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 grey 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 that was 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, then 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, racking 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 as she reached up to where the cushion around her conformed to the pod wall. Multi-colored stars lit up her vision, a 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 gasp of new air, Relai felt the lip of the pod and pulled. She heaved, rocking her body up and sliding on her sweat and blood to the rhythm of the wailing siren. With an uncontrollable cry, she slid entirely out of the pod. Yellow light marked her vision for a split second before the back of her head cracked against the floor.
Four floors up, Goren Dray nearly dropped his gun from fright. He scanned a vineyard stretching out past the wall of what appeared to be an ancient, eroding Tuscan town, searching for signs of the villains attacking their base. Nothing.
Seven hundred years ago, Haadam Base had been a thriving medieval city-state, whatever that was (he’d hardly paid attention in the primer class). The high-climbing city walls kept the guards in and curious tourists out, and the fields and vineyards surrounding the mesa provided food and covered the entrance to the dock. They kept the atmosphere intimidating, with formal threatening signs in different languages on the few roads leading there. It could have been the military base of some barely friendly foreign nation, and they made sure to act that way any time a group of soldiers ventured off base (which was almost never, and things got so boring sometimes).
Though the base was sparsely staffed ever since they’d crushed their enemies in the Tennan War, 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 Arden kept their bases running and up-to-date on security measures. After all, it would only take a few sneaky, prying Earthans and the whole sticky reality of extra-terrestrial human life would wake up this little pregalactic planet.
That was why they had a security system, after all … a security system which had crumbled approximately thirty minutes ago.
Goren was barely out of training. He’d never even fired a live weapon at a real human being! He was not prepared to be killed during his first month in the guard.
“Shit,” he muttered, hysteria creeping into his voice as he paced from window to window. Why hadn’t they replaced this colored Earthan glass with unbreakable stuff? This base was such crap.
“Shut up or I’m going to shoot you myself.” Captain Fass didn’t even look at him as he swirled the ice in his tumbler of illegal alcohol. He hadn’t bothered to justify the illicit substance when Goren burst in, and Goren wasn’t going to point it out. He valued his face.
“It’s been 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 drink, his face beginning to flush from it. “Mellick is working on it. Don’t expect much.”
Ednar 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 standard-issue generator gun could shoot pulses of plasma-bound electricity at varying strength and solidity depending on whether you wanted to just shock or actually break the skin, to incapacitate or kill. Fass’s needle gun, on the other hand, held poisonous slivers of alumeta which only had to graze a person to result in certain and instantaneous death. Why did Fass carry such a dangerous weapon (and one that required solid ammunition)? Again, Goren wasn’t going to ask.
Weapons and sirens didn’t seem to matter to the criminals storming their castle. They’d lost the use of their ear communicators just before the security went out. Goren had been patrolling all alone. When security failed he had run to the closest commanding officer looking for orders.
“Who can get past our systems?” Goren asked as he paced frantically. “Why are we being attacked? How are you so relaxed? Do we really have valuable documents stored here? Why? Everyone else is probably dead by now! We’re the last ones standing!”
The captain stood and gripped Goren’s collar in his massive hands. “Cross in front of me one more time and I’ll make sure you die tonight, you tiny vermin. You’ll wish Odene were after you instead of me, that’s how bad I’ll hurt you.” Goren dropped his weapon as Fass shook him a few times. Fass was four inches taller and twice as strong. He probably sharpened swords on his jawbone. “How many times have you been shot? How many battles have you been in?”
Of course Fass knew the answer already. It was obvious, even if Goren weren’t just out of academy—the coalition planets hadn’t experienced wartime in nearly forty years. They were gearing up now, obviously, but the Overture Attack a year ago had been completely unprovoked and the Tennans were still claiming it wasn’t them, so the queen hadn’t declared war just yet. Everyone knew it was coming and Goren would probably get his chance to see battle, but he was a rawfoot now and they both knew it.
Goren shook his head no, none, his mouth open.
“That’s right,” the captain hissed. “I think this fun tonight will be good for you.” He released Goren and smirked at the terrified look on his face. Goren tugged awkwardly at his shirt, trying to get it straight under his close-fitting jacket. Usually he didn’t fret too much over personal space, but Goren never wanted to be that damned close to Captain Fass ever again.
“Now get out there and search the street, building by building. You might get lucky and gain some scars to show your kids someday. If you make it that long.”
“But … but we’re supposed to stick toge—”
Captain Fass loomed and Goren shut up. The man put complete confidence in the site’s security system and (as a last resort) its guards. Except this one, Goren knew. Except him.
