Fifty-One

Sephora watched through the viewport alongside her seat as the station came into view, a pale beacon in the inky black of space. This had been the last place held by the Commonwealth where Winston had been before he’d headed to E-557. It would be the same with she and Ben. Her husband’s hand wrapped around hers, fingers squeezing.

“What’s wrong?” he murmured.

She shook her head. “Nothing. Just thinking. We’re nearly there.”

“Do you think there are any ships heading in that direction from here?” Ben asked, peering past her at the station in the distance.

“There must be,” Sephora said. “Mission Systems has been using the station as their base for the move of their operations. There will still be ships.” And if there’s not, I’ll think of something. “So far as I know, they’re not done moving yet.”

“We’ll have to hope.” Ben squeezed her hand again. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“Letting me come with you. I’m glad you didn’t want to do this alone.”

She stared out the window, her fingers tight around his hand. “This is something I shouldn’t do alone. Besides, you were with me when it started all those years ago. You deserve to see it through as much as I do.” Her gaze drifted to meet his. “I love you, Ben.”

“I love you, too,” he murmured, then kissed her cheek. For a moment, she found herself wanting more than that, wanting it so badly that it hurt somewhere deep inside, but she pushed the feeling away, tucked it back into its corner—for now. There would be time enough for more later. Now wasn’t the time and here wasn’t the place.

“Will you make contact with them once we’re on the station?”

Sephora shook her head. “No. I’m hoping to run silent between here and there. The less communication from me, the safer everyone is.”

“Except us,” Ben said with a wry smile.

She snorted. “Especially us. Ben, if no one knows where we are, they can’t stop us and they can’t make us a target.”

His brows went up. “Is that something you learned from Freder Rose?”

“Among other things.” The fingers of her free hand brushed against his cheek. “There are other things he tried to teach me that I should have paid more attention to.”

“Like what?”

“I never should have let you go.” She stole a kiss from his lips, then smiled as she drew away, just staring at him.

“Mm.” He smiled back, eyes sparkling. “I think you’re right.”

“This time, at least.”

Her husband’s humor faded. “How long do you think we have until someone notices you’ve vanished and starts asking questions? Other than Padraig and your people?”

Sephora snorted softly. “No one pays attention to me whether I’m there or not. Two or three weeks, I’d guess. Hell. I’ll probably be announcing my findings before anyone notices I’m gone and damning someone in the process. Then they’ll notice and scream about it all.”

Ben laughed ruefully and she smiled, though sadly.

“It’s true. If I vanished and never came back? That would be the best day ever in conglomerate history. Oversight would vanish with me and they’d be able to do whatever they want.”

“And humanity would be doomed.”

Sephora shook her head, barely containing the chuckle that threatened. “You already sound like the Foundation.”

“Their methods may be extreme, but they were right about one thing.” Ben smiled grimly. “Without someone to save us from ourselves, humanity is doomed.”

Fifty

Brendan jerked upright in his chair at the sound of the front door slamming open, blinking sleep from his eyes even as his hand automatically went for the sidearm that he should have been wearing. Instead, the gun lay on the coffee table four feet away. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep in the easy chair near the fireplace, but it had happened anyway.

If it had been anyone other than Alana and Ezra, there might have been trouble.

“What’s wrong?” Brendan asked, scrubbing his hand over his eyes and falling back into his chair.

Ezra shut the door as Alana collapsed onto the couch, her face white, pinched in pain. “Where’s Lindsay?” she asked.

“At Rachel’s with her parents, digging through old records and books, looking for more old alliances we might be able to take advantage of before this is over. Why?” He swallowed hard as his throat tightened. “What’s going on?”

“D’Arcy threatened you,” Ezra said, slumping against the door.

“Threatened me?”

“I was down by the beach clearing my head.” Alana shook her head, blinking rapidly, as if something had gotten in her eyes. “D’Arcy caught up with me down there. He—I—Brendan, he wants to hand you over to Chinasia.”

“Tell me something I didn’t already know,” Brendan said, swallowing the bile that crept up into his throat. “It’d get me out of the way. One less layer of protection for Lindsay and a way into the good graces of Chinasia Corp.”

“The bastard wanted her to help,” Ezra snarled. His eyes were dark with anger, his jaw tight and teeth grinding.

Breath hissed out of Alana and she shuddered. “I have never wanted to be so sick and have never wanted to murder someone so much as I did when I realized what he was suggesting. Just the thought that I would do that to Lindsay…”

“What did you say to him?” Brendan asked.

