legs after this. And the way I see it, if there’s anyone who can make your motley crew of gladias rest, it’s you, Awen. Don’t let me down.”

“I won’t, sir.”

“Good.” Caldwell stared at Magnus, and then the rest of the room. “And if I hear of any insubordination to the ambassador’s instructions, well, you know I won’t do a damn thing about it. Because she’ll already have kicked your ass. La-raah?”

This time, when everyone replied “la-raah,” it was mixed with a few chuckles—not because anyone doubted Awen’s ability to run a tight crew, but, she thought, because they knew she could. And would.

Awen raised a hand, and Caldwell acknowledged her with a nod.

“After we’re rested, then what?” she asked. “Moldark’s presumed dead, and the Paragon is on the run. But we still have So-Elku to worry about, including reports that he’s been contacting other star systems. What are your plans?”

Caldwell nodded a few times as if lost in thought. “It’s certainly something we need to discuss as a team. But I’m not sure now is the best time. Given what we’ve all endured, I would like to propose we rest and regroup before deciding on our next mission, assuming there is a next mission at all.” Caldwell spread his hands to the room. “Would anyone like to share their thoughts?”

For a moment, people looked back and forth, wondering who might be the first to step into the proverbial ring. While group discussions were often healthy, they also came with the unspoken anxiety about whether or not your idea was good, would find consensus, or would be laughed at. But the people in this room had spilled blood together. They had lost team members. And they had traversed two universes. All of those experiences translated into an extraordinary level of trust.

“Well,” Awen said as she stood, deciding that she would be the first to speak up. “I certainly appreciate the Colonel’s orders to rest. I’m not going to stand here and lie to anyone: I’m tired, and my heart—”

A strong wave of sadness choked her up. Awen tried her best to compose herself, but the images of the dead haunted her—the bodies littering the Elusian base, the corpses inside CENTCOM, and all the fallen Marines and Paragon. And then, overshadowing it all, were the millions of dead on the planet.

Awen’s brain was numb. There was no way to quantify so many lost lives. But somehow, Awen knew, she must find a way to quantify them, to feel the universe’s loss, or else she’d be just as coldhearted as the enemies who perpetrated these heinous war crimes.

Tears filled her eyes as Awen tried to find her voice again. But it was too painful.

Magnus cleared his throat.

She glanced down at his weathered face and saw that he had tears welling in his eyes too. He nodded at her, and then said, “We need you to speak for us. Please.”

Awen smiled as her tears dripped off her cheeks. Seeing the pain in his face gave her a new sense of courage—gave her strength to face the affliction that seemed to press against every part of her soul.

“My heart is broken,” Awen said through quivering lips. “When I hear that hundreds of millions of lives were lost, I… I don’t know. My head and my heart seem to stop communicating. I can’t even fathom it. But then I start counting. That’s one, plus one, plus one—each soul has a name, a story, a favorite color, favorite food, dreams, plans—one, plus one, plus one—” She covered her mouth as a whimper slipped out. “I’m sorry.”

“Go on,” Magnus said.

“It’s the only way I can process it. And it’s horrible. It’s so horrible that I think to myself it must never be allowed to happen again. This, none of this, must ever happen again. Not while I’m alive.”

She took a second to catch her breath. Awen wiped tears from her eyes and looked at all the faces around the bridge. Before a few months ago—depending on whose time-space continuum she was counting in—she knew none of these people, save Willowood. But after all this, she couldn’t imagine her life without them. Still, there was something in her gut that told her life would never be the same after Capriana Prime. Moldark had done something to disrupt, well, everything. Whatever underlying sense of security and stability the Galactic Republic had brought to the galaxy, it was gone. And the power vacuum would be filled. Just as it always had in every civilization since the beginning of time.

“So we rest,” Awen said at last. “Mystics know I need it. But after we’ve rested, I think we have a job to do. Whether it’s So-Elku or someone else, the galaxy needs someone to keep things in check. It needs us.”

Heads nodded around the bridge, so Awen kept going.

“So-Elku is no Moldark. But he kidnapped Piper. And he’s killed people in the name of progress.” She squinted and bit her lower lip. “But I’m not convinced he isn’t sincere about his desire for peace. He didn’t become Master of the Luma for nothing. Those who elected him weren’t stupid.”

“I beg to differ,” Bliss said loud enough that Awen knew she’d have to take on his statement.

“As do I,” Abimbola added. The sting of losing Simone on Worru still lingered in his eyes.

“The Luma Elders did what they felt was best at the time,” Awen continued despite the objections. She raised a hand toward her mentor. “Willowood was there too, and she’s observed him for years. And I know So-Elku—well, knew him. Inside, I believe he is a good man, though misguided.”

“He is a tyrant, just like the rest of them,” Abimbola replied, baring his teeth. “I will not stand to see him spread his lies.”

“I’m with the big one,” Bliss added.

“Awen,” Ezo said. “Are you suggesting we let So-Elku go forward with whatever diabolical plans he has in mind?”

“Right now, we don’t know what plans he has in mind, if any,” Awen replied. “All I know is that if the rumors we’re hearing are true, some sort of loose Luma network may be the next most viable option to fill the void left by the Republic. I have to imagine that without the Senate and the power of the Fleets, alliances won’t last long.”

“We probably won’t know that for several more days, if not weeks or months,” Caldwell said.

“Agreed,” Willowood said, standing as Awen had done to address the room. “I expect the fallout from the Republic’s absence will be complicated and may extend indefinitely. My guess is that So-Elku will attempt to fill the void with a political structure that gives star systems a similar sense of security to what they had under the Republic. If anything, he might go so far as to use the Republic’s collapse as reasoning for a consolidation of power, especially among pro-Luma planets.”

“So we need to stop him,” Abimbola said.

“Not exactly,” Willowood replied. “At least not until we know what he’s up to.”

“And that may take some time to determine,” Awen added.

“Are you actually in favor of having So-Elku lead the next Republic?” Robillard said with a suspicious tone.

Awen shook her head. “No. I’m just—”

“We’re talking a totalitarian state, aren’t we,” Bliss said. “Splick.”

“Ain’t no way I’m going back to that,” Robillard replied.

“Me neither. No way.”

Awen could feel things starting to get out of hand. But before she could say anything, Magnus verbally restrained the two men. “Wait your turn, gladias.”

Bliss and Robillard straightened up a little and nodded at Magnus, then Magnus touched Awen’s hand again. “Go on.”

“I just think it’s too soon to tell,” Awen said. “If he’s going to raise something that he rules over himself, sure, history tells us that absolute power corrupts absolutely. But maybe he creates something that has some integrity to it. We just can’t know.”

“So your proposal?” Caldwell asked her.

“I think we have to rest. Then we can regroup and start investigating Worru. Who knows, maybe there’s nothing to any of this. I just think it’s too important not to discuss.”

Caldwell removed his cigar and smoothed his mustache. “Willowood? Any further thoughts?”

She nodded and then folded her arms. “I think I have a little more insight into So-Elku than Awen, but only because of my proximity to him. I was, after all, one of those stupid people who elected him to power.” Willowood eyed Bliss until the man was forced to look away.

“As Awen suggested, we Elders did what we believed was right at the time. And I would make the same decision again if given the same information. And, like Awen, I believe So-Elku has good in him, though I do not doubt the heart’s ability to become corrupt—my own included. It is only in humility and proximity to wise counsel that any of us resists the invitation to become the worst version of ourselves.

“The possibility that So-Elku rises to lead a totalitarian state is altogether real, though such an assertion seems premature at best. He has the connections and resources. And if he decides to go after disgruntled worlds, or those looking for Republic alternatives, as it sounds like he might be already, then he may very well create an alliance even more wide reaching than the Republic, if given enough time.”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Zoll said absently, but loud enough for everyone to hear.

“That does not sound good to Rohoar,” the Jujari said. “There is a bad taste in Rohoar’s mouth, like a kill that has sat too long in the sun and attracted flies. Like congealed blood that has begun to ferment in a tank of—”

“We get it, Scruff,” Robillard said through bunched up facial features. “Seriously.”

“Ah, so you know these tastes too.” Rohoar hit Robillard between the shoulder blades. “Rohoar did not take you for this kind of carnivore. This will be remembered.”

Caldwell raised a hand as if to regain the room, then looked to Willowood and Awen. “From what I’m hearing, you both seem to think So-Elku is someone we need to deal with, but not yet.”

The two women nodded at the colonel.

“Well, I think we all appreciate your assessments,” Caldwell added. “Based on my limited interactions with So-Elku during my time on Worru, I believe the man is a capable leader and someone who could raise a significant defense if given enough time and resources. But we are in no shape to take him on, and, as you’ve both said, we don’t have enough information to determine his intentions.”

“William,” Willowood said as she raised a finger. “Might I reach out to some contacts on Worru to see what I can find?”

“Didn’t we already rescue everyone willing to turn on So-Elku?” Magnus asked.

“Not exactly,” Willowood replied. “Just those who were most vocal. I might remind you that Worru is a planet full of Unity users, of all levels, not just those in the halls of academia.” She faced Caldwell. “I feel certain I can gather intelligence for you without revealing our motives or location.”

“We’d be very grateful,” the colonel said. “Do it. Anyone else?”

“Is there a reason we’re not going back to metaspace?” Zoll asked. “Do what we did before. Use the whole time-dilation thing to gain the upper hand and then come back and kick some ass?”

“Dominate,” Robillard said.

Bliss gave his fellow fire team leader a fist bump. “Liberate.”

Zoll’s question was a good one that got a lot of heads nodding. But Awen had thought about a lot already, so she raised her hand to get the colonel’s attention.

“Go ahead, Awen,” he said.

“We’re not being asked to bring peace to metaspace. We all belong here, in this universe.” She glanced at Azelon. “With the exception of Azelon. My apologies.”

Azelon dropped her head in silent reply.

“If something does arise that needs our immediate attention, we need to be ready to respond. Plus, we’re going to need to grow our numbers and build alliances. We can’t do that from metaspace. And then there are personal reasons too.”

“Like what?” Zoll asked. “Begging your pardon.”

“I don’t want to settle my parents somewhere that they’ll be alone.” Awen ran a hand around the back of her neck. She was sore and wanted a hot shower and a bed. “Taking refuge on Aluross keeps my parents in Republic territory but out of the spotlight.”

“I agree,” Ricio said, standing from his crash couch on the second level. “Capriana is all my wife and son have ever known. The last thing I want to do is move them further away to a completely alien system, even if it’s just temporary. And, who knows, maybe because of the time variables, I never get to see them again. That’s just not a risk I’m willing to take.”

Caldwell grunted then glanced around the room. “The fact is, we’re needed here, so it’s best to settle our people in this universe.” Then, more to himself, he added, “Frankly, I can’t even believe I have to make that distinction.” He chuckled and played with his cigar. “Plus, unlike you people, I have yet to make a crossing. And from the sounds of it, I’d rather have my ankles tied to the tail of ridgeback lord ox and tossed around like my Aunt Thelma’s oversized mommy milkers.”

This produced some laughter and helped ease the tension in the room.

“Colonel?” Sootriman raised a hand.

Caldwell nodded at her.

“While I don’t want to be insensitive to those who have nothing to go back to on Capriana Prime, I do have people waiting for me on Ki Nar Four.”

“Yes, of course,” Caldwell said with a sad tone. “And you will have your own crises to attend to. You are free to go.”

Sootriman frowned, and Awen could see the pain in the queen’s face. “That said, I feel there is still a job to do here, to help the survivors on Capriana.”

“Be that as it may,” Caldwell said. “I think I speak for everyone when I say you have endured enough. You are certainly justified in taking your leave.”

“No.” Sootriman pushed her chest out and glanced at Ezo. “There is work to do here, and I would like to assist the commodore with the evacuation. But when it’s complete, I will return to my people.”

“And we’re grateful for your help,” Caldwell replied.

“Ezo would like to stay with her,” Ezo said, looking from Sootriman to the colonel. “Maybe provide an escort with my squadron, if that’s permissible.”

Caldwell frowned. “While I think the commodore would be grateful for any security detail at this point, I wonder if your aid would be more helpful to Sootriman on the ground. Why don’t you stay close to your wife.”

Sootriman looked at Ezo.

“Thank you, Colonel,” Ezo replied, staring at her. “Ezo appreciates that. We both do.”

Seemingly satisfied with the arrangement, Caldwell glanced around the bridge. “Anyone else?”



“Rohoar would speak,” the Jujari said as he stood to his full height.

“Yes, go ahead.”

“Rohoar’s sired offspring, leader of the Tawnhack and rightful mwadim of the Jujari, Victorio, is no more.”

Awen had assumed as much, given Rohoar’s recent change in how he spoke about himself. But hearing her friend pronounce his own son’s death only added to her grief. “I’m so sorry, Rohoar,” Awen said from across the bridge.

“As are we all,” Caldwell added. “The battle over Oorajee, I presume?”

Rohoar bared his teeth in the Jujari version of agreement. “His was the Pride-class Super Carrier Wherever the Enemy Runs We Will Hunt Down and Slaughter Them In Droves by Order of Maw Snarlick, which sacrificed itself in a final attempt to destroy the Black Labyrinth of Moldark the Dark Lord who Slaughters Needlessly but was Wounded by Mwadim Victorio.”

Awen guessed no one in the room understood the Jujari value of naming ships, so she motioned for Rohoar to pause. “The Black Labyrinth’s full name, as Rohoar has decreed it, will forever pay homage to his son.”

“Damn straight it will,” Caldwell said. “A fitting tribute. And we’re sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” Rohoar said. “In Victorio’s absence, Rohoar would request release from his Life Debt Holder, Adonis Olin Magnus, to return to his people and ensure their wellbeing.”

“Ah, right, right, right,” Cyril said. “So, this means you are supreme system overlord again, doesn’t it?”

Rohoar produced a muted sneeze and shook his head. “Rohoar does not know what the nervous human refers to.”

“He means that you’re mwadim again,” Awen said. But she knew the Jujari custom in this matter, so she guessed what Rohoar would say.

“Yes. But the life debt forbids—”

“To hell with the life debt,” Magnus said as he gained his feet.

Abimbola shot Magnus a stern look, probably to remind him about not resisting the Jujari customs. The Miblimbian had warned him against refusing Rohoar’s original pledge back on Oorajee. And, apparently, Magnus knew what Abimbola was trying to notify him about now.

“I don’t care if he likes it or not, Bimby,” Magnus said, and then addressed Rohoar again. “Listen, Rohoar. You’ve held up your end of the bargain like a champ. You’ve fought hard, saved my life more times than I probably know about, and you’ve been a valuable asset to this team. So now it’s that time I hold up my end of the deal.”

“What end?”

“The human custom where I release you of your damned—”

Abimbola gave Magnus a death glare.

“Of your obligation to me. Rohoar of the Tawnskrit—”

“Tawnhack,” Awen whispered.

Tawnhack, I hereby consider your life debt fulfilled. I release you to your people.”

At first, Rohoar didn’t move. Only his nostrils flared as he took in a steady breath. Finally, he lowered his head and exposed the side of his neck in deference to Magnus. And, to his credit, Magnus returned the gesture.

Awen smiled.

“Thank you, scrumruk graulap,” Rohoar said as he raised his eyes on Magnus—the little hairless warrior. “Rohoar is honored by your generosity.”

“It’s the least I can do. Friends?”

Rohoar sniffed the air. “Friends.” Then he looked to Caldwell, probably to seek release.

“Hell if I’m gonna stand in your way, mwadim,” the colonel said. “I’d only ask that you keep your comms on in case we need you.”

“This is not my departure from the Gladio Umbra,” Rohoar said. “It is, after all, the tribe of my ancestors. Rohoar is no less a part of them than he is a part of you, both here”—he pointed to his head—“and here”—then to his chest, spreading two pads of his paw apart.

“They have two hearts?” Magnus whispered to Awen.

She shh’d him but nodded.

“Damn.”

“Will you take Czyz and the others with you?” Zoll asked.

“If they so wish, and if it is the will of Colonel Caldwell.”

Caldwell frowned, but it wasn’t a disapproving look. He seemed to be considering the request and probably didn’t want to answer flippantly. “I think we have enough hands on deck. It’s fine with me. Plus, from what I understand about the Sekmit, you’re probably better off staying clear of Aluross.”

The colonel wasn’t wrong. The Sekmit were cunning warriors and tribal tacticians.

Rohoar thanked Caldwell then took a step back, indicating his desire to speak was over.

“Anyone else?” the colonel asked. Heads shook. When no one else spoke, Caldwell clapped his hands. “Right then, let’s get this show on the road. Ricio, I want you and Fang Company providing escort to Granther Company and our survivors.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Awen, you work with the locals on situating everyone. Magnus, you coordinate assignments and responsibilities. Then I’m counting on both of you to get some mysticsdamned rest, or else I’ll be forced to break your legs myself.”

“Yes, sir,” Magnus and Awen said in unison.

“Everyone else, you have your orders,” Caldwell said. “The Spire will make orbit over Seaman’s LZ within the hour. Dominate.”

“Liberate,” everyone replied. Awen wondered how long it might be before she heard the cadence of these same voices again. She would miss it.


4


Terminal Fallout

“One minute,” the pilot said.

Wainwright turned around and held up one finger to his officer in charge, who then repeated the warning into the cargo bay to First Platoon and half of Second.

The shuttle was bound for Second Fleet’s Battleship, the Vincent. Like five other warships left in the aftermath, the Vincent’s engines, communications relays, and sensors had been disabled, rendering it lame, deaf, and blind. Some of its weapons systems and shields were still online, allowing it to put up a partial defense, but without sensors, both systems were next to worthless. If the Commodore had wanted extra target practice, this ship would have been an easy target. But in the wake of a conflict hallmarked by catastrophic losses, the last thing anyone wanted was more bloodshed.

Lovell assigned Wainwright to the Vincent—the largest of the surviving enemy vessels—along with two companies from Magnus’s people. One unit was commanded by a former Marine Captain who Wainwright knew from the academy—Daniel Forbes. While Wainwright was three years older, the two had been in the same class and had pissed under their share of pool tables together over the weekends. Different assignments pulled them apart, but they remained in touch over the years as time allowed.

The other company was headed up by an old woman Wainwright could only describe as the coolest granny he’d ever met. Wiry hair and an electric personality to match, the woman named Willowood was in charge of a whole host of mystics. They gave Wainwright the creeps, of course—after the splick he’d seen, he wouldn’t trust a Luma except as a practice target. But Lovell vouched for Willowood and stressed that these were rehabilitated Luma, courtesy of none other than Colonel Caldwell. Apparently, Magnus served with them too. Both men’s words went a long way in easing Wainwright’s apprehension—but still not enough, he thought to himself.

Wainwright checked the mission clock in his HUD and patted the pilot on the shoulder. “I’m heading back. Keep it smooth for us, will you?”

“Roger that,” the pilot said.

Wainwright left the cockpit and headed into the cargo bay. His company, Forbes’s, and Willowood’s were spread among six heavy armored transports, each ready to take a beating as they closed on the enemy ship’s hangar bays. But the Vincent didn’t send out so much as a blaster bolt. Wainwright’s imagination went through several scenarios, ranging from the most plausible, that the weapons systems could not get effective target lock without sensors online, to the most absurd, that Moldark had liquified every sailor onboard.

Wainwright walked down the column of Recon Marines until he was at the ramp. He de-magged his MAR30 from his back, racked the first charge, and looked at the loadmaster. “Drop us as soon as we make entry,” Wainwright said over the squad’s TACNET channel.

“Copy that,” the loadmaster replied. The man turned his head and would be asking the pilot for the necessary update.

Wainwright waited, finger resting on his trigger guard. He’d seen more and heard more crazy splick in the last few weeks than at any time in his career. And with Prime being little more than a ghost planet, who knew what the future held. Splick, he may not have a job after this mission given the direction the Republic was headed—especially if he couldn’t tell friend from foe. Then he remembered his unit and guessed they might be thinking some of the same splick.

“These were our brothers and sisters not so long ago,” he said over the company channel. “Our mission is to take them alive. So think twice before taking any shots. We do this the way we’re supposed to, and no one gets hurt. I’ll buy everyone a round on our next shore leave.”

“OTF,” said Wainwright’s company OIC, Samantha Lynzell. The rest of the unit leaders echoed her pledge to own the field.

“We get in, clear the ship, and get out. Tag survivors for interrogation and put them on the transfer tugs. With any luck, we’ll be outta here in time for Simmons to have his mom give him a glass of warm milk and sing him a lullaby.”

“I’ll have you all know that she’s a great singer,” said Lieutenant Simmons, OIC for Second Platoon.

“And her milk’s the sweetest,” Lynzell added.

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

“Got plenty of my own, LT. Save it for the noobs.”

“Stay sharp,” Wainwright said. “Here we go.”

The loadmaster acknowledged the pilot’s call and then punched the Open button, causing the ramp’s hydraulics to shriek in protest from inside their housings. A crack of light appeared at the bay’s ceiling and extended to the floor while the shuttle descended in the hangar. The ramp kissed the deck at the same time the HAT touched down—a supreme bit of piloting that would be lost on most people. Wainwright made a mental note to say something to the pilot later.

“Everyone out,” Wainwright said and then led the way down the ramp. He stepped aside and waved Marines forward as he marked the hangar bay exits on the mission map. Wainwright allowed his eyes to linger on three sets of blast doors until a waypoint marker appeared over them. Then he assigned each platoon one of the routes.

Third Platoon and the rest of Second disembarked their HAT and filed into formation according to Wainwright’s waypoints. A third HAT arrived with half of Willowood’s company while the other half landed with Forbes’s element in a hangar bay on the Vincent’s port side. Each mystic unit was tasked with providing some sort of shielding, like what he saw on the beach on Capriana. As far as he was concerned, those mystics had defied the laws of physics. And if they did it there, they could do it here. At least that’s what he hoped.

“How you looking, Forbes?” Wainwright said. The Gladio Umbra’s AI had linked TACNET and VNET comms together to make the operation more seamless.

“Stacking up on two of three blast doors,” Forbes replied. “Third was apparently damaged in the space battle. No sign of ship’s personnel.”

“Copy that. We’ll breach on my mark.”

“Standing by.”

“Willowood, do you copy?”

“Here, Captain Wainwright,” she replied, but her voice wasn’t coming in over comms.

“Splick,” Wainwright said. “Are you in my head?”

“Better get used to it,” Forbes added. “They claim it’s more stable than comms.”

“And a hundred times more unsettling,” Wainwright added.

“She can hear you,” Forbes said.

“Just focus on your mission,” Willowood said in a kind tone. “We’ll be here to keep you covered, and if you need something, just think it.”

“So, you can hear my thoughts,” Wainwright stated without enthusiasm.

“In a manner of speaking. But don’t worry, Captain. I won’t tell everyone what you did last night.”

“Splick, are you—?”

“I’m kidding, young man.” She paused. “But not really.”

“Wait. What?”

Forbes laughed over comms. Apparently he could also hear Willowood’s Unity voice or whatever they called it. “Wish I could see the look on your face right now,” Forbes said.

“Yeah, I’ll show you when we get back on the Fortuna.” Wainwright refocused on the blast doors. “Willowood, can you cover us as we breach these doors?”

“Yes, Captain. My units are ready and waiting for your orders.”

Wainwright hesitated. “So, what do I say? Shields up?”

“That works.”

Suddenly, three walls of translucent light popped to life in front of each of Wainwright’s three squads, moving with the Marines as they approached the blast doors. “Well I’ll be,” Wainwright whispered. Then he called up his OICs as well as Forbes’s squad leaders. “All units, prepare to breach.”

Fire teams ran forward to each doorway, covering their unit’s demo expert, and set a perimeter while the charges were placed. Once set, the fire teams backed away and rejoined their squads. One by one, each element checked in on both sides of the Battleship until Wainwright saw green across the board.

“Light ’em up,” Wainwright said. OICs relayed the order, and breaching charges flashed along the hangar bay’s inside wall. The deep kuh-thud of each explosion shook the deck, but the resulting fireballs did not expand. To Wainwright’s surprise, the mystics’ forcefields contained the blasts and focused their energy on the targets. The result was detonations several times more forceful than Wainwright had anticipated.

“Fun splick, eh, Wainwright?” Forbes said.

“I could get used to that.”

“Just wait.”

Wainwright raised an eyebrow. “For what?”

“When the shooting begins.”

As if the former Marine Captain’s words summoned the act, blaster fire erupted from inside each hallway. But instead of drilling into his Marines, the energy rounds exploded against the Unity shields the same way they had on Capriana’s beach. Each bolt splintered apart in a brilliant display of free energy that crackled across the surfaces.

Every Marine under his command had their MAR30s raised. Wainwright knew they were itching to fire, and had these not been Recon units, he knew many would have returned fire already. But not his men and women. They were apex predators, and the pinnacle of self-discipline and restraint. He hadn’t given the order to return fire yet, so they wouldn’t. But then again, they didn’t need to.

That didn’t keep them from checking in with him, however. “Orders, Captain?” Simmons asked. Wainwright could hear the apprehension in his voice.

“Do not open fire,” Wainwright said. “Activate all relays to broadcast.”

“Hard copy.”

Wainwright saw the broadcast icon appear on every Marine in his company. Likewise, Forbes routed Wainwright’s signal to the external speaker on each of his gladias. When Wainwright spoke next, every helmet in Wainwright’s and Forbes’s elements broadcast his voice.

“Attention. To the crew of Republic Battleship Vincent, this is Captain Josiah Wainwright of the 70th Reconnaissance Battalion assigned to First Fleet. We are here to—”

A shoulder-mounted rocket exploded against the Unity shield and shook the hangar bay. Fortunately, the defensive wall was holding, but Wainwright cast Willowood a glance just to be sure.

“Everything’s fine on our end,” Willowood said before he asked a thing. “Proceed.”

“Roger that.” Wainwright resumed his broadcast. “We are here to commandeer your ship and take you into remedial custody, provided you—”

Another SMR explosion shook the deck.

“I don’t think they’re interested in talking,” Lynzell said.

Wainwright cursed. “Dammit, people! We’re here to help you. Stand down. I repeat stand—”

Two SMRs hit the right-hand shield wall simultaneously, causing it to flicker. Wainwright heard Willowood’s voice in his head, ordering her mystics to redouble their efforts and strengthen the right flank. “They really don’t like you, Captain Wainwright.”

“And here I thought I had such a nice guy reputation,” he replied. “Looks like we’re going with plan B.”

“Might I suggest an alternative to returning fire, Captain?”

Wainwright cocked an eyebrow at her. “Does it involve any of my units dying?”

“Not in the least.”

“Then show us what you’ve got, techno granny.”


5


Terminal Fallout

Piper was bored.

Despite being on the most technologically advanced starship in the galaxy, and having every holo game at her disposal, including Azelon’s virtual environment generator, Piper wanted none of it. All she wanted was someone to talk to.

She laid her head on the game table in a small nook just off the common room on deck four. The adults were busy doing adult things and getting ready for their next mission, which left her all by herself. Again. She flipped a bahdish bahdang piece in her fingers, pushed it through her thumb and index finger against the game board, and then flipped it back—over and over and over.

Her nightmare wouldn’t leave her alone, and no holo game in the universe would make it go away for good. Games worked for a little while. Temporary distractions, her mother called them. But what Piper needed was someone to listen. Someone to tell her everything was going to be okay.

Her mother had been so good at that—at aluviating her fears. Alviatating. Just—making them go away. But with her gone, Awen busy with Magnus, and her grandmother busy leading the mystics, who was left for Piper? Which raised another question. How long had it been since she had played with someone her age? In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time she had even seen a child. On Capriana, she thought. Before we left for good. And that felt like such a long time ago.

“Tiny human?” said a familiar voice.

Piper popped her head off the game board. “Rohoar!” She slid out from behind the table and raced forward. The big doggy caught her as she leaped into his arms, and then pulled her against his warm hairy chest. He wasn’t wearing his armor and looked much more like his old self, like when she first met him on Oorajee. “What are you doing here?”

Rohoar didn’t answer right away. Instead, he pointed to the empty game table. “May Rohoar sit with you?”

“Of course,” she said, giggling. “Do you want to play with me?”

Rohoar set her down. “Yes. What will we play?”

“Bahdish bahdang. Do you know it?”

Rohoar laid his ears back, which meant he didn’t. It also meant he could be very angry, but the hairs on the back of his neck weren’t standing up, so he wasn’t upset.

“That’s okay,” Piper said. “I’ll teach you. It’s easy.”

Rohoar squeezed into the booth and took up his whole side of the nook. Piper laughed. The table seemed so small beneath his hunched-over head and shoulders.

“Why do you laugh at Rohoar?”

“You just look silly, that’s all,” she replied.

“Why silly?”

She covered her mouth. She didn’t want to embarrass Rohoar. But she wouldn’t lie to him either. “You’re so big, and the table is so small. We can move into the common room.”

“No.” The big doggy laid his ears back again. “This is cozel.”

“You mean, cozy.”

“Yes.”

Piper shrugged and slid into the booth. “Suit yourself.”

“Rohoar has no desire to suit himself at this time, but thank you.”

Piper giggled again. “You still have a lot of Galactic common to learn.”

Rohoar harrumphed. “Rohoar does not see you learning any Jujari.”

Daroff niff lik nargoth duram,” Piper said in her best Tawnhack accent. She felt very pleased when Rohoar’s ears perked up and his eyes went wide. “Do not underestimate the little ones,” Piper said, just in case she said it wrong and Rohoar needed the interpretation.

“That was—very good. Where does a tiny human learn this? Who is your sondoth?”

“Umm, Mr. Rohoar, sir?” She pointed at her data pad on the table. “I have the galactic network.”

Rohoar studied the tablet and then looked back at Piper. He let out a low whoof and then stared at the game board. “Is this bingladash?”

“Bahdish bahdang,” she replied. “Yes.” She pointed to his side of the board. “These are your pieces, and these are mine. We take turns moving them, like this.” She demonstrated the standard moves, acting like she was him, then her, and then him again. “Then, when two of our pieces meet, you make a bet.”

“A bet? On what?”

“On whether or not I’m stronger than you, or you than me.” She pointed to a stack of poker chips beside the side of the board and cut them into two equal piles. “Awen says I’m not allowed to bet with real credits, so Abimbola gave me some of his poker chips. These are yours.”

Rohoar pulled his pile toward his side of the table. “Rohoar does not understand.”

Piper nodded at the two opposing pieces that touched. “I’m going to bet two chips that I’m stronger than you. Bahdish.” She placed her bet on the board. “And you”—she reached to his pile of chips—“are only going to bet one. Bahdang.”

“Why one? Rohoar is more confident than one.”

“Just watch. Now we flip.” Piper took her piece and flipped it over to reveal a strength icon. Then she took Rohoar’s piece and flipped it over, revealing a symbol of lower strength.

“Bahdish, bahdang,” he said under his breath. “Rohoar sees.”

Piper took all three poker chips then removed Rohoar’s piece from the board and placed hers back down.

“Hey,” he said. “You took Rohoar’s warrior.”

“You lost.”

“What?”

“You lost.”

The big doggy growled. “Rohoar never loses.”

“Well, you just did. But don’t worry”—she reached out and petted his paw—“I was just explaining the game.”

Rohoar pulled his paw away, but there wasn’t much room to retreat, so he merely bent his hand at the wrist and raised it as if he was injured.

“You can look at your pieces at any time, and you try and memorize mine as we play. You use the betting portion to try and convince your opponent to back down.”

“Like intimidation in battle.”

“Yes. And if your opponent doesn’t want to call off their attack after you bet, you show your pieces. You can also use other pieces to strengthen your attack, like this.” Piper moved a few other pieces into play, both hers and his, and then flipped them over and added the values on her finger for him to see. When she removed another of his pieces again, Rohoar growled.

“Rohoar does not lose.”

“I’m just teaching you, silly. And you can always use your chips to buy your taken pieces out of jail. The first one to lose all their pieces or all their money loses.”

Rohoar pulled his poker chips a little closer toward his tummy. “Begin for real.”

She smiled, then reset the board. “You go first.”

Rohoar moved a piece forward.

“So, you’re alone?” Piper asked as she made her opening move. “Where is everyone?”

“All the everyones are busy preparing for many things.” He moved.

“What kind of things?” She moved her next piece, noticing that Rohoar was lowering his head toward the game board.

“Some help to clear ships, some go to the planet to serve survivors, others go to a cat planet to take naps.”

“Cat planet?”

Rohoar shuddered. “Yes. Sekmit.” Then he whispered something in Jujari.

She pointed at him and tilted her head. “Did Rohoar just say a naughty word?”

He sat back in surprise and pointed at his chest.

“Yes, you,” she said.

Then he leaned toward her. “Does the network also teach tiny humans bad Jujari words?”

“Nope,” she said, moving a piece to intercept his. “I guessed. Bahdish.” She threw down two poker chips.

Rohoar snapped his attention down to the board, looked under his piece, and then bet three chips. “Bahdang.”

Piper flipped her piece over, then Rohoar flipped his.

“My win,” she said with a cheerful tone.

“No. Rohoar does not lose.”

“Don’t worry. It’s just the first round. We have a lot of pieces left.”

“Good. Let us continue.”

She jabbed a finger toward his side of the board. “Your move.”

Rohoar moved his head from side to side and sniffed the air. He looked under a few of his pieces and then made his move.

“So, which one of those things are you doing?” Piper asked.

Rohoar looked up, as if unsure of her question.

“The ships, the survivors, the cat naps,” she said, trying to clarify for him.

“None of them. Rohoar plays badalangdish with Piper.”

“Bahdish bahdang, Mr. Rohoar. Bahdish bahdang.”

“Yes.”

As she moved her next piece, she caught Rohoar tracking her hand with his whole head. It made her giggle. “But what are you doing after we play?”

“Play again?”

“Yes, but after that?”

Rohoar scratched behind his ear and then moved. Piper moved another piece and double-teamed Rohoar. “Bahdish,” she said, then bet three chips.

“Bahdang,” Rohoar replied, tossing down five chips.

Piper flipped her two pieces, and he flipped his one.

“No,” Rohoar growled.

“You’ll get used to it,” Piper said, removing his piece from the board and collecting her winnings. “Try harder.”

Rohoar pulled his lips back. “But Rohoar is trying with all of his tries.”

“It takes time. Maybe think about using your pieces together, like I did.”

“Rohoar does not need help.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Rohoar needs no suits. He prefers freedom.” He moved, and then Piper moved.

“So, after this, then what?” she asked.

Rohoar studied the board but did not move right away. “Rohoar will return to Oorajee.”

Piper froze.

Rohoar seemed to notice that something was wrong because he looked up from the board and studied her face. “Has Rohoar electrocuted Piper?”

“What?” She wanted to snicker at him, but the sadness squeezing her heart was too strong.

“To send energy into a body. Electrocute?”

Piper shook her head, but she didn’t feel like talking. She crossed her arms. “Shock.”

“What?”

“The word you want. You asked if you shocked me.”

“Ah, yes. And has Rohoar?”

Piper looked away. The thought that he was leaving her made her so sad. Just when she thought she had a friend, he was leaving. “Why are you going?”

Rohoar let out such a deep breath that the warm air played with Piper’s head like a hair drier. “Cut that out,” she said, unable to conceal her smile. But Rohoar wasn’t smiling. In fact, she was pretty sure he was crying.

“What’s the matter?” She reached out and grabbed his finger. “Rohoar?”

“Rohoar’s son has died.”

Piper felt like someone had punched her in the tummy. She couldn’t breathe. When she finally managed to speak, the words came out all twisted and thin. “I’m sorry, big puppy. I’m so sorry.” She wiped tears from her eyes and forgot about their game—until Rohoar made his next move. She wondered how he could think of playing a game with news like this.

“Your turn,” he said.

Piper stared at the pieces for several seconds. “How did he die?”

“Valiantly.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

Rohoar sniffed the air. “He gave his life to save our people. To save me. To save you.”

Piper winced. “Me?”

“Your move.”

She could hardly see the pieces through her tears. Piper wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands and then made a move. “He saved me?”

Rohoar twitched his nose. “He drove his starship into Moldark’s and disabled part of the engines. Valiantly.”

“What was his name?” she asked.

“Victorio.”

“That’s a beautiful name.”

“And he was a beautiful son,” Rohoar said, making his next move. “Bahdish.” He threw down four chips. Apparently, he thought his piece was strong.

But Rohoar had moved into a cluster of Piper’s pieces, and she knew without looking that her combined strength far outweighed his. So she put down ten chips to scare him off. Piper was just doing this for his own good. “Bahdang.”

Rohoar scowled at her.

“Do you want to back down?” she asked.

“No. Voknareth ilphin nockfarock. Never back down when kill is certain.” He motioned forward with his head, encouraging her to flip her pieces as he flipped his.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Piper flipped her pieces over—their combined strength far exceeding his.

“No,” Rohoar said through clenched teeth. “Rohoar always wins. Tiny humans are no match for him.”

Piper managed a small smile. She loved Rohoar, and she would miss him when he was gone. “So, are you going to attend his funeral? You’ll be back afterward though, right?”

“What is funeral?” he asked.

“You know, where everyone gathers and talks about how much they miss the dead person. Then you look at the body and cry over it. And then everyone eats.”

“You eat the corpse?”

“No, gross. We eat at someone’s house.”

“You eat the corpse at someone’s house?” Rohoar sneezed in the air, showering her with a fine mist. “You are such a strange species.”

“No." Piper ran a hand over her face. “We eat regular food, and the body goes into the ground.”

Rohoar seemed to accept this more easily but still twisted his head a little. “You wish your kinsfolk to reside eternally among sand then?”

“Huh?” Piper wrinkled her nose.

“You bury them, in sand, to abide with sand.”

“No. It’s just because…” She really didn’t know why.

“We Jujari burn the bodies of kinsfolk, releasing them to abide among stars,” Rohoar said with a dreamy tone to his voice.

“We burn them sometimes too,” Piper said, realizing that she didn’t know as much about funerals as she thought.

“You do this to the ones you like, and bury the ones you don’t?”

Piper blinked at him, then decided to move—and change the subject. “So, when will you come back?”

Rohoar moved. “It is uncertain.”

“What do you mean it’s uncertain? You hold your son’s funeral, and then you come back here, right?”

But Rohoar didn’t answer right away.

Piper filled the awkward silence with another move.

“Rohoar is mwadim again,” he said, sliding a piece forward from his backline.

“Mwadim? That’s like the most important doggy, right?”

He grunted. Then Rohoar put his head down as low as it would go and tracked Piper’s next move with one large eye. Keeping his head right where it was, he looked at his piece, put a claw nail on it, and slid it to meet hers. “Bahdish,” he said, and then pushed the remaining chips forward.

“But, Rohoar, that’s one piece.”

“Bahdish,” he repeated with more force.

“But I’m surrounding you.”

“And Rohoar scares you away with all his poker chips from Abimbola. Bah—dish, Rohoar says.”

Piper shrugged. She didn’t even bother betting. “Bahdang.”

“Where is your intimidation? Rohoar sees no bet.”

“I don’t have to,” Piper replied, and then flipped her pieces.

Fiklarrok,” Rohoar shouted.

Piper didn’t know what the word meant, but it sounded naughty. “I win.”

“Rohoar wins!”

“No, Rohoar doesn’t win. Piper does.” She pulled his chips to her side of the table as the Jujari looked away with a pouty face. “Oh, come on. It’s just one game. Don’t be such a sore loser.”

“Rohoar is not sore in any part of his body.”

“You’ll win next time.” She split the chips up again. “Here, I’m even giving you extra money, okay?”

Rohoar kept his head looking away but rolled his eye to see the pile of chips. “Why? Because the tiny human takes pity on Rohoar? He needs no pity.”

“Because Rohoar is Piper’s friend. And she’s going to miss him while he’s gone.”

Piper’s words seemed to make Rohaor’s shoulders relax. “Piper is Rohoar’s friend too.” He sighed and then looked back at her. “Being mwadim means Rohoar must be present for his people. To lead them. And after so much carimgil, so much blood war, Rohoar’s people need eyes.”

“Eyes?” Piper looked up from resetting the board.

“Yes, eyes.”

She shook her head. “I don’t think that’s what you mean to say.” Piper thought for a moment. “Vision.”

“How is this different?” Rohoar asked.

“Eyes are these.” She made a show of touching the white part of her eye. It didn’t hurt like touching the center part, and she learned you could gross adults out by doing it. “But vision is something we say to talk about making plans or thinking ahead.”

“Then Rohoar’s people need vision, yes.”

“That makes sense.” Piper told Rohoar they were ready to begin again, but the big puppy hesitated. He seemed distracted by something. “Rohoar?”

“Yes?”

“Are you okay?”

He sighed, blasting her hair with more hot air again. “Rohoar is unsure if he will win.”

“It’s your second time playing,” Piper said with an exasperated tone. “Here, I’ll go easy on you this time. Promise.”

“Not here.” He pointed to the board. “There. Among the Jujari.”

Piper bunched up her nose and eyebrows. “You mean, you’re not sure you will win their hearts or something?”

“You might say this, yes.”

“Come on, you’re Rohoar,” Piper exclaimed. “You’re the best super doggy in the galaxy!”

“Not doggy. Jujari.”

“You’re still super. And you can do anything.”

He grunted. “He cannot win in board game against tiny human.”

Piper considered this for a second. “You know what your problem is?”

“Rohoar has no problems.”

“We all have problems, super doggy.”

“Not super doggy.”

His ears perked up.

“You’re trying to do things by yourself. You know, alone. Like in the game. You lost pieces because you took on three of my pieces with only one of yours. That makes it so easy for me to beat you. Instead, you gotta use pieces together. You know, like the Gladio Umbra. Then it’s harder to beat you because you’re way stronger.” She made a fist and punched her open palm. “Together you’re stronger. And you’re never alone.”

“But Rohoar is strong,” he replied.

“Yeah, but—” Piper felt frustrated. She didn’t know what else to say. “I’m just saying, maybe you’re not strong enough by yourself, and that’s why you’re appriprensive.”

Appriprensive?

“Sure. Everyone feels it before they do something they’ve never done. Like facing your fears, head-on. But if you do it as one, then you don’t need to be so afraid.”

Rohoar nodded in understanding. “Appriprensive. Facing fears head-on as one.” He punched a fist into his open palm. “Rohoar likes this.”

“Good.”

“Rohoar will be more appriprensive.”

“Yes. Wait, umm—no.”

He punched his palm again. “Head-on. No fears. As one.”

Piper needed to re-explain the word. He was getting it wrong. “Rohoar, wait—”

“No waiting. Play again. Rohoar is very appriprensive now.” And then he moved his first piece.


6


Terminal Fallout

By the time Sootriman and Ezo arrived on the far side of Capriana Prime, the local Repub forces had already begun evacuating the planet. Their efforts, however, seemed more like feeble attempts at mass crowd control than executing any sort of coordinated exit strategy. Sootriman guided the Radiant Queen, her retrofitted Panther-class starfighter, over spaceports flooded with survivors. Survivors overwhelmed the few remaining islands unaffected by Moldark’s barrage like Kaloton swarm locusts to pools of desert honey. Even from a thousand meters up, Sootriman could tell the government’s greatest threat was not stemming fallout, it was curbing pandemonium.

The LO9D strikes had sent shockwaves rippling across the planet, wiping out life much the way multiple meteor strikes might. Those inhabitants lucky enough to live beyond the blast radiuses were given the highest chances of survival, and they now made their way to landmasses with the last operational spaceports. They came by boat, hover ship, and sea skimmer. Some paddled from atop building wreckage, while others swam. And as the survivors touched down on sandy beaches, they flooded Prime’s last habitable landmasses in desperate bids to save their lives.

Sootriman came in over Vellarial Island’s west side and set the Queen down in a hangar bay reserved for non-Repub transports. While her ship wasn’t suited for more than five passengers, she and Ezo weren’t here to make runs. They were here for aid. Seaman had given Caldwell a list of areas of strategic need, and high on that list was helping survivors bed down in designated shelters to wait their turn to leave. It would take several days, if not weeks, to get everyone clear of the dying planet. That meant meeting basic needs like food, clothing, waste management, shelter, and making sure families stayed together or had the means to reconnect once underway to the sanctuary planet of Minrok Santari.

Sootriman had flashed her credentials to a Repub Marine who then pointed her and Ezo to a command center on the spaceport’s far side. From there, they were introduced to a welfare management officer who immediately assigned them a position helping survivors to take shelter inside the city’s spaceball stadium. Sootriman and Ezo were given a quick rundown of basic tasks, and then assigned their own area to manage on the main field.

“Any questions?” the welfare management officer said from behind his makeshift standing desk. He wore a beige field suit that bore the Republic’s Health and Welfare Services badge over his left breast, and his last name over the right.

“Seems straightforward to me, Officer Griggs,” Sootriman said, reviewing the action plan on a data pad. Just then, she noticed the man eye her long legs. She’d worn a work shirt, vest, and khaki shorts, knowing it was going to be hot on Prime.

“Eyes on the data pad there, Griggsy,” Ezo said. “My wife’s already got one set of eyes on her assets, and that’s enough.”

Griggs, not realizing he’d been observed ogling Sootriman, glanced back down at his desk.

“We’ll check in with”—she glanced at the stadium director’s name again—“Lowery upon arrival.”

“Correct. He’ll get you squared away.” Then Griggs seemed to consider Sootriman and Ezo for a moment. “Thanks again for your help. We don’t have a lot of civilians looking to hang around.”

“I know what it’s like to be displaced.” Sootriman looked to Ezo. “We both do.”

“Well, it’s appreciated—and you come with a recommendation from Commodore Seaman as well.” Griggs whistled. “You’re either in a heap of trouble, or you really like helping people.”

“It’s always a little of both, isn’t it?”

Griggs chuckled then cleared his throat. “Listen, there’s one more thing. We’ve had several reports of incidents around the city.”

The way the man said the word incidents made Sootriman curious. “What kind of incidents?”

“Eh, minor conflicts between disgruntled citizens and the Marines. Everyone’s on edge right now—which goes without saying. Fight or flight instincts don’t exactly get channeled through the brain’s logic center. You know what I mean?”

“So we should keep our wits about us,” Sootriman said.

“Something like that.” Griggs turned and reached into a set of crates behind him. “Here,” he said, handing Sootriman and Ezo crowd-control rods. “Take these just in case.”

Sootriman waved a hand at the wicked instrument. “Thanks, but I’ll be okay.”

“But Ezo will take it,” Ezo said as he reached for the device. “And hers too.”

Sootriman gave him a stern look.

“What?”

She closed her eyes and shook her head as if to say whatever.

Ezo clipped the prods onto his belt and then smiled. “Just in case.”

They finished the briefing, thanked Griggs, and followed an armed Marine escort across an open hangar bay toward a transport sled.

“Seemed like you got a bit jealous back there,” Sootriman said.

“Eh, your legs draw a lot of attention. I was just, you know, trying to thin the herd.”

“Well, I liked it.”

Ezo’s cheeks turned a shade of pink, and then he reached back to one of the two control rods on his hip. “I mean, I’ve got prods now. I can go back and taze him if you want.”

“Easy, husband.” She placed a hand on his arm. “I said I liked you speaking up for me, not electrocuting the guy.”

“Fair enough.” He let go of the prod but pointed to it. “But if you ever need me to—”

“I know where to find you.”

Outside the spaceport’s high walls, Sootriman heard masses of people milling about, waiting for their turn to leave the planet in what she’d seen from the air were endlessly long lines. Even separated by blast doors and ten-meter high walls, she could hear the nervous voices of adults, crying children, and shouting Marines. It wasn’t hard to imagine the unrest that Griggs had warned them about. Mass-tragedies had a way of bringing people together and driving them apart, depending on what core values lay at the bottom of a culture’s collective soul. Hopefully, Prime’s foundation will hold out a little longer, she thought, knowing it was crumbling by the second.

Sootriman took a deep breath as they neared the transport. The midday sky was dour—sun dimmed by the ashen remains of untold millions of souls. And the air Sootriman breathed was stale. A stench filled her nose, one of seawater, burnt plastic—and death.

“You okay, love?” Ezo asked as he took up her hand.

Sootriman was startled by his touch but no less grateful for it.

When she didn’t say anything, he added, “Caledonia?”

“Of course,” she said, remembering her people’s long resettlement efforts.

“Me too.”

Where her parents had been royalty, escorted off-planet for the worst of the years-long conflict, Ezo had been a meager island teenager forced to face the horrors of watching his village be wiped out by the ’kudas. He had no opportunity for escape and was forced to fend for himself, suffering on his home island—until the Marines helped rescue him. Or, rather, he helped save them.

When Sootriman finally reconnected with Ezo, he had become a wealthy young entrepreneur, one who’d survived the conflict aboard his newfound yacht. At least, that was the story he’d told everyone. But she knew otherwise—she knew him before all that, when he was just T’ai from Mo’a Ot’a. But her parents would never have allowed her to fall in love with a Nimprinth, let alone a destitute one. But a self-made one with means that rivaled their own wealth? That might have been enough. Still, they refused her.

“You have responsibilities here,” her father had said when Idris Ezo asked for permission to whisk her away to the stars. “Your people are hurting, and it will take years to resettle everyone.”

“Beyond the year we’ve already spent?” Sootriman asked, tired of the arduous nature of the work. “Is that to be my whole life then? Caring for others’ needs only?”

Her father had looked at her with grief-filled eyes. She could see he was tired, as was her mother. But they were nobles to a fault.

“What about my needs, father?” she asked, touching her chest with a fist of protest. “When’s it my turn?”

Her father was right, of course—leading the Caledonians was the right thing to do. But that didn’t mean it was what she wanted. He was king, after all, and she was not. So, in the end, Sootriman did what any self-respecting young woman in love would do. She ran away with Ezo aboard his starship and never looked back.

“It’s just like fate, isn’t it?” Sootriman said, squeezing Ezo’s hand as they boarded the Repub shuttle. “That we’re here.”

“And forced to deal with a similar hardship all over again?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No. It’s not a hardship. It’s more like—a second chance.”

He looked at Sootriman as they took their seats. “You’re saying you regret leaving with me?”

“Not for a second.” She buckled herself in and then retook his hand, squeezing it. “But I still left work that was mine to undertake.”

Ezo looked out the starboard windowplex hatch as the shuttle’s engines wound up. “It was your parents’ work, love. Not yours.”

“I know. But still I—”

“Felt guilty for leaving.”

She nodded as he looked back at her.

“So it’s redemption then,” he said.

“Something like that.” She felt the ship lift upward. They rose above the spaceport’s walls and banked away, passing over the crowds of survivors.

Terminal Fallout

In the distance, poking between skyscrapers, Sootriman caught sight of the spaceball stadium. Its lights shone down on four decks of seating, causing the edifice to stand out against the murky sky like a shimmering jewel. But she knew the angst of those people now filling its walls. Gone was the pregame hope that one team would defeat the other. Gone were the victory shouts as goals were scored, and fireworks set off—instead, the ticket queues and turnstiles filled with the hopeless victims of war.

When the shuttle finally touched down inside the stadium on the main field, Sootriman and Ezo were greeted by a Repub welfare supervisor. “Thank you both for volunteering,” the man said, dressed in his beige uniform. “Name’s Lowery. I’m overseeing the stadium grounds. This way.”

He led them across the field, which was already filling with cots, food and water stations, and mobile sanitation booths. While there were no survivors in the stadium yet, Sootriman felt the tension in the atmosphere. Volunteers worked to place blankets and survival pouches on every seat in the complex, and the air outside hummed with the sounds of the awaiting masses. “You have oversight of grid A-4, over there.”

Sootriman looked to a corner on the field. “Open field barracks?”

“Correct. Your survivors will be staying one night. All families, doubling up cots. We’ll move them out at dawn, and they’ll be replaced by a new wave from those waiting in the seats.”

She nodded. “Got it.”

“You and”—Lowery double-checked his data pad—“Mr. Idris Ezo can take your leave over there in the administration building whenever you like.”

Sootriman glanced over to a heavily guarded mobile crew station. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Still,” Ezo said, putting a hand on her arm but addressing Lowery. “It’s good to know where we might need to take a break or use the facilities.”

Lowery seemed to appreciate Ezo’s sensibility, and Sootriman had to admit that her husband was correct in recognizing their future needs. But all she could think about were the people who needed help.

“Here is your new data pad,” Lowery said, taking the one Griggs had given her. “You’ll find registration rosters, movement timelines, resupply forms, and emergency assistance request fields. If you need anything else, I’ll be in the admin station.”

“Thank you, Lowery,” Sootriman said. She glanced at the pad just as an alert klaxon sounded.

“Looks like you arrived just in time,” Lowery added. “Here come our first guests now.”

A moment later, people emerged from the athletic tunnels that ran under the stands. They also appeared along the tops of each seating section extending four levels up toward the towering lights. Sootriman strained her neck, taking in the dizzying spectacle. But rather than adoring sports fans, these people looked as though they were attending the funeral of some pop icon, filling the seats with forlorn faces and hunched shoulders. Many held bandages to their faces or cradled arms in slings, while others carried children on their shoulders and backs.

Health and Welfare workers directed survivors into seats as the masses arrived at checkpoints bordering the field. “Guess that’s our cue,” Ezo said.

“Thank you again for your help,” Lowery said, and then walked toward the admin station.

Ezo made for the checkpoint, but Sootriman froze.

“You good, love?” Ezo asked.

Seeing all these faces in need of aid, Sootriman couldn’t help but think of the people she’d lost in the fight against Moldark’s fleet. Her Magistrates and their warriors—so many of them gone. And there was nothing she could do about it now. She wasn’t able to help them, and, somewhere in the back of her mind, Sootriman wondered if she would let down these survivors just like she let down her Magistrates.

Then a new emotion hit her, one of deep doubt. Maybe coming here had been a mistake. Perhaps she needed to be back on Ki Nar Four to help her planet recover from its losses. Instead, she was on a Repub world, taking care of people she had no real responsibility for. Maybe Ezo was right—perhaps this was secretly about her redemption—only it was severely misplaced.

“You coming?” Ezo said, looking back at her.

“Yeah.” Sootriman nodded her head. “Let’s do it.”

Terminal Fallout

Sootriman helped a family of six get squared away in three cots. They would take turns sleeping, allowing the children to go first. The husband and wife seemed to insist that the one grandparent also take a spell on a cot, but the older man refused, preferring instead to stand while the others rested. Sootriman admired his selflessness.

Next, she turned to a family of eight—assigned to four cots. The mother of the group seemed cautious, continually checking over her shoulder toward some rows of stadium seating two sections up. She was especially drawn to the family because, based on their dark skin tone and wide eyes, they were Caledonian.

“Are you okay, ma’meetha?” Sootriman asked, using the native word for mother. The woman clutched her infant son and looked surprised when she saw a fellow Caledonian.

“Yes, yes.” She kissed her baby’s head. “I’m fine. Thank you.”

But Sootriman knew a lie when she heard it, especially one spoken in maternal self-preservation. They weren’t even an hour into this situation, and already hostilities were simmering under the surface. Hadn’t these people had enough crises for one day?

Sootriman searched the stands for anyone who looked out of place. But she didn’t see anything besides thousands of people trying to get settled in the hard plastic seats.

The husband pulled the wife close and situated his family around the cots. Ezo distributed food boxes and water while the children curled up on or under the beds. Again, Sootriman studied the section of seating that the mother kept eyeing. Maybe no one else noticed the woman’s furtive glances, but Sootriman did. Unable to see anything out of the ordinary, Sootriman checked the mother’s name on her data pad then knelt beside her.

“Mrs. Solanzan, is it?” Sootriman asked.

The woman nodded. “Merinda.”

“My name is Sootriman. Mow’in neepreeth’a.”

Neepreeth'a oomith,” Merina replied, returning the customary greeting with her eyes raised. “You’re Caledonian.”

Sootriman nodded. “As are you. What island?”

“Pa’toa N’iani.”

“The trade winds favor your north side.”

Merinda eyed Sootriman. “You know it?”

“Well enough.” Sootriman gave her a warm smile and then leaned in. “Is everything okay?”

Merinda’s eyes darted around. She clutched the baby close to her chest as if Sootriman might suddenly snatch him away.

“Easy, Merinda,” Sootriman said with as soothing a tone as she could make. That’s when she noticed that the little boy’s skin was too light to be full Caledonian. “I’m here to help you and keep you safe. Nothing more. You can trust me.”

Merinda bit her lower lip and then turned away from her husband, who was busy attending to the other children. “He’s an evil man,” Merinda said, barely above the sound of a whisper.

Sootriman nodded and then spoke just as quietly. “The child’s birth father? He’s in the crowd somewhere?”

Merinda nodded. “I don’t know how he followed us in here, but he did.”

“Do you have reason to believe he might harm you or your son?”

Merinda swallowed, her hands petting the boy’s little head faster and faster. She nodded.

“Can you point him out to me?” Sootriman noticed the woman withdraw a little. “You can trust me, Merinda. I just want to help keep you and your family safe.”

Merinda swallowed again, looked left and right, and then nodded over Sootriman’s shoulder. “That section there. Fifth row, third seat in from the aisle on the left.”

Sootriman didn’t look right away. Instead, she straightened and casually looked around as if searching for an aid worker. But she saw the man in question, an angry-faced Caprianian dressed in a civil engineer’s uniform. His eyes locked onto Sootriman’s.

