Chapter Twenty-Three

My name is Alana Chase, sirs, and I have a right to be here because I swore I would protect Commander Channing’s daughter with my life.  You can have everything I ever gave to the Compact, including my body…and my soul.

— Alana Chase to Marshals Aidan Church and Adam Windsor, c. 5231


11 Novem, 5249 PD


            The double click on the comm had come almost an hour before.  Ezra stared out the viewport, hand on the pistol she’d given him, trying not to worry.  Should it be taking this long for them to get out?  It didn’t look like the installation had gone on alert.  Thunder growled in the distance and Ezra exhaled.

“What’s wrong?”  America asked softly.

“I just keep thinking that it’s taking too long,” Ezra murmured.  He shook his head.  “Probably just being paranoid.”

“Probably.”  America grinned at the betrayed look he shot at her.  “It always seems like it’s taking too long when you’re the one doing the waiting.  Believe me, I know.  My husband has a penchant for that kind of stunt.  Sometimes I think he did it to punish me.”

Ezra blinked.  “For what?”

“For not going with Rachel and Grumpy.”  America’s smile faded a little, then she shrugged.  “But I couldn’t leave him to fight alone.  They’d be safe without me.  If I stayed, I could make him safer.  I wanted him to see his daughter again someday.  I wasn’t confident that would happen if I didn’t stay with him.”  She stood up slowly, unsteady, and limped to him at the console.  She stared out the window into the shadows born of a gathering storm.

“He’s angry,” she murmured after a few moments, “but they’re all right for the moment.”

“The bond?”

She nodded, the muscles in her jaw tightening.  “It’s good to feel him again.  Even if he is angry.  I wonder about what.”

“Wouldn’t know,” Ezra murmured, then sighed.  He caught sight of movement a few seconds later.  His breath caught in his throat.

“There they are,” he finally said as the two forms moving through the woods became more clear.  “Wake Brendan.  See if he can fly.”

America nodded and shuffled back toward the bunks.  She shook Brendan gently, but he tried to ward her off anyway.  He groaned as he came awake, shivering slightly as he cracked one eye open, then the other.

“What is it?” he rasped.

“Ezra wants to know if you can fly,” America said quietly as she sat back down on the bunk.  “Alana and Grant are on their way.  Do you think you can do it?”

Brendan coughed into his elbow as he slowly levered himself upright, eyes focusing slowly.

Ezra watched like a hawk as his friend slowly stood with only a trace of unsteadiness and made his way to the pilot’s chair.  Brendan took his time settling in, taking a deep breath and exhaling it slowly.  Ezra frowned.

“You sure you’re up to this?”

“Yeah,” Brendan said after a moment of just sitting in the chair before he started to wake the ship, flipping switches and touching controllers.  “The kelteminaphine’s cleared, I think, and whatever you gave me instead is taking the edges off.  I can see straight and my hands aren’t shaking.  I think I’ll be okay.”

Ezra nodded slowly, looking back toward the figures approaching them quickly through the trees.  He was starting to be able to make out Alana’s face, locked into a grimace.  What’s wrong?  Is she hurt?  He squinted, pressing closer to the window to try to see. Damn her for wearing black!  I can’t see anything.

He pulled back, chewing at the inside of his lip for a moment before he headed for the hatch.  One way or another, I’ll find out in a minute.

“Oh man,” American murmured softly.  “Is he ever angry about something.”

Brendan glanced at America, frowning, then mumbled a curse at himself and focused on the controls.  Ezra shook his head.

“Is that unusual?”

“Mm.  Depended on how the war was going on any given day.”  America perched on the edge of her bunk, eyes on the hatch.  “Toward the end, he was upset a lot, but not angry.  Not like this.”

The comm clicked three times.  Ezra hit the hatch control, cycling it open.  Alana propelled a tall, broad-shouldered figure into the craft before she stepped in after him, her expression a thundercloud matching his.  Ezra blinked, staring at the two of them.

“All in,” Alana snapped and hit the hatch control.  “Get us the hell out of here, Cho.”

“As soon as you lock down the hatch, Alana.”  The engines hummed to life.  A shiver ran through the ship.  “Guys are going to want to strap in.  I’m not sure we’re going to avoid that spot of weather that was rolling in when we landed.”

Ezra glanced at his friend.  “How long do I have before we hit it?”

“Not very long, Ez.  Five minutes, tops, and then your ass had better be tied down to something.”

“Right.”  Ezra turned to the man he presumed was Grant Channing and pointed to the space on the bunk next to America.  “You, sit, now.”

Grant wasn’t listening.  He was glaring at Alana, who was strapping herself into a seat near the pilot’s console.  “You put my daughter in danger.  What the hell were you thinking?”

Alana stared straight ahead, saying nothing.

Ezra’s brow furrowed.  What the hell is this?  “Commander Channing?  Please sit down.”

He was ignored as Grant continued his tirade.  “I asked you to protect her!  To make sure nothing happened to her!  And you decide to come gallivanting out here looking for me after I expressly told you not to attempt a rescue at any cost!”  Grant leveled a finger at Alana.  “How dare you!”

Alana looked at him squarely.  “She and Rachel both told me to come.”

“And if Rachel and my daughter told you to jump off a bridge, would you?”

What the hell is this?  “Commander, sit down.”

“Well?  Would you?”

The ship began to shake, buffeted by winds.  “Strap in,” Brendan warned.  “I’m not going to be responsible for bodies flying around the cabin.”

Ezra grasped Grant by the shoulder as the turbulence increased.  “Sir, I don’t want to have to hit you, but I will if I you make me.  Sit down.”

The ship bucked and Ezra caught himself against the bulkhead as Grant was tossed down onto the bunk with America, who grasped his arm tightly.  The ship rattled and lightning knifed past the viewports.  Bracing himself, Ezra looked at Brendan, who was white-knuckling the controls.

“How bad is it?”

“Bad enough!  Hang on.”

The ship seemed to drop abruptly, then nosed up and started to rapidly climb.

Ezra stumbled sideways, slamming into the bulkhead and sliding to the deck.  Alana’s hand grasped his shoulder and held him in place as the ship continued to shake.  It grew worse the higher they seemed to climb.

“Almost there.”  Brendan’s voice was tight.  Ezra squinted.  Was he shaking, or was that just an optical illusion born from the ship’s shaking and the pilot’s seat shaking out of sync with each other?

The shaking stopped abruptly agonizing seconds later.  Clear skies full of stars filled the viewport and the ship realigned, angling upward and to the left to stay out of a satellite’s scanning radius.

Brendan laid in a course with one hand.  It was shaking.

So it wasn’t an optical illusion.

Ezra picked himself up from the deck, starting to move toward his friend.

“I can’t believe the risk you took, Alana,” Grant growled.  “And broke the promise you made to me while doing it.”

That’s it.  Ezra bit the inside of his cheek and turned slowly toward Grant, who was starting to rise even as America tried to hold him down.  “Commander, sir, let me make something abundantly clear to you.  I don’t want to have to punch you, but I will if that’s what it takes to get you to knock it the hell off.  You should be grateful to Alana.  She’s put her entire existence on hold for Lindsay.  She’s doing this for her.  Not in spite of her.  She wouldn’t have even come if Lindsay herself hadn’t said that leaving you two in captivity wasn’t an option, and I still had to talk her into it.  I had to point out that the alternative was the two of you dying.”

Alana cleared her throat.  “Ezra.”

Ezra waved her off.  “Though talking her into it was easier than talking Brendan into it.  Talking your son-in-law into it.  So I guess you could say that she’s here protecting Lindsay through his Bond to her.”

“Ezra.”  There was a note of pleading in her voice.

Again, he ignored her for the moment.  “And another thing—”

“Ezra.”  Alana jerked on his arm and pointed at Brendan, whose shaking was becoming more pronounced, starting to tip toward convulsion.

Shit.  Ezra spun fully toward Brendan and headed to the console.  Brendan’s eyes were glued to his board but a trickle of blood oozed from his nostril.  “Brendan?”

“Just let me finish,” Brendan whispered, lips barely moving.  His knuckles were white on the control stick, fingers of his free hand twitching arhythmically over the jump control.  “I’m almost finished.”  His face was pale, eyes more bloodshot now than they had been before.  He was twitching, though he didn’t seem to notice it, or the shakes.

I shouldn’t have put him back into the pilot’s chair.  Ezra touched his shoulder.

Brendan’s hand came down on the jump switch half a second later.

The ship shivered and accelerated before the screens went gray in front of them.  The ship settled into its pace, the gray fading into hyperspace.

Brendan’s eyelids fluttered and he slumped into Ezra soundlessly.  Ezra cursed.

“Alana, help me get him back into the bunk.”

“What happened?”

Ezra shook his head as he got Brendan by the shoulders.  “Something tells me I shouldn’t have let him fly this thing.”  They hauled Brendan over to his bunk and laid him out again.  Ezra mopped up the blood coming from his friend’s nose and murmured another curse under his breath.  What the hell is this, Brendan?

“What happened to him?”  Grant’s question was practically a demand.  Ezra ignored him as he started assessing whatever further damage Brendan had done to himself.

America touched her husband’s arm.  “Calm down, Grant,” she murmured.  “He’s a pilot. During the first leg of the run, while they were getting me out of Corp space, he had to manually deactivate his implant so they couldn’t take control of the ship.”

“Manually deactivate his implant.”

“He stabbed himself in the implant, Commander.  Twice.  It actually took the second time.”  Alana swiveled the pilot’s chair back toward the bunks.  “He’s one of the best pilots Marshal Windsor has, if not the best.  And he’s Bonded to your daughter.”  Alana glanced at Ezra.  “Is he going to make it?  Lindsay will kill you if he doesn’t.”

“I’m not even sure what just happened,” Ezra muttered, tearing open another patch and slapping it against Brendan’s neck.

Alana grimaced, glancing back at the boards.  “Well, you’ve got some time to figure that out.  We’re locked in for a direct line back home.”

“Back home?  No correction point?”

“Guess not.”  Alana shook her head, looking at America and Grant.  “I suppose he wanted to get them home to Lindsay as quickly as he could.”

Maybe.  Ezra frowned.  Brendan’s vitals were slowly stabilizing.  Could it have been a side-effect from stabbing his implant?  He wasn’t sure and had no literature at hand to check his theories.  Exhaling a sigh, he turned to Grant and America.  “Let’s have a look at you, Commander.”

Grant arched an eyebrow.  America smirked a little and squeezed his arm.  “Don’t worry, dear.  I’m sure he’ll be gentle.”

The onetime commander of the Psychean Guard’s remnant looked like he didn’t believe her.

Ezra smiled.  “First, do no harm.  Lie back, Commander.  Time to see how badly that oath’s been violated in the last eighteen years.”

Chapter Twenty-two

Gods and monsters, kings and pawns, saviors and slayers.  Strange how the paths to become all of the above can be so similar.

— attributed to Ryland LeSarte, circa 4850 PD


10 Novem, 5249 PD


            Ezra stared at Alana as Alana stared at realspace.  They were drifting quietly just out of sensor range of Anduril’s installations, looking like just another piece of debris in the field that stretched from the edge of the system inward.  He wondered about that as a piece of what was once a larger ship drifted past the viewport.

“They leave it all here to deter traffic,” Alana said softly.  “Most of the debris has been here since the last war or longer.”  She gestured to the drifting shell of metal that they were easing past.  “That’s from the Theodosius.  Her crew mutinied in 5229.  They sent a squad of five to deal with the problem.”

“Five ships?”

Alana shook her head.  Her metal hand twitched, as if she was snapping someone’s neck with a touch.  Ezra winced.

Five people.  And she was one of them.

She smiled tightly up over her shoulder at him.  “It’s not a time in my life I’m very proud of, Ezra.”

“No,” he murmured softly.  “I guess not.  I’m sorry, Alana.”

She shrugged slightly, half turning to see if Brendan or America were awake.  Brendan was out like a light, unmoving.  America was out, too, but she was sleeping more fitfully than the pilot.

Nightmares, probably.  I’d have them, too.  Ezra exhaled slowly.  “Do you want me to wake him?”

“Let him sleep a little longer.  Rather have him rested in case he has to actually do something on this leg of the op.”  She didn’t seem too worried—not from her tone, anyway.  Not yet.  Of course, there wasn’t much to read in the flat, almost dead tone of her voice.

Sometimes, he wondered how much she buried, how broken and jagged she was inside.  Everyone worried about Brendan and Lindsay, worried about me.  No one worried about you, Alana.  No one even thought about it.  Ezra reached down and squeezed her shoulder.

She started to reach up with her metal hand.  She stopped herself and switched to her flesh and blood hand.   Her fingers covered his and she squeezed his hand gently.  Her eyes never left what was beyond the viewport.  “Thanks Ezra.”

He shook his head slowly.  “You don’t have anything you need to thank me for, Alana.”

She didn’t protest, though he knew she considered it.  She just squeezed his hand again.  For a few long moments, they were silent.  Alana finally cleared her throat.  “Should I give you or Meri a weapon to cover the door with?”

Ezra took a deep breath.  “I can cover the door.”

She finally looked up at him, almost squinting.  “Are you sure?”

He hesitated for a moment before nodding.  “I shouldn’t have to use it.  We’ll be parked out in the middle of nowhere.”

Alana inclined her head.  “Out here, y’never know.”

Ezra grimaced and hoped for a moment—only a moment—that he wouldn’t have to use it.  After that moment, he decided that he’d better save his hopes for more important things.  Like Alana keeping herself alive—and safe.

“You think too much, Ezra,” Alana said softly.  “Don’t overthink.  Feel.  Go by touch.  Safer that way.”

He wasn’t so sure about that.  Alana nudged the controls.  “I hope he’s feeling up to flying when he wakes up,” Ezra mumbled, glancing back toward the bunks.  America’s sleep had quieted, perhaps deepened.  Either way, nightmares plagued her no longer, at least for the moment.