“I made an enemy today,” Alana said, her voice flat. “Does that answer your question?”

“He was never our friend,” Brendan whispered. He covered his face with his hands, stomach roiling as his heart began to beat faster, almost too fast. “Damn. Damn, damn.”

“What are we going to do?” Ezra asked, finally stepping away from the door and seating himself next to Alana. He wrapped an arm around her, drawing her tight against his side.

“There weren’t any witnesses to the conversation, were there?” Brendan already knew the answer.

There’s nothing we can do. D’Arcy gambled, but he still holds too many cards.

“You already know there wasn’t.”

“I was hoping to be wrong.” Brendan managed a weak, wry smile. He shook his head slowly. “There’s nothing we can do. He’s won this round. We’ll just have to be ready for round two.”

“Are we going to tell Lindsay?” Ezra asked, looking between them.

“It’ll just upset her,” Brendan said. “There’s nothing she can do.” She’ll be pissed as hell—pissed at D’Arcy, maybe enough to make her reckless. But if we don’t tell her, she’ll be pissed at us and maybe not as on guard as she should be. He sighed, rubbing his forehead. “But she needs to know in case he tries something. He’s probably got something up his sleeve where she’s concerned, too.”

“He’s afraid of her,” Alana said in a whisper.

“I know,” Brendan said. “He’s afraid of anyone psychic, truth be known, he just tries to hide it—badly, but he tries.”

“The Morgause family never had problems with psychics before his generation,” Ezra murmured. “I wonder why he’s different from everyone else in his line.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Brendan said. “Either way, we have to deal with him and his being the way he is. There’s no other choice for us.”

“We could kill him.” Alana’s voice was almost too quiet to hear as she stared at a spot somewhere deep in the ground beneath the coffee table. “That would solve a lot of problems.”

“And bring up new ones,” Brendan said, his stomach twisting uncomfortably. “Alana, we can’t just kill him.”

“Why the hell not?” she whispered. “Treason, Brendan. He’s plotting treason against us all. He will tear the Foundation apart brick by brick with what he’s doing. He’ll gift-wrap us and hand us over to the congloms and he’ll think that he was right to bloody well do it.”

“We’re not going to let—”

“Let it happen?” Her chin came up and she stared at him, rage smoldering in her eyes. “What are we going to do to stop it?”

“I don’t know,” Brendan said, jaw tightening painfully. “But we’ll figure it out. Trust me on that.”

“Lana—”

“Don’t tell me to calm down,” she snapped, glaring at Ezra. “Don’t even start. If there is one thing that I am more than welcome to get riled up about it’s this. He’s going to tear everything apart and pretend that he’s saving the Foundation and the colony and all he’ll really be doing is destroying the legacy that Sarah Farragut and Ryland LeSarte and their allies built when the Foundation began. D’Arcy will pretend it’s all for our own good and we’ll be damned lucky if we see the blows coming before they land, before we start to see the cracks. We have to figure this out and stop him dead in his tracks or we’re all screwed.”

“So do we tell Rachel?” Brendan watched Alana process the question, a maelstrom of emotion flicking through her eyes as she considered her answer.

“No,” she finally said. “No, this is the three of us—the four of us after you tell Lindsay.”

“Frederick Rose could help,” Brendan said quietly.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Alana said with a grimace. “Right now, it needs to stay between us. I’m not so sure Rose wouldn’t let it slip to his wife or to Rachel or Marshal Windsor. Better to keep it in-house for now.”

In house. A strange way to put it. Brendan shivered.

Things were, in fact, far worse than he’d ever thought they could be, his wife’s visions nonwithstanding. Things weren’t supposed to be this way.

Unfortunately, he didn’t control the world they lived in and things typically didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to. They just happened, for good or for ill, and they had to figure out what to do in the aftermath.

This was just another storm, and they’d have to find a way to make it through alive.

Somehow.

Forty-nine

“Use him, but don’t trust him.”

Rachel snorted a laugh at Sergei’s words as he pressed a mug of coffee into her hands. The former Speaker’s cottage was comfortable, compact and snug, tucked into the edge of the words with raspberry bushes growing in a wild tangle in his shady yard. The old man had raised his children there, and it was there that he intended to live out the rest of his days in quiet obscurity, enjoying his grandchildren and old friends.

“I don’t have use for him, Sergei, if I can’t trust the information he gives me.” She sat down on his overstuffed couch and rested the mug against her knee. “Especially not when I have other options to fill his role.”

Sergei settled into an armchair, looking at her curiously. “Dare I ask who?”

