About the Author

Tanya Huff

Books by this Author
A Peace Divided
Excerpt

ONE
 
 
“GUNRUNNERS,” Werst snarled, sliding over the almost buried shell of the APC as rounds impacted against the metal. “Gunrunners, they told us, not users.”
“Logical progression.” Ressk fired a quick burst through one of the second-floor windows on the ruined anchor, in­terrupting the gunrunners’ fire long enough for Werst to get to cover. “Especially if they knew we were coming.”
 
“How could they know we were coming?” Werst de­manded.
 
“The Justice Department has a leak.”
 
“A leak?” Werst leaned around the back end of a de­stroyed APC. “You think that’s possible, Gunny?”
 
“They were a little too prepared,” Torin admitted, hel­met scanner registering heat signatures at the windows where they’d already identified shooters through the less technical method of being shot at. Unfortunately, if a scan­ner existed that could see through walls built to withstand both the rigors of space and an atmospheric entry, she hadn’t been issued one. The building at the center of ev­ery new colony, the anchor, was a cross between a Marine Corps Susumi packet and a large vacuum-to-atmosphere transport. Thirty meters by twenty meters by six meters, it held everything the colony needed to get started and once emptied became a community center, a hospital, and— if necessary— fortress. Designed to be nearly indestructible, it was part of the Confederation’s promise to the Younger Races that they’d be supported as they spread out through known space. Nearly indestructible hadn’t been enough for this particular anchor to entirely survive a Primacy landing force during the last year of the war.
 
Although, to be fair to the anchor’s designers and en­gineers, it also had to survive the Confederation Marine Corps retaking the colony and no one had yet come up with anything— buildings, transportation, tech— that was Marine proof. Marine resistant, yes. Proof, no.
 
Again, to be fair, the anchor was in better shape than the rest of the colony.
 
Sh’quo Company, Torin’s old unit, hadn’t been part of the attack that had driven the Primacy out of Three Points, but she could read the story of the battle on the ruins and debris and she knew the weight of the senior NCO’s vest, heavy with the number of bodies they’d carried out. Bodies reduced to their basic components for ease of transport and stored in small metal cylinders. No Marine left behind.
 
Her hands were steady on her KC-7, the familiar weight of the Corps primary weapon canceling the twitch toward the places on her own vest where her dead had rested. The combat vest was a recent addition to the Warden’s uniform, as was the KC. Change came slowly to the Wardens, to the entire Confederation, but change came whether the Elder Races welcomed it or not.
 
Not that Torin expected anyone to welcome the need for armed response teams.
 
Gunny, I’ve got hostiles on the roof. Two, no three . . . moving a large rectangular crate up through the trap.”
 
Boots on the ground, the angle kept Torin from picking up any of the action two stories up. In place on one of the re­maining rock formations that had given Three Points its name, Binti Mashona had a clear line of sight. “Do you have a shot?”
 
No. They’ve got a good idea of where I have to be, and they’re using the crate to . . . Fuk me sideways, it’s a mortar.”
 
Specs flashed along the lower edge of Torin’s visor as the mortar came on line.
 
“Well, that answers a question we didn’t give a shit about,” Werst muttered. “One of the dirtbags was artillery.”
 
“Not likely,” Ressk argued as Torin squeezed off two quick shots— one to herd, one to hit. A di’Taykan screamed. “We’re almost in the building with them and their structural integrity was breached before we got here.”
 
“The glass was broken,” Werst interjected.
 
“That’s what I said. If one of this lot was artillery, they’d have known to open with the mortar.”
 
Torin’s team had almost reached the building, using the cover of darkness and the surrounding ruins, when the gun­runners had opened fire. They hadn’t tripped a perimeter alert, and there’d been no sentries set to give the alarm. They might have been spotted through a second-floor win­dow, but Torin doubted it. The response had been too fast, too accurate. For variable definitions of the word accurate given they had zero casualties to two gunrunners bleeding. Selling illegal weapons had taken precedence over practic­ing with them.
 
“I have a clear shot on the mortar, Gunny, targeting and ignition.”
 
“Can you take it out?”
 
“Please, this close I could hit it with a rock.”
 
“Take the shot.”
 
Profanity followed close behind the impact of high speed metal on metal.
 
Ressk fired at the flicker of a shadow in one of the win­dows. “I was hoping for an explosion.”
 
“Weren’t we all.”
 
Mashona fired again. “Careless. One down. The other two hauled her back inside.”
 
Three gunrunners bleeding.
 
“All right, enough. Quick and quiet is a bust. Craig.”
 
“Torin.”
 
“Land it. Alamber, distraction on contact.”
 
“You got it, Boss.”
 
“Ressk, Werst, heat imaging off and get ready to move. Plan B.” Her own scanner back to neutral, her eyes readjusting to the night, Torin adjusted both her weight and her grip on her weapon, ready to run. Shifting in place, she leaned away from the spray of dirt thrown up by a missed shot. It had missed by a smaller margin than previous shots— odds were good any ex-Marines in the anchor had begun to remember their training. On the one hand, it was about time; up until now, their aim had been embarrassing. On the other hand, as she was one of the targets they were aiming at . . .
 
She felt the shuttle’s approach as much as heard it, a deep hum in her bones that announced Craig was fighting gravity with everything the VTA had. The Navy surplus vacuum-to-atmosphere shuttle provided by the Justice Department had been straight up and down, sturdy enough to save their lives when it crashed, but with the flight capability of a brick. The Taykan-designed VTA they’d acquired next was faster, significantly less sturdy, and had been built with the added feature of horizontal travel at the bottom of a gravity well. It wasn’t an attractive feature, she noted, as the VTA came into sight, but it got the job done.
 
“Blocking team implants in three, two, now,” Alamber an­nounced as the VTA descended toward the roof, his voice in her PCU barely audible over the roar. “Distraction in three, two . . .”
 
The raised metal edge crumpled under the weight, but the roof held as Craig set her down.
 
“. . . boned the bad guy, Boss.”
 
Sergeants and above came out of the military with jaw implants, full comm units set into the bone. The Justice De­partment had provided implants for their Strike Teams, but the expense of installation and upkeep prevented most ci­vilians from using the tech. Including those civilians who used to be enlisted Marines. Odds were high that the pulse Alamber had sent over the most common military frequen­cies had knocked the fight out of the people making the decisions inside the anchor.
 
“Move!” Torin broke into a run, head down to protect her face from the airborne debris. Craig had brought the shuttle up on their one eighty using the anchor to block the exhaust, but it had still thrown an impressive amount of heated grit into the air. The grit would nullify the gunrun­ners’ heat imaging, had any of them managed to keep their attention on the job at hand while a few metric tons of VTA landed on the roof and their leaders writhed on the floor.
 
She was close enough now to hear the screaming.
 
Human, very probably male, and a Krai, no idea of gen­der. Eleven years on various battlefields had allowed her to add can identify species by sounds of pain to her skill set. Three years out of the Corps and it remained useful.
 
The air lock on the narrow end of the anchor had been blown apart either by the Primacy or the Confederation or a combination of both. The reality of war meant the winner often held real estate that had been destroyed in the taking or in the retaking. The first-floor common room had long, narrow windows, an obvious entry point given the lack of glass, but the gunrunners had reinstalled the exterior shut­ters that essentially made the wall a spaceship hull. Impen­etrable to anything Torin’s team had with them.
 
Except . . .
 
During destruction of the air lock, the end wall had buckled enough to twist the nearest window a centimeter off square, the shutter not entirely secure, a triangle of light visible at the upper right and lower left corners.
 
Torin pulled the coil of wire from her vest as she ran, whipped it out to its two-meter length as she reached the anchor, dropped to one knee to slide it through the lower gap, and thumbed the release on the capacitor before shov­ing it through hard enough to clear the interior sill. Then she stood and braced her forearms against the wall.
 
“Distraction’s shut down, Boss.”
 
They’d spent part of the trip out here arguing the fine line between pain as distraction and pain for the sake of causing pain. None of them had much sympathy for the gunrunners; they spent too much time dealing with their customers.
 
Using fingers and prehensile toes, Werst reached the second-floor window as the wire ignited.
 
“Hope they weren’t stupid enough to store their ord­nance in the unstable corner,” Ressk muttered as his foot gripped her shoulder.
 
Torin hoped so too. The Justice Department insisted that property damage be kept to a minimum, and Torin didn’t want to spend another afternoon justifying an accidental explosion. When Ressk pushed off, she caught the line Werst sent down and went up hand over hand until she could grab the windowsill and haul herself over.
 
“Almost Krai-like,” Ressk told her as her boots hit the floor.
 
“I can fake anything for two meters.” Torin resettled the weight of her vest on her shoulders, swung her KC back around, and waved the two Krai toward the door.
 
The room was still configured as a barracks, Three Points having barely moved beyond the entire colony living in the anchor when they were attacked. Given that space was large enough to keep any one system in the OutSector from having much of a strategic significance in an inter­stellar war, the Confederation had assumed the attack had been over real estate with a proportionate nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere, a gravity within specific tolerances, and read­ily available water. Turned out, the assumption had been incorrect. There’d been no logical reason for the attack as the war had been run as a social experiment by sentient, polynumerous molecular polyhydroxide alcoholydes— a discovery no one would have believed had Torin not got the shape-shifting, organic plastic hive mind to admit it on camera moments before they departed known space to ana­lyze the accumulated data. She’d been cleaning up the mess they’d left behind ever since.
 
The second-floor hall was empty. Scanners showed two thermal signs behind the closed door of the anchor’s infirmary— one Human, one di’Taykan— and the blood that had drawn a dotted line between the stairs leading to the roof and the infirmary suggested they weren’t doing what a Human and the most enthusiastically indiscriminate species in known space were usually doing behind a closed door. Torin pointed at the lock. Ressk moved forward, touched his slate to it, and rewrote the code. The coiled spring latches rang out as they slammed into place, metal against metal— not a lot of what went into space could be called delicate, and that included most of the people.
 
At the clang Torin switched her attention to the main stairs, but it seemed no one on the lower level had heard the clang over the shouting. For the most part, they were shouting about the explosion as well as someone named Ferin’s inabil­ity to keep watch, summed up at high volume. “. . . lazy, blind, serley chrika! Get your head out of your own ass!”
 
Two locked in the infirmary, four downstairs standing, three on the ground. All nine gunrunners accounted for.
 
Except . . .
 
The infirmary windows faced away from Mashona’s po­sition.
 
“Craig, keep an eye on the north side of the building. We’ve got two hostiles locked in the infirmary and the odds are good the more mobile will make a run for it.”
 
“No honor among thieves?”
 
She could hear the smile in his voice and answered it with one of her own. “Not that I’ve ever noticed.”
 
“Only four dirtbags left to take out.” Werst drew his lips back off his teeth. “Hardly worth a team effort. Want us to wait up here, Gunny?”
 
In answer, she started down the stairs, and they fell into position behind her.
 
Their orders were to apprehend the gunrunners. Where apprehend meant bring them in alive or face the staggering amount of paperwork required to document every corpse. Their task made more difficult given that the people they were trying to apprehend shot to kill.
 
“Ferin, Yizaun, check the weapons are secure. Mack, get that shutter dogged in. Shiraz, you’re bleeding all over the fukking floor, do something about it.”
 
“Who put you in charge, Harr?”
 
Harr paused at the foot of the stairs, facing back into the community hall. “That’d be when those fuktards took the chief out.”
 
Torin could see a line of blood running from the corner of his mouth where he’d driven his teeth through his lower lip, but a Krai jawbone was one of the toughest organic sub­stances in known space and the pulse Alamber had sent through his implant had done a lot less damage than it would have to a Human or di’Taykan. It had done enough damage, however, that Harr was on the bottom step before he noticed them pressed along the right wall.
 
His eyes widened, his nostril ridges began to close, and Torin grabbed him around the throat, yanking him forward into the butt of Werst’s KC. She’d stepped out into the com­munity hall before he hit the floor.
 
Shiraz, slumped against the wall, awkwardly trying to wrap a blood-soaked cloth tighter around her shoulder, Torin ignored. Mack, his broad back toward her, muscle straining the seams of his shirt, was going to be more of a problem.
 
She couldn’t shoot a man in the back.
 
So she shot him in the back of the knee.
 
He screamed, hit the floor, rolled, and came up holding . . .
 
Torin had no idea what it was, but she’d looked down enough muzzles while in the Corps and after to recognize one now. It was small, dwarfed further by Mack’s hand, and it was definitely a weapon. An easy to conceal and therefore illegal weapon. His first shot hit the wall behind her and ricocheted, drawing an impressive string of profanity from Werst. Pain had Mack’s arm shaking like a recruit’s knees, and Torin figured if he hit her at all, he’d hit her by accident. As it happened, it was an accident she didn’t want to have.
 
“Rehab can rebuild your knee,” she snapped, “not your head.”
 
Might’ve been the threat, might’ve been the pain— the odds were about even as his arm dropped to the floor with an impressive thud.

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An Ancient Peace
Excerpt

 

ONE

“. . . And we will create a place for Humans alone!” Eyes blazing, nostrils flared, Richard Varga threw both arms up into the air, directing the roar of the crowd. When the sound began to die down on its own, he lowered his arms—giving the impression the sound had fallen on his command. “A place for Humans,” he continued, “where we will not be tempted by the di’Taykan. Where we will not be forced to live among those who use their bodies as licentious tools of conquest!”

Most of the di’Taykan Torin knew would laugh themselves sick at the phrase “licentious tools of conquest.” Taykans in the di phase were undeniably the most sexually indiscriminate species in known space, but when it came to conquest, a smarter man than Varga would remember that they’d only barely managed to broker a planet-wide peace—a peace enforced by half a dozen heavily armed satellites—when the Elder Races made first contact. And they’d been as happy as Humans had when given a chance to apply their knowledge of war to the Confederation’s engagement with the Primacy.

“A place where we will not live under the threat of the Krai’s unnatural appetites!”

As the Krai’s appetites weren’t unnatural to the Krai, Torin thought all-encompassing appetites would have been a better description; although Varga wasn’t particularly concerned with either accuracy or overt speciesisms. In fairness, even Torin found it a bit disturbing that the Krai considered Humans to be the tastiest thing on the menu—or would, had not a number of very explicit laws been put in place.

“We were there when the Elder Races needed us.” The fingers of both hands curled into fists, Varga shifted into an exaggerated fighting stance. “We fought in their war!”

Torin gritted her teeth and mirrored the reactions of the men and women around her who were stomping, howling, and forgetting that Varga had never been a part of the military we. Had never fought. Had never watched friends blown to pieces by Primacy artillery or seen them bleed out too fast to save. Had she not already been under orders, Torin would’ve taken him down for that lie alone.

Three years ago, Varga had been a less-than-successful actor who found his natural stage when he’d joined Human’s First. When he’d realized that true belief wasn’t as important as discontent and a willingness to blindly follow rhetoric, his rise to the top of the organization had turned a whiny fringe group with a misplaced apostrophe into an armed force. He’d gone looking for Humans trained to violence by the Navy or the Corps and unwilling or unable to settle into the peace of civilian life, then he’d layered the new shape of the organization around them.

Human’s First had stopped being a distasteful example of the Confederation’s belief in free speech and had become a threat when they took over the small station orbiting Denrest and killed the station crew, three of them the Humans they were supposedly putting first as well four di’Taykan, whose small freighter they stole after dumping the bodies out the lock. It wasn’t entirely clear if they’d taken a shuttle up from Denrest or if they’d had Susumi capabilities before they’d taken the station, but they definitely had them after, opening up all of known space.

Then they took another small station, another ship.

And another.

Having watched him in action for over two tendays, Torin would bet her pension Varga had referred to the dead as collateral damage.

“We have done their dirty work, and what has it got us?” he demanded.

The old garage, long empty of drills and excavators, rang with variations on sweet fuk all. The communication unit implanted into the bone of her jaw pinged twice short and fast. A heartbeat later, once more. Her people were on the move and not a moment too soon. Torin touched her tongue to the pressure point just long enough to make the ping distinct, snarled at the sallow-faced, young man who’d just stomped on her foot, and let the motion of the crowd carry her away from him toward the wall.

A tall, thin man, hair and beard gone naturally gray, stood in the half circle of upper echelon behind Varga on the dais, his eyes locked on his slate. He might have been checking on his kids—there were, unfortunately, no laws preventing assholes from breeding—but Torin’s intell said he was monitoring the crowd’s comm traffic, his own implant slaved to the slate. Implants significantly improved the odds of veterans finding civilian employment, so both officers and NCOs kept their military comm units when they left the service even though nonmilitary techs charged an arm and a leg for upkeep. Both legs if they had to crack the bone. Given the size of the crowd, Torin estimated another ten to fifteen implants in the garage creating sufficient background noise to hide her team’s coordinating pings.

Or the fraction of her team acceptable to Human’s First aggressive recruiting. Ryder. Mashona. Her.

Today, new recruits mixed with old hands in an abandoned mining facility on the dark side of a small moon, in the old heavy machinery garage that smelled of sulfur and sweat, having their stores of meaningless rhetoric topped up.

“No more . . .” The crowd around Torin quieted as Varga dropped his voice to a conversational level. She settled into the same expectant stillness, although her expectations were entirely different. “No more will the Elder Races keep us from what is rightfully ours. Humans first!”

“HUMANS FIRST! HUMANS FIRST! HUMANS FIRST!”

At least they drop the apostrophe when they’re chanting. Torin covered the last three meters to the open decompression hatch, stepped over the lower lip, and out into an access tunnel that had clearly been a part of the old mine. She drew in a deep lungful of air and said with complete sincerity, “Stinks like the latrines after burrito night in there. I need to breathe a bit.”

She found it interesting that Varga’s security stood facing the garage rather than down the tunnel. Had been facing the garage before Torin had moved toward the hatch. Varga was clearly smart enough to realize he hadn’t built stability into his organization.

At 1.8 meters, Torin wasn’t small, but the woman standing with impressive arms folded and a scowl that told Torin she’d made master corporal, at least, before leaving the Corps topped her by a good 15 centimeters. “Don’t wander off,” she growled.

Torin tongued her implant, grinned, and said, “Wouldn’t think of it.”

The guard’s scowl shifted to a frown.

First ping back.

“Think you’re smart, eh? You can’t be hanging around out here.”

The double ping back removed the need for Torin to respond.

Eyes locked on the guard’s face, Torin lunged forward, driving her fist into the other woman’s solar plexus, her weight behind the blow. “Actually, I can be,” she muttered, turned, and hauled the hatch closed to the sound of a large body hitting the floor and flopping a bit, the guard’s ability to give the alarm reduced to a barely audible wheeze.

Years of neglect had nearly rusted the locking wheel into place. Using the heel of her hand, Torin slammed it left, then right. Metal ground against metal and red-brown flakes drifted toward the floor.

Left. Then right.

Left.

Then all the way right. The battens slid home into the cleats on either side of the hatch.

The problem inherent in turning people into a mob was that, at some point, they had to be gathered together and people crowded into an area with limited access were inherently vulnerable. Control the access; control the space.

First ping.

Torin tongued her implant and dropped to one knee, checking the guard’s diaphragm spasms had stopped when she’d lost consciousness. Labored but regular breathing suggested they had, so Torin hooked a thumbnail over the end of the zip-tie hidden in the outer seam of her military surplus trousers and yanked it free. Woven from Mictok webbing, the zip-ties were undetectable and unbreakable. Torin’d had to call in a few favors to get them, but she didn’t use plastic with another option available. The guard’s wrists secured, she pulled another zip-tie from the inner seam of the same leg, looping it around and through crossed ankles.

No implant. Torin let the guard’s mouth close and scrubbed her thumb against her sleeve. Trust the idiots who misplaced apostrophes to think size meant security.

Double ping.

Three of the garage’s four hatches had been dogged down. Yet to be closed were the old loading doors behind the dais; the moment Varga noticed something was up, he’d be out them faster than Havarti through a H’san. Unfortunately, with the crowd staring directly at those doors, they had to be closed last.

Through speakers mounted along the roof of the tunnel, she could hear Varga listing everything Humans had been denied. Where Humans equaled Richard Varga. It was a long list. Sooner rather than later, one of his less reflective followers would get bored, decide it was a good time to hit the shitter, and discover they couldn’t leave.

Torin raced for the fourth door, reached a T-junction, made a hard right . . .

Ten meters away, three men stood outside the big doors; three large men armed with black-market–acquired Marine Corps KC-7s. Guarding Varga’s back.

The paranoid bastard.

Given the way they filled the space, she could hear more than she could see Binti Mashana charging in from the opposite end of the tunnel.

Two of the guards turned toward Torin, the third turned the other way. All three raised their weapons and the largest of the three, a man with his beard divided into two braids, barked, “Hold it right there! Both of you.”

Torin smiled and kept running. At the other end of the tunnel, Mashona picked up speed.

“I said, hold it right there!”

When an approaching enemy declined to hold it right there, the correct response was to pull the trigger, not repeat a command already ignored. Of course, they couldn’t be positive Torin was an enemy; she could have been one of Varga’s people in a hurry to get somewhere, but it was still sloppy work. Torin decided to take that personally as the weapons raised the odds that all three of this lot were ex-Corps. Everyone in the Corps, regardless of specialty, trained first on the KC-7.

She ducked under the barrel of the raised KC without slowing and hit Bearded Guard at the waist, her shoulder driving deep into a layer of fat over muscle. He grunted, folded, and went down, crashing into the guard behind him hard enough to drop him to the floor as well. In her peripheral vision, she saw Mashona grab the muzzle of the third weapon, point it at the ceiling, and aim her knuckles at the windpipe of the man holding it.

Her weight on Bearded Guard’s chest enough to keep him temporarily on the floor, Torin grabbed the barrel of his KC, yanked it out of his grip, and swung it one-handed at the second guard who’d made it back up onto his knees. The butt slammed into his jaw with a crack of metal against bone and he went down again.

She jerked back in time to avoid a fist aimed at her nose, the blow glancing off her mouth instead, hard enough to slam her lower lip into her teeth, splitting the soft flesh. Mouth filling with blood, Torin rose up, dropped, and felt a rib give way under her knee.

Bearded Guard bellowed. Torin spat blood in his face.

The crack of a fired KC echoed in the enclosed tunnel, overlapping the high-pitched buzz of two ricochets and a grunt of pain Torin barely heard over the ringing in her ears. Early on in the war, it had been discovered that the more complicated and high tech the weapon, the easier it was for the opposing side to fuk with it from a distance. A contained chemical explosion propelling a piece of metal at high speed out a rifled tube could only be fukked up by the person firing it.

She couldn’t tell who’d been hit.

“Mashona?”

“Dipshit here had his finger on the trigger . . .” Mashona wrapped profanity around the muted thud of fist against softer flesh. “ . . . and shot himself in the leg. Apparently, he slept through . . .” Two fast blows. “ . . . Lieutenant Cole’s lecture on trigger discipline.”

Discipline dropped into silence. The list of Varga’s grievances had stopped blaring out of the speaker over the door.

All five combatants froze for a single heartbeat.

Torin braced herself against the sudden roar of sound from inside the garage.

“Gunny, they heard the shot!”

“Lock it up, I’ll deal with this.” Torin blocked an elbow with her forearm and rolled up onto her feet as Mashona dove for the door. She kicked Bearded Guard just above the curve of his gut, hard enough he lost interest in anything but puking and choking on it, both arms holding his rib cage together.

Ignoring the blood soaking into his pant leg, Mashona’s Dipshit pulled a knife from a boot sheath. Torin bent away from his first swing, spun around to his bad side . . .

“Gunny! Door’s stuck!”

. . . then kicked him in the thigh, driving the toe of her boot into the bullet hole. He howled with pain as his leg collapsed under him and was smart enough to yell for backup before he lunged at her again.

This one was definitely ex-Corps.

Catching his blade in the trigger guard of the KC, Torin twisted it out of his hand, continued the movement around behind him, and got an arm around his neck and choked him out with the strap.

“Gunny!”

Rusted hinges had jammed one of the big double doors with twelve centimeters still to close. A scuffed boot stuck out through the space by the floor and two, no, three sets of fingers emerged farther up. Torin slammed the muzzle of the KC into the shin above the boot—hard enough to break the skin and invoke a stream of impressive profanity—then she used the butt of the weapon on the reaching fingers. As they disappeared to slightly less impressive profanity—probably ex-Navy—she threw her weight against the pitted steel, her shoulder next to Mashona’s, and together they managed to move it far enough for the three big canted, coiled spring latches to finally snap into place.

The background roar from the speakers grew louder while over it a familiar voice demanded they open the doors immediately. Or else.

“Does he honestly think he’s still in charge?” Mashona wondered.