“Nothing you can do about it if he’s not, Ezra.  Just have to hope.  Nothing else to do.”  Alana shrugged slightly.  “We do what we have to do.”

What we have to do.  “Alana…”

“Don’t say it.  That’s not something you have to do.”

Ezra sighed and squeezed her shoulder again.  “Okay.”  He let go, turning away, moving toward the bunks.  He’d check on them, then prepare himself to maybe kill someone today.  Her voice made him pause.

“Ezra?  Thank you.”  She didn’t look at him.  Her eyes were looked on the control boards, on the debris outside.

He smiled.  “You’re welcome.”


●   ●   ●


Brendan slowly pushed himself up on an elbow as he came awake again.  The ship shuddered gently as Alana settled it into a clearing amidst a thick copse of trees and a stony rise.  His eyes weren’t hurting anymore—an improvement, to be certain.  He glanced across toward America.  She was still down for the count.  He sat up a little further.  His vision swam, stomach twisted, then settled.  A dull pounding rose again behind his eyes.  He groaned softly, rubbing his face.

“Whatever you gave me is helping a little, Ez.”  He slumped against the wall, half upright.

Ezra turned from where he was standing near Alana.  “Good.  Was hoping you’d wake up.”

Brendan grunted.  “Where are we?  Anduril?”  If we’re at Anduril, that means I slept the ten hours between the correction point and here.  That might be why I feel better.

“We’re about three klicks north of target, yes.”  Alana was securing the console, kicking engines to standby and checking sensors.  Brendan straightened up a little more, pausing to let his vision normalize and his stomach settle.  “It looks like there may be some weather in the area, but we shouldn’t have to worry about that, I don’t think.”

“Hope not,” Brendan murmured, rubbing his eyes.  They didn’t hurt, per se, but they ached a little.

She was looking at him.  “Will you be able to fly?”

“Not sure.  Maybe.”  His stomach growled.  He reached gingerly for the half-eaten packet of rations next to his pillow.  “Hopefully not in inclement weather and hopefully not anything too fancy.  Not sure I can stand up right now, let alone deal with either of those things.  Significant g-forces would be murder at this stage.”  He began to chew slowly on a corner of jerky.

“Eating’s a good sign.”  Ezra brought him a filled water bottle.

Brendan grunted.  “Probably.  Thanks.  Sleeping helped, too.  A lot, I think.”  The thought of reaching for Lindsay still brought a faint thumping pain to his temples, though.  It was too far and his brain was too scrambled.  Even as soothing emotionally as the touch might be, the physical toll would be too high.  “When are you going, Alana?”

She finished at the console and stood, checking her hand and then her other weapons with the certainty and speed of long practice.  “In five.  It shouldn’t take me longer than a few hours.”

“Assuming you don’t run into complications.”

Alana glanced at Ezra, then at Brendan, then back to Ezra.  “Remember what I said before?”

Ezra nodded.

“That was another example.”

Ezra looked confused for a moment, then blushed and shook his head.  “Right.”

Alana twisted her hair up into a tight coil and tugged on a hood to hold it in place, hide the flaxen color, and keep it out of her way.  “Double click on the comm means I have him.  Short long short means problems.”

Brendan winced.  “We don’t have any backup to send you, Alana.”  Just Ezra, but that’s not going to happen.

“I know that.”  Her voice was soft and for some reason, that left him shaken.  They stared at each other for a few long moments before she turned away and headed for the hatch.  “Don’t try to call.  Let me call first.”

“Right.”  Brendan was pretty sure the statement was aimed at Ezra.

“And don’t let America start worrying, either.  At this range, their connection will be reestablishing itself and I don’t need Commander Channing distracted.”

Brendan stared at her.  How does she know this stuff?

Ezra touched Alana’s shoulder as she cycled the hatch.  No words passed between them.  Alana smiled tightly and was gone.

What was that all about?  He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.  He slumped against the wall took a long swallow of water.  “She’ll be fine,” he said finally, staring at Ezra.  “This is Alana we’re talking about.  She’s the most deadly person we know.”

“Yeah,” Ezra murmured.  “I know.  I’m just worried about what this is going to do to her.”

“Anyone who tries to lay a hand on her will be dead before they hit the floor.”

“I know.”  There was a mournful note in his voice.  “That’s what I’m worried about.”

My brains are more scrambled than I thought.  “She’ll be fine, Ez.”

He exhaled noisily.  “Yeah.  You’re right.  She’ll be fine.”

What’s gotten into you, Ez?  Brendan swallowed the last of the ration packet and slowly straightened a little further.  His head swam a bit, then the vertigo passed, at least momentarily.  “You okay?”

“Yeah.  I’m fine.”  Ezra was still staring out the windshield, as if he was still watching Alana, who’d already vanished.

Brendan opened his mouth to ask, then closed it again, deciding that maybe he didn’t want to know.  A faint throbbing rose in his temples, which was peanuts compared to everything else lately.  He stared at the ration packet in his hands, squinted.  He couldn’t quite bring it into focus.  “Hey, Ez?  What did you give me, again?”

“Kelteminaphine, why?”

Great.  Brendan grunted.  “Can’t fly.”


“Can’t fly when I’m on KT.  Fine motor skills and focus go to shit.  Can’t pick out fine details.  Reaction time drops.  I thought you knew.”  If I had a functioning implant, it might not matter, but that shuttle’s already left the dock.

Ezra mumbled a curse and stared out the viewport again.  “I knew.  I just didn’t think,” he said finally, then sighed.  “Sorry Brendan.”

“Apologize to Alana, not me.  I get to stay horizontal this way.”  Brendan started on the rations again.  I’m just grateful I don’t want to unscrew my head and set it on the floor next to me.  I’m going to feel like crap on a cracker when it wears off, though.  “Apologize when it clears my system and I feel like shit.”  Because it’s not going to be pleasant.  I know that much.  He paused.  “Is there something different you can give me?”

“Yeah, I think so.  Might not be as effective.”

“That’s fine.  If the kelteminaphine clears my system fast, I might be able to take the controls.  Maybe.”  He took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.

Ezra was more terse than he’d ever seen him before.  Brendan’s brow furrowed.

What the hell is he—


“You’re worried about her.  Why the hell are you so worried about her?”

“I’d have thought it was obvious by now.”

“Not really.”

Ezra sighed, not bothering to look at him.

Brendan grimaced.  What have I not been seeing?  He started in on the packet again, chewing slowly, thoughtfully.  It finally struck him.  “Has something been going on between the two of you while I’ve been sleeping?”

Ezra shook his head slowly.  “She’s not the inhuman monster you think she is, Brendan.  That’s all.  There’s more to her than just the killing machine.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Brendan mumbled, mouth half full.  “She only shows the killing machine.”

Ezra shrugged, staring out at the trees and grass.  Brendan fell silent, concentrating on eating.  Eventually, he went back to sleep and left his friend alone with his thoughts.

Chapter Twenty-One

The waiting is always the hardest.  Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.  They’re lying, or they’ve never had to wait for something they really gave a damn about before in their lives.

— Adam Windsor, circa 5240


7 Novem, 5249 PD


            “Have we heard from them yet?”  Lindsay slipped into operations, a light jacket hugged tightly around herself.  Dark circles ringed her eyes, circles that were mirrored by those under Adam’s.

He shook his head, taking a long swallow of coffee that was stronger than usual.  He’d given an order about that when he’d walked into operations twelve hours ago.  “Not yet.  Have you felt anything from him?”

She shook her head slowly, sitting down at one of the unmanned consoles.  “No.  But I haven’t tried reaching, either.  Aunt Rachel and Marshal Rose told me I’d know if he was dead, though.”  I hope they’re right.  God, do I hope they’re right.

If any of the staff on duty were listening to their conversation—and undoubtedly a few were—they didn’t let on, didn’t react at all.  I don’t care if people start finding out about him and I.  It’s time they knew.  It’s time everyone knew.  I should have told the Council a long time ago, fallout or no fallout.  It’s my life, and we love each other.  It’s none of their damn business.  She licked her lips.  “When can we expect to hear from them, then?”

Adam shook his head slowly, staring at the starplot.  “I’m not sure, Lindsay.  Could be hours.  Could be days.”  He scrubbed a hand over his face.  “You want some coffee?”

She started to shake her head and hesitated.  It sounds like it might be good.  Haven’t had it in a long time.  She nodded.  “Yeah, I’ll have some.”

He nodded and gestured to a young officer—no, that wasn’t right, the uniform was the wrong color—who was apparently doing nothing important.  “Go get Consul Farragut some coffee, would you?”

The blonde girl nodded and slipped out of the room.  Adam watched her go.

“She’s one of Brendan’s cadets,” he said, almost absently.  “Bright girl.  She’ll make a good officer.”

Lindsay nodded slightly.  She licked her lips.  “Do you really think they can do this?”

“It’s too late for me to say no now, Lindsay.”

She smiled wryly.  “Your honest opinion.”

Adam stared at the starplot for another few long moments, then nodded.  “Yes.  I do.  They will.  And they’ll be home before you know it.”

“And until then, I get to sit here and worry about him.”

Adam smiled wryly.  “Now you know what your aunt went through for a few years, Lindsay.”  He’d barely stopped himself from calling her Linny-pie.  She could hear it in his voice.  She smiled back.

“Aunt Rachel’s stronger than I am in a lot of ways.”  I wish I had her strength, sometimes.  I’m glad I didn’t have to go through what she did, though, to develop that strength.  Really, really glad.  “I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

Adam nodded.  “You’re young.  You have time to learn those lessons—in the due time that it takes to learn them.”

The cadet returned with a mug of coffee.  Lindsay smiled, nodding in thanks.  The cadet smiled back and withdrew back to her position near the door, where she seemed to be watching everything.

Job shadowing?  Lindsay wasn’t sure.  If she was one of Brendan’s cadets, she was supposed to be a pilot.  Wonder if we’re preparing for the worst—making sure everyone can do whatever job needs doing at any given time.  “When do you leave to go claim that ship?”

Adam shook his head.  “Plans changed.  We’ll be meeting with their representatives in the asteroid belt in two days.  It didn’t seem prudent to leave with the operation that we’re running right now.”

Lindsay agreed with that, and she knew that Adam realized that even without her saying a word about it.  She cradled her mug in both hands, staring at the starplot.

“Sir?”  One of the technicians turned away from his console, fingers pressed against the earpiece of his headset.  “We’re getting a transmission from Omega team.”

Adam made eye contact with Lindsay, then nodded to the technician.  “Put it through.”

It was Alana’s voice that came crackling over the speakers.  Lindsay swallowed hard as her heart dropped.  Oh god, please.  Please.

“Quebec Operation control, this is Omega team with the halfway status report.”  Her voice was firm, professional—cold.  Colder than Lindsay had ever heard it.

Things went poorly.  Oh no.  She bit her lip, hands tightening, knuckles going white around the mug.  They were wrong.  He’s dead…

Adam cleared his throat.  “This is Quebec Op control.  Go ahead, Omega team.”

“We have her, Marshal.”  That was all Alana said.

We knew that already.  Doesn’t she know that we knew that already?  Brendan let me see her.  Lindsay swallowed hard, looking at Adam.  “Uncle Adam…”  Her voice was quiet, desperate.  Please.  I need to know.  I need to know!

He touched her arm.  “Casualties?”

There was an agonizingly long pause.  “We’re all still alive, sir.”

Lindsay leaned against Adam, knees weakening.  He’s alive.  But he’s not…flying the ship?  Or is he?  Is that why Alana is on the comm?

“What about your pilot?  Is he at the controls?”  It was as if her uncle had heard her thoughts—and Lindsay wasn’t sure he hadn’t.

Another pause.  “No, sir.  Dr. Grace has him sedated.”

Sedated?  She bit her lip.

“Have Dr. Grace wake him, please, and get him on the comm.”  Adam looked at Lindsay for a long moment, then looked toward the girl who’d brought her coffee.  “Find Consul Farragut a headset, Tomasi, and get her a console ready.”

Brendan’s cadet nodded.  Lindsay squeezed her uncle’s arm, stomach flip-flopping.

Please let him be okay.  Please.


●   ●   ●


The pain had ebbed only slightly as he came around, apparently more slowly than Ezra wanted him to.  Brendan groaned softly, waving a hand impotently in an attempt to ward him off.  “What is it?”

“Alana says Marshal Windsor wants you on the comm.  You need to sit up, man.  I’ve got the headset here.”

The thought of sitting up wasn’t very appealing.  Brendan swallowed.  I’m going to need a patch or something to make it through sitting up, I think.  Probably more than a patch.  “How long since my last pain patch?”

“You should be good for another half an hour.”

Brendan swallowed again, squeezing his eyes shut.  “Okay.”  Deep breath.  He slowly pushed himself up on his elbow, keeping his eyes closed.  His head swam; the pounding increased for a moment.  It didn’t seem like it was going to ebb anytime soon.  He stayed propped on his elbow, leaning slightly against the bunk’s back wall, and held out his free hand for the headset.  “I don’t think I’m going to be able to get much more upright than this, Ez.”

Ezra nodded a little.  “I think that’ll work.  Here.”  He handed over the headset and straightened up, looking toward Alana.

Brendan eased the headset into place, taking another deep breath and exhaling it slowly.  He gestured slightly to Alana, who nodded and tapped a control.  Brendan closed his eyes, sagging against the wall.  “This is Cho.”

“Brendan?  You sound terrible.”

Lindsay.  He exhaled, breath catching in his throat for a moment.  “I’m okay,” he managed to say, knowing his voice sounded strangled, rough at more than just the edges.  “I will be, anyway.  Are you all right?”

all right.  Worried as hell about you.”  She still sounded more than a little relieved despite her words.  “What happened?”