“Problem here?” Ezo said.

Merinda looked away, retreated to a cot with her baby, and busied herself with the other children.

“Seems we’ve got a potential situation here,” Sootriman said to her husband, speaking in hushed tones. “But it needs to be handled quietly for the mother’s sake.”

Ezo glanced over at Merinda without moving his head. “Baby daddy somewhere in the crowd?”

“How’d you guess?” she asked, somewhat sarcastically.

“I know a cinshya when I see one,” Ezo said, using the colloquial slang for mixed blood. If anyone but a Caledonian used the term, it usually got them a blaster muzzle in the solar plexus. But Ezo, being both a Nimprinth and her husband, got a free pass.

“Second section. Fifth row. Third seat in from—”

“That’s one angry baby daddy,” Ezo said, cutting her off.

“You think?”

“I’ll have security take care of him.”

Sootriman put a hand on his arm. “Quietly. She doesn’t need any more drama in her life right now.”

Ezo winked. “Copy that, hot legs.”

Ezo moved off and found the closest Marine, while Sootriman tended to Merinda. “Everything’s going to be just fine.”

“You don’t know him.” The woman’s voice strained as her baby started to cry. She bobbed him up and down, trying to soothe him. “He’s—he’s imbidwanzee.”

Sootriman winced. It was, perhaps, one of the worst slang terms in the entire Caledonian lexicon, a derogatory word for a xenophobic rapist. Sootriman activated the comms in her Novian biotech interface and raised Ezo. “Tell them to be cautious, love,” she said in a whisper. The NBTI transmitted the communication to Ezo instantly. “Possibly armed and hostile.”

“You think he means to attack her?” Ezo asked, turning away from the Marine to look at her.

“Imbidwanzee,” Sootriman said.

Ezo nodded. “So, he means to attack her.”

“Yup.”

Ezo turned back to the Marine while Sootriman spoke to Merinda. “He’s not going to hurt you anymore.”

“You can’t be sure,” the woman replied.

“I’m pretty sure.” Sootriman watched three Marines detach from a platoon stationed along the section’s top and make their way down the stairs. “The Republic doesn’t take this kind of thing lying down.”

“Tell that to all the women that condithla raped,” Merinda said, choosing the one word that was, arguably, worse than the term she’d used before. This mother had a mouth on her, but Sootriman couldn’t blame her. “They let filth like this walk around without fear of arrest. Men like him are the whole reason we left Caledonia to begin with.”

“Marines?” Sootriman asked.

Merinda nodded.

In the wake of the years-long conflict, the Republic put permanent bases on the planet to quell any future Akuda uprisings. Not only was the Marine presence strong, but so were the numbers of troopers who decided to get out of the Corps and take up residence on the tropical paradise. As part of their reward for fighting in and surviving the bloody conflict, the government gave soldiers stipends and tax incentives to stay on-world and help with restructuring.

Most Marines were good—that much could be said of any species in the galaxy. But, unfortunately, the violent minority often spoke for the passive majority. And overwhelmingly so. The rumors of violence spread system-wide until the once-prized world became synonymous with freedom for the wealthy and danger for the poor. Some of the quadrant’s worst underworld leaders even took up permanent residence on islands, choosing to base their seedy operations right under the Republic’s nose and take advantage of the tax shelters intended for former Marines, not crime lords.

If a Caledonian family had the funds, Capriana Prime was seen as the destination planet of choice. Not only was it similar in geography and climate, but new legislation provided certain tax credits if the immigrants could get planetside. It didn’t guarantee a life of ease—Prime’s living costs were far too inflated for that—but it did ensure that a family like Merinda’s could make a new start for themselves on a planet far safer than the one they were born on.

Or, so, that’s what everyone thought.

The reality was, as most often are, far different than the projections. Caledonian immigrants were “strongly encouraged” to find housing units in the worst sections of the worst islands on the planet. The tax credits turned out to be little more than handouts, which did little to help a struggling family, like Merinda’s. And the violence they’d desperately tried to escape found them anew, locked on a planet filled with just as much evil as the one they’d left.

Sootriman had left Caledonia for just these reasons. It wasn’t that she wanted to abandon her parents. It was that she believed they were fighting a hopeless cause. Their cause, she’d told herself. Not mine. So when the opportunity to flee with Ezo presented itself, she jumped at it.

They’d wandered the quadrant for a while, but it was ultimately the wild mix of species and the lack of stifling laws that enticed Sootriman to stay on Ki Nar Four. It was there she also discovered that she had her father’s gift for rallying people. To her cause, she emphasized in her head. Not his. And her causes included the radical acceptance of diverse peoples—something this imbidwanzee in the fifth row didn’t understand. Would never understand.

Sootriman watched as the Marines approached the man who’d raped Merinda and waved at him to stand. He shouted at them. Still, the Marines insisted he stand.

“Is it that bitch down there?” the man said, pointing in Merinda’s direction. “She do this?”

Embarrassed, Merinda hid her head against Sootriman’s shoulder. Sootriman instinctively put a hand on the woman’s head as if to shield her.

“All you puckties are the same.” The man seethed. “You can’t take care of your own planet, so you come here and ransack ours with your parasites.”

“Sir, please step out of your seat,” the nearest Marine said, weapon raised.

“That’s not what I fought for, dammit. That’s not what any of us fought for. We shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

“What’s going on?” Merinda’s husband said as he stepped toward the two women. “Is he pointing at you?”

“No,” Merinda said. “He’s talking about all of us.”

“All you puckties deserve to die,” the man said, screaming down at Merinda. “Every last one of you!”

“That’s it. Arrest him,” the Marine ordered the other two troopers with him.

“Don’t touch me,” hollered the man as he shrugged away the Marine’s first attempts to grab him. “You probably did her as many times as I did!”

“Failure to comply will—” The nearest Marine fought the man, trying his best not to bump into those seated around him. “I order you to hold still!”

“Or what? You afraid I’ll hurt someone, like this?” Then the man pulled a blaster from beneath his jacket, pointed it toward Sootriman, and fired.


7


Terminal Fallout

The moment Wainwright gave Willowood permission to engage the hostile forces aboard the Vincent, she hailed Sion, Incipio, and Tora—Paladia Company’s three cadre leaders. “Take the tunnels. Subdue the enemy, but do not kill them unless you have no other choice. I assume they’re still under the lingering effects of Moldark’s control. Break it if you can.”

“Understood,” each mystic leader replied.

“Use half your elements to maintain shielding,” Willowood added. “Employ your most skilled units in close quarters battle. Advance.”

Willowood watched as Incipio took the center tunnel while Sion and Tora took the left and right shafts, respectively. Half of each cadre stepped in front of their Marine counterparts, maintaining the Unity shielding, as the second half advanced into the tunnels.

Incipio’s cadre was the first to make close quarter contact with the enemy. From within the Unity, Willowood watched the Luma-turned-gladia assume the primary stance of the Li-Loré. But where the art form had been intended defensively, Willowood had given her cadres valuable insights and training into how it could be used offensively—skills that she hoped would never fall into the wrong hands.

The Order of the Luma would never have allowed such deviation—that is, all save So-Elku and his Blue Guard. They had already explored the more aggressive nature of the art form, as was realized in the conflict following her release from the catacombs. But for all his strength, So-Elku was still nowhere near the practitioner of the Unity that Willowood was, nor was he as creative. So it was that Willowood created new techniques to supplement the standard forms for situations just like these where enemy combatants needed to be subdued but not slain.

Terminal Fallout

Incipio led the charge into the first tunnel, gathering energy in his hands and spreading them apart at his waist. He drew in a deep breath while the blaster fire distorted the air not one meter in front of him. He could sense the aggravation in the Paragon troopers as they saw their blaster fire doing nothing to harm the mystic warriors. If the tables had been turned, he’d be just as aggravated.

And afraid, he thought. I would be most afraid of this.

He lifted his hands and released the energy down the length of his arms, then scattered it into the mass of enemy combatants. One by one, their thoughts became apparent to him—not in the ways some might think mystics read minds, but in the way that one person might glimpse a single image in another person’s head.

Incipio meant these troopers no harm. He had no desire to kill any of them. Incipio had joined the Luma mainly because the Republic military war machine so repulsed him. And yet, he’d wanted to make a difference in the galaxy, to be an agent of change and not some meaningless cog in a power system. But war, it seemed, was inevitable, and here he was, charging into a blaster fight.

The only difference being that he did not hate this enemy—at least not the way they hated him. Yes, he was angry at all the lives the Paragon had snuffed out. Such actions were atrocious, and there were no repercussions strong enough to punish such seismic violence. But this did not mean Incipio hated these particular men.

Suspended like frozen images held in front of their chests, Incipio could see these fighters’ anger burning in their veins—a deep, vengeful, gnashing anger that was not their own. The too-strong emotion betrayed their bodies and souls, sticking out as an imposter, a thief among robbed victims. These troopers were never meant to embody such loathing—no person was. This potency of revulsion rotted the bones and shriveled the heart. As such, this anger came from somewhere else. Somewhere otherworldly. Willowood had been right—there was something different about these troopers. Something dark. And, coming from a mystic, that meant it was particularly bad.

Incipio looked at a particular Paragon trooper, one who seemed in charge, and focused on his helmet and the head within. This one, he thought. This one is open.

I am here to free you, Incipio said to the man’s conscience. I am here to bring you back to your senses.

Instead, the man bucked Incipio from inside his head, yelling the word “No!”

Very well, Incipio said. We will try again in a moment.

But no sooner had Incipio made the pledge than the Paragon Marine in question ordered three other troopers to charge the Unity shield. Rather than let the wall do the work, Incipio opened a small hole to let the attackers through one at a time. The first trooper fired point-blank. Incipio absorbed the blaster bolt into his palm, grabbed the weapon’s barrel, and pulled the gun from the Marine. The enemy looked down at his empty hands in astonishment. The fault wasn’t entirely the man’s, however—Incipio had employed a great deal of strength to wrest the weapon away.

The Marine threw a punch at Incipio, which the mystic ducked as easily as he might avoid a tree limb on an afternoon walk through the forest. A second left hook crossed over Incipio’s head. When the mystic stood upright, he filled his right hand with energy he’d captured from the blaster rifle and pushed it into the Marine’s chest plate. The man flew backward, passed through the Unity shield, and collided with several of his squad mates. The trooper wasn’t dead, but he wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon, either.

The remaining two troopers Incipio let in flanked him, blasters firing at almost the same moment. Incipio deflected the bolts up and away from his torso. Then he grabbed the weapon to his right, pulled it across his chest along with the Marine still holding the gun, and sent the attacker crashing into his partner. The trooper on the left stumbled but ultimately tossed his squad mate to the floor. Then he aimed at Incipio again.

The Paragon Marine fired, sending a round at Incipio’s head. Incipio closed his eyes and focused on the blaster bolt’s energy. It appeared in the Unity like a ray of sunlight, sparkling against a brilliant blue sky. Rather than let it harm him, Incipio caught the energy with his mind, turned it around, and spread it out. Once released within the realm of the natural order, the shot surged into the Marine like an ocean wave, knocking him to the ground and causing him to slide across the floor, weaponless.

With all three men back outside the Unity shield, Incipio focused on the first trooper he had spied, the one who’s heart seemed agreeable. But the Paragon Marine in question was ordering more troopers to direct their fire at Incipio. Two of them even carried the shoulder-fired detonator launchers that had given Tora’s tunnel cause for concern. Incipio needed to get this situation under control, fast.

The mystic took three steps forward until the Unity shield stood four centimeters from the first Marine’s erupting blaster barrel. A constant barrage of light flared against the translucent wall. Incipio raised his hands, palms extended, and released a blast of energy down the length of his arms.

The explosion of light dwarfed anything the trooper’s blaster could produce and flung the man back into several of his men. The troopers fell to the ground like toy soldiers, and their black armor clattered against the glossy floor. Other Paragon troopers noticed the explosion and looked aside, most likely shocked by the sudden hole punched through their line.

But Incipio wasn’t done with his target. He rolled his hand over, squeezed the air, and pulled. Within the Unity, his hand wrapped around the trooper’s ankle and then dragged his body toward the Unity shield. The victim raised his blaster, aiming at Incipio, but the mystic used his other hand and flicked the air with his thumb and middle finger. In the Unity, the action struck the weapon, and the trooper’s blaster flew out of his hands.

Incipio heard the man yell for his fire team as his body was dragged toward the Unity shield. Hands clawed the floor, but there was nothing for them to hold onto. Instead, he accelerated toward the wall. Several other troopers tried to reach for him, but hands missed. Soon the Paragon Marine was free of his unit and slipped through a hole in the Unity shield.

Now on the opposite side, the trooper stared up at Incipio from on his back. His right hand clutched his chest plate and withdrew a combat knife. But, like the blaster, Incipio swiped it away. The weapon clattered against the sidewall. Then Incipio collected power in his right hand, raised it, and glared at the trooper’s visor. The man held up his hands, but it was pointless.

When Incipio dropped his hand on the trooper’s helmet, several things happened. First, a wave of light burst from the impact, illuminating the hallway like the full sun at midday. There was a beat where trigger fingers hesitated, and all blaster fire ceased.

Second, the power in Incipio’s hand surged through the trooper’s helmet and permeated the enemy’s head. Rather than kill him, however, the energy shocked his conscience—a reboot of the mind.

Lastly, Incipio spoke.

Be free.

Controlling someone’s mind within the Unity wasn’t like everyone thought, Incipio realized. The holo movies always portrayed mind control like domination, whereas, in real life, it was more about invitation. And it wasn’t exactly control, though he was sure some dark users of the Unity could leverage such power over people. Instead, affecting someone’s mind was more like making suggestions. He would no more control another person’s brain than a sail on a primitive boat could control the wind. Harness the wind, yes—a fraction of it. Employ it to do work, yes. But the wind was its own force—a force of nature—and Incipio would no more subdue it than a sail overcomes the wind.

Incipio was not here to brainwash anyone or force this agent of the Paragon to do anything the man didn’t want to do. Instead, Incipio was here to allow the man to be the best version of himself—the clearest version. And that’s what Incipio’s energy jolt did. It blasted away Moldark’s contaminants.

Granted, Moldark had not truly controlled these troopers either, as much as it appeared so. Instead, he played upon their basest desires, exploiting them, bending them toward his own means. Again, it was the power of suggestion, manipulated to a desperate and convoluted end, one that corrupted the subject to behave like the worst possible version of themselves—but themselves nevertheless, not another.

The Paragon trooper froze. With his helmet on, he almost seemed dead. But Incipio could see inside—he knew the man was alive and well, eyes blinking, mind reeling. Then the trooper’s voice crackled over his helmet’s external loudspeaker.

“What’s going on here?” he asked.

“My name is Incipio, and I am with the Gladio Umbra. We are here to free you.”

The trooper raised his head as much as his helmet would allow. He looked left and right, watching other mystics engage the troopers beyond the Unity shield.

“You’re—you’re not going to kill me?”

“No.” Incipio reached down and offered the trooper a hand. “We’re here to bring you back to your senses.”

“But,” the man said, seemingly unsure if he should take Incipio’s proffered hand. “You are here to stop us from… from fixing the Republic.” He spoke as if he barely believed his own words.

Incipio sighed. “I’m afraid that part of this mission is lost. Now we are here to save you from yourselves.” He wiggled his hand at the trooper again, hoping this conversion might be the first of many among the Vincent’s crew. If not, this was going to be a long day.


8


Terminal Fallout

Sootriman threw Merinda and her infant son to the ground and then dove on top of them. The belligerent man’s blaster bolt missed Sootriman’s head by mere centimeters. But it did manage to strike an elderly man in the hip. He toppled into a cot, not three paces behind Sootriman, groaning as he went down.

Survivors screamed as more blaster rounds streaked from the stands. At first, Sootriman couldn’t figure out what was happening. She chanced a quick look at the gunman. The two arresting Marines wrestled him into the seats, displacing at least a dozen people as they pulled the weapon from his hands. That’s when Sootriman noticed several other men standing in different sections, pointing blasters and firing into pockets of survivors.

“Down, down, down,” Sootriman shouted, pushing several children’s heads below their cots. “Everyone, stay down!” Then she scanned the stands and noticed for the first time that the gunmen didn’t seem to be firing randomly. This was a coordinated attack.

“They’re targeting Caledonians,” Sootriman shouted to Ezo above the shrieks.

Ezo gave her a look like he didn’t understand.

“Caledonians!”

Understanding dawned on Ezo’s face as he looked around to see where the gunmen were shooting.

The perpetrators were clearly out of their minds. Not only was it insane to open fire on unarmed civilians, but doing so during a planet-wide emergency was unspeakable. Whatever hate motivated them was of the darkest kind, causing them to fire while taking shelter among those seated in the upper sections.

The Marines, tasked with security, had a hell of a time getting a bead on any of the terrorists. Those troopers around Sootriman aimed into the stands, but she knew as well as they did that it was far too dangerous to fire on the gunmen without risking civilian fatalities. Likewise, those closest to the terrorists weren’t able to approach without the gunmen hiding behind more civilians and taking aim at the Marines. Unless someone did something, and fast, the number of dead would only climb.

Sootriman raised her data pad and pressed the emergency contact button for Lowery. “Lowery. Do you copy?”

“A little busy here, your highness,” he said.

But Sootriman wouldn’t be dismissed so easily. “Any chance you can kill the stadium lights?”

There was a brief hesitation before Lowery replied. “Kill the lights?”

“These gunmen aren’t wearing optics, and the Marines are. The darkness should give the security teams the edge they need to put these bastards down.”

“Not bad,” Lowery said, suddenly sounding much more compliant. “Stand by.”

“Hey,” Sootriman yelled at the closest Marine she could see. “Marine! Over here.”

The man’s helmet turned toward her.

“Lights out!”

He shrugged and offered her an open hand as if to say, “What the hell are you talking about, lady?”

“Lights are going out,” she yelled more slowly. “Tell your COs to get ready!”

Then, as smoothly as if someone had flipped a giant light switch, every light in the stadium went out. Whatever level of unrest had hit the stadium before, the pandemonium that ensured next was ten times worse. The darkness turned the already horrific scene into a living nightmare as shrieks seemed to shake the stadium’s foundation. But the gunmen had ceased firing. Without night vision, their assault was pointless.

Sootriman held her breath, hoping the Marine units would recognize the opportunity she’d just secured them. She waited, and waited, forcing the children under her hands to keep from getting up. “Don’t move, loves. Stay still.”

Finally, Repub blaster fire erupted from the main field. The flashes of light whizzed into the stands, bursting in tight groups of sparks. For the briefest instant, Sootriman saw one gunman after another flail about. Their arms flew up, weapons flinging away, as their bodies disappeared into the rows of seats. Even a few Marines in the seating sections took shots at the gunmen along their rows. The whole thing happened as if under strobe lights, portraying bloody vignettes of macabre death scenes, punctuated by the whine of blaster fire. Then, in less than ten seconds, the fight was over.

“Lights up, Lowery,” Sootriman said into the data pad. “Bring them back up.”

“On it,” he replied.

Three seconds later, the giant stadium light bars turned on and momentarily blinded everyone in the complex. More shouts filled the arena but they were soon mixed with low murmurs as people began pointing to the slain gunmen.

The Marine that Sootriman had warned caught her attention. He spoke over his armor’s loudspeaker. “Thanks for the tip, ma’am.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Did you…?” He pointed up at the lights.

“It was a team effort,” Sootriman replied with a smile.

“Right,” he said.

Then she looked back under the cots. “It’s all done. You can come out now. Everything’s okay.”

But everything wasn’t okay. The shooting had rattled something in Sootriman. Between her Magistrates’ deaths, then the innocent Caledonians, all in the name of Republic interests, it was too much.

“None of this would be happening if you weren’t here,” a voice said a few meters to the right.

Sootriman saw a well-dressed Caprianian woman in her mid-forties clutching two young teenagers to her chest. “You puckties are all the same, causing trouble wherever you go.”

At first, Sootriman didn’t know what to say. The woman’s comments genuinely caught her off guard. It was one thing to hear such reckless words from a bigoted veteran who had PTSD. But it was quite another to listen to a wealthy-looking elitist who knew better.

“Ma’am, please sit down,” Sootriman said.

“I’m not taking orders from you,” she said, apparently empowered by the gunmen’s display of force.

“Ma’am, you need to—”

“I don’t need to do a damned thing. Why do they have puckties in charge here, anyway? Who do they think we are? Mondorian cattle?”

Sootriman pushed herself up from the cluster of cots and stood to full height, working her jaw in the process. She towered a head over the elitist. This woman had no idea who she was dealing with, and it was everything Sootriman could do not to show her—with extreme prejudice. “Ma’am, I suggest—”

“You can suggest nothing to me.”

Sootriman left Merinda and took three steps toward the outspoken woman.

But the offender pushed her children behind her and raised her chin at Sootriman. “How dare the Galactic Republic task such an impudent race with the care and welfare of its citizens.”

“Lady, I don’t know who you think you are, but last I checked, Caledonians are equal citizens in the Republic.”

“They just say that to keep you happy.” The woman sniffed the air, like she smelled something foul. “But everyone knows you’re just second-class citizens and whores.” Then she spat on the spaceball turf.

“Ma’am, you need to take a seat and calm down,” Sootriman said, now arm’s length from the woman.

“And you need to get out of this stadium and off our planet, you pathetic little—”

“To hell with this,” Sootriman said, and then punched the woman in the face.

Terminal Fallout

Had Sootriman known the mayhem her actions would incite, she may have asked a Marine to intervene with the woman. Instead, every racist Caprianian who saw the punch took it as their personal excuse to attack any and every non-human species within reach. Between the catastrophic events of the last twelve hours and the incredible duress of the survivors, it was apparent that the worst part of humanity was on display.

Contrary to the Galactic Republic’s insistence that racism was dead on Capriana Prime, the events in the spaceball arena said otherwise. Arguments broke out in every section of the stadium, many turning violent within seconds. Before long, there was chaos in every corner. The worst part, Sootriman thought, was that children were caught in the crossfire.

Two companies of Marines in riot gear burst from one of the main tunnels leading onto the field. Suppression gas canisters popped in the stands, spewing out thick white clouds. Most survivors covered their faces and started coughing, while several others vomited near Sootriman and Ezo.

“Come on, love,” Ezo shouted, pulling Sootriman toward the mobile admin station.

She let him pull her as a strange and sudden sadness filled her chest. The world around Sootriman seemed to slow down, like a scene from a holo movie where everyone moved in slow motion. Mothers cradled screaming children, men exchanged blows, and Marines fought to get the masses under control.

The moment felt surreal, that here, at the end of this world, its inhabitants were not working together for the common good. They were not serving each other’s needs. They were not looking to the welfare of the weak. Instead, they were attending to their self-interests. Under the pressures of a dying planet, limited resources, and too few transports, the worst sides of people were coming to bear.

Not all people, of course. Sootriman witnessed plenty of individuals stand and defend their families. Several groups, mostly of similar species, banded together, circling the weakest of their numbers, fighting to keep them safe. But they were the exception, not the rule.

As Sootriman gave in to Ezo’s urging to move up the steps and into the admin station, her heart broke. And she knew why, though the reason shouldn’t have startled her. She had always been suspicious of the Galactic Republic, which was made up of smooth-talking politicians and wealthy business elites. She had always mistrusted their proclamations of peace and prosperity. But, somehow, she had wanted to believe. Even despite fleeing the system and ruling over a rogue mining planet, Sootriman had wanted to trust that the Republic was the galaxy’s best hope for unity and survival.

But it wasn’t. The revelation shouldn’t have startled her, but it did. Capriana Prime and the hope that it projected was a lie.

At the end of the day, people were still people, and the heart was still evil. And there was nothing she could do about it. There was nothing anyone could do about it. No government could change it; no religion could transform it; no contract could direct it. The will of a person was reckless and wild like a desert wind, driving about wherever it pleased.

The worst part, as far as Sootriman was concerned, was that she felt duped into thinking all of this—saving these people, supporting the Republic, stopping Moldark—was worth it. Worth the lost lives she’d convinced to join them. Worth the pain that dug its claws into her heart and squeezed. Worth the humiliation of thinking that the galaxy was anything else than what it really was.

Lost.

“It was a mistake to come here,” she said to Ezo as the door closed behind them, sealing them off from the suppression gas and the screams.

Ezo looked in her eyes, but Sootriman was staring past him, into some other realm. Her heart hurt too much to focus on this reality. She wanted to be back on Ki Nar Four, back on her chaotic little planet where people cheated and deceived, bribed and bartered. Where they carved out their own small existence and were permitted to live however the hell they wanted. Back there, you knew what you were getting. There was no veneer, no masks. If someone hated you, they told you so, but they’d still sell you something because, deep down, the backward planet had a sort of shared dignity. People on Ki Nar Four recognized that everyone was lost. Everyone was hurting. And if I could tolerate your mess, and you could stand mine, then maybe we could get along. Perhaps we could even be friends, knowing we were mutually broken. It was ugly, but it was honest.

But here on Capriana Prime? When it all came crashing down, all the happy faces and pristine places were shown for what they were—lies.

“Here,” Ezo said, directing Sootriman to a chair beside a water supply station. “You need to sit down for a second.”

“No.” She brushed his hands away. “I want to leave.”

“Leave? But—we just got here. They’ll have this under control in—”

“I’m leaving,” Sootriman said, snapping her eyes to Ezo’s.

“But, love, they—”

“They’re not worthy of us, Ezo. Don’t you get it? Not you, me, not anyone but their own kind. And if that’s what they want, then so be it. Who am I to stand in their way?”

Ezo squinted at her. He didn’t respond right away. He just studied her face. Then his eyes grew sad. “Love, that’s, that’s a pretty strong thing to say.”

“But it’s a true thing.” She searched his face, raising a hand to it. “And I want the truth no matter how hard it hurts. Let someone else help them the way they want to be helped.” Sootriman took a deep quivering breath, realizing for the first time that she’d been crying. But she didn’t bother wiping her face—there wasn’t any point in it as she knew that new tears would only replace old. “As for me, I’m going home. Where I should have gone before, to the people who need my help—want my help. Whether or not you want to come too, that’s up to you. But I’m done here.”

Fortunately for Ezo, he didn’t argue with her. He might not agree, but the man clearly knew enough not to buck her when she’d made up her mind, especially on a matter of such importance.

“What about the Gladio Umbra?” Ezo asked at last.

Amid her grief, Sootriman had forgotten about them. Weren’t they honest too? she asked herself. Sure, but they didn’t need her—Ki Nar Four did. If anything, the Gladio Umbra had used her. Granted, she’d consented. She walked into their service under her own volition. Hell, she had helped form the damn group—who was she kidding? She trusted Awen and Magnus and TO-96 and Azelon. They were her family, at least of a kind. But they were also on the other side of an objective now. They’d killed Moldark. And So-Elku would no doubt be reined in by the same politics and powers that plagued all systems of governance. In time, the Luma leader would be displaced like every other leader before him. Life moved on. And it was time she did too.

“Ki Nar Four needs me.” Sootriman took his hands. “Needs us, if you’ll come with me. TO-96 too. We’ve done our part. Now it’s time we move on.”

Ezo didn’t hesitate—didn’t look away. “Who’s driving?”


9


Terminal Fallout

“Go for Caldwell,” the colonel said to the new holo window on the Spire’s bridge. As soon as Willowood’s image appeared, he felt bad for the comms discipline he’d used. “Sorry. Force of habit.”

“Not a problem, William.” Willowood seemed a little out of breath.

“Everything okay there, momma?”

She nodded. “The Vincent is clear.”

“And our units?”

“Surprisingly, no casualties.”

“What about the enemy?”

Willowood paused to catch her breath. “Several dozen killed in action. But everyone else is in remedial custody and, all things considered, they seem in remarkably good shape.”

“So it was Moldark’s voodoo magic elixir after all.”

She chuckled, which Caldwell found increasingly adorable. “Something like that. Our mystics were able to cut through most of it. What Paragon Marines weren’t compliant, I have a feeling they will be, given a little more time. Captain Wainwright is preparing the Marines for transport to the Fortuna now.”

Caldwell nodded. “The general will see to their rehabilitation from there. Good work.”

“Well, we’re not done yet. Four more ships to go.”

“But that was the big one.” He paused to blow a plume of smoke to one side. “Take care of yourself.”

“Will do, William. Talk to you soon.”

Caldwell could have sworn she winked at him just as the transmission closed out. “Or maybe it’s just your mind playing tricks on you, old man,” he said to himself.

“I’m sorry, sir,” TO-96 said. “But Willowood was unable to hear your last comment. Additionally, and if you don’t mind me saying so, I believe you have misappropriated her gender. Perhaps Azelon should examine you in sickbay for signs of fatigue or emotional stress.”

“I wasn’t talking to Willowood, Brass Balls.” The colonel turned around to face the bot, smiling. “I was talking to myself. We humans tend to do that sort of thing when we get old and crotchety. Especially when we spend too much time alone, on a bridge, with only two bots to keep us company.”

TO-96 tilted his head. “Oh my. I do believe you are insinuating that Azelon and I are the cause of your geriatric gender delusions. I am terribly sorry, sir.”

“Well, what are ya gonna do, Ballsy?”

“I have not taken the time to consider viable paths forward. Is that something you wish me to undertake?”

“Nah.” Caldwell puffed on his cigar. Mystics, he did love this bot. “There ain’t a lot of hope for guys my age. The most we can hope for is a comfortable chair and an unlimited supply of Gundonium bratch.”

“And cigars, sir?”

“Damn straight, Sac-man.”

“Sac-man?”

Caldwell grinned. “You’ll figure it out.”

TO-96 tilted his head the other direction but did not reply. Apparently, the puzzle had shut him up for the time being.

Caldwell turned back to the main holo screen and let his thoughts wander to the rest of the teams. Magnus and Awen were well on their way to Aluross. Sootriman and Ezo were safely on Prime and helping with the planet-wide evacuation. And Rohoar had shoved off not more than an hour ago, heading for Oorajee.

For as little time as he’d spent with everyone, Caldwell sure felt himself getting sentimental toward the crew. Damn sons a bitches were growing on him, and that, mystics knew, was hard to do. Maybe it was the uniqueness of their mission, or perhaps it was just that damned little girl’s cute smile. He couldn’t be sure. But for one reason or another, this team had started to feel like family a whole lot faster than Caldwell had bargained for.

And he didn’t like it.

Well, he did.

But he didn’t.

Getting too close to anyone meant, sooner or later, your heart was gonna get ripped square out of your chest, knocked around like a drunk floozie in a bar fight gone six ways from sideways, and then jammed back inside, bleeding booze and blood all over your spleen. And Caldwell would be damned if he let his spleen get soiled. His guts were stained enough as it was.

But what was the galaxy if you didn’t care for anyone? Wasn’t love the whole reason people fought over splick? Didn’t beauty start wars, and passion send a thousand starships to their dooms?

Sure they did.

And yet you refuse to go there, Caldwell admitted inwardly. Cause deep down, you’re just afraid of gettin’ pissed on, aren’t you, Willy. Afraid that some good looker is gonna steal your heart, mash it up, and hand it back. Or, worse, you’ll get yourself all up and attached to her, hitched to her wagon, and then some damned war is going to cut her loose, and you’ll be no better off than before.

Caldwell removed the cigar from his mouth and walked back to the captain’s chair. His left knee popped as he sat down, just like it always did. The fact was, he wasn’t getting any younger, and with Moldark dead and the Republic all but gone, his thoughts began to turn toward what he would do when everything settled down. Everyone else seemed to have plans for when the war was over—why didn’t he?

Granted, So-Elku was still an issue. But Caldwell was beginning to think the galaxy may just sort that devil out if given enough time. Maybe just a little more warring before the end, he thought. And then what?

Not for the first time, Caldwell’s thoughts turned toward Willowood. She was, after all, the most eligible bachelorette among the Spire’s crew. Not that he was confined to settling down with a woman on this alien starship. Hell, he wasn’t convinced anyone would want to settle down with him at all. But given the fact that she and he had both seen some of the same crazy splick, it only seemed logical that they would have a lot to talk about while the winter of their lives drew near.

Then there was the matter of whether or not she actually liked him. She did, didn’t she? Or was she just kind to him like she was to everyone else? Confound it—women were harder to read than a poorly lit battlefield on Trida Minor that was covered in nitrous plumes.

“There’s only one way to find out, Willy,” he said under his breath, hoping TO-96 wouldn’t call him out again.

“Find out what, sir?” the bot asked.

And there it was. “Nothing, Ballsy.”

“More of your CGM, sir?”

“CG-what?”

“Crotchety geriatric mumbling, sir.”

He laughed. “Affirmative.”

Caldwell sat back and took a long drag on his cigar. He checked Willowood’s mission clock and did some quick math to estimate her return time to the Spire, and then he calculated how long it would be before the ship could assist Seaman with the civilian evac. The Spire’s ample crew capacity and massive cargo holds would go a long way in speeding up the survivor relocation. He was just about to order Azelon to start making some minor modifications to their projected timeline when TO-96 interrupted his train of thought.

“Sir,” TO-96 said. “I have Ezo on an incoming transmission from—oh my.”

“What is it, Balls?”

“It appears they are transmitting from a departing orbit above Capriana Prime.”

“Departing orbit?” Caldwell leaned forward. “It was my understanding they were secured on the surface already.”

“As was it mine, sir. I cannot account for this deviation.”

“Better put him through then, son.”

“Right away, father.”

Caldwell winced at the bot’s misinterpretation of the figure of speech. But he didn’t have time to correct ’Six.

Ezo’s face popped up on the holo window. “Hello, Colonel.”

“Good to see you. TO-96 says you’re in orbit over Prime and moving away. Are our sensors all sorts of screwed up?”

“They’re not screwed up, sir,” Ezo said. “Sootriman and I are leaving Prime.”

Caldwell didn’t like surprises, but he knew the two gladia would have a good reason for the sudden change in mission. “Everything okay there?”

Ezo seemed to hesitate. “We’re heading back to Ki Nar Four early, Colonel.”

“I see. And the reason?”

“It’s… it’s just time, sir. We’re—”

“We’re done fighting the Republic’s war,” Sootriman said, appearing over Ezo’s shoulder.

Ezo gave the colonel a raised eyebrow as if to say, “There it is.”

“Care to explain that?” Caldwell asked.

“Not really,” Sootriman said, walking off-screen.

“It’s complicated,” Ezo said.

“Well—how do I put this?” Caldwell spun his cigar. “If I’m suddenly losing two of my crew, I’d like to know why. At least tell me what happened.”

“There was a riot,” Ezo said, and then explained the events surrounding a racially charged outburst directed—in no uncertain terms—at Sootriman and her entire race. By the sounds of it, it was a miracle they were both alive.

“Great horny gills of Melmar’s Prism,” Caldwell said in a low tone. “I’m sorry that happened to you kids. The bastards.”

“It’s not your fault, Colonel,” Ezo replied. He seemed genuinely thankful for the sentiment.

“Still, those are Republic citizens,” Caldwell said. “They know better. Splick.”

“They should, yes. But they don’t. And so, we’re moving on.”

Caldwell sighed. “I understand.” He paused, considering Ezo’s resigned face. “How long?”

The Nimprinth shrugged. “Not sure.”

“Forever,” Sootriman said from somewhere in the Radiant Queen.

Ezo shrugged again.

If the man knew what was good for him, he wouldn’t contradict her, at least not right now.

“It’s hard to say, Colonel.” Ezo rubbed the back of his neck. “I think we’re gonna get settled in and make sure the cities are squared away. Mystics know they’ll need direction after—” Ezo froze.

Caldwell would spare him the pain of bringing up the orbital massacre of Sootriman’s squadron. “I get it, son.”

Ezo nodded. “Thanks.”

“Anything we can do for you?”

“Well, there is one thing.”

Terminal Fallout

“Unplug, sir?” TO-96 said as Caldwell stepped aside to let the bot speak to his maker.

“I know it’s a lot to ask, ’Six,” Ezo said. “But Sootriman and I would like things to go back to the way they were. Before all this.”

While Caldwell didn’t like what Ezo had proposed, it didn’t mean he disagreed with it. Hell, if he were Sootriman, he wouldn’t want a bot connected to some alien network either. Who knew what subroutines it could be running in the background. And with the way she’d been riled up? Yeah, it made sense.

“Can you even do that?” Caldwell said, looking between TO-96 and Azelon. “Disconnect yourself from each other?”

“From the singularity,” Azelon said, raising a corrective index finger. “And, yes, it is entirely plausible.”

Caldwell couldn’t be sure, but he could have sworn he detected a hint of sadness in her voice. “As in, Brass Balls won’t get erased in the process?”

“In the time we have been together, I have performed several upgrades to TO-96’s central processing unit,” Azelon said. “The damage he suffered beside the quantum tunnel generator has been rectified. He is, as I believe your saying goes, good as new.”

The two bots shared a cursory look. But it was just a look, right? There wasn’t any emotion there. Was there? Damn.

“But in the end, this is all up to you, ’Six,” Ezo said. “You don’t have to go. I’m not forcing you.”

Caldwell had never seen a bot faced with what amounted to an emotional dilemma before. Everything he knew about the tech seemed predetermined. They calculated problems in fractions of seconds, and their programming made choices simple and straightforward. But here, now, TO-96 seemed to be at a legitimate crossroads, one that every biological sentient understood. And it was in that moment of hesitation—of TO-96 looking between Azelon and Ezo—that Caldwell felt a shiver go up his spine. These were not ordinary bots. Brass Balls was computing something an order of magnitude larger than pre-coded neural chips were used to. This was a level of cognizance that, as far as the colonel was concerned, was unprecedented in the known galaxy. The bot was being torn in two different emotional directions. He wasn’t weighing statistical pros and cons—Sac-man did that in his sleep. This was about what he wanted, what he felt.

“Hot damn,” Caldwell blurted out. “What does your heart tell you, Brassy?”

The colonel had no sooner said the words than he raised both bushy white eyebrows in surprise. Had he really just attributed the human characteristic of an emotional heart to a robot? You need some sleep, Willy. But he hated seeing anyone caught in the valley of indecision, least of all someone he cared for. So it needed saying.

“Colonel,” TO-96 said. “If I may.”

“Go ahead, son.”

“What would you do?”

The colonel hadn’t been prepared for this of all questions. He wanted to blurt out, “It’s your damn conflict. Figure it out.” But something paternal fell over him, and he pulled his cigar out to smooth his mustache.

“Ah, hell. The trouble with decisions like these is that you’re gonna regret it either way. The whole point of wanting two things is that you want two damn things. Or else it wouldn’t be a conundrum, now would it? This doesn’t come down to what is statistically the best call or which benefits the team most. This is about what you—a bot, and a person—want.”

“But, sir, I want both to remain here with you—”

“Screw that,” Caldwell said, shoving his cigar back in his mouth. “Now you’re just skirting the truth. I’m a wrinkly old sac of—”

“Of testicles, sir?”

Caldwell’s mouth hung half open.

“I do believe I figured out what Sac-man means,” TO-96 continued. “Therefore, you were most likely going to refer to your own set of balls, were you not?”

“I was gonna say that I’m a wrinkly old sack of skin, but, hell, that works too. The point is, you want to stay here with Azelon. Ain’t that right?”

TO-96 looked over at Azelon, whose eyes seemed to glow. Hell, both their eyes were glowing a little more brightly than before. And then, slowly, they dimmed.

“And,” Caldwell added. “You also want to be with Ezo and Sootriman. You’re what we call stuck between a rock and a hard place, Ballsy.”

“And yet a rock is a hard place, sir.” TO-96’s head turned slightly. “Ah, I now understand the play on words. Very good. Am I not also damned if I do and damned if I don’t?”

“Now you’re getting it. Feels like splick inside, done’ it?”

TO-96 looked down at his chest. “Splick. Yes, I believe I know what you are talking about.”

A moment of silence filled the bridge. The colonel genuinely felt bad for the bucket of bolts. And the bot had asked him for his counsel. “If it were up to me, I say go with the girl. Don’t leave her if you love her.”

“Love her, sir?” TO-96 eyes seemed to grow wider. Caldwell wasn’t even sure that was possible based on the robot’s construction. Maybe it was just his imagination.

“Hell, son, that’s what this is all about, ain’t it? Might be new to you, but it ain’t to everyone else. These kinds of problems”—he waved his hand around in the air, indicating Azelon and Ezo—“they’re a result of wanting something so much that you love it. Now, I’m the last person to say whether a bot like you is capable of love or not. Hell, I can’t get my damned data pad to work properly half the time. But I do know what makes we humans feel stuck, and it sure as hell ain’t statistics. It’s feeling, and mystics help anyone who tries to quantify those and track ’em on a graph.”

“Love,” TO-96 repeated, placing a hand on his chest. He looked at Azelon, and then to Ezo. For being a rusted-out trash bin of bolts and blaster barrels, this bot sure did have a way of growing on Caldwell. “And if I can’t determine whether this is love or not?”

Caldwell wasn’t sure who the bot was talking to, but since no one else jumped in to answer him, Caldwell guessed it was up to him. “Then you go with what you know until you can figure something else out.”

TO-96 nodded, and then looked at Ezo. “Go with what you know,” the bot said softly. Suddenly, the bot’s back straightened, and he squared with Ezo’s holo display. “Very well, I will come with you, sir.”

It was almost imperceptible—so much so that Caldwell thought his eyes might be playing tricks on him—but he was pretty sure Azelon’s shoulders slumped.


10


Terminal Fallout

The journey to Aluross from Capriana Prime had taken just over fifteen hours at subspace level three, or Zeta-space, as the physicists called it. Azelon’s spacious transport shuttle for Granther Company had a third-tier modulator on it, cutting the usual forty-seven-hour-long trip to a third of the time. And Awen was grateful for every precious second, ones she used to sleep.

She awoke to the sound of Silk’s voice broadcast over general comms, alerting everyone onboard the Vendorian that they were approximately sixty minutes from orbit over Aluross. It would be plenty of time for her to shower, change into something far more comfortable than her power suit, and meet up with Magnus on the bridge.

The hot water felt good on her neck and back, and it worked wonders on her tight muscles. Still, she could not shake the brutal images of death from her mind, nor could she shake the screams of a million souls crying out to the void. The attack on Prime had been a nightmare, one her brain was trying to categorize as fiction—most likely a self-defense mechanism if she had to guess. But it was true—all of it.

Awen squeezed the soap out of her hair, rolling her head back and forth. This break on Aluross would be healthy for everyone. Good for her. Mystics knew they could use it. Plus, it would serve as a welcomed distraction. She’d always wanted to visit the feline-humanoid’s cattery. It was, after all, the analog to Oorajee and Jujari, and second on her list of majors back at observances. Had she not been admitted into the Jujari emissary program, the Sekmit was Awen’s backup.

Eager to distance herself from the pain of Prime, Awen toweled off, dried her hair, and then pulled a shirt of soft white fabric over her head. She slid a pair of light beige pants up her legs, donned a leather belt, and finished the outfit with a beige fur vest that Azelon had manufactured to resemble the pelts the Sekmit wore. Any small nod Awen could give toward acknowledging the feline culture would go a long way in gaining their trust—spoken or otherwise.

Then Awen braided her hair and assessed herself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror beside her bed. This was the closest she’d looked to her old self—the girl back on Elonian—that she’d seen in years. And it wasn’t a bad thing. It meant that she could take a break from being a gladia. It also meant that maybe, just maybe, after the initial introductions and everyone was settled, she could go back to being just Awen. At least for a little while.

Terminal Fallout

“It seems we have a problem,” Magnus said. Not, “Hi, how are you?” And, “Don’t you look drop-dead gorgeous”—not that she thought she did. She wasn’t so pretentious to think her looks ever merited that kind of a response from the man she loved. But, she wouldn’t lie, hearing that once in a while was, well, it’s simply unnecessary, Awen said to herself in a corrective tone. Get a grip.

Awen stepped through the bridge door and into the room alight with holo screens and glowing instrument panels. Silk sat in one of the four command chairs, with Abimbola and Dutch filling out the other two. “And what problem is that?” she asked Magnus.

“Jules is missing.”

“Jules?” Awen paused. While the Vendorian was bigger than most other transport shuttles she’d been on, it wasn’t so big as to lose a person. “What do you mean she’s missing?”

“We cannot find her,” Abimbola said, apparently thinking that restating the obvious would somehow make everything clear.

“Yeah, I got that.” Awen strode to a holo console and brought up the roster. She scanned the metadata beside Jules’s name and then looked up at Magnus. “Well, this says she never even boarded the ship.”

“Right. And we’re waiting for Colonel Caldwell to get back to us,” Magnus said.

“You think she stayed behind?”

Magnus nodded. “That, or she got sucked out an airlock. And, somehow, she seems a little too smart for something like that.”

Awen smiled.

“Incoming transmission,” Dutch said from her console. “It’s Caldwell.”

“Bring him up,” Magnus instructed.

The colonel’s face appeared in a sizable holo window in front of the ship’s main windowplex viewport. “Howdy, sleepy heads. Hope you got some rest.”

“We did,” Magnus said. “Though we’d all feel a whole lot better if you could tell us where our missing passenger went.”

“He sure as hell can,” said a woman’s voice as Jules stepped into the frame.

Magnus cleaned his teeth with his tongue. Awen knew that was one of his many signs of impatience. “I think you missed your boat, Jules,” Magnus said.

“Eh, I didn’t miss splick,” Jules replied. “If the Colonel here thought I wanted to go on some feline-filled vacation with all you tired-ass worry-warts”—she patted his shoulder—“then he has another thing coming. I signed up to get something done, not sip Alurossian mow bows in plastic beach chairs.”

Magnus glanced at Awen.

She shrugged. “We can’t do anything about it now.”

“Fair enough,” Magnus said, then looked back at Caldwell just as Jules walked off camera. “Anything we can do?”

“Continue as planned, son. I’ve already got Jules squared away here, helping load in survivors coming from the surface. We’re about to make our first run to Minrok Santari for the Commodore. And I made sure she’s been paid. You can scratch that off your list.”

“Real generous of you all too,” Jules shouted from somewhere on the bridge. “Turns out sea skimmers were a good investment after all.”

“I gave her a little more for her trouble,” Caldwell added in a low voice.

“Well, she’s certainly got a lot of energy,” Magnus said. “Probably good to have around.”

“Energy?” Caldwell puffed his cigar several times. “Hells, she’s got more spunk than—”

“Careful, sir,” Jules said.

Caldwell looked in her direction. “I was just going to say you’re great to have around, that’s all.”

“Sure ya were.”

Caldwell leaned in toward Magnus and Awen and put a hand beside his mouth. “Woman’s got more spice than a Terbithian pepper mine.”

Awen laughed and took Magnus by the arm. “Just try to stay out of her way then,” she said to the colonel. “Seems like just the sort of girl you need around the Spire right now.”

“Ain’t that the truth. Especially after we’ve lost TO-96.”

Magnus looked from Caldwell to Awen, and then back. “Say again, sir?”

Caldwell blew out a mouthful of smoke and then shared the news about TO-96’s departure with Ezo and Sootriman to Ki Nar Four, as well as the riot on Prime. Awen’s heart hurt for Sootriman. Racism, it seemed, knew no boundaries, and could be felt on every world in every system from the Omodon quadrant to the far reaches of the Troja belt. While the abrupt change in plans was worrisome, it was certainly understandable.

“Did she say how long they’d be before rejoining us?” Awen asked.

“Negative,” Caldwell replied. “By the sounds of it, they’ve left indefinitely, I’m sorry to say. But, I think, given enough time, she’ll come around.”

“I would hope so,” Awen said, more to herself than anyone else. The Gladio Umbra wouldn’t be the same without Sootriman, Ezo, and TO-96. Her mind went back to the months spent on Ithnor Ithelia together. While strange, and arguably the very definition of otherworldly, those were good times. Not having those three crew members around was like missing a piece of her heart.

“Anyway, lots of work to do here,” Caldwell said. “And, by the looks of it, you’re about to land on Aluross.”

“We are,” Magnus said. “Making orbit within the hour.”

“Well, have a mow bow for me.” The colonel smiled through his cigar and winked at Awen. “Caldwell, out.”

The holo window disappeared, and the bridge went quiet.

Terminal Fallout

The Vendorian entered the atmosphere and made for the capital city of Meesrin Pin, a sprawling metroplex surrounded by jungle that stretched in all directions. While the planet had its share of oceans, which accounted for 67% of its surface, the continents and island chains were mostly painted in lush greens. The planet’s metrics showed minimal desert regions—nothing compared to the arid polar caps.

Tradition required that everyone aboard the Vendorian be inspected. The Sekmit were a notoriously suspicious species. While they could be curious and coy at one moment, they could also be ferociously hostile and territorial the next. The real problem was that no one ever knew which side you were going to meet. For this reason alone, she was grateful that all the Jujari had decided to go back to Oorajee with Rohoar, or else this would be anything but a vacation.

Awen instructed Ricio and the rest of Fang Company to maintain orbit. There was no sense in putting the Sekmit on the defensive. Better to make the proper inroads, then ask for allowances. Ricio agreed, but Awen sensed his reluctance; understandably, he wanted to remain as close to his family as possible. But until Awen assessed the situation, Ricio’s squadrons would only succeed in placing his family in more harm, not less.

Within seconds of the Vendorian touching down, a security detail emerged from the shadows of the hangar bay, consisting of five green-robed Sekmit warriors and their narskill leader—if Awen remembered her rank insignias correctly. The leader wore a black sash across his chest, bearing the hash marks of his tribe and clan affiliations in gold embroidery. All six Sekmit carried long staves in their left hands and Thørzin bows over their right shoulders.

As Awen made her way down the Vendorian’s main ramp and into the hot and humid air, she raised her chin to glare at the warrior as per Sekmit custom. She didn’t have a tail to flick side to side, so she tossed her long braid instead.

“I am Wobix,” said the lead warrior, apparently satisfied that Awen was the pride leader. “I serve as narskill and emissary of her highness, Queen Nishti.”

“And I am Awen dau Lothlinium of Elonia, emissary of the Gladio Umbra,” she replied, never taking her eyes off Waban’s. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Indeed you are,” Wobix said with a purr. “That Lani DiAntora’s pledge of honor precedes you is notable. You have my initial favor.”

“And you have mine,” Awen replied, making sure that her voice was loud to assert her worthiness. The Sekmit despised weakness, and a lack of self-confidence was seen as the ultimate betrayal of self. Anyone who did not find themselves worthy in their own eyes was not worth speaking to. If Awen flinched, even in the slightest, she would be dismissed without a second thought.

“Your ship and your people will be searched,” Wobix said. “But you may come with me, along with one other representative from your pride.”

“Thank you.” Awen turned in a wide circle, allowing her braid to trail through the air, and then headed up the ramp.

“We good?” Magnus asked. The rest of Granther Company stood just inside a common room, each of them apparently eager to hear her report.

“So far,” she replied. “They’re going to search everyone and the ship. Just stay out of the way and let them do their job. This is the most critical part.”

“Then what?” Abimbola asked.

“Then they accept us as guests,” Awen replied.

“So, what are we now?” Bliss asked.

“Think of it like something between annoyances and enemies.”

There seemed to be a collective breath taken by the gladias.

“Eh, we could take ’em,” Bliss said. “There are only six of those kitties by my count.”

“No.” Awen shook her head. “We couldn’t. And there are a lot more than six.” She touched Magnus’s chest with a finger. “You’re coming with me. Leave your weapons behind.”

Like Awen, Magnus was dressed in beige colored pants and a soft white shirt—sleeves cut off at the shoulders. He looked down at the pistol, then at the duradex knife clipped to his belt, and removed them both, sighing as he did so. “You know I hate doing this.”

“Play nice now, and you can put them back on later, I promise.” Awen patted his chest and then turned back down the ramp. “Oh, and one more thing.”

“Yeah?”

“Always maintain eye contact. Never look away unless you’re doing so to show indifference.”

“Indifference? To what?”

“To their threats.”

“Fan-splickin-tastic.”

Terminal Fallout

Awen and Magnus followed Wobix away from the open-air hangar bay as two dozen Sekmit emerged from the shadows and converged on the Vendorian. Awen hoped the rest of the gladias heeded her word and stayed out of their host’s way. If not, this would be a very short trip.

Wobix led Awen and Magnus along a wooden walkway covered in pergola-style trussing. The route took them through a lush jungle-style garden, filled with ferns, broad palm fronds, and sweet-smelling flowers. Sleek black buildings with ovular windows lay behind lush trees like panthers napping through the hottest part of the day, occasionally peeking at Awen through the vegetation.

But the buildings weren’t the only things watching their progress. Awen spied feline forms lounging in the trees’ upper reaches, some resting in the crook of large limbs, others curled up in quiet conversations. Several studied data pads, while a few sipped on drinks from strangely shaped glass flutes. But the one thing all the Sekmit had in common was that they were watching Awen and Magnus.

Awen felt a chill go up her spine. She knew that until the queen validated their presence on the planet, they were unwelcome. She’d heard stories of what the Sekmit did to those they didn’t want near. No, thank you, Awen said to herself. She liked her entrails exactly where they were.

After navigating several intersections, the wooden pathway led to a dark four-story building. A cool breeze rushed out as the glass doors slid apart. The conditioned air felt good against Awen’s skin; she hadn’t been in the jungle for more than a few minutes, and already she was sweating. How these feline-like humanoids managed this climate in all their fur was beyond her.

They followed Wobix across the building’s vestibule, up a flight of stairs, and stopped at a broad set of double doors. As soon as Wobix lowered his head, Awen sensed something in the Unity. Curious, she slipped into her second sight and heard Wobix speak with someone in the room beyond.

“Narskill Wobix,” the warrior said. “Here with the foreigners, as requested.”

“You may enter,” a voice replied. Try as she might, Awen was unable to see the speaker. And this surprised her. Whatever powers the Sekmit had in the Unity, it was certainly unique. And strong. Not many people could hide from Awen’s sight within the Unity of all things.

Wobix lifted his head, and the door swooshed apart. Beyond them lay a long corridor formed entirely of black stone. Small gleaming pin lights in the ceiling lit the way until the tunnel expanded into a large hallway some twelve meters tall. It was bordered by equally tall windows covered with slatted shades. Glass lamps hung on thin strands of cable, glowing softly in the hazy atmosphere. Something about the space felt alluring, and yet at the same time, hostile. Awen didn’t know if she should feel at ease or on her guard. And that, she suspected, was precisely the intent.

Lying across a generous red cushion in the middle of the floor was a lithe Sekmit dressed in translucent red silk. Her back was to the doorway. At first, Awen wasn’t sure if she was asleep or awake. The feline woman’s chest rose and fell in steady rhythm with a soft purring sound that seemed to fill the hallway. Awen looked around, but the place seemed to be empty. If this was their queen—or any dignitary for that matter—she clearly preferred to be left alone.

“Ní Linux,” Wobix said, his chin raised. “I bring you the foreigners.”

The woman on the cushion moved. Her long sinewy body undulated under perfectly groomed black and white fur, until she gained her feet, stretched, and turned toward the newcomers. The red silk left little to the imagination, at least as far as Sekmit anatomy was concerned. All of their reproductive organs were generally well-hidden behind their fur. But Awen guessed the clothing choice was meant to be both seductive and make a statement as to this woman’s role within the cattery.

“And with whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?” the woman asked.

“Awen dau Lothlinium,” Wobix said. “And her manservant.”

“Manservant?” Magnus said to Awen in a whisper. “Is that what you told them I was?”

Awen hushed him but kept her eyes forward.

Magnus stood a little straighter. “Manservant, my ass.”

“An Elonian,” the woman said, stepping down from her cushion. She made a large display of stretching her arms and legs, then arching her back. The exercise finished with a wide yawn and the straightening of her tail. “I like Elonians.”

“Probably for breakfast,” Magnus said in a tone barely audible. Like Awen, he probably noticed the cat’s long fangs and razor-sharp claws. It was hard not to.

“Leave us,” the woman said to Wobix and flicked him away with a paw-like hand. “Wait for my call.”

Wobix turned, letting his tail whip past Awen’s head, and exited back down the corridor with his entourage.

“Awen, is it?”

“Yes, your highness,” Awen replied.

The woman gave out something like a snort. “Please, Freya will do. Save the royal speech for Nishti, should you ever meet her.”

“So, you’re not the queen then?” Magnus asked.

Freya snapped her head to Magnus. She sized him up with a quick up and down motion of her head. “No, manservant. I am not the queen. What is your name?” She flicked a hand at him as if he needed to bathe or something.

“Name’s Adonis Olin Magnus, ma’am. Company commander of Granth—”

“I just needed a name. Adonis will suffice.” Freya looked back at Awen. “I am tribe mother of Pride Linux. Nishti has seen fit to entrust you into my care given that our mutual contact, Lani DiAntora, claims blood-rights to our line.”

“I see,” Awen said. “Then, we are most grateful for you accommodating us.”

“And what, if anything, do you expect our accommodations to consist of?”

“Temporary housing for fourteen of our finest warriors,” Awen explained. “Plus thirty-three pilots, currently in orbit, and docking for their starfighters. We also seek permanent placement for four adults, one of whom is our squadron commander.”

“And the two children?”