“He thinks Human’s First has an apostrophe.” Torin spat out another mouthful of blood, checked the magazine of the weapon she held, tossed it to Mashona, and bent to pick up the other two as Varga began listing the ways they’d pay when he got out.

Lifting one of the second guard’s arms into the air, her fingers dark bands around his pale, grubby wrist, Mashona shook her head. “Gunny, I don’t think this one’s going anywhere.”

“Is he dead?” Varga had trusted these three with weapons at his back, so she’d be willing to bet they’d been among those who’d attacked the stations and killed noncombatants. Torin wouldn’t mourn if she’d taken one out when taking him down, although the Wardens would be pissed. Again.

“No. But . . .”

“If he’s alive, secure him. There’s three of us against everyone else on this moon; if we sideline someone, I want them to stay out.” She rolled Bearded Guard up onto his side so he could breathe, cracked ribs topside. Then, avoiding the spreading puddle of vomit, she got out the zip-ties.

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Blood Debt
Excerpt

ONE
 
 
“HOW ARE YOU FEELING?”
 
 
The young man attempted a shrug but didn’t have the energy to actually lift his shoulders. “ ’M okay,” he muttered, watching the doctor warily. The incision throbbed, and he was too tired to take a piss without the huge orderly holding his pecker, but he wasn’t going to tell the doctor that. Some people said he had authority problems. So what.
 
 
He had his money; all he wanted now was a chance to spend it. “When can I go?”
 
 
“Go?”
 
 
“Leave,” he growled.
 
 
“That’s what I came in to tell you.” Her face expressionless, she stepped away from the bed. “You’ll be leaving this afternoon.”
 
 
“When?”
 
 
“Soon.”
 
 
When she was gone, he swung his legs out from under the covers and carefully lowered them to the floor. Straightening slowly, he released the rail and stepped forward. The room whirled. He would have fallen except that a beefy hand wrapped around his arm and effortlessly kept him upright.
 
 
“You walk too fuckin’ quietly, man,” he said, turning to face the orderly. “Damn near scared me to d . . .”
 
 
The last word got lost in sudden pain as the fingers tightened.
 
 
“Hey, man! You’re hurting me!”
 
 
“I know.” Something glittered in the depths of soft brown eyes, something usually buried beneath an expression of unquestionable docility.
 
 
The setting sun brushed molten gold over the waves of English Bay, gilded a pair of joggers on Sunset Beach Park, traced currents of gleaming amber between the shores of False Creek, shone through the tinted glass on the fourteenth floor of the Pacific Place condominium tower and into the eyes of a young man who sighed as he watched it set. Nestled between the mountains and the Strait of Georgia, Vancouver, British Columbia, enjoyed some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world— but that had nothing to do with the young man’s sigh.
 
 
Lifting a hand to shade his face, Tony Foster stared out the window and counted down the minutes. At 7:22 P.M., his watch alarm began to buzz. Pale blue eyes still locked on the horizon, he shut it off and cocked his head back toward the interior of the condominium, listening for the sounds that would tell him the night had truly begun.
 
 
Lying in a darkness so complete it could only be deliberate, Henry Fitzroy shook off the bindings of the sun. The soft sound of the cotton sheet moving against the rise and fall of his chest told him he had safely survived another day. As he listened, the rhythmic whisper became lost in the heartbeat waiting in the room beyond his bolted door and then in the myriad noises of the city beyond the walls of his sanctuary.
 
 
He hated the way he woke, hated the extended vulnerability of his slow return to full consciousness. Every evening he tried to shorten the time he spent lying helpless and semiaware. It didn’t seem to do any good, but the effort made him feel less impotent.
 
 
He could feel the sheet lying against his skin, the utter stillness of the air. . . .
 
 
And a sudden chill.
 
 
Which was impossible.
 
 
He’d had the air conditioner disconnected in this, the smallest of the three bedrooms. The window had been blocked with plywood, caulked, and curtained. The door had flexible rubber seals around all four sides—not air-tight by any means, but the cracks were far too small to allow such a rapid change in temperature.
 
 
Then he realized that he wasn’t alone.
 
 
Someone was in the room with him. Someone with no scent. No heartbeat. Fleshless. Bloodless.
 
 
Demonic? Possibly. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d faced one of the Lords of Hell.
 
 
Forcing a sluggish arm to move, Henry reached over and switched on a lamp.
 
 
Sensitive eyes half closed—even forty-watt bulbs threw enough light to temporarily blind—he caught one quick glimpse of a young man standing at the foot of his bed before the faint, translucent image disappeared.
 
 
“A ghost?” Tony propped one leg on the wide arm of the green leather couch and shook his head. “You’re kidding, right?”
 
 
“Wrong.”
 
 
“Cool. I wonder what he wants. They always want something,” he added in answer to the question implicit in Henry’s lifted red-gold brow. “Everyone knows that.”
 
 
“Do they?”
 
 
“Come on, Henry. Don’t tell me in four-hundred-and-fifty-five odd years you’ve never seen a ghost?”
 
 
One hand flat against the cool glass of the window, the other hooked in the pocket of his jeans, Henry Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry VIII, once Duke of Richmond and Somerset, remembered a night in the late 1800s when he’d watched the specter of a terrified young queen run screaming down the hall to beg her king once more for a mercy she’d never receive. Over two hundred years before, Katherine Howard had attended his wedding to her cousin Mary. He hadn’t gone to hers—her marriage to his father had occurred four years after his supposed death. Made a queen in July, 1540, she’d been beheaded in February, 1542, nineteen months later.
 
 
She’d been young and foolish and very likely guilty of the adultery she’d been charged with, but she hadn’t deserved to have her spirit trapped, replaying over and over the soul- destroying moment when she’d realized she was going to die.
 
 
“Henry?”
 
 
“Whatever he wants,” Henry said without turning, “I doubt that I’ll be able to give it to him. I can’t change the past.”
 
 
Tony shivered. The centuries had gathered about the other man in a nearly visible cloud, wrapping him in a shroud of time and memory. “Henry, you’re freaking me out.”
 
 
“Am I? Sorry.” Shaking off his melancholy, the ex-prince turned and managed a wry smile. “You seem somewhat nonchalant about being haunted.”
 
 
Glad to have him back, Tony shrugged, a trace of the street kid he’d been lingering in the jerky movement. “He’s haunting you, not me. And besides, between living with you for the last two years and dealing with the weirdos at the store, I’ve learned to take the unexpected in stride.”
 
 
“Have you?” Not at all pleased with being compared to the weirdos at the video store where Tony worked, Henry’s smile broadened, showing teeth. When he heard the younger man’s heartbeat quicken, he crossed the room and wrapped an ivory hand around a slender shoulder. “So I’ve lost the ability to surprise you?”
 
 
“I didn’t say that.” Tony’s breathing grew ragged as a cool thumb traced the line of his jaw.
 
 
“Perhaps not exactly that.”
 
 
“Uh, Henry . . .”
 
 
“What?”
 
 
He shook his head. It was enough to know Henry would stop if he wanted him to. More than enough, considering he didn’t want him to. “Never mind. Not important.”
 
 
A short while later, teeth met through a fold of skin, the sharp points pierced a vein and, for a time, the dead were washed away with the blood of the living.
 
 
 
The warm evening air lapping against her face, Corporal Phyllis Roberts cruised along Commissioner Street humming the latest Celine Dion hit and tapping her fingers against the top of the steering wheel. Although the new Ports Canada Police cars had air- conditioning, she never used it as she disliked the enclosed, spaceship feeling of driving with the windows rolled up.
 
 
Three hours into her shift, she was in a good mood. So far, nothing had gone wrong.
 
 
Three hours and fifteen minutes into her shift, Corporal Roberts stopped humming.
 
 
Turning into Vanterm, as of this moment her least favorite of the harbor’s twenty-seven cargo and cruise ship terminals, Corporal Roberts squinted to make out the tiny figures of three men dwarfed by the bulk of a Singapore-registered container ship. The pole lights that turned the long wooden pier into a patchwork of stacked containers and hard-edged shadows washed away features so thoroughly she was almost on top of them before she recognized one of the men.
 
 
Leaving her cap in the car, she picked up her long, rubber-handled flashlight, touched her nightstick, more out of habit than any thought she might have to use it, and walked toward them. “You night-loading, Ted?”
 
 
Ted Polich, the shortest of the three longshoremen, jerked a balding head upward at the gantry crane that loomed over the dock like a mechanical bird of prey. “Controls have stiffened up and the son of a bitch is jerking left. We’re trying to get it fixed tonight, so it doesn’t slow loading tomorrow.”
 
 
“God forbid,” the corporal muttered. A huge increase in Pacific Rim trade had the port scrambling to keep up. “Where is it?”
 
 
“Up by the bow. It’s caught in one of them eddies between the dock and the ship.” Falling into step beside her, Polich shoved his hands in the pockets of grimy overalls. “We figured they’d send the city police.”
 
 
“Sorry. You’re stuck with me until we know for sure you saw what you said you did.”
 
 
“You think we made it up?” asked one of the other men indignantly, leaning around his companion to glare at the cop.
 
 
Corporal Roberts shook her head and sighed. “I couldn’t possibly be that lucky.”
 
 
She wasn’t.
 
 
Bobbing up and down in the narrow triangle between the bow and the dock was the body of a naked man, his back a pale, flesh- colored island, the strands of his hair sweeping against it like dark seaweed.
 
 
“Shit.”
 
 
Polich nodded. “That’s what I said. You figure he’s a jumper?”
 
 
“I doubt it.” While they did occasionally get jumpers off the Lions Gate Bridge, they hadn’t had one yet who’d stopped to take his clothes off. Pointing her flashlight beam at the water, she slowly swept the circle of illumination over the corpse. Bruises, large and small, made a mottled pattern of purple against the pale skin. Not very old—and not going to get any older, she told herself grimly—he hadn’t been in the water for long.
 
 
“Funny what makes some of ’em float and some of ’em sink,” Polich mused quietly beside her. “This guy’s skin and bones, should’a gone right to the . . . Goddamnit! Would you look at that!”
 
 
The other two longshoremen crowded in to see.
 
 
Flung forward, Corporal Roberts tottered on the edge of the pier, saved at the last minute from a potentially dangerous swim by a muscular arm thrust in front of her like a filthy, cloth- covered, safety rail. Breathing heavily, she thanked Polich and snarled a warning at the other two.
 
 
As they backed up, too intent on the body in the water to be properly penitent, one of them muttered, “What the hell could’ve happened to his hands?”
 
 
 
Sunset the next night occurred behind cloud cover so heavy only the
fading light gave evidence that the sun had set at all. At 7:23, Tony
turned off his watch alarm and muted the inane conversation filling in
a rain delay for a Seattle Mariners’ home game. Who wanted to hear
about a shortage of organ donors when they were waiting to watch
baseball? He never dreamed he’d miss Fergie Oliver. Leaning back in
his chair, he glanced down the hall, listening for the first sounds of
Henry’s return and straining to hear the rattle of ghostly chains.
 
 
 
As the sun released its hold and his senses slowly began to function, Henry sifted through and ignored a hundred familiar sensations. An impossible breeze stroked icy fingers across his cheek. He willed his arm to move and switched on the lamp.
 
 
The ghost stood where it had the day before—a nondescript young man, needing a haircut and shave, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. Its edges were indistinct and although Henry could see writing on the shirt, he couldn’t make it out—whether because the writing hadn’t fully materialized or because the items on the dresser behind the ghost’s semitranslucent torso distracted him, he wasn’t sure. As far as Henry could remember, he’d never seen the young man alive.
 
 
He half expected the specter to vanish when he sat up, but it remained at the foot of his bed. It’s waiting for something. If a noncorporeal being could be said to have posture, the ghost’s stance screamed anticipation.
 
 
“All right.” He sighed and leaned back against the headboard. “What do you want?”
 
 
Slowly, the ghost lifted its arms and vanished.
 
 
Henry stared a moment longer at the place where it had been and wondered what could have possibly happened to its hands.
 
 
 
“It had no hands at all?” When Henry nodded, Tony chewed his lower lip in thought. “Were they, like, cut off or ripped off or chewed off or what?” he asked after a moment.
 
 
“They just weren’t there.” Henry took a bottle of water out of the fridge, opened it, and drained it. The growing popularity of bottled water had been a godsend; while blood provided total nourishment, all living things required water, and the purifying chemicals added by most cities made him ill. Bacteria, his system ignored. Chlorine, it rebelled against. Tossing the empty plastic bottle in the recycling bin, he leaned on the counter and stared down at his own hands. “They just weren’t there,” he repeated.
 
 
“Then I bet that’s what he wants—vengeance. They always want vengeance.”
 
 
Raising an eyebrow at Tony’s certainty, Henry asked just where he’d acquired his knowledge of what ghosts always wanted.
 
 
“You know, movies and stuff. He wants you to help him take revenge against the guy who took his hands.”
 
 
“And how am I supposed to do that?”
 
 
“Jeez, Henry, I don’t know. You worked with Vicki; didn’t she teach you nothing?”
 
 
“Anything.”
 
 
Tony rolled his eyes. “Okay, anything.”
 
 
Vicki Nelson, private investigator, ex-police detective, ex-lover, vampire—Henry had worked with her for one short year before fate had brought them as close together as was possible with his kind and then had driven them apart. He’d been forced to change her to save her life and forced, by the change, to give her up. Highly territorial, vampires hunted alone. She’d returned to Toronto and her mortal lover. He’d made a new life for himself on the West Coast.
 
 
Had she taught him anything?
 
 
Yes.
 
 
Did any of it have anything to do with handless ghosts?
 
 
No.
 
 
When he repeated his thoughts aloud for Tony’s benefit, he added, “One thing she did teach me is that I’m not a detective. I’m a writer, and, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go write.” Not entirely certain why memories of Vicki Nelson always made him so defensive, he headed for his computer, waving at the television on his way through the living room. “Your rain delay seems to be over.”
 
 
Half an hour later, having realized that the expected staccato clicking of keys hadn’t yet begun, Tony pushed open the door to Henry’s office. Standing on the threshold, he noted that nothing showed on the monitor but a chapter heading and a lot of blank screen.
 
 
“This spook really has you spooked, doesn’t it?”
 
 
“Why do you say that?” Henry asked without turning.
 
 
“You’re just sitting there, staring at your hands.”
 
 
“Maybe I was deep in thought.”
 
 
“Henry, you write bodice rippers. There’s a limit to how much
deep thought is allowed.”
 
 
Seventeen years a royal duke, over four hundred and fifty years a vampire, it had taken Henry a while to recognize when he was being teased. Once or twice, Tony had come close to not surviving the adjustment. Lifting his gaze from his hands, he sighed. “All I can think of is, why me.” He laughed, but the sound held no humor. “Which seems a little self- centered since I’m merely being haunted and was not the one killed and mutilated.” Pushing his ergonomic chair away from the desk, he spun it around and stood. “I need to get out. Be distracted.”
 
 
“Great.” Tony grinned. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula is playing at midnight at the Caprice.”
 
 
“Why not.” Enjoying Tony’s poleaxed expression, Henry turned the young man about and pushed him gently out of the doorway. “I hear Gary Oldman is terrific.”
 
 
“You hear?” Tony sputtered as Henry’s inarguable touch moved him down the hall. “You heard it from me! And when I told you, you told me that you never go to vampire movies—that’s why not.”
 
 
“I changed my mind.” Unable to resist, he added, “Maybe we can get a bite while we’re downtown.”
 
 
 
The elevators in the Pacific Place towers were as fast and as quiet as money could make them. With his fingertips resting lightly on the brushed steel doors, Henry cocked his head and smiled. “It sounds like Lisa’s shredding the character of another cabbie.”
 
 
Tony winced. “Man, I’m glad she likes us.”
 
 
As the chime announced the arrival of the elevator, the two men stepped away from the doors.
 
 
“Hello, boys.” One gloved hand clutching the arm of her paid companion, Lisa Evans grinned a very expensive and perfect grin as she shuffled into the corridor. The gleaming white teeth between glistening red lips added a ghastly emphasis to the skull-like effect created when age finally triumphed over years of cosmetic surgery. “Heading out for a late night on the town?”
 
 
“Just a midnight movie,” Henry told her as Tony stopped the doors from closing. He scooped up her free hand and raised it to his lips. “And you, I expect, have been out breaking hearts?”
 
 
“At my age? Don’t be ridiculous.” She pulled her hand free and smacked him lightly on the cheek, then turned on her companion. “And what are you smiling about, Munro?”
 
 
Not the least bit chastised, Mrs. Munro continued to smile down at her elderly employer. “I was just thinking about Mr. Swanson.”
 
 
“Swanson’s interested in my money, not these old bones.” But she preened a little and patted the head of the mink stole she wore over a raw silk suit. Once the mistress of a Vancouver lumber baron, she’d made a number of shrewd investments and parlayed a comfortable nest egg into a tidy fortune. “And besides, I’m not interested in him. All the good men are dead.” Sweeping a twinkling gaze over Henry and Tony, she added, “Or gay.”
 
 
“Miss Evans!”
 
 
“Chill out, Munro. I’m not telling them anything they don’t know.” Companion chastised, she turned her attention back to the two men. ‘We’ve just come from one of those tedious fund- raising things they expect you to attend when you have money. Organs, I think it was tonight.”
 
 
“Organs?” Henry repeated with a smile, fully aware that Lisa Evans enjoyed those tedious fund- raising things where her checkbook ensured she’d be stroked and flattered. He also knew that if she was vague,
it was deliberate—no one made the kind of money she had without knowing exactly where every dollar ended up. “Musical or medical?”
 
 
“Medical.” Heavily shadowed eyes narrowed into a look that had been known to send a variety of CEOs running for cover. “Have you signed an organ donor card?”
 
 
“I’m afraid they wouldn’t want my organs.”
 
 
The look softened slightly as she leaped to the conclusion he’d intended. “Oh. I’m sorry. Still, while there’s life, there’s hope, and medical science is doing wonders these days.” She grinned. “I mean, it’s a wonder I’m still alive.” Pulling her companion down the hall, rather in the manner of a pilot boat guiding a tanker into harbor, she threw a cheery, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” back over her shoulder.
 
 
“Well, that leaves us a lot of leeway,” Henry murmured as the elevator door closed on Mrs. Munro’s continuing shocked protests.
 
 
Tony sagged against the back wall, hands shoved in his pockets. “Until I met Miss Evans, I always thought old ladies were kind of vague and smelly. Maybe you should send your ghost over to her.”
 
 
“Why?”
 
 
“If all the good men are dead . . .”
 
 
“Or gay,” Henry reminded him. “Suppose he turned out to be both? I’d hate to get on Lisa’s bad side.”
 
 
The thought of Lisa Evans’ bad side brought an exaggerated shudder. “Actually, I’ve been meaning to ask you; how come you’re so friendly with everybody in the building? You’re always talking to people. I’d have thought it would be safer to be a little more . . .”
 
 
“Reclusive?”
 
 
“Big word. I was going to say private, but I guess that’ll do.”
 
 
“People are afraid of what they don’t know.” Exiting into the underground garage, they walked in step to Henry’s BMW. “If people think they know me, they aren’t afraid of me. If a rumor begins that I am not what I seem, they’ll match it against what they think they know and discount it. If they have nothing to match it against, then they’re more likely to believe it.”
 
 
“So you make friends with people as a kind of camouflage?”
 
 
Frowning slightly, Henry watched Tony circle around to the passenger door. “Not always.”
 
 
“But sometimes?”
 
 
“Yes.”
 
 
With the car between them, Tony lifted his head and locked his
eyes on Henry’s face. “And what about me?”
 
 
“You?”
 
 
“What am I? Am I camouflage?”
 
 
“Tony . . .” Then he saw the expression in Tony’s eyes and realized that it hadn’t been a facetious question. “Tony, I trust you with everything I am. There’re only two other people in the world I can say that about, and one of them doesn’t exactly count.”
 
 
“Because Vicki’s become a vampire?”
 
 
“Because Michael Celluci would never admit to knowing a . . . romance writer.”
 
 
Tony laughed, as he was meant to, but Henry heard the artificial resonance. For the rest of the night, he worked hard at erasing it.

close this panel
Blood Lines
Excerpt

ONE
 
 
HE HAD BEEN ALMOST aware for some time. Nothingness had shattered when they removed him from the chamber long concealed behind the centuries empty tomb of a forgotten priest. The final layer of the binding spell had been written on the rock wall smashed to gain access and, with that gone, the spell itself had begun to fray.
 
 
Every movement frayed it further. The surrounding ka, more souls than had been near him in millennia, called him to feed. Slowly, he reached for memory.
 
 
Then, just as he brushed against self and had only to reach out and grasp it and draw home the key to his freedom, the movement stopped and the lives went away. But the nothingness didn’t quite return. And that was the worst of all.
 
 
 
Sixteenth Dynasty, thought Dr. Rax running his finger lightly along the upper surface of the plain, unadorned rectangle of black basalt. Strange, when the rest of the collection was Eighteenth. He could now, however, understand why the British were willing to let the artifact go; although it was a splendid example of its type, it was neither going to bring new visitors flocking to the galleries nor was it likely to shed much light on the past.
 
 
Besides, thanks to the acquisitiveness of aristocracy with more money than brains, Great Britain has all the Egyptian antiquities it can hope to use. Dr. Rax was careful not to let that thought show on his face, as a member of said aristocracy, albeit of a more recent vintage, fidgeted at his shoulder.
 
 
Too well bred to actually ask, the fourteenth Baron Montclair leaned forward, hands shoved into the pockets of his crested blazer.
 
 
Dr. Rax, unsure if the younger man was looking worried or merely vacant, attempted to ignore him. And I thought Monty Python created the concept of the upper-class twit, he mused as he continued his inspection. How foolish of me.
 
 
Unlike most sarcophagi, the artifact Dr. Rax examined had no lid but rather a sliding stone panel in one narrow end. Briefly, he wondered why that feature alone hadn’t been enough to interest the British museums. As far as he knew the design survived on only one other sarcophagus, an alabaster beauty found by Zakaria Goneim in the unfinished step pyramid of Sekhem-khet.
 
 
Behind him, the fourteenth baron cleared his throat.
 
 
Dr. Rax continued to ignore him.
 
 
Although one corner had been chipped, the sarcophagus was in very good condition. Tucked away in one of the lower cellars of the Monclairs’ ancestral home for almost a hundred years, it seemed to have been ignored by everything including time.
 
 
And excluding spiders. He brushed aside a dusty curtain of webbing, frowned, and with fingers that wanted to tremble, pulled a penlight out of his suit pocket.
 
 
“I say, is something wrong?” The fourteenth baron had an excuse for sounding a little frantic. The very exclusive remodeling firm would be arriving in a little under a month to turn the ancestral pile into a very exclusive health club and that great bloody stone box was sitting right where he’d planned to put the women’s sauna.
 
 
The thudding of Dr. Rax’s heart almost drowned out the question. He managed to mutter, “Nothing.” Then he knelt and very carefully played the narrow beam of light over the lower edge of the sliding plate. Centered on the mortared seam, six inches above the base of the sarcophagus, was an oval of clay—a nearly perfect intact clay seal stamped with, as far as Dr. Rax could tell through the dust and the spiderwebs, the cartouche of Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom.
 
 
Just for a moment, he forgot to breathe.
 
 
An intact seal could mean only one thing.
 
 
The sarcophagus wasn’t—as everyone had assumed—empty.
 
 
For a dozen heartbeats, he stared at the seal and struggled with his conscience. The Brits had already said they didn’t want the artifact. He was under no obligation to let them know what they were giving away. On the other hand . . .
 
 
He sighed, switched off the penlight, and stood. “I need to make a call,” he told the anxious peer. “If you could show me to a phone.”
 
 
 
“Dr. Rax, what a pleasant surprise. Still out at Haversted Hall are you? Get a look at his lordship’s ‘bloody-great-black-stone-box’?”
 
 
“As a matter of fact, yes. And that’s why I’ve called.” He took a deep breath; best to get it over with quickly, the loss might hurt less. “Dr. Davis, did you actually send one of your people out here to look at the sarcophagus.”
 
 
“Why?” The British Egyptologist snorted. “Need some help identifying it?”
 
 
Abruptly, Dr. Rax remembered why, and how much, he disliked the other man. “I think I can manage to classify it, thank you. I was just wondering if any of your people had seen the artifact.”
 
 
“No need. We saw the rest of the junk Montclair dragged out of his nooks and crannies. You’d think that with all the precious bits and pieces leaving Egypt at the time, his Lordship’s ancestor could have brought home something worthwhile, even by accident, wouldn’t you?”
 
