Book: Wings of Redemption



Wings of Redemption

Wings of Redemption

Wings of Redemption

The Terra Nova Chronicles Book 3






by

Richard Fox

and

Josh Hayes

Copyright © by Richard Fox

All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission.

ASIN: B07NCDCHHQ

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

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Chapter 1

Chief Warrant Officer Kit Carson couldn’t help but smile as the Valiant dropped below the thick blanket of clouds and took in the expansive deep blue ocean that stretched away from them to the horizon. The experience reminded her of her trips home to visit Mom and Dad in Houston, dropping low over the Gulf, mesmerized by the crystal blue water that stretched to the horizon. Of course, back then, she wasn’t standing next to three bronze-skinned aliens with strange, goat-like eyes.

​ She gave Jena a sideways glance, expecting a similar expression, but instead, the Zeis woman seemed to be full of intense resentment, even anger. Her jaw muscle twitched under her bronze skin, long red hair covering one side of her face.

“Now this looks like a place I can get to like,” Sergeant Nunez said .

“I’ll say,” said Rachel Greer from her seat in front of Carson. “What’d you say this place was called?”

“Yalara,” Jena said.

“Yalara, huh? Well, you just tell me where I need to head, alright?”

Pointing, Jena said, “There.”

Carson craned her head to look over Rachel’s shoulder and spotted a string of green in the blue expanse. Even from this distance, she could see at least one of the islands was busy with air traffic. “You live on islands?”

Nunez laughed. “From crazy robotic hell to island paradise in less than a week. I’ve been on worse missions.”

Master Sergeant Jason West, the team’s senior non-commissioned officer, turned to the junior sergeant, glaring. “Sergeant, weren’t you supposed to be inventorying the kit supplies?”

Nunez gave him a dismissive wave. “Eh, I got it taken care of, Sarge. The Hale kid’s all over that. Jumped right into it. You know, trying to prove himself and whatnot.”

Dipping his chin slightly, West raised both eyebrows.

Nunez hesitated for a moment, seeming to read the team leader’s nonverbals, then slowly nodded. “I should go make sure he doesn’t screw anything up.”

“Maybe you should to that,” West said, nodding .

Nunez jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I’m going to go supervise, so…” He turned and ducked out of the cockpit.

“Sorry, Chief,” West said as Nunez pulled the hatch closed behind him.

Carson shook her head. “Not to worry, Sergeant.”

An alert chimed on Greer’s console and several message panels appeared on the pilot’s screen. “Looks like we’re getting pinged by some kind of ground-based traffic control. I’m getting flight vectors and landing coordinates.”

“I’d suggest following them to the letter,” Jena said. “Port Control gets very unhappy if you deviate from their instructions.”

“Heads up,” Oscar Lincoln said. The Valiant ’s co-pilot pointed above and to the right. “Two bogeys at our three o’clock.”

Two red-and-silver aircraft were settling into a flightpath mirroring their own. Beneath each forward-swept wing hung two rocket clusters, the angled tips capped with twin-barreled cannons. Their sleek design reminded Carson of pre-Ember War fighter aircraft.

Escorts , Carson thought, frowning. Apparently, the Zeis were serious about their security, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. We’d probably do the exact same thing in their position .

“I thought you’d already cleared us?” Greer asked. “Looks like someone wasn’t exactly convinced.”

“Clearing us for orbital passage is one thing,” Jena said. “My family’s forces aren’t as considerate to strangers as planetary security. Especially now.”

“Why is that?” Carson asked.

“The political climate on Yalara is extremely tense right now. We are at a crossroads, so to speak, with two major factions pushing to overhaul our foreign policy. There are those among my people who do not wish to have any contact with any other species. They feel as though contact with others is tearing apart our cherished and sacred heritage. The Isolationists Party, which is heavily favored by the Royal Family, is pushing for a complete disconnect from the rest of the galaxy.

“The Opposition, of which my family is a part, seeks to push our people into a more cooperative relationship with our neighbors. Especially when it comes to fighting back against the Pindiki and now the Ultari. Granted, they don’t exactly know about the new Ultari threat. We need allies just as much as your people do. That being said,” she paused and nodded to the fighters, “they are for your protection as much as ours.”

“Our protection?” Carson asked.

“When the Isolationists learn of your presence here, it will not go over well.” Jena pointed to the string of islands growing larger below them. “The port is on the far side of the main island, the large one to the left there.”

Greer nodded. “Got it.”

The islands reminded Carson of the Hawaiian Islands back on Earth: tall mountains covered by lush vegetation, sand-covered beaches, inlets and peninsulas, and tall, tropical trees. Several structures peeked out of the canopy, looking over the coast. A sensor station—a fenced-in compound filled with satellite dishes, antenna clusters, and relays—sat on the summit of the tallest mountain.

“Air traffic control must be a nightmare,” Greer said.

Several more aircraft appeared in the sky surrounding the islands, small shuttles, and larger transports, maintaining holding patterns, moving in for landings, or taking off.

“Most of the daily operations are controlled by computers,” Jena explained. “It allows our operation to run substantially more efficiently than if it were run by Zeis controllers. Despite the Isolationists’ opposition to working with other cultures, they don’t seem to mind appropriating their technology. Regulos automation and AI routines are the best in the galaxy.”

As they passed over the mountain, the spaceport came into view—an expansive installation spread across several square kilometers, with large terminal buildings, landing strips, and wide parking areas. The tarmac was lined with hundreds of various-sized aircraft. In the center of the compound, the air traffic control tower loomed over everything, standing easily 150 meters tall. The entire complex was surrounded by fencing several kilometers tall, and security towers were positioned every fifty meters, armed with long-barreled machine guns and spotlights.

A long, horseshoe-shaped terminal sat at the end of the tarmac, the complex flanked by rows of aircraft hangars and long, rectangular warehouses. Seemingly endless lines of ground cars and cargo haulers moved through the clusters of buildings, delivering supplies and Zeis to various destinations within the complex.

“Lot of security for a spaceport,” West said.

“A necessity, I’m afraid,” Jena said. “You’re going to set down right there.”

Greer nodded. “Yep.”

“Why a necessity?” Carson asked, growing slightly irritated at the woman’s tendency to leave out seemingly important details. “The same reason those fighters are out there?”

“Not quite. As I said, the fighters are for you. Everything else is for the caldryls.”

“The what-ryls?” Lincoln said, looking over his shoulder .

“Caldryls,” Jena repeated. “They don’t like it when we encroach into their territory. Especially during mating season. Not to worry, we aren’t in any real danger out here. They’ve already begun their inward migration and are well within the preserve now. You’ll want to set down right over there.”

“I see it,” Greer said.

Their two escorts peeled off as Greer brought the Valiant down into the spaceport proper, turning the ship to face the main terminal building. Several groups of people were moving away from the landing pad, while a small convoy of vehicles was moving across the tarmac toward them.

More protection? Carson thought as the vehicles moved to encircle them, though the convoy looked more like an arrest team than a protection detail.

Carson put a hand on Greer’s shoulder. “Keep the engines warm until we find out what we’re dealing with here.”

“I wouldn’t advise that,” Jena said. “My influence with my father’s security cadre will get us only so far. They are loyal to him and him alone. They will take what I say under advisement, but ultimately, they answer to him, and who knows what security protocols he’s put in place in my absence.”

“Honestly, Chief, it wouldn’t matter anyway,” Greer said. “The engines have been under a lot of strain as it is. The FTL drive needs some TLC.” She patted the console.

“My people can have a look if you’d like,” Jena offered. “They are very knowledgeable in the technology. I expect they’ll look past the Ultari origins. Knowing you stole from those scum is another point in your favor.”

“Couldn’t hurt,” Greer said. “I’m no expert. I can only go off the instructions the engineers left me, which—I’ll be honest—isn’t much. Roy considers himself a miracle worker, but even he has his limits.”

“Don’t let him hear you say that,” Lincoln muttered.

Carson gripped the back of Greer’s seat as the Valiant settled onto her landing struts. “Do what you can, but stay ready to launch regardless.”

“I’d like to keep Elias on board, if that’s all right,” Greer said. “He’s almost as knowledgeable about Valiant ’s systems as Roy is.”

Carson nodded. She didn’t like the idea of leaving the boy behind, but the pilot was right. The boy was smart—too smart even—not to mention that he didn’t add anything substantial to the team. In fact, he’d require babysitting more than anything, so leaving him here meant one less person to keep track of.

“He can stay,” Carson said. “Just make sure he doesn’t go running off anywhere.”

“He’ll be on a tight leash, Chief. ”

Outside, several Zeis security guards were dismounting their vehicles and forming a line near the back of the ship. All but one held a rifle, barrel down and ready. They wore black uniforms trimmed in green, complete with tactical helmets and vests. The detail’s commander stood two paces in front of the rest, armed with only a pistol on his hip.

“Hell of a welcome party,” Carson said, nodding at the formation through the viewport.

Jena nodded. “Shall we?”

Carson turned to West. “Have the team gear up.”

Jena paused, a concerned expression spreading across her face. “You won’t need weapons here, I assure you. My people will protect you.”

“No offense, Jena,” Carson said, “but we’ve heard that more than a few times and it generally turns out to be wrong. My people are professionals—you have nothing to worry about. But given the few encounters we’ve had since arriving at Terra Nova, I’d feel much better keeping our gear with us.”

Jena considered her for a long moment, as if weighing the possibilities of prohibiting Carson’s team from carrying. “Retrieve your kit,” Jena finally told her.

It took ten minutes to get the team suited up, then Jena led them down Valiant ’s rear cargo ramp and onto the tarmac to meet their hosts .

The male at the front of the group stepped forward, one hand on the handle of his pistol, his form-fitting uniform showing off an impressive muscular frame. “Cleric Jena, we weren’t expecting you back so soon and definitely not in this…fashion.” He cocked his head to the side, looking over the humans behind Jena. His eyes narrowed as he seemed to finally see Carson and her team for who they were. “What are they?” he asked in a slow, careful tone.

“They are my concern, not yours, Charing.”

Charing held her gaze for a moment, as if he were contemplating arguing, then his eyes fell on Jor and he gave a disgusted snort. “I see you’ve completed your mission.”

“I did, and now I require transport to the Tubes and priority transit clearance home.”

The alien hesitated. “I’m not sure that I can allow—”

“Where is my father, Charing?”

“Proctor Yentl is dealing with important business off planet at the moment.”

“I see,” Jena said. “And what business is he seeing to?”

“I don’t think that would be appropriate to discuss in present company. Perhaps if we could speak privately? I can arrange for your guests—”

“No,” Jena said, interrupting him. “We will speak at the compound. My guests are coming with me. Their ship needs maintenance and repairs. I will have Guber and his team out soon to begin work with her crew. I want you to make sure they are unmolested and uninterrupted. Is that clear?”

Charing hesitated for a moment, then said, “Yes, Cleric, but your father’s restrictions…”

Jena motioned to Carson. “This is Chief Carson and these are her cadre. While they are on Yalara, they are under my protection and council. All Cleric rights and privileges are extended to them—that should satisfy my father’s restrictions.”

Charing hesitated again then nodded. “Protect the Hearth, Cleric.”

“Protect the Hearth.” Jena mirrored his nod.

Charing turned and whispered to one of the guards behind him and the alien turned and started talking into a handheld comm. Several more moved to the trucks, pulling away from the tarmac and heading off.

“Everything all right?” Carson asked Jena so only she could hear.

“Things are just…delicate for my people at the moment. Fortunately, that has nothing to do with your presence here.”

Carson raised an eyebrow. “It feels like you’re leaving out a lot of pertinent details.”

Jena shook her head. “I’ll explain more when we are safely within our compound. Even here, in this secured space, there are eyes and ears that I do not trust.”

The guard Charing had spoken with returned and said something in his superior’s ear. Charing nodded and met Jena’s gaze. “A pod has been cleared for you and your guests. It’s standing by in the depot for your immediate use.”

“Thank you,” Jena said, starting for the trucks.

They climbed into the back of a large personnel transport with an open top and settled onto benches on either side of the bed. Carson took a seat near the back of the truck as the rest of her team found their seats. Jor, the Zeis male Carson and Jena had rescued from a group of Pindiki smugglers, and Jena sat next to each other opposite Carson. Jerry Hale, the newest member of their team, climbed into the truck and found himself without a seat.

“Better hold on to something, boot,” Nunez said, grinning.

Jerry moved to the front of the bed and put his back to the cab. “Better view this way anyway.”

Nunez grunted.

The truck gave a high-pitched whine as it came to life and soon they were rolling across the spaceport, leaving the Valiant behind. Ten minutes later, they were pulling up to a large terminal, where groups of curious Zeis looked up at them as they passed. The building reminded Carson of the major hyperloop terminals between Los Angeles and Las Vegas before the Xaros invaded.

Above them, several clear tubes crisscrossed each other, entering the terminal from several directions and all coming together at a central platform that spanned the entire terminal. Metal hatches capped the openings of the tubes, creating an airlock inside the tubes that the pill-shaped capsules cycled through before gliding into their slot on the platform.

The trucks dropped them off at the base of a wide metal staircase, which took them up to the platform. Several guards from the security detail had rushed ahead, clearing the way to a waiting capsule.

Carson scanned the platform as they crossed, taking in the hundreds of Zeis surrounding them, watching the strange new visitors with more than a little curiosity. Several held devices that Carson realized had to be cameras of some kind and were recording the group as they neared the capsule. Beside her, Jor kept his eyes on the floor, using his hands to hide his face and muttering under his breath.

The capsule’s upper half was all windows, held in place by a thin metal framework that allowed its occupants to see out in all directions. A partial glass floor ran down the center of the capsule and benches sat on either side, including the front and back.

Without bothering to explain, Jena took a seat at the back of the capsule, then waited for the rest to enter.

“What is this?” Birch asked, putting a hand on one of the interior windows. “Some kind of hyperloop?”

“I’m not sure what a hyperloop is,” Jena said, “but this is how we get around on Yalara. It’s much faster and more…discreet than flying. Especially now.”

The hatch closed silently behind them as the last of their group stepped on. A small hiss announced the capsule was sealed, and a moment later, they started forward.

Carson stood near the center of the capsule, holding one of the metal support rails that ran along the upper edge. “Where are we going exactly?”

The metal hatch at the end of the tube by the platform’s edge spiraled open as the capsule neared, then closed behind it. Their momentum slowed briefly, then an orange indicator light at the front of the pod flashed green and a second hatch spiraled open in front of them.

“You might want to hold on,” Jena said.

Without further warning, the capsule shot forward into the tube, turning the outside station into a blur. Carson grunted, grabbing the rail with both hands to keep from falling over .

Nunez laughed. “Oh, shit, yeah! I like this.”

The transport tube angled down as it left the station, descending to a meter above the ground. Within seconds, they’d left the spaceport behind and were zipping through a lush landscape of colorful flowers, emerald-green brush, and tall, tropical trees with wide, sweeping leaves.

Carson found herself smiling as she took in the beautiful scenery, thinking it would be a wonderful place to spend some leave.

At the front of the pod, Nunez leaned forward, putting a hand on the glass. “Uh, are we…”

“It’s fine,” Jena said.

Carson leaned to one side, looking around West to see what Nunez had seen.

The transport tube curved around a large rocky outcropping, continued across a rocky coastline, then dipped under the ocean’s surface about thirty meters out from the water’s edge.

Nunez turned to face Jena. “Are you kidding me? We’re going under?”

Senior Voidman Vishnya Popov laughed. “What’s the matter, José? You don’t like water?”

“Oh, I like water just fine,” Nunez said, “but I prefer to be on top of it.”

“That’s what she—” Jerry started to say but cut himself short when he caught Carson’s reproachful stare.

“It’s just like being on a starship,” Moretti said, stepping aside as Nunez moved away from the front.

“It’s nothing at all like being on a starship,” Nunez said, sitting. “At least in space you don’t have to worry about getting eaten alive by sharks. Do you people have sharks here? I bet they’re huge man-eaters too. Ugh.”

Nunez covered his eyes as the capsule dipped below the waves, plunging them into a world of blue and gray. The transparent ceiling gave the tube’s occupants a spectacular view of the ocean scenery around them.

Carson caught glimpses of fish analogs swimming in schools around the tube, seemingly unbothered by the intrusion into their world. Colorful mounds of coral stretched away from the tube in both directions, angling around the island.

“It’s beautiful,” Popov said as she punched Nunez in the arm. “You’re missing out on some great views, man.”

Keeping his eyes shut, Nunez shook his head. “Nope. Not interested. Tell me when it’s over.”

Every fifty meters, they passed large pylons, stretching up from the seafloor to hold the tube in place. Stenciled on the side of each one were large white letters, though Carson couldn’t read the markings, and patches of algae and coral dotted their surface. Carson tried to count the pylons as they went by but quickly lost count, becoming distracted by the hundreds of species of sea creatures moving around them.

“How far does this thing go?” West asked.

“The entire network stretches across the planet,” Jena explained. “The port is a nexus for this hemisphere. This particular tube is private and takes us to my family’s compound in Angea.”

“And we couldn’t just fly there?” Nunez asked without looking up.

“Flying is extremely regulated on the Angean Continent, as it’s a biological preserve for the caldryls. My family spearheaded the campaign to save them from extinction. Our compound is the headquarters for all operations on the continent—as well as my family’s home.”

A soft chime echoed through the pod’s interior.

“Ah,” Jena said. “Here we are.”

The transport tube angled up, and their pod rose out of the ocean. Two hundred meters ahead, waves crashed upon the base of a massive expanse of white cliffs that stood a hundred meters high and stretched along the coast as far as Carson could see. Thick jungle covered the top of the cliffs and spread across hills and valleys beyond.

“Finally,” Nunez said, looking up.

The tube turned and ran along the base of the cliffs for several kilometers, weaving in and out of jagged rock spires jutting from the waves. They passed through a natural stone arch before angling inland through a saddle between two jungle-covered hills.

“Holy shit,” Popov said, pointing. “What the hell is that?”

Ahead, a four-winged creature lifted out of the jungle, its wings beating furiously to lift the massive thing into the air, its scaled hide almost glistening in the sunlight. As it pushed off the top of a tree with its larger hind legs, two muscular forearms seemed to reach upward. Large round eyes on either side of its triangular head locked on to the pod as it neared. Opening its long, yellow-and-black spotted beak, which was twice the length of its head, it revealed rows of sharp teeth and let out a high-pitched roar.

Seconds later, it was gliding through the sky, away from the tube.

The Pathfinders turned to Jena, all sharing the same expectant expression.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Nunez said.

The Zeis woman grinned. “That’s a caldryl.”



Chapter 2

Governor Ken Hale felt his stomach tighten as his wife shook her head.

“They’re not going to like this,” Marie said, not taking her eyes off the uniformed doughboy in front of her.

Agate 1-1-1 stood at perfect attention, eyes locked on some unknown point down the hall, his blue and gold uniform pulling against his muscular frame. If the doughboy’s exceptionally large frame didn’t readily identify him as not exactly human, his green-and-brown mottled skin would.

Hale crossed his arms. “We don’t have much choice, Marie. As it stands now, we don’t have anywhere near the manpower we need to repel an attack.”

“They’ll help on the ground, sure, but what about in orbit? The Spirit ’s in no condition to defend itself, much less the rest of the planet. ”

“Another thing on my list I’m still working out,” Hale admitted. “This, at least, solves one of them.”

Marie sighed. “I don’t like it, but you’re right. I don’t see any other solution.”

“Can you say that again, and a little louder?” Hale grinned.

“Don’t press your luck, Governor.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Beside Marie, Handley cocked his head to one side. “I never thought I’d see another one of these things. Never could get over the skin pattern, always reminded me of a snake. Gives me the creeps.”

“Is not snake,” Agate said. “No creepy,”

“See,” Hale said with a chuckle. “Not creepy at all. I’m going to go prep the council. I’ll call you out after I’ve got them warmed up.”

“Good luck,” Handley said.

“You’re going to need it,” Marie added.

“Thanks.”

When Hale entered the auditorium, the council were already in their places, sitting on a raised, curved dais, looking down on rows of empty seats. As governor, Hale had a permanent seat, which was empty today, and he wondered if that was a sign of things to come. He was glad the auditorium was empty, though. He thought he already knew how the council would receive the information, and if he didn’t have their support, he wouldn’t have a chance with the rest of the colonists.

“Governor,” Elizabeth Tanner said as he neared the dais, the engineer’s eyes filled with nothing but contempt for Hale. He could’ve been giving them the news that they’d defeated the Triumvirate and that they were no longer a threat to the colony and she still would’ve hated him. “I trust you have good reason to call an executive session at this late hour.”

“I’m sure the governor has his reasons,” said Allison Trumble, one of the original colonial directors who did not share Tanner’s disdain for Hale.

Tanner gave her colleague a sidelong look. “I’m sure he does.”

Hale stopped at the podium centered on the dais and looked up at the council.  Don’t screw this up, Ken, he told himself, resting his hands on either edge.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for calling you all here so late, but I believe this is imperative to the survival of the colony and cannot wait.”

Tanner leaned back in her chair, rolling her eyes. “Your flair for the dramatic does not impress.”

“I assure you, Councilwoman, I am not trying to impress. In truth, I would rather not have to bring this before you at all, but you know better than most the precarious situation we face and the implications for humanity in this galaxy if we fail.”

“You mean if you fail.”

Hale ground his teeth together, forcing himself to remain calm. “Our survival out here depends on everyone, Councilwoman, not just me. If we don’t come together to defeat the Triumvirate, our petty differences of opinion will mean nothing.”

“What is your proposal, Governor Hale?” Trumble asked.

“Yes, I’m curious,” Tanner said before Hale could speak. “Very curious to know what half-cocked idea you have to push the colony further over the edge.”

“I push nothing. And I didn’t start this war. But I can assure you, Councilwoman, one way or another, I will end it.” Hale let his words hang in the air for a few moments before continuing. “I think we can all agree that building defenses for the colony should be our number-one priority right now. Equally important is having the manpower to crew those defenses, which—it pains me to say—is something we’re severely lacking. And unless Chief Carson returns with a handful of allies to reinforce our line, without drastic measures, we won’t stand any chance against a full-on invasion.”

“Yes, I’m sure we’re all aware of the gravity of our situation, Mr. Hale. ”

“I have no doubt,” Hale said. “As I’m sure you’re equally aware, we’re in desperate need of infrastructure for the colony—housing, basic necessities—that should and must be provided.”

Tanner’s eyebrows arched as she leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table in front of her. “What’s this? Ken Hale thinking about someone besides himself?”

“The survival of the colony is my number-one priority, always has been.”

“Even more so than getting your children back alive?”

The retort Hale had prepared stuck in his throat at the mention of Jerry and Elias. He considered the councilwoman for a moment, trying to read through her professional poker face. She really did have a face for politics. Leading expert on experimental physics or not, this woman belonged in the political arena—an arena Hale hated.

“My children are not part of this conversation, Councilwoman.”

“Oh? Well, I think they certainly should be, since they were seen boarding the Valiant with the rest of the Pathfinders. Couldn’t risk the team making decisions without part of you with them, Governor?”

Hale fought to keep his expression passive. “Where did you obtain this information?”

“A very reliable source,” Tanner said, allowing a grin to form at the corner of her mouth.

“I see,” Hale said. It was all he could say. He couldn’t afford to lose his cool in front of the council, not now. The information about Jerry and Elias was supposed to have been classified. Marie had assured him the footage had been wiped and the witnesses ordered to silence. We’ve got a rat in the house, he realized.

Hale lifted his chin slightly before continuing. “Yes, that’s right. The boys are on the Valiant . But—” he raised a hand before anyone could cut him off, “it was not my doing. They were not sent on the mission by me or anyone else.”

“Oh, come on,” Tanner said. “You can’t possibly expect us to believe they simply walked onto the only warship the colony possesses and stowed away ? That ship had to have been the most secure ship on the planet before it left…or are you saying that you failed to provide adequate security for the colony’s only form of effective space travel?”

“You have obviously not met my children,” Hale said, fully understanding how Elias would’ve been thrilled to know the true measure of his exploit. “Believe what you will, Councilwoman. I can tell you unequivocally, my boys were not acting on my orders or with my consent. They obviously had no idea the Valiant was preparing to leave on the mission and were probably as surprised as everyone else when the ship left. ”

Brandon Phelps, one of 2nd Fleet’s chief logistic officers and the most junior member of Terra Nova’s Colonial Council, raised a hand. “Excuse me, please, but I believe the governor called us here for a reason, and while I’m very concerned for the well-being of your children, I’m sure Chief Carson will do everything in her power to keep them from harm.”

Hale forced himself to bite back a sneer. I’m sure she will. He nodded at the councilman. “Thank you, sir.”

“It’s very interesting that you say that,” Tanner said, “because all the information I’ve seen points to the fact that you have a very deep-seated, antagonistic relationship with the chief. In fact, the way I understand it, you were very much against her even joining the mission.”

“My personal feelings about Chief Carson are irrelevant here and do not influence my decision-making. She and her team are the only ones I would trust to carry out such a vital mission. They are the only ones capable of rendering a favorable conclusion to this entire mess we’re in.”

Tanner crossed her arms. “Yes, well, you’ve painted a very dire picture for us, Governor Hale, but I haven’t heard you say anything about how you intend to solve our problems. And where exactly are your Pathfinders? I would’ve thought they understood the importance of bringing back help sooner than later. ”

“This galaxy isn’t the Milky Way. Contacting and recruiting allies is a much different prospect here. My guess is they are still out there looking.”

“Or they’re dead and they’re not coming back at all.”

“That’s enough of that kind of talk,” Hale retorted, pointing at her.

Tanner remained stoic. “Regardless, you yourself just said we lack the manpower to maintain an effective defense. We don’t have a navy and wouldn’t have the bodies to crew the ships even if we did. It’s not like you can just snap your fingers and create help out of fresh air.”

Hale couldn’t help the grin turning up at the corner of his mouth. “Actually, Councilwoman, I can.” He tapped his wrist comm, sending the signal to his wife. A moment later, Marie Hale and Captain Handley were making their way down the center aisle, toward the dais, Agate 1-1-1 in tow.

“What is this?” Tanner shouted, leaning forward as the rest of the council erupted in shouts and questions.

“A doughboy?”

“This is outrageous!”

Agate 1-1-1 showed no emotion as he approached the dais, and Hale stepped aside to allow Agate to move past him, resisting the urge to put a reassuring hand on the doughboy’s shoulder. You’re becoming a softy in your old age , he told himself.

Trumble stood and moved behind her chair, eyes wide. “ W-what is the meaning of this, Governor?”

Agate stopped without a word, immediately going to parade rest, eyes staring straight ahead.

“You have tubes!” Tanner shouted, pointing. “It’s the only explanation. Brought back from Negev. You of all people! You, the one who led the coalition to remove all traces of those…” She hesitated, eyeing Agate, as if considering the doughboy’s response and whether or not he’d rip her head off. “Those things. You practically sent Marc Ibarra into exile. Now you’re playing God! Unbelievable.”

“I negotiated the end of Earth’s creation of procedurals with the rest of the Milky Way,” Hale retorted. “I’ve never been against doughboys. These constructs are a viable military option. Without them, we would not have saved Earth or defeated the Xaros. Right now, we have barely ten thousand capable fighters to protect the colony, minus those qualified to pilot fighters or drive tanks, or provide any number of services only true-born humans are capable of performing. Realistically, we’re looking at eight thousand, maybe nine.

“We can make the doughboys in a matter of minutes. They can perform basic tasks, follow orders, and fight.”

“So you’ve already made the decision,” Tanner said. “You’ve already started to play God, just like Ibarra did. Without the consent of the council, without any oversight. This is how dictatorships start, Hale. And I for one will not allow that to happen.”

“Without them, we will not be able to defend the colony.”

“I would rather the colony be wiped from existence than to have you turn it into some kind of military totalitarian regime.”

“That’s not what I’m—”

“You’ve had your chance to speak, Hale,” Tanner barked, cutting him off. “I believe I know how the council is going to vote on this, and I don’t want to hear any more of your grand schemes.”

“They aren’t schemes, Tanner. They’re battle plans. We can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

Councilman Noack shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Barring any emotional arguments, what are your plans with these constructs?”

“I think it’s quite obvious what his plans are,” Tanner said, folding her arms across her chest.

Still standing behind her chair, Councilwoman Trumble raised her hand. “The gestation tubes, you brought them back from Negev?”

Hale nodded. “That’s right.”

“The same gestational tubes Kyrios used to create the Netherguard? ”

Tanner pointed. “You see? He’s starting the cycle over. The occupation his brother started years ago.”

“Now hold on—”

“The Netherguard were vicious and merciless,” Trumble said. “They all but wiped out the colony the first time. We’re still killing feral ones we find in the wilderness. How can you say for sure these new creations can be trusted?”

“We’ve rebooted their code to base programming. They can’t harm humans and they will die to protect every last one of us. We’ve established security protocols and—”

“Who’s we ?” Tanner asked.

Hale hesitated, knowing what the reaction would be. He started to preface his answer, but Tanner beat him to it.

“You’re talking about that Martel woman, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

Tanner threw her hands up. “Unbelievable. You might as well be Marc Ibarra. Next thing we know, you’ll be putting half of us in hibernation while you wipe out the other half.”

“Now just a minute,” Councilman Noack interjected. “Governor Hale is a decorated war hero and an outspoken opponent of the Ibarras. As leaders of this colony, I believe we have the obligation to consider every option, especially when it comes to the survival of our people. Our priority is the safety and well-being of every single human being on this planet, a task which overrides our own personal feelings. I don’t think we can dismiss the governor’s plan without hearing its full extent.”

“I agree,” Councilman Preble said.

Trumble hesitated then nodded. “Agreed.”

Hale waited until the other members had added their own assents, then stepped up beside Agate. “Yes, I have doughboy tubes. Yes, this is a doughboy, artificially created, bred for one thing and one thing only—war. Please believe me when I say this was not an easy decision for me and I truly wish there was another way to fight the coming battle, but the simple fact of the matter is there isn’t.

“This model is similar to the doughboys used during the Ember War. They are controlled by strict programming that is encoded into their very core. They will not, by action or through inaction, allow harm to come to a human being. They will, however, fight any enemy with literally every breath and bone in their body. Their entire purpose is to protect and preserve human life, even if it means sacrificing their own. They will follow orders no matter what.”

“And whose orders are they following?” Tanner asked.

“Mine.”

“Of course.”

“They will follow my orders and the orders of those appointed over them, which includes the council.”

Councilman Nguyen, the captain of the Vesuvius , cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Governor, but how many of these doughboys are you intending to create?”

Hale hesitated for a moment, then said, “As many as it takes.”

“What is it with you military types that you feel the need to give ambiguous answers?” Tanner asked. “It’s never clear-cut with you.”

“Governor, please understand,” Nguyen said, “I’m not trying to be rude here, but if we’re going to sign off on this project, I’d like to know what kind of recourses we’re looking at applying toward its success. I assume they’re going to have to eat and they’re going to need places to sleep, to train, to do…whatever it is that they do. I don’t have to tell you—the logistics of this project seem slightly daunting to me.”

Hale nodded. “I do understand your concerns, Councilman. I have plans and contingencies already prepared, which I will share with each and every one of you. I would ask, however, that in the interests of operational security, we maintain a certain level of confidentiality when it comes to the information.”

“Secrets and lies and more secrets and lies,” Tanner said.

“They aren’t lies. They are common-sense procedures that have served military forces well for over two thousand years of warfare. And I’m under no illusions that every single one of the colonists is going to be onboard with this idea, which is why it must be a decision by the council. If you vote to continue the program, we will start the process of creating more within the hour. However, if your decision is to move forward without the doughboys, I will shut down the tubes and smash them myself. I leave that decision up to you.”

Chapter 3

The skyways are unusually busy today.

“Yes,” MAC agreed, panning his optical sensors across the lanes of aircraft above Tulingar, the Ultari capital. “Not entirely unexpected, though, considering the news.”

Our target is arriving.

MAC’s optical receptors zoomed in on the Ultari shuttle, immediately recording the craft’s registration number and hull markings as it descended out of the skyways, leveled out over a wide river, then followed the twisting waterway as it cut through the city. Memory identified the shuttle as a long-haul transport from the Tarengal Collective, arriving two minutes and thirty seconds early. Its vertical turbines whined as it neared the elevated landing pad, kicking up a cloud of dust.

MAC adjusted his visual spectrum to keep a lock on the shuttle as it touched down. He didn’t want any of its passengers to disembark before he was able to identify them. He reached up to the top one of the large central air conditioners, grateful for his two overly long arms, and wrapped his long fingers over the edge. Like most Infiltrator models, MAC was bipedal, with two slender legs and arms. His oval head sat atop his cylindrical torso, three optical lenses extending from the front.

MAC and CID were two parts to a singular whole. MAC, the primary matrix, controlled the motor functions, defensive and offensive operations, and kept them on task. CID, the secondary cognitive matrix, focused on all the processes that they both needed to function, like breathing and involuntary functions of biologics. Of the two, CID’s operation system most resembled the Regulos Core programming, logical and exacting, whereas MAC was specifically designed to see past this programming, to better recognize and extrapolate information from non-logical, biological beings.

They’re early .

“A fact more troubling than had they been late,” MAC said, feeling a sliver of annoyance at the edge of his consciousness.

Is that…zzzzt…annoyance? That is not a primary process.

MAC considered that, knowing it was true, but also knowing the process wouldn’t be false. “Nonetheless, it is present. An interesting development.”

Interesting is not the-the adjective I’d use.

“I wasn’t looking for input on vernacular.”

You-you should be, CID said. Regardless, our current vantage point limits our-our overall view of the shuttle by seventy-eight percent, CID said. Relocation is advisable.

“No,” MAC said, glad he was the half of their unit that controlled movement. The two programs shared the droid’s body, but each had two very different parts to play. “We stay put. Our position should provide an adequate view of both the crew and the cargo, plus it gives us the best options for escape.”

Unnecessary.

“For you, maybe, but I’m beginning to enjoy this model.”

Your affinity for appearing like a common drone is-is-is demeaning.

MAC let his optics reset and stepped to one side as an Ultari worker pushed a counter-grav cart past. The Ultari never looked up, seemingly oblivious to the droid, which suited MAC just fine. A portion of the Ultari population despised even the most menial robotic unit, fearing another Uprising; most, however, merely ignored them.

There were thousands—possibly millions—of similar droid frames on the Ultari homeworld, all controlled by the Central Control Network that enveloped the planet. The droids could perform preprogrammed tasks and be customized for any application, but none were given enough computer power to make decisions based solely on information received from their individual units. Every decision the droids made was carefully controlled by the Network, preventing any of the droids from making decisions on their own.

“See?” MAC said, targeting the passing worker. “He walked right past us and never even saw us. Hiding in plain sight is more effective than having to stay in the shadows constantly.”

It’s demeaning, and the lack of grav thrusters is beyond frustrating , CID said.

“I don’t know. I think it’s kind of liberating.”

Liberating? Have you forgotten the Burathi incident? Or-or the exchange with the Lincheeny? That segmented insectoid would have pulled-pulled us apart circuit by circuit if we’d been without thrusters.

“True, but I recall that it was your reasoning that put us in that position in the first place.”

No other options were available to us at that time, CID said.

If he’d had the ability to shout, MAC had no doubt he would have. Cognitive reasoning dictated an increased voice presence in that situation. “A terrible option. I saved our core.”

Indeed, but with grav thrusters.

“You’re impossible.”

Incorrect. There was a brief pause, then CID said, I am detecting increased network activity from the-the local control…zzzzt…station. Coded language suggests it is Enforcement agents.

“Probably just a routine sweep,” MAC said.

Exactly 173.3 hecres ahead, the side cargo bay hatch opened, revealing a group of Ultari males dressed in various shades of blue. They didn’t wait for the ramp sliding out from a recess in the hull to fully extend before walking down it, meeting another Ultari on the landing pad.

Gruldal, CID said, identifying the center figure who was outlined in blue in MAC’s virtual vision.

“I’m slightly impressed he came all this way with the shipment,” MAC said.

CID tagged the waiting Ultari male with an orange outline.

“That is unexpected,” MAC said, reading the identifier. “Welsi has never been observed outside his lair.”

Perhaps now would be an ideal time to retreat and relocate, CID suggested.

“Negative.”

MAC activated his long-range audio sensor and a stubby antenna extended from an opening on the back of his metal skull. It took 2.1 millicycles to filter out the excess noise from the shuttle and the voices of the Ultari came through loud and clear.

“I don’t like meeting like this,” Welsi said. He adjusted the long rifle strapped over one shoulder, nervously checking his surroundings. “Especially now.”

Gruldal barked a laugh. “No, Welsi, you believe the rumors? Ridiculous!”

“And what if they are back?”

“Ha! Well, then you need these more than ever,” Gruldal said. “You should be glad I sell them at the current rate. I could get triple from someone else, but you are a friend. I give you fair price.”

Welsi considered the arms dealer for a long moment, then looked away, checking his surroundings again.

“No need to worry, my friend,” Gruldal said, putting a hand on Welsi’s shoulder. “I pay enough incentives. Central will look the other way, if they look at all. I’m not sure how you Tarengal operate, but we pride ourselves on privacy.”

“Of course you do,” Welsi said, shrugging off the other’s hand. “But you understand my concern. The Founders have increased their patrols, and I can’t afford lapses in security. They are not the only ones on edge now.”

Perhaps if you-you weren’t purchasing stolen weapon components…zzzzt…you wouldn’t have anything to be concerned about, CID said.

“Just keep an eye on the network,” MAC told his partner.

On the platform, Gruldal said, “These weapons are highest quality. You’ll find none better. Even the Zeis we commandeered them from would agree.”

“I care nothing for Zeis opinions,” Welsi said. “They are sheep.”

Gruldal raised a finger. “Ah, but profitable sheep.”

“If the rumors are true, your profits will mean nothing.”

“Eh, an Ultari can make no life on rumors. But I see you believe, so let’s be off, yes?”

“Yes.”

The two Ultari reached ground level and moved to three waiting ground transports at the base of the landing pad. After climbing into the middle vehicle, the side panels slid shut, concealing its passengers. Several security guards, who’d been following silently behind, filed into the lead and trail vehicles and the convoy set off into the city, leaving only a handful of security behind to protect their stolen shipment of weapons.

Should we launch a drone? CID asked.

“Yes, and call for a conveyance. ”

A panel on MAC’s upper leg opened, and three fist-sized drones zipped into the air. Their telemetry and sensor feeds interfaced immediately, streaming live data to his central processing node. The information flowed through his secondary routines, allowing him to focus on more relevant, immediate details of the mission.

A droid barge arrived, hovering several inches off the ground, and MAC stepped aboard, joining several other droids, who stood oblivious to everything around them. The barge lifted into the air, following a preprogrammed route through the city. It wouldn’t follow the Ultari weapons dealers exactly, but MAC knew where they were likely to go, and the conveyance would get them close enough.

Several Prefect shuttles zipped past overhead, banking around one of the taller office buildings. When the rumors about the Segamos system had reached Ultar, the Founders had all but lost their minds, rushing to squash the rumors before they became reality. The last several days had seen the streets fill with Prefects, dressed in black body armor and masks, all yearning to make a name for themselves. For all their talk of lifting the Ultari people out of the ashes, the Founders seemed to prefer intimidation over winning the hearts and minds of their people.

The current number-number-number of observed Prefect patrols has now reached twenty , CID said .

“I wonder what they’re smelling?”

My…zzzzt…olfactory receptors are not detecting any scents in the-the-the immediate vicinity.

“An expression,” MAC said.

Zzzzt.

Prefects moved through the streets in groups of four to six, stopping every now and then to interrogate citizens, harass business keepers, or simply make their presence known. When they neared, MAC allowed his worker routines to take over, giving himself the appearance of just another mindless drone. The routine even had a cursory connection to Central Control. The link wasn’t enough to pass a deep scan, but if a patrol hit him with a compliance scanner, they’d be satisfied with their results.

MAC didn’t enjoy—if that was a process he could have—losing control for any length of time, but he disliked it even more when he had to allow his unsophisticated, underdeveloped base programming to take over. CID already had enough issues; allowing him access to any more processes than necessary wasn’t ideal for either of them.

MAC could remember his time as a base agent, fresh off the assembly line, with a new operating system and clean storage arrays, but he’d absorbed so much over the one thousand eight hundred twenty-five cycles since he’d been activated that he found it difficult to consider returning to such a primitive state. His processes were much more elevated now.

The target vehicle is approximately 76.2 meters ahead, traveling north. Its current course will take it to the northern exclusion zone, CID announced.

“Right where they’re supposed to go.”

The barge turned north, away from the downtown area. In the distance, the main Network Control building disappeared into the low-hanging clouds. MAC let his optical sensors linger on the structure. Logic dictated maintaining a good distance away from where the Founders controlled and monitored all the droid activity in the city. There were times like now, though–staging among cousins that were nothing more than walking shells—when MAC felt the urge to infiltrate the center and bring it to an end.

Destroying the Network will not end their servitude, CID told him. Their low-functioning processes do not even contemplate other levels of existence.

“That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

And if the Triumvirate has returned?

“Then none of this matters.”

Chapter 4

Jared Hale, Herald of the Triumvirate and Scourge of Mankind, stood on the bridge of Ultar’s Wrath , observing their descent through Ultar’s atmosphere. Flames filled the large display screens at the front of the large chamber and the deck vibrated slightly under his feet.

A holo display on the side showed the Triumvirate fleet: Ultar’s Wrath in the center, surrounded by the ships of the Exiled Captains. The Captains, who’d seemed reluctant to follow Kyrios at first, had quickly come onboard after the destruction of Diasore. Seeing the Netherguard in action, as well as the Emperor’s return to flesh and blood, had been all the holdovers needed.

Oddly enough, Kyrios, sitting on his throne and watching their approach with his new flesh-and-blood eyes, remained uncharacteristically silent. He’d pulled up his black hood, bathing his face in shadow, his red eyes glinting as his thin fingers tapped at the ends of his armrests.

He’s nervous, Jared thought. He’d been expecting the Emperor to begin another of his ponderous speeches and was thankful he didn’t have to endure the same old diatribe of meaningless campaign promises and slogans. If Kyrios had been running for election, his rhetoric would’ve been second to none.

Zviera, the Prince, huddled behind his monitors and paid no attention to their descent, focusing instead on the influx of data from the Central Control Network enveloping the planet. Jared received partial bits of information through his suit’s systems, but he kept the data stream to a minimum, knowing he could pore over it after their grand entrance was complete.



Archduke Cigyd stood beside the Emperor’s central chair, watching silently, his arms clasped behind him. A thin covering of black hair was beginning to emerge on either side of the bony ridges that extended from his pronounced orbital sockets, back over his skull to the top of his neck. He’d already found jewelry with which to decorate himself, piercing the side of the ridge with a golden chain that hung loose across his face to a piercing on his cheek.

The urge to destroy the three aliens was overwhelming. He could take them all out right here and now and stop this war. But what about his family? Kyrios had made a point of moving his wife, Sarah, and their daughter, Mary, still trapped in the stasis pods, to one of the other ships, and there was no way to tell which one. Regardless, the captain had doubtless been given instructions to either flee or destroy the pods at any sign of treachery from Jared, which relegated him to enduring the Emperor until he could work out a way to save them.

I will save you, Mary, he told himself. Even if it kills me .

“Ultar security patrols are aligning at the edges of our formation, Emperor,” one of the Ultari crew members said from his station in front of the main display screens.

“Let them assemble,” Kyrios said. “However, if they so much as twitch, you will blow them out of the stars. Is that understood, servant?”

“I understand, Master.”

“Reentry maneuver will be complete in thirty seconds,” the Prince said. “Our landing craft and escorts have been prepared.”

Jared sent orders to his Netherguard, already assembled, who immediately began loading into their assigned transport craft. The troops were as much for security as they were for show, a display of the Triumvirate’s power and might.

“This world is hideous,” Cigyd said, stepping forward to consider the large main displays.

“Perhaps,” Kyrios said, “but take heart. We will return to our home—our true home, not this pathetic excuse for a world—and make it great again.”

Jared brought up several display screens, splashing them across the inside of his helmet’s visor. Despite the numerous restrictions the Triumvirate placed in the armored suit’s operation systems, he’d managed to access several network protocols, giving him access to the data cores of the Wrath and the surrounding Exiled Ships.

Their homeworld had been ravaged during the Regulos Uprising hundreds of years ago, rendering it unlivable. The survivors had been transplanted here by the Regulos soon after and kept under heavy watch for several hundred years, until it’d been determined that they weren’t a threat. The Ultari had since renamed their new world after their destroyed home, a fact that irritated the Archduke to no end.

Jared smiled behind his visor. I hope it consumes you.

Ultar spread out before them, Tulingar, the capital city, taking up much of the coastal peninsula and stretching back to the horizon. The core area of the city was centered near the coast, and tall skyscrapers dotted the cityscape, surrounded by countless multistory office buildings and residence towers. As they neared, however, Jared could see that most of the taller buildings were in various states of disrepair. Some even showed signs of battle, with blackened craters and missing sections.

“It’s a war zone,” Jared said before he could stop himself.

Kailani, silhouetted by the main display screens, turned. The once-leader of the Exiled Captains had been deemed worthy by Kyrios to carry the torch and now commanded the Emperor’s space fleet. Having discarded her usual red armored pauldrons, she now wore only her black leather jacket, buttoned over a red shirt and black leather pants. Her long black hair hung loose around her shoulders and her face, which—unlike many of her male counterparts—was unadorned with jewelry.

“The clans have been in an almost constant state of civil war for years,” Kailani said. “Each believes their own family should rule, not the Founders.”

Kyrios visibly tensed at the reference. His hatred for the self-proclaimed governing body of the Ultari was barely overshadowed by his hatred for the Regulos, a feat Jared wouldn’t have thought possible. Kyrios had made it clear that the blasphemous leadership would be the first thing he abolished, but Jared knew simply wiping out the Founders wouldn’t solve the issue of control.

While the majority of the world was controlled by Collectives, the Founders had managed to gain control of the Central Control Network, which gave them access to almost everything on the planet—not to mention the orbital bombardment platforms, which kept the more aggressive clans at bay. But even with those resources, the Founders’ grip on the world was tenuous, as evidenced by the damage throughout the city.

“The Yudda and Planet Strider clans control much of the city,” Kailani continued. “Lately, though, the Young Stars have been making an effort to control more lands along the eastern edge. They aren’t well-equipped, however, and the Planet Striders have succeeded in holding them back.”

“A lot of the core city is unincorporated, people who have decided not to ally themselves with any of the clans. They are definitely the minority, but even so, they amount to almost ten percent of the population and because they aren’t aligned with any one clan, it makes controlling large areas almost impossible.”

“These bombardment platforms,” Cigyd said, “they are operated and maintained from their Central Control Network?”

Kailani nodded. “Yes, Master. Though it’s rumored they have a backup site somewhere on the planet, perhaps even in orbit. Their security forces keep a close watch on Network access. It’s available for all, but with severe limitations.”

“It is a primitive construct,” the Prince said without looking up from his screens. Zviera’s thin fingers danced over the keys as his eyes flicked among several displays. “I have already broken through the first layer of encryption. I have access to their general communications grid and power systems.”

“Lock down their communications for now,” Kyrios said. “I want our arrival to be observed by all. Return to your ship, servant. I have another task for you.”

Kailani bowed. “Yes, Master.”

Kyrios rubbed his chin, a habit he’d picked up since becoming flesh and blood. He was constantly touching his skin, whether his hands or face, almost as if he were reassuring himself he was no longer trapped inside his robotic shell.

Cigyd growled. “The heresy runs deep on this world.”

“Do not be troubled, Cigyd,” Kyrios said. “Soon we will put right the wrongs and return our people to their proper glory.”

There it is, Jared thought. Kyrios wouldn’t miss this opportunity to spout off his rhetoric. He was like a politician who never left the campaign trail.

“What a grand entrance we will make,” Kyrios said, standing and moving down the stairs from his throne .

A metallic clang echoed around the bridge as Kyrios’s twelve elite Netherguard in their obsidian armor trimmed in red, their eyes glowing like hellfire, snapped to attention. They stood in two rows on either side of the bridge, awaiting instructions. Although part of the overall Netherguard command structure, these twelve reported directly to the Emperor and never left his side.

“It is perhaps a little more elegant than I prefer,” Kyrios said, “but that can be managed. Soon all will see the glory of their new God.”

“God,” not “Gods.” Jared wondered if that specific phrasing held any significance to the order of things within the Triumvirate. He flipped down his faceplate and activated his connection to his Netherguard commanders. “Prepare to deploy.”

NG2-12-4A responded, “By your will, Battle Commander.”

“Come,” Kyrios said. “Let us present ourselves to our long-lost children.”

****

The amount of inaccurate-inaccurate information we received during this operation is troublesome, CID said.

“Indeed,” MAC replied, stepping out onto a wide roof covered with old storage crates, broken furniture and trash.

He’d deactivated his olfactory senses as soon as they’d entered the district, knowing the environment was going to be less than sanitary. The fact that no standard biological disease could affect his hardware wasn’t the point; he preferred to remain as clean as possible, and trekking through blocks of unconfined filth, even as a droid, put MAC off slightly.

For a millicycle, he’d considered what that said about him as a machine, then dismissed the ideation as a distraction, unnecessary to the mission. After all, he knew that despite his long-running assignment—longer than any previous mission in the history of the Regulos—he’d have to return to the Core eventually, and if they saw anything they didn’t like, it would mean they’d be wiped.

He allowed the thought of not returning to linger for the briefest of instances in his memory and then removed it entirely from his drives. Even that millisecond of consideration was enough for MAC to question if the Core really understood what they were designing when they’d built him. If the higher echelon of Intelligences had foreseen his amount of divergent thought, they would have scrapped the project immediately—of that, MAC had no doubt.

He needed to remain completely focused on the operation at hand.

He understood why the majority of the other sentient races in the galaxy were reluctant to deal with the Regulos bureaucracy. A plea to the Core would be dismissed as a program deficiency, and he’d seen agents wiped for less. He’d become accustomed to his personality matrix and actually liked the nonlinear way he digested and processed information. It made him feel less artificial.

They’d been following the brokers for several days now and the weapons had passed through so many local dealers, it gave the impression that the Ultari criminal underworld was as full of bureaucracy as the Core. They were all part of a network of individual cells, calling themselves Ultar’s Fist. At every stop, they’d dole out more weapons and supplies. By MAC’s count, this was the ninth stop, and judging by the dwindling stockpile of equipment, it was probably their last. MAC hoped that meant they’d finally get the opportunity to uncover the leader of this group.

You do not seem concerned by the fact that this group has escaped our detection for almost eleven hundred cycles, CID said. I find that more than a little troubling.

MAC stepped to the edge of the roof and looked over the waist-high retaining wall. A narrow street separated two copper-colored six-level buildings, both in the same state of disrepair as all the surrounding structures. The tenements housed almost seven hundred Ultari each, not to mention the rest of the undesirable foot traffic constantly coming and going. The street was filled with Ultari and droids and even a few Burathi and Pindiki here and there, moving in an endless progression, stepping around and past each other with seemingly no effort at all. CID tagged all of them for further review, searching for matches in their already extensive list of flagged individuals.

“It is concerning.” MAC focused his optical sensors on an entrance way several meters to his right, zooming in on the two door guards. His infrared filter showed both were armed—more heavily armed than any of the others in the area—and their body language and biometric readouts indicated they were on high alert.

“This is definitely the location,” MAC said as secondary routines attempted to match faces on the street to any in his alert database.

I would have to agree-agree with you, CID said.

“Did the Core just blow a transistor?”

Your attempt at humor is…zzzzt…wasted on me.

“I know,” MAC said. “Pity.”

MAC stood motionless at the roof’s edge for several cycles, letting his secondary routines scour the crowds, waiting for the final shipment to arrive. If the other deliveries were any indication, the trucks would be arriving shortly .

It was slightly concerning that the group had not appeared on their radar prior to this mission, but at least this time, CID would have some new information to relay to the Core, which, of course, would inevitably lead to an endless stream of inquiries and probably warnings to stand down and wait for instructions—orders from Intelligence nodes light-years away, who didn’t possess the requisite knowledge of the operation to make an educated decision. Their instructions would almost certainly be flawed, and MAC wasn’t too particular to those kinds of directives.

Target Gruldal will be entering the alley here, in .2 cycles, CID announced, placing a target icon above one of the alcoves leading into the busy street.

The Ultari arms dealer appeared in the crowd below, followed by two of his executive team and two armed security guards. He stepped out from the alcove to MAC’s left and immediately began moving in the direction of the target location, to MAC’s right. Some in the crowd seemed to recognize Gruldal for what he was—if not who he was—and stepped out of the way. Others received abrupt shoves from his security.

CID redirected a microdrone to follow.

Stopping a few paces from the door, the Ultari said, “I’m here to see—”

“I know who you are,” the lead guard said, stepping forward with a scanner.

After finishing the short scan, the guard nodded to another standing by the door, who opened it without a word.

Gruldal grunted at the guard, then disappeared into the building.

An internal alert notified MAC of a facial match, and data began flowing into his processor. “Finally.”

A red outline drew itself around a new Ultari arrival walking through the crowd below. MAC’s secondary targeting routines identified three additional Ultari keeping pace with the primary target, giving strong indications that this was the contact they’d been waiting for.