He swallowed hard.  So sorry, Lin.  I’m so sorry.  His head swam a little and he squeezed his eyes shut a little more tightly.  “They were trying to take control of the ship.  I had to stop them.”

“They shot you?”

It was all he could do not to start laughing.  I wish they’d shot me.  It’d probably hurt less.  “Not quite like that, no.  Through the implant.  It…didn’t have an off switch.”

“Oh, Brendan.  You didn’t…”

“I did,” he whispered.  “I’m sorry, Lin.”

There was a trace of faint, rueful humor in her voice.  “I’m going to kill Ezra.”

“Do me a favor and wait until after he patches me back together again when we get home, okay?  He said I’ll make it that far.”  Brendan cracked an eye open and looked up at Ezra, who was giving him a dirty look.  He smiled a little up at his friend.  “Remind me never to get another implant, Lin.”

She laughed weakly.  “Don’t worry, I’m never going to let you out of my sight again.  Ever.”

Brendan laughed a little, too.  “That’s going to get a little awkward.”

“I don’t care.  I miss you.”

“I miss you, too,” he murmured.  “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” she said quietly.  “Come home safe?”

“If I have anything to do with it, we will.”  He licked his lips.  “You have to go?”

“Uncle Adam said if we talk longer, someone may be able to track the transmission.”

Uncle Adam?  She knew.  Why didn’t we?  “I love you,” he repeated.

“Come home to me,” she whispered.  The words were like her fingertips against his face, gentle, almost ephemeral.  He closed his eyes.

I promise.  He might have breathed the words.  There was no way to be sure.

The transmission cut off and he took off the headset even as he heard Alana start talking at the console.  Brendan sank back down to the mattress, groaning softly as Ezra relieved him of the headset.

“She’s angry at me.”

Brendan snorted softly, then winced as he realized that had increased the pounding in his head, too.  “You have to ask, Ez?  She’s worried about me and probably more than a little aggravated at what I had to do to myself.  It’s not your fault, though.  You had no way of knowing, and I never told you that they could do that.  It didn’t cross my mind.”  Brendan slowly pulled his blanket back up over his shoulder, shivering a little.  “I’ll run interference for you, I promise.”

“You hungry?”

“No,” Brendan said quietly.  “I wouldn’t be able to keep anything down right now.  Pain makes me nauseous and I don’t want to puke all over the deck.  We’d never get rid of the smell.”

On the other bunk, America stifled a quiet laugh.  Brendan tried to wink at her but found that it was more a long blink.

“Something tells me that you know what that feels like, Meri.”

She smiled a little.  “You could say that.  Lots of things used to make me nauseous.  War—and other things—help strengthen the stomach.”

Brendan grunted.  “Yeah, but some things never change.  I couldn’t eat for a week the last time I did this to myself.”

“A week?”  Ezra stared at him.  “That’s…generally a bad thing, Brendan.  Why didn’t you say something?”

“I kept those rations you gave me earlier down,” Brendan mumbled, closing his eyes.  “That’s a good sign.  I’ll eat a little more later.  Just…let me handle this the only way I know how.”  By sleeping as much as my body will let me.  This shouldn’t be too much longer, right?  We’re at the halfway point.  Alana just has to do her part, then we go home.  Easy.  My part was harder.  Alana’ll just go in and kill anything that gets in her way.  She’s good at that.

When he opened his eyes again, he could hear Ezra snoring softly somewhere outside of his vision.  He didn’t remember falling asleep, but he must have.  America was sitting up on her bunk, staring at him.  Brendan frowned.  “Trying to read me, Meri?”  He rasped.

She smiled faintly.  “I must be rusty if you woke up.”

He smiled a little back, shifting uncomfortably on the bunk.  His right arm was numb from laying on it.  “For some reason, I don’t think it was your attempts to read me that woke me up.”  His stomach growled a little.  His head was still pounding, but not as badly.  For a moment, he wondered how long he’d been asleep, only to decide a moment later that it didn’t matter.

“He awake?”  Alana called from the console.

Now what?  “I’m awake.  What’s wrong?”  He started to push up on his elbow, pausing after his vision dimmed for a moment.  I don’t think I’m going to do any more flying this trip.  If I do, it won’t be much.

“Ezra said to make you eat something.”  Alana tossed a few ration packets onto his bed with a bottle of water.  Brendan stared at them for a few long moments, then exhaled quietly as his stomach growled again.

That’s a good sign.  He managed to get half upright this time and resumed the lean he’d enjoyed while on the comm with Lindsay.  Alana went back to the boards as he ripped open the packet of rations and started in on the dried fruit inside the package.  America kept watching him.

“Someone helped you get me out,” she said softly after a few long moments.

He went tense for a moment, then forced himself to relax.  “How did you know?”  Brendan wet his lips and took a sip of water slowly.

America smiled.  “A hunch.”

He took another sip of water, swallowing hard.  “There was a girl.  Maybe eighteen.  She said I had to hurry.”  His brow furrowed.  “Who’s Zaki?”

America winced.  Brendan could almost feel the recoil, his stomach twisting in sympathy.  He winced himself and took another long swallow of water.  His stomach settled.  It was a few long moments before she spoke again, voice quiet—clearly, the only one she wanted to hear her was him.  “He was the scientist in charge.  I was trying to undermine him when I could.  Who knows whether or not I really did.”  She smiled weakly, licking her lips.  “I must have, because someone helped you.”

Brendan shivered.  “You did more than that, Meri,” he said quietly.  “The girl…”  He closed his eyes for a moment.  “She said they know the Cullings are coming.  They can feel it.  They can’t deny that anymore.”  He tried to push away the image burned into his brain, of the girl on the rack.  He took a deep breath.  “What did she mean,” he whispered, almost to himself.  “‘you’re the only hope we have’?”

“She said that?”

Brendan shook his head slightly.  “She said it, but I don’t know what it means.  Maybe that the colony is all any of them have.  The only hope for them, only way out.  I don’t know.”

“Maybe,” America said softly.  She hesitated a moment, as if she was going to elaborate, then thought better of it.  She took a sip from the water bottle sitting against her knee, took a deep breath.  “Yes,” she said softly.  “It must have been that that she meant.”

He knew that she was lying.  He just couldn’t bring himself to ask why.

Chapter Twenty

We fear our futures because they are unknown.  In truth, there’s no reason to fear your own future until you can see it.  Then you fear you can’t change it.

— Journal of Ryland LeSarte, circa 4859 PD


6 Novem, 5249 PD

You idiot.  What the hell were you thinking?  Ezra cursed under his breath again, staring at the mess Brendan had made of his implant and the back of his head.  And he’s done this before?  How the hell did he survive the first time?

“How is he?”  America’s voice was quiet.  She perched precariously on the edge of the bunk behind him, watching him work while Alana manned the controls.  They were in hyperspace, now, headed for an uninhabited system where they could shoot off a message to E-557 before heading to Compact space for Alana’s leg of the mission.

“Not good.”  Ezra shook his head slowly.  “If I’d expected him to pull a stunt like this, I’d have brought different equipment.  I can’t take it out, not here.  I can’t repair it, either.”  He sighed.  At least the bleeding, for the moment, had stopped for the most part.  He didn’t mention that he couldn’t do too much poking around for fear of sparking a bleed he couldn’t stop.  He didn’t have the blood supplies to handle that.

“Is he going to make it?”

Alana snorted from the pilot’s seat.  “He’ll live.  He did a worse number on himself the first time.”

Ezra blinked at Alana’s back.  “You were there?”

She grunted and didn’t elaborate.  Ezra cursed mentally.  Would it kill you to open up about what you know sometime, Alana?

America shook her head slightly and winced.  “I can only imagine how much pain he must be in.”

Ezra didn’t say anything.  He suspected it was going to get a lot worse.  Guess I’m not as brilliant as I think I am sometimes.  He’d been trying to figure out what had prompted Brendan to do what he’d done.  Without being able to ask him or glean it from recent memories—Brendan had been thinking in his native tongues at the time—Ezra could only speculate on why it had happened, and that bothered him.

He eased a fresh bandage into place and turned toward America, who smiled wanly at him.  He shook his head.  “You look like you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in years, ma’am.”

A wider smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.  “Call me Meri.  Most people do.  Did, anyhow.”  She tucked one leg slowly up underneath the other.  “Are you a friend of my daughter’s, too?”

Ezra laughed a little and nodded.  “Yeah, and as long as I don’t get Brendan killed, I think she’ll still be my friend when we get back.  Ezra Grace.”  He started to offer her his hand, then grimaced as he remembered it was sticky with Brendan’s blood.  He offered her a sheepish smile as he got up to go clean his hands.  “Sorry.  You hungry?”

America offered him a wry smile.  “Are you offering something other than a protein shake?”

Ezra shrugged.  “Not much better, but more solid.”

“Then I’m starving.”

He nodded, managing a grin, then ducked into the head to clean up.  There was blood all over his shirt.  He winced, took it off, then washed his hands and chest before rinsing his shirt in the sink and hanging it up, hoping that he’d gotten the blood out.  It was hard to tell in the dim light.  After getting some rations from the cargo hold, he returned to the bunks.  America was leaning against the back wall of hers, eyes closed.  It almost looked like she was meditating, like a Buddhist monk of Old Earth.

Ezra set one of the packets of crackers and dried fruit down by her knee with a water bottle.  He sat on the floor and leaned against Brendan’s bunk.  Brendan was still out like a light, but his breathing sounded good—deep, even, regular.

Let him stay out for a while, Ezra decided.  If he didn’t wake up on his own in the next hour or two, he’d wake him.  Until then, it was better to let him recover from the shock to his system in whatever way his body wanted to recover from it.  Ezra had found that was often the best way of dealing with problems like this.

He ripped open his own packet of dried fruit and tossed a few cranberries into his mouth, beginning to chew.  America opened an eye and looked at him.  “Where are we going now?”  She asked.  “Back to E-557?”

Ezra shook his head.  “Not…directly.  We still need to pickup your husband.”

She blinked a little, sitting forward slightly.  “Where is he?”

“Installation seven seven two niner on Anduril,” Alana answered from the controls.  Ezra hadn’t even been aware she was listening to them.  Her voice was even, firm, confident.  “I think I know exactly where they’ll be holding him, in fact.  Easy op.  I’ll go in, I’ll smack some people around, and I’ll come out with Commander Channing.”

“Anduril…that’s a Compact world.”  America’s eyes widened.  Fear threaded through her voice, dropping soft.  “The Eurydice Compact has him?”

Alana nodded, keeping her eyes on the board.

America made a sound that was half a whimper, half a gasp.  “He’s from the Compact.”

“I know.”  Alana’s voice was quieter, now.

Ezra stared at the back of her head.  Damn, Alana.  What else have you failed to tell us about?

“They’ll have killed him.”

“No,” Alana said slowly.  “I don’t think they have.  Not based on what your daughter saw.  They won’t kill him if they think he’s important…and I’m pretty sure that’s what they’re thinking.”  She stared out the window at hyperspace.

How do you know that, Alana?

America seemed to take her knowledge at face value.  “I hope you’re right,” she said softly.

Ezra refrained from saying that he hoped she was right, too.  He patted America’s knee.  “Our intelligence has reported that he’s alive, at least,” he said quietly.

America nodded slightly, her eyes on Alana’s back.  If Alana noticed the stare, she didn’t let on.  For a moment, Ezra wondered if she was thinking what he was thinking—how did the former assassin know?  What was it that she hadn’t told anyone?

Was that going to get them all killed?

●   ●   ●

The sky was gray, like steel.  The wreckage of his bird burned behind him as he stood on the promontory, watching fire rain out of the sky.  Scorched earth.  That’s the decision they’d made, apparently.  They didn’t care what they did, what they damaged, who they killed. As long as they got the resources, as long as they held the place, it didn’t matter.  They didn’t care about the trees, the animals, many of the species the last of their kind.  They didn’t care.

His hands tightened into fists.  He was powerless, cut off.  They were bombing Fort Solace.  They were bombing Fort Solace and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

…or was there…

He reached for her, found her.  He’d intended to warn her.  Instead, everything went black…

…klaxons wailed.  A woman jerked herself away from a console, looking at a man perhaps seven years her senior.

“What’s going on?  Who’s attacking us?”

The man shook his head, grasping her by the arm and standing her up quickly.  “Does it matter?  They’re attacking the Commonwealth.”

“…who would do that?”

“It doesn’t matter.  We’ve become the new Guard.  We’re standing in their way.”

“But Padriag…”

“Did you think I told you to take those people and run for no reason?  Get out of here, Miriam.  Run.”

“What about you?”

“Don’t worry about me.  If I get clear, I’ll see you again.  If I don’t…well.  You’ll figure it out soon enough.  Now go!”

She cast one last look at him and ran…

“No,” Brendan mumbled.  His head was pounding.  How long had he been having the nightmares?  How long had he been out?  He wanted to open his eyes but at the same time he didn’t.  The light would hurt.  He remembered that.

“Brendan?  You awake, man?”  Ezra pried one of his eyes open and shined a light into it.  The brightness felt like fire searing his eyeballs into cinders.

Brendan jerked back, swearing and banging his head against the back wall of his bunk.  Black swallowed him again, though only briefly.  The pain hadn’t ebbed at all when he came to again.

He groaned.  The first coherent words he got out were directed at Ezra.  “Shine a light in my eyes like that one more time and I’m going to take you apart with my bare hands, Ez.”

Ezra’s laugh was strangled.

I must look and sound like hell.  Thinking a coherent thought was a struggle.  “Can you give me something for the pain?”  His tongue felt like lead.  He kept his eyes squeezed shut, fearing the light.  It would hurt, and he knew it.

“Yeah, hang on a second.”  Ezra rummaged around for a moment before he slapped an analgesic patch on the side of Brendan’s neck, near the bandage that covered where he’d stabbed himself.