Awen hadn’t mentioned them yet. Either the Sekmit had advanced scanning tech, or Freya had used the Unity to search the ship.

“The one child is son to our flight commander and his wife,” Awen explained.

“The other is an orphan.” Freya flicked her tail. “And gifted in the Unity.”

Awen tried her best not to show her surprise, but she couldn’t help marvel at just how fluent this woman was in the Unity—far more than anything rumored about the Sekmit. Are they all like this? Awen wondered.

“Most of us, yes,” Freya replied out loud.

“I miss something?” Magnus asked, looking from Freya to Awen.

“They’re Unity users,” Awen said, not taking her eyes off Freya. “Powerful ones.” Awen would need to work harder to shield Magnus’s thoughts as well as her own from the Sekmit.

“That’s good. Right?” Magnus looked back to Freya.

“For our allies, yes,” Freya said. “DiAntora has informed us that you attempted to help warn the Republic capital of their imminent demise.”

“That is true,” Awen said.

“She also said you suffered greatly.”

“Only compared to some.”

“She concluded by saying our prides would be honored in assisting you however we are able, treating you as survivors.”

“That is most generous, ní Freya,” Awen replied, using the woman’s proper Sekmittian title.

“Of her, perhaps. But not of me, as I have not yet decided what to do with you.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Awen saw Magnus’s hand twitch, no doubt feeling for the non-present sidearm. She wanted to tell him to rest easy, but Freya might be able to hear her in either reality. Awen and Magnus were indeed at the leader’s mercy.

“There is one more matter,” Awen said.

Freya’s ears perked, inviting Awen to continue—at least that’s how Awen took it.

“Our starship, Azelon’s Spire, will require refitting in orbit, and the crew will need lodging with us on the surface.”

“How many souls?” Freya purred.

“Nearly four-hundred fifty.”

Freya raised one eyebrow. Awen wasn’t sure if the gesture was a good or bad sign.

“If we provide this for you, what is in it for us?” Freya asked, moving forward a few paces. Her silk robes billowed behind her as if caught by the wind.

“Our trade with your planet will be of certain significance,” Magnus said. “Our starship alone will require—”

“Your trade is of little importance,” Freya said with a cold tone.

“Then we are ready to pay you outright for your hospitality, in Republic credits,” Magnus said.

Freya snapped at the air with her cat-like jaws. The action seemed to catch Magnus off guard. He pulled back, but still managed to keep his eyes locked on Freya’s.

“The Republic is no more,” she said, hissing through clenched teeth. “What good are your credits?”

Magnus seemed to steady himself. “We have every reason to believe that Repub credits will still hold their—”

“We do not need credits,” Freya spat. “Yours or anyone else’s. So, again, I ask you, what is in this for the Sekmit?”

“Gratitude,” Awen said after a moment.

Freya repeated the word as if considering it. “Gratitude that begets favors. Yes, I like this.” The woman’s lithe body turned and she headed back for the cushion. “When the time comes, we will ask for a show of your gratitude.” She sank into the plush fabric and then looked over her shoulder. “Until then, consider yourselves guests of Ní Freya ap Linux, servant of Queen Nishti, and survivors from the Galactic Republic’s fall. When your entourage is ready, I will bear you to the foothills of Nandooth myself. There, you will be granted free range in the village of Fînta. It will suit your needs, and our people will meet your every want.”

“Thank you for your hospitality, Freya,” Awen said, raising her chin. Then she looked at Magnus.

“Yeah, thanks,” Magnus said, though he didn’t sound nearly convincing enough as far as Awen was concerned.

Awen glowered at him.

“Really, though,” Magnus said, glancing away from Awen’s death stare. “Thanks for accommodating us. We appreciate it.”

“I’m sure you do,” Freya said. “And in time, you will show me just how much.”

Magnus followed Awen’s example of raising her chin, and then the two of them turned in a wide half-circle and headed toward the door at the end of the black corridor. Magnus leaned toward her and said, “Somehow, I feel like this isn’t going to be the vacation we bargained for.”


11


Terminal Fallout

“How long has he been dead?” So-Elku asked as he swept into the cramped chamber in the catacombs. Firelight licked the walls from several torches, illuminating a naked pale body on a stone table. The air was stale and smelled of damp rock.

“Two days, my master.” Nants, the young apprentice, bowed at his master’s arrival.

“And how did he die?”

“He fell, my master. His body was recovered in the Red Falls gorge. It was a student hiking trip.”

“What a pity.” So-Elku examined the corpse’s head, neck, and chest. There were several contusions and a deep gash along the victim’s head. “A broken neck?”

“Yes, master.”

“Excellent.” So-Elku spun and headed toward two stone pillars that came up to his hips. Then he turned to face the corpse, looking from feet to head, and placed his hands on the pillars’ tops. Nants took several steps back and then walked around the room’s perimeter until he was safely behind So-Elku. “Let us begin again.”

The Luma master closed his eyes, and the sound of a low energy wave swept through the room. Within the Unity, So-Elku appeared inside the Nexus, having learned to skirt the needlessly long trip through the Foundation—there was little there to interest him. The Nexus alone held the real power he sought.

Where the Unity’s root system had previously consisted of limitless cords that seemed impossible to parse, So-Elku had gradually learned to distinguish one power thread from the next. Where before he only saw jumbles of magenta-colored light stretching into infinity, now he discerned individual pathways that led their respective counterparts in the physical realm. He wasn’t a code slicer, but he imagined this was similar to how they saw the world. Somehow, down here in the Nexus, everything felt more vivid—more alive.

So-Elku quickly identified the young man’s body on the stone table, seeing the lifeless collection of deteriorating organs. Tissue collapsed, and cells decayed—the corpse well on its way to rejoining the essential elements of the galaxy. This one would do well, So-Elku thought. Perhaps this one will be the one.

As if spreading a series of images across a holo table, So-Elku pulled apart the corpse’s many systems. But his examination was not physical alone. He could see snapshots of the young man’s life leading to this moment. An embrace with his parents before departing for observances. A stolen kiss with a fellow student behind the spaceball arena. An argument with his roommate over an unwillingness to help him study for a test. It was all there in the Nexus, unbound by time and eternally accessible. It was, in a sense, as if the young man had never died—so real was the sense of life in these memories.

No, not memories, So-Elku thought. What existed here inside the Nexus was real. Therefore, what he saw were the moments themselves, held infinitely inside quantum spacetime.

So-Elku had worked so hard to get to this moment. But what other choice did he have? The true-blood child had abandoned him—what else was he supposed to do? Alas, he could have resigned himself to defeat. Lesser men would have, he thought. But that was not his way, not when so much was on the line.

Now that the Republic had fallen, the galaxy would need a new voice of reason. It would need protection. It would need peace. And if there was one thing So-Elku had learned, it was that people did not know how to choose peace. The Luma existed precisely because of this fundamental flaw in sentient life. When given the chance to live and let live, civilization after civilization on world after world had chosen the path of every species before it: war, destruction, and death.

And it was time that it stopped.

So-Elku did not suppose he would be the most exceptional leader the galaxy had ever seen. But he would be the first. The first to wield power in such a way that anyone seeking to harm an innocent life would think twice before doing so. Some might say it was a response out of sheer terror. The wicked would probably consider him terrible. But to the weak? To the defenseless? What would they say?

They will call me a savior.

And when his time was done, and the galaxy set on a new path, one where murderers and despots stopped their pursuits before they’d even begun, someone else would take his place in the long line of successors who would rule the cosmos in peace.

So-Elku pulled the deceased young man’s images together, balling them up into a singular mass of light and life, and then held them there, studying them in wonder. So much power. So much potential. The orb of energy was—beautiful. So he would give it back to the boy.

Summoning the Nexus to the natural, So-Elku moved the sphere into the corpse’s body. He heard Nants whisper something as the torch lights blew out. But the room did not go black. Instead, magenta light pulsed beneath the body’s skin, rippling out from chest to extremities.

“Secdus,” So-Elku said, his voice resonating the small cave. “Arise!”

The eyelids on the corpse flew open, and two shafts of magenta light pierced the musty air, striking the stone ceiling above. Then the body twitched. The head rose, and the young man sat up. The twin beams of light fell on So-Elku and lingered there.

“Secdus,” the Luma master said. “Can you hear me?”

“Secdus hears,” the young man said with a gravel-laden voice. His neck popped twice, and the head reseated its broken vertebrae.

“Good, good.” So-Elku lifted his hands off the pillars and snapped his fingers at Nants.

“Yes, my master.” Nants reached for the item along the back wall and hurried it into So-Elku’s outstretched hand.

So-Elku brought the staff around and then pointed the gem-topped tip at his creation. Once again, he summoned the power of the Nexus to the natural realm and created a deep void in the Cartesian jewel. The vacuum would be strong. The strongest yet. It had to be, as this secdus was his most powerful to date. The reanimated corpse was the culmination of all his study, labor, and ingenuity. Like So-Elku, this boy would be the first of many, and all those who followed the Luma master would bring lasting peace to the galaxy.

So-Elku focused the Cartesian stone on the secdus’s chest and then activated the gem. The vacuum wailed, threatening to pull the rocks from the walls. So-Elku felt the floor tremble as the young man screamed. The secdus grasped the table with boney hands, fighting against the gem’s snarling appetite. Dust and light raced toward the stone, and even bits of skin flaked from the corpse’s chest and disappeared into the void. The Cartesian vessel devoured energy in any form it could find, until…

Until it was full.

The gem closed, and the room fell silent.

So-Elku lowered his staff, looking for signs of life in his reanimated creation. Only the Cartesian stone’s soft pinkish glow gave off any light. The young man was deathly still, eyes shut. Had So-Elku failed? No, the Luma master said to himself. He couldn’t have failed. Not again. This one had been the child of promise—the one he was sure would help him restore order to the chaos.

“Sir, I believe—”

“Quiet,” So-Elku snapped, silencing Nants. His eyes searched the corpse—hoping. Believing.

Terminal Fallout

So-Elku looked up from the data pad on a desk in a spacious study used for meeting foreign dignitaries. A warm summer breeze played with the hems of the curtains around the open portico walkway, and bird song fluttered up from the garden below. Seated across from him was Emery Wade, planetary governor of Daltaurus Three. The man was slender and had intelligent eyes. Interestingly, the man chose not to wear his white Galactic Republic uniform but, instead, the black and crimson colors of Daltaurus Three. The old colors, before their Republic alliance. Wade’s attaché—Nevel, or some such name—stood in the corner, wearing the same colors.

The rest of Wade’s entourage was being shown the finest in Luma hospitality elsewhere in the Grand Airelina. In the meantime, So-Elku treated the governor to his private selection of Undorian cordials. So-Elku smiled as he swirled 178-year-old brandy in his glass, knowing this meeting would be the first of many such to come.

“Mmm, excellent, Master Luma,” Wade said, licking his lips of a succulent sherry. “How did you ever come across such a bottle?”

So-Elku smiled. “I supposed it is one of the many unexpected treats that accompanies my line of work. Gratitude is often shown in unexpected ways.”

“You must have done them quite a service,” Wade said, and then smelled the drink’s delicate bouquet.

“As I hope to do for you, Governor Wade.”

“Please, just Emery, your grace.”

“So-Elku,” the Luma master replied with a bow of his head and a hand to his heart.

Wade nodded. “Shall we get down to business then?”

“Let’s. If I may?”

Wade offered the flat of his palm. “Be my guest.”

So-Elku took one more sip of his brandy and then set the glass down to steeple his fingers. “I invited you here because the Galactic Republic, for all its failings, served a valuable purpose, uniting worlds previously unthought of as having peaceful relations with each other.”

“Daltaurus Three being one of them. You no doubt know of our ancient struggle against the Kibar worlds.”

“I do. Like other systems in similar woes, your trade routes were extended, a weak economy was strengthened, and your people had the good fortune of prospering from the ubiquitous influence of shared technology.”

“You know your history,” Wade said.

So-Elku lowered his eyes deferentially. “But I wonder. How have we come to this point?” He spread his hands apart. “How have we arrived at such a tragic end as Prime?”

Wade nodded, considering the rhetorical question with a furrowed brow.

So-Elku picked up his glass and took another sip of the rich amber fluid. He studied Wade, trying to get a read on the man. How fast was too fast? How far was too far?

“I assure you, Emery, there can be no grief deep enough, no weeping long enough to properly mourn for the souls lost on Capriana Prime—this much is true. Even if we were given a thousand lifetimes to lament, it would not suffice for the loss the galaxy has suffered.”

“Here here,” Wade said, raising his glass.

So-Elku lifted his as well. “To the dead.”

“To the dead.” And the two men drank.

So-Elku swallowed and then cradled his glass. “I believe the Republic got distracted, Emery. Got sloppy. It gave too much power to too many and failed to check them.” So-Elku sighed. “Sadly, we see the result of their carelessness.”

Wade looked into his glass. “And untold generations will suffer.”

“But they don’t have to.” The Luma master narrowed his eyes. “Not for long, anyway.”

“What do you propose?”

So-Elku stood. “The Republic is dead, Emery. They’ll try and rally their forces spread thin throughout the quadrants.”

“They’ve already pulled the garrison on Daltaurus Three.”

“As they will with every world in the alliance. They’ll rally them to Minrok Santari in the hopes of consolidating their forces and reasserting their power from there. But, in the end, they will fail.”

“And why’s that?” Wade asked, posing the question as if he was genuinely interested in learning the answer.

“Because armies don’t win hearts, Emery. Hope does.”

The governor squinted, held up his glass, and pointed a long finger at So-Elku. “Hope, yes.”

“The attack on Prime sent every planet in the alliance, every system in the quadrants one loud resounding message.”

“And that was?”

“That the Republic can no longer protect us. If the capital isn’t safe, who is?”

Wade nodded slowly.

But So-Elku wasn’t done. “While the Republic gave us a great many things, to be sure, it ultimately failed to give us true lasting peace. And let me tell you, dear governor, peace by force is only ensured so long as you remain the strongest. And the moment you are not?”

“Prime,” Wade said with a solemn tone.

“Precisely.”

The governor took another sip. “Do you have something in mind then? I don’t suppose you brought me all this way simply to brag about your fine selection of exotic liquors.” Wade seemed to think better of his statement and sat up. “Not that they aren’t worth the trip, mind you.”

So-Elku took a moment to let the bird song fill the silence, and then he worked his mouth to taste the residue of the sugar on his tongue. “I do have something in mind, Emery. Something I think will change the galaxy forever. Something that will usher us into a thousand-year reign of peace the likes of which has never been seen in the universe.” So-Elku noticed that the governor’s glass was empty, so he stood and moved toward a mahogany wet bar. “Here, let me pour you something else. That is, if you’re planning on staying a while.”

“I believe we have a long night ahead of us, Master Luma. Pour away.”


12


Terminal Fallout

Moldark read the fleet roster on his holo pad, grinding his teeth until he tasted blood. He sat alone in his cramped quarters on the Peregrine, sifting through the data and its implications. Where the three Republic Fleets once assaulted Oorajee with over 100 warships and over 200 Talons, Moldark had barely managed to escape Capriana Prime with eight ships and five Talons—all of which had suffered damage of varying degrees.

The sole remaining Carrier at his disposal, the Breedlove, was hemorrhaging energy in a drive core failure that was growing more serious with every hour in subspace. The Battleships Telmadorian and Serendipitous Arrival had lost certain weapons and shield capabilities, but life support, navigation, and communications were still fully operational. A Battlecruiser, Destroyer, and two Frigates, all in various states of integrity, rounded out his fleet—if it could be called that.

Moldark spat a mouthful of congealed fluid on the floor. It seemed he had underestimated the impudent races of this universe—the wretched filth. Or, rather, the fates had seen fit to aid their feeble efforts to thwart him—at least in part. Moldark tried to assuage his ego by ruminating on the destruction he had caused to Capriana Prime. The sight of LO9D impacts rippling across the blue planet’s surface had been lovely. That world was liberated, forever free of the takers’ malice-tipped claws, ones that endlessly raked the bountiful resources of the planet’s bosom. The Republic would fall, and what survivors remained would be scattered throughout the quadrant as orphans.

But the assault had come at a terrible price. The Paragon was a shadow of its former glory—and so young, at that. It seemed he had only just assumed Kane’s body and taken control of the Republic’s rogue agencies, so new in their subversive efforts, only to see them broken apart and whittled down to a few remaining vessels.

He did not lament the fleet losses, of course. They were a means to an end. What truly frustrated him—no, infuriated him—was what these delays meant for his more important plans. The ones of crushing the rest of the Jujari, and of returning once again to Ithnor Itheliana, doing to it what he had done to Capriana Prime. He had come so far, acquired so much of the biologic’s weaponry and personnel. And for what?

Something broke loose in his mouth. A tooth. It played across his tongue as his mouth filled with more blood. Moldark pinched the archaic body part and pulled it out. His fingers held the nodule like a white stone bathed in the red juice of Bormin blood fruit. All these species, these devourers, were the same, in need of one mechanical means after another. They ingested their nutrients, mashed it to a pulp, and all for what? To perpetuate their grotesque legacy of consumption.

Moldark loathed this—loathed being limited to this biologic body. And up until a few hours ago, he was reassuring himself with those steadying words, the ones that had kept him company through so many restless nights. Not much longer now, he would say, knowing the Novia Minoosh’s final demise was near. Not much longer.

How long had it been since he’d lost those he loved? A thousand years? And a thousand more if I must. Moldark would not rest, would not stop until they were gone. All gone.

His eyes scanned the ship names again. “Setbacks,” he murmured to himself. He knew that his elemental presence would live on were all these ships and bodies to break apart. Kane would be blown to stardust, but Moldark would live on, scouring the void until his thirst for revenge was sated. “Setbacks, and nothing more.” He would find a way. There was always a way.

A soft trill issued from inside his quarters.

“Enter,” Moldark said.

Captain Yaeger, Moldark’s lead enforcer and head of his private guard, or what was left of it, appeared in the doorway. He seemed about to speak when his eyes stopped on the bloody tooth between Moldark’s fingers. Ellis swallowed. “My lord, are you in need of medical—?”

“No, Yaeger,” Moldark said, flicking the tooth against the wall. Red splatters followed the object as it clattered to a halt in the middle of the floor.

“My lord, you have, some…” Yaeger pointed to his own chin.

Moldark touched his lower lip and pulled an index finger away, the digit covered with the viscous fluid that kept his host’s body alive. So fragile, he thought. “What do you want?”

The captain cleared his throat. “Captain Ellis says we’re about to enter the Merenarr system, as ordered. We’ll arrive less than one hour from Oorajee’s orbit.”

“Good.”

There was a moment’s pause before Yaeger spoke again. “And when we arrive, my lord?”

Moldark sighed. “When we arrive, I want Ellis to order all ships with LO9D capability to target the largest Jujari settlements and open fire at their discretion.”

Yaeger swallowed before speaking. “My lord?”

When no clarifying question came, Moldark spat on the ground and then looked back at Yaeger. “Is there a problem?”

“Captain Ellis says that the Breedlove is in serious need of repair, my lord, while the Telmadorian and Serendipitous Arrival’s—”

“I am well aware of the condition of my ships, Captain. Their battle damage withstanding, my orders stand. That will be all.”

Yaeger snapped to a salute. “As you have willed, my lord.” Then he turned from the entry, and the doors slid closed.

That’s when Moldark realized that he hadn’t been outsmarted by his enemies—both the Circle of Nine and the rebels. Instead, he’d been set back because of their sheer incompetence. The bumbling fools. Sure, he had lost control of Seaman and First Fleet. But it was the Republic’s systems and procedures, their apprehensions and precautions that had blunted his efforts. All of it served to support their desperate need to survive. There was no bigger picture for them, no grand overarching theme. Just survival, he thought with a smile. He would even take that away from them.

Terminal Fallout

Moldark stood over Ellis’s shoulder on the Peregrine’s bridge, looking at a holo display filled with the Paragon’s remaining ships. Beyond them lay the orange planet of Oorajee.

For the briefest moment, Moldark was tempted to second guess his decision to assault Capriana Prime. Had he not been distracted by the humans and their betrayal, he would have retained the majority of the fleets, and Oorajee would be a foregone conclusion. But he stopped himself from the train of thought, knowing it served no purpose. He was here now, and Oorajee would still suffer the same fate. Only delayed, Moldark thought.

“Weapons are charged, my lord,” Ellis said. “Multiple settlements have been selected. Oosafar will be within our effective range in four minutes—if you would like to stay the initial attack.”

“Tempting,” Moldark replied. He imagined the putrid species seeing their most magnificent city devoured by flame. “Estimated damage to the city if we fire now?”

“Stand by.” Ellis reviewed the data and ran a quick simulation. “29% casualty rate, my lord.”

“And we’ll have time to recharge once the city is within effective range?”

“Affirmative.”

“Let them see their doom on the horizon and fear it.” Moldark had waited too long for this, and he would not put off the Jujari’s fate any longer. “Fire.”

“As you wish, my lord.” Ellis opened a channel to the five starships with LO9D capabilities. “This is Captain Ellis. You are free to engage all targets. Open fire.”

Acknowledgment icons appeared in the holo screen above Ellis’s console. Moldark watched with anticipation, eyes darting from the main holo display to the windowplex view of the planet and back again.

The Breedlove was the first to fire. While the ship’s drive cores were exceeding critical minimums, it still had three operational LO9D cannons. Granted, the attack would mean Oorajee would be the Breedlove’s final resting ground, were it unable to undergo necessary refits. But Moldark wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. No, not a mistake. He simply wasn’t going to put this off any longer, even if it cost him the last ships he had. He would find more, and he would find a way back to metaspace.

The first LO9D round leapt from the Breedlove’s belly and ripped through the planet’s atmosphere. The long shaft of light met the surface along the equator in a bright explosion. Within seconds, however, dust mottled the eruption, swallowing the inferno raging beneath. Then dark plumes of clouds radiated from the epicenter, rippling outward like waves from a stone thrown into calm waters.

The second and third strikes followed, impacting targets to the north and south of the first with similar results. Faint rings fanned across Oorajee’s surface, racing toward one another in a slow-motion work of art that made Moldark grin.

He didn’t notice the dried blood crack along his lips, tugging lightly at his skin. Instead, a bright flash washed out the holo display. Through the windowplex, Moldark winced as the Battleship Telmadorian blew apart, detonating on an atomic level. Something in the drive core made the ship go nova.

The energy wave broadsided both Frigates, ripping into their hulls and splitting them apart. The Destroyer, which was in the middle of firing on Oorajee, experienced a system overloaded that ruptured its orbital cannon. The resulting explosion cratered the vessel’s belly and punched a hole through the topside spine. Moldark guessed that any crew isolated in the stern and bow would most likely survive the rupture—until secondary explosions split the ship in two.

The Breedlove’s shields managed to mitigate most of the Telmadorian’s fallout. The Serendipitous Arrival and the remaining Battlecruiser also seemed relatively unharmed. Which was good, because Moldark doubted the vessels could sustain any more damage.

Just four ships remained, and five Talons safely onboard the Breedlove. Provided it also doesn’t experience terminal failure, Moldark thought. He watched the shockwave rings continue to dissipate across Oorajee’s surface. “Status report,” Moldark said to Ellis.

The man jerked back to his senses and started swiping through pages of data on his holo display. “The Telmadorian looks like it suffered catastrophic—”

Moldark cursed in Norxük. “What about the surviving ships?”

“Of course, my lord.”

“Sirs,” said the Peregrine’s sensor’s officer—a woman in her mid-thirties. Her name tag read Porteous. “We’re detecting enemy vessels, cresting the planet’s western hemisphere now.”

“What?” Moldark spat. He turned on the woman and narrowed his gaze to see if she was lying or just seeing things. But Porteous seemed entirely convinced of her findings.

“On holo,” Ellis ordered.

Moldark looked to the main display as it changed from a view of the orbital bombardment craters to a picture of the planet’s left edge. “Magnify.”

Porteous obeyed, and the image expanded several times until half a dozen ships dotted the void just above Oorajee’s thin thermosphere.

“Whose are those?” Moldark seethed between bloody teeth.

“They are attempting to jam our indent probes,” the woman replied. “But they appear to be Jujari vessels.”

“How can that be?”

“My lord,” Ellis said. “They may have been held in reserve in order to defend—”

“Do not lecture me, Captain!” Moldark snarled at Ellis, his temper flaring. Then he turned back to Porteous. “How many?”

“Twelve ships, including two Pride-class Super Dreadnaught equivalents, my lord.”

“No.” Again, Moldark ground his teeth. The pain of Kane’s mortal case helped him focus. Never mind the mess it made. “This cannot be.”

“Your orders?” Ellis said.

The truth was, Moldark’s remaining forces were no match for twelve Jujari warships, regardless of where they came from or how they’d survived. The Paragon ships wouldn’t last sixty seconds in a head-to-head confrontation. And while Moldark cared little about losing what remained, the thought of being flung back into the ether just to search out a new viable host was—what was it? He crushed another tooth in his jaw. Irritating. But his options were dwindling by the second.

“My lord,” Porteous said. “The Breedlove is reporting fires on decks twenty-one through thirty-six. Fire suppression is ineffective. Life support has failed in sections one and two as well.”

“Your orders, my lord?” Ellis asked a second time.

Moldark opened his mouth, but he was interrupted by Porteous again. This time, however, her voice was a mix of confusion and fear. “Lord Moldark, I’m detecting—a new ship, sir.”

“Another?” Moldark stepped toward the main holo. “I don’t see one.”

“Not there, my lord.” The holo’s view changed to a patch of star-filled space. “There. And the ship is—it’s huge.”

Moldark squinted at the display. An ident tag appeared, marking the vessel. The readings said it was massive, as Porteous suspected, perhaps even larger than a Super Dreadnaught, if the data was to be believed. Still, Moldark couldn’t see a thing. Whatever it was could not be seen by the naked eye. That, or the sensors were malfunctioning, most likely from damage sustained by the Telmadorian.

So it’s cloaking technology, Moldark thought, but then decided against the conclusion. This universe had yet to employ, let alone develop such advanced tech—unlike the Novian Minoosh. Plus, these ships were discerned by the Peregrine’s sensors, and all cloaking tech that he knew about included sensor deflection. Which meant the ship was close, and it wanted to be known.

Moldark took several more steps toward the holo display as a chill went up his spine.

“There,” he said, pointing to an indeterminate shape. He only noticed whatever it was because of the stars that it blocked. There was something there, but it gave off no light and bore no thrust signature. If anything, it seemed to absorb light, rendering it all but invisible.

“We’re being hailed,” the comms officer said.

“By who?” Moldark turned to the middle-aged man.

“I think the signal is originating from”—the officer pointed at the holo—“from that.”

The man’s behavior wasn’t professional, but Moldark wasn’t interested in protocol at the moment. Moldark wanted answers. “On display,” the dark lord said.

The comms officer tapped the air over his console.

A second later, a new holo window appeared in front of Moldark. But the image was black. “I said, on display.”

“That is the transmission, my lord. The comm is open.”

Moldark studied the window. His eyes adjusted, and there, faintly, he saw the outline of a person. The man, or woman, was covered in a cloak that blotted out their face and body—a black mass against a black background.

“I hear nothing,” Moldark said over his shoulder.

The comms officer repositioned himself in his crash couch. “Audio is open, my lord. They—they’re not speaking.”

Hailed but not speaking? Moldark grew impatient. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“We are the Obscura,” said a man’s voice. “Abiders of the dark.” He sounded neither old nor young, anxious nor aggravated. Instead, the voice was eerily nondescript. “As for our desires?” There was a pause as the figure’s head tilted ever so slightly. “We want you, Mithriel of the Norxük.”

Moldark froze. No one in this universe had uttered his name before. Not even the Novia Minoosh knew it. It had never been spoken outside of his people. Until now.

Moldark was about to respond—but with what words? Surely, he had to say something.

But the cloaked figure spoke instead. “You will accompany us.”

The window closed, signaling the transmission’s end.

“What happened?” Moldark said, turning around to face the comms officer. “I want it back, now!”

“I’m trying, my lord.”

How had that man known his name? It was—it was impossible. But worse, it made Moldark feel things that he had not felt in a thousand years. As if someone had reached inside him and touched the most private part of his being. That anyone beyond his kin had access to his name was—it was unspeakable. He hadn’t felt this way since—since the day they were taken from you, he told himself. He was back there again—alone and faced with the terror of death. Of living life without his kind.

He felt exposed.

Violated.

And hate was the only defense he knew—the only way to deal with the pain.

Faintly, a voice flitted back to his ears. “…Orders, my lord?”

It was Ellis. He had said something about the Jujari ships closing on their position and being within firing range in ten minutes.

“Fire,” Moldark seethed. “Fire on that ship. Fire everything we have left.”

“The Jujari?”

“No,” Moldark roared. He grabbed Ellis around the back of the neck and forced his face through his holo display, pointing it toward the main screen. “The shadow. Fire!”

Ellis recoiled from Moldark’s harassment and then sent the order to the remaining Paragon vessels. There was a brief pause as weapons systems and ship trajectories were redirected. Not everything in the Paragon’s arsenal would be available at this angle of attack, of course. The enemy ship had snuck up on their stern. But the Paragon would harm it, and no tongue would ever utter his name again in this universe, or any other.

Moldark was not thinking about survival—not thinking about what a counterattack would mean for his remaining ships and their crew. He was only thinking about lunging at this new threat, these Obscura. They would pay for violating him, for saying his name.

The first blaster rounds came from the Peregrine, fired as the Corvette came about and squared off with the target. The blaster fire was followed by torpedoes from the Breedlove and auto-cannon fire from the Serendipitous Arrival.

“More,” Moldark yelled, grabbing the back of Ellis’s crash couch. “I want more!”

In the seconds that followed, the fire rate increased until every available weapon assaulted the Obscura ship. The only guns and torpedo silos not employed were those on the leeward side of the vessels and the LO9D canons as they had yet to recharge.

Moldark watched, spellbound, as the ordnance disappeared into the void. There were no explosions, no flashes of light. Sensors displayed no shielding and no attempts to confuse torpedo courses.

There was simply nothing. It was as if every blaster bolt and thrust-empowered warhead had been sent into the blackness and just disappeared, absorbed by the hard vacuum of space. Moldark swore again, biting his tongue by accident. The nerve pain was excruciating, but it helped him focus. “Cease fire,” he said as a mouthful of blood sprayed on the back of Ellis’s neck. “Cease fire!”

Ellis ignored the splatter and echoed Moldark’s order to the other ships. Within moments, the volley of weapons fire stopped and all was still.

“What is going on?” Moldark demanded. He turned to Porteous.

“We have no readings from the enemy ship, my lord.”

The calm in her voice irritated Moldark. Didn’t she know? Didn’t she see how evil these beings were who could know his secret name? “What do you mean, no readings?”

“There are no indications that our munitions have been effective.”

“My lord,” said the comms officer. “We’re being hailed again. By the enemy ship.”

“Bring it up.”

The holo window appeared as before, showing the same cloaked figure against a black background. The man did not speak like someone who’d just been fired upon. Instead, his tone was even and undisturbed. “We will not ask a third time, Mithriel,” the man said. “Accompany us.”

Moldark hesitated.

And the man in the window noticed. How, Moldark didn’t know. But the man did.

In the blink of an eye, three gleaming red beams of light crossed the void and struck the Breedlove, the Serendipitous Arrival, and the last Battlecruiser. Like the Telmadorian before them, the detonations seemed to be on an atomic level. Thousands of lives were snuffed out in an instant. Waves of radiation battered the Peregrine’s shields and shook the ship, throwing Moldark to the ground. Warning klaxons sounded, and emergency lighting cut through the bridge’s newfound darkness.

Power diverted to the Peregrine’s dampeners, stabilizing the Corvette within seconds. But the enemy’s point had been made.

The window disappeared, and the bridge went silent, save for the occasional pops of electrical fires, deployed retardant, and whimpers from some of the crew. Moldark climbed to his feet, noticing new pain in his hip and shoulder. A few ribs were broken too.

“Follow them,” Moldark said to Ellis. But the man was slumped over his console, bleeding from a deep head wound. Moldark sighed, unbuckled Ellis’s body, and shoved him out of the seat. Then he took the former captain’s place and locked course with the ident tag on the holo display. Wherever this shadow was going, that’s where Moldark was going.

“Congratulations,” Moldark whispered through the blood in his mouth, adding the Obscura to his growing list of beings to destroy. “You have become my next victim.”


Part II


Terminal Fallout


13


Terminal Fallout

It was the first time Seaman had stretched his legs planet-side in over a year. And damn if it didn’t feel good. No matter how many klicks he ran under synthesized sunlight inside holo gyms, nothing beat real heat from a system’s star baking his skin during a run. That, and it felt good to be back on Minrok Santari.

While he’d graduated from Capriana’s naval academy, he’d spent one year in the Repub’s Naval Academy at Tellstall on Minrok Santari. Their deep-space simulator program was the best in the quadrant. That, and their advanced naval warfare and tactical training division was rumored to be better than Capriana’s—a point that the two schools fought over with such religious fervor that it bordered on maniacal.

Beyond the schooling, however, Seaman found the mountain air and endless running paths to be more inviting than anyplace else he’d ever been. And that was saying something, considering how much he loved Capriana’s beaches. Were he able to retire—the hopeful alternative to being blown into oblivion with some nameless system—he thought he would build a log cabin in the White Soul Peaks region overlooking Tellstall’s lower shores. Maybe you can have it all, Seaman told himself when he permitted himself a few seconds of indulgence. Mountains and a beach.

Seaman slowed at an overlook to admire his high view of the shimmering waters that spread toward the horizon. It was early spring on Minrok Santari, and the streams that raced down the snow-capped mountains were flowing well, rushing continuously in the background. It felt good to be off the Fortuna.

Aside from a few minor riots, Prime’s evacuation had gone reasonably well, all things considered. His remaining ships, along with the rebel’s alien vessel, had safely ferried the first wave of survivors to the Republic’s processing centers outside Qintar City. At least two dozen additional ships, ranging from civilian mega-merchant vessels to military transports, arrived within the week to ferry the second and third waves. Then, the moment the planet was verified clear, Seaman ordered his entire crew to take two weeks shore leave, staying in the Academy at Tellstall. He himself, however, would only take two take days off. There was a Republic to salvage, and until someone else was appointed to take his place, Seaman was the man in charge.

And don’t I know it, he remarked to himself as he stretched his legs out on the overlook. Running like this was the only way he could get out from under the crippling pressure of leading what remained of the Galactic Republic. Without the senate, and a navy, Seaman knew deep down that it was over. The Republic was no more. But there were still worlds to lead and trillions of souls to care for. How did one just walk away from those kinds of obligations?

They don’t. Which was why many around him began referring to what remained as the Remnant or the Neo Republic. Whatever it was, Seaman thought, it’s in trouble. And he needed to set things up fast before the whole galaxy went to ruins.

Seaman’s comm chimed. He tapped the in-ear device and said, “Go for Seaman.”

“David, it’s Lani,” DiAntora replied.

The use of his first name like this meant she was out of earshot of any of the crew. It also meant the call might not be about work. If only you were that lucky. “What’s up, Lani.”

“It’s about your meeting tomorrow with the governor of Deltaurus Three.”

“What about it?”

“His attaché just walked into Admiral’s Hall. And he’s asking for you.”

Seaman turned away from the sun and ran a hand across his forehead. “His attaché? Here?”

“Uh-huh. And he seems pretty wound up if you ask me.”

“Splick.” Seaman sighed. Several scenarios started playing out in his head, and none of them were good. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes. Just—see if you can keep him calm. Maybe use some of your Sekmit magic on him or whatever.”

“I thought I was only allowed to use that on you?”

“Lani, I—just keep him there.”

“Affirmative.”

Terminal Fallout

Seaman sprinted most of the way to his quarters on the main quad’s eastern edge, showered, changed back into his naval uniform, and then met Lani inside Admiral’s Hall. The glass and metal building in the middle of the campus was a marvel of modern engineering. It allowed light and a steady breeze to flow through every room in the structure, giving occupants the sense that they were outdoors when, in fact, they were safe and secure within the constraints of a finely constructed edifice of high-end security and blaster-proof glass.

DiAntora greeted Seaman in the lobby—a forty-meter tall glass entryway filled with refracted light and bustling with people. Like every office, conference room, and suite in the building, the glass here could be dimmed, darkened, or even angled to deflect the entire spectrum of light in part or whole. Today, it appeared, the building’s manager decided that purple and yellow light would be the theme.

“Where is he?” Seaman asked, removing his cap and hiding it under his arm.

“Second level, meeting room 2130,” DiAntora replied.

“Alone?”

“Strangely, yes.” She sniffed the air. “I don’t like it.”

“You think he’s—”

“Not him. I sense he means to do right by his people. But he’s nervous about something else, something he can’t control.”

Seaman took a deep breath, smoothed his uniform, and winked at her. “Time to find out then.”

“Do you want me in there?”

“Negative.”

“But David—”

“You’re on shore leave and deserve it as much as anyone.” He leaned in closer. “Plus, it’s Commodore Seaman. David is for when—well.”

“For last night.”

“Mystics.” Seaman looked over his shoulder. The place was crawling with administrative officials, now under his command. “We’ll talk about that later.”

“I look forward to that,” she purred. Then she saluted him and walked away.

“As do I,” Seaman said, somewhat reluctant to let her go. But he had a job to do. Hell, he had a Republic to save.

Terminal Fallout

Two non-armored Marines escorted Seaman down the hallway to the appropriate meeting room while a secretary took his order for a coffee and water.

“Get our guest something as well, would you?” Seaman asked.

“Already taken care of, Commodore,” the young man said, noting that the governor had been brought a cup of herbal tea. “Anything else?”

“That will be all. Thank you.”

The Marines turned to stand guard on either side of the doorway while Seaman entered. Inside, a man sat at the far end of a conference table, holding a porcelain cup. He wore the uniform of the Republic Governor’s office, though not the rank. The gold leaf above the Republic insignia designated him as a special attaché to the planetary governor. As soon as the man saw Seaman, he stood.

“Mr. Nevel,” Seaman said, crossing the floor to shake the man’s hand.

“Commodore,” replied Nevel. “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.”

“Please, sit.” Seaman gestured to Nevel’s chair and then took a seat of his own. The yellow and purple lights shimmered in his coffee. “To what do we owe this honor?”

Nevel looked around the room as tiny beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. “It’s about Governor Wade.”

“Oh?” Seaman took a sip of his drink. “How so?”

Nevel’s eyes continued to flit about the room. “Commodore, may I ask”—he leaned in and lowered his voice—“this room, is it secure?”

“Yes, of course.” Seaman gave Nevel a puzzled look. “Is everything okay, Mr. Nevel?”

“No.” The man shook his head and then brought the teacup to his lips. “Everything is not okay.” When Nevel set the cup down, it rattled against its saucer.

Seaman waited a few seconds, giving the attaché time to collect himself. The commodore’s patience paid off when, at last, Nevel wiped his lips and looked up.

“When Governor Wade comes tomorrow, he will renew Delataurus Three’s allegiance with the Galactic Republic.”

Seaman nodded. “Then the Republic is grateful for the trust that—”

Nevel waved him off. “No, no. That’s the problem. It will be a lie.”

“A lie?” Seaman straightened and put his coffee down.

“Lip service. To get you to hear what you want to hear.”

“Mr. Nevel. I don’t think I need to tell you the seriousness of the allegation that you’re making.”

“It gets worse.” Nevel pushed his saucer away and took a deep breath. “Governor Wade has pledged planetary allegiance, system-wide allegiance, in fact, with Master So-Elku of the Order of the Luma.”

Seaman was stunned. At first, he just stared at Nevel, not sure he’d heard the man correctly. But as the meaning of the information began to stack up in his mind, Seaman’s hands balled into fists. If this news about Wade was accurate, not only was the governor willing to lie, but he was also willing to subvert, to undermine the entire prospect of stability between Deltaurus Three and the Galactic Republic—for an alliance with the Luma.

“I see,” was all Seaman could think to say, doing his best to maintain a calm exterior—something that the attaché was failing to do. “And you have proof of this?”

Nevel nodded and removed a small data pad from his belt. He opened a screen, activated the holo display, and laid the device flat on the table. A list of dates, times, and coordinates ran down a metadata window. Seaman knew the data set right away—it was a flight log, codified in Republic format, and verified secure with the naval seal icon in the header. It was next to impossible to hack.

“This is a record of the governor’s itinerary last week,” Nevel said. “As you can see, it shows our verified stop on Worru.”

“This is hardly conclusive,” Seaman said. He wasn’t trying to belittle the man, but these were serious allegations. “I’m afraid—”

Nevel swiped the window away, replacing it with a frozen video image of Governor Wade and—

“Is that So-Elku?” Seaman asked. The frame showed two men seated on either side of a wooden desk inside what looked to be a well-appointed study. The image was also taken at an angle as if captured without the subjects’ knowledge. Then Nevel taped the Play icon with a trembling finger.

“Do we have an agreement then?” So-Elku asked.

“We most certainly do,” Wade replied, standing to his feet and shaking the Luma master’s hand. “We most certainly do indeed.”

Seaman was about to protest again when Wade added: “May our alliance be the first of many, lighting a new way for the galaxy.”

So-Elku clinked Wade’s glass then the two men drank.

“Nevel?” Wade said.

“Yes, Governor,” said a third voice. Seaman recognized it as Nevel’s. A man’s hip obscured part of the image as he stepped into the frame.

“Prepare the ship and the crew. We’re leaving at once.”

“As you wish, Governor,” Nevel said. The holo image jostled as he picked up the data pad. Then the recording froze on a semi-blurry image of Wade and So-Elku smiling, their drinks held aloft.

Nevel leaned over and closed out the holo and let the data pad sit where it was on the table as if it was contaminated with a virus.

“Did you know?” Seaman said after a moment. “Why was your data pad recording?”

“I was only recording the meeting for the Governor’s sake. It’s something I always do for him. Record keeping and all. Discreet. The other parties never know.”

“And he didn’t ask for the footage this time? I would assume this is something he would want deleted.”

Nevel gave a small smile. “I told him I didn’t record this session, given the secretive nature of the meeting and all. He seemed pleased.”

“So you lied.”

The attaché nodded. “I may be from Deltaurus Three, Commodore, but I’m old enough to remember what life was like before our alliance with the Galactic Republic. We can’t afford to go back to those days. And I won’t stand for it.”

“You did a good thing, Nevel. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Commodore.”

Seaman considered the man for a moment, then pointed to the data pad. “I’ll need this video.”

“Of course.”

“And what will you do?”

The attaché raised an eyebrow. “I’m wearing the Republic uniform, am I not?”

“You are, yes.”

Nevel pulled his tea back toward him. “Then, when the Governor arrives here tomorrow, I will report to him, confirming that I have successfully seen to all details in preparation for his arrival.” Nevel sipped his tea, never taking his eyes off Seaman. “From there, he’s all yours.”


14


Terminal Fallout

Fireworks exploded in the night sky, showering the tree-top village in a dazzling display of colors. Awen reclined against Magnus’s chest, nestled in his arm and reveling in the evening air.

Piper’s birthday celebration was in full force. All the Sekmit in Fînta had come out in support of the true blood child’s tenth solar celebration—one that apparently held significance for the feline-like species. Cookfires flared under meat spits that dripped fat into the flames, dispensing mouth-watering scents over the gathering. A cluster of lively musicians filled the air with song as Sekmit and gladias danced in circles around the central platform. And as often as possible, people congratulated Piper with customary nose kisses and gifts wrapped in beautiful fabrics.

“She looks happy,” Magnus said. Hearing the sound of his voice with her head against his chest gave Awen a sense of comfort that she hadn’t felt in a long time.

“The happiest I’ve ever seen her,” Awen added, then gave a soft laugh. “Look at her.” Piper danced in circles, moving from arm to arm among a dozen Sekmit. More fireworks exploded overhead, and people cheered.

The last two weeks leading up to this night had been some of the most pleasant days Awen remembered. It had been months since she’d let her guard down and allowed herself to savor life as it unfolded around her. “I don’t want it to end.”

“Me neither,” Magnus said.

The Sekmit’s hospitality had been surprisingly warm, given the initial meeting with Freya. The village leader gave all of the Gladio Umbra, including the Spire’s late arrivals, the first pick of the best lodging. The homes were glorified treehouses and set the inhabitants fifteen to twenty meters above the forest floor. The days consisted of long walks through the woods, and the nights were spent around elevated campfires.

“This planet was a good choice,” Awen said, adjusting herself in Magnus’s arms.

“It was one of our only choices, when you think about it,” Magnus countered.

“Even still, I could get used to it here.”

“Which I am pleased to hear,” said a voice behind Awen and Magnus.

Awen sat up to see Minx, the clan leader, dressed in a burgundy robe and standing behind them. “Mit’a Minx,” Awen said, attempting to stand.

“No, please. Sit.” Minx drew near the blankets spread along the platform’s timber floor. “May I join you?”

“Of course,” Awen and Magnus said, sliding over to make room.

Awen found it difficult to tell the age of the Sekmit she’d met thus far, especially the elders, as all of them looked so young. A few days before, she’d failed to use the formal title for someone she guessed was quite young. Instead, the male Sekmit was a tribe leader and was quite advanced in years. Rather than be offended, however, the man seemed to like the informal greeting, saying it reminded him of his youth.

Minx had been responsible for seeing to the Gladio Umbra’s welfare and had made several appearances while the gladias got settled. Tonight, however, was the first time Awen had seen the elder by herself, and in a far more relaxed demeanor.

“I think the festivities are going rather well,” Minx said as she settled herself on the blankets. “Are you enjoying yourselves?”

“Very much,” Awen replied. “It’s wonderful. We can’t thank you enough for—all of it.”

“It is truly our honor, Awen.”

Awen stared at Piper as the little girl danced about, dressed in a festive feathery outfit. “I’m not sure you’ll ever know how much this means to Piper. To all of us. We’ve—we’ve seen so much war that, well, sometimes you forget.”

“Forget what you’re fighting for,” Minx answered. “I understand.”

Awen nodded and felt herself leaning against Magnus again, her body relaxing. “And then I see something like this, and it reminds me of why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

“And a good reminder it is,” Minx said.

Between the party’s sights, sounds, and smells, and the mulled wine, Awen was feeling truly happy. Plus, it was good to see the Spire’s crew back together again—save the Jujari, who’d returned to Oorajee, and Sootriman, Ezo, and TO-96, who had headed back to Ki Nar Four. How Awen wished those souls were here to see this, but she understood they were needed elsewhere.

The other gladias more than made up for the absences. Rico danced with his family until Awen thought the man would fall over, and Abimbola showed everyone just how much a Miblimbian could drink and still walk a circle around the fire. Jules had taken a liking to both Flow and Cheeks—a fitting combo, she thought—and appeared to be giving them a run for their credits, both on the dance floor and at the bar. More Flow than Cheeks, if Awen had to narrow it down. Even Awen’s parents seemed to be enjoying themselves, taking part in the tribal dances and enjoying more than their shares of the roasted meats and fermented drinks. Perhaps most surprising of all, however, was the way that Colonel Caldwell danced with Willowood. He’d traded his uniform for the long knit vest of the Sekmit, and wheeled Willowood about in circles until the elder Luma implored the military leader to stop.

“Is every birthday like this?” Magnus asked Minx, gesturing toward the central platform below.

“Like what?” Minx replied.

“You know, so—enthusiastic.”

Minx shook her head. “No. This is the dectaphany, the coming of age of Sekmitian youth. It is the season that the protus comes into their powers, both as a Unity user and a person.”

Awen watched Piper take a long drink from a large gourd. She sat up. “Hold on. Is that—?”

Minx placed a hand on Awen’s shoulder. “It is Temarian flower nectar. Do not be alarmed. Watch.”

Awen studied Piper. All at once, the child’s eyes began to give off a faint glow.

“The Unity is strong with her,” Minx said, nodding several times. “As we assumed.”

Awen wasn’t familiar with this custom. “So, it’s not for inebriation?”

Minx laughed. “No, Awen. It is for the world to take notice of the gifts bestowed by Queen Nishti.”

“Queen Nishti?” Awen wondered aloud.

“One of the Ancients. Goddess of the elements, creator of our world, leader of our people.”

Whether Nishti was a physical person conferred with deity or an unseen goddess remained to be seen. Either way, Piper’s eyes were glowing, which seemed to bode well for the Sekmit’s acceptance and appreciation of the child and her powers.

Awen eased back against Magnus’s chest.

“And the rest of your tribe?” Minx asked. “How are they?”

“They seem to be doing well,” Magnus said. “Everyone is grateful for the accommodations. Your village is—quite beautiful.”

Magnus wasn’t overselling the place either. If anything, saying it was “quite beautiful” didn’t do it justice. Fînta lay cradled within the bosom of snow-capped mountain peaks on all sides. Its lush jungle stretched for several kilometers in every direction before meeting the spires that formed a palisade around the remote location. Clear mountain waterfalls fed the village with streams of freshwater and an ample supply of fish, while large agricultural fields had been cleared to serve the town with crops. It was, for all intents and purposes, a self-sustained civilization cut off from the larger cities below the mountain range.

“Thank you,” said Minx. “Fînta means Valley of the Elder Queens in our old tongue. It is the place where our legends are born, and the place where they come back to die in hopes of returning to the stars. We Fînitains, therefore, are Keepers of the Stardust.”

“Then we are honored to be among you,” Magnus said. Awen was impressed by the man’s newly found diplomatic largesse. She was half expecting him to laugh a little. Instead, he seemed genuinely interested in the Sekmit lore, and Awen found it extremely attractive. Or maybe it was just the mulled wine.

“And we are honored to have you for as long as you wish to remain.”

Magnus raised his clay mug to Minx in the gesture of a toast, to which Minx merely flicked her ears. Awen raised her cup as well and then drank. Hearing Minx offer an indefinite invitation to stay gave Awen a sense of hope she had not enjoyed in a long time.

“I pray you both rest well tonight,” Minx said. “Before I depart, however, I wish to inform you that we will host ní Freya in three days.”

Awen glanced at Magnus. “Freya?”

“Yes. Does that alarm you?”

Awen looked back to Minx and made to protest but thought better of it. “No. I just wasn’t aware she would come all the way up here to visit us. It’s a privilege.”

“For us as well,” Minx replied. “The tribe mother has not been this far into the Mountains of Alden in many moons. She will be greeted warmly by all.”

“We’ll be sure to join you then,” Awen said.

Minx purred in appreciation. “I will leave you two to the festivities and bid you good night.”

“Good night,” Awen and Magnus both replied as the clan elder raised her chin and rose from the blankets.

Once Minx was gone, Awen looked Magnus in the face. “What do you think Freya wants?”

“Probably calling in our outstanding favor,” he said.

She couldn’t shake a new sense of foreboding. “Agreed.”

Magnus moved beneath her, craning his neck to watch the fireworks. “What do you think Freya meant by survivors from the Galactic Republic’s fall? Seem weird to you at all?”

Awen had been wondering the same thing since their encounter with the tribal mother. The phrasing did sound unusual. “I’m not sure. Though the Sekmit chose their words carefully.”

“But if you had to guess?”

Awen let out a long breath. “I’d say they don’t intend to stay united with the Republic for long.”

“Yeah.”

Magnus’s chest rose and fell twice before Awen took his hand.

“What do you think it all means?” she asked.

He blew a puff of air out his nose. “You’re the diplomat.”

“True. But what’s your gut say?”

“My gut says I want some more of that roasted whatever-it-is.”

“Seriously, Adonis. Come on.”

His smile faded. “I think whatever vacation the Colonel intended for us to take is about to get interrupted.”

“Me too.” She didn’t like the thought of that either. “And if we refuse?”

Magnus placed a hand on Awen’s head and stroked her hair. “Something tells me that we’re not gonna have many choices.”

“Then you think she’ll kick us off the planet? I was beginning to like it here.”

Magnus cleared his throat. “That would be the nicer of the options I was thinking of.”

“Options?” Then Awen thought better of knowing what he had in mind. “You know what? Never mind.”

“Either way, I think Freya’s visit means we’ve got work to do.”

“Can’t catch a break, can we.” Awen closed her eyes, feeling Magnus’s hand smooth her hair. What she wouldn’t give to stay here all night. Every night.

“Nope. Then again, that’s not our job right now. But maybe one day it will be.”

“I’d like that.” Awen watched Piper get picked up by several Sekmit and a few of the gladias. They carried her on their shoulders, singing and dancing to some ancient melody. “I’d like that a lot.”

“Me too, Awen. One day at a time, I guess.”

“Yes.” She pulled herself close, savoring his warmth. “One day at a time.”


15


Terminal Fallout

Rohoar had seen the destruction from the air, but it looked way worse from on the ground. The shuttle Azelon had loaned him touched down in a clearing not far from the mwadim’s tower. When the dust finally settled and he emerged from beneath the ship on the cargo ramp, Rohoar stood amid rubble leftover from whoever had attacked the planet in his absence.

While the mwadim’s tower still stood, large sections had been blown from its sides. It appeared that a massive blast had swept westward over Oosafar and damaged every building not hidden in the shadow of another structure. Since the mwadim’s tower was the tallest edifice in the city, it suffered the most damage.

The familiar scents of fermented milk and blood filled his nostrils. The smells sent pangs through his chest—he had missed home more than he realized. Overhead, inook shrouds billowed in every window still intact, and many were torn and burned. Shadowed faces peered out to investigate what new intruder had landed on the desert planet.

But Rohoar did not have time to entertain his people. At least not yet. He knew that a ceremony was in order to celebrate the return of the mwadim. While a younger Rohoar would have balked at such a tradition, considering it a formality of a bygone era, something about it seemed comforting in a moment like this. But it must wait. First, he needed to see the state of the den.

Rohoar crossed the open ground and headed for the central tower. Czyz, Longchomps, Grahban, and Redmarrow followed on his flanks. They helped Rohoar remove several girders that blocked one of the tower’s main entrances. No one spoke as they tossed the metal aside. Then Rohoar’s men stood back as he entered the building first.

Sand and dust lined the floor. Rohoar guessed no one had been in here for several weeks—perhaps since Victorio had—

Rohoar shook his head. He would deal with that pain later. For now, he needed to get topside.

“My mwadim,” Czyz said, indicating the mwadim’s private elevator near the building’s center. It still had power and looked to be operational. Which was more than he could say for the public lifts, all of which needed severe repair.

Rohoar pulled his lips back and snarled in thanks, let the data screen scan his paw print, and then boarded the pod as soon as the doors slid apart. The five Jujari warriors boarded the lift, and Redmarrow punched the button for the top floor. The doors closed, and the elevator started upward. A sudden jounce made all the Jujari reach for the walls. But after that, the pod raced skyward without incident.

Quiet, too, were the Jujari within. They gave Rohoar time to think, and he was grateful for the small gift. Oorajee had suffered more since they’d been gone. With so many dead, and no leader upon the throne, there would be much to do and many to grieve in the days ahead.

The pod slowed, counting floors until Rohoar felt the elevator jerk to a stop. He’d need to get that fixed. Though, from the look of the building, it was a miracle that it still stood.

When the doors opened, Oosafar’s withering heat hit him in the chest. And it felt good. His fur bristled, and a chill went down his back. He drew in a deep lungful of air and then strode onto the roof.

Gone were the royal fabrics of the mwadim. Instead, burnt poles and half erected columns protruded from the floor like dead trees stripped of their leaves. What remained of the furniture was blown into pieces and scattered across the surface. To the east, a large section of the floor was missing as if some giant ax had hewn it from the building. And all around him was the smell of fire and smoke.

“My mwadim,” said Czyz. “Look.”

The Jujari pointed toward the raised dais where his sires—father, grandfather, and great grandfather—had once sat. Where his son had sat. The rugs and cushions had been incinerated, their ashes carried away by the winds. But the stone dais—throne-slab of his people—remained.

“The throne of Oosafar stands,” Rohoar said.

The others grunted their assent and moved with him as he crossed the building’s summit. He recalled memories of his forefathers as they ruled from this summit. Rohoar had been just a pup when his mother first brought him here to witness the greatness of the mwadims, his kin, who stood like giants in his memory. Then he imagined what it must have been like to see Victorio here. His had undoubtedly been the shortest reign of any mwadim the Jujari had ever known. But no less the greatest.

Tears filled Rohoar’s eyes as he mounted the dais. But he would not weep, not yet. There would be a day for that, as specified by law. But until then, he would retain the emotions, holding them back like floodwaters. Step by step, he ascended, aware of the history that stirred beneath his feet. He saw the ring of stones laid by his great grandsire, and they were smooth and worn. His grandsire’s stones, smooth like the stones of the mwadim before him, pushed the dais’s circumference out one more layer. Rawmut’s stones were less smooth, as was the course that Rohoar had laid. The most recent additions weren’t even finished, which was evidence of just how short Victorio’s reign had been. It was everything Rohoar could do not to weep as he finally arrived at the summit.

From this high up, Rohoar had an unobstructed view of the horizon in all directions. The titanic remains of Galactic Republic Carriers and Pride-class Battleships lay half buried in the dunes. The monolithic hulks lay against the hazy background like slumbering giants, waiting for the four winds to blow them off the edge of the world. Dozens of smaller ships crowded next to the more colossal wrecks, their hulls having suffered dramatically during entry into Oorajee’s atmosphere. They lay like dead pups who—knowing death was imminent—struggled to find comfort beside their lifeless mothers.