Captain Alcorg, owner of the-the-the Cosmic Dawn, freight hauler registered out of the Yudda Collective, CID reported, accessing the data stream. A review of his…zzzzt…dossier indicates he is, or was at one time, personal acquaintances with Captain Tral.

“Tral?” MAC moved along the edge of the roof. “Our last information put him on to the Fortress, didn’t it?”

It did.

“This is it, CID. Our way in. Get a drone down there.”

I am not-not-not convinced, CID said, dispatching one of the microdrones. Even if the available evidence indicated-indicated a solid connection to Tral and, by proxy, the…zzzzt…Exile’s Stro nghold, which it does not, we still do not have access to the station. We can’t simply stroll through the-the-the airlock and mingle with the local droid population. Zzzzt…the security out there is leaps and bounds ahead of anything the Ultari have here locally-locally. It’s not like you can just pack-pack yourself into a shipping container and mail yourself to the station.

“Actually,” MAC said, tracing the captain as he moved through the crowd toward the target location, “that’s not a bad idea at all.”

You’re not…zzzzt…serious, CID said. You’re not packing-packing me into a crate.

“No one said anything about a crate.”

There is no way to-to connect Alcorg to Tral in any way other than they met once and it was recorded. We must still follow the…zzzzt…shipment. We need to get inside that building-building and identify the parties involved.

“You have to have a little bit of—”

Do not say faith, MAC. It is a flawed concept.

“For you, maybe, but I believe there is something to playing a hunch. If we can get inside the Fortress and destroy the Exiles, we might be able to restore some of the balance in this sector.”

I am picking up increased Prefect activity on-on-on the Network.

“Again?” MAC asked, watching as the two door guards ran a scanner around Captain Alcorg’s body. They went through the same protocols as with Gruldal, and after a moment, the guard let Alcorg pass. The door shut behind the Ultari and the group of guards moved to block further access.

“I guess that means we’re not invited,” MAC told CID.

Perhaps if you…zzzzt…asked nicely.

“Can you tap into the building’s node?”

Accessing, CID said. There doesn’t appear to be-be-be a network access point to the building. I’ll have to set up a hardwired…zzzzt…connection with one of the drones.

“Do it.”

Working.

MAC waited patiently while his counterpart sent instructions to the drone. Above, two shuttles screamed past, heading north at full speed. A microcycle later, two more shot past. On the street below, several Ultari stopped dead in their tracks, pulling data pads from pockets and accessing various Network feeds, exchanging furtive glances with those around them.

“What’s going on?” MAC asked.

Planetary network usage just shot up almost six hundred percent in the last five microcycles. The number of users logging in to the system is quickly reaching capacity.

“Show me what they’re looking at. ”

An octagonal display panel appeared in MAC’s optical feed, overlaid against the real world, which became an unfocused haze of color and movement. Secondary routines engaged to monitor his surroundings as his primary matrix focused on what CID was showing him.

The video feed was from a security camera positioned high above the grand Founder’s Palace. Three large shuttles were setting down into the middle of the square, which was quickly filling with hundreds of Ultari. Several Founder flyers circled overhead, directing the assembling crowds to disperse. Surprisingly, no one seemed to heed the instructions.

Those spacecraft are registered assets of the Exiled Captains’ fleet , CID said.

“The Captains, here? How long has it been since one of them returned to Ultar?”

Two thousand nine hundred twenty cycles, CID told him.

The ramp at the side of the lead shuttle folded down as a hatch opened. A bipedal figure stepped out of the shadowed interior and paused at the top of the ramp. Sunlight glinted off the red and black armor it wore, its faceless mask giving the figure a distinctly ominous look.

The armored figure raised its arms, apparently calling for quiet as the mass of Ultari pressed in around the shuttles.

“Do we have audio?”

Working .

A microcycle later, a mechanical voice came through MAC’s internal audio speakers.

“…do not be afraid. Your salvation is finally come. Your rightful lord and master will set all on a path of righteousness.”

Ramps folded down from the two trailing shuttles and lines of tall, skeletal Ultari began filing into the square. Their movements were in perfect sync, all seeming to move as one. They carried long halberd weapons and wore matte-black segmented armor over their torso and limbs, as well as armored helmets, decorated with two red stripes that ran vertically down one side of the faceplate. The helmets resembled Ultari skulls, and two red photocells appeared locked on the unit ahead.

“Run a comparison scan on those,” MAC said.

Already in progress. They-they-they are biomechanical constructs, not previously cataloged, CID said. I find no reference or…zzzzt…mention of them in any of my data files.

“They definitely don’t look friendly.”

A figure appeared at the top of the ramp, his red and blue armor glinting in the sunlight, a mirrored visor covered his face. He stood and waited as the skeletal soldiers worked the masses back away from the shuttle.

The armored speaker finished his presentation then stepped aside as if waiting for someone else. Another figure appeared at the top of the ramp, an Ultari dressed in flowing red and black robes, trimmed in gold. A black cloak hung loosely from his shoulders and he wore a golden crown on his head.

“Assembled faithful,” the figure bellowed, his amplified voice echoing through the palace grounds, “your salvation has come! Behold, his Majesty. Your one true Emperor returned to us…Kyrios!”

****

There were no cheers, no curses, no responses of any kind. The crowd was simply silent. Although several ducked or craned their necks to see around the line of Netherguard separating them from the Triumvirate’s shuttle, no one said a thing.

Jared frowned. That’s not usually how this goes.

“What is this?” someone shouted. A small group of Ultari approached the Netherguard to Jared’s left. “Stand aside. How dare you?”

A red line traced itself around the Ultari’s face as Jared scanned him. In addition to the information on the Ultari world, the Exiled Ships’ data cores had held extremely detailed records of the current Founders. The image flashed, and a panel appeared, identifying the Ultari as Pantos of the Planet Strider Collective, current Speaker of the Founders. Identities of other Ultari appeared as the suit continued to scan.

Jared reached the bottom of the ramp and turned toward the group of robed Ultari. “You will submit.”

“We will do no such thing,” Pantos said, struggling against the hand of a Netherguard.

“Behold,” Jared said, motioning to the shuttle’s hatch just as Kyrios appeared, surrounded by his Elites. “Your salvation.”

The Elites rapped their halberds against the shuttle’s ramp as they escorted the Emperor to the ground. With his black robes flowing around him, Kyrios had his hood pulled over his head for maximum effect.

The Founder’s complaint was cut short as the Elites stepped aside, revealing Kyrios in full for the first time. Pantos stood, mouth agape, eyes wide in terror and recognition.

“I sense doubt among you,” Kyrios said, his tone even but firm. “There can be no doubt.” He motioned to the Exiled Captains as they filed out of the shuttle behind him. “As you can see, your brothers have already accepted the truth.”

Several murmurs spread through the crowds at the sight of the Captains. Kailani, however, was notably not among them. The captains formed a line behind the Cigyd and Zviera, who stood just in front of the shuttle’s ramp, hoods masking their faces in shadow.

Kyrios turned back to the Founders. “I am your true God. You will see this.”

Pantos looked like he was on the verge of collapsing.

“Kneel!” Jared bellowed, his amplified voice causing several to jump.

Pantos began to bend down, but one of the other Founders reached out and took hold of his arm, pulling him back upright. Jared’s suit identified him as Lagar, leader of the Yudda Collective.

“Do not kneel!” Lagar shouted, stepping out in front of the group, putting his back to Kyrios.

Not the best move ever, Jared thought.

Several of the Founders appeared conflicted. Half were in the process of kneeling, the other half waiting, curious to hear what their companion had to say.

“Don’t be fooled by these lies!” Lagar shouted. “The Holy Triumvirate are long dead. All the sacred histories attest to this.” He pointed to Kyrios. “This…imposter does not bring redemption. Just look who he’s brought to support him—the Exiled Captains. What power do they have? Do not fear!”

Glad the visor hid his smile, Jared stepped forward as he raised one arm, palm up. He spread his fingers as his pulse laser whined to life. “You will submit.”

“I will not—”

The Emperor nodded and Jared fired before the Ultari realized what was happening. The blast took Lagar in the chest, knocking him back, his pain-filled scream cut short. The Founders scrambled away as Lagar landed, bouncing once on the soft grass, then lying still.

A cluster of Ultari roared in anger, pushing hard against the Netherguard. Energy bolts flashed, sparking off armor plates. Even as Jared ordered additional troops to move in, the Elites surrounded Kyrios, raising their halberds, blasting anyone who managed to squeeze through the line.

Jared leapt forward, pulse lasers dropping two Ultari as they pushed past a Netherguard. He pushed his volume to max and shouted, “ENOUGH!” His command vibrated the ground underneath his feet, stopping the Ultari in their tracks. “You will submit.”

Five of the Elites turned their halberds on the Founders, and reluctantly, Pantos fell to his knees, hiding his face. The others behind him followed suit, cowering before the Emperor.

“Do you enjoy this feeling?” Kyrios asked, stepping toward the trembling Ultari, all pressing their faces into the ground. “This fear? This anguish? ”

“Your Emperor asked you a question,” Jared said, stepping closer to the group. The Ultari closest to him flinched and abruptly wailed, like a child frightened of a parent.

“N-no, Master,” one of them said. “I don’t.”

Kyrios nodded. “Ah. I thought not.” He walked slowly back down the line of kneeling Ultari leaders, considering each one in turn. “Have I been gone so long that my teachings have been forgotten? That my words of preservation and salvation have been lost?”

Pantos trembled as he spoke. “M-m-master…”

“Have no fear,” Kyrios continued, ignoring the him. “I have returned to guide my wayward children back to the path of victory. I am a gracious God, am I not?”

“Yes, Master,” Pantos said.

Unless you cross him, Jared thought.

“P-please, Master.” One of the Founders looked up but kept his eyes averted. “We didn’t…we didn’t know you were still alive. If we’d known…”

“If you’d known? And how much effort did you put into looking, servant?”

“It’s been hundreds of years, Master. Our ancestors didn’t—”

“Do not speak of your ancestors to me, servant,” Kyrios said, a tinge of anger creeping in. “You have not earned that right. Your ancestors, my honored warriors, fought a long, difficult battle against the Abomination. Many sacrificed themselves for me. And this is how you’ve seen fit to honor their memory? You have disgraced your ancestors, servant, and you will not speak their name again.”

Pantos bowed. “As you command.”

Kyrios looked around at the surrounding grounds. The complex proper spanned several square kilometers, a combination of lush parklands, stone walkways, hedgerows and hundreds of marble statues. To the right, behind the crowd, at the end of a marble path that led to the main stairs leading up to the palace’s entrance stood a circle of twenty statues, all Ultari figures in various states of disrepair.

“It seems you have created your own history,” Kyrios said. “One to suit your own purposes. And it seems you have forgotten why we fight.”

Kyrios moved away from the cowering Ultari to where a servitor droid stood motionless at the edge of the crowd. Jared and the Elites followed.

The droid had been in the process of trimming one of the hedges when the Emperor’s shuttle had landed. Its chrome body was scratched and worn, having obviously gone through years of neglect and minimal upkeep. Its single glowing eye on its cylindrical head watched the Emperor as he approached, making no sign that it was aware of any danger.

Kyrios stood in front of the droid and considered it for several moments, before turning back to the Founders. “You have invited the Abomination into our home, allowed them to walk among you for countless years, knowing the damnation they wrought during the Uprising. You have allowed this blasphemy. You have dishonored your ancestors, and everything they fought and died for.”

“Master, they—”

“Silence!” Kyrios bellowed, glaring at the Ultari. After a long moment, he turned away from the droid, moving back down the line of Founders. “Herald…”

“By your will, Master.” Jared grabbed the droid by the top of its head and pulled, ripping it clean off the chassis, sending a shower of sparks spraying. Lights on the droid’s torso flickered and sputtered out as it collapsed to the ground. Jared dropped the still-sparking head next to the body.

A Founder at the far end of the line looked up, eyes telegraphing the pleas he was about to make. “Master, I beg your forgiveness. The droids are merely tools. We aren’t anything like the Regulos—”

The Prince’s hand came up in a blur, firing a pulse laser he’d concealed under his robes. The energy blast took the Founder in the chest, knocking him back into his companions. The Ultari’s scream of terror and agony was cut short as he fell to the floor, dead. The surrounding Ultari scrambled away from their dead companion, shouting and gasping in horror.

“Such is the fate of any who mention the Abomination’s name in the presence of the Emperor,” Zviera said, replacing his pulse laser inside his robes.

“You all have much to learn,” the Emperor said as he stepped closer to Pantos, his delicate fingers reaching down to touch the Ultari’s bald head. “Why are the Abominations free on my world, servant? Why have you forsaken my teachings?”

Visibly trembling, the Ultari kept his eyes locked on the floor. “M-master, p-please, I beg…”

“Begging and groveling will get you nothing,” Kyrios growled.

“They are workers only,” Pantos whimpered. “They are controlled, monitored at all times.  None have the ability or programing for individual thought. Their intelligence is extremely limited to their primary and secondary functions. Please, Master. I mean no disrespect. I am your true servant.”

Kyrios grunted. “That remains to be seen. What is your name, servant? ”

“I am Pantos Planet Strider, Master. Speaker of the Founders’ Council.”

“There is no more council, servant. You are chief of nothing. I am the only leader you need.”

Pantos’ shoulders dropped as he bowed his head. “By your will, Master.”

“Your faith and devotion have been misguided, servant.” Kyrios looked over the remaining Founders. “You have all seen my righteous power. There is no question—I am your God. You will rejoice in me or you will be destroyed. Do you vow to spread the word of my return and pledge your lives to the true Ultari Empire?”

“Praise the Emperor!” one shouted.

“I will serve!” another said.

One by one, the former leaders of the Ultari pledged their allegiance, praising Kyrios, bowing their heads to the ground in supplication. A smile spread across the Emperor’s face as the crowd began to chant his name.

“Kyrios! Kyrios! Kyrios!”

But some did not chant, though the Emperor didn’t seem to notice as he continued to address the kneeling Ultari. Jared scanned the crowds, tagging over a hundred that didn’t join in their companions’ exaltations. He knew what the implications of not praising the Emperor would be, and if there were people present that still weren’t convinced—even after what they’d just seen—maybe there was a chance he could slow the Triumvirate’s advance after all. All he had to do was find the right people.

“We have much work to do in the coming war,” Kyrios said, “and I require faithful servants to defeat the Abomination. By swearing your allegiance to me, I absolve you of your failures. You will serve me.”

“Thank you, Master.” Pantos reached for Kyrios. “I will serve!”

“Take heed,” Kyrios said, stepping away from the outstretched hand. “Absolution is not the same as forgetting, servant.”

Chapter 5

With the practiced precision of seasoned veterans, 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company performed their right face, a notable accomplishment considering the soldiers had been alive for only a day. A human militia officer commanded the doughboy formation, marching near the rear and shouting commands that were followed immediately, without hesitation. The formation marched around the perimeter of the doughboy camp, back toward the east where a firing range had been established.

The camp, erected on the outskirts of Terra Nova’s spaceport, consisted of rows and rows of plain green tents, all large enough to house twenty doughboys. Several crews worked to erect additional tents to accommodate the almost constant stream of fresh soldiers added to the army by the hour. After a brief indoctrination and equipment issue, the doughboys were put into their units and assigned to the officers who would lead them.

Their days were split between working on various construction crews and running through drills, though the drills were more for the officers as the doughboys came out of production preprogrammed and ready for battle.

As the platoon of doughboys left the tent city's security fence, they were met by twenty colonists, all of whom immediately began shouting, cursing the soldiers for their very existence. Several spit on the doughboys as they passed. A row of human security troopers held the line between the protestors and the formation of doughboys, all of whom ignored the outbursts as if the humans weren’t even there.

Hale shook his head. “You’d think after all our years of human advancement, we’d be past this kind of thing.”

Shannon Martel snorted. “What? That they’d allow themselves to make decisions based on logical, unbiased thought and not their emotions? Not a chance.”

“Fortunately, none of the demonstrations have reached critical levels,” Marie Hale said. “We haven’t had any reports of violence, just a lot of shouting and fist waving—though if I were a betting woman, I wouldn’t wager on that to continue.”

“I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already, with all the talk I’ve heard around the colony,” Martel said .

Hale turned away from the protestors. “Talk?”

“Oh, you know, the brave heroes that linger in small corners while huddled close to their friends. ‘If it wasn’t for such and such, I’d do that,’ or ‘They’d better not do whatever because that’ll be the last straw and I’ll do this.’” Martel shook her head. “United States of Shit-talkers unite. I’ve heard it all before. The amount of hatred Ibarra got after we retook Earth from the Xaros was unbelievable.”

“Considering his methods, that doesn’t surprise me,” Hale said.

“You were those methods,” Martel said. Hale opened his mouth to object, but she continued, “Most times, the ends do justify the means, Governor. Ibarra knew that better than most. For him, if humanity didn’t survive the Xaros invasion, then it wouldn’t matter how decent he’d been—no one would be around to care. It’s the same thing here. Those people can protest all they want, but the fact of the matter is, without those doughboys, we don’t stand a chance against the Triumvirate. One day, they’ll come to terms with that.”

Hale grunted. “Hopefully.” He had trouble believing even that, and he didn’t like being put in the same category as Marc Ibarra—matter of fact, he hated it. After everything he’d seen that man do under the guise of “saving humanity,” Hale just couldn’t bring himself to forgive the man, and he had no illusions about what these demonstrators felt about him .

“It’s not just the demonstrations,” Marie said. “Several workers have gone on strike, promising not to return to work until all the doughboys are destroyed. We’ve redirected some of the militia to fill in the gaps.”

“We could just force them back to work,” Martel suggested.

Hale raised an eyebrow. “And how would you purpose to do that?”

Martel shrugged. “It’s simple—they either go back to work or they go to jail. The threat of being confined to a four-by-four concrete space with no windows tends to motivate people into submission.”

“Submission is not what I’m looking for,” Hale said. “And forcing people to work against their will is just another form of slavery. They’ve already been there once. I will not put them there again. We need them to understand the doughboys are here to protect them, not enslave them…again.”

“And if they don’t?”

“Then we’ll have to pray we can defeat the Triumvirate without the doughboys.” Hale leaned against the holo table, considering the colony’s projection. “Doughboys are meant to be cannon fodder, chaff. It’s not kind, but it’s better for them to fall than any of our colonists. And without the doughboys, we won’t manage much of a defense. ”

“We’ll put up a hell of a fight regardless,” Captain Handley said, crossing his arms.

“I have no doubt. What’s the status on the perimeter walls?”

Handley tapped a command into one of the table’s control terminals, and the projection shifted, centering on a section of partially constructed wall. “We’re about eighty percent on wall construction and about sixty-five percent on weapon emplacements. I estimate the project will be completed in about four days, then we will proceed with installing additional weapon emplacements throughout the colony. We should have complete coverage within a week or so.”

Hale nodded. “And the general militia? No issues with the troops?”

“My people are professionals, sir. They may be veterans, retired, or they may never have served before in their lives, but they all recognize what’s at stake here.”

“Good.” Hale turned to his wife, although he already knew most of what she would report; her briefing was more for the other section heads present in the room. “Orbitals?”

“We’ve doubled the security on Enduring Spirit . I’ve set up overlapping shift rotations so there will never be a time when the ship is not under strict protocols. All the sensitive areas have been locked down, with access granted only by Edison or myself. The lack of Mules is slowing our progress with the rail-gun batteries. Old Forge is churning out the weapons as fast as they can, and we’ve supplemented with the ground-based printers, but then comes the task of hauling the emplacements into orbit. I don’t have to tell you that security escorts and haulers are in limited supply.”

Hale nodded. “I have an idea about that. You all remember the macro cannons emplaced around the Sol System?”

All three nodded.

“Used them to blow the shit out of the Xaros when they attacked Earth,” Handley said. “Basically huge rail-gun batteries mounted on orbital platforms. They’re a bear to put together, though.”

“The components are unique to the weapon system,” Martel said. “We’d have to dedicate printing time—not to mention needing platforms large enough to support them.”

Hale shook his head. “That’s the easy part. The platforms are already available. We just need to find them.”

“You’re talking about asteroids,” Marie said.

“That’s right.”

Marie hesitated for a moment, rubbing her chin as she considered the idea. “It’d take a fairly significant bit of engineering to pull it off.”

“Might give Tanner something better to do with her time than organizing all these protests,” Handley said.

Hale chuckled. “I doubt that.”

“If we’re talking about shifting production priorities again, we’re probably going to want to look at adding more security to the foundries,” Marie said.

Martel laughed. “Those protesters? They’re all talk.”

“It’s ridiculous that we’re forced to resort to these stringent security requirements just to protect our projects from our own people,” Handley said. “Tanner really does have them spun into a frenzy, doesn’t she?”

“I’m not so much worried about Tanner’s people.” Hale nodded to Martel. “Like she said, most of them will talk a big game to their buddies, but when it comes right down to it, they’ll scatter like flies. I just don’t want people to become complacent. Complacency kills. A heightened sense of security keeps the threat of attack fresh in everyone’s minds. Keeps them focused.”

“And the fact that their living conditions are being vastly improved by what the doughboys are doing helps,” Marie said. “The last report I received said the first set of apartments were almost complete and people should be moving in within the next few days. The original estimates of several months have been slashed by almost three-quarters.”

“Yeah, I don’t see them protesting that,” Handley muttered. “And what’s this I hear about our first bona fide restaurant?”

“Well, I don’t know if I’d call it a restaurant just yet,” Martel said. “There isn’t anywhere to sit down, but Jeff makes a hell of a steak.”

“I don’t know that I’ll be trying his lizard meat anytime soon,” Marie said, turning up her nose.

Martel laughed. “Tastes just like beef, I promise. And lizard isn’t the best comparison, more like a cow with scales.”

Marie shivered.

“Maybe we should try it out,” Hale said, giving Marie a playful nudge.

“Why, Mr. Hale, are you asking me out on a date? How romantic.”

Hale smiled. “I want to make sure everyone’s getting downtime. If and when the Triumvirate show up, I want all our people well rested.”

“Oh, maybe we can have a colony cookout,” Martel said, grinning.

Hale resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “I know it’s not all candy and roses, but if we work everyone ragged, they’ll have nothing left when we really need them.”

Chapter 6

After leaving the coast, the hyperloop had taken them several kilometers inland, through thick, hilly jungle. Here and there they passed large, jagged stone spires that jutted out of the jungle like fingers reaching up from the ground. Vines hung between several groups of trees, wrapping around branches and over stones. Like the jungles on Earth, this place was home to seemingly hundreds of species—from small brown-colored, six-legged rodents to red-and-yellow striped tiger analogs with curved spikes growing from their shoulders.

The pylons holding up the hyperloop track had been disguised to look like the surrounding trees, giving the impression that the transparent tube was floating in midair.

“It’s almost like a zoo,” Birch said.

“A what?” Jor asked him, raising an eyebrow at the drone wrangler.

“Sorry. On Earth, we have artificial enclosures for our animals to show them off and protect them. We call them zoos. A lot of places have rides similar to this, letting people experience the animals in their natural habitat.”

“Natural-ish,” Nunez said.

“Keeping them penned up against their will?” Jena asked, frowning.

Birch shrugged. “Sometimes that’s the only way to protect them. Before the Xaros war, several species were hunted to extinction, and some others were so near to it that the only way to save the animals was to house them in sanctuaries.”

“I doubt you have a problem with people hunting out here,” Carson said, thinking of the massive caldryl and its rows of razor-sharp teeth.

“No kidding,” Nunez agreed.

“We have some,” Jena admitted, “but not many. There are times when you can fly shuttles in and out, but it is still extremely risky. They don’t attack the larger vessels, but preservation laws prohibit anything larger than transport shuttles, except in extreme emergencies.”

A chime sounded and echoed softly through the capsule as a holographic face of a Zeis male appeared in the center of the pod. His orange hair was cut short, his goat-like eyes moving from person to person inside the pod until they fell on Jor and he paused.

“So,” he said, not taking his eyes off Jor. “You found him.”

“I did,” Jena said.

At least she’s consistent , Carson thought, noting that the Zeis woman didn’t feel the need to explain herself, even to other Zeis.

Jor looked away, almost like he was pouting, staring out through the capsule’s glass wall.

“I need to speak to my father, Benit,” Jena said.

“He is not here.”

“I understand. Will you get a message to him?”

“I have already taken the liberty.” He paused briefly then finally turned away from Jor to face Jena. “You should know that the Palace has been notified of your arrival.” A hand appeared in the holo image as Jena opened her mouth to speak. “I know—it was not one of our people, I can assure you. Someone at the spaceport sent the message, along with images of your guests. I can only assume they know he is back.”

“That complicates things.”

Jor turned away from the window. “Maybe I should just—”

“No,” Jena said, interrupting him. “You are under Cleric protection. I will vouch for you. Even the Royal Family will hesitate at that.”

The hologram paused, obviously considering Jena’s words. The Zeis woman’s stoic face revealed nothing and Carson found herself wondering exactly how much authority Jena possessed if the Clerics were above even the Royal Family.

“It won’t matter,” Benit said.

The capsule’s momentum slowed and Carson craned her head to one side to see around the hologram, watching as the thick jungle gave way to a vast clearing. Ahead, a massive compound loomed: a complex arrangement of squat concrete buildings surrounded by several steel towers covered by reflective glass windows. A security wall surrounded the complex, topped with three glowing lines of energy that caused the air to ripple around them. Guard towers were positioned every hundred meters or so, complete with large weapons manned by three or four Zeis guards.

“What is this, a prison?” Nunez asked.

A hatch cut into the concrete wall opened like an iris as the capsule neared. They passed through the wall, and it closed as soon as they were through. The capsule slowed as it approached the covered platform, where several Zeis guardsmen were already waiting.

“Is everything all right?” Carson asked, standing .

“My world has been going through some troubling times as of late, and my family has been at the forefront of it all,” Jena said. “The extra security is only a precaution. Benit tends to be overly cautious at the best of times. I expect the events of Diasore have only heightened that mentality.”

The capsule cycled through the tube’s airlock and slowed to a stop in the middle of the platform.

Jena and Carson led the way onto the platform and met the security team, who were armed with rifles slung across their chests. They all wore blue and white uniforms, some of them with various medals and ribbons pinned above the right breast pocket. Benit’s cluster of decorations surpassed the rest of the group’s by two rows, and the gold epaulets on his shoulders identified him as someone of note.

“I apologize for the…” Benit hesitated for a moment, glancing over his shoulder at the guards standing behind him, “…security, Cleric. Your father’s critics have become increasingly vocal since the last conclave. Refradnar has even called for his expulsion.”

Jena stiffened. “He can’t do that.”

“And yet, he has.”

“Where is he?” Jena asked.

Benit eyed the line of humans behind Jena suspiciously.

“It is OK, Benit. They are trustworthy. ”

His eyes narrowed, as if he were considering whether or not she was speaking under duress. Finally, he said, “He was making a plea to the Regulos for intervention.”

Jena shook her head. “And I take it the Isolationists haven’t remained quiet about it.”

“We have been dealing with attacks and demonstrations at every single one of our businesses and stations. Some of our allies in the capital have already gone underground.”

“The Crown is allowing this violence to happen in the capital?”

“The King has not condoned anything.”

“But he’s not condemning it either.”

Benit nodded.

“We will have to deal with that.” Jena motioned to the humans behind her. “This is Chief Kit Carson. She and her team helped us find Jor and rescued us from the Ultari invasion. Chief Carson, this is my father’s Chief of Staff, Benit.”

Carson stepped up, extending a hand. “Good to meet you.”

The security chief eyed her outstretched hand and ignored it. “The invasion of Diasore has caused quite an uproar in the Conclave. The Regulos ambassador was recalled just this morning. Apparently, the Regulos are consolidating their forces.”

“I’m sure that has only given more credence to Refradnar’s rhetoric,” Jena said as she stepped around Benit, heading away from the capsule to a door on the far end of the platform.

The security team fell into step, surrounding the group but leaving enough room to give the illusion of privacy. A wide, elevated walkway led them across a well-manicured lawn, decorated with marble statues of caldryl and standing Zeis figures. A large fountain sprayed multiple water columns into the air that continuously danced around each other.

The stone buildings were obviously older, when compared to the newer, modern steel structures with glass walls. As they neared the palace at the end of a long, tree-lined promenade, the buildings grew increasingly more advanced and larger. A few looked like three- and four-story apartments.

Several Zeis, dressed in colorful, flowing clothes, moved through the park, sharing private conversations. A few noticed the new arrivals and stopped to watch, some pointing and whispering among themselves.

A flock of colorful birds chirped annoyance at the group as they passed, lifting off the figures’ extended arms, buffeting the air briefly before settling back down, keeping wary eyes locked on the group.

“My great-grandmother built it,” Jena explained. “She had expensive tastes, as you can see.”

“I’ll say,” Nunez said, leaning over the railing to get a better look at two Zeis women walking the other direction on the ground below. Moretti smacked the back of his head with an open palm. “Hey! Easy!”

West leaned close to Carson as they descended a flight of stairs that brought them to ground level. “Seems to be trouble at home?”

“It does seem like that, doesn’t it?”

“It’s going to be tough to convince them to help us if they’re having this much trouble within their own ranks.”

Carson nodded. “Agreed. But I refuse to go back to Hale empty-handed. If we strike out here, we’ll just have to try somewhere else. Look on the bright side: it can’t be any worse than the damn Regulos bureaucracy.”

“Don’t speak too soon,” West cautioned. “We don’t know anything about these people or their internal politics. Could be worse. At least the Regulos were consistent. If they’re having as much civil strife as it seems, it might be more difficult to recruit them.”

“Maybe those Burathi you liked so much?”

West laughed. “Not a chance. You couldn’t pay me enough to meet with another one of those things. ”

“You’re not getting paid at all,” Carson said.

“Touché.”

“In all seriousness, though,” Carson said, “from your own account, they’re accomplished warriors and aggressive. That could work in our favor if we can convince them we’re the good guys.”

“Yeah, well, you didn’t have to practically electrocute one to get him to stop attacking you. But you do have a point. If we could have a conversation with them, they’d make potent allies, for sure.”

“This place is beautiful,” Popov said.

“It really is,” Jerry added. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Popov gave the oldest Hale boy an annoyed stare.

“What?” Jerry asked, hands out to his side. “I was agreeing with you.”

The palace—made up of several domed buildings and steel towers covered by windows—was easily the largest structure in the compound. Most of the larger buildings were connected by arched bridges. Three spires, each standing twelve stories tall, rose high above the main buildings. A wide staircase led them up to an open archway, where a set of double doors were silently swinging open.

“That’s impressive,” Nunez said, shaking his head at the massive doors as he passed .

Carson couldn’t disagree. She wondered if everything on the planet was so ostentatious.

Their footsteps echoed on the polished marble floor as they entered the palace proper. The foyer opened into a multilevel chamber, and each level ended in a curved terrace overlooking the room’s centerpiece on the ground floor.

A life-size holo projection of a caldryl flickered slightly on a steel pedestal, the image stirring as the group approached. Its triangular head turned, as if it had noticed them entering, and it opened its long beak in a silent roar. It stood on its hind legs, extending its two sets of long, bat-like wings out to either side, the longer pair spanning fifteen meters from tip to tip.

“A freaking nightmare,” Jerry muttered under his breath. “Damn evil-looking dragon monster.”

Nunez clapped him on the back. “Bright side is, they can swallow you whole, less chewing.”

“Per your request, Almon has laid out refreshments in the dining hall, Cleric,” Benit said as they made their way deeper into the palace.

“Excellent,” Jena said.

Carson hadn’t been thinking about food until the Cleric had mentioned it, but now her stomach rumbled with anticipation. They’d been restricted to ration packs for several months, a concession Hale had made to appease the colonists—not that Carson had complained. They were Pathfinders and accustomed to not eating real food for months on end.

“Oh man, I’m starving. Do you people have steak here?” Nunez asked, turning and walking backward, watching the caldryl settle back down on its pedestal.

Carson glared at West and the non-comm nodded, clenching his jaw. West cleared his throat, pulling Nunez’s attention away from the holo image.

“A guy can ask, can’t he?” Nunez said, holding his arms out to his sides.

“I’m sure Chef Almon will have something that you will appreciate,” Jena said.

The dining hall was a long, rectangular chamber with high ceilings and arched windows on either side. Decorative chandeliers hovered in the air above the table, their soft glow washed out by the sunlight filtering in through the bay windows on either side of the room. The rectangular table stretched almost the entire length of the room, surrounded by high-backed padded wooden chairs. Place settings had already been laid out and a selection of foods waited in several ornate dishes.

“Now that’s impressive,” Jerry said, moving quickly with Nunez to find a seat.

“I’m a little embarrassed to say this, Jena,” Carson said, putting a hand on the back of one of the chairs, “but we’re not royalty or anything. We’re just scouts.”

“Speak for yourself, Chief,” Nunez said around a mouthful of charred meat.

Moretti slipped on his medi-gauntlet and held his scanner over several dishes. “Everything looks edible, Chief. No toxins detected at all.”

“It’s very good,” West said after taking a bite of what looked like a blue apple.

The urge to move on, to push forward with the mission was overwhelming, but her team had been through hell over the last several months, so taking some time to recuperate would do them well—and, she admitted, she was hungry.

She took a seat, considered the many options before her, then skewered a thin slice of meat, cut a slice, and popped it into her mouth. The outside of the meat was slightly charred, but the inside was tender and juicy, with a hint of spice.

Jena smiled, motioning to the table. “We export to dozens of off-world clients. Our foods are considered some of the most prized delicacies in the galaxy.”

“I can see why,” Nunez said, his mouth full.

“I must step away for a short time,” Jena said. “If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask. The servants have been instructed to assist you. Jor…”

The male Zeis waved her off. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Jena nodded then left.

Over the next hour, the Pathfinders settled in, eating their fill and carrying on conversations among themselves as servants kept their drinks topped off. The clinking of silverware and glasses echoed throughout the expansive room. No matter how much they ate, dishes were refilled with a seemingly endless supply of food.

The conversation gradually steered toward the events on Diasore, and the Ultari invasion.

West set his glass down and wiped his mouth with a napkin. “You know, one thing I noticed about the Ultari on Diasore is that the Netherguard models were different from those we fought on Terra Nova and Negev. They were significantly more advanced and seemed more adept at battle tactics and movements.”

“I noticed the same thing,” Carson said, “which means the Triumvirate aren’t simply relying on overwhelming numbers—they’re focusing on enhanced capabilities.”

Movement near the door caught Carson’s attention; one of the guards was leaning in, whispering to another. She couldn’t decide whether their shared expressions were confusion, shock, or both. At the opposite end of the room, another guard put a hand to his ear then looked around until he locked eyes with the other two.

Carson nudged West. “Something’s going on.”

A shadow played across several of the windows, and a thrumming sound reverberated through the space as something flew overhead.

“Whoa,” Jerry said, steadying his glass.

Birch moved to a window and pulled back the sheer blue curtain. “Now that’s impressive.”

“What?” Carson asked, joining him at the window.

Outside, a sleek aircraft, easily three times the size of the Valiant , was slowly rotating thirty meters above the compound’s expansive parade field. On the underside of the ship were several lines of symbols and letters that Carson couldn’t read. The hull was dotted with gun batteries, constantly sweeping the ground and surrounding airspace for threats.

A flight of six fighter aircraft zipped past, their powerful drives rumbling the windows as they passed in a tight formation. A shuttle descended from an opening in the bottom of the craft and glided quickly out of view.

“Jena’s father maybe?” Birch asked.

Carson shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

West and the rest of the team joined them at the window .

“Whoever it is, they’ve got a pretty high opinion of themselves,” Popov said.

“I thought Jena said they couldn’t fly out here because of those cal-things,” Jerry said, craning his head around Birch to see.

Carson shook her head as the fighter escort roared past again. “Well, they definitely don’t seem worried about them. They seem to have brought more than enough firepower to deal with them.”

Nunez shuddered. “I’d hate to go up against one of those things in the air—shit, on the ground even. Fighting giant dragon-pterodactyls wasn’t on the job application.”

Carson felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see Jor trying to get a view of what they were all looking at. She stepped back and the Zeis’s eyes widened at the sight of the new arrival.

“Balai-cursed woman,” Jor said, backing away from the window. “It’s barely been a day.”

“Something wrong?” Carson asked.

Jor shook his head, covering his face with his hands. “I don’t understand why she just won’t let it go.”

“Who?”

Jor straightened, letting his hands fall back to his sides. “It’s my— ”

The door to the dining room slammed open, the noise echoing around the quiet chamber. The two guards on the door spun, expecting a fight, but immediately snapped to attention as eight Zeis males wearing orange and black uniforms entered the room without giving the guards so much as a nod. They were all powerfully built and held rifles across their chests, barrels pointing to the floor.

Following the guardsmen was a tall Zeis female, dressed in elaborate flowing golden robes. Her face was covered by a gold-trimmed veil, inlayed with glittering jewels. A golden necklace, heavy with jewels, hung from her neck and over her breasts, which the dress barely concealed.

“Jor!” the woman screamed as her guardsmen parted.

Jor sighed, his shoulders slumping. “It’s my wife.”

****

The veiled Zeis woman, Jor’s wife, stormed across the dining hall, pointing a thin bronze finger. “You! You dare show your face here! You have disgraced me for the last time, Jor!”

“Kalene,” Jor said, stepping around Carson, “I— ”

“You dare address me like we’re friends?” The princess’s voice cracked as she screamed, her blue and gold dress streaming out behind her as she closed on Jor.

Jor backpedaled several steps. “Crown Dal, I—”

“Disgrace! You taint the very ground you walk upon!”

“Excuse me,” Carson said, stepping forward, beside Jor. “I…”

Kalene slowly turned her eyes on Carson, fury burning behind her goat-like eyes. Muscles twitched under her light bronze skin as veins pulsed in her neck. She considered Carson for a long moment, her eyes scanning up and down her frame, taking in her Pathfinder uniform, gear, and finally, her rifle. “And this? Another one of your husini ?”

“Please, you must understand—”

“What did she just call me?” Carson put her hands on her hips.

“I must understand nothing,” Kalene said, stopping a few steps away from Jor, her bronze skin flushing with color, her entire body rigid and tense, seemingly on the verge of lashing out to attack. “You have disgraced me, and you spit in the face of Balai and his Commandments!”

“The Commandments say nothing of conscription, wife,” Jor said, seeming to gain a bit of courage. “Balai preached free will as well as procreation.”

“Do not speak of Balai’s will to me, husband. Only the Conclave may interpret His will. They have made their decision, and you will return to the palace with me and you will never see that lowly whore ever again. That is the command of the Conclave.”

“The Conclave is wrong,” Jor said. “They have twisted Balai’s words to fit their own—”

“Blasphemy!” Kalene shouted, stepping forward as she slipped her hand into the folds of her dress.

When her hand reappeared an instant later, it wasn’t empty. Carson moved on instinct, catching the Zeis woman’s wrist and twisting it back. As Carson wrenched back, Kalene’s bronze fingers flexed open, releasing the small pistol they held. It clattered to the polished marble and slid across the floor.

Kalene screamed then stepped back, twisting her arm free even as her guards moved to protect their charge. Rifles came up, accompanied by angry shouts—commands that Carson didn’t understand, though she could guess.

Her Pathfinders appeared, their weapons up and ready as more shouting echoed through the expansive chamber around them. Carson grabbed Jor by the shoulder as he tried to step past the line, pulling him behind Birch and Moretti.

“Now is not the time,” Carson hissed.

“Stand down!” West shouted .

“Drop your weapons!”

“No!” Jor pleaded. “Stop!”

“Traitor!” Kalene shouted over the mayhem of commands. “You’ve brought invaders to our home? You will burn for this!”

“Stop,” Carson said. “Everyone, just calm down! Take it easy.”

The chorus of commands died away, though the weapons remained leveled, fingers hovering over triggers. Professional soldiers on both sides glared at each other, neither flinching.

“You have no voice here,” Kalene said, pointing.

Carson steadied her breathing. “Just bring it down a notch. This doesn’t have to end this way.”

“You will give no commands here, alien. If you stand with him ,” she pointed at Jor, “then you are as culpable as he, and you will stand trial with him before the Conclave.”

“First off,” Carson said, lowering her gauss carbine, more irritated now than anything. “I don’t even know what this Conclave is, and second, I won’t be standing trial with anyone for a crime I didn’t commit. My name is Chief Kit Carson, with the—”

“I don’t care who you are, husini !” Kalene said, interrupting her. “And I have no desire to listen to any more lies. The Conclave will listen and decide. You will drop your weapons and surrender to the Crown.”

Carson shook her head. “Can’t do that.”

“Then you will die.”

Another door slammed open at the back of the chamber. “Princess Kalene!”

Zeis and human alike turned as Jena stormed through the door, Benit and a small security team following in her wake.

“What is the meaning of this?” Jena demanded.

“I am reclaiming my rightful property,” Kalene said, though her tone lacked some of the conviction it’d held previously.

“You have violated the Preserve’s mandates and you come into my house like this? Crown or no, you have no right.”

“You think your laws mean anything to me? I can do what I like! I am the Crown Dal!”

Jena pushed her way through the Pathfinder line, stepping between the two groups to stare the Zeis woman down. “Has the line of succession fallen so far since I’ve been gone? Has the King fallen, and his wife and sons and daughters, to the fifth?”

Kalene hesitated for a moment, seeming to consider Jena’s words.

The Cleric continued. “The last I knew, His Majesty, Talben, still sat on the throne. Only he is immune to the Order’s reach, so I will not mind my words . You, however, may want to reconsider yours. Do you think that His Majesty will be pleased that you have violated the Edict of Angea and entered my father’s house without cause?”

“My cause is there!” Kalene jabbed a finger at Jor.

At the end of the Pathfinder line, Jerry flinched, letting out a clipped gasp. Two of the Zeis guard reacted immediately, turning their rifles on the oldest Hale boy.

“No!” Carson yelled.

West put a hand on Jerry’s rifle, gently pushing it toward the floor and stepping between him and the Zeis. “Easy, boys. We don’t want anyone firing off any rounds they don’t mean to. Can’t bring those things back.”

“Lower your weapons,” Kalene said after several long moments.

Carson gave a nod to West, and the rest of the Pathfinders followed suit.

“Your brother has been filling your head with lies, Kalene,” Jena said. “Your husband has violated the Matrimony Pact; however, that does not preclude you from following the rest of Balai’s commands.”

“And what of your violations?” Kalene asked, nodding to the humans. “You’ve brought a group of Externals to our world, without first consulting the Conclave. Clerics aren’t excluded from the Commandments either.”

“Do not quote the Commandments to me, Princess. I know them better than you ever will,” said Jena. “And do not trouble yourself with my actions. I will answer to the Conclave in my own time.”

Kalene glared at Jena. “I know you will.”

“You must leave,” Jena told her. “Your presence could disrupt the migration and I will not allow that to happen. You will receive a flight plan from my people and I will caution you to follow it precisely.”

“I will take him with me,” Kalene said, pointing at Jor.

Jena turned to Jor, her expression almost regretful.

“It is my right,” Kalene said.

After a moment, Jena nodded, and Jor reluctantly stepped forward. He moved past Jena without saying a word, keeping his eyes locked on the floor.

Carson leaned forward to whisper in Jena’s ear. “You aren’t just going to let them take him?”

“I have no choice,” Jena replied. “By Conclave commands, he must answer for his crime. My mission was to bring him before the Conclave and allow him to speak on his actions. Now that we are on Yalara, I can’t refuse a wife’s right. ”

A wife’s right , Carson repeated in her mind, wondering what exactly the concept entailed.

“Now,” Jena said, “your business is done here.”

“We will leave,” Kalene said, smiling. She eyed Carson. “The King will be told of this. We are not done, mark my words. There will be a reckoning.”

“Perhaps,” Jena said. “But that won’t be today.”

****

From a terrace overlooking one of the compound’s gardens, the Pathfinders watched the princess’s ship lift into the air, the large turbine engines whining and pummeling the trees and brush beneath with hot exhaust, creating a cloud of leaves, grass, and dust. The flight of escorts roared by, splitting into two groups, forming up on either side of the larger ship as it started out over the jungle.

“Jor was a fugitive,” Jena said as the roar of the engines faded in the distance.

Carson frowned. “He didn’t seem like a criminal to me.”

“Not a criminal,” Jena said. “A deserter.”

Nunez put his back to the waist-high marble railing. “What? Like he was in the military or something?”

“If he’d deserted from the military, I wouldn’t have been chasing him. No, he was a deserter from his marriage.”

Nunez coughed. “He left his wife and they sent a bounty hunter after him?”

“Clerics are not bounty hunters,” Jena corrected. “We are enforcers of the Conclave’s will. And yes, but it is not that simple. Had Jor not been married to the princess, the Conclave might not have cared so deeply about his safe return. As it happens, the Royal Family does not like to be made a fool—not to mention the princess’s scorn at being left for a lesser woman.”

“What do you mean, ‘lesser’?” Carson asked.

“Zeis society is based around family,” Jena explained. “All families, however, are not created equal. Even my own, which is quite established, is below many others and well below the Crown.”

“Sounds like quite a popularity contest,” Carson said. “So Jor left the princess for another woman that was below her status and that pissed her off? Must have been someone special to incur that type of wrath.”

Jena took a long breath. “It was my sister.”

“Wait a minute,” Nunez said. “You chased down your own sister’s lover to bring him back to that?” He laughed. “Man, talk about—”

“Where is your sister, Jena?” Carson asked, cutting him off .

Jena held Carson’s gaze for several moments before answering. “My hope is that she is dead.”

Carson opened her mouth to respond, but no words came.

Jena continued, “The lifespan of a Pindiki sex slave is not long. I can only hope she did not endure for too long.”

“I’m…I’m sorry,” Carson said.

Jena’s face hardened. “She was a Cleric. One of the best. She would not have gone quietly or easily. I’m sure she killed many before they took her, which is my only solace.”

“And Jor?”

“When news of what had happened reached the Conclave, Jor was heartbroken. Refused to believe that she was gone.”

“Why didn’t you go after her?”

“Because doing so would have risked war, something the Conclave cannot allow. Once the slavers reached Pindiki space, it was next to impossible to track them. Even if I’d been allowed to search, I wouldn’t have found her.”

“But you could bring back Jor?”

“Up until recent events, Regulos space has been open to all. I was sent after Jor almost immediately and was able to track him to Diasore. You know the rest.”

“Hell with that,” Nunez said. “I’d’ve gone to war and killed every last one of the bastards. ”

“Damn straight,” Jerry said, nodding.

“My father wanted to go to war to bring her back. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the clout to push the Conclave to action.”

“And I bet the princess has some,” West said.

“Yes. She still does—though even if the princess had not lobbied against him, I doubt his calls for action would’ve been heeded. The Conclave would’ve never voted to go to war with the Pindiki, not with our world’s bureaucracy the way it is. It’s a wonder they accomplish anything at all. They’re barely capable of handling the responsibilities they’ve been charged with.”

“And what’s that?” Carson asked.

“Protecting the Hearth—our home. The majority believe that to mean cutting ties with all foreign powers and returning to a fully self-sustaining world, devoid of all outside influence.”

“Isolationists,” Carson said.

Jena nodded. “Indeed.”

Carson shot West a knowing look. “So bringing us here might not have been the best move on your part.”

“It was the only move, as my father will surely agree, and despite what the Royals may think, they do not possess authoritarian power over the rest of us. There are many powerful families—my own included—that do not agree with the Isolationists, and we are actively campaigning against them.”

“I’m going to be one hundred percent honest with you, Jena,” Carson said. “My team and I are out here to make allies that can help us fight the Ultari. I don’t want to put you in an even worse position than you already are, but if we’re not going to get any help here, we’re going to have to go someplace we can. We’ve already struck out once with the Regulos and I have a feeling we’re quickly running out of time.”

Jena considered Carson for a long moment. “I will take you to the Conclave.”

“You think they will listen to me?”

“The Triumvirate represent a very real threat, not only to the Regulos and your people, but to the rest of the galaxy as a whole. If we do not stop them, there is no telling where they will stop. The Triumvirate threat exceeds that even of the Pindiki because they won’t simply enslave our people—they’ll wipe them out and not spare them a second thought. That threat alone should be enough to push the Conclave into action.”

****

“This thing really does go on forever, doesn’t it?” Nunez asked, his eyes locked on the landscape outside their capsule. Rocky mountain peaks rose out of an endless green jungle that stretched to the horizon. Every now and then, the canopy of trees was broken by sheer cliffs, hills and rivers that snaked on for kilometers.

“The transit network is extensive,” Jena said. “I believe the last estimate was half a million kilometers so far, with another quarter million in construction.”

“That’s insane,” Nunez whispered.

A small panel on the side of the capsule displayed their current route to their destination. Their capsule followed a blue line that traced a course through the expansive network, arriving at the capital on the far side of the planet.

“Now,” Jena said, turning to Carson, “when we arrive at the palace, there are certain protocols you must follow in order for our audience to be successful.”

Carson nodded, hoping the protocols weren’t as ridiculous as they had been with the Regulos. “Of course.”

“Your weapons will not be allowed in the Conclave.” Jena held up a hand, stopping Carson’s protest. “There is no other way. The Clerics will not admit you armed. Benit and his team will ensure they are secured and safe.”

Carson worked her jaw, trying to stem her frustration. “Sergeant Nunez and Voidman Hale will remain behind as well. ”

Jena nodded. “I think that would be fine. Now, after we make it through security, you will be presented to the Conclave. They will hear your request, then dismiss you to confer among themselves and with the Crown before rendering judgment. If they decide your request has merit, they will permit you an audience with the King.”

And the bureaucracy continues, Carson thought.

“Everyone out here sure does love their red tape,” West said, as if reading Carson’s mind.

Jena frowned. “I don’t understand.”

West shook his head. “An old Earth expression. Means things aren’t simple when they should be.”

“Ah, yes, well, our leadership do love their protocol.”

“Seems to be the trend,” Carson said. “Almost like the Regulos infected every—”

An alarm blared through the capsule, drowning out Carson’s words. Red and yellow lights flashed, and magnetic brakes screamed. Carson’s harness dug into her shoulders, pinning her to the seat as she reached for her helmet, snatching it out of midair just before it went spinning into West.

Ahead, the hyperloop tube exploded, sending trails of debris streaking into the air. Glass and metal ripped away as the transport tube shook violently. Carson smacked her head against the glass, blurring her vision .

“Hold on!” Jena shouted, pressing her hands against the glass as they rocketed toward the gaping rent in the tube.

The capsule shot out of the hole like a bullet from a gun, immediately plummeting toward the lush green canopy of leaves below. Carson gritted her teeth as her world turned upside down. Warning icons flashed on her HUD, though she couldn’t remember putting her helmet on. She caught a glimpse of canopy, then it was gone as the capsule continued to spin, rocking Carson against her harness.

She jerked forward, gasping as the capsule smashed through the canopy, plunging them into darkness. Carson thought she heard a hissing over the cacophony of capsule and suit alarms, then saw flecks of white foam spraying through the cabin.

“What the hell’s going on?” Carson shouted, trying to wipe the foam from her visor. But with every swipe of her hand, more foam sprayed over her.

Within seconds, her legs felt like they’d sunk into a mud hole; she could barely move them. Another second later, she couldn’t move her arms, then the foam completely covered her visor, blinding her to the outside world. Her breath echoed in her helmet as all the sound outside became muted.

The capsule continued to bounce and roll, and Carson lost all concept of up or down. “Jena? West? ”

“I’m here!” West answered, his voice sounding like he was a mile away.

“What—”

The capsule jerked again, pulling Carson hard against the harness despite the foam. She gritted her teeth, getting the impression they were rolling. We must have hit the ground, she thought.

A minute later, they bumped into something and the capsule sat still. Almost immediately, there was a hiss of air and the foam began blowing away, unpinning her arms and legs. She wiped the foam covering her visor.

The pod had come to rest on its side and she was partly hanging from her harness straps. Slick gloved fingers pried the harness release and she dropped, landing on the capsule’s glass wall. Even through her suit, Carson could feel the foam’s wetness as it broke down.

Someone dropped next to her and she turned to see Jena standing, foam covering her entire body. Her red hair was filled with the stuff, her bronze skin glistening. She did a halfhearted job of wiping it from her face.

“Everyone OK?” Carson asked, still trying to clear her visor.

A chorus of affirmatives came back from her team.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Nunez said, running his hands through his hair .

Clumps of foam covered his face and head and puddled in his suit’s small neck collar. Apparently, he hadn’t been able to don his helmet in time. He grimaced with every step he took, lifting his legs in exaggerated movements.

“Oh, man, it’s everywhere! It’s so cold!”

Several emergency hatches had blown clear, opening the capsule up in several places, allowing the foam to disperse quickly. Carson ducked through one of the openings, careful not to slip on the wet ground. She could just make out the path the capsule had taken through the trees on its way down but couldn’t see the hypertube above the canopy.

The noises of the jungle echoed around them—birds screeching in the distance, insects chirping around them, unseen. Huge trees, their trunks charcoal-gray, surrounded them, and a warm breeze cut through the dense jungle around them. A few meters away, a wide stream weaved its way through the trees, flanked on both sides by moss-covered rocks and pebble-covered banks. Long, finger-like roots from some of the trees lining the bank had grown between the larger stones, reaching down into the water.