“Get going. Maybe you’ll do the coalition a favor and get yourself shot in the head.”
Fass shoved him into the hallway and slammed the ancient painted door. Goren stood frozen 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. What were they supposed to do? It was like being transported back in time to a terrifying other universe, a universe in which 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. They’d sense his body heat or the identifying pin in his chest and murder him before he crossed the threshold. As he progressed he elected just to peek inside each room, gun tucked to his chest. Every new doorway meant another chance to get shot in the face.
He’d already triple checked his gen-gun’s power source, but he flipped out the charge tab and maniacally pulled the cord, sending the cylinder spinning to build up stored energy just in case. These weapons had been adopted 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.
He saw a foot poking out of a doorway down the street and forgot about himself for a second. He dashed over 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. He may not have been here long, 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, though 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 and leaned down to shake Sorret, then Fil, glancing up and down the stairs as he did. Sorret 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 that they weren’t far from the security room. It made sense; if there were guards trying to start up the security system, they’d be a target. Then again, that was also the direction of the armory.
Goren heaved Fil to his feet. In his elation at not being alone anymore, Goren guessed his life expectancy had gone up an hour at least. Fil was taller, broad chested, and heroic looking (which probably meant he would be heroic in real life). Goren’s head barely came past his shoulder.
“No!” he whispered. “I hope they’re going to the documents room, ‘cause that’s where I left Captain Fass. 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.
“Give me back my—”
“It’s not yours anymore,” Fil said, turning around. “Come on, button. 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. She’d probably be fine ... Fil woke up, right? She would, too.
“Do you think it’s ok to leave—”
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, Sergeant. We wouldn’t want to wake anyone during the attack.”
“Everyone’s already awake.”
Tannor Mellick attempted to steady her hands so that her partner, Lorn, 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 blonde 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 technical 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 staring at her chest, or her ass—whichever faced him at a given moment. It was bad enough that her blonde hair and her body attracted attention any time the group of guards wandered into town on their off hours; she also had to deal with salacious comments and the occasional wandering hand from her fellow guards—not that Captain Fass had done anything but smirk at her complaints. What else is a body like that for? Men had been that way since she grew three inches taller and developed breasts overnight when she turned thirteen. She wished she’d gotten used to it, but instead Tannor had just bonded further with computers than people. Men were exhausting and boring and people could ogle themselves or full-life celebrity entertainment feeds for all she cared.
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? I’ve never seen this output before. Where did this come from?” She prodded the system and it responded with a screen of details.
She looked over the screen quickly, then spoke loud enough that Lorn could hear her. “It just showed up about a month 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 shrugged. “Not high on my list of priorities right now, Mellick.”
She turned back to her screen, glaring at the glow. She had always imagined the base’s computer system as a living, thinking friend, and this felt like secret keeping. She was one of the soldiers responsible for the base’s security program—how was she supposed to do her job when they put in new equipment without telling her?
If her superiors at Haadam Base 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 him. She just hoped it didn’t come at the cost of her life.
“Okay, 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. Fil 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 heart pains taking up the rear—but it all worked out in the end because Goren probably would’ve accidentally shot Tannor Mellick before he gave himself a chance to recognize her.
“Very fierce, sergeant,” Fil said. “I like it.” Fil approached Tannor quickly and Goren stuck close behind, willing himself not to cower.
“I am so glad you didn’t kill us!” he said.
“Why aren’t you armed, private?” she replied.
He scowled at the wall, then his feet.
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, then drew up beside her and matched 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?”
“Goren, 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. To reach it they’d have to walk six 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 split, drop, and reveal a pit filled with alien ships. Goren knew exactly what they’d find in the dock: a diplomatic groundship, three small jumpers just used for traveling between the Earth bases, two bomber drones that had never even been used, 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 sneaking into the dock to borrow one of those skimmers instead of slinking along in the spooky darkness to find a crypt monster or something. If they weren’t under attack 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 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 likes younger men.
Goren felt better after letting his mind wander to a happier place. 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 glory of Tannor’s rear end.
“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 said.
“The clever man does both,” Fil muttered, then scampered forward before Tannor could retaliate.
