“How did it go?”

Frederick shrugged slightly in response to his wife’s question, easing down into a chair on the back porch at Halo Ridge. The sun was slowly setting and autumn’s bite had settled in the day before, hinting at a winter to come. He took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly, staring out toward the sea beyond the ridge.


“I think they’ll come,” he said quietly, stretching as he settled in. “There’s too many questions she wants answered for them not to come.”

“I imagine one of those is how the hell you’re still alive when the universe thinks you’re dead.”

He snorted a laugh and nodded. “That would be one of them.” He looked at her sidelong and smiled faintly. He’d always liked the way the sun looked when it caught in her hair. Even as tired as she seemed right now, she was still beautiful.

Daci noticed him looking and raised a brow. “What?” she asked, a faint smile curving her full lips.

“I love you,” he murmured. “You know that, right?”

She laughed and got up. “Of course.” She leaned down and kissed his cheek, then his lips. He ran his hand down her arm, then pressed his palm against her belly, imagining he could feel their baby already, feel him or her moving even though it was far too soon. Daci’s hands covered his.

“Tell me what you’re thinking, Freder,” she whispered. “There’s something bothering you.”

“Nothing that you’re not already aware of.” He smiled. “We’re at war, Daci. We’re at war and the enemy is unknown but everywhere.” He kissed her wrist and sighed, leaning back. “It’s bad on New Earth.”

“Didn’t we know that already?” She perched on the arm of his chair and followed his gaze out toward the water. “Everything’s been pointing in that direction for months, maybe years. Everything we’ve heard, everything that Lindsay’s seen…we’ve been planning for this day since the Foundation was created.”

“Yeah,” he whispered, closing his eyes for a moment. “That’s true.”

“So what’s bothering you?”

“Something’s not right, that’s all.” He rubbed at his temple. “Something that’s just beyond my reach.” He shook his head. “I’ll figure it out—sometime before things come unglued, I’d hope. How was your meeting with Aidan and Grumpy?”

“Productive enough,” Daci said softly. “We’re having a sit-down with Mugabe and Mission Systems tomorrow morning. It might help if you came.”

Frederick smiled. “I thought you wanted me to stay hidden.”

Daci snorted. “Something tells me that ship left port a long time ago. I’ll just have to settle for making sure you’re safe in every way I know how.”

“You do know a few ways.” He rubbed her back gently. “I’m sorry, Daci.”

She shook her head. “I never should have asked you to keep hiding for so long. I know it was hard and I know that you didn’t always enjoy it. You faked it well enough, though, and I appreciate that. We had some good years.”

“There’s more ahead of us. You know that, right?”

Her lips thinned and she nodded.

It didn’t take a psychic to know that she wasn’t convinced.

Frederick closed his eyes and sighed.

I’ll just have to convince her, that’s all. Nothing’s going to happen to she and I—not if I can help it.

Gods know that I’ll find a way to help it.


“It’s good to hear your voice, Seph.”

He meant it, too. It had been far too long since he’d heard his former protégé talk, on the comm or in person. Of course, he’d seen her give speeches here and there, but to actually speak with her…

Not since I died.

On the other end of the comm, Sephora sucked in a sharp breath, as if she hadn’t quite expected to actually hear his voice. “You’re alive,” she whispered.

“Mostly.” Frederick leaned back in his chair, wincing slightly at twinging muscles and the incessant ache of his bad leg. Truth be known, both legs were bad, and his back was, too, but he tried to categorize them as bad and less pristine than they should be. “Where are you?”

“The lighthouse,” she said, her voice quiet, almost choked. “Where have you been?”

“Where do you think?”

There was only silence for a moment, then, “The Colony.”

“Bullseye,” he said softly.

“Why aren’t you dead? Everyone thinks you’re dead.”

He knew what question she wanted to ask. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, touching the headset he wore to make sure that it wasn’t about to slip off. He was in what had been Zephaniah Grace’s study before his passing years before. There was a secure comm unit tucked into a corner of the room, a relic from the days when Ezra and Kara Grace’s mother was still alive and still plied the space lanes as a free trader. It was quiet at the big house in the wake of the attacks and he hoped it would stay that way for a little longer—but he wasn’t entirely optimistic that would be the case.