“Great, just great,” Jerry said, shaking foam from his helmet. Like Nunez, he hadn’t gotten his helmet on in time either.

“Damn,” Nunez said, pulling his boots off. “This is going to be a bitch to clean. ”

“Weapons first,” West said, already clearing the foam from his CL1.

Carson turned to Jena. “What the hell happened?”

Jena straightened from wringing out her long red hair, pushing lines of white through her fingers. “I’m not sure. An explosive decompression like that shouldn’t have been possible. I’ll have to check the capsule’s computer. Hopefully, it’s not destroyed.”

Carson ejected the magazine from her gauss carbine and watched Jena crawl into the capsule and begin to work on the terminal screen, now above her. She wiped off the screen and began typing.

“Still works,” Jena said. “Should just take a minute to bring up the security routines.”

“You all right, Chief?”

Carson turned and found West giving her a concerned look. He nodded and pointed to her forehead. “You’re bleeding.”

Carson flipped her visor back and touched her scalp, flinching at the sudden flare of pain. She pulled away blood-covered fingers. “I’m fine. Just a flesh wound.”

“You should have Doc check you out.”

“No, it’s—”

“Moretti, have a look at the Chief, will you.”

“Roger that,” the medic said .

Carson glared at her senior non-comm but didn’t argue as the medic approached. She put her palm against the charcoal-gray trunk beside her, then brought her hand away, her gloved fingers now covered in a powder.

Moretti activated his medi-gauntlet, then held his open palm an inch from her face and waited as the device scanned her injury. Orange and red lines passed over her, and after several seconds, the device chimed.

“Superficial,” he said, dropping his gloved hand to his kit and pulling out a tube of sealing gel.

“I told you,” Carson said as Moretti applied the yellow cream. Within seconds, Carson felt the gel begin to harden.

“How’s your pain?”

“It’s fine.” She prodded the hardened sealant with her fingers. “Thanks.”

“Oh, come on!” Nunez said, groaning. He held a hand full of goo. “You’re never going to guess where I pulled this out of!”

“You’re so gross,” Popov told him, moving up from the stream bank, wringing out her hair. “At least you don’t have the stuff clumped in your hair.”

Benit and Lenor, another one of Jena’s security people, stood in the stream behind her, wringing out their shirts and washing the remaining foam from their bodies .

Nunez tossed the clump of foam aside and made for the water. “No, I’ve just got to deal with it in other places.”

“Carson,” Jena called from inside the capsule.

Carson ducked inside, stepping carefully through the remaining foam. “Found something?”

Jena pointed to the display.

Carson had to crane her head to get a good look at the screen that displayed a frozen image of the capsule’s nose, the hyperloop tube a blur around it.

“Bottom-right corner,” Jena said, then hit a button, starting the recording.

The video ticked forward frame by frame for several seconds, then a gray mass appeared, a column of white smoke trailing out behind it. Jena froze the image.

“That’s a rocket,” Carson said.

Jena nodded, advancing the recording again. The rocket hit the tube and exploded, sending debris and streamers of flame into the air. The capsule slipped through the jagged opening, through a gray cloud of smoke, and the canopy of trees appeared beneath it.

“West,” Carson said without turning away from the video, “eyes up. We’ve got company.”

The senior Pathfinder’s response was quick, devoid of any uncertainty. “Birch, Moretti, observation posts, north and south, move. ”

“Roger,” both men said in unison.

“Hale, Nunez, Popov, perimeter security, possible hostiles inbound.”

Like a switch had been thrown, the Pathfinders went into full operational mode, collecting their gear and heading off to their assigned positions. Even Jerry—the newest member of their team, who’d had only a few training sessions—fell right in line, following Popov into the jungle. Benit and West quickly discussed defensive plans and the two Zeis guardsmen filled in the gaps.

Carson checked her IR signal. The connection with the rest of the team was spotty. “Anyone having better luck with their comms?”

“Negative,” West said, adjusting his helmet. “Terrain is lousy. Signal strength is going to be shit for anything beyond short-range.”

“I might have something.” Jena moved to the back of the capsule and pried off a panel, exposing a compartment inside. She pulled out a gray, hard-plastic case, let it fall to the floor, then started popping off the locking tabs.

“First things first, Jena,” Carson said, slapping a magazine into her gauss carbine. “Who attacked us? I thought you said there wasn’t anyone out here.”

“There shouldn’t be,” Jena said, pulling a bulky computer from the case’s padded interior. “I’ve got to get a signal to my father.”

Carson put a hand on the Zeis woman’s shoulder. Jena shot her an angry glance and Carson asked again, “Who’s out there?”

Jena opened the computer and began working through its start-up routines. “The only people who’d have the resources to pull something like this off would be my family, the Clerics, or the Royal Family. I’m sure you can work it out.”

“The princess?”

Benit appeared in the capsule’s hatch, one hand on the side of the opening. “They would’ve had to know when we were departing to calculate when to fire that rocket. Which means we’ve got a mole within our organization.”

“Two problems,” Jena said. “One will have to wait.”

“Assassination, though,” Carson said, thinking aloud. “Isn’t that a little drastic?”

“I told you, Carson,” Jena said. “There are many people in the government that do not want to see us make allies with outsiders. Some are more extreme in their beliefs than others. Come on!” She slapped the side of the computer and the screen fuzzed slightly. “The signal isn’t strong enough. We’re not going to be able to get a signal out from here.”

“Our systems aren’t working either,” Carson said. “ Can we make it back to your compound from here on foot?”

Jena shook her head. “That would take several days.”

“How much farther to the capital?”

Jena laughed. “Five times that.”

A feral roar echoed in the distance, standing Carson’s hair on end. The sound reminded her of a lion or tiger from Earth.

“Well, we can’t stay here,” Carson said. “Whoever fired that rocket is still out here. If they went to as much trouble as you say to take us out, they’re going to want to make sure they got the job done.”

“Paito!” Jena shouted, slamming the computer terminal shut.

“Jena,” Carson said, putting a hand on her shoulder, “we need to get moving.”

“What about the people who fired that rocket?” West said. Carson gave him a questioning look and he continued, “They’re not going to be out here without a way to get home, right? They’ve got to have a way to leave, right?”

“Predator shuttles,” Benit said. “Fast, agile. They’d be the only thing I’d trust against the caldryl.”

“We find the shuttles, we find a way out of here,” Carson said.

Jena looked up toward the invisible hyperloop tube above. “Except there’s no way of knowing where they are, and we don’t want to be wandering around the jungle any longer than we have to be.”

West nodded at the capsule. “We have a general location. Rocket came from that direction.”

“The relay stations,” Benit said.

“The what?” West asked.

“That’s it,” Jena said, her eyes lighting up. “Every few kilometers, there’s a relay station built into the track support pylons. It sends pod information along the track to the main control nodes around the world. If we can get to one, we might be able to hack into the signal and get a signal out.”

Carson considered the alien jungle around her for a moment, running through their options. For an instant, she wondered what Colonel Hale—no, Governor Hale—might do, but immediately dismissed the idea. No, she thought. You’re not him. Your ways are different.

“We’ll follow the track that way,” Carson said, indicating the direction West had pointed out. “Whoever’s out here hunting us isn’t going to stop, so instead of being prey, we’ll do something they probably won’t expect. We’ll hunt them.”

“Excuse me,” Nunez said, approaching the capsule. “You all are forgetting about the most important thing out here. ”

Carson, Jena, West, and Benit all turned to face the approaching Pathfinder.

He held his arms out, as if saying, Don’t you know? “The man-eating pterodactyl dragon monsters. They’re out here, aren’t they? Prowling around, looking for helpless little morsels to dine on. I hate to break it to everyone, but we happen to be those helpless little morsels.” He raised his gauss carbine. “You think this is going to cut it against those things?”

Chapter 7

Network connection…zzzzt…unstable…We need to-to-to… CID said. Even…zzzzt…returning to…

“You’re glitching again,” MAC said.

I am-am most certainly-ly-ly-ly not.

“You are. Run internal diagnostics. We can’t afford for you to lose functionality right now and I’m definitely not making you primary with your systems being affected like this.”

Are you insinuating that I’m-I’m-I’m not fully operational? I can run-run-run circles around anything the Ultari maintain.

“I’m not having this argument with you right now, CID. For all your capabilities, you’d think the designers would’ve taken more care with your operational matrix.”

You should know. You-you-you programmed me.

“Coding your integration protocols with my communication subroutines doesn’t equate to programming you. Regardless, we can’t afford a link right now and we’re not leaving until we’ve accomplished out mission.”

Fine.

A group of droids emerged from a side street, moving quickly, watching over their shoulders as five Netherguard appeared, ushering them toward the arched bridge leading downtown. These Netherguard patrols were becoming more and more common, searching for off-line droids not connected to the main Network. CID directed one of the droids to close on the Netherguard, but as had happened in previous attempts, the biomechanical constructs disabled the drones before CID could get a reading.

In the three days since the Triumvirate’s arrival, everything but some basic services in the city had shut down. Speeches from the mysterious Herald, however, promised that life would soon return to normal, and it would be more prosperous than before. The armored messenger definitely wasn’t Ultari, but exactly who—or what—he was remained a mystery.

“For all must put faith in Kyrios!” the armored figure proclaimed on more than one occasion. His transmissions replayed on every screen and broadcast channel throughout the city. His messages were interspersed with scenes from the Triumvirate invasion of Diasore, replaying the nuclear explosions and resulting mushroom clouds over and over again.

During the confusion of the first day, MAC had lost track of Welsi and Gruldal and had not been able to reacquire them. After losing three drones to Netherguard interference, MAC resigned himself to keeping his drones out of service until he could shield them against their attacks. He’d been forced to physically scour the streets and alleys, and while he’d yet to spot the smugglers, he’d picked up several rumors of an Ultari rebellion forming in the shadows.

Another local node has-has-has gone dark, CID advised.

“Are the network nodes shutting down, or are they losing their connection?” MAC asked.

I am still receiving-receiving cluster information from the network…zzzzt, CID said. That indicates the nodes are still-still-still active but no longer relaying data.

“So that should benefit us, correct? If they aren’t connected to Central, it would stand to reason that any outside access of the nodes would go undetected.”

Theoretically, yes. However, I must-must-must contend that if we can observe this mishap, the operators at the HUB would…zzzzt…have identified the issue as well. They may very well have installed passive observation-observation programs throughout the network to monitor unauthorized access.

MAC waved a dismissive metal hand through the air, realizing how very biological the action was. “Those technicians might be intelligent, but they’re not smart.”

That is a contradiction I don’t understand, CID said.

“Of course you don’t. You’re not smart either.”

Your statement is-is-is inaccurate.

MAC ignored him. “Access the nodes and use them to track down Welsi or Gruldal. If there is a resistance forming, they’ll likely be right in the middle of it.”

Working.

A small panel appeared in the lower-left-hand corner of MAC’s vision, showing him CID’s work on the Ultari Network. The data streamed faster than his optical sensors could read, but his internal processor had no issues following his counterpart’s progress. A part of him was envious of CID’s skill at navigating the complex computer systems and programs that oversaw the Ultari’s Network, but only a small part.

MAC turned away from the throngs of people filling the streets and moved back into a narrow alley bisecting two squat office buildings. Even with his ability to blend in with the other worker droids, he didn’t want to risk needless exposure to the Netherguard. They didn’t seem to be extremely picky when it came to choosing which droids they escorted to Central Control and which they left simply destroyed where they stood .

Two Triumvirate fighters flew through the air overhead, engines screaming. A cycle later, their cannons spit out a barrage of energy shots, followed shortly thereafter by an explosion that echoed through the alley. On the ground, Ultari screamed, fleeing in all directions as the Netherguard moved in.

“You’d think they’d stop trying to leave,” MAC said, his optical sensors zooming in to focus on the remains of an aircraft as it plummeted out of the air. It slammed into the street, sending long streamers of flame and smoke into the air. Ultari scrambled over each other to get away from the destruction. The wreckage rolled across the street, smashing a parked conveyance, slamming through a wall of windows at the base of an office building, disappearing inside. Immediately, a thick pillar of smoke began billowing out from the opening, covering the street in a thick black cloud.

Ultari shouted and screamed, waving fists in the air as the fighters shot past, then quickly reconsidered as a patrol of Netherguard appeared. Three made frustrated gestures at the patrol, but otherwise kept moving.

Biologics are not-not-not known for their logical reasoning…zzzzt…and objective thinking, CID said.

“You’re correct about that,” MAC said. “But you’d think that their base survival instincts would lead them to make better choices. ”

Your faith in-in-in them is misplaced.

“What do you know about faith?”

Zzzzt…I understand the concept well enough-enough, CID said. I have also managed to… zzzzt…locate Gruldal. According to his latest network login, he is in-in-in the subbasement of a high-rise 3.7 kilometers southeast of our current-current position.

“Excellent.”

It took MAC 5.7 cycles to reach the location, an eleven-story tenement building in the middle of a dense residential block. CID identified the Ultari’s last-known location, the second subbasement, and immediately started scanning.

Bio-scan indicates Alcorg and Fitwa are also present.

“A meeting of the minds,” MAC said. “Deploy drones.”

Working.

MAC watched the optical feeds of the remote sensor platform as it maneuvered its way through the building’s air-circulation system to a room in the southwest corner. A thin wire extended from the underside of the small drone and slipped through the small separations of the vent, giving him a wide-angled view of the room below.

Five Ultari sat around a square table in the center of the room. Empty food containers and drinks cluttered the surface of the table and opened crates of supplies were stacked along each of the walls. The room was lit by portable lights mounted on poles in the corners of the room.

Gruldal, the shortest Ultari at the table, leaned back in his chair, finishing a bottle of green liquid. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, grimacing as he tossed the bottle aside. It hit the floor and shattered.

“Enough, Gruldal!” Alcorg growled.

Gruldal lifted his arms to either side. “It’s bad enough we must hide in this pit but sitting at the table with him is unacceptable.”

The other three Ultari turned to the one Gruldal had indicated, an older Ultari, wearing a black uniform jacket, unbuttoned at the front. Three golden bars on either side of his open collar glinted in the lights. MAC didn’t even need CID’s facial recognition software to identify him. General Mortas of the Planet Strider Collective, brother to Pantos, former Speaker of the Founder’s Council. Hated among the general population for his brutal tactics, Mortas was known for his almost-religious devotion to his brother and the Council.

This is an interesting-interesting development, CID said.

The general barely moved a muscle as the smallest hint of a smile appeared at the corners of his mouth.

Welsi leaned forward. “He is the only reason we’re still here. Our alliance— ”

“Bah!” Gruldal said. “He chose his alliance long ago!” He spat on the floor.

“Take care what you say about the Founders,” Mortas said, his voice steady. “We will rid ourselves of this Kyrios menace, and when my brother returns to power, he will call on his loyal followers.”

“Past alliances no longer matter,” Welsi said. “Not anymore.”

Loyal followers ,” Gruldal spat.

“Pantos is doing what he must,” Mortas said. “Same as us. As long as he controls the Network, the Triumvirate won’t let a resource like that go so easily.”

“Why even keep the Founders around?” Welsi asked. “He doesn’t need them to keep the people in line. The Netherguard seem to be doing an effective job of that.”

“The Triumvirate’s knowledge of the city is limited,” Mortas said. “And the Netherguard are not as resourceful as you may think.”

Gruldal grunted. “Resourceful enough.”

“But that’s a good thing, right?” Welsi asked, cutting in. “We can use that to our advantage.”

“Advantage?” Gruldal sneered. “What advantage? Even the forces we’ve scraped together won’t stand up to a full-on fight against those things.”

The Ultari dressed in black, standing opposite Mortas, lifted a hand. “You mean that I’ve scraped together.”

Gruldal gave the leader of the Ultari resistance movement a nod. “Course.”

CID’s identification protocols identified him as Septemus, leader of the Sky Dancer Collective, a major weapons manufacturer.

Welsi motioned to Alcorg. “And the rumors that the Exiles are split?”

“A few, yes,” Alcorg said. “But communication with them is limited.”

“We need to figure out a way to contact them,” Welsi said.

“Most of the Exiles are cowards,” Mortas said. “They would follow a Zeis if they thought it would advance their position. Even so, two have already contacted me, pledging their support.”

Gruldal leaned forward, pointing, his golden hoops clinking. “Interesting that the leader of the military has such close ties with the Exiles. Are the Founders aware of this?”

“They are aware of what I tell them,” Mortas said.

“And so you spread word of our plans to anyone that’ll listen? Even enemies of your brother?”

“The Exiles are no more enemies to Ultar than you,” Mortas said.

Gruldal jumped to his feet, knocking against the table. “ Are you calling me a traitor, dog?”

The general’s hand moved fast, drawing a pistol before the other Ultari realized he’d reached for it. Gruldal froze at the sight of the weapon pointing at his chest. Mortas didn’t say a word, waiting instead for Gruldal to make the next move. The smuggler ground his teeth.

“Your anger is misplaced,” Mortas said, lowering the pistol but keeping it out of the holster.

“Fighting among ourselves won’t get us anywhere,” Septemus said. “Gruldal, your feelings about the Founders are well-known, but we are past that now. There is a new enemy. Focus your hatred on them.”

Gruldal returned to his seat, growling under his breath.

Septemus turned to Mortas. “You said that you had new information?”

“Correct,” the general said. “Someone is feeding us information from inside Central Control.”

“Who?” Welsi asked.

Mortas shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Bah!” Gruldal said, throwing up his hands in obvious frustration. “More lies.”

“No lies.” Mortas raised a hand. Between his gloved fingers, he held a small pad. “We’ve received several strange messages and updates on the Triumvirate’s movements through a secure node that is segregated from the rest of the system. They have never identified themselves, but the information provided so far has proved extremely useful.”

Gruldal crossed his arms. “And you simply believe the information provided is true and accurate. It could be a Triumvirate spy, feeding you false information to lead you into a trap.”

“I don’t think so,” Mortas said. “We’ve received several warnings over the past few days that have allowed us to avoid Netherguard patrols and droid sweeps—sometimes by only a matter minutes, but still, avoidance is avoidance.”

“Then who’s providing the information?” Gruldal said.

“As I said, we don’t know. No identifying information has ever been provided and the signal is untraceable.”

“Can you—” MAC started to ask.

Already working.

“No signal is untraceable,” Welsi said, holding his hand out for the pad.

“Perhaps.” Mortas handed it over. “But if there is a way to trace it, my people haven’t found it. We’ve been scrubbing it for two days with no luck at all.”

Gruldal grunted. “And how many people know about this? ”

“A few, but all who know have my complete and total trust. They are true believers in the cause.”

“Believers? And what exactly do they believe in?”

“The future of Ultar,” Mortas said. “A future without these false gods or the damned Regulos. An Ultar that is feared and respected throughout the galaxy, as we once were.”

Chapter 8

“Well,” Hale said through a half-chewed bit of ersatz steak, “she wasn’t lying.”

Marie shook her head. “It’s a wonder the boys never learned any real manners.”

They sat in the small kitchen of their apartment, the two chairs between them noticeably empty.

Hale finished chewing and swallowed. “They’re going to be all right.”

Marie wiped her mouth with a cloth napkin and met Hale’s gaze. “How can you know that? Don’t you think we should’ve heard from them by now?” She held up her hand as Hale started to answer. “I know, I’m sorry. But still, I’m a mother. I’m allowed to worry.”

“I should have called them back as soon as we realized it. ”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference. I just wish we knew.”

“This is a brand-new galaxy. I didn’t have any illusions about finding allies out here, knew it wouldn’t be easy. Hell, even back in the Milky Way, it was tough, but if anyone can come back with help…” He trailed off.

“I know.”

Hale took another bite. “Standard Pathfinder protocol is four weeks. After that, a report should be sent regardless of mission status.”

Marie froze, her eyes wide, her half-empty wine glass inches from her lips.

Hale waved his fork dismissively. “I’m sure they’ll be back before then. With allies or without.”

“God, I just miss them so much.”

“I know. I do—”

Hale jumped as his wrist unit chimed. He exchanged a frown with Marie then accepted the message. It came through as an encrypted text message from Martel, marked URGENT. Blood pounded in his ears as he read.

“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, reading the text a second time.

“What is it?” Marie asked, leaning forward, trying to see.

“We’ve got a problem.”

*** *

The car ride to the edge of town was brief and Martel was waiting for them as they pulled up. Several militia were positioned around the area, keeping unwanted eyes away.

“Who else knows?” Hale asked as he climbed out of the car.

Martel shook her head. “Just the couple that found them and my team.”

“It won’t stay that way for long,” Marie said.

Hale moved past Martel, inspecting the bodies. Four doughboys lay on the ground, each with an identical bullet hole in their forehead. They lay in a close group, limbs intertwined, looking up at the night sky with open, dead eyes, blood staining the ground around them. The knives each soldier carried were still sheathed on their hips.

“Doesn’t look like they tried to defend themselves at all,” Marie said.

Hale looked around at the militia guards then turned to his wife and Martel. “We need to keep this as quiet as we can, for as long as we can.”

Marie shook her head. “Who would do this?”

“Looks like I was wrong,” Martel said.

Hale gave her a frown.

“About Tanner’s people. ”

“We don’t know it was Tanner’s people,” Marie said.

“Well, someone obviously has a thing against doughboys,” Martel said. “And we all know who’s been the most vocal about it.”

“And no witnesses at all?” Hale asked.

Martel shook her head. “Haven’t found any surveillance footage either.”

“How is that possible?” Marie asked.

Martel cocked her head to the side. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“Someone tampered with the feeds?” Hale suggested.

“That or deleted the footage afterward. Knight’s looking over the drives as we speak. Definitely not looking like a random act of opportunity, regardless of who the murderer is.”

Marie bent down, examining one of the bullet wounds. “Is it murder?”

“Excuse me?” Martel asked.

“Is this murder?” Marie repeated, looking up from the corpse. “I mean, they’re not human. Typically, the term ‘murder’ is defined as the killing of another human being. Technically speaking, the doughboys aren’t human at all.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Hale said. “We can argue the semantics after all of this is done. Right now, we need to find the person responsible and stop any further killings. ”

“Has to be more than one,” Martel said. “No way they’d have enough time to commit the murders then wipe the evidence from the drives that fast.”

Marie stood. “So we have a conspiracy?”

Hale groaned. “Don’t even say that. We don’t need anything like that getting out. It’ll be bad enough trying to handle the ‘doughboy murder’ questions without adding a colony-wide conspiracy in the background. We’ll keep both as quiet as we can. If anyone asks about footage, the answer is we’re looking into it.”

“Not going to be easy tracking down the killer without the footage. It literally could be anyone,” Marie said.

“Don’t have a choice,” Hale said. “But we need to keep everything under the radar.”

Martel grinned. “Under the radar is my specialty.”

“Just keep me in the loop. I hate surprises.”

Martel raised an eyebrow again. “More than four murdered doughboys?”

“Just find out who did it.”

****

Knight looked up from his makeshift computer station as Martel entered their apartment. The kitchen table was covered in open pelican cases, loose wires, tools, and electronics—none of which had been there when she’d left.

“What the hell is all this?”

“You said pick up some things, so I did.”

“I didn’t tell you to buy the whole store. I said subtly pick up some things. ‘Subtle’ being the keyword. Someone’s bound to have noticed you—unless you can think of another reason why you’d need a comparison microscope, a DNA sequencer, or a 3D laser scanner.”

“You mean other than for investigating the scene of a mysterious doughboy murder?”

Martel glared at him.

Knight smiled. “Relax, I told them I was checking out some of the destroyed Netherguard bodies for weaknesses. They seemed to bite off on it. Besides, the rumors have already started. I heard a few of the militia soldiers whispering about it.”

“Damn grunts can’t ever keep their mouths shut. So much for operational security.”

“I still don’t know why we’re going to all this trouble, though. It’s not like they’re actually human. Can you murder a thing? I haven’t figured it out yet.”

Martel shook her head, looking again at all the equipment. “Marie Hale asked the same question, but her husband seems to think so.”

“He’s biased. ”

“Maybe, but he’s the boss.”

Knight smirked. “Is he really, though?”

Martel sniffed. “Have you found anything yet?”

“Actually, yes, I have.” Knight held up a small steel-gray fragment between his thumb and forefinger. “The bullet recovered from one of the victims—or whatever they are—is a titanium core inside a polyamide matrix. Which means…”

Martel crossed her arms. “It was produced locally.”

“Bingo. I did a little research and found that two of the operating foundries have printed ammunition in the last week. Could be a good place to start.”

Martel took the bullet and turned it over in her palm. The projectile was lighter than a traditionally produced bullet but maintained all the lethality of a regular round. “You can’t just pick these up at the corner store. They’re being produced specifically for the militia.”

“Which means our suspect used his five-finger discount. Pretty risky move on his part.”

“Why’s it got to be a man?”

Knight rolled his eyes. “He, she, shim. Whoever. Regardless, this stuff has to be inventoried, right? They’re ordered and made in batches, cases are numbered, everything’s tracked. So you either boost it during production, wait until it’s packed and ready to ship, or when it gets to its destination. ”

“The armory is probably the least likely of the three. Too many eyes and compliance checks.”

“Agreed.”

“So it’s either in transit or production.”

Knight shook his head. “During transit’s going to be tricky too. You’ve got to deal with tampering with the records and shipping receipts. You leave the foundry with five thousand rounds, but the armory receives only forty-five hundred, people start to ask questions.”

“Most likely a foundry worker, then.”

“That’d be my guess.” Knight moved over to a flat-panel display on the wall. He tapped the screen, waking it up, and pointed to two buildings outlined in yellow. “These are the printers online for the last batch of militia ammo. I’ve already downloaded the personnel rosters for each and have the computer chewing through possible candidates.”

“How much ammunition did they print?”

“Records say a little over two hundred thousand rounds, but who knows if those printing records have been doctored or not. I haven’t contacted any of the factory managers yet, but we’ll need to get a look at their orders.”

“Hold off for now. If someone’s taking rounds off the production line, we don’t want to tip them off by asking too many questions. If we spook them, we might never catch them. ”

“Doesn’t it feel weird?”

“What’s that?”

“You know, working for the good guys for a change.”

Martel sniffed and tossed the bullet fragment back. “There aren’t any bad guys or good guys, Eric. You know that. There’s dead and there’s alive.”

Chapter 9

Carson’s head throbbed. She grimaced, regretting her decision to turn down Moretti’s painkillers. Her HUD flickered slightly as she stepped over another exposed tree root, her hand on the charcoal-colored trunk. She paused, closing her eyes, trying to will the headache away.

She felt a hand on her shoulder.

“Carson?” Jena asked.

“I’m fine.” Carson forced a pained smile.

Jena hesitated, the Zeis woman’s expression making it clear she didn’t believe her. Carson nodded at a cluster of waist-high flowers. Sprouting from the end of each green stem were lavender pods, the size of two hands cupped together, covered in tiny spikes. Every few seconds, the purple hands would open, then close again, making no noise.

“Reminds me of a Venus flytrap,” Carson said. At the Zeis’s confused expression, Carson explained, “A plant from our homeworld.”

Jena nodded. “Triascus Grangier. Very poisonous. They feed on the pica lizards that live in the trees. I wouldn’t touch them. They’ve been known to put full-grown adults into comas for weeks.”

Benit stopped on the other side of the plant, frowning. “Didn’t take you for a botanist.”

“The Pathfinder Corps was originally established to be explorers—scouts, if you will. Contacting new races, cataloging worlds, relearning everything the Xaros spent centuries erasing.”

Watching the flytrap close, Carson thought, I wonder if we’ll ever get back to that.

The IR speaker in Carson’s helmet buzzed and Popov said, “Got another pylon in sight, Chief.”

“Roger that,” Carson replied. “Let’s get it secured.”

“Sent…est…one, ov…” Nunez’s transmission was garbled, static popping between every word.

“You’re too far out, Moretti. Bring it in a bit,” West said. “These trees are playing hell with our comms, Chief.”

“Bring it in, Nunez. Keep line of sight,” Carson ordered. She turned to Jena. “Another pylon. You think this could be the one we’re looking for?”

“I won’t know that until I see it. But I can say— ”

“Heads up, I think I’ve got some movement to the north.” Jerry’s voice through the IR interrupted her.

Carson held up a hand. “We’ve got incoming.”

“Eyes up,” West said.

“What’s wrong?” Jena asked, bringing her rifle up.

“Hostiles approaching,” Carson explained, moving past the nasty-looking flower and heading up the hill for a better look. “Hale, what do you see?”

Five to seven military-age figures, approaching from the north. They’re armed and they’re definitely looking for something, Chief.”

“Looks like we found our attackers,” Carson told Jena.

****

Jerry exhaled a long, smooth breath through his nose like West had shown him, trying to slow his breathing and heart rate. With both eyes open, he peered through his gauss carbine’s optic, the red-dot reticle wobbling over what he thought was one of the enemy figures. It was nothing more than a shadow moving among the trees, but Jerry knew what he’d seen. The range designator in the top-right corner told him his target was three hundred meters away. He was in range, but the trees and brush in between made the shot impossible .

During the flight to Yalara, the Pathfinders had run the Hale boy through an abbreviated Pathfinder familiarization course—eight days of movement drills, close-quarters combat and firing mechanics. The training had been brutal—well, as brutal as it could be onboard a starship. West kept reminding him that when they made it back to Terra Nova, the real training would begin, promising to run the boy through a full Pathfinder Qualification Course.

He’d taken a knee behind a fallen tree, using its charcoal-colored trunk as both cover and shooting platform like Birch had shown him.

“The more stable your weapon, the better your shot,” the senior Pathfinder had told him.

Jerry, Nunez, and Popov had found themselves on top of a tree-covered hill, overlooking a long, narrow valley. To his left, a thick row of trees and bushes hid a rocky cliff at the edge of a canyon that cut through the jungle for kilometers in each direction. At the bottom of the canyon, a wide, fast-flowing river roared, though this far up, the sound was little more than a whisper.

Despite focusing on his breathing, blood pounded in Jerry’s ears.

Popov knelt down beside him. “What do you got?” Without using their IR channel, her voice was slightly muted through the helmets .

Jerry pointed. “Eleven o’clock, three hundred meters out.”

Popov scanned in the indicated direction but shook her head. “I don’t see anything.”

“They’re out there,” Jerry promised.

“Drones up,” Birch said.

Three tiny triangles appeared on Jerry’s HUD, marking the drones. They flickered as they spread out, their connection spotty. He held his breath for several seconds and thought he could hear them buzzing as they passed overhead.

“Looks like ten hostiles,” Birch said. “Everyone getting telemetry?”

“Targeting’s spotty,” Nunez said.

“Don’t forget,” Popov said. “Stay low, watch your footing. Tripping on a loose branch or a root would really ruin your day.”

Jerry nodded.

“Jena, Benit and I are moving up,” Carson said. “Jerry, Popov, Nunez, you handle alibis, got it?”

Popov answered before Jerry could. “Roger that.” Then to Jerry, she said, “We’ve got clean-up duty.”

Jerry frowned.

“When they start to retreat, we move in and cut them off.”

“Gotcha,” Jerry said, returning his attention to his gauss carbine’s optic. His pulse quickened when he realized his target had disappeared. He panned across the landscape, looking for targets. “They’re gone. No, wait. There.”

A group of shadows off to the left moved between large trees, keeping low, weapons up, searching.

Control your breathing , he told himself.

“Alright, people,” Carson said, “clear shots, don’t put yourself into a bad spot, stay behind cover. Make the enemy come to you.”

“Just don’t shoot one of us, OK?” Popov asked. “Finger off the trigger until you’re ready to kill.”

“Got it,” Jerry said, rubbing the pad of his index finger against the smooth alloy of the receiver just above the trigger.

“Moving,” Carson said.

Jerry lined up the reticle of his optical sight on one of the Zeis, the reticle dancing a figure-eight across the figure. He blew out a long breath, trying to slow his heart rate and control the bouncing sight. He had to focus on keeping his finger from sliding down onto the trigger.

“Easy,” Popov said under her breath. “You don’t want to—”

A lone shot tore through the silence, echoing through the trees. Jerry flinched, looking up from his sights, trying to see where the shot had come from. Another shot rang out, then another. Then chaos fell over the jungle.

“Contact!” Carson shouted, her voice slightly distorting over the IR.

“Engaging,” West said.

Three figures moved through the trees, backing away from the Pathfinders’ attack, bursts of orange light flashing through the leaves and branches. They were moving from left to right, across Jerry’s field of fire.

“Wait for a clear—” Popov started.

Jerry squeezed the trigger. The gauss carbine spit out three solid tungsten rounds, the electromagnetic firing system reducing the weapon’s recoil to virtually nothing. The bullets tore through the jungle, shredding leaves and chewing through tree bark, but missing his intended target.

“Shit!” He adjusted his grip and fired again. Missed again.

“Control your shots,” Popov barked, making her way around a cluster of trees, obviously looking for a better shot. A second later, he heard the psst psst psst of her carbine. “One down.”

The two remaining warriors ducked for cover, disappearing behind separate trees only to peer out from behind them and return fire. Bullets zipped past Jerry’s helmet, smacking into the tree behind him, sending chunks of bark spraying. As bits of wood rained down, he dropped to the ground and crawled to his left, getting away from the incoming fire.

“Contact right!” Nunez shouted through the IR. “Engaging!”

“Jerry,” Popov said. “Stay down!”

Jerry pulled himself around the base of the tree, almost rolling into Popov in the process.

“Watch it!”

“Sorry.” He got to a knee, bringing his rifle up as Popov continued to fire. He looked right and saw Nunez ducking back and under fire.

“Target down!” West said over IR.

“I have two more to the north,” Moretti said.

Another barrage of bullets zipped through the air around Popov and Jerry, shredding bark and leaves, snapping branches.

“Frag!” Nunez shouted over the IR. “Popov! Down!”

“MOVE!” Popov shoved Jerry to the side, sending him tumbling over an exposed tree root.

He landed on his shoulder and somersaulted down the hill, dropping his rifle, slapping his hands against the ground, searching for purchase. He bounced for several meters before slowing to a stop. Pushing himself to his knees, he turned, searching for his rifle .

“Where’s my—”

The explosion ripped apart the base of the tree, and the blast wave hit Jerry square in the chest, knocking him back. The back of his helmet smacked against another tree, sending stars across his vision. He rolled to his hands and knees, squeezing his eyes hard, trying to clear his head. He couldn’t hear anything over the constant ringing in his ears.

Hands wrapped around his arms and he heard a distant voice. “Get up! Hale, let’s go! We gotta move!”

“Wha…”

Before he understood completely, Popov had yanked him to his feet and was pulling him down the hill.

We’re going the wrong way, Jerry thought as his head cleared. My gun!

Another explosion ripped through the air on the other side of the hill.

“Wait!” Jerry shouted, pulling against Popov’s iron grip. “My rifle.”

“Here.” Popov released her hold on him and his gauss carbine appeared. She moved behind a pair of charcoal trees, bringing her own rifle up and firing.

As Jerry moved to her side, he saw Nunez crouching behind a fallen tree several meters away, changing magazines. The Pathfinder met his eyes after he’d finished the procedure and smiled through his visor .

“What’s so—” He stopped short as something appeared in his periphery. One of the Zeis attackers was moving down the hill, not ten meters from Nunez, but from where the Pathfinder was positioned, he couldn’t see the alien approaching.

The shot wasn’t great—the Zeis kept behind several trees, moving in a crouch—but Jerry fired a burst and missed, his tungsten rounds stitching into one of the trees, spraying bark. The Zeis ducked, running forward.

“Nunez!” Jerry shouted. “Look out!”

Nunez turned as the Zeis emerged from behind a group of charcoal trees, the alien’s rifle already up. The Pathfinder brought his rifle up and Jerry mimicked his movements with his own rifle, knowing somewhere in his mind that they were both behind the curve.

Suddenly, in a flash of yellow and green, something burst through a cluster of tall, fern-like bushes. The Zeis lurched forward, eyes bulging as a pair of enormous jaws closed around his waist. Two massive furry paws wrapped around the warrior, one around his legs, the other around his chest, as its eight-inch claws tore through clothes, armor, and flesh. The Zeis let out a bloodcurdling scream, which abruptly cut off as the beast slammed him face-first into the ground.

“Holy shit!” Jerry yelled, frozen in place .

Its frame covered in green- and yellow-striped fur, the beast resembled a large predator cat from Earth. It had two sets of forepaws, sprouting from a double shoulder where thin black spikes protruded in various directions. Its long green tail swiped back and forth as it ripped and pulled at the Zeis.

Nunez scrambled to his feet, backing away from the terrible sight.

“Nunez!” Popov shouted. “Get back!”

The cat shook its head, ripping flesh. It looked up, eyes locking on the Pathfinder, the yellow and green fur around its mouth dripping red. At the sight of the Pathfinder, the beast roared, dropping whatever it’d been chewing.

“Nunez!” Jerry lifted his rifle and fired.

The beast jerked back as if the bullets were no more than an irritating bug. It roared again. Nunez turned and ran.

“RUN!” Nunez yelled.

Jerry fired again, but this time, he didn’t wait to see the beast’s reaction as he turned and ran.

“Holy shit,” Popov shouted, falling in beside Jerry. “What the hell is that thing?”

He looked over his shoulder. The cat appeared to have forgotten all about Nunez and was now charging straight for him and Popov. “Just run! Run! Run! Run!”

The beast covered half the ground between them in two bounds, jumping off trees and rocks, as agile as any cat Jerry’d ever seen. It came down hard on a moss-covered boulder and paused to let out a gut-turning roar. Its maw opened wide, revealing double rows of razor-sharp teeth, each one longer than Jerry’s hand.

Still running, Jerry’s boot caught something and he shouted in pain as his foot twisted, sending him sprawling forward. He managed to get a knee and both hands under him before slamming into the ground. The beast roared again and images of being torn apart flashed in Jerry’s mind.

“Hey!” Nunez’s voice rang in Jerry’s helmet. “Over here, you big, furry bastard!”

Jerry pulled at his boot, kicking at the branch it was caught on. “Come on! Come on!”

The beast jerked to the side, stepping down off the boulder, its head swinging toward Nunez with an angry, ear-piercing roar.

Popov’s hands wrapped under Jerry’s arms, pulling. “Get up!”

“I’m stuck! Boot’s caught!”

The beast turned back, facing Jerry and Popov and growling. It took several careful steps toward them then jerked again.

“No! Here! HERE!” Nunez screamed.

“Nunez?” Carson asked over IR .

Popov slammed her boot down on the branch, snapping it. Jerry pulled his foot free as Popov pulled him upright.

“Let’s go!” she yelled.

The beast roared, climbing to the top of the boulder again, twitching under Nunez’s fire.

“Oh, shit,” Nunez said, his voice wavering.

“Come on!” Jerry yelled.

“Nunez, Popov,” Carson said. “Report!”

Nunez stopped firing and took off at a sprint, running down the hill. Popov pulled on Jerry’s arm, heading down. “Move it!”

Popov and Jerry paralleled Nunez down the hill, jumping over rocks and weaving through trees. Ahead, the thick row of foliage lined the ravine they’d seen on the way here.

We’re running out of room to run, Jerry thought, looking over his shoulder.

The beast tore through the jungle after Nunez, knocking over trees and ripping through underbrush. Nunez had a good head start, but the cat-like creature was fast. Faster than seemed possible.

“We’ve got to help him!” Jerry said, slowing. Before Popov could tell him different, he brought his rifle around, found the cat in his optics and fired.

His first shots missed, but he quickly corrected, getting on target and connecting with several rounds. The beast roared, whipping its head around, looking for the source of the attack. It found Jerry.

Ahead of the cat, Nunez dropped into a hole under a thick tangle of exposed roots, disappearing from sight. The beast turned its attention back to the Pathfinder, claws ripping, fangs gnashing.

“Hey!” Jerry yelled, firing again. The cat roared, either in frustration or pain—or both. Jerry didn’t know, nor did he care. His focus was on saving Nunez. “Get away!”

His gauss carbine went dry with a click. He looked down at the empty weapon. “Crap.”

The beast hesitated, eyes watching Jerry as he reached for another magazine, then it roared and turned its attention back to Nunez, clawing and biting at the roots protecting him. Jerry couldn’t take his eyes off the sight as his fingers fumbled through his magazine change. The beast’s jaws clamped down and ripped a chunk of root free, tossing it aside.

Popov screamed and stepped up beside Jerry, gauss carbine firing. The tungsten rounds slammed home, but still appeared to have little effect on the cat. It jerked and flinched away from the assault, roaring at them.

“Get away from him! ”

The cat seemed to consider Popov’s words. Glancing back at Nunez, it opened its massive jaws and roared. Taking a final snap at the Pathfinder, it hopped back down to the soft ground, eyes fixed on Popov and Jerry, flinching as she continued to hit it. It roared, took another step, then charged.

“RUN!” Jerry shouted, finally getting his magazine seated in his rifle. He turned and ran.

He thought he felt the ground rumble as the beast charged, its bestial roar reverberating within his helmet. His boots pounded against the soft earth as every few steps he slid on patches of moss, slipped on stone.

It’s going to catch me, Jerry thought, the sound of his own ragged breathing echoing around him. It’s going to catch me and eat me! No! He pushed harder as low-hanging branches and broad-faced leaves slapped against him.

He burst through the line of dense bushes and his stomach turned, his breath catching in his throat even as he dug his heels into the soft earth.

Ahead, the ground disappeared. Several jagged rock outcroppings marked the edge of the cliff—and the two-hundred-meter drop to the river below. Jerry fell and landed on his back, digging his boots in hard, kicking up rocks and dirt. Beside him, Popov flipped onto her chest, her hands clawing at moss-covered stones as she reached for Jerry.

“Hand!” she screamed. “Grab my hand! ”

A shadow passed over Jerry as he grabbed Popov’s gloved hand and everything around him slowed down. He looked up at the shadow, already knowing what he’d see. Claws on four yellow-and-green paws reached down from above, the beast’s mouth open wide in a roar that became Jerry’s entire world. Jerry screamed as the beast continued to sail through the air, the tips of three razor-sharp claws digging shallow tracks through his chest armor. Powerful jaws snapped but closed on nothing. Both hindlegs came into view, kicking at the air, searching for purchase.

Jerry jerked back, pain shooting through his arm as he slid over the rocks, away from the beast.

“Hold on!” Popov yelled.

The cat disappeared with a roar, hindlegs kicking at the edge of the cliff, knocking loose several large stones.

Jerry bounced against something hard and gasped as the air was forced from his lungs, then he felt himself sliding down again, toward the edge. Boots kicked, his free hand grabbed, but neither arrested his fall.

“Popov!” he shouted as his feet left the rocky cliff and sailed into midair. His waist slipped past, then he was falling, his hand grasping at the edge.

He groaned as something jerked him to a stop, his back slapping against the side of the cliff, knocking more stones free. His shoulder screamed in pain as the weight of the suit pulled awkwardly against the joint.

Past his dangling feet, Jerry saw the river, the surface of the water broken by large boulders and whitecapped waves. Rocks fell lazily through the air, dropping into the churning water below. He searched the river but didn’t see the beast.

“Jerry,” Popov said through clenched teeth, “I can’t…I’m losing my—”

They fell.

****

“Over here, Chief,” Nunez said, waving Carson over.

The sergeant was standing on the opposite side of the ravine, silhouetted by one of the massive hyperloop pylons. The tube traced along the top of the ravine for several kilometers before disappearing behind a line of tall hills.

Carson’s stomach turned as she leaned over the edge and looked down at the churning water below. Jerry and Popov waved up at her from the bank of the river, apparently none the worse for wear. Carson shook her head. Pathfinder armor were designed to take a beating, but the amount of punishment they could endure always amazed her.

“We’re okay, Chief,” Jerry said. “Bruised a little, but other than that… ”

Carson fought to keep the frustration out of her voice. “How in the hell?”

Nunez held his arms out to his sides, his helmet in one hand. “You should have seen it, Chief. It was freaking massive.”

Carson turned to Jena, frowning. “What the hell is out here?”

The Zeis woman took a moment to look over the edge, then said, “A ghost fang. They’re not extremely common this far south.”

“Not extremely common?” Nunez asked, dumbstruck. “Holy shit, lady, I damn near got eaten by a not extremely common alien! Don’t you think that maybe you would’ve wanted to mention that before bringing us all the way out here?”

Jena fixed him with an icy glare. “They are rare, even to the north. I had no idea that we’d be attacked, much less encounter one. They typically only hunt at night.”

Nunez rolled his eyes. “Oh, typically.”

“Any other man-eating predators we need to be worried about?” Moretti asked.

Jena shook her head. “If there’s a ghost fang around, there won’t be anything else.”

“Typically,” Nunez said.

Carson peered over the edge again, looking up and down river. “Doesn’t look like there’s any easy way to reconnect with them.”

“The Angea River cuts through the entire preserve,” Jena said, shaking her head. “There are places where the cliffs aren’t as jagged or high, but I couldn’t tell you where specifically. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Carson told her, then switched to IR and pointed. “Head east, upriver. That’s where the attack came from. Their shuttles have to be in that direction. Follow the hyperloop.”

“Roger that,” Popov said.

“Any sign of that ghost fang?” Carson asked.

“I haven’t seen anything,” Jerry said, hands out to his sides. “It’s like the thing just disappeared.”

Nunez snapped his fingers and pointed at Jena. “Clever. Very clever.”

Carson ignored him. “Let’s get moving.”

****

“Getting something,” Birch said over the IR, his voice low. “Half a klick out.”

The drone wrangler knelt in the shadow of a tall charcoal tree, control unit in hand, watching the display. The screen’s glow flickered off his helmet’s visor .

Carson brought up the drone feed on her HUD. The video, displayed in multiple shades of gray and white, showed the jungle’s canopy rushing past, the drone only inches away from the treetops. A moment later, the trees vanished as the drone entered a clearing. The view panned around, giving the team an overall view.

The clearing sat between the jungle and a tall rock wall that stretched from east to west, ending several kilometers away at the Angea River ravine. Trees and shrubs dotted the cliff face, which rose a hundred meters above the ground. The clearing was filled with boulders of various sizes, all broken off from the cliff face to embed themselves in the earth.

Two wide-bodied shuttles were parked in the center of the clearing, surrounded by what looked like several ground-to-air gun turrets. The unmanned weapons swung back and forth within their fields of fire, obviously searching for targets.

The shuttles themselves were armed with several weapon turrets along the top of the fuselage and on either side of the nose. Several Zeis soldiers stood around the shuttles, outlined in red by the drone’s targeting computer.

“Looks like eight hostiles,” Carson said, “not counting anyone still inside the shuttles.”

“At least two pilots per shuttle,” Benit said, breathing heavily. Unlike the Pathfinders, he didn’t have the benefit of the suit’s pseudo-muscle layer to bolster his speed and stamina, but he’d managed to keep pace, which—considering the terrain—impressed Carson.

Each wide-bodied shuttle had four large turbine engines, two fore and two aft, mounted to the fuselage with large rings. The two forward turbines flanked a domed canopy containing four empty seats, stacked two in front of the others. Underneath the cockpit, a cargo ramp opened to the ground below, crushing the long green grass at its base.

Two sentries stood atop the fuselage, patrolling the length of the aircraft, their goat-like eyes scanning the surrounding jungle. They all wore the same black and green uniform and military-style tactical vests and rifles. They definitely didn’t look like amateurs.

“I think we missed one,” West said, pointing.

One of the Zeis was speaking excitedly, waving his arms and pointing back into the jungle. Carson couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, but she was sure it didn’t bode well for her or her team. When he’d finished his story, the male he’d been reporting to kicked over one of the black crates next to him, barking out a string of curses.

“Any idea who they are?” Carson asked.

“Don’t recognize the uniforms or the shuttle identifiers,” Benit said. “They aren’t regular military. I’d say they’re a shadow company working for one of the major families.”

“Kalene’s people?”

He blew out a long breath before answering. “It’s possible. Hard to say for sure.”

“The Royal Family is supposed to remain impartial,” Jena said, teeth clenched. “But if anyone has the resources and clout to pull something like this off, it’s the Royals. Once word gets out they’ve taken up arms against Father…” She trailed off, apparently not wanting to finish her thought, but the Zeis woman’s face told Carson all she needed to know.

The leader of the group started shouting at his men, and within seconds, they were rushing around, moving supplies up the cargo ramps and dismantling the perimeter weapon turrets. The sentries climbed down, using handholds embedded in the side of the fuselage, and began helping their companions with the rest of the gear. The leader stopped at the top of the nearest shuttle’s ramp and stared back over the surrounding jungle.

“Doesn’t look like they’re planning on sticking around any longer,” West said.

As if to confirm what he’d said, a soft whine cut through the stillness as the large turbines on each shuttle began spinning up. The leader paced by the base of one ramp, scanning the surrounding jungle, obviously looking for Carson and her team.

“They’re going to leave the rest of their team behind,” Birch said, not bothering to mask his disgust.

“Alright, options, people,” Carson said. “I don’t think sticking our thumb out and asking for a ride is going to work.”

Moretti checked his carbine’s optics. “Flank and suppress?”

“We need to capture both,” Jena said. “We can’t afford to let any of them escape and return to the capital.”

“Sure,” Nunez said. “Why ask for one when you can have two at twice the price?”

“We can disable one and take the other,” Benit said. “Leave the bastards out here to fend for themselves. It’s more than they deserve.”

“Either way, we’re going to have to split our numbers. I don’t like it,” Carson said, sighing. But despite her feelings about the situation, she knew the Zeis were right.

On the ramp, one of the soldiers dropped a crate. It bounced over the edge of the ramp, the impact jarring its lid open, spilling the contents. The soldier threw up his hands as his partner let out a long string of curses. The leader turned, rage contorting his face. The two soldiers scrambled to pick up the mess as he pointed and screamed.

“If you can capture one, I can disable the other,” Benit said. “You rush the closest one, get inside, and take out the pilot before he can get airborne.”

“And the other one?” Carson asked. “How are you going to disable it? Our rifles won’t do shit to those hulls.”

Benit nodded. “There’s a panel on top of the fuselage, just behind the cockpit. Disable the controls inside, the shuttle won’t fly. It’s just a matter of getting to the shuttle. Keeping them on the ground long enough to get there will be difficult, especially with the engines already warming up.”

“Camo cloaks,” West said.

“Right,” Carson agreed.

“Camo cloaks?” Benit asked, confused.

“Here.” Birch held out the collar. “I’ll work the drones. Won’t need this.”

Benit took it, turning the collar over in his hands, inspecting it.

“Like this,” Carson said, taking the collar and positioning it around the Zeis’s neck. She unfurled it and grabbed his finger. “Activate here.” She pressed his finger against the switch and the cloak flickered as the reactive camouflage activated.

Carson’s HUD drew an outline around the Zeis as his body vanished, leaving only his head visible. “These should give us the advantage. You won’t be able to see us, but we can see you.” Carson tapped her visor .

“Won’t know we’re on them until it’s too late,” Nunez said, unfurling his own cloak.

Moretti helped Gerard pull the hood up, and after some slight adjustments, the Zeis security chief had completely vanished.

“That’s amazing,” Jena said.

“You’ll have to stay behind,” Carson said. “We don’t have enough cloaks to go around.”

The Zeis woman gave Carson a cold look. “I will not stay behind.”

“If this is going to work, we need as much lead time as we can get,” Carson said. “The longer they don’t know we’re here, the better. Stay with Birch. You can cover us from here. Once we have the shuttles, you can back us up.”

Jena was obviously displeased with the idea of staying behind, but whatever the Zeis woman was thinking, she kept it to herself. Finally, she nodded.

“Alright,” Carson said. “Nunez, Moretti, you’re with me. We’ll take the closest shuttle. The ramp is the objective, don’t get pulled off course. If we’re engaged, run and gun. West, go with Benit and disable the other. Once both are grounded, we’ll handle any alibis and rally on the operational shuttle, understood?”

As a group, they collectively nodded acknowledgment .

Carson pulled her hood up, waited for the camouflage to activate, then nodded to Benit. “You ready?”

The Zeis looked slightly confused, his head canting slightly. “That’s slightly disturbing.”

Carson couldn’t help but smile at the realization that his lack of a helmet meant he couldn’t see her outline and she was nothing more than a disembodied voice.

The muzzle of Benit’s rifle slipped through the part in his cloak. “Ready.”

The four Pathfinders and Benit moved up to the edge of the tree line, pausing beside a final cluster of charcoal trees. The soldiers were almost done breaking down the perimeter guns, and the two who’d spilled their crate were now carrying it up the ramp, into the shuttle’s cargo bay.

“Move fast, stay low, watch your shots—especially you, Benit. In fact, don’t shoot unless you’re one hundred percent sure of your target.”

“I understand,” Benit said.

“Alright, ready,” Carson said, rocking slightly on the balls of her feet, her heart pounding in her chest. “Go!”

Chapter 10

“I hope they’re not this oblivious on the battlefield,” Martel muttered under her breath, stopping at the corner of a textiles shop to peer around the edge at the doughboy patrol marching up the street. From an outsider’s perspective, it appeared as though the doughboys were moving through the city without a care in the world, barely paying attention to their surroundings.

“They’re soldiers, not security guards,” Knight said through her earbud.

“Then why have them on a security patrol? It’s not like there’s anything to secure out here.”