 
Professional ethics warred with desire. Ethics won. “About the sarcophagus . . .”
 
 
“Look, Dr. Rax . . .” On the other end of the line, Dr. Davis sighed explosively. “. . . this sarcophagus might be a big thing for you, but trust me, we’ve got all we need. We have storerooms of important, historically significant artifacts we may never have time to study.” And you don’t, was the not too subtly implied message. “I think we can allow one unadorned hunk of basalt to go to the colonies.”
 
 
“So I can send for my preparators and start packing it up?” Dr. Rax asked quietly, his tone in severe contrast to the white-knuckled grip that twisted the phone cord.
 
 
“If you’re sure you don’t want to use a couple of my people . . .”
 
 
Not if my only other option was to carry the sarcophagus on my lap all the way home. “No, thank you. I’m sure all your people have plenty of historically significant things to do.”
 
 
“Well, if that’s the way you want it, be my guest. I’ll have the paperwork done up and sent down to you at the Hall. You’ll be able to get your artifact out of the country as easily as if it were a plaster statue of Big Ben.” Which, his tone said clearly, is about its equivalent value.
 
 
“Thank you, Dr. Davis.” You pompous, egocentric asshole, Dr. Rax added silently as he hung up. Oh, well, he soothed his lacerated conscience, no one can say I didn’t try.
 
 
He straightened his jacket and turned to face the hovering baron, smiling reassuringly. “I believe you said that 50,000 pounds was your asking price . . . “”
 
 
 
“Uh, Dr. Rax . . .” Karen Lahey stood and dusted off her knees. “Are you sure the Brits don’t want this?”
 
 
“Positive.” Dr. Rax touched his breast and listened for a second to the comforting rustle of papers in his suit pocket. Dr. Davis had been as good as his word. The sarcophagus could leave England as soon as it was packed and insurance had been arranged.
 
 
Karen glanced down at the seal. That it held the cartouche of Thoth and not one of the necropolis symbols was rare enough. What the seal implied was rarer still. “They knew about . . .” She waved a hand at the clay disk.
 
 
“I called Dr. Davis right after I discovered it.” Which was true, as far as it went.
 
 
She frowned and glanced over at the other preparator. His expression matched hers. Something was wrong. No one in his right mind would give up a sealed sarcophagus and the promise that represented. “And Dr. Davis said . . . “” she prodded.
 
 
“Dr. Davis said, and I quote, ‘This sarcophagus might be a big thing for you, but we’ve got all we need. We have storerooms of important, historically significant artifacts we may never have time to study.’ ” Dr. Rax hid a smile at the developing scowls. “And then he added, ‘I think we can let one unadorned hunk of basalt go to the colonies.’ ”
 
 
“You didn’t tell him about the seal, did you, Doctor?”
 
 
He shrugged. “After that, would you?”
 
 
Karen’s scowl deepened. “I wouldn’t tell that patronizing son of a bitch, excuse my French, the time of day. You leave this with us, Dr. Rax, and we’ll pack it up so that even the spiderwebs arrive intact.”
 
 
Her companion nodded. “Colonies,” he snorted. “Just who the hell does he think he is?”
 
 
Dr. Rax had to stop himself from skipping as he left the room. The Curator of Egyptology, Royal Ontario Museum, did not skip. It wasn’t dignified. But no one mortared, then sealed, an empty coffin.
 
 
“Yes!” He allowed himself one jubilant punch at the air in the privacy of the deserted upper cellar. “We’ve got ourselves a mummy!”
 
 
 
The movement had begun again and the memories strengthened. Sand and sun. Heat. Light. He had no need to remember darkness; darkness had been his companion for too long.
 
 
 
As the weight of the sarcophagus made flying out of the question, a leisurely trip back across the Atlantic on the grand old lady of luxury ocean liners, the QE II, would have been nice. Unfortunately, the acquisitions budget had been stretched almost to the breaking point with the purchase and the packing and the insurance and the best the museum could afford was a Danish freighter heading out of Liverpool for Halifax. The ship left England on October 2nd. God and the North Atlantic willing, she’d reach Canada in ten days.
 
 
Dr. Rax sent the two preparators back by plane and he himself traveled with the artifact. It was foolish, he knew, but he didn’t want to be parted from it. Although the ship occasionally carried passengers, the accommodations were spartan and the meals, while nourishing, were plain. Dr. Rax didn’t notice. Refused access to the cargo hold where he could be near the sarcophagus and the mummy he was sure it contained, he stayed as close as he could, caught up on paperwork, and at night lay in his narrow bunk and visualized the opening of the coffin.
 
 
Sometimes, he removed the seal and slid the end panel up in the full glare of the media; the find of the century, on every news program and front page in the world. There’d be book contracts, and speaking tours, and years of research as the contents were studied, then removed to be studied further.
 
 
Sometimes, it was just him and his staff, working slowly and meticulously. Pure science. Pure discovery. And still the years of research.
 
 
He imagined the contents in every possible form or combination of forms. Some nights expanding on the descriptions, some nights simplifying. It wouldn’t be a royal mummy—more likely a priest or an official of the court—and so hopefully would have missed the anointing with aromatic oils that had partially destroyed the mummy of Tutankhamen.
 
 
He grew so aware of it that he felt he could go into the hold and pick its container out of hundreds of identical containers. His thoughts became filled with it to the exclusion of all else; of the sea, of the ship, of the sailors. One of the Portuguese sailors began making the sign against the evil eye whenever he approached.
 
 
He started to speak to it each night before he slept.
 
 
“Soon,” he told it. “Soon.”
 
 
 
He remembered a face, thin and worried, bending over him and constantly muttering. He remembered a hand, the soft skin damp with sweat as it brushed his eyes closed. He remembered terror as he felt the fabric laid across his face. He remembered pain as the strip of linen that held the spell was wrapped around him and secured.
 
 
But he couldn’t remember self.
 
 
He could sense only one ka, and that at such a distance he knew it must be reaching for him as he reached for it.
 
 
“Soon,” it told him. “Soon.”
 
 
He could wait.

close this panel
Blood Pact
Excerpt

ONE
 
 
“MRS. SIMMONS? IT’S VICKI Nelson calling; the private investigator from Toronto?” She paused and considered how best to present the information. Oh, what the hell . . . “We’ve found your husband.”
 
 
“Is he . . . alive?”
 
 
“Yes, ma’am, very much so. He’s working as an insurance adjuster under the name Tom O’Conner.”
 
 
“Don always works in insurance.”
 
 
“Yes, ma’am, that’s how we found him. I’ve just sent you a package, by courier, containing a copy of everything we’ve discovered including a number of recent photographs—you should receive it before noon tomorrow. The moment you call me with a positive ID, I’ll take the information to the police and they can pick him up.”
 
 
“The police thought they found him once before—in Vancouver—but when they went to pick him up he was gone.”
 
 
“Well, he’ll be there this time.” Vicki leaned back in her chair, shoved her free hand up under the bottom edge of her glasses and scrubbed at her eyes. In eight years with the Metropolitan Toronto Police and nearly two years out on her own, she’d seen some real SOBs; Simmons/O’Conner ranked right up there with the best of them. Anyone who faked his own death in order to ditch a wife and five kids deserved exactly what he got. “My partner’s going to talk to him tonight. I think your husband will decide to stay right where he is.”
 
 
 
The bar was noisy and smoky, with tables too small to be useful and chairs too stylized to be comfortable. The beer was overpriced, the liquor over-iced, and the menu a tarted-up mix of at least three kinds of quasi-ethnic cooking plus the usual grease and carbohydrates. The staff were all young, attractive, and interchangeable. The clientele were a little older, not quite so attractive although they tried desperately hard to camouflage it, and just as faceless. It was, for the moment, the premier poser bar in the city and all the wannabes in Toronto shoehorned themselves through its doors on Friday night.
 
 
Henry Fitzroy paused just past the threshold and scanned the crowd through narrowed eyes. The smell of so many bodies crammed together, the sound of so many heartbeats pounding in time to the music blasting out of half a dozen suspended speakers, the feel of so many lives in so little space pulled the Hunger up and threatened to turn it loose. Fastidiousness more than willpower held it in check. In over four and a half centuries, Henry had never seen so many people working so hard and so futilely at having a good time.
 
 
It was the kind of place he wouldn’t be caught dead in under normal circumstances, but tonight he was hunting and this was where his quarry had gone to ground. The crowd parted as he moved away from the door, and eddies of whispered speculation followed in his wake.
 
 
“Who does he think he is . . .”
 
 
“. . . I’m telling you, he’s somebody . . .”
 
 
Henry Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry VIII, one time Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Lord President of the Council of the North, noted, with an inward sigh, that some things never changed. He sat down at the bar—the young man who had been on the stool having vacated it as Henry approached—and waved the bartender away.
 
 
To his right, an attractive young woman raised one ebony brow in obvious invitation. Although his gaze dropped to the pulse that beat in the ivory column of her throat and almost involuntarily traced the vein until it disappeared beneath the soft drape of magenta silk clinging to shoulders and breasts, he regretfully, silently, declined. She acknowledged both his glance and his refusal, then turned to more receptive game. Henry hid a smile. He wasn’t the only hunter abroad tonight.
 
 
To his left, a wide back in a charcoal gray suit made up most of the view. The hair above the suit had been artfully styled to hide the thinning patches just as the suit itself had been cut to cover the areas that a fortieth birthday had thickened. Henry reached out and tapped lightly on one wool-clad shoulder.
 
 
The wearer of the suit turned, saw no one he knew, and began to scowl. Then he fell into the depths of a pair of hazel eyes, much darker than hazel eyes should have been, much deeper than mortal eyes could be.
 
 
“We need to have a talk, Mr. O’Conner.”
 
 
It would have taken a much stronger man to look away.
 
 
“In fact, I think you’d better come with me.” A thin sheen of sweat greased the other man’s forehead. “This is just a little too public for what I plan to . . .” Slightly elongated canines became visible for an instant between parted lips. “. . . discuss.”
 
 
 
“And?”
 
 
Henry stood at the window, one hand flat against the cool glass. Although he seemed to be looking down at the lights of the city, he was actually watching the reflection of the woman seated on the couch behind him. “And what?”
 
 
“Henry, stop being an undead pain in the ass. Did you convince Mr. O’Conner/Simmons to stay put until the police arrive?”
 
 
He loved to watch her; loved to watch emotions play across her face, loved to watch her move, loved to watch her in repose. Loved her. But as that was a topic not to be discussed, all he said was, “Yes.”
 
 
“Good. I hope you scared the living shit out of him while you were at it.”
 
 
“Vicki.” He turned, arms crossed on his chest, and frowned in what was only partially mock disapproval. “I am not your personal bogeyman, to be pulled out of the closet every time you think someone needs to have the fear of God . . .”
 
 
Vicki snorted. “Think highly of yourself, don’t you?”
 
 
“. . . put into them,” he continued, ignoring the interruption.
 
 
“Have I ever treated you like my ‘personal bogeyman’?” She raised a hand to cut off his immediate reply. “Be honest. You have certain skills, just like I have certain skills, and when I think it’s necessary, I use them. Besides,” she pushed her glasses back into place on the bridge of her nose, “you said you wanted to be more involved in my business. Help out with more cases now that you’ve handed in Purple Passion’s Pinnacle and aren’t due to start another romantic masterpiece until next month.”
 
 
“Love Labors On.” Henry saw no reason to be ashamed of writing historical romances; it paid well and he was good at it. He doubted, however, that Vicki had ever read one. She wasn’t the type to enjoy, or even desire, escape through fiction. “Tonight—it wasn’t what I had in mind when I said I wanted to be more involved.”
 
 
“Henry, it’s been over a year.” She sounded amused. “You should know by now that most private investigating consists of days and days of boring, tedious research. Thrilling and exciting life- threatening situations are few and far between.”
 
 
Henry raised one red-gold brow.
 
 
Vicki looked a little sheepish. “Look, it’s not my fault people keep trying to kill me. And you. And anyway, you know those were the exceptions that prove the rule.” She straightened, tucking one sneakered foot up under her butt. “Tonight, I needed to convince a sleazebag—who deserved to be terrified after what he put his wife and kids through—to stay put until the police arrive. Tonight, I needed you. Henry Fitzroy, vampire. No one else could’ve done it.”
 
 
Upon reflection, he was willing to grant her that no one else could have done the job as well although a couple of burly mortals and fifty feet of rope would have had the same general effect. “You really didn’t like him, did you?”
 
 
“No. I didn’t.” Her lip curled. “It’s one thing to walk out on your responsibilities, but it takes a special kind of asshole to do it in such a way that everyone thinks he’s dead. They mourned him, Henry. Cried for him. And the son of a bitch was off building a new life, fancy- free, while they were bringing flowers, every Saturday, to an empty grave. If he hadn’t gotten into the background of that national news report, they’d still be crying for him. He owes them. In my book, he owes them big.”
 
 
“Well, then, you’ll be happy to know that I did, as you so inelegantly put it, scare the living shit out of him.”
 
 
“Good.” She loosened her grip on the throw pillow. “Did you . . . uh . . . feed?”
 
 
“Would it matter if I had?” Would she admit it if it mattered. “Blood’s blood, Vicki. And his fear was enough to raise the Hunger.”
 
 
“I know. And I know you feed from others. It’s just . . .” She dragged one hand through her hair, standing it up in dark blonde spikes. “It’s just that . . .”
 
 
“No. I didn’t feed from him.” Her involuntary smile was all he could have asked, so he crossed the room to see it better.
 
 
“You’re probably hungry, then.”
 
 
“Yes.” He took her hand and gently caressed the inner skin of her wrist with his thumb. Her pulse leapt under his touch.
 
 
She tried to stand, but he pushed her back, bent his head, and ran his tongue down the faint blue line of a vein.
 
 
“Henry, if we don’t go soon, I won’t be able to . . .” Her voice faded out as her brain became preoccupied with other things. With a mighty effort, she forced her throat to open and her mouth to work. “We’ll end up staying on the . . . couch.”
 
 
He lifted his mouth long enough to murmur, “So?” and that was the last coherent word either of them spoke for some time.
 
 
 
“Four o’clock in the morning,” Vicki muttered, digging for the keys to her apartment. “Another two hours and I’ll have seen the clock around. Again. Why do I keep doing this to myself?” Her wrist throbbed, as if in answer, and she sighed. “Never mind. Stupid question.”
 
 
Muscles tensed across her back as the door unexpectedly swung fully open. The security chain hung loose, unlocked, arcing back and forth, scraping softly, metal against wood. Holding her breath, she filtered out the ambient noises of the apartment—the sound of the refrigerator motor, a dripping tap, the distant hum of the hydro substation across the street—and noted a faint mechanical whir. It sounded like . . .
 
 
She almost had it when a sudden noise drove off all hope of identification. The horrible crunching, grinding, smashing, continued for about ten seconds, then muted.
 
 
“I’ll grind his bones to make my bread . . .” It was the closest she could come to figuring out what could possibly be happening. And all things considered, I’m not denying the possibility of a literal translation. After demons, werewolves, mummies, not to mention the omnipresent vampire in her life, a Jack-eating giant in her living room was less than impossible no matter how unlikely.
 
 
She shrugged the huge, black leather purse off her shoulder and caught it just before it hit the floor. With the strap wrapped twice around her wrist it made a weapon even a giant would flinch at. Good thing I hung onto that brick . . .
 
 
The sensible thing to do would involve closing the door, trotting to the phone booth on the corner, and calling the cops.
 
 
I am way too tired for this shit. Vicki stepped silently into the apartment. Four in the morning courage. Gotta love it.
 
 
Sliding each foot a centimeter above the floor and placing it back down with exaggerated care, she made her way along the short length of hall and around the corner into the living room, senses straining. Over the last few months she’d started to believe that, while the retinitis pigmentosa had robbed her of any semblance of night sight, sound and smell were beginning to compensate. The proof would be in the pudding; although she knew the streetlight outside the bay window provided a certain amount of illumination in spite of the blinds and the apartment never actually got completely dark, as far as her vision was concerned, she might as well be wearing a padded blindfold.
 
 
Well, not quite a blindfold. Even she couldn’t miss the blob of light that had to be the television flickering silently against the far wall. She stopped, weapon ready, cocked her head, and got a whiff of a well known after-shave mixed with . . . cheese?

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Blood Price
Excerpt

ONE
 
 
IAN SHOVED HIS HANDS deep in his pockets and scowled down the length of the empty subway platform. His hands were freezing, he was in a bitch of a bad mood, and he had no idea why he’d agreed to meet Coreen at her apartment. All things considered, neutral ground might have been a better idea. He shifted his scowl to the LED clock hanging from the ceiling. 12:17. Thirteen minutes to get from Eglinton West to Wilson Station, six blocks worth of bus ride, and then a three block run to Coreen’s. It couldn’t be done.
 
 
I’m going to be late. She’s going to be pissed. And there goes our chance to make up. He sighed. It had taken two hours of arguing on the phone to get her to agree to a meeting. Maintaining a relationship with Coreen might be time- consuming, but it sure as hell wasn’t boring. Lord, but the woman had a temper. . . . His lips curled up into a smile almost without him willing the motion; the flip side of that temper made all the effort of staying on the roller coaster worthwhile. The smile broadened. Coreen packed a lot of punch for a woman barely five foot two.
 
 
He glanced up at the clock again.
 
 
Where the hell was the train?
 
 
12:20.
 
 
Be there by 12:30 or forget it, she’d said, completely ignoring the fact that on Sunday the Toronto Transit Commission, the ubiquitous TTC, drastically cut back on the number of trains and at this hour he’d be lucky to get the last one they ran.
 
 
Looking at the bright side, when he finally got there, given the time of night and the fact that they both had an eight o’clock class, he’d have to stay over. He sighed. If she’ll even let me into her apartment.
 
 
He wandered down to the southernmost end of the platform and peered into the tunnel. No sign of lights, but he could feel wind against his face and that usually meant the train wasn’t far. He coughed as he turned away. It smelled like something had died down there; smelled like it did at the cottage when a mouse got between the walls and rotted.
 
 
“Big mother of a mouse,” he muttered, rubbing his fist against his nose. The stench caught in his lungs and he coughed again. It was funny the tricks the mind played; now that he was aware of it, the smell seemed to be getting stronger.
 
 
And then he heard what could only be footsteps coming up the tunnel, out of the darkness. Heavy footsteps, not at all like a worker hurrying to beat the train after a day’s overtime, nor like a bum staggering for the safety of the platform. Heavy footsteps, purposefully advancing toward his back.
 
 
Ian gloried in the sharp terror that started his heart thudding in his chest and trapped his breath in his throat. He knew very well that when he turned, when he looked, the explanation would be prosaic, so he froze and enjoyed the unknown while it remained unknown, delighted in the adrenaline rush of fear that made every sense more alive and made the seconds stretch to hours.
 
 
He didn’t turn until the footsteps moved up the half dozen cement stairs and onto the platform.
 
 
Then it was too late.
 
 
He almost didn’t have time to scream.
 
 
 
Tucking her chin down into her coat—it might be April but it was still damp and cold, with no sign of spring—Vicki Nelson stepped off the Eglinton bus and into the subway station.
 
 
“Well, that was a disaster,” she muttered. The elderly gentleman who had exited the bus right behind her made an inquiring noise. She turned a bland stare in his general direction, then picked up her pace. So I’m not only “lousy company, and so uptight I squeak,” but I also talk to myself. She sighed. Lawrence was pretty, but he wasn’t her type. She hadn’t met a man who was her type since she’d left the police force eight months before. I should’ve known this was going to happen when I agreed to go out with a man significantly better looking than I am. I don’t know why I accepted the invitation.
 
 
That wasn’t exactly true; she’d accepted the invitation because she was lonely. She knew it, she just had no intention of admitting it.
 
 
She was halfway down the first set of stairs leading to the southbound platform when she heard the scream. Or rather the half-scream. It choked off in mid-wail. One leap took her to the first landing. From where she stood, she could see only half of each platform through the glass and no indication of which side the trouble was on. The south was closer, faster.
 
 
Bounding down two, and then three steps at a time she yelled, “Call the police!” Even if no one heard her, it might scare off the cause of the scream.
 
 
Nine years on the force and she’d never used her gun. She wanted it now. In nine years on the force she’d never heard a scream like that.
 
 
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the more rational part of her brain shrieked. “You don’t have a weapon! You don’t have backup! You don’t have any idea of what’s going on down there! Eight months off the force and you’ve forgotten everything they ever taught you! What the hell are you trying to prove?”
 
 
Vicki ignored the voice and kept moving. Maybe she was trying to prove something. So what.
 
 
When she exploded out onto the platform, she immediately realized she’d chosen the wrong side and for just an instant, she was glad of it.
 
 
A great spray of blood arced up the orange tiles of the station wall, feathering out from a thick red stream to a delicate pattern of crimson drops. On the floor below, his eyes and mouth open above the mangled ruin of his throat, lay a young man. No: the body of a young man.
 
 
The dinner she’d so recently eaten rose to the back of Vicki’s throat, but walls built during the investigations of other deaths slammed into place and she forced it down.
 
 
The wind in the tunnel began to pick up and she could hear the northbound train approaching. It sounded close.
 
 
Sweet Jesus, that’s all we need. At 12:35 on a Sunday night it was entirely possible that the train would be nearly empty, no one would get off, and no one would notice the corpse and the blood-spattered wall down at the southernmost end of the northbound platform. Given the way of the world, however, it was more likely that a group of children and a little old lady with a weak heart would pile out of the last carriage and come face- to- face with the staring eyes and mutely screaming mouth of a fresh corpse.
 
 
Only one solution presented itself.
 
 
The roar of the train filled the station as, heart pounding and adrenaline singing in her ears, Vicki leapt down onto the southbound tracks. The wooden step over the live rail was too far away, almost centered in the line of concrete pillars, so she jumped, trying not to think of the however many million volts of electricity the thing carried turning her to charcoal. She tottered for a moment on the edge of the divider, cursing her full- length coat and wishing she’d worn a jacket, and then, although she knew it was the stupidist thing she could do, she looked toward the oncoming train.
 
 
How did it get so close? The light was blinding, the roar deafening. She froze, caught in the glare, sure that if she continued she’d fall and the metal wheels of the beast would cut her to shreds.
 
 
Then something man- height flickered across the northbound tunnel. She didn’t see much, just a billowing shadow, black against the growing headlight, but it jerked her out of immobility and down onto the track.
 
 
Cinders crunched under her boots, metal rang, then she had her hands on the edge of the platform and was flinging herself into the air. The world filled with sound and light and something brushed lightly against her sole.
 
 
Her hands were sticky, covered with blood, but it wasn’t hers and at the moment that was all that mattered. Before the train stopped, she’d flung her coat over the body and grabbed her ID.
 
 
The center-man stuck his head out.
 
 
Vicki flipped the leather folder in his direction and barked, “Close the doors! Now!”
 
 
The doors, not quite open, closed.
 
 
She remembered to breathe again and when the center-man’s head reappeared, snapped, “Have the driver get the police on the radio. Tell them it’s a 10-33 . . . never mind what that means!” She saw the question coming. “They’ll know! And don’t forget to tell them where it is.” People had done stupider things in emergencies. As he ducked back into the train, she looked down at her card case and sighed, then lifted one gory finger to push her glasses back up her nose. A private investigator’s ID meant absolutely nothing in a case like this, but people responded to the appearance of authority, not the particulars.
 
 
She moved a little farther from the body. Up close, the smell of blood and urine—the front of the boy’s jeans was soaked—easily overcame the metallic odors of the subway. A lone face peered out through the window of the closest car. She snarled at it and settled down to wait.
 
 
Less than three minutes later, Vicki heard the faint sound of sirens up on the street. She almost cheered. It had been the longest three minutes of her life.
 
 
She’d spent them thinking, adding together the spray of blood and the position of the body and not liking the total.
 
 
Nothing that she knew of could strike a single blow strong enough to tear through flesh like tissue paper and fast enough that the victim had no time to struggle. Nothing. But something had.
 
 
And it was down in the tunnels.
 
 
She twisted until she could see into the darkness beyond the end of the train. The hair on the back of her neck rose. What did the shadows hide, she wondered. Her skin crawled, not entirely because of the cold. She’d never considered herself an overly imaginative woman and she knew the killer had to be long gone, but something lingered in that tunnel.
 
 
The distinctive slam of police boots against tile brought her around, hands held carefully out from her sides. Police called to a violent murder, finding someone covered in blood standing over the body, could be excused if they jumped to a conclusion or two.
 
 
The situation got chaotic for a few minutes, but fortunately four of the six constables had heard of “Victory” Nelson and after apologies had been exchanged all around, they got to work.
 
