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

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

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

“You didn’t need to—”

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

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

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

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

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

“The Foundation? You must be desperate.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Call routed through HQ,” she murmured.

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

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

It’s not possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just got a goddamned message from a fucking ghost.

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

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

Ben startled. “You didn’t—”

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

“Take us there. Now.”

Forty-three (teaser)

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

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

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

“You didn’t need to—”

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

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

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

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

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

“The Foundation? You must be desperate.”

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


Stay tuned next week for the continuation of Chapter 43…


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


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

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

Why the hell did you do this in public?

What the hell is he doing here, anyway?

“What’s happened?” Ben asked quietly.

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

“A whisky,” he said. “Neat, please.”

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

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


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

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

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

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

Breathe, Seph.  Just breathe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You did your time,” Ben said softly.

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

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

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

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

“Someone blew up her house.”

Ben’s glass shattered against the tabletop.


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

— Attributed to Sarah Farragut

24 Decem, 5249 PD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah.  That writing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sephora winced, nodding.  “Yeah.”

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

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

“There’s got to be something.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seph.  What are you doing here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would she be afraid of?

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

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

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

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

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

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


21 Decem, 5249 PD

“’Lana? Can you hear me?”

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

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

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

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

“Down here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He doesn’t usually do that.”

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

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

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

Is Brendan okay?”

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

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

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

“That can’t be easy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She just had to safeguard the woman who did.


19 Decem, 5249 PD


“Looks like my timing could have been a little better,” Deacon observed as Adam met him on the windblown landing pad at Halo Ridge. “Ran a little late, huh?”

Adam shook his head even as he reached to shake Deacon’s hand. “Your timing was fine. I shudder to think what would have happened here if you hadn’t shown up when and how you did. You have our thanks.”

“And my services, but I’m thinking that’s something better discussed over drinks somewhere under cover.” Deacon squinted against the wind and sun, then glanced out over the vista that stretched below.

Once the all-clear sirens had been sounded, the job of assessing the damage and cleaning up had begun with little fanfare. Rachel was down in the city, helping coordinate the efforts. They both knew the losses were heavy, likely to get worse when the final tallies were complete. Ezra Grace and Renee Vilenauva wouldn’t be getting much sleep for the next few days as they dealt with the worst of the injured, including Inspector Winston and Brendan Cho.

“At least we’ve got the chance to rebuild,” Adam said, following Deacon’s gaze. “It’s not Mimir, but it could have been. You stopped that from coming to pass, you know.”

“Somehow, I doubt that.”

“Don’t,” Adam said. “It’s true. If you hadn’t showed up—” He stopped and shook his head. “You’re right. This is something better discussed in private. Did you want to come inside? We’ll put you up here for a day or two until we can arrange something better. Did your crew need leave or anything?”

“That’s something we’ll have to discus,” Deacon said, tearing his gaze away from the devastation below. “I was told that the Foundation had made an arrangement with Mission Systems.”

“You heard right,” Adam said, turning toward the house and waving for Deacon to follow. The other man trailed in the marshal’s wake toward what had once been the Grace family home. “It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. They needed a soft place to fall and we need the ships they can provide us with—including the ones the Guard commissioned before Mimir fell.”

Deacon nodded slowly as they stepped into a sunlit study at the back of the house. “The Guard certainly isn’t using them.”

“Exactly.” Adam felt a pang of regret. The Guard wasn’t using them because the Guard was dead except for remnants and refugees—some here, some back in Commonwealth space.

Anyone left in Commonwealth space is in danger. He barely suppressed a shiver as the thought crossed his mind.

“Is this our savior?”

Deacon froze at the sound of America Farragut’s voice.


America stepped into the room with a bottle of local whiskey she’d liberated from Halo Ridge’s cellar. She gave Deacon a warm smile and nodded to one of the reading chairs that littered the study. “It’s good to see you again, Deacon.”

He dropped heavily into one of the chairs, eyes wide and staring. “We were told you were dead.”

“Rumors of that were greatly exaggerated,” she said, unstacking four small glasses. She started filling them one by one with the whiskey. “You’ll find that things like that aren’t always to be believed.”