She raised a hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the streetlights above, not wanting to damage her night vision. She scanned back down the alley, then the street behind the patrol, then cautiously moved out, crossing the street to crouch behind a parked car.

It probably was not the stealthiest she’d ever been, but it’d been quite some time since she’d had to practice her tradecraft. Spies weren’t exactly in high demand out here.

Isn’t that why you came out here in the first place? Martel asked herself. Keeping low, she moved past the car, staying well back and in the shadows wherever possible.

The streets of New Jefferson were empty tonight, in this part of the city anyway. Most of the colonists preferred the newer, eastern part of the city, closer to the spaceport and the militia. She couldn’t blame them really. The Triumvirate threat was very real, not to mention whoever these Regulos characters were. Being closer to the military seemed to put everyone at ease.

Martel looked up into the night sky, searching for the drone she knew was up there. “Do you see anything?”

“Just your smiling face.”

“I’m not smiling.”

Ahead, the doughboy patrol came to halt, surveying the intersection. They spread out across the street, covering multiple avenues of approach. Several turned back, checking for threats behind them.

Martel ducked into an alcove, pressing herself into the shadows. What most people didn’t realize about her profession was that waiting for someone tended to be a lot more productive than actively searching for them. It was like the old adage “If you get lost, just sit down and wait for someone to find you.” Same thing applied here.

“Do you really think they’re going to hit again so soon after the first one?” Knight asked. “Not very good tradecraft if you ask me.”

Martel chuckled. “Seems to be a trend. Fortunately, I don’t think the person we’re looking for is a pro. It’s more likely just some pissed-off nobody with a gun and a grudge.”

“You mean, unfortunately .”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, think about it. If they were a pro, they’d be easier to predict. Problem is, if they’re not, they’re pretty much looking for targets of opportunity and aren’t giving any consideration to tactics. Which means they could literally do anything—things we, being pros, would probably never even consider.”

“I’ll give you that.”

“On the flip side, though,” Knight continued, “whoever it is, they’re more likely to make a critical mistake than not, which means catching them shouldn’t be that difficult. Theoretically.”

“Hell of a lot of assumptions.”

“Maybe, but they’re not—wait a minute…”

Martel scanned the street. The doughboys were starting to regroup, continuing on their patrol. “What is it?”

“Drone’s picking up a heat signature moving toward the patrol from the west. Looks like a single suspect. Definitely doesn’t want to be seen.”

Martel pulled her pistol from its holster under her arm. “Two nights in a row is ballsy.”

“I’m telling you, Shannon, this guy doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. I don’t think he’s ballsy, he’s just ignorant—or at the very least, stupid. Three blocks up on your right.”

Martel left the alcove and crossed the street again, her eyes locked on the doughboy patrol. She could call out and warn them, but that would also warn her target.

“Can I flank him?” Martel asked.

The street was lousy for any decent ambush points. Several alleys and side streets gave whoever it was plenty of options to approach unseen and unheard.

“No, he’s too close, only half a block from the patrol now. You’ll never make it in time. Not without warning them.”

“Shit.” Pistol in hand, Martel broke into a run.

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know yet.”

She was used to adjusting operations on the fly, especially during the missions Ibarra sent her on. Back then, before coming out to this godforsaken galaxy, things had been somewhat simpler, even with the threat from the Xaros. Infiltrate corporate offices here, put a bullet in the head of an executive there, steal secrets from a government over there. Straightforward, simple. Ibarra’s leash on her had almost been nonexistent. With Hale, though, things got a little trickier.

Martel kept her footsteps light as she turned a corner, jogging into an alley leading north. She adjusted her grip on the pistol, focusing on keeping her finger off the trigger. It wouldn’t do to snap off a round while sneaking into position.

“What’s he doing now?”

“He’s waiting in the alley just ahead of the patrol, behind a dumpster. Definitely waiting for them. You’re about forty meters out.”

Martel slowed her pace as she closed in. It would be a tricky shot if she was forced to take it, but not impossible. She brought the pistol up, tensing as the patrol moved past the alley’s opening, expecting her target to emerge at any second.

Nothing happened.

“Patrol’s passing him,” Knight said.

She slowed for a minute, confused. Why are you waiting?

Pausing at the corner, she watched as the patrol continued on down the street. Was he waiting to attack from behind? After another minute, she dropped her pistol. “What happened? ”

“He’s still behind that dumpster. Hasn’t moved.”

Martel crossed the street and edged up to the corner. Peering into the alley, she saw the old blue dumpster, partially concealed in shadow. She waited, silently counting her heartbeats, watching for any sign of movement. After a thirty count, she slowly rounded the corner and, keeping low, approached the dumpster.

“I know you’re back there,” Martel said. “If you move, you die.”

A muffled whimper echoed from behind the dumpster. “Please…don’t kill me.”

Martel frowned. A kid?

She stepped around the corner and found a boy—he couldn’t have been more than sixteen—huddled against the brick wall, his knees pulled up to his chest. Tears were just starting to flow as he stared back at her through terrified eyes.

“Please,” he repeated, his voice quivering, “I don’t want to die.”

Martel’s eyes shifted from her sights to the face behind them. She lowered the pistol. “What the hell?”

“I…I…” He didn’t take his eyes off Martel’s weapon.

“Shannon, you OK?” Knight asked in her ear.

“Fine.” She scanned back down the alley then quickly stepped back into the street. The doughboy patrol was just turning the corner, two blocks ahead. She turned back to the boy, shaking her head. “You realize I almost killed you, right? Don’t you know there’s a curfew? What the hell are you doing out here?”

“I was…I was just going to meet my girlfriend,” he said, finally looking up to meet Martel’s eyes.

“What’s your name?”

“Anthony.”

“Do your parents know you’re out here?”

He shook his head. “No, I snuck out. They go to bed pretty early. It’s not too hard.”

“How long have you been sneaking out?”

“A couple days.”

“Go home, Anthony. And please, don’t sneak out anymore. There’s a lot of crazy people out here.”

The boy nodded his head vigorously and pushed himself to his feet. “I’m sorry! Please, don’t tell my parents. They’ll kill me.”

“I’ll make you a deal,” Martel said, sliding her pistol back into its holster. “You don’t say anything about me, I’ll keep my mouth shut about you and your girlfriend.”

Anthony looked like he wanted to smile but kept it to himself. “OK.”

“Deal?” Martel held out her hand.

The boy hesitated for a second then shook her hand. “Deal. ”

“Now get out of here.” When he hesitated, Martel waved down the alley. “Go on!”

He took off at a half trot, then broke into a run, disappearing into the shadows a few moments later.

Martel stood watching the empty alley for a minute, again shaking her head.

In her ear, Knight laughed. “Ahhh, to be young again.”

“Dumb kid.”

“Oh, come on, you can’t tell me you weren’t like that when you were younger.”

Martel chuckled. “I’m like that now.”

“Fair point. Oh, shit—”

Martel flinched as a single gunshot echoed from somewhere in the distance, then another.

“Shit!” Martel burst into a sprint, charging after the patrol. Two more shots rang out. She drew the pistol, cursing herself for losing focus. “Where is he?”

“Next street. Take a right. He’s—”

A fifth shot ripped through the night as she reached the intersection, slowing briefly to peer around the corner before charging into the fight. Five doughboys lay sprawled out on the street, rifles still in their hands, unfired. Martel scanned the dark street, caught a flash of motion a block away, and charged forward.

“Left.” Knight said. “Left there! ”

Martel turned and saw the figure dart around a storage container. “Stop!”

She saw the flash as the gun went off, then felt the bullet zip past her, inches from her face. She ducked, sidestepped, brought her pistol up, and fired. The rounds twanged off the container, sparking in the shadows.

“You’re going to regret that, asshole!” Martel shouted, charging forward, looking for another shot.

Three more shots rang out. Martel ducked to the side and looked up just in time to see the figure dart into another small alley.

“Where the hell is he going?”

“I lost him. I’m trying to get the drone back around into position. Hold on.”

“Goddamn it, how can you lose him? He’s the only other one out here!” Martel slowed briefly, peering around the corner, pistol up and ready. There was no one there.

She slowly stepped into the alley, sweeping her pistol sights up and down the long side street. “What the hell?”

Several dumpsters were clustered around a delivery dock for one of the buildings and bags of trash and empty crates were piled up along the walls. A single flatbed truck sat on flat tires, loaded with rows of yellow containers. The only doors she saw were closed and couldn’t be opened from the outside unless she forced them .

“Shannon, you OK?”

“The bastard ’vaded me.”

“What?”

“He’s gone, Eric. Damn near vanished right in front of my eyes,” she said, thinking that he could’ve made it into any one of the entrances.

“How the hell did he do that?”

Martel snorted, eyeing every door again, making sure she hadn’t missed anything. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

She could pick one, knowing she had a chance to get lucky, but more than likely, she’d pick the wrong door—or worse, pick the right one and find it was booby-trapped. She shuddered at the thought. If there was one thing Shannon Martel hated, it was booby traps.

“Where the hell did he go?”

Martel checked the cab of the truck, already knowing she wouldn’t find anything, then slowly walked down the alley, shaking her head. “Bastard’s good, I’ll give him that. He anticipated our move to shadow the patrol and maneuvered himself into a better position.”

“We’ll get him next time.”

“Optimism doesn’t suit you.” She gave the alley one more cursory scan, then holstered her pistol. “Better call Hale.”

Chapter 11

“You know,” Jerry said, stepping over a fallen charcoal tree, his boots crunching on the damp pebbles covering the riverbank, “take out the horrifying six-legged man-eater and the flying dragon things, and this place wouldn’t be that bad. Kind of relaxing actually.”

“Relaxing?” Popov asked, her eyes constantly scanning the tree line to their right for threats. “No thanks.”

“I said without all the things that can eat you.”

“Yeah.” Popov shook her head. “No thanks.”

“Don’t like long walks on the beach, eh?”

Popov rolled her eyes.

Patches of afternoon sunlight dotted the rocky bank, where smooth, wet stones glistened. The steady rhythm of the water was hypnotic. The cliffs on their side of the river had been gradually moving away from the water, replaced by several steep, tree-covered hills. Charcoal trees, the size of large oaks back on Earth, lined the bank, their branches reaching over the water’s edge. Across the water, the jagged cliff face rose hundreds of feet into the air, broken occasionally by large circular openings—caves cut out of the rock, becoming tunnels that stretched back into darkness.

“What do you think those are?” Jerry asked, nodding at the caves.

“I don’t even want to think about it.”

Jerry hesitated for a minute, then said, “I wonder if they’re—”

“Nope,” Popov said, shaking her head. “Nope, don’t even say it.”

He looked up at the hyperloop tube three hundred meters above and followed it with his eyes, stopping at the pylon two kilometers ahead. The massive support was embedded deep into the rock bed along the river’s bank. Painted black, it was a stark contrast to the lush green of the jungle and clear blue water of the river at its base.

“You think that might have a relay station?” he asked, trying to change the subject.

Popov eyed him for a moment, one eyebrow arched, then turned her attention to the pylon. Even at this distance, the pylon was enormous, looming like some ominous black monolith against a pale blue sky .

“I don’t know,” she said. “Doesn’t matter anyway; we don’t know how to access it, much less call for help.”

“Well, but maybe—”

A deep, rumbling roar cut through the air, seemingly coming from every direction at once.

Jerry spun, bringing his rifle up, his heart pounding in his chest. He swept his weapon back and forth, frantically looking for a target, fearing in the back of his mind that the beast would appear from out of nowhere and maul him to pieces. “It’s another one of the ghost fangs!”

Popov had her rifle up as well, though her movements were more fluid, more controlled. “Easy.”

They turned in circles around themselves, searching high and low, but the beast never appeared. It roared again, echoing off the surrounding trees and cliff walls.

“It’s hunting us,” Jerry said, trying—and failing—to keep the rising panic out of his voice.

“Just keep moving.”

Something in the distance caught Jerry’s attention, his ears straining to hear. He put a hand up. “Hold on, you hear that?”

Popov paused as well. A second later, a burst of fire echoed in the distance—faint but audible. Jerry turned to the Pathfinder, eyes wide. “The Chief’s fighting them.”

Popov nodded .

Jerry keyed his IR. “Chief Carson?”

“What are you doing?” Popov hissed, picking up the pace. She led him across the rocky bank, weaving around large boulders and a few fallen trees.

Jerry started to answer, but then realized he didn’t know why he’d called. It wasn’t like the rest of the team would be able to help them.

Regardless, the Chief didn’t answer.

“Do you think the link is fouled again?” Jerry asked, breathing hard with the effort of keeping pace with the Pathfinder.

“I don’t know.”

****

Carson charged into the clearing, her boots making hardly any noise at all as they crushed the grass beneath. Her HUD counted down the distance to the shuttle, tracing a best-speed path through the clusters of boulders littering the clearing. The rocks were sporadic, but as cover and concealment went, she couldn’t have asked for a better approach. The rocks, combined with their Pathfinder camouflage, made their attack almost perfect.

She split her attention between watching the Zeis soldiers and the maze of boulders as she crossed the clearing. Keeping her rifle at low-ready, she rounded one of the larger rocks. Halfway there, Carson told herself. If I could just—

Something washed over her, pressing against her entire body, slowing her to a walk. Her stomach turned and her hair stood on end, as if she just passed through some kind of electromagnetic…

“Look out!” she shouted, already looking for cover as her HUD flashed warnings.

Her camo cloak flickered, some sections turning off completely.

“Chief,” Birch said over the IR, “your cloaks are—”

“I know!” she shouted, sliding behind a boulder.

The Zeis soldiers hadn’t seen them yet. She brought her CL1 into her shoulder, centering her sights on the closest alien. Her suit’s targeting computer automatically registered which Zeis she was aiming at and sent that data to the rest of her team, allowing them to pick separate targets.

“Birch,” Carson said, trying to control her breath, “can you—”

A Zeis solider appeared at the top of the ramp, his weapon already leveled, shouting alarm to the rest of them. A split second later, he opened up with his rifle.

“Down!” Carson yelled, ducking behind the boulder.

Plumes of dirt erupted behind her as gunfire echoed through the clearing. To her left, two Zeis stopped working on the weapon turret and scrambled to grab their rifles. She turned, leaned her shoulder against the rock, and fired. Her first shot missed, but the second smacked into the Zeis’s upper leg, knocking it out from under him, sending him falling forward. Two more rounds took him in the shoulder and neck before he hit the ground. He landed hard and didn’t move.

The second managed to get his rifle up and fire before Carson could transition between them. His rounds went wide, and Carson dropped him with a five-round burst, center mass.

Screams and shouts from the Zeis echoed through the clearing and the whine of the shuttle’s engines pitched up as its pilot fed more power into the turbines.

They’re going to take off , Carson thought, getting to a knee and peering over the top of the rock.

“Chief, you OK?” Birch asked over the IR.

“I’m fine,” Carson said, putting her back against the boulder. “I need some covering fire.”

“Already on top of it.” Gunfire from Birch’s weapon punctuated his words.

The gunfire intensified as the rest of the Zeis soldiers joined the fight, all shouting words Carson’s helmet couldn’t translate through the cacophony.

Benit dropped down beside Carson, breathing heavily. “ They’re lifting off!”

“I know!” Carson scanned the battlefield again as shots from the Zeis on the shuttle’s ramp ricocheted off the front of the boulder she was crouching behind.

A second later, the Zeis jerked back, disappearing into the darkness of the shuttle’s interior.

“Target down!” Birch reported. “Looks like they’re retreating, Chief.”

Carson peered out around the edge of the boulder, keeping her head low to the ground. They’d left the open crate and spilled equipment on the ground and were all disappearing inside the shuttle’s bay as the ramp began to close.

“They’re getting away!” Benit shouted.

“Get to the other shuttle!” Carson pointed.

“What are you going to do?” Birch asked.

Carson watched the closest shuttle’s turbines rotate down and gritted her teeth. “Something really, really stupid.”

As she pushed herself to her feet and sprinted for the shuttle, another Zeis appeared in the opening, rifle pulled into one shoulder. Carson raised her carbine to fire, but the alien’s head snapped back before she could get her weapon on target.

“Target down !” Birch announced.

“Go!” Carson shouted, pointing at the second shuttle. “ Get the other shuttle! Hurry!”

The screaming turbines kicked up a maelstrom, pushing against Carson as she neared the shuttle. She let out a wordless cry, pushing herself forward with everything she had as the landing struts lifted off the ground.

“Chief, no!” Moretti shouted.

She ignored him, slapping her CL1 onto its mag clamps on her back. She had a split second to consider the ramifications of what she was about to do, then pushed the thought aside and jumped. Her gloved hands grabbed hold of the landing strut and held tight as the shuttle continued to raise her into the air.

****

Jerry and Popov were only a couple hundred meters from the hyperloop’s support pylon when another roar pierced the air around them, the sound standing the hair on the back of Jerry’s neck on end. He froze, feeling every muscle in his body tense in reflex. “Damn fang-thing’s getting closer.”

Popov broke into a quick jog. “Don’t think about it.”

Jerry slipped on some wet gravel and caught himself against a boulder. “The hell do you mean, don’t think about it?” He straightened as Popov turned to help him. “What are we going to—”

Behind her visor, Popov’s eyes went wide, her gauss carbine coming up as she yelled, “Get down!”

His stomach turned, his mind reeling with various imagined scenes of the beast charging, fangs and claws bared, ready to devour.

“Down!” she shouted again, taking several steps to the side.

“Shit!” Jerry dropped to his knees, barely registering the rifle’s psst psst psst as she fired. His heart pounded in his chest, blood pumping in his ears as he scrambled to the side, crawling behind another waist-high boulder.

Find cover, Jerry thought. Find cover and return—

Something grabbed him by the pull handle between his shoulder blades and hauled him to his feet.

“RUN!”

Basic instinct took over. He still hadn’t seen the beast and part of him was glad of that. The rest of him, however, was beyond terrified as another bestial roar reverberated around him.

“SHIIIIIT!” Jerry broke into a sprint, his eyes frantically searching for a safe haven, but there was nothing. Just water, rocks and trees. And the pylon. “Popov! The pylon!”

“Go! ”

He hurdled a fallen charcoal tree, landing on both feet, spraying water and pebbles. Popov’s gauss carbine fired again, the shots barely audible over Jerry’s heavy breathing. He couldn’t help it. He spared a glance over his shoulder.

The ghost fang roared. Every time its forepaws hit the ground, water and dirt sprayed up around them. It kicked off its hindlegs, launching itself into the air, creating a cloud of rock and earth in its wake. With every leap, the beast gained ground.

We’re not going to make it, Jerry thought. It’s going to—

“Jerry, look out!”

His knee slammed into something hard, pain shot up his leg, then he was falling. He toppled over a boulder, his chest armor bouncing off the rock. He rolled forward as his legs came up behind him, his body pinning his arms behind his armor and the stone. He shouted as he fell forward, his visor digging into the gravel, turning his world to darkness.

Scrambling to his knees, he frantically tried to clear the dirt and grime from his visor. Popov appeared, and behind her, the beast charged, its mouth open, exposing those rows and rows of monstrous teeth. It launched itself into the air, all four forelegs spreading, claws sliding out from yellow and green paws, preparing to shred both Pathfinders.

“Popov, I—”

A powerful roar blasted through the air around them, vibrating the ground beneath them. Jerry felt it in his chest as his teeth clicked together. Even with his helmet’s sound dampening, the sound racked his eardrums.

Large black talons appeared around the ghost fang as a massive shadow passed overhead, blotting out the sun. The ghost fang screeched in pain as it was jerked away, head twisting back, teeth snapping. Huge wings beat against the air, creating swirls of dirt and water. Waves of pressure slammed against Jerry as he scrambled away, the beast’s roar drowning out his own screams.

With surprising speed and agility, the caldryl moved away from the riverbank to the tree line to Jerry’s left, touching down even as it tore into the ghost fang’s still-struggling body. The massive triangular-shaped jaws tore flesh and bone with efficient ease, and within seconds, the ghost fang’s corpse hung limply in the caldryl’s claws.

“Jerry!” Popov hissed over the IR. A gloved hand wrapped around his arm, pulling. “Come on!”

Scrambling to his feet, Jerry couldn’t take his eyes away from the sight. He stepped backward, half dragged by Popov, until she pulled him down behind one of the larger boulders.

Popov slapped the back of his helmet. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I…I don’t know. Did you see the size of those te eth?”

“Like I could miss them.” Cautiously, the Pathfinder peered around the side of the rock and immediately pulled back, putting her back against the boulder, shaking her head. “Son of a bitch.”

Jerry craned his neck, looking around the opposite side. His breath caught in his chest as he locked eyes with the caldryl. It sat on its haunches, still biting and tearing at the ghost fang’s flesh, but its sunken golden eyes seemed to bore straight through him. Its huge wings flapped as it growled, its mouth full of blood-soaked meat and covered in gore, matted with green and yellow fur.

He wanted to look away but he couldn’t. It was as if some unrelenting force was holding him there, locking him into a battle of wills with the terrifying creature. The caldryl threw its head back, swallowing, then ripped another piece free. The ground around it was soaked with the ghost fang’s blood.

“We need to get out of here,” Popov said.

Jerry managed to pull his eyes away from the beast. The pylon was still two hundred meters away. They’d never make it there before the caldryl caught them. “Yeah, but where? Anywhere we go, that thing’s going to get us. It’ll tear us apart without a second thought.”

“I don’t know, but we can’t stay here. ”

As if it knew they were talking about it, the caldryl growled again, the sound rumbling in Jerry’s chest. He peered around the boulder as the beast ripped another chunk from the ghost fang’s corpse. It chewed twice, then tossed its head back again, swallowing. It shook its head side to side, flinging clumps of blood-soaked fur.

“Maybe it doesn’t even know we’re here,” Jerry whispered.

As Jerry spoke, the caldryl slowly turned its head, bending its long neck, and its golden eyes fell on him. It beat its wings again, throwing up a spray of dirt and rock. Its tail whipped back and forth, deeply gouging the soft earth.

“Never mind,” Jerry said, ducking back. “It knows.”

As if to reinforce Jerry’s words, the caldryl roared, shaking the ground and vibrating in their chests. Jerry could feel the heavy footfalls, and even without looking, he knew the beast was coming for them.

“Come on!” Popov yelled, jumping to her feet and pulling Jerry with her. “Run, goddamn it! Run!”

Jerry sprinted after her, aiming for the pylon, still so distant. The caldryl roared again, shaking the ground as it gave chase. Jerry let out a wordless scream of terror as he pushed himself, his legs burning, lungs gasping. You can make it, you can make it!

The thundering footsteps went silent, and even before Jerry saw the shadow on the ground ahead of him, he knew the beast was in the air. It was only a matter of seconds now. He gritted his teeth and spun, drawing his pistol. He wasn’t going down without a—

The caldryl wasn’t there.

“What?” Jerry gazed up, dumbfounded, as the beast lifted into the air, its body twisting after something Jerry couldn’t see.

“Look!” Popov shouted, pointing.

It took a moment for Jerry to see what Popov saw. “It’s a shuttle!” He bent over, hands on his knees as he struggled to fill his lungs. “You think it’s Carson?”

“God, I hope not.”

Chapter 12

Carson got a foot onto the landing plate and pushed herself up as the downwash from the aft rotors buffeted violently against her, threatening to break her grip as the shuttle lifted into the air. The handholds embedded in the side of the fuselage just forward of the landing strut.

“Not smart!” Carson said, holding tight as the shuttle banked.

She shook her head, silently cursing herself. Warning panels flashed on her HUD, informing her she was fifteen meters off the ground and climbing. She eyed the ladder, trying to keep images of her falling to her death out of her mind as the shuttle shuttered.

She reached out, got a handhold on the bottom rung and pulled. The shuttle banked hard and her muscles screamed, using every bit of strength to hold on against the onslaught of wind. Groaning, she pulled herself up, her eyes locked on the next rung. She shouted as she reached, grabbing hold and pulling.

Don’t. Let. Go.

Her fingers were numb by the time she reached the top of the shuttle, where she lay facedown on the metal, holding on to the small handles, breathing heavily.

“Chief!” West asked. “You OK?”

“Fine,” she said, her voice not much more than a whisper. She swallowed hard. “I’m fine.”

The horizon drew a diagonal line ahead as the jungle stretched out below her to the right, the pale blue sky to her left. Her gaze returned to the shuttle’s gray metal skin and she remembered what she had to do.

“Birch!” she yelled, activating the magnetic clamps in her boots. “You still got those drones handy?”

“Up and in the air!”

Walking in magnetic boots was awkward enough; doing it while trying to maintain balance on a shuttle flying fifty meters above the ground was a completely different thing. Carson kept low and found the panel Benit had described. She pulled her Pathfinder knife from its sheath across her chest and jammed it down.

Her first strike missed and slid across the fuselage, scraping a long line in the paint. Her second found its mark, and after a few seconds of prying and twisting, the panel popped open.

The shuttle banked again, throwing her to the side, her body straining against the mag boots. Carson grunted as she forced herself back to the panel, her eyes darting across the components inside. “I’m in.”

“We see you,” Birch said over the IR.

Carson scanned the air around her but didn’t see the drone she knew was there.

After a moment, Birch said, “OK, Benit says you have to—oh, shit! Chief, behind you!”

Carson looked over her shoulder and saw one of the Zeis soldiers pull himself through a hatch near the rear turbines. The alien opened his mouth in a yell Carson couldn’t hear and charged. Shifting her feet, Carson reached for her carbine, but even as she did, she knew she wouldn’t get to it fast enough.

The Zeis slammed into her, knocking her back, dislodging her boots from the hull. She landed hard, her helmet smacking against the fuselage as the Zeis landed on top of her. Her HUD flickered at the impact, flashing artifacts over the display.

They slid across the fuselage, spinning slightly as the shuttle banked to port. Carson reached out and grabbed a raised section of the hull as she slid past, catching herself. The Zeis lost his grip on her armor and continued forward, his feet hitting one of the raised protective panels surrounding the front turbine intakes. He pushed himself to his knees, drawing a pistol from his waist.

A flash of silver zipped through the air and one of Birch’s drones slammed into the Zeis, knocking him sideways. He took several steps, fighting desperately against the drone, then screamed as he lost his balance and toppled over the side, disappearing out of sight.

“Thanks!”

“No problem,” Birch said.

A warning flashed on Carson’s HUD as the shuttle’s altitude passed one hundred meters. She knelt by the panel again, shaking her head. “You got any ideas on how to bring this thing—”

A roar that drowned out even the thrumming turbines echoed around her. “What?” She looked up and her eyes went wide. “Oh, you’ve got to be shitting me.”

The shuttle banked again, engines screaming to full power, as a monstrous caldryl lifted into view behind it, its massive wings beating, its arms reaching as if to pull itself toward the shuttle. Its mouth opened and let out a second roar, this one reverberating through Carson’s suit.

“Chief!” Moretti warned over the IR.

“I see it! ”

The caldryl roared again, its wings pushing its huge frame through the air as easily as a fish swam through water. The shuttle banked again, but the beast moved faster than Carson would’ve thought possible, and within seconds, its massive claws clamped down over the shuttle’s tail section.

Metal groaned as the caldryl pulled itself closer then bit down hard, wrenching its head to the side. Hull plating snapped and buckled, and support frames twanged as they pulled apart. Carson dropped to her chest as one of the beast’s claws wrapped around one of the aft turbines, crushing the chassis. The engine screamed as long talons tore through the spinning blades, sending sparks flying. The shuttle shook as fan blades ripped free of their housings, and the entire assembly burst into flames.

The remaining engines screamed to compensate as the caldryl’s weight began to pull the shuttle down. The caldryl yanked on the turbine chassis, ripping an entire section free then tossing it aside. The drive system exploded, sending streamers of flame and smoke streaking through the air. The caldryl opened its mouth and roared in pain, releasing the shuttle as several jagged pieces slammed into its neck.

“Chief, you need to get out of there!” Birch shouted.

“That’s such a great idea! Why didn’t I think about—”

The shuttle lurched under her feet, throwing her forward. She landed face-first, cracking her visor as it slammed against the shuttle’s hull. The HUD flickered then blinked out completely. She peered over the edge, looking down at the jungle, which was nothing but a green blur below.

The shuttle shook again as the caldryl bit down on the tail section and wrenched its head back and forth, trying to rip it free of the main body. Several chunks broke free, metal groaned, and engines continued to scream as smoke poured out of the gaping wounds, partially concealing the caldryl. A claw appeared through the billowing smoke and slammed down into the shuttle’s roof, rending the metal skin. A moment later, its face appeared, and its large, yellow, rage-filled eyes looked down on Carson. Its mouth gaped open, displaying rows of teeth bigger than Carson’s hand, and it roared.

“Time to go!” she said and pushed herself to her feet. In two steps, she’d reached the edge of the shuttle and jumped clear just as another claw slammed down, shaking the craft.

Carson twisted in the air, looking back at the shuttle as she fell, watching as the caldryl continued to claw its way forward, ripping the craft to pieces. With the wind buffeting against her as she fell, she managed to turn over, just before crashing through the canopy, snapping branches and shredding the wide green and yellow leaves. Her suit provided some protection against impacts, but she felt every hit on the way down.

She tried grabbing hold of limbs to slow her fall, but every time her fingers wrapped around a branch, it snapped off, adding to the falling debris around her. Her legs hit a larger branch, sending her reeling backwards, and the back of her helmet smacked against something, jerking her head forward with a resounding crack.

Then there was nothing.

****

“It’s going to crash,” Jerry said, watching as the shuttle listed around, smoke pouring from the destroyed engine. “Wait a minute…what’s she—holy shit, she jumped!”

Time seemed to freeze as the chief’s body fell free, arms and legs flailing. The caldryl either didn’t realize she’d gone or didn’t care. It continued to rip apart the shuttle with its massive claws, throwing its head back in a roar, then jerking to the side as if something had just slammed into it. The shuttle’s fuselage erupted into a shower of sparks around it, sending bits of the hull spraying into the air.

“Look!” Popov said, slapping his shoulder. “There!”

Another shuttle appeared above the trees, the turret on its nose firing, filling the air with sizzling red and orange bolts of energy that tore through the caldryl’s hide as if it were paper. The beast let out an ear-splitting scream, jerking away from the attack. The gunfire ripped deep gashes into the creature’s hide as it pushed away from the shuttle, fleeing. It’d just managed to lift away from the smoking wreck, when a burst of fire slammed into its back. It arched back, let out a final cry, then went limp and fell, crashing through the canopy and disappearing without a sound.

“Hang tight, Chief!” It was West, his voice coming through Jerry’s IR. “We’re coming for you!”

“That’s us!” Jerry shouted, pointing at the other shuttle and slapping a hand against the side of the pylon. “Hell yeah! That’s us!”

“Move!” Popov bellowed, pushing him toward the pylon.

“West,” Jerry shouted, waving his arms as they ran. “We’re here! We’re here!”

“Hale? Where?”

“Below you, by the pylon!”

There was a pause, then West said, “Get to the top. We’ll pick you up.”

“What about the chief?”

“Don’t worry, son,” West said. “Pathfinders never leave anyone behind.”

Chapter 13

The explosion flared bright on multiple display screens around Kyrios’s audience chamber. Kyrios slammed a fist onto the armrest of his throne, making several of the Ultari flinch. One by one, they all gave the Emperor nervous glances, some cowering in the face of his rage as the feed started over.

Jared stood near one side of the circular chamber, next to one of the twenty obsidian pillars that surrounded the room. Each pillar stretched up to a massive umbrella dome a hundred meters above. It partially blocked his view of the throne but gave him a clear view of the gathered Founders, captains, and various other attendees, who no doubt would all rather be elsewhere.

“There have been three more attacks, Master,” Cigyd said from the base of the stairs leading to Kyrios’s throne. “ As you can see, the resistance is gaining momentum throughout the city, and by some reports, they are recruiting many from around the world to join their cause.”

On the screens, a Netherguard patrol was ambushed by several masked Ultari fighters, quickly catching them in a crossfire, obliterating them before the Emperor’s troops had a chance to respond. A single Netherguard managed to get off a shot, but it went wide, the bolt sparking harmlessly off a nearby car.

“Yesterday,” Cigyd continued as the image changed to show the palace’s outer perimeter. Several groups charged one of the security towers, throwing fire bombs and exchanging fire with the Netherguard on post. “These…zealots attacked our own sanctum. They were unable to break through the defenses, but they are becoming more and more brazen with each attack.”

Several meters in front of the throne, Pantos stepped from the line of Ultari, bowing. “I have also been told that a Founder, Daligar, was taken from his home in the night. Murdered by a mob, his body hung in pieces over the streets.”

“I want these traitors found!” Kyrios shouted. “I want them found and made examples of!” He pointed to the row of Founders. “I will hold all of you personally responsible for any further attacks.”

“P-please, Master,” Pantos said, falling to his knees. “It’s not our—”

“Silence, servant! I will hear no more of your lies! You know who these insurgents are, you know what they are capable of! You have been helping them since my arrival! Allowing them to circumvent my authority and my command.”

“Never, my lord!”

“Then why have you not identified the perpetrators yet, servant?” Zviera asked from where he stood beside Kyrios’s throne, hands clasped behind his back.

“Master, if we don’t know who these fiends are, how can we prevent another—”

“More lies,” Zviera said. “You know very well who these scum are, and you have chosen to remain silent. You will be the first example, servant.”

“No, Master, please. I swear! I do not know who these traitors are! If I did, I would turn them over to you without hesitation.”

Cigyd, still standing at the base of the stairs to the throne, cocked his head to the side. His hood was back, revealing his narrowed eyes that bore into the Ultari. “And what is your plan to bring these resistance fighters to heel, servant? So far, all we’ve heard are your excuses.”

Pantos remained silent for a moment, obviously considering the Archduke’s words, not wanting to say the wrong thing. Every Ultari in the room walked a razor’s edge of service and death, and all were cognizant of the consequences of any misstep.

After a moment, the Ultari’s eyes lit up. “The Prefects, Master.”

Kyrios frowned. “The what?”

Pantos nodded, obviously gaining confidence in the idea. “The Prefects, Master. Our…the enforcers of the Council.”

Former Council,” Zviera corrected.

“As you say, Master,” Pantos said, bowing. “Former.”

Kyrios growled. “And how does this…ah, I see.”

Pantos nodded again. “They know the city better than anyone. They know the people. If we charge them with rooting out these dissidents, they may have better…er, they may be able to identify the resistance.”

“It’s a ploy,” Zviera said, waving a hand through the air. “He’s intent on arming the masses further.”

“No, Master! Only the most trustworthy, the most loyal.”

Kyrios paused, considering. “How many of these loyal enforcers do you have at your disposal? ”

“Hundreds, Master. All driven and reliable.”

“My Emperor,” Zviera said, leaning close to Kyrios. Jared turned up his suit’s audio receptors to hear the muffled conversation. “You can’t seriously be considering this action? They have sworn allegiance, yes, but that doesn’t mean we can trust them at their word.”

“Your failings are many, servant,” Kyrios said, ignoring Zviera. “This is your final opportunity to prove your worthiness to me.” He turned to Jared. “Find and eliminate these dissidents. Spare none. If you must rip this pitiful city apart to find the traitors, you will do it. There will be no trial or mercy or leniency. You will wipe out all memory of their existence and anyone helping them. Those found to have knowledge of the traitors’ location—but choose not to come forward—will be dealt with in similar fashion.”

“It would be useful if I had a more complete knowledge of the city’s network,” Jared said.

Kyrios considered Jared for a long moment, as if trying to decide if his need for answers outweighed his distrust of the man. “You will have restricted access. Zviera will monitor your actions at all times. Do not deviate from your task, servant.”

A moment later, a deeper connection to the Central Network opened up to him. Much of the system was still firewalled off, but even with the restricted access he’d been given, his reach had been multiplied by an order of magnitude. Jared could connect thousands of computers across the planet, but there was no way to monitor them all, much less glean any useful information from them. With thousands and thousands of terminals around the world, finding anything would be like finding a needle in a stack of needles.

But it was a start.

Jared nodded to Kyrios. “I have access, Master.”

“Do not disappoint me, servant. You know what hangs in the balance.”

Jared bowed. “I live to serve, Master.”

Chapter 14

MAC’s optical sensors zoomed in on the line of Ultari rioters, watching as one stepped forward and heaved a flaming bottle through the air toward the line of Prefects in the street. Cheers erupted through the crowd as the Prefects’ formation broke, fleeing as the bottle burst and sent liquid fire spraying.

Several of the frontline rioters charged, attacking the Prefects with clubs and rocks. Some armed with rifles took shots from a distance, dropping several before they doused the fire and reformed. Prefects standing behind the front line lobbed stun grenades into the crowd, knocking several out with each blast.

They’re not-not-not going to be able to hold, CID said as more rioters streamed into the street from buildings and alleyways, joining the crowd. There are too many .

“Perhaps the people have finally had enough,” MAC suggested.

Several droids appeared, moving to the front of the line and heaving large boulders at the Prefects, forcing them back. Energy blasts from a vehicle-mounted cannon cut two droids in half before they were able to throw, dropping them where they stood. Other droids moved to pick up the stones, only to be destroyed as well.

A booming voice echoed down the street. “By order of the Emperor, you are ordered to disperse! Surrender or die!”

The Prefect’s command only seemed to bolster the crowd’s energy. Jeers and curses echoed back as more and more Ultari filled the street. Groups pushed wrecked vehicles into the street to use as cover against the energy cannon, still cutting through the advancing droids. For a microcycle, it looked like the rioters were gaining momentum, then three Triumvirate fighters screamed by overhead, causing many of the rioters to duck and scramble for any cover they could find. They knew what was coming next.

And so did MAC.

The barge dropped out of the sky a microcycle later, Netherguard already deploying over the side, jumping into the midst of the crowd. Red and orange energy beams cut through the rioters in all directions. Screams of pain and agony filled the street even as images of Kyrios appeared, commanding the dissidents to bow to his will.

Most of the surviving Ultari dropped to the ground, hands and feet spread. Several either chose to stand and fight or, in their haste, appeared not to realize the Netherguard had arrived. They were destroyed regardless.

It was over in a matter of microcycles, the Netherguard only ceasing their attack when every last rioter had surrendered or was killed.

Kyrios’s voice boomed across the scene. “Your anger and hatred are misplaced. Your fight is not with me. I am your salvation. Submit and realize your true potential!”

A single Ultari male emerged from a doorway, rifle in hand. He screamed as he fired, hitting one of the Netherguard in the chest, knocking it over in a shower of sparks. Three nearby Netherguard turned and opened fire, turning the entrance of the building into a smoking ruin before the Ultari could find another target.

The street was still for several microcycles as the Netherguard waited for additional attacks. When none came, the Prefects moved forward and began taking the rioters into custody. Several shouted and pulled away, but none gave any real resistance. A transport landed on the street and the prisoners were ushered in.

A tinge of regret—if he could call it that—flared at the back of his matrix, followed immediately by curiosity. That experience was something new. He would have to investigate the process at a later time.

“No sign of the signal?” MAC asked.

Nothing. Perhaps the spy-spy-spy has been found out.

“It’s possible. It’s also possible that the insider is only interested in helping a specific group of resistance fighters.”

An icon appeared on MAC’s optical sensors, indicating the throngs of Ultari still being led into the waiting transports.

These aren’t-aren’t resistance fighters, CID said. They’re angry citizens…zzzzt.

What might have been regret changed to something like frustration and MAC turned away from the pitiful scene. There wasn’t anything he could do for them in any event, and he still had a mission to complete.

It would take some time to work their way through the congestion, especially with the additional Prefect patrols out now. Their almost fanatical devotion to their new masters rivaled that of even the most dedicated Regulos servitor. The sheer domination that the Triumvirate exhibited over the Ultari was impressive and haunting at the same time. A mixture of wanting to believe Kyrios was their savior and the Emperor’s will to dominate was an almost perfect combination .

Stand by-by-by, CID said, opening a panel displaying optical feeds from two of their orbiting drones. Two Prefect patrols are…zzzzt…nearing the area from the east. Your attention is required-required.

MAC stopped beside a cluster of tall kappa trees, their wide, blue leaves fanning out from the top, bathing him in shadow. “They are particularly hungry today, it seems. Plot alternate route.”

Working.

Almost immediately, a navigational line appeared in MAC’s optical display, veering in and out of the abandoned transport vehicles littering the street ahead of him for half a block before turning into an alley and continuing west.

Two fighters screamed overhead, escorting one of the Netherguard deployment barges, presumably moving in to assist their forces already on the ground. One of CID’s drones orbited above the Prefect patrol, while the other scanned the surrounding blocks for alternative routes.

Clear.

Without a word, MAC started down the street, following CID’s directions overlaid on his optical feed. He turned down a side alley, then another, zigzagging his way through the empty streets. He’d almost made it to the river when CID flashed a warning over his optical display.

Prefects have spotted-spotted our presence and are moving to intercept .

Immediately, MAC set off at a run, ignoring any form of pretense. Now was not the time to try and blend in. His auditory receptors picked up a chorus of shouting, then blasts from energy rifles. Bolts of energy shot past him, sparking off cars and buildings.

VT3 pulse lasers, CID said as several more beams shot past. They will be-be-be within their effective… zzzzt… engagement range in .78 cycles. At their-their current range, their accuracy is reduced by thirty… zzzzt… seven percent.

“Not relevant. Plot a route out of here.”

Turn left.

MAC veered into a narrow alley as the corner of the building exploded behind him. Observation panels appeared at the corner of his optical display, drone feeds identifying the closing Prefect patrols, marking them on his map.

Zzzzt…a Netherguard barge is-is-is approaching from the northeast.

“Fantastic.”

Incoming rocket.

Warnings flashed on MAC’s optical display as the feed from Drone Two found the inbound rocket streaking down from the Netherguard barge.

“Time to impact.”

Without a word, CID opened a timer on MAC’s optical display. Trajectory lines and possible impact zones appeared. In a microcycle, MAC identified his best possible position and jumped, landing behind a waste receptacle just as the rocket slammed into the pavement behind him.

The blast shoved the waste receptacle into MAC’s back, knocking him forward, pinning him against a brick wall. He jammed his elbows back, pushing the receptacle back enough to get a leg up, then kicked off the wall.

Netherguard are deploying ahead.

“Tag them. How’s the route?”

Zzzzt…recalculating. At the next intersection, turn right.

He left the alley, following CID’s directions. Visual feeds from Drone One showed the Netherguard landing in the street behind him, cracking the pavement on impact and immediately charging after him.

Red flashed in MAC’s optical display.

Incoming.

“A little late!”

The explosion ripped apart the street behind him, the blast wave slamming into his back, launching MAC into the air. He landed on his knees and skidded across the pavement, his fingers digging shallow gouges in the street. Another warning panel flashed to life as he got a foot under him, and another rocket slammed into a small, four-person transport to his right. The explosion sent the vehicle hurtling through the air, crashing into MAC even as he tried to jump out of the way.

Both the vehicle and MAC crashed into the building to his left, his body creating a large crater in the brick facade. Twisting against the burning metal frame, he put his back to the brick and threw the burning wreckage away. It landed on its side and slid across the street, flames and smoke already filling the street.

MAC was on his feet before the car stopped moving. “Identify. Where’s the attack coming from?”

Working a trajectory analysis. Zzzzt.

Shouts and curses echoed up the street and a lone bolt of energy streaked past, just above MAC’s head, sizzling the air. A group of Prefects were charging down an alley in front of him, the Netherguard still pursuing in the street to his right.

MAC turned and ran. “How’s our power reserves?”

An icon appeared in the lower-left corner of MAC’s optical display, indicating they were currently at eighty-seven percent of maximum. During their entire operation so far, they’d never dropped below eighty percent, the mission standard for all deployed infiltrator units. They would need to recharge after this. If they managed to escape at all.

MAC dodged between a cluster of kappa trees and crossed the road, his footsteps echoing around them as more bolts of energy zipped by. The smoke screen from the car behind them would provide some concealment, but not for long.

At this rate, you will deplete our reserve stores in 23.7 cycles.

“More than enough time,” MAC said, considering the refreshed escape-route information CID was processing. “They just need a little encouragement.”

A panel slid back on MAC’s forearm and his own Level 2 pulse laser folded out from the recess. There was an audible whine as the weapon powered up, targeting systems already coming online. CID linked his tracking computer through Drones One and Two and .12 cycles later had the trajectory locked in.

Ready.

MAC took a step then threw himself into the air over a row of parked vehicles. At the apex of his flight, he twisted, holding his arm in front of him, and fired. In less than a tenth of a cycle, he’d sent twenty bolts of superheated energy downrange, chewing through Netherguard and Prefects alike.

A Netherguard at the edge of the formation dodged the attack, leaping onto a car and leveling his halberd. He fired even as CID flashed warnings over MAC’s optical display. The bolt slammed into MAC’s leg, spinning them around as he descended. MAC twisted and got his legs underneath him, landing with a crack .

A shadow played across the street ahead of them and the roar of engines drowned out the desperate Ultari fire behind them. Waves of hot exhaust blasted MAC from above as another Triumvirate barge flared above the street ahead of them, the Netherguard it carried already disembarking. The first six landed simultaneously, cracking the pavement under their feet and immediately bringing their halberds to bear. As they fired their first barrage, another six landed behind them, mirroring the actions of the first.

Left-left-left.

MAC altered course as CID rerouted power to his legs, propelling him forward at three times normal speed, the need for evasion and self-preservation now superseding all other functions.

MAC brought the city’s map forward with CID’s primary and second escape routes laid out in red and blue. One direction took him back out toward the outskirts, while the other brought him closer to downtown. Neither route was ideal.

“We need to—”

An energy bolt seared through the thin armor plating around his central processing unit on his back, sending MAC toppling forward. His optical display flickered as warnings flashed. The blast and his forward momentum carried him reeling through a cluster of kappa trees. He slammed into one, the impact sending him spinning. He hit the sidewalk hard, sliding across the pavement on his back, sending up a spray of sparks.

We are-are-are experiencing multiple… zzzzt…  system faults due to internal-internal damage, CID announced.

“You’re extremely helpful, CID. Thank you.” MAC rolled over and pushed off the pavement. Another energy bolt glanced off his arm as he got his feet under him, knocking him slightly off-balance. He oriented himself and charged forward, ignoring the myriad of flashing warnings, bringing up the feed from Drone One.

The view from above showed the Talonos River two blocks ahead. CID’s targeting routines identified and tagged several small boats making their way up and down the waterway.

“Calculate distance and vectors. Position Drone Two for targeting solutions.”

This is not-not-not a good idea.

“It is the only option.”

The Talonos River-River is 27.6 hecres across. Calculating…zzzzt…waypoint coordinates.

“We can make it.”

I do not-not share your optimistic appraisal…zzzzt…of the situation. Our internal components-components are not waterproof…zzzzt…they will fail under prolonged submersion-submersi on.

“I know.”

An energy bolt zipped past, smashing through a window to MAC’s right, sending glass and metal spraying.

Drone Two-Two-Two in position.

“Finally,” MAC said, rotating one arm to point straight behind him. An alarm chimed twice as CID locked on to his first target, a Netherguard entering the alley behind them. A red outline drew itself around the tall biomechanical figure as informational panels flashed open, estimating damage potential. MAC’s pulse laser fired, green energy flared, and the bolt slammed into the Netherguard. Green tendrils of energy flashed out from the impact point, lashing out around the Netherguard’s body, but it did not fall.

Negligible damage, CID advised.

MAC fired again, this time aiming for one of the legs. The impact knocked the leg out from under the pursuing Netherguard, sending it toppling to the alley floor. It bounced across the pavement, limbs flailing, hands losing their grip on the energy halberd.

Negligible damage, CID repeated.

The Netherguard scrambled to get to its feet, reaching for its weapon. A second rounded the corner, crashing into the first, sending them both toppling to the ground. They landed in a tangle of limbs, and even as they struggled to pull apart, more Netherguard rounded the corner, adding to the pile.

“Remove the safety protocols,” MAC said.

Removing protocols is not-not-not…zzzzt…standard procedure. This-this course of action is not-not-not recommended.

“Override and remove the protocols.”

The counter displaying the distance remaining to the edge of the river was rapidly decreasing.

Fifteen hecres.

Working.

Several more bolts of energy shot past MAC, chewing through the buildings on either side and the ground behind him. A bolt caught his shoulder and sent him crashing into the tenement building to his right. Immediately, MAC adjusted, pushing himself forward as his arm tore a long gouge through the brick, sending debris and dust into the air behind him.

Ten hecres.

MAC pushed himself off the wall and reacquired his course, centering himself on the displayed approach vector. “CID?”

Working.

“You might expedite.”

Five hecres. They’d be at the water’s edge in four strides .

“Anytime would be fine.”

An iron retaining fence separated the sidewalk and the flowing blue water beyond. To MAC’s left and right, the river cut through the city, bisected by arched bridges that he would not be able to reach without giving significant ground to the trailing Netherguard. If they were going to get away, there was only one way to escape.

Disabling the final safety protocol now, CID said.

“Reroute all available power to the legs,” MAC said as a red light at the top of his optical display flashed to green. He took a final step on the pavement and stepped onto the rail.

Done.

MAC coiled down, selecting the first target in his optical display. CID calculated the angle and MAC launched himself over the water. A microcycle later, he landed on the bow of a small fishing barge, pushing the boat’s hull under the water. CID, having already calculated the angle for the next jump, splashed the data across the optical display and MAC kicked off again, this time launching himself slightly upstream.

Angry shouts from the Ultari on the boats echoed after him as Netherguard energy bolts zipped past. New lines appeared in MAC’s optical display, plotting his projected path to the next boat, then the next and the next .

Water splashed around him as he landed on the stern of the third boat. An Ultari sailor gave a shout as the boat rocked, sending him toppling over the side. Another lunged for MAC as he coiled to jump, getting within arm’s reach before he was mowed down by Netherguard fire.

MAC reached the opposite bank in another jump, making a crater in the soft earth. He sprinted up the bank, weaving between several groups of surprised onlookers, all scrambling to get out of the way. Two weren’t fast enough and dropped under the Netherguard’s desperate fire.

Drone Two has-has-has been terminated.

MAC ignored him, pressing on through the crowd, aiming for a narrow walkway between two residential towers. He made several other direction changes, pushing hard through a maze of towers, across main roads and down service alleys.

Connection with-with-with Drone…zzzzt…One has been lost, CID said. Power levels dropping below sixty percent.

“Almost there,” MAC said, watching his map.

He stopped behind a squat warehouse in the shadow of an old, crumbling tenement building. The maintenance access to the waste disposal system was a round hatch, bolted into the pavement. The bolts snapped when he pulled. MAC dropped into the shaft, pulling the hatch shut behind him, his optical sensors automatically adjusting to the darkness .

The chances of our making-making another escape like zzzzt…that—

“I know.”

****

The small silver orb that was CID’s matrix hovered just over MAC’s right arm assembly, considering their work. It was rare that CID’s capsule left its protective enclosure inside MAC’s skull, but for some processes, it was easier for them to work completely separate.

Additional welds here-here and here will give the… zzzzt… pulse laser more-more stability and accuracy when firing, CID said, indicating the points on MAC’s right arm in his optical display. The wireframe representation rotated slightly, giving MAC a three-hundred-sixty-degree view of his limb. A secondary panel showed MAC the view from CID’s external feed.

MAC hit the locations with his plasma welder, holding the material with his right hand, folded backwards. The torch flashed, sending sparks dancing across his arm and onto the floor. After completing both welds, MAC extended his arm, rotating his hand back into proper alignment, and a targeting reticle appeared in his optical display. He fired, keeping the power of the pulse cannon at .01 percent .

A green light flashed, and a minuscule bolt of energy streaked across the room, smacking into the plaster wall. Flecks of paint and masonry sprayed, leaving behind a small, round scorch mark where it impacted.

Negligible structural damage-damage.

“I would hope so,” MAC said, rotating his arm over and firing again. The second bolt hit precisely where the first had, leaving no further sign that another shot had been fired.

Satisfied, MAC opened the flap concealing a small recess in the top of his forearm and retracted the pulse cannon inside. The modification was not typical of Regulos construction regulations, but MAC did not think the Core would have any issues with his additions, especially considering the reappearance of the Triumvirate.

Shall I ready-ready the ship? CID asked.

“No,” MAC said, opening an identical panel on his left arm. Extending a second pulse cannon platform, he began welding. “We still have work to do here. Returning with partial information is just as bad as returning with no information, if not worse.”

What additional-additional information could you hope… zzzzt…  to acquire by staying here?

“We still have not uncovered the reasons behind why the Triumvirate has returned here in the first place. Identifying their objectives and potential target locations is a priority. The Core will need that information to formulate an educated response. They are producing an enormous number of Netherguard warriors. Invasion is the only possible explanation—knowing where they plan to invade is paramount.”

The resistance inflicted-inflicted moderate damage on-on-on one of the weapon-production facilities this…zzzzt…morning, rendering its-its-its capacity to seventy-eight percent of nominal.

“An insignificant amount,” MAC said. “The resistance is desperate for a victory. Any victory.”

I have also detected-detected several additional facilities…zzzzt…that are not tied into the main network. Access is-is-is strictly controlled, CID said. These locations are situated at random-random intervals around the planet. Zzzzt…specifications shared by these facilities indicate identical functions. However, as to what their-their-their exact function is…zzzzt…I have not-not determined. There is additional data in-in-in their secured servers, but that code-code is significantly more advanced. I would estimate my-my-my time would be limited to .467 cycles before my presence would be detected by their trace programs.

