SHE WOKE BLIND to the scream of a siren.
Naked and encased in a standard travel pod, Relai spat out the dead breathing mask and heaved in a panicked breath. She pulled her face wide and horrified until her sealed eyelids tore open, blinked, and recognized drops of condensation forming on the gray plastic above her face. She was lying on her back.
Her pulse throbbed in her neck, in her temples, and she knew she wasn’t getting enough air. Slow down, slower, then—
No light and no air meant the pod wasn’t receiving power. She wrenched her hands out of the fluid-filled trough molded to her body, feeling the nutrient needles tear out of the skin on each wrist, and hit the cold forward shell of the travel pod.
These pods opened at the head. Relai buried her terror and tried to clear her mind. Her wrists hurt, sharp like a slap, and the pain helped her focus. No power. The pods sealed electronically; she only had to push open the cap above her head to get air.
Claustrophobia was not a problem for her, though fear of drowning certainly was. Drowning probably felt similar to this.
She kicked her feet out of the trough, wiggled and pushed up on the balls of her feet to loosen the material around her. The forward face of the pod curved only a few inches above her, too close to bend an arm at the elbow.
Fear began to win out, wracking her limbs with sharp jerks and loosening the pod’s hold on her body. Her muscles were getting desperate, no matter how calm she tried to keep her mind. They were panicking all on their own.
Relai managed to pivot one arm across the front of her body, caving in her stomach and then her ribcage, reaching desperately up to where the cushion around her conformed to the pod wall. Stars lit up her vision, multi-colored, warning that she’d soon lose consciousness. Her chest heaved in and out but the meager air that filled the pod no longer held any oxygen. She could take a breath but it did nothing, gave her nothing—her wrists were bleeding and the wetness helped her arm slide further. She felt the space opening wider and her fingers met a seam—her muscles screamed—the cap gave way—
Letting out pitiful wails with each flush of new air, Relai grasped the lip of the pod and pulled. Little by little, the rubbery material relaxed further, allowing her other arm to snake up and aid her escape. She heaved, rocking her body up and sliding on her sweat and blood to the rhythm of the wailing siren, and with a cry she slid entirely out of the pod and crumpled three feet down. Yellow light marked her vision for a split second before the back of her head hit the floor and she blacked out.
Four floors up, Goren Dray nearly dropped his gun from fright. He scanned the darkness of the vineyard stretching out past the wall of what would appear to any passersby to be an ancient, eroding Tuscan town, searching for signs of the villains attacking their base. Nothing.
“Is that smoke? I think I see smoke.”
Captain Fass ignored him.
“It’s too dark to see smoke,” Goren told himself. “It’s nothing.”
They’d lost communication with the fifty or so other guards currently posted at the eastern hemisphere base just before the security system went down, while Goren had been patrolling alone, so he’d run to the closest commanding officer looking for orders.
“It’s been a half an hour; why isn’t the system back up?” Goren said. “It’s weird not hearing anyone else in my ear.”
Fass sipped his tumbler of illicit honey-colored alcohol, his face beginning to flush from it. “Mellick is working on it. Don’t expect much.”
Goren expected a lot. The base had been only sparsely staffed in the decades following the Tennan War, but it still had its uses. Enough negotiations needed neutral territory (and enough High Court members needed vacations) that the coalition still maintained military bases on the protectorate planet of Earth, and Technical Sergeant Tannor Mellick, known genius, had arrived just a few weeks after Goren to bring them up to date. She didn’t come soon enough.
Goren was barely out of training and he’d never even fired a live weapon at a real human being. He was not prepared for this.
“Shit,” he muttered slightly hysterically, pacing from window to window. Why hadn’t they replaced this colored Earthan glass with unbreakable stuff? This base was such crap.
Fass had the better weapon, so he could relax against the mantle and stare into the fire like a handsome philosopher or something. Goren’s generator gun only shot pulses of plasma-bound electricity that could be tweaked to shock or penetrate the skin, or both. Fass’s needle gun, on the other hand, held poisonous slivers of metalock. Metalock would kill you instantly if you even touched it. Why did Fass carry such a dangerous weapon? Goren wasn’t going to ask. He valued his face.
“How are you so relaxed?” he blurted out. “Who could get past our systems? Do we really have valuable documents stored here? WHY?”
The captain finished his drink, stood, and swiftly gripped Goren’s collar in his massive hands. “Cross in front of me one more time.”
Fass was four inches taller and thirty pounds heavier, and he probably sharpened glass on his jawline. Goren shook his head, mouth open.
“I think this fun tonight will be good for you.” Captain Fass released Goren and smirked as he tugged awkwardly at his shirt, trying to get it straight under his close-fitting jacket. “Now get out there and search the street, building by building.”
“But—but we’re supposed to stick toge—”
Fass glared. Goren shut up.
“Get going. Maybe you’ll do the coalition a favor and get yourself shot.”
Fass shoved him into the hallway and slammed the ancient painted door.
Goren stood frozen like a tensed rabbit for a moment, then decided that speed was his best option. He had to run into other guards eventually, right? The walls loomed unnervingly dark, the ubiquitous bands of interactive tape blank against the restored Tuscan masonry. It was like being transported back in time to a terrifying other universe where he’d been born on Earth instead of Arden.
He couldn’t hear his own footsteps with that useless siren wailing, not that it would matter if these enemies brought even the simplest sensors, and he did no more than peek inside each room, gun tucked to his chest. Every doorway, another chance to get shot in the face.
He’d already triple-checked his gen-gun’s power, but he flipped out the charge tab and frantically pulled the cord, sending the cylinder spinning to build up the stored energy just in case. These weapons had been selected for off-world bases because they didn’t require ammunition, but right now Goren was cursing the lack of good, solid bullets. Who needed ammunition, anyway? Not disposable seventeen-year-olds.
Their building was empty. He had to face the street next.
