13991 words (55 minute read)

Episode IV: Earth

GOREN DRAY WOULD definitely be lowering his standards for what constituted a good day. Yesterday? Miserable. Got shot, taken prisoner, saw the queen naked and momentarily died of shame, base destroyed, almost drowned. Now they were on the run, he supposed. He couldn’t tally all the people chasing them.

They collected the two vigilante elements of the group (who didn’t even say thanks) and immediately began a massive argument about their destination. Jumpers couldn’t make it out of the atmosphere—how were they going to get all the way to Oliver Station, where they could probably find (steal?!—no, by the queen it was lawful appropriation) a spaceship to bring them to Arden, if they didn’t have a groundship to get off the planet’s surface?

“We have to go back to the base—”

“No way—”

“Those guards need our help!”

“If we can get to Buzou, I think—”

“That’d just delay the inevitable.”

“—we could ask for an escort?”

“This jumper won’t make it that far, anyway—”

“They’ll have a bounty out on you by now.”

“There are other ways to get off this planet—”

“People are dying—”

“I don’t care about a bounty.”

“Well, we care!”

“How did they find us?”

I don’t know—

Goren just listened. He had no illusions about his opinion mattering and he couldn’t see how they were going to make it through another day, let alone all the way back to Arden. He saw his—no, Ky’s—gun wedged under a seat, so he leaned on his uninjured leg to drag it free and then started pulling it apart as Tannor’s frantic voice broke through the din.

“I need to pick a destination, people!” The jumper lurched and tossed them a few feet forward, but Goren was sitting tucked into the rear corner so he wasn’t thrown. Tannor was flying on full manual control (and doing really well, all things considered). The vents had been able to drain the cabin, but one whole engine and a dozen automation systems were done for. Apparently these jumpers hadn’t been designed to gargle saltwater.

He muttered to himself, but everyone heard anyway: “I just want to go home.”

And now they all thought he was a toddler. Great.

Really, though… his mother would welcome everyone in and the house staff would set up rooms for each of them and bring them comfortable clothing (good clothes from Titus, where they actually appreciated fashion), and they could spend a week sampling different foods from the coalition planets. He’d buy them black rice from Oeyla—he heard the grains grew as big as your fingers—and pepperfruit from Titus, and gazpacho from Gastred. Then, after they were all fat-bellied and happy, they’d take a cruise over the city in a private party lift and Tannor would be charmed by him and she wouldn’t think of him as a kid anymore.

“Tannor, can I borrow your tech pen?” Goren asked.

She peeled open her jacket and passed the heavy green cylinder to Ky, who handed it to him. At least she’d been somewhat prepared when this emergency began; Goren had had nothing in his pockets at all.

He found the wiring tip and turned it on as Milo took the opportunity to speak uninterrupted.

“We’re going to have to find a way off this planet besides the military or diplomatic bases. We aren’t safe on any ship that coalition forces could monitor leaving the atmosphere.”

Goren brushed away a line of corroded wiring and redrew the tiny circuits one by one. The pen was full, thank Tannor, but who knew how long they’d need it to last?

“What do you expect us to do,” Relai said, “wait around until Earthan space tech catches up with ours? There are no other ways off this planet.” She peeled off the black robe and the soaked slacks to wring them out, sopping the water over the rear vent, and Goren reeled back to focus on the gun, gun, gun. Hey, there’s another gun. Let’s clean that, too.

Ky was shaking his head, resting an arm against the bulkhead nearest Milo and staring into the distance that ended about twelve feet away at the back of the jumper. He didn’t need to undress because his stupid clothes were somehow completely dry. “I was a bartender back on Gastred. You hear things.”

Gastred. Was that where he learned how to drug people?

“You hear all sorts of things,” Ky went on. “Like how the Tennans and Hergryks need certain products. Things Earth can offer and the coalition planets can’t. Salts, minerals, biomass… people. And if you use the right technology, the Coalition can’t pick up your ships. Sure, they know it’s happening, but they can’t stop it unless they want to risk starting another all-out war. And Earthans aren’t worth that.”

Goren looked to Relai (still unclothed? Seriously? New clothing was now his first guardly priority) to gauge her reaction so he could be properly intrigued or offended. She’d lived here for a while, so maybe this sort of thing would bother her? Or maybe she would be mad that the Coalition wasn’t getting its due portion of the profits—Earth was a Vada protectorate, after all. They could be taxing this stuff.

“That’s happening?” she exclaimed. Anger, disbelief. Goren wasn’t sure which meant what. “And my father knew?” Relai swallowed and shook her head. “One problem at a time. You mean if we could find one of these smuggler ships we could hitch a ride?”

Ky grimaced and whisked his fingers through his wet hair. ‘“We’d need to locate a black market dock—one hidden well enough that people like this genius can’t find it.” He indicated Tannor, but she was too focused on the unstable jumper to acknowledge him. “We could try hacking some of this planet’s governments, see if they have any records of alien activity. It might take a while if we don’t know the technology.”

“No,” Tannor said, and when she didn’t elaborate Ky rolled his eyes. Jerk.

Goren pulled Ky’s gun into pieces and rubbed at them carefully with pinched pieces of his shirt before setting them over the air vent to dry. Ky had retrofitted the thing with an extra ammunition chamber and switched out the barrel with some nonsensical piping that was weighted all wrong, and the original charge string had been replaced with a purple shoelace. A criminal menace in weapon form.

“We’ll go to Xiong,” Relai said abruptly.

“Xiong?” Ky asked.

“Uh. Gandred Xiong. He’s my former guide. He taught me until I was fourteen, and then he left. He works at an Earthan research and development company now. He’ll help us find a ship and get to Oliver.”

The two criminals traded glances.

“Is he going to help you, or us?” Ky inquired.

“I, uh. I don’t know if he’ll want to talk to me… but he’s a good man. A great man. He disagreed with my father a lot and I know he wouldn’t support a tyrant. I’m sure he’ll help me, and I’ll ask him to help all of us. Okay?”

“Compelling defense,” Ky said dryly.

Milo asked, “How do we get in touch with him?”

Relai swallowed. “I can send him a message from here. Tannor, you can encrypt it so no one can read it but him, right?”

“Of course.”

“And I can add on encryption that will actually work,” Ky concluded.

Tannor turned from the controls and flared her nostrils at Ky, who tapped his thumb knuckle against his brow in a mocking salute. “So where do we find him?” she asked.

“Fifth continent, Northus, in a central plains region called Minnesota.”

“I don’t know this planet,” Milo said. “Show me where, I’ll get us there.”

He didn’t sound very confident, so Goren added, “I think that’s a brilliant plan.”

“You would,” Milo muttered. Goren threw up a gesture explaining exactly what the criminal could go do. (Screw himself, that’s what.)

Tannor rubbed her eyes, offered a weak, “Okay, fine,” and Relai entered something into the jumper’s navigation.

Satisfied with his work, Goren rebuilt Ky’s weird gen-gun and, just to see, turned it on. Ky glanced over to see his gun hum to life and his jaw sagged open.

“My baby! You fixed her?” Ky slid onto the bench opposite Tannor and tried to grab it but Goren elbowed him back.

“Yeah.” Goren’s fingers glanced over the sight, the battery, the safety. “You made some interesting illegal adjustments—will it really fire any ammunition?”

Ky peered over the gun, grinning. “‘S’why I call it a spit gun: it’ll even shoot spit. Doesn’t really hurt past a foot or two, but she’ll do it.”

“Well, she’s fine now.” Goren handed her over and moved on to reconstitute the second gun he’d found.

Ky petted his weapon in wonder. “I thought I was going to have to build a new one.”

Goren scoffed. He had always liked guns, but it wasn’t anything any good soldier couldn’t do.

Then Tannor slumped down across the bench behind Goren and closed her eyes, her head resting close to his as he sat on the floor. “I managed to route autopilot through the surviving circuits. We should be set for a while at this altitude.”

As if in response, the engine shrieked and the ship dropped ten feet in the air.

“Or not,” Tannor groaned. “Damn it.”

“I’ll fly,” Milo said, sidling into the pilot’s seat before Tannor could get up.