“Apparently,” Deacon said, gaze flicking toward Adam. “Mission Systems hired me for the shake-down cruise on those ships. I didn’t realize I’d be flying into a warzone, but I’m glad I came prepared.”

“We are, too,” Adam said as he handed one of the glasses of whiskey to Deacon before he claimed one of his own. He eyed the fourth glass, glancing toward America. “Is Grant joining us?”

“Grant’s alive, too?”

America laughed a little and nodded. “He’s alive, but he’s not going to be joining us. He’s down in the city with Rachel, helping with the damage assessment.”

Adam frowned. Then who’s that glass for? “Then who…?”

She waved away the question, perching on the arm of another chair and staring at Deacon. “Was your employment with Mission Systems temporary?”

“Single run,” he said. “Which leaves me rather unemployed at this point.”

One corner of America’s mouth twitched toward a smile. “I sense a ‘but’ coming.”

Deacon shrugged. “My wife’s people are Wanderers. I can’t think of a better place to be than out here with the only people who have actually promised to figure out what happened at the Whispers.”

Adam arched a brow and glanced toward America. She shrugged slightly.

“We’re already walking that path and dragging Inspector Winston along for the ride.”

“The Commonwealth actually sent an inspector out here?” Deacon asked. “I think I’m shocked.”

“Ye of little faith, Deacon.” Frederick limped into the study, leaning a little more heavily on his cane than usual. Adam rocked back against his heels, blinking in surprise right alongside of Deacon.

“I didn’t think that Ezra Grace was going to let you out of his sight for at least a day or two,” Adam said.

Frederick shrugged with one shoulder, lightly touching the bandage taped against his temple and then tugging at his fresh shirt to resettle it. “He’s got far greater issues than me right now. I’m better off than most of the people that Dr. Grace and Dr. Vilenauva are dealing with right now.”

“I’m seeing ghosts,” Deacon said, his grip on his glass white-knuckled. “I bloody well died up there in that engagement and I’m seeing ghosts.”

“Not a ghost,” Frederick said as he eased into a chair and accepted the last glass of whiskey from America. “Not really. I just feel like one sometimes.”

“Telling everyone that Freder was dead was the only way we could protect him from whoever tried to murder him,” Adam said quietly, still unsettled by his friend’s sudden appearance. Daci was going to kill them both when she found out that he was here instead of in bed. “He’s been here since then.”

“If it makes you feel any better, they very nearly succeeded in that,” Frederick said, taking a quick sip of his whiskey.

“No, it really doesn’t.” Deacon sucked in a deep breath, still staring at Frederick. “I—I’m sorry, this is a little bit of a shock.”

“Rachel had the same reaction,” Adam said. “In any case…it sounded like you were offering the Foundation your services as a military tactician. We could use a fleet commander—I think that Aidan and Daci will agree with me.”

“I guess I was,” Deacon said quietly, shaking himself and looking at Adam again. “But it comes with a price.”

Adam raised a brow. “Try me.”

“My crew needs a safe place to live,” Deacon said quietly, “and there are two dozen families back in New Earth space that need to make it here before something bad happens to them. I need your help to make that happen.”

America and Adam exchanged a glance. America shrugged.

“Only two dozen? I think we can make that happen.”

Adam suppressed the urge to shake his head. This is going to be a doozy.

They’d find a way, though. They always did.


‘And then, in the hours in which all hope is lost, a light will shine in the darkness.’  Sarah had never looked at me like I was absolutely insane before, but she did when I said that.  She asked me why I’d said it—we’d finally won our peace, what I’d said didn’t make sense.  I had to tell her that I didn’t know.  It’s bothered me in all the years since.  I’ve never been able to explain it.  Maybe someday, someone will figure it out.

— From the journal of Ryland LeSarte


19 Decem, 5249 PD


“Deacon Black, you bastard!  What took you so long?”

Relief threatened to leave him shaking as Adam leaned against a nearby console.  The sound of a familiar, friendly ghost from his past was more than enough to do that.  They’d known each other on Mimir before the end of the Psychean Guard.  The last Adam had known, his old friend had been teaching at a war college on New Earth—a posh academic position that let his bloodline be quietly forgotten.

The Black family had been heroes of the Rose Foundation back in the days of Farragut and LeSarte.