Goren eased his head out, looked left and right, then forced his body to follow. It was a narrow street of cobbled stone, not much to hide behind save a few recessed doorways. He immediately wished he’d chosen to travel over the rooftops instead. That’s what the invading criminals were probably doing—they might be looking down on him and laughing right now. He whipped his head up.
The adrenaline alone was going to kill him at this rate.
Then he saw a foot poking out of a doorway down the street and he forgot about himself for a second. He dashed and found a pair of guards unconscious—or dead—just inside an unlit stairway.
He felt his face go all tingly and he nearly threw up as he crouched beside them. He was new here, but he knew them. These were people he played slateball with during their off hours. And sometimes during work hours. They were older than him—Fil Tars by five years, Sorret Palia by one, but she sparred like a junkie on smokepowder—and better guards in general. Goren didn’t stand a chance against whatever troop of enemies had descended upon their quiet little base. He was going to die.
He whispered every curse word he’d ever learned as he shook Sorret, then Fil, glancing up and down the stairs nervously. She didn’t move, but Fil groaned and stretched like he was waking from a nap.
“...Hit me upside the head. Didn’t see who, how many. They were headed setward, did you see them?”
They both turned in the direction of this planet’s sunset, realizing together: they weren’t far from the security room. It made sense; anyone trying to restart the security system would be a target. Then again, that was also the direction of the armory.
Goren heaved Fil to his feet, so elated he wasn’t alone anymore that he extended his life expectancy by at least an hour. Fil was taller, broad-chested, and heroic-looking, and he always seemed to know what he was doing.
“I haven’t seen anyone,” Goren whispered. “I hope they’re going to the documents room, ‘cause I left the captain in there alone. He shoved me off to check for intruders building-by-building and die. Do you know where everyone is?”
Fil winced and steadied himself. There was a little blood on his head, but not enough to worry. They both flinched when a small explosion from a few streets over rattled the windows. “Dealing with that, let’s hope. We’re going to get the main power back on, since no one else has bothered.”
“Because they’re dead, I bet,” Goren pouted.
“I’m not dead, if that’s any encouragement.” Fil felt Sorret’s neck to find her pulse and, seeming satisfied that his partner would live, reached for his holster. Empty.
Fil turned back to Goren and wrenched the gun out of his hands.
“Hey! Give me back my—”
“It’s not yours anymore,” Fil said, turning around. “Come on, we’re going over to security. Pretend it’s a game, like in training school.”
“No one got covered in blood in training school!”
Moving quickly down the street, Fil flashed Goren a grin. “Then your cohort clearly never had any fun.”
Goren glanced back at Sorret.
“Do you think it’s okay to leave—”
But Fil was nearly out of sight, so Goren hurried after.
That gun was definitely still his.
“Ha! At least I got the siren to turn off!”
“Sure, Mellick. We wouldn’t want to wake anyone during the attack.”
“Shut up. Everyone’s already awake.” Tannor Mellick attempted to steady her hands so that her partner, Lorn Vesnick, might not notice her nervousness. He was busy peering into the dark street from his spot against the security room wall, grumpy and silent after the alarms wrenched him out of bed; Tannor hadn’t been sleeping when they went off. Strands of her curly blond hair stuck in the sweat on her forehead and she slicked them away with the back of her hand.
“Heat—sectors three and five—locking mechanisms—air flow—generators—” she rattled through the list in her head, evaluating multiple systems at once. The wall in front of her flashed diagnostics bubbles, dead video feed, and error messages.
Lorn was not the tech sergeant here, so he wouldn’t have caught the pattern, but Tannor was following a delicate order. Her hands flew across the rippling metamercurial surface of the desk in front of her, the key fields shifting as she progressed. She was a musician playing her instrument, and if her partner had bothered to notice he might have been awed by her skill. Lorn, however, was busy watching for the threat of death lurking just outside the security room door.
He was also busy glancing at her chest, or her ass—whichever faced him at a given moment. Men had been that way since she turned thirteen, grew three inches taller, and developed breasts in one year; they were all exhausting and boring and they could ogle themselves or full-life celebrity entertainment feeds for all she cared. She’d stick to computers.
Then Tannor’s brain processed a piece of information caught on the slightest edge of her attention. She slowed her fingers and murmured, “Accessory power… where did this come from?” She asked the system and it responded with a screen of details. “It just showed up a couple months ago, buried under the extra power we needed for dock repairs… The captain signed off on it. Wow, it’s a huge amount of power. Leading to what? Sub-basement auxiliary…” She pulled her way through the map of energy expenditure across the base, zeroing in on the mysterious red blip. “What is that? A storage room? There’s no storage room in the catacombs.”
She turned to Lorn. “Right?”
He scoffed. “Not high on my list of priorities right now, Mellick.”
She turned back to her screen, glaring at the glow. She was one of the soldiers responsible for the base’s security program—how was she supposed to do her job when they didn’t tell her everything about the base?
Her superiors were under the impression that they could lock certain information behind passwords and other more creative security measures. They were mistaken.
Like a wild beast tamed, the system told her what she needed to know: “A transport pod?”
Tannor could think of a few scenarios in which a travel pod would be hidden at Arden’s less-popular Earth base, and none of them boded well for the unlucky soul trapped inside. An ill courtier awaiting the development of a treatment for an embarrassing disease; a political prisoner kept silent by the Aydors until the right time for execution; the daughter of someone important waiting out an unacceptable pregnancy; like a stone skipping across a calm pond, Tannor’s mind moved quickly to a conclusion:
“We’ve got to get that person out of there.”
Lorn snorted. “Protect the security room, actually, is what we’ve got to do. You sure you’re reading that data right, Sergeant?”
Tannor briefly considered slapping him in his callous face, but Lorn was a dick and she wouldn’t mind getting away from his presence.