“Freder Rose for one,” Rachel said, taking a sip of coffee. “Alana Chase.”

“And Brendan Cho, I imagine.” Sergei leaned back, closing his eyes for a moment.

“To a lesser degree,” Rachel said. “Brendan’s too honest, in some ways. Too noble.” For all that he knows, he’s unsuited to being a spymaster.

“The same could be said of Rose.”

“Freder knows where the bodies are buried,” Rachel said. He knows how to cut losses when it’s necessary. “He may be noble and honest, but he’s far from innocent and he knows the game. It almost got him killed.” She sighed. “I won’t take my chances with D’Arcy, Sergei. You’re braver than I am. I don’t trust him and I know he has an agenda—I just haven’t sorted out what it is yet. Whatever he’s playing at, though—Sergei, I know it’s not good for us.”

“Not good for the Guard refugees or not good for the Foundation?”

“Not good for anyone living here that doesn’t care for the methods the congloms employ or the Commonwealth’s handling of just about anything.” A shiver shot through her. “He has too many contacts there.”

“So does Rose. So do you.”

“We were born out there,” Rachel countered. “His family has been here for, what, five generations? It’s an unfair comparison.”

“Perhaps,” Sergei said. “But because his family—”

“I know.” Rachel leaned back, covering her eyes with her free hand. “I can’t move without proof—not to oust him outright, anyway, not to fire him. I have to be smart about this.”

“So you’ll use Chase and Rose informally.”

“Freder Rose will be my spymaster in all but name,” Rachel confirmed. “At least until I’ve got something to use against D’Arcy. As for the level of autonomy he’s been enjoying, though—that’s coming to an abrupt end. I need oversight in that department, regardless of whether I’ll be using what he tells me or not. I don’t care if he realizes that I don’t trust him. Maybe he’ll think twice before stabbing me in the back if he knows I’m wise to his games.”

Sergei arched a brow, sitting forward and leaning his elbows against his knees. “And who will you be saddling with the thankless task of spying on him and his operation?”

“I haven’t decided yet, but Alana is a likely candidate,” Rachel said. “Though I don’t know that he’d stand for it. For her, I mean. Possibly not even the oversight.”

“It strikes me that you don’t quite care what he’ll stand for, Rachel.”

“Maybe not, but I need him to play ball to some degree.” She sighed. “I’ll sleep on it and talk to Adam. Maybe he’ll have some ideas.”

“Likely,” Sergei said. “I’m sorry that I’ve put you in this spot, Rachel. There wasn’t much choice.”

“It’s water under the bridge, Sergei. Don’t worry about it.” She gave him a brave smile. “I’ll do the job.”

Or I’ll die trying.

•   •    •

Her arm ached with a dull, faint throb, heralding the need to return home soon for another dose of pain medication and a request to Ezra to check on the progress of her recovery. As far as she could tell, her arm seemed to be getting better, stronger, but it was hard to judge. He was the expert. She still wore the sling and it still hurt, but she could move her fingers without pain most of the time, and she was able to feel sensations through them—definitely an improvement.

Alana sighed, turning away from the water. She’d come down to the shore for some air, to get away from the house and clinic where worry practically oozed from her lover’s every pore—worry for her, worry for the Commonwealth inspector under his care, worried for everyone in the damned Foundation. She loved him for his compassion, but right now it was in overdrive and suffocating her. She’d needed to escape.

She’d gone two steps when she spotted the slim figure not a dozen yards from her and she cursed.

If D’Arcy Morgause had meant to kill you today, you’d be dead. You’re getting soft in your retirement.

I won’t be letting that snake sneak up on me twice.

He stood watching her intently—intently enough that it set her skin to crawling—and was dressed in casual clothing, his hands empty and arms crossed against his chest. Alana frowned.

What’s he doing here?

“D’Arcy,” she greeted, her words clipped.

“I apologize,” he said. “I’ve startled you.”

“What do you want?” She shifted her jacket slightly, her good hand itching to be filled by a knife’s handle, a gun’s grip—something. Sadly, she’d left her weapons at home—a choice he was suddenly regretting now.

His brows went up. “Why would you think that I wanted something?”

Alana barely suppressed an annoyed sigh. “Because I’m not an idiot, D’Arcy. What do you want?”

“Chinasia’s offered a very handsome sum for Brendan Cho.”

Is that some kind of threat? Her eyes narrowed. “He’s not property and neither am I.”

“I didn’t mean to imply you were,” D’Arcy said mildly. “But I know you’re smart enough to recognize an opportunity when it arises.”

