12359 words (49 minute read)

Episode III: Trust

FASS REVIEWED THE state of his dock.

The jumper remained; the groundship and one skimmer were missing. Perhaps one of the absent guards had cowered off to delay the inevitable; it seemed like the sort of thing Private Dray would do.

“What now, Captain?” Sergeant Marejak asked from the back of the dock control room. Thirty-seven guards had trickled here after the communication system failed to reboot and Marejak was somehow senior behind Fass. She had no sense of humor and she never bent a rule.

Fass indulged her with a serious nod.

“Stay here and secure the base, Sergeant. We have six missing: Tars, Palia, Dray, Horten, Mellick, and Lilya. Find them.”

“We need to get the system back up—” she nagged.

If she couldn’t solve that problem without complaining, he had no reason to mourn the loss of her. “You have my orders.”

He looked across the room for the appropriate faces; he counted nineteen Unity, but the jumper would only hold eight. He’d already sent Reddig for supplies.

Fass booted up the last jumper in the hangar and then turned to his people and called out the names of the six tallest and strongest men. As they pushed their way to the exit, he despaired of the tone of the crowd—fragile, nervous, and lost. Weak.

Off to one side Marejak seemed to be talking, trying to give orders, but most of the crowd was ignoring her. Fass tried not to laugh as he and his men tromped off.

Reddig caught up just as they reached the jumper. He was carrying a blue travel case the size of a dinner tray and thickness of an open-splayed hand.

“Got it, sir,” Reddig said, barely short of breath. Reddig was fast and lethal and he knew how to operate an organ transport case. Fass liked him.

“Bulk it, Private,” Fass replied. Some of these men might hesitate at killing the queen herself without trial, even with their loyalty to Unity. He’d have to be careful. Not many deserved his trust.

If only Tannor Mellick had spent a little more time with him; he could have drawn her in, used what skills she had. But she was gone now—neither her comm nor her pin were showing up on scans, which meant she was under some sort of masking.

She must be on the missing groundship with the queen—and groundships couldn’t hide from Ednar Fass.

His soldiers sorted themselves out, Trima in the pilot seat, as Fass waved to the tiny brown splotch of Marejak’s face in the control room and the jumper lifted off. The rain had faded and the night hanging over the jaws of the dock was just beginning to bow toward dawn.

Trima looked to Fass from the helm. “There’s no trace of the groundship, sir.”

Fass drew a tablet out of his jacket and delved into the connection he’d spent nearly a decade forging with his Earthan friends. Then as everyone watched, he laid the tablet on the console and allowed them all to see his genius: real-time satellite images.

“Even a masked groundship with no chem trail will appear under the eyes of Earthan satellites,” he said. “Over land, the mask can disperse heat and light to disappear at close range, but from orbit the difference is clear. Over water, they’ll find it impossible to hide.” Everyone here already knew how all the regulation Vada vehicles avoided endlessly proliferating Earthan tech: Earth Monitoring and their planted agents in every government. Not just anyone could bypass Earth Monitoring to see the actual Earthan images, though.

“Strength, Captain,” Trima replied.

“Strength to Unity!” the rest of them chimed.

Two bright marks appeared on the map and Trima pulled them open. “I got distress from Horten and Lilya, sir. Should we stop for them?”

Horten, they could lose, Fass mused in irritation. Lilya, though—she might prove useful later. He gave Trima a permissive wave.

Then he leaned close to Reddig. “Wait until we get the queen alone. You can remove the hand, but I claim the pleasure of the eye.”

Reddig patted the blade on his thigh. “Thank you, sir.”

Fass matched his smile.


When Relai went blank, it scared Tannor like nothing else that had happened so far. It was like the queen pulled her own stopper, drained herself from her body, and for a few nauseous seconds there was nothing there. Nothing.

Then Relai’s eyelashes flicked and her eyes and mouth went tight. Tired, but present.

“Excellent!” Ky forged on. “How about you two? Are you in?”

Goren’s whole face contorted in offended disbelief. “We’re not following you anywhere! We’re going back to the base and we’re going to fully stock this ship and get more loyal guards so the queen—princess—so Our Glory is really safe!”

At the same moment Tannor snapped, “You should be asking if you can come along with us!”

“Words, words, sprite,” Ky replied, snatching back his gun from Goren. “You’re with us, we’re with you, what does it matter? The important thing is who’s in control of the ship.”

Tannor smirked right back. “I think you know who’d be in control if we both stepped up to screens right now.”

He hoisted his gun to his shoulder and gestured to the wall in cordial invitation. “Yeah, the one still standing.”

Stop.” Relai stood up. “Whether we like it or not, the fact is, you’re all—” she swallowed, “you’re all with me. So. Where are we right now?”

Ky looked over his shoulder, then up along the gently curving ceiling. “I, ah, parked us in a little cove at the edge of an ocean. We’re protected on three sides by cliffs, fourth by water, fifth and sixth by open air. We’re full up on fuel for a trip to Oliver, but there’s nothing to eat and no travel pods. Between me and this one, here,” he inclined his head toward Tannor, “I’m confident your base can’t follow us.”

Tannor inclined her head in mocking return as she rested a hand on the chair behind Relai. “They can’t follow us because I turned off the chem trail you didn’t notice; you’re welcome.”

Ky tissed air through his teeth. “No you didn’t. I’ve been watching your every move.”

“Then I must know more than you about how to handle a ship.” She cocked an eyebrow, waiting.

Milo hadn’t responded to her prompt, and there were only two of them.

Ky went still, peering at Tannor with a crinkle in his brow, and then he yawned. “I must be tired. Feels like I haven’t slept in three days.”

Thank hell and holy valence, yes.

(A three? Tannor had never met a three before.)

She recited the proper response:

“Three? I can barely think after two. I go white as chalk with no sleep.”

She saw, and she knew it was only because he chose to let her see, the surprise and intrigue and appreciation flit across his face.

“M’sure it looks nice with your yellow hair,” he murmured. Three and yellow. Strategic planning, embedded. And no sleep meant active.

Feels like I haven’t slept in three days. She’d trusted the orders, allowed for a breach in security, for a subversive, non-violent resistance. The resistance that altered travel documents, lowered mining quotas, redistributed food, and forgot to censor relays. For the Quiet.

Then these two had shown up and plucked the queen out of the hands of guards who were holding her captive. She’d been helping them.

She’d been helping rescue Orist Aydor.

Tannor felt a certainty sizzle through her, an energy and pride and a fierce drive—she helped rescue the queen.

So Ky was using Milo Hemm’s vendetta… and Milo had no idea. Milo Hemm, the Monster of Eray, separatist, terrorist—and perfect cover.

I’m concerned about my associate finding your queen, he’d said. She met Ky’s eyes and the glow from the wall screen flecked light in his dark irises.

Damn right, you were.

“Are you flirting with her?” Goren exclaimed. “This is a life and death situation and you’re flirting?!”

Ky appraised the young man, flicked his gaze back to Tannor, and with a twitch of her head Tannor told him, no. Goren’s not Quiet. But she shifted her body and thumbed a smudge of blood from the boy’s cheek, and Ky smiled.

“Don’t let him bother you, Goren,” she said. “I don’t think he can help it.”

“Get off my face,” Goren grumbled.

Okay.” Relai shakily drew their attention with a wave of her hand as her eyes jumped from person to person.