“Fine. I’ll go myself.” She drew her gen-gun and pushed past Lorn into the darkened hallway. The short girl from the poorer side of Kilani hadn’t made it this far in life by hesitating.
Tannor didn’t make it ten feet before she caught sight of two figures creeping stealthily toward her, silhouetted in the shaft of light from one of the window slits in the wall of stone. She trained her weapon on the first person’s head and ordered them to identify themselves.
Then the emergency lights flashed again and she let out a small groan of relief. Corporal Fil Tars waved, an amused expression on his face and a glowing gun in his hand.
To Goren’s shock, they reached the security center without a sign of trouble. Fil had no problem leading the way and Goren went through severe bowel pains taking up the rear, but it all worked out because Goren probably would’ve accidentally shot Tannor Mellick before he gave himself a chance to recognize her.
“Very fierce, Sergeant, I like it.” Fil approached her quickly and Goren stuck close behind, willing himself not to cower.
“I am so glad you didn’t kill us!” he exclaimed.
“Why aren’t you armed, Private?” she asked.
He scowled at the wall.
Tannor pushed past them both, speaking quickly. “Come with me. There’s a travel pod hidden in the catacombs next to the dock and with the power out someone might be dying right now. There’ll be guns stocked in the dock.”
Fil followed, drawing up beside her and matching her pace. “A hidden travel pod? I didn’t know anything about that, did you?”
“No, just found out while I was trying to turn power back on. It’s been there for months—”
“—Since that time the dock was closed for maintenance,” he finished. Their superiors were hiding something down there. Someone.
Goren took up the rear, agitated for a whole new set of reasons. “Why would anyone hide a travel pod here? Shouldn’t we deal with the enemies who have infiltrated our base before we go searching for an imaginary person who may or may not be dying?”
“Shut up,” Tannor snapped. “We’re not going to let you get killed if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“What if I’m not going to let you get killed?” he countered. No one bothered to point out the ridiculousness of his question.
The dock sat underneath the property’s immense vineyard, six concentric blocks away and six stories down. That was one of the advantages of choosing such a remote city—no roads passed close enough for spectators to see the vineyard drop, split, and reveal a pit filled with alien ships. Goren knew exactly what they’d find in the dock: a diplomatic groundship, the small jumper they just used for traveling between the Earth bases, two bomber drones that had never even been deployed, and a small fleet of single-person skimmers.
They heard another explosion, back in the direction of the security room, and Goren almost elbowed Tannor in the back.
(He wished he were only sneaking into the dock to borrow one of those skimmers, instead of slinking along in the spooky darkness to find a crypt demon or something. He’d slip silently over the outer wall, put down the front shield, and set the machine to hover just above the treetops as he glided lazily through the hills with the wind on his skin and only the threat of a halfhearted reprimand waiting for him when he returned. And as long as he was daydreaming, Tannor would show up on a skimmer next to him wearing a low-cut dress. With a midnight picnic in tow. And mention how much she liked younger men.)
They made it to the elevator leading down to the dock without coming across any dead soldiers, and thankfully this power grid was still functioning. Tannor pressed a series of icons on the elevator door and the unit dropped them at a stomach-churning speed. The door slid up to reveal reflections of the flashing emergency light retreating into endless dark, and Goren steadied himself by focusing on the curves of—
“Do you have our backs or are you staring at my ass, Goren?” Tannor whispered without turning her head, and the quiet of the cavernous room swallowed up her words.
“Uh, no?” he tried.
“The clever man does both,” Fil muttered, then scampered forward before Tannor could retaliate.
Goren couldn’t help but admire the massive diplomatic groundship as they snuck along the wall. It was black with silver accents, more masculine than the base’s last model but streamlines in a way that disguised its bulk. It was the perfect vehicle for shuttling diplomatic personnel from the planet’s surface to interstellar ships waiting at Oliver Station at the edge of this solar system. He’d probably never get to ride in it.
At least this place was a resort planet now. Back when the bases were first established, the Vada Coalition had been busy driving out the last vestiges of the Sevati, the nasty alien overlords who’d snatched humans from Earth in the first place to use as slave labor to colonize the other habitable planets in this galaxy. The galaxy was now properly Sevati-free and Goren was grateful, because serving back then would’ve been no fun.
They reached the section of wall concealing the storage room. A bulky mechanics rig sat in front of the entrance, but Tannor switched on its hover and pushed it aside easily. They saw the faint outline of what must be a door.
Tannor looked it over carefully, switched her pad into diagnostics mode, then mumbled about being locked out of wireless access and found a contact point along the tape instead. The door slid down and away.
A long, dark tunnel, shoulder-wide and carved by hand into the bedrock a millennium ago, stared back at them like a gaping throat. Cool, moist air rushed over them like breath.
The passage was lined with shelf-like pockets which held piles of artfully arranged human bones, the victims of some long-ago plague. Earthan religious practices must’ve prevented them from atomizing their remains, and Goren couldn’t fathom how this planet wasn’t entirely composed of dead bodies by now. What did they do with them all? No wonder these people feared the corpses rising up. Trying to ignore the toothy grins of the skulls he passed, Goren reminded himself to be thankful that he had been born on a developed planet.
Goren once again took up the rear as they crept through the catacomb. More danger lay behind than ahead, but he split his fear between criminal attackers and the long-dead skeletons and tried not to completely lose his mind. The walls were not watching him. No.
What if the attackers are shusa, he thought suddenly. The unholy offspring of human and Sevati, shusasevati were the strange and powerful creatures of horror that his mother used to tell him about when he’d beg for war stories from the past... Sometimes they were giants, all fifteen feet tall with an extra set of arms; in other stories, they could slip out of this dimension and into another one in the blink of an eye. Some of them could fly. They were infected with Sevati blood to serve evil ends, able to look human but just wrong enough to terrify any real human.
Goren brushed a wall and nearly yelped in fear.