The door opened and they stepped out. Goren couldn’t help but admire the diplomatic groundship as they snuck along the wall. It was sleek and streamlined, black with silver accents and more masculine than the base’s last model. It was the perfect vehicle for shuttling diplomatic personnel from the planet’s surface to spaceships waiting at Oliver Station at the edge of this solar system; the military ship’s dull grey was so boring in comparison. Goren had seen a wide variety of groundships come and go as coalition courtiers brokered deals or vacationed in Earthan wine country. (And yes, they drank. They drank and drank and Goren was horrified, but it wasn’t his place to judge or report them. His mom would be so embarrassed and his dad would probably disown him if he did.) Most of these ships were slow, extravagant, and about as maneuverable as a drunken courtier. He wished he could fly one of them.
They reached the section of wall concealing the storage room far too quickly. A bulky mechanic’s 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. Goren had been in one of these catacombs, which ran for miles under the base, only once—Lilya and Sorret convinced him the guard uniforms were stored down there the day after he arrived on base. Liars.
The walls were 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—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 modern planet.
Goren once again took up the rear as they crept through the catacomb. At this point he was certain danger was more likely to come from behind them than ahead. Splitting his fear between criminal attackers and the long-dead skeletons, he focused on Tannor and tried not to completely lose his mind. The walls were not watching him. No.
They entered a larger room lit intermittently by the emergency light. Goren brushed the wall and got chunks of rough stone all over his jacket, but he forgot about it when he saw their goal. 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 and crouched down. With Goren panting over her shoulder, Tannor 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, “The Queen, gods in stars …” just as Goren yelped.
Relai Mora Aydor. The queen of Arden.
Both men 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. Goren’s 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 snatched her off the ground, 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. Gods, he held her head in his hands, his fingers tangled in the sticky pod wax and sweat in her hair. 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.
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 glad. Two weeks after she showed up at Haadam, Tannor had gone on a rant in the mess hall about how the garment engineers were either stupid or perverted because her body was perfectly normal and “supportive” wasn’t a word that belonged with those shirts. By the end of it he’d been the only one left within earshot, wisely nodding at the ceiling so he wouldn’t accidentally stare at the breasts in question. (Goren had dutifully lodged a complaint on her behalf, and he didn’t mention the counterargument that she was abnormally gorgeous, breasts included.)
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 such things.
“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 watch at the door.
“Someone must have known she was here—why didn’t anyone check on her?” Tannor snatched up her tablet. 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 know ran, or the intruders killed them already. Did they mention anything, whoever told you to …”
“No! 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. He moaned softly. The royal family was protected by the Regent Service, an elite troop formed from the best guards who then had three years of extra training. This was too much responsibility. He felt sick.
Tannor’s eyes fluttered to Goren and back. “And him?”
Fil shrugged. “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. Guys? 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 impatiently. “Someone has invaded our base and they’re trying to kill our queen.” He clenched his teeth and then admitted, “We might have accidentally helped.”
Tannor glared 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’s jaw gaped in horror, and she went on quickly, desperately. “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 coms wouldn’t work for a short time,” he said with a sigh. “They’re not on yet. Should be soon though!”
“And you didn’t know she was here?”
“Of course not!” Tannor sat jumpily next to their queen, busying herself by bandaging the bleeding spots on the young woman’s wrists.
Goren wrung his hands around his gun, sputtering. “Why would you ever think it was a good idea to—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.
“What about her?” Tannor used a corner of her silk bed sheet to dab away the vernix on the queen’s face. “She’s unconscious. What if she’s dying? We need a med scanner. We need to wake her up.”
Tannor had done her best with her tiny medical kit of mainly native materials, but without access to the infirmary’s equipment she was useless. She would have been useless anyway. Bodies (living, unconscious, or dead) were not her specialty.
“Right.” Fil grabbed the med kit from the floor next to Tannor and she stood back. “Let’s see what sergeants get issued in their med kits.”
Goren stepped a bit closer. “I could probably …”
“No,” Tannor and Fil replied in unison.
Fil reached a long plastic packet of single-serving 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? Pull back that blanket, I need to get to her thigh—STOP—leave the robe, this will go straight through the robe.” Tannor smirked and Fil blinked like he’d almost seen his own death. He placed a determined hand on the sheet next to the Queen’s thigh. “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.
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, as 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 increased. Her head lolled toward Tannor. She moaned again and began gasping. Tannor pressed gentle hands to her shoulders as Mora Aydor 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 so soon after waking up. “Is my mother here?” She panted a couple breaths. “My mouth tastes disgusting.”
Goren leaped forward. “I got you water! Here!”