Alana killed the urge to try to cross her arms—that would only end in pain from her shoulder to her fingertips and right now she needed all of her faculties focused on the spymaster’s little game of intrigue. Her heart started to beat a little faster, her stomach going sour. “What opportunity do you assume I’m seeing here?”

“It’s no secret you don’t like him.”

She stared at him. “He’s Lindsay’s husband.”

“Yes, he is Bonded to the vaunted Oracle.”

“You’re suggesting I hand someone mentally linked to my cousin over to a conglomerate that tortured her mother-one that will probably take Commander Cho apart just to see what makes him tick. Psychics don’t fly for Chinasia.”

“I’m aware of that,” D’Arcy said, a coldness in his eyes even as his expression remained impassive.

“Why would I do that? Never mind the fact that it would absolutely destroy Lindsay to lose him—that more than anything else would stay my hand in this because I love my cousin even if I don’t love the choices she makes—but I’ve seen what that kind of torture can be like and I wouldn’t condemn anyone to it.” Alana sucked in a sharp breath. “What are you thinking, D’Arcy? What you’re suggesting is monstrous.”

“I’m trying to think of the Foundation above all,” the spymaster said, his tone vaguely annoyed. “You know that they won’t stop and we can’t stand against them if they turn the full might of their military on us. All of this will disappear and we’ll end up crushed under their boot. What’s one man’s life measured against that?”

Your math sucks, Morgause. Alana shook her head. “It’s more than one man—much more than one man. Lindsay’s pregnant with his child. What’s to stop Chinasia from demanding the child as well? Or demanding that we give America Farragut back to them? They held her prisoner for a lot of years. Don’t forget, too, that the Compact wants me and wants Grant Channing so badly I can taste it from here and I haven’t served them since I as a bleeding teenager—and they have a blood claim on both of us, exactly like Chinasia has on Brendan. Then there’s all the refugees that have found their way here over the last ten years. Don’t you see how wide you’re trying to kick this door with what you’re suggesting? It’s borderline treason.”

“There’s nothing treasonous about this conversation,” D’Arcy said. “I haven’t suggested that you actually do anything. You’re the one that’s making some rather rash assumptions of my meaning here. Call it a warning. Call it a friendly service.” He smiled a snake’s smile at her, one that reminded her of a viper about to strike. “Watch your step, Chase. I doubt you’ll be protected forever, and that prevaricating mind of yours could get you into a great deal of trouble, I’m afraid.”

“You’re a monster,” Alana whispered, almost too quiet to be heard.

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” she said. “We’re done here. Stay away from Lindsay. Stay the hell away from Lindsay.”

Feeling sick to her stomach, Alana squared her shoulders, straightened her spine, and marched past D’Arcy Morgause, headed toward home.

She didn’t start running until she was out of his sight.

Forty-Eight (Part 2) – Redux

[This section of chapter 48 has been rewritten…]

“This Council will come to order.”

Rachel barely suppressed the urge to shudder at the terse, stern tenor of Sergei’s voice.

This meeting is going to end badly, she thought, pressing her hands hard against the wood of the tabletop before her. Then again, you already expected that it might.

It was to be the last council meeting with Sergei at the body’s head and it had already started as inauspiciously as she’d feared, with D’Arcy Morgause picking a fight. Then and there she’d decided that the sooner they managed to oust D’Arcy from the Rose Council—possibly even E-557—the better.

The question was how that particular feat would be accomplished—and how much damage would the man do before they managed to deal with him once and for all?

That sounds incredibly final, she thought, barely keeping a grimace from her face. As much as she might have wanted to see him out of the way, actually killing the man didn’t seem like a valid option.

Then again, depending on what he does in the coming days and weeks, we may not have a choice.

Her niece caught her eye, a slightly alarmed expression on her face. Rachel checked herself and turned her attention abruptly to Sergei, who was waiting patiently for the uproar to die away, a vein in his neck pulsing alarmingly.

She stood up and cleared her throat. “The Speaker said come to order,” she bellowed, putting more force behind the words than was perhaps strictly necessary.

The sudden silence that reigned in the council chambers was deafening as all eyes suddenly went to her. Rachel leaned forward against her palms, forcing herself to be calm, to keep her temper in check. “Now all of you sit down and we’ll discuss this like adults. Whether anyone in this room likes it or not, the Inspector General is on her way here and we will receive her with all courtesy due a Commonwealth official of her rank and stature.”