Brendan exhaled slowly.  It wouldn’t take more than a few minutes for the patch’s effects to kick in.  He’d risk opening his eyes once that happened.  “How long was I out?” he mumbled.

Ezra hesitated before answering.  “Ten hours,” he finally said.  “For a little while I wasn’t sure you were going to wake up at all.”

He laughed weakly.  “And break a promise to Lin?  Fat chance.”  She’s going to worry.  She’s going to worry a lot.  Probably already is, if she felt what happened.  For a moment, he considered reaching through the bond for her but quickly thought better of it.  The pain was enough already without adding strain into the mix.  He was fairly certain the nightmares were because of the circumstances, too.  Something she’d seen must have leaked across to him in those last seconds before he lost consciousness.  “Apparently we got clear.”  The pain was slowly starting to ebb, but not disappear.  He hadn’t expected it to disappear anyway—all he was hoping for was something to take the sharp edges off of it, the stuff that made him feel like his skull was full of razor blades and his body was stretched out on a bed of them.

“Yeah.  Alana’s keeping an eye on the controls.”

“I’m surprised you’d trust me with it, Cho.”

Brendan had to laugh.  “Ezra can’t fly, Alana.”

“Hey now.”  Ezra growled a little.  “I can fly.”

“In a combat situation with unfamiliar controls and lots of things you could hit.  Not to mention getting us into hyperspace?  No, Ezra, he’s right.  You can’t.”  Alana was quiet for a moment.  “Are you going to be able to take these back from me on this little jaunt, Brendan?”

“ETA?”  I really don’t think I’m going to be in any shape to man the controls inside of the next couple days, but maybe with a little more sleep under my belt and a lot of medication, I could do it.

“We’ll drop back to realspace in about twelve hours.”

Have we made contact with home?  “For correction?”

“Mm.  And to shoot a message back to the colony.”

He swallowed.  “I’m not going to be up to taking the controls back before then.  Probably not for another twenty-four hours, at least.”  He risked opening an eye.  The light hurt.  He squeezed it shut again and took a deep breath before trying again, blinking through tears.  A little better, but not much.  He groaned.  “Guess I did more of a number on myself than I thought,” Brendan mumbled, slowly starting to reposition himself on the bunk.

Ezra shook his head slowly.  “Why did you do that?”

“Because my implant didn’t have an off switch,” he grumbled.  “I’m pretty sure they were going to try to take control of the ship through my implant.  They were catching some readings.  I assume they couldn’t understand them because psychics don’t fly around here and started to get suspicious.”

Alana glanced at him.  “You flew for them.”

Brendan shook his head slightly and winced as his head throbbed harder, making a mental note not to do that again.  “They didn’t know what I was.  I was a latent.  Crashing on E-557 woke up my abilities.”  He looked past Ezra to America, who was sitting on the bunk across from his, arms wrapped around her knees.

“That happens,” she said softly.  “We used to see it a lot in the Guard.  Trauma sometimes can spark latents.  They’re sometimes stronger than people who were born with their abilities.”  She studied Brendan for a long moment.  “You’re Bonded to my daughter.”

Brendan winced.  “How did you know?”

America smiled faintly.  “Some of us can tell.”

His brow furrowed.  There’s a lot I don’t know.  His stomach growled and he groaned.  Eating would require sitting up, and he wasn’t sure he could manage that without ending upon the floor or worse.

Ezra shoved a ration packet into his hands.  Brendan stared at him.  Ezra shrugged.  “Figured you’d be hungry when you woke up.  Brought extra out when Meri and I ate earlier.”

“Meri?”  Brendan asked, confused.  Who’s Meri?  America waved a little at him.  Oh.  “Oh.”

She smiled a little.  “You’re not very fast on the uptake right about now, are you, young man?”

“I wish I was, ma’am,” he said quietly.  This really isn’t how I envisioned this turning out.  I guess it could have gone worse.  That girl with the keycard could’ve been a trap. Thank whatever’s out there for the very smallest of favors.

She smiled a little more, looking at the three of them in turn.  “So.  Grumpy sent the three of you.”

Alana’s brow furrowed and she turned in her chair to look at America.  “…Grumpy?”

“Adam Windsor.  Grumpy.  You…don’t know him by that name, do you?”  She studied them, especially Brendan, then asked, “How do you know him?”

He licked his lips, fumbling with the ration packet.  “He’s one of the Guardians.  Military commanders of the Colony.  He’s…ah…my commanding officer, ultimately.”

“Really,” there was a bare trace of surprise in America’s voice.  “Who’d have thought?”  She smiled a little.  “What about his wife?”

Brendan almost sat bolt upright.  He has a wife?  As it was, barely stopping himself from doing just that sent pain shooting from the back of his neck down his spine and straight through his head.  He choked on a groan, putting a hand over his eyes.  It didn’t help.  “He has a wife?”  He croaked.  “Who?”

“Who?”  America blinked.  “My sister.”

“Rachel?”  Ezra’s brow furrowed.  Even Alana looked shocked, Brendan could see out of the corner of his eye.

Even Alana didn’t know that.  Interesting.

America nodded slowly.  “You didn’t know that?”

“No,” Brendan said, almost hollowly.  “I lived with her for years.  I didn’t know.  Alana?  Did you know?”

Alana shrugged a little.  “I always figured that Rachel’s private life was Rachel’s private life.  I never asked.  She was focused on Lindsay, near as I could ever tell.  She was more important than anything else.”

America frowned, leaning back.  “Interesting,” she murmured.  “Well.  I guess that’s something I’m going to have to ask them about, then, isn’t it?”

Ezra nodded slowly.  “I’m guessing so.”

Brendan tried not to yawn, knowing that he shouldn’t be tired.  He chewed some of the rations from the packet.  His eyelids were heavy, and his eyes stung.  “Hey, Ez?”

“Yeah, Brendan?”

He handed back the ration packet.  “Wake me when we drop back to realspace?  If we’re going to make contact, I’d like to be the one to do it, if I can.”

“You going back to sleep?”

“Yeah.  My head’s killing me and the patch is only taking the edges off.  Maybe it’ll feel better when I wake up.”  It’d better feel better when I wake up.  He squeezed his eyes shut and exhaled, trying to regulate his breathing.

“I’m going to wake you every hour or so, Brendan.”

“Sure thing, Ez,” he mumbled.  It wasn’t worth fighting.  Ezra was his doctor.  He’d do whatever he felt was best.  “Next time,” Brendan mumbled, “make sure that my implant has an off switch.”

Ezra laughed weakly.  “Yeah, sure.  Whatever, Brendan.”  There wasn’t going to be a next time, and they both knew it.

“G’night.”  He dropped back to sleep fairly handily and was grateful for the quiet, soothing blackness that closed around him.  The dreams, mercifully, didn’t come again.

Chapter Nineteen

There is very little a man or a woman would not do for love—this is a truism that humanity must be reminded of time and again.  When it comes to psychics, however, there is even less that one half of a Bonded pair would not do for the other—but instead of hoping that the other side will understand, we realize that our other half will feel our pain, or, more terrifyingly, the absence of pain.

— Sarah Farragut, circa 4855 PD


6 Novem 5249 PD

The comm crackled.  It was a different woman’s voice this time, speaking in the Corp’s tactical tongue.  “Cho five five seven four three niner two one, Xiangaou Prefecture Control.  Interrogative purpose of debarkation and destination?”

He exhaled.  “Xiangaou Prefecture Control, Cho five five seven four three niner two one.  I have orders from General Hatchii to report to the surface immediately.”  He forced himself to breathe slowly, willed his heart to settle down.  They’d be able to read his vital signs if they wanted to.  He was banking on the controller not doing that.  Calm down.  Calm down.  Nothing’ll happen as long as you settle down.  All you have to do is clear the station and then everything will be okay.

“Affirmative, Cho five five seven four three niner two one.  Do you have the beacon?”

“Yes, Control.  My thanks.”  He killed the voice pickup and exhaled a sigh of relief.  He reached for Lindsay through their bond.  We did it, Lin.  We got her.

He felt warm and could almost—almost—hear her voice.  Now come home safe.

Do you want to see her?

God!  You have to ask?  More than anything, Brendan.

He grinned and glanced back toward America.  “Smile for your daughter.”

America Farragut looked confused for a moment, then seemed to catch on and smiled.  It was a little difficult, but Brendan thought that he’d let Lindsay see through his eyes.  He’d never done it before over such a vast distance—they’d done it over miles in the past, not light-years.

A faint pounding rose in his temples and behind his eyes.

Won’t be doing that again, he thought.  Not anytime soon, again.

The comm crackled again.  “Cho five five seven four three niner two one, we’re getting some strange readings.  Please return to hard-dock.”

Shit.  Lindsay was still there, sensing his sudden panic.  He toggled on the voice pickup again.  “Say again, Control?  You’re breaking up.”

“Repeat, Cho five five seven four three niner two one, return to hard-dock.”

His mind reeled.  Oh shit.  The implant.  They’re sensing psychic activity through the implant.  Goddamn it all!  He jerked the ship around in a loop, breaking off from the beacon and aiming toward the nearest jump point out-system.

“Cho five five seven four three niner two one!  Respond now.”  He could feel something in the back of his mind.  They were trying to do something through his implant.

Either they’re trying to shut me down and take over the ship, or they’re just trying to take over the ship.  Either way, we’re screwed six ways from the end of the week.

There weren’t any options left.  There wasn’t an off switch for these kinds of things.

He shut down the voice pickup with a thought and grabbed his combat knife.  There was little time for delicacy.  “Alana!  Get over here!”  He roared before he jammed the knife into his implant.  He jerked it free, took a breath, then stabbed at the implant again.  The buzzing in his head died abruptly as he jerked the knife free a second time.  Pain began to explode in his brain.  The knife fell from his nerveless fingers even as Alana shoved him out of the chair and to the deck.

Brendan groped blindly for the wound, gasping at the pain as he pressed his hand over it as hard as he could manage.  He knew he was bleeding freely.  The pain was coming in waves, like it had the last time.

Like it had the first time.

Alana had the controls.  They’d get out of here all right.  He couldn’t feel Lindsay anymore, and that frightened him.

Ezra was yelling at him, though it took a moment for him to understand the words.

“You idiot!  What were you thinking?”

“They were trying to take control,” Brendan answered through gritted teeth, fingers tightening against the wound.  His heart was pounding so loudly in his ears he could barely hear what was going on around him.  “What else could I do?”  He wasn’t sure if he was upright or on the ground.  Ezra didn’t seem inclined to enlighten him.

“Bloody hell,” Ezra swore, tearing open a pressure bandage.  “You could’ve killed yourself.”

“Wasn’t going to kill myself,” Brendan mumbled, consciousness already starting to slip away.  He didn’t exactly want to hold onto it at that point; he just hurt too much.  “Done it before.  Doesn’t kill if you do it the right way.  Just hurts like a sonofabitch.”  Ezra pried his fingers away from the wound and slapped the bandage on—a temporary measure, for certain.  He looked like he was going to say something even as Brendan’s vision began to dim.

Anything Ezra or Alana might have said to him was lost on him as he tipped over the edge and spun down into blackness.


●   ●   ●


The mug cracked in half when it hit the floor, fallen from suddenly nerveless fingers.  Lukewarm tea puddled at Lindsay’s feet on the stone floor.  Her eyes were wide in shock, her mouth open in a silent scream.

This isn’t good, Adam thought in the split second before he reacted.  He grasped her arm, leaning forward from his seat on the couch toward her.  “Lindsay?”  His fingers tightened.  “Linny-pie?  Can you hear me?”

“No,” she whispered, not in answer to him, though it might as well have been.  A shudder ran through her and the rigidity began to fade as her eyes came back into focus.  “S-something’s happened,” she said in a shaking, broken voice.  “Something’s happened to them.”  Her gaze met Adam’s.  “I can’t feel him anymore.”

His mouth went dry.  He looked at Rachel.  She got up and moved to Lindsay, kneeling in the puddle of spilled tea.  “What does it feel like, Lin?  Like something snapped, or like someone dropped a wall between you?”

Lindsay stared uncomprehendingly at her aunt for a moment, then slowly answered.  “L-like a wall, I think.  I was seeing through his eyes, then there was pain and panic and then nothing.”

The two couples exchanged looks.  “Unconscious, then,” Daciana said finally.  Rachel nodded.

“But he’d made it to the ship.”  Lindsay rubbed at her eyes, which had begun to tear.  “What would make him pass out there?  He said they were safe.  What happened?”

Daciana looked at Adam.  “Hypercomm?”

He shook his head.  “They’re not equipped.  Alana’s insistence.  She said if they had to ditch the ship it’d be better if it didn’t have any technology the congloms don’t already have access to.”  Hypercomm was an innovation made by a joint Guard-Foundation team shortly before Mimir fell.

Adam stood slowly, looking at the puddle Rachel was kneeling in, then started for the kitchen to get a towel.  What happened?  They didn’t get shot out of the sky.  It sounds like that would feel different—he’s not dead.  Or are they just telling her that so she doesn’t go into a complete panic?  He didn’t think they’d do that to her.

Something had gone wrong, though.  He pressed his lips together, hard, as he got a towel out of a drawer.  Whatever had happened, Lindsay wasn’t going to let him rest until he found out.  Of that, he was certain.

Chapter Eighteen

I maintain that sending three individuals, two of which are untrained in covert operations and a third whose talents have atrophied thanks to years of disuse, is quite possibly the most egregious misuse of resources that this Council has ever contemplated and I cannot and will not support this effort with an open heart.  My conscience will not let me rest for fear of failure, which I believe that this effort is wholly doomed to.

— D’Arcy Morgause, speech to the Rose Council, 22 Octem 5249


6 Novem 5249 PD

For a few agonizing moments, nothing happened.  Brendan listened to the blood pounding in his ears and thought that he’d been betrayed, that any second a cadre of military police and shock troopers would be down here to take him into custody.