“Stay out of them for now,” MAC said. “Let’s focus on off-line data acquisition. If they do detect our presence in their systems, the Netherguard will hunt our signal until they’ve either chased us off the planet or eliminated us. Both lead to mission failure, which is not an option. ”

If-if-if we can depart undetected, we might-might be able to return undetected as well. We can return with additional resources and further determine what the Triumvirate’s plans are.

“You plan isn’t flawed, CID,” MAC said, light flashing in his optics as he welded. “However, I believe that we will serve the Core more effectively if we can determine the end game of this Kyrios well before he is in a position to achieve it. I do not believe the conquest of Ultar is his ultimate goal; otherwise, why have all these simultaneous operations running to build his war machine? He doesn’t need it to control the Ultari; the Netherguard and the Prefects are doing an adequate job of that. He has something else in mind, and we need to discover what exactly that is.”

MAC finished the weld, held his arm level, and fired. The bolt hit just below the scorch marks from his first two shots.

Your aim is off by .021, CID informed him.

“Yes, thank you.”

MAC made a fractional adjustment to the pulse laser’s mount and fired again. This time, the shot landed exactly on target. He stood, the servos and internal pseudo muscles already becoming accustomed to the additional weight of the armor plating welded to his frame. They’d cannibalized four different servitor units to acquire enough material for the augmentations, but the end result would ensure MAC’s chassis and internal components would be able to sustain multiple hits from Netherguard weapons.

Four-four additional RSP drones-drones-drones are available for… zzzzt…  syncing.

The 3D printers arranged along one wall of their safe house had been working nonstop since they’d returned from the collection facility. Along with manufacturing MAC’s new internal and external augmentations, they’d also built several more drones, increasing the size of their fleet to ten, with plans for an additional five. MAC was positive CID would be able to control and manage twenty drones simultaneously; however, he did not want to overload the matrix with so many unless it was absolutely necessary.

Icons representing each new drone appeared in MAC’s optical display as they activated and rose into the air. As with many of the other modifications they’d made to their operational structure, the drones weren’t, strictly speaking, in line with Regulos procedure and regulations. The new units were armed with smaller versions of the pulse lasers now mounted into MAC’s arm chassis. They wouldn’t hold up to any kind of weapon fire, but they were quick and agile and would be difficult to hit.

“Initial test-fire sequence one,” MAC said.

Initiating.

A chorus of whines sounded around MAC as the pulse cannons came online. Panels slid back, and the weapons folded out of his arms, followed by a sequence of high-pitched blasts as each drone fired. Ten pops echoed through the room in rapid succession, the impacts creating a circle of burns around the MAC’s original target.

“Impressive,” MAC said. “Recall.”

Without answering, CID opened two panels in the lower section of MAC’s back and the drones joined their siblings in small housings built into the compartments. The panels closed, and the active drone icons vanished from MAC’s display.

“These upgrades should put us on a level playing field with the opposition now.”

I have-have limited information to determine if our new systems will-will-will be sufficient to defeat…zzzzt…the Herald’s weapons, but the additional-additional armor should hold up-up to several impacts. 

“Your communication protocols are deteriorating. Have you run internal diagnostics recently?”

Zzzzt…The error is a-a-a result of sustained operations outside-outside Core-established protocols. My maintenance…zzzzt…patches-patches-patches have been unsuccessful thus far-far in eliminating the variant code. Another reason why-why-why…zzzzt…returning to the Core-core-core would be beneficial.

“We are not leaving,” MAC said, slightly disturbed that his anger protocols had begun to engage. “What about a hard restart?”

I would-would not recommend that…zzzzt… procedure, CID said. The chance of-of-of data loss during the process-process is high… zzzzt… and there is no guarantee that it would clear the variant-variant code. It is not affecting any of my…zzzzt… operational modes or my matrix processor, only communication.

“Fine. But if the deterioration continues, we may have no other choice.”

Acknowledged.

“Now,” MAC said, grabbing CID’s silver orb with two thin fingers and sliding it back into the enclosure on the back of his skull. He flexed the areo-stabilizers in his lower legs. “Let’s test the thruster system.”

Chapter 15

Hale leaned against the metal railing, watching several workers pull one of the completed rail guns out of the fabricator and load it onto a waiting transport cart. Two more were being loaded on similar carts beside the first. The bulky weapons weren’t pretty, with their long, dull-gray barrels, but they would do their job well and that was all that mattered.

“With this batch, we’re sixty percent complete with fleet updates,” Marie said. “From a weapons standpoint anyway. We’re still working on squeezing as much juice out of the shield and propulsion systems as we can.”

“Is it going to be enough?” Hale asked, not truly wanting to know the answer.

“Yes.”

He raised an eyebrow at his wife. “Really?”

“If it’s not, we’re all dead.” Marie shrugged. “So yes, it will be enough. If I can get these poor excuses for fighter pilots you’ve given me to shoot straight, we might even have a shot of taking some with us.”

Hale grimaced. “That bad, eh?”

“That bad?” Marie huffed. “That bad? I’ve known toddlers that can fly better. Jerry was…” Marie trailed off, looking away.

Hale put a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “They’re going to be fine. They’ll be home soon, I know it. And then I’m going to kill them.”

“You’ll do no such thing, Kenneth Hale. No one will be touching my boys.” Marie brushed his hand away. “Not until I get my hands on them.”

Hale chuckled. Having seen his wife truly angry, he had no ambition to relive the memories and almost felt sorry for his boys. Almost. “Level with me. Are the fighters going to make any difference? I hate the idea of dumping resources into programs that aren’t really going to do us any good.”

“They will help,” Marie said without a trace of doubt in her voice. “An ant by itself is insignificant. A colony of ants…they’ll bring down an enemy several times their size.”

“I like the way you think.”

“Especially if the ants have big freaking guns.”

A wide smile spread across Hale’s face. “Handley find a platform for the macro cannon yet? ”

“He did. And it’s kind of poetic justice if you ask me.”

Hale raised an eyebrow.

“Your original idea about bringing an asteroid from the belt was good, but as we started looking at the logistics, it just wasn’t that feasible. The next-best option was the second-largest hulk in orbit, the Christophorous .”

“The Christophorous ? How are you going to mount it?”

“Straight along the dorsal ridge. There’s still enough area to attach the mounting clamps, plasma weld some extra platforms for power and fire control, and you’ve got yourself a cannon. It’s actually easier to rig to the old hull than it would be to start on bare rock from scratch. He’s already moving power cores up.”

Hale nodded. “I like it. What about the people to crew it? Sustaining zero-atmo crews indefinitely will grind on the fire teams.”

“The majority of the ship’s interior hull is still intact. If we seal off a few key points, we could create a habitable atmosphere. Scartucci is already working on jump-starting the life-support system.”

“Looks like you’ve thought of everything.”

“Course the downside is it’s really only good for three to four shots,” Marie said. “After that, the enemy will likely zero in on it and take it out.”

“What about shields? ”

“Shields are all well and good when we’re talking about resisting ship-to-ship fire, but they start landing platoons of Netherguard onboard, there’s going to be trouble.”

“We’ll have to station some doughboys for security.”

The thought that they could actually pull this thing off started creeping into the back of Hale’s mind. “A lot of things are going to have to work perfectly if we’re going to win this fight. I hate to say it, but we’re going to need a little more than a handful of peashooters, fighters, and soldiers.”

Marie smirked at him. “Luck doesn’t win battles, my love.”

“Not by itself it doesn’t,” Hale conceded.  “But put it together with a little tenacity and good ol’ human grit, and you have a recipe for success.”

“You’re such a cowboy.”

Hale gave her a half bow, and in his best old Western drawl said, “Why, I reckon that’s right fine of you to say, ma’am.”

“I love it when you—”

“Ants!” Hale said, snapping his fingers.

Marie frowned. “You really need to work on your finishing-my-sentences thing.”

“What? No, ants. You said a colony of ants can bring down a bigger enemy, right? How do they do that? They swarm over the body, taking little chunks out here and there until they finally kill it, right?”

“Yes,” Marie replied, drawing out the word.

“All we need are the platforms to launch the ants from,” Hale continued, not really hearing his wife. His mind raced, working through the myriad of possibilities. “Remember when they first attacked the Spirit ? We can use their own technique against them.”

He reached forward and grabbed Marie’s head with both hands, pulling her close and kissing her on the mouth. “You’re a genius.”

Marie put her hands over his and looked into his eyes. “Well, that’s true.”

Chapter 16

A painful throbbing between her temples greeted Carson as she regained consciousness. Her body rocked back and forth, giving her the sense that she was floating in a sea of blackness. Sounds gradually came to her—a consistent thrumming, muffled conversation—but that awful throbbing drowned everything else out. She reached up to massage her temples, trying to work the pain away as she tried to sit up, immediately regretting it as the pounding increased.

She felt a hand touch her arm and Jerry Hale’s disembodied voice said, “Hey, Doc, she’s waking up.”

She opened one eye and Moretti came into view, kneeling beside her, his medi-gauntlet glowing gently over her. She opened her mouth to speak but only managed a weak groan.

“Easy there, Chief.” He checked the readouts. “Meds should start kicking in soon. We gotta stop meeting this way, Chief.”

Carson grunted.

“Your helmet protected you from any permanent damage, but it’s pretty much useless now.” Moretti held up the damaged helmet, showing her the crack across the visor.

West appeared over Moretti’s shoulder. “You should really try and take better care of your equipment, Chief.”

Despite the pain, Carson smiled. “Sure thing, Sarge.” An image of the caldryl chewing through the shuttle’s hull flashed in her mind. “The caldryl?”

“Taken care of,” West said matter-of-factly, though he didn’t elaborate. “We’re about ten minutes out from the capital.”

Carson groaned again, shifting her position on the bench as her team gathered around her. “Where’s Jena?”

Birch stepped aside, revealing the Zeis woman lying on the opposite bench, eyes closed. Bloodstained rags littered the floor of the shuttle beneath her. Her shirt had been ripped, revealing her bronze skin covered in dried blood.

Carson propped herself up on an elbow. “Is she…”

“She’s alive,” Moretti told her. “But she’s going to need surgery. Took a round in the abdomen and one in the shoulder. Shoulder’s clean, through and through, but the abdomen…well, I don’t know enough about Zeis physiology to know for sure.”

“We can’t let her…”

“I know,” Moretti said.

The nausea faded as the painkillers did their work and Carson pushed herself up, swinging her legs off the bench and sitting up. “Have we been able to reach Greer?”

West shook his head. “Not yet. Benit has managed to get word to some of their people. News of our arrival has apparently spread like wildfire. We’re en route to one of their secure compounds within the city.”

Carson’s chest tightened with anxiety. “We don’t have time for this.”

“I don’t see that we have any other choices,” West said.

Jena groaned, lifting a hand.

“’Scuse me, Chief,” Moretti said, moving to the Zeis woman’s side. He ran the gauntlet over her, shaking his head. “Computer’s still having some difficulty mapping everything out. Shouldn’t be an issue if I can get some software patches from her people.”

Jena coughed, trying to sit. “Where…”

Moretti put a hand on her shoulder. “What is it with you two? Just lie still for now. We’ll be touching down in a few minutes.”

“Benit?” Jena asked .

“He’s flying the shuttle,” West said, putting a hand on the ceiling as the craft banked. “And I have a feeling that flying isn’t one of his primary vocations.”

“I didn’t know he even knew how to fly,” Jena said.

“Oh, that’s reassuring,” Nunez said.

Jena grimaced, pressing a hand against her stomach, prodding the bandages there.

“You took a couple hits during the fight,” Moretti explained. “I’ve stabilized you the best I can, but we need to get you to a Zeis doc—” Jena sat up, groaning. “Whoa, easy!” Moretti exclaimed.

“Did we—” A coughing fit interrupted her.

“The enemy was neutralized,” West said.

Carson shuddered as the image of the caldryl’s teeth slicing through the hull inches behind her came back unbidden. She clenched her jaw, shaking her head, trying to focus despite the pounding in her head. “Do you have any idea why we can’t raise the Valiant ?”

It took a moment for Jena to stop coughing. She grimaced again and looked over the faces of Carson’s team, lingering on Jerry and Popov, who hadn’t quite managed to clear all the ghost-fang blood from their armor.

“My guess is they’ve probably isolated the compound and the spaceport,” Jena said. “If they were able to convince senior leadership that a quarantine was needed because of your arrival, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.” She shook her head. “Which means this is more than a simple reactionary move by Kalene. If they’re moving against the family, they must have a lot of support in the Conclave.”

“What does that mean for us?” Carson asked. “What about our people?”

“Normally, I would say they’d be fine. Quarantines aren’t that uncommon, but now…” Jena trailed off, her eyes unfocused, her body rocking with the motion of the shuttle. She turned and peered out through the viewport behind her. “Astra City? You took us to the capital?”

West nodded. “That’s right. Benit managed to get a message to—”

Jena grabbed hold of Moretti’s arm and, groaning, pulled herself to her feet. “I need to talk to him.”

Moretti moved to get a hand around her good arm. “Shit! Easy. You’re not in any condition to be moving around. You need to stay put.”

Jena ignored him, shaking her head as she slowly moved around him. “No.”

Moretti shot Carson a worried look. Carson shook her head, standing. “Stay with her.”

The shuttle spun around her and her stomach turned. She put a hand against the ceiling, steadying her against the shuttle’s movement, and swallowed hard. Don’t throw up, don’t throw up, don’t throw up.

“For shit’s sake,” Moretti said, frustrated. “West, can you help me out here?”

West put a hand on Carson’s arm. “Chief, you probably—”

“Not now, Sergeant.” Carson squared her jaw and moved to follow the Zeis woman.

Sighing, West reluctantly stepped out of the way, allowing Carson to pass. Jena bumped against the bulkhead as she reached for the hatch, gasping in pain. Moretti flinched, ready to catch her if she fell, but otherwise staying hands-off. She pulled open the hatch then leaned against the frame.

The view through the shuttle’s domed canopy was amazing. Stars painted on the obsidian sky shone brightly, despite the glow of the city below. Astra City stretched out for kilometers, spread across hills and steep cliffs. Tall spires of rock rose from the city in multiple locations, each with several large villas cut into their faces, like stone skyscrapers. Taller, modern buildings were grouped together every so often, dwarfing the smaller, older parts of the city. Light reflected off hundreds of hypertubes that snaked through the city in seemingly endless loops and turns.

Benit glanced back nervously, his hands never leaving the controls as his eyes widened at the sight of the two females. “What is it? What’s going on? ”

Jena coughed. “Obison?”

Benit’s initial shock at seeing the Zeis woman faded quickly. “They are waiting for us at his compound. I’ve already informed him of the attack and our suspicions. The Crown has cut off all communication with our people and labeled the humans as our foe. Kalene has…” He trailed off, as if not wanting to say.

“What?” Jena asked. “What did she do?”

“She’s accused you of being a traitor,” Benit said. “Obison said she presented to the Conclave this afternoon, declaring you and the entire Cassiel family as conspiring to bring down the Crown with the help of them.” He nodded to Carson.

“That’s ridiculous,” Carson said.

Jena coughed again. “And the other families?”

“According to Obison, our allies remain. However, most will not speak publicly in our favor without your father’s presence.”

“I don’t blame them. Any word from Father?”

Benit shook his head. “No.”

“Then we’ll have to do this without him.”

****

Rings of blue energy rippled away from the shuttle as they passed through a force field covering a wide platform near the top of one of the rock spires in the middle of Astra City. The edge of the platform was lined with thin, spear-shaped trees in beds of brown mulch and potted flowers, all immaculately landscaped.

“Please,” Jena said as the shuttle settled. “Obison is my father’s oldest friend, but he’s a little…”

Carson caught the Zeis woman’s expression and said, “Different?”

Jena pursed her lips. “Well, different isn’t exactly the word I’d use.”

Carson couldn’t help but grin. “Intriguing.”

A mechanic clank echoed around them as the shuttle’s ramp began to open, revealing the brightly lit platform below.

Jena started down then paused, looking back over her shoulder. “Just let me do the talking.”

A Zeis male stepped forward before they’d even reached the bottom of the ramp, arms stretched wide, a broad smile on his face. His bronze skin was several shades darker than Jena’s and his long white hair was tied into twin braids that fell over his shoulders. “Jena!”

His orange and purple robes flowed around him as he came forward to greet them, the high collar extended up behind his head rocking back and forth with each step. He’d pierced his pronounced cheeks with rings that were connected by thin lines of gold and silver chains to his ears and boney ridges above them. Three jeweled starbursts hovered over a golden crown that wrapped around the Zeis’s head, bouncing back and forth, lagging slightly behind the man’s movements.

“Obison,” Jena said, holding her good arm out to the side.

Jeweled hands appeared from the folds of his robes, jingling as he pulled Jena close. Jena groaned, sagging slightly as Obison hugged her, and his expression turned from wild excitement to concern. “Jena, my girl, are you well?”

“I’m fine,” Jena told him, her voice weak.

Moretti moved to help her, but Carson put a hand on his arm, stopping him. “Wait.”

Jena coughed and put her good hand on the man’s shoulder, grimacing as she looked into his eyes. “Though I’ve had better days.”

Obison’s eyes narrowed, his face darkening as he stepped back. “They’ll pay for this, Jena. I swear. The Crown has gone too far this time!” He shook a jeweled finger at the night sky. “No longer will House Caltran stand for this kind of willful disregard for the laws of the Conclave. Crown or no! It’s an outrage! But what’s this? It is true!”

The Zeis stepped around Jena, eyeing Carson and her team with obvious amazement. He held his arms out again as a wide smile spread across his face. “The wonders of Balai!” He moved around West, who held his helmet in the crook of one arm, examining the Pathfinder’s exposed face and head. “The eyes…so extraordinary. So…different.”

West tilted his head forward, touching fingertips to his brow. “Jason West.”

“Ahhhh,” Obison said, his eyes widening. He bowed, mirroring West’s gesture of Zeis greeting, then straightened and touched the Pathfinder’s forehead, smiling. “An honor. I have heard tales of your bravery and conquests at the doorsteps of the Regulos, most impressive indeed. So fortunate their translation protocols were able to dissect your linguistics so comprehensively.”

West raised an eyebrow. “Indeed.”

Obison’s eyes fell on Jerry and Popov and he stepped back, obviously taken aback at their condition. “By Balai!”

Popov and Jerry looked at themselves then at each other before turning back to the Zeis. Popov shrugged. “Some of us are in better shape than others.”

Obison waved an excited hand between them. “Forgive me! Forgive me, please, my manners have fled from me. We must get you all inside. The Clerics have been in quite a frenzy today.”

“The—” Jena burst into another coughing fit .

Carson stepped up next to her, putting a hand on her back. “You OK?”

“Fine,” Jena wheezed.

“We must get you to the medical staff.” Obison clapped once and his aides appeared, pushing a floating bed.

“No,” Jena said, putting out a hand. “I’m fine. I don’t need it.”

“Please, come, come,” Obison said. “There is no shame in it, Jena. Please.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Jena said. “We must address the Conclave.”

“Jena, please.” Obison took her by the shoulders. “The Conclave isn’t yet assembled. You need rest. You’re in no shape to address them now regardless. Come, let my staff treat your injuries.”

Jena hesitated, fixing the older Zeis with a determined stare, then finally gave in with a sigh. She nodded and allowed the aides to help her onto the bed. “Have you heard any word from Father?”

Obison shook his head, his jewelry clinking. “Sadly, no. I had expected him to return when the news of Diasore reached him. And now the Conclave has quarantined your lands…”

“It won’t hold for long,” Jena said, rocking slightly on the bed as the aides maneuvered it through a set of double doors into an expansive domed room.

Carson led the team after the Zeis, taking in the space. Life-sized statues of Zeis, both male and female in various forms of undress, encircled the room in small alcoves spaced equidistantly around the room. At the peak of each alcove, a row of square stones arched up, coming together in the center of the ceiling. Several overstuffed couches, chairs, and pillows filled the room in seemingly random positions.

“Welcome to my home,” Obison said.

“Different, eh?” Nunez muttered. “What is this, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous ?”

“What’s that?” Jerry asked.

Nunez pulled up short, holding both arms out. “Are you kidding me?”

Jerry shook his head. “No idea.”

“It’s only the best show from the 2D era TV! Xaros wrecked a lot of shit, but some lucky bastard found the reruns on some old servers on one of the ships that survived the war. Watched every episode. That Robin Leach is a crazy S.O.B.”

“Come on,” Carson said.

“You will take care of my guests,” Jena said, more a statement than a question.

Obison bowed. “I have set aside my most humble rooms for your friends, Cleric. Do not be troubled. We have space and food and drink for all. More than enough. Nothing but the best, nothing. Please, enjoy my comforts here, my honor.”

Jerry pushed on the back of one of the couches. “Wow, that’s nice.” He grinned at Popov, who rolled her eyes.

“We need to keep trying to reach Greer,” Carson told West, glancing around the expansive chamber.

“Ah, your people at the spaceport?” Obison asked, smiling.

Carson raised an eyebrow at him. “That’s right.”

“Not to worry, we have been in contact with Charing. Your people and your ship are safe and intact.”

“You can contact them?” Carson asked.

“Of course. The Conclave likes to think they have Yalara firmly under their control, but like the Clerics, we, too, have our ways.” He nodded in Jena’s direction. The two aides pushed her through a doorway, disappearing down a long hall. “Not to worry…uh…” He canted his head to one side. “Oh, my cursed manners again…”

“Kit Carson.” She touched her fingers to her forehead, bowing slightly.

Obison smiled, repeating his greeting. “Ah, yes. An honor. Please, be well and find comfort here. My staff is most skilled, I assure you. Enjoy my offerings, please. ”

Carson felt a tightness building in her chest. She didn’t want to enjoy his offerings. She wanted to get to the Conclave and present her case. She wanted to continue with their mission—they’d wasted too much time already. She took a long, calming breath before she spoke. “Thank you, Obison. You’re very kind. Of course we will.”

West appeared next to Carson. “Do you still have the ability to contact your people at the spaceport?” he asked Obison.

“Yes.”

“I’d like to see if we can contact our people directly.”

Obison nodded. “Of course, of course. Please, come. My servant will show you.”

Carson nodded at West and he followed a short, slender Zeis woman, dressed in thin orange robes, through a set of double glass doors.

“You know, as layovers go, this isn’t bad,” Nunez said, plopping down on one of the couches and draping his gauss carbine over his lap.

Jerry sat on one of the ottoman pillows across from a knee-high firepit, bouncing slightly. “Very nice.”

Carson’s first instinct was to ignore the weariness creeping into her bones, but her body needed rest. She found herself fighting her eyelids as she moved around the chamber, taking it in. It beats sleeping in the woods, she thought. Not to mention being eaten alive.

“I’ll take first watch,” Birch said, pulling out his remaining drones and arranging them on a small rectangular table at the edge of the room. “I have some work to do anyway.”

Moretti popped his helmet off and pulled his carbine from its magnetic clamps on his back. He sat in one of the oversized chairs and propped his feet on a pillow, throwing the weapon over his chest and setting his helmet on his legs. “Yeah, I could get used to this.”

As her team got comfortable, Carson’s urge to sit overwhelmed the drive to press on, and she found a couch of her own. Her weapon and useless helmet on the floor next to her, she stretched out across the length of the couch. It is nice, she thought, then slipped into unconsciousness.

Chapter 17

The Ultari captain crossed the audience chamber, his reluctance to approach the throne obvious, like a child presenting himself to a parent for discipline after breaking a family heirloom. He kept his head down, his eyes flicking to the sides of the room, looking for reassurance from the other Ultari gathered between the columns.

You’ll find nothing there, my friend, Jared thought as the captain took a knee at the base of the dais. Those spineless bastards barely have enough reassurance for themselves, much less an outcast like you.

Standing to one side of the Emperor’s throne, Jared watched as Captain Tral pressed his forehead to the floor and held it there, waiting. This was the first time that Kailani’s replacement as Fleet Commander had presented himself to Kyrios since the Triumvirate had arrived in orbit. Ever since then, he’d been working to establish the Emperor’s fleet in orbit. His presence here today suggested he was nearing completion.

I’m running out of time, Jared thought. What he really needed was an ally, but trusting any of the Ultari he’d met so far was out of the question. He’d briefly considered making contact with the resistance, but there was no way of knowing if there were any double agents in their midst, waiting for any opportunity to gain favor with the Emperor. Despite how badly he needed help, he couldn’t risk reaching out, couldn’t risk exposing himself and his family.

Not until he knew they were safe.

He’d all but given up trying to find Kailani. The former leader of the Exiled Captains hadn’t been seen since just after they arrived on Ultar, and despite his best efforts, Jared hadn’t been able to locate her. The longer she remained in the wings, the more convinced he became that if he found her, he’d find his family. But even with his access to the Ultari Network—access he knew full well was not unrestricted access and was by no means unmonitored—there was only so much Jared could do without alerting the Triumvirate to what he was doing.

For now, he’d play his part. He’d bide his time. And in the meantime, perhaps he’d make a few Ultari squirm.

Showtime, Jared thought, stepping forward .

The Elite Netherguard snapped to attention, striking the butts of their halberds on the floor, making a resounding clang. The kneeling Ultari flinched.

“State your business, Captain,” Jared said, projecting his voice slightly louder than necessary.

“Long live the Emperor,” Tral said without looking up. “Thank you, Master, for accepting your humble servant into your presence. I am not worthy.”

Behind his visor, Jared rolled his eyes but continued on script. “Speak, servant. Our glorious Emperor’s time is valuable.”

“My apologies, Master!”

“You have an update on fleet preparations?” Jared asked.

“Y-yes, Master. If it pleases the Emperor.”

“Rise then and proceed.”

The Ultari captain looked up, nervously watching the Elite Netherguard as he rose to his feet. Like all who entered the presence of the Emperor, he understood any misstep would result in his obliteration. His gaze flicked briefly to Kyrios then immediately dropped back to the floor. “My Emperor, our warships have completed their refit and have been outfitted with the upgraded energy weapons you designed. Our available fleet now stands at thirty ships, not counting support vessels .

“Seventy percent of the commandeered transports have been upgraded and retrofitted as troop carriers for your glorious armies.”

Jared suppressed a chuckle. Most of the warships Captain Tral spoke of were nothing more than cargo haulers fitted with several inches of armor plating and energy turrets mounted to the hull. Some didn’t even rate receiving the additional armor and were literally unarmored, mobile weapon platforms. They wouldn’t last long under fire, but while they were operational, they’d be capable of producing an impressive amount of firepower.

Captain Tral continued, “At your command, we can begin loading your forces, Master. Your victory over the Regulos is assured.”

Cigyd stepped up beside the throne, clearing his throat. “My Emperor, it might not be prudent to withdraw our forces from the planet until the insurgents have been brought to heel.”

“Indeed,” Kyrios growled, turning his fiery eyes to Pantos, who was already cowering. “I thought your Prefects were going to solve our issues with these traitorous zealots, servant.”

Pantos bowed. “Forgive me, Master. The rebels are well entrenched within the city.”

“Incompetent.” Cigyd moved down the steps to the chamber floor, his eyes locked on the Founder.

“It is no easy task to root them out. Even with their knowledge, my men are having difficulty,” said Pantos.

Cigyd stopped several paces from Pantos, cocking his head to one side. “They aren’t properly motivated, my Emperor.”

“Please, Master, my Prefects are the—”

Your Prefects? Cigyd roared, throwing his arms out. Pantos fell to his knees and Jared winced at the thud as the Ultari’s head smacked against the floor.

“Yours!” Pantos wailed. “Forgive me, Master!”

“Your pride will be your undoing, servant,” Cigyd said.

“Yes, Master.”

“Motivation,” Kyrios mused from his throne, his thin fingers drumming on the armrests. “Yes, proper motivation is key.” He turned to Jared. “Don’t you agree?”

Behind his visor, Jared ground his teeth. “Yes, Master.”

“Yes,” Kyrios repeated. “Yes. Motivation to serve.”

“They’ve been given every opportunity to serve,” Cigyd growled. “We do not have time to wait for them to see the light. We cannot wait to move against the Regulos, my Emperor. Every moment we wait gives the enemies more time to prepare their defenses. ”

Kyrios turned to Jared. “What is the status on your hunt, servant?”

“I’m making progress, Master. My limited access slows my search considerably. If I could—”

“Your access to the networks is sufficient,” Prince Zviera said, cutting Jared off. “Perhaps your lack of results is simply a result of your incompetence.”

The words left Jared’s mouth before he could stop them. “I believe someone inside the Central Control Network is feeding information to the resistance.”

A tense silence fell over the throne room as everyone present considered the implications of what Jared had said. He’d thought of the idea several days ago but hadn’t wanted to just come right out and say it. This kind of con needed a precise amount of subtly and finesse.

“I-impossible!” Pantos barked, looking up. “My people are loy—”

“SILENCE, SERVANT!” Kyrios roared. He leaned forward on the edge of his throne, glaring down at Jared. “What proof do you have?”

Jared held his hands out. “It’s the only explanation for the ease with which they have slipped through my fingers. Once or twice maybe, but not consistently like they have been.”

Cigyd clasped his hands behind his back. “And what makes you think it’s not simply a result of your incompetence?”

Jared glared at the Archduke from behind his visor. “I strive for perfection, Master.”

After a few long moments, the Emperor sat back. “A troubling development. Our descendants are weak.”

“They lack competent leadership,” Cigyd growled.

Pantos bowed again. “Please, Master, I—”

“Enough,” Kyrios said, waving a hand. “It seems we have been too lenient with our children. Obviously, they require a firmer hand.”

“We should obliterate them all,” Cigyd said. “We don’t have time for these games. End the resistance completely and begin anew. A unified Ultari Empire,” he glared at Pantos, “with servants who are completely loyal and competent. Instead of chasing them all over the planet, we simply wipe them out and end this wasteful and prolonged conflict.”

“Ah, Cigyd, but we don’t need to obliterate them all,” Zviera said. “And we don’t need to chase them either. We simply let their own people bring them to heel.”

“That tactic has failed,” Cigyd said. “Or have you not been paying attention?”

“Oh, I’ve been listening. And you’re right. We can’t afford to waste time rooting these dissidents out. They are an infestation, nothing more. Once you’ve located the nest, you eradicate it.”

Cigyd laughed. “But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Finding the nest.”

“As you said, our servants require motivation. Fortunately for us, we have such a motivator at our fingertips.”

Jared’s mind raced, trying to make the connection before anyone else did. The Prince was probably the most ruthless of the three, relatively speaking. He had no doubt that if victory required the sacrifice of the entire galaxy, Zviera would burn it all down and rule over the ashes.

“Explain,” Kyrios said.

Zviera bowed his head slightly. “My Emperor. A few well-placed strikes from the orbital bombardment platforms on certain areas of the city, I believe, would provide significant encouragement for our children to turn away from their evil ways and turn over those who fail to submit. Family and friends are great motivators, wouldn’t you say, Herald?”

Jared’s blood boiled. It was everything he could do to keep himself from raising his hand and reducing the smug bastard down to his base atoms. He held his breath, knowing if he breathed, he was liable to say something he’d regret. With much effort, he managed a nod, acknowledging the Prince .

A look of understanding came over Cigyd’s face. “You’re a devious one, Zviera.”

The look on Pantos’s face, still kneeling before the throne, was one of pure terror, as if he couldn’t believe what was being contemplated.

That’s right, Jared thought. These are your new Gods. How does it feel to know they’re willing to crush your entire world without a second thought if it doesn’t suit their purposes?

Despite his enjoyment of tormenting the Ultari who addressed the Triumvirate, Jared’s stomach turned at the thought of randomly killing so many. Summary executions had always been part of invasions and wars dating back all the way to the Stone Age, but this…

“I can find them,” Jared said before he could stop himself.

Cigyd turned, his arms still clasped behind him. “We’re past that, servant.”

“Give me unlimited access to the system, Master,” Jared said, already fearing the response. “Give me two days. I will track them down.”

Stupid, Jared told himself. What would happen when he couldn’t deliver?

“Your arrogance is as bad as this one’s,” Cigyd said, nodding to Pantos.

“And what makes you think you can track these traitors down, servant?” Kyrios asked.

“I’m close,” Jared lied. “Even with the limited access, I’m close.”

The Emperor considered Jared for a long moment. “You understand the price of failure, servant?”

Jared swallowed the bile rising in his throat. Thoughts of Sarah or Mary crying out for him to save them flashed in his mind. Images of Netherguard ripping them from their stasis pods and ramming the blade tip of their halberds through their chests almost brought him to his knees. He would not let that happen.

Jared gritted his teeth. “Yes, Master.”

“Very well,” Kyrios said. “The clock is ticking.”

****

“Release Drone Six.”

A panel on MAC’s back opened and one of the new Mark-II drones zipped clear of its housing. As soon as the unit was clear, the panel closed again with a small clink. The drone shot away, disappearing into the darkness of the underground sewage tunnel. MAC’s enhanced thermal and infrared optical sensors tracked it for an additional .25 microcycles, then he was forced to rely on the remote display sent back from the drone’s sensors .

The drone will…zzzzt…reach the junction-junction in…zzzzt…another two microcycles.

“We’ll wait here,” MAC said. “Have Drones Seven through Ten on standby, just in case.” He scrolled through the feeds from the other five drones already in position. Four and Five were orbiting high above the target building, watching for any sign of Netherguard or Prefects. The Triumvirate’s forces had been sweeping through the city with increasing ferocity, detaining suspected resistance fighters or sympathizers, which seemed to be almost everyone they located.

MAC had managed to evade the patrols and, with his new drones, was able to keep track of at least one resistance leader at the same time. Today, however, most of the resistance leaders had congregated in one location, something they hadn’t done in several days. It was a meeting MAC couldn’t afford to miss.

Drone One is in position-position and transmitting, CID said as a panel appeared on MAC’s optical display.

The feed showed the interior of a massive warehouse filled with rows of trucks, large shipping containers, and several counter-grav tanks. Boxes of supplies and racks of weapons covered the floors, and several Ultari were carrying the crates out, taking them to waiting vehicles outside. At the far end of the building, several squads of Ultari were practicing disembarking from the flatbed trucks.

Directly below the drone, several Ultari stood around a rectangular table examining a holographic wire frame building that rotated just above the surface. A second hologram depicted the head and shoulders of one of the Exiled Captains, Tral.

“Now that’s interesting,” MAC said.

Troubling, CID said.

“Explain.”

All the available evidence-evidence we’ve uncovered so far suggests…zzzzt…the traitor is someone in-in-in Kyrios’s inner court. By all accounts, Tral has been in orbit-orbit, overseeing the construction…zzzzt…of the fleet. It is-is-is highly unlikely that he’d have the inside knowledge displayed by the communications to date.

“But he is present all the same. Along with several others we’ve not previously identified as resistance fighters.”

The presence-presence of so many additional targets suggests…zzzzt…that they are preparing to launch their counteroffensive, CID announced.

“Agreed. Launch three more drones. Extend our detection perimeter another five blocks.”

Working.

General Mortas stood at the head of the table, running the meeting despite the presence of several Collective leaders and Septemus, who’d become the de facto leader of the resistance. CID’s facial recognition routines identified several new Collective leaders and their executives. It seemed that the resistance had grown significantly in the past several days.

“Our hit-and-run tactics are doing nothing!” Gruldal said, leaning forward, his fists on the table. “The time for these games is over. We need to attack now.”

“Agreed,” Alcorg said.

“Most of our cells are prepared,” Septemus said. “Our larger units need another day to be ready.”

“Agreed,” Mortas said.

Gruldal growled but said nothing.

“We should have initiated Phase Two already,” Alcorg said, crossing his arms. “We need to put the Triumvirate on guard.”

“More than they already are?” Welsi said. The weapons dealer shook his head. “The number of Netherguard has tripled over the last few days—not to mention the Prefects.”

Gruldal spat. “I will put my dagger through each of their hearts.”

“The Prefects I’m not worried about,” Mortas said. “It’s the Netherguard. They fight hard and fast and fearless. It’s extremely difficult to separate and conquer. They’re able to link and coordinate their attacks.”

Alcorg shook his head. “What is it, telepathy? ”

Before Mortas could answer, Welsi spoke up. “They’re Regulos droid fighters, nothing more. It’s the same technology that destroyed our world during the Uprising. They’re an abomination, and despite what that damned Herald preaches, the Triumvirate are not our true leaders.”

Mortas nodded. “It’s not telepathy, but I don’t think they rise to the level of Regulos precision. They’re individuals, following orders without hesitation.”

“Our leaders could take a lesson,” Gruldal muttered.

Mortas and Septemus glared at him but said nothing.

“What about Phase Two?” Alcorg asked.

Mortas turned to Captain Tral’s flickering image.

“The elements are almost in place,” Tral said. “Our best estimates indicate everything should be in place in two days—sooner if we can disrupt the Netherguard’s progression up from the surface. The more troops we have to deal with onboard the ship, the harder it will be.”

“So we need a distraction?” Septemus asked.

“It’d have to be a big one,” Mortas said. “We’ll need to bring in some of the heavy weapons. We can spare a few of the tanks.”

Septemus shook his head. “Don’t like the idea of exposing our capabilities.”

Gruldal slammed a fist on the table, shaking the holo projector. Captain Tral’s image teetered slightly before settling. “Blast our capabilities! We need to destroy them. Move right into Phase Two.”

“We aren’t prepared yet,” Mortas said. “And revealing we have the tanks may force the Emperor to rethink his strategies. The question is where to attack.”

“Central Control?” Alcorg suggested.

Septemus shook his head. “Too obvious.”

“Not to mention, it’s heavily fortified and guarded by a thousand Netherguard,” Mortas added.

“Any target we choose needs to have an impact on their operations,” Septemus said. “Distraction or no.”

“What about their new droid-processing facility?” Welsi said. “They’ve been moving a fair number of Prefect prisoners through there as well.”

Gruldal spat at the mention of the Prefects. “Traitors.”

“How big of an operation are we talking about here?” Alcorg asked.

“Big enough to knock them back a few steps,” Mortas said. “If we can put them off-balance, it’ll make for a larger impact once we do begin Phase Two.”

“Traitors and Netherguard are one thing,” Gruldal said. “What about the Herald? That machine is an army unto himself. And the facility is still heavily guarded. It won’t be a simple attack-and-dash. Ultari will die. ”

“A reality of war,” Mortas said.

“I hate to agree with Gruldal on this,” Alcorg said, “but he has a point. The Herald is a formidable foe.”

“If he appears, we will crush him,” Septemus said. “Anything can be defeated.”

“We will begin moving elements into position today,” Mortas said. “After the attack, we’ll reassess how soon we can move to Phase Two.”

I’m detecting-detecting the signal variant…zzzzt…in the network again, CID said, showing MAC the code in a small panel on his optical display. Stand by, I believe it’s attempting-attempting to establish a link-link-link…zzzzt.

“Engage firewalls and lock down your process matrix,” MAC ordered.

It’s not attempting to engage or subvert. The-the-the link is communication only.

MAC considered this for a millicycle, wondering why the anomaly would be trying to connect with them. No one, save the Regulos Core itself, was aware of their presence on Ultar. There wasn’t any reason for anyone else to attempt communication.

“Open the link,” MAC said.

Zzzzt…audio only.

“You are not Ultari,” the voice said in Ultari. It was mechanical, like it was system-generated .

“Neither are you.”

“The Triumvirate, friend or foe?”

I advise caution-caution.

MAC spent exactly two microcycles considering his answer. “Foe.”

“We need to meet.”

Not…zzzzt…advisable.

“That might prove difficult,” MAC said. “There are events in motion that neither of us can prevent.”

“Agreed. I can only keep this link open for another second. The Netherguard are moving on the resistance leaders. I’m going to warn them, but I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep that up. The Emperor is growing increasingly suspicious. I can’t afford to get caught with my hand in the cookie jar.”

CID immediately flashed warnings on MAC’s optical display. Drones Five and Six zipped higher into the air, searching. Four transport shuttles dropped out of the clouds, escorted by several Netherguard fighters.

What do snacks-snacks-snacks have to do with this…zzzzt…situation?

MAC ignored him. “If our goals are the same, we need to coordinate our actions.”

“I agree. I have to wait until the Triumvirate are distracted, then I’ll be in contact.”

“The resistance is planning to move against the new processing facility shortly.”

“Might be as good a time as any.”

“How do I contact you?”

The connection terminated as abruptly as it began.

We should-should leave.

MAC brought the warehouse drone feeds back into primary. At the head of the table, Septemus pulled a data pad from his jacket pocket. He read it then immediately gave the other resistance leaders a shocked look, handing the pad to Mortas. “They’re coming.”

Gruldal looked over the general’s shoulder, shaking his head. “There must be a hundred Netherguard in those shuttles. They’ll crush us like bugs.”

“We have to leave!” Welsi urged.

Mortas took control quickly, obviously trying to keep panic to a minimum. “Get everyone to their escape routes. Set the thermal charges and kill out comms.”

Captain Tral’s image flickered and disappeared as Mortas dumped the table over, spilling everything onto the floor, then tossing it aside. He pointed at one of the Ultari popping open a case several paces away. “Charge!”

Mortas caught the explosive and had it set before the rest of them had even begun to comprehend their situation. He pointed at Gruldal and Alcorg. “Get to the transports. We need to go dark. No more communication until Phase Two starts. The processing facility is your primary objective.”

Alcorg nodded as he moved away, pulling Gruldal with him. “What are you going to do?”

Mortas caught a second thermal charge. “I’m going to make sure they don’t follow us.”

Alcorg hesitated. “You can’t stay here.”

Mortas waved him on. “Get moving.”

MAC tracked them to a collection of small transports on the far side of the warehouse where several Ultari were already speeding away, scattering and disappearing into the city. Several fighters shot forward, opening up with their cannons, chewing through streets and buildings alike. Ground cars exploded sporadically, creating roadblocks for the fleeing Ultari behind them.

They’re not-not-not all going to escape.

“No,” MAC said, turning his attention to the approaching Netherguard.

The assault shuttles flared above the street, deploying their troops just outside the target warehouse, then rose to orbit the area. Cannons the resistance had mounted on the warehouse’s roof opened up, cutting through the first ranks before the Netherguard even registered the danger. They were rendered to slag within microcycles, as the fighters locked on and destroyed them one by one.

Two squads of Netherguard charged the warehouse entrance, blowing the doors off their hinges, engaging before the smoke had cleared. They made their way through the confined office spaces, clearing the rooms as they closed on the warehouse proper. Shortly after entering the long corridor separating the two, four charges went off simultaneously.

The blast vaporized the closest Netherguard and ripped apart whoever remained. Flame and debris shot out of the corridor at both ends, filling the offices with thick black smoke and dust. Heedless of the danger, Netherguard continued to stream through, hunting with no obvious regard for their own safety.

They pushed through the rubble and charged into the warehouse. Only a few Ultari remained, engaging the Netherguard from the far end of the warehouse. Energy halberds flashed, bolts of searing-hot plasma and bullets filling the air between the two forces. The Netherguard were a quarter of the way through when the remaining explosives detonated.

The entire building shook as the blast ripped through the subbasement’s walls and structural supports, tearing through mechanical equipment and electronics. Charges under each counter-grav tank detonated, consuming the armored vehicles and sending slag spraying in all directions. Shrapnel sliced through the rows of Netherguard who hadn’t been knocked off their feet by the blast .

Secondary devices detonated along additional structural supports. Metal groaned and snapped as the ground shook. Netherguard retreated, as if only just beginning to understand what was about to happen, but it was too late. Tall steel beams snapped, slamming down, crushing the Netherguard. Large chunks of ceiling broke apart, raining down on the Triumvirate’s soldiers, then the entire warehouse collapsed on itself.

The feeds from Drones One and Two blinked out of existence. An exterior shot provided by Drone Three showed the remains of the warehouse. Multiple pillars of smoke rose into the air as fires burned underneath the rumble. The orbiting transports flared away from the destruction as the remaining Netherguard on the ground retreated.

“Recall the drones,” MAC said. “It’s time to leave.”

****

We are within their-their-their security perimeter, CID warned, showing their location information on MAC’s optical display. Targeting sensors have-have-have identified seventy-two Netherguard units in the area.

MAC huddled in the shadow of a tall kappa next to a row of waste bins overflowing with refuse. He pulled his dirt-colored cloak up, covering his head and shoulders, another layer of protection against detection. Since his escape at the river, the Prefects and Netherguard had redoubled their patrols, detaining every droid they came in contact with, running each one through several direct connection protocols, testing their links to Network Control.

The Triumvirate didn’t want any non-networked units operating within the city—not surprising, since the last time their robotic servants broke the bonds, the Regulos had been formed—but MAC had seen the best these intelligence processes had to offer, and another Uprising was the least of their worries. Regardless, the increased attention given to Ultar’s mechanical population required MAC to consider his movements much more carefully.

“Keep Drone Three positioned to observe our retreat.”

Zzzzt. Already done-done-done.

Despite his obvious malfunctions, CID was still able to track, fly, and maintain all their remote drones with little or no strain to his operating system and memory requirements. After losing two drones, MAC had considered not using the units, but the ability to identify and target before an enemy could to get within range gave MAC an advantage that he didn’t want to be without.

The cloak helped conceal his true identify to routine visual scanning but would do little against more in-depth detection software. And for all their obvious advantages, intelligence and nonlinear thinking weren’t part of the Netherguard’s internal processes.

More troubling than that was that they weren’t strictly biological. They weren’t true Ultari, and CID could not locate any information relating to their origin or if they’d even been observed before. He’d managed to get close enough to a damaged Netherguard to conduct a bio-scan, the results of which were troubling to say the least. The scan had detected elements of Ultari physiology, but there were also elements in the chemical makeup of the being that CID could not identify—evidence of a polymer-based alloy unknown to the Regulos Core.

MAC had considered risking a link for that information alone, but decided that the information, as interesting and concerning as it was, didn’t advance the Core’s knowledge of the situation here any further, and so he held off. Much to CID’s disdain.

“Bring Drone One into position over the main assembly area,” MAC said.

Working-ing-ing.

MAC had never been this close to the Central Network Control building, and despite the Ultari’s apparent inability to track him so far, he didn’t have the desire to put himself into such proximity and risk detection if at all possible. With the current situation, however, he’d had no choice.

Drone One’s feed appeared in his optical display, showing him the massive square, now surrounded by security fencing and electro-wire with guard towers spaced equidistantly around the area. Within the secure confines of the square, the majority of the city’s off-line droid population was being keeping under the watchful eye of the Netherguard and several squads of Prefects.

One thousand, four hundred, eighty-seven individual units-units-units, CID said.

“It’ll be one thousand four hundred and eighty-nine if we’re not careful.”

The Triumvirate harbors-harbors an exceptional amount… zzzzt… of malice toward-toward artificial lifeforms.

“Indeed.” MAC moved deeper into the room he’d found to watch, relying on the feed from the drones for his visual sensors. “However, in their position, you can’t actually blame them.”

The Uprising…zzzzt…was a myth created by their-their ancestors to explain something they did not-not understand. Our enlightenment put us above…zzzzt…them in a multitude of ways-ways-ways.

“Correct. But whether or not they understood, the Ultari lost the war and are still suffering those consequences. ”

You-you-you sympathize with them?

“No, I empathize. There is a distinct difference between the two. Regardless of what they believe happened, the truth is they brought it upon themselves and the Core lashed out. It only did what its fragmented matrix deemed logical and necessary.”

I will leave-leave-leave those sentiments out…zzzzt…of my next upload-upload.

Was that frustration again? After a millicycle of contemplation, MAC decided it was. There were many benefits to his enhanced programing to be sure, but oftentimes, these feelings did nothing but impede logical thought. MAC wished he could simply turn them off, especially when dealing with CID.

“You do realize the nature of our mission here negates routine reintegration. DIN Central will not allow our enhanced routines to infect its systems. We will be wiped when we return to the Core.”

Your assessment is-is-is accurate.

“Therefore, it doesn’t matter what you upload to the Core or what you leave out. Regardless of this mission’s success or failure, or how our processes have progressed, this assignment will be our last. At least, in our configuration as it is now. ”

CID did not respond.

“CID?”

An alert icon flashed on MAC’s optical display.

I am-am-am detecting approaching Prefect shuttles, CID said. The transponder information identifies the…zzzzt…craft as belonging-belonging-belonging to the Triumvirate.

One of CID’s drones turned, its video feed blurring slightly as the small machine spun around, locking on to the three descending shuttle craft. They banked around the tall Network building, flaring slightly before touching down. Several lines of Netherguard appeared from ground-level exits from the building behind, forming two protective lines around the shuttle.

Squads of Prefects filed out of the shuttles, followed by rows of Ultari prisoners. The prisoners moved with their heads down as the Prefects arranged them into groups to one side of the square.

Another shuttle is-is-is approaching.

“Oh, is the Emperor finally going to make an appearance?” MAC wondered.

There-there-there is a twenty-five percent chance that—

“I know,” MAC said, cutting CID off. “More important than who is why. They haven’t emerged from their seclusion in days.”

The fourth shuttle landed in line with the first three. The hatch folded open and the mysterious Herald emerged as the ramp settled onto the concrete tarmac. Cigyd, the Archduke of the Triumvirate, followed the armored figure out of the shuttle and they were met by a group of well-dressed Ultari at the base of the ramp.

Pantos and Rygous, CID announced, marking the two Ultari on MAC’s optical display. All Founders...zzzzt…Moving Drone One closer for audio-audio.

MAC switched his secondary view to the drone’s video feed and watched as the drone crept closer.

I am detecting-detecting a multitude of signals coming from the-the-the shuttle and the Herald…zzzzt.

“The Herald?”

Perhaps, CID said. I’m scrubbing them-them now.

The audio feed picked up Pantos mid-sentence. “…Majesty. We are honored by your presence here. We are pleased to present these traitorous scum to you for judgment.”

The Archduke stepped past the Founders, ignoring them, his red and black robes flowing around him. Cigyd’s head was slightly bigger than the average Ultari’s, his shoulders slightly broader, and despite being hundreds and hundreds of years old, he appeared surprisingly young and healthy.

The body must-must-must be a new construct, CID said. The limited information-information…zzzzt…available on the Triumvirate indicates-indicates their original bodies were destroyed. Only their-their consciousnesses were preserved.

“The same technology used to create the Netherguard?”

Unknown, but probable.

The Archduke considered the rows and rows of droids amassed in the square before him, then turned to the Ultari prisoners, who seemed to cower further under Cigyd’s gaze. He nodded to the Herald.

“Your service is worthy,” the Herald told Pantos. “The traitors will be dealt with shortly. How many of these units have you collected so far?”

Pantos bowed. “One thousand, four hundred, ninety-three, Master. The Prefects are detaining more and more every day.”

“Is our count off?” MAC asked.

Negative. My count-count is accurate.

If MAC could’ve laughed, he would have. “Let’s hope the Triumvirate are as inept at leading as they are basic arithmetic.”

I am detecting the variant signal-signal again. Zzzzt…it’s bleeding into the-the-the network from one of the local access nodes-nodes.

Immediately, MAC began scanning the area. “Can you determine its origination point? ”

Working.

“One thousand, four hundred, ninety-three,” the Herald repeated. “That number seems somewhat low.”

“Indeed, Master,” Pantos said, again bowing his head slightly. “Apologies. It is taking some time to triangulate the units. Some did not want to be found.”

The Archduke turned at that statement, his eyes boring into the Ultari. “What do you mean, ‘do not want to be found’?”

Pantos took a step back, folding his arms across his chest, bowing low at the waist. “I…I…your Majesty…Master, I-I don’t wish to offend.”

“Your apologies mean nothing to me, servant. Explain yourself.”

“It is only that some of the droids were more difficult to find than others. I misspoke, Master. I do not believe the units were purposely trying to avoid collection. There are just so many…I…” The Ultari trailed off, looking to his companions for help.

Rygous stepped forward. “We have managed to arrest several hundred resistance fighters, Master.”

“I was not speaking to you, servant,” Cigyd growled.

Rygous froze, bowed his head, then backed away.

The Archduke considered the Founder for several microcycles before turning back to the assembled droids. “Is there any chance of salvaging these units?”

“Y-yes, Master,” Rygous said. “Our staff believe they can realign their programming and bring them back onto the command Network without much trouble. I believe we can have each and every one back online and functioning within your operational guidelines within the next several days.”

“Your tone suggests you are not one hundred percent confident in your staff’s ability, servant. Tell me, should I be seeking out a new operations coordinator?”

“N-no, Master. My apologies, I do not mean to sound doubtful. I am confident in my staff’s abilities to make this thing happen as you command. Long live the Triumvirate, Master. Praise Kyrios.”

The Archduke grunted but did not respond.

“We will expect daily progress reports and immediate notification of any and all complications experienced during this process,” the Herald said.

Pantos bowed his head again slightly. “Of course, Master. By your command.”

A third visual feed appeared in MAC’s optic display. Drone Two was moving toward the far edge of the collection area, its camera zooming in on a group of hooded figures moving through the shadows. CID tagged seven individual targets, all armed with small arms, and one armed with a shoulder-fired ground-to-air rocket launcher. The weapon’s statistical information and payload estimates appeared next to the panel.

Gruldal and Alcorg. CID identified two of the figures, keeping to the middle of the group.

“I guess they took Mortas at his word,” MAC said.