Goren shot a dubious glance to Tannor, but her eyes were shut again. Underneath them, purple smudges of exhaustion stood out on her pale skin. She’d be mad if he told her he was gonna take care of her, so he didn’t say it out loud.

The jumper thrummed smooth and quiet now. Hells, his face hurt. His leg, too, though not as much as it should. Goren hunched forward and started work on another gun.

Milo settled into the steady, precisely-focused state required when flying a deathtrap carrying valuable cargo. The helm fought him every moment, strung tension through his limbs and his core, gave him something tangible to hold onto. To stay present. To keep from spiraling out of control.

Then the queen appeared beside him and asked if she could do anything to help.

“Unless you can fly this thing,” he replied without looking at her, “no.”

 “Not at all,” she admitted. “I don’t know how to fly anything. It’s not a skill anyone thought I needed.”

The regret in her tone cut off the rush of bitterness he was expecting to feel. He paused a moment, then heard himself say, “If you don’t distract me, you can watch.”

“Really?” She sat down in the co-pilot’s seat. “So what does that do?”

He allowed a stretch of silence, then answered slowly, “Making me talk… counts as a distraction.”

But he wasn’t willing her to go away, and she didn’t.

They both shivered involuntarily. Milo had cut down on all non-essential power drains, leaving the jumper hazy-dark and freezing cold, especially in their still-wet clothes.

Milo needed to steel himself not to react with hatred at the sight of her. I almost killed you, he thought. His hands shook at the controls. It was probably the cold.

“You can help keep the right engine from overheating,” he said after a moment. “Just ease open this valve when that gauge gets above here, and tighten her up if it dips below there.”

It wasn’t difficult work, and the queen didn’t open her mouth again. Milo couldn’t acknowledge it, but it helped.

He tried to ignore the fact that the target of his last eight months of desperate hate was sitting right next to him—except that it wasn’t her.

But she was still an Aydor. Still an enemy of his people.

Focus. Milo tried to breathe evenly and clear his head, aware that one wrong move could end up crashing them in the center of this sea, hundreds of miles from any shore.

He needed sleep.

Hours passed before Relai had her answer. Xiong’s reply—curt, formal, and frustratingly bereft of any hints at the Guide’s thoughts or feelings—arrived just as the jumper began its descent over the upper plains of Northus. They were to meet her old mentor at a test field owned by his company, MMN, six miles east of Minnesota, the City of Saint Paul. He’d clear the field and leave the security gate open and unattended.

They could fly right down and land there.

Relai’s heart stomped hard and fast in her chest.

Did he know she’d spent years hovering in his orbit? Had he ever wondered about her?

He wouldn’t even recognize her with her hair grown so long.

She would recognize him, though. What would she call him? Gandred? He’d always been Guide Xiong to her. He’d taught her for two years, and that was the longest amount of time any instructor had ever stayed with her. Eventually they’d all gotten tired of her and quit, every single one. He refuses to teach a future leader who continues to show such ineptitude—such lack of skill—such stubbornness, her father has told her. As your guide, he would take some blame for your future failures, and you are not worth that.

She’d tried so hard.

He’d quit, left without a goodbye, left the planet. In despair Relai had begged and threatened and dragged a story out of her favorite castle chef. Xiong had mentioned a city on Earth dedicated to a holy figure, Paul, where some ex-terrs had started a company after the Tennan War. It was a well-known destination for disgruntled coalition emigrants. Maybe he’d gone to find a job with them.

So when Relai herself finally gave in and quit, after—

After what happened—

Relai’s thoughts fled abruptly as Milo crashed the jumper in a lake.


Milo lifted his head and heard lapping water.

“I think you fell asleep.” Ky patted Milo on the back in either a reassuring or a condescending manner; Milo wasn’t sure because he was so tired he could barely see straight.

The jumper swayed gently back and forth, and that was definitely water at his heels. More water. Great.

Milo blinked—it was dark, the cabin illuminated only by the glowing tip of Tannor’s tech pen. He untangled himself from the crash webbing and stepped over the others to reach the back door.

“The engine burned out because Orist here couldn’t keep it cool,” he spat, loud enough that everyone heard even over the groaning of the jumper frame.

Relai kicked a splash of water right in his face. “At least we made it this far. I was doing my best!”

“We’ll quote that on your commons memorial,” Ky said.

Milo peered through the dimness at the oxygen filters, saw the chemical indicator strips all turned bright yellow. Toxic leak. And the alarms weren’t blaring, so even the emergency circuits must be shot.

“Jumper’s done for,” he declared. “Grab what you can.” He lifted the emergency release on the rear door.

“Wait, Milo, slow down,” Ky said. “We don’t know if there’s—”

Milo kicked open the rear door and cold, murky lake water poured in and soaked their legs all over again.

“Are you mucking crazy?” the boy yelled. “I already drowned once today!”

“Air in here’s poison,” he answered.

Milo could only make out dim shapes in the hazy early morning light—their flight had managed to chase the same dawn they’d just left on the other side of the planet—but the shoreline looked close. Somehow, the jumper’s exterior lights were still on, causing the lake water to glow. Milo blinked at it and frowned—vibrant green speckled the brown silt. Algae that color meant death in Eray, but this was Earth. For all he knew, this stuff would be lunch.

Milo pulled off his black Gastredi shirt, the one that had survived the crash and kept him from burning alive until Ky got to him, and wrapped it around two of the dry gen-guns. Then he eased out into the water, swearing softly as his body dropped shoulder-deep and his feet sank to the knee in muck. Everyone else would have to swim.

“Ahh! There’s something alive in here!” Goren yelped as he splashed forward.

Milo spun as he suddenly felt it too—slimy, grasping tentacles—but he didn’t struggle, and nothing tightened around him.

“What might be living in these lakes?” he asked in a low voice.

“Um, I’m not sure. Fish, I think?” Relai slid past him, horizontal in the water so that her legs didn’t reach the tentacles. “I don’t remember.”

Ky rolled onto his back and laughed. “First one to the shore gets to live!”

Milo fought forward through the tangles and the sucking pull of the mud, ready for pain or a gasp and a pull at any second. As the muck turned to sand and the depth decreased, Milo’s body lifted out of the water and he got a look at the tentacles: weeds.

Just weeds.

Goren stumbled into the shallows holding several pieces of the jumper’s internal paneling over his head. He coughed and spit as he reached the grassy shore. “Thanks for the concussion, worst pilot ever!”

“Hold your head under the water for a few minutes, pain’ll go away,” Milo replied.

Goren spit into the water. “Die in a pit, pove.”

Ky shouldered between them and slapped Milo’s back before he could respond. “Won’t it be fun, laughing about this one day when we’re all good friends and we don’t call each other disgusting slurs?”

“Just stop talking, Goren,” Relai muttered, her arms wrapped around her miserable body and her hair strung in front of her face.

Tannor was tearing off her boots, shirt, and pants. “You know what? If you want to be friends,” she bit through her teeth at Ky, “you can remove the damned drug ticks from our bodies.”

Ky cocked his head. “Hm, no.”

“You’re holding us hostage with these things, you thug. Let us go!” Tannor wrung out her pants, knuckles white and cheeks red, leaves and dirt sticking to her calves. Milo looked away as he stripped to his base layer to twist the dirty water out of his own pants. At least he wasn’t cold.

“Yeah!” Goren added as he failed to hide his pale near-naked body behind a tree. The gen-gun wound seeped red in a stream down his leg. “You don’t just get to knock us out whenever you want!”

Ky, clothes dry as ever, fussed with his hair. “Nope.”

Relai clenched her fists at her sides like a spoiled brat and demanded, “Take them off!”

“Not my queen. Don’t answer to you.”

“Don’t you hate it,” Milo asked Relai, “when someone holds unearned control over you?”

Relai threw up a dismissive hand. “This has nothing to do with the Problem of Eray, Milo!”

“You think we refer to you as a problem instead of a human being?”

I am a problem!” she shouted. “Bad example!” Then she heaved in a deep, furious breath and stomped away through the trees.

“You are helping nothing,” Tannor said, finger right in Milo’s face. “Force this now and you’ll lose any chance of convincing her. And you,” she turned to Ky, “don’t think I’ve forgotten. I just know how to prioritize.”