They entered a larger room lit intermittently by the emergency light. Lines of piping and wiring on each side led to a focal point at the far end of the small room: a makeshift unit covered with bottled liquids, meters, wiring, and tubing, all converging at the center. The hidden travel pod.
It sat heavily on a low base, black and sinister, and at its feet Goren observed through yellow flashes the body of a young woman.
Tannor reached her first. She kneeled down, Goren panting over her shoulder, and rolled the woman gingerly onto her back. Fil took the other side, feeling for a pulse, watching for breathing. Dark blood covered the woman’s torso in streaks, distracting at first from the realization that she was naked. Goren shifted uncomfortably, unsure how to help.
“She’s breathing. She has a pulse,” Fil said.
Tannor swept thick dark hair away from the woman’s face.
And they recognized her.
Fil whispered, “Gods in stars—” just as Goren yelped.
Relai Mora Aydor. The queen of Arden.
Goren followed instinct and looked away, sure that seeing the leader of their planet, the leader of the coalition, the queen herself, so exposed would lead to some inevitable doom. His knees hit stone.
The focal point of the galaxy itself was here, unconscious in an ancient tomb? Four planets’ worth of people seemed to be staring at them, judging their every decision, and Goren couldn’t stand that pressure. His brain went mute.
Fil peeled out of his uniform jacket and Tannor tucked it around the queen, then zipped it up with her arms bundled inside. Fil watched from the corner of his eye and turned as soon as he could. He lifted her urgently, her head lolling back as he adjusted to make sure she stayed bundled in the jacket. Tannor said, “Hold her head, Goren,” and he did. Stars above, he held her head in his hands, his fingers tangled in the sticky pod wax and sweat in her hair. She hadn’t given them permission to touch her and they were doing it anyway.
They rushed back through the hall lined with skeletons, scraping stone as they huddled along, tense and silent.
“My room,” Tannor whispered.
In the documents room, just below a temple belfry, a light began to blink on Captain Fass’s tablet. It took him a moment to notice it from his position reclining in a leather chair, dwelling on the qualities of his whiskey. He’d left the tablet on an end table across the room, and he sighed as he pulled himself up to investigate, his needle gun leaned carelessly against a wine rack. He lifted the tablet and read the warning notice.
He’d set up this alarm himself, separate from the base’s computer. It had been tripped.
“So they’ve opened up the storage room,” he murmured, and gave a short laugh. He couldn’t believe things could be so simple. “That’s the end of that.”
He strode back to his drink and his chair. Outside, rain began to splatter against the stained-glass window.
Goren barely breathed until Tannor pulled the door to her room shut and turned its meager single lock. She lit several candles, and the comforting light helped Goren get back on steadier ground. He’d never been in Tannor’s room, obviously; it was larger than his, and she didn’t have to share. She hadn’t decorated much since arriving a month ago, if he didn’t count dirty laundry, circuits, and alumeta power cells as decoration. The candles were her only native decor, and now they were melting away.
He positioned himself at the door while Tannor pulled undergarments, and then her robe, onto the queen’s body. How glad was Goren that Tannor chose to wear bras, even though their regulation undershirts were supposedly designed so women wouldn’t need them? Very, very glad.
(He would have been even more thankful if Tannor had any clean shirts for the queen to wear, instead of just underwear, but it was hardly the time to argue about chores.)
“How much time do we have?” Tannor whispered.
Fil moved purposefully from window to window, shutting the curtains. “If no one comes soon, we’re going to have to move her.” He lowered his voice and spoke only to Tannor, although Goren could hear every word. “Did you know she was here?”
She shook her head, curls bouncing. “I thought they just wanted data.”
Fil glanced around grimly. “I don’t want anyone to die tonight. Understand?”
Goren tried to chime in, agree, but Tannor went on whispering as though he didn’t exist. He picked up her gen-gun and took up watch at the door.
“Someone must have known she was here—why didn’t anyone check on her?” Tannor snatched up her tablet. They all knew she couldn’t restart the security program from there, but it looked like she was going to try anyway.
“Maybe she hid herself. Maybe no one on base knows she’s here,” Fil muttered. “Or the ones who do ran, or the intruders killed them already. Did they mention anything, whoever told you to—”
“No!” Tannor’s eyes darted to Goren, then back to Fil. “I’m not a part of this!”
Fil pulled the cord to charge his gen-gun. “We’re part of it now.”
Goren felt a chill creep over his back. They trained the best guards for three extra years before they got to join the Regent Service and protect any of the royal family—this was too much responsibility. He thought he might be sick.
Tannor nodded toward Goren. “And him?”
Fil huffed. “Three months out of training? He’s with us. He’ll listen to me.”
An unexpected surge of annoyance helped Goren focus, and he frowned. “I can hear everything you’re saying. What’s going on? You’re not—you’re not Unity, right? I mean, ha, uh, I mean—” He inched the gen-gun up.
They both stared at him.
Then Fil batted the gun down and huffed. “No, we’re not Unity. Someone has invaded our base and they’re trying to kill our queen.” He hesitated. Glanced at Tannor. “We might have accidentally helped.”
Tannor glared back at him but didn’t disagree. “I had no idea, Fil.” She turned her back to Fil and addressed Goren, pleading. “I had no idea! I got an order from a—well—from an authority I trust very much. I disabled our computers using a randomized code eater so I wouldn’t be able to put it back together right away.” Goren gaped in horror and she rushed on, “They just needed data! We’re not violent. We’re not terrorists!”
“And what about you?” Goren demanded to Fil.
“I, ah, I uploaded a virus into our communication systems so our comms wouldn’t work for a short time,” he sighed. “They’re not on yet. Should be soon, though!”
“And you didn’t know she was here?”
“Of course not!” Tannor fidgeted next to their queen, busying herself by cleaning and bandaging the bleeding spots on the young woman’s wrists.