“I’m still here,” he said softly. “I was almost dead. It was months before I even came out of the coma. By then, the universe thought I was dead and it seemed safer to let it stay that way. I’ve been here since then. Daci…” he sighed and started again. “Didn’t you ever wonder why she vanished so quickly? Why she came here and then never left again?”

“I guess I did, but I always just kind of thought that she was mourning in her own way.”

“She came here to be with me.”

“I understand that, now.”

Frederick stared at the ceiling, heart feeling like lead in his chest. He hadn’t called her to catch up—he wished that he had. There was a purpose to his call, though, an important one. “Do you still have the case?”

There was a hesitation, then she said, “Yes.”

“And everything that was in it?”

“It’s safe, Frederick.”

“Are you alone?”

Another hesitation.  “No,” she said after a moment.

He nodded slightly to himself.  “Who’s with you? Ben?”

“And Padraig Danson. He’s with the Colonial Office.”

Frederick searched his memory for the name and connected it to a face. He nodded to himself. That was safe enough—the three were safe enough, as safe as it would have been if it was Sephora on her own. “All right. I need you to do something for me.”

“If you’re going to ask me to leave, I don’t think I can.”

“I don’t think you have a choice,” Frederick countered, his voice gentle. “Inspector Winston was hurt pretty badly when we were attacked.”

“You were attacked?”

“We’re not sure who yet, but it’s only a matter of time before we figure it out. The Commonwealth and whoever attacked us know that. They’ll try again. You need to come before they do, Seph. It’s important.”

“Frederick, I don’t understand.”

“It’s okay,” he said softly. “You’ll figure it out.”

“I can’t just up and leave.”

He heard Ben swear in the background. “You can go wherever you want,” Ben’s muffled voice said in the background. “You’re the fragging Inspector General. Do it, Seph. For God’s sake, do it.”

“Bring your family,” Frederick said.

“What family?” she countered, her tone a little bitter. “It’s just me…I don’t know that Ben would want to come.”

“How could you say that?” her husband asked in the background. “Seph, I would follow you anywhere if you’d let me.”

Frederick’s stomach twisted. “You were going to start a family, Seph. After Mimir. You told me that.”

“After it was settled, Frederick,” she said in a barely audible voice. “And it’s never been settled.”

“And it never will be,” he said firmly. “Bring Ben and come, Seph. Bring the case. I’ll explain everything.”

As much as I dare to tell, anyway.

Some secrets were just too much to share.


Ben didn’t argue, didn’t ask, he just drove.  Sephora’s heart thudded against her breast and she couldn’t stop staring at the message she’d gotten, the message that had somehow been routed through headquarters without coming from headquarters.

Hope you found the case.  It’s time for truth.  Everything under the sun, Seph.  The lies end today.

It was Frederick Rose, somehow back from the dead.

She closed her eyes.  It was hard to breathe.  It wasn’t possible, was it?

She rode in the back, her comm cradled in her hands and most of her attention there.  At the same time, she was painfully aware of the concerned looks her estranged husband threw in her direction, the faint crease to his forehead.  It was a familiar look.  He was worried–worried, but for some reason didn’t want to talk about it.

Is he worried about me, I wonder?

Sephora tucked her comm back into her jacket, glancing toward the window and the familiar scenery that flashed by, carefully cultivated trees and broad boulevards.  There had been a time when she’d driven this way home from work every day.  It felt like it had been a lifetime ago.

“I can’t believe you kept it,” Ben said when the silence finally became too much.  He guided the vehicle onto a narrower road that headed along the rocky beach-head toward the narrow spit of land where their onetime home stood.

“My happiest memories are there,” Sephora whispered, tearing her gaze from the white-caps that danced against the water offshore.  The wind was picking up.  Perhaps there would be a storm.  “I just…I stopped going there because there wasn’t anyone to come home to.  Sometimes I stay for a weekend, but I always end up bringing work with me.”  She leaned her head back and sighed.  “It’s still the only place I feel really safe.”