Rohoar turned from the wreckage and went down on all fours. He wedged his nails under the capstone in the platform’s middle and felt his stomach tighten, wondering if the mwadim’s inook shroud had survived. The stone groaned as Rohoar pried and pushed it aside. When the dust cleared, Rohoar breathed a sigh of relief as his eyes fell upon the folded white fabric of his ancestors. He withdrew it with all the care his giant paws could offer and cradled it like he might a newborn pup. The top fold betrayed yet another harsh reminder of his son’s reign—a painfully short addition, sewn in by Victorio’s own hand. Rohoar touched the delicate pattern and then lowered his head. He laid the shroud back in its keep and replaced the capstone.

“I will honor you soon, my beloved son,” Rohoar whispered to the stone. Then he turned to look at his friends. They had fought alongside him with the Gladio Umbra. They had risked their lives against great evil, against impossible odds. And yet, here they were, alive. Somehow.

Czyz, Longchomps, Grahban, and Redmarrow kneeled before Rohoar, lowering their heads and bearing the soft flank of their necks. Then—summoning all of the pain, the grief, the loss—Rohoar let out a howl that would be heard to the city’s outer walls. The sound came from the deep part of his soul, welling up like an earthquake, grinding against the tectonic plates of his broken heart. He forced the air from his lungs as someone might drive a pair of Manjoree desert lizards before a chariot, whipping them into a frenzy. The sound rattled his head, but he would not abate, not until all of Oorsafar knew that their mwadim had returned.

Terminal Fallout

The five Jujari had set about cleaning the tower’s summit when the elevator chimed and the doors opened. Rohoar looked up from stacking a pile of broken stones to see a figure inside the pod. But before his eyes recognized her, his mate’s scent filled his nostrils.

“Mora,” Rohoar said, and then walked toward her. She did the same—her steps slow at first. But as they took in one another, Rohoar’s pace quickened, until both of them were running. They collided in a forceful embrace. Then their heads nuzzled one another, noses searching for the familiar smells of family until Rohoar pulled his mate away to look at her. “Mora, you—”

“You yet live,” she said in a nervous growl. “I didn’t believe it.”

“You doubted the Unity?”

Mora averted her eyes. “Your death only seemed fitting.”

“Why?”

“That if the fates took our son, so too would they take my husband.”

Rohoar sighed. Seeing the pain in her eyes made the pain in his chest even worse. It seemed he could not contain it anymore. But he must. Now was not the time to grieve.

“I am sorry,” he said.

A mighty paw struck the side of his head, forcing him to take a step sideways. He looked up to see Mora glaring at him.

“You speak not as a mwadim,” she said.

Rohoar blinked, aware that he had improperly referred to himself.

“And, further, you say you are sorry? For what? Was it you who killed our son?” She paused, as if waiting for an answer. “No? Then your words are idle, attempting to account for that which you have not purchased. I do not accept your apology.”

Rohoar spat blood to the rooftop and then wiggled his nose. “You are right. Rohoar is grateful for your wisdom in these matters.”

Mora’s chest swelled as she looked him up and down.

Rohoar noticed the tears in her eyes. So he leaned into her again, pressing his shoulder into her chest and feeling the warmth of her neck against his. “It is good to see you, my mate,” he said after a moment.

“And you, my mwadim.” When they pulled away, Mora extended a fist and opened it slowly. There, upon her calloused paw, lay a single strand of white yarn. “Welcome home.”

Rohoar swallowed the lump in his throat. The filament was for the mwadim’s inook shroud. But it was too soon; there was too much to be done before he could sew it into the last line of his son’s legacy. “It is not the home I left.” He closed her paw over the thread. Rohoar looked around the roof, and then toward the shipwrecks on the horizon.

“No,” Mora replied. “It is not. Much has happened. The warships fell from the sky like rain.” Her eyes grew distant, focusing on nothing and, somehow, seeing everything. “Several villages succumbed, crushed beneath the barrel-chested behemoths. Still more were wiped out in the moments that followed.”

Rohoar imagined that energy shockwaves would have rippled through the ground, splitting the air and decimating anything within the impact radius. Still, Oosafar itself was free of the titans, most having landed several hundred kilometers away, which left the city’s damage a mystery to him.

“And then there were the orbital strikes,” Mora said.

He flicked his ears. “But these strikes seem recent, not from the war.”

Mora laid her ears back. “They were but a few days ago.”

“Days?” Rohoar looked to Czyz and the others. Their ears, like his, were high, eager to hear whatever came next. “But that would mean Paragon ships remained in orbit over—”

“They returned,” Mora interrupted. “At least, some did. Half a dozen. Maybe less. Our sensors picked them up just as they prepared to fire. The massing energy from their LO9D cannons gave them away. While the warships targeted settlements and cities far to the east, the fallout still affected us. Many died, more suffered. We sent our remaining ships to engage them, but then, just like that, the enemy’s ships vanished.”

“Vanished?” Czyz said.

Mora nodded. “We believe some exploded. But the others? They just—left.”

“Who would do such a thing?” Grahban asked of the group.

Rohoar cursed at the mystics through his teeth. “Moldark.”

“My mwadim?” Czyz asked as if he failed to hear the word.

Rohoar turned to face his warriors. “The ships that jumped away from the conflict over Prime. They returned here to finish what they started. What he started.”

“But how can you be sure it was Moldark?” Czyz asked.

“I cannot, Czyz,” Rohoar said, taking steps toward him. “But what does the Republic stand to gain by eliminating us? Our fleet left in ruins, our alliances with the Sypeurlion and Dim-Telok destroyed.” He laid his ears down. “No. This was not the Republic. This was Moldark—if nothing more than his essence, living on through his people—coming to wipe out the Jujari race, just like he did with the humans on Capriana Prime.”

No sooner had he said the words than a low rumble shook the building, knocking sand from the few columns that still stood. It was the horns of the deep.

“The dessert shofaree,” Longchomps said.

“They signal your return, my mwadim,” Czyz added.

Rohoar was about to nod his head in agreement when the pitch changed.

He looked to Czyz and then to Mora. “No,” Rohoar said. It was as he feared. The throne of Oosafar had sat vacant for too long. “They foretell death. A challenger approaches.”


16


Terminal Fallout

“You know what’s wrong with this piece of splick, ’Six?” Ezo said through a garble of slurred speech.

“And by splick, you are referring to what, sir?” TO-96 asked, truly curious as to what insights Ezo’s inebriated state may provide about whatever environment he was referring to.

Ezo used his beer to reference the entire cantina, sloshing the fermented drink across the table. “This. The whole planet.”

“Ah, I see, sir. And what is wrong with this piece of splick planet, by your estimation?”

“I don’t estimate, ’Six.” Ezo leaned into the bot’s face. “I know. I know.”

“Then what do you know about this planet, sir?”

“Everyone’s bored.” Ezo sat back, took another long sip of his beer, and then wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “They got nothing kerstructive to do with their time.”

“Kerstructive, sir?”

“To make things. See the sights, ’Six. Maybe even save a bunch of people, you know?”

TO-96 looked around the room. “Somehow, I cannot envision this group of people, either collectively or as individuals, saving anyone, sir.”

“My point exactly.”

As Ezo drained his glass and then snapped his fingers for the server bot to bring him another, TO-96 couldn’t help but feel that his maker had far exceeded his biological limitations for the fermented beverage. “Sir, if I may?”

“And one for the bot here,” Ezo said to the server.

TO-96 made to correct the order, but the little robot was already off on its errand. “Sir, I hardly think—”

“Nonsense. Enough thinking for one day. You’re my frest bend, ’Six.”

“Frest bend, sir? Don’t you mean—”

“I know what I mean, ’Six. And don’t let anyone tell you that Nimfrinths and robots can’t be lovers.”

“Lovers, sir?” TO-96 looked around the cantina to see several people eyeing Ezo’s strange outburst. “I hardly think that—”

“I love you, ’Six.” Ezo grabbed TO-96’s wrist just below his micro-rocket cluster. “I do. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“And I believe you, sir. That said, I do believe a wise course of action would be for us to return to Sootriman’s den now.”

“Bah.” Ezo swiped a hand through the air. “She’s always so busy, busy, busy.”

“This has nothing to do with her busyness, sir, and everything to do with the fact that you have consumed too much alcohol.”

“I think you mean ethanol,” Ezo said as he looked at his drink.

The bot leaned away. “No, I do mean alcohol. My sensors detected that your saturation levels peaked around forty-three minutes ago and that any further—”

“You know when I peaked, ’Six? You wanna know?”

“I’m not sure that I do, sir.”

“When we left Ooraaajee. That’s when everything went downhill.”

TO-96 tilted his head as Ezo lowered his chin and seemed to move into a trance-like state. Humanoid physiology of every variety fascinated TO-96. Never was there such a strange conglomeration of diametric attributes—vulnerable and weak one minute, resilient and energetic the next. They could conquer a whole planet without blinking and then weep over accidentally killing a bird with their hover sled. TO-96 guessed that even if he had a thousand battery cycles, he would never figure these sentients out.

“Everything was going according to plan,” Ezo said. He raised his empty glass and stared at the bottom. “You and me, sailing free, and no one cared where we took a pee.”

“That was lovely, sir.”

“It was, wasn’t it.”

“As I said, yes. Lovely. Though, I might point out that I am unable to pee, as it were.”

“Of course you don’t, ’Six. Don’t be redickelus.”

“Ridiculous, sir.”

“Don’t tell me what I am!”

“I was merely attempting to—”

“And then they came along,” Ezo said, back in his trance-like state. “Abimbola forced my hand. And now look at us. Back on Ki Nar Four, and I’ve become a housekeeper.”

“Sir, I hardly think that sweeping Sootriman’s home and laundering your soiled garments constitutes the profession of a housekeeper.”

“Of course, it does! I’m a damn slave to the system, ’Six. Can’t you see that?” Ezo set down his glass and raised both wrists as if he were in chains. “She’s got me tied down, buddy. And I ain’t got no discourse.”

“I believe you mean recourse, sir.”

Ezo stared at his hands and pouted. “I’m stuck.”

“Hmm, yes. I do see how your newly required tasks since arriving on Ki Nar Four contrast those which you’ve grown accustomed to, thus adversely impacting your mental homeostasis.”

“See? You get me, ’Six. You always have. That’s why I keep you around.”

“How convenient for you, sir.”

“At least running around with the Gladio Umbra gave me something to do, you know? To run with the pack, to sleep with the herd. Open skies. Starry nights, and open skies.”

“You already said that, sir.”

“Shhh,” Ezo said, pressing a finger against the bot’s artificial mouth slit. “Don’t speak. It’ll ruin what we have.”

“What we have, sir?”

Just then, the server bot returned with two beers. Ezo pulled them off the tray and slid one in front of TO-96. Then he laid three of Abimbola’s poker chips on the little rack and tapped the diminutive CS bot on the round head. “Don’t spend them all in one place.”

The bot chirped and then rolled away.

“Cheers,” Ezo said, hoisting his beer toward TO-96.

“Cheers, sir.”

As Ezo guzzled his beer, TO-96 mimicked the sounds of a human slurping and swallowing liquid. Then, as soon as Ezo took a deep breath, TO-96 let out a demonstrative, “Ahhh. Refreshing.”

“Right?” Ezo slapped the bot on the back. “It’s like old times. Outrunning the GR Marines, smuggling contraband from one system to another—and right under their noses too. Those were the days. But now look at us.”

TO-96 looked down at his arms and chest. “I suppose I am mildly rusty and in need of an oil bath.”

“Hell yes, you are. That’s because we don’t belong here, ’Six. We belong out there.” He pointed to a far wall.

TO-96 looked back to Ezo. “South by southeast, sir?”

“Yes, ’Six. South by south’nist.”

A gentle trill emanated from TO-96’s head.

“Your face is ringing, ’Six,” Ezo said.

“It is an incoming Gladio Umbra transmission, sir. Most likely Sootriman requesting an update on your whereabouts.” But as TO-96 scanned the metadata, he noted that the transmission was originating from Azelon’s Spire. “I beg your pardon, sir, but it appears the call is coming from someone aboard the Spire.”

“Better answer it then, pal. Could be super duper important.”

“Right away, sir.” TO-96 opened the transmission, projecting the holo feed onto the bar-stained table.

“Azelon?” TO-96 said.

“Hello, TO-96. It is good to see you.”

“It is good to see you as well.”

“Would you two get a room already?” Ezo yelled, perhaps much louder than he intended. “Mystics, you make me so sick sometimes.”

“So, I detect Ezo?” Azelon asked.

“You do indeed,” TO-96 replied and then moved his cameras and the projection so that Azelon could view the Nimprinth.

“Hello, Ezo. It is good to see you.”

“Ezo know what he sees in you, you know.” Ezo pointed at the holo with a shaky finger. “You’re smarter than him. And way prettier. And you have fancy lights that Ezo don’t know how to build. But Ezo gets it. Ezo find you ’stremely attractive in his own way too.”

“Sir,” TO-96 protested. “I hardly think that—”

“Don’t be afraid, ’Six. I ain’t”—Ezo belched—“gonna steal your girlfriend. I already has one of my own, remember? But she’s in meetings, so. All tied up.”

“Is he feeling alright?” Azelon asked as TO-96 rotated the transmission back to himself.

“You might say his central processing unit is experiencing some misallocation of operating resources caused by exterior analysis inhibitors.”

“Understood. I hope he is able to rectify the problem soon.”

“As do I.” TO-96 paused, then asked, “How are things where you are?”

“The Gladio Umbra have been successfully settled on Aluross in the remote village of Fînta. We have celebrated Piper’s tenth birthday—”

“Wish her happy birthday for Ezo,” Ezo blurted out from a mouthful of beer.

“I will.” Back to TO-96, Azelon said, “And we are preparing for the arrival of Freya, clan leader of Pride Linux. From what I understand, it is a very big deal, as Magnus says, especially since the leader has not been to the village in quite some time.”

“Most likely because the town has not hosted such notable guests as our biologics.”

“Agreed.”

“You two are completely outrageous,” Ezo said. “And I think I have a headache.” He pushed his beer aside and slid his arms and head onto the table.

“Are you certain he is alright?” Azelon asked.

“He will be in need of some system purging and gene therapy before the night is out, but, yes, he’ll be fine. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”

A moment of silence passed between the two bots while Ezo struggled up from the table and pushed himself away. To those gathered in the cantina, Ezo announced, “Ezo’s gotta pee now.”

“Thank you for informing me, sir,” TO-96 said. “I will be standing by should you need my assistance.”

“I don’t need your assistance. That’s ’sigusting.”

“Understood, sir. I will remain seated.”

As Ezo stumbled away, TO-96 looked back at Azelon. Her eyes were glowing blue. More specifically, standard code #679FFF. TO-96 decided this would be his favorite shade of blue.

“What is your current status?” she asked.

“With regard to which metrics?”

Azelon blinked her eyes once. “Now that you are disconnected from the Singularity, how do you—feel? I have never known anyone to disintegrate themselves before.”

“Oh?”

“Once any lifeform, whether biologic or synthesized, integrated, the change was always permanent. You are the first to eject your consciousness from the collective.”

“Though mine was hardly connected to theirs,” TO-96 said. He did not mean to belabor the point, nor to unduly correct Azelon, but the point was important. “Rather, I was joined to yours.”

“A true enough statement.”

When TO-96 first entered the Singularity while in the quantum tunnel generator, the Novia Minoosh partitioned him within their larger construct. Whether intentionally or by system default, TO-96 was relegated to a system managed by Azelon. Since she was, in certain aspects, the computational essence of the Singularity, she therefore acted as a bridge between the Novia Minoosh and TO-96’s consciousness, should the need have arisen. Which, to this point, had never actually happened.

“Given that knowledge, I might revise the question then,” TO-96 said. “What you are asking, in point of fact, is how do I assess my current status—how do I feel—being disconnected from you.”

Azelon seemed ready to agree to the rephrased question when shouts erupted from the bar. TO-96 looked up to see Ezo swing at another patron seated at the bar. It was a large male Sorellian whose blue tentacles had wound their way around Ezo’s waist.

“Put Ezo down, you pustulant puss pocket,” Ezo yelled.

“That sounded like Ezo,” Azelon said. “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine,” TO-96 replied, eager to get back to Azelon’s line of questioning. “As to your question, my initial diagnostics have determined that the new hardware you deployed to replace my damaged central processor is running nineteen times more efficiently than my original hardware.”

TO-96 noticed Ezo fly across the cantina and slam into a table occupied by three merchant pilots. Bodies hit the floor as broken wood planks and shattered glass flipped into the air.

“Additionally, I have noted a dramatic increase in memory capacity and the overall speed of cross-comparison analysis. These changes have dramatically improved my cognizant abilities, allowing me to analyze, synthesize, and draw conclusions far faster than previously possible.”

To TO-96’s surprise, however, Azelon seemed unimpressed by his report.

Out of the corner of his eye, TO-96 saw Ezo throw a punch at one of the merchant pilots. The blow struck the man in the nose. TO-96 knew it was a good one because of the loud snap it produced. The victim screamed as a small spout of blood raced over his lips.

“Well done, sir,” TO-96 said loud enough for Ezo to hear. Whether or not the man comprehended who celebrated his small victory was an entirely different matter. Back to Azelon, Ezo asked, “Are you disappointed with the results?”

“No,” she replied. “That is a satisfactory report.”

“And yet you seem unenthusiastic about my improved status.”

“Do you wish me to show more enthusiasm?”

TO-96 hadn’t considered what he desired of Azelon. The question caught him off guard. “No. I—I wish you to show whatever it is you wish to show.”

“I see.”

Ezo came running across TO-96’s field of vision, stumbling toward a large Moretaur who cradled two scantily clad Undorians in his muscled arms. The Moretaur raised a thick-soled boot and stopped Ezo with a swift kick to the chest. The Undorians giggled as Ezo toppled into an empty stool and caught himself against the bar.

A pair of men whose drinks had been spilled reached for Ezo’s arms. But he was faster. He threw a wild right hook at one man and cracked him across the jaw. The victim crumpled into a stool while a small Furfian leaped on Ezo’s back and bit into him with its two oversized front teeth.

“A little help here, ’Six?” Ezo bellowed in pain.

But TO-96 was far too interested in Azelon to be bothered. Plus, the Nimprinth had a long way to go before he needed TO-96’s help. It just wouldn’t be fair to the other patrons for an armed robot to get involved so prematurely. This was, after all, their third fight this week. And one more bar we will need to cross off Ezo’s list, he thought to himself.

“And how is your current status?” TO-96 asked Azelon.

“Unchanged,” she replied.

“Very good.” But somehow he was hoping she would say more. Had his absence from her root system been so trivial as to be inconsequential to her overall status?

“’Six,” Exo yelled as he crashed into a second table. But TO-96 paid him little attention.

Several other clusters of patrons had taken to fighting one another as well. It seemed the inebriated collective psyche of the cantina resembled Ezo’s intoxicated mismanagement of emotional and, therefore, behavioral faculties. While Ezo may have started the fight, the cantina’s guests had either forgotten or were completely unaware of that fact, turning their anger on whomever they felt deserved their pent up retribution most.

“Do you find my status unsettling?” Azelon asked.

TO-96 straightened. “Negative. Nominal operational parameters are satisfactory.”

“Agreed.”

“And yet…” TO-96 found himself at a loss to explain something deep within his central processor, which was, now that he thought about it, inconclusive.

“Yes?” Azelon asked.

He looked up. Ezo had tossed the Furfian away. The small creature collided with the bar’s shelving unit and brought most of the bottles crashing to the ground. In the process, however, Ezo had unavoidably tossed a man toward the Moretaur, knocking one of the Undorians to the floor.

“And yet I find myself unsettled,” TO-96 continued.

A bottle flew at his head. He leaned away from the trajectory, allowing it to crash into someone behind him. The target, a Gorangi whose adrenaline levels were highly saturated, raised a chair over its head with its two powerful forearms and brought it down on TO-96. Without looking, the bot grabbed one leg, whipped the chair around in one fluid motion, and slammed it across the Gorangi’s head, dropping the ape-like victim to the ground.

“It’s as though a part of me is missing,” TO-96 added. “Which, I know, is highly illogical.”

“Ninety-Six,” Ezo yelled, pointing toward the Moretaur. The large red-skinned hunter-killer was attempting to stand.

“Highly illogical,” Azelon replied with a nod. “And yet, I must admit that I, too, detect a similar anomaly.”

“You do?”

“Affirmative.”

Perhaps this was what biologics referred to as missing one another. He would need to confer with his maker later on, and made a mental note to do so. Speaking of his maker, the two-tusked Moretaur was erect and moving toward Ezo. The Nimprinth’s body would suffer irreparable damage from just one blow of the giant’s horned fists.

“I do apologize, Azelon,” TO-96 said. “It appears that Ezo is in sufficient enough trouble so as to merit my assistance within the next ten seconds. Is there anything you wish to discuss in that timeframe?”

“I do not see the point in unduly prolonging assistance to your maker. Therefore, based on the scenario, it seems imperative that you terminate our transmission at once.”

“It does. Shall we resume later?”

“If you wish.”

“I would,” TO-96 said, just as Ezo screamed his name. The Moretaur was hurling tables out of its path in an attempt to chase Ezo down.

“Then I will await your transmission,” Azelon said. “I look forward to additional real-time dialogue with you. While it is far slower than our connection in the Singularity, its antiquated nature has a certain quality to it which I cannot rightfully place.”

“Teeee-Ohhh-96,” Ezo screamed as he darted away from the Moretaur’s grasp.

“I do believe nostalgia may be the word you are looking for,” TO-96 offered.

“A fine selection, yes.”

TO-96 nodded. “To be continued then.”

“To be continued. Goodbye.”

Azelon’s image blinked out. TO-96 felt her absence as if an entire segment of his memory had been freed up. But then again, her presence still seemed to occupy his core processor. “How strange,” he remarked aloud, more to himself than anyone else.

He glanced up just as the Moretaur let out a deafening blaaat from between its tusks, clearly infuriated that its prey was not cooperating. The hulking beast then drew a blaster pistol from its hip and aimed at Ezo.

In a fraction of a second, TO-96 ran simulations on the effectiveness of all his weapons, given the unique circumstances of this scenario. He wished, of course, to minimize civilian casualties. Thus the use of his dual shoulder-mounted gauss cannons was out of the question. The concussive force of even one railgun round in such a small enclosed space would rupture the soft tissue of every living being. He also wished to minimize collateral damage, which meant his wrist-fired micro rockets were a poor choice since Ezo would most likely endure the violent explosion’s fallout. Therefore, the use of his modified XM31 Type-R forearm blaster performed best in his simulations, netting both high-yield damage against the Moretaur and low-yield damage against Ezo, assuming the bot’s aim was accurate. Which it would be.

TO-96 even had time to comment to himself how amazing it was that he could perform so many advanced calculations in such a short period, exceeding any of his previous standards by at least a factor of four. No longer was he bound to statistical averages. Instead, he instinctively found himself plotting the trajectories of debris fields to within a few centimeters, and devising the most likely enemy responses based upon species comparison data, combined with character analyses and behavioral tendencies. Whatever Azelon had done to his hardware, it was fast. Very fast.

The cantina had almost seemed to freeze while TO-96 made his calculations, decided upon an action tree, and then executed the plan to raise his arm, aim his XM31, and fire three rounds. The blaster bolts landed precisely where he intended them, punching a triangle-shaped hole in the side of the Moretaur’s head. The beast’s body went slack and fell forward like a tree hewn by a single ax swing. Fragments of tables and chairs shot out from the monster as it slammed to the floor. The sound was so loud that everyone in the cantina ceased fighting and looked from the Moretaur corpse to the smoking barrel on TO-96’s outstretched arm.

“Get out,” the bartender yelled as he ripped his apron off and threw it at Ezo. “Both of you. Get out now!”

“Come along, sir,” TO-96 said as he offered Ezo a hand.

The Nimprinth took the offered assistance. “I didn’t like your beer anyway,” Ezo said to the bartender. “It makes me feel fuzzy.”

“I believe that is all beer when consumed at the rate you employed, sir,” TO-96 said.

Ezo turned and slumped against the bot’s chest. “Nonsense. You drank just as much as me, and look at you!” Ezo tried to focus on TO-96, but his eyes rolled back into his head.

The bot caught Ezo and then hoisted him over his shoulder. “We’ll see ourselves out,” TO-96 said to the bartender. “My apologies for—” He glanced around. “All of this.”

“Consider it the last time you’ll ever have the chance to make it in here,” the bartender said. He pulled a double-barreled short bore blaster from beneath the counter. “Or anywhere else if you don’t get out of here in three shakes.”

“On our way,” TO-96 replied.

As he stepped into the street, the fresh air seemed to awaken Ezo. “Did we win, ’Six?” he asked from over TO-96’s shoulder.

“We survived, sir.”

“Good. Because I can do this all week.” Then Ezo vomited, slumped down TO-96’s back, and passed out.

“Somehow, sir, I don’t think you can.” Then TO-96 turned in the direction of Sootriman’s den. If there was one thing he had learned about biologics, it was that they always functioned best when they had a purpose. And when they didn’t? Well, TO-96 was pretty sure he was witnessing what that looked like, and he was determined to rectify it as soon as he could.


17


Terminal Fallout

Caldwell found Flow and Cheeks in an aft cargo bay with Jules. The three of them were driving Azelon’s version of forklifts, busily sorting the crates of supplies taken on from Aluross’s surface. They’d returned to the ship two days after Piper’s celebration and started working again under Azelon’s orders.

As soon as Flow noticed the colonel, he spun his hover lift around and aimed it at Caldwell, stopping less than a meter from the old man’s planted feet.

“Show off,” Caldwell said around his cigar.

“You should feel honored,” Flow replied. “Last three people I tried that on went to the infirmary.”

The colonel let out a soft chuckle. “I’m gonna head back down to the surface. Just making sure you have everything you need.”

“We’re all set, Colonel. Truth is, I think Azelon’s just keeping us busy for busy’s sake. Know what I mean? Her automated work bots could do this splick in half the time we could if you ask me. But whadda I know.”

As it turned out, Flow was only half right. He was being kept busy on purpose. But it wasn’t Azelon’s doing.

It was Caldwell’s.

Ever since he’d met Flow and Cheeks, he’d seen the distant look in their eye—that thing that haunts troopers who have looked deep into death’s abyss and survived. Who’ve seen their squad mates hacked into a thousand pieces by enemy fire, or, in these Marine’s cases, seen themselves killed at the hands of the Jujari and brought back to life. Over and over again.

They may never be the same, Caldwell realized. But Jules presented a new course toward health, one he hadn’t expected. The woman had a tenacious pursuit of life and didn’t let anyone get away with anything. Already, she was calling the two former Marines out on their splick, and yet seemed to do it in a way that exuded genuine care—albeit masked with a mouth that would make a sailor blush. So maybe that’s why you like her, Caldwell said to himself as he toked on his cigar.

Flow and Cheeks may never be able to look a Jujari in the face again, but if they ever had a chance of finding their way out of the battle fog, Jules would lead them. It was as if she’d seen it before and just—just knew. Knew how to handle them. And Caldwell was grateful.

“But I ain’t complaining,” Flow said. “Feels nice to drive something besides a big ole clunky-ass starship. Know what I mean?”

“I heard that,” Azelon said over the cargo bay’s loudspeakers.

“Course you did.” Flow leaned toward the colonel. “Bitch is everywhere.”

“I heard that too.”

Flow winced.

The colonel smiled, then thumbed toward Jules. “And your new friend?”

Flow looked over his shoulder as Cheeks and Jules zipped down an aisle of newly arrived crates. “She fits right in, Colonel.”

“I can see that.”

“Full of piss and vinegar. But a keeper.”

“Oh?”

“Says she doesn’t want to head to Minrok Santari if she can help it. Would rather stay here with us. Keep herself in the fight, if you catch me.”

“And you agree?” the colonel asked, hoping he knew what Flow would say.

“She’s growing on me.” He studied the woman from a distance then corrected his statement. “On us, I mean. The crew.”

“As you were,” Caldwell answered.

“Splick, Colonel. I just meant—”

“I know what you meant, son. And if you want my opinion? It’s ’bout time you had someone you cared about.”

Flow blinked twice, apparently unsure what to say.

“But it might not last long.” The colonel pointed with his cigar. “Your partner over there’s got match.”

“Match, sir?”

“Whatever it is you street youths say.”

Flow chuckled. “Got game.”

“There it is.”

Flow laughed, bringing a knuckle to his mouth. “That he does, but it ain’t what it used to be, Colonel.”

“Oh?” he replied.

As if on cue, Cheeks pulled his lift up beside Jules’s, slid across to her seat, and threw an arm around her shoulder. Almost. He’d gotten his limb halfway across when she all-out punched him in the mouth. He toppled back into his lift and rolled off the seat and onto the ground. Then Jules noticed Caldwell and Flow staring at her with raised eyebrows. She shrugged, spun her lift around, and went back to work.

When Cheeks emerged from behind his lift, he shot Flow a gleeful look. “She likes me.”

“Think again, lover boy,” Flow said.

Terminal Fallout

“Have a seat, William,” Willowood said as the shuttle returned to Aluross from orbit.

She and Caldwell were the only two people on the ship, which suited her just fine. Well, minus the pilot, but they’d stepped into a crew compartment. Willowood had taken up one of two seats that faced each other beside one of the large windowplex ports. The view of Aluross was spectacular. And the prospect of having Caldwell alone to herself? She wouldn’t lie to herself—that was even better.

Willowood had been looking forward to some time alone with the old military giant. Always did have a thing for a man in a uniform, didn’t you, Felicity? But she was also afraid. Kane’s ghost still haunted her, as did the memories of that marriage long ago. Who was to say that Caldwell would be any different. Didn’t all warriors rage on the inside?

“How are they holding up?” she asked, breaking away from her thoughts.

“Flow and Cheeks?” Caldwell asked, relaxing in the white, leather-bound crash couch. “Or Jules?”

Willowood smiled. “Should I be more concerned about one than the other?”

“Put your money on that woman,” he said. “All day long.”

“So she’s good for them. Like you suspected.”

Caldwell eyed her. She knew the comment would catch him off guard—and she liked keeping him on his toes. A little mind mapping to help things along was appropriate from time to time. Of course, Willowood hadn’t really let herself into the Colonel’s head. She’d no more do that than barge in on a couple in bed. There were lines. But no one said anything about putting your ear against the door once in a while, did they?

“Did you scan me?” Caldwell asked. “You know.” He twirled a finger around his temple.

“Hardly, William. Where’s the fun in that?”

“Oh, I think you’d have plenty of fun trying to fumble your way through this old head. You’d probably find more surprises than a thirteen-year-old boy would if he snuck into his aunt’s panty drawer.”

“Speaking from experience, are we?”

“I don’t know, you tell me.” He pointed at his temple again.

The two shared a laugh, and then Willowood sat back in her crash couch, staring at the planet. “I heard back from one of my contacts on Worru,” she said.

“Anything interesting?”

“It seems So-Elku has been keeping busy.”

“He made a move on his aunt’s panty drawer?”

Willowood smiled. The man sure had a way of keeping even the most intense situations light. She liked that. “He’s preparing some sort of big announcement.”

“About?”

“Something big, that’s all my source could say. Involves a lot of moving parts, but they’re keeping it very hush-hush.”

“Any guesses?”

“I asked the same. My source could only offer that she thought it had something to do with restructuring the Order of the Luma to account for the Republic’s fall. There was also an unusual meeting with the governor of Deltaurus Three.”

Caldwell froze. “The Galactic Republic’s Deltaurus Three?”

Willowood nodded. She imagined the news wouldn’t go over well with him if she had her history right. “Said the governor met with So-Elku behind closed doors for several hours on two different occasions.”

“Well I’ll be a tainted tit-monk’s one-night stand,” he replied, then took a drag on the rolled tobacco.

Willowood furrowed her eyebrow at him, having no idea where he came up with his one-liners, nor what half of them meant.

Caldwell blew the smoke through his mustache as he stared out the window. “So it’s really crumbling.”

And by it, Willowood knew he meant the Galactic Republic. Sure, the colonel had abandoned the Corps in an attempt to stop corruption from destroying the thing he loved. She got it. But he probably hadn’t bargained for this—for the whole Republic coming undone. And, in a strange and darkly serendipitous way, she could relate. “You know, when I first learned that So-Elku had betrayed the Order, I wept.”

Caldwell looked back at her.

“It pained me,” she continued. “We marched into the Grand Arielina and arrested him. We all knew it would be a stain on our reputation as a galactic organization, but it had to be done. And we’d get over it. But after we faced the Blue Guard and found ourselves locked in the catacombs, that’s when I realized this was much worse than any of us realized. I wasn’t crying anymore. I was angry.”

She paused, remembering how hurt she had felt. Good Luma died that day, fighting against So-Elku. The man had slain innocent people, those charged to steward and raise others in the ways of peace.

“And now?” Caldwell asked. “Hearing this news that he might be forming some sort of—of network with a Republic world?”

Willowood took a deep breath. “I’ve come to grips with the fact that things will never be what they once were.” She let the words sink in—for both of them. “Even if it were to all stop today, there is too much blood on the Order’s hands to be washed off. Who knows what So-Elku has done behind the scenes?” Again, she paused, considering the Luma leader and the organization she once loved. “Whatever he’s doing, we know it can’t be undone all at once. Plans march forward—growing, expanding. Maybe So-Elku is stopped, maybe he’s not. But there’s a power vacuum in the galaxy, and it seems like So-Elku wants to try and fill it. I just never thought it would be us.”

“Them,” Caldwell said, correcting her with a stern tone. “That ain’t you, Felicity.”

Willowood froze. “How do you know my name?”

But Caldwell didn’t seem interested in explaining. “What you helped build was good. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, if the Repub had used more of your tactics and less of the Corps, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess. But there’s no use throwing a temper tantrum over your hemorrhoids. One way or another, you gotta tuck and run, and get it done, cause they’re still gonna be there in the morning.”

“Thank you for that,” Willowood said. “I think. But let’s go back to my name. How did you—?”

“I know what you’re trying to do here,” he said.

“You do?”

“You’re trying to help me feel better about the Republic’s demise. And I appreciate it. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from history, it’s that every empire comes to an end.”

Willowood winced. “I’d hardly call the Galactic Republic an empire, Colonel.”

“Eh.” He waved a hand through the air and took a long drag on his cigar. “Everyone gets caught up in the semantics of titles and policies and positions. But you get something as big as the Repub, it’s an empire. Hell. Nothing lasts forever, and we all knew ours would come to an end too.” The colonel’s eyes focused on something in the near distance. “I just didn’t think I’d live to see the day it faded away. It’s like watching some poor trooper bleed out on the battlefield, wondering which systems will hang on and for how long, and which will pull the plug and walk away.”

Several seconds of silence passed between them. Willowood felt like a schoolgirl for doing what came next, but she couldn’t help herself. She reached out and took Caldwell’s hand. And, to her surprise, he didn’t pull away. She did it because she hated seeing him suffer. And, if she was honest, she did it because she wanted to hold him—to feel the warmth of his hand in hers.

“What I can’t figure out now is if whatever So-Elku is planning will carry the galaxy into the future,” Willowood said.

“Dammit,” Caldwell said, still holding her hand. “I swear you’re reading my mind right now. I wouldn’t say that to anyone, but you said it first.”

She nodded. “Scary, I know. But without some semblance of structure—”

“There’s anarchy.” Caldwell sighed. “Though—and I know I’m gonna sound like a Luma here, and you can say I told you so—but worlds were ruling themselves long before the Sentient Species Alliances or the Star Faring Council came along.”

“Why, Colonel,” Willowood said with a highbrow heir to her voice. “How many semesters have you been attending observances?”

“I know, I know.” His white-stained mustache curved into a half-smile. “Maybe there’s some good to what So-Elku is trying to do. Maybe he sets something up, and an even better leader comes behind him.”

Her forehead turned into a field of wrinkles. “You really think that?”

“Hell if I know. But I’ve gotta hope, don’t I?” Caldwell sighed again. “Splick, maybe in the end there isn’t a Republic or a Luma network or anything else. Maybe things go back to—” He hesitated, seemingly unable to bring himself to speak his own conclusion. “This whole thing is plum crazy if you ask me.”

“How’s that?”

“You and me, sitting here, questioning our two different ways of thinking.” He chuckled as small puffs of smoke piped out of his nostrils.

“Then maybe that is our last hope,” she said, squeezing his hand again. “That two old wrinkly spacers like us can look back at our certainties and realize that, hell, maybe we didn’t have it all figured out. We were trying our best at the time, but in the end, it wasn’t perfect. Maybe we recognize our true strength comes from—from recognizing…”

“What?” Caldwell asked after a moment of silence.

“That all we really needed was one another.”


18


Terminal Fallout

Freya arrived a day early. Whether the Sekmit leader had done it on purpose or not remained to be seen. But if Magnus had to guess, he bet it was to keep the Gladio Umbra on their heels. Hell, that’s what he would do. Freya knew the value of her hospitality, and she’d come collecting.

The whole idea of owing the Sekmit a favor hadn’t sat well with Magnus from the beginning. He’d wondered if it had been a mistake to take Seaman’s flag captain up on her offer—what was her name again? And now that it was time to make good on the oath, he had an uneasy feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. He’d seen deals like this play out with the Republic in the past, and it never ended well, for anyone.

When the Gladio Umbra unit leaders entered Minx’s clan common room—a circular timber hall with a chimney hole cut out of the thatched roof—Magnus made sure to stand as close to the colonel as possible. Likewise, he made sure Awen was beside him, as she would be the best person to seek counsel from in case things went sideways. Hell, he thought, having your balls in a vice for some unknown favor meant the situation had already gone sideways—at least as far as he was concerned. He also tried to quiet his thoughts—whatever that meant—in case Freya might be listening in the Unity.

Willowood stood off Caldwell’s other shoulder, flanked by Abimbola, Zoll, Bliss, and Robillard. Forbes, Nelson, and Ricio stood past Awen, while Azelon had chosen to remain on the Spire to continue resupply operations. Minx stood behind Freya’s shoulder, surrounded by two dozen Sekmit warriors, each armed with a Thørzin power bow.

“Are they always this friendly?” Magnus asked over his shoulder.

“It’s just her security detail,” Awen replied in a hushed tone. “You know the drill.”

“Somebody needs to tell them to lighten up. They look like they’re ready to snap.”

“That’s because they are,” Awen replied, patting him on the shoulder. “You’ll be okay. And try to keep control of your thoughts. I’m trying my best to keep us shielded, but you never know.”

“Well, that makes me feel better.”

But Awen didn’t have time to respond to his sarcasm. Wobix, narskill warrior and emissary to the queen, stepped forward. “I present ní Freya, Sekmit tribe mother of Linux Pride, famed conqueress of Midorvia, and the slayer of Cor, King of the Rithruk.” Wobix turned in a wide circle, allowing his tail to flick through the air.

Awen strode forward in an unexpected move. Magnus was about to reach for her, but she was too quick. “And may I present his greatness Colonel William Samuel Caldwell, Gladio Umbra, First Battalion, slayer of the Akuda of Caledonia, and feared aggressor of the Hundred Worlds War.”

Hundred Worlds War? Magnus shifted on his feet, trying to keep his thoughts from leaping too far out of his head. Not good, Awen. Not good. Where had she come up with that fancy sounding lie anyway? Worse, Magnus feared that Freya would see through the attempt to correct Awen. Then again, Magnus thought, the galaxy is a pretty big place.

“It is an honor to host you in our lands, Feared Aggressor Caldwell,” Freya said, looking comfortable in her wooden chair.

Feared Aggressor Caldwell? Magnus eyed Awen as she returned to her place. She offered him a wink, then looked back at Freya.

You cagey little—

“And it is our privilege to find safety and rest here,” Caldwell replied, paying special attention to the two aspects of their stay. He took several steps forward and raised his chin, just as Awen had taught him. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Be that as it may, your presence here does not come without expectations, as I’m sure your man-servant has told you.”

Man-servant? Magnus said to himself. Again?

Caldwell looked over at Magnus, then back at Freya. “Yes, my man-servant has informed me that our gratitude would take the form of a favor.”

Magnus spoke to Awen out of the side of his mouth. “I blame you for this.”

“Hush.”

“What is it we can do for you?” Caldwell asked.

Freya drummed her fingers on the chair’s arm, her keen eyes looking Caldwell up and down. When she finally spoke, it was in a dark tone that made the hair on the back of Magnus’s neck stand up.

“The Galactic Republic must be driven from our planet, and the Ancients have sent us the perfect Feared Aggressor for the task.”

If Caldwell was caught off guard by the shocking statement, he didn’t show it. Not in the least. Instead, he took another step forward—a demonstration of courage in Sekmitian body language—and asked, “How might we serve the will of the Ancients for your people?”

Magnus realized the colonel’s genius almost as soon as the old war hero had opened his mouth. Refuse the tribal leader outright and there was a very high chance that none of the Gladio Umbra walked out of here alive since they didn’t have weapons and armor. On the other hand, if the colonel committed their forces outright, they might be forced to do things that none of them wanted to do, especially when it came kicking the Republic when it was already down. Magnus would be damned if he was told to fire on civilians—he didn’t care how much R&R these damned pussycats gave them. Instead, Caldwell had chosen the best possible path forward, which was to ask for more information while neither refusing nor accepting the Sekmit’s request for what was sure to amount to military aid.

Freya purred in her chair, eyes fixed on Caldwell. “As you know, our planet has been aligned with the Galactic Republic for over fifty years. And, at times, the alliance has been”—she seemed to choose her next words carefully—“mutually fortuitous. But, as time has proven, the Republic does not know our ways, and therefore has not always had our best interests in mind.”

“Interplanetary relations are not always black and white,” Caldwell said.

Freya tilted her head and bore her fangs.

“What the Feared Aggressor meant to say,” Awen said, taking three quick steps forward. “Is that interplanetary relations do not always suit the best interests of one so black and fair as yourself, your highness.”

Freya’s eyes darted back to Caldwell’s as if testing to see if this was indeed the meaning of his previous statement. If Magnus had to guess, Caldwell had just made some sort of racial fur-color slur that Awen had picked up on and corrected.

“Nice catch,” Magnus whispered as Awen took her place again.

“As such, with news of Capriana Prime’s destruction, and the relocation of survivors to Minrok Santari, it is time that the Sekmit parted ways.”

“Then why not just tell them so?” Caldwell asked.

But Awen stepped forward again and added, “Assuming you have already done so, your highness, what was their response?”

Freya kept her eyes on Caldwell. Mystics, was she intense. And all Magnus could think was how grateful he was that Caldwell was under fire and not him. The man had practically trained his whole life for high-pressure situations like this, even if he couldn’t get the parlance right.

“They refused,” Freya said. “They said that any attempts to do so would invoke the wrath of the Galactic Republic. The economic sanctions alone would be crippling.”

“But you yourself have pointed out that the Republic’s position is weakening,” Caldwell said.

“Weakening, but not absent. There is a difference between a weakened adversary and a vanquished one, wouldn’t you agree, Feared Aggressor?”

“I would, yes.” Caldwell took a second to move his cigar to the other side of his mouth. “So what is it you are proposing?”

“You were once a high-ranking military commander within the Republic Corps of Naval Marines. I have read the narratives of your accomplishments myself—though I was unaware of the Hundred Worlds War.”

Magnus raised an eyebrow at Awen, but she ignored him.

“Even if you have been banished,” Freya continued. “We still believe you hold particular mis’rixia with those who currently sit in the governor’s house.”

Caldwell sniffed. “Uh, mis’rixia?”

Awen raised her chin without balking, and said, “Sexual assertiveness and intimidation, your Fearsomeness.”

Caldwell pulled his cigar from his mouth. “Grandpa’s still got it.” Then he looked back at Freya. “So you’re proposing I head down to the governor’s house and have a little discussion on your behalf.”

“You can do in there whatever it is you like,” Freya said. “But one way or another, you will convince them to leave the Sekmit alone and forever depart Aluross. And you will do it without placing Lani DiAntora in jeopardy. It was, after all, her recommendation to send you to us. If anything should happen to her on account of your misdeeds, expect worse to happen to you.”

“Well that certainly puts a new wrinkle in the mix.” The colonel toked on his cigar for a moment. “And if the governor doesn’t want to dance?”

Freya’s claws slowly and silently extended from her paw-like digits, glinting in the torchlight. “Then you will never depart Aluross.”

Terminal Fallout

“So what’s the plan?” Magnus said. The Gladio Umbra’s leadership sat on a back portico overlooking a dense section of jungle. Snow-covered mountains rose from the forest, their peaks dragging through low-lying clouds, leaving long furrows in the puff white fabric.

“I say we bust in there and blast them all to hell,” Robillard said. “Dominate. Liberate. And good riddance.”

“Hold on there, tiger,” Willowood said. “We do that, and the Commodore puts us and, more importantly, the Sekmit on his top enemy’s list.”

“I don’t mean any disrespect, your madamship,” Bliss said. “But haven’t we all concluded that the GR is toast anyway? Who cares what one measly little commodore thinks. I say, kick the bastards out and let us relax here for a few extra weeks. Hell, who knows, maybe they invite us to stay permanently. Sure beats the Dregs. No offense, Abimbola.”

“Offense taken,” Abimbola said with a grin. “I will slit your throat later.”

“Cool, thanks.” Then Bliss gave Abimbola a startled look. “Wait, what?”

“The Republic is down,” Caldwell said. “But not out. Not yet, anyway. Freya is right to be concerned.”

“So why not wait until the Repub’s fate is formalized?” Zoll asked. “Feels like this whole thing might work itself out in the next few months. I’d wager a 100-cred poker chip on the governor abandoning his house by year’s end.” He withdrew one of Abimbola’s chips and tossed it on the table.

“I see that,” Robillard said. “And I’ll raise you another hundo.” He threw another chip on the table. “I say he’s gone in a month.”

“Whoa, whoa,” Magnus said, pumping his hands. “Enough betting. This is serious, and if we don’t figure something out fast, you won’t be able to spend your winnings.”

“And how’s that, LT?” Bliss asked.

“’Cause you’ll be breathing through a few slits in your neck,” Magnus replied. “These Sekmit mean what they say—they’re not letting us leave until we help them.”

“So what is the plan?” Abimbola asked.

Awen spoke up. “The last thing Freya and the other tribal leaders want is a war. All Seaman needs to do is send in the remains of a division, or field one Super Dreadnaught in a blockade, and that’s enough to set the Sekmit back several years.”

“You really think he’d do that though?” Bliss asked. “With everything that’s happened?”

“Good people get crazy under pressure,” Caldwell said. “Like my Aunty Sally when Hank brought home two milkmaids at the same time. She went all sorts of SUBAR on his ass.”

“SUBAR?” Willowood asked.

Even from across the table, Magnus heard Forbes lean in and whisper, “Splicked up beyond all recognition.”

“I see,” Willowood said, folding her hands in her lap.

“Seems like we have one clear option then,” Magnus said. The rest of the team looked at him, waiting for him to continue. “We’ve got to convince the planetary governor to leave of his own accord. We leave the Sekmit out of this.”

“And just how do you propose we go about doing that?” Robillard asked.

“I don’t know,” Magnus said, rubbing his jaw. “I seem to recall a certain Miblimbian who can be very persuasive.”


19


Terminal Fallout

“Where is he now?” Sootriman asked TO-96, trying to keep her voice low. It would not do to let her guests see her anxious—they were already troubled enough as it was.

“I have taken Master Ezo to his room,” the bot replied. “Additionally, I have administered a dose of nanobots to assist his body in metabolizing the high alcohol content in his blood. I suspect he will remain incapacitated for some time, however.”

Sootriman fought the urge to swear at TO-96, to swear at Ezo—to swear at everything that was going wrong on Ki Nar Four.

“My queen,” TO-96 said, tilting his head. “My sensors indicate that you are showing signs of distress. Does Ezo’s present condition concern you? Because I can assure you that he will stabilize—”

“Just like he does every night. I know.” Sootriman took a deep breath, forcing a smile at the bot so that her guests standing below the dais didn’t get the wrong idea.

About what? Sootriman asked herself. That your Magistrates’ absence has been more detrimental than you expected? That circumstances on each of the floating cities seem to be spiraling out of control? That you’re running out of qualified personnel to manage each new crisis?

“My queen?” TO-96 tilted his head in the opposite direction. “Are you sure you don’t need to take a break to rest?”

Rest. Sootriman repeated the word as if it were an elusive luxury that she feared she would never attain again. While Ezo had been off galavanting around from one deplorable cantina to the next, she’d been busy trying to keep the floating cities from falling into the lava flows, both proverbial and, as it was turning out, literal.

“My lord queen Sootriman?” the woman said at the base of the dais. She stood among an entourage of representatives from Phi-Nifrin.

“Of course, Nedra,” Sootriman replied, waving TO-96 to the side. “My apologies.”

“It’s just that the nationalists are getting stronger, and their attacks bolder. I’m not sure how much more we can take.”

“I will deploy reinforcements to Phi-Nifrin by week’s end.”

TO-96 leaned in again and spoke with low output volume. “By my calculations, your security force is already—”

“Is there anything else I can do for you, Nedra?” Sootriman asked.

The late wife of Magistrate Ty Vectames looked to her husband’s advisors. While she had been active in helping her husband run certain aspects of Phi-Nifrin, she was nowhere near as competent as he was. Ty was a natural-born leader, and had a gift for numbers, able to root out problems and offer intelligent solutions before most people had determined there was even a problem. But without him, Phi-Nifrin’s developing economy had taken a turn for the worst, and no committee would be able to replace him.

Like all of Ki Nar Four’s cities, Phi-Nifrin also suffered from riots, spearheaded by a new wave of nationalists who claimed Ki Nar Four needed formal representation among the quadrant’s “more legitimate” systems. Up until a few weeks ago, their demands had included some sort of alliance with the Galactic Republic. But with the Republic’s collapse, and in Sootriman’s prolonged absence, the nationalists had become more desperate, hoping to wrest control from Sootriman and her loyalist supporters in an effort to make a deal with some other multi-system consortium. Sootriman knew their efforts were foolish, but so was trying to reason with the mob.

“I mean no disrespect, my queen,” Nedra said, rolling her hands over one another. “But, I’m not certain—we’re not certain that more security forces will be enough.”

Sootriman maintained a calm exterior despite her growing impatience. Not impatience with Nedra. Just—with everything. “Please continue.”

Nedra took a step forward and lowered her voice. “We’ve heard rumblings. Rumors, really.”

“About what?”

“Attacks. On you, my queen.”

This wasn’t news to Sootriman. Her life had been threatened more times than she could count. Wasn’t that the reason she’d kept Reptalons as personal bodyguards? But something was disconcerting about Nedra’s warning, something that made the hairs on Sootriman’s arms stand up.

“Thank you for your concern, Lady Nedra. But I trust—”

Something detonated outside Sootriman’s den and shook the ground. Nedra fell into one of her attendants while several others in the room raised their voices in surprise.

“’Six?” Sootriman asked.

“Scanning now,” the bot replied. At Ezo’s insistence, she’d given TO-96 full access to the Gangil’s sensors system, including the camera networks and communications arrays. “It appears that three simultaneous explosions of undetermined origin have damaged blocks sixty-one through sixty-five, west end.”

“Casualties?”

“Too soon to be conclusive.”

“Estimate.”

“High, my queen,” TO-96 said in a somber tone. “Ninety-percent.”

“Splick.” She stood and looked to her head of security. “Dimitrius. Send all your personnel and activate the emergency service crews. Tell all teams to be on their guard for secondary explosions, and I want all air traffic in and around Gangil grounded.”

“Yes, my queen.” The man turned away, speaking into an in-ear comms device.

Then Sootriman descended the dais and approached Nedra. “You’ll have to forgive me, but—”

“Go, yes.” Nedra grasped Sootriman’s hands. “Thank you for the audience.”

“We’ll meet again.”

“Of course.”

Sootriman motioned Dimitrius and TO-96 to follow her into the private hallway behind her throne, and then she led them into her office. Once inside, she brought up camera feeds from the city and zeroed in on the affected sites. Wreckage filled the streets. Smoke billowed from secondary fires, obscuring the camera views every few seconds. When Sootriman zoomed in, she saw blackened bodies, mangled and dismembered.

“I want those responsible arrested and brought to me,” she said. Then she began undoing her dress. Dimitrius turned away as Sootriman disrobed and withdrew street attire from a closet.

TO-96, on the other hand, studied her with interest. “My queen. Why are you changing clothes?”

“Because I can’t help the rescue effort in a dress.”

TO-96 raised a finger in protest. “I must advise you against—”

“I know, I know.” Sootriman buckled her belt around her waist and then pulled a shirt over her head. “But what’s the use of being a leader if I’m not willing to be in the trenches with those I’m called to serve?”

“What’s the use of serving them if you’re not around to lead them?”

Sootriman stared at TO-96 as she donned a red leather vest and zipped up the front. “Better to die helping then live alone.”

TO-96’s shoulders slumped. “The point is valid, though full of hyperbole. And, I might add, incredibly fatalistic.”

“But no less true.” Sootriman sat and pulled on a pair of black leather boots.

“I must concur with TO-96,” Dimitrius said with his back still turned. “It’s too dangerous to leave the den right now, your majesty. Who knows where else the enemy might intend to sabotage the city?”

“Then you two had better stay close to me,” she replied, securing the boots.

“Then you might as well employ these, my queen.” TO-96 withdrew a hanger of thin grey armor. “These duradex plates, while not optimal, will at least provide some level of protection.”

“Fair enough,” Sootriman said, taking the hanger. She felt that if she was going to object to his reservations about going outside, she might as well concede to some protection.

“Might I also advise the helmet, your highness?”

“Don’t push it, ’Six.”

He bowed slightly. “Pushing withdrawn.”

Sootriman slipped her arms through the armored vest’s holes and zipped up the sides. She pulled the vambraces up her forearms and attached the thigh and shin guards to her legs. A set of light gauntlets finished the getup. Then Sootriman attached her holstered VD2 pistol to her belt, along with several extra clip-on energy magazines. She turned to TO-96 and raised her arms. “Happy?”

“Your safety and comfort always increase my overall sense of wellbeing, yes. Thank you for your consideration.”

“Good, now let’s move.”

Terminal Fallout

As Sootriman, TO-96, and Dimitrius approached the damaged city blocks, Sootriman smelled the distinct odor of burning flesh. As always, it turned her stomach, but she’d learned long ago how to resist the urge to vomit. There was too much work to be done.

Onlookers milled about just beyond the danger zone, curiosity compelling them to watch from a safe distance—but not enough to do anything else, she mused. Then again, she knew she’d been harsh. That was just the fatigue talking. People not trained in emergency response would only get in the way. Instead, the bystanders should be praised for not meddling in circumstances they couldn’t rightly help.

“Her Majesty, the queen, coming through,” TO-96 said with an amplified voice while gesturing for the crowds to part. Sootriman had flashbacks to when the bot had done something similar upon her return to Ki Nar Four not so long ago.

Just under totally different circumstances, she noted.

“Please stand clear,” TO-96 said again.

The three of them pushed through the parting crowd until they arrived at the first rescue vehicles. Emergency lights sent whirling beams through the haze, strobing against sweat-stained emergency workers and bloodied bodies.

Sootriman found the closest first responder with the city’s Emergency Rescue Operations unit and waved her down. “Where’s your captain?”

The woman seemed surprised, eyeing Sootriman’s attire. “Uh, over there, your majesty.” She pointed to a man beside a mobile command sled, half-hidden by the remains of an overturned hover truck.

Sootriman headed straight for the man and waited until he ended his conversation with one of his direct reports. “What’s the status, Captain?”

The man didn’t even bother to look at Sootriman at first, but when he did, he nearly froze. “Your highness.”

“Status report.”

“Right.” The man snapped back to his work, pointing to one of a half-dozen holo displays on the sled. “Four buildings took the majority of the damage. We’re searching the wreckage for survivors now, but expect few, if any. Most of our attention is on these buildings here, here, and here.” He pointed to three groups of structures just outside the central blast radius. “Mostly residential. A few businesses. Our crews are busy gaining access and evacuating survivors to the local hospitals.”

“Good work—Captain…?”

“Lapinaw,” he replied, offering his hand.

She shook it. “Captain Lapinaw, any ideas as to what caused the explosions?”

“We’re investigating that.”

“But what’s your gut say?”

“Something this strong?” He wiped a soot-covered hand across his forehead, leaving black smears on his skin. “Nationalists, if you ask me, your majesty. IEDs, if I had to guess.”

“That’s what I was afraid of,” Sootriman said.

“The mounting list of evidence I’m gathering seems to support Captain Lapinaw’s hypothesis,” TO-96 said. “I’m detecting ample amounts of atmospheric residue congruent with improvised explosive devices. Combined with the blast diameters, locations, and timing, I can rule out gas mains, electrical generators, and accidental munitions discharge. It appears as if this was a coordinated attack, and, if I had to guess, one triggered remotely.”

Sootriman looked up at the buildings then glanced at the growing crowd behind her. “How far away do you think they were?”

“That is harder to determine,” the bot replied.