They were dirty and greasy and damp, Tannor’s blood caked thick in her hair and Goren’s face swollen from abuse. The criminals, burn-marked and soot-smeared and crumbling dirt everywhere they went, didn’t fit the warmth of the polished room. They were all staring at her. Expecting leadership.

Never let anyone in the room think they are more important than you.

She asked, “How were you two going to get me back to Arden?”

Milo grimaced and Ky scratched at the back of his neck. “We ran into some problems with our original plan,” Ky admitted. “But don’t get the wrong idea! Nothing has happened that we can’t handle.”

“We got shot down by this planet’s military as I was about to land,” Milo explained, leaning against the table with his arms crossed over his chest. “I underestimated this planet’s defense capabilities. We snuck aboard a… a transport. It was bound to set metal tracks—I don’t know—”

“Oh, a train,” Relai guessed.

“A train.” Milo repeated the word like wielding a club. “And then we walked the rest of the way.”

They must be tired, she thought.

Tannor shifted, her hands twitching toward the nearest wall. “Why didn’t I see you enter the atmosphere?”

Ky’s smirk spread into a full-fledged grin.

Relai coughed and said, “So, you’ve got no plan now.”

“We’re making it up as we go along,” Ky agreed.

“We’ve been through worse,” Milo said.

Relai breathed deep, refusing to look back and acknowledge the misery behind his words. Forward held misery enough.

So she said, mostly to herself, “I get the feeling you’re not going to be saying that at the end of this.”

“Is that a threat?” Milo snapped. Time slowed, Relai stumbled back, and with one step Milo overwhelmed her personal space, all shadow and weight and wild brambles of brown hair.

“No! No.” She put a hand up and left it hovering over his heart. “Just—feeling cynical.”

He held her stare for another few heartbeats, glaring through the wave of residual hate.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

He jerked back, jaw slack, and turned on his heels.

“We’ll need food,” he muttered, and left the room.


Tannor couldn’t see them getting out of this alive.

If they went above four thousand feet their own base would shoot them down, and Daat Base in Hawaii would know by now, too. Both Ardenian bases sat north of Earth’s equator and she didn’t even want to think about dealing with Titus’s Buzou Base in the South China Sea.

(Buzou carried maybe fifteen soldiers? Sixteen? It only took one to aim a missile. They didn’t stand a chance if Titus decided to act.)

And yet… Ky and Milo got past everyone, and how the hell? They must have something, know something she didn’t. It could be done. They’d do it again.

So, when Milo stormed off, Tannor hurried after. He showed only a moment of disorientation as he fled the conference bay and then the door clamped shut behind them. She knew where he was going: the cargo hold. It should be stocked with a few skimmers.

Tannor was terrible with social interaction, but even she could see that Milo needed rest and peace and time for mourning. He must have lost so many people.

And killed a lot in return. Tannor pushed back the thought with her own growing doubt. Supposedly. She couldn’t trust anything she thought she knew about him from reports and telay, not anymore. She wasn’t afraid, no—but she’d be prepared.

He noticed her but didn’t stop barreling down the long, tight corridor.

He was eran, darker than anyone but some Titians, with a glow under the brown of his skin like he might be made of gold. She wondered if it was a regional thing that he was so tall, so broad-shouldered, so giant. She didn’t know a single person in her region, Reyet, who’d grown so large.

“I speak a little Italian,” she said to his back.

He paused, eyes flashing over his shoulder. Then he turned and—

“Will you stop doing that?” she blurted out.

He froze. “Doing what?”

She waved her hands like claws. “Looming. Using your size to intimidate us. I already know you could snap me in half, you don’t need to remind me. I’m aware.”

He looked down and let his shoulders settle back. “You healed the rest of her but left the bruises on her neck.”

“Somebody needed to know,” she replied.

Tannor saw a shadow of anguish in his eyes as he said, “I do.”

He’d saved the queen from those guards, she realized. He must’ve done it when he thought she was his enemy, and now he felt guilty for scaring her.

She gave him a measured nod. “Good. So do I.”

Then Tannor sidled past him and put on a professional voice. “Italian is the local language. They’re used to tourists, so it won’t be strange for us to stumble through conversation. I’ll talk and you carry the heavy stuff.”

She didn’t hear him following, so she stopped and looked back to find a wary expression on his face.

“You’re all right going out there with me alone?” he asked.

Tannor took off walking again to hide the conflict on her face. She’d always been taught to fear men who looked exactly like him—and he knew it. That knowledge didn’t make him any less dangerous, but it did give her something to use against him: he didn’t want to be the thing she’d been warned against.

“You need me,” she said without looking back. “Besides, you’re better for carrying food than Goren, and Ky thinks he knows what he’s doing. I don’t have time for that.”

“He always thinks he knows what he’s doing,” Milo said as he fell into step beside her. “From each, according to their ability…”

“To each according to their need?” she finished in surprise. “I didn’t know anything Earthan had reached Eray.”

His cheek pinched in a half-smile and she watched the movement of his beard. She’d never known anyone with a beard. She wanted to touch it.

“People brought back all sorts of things after the Tennan War,” he said. “The High Court can’t filter out paper books.”

They rounded a corner and reached a cut in the floor. Milo hopped right down, ignoring the hand bars, and he didn’t try to help her as she climbed to the floor below. His hands didn’t move in the direction of her body, not for a second.

“Where are you from?” Milo asked.


“Ah. So you know.”

Ah, indeed. Reyet was worse-off than almost any other region, though they didn’t suffer the same antagonism that the Erayd did. It was hard to tell where a person hailed from until they spoke, but the Erayd made things easier with all that hair they liked to grow. Not that Tannor had anything against hair—she didn’t even shave her arms and legs (to the constant horror of her family). Milo probably left hair on his chest.

Maybe he’d take off his shirt when they found new clothes.

Now Milo was peering at her with a faint bit of concern on his brow. “You don’t need to be embarrassed; I don’t care what class you’re in. I recognize you.”

Tannor frowned. She was careful about the use of her name across the commons after the trouble with Fordev, and he shouldn’t know her face at all. Tannor kept her image out of the coalition’s shared digital space because one look at her face might sour someone’s respect for her accomplishments. You couldn’t have done all that yourself, one teacher had told her. No one who looks like you would need to. Now tell me who you copied.

Tannor tamped down a flash of irritation at the memory and asked, “How do you know me?”

“I heard the way you recited your oath,” he said. “She’s your enemy, too.”

“Whoever’s been ruling,” Tannor amended.

“The False Relai,” he agreed. “So we’re equals, you and I.”

She smiled and Milo matched it. His eyes were a bit green.



“So…” Relai began, seated wearily at the conference table with Goren posted in the Regent Service guard position to her right. “What are we going to—”

“First, a question for you,” Ky said. He was perched cross-legged on the table, poking around on his tablet without letting on what he was doing. Relai tensed. “Actually, a few questions.” She tensed more.

“You say you weren’t ruling. What were you doing on Earth?”

 “Uh,” her eyes met Goren’s earnest gaze, then Ky’s, then a nice, safe spot on the floor. “Traveling.”

The silence told her that answer wasn’t going to be enough.