“Your happiest memories,” Ben echoed.  Next to him, Padraig winced.

“I feel like I’m intruding,” the Home Office man said.

“It’s all right,” Ben said, forcing a smile.  “You’re her friend and you’ve been a part of…whatever’s going on…longer than I have.”

Longer in one half of it, anyway, Sephora thought, staring at Ben.  Late to the party in another.

I must be dreaming–crazy.  Ben and I can’t…or maybe we…

She killed that line of thought before it could fully blossom.  The lighthouse was within sight, now, pale against the setting sun.  Her heart lifted slightly and she touched the pocket where she’d tucked her comm.  There had been dozens of nights spent here with she and Ben and Frederick and Daciana, Frederick’s wife, and most of those nights had been pleasant.

Sephora found herself wishing that Padraig hadn’t come along.

Who knows what would have happened if he wasn’t here?

Ben pulled up in front of the lighthouse and they piled out into the chilly seaside air.  Sephora headed for the door, trusting both men to fall in behind her.  She pressed her thumb against the lockplate set flush to the door and let the mechanism scan her print and DNA.  The lock clicked softly open and she pushed the door wide, holding it for Ben and Padraig.  She slipped into her sanctuary behind them and locked the door.

Her estranged husband led the way up the stairs to the sitting room, the room with a commanding view of the ocean–the only view that was better was in their bedroom and shared study another floor up.  Ben fell into his favorite easy chair as Padraig sank down onto the couch, both of them staring at her as she dug her comm back out of her pocket.

“Al right,” Ben said softly.  “Now what’s going on?”

“I got a message,” Sephora said, staring at the screen again.  “It was from Frederick.”

Ben froze and Padraig startled.

“But he’s dead,” Padraig said.

“I know,” Sephora said, scrubbing at her eyes, suddenly stinging painfully.  “Trust me, I know.  I’ve been trying to figure out who killed him and the best answer I’ve been able to come up with was that it was everyone.”

“Seph,” Ben said gently, “sit down.”

“I’m all right.”

“You’re about to fall down.  Sit, sweetheart.”  Ben got up and guided her to a chair, sat her down.  His hands carressed hers even as she gripped the comm between both hands.  He read the message upside down and then looked at her.  “Are you going to answer the dead man?”

She choked on a laugh.  “Don’t you think I should?”

“Of course I do,” Ben said.  “I was just wondering what was taking you so long.  After all, he may have better things to be doing–other people to haunt and all that.”

This time, she did laugh, and the laughter brought tears.  She mopped at them with the heel of her hand and handed Ben her comm.  “Link it into the house network.  The secure one.  You remember how, right?”

“It hasn’t been that long,” Ben said, perching on the coffee table’s edge and poking at her comm.

It had been that long, but she wasn’t going to say that.

“How could he be alive?”  Padriag asked.

Sephora shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I dearly hope we’re about to find out, though.”

No doubt we will.

Ben handed her back the comm and kissed her cheek gently.  “Make the call,” he whispered.

She gave him a brave smile and tapped the message.  “Frederick, if you can hear me, it’s Seph.  Line’s secure.  Talk to me.”

Gods, please talk to me.


“What the bloody hell, Seph?” Ben’s gaze bounced between Sephora and Padraig wildly, like a ball kicked between two teenage futbol players. “Someone blew up the girl’s house? How did no one hear about this?”

Their waitress swooped over with a towel to clean up the mess. Ben snatched the towel from her hand. “We’ve got it,” he snapped her. “Bring me another in five minutes and make yourself unseen until then.”

The girl went white and retreated. Sephora winced and reached for the towel.

“You didn’t need to—”

He relinquished the towel but not his anger. “Why didn’t it hit the newsnets?”