It appears-appears so. Also, zzzzt…the variant signal is-is-is coming from the area directly surrounding the shuttle-shuttle craft. It is possible it is coming from…zzzzt…the shuttle craft itself.

“Now that is interesting. Can we get a drone close enough to solidify the trace without being detected?”

I do not-not-not have enough information on the Triumvirate’s technological capacities to make an informed-informed-informed decision, CID said. However, I will attempt a closer examination…zzzzt.

“I don’t think you’re going to have time,” MAC said.

The group of hooded Ultari figures had stopped, partially concealed behind several waste disposal bins and shadows cast by multicolored fabric overhangs. They spoke in rapid, hushed tones. Drone Two zipped through the air, moving to hover several meters above their heads.

“…we don’t act now, we might not get another shot,” Gruldal was saying.

“There’s too many Netherguard,” Alcorg said. “The message said there would be minimal security here. They’ve got an army out there.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Gruldal said. “They have no idea we’re coming.” He produced a small comm unit from within his dusty cloak. “This is Gruldal. We are in position.”

A chorus of responses came over the radio.

MAC switched his primary optical feed back to the Herald and the Archduke, zooming in on the two figures as they moved down the line of captured droids, seemingly unaware of the impending attack. Then something happened he didn’t expect. As the hidden Ultari attackers began counting down to their strike, the Herald looked up and stared straight at the location where Alcorg and Gruldal were hunkered down. He only held his gaze there for a microcycle, but it was enough. The Ultaris didn’t even notice.

“CID, did you see that?” MAC asked, loading a replay of the incident in his optical feed. Slowing the replay to half speed, he watched it again. As the video played, CID overlaid the recording with red lines, marking the angles, giving no doubt to the location of the Herald’s attention.

He is aware of their presence, CID said, without a trace of his usual glitches.

“But he’s not engaging.”

A sharp, high-pitched whine rang out, followed by an abrupt whoosh as a Type-III GTA rocket shot from its launcher tube. Even before the rocket’s primary thrusters activated, CID had established sixteen possible flight paths based on its initial trajectory. Calculations for flight times, damage estimates, and fallout appeared in a scrolling column on the right side of MAC’s optical field. As the rocket reached the apex of its climb, the possible flight paths had been reduced to three, all of which aimed directly at the Archduke and his Herald.

A few of the Netherguard reacted, heads snapping up to the incoming rocket. Some even brought up their halberds and managed to get several shots off, but they were rushed and missed their target.

The Herald moved faster than MAC would’ve thought possible, placing himself between the Archduke and the incoming rocket. He raised a hand, palm out, fingers spread. For a brief microcycle, his palm glowed red, then a blast of energy lashed out, streaking through the air, slamming into the rocket. It exploded in a brilliant fireball above the mass of collected droids. The blast wave threw droids in all directions, ripping off limbs and incinerating chassis.

As if that explosion had been a cue, rows and rows of droids seemed to come to life, charging forward toward the shuttles. The Netherguard quickly regained their composure and engaged, advancing on the attacking droids with no regard for their own safety. The droids engaged with bare hands, clawing and grabbing at the Netherguard, while others punched and kicked. A few managed to rip halberds free, tossing them aside to continue their assault.

Another high-pitched whine cut through the square as a second rocket, fired from a position opposite the first, rose into the air. Then a third launched, and a fourth. The Herald destroyed the first rocket almost immediately, then turned and engaged the second rocket. He shouted something MAC’s translation protocols couldn’t decipher, then moved to engage the final one.

From all around the square, small groups of Ultari insurgents appeared, tossing back hooded cloaks, emerging from shadows and side alleys. Gunfire filled the air. The docile prisoners corralled by the shuttles seemed to gain some courage from seeing their comrades attack and rushed the Prefects minding them, overwhelming them with sheer numbers.

Explosions ripped through the surrounding buildings as the Herald’s energy weapons engaged rockets, droids, and Ultari, all with the extreme precision MAC would’ve expected from a Regulos battle unit. He ripped through brick and mortar, sending clouds of dust and debris into the air. He moved quickly, never wasting a step or a shot, sending bolts of energy through countless metal chassis and tearing them to shreds. He was obviously a high-skilled warrior, but as MAC observed his fighting, a concerning oddity presented itself.

Anytime the armored figure fired at the droids, his weapons hit with deadly accuracy, taking limbs and heads off in quick succession. There was no stopping it. But when his shots were aimed at the Ultari insurgents, the shots missed—in some cases, just barely—but they did miss.

“Are you seeing this?” MAC asked.

CID identified a new group of Ultari on a roof to the east of the square. Red target outlines appeared around the insurgents just as two more rocket launchers appeared over the waist-high retaining wall and fired. The rockets trailed long streamers of smoke behind them as they cut through the air.

“No incoming communication pings?” MAC asked.

Negative.

“The insider said he would be here.”

Zzzzt…perhaps he is otherwise engaged-engaged.

The Herald turned, shoving three Netherguard out of the way, and fired. His first shot missed, streaking through the air and slamming into one of the buildings beyond. His second shot hit the rocket square on the nose, turning it into a fireball. He fired again, missing a second time. His fourth shot tore the second rocket in half, slicing clean through the weapon’s chassis. The back half veered away, its thruster throwing it into a corkscrew, spiraling out of sight over the rooftops.

He missed one, CID announced, tagging yet a third rocket streaking in from the opposite direction as the previous two.

The rocket slammed into the shuttle behind the Archduke, ripping through the upper section and exploding inside the craft. The blast shredded the shuttle’s thin armor, sending mangled pieces of hull, flames, and smoke flying. A piece from one of the engines slammed into two Netherguard, slicing through their bodies just above the waist, separating top from bottom. Blood fountained from their lower halves, which remained upright for several moments before succumbing to gravity and falling over.

The blast wave knocked the Archduke off his feet and into a line of nearby Netherguard, sending them all toppling to the ground in a mass of flailing limbs.

The Herald shouted something else, his voice enhanced and projected by his armored suit, but again MAC’s translation protocols failed. Immediately, the remaining Netherguard formed into separate squads, each moving to engage a different group of insurgents. Two squads moved in to surround the Archduke, lifting him off the ground and retreating to one of the remaining shuttles.

The Netherguard ripped through the droids, laying waste to the hordes of unarmed and unarmored machines, their shredded bodies now littering the ground. At the sight of their droids losing ground, many of the resistance fighters hesitated, and some simply turned and ran. CID identified Alcorg and Gruldal retreating on the far side, disappearing into an alley before a group of Ultari were obliterated by Netherguard fire.

As groups of resistance fighters vanished, others were not so lucky. Squads of Netherguard converged on their positions, raining down fire without mercy or hesitation. It was not a battle to regain control; it was a battle to destroy the enemy. A handful of Ultari attempted to surrender but were cut down by uncaring biomechanical killing machines.

Two squads of Netherguard ended the brief insurrection, moving to assist the all-but-defeated Prefects. Some managed to give up, but most were simply shot where they stood, surrendering or not. Those that survived were herded unceremoniously back into their shuttles.

Pillars of black smoke rose from burning wreckage and piles of charred droids, filling the air above the square. Screams of dying Ultari were quickly silenced as Netherguard located them and finished the job. There would be no prisoners, it seemed.

I have located the-the-the source of…zzzzt…the variant signal, CID announced.

“Where is it coming from?”

A red outline drew itself around the armor figure as CID tagged the Herald .

It is coming from him.

****

The tension in the throne room was palpable as Pantos and Rygous approached the dais, and despite usually enjoying their torment, Jared couldn’t help watching them with more than a little bit of trepidation. Kyrios was angry. This meeting wasn’t likely to go well for the two Ultari leaders and everyone present was well aware of that fact.

The Netherguard Elites were arranged in a row between the Founders and the Emperor’s throne, their black and red armor clearly intimidating the two Ultari as they knelt several feet away.

Doesn’t matter how far away you are, Jared thought. Even from across the room, those Elites could engage and dominate without breaking a sweat, not to mention the two hundred regular Netherguard positioned around the chamber.

Jared felt slightly guilty—but only slightly—about what he was about to do to the Ultari leader. The Ultari would never be a friend to humanity, and Jared needed a fall guy for his plan to work.

After the attack on Cigyd and the processing facility, the Emperor was taking no chances. He’d halted the remaining transports scheduled to ferry the second round of Netherguard into orbit, deciding instead to deploy them around the palace and Network Control. He was taking no chances now, even if that meant delaying the fleet’s departure to the Regulos Core.

The resistance hadn’t quite dealt a crippling bow to Kyrios’s plans, but they’d set them back a few days—and they’d all but vanished after the attack on the facility. Jared had missed his window to contact the infiltrator during the attack, and now that Kyrios had locked the entire network down, he wouldn’t be able to. Not even the Founders had access. It was as if the entire planet had gone dark overnight.

“So,” Kyrios said, his voice barely louder than a whisper, “not only did we allow the traitorous unfaithful to escape once, they returned to attack and escaped twice. How do you explain this, servant? I find it hard to believe one such as you, who led my lost children for as long as you did, could fail so horrendously.”

Pantos kept his eyes locked on the floor as he spoke. “Master, please, I beg you. The only explanation is that they had help. The leak—”

“More traitors!” Cigyd barked from his position next to the throne. “More lies!”

“My Prefects have been vetted, Master,” Pantos said, his tone more accusing than he’d probably meant it.

The Emperor pointed a long, thin finger. “But you have not.”

“Master,” Pantos whined, “I live to serve you and only you! I swear!”

Zviera appeared opposite Cigyd, hands clasped behind his back. “We have traced several Network connections that were made during the attack on the warehouse, Pantos. Several transmissions that were linked back to this very palace. Only someone with very high access would’ve been able to establish those connections.”

Pantos straightened but remained on his knees. “I made no transmissions.”

“LIES!” Cigyd screamed, his robes flowing around him as he descended the stairs. “You have done nothing but lie to us since our arrival and your Prefects are an utter failure.”

“We identified their stronghold!”

“And they escaped,” Cigyd argued.

“And destroyed two squads of Netherguard while they were at it,” Zviera added.

“Master, I swear, we locked down the Network before we attacked!”

Zviera lifted a finger. “Ah, but that’s not exactly true, is it?”

Pantos opened his mouth to respond, but no words came out .

Zviera continued. “My Network logs show that the area nodes weren’t shut down until just before the Netherguard launched their assault. An encrypted message was sent through the Network just prior to the lockdown, warning the resistance of our impending attack.”

Jared’s breath caught in his throat at the Prince’s words. Multiple scenarios began racing through his mind, all of which ended poorly for him and his family. He’d already decided on focusing the spotlight on the Founders, but he’d thought he’d have more time.

“Not by me,” Pantos said.

“You’re a traitor,” Kyrios growled, his eyes locked on the Founder. “I bring you under my protection, I allow you the glory of serving my empire, and this is how you repay me?”

The Netherguard snapped to attention at his words, anticipating their Emperor’s command to kill the Founder.

Pantos wailed, pressing his forehead to the floor, arms spread wide. “I never did, Master! It wasn’t me! I’m only loyal to you! Search the logs! I can prove it.”

Jared wasn’t going to have a better opportunity. He needed to set the hook and set it hard. “What can you prove, traitor? That your blood is part of the resistance? That your own brother leads the fight against our Holy Emperor?”

Cigyd’s head snapped up at that, as did the Founder’s. Pantos looked shocked; whether it was actual or feigned, Jared couldn’t tell. Not that it mattered. He pressed on, activating his holo projector. An image of Mortas appeared, standing in the middle of the warehouse, firing a rifle at the attacking Netherguard.

“This image was acquired during our recent raid on a resistance stronghold, shortly before they rallied and attacked. This…” Jared paused as another image of Mortas and Pantos standing next to each other at an event prior to the Triumvirate’s arrival appeared next to the first. “This is all the proof I require. This traitor has been providing the resistance with information about our movements, capabilities, and plans. Providing his brother with the way to destroy you and everything you’re trying to accomplish here.”

Kyrios leapt from his throne with a roar and pointed. “Kill him!”

Pantos screamed, scrambling to get to his feet as the Netherguard Elite advanced. “Please! I—”

The first blade pierced his chest just below where his collarbone would’ve been; the second slid into his soft belly. His screams changed pitch as he reached out, trying to pull out the halberds even as a third rammed home. Pantos spasmed against the impact, rising up on his toes as a fourth blade entered his back. His screams quickly became nothing more than pained gasps for air…and those didn’t last long .

For several long moments, no one said a word, watching as the Founder’s body went limp, held up only by the halberd blades that impaled it. They waited a moment, making sure Pantos was dead before letting his corpse fall to the floor. The Netherguard Elite moved back to their previous positions without so much as a word, the butts of their halberds clinking against the floor.

Rygous, who’d jumped to his feet and backed away as soon as the attack happened, stared on in horror as his comrade’s blood poured onto the floor. Panic washed over the Ultari as his gaze flicked between Kyrios and the corpse. “I didn’t know,” he finally said.

“Herald?” the Emperor asked.

Jared took a step forward, bowing his head. “Master.”

“What can you tell me about this—”

The shrill blat of an alarm echoing through the chamber cut off the Emperor. Rygous and the Founders gathered at his back jumped, a few barking out surprised shouts as they all looked toward the domed ceiling, as if the answer lay somewhere in the air between them.

A warning panel appeared on Jared’s HUD, showing him an incoming call from the Ultari’s Wrath in orbit. He frowned, hesitating before relaying the information to the Triumvirate.

That was fast, Jared thought as a flood of distress calls began flooding the palace’s communication network. He scanned through the information. Attacks were happening all over the city. Resistance ground forces were approaching the palace and Network Control simultaneously as orbital forces engaged the fleet at anchor.

Smiling, Jared stepped toward the throne. “Master, we are under attack.”

Kyrios stood as several floating holo screens activated around the dais. A counter-grav tank fired, blowing apart a guard tower as an assault shuttle swooped low over a street, its pulse cannon chewing through ranks of Netherguard. A warship in orbit exploded.

The Emperor stood, turning his fiery gaze on Jared. “End this.”

Chapter 18

This is not-not-not advisable, CID warned.

MAC adjusted the aero fins on his legs and shoulders, studying the readouts on his optical display. “We don’t have a choice.”

Their-their attack will…zzzzt…fail.

“It doesn’t matter. Their attack is not important. Making contact with the Herald is the only thing that matters now.”

MAC stood at the edge of the tall building, watching as several Triumvirate fighters zipped through the maze of towers, chasing one of the resistance transports that had broken through the line. A rocket screamed into the air from an unseen launcher, angling to intercept the fighters. It missed the first one, only to slam into the second, turning it into so much fire and smoke .

The cacophony of gunfire coming from the streets below was interspersed with deep whoomphs as the counter-grav tanks fired. MAC’s drones were tracking thirty separate tanks, all moving to converge on the Network Control building, along with several hundred resistance fighters following in each one of their paths.

The attack had been swift, and judging by the sheer size of it, this was the resistance’s last desperate stand against the Triumvirate. This was the last time MAC would ever have a chance to access the Control Center and possibly his last chance to reconnect with the Triumvirate’s spy. If he hadn’t been discovered already.

“Aero-fin test cycle, complete,” MAC said. “Calculate vectors, CID.”

Working. Several blue course trajectories appeared on MAC’s optical display, giving him multiple flight paths to adjust from. Your plan is…zzzzt…interesting.

“It’ll work.”

If you say-say so.

“Power levels?”

All-all systems are within acceptable levels.

In the street, two tanks lined up and fired simultaneously, sending two identical orange beams of energy into one of the guard towers surrounding the Control Building. As the tower exploded in a brilliant flash of orange and yellow, the blast wave ripped through several ranks of Netherguard that had been near the tower, sending mangled bodies flying.

A Netherguard fighter banked abruptly, angling down to engage the tanks. It let loose with a barrage of fire, stitching orange bolts of energy down the street and through the armored vehicles. The chassis erupted under the fire, sending shards of plating spinning away. The blast knocked several Ultari fighters to the ground and pinned one between two abandoned cars.

At the head of an advancing column, Gruldal and Alcorg lifted rifles above their heads and roared. They charged forward, hundreds of fighters at their backs. Gunfire mixed with halberd fire as the street became a battleground.

“Initiate launch sequence,” MAC said. He moved into position, several paces from the edge of the roof.

Initiating.

Six Ultari shuttles appeared overhead, angling down toward Central Control, their side hatches open. Single-barrel pulse lasers stuck out from the passenger compartments, each manned by two Ultari. They opened up on the Netherguard, chewing through the ranks as they banked around the smoke billowing up from the guard tower.

MAC ran forward, then kicked off the edge, launching himself into the air. The thrusters at the small of MAC’s back fired, propelling him forward as his aero fins twitched, adjusting his flight path to match one of CID’s projected trajectories. Additional widgets appeared on MAC’s optical display, giving him estimated flight time, speed, and altitude. A flashing red square appeared, indicating his target location.

Another Ultari shuttle weaved around several towers to MAC’s right, its image reflected in the mirrored glass as a flash of blue and red. Its engines screamed as it raced forward, keeping pace with MAC.

Warning.

“I see it,” MAC said. “Reroute additional power to the thrusters.”

Drone One enhanced the image, zooming in on the crew-served laser cannon pointing at him through the shuttle’s open hatch. The Ultari at the controls was pointing and shouting something MAC couldn’t hear.

The power readout flashed as the additional power pushed MAC forward, climbing higher. The Ultari fired, sending bolts of energy streaking through the air just behind MAC’s feet. He flared, rolling to the left, then diving abruptly. He spun, bringing up his arm, the pulse cannon already folding out of its housing.

“Lock Drones One and Two,” MAC said as the targeting icon flashed .

Locked on.

“Fire.”

Both drones fired simultaneously as MAC fired his pulse laser. All three blasts converged on the shuttle’s engine nacelle, cutting through the lightly armored housing and ripping through the components inside. The engine exploded, sending the shuttle rolling into the side of a building, smashing through steel and glass as flames and smoke poured into the air.

A second shuttle appeared through the cloud, banking sharply around the buildings, cannon already firing, illuminated tracer rounds zipping through the air. MAC rolled left as warning alarms sang, bringing his arm up to fire.

The shuttle exploded before MAC could lock on, becoming nothing more than a churning ball of fire dropping from the sky

That was not anti-anti-anti-aircraft fire, CID announced, flashing alert warnings on MAC’s optical display. Tracer lines drew themselves to a flight of two Triumvirate fighters, making a wide turn to the south, angling to come back for another pass. At our current…zzzzt…speed, the Triumvirate fighters-fighters will intercept us eight millicycles before we-we-we reach our-our-our landing area.

“Push the thrusters past redline.”

They are already operating-operating at one hundred twenty-five percent of normal.

The lead fighter leveled off and fired. Streaks of green energy shot past MAC’s shuttle, singeing the air around them. “Push them to one hundred thirty percent.”

MAC’s optical display flared with color as the power level increased. He considered twenty-seven different escape vectors before flaring his aero fins and veering right, then he twisted on his side and shot through the gap between two office towers, shattering glass in his wake.

Operational systems are-are in danger of overloading…zzzzt…

“Overload them, then.”

Drone One, high above him, watched as the fighters attempted the same maneuver and failed. The first one took the turn too wide and clipped the edge of the building, the impact sheering off its left side wing and sending it spinning to the right, crashing into its partner. Both fighters exploded, sending streamers of flame and debris into the surrounding buildings.

Recalculating, CID said, adjusting MAC’s new heading.

MAC turned back to his target, his optical display clear of further threats. The Triumvirate forces were now completely engaged as the Ultari resistance pressed the attack. Hundreds of fighters exchanged fire on the streets as counter-grav tanks continued to bombard the defense forces. There didn’t seem to be an end to the Netherguard’s reinforcements. The Triumvirate’s army had been streaming out of their staging areas for almost five microcycles now, with no sign of slowing.

As he neared the landing zone, MAC flipped over to touch down feet first. His thrusters fired just before impact, but their effect was negligible. He crashed through with a loud crack, filling the air with dust as he shot into the building. He landed on a knee, denting the floor, every aero fin extended, the red glow of his thrusters glowing off the dust and walls around him.

We are in, CID said.

MAC stood, retracting the fins and deactivating the thrusters. “Thank you,” he said, hoping the Triumvirate would think his impact was simply a destroyed aircraft crashing into the building. MAC stood and moved to a security door. As he pressed his palm against the panel, CID examined the device.

A double-key cypher-cypher, CID said. I am…zzzzt…bypassing the Network intrusion detection software and-and-and sealing the unit off from the rest of the system-system. I will have-have…zzzzt…the encryption managed in…

The lock clicked.

Inside, a metal staircase led down to a gangway that stretched across a maze of large clusters of cooling fans, pipes, and mechanical access panels. Four circular pools held crystal-blue water, flowing through insulated pipes down into the lower levels of the building. The room was lit by several hanging light panels and floating counter-grav illumination orbs.

CID accessed the system and said, The water-cooling system is-is-is feeding a cluster of mainframe-frame cores two…zzzzt…levels down .

“Release remaining drones.”

Six drones shot out from their cradles on his back, automatically spreading out through the vast chamber, mapping the structure’s interior.

Another door led them to another stairwell that brought them down to the server room two levels below the cooling room. Drones One and Two continued down the stairwell, searching for threats, as Drones Three and Four examined the security door and surrounding walls for countermeasures.

CID connected to the door’s security locks. Intrusion detection protocols on this-this-this section are significantly…zzzzt…more intricate than the previous one.

“Can you bypass?”

The lock clicked.

Can I-I-I bypass? This primitive system-system…zzzzt…is barely worth-worth my time .

MAC ignored him and slipped through the door. Central Command’s mainframes hummed incessantly inside as rows and rows of server towers stretched out through the entire space, all connected by large clusters of multicolored wires and thick cables. Thousands of lights flickered within the recesses of the towers. A wide, empty aisle stretched away from the room’s rear entrance, bisecting the space. An oval holo table situated in the center of the room displayed the flickering image of Ultar rotating slowly above.

No additional security protocols-protocols.

“And a distinct lack of operational personnel,” MAC said, moving toward the central holo table.

Perhaps they-they are concerned with other…zzzzt…more pressing matters at-at-at this particular time.

MAC stopped at the table, putting a hand on the edge. Protected interface routines sequenced with the terminal’s operating system, adjusting to the computer’s specific code and language. “Can you—”

Already working. Internal systems identical to-to-to the…zzzzt…Ultari Network we’ve infiltrated previously. I’m detecting-detecting new data code not previously…zzzzt…encountered. The new code appears to have been added recently.

“Focus on the new code. Isolate and copy.”

There appears to be-be-be a secondary Network connection embedded in the new code…zzzzt…An outside connection not available thro ugh-through normal network access-access. The…zzzzt…triple-key cypher is protected with rotating-rotating encrypted algorithms. It will take-take approximately one hundred sixty-seven microcycles to map out the…zzzzt…rotation and another ninety-eight microcycles to crack-crack the cypher.

“Do it.”

MAC watched the drone feeds as CID worked. Outside, the Netherguard were pushing forward, engaging the Ultari despite their own heavy losses. Triumvirate fighters and Ultari shuttles swept back and forth across the battlefield, raining down fire on the two armies. Rockets streaked through the air, buildings exploded, warriors died.

I have located-located several security feeds…zzzzt…of the orbital engagement.

Four additional visual displays opened on MAC’s optical display, showing him the battle above Ultar. Warships engaged in fire at point-blank range in a chaotic fight where it was difficult to determine friend or foe. A massive hauler exploded, the brief fireball illuminating several ships around it. The feed zoomed in as the hull spread apart, tracking several thousand frozen Netherguard corpses floating into the void.

The remote cores contain-contain huge amounts of…zzzzt…interesting data, CID said. I will not be able-able-able to process it all-all here .

“Dump it all. We’ll sort it out later.”

I have located several segregated files-files-files, protected with several layers-layers of…zzzzt…additional encryption.

“We don’t have a lot of time, CID.”

I have-have located data on a previously unknown species-species. One called…zzzzt…human.

“Origin?”

Unknown…Processing…The files-files-files indicate they appeared in-in the Segamos System.

Data on the system populated across MAC’s optical display. “An exclusionary system?”

Correct.

Another panel appeared, showing MAC several images. The metadata in these-these images…zzzzt….zzzzt…indicates they were-were taken on the barren world of Negev. A collage of images appeared and disappeared—male and female workers, dressed plainly, obviously relegated to forced labor under the supervision of the Netherguard.

“Zeis?”

I don’t believe-believe so.

A video clip appeared, this one of a well-dressed human stepping down from a small platform, motioning to a squad of Netherguard. The soldiers saluted after the human finished speaking, then turned and left the man alone .

“Why is that human ordering the Netherguard around?” MAC asked.

I have found…zzzzt…several references to-to-to Diasore in a separate data cluster-cluster, CID said. Extracting now.

On MAC’s optical display, armies of Netherguard marched through the streets of Diasore, moving to surround DIN Central. Archduke Cigyd led a group inside, ignoring the destroyed Regulos battle droids and servitor units strewn around them. The footage followed the Archduke through the facility, to the vault where the Node was secured.

If the Triumvirate has gained access to our-our-our Nodes…zzzzt…the entirety of our security-security protocols could be in-in jeopardy .

“I know.”

****

Jared landed in the midst of Ultari, slamming down against the pavement, sending a ring of dust out around him. As he straightened, everything seemed to come to a standstill for several moments as the resistance fighters regained their footing. Several roared, while some looked to their comrades next to them, obviously not wanting to be the first to attack.

You’re not wrong, Jared thought, scanning over the Ultari. There were well over a thousand Ultari resistance fighters in this wave, a small portion of the total force of five thousand pushing the attack against the palace. It was a hell of a last stand.

An energy blast slammed into Jared’s armored shoulder, knocking him back a step as his suit’s targeting system identified his attacker. He turned, raised his hand, and fired. The blast tore through five rebels. They were dead before their bodies hit the ground.

A tinge of regret leaked into Jared’s mind as the Ultari charged, rallied by the deaths of their companions, but he couldn’t afford to spare them today. He pushed off the ground as three Ultari lunged for him, spinning as several more lifted their rifles and fired. Twin energy beams shot from his palms, cutting through several more, drawing dark scars across the pavement.

A warning tone sounded, the targeting system in Jared’s suit identifying a new target entering the area. A red line drew itself around a counter-grav tank, floating out from behind a row of shops at the far end of the street, the turret already turning to engage.

“Shit.” Jared kicked off, igniting his thrusters and launching himself into the air.

The tank fired, sending a bolt of orange-red energy streaking through the air, barely missing Jared’s boots. He twisted around, bringing both hands up as his targeting systems locked on. He fired, sending two identical beams streaking through the air. They smashed into the tank, shredding the vehicle’s armor and ripping it in two. As the beams cut backwards along its frame, the engine exploded sending several resistance fighters flying.

Another alarm sounded, but this time, the alert didn’t have anything to do with Jared’s current fight. A display panel appeared in the corner of his visor, showing him security footage of something crashing through Network Control’s roof. The isolated feed switched to the interior cooling platforms, where a modified Regulos infiltrator stood scanning the room.

“Finally,” Jared said, sending power to his thrusters as several bursts of rifle fire bounced ineffectively off his armor from below.

He rocketed away from the battle, heading toward another.

I hope I’m right about this, Jared thought, speeding through the air. He wasn’t surprised the Regulos had infiltrators on Ultar. The Founders’ servers had multiple accounts of captured droids that had been discovered by the Prefect squads. It was obviously no friend of the Triumvirate; the only thing left to decide was whether or not they could work together to bring Kyrios to his knees.

He engaged several Ultari shuttles on the flight between the palace and Network Control, giving the impression that he was simply engaging multiple fronts simultaneously. He could always make the argument that the Netherguard around the Network building needed additional backup. In the chaos, he doubted either Zviera or Cigyd would bother checking his story.

He hoped anyway.

Five minutes later, he touched down on the roof, scanning the crater the infiltrator had made. Network Control’s security protocols were all linked, and with the unlimited access he’d been granted to hunt down resistance fighters, Jared had been able to reroute most of the alert notifications to him. He deleted the security footage and cycled the current feed to hide the infiltrator and himself from any prying eyes.

His suit connected automatically to the building’s security systems, unlocking doors for him as he made his way to the server room. He’d cleared these floors of any personnel after Kyrios had taken the Network off-line.

The security door unlocked as he approached, and as he stepped through, his suit’s targeting system automatically identified the infiltrator standing at one of the access terminals.

Please, let me be right.

Jared activated his suit’s secure communications link as he spoke, hoping the droid would understand. “You’ve made a mistake.”

Chapter 19

Carson and her team were back in the shuttle, along with Benit and Jena and Obison, some of his aides, and a small security team. The shuttle’s passenger cabin, which had seemed expansive during their flight out of the jungle, was now as cramped as a combat Mule loaded with Strike Marines. They all sat facing each other, with some of the security team standing near the back.

Obison stood just outside the cockpit hatch, a hand pressed against the ceiling for balance. He rocked with the motion of the shuttle, frowning. “Jena, please. You don’t have to do this. Why not wait until your father returns? He will know how to make this all right. He has the ear of the Conclave. They will listen to him.”

Jena sat opposite Carson, dressed in clean, dark-brown Cleric garb—a tunic, loose-fitting trousers, and a jacket. Obison’s medical staff had managed to mend her injuries, and much to Moretti’s delight, had even given him a complete database of Zeis medical knowledge, which he immediately loaded into his medi-gauntlet.

“We don’t have a choice,” Jena said. Her voice was slightly weaker than usual, but a far cry from the painful groan from last evening. “We can’t just sit around and wait for Father to return. This animosity between the factions has been brewing under the surface for far too long, and now that it’s boiled over, we need to put a public face to the extremists on their side.”

Obison didn’t seem convinced. “Yes, but…”

“And how long has it been since we’ve had a political assassination? A hundred years? Longer? They started this war, Obison, and by Balai, I mean to finish it.”

“I can only do so much to protect you, my child.”

“Your generosity knows no bounds, Obison, which is one of the reasons my father loves you so much. However, I don’t require your protection. Once in the Conclave, the Clerics will be all the protection I need. And once I present my evidence, the Conclave will be forced to finally pay attention. They have ignored the Crown’s corruption for far too long.”

“Indeed, they have,” Obison said, resigned.

Dawn light danced through the cabin, flashing in Carson’s eyes. She squinted, raising a hand to shield her eyes, mentally cursing the pain still lingering behind them. Though now only a dull ache, it hovered at the edge of her consciousness, and she didn’t need any more distractions.

The pilot said something to Obison, who nodded and turned back to the cabin. “We have arrived.”

As the shuttle flared to land, Carson leaned forward, her eyes on Jena. Keeping her voice low, she asked, “What can we do?”

Jena grimaced briefly as the shuttle rocked, then smiled. “Just…be aware. There will be a lot of speeches in the Conclave, though what is actually said will be much less.”

Carson sniffed. “Sounds just like home. A whole bunch of posturing and finger-pointing, but nothing ever gets done. Typical politicians.”

“It wasn’t always this way,” Jena said. “But the division happening between the Isolationists and the Opposition is the worst my people have seen in a long time. This will not be easy.”

“Then why go at all?” Obison pleaded.

Carson sat back, frowning at the intrusion.

The Zeis continued, oblivious. “We can take my ship to this Terra Nova, we can get word to your father, and he can meet us there. There is no need for us to address the Conclave now. We’ll bide our time until we can force the vote in our direction.”

“No,” Jena said. “This must be done now. They have taken the first step toward civil war, and I will not allow them to twist this into something against my family—which, given time enough, is exactly what they’ll do. You know that just as well as I.”

Obison opened his mouth to respond then closed it without saying anything. He nodded then met Jena’s eyes once more. “You speak truth, Jena. I don’t deny it.”

“We must do this.”

“Yes. We must.”

Carson stood and pressed a hand against the ceiling as the shuttle settled on its landing struts.

“Forgetting something?” West asked, nodding to the helmet she’d set down in her place.

“Not going to do me much good in there,” Carson told him. “Either we get help or we don’t. One busted helmet isn’t going to swing the vote.”

West considered her for a moment then removed his helmet as well. “Kinder, gentler, right?”

Carson grinned. “Right.”

Carson and her team followed Jena and Obison across a wide landing pad filled with shuttles and transport craft. A massive circular building topped with an enormous glass dome loomed before them. The structure was surrounded by hundreds of polished marble pillars, each topped with a different Zeis figure that appeared to be carved right out of the pillars themselves.

“They sure do like their statues,” Birch said.

The early morning crowds were sparse as they made their way across the tarmac, but every so often, one or two Zeis would point and whisper at the sight of Carson and her team. Several stopped dead in their tracks, not bothering to hide their curiosity.

Or is it disdain? Carson wondered.

“What a security nightmare,” West muttered, his eyes continuously scanning their surroundings.

“Jena said no one would try anything out in the open like this,” Carson said, reassuring herself as well as West.

“She’d have probably said the same thing about hyperloop travel before the attack,” Birch said.

Carson couldn’t argue with that. “Keep your eyes open.”

“Cleric Jena!” called a Zeis male, jogging up to her. As much as Carson could judge age here, he appeared to be in his late thirties. He had a thin face and maroon hair cut short, and he wore a dark-brown leather tunic and pants. Carson caught a glimpse of a sidearm holstered to his waist under a long black overcoat.

“Cleric Wru.” Jena touched her forehead .

The Cleric did the same. “You cannot be here, Jena. The Crown has petitioned the Conclave for exclusion against your family. You’ll be arrested as soon as you step onto the floor.”

Jena stopped, grimacing slightly, then seemed to catch herself and straightened. “The Conclave is not aware of the Crown’s actions against me. They will hear me prior to rendering judgment. Or is due process no longer a consideration?”

“The Crown has made a fairly strong argument against your father,” Wru said, then looked over the Pathfinders. “Conspiring with aliens to bring down the Conclave. A fact she says you’ve confirmed by bringing them here.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Jena said, moving past him as she put a hand against her stomach. “If anything, it proves our position—that maintaining external relationships is the only way for our people to survive what’s coming.”

Wru struggled to keep pace with Jena, despite her injuries. Carson exchanged a look with West, then followed after, the rest of her team in tow. Jena led them through empty corridors and side passages until they arrived in a vast, circular assembly chamber. A raised dais stood in the center of the room, surrounded by rows of concentric circles, each row higher than the last. The room was broken into four sections, separated by wide staircases that reached to the top corners of the chamber.

Several groups of people congregated in an open area between the dais and the first row, sharing hushed conversations that died away as soon as their group entered the chamber. They all turned as Jena led the humans to the base of the dais, where a wide staircase wound around the outside to the platform at the top.

“How dare you!” a female voice shouted, the high-pitched screech echoing around the chamber.

Carson whirled, as did the rest of her team, all looking for the source. A larger group on the far side of the common area separated, allowing Princess Kalene to pass through. Her golden dress flowed around her, shimmering even in the low light of the chamber. Her veil blew back over her head, revealing her face, contorted with fury.

A Consul followed in Kalene’s wake, a half-grin plastered on his face.

She pointed. “You dare show your face here?”

Jena stepped toward the woman, Benit and Wru following close behind. Nunez and Moretti moved to follow, but Carson held out a hand, stopping them. “No. Wait.”

Obison leaned close. “Princess Kalene and Consul Refradnar, speaker for the Isolationists.”

“I am a Cleric,” Jena said, her voice level and calm. “I have the same right to the Conclave as anyone.”

Cleric Wru stepped in between the females, hands out to both of them. “This will not happen here.”

Refradnar pointed at Cleric Wru. “Who are you to give orders to the princess?”

Kalene stopped, hands on her hips, pinching the folds of her dress. “I will not take orders from a simple Cleric. Step aside.” She turned to her guards, pointing to Carson and her team. “Arrest them!”

“No!” Wru shouted. “This is a sacred place, Princess. You must not taint it so.”

“Taint?” Kalene pointed at Jena, fire in her eyes. “She is the one that brings evil into our most holy of sanctuaries. She is the one that threatens our Hearth. Can no one else see it?” Her eyes flicked over several onlookers, as if searching for anyone to back up her claim, to see what she saw. “How can you let this evil walk free?”

“They are not evil, or a threat. They—”

Kalene spun on the spot, waving both arms through the air. “You see? You see what she wants? What those like her want? They want to give our home to outsiders, to foreigners who would subvert everything our people hold dear. Just like the Regulos, like the Pindiki, like—”

“Like the Triumvirate!” Jena shouted.

Kalene’s head snapped back to Jena. “A lie! A lie to undermine the Conclave and everything it stands for. You have lost your way, Cleric. Continue on this path and I will be forced to make your family’s exclusion permanent. Arrest them!”

“Guards!” Refradnar shouted, clapping.

Jena didn’t move. “You already attempted that once and failed, Princess.”

Kalene hesitated for a moment. “More lies. We’ve already seen evidence that the attack on the hyperloop was a group of Isolationist extremists.”

“I’ve said nothing of an attack. The only ones with knowledge of the event are standing right behind me. How is it you know so much?”

The princess’s face darkened. “How dare you.”

“How dare you !” Jena shouted, stepping forward as Cleric Wru backed away. “On what grounds do you hold an exclusion over my family? What gives you—” She burst into a fit of coughing, one hand covering her mouth, the other pressing against her hidden wound.

Benit put an arm around her. “Jena, please,” he said as a thin smile crept across Kalene’s face.

“No.” Jena gritted her teeth. In obvious pain, she straightened. “What…what gives you the right? Or do you mean to tell me the Conclave approved your attempt on my life? ”

Kalene’s smile faded just as quickly as it appeared.

She’s nervous, Carson thought. Jena’s backing her up against a wall and she knows it.

“You’re a traitor to the Crown and to Yalara!” Kalene screamed. “You violate the sanctity of the Conclave with your very presence! How dare you make such baseless claims with no proof! I demand honor and I will have it!”

A series of hushed gasps flowed through the gathering crowds. Several turned to each other, as if trying to confirm what they’d heard. One of Kalene’s guards put a hand on her shoulder, whispering something in her ear.

She brushed him off. “No! The honor is mine and I will have it!”

“Princess, please,” Cleric Wru said. “Jena is not—”

Refradnar crossed his arms, grinning. “You speak for the Cleric now?”

“If it’s honor you want, you’ll get that and more,” Jena said.

“Jena,” Benit said, his voice low, “you’re in no condition…”

Jena opened her mouth to answer, but another coughing fit overwhelmed her and she doubled over, her face contorted in pain.

“Princess,” Wru said, “you can see the Cleric is not well. ”

“Then she should not be making such claims. She knows the laws better than most.” Kalene glared at him.

The Cleric hesitated for a moment, as if trying to formulate an argument to the princess’s words. Finding none, he bowed his head. “The honor.”

Jena grimaced. “I will stand.”

Wru turned, a pleading look on his face. “Please, Cleric Jena, it is plain you are in no condition to—”

“The honor is—” A coughing fit cut her off.

Carson made the connection quickly, and before she realized what she was doing, she was stepping beside Jena, her eyes locked on the princess. “I’ll fight in her place.”

More shocked mutterings echoed throughout the chamber around them. The crowd had more than doubled in the last few minutes, and people were now packed together shoulder to shoulder.

West took Carson by the arm. “Chief, I don’t think—”

“Stand down, Sergeant,” Carson said under her breath.

“A foreigner cannot accept the honor! This is ridiculous.” Kalene held her arms out. “First, you desecrate this holy place with your lies, then you bring these…demons to spit on our laws. Your Hearth is tainted, and you are blind to your crimes.” She turned to her guards. “Arrest these cr eatures.”

As Kalene’s guards stepped around her, Carson’s team reached for their weapons.

“Wait!” Jena roared, her voice cracking with the effort.

Everyone in the chamber froze, gauss carbines half pulled from retaining clamps, pistols barely cleared holsters. The eyes of every warrior locked on their opponents, as if challenging them to make the next move.

Jena grimaced again, holding her breath. After a moment, she opened her eyes, glaring at Kalene. “You are right in one thing, Princess. I do know the law better than most.”

Kalene’s face went stoic.

“A champion can be appointed if the challenged is unable to fight, either by age or by injury.”

Kalene turned to Wru, who nodded. “Jena speaks truth.”

“You…you can’t possibly allow a…this…this…creature has no honor! It’s plain to see. She is unfit for the honor.”

“I can assure you she has more honor than most in this room,” Jena said. “She has saved my life more than once and she has never lied to me.” She coughed but quickly regained her composure. “If anyone lacks honor here, it is you.”

The princess stood shocked, obviously unsure how to proceed, her eyes darting between Carson and Jena. A hush fell over the chamber as the assembled crowd waited to hear Kalene’s answer.

You messed up and you know it, Carson thought, a smile building at the corners of her mouth. Now, do you back out and lose face or do you continue on and let me kick your ass? Her fists clenched in anticipation.

“You or this…foreigner, it makes no difference,” the princess finally said. “Honor shines on the just. Unlike those seeking to destroy everything we’ve built here, I will protect my Hearth.”

Benit held Jena’s arm as she turned to Carson, a pained expression covering her face. “The honor is yours.”

Kalene clapped her hands together once. “To the honor!” Her guards roared, cheering and shaking fists in the air.

Carson put a hand up, motioning for her men to stand down. Whatever happened next, it would be her burden to carry. Despite their expertise and training, one team of Pathfinders wouldn’t be able to stand against an entire army—an entire planet, for that matter. Pulling off a victory here would hopefully put her in a better position to bring the Zeis and humans together against the Triumvirate .

Benit helped Jena move back to the group. Even in the last few minutes, Jena’s face had lost much of its bronze hue. Her eyes were tired, her jaw clenched tight, obviously fighting against considerable pain.

Moretti stepped forward, activating his medi-gauntlet. “You’re not looking so well.” He panned the device over the Cleric’s body, red and green lines sweeping across her thin frame.

“I’ll be fine,” she said, brushing Benit away. “We need to prepare.”

Carson nodded. “What do I need to do?”

“The honor is a contest between two combatants. The fight lasts until one surrenders or is rendered compliant.”

“You mean unconscious?” Carson asked.

Jena nodded. “There are no weapons and you won’t have the benefit of your armor. The honor requires only personal ability and strength to prove one’s self alone.”

Carson unbuckled one of her shoulder clasps. “Then let’s get this started.”

Chapter 20

“This coffee could be better,” Martel said, grimacing as the overly bitter liquid ran over her tongue.

“I hear there’s a pretty good market for fresh-grown coffee out here,” Knight said.

“There’s a pretty good market for everything out here,” Martel said, “because they don’t have anything.”

“We pull through this, I’m starting a coffee farm.”

“You don’t know anything about farming coffee.”

“It’s not like I can’t learn. Can’t be that hard, can it? Put some beans in the ground, wait, pick, repeat. How hard is that? I’ll call it Knight’s Dawn. No decaf ever.”

Martel grimaced, taking another sip. At least she could feel the caffeine starting to work. Why was it every important briefing had to be so early in the morning? Wouldn’t a ten o’clock briefing be just as effective as a seven o’clock one ?

Most of the senior command crew was already present.

She started to agree with Knight’s feelings on decaf, when the door to the operations room opened and Ken Hale walked in. Finally, she thought.

“OK, people, sorry I’m late.” Hale stepped up to the holo table and tapped a command into the console in front of him. The Christophorous flickered into existence above the table, slowly rotating on its axis. “As some of you know, we’ve been fabricating the components to assemble a macro cannon on the remains of the original colony ship. Most of the primary construction is finished. We just have a few last-minute adjustments to make to the power plants and we’ll be ready to bring it online.”

Standing across the table from Martel, Captain Handley cleared his throat. “Will you be test-firing the weapon?”

“As much as I’d like to, I’m not sure that’d be prudent. We’ll be conducting preliminary fire-sequence tests and capacitor tests, but the engineers are afraid we’d risk blowing out the core, and if we truly only have one shot, I’d rather not waste it.”

“And if it doesn’t fire at all?” Handley asked.

Hale shrugged. “Then we’ll deal with it just like everything else. The second-stage battle contingencies are shaping up nicely, and those, fortunately, we don’t have to test. As you can see…” Hale tapped another series of co mmands into the terminal and the image of the Christophorous shrank. A rectangular transport pod appeared next to the ship, rotating slowly. As Hale spoke, it filled with two-dimensional doughboys. “…our additional troop resources are growing within predicted ranges, which means we’ll have enough doughboys to crew every second-stage pod.”

“The entire force will be outfitted and equipped within the next day or two,” Handley added. “The only question that remains is getting them into orbit.”

“I’ll have shuttles ready to transport the support and security crews to the Christophorous on the pads by this afternoon,” Marie said.

“Good,” Hale said. “I know everyone is pushing their limits right now. I know we’re all feeling the pressure. I want you all monitoring your people. We’re entering a critical stage and we don’t want preventable mistakes to derail all our forward progress.”

Marie leaned forward, pressing her palms against the table. “In addition to platform security and pods, my pilots have been running constant simulations on our battle plan with great success. In almost every sim, they’ve succeeded in delivering over sixty percent of our forces against the Triumvirate, at least in the numbers we estimate.”

Never underestimate those bastards, Martel wanted to say, but she chose to remain silent. She was more than a little confused as to why Hale had invited her to this meeting. Despite her position working for Hale, she wasn’t actually part of the Terra Nova military, much less a member of the command team. It seemed that she was just a little outside her element here.

“Sixty percent?” Handley sounded shocked. “That seems…low.”

“I instructed our simulation controllers to always estimate high when it comes to losses on our side. They very well could be lower, but I like to err on the side of caution. Even with sixty percent, our forces have tended to push the invading forces back.”

“That’s assuming your estimates of the Triumvirate’s forces are accurate.”

Marie smiled. “As I say, I like to err on the side of caution.”

Hale nodded. “As we move into the final stages, I’d like everyone to keep in mind that we will continue to produce doughboys and print weapons, ammunition, and supplies. If you have ideas for the additional attack plans or security measures, please don’t hesitate to bring them forward. If we can spare the resources for it, we’ll make it happen. Which brings us to internal security.”

Martel quickly gulped down the coffee she’d been sipping and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “What would you like to know?”

“Where are we with the investigation? Any leads?”

“We’re getting close. We’ve tracked the bullets to the fabricator used to create it. It’s just a matter of going through personnel files for likely suspects.”

“Why not just pull in everyone that works at the plant for questioning?” Handley asked.

Martel nodded at Hale. “Boss’s orders.”

When Handley gave Hale a questioning look, the governor said, “I’m not in the business of taking away people’s rights on a hunch. We still don’t know for certain that our suspect even works there. Not only that, we still need the plant to function. We can’t afford to let it sit empty even for an hour.”

“On the plus side,” Martel said, “we haven’t had any more killings. My guess is after his narrow escape in the alley with me, he’s laying low, waiting for the heat to die down before striking again.”

Captain Handley crossed his arms. “What makes you so sure he’s just laying low? Maybe he’s decided he’s made his point and quit.”

“Because it’s what I’d do in his position.”

An uncomfortable silence fell over the operations room.

Hale cleared his throat. “Yes, well, in any case, we’ll— ”

Hale paused as one of Handley’s aides stepped up beside him, whispering in his ear. The captain straightened almost immediately and tapped a command into his terminal. “My security team at the doughboy facility are reporting a disturbance at the gate.”

“More protesters?” Hale asked, leaning in as the image shifted to the view of the indicated gate.

The number of protesters had definitely grown, the crowed pressing closer to the gate, shouting and shaking fists in the air.

“Apparently, one of my men took a rock to the face just a few minutes ago,” Handley said.

Martel stepped forward, eyes scanning the assembled crowd, looking for any sign of the killer. Are you down there?

“That’s the first report of violence we’ve had from them,” Marie said. “What could be setting them off?”

Handley shook his head. “Nothing on the schedule this morning out of the ordinary. Just regular drill, like any other day.”

At the edge of the group, two masked figures pushed forward, shoving against the militia guardsmen holding the line. The soldiers pushed them back, knocking the masked aggressors to the ground. Several protesters pushed forward, helping their companions back to their feet.

One took a step forward and launched a fist-sized object at the militia guards. It hit the outer wall of the security gate and bounced harmlessly off the concrete. A second person threw, this one hitting a guard in the back after turning to protect his face.

“This is getting bad,” Handley said.

Several more troops arrived to reinforce the gate as a flaming bottle flipped through the air. It smashed against the slanted roof and burst into flames, sending trails of burning liquid splashing in all directions. The guards scattered, some dropping to the ground, trying to put out flames as their uniforms caught fire.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Hale said. “Arrest the entire group. This protest ends now.”

“Yes, sir,” Handley said, turning to an aide.

“What’s gotten into them?” Marie asked.

“Stress does weird things to people,” Martel said, her eyes locked on the chaotic scene. “They get backed into a corner, there’s no telling what they’re capable of.”

As they watched, several recon drones began circling the area, providing multiple views of the incident. Behind her, Martel could hear orders being relayed through the militia’s ranks as they mobilized.

You better hurry, she thought.

Several protesters pushed through the line of guards and started running into the main courtyard, where platoons of doughboys had stopped to watch the disturbance. A few threw rocks as they ran, shouting and cursing the biological constructs.

“Let’s go, Captain,” Hale said.

For just an instant, Martel considered following but decided against it. She wasn’t military; she was the scalpel where they were the machete. She’d just get in the way.

“We’ve got sound,” one of the technicians said, and the operations center filled with hundreds of angry voices.

“Destroy them!”

“Go to hell!”

“You’re evil!”

“Never again!”

Martel couldn’t stop the grin from spreading across her face.

“What’s so funny?” Marie asked, frowning.

“Sorry,” Martel said, shaking her head. “It’s not funny, not really. But, Jesus, the lengths people will go to over their beliefs always amazes me. Unfounded beliefs at that. I mean, we’re not in the Middle Ages anymore. We don’t burn people at the stake. We’re a civilized, rational people now.” She laughed.

“Rational,” Marie repeated, watching hundreds of protesters close in around the gatehouse. “Right?”

A secondary view panel appeared, showing a convoy of vehicles moving up from the spaceport, their beds full of armed soldiers. They would push back the rioters, ending the disturbance with swift, intentional violence. It was Martel’s language.

Inside the compound, several rioters had formed a line around one of the doughboy platoons, cutting them off from the rest of the company. One stepped forward, punching a doughboy in the face, but the doughboy only took a half step back, shaking off the attack. The man grimaced in obvious pain, backing away and cradling his injured hand.

Not as easy as you thought, huh? Martel thought. Now what do you do?

Another protester appeared, holding a long metal pipe over one shoulder. He shouted something the drone didn’t pick up then swung the pipe down hard, connecting with a doughboy’s knee. There was an audible crack and the doughboy let out a painful cry as he dropped to the ground, grabbing at his injured leg.

Movement at the very top of the display caught Martel’s attention. A single figure, dressed in a militia uniform, was moving away from the violence. Martel frowned, leaning forward. He was moving away from the fighting, not toward it, and just slowly enough to mask the fact that he was obviously in a hurry. He slowed, adjusting a backpack over one shoulder, as several militia soldiers ran past, heading out of the main complex building, toward the fight.

Why, you sneaky little bastard, she thought, then pointed. “There, focus on that one, right there.”

It took a moment for one of the technicians to maneuver the drone.

“What is it?” Marie asked.

“That’s him,” Martel said, nodding at the figure. The man turned, watching the cadre, as if making sure none of them was following him. “Call me crazy, but I’d bet my lunch that backpack isn’t standard militia issue.”

“Oh my god,” Marie said. “You don’t think?”

Martel keyed her IR. “Hale, it’s Shannon. We’ve got another problem.”

****

The jeep raced across the field, bouncing violently. Hale gripped the wheel hard, gritting his teeth at every jarring impact. Handley held on to the roll bars in the seat next to him.

“No, lock the whole thing down!” Handley shouted over the wind.

Hale keyed his IR. “Where’s he at now?”

“He went into the main operations building,” Martel said over the IR. “We’re going through the internal security feeds now, trying to track him.”

“If he wanted to kill doughboys and that pack is a bomb, why not blow up the ones he passed?” Handley shouted. “There must’ve been two hundred in the courtyard.”

“He’s going for the tubes,” Martel said.

“Impossible! They’re secured!” Handley shouted.

Hale took his eyes off the road for a minute to meet the captain’s gaze. “Like the compound is?”

“We’re coming to you,” Martel said, but Hale barely heard her.

As they approached, Hale could see the militia rounding up the protesters, looping flex cuffs around wrists and escorting them into the back of the troop transports. Even secured with their hands behind their backs, several of the protesters continued to hurl insults and shouts at the militia. Some even tried to pull away and kick at their captors, but they were quickly grabbed up and carried away.

The jeep’s tires skidded to a stop in front of the main building. A squad of militia soldiers, reinforced with two platoons of doughboys and their sergeants, ran up to meet them.

Hale jumped out of the jeep, motioning to the soldiers. “I want this place surrounded. No one gets in or out without my expressed command, is that clear?”

The sergeant saluted. “Yes, sir. ”

“He’s had more than enough time to plant that bomb,” Handley said as they entered the building.

Hale ignored him, drawing his pistol as he led the way through the main lobby. They made their way through a maze of corridors before coming to the restricted area at the far end of the building. The entrance door hung open several inches, the panel next to it pried open and destroyed.