“This is a big planet. I don’t think it’s really—I mean, right now we should be figuring out where—”

“What we really need to know,” Ky interrupted, “is if you have any loyal contacts here, now, on Earth. Anyone who might help. Or who might—”


Relai had spent three of her four years traveling Earth with two personal guards. Their names were Gokoro and Aurseren and they’d glommed on to her when she left Arden at her mother’s request.


“No one.”

Gokoro would spar with her using a different art than Relai’s silata; she’d drill Relai with leg sweeps and in return Relai would dip blunt wooden dowels in red paint and demonstrate all the best places to slit ligaments. Aurseren would laugh at them both and snort smokepowder while she watched Buster Keaton movies instead of securing the perimeter of Relai’s latest resort home.

Sometimes Relai would ditch them for a week or two so she wouldn’t have to talk to a single human person for a while—she’d climb a mountain or pick a beach and just swim. Sleep. Not say a word.

Relief, if only for a time.

“No friends,” Ky said. “Convenient.”

Relai wrapped her fingers around her little knife blade and squeezed. Not enough to break the skin, just enough to hurt.

Then Ky eased back and his interrogating gaze vanished. “It’s simpler this way, actually. We don’t have to worry about any heroes trying to kill us to rescue you; anyone after you just wants to end you. Simple.”

Aurseren lasted the first year, Gokoro, the second and third. After that, she’d been alone.

Goren said something belligerent, but she didn’t hear the words. Ky was right; no one would come and rescue her. She would be alone, yet never alone again.

Relai didn’t realize she’d drifted away until a head came level with hers.

“Hey.” Ky crouched in front of her, one hand on her forearm, and moved to take back his knife.

“No, no.” She drew it back. “I need this to keep me safe.”

He smiled and she was surprised by the warmth. “But Milo and I will do that.”

(“Me, too!” Goren said. They ignored him.)

“Milo?” Relai’s hand tightened against the sharp edge of the knife. “I’m sure he’s nice when he’s not strangling anyone.”

Ky stretched his jaw. “He didn’t kill you,” he said. “He thought he should and he still couldn’t. You saw him.”

She remembered the way Milo’s body shook as he sat next to her in the rain. Pity won’t rule our planet, child.

Relai took a deep breath. She could bury this.

“I understand that. I just—” She wanted to go on but Ky stood and clapped his hands together.

“You hungry? I might have some bread left over.”

“No, thank you.” She attempted a smile. “I still feel sick.”

She stood and swayed from dizziness as Ky turned his head and showed her the strong column of his throat. There was a spot of red there. A nick from her knife.

Relai didn’t get the chance to apologize because Ky froze and his eyes went sharp and unfocused.

“Ooh, I can’t believe we didn’t see that one coming,” he said after a pause.

“What?” Relai demanded.

His face only tightened. “Who cares? Same plan.”

He was talking to Milo on his comm. Relai decided to keep quiet until something comprehensible happened, but then Ky let out a long, exasperated sigh and cursed.

“What?” she demanded.

He just shook his head and spun around, muttering, “Where’s a good place to put a body?”

Two minutes earlier, Tannor had stepped up to a terminal and woken two skimmers.

“We need to get off of this planet as soon as possible,” Milo said, rummaging through a supply cabinet. He found what he was looking for: a cargo extension. “It’ll take the first relays twelve hours to reach Oliver Station. Five, maybe ten minutes for security review, then six minutes from Oliver to Odys to Arden. They’ll send every guard, bounty hunter, and disgruntled ex-terr on Earth after us. We have twenty-three hours left, and then all hell is our hell.”

Tannor clipped up her jacket, glancing to make sure the cells held a full charge. One day left plenty of time to gather supplies, and they could decontaminate and system cleanse at Oliver Station… if the whole place wasn’t waiting to kill them when they got there. She sighed, imagining the technical back bends she’d need to do to get them across the galaxy alive. “Mora Aydor isn’t even supposed to be on Earth,” she muttered. Since Unity bombed Oliver Block and destroyed outgoing travel, she’d had to take the slow way over to the next closest block, Ketzal, at Oeyla—

She wasn’t supposed to be here.

Tannor and Milo turned to one another in unison.

“It’s the perfect excuse,” she began, but he rambled over her.

“They faked the bombing.” Milo turned and stormed back in the direction of the main deck, tapping behind his ear. On comms with Ky, Tannor realized. “Oliver Block was never damaged, they just needed a reason she couldn’t return to Arden. They’re filtering her fake relays through Oliver. We’ll find our enemies there at the station, maybe the ones really in charge—”

The relay. All the queen’s medical data.

“Milo!” Tannor cried after him. “We just sent them our proof!”

Twelve hours. Less than twelve hours until their enemies received it.

Milo slowed, cursing. “They’ll know exactly what we know. It’ll never even reach Arden—”

“They’ll twist it, erase it, lie,” Tannor said. Her eyes lost focus. “No one will ever know what they really did to her.”

The truth of it swelled in her mind and she concluded, quick and sure, that the proof would never be safe as a relay or a discrete package. They couldn’t upload it to the commons, either. Too many soldiers had conspired to fake the block bombing, to hold the queen captive. Tech existed to wipe any storage device clean.

Milo charged back toward the others but Tannor stayed put.

Nothing could wipe a human brain.

She put her hand to the wall and opened up an interface with her comm.

“What are you doing?” Milo demanded from the end of the hall.

“It’s not safe in any other format, and I’m not going to ask anyone else to do it.”

Corpus cap, dissolve. She imagined she could feel the change in the neurons behind the knob at the base of her skull.

Milo started for her. “Stop. I don’t know what you’re doing, stop—”

 Protection, off. Failsafe, off. Backup—backup—neural storage. Transfer. Hand—approved.

“Don’t let me hit my head when I fall,” she said, and tapped begin.

White hot liquid pain flushed through her body from her neck to her tail bone. She felt untethered, floating, lost the sense of her limbs in relation to her core. Her head hurt last and worst.

She barely felt Milo catch her as she toppled forward.

Thundering steps sent Relai’s heart racing, and then Milo burst into the conference room with Tannor thrashing in his arms.

“She’s downloading the data package into her brain.”

“What? Tannor, no!” Goren clambered onto the table to cradle her head as Milo lowered her down. Her eyes skewed up and out and her fingers clawed at her neck. Goren grabbed her wrists and Milo held her calves to stop her from flipping onto the floor.

Relai looked at the door—should someone get a med scanner? No one else was going to get one—

“What will it do to her?” she asked.

Milo let out a grunt as Tannor nearly kicked him in the jaw. “Might be fine. Might lose her memory.”

“That one guy ate off his hand!”

“Not helping, chaff.”

Why would Tannor do this? What would evidence matter, if Relai couldn’t muster the strength to lead? Relai sat close to Tannor’s head, but didn’t dare touch her.

Then Tannor went still and moaned, her eyes showing only slits of white. Milo released her and moved to the side.

“Tannor?” Goren begged.

She didn’t respond, didn’t respond, and Relai thought she should go and get a scanner from the med bay, but if she did Tannor would die while she was gone and she couldn’t make herself go.

Seconds bled by. Goren petted Tannor’s hair and grumbled trite, comforting things.

Then Tannor released a long, shuddering breath and opened her eyes.

Relai slid her knife against her ribs under the strap of the bra and bent over her. “Tannor? Tannor, are you okay? How do you feel?”