 Then she bundled up her clothes and followed Relai without taking the time to dress.

“Maybe if I shave my head and bow just so, eh?” Milo called after her. “Maybe if I burn my skin to a lighter shade, she’ll listen?”

She didn’t turn.

It was different for Tannor’s people, the Reyetim, people of plains and livestock and fields. They fed the planet, yeah, but they ate the food they harvested. Tannor didn’t have to chop her best friend’s fingers off because he’d accidentally touched the ground and med scanners were locked against use on ‘choice illnesses.’ Like Bry chose to trip and fall before he’d put on his gloves.

Goren dragged his shirt back down his skinny torso and asked, “How far are we from wherever it is?” He’d apparently already forgotten about the drug ticks. “Do any of those tablets work? How are we going to get anywhere? Can I drink that water? I’m thirsty. Why is the air trying to suffocate me? This place is disgusting.” He limped after Tannor and Relai, making far too much noise and forgetting his jacket on the branch of a tree.

Foliage grew thick on this side of the lake, but across the water Milo could see intermittent buildings and boats. These must be lake and forest people. He wondered if this lake had fish. How would fish taste here—oily? Salty? Sour? The law used to say you couldn’t eat of Earth or they’d never let you leave, but that was a long time ago.

To tide his hunger over, he closed his eyes and listened to the chirping morning music and the tall rustling trees. Almost like home.

“Jumper’s a problem,” he said.

“Go sink it, then,” Ky replied, chomping on a reed.

“Earthans can’t dive?”

Ky reached into his coat and tossed him their last remaining compression bomb. “Best I can do.”

Milo sighed and tossed it right back. “You got to sleep on the trip, ass.”

“No one’s stopping you from sleeping right now,” came the even more asinine response.

Milo sloshed back into the muck, swam back out over the underwater forest, and climbed back into the jumper. For just a brief moment he leaned on the helm, hung his head, and rested.

This would be the end of his control. He wouldn’t be able to steal a vehicle to escape, and he couldn’t talk his way out of trouble because he and Ky didn’t speak any of the languages here. He would be at Relai’s mercy, and that of this man, Xiong, who might help them home. How was he supposed to protect anyone when he knew nothing?

He set the last working ignition cell to fire, hit the final key, and leapt out the back, ducking under the water to avoid the heat from the engine. The jumper spun and skittered into a deeper part of the lake, sank below the surface, and then the cell finally blew with a muffled boom.

It was too early for most residents to be awake, he hoped, but Milo slicked the hair out of his eyes and watched the houses across the water as he dragged himself back out.

I’m too young to be this tired, he thought. He grabbed Goren’s jacket on his way up the hill.

At the top, Tannor whispered:

“I need to fry the transmitters in our comms.”

“You know I have that covered,” Ky breathed. He made no sound as he moved, not that it mattered with the rest of them stomping through the foliage. The world grew brighter by the minute and these trees were too sparse to hide anyone; she needed to do this now.

“Yet they still found us,” she said.

Ky sucked at his teeth and shrugged.

Relai led them to huddle in a copse of tall, spindly trees within sight of a wooden home with large, dark windows overlooking the lake. A property this large would’ve housed a three-family farm in Reyet, Tannor thought. She wondered how many families lived in this one—and whether or not they’d be armed.

Goren had fixed three gen-guns. She wasn’t worried.

Ky mouthed stay here and then circled around the back of the house as Milo caught up with the rest of them. Tannor watched Relai pointedly ignore him as he thrust Goren’s jacket in the kid’s face.

Then a light flicked on inside the house, illuminating half of the open living area on that floor. An older woman, maybe Tannor’s mother’s age, shuffled into the kitchen portion with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She took down a mug and set it on a counter.

“Is anyone else itchy?” Goren whispered. “Why do they have a severed animal head hanging on their wall? That’s disgusting!”

Then he slapped the back of his neck, and when his hand came away with a tiny streak of blood he gasped, “What in seven hells is this? It itches and—is that my blood? Are there blood-sucking creatures on this planet? Did it poison me?

“You’re fine,” Relai said, but she sounded uncertain.

Then movement from the darker area inside the house caught Tannor’s eye. The Earthan didn’t notice, but a figure was moving closer and closer. Tannor squinted and realized it was Ky. He’d broken in.

Tannor couldn’t breathe, watching Ky, a shadow, come within ten feet of this woman and her now-steaming mug. What if she—should Tannor do something? Could she?

But the woman didn’t turn, busy rubbing her eyes and stirring the contents of her cup, and after a pause Ky slunk away. He even had the audacity to salute through the window just before he disappeared.

If the woman had seen him, would he have killed her?

Tannor spent the next thirty seconds before Ky reappeared imagining the different ways she could murder him. He flashed a smile when he saw her glaring.

“Vehicle in the back. Found these—” he tossed a set of thin metal slivers to Milo, “—and they have the same symbol on them as the vehicle.”

“Does anyone know how to fly Earthan vehicles?” Milo asked.

“Not fly, drive,” Relai whispered shakily. “Yes. I was learning before I left. And these are keys. They should turn the vehicle on.”

“We’re pinned to the ground here?” Milo muttered incredulously.

Tannor ignored him and raised her tech pen, the tip sparking with electricity. “Comms, first.”

Ky raised a brow. “You gonna carve the pins out of our bones, too?”

Tannor grimaced. Along with a name and a class, every Vadan baby received a commons profile for their informatic life and a tiny pellet in their sternum to log their age. Without the profile, you couldn’t do anything—get a job, attend school, watch telay, write a note to a friend—that required electronic data use. Without the pin, regulation med scanners wouldn’t heal you, and it was really easy to lose track of how long your body had existed, even after only one space trip. And as long as they had their pins, they were easily trackable.

Tannor had no safe way to remove a pin. At least, not without a hell of a lot of pain and no unregulated med scanner to heal it.

“I had a ceramic deflector put in when I came to live on Earth,” Relai said. She pulled open her robe and dragged down the stretchy material of Tannor’s borrowed bra to show a rod the size of a fingernail and the color of her skin stuck flush, almost imperceptibly, in her flesh. “It stops distance scans of my pin.” Tannor caught a flash of a smile on her face. “Xiong’s company, MMN, sells them.”

“But…” Goren began, and they all watched him choke on the words. But those are illegal. Relai brushed her fingers across the center of her chest.

“I wanted to be left alone.”

“Good for you,” Milo said dryly, “but what about the rest of us?”

“She’s the only one who really matters,” Goren, the idiot, replied.

Tannor pinched the bridge of her nose and raised her voice just slightly. “Stop talking. There’s nothing I can do about the rest of our pins right now.” She turned to Ky first and brandished the pen. “Kneel down. You’re too tall.”

He smirked and dropped to his knees in the brush. She held him still with fingers in his wet hair, and she didn’t have time for the look in his eyes so she shocked him and turned to Relai as he hissed.

“Will it destroy the whole comm?” Relai asked.

“No,” Tannor said, easing the tech pen behind her ear. “Just the receiver and transmitter. Why?”

Relai looked at the ground. “Uh. Well. I store all my music on my comm.”

Tannor jabbed, maybe a little less gently than she should have.


Thousands of deadly individual vehicles careening, without any automation, along ribbons of cement with random obstacles on either side? Driving had terrified Relai at first. In her current emotional state, though, the barely-changing scenery of the roadway provided a strange sort of comfort.

She glanced in the mirror at the cramped backseat. They’d taken the small sedan because it had been blocked by a larger vehicle from the perspective of the house, so maybe no one would notice it was missing for a bit longer. Goren was curled up drooling in one corner—he’d fallen asleep right away—with Ky in the other corner and Tannor wedged awkwardly in the middle. In his seat next to Relai, Milo looked even more cramped, his shins pressing against the glove compartment. He’d been staring silently out the window the whole drive so far.

As near as Relai could tell, they’d crashed about two hours north of the city of Saint Paul and its sibling city, Minneapolis. After aimlessly wandering a few back roads, she’d found a major highway; she knew how to get to the MMN testing field from there thanks to the nav map she’d studied in the jumper. They were going to be very late, but she had no way to notify Xiong.