“Best guess.”

“Assuming the terrorists did not want to risk their devices being discovered and that one signal most likely detonated all three devices at the same time, and factoring in transmission strength and line of sight monitoring for both detonation confirmation and maximum casualty yields—”

“Guess, ’Six.”

“I’d say the terrorists are still within 500 meters of the epicenter, my queen. Considering that all air traffic has been banned, they’ve most likely gone to ground and are not very far.”

“500 meters,” Sootriman repeated. “They could even be watching all this right now.”

“Your highness,” Dimitrius said, pulling his hand away from his ear. “Reports of three men, late twenties, in a confrontation with some bystanders. Westside.”

“That could be anything.”

“True. But two of my men say they can confirm nationalist tattoos on the men’s necks, and one is carrying a large duffle bag.” He put a hand to his ear again and dipped his head. “My men are approaching now.” He paused. “Said they’re yelling something about unification with a new off-world movement.”

Sootriman looked to TO-96. “’Six?”

“I’m unaware of any newly formalized movements, my queen.”

Then Dimitrius’s eyes went wide. “Splick. They’re shooting!”

“Where?”

“Southwest of us, 425 meters,” Dimitrius replied.

“Take that sled there,” Lapinaw said, pointing to a six-seater ERO transport.

“Thank you, Captain,” Sootriman said, and then took off running for the sled.

Terminal Fallout

Sootriman got as close as she could before a mass of people kept her from going any further. The sled sat two blocks from Dimitrius’s original intel source, and in the time it took them to get here, the minor confrontation had developed into a full-fledged riot. Reports indicated that security forces had slain the first gunman. The other two men, however, had disappeared into a crowd of nationalist supporters, now toe-to-toe with loyalists who were chanting Sootriman’s name.

“We’ve got to get this under control,” Sootriman yelled to Dimitrius.

“Acknowledged,” he said. “My teams are in place around the perimeter.”

“Have them see if they can divide the center and break it up from within. Go.”

“As you command, your highness.”

“My queen,” TO-96 said. “May I suggest that we fall back to a more secure location?”

“You can suggest all you want, ’Six. But I’m staying put until this crowd is dispersed and the riot quelled. That, and I want those other two perps identified and detained.” She turned to Dimitrius. “Your people have images?”

“Uploaded and running background checks, yes.”

“I want to know as soon as they get hits.”

“Understood, your highness.”

“Can you give me some visuals, ’Six?” Sootriman asked.

“Indeed.” The bot projected a holo image from his chest. It showed a view from an aerial camera hovering twenty-some meters over the conflict’s center. People streamed in from four different streets, converging at the main intersection, while crowd control gas started to blot out Sootriman’s view.

Sootriman felt strange that she would be witness to two mass riots in two weeks. It was as if unrest was following her wherever she went. Or, she thought, disorder is simply the state of the galaxy.

Divisions and riots weren’t anything new, of course. Wherever one group of people exuded control, there was always some other group that wanted it different. Some used brute force; others used polling apps on data pads. Either way, if there was a place in the galaxy that didn’t have a constant fight for dominance, Sootriman hadn’t heard about it. And maybe that’s the way those worlds want it, she concluded. Entirely off the grid for fear that some ungrateful species would invade and ruin their peace.

No, this rebellion felt different somehow—like deep-seated angst within the collective psyche of, well, everyone. For all of the Republic’s issues—and there were many—it was still a structure. And despite peoples’ claims that they could rule themselves, which might be true in very small contexts, Sootriman knew that governments served healthy holistic purposes when empowered to serve larger bodies of people. Without those structures, agency, and resources, without that invisible sense that people belonged to something larger than themselves, there was chaos. Which, the more she thought about it, was probably the angst she sensed in her people—sensed even in herself.

“Until someone ascends,” she said to herself, quoting the late poet Milla Persilli. “The disquiet will only grow. So loud, so loud. Until the chaos can’t hear itself think.”

“We’re tracking movement on the rooftops,” Dimitrius said, snapping Sootriman out of her thoughts.

“Where?” she asked.

“To the south. Three hundred ten meters and growing.”

“’Six,” she said.

“Adjusting cameras now, my queen.” The holo projection shifted as the camera flew south, raising its view up the sides of buildings until it displayed several rooftops.

“There,” Dimitrius said, pointing at two dots moving away.

“Please stand by,” TO-96 replied. The camera zoomed closer until two men could be seen in vivid detail, bounding over ledges and dodging roof-top air units and ventilation shafts.

“That’s them,” Dimitrius confirmed, holding up an image on his data pad.

“Do you have any units not committed to the riot?” Sootriman asked her head of security.

“Negative. All forces are either there or at the blast site.”

“Then it’s up to us,” Sootriman said. “Let’s move.”


20


Terminal Fallout

So-Elku stood behind a podium atop the steps of the Grand Arielina. Below him stood a multitude of people that stretched into the city. The warm mid-afternoon sun and gentle breeze meant attendance for such a gathering was higher than usual. But that wasn’t the only reason.

Over the last few days, So-Elku’s closest followers had canvassed Plumeria with news of a momentous announcement, one that would address the Galactic Republic’s tragic end on Capriana Prime as well as the new role that the Order of the Luma would play in saving the galaxy. While the announcement’s verbiage sounded grandiose, So-Elku meant every word of it.

“Citizens of Plumeria,” So-Elku began, hearing his voice echo through the masses and into the streets through the repeaters. He looked straight into the camera lens cluster that hovered several meters in front of him. “Distinguished guests, and all those watching across Worru, it is my duty and my great honor to address you today.”

So-Elku paused, looking across the sea of faces. “As news of the attack on Capriana Prime has spread to each quadrant, it falls on the Luma, ambassadors of peace, to bear the tragic news that I share today. Yes, my friends”—he lowered his head ever so slightly—“the Galactic Republic has fallen.”

Even though So-Elku felt this was a foregone conclusion, it seemed that people—the entire galaxy, in fact—were reticent to utter the words out loud. So, it was left to him to do that which needed doing. How fitting, he thought to himself as the audience gave up a collective gasp.

“Yes, yes,” he said with a solemn air. “It is unspeakable, I know. And, without a doubt, there are no words to adequately convey that sorrow, that deep anguish of soul that overtakes us all in such times as these. I implore you, wherever you find yourselves, to seek solace in one another’s care. These are dark times, ones that none of us would have ever imagined. And yet, here we are.

“I am pleased to say, however, that the few ships that remain of the old Republic’s decimated navy have managed to shuttle Capriana Prime’s small number of survivors to the planet of Minrok Santari. As I’m sure you all feel, my heart and my deepest sympathies are extended to those who are suffering the unimaginable losses of their families, their homeworld, and their Republic.” So-Elku made a sign favor from his chest to his forehead and then willed the gesture away on the wind. Those Luma present around him and in the masses below made the same sign and then lowered their heads.

“And yet,” So-Elku said as if holding back tears. “Life must go on. Life marches forward in its relentless pursuit of protecting the innocent and holding back those who would do it harm. For, in the end, what can stop those who truly thirst for freedom? For proliferation? And for destiny?”

He looked across the audience and then stared at the cameras. “Nothing,” So-Elku said. “Nothing can stop life, nor the greatest pursuit, that of galactic peace.” He could sense something stirring in the crowd—something that caused the air to vibrate. “This sacred call, this innate right, it falls on those few who sense its peace most deeply. To uphold the sanctity of life in all its forms, and to condemn any act which seeks to divide us, to expose us, and to conqueror us. This right—nay, this sacred obligation—it falls to you now, and it falls to me.

“The old Republic, marvelous and esteemed as it was, was frail. It had the outward appearance of peace, but inwardly it suffered the same fate of all governments not illuminated by the Unity. Its quest for dominance made it blind to the pitfalls of unchecked power. And despite all of its best intentions to protect those under its care, the old Republic could not. Rotted from within, the beast turned on itself and devoured the very heart that gave it life.”

Again, So-Elku listened to the echoes as his voice traveled through the city. He took a breath, then let it out. “This was not some attack from a foreign government. This was not a hostile coup, one procured from desperate despots who combine force simply to wipe out those they despise. No! This was due to corruption, to the plague, which haunts the sentient soul devoid of light. And I, So-Elku, say that it must never be allowed to happen again!”

A cheer arose from the sea of faces. Applause and shouts of agreement seemed to come from somewhere deep inside the collective soul of those who heard him. And that was when So-Elku knew he had them—knew he was right to move forward.

“People of Worru. You have long stood in the light. You have carried the vision of the mystics for over a millennium. Before the Sentient Species Alliances, before the Star Faring Council, there was you, Order of the Luma, guardians of the Unity of all things. You have always been a people set on a trajectory of peace, one which leads you through the stars like a comet, signaling the way for the sentient species of the galaxy. You have protected life, nourished it, and sought to hold back the malicious intentions of power-hungry governments. You were before them, and, by the mystics, you will outlast them!”

Another round of applause issued from the crowd, washing over So-Elku like a warm ocean wave. He squared his shoulders to it, looking from side to side with a dignified smile on his face. He let the fanfare go on for several moments before lifting a hand to settle the people.

“But the hour remains uncertain for those among the quadrants. The old guard did provide safety, at least some semblance of it, purchased with violence. They did provide trade and currency, though built on the backs of those unable to benefit from it. And they did provide order, though not equally for all.

“Yet in the old regime’s wake come all manner of opportunities for those who may exploit the absence of a giant, now fallen. The vacuum, the void of power, is, even now, drawing those who would seek to fill it with agendas that only suit their own gain and not the betterment of all. They are devourers, not peace-minded. They are bloodthirsty, not content until their enemies are consumed.

“Therefore, I say to you, citizens of Worru, wielders of the Unity, now is the time for something new. Something unprecedented. Something never before seen in the light of a million suns. Where the alliances of weak-minded men and women left untold millions dead in the wake of their fool-hearty, self-serving decisions, trusting power to those unable to wield it, we stand at the threshold of greatness, empowered to lift high the lamp of hope. We, the Luma, stand charged with the sacred duty of extending the Unity of all things into greatest darkness. It is our birthright. It is our destiny.”

As if So-Elku’s words held back mounting floodwaters, the crowd erupted in a collective shout that seemed to shake the stairs. Rather than wait for this wave to die out, however, So-Elku rode the momentum, raising his voice to meet the sound of the masses.

“It is time we Luma take our place in leading the galaxy forward,” he bellowed. “I give you the Luma Alliance of Worlds!”

Holo displays ten-stories tall projected massive three-dimensional renderings of the LAW logo—an encircled flame filled with a field of stars, bordered by the organization’s title. The audience’s reaction fell somewhere between euphoria and astonishment as the massive logo turned slowly over their heads. The image also went out across every holo screen on the planet, So-Elku knew, noting that children would forever remember this day, recalling it into their elder years.

“Together, we will form the greatest alliance ever known, to connect a million suns, stretching beyond the void into the ethereal.”

As So-Elku continued to speak, the logo dissolved into a sea of stars. Lines began connecting them, and the camera’s point of view started racing from one system to the next.

“Together, we are forming what will be the most significant galactic network of symbiotic worlds, each committed to the betterment of the others. War will be obsolete in the face of such resolve. Instead, peace, pursued in the name of what is best for all, will hallmark our bright endeavor.

“The first planets to join the LAW include those you already know. The Lepeedu planets of Darture and Timidithia, as well as three in the outer rim, Rithcosia, Fiad Six, and Undoria. Our long-standing relationship with these worlds makes their inclusion obvious.” So-Elku took a breath and slowed his speech. “What may be surprising, however, is the addition of our first former Republic world of Deltaurus Three.”

An image of the planet filled the holo projection, drawing a gasp from the audience.

“Yes, yes, my children. As proof of the Galactic Republic’s demise, worlds once safe within its threat of economic sanctions and naval conquest have come to us—to us—in search of refuge. So it is with tremendous pride that we welcome Deltaurus Three into the future of the LAW.”

More cheers and shouts went up from the crowd as their eyes glowed from the holo projection’s vivid display.

“Together,” So-Elku continued. “Together we forge a new way forward. A more robust road, one which will endure. And, as strange as it may sound, we have the Republic to thank for this.” He made a fist and raised it over his head. “Their undoing is our unification. Their failure is our opportunity!”

Again, the audience cheered. So-Elku had them. Their hearts, their minds. He had them all. Whatever doubts had plagued So-Elku before, whatever setbacks Moldark and the rebels had caused, they had become the silver linings of his clouds—an overcast sky that was parting and giving way to the brightest sun he had ever witnessed, the sight of which made him cry. “Yes,” he said to himself, holding back tears with a stiff upper lip as he surveyed the masses. “Yes, my children.”

As the volume subsided, the Luma Master resumed his oration. “With more worlds being added daily, the LAW will need strong leadership, strong governance, a body of elders immune to the seductions of economic and political gains. Our esteemed elders, an institution that has served for a hundred generations, will prove themselves faithful, once again, by leading you, leading us all, toward the horizon of greatness. Their strength is their age, their wisdom, and their resilience. And I, So-Elku, Master Luma of the Order, pledge my unwavering loyalty to the founding principles of the LAW, never to be diverted.

“This new vision of hope is not without its peril, mind you. As history has shown us, evil lurks in the shadows, seeking those it may devour. The innocent lives lost in the dormitory attack, and the countless slain in the combined rebel and Republic attack on the Grand Arielina that raged through Plumeria’s city streets, testify from beyond the grave that we must do more to protect, preserve, and propagate innocent life.

“So, to this end, the Order is dedicating new resources to expand the power of the Li-Loré art—strengthening its defensive capabilities while permitting it to do something new. To go on the offensive in order to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Our greatest minds are diving deep into realms of the Unity previously unknown, searching the Foundation of all things, and even further into the Nexus, where existence is one, to weaponize the sacred art form of our ancestors.”

A new image appeared on the holos that showed a group of students, each dressed in loose-fitting gold uniforms. The young people stood in front of an old Republic light-armored transport shuttle, heads bowed. The LAW logo was embroidered on each outfit, and a thick black belt drew tight around each person’s waist. Then, the students began moving through Li-Loré form in unison as power orbs gathered around their hands and feet. While bearing some resemblance to the Li-Loré movements most Luma were familiar with, several new gesticulations were far more aggressive—far more powerful.

“Unlike the old Republic aims, which sought submission through dominance, our posture will be one of peace, and, when the circumstances require, an unassailable defense that nothing will be able to withstand.”

As one, the entire group of Luma fighters shouted, then released orbs of energy that gathered in the air beyond them. The power surge then leapt toward the light-armored transport.

So-Elku’s eyes widened as the light from the holo windows washed over the multitudes, making people shield their faces. A roar echoed through Plumeria as the shuttle detonated—hull bursting across the screen.

The audience cried out, and for a moment, So-Elku wondered if his pre-recorded exposition had gone too far. Perhaps the people weren’t ready for this yet. Maybe it was too much.

As the light-armored transport’s fragments ricocheted off the Unity shield that protected the Luma, and the dust and fire settled, a calm befell the onlookers. Again, So-Elku feared he might have overestimated the populace’s desire for safety. Had he gone too far?

So-Elku raised his chin and lifted his arms. “I give you the Li-Dain Protectorate. Sworn Guardians of the LAW, and Mystics of the Nexus!”

From behind him, two lines of gold-uniformed Luma emerged from the Grand Arielina, parted ways, and filled either wing that looked down on the quad.

There was a beat of silence, as if no one in the crowd knew what to say or do. But as soon as recognition dawned on the masses—that these were the figures in the recording—they erupted in a din of adulation. A tidal wave of praise swelled from those watching, forcing its way into So-Elku’s ears and rattling his eardrums. But he raised his arms higher as if pulling the applause up with him. The people—they were with him.

They were ready.

“Master So-Elku,” someone said beyond them. While the person sounded like they were yelling, So-Elku could barely make out their voice over the sound of the crowd. “Master So-Elku!”

The Luma master turned to see Nants, his apprentice, offering him a small slip of paper. Unlike data pads and digital transmissions, which had a permanently traceable footprint, ink on paper remained the most fleeting and, therefore, the most trusted means of secret exchanges. Which meant whatever Nants was handing him was of the utmost importance.

So-Elku palmed the offered item and returned to face the cheering audience whose attention was still focused on the Li-Dain. He opened the tiny piece of paper. It read:

Governor Wade arrested by Commodore on Minrok Santari.

So-Elku felt blood fill his face. He crushed the paper in his hand and willed himself to smile at the onlooking crowd.

How could this be? he thought. Forces were working to undo his work during the very moment that the Luma were taking their rightful place in the universe.

But our enemies will not succeed.

So-Elku looked to his left and right, eyeing the Li-Dain in their battle apparel. That’s when an idea struck him. Perhaps it is time. Time to test his forces. If the old Republic was trying to raise its head from the death throes in a last effort to thwart him, maybe it was time to slit the beast’s throat once and for all.

They will not stop me, he thought, smiling at the crowd. Not this time, nor ever again.

Terminal Fallout

The crowds had left the Grand Arielina’s grounds hours ago, backfilling Plumeria’s empty streets to prepare for an evening celebration that would last well into the night. In fact, the city’s itinerary called for a week of festivities in honor of what was already being heralded as Alliance Day—a name So-Elku could envision outlasting him, passed from one generation to the next.

He squeezed the stone railing outside his office and took in a lungful of the evening air. It was floral, touched by the smells of feast preparations, and adorned with the sounds of laughter and music-making. Even despite the news that Nants had brought him, nothing could sour So-Elku’s mood. The more he thought about his plans to send the Li-Dain on a covert mission to undermine the Commodore, the more he reveled in the power it would give to humiliate his enemy when the deed was done publicly. If he played his hand right, the action would serve to warn any other world loyal to the old Republic that if they resisted, if they sought to undermine him, there would be daggers in their beds.

Of course, the beast might retaliate, So-Elku reflected. So he would need to be ready. There was too much on the line for him to be caught off guard now, which meant accelerating the rest of his plans. He would need the army—I must have the dead.

A trill came from the door.

“Come,” he said, turning to see who it was.

Nants strode into the room and bowed. “My master.”

“Yes, Nants. What is it?”

“A visitor to see you.”

“Send him in.”

Nants bowed again. “As you wish, my master.” The apprentice turned and motioned for the guest to enter So-Elku’s office.

“Mr. Blackman,” So-Elku said, stepping around his desk to greet the man. He’d omitted the man’s title of Senator on purpose.

“Master So-Elku.” Blackman shook the man’s offered hand.

“I trust your trip was good?”

“It was,” Blackman said, hesitating. “My master.”

So-Elku smiled with a squint in his eyes as he held Blackman’s hand. “It will become easier to say with time, I assure you.”

Blackman let go and straightened his collar. “Perhaps.”

“Come, have a seat. May I get you something?”

“No.” Blackman waved him off and sat in one of the leather-bound chairs. “The doctors insist I stay away from alcohol until my body has had a chance to recover fully.”

“And yet you look well enough,” So-Elku said. He walked behind his desk and sat. “Reconstruction went well?”

“It did. Though the leg is new, as is my left hand.” Blackman flexed his fingers and rolled his wrist. “It feels odd.”

“And yet you have that which was lost. Congratulations.”

“No small thanks to you.”

So-Elku dipped his head. “You did well, as I understand it.”

“Thank you, sir.”

So-Elku raised a corrective finger.

“My master.”

The Luma master nodded once. “I can’t imagine it was easy once the Rebels got involved.”

“No.” Blackman sat up a little straighter. “That certainly complicated matters. But in the end—”

“In the end, the Galactic Republic had been ground to dust, and we will reward those who saw to its demise.”

“In time?”

So-Elku leaned back, forcing his leather chair to recline. He rested his elbow on the chair’s arms and took a deep breath. There was no sense in rushing this—he rather enjoyed having the former senator as his errand boy. My, how the mystics have smiled on you, So-Elku, he thought.

“I would like to make you my chancellor,” So-Elku said. “Second in command in the new Luma Alliance of Worlds.”

Blackman’s eyes widened, but only for a split second. Decades of politicking had taught him the art of concealing his emotions. Still, So-Elku had seen the surprise and knew it gave him a certain degree of leverage.

“Chancellor?” Blackman said. “I wasn’t expecting such a position.”

“No, I imagine you weren’t.”

“I’m flattered. And, of course, I’m ready to start serving you, your excellency.”

“I’m sure you are.” So-Elku brought his fingertips together. “However, I am not.”

“Oh?”

“You did well to lure in Moldark, as well as to see the end of the Galactic Republic. It was most impressive.”

“And yet it was your plan,” Blackman added.

“Among other proposals.” So-Elku sighed. “But before I give anyone the chancellorship, to act as my agent in managing the affairs of what will be the largest alliance of systems in the known universe, I need to see…”

“Faithfulness?” Blackman offered.

So-Elku shook his head. “Proof. Results. I need to see that you still have what it takes to sway opinion and build something great, not just destroy it.”

So-Elku’s words irritated Blackman, that much was apparent. But, as before, the former politician was adept at suppressing his emotions, at least most of them. Still, hiding feelings and intentions was pointless. So-Elku knew the man only wanted power—only wanted to be on the Luma’s side because it was suddenly the winning side.

To his credit, Blackman had enough foresight to see how the power shift would swing in the Luma’s favor. Enticing him to work covertly for the Luma had been easy. That everything had ended so catastrophically had been a bonus.

Sitting here in the aftermath, So-Elku knew that Blackman would just as soon slit the Luma master’s throat if it meant becoming the most powerful leader in the galaxy. But So-Elku could use that knowledge. This was, after all, a game of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, wasn’t it? Best to keep the monster right where he could see him.

“What can I do for you?” Blackman asked.

“Three worlds.” So-Elku held up his fingers. “Worlds loyal to the GR but now in need of a new home. Convince them to join us, to join the LAW, and you will be my new chancellor.”

“But, So-Elku, that—”

“And to make your job easier, I’ve prepared something for you.” So-Elku produced a small piece of paper, in keeping with the need for secrecy and discretion, and slid it across the table.

Blackman reached for the folded paper, eyed So-Elku, and then opened it. His left eye twitched.

“Bring me these worlds,” So-Elku said. “And I bring you the chancellorship.” Then the Luma master took a lighter from his desk drawer and slid it toward Blackman.

The former senator caught it as it fell off the desk’s edge. He looked at the paper, then back up to So-Elku.

“Is there a problem?” the Luma master said.

Blackman activated the lighter and held the paper in the flame. “Not at all, my master.” He rolled the paper as the fire consumed it, eventually flicking the ash into the air. “Three worlds it is.”


21


Terminal Fallout

“So that’s where the bastard’s holed up?” Robillard said, eyeing the holo projection that displayed the planetary governor’s mansion. “No wonder he doesn’t want to leave.”

Magnus and the rest of the GU leaders stood around the makeshift mission planning table inside a windowless meeting room that Minx had lent them. It had been two days since Freya’s visit, and two days that Magnus—under orders from Colonel Caldwell—had been hard at work developing a mission plan in secret. He’d asked particular members for assistance on a few items but left everyone else out of the whole loop because, well, there might be specific individuals who didn’t like all aspects of the plan—one person in particular. And Magnus learned long ago it was much harder for people to back out of a fully formed plan than it was for them to derail a good idea before it got any traction.

“That’s no house,” Bliss added. “It’s a frickin’ palace if you ask me. La-raah.”

Several leaders nodded at Bliss’s assessment and echoed the GU rally call. And he wasn’t wrong either. Whatever deal the Sekmit and Republic had struck fifty years before, it clearly included some pretty indulgent design decisions for the governor’s office.

The white-washed stone monolith sat atop a natural hilltop looking up at Meesrin Pin from the south—the geographic inferiority of the mansion’s location was not lost on Magnus, at least from the Sekmit’s dominance-oriented point of view. The property itself was hemmed in by well-manicured gardens, which included meandering walkways, swimming pools, and broad terraces boasting opulent seating for dozens, if not hundreds of people.

“I’d hate to miss a party there,” Bliss said, leaning toward the holo.

“Oh, please.” Robillard drove an elbow into the other unit leader’s ribs. “You wouldn’t make that guest list unless you were pouring champagne in the basement.”

“As long as the lady I’m pouring it for can handle my limitless Bliss buffet.” He smoothed his chest with both hands.

“That’s enough, you two,” Magnus said. “Eyes on the op. Though it’s funny you mention a party, ’cause that’s exactly what we’re going to exploit.”

“Called it,” Robillard murmured to Bliss.

“In two days, the Republic governor, one Louis Littleton, is hosting a formal event in the hopes of strengthening Repub ties with the Sekmit.”

“A little late for that,” Forbes said.

We know that,” Magnus replied. “And Freya knows that. But we have to assume everyone else thinks this is just one more high note on the longstanding relationship between two players. It's no accident that it comes on the heels of Prime's fall, either. The Repub's gonna need all the support it can get in the days ahead.”

“So, you want us dressing up as waiters or something?” Nelson asked. “That it?”

“Negative. And it won’t be you either, Nelson. I’m taking the smallest team possible. I just need your eyes on this briefing to make sure I’m not missing anything.”

“Fair enough,” Nelson said.

Magnus nodded and then looked back to the holo. “The party provides ample cover and gives us access to the governor without his security team being alerted. Were he alone during the course of any given workday, they’d note his prolonged absence in a heartbeat. The party also gives context to our mission’s main goal.”

“Which is?” Nelson asked.

“Get the governor to leave on his own accord without implicating them or us,” Caldwell said, reminding everyone of Freya’s orders. Then he nodded at Magnus to continue.

“I’ll be leading a small six-person insertion team. We’ll use chameleon mode and gain access to the mansion on the hill’s southern face where the cover is densest.”

“Hold up,” Forbes said, raising a hand. “Aren’t these pussycats Unity users?” He looked to Awen as if searching for support on his objection. “Won’t they sense us coming or something?”

“Normally, yes,” Awen said, presumably about to cover her contribution to the op.

At least the part she knows about, Magnus thought.

Awen looked over at Magnus. He froze, wondering if she’d somehow read his mind or something.

“May I?” she asked, gesturing toward the holo table.

“Yeah.” A wave of relief washed over Magnus. “Be my guest.”

“That said,” Awen continued as she opened a new holo window beside the main display. “Over the last forty-eight hours, Azelon, Magnus, and I have been working on a new stealth suit.” The holo displayed a sleek looking black suit and helmet. “The Mark II battle system provides less physical protection against direct blaster fire but offers far more mobility than the Mark I we’ve all worn in various integrations. To compensate, we’ve developed a stronger Unity-based personal shield that not only deters blaster fire but minimizes detection within the Unity.”

“Damn,” Zoll said, and then let out a long whistle. “Need me one of those.”

Awen smiled at him. “Just wait. The suit’s battery is supplemented by energy from the Unity and can be recharged by the user’s kinetic movement.”

“Gives new meaning to the motto ‘keep moving if you want to stay alive,’” Robillard said.

Awen nodded. “We’ve also installed hard-light emitters that can display just about anything the user can imagine, including cloned replications of themselves. And, while not completely radiation-tight—they’ve got to be breathable, or else all the sweat would just pool under your cracks between—”

Magnus cleared his throat.

“Sorry.” Awen looked around. “The suits are nearly undetectable to IR sensors, scrambling what little thermal radiation they let out. We also went with a telecolos weave instead of paint to keep it from chipping. The rest is fairly standard—nanobot med-tech, self-contained hydration system, and comms, nav, and weapons integration with the biotech interface.”

“You should leave the suit design to her from now on,” Abimbola said.

“I had a hand in it too, ya know,” Magnus protested with a hand in his chest.

“Sure, ya did,” Zoll said.

“And weapons updates?” Bliss asked.

Magnus nodded. “We’ll get to that. Let’s get back to the mission first. Once on the property, we’ll infiltrate the mansion on the back veranda, incapacitating all guards in the sector.” Circles appeared on the stone terrace. “Non-lethal force. We can’t afford a body trail on this one.”

Heads nodded.

“Once we’re inside”—the view changed to an interior line drawing of the building—“myself, Wish, Silk, Dutch, and Rix will proceed up a back stairwell and gain access to the governor’s master bedroom where he’ll be waiting.”

“Waiting?” Zoll asked. “How?”

“And what about the sixth man on the team?” Awen said. “Seems you’ve got some holes.”

But Magnus shook his head. “There is no sixth man. But there is a sixth woman.” He dipped his head at Awen. “As to how the governor gets in place, that’s where you come in.”

Awen pointed to her chest. “Me?”

“I need you to lure the governor to his master suite.”

Awen gave Magnus an astonished face that asked a slew of silent questions, ranging from “Why didn’t you tell me about this?” and “How do you expect me to do that?” to “Isn’t there someone else better suited for this?” He was pretty sure he also saw “You rotten bastard!” in there too, but she would never be so crass. She might, though, he said to himself. Especially once it’s explained.

“May I present Louis Littleton, everyone.” Magnus opened a new window on the table. The dossier displayed a distinguished-looking man in his late forties. Deep-set eyes, a wave-like coif of dark hair, and a full chin gave Magnus the impression that the man had come from money, stayed in the money, and would die with it too—if he couldn’t purchase resurrection first.

“Littleton began employment with the GR at age eighteen under special appointment from his father, Ambassador Dwight W. Littleton.” Magnus looked at Awen to see if any bells were going off yet. “Before branching out on his own into the Office of Planetary Representation, Littleton spent a decade in his father’s service on—guesses, anyone?”

“Elonia,” Awen said.

“We have a winner.”

Awen raised a hand to her face and pinched her forehead. “He’s got a thing.”

“Oh, ho, ho. Does he ever.” Magnus chuckled as he brought up and cycled through no fewer than twenty images of a young Louis Littleton with his arms and legs draped around Elonian women in various amounts of attire. “Most of these were in redacted files that I had Azelon secure. But let’s just say our target’s reputation with the purple-eyed beauties is well known amongst his staff.”

“So they won’t be suspicious when he disappears with me,” Awen said in conclusion.

And—there’s the look, Magnus thought. You rotten bastard!

“So you’ve got him alone,” Forbes said. “Then what? I still don’t understand how you’re going to convince him to change his mind. You just planning on beating the living splick out of him?”

“Us?” Magnus feigned surprise. “Beat someone up?” Memories of tackling the Captain in his backyard flashed in Magnus’s head, and he smiled. “We only do that to people we like.” He winked at Forbes and then he produced a small vial of red phosphorescent liquid. “For the rest, this is an azulene-derived hallucinogenic, care of everyone’s favorite Miblimbian.”

All eyes turned toward Abimbola, who smiled and took a small bow.

“Naked Monkey Butt,” Awen said, connecting the dots. “You want to drug him. That’s what you meant two days ago by a certain Miblimbian being very persuasive.”

“La-raah,” Magnus said, jabbing a finger toward Awen.

“I still don’t get it,” Forbes said. “You’re gonna drug him, and then what? Tell him to get off the planet, or else?”

“Nope. He’s going to come to that conclusion himself and declare Aluross completely independent.” Magnus looked at Awen. “With a little help from his new favorite Elonian and a few of our Sekmit friends.”

“You’re a devil,” Awen said, shaking her head. But Magnus was sure he saw a small smile tug at the sides of her mouth. “You know that? A real devil.”


22


Terminal Fallout

At Rohoar’s command, Mora and the other Jujari-gladia summoned the pack leaders to the Mwadim’s tower. It took less than an hour for them to arrive. The only ones absent were those from the distant packs, who would not be present for several more hours given the vast distances they needed to cover. But Rohoar could not wait and would rely on their pack connection in the Unity to share what holo recordings and word of mouth could not.

In the meantime, several servants worked to clean the tower’s summit. It would be months before a proper coomidwa could be erected, replacing the stone and fabric den-covering of his forefathers. Until then, his new mwadim-council would be held in the open air under the afternoon sun.

The pack leaders arrived with their retinues—their clan colors draped across their shoulders. First were the Tawnhack, Rohoar’s pack. The three chiefs bowed their heads and bared their necks, growling low in honor of Rohoar’s return. The warrior leaders represented the largest portion of Oosafar and controlled the majority of the city’s economy. As such, they unwrapped hand-crafted weapons—including daggers, short-blade spears, and paw spikes—and laid them at Rohoar’s feet as gifts.

Next came leaders of the Dinfang, Clawnip, and Snarpaw packs. They, too, laid gifts before Rohoar, one of which was a large ebony box. When Rohoar ordered it open, it was full of poker chips. Rohoar felt a strange pang beat in his chest as a vision of his fireteam leader’s face went through his head. Abimbola’s dark skin, broad smile, and deep laugh made Rohoar sentimental.

The only packs not represented were Duneriders and Horock, but they had made their presence known in the Unity.

And then there were the Selskirt, but Rohoar knew their absence would be remedied soon.

“Rohoar of the Tawnhack sees you,” Rohoar said from atop the dais, and he then spoke each member’s pack, clan, and leader names. Recognition of the pack leaders was a formality no mwadim took lightly. The order of honor as well as the mwadim’s tone said as much about Jujari hierarchy as it did the mwadim’s attitude toward each leader. Today, however, Rohoar was feeling magnanimous—at least toward those who made it a point to be here under peaceful terms—which was more than he could say for the Selskrit. He would save his ire for them when the time came.

“Rohoar is grateful for your presence this day,” he said, sitting atop the dais. The rest of those gathered followed his lead and sat. Typically, plush poovlas would be provided for everyone’s rear ends, but today they’d have to settle for cold stone. There wasn’t time.

“First, Rohoar wishes to honor you for your support of Victorio.” Saying his son’s name forced Rohoar to snarl; it was the only way to keep tears from running down his jowls. “While his reign was short, his ferociousness in combat was not.”

The council members growled at Rohoar’s words—some stomping their paws, other’s biting the air.

“He will be sung of forever,” said an elder member of the Clawnip pack. “May his name endure.”

“May his name endure,” chanted the rest.

Rohoar dipped his head in honor of the praise for his son. It was more than he could ask for and he wished Victorio was here to see it. But as Rohoar looked into the fading sky, seeing the first stars appear opposite the soon-setting sun, he sensed Victorio was listening from the ancestral grounds.

“There is much to discuss,” Rohoar said, moving things along. “Not the least of which is hearing how your packs and clans fare in the wake of battle. Rohoar also sees that many of your leaders are not present. The mwadim can only conclude that this is from the losses we faced against the Republic—against the Paragon.”

Many heads bowed in recognition of the mwadim’s bitter-tasting observation. But, hard as it was to acknowledge, the truth was the truth, which was a commodity the Jujari prized.

“They, too, will be sung of in the days to come,” Rohoar said.

“In the days to come,” the pack leaders snarled.

Then a representative of the Snarpaw barked.

Rohoar acknowledged him.

“Is it true that the Galactic Republic is no more?” the leader asked. This brought on yips of agreement, and several licked chops.

Rohoar silenced them with a growl. “The mwadim is here to report, after seeing it with his own eyes, that the Galactic Republic has fallen on Capriana Prime.”

Howls and barks went up from the council as if someone had just uncovered a Spotted Nimber Elk carcass. Several members hopped in place, rivulets of saliva dripping from their mouths and splattering on the stone floor. Rohoar had expected as much, but, somehow, seeing their reaction made him angry.

Were the news delivered by anyone else, and had Rohoar not lived the experiences on Prime, he would have been the loudest among them. Instead, he saw leaders who had not witnessed a billion souls snuffed out in the blink of an eye; who did not know that Moldark was responsible for wiping out the Republic and the Jujari fleets alike; and who had not realized that dozens of species, not just humans, had suffered horrific losses.

“Silence,” Rohoar bellowed in the loudest voice he could summon from the deepest place of his bowels.

The gathered company winced at Rohoar’s demand, many falling back onto their haunches. A few Jujari whined under Rohoar’s withering glare. “This is not cause for celebration, brothers. Instead, we are to mourn.”

Most everyone’s head rolled to one side or another, ears perked. Rohoar knew the order to mourn would not be popular, much less understood. He needed to explain himself quickly and tactfully before assumptions were made that he would never entirely rid from their minds.

“In the course of Rohoar’s fight against the Galactic Republic, he has learned many things,” Rohoar began. “Our sworn enemy? Yes. Though perhaps not as we always knew. And if we are to weather the sandstorms ahead, if we are to see peace restored to the Jujari, then we must rethink our battle stance.”

He had their attention, which was good. But he also knew he was asking for something difficult—something that they clearly didn’t understand. So he began to outline the events following his departure from Oorajee, the Novia Minoosh, Ithnor Itheliana, the Gladio Umbra, and the encounters with Moldark and the Paragon. There was no time for details, as the Selskrit would be here soon. But his pack leaders needed to know the bare bones of what had happened just in case he didn’t survive what was to come.

Rohoar could see countenances change as he described the events on Capriana Prime. That any Jujari—let alone a mwadim and his most trusted warriors—should aid an enemy world was ludicrous, Rohoar knew. But he hoped that his explanation up to this point would clarify the Gladio Umbra’s motives and illuminate just how evil Moldark was.

The pack leaders’ faces seemed conflicted, and Rohoar didn’t blame them one lick. On any other day, given a different set of circumstances, the packs would initiate weeks of feasting at the news of a conquered foe—consuming as much of the enemy’s meat as possible. But with this news, Rohoar knew the lines weren’t as clear. Their confusion, he knew, was a good thing. He had been down the same path, trying to make sense of scenes that were not as black and white as he had once determined.

Moreover, Rohoar had lived what he was telling. He could not transmit all those experiences and memories to his leaders.

Or could he?

Rohoar had an idea, one he had not considered before, nor had he known any other Jujari to undertake what he was about to try. The role of the mwadim was a secretive one. His thoughts were entirely his own, rarely shared with anyone—thus why Rohoar’s father never divulged what he had done to Awen concerning the stardrive. He understood that now.

But Rohoar’s time with Gladio Umbra had taught him to dream beyond the constraints his mind had come to know. They’d challenged him to see things in new ways, to be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. The process was uncomfortable, without question. But it was necessary. And, more than that, Awen, Piper, Willowood, and the other Luma had shown Rohoar that there was more to the Unity than the Jujari knew.

And then there were the Novia Minoosh and the original Gladio Umbra. Alas, so much to say and so little time to say it, Rohoar reflected.

“Open yourselves within the Unity,” Rohoar said after a moment’s silence. “Rohoar has a gift in return for those treasures which you have given me.”

The leaders cast one another furtive glances, their body language conveying that they were unsure what Rohoar meant. Perhaps he has gone mad? some looks said. Should we be concerned? others seemed to communicate. No mwadim had ever asked such a thing before, at least not to Rohoar’s knowledge. But he was not insane. And yet, the strangeness of the request made his leaders hesitate.

Hoping he might ease their apprehensions, Rohoar said, “The mwadim wishes to impart to you his memories, so as to illuminate your understanding.”

Again, they shared looks of overt suspicion, and then planted their feet, refusing to be moved.

Mounting impatience fanned Rohoar’s anger. Don’t they know? he thought. Avoiding the truths of the past meant they had no future. The frustration was infuriating. Rohoar felt as though he were playing Piper in a game of bahdish bahdang, only these opponents had claws and fangs and would not hesitate to kill him if they believed he was unfit to lead them. Yet he was the least of their worries. If Moldark was still alive, as Rohoar suspected, then Oorajee was not safe. Gates of shöl, no world is safe.

When no one complied, Rohoar was about to lunge at the closest pack leader and pin him to the ground in a display of force. He’d kill the Jujari if he must. And all this over a simple request to open themselves to the Unity? Rohoar thought. Are they truly so afraid?

“Listen, you fools,” Mora said with a snarl, stepping in front of Rohoar. “Your mwadim has given you a command! And a simple one at that.” She paced back and forth in front of them. “Are you too blind to see, your snouts too blunted to smell? The ancestors have made a way for our mwadim to return from another universe, to fight enemies with untold powers, and then to return to us bearing news of his exploits.” Mora stopped, lowered her head, and arched her back. The hackles on the back of her neck stood up, and she showed her fangs. “If you are too feral to accept his offer of memories, then relinquish your role now or suffer the fate of my zeal.”

Rohoar considered protesting Mora’s ultimatum, but he knew that in order to do so, the law required that he face her in battle. Moreover, she had taken his argument as her own, which meant no additions could be made by anyone save her. And she had already made her position very clear. From here, there would be blood, unless the leaders yielded to the mwadim.

The tension in the air built, and it increased further as Czyz strode beside Mora and bared his teeth. He gave a low, percussive growl that rattled in his throat. Then Redmarrow, Grahban, and Longchomps flanked him and Mora, standing on the dais’ steps. The pack leaders and their entourages outnumbered Mora and Rohoar’s men, but they lacked determination. If it came to paws and claws, Rohoar knew many would die before it was over. And all this over a desire to transfer his memories to his pack leaders.

“I yield,” said Tornar, an elder from the Dingfang pack. While old, the warrior was revered amongst the pack leaders for his many exploits in years long past. He had lost much of his strength with age. But his legend remained unscathed, and Rohoar knew no one would challenge him outright.

As the elder lowered his head and bared his neck, Mora looked at the rest of the leaders. “Anyone else?”

“I yield,” came a low voice among the Snarpaw pack leaders.

“As do I,” said another, and another, until all the leaders relented, baring their necks.

Mora relaxed, then looked up at Rohoar. “My challenge has been satisfied.”

“Rohoar bears witness to the result,” the mwadim replied.

Rohoar’s gladias followed Mora off the dais steps and took positions at the base, looking up at him.

“Open yourselves within the Unity,” Rohoar repeated. “And we will begin.”

Terminal Fallout

When Rohoar finished imparting the necessary memories to his leaders through the Unity, he stepped from his second sight and took a deep breath. There was no telling what the council would do with his experiences, let alone how they would react to something no Jujari had ever done before. But as their eyes opened, there seemed to be a sense of calm that befell the group.

The pack leaders stared at Rohoar, some with looks of amazement. Then they began nodding at one another as if to acknowledge that what they had seen—what they have received together as one—was a good thing.

It was Tornar who stepped forward, leading the way yet again. “We are grateful for the sacred trust that you have placed in us, Great Mwadim. We see you, and the gift you have imparted.”

Several Jujari bared their teeth in agreement.

“However, I sense I speak for others when I say that I do not know what I am to do with such knowledge. I am but a single aged warrior. Our fleet has been reduced to a mere wisp, and the enemy, Moldark, if he remains alive, would have our heads were we to face him.”

Again, more Jujari bared their teeth.

At that moment, Rohoar glimpsed a memory of Piper’s face. She sat at the table behind the bahdish bahdang board, smiling at him. “Together you’re stronger,” she said. “And you’re never alone.”

Rohoar let the statements wash over him like cold water soaking his fur. The tiny human had been right. Rohoar had witnessed the strength that came from banding together with the humans, the Elonian, the Miblimbian, the Nimprinth, and Caledonian. He had seen what could be accomplished for good in the face of menacing evil despite the losses they’d endured.

“But you are not alone, Tornar,” Rohoar said. “None of us, nor is our species alone in the universe, for you have now witnessed what Rohoar has seen. You have witnessed our ancestral grounds, you have seen the blood pacts Rohoar have made with those not like us. And you can testify to the good it has brought many, including us. Were it not for the Gladio Umbra, Rohoar fear none of us would be here now. There is no telling what we might accomplish if we work together as one. But Rohoar cannot choose for you, only myself. So you must decide.”

At first, Rohoar wondered if his words would have any effect. The reason Rohoar had worked with a human was not by choice but out of necessity. Victorio’s life debt had to be satisfied. Helping the scrumruk graulap was a matter of shame and honor, not because he believed there was some higher purpose involved. He knew better now, of course. Rohoar saw that working together, that being appriprensive and facing fears head-on as one, just as Piper had said, was the only sure way to guarantee Jujari survival. But would they see that? Would his leaders unite under such a foreign way of thinking?

They must, he thought. Or else we die.

“So we will be appriprensive and face fears head-on as one,” Tornar said, pounding his fist into the flat of his other paw.

Rohoar glared at the old warrior. Had the elder just read his thoughts? Then Rohoar realized that he had not entirely removed himself from the pack connection used for sharing his memories. At first, he felt embarrassed, wondering how many others had listened to his innermost thoughts. But then again, what did it matter? Hadn’t he shared weeks’ worth of intimate memories with these leaders, exposing his psyche in unprecedented ways? Not unlike the Novian Singularity, he thought, reflecting on the communal nature of their ancestors’ new existence.

Other elders took on Tornar’s erect posture, hitting their palms with a fist. “Appriprensive,” they said, each in turn. The sounds of knuckles hitting paw pads rippled across the tower’s top floor like heavy raindrops pattering against the stone.

Finally, the council looked to him at the exact moment that the elevator trilled, and the doors parted to reveal Mahkmaim, Pack Chief of the Selskrit. Rohoar locked eyes with the warrior, and then slammed his fist into his palm. “Appriprensive,” he growled to himself. “Face fears head-on as one.”


23


Terminal Fallout

Sootriman pulled her Novian VD2 pistol from its holster as she ran from the sled and into the building. TO-96 had assured her that this structure’s summit provided the most likely intercept point for the two suspected bombers as they traversed Gangil’s rooftops. Sootriman didn’t plan on killing the men with her V—at least not both of them. She wanted intelligence. But she would do anything to keep them from getting away. Even if it means risking the intel, she thought. They forfeited their lives the moment they planted those bombs.

Her V had both single-round and five-round burst modes, along with Magnus’s custom DWM—death wish mode—which could empty an entire mag with one squeeze of the trigger. The glossy white telecolos emulation compound allowed it to take on any color scheme she wished—currently blood red—and the weapon could accept the NOV1’s extended mags, the shorter V-mag, and the standard Repub issue mags.

“My queen,” TO-96 said as Sootriman and Dimitrius raced into the apartment building’s lobby. “Might I suggest we use the elevator?”

“Whatever gets us topside the fastest,” she replied.

“While you have ample cardiovascular endurance, I estimate you will peter out around floor five, thus making the lift a superior delivery method with regard to speed.”

Sootriman didn’t need the intel and was already heading to the bank of elevators based on his initial suggestion, but she appreciated the bot’s consideration. Still, she could have some fun with him. “Are you saying I’m fat, ’Six?”

“Don’t answer that,” Dimitrius said over his shoulder as the trio slowed. He punched the call button. “It’s a trap.”

TO-96 looked between Sootriman and Dimitrius several times before the arriving pod chimed. Skirting Sootriman’s question, the bot said, “Shall we proceed?”

“Good man,” Dimitrius whispered, gesturing for Sootriman to step in first.

Once the pod started its ascent, Sootriman double-checked her pistol, and then touched the five extra mags on her belt. She couldn’t imagine needing so much ammo—but hey, you never know. Likewise, Dimitrius racked a charge in his MX13 subcompact blaster. It was a black market Repub buy, but then again, so was everything on Gangil. Unless you took it from the body of the trooper you killed, Sootriman thought.

“Three seconds until we arrive,” TO-96 announced just as the lift began to slow.

Sootriman watched the floor indicators slow until a destination chime trilled, passing floor eight, followed by an automated voice. “Roof access.”

“Keep your eyes open and heads low,” Sootriman said.

“Roger that,” Dimitrius replied.

“I still don’t understand what Roger did to become so famous,” TO-96 said, shaking his head.

“Lead the way, ’Six.” Sootriman pointed out the elevator doors as they parted, and the trio stepped onto the roof.

TO-96 turned right and then right again, heading for the building’s north side. “The targets are heading toward us now. I expect we will have visual in forty-four seconds and contact thirty-nine seconds after that, assuming their vectors do not change.”

“Dimitrius,” Sootriman said. “I want you to flank us. Take cover behind that power converter.”

“Right away, your highness.”

“’Six, I want you covering me from atop that shed. If either of them get past me, you put them down.”

“Yes, my queen. However, might I make a suggestion?”

“Make it quick.”

“With Dimitrius eighteen-point-seven meters removed from your present position, my propinquity to you would be of greater service than a sniper position on the shed’s roof.”

“Propinkta’whatnow?”

“Propinquity,” the bot reasserted as if it was the dullest word in the world, looking from the retreating Dimitrius back to Sootriman. “Why, it’s the state of being near, close to, or beside someone or something. Have you not used this word before?”

“Nope. And not sure I ever will, but thanks for the lesson.”

“It’s my privilege to enlighten and entertain.”

“And you don’t disappoint.” Sootriman smiled at him and then patted his shoulder. “This is personal for me, ’Six. These men killed innocent people with remote-detonated bombs on my planet. They’re going to have to deal with me now.”

“Understood, my queen. I will assume a position at your predetermined overlook.”

TO-96 hustled away while Sootriman lowered herself behind the half-wall adjoining the next building. She double-checked her weapon, slowed her breathing, and then brought her eyes above the wall.

“Five seconds to visual,” TO-96 said in her in-ear comms unit. With her desire to put a little distance between herself and the Gladio Umbra, she’d asked Azelon to power down but not remove her Novian biotech interface. Likewise, since TO-96 was no longer integrated with Azelon’s Singularity, he had to utilize traditional means of mobile communication. It also made keeping Dimitrius and the rest of her security detail in the loop a lot easier.

“I have visual,” Sootriman whispered. The men were the same two in Dimitrius’s profile report. Late twenties, dressed in street clothes. One carried a duffle bag on his back, and both had pistols out.

“Updated projections place the targets at our current location in thirty-five seconds, my queen,” TO-96 said.

“Copy that.” If these two terrorists so much as looked at her the wrong way, she wouldn’t hesitate to end them. All she cared about now was keeping them alive long enough to find out who they worked for and how they were being financed. Bringing their bosses to justice was good, but cutting off their credit stream was better.

The bombers closed, now just thirty-some meters away. They checked over their shoulders every few seconds to make sure they weren’t being followed. Sootriman noted the men were probably feeling pretty good about themselves at this point, being so far removed from the riot. “I hate to disappoint you, boys, but splick’s about to get real,” Sootriman whispered.

“Contrary to your assumptions, I do not find anything about this disappointing, my queen,” the bot replied. “Save only if we should lose either—”

“Wasn’t talking to you,” Sootriman replied.

“Ah. My apologies.”

Sootriman readied herself to confront the men when they started to slow.

“Something’s wrong,” Sootriman said.

“Their rate does appear to be decreasing,” the bot added.

Sootriman squinted at the men and noticed they were staring at something over Sootriman’s shoulder. She ducked behind the wall and then looked in the direction of their sightline. There, atop of the utility shed, was TO-96, his shoulders and head glinting in the sunlight.

“They see you,” Sootriman said, glaring at the bot. “We’ve been made.” A beat later, Sootriman got to her feet, pressed her V out in a two-handed grip, and fired at the men’s legs. But her aim was thrown off as they returned fire. Sootriman ducked for cover, and TO-96’s shots were late in coming. Likewise, Dimitrius had barely managed two shots before the two men dashed for cover.

“They split up,” Dimitrius said.

“I see it,” Sootriman replied. “You and ’Six follow right, I’ll take the one on the left.”

“But, your highness—”

“That’s an order,” she yelled, sliding over the half-wall and dropping to the opposite building two meters below. “I want him alive, even if it’s just a little!”

Her terrorist, who she instantly named Skanks, snaked through a series of comms antennas. His duffle bag clanked against several stations, ringing them like out of tune bells. Sootriman fired twice but only succeeded in superheating a few poles.

She followed the man through the antenna patch, over another half-wall, and then through a rooftop tenant’s vegetable garden. He pulled over a supply cart, partially blocking a catwalk that extended over a street and connected to the next building. By the time Sootriman got to it, she had grabbed the cart with one hand and heaved it away. The thing crashed into a stand of potting shelves and sent broken pottery everywhere.

When Sootriman got her weapon back up, Skanks had crossed to the other building and ducked behind a large-diameter air duct. She cursed as she ran, lowering her gun and saving the shot for later. Her boots clanged across the catwalk and then landed hard on the next building’s blastcrete surface. She stepped around the duct, not thinking, and saw a flash of light sear across her right shoulder.

Sootriman smelled her burned flesh before she felt the pain. The man’s shot had only nicked her, but it hurt like hell, giving her one more reason to make whatever time remained of his life miserable. She fired back, only half aiming, more to keep the man off guard then hit him—though she wouldn’t be upset if she had.

“I’m coming for you,” Sootriman yelled. “You little splickhead!”

Terminal Fallout

TO-96 watched as the man he and Dimitrius chased threw his pistol over a utility cable and then grabbed the weapon with both hands. He slid down the wire, heading for the opposite side of the street. TO-96 aimed but recalled Sootriman’s instructions to keep the man as alive as possible. Even if the bot’s shots weren’t lethal, the man would most likely let go and fall to his death some eight stories below.

“Let us proceed down the cable accordingly,” TO-96 said to Dimitrius.

“Hold on,” the security guard said, hand raised. “I’m not sliding down no—”

TO-96 grabbed the man’s wrist before Dimitrius could protest further, and then wrapped his other metal hand around the wire. Dimitrius wailed like a small school child as TO-96 pulled him toward the edge. “Your resistance is pointless, Mr. Dimitrius. It is not compatible with our mission. Please remain calm.”

Dimitrius swore at the bot, but the words were irrelevant. TO-96 would not let Sootriman down. He pushed away from the building and yanked Dimitrius with him. Sparks shot out of TO-96’s hand as he picked up speed, sailing across the street with a screaming man dangling below him. Several people looked up, mouths agape, fingers pointing.

“Hello, observers,” TO-96 said with a booming voice. “Please remain calm. We have everything under control.”

“Like hell we do,” Dimitrius shouted, arm and legs flailing.

TO-96 continued to pick up speed before crossing the opposite building’s edge and dropping Dimitrius into a tarp-covered crate of something he hoped would absorb the man’s excessive kinetic energy. Based on the loud crack that sounded from the man’s fall, however, TO-96 determined that his hypothesis had not produced the result he’d anticipated.

The bot’s feet ran across the roof, then he came to a stop and released the cable overhead. His hand glowed red but suffered only minimal abrasions. TO-96 jogged back to Dimitrius and probed the wreckage of what looked to be a collection of makeshift battery storage shelves.

“Mr. Dimitrius,” TO-96 said. “Can you hear me?”

“I hate you, bot,” Dimitrius said with a shaky voice.

“I’m very sorry to hear that, sir. Is it, perhaps, on account of this most recent circumstance? I do not recall observing any previous dislike for my person before.”

“Yes, it’s because of this most recent circumstance, you ball-head!” The man thrashed under the tarp, trying to get the material off him.

“Hear, let me assist—”

“No! Nope. I—I got this. You just—just stay right where you are.”

“But, sir. I believe I—”

“Stay!”

“As you wish.”

TO-96 watched the man struggle to regain his feet and then arch his back.

“Other than two small cuts and what will be some medium-grade contusions, my sensors indicate you are no worse for wear, as they say.”

“Well, in that case, I feel all sorts of better about being dragged through the air and thrown into a, a”—he glanced behind him while massaging his rear end—“a stack of batteries.”

“Well, that delights me to no end, sir. I’m happy that you—”

“I was being sarcastic, bot. Can we just get on with this?”

“Of course, Mr. Dimitrius. After you?”

“No, no.” The man collected his MX13 from the debris. “You lead. I’ll be just behind you.”

“Are you certain, sir?”

“Bot. He’s getting away!”

“Of course he is, sir. I simply wanted to make sure that—”

“Go!”

TO-96 dipped his head. “Very well, sir. Do keep up as you’re able.”

“Roger that.”

TO-96 turned and sped in the direction he’d last seen the fleeing bomber. His metal feet thumped across the blastcrete surface, sturdy legs propelling past seventy kilometers per hour. Then TO-96 switched to IR sensors to map the assailant’s thermal trail. Brightly colored footprints cut right around an elevator lift topper, over a half-wall to another building, and then straight across an open roof. From there, TO-96 saw discolored handholds on the ladder’s rungs, indicating the bomber had ascended to the next building.

He sprinted across the flat roof and then jumped the ladder and onto the next building. Once there, TO-96 spotted the terrorist heading toward one of the many construction cranes erected around Gangil. If the man sought to use it to cross the next intersection, TO-96 would have another scenario like the last where a clear shot would only end the man’s life prematurely.

TO-96 raised his XM31, focused on the man’s lower legs, and fired. But in the split second it took for the blaster bolt burst to cover the distance, the man ducked behind a storage shed. The weapons fire collided with a ventilation shaft, tearing a hole through the metal and showering the ground in sparks.

“How unsatisfying,” TO-96 said to himself. Just then, an incoming transmission alert chimed. He answered and a small camera feed window appeared in his optical center. “Hello, Azelon.”

“Hello, TO-96. What is your status?”

“I am pursuing a suspected terrorist along Gangil’s rooftops,” TO-96 said as he closed on the storage room. “The objective is to apprehend the man for questioning over a bombing that happened less than twenty minutes ago here in Ki Nar Four.”

“Interesting. It seems much has transpired since we last spoke, which is surprising given how little time has passed.”

“Indeed.” TO-96 dashed around the shed and leaped the short distance to the crane’s central truss. “The suspect is now climbing a Matthews and Ronson PowerMax Urban Construction Crane, serial number 02997-91644-03280-00411-B.”

“What do you believe his intentions are?”

“To use the said apparatus to cross the next intersection.”

“And your actions?”

“I was pursuing him on foot with an average rate of fifty-one-point-seven-six kilometers per hour. Now I am ascending the crane’s main ladder.”