Then the door locks slid open with a soft click, the clamps holding the door shut releasing with a clunk, like an airlock.  With not a small amount of trepidation, Brendan shouldered the door open.

His heart slammed back up into his throat.

Damn.  She looks like Lindsay.

The woman lay on a narrow slab, body hunched into a protective curl, knees drawn to her chest and head bowed slightly.  Plastic ties secured her wrists and ankles, binding them so tightly the flesh around the bonds was as bright white as the bonds themselves.  Silent tears leaked from her eyes that seemed to almost glow in the dimness of the room, meeting his gaze with an intensity that startled him.

Her jaw tightened around the gag in her mouth as Brendan crossed the floor in three quick strides, digging his utility blade out of a pocket of his jumpsuit.

“Lay still,” he hissed, sliding the narrowest blade of his knife beneath the bindings on her wrist, sawing at them and forcing panic down.

If we get caught, we’re screwed.  In the shadows to his left, he could see the bare outline of medical equipment.  He swallowed bile again, willing his stomach to stay where it was.

He rocked backward as the bindings on America Farragut’s wrists snapped.  Now for the—

She tackled him, fingers clawing at his throat until her hands closed around it.  Brendan bucked, eyes popping wide.

What the hell?  What the hell is she doing?  I’m here to rescue her!

Alternating black and bright spots danced at the edges of his vision.  Frail as she looked, her hands were like metal bars linked to pneumatic steel cables.  She was crushing his throat.

“Stop,” Brendan gasped, hands scrabbling weakly at her wrists.  His body was already going sluggish.

I’m going to be murdered by my wife’s mother who doesn’t know I’m here to save her life.

“Marshal Windsor sent me,” he wheezed, the words barely making a sound.

America’s eyes narrowed.

Not Marshal Windsor.  She wouldn’t have known him as Marshal Windsor.

“Adam Windsor,” he mouthed, no longer able to make discernible sounds.  “Adam Windsor sent me.”

“Tell her Adam Windsor sent you and she shouldn’t try to kill you when you cut her loose,” Marshal Windsor had said before he’d left.

I should have remembered that sooner, Brendan thought as darkness closed on him.

A sharp slap brought him back to his senses and he gasped in air.  The pressure on his neck was gone, but his breath still came in raspy.  America sat next to him on the floor, breathing heavily herself and looking vaguely mortified.  The gag lay in her lap, spotted here and there with blood from where it had dug painfully at the corners of her mouth.  She wiped her face with the sleeve of her thick gray jumpsuit, staring at him.

“I could have killed you,” she said, voice breathy and horrified.  “You look like one of them.”

“I used to be,” Brendan said, wincing at how much his voice sounded like a frog’s croaking.  “Then I screwed my head on straight.”  He groped for his knife so he could free her ankles.

“Gru—Adam sent you?”

Brendan nodded as his fingers closed around his knife.  “More than just him, though.  We won’t have much time to get out of here.  Can you walk?”

“Once you get me loose, I think so.”  She swallowed hard as he slid the knife down beneath the binding around her ankles.  “I’m sorry.”

“I was stupid.  It’s not your fault.”

“What year is it?”

He froze, heart starting to hammer again. She doesn’t know?  He looked at her sidelong, meeting her pained eyes.  “It’s 5249.”

She nodded slowly, swallowing hard as she rubbed at her wrists.  “We’ve lost a lot of time, then.”

I’m not sure who “we” is, but I’m guessing the answer is yes, yes you have.  Brendan set his jaw as he dutifully sawed through the thick plastic tie.

“How are you planning on getting me out of here?”  America asked as Brendan rocked back, the tie finally snapping loose.

He shook his head as he pocketed his knife and rolled to his feet.  “Just stay with me and you’ll see for yourself.”  He reached down and pulled her to her feet, increasingly aware of how small she actually was, how thin.

Bloody hell, what were they doing here?  He pulled her arm around his shoulders and pulled her out of her torture chamber, into the hall.  She winced, even in the dim light of the corridor.

“Damn,” she whispered, eyes tearing.  “I must have been in there for longer than I realized this time.”

Brendan opened his mouth to ask a question, then snapped it shut again. Now isn’t the time to ask what they were doing to her, or why.  Get out of here first, get home, then you can ask any goddamned question you want.

Just get out of here first, and then you’ll all have all the time in the galaxy—for anything and everything.

At least until the war comes.

America leaned against the wall as he yanked the door shut behind them.  The locks and clamps reengaged with a thunk and he felt his heart start to beat again.

If it looks like nothing happened, then that’ll buy us some time.

The puddle of vomit on the floor would probably give them away, though.  America was staring at it until he hauled her arm back across his shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.  “I didn’t realize—”

“It’s all right,” he hissed.  “Shields are up again, so I’m not feeling a damned thing.”

She choked on a weak laugh.

He dragged her down the corridor toward the darkened access hall, dreading—expecting—with every step to hear alarms sounding or footsteps pounding down the hall.

They’d almost made it to the hall when Brendan heard the footsteps.

Damn and damn.  He started moving faster.

America stumbled, almost fell.  Brendan swallowed a curse and picked her up, throwing her over his shoulder like a sack of grain.  She made a strangled sound, then went silent as he made a silent, mad dash for the hallway.

“Hey!  Hey, what are you—”  The man that had come around the curve of the main corridor was slightly taller than Brendan, dressed in a bright white labcoat and sharply pressed slacks.  There was an almost predatory gleam to his eyes that melted into hate when he caught sight of who Brendan had been carrying.

Zaki, Brendan realized with a jolt.  It had to be.

Brendan stopped thinking.  He dropped America unceremoniously to the deck and launched himself at the man.  He dropped low, shoulder catching Zaki in the stomach.  The taller man folded down over him.  Brendan straightened abruptly, using his momentum to flip Zaki up and over him.  Zaki somersaulted over him and crashed to the deck, landing on his shoulders.

Brendan spun in time to see Zaki scrabbling in his coat for something.  The pilot drew his leg back and kicked Zaki as hard in the temple as he could.

Zaki went still.

Breath burned in Brendan’s throat, his chest moving like a bellows, the sound rasping.  He stumbled back toward America, who got to her feet shakily.

“That was—”

“One of the lead scientists?” Brendan wheezed.  “I assumed as much.  Come on, we don’t have much time.  Someone’s going to find him sooner rather than later if he hasn’t already raised an alarm.”  His hand closed around America’s wrist and he half led, half dragged her to the dark hallway a few meters from where Zaki lay.

The shakes hit once they were in the elevator, heading back up toward the deck where his ship was docked.  Brendan glanced at the lift controls, noting the time on the tiny computer display.  He swallowed convulsively.

“Pray that we’re not going to walk into shift change,” he muttered to America, trying to bring himself back under control.

“Are you all right?” she asked, touching his hand lightly.  He shivered at the fear bleeding through the touch but managed to smile at the tendril of reassurance she tried to send to him.

“Will be,” he said, straightening up.  “Just stay close.  We only get one shot at this and we’re going to have to make it count.

The lift doors opened onto a silent hallway, dark on the graveyard shift.  Brendan stepped out, drawing America slowly with him, shielding her from sight with his body as he slowly looked up and down the corridor.

The ship should be that way.  He headed left, moving at a light jog.  The girl had done well—the lift was damned close to his docking port.

Had she known that somehow?

A shiver shot down his spine.  That was another thing he’d have to ask America about, but later.

After we make it out of this alive.

He came to the end of the corridor and peeked around the corner, looking up and down the line of docking ports.  There were some techs at the very far end, but their backs were to them.  He took a deep breath, exhaled it slowly, then hustled America across the hall and down a few ports, heart beating so fast and so loud he was terrified those techs would hear it and look to see what had snapped loose back here.

They ducked into the airlock and Brendan kicked his implant active again, transmitting the command to open the hatch.  He gave America a little push inside before the hatch was fully open, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up on end.

Turning slowly, he saw another pilot standing at the end of the airlock.

The other pilot was middle-aged, brows knit over dark eyes.  Brendan slowly drew his sidearm.

“Hands away from your link,” he instructed in a rough voice, stepping away from the hatch, which cycled closed behind America with a pulsed command from Brendan.

The other pilot hesitated for a bare second.

Brendan snapped off the safety and powered up his weapon.  The man slowly lifted his hands.

“You’re not authorized to take anyone off-station,” the pilot said slowly, keeping his hands were Brendan could easily see them.

“Of course I am,” Brendan said quietly, his rock-steady voice belying the maelstrom gripping his stomach and the fact that his heart was trying to pound its way out of his chest.  “General Hatchii ordered me to escort my charge to the ground.  He said that Katsuana’s people might offer resistance.  Are you offering me resistance?  I’m authorized to respond with deadly force.”

The pilot hesitated again.

Not good.  Brendan’s finger tightened against the trigger, but he didn’t pull it.  Not quite yet.  I’ve made it this far.  I’ll kill you if you make me.  Don’t make me do it.  “Answer me.”  He pulsed a command to the airlock controls, hoping that it would work.

The station-side hatch gave a quiet hiss, almost too quiet to be heard, and began to ease closed.  The other pilot didn’t notice, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other.

“I have to check your authorization.”

“Wrong answer.”  Brendan pulled the trigger, squeezing off a single shot.  It sounded far too loud to not be noticed, even as the airlock hatch clanked shut.

The other pilot’s eyes widened at the hole that suddenly appeared in his chest.  He dropped inelegantly to the airlock’s deck, a tangle of limbs and clothing.

Brendan swallowed bile, willing himself not to finally give in to his nausea and puke all over the body—not that there was anything left in his stomach to bring up.  He holstered his sidearm, tearing his gaze away from the dead man and ordering the ship to cycle the hatch open.

Jaw set, he marched in as soon as the hatch was open enough for him to get inside.  He slapped the manual override as soon as he was inside, sending the hatch cycling shut again.

“What happened?”  Ezra asked.  He was getting America situated on one of the bunks, medical kit already open on the floor next to him.

Brendan shook his head, sliding into his chair at the console.  “Someone got a little too curious and didn’t give me the right answers.  Splash one Corp pilot.”  He could see Ezra’s wince reflected in the window.  He shook his head slightly.  There was nothing he could do.

The man had made his choice.  And I made mine.  There wasn’t time to question the morality of the choice—it was done.

At least he’s going to be floating out in space, probably not noticed for a day or two—and he’ll never be able to tell anyone what he saw.  Of course, I have to hope those techs didn’t hear the shot.

If they did, we’re screwed.

“Buckle up.  Hopefully, this won’t be a bumpy ride, but you never know.”  He breathed a prayer and unclamped from the docking port, nudging his ship away from the station.

Chapter Seventeen

Heroes are the people who walk forward when they should run in the opposite direction.  I never thought of myself as one, then someone reminded me that most heroes don’t.

— Frederick Rose, c. 5237 PD


5 Novem, 5249 PD

The corridors up on level twelve were dark as he stepped out of the lift, dark and cold enough that his breath steamed in the air.

Must not be enough traffic up here to warrant heating the hallways very much.  It was warmer than the vacuum outside the station’s shell, but just enough that no one was going to freeze to death walking from one end of the station to the other—though it wouldn’t be a comfortable walk.  The chill probably cuts down on people deciding to be up here.  That would work in someone’s favor, if they’re doing things up here that they’d rather not explain.

Of course, no one with Chinasia Corp would worry too much about what a scientist was doing to a bunch of psychics.  After all, Corp propaganda told them that psychics were dangerous, a menace to be controlled or eliminated entirely.

At least the corridors were carpeted, which muted the sound of his boots on the deck.  There was no surveillance equipment that he could see along the hall as he walked slowly along the long, circular hall that spiraled out from the central lifts out toward the station’s hull, where it was sure to be colder.

I’m sure the labs and cells up here are probably heated.

He hoped they were.

Now how do I figure out where she is, if she’s up here at all?  There was no form of directory.  The walls were completely unmarked, smooth, gunmetal-dark walls studded with locked hatches every so often.  The hallways were dim, lit by sickly yellow lights every seven meters and the hatch controls next to each door.  Brendan swallowed, looking around.  Maybe I should have gone back to quarters and poked around some computer systems.

It was too late for that, now, though.  He was up here.

No turning back.  I guess there’s really only one way to do this, shy of checking every room and hoping no one’s around to raise an alarm.

His eyes slid closed as he stood dead-center between two pools of light and sucked in a breath of frigid air.  Loosening his grip on the mental shields Lindsay had helped him build over their time together, he opened himself to the psychic impressions in his environment rather than shielding himself from them as he’d been taught on E-557.

A dearth of voices and emotions hit him with enough force that he staggered.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Bile rose in his throat and he swallowed it back, shuddering and putting one hand against the wall to steady himself.  Pull yourself together and focus, Brendan.  Focus.  He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to narrow the range of his impressions to this section of the station, to this deck.  It was easier said than done, and the effort left him sweating and shaking, leaning against the wall as if it was the only thing keeping him upright.

It wasn’t just the effort, of course.  The wave of suffering that crashed over him was enough to fell someone twice his size with half his ability.  He took a few more deep breaths before he opened his eyes and tried to straighten up. The corridor swam in front of him for a moment before his vision normalized.

Oh god, Lin.  I never realized how bad it had to be.  I’m so bloody sorry.

Breathing through his nose, he kept narrowing his focus as much as he dared as he began to walk slowly down the corridor.  There were only two things he needed to focus on—finding America Farragut and not getting caught in the process.  The only problem was that he wasn’t sure what America would feel like.

If I focus down on someone who feels like Lindsay and Rachel, I might be able to pinpoint America.  It was a long shot, but it was the only shot he had.  Jaw set grimly, he kept walking, keeping his focus as narrow as he dared.

Damn, everyone down here is in so much pain.  It was impossible to ignore the ambient suffering on this deck.  Were they all psychics down here?