They gradually left behind the sparse countryside for growing signs of suburbia. Billboards, lights, and restaurants lined the artery of concrete, cars buzzing around everywhere, each Earthan citizen in their own private glass and metal bubble. With any luck, they’d be able to get off this planet without having to encounter a single Earthan.

A pair of strobing red-and-blue lights in the rearview mirror dashed those hopes.

Oh, no,” Relai said.

Milo instantly sat up. “Guards?”

“Y-yes. Local law enforcement. They want us to stop.”

Relai saw his body clench, heard the dashboard creak where he’d braced his hand. “Can we outrun them?”

“No, I don’t think that’s the best thing to do—I’m going to pull over,” Relai said. “I probably just violated some minor traffic law. It’ll be okay.”

“Exit here. Side road looks quiet,” said Ky from the backseat. “Don’t stop ‘till you get past the first big batch of trees.” They all heard the soft whine of his gen-gun powering up, then Relai caught Milo reaching under his seat. Another gen-gun. They rolled to a stop on a deserted stretch of road surrounded by thin forest on either side.

The police vehicle just sat there for several minutes.

“What are they waiting for?” Tannor wondered.

“Waiting for us to move so they can attack,” said Milo.

“What? No,” Relai said, smoothing her hair. “That’s not how it works here. These vehicles have identification numbers. They’re probably checking them against a database that will tell them if we’re criminals or not.”

Tannor grimaced. “Hopefully this car hasn’t been reported stolen yet.”


Relai noticed Milo’s hands were clenched white.

“We should run,” he said.

“I don’t want dozens of these people chasing us every second of the way,” she said. “No. Just…stay calm.”

“Whassa?” Goren jerked up from his sleep.

“We’ve been stopped by Earthan law enforcement,” Relai told him.

He settled back down in a shrug. “Earth’s a protectorate. Coalition law trumps territorial law, and we have the queen with us,” he said sleepily. Then his head lifted again. “But they don’t know that, do they? But—we haven’t done anything wrong, so… no, we stole this… We have done something wrong!” Goren’s eyes widened. “What’re we gonna do? Are we going to prison? Do they just kill you on sight?”

“No, ah—just stay calm,” Relai insisted. She didn’t have time to elaborate before someone stepped out of the vehicle. Beside her, Milo put his hands on the top of his head, ready for evaluation. He was shaking.

“Put your hands down, they don’t do that here,” she hissed as a thin, pink-faced man in a blue uniform paced towards them, gun holstered at his side.

“I’ve never been arrested,” Goren said. “If I’m on Earth, will that show up on my Coalition record?”

Shut up, Goren.

Relai rolled down her window.

“Hi there,” the officer said. “Do you think you maybe know why I’m pulling you over?”

“I’m sorry, sir, no,” Relai answered in English.

“Looks like you got some expired tabs there,” said the officer. (Tabs. What were tabs?) “They’ve been expired since May.”

The officer peered inside at each of the other four passengers. His eyes were so pale they almost looked colorless.

“Who-all you got in there?” he asked. He seemed to be eyeing Milo in particular.

“Just my friends. We’re just, we’re just coming back from a week up at the lake.”


“Sorry, I didn’t know about the tabs. We actually, we borrowed this car from my parents.”

“I see. Well, I need to see your ID.”

“Sure,” Relai bluffed. “Hey, um, do you see my purse back there?” The others gave her confused or panicked looks. She feigned a search.

“Oh, no. I’m sorry, sir. I think—I think I left it back at our cabin. I’m really sorry.” She gave her best innocent shrug.

The officer pursed his lips. “I’m gonna need you to step out of the car.”

And with that, Ky leaned forward, pushed Relai out of the way, and let off a quick blast from his gen-gun. The officer convulsed and dropped to the ground.

“Ky, no!” Relai yelled. “What if there’s another one?”

“Milo,” Ky said instead of apologizing, and then they were both out of the car and carrying the man back to his vehicle before Relai could pull her head back together. She opened her door and leaned out, resting her weight against the seatbelt, to watch them load him back into his vehicle. There wasn’t another one, thank the stars. There should have been, but there wasn’t.

Another car might pass at any moment, though.

Milo tore into something inside while Ky circled the car and slashed each tire, one by one. They made it back in less than twenty seconds, and Ky ordered, “Drive.”

Relai drove.

When they were back on the main road and her heart stopped racing, Relai gripped the wheel in her sweaty hands and said, “You could have killed him.”

“He could’ve killed us,” Milo retorted. The lines of his face were hard all over again, like the moment they met.

“How far are we from Xiong?” Tannor cut in.

Relai caught her eye in the rearview mirror. “I don’t know, thirty minutes?”

“Drive faster.”

I can’t.

“It’s fair to assume,” Ky mused, “that once our friend wakes up, gets out of his own metal restraints, and finds a communications device that isn’t ruined, the Earthan authorities will be looking for us.”

Relai nodded grimly but said nothing. Hopefully they’d be off of this planet before that happened.



The day was bound to come when Goren Dray needed a shave, but today was not that day. He woke up the same as always: bleary and then shocked and then five more minutes and then off and running, and right now he was going to enjoy his five more minutes on this piece-of-trash planet. He rubbed his face wistfully, searching for those fine errant hairs that would eventually turn into a proper beard. Milo and Ky both needed to shave a year ago.

No one was getting the chance to shave any time soon, were they? First they needed to meet Xiong.

Goren yawned loudly and stretched into Tannor’s space, earning himself a smack in the ear just as their sad little ugly car eased through some sort of security fence. They’d made it to the testing field without another incident, new sunlight just reaching the highest points of nearly-flat land as they pulled through a line of trees just inside the fenced enclosure. The security points sat eerily deserted, a barrier already lifted between two empty guard stations as they crept their way forward. It felt like they were the last people on the planet.

Goren scratched an itchy spot on his neck.

Relai stopped the car at the edge of a giant field. Grass covered one half, dirt covered the other, with the far section hilly and the nearer section completely flat. It reminded Goren a bit of the guard training grounds; he wondered if they tested weapons here, though tracks in the dirt hinted at vehicle testing. Maybe they’d gotten around to inventing their own hover vehicles? That would be cool to see.

The queen sat there staring and tapping the wheel for a moment while they all cleared the sleep out of their eyes.

“You’re all welcome to—well, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but—if there’s room you can all—I mean, unless you don’t want—”

“Yeah, sure, get out of the car,” Ky said. Tannor smacked Goren every time he tried to correct these scumsuckers so he just squirmed in his seat and said nothing. Relai was brave, as anyone should expect, but he couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t ditch these criminals. They were a disaster waiting to happen.

 She opened her door.

Gross. The sticky air swamped his skin with heat and dust and unfiltered chemicals and how anyone lived here Goren could not understand. It might theoretically get this hot in Kilani on the worst summer days, but back home he didn’t have to let the air outside touch his skin if he didn’t want to. A proper climate was a human right, wasn’t it? It was a health issue. Had to be.

As Goren climbed out, Ky pulled Milo aside and they whispered nefariously and then Milo just walked off. Somewhere in the stretching and shuffling as they woke one by one from their naps the three surviving guns had ended up with the three men, so when Milo left he was armed.

“You’re not the only one who needs to pee, you know!” Goren shouted after him, clenching his thigh as he put weight on his leg and tried not to whimper. His torture wound had finally stopped bleeding, but everything felt so stiff and sore he could hardly stand, let alone walk. At least the pain took his mind off the itching from the bloodsucker bites.

“Don’t cry, I won’t go far,” Milo threw over his shoulder as he disappeared into the trees.

“Where is he going?” Goren asked Tannor.

“Where are any of us going, really?” Ky mused, “In life? In love?”

“Oh, shut your stupid face.”

Relai fussed with the jacket she’d borrowed from Tannor; it was a size too big and she looked just ridiculous. (Then again, it was better than nothing. Relai had been far too comfortable dashing around in a bra and pants, making everyone jealous of her abdominal muscles, but now they were about to face a professional man with High Court expectations. No showing undergarments here.)

Relai took a deep breath. “I think maybe we should just… wait? Tannor, do you want to follow Milo, or…”

“I’m staying with you,” Tannor said.

Good, Goren thought.