Goren wrung his hands around his gun, sputtering. “Why would you ever—how can you just—we’re all gonna—” Then light dawned on his face. He relaxed.
Tannor glanced from him to Fil and back. “What?”
“Oh, I always thought I’d die from my own stupidity, not someone else’s.” He let his gen-gun come to a rest against his leg. “It’s kind of a relief.”
Tannor rubbed her eyes and willed herself not to strangle him. He was only seven inches taller. She could do it.
Then she turned their focus back where it should have been anyway: their great and damaged queen.
Tannor used a corner of her silk bed sheet to dab away the vernix on the queen’s face. “Nothing in my kit is going to fix whatever’s wrong with her. We need a med scanner.” Scanners were scarce on Earth, so some guards had started exploring native medical techniques. She knew just enough about them to be very skeptical.
“Nah,” Fil grabbed the med kit from the floor next to Tannor and she stood back. “Something in here might wake her up.”
Goren stepped a bit closer. “Do you need me to—”
“No,” she and Fil replied in unison.
Fil reached a long plastic packet of single-dose drugs and started breaking out capsules. Tannor watched him twist off the end of one and reveal its tiny needle. “Epi, sure, amphet... morph, she’s probably in pain, right? Let’s wake her up, kneel and bow and so forth, and then ask what the hell she’s doing here.”
Goren gasped. “Don’t let her hear you say ‘hell!’ She’s the queen!”
Fil raised a fist, needle down. “She’s not awake yet.”
He plunged the needle into the queen’s thigh and squeezed until the clear liquid disappeared, then twisted open another capsule.
“Do you—do you know anything about what you’re putting into her?” Tannor asked.
Fil shrugged and jabbed again.
Tannor and Goren shared a nervous look.
Then Fil gave her the third drug, then a fourth he didn’t identify.
“Are you trying to kill her?” Tannor exclaimed. Goren moved from one foot to another.
“Water!” he cried suddenly, and both of the other guards jumped. “When she wakes up she’s going to want water.” He ran to Tannor’s private bathroom and she debated chasing after him, but then the queen moaned.
Goren scrambled back, splashing water everywhere. They watched, tense and quiet, and Tannor knelt close, put a hand on her shoulder, and shook gently. “Mora . . .” she murmured, using the name of most respect. The second name given only to the queen. “Mora, wake up. Can you hear me?”
The queen’s breathing sped up. Her head lolled toward Tannor, she moaned again, and then she began gasping. Tannor pressed gentle hands to her shoulders as she dug her heels into the mattress and clawed at the sheets, and then the leader of the galaxy finally opened her eyes. She clutched at Tannor’s jacket and pulled herself jerkily to a sitting position.
Tannor slid from the bed to the floor. On her knees, not in her arms. Proper.
“Where am I?” Mora Aydor looked hazily from person to person. The soft candlelight would be better for her eyes, anyway, so soon after waking up. “Is my mother here?” She panted a couple breaths. “My mouth tastes disgusting.”
Goren leapt forward. “I got you water! Here!”
The queen couldn’t hold the cup, not like this, and Goren almost elbowed Tannor in the face trying to help her drink it, so Tannor grabbed it and shooed him away. She put the glass between the queen’s palms, then wrapped her hands over the queen’s. They locked eyes.
Mora Aydor, her own bones and skin, here and vulnerable and Tannor was touching her—
She’d never felt so close to death. It was nothing like the sight citizens memorized in every news relay—rounded lips, pale instead of tinted, skin waxy and stiff up close. This wasn’t a perfect, unflinching dictator. Tannor saw no threat in this woman’s fear. Mora Aydor had condemned so many to suffering or execution in the last year, and yet—the pod had been hidden there for two months?
Then Fil cried, “Comms are working again!” He tapped the device under the skin behind his ear, using a simple finger slide to limit the proximity channel to only the three of them. Tannor was brought in automatically; anyone else, he’d have to add in by name.
“Get Lorn!” she said. “I left him in the security room alone.”
Fil nodded, tapped. “Lorn Vesnick, can you hear me?” They all winced at the sudden blasting sound of unintelligible shouting and raucous gunfire. “We’re in Tannor’s room! Listen, stop them if you can. Whatever you have to do! Stakes are higher! A lot higher!”
Meanwhile, Tannor addressed her queen. “Your mother’s not here, it’s just us. We’re guards—”
Goren interrupted: “The place is under siege! We don’t know how many there are, or how many they’ve killed, but they’re after you!”
“We’re in Tannor’s room,” Fil repeated. Tannor couldn’t hear a reply—it might not be working.
“Lorn, don’t lead them here!” she said. “Can you hear me? Don’t—”
The queen swallowed several gulps of water, then rested one eye against the heel of her hand. “After me. Of course. Where are we? What’s the date?”
But Tannor’s door burst open and Lorn stumbled in backwards, firing frantically, and Fil leapt and slammed it shut again.
“A little help, here?” He glared, mostly at Tannor. She noticed a wound on his arm. Difficult to tell what weapons they were using.
“How many?” Fil asked quickly.
Lorn jerked a shoulder. “Four, maybe. Hard to say.”
Fil advanced, raising his gun. Goren moved himself between the door and his queen. The door loomed. They waited.
After a tense pause, Lorn muttered, “Maybe they won’t bother following me in here. I’m just one guard. Maybe they’ll move on.”
“What?” He didn’t turn.
“Lorn,” Tannor repeated, urgent enough to turn his head. He frowned at her.
“What?” Then he noticed the woman on the bed. Dirty, slick with sweat, bandaged wrists. “Who the hell is HOLY—”
He didn’t have time to finish. The door exploded off of its frame, flying in several large pieces across the room and knocking Lorn heavily to the floor. Tannor hooked her arms under the queen’s, dragged her roughly to the door adjoining her room with the next, and heaved her through.