 
“. . . my coat over the body, had the driver call the police, and waited.” Vicki watched Police Constable West scribbling madly in his occurrence book and hid a grin. She could remember being that young and that intense. Barely. When he looked up, she nodded at the body and asked, “Do you want to see?”
 
 
“Uh, no!” After a second he added, a little sheepishly, “That is, we shouldn’t disturb anything before homicide gets here.”
 
 
Homicide. Vicki’s stomach lurched and her mood nosedived. She’d forgotten she wasn’t in charge. Forgotten she was nothing more than a witness—first on the scene and that only because she’d done some pretty stupid things to get there. The uniforms had made it seem like old times but homicide . . . her department. No, not hers any longer. She pushed her glasses up her nose with the back of her wrist.
 
 
PC West, caught staring, dropped his gaze in confusion. “Uh, I don’t think anyone would mind if you cleaned the blood off your hands.”
 
 
“Thanks.” Vicki managed a smile but ignored the unasked question. How well she could see, or how little she could see, was nobody’s business but hers. Let another round of rumors start making its way through the force. “If you wouldn’t mind grabbing a couple of tissues out of my bag. . . .”
 
 
The young constable dipped a tentative hand into the huge black leather purse and actually looked relieved when he removed it holding the tissue and still in possession of all his fingers. Vicki’s bag had been legendary throughout Metro and the boroughs.
 
 
Most of the blood on her hands had dried to reddish brown flakes and the little that hadn’t the tissue merely smeared around. She scrubbed at it anyway, feeling rather like Lady Macbeth.
 
 
“Destroying the evidence?’’
 
 
Celluci, she thought. They had to send Celluci. That bastard always walked too quietly. She and Mike Celluci had not parted on the best of terms but, by the time she turned to face him, she managed to school her expression.
 
 
“Just trying to make life more difficult for you.” The voice and the smile that went with it were patently false.
 
 
He nodded, an overly long curl of dark brown hair falling into his face. “Always the best idea to play to your strengths.” Then his eyes went past her to the body. “Give your statement to Dave.” Behind him, his partner waved two fingers. “I’ll talk to you later. This your coat?”
 
 
“Yeah, it’s mine.” Vicki watched him lift the edge of the blood-soaked fabric and knew that for the moment nothing existed for him but the body and its immediate surroundings. Although their methods differed, he was as intense in the performance of his duties as she was—had been, she corrected herself silently—and the undeclared competition between them had added an edge to many an investigation. Including a number neither of them were on.
 
 
“Vicki?”
 
 
She unclenched her jaw and, still scrubbing at her hands, followed Dave Graham a few meters up the platform.
 
 
Dave, who had been partnered with Mike Celluci for only a month when Vicki left the force and the final screaming match had occurred, smiled a little self- consciously and said, “How about we just do this by the book?”
 
 
Vicki released a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. “Sure, that’d be fine.” Taking refuge from emotions in police procedure—a worldwide law enforcement tradition.

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Blood Trail
Excerpt

ONE
 
 
THE THREE-QUARTER MOON, HANGING low in the night sky, turned even tamed and placid farmland into a mysterious landscape of silver light and shadows. Each blade of grass, toasted golden brown by two months of summer heat, had a thin black replica stretching out behind it. The bushes along the fence bottom, highways for those too timid to brave the open fields, rustled once and then were silent as some nocturnal creature went about its business.
 
 
Their summer-shorn fleece turned milky white by the moonlight, a large flock of sheep had settled for the night in one corner of the meadow. Except for the rhythmic motion of a number of jaws and the occasional flick of an ear or twitch of a lamb unable to be still for long, even in sleep, they appeared to be an outcropping of pale stone. An outcropping come suddenly to life as several heads rose at once, aristocratic noses pointed into the breeze.
 
 
They were obviously familiar with the creature that bounded over the fence and into the meadow, for although the ewes remained alert they watched it approach with mild curiosity rather than alarm.
 
 
The huge black beast paused to mark a fence post, then trotted a few steps into the field and sat down, gazing back at the sheep with a proprietary air. Something in its general outline, in the shape of its head, said wolf just as its coloring, its size, its breadth of chest, and the reaction of the flock said dog.
 
 
Convinced that all was as it should be, it began to lope along the edge of the fence bottom, plumed tail streaming behind it like a banner, moon-silvered highlights rippling through its thick fur with every movement. Picking up speed, it leapt a thistle—more for the sheer joy of leaping than because the thistle was in its way—and cut diagonally across the lower end of the pasture.
 
 
With no more warning than a distant cough, the gleaming black head exploded in a shower of blood and bone. The body, lifted off its feet by the impact, spasmed for a frenzied moment and then lay still.
 
 
Bleating in terror at the sudden blood scent, the sheep panicked, racing to the far end of the field and pressing in a huddled noisy mass against the fence. Fortunately, the direction they’d taken had moved them upwind, not down. When nothing further happened, they began to calm and a few of the older ewes moved themselves and their lambs out of the crowding and began to settle once again.
 
 
It was doubtful that the three animals who leapt the fence a short time later even noticed the sheep. Huge paws seeming to barely touch ground, they raced to the body. One of them, russet hackles high, started back along the slain animal’s trail but a growl from the bigger of the two remaining called it back.
 
 
Three pointed muzzles lifted and the howl that lifted with them panicked the sheep yet again. As the sound rose and fell, its primal cadences wiped out any remaining resemblance the three howling might have had to dogs.
 
 
 
Vicki hated August. It was the month in which Toronto proved what a world class city it had become; when the heat and humidity hung on to the car exhaust and the air in the concrete and glass canyon at Yonge and Bloor took on a yellowish-brown hue that left a bitter taste in the back of the throat; when every loose screw in the city decided to take a walk on the wild side and tempers were baked short. The police, in their navy blue pants and hats and heavy boots, hated August for both personal and professional reasons. Vicki had moved quickly out of uniform, and out of the force entirely a year ago, but she still hated August. In fact, as August was now forever linked with her leaving a job she’d loved, this least congenial of months had been blackened beyond redemption.
 
 
As she unlocked the door to her apartment, she tried not to smell herself. She’d spent the day, the last three days, working as an order picker in a small coffee processing factory up on Railside Drive. In the last month the company had been plagued with a number of equipment failures that the owners had finally come to realize were sabotage. Desperate—a small specialty company couldn’t afford the downtime if they hoped to complete with the multinationals—the owners had hired Vicki to find out what was going on.
 
 
“And Vicki Nelson, private investigator, comes through again.” She closed the door behind her and thankfully peeled off her damp T-shirt. She’d been able to pinpoint who was jamming the processing machines on her first day but even knowing that, it took her two further days to discover how and to gather enough evidence to bring charges. Tomorrow she’d go in, lay the report on Mr. Glassman’s desk and never go near the place again.
 
 
Tonight, she wanted a shower, something to eat that didn’t smell like coffee, and a long vapid evening spent sucking at the boob tube.
 
 
She kicked the filthy T-shirt into a corner as she peeled off her jeans. The only up side about the entire experience was that smelling as she did, she’d gotten a seat on the subway coming home and no one had tried to crowd her.
 
 
The hot water had just begun to pound the stink and stiffness away when the phone rang. And rang. She tried to ignore it, to let the shower drown it out, but had little success. She’d always been a compulsive phone answerer. Muttering under her breath, she turned the water off, quickly wrapped herself in towels, and raced for the receiver.
 
 
“Oh there you are, dear. What took you so long?”
 
 
“It’s a very small apartment, Mom.” Vicki sighed. She should’ve known. “Didn’t it occur to you at about the seventh ring that maybe I wasn’t going to answer the phone?”
 
 
“Of course not. I knew you were home or you’d have had your machine plugged in.”
 
 
She never left her machine on when she was home. She considered it the ultimate in rudeness. Maybe it was time to reconsider. The towel began to unwind and she made a grab for it—a second floor apartment was not high enough up for walking around in skin. “I was in the shower, Mom.”
 
 
“Good, then I didn’t get you away from anything important. I wanted to call you before I left work . . .”
 
 
“So that the Life Sciences Department would pay for the call,” Vicki added silently. Her mother had been working as a secretary at Queen’s University in Kingston for longer than most of the tenured professors and she stretched job perks as far and as often as she could.
 
 
“. . . and find out when you had vacation this year so maybe we could spend some time together.”
 
 
Right. Vicki loved her mother but more than three days in her company usually had her ready to commit matricide. “I don’t get vacations anymore, Mom. I’m self-employed now and I have to take what jobs come my way. And besides, you were here in April.”
 
 
“You were in the hospital, Vicki, it wasn’t exactly a social visit.”
 
 
The two vertical scars on her left wrist had faded to fine red lines against the pale skin. It looked like a suicide attempt and it had taken some extremely fancy footwork to avoid telling her mother how she’d actually gotten them. Being set up as a sacrifice for a demon by a sociopathic hacker was not something her mother would deal with well. “As soon as I get a free weekend, I’ll come by. I promise. I have to go now, I’m dripping on the carpet.”
 
 
“Bring that Henry Fitzroy with you. I’d like to meet him.”
 
 
Vicki grinned. Henry Fitzroy and her mother. That might be worth a weekend in Kingston. “I don’t think so, Mom.”
 
 
“Why not? What’s wrong with him? Why was he avoiding me at the hospital?”
 
 
“He wasn’t avoiding you and there’s nothing wrong with him.” Okay, so he died in 1536. It hadn’t slowed him down. “He’s a writer. He’s a little . . . unusual.”
 
 
“More unusual than Michael Celluci?”
 
 
“Mother!”
 
 
She could almost hear her mother’s brows rise. “Honey, you may not remember this, but you’ve dated a number of unusual boys in your time.”
 
 
“I’m not dating boys anymore, Mom. I’m almost thirty-two years old.”
 
 
“You know what I mean. Remember that young man in high school? I don’t recall his name but he kept a harem. . . .”
 
 
“I’ll call you, Mom.”
 
 
“Soon.”
 
 
“Soon,” Vicki agreed, rescued the towel again and hung up. “Dated unusual boys in my time. . . .” She snorted and headed back toward the bathroom. All right, a couple of them may have been a bit strange but she was over one hundred percent certain that none of them were vampires.
 
 
She turned the water back on and grinned, imagining the scene. Mom, I’d like you to meet Henry Fitzroy. He drinks blood. The grin widened as she stepped under the water. Her mother, infinitely practical, would probably ask what type. It took a lot to disrupt her mother’s view of the world.
 
 
She’d just dumped a pan of scrambled eggs onto a plate when the phone rang again.
 
 
“It figures,” she muttered, grabbing a fork and crossing into the living room. “Damn thing never rings when I’m not doing anything.” Sunset wouldn’t be for a couple of hours yet—it wasn’t Henry.
 
 
“Vicki? Celluci.” With so many Michaels on the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force, most of them had gotten into the habit of perpetually referring to themselves by their last names, on duty and off. “You remember the name of Quest’s alleged accomplice? The guy who never got charged.”
 
 
“Good evening, Mike. Nice to hear from you. I’m fine thanks.” She shoveled a forkful of egg into her mouth and waited for the explosion.
 
 
“Cut the crap, Vicki. He had some woman’s name . . . Marion, Marilyn. . . .”
 
 
“Margot. Alan Margot. Why?”
 
 
Even over the sounds of traffic, she could hear the self-satisfied smile in his voice. “It’s classified.”
 
 
“Listen you son of a bitch, when you pick my brains ’cause you’re too lazy to look it up, you don’t come back with ‘it’s classified.’ Not if you want to live to collect your pension.”
 
 
He sighed. “Use the brain you’re accusing me of picking.”
 
 
“You pulled another body out of the lake?”
 
 
“Mere moments ago.”
 
 
So he was still at the site. That explained the background noise. “Same pattern of bruises?”
 
 
“Near as I can tell. Coroner just took the body away.”
 
 
“Nail the bastard.”
 
 
“That,” he told her, “is the plan.”
 
 
She hung up and slid into her leather recliner, eggs balanced precariously on the arm. Two years ago, the case had been hers. Hers the responsibility of finding the scum who’d beaten a fifteen-year-old girl
senseless and then dropped the unconscious body in Lake Ontario. Six weeks of work and they’d picked up a man named Quest, picked him up, charged him, and made it stick. There’d been a another man involved, Vicki had been sure of it, but Quest wouldn’t talk and they hadn’t been able to lay charges.
 
 
This time. . . .
 
 
She yanked her glasses off her nose. This time, Celluci would get him, and Vicki Nelson, ex-fair-haired
girl of the metro police would be sitting on her duff. The room in front of her blurred into an indistinguishable mass of fuzz-edged colors and she shoved the glasses back on.
 
 
“Shit!”
 
 
Breathing deeply, she forced herself to calm. After all, what mattered was catching Margot—not who made the collar. She scooped up the remote and flicked on the television. The Jays were in Milwaukee.
 
 
“The boys of summer,” she sighed, and dug into her cooled eggs, giving herself over to the hypnotic accents of the announcers doing the pregame show. Like most Canadians over a certain age, Vicki was a hockey fan first but it was almost impossible to live in Toronto and not have baseball make inroads into your affections.
 
 
It was the bottom of the seventh, the score three to five, the Jays behind two runs, two out and a man on second with Mookie Wilson at bat. Wilson was hitting over three hundred against right-handers and Vicki could see that the Brewers’ pitcher was sweating. At which point, the phone rang.
 
 
“It figures.” She stretched a long arm down and dragged the phone up onto her lap. Sunset had been at eight forty-one. It was now nine oh five. It had to be Henry.
 
 
Ball one.
 
 
“Yeah, what?”
 
 
“Vicki? It’s Henry. Are you all right?”
 
 
Strike one.
 
 
“Yeah, I’m fine. You just called at a bad time.”
 
 
“I’m sorry, but I have some friends here who need your help.”
 
 
“My help?”
 
 
“Well, they need the help of a private investigator and you’re the only one I know.”
 
 
Strike two.
 
 
“They need help right now?” There were only two innings left in the game. How desperate could it be?
 
 
“Vicki, it’s important.” And she could tell by his voice that it was.
 
 
She sighed as Wilson popped out to left field, ending the inning, and thumbed the television off. “Well, if it’s that important . . .”
 
 
“It is.”
 
 
“. . . then I’ll be right over.” With the receiver halfway back to the cradle, a sudden thought occurred to her and she snapped it back up to her mouth. “Henry?”
 
 
He was still there. “Yes?”
 
 
“These friends, they aren’t vampires are they?”
 
 
“No.” Through his concern, he sounded a little amused. “They aren’t vampires.”
 
 
 
Greg gave the young woman a neutral nod as he buzzed her through the security check and into the lobby. Vicki Nelson her name was and she’d dropped by a number of times over the summer while he was on the desk. Although she looked like the kind of person he’d have liked under other circumstances he simply couldn’t get over the impressions he’d formed during their initial meeting last spring. It didn’t help when observation confirmed that she was not the sort who would normally answer the door half dressed, proving, to his mind, his feeling that she’d been hiding something that night.
 
 
But what?
 
 
Over the last couple of months his belief that Henry Fitzroy was a vampire had begun to fade. He liked Mr. Fitzroy, respected him, realized that all his idiosyncrasies could stem from being a writer rather than a creature of the night but one last lingering doubt remained.
 
 
What had the young woman been hiding that night? And why?
 
 
Occasionally, just for his peace of mind, Greg considered asking her outright, but a certain set to her jaw had always stopped him. So he wondered. And he kept an eye on things. Just in case.

close this panel
Smoke and Shadows
Excerpt

Tony waited. Picked a marshmallow banana out of the bowl.

“Okay, Pam asked for you and CB wouldn’t let me call in even if she hadn’t. Happy?” She shoved the cut sheets up against his chest. “Trucks are there at eleven, shoot by midnight, gone by one and if you believe that, I’ve got some waterfront land going cheap.”

.

“He led his city through the darkest night toward the dawn.”

Heart slamming against his ribs, Tony jumped forward and spun around, managing to accomplish both movements more or less simultaneously and still stay on his feet. He scowled at the shadowy figure just barely visible at the edge of the streetlight’s circle, knowing that every nuance of his expression could be clearly seen. “Fuck, Henry! You just don’t sneak up on a guy and purr bad cutlines into his ear!”

“Sorry.” Henry stepped into the light, red-gold hair gleaming, full lips curved up into a smile.

Tony knew that smile. It was the one that went along with It’s fun to be a vampire! Which was not only a much better cutline than the one plastered all over the Darkest Night promo package, it was indicative of an almost playful mood—playful as it referred to an undead creature of the night. “Where did you park?”

“Don’t worry; I’m well out of the way.”

“Cops give you any hassle?”

The smile changed slightly and Henry shoved his hands into the pockets of his oiled-canvas trenchcoat. “Do they ever?”

Tony glanced down the road to where a pair of constables from the Burnaby RCMP detachment stood beside their cruiser. “You didn’t, you know, vamp them?”

“Do I ever?”

“Sometimes.”

“Not this time.”

“Good. Because they’re already a little jumpy.” He nodded toward the trucks and, when Henry fell into step beside him, wet dry lips and added, “Everyone’s a little jumpy.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Night shoot, moderately dangerous stunt, an explosion . . . pick one.”

“You don’t believe it’s any of those reasons.”

Tony glanced over at Henry. “You asking?”

“Not really, no.”

Before he could continue, Tony waved a cautioning hand and continued the movement down to pull his walkie-talkie from the holster on his belt. “Yeah, Pam?” One finger pushed his ear jack in a little deeper. “Okay, I’m on it. I’ve got go see when Daniel’s due out of makeup,” he told Henry as he reholstered. “You okay here?”

Henry looked pointedly around. “I think I’ll be safe enough.”

“Just . . .”

“Stay out of the way. I know.” Henry’s smile changed yet again as he watched Tony hurry off toward the most distant of the studio’s three trailers. In spite of the eyebrow piercing, he looked, for lack of a better word, competent. Like he knew exactly what he was doing. It was what Henry came to night shoots to see—Tony living the life he’d chosen and living it well. It made letting him go a little easier.

Not that he had actually let go.

Letting go was not something Henry did well. Or, if truth be told, at all.

But within this small piece of the night, they could both pretend that he was nothing more than the friend he appeared to be.

Pretend.

He made his living writing the kind of books that allowed women—and the occasional man—to pretend for 400 odd pages that they lived a life of romance and adventure, but this, these images captured and manipulated and then spoon-fed to the masses as art, this was pretense without imagination. He’d never had to actually blow up a BMW in order for his readers to imagine a car accident.

Television caused imagination to atrophy.

His upper lip pulled back off his teeth as he watched the director laying out the angles of the explosion for the camera operator.

Television substituted for culture.

The feel of watching eyes turned him to face a middle-aged woman standing beside the craft services table, a coffee clutched between both hands, her gaze locked on his face, her expression asking, What are you?

Henry pulled his masks back into place and only then, only when he presented a face that spoke of no danger at all, did he turn away. The woman had been curious, not afraid, and would easily convince herself that she’d been asking who are you? not what. No harm had been done, but he’d have to be more careful. Tony was right. Everyone was a little jumpy tonight.

His nostrils flared as he tested the air. He could smell nothing except . . .

“Hey, Henry!”

. . . a chemical fire retardant.

“This is Daniel. He’s our stunt coordinator and he’ll be crashing the car tonight.”

Henry took the callused hand offered and found himself studying a man not significantly taller than his own five six. Given that Tony was five ten, the stunt coordinator could be no more than five eight. Not exactly what Henry had expected.

“Daniel also does all the stunt work for Mason and for Lee,” Tony continued. “They almost never get blown up together.”

“I’m pretty much the entire department,” Daniel admitted, grinning as he brushed a bit of tangled wig back off his face. “We can’t afford to blow them up together. Tony says you’re a writer. Television?”

“Novels.”

“No shit? My wife used to write porn, but with all the free stuff out on the web these days there’s no money in it so she switched back to writing ad copy. Now, if you’ll both excuse me, I’ve got to go make sure I’ll survive tonight’s pyrotechnics.” He sketched a salute and trotted across the road to a parked BMW.

“Seems like a nice guy,” Henry said quietly.

“He is.”

“There’s free porn on the web?”

Tony snorted, his elbow impacting lightly with Henry’s side. “Stop it.”

“So what’s going to happen?”

“Daniel, playing the part of a car thief . . .”

Eyes narrowed, Henry stared across the road. “Whose head is being devoured by a distant relative of Cthulhu.”

“Apparently that’s what happens when you soak dreadlocks in fire retardant.”

“And the size?”

“The wig’s glued to a helmet.”

“You’re kidding me?”

“Yeah, that’s what our hairdresser said.” Tony’s shrug suggested the hairdresser had been significantly more vocal. “Anyway, he’s going to drive the beemer along this stretch of road until he swerves to miss an apparition of evil . . .”

“A what?”

“I don’t think the writers have decided what it actually is yet, but don’t worry, the guys in post always come through.”

“I’m actually more concerned that this vampire detective of yours drives a BMW.”

“Well, he won’t after tonight, so that’s okay. So Daniel swerves to miss this apparition and the car flips, rolls, and bang!”

“Cars don’t blow up that easily.” Henry’s pale hand sketched a protest on the night as Daniel slid behind the wheel.

“Explosions make better television.”

“It makes no logical sense.”

“Now, you’re getting it.” Tony’s face went blank for a moment, then he bent and picked up the fire extinguisher he’d set at his feet. “Looks like we’re ready to go.”

“And you’re . . .”

“Not actually doing anything while we’re shooting since we’ve got Mounties blocking the road, so I’m part of the safety crew. And as long as you’re not planning on telling the union . . .”

“I’m not talking to your union as much as I used to.”

He could feel Tony staring at him but he kept his gaze on the car.

“You’re in a weird mood tonight. Is it . . . “”

Henry shook his head, cutting off the question. He didn’t know what it was.

He wasn’t entirely certain it was anything at all.

Jumpy.

Everyone was jumpy.

The car backed up.

A young woman called scene and take, then smacked the top down on a piece of blackboard in front of the closer of the two cameras. About fifteen people, including Tony, yelled, “Rolling,” for no reason Henry could immediately determine since the director’s voice had carried clearly over the entire location.

The car began to speed up.

When they finished with it in editing, it would look as though it was racing down Lakefield Drive. Considering that Daniel was driving toward a certain crash, it was moving fast enough.

A squeal of brakes just before the outside tires swerved onto the ramp.

Grip tightening on the fire extinguisher, Tony braced for an impact even though he knew there was nothing there.

Nothing there.

Except . . .

Darkness lingered on the other side of the ramp.

An asinine observation given that it was the middle of the night and the darkness had nowhere else to go. Except . . . it seemed darker. Like the night had thickened just in that spot.

I must’ve inhaled more accelerant than I thought.

Up.

The darkness seemed to be half in the car although logically, if the darkness existed at all, the car should have been halfway through it.

Over.

The impact of steel against asphalt as the car hit and rolled was always louder than expected. Tony jerked and winced as glass shattered and the BMW finally skidded to a stop on its roof.

Flame.

“Keep rolling!” That was Pam’s voice. “Arra, what the hell’s going on?”

There shouldn’t be flames, not yet.

Daniel wasn’t out of the car.

Couldn’t get out of the car, Tony realized as he started to run.

He felt more than saw Henry speed by him and by the time he arrived by the driver’s side door, the crumpled metal was screaming a surrender as the door opened. Dropping down to one knee, he allowed Daniel to grab onto his shoulder and, backing up, dragged him from the car and out through the billowing smoke.

The rest of the safety crew arrived as the stunt co-coordinator gained his feet, free hand waving away any additional help. He stared at the car for a long moment, brow furrowed under the masking dreadlocks then he visibly shook it off. “Goddamned fucking door jammed! Everyone back off and let it blow.”

“Daniel . . .”

“Don’t worry about it, Tony. I’m fine.” Guiding the younger man away from the car, he raised his voice, “I said, let it blow!”

The explosion was, as all Arra’s explosions were, perfect. A lot of flash, not much smoke, the car outlined within the fire.

For a heartbeat, the shadows held their ground against the flames. A heartbeat later, they fled.

And a heartbeat beyond that, Tony glanced away from the wreck to find Henry beside him, smelling of accelerant. “He was muttering about something touching him. Something cold.”

“Daniel?”

The vampire nodded.

“Something touched him before you got there?”

Henry glanced down at his hands. “I didn’t touch him. He didn’t even know I was there.”

The light from the fire painted the night orange and gold as far back as the director’s monitors. It looked as though Daniel, helmet in his hands, sweat plastering his short hair to his head, was telling Pam what happened. Leaving Henry staring at the burning car, Tony headed for the craft services table—well within eavesdropping range.