Ky stepped forward first, like he thought he was in charge, and kept Relai just half a pace behind him. Tannor and Goren took up the rear, trying to form a weak excuse for a perimeter of protection. Only two of the three of them were armed; what was Tannor going to do? Dive in front of a gen-gun blast? Probably.

He hoped Milo and his weapon would be useful off in the trees somewhere.

Goren didn’t feel too great about asking Gandred Xiong for help. Xiong worked for an Earthan company (which apparently made a habit of hiring extra-terrestrials and producing illegal things for Vadans to use) and he could just clap his hands and make their security disappear? What kind of power did he have?

And he was a renowned strategist. What if he knew about Relai’s kidnapping and he wanted to take advantage of it? Maybe to take over or something? What if they were walking into a trap?

They were probably all going to die, that’s what. Or Goren would, at the very least, because Ky would pull some crap and get himself out of there and they wouldn’t kill Tannor because they’d know she was a genius the second she opened her mouth. Milo had run off, probably to snipe from the trees (no one bothered to ask if someone else was the best and only sniper in his training cohort, which Goren was, thanks). That left Goren himself. The dead one.

It occurred to Goren that maybe he should be thinking ahead. He should have a plan.

Maybe Tannor had a plan.

Tannor didn’t know what to do with her hands if she wasn’t holding a gun. She would have put them in her pockets, but the queen was wearing her jacket.

She felt totally confident, totally—except for the sick dread growing in her stomach.

Then Goren crowded right next to her as they crept further out in the open.

“Tannor,” he whispered, “do you have a plan?”

“What?” she hissed.

“A plan, a plan! We need a plan in case this goes to hell!”

“This is the plan,” she said. “We go see Gandred Xiong and he helps us.”

“No, a back-up plan,” he insisted.

“Goren,” she said in a low voice. Relai was far enough ahead that she couldn’t quite hear. “Fil and I turned off security and comms at Haadam for a non-violent resistance, remember?” He nodded like it was painful to admit. “I don’t just go around carrying out orders without knowing who I’m following. I did some digging and I found the head of the resistance. At least, here on Earth. It’s him. Xiong.”

“I… don’t understand.”

She resisted rolling her eyes. Sometimes Tannor wished she wasn’t the only one who could listen and comprehend.

“If Fil and I were following orders from the Quiet and those orders let Ky and Milo get to Relai, that means the Quiet wanted to rescue Relai. Which means Xiong wanted to rescue Relai.”

“Wait—does that mean Milo and Ky are secret resistance members, too?”

At least his brain made it that far.

“Ky. Not Milo. Don’t tell Ky I told you; he wants to keep it secret.”

“So why’d you tell me? Do you want me to join this thing?” He bounced a little as they walked. “Am I a spy now? A spy for the queen? A royal spy—

“You’re helping bring down whoever took over control, so you’re resisting already. We all are. But… just stick with me, will you?”

He tried to shove his elbow into her ribs but she blocked him. “Tannor Mellick, are you worried about me?”

“Yes, Goren Dray,” she whispered. “I am.”

That managed to shut his mouth for once.

Milo wedged himself over a thick branch with his chest flush against the trunk. He leaned his cheekbone against this tree of Earth, took in the dry, dusty scent, and peeled away a piece of bark without taking his eyes off of the group. It came away more easily than the bark of the giant pines around his hometown. He put it in his mouth.

He pressed his teeth into the bark but didn’t break it. His mouth watered.

Milo took a deep breath and his eyes fluttered shut for barely a moment. No—

Your head isn’t pounding. You’re not shaking. Not here, not now.

He spit out the hunk of bark and wiped his mouth on his shoulder.

He settled himself to perfect stillness, the same stillness he’d reached hunting sark birds with his brothers when they weren’t stomping a ruckus just to make him mad. Milo didn’t think they had sark birds here.

At least on Earth they didn’t have to keep their skin covered and avoid touching bare ground at any cost.

Milo wished he’d been able to research this planet better before they landed here. The quick, violent moments of his journey punctuated long, bleak weeks of space travel with not a second of access to coalition libraries. He’d avoided going into the coalition commons entirely because he was sure they’d find him the second he logged on. Instead, he’d been crammed inside a cargo container or storage bunker with a cranky, sarcastic bartender. At this point he could probably recite every Gastredi folk myth, so that was something.

There was a time when the moon was food and the sand was water and the rocks were dragons…

He watched as the group drifted toward the center of the field; Milo could see the entire perimeter from his spot. He was a good shot by now, thanks to Ky, but gen-guns were not meant for long-distance accuracy.

(And he could pretend all he wanted, but he could no longer control the tremors in his hands.)

Milo blinked against a light breeze and watched a cluster of small leaves fall. They drifted through the field, most failing to make it even halfway. The leaves that drifted far enough, though, stopped abruptly in mid-air and fell straight down. They joined a small unnatural ridge in the grass.

He tapped on the cheap disposable comm he’d stuck behind his ear on the ride over after Tannor fried his real one.


Peering out into the field, he saw Ky brush a bug away from his ear—tapping on his comm.

“Yeah?” came Ky’s whispered reply. He heard Goren mutter something in the background.

“There’s something masked five meters in front of you,” Milo whispered, “center field. Looks big.”

They’d reached a midpoint in the flat part of the field when Tannor saw Ky flick up a hand, and then he halted.

“There’s something straight ahead of us,” he whispered, squinting at the ground and then pointing into empty air. “There.”

Tannor couldn’t see a thing.

“Want me to shoot it?” Goren asked.

To Tannor’s surprise, Ky said, “Yeah. Give it a little shock, see what it thinks.”

Relai exclaimed, “You can’t be serious—”

Goren let off a charge.

It connected with a solid surface and dispersed over several feet, revealing something flat leaning at an angle toward them.

Tannor jolted at a sudden sense of a small sleeping ship hiding behind a mask, resting and waiting.

The sense came so stark and certain she forgot where she was for a moment. She knew the ship was there and she knew it wasn’t any ship she’d ever encountered before. It was exciting and foreboding and before she could regain the balance in her head the mask blinked off and—

There it rested, for all to see, silver and red and gleaming. This was not a ship converted from a Sevati vessel after liberation. She saw pieces she recognized from other ships—the loading dock at the front that Goren had shot, the chassis, the engines—but this ship was new. Unique. Did he?—he must have built it here.

Xiong built his own groundship.

(Where did he salvage the pieces from? Did it run off of metahydrocarbon? If not, what was the fuel and would there be enough to get to Oliver Station? Why silver and red? Did it have a metamercury interface? Could it pilot itself? Could they start sending encrypted relays to Arden immediately? Did the Coalition know he built it? Did it—)

The group shrank closer, Tannor’s forearm brushing Relai’s back, as the dock lowered and a man walked to its edge.

He wore a simple green collared Earthan shirt and brown slacks. She’d thought Gandred Xiong was in his sixties, but he looked so much older, with eyes like a snare waiting to snap. She wanted to assault him with questions. She held her tongue.

Tannor couldn’t see Relai’s face, but the queen’s shoulders tensed and her back snapped stiff and tall. She’d twisted her hair in a tight bun, secured around itself by its own rough, salty state. Bare neck. Long hair hidden.

Xiong waited several aching moments before speaking.


The queen went through one breath before speaking. Her voice was steady.

“Guide Xiong.”

She bowed. He didn’t.

It was ridiculous. They just looked at each other, and looked, and looked, and Tannor realized they must be sending those endless tiny signals only the greater class could understand. She, a lesser, was lost.

And was it just her, or was there something really off about Xiong?

Seven years.

He looked so old.

Old, but definitely not tired. Hell, Relai probably looked more tired than he did. She probably looked disgusting. Embarrassing. He looked like a grandfather, maybe he was a grandfather by now—

The old anxiety hadn’t changed and it was unfair, really, that she couldn’t tamp out the clenching fear of receiving bad marks. Maybe he’d never really liked her. Maybe she was really as stupid as she feared.

Relai took in two small gasps, trying to calm her heart. Her fingernails were sharp against her palms.

Then he spoke and his voice was the same.

No, colder.