With a quiet thud, Relai landed on a giant rug. The guard’s desperate face disappeared behind a slammed door, and the stillness of this room weighed heavily on her as gunfire cracked next door. She had no idea where she was, no idea where she could call safe. Was she still on Earth? This was supposed to be Arden.
She felt destroyed and elated and dizzy and high. Her heart no longer seemed pinned down in her chest, bouncing around and churning up her stomach, and why didn’t her muscles hurt? She always felt stiff after a trip in a travel pod. They must have given her something. Of course they would have.
She was leaving for Arden when she lay down in that pod—but this air tasted nothing like her home planet. Not Oeyla, either—too dry. She looked at the floors—not Titus. Gastred? She’d only been to Gastred once. She was having trouble thinking clearly.
Ardenian tech. So this was an Ardenian base, either on Earth or on Gastred. If she could just make it outside, she’d know. And perhaps she could find someone to help her.
She dragged herself shakily to her feet and looked around. It was a dark room, laid out the same as the previous one. Dresser, bed, nightstand. A guard’s bedroom.
They’re after you, he’d said.
Tannor flattened herself against the wall as Goren and Fil fired blindly into the hall through the newly opened gap. A string of return shots spattered the wall behind them, leaving the dark scorch marks of an electric shotgun, then stopped. Tannor spotted her gun where she’d stupidly left it ten feet away. The shooting had paused. She wanted her weapon, then she wanted to get into the other room with the queen without the intruders seeing her. The urgency ached in her muscles, hurt her down to the bone.
A second round of shots from another angle made Goren dive to the floor, but Tannor’s momentum brought her in line with one charge. It hit the side of her head and she fell. The pulse penetrated the skin down to her skull, but no further, and every muscle in her body momentarily clenched in an excruciating seizure. She didn’t regain her sight in time to see what came flying into the room next, but whatever it was, it exploded in a wave of concussion that had to have taken down Fil, the only one still standing when Tannor fell.
The floor was wood, old and unkind. She was glad she’d chosen to put down rugs.
As soon as she could move, she eased a hand up and pressed hard through the pain to stem the bleeding. Head wounds bled. She knew that.
She also knew enough to tell that they’d been firing charges too weak to kill a person, even with a hit to a vital area. With her vision still grayed out, she rolled to face away from the door with her wounded side to the floor. Tannor had landed close enough to reach out to her gun and she knew without looking exactly where it lay, but she kept completely still.
It took a moment for the roaring in her head to subside.
Then she heard voices.
Goren was still recovering from the bone-jarring explosion when a hand gripped the back of his uniform and dragged him off his belly to his knees. The owner of the hand circled him and shook him by the collar.
“Where is she?” the intruder snarled, pointing an electric shotgun in Goren’s face. He was young and dirty, one of those disgruntled revolutionary types that always seemed to be eran, not that Goren was racist. Wild black hair, dark eyes, monstrous beard, speaking low-class Erayd Ardenian but dressed in Gastredi clothes—the worst type of detestable trash.
“I’ll die before I tell you!” Goren declared. The man hit him across the face with the barrel of his segmented electric shotgun (one with most of the barrel segments removed), opening a long gash in Goren’s cheek. As he sprawled on the floor and clutched his face, he looked up to see a second intruder kneeling over Fil and securing his wrists. This one was older, and shorter, but still unfortunately taller than Goren. No way he was Ardenian, either—Goren couldn’t place the man’s dark features, but his clothes were also Gastredi. He tried to remember as many details as possible, in case he lived through this.
The second man observed himself in a large mirror, fixed his hair, and then swiped up Fil’s gen-gun as he moved to Lorn. He tossed the weapon to his partner. “Generator gun—just shoot him in the leg. It’ll go faster.”
“Good idea,” the younger one agreed, and he raised the second weapon.
“No! Don’t! Wait!” Goren shrieked. The man paused expectantly, and after a few deep breaths, Goren explained, “I’ve never been shot before. Okay. I’m ready.”
He shut his eyes tightly and clenched his jaw in what he considered a very brave manner.
His captor pressed the nose of the gun to his thigh and pulled the trigger.
The snap of a gunshot startled Relai, then she heard a scream.
“Where is she?” The demand was brutal. Gods in stars, they were torturing them.
She refused to have their blood following her.
Goren failed to keep bravely silent, instead screaming and writhing on the floor. An inch-deep pit had opened in his thigh, soaking his pant leg in blood, and the blast of electrical energy had sent shocks of seizure throughout his body.
“Where is she?” the man barked again.
“Milo,” the older man snapped from across the room. “Look.” Goren turned his head to follow the voice and saw the man hunched over Tannor’s still body. Goren couldn’t see any part of Tannor past her legs, but he watched the man roll her on her back.
The younger intruder’s—Milo’s—voice came low and tight. “Is she dead?”
Goren’s eyes widened. Tannor.
The older intruder cursed flatly in a language Goren didn’t understand. Then he sighed.
But a loud, demanding thud from the adjoining room wrenched away his attention. That was where Tannor hid the queen, and the younger thug bolted like a predator towards prey—
Relai overturned the dresser and shoved it sideways to block the door, but she wasn’t fast enough. She stumbled back as the door slammed against the dresser, open only a few inches. Another blow to the door shoved it further. A man struggled through the gap.
He was tall, he was huge, and Relai frantically sent the bookshelf toppling into the door. It pinned him, but not for long.
Relai did not wait to get a look at his face.
She turned and she ran.
Tannor heard Goren’s strained voice repeat the question: “Is she dead?”
She jabbed her gun at the intersection between the intruder’s legs and narrowed her eyes.
“Not dead, Goren,” she answered.
“That’s the last time I shoot you,” the intruder grumbled, not bothering to reach for the weapon slung around his shoulder. He seemed more annoyed than angry. “You’ve got that pointed at an area vital to my happiness. Could I negotiate its safety in exchange for my gun?”