He kept track of maintenance hatches as he walked.  Those would be useful in case he had to make a quick getaway—and useful if he couldn’t get America safely to one of the utility lifts that were hopefully still operational.

“I should have thought this plan through better,” he muttered to himself.

Something clattered against the metal deck in a side hallway.  Brendan froze, heart suddenly hammering at twice normal speed.

Shit.  What was that?

Whoever had knocked something over, he couldn’t sense them now.

What does that mean?  Was it no one?  Or have they somehow managed to create people like Aidan Church—someone a psychic can’t sense?  All the literature he’d ever read—and there wasn’t much of it—said that people like that were born, they weren’t made, couldn’t be made.

What if the theories on that were wrong?

Stop thinking, Cho, and get your mind on the job you’re trying to do.  He put his hand on the pocket where he’d hidden Alana’s gun and edged toward the corridor.  It was dark in that access passageway.  The lights had apparently been shut down in there, possibly to conserve station resources.

Something pale bobbed into view, sickly and eerie, reflecting the yellow light from the main hallway.  It was a face, the eyes dark and sunken shadows over hollow cheeks framed by ragged dark hair.

“You shouldn’t be here,” the girl whispered, edging forward toward the light, hugging her arms around her body.  The jumpsuit she wore was dark—a soldier’s threadbare cast-off—and hung loose from frail limbs, pooled around her sandaled feet.  She crept closer to Brendan, lifting her face to meet his startled gaze.

The girl took a little breath and stopped a few feet from him, blinking rapidly for a moment.

“Who are you?”  Brendan asked.  She looks like a ghost.  A psychic, then?  Someone they’re experimenting on?

“It doesn’t matter,” she whispered, fumbling around for the pockets of her jumpsuit.  Brendan went tense, fingers closing around his weapon.  The girl looked up at him and smiled weakly.  “It’s okay, I want to help you.  I know why you’ve come.”

Who the hell is she?  How does she know why I’m here?  Brendan’s mouth went dry.  Did I screw something up somewhere and announce my presence like I was banging on a gong or something?

She fumbled a key-card out of a pocket and held it out to him with a trembling hand.  “You’ll need this to get in, to get her out.”  She wet her lips.  “They’ll think I did it, and that’s the way it should be.”

What the hell?  “I don’t understand.”  Who is she?  Why is she helping me?  How the hell does she know I’m here for America Farragut?

The girl shook her head slightly.  “Without the Colony, we have no hope, and without the Guard, there is no safety for people like us.  She helped me realize that.  But if she doesn’t get away, all our hope will die.  You’re here to take her away, take her someplace safe.  It doesn’t matter how I know.  I just know.”  She grasped his wrist.

Brendan jerked back as what felt like electricity shot through his arm, leaving it numb.  “Holy—what did you just—?”

She winced, drawing back.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.  I can’t—I didn’t—”  She stooped to pick up the keycard she’d dropped.  “Just take it, please, and get her out of here.  The rest of us don’t matter if America isn’t freed.”  She bit her lip.  “They have no idea what they’ve done.  What they’ll do to us all.”

What is she babbling about?  There was a hint of madness in the girl’s eyes, but it was a quiet madness, a desperate madness.  Her sanity had begun to slip away by inches, slowly shredded by the things she’d seen, realizations she’d come to.  She was unraveling bit by bit.

Tentatively, the girl took his hand again and pressed the keycard into it.  There was no jolt this time.  Her jaw trembled a little.  “Please.  Do it for all of us, even the ones that might not make it.”

Their eyes met and Brendan went cold.


Strapped to a rack, the girl screamed, head thrown back.  A surgeon came at her with a scalpel, uncaring.  Then, the world exploded, fire and shards of metal flying in every direction—


He pulled back.  She recoiled, looking away, her dark hair veiling her face in a jagged line.

“Cullings,” Brendan breathed.  “You know they’re coming.  They’ve already started.”

“Yes,” the girl whispered.  “They’re coming.  We…all of us here…saw them coming.  Some deny it.  I tried to.  I—I found I couldn’t anymore.”  She licked her lips.  “Your intelligence people are good.  It might have been too late, if you’d waited another day.”

“What’s going to happen?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered.  “I don’t know, but I know you’re here just in time.”  She pointed down the corridor he stood in.  “In another thirty meters, you’ll find a door with a red light above it.  The card will open that door and you’ll find her there.  If you come back here, you’ll find a lift.  It’s not supposed to work, but it does.  We made sure of it so you could get out.”  Her throat convulsed as she swallowed.  “Just get her out of here and don’t think about anything else.  None of us here matter if you can’t escape, with her or without her.”

What in the name of everything sacred and profane is going on here?

She went rigid, face growing paler.  “Oh ancestors,” she whispered.  “You have to hurry.  I’ll delay anyone who comes down here for as long as I can, but you have to hurry.  You can’t let Zaki catch you.  If he catches you, he’ll kill you and then we’ll have no hope left!”  She pushed past him into the corridor, starting to hurry in the direction he’d come from.

“Wait!” Brendan hissed at her.

She turned for a brief moment, looking at him.

“Who are you?” he whispered.  “And why are you helping me?”

The girl gave him a tiny, weak smile.  “It’s something I have to do, Kaito, and me alone.  You’re the only hope we have.”


“Keep your heads down.  Down!”  Marshal Rose’s braid whipped around like a lash as she looked toward the slender girl with a scarred face cradling an infant in her unbroken arm.  “How did you save all of them?  Why?”

The girl licked her lips.  “It was something I had to do, ma’am.  Would Kaito be proud of me?”


The girl winced.  “I think you call him Commander Cho.”


He shook his head, struggling to clear it.  The girl was gone.  He blinked back tears that stung, wondering—wondering at what he’d just seen, wondering at the girl.  Who was she?

What did I just see?  He pressed his knuckles against his eyes, setting his jaw.

I’m overwrought and imagining things.  He looked at the key card she’d pressed into his hand for a long moment.  Don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth, Brendan.  You’ve got a job to do, take all the help you can get.  Who knows, maybe she’s someone who works for us, someone who got caught.

Even as he jogged down the corridor, looking for the door she’d mentioned, the questions nagged at him.

Was this all a trap?

That certainly unsettled his stomach.  It was all he could do to keep himself from puking his dinner up right then and there.

Then a wave of hate and pain hit him and he lost all control of himself and doubled over, retching.  He fell into the wall, stomach roiling and cramping, throat convulsing violently.  Tears stung his eyes as he fought for control, breathing heavily in ragged gasps between heaves and looking around for the source of the suffering.

The door was within arm’s reach, and the source of the suffering lay within.

Target acquired, he thought, then doubled over again.  He started to wrestle his mental shields back into place, every metaphorical inch a battle.

Finally, he slumped against the wall, breathing hard and trying to master himself.  At least his stomach was completely empty now.

Brendan turned and stared at the door as his stomach calmed.  His fingers clenched around the edges of the key-card.

Promises made, promises kept.

He ran the key through the slot and prayed.

Chapter Sixteen

Chinasia Corp was born of some of our best and worst qualities as a race: dedication, competitiveness, unity, loyalty, and ruthlessness.

— Erich Quizibian, Foundations of the Congloms of New Earth, c. 5070 PD


5 Novem, 5249 PD

It’s too quiet and this is almost too easy.  Brendan tried not to frown.  He was waiting for things to come apart.  He was certain that had to happen soon.

He had landed during the early part of the late watch, which had in part worked to their advantage.  With any luck, they’d make it away from Xiangaou before the graveyard shift went to bed and the morning shift came on.  He didn’t want to count on that luck.

Brendan maintained a casual gait, forcing himself to remember the layout of the station he’d lived on for at least six of his formative years.  It had been home to the cadre he’d been assigned to back then, and then later to the unit that he’d been assigned to once his training had been complete.  There hadn’t been many survivors of his cadre, and most of them had been sent away from Xiangaou—to where, he had no idea.  It didn’t mater anymore, anyway.  They’d never really been his friends.

There weren’t any friends in that kind of situation, just fellow travelers—fellow survivors.

He went to the quarters he’d been assigned to first.  They would expect that.  The old patterns came easily—wash up, stretch, then scan the computer for anything relevant.  There was no reason to surprise them yet, give them any reason to look closer than necessary.

Settling down at the computer, he kept his first few searches innocent, innocuous, testing the limitations they’d placed on his access.  With any luck, they’d think he was just trying to catch up on the current situation within the conglom, just like any other good little returning soldier.  He smiled grimly as most of his inquiries were blocked almost at every turn until he switched over to access the public newsnets.  Those, at least, he could peruse freely.  The vitriol Chinasia was spewing over the Foundation, the colony, and the Guard was harsh, but tamer than he’d expected.

They hate what they don’t understand and can’t control, and there’s no hope of them ever controlling the colony with anything less than deadly force.  But they still hope that they can—or simply that they’ll be able to howl, threaten, and browbeat the colony into doing what they want.  Otherwise, they’ll just wipe them out.

His lips thinned.  It was an unpleasant thought.  Our only saving grace is how badly they underestimate our tenacity.

But can we be tenacious enough for them to cut their losses and walk away?

Eventually, he shut down the computer and stretched out on the room’s narrow, hard bunk to bide his time.  It wouldn’t take too much longer for them to confirm his identity and loosen the leash.  When that finally happened, his real work would begin.

It was only a matter of time.

Then I just have to find America Farragut and get the hell out of here without being caught.  Easy, right?

He sighed, not for the first time wondering what the hell he’d been thinking when he agreed to this run.  Ez, what did I let you talk me into?


●   ●   ●


Brendan must have dozed, because he startled fully awake again at the sound of his door call.  He blinked blearily at the door before someone pressed the call button again, the whining buzz sending shivers through his skull.

Bloody hell, that’s an awful sound.

“Cho, are you in there?”

He responded automatically.  “Yes.”  After a moment, he slapped himself, realizing he’d answered in something other than his native tongue—which meant it was a language that his visitor probably couldn’t understand.  “Sorry,” he said, now in Chinasia’s corporate tongue, “yes, I’m in here.”

When he opened the door a moment later, he came face-to-face with a trim young woman in a black uniform.  She was a head shorter than he was and he felt vaguely uncomfortable thanks to it—most people back on E-557 were taller than he was.

I should be comforted.  I probably would be if I didn’t think she could throw me across the room like a rag doll.  She had the look of a martial artist, something he’d never quite mastered—but then, pilots weren’t expected to master things like that.

“You were sleeping?” the woman said, eyeing the rumpled covers on his bunk.

He nodded.  “And well, for the first time in years.  I’m home.”

“You are,” she said, handing him a thin sheet of plastic.  “Your new identicard.  Welcome home.”  She paused, still watching him, dark eyes meeting his.  “You are to remain on-station while awaiting further orders.  Understood?”

“Yes.”  Brendan pocketed the card.  “Thank you.”

She nodded curtly, the heels of her boots clicking smartly together before she pivoted on her heel and marched away.  Brendan leaned in the doorway, watching her turn the corner and disappear.  He took a few deep breaths before he exhaled and stepped back into his quarters, letting the door slide shut again.

Well, I guess I’m officially back now.  Time to get to work.  First I have to figure out where she is, though.  His stomach grumbled.  Clues to that could lie in the mess.  If they don’t, at least I won’t be doing this on an empty stomach.

He straightened the bed out of habit and headed out for the mess.

The chow lines were much as he remembered, and so was the food—over-processed meat product with rice and a dark, salty sauce that the cooks might have tried to pass off as soy sauce if anyone cared to ask.  No one thinks to, I imagine.  Still, it was hot and he was hungry.  He found a seat at the end of one of the long tables and hunkered down, fingers remembering how to use the twin metal sticks to eat with less difficulty than he had imagined.

Halfway through the meal, two men dressed in pilot’s jumpsuits settled down a few seats down from him, each with their own bowls of over-processed meat and rice.  One glanced at him questioningly, then looked to his companion.

“Who’s that?”

“Cho Kaito, I think,” the second man said.  “Back from the never-never after all these years.”

Metal chopsticks clattered against the table.  “Foundation territory?  You’re making that up.”

“Not at all.  Linlei told me when I saw her between cycles.  You’d know these things if you were sleeping with someone in Control instead of one of Zaki’s freaks.”

The first man’s tone promised a fight if the second persisted.  “Hey.  It was an honor to be recruited to take one of them to mate.  Besides, I can do anything to her I want except for killing her.”

“I’ll take someone normal over a psychic any day of the week, Midan, whether I have to wait for superior approval to mate her or not.  I don’t care if you think it’s an honor. What do you think will happen when you start spawning with her, huh?  What’s going to happen then?”

Brendan watched the first man shrug out of the corner of his eye.  “I don’t know.  I have to hope it doesn’t breed true.”

They’re talking about psychics like they’re animals.  Brendan forced himself to chew and swallow.  Intellectually, he knew how the congloms treated psychics, but it was an entirely different experience to experience it firsthand.

“Something tells me that’s not the point of the program.  They’re all Zaki’s little pets.  How do you know he’s not banging them while you’re out flying patrols?”

“Because he’s got his hands full with the Guard bitch and has a hard-on for her besides.  It’s her or no one for him, I think.”

America Farragut?  It could be.  Brendan smothered his frown, hoping that the men had lost interest in him.  But where are they keeping her?  Come on, tell me where they’re keeping her.

“Please.  He doesn’t spend enough time down on twelve for that.  He’s got no interest in doing that with her.  Getting secrets out of her, maybe, but that?  No way.”

Level twelve, then?  Brendan swallowed another bite of his dinner.  It tasted like ash, which was an improvement.

“Ask him yourself.”

“You’re kidding me, right?  He’d go crazy and put a scalpel through my eye.”  The man shook his head.  “No.  I don’t have a death wish.  You keep your little psychic pet and I’ll stick with my traffic controller.  At least I know what I’ll get out of that pairing.”