Tannor rubbed her temple and leaned against Goren. After a moment, she lifted her head. “It’s okay. I’m okay. Once I stopped fighting it, it actually felt… fine. Not bad.”

“Can you tell it’s there?” Relai asked, afraid of the answer either way.

Tannor blinked slowly, the flutter of her eyelashes like movement in a dance, and nodded. “I know it. I mean, I know it’s there, but now I know the data. I know every bit of it. I could tell you every line of code. I can see the images in my head.”

Everyone but Relai seemed to know enough to be frightened by that. Goren gasped and Milo’s mouth opened and closed.

“Yeah, that’s weird,” Ky said.

An alarm sounded.

Ky tore away and swept through window after flashing window as they opened on the wall of the room.

We’re being boarded,” he said.

Tannor scrambled to her feet, swaying as Goren fumbled for a gun that wasn’t there and threw himself between Relai and the door—

Milo snagged the base of the chair he’d thrown across the room earlier with his foot, kicked it around, went to one knee behind it, and raised his shotgun to his shoulder—

Relai backed around the long end of the conference table and pressed her back against the wall, feeling small and bare and unprepared. Anyone after you just wants to end you.


“Stop! What if they’re not trying to kill her?” Tannor protested, resting against a chair on her way to the wall controls. “We weren’t!”

Goren opened and clenched his fists, twitchy like violence eager to happen, as Tannor stumbled across the open few steps to knock shoulders with Ky. Her hands flew over his as they fought through layers of information.

Tannor brought up visuals of the jumper that had landed on the top deck of the groundship and the troops creeping toward them, guns raised. Relai had flown in those jumpers all over this planet; they only carried eight people, maximum.

The visual showed seven soldiers and a captain in the lead.

Tannor looked at Milo. “The guards who tried to kill her?”

He craned his neck to peer at each face from his spot on the floor. “It was dark, but—no. I don’t think so.”

Then he stood. “Ky. They’ll want to kill her with one of our weapons.”

Ky clicked his thumbnail across the hilt of a knife at his hip and inclined his head.

Relai touched the little knife at her ribs. She was terrified, but the fear felt outside of her body, like a cloud, and then it settled like a layer on her skin.

“Tannor’s right,” she said. “We should see who we’re dealing with before you kill anyone. Give me a gun and put yours down. If they’re loyal, they’ll still want you two for taking me. And if they’re not—”

Ky smiled. “Hand-to-hand works. I get bored with guns anyway.”

Relai felt cold all over. The soldiers had entered now, the wall screen shifting rapidly between views as they passed checkpoints in the serpentine corridors. The squad moved as one group with a single goal.

“Can I have a gun? I need a gun!” Goren squawked, and Ky held out his weapon.

“So we’re clear,” he warned, pausing before he let Goren take control, “I have no faith in you. I’m taking her back if they even look at us wrong.”

“Not if I shoot them first,” Goren snapped back.

Milo cleared his throat and Relai realized he was offering her his electric shotgun, handle out and what was left of the barrel toward him. His eyes roamed over her face, intense and worried, and Relai hardly recognized him.

“Lay on your stomachs,” Tannor ordered.

Milo growled, “Like hell I—”

Tannor shocked them both with mild blasts, just enough to send them writhing on the floor. Relai gaped, lost for a response, and then Tannor cued up a link and sent her own face up on the wall next to the conference room door as the guards arrived.

“Captain Fass,” Tannor said, clipped and emotionless, “the ship is secure. We have the intruders subdued and you’re safe to enter.”

Their visual gave an overhead view and a direct conversation head, two different angles to a serious, handsome face and a pair of deep blue eyes. He seemed surprised.

“We’ll see,” he replied.

Relai saw Tannor’s eyes narrow.

The door slid open.

Ky and Milo shivered down from their seizures as Tannor and Goren flanked them, and Relai stood back from the group, close to one of the room’s rounded corners with the shotgun limp at her side. The conference bay filled with shouting as the soldiers piled into the room, gen-guns raised. Last came a tall man who hadn’t bothered to draw his weapon.

He had an air of certainty about him and he looked Relai full in the eyes.

“Glory, Commander, Queen. Captain Ednar Fass.” He put his right hand to the opposite shoulder and dropped to a knee. Utmost respect.

“Please tell your men to put away their weapons, Captain,” Relai ordered as Ky and Milo dragged themselves to their hands and knees. “There’s been a, uh, a misunderstanding.”

Fass lifted his chin. “A misunderstanding.”

“Yes. They put down their weapons willingly… and they’re sorry for stealing the ship and kidnapping the three of us.”

Milo looked up at her, incredulous.

Sorry?” he growled, “Sorry I saved your—”

What I desire,” Relai said, “is for all of us to go back to the base. We need to vet everyone for—”

“I need to run a full medical scan first, Our Glory.” Fass pursed his lips as he paused. “You might be under some influence. Please understand, I am required to ignore your commands until I see that you are in full control of your decisions.”

If that were true, how the hell did anyone take over in her name?

Fass signaled two guards. They closed in on her kidnappers and bound their hands behind their backs. One of the guards kneeled in respect and then took Milo’s gun out of Relai’s hands.

“We’ll take these men back first. You,” Fass pointed to Goren, who jumped up, “go along with them and help keep the criminals in line.”

“Yes, sir!”

“They’re under my protection, Captain,” Relai warned.

He smiled. “Scan, first.”

Relai watched them go with growing alarm. Ky’s shoulders strained, compliant even as he tested his bindings, but Milo struggled and then wrenched sideways to look back to her. She wanted to call out but her words caught in her throat.

The door slid shut. She and Tannor stood there, unarmed, with three men.

“Sir!” Tannor piped up. “Did you speak with Sergeant Tars before—”

“We’ll go over everything back at the base….” He stepped close and then reached out and unclipped the corner of her jacket. He pulled it to the side, little by little, his thumb pressing a shadowed dent into the stretchy white cloth of her shirt. The movement seemed to take ages before it finally revealed the black trunk and upturned branches tattooed at the join of her shoulder and collarbone. “…Sergeant,” he concluded.

He hadn’t checked Goren’s rank. He hadn’t touched Goren. Relai bristled as Tannor tilted her head down, deferential even as her eyes screamed rage.

Her instincts shrieked.

Her eyes flickered to Tannor.

Tannor hovered just barely closer to the queen, forcing herself to still. It wasn’t the fact that the Captain was an utter bastard who always pushed the flirting and the touching too far, who definitely already knew her rank

Relai had shaken her head and whispered:

“I’m not in control.”

Tannor hoped that the queen would get past that phase of shock soon. They needed her to be in control; she was the one who mattered in the end. Tannor, Goren, the Captain, they were nothing at all compared to her.

And if Relai didn’t do something, Tannor might have to punch Fass in his smug little square-jawed face, and then where would they be?

Relai tilted her head to one side. “This groundship needs to go back, too. Can we ride in here, Captain?” She blinked and ducked her chin the way her mother always had, looking up at him through her lashes. “Please?”

He grinned, dimples deep, and waved her toward a seat at the conference table. “Of course, Our Glory.”

“Sergeant?” Relai drifted away and looked across the bridge. She tried to sound neutral.

“Yes, Our Glory?” Tannor replied.

“Does this ship have a scanner that can evaluate me?”

“I’m… not sure, Our Glory.” Tannor moved to the wall and tapped a few buttons.