Tannor sat up, trying not to appear as dizzy as she felt. The whole side of her head was thick with blood. “Throw it to him.” She motioned toward Goren.
The man had the audacity to admonish, “Be nice to her,” as he slid his gun over to the shaking guard. He was older than all of them but still younger than her father. Olive skin, dark eyes, black hair, accent difficult to place.
When Goren had the enemy’s gun in hand, Tannor pushed herself up. She pointed at Fil and Lorn, still unconscious amid pieces of her door.
He obliged, talking lightly as he snapped off the bindings. “Not to overstep my captive bounds, but I’m concerned about my associate finding your queen—assuming that was her in the next room?”
This was not how assassins were supposed to act. Tannor pursed her lips.
“We aren’t going to give you any information,” she snapped. Then, after a pause, she added, “Why are you concerned?”
He finished untying the unconscious men and placed his hands gamely on his head. “It’s just that he has a powerful hatred for your queen (I’m impartial, of course) and he’s a little low on sleep, so he might react rather, hmm, violently when he finds her.”
Goren asked the obvious question before Tannor could open her mouth:
“Is he going to kill her?”
The man twitched to the left faintly, apparently trying to find the right words.
Tannor bent to shake Fil, then smacked his face a few times without taking her eyes off of the intruder. He came to, shaken but all parts still working, and swept his gaze over the room.
Again, Goren answered first, wincing as he twisted off a tight bandage around his thigh. “She was in Lilya’s room, and the other guy went after her, and I haven’t heard anything in there so I think they’re gone.”
Fil found Lorn’s weapon on the floor.
“I’m going after them,” he declared grimly.
“Like seven hells you are,” Tannor exclaimed. “You don’t know where she is, or how many more of them are out there.”
Fil kicked a chunk of door across the room. “He could be killing her!”
“And you running around chasing branches for your rank tattoo isn’t going to help her, Corporal!” She pulled out one of the metaplastene binding strips integrated into her jacket and wrapped it around the intruder’s wrists.
Lorn sat up, glanced around woozily, and demanded a hand up from Fil.
“Goren and I are going to the dock control room,” Tannor said. “I can find the queen if she’s still on base. You and Lorn go to the hangar and take out skimmers. I’ll tell you where to go. Pick her up and secure the other man.”
“Yeah, okay,” Fil growled. “But if we run into the captain and he tells us otherwise—”
“He outranks me. I know.”
She turned to their captive. “Are there others?”
The man smiled. “Would you believe me if I said no?” When Tannor glared but didn’t answer, he added, “I wouldn’t believe a thing I say, if I were you.”
She almost wanted to laugh—a sure sign she needed to get back to a computer. Goren took one solid arm, she took the other, and she refused to look at the intruder’s face.
Fil tapped behind his ear and called, “Keep in touch!” and then he and Lorn disappeared into the hall.
Tannor adjusted her grip nervously and prodded their captive over the debris and out the door. Goren followed behind, grumbling, “Shoot him in the leg, it’ll go faster.”
Relai felt the threat of pursuit through every nerve in her body. She moved on the balls of her feet, eyes dashing from the floor to the wall, down the hallway, behind her. She reached a set of wooden stairs and leapt, skipping steps and tripping once, thudding and yelping. She heard someone pounding down the hallway toward her in savage pursuit. Someone wearing shoes.
She chose down by instinct, maybe, and she was right—she tumbled outside onto a narrow cobblestone street. Timeworn stone buildings with crumbling plaster facades loomed on either side. A steady drizzle pattered down. Earth.
The robe they’d dressed her in was black, a thin silk that stuck to her skin, clinging and pulling drop by drop, but better than nothing. Her arms and legs looked paler than normal, raw and exposed, but her skin didn’t register the cold. She turned on instinct, noticing a slight slope in the street, and chose down once again. Maybe she was just tired and didn’t want to run uphill. Maybe up meant a summit, meant trapped, and down meant out.
Relai emerged into a larger street, this one banked by subtle sidewalks, and she caught sight of a high wall. This was a walled city, very old but scrubbed clean. Buildings and streets like this did not exist in the developed galaxy—they kept everything new, swept the old away with no sentiment. She knew it was Earth, but she didn’t know this place. Not all Earthan towns were the same.
Relai ducked into a recessed doorway, heaving in air from the exertion. She felt like she hadn’t moved in months. Years, even.
Maybe she hadn’t.
Her memory ended only a few minutes ago, when she had lain down to sleep, counting down from forty with deep, even breaths. She’d been so ready, set firm in her choice to finally return home. She missed her mother, her chef, and her city. Most importantly, she thought she’d gotten to the point where she could look her father in the eye, where she could face him. Where he couldn’t hurt her anymore.
The trip from Earth to Arden took three weeks; she was supposed to wake up at the Kilani Naquia dock, greeted as Orist despite her rejection of the title. Instead she was here, mud splattering up her aching legs, holes torn in her wrists, probably a concussion. Maybe she’d been asleep for decades.
She saw movement far down the street, heard voices. Move, go—she inhaled and kicked up desperately for the wall. The other side held more safety than the side with those men, the ones doing the torturing—
She slipped on the wet, uneven pavers and scraped her knees and looked back and she saw him.
He was coming, oh, gods— She dug her fingernails into the grit of the street and pulled herself up. He was gaining ground.
Gate, let there be a gate—no, no gate—she ran along the wall, had to come to one eventually. The street veered away ahead of her, and the ground was built up against the wall and grown over with thin vegetation. She didn’t need a gate. She scrambled up the incline.
The city walls were shingled with red half-cylinder tiles that cascaded down with each step Relai took. She heard a rival downrush of pottery, thrown loose by her pursuer, shatter against the ground as she slid to the edge and leapt out into the air.