“Who the hell knows,” Padraig growled, glaring at his own glass for a moment before he watched Ben mop up the mess of whiskey and shattered glass from the tabletop with Sephora’s help. “Far be it for me to say, but probably conglom suppression.”

“Is she still here?” Ben asked, freezing in the midst of cleaning up the mess. “Is she somewhere safe?”

Sephora glanced at Padraig, brow arching in question. Padraig exhaled quietly, leaning back in his chair.

“She left on a transport for E-557 last week.”

“The Foundation? You must be desperate.”

Sephora put her hand on her estranged husband’s arm. “They may have finally gotten things right, Ben. They might be our only hope—the last refuge of the lost and desperate, of the ones who have nothing left to believe in.”

He stared at her for a long moment, expression slack and eyes bleak. “You sound like me,” he said at last. “The way I sounded back at the height of the last round of electoral ridiculousness.”

“Every round of electoral ridiculousness.” Her fingers tightened for a moment before she withdraw her hand. He caught it before she could pull away.

“Are you in danger?” Ben asked. He glanced toward Padraig. “Are both of you in danger?”

“We haven’t done anything illegal if that’s what you’re trying to get at,” Padraig growled. “Maybe not entirely above-board, but nothing shadier than what I’ve seen get rubber-stamped lately.”

Ben shook his head, wrapping the towel into a ball with the broken glass trapped inside of it. “That’s not what I meant. Is anyone out to…to…”

“To get us?” Sephora asked, one corner of her mouth curving into a wry smile. “You’ve been watching too many classic 2-Ds, Ben.”

He laughed at that. The waitress came around and gathered the towel, leaving Ben with a fresh glass of whiskey in return. “Maybe,” he said, eyes bright with mirth that faded all too quickly. “In all seriousness, though, is someone out to get you, so to speak?”

“Damned if I know,” Sephora said. She sighed and rubbed at her eyes. Her temples throbbed dully, the pain rooted deep somewhere behind her eyes. “Maybe not yet, but it’s coming. Someone’s going to take offense to our digging, our probing. Then the real trouble’s going to get started.” The comm in her pocket buzzed, vibrating against her ribs. She murmured a curse. The cadence meant the call was being routed through headquarters.

“What’s wrong?” Padraig asked as Sephora dug her comm out of the hidden pocket.

“Call routed through HQ,” she murmured.

“Can’t even have a drink with a friend and your estranged husband without getting buzzed, can you?” Ben asked, expression souring for a moment.

Sephora cast him a nasty look before she glanced at the comm’s screen. The message was text-only, but she didn’t need a voice to know who it had come from, even without some kind of signature attached. Her stomach dropped through the floor and halfway to the planet’s heart, blood running as cold as the icemelt from the polar caps.

It’s not possible.

“You look like you’ve just caught a call from a ghost,” Ben said, his expression softening. He reached for her arm again, fingers squeezing gently as he wrapped his hand around her wrist.

“I have,” Sephora whispered, swallowing hard against the sudden tightness in her throat. Freder. She stood from the table abruptly. “I have to go.”

“Go?” Ben’s brows shot up. “Go where?”

“What’s wrong, Seph?” Padraig asked, already waving to their waitress in the hopes of getting their bill that much faster.

“Not here,” she said. “We’ll have to go somewhere else.” A shudder raced through her. Is there even anywhere safe to have whatever conversation I’m about to have?

“Name the place,” Ben said, throwing a few hard credits onto the table as he rose. “Did you drive?”

“I walked,” she said, numbness spreading from her core to her extremities. The world seemed dimmer, more surreal.

I just got a goddamned message from a fucking ghost.

“I drove,” Ben said, gently taking her by the arm and steering her toward the front door. “You two can ride with me. Just tell me where to go.”

“The beach house,” she whispered. “The beach house on the coast where we used to go on vacation.”

Ben startled. “You didn’t—”

“I didn’t sell it,” she whispered. “I couldn’t.

“Take us there. Now.”

Forty-three (teaser)

“What the bloody hell, Seph?” Ben’s gaze bounced between Sephora and Padraig wildly, like a ball kicked between two teenage futbol players. “Someone blew up the girl’s house? How did no one hear about this?”