“. . . hardly see the end of the ramp, then I could hardly see at all. I thought it might be some kind of weird fog except it came with me when I rolled.”

“I didn’t see anything.”

“I didn’t exactly see anything either,” Daniel pointed out acerbically. “That’s kind of my point.”

Tony waited for him to mention the touch. He didn’t.

“It was probably just the fumes from the fire retardant affecting my eyes.”

“Probably.”

It sounded like a pact. An agreed-upon explanation.

Because what else could it have been?

As Daniel moved away, Arra came into view behind Pam’s shoulder. She looked terrified.

Not for Daniel.

Not about the part of the stunt that had nearly gone wrong.

Given her expression, Tony’d be willing to bet serious money that she’d forgotten both Daniel and the stunt.

Tony found himself quietly murmuring, “Apparition of evil,” as Pam finally yelled “Cut!” and Daniel’s crew moved in with the fire extinguishers.

 

 

close this panel
The Blood Books, Volume II
Excerpt

He had been almost aware for some time. Nothingness had shattered when they removed him from the chamber long concealed behind the centuries empty tomb of a forgotten priest. The final layer of the binding spell had been written on the rock wall smashed to gain access and, with that gone, the spell itself had begun to fray.Every movement frayed it further. The surrounding ka, more souls than had been near him in millennia, called him to feed. Slowly, he reached for memory.Then, just as he brushed against self and had only to reach out and grasp it and draw home the key to his freedom, the movement stopped and the lives went away. But the nothingness didn’t quite return.And that was the worst of all.

 

 

 

Sixteenth Dynasty, thought Dr. Rax running his finger lightly along the upper surface of the plain, unadorned rectangle of black basalt. Strange, when the rest of the collection was Eighteenth. He could now, however, understand why the British were willing to let the artifact go; although it was a splendid example of its type, it was neither going to bring new visitors flocking to the galleries nor was it likely to shed much light on the past.

Besides, thanks to the acquisitiveness of aristocracy with more money than brains, Great Britain has all the Egyptian antiquities it can hope to use. Dr. Rax was careful not to let that thought show on his face, as a member of said aristocracy, albeit of a more recent vintage, fidgeted at his shoulder.

Too well bred to actually ask, the fourteenth Baron Montclair leaned forward, hands shoved into the pockets of his crested blazer.

Dr. Rax, unsure if the younger man was looking worried or merely vacant, attempted to ignore him. And I thought Monty Python created the concept of the upper-class twit, he mused as he continued his inspection. How foolish of me.

Unlike most sarcophagi, the artifact Dr. Rax examined had no lid but rather a sliding stone panel in one narrow end. Briefly, he wondered why that feature alone hadn’t been enough to interest the British museums. As far as he knew the design survived on only one other sarcophagus, an alabaster beauty found by Zakaria Goneim in the unfinished step pyramid of Sekhem-khet.

Behind him, the fourteenth baron cleared his throat.

Dr. Rax continued to ignore him.

Although one corner had been chipped, the sarcophagus was in very good condition. Tucked away in one of the lower cellars of the Monclairs’ ancestral home for almost a hundred years, it seemed to have been ignored by everything including time.

And excluding spiders. He brushed aside a dusty curtain of webbing, frowned, and with fingers that wanted to tremble, pulled a penlight out of his suit pocket.

“I say, is something wrong?” The fourteenth baron had an excuse for sounding a little frantic. The very exclusive remodeling firm would be arriving in a little under a month to turn the ancestral pile into a very exclusive health club and that great bloody stone box was sitting right where he’d planned to put the women’s sauna.

The thudding of Dr. Rax’s heart almost drowned out the question. He managed to mutter, “Nothing.” Then he knelt and very carefully played the narrow beam of light over the lower edge of the sliding plate. Centered on the mortared seam, six inches above the base of the sarcophagus, was an oval of clay—a nearly perfect intact clay seal stamped with, as far as Dr. Rax could tell through the dust and the spiderwebs, the cartouche of Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom.

Just for a moment, he forgot to breathe.

An intact seal could mean only one thing.

The sarcophagus wasn’t—as everyone had assumed—empty.

For a dozen heartbeats, he stared at the seal and struggled with his conscience. The Brits had already said they didn’t want the artifact. He was under no obligation to let them know what they were giving away. On the other hand...

He sighed, switched off the penlight, and stood. “I need to make a call,” he told the anxious peer. “If you could show me to a phone.”

“Dr. Rax, what a pleasant surprise. Still out at Haversted Hall are you? Get a look at his lordship’s ‘bloody-great-black-stone-box’?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. And that’s why I’ve called.” He took a deep breath; best to get it over with quickly, the loss might hurt less. “Dr. Davis, did you actually send one of your people out here to look at the sarcophagus.”

“Why?” The British Egyptologist snorted. “Need some help identifying it?”

Abruptly, Dr. Rax remembered why, and how much, he disliked the other man. “I think I can manage to classify it, thank you. I was just wondering if any of your people had seen the artifact.”

“No need. We saw the rest of the junk Montclair dragged out of his nooks and crannies. You’d think that with all the precious bits and pieces leaving Egypt at the time, his Lordship’s ancestor could have brought home something worthwhile, even by accident, wouldn’t you?”

Professional ethics warred with desire. Ethics won. “About the sarcophagus . . .”

“Look, Dr. Rax . . .” On the other end of the line, Dr. Davis sighed explosively. “.

. . this sarcophagus might be a big thing for you, but trust me, we’ve got all we need. We have storerooms of important, historically significant artifacts we may never have time to study.” And you don’t, was the not too subtly implied message. “I think we can allow one unadorned hunk of basalt to go to the colonies.”

“So I can send for my preparators and start packing it up?” Dr. Rax asked quietly, his tone in severe contrast to the white-knuckled grip that twisted the phone cord.

“If you’re sure you don’t want to use a couple of my people . . .”

Not if my only other option was to carry the sarcophagus on my lap all the way home. “No, thank you. I’m sure all your people have plenty of historically significant things to do.”

“Well, if that’s the way you want it, be my guest. I’ll have the paperwork done up and sent down to you at the Hall. You’ll be able to get your artifact out of the country as easily as if it were a plaster statue of Big Ben.” Which, his tone said clearly, is about its equivalent value.

“Thank you, Dr. Davis.” You pompous, egocentric asshole, Dr. Rax added silently as he hung up. Oh, well, he soothed his lacerated conscience, no one can say I didn’t try.

He straightened his jacket and turned to face the hovering baron, smiling reassuringly. “I believe you said that 50,000 pounds was your asking price . . . “”

The movement had begun again and the memories strengthened. Sand and sun. Heat. Light. He had no need to remember darkness; darkness had been his companion for too long.

As the weight of the sarcophagus made flying out of the question, a leisurely trip back across the Atlantic on the grand old lady of luxury ocean liners, the QE II, would have been nice. Unfortunately, the acquisitions budget had been stretched almost to the breaking point with the purchase and the packing and the insurance and the best the museum could afford was a Danish freighter heading out of Liverpool for Halifax. The ship left England on October 2nd. God and the North Atlantic willing, she’d reach Canada in ten days.

Dr. Rax sent the two preparators back by plane and he himself traveled with the artifact. It was foolish, he knew, but he didn’t want to be parted from it. Although the ship occasionally carried passengers, the accommodations were spartan and the meals, while nourishing, were plain. Dr. Rax didn’t notice. Refused access to the cargo hold where he could be near the sarcophagus and the mummy he was sure it contained, he stayed as close as he could, caught up on paperwork, and at night lay in his narrow bunk and visualized the opening of the coffin.

Sometimes, he removed the seal and slid the end panel up in the full glare of the media; the find of the century, on every news program and front page in the world. There’d be book contracts, and speaking tours, and years of research as the contents were studied, then removed to be studied further.

Sometimes, it was just him and his staff, working slowly and meticulously. Pure science. Pure discovery. And still the years of research.

He imagined the contents in every possible form or combination of forms. Some nights expanding on the descriptions, some nights simplifying. It wouldn’t be a royal mummy—more likely a priest or an official of the court—and so hopefully would have missed the anointing with aromatic oils that had partially destroyed the mummy of Tutankhamen.

He grew so aware of it that he felt he could go into the hold and pick its container out of hundreds of identical containers. His thoughts became filled with it to the exclusion of all else; of the sea, of the ship, of the sailors. One of the Portuguese sailors began making the sign against the evil eye whenever he approached.

He started to speak to it each night before he slept.

“Soon,” he told it. “Soon.”

He remembered a face, thin and worried, bending over him and constantly muttering. He remembered a hand, the soft skin damp with sweat as it brushed his eyes closed. He remembered terror as he felt the fabric laid across his face. He remembered pain as the strip of linen that held the spell was wrapped around him and secured.But he couldn’t remember self.He could sense only one ka, and that at such a distance he knew it must be reaching for him as he reached for it.

 

 

“Soon,” it told him. “Soon.”

He could wait.

The air at the museum loading dock was so charged with suppressed excitement that even the driver of the van, a man laconic to the point of legend, became infected. He pulled the keys out of his pocket like he was pulling a rabbit out of a hat and opened the van doors with a flourish that added a silent Tah dah to the proceedings.

The plywood packing crate, reinforced with two by twos and strapping, looked no different from any number of other crates that the Royal Ontario Museum had received over the years, but the entire Egyptology Department—none of whom had a reason to be down in Receiving—surged forward and Dr. Rax beamed like the Madonna must have beamed into the manger.

Preparators did not usually unload trucks. They unloaded this one. And as much as he single-handedly wanted to carry the crate up to the workroom, Dr. Rax stood aside and let them get on with it. His mummy deserved the best.

“Hail the conquering hero comes.” Dr. Rachel Shane, the assistant curator, walked over to stand beside him. “Welcome back, Elias. You look a little tired.”

“I haven’t been sleeping well,” Dr. Rax admitted, rubbing eyes already rimmed with red.

“Guilty conscience?”

He snorted, recognizing she was teasing. “Strange dreams about being tied down and slowly suffocating.”

“Maybe you’re being possessed.” She nodded at the crate.

He snorted again. “Maybe the Board of Directors has been trying to contact me.”

Glancing around, he scowled at the rest of his staff. “Don’t you lot have anything better to do than stand around watching a wooden box come off a truck?”

Only the newest grad student looked nervous, the others merely grinned and collectively shook their heads.

Dr. Rax grinned as well; he couldn’t help himself. He was exhausted and badly in need of something more sustaining than the coffee and fast food they’d consumed at every stop between Halifax and Toronto, but he’d also never felt this elated. This artifact had the potential to put the Royal Ontario Museum, already an internationally respected institution, on the scientific map and everyone in the room knew it. “As much as I’d like to believe that all this excitement is directed at my return, I know damned well it isn’t.” No one bothered to protest. “And as you can now see there’s nothing to see, why don’t the lot of you head back up to the workroom where we can all jump about and enthuse in the privacy of our own department?”

Behind him, Dr. Shane added her own silent but emphatic endorsement to that suggestion.

It took more than a few last, lingering looks at the crate, but, finally, Receiving emptied.

“I suppose the whole building knows what we’ve got?” Dr. Rax asked as he and Dr. Shane followed the crate and the preparators onto the freight elevator.

Dr. Shane shook her head. “Surprisingly enough, considering the way gossip usually travels in this rabbit warren, no. All of our people have been very closemouthed.” Dark brows drew down. “Just in case.” Just in case it does turn out to be empty, the less people know, the less our professional reputations will suffer. There hasn’t been a new mummy uncovered in decades.

Dr. Rax chose to ignore the subtext. “So Von Thorne doesn’t know?” While the Department of Egyptology didn’t really resent the Far East’s beautiful new temple wing, they did resent its curator’s more-antiquarian-than-thou attitude concerning it.

“If he does,” Dr. Shane said emphatically, “he hasn’t heard about it from us.”

As one, the two Egyptologists turned to the preparators who worked, not just for them, but for the museum at large.

One hand resting lightly on the top of the crate, Karen Lahey drew herself up to her full height. “Well he hasn’t heard about it from us. Not after accusing us of creating a nonexistent crack in that porcelain Buddha.”

Her companion grunted agreement.

The freight elevator stopped on five, the doors opened, and Dr. Van Thorne beamed genially in at them.

“So, you’re back from your shopping trip, Elias. Pick up anything interesting?”

Dr. Rax managed a not very polite smile. “Just the usual sorts of things, Alex.”

Stepping nimbly out of the way as the preparators rolled the crate from the elevator, Dr. Von Thorne patted the wood as it passed; a kind of careless benediction.

“Ah,” he said. “More broken bits of pottery, eh?”

“Something like that.” Dr. Rax’s smile had begun to show more teeth. Dr. Shane grabbed his arm and propelled him down the hall.

As the doors of the workroom swung closed behind him, the weight of responsibility for the sarcophagus lifted off his shoulders. There was still a lot to do, and any number of things that could yet go wrong, but the journey at least had been safely completed. He felt like a modern day Anubis, escorting the dead to eternal life in the Underworld, and wondered how the ancient god had managed to bear such an exhausting burden.

He rested both hands on the crate, aware through the wood and the packing and the stone and whatever interior coffin the stone concealed, of the body that lay at its heart. “We’re here,” he told it softly. “Welcome home.”

The ka that had been so constant was now joined by others. He could feel them outside the binding, calling, being, driving him into a frenzy with their nearness and their inaccessibility. If he could only remember . . .And then, suddenly, the surrounding ka began to fade. Near panic, he reached for the one he knew and felt it moving away. He hung onto it as long as he could, then he hung onto the sense of it, then the memory

.

Not alone. Please, not alone again.

When it returned, he would have wept if he’d remembered how.

Refreshed by a shower and a good night’s sleep plagued by nothing more than a vague sense of loss, Dr. Rax stared down at the sarcophagus. It had been cataloged—measured, described, given the card number 991.862.1—and now existed as an official possession of the Royal Ontario Museum. The time had come.

“Is the video camera ready?” he asked pulling on a pair of new cotton gloves.

“Ready, Doctor.” Doris Bercarich, who took care of most of the departmental photography, squinted through the view finder. She’d already taken two films of still photography—one black and white, one color—and her camera now hung around the neck of the more mechanically competent of the two grad students. He’d continue to take photographs while she shot tape. If she had anything to say about it, and she did, this was going to be one well documented mummy.

“Ready, Dr. Shane?”

“Ready, Dr. Rax.” She tugged at the cuffs of her gloves, then picked up the sterile cotton pad that would catch the removed seal. “You can start any time.”

He nodded, took a deep breath, and knelt. With the sterile pad in place, he slid the flexible blade of the palette knife behind the seal and carefully worked at the centuries old clay. Although his hands were sure, his stomach tied itself in knots, tighter and tighter as the seconds passed and his fear grew that the seal, in spite of the preservatives, could be removed only as a featureless handful of red clay. While he worked, he kept up a low-voiced commentary of the physical sensations he was receiving through the handle of the knife.

Then he felt something give and a hairline crack appeared diagonally across the outer surface of the seal.

For a heartbeat the only sound in the room was the soft whir of the video camera.

A heartbeat later, the seal, broken cleanly in two, halves held in place by the preservative, lay on the cotton pad.

As one, the Department of Egyptology remembered how to breathe.

He felt the seal break, heard the fracture resonate throughout the ages.He remembered who he was. What he was. What they had done to him.He remembered anger.He drew on the anger for strength, then he threw himself against his bonds. Too much of the spell remained; he was now aware but still as bound as he had been. His ka howled in silent frustration.

 

 

 

I will be free!

“Soon,” came the quiet answer. “Soon.”

Five hours and seven rolls of film later, the inner coffin lay on padded wooden supports, free of its encasing stone for the first time in millennia.

“Well,” Dr. Shane frowned down at the painted wood, “that’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”

The rest of the department nodded in agreement; except for Dr. Rax who fought not to step forward and throw off the lid.

The coffin was anthropomorphic but only vaguely. There were no features either carved into or painted on the wood, nor any symbols of Anubis or Osiris as might be expected. Instead, a mighty serpent coiled its length around the coffin, its head, marked with the cartouche of Thoth, resting above the breast of the mummy. At the head of the coffin was a representation of Setu, a minor god who stood guard in the tenth hour of Tuat, the underworld, and used a javelin to help Ra slay his enemies. At the foot of the coffin was a representation of Shemerthi, identical in all ways to the other guardian save that he used a bow. Small snakes, coiled and watchful, filled in the spaces that the great serpent left bare.

In Egyptian mythology, serpents were the guardians of the underworld.As a work of art, it was beautiful; the colors so rich and vibrant that the artist might have finished work three hours instead of three millennia ago. As a window on history, the glass was cloudy at best.

It took them the rest of the day to photograph it, catalog it, and remove the seal of cedar gum that held the lid tightly in place.

“Why this stuff hasn’t dried to a nice, easily removable powder, I have no idea.”

Dr. Shane shook the kinks out of one stiff leg, and then the other. This had been the second day she’d spent mostly on her knees and, while it was a favored position of archaeologists, she’d never been a great believer in crippling herself for science.

“It looks,” she added slowly, her hand stretching out but not quite touching one of the small serpents, “like something interred in this coffin was not supposed to get out.”

One of the graduate students laughed, a high-pitched giggle quickly cut off.

“Open it,” Dr. Rax commanded, through lips suddenly dry.

“On three. One, two, three!”

The lid lifted cleanly, heavier than it looked.

“Ahhh.” The sound came involuntarily from half a dozen throats. Placing the lid carefully on another padded trestle, Dr. Rax, heart slamming painfully against his ribs, turned to see what might lie revealed.

The mummy lay thickly swathed in ancient linen and the smell of cedar was almost overpowering—the inside of the casket had been lined with the aromatic wood. Someone sneezed although no one noticed who. A long strip of fabric, closely covered in scarlet hieroglyphs was wrapped around the body following the path the serpent had taken around the coffin. The mummy wore no death mask, but features were visible in relief through the cloth.

The dry air of Egypt was good to the dead, preserving them for the future to study by leeching all the moisture from even protected tissue. Embalming was only the first step and, as sites that predated the pharaohs proved, not even the most necessary one.

Desiccated was the only word to describe the face beneath the linen, although other, more flattering words might have been used once, for the cheekbones were high and sharp, the chin determined, and the overall impression one of strength.

Dr. Rax let out a long breath he hadn’t been aware of holding and the tension visibly left his shoulders.

“You were expecting maybe Bela Lugosi?” Dr. Shane asked dryly, pitched for his ears alone. The look he turned on her—half horror, half exhaustion—made her regret the words almost instantly. “Can we go home now?” she asked in a tone deliberately light. “Or did you want to cram another two years of research into this evening?”

He did. He saw his hand reach out and hover over the strip of hieroglyphs. He snatched it back.

“Pack it up,” he said, straightening, forcing his voice to show no sign of how he had to fight to form the words. “We’ll deal with it Monday.” Then he turned and, before he could change his mind, strode from the workroom.

***

He would have laughed aloud had it been possible, unable to contain the rush of exaltation. His body might still be bound, but with the opening of his prison his ka was free.Free . . . freed . . . feed.

 

***

His kind never dreamed, or so he'd always believed—they lost dreaming as they lost the day—but in spite of this, for the first time in over four hundred and fifty years, he came to awareness with a memory that had no connection to his waking life.

Sunlight. He hadn't seen the sun since 1539 and he had never seen it as a golden disk in an azure sky, heat spreading a shimmering shield around it.

Henry Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry VIII, romance writer, vampire, lay in the darkness, stared at nothing, and wondered what the hell was going on. Was he losing his mind? It had happened to others of his kind. They grew so that they couldn't stand the night and finally they gave themselves to the sun and death. Was this memory, then, the beginning of the end?

He didn't think so. He felt sane. But would a madman recognize his condition?

''This is going nowhere.'' Lips tight, he swung his legs off the bed and stood. He certainly had no conscious wish to die. If his subconscious had other ideas, it would be in for a fight. But the memory lingered. It lingered in the shower. It lingered as he dressed. A blazing circle of fire. When he closed his eyes, he could see the image on his lids.

His hand was on the phone before he remembered; she was with him tonight.

''Damn!''

In the last few months Vicki Nelson had become a necessary part of his life. He fed from her as often as it was safe, and blood and sex had pulled them closer into friendship if not something stronger. At least on his side of the relationship.

''Relationship, Jesu! Now that's a word for the nineties.'' Tonight, he only wanted to talk to her, to discuss the dream—if that's what it was—and the fears that came with it.

Running pale fingers through short, sandy-blond hair, he walked across the condo to look out at the lights of Toronto. Vampires hunted alone, prowled the darkness alone, but they had been human once and perhaps at heart were human still, for every now and then, over the long years of their lives, they searched for a companion they could trust with the truth of what they were. He had found Vicki in the midst of violence and death, given her his truth, and waited for what she would give him in return. She'd offered him acceptance, only that, and he doubted she ever realized how rare a thing acceptance was. Through her, he'd had more contact with mortals since last spring than he'd had in the last hundred years.

Through her, two others knew his nature. Tony, an uncomplicated young man who, on occasion, shared bed and blood, and Detective-Sergeant Michael Celluci, who was neither young nor uncomplicated and while he hadn't come right out and said vampire, he was too intelligent a man to deny the evidence of his eyes.

Henry's fingers curled against the glass, forming slowly into a fist. She was with Celluci tonight. She'd as much as warned him of it when they'd last spoken. All right. Maybe he was getting a bit possessive. It was easier in the old days. She'd have been his then, no one else would have had a claim on her. How dared she be with someone else when he needed her?

The sun burned down in memory, an all-seeing yellow eye.

He frowned down at the city. He was not used to dealing with fear, so he fed the dream to his anger and allowed, almost forced, the Hunger to rise. He did not need her. He would hunt.

Below him, a thousand points of light glowed like a thousand tiny suns.

close this panel
The Future Falls
Excerpt

 

She lay stretched out under a beach umbrella, long silver braid coiled on top of her head, the fingers of one hand wrapped around a piña colada—made with real island rum and fresh coconut milk—the fingers of the other drumming against the broad teak arm of the lounge chair. She’d been watching a beach volleyball game and she hadn’t appreciated having her view of half-naked, athletic young men bounding about on the sand interrupted by the Sight of a falling rock.

Usually, what she Saw was as open to speculation as an election promise. She Saw fire burning in the center of Calgary, and her granddaughter holding a double handful of water, ready to put it out. She saw discarded antlers on an empty throne, and knew the bloodline had been both challenged and changed. Granted, the Elder God rising up from a rift in the ocean bed off Nova Scotia had turned out to be more literal than she’d anticipated, but, usually, what she Saw was the metaphysical equivalent of interpretive dance. She got out of it only what she put into it.

Usually.

She wasn’t in the habit of making the family a gift of what she’d Seen. A firm believer in anything free was worth the price paid, she usually arranged it so that the family worked for the information while providing her with weeks, or even months, of amusement. This time, however, she thought she might have to make an exception.

Having been banished from Calgary by her granddaughter, who was strong enough to enforce the banishment—pride warred with annoyance and occasionally won—she’d have to return to the family home in Ontario. To the old farmhouse where she’d raised her children and arranged for her grandchildren. In Ontario. In October. When the weather was seldom pleasant even with September barely out of sight.

Ontario meant Jane.

Who was less likely to be pleasant than the weather.

A warm breeze wafted past, bringing with it the scent of coconut oil and sweat, the sound of laughing young men willing to be charmed.

She had to be crazy to leave this behind.

Except . . .

It had been a very large rock.

Still, it wasn’t as if a few more days of lovely weather and obliging young men would make any significant difference in the end.

“. . . turns out that 2007 AG5 had masked the other asteroid.”

Pam Yorlem noted that Dr. Grayson’s voice had remained admirably steady throughout his report. The Director of JPL had dark circles under both eyes and his hands had been shaking slightly before he shoved them into his jacket pockets, but, considering that he’d spent the night on the red-eye from LAX then taken a taxi directly to NASA HQ after landing at Dulles, that was hardly surprising. Dr. Mehta, one of the scientists involved with the Near-Earth Object Program, looked significantly less affected, but she was twenty years younger than both Dr. Grayson and, Pam allowed, herself. Perhaps that made her more hopeful.

No, she seemed too smart for that.

Drawing in a deep breath, Pam released it slowly and said, “Let me see if I’ve got this. Sixteen months ago, LaSagra in southern Spain, determined that 2007 AG5, an M-class approximately 45 meters in diameter, will pass within about 3.5 Earth radii of the Earth’s surface inside the geosynchronous satellite ring. Seventeen hours ago, you, Dr. Mehta . . .” Pam nodded toward the astrophysicist on the other side of her desk. “. . . discovered that 2007 AG5 was hiding another asteroid. A larger asteroid. An asteroid over a kilometer in diameter, masked by the metal content of AG5, including, but not limited to, the brightness of reflected light from its polished surface. You determined the existence of this second asteroid mathematically while killing time waiting for Vesta data to run rather than by actually finding another bright spot in the sky.”