“Well, you know, I had to find a ship that I liked and that was harder than I thought—you lot didn’t order much variety, did you?”  The faint sound of a proximity alarm sounded in the background of the transmission.  “We can resume this once I’m done dealing with the trouble in orbit.  Tell your fighters to stay out of our fire-lines.”

“Roger that.”  Adam glanced at one of the techs, who nodded quickly and cut in another line, one to the fighter squadrons that had disobeyed orders and stayed to fight.

“Friend/foe just came online,” Tomasi said from behind him.  “They’re broadcasting Psychean Guard.”

“They’ve got the Mission Systems ships,” Adam murmured, staring at the video feeds.  “They couldn’t be anything else.”  Not broadcasting the Guard identifiers, anyway.

He felt the brush of his wife’s thoughts against his and smiled.  Rachel must have sensed the abrupt shift from dread to relief.  We’ll make it through this one—by the skin of our teeth, but we’ll make it.

The black ships came about, swinging toward the newcomers, their attack on the surface forgotten.  Adam sucked in a deep breath as he watched Deacon’s ships continue to pour fire on the black ships, his heart beating hard against his breast.  The engines of one ship flared, then died.  Another began to run, trying to knife its way through the formation of newly-arrived ships only to meet its end in a flare of brightness after successfully running the gauntlet, the damage inflicted by broadsides too much to survive.

“And so the tide turns,” Adam murmured to himself, watching the video feeds.

Then he smiled.

•    •    •

The distant sounds of the all-clear signal roused Alana from the strange half-sleep she’d drifted into.  Ezra was still with her, still holding her as they perched on the edge of the cot in the shelter beneath his clinic.

“You were going to go find your comm,” she said in a shaky voice.  Even though he’d given her a full dose of the usual painkillers not too long before, she’d already decided it wasn’t nearly enough.  Her arm ached with every heartbeat and her head throbbed in time with her pulse, too.

I’m just falling apart in my retirement, aren’t I?

“Couldn’t figure out how to lay you down without jostling your arm funny and waking you up,” Ezra said as he released her.  “Stay here.”

“They’re sounding the all-clear,” Alana said, cradling her bad arm against her belly.  “We can go back up.”

“You’re not going to make it all the way up the stairs.”

She set her jaw, eyes narrowing.  “I will if I’ve got to.  We have to make sure they’re okay.”

Ezra apparently knew better than to ask who she was talking about.  His lips brushed her temple and he started on the hunt for his comm.  “Just stay put,” he said again.  “Let me handle this.”

“You’ll need my help.”


“Ez, please.”  She bit her lip, hating herself for the lump building in her throat.  “Don’t make me wait on the sidelines.”

He stared at her for a long moment, then exhaled a sigh.  “Fine.  Wait here, I’ll go find your sling.”

“Thank  you,” she whispered, watching him turn away and head for the stairs, the blast door above.  Alana sucked in a pair of ragged breaths, trying to pretend that amputation of her arm wouldn’t have been preferable to the pain she was experiencing.

You’ve felt worse.  Deal with it.

Of course, she was lying to herself.  This was worse than anything she’d ever felt before—worse than it had been when the cyberware had gone in by a factor of ten.

Her vision swam and she wavered on the edge of the bed.  Hold it together.  You have to go up there, see what’s going on, see what’s happened.

            They’re okay.  They have to be.


She startled, eyes blinking open, the lids heavy.  She hadn’t heard Ezra come back.  “Did you find it?” she whispered.

“Yeah.”  He held up the sling even as he pressed his hand against her forehead, against her cheek.  “But you’re burning up.  Lay down.”

“No, I have to—”

His fingers laced through her hair and she shivered.  His hands felt cold.  Maybe she really was spiking a fever again.  Ezra’s lips brushed her forehead and she whimpered, her eyes fluttering shut.

“Ezra,” she whispered.

“Sleep.” He eased her down against the pillow at the end of the bed and tucked a blanket over.  “I’ll make sure all of them are okay.  I promise.  Just stay here so I don’t have to worry about you, too.”

Tears welled up behind her closed eyelids.  His fingers brushed against her cheek and she leaned toward the touch, her heart aching as much as her head, as much as her arm.

“Sleep,” he said again, then pressed a pain patch against the joint between her neck and shoulder.  “I love you.”