A few steps out of reach.


Relai didn’t need to say another word.

Captain Fass frowned, cast a sideways glance at Relai, then sprang toward Tannor—

Too late. He froze before Relai even finished her gasp because Tannor moved too fast, knew exactly how to slap down her palm and twist. Everywhere that pairs of feet touched the floor of the groundship, those feet stuck and their bodies stopped. The locking of her muscles didn’t hurt; it just sent a buzzing thrum through her whole body. Relai could breathe and move her eyes and nothing else. Ardenians did not like cleaning blood out of their diplomatic vessels.

Only Tannor, who activated the feature, was spared.

She went to the glowing circle lit around Relai’s feet and tapped the red square with her toe to release her. The Captain sent a low, angry growl in Relai’s direction, but she shook her head.

“Fool me once, Captain. Can they override this?”

Tannor gave Fass another measured nod. “No, I’m the only one who can control the ship right now.”

“Good. Let’s get the guys,” Relai said, and they hurried along the quickest path to the top deck.

“How did you know that you couldn’t trust him?” Tannor asked.

She shrugged.

“What does ‘fool me once’ mean?”

But Relai didn’t have time to answer, because they’d reached the ramp leading up to open sky. The guards had taken two prisoners and one Goren out to the early morning haze of the groundship deck. More guards must have been hiding in their jumper—

They’d frozen just in time.

Two of the biggest guards held Goren, disarmed and jacket askew and mouth open, as always, mid-shout. His face aimed toward a familiar guard—the man who’d kicked out her knee and then stomped on her back—who now stood over Milo and Ky as they kneeled on the deck. Milo’s eyes were clenched closed as the guard’s gun dug into the back of his head. Ky’s head was tilted, one foot braced and his whole body beginning to turn, but he wouldn’t have made a difference. Milo would have fallen, and Ky would have followed.

Tannor tapped Goren free and helped him pull himself away from the grip of the guards. He reclaimed the gun, ranting, “What the hell is wrong with everyone around here? Is everyone committing treason today? They wouldn’t listen to me! They were just going to execute these men! Without a trial or anything!”

Relai crouched by Milo and Ky.

“Well,” she said, looking them over in the early blue-toned light.

Milo embodied the epitome of an Erayd, from the shabbiness of his clothes to the snarled hair covering his head and face. Every inch of him cried poor, uneducated, angry; he was just the sort of terrorist assassin she’d feared as a young regent. She’d let them just drag him away.

And Ky... Ky seemed like the sort of man who should have been smart enough to keep away from this terrible plan. How had he expected any of this to work? He must have nothing to lose. Being here, what could he possibly have to gain?

A wind damp enough to chill passed over them, and Relai tucked her scraggly hair behind her ears. She tapped Ky’s circle, then Milo’s, and used her thumb knife to cut their hands free.

Ky hopped up and put his hands on Relai’s shoulders. He held her out in front of him and looked her over in the rising light of dawn.

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay, what?”

He gave her a big, toothy smile. “Okay, I believe you.”

“It’s about time,” she replied. Then she turned to Milo. “Looks like it’s two to one.”

He scowled as he pushed to his feet. “Two to one?”

“I’m winning.”

Tannor cleared her throat. “What are we going to do with these soldiers?”

Peering over the edge of the deck, Relai noted the waves—not too choppy—and tried to guess the distance to the shore through the haze. “Throw them in the sea.”

She was giving orders! Like a queen or something. Throw them in the sea! Off with their heads! Relai felt laughter bubbling up but she swallowed it down. She could be hysterical later. Alone.

Tannor and Goren moved in unison to obey. Milo and Ky exchanged a complicated glance, then nodded.


Tannor wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but she tensed the moment she saw Milo and Ky bringing out the Captain. Fass’s body shook in their arms and she saw a shallow wound from a gen-gun in his chest.

And was she imagining it, or was Milo refusing to look her in the eye?

“You shot him,” she said.

“Milo shot him,” Ky clarified. “Your Captain’s got quite a mouth on him.”

Tannor closed her eyes hard against the onslaught of thoughts about what he might’ve said, then opened them again to watch as they shuffled out as far as their shoes could grip and then heaved Fass over. He thudded once against the curve of the groundship as he went.

“Try to wake up when you hit the water!” she cried after him.

Then she spun back to Ky and slipped her next words out without Milo hearing: “Why bring Goren?”

Ky nodded, scratched his chin, then caught Milo’s eye and sent him off to deal with someone else. They moved back inside the groundship and made it all the way back to the conference bay before Ky replied:

Dray. Recognize it?”

“Oh, uh,” she stuttered as Ky stunned the last paused soldier and caught him over one shoulder, “one of the High Council ministers is a Dray. Environment, right?”

She didn’t offer to help carry and Ky didn’t ask.

“The Drays have more money than the worth of this entire planet,” Ky said as they headed back to the deck. “They’ll pay anything to get their kiddo back, and I’m betting they’ll move stars to get the coalition to show restraint before killing us all to get to her. I like money and I like not dying. So. We keep him around.”

Tannor sighed.

The world was noticeably brighter when they emerged than when they’d gone inside. Morning was creeping closer, and Tannor was utterly exhausted.

As she grabbed the soldier’s feet and eased him down, feeling the burn of his weight through her shoulders and back, she finally asked, “And me?”

They swung once, twice, and heaved the guy in. Ky looked out across the water, ran an artful hand through his hair, then turned his eyes on Tannor.

“You’re worth more than Goren.”

Then he walked off to help throw the last guy in.

Tannor watched him swagger as he went, fluid like a song, and she swallowed. It was a good line. Very smooth.

Calculated just right.


“Wait!” Relai zeroed in on the last soldier left. The man was doing his best to struggle against Milo, but he was no match for a giant. “Take off your pants.”

The tussle came to a halt. The guy was hardly the perfect size, but the sea breeze whipping over the deck of the ship was stinging her bare legs. Relai was tired of running around in only underwear.

“What?” the soldier squawked.


“First time you’ve ever heard that from a woman?” Ky laughed. Milo wrapped his arms under the soldier’s, locked his fingers up around the back of his neck, and lifted him six clear inches off the ground without any visible effort.

The soldier put in a pathetic attempt to kick but Ky crouched too close for him to get a good hit. “The queen wants your pants, you give her your pants.” He unbuckled the soldier’s belt, head level with his hips, and muttered, “Not exactly how I pictured my day ending.”

Milo cracked a smile, and the sight felt like water in a dry mouth. He could have been anyone, anyone at all, when he smiled.

Relai slipped into the dark, stretchy slacks and tightened the belt as far as it would go, just enough to keep the pants hanging onto her hips.

Then the soldier (who had far too tiny feet for her to use his shoes) brought her back to the present.

“We won’t submit to you!” he shouted. “Your time is over! You’ll only make it worse for yourself if you kill me.”

“We’re not going to kill you. The shore’s that way,” Relai pointed. “I hope you speak Italian.”

He bucked in Milo’s arms and cried, “But I can’t swim!”

Relai stilled. As the sun crept closer to rising, the crests of the waves swelled clear and relentless fifty feet below. These waves would carry him into the stark cliffs if he couldn’t drag himself sideways to the shore, and if he didn’t drown first. Even for a strong swimmer it wouldn’t be an easy distance.