The queen couldn’t hold the cup, not like this, and he almost elbowed Tannor in the face trying to help her drink it. 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—
Tannor had never felt so close to death. It was nothing like the sight citizens memorized in every news relay: Mora’s rounded lips were now pale instead of tinted, her skin waxy and stiff up close, and now Tannor could see above the line where the screen always cut off. She saw her queen’s eyes. 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—three months—
Then Fil cried, “Coms are working again!” He tapped the heel of his hand, using the keypad under his skin to limit his conversation to only the three of them.
“Get Lorn!” Tannor said. “I left him in the security room alone.”
Fil nodded, tapped. “Lorn, can you hear me?” They all winced at the sudden cacophony of shouting and 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. “You’re 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. “Don’t lead them here! 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?”
Tannor’s door burst open and Lorn stumbled in backwards, firing frantically, before Fil leaped up and slammed it shut again.
“A little help, friends?” 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 said, “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 its frame, flying in several large pieces across the room and knocking Lorn 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.
Relai landed on a giant rug with a muffled thud. The guard’s frightened face disappeared behind a slammed door, and the quiet 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 was flying to Arden when she lay down in that travel 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. Maybe Gastred … but she recognized the design of the technology used to control the doors.
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 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.
She felt destroyed and elated and dizzy and high. Her heart no longer seemed pinned down in her chest, bouncing around and churning 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.
An explosion in the other room spurred her to move. Attempting to fight with her bare hands in her current state would likely end quickly and badly, but if she was going to leave she wanted to be carrying a weapon. She tried the dresser, the nightstand, then the closet. No knives. Something heavy, at least? On the dresser lay a brown oval case the size of her hand. She touched it and it felt cold, dense like glass but rough like stone. It was thick and heavy, and if it broke, all the better.
She took a practice swing, holding the case with both hands, and stars, she felt so weak. Relai went to the bed quickly, took a pillowcase from a long pillow, and dropped the jewelry case inside it. She wrapped the fabric around her knuckles, tested the weight and motion of her new weapon. Yes, she could deliver a blow with this.
She gripped the pillowcase tightly and listened to the shouting next door.
Goren and Fil fired blindly into the hall through the newly opened gap. A string of return shots spattered the wall behind them with 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 to grab her weapon, then 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, causing every muscle in her body to clench in an excruciating seizure. She didn’t regain her sight in time to see what came flying into the room next. Whatever it was, it exploded in a concussive wave 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 direct 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. Though she knew without looking exactly where it was, 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 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, just in case he lived through this.
The second man tried on Fil’s hat, observed himself in a large mirror, 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 said, “I’ve never been shot before. OK … I’m ready.”
He shut his eyes tightly and clenched his jaw in what he considered a very brave manner.
His captor pulled the trigger.
The snap of a single gunshot startled Relai, then she heard the screams of one of the guards.
“Where is she?” The demand was brutal. Hell. They were torturing them.
She refused to have their blood following her.
Goren failed to keep defiantly 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 assassin bolted like a predator toward prey—
Relai swung the glass case into the side of the dresser—the crash made her jump even though she expected it—and stepped to the side of the door. She swayed, both hands wringing the material of the pillowcase as she waited. The door jerked open and she heaved, aiming for a head.
He ran into the blow, but it was too low, he was too tall, he was huge, and the thud sounded a drumbeat in his chest. He fell backwards, grunting. She lost her grip on the pillowcase.
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 turned and leveled her gun at the intersection between the intruder’s legs as she narrowed her eyes.
“Not dead,” she said.
“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 barter my gun in exchange for its safety?”
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 precious gun over to Goren. He was older than all of them but still younger than her father. Olive skin, dark eyes shaped a bit like an Oeylan’s, 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 amidst 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 had reached the medical kit and gone to work, first on Tannor’s head and then his leg wound. He 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 recognized the gesture from a distant cousin: it was a nonverbal sign common on Gastred, meaning something like “yes, maybe, it depends, but I hope not.” The last bit gave her some hope—but maybe he was just manipulating her.
Tannor bent to shake Fil. When that failed she smacked his face a few times without taking her eyes off of the intruder. He came to. He was shaken but he seemed all right as he swept his gaze over the room.
“The queen?” Fil asked.
Again, Goren answered first, wincing as he twisted 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, lieutenant!” She broke the red thread at the waist hem of her jacket and tore off the bottom strip to use as a binding for the intruder’s hands.
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 dock and take out skimmers. I’ll tell you where to go, you pick her up and secure the other man.”
“Yeah, OK,” Fil growled.
Tannor heard Lorn whisper, “New partner, yes!”
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.”