Dr. Mehta’s brows rose, but before she could speak, Pam raised a hand.

“My apologies; that was uncalled for.” Blaming the messenger was not the response of a person with her training and experience. “I’m not doubting your math. I’d like to, given that we apparently have twenty-one months before impact, but I’m not.” At least not right now. It seemed a safe assumption that after discovering an NEO on its way to becoming slightly more than near, everyone would check and then recheck the math. “How long before the trajectories of the two asteroids diverge to the point where there’ll be too many sightings of the second for us to keep . . .” She glanced down at the screen of her tablet, frowned, and looked up. “Seriously, Dr. Grayson? The Armageddon Asteroid? You’re naming a large chunk of rock that will destroy a significant proportion of life on this planet unless we pull off the Hail Mary Pass to end all Hail Mary Passes after a Michael Bay movie?”

“Subsurface nuclear explosives are one of the listed diversion options,” Dr. Grayson pointed out. He covered a yawn with the back of his hand. “Sorry, I can’t sleep on planes. And technically, subsurface nukes are possible. Sort of.”

“Maybe Bruce Willis can save us,” Dr. Mehta offered, rolling her eyes.

“Let’s not rule it out. All right . . .” Pam rewound the conversation back to before the distraction of a scientifically ludicrous movie. “. . . how long before there’s too many sightings worldwide for us to keep this secret? And when I say secret, I mean out of the media, off the blog-sphere, public panic delayed?”

“Given the way the budgets have been cut for the big scopes and that amateurs tend to ignore asteroids once they’ve been listed . . .” Dr. Mehta tucked a strand of short dark hair behind her ear and shrugged. “. . . with luck, six months.”

“Or someone could stumble over it tomorrow the way Kiren did. Or we could luck out and it’ll be another 2012 LZ1—unseen until Siding Springs spotted it before the flyby.” Dr. Grayson shrugged. “It’s a crap shoot, Chief.” He spread his hands. “And we’re screwed either way. Twenty-one months, big hunk of rock, bam, extinction event.”

“Bam?”

“Scientifically speaking.”

“No.” Pam squared her shoulders. She was a Brigadier General in the United States Air Force. She’d logged over 5,000 hours flight time in over 50 different aircraft and over 38 days in space. She was the second woman to command a shuttle mission and the first to command the International Space Station. She was the first woman to be in charge at NASA and she didn’t do bam. “We stop it.”

“How?”

“I have at NASA, Dr. Grayson, the best and the brightest minds in the world—and I include the two of you in that assessment. That’s neither hyperbole nor flattery, that’s fact. I’m sure that in the six months before the panic starts, you and your colleagues, here and internationally, will come up with a solution.”

Dr. Grayson stared at her for a long moment, then all the tension left his body at once and he sagged down in his chair. “You really believe that.”

“I do.” She had to because when in danger or in doubt, run in circles scream and shout was no way to live. Or die, if it came to it. “I’ll inform the president. I’m sure he’ll want to speak with both of you, and I’ll advise him to lock down both this information and what we plan to do about it at the highest security level. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you to mention this discovery to no one else.”

“It was why we got on a plane.” Dr. Grayson covered another yawn. “You can’t hack wetware. Well, you can, but it’s not usually where they start. I hear everyone breaks on the third day.”

“Dr. Grayson . . .”

Another yawn. “Sorry. Free associating.”

“Before you got on the plane, did you mention this discovery to anyone?”

“I told the wife we were heading east for another budget discussion.”

“What about Houston?”

“I thought we should see you first.”

“Dr. Mehta?”

She shook her head. “I told Dr. Grayson . . .”

“Of course.” Dr. Mehta had begun to look drawn, shocky if Pam was any judge. It seemed the younger scientist had held it together until she’d passed the buck upstairs and now reaction had begun to set in. “Talk to my assistant on your way out. She’ll see that you have a place to stay until we know when you’re heading back to the west coast. Get some sleep. Get ready for questions. In my experience, the joint chiefs appreciate PowerPoint.”

“And small words,” Dr. Grayson muttered under his breath. Given that she wasn’t intended to hear it, Pam decided she hadn’t. And he wasn’t entirely wrong.

“Thank you for this.” She gestured with the tablet. “You’ve given us a chance, however slight. I’ll let you know what else we’ll need from you as soon as I find out.”

She’d started making notes before they were completely out of the office. The heads of equivalent organizations internationally would have to be informed. Media Relations could spin any leaks—and there would be leaks, there always were—on the conspiracy websites the government assisted the deluded to maintain.

Only nine million dollars of NASA’s yearly budget went toward searching for NEOs, the majority of it supporting the operations of several observatories, and a significantly smaller portion into finding ways to protect the Earth from a potential collision. That would have to change.

While waiting for the president’s office to get back to her, Pam started running the numbers, lips pulled back off her teeth as she imagined bringing this before the House Committee on Appropriations. “Let’s see if this is enough to free up more than not quite half of one percent of the budget . . .”

With Dr. Grayson dozing beside her, Kiren stared out the window of the taxi, watched the rain, and wondered if she should have protested General Yorlem’s interruption. The military might consider an assumption by a brigadier general to be fact, but she was a scientist and she knew better. Would have known better even had this particular assumption by the general not so personally concerned her.

Dr. Grayson had been the only person connected with NASA she’d told, but before she’d spoken to him, right after she’d checked the math for the sixth time, she’d called her oldest friend—fingers trembling so violently it had taken her three tries to make the call. She’d known Gary since third grade when his parents bought the house next door to hers. They’d gone through middle school and high school together—double-dated at both junior and senior prom—and headed off to MIT together, science nerds and proud. Their ways had started to diverge then; he’d headed into engineering and she’d gone into space science and data analysis, but they’d stayed friends. Accomplices when possible.

She’d stood for him at his wedding to a wonderful woman, her red sari a burst of color by their canopy.

“He’s like my brother,” Kiren always said when it came up. Actually, Gary was closer to her than her brother who was five years older and a bit of an ass. She hadn’t called her brother when she’d worked out the mathematical possibility of the world ending.

Gary had listened to her babble, taken a deep breath, and said, “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Twenty-one months?”

“Yes.” She chewed her lip while he thought. He might not have access to all the details, but he had information enough to draw the correct conclusions.

“Even if they free up the money, there’s no way we—you, NASA—can stop an asteroid that size . . .”

“It’s not so much the size, it’s how close it is.”

“All right. There’s no way you can stop an asteroid already that close in twenty-one months.”

“No.” Oh, they’d try—the entire international community of space scientists would try—but, realistically, no. Unrealistically, no. Actually, no. Deflection efforts required years of warning. They had less than two. NASA had compiled a list of options back in 2007, but time had passed and Congress had never approved the funds necessary to begin developing them.

“But you’re not going to give up.” It wasn’t a question.

She almost managed a smile at the certainty in his voice. “No.”

“Well, then, I guess we’d better make the next twenty-one months count . . .”

Charlie loved Red Dirt music. It had a raw power that sang under her skin and buzzed through blood and along bone. More than merely a distraction, it was a cleanse and she desperately needed a few things washed away. It wasn’t always pretty music, but she’d take power over pretty any day and she much preferred music meant for kitchens or cabins or smoky bars where her shoes stuck to the floor than music trapped by the engineered pattern of acoustic tiles.

If the family in Calgary wanted to believe she’d run from the occasionally cloying domesticity of Allie and her babies, well, Charlie was good with that. The actual reason was no one’s business. Cloaked in their useful belief that musician meant irresponsible, she’d stepped out the back door and into the Wood and followed the music to Norman, Oklahoma, where she spent Wednesday night listening to the Damn Quails at Libby’s, Thursday night at the Deli with Camilla Harp, and Friday in Oklahoma City at the Blue Door.

John Fullbright’s concert, his first back at the Blue Door for a while, had been sold out for weeks, but Charlie was a Gale girl and a ticket returned in time for her to make use of it. Fullbright was amazing. His voice was a soft burr, a rough prayer, or shared laugh as required, and his roots were sunk so deep in Southwest Oklahoma he had almost a Gale connection to the place.

He wasn’t so young that he reminded Charlie of why she was on the road, but he was young enough the words “old soul” were tossed about the room between songs. He wasn’t an old soul, at least not so old it was obvious in his voice—Charlie would have been able to hear an internal age beyond Human norm—but he was undeniably talented.

“If you’re Canadian . . .”

Charlie stared across the table at the burly redneck she was sharing with; she hadn’t thought her nationality was up for debate.

“. . . you should hear John’s cover of ‘Hallelujah.’”

“Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’?”

“No, Handel’s ‘The Hallelujah Chorus.’ Of course Cohen.” He erased his frown with another swallow from a root beer can full of bourbon. “That boy and that song’ll strip the meat right off your bones. Closest thing to a religious experience you’ll ever get in a place where your shoes stick to the floor.”

Hearing her own qualifier thrown back at her, Charlie grinned and hummed a quick charm onto his tattooed forearm, the sound slipping through pauses in the room’s ambient noise. There were powers that respected a Gale charm, even this far south, and this man, who understood what music meant, needed a little luck in his life. From the moment he’d sat down beside her, she’d been half afraid of a lightning strike from the metaphysical black cloud hanging over his head.

close this panel
The Heart of Valor
Excerpt

“Fast-paced . . . The intriguing and well-designed aliens and intricate plotting keep the reader guessing.”

Publishers Weekly

“Series fans will enjoy this fast-paced adventure, appealing to the same audience as David Weber’s Honor Harrington series.”

Library Journal

“As a heroine, Kerr shines. She is cut from the same mold as Ellen Ripley of the Aliens films: tough but humane, fiercely protective of her charges, and utterly determined to prevail. Like her heroine, Huff delivers the goods. Valor’s Choice does not make light of war, but at the same time it is incredibly fun to read. Howlingly funny and very suspenseful. I enjoyed every word.”

Scifi.com

“An intriguing alien race, a likeable protagonist, a fast moving plot, and a rousing ending. What more could you ask for?”

Science Fiction Chronicle

“This sequel to Valor’s Choice, featuring a gutsy, fast-thinking female space-marine protagonist, establishes veteran fantasy author Huff as an accomplished spinner of high-tech military-SF adventure.”

Library Journal

“This book is Rendezvous with Rama for the rest of us: exciting, mysterious and full of action and puzzles to solve. Torin is everything you want in an action heroine (or hero, for that matter), and this book will leave readers anxious for her next adventure.”

KLIATT

Also by

TANYA HUFF

The Confederation Novels:

VALOR’S CHOICE

THE BETTER PART OF VALOR

THE HEART OF VALOR

VALOR’S TRIAL

THE TRUTH OF VALOR

***************

THE ENCHANTMENT EMPORIUM
THE WILD WAYS

***************

THE SILVERED

***************

SMOKE AND SHADOWS

SMOKE AND MIRRORS

SMOKE AND ASHES

BLOOD PRICE

BLOOD TRAIL

BLOOD LINES

BLOOD PACT

BLOOD DEBT

********

THE QUARTERS NOVELS, VOL. I omnibus:

SING THE FOUR QUARTERS | FIFTH QUARTER

THE QUARTERS NOVELS, VOL II omnibus:

NO QUARTER | THE QUARTERED SEA

********

The Keeper’s Chronicles:

SUMMON THE KEEPER

THE SECOND SUMMONING

LONG HOT SUMMONING

********

OF DARKNESS, LIGHT AND FIRE

********

WIZARD OF THE GROVE omnibus

CHILD OF THE GROVE | THE LAST WIZARD

 

TANYA HUFF

THE HEART
OF VALOR

 

I’d like to thank Steve Perry for artillery and general military advice, Steve Stavitzky, Dave Alway, and Gary McGath for helping find the words that gave the aliens a voice, and Bill Sutton and Bill Roper for assistance with metaphors. I’d also like to thank Olympic gold medalist Xeno Mueller, who graciously explained the dynamics of rowing machines.

Table of Contents

ONE

FROM HER POSITION ON ONE of the upper galleries, Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr studied the Humans, di’Taykan, and occasional Krai filling the public terminal from bulkhead to bulkhead. About half, the half who’d probably never left their home worlds before they boarded the recruiting shuttle, were gathered in clumps of their own species. The other half were showing off how much more socially evolved they were than their country cousins.

“They’re surprisingly cute when they’re young.”

Fighting to keep her expression neutral, Torin turned, came to attention, and snapped off a perfect salute.

“As you were, Gunny.”

Now she could smile. “Glad to see you up and around, Major.”

Major Goran Svensson returned the smile, carefully rearranging the muscles by his mouth. “Glad to be up and around.” Although his nose was as prominent as she remembered, his face had the shiny, unlived-in look of new tissue and the regrowth of silver-blond hair was as high and hard as any oldEarth drill instructor could want it. The fingernails of his left hand, the hand that rested on an old-fashioned wooden cane, were a pale greenish gray and, against the matte black of his uniform, his skin was an unfortunate corpse-white. Under his uniform, the major had been rebuilt almost from scratch.

That almost had wormed its way into nearly every conversation Torin had been a part of in the just under twenty-eight hours she’d been on Ventris Station. At what point did the pieces of the Marine put into the tank stop being a Marine and start being merely pieces? Had there been enough of Goran Svensson put in to get Goran Svensson out, or was this just something that looked like the major and sounded like the major but was nothing more than shaped meat?

As far as Torin was concerned, it was a no-brainer. Sh’quo Company and the Battalion’s heavy weapons company had been dropped on Carlong in support of Captain Svensson’s people, who were in imminent danger of being overrun. Unfortunately, imminent had proven to be a conservative estimate, and all three companies had fought a bloody withdrawal to the pickup point only to find the Others were keeping the Navy too busy to get them out. During the battle, the captain had proved himself a good officer and a fine Marine, and Torin had no intention of losing either.

It only validated her good opinion to later discover he was a M’taj, one of the forty percent of Corps officers promoted from the ranks. Until she had evidence to the contrary, the only change between the Marine who’d gone into the tank and the Marine who’d come out was that the former was a captain, and the latter a major.

“Congratulations on the promotion.” Major Svensson nodded toward Torin’s sleeve. “I hear you were busy while I was tanked. A few battles won, a new species courted, and an unknown alien spaceship outsmarted—I’m surprised they didn’t commission you.”

“It was mentioned.”

The major held up his hand and grinned, this second smile more like the one Torin remembered. “I don’t think I want to hear your response. Actually, I don’t think I need to hear your response, but I promise you, I don’t take it personally.” He let the hand fall but not before Torin noticed the way his fingers had started to tremble. “I also heard you took some time for romance.”

“Sir?” If he’d said he’d heard she’d taken some time to go exploring gas giants, she’d have been less surprised.

“With the civilian salvage operator who found said alien spaceship. Some of the medical personnel here on Ventris recently transferred off the Berganitan, and they’re very taken by your touching love story.”

Torin snorted. “Love story?”

“So no romance?”

“No, sir.”

“Too bad. The fine folk in PR would be all over a touching love story.” Tightening his grip on the cane, he moved to the edge of the gallery and glanced down. “How many do you think we’ll keep?”

A little taken aback by the sudden change in topic, Torin frowned. “Sir?”

“Most of them will finish their contract and go home. Some of them, the lucky ones, will never see battle even in the midst of a war. But in every new group there’s always a couple—like you . . .” The grin flickered again. “. . . like me—who find a home in the Corps and that means there have to be a couple down there.”

Ah. Keep. Now the question made sense. Torin studied the crowd again. The recruiting shuttle dropped off seventy-two recruits at Ventris every tenday—two full training platoons. 150 days later, between sixty and seventy Marines graduated from Basic. The major was asking her to distill down those sixty or seventy to the few who’d stay.

“Her,” she said after a long moment. “The di’Taykan with the lime-green hair and the orange jacket. The recruits closest to her are calmer than the rest, and she’s standing so that she can see both exits. She’s probably from a military family that’s served for generations, and she’ll stay until biology forces her out.”

“What about her?” The major raised his hand just far enough off the rail to indicate a tall, fair-haired Human staring at the inner entrance to the station as if she could open it through force of will alone. “She looks like she wants to be here.”

“A little too much. That attitude says I know what’s best, and it’ll be a fight to get her to listen. She’s probably from one of the first families, and she thinks it means something here. I very much doubt she’ll make it through Basic.” The fourteen first families off oldEarth were as close as humanity came to an aristocracy these days.

“I’ve got ten that says she does.”

“I don’t want to take your money, sir.”

“Commendable, but I’m more than willing to take yours.”

“Ten it is, then.” Torin turned slightly, not enough to draw the attention of those down below but enough to direct the major’s attention where she wanted it. “See the Human standing by the outer doors, just to the right of the terminal map? Brown hair, hands shoved in his pockets?”

“Looks like he’s wondering what the hell he’s doing here?”

“Yes, sir, that’s the one. We’ll keep him.”

“Put your money where your mouth is, Gunny.”

“I’ll give you twenty on this one, sir.”

She heard the rustle of fabric as the major turned to face her. “Now why would you do that?”

Torin watched the recruit lean back against the map and jump forward again, face flushed as the map announced where he was. “He reminds me of me.”

“Major Svensson!”

Torin kept her attention on the major as he pivoted carefully around the cane, wobbling slightly. Only when she was sure he’d successfully completed the maneuver and was now scowling down the gallery, did she look up at the Navy corpsman approaching at a run. Fuchsia hair whipping back and forth in agitation, the corpsman slid to a halt, looked into the major’s face, and clearly reconsidered taking his arm.

“Sir, you’re not supposed to be out of bed.”

For a di’Taykan, the most enthusiastically indiscriminate race in known space, to not turn that statement into a blatant innuendo, Major Svensson had to have detanked in an impressively bad mood.

“And yet here I am.”

“Sir, Dr. Sloan’ll kick my ass out an air lock if she finds out you’ve been walking around in the public areas of the station.” One hand rose to fiddle nervously with his pheromone masker, and eyes the exact same fuchsia as his hair widened pleadingly. “Please come back to Med-op with me.”

Major Svensson sighed. Torin suspected he was aiming for world-weary, but there was too much plain old weary in it. “If you put it that way, Corpsman. I’d hate for you to get into trouble on my account.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll get a chair.”

“No. I can manage.” Before Torin could protest, or even before she could quite figure out how to phrase a protest, the major added, “But if you’d be more comfortable giving me your arm so that I don’t wander off again, I could live with that.”

“Yes, sir.” No mistaking the relief in the corpsman’s voice.

Fingers of his free hand wrapped around the corpsman’s elbow, the major braced his cane and turned his upper body just enough to bring Torin back into his line of sight. “I’m glad I happened to run into you, Gunnery Sergeant,” he said formally. “Seems fitting we should spend a few minutes talking to each other since everyone on this station seems to be talking about us. Nearly everyone,” he amended, his tone lightening as he nodded toward the recruits. “If you get a few free minutes, I’d appreciate the company.”

“I’ll come by if I can, sir.”

“Major . . .”

“I know, I know. Don’t just stand there, Corpsman, start walking.”

The corpsman wisely refused to allow Major Svensson to set the pace; they moved slowly and carefully toward the decompression doors. He glanced Torin’s way as he helped the major over the lip, and just before the door closed she heard the older man snap, “Yes, it is.”

Had he asked if that was really Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?

Apparently everyone on the station was talking about her—except when they were talking to her and then they were talking about the major. Beginning to think it was no coincidence Major Svensson had happened to take a walk in her direction, Torin frowned down at the new recruits, not really seeing them.

She didn’t like being the center of attention; that never ended well. Once certain people started overreacting to other people doing nothing more than getting the job done, life tended to get interesting. Given that she was involved in fighting a centuries-old war with an indeterminate foe, Torin figured her life was quite interesting enough.

The sound of the inner doors opening jerked her attention back to the terminal.

“Listen up, children, because I’m only going to say this once.”

Torin stared in disbelief at the familiar figure standing just inside the open doors. Hands tucked behind his back, scarlet hair moving slowly back and forth, his uniform more like a matte-black shadow than actual fabric, stood Staff Sergeant di’Allak Beyhn.

A little over ten years ago, he’d stood in exactly that position, said exactly those words and had, over the next 150 days, gone on to be one of the main reasons Torin had become a career Marine.

It couldn’t be the same Marine.

It had to be another di’Taykan trained by him, another di’Taykan with the same coloring who’d picked up the same phrases and mannerisms. An imitation, not the real thing. He’d had more than a few years in back when he’d been her DI, so Staff Sergeant Beyhn had to have moved on to qui’Taykan—the breeding phase—and left the military.

“I am Staff Sergeant Beyhn.”

Or not.

He swept a scarlet gaze over the recruits. “When I give the word, here’s what you’re going to do: you’re going to pick up your gear and move in an orderly fashion through these doors. Once inside, you’ll make a quick left, proceed to the end of the corridor, and arrange yourselves on the yellow lines. Anyone who can’t figure out how to accomplish that should consider enlisting in the Navy.”

A couple of the recruits snickered.

Staff Sergeant Beyhn’s expression made it clear he wasn’t kidding, and the snickering stopped. “This is your last chance to reconsider your decision to become a Marine,” he continued, redirecting his attention to the room at large. “No one will think any less of you if you decide to turn around and take the next shuttle home.”

Torin had never heard of anyone taking him up on the offer; the recruiters made sure that anyone who got this far would make it past the yellow lines at least, but she supposed there was always a first time.

No one moved.

She checked the brown-haired young man by the map. He was frowning thoughtfully.

“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr.”

All attention snapped suddenly to her as the recruits followed Staff Sergeant Beyhn’s gaze up to the gallery. She saw two or three heads dip together and was sure she heard a whispered “Silsviss,” the sibilants making the word carry.

“When you have a moment, Gunny.”

Fighting the urge to snap to attention and shout, “Sir, yes, sir!” Torin nodded. “I’m on my way down, Staff.” If he could use the diminutive, she could use the diminutive. She’d have to keep telling herself that.

He nodded in turn, one smooth dip of the head—it was hard to tell at that distance, but she thought the ablin gon savit was smiling, fully aware of what her instinctive reaction would be. Stepping back out of the doorway, he snapped, “Let’s move, people!”

The brown-haired young man was in the last group of recruits through the doors into Ventris Station. Torin made a note to check his name; he was going to win her an easy twenty.

The station studied her identification for a moment and then let her in through the decompression door at the end of the gallery—big open spaces in stations made people nervous, so the designers added redundancies to their fail-safes—and by the time Torin dropped down a level the recruits were moving off the lines and into the hygiene unit. Given that di’Taykan hair wasn’t hair at all but a uniform length, multistrand sensory organ and the Krai had no hair to speak of, the Corps had come up with a compromise for their Human recruits that acknowledged they were part of an integrated universe and managed to satisfy tradition as well. The hygiene unit removed dead tissue from all three species, so for the 150 days of Basic, it was business as usual for the di’Taykan, a slightly shinier scalp for the Krai, and on Human heads, stubble. If nothing else, the stubble made it perfectly clear that no Humans were going to get by on their looks.

Torin maintained her own hair at di’Taykan length, but she knew Human Marines who kept their personal hygiene units locked at the dead tissue setting. She thought it made them look like they’d just been detanked, but hell—if they were into an I nearly had my ass shot off hair style, who was she to complain?

Staff Sergeant Beyhn stood by an inner wall, watching the last recruits cross into processing. Up close, he looked tired, like he hadn’t been sleeping. di’Taykan didn’t get bags under their eyes, but he was close.

“They’re not mine,” he said as Torin joined him. “I’ve got a group coming up on one twenty I should be with right now, but for the last few days this place has been jumping like the seals are blown, and assignments have therefore been late coming down.” He turned to face her. “You wouldn’t know why, would you, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?”

“I hear Major Svensson has recently been detanked, Staff Sergeant.”

He made a noise that from a Human would have been noncommittal but from a di’Taykan bordered on insulting. “Don’t give me that crap, Gunny. The whole station knows that you single-handedly brought the Silsviss in on our side and followed it up by outsmarting a big yellow spaceship and bringing your recon team safely home.”

“Not all of them.” Torin closed her hand around the memory of the small, metal cylinder that held the remains of PFC August Guimond.

Beyhn stared at her for a long moment, his eyes moving from near pink to scarlet as more and more light receptors opened. Finally he nodded, his expression relaxing, and Torin realized that she’d been measured and not found wanting.

A smart person would have let it go. “You thought I might be . . .”

“Getting too big for your britches.”

Torin blinked. “What?”