Frederick leaned back in his seat, poker-faced as he watched the council. It had been the simple announcement that Sephora Damerian was on her way to E-557 that had sparked the ruckus that had erupted almost as soon as they’d reached their seats that morning, and that announcement had come from his lips. He was sitting with Lindsay and Brendan, not with the Marshals, which sent a statement all its own.

The look D’Arcy shot in his direction was nothing short of murderous, which left Rachel’s stomach twisting uncomfortably.

She wasn’t entirely sure why D’Arcy had apparently taken a near-instant dislike to Freder Rose, but it was certainly in evidence.

“Thank you, Rachel,” Sergei said, smoothly reacquiring control of the situation. She sank back down into her chair as he rose, gaze raking over the assemblage. “Whether any of us like it or not, we are the council that is tasked with carrying the people of the Foundation and the colony through this war.”

“There is no war,” D’Arcy said stubbornly. “This is a misunderstanding that we should be able to work through. Perhaps if we send an envoy to New Earth—”

“Are you volunteering for that, D’Arcy?” Kara Grace asked, her eyes narrowing. “Are you volunteering to go plead our case before the legislature and hoping that they don’t laugh us out of the chambers? You can’t act as if they give a damn that we were attacked here. The propagandists are already turning us into the villains over the Whispers. You know that. You’ve seen the reports.”

“Isolated reports, I’m sure.”

“I’m sure that the Inspector General will be able to tell us exactly how isolated those reports are when she arrives,” Lindsay said, her voice deceptively mild. Rachel bit the inside of her cheek to kill a smile. The girl was learning, and quickly, and she detected no small amount of America in her “Until then, we have to labor under the assumption that the attack that we repulsed was only the opening salvo for something much larger and much more dangerous.”

“We have no evidence—”

“Mission Systems is here,” Adam said, breaking the silence he’d been cultivating since the meeting commenced. “That should be evidence enough. You don’t move your entire operation and agree to abide to our way of life because you just feel like it. No, you do that because you know something—that the Commonwealth is becoming hostile to anything and everyone that certain conglomerates don’t agree with, don’t like.”

“The psychic refugees are corroborating the reports we’ve gotten,” Lindsay added. “About the propaganda, about the violence and the shift in behavior. There’s something bad happening inside of the Commonwealth, D’Arcy. Can’t you see that?”

His eyes narrowed. “I see what you refuse to see—that there are other explanations for what’s been happening. We can’t jump on one bandwagon because it’s convenient for us to do so. No. We have to look into everything, question everything.

“I will not agree to a war that we cannot win simply because a few psychics and a small conglomerate say we’re being vilified and should fight back.”

Forty-eight (part 1)

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Sephora murmured, her fingers tightening around Ben’s hand and clutching the case Frederick had given her so many years ago. The boarding tube for their transport felt like it was a hundred miles long rather than a hundred feet. “This is crazy.”

Ben’s lips brushed against her ear. “The universe has gone crazy,” he said softly. “This is the only smart choice right now, our only chance to get to the bottom of all of it, right?”

She swallowed hard and tried to will some steel into her spine. When had the fear taken such a strong grip on her? “You’re right. And it’s my job to sort it all out.” Mine and no one else’s. If that makes me a pariah, makes me expendable to the government—well, then I suppose I was on the wrong side all along then, wasn’t I?

She shivered at the thought.

“I still wish Padraig was coming, too, though,” Sephora said, then sighed.

“He had his reasons for staying and he was right to do it.” Ben let go of her hand and wrapped his arm around her waist, giving her a brief, tight squeeze. “It doesn’t hurt to have someone here to keep us posted, Seph.”

She nodded. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“I don’t like it either.” Ben let go and nodded to the tunnel. “Let’s get going. We’re likely holding up the transport.”

Sephora snorted. “Doubtful. There’s more than just us that they’re waiting on.” She squared her shoulders and started walking again, down the boarding tube toward the transport’s airlock. The trip out to the outer reaches would be long, but she was prepared for that. It had been a long time since she’d been away from New Earth. At the very least, this trip would let her see what was happening beyond the narrow confines of her environment—to see what she’d been sending her inspectors out into for years.

“Did you mean it?” Ben asked her abruptly as they walked away from the attendant minding the airlock, the one that scanned their tickets and welcomed them aboard. Sephora looked at her husband, startled.

“Did I mean what?”

“What you said about a family,” Ben clarified as they found their way to their cabin.

She stopped dead in her tracks and stared at him. “Why wouldn’t I mean it?”