“This ship is only fueled and stocked to carry two people to Oliver Station. You, Mora, may come with me now, alone, and reach Arden quickly. Otherwise, I can send you all to Daat Base. It will be more dangerous, and I can’t guarantee you will only meet allies there.”

She swallowed and turned to Goren and Tannor. She already knew how Ky felt: he’d want her to stay with them so Milo could satisfy his vengeance fantasy and maybe even convince her to grant Eray independence. And of course, of course, her guards wanted her to go.

Or at least Goren did. Tannor looked sick. The corner of her left eye twitched but she didn’t speak.

“I don’t know what to do,” Relai whispered. Xiong heard her and remained still. She had to decide now.

Relai could leave them behind and they’d be all right. They would be fine.

Or they’d be killed by those chasing her.


Relai realized it like tripping, like a sudden drop, and she stepped backward in surprise.

“I know this riddle.”

It was a construct defense all over again and she remembered how this one went, she remembered her answer, and she remembered her guide’s counter-construct.

Xiong’s eyes gleamed in the morning sun.

But that was ridiculous.

“Are you—are you trying to tell me to kill you?”


Milo cupped his hand around his ears, straining to hear the conversation with only Ky’s comm to relay sound. He shifted uncomfortably in the tree, his muscles aching.

Relai stood at the center of a triangle made by Ky, Tannor and Goren as she spoke with the man who had emerged from the formerly masked groundship. Xiong. Milo could hear the timbre of their voices over Ky’s comm, but not any words.

As he listened, another sound from the direction of the security gate drew his attention. A large white Earthan vehicle slowly crept up the entrance road and then paused, engine still running, and two figures in white uniforms stepped out. They held large firearms at the ready and split off in opposite directions through the trees around the field.

“Ky,” Milo spoke into the comm. “We’ve got friends. Large white vehicle. Armed soldiers. Sent two out to flank; don’t know how many still in the car.”

“Hmm,” Ky responded.

One of them was creeping swiftly toward him. Milo’s heart pounded. He listened intently, hoping he’d catch a snippet on conversation that might resolve this before it went sour.

He checked the two dials on his gen-gun, cranking the charge to lethal levels and the penetration to maximum in case those uniforms were armored. His fingers shook as he did.

Don’t fall out of this tree. Don’t close your eyes. Hold still, gun up—

The riddles were supposed to be exercises in reasoning and strategy and they were never straightforward. Relai had learned quickly that Xiong expected more from her; he wanted creativity. He wanted ruthlessness.

The riddles were supposed to be a lot of things, but real was never one of them.

She knew this one.

A queen and her closest allies are traveling in dangerous lands. They come to a river that must be crossed in order to reach the queen’s territory and they meet a sentry guarding a boat.

The sentry declares two options:

The queen may leave her allies and travel across the river with the sentry…


The queen and her allies may together travel far downriver to a larger port, facing further delays and the dangers of the foreign land.

The answer she gave Xiong did not satisfy him. He did concede that neither of the options given by the sentry were acceptable. If she had chosen to leave her allies the sentry would have killed the queen and taken her crown on the other side of the river. If she had traveled with her friends further downriver, the sentry would have passed in his boat and met them with murderous allies at the larger port.

Either choice was death.

So—so was Xiong trying to tell her this was a trap? His answer to the problem—

“Are you trying to tell me to kill you?”

This was the solution approved by her guide and the king:

A proper queen would kill the sentry and take his boat.

“Are we supposed to kill you and take your ship?” Xiong’s face watched her like living stone as Relai stepped closer. “You know I never liked that answer.”

Finally he raised one eyebrow, ruling on her failure. “It has been your answer these last thirteen months, Mora. Kill and take. I am ashamed to say I trained you well.”

Mora. This again—she had been hoping Xiong and his strategic mind would have guessed her situation by now.

But he wasn’t surprised to see her here on Earth? What did he think she’d been doing this whole time?

“Though you are more like your mother than I ever suspected,” Xiong added.


Relai closed her eyes for a moment. She had to figure this out. She had to figure this out because Xiong was expecting more of her and she had to make him proud.

If Xiong thought a dictator queen facing a rebellion had run to him for help, how would he react? With a safe ship and an offer of escape?

He wanted me to think for myself. He wanted me to be strong. I know, I know he wanted me to be kind, even if my father never let him say it.

This was a trap.

Relai bit back tears and looked at Xiong with all the honesty she could convey. “I haven’t been ruling. I was sleeping. They kept me sleeping for the last year. My Guide, Gandred, please believe me. I don’t know what to do. I trust you.”

If she were really smart, if she were the stuff queens were made of—she’d follow her own words and play out her solution to the riddle.

A stupid child’s answer, a silly, nattering, naive—

If someone holds power over you and gives you impossible choices, you attack the power.

She’d declared, so bold at fourteen, that her answer was to travel upstream with her allies, dam the river, and walk the muddy riverbed until she reached the sentry. She would demand a treaty for the sake of his river, go home, and never get stuck in a foreign land again.

(They’d really hated that answer. She’d been torn to pieces for it. Nothing new.)

But Relai didn’t know how to take away Xiong’s power over her. She had nothing right now and she needed him—

Of course, the allies in the riddle never had a say in anything.

Here, in real life, Ky took three steps forward and pointed his gun at Xiong’s head.

“I’m getting bored with your stalling, Xiong,” he declared. “Let’s tell everyone here what I already know and you can decide if you want to live or die.”

Relai choked on her words as Xiong said, “Go on.”

“You don’t want this poison on your hands. You know everyone in the greater galaxy is going to be hunting her. You’re stalling so your couriers can arrive.”

Xiong gave him a sour smirk. “Out of the three of you, I think you, sir, are the one who impersonated me among the quiet in order to snatch her yourself.”

“What?” Tannor exclaimed, and Relai whipped her head back to stare at her.

“Who’s quiet?” she hissed.

No one bothered to answer her.

Did Milo know? She had no idea where Milo was. The tree line remained silent and still in the morning sun.

“It certainly wasn’t the baby hugging his security blanket,” Ky replied.

“Is that... am I the baby?” Goren whispered. He’d raised his gun halfway but hadn’t decided where to point it yet.

Xiong ignored everyone but Ky. “You think you’ll escape this planet with such expensive cargo?”

Ky snorted. “No, but if you’re all that stands between me and that ship, I’ll take an opportunity when I see it.”

Xiong only laughed. “Titian jumpers are faster than you predict, hunter.” (Titians. Was Xiong working for Titus now?) “I want her in the hands of the Coalition before some fool declares a rebellion or Odene takes an offer to kill her.”

In the hands of the Coalition sounds pretty good, Relai thought. Titus didn’t maintain an army; their soldiers were more ceremonial than functional and Arden outnumbered them twenty to one. It wasn’t because they were pacifists, though; their automated weaponry was just that good. Their weapons were subtle and precise and devastating and they always saved lives because a conflict with Titus never lasted long. The cast-off weapons they’d used to stock their Earthan base had stopped nuclear war on this planet—twice. They’d be able to protect her.

But Ky said, “So they’re taking her out of the generosity of their hearts? No.”

“And you are so concerned for her well-being?”

“You think I’m going to hand her over to them for free, to sell at a profit? You don’t know much about commerce, Xiong.”

Relai exclaimed, “Nobody is selling me—what are you talking about?” Xiong wouldn’t do that. He might think she was a horrific dictator, but he wouldn’t send her to her death.

What was she thinking? Of course he would. If he thought it was best for the galaxy on whole.

“Relai, I think you should run,” Tannor whispered.

She swayed, torn between the salvation of that open groundship door and unknown threats in every direction.

She caught Tannor’s frantic eyes.

Tannor couldn’t move.

Ky was a Quiet impostor. Milo was lurking out there somewhere. Goren had a gun and she didn’t and there was something, something wrong with Xiong, with his body, his face, something wrong, something wrong

If she wrenched the gun from Goren’s hands could she really shoot their way out of this? Something was wrong with Xiong—Relai froze behind her and they locked eyes—and then they all turned to seek out the source of a growling engine.