Whatever he injected into her arm after that sent her sinking down into the soft, quiet oblivion of sleep.

She didn’t even hear him walk away.


Even when hope fades, there must always come light after the darkness.  Believe in the light and it will come—hope finds a way.

— From the personal journal of Ryland LeSarte


19 Decem, 5249 PD


The debris above their heads moved, shifting slightly.  Dust drifted down onto them and Frederick swore, struggling to haul Brendan and Winston deeper into the cellar.  His ribs ached fiercely, pain pulsing with every heartbeat.  Brendan swore—loudly—as Frederick moved him, and the pilot’s curses found a twin in those of his lover aboveground.

“What are you doing down there?”  Kara yelled.

“Moving them in case something shifts wrong.  Haven’t kept them alive this long so they could get crushed.”

Brendan choked on a laugh at Frederick’s gallows humor.  The laugh ended in a fit of coughing and a pained moan.

“Just hang tight.”

“Would have been helpful if they’d brought her brother along,” Brendan muttered, his eyes fluttering shut.  “I’m not doing so hot.”

Frederick grimaced.  I’m thinking we both know that—they probably know it, too.

The debris grated above them.  Frederick squinted at the sliver of light that grew larger, first by inches, then a foot and another.  Lindsay slid through the gap first, landing in a crouch and scrambling toward Brendan.  His breath rasped in his throat as his eyes came open, watching her.

“You look like hell,” she said as she dropped to her knees next to him.

“I feel like hell,” he answered before his gaze drifted toward Frederick.  “But I’m still breathing.  That’s something.”

Kara came next, swearing as the ground shuddered around them.

“They’re savaging the south of the city,” she said with a shiver.  “I don’t know what kind of intelligence they’ve got, but that’s where they’re hitting.  It doesn’t look like they’ve turned the base into a crater yet.”

“It’s only a matter of time,” Frederick said quietly.  “There’s no doubt about that.”  He stared at Lindsay.  “It’s Mimir, Lindsay,” he said.  “It’s just like Mimir, all over again.”

Lindsay’s lips thinned and she shook her head hard, her fingers curling around Brendan’s hand.  “It won’t be,” she said with no small measure of conviction.  “We won’t let that happen.  It can’t happen.  It won’t.”

Kara touched her shoulder.  “How do you know?”

“Because we both know,” Lindsay whispered, glancing down at Brendan and then up toward her friend again.  “We’ve both seen too much for everything to end here.  Haven’t we?”

Brendan’s eyes slid shut again.  “She’s right.”

“We have to save your life,” Lindsay said, her eyes meeting Frederick’s.  “I’ve seen it.  You’re giving a speech and someone’s coming after you and you get knocked out of the way just in time to save your life.  It happens.  I know it happens.  There’s so much…”

Brendan’s fingers flexed.  “Enough,” he whispered.  “How’s Inspector Winston?”

“Still breathing,” Frederick said, his voice grim.  “I can’t say much  more than that.  Unless this ends soon…”

“I’ve learned a thing or two from Ezra,” Kara said, carefully moving around Brendan’s prone form to kneel alongside Winston.  “I’ll see what I can do.”

“I think it’s bad,” Frederick said.  “He hasn’t said anything in a while.”

“Talking hurts,” Winston whispered.  “But I’m still here—barely, but still here.”

“Well, let’s see if we can’t keep you with us a little longer,” Kara said with a reassuring smile and a gentle touch to the younger man’s shoulder.  “Just yell if it hurts, okay?”

“I’ll try.”

“That’s all I ask.”


* * *


“They haven’t fired on us yet,” Tomasi whispered.  “Sir, why haven’t they obliterated the base yet?”

“Could be that we have something here that they want,” Adam said quietly, staring at the video feeds.  I’ve got no idea what it could be, but maybe they think we’ve got something here that they’d want.  “Where have they hit?”

“Two locations near city center, non-military targets.”

“South of the city’s burning, too,” Tomasi added.

“Mimir,” Adam murmured, half to himself, gaze fixed on the screens.  Hate and terror.  That’s all they cared about.  Sowing terror and their hate.

Tomasi gave him a confused look.  He shook his head slightly.

The comm crackled.  “Control, new contacts, big ships, coming hard and fast.”