Their waitress swooped over with a towel to clean up the mess. Ben snatched the towel from her hand. “We’ve got it,” he snapped her. “Bring me another in five minutes and make yourself unseen until then.”

The girl went white and retreated. Sephora winced and reached for the towel.

“You didn’t need to—”

He relinquished the towel but not his anger. “Why didn’t it hit the newsnets?”

“Who the hell knows,” Padraig growled, glaring at his own glass for a moment before he watched Ben mop up the mess of whiskey and shattered glass from the tabletop. “Far be it for me to say, but probably conglom suppression.”

“Is she still here?” Ben asked, freezing in the midst of cleaning up the mess. “Is she somewhere safe?”

Sephora glanced at Padraig, brow arching in question. Padraig exhaled quietly, leaning back in his chair.

“She left on a transport for E-557 last week.”

“The Foundation? You must be desperate.”

Sephora put her hand on her estranged husband’s arm. “They may have finally gotten things right, Ben. They might be our only hope—the last refuge of the lost and desperate, of the ones who have nothing left to believe in.”


Stay tuned next week for the continuation of Chapter 43…


Author’s note:  This one is a little shorter than I’d have liked, in part due to a crappy day at the office.  Apologies.


Ben Israel stared at her for a long second, his eyes wide and expression blank. Sephora swallowed the bile that crept steadily higher in her throat, feeling abruptly sick to her stomach.

This was a mistake. I shouldn’t have said anything. Look at him, he doesn’t know what to say, what to do.

Why the hell did you do this in public?

What the hell is he doing here, anyway?

“What’s happened?” Ben asked quietly.

Their waitress drifted over. Padraig gave her a nasty look but Ben just smiled weakly.

“A whisky,” he said. “Neat, please.”

The waitress smiled, nodded, and slipped away. Sephora watched her go, silently grateful for the extra time she had to collect her thoughts.

What do I tell him? How do I tell him?


Why does he have to sound so worried? She swallowed hard. “Once I tell you, there’s no turning back, Ben.”

His hand closed over hers and she felt a tiny thrill, the same familiar tendril of desire and fondness that had once been part of her everyday existence. Their gazes met again and she shivered.

“You know what I’m going to say,” he said softly.

“You did just ask for his help,” Padraig said. “And we might need it.”

Breathe, Seph.  Just breathe.

The waitress brought the bottle of wine, Padriag’s drink, Ben’s whisky. Her husband’s gaze never wavered and it was all she could do not to flinch under the arctic-blue stare.

Sephora took a deep breath. Even appearing before the legislature wasn’t this stressful.

“It’s starting all over again,” she whispered. “All the signs are there. The devolution is beginning. NeComm…it’s dying, Ben. You were right. You were always right.”

“I didn’t want to be,” he said, fingers tightening for a moment before he let go. He took a deep swallow from his glass and leaned back in his chair, watching her with a faintly creased brow. He’d aged well, but she’d known that he would. He was still beautiful and she’d missed him. “I would have been happy to be wrong in this.”

“You weren’t.” She squeezed her eyes shut, wishing he hadn’t let go of her hand. She wanted him, needed him.

Say you’ll help, Ben. Say you’ll help.                 Sephora opened her eyes. “Did you hear about The Whispers?”

He made a face like he’d swallowed something bitter, sour. “They’re saying the Foundation is responsible for it. There’s some people buying what those folks are selling, too. I’m not one of them. You sent someone?”

“My best,” she murmured, staring into her wineglass. “I wish it could have been me.”

“You did your time,” Ben said softly.

“You’re right, I did.” Her gaze flicked toward Padraig. “Tell him what you’ve been seeing, what you brought to me—what made you start drinking again.”

Padraig winced slightly and set down his glass, which he’d barely touched so far. Mostly he was playing with it, swirling the alcohol against the glass and watching it slide down again. He seemed reluctant to make eye contact with Ben, but he did it now.