“Means full of yourself. Picked it up from a Marine who came through on his SLC.”

There could only be one Marine that fond of oldEarth idiom. “Hollice?”

“That’s the name.” He headed down the corridor, and Torin fell into step beside him. “So, since it’s unlikely they promoted you for just doing your job, I’m guessing you’ve got blackmail material on that General Morris who seems to like you so much.”

As it happened, she did, but since her old DI wasn’t actually digging for information, she merely said, “Ours is not to question why, Sergeant.”

He snorted. “Yeah, that’s what they keep telling me.”

*Your O930 briefing has been moved to L6S23C29.*

Torin tongued an acknowledgment and checked the time.

*0858*

No need to hurry.

“New implant? You half winced just there,” the sergeant continued when she raised an inquiring brow. “Like you were reacting to the memory of pain.”

She fought the urge to cup the left side of her jaw, recently cracked by the techs back at Battalion who’d installed her new unit during the short time she’d spent with her company on the OutSector station before being ordered coreward to Ventris. The bone ached and the skin over it felt tender. “Good call.”

“Not really. Automatic upgrade when you hit Gunny,” he reminded her. “Been a long time since I got cracked, but I seem to remember them saying it wouldn’t hurt.”

“Yeah. That’s what they say.”

“Lying bastards. Where you heading?”

“L6S23C29.”

“You remember how to find your way around?”

“I do.”

An ability to negotiate Ventris Station was a hard-earned skill. The word tesseract had been mentioned on more than one occasion. Other, less scientific words were used more frequently, the Corps having a long history of creative profanity and two new languages to practice it in. Torin had refamiliarized herself with the more unique aspects of station navigation early that morning on her five k run.

“Well, if you find your way to the baby-sitter’s club sometime when I’m not hand feeding the future of the Corps, I’ll buy you a drink.” Then he glanced at the half dozen chevrons surrounding the crossed KC-7s on her sleeve, looked up, and nodded; that same single dip of the head. “Good work, Marine.”

He’d been the first person to call her Marine. She’d just finished two tendays on Crucible, her and the rest of Platoon 29, learning to actually use all the information they’d had crammed into their heads over the first 120 days of training. They’d been in ranks, bloody but unbeaten at the pickup point, and, as the VTA’s hatch opened, Sergeant Beyhn had yelled, “Double-time, Marines. We’re moving out.” That had been—and remained—the proudest moment of her life.

“Don’t get all choked up on me now,” he grinned as he opened the door into Hygiene and the sound of seventy-two recruits being sanitized drifted into the corridor. “I bet Sergeant Hayman you’d make Gunny before I got out and Jude’s just contributed a solid fifty to my offspring fund.”

Torin didn’t bother hiding her shudder. “That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“That I bet a fifty on you?”

“That you have an offspring fund.”

*   *   *

Level 6, Section 23, Compartment 29—according to the station directory, she couldn’t get there from where she was. Torin snorted and headed for the nearest vertical. All routes on Ventris Station led to the main parade square. Logically, from the main parade square, it was then possible to get to any address in the station.

They should never have let the H’san help with the design. She slowed to let an approaching captain into the shaft first, waited for the next available rising strap, and stepped across a whole lot of nothing to catch hold of it. The public terminal was on level one, but there were fourteen sublevels under that. Her stomach did a lazy loop in the zero gravity, then settled.

Even with the workday underway for almost an hour, the shaft was busy. She nodded at a descending technical sergeant, politely ignored a pair of officers sharing a strap while they discussed their latest liberty, and raised an eyebrow at a Krai recruit adjusting her uniform as she passed, one foot holding the strap, both hands attempting to straighten her collar. The Krai had no problem in zero gee—no nausea, no disorientation—but other species weren’t so lucky. Human and di’Taykan recruits who’d spent their whole lives dirtside were tested in zero gee modules before they were allowed into the shafts, but even then it was pretty much a guarantee that the rest of the station would be dodging wobbly globes of vomit and the embarrassed recruit trying to clean them up at some point during the first thirty days of every Basic course. Since a new course started every ten days, it paid to pay attention in the verticals.

At Level 3, Torin grabbed the bar over the door and flipped out into the deck. The link station was right where she remembered it. By the time the link arrived, there were eight Marines waiting with her, and she had less than twenty minutes’ travel time left.

Not a problem.

Like the public terminal, the main parade square had been designated as an “outside” area of the station. On her way around to the link station that would take her to Section 23, Torin snapped off three salutes and then stopped by a recruit who stood staring around at eighteen potential exits in rising panic.

“Where do you need to be?” she asked.

Pale gray eyes holding an equal mix of determination and fear locked on her face. “Sir! This . . .”

“Don’t call me sir, I’m not your DI. Call me Gunnery Sergeant.”

“Sir! Yes, si . . . Yes, Gunnery Sergeant! This recruit needs to be at L4S12 main administration.”

She checked his collar tabs. He was still in his first fifty. “Are you cleared for verticals?”

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!”

“Take that shaft . . . That shaft!” She reached out and turned his head. “Take it up two levels. Turn right immediately out of the shaft. Keep moving until you get to Section 12 then take the first vertical you see back down a level.”

He glanced at his watch. “I have to be there in four minutes!”

It was hard not to smile. “Then you’d better hurry.”

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!”

She watched him double-time off, turned back toward her station, and saluted a Krai lieutenant wearing a Ventris patch who was staring at her with disapproval.

“The recruits need to learn their way around on their own, Gunny.”

Stifling a sigh, she stopped walking. She really didn’t have time for this. “The recruits need to learn they can depend on other Marines when the chips are down, Lieutenant.”

“And what does he learn if you tell him how to get where he’s going?”

“That it isn’t a weakness to ask for directions.”

“He didn’t ask for directions, Gunny.”

“Now he knows he can, sir.”

The lieutenant’s nose ridges flared. “You can’t ask for directions in combat!”

Torin did not drop her gaze to the lieutenant’s chest and an absence of ribbons but was so obvious about it, she might as well have. “You’d be surprised, sir.” She snapped off another salute and was in the link and gone before he realized he’d been dismissed.

She reached L6S23C29 with three minutes and forty-two seconds to spare.

And found her reputation had preceded her.

“Congratulations on the promotion, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr.”

“Thank you, Captain Stedrin. And you on yours.”

The captain smiled, pale blue hair flicking back and forth. “I suspect the general thought it was easier to promote me than to break in another aide. Besides, we’ve got an actual staff now, and he probably believes the extra bar will make it easier for me to take command.”

“I don’t think you’ll have any trouble, sir.”

Captain Stedrin’s hair sped up a little. “That’s quite the compliment coming from you, Gunny.”

“Yes, sir.” She meant it, though. When they’d first met on the Berganitan, Lieutenant Stedrin had been a typical “stick-up-the-ass” young officer—not, as it happened too different from the lieutenant she’d just been talking to on the parade square although the attitude was temperamentally unusual for a di’Taykan—but he’d made the right decisions when it mattered, and while he might never be much of a line officer, she’d been in the Corps long enough to know that a good staff officer, one who cared about the Marines more than the paperwork, was worth his weight in ammo. Maybe not the impact boomers, but definitely the regular rounds.

She glanced across the front of the small lecture hall to where General Morris, still without that third star and his promotion to Tekamal and apparently destined to be her personal pain in the brass for years to come, was speaking to a di’Taykan major. The deep orange hair made it a sure bet that it was Major di’Uninat Alie, the Intelligence officer who’d debriefed Torin just after she’d arrived at the station. “The general’s filling her in on what he considers the pertinent points, isn’t he, sir?”

“I think that’s a given.”

General Morris had chosen her for the mission to Silsvah. She supposed it was a compliment that he’d believed her capable of doing what was necessary to bring the Silsviss into the Confederation before the Others could recruit them, but she’d lost thirteen Marines on what was supposed to be ceremonial duty, and while she had no trouble following orders, she disliked being manipulated. He’d also chosen her to lead the recon platoon into Big Yellow, the unidentified alien vessel found floating dead in space. Probably another compliment. He’d needed a senior NCO capable of riding herd on a glory-seeking officer destined for promotion to placate the Krai members of Parliament, but since Captain Travik had spent most of the mission unconscious, the official reports were slightly different than the reality of the situation.

Torin really hated politics.

Fortunately, she wasn’t expected to smile as the general approached.

“Staff Sergeant Kerr. Good to see you again. I’ve just been telling Major Alie what she can expect.”

“Sir.” Captain Stedrin cleared his throat, a Human noise the di’Taykan had adopted. “It’s Gunnery Sergeant now.”

“Why, so it is.” General Morris’ florid cheeks flushed darker as his gaze flickered to her collar tabs and back. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say.”

“Sir?”

“About the Silsviss.”

He was staying? Well that was just fukking wonderful. “Yes, sir.”

With a final, patronizing nod, the general moved toward an empty seat in the last row. Captain Stedrin let him get most of the way there before he caught up and bent to murmur something in the general’s ear. Standing by the lectern, Torin couldn’t hear the captain’s part of the conversation, but the general’s, “What now?” came through loud and clear. After a moment, and an inspection of the captain’s slate, he shook his head and stomped off out the rear door.

Captain Stedrin shot her a very di’Taykan grin as he followed.

The bastard had waited until the last minute to clear the general out just to watch her sweat. Nice one. He’d known from the beginning they’d be leaving, or he’d have left his slate with the others on the table near the lower door. Torin had been warned her slate wouldn’t record—Compartments 21 to 39 were configured to prevent it—but slates were designed to be ultimately flexible, and there was only one way to be certain no one would enter the information with a stylus and that was to take them out of the hands of their owners. She suspected there were certain things about the way the Silsviss had joined the Confederation that the highest levels of the Corps preferred the general population never knew. Ultimately, there’d be no way to prevent it, but—in the here and now—the top brass was doing what they could to slow things down.

“Are you ready, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?”

She faced Major Alie and nodded, an echo of Staff Sergeant Beyhn’s single dip. “Yes, sir.”

“You don’t look nervous.”

“Are they likely to shoot at me, sir?”

The major’s eyes lightened as she smiled. “I doubt it.”

“Then I’ll be fine.”

Torin assumed every one of the thirty officers in the room—there’d be other rooms and other ranks later—had read not only her report, but General Morris’ report, Lieutenant Jarret’s report and probably, depending on their clearance levels, both the diplomats’ and Cri Sawyes’ report. She wasn’t here to go over the facts of the mission one more time lest something crucial had been left out that effected the acceptance of the Silsviss into the Confederation and their eventual integration into the Corps. She was here because later, after the facts had been presented one more time, there’d be questions and she was the only one who could answer many of them.

It was both clichéd and dangerous to believe that insight into a species could be gained by wholesale slaughter, but Torin was willing to bet that, here and now, no one knew the Silsviss quite like she did.

Slate to hand in case she needed to refer to her notes, she faced the tiers of seats and began. “During the mission in question, I was a Staff Sergeant with 7th Division, 4th Recar’ta, 1st Battalion, Sh’quo Company. My orders were to put together a platoon out of able-bodied Marines to accompany a group of diplomats and their support staff—Mictok, Dornagain, and Rakva—to Silsviss under the command of Second Lieutenant di’Ka Jarret . . .”

There’d been diplomacy for a while, but then all hell had broken loose.

When she reached the point in the story where the Berganitan had returned to Silsvah and sent down a VTA to lift them off—the VTA they’d landed in having been lost in a swamp—she saw a few of the officers begin to stir. Either they hadn’t heard what happened after liftoff and they thought she was nearly done or, more likely, she was just getting to the part they were interested in.

“The Silsviss have a pack mentality. They know where each one fits in the pack, and the strong fight to rise. They’d just joined our pack, and they wanted to see how much they could push us around.”

“They wanted you to kill General Morris.”

The statement came from a Human lieutenant colonel. He might have felt safely anonymous in the dim light amid the other twenty-nine black uniforms in the room, but Torin had spent too many years pinpointing smart-ass comments from the ranks to let him get away with it. Glancing over at him, she abandoned the last 4.5 minutes of prepared speech and said, “No, sir. They wanted me to believe it was the general’s fault and then use what I had learned about the Silsviss to save the treaty by killing him.”

“And why didn’t you?”

“Because we weren’t joining them, sir. They were joining us.”

“General Morris’ report said he was willing to die.”

“I wasn’t privileged to read the general’s report, sir.”

“But you would have killed him if it had been necessary?” He was leaning forward now, one hand pale and obvious where it gripped the dark fabric over his right knee.

Torin lifted her chin, locked her eyes on his face, and said, “As it wasn’t necessary, sir . . .” She loaded implication into the pause. “. . . we’ll never know.”

The lieutenant colonel looked away first and, as his gaze dropped, Major Alie stepped forward. “Since we seem to have already opened the floor to questions, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr will now address any other points you may want clarified.”

Interesting emphasis, Torin thought as a Krai major began the official Q&A.

For the most part, the questions stayed fairly close to her observations of the Silsviss military and how well she felt they’d integrate. As they revisited the same points over and over again, Torin became increasingly grateful that she wouldn’t be part of the team designing the integration protocols. Given how long it had taken before the Krai joined mixed fireteams, she figured she’d be long retired before she had to worry about maintaining discipline with di’Taykan-sized lizards in the ranks.

When the briefing finally ended, just before 1300, Torin followed the major’s silent order and stepped back to let the room empty before she left. With the major acting as a barrier between her and any further questions, she kept her gaze locked on the far wall to give no one a chance to draw her into conversation.

As the last officer retrieved his slate and disappeared out the door, Major Alie turned toward her and smiled. “Thank you, Gunny. Grab some food, and I’ll see you back here at fourteen hundred. The officers attending this morning have orders not to approach you out of this room, so you should be allowed to get to the SRM in peace.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The captain who’d asked the first question had been Intell, seeded into the group by Major Alie. It was inevitable those particular questions would be asked, so the major had arranged for them to be asked under controlled conditions. The timing, before the Q&A officially began, had allowed her to cut the questions off when the information she’d wanted released had been covered. It was a smart move.

Torin appreciated smart, but she had no intention of mentioning that to the major. Intell got a little snotty when one of their subtle plans turned out to be that obvious.

The afternoon session was a near exact copy of the morning’s—minus General Morris’ small part. Finished at 1800, she skipped the Senior Rank’s Mess and headed to a pub she remembered fondly from her last course on station. She was expecting a call and didn’t want it going through the duty officer before it reached her in the SRM. Off-duty and in a public part of the station, the message would be bounced straight to her implant.

On the OutSector stations the lowest two or three levels of the center core were set aside for off-duty and civilian personnel. On a station the size of Ventris, certain broad concourses had been set aside for stores, bars, and cantinas. The recruits were given access to the lowest concourse on their last tenday. They never saw the other four until they returned to Ventris as Marines.

Sutton’s, on Concourse Two, was about half full. A group of privates and corporals were watching mixed league cricket on the big screen in the corner. Apparently it was an oldEarth sport the Elder Races had taken to the way the H’san took to cheese, but Torin couldn’t see the attraction. Along the other side of the bar, eight of the small tables were full, two of them pushed close so a group of four officers and their companions could eat together. Three di’Taykan sat at the bar itself, bodies close and looking about five minutes from heading to someone’s bunk for the night.

Torin took one of the small tables, where she could see both the door to the concourse and the door behind the bar leading to the kitchens, and coded her order into the tabletop. To her surprise, Elliot Westbrook, the grandson of the original owners, came out with the first part of her order.

“Gunny,” he said as he set down the beer, “I hear you single-handedly got the Silsviss to join up. Any chance you can give me a scouting report on their beverage selection?”

Seemed that Major Svensson was right; everyone on the station was talking about her. Still, it never hurt to cooperate with the man cooking dinner and, while information about how she’d single-handedly got the Silsviss to join up was classified, what the giant lizards drank was not. What’s more, if they were going to join the Corps, it was an important cultural touchstone. “The upper ranks drank fermented fruit juices, but the lower ranks usually drank beer.”

“Good to hear.”

“The beer was usually green.”

Elliot grinned. “So they’re Irish?”

When her pie arrived, he left her to it, heading back to the bar muttering notes about ales and lagers and fermentation times into his slate.

She was just mopping up the last of the gravy when the call came through.

*I’ve docked. Section 8, slip 17.*

Pushing her plate away, she tongued an acknowledgment and murmured, “On my way,” just loud enough for the implant to pick up.

They were naked twenty-two minutes later.

TWO

PUSHING DAMP HAIR BACK out of her eyes, Torin rolled up on one elbow and frowned down at her companion. “I get the impression you missed me.”

“Funny, because I got the impression I was right on target . . . OW!” Tugging her fingers out of his chest hair, Craig Ryder wrapped Torin’s hand in his, immobilizing it. Since she wasn’t planning on going anywhere for a while, she allowed him to think he could hold her. “You win,” he said. “I missed you. You’re just lucky I needed to register new salvage tags.”

“You’re talking like I’m the only one here who got lucky.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” He waggled his brows suggestively. “But you are saying you got lucky, then?”

She freed her hand, moved it lower on his body, and squeezed. “A couple of times.”

“Bloody cheek!”

But this time when he grabbed for her, Torin rolled off the bunk and rose to her feet out of reach. “That thing’s too small for comfort.”

“You’d better be talking about the bunk, mate. And you are not sitting your bare ass down on my control panel,” he growled as she moved the very small distance to the other side of the cabin.

Torin snorted. “Not after what happened the last time.” Scooping his discarded shirt off the floor, she tossed it on the pilot’s chair covering the majority of the duct tape and sat. One of the reasons the bunk was too narrow for them both was that Craig Ryder was a big man. Undressed, there was a little softness at his waist, but most of his bulk was muscle, his arms and shoulders so broad and heavy, they distracted from his height.

“What?”

All right. Maybe she had been staring. “Rumor has it that this is a romance.”

“Really?” Craig rolled up on his side, head propped up on one huge hand. He looked amused, the bastard. “Who’s been talking, then?”

She shrugged a shoulder, suddenly wishing she hadn’t brought it up. “Some of the medical staff off the Berganitan are on station. Apparently, I’m a topic of conversation.”

“Apparently?” When she shrugged again, he laughed. “Fuk, all you’ve done in the last year was convince a race of aggressive lizards to join up right before you outsmarted a big old alien spaceship. Can’t see why they’d be talking about you. Obviously, they’re talking about me.”

“You?”

“Don’t mean to skite, but I’m the other half of the romance, aren’t I?”

Torin scratched at the drying sweat on her stomach. “There is no romance. There’s sex.”

“Good sex.”

“Granted.”

“That’ll do, then.” Blue eyes gleamed. “So what the hell are you doing all the way over there?”

Later, when she stepped out of his shower—which meant stepping out of his tiny hygiene unit into the main cabin—he handed her a mug of coffee and said, “You ever hear what happened to the escape pod from Big Yellow.”

Torin took a drink, set the mug on the small, half-circle table folded down from one of the cabin walls, and started dressing. “It’s a piece of unknown alien technology, I expect R&D has it tucked away somewhere, probably somewhere on this station—although there’s always a chance that one of the Elder Races rabbited off with it. All I know is that the whole thing’s been classified Top Secret, and I have orders not to talk about it during my current the Silsviss are our friends tour.” Skimming her pants up over her hips, she reached for the mug again. “Why?”

“I rode it from Big Yellow, yeah?”

“Yeah.” She knew where this was going.

“That makes it my salvage, doesn’t it?”

“Technically, the Berganitan retrieved it.”

He folded his arms, the motion causing the worn sweats he’d pulled on to fall a little farther from his waist. “I was in it. And in salvage, like life, possession is nine tenths of the law.”

The vacuum jockeys from the Berganitan had rescued him, directing the spherical escape pod into a net in one of the ship’s shuttle bays. Given the mulish expression he was wearing, Torin decided not to remind him of that. “You must have made inquiries,” she said, buttoning her shirt.

“I did. No one knows anything about it.”

“That’s because it’s classified Top Secret.”

“No. They won’t talk about Big Yellow, but they don’t seem to know about the escape pod.”

“You’re a civilian. Neither branch of the military is likely to tell you what they know.”

“Please.” Fingers digging in his short beard, he snorted. “I deal with the military all the time. I know when they’re fukking me around and this was more like they honestly didn’t know.”

Torin set the empty mug back on the table and frowned. “Maybe they didn’t know. You couldn’t have been talking to anyone with a very high clearance.”

“That’s possible.”

She stared at him for a long moment. “You want me to ask someone, don’t you?”

He grinned. “It is good sex.”

“Not that good.”

“Liar.”

“Fine. There’s an Intell major running the Silsviss briefings I’m doing. If I get a chance, I’ll ask her.” She slid a foot into her right boot and bent to tie the laces. “How long will you be docked?”

“Odds are good I’ll be gone by 1400 tomorrow.”

His tone pulled her attention back to his face. If he was off station by 1400, this was it. They’d probably see each other again when she got back to her unit. Civilian salvage operators weren’t unknown at OutSector stations, but only the brass knew how long they’d keep her here. “All right, I’ll ask at the morning briefing.”

“Ta.”

Both boots secured, she moved to the hatch and paused, left hand rising to touch her jaw. “The upgrade’s got a signal strong enough to reach ships in space.”

Craig’s brows rose when she stopped, clearly expecting more.

She didn’t have any more.

His fingers went back to his beard. “You’ve got the Promise’s codes.”

“I do.” Her left hand settled against the scarred surface of the hatch. The upgrade went to grades Gunny and above, so that if they had Marines dirtside, and the comm unit got hit, they could call for evac. They weren’t for . . . She glanced back at Craig; from the way the corner of his mouth was twitching, he knew exactly what she was thinking. Cocky bastard. Stepping out onto the ramp, she turned again. “Be careful.”

He nodded. “You, too.”

*   *   *

“Major Alie.”

The major’s hair lifted. “Is there a problem, Gunny?”

“No, sir.” di’Taykan didn’t have the concept of personal space, so Torin stepped a little closer. They were standing, once again, at the front of Compartment 29 waiting for the morning’s group of senior NCOs to finish taking their seats, and Torin figured that her odds of getting an answer were better if the major thought she couldn’t be overheard. In the raw light of day, minus post-coital endorphins, this was obviously a bad idea, but she’d told Craig she’d ask—and that left her only two options. Keep her word. Or not. “The CSO who . . .”

“You’re seeing.” The words were tame for a di’Taykan. The innuendo was all it could be.

“Yes, sir.” Torin responded to the words alone. “He was wondering what happened to the escape pod off Big Yellow.”

The major’s hair flattened. “The alien ship is classified, Gunny.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And classified means you’re not to speak of it.”

“No, sir.”

“Not even to your vantru.

Given the major’s expression, now was not the time to mention that vantru—more or less translated as primary sexual partner—was a bit strong, if only because of the di’Taykan weight the word carried and not because she was actually getting any anywhere else.

“I’ve got no way to keep him from mentioning it to me, sir.”

NinLi civilians!”

Like many sentient races, the primary Taykan religion had not only the concept of damnation but the profanity to go with it.

“Yes, sir.”

But while the major had said, “The alien ship is classified,” her expression had added, “What escape pod?” It was fast, gone almost before Torin saw it. Someone watching a little less closely would have missed it entirely, but Torin had spent years learning to spot bullshit and next to some of the di’Taykan she’d commanded, for whom bullshit was a vocation, Major Alie was an amateur.

Her anger at not knowing had given her away.

Intell hated to think there were things they didn’t know.

At 12:45, Torin set down her lunch tray and pinged the Promise from a table terminal in the SRM.

“What the bloody hell did you ask at that morning briefing?”

Torin poured creamer in her coffee, the artificial stuff significantly safer than the real cream in the other jug. There were no cows on Ventris Station. “I asked the major about your possible salvage.”

“Just like that, then?”

“You wanted to know.”

“I expected you to be a little more . . . I don’t know, circumspect.”

“I said I’d ask.” She took a preliminary swallow—the coffee had probably been started by the first cook on Ventris—and added a splash more creamer. “This is not the kind of thing that I can sneak about trying to discover for you. Nor would I if I could.”

“I had a visit this morning from a couple of Marines who thought I needed to be reminded of what classified meant.”

That wasn’t entirely unexpected. “And?”

“They pointed out that military salvage tags don’t grow on fukking trees.”

Neither was that. It was, after all, the only handle they had on him. “Happy ending?”

“They’re letting me bail, if that’s what you mean. In fact, they pretty much told me to rack off.” She heard him sigh, could see him sitting back in the pilot’s chair, feet resting on the spot his heels had worn shiny on the control panel. “I’m never going to see that salvage, am I? Never mind. Don’t answer that. Are you in the crapper for bringing it up?”

It surprised her that he’d ask. “Not so far.”