“Exceedingly short children?”

“With high aptitude scores.”

Brendan stopped listening, staring into the remains of his dinner.  He wasn’t full, but he didn’t feel like he could stomach another bite.

What are they doing to psychics here now?  He suppressed another frown and stood up slowly.  He fed his bowl and utensils into the cleaning bin and walked out of the mess, thoughts storming.

He was halfway to his quarters before he decided that it was time to get to work.  Level twelve.  It’s a start, anyway.  Better than what I had to go on before.  Briefly, he considered going back to his quarters to do some digging.

I can’t do that.  It’s too dangerous.  What if they start to wonder why I’m looking into it?  What if they show up to stop me, then interrogate me?  I’m not sure I’d hold together.  He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment.  No.  It’s not an option.  I have to go with what I’ve got and pray that she’s there.

Level twelve.  Those were briefing rooms and quarters back then.  What have you people made them into now?

Brendan didn’t know, but he was about to find out.

Chapter Fifteen

They teach you from an early age in the Eurydice Compact that to love is to show weakness, that it’s merely a farce, something that can be chemically induced on a whim.  They’re wrong, but they rather like repeating the lie.

— Grant Channing, c. 5035 PD


5 Novem, 5249 PD


“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Ezra said for the tenth time since Brendan had locked the ship down and left them there alone.

No one had bothered the ship since, but he was getting antsy and it was starting to wear on Alana’s nerves.  He didn’t seem to notice her annoyance as he sat on one of the bunks, fidgeting and watching her as she cleaned and re-cleaned her weapons, oiling the knives from her boot and arm sheathes before replacing them, checking to make sure the needles that would deliver neurotoxin were clear of any debris.

Apparently, she’d reached a point where couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t stand to listen to him worry out loud another second.  Her head came up and she glared at him.  “Why don’t you just scan the base for him if you’re so hot and bothered?”

“You say that like it’s easy to figure out a ship’s control board without an implant to help,” Ezra frowned.

Alana rolled her eyes and shook her head, then tapped a finger against her temple.  She went back to checking her gear.

Ezra winced, catching her meaning.  Really don’t want to do that.  I think someone would notice, and then wouldn’t we be in some kind of fix?  He exhaled and stood, starting to pace.  “Should this be taking so long?”

“He said to give him at least three hours, Ezra.  Fact of the matter is, it’ll probably take longer than that.  Sit tight and knock it off.”

He had, but that didn’t stop Ezra from worrying.  What if this plan doesn’t work?  What if I’ve gotten him killed?  Lindsay will never forgive me, and she shouldn’t.  This was all my idea.  It’ll be all my fault.  He exhaled through his teeth and kept pacing in a tight line, four steps, pivot, four steps.  Back and forth.  Alana watched him for a moment then shook her head in disgust.

“You make me wish I had something loaded up in this thing already,” she muttered, gesturing to her metal hand.  “Relax.  Take a pill or something.”

He glared at her.  “How am I supposed to relax?”  He wasn’t even going to dignify her suggestion that he take a sedative with a response.  “My best friend is out there, wandering an enemy emplacement, looking for someone we think is there.  We’re not even sure she’s there.  What if she’s not?  What if they catch him?  What do we do then?”

“Then I go in guns blazing.  It’s not going to go down that way, though.”  Her lips thinned briefly.  “For all the hell I give him, Cho is a good soldier with a good head on his shoulders.  He’ll be fine.”

She watched him pace for a moment more and sighed, shaking her head.  “The Council was right,” she muttered, going back to her weapons.  “You’re not prepared for this.  It’s a lot of hurry up and wait in these things, Ezra.  It’s the nature of the beast.”

The nature of the beast.  How many situations like this has she been in?  He stopped pacing and stared at her for a moment.

God, she’s beautiful.  He looked as she looked up from another combat knife she’d been sharpening.

“Were you just staring at me?”

“No,” he answered quickly.  Too quickly.

Either she hadn’t noticed, or she was ignoring it.  It was probably the latter, Ezra decided.  She was smart enough to catch it, and not as emotionally stunted as she tried to appear to the rest of the colony.  Sometimes he wondered if she used her past as a shield to keep people away.

She stared at him for a moment, then looked back at her knife.  “Take a nap, Ezra.  We’re not going to need you until he gets back anyway, if we even need you then.”

“Are you saying I’m useless?”  He almost winced at the defensiveness in his own voice.  Alana stared at him for a moment and sighed, shaking his head.

“You are not prepared,” she said simply.  “And this whole situation proves it.  Maybe some military training should be compulsory.”

“Most of us are pacifists,” Ezra said, still on the defensive.

“Pacifism is a farce,” Alana said simply.  “An illusion.  As a species, we’re warlike.  Even the great luminaries of the Foundation realized that.  Hell, Quizibian said it, flat-out.”  She stared at him for a few long moments.  “Some of them had to lose their innocence to realize that.  I’m afraid that’s the way you’re going to end up learning that lesson, too.”  She looked back down to her knife and began to sharpen it, but not before he caught a flash of pain in her eyes.

He didn’t know what to say.  A part of him wanted to tell her no, that she was wrong, but the words wouldn’t come.  Was she right?  Was the entirety of humanity…bred for war?  Or was that her background talking? She’d been raised and trained for the sole purpose of being a soldier, a killing machine for the Compact.  That had to color her perceptions, right?  He turned away and stared at the station beyond the windows.

“Maybe I will take that nap,” he murmured.  Or at least lay down and close my eyes.  And try not to think about this.  I don’t want to think about this.  Deep philosophical questions…bloody hell.  I don’t need that crap right now.  My friend is out there, on that station, possibly getting himself shot to bits, and she…  His thoughts dropped off and he sighed, sitting down on the bunk.

“I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Shut up, Alana,” he muttered.

“Sometimes genius can’t match up to life experience, Ezra.  Another universal truth.”  Her voice was gentle, though, lacking the razored edges.  Did she feel bad for what she’d said?

He nodded glumly.  Life experience is something I’m on this trip to get.  Goddamn it.  Walking into a war and I have no conception of what war really is.  I’m worried about a friend that’s walked into the lion’s den when I should be worrying about my entire planet.  What’s wrong with me?

She patted his knee.  He looked up at her.  She smiled a little.

“First mission is always hard,” she offered.  “But you’ll get through it, just like Brendan and I did about a million years ago.”

He smiled back and nodded a little.  Brendan’s wrong, he thought.  There’s a soul in there, and a good one.

            She’s more human than he thinks she is after all.  And the shell is thinner than he thinks.

Chapter Fourteen

“Once more unto the breach.”  That’s what my brother told me the day they left.  I didn’t point out that he was completely unprepared for what he was going to do, that he’d never done anything like this in his life.  I figured that Alana Chase and Brendan Cho would impress that upon him quickly—if circumstances didn’t do it before Alana could.  I hoped against hope that she didn’t decide to have pity on him and be nice to him for the first time in her life.  That would have been a total disaster, and I love my brother too much to wish that on him.  I’d rather have a living failure than a dead hero for a brother.

— Kara Grace-Forester, member of the Rose Council (5245-5250)


5 Novem, 5249 PD

            Lindsay had cradled his face in both hands and kissed him one more time.  “Be careful,” she whispered softly, staring up into his eyes.  “Come home.”

            He’d swallowed hard and nodded, kissing her back and holding her for a few long moments.  “I will.  I promise.  I promise.”

            Ezra had patted his shoulder.  “Time to go, Brendan.”

            He’d nodded and stared at Lindsay for another few long moments before letting go, turning away, climbing aboard.  She’d waved to them as they lifted off.  He’d prayed he knew what they were doing.

He was still praying, staring at realspace.  They were on approach to Xiangaou, a small moon orbiting a gas giant in a system neighboring that of New Earth.  It’d be a short hop from here to the second target installation, in another neighboring system.

Xiangaou wasn’t a settled world.  It was an exploited planet with areas set aside for combat training, mining, and limited aquaculture.  He’d been born at a world like Xiangaou, on an orbital station.  It had been at Xiangaou, however, that he’d been trained, that he’d served.

It held no wonder for him, no pleasant memories.  It was a place where he had once lived and had tried very, very hard for many, many years to forget.

“You okay, Brendan?”

He nodded slightly, most of his attention on his boards.  “I’m fine, Ez.  Just thinking.  Dangerous thing for me to be doing right now, I know.”  He exhaled silently, staring at the gas giant that was slowly looming, growing as they got nearer.  Xiangaou Control would be contacting them soon.  He’d have to play his role to the hilt.  “Are you sure the dampening field is working?”

Ezra nodded.  “We’ve tested it and retested it.  It’s working.  No one’s going to know there’s more than one person aboard this ship, Brendan.”

Brendan nodded slightly and tried to relax.  It wasn’t working.  Not for the first time, he wished Lindsay were there.  It was her touch that he needed, her voice.  They were completely cut off out here, though—no safe way to get a message back home.  Not without being detected, which they would be, this close to an inhabited planet.  Maybe when they were between this leg of the trip and the next, if there was time.  But not while they were in hostile space—and Brendan was under no illusion that this was anything but hostile space.

A loaded pistol appeared on the console near his left hand.  Brendan blinked and looked up at Alana, who smiled tightly.  “You might need it, Commander.”

He nodded slightly, matching her smile.  “Thanks, Colonel.”

She patted his shoulder with her flesh and blood hand—it briefly occurred to him that she had done that deliberately—and then turned and moved back to the far end of the compartment.

The ship wasn’t very big.  The cockpit blended into a few sleeping alcoves and a corner mess with a hot plate and a water dispenser.  Only the head and a small cargo area were private.  Ezra had that area crammed full of supplies—medical and otherwise.  Brendan was hoping against hope they wouldn’t need most of them.

“So what’s your plan, Brendan?”  Alana stretched, standing not three feet behind him.  She was dressed in a plain gray jumpsuit, one that hugged every curve she still had rather than her usual baggy attire.  Brendan had considered asking her whether or not she was planning on killing anyone on the trip.  He’d decided not to.

Ezra asked instead.  Alana had just smiled.

Brendan licked his lips.  “Contact Control, tell them who I am, request approach.  Dock.  Lock down the ship.  Find her mother and bring her back here as fast as I possibly can.  Then get the hell out of here.”

“Sounds brilliant.”  He winced at the sarcasm.  What had she been expecting?  “Do you really think they’re going to let you waltz around unescorted?  That they’re not going to search the ship?”

He shook his head.  “They’ll scan the ship and when they don’t find anything, they’ll leave it alone.  They’re not going to waste the manpower.  They’ll let me waltz around unescorted because in their brains, I’m still a good little soldier that finally found his way home, probably chock-full of good intelligence on E-557.  The deep scans that I’ll get when I step onto the station will confirm my identity.  They’ll assign me quarters and leave me alone at least until tomorrow morning.”  Except I won’t be here in the morning.  I’ll have grabbed America Farragut and we’ll be gone.  “If things start to get dicey, I can play factions off each other.  If the intelligence we have is right, then there’s two generals currently vying for supremacy here.  Katsuana controls the stations and Hatchii controls the ground.  All I have to do is tell Control that Hatchii ordered me to ground—if my memory serves, he was my penultimate commanding officer twelve years ago—and we can get the hell out of here when I have America before they’ve even realized I’ve gotten her.”  I hope.

“You’re sure that’s going to work?”

He nodded, smiling grimly.  “It’s going to work.”  It’d better.  He glanced over his shoulder toward Ezra.  Ezra frowned and shook his head slightly.  Now that they were out here, in the middle of hostile territory, he was starting to have second thoughts.

We should have made you stay home, Ez.  You are not prepared for this shit.

“Make sure you both stay away from the windows, though.  Not sure that the polarization is as good as we think it is.”

Alana nodded.  “I have every intention of that.”  She leaned against a bulkhead and started checking her metal hand.

“Neurotoxins or sedatives?”  He hadn’t asked what she’d loaded.  He hadn’t been sure he’d wanted to know.

“What do you think?”

He winced.  Neurotoxins.  “You’re really out to kill someone, aren’t you?”

“So are you, Brendan.  Whether you want to admit it or not, you’re here because you’ve got a bone to pick with these people, too.”

He winced.  I do.  But that’s why I’m taking something from them.  I don’t want to have to kill anyone. Misguided as they are, they’re just doing their jobs.  He was going to have to, though.  He picked up the pistol.  Silenced model.  He nodded slightly and slid it into his holster.  “You’re going to watch the hatch, aren’t you?”

Alana smirked.  “No one’s getting onto this ship that’s not you or America Farragut, Brendan.  Period.”

He wasn’t sure if that should frighten or comfort him.  He finally just nodded.

His implant itched.  He tried not to scratch at it.  It was a newer model, one that didn’t require him to be hardwired into the console.  It was better, though the ship’s activity seemed to comprise a low-level buzz in the back of his brain, constantly threatening to give him a headache.  He wondered not for the first time if the buzz had always been there when he’d had an implant or if this was something new.  He picked up the passive scan of the ship before his board ever alerted him to it.

“Better lock and load.  I’m getting a passive scan.”

Ezra looked at Brendan, then at Alana.  “Pilots always that tuned in?”

She shrugged.  “I’m about twenty years out of date when it comes to pilots, Dr. Grace.”  She sat down on one of the bunks and watched Brendan manipulate the controls to adjust their course slightly, aiming them directly at one of the stations in specific.

“Incoming hail,” he murmured absently, then nudged the controls through his implant to put it through.  A voice came over the comm lines, complete with the attendant crackling of distortion.

“Unidentified craft, you have entered Chinasia Corp sovereign space, Xiangaou Prefecture.  Identify.”  It was a woman’s voice.  It didn’t surprise him.  That was one of the jobs normally assigned to women of the Corp.