“Counterclaims that shouldn’t have been allowed are being pushed through,” Padraig said quietly. “I’ve seen claims against the Eridani Trelasia system bypass my office and get kicked up for higher approval—things that shouldn’t happen, things that aren’t oversights.” His lips thinned. “Then there was what happened to one of my staffers.”

Ben’s brow raised as he took a quick sip of his drink. “What happened?”

“Someone blew up her house.”

Ben’s glass shattered against the tabletop.


If you won’t stand up to those bastards, then I will.  We don’t have a choice anymore.

— Attributed to Sarah Farragut

24 Decem, 5249 PD

She looks haggard, Padraig thought to himself as he made his way over to Sephora’s table in the quiet seaside bistro.  He killed a rueful smile and the urge to shake his head at himself.  I probably don’t look much better.

Sephora looked up as Padraig slid into the chair across from her and gave him a bleak smile.  He smiled back.

“You look as tired as I feel,” he said.

“I probably am,” she admitted, reaching for her wineglass.  “How are your…evacuations…going?”

“Two more transports,” he said.  “And an old friend with Mission Systems gave me a quiet notification that if there’s more that we need to get off New Earth, they may be able to help us.  All I’ve got to do is ask.”

“They’re in bed with the Foundation and what’s left of the Guard,” Sephora said.  She took a deep swallow from her glass and set it down, her hand a bit unsteady.  “I got word on that from Winston before he went dark.  They’re pulling up stakes and moving their operations out of here as fast as they can.  I don’t blame them.  The organizations they contract with are ones that won’t mind the shift—may even welcome it, if they’re starting to see the writing on the wall.”

Padraig arched a brow.  “Which writing would that be?”

Sephora just shook her head. “The writing you and I already took note of.”

“Ah.  That writing.”

A waitress came by and he ordered a glass of whiskey.  Sephora told the girl to bring the whole bottle of wine when she came back.  When she departed, Sephora and Padraig just stared at each other for a few long moments.

“It’s happening all over again, isn’t it?”  Padraig asked quietly.

“I was about to ask you the same thing.”  Sephora closed her eyes, tilting her head back.  “I haven’t heard anything from Winston.  I’m worried.  He should have checked in by now.”

“I’m sure he’s just busy with the investigation.”  Doubt gnawed at Padraig’s entrails.

“It could be that, but I’ve got a bad feeling about it.”  Her hands cupped the foot of her wineglass and she stared into the shadows of the merlot liquid.  “I’ve got a really bad feeling about it.  The last time…”

“The last time you had a bad feeling like this, Frederick Rose was dead?”

Sephora winced, nodding.  “Yeah.”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Padraig said again, trying to ignore the beginnings of doubt gnawing at his guts.  “Even it’s not, all we can do is keep on doing what we’re doing.  The last time we met, you’d mentioned—”

“I’m not any closer,” she said.  “Not yet.  He didn’t leave me many clues.”  She glanced down into her wine again.  “Not any that I’ve been able to sort out, anyway.”

“There’s got to be something.”

“There is.  I just haven’t sorted it out.”  She took a deep gulp of wine.  “You should think about evacuating any from your department with a conscience, Padraig.  This is going to get ugly.”

“I can’t do that and you know why,” he said, trying to keep his voice gentle.  If he and his staff pulled up stakes and ran, there wouldn’t be anyone to uphold the law.

Maybe the day the laws change, we’ll have a reason to leave.  Until then…

Sephora sighed and shook her head, gaze roaming as she took another sip of wine.  “Why doesn’t that surprise me at all?”

“Because after all these years, you know me pretty well.”

She chuckled, then froze, eyes widening as she stared past Padraig.  Sephora set down her wineglass, her face pale.

Padraig’s stomach dropped through the floor.  “What’s wrong?”

“Seph.  What are you doing here?”