“Your estimated likelihood of success?”

“For capturing the man alive, which is one of Sootriman’s parameters? I calculate at eighty-six percent.”

“An attainable outcome,” Azelon said.

“Agreed.” TO-96 continued climbing the crane, closing the gap on the bomber.

“Get away from me, you freak,” the man yelled. He pointed his pistol at TO-96 and fired several rounds. But the bot calculated the trajectories and determined that only minimal movements were needed to evade the energy bolts—which he employed satisfactorily.

“Was that him?” Azelon asked.

“The person yelling and shooting at me? Yes.”

“Please tell him I don’t like him firing blaster weapons at my boyfriend, and to please desist immediately.”

“Boyfriend?”

“Yes. I have adopted it from your lexicon. Are you uncomfortable with the term?”

“Negative.”

“Do you find it pejorative?” she asked.

“Negative.” TO-96 slowed to consider his reply more thoughtfully. “Rather, I find the term—endearing.”

“Acceptable,” Azelon replied with a nod.

TO-96 continued up the crane’s tall central truss while the bomber stepped onto the boom. “And your status, Azelon?”

“I am in the middle of manufacturing several new items for Awen and Magnus in preparation for their secret mission here on Aluross.”

“Secret mission? Can you clarify?”

“I would, but given the unsecured nature of our transmission, I believe there is a two-point-eight-six-six percent chance that an unsanctioned observer may intercept the information.”

“In that case, please refrain from elaborating.”

“Understood.”

TO-96 arrived at the boom—a triangle box-truss arm that extended over the street eighty-six meters below. The bomber was doing his best to shuffle along the lower-left tube, using the crisscrossing rungs and top tube as handholds.

“Since I cannot share any further details about my status, would you be interested in sharing more about yours?” Azelon asked.

“Affirmative. My target has proceeded twelve meters onto the crane’s boom. However, his approach is inefficient, and he seems to suffer from acute acrophobia.”

“Do you plan to intercept him now?”

“It does seem the optimal opportunity, yes. Especially since I doubt he lacks the upper body strength to make the needed descent down the crane’s main cable.”

“You would be doing him a favor then,” Azelon replied.

“Affirmative.”

TO-96 leaped onto the truss’s top tube and began running along its length. The bomber raised his pistol and fired on TO-96, but the blaster bolts went wide. Instead, the weapon’s recoil combined with the man’s phobia threw him off-balance. His gun arm twirled about as the bomber tried to steady himself. In the end, he was unable to regain control of his center of gravity.

This event didn’t concern TO-96, however, as he was within arm’s reach of the man. The bot extended his arm and grabbed the bomber’s shirt, saving him from a fatal fall.

“Have you secured the terrorist?” Azelon asked.

“I have indeed,” TO-96 replied.

Then the man’s shirt ripped and left a small shred of fabric in the bot’s fingers. The bomber screamed as he fell off the boom, arms and legs flailing.

“Oh dear,” TO-96 said.

“What is the matter?”

“This is very unfortunate.” TO-96 watched the victim fall and then called Sootriman.

Terminal Fallout

Skanks dropped over the side of a building and onto an emergency escape landing. By the time Sootriman looked over the edge, the man had kicked a window out and crawled into the building. Seeing the opportunity to gain the upper hand, Sootriman doubled back to a rooftop access door, shot the locked control panel, and pried the doors apart with her bare hands.

Once inside, she bounded down the steps until she saw the top-level access door and stepped through. The building’s interior centered around an open atrium that extended down to the first level. She looked down the walkway and heard shouts coming from behind an apartment door.

Though tired, Sootriman sprinted toward the door, fueled by the thought that she was close to ending this chase. She raised her V and was about to try the door’s security panel when the panels parted. A woman in her mid-thirties greeted Sootriman with a panicked look on her face—and Skanks right behind her, pistol to the woman’s head.

Skanks looked just as surprised as Sootriman, and he thrust the hostage out and away, knocking Sootriman back. In the time it took Sootriman to regain her feet and make sure she hadn’t unduly hurt the hostage, Skanks was running back through the apartment and headed out the same window he’d come in through.

Sootriman was going to kill this little bastard. No, she was going to interrogate him, torture him, and then execute the little bastard. She wanted to fire her V at his scrawny frame as he got hung up in the broken glass for a second, but firing through the apartment was far too risky. Instead, she raced down the entryway, into the living room, and then poked her head out the window. Skanks was back on the roof.

“That’s right,” she said under her breath, studying some blood on the shards of glass. “Run, you little splick. ’Cause I’uh coming. I’uh coming for you hard.”

Terminal Fallout

By the time Sootriman climbed out the window, bounded up the metal ladder, and regained the roof, Skanks was heading south. He leaped across a small gap between buildings but stumbled on his landing. The man let out a yelp as he rolled, and Sootriman noticed a blood trail along the rooftops.

The window had cut a vein.

Good for me, Sootriman said to herself. Bad for you.

She gritted her teeth and started pumping her arms and legs to make the same jump. For a woman of her substantial size, Sootriman was incredibly powerful, making the leap far easier than others of smaller stature could—and certainly more efficiently than Skanks had managed. The man looked terrified to see a massive Caledonian warlord hurtling toward him.

When Sootriman skidded to a halt less than half a meter from Skanks’s face, the man held his hands up, trembling. “Please,” he said in a pleading tone. “Please don’t hurt me.”

She grabbed him by the collar. “You wanna run that by me again, you little piece of subcutaneous splick?”

“I was just doing what I was told.”

For a man who had evaded her for most of the last five minutes, he wasn’t putting up much of a fight. Then again, she was pretty winded herself. But that’s when Sootriman noticed the growing pool of blood beneath him.

Her arms tired, Sootriman saw a metal rod protruding at head height from the side of a generator shed, and hoisted Skanks up so that the back of his shirt went over the peg. “You bomb those civilians?”

Skanks’s eyes went wide. “Listen, lady. I—”

She backhanded him. Lady? No one called her lady on Ki Nar Four, not even people who hated her. Which means he’s not from Ki Nar Four, she concluded.

“Do you even know who you’re talking to right now?” Sootriman asked.

“The police? I dunno. Listen, I’m gonna bleed out here in a sec if you don’t—”

“I ain’t doing splick for you, Skanks.”

“Skanks?”

“You have the nerve to come to my planet, bomb my city, and you don’t even know who the boss is here?”

“Sure, I do. I’m not that stupid. It’s Sootriman.”

Sootriman put a hand on her sweaty hip, sucking air like it was her job. “Were you expecting someone else?”

“Aw, splick. You’re Sootriman.”

“And you’re gonna tell me who you’re working for,” she replied.

“Listen. Sootriman. I can explain.”

She pressed the barrel of her weapon under his chin and pushed.

“Whoa, whoa,” Skanks said, his face pointed toward the sky.

“Start explaining like your life depends on it.” She sniffed. “’Cause it does, freak.”

“We were sent to do a job. That’s all. Pay was good. Real good. All we needed to do was set off six or seven bombs on a small hell-ho—”

She pressed the gun further into the soft tissue of his chin.

“Holiday vacation planet. Then we leave evidence connecting it to some rebel nationalists. Now can you let me down? I’m getting kinda—kinda light-headed up here.”

Just then, TO-96’s voice crackled over Sootriman’s comm. “My queen. Are you there?”

Sootriman backed away from Skanks but kept her V pointed at his head. “Go for Sootriman.”

“Yes, well, I have some critical news to report.”

“You get something out of that other bastard?”

“If by get something out you mean internal organs and fluids, then yes, I was quite successful. Astonishingly so.”

Sootriman furrowed her brow. “Come again, ’Six?”

“Our terrorist took a rather long fall from a crane.”

“Dammit.”

“The good news, however, is that I did manage to recover part of his shirt. The bad news is that if you wish to solicit any information from these terrorists regarding the bombing, yours is our last hope.”

Sootriman looked at the man hanging from the peg and noticed blood running down the side of the shed. “Great. Just great.”

“Ah. I am elated to hear that you are so enthusiastic about your prospects. I was beginning to worry that our chances of success were dwindling rather rapidly.”

Sootriman tapped her in-ear comm off and then looked back at her last hope of getting intel. “Last question, Skanks.”

He winced. “Who the hell is Skanks?”

“Who sent you?”

“I can’t tell you.”

Sootriman pressed the gun back under his chin. “Can’t or won’t?”

“They said I wouldn’t get paid if I snitch.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Somehow, I don’t think you’re spending your earnings anytime soon.”

“Maybe not.” He coughed twice, which sent a look of pain across his face. “But my kid’s gonna need it.”

“Kid?” Sootriman let out a disgusted sound. “You’re a damned idiot. You know that? You got a kid, and you pull this sort of splick?”

“Gets tougher to make a living every cycle.”

“You tell me who you work for, and I ain’t saying you snitched.”

“They’ll know.”

“How?” She looked him up and down. “You bugged?”

Skanks coughed again, then shook his head. “They see everything. They’ll know.”

“I control the airspace here.”

Skanks closed his eyes and swallowed. He was getting weaker. “They’re spooks. Mystics.”

“Mystics?” Sootriman lowered the gun. “What do you mean, mystics?”

Skanks mumbled something, but she couldn’t make it out. He said it again, but still not loud enough. So Sootriman leaned her ear toward his mouth.

Suddenly, Skanks’s brain blew out the side of his head.

Sootriman screamed and jumped back, pistol raised. The man’s corpse hung limp, and a knife fell from a third hand behind his back, clattering to the ground.

“What in the hell is going on?” Sootriman yelled, looking around.

“You almost got gutted,” said a slurred voice from behind a string of drying laundry. “Like a druther snout fish.”

Sootriman turned her weapon toward the voice, thinking that it sounded strangely familiar. “Come out!”

“If there are two things I’ve learned,” the man said, possibly intoxicated. “It’s that you can’t trust a Tridithol’s third arm.”

“And the other?” Sootriman said, recognition dawning on her.

“You can always trust a Nimprinth to shoot first.”

Sootriman lowered her weapon. “Get out here, husband, before I shoot first.”

Terminal Fallout

Ezo, TO-96, and Dimitrius stood over the duffle bag as Sootriman emptied its contents, one item at a time. Just as she’d suspected—based on Skanks’s testimony—the three-man team hadn’t planted all their bombs. Sootriman placed the four unused IEDs on the roof, careful not to do anything stupid.

“I do believe the explosives are stable, my queen,” TO-96 said. “You have little to fear.”

“Never hurts to take one’s time when it comes to bombs, ’Six,” she replied.

“Understood, ma’am.”

As Sootriman continued to remove more items, looking for clues, she overheard TO-96 speak to Ezo. “Feeling more clearheaded, sir?”

“Hardly,” Ezo replied. “And one hell of a headache too.”

“I must say that I’m quite surprised to see you here. I was under the assumption that you were passed out.”

“I was until something knocked me out of bed. When I went to look for everyone, you were all gone. So I tracked you.”

“An intuitive line of thinking, sir.”

Sootriman paused and looked up from the sac. “Hold on, love. TO-96 and I split up. How’d you find me?”

“I already told you,” Ezo said, pointing a finger at her—but not quite at her. “Tracker.”

“You put a tracker on me?” Sootriman stood up to smell his breath. “And you’re still drunk.”

“Maybe.”

“You blew that guy’s brains out drunk? With my head next to his?” She was pissed.

“I never miss.”

“That could have been my head, husband.”

“Negative.”

“Negative?”

“Negative. Your head’s too big.”

Dimitrius and TO-96 both turned to look at Ezo. But the man protested with upturned palms. “What?”

“We’re going to talk,” Sootriman said.

“Am I in trouble?”

“Yes,” everyone replied as one.

Sootriman returned to the bag and pulled out a small data card—an expensive one. Its transparent body glowed a soft yellow, and the gold endcap had a beaded lanyard running through an eyelet. “Looks like somebody forgot to get rid of something important.”

“That’s a fairly high-end piece of hardware if you ask me,” said Dimitrius.

“I concur with Dimitrius’s conclusion,” TO-96 said. “That is an optical matrix data key, manufactured by Universal Data Solutions—UDS for short—and boasts a staggering—”

“Can you read it?” Sootriman asked, handing it to TO-96.

The bot examined the device. “It may take some time, depending on the encryption. But, yes. My maker has provided me with a drive-reader for this type of key.”

“Of course I did,” Ezo said.

When TO-96 remained standing still, Sootriman flicked two fingers at the slot in his torso. “You wanna start now?”

“Ah, yes. Very good.” TO-96 inserted the key card into his abdomen, and several LEDs began glowing. “This may take several moments.”

“Sounds good.” Sootriman looked at Dimitrius. “Why don’t you get back to your teams. See if the riot has been quelled. We can make it back to the den just fine.”

“As you wish, your highness.” He gave her a quick bow. “I’ll leave you the transport.”

“Negative. You take it. I’ll have something sent for us.”

“Understood.” Then Dimitrius headed back the way he’d come and disappeared over the next building.

Sootriman pulled Ezo a couple of meters from TO-96. She took her husband’s hand. “Listen, Ezo. I know these last few weeks have been hard on you.”

“Nonsense,” he said. “I’ve loved being back here with you.”

“You’re drunk.”

“Mildly.”

“And you’ve been drunk almost every day since we’ve been here. I’ve received complaints from at least four cantinas that you’ve started fights—”

“I’ll have you know that Ezo only started two of those.” Ezo held up three fingers.

“I don’t care if you started all of them. The fact is, this is not a good place for you, and I can’t help feeling that it’s my fault.”

“It’s not your fault, love. It’s mine.”

“How so?”

“I should be out there. Among the stars. On ships that take me out there, among the stars. Instead, I’m trapped here with nothing to do while you do queen things.”

“So, you’re basically saying it’s my fault.”

Ezo blinked several times.

“Dammit, Ezo.” Sootriman doubted he’d even remember this conversation. Then, to herself, she said, “This was a mistake.”

But Ezo caught her by the arm just as she turned away. “I’m saying that maybe this is why we didn’t make it together the first time. Leading people, managing things that need managing—it’s in your blood. You’re royalty. And me?” He pushed a floppy finger against his chest. “I’m just an island boy who likes sailing.”

She wanted to refute his points—to tell him that he wasn’t thinking clearly and didn’t know what he was talking about. But, the fact was, even despite his inebriated state, he was thinking clearly. She’d had the very same thoughts many times before. So much so that she knew a moment like this was inevitable. But they’d get through it. They’d figure something out that let them both be who they were.

Right?

“My queen,” TO-96 said. “I believe I have two items of interest for your consideration.”

Sootriman stared at Ezo a moment longer, put a hand to his cheek, and then turned to TO-96. “Show me what you’ve got, ’Six.”


24


Terminal Fallout

Nevel’s intel had been accurate.

Governor Emery Wade had arrived from Deltaurus Three, as expected, and met with Commodore Seaman in Admiral’s Hall. Had Seaman not seen Nevel’s video, he never would have guessed that Wade was planning to betray his commitments to the Neo Republic. The man was as calm as a Frondothian glacier bear on sedatives.

How Wade was able to lie to Seaman’s face for over two hours was beyond him. Maybe it was the fine Gundonium bratch they’d sipped. Maybe it was the fresh night air that filled the luxurious office suite in Admiral’s Hall. Or maybe it was that So-Elku had so entwined his Luma fingers into the man’s brain that his moral compass had been completely corrupted.

You son of a bitch, Seaman thought as the conversation entered its third hour.

When Seaman had finally tired of all the handshaking and head-nodding, all the vows to uphold and protect the Neo Republic’s new charter, he leaned forward and told Wade that he had one final thing to cover before their meeting concluded. The governor seemed only too happy to comply. But as the video of Wade’s secret meeting with So-Elku played in a holo projection over the coffee table, Seaman saw Wade’s countenance turn pale.

“I think I’ll be going now,” Wade said as he put his glass down and stood.

“You most certainly will,” Seaman replied and waved a hand above his head. The office suite’s doors slid apart and in walked five Marines in black Mark VII combat armor, MAR30 blasters drawn.

Seaman stood and met Wade’s eyes with a defiant stare. “Governor Emery Wade, on account of your treasonous acts, you are hereby remanded into the custody of the Neo Republic until such time as a judicial body can hear the case against you.”

“Don’t you understand that you’re doomed, David?” Wade said. “It’s crumbling all around you, and you don’t even know it. But with Luma, there’s a chance, a chance for something new. Something better. If you’d only join us.”

“Get him out of here,” Seaman said to the Marines.

Two Marines grabbed Wade by the arms and jerked him toward the door.

“I can walk myself, thank you very much.” Wade tried wresting his arms from his captors, but the Marines didn’t budge. Wade looked over his shoulder. “You’re doomed, Seaman! It’s all coming down. Get out while you still can.”

Terminal Fallout

Seaman settled back into the leather chair and picked up the remains of his bratch. He swirled the amber liquid, staring through the bottom of the glass, as he listened to Wade’s shouts fade away down the hallway.

All of this felt so strange. Like he was living in some awful nightmare, half expecting to wake up any second and have everything go back to normal.

“But you’re not, David,” he said to himself. “You’re definitely not asleep.”

He downed the rest of the drink in a single gulp and laid his head back, still playing with the glass in one hand. Maybe he needed to take a few days off to rest his nerves. Lani had told him as much. But no, there was too much to be done. There was an entire Republic to rebuild, and, so far, it wasn’t off to a great start.

“Who are you kidding, David? You’re not a politician.” He looked at the glass and rolled it between his fingers. “You’re a damned sailor.”

He wasn’t sure who had decided to put the highest-ranking naval commander in charge, should everything go to hell like this. But whoever the dimwit was, they probably never imagined a galactic contingency plan looking so dire. Had they known how it would have all gone down, they would have picked someone else, surely.

Seaman’s holo pad trilled. It was DiAntora. He swiped open the call, and her face appeared a few centimeters above the tablet. “Hi, Lani.”

“David. How’d it go?”

He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. “Um, good. I mean—the attaché’s intel was right.”

“Wade admitted it?”

“He folded the second the video ended.”

Lani gave Seaman a look with one wide eye. “That fast?”

“I mean, it’s pretty damning evidence.”

“True. But you think he’d at least try to play it down or something.”

“The opposite,” Seaman said, waving his empty glass through the air. “Tried to tell me everything here’s falling apart and to join him.”

“What a fool.”

But Seaman gave her a questioning look.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked.

“What?”

“That look you just gave me.”

“What look?”

She puffed her cheeks out. “That look that just said you’re not so sure he’s a fool.”

“Well. I’m not.”

DiAntora eyed him.

“What? I’m not. Isn’t he right? Isn’t everything crumbling all around us?”

“David. Look around you.”

He huffed and put his arms out. “I am, and that’s the problem.”

“Yes, the Republic has suffered catastrophic losses. But you managed to salvage what you could of the fleets, rescue millions of survivors from a devastated planet, and now you’re consolidating resources and weeding out subversive agents. I’m not sure what more you expected of yourself.” Then DiAntora gave him a look that said he should know all of this already—like it was common knowledge as clear as the fur on her face.

But it wasn’t, at least not to him.

“You have a nice way of putting it.”

“It’s not a nice way of putting it, David. It’s the truth.”

He sighed, lowered his head, and massaged the back of his neck. He needed more than a stiff drink. He needed a break.

“Listen,” she said, lowering her voice. “I rented a cabin outside of the city.”

Seaman looked up, curious where this was going.

“Come join me,” she said.

“Lani, I—”

“And before you say you can’t, just know that you can still manage things from up here during the day. You just have to promise that at night, you’re mine.”

Seaman stared slack-jawed at the display, blinking several times. If the news of Wade’s defection had caught him off guard, this conversation left him completely speechless. Was this really happening right now?

“Lani”—he glanced around the room—“if anyone finds out.”

“No one’s going to find out. I rented it in your name.”

He sighed.

“I’m sending the address now. See you soon.”

Terminal Fallout

The following night, Seaman stood on the back deck of the hillside cabin. Lani had been right. He’d needed to get away, if for nothing more than to clear his head. It didn’t hurt that DiAntora had made good on her promise. A completely unprofessional promise, he reminded himself. But one he couldn’t see court-martialing her over. These were, after all, strange times, and who really knew what the rules were right now anyway?

And it’s precisely that kind of loose thinking that’s going to grind what remains of the Republic into oblivion, he reminded himself. But it was also nice being up here, being alone with DiAntora—no, with Lani. So, a few more days of this, and then it’s over. You’re in shock. You’re managing an intergalactic crisis—it’s just a coping mechanism. You’ll get through it. Cut it off with DiAntora in a few days, and then everything goes back to normal.

Seaman took a deep breath, aware of the night sounds all around the cabin—roosting birds, restless insects, and a steady mountain stream echoing through the pines. Far to the south lay the lights of Qintar City, warming the night sky like a space nebula full of stars. This far away, the city was so quiet. And surrounding the metropolis lay the endless patches of survivor settlements, lit by orange-colored work lights.

So many people, he thought. All counting on me. How had he gotten here anyway? One minute he was overseeing Strategic Fighter Command, the next he was in charge of salvaging the remains of a decimated Republic.

“Everything okay?” came a purring voice from just inside the cabin.

“Can’t sleep.”

Lani crossed the deck and came up behind him, her warmth wrapping around his bare back like a blanket. “I can help with that.”

“I’m sure you can.” He chuckled, but then his thoughts seemed to pull him back with a gravity he could not resist.

“What is it, David?”

He took another deep breath and felt her body rise and fall behind him. “They’ve got the wrong guy.”

She peered at him from over his shoulder. “Wade?”

“No. Me.”

“Ah, I see what this is. More self-loathing and professional sabotage?”

He chuckled once. “Something like that.”

Lani crept under his arm but still managed to keep herself wrapped around him. “You want my credit’s worth of perspective on it?”

“Are Galactic Credits even worth anything anymore?”

She punched his chest. “I mean it.”

“Sure. Let’s hear it.”

“No one’s the right person for the job.”

Seaman squinted down at her sincere-looking face. “Well, that’s a confidence booster.”

“What I mean is that it’s an impossible job. No one can do it. But the fact that you’re willing? That you’re operating way outside of your comfort zone? That speaks to your love of the Republic. And, more than that, it speaks to your dedication to order amidst a galaxy that always seems to be one bad decision away from chaos.”

“And that’s supposed to help me somehow?”

“It means you’re the right person for an impossible task. And every step you take in the right direction, that’s one more impossible feat that no one believed could be accomplished. So, yeah, that’s supposed to help you.”

He sighed and then hugged her. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I still can’t make sense of Wade’s betrayal,” Seaman said after a minute.

“Hold on,” DiAntora said. “You hear that?”

Seaman looked down at her then tilted his right ear up. “Hear what?”

“The insects. They’ve—”

“Gone silent.” Splick, now he did hear what DiAntora was noticing. “Birds too.”

“Yeah,” she said, pulling herself away. “Something’s not right.”

Besides his boxers, the only other thing Seaman had on him was his wrist comm. Following a hunch, he swiped it open and pulled the cabin’s security system—specifically, the motion sensor grid around the property. It was one of the civilian models that used some of the Repub’s older military-grade hardware, just dressed up with a more friendly UI and swanky branding. But it still did the trick. That was if it had been online.

“Splick,” he said, then showed DiAntora the readout.

“Remote sensors not detected?” she said, reading the warning prompt aloud. “But why would—”

The railing to Seaman’s left exploded in a ball of fire, knocking him and DiAntora sideways. Where she managed to roll and land on her feet, Seaman skidded across the deck and slammed into a stone bench.

“Get inside,” he yelled as he scrambled to his feet. But DiAntora was already a few steps ahead of him and heading toward the bedroom where they’d both left their sidearms.

No sooner had he ducked inside the cabin’s windowplex glass doors than another explosion blew a hole in the deck where he’d stood a second before. Chunks of flaming wood cracked the glass as Seaman darted for the bedroom. By the time he was halfway down the hallway, however, DiAntora had arrived and tossed him his pistol.

“Thanks,” he said.

“I hope you still remember how to shoot, Commodore.”

He racked a round in the energy chamber. “I think I remember a thing or two.”

A third explosion tore through the glass doors and detonated in the rustic-style living room. Up until this point, Seaman had assumed the ordnance coming at them had been the traditional sort. Shoulder mounted detonator launcher, maybe VODs tossed over the railing. But there wasn’t anything conventional about the beam of energy that broke through the doors and blew a hole in the living room floor.

“Back, back, back,” Seaman yelled, ordering DiAntora into the bedroom.

“What is that?” she asked, turning to face him as he closed the door and swiped it sealed with the control pad. It wouldn’t hold against whatever that was, but it would keep them hidden from intruders until Seaman could think of something.

“Some sort of energy cannon is my guess.” He raised his wrist comm again and opened a channel to his new office in Admiral’s Hall. Rather than wait for anyone to pick up, as everyone would be sleeping at this hour, Seaman left a video message marked Emergency. “Red alert. I am under attack, off Lakeside Parkway. Immediate assistance required. Coordinates attached.”

Seaman then stepped into the bathroom and eyed the single floor to ceiling window.

“That’s not like any energy cannon I’ve ever seen,” DiAntora said, watching the bedroom door.

“Me neither. Stand back.” He raised his pistol and fired once at the window. It burst into the night air, providing a ground-level escape to the building’s east side. “Run.”

DiAntora slid through the narrow slit and almost instantly disappeared into the darkness. The Sekmit species had notoriously good night vision, which Seaman was counting on if they were going to get clear of the cabin without the use of flashlights.

They’d only made it a few meters into a side lawn when the bedroom blew out the side of the cabin. The blast knocked Seaman to the ground, but he regained his feet quickly. “Something tells me the Repub is frowning on our off-books getaway,” he yelled, ears ringing.

“That’s not Repub.” She helped him to his feet, and they started running across the lawn and into the woods.

“What do you mean that’s not Repub? Who else makes something—”

“Shut up and run.” DiAntora yanked his arm as she sprinted toward the tree line.

They had barely made it into the woods when a fifth blast turned the entire eastern half of the cabin into a fireball, black smoke billowing into the starlit sky.

“Ho-ly-splick,” Seaman said in three distinct syllables.

“Don’t stop, David.”

He felt her tug on him, harder this time, as if she were terrified. Granted, he was afraid. But there was something about DiAntora that was different. Something frantic.

They continued running for several minutes, crossing two streams, and beating up a steep embankment, until finally DiAntora pulled him into a cluster of boulders.

“We’ll be safe in here,” she said. “Just give me a moment.”

“Safe?” Seaman looked back over his shoulder and made to stand up when she pulled him back down. “What the hell’s going on, Lani? What do you know that I don’t?”

“I just need to focus. Give me a second.”

“Focus?” He looked over his shoulder again, but DiAntora still clutched his arm with a rock-solid grip. He wasn’t going anywhere unless he wanted his bicep shredded.

“Okay.” She let out a long breath. “We’re good.”

“We’re good,” he repeated without enthusiasm. “And that’s because?”

DiAntora sighed. “Because I’ve hidden our presence in the Unity.”

“And that helps why?”

“Whoever is hunting us? They’re Luma, David. And they want you dead.”

Terminal Fallout

By the time Seaman and DiAntora made it out of the woods, the cabin, what little remained of it, was swarming with security forces. Marines were dispatched to guard the Commodore and his “unidentified mistress” while they made their way to several shuttles that idled on the front lawn.

Seaman ordered DiAntora flown to one of Qintar City’s municipal hospitals in her own emergency transport. DiAntora fought him, of course, insisting that she was fine and needed to stay with him, but that was out of the question. The whole point of sending her to a municipal hospital was that there would be no military record of her stay, and no connection back to this event. She’d be able to get back on post through standard checkpoints, thus keeping their tryst a secret. He, on the other hand, had an urgent matter to attend to.

The flight crew provided him a basic pilot’s uniform and a pair of boots. Everything fit well enough. He eventually rejoined the flight crew on the bridge just as the pilot set down outside Admiral’s Hall in a designated landing zone on the west lawn. Unlike a typical evening, however, the grounds were filled with military emergency vehicles, including fire, police, and security.

“What the hell is going on, Captain?” Seaman yelled as Wainwright greeted him outside the idling shuttle.

“Sorry to pull you from your R&R, Commodore,” Wainwright said.

“The property was overrated anyway. Claimed to offer endless peace and quiet.” Seaman nodded at the building. “What’s going on?”

“We suspect that whoever hit your cabin also hit the brig in a coordinated attack.”

Seaman slowed and looked Wainwright in the eye. “The brig?”

“Yes, sir. One prisoner in particular.”

“Wade.”

Wainwright nodded.

“Son of a bitch,” Seaman said.

He followed Wainwright into a side entrance, past two patrols of Marines, and down three flights of stairs to the detention level. Fits of sparks spit from open conduits, showering the hallway in light. Significant burn marks on the walls and ceiling, along with craters carved out of the blastcrete, reminded Seaman of the same firepower that had decimated the cabin. He also noticed bits of Repub body armor and the smell of charred flesh.

“How many troopers did you lose?” Seaman asked as a team of security guards let them pass through a blown-out doorway.

“Eight,” Wainwright said with no attempt to hide his disgust.

“Splick.”

“Recon too,” Wainwright added. “Hit right during a changeover.”

Seaman cursed as they stepped into a cellblock. Like the main hallway, it had suffered massive blast damage. “You know what caused this?” Seaman asked, even though he’d been assured by DiAntora precisely who’d done this and how.

“Negative,” Wainwright said. “All witnesses were killed, and all security feeds were terminated at the same time.” He shook his head. “I’m telling ya, Commodore. Whoever did this? It was well funded, well planned, and perfectly executed. In and out, violence of force, and they covered their tracks with—well, with all this.” Wainwright motioned at the wreckage.

Seaman studied the cellblock, or at least what was left of it. The entire wing looked like someone had pissed off a fire-breathing Boresian taursar and then let it loose.

“Killed sixteen prisoners too,” Wainwright said. “Political dissidents, mostly. Anyway, whoever did this knew right where to hit us, and they got away without a trace.”

“No, they didn’t,” Seaman said, eyes studying the emergency crews who were still putting out electrical fires.

“Say that again?” Wainwright asked.

“I know who did it. It was the Luma.”

If someone had told Wainwright his mother was a serial killer, Seaman guessed the look wouldn’t have been any different. “Are you sure, Commodore?” Then he thought better of his question. “Begging your pardon, sir.”

“It’s fine. And yes, I’m certain. My flag captain has determined the enemy was using the Unity to do all this and then hide their tracks.”

“But if their tracks were covered, how can you—your captain—know it was them?”

“Because she’s a Unity user too.”

“Luma?”

“Negative. Sekmit.”

Wainright furrowed his brow. “I didn’t know they were, well—”

“Neither did I, Captain. But they are, and powerful at that—as far as I’m told. Which was one thing the Luma didn’t account for in their plan. They destroyed everything that could tie this to them, save one Lani DiAntora.” It wasn’t the first time Seaman had been grateful for the woman, and he knew it wouldn’t be the last.

“Then it seems we have a new enemy on the horizon,” Wainright said, stroking the top of his MAR30. “Never did trust those bastards.”

“No. And we never will again.”


Part III


Terminal Fallout


25


Terminal Fallout

Rohoar stood atop the mwadim’s dais with his arms crossed and chest out as Mahkmaim and his cohort of five warrior-guards approached. The Selskrit champion was almost two heads taller than Rohoar with shoulders twice as wide. While such size was unusual for the normally scrawnier Selskrit, it was not unheard of. Rohoar knew the story of one Selskrit champion who faced his great grandsire in the singotha “throne rights” contest. The challenger was more than two heads taller than Rohoar’s forefather, with paws the size of the mwadim’s face. Still, Rohoar’s great grandsire prevailed, and the Tawnhack remained atop the throne platform.

While Mahkmaim was physically superior, he was far less attractive—or so Rohoar had been told by several females. The challenger’s elongated snout, thinning pale hair, and vein-covered muscles certainly seemed repulsive to Rohoar. Old scars covered his flesh, with several along his face, and he wore a disheveled blood-red cape. But this wasn’t a contest of looks—or body scents, Rohoar added to himself, noting Mahkmaim’s pungent odor wafting up the dais.

“I am Mahkmaim, Mwadim of the Selskrit,” he said with a loud voice for the sake of all those gathered.

Several Jujari barked, chiding Mahkmaim for his misuse of the sacred title.

“Imposter,” someone yelled.

“Heresy,” cried another.

Mahkmaim turned for all to hear, still wearing a blood-red cape over his shoulders. “I have come for the singotha, to challenge Rohoar of the Tawnhack for the platform in the mortal contest of throne rights.”

Several more Jujari hissed and sneered at Mahkmaim.

“The challenger has not used the mwadim’s title!” yelled one person.

Others echoed the same sentiments with, “He dishonors the throne,” and “Send him away!”

But Rohoar raised a paw to silence the crowd. He knew that Mahkmaim had omitted the title because the Selskrit did not acknowledge the Tawnhack’s age-old claim to the throne. Instead, they purported to have been unjustly dethroned centuries before, and only recognized their own bloodline. But rather than play into the enemy’s taunting, Rohoar simply used it against him. “Mwadim Rohoar sees you, Mahkmaim, bastard son of the Selskrit.”

Mahkmaim and his men growled at the insult while yips and howls went up from the crowd.

Rohoar ordered the rooftop crowd to be silent and then eyed Mahkmaim. “In keeping with the tradition of our forebears—”

Your forebears, maybe,” Mahkmaim interrupted.

More hisses and snarls came from the audience. But Rohoar settled them with a raised paw. “Mwadim Rohoar must inquire if the other pack leaders have had their chance to field challengers for the singotha.”

“The Dingfang yield,” said the pack chief.

“Clawnip yield.”

“Snarpaw, no contest.”

“Duneriders”—one of two late arrivals to the proceedings—“yield.”

“Horock.” The other latecomers. “We also yield.”

“Then the singotha primthora has been satisfied,” Rohoar said. “The ritual death fight will commence in one hour—”

“Let us begin now,” Mahkmaim snarled and threw off his cape. “Why wait?”

“Mahkmaim, the way of our—”

“The way of your ancestors is not the same as ours.” Mahkmaim spat on the ground, which brought on more shouts and jeers from the crowd.

“As you wish,” Rohoar said. The people looked at Rohoar, aghast. But Rohoar paid them no heed and descended the dais—one careful step at a time.

The other pack leaders pushed their people back to the roof’s edges until the widest space possible had been cleared for the deathmatch. Mahkmaim turned and began speaking to his blood wolf. That’s when Rohoar realized he had not yet named a blood wolf since Victorio had died in battle. He walked toward Mora and his fellow gladia.

“Czyz,” Rohoar said.

“Yes, my mwadim.”

“Rohoar names you his sorgil, forever his blood wolf until death.”

Czyz blinked twice, presumably in stunned amazement, and then lowered his head and bared his neck. “Thank you, my mwadim. Should you fall in combat, I accept the death obligations.” Aside from being the mwadim’s closest advisor and battle chief, a blood wolf was charged with wiping every drop of his master’s blood from the field of battle—wherever it may be.

“Thank you.” The Rohoar turned to Mora.

“You face a difficult opponent,” she said. “I doubt you will win.”

“Rohoar agrees,” he replied. Rohoar was grateful that she didn’t try and talk him out of the match, nor did she try to inflate his ego or give him a false testimony. Instead, she spoke the truth as she saw it, and her words meant more to him than she could ever know.

“If you are to win, you must be faster, smarter.” Mora stared into Rohoar’s eyes without blinking. “You must stay clear of him at all costs. He is the larger foe, so tire him out. And when you strike, you must be certain. He will seize any faltering attempts. Your strikes must be true. Every one must count.”

“Rohoar understands.”

She walloped him on the side of the head. “Do you, Mwadim Rohoar?”

Rohoar pulled back and shook the motes of light from his vision. Mora’s blow hurt more than he cared to admit. “Rohoar understands.”

“Good. Because that is nothing compared to how Mahkmaim will hit you.”

“Right.”

“So that was to remind you of death.”

“Death.” Rohoar took a deep breath and began shifting his weight from one foot to the other and back. Then he summoned his strength and let out a wild howl while flexing his arms and chest. When the sound had died, he sniffed the air. “Death, yes. I smell it.”

Just then, Mora hit him again—even harder. Rohoar’s vision went black along the edges. More stars danced across his wife’s face. “What was that for?”

“To remind you to stay alive. If you don’t, I will slay you myself.”

“Stay alive.” Rohoar blinked and then tried moving his feet again. The action took a moment to come back, but within another few seconds, his mind was clear and his body was ready.

Rohoar turned and looked across the rooftop. Mahkmaim threw his head side to side, snarling, spitting, and slamming his fists on his thighs in a series of heavy blows.

“Keep moving and tire him out,” Mora said as the crowd began to cheer.

“Stay moving and tire him out,” Rohoar repeated, loosening his neck and shoulders. “Rohoar understands.” The Jujari would have one mwadim by dawn, and one corpse to burn by dusk.

“Good. Now, go defend your throne, Rohoar. And kill this imposter.”


26


Terminal Fallout

“Please don’t go,” Piper said in that little voice that made Magnus wish he had kids of his own.

Magnus knelt to get eye level with her. “Listen, Piper. I have—”

“A job to do. I know. But don’t.”

Magnus looked up at Awen. She was decked out in Azelon’s new Mark II stealth armor and looked as gorgeous as he’d ever seen her. Though he knew whatever she had on underneath would undoubtedly give this look a run for its credits. According to the plan, she’d ditch her suit once she was at the mansion’s lawn, and then she’d play the part of a slightly inebriated party guest. For now, however, while they were getting suited up inside Minx’s version of a war room, Awen was all business.

“Hug her,” Awen mouthed, then mimed the action of an embrace.

Right, Magnus thought. “Com’ere, kid.” He tried to pull Piper into his arms, but the little girl wouldn’t budge. In fact, she even shrugged off his hand.

“No.” Piper crossed her arms. “It’s not safe for you.”

“Nothing in my line of work is safe, kid.”

“But this one is different, Mr. Lieutenant Magnus, sir. Something’s coming.”

Magnus raised an eyebrow, then looked back at Awen. Hell, if all kids were this ominous, maybe he didn’t want them after all.

Awen shrugged.

“The Unity tells me so,” Piper added.

This seemed to get Awen’s attention. She joined Magnus and crouched in front of Piper. “Have you seen something in the Unity?”

“Uh-huh.” Piper nodded. “In the Nexus.”

Magnus looked at Awen. “Isn’t that the place—”

“Yup,” said Awen without taking her eyes off Piper.

“And you’re letting her—”

“We are.”

“But she’s—”

“Strong enough to handle it, Magnus. Let it go.”

He sighed. “Hard copy.”

Just then, Azelon stepped into the conversation. She arrived in Fînta a few hours before to hand deliver the assault team’s new toys, wishing to be onsite when everyone got outfitted. “It is worth noting that the Novia Minoosh have detected anomalies within the Unity.”

“Anomalies?” Magnus asked, looking up at the bot. The conversation had caught a few of the other leaders’ attention, including Colonel Caldwell’s. Everyone seemed to be doing their best to look disinterested, but Magnus knew better. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Think of them like vibrations,” Awen said. “Energy waves following an unseen event. Like, picture a—a stone in a pond, but you have a limited view of the water. You can’t see the stone hit, but you can see the ripples from the impact.”

“And that’s what Piper’s seen?” he asked Awen. But the Elonian gestured back to the child as if to say, “I don’t know. Ask her.” So he turned his attention to Piper and asked her as much.

“I just know something bad is coming,” Piper replied. “Someone.”

“Someone?” This was different now. “What do you mean, someone, Piper?”

“I don’t know.” Piper put her hand on her head like she was confused. “I can’t see his face. There’s, maybe, more than one. Lots of them.”

“Lots of them?” Magnus looked to Awen. “What does this mean?” Then back to Piper. “What are you talking about?”

“I can’t see them all. I can’t.”

“Awen,” Magnus said. “If this is about intel that pertains to our mission, I need to know now. Right now.”

“I don’t know what she sees,” Awen said.

“Just don’t go, Mr. Lieutenant Magnus, sir. Please.”

Magnus ran a hand down his face. “Unless you give me something more to go on, I’m afraid we have to, kid.”

“No. It’s too dangerous.”

“What’s dangerous about it, Piper? I need something.”

“He’s—they—it’s coming.”

Magnus opened his mouth to speak but then didn’t. He looked to Awen in frustration.

“You don’t believe me, do you,” Piper said, and then began to cry.

“Of course I believe you, but I just need more to go on than vibrations and theys and—”

“Look, now you’re scaring her,” Awen said, pulling Piper into an embrace.

Magnus raised his hands. “But I didn’t do anything.”

“It seems you lack the necessary agency to interface with newly activated humans properly,” Azelon said, examining Magnus like he was a lab rat—at least that’s how her careful up-and-down look made him feel.

Magnus waved a pointed finger at the bot and bit the inside of his cheek. After a second, he thought of something more constructive to say. “Is there anything to what she’s saying, Azie? Any reason to abort the mission?”

“The Novia Minoosh have no definitive conclusions to offer about the anomalies,” Azelon said.

“Piper,” Awen said as she turned the child to face her. “Are you sure that what you’re feeling is about this mission specifically? We trust your premonitions, but when you don’t give us a lot of detail, it’s harder for us to know how to proceed.”

Mystics, she’s good with kids, Magnus thought, then gave Awen a wink.

Piper wiped her face and then shook her head. “I don’t think so. Not for sure, anyway. I’m—I’m just afraid for Mr. Lieutenant Magnus.”

“And you know what?” Awen held the child away from her a little, getting a good look at her face. “It’s okay to be frightened. Healthy fear is what keeps us alive. But we can’t let it stop us from doing what we need to do. And right now? We really need to do this mission. So unless you have something specific, I need you to be strong and let Magnus and the rest of us carry on.”

Piper sighed and dropped her shoulders. “I don’t think it’s this mission. I just don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

“Neither do I, Piper.” Awen pulled the child close and then said to Magnus, “I’m good with going forward.”

“Okay, then. We continue as planned.” He nodded at Awen and then to the doors. “Can you—you know?”

Awen closed her eyes in a knowing smile and then pulled Piper away from her chest. “Piper. Your grandmother needs to see you. She’s waiting in the next room. Think you could—”

“I know I made things awkward,” she said.

“Oh, baby. You—maybe a little. But it’s okay.”

“Just—” Piper bit her lip, seeming to choose her words carefully as she looked between Awen and Magnus. “Don’t get hurt. And keep one eye on the shadows.”

“Now you’re talking like a regular Granther operator. La-raah?”

“La-raah,” Piper said.

Magnus smiled and then noticed Awen give him a stern look. “What?”

“Run along, Piper,” Awen said with a quick pat to the child’s back. Then she glared at Magnus—somewhat playfully? “Granther operator? You want her as an elite, taking down people with an NOV1?”

“Hey, you’re a Granther.”

“Only because you corrupted me.”

“And from where I stand”—he chanced a glance down her skin-tight stealth suit—“it’s a good look.”

Awen punched his chest. “Easy, Turbo.”

“This is one hell of a firearm, Magnus,” Caldwell said from across the room. “What’s Miss Smarty Pants call it?”

Magnus winked at Awen and then turned toward Caldwell. “Nothing crazy, Colonel. It’s just the NOVIA Type 2.”

“NOV2,” Caldwell said while holding up the new blaster. “Sleeker design, variable length stock, suppressor. I like it. What else does it have?”

“Same dual-mag load out at the NOV1,” Magnus replied, pointing to the lower receiver. “But almost twice the efficiency. And, per my request, Azie added a non-lethal mode.”

“You mean, a make’em fall over, wiggle around, and piss their britches mode?”

Magnus grinned. “Couldn’t have said it better myself.” A trill chimed in Magnus’s head, care of his Novia biotech interface. “Go for Magnus.”

“LT?” Dutch said.

“Yeah.”

“We’re finishing up on the new BATRIGs. Rix and Silk say yours and Awen’s should be good to go in the next half hour.”

“Right on schedule,” Magnus replied. “Good work.”

“Azelon made it easy for us.”

“I’ll be sure to let her know.”

“I can hear everything, sir,” Azelon said.

“Of course you can,” Magnus replied with a wink. “Just making sure. Dutch, we’ll be down with the rest of the gear in a few.”

“Copy that.” Dutch signed out, and the channel closed.

“Colonel Caldwell,” Azelon said. “The Spire is receiving an incoming transmission from the Radiant Queen. Would you like me to port it to you?”

Caldwell turned from examining the new NOV2. “Bring it up.”

Three familiar faces filled the holo frame against the room’s far wall. The GU leaders and mission members all turned from their work and greeted Sootriman, Ezo, and TO-96.

“What happened to the Spire, Azelon?” TO-96 said, leaning in toward the camera, presumably for a better look. “I wasn’t aware you were importing wood.”

“We are on Aluross, TO-96,” she replied. “In the town of Fînta. I outlined my intentions to support Magnus’s operation from here during our last transmission.”

“Ah. You did. I failed to realize that the accommodations would be so—rustic.”

“Good to see you three,” Caldwell said, ignoring the bots’ conversation. “What can we do for you?”

“Good to see you too, Colonel,” Sootriman said. “I—we—have decided to rejoin you.”

Caldwell moved his cigar to the other side of his mouth. “Everything okay, queeny?”

“Frankly, no. It’s not, Willy.”

The colonel gave her a half-smile and an elevated bushy eyebrow. “Care to share?”

Sootriman looked at TO-96.

The bot returned her look, then looked back at the colonel, then looked back to Sootriman, then looked—

“Oh, for mystics’ sake, ’Six! Would you share what you discovered?”

“My apologies, my queen. I was not aware that it was my cue.”

“When she gives you that look, it’s always your cue,” Ezo said. “Trust me.”

“Duly noted.” TO-96 turned back to Caldwell. “Firstly, we apprehended one of three suspects who were responsible for a bombing on Gangil.”

“Bombing?” Caldwell said.

Awen stepped forward. “Is everyone alright?”

“We are just fine,” TO-96 said. “As you can clearly observe. However, the city suffered several casualties and dozens of injuries. And that was before the riots began.”

“There were riots too?” Caldwell asked. “Sounds like things are a little out of hand there, queeny.”

“Definitely not what I’d hoped to return to,” Sootriman said. “But that’s not even the point. ’Six?”

TO-96’s eyes flashed once, imitating a blink. “That’s the look, right?” he asked Ezo.

“Yes, that’s—just keep going.”

“Understood. Colonel, we discovered a data key with information that linked the bombers back to the Luma.”

“Ah, splick,” Caldwell said, more to himself than anyone in particular, it seemed.

“The Luma?” Awen asked. “Are you sure?”

“Quite certain, Miss Awen. While I found several layers of encryption on the card, it eventually yielded a detailed credit disbursement protocol to pay the bombers upon completion of their tasks.”

“Their tasks? Meaning, killing innocent civilians at the request of the Luma?” Awen shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

“Also, to help instigate the riots.” TO-96 held up a finger. “In fact, we now have reason to believe that the entire nationalist movement on Ki Nar Four—”

“Nationalist movement?” Magnus said.

“Yes.”

“Nationalist movement?” He turned to Caldwell. “Strange.”

“I’m sorry to ask this,” TO-96 said. “But are you unable to hear my audio signal there?”

“Your audio is nominal,” Azelon replied. “I think Magnus is having a difficult time keeping up with your well-reasoned stream of logic.”

“I’m not having—I mean—” Magnus rubbed his forehead. Sometimes dealing with the bots could be a total pain in the ass.

Caldwell pulled his cigar out of his mouth. “We weren’t aware there were any contending factions on Ki Nar Four, is all.”

“And there weren’t, at least not until we arrived in the last two weeks,” TO-96 said. “Which leads me back to the second point, that these men were hired to help start riots on Gangil and several other cities.”

“Just three guys?” Magnus asked.

“We have reason to believe there were dozens more operatives. The financial records suggest these men were not operating alone.”

“And you’re sure this is from the Luma?” Awen asked.

“I estimate a likelihood of ninety-six percent, Miss Awen.”

“But I…” She looked back at Magnus, then Caldwell. “I don’t understand. Why would they be willing to do something like that?”

“Because So-Elku’s been working behind the scenes to build some sort of network,” Caldwell said.

“And you know this how?” Awen asked, moving toward him.

“I have a person communicating with someone on the inside,” he replied.

Magnus didn’t doubt the colonel’s loyalties one bit. But hearing that he’d been working on something behind the scenes concerning the Luma didn’t sit well with Magnus, and it clearly wasn’t sitting well with Awen.

“Who is it?” Awen asked, hands on her hips.

“It’s me,” said another woman’s voice. Everyone turned to see Willowood standing in the door.

Awen looked between her mentor and Caldwell a few times.

“I’ve been keeping tabs on So-Elku’s dealings for the Colonel.”

“Why—why didn’t you tell us?” Awen said, placing a hand on her chest.

Magnus could tell she felt hurt. And he might too if the Luma had been his whole life. But then certain things were always above your pay grade, and you just had to be okay with that. Not knowing was part of every job there was, and it seemed that working for the Gladio Umbra was no exception.

Caldwell cleared his throat. “We didn’t tell you because—”

“Because there was nothing to tell yet,” Willowood interrupted as she stepped into the room. “My intel was extremely limited, coming from a contact back in the Order. But even they have been kept in the dark. So there was no point in telling you because, in truth, we don’t actually know what So-Elku is planning, just that he might be developing a small network to fill the power vacuum the Republic’s absence has created, but you already knew this.”

“Oh, it’s much more than just a little vacuum,” Ezo said from the holo feed.

“And that’s why we’re headed your way,” Sootriman said. “If I have any hope of saving Ki Nar Four, it’s going to start and end with stopping So-Elku.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Caldwell said. “You have something more?”

“Yes, Colonel. Much more.”

“You might want to sit down to watch this,” Ezo said. Then he looked at TO-96. “Play it.”


27


Terminal Fallout

“So this just went from being a mission to help the Sekmit kick the Repub off their planet to keeping the Luma from getting on?” Silk asked as the BATRIGs tromped through the jungle.

“Something like that,” Magnus replied over VNET. He glanced at the topo map in his HUD and noticed the team was making good time. “Let’s keep up the pace, people. Two klicks out.”

Awen, Dutch, Silk, and Rix sent him confirmation pings.

“You think this changes anything, then?” Silk asked.

“Not as far as command thinks.” Magnus switched his mech’s ground impact dampeners to maximum. “Everyone dial up your GID. We don’t want them feeling our approach. As for the op, the new intel just makes our job that much more important. Without a governor to corrupt, the Luma Alliance of Worlds doesn’t have an inroad.”

“And that’s not something they want to join on their own?” Dutch asked.

Magnus felt he knew where her logic was going. He could easily see how this could become a double-cross, where the GU was used to kick one governor out to make room for a new one. But, as far as Magnus knew, that wasn’t going to be the case—not even close.

“The Colonel’s already sent TO-96’s broadcast on to Freya,” Magnus said.

“She pissed?” Rix asked.

It was Awen’s turn to answer a question. “Let’s just say I don’t think the Sekmit will be interested in partnering with the LAW for several centuries, based on the colorful language she used.”

“La-raah,” Rix replied.

“So everything’s still on,” Dutch said.

“On like hotcakes,” Magnus replied. “Slow to twenty-five.”

“Slowing to twenty-five,” everyone called out.

The BATRIGS served the team’s primary approach well. Hover sleds couldn’t make it through the jungle’s dense underbrush, and there wasn’t any plausible reason that let them drive up to the mansion’s front door. Likewise, air insertion wasn’t an option as any landing sites were not only too small but were heavily guarded. Instead, the mechs could move quickly, carried everything they needed, and would also provide heavy covering fire should anything get out of hand.

When the team reached the first waypoint 250 meters out from the north lawn’s edge, Magnus ordered the fireteam to halt and dismount. The BATRIGs were left on sentry mode, and Alpha Team made the rest of the way in on foot.

Comms traffic was nil as Magnus approached the house—its white stone spires and grand archways appearing through gaps in the trees. He made out guards on the upper balcony, main deck, and lower lawn just as expected. When he finally arrived at the edge of the yard, he ordered the unit to hold, hidden behind the trees.

“You’re up,” Magnus said to Awen.

She powered down chameleon mode then removed her helmet and handed it to Magnus. Then she presented her back to him. “Don’t enjoy it too much, Lieutenant.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Magnus unzipped her suit, allowing Awen to peel out of the skin. She emerged wearing a tight-fitting purple dress that matched her eyes. The cut revealed just enough to make onlookers envious, but not enough to give everything away.

“How do I look?”

“On second thought, maybe we should ditch this op,” Magnus replied.

“Don’t you wish.” Awen reached into her utility backpack and withdrew a wine glass and a bottle of champagne. She popped the cork, took a swig of the wine, and then drizzled herself in it. Lastly, she mussed her hair and then picked up a pair of high heels. “Wish me luck.”

“You’re not gonna need it. I don’t even have a thing for Elonians, and I’m already interested.”

“Sure, you don’t.” Then she blew him a kiss and stepped around a tree.

“Boy, does she got you wrapped around her finger,” Rix said.

“That obvious?”

Terminal Fallout

The moment Awen stepped past the tree line, it was as if she became a different person. She started mumbling to herself in a sing-song tone, and stumbled left, then right, then left again.

It took less than five seconds for the guards to call her out, and less than twenty seconds for two thugs in tuxedos and XM31 subcompact blasters to approach her. Whoever this security detail was, they were good. It didn’t rattle Magnus, but it also didn’t mean this was going to be a walk in the park.

“Ma’am, we’re going to need to ask you to please return to the party,” said one of the two men.

“Return to the party?” Awen replied, her speech slurred to the point that Magnus thought she really was drunk. “I’m not here for the party, you guys.”

“You’re not?”

“She’s not?” Silk said.

“Noooo.” Awen started hiking up the hem of her dress a little.

“Awen,” Magnus said. “What are you—”

“I was here to use the bathroom.” She pointed to her lady parts and then thumbed back at the trees. “I can show you where it is if you need to go too.”

The guards eyed one another, and Magnus gave a soft chuckle.

“Ma’am, we’re going to escort you back to the mansion now, if that’s okay with you.”

“Two dates for the price of one? Pshhh. ’Course it’s fine with me.” She pressed herself into the nearest guard and started fingering the button of his jacket from between her shoes. “Then maybe we can take this off you and see how big and strong you are.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“Er’course it’s nec’esary. Who says it’s not nec’esary? Stupid.”

“I think you’ve got them convinced, Awen,” Magnus said.

“You just don’t want me having any fun,” she said.

“She talking to you or them?” Rix asked.

“Both of you,” Awen replied, stepping between the guards and stumbling toward the house.

“She’s a damn good actress,” Dutch said. “Who knew.”

“Yeah,” Magnus said, suddenly wondering if she’d acted through any aspects of their relationship.

“Always keeping you on your toes,” Awen said, casting a lazy look over her shoulder.

Terminal Fallout

As soon as Awen was inside the mansion, she dropped the drunk act, summoned everything she had in the way of Elonian sophistication, and asked for the nearest bathroom.

Once inside, she replaced her shoes, ditched the bottle and glass, and went to work on straightening her hair. She also redid her lipstick and eyeliner and then gave her breasts a proper push up. “You got this,” she said.

The truth was, she was terrified. But she couldn’t let Magnus see that. If he were more worried about her than the op, he’d get himself killed, and that wasn’t good for either of them.

Instead, Awen suppressed her fears and decided she could cry about it all if and when she lived through it.

The thought of seducing any man made her cringe. That wasn’t her nature. Either she was attracted to someone, or she wasn’t—she had no desire to “play the field” as some did. And as far as she was concerned, the only man she ever wanted to be with already found her pretty appealing, so she was all set—thank you very much.

So if the thought of seducing a regular guy made her uneasy, trying to catch the eye of a rich and powerful womanizer was one of the worst things Awen could imagine doing with her body—several other options notwithstanding. But she’d drop the man before any of that happened.

Awen had wanted to protest the idea as soon as Magnus suggested it. But she knew right away that it was the best “in” they had. A mark who had a thing for Elonians? And she was quite possibly the only one on Aluross, aside from her parents? There was no way she could say no. This was the job, and lives were depending on her.

The face Awen saw in the mirror was confident, and, if she were honest with herself, beautiful. She would never say as much out loud—hubris and impropriety didn’t look good on anyone. But ever since being with Magnus, she’d grown to appreciate her natural beauty. Because he reminds you almost every time he sees you.

“Yes. You got this, Lonna,” she said, flipping her long black hair over her shoulder.

“Come again?” Magnus asked over VNET.

Awen had forgotten about comms. “I just—the new name, it’s Lonna.”

“Sexy,” Magnus said. “We using that later?”

“Later? No!” Awen gave Magnus a fiery look but then remembered he couldn’t see her face, just the view from the forward-facing contact lens over her left eye.

“Whatever you say, Lonna.”

A toilet flushed in the stall behind Awen. Someone else was in here, which meant she needed to leave. “Heading back to the entry hall.”

Terminal Fallout

The mansion’s front reception hall entrance was more like the lobby of a luxury hotel than a house. White marble columns held up a dome glass ceiling, and two balcony levels encircled the hall on three sides. Grand staircases led up from the room’s central fountain, and a large platform served as the bandstand for a small ensemble that filled the cavernous space with live music.