He switched over to the Corp’s tactical language, knowing that she’d understand it.  “Xiangaou Prefecture Control, identify Cho five five seven four three niner two one.  Repeat, identify Cho five five seven four three niner two one.”  Brendan licked his lips and waited.  Either they’d be shot out of the sky, or this would work.  They’d know in a moment.

The woman on the other end switched tongues, too, to the corporate language.  “Interrogative Cho five five seven four three niner two one.  How did you escape?”

He laughed bitterly, answering in the tactical language.  “They lost interest, Control.  I ran.  Request docking at three seven niner five.  Repeat, request docking at three seven niner five.”

“You are cleared to three seven niner five.  Stand by for further information.”

“Thank you, Control.”  He toggled off the voice pickup.

Ezra’s brow was furrowed.  “What did she ask you?”

“How I escaped,” Brendan said, not looking back toward them.

“How did you escape?”  That was Alana.

He shook his head slightly.  “I told him that they lost interest in me and I ran.  Likely story to the people here.  It’ll go over well.”  He licked his lips.  “We’re cleared to docking.  You two keep your heads down.  With any luck…”  He exhaled.  “With any luck, this won’t take too long.”

“You hope,” Alana said quietly.

“Yeah,” Brendan murmured.  “I hope.”

●   ●   ●

“They should be in Corp space now, huh?”

Adam turned from the starplot in the middle of the darkened base operations center.  Most of the staff had gone home for the night—it was getting late, the sun had long ago gone down.  He nodded at Lindsay.  “Couldn’t sleep?”

She shook her head.  “I keep worrying about him.  I want to reach, but I’m afraid that would put him in danger.  That it would put all of them in danger.”  She slowly sat down in a chair that during daylight hours would belong to a flight controller.  She stared at the starplot for a few long moments.  “Where are they, Uncle Adam?”

He stared at the starplot for a moment, then tapped a system.  The plot zoomed in, revealing a solar system dominated by a few gas giants and an asteroid belt.  “Zhang-aouh, Xiangaou Prefecture.  If calculations are correct, then they should have made the system a few hours ago.  Might already be on-station at Xiangaou.”

She nodded a little, staring at the system.  She could almost—almost—see the tiny ship they’d set off in, moving in to dock at a station shaped like a cylindrical pincushion.  She sighed softly, shaking her head and quietly marveling at her own imagination.  “How long do you think this leg is going to take?”

Adam shrugged a little.  “We allowed three days in the timetable, though it might be faster.  Commander Cho is an excellent pilot and he may well have been able to drop into realspace closer to Xiangaou proper than most.  It’s also going to depend on how easily he manages to get into the area where we think they’re holding your mother.”

Lindsay nodded, biting her lip.  “It’s not going to be good, Uncle Adam,” she whispered.  “It didn’t feel like—or look like—it was going to be good, when I had that vision of her.  It just…it was bad.”  She stood slowly, moving closer to the starplot, watching the animation built into the program for the starplot cause the gas giants to spin and slowly orbit their sun.

“There’s a reason we decided to let Dr. Grace go along, Linny-pie.”

“I know,” she said softly, watching the central gas giant spin lazily.  “Kara’s furious.  She was hoping someone would talk him out of it, or tell him he couldn’t go.  She’s terrified he’s going to get himself killed.”

“Is he?”

She licked her lips.  Of course he’d ask.  As if I’d seen.  She’d seen, of course.  The vision had come unbidden when Kara had hugged her—Kara hugging her brother as he climbed out of the ship, then turned back to help with a stretcher.  The vision had fragmented, then, but Lindsay could tell it was something she’d be witnessing with her own eyes.  The hell of it was that she hadn’t seen Alana or Brendan in the vision—just Kara, Ezra, and a couple of medical teams.  She almost wished she’d seen more.  “No.  I don’t think so, anyway.”

Adam nodded slowly.  “But you don’t know about the rest.”

It must have been written all over her face, the doubt, the pain.  It hurt so much, the not knowing.  It frightened her.  She sighed a little and shook her head.  “I’d almost rather not know anything, you know?  If he…if doesn’t come home, I don’t want to know he’s not coming home.  The waiting is horrible, but at the same time..”  Her voice trailed away and she bit her lip, looking at the floor.  She swallowed.  I don’t want to be alone right now.  I don’t want to go home to an empty house and an empty bed.  “…can I stay with you and Aunt Rachel for a few days, Uncle Adam?”

He blinked at her.  “What?”

“I don’t want to go home to an empty house.  It just…it just makes it worse.  I keep thinking ‘what if he doesn’t come home?  What will I do?’  I can’t stand it.”  She stared at the planet again and at the moon that orbited it.  Would he make it away from that place alive?  She almost reached for him through their bond—almost—but something stopped her.  Something told her that maybe that wouldn’t be the best idea.

Adam followed her gaze and shook his head slightly with a quiet sigh.  “If you really want to, Linny-pie, we can find the room.  I think.”

“Find the room?”  She looked at him.  Find the room?  There’s plenty of room.  You two are sharing one room.  That leaves another two bedrooms in the house.  One was mine and one was his.  Maybe she’d sleep in his bed at her aunt’s cottage, like they had when they were younger, before they’d built their home deeper into the highlands.  “It’s just you and her, isn’t it?”  She snapped her fingers.  “Marshal Rose.  She’s staying with you, isn’t she?”  Why wouldn’t she just stay at the barracks, though?

Adam nodded.  “Aye, and she’s sleeping in your old bed.”

Lindsay shrugged.  “I can sleep in Brendan’s old bed.  It’s okay, It’s comfortable enough.”  She smiled wryly.  Probably still smells like him, too, but I’ll go home and get our blankets anyway.

Adam hesitated and she noticed, brow furrowing as she looked at him.

“What’s wrong, Uncle Adam?”

He exhaled slowly, shaking his head.  “Time you found out anyway.”  He shut down the starplot and checked to make sure his link was in his pocket.

She blinked, her eyes adjusting quickly to the dim.  “Time I found out about what?”

Adam took her hand.  “You’ll see.”

“…and we’ve waited a long time for this, Inspector Rose.  Time to finish what was started.”  The figure in black drew his weapon and aimed it unerringly at the slender, slightly gaunt man leaning on a cane.

            “Freder, down!”  Adam Windsor body-checked the man with the cane as the figure in black’s gun went off…

Her uncle was steadying her, eyes wide.  “Lindsay?”

She let out a little gasp, shaking herself before looking up at Adam.  “Who’s Freder?”

Adam went sheet-white.  He grasped her by the shoulders with both hands.  His lips barely moved, expression one of shock, almost horror, voice barely a whisper.  “What did you see?”

She shook her head slowly, starting to shake.  “I…I don’t know.  There was a gun and you knocked someone over…and I didn’t see anything else.”  She put a hand to her head.  “So who is he?”

Adam licked his lips, pulling her into a gentle hug.  “Don’t tell anyone what you just saw, Linny-pie,” he murmured.  “Freder is Frederick Rose.”

Her brow furrowed and she looked up at him.  “Marshal Rose’s husband?  But he’s dead.  I remember that—Aunt Rachel cried for a week.  Did that…did what I saw…did that already happen?”

Adam didn’t say anything, just shook his head slightly.  “Freder isn’t dead, Linny-pie.  Daci and I just fooled everyone into thinking he was.”

She gave a little gasp.  “Does Aunt Rachel know?”

He smiled wryly.  “She does now.  Has for a couple weeks.  Come on.  He’s been dying to meet you.”

“Meet me?  Why?”  She pushed some hair out of her face.  Because I’m the Oracle, or because of something else?  Probably because I’m the Oracle.  Marshal Rose knows that.  I don’t know why she wouldn’t tell her husband about me, especially since Aunt Rachel was their friend, and my guardian…

“He knew your parents.”  Adam led the way out into the corridor, going quiet.  He held up a hand when she opened her mouth to ask another question, not speaking again until they were in his skimmer and on the way back to the cottage.  “Do you need anything from your house?”

“I was going to get some blankets, but that’s all right, I’m sure you still have some of the ones I’d be looking for.”  Lindsay chewed her lip.  “Why so secretive, Uncle Adam?  Why cover it up?”  It must have been something awful.  Somewhere she’d known that there had been something terrible that had made her aunt cry for so long all those years ago.  She’d just never quite figured out—or asked—what it was.  It had seemed silly to, really.  Rachel had gotten over it, moved on.  Lindsay had started having visions that seemed important.  And then Brendan had crashed and Rachel had taken him in, too, despite Alana’s protests.  In the wake of all of that, her aunt’s distress—and her curiosity over the reason for it—had passed into the dim recesses of her memory.

He exhaled as the skimmer slowed and he guided it up the roadway toward the cottage.  The moon was full and high above them, overshadowing some of the paler stars in the sky.  The air was crisp, chill, promising the seasons to come.  “There were people trying to kill him.  He knew too much about something—that’s what we think.  They didn’t want the rest of the galaxy to know.  So they tried to kill him.”

“But they didn’t.”

“We made everyone think they did.  To keep him safe.”  Adam shrugged slightly.  “He’s been at Urgathe with Daci for twelve years.  Been safe, since you could count on one hand the number of people who knew he was alive.”

“You never even told Aunt Rachel, did you?”

Adam shook his head slowly, stopping the skimmer next to the cottage, in the shelter of some trees.  “No.  I didn’t tell her.”

Because you didn’t think you could trust her?  Or something else, Uncle Adam?  She stared at him for a long moment.  He didn’t move to get out of the skimmer at first, just stared at his hands for a few long minutes before looking at her.

“I had my reasons, Linny-pie.  Closely akin to the ones that made me move out.  You understand, don’t you?”

She bit her lip.  “I guess I’m going to have to, Uncle Adam.”

He kissed her forehead.  “Come on.  I think they’re still up.”

“You mean I’m meeting him now?”

Adam smiled wryly.  “He’s staying with us, too.  Better you meet him now than later, right?”  He climbed out of the skimmer.  “Come on.  I’ll go get you some clothes in the morning.”

Lindsay nodded slightly, momentarily dumbstruck.  He’s dying to meet me.  I don’t even know who he is, or why anyone would want to kill him for something he knew.  She was a little worried—what sort of visions would he spark?  Would he spark anything?  God, I hope what I just saw was one of those futures I have a prayer of changing.  Some were like that.  Others weren’t—they were merely warnings of what was coming, moments in time that could not be altered.  Others were the opposite—possible futures, futures that could be changed.  I hope that’s one that can be changed.

The lights were on in the living room, but the kitchen was dark.  She could hear laughter in the living room, her aunt and probably Marshal Rose—and Frederick Rose, who she’d never met, never known.  But he wants to meet me.  Adam preceded her into the room.

“Lindsay is going to stay with us a few days, Rachel,” he announced as he entered.  Lindsay drifted into the room in his wake.  Marshal Rose and her aunt were in their pajamas.  The marshal was seated on the couch, wrapped around the man from her vision—Frederick Rose.

It was dark, and cold.  A bearded man, taller than her but with her blonde hair glared at a much younger Frederick Rose.  It was her father, probably more than ten years ago.  He was holding a gun in one hand, back pressed against a corner, and he looked ragged.

            “Get out of here, Freder,” Grant Channing growled, not looking at the younger man.

            “Grant, I want to help.”

            “Get out of here,” he growled again, finally looking at the other man.  “The only way you can help us is to stay on your side of the law while we stay on this one.  If you can find a way to force the Commonwealth make them pay for what they did to Mimir, maybe we can quit.  But not until that day comes.  Now get out of here before you’re tarred with the same brush as America and I.”

            “What about Adam and Rachel?  You let them help.  Why not me?”

            “You’ve got legitimate connections that are still strong, Freder.  I’m not going to put those in jeopardy.  Get the hell out of here.”

            Frederick Rose stayed where he was.  Grant grabbed him by the shoulder and threw him back, back away from where he was facing.

            “Go, Freder!  Damnation, get out of here.”

            “I want to help,” he repeated.

            “You want to help?  Make sure that my daughter knows someday who killed the world that should have been her home.  Make sure everyone knows.  Now get out of here!  Rachel and Adam aren’t even involved in this.  Go!”

            He blinked.  “They’re…they’re not?”

            Grant shook his head, staring at Frederick for a long moment, desperation and pain showing in his eyes.  “America made them take our daughter and run.  I wanted her to run, too.  She wouldn’t listen.  Damn her, but she wouldn’t listen.”

            “I’m sorry, Grant.”

            “So am I, Freder.  Now go, before you’re in over your head.”

            Freder nodded.  “Good luck, old friend.”  Then he was gone.

            “Thanks, Freder,” Grant muttered, “I’m going to need it.”

She steadied herself in the doorway, eyes widening as she stared at the unfamiliar and at the same time all-too-familiar figure on the couch with Marshal Rose.  They were looking at her, him most of all.  She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again, licking her lips.

Frederick Rose slowly stood up from the couch, ignoring a cane that leaned against the arm of it.  His limp was pronounced and for a moment Lindsay wondered how close someone must have come to killing him, all those years ago.  She straightened in the doorway and met him partway, offering him her arm for support.  He smiled.

“So you’re their angel, huh?”  He touched her cheek.  “I’ve been waiting quite a long time to meet you, little one.”

He knew them.  God, but he knew them.  There are so few that…that could say they were their friends.  She laughed a little, smiling.  Her voice was small.  “You knew my mom and dad?”

Frederick laughed and nodded.  “For most of my life.”  He smiled.  “You have your mother’s eyes.”

Lindsay managed to laugh, then covered her mouth as tears gathered in her eyes.  She hugged the man she didn’t know and he hugged her back.  “My father…he told you to run away and find who was responsible.”

Frederick nodded slowly.  “He did, little one.  That he did.  I wish I hadn’t listened.”

For better or worse, I’m sure he’s glad you did.  “It’s nice to meet you,” she whispered.

“Nice to be met, little one.  Nice to be met.”