Okay, so Goren was not exactly following all of this, but he could damn well shoot someone if he needed to, and since Relai was all nervous about perfectly pleasing her old guide (the tidy hair, the clothing thing, the bowing, all so obvious it was sweet) he didn’t really want to shoot the guy just for threatening to hand her over to some Titians for the trip home. Did that even count as a threat? He hated the Titians as much as any Ardenian (mostly out of envy) but they were coalition—they had to protect her. Ky, on the other hand, could probably use a decent wound or two. He was scaring Tannor.

But then a large white car thing slid to a dramatic stop and out jumped six soldiers in Titian military dress with six Earthan guns at their hips and finally, finally everything was going to be okay.

Goren and Tannor moved in tight around Relai just to make her feel safe, and he angled himself in front of the queen so she could see everyone. For some reason Tannor refused to turn her back to Ky.

Five privates and an aggressively nervous sergeant (all with stupidly impractical, stupidly handsome white uniforms) surrounded them.

And they didn’t even greet the queen first. Disrespectful!

At least Relai had a safe ride home now. Goren wondered if he and Tannor would just be reassigned to Daat Base after all this—and just when he was starting to learn Italian, too.

He wondered if they’d be considered heroes. He did get tortured a bit for information, after all.

Goren resisted scratching his leg with the gen-gun and tried to glare at these Titians with competence. Competent glaring. Yes.

Ky sighed. Titians. Always shortchanging their footsoldiers. Always big tech in place of tactical skill and cohesion—but his transmission jammer would drop any sleepies buzzing around before they got close enough to sting them to sleep, and he didn’t hear the telltale hum of a stomperbot. They didn’t bring their fancy stuff. Interesting.

And why did it have to be Earthan guns? Ky hated pulling solid bullets out of people.

“So you’re the buyers,” Ky started, and when the sergeant opened his mouth he solidified Ky’s authority.

“We’ll be escorting Her Majesty, Their Glory to Arden,” the man replied. He sounded all sorts of guilty.

Ky fingered his gen-gun thoughtfully. “Maybe she already has an escort.”

From his position left of the field midline Ky saw Relai’s jaw open, but before she could speak the sergeant snapped:

“We’re not cutting anyone in, Gastredi.” Good, they picked up on the accent. Six here, plus Milo’s two…

“Oh, is a—hmm, eight-way split already too much?”

The sergeant squinted, tightening his grip on his gun.

Thankfully Milo chose that moment to crackle into his earpiece:

“Got one.”

Ky smiled at the sergeant. “Well, it was eight. Now it’s seven. See, we’re already helping increase your cut.”

“Soldiers!” the guy barked, and just like that everyone was pointing their guns at everyone. And they had no cover whatsoever. Ky sighed. The nearest Titian stood eight steps to his left and Ky could use him as a shield until he made it inside the groundship. Tannor and Goren had nothing.

The sergeant continued, “Hand her over and we won’t kill you all.”

“Hey!” Goren cried.

“You’re not going to kill her,” Ky said with absolute certainty. At least Titians avoided personal combat at all costs—an Ardenian unit would have opened fire in glee by now.

The man sneered. “No. They want her alive. But we can kill the kid, and then the woman, and by then we’ll figure out where your dog in the woods is hiding, so call him off now and you can all go home.”

Ky laughed. “The man believes he has leverage. Tannor? Goren?”

The two guards turned at their names.

Relai’s ears registered the hiss of Ky’s gen-gun as she watched Goren fall, and on the downbeat of her heart a second hiss and a second thud followed.

Goren’s white shirt turned red right over his heart, body twitching. His eyes were open and his body was far too limp to be only stunned.

Tannor’s mark bloomed right between her eyebrows and she was limp, too. Her eyes were open.

Relai stared at Ky in disbelief.

Then she reached over Goren and snatched up his gun and aimed at Ky and—

It wouldn’t fire.

He’d given Goren a dead gun.

Relai swore and flung the weapon furiously at Ky as she dashed forward to the open ramps of the groundship.

She saw Ky lurch to the side as more than one of the Titians opened fire on him with their deafening weapons.

Milo had waited for the Titian to get close enough to take a shot but his hand had shaken. He’d missed.

The next few rough seconds of struggle after he leaped down should not have worn him out this much. He had four inches on the Titian, yet he could barely catch his breath after they’d struggled for control of the gen-gun and Milo had managed to fire a shot into the man’s head.

“Got one,” he told Ky.

Seven left.

These Titians were carrying small Earth-sourced guns that required solid ammunition; once they ran out of bullets, they were out. Generator guns were his favorite, but they offered so little long-distance precision. Besides, killing people with their own guns left less of a trail.

He had no idea how many bullets this gun held, no time to take it apart and figure it out.

Milo moved, hell, he pushed his body because that’s what his body was for. He did it. He wanted to give up but he didn’t, struggling through the brush to the edge of the trees just in time to see Ky shoot their two erstwhile guards.

Two fewer things to worry about.

Relai ran for the groundship and everyone started firing at Ky. There was no way he wouldn’t be hit. Milo raised the Earthan gun and took aim.

After another missed shot, surprisingly loud, Milo managed to take out one soldier (six) then another (five) before any of them returned fire. The crack of the shots rattled in his head.

Ky dove and snared a private, clutched him flush against his body, and dragged him around the corner of the groundship. Four. Milo ducked behind a tree to avoid fire and downed another.


One disappeared after Ky (two) on the far side of the ship and the other bolted for the groundship. For Relai. Another shot, another miss.

He couldn’t see Relai.

They were all so close when the soldiers started firing, Relai thought, that Ky couldn’t possibly have avoided getting hit. She focused all her energy propelling herself forward until she landed inside the shelter of the groundship. She dove to the floor and rolled to the side and saw that Xiong stood at the cockpit now.

When had he moved? Why wasn’t he armed?

“You can’t fly this ship, Mora,” he said. He remained very still considering the firefight that continued outside (firefight? Why were they still shooting? Was Ky somehow still alive? Milo. It must be Milo. Gods, did Milo know he was going to kill them?)

She pushed up to her feet. “You’ll fly it,” she said, hoped, begged.

“No. I won’t be any help to you.”

Damn it, damn it, and all she wanted was—

They died so easily—

Everything sounded brittle and distant and Xiong couldn’t see her, anyway, he only saw the lie. The False Relai.

She pounded a fist against the bulkhead hard enough for the pain to help her focus. “I’ll figure it out, then.”

Then she whipped her head around to see one of the Titian soldiers stumble his way onto the entrance ramp.

Tannor blinked.

The sky above hung blue and cloudless and the heat so heavy she could almost see it. Then she registered the noise.

She lifted her head and saw Goren—he was waking, too, and the red over his heart shocked her until her own forehead twinged and she felt blood slide down the side of her nose and it all made sense. That asshole did it again

A dead Titian lay a few feet away and Tannor caught movement and gunfire footward and left. She smeared the blood away from her eyes and rolled onto her belly to grab for the dead guard’s gun.

Goren scrambled for a weapon further away as Tannor sat up. She saw Ky’s leg sticking out from under a body but she couldn’t see the rest of him because another soldier was in the way, bearing down on him. She squared her shoulders and fired, the gun kicking wildly in her hand, and hit the Titian in the arm and the back of the knee.

She was aiming for the center of his back. Damn projectile weapons, so heavy, and the recoil was terrible—

Goren gained his footing and moved into formation next to her (two-person combat, something she barely remembered from training). Tannor pushed herself up, not as weak as she expected to feel after a dose of whatever it was in the drug tick, and she focused in time to see the soldier she’d wounded jerk back and fall from another shot. Ky. He shoved the limp body of a Titian off of himself and just sat there for a second, breathing heavily. She couldn’t tell if he was injured.

From their right Milo came thundering across the field, gun raised, shouting one word, and Tannor couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen and reacted yet:

There, inside the open groundship. Relai.

The soldier gained his footing on the ramp and aimed his gun with both hands.

Relai moved to grab Xiong’s sleeve. “He’ll kill you.” They wouldn’t kill her and she wouldn’t let them kill Xiong. No.

“That’s unlikely,” Xiong replied.

Relai’s hand touched nothing—empty air—and she blinked and watched it disappear into the image of his body.

He wasn’t even there.

He didn’t come. This was a projection.

Xiong smiled like he used to when he out-thought her, and she let out a strangled noise.