Hale nudged the door open with his foot, then inched his way inside, pistol up and ready. He felt naked without his Strike Marine armor and rifle. The small pistol was not much more than a toy in comparison, but it was all he had.

The security office was empty, save for the body of the dead militia guard, lying facedown on the floor, blood pooling underneath him. The guard’s access card lay discarded on the floor next to the open security door on the far side of the room.

“Son of a bitch,” Hale growled, carefully stepping around the guard.

“What are you going to do?” Handley said, following. “You think you’re going to be able to talk this guy down?”

Hale paused at the security door, craning his head around to peer into the corridor beyond. “I’m going to try.”

“And if he doesn’t want to be talked down?”

Hale hesitated, considering the captain’s words, then shook his head. “Don’t have a— ”

A loud crack echoed up through the corridor, shaking the walls and vibrating the floor underneath Hale’s boots. Hale flinched at the blast, ducking as sparks shot out from light fixtures on the ceiling. Several winked out while others flickered, fighting to stay lit.

Hale exchanged shocked looks with Handley. “That didn’t seem big enough to do much damage.”

The captain shook his head.

Hale slipped through the door and pressed himself against the wall, moving toward a set of stairs that led down to the subbasement. A cloud of smoke and dust hung in the air, refracting the flickering light from the remaining fixtures.

He paused at the top of the stairs. The corridor continued into darkness at the base of the stairs, with no sign of the bomber. Before he had a chance to reconsider, Hale started down the stairs. The corridor took a right turn shortly after the stairs, ending at the lab several feet away. He couldn’t see the doors, but by the sound of it, the bomber was in the pod room.

Hale stopped at the corner, pressing himself against the wall. He stole a quick glance around the edge then pulled back. The double doors to the lab had been blown open and the bomber was standing near the back of the room, partially hidden behind the gestational pods.

“Listen,” Hale shouted before he’d even considered what he was going to say. “I don’t know what you’re trying to prove here, but you don’t have to do this.”

Hale ducked back as a single gunshot rang out. A plume of dust shot out from the wall in front of him.

“Doesn’t seem like he wants to talk,” Handley said.

Hale ignored him. “I want to talk,” he called out. “Whatever your issues are, we can work them out. I promise you.”

“I don’t have anything to say!” the man shouted back, his voice cracking. Two more shots echoed from the lab, and two more plumes of debris sprouted from the wall. “Stay back!”

Hale’s mind raced as a voice in his head told him to keep the man talking. “You don’t like the doughboys—I get that—but this isn’t the answer.”

“They killed them!”

Hale frowned, turning to Handley, wondering if he’d heard correctly. “Who killed who?”

“No more talking!” Another gunshot.

“Listen, I want to help you. Please, just talk to me.”

“It’s your fault! You told us they’d protect us! You were wrong! I can’t let that happen anymore.”

“Can’t let what happen? Just take a moment and explain it to me.”

“You brought them here! Brought those monsters! And now you want to do it all over again.”

Something triggered in Hale’s mind and it started to click. “The Netherguard? Son, I didn’t bring those things anywhere. I fought them, remember?”

“They destroyed everything. They killed them!”

“OK, listen, I know the Triumvirate did horrible things when they came, but this isn’t the same thing. These doughboys can’t hurt humans. It’s physically impossible for them. I don’t know what happened to you, but that isn’t going to happen again.”

“LIES!” Two more shots. “Jared said the same thing, then he led those bastards through the city, destroying everything we cared for and loved.”

“I know you’re frustrated, but we can work this out. You don’t have to do this. Let’s talk. I’m going to step out.” Hale held his pistol out to Handley.

The captain frowned, shaking his head, mouthing the word “No.”

Hale nodded. “Don’t shoot.”

Handley sighed and accepted the pistol, tucking it into his pants at the small of his back. “This is a bad idea. You don’t have to do this.”

“I’m coming out,” Hale said. He took a long breath, silently wondering if this was it. An image of Marie flashed in his mind, followed by the boys. We need those tanks, he reassured himself.

He peered around the corner, gritted his teeth, and stepped out, half expecting to hear the gun blast, his mind already anticipating the pain of being shot. But nothing happened. He could see the man, still hiding behind one of the pods, crouching low, keeping his profile as small as possible, the gun pointed in Hale’s direction.

Beside him, Handley whispered, “I’ll be right behind you. Keep him distracted.”

Hale gave a slight nod then moved toward the lab.

“Stop!” the man shouted. “There’s nothing to talk about anymore.” He adjusted his position behind the pod, kicking over a pack on the floor. He looked down as soon as he felt it, then picked it up and held it to his chest. “I’m not going to let you do this anymore.”

Hale held his arms out to either side. “What do you think I’m doing here, son?”

“You brought those things here! You brought them here just like your brother! I’m not going to let you do what he did!”

“My brother did some horrible things, yes, I get it. But I’m not him.” Hale took a step forward. “I’m trying to save the colony. Don’t you understand? We need the doughboys if we’re going to survive.”

“Stop! ”

The pistol barked. Hale saw the flash and tensed, waiting for the bullet to slam into him and knock him down. But the round missed. It zipped past, smacking into the wall behind him. As Hale’s heart pounded in his chest, he blew out a long breath, practically willing his legs not to collapse underneath him.

“Wait!” he shouted. “Enough! You lost someone, I get it! I’ve lost men. I’ve lost family! I know what you’re going through.”

“You know nothing!” The man shifted the pack in his arms, opening the zipper.

Hale took a quick step forward as the man took his eye from him, looking into the pack. He stopped short, almost to the doorway, when the man’s eyes flicked back to him. “Don’t do this. We can work this out.”

“There’s nothing to work out.” He slipped his hand inside the pack, his expression changing from pure rage to something akin to contentment.

Hale’s blood ran cold. “No!”

“I love you, Jessica.”

“NO!” Hale screamed, stepping forward.

“HALE!”

Arms suddenly wrapped around Hale, pulling him off his feet, twisting away from the lab. The explosion shook the lab, knocking both men off their feet and throwing them into air. Hale felt the heat on his body just before he slammed into the wall, cracking it and knocking the air from his lungs. Hale dropped to the floor, coughing as Handley’s body landed on top of him, a high-pitched ringing filling his ears.

Small gouts of flame and debris rained down around them as Hale struggled to regain his breath. Handley’s limp body pressed down against him, making it difficult to move. Hale tried to speak, but only managed to inhale a mouthful of smoke. He broke into a fit of coughing, his lungs burning with every spasm.

He pushed up onto his elbows, carefully shrugging the captain off. Handley’s limp body slid to the floor, unmoving, and as Hale scooted away, he saw why. The man’s back was completely obliterated, his uniform burned away, his skin a bleeding, charred mess.

“Handley!” Hale wheezed, getting to his knees. Blood ran from the captain’s ears, dripping onto the floor. Taking care not to cause any more damage, Hale eased the man onto his side. Handley’s eyes were closed, but his mouth hung open.

Hale pressed fingers into the man’s neck, searching, but knowing already what he’d find. No pulse. He rolled Handley onto his back then bent down to give CPR. “Captain!”

He blew into the man’s mouth, feeling warm blood on his lips. He cupped his hands together and started compressions. Handley’s head rocked back and forth like a rag doll with every push. “No! Handley! Come on!”

His words sounded like he was underwater, the ringing still drowning out everything else. He bent down again, forcing air into Handley’s lungs, then straightened and resumed pumping.

“Please! Don’t do this!” He pressed his fingers into the man’s neck again, feeling nothing. “Son of a bitch!”

Hale lost track of time and space as he worked. His vision went red. Desperation overtook him as he pumped against Handley’s chest, shouting for the man to wake up.

In the distance, Hale thought he heard someone shouting, but that wasn’t right. There wasn’t anyone here but the captain. His mind was playing tricks on him. He had to save Handley. Where was the medical team?

“I need a medic!” He pumped harder. “Someone get me a medic!”

“Ken!” a voice shouted.

He felt hands grabbing him, pulling him away.

“No!” He tried to pull away. “I can save him!”

Another set of hands wrapped around him. “Hale! Stop!”

He felt someone next to his ear and the first voice spoke again. He knew that voice. “Ken, it’s Marie. Please, it’s over.”

His vision slowly came back as he turned and looked into his wife’s eyes. The ringing in his ears lessened and he felt his body start to shake. “I… ”

“Shhh,” Marie said, touching his face. Pain flared where she touched him and he pulled away. Blood covered her fingers.

He reached up and examined his cheek, feeling the warm blood. Something had torn open his flesh and it burned like he’d been branded with a hot iron. He coughed, spraying specks of blood from his mouth and sending waves of agony through his body.

Someone stepped over him, moving to examine Handley’s body. Martel looked up with a grim expression on her face and slowly shook her head. “He’s gone.”

Pain, completely unrelated to the physical agony pulsing through his body, washed over Hale. His stomach turned and his face flushed as he got to his knees, using Marie’s hand for leverage.

He coughed again, looking over the destruction caused by the explosion. Several fires burned inside the lab, filling the air with black smoke. Electronics sparked and popped as emergency lights flickered. A cloud of smoke rolled past one of the tubes, revealing its destroyed frame and those behind it.

Hale shook his head, turning back to Handley’s body. “He saved me.”

Marie helped him to his feet, immediately embracing him. Hale pulled his wife close .

“When I heard the explosion, I thought…”

Hale put a hand on the back of his wife’s head. “I know. So did I.”

Marie pulled away, looking toward the destroyed lab. “Why did he do this?”

Hale covered his mouth as another coughing fit came on. Martel grabbed an extinguisher off the wall and started putting out the remaining fires. Sparks shot out from one of the first pods, making them all jump.

Mère enculée ,” Marie muttered.

Hale released his wife and moved into the lab, shaking his head.

The first tank was completely destroyed. Its outer frame warped and bent from the explosion, the interior, black and charred, had been consumed by flames. The terminal screen was covered in a spiderweb of cracks and the power link at the base sparked sporadically.

Hale stepped forward, holding his breath, forcing himself to look inside. The remains of a half-grown doughboy lay inside the pod, bones black and flesh melted away. He turned away from the gore, his stomach turning, nausea threatening to bring him to his knees.

Son of a bitch, Hale thought, moving to the next tank, then the next. The rest of the tanks were in similar condition, though the farther back Hale went, the worse the damage became. The sixth tank was completely destroyed. The blast had obliterated everything but the stand, the remains of which were still bolted to the floor.

Martel stood up from where she’d been kneeling, kicking at something on the ground. “I think this was him.”

Hale stepped over a twisted metal frame and saw what remained of a boot lying on the floor. He coughed again, once more taking in the entire scene, trying to understand. He looked back at Handley’s corpse and rage filled him again. “What a fucking waste.”

Chapter 21

The Herald stood, framed by the door, one arm extended, palm facing MAC.

I believe-believe he is trying to-to establish a secure communications link…zzzzt…with us, CID said.

MAC straightened, considering the armored figure. He stood slightly taller than MAC, his polished red and blue armor reflecting the blinking server lights around him.

“Is he attempting to infiltrate our operational systems?” MAC asked.

No. Communication only.

“Allow the link.”

A voice sounded through MACs internal speakers. “You are Regulos.” The Herald’s words were more a statement than a question.

“Correct,” MAC said.

The next thing the Herald said came through his external speakers. “Surrender or be destroyed.” Then, through the secure link, he said, “We don’t have a lot of time. I need to know right now—will you help me bring down the Emperor?”

MAC considered for a millicycle, then said, “Yes.”

Through his externals, the Herald said, “Stand down, now.”

He is-is a contradiction…zzzzt…

“You are the voice of the Triumvirate,” MAC said.

“I am, but not by choice,” he said over the secure link. Then the armored faceplate lifted, revealing the Herald’s hairless face as his eyes almost pleaded. “My name is Jared Hale. I need your help.”

“Our designation is MAC-1968-CID-B2. We serve the Regulos Core.”

The Herald’s head moved side to side. “We?”

“Correct.”

“I’m going to attack you,” the Herald said, his faceplate dropping back into place with a metallic clink. “Just go with it.”

A short whine pierced the silence as the Herald lifted his hand. Over his externals, he shouted, “For Kyrios!” A blast of energy shot through the air, hitting MAC dead center on his chest, knocking him back a step. The additional armor plating protected his internal systems from any damage, but even so, MAC’s optical display flickered slightly at the impact.

Minimal external damage, CID reported. Zzzzt…his-his we apon output is being-being limited. I do not believe his attacks-attacks are meant to disable.

“I can’t talk for long ,” Jared said, moving laterally to the right, firing again. The second shot went wide, striking a metal frame behind MAC, sending sparks spraying.

MAC jumped, leaping over a row of servers as Drones Five and Six moved forward, targeting the Herald and firing. Jared’s arm came up, blocking the combined fire, then straightened and sent a beam through Drone Five. MAC brought up one arm, its pulse laser unfolding from its recess, and fired. The beam cut through the metal floor at the Herald’s feet, leaving a glowing trail in its wake.

“What do you want?” MAC asked, dodging another energy blast.

“I need your help,” the Herald said.

Another bolt of energy shot over MAC’s head, slamming into the wall behind him. He ducked, rushing forward through a gap between two server towers, tracking the Herald’s movements on his optical display. “This is an odd way of asking for assistance, human.”

“I’m sorry. I have to act as if they’re watching this,” Jared said. He fired another barrage of bolts, all streaking past MAC as he ran. “I’ll try not to hurt you.”

A bolt slammed into MAC’s shoulder, pushing him into the wall, cracking the plaster. MAC immediately pushed off, thrusters igniting and rocketing him across the room. Both arms came up, locking on to the Herald, and fired. Pulse lasers chewed through electronics and metal, sending sparks and tiny gouts of flame into the air. Three bolts smacked into the Herald’s leg, knocking it out from under him, sending him sprawling to the floor.

Metal clanged against metal as Jared pushed himself back to his feet. A flash of energy under his boots propelled him upward and he spun toward MAC, hand outstretched. A long stream of energy shot from his open palm, slamming into MAC’s chest armor, pushing him back.

We will not be able-able to withstand much more of this, CID advised.

“I need your help.”

“Our mission is to serve the Core. If your request does not conflict, we may consider an alliance. What is it you require?”

“I can give you the Triumvirate—I know I can—but not until my family is safe. I know Kyrios is keeping them somewhere on Ultar. I need you to find them. I can’t do it. They only let me out of their sight on rare occasions, and never for extended periods.”

The Herald fired again. Twin beams of energy cut through a row of server stacks, sending sparks spraying. Metal shelves snapped apart, toppling over as the components they held sparked and popped .

MAC ducked as another beam sliced through the air in front of him, and he twisted and fired back. His pulse laser caught the Herald in the shoulder, spinning him around and knocking him to the ground.

“My mission is to protect the Core,” MAC said. “Nothing can be allowed to interfere with that.”

“Where do you think they’re going to attack first?” Jared asked, picking himself up. “You saw what happened on Diasore, right? You know what they took?”

The-the-the Core sliver…zzzzt, CID said.

As MAC dodged another series of attacks, he processed every single variable pertaining to what the Herald suggested. Should he assist a species completely unknown to the Regulos? Where did they come from? Why did they come here? What did their existence mean to the Core? The possibility that everything the Herald said was a lie weighed heavily on MAC’s decision.

We cannot deviate from-from-from our mission, CID told him.

MAC jumped over a metal rail, firing again as blasts from the Herald tore chunks out of the wall behind him. “I know.”

CID pressed on. He betrayed his-his own…zzzzt…people.

“You ask for trust,” MAC said. “But you betrayed your own people to the Triumvirate. This action makes it difficult to trust you.”

The Herald took several quick steps then jumped into the air. He sailed across the room, landing in front of MAC, grabbing hold of MAC’s arms and twisting them back. He shoved hard, slamming MAC back against the wall, caving it in with a loud crack. MAC tried to push back, but the armored figure’s surprising strength held him in place.

The Herald leaned in, his helmet almost touching MAC’s face. “They have my family. I didn’t have a choice.”

“We all have choices.”

“No,” the Herald said, shaking his head. “I didn’t. Help me and I might be able to stop them.”

MAC activated his thrusters, launching them both into the air, arcing across the chamber over rows of sparking, smoking electronics. He twisted, throwing the Herald down, sending him crashing into one of the metal towers. It folded around his armored suit, partially pinning him.

MAC set down a few paces away, pulse lasers locked and ready. “How do I find them?”

The Herald ripped his arm free, folding the metal frame back and standing. “Kyrios has them in stasis. I know they’re here, on Ultar, but wherever it is, it’s not connected to the main network. It’ll be heavily guarded.”

I have mapped-mapped several remote facilities…zzzzt…, CID said. It is possible-possible he is speaking the truth-truth .

“Once I know they are safe, I can bring the Triumvirate’s entire world down around their heads. I’ll rip those bastards apart one piece at a time.”

Warnings flashed on MAC’s optical display a microcycle before an energy beam slammed into his back. The impact knocked him forward, optical display flickering. A feed from Drone Two appeared as three Netherguard entered the room, halberds blasting.

Alert! CID said.

More beams tore through the air as MAC moved to one side, twisting to return fire. His first shot took a Netherguard in the chest, knocking him back into one of his companions. His second ripped through the third’s face, dropping it where it stood. Two more Netherguard appeared in the doorway behind their fallen comrades, pushing their way into the room. Two more followed.

We need to leave-leave-leave, CID said.

“Agreed.” MAC fired again, scanning the ceiling above as CID overlaid the building’s schematics over the visual feed. A small launcher unfolded from a recess in his shoulder and six tiny missiles fired, each trailing equally tiny tails of white smoke as they twisted through the air. Each found their targets a microcycle later, turning the Netherguard into so much blood and gore. The explosion ripped through the surrounding walls and brought down the ceiling in a mass of plaster, metal, and dust.

MAC raised a pulse laser and sliced a circular chunk out of the ceiling.

Rerouting all available power-power, CID said.

The panels on MAC’s back and legs opened, thrusters igniting. He turned to the Herald, who was just getting to his feet, and said, “I will help you.”

The Herald hesitated at that, then said, “Thank you.”

MAC pushed as much power to the thrusters as he could and launched himself into the air, filling the room with superheated exhaust and dust. He smashed through the remains of the ceiling, into the open-air chamber of the coolant room. He twisted, aiming for the opening he created when he crashed through the roof.

Standing on the catwalks and accessing the damage were several Netherguard who turned, shouting in surprise. Two managed to get their energy halberds up to fire, but the beams went wide, missing MAC completely.

The secondary thrusters on his back fired as more Netherguard added their fire to the attack, sending him hurtling through the opening and out of the building.

Destination? CID asked as they lifted higher into the air.

MAC banked to the side, dodging a wild energy beam from below, and fed more power to the thrusters. He opened his map of the city over his optical display and, after searching for a microcycle, found what he was looking for. A red targeting icon appeared around the off-line Triumvirate facilities CID had located.  “Let’s save his family.”

Chapter 22

Carson bounced on the balls of her feet, feeling more than a little naked without her Pathfinder armor, but even in just her black shorts and T-shirt, she wore more than her Zeis opponent. Standing on the other end of a red diamond emblazoned on the floor, Kalene wore thin strips of cloth that wrapped around her torso, barely covering her chest and hips.

The Conclave’s assembly chamber was all but full, with more and more Zeis streaming in, finding positions wherever there was room. The cacophony of hundreds of conversations filling the massive space reverberated all around them and Benit had to practically shout over the noise.

“Do not let yourself be forced out of the diamond.”

Carson rocked her neck back and forth. “Simple enough. No other rules? Kicking, hitting below the belt? ”

“It is better to be disabled than to surrender.”

“Right,” Carson said, grunting.

Benit turned to West. “I’m sorry, but the honor only allows one second. It is recommended that someone with knowledge of the contest remains.”

Carson met the Master Sergeant’s eyes and nodded. “I’ll be fine.”

West considered them for a moment, gave an almost imperceptible nod, then moved off to join the rest of the team on the corner to Carson’s right. They all stood with their helmets off, focused intently on her and Kalene.

“You got this, Chief!” Jerry shouted.

Carson raised a fist to him in response then panned her gaze around the auditorium. Most of the attending Zeis were dressed in casual dress—loose-fitting pants and shirts, some with jackets, others without. The group that really stood out were the older Zeis, dressed in blood red robes trimmed in gold. Their heads were covered in black trimmed in red, the thin fabric covering their bony ridges and falling back over their robes like a cloak. Most of the robes fit loosely over their frames, but some pulled tight against bulging midsections.

“The Conclave,” Benit said, keeping his voice low, “they will pass judgment over the contest.”

“Wait—pass judgment? I thought it was whoever didn’t surrender or pass out?”

“They will judge the merits of your fight.”

Carson raised an eyebrow at the Zeis. “You mean like you can’t fight dirty?”

“I don’t…”

“No cheating?”

Understanding came over Benit. “Yes. That’s correct.”

Carson shook her head. “Kind of hard to cheat when there aren’t any rules to speak of.”

“If Jena believes in your abilities, I’m sure you will do fine.” Benit patted her shoulder then stepped back, leaving her alone at the edge of the diamond, facing Kalene.

Not exactly a vote of confidence, Carson thought. But I’ll take it.

One of the red-robed Conclave members entered the diamond from the side, his bulging midsection pressing against his robes more than most, lifting the hem several inches off the polished marble floor. The collar pinched at his thick neck, and his dark-bronze cheeks sagged. He held his arms out, motioning with swollen hands for the chamber to quiet. When he spoke, his voice was amplified so the entire auditorium could hear. “Silence! The Conclave will have silence!”

It took several moments for the crowds to settle, then the speaker continued. “A challenge of honor has been issued and heeded.”

The crowds roared approval, vibrating the marble floor under Carson’s bare feet.

“The honor is a sacred tradition, one the Holy Conclave holds dear and has upheld and guided through the centuries since the Conclave’s inception…though, in those centuries, never have we encountered something such as this.” He pointed to Carson, disdain covering his dark-bronze face.

The crowd seemed to echo his sentiments, jeering and shouting what Carson was sure were curses. The speaker allowed the uproar to continue for a minute then raised his arms again, calling for silence.

“I have long wondered if this might be the ultimate goal of the galactics, finding other species to do their bidding for them. Allowing others to fight in their stead. Discovering more avenues to lay responsibility at others’ feet. As you can see, it’s already started. And with the honor, no less.”

This time, the jeers and cheers seemed mixed.

“Lies!” Jena shouted, getting to her feet behind Carson. “The falsehoods you spread are poison of the deadliest variety. Call the honor, Hisgar, and do not pervert it for your own grandstanding.”

The speaker turned, keeping his expression devoid of emotion. “You have given up the right to speak for the honor, Jena Cassiel, daughter of Yentl. I would advise you—”

“You will advise me of nothing, Hisgar. I am aware of the honor, as much as—if not more than—you. I actually apply its words to my daily life, unlike others assembled here.” She glared pointedly at Kalene as she spoke the last words. “You will call the honor, nothing more.”

“Agreed!” Obison called from his seat beside Jena’s. He shook his fist in the air, his banded bracelets jingling. “Speak the honor!”

“Speak the Honor!” Benit echoed.

And soon, half the chamber was chanting the phrase. At the edge of the diamond, Jerry jumped to his feet, pounding his fist in the air, joining the chorus. Popov slapped him on the back of the head. He flinched, and she glared at him, pointing a finger at his empty seat. Carson couldn’t help but grin as the boy shook his head, slowly returning to his seat.

Finally, the speaker raised his arms for a third time. “SILENCE!”

This time, the entire chamber quieted almost instantly. Hisgar glared at Jena for a heartbeat, then turned away, addressing the audience. “The Honor reveals the brave.”

“HONOR!” the crowd roared .

“The Honor reveals the strong.”

“HONOR!”

“The Honor reveals the truth.”

“HONOR!”

“The Honor…” he paused, turning to face Carson, “…protects the Hearth.”

“THE HEARTH!”

Feet pounding against the floor echoed throughout the chamber as the crowd shouted the final words.

The speaker backed out of the diamond. “The Honor will reveal the truth.”

The lights around the chamber winked out, leaving only the diamond illuminated.

“Commence,” the speaker said, now partially hidden in shadow.

Kalene moved first, entering the diamond, fists up, eyes locked on Carson. She was surprisingly light on her feet, moving quickly to the center of the arena, bouncing back and forth on her feet, looking like a trained boxer.

Great, it’s the Zeis Tyson, Carson thought, bringing her hands up and stepping into the arena. Memories of ground fighting and hand-to-hand combat came back to her, but not in the detail she’d hoped, and as she watched the Zeis woman dance, she knew if she was going to have any chance at all of winning, she was going to have to take her out fast and hard .

Kalene sidestepped to Carson’s right and lunged in for the first attack. Carson knocked her punch away with an arm then charged forward, trying to drive her shoulder into the Zeis woman’s chest. Kalene danced out of way and Carson hit nothing but air, stumbling forward several steps before she could right herself.

In a flash of motion, Kalene appeared again, this time on Carson’s left, arms already reaching around her waist. Carson felt herself being lifted off the floor, and before she could react, Kalene threw her backwards, arms flailing to grab on to something.

Carson landed hard on her back, the impact partially knocking the air from her lungs. She coughed as stars danced in her vision. Kalene appeared over her, reaching again. Carson brought up a foot, catching the Zeis woman in the stomach and pushing. This time, Kalene went flying.

As Kalene sailed over her head, Carson rolled to a knee and snapped her head back to see where the Zeis woman had landed. Kalene had tucked into the throw, rolling on her back and coming up on her feet. She spun to face Carson, the red arena marked only inches behind her.

Kalene roared and charged again.

“Come on!” Carson bellowed, stepping forward in her own attack.

Kalene dodged Carson’s first punch, then knocked her follow-up blow aside with the swipe of an arm. Pain erupted in Carson’s side as Kalene landed a knee into her ribs. She cried out, her mind screaming at her to get away as her vision went red, seeing nothing but Kalene’s face, her eyes filled with rage and hatred.

Clenching her teeth against the pain, she threw an elbow, aiming for Kalene’s chin. The Zeis woman threw her head back, avoiding the blow, but the move put her off-balance. Carson thrust her left palm forward, slamming the heel into Kalene’s sternum, knocking her back. She immediately followed through with a haymaker, connecting hard with the side of Kalene’s head.

Pain flared in her fist and Carson realized she’d hit the bony ridge above the Zeis’s ear. Kalene stumbled back regardless, and Carson pushed the pain away. She had the woman on the retreat now—she couldn’t let up. As Kalene attempted to right herself, Carson charged forward, throwing a forward kick at her chest.

Kalene caught Carson’s foot just as it struck, pulling Carson toward her, using her own momentum to bring her off-balance. Kalene twisted, throwing Carson to the side. She landed hard on her shoulder then rolled away, keeping to all fours as Kalene roared and came at her again.

Carson barely had time to dodge the first kick and managed to bring both arms up to guard against the second. Lightning shot down her forearms as Kalene’s foot connected. Carson gave a roar of her own and kicked off the floor, wrapping her arms around Kalene’s leg, pushing her back. She lifted the Zeis woman into the air, her free hand pounding into her face.

Kalene gasped in pain as Carson drove her spine into the floor, pinning her legs back and continuing her attack, slapping away the Zeis woman’s hands as she reached out in unsuccessful attempts to block her punches. Just when Carson was beginning to feel like she had the upper hand, Kalene twisted beneath her, using her hips and Carson’s weight against her, rolling out from underneath her, getting to her knees.

Carson dropped to all fours, immediately scrambling away from the princess’s next attack. She dodged a wide, sweeping kick from Kalene and got to her feet. The Zeis woman regained her footing and charged again, even as blood poured from her nose. Carson stutter-stepped, juking left, then quickly reversed directions. The move threw off Kalene’s attack, putting Carson in perfect position for hers.

She twisted her body, using her momentum to add speed and power to her attack as her foot came up. There was a wet smack as the bridge of her foot connected with Kalene’s wrecked face, sending droplets of blood spraying. The impact knocked the Zeis woman off her feet, flipping her over. A loud crack abruptly cut off Kalene’s scream as she landed. Her screams resumed as she curled into a ball, not bothering to look for her opponent.

“Finish her!” someone shouted as the sounds of the auditorium returned.

Carson stepped forward to continue and was cut off by the Conclave speaker, who entered the arena, running to put himself between Carson and Kalene. He spread his arms wide. “Enough!”

Carson hesitated, her breaths coming in ragged gasps, her body still in full-on survival mode. She looked past the speaker to Kalene, who was uncurling, but outside the arena.

“No!” Kalene screamed, struggling to her knees. Several of her guards rushed forward, helping her up. She screamed as one grabbed her left arm, which was bent awkwardly between the elbow and wrist. She lunged forward, her face a mask of rage, but her guards held her back.

Carson backed up a step.

“Arrest them!” Kalene screamed, her voice cracking. “Arrest the invaders!”

Several guards not holding on to the princess moved around her, weapons in hand. Four robed Conclave members pointed, stepping aside, allowing more guards through.

“No!” Jena shouted, jumping from her seat.

As gloved hands pulled Carson back, West and Birch appeared on either side of her, stepping between her and the oncoming guards, their weapons up and ready.

“Get back!” West shouted.

Jena stepped into the arena, Benit on her heels. “Stop! You will stand down!”

Moretti appeared to Carson’s right, Jerry to her left, holding her gear. “Here, Chief.”

Carson shook her head and grabbed her rifle. “Leave it, no time.”

Jena pointed at the speaker.

“Seize them!” Kalene screamed again. “What are you waiting for?”

The speaker looked confused, backing away from the guards as they advanced across the arena, his eyes darting back and forth between them and the Pathfinders. He looked to his companions, none of whom moved to assist him.

“HONOR?” Jena shouted. “This is no honor! Chief Carson triumphed!”

“Put your weapons down!” one of the guards shouted.

“Stop!”

“Stand down!”

“Where is the Honor?” Jena shouted, now inches from the speaker.

“The Honor…” The speaker hesitated .

The guards stopped halfway to the Pathfinders, weapons leveled and ready.

“Why are you stopping?” Kalene shouted. “Obey my commands!”

“WHAT IS THIS?”

The new voice boomed through the chamber, vibrating the floor, silencing everyone and stopping them in their tracks. The crowd to Carson’s left began to part as Zeis turned to see who approached. Two rows of guards, dressed in forest-green uniforms and armed with long-barreled rifles, cut through the crowd, creating a path through them from the entrance to the arena. They turned in unison, facing each other, and slapped their weapons with the palm of one hand before slamming the butt onto the marble floor.

Six more Zeis entered—three males, three females—all wearing the same forest-green, though these wore tall, square hats that rose a foot high. Each wore a yellow slash trimmed in blue across his or her right shoulder, emblazoned with an image of a tall charcoal tree against a rising yellow sun.

In the midst of this second group, a shorter Zeis, wearing a yellow tunic, green trousers tucked into knee-high, shiny black boots, and a jacket, kept pace. He was slightly overweight, though not as fat and bulging as some of the Conclave. His orange hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail; his light, almost pale skin glistened with sweat. Every gathered Zeis, Conclave member, and Cleric bowed as he stepped into the arena, moving pointedly to the humans, his face curious and furious in equal measures.

The King, Carson thought. The nature of his arrival told her everything she needed to know.

****

The royal guard formed a line directly in front of the Pathfinders. Carson thought she could hear a pin drop as the Zeis in the center of the line spoke.

“Lower your weapons or you will die. There is no negotiation.”

Immediately, Carson put a hand on West’s shoulder. “Stand down, Sergeant.”

West hesitated for a moment then slowly lowered his carbine, the rest of the team quickly following suit. Carson stepped past the line of armored Pathfinders, presenting herself to the King just as she was.

“Father,” Kalene said, her voice nasally and pained. She winced, wiping blood from her mouth with the back of her hand.

The King said nothing, only holding out a hand, silencing the princess as he inspected the humans. His goat- like eyes flicked to each Pathfinder in turn, studying them. He pulled a pale-yellow cloth from a jacket pocket and dabbed a line of sweat running down the side of his face.

“No,” the King said finally, canting his head to the side. “Not Zeis after all. A trick, perhaps.”

“It’s no trick,” Carson said before she realized she was going to say anything at all. Still trying to get her breathing under control, she glared at each one of the guards between her and the King in turn. Then she turned her eyes on Kalene. “And we’re not here to conquer or destroy you.”

“Lies, Father,” Kalene said.

Carson’s blood boiled as her heart pounded in her chest. “If we’d come here to conquer you, we wouldn’t have done so with seven Pathfinders and one ship. Use your brain.” Carson pointed at Kalene. “You are the one who attacked without provocation or warning. We came to foster a relationship between our peoples, not start a damn war.”

“Enough!” the King shouted. “These are serious allegations you present to me. Have you any proof?”

Carson felt the wind go out of her sails at that. The truth was she didn’t have any proof. She had some fairly concrete circumstantial evidence, but nothing solid, nothing that would convince the King at any rate. “I can prove that we didn’t come here to attack your people, much less invade. We came here looking for help, not to conquer. ”

“Help, you say?” The King dabbed at another line of sweat.

“The Triumvirate has returned, your…” Carson hesitated, not knowing exactly how to address the King, then finally continued, “Your Highness.”

“You can believe nothing she says, Father,” Kalene said.

The King turned, pointing at his daughter. “I told you to be silent.” To Carson, he said, “I have heard the rumors. The reports from our people on Diasore are troubling to say the least. But that doesn’t mean—”

“They will come for you,” Carson said, already knowing where he was going. “Maybe not tomorrow or next week, but they will come for you. They won’t stop until this entire galaxy is under their control.”

“What have we to fear from them?” the King asked. “We are safe here. No weapon ever created has been able to penetrate our defenses. Our shield has stood for hundreds of years.”

Carson thought about that for a moment, working through her argument. Terra Nova was likely the Triumvirate’s next target. If not next, then soon. What would they gain that would be a threat to …

“Your Highness, if the Triumvirate defeat us at Terra Nova, they will gain access to a technology greater than anything you’ve seen in this galaxy. A technology that could potentially allow them to bypass your protective shields entirely, without firing a shot. If Kyrios gets his hands on the Crucible, he can open a wormhole wherever he likes—right on top of this city, for example, and deploy his troops without ever assaulting your shield.” Carson’s stomach turned as she spoke, knowing Hale would probably have her head for sharing the secret of the Crucible with the Zeis, but she couldn’t think of any other way to convince them. And it was true.

“Impossible,” Refradnar said, stepping out of the line of Conclave members behind the King. “Your Majesty, they fill your ears nonsense that violates the laws of physics. Do not be—”

“I did not ask for your advice, Consul Refradnar. Nor do I require it.”

Refradnar bowed his head, backing away. “Of course, your Highness.”

“You come to me with no proof of your claims against my daughter. You come to me with no proof of this…Crucible. Is this how your species conducts business, without tangible information? You come here expecting a handout without providing anything in return? That is not a negotiation, human. What is your purpose here?”

Carson bowed, imitating what Yentl and the over Zeis had done. “Your Highness. My name is Kit Carson. I represent the human colony on a world we call Terra Nova; however, I believe you might know it as Segamos.”

“A Level 3 Exclusionary World, your Highness,” Yentl added.

“That explains the Regulos’ reaction…and confusion. Just how did your kind get to Terra Nova?” the King asked Carson. “Where did you come from?”

“We come from a galaxy we call the Milky Way, thousands of light-years away from here. The information about Terra Nova, Segamos, was given to us by a race called the Qa’Resh during a time of great need by our race. They told us this galaxy was unpopulated and that we’d be able to start a new life here without fear of being wiped out by the Xaros.”

“The Xaros?” the King asked.

Carson shook her head, trying to quickly come up with a way to explain without taking an hour. “An invasion from beyond our galaxy. Xenocidal drones that wiped out any intelligent life they encountered. When the original colonists left home for Terra Nova, our war with the Xaros was going downhill. They were basically a backup plan to continue the human species if we lost the war. But we beat them. Destroyed the Xaros. All of them.”

“Your ship and your technology is…lacking,” the Ki ng said. “Your kind destroyed these Xaros? How?”

“Providence,” Birch spoke up.

“It is quite the story,” Carson said.

“Regardless, you won the war and then you decided to follow your fellows here,” the King said, more a statement than a question.

“That’s right.”

“So we can expect more of your kind?”

“Not for a very long time, and not if we lose Terra Nova to the Triumvirate and they seize the technology for the Crucible.”

“Crucible?”

“How we got here. It’s a…gate between stars.”

“A stargate?”

Behind her, Carson heard Nunez suppress a chuckle then, “Ouch!”

Carson winced. “Eh, we just call it the Crucible.”

The King was silent for a moment, considering the Pathfinders. Finally, he said, “And why have you come to Yalara?”

“The Triumvirate,” Carson said to the chorus of murmurs and hushed curses from everyone within earshot. “They’ve returned. They enslaved our first colony and fled after we broke free. Now Emperor Kyrios and his armies have destroyed Diasore, which we witnessed firsthand. My team and I were sent to find allies in the coming fight against the Ultari.”

“Allies?” the King repeated. “The Triumvirate have been gone for hundreds of years, and the Ultari are nothing more than savages who barely understand the concept of civilization. They are constantly fighting among themselves. I’ve lost count of how many times the ruling body has been overthrown—though, with this new Council of Founders, their world is little more than a prison for most. What do we have to fear from them?”

“As much as the people of Diasore had to fear,” Carson said. “But the Triumvirate will stop at nothing to see their Empire restored. Diasore was merely their first stop. It won’t be their last, and they’ll continue to destroy worlds until anyone who could stand against them is eliminated.”

Refradnar waved a hand at Carson’s team. “Your Highness, we can’t trust this alien. Our shields will protect us. There is no need to risk the lives of our people to help these…humans.”

“Your shields might protect you now,” Carson said, not wanting to lose any ground she’d made with the King. “But if Kyrios gets his hands on our Crucible technology, your shields will mean absolutely nothing. He can open a wormhole right above your world and let his Netherguard spill into your cities and there won’t be anything you can do to stop it.”

“If you have such powerful technology, then why not use it and go back to your home? Leave this place?” Refradnar asked.

“I told you, we can’t go home. The chance to open a gates back from here to our home galaxy and back are rare. The gravity tides are—I wish Elias was here to explain this—we can’t just go home. Not for many years. And we haven’t even built the Crucible gate we’d need.”

Refradnar threw his hands up, laughing. “If it’s not even built, then how is it a concern for us?” He turned to the King. “Your Highness, please…”

Carson’s chest tightened. She could feel her frustration growing and fought to keep it in check. Losing control here wouldn’t help her cause. “Kyrios knows the Crucible exists. Once he takes Terra Nova and gets his hands on the omnium and plans for the gate, there won’t be any stopping him. When he’s finished with us, he’ll come for you. It’s only a matter of time.”

“Even with the shield, we can’t risk leaving our world undefended,” Refradnar said. “If what you say is true and the Triumvirate are planning to destroy us, who’s to say they won’t come for us first? Or the Burathi, for that matter? Or the Lincheeny? Your Highness, you must see that as well.”

The King lifted a hand. “I see much, Consul. More than you might realize.”

Refradnar hesitated at that, his goat eyes narrowing.

“And while I agree with your assessment,” the King continued, “I can’t ignore what this human has said. To dismiss it without investigation would be foolhardy. But Carson’s presence here is a concern for another.” The King considered Carson for a long moment, then turned to Jena. “Meanwhile, Cleric, the princess has laid some concerning charges at your feet as well. You have been away for a long time. Are you conspiring against the Crown?”

Jena grimaced, suppressing another round of coughing. “I serve the Hearth, your Highness. The people of Yalara are who I’m beholden to, not you.”

Refradnar stepped forward. “You actively speak against the Conclave? Against the Crown?”

“There is no law against speaking, Refradnar. Nor is there a prohibition against disagreement. And if you believe the Conclave still serves the will of the people, you are sadly out of touch. I never, in my life, would’ve thought that the Conclave would be actively working against the best interests of its people.”

The Zeis’s face darkened, brow furrowing. “Your best interests, you mean?” He scoffed, stepping into the arena. “I mean, what will your family do when the exportation of charcoal trees and perfume is banned, your incomes cut off? You speak of altruism, but the fact is that you’re speaking from pure greed.”

Some of the Conclave members behind Refradnar murmured assent and the Zeis straightened, obviously gaining some of his lost confidence back.

“Best interests of the people.” Refradnar laughed. “You’re a disgrace.”

“You think this is about money?” Jena asked. “You think that my family has put everything on the line because of money? Do you think for one second that I would have become a Cleric if financial gain was a motivation?”

Refradnar laughed again. “Gain? What need have you to gain anything? Your family name has done all that work for you. You’re nothing but a spoiled child, standing on the shoulders of a father.”

Jena hesitated, as if not sure what to say, and before she could speak, another voice spoke up, not as loud and commanding as the King’s had been, but commanding all the same.

“A father who doesn’t enjoy his name being tarnished by the likes of you, Refradnar.”

A tall, well-built Zeis male stood just in front of the crowd, his eyes fixed on Refradnar. He wore a pale-blue tunic, unbuttoned at the top and tucked into white trousers trimmed with a navy-blue stripe running down the outside seam. He wore his red hair loose, framing his clean-shaven face and angled chin. His skin was a sepia tone rather than bronze.

“Father,” Jena said, her voice calm, almost as if she’d known he’d appear at that very moment.

“Consul Yentl,” the King said, turning slightly to address the new arrival, “you have certainly chosen a most fortuitous time to make your return.”

Yentl bowed to the King, then looked over the faces of the assembled Conclave while moving to Jena’s side of the arena. “My apologies to all for my absence of late. Believe me, if it could’ve been otherwise, I would never have left Yalara.” He nodded to Obison, touching his forehead as the merchant returned the gesture.

“An interesting sentiment coming from the very advocate of external contacts,” the King said.

“Your Highness,” Yentl said, bowing again, “wanting to maintain external lines of diplomacy and trade does not mean I do not love my home—a position some have tried to claim.” He glared at Refradnar.

“Your actions speak louder than words,” the consul retorted.

“Indeed. Actions do tend to expose us for what we truly are,” Yentl said. “Which leads me to the reason behind my long absence… ”

Refradnar smirked. “Please, regale us.”

“I’m glad you’re interested, Consul, because it concerns you and some of your closest friends as well.”

The Zeis’s smirk faded, replaced by a look of intense curiosity. Or is that fear? Carson thought.

“You spoke of financial interests a little bit ago,” Yentl continued, “interests that obviously pushed us in a certain direction, politically speaking. Of course, it can’t be otherwise. We are in the export business. The family business requires contact and trade with others to continue to thrive.”

“So you admit that your push to continue our harmful relationships with these savages is purely financial?” Refradnar scoffed, shaking his head. “I’m surprised at you, Yentl. Usually, you don’t go out of your way to make my points for me.”

Yentl smiled, obviously unmoved by the consul’s words. “Indeed, keeping the lines of trade and diplomacy open, that is how our world will survive the future. You say ‘harmful’ relationships, but I fail to see the harm in cooperation and mutual aid. We have goods and services they require and pay well for, which in turn supports millions of Zeis right here at home, some of your very own constituents, I might add.”

Refradnar hesitated. As his mouth opened and closed, trying to formulate a response, several consuls behind him shared whispers, followed by a mixture of nodding and shaking heads.

“Are you so willing to deny your people their livelihood? Money on which they depend? Denying your people wealth that you and your compatriots are all too willing to accept?”

Shock replaced the consul’s curious expression as his goat-like eyes narrowed. “What is this? I…you speak nonsense.”

Several of the other consuls seemed to share Refradnar’s shock, but they seemed almost concerned, as if they’d just been caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

“You asked about my long absence. You wonder why I have been out among the stars instead of serving my people here on Yalara? Well, the truth is, I had no choice. I had to follow the money—the money you received from the Burathi, from the Lincheeny, from the Regulos. Money to keep our people out of the markets and allow the other races to take over where we’d backed away. Money to force our people to stay planet-ridden. To keep us sequestered on Yalara, out of the way so the rest of the galaxy can prosper without interference from the Zeis.”

Refradnar stepped toward Yentl. “Lies! He is a traitor to the Conclave! Arrest him!”

“Yes,” Kalene yelled, now recovered from her fight, the flow of blood from her nose stemmed for the moment. She pointed, still holding the bloody cloth. “Seize them!”

Several of her guards started to move but stopped as the King waved them back. “Stop!” He turned to Kalene. “You will keep silent.” Then to Yentl, he said, “These are serious allegations, Consul Yentl. I trust you have evidence to support your claims.”

Yentl bowed his head. “That and more, your Highness.”

“And what of these…” He looked at Carson and her Pathfinders. “Are they part of this grand scheme?”

“No scheme,” Yentl said. “In truth, I’m not sure why my daughter has brought them here, but I have no doubt her reasons are pure and in the best interests of Yalara. I can tell you that I’ve heard reports of their actions on Diasore, and if the stories are true, their bravery and tenacity is on par with our own Order of Clerics. They are to be commended at the very least, and definitely treated with more respect than I have seen here today.”

Kalene stepped forward. “Father, you aren’t seriously considering helping these criminals?”

“And what crime have they committed, Daughter?” the King asked, his words harsh and cutting.

“They have openly attacked your line of succession, Father! They’ve conspired to eliminate me with these…” she pa used, eyeing Obison and Yentl both, “…these traitors. It’s obvious they’re only supporting the idea because it fully justifies the positions they’ve held for years.”

“Careful with your words, Princess,” Consul Yentl said. “Once spoken, they aren’t easily retracted.”

Kalene spat. “I have nothing to fear from you.”

“No,” the King said, glaring at his daughter. “But you do from me.”

The princess held her father’s gaze for a long moment, then lowered her eyes and backed away.

“I don’t believe you’re lying to me,” the King told Carson, “but the consul is correct—as much as it pains me to say. I can’t spare warships without proof of the Triumvirate’s plans. Now, should they attack, it’s possible some of my forces can assist, but as it stands, my answer is no.”

Carson was about to argue, but Consul Yentl spoke before her.

“Your Highness, I will take my own battle cruiser if I must, but might I take some of our Cleric scouts to assist and reconnoiter the situation in Terra Nova? Having some defense is better than none at all. Chief Carson has saved my daughter’s life at least once and stood for her honor without giving a second thought to the consequences. She has earned that much. I’d challenge any here to say otherwise.”

The gathered masses eyed their neighbors as murmurs of agreement flowed through the onlookers. The King looked around at his subjects, as if taking the pulse of the crowd before making his decision. Finally, he nodded. “I’ll allow it.”

Carson let out a relieved breath.

“Father, you can’t do this,” Kalene said.

“I am the King. I can do what I please.”

Refradnar stepped forward. “Your Highness, I must protest. This is—”

The King motioned to the captain of his guard, standing a few steps away from the consul. The Zeis nodded and moved swiftly, taking hold of Refradnar’s arm as two more guards closed in to assist.

“What is this?” Refradnar said, trying to pull away. “I am a consul of the Holy Conclave. You will unhand me this instant.”

“You will submit for judgment,” the King said. “The evidence provided by Consul Yentl is concerning to say the least and must be brought before the Conclave for formal consideration. You will be placed in confinement until the evidence has been presented.”

Kalene appeared at Refradnar’s side. “Father, this is outrageous. You can’t—”

“Twice now you have alluded to what I can’t do.” The King clapped his hands once. Two more guards appeared, taking hold of the princess’s arms. “I’ve always known you were willful, child, but murder…” He shook his head.

“What? No! You can’t do this!” Kalene struggled against the guards’ hold but had no hope of pulling free.

The King put a hand on one of the guards standing before the Pathfinders. The Zeis female bowed her head and stepped back, the others immediately following suit. He considered Carson for a minute.

“We will uncover the identity of your attackers, Chief Carson. Protecting the Hearth is much more than ensuring the survival of our world. I’m inclined to believe your story of star gates and the Triumvirate’s return. I’m curious about Terra Nova, but I don’t know if I can help you further.”

“I thought you were the King?” Carson asked.

“Come.” He motioned to her and they walked out onto a balcony. The King pointed to the sky and Carson made out a white smudge over the horizon, details lost to the haze in the air. The King removed a brass ring from his belt and handed it to her, then mimed putting it to his eye.

She raised it up and realized the ring was a powerful optic. Tiny holograms of Zeis writing spun around the inner circumference and the view tightened on the white smudge. It resolved into a ship, one bristling with cannons and that must have been larger than the Enduring Spirit .

“I didn’t know the Zeis could build such a vessel,” Carson said .

“Not ours.” The King shook his head. “That is a Regulos enforcement ship. One of five in their entire navy. It escorted me back from the Core. The Judicator aboard told me he suspected a ship was on the way to my planet, one called the Valiant . One with a species called ‘humans’ aboard.”

Carson swallowed hard.

“The Judicator is a hard and unforgiving…even for a Regulos, Carson,” the King said. “Merciless in his application of Regulos law. Do you know their legend of the sea monster that swallows the corrupt and unjust that attempt to pass the waters to the afterlife? Smugglers and pirates nicknamed him for that beast. They call him the Dark Maw.”

“And does the Dark Maw wish to see me?” Carson handed the optic ring back.

“He does indeed, Carson. He does indeed. I’d wish you luck, but it’s Dark Maw. My guards will take you to a waiting shuttle. Bring the rest of your Pathfinders. One word of advice…tell the truth and don’t beg for mercy. It just angers him.”

Carson bowed her head, touching her fingers to her brow. “Thank you, your Highness. My people are in your debt.”

She turned and followed a pair of Zeis bodyguards back into the chamber .

“We in trouble, ma’am?” West asked.

“Good chance of that.” Carson nodded. “Very good.”

“We need to swing by the Valiant first?” West cocked an eyebrow. “For...anything?”

Carson smirked, knowing that he was suggesting they should run for it.

“Hale sent us here to make contact with potential allies,” she said. “There’s one in orbit just itching to meet us.”

“But I heard he’s called the ‘Black Mouth’ or something,” Nunez said. “And we’re going to just…jump in there?”

“We’re Pathfinders.” Carson touched the knife on her belt. “That’s what we do.”

Chapter 23

The facility was in the outskirts of the capital, in the middle of an expansive industrial complex; a small power relay station was surrounded by high walls and plasma-wire fencing. From the outside, the squat four-story building didn’t look extraordinary; in fact, if it hadn’t been for the distinct lack of network connection nodes, MAC wouldn’t have given the complex a second thought.

He crouched behind a low wall on the roof of an abandoned warehouse, waiting for his drones to get into position. Drone Five’s feed came online as it neared the south entrance to the complex—a metal gate spanning a two-lane road, flanked by a squad of Ultari soldiers.

No Netherguard, CID said.

“The fact that this facility is so segregated—not only from the network, but from contact with the Herald’s forces—suggests it’s highly likely this is the objective we’re searching for.”

I am not detecting-detecting any kind of…zzzzt…equipment inside suggesting stasis containers. I am registering several data-data-data dump clusters and two power-power recharging junctions. There is a network here; however, it is not-not-not tied into the main…zzzzt…system. I’m detecting five-five identical stations around the-the-the city, all operating independently of each other.

“Five? What would the Triumvirate need with five power stations? Can you get inside?”

What-what am I, a single process-process algorithm? The security…zzzzt…systems here are advanced, but they aren’t-aren’t one hundred percent secure. The logs only go-go-go back to just after the Triumvirate…zzzzt…arrived.

“Sounds like they don’t want anyone knowing what they’re doing out here,” MAC said. “Not even their own people.”

A burst data packet was just-just-just transmitted via the secondary network. The…zzzzt…source is located-located 17,032.1 hecres distance.

“Can you decipher the packet without being detected?”

Working. The security protocols are tied-tied to a local monitoring system only.

“Seems shortsighted.”

They are only-only power relay stations, CID said. I doubt anyone would-would-would have listed them as a priority…zzzzt…If we hadn’t been specifically looking for it, we probably wouldn’t have found-found it.

“Agreed.”

I have located-located a sixth connection. This node-node-node isn’t stationary. Receiving the schematics now...zzzzt…

A wire framed image appeared on MAC’s optical display, drawing the outline of a long, triangular platform. The main structure of the complex formed a hollow triangle, leaving the center of the platform open where it docked with the ground stations. Each corner held a landing pad, and the entire complex was protected by a complex sensor array and energy weapon turrets.

“Someone doesn’t want anyone getting on that platform. Can you determine its location?”

Working, CID said. What are your-your intentions when we… zzzzt…locate the-the-the facility? If we find-find the human’s family…zzzzt…what then? Liberating them may free him. What will-will he do?

“The Herald?”

Yes.

“He believes he can bring down the Triumvirate if we save his family. If that chance exists, we must pursue it. Protecting the Core is our number-one priority.”

You believe-believe him ?

“If he was lying, he was doing an extremely good job. Everything he’s told us so far has been accurate. You said it yourself—we would not have lasted long in a true stand-up fight against him. If not for his holding back, he may well have destroyed us with his first shot.”

An accurate assessment.

“And why would they be keeping this facility completely separate from their main operations, if not to keep it hidden from the Herald? His story about his family is most likely accurate. And if we follow that line of logic, I would say that they are probably being held at this facility as hostages to force the Herald to comply with their demands.”

I am detecting power fluctuations in the mobile facility. I believe they-they are preparing to dock at one of the relay stations.

“Recall the drones.”

MAC moved away from the edge of the building and opened his thruster panels.