Adam’s heart dropped to his boots.  That’s why they haven’t opened up yet.  They were waiting for the heavy hitters.  “Get out of here,” he said quietly over the comm to the lingering fighters, the ones that had disobeyed orders and stayed behind as a final line of defense.  “Save yourselves.”

He closed his eyes and waited for the sudden barrage to begin.

“Sir!  Control, they’re opening fire on the black ships.”

Tomasi’s voice was an excited shout.  “Marshal, we’re getting a hail from the lead ship.”

Adam sucked in a breath, his eyes coming open, his heart beating at three times its normal speed.  “Put it through.”

“Better late than never, huh, Marshal Windsor?”

Adam’s eyes widened and he began to laugh.



19 Decem, 5249 PD

The world flared bright and the ground heaved.

Lindsay and Kara sprawled and rolled as the field bucked beneath their feet, their mad dash toward the downed aircraft abruptly aborted.  Lindsay gasped for breath as she came to a stop in a shallow furrow between rows of grapevines, all the wind knocked from her lungs when she’d been thrown from her feet.

She tried to orient herself, tried to figure out what had just happened.  Her head was ringing, but her vision was clear.

Did they just fire on us from orbit?  Is that what just happened?

            How is that even possible?

She felt sick, wanted to puke up everything that was in her stomach at the thought.  The worst part about it all was that she knew it was possible, she knew it could happen.

She’d seen it happen.

“Lin!  Lin, we’ve got to get under cover.”  Kara scrambled toward her from the next furrow over, ducking beneath one of the arbors, keeping low as she moved.  “I’m not sure what they were targeting, but I can see fires burning in the city proper.  They’re firing from orbit.”

Her blood ran cold and a shudder ran through her.  No.  No, it’s too soon.  It has to be too soon.

            We were going to stop this from happening.

“Get up!  We have to move.”

“The only cover is where—”

“I know it.  Get your feet under you.”

Lindsay swore and fumbled to her feet, stumbling a step as her ankle tried to fold underneath her.  She grimaced, gritting her teeth as she fought through the pain.  Must have twisted it when I went down.  Damn it all.

Kara tucked her arm beneath hers shoulders.  “Stay low,” she warned.  “Just in case.”

“They’re softening us up before they send landers,” Lindsay said, suddenly breathless.  “That’s got to be it, Kara.  That’s got to be it.”

“Right,” Kara said, her tone anything but reassuring.  “A repeat of the Whispers won’t do them any good if they want our trees and our farmland.”

Lindsay shuddered.  There were thousands upon thousands of miles of undisturbed forest and plain beyond Nova Spexi.  The enemy—whoever was attacking them—could destroy the city and everything in a two mile radius around it without significantly hurting their ability to use the world’s available resources.

“You had to say that,” she said.

Kara glared at her.  “Sunshine and rainbows doesn’t exactly strike me as the proper reaction to our current situation.”

Lindsay caught a flash out of the corner of her eye and twisted back toward the city.  Something exploded there and the ground moved beneath them again.

This time, the pair was ready for it, expecting it, and they kept their feet.  It was less than a dozen yards to the fuselage.  They just needed to make it there and then maybe, just maybe, they’d be able to find something like shelter from the bombardment.

Brendan, are you still with me?

His pain clawed at her again, forgotten in the midst of sudden heart-pounding panic and surprise.  Barely, came the reply that accompanied the agony.  What’s happening up there?

She sucked in a breath.  Orbital bombardment.  That’s what’s happening out here.




“Frak me,” Brendan groaned, his voice weak.  Frederick startled at the sound, looking toward the pilot.

“You’re awake.”

“Still, and barely.  Lin’s in my head.”

Frederick swallowed, a shiver shooting down his spine.   “Did she tell you what’s going on topside?”

“You don’t want to know,” the pilot muttered, his eyes squeezing shut.

“I may not want to know, but I’m fearing that I might need to.”

Brendan exhaled.  “Bombardment.  They’re firing on us from orbit.”

“Bloody hellfire,” Frederick said, feeling light-headed.  “It really is happening all over again.”

“What is?”

“Mimir,” he said, forgetting that Brendan hadn’t been entirely conscious for their last discussion.  “It’s Mimir all over again.”