So, Relai, she asked herself. How do you feel about throwing a man to his death? Water filling his lungs, crushing him as he sinks?

She took in a deep breath. “Lock him up in the jumper; we can dump him on land.”

Ky’s eyes widened and he moved into the background as Milo snarled at her:

“We’re throwing him in and leaving.”

He still had the soldier in a headlock and Relai had to block him from doing it, her hands on the captured soldier’s chest, her bare feet gripping the gritty surface of the groundship where it began to slope.

“Stop it! We’re not executioners!”

Relai registered shouts from Tannor and Goren, but Ky interceded and their static faded away. The soldier thrashed, and as Relai tried to grab his legs and drag him back Milo stumbled and only narrowly avoided falling over the edge. They all toppled sideways, with Relai half-under the soldier under Milo.

Relai jerked her foot free and scrambled up, furious. “I am not going to just—just murder everyone who gets in my way!”

Milo flashed his teeth at her as he put most of his weight on the soldier. He had a foot of height and a hundred pounds of weight over the guy—it was up to him how much the man could even breathe. “He’s obviously lying.”

He wouldn’t kill her, she thought, but he might do other things. He could hurt her again.

She perched on the balls of her feet, her stance wide and ready. “So you’d prefer I be the murderer you thought I was?”

Milo leaned toward her. “It’d make my next choice a much easier one.”

“Life isn’t easy,” Relai spat. She looked to her guards. “Bind him in the jumper.”

Milo clenched, dragging another cry from the soldier, then released. Tannor and Goren took the last rebel soldier away as Milo sent Relai one last murderous glare, then stormed off down the ramp into the groundship.

Relai caught her breath while Ky just stared at her, openly judging. She tugged at the sleeve of the dirty, sweaty robe. She needed to brush her hair.

And find some actual clothing.

Milo charged down the ramp, cursing without bothering to keep it under his breath.

Never mind herself, this girl was going to get them all killed.

In the last nine months, Milo had ended the lives of six men and two women. Each and every one of them deserved it, and seven of them had been attempting to kill him (or Ky, or both of them) at the moment of their deaths. Milo didn’t consider himself the type to shoot first, but he did not hesitate when forced. The time for waxing poetic about the value of human life had shriveled up as he watched his aba bleed out in the town square.

Milo wanted to put his fist through something, but he settled for slapping an open hand against one of this ship’s corridor walls instead. It blinked to life in protest, and Tannor must have locked the ship off from open access because the first thing he encountered was a smug little identification prompt.

He cursed that, too.

Relai Aydor might not have been ruling, but her head topped the monarchy still standing on the necks of his people. He would find justice for Eray in the broken body of the false ruler, and then he would turn to Relai herself, accuse the Aydor line, and demand their freedom. He hadn’t failed. He wouldn’t fail.

And in the meantime, Milo Hemm would make certain of one thing: she would not be in charge. Relai might be a queen, but she was no leader.

Then Milo observed an object which hadn’t been there the last time he tromped through this passage. It was narrow and black and designed by the Ardenian military. They used these things in the mines, too.

Milo huffed, wondering what the hell else could go wrong in the immediate future.

Then he sprinted back the way he came.


Tannor jerked the soldier’s arm closer as they set him on the floor behind the pilot’s seat and bound his hands around a post leading from the jumper bench to the roof. She’d never been one for hand-to-hand combat and her skill with firearms was mediocre at best; she had no idea how she was supposed to be protecting the head regent of the Vada Coalition. If the queen herself had a choice, she probably wouldn’t have picked Tannor, either.

“I still think we should go back to the base,” Goren grumbled as he plopped down on the bench and clutched the muscle around the splotch of blood on his thigh.

Who at Haadam could help them? Marejak, maybe—she was a hardline genius who hated Fass more than most—but she could do little to change anything without Fass’ approval. They probably should have killed him, if only to promote Marejak in his absence.

Tannor checked the soldier’s bindings one more time, eyes flickering to Goren’s wound. They hadn’t had time to heal it in the medical bay.

“I don’t think we can, Goren.”

Their prisoner laughed. “Go ahead. Go back to the base. See what you find.”

Tannor felt a chill. “What do you mean?”

He hesitated, but the chance to rub their noses in his revelation seemed too tempting to pass up.

“The Captain ordered it the second we left. The rebellion starts now—we’ll leave no safe place for her to hide.”

Goren put his gun against the man’s neck. “What did he order?”

The soldier’s face glowed with a glee that prickled the hairs on the back of Tannor’s neck. “Plasma bombs. The base is gone by now.”

Tannor reeled back. “Why—

His eyes flashed. “Because the days of the crown are over! She’s the end—will you be crushed with her, or will you join us?”

“She wasn’t ruling!” Tannor exclaimed. “It wasn’t her, since before Ayadas died.”

The soldier’s face scrunched in confusion, but he just shook his head. “Nice try, but I saw her there, relaxing in secret—the monarchy needs to end, and she’s the last Aydor. Strength to Unity!”

She dove to a screen and pulled open a new message. “There are still guards there, we have to give them a chance—”

Goren bolted out to the deck of the groundship.

Relai found herself alone with Ky. The sea breeze felt solid, anchoring, and it left a complex taste of salt and life and the green of olive trees in the back of her throat. It was nice to take a moment to rest.

She wondered if she could say something about how beautiful she found it—if that would be inappropriate or awkward. If it would make her sound like a sentimental, silly little girl. Earth belonged to her just as much as any Earthan; she was purely human and she belonged here.

Sometimes life didn’t give much, and often it only took away, but there was always beauty. Beauty helped. It was good all on its own, and seeing it and acknowledging it could soothe wounds.

Her father’s death was a wound, but—

Her father was dead. The world wasn’t supposed to seem brighter. More vibrant.

Oh, no—no, no crying now—

“Going to cut your hair, then?”

“What?” she croaked.

Ky scratched the stubble on his jaw. “I take it they let it grow the whole time you were under. You must be uncomfortable this way. You are royalty, after all.”

Right. The hair nonsense. Four years on Earth and Relai had all but forgotten about it. She didn’t peg Ky for one to be prejudiced against long hair; he clearly wasn’t Ardenian. The other coalition planets weren’t as obsessed with removing body hair as the greater class of Arden was; where men shaved their bodies and heads and women were only allowed a bit of length to compliment their features.

Relai wore her hair long. It was just one more reason for her father to refuse to let her be seen in public; at least they could both use the hair as pretense, so he didn’t have to say it out loud again: no one wanted to look at her face.

No one loves a homely regent, Relai.

But she wasn’t going to think about him anymore, right? He was gone.

“Actually, no. I’ve kept my hair long for years and I’m not going to stop now.”

“Interesting.” He looked her over, his face a suspicious sort of neutral, and she stared right back.

Then shouting from two directions split their attention.

“They’re bombing Haadam Base!” Goren cried from the jumper.

“Those assholes set the groundship to blow,” Milo shouted from the opposite side of the deck.

They bolted towards the jumper. Relai, Tannor, Goren, Ky, and Milo—six, they could fit, plus the rebel soldier—

From inside, Tannor screamed.

Relai saw Goren just manage to dive back in as the vehicle’s left engine sprang to life. It kicked the jumper tail sideways into the air and the vehicle pitched, door still wide open, over the edge of the groundship deck and into the water.

Relai veered left and leaped.