“Hello, Ben.”  Sephora rose carefully, even gracefully, only the barest hint of panic on her face.  She and Benjamin Israel had been estranged since Sephora had almost lost herself trying to figure out who had killed Frederick Rose, convinced that if she figured out who’d killed him, she’d solve the mystery of the Mimir attacks.  Padraig wasn’t sure how long it had been since the two had come face to face, but from the look of shock in Sephora’s eyes, it had been a long time—and this was the last place she’d expected him to show up.  “I didn’t realize you were in town.”

Benjamin Israel wasn’t a very big man, but he made up for his lack of stature with charisma and an infectious smile.  He’d worked his way up through the entertainment industry—fictional features and documentaries both—and had started to be wildly successful around the time Mimir fell.

He’d wanted Sephora to retire, since he was finally making enough to support both of them without her having to do the dangerous work associated with being a field agent for the Inspector General’s office.  Then Mimir had happened and there wasn’t a chance of her leaving—especially not after her friend and mentor had died.

“Sometimes you just have to come home,” Israel said as he came over to their table.  His crystal-blue eyes drank in his wife.  Padraig felt vaguely uncomfortable, watching the filmmaker studying the Chief Inspector.  “I hardly expected to find you here.”

Sephora inclined her head, gesturing vaguely to Padraig.  “I was meeting a friend.”

Israel startled, his gaze snapping toward Padraig.  He frowned for a brief moment, then brightened. “Colonial Office, right?”

“You’ve got a good memory, Mr. Israel,” Padraig said with a weak smile.

“If my memory was that good, I’d have remembered your name.”

Padraig laughed despite himself.  Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the barest glimpse of terror in Sephora’s eyes.

What would she be afraid of?

Israel glanced back to his estranged wife.  “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Maybe I have,” she said softly.  “A decade and we’ve barely spoken and now you’re here.  Like magic.”

“I didn’t stop loving you,” Israel whispered.  “Just because I couldn’t watch you tear yourself apart on the behalf of a thankless government doesn’t mean I stopped loving you, stopped worrying about you.”

Sephora took a shaky breath and nodded toward an empty spot at the table.  “Sit down,” she said softly.  “We may need your help.”

“My help?”  Israel seated himself, leaning forward against his elbows.  “What exactly would the two of you need my help with?  I don’t do government propaganda films—you know that, Seph.”

“It’s not that,” she said, toying with the stem of her glass.  She met his gaze after a moment, her soul bared to both of the men seated with her.  “It might be time to go, Ben, and we may need your help to do it.”


21 Decem, 5249 PD

“’Lana? Can you hear me?”

Alana groaned as consciousness slowly returned. She burned and froze with each heartbeat. Even breathing hurt. Was this what Brendan had been dealing with after he’d stabbed himself in the implant? If it was, she decided that she owed him a lot more credit than she’d ever given him. The room’s dim light felt too bright, even with the shadow hanging over her.

She cracked an eye open and stared at the shadow, swallowing twice before her throat was lubricated enough to speak. “Lindsay?”

Lindsay smiled, nodding. “Yeah. Glad you’re awake.”

“Glad you’re alive,” Alana murmured, then coughed. The movement jarred her arm, setting it to throbbing with each heartbeat. She groaned, squeezing her eyes shut. “I’d gotten to worrying down here.”

“Down here?”

Alana opened her eyes again, gaze drifting around the room, taking in the familiar wood paneling, the exposed dark beams of the ceiling with white plaster between them.  “What the hell?” she whispered.  “Did I dream that?” Was it fever? Something else? Did I dream that I was down in some kind of raid shelter with Ezra? How the hell did I get home?

“It was getting crowded at Ezra’s clinic,” Lindsay said quietly. “He said that you’d need some quiet. I’m trying to stay out of sight with all the excitement going on, so I said I’d come over and keep an eye on you while he’s working. Brendan’s asleep on your couch. I hope you don’t mind.”

“What the hell happened?” Alana winced and tried to push herself up on her good elbow. All it did was make her bad arm hurt worse and unsettle her stomach. The room spun and she dropped flat against her pillows again with a moan.

Lindsay put a mercifully cold hand on her forehead. “Settle down. I’ll tell you what happened if you promise to stay in bed.”