The ground met the outer wall a merciful ten feet below—centuries of accumulated earth softened the original height of the ramparts. Her landing turned rapidly into a roll and then a tumble down a steeper, increasingly rocky hillside. Her head missed the corner of a boulder by a few inches and her hand caught it instead.
She’d feel these bruises later. Now, run.
Relai found her feet and stumbled onward. Her hunter slowed himself on the hill, taking it more carefully, but he came out steady and unharmed at the end of it. She tore through a field of brush, thistles snatching at her robe, at her skin, and she burst onto a well-defined lane. She saw ordered rows, heavy branches, and she knew this, she could remember what this was—a place for growing fruit for wine. A vineyard.
Through hazy darkness she made out a stone pathway, slick in the faint light cast behind her, stretching down a center lane. She could lose him in the vineyard. Maybe, maybe—
Then her pursuer reached the path. He took a shot, missed, and she could hear him drumming closer and closer, an immense thundering monster bearing down on her—another shot—
Relai fell, hit by a spray of sizzling plasma in the shoulder, and rolled through the mud. She had no time to recover before he was on top of her. She couldn’t see his face, couldn’t clear the rain and mud from her eyes, from her nose, and he flattened her on her back. She struggled but he pinned her arms against her sides between his shins and sat on her stomach and wrapped his hands around her neck. He pressed down. She felt his whole body quake.
She couldn’t speak. He didn’t, for a moment. She couldn’t see, could only feel, could barely breathe. She kicked uselessly.
He growled, “You should know the pain you’ve caused.”
Relai saw light, light in her eyes.
“You should suffer. For your crimes, for what you’ve done… you should die in the mud…”
Rain splashed down on her face, running in a stream from his head looming over her.
She was supposed to be better than this; she was supposed to be stronger.
Everything—bright—and it hurt—
And then he let go. His weight lifted off of her and she heaved in air, rolling onto her side with one hand curling around to cup the wound in her shoulder. She lay there, breathing and regaining her mind, and the noise of the rain made her want to sleep.
Now she felt the cold.
She looked up and saw him in the light from the city, just barely. He sat hunched next to her, close enough to touch. His arms were resting on his knees, head resting in his hands. His body was still shaking, the rhythm like a song, one-two-three, rest, one-two-three, rest.
Relai felt a tightly stretched wire inside her loosen.
What day is it? Where am I?
And what the hell was he talking about?
Still high on whatever pain medication they’d given her, Relai sat up. The man immediately trained his gun on her again, inches away.
She heaved forward and vomited.
Relai had little time to ponder the color of her stomach contents because the ground jolted in what appeared to be a mechanized earthquake. Relai turned to get her bearings and saw that the hilltop behind them was rising. The ground she sat on was vibrating and she watched the hill and the city walls lift higher, higher, and, no—to the left and right, dark edges rose in equal time. They were sinking.
The entire vineyard was sinking. They dropped ten, twenty, thirty feet, and then Relai tumbled sideways as a gap split blade-sharp down the stone pathway. Two tracks of lights dotted the edges of the new seam, and she’d seen these lights before, from the windows of groundships coming and going from an underground dock. This was the entrance to the base’s dock. The doors were the vineyard itself, drawn underneath and safely untouched while vehicles came and went.
The jolt rocked the man sideways, too, but where his right foot and thigh had been resting he found only open air. Relai saw his arms flail and he tried to spin, fingers scratching stone, and then he fell. She felt the sudden plunge in her stomach like she herself had fallen. She gasped.
Relai rolled onto her chest to look over the edge. Luck had caught him—he hung by a forearm slung through the strap of his electric shotgun, which had snagged on a rod protruding from the vertical edge of the vineyard door.
The lights glowed on either side of him, bright on his soaked skin, on the painful dig of the strap into his hand and the crook of his elbow. He kicked violently, trying to gain a foothold and stop himself from slipping from the strap, but with every move the strap inched closer and closer to falling. How deep must the dock be? Deep enough to kill him. Relai leaned out further. It was so close, only three or four feet away—
She tested her grip on the edge of a pathway stone. The edge jutted out enough for her to hold securely, so she slid herself out and hung her weight on that stone. She could reach it, she could just reach the rod that held the strap.
He looked up and his body tightened when he saw her reach out. His face clenched through desperation and fury and then bitter resignation, and he refused to look away. Relai threw out her hand and managed to touch the strap. She clawed with her fingernails, pulled, and moved the strap back onto the rod.
She pressed her hand over it and held it fast.
“Climb up!” she managed to call out. “I can’t hold it forever!”
He swung his free arm up and gripped the rod, then slapped another hand over the lip of the door. His arms were much longer than hers, his hands much bigger, and she shuddered at the sight of them. Just as he dragged himself up and scrambled gracelessly over the edge to safety, the vineyard creaked to a stop.
The roof of the recess cast empty blue light over them and covered them from the rain. They were underneath another part of the base now; the entire vineyard had retracted.
Relai pushed herself back at an angle, away from the chasm and away from her attacker. She kicked herself off the stone path and scraped along soggy earth, never taking her eyes off of him, until she collided with a wall of vines. The leaves were soft, the branches scratchy, and they spattered her with more raindrops as she settled.
The man remained hunched at the edge. He’d brought his gun up with him and he held it to his chest as they sat back and stared at each other. He was much younger than she’d expected, but it was hard to guess his age past the heavy beard.
He glared at her, still furious, but now with an edge of uncertainty.
Relai finally found her voice. “Who are you?”
She watched his chest rise with the breath it would take to answer and he opened his mouth in a snarl, but then two glowing skimmers rose like fireflies up out of the pit. They carried one guard each, helmets obscuring their faces. Relai couldn’t tell if these were the guards she had met for only a few seconds back in that room, but it hardly mattered. Their job was to protect her.
She let out a shriek for help and waved her pale arms in the darkness.