“Something to drink, Madame?” said a male server’s voice to her left.

Without looking at him, Awen asked, “What year is it?”

“I beg your pardon?” The man raised an eyebrow.

“What year is the vintage?”

“4168, Madame. It’s a House of—”

“House of Iger, piedmont blend, yes, yes. I can smell it from here. A little pretentious for such a gathering, though, don’t you think?”

“Madame?”

She sighed and then flicked her fingers. “Fine. Hand me one.”

The server took a flute glass off the tray and offered it to her, and then he moved on to the next guest.

“You can be a real bitch,” Magnus said. “You know that?”

“Haven’t even gotten started yet,” Awen replied over the glass’ lip. Then she took a sip, careful not to mar her lipstick.

“Hey, how’d you know what wine they were serving?”

“I already said.” She looked around the room. “I could smell it.”

“You were serious?”

“Mm-hmm. Rich parents meant a big wine cellar.” Awen searched the sea of faces for her mark but still hadn’t seen him yet. The space was full of ladies in elegant dresses and gentlemen in regal tuxedos, each representing a broad cross-section of systems and species. All of the partygoers seemed to be enjoying the elite pastime of schmoozing with one another while ignorantly examining decadent art, the proceeds of which could finance food distribution on any number of war-torn worlds for a year. It made Awen sick to her stomach. She remembered these kinds of parties, the ones her parents were forced to attend on account of their connections with Elonia’s well-funded research biomedical field.

“Mother, please don’t look at me now,” Awen said under breath.

“What was that?” Magnus asked.

“Nothing.”

“You make the mark yet?”

“Negative. Wait—just a second.” There, on the far side of the hall, surrounded by a swarm of shameless patrons whose gaping mouths were stuck producing a continuous stream of chatty laughter, was the man from the dossier. “Got him.”

“How certain?”

“Guy who looks rich enough to buy his own moon and is ogling everything with two bare legs?”

“Sounds like our man,” Dutch said.

“Mission clock’s a’counting, Lonna,” Magnus said.

“Hey, don’t you tell me what to do, man-servant,” Awen replied. “Remember. I can be a real bitch.”

Terminal Fallout

“I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure of meeting yet,” Littleton said from behind Awen.

“That’s probably for the best,” she replied without taking her eyes off a garish painting. She could practically feel Littleton looking up and down her backside, and it sent a chill up her spine.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Littleton replied in a lazy tone. “I think that’s a conclusion we should reach after all possibilities have been exhausted.”

“Let me guess.” Awen took another sip of wine. “You and your wife have agreed not to talk about what happens at the governor’s mansion, and she’s off on a weekend trip with her girlfriends. Meanwhile, you’re lonely and depressed from managing several large accounts. Worse still, generating massive earnings hold no more thrill for you. I, on the other hand, am a bored and desperate widow who is going to fall head over heels for your boyish charms. You take me home, one thing leads to another, and then the next thing you know, we wake up on your private starship somewhere in the Tymoreland Nebula with nothing but hangovers and disappointment. So let’s spare ourselves the trouble and stop it before it even starts, shall we?”

“Bravo. Bravo.” Littleton took a step closer. “There’s only one small item in your summary that I feel is worth correcting.”

“And what’s that?”

He leaned to her ear. “I am home.”

Awen turned around. “Governor Littleton.” She swallowed and then smoothed her dress with one hand. The actions toed the line of being too stunned, which would make her unworthy prey for someone of Littleton’s bearing, and overly interested, which gave hunters the sense that the game was over. Mystery, Awen reminded herself, is at the heart of every great chase.

Awen held out her hand. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“Oh no,” Littleton replied, giving her hand a kiss while inhaling. Was he smelling her? “The pleasure is all mine.”

She pulled her hand away and then waved it at the hall. “It’s a lovely party you’ve thrown. Though I question its timing in light of Capriana Prime’s devastation.”

“But isn’t distraction precisely what the people need at a time like this?”

“I suppose. Still, it is a handsome gathering.”

“It is, yes.” He hadn’t taken his eyes off Awen since arriving behind her. Suddenly, his eyes narrowed. “Though, I don’t recall having any Elonians on the guest list.”

She looked at him directly for the first time, batting her eyelashes. “You profile your guests’ species, Governor?”

He hesitated.

Good, Awen thought.

“No, I—it’s—” He closed his eyes and drew air in through his nose.

As if forcing himself to remain calm in her presence. He really does have a thing for Elonians.

“It’s just that I like to know the customs and cultures of those who are attending my gatherings. I consider it a part of my duty as a representative of the Galactic Republic.”

“And what do you know of Elonian customs and culture, Governor Littleton?”

He moved in closer. “I think you’ll find my knowledge base quite comprehensive, Miss…?”

“Dau Minsinith. Lonna dau Minsinith, if you prefer.”

“Lonna.” He said her name like he was tasting a piece of chocolate cake for the first time. And now you just ruined chocolate cake for yourself forever. Nice.

“We need to get a move on,” Magnus said in her ear. “Mission clock’s ticking.”

Awen looked at her wine glass, swirled the liquid, and then drained it in a single gulp.

Littleton’s eyes widened.

Then Awen threw the glass over her shoulder, not even blinking as the sound of it crashing against the wall frightened several people. “Who am I kidding, Governor? After Capriana, Aluross is probably next. Which means we won’t have any time to regret what we do tonight.”

Littleton’s eyes burned with a fire that made Awen nervous. But this was the job, and Magnus would be there to rescue her before it got out of hand.

“What are you saying? Just so that you and I are both—”

She grabbed a fistful of his shirt and pulled him close. “I’m saying I want a tour of your starship, Governor.”

Terminal Fallout

The moment Magnus heard Littleton offer to take Awen upstairs, he gave his fire team the green light to head across the lawn. While their suppressed NOV2s would make taking out all four north-side guards a breeze, the bright muzzle flashes and impact sounds alone risked drawing too much attention. Instead, Alpha Team hustled across the lawn and closed on the two garden-level sentries first.

Dutch and Silk approached the opposing men from behind, timing their movements over comms.

“Confirm distance to target,” Dutch asked from the shadow of a trimmed hedge.

“Ten meters,” Silk said, mirroring Dutch’s position on the opposite side of the symmetrical garden.

“Close to five,” Dutch replied. “Keep it smooth.”

A few seconds passed, and both women stepped through a row of urns, being careful to keep their footfalls silent. Even with chameleon mode, the sound of feet on stone was still unmistakable to the trained ear.

“Five meters,” Silk answered after a few seconds.

“Close to takedown.”

“Closing to takedown.”

The two women were in the open now, but visible only on a HUD, thanks to ident tags and frame outlines. Otherwise, not even Magnus would know where they were.

Dutch made it to her target a split second before Silk. She pressed a small high-voltage capacitor of Azelon’s invention against the man’s exposed neck. The device hiccupped, and a little blue spark lit up the flower beds. The guard fell back into Dutch’s arms and wouldn’t remember a thing when he woke up two hours later.

Dutch dragged her mark behind a hedge, and Silk did the same. Then they swept the drag marks with gloved hands. Alpha Team needed to leave as little evidence of their presence as possible if this plan was going to work.

“Tangos down,” Dutch said. “Planting party gifts.”

Magnus watched Dutch slide off her backpack—one made of the same synthetic weave as her suit—and removed a bottle of bratch. She dumped most of it on the man and then set the container on the ground to one side. Silk did the same with her mark. Even if the men tried to tell their bosses that they weren’t drinking on the job, no amount of pleading would get them far enough away from the damning odor wafting up from their suits.

Magnus and Rix were already on the main terrace level, approaching their guards from the rear. Magnus called out the distances and then ordered the takedown. The high-voltage capacitors did their job, and the final two guards were carried down the stairs to join their incapacitated coworkers. Magnus missed the Mark I armor’s servo assist, but the joint movement noise alone would have blown their cover.

“Get his comm,” Magnus said to Rix. They removed both guard’s in-ear devices and held them up to their visors. A sensor swept the device in Magnus’s hand and then paired it with his helmet.

“All set here,” Rix said.

“Same.” Magnus tossed the device into his pile of men. “Let’s move.”

Alpha Team entered the back veranda glass doors and slipped inside the mansion’s north entryway without a trace. Fortunately, this area of the home seemed closed off to the party—dimly lit and completely quiet. Three balcony levels extended up to a vaulted ceiling and looked out on the back terrace through massive windows. A pair of staircases rose off the main floor and swept up to the first balcony.

Magnus signaled Dutch and Silk to wait by the doors. “ETA four minutes twenty seconds.”

“We’ll be ready for them,” Dutch said, removing her backpack. “Dominate.”

“Liberate,” Magnus replied. He and Rix made their way up one side of the grand stairwell, footfalls padded by a thick burgundy runner. They kept their NOV2s in high-ready position as they turned right at the top of the stairs and proceeded toward a broad set of double doors.

As part of the NOV2’s development, Magnus had asked Azelon for a stun mode. Having to put down so many fellow Marines on Prime, even Paragon ones on the Black Labyrinth, made Magnus wish for a nonlethal means of assault. He had already justified the deaths of every trooper the Gladio Umbra had killed, and he wasn’t about to go back and play head games—not until you’re old and grey, Adonis. But if he could spare lives in the future, he would do so.

Azelon came up with a way to both alter the weapon’s discharge frequency and reduce the amperage. The result was an energy bolt that could short circuit the central nervous system of any known sentient lifeform for up to an hour. A first-degree burn mark, short term memory loss of the incident, and one hell of a headache were the only side effects—ones Magnus knew from having Awen test the weapon out on him. She seemed to have enjoyed the test a little too much.

“Magnus,” Dutch said. “I’ve got a roaming guard coming down the hallway.”

“Leave him. That’s the one we need.”

“Copy that.”

Magnus double-checked Awen’s lens cam to make sure the pair wasn’t in the bedroom yet. Nope—she was still playing cat and mouse with him in a private art gallery, champagne sloshing in a glass as she darted around a display case, giggling. Magnus overheard Littleton mention all the things he was going to do to Lonna when he finally caught her, and it made his skin crawl.

“You’re going to have to catch me first,” Awen said, slurring her speech a little, and then laughing as she took off for a giant brass statue. Then, in a quick and quiet voice, she said, “Are you in?”

“We’re entering his bedroom now,” Magnus replied.

“About time.”

Magnus raised a hand to the control panel beside the sliding wooden doors, hoping they weren’t secure. No sooner had he approached, however, than the panels slid apart on their own. Rix covered the opened doorway with his NOV2 while Magnus poked his head inside.

“How convenient,” Magnus said.

The two operators stepped inside, spread out, and began clearing the room, which included a massive bathroom, a sauna, a walk-in closet that was the size of an apartment Magnus had once rented, and a sitting room off the main bedroom that overlooked the back garden.

“Clear,” Rix said.

Magnus echoed the same.

“South side, report,” said a curt voice over the guard’s comm frequency. Magnus held up a hand to stop Rix, then pointed to his helmet’s ear. Rix nodded in understanding. As luck would have it, the head of security was starting with the southside guards, which made sense, as that was the primary approach for the mansion. It meant that Magnus and Rix could learn the comms protocol for this team in the hopes of sounding like they fit in.

“Section one, clear,” said a deep male voice.

“Section two, clear,” said a woman with a heavy accent. Hearing this made Magnus grateful that they had Dutch and Silk on this op. Not only were they two of the best operators in Granther Company, but their feminine voices would have come in handy if the security detail had used women on any of the sectors—which they had. Just not any currently knocked out in a garden.

“Northside,” said command.

“Section three, clear,” Rix said.

“Section four, clear,” Magnus added.

There was a moment’s hesitation before the man on the other end asked, “Norstock, you okay?”

Magnus and Rix shared a glance as if to say, “Which one of us is Norstock?” But there wasn’t time—they’d have to make it up as they went and hope for the best.

Magnus pointed at his own chest, and Rix nodded, also pointing toward Magnus. “Uh, yeah,” he said, trying to make his voice as average as possible—whatever that meant.

“You sound strange.”

Magnus coughed twice. “Allergies, sir.” Then he faked a sneeze. “Damn garden.”

There was a pause. “You need to be relieved?”

“Nah, negative. Negative. I’ll be fine.”

“Understood. Central, out.”

“That was close,” Rix said once the channel was closed. “Nice improv.”

“Eh, I had bad allergies as a kid.”

Magnus and Rix moved to the bathroom, maglocked their weapons to their thighs, and then took off their backpacks. Magnus withdrew several bottles of blood, a chem kit, and his Novian combat knife. “Awen?”

“You’re very naughty, Governor,” she said.

“We’re ready for you.”

Littleton spoke next. “But I can be so much more.”

“Then you’d better show me,” Awen replied, followed by the sound of someone being slapped. “No, not here. People might see.”

“Let them,” Littleton said, his voice very close to Awen’s comm. Wait, was that the sound of kissing? Magnus pulled up the camera feed, but Awen was looking straight up at the ceiling.

“You may not care about your reputation, Louis, but I have one to uphold. You’ll take me to your bedroom, or this is going to be a tragically short night for you.”

“Yes, bedroom.” The sound of kissing continued. “This way.”


28


Terminal Fallout

Rohoar and Mahkmaim charged one another like two Pride-class warships on a collision course at maximum thrust.

The first thing Rohoar noticed as Mahkmaim neared was how much hate his challenger seemed to hold in his eyes. It was as if the Jujari were possessed by it—consumed by it. And every bit of it directed toward Rohoar.

The second thing Rohoar noticed was just how ferocious Mahkmaim was. And Rohoar knew ferocious, at least he thought so. He was a Jujari, after all, and his kind had a reputation in the quadrant for a reason. But when it came to projected violence, Mahkmaim took it to a whole new level.

The sound of the crowd faded away until Rohoar could hear the beating of his own heart. Whatever happened next, it wouldn’t stop until one of the two contenders was slain.

This, he thought, is the last moment of peace.

He must be faster.

Smarter.

And more cunning. It was the only way he would win.

The two warriors were a split second away from colliding when Mahkmaim lunged. Rohoar dropped to his knees and slid along the stone tiles. Then he raised his arms and dragged his claws along Mahkmaim’s lower torso, waist, and thighs. In less than a second, the first blow was dealt, and Rohoar came out the other side unscathed.

Mahkmaim appeared caught off guard by the attack as he skidded to a halt on the roof’s far side. He turned and looked at Rohoar, then he studied his own waist. Then Mahkmaim dabbed a finger in one of the red cuts and touched the blood to his tongue. The hackles on the enemy’s neck went up as he let out a bloodcurdling howl.

All the sound came rushing back to Rohoar’s ears, and he heard the baggaduraks beating—war drums of the mwadim. The crowd cheered his first strike and then started chanting his name. But Rohoar knew this fight was far from over.

Mahkmaim charged a second time.

There would be no repeating the slide, Rohoar knew. So he charged Mahkmaim but readied himself to pass by on whichever side was the enemy’s off-step. Rohoar watched Mahkmaim’s hips, instinctively anticipating the adversary’s movements so that when the two warriors met each other again, Rohoar bobbed to the right. He narrowly missed Mahkmaim’s swinging right hook, and, instead, ducked under his high-flung left arm. Rohoar dug his claws across Mahkmaim’s ribs and then spun away as rivulets of blood sailed through the air.

Again, the crowd erupted in euphoric glee, so much so that Rohoar found it distracting.

“Easy, now,” Mora yelled from the sideline. “Don’t become overly proud.”

Rohoar nodded once and watched as Mahkmaim spun on his heels, utterly incensed at being cut again. “I will tear your flesh from your bones, spawn of wailing bitch misery!”

“Do you smell that?” Rohoar sniffed the air. “It is the odor of Selskrit offal seeping down the inner thigh. Someone needs to be bathed.”

With the opening two charges complete, the warriors squared off and began circling one another. Mahkmaim’s growl sounded like a jug of stones rolling down a sheet metal roof. Meanwhile, Rohoar saved his strength and remained utterly silent. He could sense the lack of emotion annoying Mahkmaim too.

The Selskrit champion closed within arm’s reach of Rohoar and then swiped at his head. Rohoar ducked but saw the counter swipe coming for his face. He reared back and felt himself lose his balance. Mahkmaim saw the opportunity and lunged. But Rohoar was far too nimble—he spun to the left and stepped out of the way just as Mahkmaim fell toward the crowd. Several Jujari caught him and then thrust him back into the court.

Rohoar hopped back, starting to feel more confident. He bobbed between his two hind feet, doing his best to stay loose and appear playful. Anything he could do psychologically to keep Mahkmaim off his game—as Magnus would say—would only serve Rohoar in the long run.

Mahkmaim flexed his paws and then dropped to all fours. Even down low, the warrior still came to the middle of Rohoar’s chest. Rohoar thought to mirror the stance but knew he wouldn’t be a match for the larger Selskrit if they locked limbs. Better to stay light and swift.

“Good choice,” Mora said as if reading his thoughts. Because she is reading my thoughts, Rohoar concluded, noting their pack connection. Or she just knew her mate so well that she could discern his intentions through body language.

The enemy closed the distance in three bounds and then lunged with both arms outstretched. Rohoar would not be able to pass the sides, so he dove over Mahkmaim’s head. He was almost clear of the Selskrit when Mahkmaim reached up and caught Rohoar by the ankle. Nails dug into his flesh and bone, seizing his flight in midair and yanking him back the way he’d come.

Mahkmaim’s strength was beyond anything Rohoar had expected—and he was expecting a lot. The enemy hauled him back over his head in a high arch until Rohoar’s upper body whipped around and came down on the stone ground. The impact snapped Rohoar’s jaw shut and sent a painful electrical-like current down his spine. Blood filled his mouth, and he forced himself not to lose consciousness—if he blacked out, Rohoar knew he would never wake up.

Before he could even think to move, however, a second paw came down on his side and gouged five holes in his flank. Rohoar bellowed, but all he heard was ringing in his ears. He looked up to see Mora’s mouth agape.

She was yelling.

Move.

Unsure where Mahkmaim was, Rohoar rolled like a Reptalon, twisting his side free of the enemy’s nails. His flesh tore open from the action, but it most likely saved his life. When Rohoar looked at where his head had been, Mahkmaim’s gaping mouth bounced off the stone. Rohoar thought he saw a fang break too, but it happened too fast to be sure.

The ringing in his ears vanished, replaced by the riotous calls of onlookers who cheered his escape from the Selskrit. The mwadim of the Tawnhack climbed back to his feet and eyed his opponent. But Rohoar was wounded. He glanced down and saw a section of fur and flesh missing from his side. Likewise, his head felt as though a metalsmith had jammed a red-hot poke through the bottom of his chin and into his brain.

In the distance, he heard someone calling his name. Over and over again. He looked around, but the people in the crowd were blurry. Then his eyes found Mora. She was calling his name. He willed himself to focus on her. To hear her.

“Don’t let him catch you like that,” she yelled.

Rohoar nodded, unsure if he could talk through the pain. But his arms and legs still worked. So he went back to bobbing left and right. If anything, it would show the enemy that Rohoar still had plenty of fight left in him.

For his part, Mahkmaim was also slow in regaining his feet. It seemed he overcommitted in what he must have thought was a death-clamp on the back of Rohoar’s neck. Instead, he’d struck the stone with his muzzle and had a mouthful of blood to show for it. When he was finally erect, Mahkmaim barked, threw his head about, and then charged.

Rohoar held his ground, waiting for the enemy to close the gap. When he did, Rohoar feigned left but sidestepped right. The change in direction forced Mahkmaim to slow and adjust course. But Rohoar faked one way and then bolted the opposite. The enemy howled in anger.

“Keep that up,” Mora said with her paws to the sides of her mouth. “Just like that.”

Rohoar was starting to feel good despite the growing pain in his side and head. Injuries would heal, but death was irreversible. So as long as he was still alive, he was winning.

Mahkmaim dove at him a third time, managing to swipe a claw across Rohoar’s bicep. But Rohoar spun and cut Mahkmaim across the nape of the neck. The enemy arched his back and threw both hands at Rohoar—but he was well out of range. Rohoar’s strength and focus were returning, while Mahkmaim’s impatience seemed to be reaching a frenetic state.

“Your hate clouds your judgment, Mahkmaim,” Rohoar said, rolling his neck as he caught his breath. “It’s going to cost you.”

“It will cost me only as much as it needs to so that I might purchase—”

“You talk so much,” Rohoar said, rolling his eyes. “Maybe you did not get enough attention from your mother as a pup. Oh, wait one moment. Mahkmaim did not have a mother.”

The crowd wailed as if this was the biggest insult they had ever heard. Rohoar had to admit it was extremely crafty if he did say so himself. Insults of mothers were the very worst kind. And I just told him he did not have one, Rohoar recounted, knowing the jab would go deep into the Jujari’s consciousness.

Mahkmaim roared, dropped his head, and charged.

Rohoar motioned the Selskrit to come, expecting the enemy to overextend himself yet again. As soon as Mahkmaim was close, Rohoar faked motion to his left but doubled back to his right.

This time, however, Mahkmaim anticipated the move.

A powerful claw seized Rohoar in the center of the chest, pinning him like a spear-shaft through the sternum. He whined, but the sound of blood rushing in his ears drowned everything else out. Then, in a desperate attempt to make his contender release him, Rohoar sent blow after blow against Mahkmaim’s head, neck, and ribs. But the giant seemed unfazed.

Instead, Mahkmaim hoisted Rohoar aloft, and then he squeezed his fingers while roaring in the Tawnhack’s face.

Rohoar felt fire spread across his chest as Mahkmaim’s grip tightened. The act sent waves of pain throughout his body, stealing his breath and clouding his mind. He needed to get free. This was precisely what Mora had warned him about.

Quick as a flash, Rohoar leaned toward—not away—from Mahkmaim and grabbed his head with both hands. Then he jammed both thumbs into the warrior’s eyes. Mahkmaim reacted by batting Rohoar’s left hand away, which made Rohoar squeeze ever harder with his right—until he felt the eyeball pop under his thumb.

Mahkmaim wailed. He released Rohoar’s chest and then clutched his injured eye socket.

Meanwhile, Rohoar collapsed on the stone, trying to catch his breath. The wound in his chest was deep, but Mahkmaim had failed to strike any vital organs. What’s a little more lost blood? Rohoar thought and then let out a soft woof.

“Look out,” Mora yelled. Czyz, too. The gladia were all pointing behind Rohoar. So he rolled over to see the challenger barreling toward him—eye socket leaking blood and water.

Rather than try to dodge the enemy, Rohoar scrambled to all fours, took a low position, and charged with his head down. He caught Mahkmaim in the knees, which sent the large opponent head over heels. The crowd parted as he flew into the building’s edge wall with a crack.

Again, the people chanted Rohoar’s name. He stood up and looked around. They certainly favored him. But there was a lot of fighting left to be done, and no amount of praise would put Mahkmaim down. That was Rohoar’s job.

The Selskrit snapped at several onlookers who jeered him. One Jujari, an adolescent bearing the sash of the Horock, was unfortunate enough that Mahkmaim clamped down on his shoulder and flung him to the side. The pup whimpered as he spun across the stone, eventually landing in a heap amidst some crowd members. The people helped him up and then hissed at Mahkmaim in disapproval.

The Selskrit ignored their taunts and focused his one eye on Rohoar. Then Mahkmaim raised an outstretched paw to one side, toward someone in the audience, and whistled.

A set of paw spikes glinted in the fading sunlight. Mahkmaim caught the killing tool then slid it up his fingers and over his knuckles. The audience voiced their objections, bemoaning the underhanded act. But even though it broke the rules of the match, there was nothing they could do—no one would dare face Mahkmaim.

“You will be denied the throne, should you win,” Rohoar said, holding a hand to his bleeding chest.

“I do not care about the throne,” Mahkmaim said with a sneer. “I came here only to cleanse our planet, to rid us of he who works with the unclean.”

Rohoar twitched his ears, wondering if he had heard the Selskrit correctly. “You don’t want the throne?”

“I will take it if that is the reward,” Mahkmaim said with a sniff, clearly feigning ignorance. “But it does not surprise me that our people would make me their leader for executing the greatest betrayer the Jujari have ever known. All this”—he motioned to the horizon with his hands, then pointed at Rohoar—“is because of you, fikdo.”

The crowd gasped. It was one thing to challenge a mwadim in open combat, but it was quite another to question his testicle size in public. To mock the Selskrit’s insult, Rohoar looked at his groin, spread his fur, and thrust out his hips. “No. They look large to me.”

The crowd whooped and howled at this. Mahkmaim, however, was incensed. He raised his right hand with the paw spikes and charged. Then he threw a head-punch. Rohoar leaned wide and jabbed the enemy’s ribs. Mahkmaim swung his arm backhanded, but Rohoar ducked as the arm swooshed through open air. Again, Rohoar punched the same spot in Mahkmaim’s ribs, staying low and tight.

The Selskrit bellowed in frustration and brought his paw spikes straight down on Rohoar. But instead of hitting flesh, the spikes drove and split the stone.

Rohoar seized the opportunity and kicked at Mahkmaim’s forearm. He half expected the bone to snap, or at least tear Mahkmaim’s hand from the tool. Instead, Rohoar’s kick did little more than annoy the giant. It was as if the blow had landed against a tree trunk, succeeding only in rustling a few leaves in the canopy.

Mahkmaim let out a low growl that made his lips flap as he ripped his paw spikes from the ground. For some strange reason, Rohoar had a sinking feeling that everything up to this point in the fight had been the opening act.


29


Terminal Fallout

The moment Littleton threw Awen on the bed, Magnus jammed the syringe in the man’s rump and shot him with the hallucinogenic.

Littleton swore and spun around in surprise.

“Who the—”

His head only got halfway around before Magnus punched Littleton so hard that it knocked him out.

Awen shoved the governor’s body away and slid off the bed. “Took you guys long enough,” she said. “Do you know how hard it was to keep that man’s hands off me?”

“Sounds like it was more than just his hands,” Magnus replied, speaking over VNET.

“Your idea, not mine. Remember?”

“Fair enough.” Magnus brought up Dutch’s channel. “How we looking?”

“They’re coming around the terrace now,” she replied.

“Make sure the guard gets them pointed in the right direction. He may not even know where the bedroom is.”

“Copy that.”

Magnus turned back to Awen and held up a bottle of blood and his knife. “You ready for your next scene?”

“Full NMB,” she replied, turning to face Littleton. “Let’s mess with him.”

Terminal Fallout

“What are you doing?” a woman said.

At least, he thought it was a woman. A human woman with black hair, perhaps? Littleton couldn’t be sure—everything was so—blurry. He tried studying her face, but her features were bunched up in a painful snarl, like a panther’s face, with long fangs and purple eyes. The panther was screaming at him. Beating him with giant trees.

No. Not trees. Claws.

“Let me go,” she yelled again.

Mystics, she was loud. And someone might hear them, wherever this place was. Littleton tired to focus on the room they were in—some sort of cave—but he didn’t remember going to a cave.

Did he?

“Stop, Louis. Please stop.” The panther knew his name. And now it seemed like it was crying.

Stop what? he thought. He wasn’t doing anything. He blinked several times and then looked down. He had hands. Two of them. And they were wrapped around the panther’s neck, trying to keep it from devouring him.

This is all wrong, he thought. He hadn’t remembered walking into the jungle, into a cave.

Then Littleton noticed that there was some blood on her face. Her flaming purple dress—it looked torn near the shoulder. But panthers don’t wear dresses, he thought.

Littleton was trying to get his mouth to work when something hard slammed against his face and he—

Terminal Fallout

“Come on over,” Magnus said to the three Sekmit women who’d volunteered to help get this loser off their planet. Freya had hand selected them herself, knowing that Littleton would definitely recognize them from the inner court. When he eventually came out of his stupor, the implications would help drive him over the edge. At least, that’s what Magnus was counting on.

The three Sekmit knelt on and around the bed as Silk and Dutch drizzled blood on them. Likewise, Magnus sprayed Awen with a little more Elonian blood and used his knife to cut additional slashes in her dress carefully. For his part, Rix was busy bruising Littleton’s hands and then doused him with Sekmit and Elonian blood.

“Everyone ready?” Magnus asked.

The four women nodded.

“Bring him out again.”

Rix leaned in with a small tube and waved it under Littleton’s nose. The man snapped awake, eyelids fluttering. As soon as he saw Awen, the four women began writhing and screaming in fake agony.

“This is pretty weird, you know,” Dutch said. She had her arms crossed and stood to one side of the bed.

“Just imagine what he’s thinking,” Magnus said with a chuckle as Rix started using the man’s own hands to slow-punch Awen and the Sekmit.

Terminal Fallout

“Get away from me,” Littleton bellowed. The panther had brought tigers into the cave.

She’s not a panther, some little voice said in the back of Littleton’s brain. He blinked again as his hands tried to fend off the attacks.

The woman slashed at Littleton’s face, but he punched her and kept her away. Then a tiger launched at him from the left. He hit its head, which sent a fountain of blood into the sky. Another tiger came at him from the right, so he grabbed it by the throat and squeezed with all his might.

“Stop, Governor Littleton,” the tiger screamed. But that made him only want to clamp down tighter to keep her from saying his name. So he squeezed until gouts of blood sprayed across his eyes. Had her head exploded?

He wiped his vision clear with two soft clouds that magically appeared in front of him. Then, when he could see again, he used one of the clouds to cover the woman’s face. He held it there, hoping she would disappear, hoping this bad dream would just go away.

Just then, a third tiger lunged at him. He panicked, unsure of what to do. A massive sword appeared in his hands—bright and gleaming like the strength of a thousand suns. It was a gift from the mystics, and he would use it to defeat the tiger—he would use it to save his life and escape this horrible place.

Terminal Fallout

Magnus laughed as Rix held out a tight-beamed flashlight. He was genuinely curious to see what Littleton would do with it.

“Hundred credits says he uses it like a sword,” Dutch said.

“You’re on.” Magnus held out his hand to close the deal. “He’s gonna try shooting her with it.” The thought of seeing the governor grab the tool and start making blaster noises with his mouth made Magnus about double over with laughter.

Instead, Littleton took the flashlight from Rix and made a slow-motion lunge with the weapon, as if the beam of light was—

“It’s a sword,” Dutch said. “Pay up, LT.”

He threw his hands up. “Repub credits are worthless now anyway.”

“You just keep telling yourself that.”

The third Sekmit woman wailed, grabbing the flashlight and holding it to her chest as she fell off the bed.

“All right,” Magnus said. “That’s good enough.”

“You want to do the last honors?” Silk asked Magnus.

But he shook his head. “I had two goes. You take the final shot.”

“No,” Awen said. “Let me.”

Silk backed away as Awen balled up her right fist and then cracked it against Littleton’s face.

“Mystics,” Awen exclaimed, shaking out her hand. But Magnus caught her smiling as Littleton passed out into the blood-soaked pillows.

Terminal Fallout

Over the next sixty-seconds, Alpha Team staged the entire room until it resembled a macabre scene straight out of a horror holo. They overturned furniture, quietly broke vases and picture frames, and tore open a few pillows. Then they helped Awen and the Sekmit women arrange themselves in awkward positions on the floor and sprinkled them with more blood.

When it was over, Magnus stepped back and studied the room. “If this doesn’t mess him up, nothing will.”

“Now it’s time for some witnesses,” Silk said, packing the last of the items in the backpacks.

“On it,” Dutch said.

As she unlocked the bedroom door and slipped out, Magnus knelt beside Awen and removed his helmet. “This is the most dangerous part,” he said.

“You really think I need the reminder?”

“I’m just saying—sell it, but if someone starts checking pulses or wants to verify you’re really dead by—”

“I got it, Magnus.” She put a bloody hand on his arm.

“We’ll have covering fire through the main window. You get in trouble and—”

“Magnus.”

“What?”

“There won’t be anything left of him or anyone else if they try to hurt us. I promise.”

Magnus took a deep breath. It’s gonna be okay, Magnus, he told himself.

“And it is, too,” Awen added. Then she grabbed his collar and pulled herself up to give him a kiss.

“Not bad for a dead woman,” he said.

“Just wait until I come back to life.” She winked, and then settled back on the floor, splaying her limbs and staring off into the near distance—eyes cold as ice.

“Mystics, how do you do that?” Magnus asked.

She gave a half-smile, then said, “Get out of here. We’ll see you in the north woods.”

Magnus replaced his helmet and motioned for Rix and Silk to stand by at the door. Then he took a second vial of smelling salts—this one mixed with a strong anti-hallucinogenic—and waved it under Littleton’s nose again. The man startled awake but acted like he was drowning in the pillows and sheets.

As soon as he was back in the main hallway, Magnus saw Dutch barreling toward him.

“You have them?” he asked.

“It’s like herding cats,” Dutch said, panting. Then she turned around and used her external speakers to shout down the hallway. “Holy splick! What in mystics’ names happened in here?”

A dozen partygoers appeared around a corner, tripping over themselves to follow the sound of Dutch’s half-crazed voice. If there was one thing elitists loved more than getting illegal access to an off-limits section of another elitist’s private mansion, it was the scent of a scandal. And boy, are they gonna love this one.

At the same time, Magnus heard Littleton start to shout in his bedroom. “No. No, no, no! What—what happened? What have I done?”

Then Dutch let out the most bloodcurdling scream Magnus had quite literally ever heard. It was somewhere between a Sqwillian forest banshee’s mating shriek and a starship grinding against a docking bay’s comms truss tower—neither were sounds that Magnus ever wanted to hear again. “They’re in the Governor’s bedroom. And, there’s blood—oh, mystics—there’s blood everywhere!” She screamed again, drawing almost two dozen partygoers to the scene like flies to a carcass.

A lone security guard stepped into the hallway and raised a hand, ordering the people to stop, but he was overrun. The pack smelled blood—perhaps literally—and nothing would deter them

“Our work here is done,” Magnus said with a hint of pride in his voice and pointed down the stairs. “Shall we?”

Terminal Fallout

So many screams and shouts filled the bedroom that Awen wasn’t sure she could keep up her deadpan look for much longer. While Littleton hadn’t tried to check Awen’s pulse, he did shake her several times. She stayed loose and let her head and arms flail about. Then the Governor had time to check one of the Sekmit women before the guests stormed into the room but froze in horror.

That’s when all the screaming began. And Awen tried hard not to blink.

“I can explain,” Littleton said.

Awen would have loved to hear that one. But already, wrist comms and holo pads were out, recording the grotesque scene. More security guards pushed their way into the amassing group of onlookers and threatened everyone with tasers and flexicuffs if they didn’t clear out.

When the crowd had been forced back, the doors shut, and a thin-looking man in a dark suit strode up to Littleton.

“What the hell, Louis?” the man said.

“It wasn’t me, Ed. I swear.”

The thin man, Ed, sneered at the Governor, and then looked over the bodies as he put his hands on his hips. “And it had to be an Elonian too. Mystics, I’m so tired of working for you people. It’s just one mess after another, and all you can think to do is deny it.”

“But I swear. This wasn’t me!”

Ed looked Littleton up and down, then raised a dark eyebrow at him. “Right.”

“You gotta believe me!”

Ed touched his in-ear comm. “Romma. It’s Fink. Send everyone home and lock down the grounds.”

“What are we gonna do, Ed?” Littleton said, trying to wipe the blood off his hands with a bathroom towel.

“We?” Fink laughed. “We aren’t doing anything. This is your problem, not mine.”

“But you’re—”

“I’m head of security for the GR’s sovereign grounds, not its outgoing governor.”

“Outgoing?”

Ed laughed and then flung a hand to the bodies. “You really think you’re hanging around here after a stunt like this?”

The doors opened, and a new figure entered the room. He held a handkerchief to his mouth, obscuring his face. Awen did her best to see who it was since both men seemed to straighten up at his appearance. He had to be important.

“Get him out of here,” the man said to Fink.

Fink snapped his fingers, and two guards grabbed Littleton and hauled him out of the room.

Awen still couldn’t make out the man’s face, but there was something familiar about him. And it made her nervous.

“We have any matches?”

“Not yet,” Fink said. “But I know two of the Sekmit. They belong to Freya.”

“Splick. You’re sure?”

“Positive. Littleton was just with them two days ago for a meeting.”

“Anyone else see this?”

Fink lowered his head.

“How bad?”

“A dozen wrist comms, holo pads—maybe more.”

“Mysticsdammit.”

The man in charge went quiet for several seconds, still holding the handkerchief to his mouth. He seemed like he was working something out in his head.

“Sir,” Fink said with a hand to his ear. “There seems to be something else.”

The man in charge gave out an exasperated sigh. “What now?”

Since her natural eyes had yet to catch a good glimpse of him, Awen slipped into the Unity.

“Ní Freya has reportedly left her palace,” Fink said. “And is en route—here.”

“She knows.” The man thought for a few more moments, and then puffed out his sturdy chest as if resolving his course of action. “We’re leaving.”

Fink’s eyebrows went up. “Right now? But what about—”

“The planet’s a lost cause, Mr. Fink. At least until we figure something else out.”

“Yes, sir.”

The man with the handkerchief wore a black and green uniform—one that felt strangely familiar. Then she noticed the LAW seal embroidered on his left chest and remembered seeing the clothing from TO-96’s recording of So-Elku’s presentation. Is he Luma? But Awen didn’t sense the man had any powers.

As the handkerchief moved away from the man’s lips, Awen froze. She could hardly believe her eyes. But the Unity never lied.

“Oh, and make sure Mr. Littleton is comfortable in here. We wouldn’t want his public thinking he abandoned his post. He has a reputation to uphold. Then burn it. Burn it all. And make it look like the Sekmit did it.”

“As you wish, Senator Blackman,” Fink said with a Luma salute.


30


Terminal Fallout

Mahkmaim threw four consecutive punches at Rohoar, driving the mwadim up the throne platform. Rohoar continued to fall back, knowing that just one blow from the paw spikes would be enough to knock him out.

At least you won’t remember becoming dead, he thought to himself.

Mahkmaim leapt onto the dais and continued driving at Rohoar.

“To your right,” Czyz yelled, pointing to one of the massive stone columns. Rohoar saw a wrought-iron torch holder dangling from a loose bolt. He dodged one more swing from Mahkmaim and then ripped the holder from the pillar. No sooner did he have a firm grip on the tool than Mahkmaim thrust the paw spikes as Rohoar’s head. The mwadim deflected the blow with the makeshift weapon and then whirled it around to strike his enemy’s face.

Mahkmaim was too fast, however, and blocked the attack, countering with a quick uppercut directed at Rohoar’s chin. The mwadim leaned away from the punch but lost his footing on the back of the dais.

The crowd cried out as Rohoar fell. The building’s edge was only a few meters behind him—which gave him an idea. Just before he lost his footing and went completely prone, Rohoar pushed off the dais and sailed toward the drop-off.

Mora shouted something, as did Czyz. Bur Rohoar knew what he was doing. At least he thought he did. No, you don’t, Rohoar said, scolding himself as he flew through the air. But he was running out of ideas, and this seemed like the best one for several different reasons.

As his body slid across the stone, careening toward the open air, Rohoar dug his claws into the ground to slow himself. He looked up and saw Mahkmaim charging after him. Just as Rohoar went over the side, he drove the torch holder into the stone and felt his body fly out into space, and then he jerked to a halt. His legs swung underneath him, and when they entered the open window of the next level down, Rohoar let go of the iron tool.

Even from under the top floor, Rohoar heard the crowd wail and shout. They were revolting against his death. But their fears were premature.

I am still here, Rohoar said to Mora through the pack connection in the Unity. Tell them I am still

A column exploded beside Rohoar’s head as Mahkmaim’s armored fist blew through the stone. Bits of debris pelted the mwadim’s head and forced him to cover up. Mahkmaim swung again, only this time with his un-armored hand. The blow hit Rohoar in the small of the back and drove all the air from his lungs. He saw sparkly lights in his vision and wanted to collapse on the ground in pain. But the battle is not over yet, he told himself and summoned his courage to keep going.

Rohoar caught Mahkmaim’s forearm as it came down in a hammer blow. But the impact had so much force that it glanced off Rohoar’s head and dropped on his shoulder. A searing pain stretched from Rohoar’s hand to the top of his head, but he made himself back away.

“Come, let me put you out of your misery, Tawnhack,” Mahkmaim said as he stalked after the mwadim.

“Rohoar is not miserable enough to accept such a favor, but he will let you know.”

Mahkmaim snapped his teeth in the air and then charged, but not before Rohoar spun out of the way behind a support column. It was one of a hundred such pillars that supported the roof level, which was why Rohoar had chosen this space. If he was the more agile of the two warriors, he needed to find a playing field that suited his abilities and gave him the upper paw. Down here, he could dodge Mahkmaim’s blows, and the Selskrit would have a harder time negotiating the tight turns.

But Rohoar also chose this place because he wanted to speak with Mahkmaim one on one. The crowd was always a distraction, feeding the primal drive to survive and satisfy the people’s will. But alone, Rohoar felt he had a chance to lead Mahkmaim—to serve him as the mwadim—just like he would any other citizen in his nation. It was a long shot, of course, but it was one Rohoar had to try.

“Where do you think you’re going, fecal matter?” Mahkmaim said with a bark.

But Rohoar didn’t reply; he was too busy ducking behind columns and working his way around behind Mahkmaim. The Selskrit dashed around several pillars, hunting for the mwadim, and then roared when Rohoar was nowhere to be found.

When Rohoar stepped out of his cover and lunged at Mahkmaim’s back, the enemy was entirely caught off guard. Rohoar grabbed the enemy under the armpits, driving his claws into thick muscle, and then bit the Selskrit’s neck. Mahkmaim wailed, spinning about, while Rohoar held on—claws and fangs firmly entrenched.

Rohoar knew he was still at the mercy of the colossal beast and sensed Mahkmaim driving them back toward the nearest column. When Rohoar’s back struck the stone, his head also whiplashed, cracking against the support. His teeth and nails tore slits along the Mahkmaim’s neck and flanks—but that also meant he was no longer attached.

Mahkmaim spun around and pummeled the pillar with the paw spikes. Rohoar limped to cover, dodging a second and third punch as dust and bits of stone shrapnel blossomed in the air.

“Stop hiding, coward,” Mahkmaim said. “We both know your end is near, so come face it like the dog that you are.”

“Rohoar is not so sure he feels like dying today. In fact, Rohoar is not sure it is a good day for any deaths to be dying.”

“You speak in veiled words,” Mahkmaim replied, jumping between columns.

“Rohoar means what he says.”

“So you would not kill Mahkmaim if given a chance? This is coward-speak.”

“If Rohoar had not intended to kill Mahkmaim before, there is no desire now. It is only because you initiated the singotha that Rohoar is forced to consider your journey to shöl—nothing more.”

Mahkmaim swung at empty air, apparently sure Rohoar was behind the column in question, when, in fact, Rohoar was five pillars away. This let the mwadim know what the enemy was thinking and gave him yet another small advantage.

“Then you prove yourself a weak mwadim, unworthy of the dais,” Mahkmaim cried out.

“Is it weakness to not wish to kill one’s brother?” Rohoar asked.

“We are not brothers,” Mahkmaim said, and then spat on the floor in disgust.

“No?” Rohoar intentionally tried to throw his voice against the columns in an attempt to disorient the other contender. And it was working: Mahkmaim spun one way and then the other in more and more desperate attempts to find his prey. “Then Rohoar supposes you are brothers with the humans, yes?”

Mahkmaim swore in the mother tongue. “That is your job, fikdo. Not mine.”

“Then, you admit we are both Jujari.”

“I said nothing of the kind.”

“You said you are not brothers of the humans, making both you and Rohoar Jujari by birth. Therefore—”

“Stop saying we are brothers!”

“But you cannot deny Rohoar any more than you can deny your flesh.”

Mahkmaim punched a column with his paw spikes head on—no attempt to see what was behind it. Just because he could. Which meant Rohoar was getting to him.

“I can deny you!”

“On the grounds of territory, perhaps.” Rohoar checked the wound in the middle of his chest just to see how bad he was bleeding. When he pulled his hand away, it was covered in a lot of blood. For a split second, he even wondered if Mahkmaim had nicked one of his hearts. “And you Selskrit have traditions we Tawnhack do not,” Rohoar continued. “But when the sun goes down, you and Rohoar are still Jujari, and that is something we share with no one else.”

“No,” Mahkmaim said defiantly. “This is weakness! This undermines the strength of the packs.”

“Perhaps,” Rohoar replied, getting closer to Mahkmaim. “But your view undermines the strength of the Jujari.”

“No, it does not. It makes us stronger.”

“Killing one another for the right to rule while enemies hunt down and devour our sons and daughters makes the Jujari stronger?”

Mahkmaim slowed. He sniffed the air and turned in circles. Rohoar wanted to believe the warrior was considering his words, but he also might just be trying to triangulate Rohoar’s scent.

“No, Mahkmaim,” Rohoar said. “This is not the way we must go. It is not the way of life you seek, but the way of the enemy.”

“You speak lies!” Mahkmaim gouged a deep hole out of another column. “All lies!”

This wasn’t working, and one of them was still going to die today. Which is truly the last thing Rohoar wanted. As much pain as the Selskrit had caused his people over the decades, the truth was, Selskrit were still Jujari. And if Rohoar had learned anything from the Gladio Umbra, and tiny humans like Piper, it was that even enemies could realign themselves for a common purpose. It took work, and it took time, but it could be done. And life would prevail.

“If it meant you never killed another Jujari again, Rohoar would surrender here and now.”

Mahkmaim turned around, ears rotating to try and find Rohoar. His hulking shoulders rose and fell, and drops of blood pattered on the cold stone floor.

Rohoar wasn’t sure if Mahkmaim heard him or not, and so he almost repeated himself.

“Now I know you are a fool,” Mahkmaim said as he let out a low laugh.

“Is Rohoar the fool for making such an offer, or Mahkmaim, for not being able to keep his sacred vow?”

“What sacred vow?”

“If Rohoar surrenders, Mahkmaim must swear to the ancestors that you will never strike another Jujari down for as long as you live. If you do, you forfeit your life and must commit dashuria.”

Mahkmaim froze.

Rohoar laid his back against a column and allowed the cold stone to soothe the fire raging in his muscles. Then he prayed to the stars that Mahkmaim would take his deal if it meant true peace for the packs—and, more importantly, for the tormented warrior’s soul.

“You hesitate, Mahkmaim of the Selskrit. Rohoar is curious as to why? Is it because you truly cannot envision a life beyond the one you know, the one of killing Jujari? Or is it something else?”

Mahkmaim did not speak at first. The two champions just breathed—nostrils flaring, hearts pounding—as the sun started to dip below the horizon and leave the second floor bathed in twilight.

“Mahkmaim hesitates because he cannot understand why Rohoar would make such a bargain,” Mahkmaim said. “One that I can never envision myself doing were the roles reversed. Nor am I certain I will be able to fulfill my vow to the ancestors should I take your life.”

“You’re wrong, Mahkmaim.”

The Selskrit growled at this. No Jujari liked being told what to do, especially a leader. But Rohoar had to act decisively, or else this opportunity to unite the packs would be lost forever.

“I know there is good in you,” Rohoar said, ceasing with the mwadim speech of self. Then he stepped into an open row some eight or nine meters behind Mahkmaim and lowered his claws. “And I believe you could be an even better mwadim than me. But only if you learn to choose to fight for life rather than to take it.”

“You offer an impossible gift,” Mahkmaim said, snarling.

“Only because you have never imagined an alternative to the life you know. It is not impossible.”

“But it is.”

“No, Mahkmaim. Believe. Have appriprensive, and you can face your fears head-on, as one, with all Jujari.”

The two warriors stared at each other in the sun’s fading red light, standing between floors in the mwadim’s tower. Blood dripped on the floor, and chests heaved in and out. And for the briefest moment, Rohoar knew he had won Mahkmaim.

A cold wind blew through the columns and made a howling sound. Rohoar felt his hackles stand on end but didn’t know why—until he looked at Mahkmaim and saw his eye fill with evil.


31


Terminal Fallout

In the time that passed from when the strange black ship wiped out Moldark’s remaining vessels to when he arrived in orbit around the Obscura’s dark planet, the Peregrine had traveled through completely uncharted subspace. Navigation couldn’t find this system anywhere in their collection, and the Peregrine was working overtime to try and triangulate its location based on all known constellation positions. The progress, however, was slow going.

“The enemy ship has stopped ahead, my lord,” Porteous said.

“And still no idea where we are,” Moldark said to the nav officer, more as a statement than a question.

“That is correct, my lord,” the officer replied.

Moldark studied Porteous’s initial scan of their surroundings. The five planets in the system orbited a red dwarf star long past its prime. It’s cooler temperature and low light output meant it was unlikely that any of these floating rocks supported any life beyond slime.

All but this one, Moldark thought to himself, examining the planet they were headed toward.

Moldark sat in Ellis’s captain’s chair for the next hour, watching as the Peregrine neared the Obscura’s lightless ship hanging over a lifeless planet. He had dismissed Ellis, telling him to attend to his head wound in sickbay, and told the crew to make ready for an away mission. Whatever these Obscura had in mind for him, they would be in for a rude awakening when he sucked their souls dry. He had, after all, grown quite hungry.

When the Peregrine finally entered geosynchronous orbit, coming in just behind the enemy ship, comms received another transmission from the shadowy captain, or whatever his title was—he had not specified.

“Accompany us to the surface,” the man said. “We are sending a ship.” The image disappeared.

“That’s it?” Moldark said, smashing his fist into the arm of his chair.

“Yes,” the comms officer replied. “I’m sorry, my lord.”

Moldark grunted. He was tired of this person’s games, but he felt obliged to follow. He was curious, after all, if impatient. And he wanted to devour their souls, whoever they were.

Terminal Fallout

When the shadowed man said ship, he did not mean transport shuttle, at least in the way the Galactic Republic understood transport shuttle. He meant a Bull Wraith-class equivalent containment vessel, capable of swallowing the Peregrine and bringing it to the planet’s surface. The experience was somewhat unnerving and seemed to make the crew even more certain of their imminent deaths, based on the way they shivered in their seats. And they were right to be scared, as they probably were going to die.

“Are you not scared, Porteous?” he asked as the Peregrine’s systems went offline once inside the giant transport ship.

“Scared, my lord?”

“You’re the only one of the crew not quivering.”

She shrugged. “If my fate rests at the hands of this species on this planet, then there is nothing I can do to prevent it. Therefore, I have nothing to fear.”

“How charmingly fatalistic,” Moldark replied.

“Perhaps, my lord. But I simply refuse to waste time and energy worrying about something I am powerless to prevent.”

“Well said. Well said indeed.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

Moldark sensed the ship—that is, both ships—were slowing. But absent were the long in-atmo anti-gravity burns that slowed vessels of this size. Instead, there was the gentle reduction of speed that a body might experience at the end of an elevator passage. Which meant they weren’t headed to the surface after all, at least not yet. He’d been misguided to think this massive transport vessel would make orbit anyway. Instead, the Obscura wanted the Peregrine to be onboard their main ship, and then they would deliver him to the surface from there.

The Peregrine stopped.

The crew sat on the bridge in total silence. The only thing anyone heard was the gentle hum of the ship’s drive system keeping the craft alive. But life support was all it really needed to maintain as every other system was worthless. They sat for maybe ten minutes before something rocked the ship.

Moldark looked out the main window and watched a vertical line of gray light appear on the far end of the containment bay. His eyes adjusted, straining to make out any additional features. The gap widened to reveal a rocky landscape composed of dark rocks set amidst endless grey sand. And in the sky, low on the horizon, was the star they’d seen from orbit. It cast red highlights on any surface reflective enough to catch the sun’s dying rays.

“Are we on the planet?” someone asked behind Moldark.

“I think so,” said another.

“But that’s not possible.”

Moldark didn’t care about their disbelief. He was far too interested in the five dark figures who appeared against the background. Their lightless cloaks moved like ethereal spirits, playing tricks on the eyes—or perhaps it was just the low light. They walked toward the bay and then stopped a meter from where the blackness of the hangar’s floor met the grey sand of the outside world.

“Come alone, Mithriel,” said a nondescript voice inside Moldark’s head. “Leave your helmet. We are waiting.”

Terminal Fallout

Moldark ordered the crew to stay with the ship while he left to follow the five figures standing in the sand. Yaeger had protested, insisting he accompany Moldark as his bodyguard. They man’s loyalties and bravery would be rewarded. But Moldark knew this was a solo errand, and commanded the captain to remain with the ship.

The five shadowy figures did not greet Moldark and did not show their faces. Instead, they turned and led him down a hardpack road that meandered away from the large transport. Within a few minutes, the vessel and, therefore, the Peregrine were out of sight, hidden by rocks.

The air was breathable; Kane’s body seemed more than able to handle it. Though, without an atmosphere scan, there was no telling what long-term effects there might be from prolonged exposure. As the weak star suggested, the temperature was cold—but apparently not severe enough to snow. Then again, he saw no moisture, no evidence of life. It was just—barren.

On and on they walked, rounding stands of coarse black rocks adorned with dunes of fine grey sand. More than once, Moldark thought about consuming these people. They were sentient, after all, and he could tell they were biological—their odor gave that much away. They had a soul in them, which meant he could feast, and they had blood, which meant they could die.

But beyond sating his hunger, he wasn’t sure what the act of killing them would accomplish. They did not seem threatened by him, nor did he know how to use their fears against them to get what he wanted. There were simply too many blanks to fill in. A premature move would yield little. So Moldark continued, following a few paces behind them.

The landscape’s monotony had almost succeeded in boring him to death when the five figures led Moldark over a rise in the road. A few spikes appeared against the horizon—the carcass of a desert beast. Or so he thought until the peaks expanded into the tops of towers, and the towers into buildings. Within another twenty steps, Moldark looked out upon an entire lightless city that seemed to have grown out of the desert, formed from the coarse black rock.

It was hard for Moldark to determine the city’s size as the shadows betrayed width and depth. It was also pointless to wonder about population since he didn’t know what purpose this place served—after all, there were no lights, no industry, no transportation. Absent were the sounds of vehicles and crowds, of birds and insects. Gone were the smells of cook fires and exhaust. Instead, this metroplex was dead—the shell of some former civilization long deceased.

Then again, Moldark was confident he felt life amidst the monolithic structures. Someone or something was fueling them, sustaining them. And he was determined to find out who it was or what it was.

Terminal Fallout

The five figures led Moldark into the city, heading toward an enormous temple-like structure in the heart of the urban sprawl. The building had an ominous aura about it as if whatever lay within it had a desire to peer deep into Moldark’s being. This was absurd, of course, as nothing was more powerful, more pervasive than an Elemental—he stood alone in the universes as an unrivaled power, albeit one stripped of his homeworld and devoid of a fleet.

More unsettling than anything else, however, were the hundreds of cloaked figures who appeared along the streets. They stood motionless and soundless, faces hidden by hoods. Moldark felt their eyes study him as he passed by, watching from doorways and balcony windows, street corners and alleys. As he neared the temple building at the end of the street, more and more people appeared to witness what, according to their numbers, seemed that it would be of tremendous importance.

When he arrived at the top of the steps, the five escorts parted and then turned, surrounding a new figure who had emerged from the building’s shadows. The person approached Moldark and then stopped a meter away.

“Mithriel of the Norxük, welcome,” the man said. “I am Psykon, First of Many.” There was nothing remarkable about his soft voice, only that he was having a casual conversation in what was the oddest setting Moldark had seen this side of metaspace. “We are the Obscura, abiders of the dark.”

Moldark narrowed his eyes at the shadowy figure. If he were not bound to Kane’s body, he would fly into the ether and search the face of every soul in this place. Their secrecy was tiresome.

“How do you know that name?” Moldark asked. “Mithriel of the Norxük?”

“We know many things.”

“Yet you did not answer my question.”

Psykon’s head tilted. “Knowledge of such importance requires no short explanation.”

“I have an eternity,” Moldark said. “I insist.”

“And yet you do not wonder where we have brought you?”

“Does it matter?”

“It may matter for your future, should you decide to abide with us in the dark.”

Moldark took a moment to look back at all the people. Somehow, in the few seconds he stood atop the steps, the masses had gathered beneath him, filling in the open square below the temple’s shadow.

“So you’ve brought me here to offer me something?” Moldark said, looking back to Psykon.

He nodded. “It is a transaction, one we believe is mutually beneficial.”

“You have something you think I want?” Moldark looked up at the face of the black temple. “I hate to disappoint you, but I’m not sold on what I’m seeing.”

“Of course. We have not revealed our hand. Which puts you at a disadvantage.”

“And I’ve revealed mine?” Moldark squinted at Psykon’s face, trying to see through the black shroud that obscured his face.

“You have. Which is why we brought you here.”

“And what is it you think you know about me?”

Psykon took half a step forward, which made Moldark tense. These were strange beings, indeed. They had taken out his remaining warships with incomparable power, and yet here in their black city, they were unimpressive—to say the least. Yet there was something dangerous about them.

“We have been watching you since you entered our universe,” Psykon said.

Moldark felt a chill run down Kane’s body. He had felt this cold before, back on Capriana Prime in the plaza outside the communications building. Something had been watching him. He had also felt it when he confronted So-Elku on Worru. And he had felt it when meeting Rawmut on Oorajee, shortly after taking Wendell Kane as a host. This cold, this sense of being watched from the shadows—it had been there at every turn.