“Except they didn’t want Mimir’s resources when they came there, right?  They wanted something else.  Something worse.”

“The extermination of a race,” Frederick whispered, staring blankly at the cellar wall.  “The destruction of psychics.”

“More than that,” Brendan rasped.  “I can see it, now.  Listening’s done me good—reading Lin’s books has done me good.  Knowledge, Inspector Rose.  They wanted to destroy what Mimir knew.”  His eyes fluttered shut again.  “What do we know that they knew?”

His blood went cold, ice tumbling through his veins as he stared at the semi-conscious pilot, the Sarah Farragut to Lindsay’s Ryland LeSarte.  Frederick’s heart was in his throat as he whispered, “How did you come to that conclusion?”

“It just fits,” Brendan mumbled.  “It all fits.”

“Freder!  Brendan!”

Lindsay’s voice echoed quietly, barely penetrating the debris above them.  Brendan opened his eyes again and stared at the earthen ceiling and the shattered fuselage that blocked access to the cellar.

“They came looking for us,” he mumbled.  “They shouldn’t have.  It was stupid.  They did it anyway.”  The ghost of a smile touched his lips.  “The fact that she’s stubborn is part of why I love her so much.”

Frederick heaved himself to his feet, limping toward the sound of Lindsay’s and Kara’s voices, barely audible.  “We’re down here!”

“How many?”  Kara asked.

“Three,” Frederick said, glancing at Brendan and Inspector Winston.  “Just three.”

“Hold on.  We’re going to try to get down there with you.”

“What about getting us out?” Frederick asked.

“Too dangerous!”  Kara called back.  “We’re joining you.  Safer down there than it is up here.  City’s on fire.”

Bile crept up in Frederick’s throat, sickness threatening.

Just like the last time.

Could Brendan be right?  Was this about something they knew, not about the resources they controlled?

Bloody hell.  That’s something I never thought about.

            Or did I? Have I just forgotten?

“Oh Seph,” he whispered.  “I hope you’ll be able to unravel whatever I left behind because god knows that I can’t.  I can’t.”


When the black ships came gliding out of the night, dark against the stars, we should have known the end was upon us.  Perhaps we would have if we’d had eyes to see at the time.  We had been blinded by then and all chance of saving ourselves, all hope of Mimir’s survival, had already been utterly obliterated.

— From the personal journal of Rachel Farragut


19 Decem, 5249 PD

Lindsay watched the bombers against the clouds, startling slightly as she realized they were lifting higher instead of descending for another pass.  She poked Kara hard in the ribs and pointed upward.

“Look,” she breathed as she peered up past the leafy canopies that were their cover as they sheltered in a copse of trees a few hundred yards from the vineyard’s property line.  “They’re lifting.  They’re running.”

“Running?”  Kara grimaced.  “Are you sure that’s what they’re doing?”

Lindsay’s stomach gave an uncomfortable lurch and she swallowed.  “I sure as hell hope so.”  The alternative isn’t something I want to contemplate.  I’m not even quite sure I know what the alternative would be, but I know it’s not going to be something I’d like.

“Me too.”  Kara edged out from under cover to get a better look.  Gray clouds were moving in from the west and the wind was stiffening.  “Maybe there’s a storm coming.  Maybe they’re breaking off because of it.”

“Hopefully that’s it.”  Lindsay sucked in a breath, looking down over the rolling hills toward the sea.  They were on Kara and Gabe’s property, now, property she knew almost as well as she knew the woods where she’d grown up, the woods she lived in now.  She closed her eyes for a moment, taking a slow, deep breath.  She could smell the smoke that drifted on the air, could taste the fuel and exhaust from the fighters and bombers.

So many minds.  So much fear.  She shivered.  Kara squeezed her shoulder.

“Reel in,” her friend murmured.  “It’s not worth it.”

“It’s always worth it,” Lindsay said, swallowing hard.  It was only half a lie.  She knew what she might be doing to herself.  Her hand unconsciously strayed toward her belly, showing no sign of her pregnancy at this early stage.

I can’t wonder what this is going to do to all of us right now.  All I’ve to do is find Brendan.  That’s all I have to do.

A thought brushed against hers, faint and frail.  She latched onto the sense of Brendan, relief making her knees momentarily weak.