He thought so far ahead of her, how could she hope to—no. No. Next time she’d show him.

Which meant she needed a next time, so she clawed at her shirt to reach the knife stuck sweaty against her ribs, and it was already bloody from digging into her own skin and maybe that helped a little. She held it low and backed toward the pilot’s seat, spinning the knife in her hand to dry the blood a little and find a decent grip.

The projection stepped to the center of the walkway and held out his hands toward the Titian. “You can’t fly this ship, soldier. Step back and take care of your fallen.”

She’d trapped herself. Just helping Xiong at every step, wasn’t she? If the Titian backed off, Xiong would seal her in and he could surely pilot this thing remotely and bring her wherever he wanted her.

She kind of wanted to stab him a little.

But the soldier said, “I’m not splitting this bounty with anyone,” and fired four times. Relai ducked as the bullets lodged in the bulkhead and pitted the forward window, but Xiong’s projection didn’t even have the courtesy to flinch at the shots.

This Titian probably wouldn’t shoot her. She was just delaying the inevitable, delaying the press of her knife into his skin and muscle. Silata was just for stress relief, she’d never wanted to hurt anyone, but she was going to need his gun.

Relai advanced, knife out, only to hear another shot and see the look on the soldier’s face as he jerked and fell, groaning a little and turning on his side, and beyond him both Tannor and Goren were rushing forward.



Goren’s arms were raised and his gun was still pointed where he’d fired. He’d shot the guy right in the ass.

They were alive. Oh. Relief washed cold across her shoulders. She didn’t understand what she was seeing because they were both still bloody and those were real wounds, but they looked awake and alert and they weren’t moving like injured people so she was going to have to trust what she saw.

Trusting what she saw had let her think they were dead.

Forget my eyes, she thought. I need people I can trust.

She tried to move past the wounded Titian and throw herself at her guards but the soldier caught her leg and she fell down next to him. His knee cut a vicious arc into her chin and she dropped the knife, reeling. He was struggling with something inside his jacket as he held her, and she kicked and twisted but he held her tight.

The something turned out to be a black and brown case shaped like a flattened egg, and the moment he brought it into view a lot of things happened at once.

Tannor and Goren reached her. She kicked one more time and knocked the egg out of his hand. From somewhere far off Milo screamed, “No!

The case slapped open when the soldier lost it. Something fell out and rolled across the floor of the groundship, something small and dark, a pellet or a bead.

Relai felt arms around her waist, grabbing her and dragging her back, and she kicked one last time and broke free, sliding fast as her guards lost their footing.

She saw Xiong’s projection frowning over the thing. His lips went tight with that same annoyed look he used to give both her and the king.

“Get away from it!” Milo shouted, but he didn’t reach them before it went off.

Went in.

A bright light cracked over them. Relai ducked her head into her arm and Goren twisted into a shield for her, and when she looked up the space was empty. A breeze rushed past them, air filling the voided space.

A cubic area of matter was just gone. The space didn’t quite reach the edges of the groundship, so they were treated to a perfectly-cleaved view of the internal workings of those sections left behind, before the unstable pieces tipped and piled into the hole with a muted crash. The top of the groundship was completely gone and the bottom of the void reached several feet into the ground. A perfect cube of emptiness.

Milo reached them, tipped onto his knees, and settled back to catch his breath.

“What. Was. That?” Relai breathed.

Milo rubbed his forearm over his sweaty brow once, twice, then lifted his chin at the missing space. “Condensing seed. We use them in the mines to shrink down loads of metalock so they take up less space for transport. They just… eliminate the extra space.”

Goren pulled back, plucking his sweaty and bloody shirt away from his chest. “Sorry I grabbed you,” he muttered, focused abashedly on the ground, so Relai smiled and whispered, “No. Thank you.”

“Where did it all go?” Tannor asked.

Milo looked around with hazy eyes. “He didn’t stabilize it, so it’s probably just going to sink into the planet as deep as it can get.” Everything was quiet for another moment and he put his weapon down. “Did it take your guide?”

His eyes showed sorrow and Relai felt pain twist in her chest. “No, he was just a projection. He didn’t come in person.”

Milo nodded like that was to be expected, and they were going to have to work on their group communication so Relai wasn’t so damn shocked by everything.

Then Ky trudged up from the left. She didn’t see any wounds on him, though his clothes were dark, and how in this world did he manage that? At least he looked terrible—dirty, pale, deeper shadows on his face.

“Looks like Xiong is going to have fun cleaning this up,” he said. “Milo?”

“One. You?”

“One. Damn.” Ky turned and started for the woods to their left.

“Stop!” Relai lunged at the gun in his hand and stumbled in surprise when he relinquished it. She didn’t aim it at him. It wouldn’t have stopped him.

He looked to the sky and smeared a hand over his eyes. “I can kill him without a gun, you know.”

“They didn’t do anything this whole time,” she said. “There might not even be anyone there.” Ky looked to Milo. He stared back, eyes dull, and twitched his hand vaguely.

The heat and everyone’s exhaustion finally worked in her favor. Ky sighed, snatched his gun back, and then shouted toward the woods: “Good luck, friend! You’re going to need it.”

Tannor took Relai’s hand to get up as Ky offered his to Goren. With the settling calm came awareness of how very dirty and stained and sweaty her whole body had become. And—she checked her forehead—bloody.

She was so thirsty. They needed to get out of here.

Tannor hoped her appearance made her incredulous glare more effective as she approached Ky. He was kneeling between two bodies and rifling methodically through their pockets.

“You knocked us out.” She meant it as a demand for an explanation. “And shot us. Again.

Ky just arched a brow without even looking at her. Goren had followed his lead, collecting tech and neat folds of local money from the dead soldiers’ pockets.

Milo mumbled, “No cover. You were good as dead. He killed you first so they wouldn’t.”

Which—okay. That was probably true.

She poked Goren in the ribs. “And how come you’re not mad?”

“Oh, I saw him dial his gun down to skin-deep,” Goren said. “I don’t know why nobody else noticed.”

Ky snorted and Tannor turned away in irritation. Goren’s head was empty enough for him to catch small things like that? Good for him. Tannor was busy trying to keep the galaxy from falling apart.

She glanced over at the fallen Titian soldiers and felt… nothing. We can kill the kid, and then the woman, he’d said. They chose their end.

When they reached the Titians’ white vehicle, Ky asked, “Anyone want to bother rooting out all the tracking devices?”

No one answered; it would have been pointless to try. Titian tech was better than Ardenian tech, and Tannor didn’t know it well. Unless she had the Titian source in hand, she wouldn’t be able to stop their tech from finding itself.

Ky carried out his tire-slashing routine yet again, and then Tannor sparked its engine with her tech pen until it caught fire. Relai had the presence of mind to remove the metal plates that displayed their own vehicle’s identification number and replace them with the plates from the Titian’s vehicle, though. Earthan vehicles didn’t have intrinsic markers for law enforcement to scan, and eyes could be fooled. Simple.

Every second of blooming daylight blanketed them with thicker heat, and the last thing Tannor wanted to do was pack herself back into a metal can like a chewed wad of sour meat. It was better than throwing herself in with the dead bodies, she supposed.

As Relai tightened the tiny pieces linking the metal plates to their little car, Tannor eyed Ky until he sighed and looked at her over the rim of an open car door.

“Thanks,” she said.

“We call it the Jaya Point,” he replied.

Milo smiled, opening the car door and folding into the front passenger seat. “Glad it wasn’t me this time.”

Relai settled into the driver’s seat and the final door shut. “Hospital?” she asked as she started up the engine. Tannor peeked behind Goren’s head to see Ky’s reaction.

“We need food,” was all he said.

Tannor didn’t miss how Milo eyed Ky for a moment, his green eyes glassy as he peered over the headrest behind him, but after a beat he just echoed, “Yeah. We need to get food.”

“Okay. I’ll find a place,” Relai said, starting up the engine, “and that money should be enough to pay for somewhere to hide until we decide on our next move.” Her words were steady, not frightened, not exhausted. It sounded like she’d shut off that part of herself again.

Tannor glanced back through the striped rear window as they sped off.

A field of dead bodies and a burning car. What a nice morning.