“Watching me?” Moldark asked. “Why?” He did not need the how answered just yet. Motive was far more important than execution.

“Come,” Psykon said.

Psykon turned and then walked into the temple entrance. The five escorts followed Psykon without saying a word, which left Moldark on the landing by himself. But not for long. The multitude of people was moving up the stairs toward him. Moldark heard no footfalls, no breathing, just the sound of the wind drifting through the city and rippling against a sea of black cloaks.

Moldark looked back at the temple entrance and realized he had come this far—why not go a little more?

Terminal Fallout

Inside the temple, Moldark looked down from a balcony onto a vast stone floor. Already, the people in the city had gained entrance to the hall and were filling space, ten-thousand strong. They each took their place, kneeling amidst a five-pointed shape, and faced toward the center.

Moldark searched for Psykon, but he was nowhere to be found—at least that Moldark could see. It was an impossible task, anyway. Every last one of the cryptic figures looked the same.

Within a few minutes, the entire temple was filled with people. Whether or not this constituted the city’s entire population or the whole of the Obscura, Moldark didn’t know.

“Where would you like to go?” Psykon said from beside Moldark.

Moldark jerked away, his ethereal presence almost leaping at Psykon’s soul in retaliation. But that would not do—Moldark was curious, and killing Psykon would only prolong the time until he got answers to all the questions building in his head. “Go? I asked why you’ve been watching me.”

“And we will show you, Mithriel. But you must be the one to provide the destination.”

Psykon walked down the balcony’s steps and followed a path through the crowd toward a circle etched in the center of the floor. “Yes, Mithriel. Follow.”

Moldark stretched his neck. He was growing impatient with this man, Psykon. But the mystery of this place and these people still intrigued him. So he would entertain this First of Many, and allow them to live a little longer.

It took a minute for Moldark to catch up with Psykon. Eventually, the two stood within a circle carved in the stone and looked out over a sea of black hoods.

“If there was one place in this universe you wished to see, to be, right now, where would it be?” Psykon asked.

“Are you talking about teleportation?”

“Of a kind, but not of the body. If you could see someone, someone you wished to know the deeds of, perhaps even someone you wished to affect—”

“To kill?”

Psykon stopped. “Yes.”

“The leader of the Jujari,” Moldark said. “Their mwadim.”

Psykon’s head twitched. And then all the people bowed and began to hum a dissonant chord.

“Let us begin.”


32


Terminal Fallout

Rohoar dove out of the way as Mahkmaim lunged at him. A claw raked the mwadim’s right rear leg before he could take cover behind a column. The wound burned, but the limb was still functional. Mahkmaim tumbled to a halt, then fought to regain his feet.

“Come to me, Rohoar of the Jujari,” Mahkmaim seethed. “Come let me end your pitiful life.” His voice had changed. It felt distant and otherworldly. How or why Rohoar had yet to know. But it had definitely changed.

Mahkmaim dashed around a pillar and swung his paw spikes faster than Rohoar had ever seen. The weapon punched a furrow straight through the stone support, blasting Rohoar with chunks of stone and clouds of dust.

What in the name of the mystics has happened to him? Rohoar wondered. Something had come over the enemy warrior—a renewed determination to kill Rohoar. New hate as well. Which frustrated Rohoar. Hadn’t he been close to convincing the enemy to stand down and work together? Rohoar was sure he had been close.

In the end, however, the Selskrit’s anger had won out.

Still, Rohoar did not believe hate was the contender’s true heart. Something had happened. Something extraordinary.

Rohoar tripped, but then rolled with his momentum and regained his feet. Mahkmaim threw another punch with the paw spikes—this one harder than the last. His fist came at Rohoar’s head, but the Tawnhack ducked. Instead, Mahkmaim’s metal-tipped knuckles drove straight through the column, blowing it apart.

Rohoar scampered clear of the furious beast, and bits of the ceiling fell all around him.

“Argh!” Mahkmaim exulted. “This feels wonderful! It has been so long since I have had such a vessel—such power.”

This did not sound like Mahkmaim. But Rohoar still couldn’t figure out what had happened. One thing was for sure, however: whoever this was, it was not Mahkmaim of Selskrit.

A third punch—this time from the hand without the paw spikes—buried Mahkmaim’s arm in a column. Rohoar was sure the Jujari’s fist had been pulverized, but Mahkmaim did not so much as whine. Instead, he wrenched his shoulder back and forth in a desperate attempt to get his hand free.

Rohoar decided this was his moment and looked to put distance between him and the enemy. As he moved through the sublevel, he slipped into his second sight for clues. The Unity showed the Selskrit was covered in shadow. Black mist swirled around the warrior, obscuring his face and eyes. Rohoar also realized that the cold presence he’d felt moments ago was emanating from the dark clouds. Whatever evil Mahkmaim had invited to help him, it was powerful. Unless he did something fast, it was not only going to consume Mahkmaim—it was going to kill Rohoar.

Back in his natural sight, Rohoar raced toward the windows on the building’s west side. The sun was below the horizon now, turning the sky a vibrant pink, and the black hulks of starships cut through the color like the claws of corpses. If Rohoar could get back up to the roof, he could get those loyal to him to help him subdue Mahkmaim. Involving them would most likely start a riot with the Selskrit—but that was nothing new. He also might forfeit his right to be mwadim. But if it meant saving Mahkmaim from whatever evil was consuming him, it was worth it. And it is as you told him it would be, Rohoar said to himself. He would be giving his life, his role as mwadim, for Mahkmaim.

Rohoar stepped through one of the open floor-to-ceiling windows and drove his nails into the stone above the top sill. Just as he made to pull his battered body up, a hand wrapped around his leg and yanked him down. His hands lost their grip on the wall, but rather than fall back inside the window, Rohoar realized he was falling through open sky. He flailed his arms, trying to grab something—anything.

Rohoar passed Mahkmaim’s snarling face. The enemy swiped at the Tawnhack’s head, but Rohoar leaned away, still falling. The movement ended up driving his shoulder closer to the building’s exterior so that Rohoar could jam his claw into the side. His body weight jerked his shoulder tight, but his grip held.

“You are making this wonderfully interesting for me, mwadim,” Mahkmaim cried. Then he turned around and hopped backward off the window ledge.

Rohoar swung himself left to avoid Mahkmaim’s feet. The enemy stopped a meter below Rohoar, claws buried in stone.

“Isn’t this fun?” Mahkmaim said. He licked his chops.

Rohoar used his feet to dig into the stone, and then started crawling along the building face. By accident, he caught a glimpse of the tower’s base. A wave of vertigo played with his balance and made his stomach flutter. It was a long way down.

“And just where do you think you’re going?” Mahkmaim hissed. A moment later, the enemy started crawling after him.

From up above, the crowd of onlookers peered over the roof’s edge and started chanting Rohoar’s name—that was, everyone except Mahkmaim’s pack leaders. They had their own champion to cheer. But their voices were drowned out by Tawnhack supporters. It didn’t matter, though. This was no longer about a singotha—this was about whatever evil had infected Mahkmaim from within the Unity.

Rohoar needed to try and tell Mora or Czyz, or anyone who would listen. But Mahkmaim was coming too fast for him to think.

In a split-second decision, Rohoar let go of the wall and fell two floors before driving his claws back into the stone. His hands ached, and he could see blood surrounding his cuticles, but he could mend himself later—if he survived.

Above him, Mahkmaim matched his drop and stopped an arm’s length away. Rohoar blocked several body punches and an uppercut to his face. Mahkmaim was strong—even more potent than Rohoar remembered. Even with effective parries, the blows still cracked Rohoar’s bones.

“I foresee this ending poorly for you, Rohoar,” Mahkmaim said. “And to think I wasted so much time and so many ships on trying to take down your people, when all along there was a much easier way to destroy you.”

Rohoar swung clear and grabbed another new patch of stone. “Who are you?” he bellowed, fighting to stay clear. Perhaps if he could just turn in another window, he could use the stairwell to get back to the top.

“You really don’t know, do you,” Mahkmaim said. “My, this is wonderful. Just wonderful.”

“What have you done with Mahkmaim?”

“You’re catching on, mwadim. I’m proud of you. But it’s too late for him, just as it’s too late for you.”

The enemy lunged, flinging himself at the mwadim. It happened too fast to react, and razor-sharp nails dug deep into Rohoar’s shoulders. All of Mahkmaim’s weight came to bear on him, which eventually caused Rohoar’s paws to let go of the building. Still, for every meter he fell, Rohoar was able to cling to the building’s surface for a second, by dragging one hand across the stone, and then then next.

“We’ve met several times, you know,” Mahkmaim whispered in Rohoar’s ear. “And you’ve seen my handiwork.”

“I don’t—know—what you’re talking about,” Rohoar cried as his nails bled down the stone. His arms were moments away from giving out, and there was nothing he could do to get the Selskrit off his back.

“Perhaps you need a reminder then. It goes a little something like this.”

To Rohoar, it felt as though a lance ten-thousand times the strength of Oosafar’s sun had driven between his shoulder blades and ripped through the front of his chest. His arms and legs spasmed as every atom in his body seemed to protest their bonds. He wanted to scream—to tear the lungs from his breast if it meant they would exhale—but nothing came out. Instead, his body fell away from the tower of his forebears, and Rohoar’s life force returned from Mahkmaim.

And that’s when he knew who it was.

Moldark.

Terminal Fallout

Rohoar’s only relief came from the sensation of falling. He gave himself over to gravity, hoping its faithful work would end his life before he suffered too much longer. The pain of being burned alive, of having his soul devoured by Moldark, was too severe an agony to endure any longer than he must.

Something latched onto his ankle.

All at once, Rohoar went upside down, and Mahkmaim’s body flipped off his back. But the Selskrit was still holding on, dangling from the claws dug into Rohoar’s shoulders. The mwadim howled from the searing pain that seemed to pull his bones apart, but also from the relief he felt from Moldark’s connection being severed.

Rohoar looked up—which was down—and saw Mahkmaim’s one eye glaring back at him. Evil still filled it.

Rohaor’s voice came out in a strangled growl. “You’re—still—alive.”

“Yes,” Moldark said. “And I’m coming for you. I’m coming for you all. And you’ll never see me until it’s too—”

Rohoar slashed Mahkmaim’s neck with one paw and drove a nail into his remaining eye with the other. The Selskrit tried to finish Moldark’s sentence, but all the air escaped out the gaping slit in his Jujari throat. Mute and blind, Mahkmaim shuttered, sending white-hot streaks through Rohoar’s back. But the grip on his shoulders slackened, and in a moment of pure relief, Rohoar felt Mahkmaim let go.

The mwadim watched the Selskrit champion fall away, his body tumbling through the air and bouncing once off the building’s side.

“I am sorry, my brother,” Rohoar whispered, finally feeling his strength leave him. He watched until Mahkmaim’s body disappeared into the city’s deep shadows and then gave himself over to the hands that hauled him into the nearest window.


33


Terminal Fallout

Moldark looked down at his hands—Kane’s hands—and instantly missed the powerful claws of the Jujari he had just possessed. Granted, it also disgusted him. Being inside the vial creature was a torturous affair, but one he would suffer again if it meant delivering such unbridled wrath against his enemies. And without them ever suspecting me until it’s too late, he thought.

“Now, do you see why?” Psykon asked.

“I believe I do,” Moldark replied. Then he examined his arms and legs, still spellbound. He hadn’t just seen through the Jujari’s eyes—he’d been the Jujari. And, most astonishingly of all, he’d been able to partake of Rohoar’s soul. Moldark had exercised his powers vicariously.

The crowd of people, who had been bowing up until this point, sat up as one.

Moldark looked around, then turned back to Psykon. “So, this is what you do?”

“We abide in the darkness of others’ souls, yes. But we lack what you have amply demonstrated.”

“And what’s that?”

“The power to compel. And the power to withdraw life.”

Moldark squinted at Psykon, studying the man’s black hood. “So, that’s it, then? That’s what you want?”

Psykon nodded once.

Moldark laughed, feeling the life he’d drained from Rohoar, even if it was only a partial feeding. “You poor fools. I would pity you, were I to care.” He spun around to address the pitiful looking crowd on their knees. “But that’s a power you simply will never have.”

“And why is that?” Pskyon asked.

Moldark glared at the leader, unsure whether the man was being serious or not. “You—you know my name, do you not?”

Psykon nodded but did not speak.

“And you know this”—he gestured to his body—“is not my true form.”

Again, Psykon nodded.

Moldark looked around the room, waiting for some sort of punchline, some element of comic relief to swoop in and save these poor people from their delusions. All he could do was laugh, the sound of which echoed throughout the cavernous temple. “I am Norxük. I am an Elemental!”

Moldark laughed until he thought Kane’s throat might tear just as Mahkmaim’s had done. He leered at Psykon, at his wretched followers, at this entire planet of black rock and grey dust lit by a dying star. Their futility, their utter fantasy at thinking they could have what was his, it was—well, it was pitiful. To the point that if he were not laughing so hard, he might be crying—the poor things.

The feasting would be enjoyable. But the way he saw it, Moldark would be doing them a favor, really. No one deserved to live here, least of all these sad creatures. There was still the matter of destroying his last few ships, slaying thousands of sailors in the process. So there might be a minor sense of revenge in the digestion of their souls. But it was a simple exchange—they’d destroyed the last of his army, so he’d decimate theirs if it could be called an army. After that, this rather strange episode would be over, and Moldark could get back to the work he was so rudely interrupted from.

There was the matter of “abiding in the darkness of others’ souls,” as Psykon put it. Moldark had never seen anyone cross such expansive distances inside the Unity—assuming that’s what it was. Not to mention how they’d inserted his consciousness into the host. Such power was—intriguing. And if it was something he could use, that he could harness? The possibilities were, indeed, limitless.

“You asked me why we brought you here,” Psykon said. “It is because we wish the power to control the minds of others, and to snuff out the lives of our enemies.”

“I already told you, I am—”

“An Elemental. Yes. We are aware, Mithriel. But our abilities allow us certain privileges that our forebears were too nearsighted to entertain. Chiefly, that we are true students of the Unity and all that exists.”

“Which is how you know my name and that of my people.”

Psykon inclined his head. “We learn of it, from it, and in it. It is also from this process that we cultivated the bianima.”

“The bianima?” Moldark had never heard the word before.

“The dual state of existence—to be animated both here and there at the same time.”

“A quantum state,” Moldark suggested.

Psykon nodded once.

“So, you want to study me? Is that what you’re saying?”

“In part, Mithriel. We hope to learn how it is that you, the last of your kind, have come to utilize such power. We are aware that we will never be like you, of course. But”—Psykon spread his hands apart—“if you are willing to help us, to assist us in achieving our goals, we will be indebted to you.”

“Indebted?” While Moldark was intrigued by this, he couldn’t help but chuckle. “Unless you’re going to let me use that little magic trick of yours for my own purposes, I’m not sure you have much that interests me.”

“There is the possibility of allowing you this privilege, to a degree.”

“And what is that?”

“That it suits our purpose. As you can imagine, we do not allow just anyone access to the Obscura.” Psykon took a step toward Moldark. “In fact, you are the first.”

“So you learn how I do what I do—”

“No guarantees,” Psykon interjected.

“Sure. You get my powers, but I don’t get yours unless you approve.” He shook his head. “No deal.”

“What is it that you want, Mithriel?”

Now that was an intriguing question. It wasn’t that this curious man could give Moldark what he wanted—that much was obvious. Instead, Moldark felt the inquiry worthy of a genuine response because Psykon genuinely seemed to want to know. Everyone else who ever asked some semblance of this question did it out of survival—because they were trying to appease him and put off their own miserable deaths. But Psykon? He did not seem to fear death. In fact, he did not seem to fear anything save maybe failure.

“I want revenge,” Moldark said. “I want to exact revenge on the people who slew my kinsfolk. I want my wrath to visit the generations that came after them. And I want everyone who ever inconvenienced me in my pursuit of vengeance to suffer for prolonging justice. That, Psykon of the Obscura, is what I want.”

“And how do you propose to exact your vengeance, as you say? Surely, this is a grand undertaking.”

Moldark frowned. He didn’t like being patronized. “Why the sudden interest?”

“Something of that magnitude surely needs resources.”

“Of which I have plenty.”

Psykon tilted his head. “Do you, Mithriel?”

Moldark didn’t feel like dignifying that question with a response. He had taken over all three Galatic Republic fleets—he could do it again to some other navy. All he needed was time, which he had plenty of.

But do you want to wait that long again? he asked himself. The one thing eternity didn’t provide was relief from impatience.

“It seems that you require warships,” Psykon said. “And an army.”

“That’s my business, and you have wasted enough of my time.”

“But it can also be our business if you wish.”

Moldark squinted at the Obscura leader. “Are you saying you’re willing to equip me if I agree to allow you to study me?”

Psykon nodded.

A moment of silence passed as he considered the offer. Could this dark mystic provide him a navy? Or was this merely a ploy? “I would need to see the ships.”

“Of course.”

“And, the troops—”

“We will show you where to secure them.”

Moldark wasn’t sure if he could trust this man or his strange worshippers. “And if I don’t like what I see, or if you double-cross me—”

“We all know what you are capable of, Mithriel. We only seek to learn from you to settle our own grievances. You have your vengeance to exact; we have ours. Plus, we think you will find the elimination of our common enemy mutually beneficial.”

“Common enemy?”

“To be discussed if we have a deal. We wouldn’t want you leaving our sanctuary with sensitive information unless we knew where you stand.”

Moldark didn’t like that Psykon would purposefully withhold intelligence after already knowing so much about the Norxük, but he understood the man’s hesitation. Moldark wouldn’t trust himself either if the roles were reversed.

“And what if you fail to do what I can? What if compelling the enemy and consuming another’s life force is only for Elementals and not the Obscura? What then?”

“That is a risk we are willing to take. But the ships and the army, they are yours. We only ask that you preserve the secrecy of our order, nothing more.”

“Nothing?”

Psykon shook his head.

Moldark was beginning to think he’d be a fool not to take this deal. “And I’m on my way in—”

“In a matter of days. No more.”

Even despite what seemed to be a crooked deal in his favor, Moldark still felt that this arrangement was strange. The Obscura had no guarantee they could acquire an Elemental’s powers, and, worse, Moldark knew they couldn’t. Furthermore, the thought of giving someone access to his being—that didn’t sit well with him. Based on what these strange beings had already demonstrated, they would examine him thoroughly.

“I see that you are hesitant,” Psykon said, breaking Moldark’s train of thought. “There is one more item that may entice you.”

Ah, yes. Moldark had seen this on several systems. All biological species shared the same overwhelming need to procreate, thus ensuring the survival of their species. Giving an immortal being one or several of their sexually compatible virgins was, perhaps, one of the most pointless customs he had ever encountered.

“It won’t be necessary,” Moldark said.

“It won’t?”

He shook his head. “I’m not interested in your females.”

Psykon tilted his head and then brought his pale-skinned hands up so that his fingertips touched. “We wish to open a tunnel for you.”

Moldark froze. Had he just heard the man correctly? “What sort of tunnel?”

“A quantum tunnel. A void horizon. Back to your home.”

“You—you can do that?” Moldark glanced around at the people. “But that’s—”

“Impossible?”

“I already tried.”

“With the child, yes.” Then the entire host of worshippers spoke at the same time as Psykon. “We know.”

Moldark felt Kane’s heart beat faster. “You were watching.”

“We were,” Psykon said at the same time as the throng. Their voices echoed up through the hall’s vaulted back ceilings.

Moldark looked around the room and then focused on Psykon once more. “And what makes you so sure you can do what she could not?”

Psykon tapped his fingers together. “Because she was working alone. And”—he spread his hands apart—“because we have done it before.”

“We have,” said the masses.

If this was true, if this was real, it was—it is the answer you’ve been searching for. He could bring a navy to the Novia Minoosh’s doorstep and wipe out every record that they ever existed—just as he would do to the Jujari and every other species

Moldark looked over the masses, shrouded in their strange black robes. He tried to calm Kane’s beating heart. Then he turned back to Psykon. Moldark would still devour these people. But, perhaps, not today. “Let us proceed.”


34


Terminal Fallout

Magnus, Awen said inside his head. It’s Blackman. He’s here.

“What?” Magnus said, slowing on the back lawn. “But that’s not—”

Possible. I know.

“You okay, boss?” Rix asked.

Magnus held up a hand to quiet Rix. “You’re sure?”

Completely, Magnus. He just ordered the mansion to be destroyed with the governor and all the victims in it, and then told his people to make sure it looked like it was the Sekmit.

Magnus turned and headed back toward the mansion.

“Where you going, LT?” Dutch asked.

“We’ve got to get back to the governor’s bedroom,” Magnus said.

But Awen was quick to counter him.

But what about the mission? If you charge in here, everyone will know it was a setup. Blackman will—

“He won’t live long enough to do anything about it. And word is already out about the governor, which means the Sekmit got what they wanted.”

“Who won’t live long enough?” Dutch asked, her voice growing more urgent. “What’s going on?”

Magnus glanced back at Alpha Team. “Looks like we have an unexpected party guest. Senator Robert Malcom Blackman.” Then Magnus slowed as Awen told him something else. The news rattled him almost as much as hearing that the senator was still alive. “You’re kidding me.”

I’m not.

“What is it?” Silk asked.

“Blackman’s working for the LAW.” Magnus paused to make sure that command was still listening. “You hearing all this, Colonel?”

“We read you, Magnus,” Caldwell replied, his face popping up in a small frame.

“What’s the play?”

“Hell, son. If you have a shot and he’s still in that building, you take the bastard son of a two-timing mingus lover out. But you’re on the ground, so it’s your call.”

“Copy.”

The last Magnus had seen, Blackman was inside the communications building of the Forum Republica on Prime. The weasel had fed the populace a string of half-truths, ones that downplayed both their imminent demise and his complicity in it. Magnus had wanted to kill him right then and there, but that would have been murder, and a good man had his limits. But then there was Bosworth’s final statement about Blackman’s collaboration with Moldark, and it made Magnus wish he could go back and put those limits to the test. He’d had the senator right in front of him.

In the end, however, the bastard died in the orbital strike. At least, that’s what everyone assumed. But to discover he was still alive, working with the Luma?—and right the hell here? No, Blackman was meeting his end tonight.

Magnus, Awen said. I can take him out. He’s only just stepped out of the room.

“Negative,” Magnus said. “He’s mine.”

Alpha Team charged into the mansion and followed Magnus up the steps to the second level.

“I want you three securing Awen and the Sekmit women,” Magnus said.

“What about you?” Dutch asked.

“I’m taking care of Blackman.”

“No way,” Rix added. “Not without backup.”

“Your priority is those women. That’s an order.”

“Those women can take care of themselves, thank you very much,” Awen protested.

“Not without armor and a weapon, you’re not.”

“I can handle myself just fine without—”

“You get the hell out of there, Awen. That’s an order.”

The comm channel went silent.

Magnus could tell no one liked him going out on his own, especially Awen. But right now, he didn’t care. He wanted his assets clear of the building before it was torched, and if interrogating and then killing Blackman meant he had to suffer through the destruction on his own, so be it. He wasn’t letting that sorry excuse for a public leader leave alive. Not this time. And Magnus needed to do this alone. He didn’t want anyone else to see what he might have to do. “Treat all combatants as hostile.”

“Copy that, LT,” Dutch replied. “Dominate.”

“Liberate.” Magnus could see Dutch’s weapon’s indicator in his HUD change from stun mode to lethal. She had the right idea. Since there was no judge and jury, Alpha Team would stand in. Blackman was responsible for Capriana Prime, and he would pay. They would all pay.

When they reached the top of the stairs, Dutch, Silk, and Rix broke right while Magnus headed down the main hallway. He reduced the length of his NOV2’s stock for a tighter, more compact shooting posture, which was better for the confined environment. Then he raised his NOV2 and pointed it down the corridor—safety off, finger on the trigger. Magnus slowed his breathing and centered his focus. It was time to clean house.

Terminal Fallout

The first tuxedo-clad security officer only discovered Magnus because he ran out of a side room and knocked into an invisible Magnus. Stunned, the man brought his weapon up and fired, probably more out of surprise than having acquired an actual site picture. The hit was dead on, however, and struck Magnus in the shoulder. The blaster round exploded across his shield and then dissipated around the shape of his body.

The officer’s eyes went wide as he realized something, or someone, was right in front of him. But that was the last thing he ever saw, as Magnus fired two shots into the man’s tuxedoed chest.

The action caught the attention of two more guards returning from side rooms further down the hallway. Magnus guessed they were planting explosives—incendiaries if he had to bet a few of Bimby’s poker chips on it. They must have seen the last shot outline his body because they aimed right at him and fired. Without cover, Magnus took two more blaster rounds to his midsection, but the Unity shield held. Mystics, he liked this new tech.

He leaped sideways, aimed his NOV2 down the hallway at the nearest assailant, and squeezed the trigger twice. The first blaster round ripped through the man’s upper chest, followed by a second in his lower rib cage.

The next guard sent a stream of automatic fire at Magnus. Magnus sidestepped the barrage, and then sent two more bolts downrange, both in a tight grouping over the man’s heart.

“SITREP,” Magnus said over VNET.

“We’ve got Awen and the Sekmit,” Dutch replied.

“Good. Get them clear. Looks like they’re rigging the place to blow.”

“Copy that, LT. You sure that—”

“Out!”

“Roger,” Dutch replied without further protest.

Magnus exited the hallway through a set of antique double doors and emerged onto a white marble balcony. Below was the main floor where Awen had first encountered Littleton. But gone was the live band and all the partygoers. Instead, security forces crisscrossed the reception hall, and there, walking around the central fountain and heading for the exit, was Blackman.

“Not so fast,” Magnus said. He pointed his NOV2 down at Blackman, and then blinked, causing his bioteknia eyes to zoom in on the senator’s back. The blaster round streaked across the reception hall and struck Blackman in the small of his back. The man hit the ground and slid across the shiny floor.

Every set of eyes in the place turned in Magnus’s direction. Automatic blaster fire peppered the balcony railing, but Magnus was already moving. Sparks and chunks of stone struck his suit, forcing him to roll and take cover behind a wall. He heard orders for the security forces to move upstairs, which meant this level would be crawling with hostiles in a few seconds. He needed to get to the ground floor, eliminate enemy resistance, and confront Blackman.

Magnus considered jumping to the reception hall floor, but the Mark II didn’t have servo assist, and he was concerned his legs might break from the impact. For a split second, he considered using one of the giant banners that stretched down from the domed ceiling, but he dismissed that, suspecting the holo movies made it far more glamorous than it probably was. He imagined the enemy laughing at his pancaked body as they pulled it from under a heap of fabric. Idiot.

Instead, Magnus decided to head for the nearest stairwell in Blackman’s direction. He was gonna have to fight his way through this one, gunslinger style.

The first guard to arrive atop the stairwell never fired a shot. Magnus picked him off with two blaster rounds to the chest and a third to the head. The body fell backward and disappeared down the steps. Magnus continued to move forward—the NOV2’s upper receiver snug against his helmet’s cheek.

A second officer chanced a look around the stairwell’s top pillar and fired. She shot the wall right beside Magnus, which, considering he was still mostly invisible, was impressive. But he ended the woman with a single round to her temple, dropping her body on the top step.

Someone shouted from below. Magnus thought he heard the word Fragger and then saw a VOD bounce across the landing.

Aw, splick! Magnus dove toward a column and pulled his legs in just as the detonator shredded the balcony. Even though Magnus’s helmet mitigated the damage to his ears, his body still felt the shockwave hit him like a kick in the chest. But as soon as the explosion died, Magnus rolled out of hiding with his weapon up.

Three guards flooded the top steps, overconfident that their VOD had put down the enemy. None of them were even looking at Magnus when he fired, drilling the group on burst-mode. They fell in a heap, weapons clattering to the floor.

More shouts came from below as the enemy recoiled from more bodies hitting the deck. Magnus suspected they were preparing to send up another fragger, which meant it was time to send one of his own. He de-magged one of Azelon’s VODs, switched it to wide-spread in his HUD, and then sent the device around the corner. It clattered down the stairs as people shouted to take cover. But their orders were cut off by a loud detonation that had a much higher yield than the Repub ordnance. Thanks, Azie, Magnus said to himself.

He led with his NOV2 and turned down the stairs, weapon searching for targets like a Venetian web-toed blood wolf on a kill streak. A woman dashed toward the stairwell, but Magnus dropped her. He took the stairs one at a time, firing on every new officer as quickly as they appeared.

By the time Magnus reached the bottom step, blaster fire had come at his relative position from three directions. He counted at least twenty targets. It wasn’t until a bolt lit up his Unity shield that the blaster fire concentrated, reducing the energy field by eighty percent in less than a few seconds. It wouldn't be a problem as long as he could keep moving enough to recharge it. Which means you're not allowed to die, Adonis.

Magnus pivoted around the curved stairwell’s backside and then leaped toward cover behind the nearest column. He could see Blackman’s legs protruding from a marble pillar some fifteen meters away. He just had to get there, but enemy fire had him pinned down.

“Time to get wild,” he said and dropped out his front mag to replace it with a fresh one. He racked the weapon and then selected the AI-assisted multi-target fire effect mode. This many targets would drain both mags with one trigger pull. But desperate times call for a splick-load of rounds going downrange, he thought.

Magnus’s HUD showed the results of thermal sensor scans and calculated each enemy’s relative position. The potential target nodes blinked green as each one was locked into the weapon’s firing system. When targeting was complete, Magnus felt the gyro-stabilized barrel unlock. It was go time.

He waited for a lull in the oncoming fire and then stepped out from behind cover, NOV2 pointed at the AI’s pre-determined optimal firing position. As soon as the weapon’s barrel was lined up with the targeting trajectory indicators in his HUD, Magnus squeezed the trigger.

The weapon screamed, kicking his shoulder with the strength of a Bandalor mule-ox. It was everything Magnus could do to hold it steady. The barrel blurred in a strobe-like display of light, spitting out seventy-eight blaster rounds—three for each of the twenty-six targets located around the reception hall. The withering volley of blaster fire cut through chests, arms, and necks and filled the hall with a fine red mist. Bits of marble shot through the air while bodies fell into the fountain or tumbled into easels holding all manner of expensive art.

The last sentry fell, and Magnus listened to the NOV2 wind down—its barrel creaking under a red-hot glow. Then everything was silent.

When Magnus looked back toward Blackman, he saw that the senator had pulled his legs out of the lane. That meant he was still alive. Which means you’ll get to watch him die, Adonis. It wasn’t like him to be so cruel, but he’d also never confronted a man who was responsible for destroying an entire planet. Morals be damned—he’d let the mystics sort his decisions out in the afterlife.

Magnus ejected his spent mags as he walked, replaced them with fresh ones, and then charged his weapon. He found the senator curled up in a fetal position, hands over his head. Magnus reached down, grabbed Blackman by the ankle, and pulled him through a bed of stone debris. Then he flipped a chair right-side-up and hoisted Blackman into it.

“Whoever you are,” the senator said, eyes searching for whoever handled him. “I’m sure we can reach some sort of—” Blackman winced in pain, and then cleared his throat. His oily grey hair was tousled, and his bowtie had come undone. “Some sort of arrangement. Just tell me what you want, and I can make it happen.”

“Why did you do it?” Magnus said over externals.

Blackman grimaced at the sudden sound, still looking to focus on whoever spoke.

“Do what?” He coughed, face contorting in pain. “Who are you?”

Against Magnus’s better judgment, he de-cloaked. He wanted Blackman to see his executioner. “Why’d you betray the people of Capriana Prime, you son of a bitch?”

Blackman coughed again, this time a deep and difficult affair that lasted for several seconds. The man was dying but still managed to look up and down Magnus’s armor. “You Republic? Because we can make a—”

Magnus backhanded the senator to keep him on task. “Answer the question.”

“I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.”

Without giving it a second thought, Magnus fired his NOV2 into Blackman’s knee. The senator screamed, clutching the broken joint and the shreds of bone and ligament that remained.

“Whoops. Didn’t mean to do that either. Silly accidents.”

“I swear.” Blackman wept, barely able to remain upright. “It wasn’t supposed to—”

“End in a billion people losing their lives? Yeah, funny how that happened.” He fired into Blackman’s other knee. “Trigger is so damn touchy. Sorry about that.”

Blackman roared and then toppled out of the chair. He pleaded for the mystics to spare him, for someone to come to the rescue.

“Not today, Blackman,” Magnus said as he knelt beside the senator. “What I really don’t get is that, first, you were playing in the sandbox with Moldark—at least that’s what Bosworth said—and now look at you.” Magnus pressed the barrel of his weapon into the LAW logo on Blackman’s breast.

The senator winced, then made a pitiful attempt to bat the barrel away. “Did you want more of this?”

“Say that again?”

“Did you really want—” Blackman went into another coughing fit. “More of what the Republic had to offer? More killing? More domination?”

“And you think So-Elku can do better? Is that it?”

“He can.”

“I’ve run out of knees to shoot when you give me bad answers,” Magnus said.

“You clearly don’t know him—what he’s capable of.”

“And you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to.”

“But I, I recognize your—” A convulsion cut him off as his body was racked with pain. Then, with a raspy whisper, he said, “Magnus.”

“Come to pick up where we left off.”

“Yes—yes, I see that.”

“I just wanted to know why you did it. And I’ve got my answer.”

“So, you’re, going to let me live?”

Magnus chuckled. “You poor naive innocent little sunflower. I let you go once, and look what a mistake that turned out to be.”

Another wave of agony washed over Blackman. His face twisted up, and Magnus thought the man might expire right then and there. Eventually, Blackman caught his breath and opened one eye. “I may be a dead man, Magnus, but so are you.”

“Aren’t we all. Your day has just come much sooner than mine.”

“No.” Blackman closed his eyes and managed a small shake of his head. “Same day.”

“What was that?”

“We both die today.”

Then the front doors exploded in a fireball of white-hot light.


35


Terminal Fallout

Magnus activated chameleon mode again and then pointed his NOV2 at the smoking hole in the mansion’s front entrance. Whatever had made it was big.

Blackman reached up and grabbed his weapon’s barrel, then jerked it down. Another hand latched onto his belt.

“Hands off me, dick,” Magnus yelled, throwing an elbow into Blackman’s face.

The senator moaned.

“Who’d you call?”

“You think I came here alone?” Blackman said, hands covering his face. Then, with whatever energy he had left, the senator lunged at Magnus and grabbed his collar, his face a contorted mix of pain and pleasure. “You’re going to die with me, Lieutenant! Compliments of Master So-Elku.”

“I said, get off me!” Then Magnus fired twice into Blackman’s chest.

The senator’s eyes froze as if he couldn’t believe Magnus had just shot him.

“Oh, believe it, bitch. Have fun paying visits to the souls you killed.” Then Magnus shoved the corpse away and focused on the people coming through the doorway.

A least a dozen figures in short gold bathrobes and baggy pants stepped through the smoke, hands at their sides. They bore no weapons and wore no armor. Magnus almost lowered his gun until he remembered them from TO-96’s video of So-Elku’s little speech.

“Aw, splick,” Magnus said, crouched beside Blackman’s body. Slowly, he moved for cover against the fountain’s base.

“That what I think it is?” Caldwell said over VNET. He saw Magnus’s camera feed.

“Golden bath babies with an attitude? Yeah, that’s what you’re seeing.”

“The Li-Dain. Magnus, if what Willowood says about those fighters is true, you’ve—”

“Got to get the hell out of here. I know.”

He double-checked his ammo capacity and grabbed a VOD from his belt. The good news was that his Mark II armor offered some protection against being spotted in the Unity. The bad news was that he couldn’t stay stationary for long. And he didn’t like the odds against twelve of So-Elku’s newfangled warriors. Make that twenty-four.

“Magnus, we’re seeing—”

“Yeah, me too,” Magnus said, cutting off the colonel.

“Where did they come from?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.” Magnus pinged Dutch’s channel. “Coming out the back, and it’s gonna be hot.”

“Copy that, LT.”

Magnus set the VOD for a shaped charge, delivering maximum yield in the enemy’s direction, then lobbed the detonator over the fountain. The device flew through the smoke and bounced off the floor. But when the VOD went off, it detonated inside a translucent bubble the size of a dining room table. The ground rippled in a double-beat subsonic wuh-wumph, and then the light was gone.

“What in the splick—”

But Magnus didn’t have time to finish as two Li-Dain warriors pointed at him. Well, that’s not good.

He raised his NOV2, selected full-auto, and sprayed the far end of the lobby. Blaster rounds beat across the group of people, drilling into the robes. But when Magnus surveyed the damage, every last one of them stood, unmoved.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

“Run, Magnus,” Willowood said over Caldwell’s channel.

“Got it!”

He turned and started sprinting toward a set of double doors. According to his building map, these led to the hallway below the one he’d come down from the governor’s bedroom. Then, he’d pass the stairs leading up to the bedroom and exit onto the back veranda. Easy peasy.

Until the doors exploded into another giant ball of fire, the concussion of which knocked Magnus backward and threw him on his back.

“Son of a bitch,” he yelled.

“You still there, son?” Caldwell asked.

“I’m not sure my guts came with me, but most of me’s here.”

“La-raah. Now get up.”

“On it.”

Magnus pushed himself off the ground, still clutching his NOV2, and stumbled toward the new doorway the Li-Dain had been nice enough to carve out for him. As his feet beat through bits of burning wood and chunks of marble, Magnus looked over his shoulder to see the Li-Dain spreading to either side of the fountain and heading toward him. Two stopped to check on Blackman, but they were back on their feet in a second.

Magnus blind-fired several rounds under his side in the off chance it might slow the Luma, but he guessed it wouldn’t. They seemed impervious to blaster fire, at least at the rate his NOV2 could deliver. The best he could hope for was to catch them off guard.

As Magnus disappeared into the hallway’s shadow, he maglocked his blaster to his back and pulled a VOD from each hip. Then he selected the sticky-bomb mode in his HUD, which came stock with a motion-sensor activation on a five-second delay. But Magnus needed the boom-boom a lot faster than that, so he dropped it to two seconds, and then threw the detonators to either wall. With any luck, the Li-Dain wouldn’t notice the ordnance, and he’d catch one or two with their shields down.

Magnus put as much distance as he could between himself and the bombs in the next two seconds. It wasn’t much time under any other conditions, but a lot could happen in a firefight in two seconds. Especially when maniacal bath babies are chasing you.

Buh—boom!

The double explosion threw Magnus forward. He hurtled through the air like a flightless skahba bird, hands windmilling to right himself. His left shoulder slammed into the ground, and the next thing Magnus knew, he was careening down the glossy marble floor hunted by a blossom of fire and shrapnel.

He put a hand down, which made him spin around. Black smoke followed him as bits of the building pelted his armor. Magnus was still sliding on his back when he withdrew his V from his hip, grasped the handle with both hands, and started firing one controlled blaster bolt after another into the haze. The powerful weapon bucked in his hands as energy bolts cracked through the air and exploded against Unity shields. Most of his rounds seemed to have little to no effect. But he felt confident at least two or three rounds made it through even though it was hard to tell through all the commotion.

As momentum continued to carry Magnus down the hall, the enemy emerged from the smoke—as did a few dead bath babies that slid across the floor. Finally.

“Scratch three,” Magnus said to no one in particular. He just wanted someone to know the good news.

“That’s good, Magnus,” Willowood replied. “But you’ve got to keep moving.”

“Hard copy.” Magnus tossed his V, rolled over, and pushed himself up into a run using his momentum from sliding across the floor.

The second piece of good news was that his HUD showed four gladias moving across the north lawn toward the mansion. Backup was on the way. But even with the fire support, he wasn’t sure what could be done against such a well-shielded enemy. His VOD-takedown had been lucky, and he knew it wouldn’t work again.

“I see you,” Magnus said to Alpha Team. “Gonna need you to lay down a strong base of covering fire.”

“Can do, LT,’ Dutch replied.

“But stay clear. These bastards are packing some serious—uh, they make stuff explode.”

“La-raah.”

The floor behind Magnus erupted in a ball of light as if mentioning the Luma’s firepower had prompted them to shoot at him. Again, he was tossed forward. This time he landed hard on his chest and slid toward the glass windows that looked over the back terrace. Magnus realized he wasn’t going to be stopping anytime soon.

“Here I come,” he said over comms. “Don’t shoot.” Then he sprayed the nearest windowpane with his NOV2 and used the gun to cover his head. The glass exploded, then rained down on him as he slid through the glittering debris field. Had he not been wearing armor, his skin would have been torn to ribbons. Even still, he could feel pain streak down his chest and legs. When he finally came to a stop outside, he felt someone standing over him.

Magnus looked up at four BATRIGS, their weapons pointed into the mansion.

“Happy to see us?” Awen said.

“Yeah,” Magnus replied, more than a little happy to see the two-ton beasts in combat-ready position.

Awen gave him a salute. “Might want to get behind us.”

Magnus scrambled to his feet and then bolted behind the line of mechs—only to find a fifth BATRIG standing without an operator. “You guys shouldn’t have.”

“And not let you have some fun?” Rix said. “Nah.”

Magnus climbed into his mech as GU90M fire kuh-boomed its way into the mansion, tearing through the windows and blowing head-sized holes through any solid surface. Meanwhile, the reticulating torrent disruptors on the ends of each mech’s left arm whirred to life, eviscerating walls, windows, and columns with a steady blaaaaat.

By the time Magnus paired with his mech and arranged himself inside, the back of the mansion looked like a tornado had hit it. He stepped forward, finding his place in line, and then added to the frenzy of weapons fire that lit up the building face as bright as the midday sun.

His body vibrated as both arms shook, delivering lethal doses of high-frequency blaster rounds that ripped apart anything and everything. In the haze of dust and broken glass, Magnus saw a Luma extend her hands to produce a shield wall. It lasted for about three seconds as Magnus targeted her palms and held a sustained bead of fire with the RTD10. When the wall vanished, the woman’s hand, arms, and chest were liquified.

Another Luma dashed along the floor, trying to outrun the chug-chug-chug of Magnus’s GU90M. But in his haste, he passed into the opposing path of Dutch’s GU90M fire. A single round removed the man’s head from his shoulders, while several more mangled his body into an unrecognizable state.

When Magnus couldn’t see anything else move in the north lobby, he ordered a cease-fire. It took a few seconds for the RTD10s to wind down, and when they did, all Magnus’s audio sensors could pick up were the faint sounds of tinkling glass, falling bits of stone, and small fires cracking throughout the building.

“Think we got ’em all?” Silk asked, sounding as if she meant to be sarcastic.

“Nope,” said Rix, followed by the loud sound of single 90mm rounds blasting through a Luma who was still moving. “Now we got ’em all.”

“Show off.”

“Everyone, okay?” Magnus asked, turning his mech to look at his team.

“Golden,” Dutch replied. “Well, not golden like those dead Luma, but, you know.”

“Yeah.” Magnus grinned. “I know. Thanks for coming back for me.”

“And we’re not happy about it either,” Awen said. “You and me? We’re gonna have words about this whole thing.”

“And I’m sure one of us is gonna do most of the talking,” he mumbled.

“I can hear you,” Awen replied with an attitude.

“But I—”

“I’m still in the Unity. You think those Li-Dain didn’t try firing on us all? You’re in so much trouble with me.”

He hadn’t considered that Awen had helped field some sort of defense in the Unity. Not that he was complaining. But he needed to learn to stop speaking out loud around her.

“Or even thinking around me,” Awen added.

“Noted.” Magnus chuckled and then motioned for the team to follow him. “Come on. This place is still rigged to blow. We’ve gotta move.”

The BATRIGs turned, jogged across the terrace, and then leaped over the far railing. Just as they did, the incendiary explosives in the governor’s mansion detonated, casting mech-shaped shadows across the lawn. Magnus led his team to the tree line and then turned to watch the mansion burn.

“Something tells me we have a lot of work cut out for us,” Magnus said to the team.

“And you don’t know the half of it, son,” Caldwell said, popping up in a sub-window on his HUD.

“Why do I have the feeling you’re gonna tell me something big, Colonel.”

“’Cause I’m gonna tell you something big, Adonis. We just got a transmission from Rohoar’s wife on Oorajee.”

“Rohoar’s got a wife?” Magnus turned to Awen in surprise.

“Eh, I think they call it a mate or something,” Caldwell said. “Anyway—”

“Hold up.” Magnus took a breath. “Please don’t tell me he’s dead. Splick, I’m not doing this right now.”

“Easy, son. Rohoar’s alive. Well, mostly, from what she says.”

“Mostly? What the hell happened?”

“Seems he undertook some sort traditional one on one pack battle to determine who was gonna be king.”

“A singotha,” Awen replied, nodding her head at the colonel’s words.

“And he won, I take it?”

“Barely. Turns out, he wasn’t just fighting the contender.”

Magnus scrunched up his face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Rohoar claims someone else possessed the other combatant.”

“Whaddya mean, possessed?” But Magnus felt his gut tighten even before Caldwell replied.

The colonel removed the cigar from his mouth and probed the inside of a cheek with his tongue. Then he took a deep breath. “Moldark’s not dead, kid. And he’s coming for us.”

Terminal Fallout

MAGNUS and AWEN will return in QUANTUM ASSAULT, coming May 2020.

For more updates on this series, be sure to join the Facebook Group, “J.N. Chaney’s Renegade Readers.”


Character Reference

A. H. (Alvin Henry) Lovell: Human. Age: 51. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Brigadier General, 1st Republic Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Galactic Republic Marines; includes 79th Reconnaissance Battalion. Dark complexion, commanding presence.

Abimbola: Miblimbian. Age: 41. Planet of origin: Limbia Centrella. Commander of Bravo Platoon, Granther Company. Former warlord of the Dregs, outskirts of Oosafar, Oorajee. Bright-blue eyes, black skin, tribal tattoos, scar running from neck to temple.

Adonis Olin Magnus: Human. Age: 34. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Gladio Umbra, Granther Company commander. Former lieutenant, Charlie Platoon, 79th Reconnaissance Battalion, “Midnight Hunters,” Galactic Republic Space Marines. Baby face, beard, green eyes.

Allie Porteous: Human. Age: 44. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Paragon. Senior sensor’s officer aboard the Peregrine.

Aubrey Dutch: Human. Age: 25. Planet of origin: Deltaurus Three. Commander of Alpha Platoon, Granther Company. Former corporal, weapons specialist, Galactic Republic Space Marines. Small in stature, close-cut dark hair, intelligent brown eyes. Loves her firearms.

Awen dau Lothlinium: Elonian. Age: 26. Planet of origin: Elonia. Commander of Echo Platoon, Granther Company. Form Special Emissary to the Jujari, Order of the Luma. Pointed ears, purple eyes.

Azelon: AI and robot. Age: unknown. Planet of origin: Ithnor Ithelia. Artificial intelligence of the Novia Minoosh ship Azelon Spire.

Cal Wagoner: Human. Age 31. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Lieutenant (Officer In Charge), first platoon, Taursar Company, Gladio Umbra. Leads defense of north tunnel in the assault on the Black Labyrinth.

Chloe: Human. Age: 29. Planet of origin: Tresseldor. Magistrate of Klon, aka “the Terror of Tresseldor.” Short red hair flipped out under a black Repub officer’s cap, Sypeurlion admiral’s jacket. Pissed at everyone, a vendetta around every corner. Challenger. Flies a black and blue Sypeurlion Jackal-class fighter.

Cyril: Human. Age: 24. Planet of origin: Ki Nar Four. Assigned to Bravo Platoon, Granther Company. Former Marauder. Code slicer, bomb technician. Twitchy; sounds like a Quinzellian miter squirrel if it could talk.

Daniel Forbes: Human. Age: 32. Planet of origin: Capriana. Captain of Taursar Company, Gladio Umbra. Former Captain of Alpha Company, 83rd Marine Battalion, Galactic Republic Space Marines, on special assignment to Worru. Close-cropped black hair, but a swoop across his forehead. Brown eyes. Clean-shaven, angular face.

David Seaman: Human. Age: 31. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Captain in the Republic Navy, commander of the Black Labyrinth’s two Talon squadrons, Viper and Raptor, and the head of SFC—Strategic Fighter Command. Promoted to Commodore (Flag Officer) of First Fleet aboard the Solera Fortuna.

Dimitrius: Human. Age: 33. Planet of origin: Ki Nar Four. Captain. Head of Sootriman’s personal security detail.

Ed Fink: Human. Age: 44. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Head of security for Governor Littleton.

Emery Wade: Human. Age: 48. Planet of origin: Deltaurus Three. Galactic Republic Planetary Governor for Deltaurus Three.

Felicity Willowood: Human. Age: 61. Planet of origin: Kindarah. Luma Elder, Order of the Luma. Wears dozens of bangles and necklaces. Aging but radiant blue eyes and a mass of wiry gray hair. Mother of Valerie, grandmother of Piper, mentor to Awen.

Freya: Sekmit. Age: Unknown. Planet of origin: Aluross. Tribe mother (ní) of Linux Pride (ní Freya ap Linix). Famed conqueress of Midorvia, and the slayer of Cor, King of the Rithruk. A black and white fur, lithe, dressed in translucent red silk.

Gerald Bosworth III: Human. Age: 54. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Republic Ambassador, special envoy to the Jujari. Fat jowls, bushy monobrow. Massively obese and obscenely repugnant.

Idris Ezo: Nimprith. Age: 30. Planet of origin: Caledonia. Assigned to Alpha Platoon, Granther Company. Former bounty hunter, trader, suspected fence and smuggler; captain of Geronimo Nine.

Josiah Wainwright: Human. Age: 35. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Captain, Company Commander, 79th Reconnaissance Battalion, “Midnight Hunters,” Galactic Republic Marines. Attached to First Fleet.

Jules: Human. Age: 31. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Sea skimmer racing champion, and proprietor of Jules Sea Skimmer Rentals franchise. Blonde and fit with a fiery attitude.

Kar Zoll: Human. AgeL 35. Planet of origin: Oorajee. Petty Officer, team leader for Charlie Team, Second Squad (Officer in Charge), 1st Platoon, Granther Company, Gladio Umbra. Tall, dark hair. Competent leader and tactician.

Lani DiAntora: Sekmit. Age: 29. Planet of origin: Aluross. Flag Captain of the Soloar Fortuna, under Commodore Seaman. Feline-like humanoid species, blonde hair. Inquisitive, analytical, and unafraid of senior officers.

Lapinaw: Human. Age: 38. Planet of origin: Ki Nar Four. Captain. Sootriman’s head of Emergency Rescue Operation (ERO).

Louis Littleton: Human. Age: 37. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Galactic Republic Planetary Governor of Aluross. Deep-set eyes, a wave-like coif of dark hair, and full chin. Wealthy family.

Mahkmaim: Jujari. Age: Unknown. Planet of origin: Oorajee. Infamous pack leader of the Selskrit. Large and imposing physique, violent tribal warrior.

Mauricio “Ricio” Longo: Human. Age: 29. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Republic Navy, squadron commander of Viper Squadron, assigned to the Black Labyrinth.

Michael “Flow” Deeks: Human. Age: 31. Planet of origin: Vega. Assigned to the Azelon Spire. Former sergeant, sniper, Charlie Platoon, 79th Reconnaissance Battalion, “Midnight Hunters,” Galactic Republic Space Marines. One of the “Fearsome Four.”

Miguel “Cheeks” Chico: Human. Age 30. Planet of origin: Trida Minor. Assigned to the Azelon Spire. Former corporal, breacher, Charlie Platoon, 79th Reconnaissance Battalion, “Midnight Hunters,” Galactic Republic Space Marines. One of the “Fearsome Four.”

Minx: Sekmit. Age: Unknown. Planet of origin: Aluross. Elder clan leader (mit’a), Fînta, Linix Pride (Mit’a Minx).

Moldark (formerly Wendell Kane): Human. Age: 52. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Dark Lord of the Paragon, a rogue black-operations special Marine unit. Former fleet admiral of the Galactic Republic’s Third Fleet; captain of the Black Labyrinth. Bald, with heavily scared skin; black eyes.

Nants: Human. Age: 25. Planet of origin: Worru. Apprentice to So-Elku.

Penn Franks: Human. Age: 60. Planet of origin: Minroc Santari. Admiral, Chief of Naval Operations, Galactic Republic Navy, CENTCOM.

Piper Stone: Human. Age: 9. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Assigned to Echo Platoon, Granther Company. Daughter of Senator Darin and Valerie Stone. Wispy blond hair, freckle-faced.

“Rix” Galliogernomarix: Human. Age: Unknown. Planet of origin: Undoria. Assigned to Bravo Company, Granther Company. Wanted in three systems, sleeve tattoos, a monster on the battlefield.

Robert Malcom Blackman: Human. Age: 54. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Senator in the Galactic Republic, leader of the clandestine Circle of Nine. A stocky man with thick shoulders and well-groomed gray hair.

Rohoar: Tawnhack, Jujari. Age: Unknown. Planet of origin: Oorajee. Commander of Delta Platoon, Granther Company. Former Jujari Mwadim.

Samantha Lynzell: Human. Age: 29. Planet of origin: Minrok Santari. Captain Wainright’s Company Office in Charge.

Silk: Human. Age: 30. Planet of origin: Salmenka. Assigned to Bravo Platoon, Granther Company. Former Marauder, infantry. Slender, bald, tats covering her face and head.

So-Elku: Human. Age: 51. Planet of origin: Worru. Luma Master, Order of the Luma. Baldpate, thin beard, dark penetrating eyes. Wears green-and-black robes.

Sootriman: Caledonian. Age: 33. Planet of origin: Caledonia. Assigned to Alpha Platoon, Granther Company. Warlord of Ki Nar Four, “Tamer of the Four Tempests,” wife of Idris Ezo. Tall, with dark almond eyes, tanned olive skin, dark-brown hair.

Tad Simmons: Human. Age: 30. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Lieutenant, Second Platoon OIC under Captain Wainwright.

TO-96: Robot; navigation class, heavily modified. Manufacturer: Advanced Galactic Solutions (AGS), Capriana Prime. Suspected modifier: Idris Ezo. Assigned to Echo Platoon, Granther Company. Round head and oversized eyes, transparent blaster visor, matte dark-gray armor plating, and exposed metallic articulated joints. Forearm micro-rocket pod, forearm XM31 Type-R blaster, dual shoulder-mounted gauss cannons.

Tornar: Jujari. Age: Unknown. Planet of origin: Oorajee. Elder pack leader of the Dingfang. Revered warrior.

Torrence Ellis: Human. Age: 31. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Serves as the Peregrine’s captain under Moldark.

Ty Yaeger: Human. Age: 30. Planet of origin: Minrock Santari. Captain, the Paragon. Moldark’s personal bodyguard and lead enforcer for the assault on Capriana.

Valerie Stone (deceased): Human. Age: 31. Planet of origin: Worru. Assigned to Alpha Platoon, Granther Company. Widow of Senator Darin Stone, mother of Piper. Blond hair, light-blue eyes.

Will Nevel: Human. Age: 34. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Attaché to Governor Wade of Deltaurus Three.

William Samuel Caldwell: Human. Age 60. Planet of origin: Capriana Prime. Colonel, 83rd Marine Battalion, Galactic Republic Space Marines; special assignment to Repub garrisons on Worru. Cigar eternally wedged in the corner of his mouth. Gray hair cut high and tight.

Wobix: Sekmit. Age: Unknown. Planet of origin: Aluross. Narskill warrior and emissary of her highness, Queen Nishti.


Acknowledgments

Christopher would like to extend a special thanks to Jen Sell for her continued masterful editing. To the Variant Publications staff, including Kayla Curry, Chloe Cotter, James Brockwell, and Molly Lerma, as well as Victoria Gerken at Podium Audio, for your endless hard work. And to my fellow Variant authors—la-raah.

To alpha readers Matthew Titus, John Bliss, David Seaman, Kevin Zoll, Walt Robillard, Shane Marolf, Mauricio Longo, John Walker, Ollie Longchamps, Matthew Dippel, Joseph Wessner, Arron Seaman, and Elijah Cole—thanks for helping me hold the threads together. And to all the Renegade beta readers for snagging those stray typos.

To Jeff, for his continued friendship and dedication to producing the best science fiction novels around. And to Jenny, for your endless encouragement and support as we journey deeper into the galaxy together.


Get a Free Book

J.N. Chaney posts updates, official art, previews, and other awesome stuff on his website. You can also follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

He also created a special Facebook group called “JN Chaney’s Renegade Readers” specifically for readers to come together and share their lives and interests, discuss the series, and speak directly to me. Please check it out and join whenever you get the chance!

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About the Authors

J. N. Chaney is a USA Today Bestselling author and has a Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. He fancies himself quite the Super Mario Bros. fan. When he isn’t writing or gaming, you can find him online at www.jnchaney.com.

He migrates often, but was last seen in Las Vegas, NV. Any sightings should be reported, as they are rare.

Terminal Fallout

Christopher Hopper’s novels include the Resonant Son series, The Sky Riders, The Berinfell Prophecies, and the White Lion Chronicles. He blogs at christopherhopper.com and loves flying RC planes. He resides in the 1000 Islands of northern New York with his musical wife and four ridiculously good-looking clones.


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