He sounded genuinely sad to say it. She found herself actually wanting to believe him—a sure sign she needed to get back to a computer. She was the last person capable of reading subtlety. Goren took one of the captive’s solid arms while she took the other. 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 the hunter 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 down, not up, skipping steps and tripping once, thudding and yelping. She hoped down was the right choice—then she heard someone pounding down the hallway toward her in savage pursuit. Someone wearing shoes.
She burst through a door onto a narrow cobblestone street. Timeworn stone buildings with crumbling plaster facades loomed on either side. A steady drizzle pattered down.
The robe they’d dressed her in was black, a thin silk but better than nothing. Her arms and legs looked paler than normal, raw and exposed, but her skin didn’t register the cold.
Rain meant no clear sky, which meant she couldn’t check the stars to see where she was. The robe stuck to her skin, clinging and pulling drop by drop. She noticed a slight slope in the street and chose to head down, hoping instinct would be right a second time. Or maybe she was just tired and didn’t want to run uphill.
Relai emerged into a larger street, this one banked by subtle sidewalks, and caught sight of a high wall. This was a walled city, very old but scrubbed clean. Earth. 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 go 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, and he couldn’t hurt her anymore.
(And what, exactly, was he going to do? The name must endure! The line must continue on into eternity! She would be their only child and her father would never take a second wife. That was the one thing she ever really respected about him: he desperately, devotedly loved her mother. So what, exactly, could he do? What, if she said no?)
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 a gate 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 roof of the city wall was shingled with red half-cylinder tiles that broke free and cascaded down with each step Relai took. She heard another downrush of pottery thrown loose by her pursuer. She heard the sound of the pieces shattering against the ground as she slid to the edge and leaped out into the air.
Mercifully, the ground was just ten feet below—centuries of accumulated earth had 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. She glanced back to see her hunter slowing himself on the hill. He moved slowly, carefully, and he’d likely come out steady and unharmed at the end.
She tore through a field of brush, thistles snatching at her robe, at her skin, and 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 slick stone pathway 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. She could hear him drumming closer and closer, an immense, thundering monster bearing down on her—another shot—
The shot hit Relai in the shoulder and she fell, rolling 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, before he flattened her on her back. She struggled but his shins pinned her arms tight against her sides. He sat on her stomach and wrapped his hands around her neck. His grip tightened and she felt his whole body quake.
She couldn’t speak. 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 dying.
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 as one hand curled around to cover 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 barely illuminated by the light from the city. He sat hunched next to her, close enough to touch. His arms rested on his knees, head 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 slightly.
What day is it? Where am I?
And what the hell was this man talking about?
Still high on whatever pain medication they’d given her, Relai sat up. The man immediately trained his gun on her, the muzzle 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 seemed 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.
The entire vineyard was sinking. They dropped ten feet, twenty feet, thirty, and then a blade-sharp gap split the stone pathway. Relai tumbled sideways and gripped the stones as the ground split in two.
Two tracks of lights dotted the edges of the new seam—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 jolt had rocked the man sideways too, and where his right foot and thigh had been resting he found only open air. Relai saw his arms flailing as he tried to spin, fingers scratching stone, and then he fell. She gasped, feeling the sudden plunge in her stomach as though she herself had fallen.
Relai rolled onto her chest to look over the edge. The ground was still moving, receding. Luck had caught him—he hung by a forearm slung through the strap of his electric shotgun, which had snagged on a thick metal rod protruding from the vertical edge of the vineyard door.
The lights on either side of him glowed bright on his soaked skin, on the point where the strap bit into his hand and the crook of his elbow. He kicked violently, trying to gain a foothold and stop himself from slipping off the strap, but with every move the strap inched off of the rod. Each move he made brought him 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 stood out enough for her to hold securely, so she slid her upper body out over the edge. 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 in a look of 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 kept the strap from slipping off of the rod.
She pressed her hand over it and held it fast.
“Climb up!” she called 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. Relai curled back to solid ground. His arms were much longer than hers, his hands much bigger, and she shuddered at the sight of them. The vineyard creaked to a stop just as he dragged himself up and scrambled over the edge to safety.
The roof cast an empty blue light over them and covered them from the rain. They were underneath another part of the base now.
Relai pushed herself back, further away from the chasm and from her attacker. She kicked herself off the stone path and onto 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 in and her breathing returned to normal.
The man remained hunched at the edge. He’d brought his gun up with him and he held it to his chest as they stared at each other. He was much younger than she’d expected, but it was hard to see 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.
Before he got the chance to speak two glowing skimmers rose like fireflies out of the pit. The skimmers carried one guard each, a man and a woman, 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.