Goren was, for a moment, floating.

The guard’s foot jabbed into Tannor’s neck, pinning her against the curving wall of the jumper as he twisted and pulled at wires in the busted casing below the pilot’s seat.

Crap, crap—Goren shouldn’t have left her in there with the guy, not even for a moment—he was so furious at himself as they sailed through the air, he almost wished the impact would kill him. Unfortunately, the spin caused by a single engine firing absorbed some of the force of the impact, throwing him up and across the ceiling as they splashed down. He didn’t even break any bones.

The impact set Tannor loose, leaving the prisoner hanging for a few wobbly moments from the bindings around his wrists. The jumper crashed in the sea nose-down, open end still mouthing air, but they’d already been doused with stinging seawater and any second now the edge would tip and the thing would fill.

Oh, drowning, then? Goren did not wake up this morning thinking he’d end the day by drowning in a sea he hadn’t even gotten a chance to visit yet. Well, here it is, he thought. Scenic.

Goren couldn’t feel his weapon—Ky’s weapon—and he was sure it wouldn’t fire underwater anyway. The only thing that mattered right now was Tannor. She had to be able to take control of this thing.

He fumbled and slipped over to her, felt the rise and fall of a passing wave, and pulled her to her knees.

“Tannor,” he gasped, “we have to save the jumper.”

“The groundship?” she sputtered, clutching at his jacket.

“I heard Milo, it’s gonna blow.” If they abandoned this jumper now, assuming they managed to swim to shore, they’d be lost on a foreign planet, picked off by whatever lazy traitor bothered to track them down and execute them.

Tannor cursed. Goren agreed.

A wave crashed through the open entrance and they fell, smashed into one another, and pooled against the transparent front window. The water there rose up to Goren’s waist.

Tannor gripped the lip of the dash with one hand and pawed at the pilot’s controls with the other. Their prisoner kicked and jerked, trying to gain his footing and pull his hands free. Tannor ignored him, so Goren decided to only bother if the guy tried to kill them.

Another wave came, the jumper rocked, and the prisoner wrenched one hand out of his bindings.

“Tannor!” Goren shouted. He couldn’t kill a fellow soldier with his bare hands—he’d have to drown him—

“Give me a second!”

“Shut the door!”

“I’m trying!”

Then he heard her exclaim, “Oh!” Her hand flew over a screen half out of the water. “That might—”

Then another wave bucked them sideways, the edge tipped, and the sea crashed in on them entirely.

Impact with the water stunned Relai limp. She felt as if one side of herself had just slammed into a wall, but then the groundship blew in a terrifying fury and she stayed under, opening her eyes to the blurry sting of the salt, and struggled away from the light.

She wasn’t going to die drowning. She wasn’t.

She surfaced. Behind her one half of the groundship groaned in flames, lilting to one side as the other half dipped into the Mediterranean. Clouds of flaming particles lit the sky, falling and fading like a celebration.

Congratulations, they screamed. You lose!

She saw the jumper.

Its back end gaped above the surface, interior filled with water but still clinging by an edge to the surface. She was close. She was going to make it.

A dark smudge of a head bobbed up and she couldn’t see if it was Goren or the soldier who’d donated his pants. The haircut made them all look the same—

The ‘Strength to Unity’ soldier. She watched him and remembered the knife—was it still there? yes—pinned against her ribcage, but he wasn’t looking for her. He started swimming the opposite direction.

He did know how to swim.


She swam to the edge of the jumper, then took one more breath and clawed her way down. Through the white-blue glow she saw two figures at the bottom—her loyal guards.

Goren wasn’t moving when she reached them, and when she latched onto his arm he turned shocked eyes on her and shoved her up toward the surface. She held tight to his arm as the final bit of water engulfed the jumper and then they were sinking.

 A groan shuddered through the jumper and she looked up to see the door shutting. Tannor, yes!

Except they were still drowning, and now they were trapped.

Relai watched Tannor’s hands work over the console as if moving in slow motion. Goren gripped Relai’s arm in return, flexing his fingers tight and loose, faster and faster. She could do nothing to help here. What was your plan, exactly?

Everyone dies, Relai. They must die for you, and not the other way around.

Maybe this ship had auxiliary oxygen. It wasn’t meant to travel outside the atmosphere, but it had to have something, didn’t it?

She couldn’t go very long without breathing. Most people couldn’t.

Goren’s grip relaxed and his hands drifted away.

Tannor, please…

Relai reached out to tug at Tannor’s arm, to motion for her to open the back door so they could abandon ship, when a great white stream of bubbles burst out of vents inside the front of the ship. A smooth, mechanical tug righted the jumper and the air bubble grew and forced out the seawater.

Relai kicked up and treaded in the refuge of air until it grew large enough to set her feet back on a level floor. She and Tannor coughed and gagged, and then enough water drained away to uncover Goren. His body was caught at the waist, nearly bent in half on the strut supporting the passenger seating, and he wasn’t breathing. Relai shoved at his shoulders until he flopped sideways and down.

Tannor clung to the pilot seat and worked at the screen, and when she saw Relai fumbling with Goren she said, “Roll him on his side! Slap his back!”

Relai had watched hundreds of Earthan movies and television shows to work on her English; she knew there was a way to breathe into him to wake him up, but she would get it wrong. She always got it wrong.

“Do it!” Tannor bellowed.

Relai rolled him and slapped hard.

His body jolted and he opened his mouth and vomited, then gasped. She kept striking more and more softly as he rolled to his knees and retched again and again.

“You’re okay,” Relai told him. He held onto the edge of the bench and rested his head on his forearms through more coughing as Relai rubbed his back and tugged her stringy hair out of her face. She caught Tannor’s eye, exhausted and awed.

“We made it.”

The jumper rattled beneath Tannor’s feet and she put on her best brave face. They were in the air, wobbling more than hovering, wasting power with her every fumble. She’d done it.

Relai hauled herself to her feet next to Tannor and slicked her eyes clear. “What can I do? What do you need?”

The screen screamed at her.

“I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go along!”

“Then you’re amazing,” Relai rasped out.

Goren managed, “I agr—” before the jumper tossed them all a foot in the air.

The wreckage of the groundship disappeared before their eyes, all the flash and crackle of the explosion succumbing to the sea. Tannor couldn’t force the navigation imager to life no matter how she begged, but they could see out the broad front window and one of the mapping programs was working. As the interference of the wreckage sunk away, the map showed two spots of warmth sticking close and bobbing toward the jumper. Relai clutched the shoulder of Tannor’s chair, her breath slowing.

“We don’t…” Tannor glanced sideways and shivered. “We don’t have to pick them up.”

She was just offering the choice.

“Well,” Relai said, “they came all this way.”

Milo rested at the surface, shivering and shaken, legs limp and arms swirling through the ink under a hail of fire. He couldn’t lose her like this.

He didn’t get a chance to press his two metal-threaded fingers together and activate the draw, the simplest passive form of tracking tech in the galaxy, to locate Ky before the man reached him with a few swift strokes.

“You alive?” Ky called.

“Yeah.” Milo splashed through a partial turn, searching for any signs of the jumper. “What plan are we on, now?”

“Oh, fifty-two,” Ky said.

 Milo’s boots dragged at him like a call to death, but he’d rather die feet covered than have to figure out how to survive on this planet barefoot.