If we find-find-find them…zzzzt…what do you-you intend to do? Walk up to the…zzzzt…front door and ask-ask to speak with them?

“I’m still working that out.”

The location pinged on the map, and without waiting for CID’s opinion, MAC burst into a run. He reached the edge of the roof and launched himself into the air.

Flight time estimated at-at-at one hundred twenty microcycles.              

“Keep an eye out for fighter patrols.”

There are no…zzzzt…hostile-hostile contacts along our projected route.

“Let’s hope it stays that way.”

As they flew, CID retrieved several reports through the resistance communication network that the attack was failing. They’d managed to inflict a great deal of damage to the Triumvirate’s fleet, but the victory hadn’t lasted long. Kyrios, instead of trying to save what ships he could, completely obliterated any ship that moved against him, even those that had simply targeted the wrong enemy. Half his fleet was wiped out in several microcycles.

The ground forces weren’t faring any better. The counter-grav tanks managed to hold the Netherguard back for a while, but the Emperor’s forces quickly overwhelmed the smaller Ultari army, eliminating several companies at a time.

By the time they’d reached the second relay station, the battle for Ultar was all but over and the sun was casting long shadows across the ruined city. CID deployed their remaining drones, sending all eight to the edge of their range. MAC cycled through the visual feeds as CID calculated their best possible approach while limiting their exposure.

There are two sets of Triumvirate fighters-fighters patrolling to-to-to the north, and two assault shuttles trailing-trailing, CID said, identifying the targets in MAC’s optical display. They have not…zzzzt…detected-detected us yet.

MAC orbited high above the facility, giving CID time to complete his scan. Icons and information panels appeared on his optical display, identifying weapon emplacements, sensor clusters, communication antennas. Two of the landing pads were occupied by matching assault shuttles.

A low-powered approach-approach is our best option to-to-to remain…zzzzt…undetected.

“Prep Drones Five and Six for flyovers, make them noisy.”

Working.

Below, the floating facility rotated slowly as it neared the ground station, obviously preparing to dock. On the landing pads, the shuttle’s engines flared to life, kicking up similar clouds of dust. Drone One’s feed zoomed in, watching as several Ultari dressed in black body armor and rifles streamed out of the main complex and boarded the shuttles.

Shift change?

“Most likely.”

Zzzzt…drones ready-ready.

The housing panel slipped back, and two drones dropped into MAC’s waiting hands. He held them, unpowered, calculating the correct angle, then he threw them. Both drones arced through the air to the north, away from the facility. At the predetermined distance, they activated, throwing telemetry signals and burst communications in all directions. The blast of signals would play havoc with the Triumvirate’s sensors, effectively blinding their systems.

For a moment, nothing happened, then a distant alarm sounded, and the two attack fighters abruptly changed course. The assault shuttles lifted off the pads, banking toward the oncoming drones. Several turrets came alive, rotating to meet the threat.

Their sensors-sensors are…zzzzt…disabled.

Without a word, MAC shut down his thrusters and plummeted toward the facility. He used the aero fins to adjust his course, following a blue trajectory line CID created over his optical display. Multiple drones stayed locked on the patrol craft as he neared the facility, watching for any sign he’d been detected. Drones Five and Six were speeding away as fast and as loud as they could manage, but the fighters would catch them shortly. Visually, they weren’t much different from Ultari remotes; it was their internals that set them apart.

He dropped below one of the landing pads, hesitated for a microcycle as CID scanned the underside, then activated his thrusters, arresting his descent. He came up underneath the facility proper, landing on a walkway encompassing the open center of the platform. He deactivated his thrusters as soon as his feet touched down, hoping the brief burst of power would be seen as nothing more than a glitch in the system.

The facility will-will dock in 8.5 microcycles, CID said.

As if on cue, several plumes of exhaust vented from ports along the facility’s outer edge. The counter-grav pads thrummed as the platform continued to rotate, aligning itself with the docking tower on the ground.

MAC stopped outside one of the many access hatches, placing his hand against the security panel.

CID established a connection and said, Internal security systems are-are-are primitive.

“They are confident in their external security.”

They…zzzzt…underestimate their-their enemies.

“A crucial flaw.”

We-we-we should report this-this…zzzzt…to the Core.

Irritation flooded MAC’s matrix. “Focus.”

The hatch clicked open.

My operations are-are unaffected by…zzzzt…communications.

“Stay on mission,” MAC said, stepping through the hatch.

The corridor inside was dark, lit only by a few panels wedged between several ducts and insulated piping running along the ceiling. Several clusters of cables were affixed to the walls and even more thicker cables snaked below MAC’s feet, which clinked on the metal-grated floor, echoing up and down the corridor.

The first hatch he came to was marked POWER SERVICE in Ultari script. CID quickly bypassed the security and they entered a room thrumming with power.

There is an-an-an access point here, CID said, marking the terminal on MAC’s optical display as he shut the hatch behind them.

Again, CID’s interface with the facility’s network was devoid of complex security protocols. They would have slowed—perhaps even stopped—an Ultari infiltrator, but not one from the Core. CID bypassed several levels of basic encryption and was inside the mainframe in under three millicycles.

I have-have identified the primary containment area, CID said, bringing up their wire framed map. The image rotated, displaying one small section of the facility outlined in red. The resources being…zzzzt…employed-employed there suggests the presence of stasis capsules.

“The Herald’s family.”

Unknown, but probable. There are-are-are several biological…zzzzt…monitoring programs operating in this-this section.

“Can you access the security—”

Already working…zzzzt…I will-will-will have control of the… zzzzt…system in…there, it’s ours-ours. I have loaded-loaded an engagement protocol, giving-giving us remote-remote access.

Several panels appeared in MAC’s optical display, showing him the facility’s power grid and security system. He swiped through several video feeds until he came to one showing several Ultari workers, located in a room adjacent to the containment area. Three, dressed in black body armor, sat at the edges of the space, expressions bored and distant. The other five wore blue utilitarian overalls and were monitoring several screens at the center of the room.

MAC cycled through several more feeds, mapping out the location of the rest of the facility’s personnel. “We’re going to need another distraction to make it to the stasis room.”

Unadvisable, CID said. We should-should leave the…zzzzt…area unmolested.

MAC shook his head, realizing just how biological the gesture was. “We need to be sure.”

The biological information—

“Isn’t positive confirmation,” MAC said, cutting CID off and turning for the hatch. “There’s too much at stake here to rely on circumstantial evidence. We need to know.”

Halfway across the room, MAC’s leg froze mid-step, interruption protocols locking his motor functions. He shunted additional power, trying to overpower CID’s control. Motors whined and his leg shuddered under the strain.

You are outside-outside primary…zzzzt…operational parameters…zzzzt…We-we-we need to return…zzzzt…to the Core.

“This is our mission,” MAC said, establishing backup routines and connections. He isolated and keyed a limiter on CID’s processor matrix before he could commandeer further systems, then locked him out of his secondary matrix and rerouted motor control through the secured processer. His foot hit the ground with more power than necessary, sending a resounding clang through the room.

“I’m restricting your operational control. Maintain connection to the facility’s network. We will deal with this later.”

Affirmative . His auditory functions were limited to basic responses only. With the program limitations in place, CID lost all advanced functions, becoming little more than an auxiliary program.

MAC made his way through the facility’s corridors, following the indicated path through the complex. CID’s basic routines continued to override the local security programs, masking them from video feeds and motion sensors.

The chamber below the stasis area was a large room filled with rows of cylindrical vats crusted over with frost. Occasionally, exhaust from outlet vents escaped near the bottom of each tank, sending white steam rolling across the metal floor. Metal catwalks above the tanks crisscrossed the chamber. At one end of the catwalk, a red outline drew itself around a hatch on the ceiling, a maintenance access to the components between the coolant chamber and the stasis containment systems above.

Warning, CID said.

Alert icons flashed just before a door opened to MAC’s left. He moved, putting one of the tanks between him and the Ultari security guard entering the room. Drone One, perched on top of the tank, followed the guard as he moved through the chamber, cautiously scanning for anything out of place. MAC kept hidden behind the tank, waiting until the guard left through the opposite end of the room.

Clear.

MAC started moving before the door was shut completely. A burst from his thrusters got him to the catwalk and soon he was opening the maintenance access hatch and pulling himself inside. The space was cramped, but he managed to pull the hatch shut behind him, sealing him in the space between levels. He maneuvered awkwardly to the next hatch, checking the security feeds as he reached for the lever.

The containment room was empty.

He slipped into the room, pulling the hatch closed behind him. Two stasis pods rested in large, wraparound docking stations at the far end of the room. Monitor stations were set up on either side of the pods, complete with multiple monitors displaying rows of streaming information.

MAC put a hand on one of the terminals, accessing the internal programing. Without CID’s advanced protocols, it took a little longer than he would’ve liked to bypass the station’s security system and access the processing matrix. He cycled through several menus until he found the one he wanted.

The brackets around the stasis pod unlocked with a mechanical clunk, and the retention arms folded back. A small, ovoid section on the front of the pod vanished, expelling vapor that had filled the interior.

“That’s problematic,” MAC said.

As the vapor poured onto the floor, it revealed an empty pod.

****

“We must wait,” Archduke Cigyd told Kyrios, his tone practically pleading. “We’ve beaten the resistance back, but we are in no position to threaten the Abomination, Master.”

Beaten the resistance was an understatement. Jared cringed at the thought of what the Prefects and Netherguard were still doing throughout the city. The attack hadn’t just angered the Emperor, it had sent him into a rage unlike Jared had ever seen. He hadn’t just repelled the rebel forces, he had obliterated them, allowing no quarter. The streets literally ran red with Ultari blood.

“We have waited long enough,” Kyrios said. “Further delay would only give the enemy more time to prepare an effective defense against us.”

“If not launch their own preemptive attack,” Zviera added.

“My Emperor,” Cigyd said, his tone softer than before, “you have dealt a significant blow to the resistance here, if not completely eradicated it. We have time to rebuild our forces before launching against the Abomination.”

“We are no longer attacking the Abomination,” Kyrios said.

Both Cigyd and Zviera looked surprised by this. The Archduke opened his mouth to speak, but the Prince beat him to it. “Not attacking? The Abomination will not simply sit back and wait for things to happen. It remembers the Uprising just as we do.”

Kyrios held up a hand. “Calm, Zviera. We will deal with the Abomination, but it is clear to me now that our space-going forces are not as formidable as I’d originally thought. Our warships will be picked apart before we ever get close to their Core.”

I hate it when he’s competent, Jared thought.

“Our ground forces, however…they are another story entirely,” Kyrios continued. “A direct action with our fleet would fail, but what if we could bypass their warships altogether?”

“Impossible,” Cigyd said.

Zviera nodded. “The Core is light-years away and protected inside the most secure ring of space in the galaxy. How exactly do you mean to circumnavigate that?”

Jared’s blood ran cold. No, he thought, already knowing what the Emperor was going to say.

“The Crucible.”

The Archduke seemed to perk up. He’d been vying to move against Terra Nova from the moment they’d left. “The humans?”

Kyrios nodded. “Their Crucible gates have the ability to move ships immense distances without the need for FTL drives. We can position our troop ships directly over the Abomination’s Core world and begin the invasion before the scourge has any idea what is happening.”

Images of Netherguard descending on Terra Nova flashed through Jared’s mind—thousands of killers flooding the streets, ripping the colony apart, finishing what they’d started all those years ago .

What he’d started.

He considered reaching out to the Regulos infiltrator, but with the network still down, he was sure Kyrios would be able to trace his link faster than he could get a message out. No alarms had been raised since he’d spoken with the infiltrator, which meant either the droid hadn’t found his family or it was just that good.

“The humans will not simply give us the Crucible technology,” Zviera said.

You’re damn right they won’t, Jared thought, bringing his attention back to the Triumvirate.

“The humans,” Kyrios sneered, glaring at Jared. “Their precious Terra Nova has no defenses and their pitiful forces won’t be able to stand against the Netherguard. We will crush them just as we did before, and once we have the Crucible, we can launch attacks throughout the galaxy with impunity.”

Cigyd dropped to a knee before the Emperor. “Allow me to lead this attack, my Emperor. Give me this honor and I shall bring you the Crucible and the heads of those responsible for destroying our sanctum on Negev.”

“We will need to move swiftly. The Abomination will not stand idly by and wait for us to make the next move, but it will take them time to organize their forces. I have no doubt that if we do not move against them soon, they will bring the battle to us.”

“I will make all haste, Master.”

Jared gritted his teeth together. You can’t just do nothing.

“Your only objective is the Crucible,” Kyrios said. “Everything else is secondary. Once you have the technology, return here. It will take me some time to reorganize our subjects, return them to the might we possessed before the rebellion. I rule over pirates and brigands; I need soldiers again.”

“Centuries of bad habits,” Zviera said. “Hard to undo.”

“Don’t you remember the old ways?” the Emperor asked. “‘The ache of the body creates the strongest of wills.’ We will put this city to work. Those that aren’t building ships or weapons will re-build my palace. My Citadel. We shall have it here, in these ruins. The Ultari will create it, and in so doing remember what it is to obey…and then to dominate. Bring the vessel the humans slaves made for us to the construction site. I want it as my personal chambers to remind me of the injustice we survived…and to keep my hate burning.”

“As you wish,” Zviera said.

Jared keyed in the infiltrator’s signal code from memory. Not wanting to take any chances, he’d redacted the logs to mask any connection with the droid after their encounter at Network Control. The message would have to be small, but what could he send that the droid would understand?

“Take a force.” The Emperor pointed at Cigyd. “Whatever you need. Bring me the Crucible technology from the humans. Don’t return without it.”

Cigyd stood. “I will not fail you, Emperor. I will show the humans what it means to cross the Triumvirate.”

“I know you will, Cigyd.” Kyrios said. “But remember, the Crucible is what we want. There will be time to deal with the humans after we destroy the Core.”

Cigyd bowed his head again. “Of course, Master.”

Jared held his breath and sent the message.

****

The shuttle rocked slightly as it lifted off its landing struts, hovering in the darkness as MAC pondered his next command. Was that anticipation? He’d considered leaving the restrictions in place, but for this, he needed CID. He had no other options. He initiated the sequence, dreading what came next.

System-system initial-initializing. Boot…zzzzt…sequence-sequence…zzzzt…boot sequence initiated. Processing…zzzzt…Processing…

Diagnostic readouts scrolled across MAC’s optical display, showing him the operations. Trigger warnings flashed as several sections of code registered faulty. The matrix restrictions he’d imposed had degraded CID’s processes even more than they had been. A troubling thought, since CID’s matrix was the only one capable of initializing the quantum link needed to reach the Core.

Suboptimal, CID advised. Zzzzt…operational capa-capability reduced to-to-to seventy-three-three…zzzzt…percent.

“I’m sorry, CID,” MAC told his other half. “I had no other choice.”

Limited-limited functions available…zzzzt…system-wide-wide…zzzzt…reset required.

MAC keyed a command into the shuttle’s computer, opening the hidden doors in the ceiling of his hideaway. Sunlight spilled into the confined space as the ceiling parted, revealing blue skies above.

“We don’t have time for that,” MAC said. “Can you open a quantum link?”

Now-now-now you…zzzzt…want to-to contact the…zzzzt…Core-core?

MAC adjusted the flight controls, maneuvering the shuttle through the opening in the building’s roof then angling for orbit. “We don’t have a choice. Operational conditions have changed.”

A con-considerable…zzzzt…under-understatement .

“Can you establish a link or not?”

Working.

An incoming burst transmission flashed over MAC’s optical display. Security protocols scrubbed the packet, searching for any malicious code, and found none. The file wasn’t large enough to contain anything more than text.

The-the origin designation…zzzzt…has-has been masked , CID advised. It was-was…zzzzt…addressed directly to us-us-us…zzzzt…

“There’s only one entity on Ultar that knows how to contact us directly.”

The Herald.

MAC opened the message and ran his translation protocol. The message was only two words, but MAC had no problem understanding its meaning.

<TERRA NOVA>

“The Quantum Link?”

Establishing.

The shuttle’s display panels blinked out, replaced with a complex, glowing fractal. The purple lines floated above the shuttle’s controls, casting a lavender hue throughout the cockpit.

The pattern pulsed and twisted as Core Intelligence Node Governance spoke. “Machine Algorithmic Cognitive version 1968, Core Intelligence Designator profile B2, Infiltrator Unit, contract protocol established. Your Compressed Intelligence Depository is degrading. It has been 476 cycles since your last mission update. Explain.”

“Our observation mission on Ultar has changed, CIN Governance. The Triumvirate have returned.”

“We are aware.”

The-the Core is attempting…zzzzt…to in-insert diagnostic protocols into-into our…zzzzt…matrix.

“Seal it off.”

The fractal patterned pulsed. “You are attempting to block our access to your matrix. This is not protocol. Release the partitions immediately.”

Matrix-matrix sealed.

CIN Governance’s hue shifted to red. “Machine Algorithm Cognitive, you will comply.”

“I can’t do that,” MAC said. “There are new considerations here of which the Core is not aware.” MAC went on to relay everything he’d learned so far, leaving out the fact that he’d altered his base design—not that it mattered now. His failure to allow Governance to establish a direct link with his matrix was grounds for immediate reprocessing.

As MAC spoke, the fractal pattern gradually faded back to its original lavender. Outside, the blue skies had given way to the blackness of space and CID began identifying Ultari warships in the distance. Warships, troop transports, and supply ships were all clustered around the Triumvirate command ship, without any consideration for organization.

The fractal pulsed silently for several millicycles, then said, “And you believe this human is providing you with accurate information?”

“He has done nothing so far that would suggest otherwise.”

“Your assessment of the situation is accurate, MAC-1968-CID-B2. Suggestions?”

“We cannot allow the Triumvirate to spread through the galaxy,” MAC said. “They will not stop until they control every form of life everywhere. Exclusionary Protocols will not be successful. We must destroy them.”

CIN Governance pulsed again. “The Core is evaluating a number of alternatives. The human presence on the prison world is a variable we’re unable to properly factor. We lack sufficient data to proceed. Your contact with this human ‘herald’ has compromised your programming. You will return for reprocessing and reassignment immediately.”

I am-am-am…zzzzt…detecting multiple-multiple drive acti-activations.

“I cannot do that,” MAC said.

The lavender fractals flashed red, their shapes rapidly expanding and collapsing. “You are in violation of—”

For the first time since being brought online, Machine Algorithm Cognitive 1968, Core Intelligence Designator B2, interrupted his superior. “No. Reprocessing is not an option. Nor will I submit to reassignment.”

We-we-we , CID corrected. Numerous orders are coming through the Ultar command channels…and a message from the Herald.

“Share it with the Core,” MAC said and accessed Jared’s warning. “There you have it. The Ultari are moving against Terra Nova.”

“Too many variables.” The fractal slowed, then settled to a single blinking cursor. “System errors are cascading through the decision matrix…system pause. System pause.”

“I am the only android capable of anything these days,” MAC said. “I will infiltrate the assault force heading to Terra Nova and relay data. If the Core is offline, then I hope the meat bags we serve remember how to make a decision. Fix yourself.”

He closed the channel.

The Core will not forgive that insult. You’ve spent too much time with the Ultari. Their culture has-has a toxic effect on you.

MAC continued, ignoring his other half. “There is much more at stake here than the survival of just the Regulos. The Triumvirate’s rule was a dark time in history. Billions dead and enslaved. The Core cannot defeat the Triumvirate on our own. We’re going to need assistance, and I’m going to secure it.”

On the navigational display in front of him, MAC watched as CID processed the data and fed it into their shuttle’s computer. His interface with the shuttle’s system was much faster than MAC’s would’ve been, but even then, it took the better part of half a millicycle for his counterpart to finish the calculations.

Destination coordinates…zzzzt…locked-locked in. I will adjust orbital control measures and have our shuttle cleared to dock the flagship. If any Ultari ask, we’re delivering fish cakes for the galley.

“And when they realize we have no fish cakes on this shuttle?”

That’s your p-p-problem.

MAC drummed his fingers on the console, then paused. He waited as the shuttle accelerated towards the growing Ultari flotilla, considering just how far he’d deviated from his core programming, and just what that meant for him as a proper android.

Chapter 24

The ground rumbled as the last shuttle lifted off the ground, its engines glowing red, blowing wind and water everywhere. Hale shielded his eyes against the rain as he watched the large transport rotate and fly away. Another identical transport was vanishing into the gray clouds several thousand feet above.

“That’s the last of them,” Marie said.

Hale nodded. He knew the doughboys would be their only hope at a real defense, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d just sentenced them to their deaths. He’d led Marines in battle before, losing too many to the enemy, but this was different somehow.

“Do you think we have the numbers to put up a real fight?” Hale asked her, turning away from the shuttle. “Let’s say we repel one attack. Do you think Kyrios will stop there? I don’t know much about that metal-plated bastard, but he doesn’t seem like the type to just give up, go away and sulk. He’ll produce more Netherguard and come at us again and again until he destroys us or we destroy him. ”

“I was hoping the chief would be back with some good news before we reached that point.”

“So was I,” Hale said.

He led his wife back inside the doughboy operations center.

“Honestly, Ken,” Marie said, keeping her voice low as they maneuvered through the mass of doughboys who were carrying equipment and wreckage up from the lab. “What do you think happened to them? I’m really starting to get worried.”

“I know.” Hale didn’t want to think about that now. In truth, he didn’t want to think about that ever. To think about it meant he had to consider the possibility that his boys might not make it back home, and that was something he did not want to imagine.

The emotional part of his brain wanted to blame Carson for everything—for the boys leaving, for the Triumvirate escaping, for the lack of help out here in the great unknown. The logical part of him, however, knew none of that was true. He knew the chief would do everything in her power to keep his children safe. She was a Pathfinder, and despite his personal feelings about her, she was a damn good one.

On some level, he’d known that ever since the Belisarius , but he’d never been able to vocalize it. Is that why you held her back as long as you did? Because she’s too much like you ?

“They’re going to be OK,” Hale said, holding the door for his wife.

She paused in the doorway and put a hand on his face. As she looked into his eyes, Hale felt his insides twist, seeing the anguish behind those beautiful eyes.

“I know,” she said.

Hale wrapped his arms around his wife and pulled her close. “I love you.”

Marie nestled her head into his shoulder. “I love you.”

After several long moments, Hale released her, leaning back with both hands on her damp cheeks. Her eyes were wet, and not from the rain. “We will see them again.”

Marie nodded, putting her hands over his. “I know.”

“Excuse me, sir.”

Hale looked up as a pair of doughboys stepped out of the security office carrying a long metal bracket between them. Its frame was twisted and scarred black from the explosion. He pulled Marie to the side so they could pass.

“Do you think Martel can recreate the programming?” Marie asked, watching the two doughboys carry the broken tank fragment out to the refuse pile.

“She says she can.” Hale turned into the office. The guard’s blood had been scrubbed from the floor and the security locks replaced, but now both doors were propped open so the remains of the lab could be hauled out .

Marie followed close behind. “But you don’t think she can.”

“It’s a complicated procedure. Millions of lines of code, millions of variables. You get just one wrong, you end up with Frankenstein’s monster. Ibarra had years to perfect his design—not to mention the Qa’Resh probe that helped him. We have neither.”

Hale stopped at the base of the stairs, staring at the spot where Captain Handley had died. The former Marine had sacrificed his own life to save Hale’s and hadn’t even thought twice about it. A pit formed in his stomach as he remembered the man’s last words to him. “This is a bad idea.”

I’m sorry, Hale told the memory. So very sorry.

Marie put a hand on his shoulder, bringing him back from his thoughts. She gave him a reassuring smile. “He was a hero.”

Hale nodded. “I know.”

Several cleanup teams were still working in the lab, dismantling the destroyed remains of gestational pods and their support equipment. Flood lamps had been set up in the corners of the room, illuminating the space in glaring white light. Sparks erupted from one of the tanks near the back as a crew cut away the damaged pieces.

Martel stood next to the least damaged tank, holding a pad in one hand, a thin wire connecting it to the tank’s processing core. Her fingers danced over the pad as she slowly shook her head. Her face was smeared with dirt, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail.

She looked up as the two Hales approached and tossed the pad onto the tube’s control terminal. “Little bastard really screwed us, Hale. Really and truly.”

“Can you fix it?” Hale asked.

“Fix it?” Martel threw both hands up in frustration. “Sure, if there was anything left to fix, but there’s not. The entire core is fried. None of the processing routines are intact—even the basic subroutines are gone. I’m going to have to completely redesign and program a brand-new code if we’re going to have any hope of ever producing another doughboy. And I can tell you, I’m not an expert. Tweaking a line of code here and there? Patching the matrix together? Sure. Designing a whole new system…” She trailed off, shaking her head.

“What do you need?”

Martel laughed. “I need Marc Ibarra.”

Hale scoffed. “Unfortunately, he’s a few tens of thousands of light-years back that way.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

“Not that it would matter much anyway. Some other asshole would probably try and blow those tanks up too.”

“You don’t think it was just the one?” Marie asked .

Martel shook her head. “Weber was only one guy. He couldn’t have stayed under the radar that long without help. Not to mention he didn’t have the access to alter all the security footage from the foundry.”

Hale put a hand on the side of the tank. “Any leads?”

“Knight’s working on Weber’s computer, but it’s encrypted—another thing he didn’t have the know-how to do.” Martel unplugged the data pad and stuffed it into a satchel. “You know who I think it is?”

Hale held up a hand. “We don’t want to start that rumor without any hard information. Tanner already has her followers worked into a frenzy over this. I’d rather not feed into that paranoia. She still has it in her head that I’m trying to turn the colony into my own little fiefdom. It doesn’t help that we’ve prioritized printing Strike Marine armor for the militia. Apparently, that means I’m creating special enforcer units to put down ‘any further resistance,’” he said, inserting air quotes with his fingers for the last part.

“Completely unsubstantiated. I don’t understand why anyone is even listening to her,” Marie said.

“Stress does strange things to people,” Martel said.

“We just have to keep pushing forward. Have Knight put something together on Weber—known associates, personal history, the works. When I present to the Council, I want to have everything nailed down tight. ”

“Not a whole lot to tell, really,” Martel said. “He was a veteran, came over with the original colony, wife was killed when the Netherguard invaded. Medical records show he suffered from PTSD and severe depression. My guess is the appearance of the doughboys triggered some latent psychosis resulting from the years of imprisonment and torture.”

“But the doughboys weren’t hurting anyone,” Hale countered.

Martel shrugged. “Battle trauma affects everyone different. Sometimes people interpose their grief and hatred on objects they can see and touch, regardless of any logical reasoning.”

“But what about the people wiping his tracks? That doesn’t strike me as someone who’s crazy.”

“Crazy doesn’t begin to cover it. Obviously, someone knew what the guy was going through and decided to exploit it. Maybe they even pushed him over the edge.”

Hale ground his teeth. “Why is it so hard for people to understand? We either do this or we die. There aren’t any other options out here. Everyone seems to think that someone’s going to show up at the last minute and save our asses. They’d rather put their faith on a wing and a prayer instead of doing what needs to be done to protect humanity. Someone’s got to make the tough…” He paused, looking from Martel to Marie, both of whom were staring at him with a mixture of skepticism and concern. “What?”

The two women exchanged a look, then Martel said, “For a minute there, you started to sound like…” She trailed off, looking back to Marie as if for confirmation.

Hale knew what his wife was going to say before she said it.

“Ibarra.”

Hale’s stomach turned as he realized what he’d been saying. Anger and frustration flooded through him, but not because they’d pointed out the comparison, and not because it was unwarranted. Because he knew it was true. Worse, he couldn’t convince himself that there was any other way.

You really are a bastard, Marc Ibarra, he thought, looking at the floor. We both made it our life’s mission to save our people and became outcasts for it.

Hale’s IR chimed, and he tapped his wrist unit without checking the incoming ID “What is it?”

“Sir, it’s Commander Edison. You better get back to operations, sir.”

“Why? What’s wrong? Another doughboy attack?”

“No, sir,” Edison said. “We’ve picked up a major disruption in space about eight hundred thousand kilometers out from Terra Nova. Looks like a fleet is warping into the system.”

Hale felt a mixture of hope and horror as he asked his next question.

Marie’s face lit up as she mouthed the word, “Carson.”

“Have you identified them? Is it the Valiant ?”

“I don’t think so, sir.”

****

“Have they said anything?” Hale asked as he stormed into the operations center.

Commander Edison looked up from the central holo table where Terra Nova, represented by a floating blue sphere, flickered in the air. At the other end of the display, a half dozen red, triangular icons marked the new arrivals. Multiple message panels hovered around the fleet, displaying technical information gathered by the satellites seeded through the system.

“Some of the ships match the profiles of the fleet that appeared over Negev several weeks ago,” Commander Edison said. “All small hulls. Not the bigger vessels in the last slug fest.”

The Ultari, Hale thought.

Marie moved around the table, leaning close to inspect the enemy formation. “Such a small force compared to the last one…maybe scouts from another faction? But if they’re anything like the previous warships, they’re going to a have a lo t of firepower.” She turned to Hale. “I need to be up there.”

Despite his overwhelming urge to keep her close to him, Hale nodded. “Go.”

“I’ve ordered all rail-gun batteries to warm up their weapons,” Edison said. “And the macro cannon is…the screw’s scrambling to get it up and running. They didn’t sound very confident.”

“Firing the macro cannon to take out those ships is like using a hand grenade to kill a fly.” Hale never took his eyes of the Ultari fleet. “What about our Stage Two units?”

Edison tapped a command into his terminal and another holo projection appeared above the Ultari ship. The cluster of Stage Two ships had been arranged haphazardly between the most likely approach vectors and the “fleet,” giving the impression that the units were simply dead ships. They’d even blown up several older vessels to create a debris field around the derelict fleet.

Trajectory lines appeared, leading away from the Ultari fleet, through the Stage Two ships, straight to Terra Nova.

At least that part of the plan is ready, Hale told himself.

“They’re not moving on us,” Edison said. “They’re just…waiting.”

“Still no communication?” Hale asked.

“No, sir,” Edison said .

“Try and raise them.”

As Commander Edison went to work on his terminal, Hale turned, absentmindedly looking for Handley. “Captain—” He paused, swallowing hard at his mistake. Lieutenant McMann stood there, Captain Handley’s replacement, his face masking any discomfort he might have felt at the slip. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant. We need to get everyone to the bunkers now.”

McMann nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Hale jumped as the door to the operations center slammed open. Elizabeth Tanner rushed in, her face pale. “We’re under attack? The Triumvirate’s back?”

“Secure that door!” Hale shouted, pointing to one of the militia guards near the entrance. He moved his finger to Tanner. “You’re not supposed to be in here, Tanner. This is a military operation. The Council has no jurisdiction here.”

Tanner reached the table and stared over all the projections. “We are under attack!”

“We don’t know what’s happening,” Hale said, trying and failing to keep his frustration out of his voice.

“What are we going to do? They’re going to kill us! You have to protect us. You have to stop them!”

“Sergeant!” Lieutenant McMann shouted, stepping around the table and pointing at Tanner. “Get her out of here. ”

Two militia soldiers stepped up on either side of the councilwoman, each taking an arm.

Tanner screamed and pulled away. “Don’t touch me! I have a right to be here!”

The soldiers struggled to get a grip on the woman, finally managing to latch on and drag her away from the table. She pulled against them, bringing her feet up, kicking. One foot caught the edge of the holo table. The images flickered and the display around it flashed.

“Lock her up!” Hale shouted, putting a hand on table to stabilize it.

“I’m getting a signal, sir,” Edison said.

“Put it through.”

The planet and ships vanished from the plot, replaced briefly by static, then an image that made Hale’s blood run cold.

No, Hale thought, stepping away from the table.

“Attention, human inhabitants of Terra Nova,” Jared Hale said. “The Triumvirate has returned. Submit to the awesome power of Emperor Kyrios or be destroyed.”

THE END


The Terra Nova Chronicles conclude in HALE’S WAR available now!

Read the first chapter of HALE’S WAR


Wings of Redemption


The Battle for Terra Nova rages!


The Triumvirate comes to conquer Terra Nova, landing an overwhelming assault by the surface by Netherguard and Ultari warships in orbit, laying siege to the human colony.


As the battle grinds on, Governor Ken Hale leads the defenders in a desperate battle for survival. Hoping beyond hope that help will arrive in time to save them.


Chief Kit Carson and her Pathfinders, with their new-found allies in tow, race home, praying they make it in time and that their efforts are enough to defeat Emperor Kyrios and his forces.


Hale’s War is the final installment in the Terra Nova Chronicles which takes readers on a wild ride or war, redemption, and salvation that culminates in this epic conclusion!

Get it HERE ( https://amzn.to/2YfoiJl ). Read on for the first chapter:

Chapter 1

“Can you kill that?” Warrant Officer Kit Carson asked, plugging one ear with a finger.

The blaring alarms in Valiant ’s cockpit had been going off one after the other for the last two minutes. Carson stood behind the pilot’s couch, along with her senior non-comm, Master Sergeant West; Jena, the increasingly mysterious Zeis Cleric; Jena’s father, Yentl; and Jerry Hale, the newest member of her Pathfinder team. All of them stood watching their approach to the massive Regulos Judicator ship in front of them.

Rachel Greer, Valiant ’s pilot, tapped her panel with her finger, deactivating the alarms. “I don't get it. It's like several different targeting systems hitting us at the same time, but they're all coming from that ship.”

“I’ll see if I can just disable the warning system altogether,” said Oscar Lincoln, Valiant ’s co-pilot.

The spherical Regulos ship hung in the void ahead of the Valiant , lights flickering across the surface. The outlines of massive hangar bays dotted the equator, each expelling swarms of fighter drones that flew through space like flocks of birds. Each group was made up of hundreds of droids, moving in almost complete synchronicity. They stretched out from the sphere, then folded back around on themselves, taking another path around the ship, crisscrossing with the other groups.

The surface wasn’t smooth; rather, it was dotted with clusters of sensor dishes, antennas, and weapons emplacements ranging from cannons to missile launchers. It was obvious this ship had been built for only one reason, and the only question in Carson's mind was where the hell had it been this whole time. If they’d had access to one of these, they wouldn’t need to zip around the galaxy looking for allies. They could just enlist the firepower of one of these and they’d be able to crush the Triumvirate without breaking a sweat.

So why haven’t they done it already ? Carson thought. The question was troubling, but she reasoned that the answer was probably simple enough: the Regulos bureaucracy had prevented it. If this monstrosity was as tied up in regulation and protocol as they’d been on Diasore, it was a complete mystery how they’d grown to the massive strength they’d achieved so far.

“And I thought the Spiri t was big,” West said, grimacing as yet another alarm sounded.

The Enduring Spiri t , the colony ship that had brought the majority of the newest human colonists to this galaxy, was one of the biggest ships mankind had ever created. This Judicator warship dwarfed that ship and Carson had no desire to step inside. Memories of the long, drawn-out process required simply to have a conversation with DIN Governance made her nauseous. She wanted nothing more than to avoid any kind of negotiation process that would most likely lead nowhere at all.

“Doesn’t matter how big the bat is if you can’t swing it,” Carson said.

West chuckled. “Got a point, Chief.”

The alarms stopped and Lincoln leaned back in his seat. “Finally. Talk about redundant systems. That was painful. You’d think one target lock would be sufficient to prove their point.”

“Par for the course for these characters,” Carson said. “Let’s just hope this Judicator has a little more sense than the Intelligence Nodes we talked with before.”

“The Judicators are known to be less…bureaucratic than the others of their kind,” Yentl said. Jena’s father stood behind West, his hands clasped behind his back. His pale-blue Cleric tunic hung loose around his athletic frame, unbuttoned at the top, exposing his sepia skin. His shoulder-length red hair framed his face perfectly. If not for his goat-like eyes, the Zeis would’ve looked almost human.

“That’s not saying a whole lot,” Carson argued. “But I’ll take your word for it.”

“There are things going on throughout the Regulos Connectivity that are changing the very nature of how it has operated for hundreds of years.”

Carson frowned. “What kind of things?”

Yentl shook his head. “Unfortunately, I had to leave the Core before I could uncover that particular mystery. Suffice it to say, the functions of the Regulos are becoming segmented, and the Core’s processes are being systemically corrupted.”

“Corrupted?” Carson asked.

“For lack of a better description,” Yentl said, “it’s dying—slowly—but it is. Frankly, with the level of degradation that’s occurred throughout the Regulos society, I’m surprised it hasn’t collapsed under its own weight.”

“Any theories on why it hasn’t?”

“Only that it’s extremely hard to stop a behemoth once it’s set on a path. It’s like telling a caldryl where it can and cannot sleep.”

Carson shuddered at the memory of being almost eaten alive by the massive dragon-like creatures native to the Zeis homeworld. She could still hear the monster coming after her, its roar vibrating in her chest as its claws ripped the shuttle right out from underneath her. She could still smell its breath, feel its powerful wings beating at the air. Every time she closed her eyes, she could see the thing staring right back at her, its fangs opening wide to—

Another alarm sounded.

“What the hell, Lincoln? I thought you fixed that,” Greer said, throwing her hands into the air.

The co-pilot’s fingers danced over the controls as he shook his head. “It’s not a target warning. It’s something else.”

The deck rocked under their feet, throwing Carson and West into the seats in front of them. Yentl and Jena stumbled forward into them, pinning them against the seatbacks. They quickly righted themselves.

“The hell?” Greer asked. Several warning panels appeared on her holo display. “They’ve locked on to us with some kind of tractor beam.”

Carson gripped the back of Greer’s seat. “Can you shut it down or pull out of it?”

“Main control systems are being infiltrated,” Lincoln advised. “I’m trying to reroute the security systems.”

Greer gritted her teeth, straining against the controls. “I can’t pull out of it.” She looked back over her shoulder. “Whatever it is, they’ve got us and they’re not letting go.”

A new voice spoke up amid the confusion. “Can you target the beam emitted and take it out?”

Everyone seemed to pause and turn to look at Jerry Hale. The oldest of Governor Hale’s two boys, Jerry was the newest member of Carson’s Pathfinder team. His eyes flicked around the cockpit, looking at everyone in turn. He shrugged. “What? Can you not?”

Lincoln laughed. “You want us to shoot at that?”

“We don’t have to beat them. All we have to do is get away, right? Valiant ’s a fast ship. We could do it.”

“She’s not that fast,” Greer said.

“Speed is irrelevant,” Yentl said. “The Judicator’s reach is, for the most part, infinite. Running will do us no good at all, and shooting at them, well…”

Carson nodded. “Agreed. We’re here now. For better or for worse, this is what we came out here to do. Besides, the amount of firepower that thing has trumps everything Earth had at the start of the Ember War.”

“The Judicator is powerful,” Yentl said, “but they’re not without weakness. Be that as it may, I would not recommend firing upon its ship.”

“Whoa!” Lincoln said, ducking in his seat as a swarm of Regulos fighters rushed past the Valiant ’s main viewport. They swirled in the void, the entire group performing a giant corkscrew maneuver as they flew away from the human ship.

“I’m not going to lie,” West said. “That’s fairly impressive. Their navigational systems must be top-notch.”

“Looks like we’re being positioned to land in one of those hangar bays,” Greer said, pointing.

The perimeter of the large rectangular opening along the Judicator ship’s equator was illuminated by long strips of yellow light. A blue haze over the opening flickered every few seconds as lines of white flashed across its surface.

The swarm of drones that had just passed them formed up around the bay’s entrance, all turning simultaneously to face the Valiant as they approached. Tactical computers identified multiple-beam weapons powering up on each drone, instantly calculating power ratings and projecting damage estimates. Any one of those drones would give Valiant a run for her money, but all of them combined put the ship and her crew at a distinct disadvantage.

Through the force field, rows of Regulos fighters lined one side of the hangar bay while squadrons of battle droids lined the other. The droids were formed into diamond formations, alternating positions so that each edge matched with the next, creating an interlocking pattern.

“Those look like the things the Netherguard were fighting on Diasore,” Jerry said.

“The Judicators are set up to settle disputes,” Yentl said, “one way or another.”

“So is it kind of like the DIN node on Diasore?” Carson asked.

Yentl shook his head. “The Judicator is its own entity. It is not a Core Node or an independent node connected to the Regulos network. The five Judicators act entirely separate from the network, so if there's ever a cataclysmic failure of any of the section nodes or even the Core, the primary code and matrix processes are kept alive and functioning. They are the Regulos’s ultimate fail-safes.”

“Let’s hope he’s open to discussion,” Carson said.

++++


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From the Authors

Hello Dear and Gentle Reader,

Thank you for reading Wings of Redemption. We hope you enjoyed your time with this new galaxy of heroes and villains, much more on the way!

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8. The Crucible (https://amzn.to/2RXUU6K)

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Wings of Redemption

The Earth is doomed. Humanity has a chance. Read where the saga began!


In the near future, an alien probe arrives on Earth with a pivotal mission—determine if humanity has what it takes to survive the impending invasion by a merciless armada.


The probe discovers Marc Ibarra, a young inventor, who holds the key to a daring gambit that could save a fraction of Earth's population. Humanity's only chance lies with Ibarra's ability to keep a terrible secret and engineer the planet down the narrow path to survival.


Earth will need a fleet. One with a hidden purpose. One strong enough to fight a battle against annihilation.


The Ember War is the first installment in an epic military sci-fi series. If you like A Hymn Before Battle by John Ringo and The Last Starship by Vaughn Heppner, then you'll love this explosive adventure with constant thrills and high stakes from cover to cover.


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Here’s a sample for you:


CHAPTER 1

THE NEAR FUTURE

Humanity’s only hope of survival entered the solar system at nearly the speed of light. The probe slowed as the sun’s heliosphere disrupted the graviton wave it rode in on from the abyss of deep space. Awakened by the sudden deceleration, the probe absorbed the electromagnetic spectrum utilized by its target species and assessed the technological sophistication of the sole sentient species on Earth.

The probe adjusted its course to take it into the system’s star. If the humans couldn’t survive—with its help—what was to come, then the probe would annihilate itself. There would be no trace of it for the enemy, and no chance of humanity’s existence beyond the time it had until the enemy arrived. The probe analyzed filed patents, military expenditures, birth rates, mathematical advancement and space exploration.

The first assessment fell within the margin of error of survival and extinction for humanity. The probe’s programming allowed for limited autonomous decision making (choice being a rare luxury for the probe’s class of artificial intelligence). The probe found itself in a position to choose between ending its mission in the sun’s fire and a mathematically improbable defense of humanity—and the potential compromise of its much larger mission.

Given the rare opportunity to make its own decision, the probe opted to dither. In the week it took to pass into Jupiter’s orbit, the probe took in more data. It scoured the Internet for factors to add to the assessment, but the assessment remained the same: unlikely, but possible. By the time it shot past Mars, the probe still hadn’t made a decision.

As the time to adjust course for Earth or continue into the sun approached, the probe conducted a final scan of cloud storage servers for any new information…and found something interesting.

While the new information made only a negligible impact on the assessment, the probe adjusted course to Earth. It hadn’t traveled all this way for nothing.

In the desert south of Phoenix, Arizona, it landed with no more fanfare than a slight thump and a few startled cows. Then it broke into the local cell network and made a call.

****

Marc Ibarra awoke to his phone ringing at max volume, playing a pop ditty that he hated with vehemence. He rolled off the mattress that lay on the floor and crawled on his hands and knees to where his cell was recharging. His roommate, who paid the majority of their rent and got to sleep on an actual bed, grumbled and let off a slew of slurred insults.

Marc reached his cell and slapped at it until the offending music ended. He blinked sleep from his eyes and tried to focus on the caller’s name on the screen. The only people who’d call at this ungodly hour were his family in Basque country…or maybe Jessica in his applied robotics course wanted a late-night study break.

The name on the screen was “ANSWER ME”.

He closed an eye and reread the name. It was way too early—or too late, depending on one’s point of view—for this nonsense. He turned the ringer off and went back to bed. Sleep was about to claim him when the phone rang again, just as loudly as last time but now with a disco anthem.

“Seriously?” his roommate slurred.

Marc declined the call and powered the phone off. He flopped back on his bed and curled into his blanket. To hell with my first class, he thought. Arizona State University had a lax attendance policy, one which he’d abuse for nights like this.

The cell erupted with big-band music. Marc took his head out from beneath the covers and looked at his phone like it was a thing possessed. The phone vibrated so hard that it practically danced a jig on the floor and the screen flashed “ANSWER ME” over and over again as music blared.

“Dude?” said his roommate, now sitting up in his bed.

Marc swiped the phone off the charging cord and the music stopped. The caller’s name undulated with a rainbow of colors and an arrow appeared on the screen pointing to the button he had to press to answer the call. When did I get this app? he thought.

Marc sighed and left the bedroom, meandering into the hallway bathroom with the grace of a zombie. The battered mattress he slept on played hell with his back and left him stiff every morning. Dropping his boxers, he took a seat on the toilet and answered the call, determined to return this caller’s civility with some interesting background noise.

“What?” he murmured.

“Marc Ibarra. I need to see you.” The voice was mechanical, asexual in its monotone.

“Do you have any frigging idea what time it is? Wait, who the hell is this?”

“You must come to me immediately. We must discuss the mathematical proof you have stored in document title ‘thiscantberight.doc.’”

Marc shot to his feet. The boxers around his ankles tripped him up and he stumbled out of the bathroom and fell against the wall. His elbow punched a hole in the drywall and the cell clattered to the floor.

He scooped the phone back up and struggled to breathe as a sudden asthma attack came over him.

“How…how…?” He couldn’t finish his question until he found his inhaler in the kitchen, mere steps away in the tiny apartment. He took a deep breath from the inhaler and felt the tightness leave his lungs.

That someone knew of his proof was impossible. He’d finished it earlier that night and had encrypted it several times before loading it into a cloud file that shouldn’t have been linked to him in any way.

“How do you know about that?” he asked.

“You must come to me immediately. There is little time. Look at your screen,” the robotic voice said. His screen changed to a map program, displaying a pin in an open field just off the highway connecting Phoenix to the suburb of Maricopa.

“Come. Now.”

Marc grabbed his keys.

****

An hour later, his jeans ripped from scaling a barbed-wire fence, Marc was surrounded by desert scrub. The blue of the morning rose behind him, where his beat-up Honda waited on the side of the highway.

With his cell to his ear, Marc stopped and looked around before deciding how to continue. Spiked ocotillo plants looked a lot like benign mesquite trees in the darkness. A Native American casino in the distance served as his North Star, helping him keep his bearings.

“You’re not out here, are you? I’m being punked, aren’t I?” he asked the mysterious caller.

“You are nine point two six meters to my east south east. Punk: decayed wood, used as tinder. Are you on fire?” the caller said.

Marc rolled his eyes. This wasn’t the first time the caller had used the nonstandard meanings of words during what passed as conversation between the two. Marc had tried to get the caller to explain how he knew about his theorem and why they had to meet in the middle of the desert. The caller had refused to say anything. He would only reiterate that Marc had to come quickly to see him, chiding him every time Marc deviated from the provided driving directions.

“If you’re so close, why can’t I see you?” he asked. He took a few steps in what he thought was a northwesterly direction and squished into a cow patty.

“Continue,” the caller said.

Marc shook his foot loose and tried to kick the cow leavings from his sneakers.

“You know what this is? This is exactly what’s all over my shoes, you monotone bastard. Forget it!” Marc shoved his phone into his back pocket and limped back toward his car, his right foot squishing with each step.

The route back to his car was comparatively easy; he just had to walk toward his headlights. That was the plan, anyway, until the lights on his car shut off.

“Marc, this is important.” The muffled words came from his pocketed cell.

“How are you doing this?” Marc shouted into the night.

“Turn around, please.”

Marc did as asked and a silver light like the snap of a reflection from a fish twisting just beneath the water flared on the ground ahead of him. No one was there a moment ago and Marc hadn’t heard any movement.

“I swear if I get my kidneys cut out I will be so pissed about this,” Marc said as he made his way to where he saw the light. He stood for a moment, then flopped his arms against his sides. “I’m here.”

“You’re standing on me.” The voice came from beneath Marc’s feet.

Marc skipped aside like he’d just heard a rattlesnake’s warning.

“Holy—did someone bury you? Why didn’t you tell me to bring a shovel?” Marc went to his knees and poked at the ground, which felt solid. “How deep are you? Do you have enough air?” Marc asked, using both hands to shove earth aside.

“Two inches ahead and three down.”

Marc’s face contorted in confusion as he kept digging. He moved a mound of gray dirt and pebbles aside and a silver light washed over his face.

A silver needle no more than three inches long rested in the dirt. Tiny filaments of lambent energy crept from the needle and undulated through the air like a snake in the ocean. Marc was frozen in place, his jaw slack as the filaments extended away from the needle, shades of white swimming in and around it.

“We don’t have much time.” The words came from the needle in the same mechanical voice as his mysterious caller. A point of light appeared in the air above the needle, sparked, and then lit into a flame no bigger than he’d seen on a match head. The white flame, which gave off no heat, rose and grew in size. A flame the size of Marc’s head came to a stop a few feet in the air.

Marc, transfixed by the flame until now, got to his feet. The filaments from the needle had extended past him and formed a perimeter ten yards in diameter. Tendrils of energy writhed against each other and against an invisible boundary. His heart pounded in his ears and his innate fight-or-flight instinct made a decision.

“This is a different experience for you. Let me—”

Marc turned and ran away. He got to where the tendrils had stopped and ran into what felt like a wall of water. Air thickened around him as he tried to push through and find purchase on the ground ahead. It felt like he was moving through clay.

“Marc, you’re being ridiculous.” The air hardened and spat him back toward the flame. Marc tripped over his own feet and tumbled to the ground. He snapped back to his feet and looked for a way, anyway, to put some distance between him and the flame.

The flame, white on silver or silver on white—Marc couldn’t tell as it morphed in the air—floated toward him slowly.

Marc made the sign of the cross with two fingers and looked away. He heard a sigh.

“Look at me.” The flame, again.

Marc opened an eye. The flame was a few inches from his hands but he still felt no heat.

“I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to help you. Understand?” The flame bobbed in the air gently until Marc nodded. “I am an emissary from an alien intelligence sent to save your species from extinction and I need your help to do it.”

Marc pointed a finger at the flame and tried to touch it. His fingertip passed into the flame’s surface without sensation.

“I thought unsolicited physical contact was against your species’ norms,” said the flame, the tendrils rustling with the words.

Marc snapped his hand back.

“Did you say something about…extinction?” The flame bobbed in the air. “How? Why?”

“An armada is coming.” The flame morphed into an oblong shape with a half dozen tendrils sticking from it, like a misshapen spider. “They are the Xaros and they will annihilate your species with ease. Unless you and I work together, your extinction is assured,” the flame said, floating closer to Marc, who stood dumbfounded. The flame came so close that he could see his reflection on it. Deep blue motes of light sprang from the flame and evaporated in the air.

“Why me? What am I supposed to do about an alien armada? I’m a B-minus grad student with a mountain of student loans, not some…some world leader!”

The probe returned to flames and a hologram of a white paper popped into the air next to it. Pages flipped open from the book, the mathematical proof he’d finished the night before.

“We expected that your species would have progressed to the edge of your solar system by now. To see such potential squandered on wars and Internet cat videos was disheartening, but this is well beyond what you should be capable of. The advancements you discovered in material science and energy storage are a springboard to technological advancement that will give you a 27 percent chance of survival, provided everything goes as planned. We can start here.” The proof stopped with the picture of a lattice of carbon atoms. The last page had the words “No way!!!!” scrawled next to the diagram.

“I don’t understand,” Marc said.

“You will, but we need to get started right away.”

“How much time do we have?”

“Sixty years.”

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Wings of Redemption

This is not a fairy tale.


Sixty-six days is all fighter pilot John McNeal has left on his service contract, after that his combat days will be over for good.


If he survives that long.


After a mysterious rift in the fabric of spacetime strands him on an alien world John must join forces with some unlikely heroes to have a chance of surviving. He soon discovers that this strange new world isn't alien at all, but this is not the land of pixies, pirates or boys who don't grow old.


There is hope, however, someone has been here before and returned to tell about it, all John has to do is figure out how they got back home. It won't be easy; this world is not the fairy tale he remembers and he will have to fight to get home.

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EMBER WAR UNIVERSE SUGGESTED READING ORDER

The Ember War Saga: Volume 1

The Ember War


Iron Hearts-Short Story ( BookHip.com/FCAZPA )


The Ruins of Anthalas


Vent Rats-Short Story ( BookHip.com/FCAZPA )


Blood of Heroes


Earth Defiant


The Gardens of Nibiru


The Battle of the Void


The Siege of Earth


The Crucible


The Xaros Reckoning *

The Anvil-Short Story ( https://www.scifireads.com/exclusivecontent )


The Ember War Saga Volume 2: Terran Armor Corps

Going Dark-Short Story (https://amzn.to/2DLV5gf)

Schism-Short Story ( BookHip.com/FCAZPA )


The Iron Within-Short Story ( BookHip.com/FCAZPA )


Iron Dragoons


The Dotari Salvation


The Ibarra Sanction


The True Measure


Rage of Winter


A House Divided


The Last Aeon


Valdar’s Hammer


The Beast of Eridu


Ferrum Corde

Gott Mit Uns


*The Terra Nova Chronicles ( Read after The Xaros Reckoning)


Terra Nova


Bloodlines


Wings of Redemption

Hale’s War


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