He turned, brows knitting. “I just—Seph, I never thought we could. I never thought that you and I would…”

She shrugged. “Well, I did. I’m sorry that it didn’t happen.”

One corner of his mouth lifted slightly. “There’s still time.”

Maybe there was. They’d have to make it through this mess first, though.

She took his hand. “I guess you’re right about that.” She smiled. “Come on. I’ve got a lot to catch you up on before we make it to the colony.”

Her husband smiled and dutifully trailed behind her in her wake.

Forty-seven

She tested her arm gingerly, barely managing to conceal her wince as pain danced up and down the limb from her reconstructed fingers on up to her shoulder. It was better, though–much better than it had been only a few days before.

Alana grimaced. “Now if only I could convince a particular doctor that I’m not going to fall over sideways if he lets me out of bed…”

“I heard that.”

She twisted and was pleased to find that the motion didn’t make her dizzy. Another improvement over the past few days. “I didn’t hear you come in, Ezra.”

“I figured.” He straightened from his lean in the doorway and came to sit next to her on the bed. He looked tired, dark shadows ringing his eyes and a slump to his shoulders. She rested her good hand on his knee and squeezed gently.

“You look like hell,” she said.

“I kind of feel like it, too.” Ezra reached up and brushed her hair back from her face. “No change to Winston’s condition. We could be in trouble.”

“He’ll be all right,” Alana said softly. “He’s got the best doctor in the known galaxy looking after him.”

Ezra snorted and shook his head, leaning forward and resting his elbows against his knees. “If you say so. Right now, I really don’t feel like I measure up to that particular honor.”

“You do.” Alana leaned against him, careful of her still-tender arm. “Is that all that’s bothering you?”

“That, Brendan, and missing you.” Ezra smiled up over his shoulder at her and reached up to trace the curve of her jaw with a fingertip. “Brendan should mend well enough. He’s much better than he was. But Winston…”

“He’ll be fine.” Alana kissed his cheek gently. “Just like Brendan and I.”

“Mm. This is a prelude to something, isn’t it?”

“I need to get out of here, Ezra. I’m going nuts.”

He arched a brow at her and she sighed. “I mean it,” she said. “I need to get out of here, get some air–go for a walk, a run, something. Keeping me cooped up like this is inhumane.”

“One condition,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“You stay on your medication and you tell me where you’re going, when you’re going.”

Alana’s nose wrinkled. “That’s actually two conditions.”

“Whatever. Are you going to agree or not?”

“You don’t even have to ask.” She kissed him again, giving him the soft, gentle smile she reserved for him and him alone. “I’m going to put some clothes on and walk to the cafe. Do you want me to bring back some dinner for you?”

“I will not say no to dinner,” Ezra said, rubbing his face with the heel of his hand. “Don’t be long, huh?”

“I won’t. Take a nap.”

“I’ll try,” he murmured. She gave him a gentle push backward, toward the pillows.

“Take a nap, Ezra.”

He let her press him down and smiled sheepishly. “That bad?”

“That bad. I’ll be back in an hour. Sleep.”

He gave her a faint grin. “Yes ma’am.”

All Alana could do was kiss him again and laugh.

Forty-six

“How did it go?”

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

“Freder.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what’s bothering you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her lips thinned and she nodded.

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

Frederick closed his eyes and sighed.

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

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

Forty-five

“It’s good to hear your voice, Seph.”

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

Not since I died.

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

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

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

“Where do you think?”

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

“Bullseye,” he said softly.

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

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

“Frederick?”

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

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

“She came here to be with me.”

“I understand that, now.”

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

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

“And everything that was in it?”

“It’s safe, Frederick.”

“Are you alone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were attacked?”

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

“Frederick, I don’t understand.”

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

“I can’t just up and leave.”

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

“Bring your family,” Frederick said.

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

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

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

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

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

As much as I dare to tell, anyway.

Some secrets were just too much to share.

Forty-four

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

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

It was Frederick Rose, somehow back from the dead.

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

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

Is he worried about me, I wonder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben froze and Padraig startled.

“But he’s dead,” Padraig said.

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

“Seph,” Ben said gently, “sit down.”

“I’m all right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How could he be alive?”  Padriag asked.

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

No doubt we will.

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

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

Gods, please talk to me.

Forty-Three

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

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

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

“You didn’t need to—”

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

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

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

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

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

“The Foundation? You must be desperate.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Call routed through HQ,” she murmured.

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

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

It’s not possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just got a goddamned message from a fucking ghost.

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

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

Ben startled. “You didn’t—”

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

“Take us there. Now.”