“Did you see where—agh,” Milo choked on a mouthful of water, “…you could at least pretend to be tired.”

“You know,” Ky replied, “I used to dream I was drowning. It was really nice.”


Then the jumper churned free of the water a hundred yards away and fumbled airborne. They’d made it out—Milo steeled himself to watch it go, but Ky whooped and shouted:

“Here they come!”

“How do you know?”

Ky laughed as they rose in the crest of a wave. “On the run now, and they don’t know how to be criminals. They need us.”

The silhouette of the jumper drew closer against the grey-blue of the early morning sky, water spraying from the exhaust vents like sickened breaths, and Milo realized Ky was right.

He hadn’t lost her yet.



She called herself Runn.

The Ardenian diplomat at her feet choked on a mouthful of blood in a urine-soaked Tijuana alley without knowing that.

She had a longer name but it hadn’t stuck. No one needed it here on Earth, and jobs paid the same no matter what. Lucrative, she called it, when she thought about it. Might’ve cost her an eye, years ago, but it was enough to keep her in sun and drink year round.

“Before you go,” she breathed out as her target struggled, “I need help. I’m losing my game.”

Runn liked to entertain herself by working out who hired her and why, and this one had her interested.

The diplomat was young, maybe thirty. Slim, easy to hold. Fear in his eyes, highlighted in the glint of sickly yellow electric lights they used to illuminate this planet. A normal kill. But Voresh Renganiban wasn’t just an Ardenian diplomat; he worked for Fordev, and no one crossed Fordev. Didn’t have any magic in his fingers that Runn could see, which meant he was either a Redas plant in the organization or one of the directors. With that surname? Director.

Best kill Runn had taken in a while.

“See, I tracked down who hired me to kill you, and I’m curious. Why,” she lifted the man against the wall, fixed him high with the friction of the brick, “does your boss have it out for you?”

She liked it when they realized who took out the contract—sometimes they’d explode in the fury of the wronged and put up a better fight for a minute or two. Sometimes they’d cry. Sometimes they’d just crumble, their whole existence torn up before she did the same to their bodies. Renganiban was average in his reaction: confusion, disbelief, and betrayal. Nice little hint of anger.

He gurgled as Runn leaned a forearm on his neck. “I know you can’t answer; I crushed your throat. I don’t need your voice.”

Renganiban tried to track the object in Runn’s free hand but he couldn’t focus or turn his head. Runn clicked the switch on her memory probe and one end splayed open, six little claws ready for skin. She jabbed it behind Renganiban’s right ear.

It latched on and screwed in and the guy’s eyes went manic and detached when the probe snicked into his brain. Runn glanced down at the knife in Renganiban’s gut. Pulled it out. Two minutes to look around his memories, then he’d bleed out. It always went easier if Runn could get the mark to think about their secrets instead of digging through a mountain of memories with no help or direction.

A truck rumbled past the alley, kicking up dirt and broken glass and sending a cloud of exhaust over them. Smelled sweet, like home. Runn pulled back into the shadow of a recessed doorway and eased them both to the ground, then put her arm around Renganiban’s shoulder. Local music pulsed through the door, muffled save for the thum-bum thum-bum of its endless two-note bass line.

“Why you came to Earth,” she grunted in the guy’s ear.

She closed her eyes for the ride, ‘cause even with experience this shit made her queasy. Through a bright door textured like a coral-built Kilani building, under a black cloud of skin, weightless like unbound space—there, a voice:

—Make a show of reviewing catches for Fordev and wait. It won’t be long. We need you—the source of the voice, distinguished, polished, perfectly still, Corven Ector at a desk without a speck of dust—there to identify the body. Take on the mantle immediately—

This asshole was the one putting out needs for Earthan children, Runn realized with disgust. Runn never took those jobs. Murder was fun; she wasn’t into child trafficking. Kids were kids. She left ‘em alone.

Inside Renganiban’s head, Runn took a sideways roll through a swallow of hot water and:

—Mora Aydor. Hand and eye—the memory of an imagined scene, vague and curled with self-indulgence: Voresh Renganiban standing over her body and pledging to lead the Vada Coalition with ruthless equality

“Do me a favor and I’ll make you a king? Never a good hook to swallow,” Runn mused. “So who’s next in line for the throne now that you’re dead?”

Family celebration, new baby—teenage Voresh, bobbing with a baby girl in his arms, her mother, his father’s sister—his cousin, Sana—irritation like wind—Aunt Nay didn’t choose a traditional name, that shallow, pretentious, disconnected—

“So Ector wants her for queen, instead. She’s pretty. Clean. Too young for him. Now,” she twisted the blade to pull Renganiban back just enough to hear her next words, “since we both know she’s not on a ship in the middle of fuck knows… where’s Mora Aydor right now?”

Tipsy, sharp and pungent—a perfect smooth-skinned body, wide-brimmed hat, bare skin darkening in the sun—Haadam—

“Haadam Base. What a lazy—”

She jerked forward under a gravel flood of deeper, swollen knowledge. The queen. The queen, she sent her secret—Runn felt Renganiban fading and she fought to dig out the last wisps of truth.

Everything went calm. Still. Gone.

Runn punched a button and retrieved her pen. Thirty seconds before the eyes would turn useless, so she didn’t waste time: from her leather coat pocket she slid a small silver spoon engraved with a mariachi and the words Bienvenidos a Tijuana, which she’d bought from a souvenir stand when she arrived in the city.

She wedged it between Renganiban’s lower lid and eye, and scooped the ball out.

She popped off her placeholder—a strapless eye patch—and inserted the wet, warm eyeball into her empty right socket. It only took a few seconds for the connections to form, her eyes clenched shut through the twisting, fiery pain, and then she could see. One dark brown iris, one amber-mottled green.

Runn patted the body’s shoulder and stood up.

Then Renganiban’s pocket trilled. Runn shuffled it back and retrieved a phone—no, an ex-terr tablet. Incoming relay. Runn crouched and picked up the body’s right hand and slapped it over the screen. Still warm enough to count as living.

A little glowing green relay popped open. Runn read quickly:


Mora fled, recovering now. Atmosphere breach locked until recovered. Practice your king face, my friend. Don’t trust anything from Erode.


Runn puppeted Renganiban’s fingers to open metadata and just barely caught the name Ed Fass before a data chaser ate the message. Ed Fass.

Quick search of the underweb led to Haadam Base hierarchy of command, with Ednar Fass right at the very top. A jadissary. What the hell was a jadissary doing telling this barata suit to practice his king face?

Was there no loyalty left?

The insides of her cheeks tingled with a flush of saliva, and she swallowed into a smile.

She cleaned off the screw and claws of her memory probe and packed her bag, kicking the body over deeper into the shadows. Runn liked Tijuana. She wasn’t eager to leave, but she wouldn’t be gone long—no need to take a body cross-country, let alone cross-galaxy. Travel would go easier with a small parcel.

She nodded to herself. A Vadan royal meant all four planets would want her back. Meant a bounty coming. No mutters in the commons about Odene lurking in this solar system, and he’d’ve been the only competition. Runn would bag her before anyone else local could get their heads straight.

The proper royals would hire Applica, so she’d let them use their tech to track the queen down. Obvious, easy to follow.

Then she’d kill them and take their catch.


Next Chapter: Episode IV: Earth