I thought you were dead.  I was afraid you were dead.

The sense of him was weak, but it was there.  You’d know if I’d died.  Are you safe?

“For the moment.”  She murmured the words even as she pushed them to him.  Kara grimaced, squeezing her arm.

“You found him?”

Lindsay made a ‘sort-of’ gesture with one hand, biting her lip.  Where are you?

As safe as I can get for the moment.  Freder and the inspector are here.  Winston’s hurt worse than I am, I think.

Lindsay swallowed hard.  How bad is it?

I think I busted my ribs.  Not sure what else.  A lot of pain.

She could feel it nibbling at the edges of her own consciousness.  Her breath quickened.  They had to be close.  She caught Kara’s hand and darted out into the open, heedless of what might see them.

“Holy shit, Lindsay, what are you—”

“They’re close!  I can feel his pain, they’re close.”  She tried to use their bond as a guide, tracking the bright thread that tied them together in her mind’s eye.

Don’t let me go.  Don’t stop talking, Brendan.  Stay with me.

She felt his pain spike and winced herself.  His thoughts were weaker now.  Trying.  It’s hard.  Hurts a lot.

“Just hang on,” she whispered.  “We’re coming.”

We?  Who’s we?  What are you—Lin!  Lin, no.  You can’t.

She actually laughed.  Too late.

“There!”  Kara jerked on her arm, spinning her to the side.  “They’re over there.”

Lindsay blinked, eyes stinging as a gust of wind blew smoke from a smoldering bomber in their direction.  “How do you know?”

“Just trust me,” Kara said.  “There’s a cellar beneath that fuselage.  They’ve got to be down there if they’re close.  They’re sure as hell not out in the open, are they?”

Brendan?  Are you underground?

Yeah, he thought back.  One of the cellars, I think.  Hard to tell.  Vision’s blurry.

Lindsay grimaced.  He must have hit his head again, too, which made her even more worried than she’d been a few minutes before.  No one needed him to undo all the work that Ezra had done to patch him up again.

Shit, where’s Ezra?

Probably at home with Alana.  Keep talking to me, Lin.  I keep trying to pass out and staying conscious is getting hard.  Starting to drift.

Her lips thinned as she and Kara broke into a dead run.  Just hang in there, Brendan.  I’m coming.  I promise, I’m coming.


•    •    •


Tomasi looked away from her console and toward Marshal Windsor, who stared at the video and sensor feeds that their evacuating fighters were still broadcasting.  They’d keep broadcasting until they were out of range; standard operating procedure.  It was only a matter of time, though, before they were well out of range, traveling to their destinations on the Marshal’s orders.  “Yes, sir?”

“Anything from that fleet that’s coming in?”

Tomasi checked her boards just to be sure, then shook her head slightly.  “No, sir.  They’re running silent.  I’m not even picking up ship to ship, but…well.  It looks like they took out some of the long range relays and sensors before they moved in for the kill.”

There was a collective wince and shudder that ran through the staff in operations at her poorly chosen words.  The young pilot turned her gaze to her console, stared at her hands.

Windsor’s hand fell on her shoulder.  “It’s all right,” he murmured.  “We were all thinking it.  You’re just the one that said it.”

“Yes, sir,” the girl said quietly.  Windsor’s fingers flexed and he stepped away.

“Marshal, the bombers are pulling back,” someone on sensors said quietly, as if they feared shouting would somehow shatter the fragile control they all maintained, as if speaking louder would leave them all utterly shattered.  “Do you think that maybe they’re leaving?”

“Not bloody likely,” Windsor said, heart sinking to the level of his boots.  “This is what it was like at Mimir.”

“They’re here to kill us all,” someone said.  “They want our planet.”

“Ships are moving into geosync.  They may be setting for orbital bombardment.”

No maybe about that.  Windsor closed his eyes.  I love you, Rachel.  I love you.  He took a deep breath.  “How many over Nova Spexi?”

“Looks like three, sir.”

“Gunports are cycling open.”

So this is how it ends.  Windsor cleared his throat.  “It’s been an honor, ladies and gentlemen.”

All they could do was watch as the visual feeds showed the first of the blasts two heartbeats before the ground began to shake with the effects of the bombardment.

The first siege of E-557 had begun.