“Better be a good story,” Alana muttered, swallowing bile and trying to master her gut before it could betray her completely.

She lay quietly in her bed as Lindsay told her about the attack two days before, about the black ships and the unknown enemy that had come with the clear intent of terrifying the population into submission—and, failing that, murdering them all so they could be supplanted. It all sounded too achingly familiar to Alana, who’d read the accounts of the attacks on Mimir, heard the stories. Her good hand fisted in her blankets as Lindsay spoke in low tones about the casualties and the damage done.

“Who was it?” Alana finally whispered as Lindsay finished. “Do we know yet?”

“No one’s taking credit for it,” Lindsay said, only a bare trace of bitterness in her voice. “Not yet, anyway. There hasn’t been a return visit, though, either, so I’m guessing we can count ourselves as lucky.”

“Lucky,” Alana whispered. “I guess that’s one way to put it.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes for a moment. “The Inspector…will he make it?”

“Ezra’s been working hard to make sure he will. That was part of the reason Brendan and I wanted to get you out of the clinic beyond the space issue.”

A bitter laugh escaped her lips. “He was worried about me.”

Too worried,” Lindsay said. “He was distracted every time you so much as coughed. You’ve got the fever from hell, but it’s nothing some antivirals, painkillers, and sleep won’t fix.”

“I feel like hell,” Alana admitted. “When we were down in that shelter, I started to push myself too hard and I went down hard. Fever started spiking again. It’s my fault.”

“You’ll be okay,” Lindsay said. She stretched, leaning back in the chair she’d drawn up to Alana’s bedside. From the other room, they could hear the faint sound of Brendan snoring. Alana’s nose wrinkled.

“He doesn’t usually do that.”

“Too much gunk from when that bomber crashed almost on top of him. It’s better than it was a couple days ago. His sinuses are still clogged up.” She smiled weakly. “Ezra said he’d be fine and I told him that if he was telling me lies, I’d tie his balls in a knot. Sorry. I’m pretty sure you like those.”

Alana couldn’t help the laughter that bubbled up from somewhere she’d kept long hidden from the world. She half curled onto her side, ignoring the pain in her arm, gasping out her laughter as tears gathered in her eyes. “Oh god,” she wheezed. “Lindsay, you didn’t actually say that, did you?”

“Oh, I absolutely did,” Lindsay said, her voice thick with gravitas. “Better yet, he believed me.”

Is Brendan okay?”

“He seems like it—not any different than he was when you guys first got back from rescuing my parents, anyway, not by much. He’s mobile and talking and seems pretty okay, but I know his ribs hurt like hell and he’s been getting pretty nasty headaches the past couple of days. Ezra did some scans, though, and he said that his skull’s not broken or anything and he doesn’t show any new neurological trauma. We just have to wait it out and see what happens.”

Alana reached a tentative hand toward Lindsay’s belly, still flat and showing no sign of her pregnancy. “And you?”

Lindsay caught her fingers and squeezed. “I’m fine,” she whispered to her cousin and longtime protector. “I’ll be even better when you guys are back to normal. Until then…it is what it is and I’ll do what I can to help where I can. Right now, I o that by keeping an eye on the two of you and staying the hell out of the way an mostly out of sight.”

“That can’t be easy.”

Lindsay shrugged. “It’s a lot easier than you’d think it would be. There’s so much going on, no one’s really noticing that I’m only turning up for Council meetings and checking up on things happening in Ezra’s clinic.”

“You think everything’s going to be okay?”

Her eyes focused on something distant at Alana’s question and she seemed to consider that long and hard—long enough and hard enough that Alana started to regret asking the question.

“Eventually,” Lindsay whispered. “Eventually, everything’s going to be okay. There’s a storm we’ll have to make it through first, though, and that storm’s still brewing.

“It’s coming. It’s just not here yet.”

Alana shivered at the certainty of the younger woman’s words and not for the first time thanked her lucky stars that she didn’t have to live with Ryland LeSarte’s gift.

She just had to safeguard the woman who did.