“Good. Let me know when you’re back at OutSector.”

“I will.” She cut the connection, ate her soup and her sandwich, and wasn’t at all surprised to find a Marine waiting for her in the corridor outside the mess when she left.

*   *   *

“Come in, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr. I won’t keep you long.”

Torin entered as ordered and came to attention in front of the desk, staring at the gray-green plaque on the wall just over General Morris’ head. It was the same color as Major Svensson’s fingernails and that led down paths she’d rather not travel—although artificial fingernail was not the strangest building material she’d ever seen used. She couldn’t quite make out what battle the raised letters commemorated.

“Damn it, stop doing that. You know I hate it.”

“Yes, sir.” She relaxed slightly into parade rest.

“What escape pod, Gunny?”

That drew her attention to his face. “Sir?”

Hands linked, he tapped joined index fingers against his chin. “You asked Major Alie this morning about an escape pod from Big Yellow.”

Not a question but she answered it anyway. “Yes, sir.”

“What are you up to?”

“Sir?”

“There was no escape pod, Gunny.”

By the time she’d made sergeant, Torin could remain expressionless under any condition. That skill came in handy now. There had been an escape pod. She’d seen Craig Ryder get into it on Big Yellow and had seen the alien ship spit the pod out into space. One of the Jades from the Berganitan’s Black Star Squadron had caught it up in an energy field and maneuvered it back to the ship, tossing it into a net strung across shuttle bay one to catch it. General Morris had been there when Craig had emerged from the pod.

General Morris was a politician at heart, but he wasn’t that good a liar.

He believed there was no escape pod.

“I spoke of the escape pod in my mission report, sir.”

“No, you did not.”

Yes, I damned well did. “If I could see . . .”

“No, you can’t. The mission reports concerning Big Yellow are classified.” He leaned back, eyes narrowed within the folds of flesh. “But I assure you, Gunnery Sergeant, there was no mention of an escape pod in your mission report. Nor in any of the others. Nor at any of the debriefings.”

The recon team had been debriefed separately and then sent back to their respective units. It was possible, if unlikely, that no one else had mentioned the escape pod. But she had. She remembered it clearly.

“We’d lost the first one because we misinterpreted the controls, but the second one launched with CSO Craig Ryder inside.”

The Elder Races insisted they were against violence in all forms; Torin found herself wondering how they felt about mind control. And why would they wipe General Morris’ memory but not hers or Craig’s?

“I understand how the kind of attention you’ve been under lately can go to your head, but you, of all people, should know better than to exaggerate for the sake of your audience. Not that you should have an audience,” he continued as Torin blinked at him. “You know the information about Big Yellow is classified.”

Okay. Firm ground here, at least. Even the patronizing tone was familiar. “Yes, sir.”

“Thanks to Presit a Tur durValintrisy at Sector Central News, the greater part of the Confederation—those who were not actually on the mission—knows exactly what we want them to know. And we don’t want them to know anything else.” His eyes narrowed above florid cheeks. “Do I make myself clear, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. You’re going to have to hurry to make your afternoon briefing.”

“Yes, sir.” She came back to attention, pivoted on one heel, and left the office. Well, that was a whiskey tango foxtrot conversation.

“Gunny.”

Torin stopped at Captain Stedrin’s desk.

He glanced toward the open door to the outer office, where two corporals and the Krai private who’d been sent to fetch her toiled over the general’s data entry, and beckoned Torin closer.

She leaned in.

“Look, if you were anyone else, you’d have been up shit creek for that stunt this morning. I’m finding it hard to believe that the Marine I knew would make up a salvage claim even for a vantru. You’re golden right now, Kerr, but don’t let it go to your head.”

“No, sir.”

Lieutenant Stedrin—Captain Stedrin—had also been there when Craig came out of the escape pod.

She made it to her afternoon briefing on time, but only just. Distracted by the certainty that something hinky was going on, she dropped into the wrong vertical and had to start again from the parade square.

Major Alie met her as she entered the compartment. “Problem, Gunny?”

Torin glanced at the multi-Sector chronometer on the front wall. She had thirty-seven seconds to spare. “No, sir.”

The matter-of-fact tone seemed to throw the major a bit; the movement of her hair sped up, and she frowned slightly.

Does she expect me to tell her that General Morris kept me late? Torin wondered. If Major Alie expected her to feel chastised and show it, well, the H’san would take up knitting first.

Maybe, because she was, after all, an Intelligence officer, the major was wondering why Gunnery Sergeant Kerr had asked about a nonexistent escape pod.

Probably not, Torin acknowledged as she stepped forward to lay out her experiences with the Silsviss for the fourth time in two days. The integration of large, aggressive lizards into the Corps was of more immediate concern than either the possible existence of escape pods or a possibly delusional NCO.

Two more days of briefings finished off the staff officers and NCOs, and she spent the day before she began at the Recruit Training Center going over her notes and making some of the changes Major Alie had suggested. She no longer ate alone; every meal in the SRM became a sort of mini-briefing. Since going out would only expose her to questions from officers and speculation by other ranks, she stayed in.

She was rapidly reaching the point where being shot at by the Silsviss would be preferable to having to talk about them. It didn’t help that most of the private questions—and many of the briefing room questions for that matter—involved second-guessing the decisions that had been made in the field.

“Contamination levels were rising slowly; why didn’t you stay with the VTA?”

“Why didn’t you empty the armory? Why wasn’t every Marine carrying two or three weapons?”

“Why didn’t you put your ammo for the emmy under cover so it couldn’t be hit?”

As that second-guessing was coming from Marines who’d spent most of their tour on their asses behind a desk, Torin figured it was inevitable that she’d end up in the gym late one night, pounding the snot out of some pompous desk jockey. When it finally happened, it started with a Krai technical sergeant demanding to know why she hadn’t killed Cri Srah when she had him in the choke hold. Then it moved into the declaration that, if it had been his people sent into ambush, he’d have made the Silsviss pay. Finally, it ended with him pinned to the floor, Torin’s knee on his throat.

She had a bite taken out of her padding—Krai invariably bit, but the padding slowed them down a little—and a few bruises.

The incident would have broken the monotony except that it had been so appallingly predictable.

She spoke to the one fifty recruits first. On their last tenday, they were almost done with Basic and, having returned from Crucible, were considered Marines—nothing left but finishing up the appalling amount of documentation the military required before posting. There were no recruits in one thirty or one forty; they were on Crucible and probably wishing, if Torin’s memory of those twenty days was anything to go by, that they were anywhere else.

It took a few years of actual combat to put Crucible in perspective.

The one twenty recruits included Staff Sergeant Beyhn’s Platoon 71 as well as Platoon 72 under the command of DI Staff Sergeant Connie Dhupam.

“You haven’t stopped by for that drink, Gunny.”

“Only time I’ve had free, you were with your platoon, Staff.”

“They’re keeping you busy.” He snickered, but not unsympathetically, at Torin’s expression. “This isn’t your job. You should be out there keeping the kids I’m sending you alive. Why the hell aren’t they putting your second lieutenant through this crap?”

“Lieutenant Jarret was unconscious for the final battle and in Med-op for the aftermath.”

“And you’re General Morris’ golden Gunny.”

Torin snorted. “For my sins.”

By day one hundred and twenty, recruits had survived long hours of training both physical and mental and were showing the arrogance that was a natural result of that survival. Two tendays on Crucible would temper that arrogance, but nothing would ever completely remove it. As Major Alie instructed the two platoons in the discretion expected of a Marine given sensitive information, every single recruit leaned slightly forward to show they were listening.

It was the appearance of rapt attention, at least.

Most of them looked intrigued, a few looked amused, all di’Taykan hair was in movement, and the half dozen Krai were showing teeth. One or two of the recruits were showing no expression at all, and Torin decided they were in Staff Sergeant Beyhn’s platoon only because that was where she’d begun.

They hadn’t read the diplomatic reports, but they’d studied every word written by Marines about the battle and the political aftermath. It was possible, Torin realized, that this group of recruits could represent the first Marines to integrate with the Silsviss. They were only on a three-year contract, so it was unlikely, given the speed of politics, but it was possible. As she talked, it became obvious there were going to be a lot more questions than usual; at least a dozen recruits looked as if they wouldn’t make it to the end of the briefing without interrupting.

They did, but Torin would have bet her pension that a couple of them managed to wait only because of the DIs standing behind and to either side of her.

The sergeants handled the Q&A, motioning recruits up onto their feet.

“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr . . .”

The standing recruit was a tall, medium-dark Human, her nose given remarkable prominence by the deadhead hair.

“. . . is it true you have the Silsviss skull the pack leader gave you in your quarters back on OutSector?”

“Essentially. I put it in storage when I got my orders to head here.”

“This recruit wonders why you kept it.”

“Seemed rude to throw it out.”

“Then this recruit wonders why you didn’t give it back to the Silsviss for proper burial.”

“Because that would have been dangerous. The skull is more than a battle trophy. When the new leaders of the pack handed it over, it symbolized them showing their throats to the victor. Giving it back would have meant we planned on killing each and every one of them.”

“But giving it back now . . .”

Torin raised an eyebrow and cut her off. When she figured the pause had continued long enough, she said, “What would giving it back now mean, Recruit?”

Her brows drew in. “Disrespect?”

“Are you asking?”

She jumped at the tone. “No, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr!”

“All right, disrespect and . . . ?”

“A challenge.”

The short sharp crack was the sound of a Krai in the second row beginning to snap his teeth together, suddenly realizing where he was, and trying to stop just a little too late. He managed to look sheepish and apologetic simultaneously.

“And what would a challenge mean, Recruit?”

“A fight.”

“A fight,” Torin agreed. She found herself wanting to remind them that every species has their own way of treating the dead but knew their DIs wouldn’t appreciate her inference that they hadn’t already learned that lesson. Insofar as it didn’t interfere with the functioning of the Corps, the Corps respected those differences.

“A fight with who, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?” This recruit was male, Human again, with the heavy muscle that came from working a physical job before he’d signed up.

“Depends on who received the skull.”

“So if it went back to the representative of the Silsvah World Council, would we find ourselves fighting the entire planet?”

“It’s possible.” And that would certainly interfere with the functioning of the Corps. Which was why she had the skull in her storage locker. Well, that and because a couple of the more politically correct NCOs at Battalion didn’t want the skull of a sentient species hanging in the SRM. They’d just have to choke it down when the Silsviss arrived because it was definitely going back up then.

“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr.” Even at parade rest, the di’Taykan recruit’s inherent grace was evident. Torin could see a long list of aristocratic forebears in his posture—no one got that self-assured in a single generation. He reminded her of Lieutenant Jarret and she would have been willing to bet his family name had no more than three letters in it. His cobalt-blue hair swept slowly back and forth as he asked, “Is there a chance we can see the skull, Gunnery Sergeant?”

Torin could feel Major Alie getting ready to step in.

“That is,” the recruit added, “if you don’t think the Silsviss would mind.”

There was no way the major could answer that. If she knew what the Silsviss would or wouldn’t mind, Torin wouldn’t be there.

With no doubt that the recruit had phrased the second half of the question so that the major would not have the deciding voice, Torin kept both expression and tone neutral. “The Silsviss would understand showing battle honors to the young. They’d also understand using the skull to explain Silsviss strengths.”

“What strengths can you learn from a skull, Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?” Krai, male; his voice on the edge of insolence.

“Why don’t we wait until you get a look at their jaws and you can ask me that again.”

“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?” Another di’Taykan. Emerald-green hair this time. “When you were facing those hundreds of Silsviss and your platoon was surrounded and almost out of ammo, were you afraid?”

“Gunnery Sergeants don’t feel fear, recruit. We eat overgrown lizards for breakfast and wash them down with a side of H’san. However, since I was only a staff sergeant at the time, I can tell you that the moisture controls on a pair of Marine Corps Class As work to design specifications.”

That got a laugh.

“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr, is it true you knew Major Svensson before he was tanked?”

Motivated only by guilt for having not yet gone to see him, Torin let the major move in on that one and remind the recruits that they were here to discuss the Silsviss and only the Silsviss.

*   *   *

“Kichar’s in love.”

Miransha Kichar ignored him and continued polishing her boots.

The pink-haired di’Taykan lounged against the wall beside her bunk and grinned. “I saw the way you were looking at the Gunnery Sergeant when she snapped at you this afternoon during your little question and answer riff. You’re in love.”

“Is that a bad thing, Sakur?”

Sakur turned enough to direct his grin at the Krai on the next bunk. “Love is never a bad thing, Hisht. But the Gunny will never return Kichar’s affection, and that’s sad.”

Hisht’s nose ridges flared as he considered the di’Taykan’s words. His jernine lived deep in the forests, and until the day he’d climbed to the crown of the prayer tree and seen the airship go by, he had thought he would spend all his life surrounded by his extended family. Staring up at the silver ship, a deep curiosity had grabbed him, and he had left all he knew and followed its path and, eventually, when he finally became aware of just how much there was outside his small bit of forest, he had ended up here surrounded by people who were not people as he had known them and who did not always think the way people thought. It was exciting and confusing, and he did not always have the right words in his head to understand. “To love without love in return is sad,” he said at last, even though he knew that wasn’t the point being made.

“Even Hisht gets it.” Sakur laughed. Laughed harder when Kichar glared up at him.

In the forest, Sakur’s behavior would be that of a young male trying to get a female’s attention. In the Marine Corps, he was merely acting like a pain in the ass. That was a concept Hisht had no trouble understanding.

*   *   *

Staff Sergeant Beyhn took a long swallow of his beer and set it back down on the bar of the RT/SRM. “You run a good briefing,” he said. “Everyone seems to think so.”

Torin dropped her head into her hands. “God, help me. I’ll never see my unit again.”

It was beginning to look that way.

After she finished speaking to the remainder of the recruits, right down to the latest group to step off the recruiting shuttle, the Corps wanted her to look at a few simulations of the battle and finally review the official documentation that came out of her briefings. After that, Ambassador Krik’vir, the Mictok who’d been one of the diplomats on Silsvah, wanted her to address a Parliamentary committee.

“Parliamentary committee,” General Morris snorted, staring down at the request. “Half a dozen species rummaging around trying to reach a consensus on what beverage they should have on morning break. Ridiculous waste of time.”

Torin had never been so much in agreement with the general.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “we have no good reason to refuse them. I will, of course, accompany you to the Core.”

And her prospects went from bad to worse.

On the first day of her three/ten, Torin went for her run, took care of her kit, spent two hours at the range blowing away a target she mentally painted with General Morris’ face, and finally headed over to see Major Svensson. The station allowed her into Med-op, but there was a door, a desk, and a delay before she could get to the convalescent compartments.

“I’m afraid the major’s physical therapy’s running a bit late, Gunny.” The yeoman on duty at the desk peered down at her screens. “Ah. He’s with Elusoy . . .”

“Di’Taykan?” Torin asked as though that explained everything. Which, considering the circumstances, it pretty much did.

The young petty officer nodded and colored faintly. “You can wait.”

“Thank you.” Hands clasped behind her back, Torin wandered slowly around the small waiting room. The half dozen uncomfortable chairs were empty, but she had no desire to sit. She read the charts on the wall, checked the display of biscuits for her slate, discovered they were all at least three years out of date, and found herself back at the desk. “You were on the Berganitan, Yeoman?”

She looked up, startled.

Torin hid a smile. Major Svensson had mentioned there were personnel in Med-op whose last posting had been the Berganitan; that was why she’d looked. “You’re wearing the ship’s ribbon.”

“Oh. Right.” A quick glance down at the single ribbon on the left side of her chest. “Yes, I was there when you . . . When we transported you to . . . you know. And back.”

“Right.”

“I put together some of the data for your medical files.”

“Thank you.”

She shrugged narrow shoulders, a quick up and down motion, and smiled shyly. “It’s okay. It’s what I do. I did Craig Ryder, too. We scanned him—just a quick scan just in case—before he went back out for you.”

Her tone, her expression, pretty much everything about her explained the rumor of romance the major had heard. Rubbing one finger along the inert trim of her desk, she stared up at Torin like Torin was the heroine in a H’san opera.

“That’s right. I got my people out of Big Yellow, and I got the guy.”

“Gunny?”

close this panel
The Privilege of Peace
Excerpt

Chapter One

“Remind me to tell the commander we need more recruits from the Navy,” Torin muttered, checking the seals on Binti’s HE suit.

“That a comment about my piloting?” Craig asked as he maneuvered the Promise into position, carefully avoiding the line of sight from both Mictok Station Trilik and the pirate ship tucked between the station and the gas giant.

“You’re the best damn pilot I ever saw,” Torin told him, “but a boarding party says Navy to me.”

“A serley small boarding party,” Werst grumbled as Ressk checked his seals. “We need more recruits. Period. I’m not saying we aren’t the definition of kickass,” he continued, “but there’s only the four of us going in.”

“There’s only six non-Mictok on the station and two on the ship,” Alamber pointed out. “I’ll be into the system as soon as you’re inside, Craig will take the ship, and—given you’re facing less than two-to-one odds—I don’t understand why Binti and Ressk are going.”

Werst’s nostril ridges flared. “When you put it like that, it does seem like overkill.”

“No one dies,” Torin reminded them, using the pressure of her chin against the suit’s wide collar to turn the magnetic plates in her boots on, then off again. “Pirates may be a waste of oxygen, but I’m not spending the better part of a tenday filling out paperwork before having my ass hauled before the Rehabilitation Committee so I can explain why social expectations weren’t met.”

Binti grinned. “By us or by them?”

“Either. Or.”

The Hazardous Environment suits were bright orange, di’Taykan danger orange, although the color had been chosen for its visibility rather than any cultural reason. “The Marines don’t leave people behind,” Staff Sergeant Beyhn had told Torin’s group of recruits, as he’d told a hundred groups before and would tell a hundred after. “If you have one of these on,” he’d added before the warm fuzzy feeling of belonging had faded, “we’ve got a chance of finding your body even if the beacon craps out.”

The suits worn by Strike Team Alpha were Marine Corps suits, or as ex-Marine as Torin, Werst, Ressk, and Binti Mashona. The Warden’s insignia on the center chest was less overt than the Justice Department preferred, but as the Strike Teams were considerably more overt than the Justice Department preferred, Torin figured it balanced in the end. The helmet made use of H’san technology and held two different shapes; down the back like an empty bag and snapped up over the head into a rigid polarized sphere. Helmet up, the suit could support the tanks by filtering any combination of external oxygen and nitrogen into something essentially breathable. It recycled all fluids almost indefinitely. Self-contained, the suits were comfortable for six hours, livable for eight, and, if breathing remained an option, became progressively nastier after that.

If all went well, they’d be out of the suits before the plumbing had a chance to recycle the morning’s pouch of coffee.

Torin didn’t expect it to go well. Precedent aside, the anticipation of all hell breaking loose helped keep her people alive. Suits secured, she checked with Binti and the two Krai, then turned toward the control panel. “Ready when you are.”

“We’ll be in position in five,” Craig told her. “Opening inner airlock door.”

The airlock opened into the control room. Back when Craig Ryder had been a Civilian Salvage Operator, the control room had been the Promise’s single cabin, the greater part of the ship the Susumi drive. Justice had upgraded and expanded the Promise when she’d nearly been destroyed by pirates, adding the ability to attach packets as needed, but she remained Craig’s ship. The other Strike Team pilots flew decommissioned Navy Corvettes—the smallest Naval vessel with a Susumi drive. The other Strike Team pilots would have shit themselves before ghosting into docking position on a gas giant mining station using momentum and air jets and hard-earned skill.

“We’re still a surprise, Boss,” Alamber called from the second seat as the inner door opened and Torin led the four suited members of her team into the airlock. “Speed matched to within five point seven kilometers an hour. Exit in seven minutes . . . mark.”

The countdown appeared on the lower right curve of her helmet.

The inner door sealed, and the pressure began to equalize.

“You really think we can take back the station with six people, Gunny?”

“How many people do we have?”

Behind the lightly polarized surface of her helmet, Binti’s brows rose. “Six.”

“Then we’ll take back the station with six people.”

There’d been a rise in violence in Sector Seven—in MidSector as well as OutSector—spreading the Strike Teams thin, preventing them from doubling up. Torin would have preferred to take more Wardens into the pirate-held station, but as there weren’t any available, her preferences were moot.

The six of them, in pre-Strike Team Alpha days, had taken down an entire pirate fleet. A single ship draining the tanks at a Mictok-run mining station should be a walk in the cake. Torin frowned. Maybe not cake. Pie? Not for the first time, she missed the late Sergeant Hollice and his command of oldEarth idiom.

Over the last five tendays, three other mining stations had been hit, quick and quiet, the Wardens informed after the fact. The violence had been minimal by Torin’s standards, but two Mictok and a Bril had been killed. The Elder Races hadn’t fought back because the Elder Races didn’t fight back, which was one of the reasons the strike teams existed—the Younger Races cleaning up the damage done to their three species over the long years of the war. That said, everyone agreed the Bril’s death had been accidental. They were a strangely fragile species with some of their important parts in unexpected places. Informed of the previous attacks, the manager of Mictok Station Trilik had adopted the very non-Mictok attitude of assuming the worst and had deployed long-range scanners. The moment the scanners had picked up an unscheduled tanker in-system, they’d sent a message to Berbar Station, the Justice headquarters in Seventh Sector and evacuated all but essential personnel, fully aware that had they waited until the tanker came close enough to identify, it would have been too late. The pirates would have blocked the signal.

Having noticed ships leaving the station en masse, smart pirates would have headed for home. Perhaps the pirates thought the Mictok—who had close to a monopoly on mining the Confederation’s gas giants—hadn’t shared information about the previous attacks. Perhaps they thought the Mictok would be embarrassed to send for help before they knew for certain they needed it. Perhaps they’d never actually spoken to a Mictok, as Torin didn’t think it was possible to embarrass one of the giant spiders. Perhaps, after three successful robberies, they’d gotten cocky. There hadn’t been resistance, so there wouldn’t be resistance.

Wrong.

Three minutes.

With the pressure equalized, the outer airlock door opened.

One minute.

“Speed matched to within six meters per hour. Five. Four. Three . . .”

“On my word.” Torin watched the seconds count down.

“Speed matched.”

Three. Two . . .

“Go! Go! Go!”

The Promise was one hundred and one meters from the station—one meter closer and the station’s docking computers would have taken over, announcing their approach. Craig could have nestled his ship up to the airlock—to any airlock—without help, but the Mictok insisted on safety first, most likely because a good seventy percent of the gas they mined was combustible. Thirty percent of the seventy was highly combustible. The potential for disaster put the docking arm used for the arrival and departure of personnel on the opposite side of the station from the gas giant, the bulk of the station a shield against the planetary storms and the tanks filled with potential explosives. This also put the airlock the Strike Team was heading for on the opposite side from the tanks and the pirates emptying them.

On the one hand, they were less likely to be seen.

On the other, they had the entire width of the station to cross once inside.

Torin unmagged her boots three meters before she hit metal, twisting and allowing the much less powerful magnets in her gloves to make first contact, preventing eighty-six accelerating kilograms from slamming into the station and setting off an impact alarm. The piercing, panic-inducing nature of the alarm meant no one, on any station, wanted the sensors reacting to every passing piece of space debris so only those large enough, fast enough, or solid enough to damage the outer hull set off the klaxons. These large, fast, and solid measurements were consistent across the Confederation and, for all Torin’s comments about the Navy, the entire boarding party had done this before. A few meters to the right, Ressk filled her peripheral vision. Werst touched down above them, his head to theirs. Binti’s aim had put her close enough to the airlock controls she had to shift to the left when Ressk hand-walked over.

No one expected people to cross vacuum and open the door. No one set alarms for the unexpected.

On the other hand, as no one wanted personnel trapped outside a station should the worst happen, the emergency access codes for the airlocks were also consistent across the Confederation.

Torin believed the definition of the worst needed changing.

By the time Ressk had keyed in the access codes and the outer door had begun to open, they’d all moved close enough to quickly slip inside.

The inner door opened automatically when the pressure equalized, reminding Torin of how few Primacy attacks had come this far into the MidSectors.

*All life signs still gathered at the tanks, Boss—six Human, two Miktok.*

Humans had been the only species positively identified by survivors at the other stripped stations. “Please tell me the two life signs still on the pirate ship aren’t Human.”

*Wish I could, Boss, but the ship has a hard shell up and I can’t get more than the basics. The happy making news is that I’ve got clean air and, even happier, no one’s monitoring the station sysop. You’re clear to advance.*

“You heard him, people.” Torin unsealed her helmet, rigidity releasing as it dropped down her back. “Let’s go.”

Sergeants and above came out of both branches of the military with communication implants set into their jawbone. About two thirds of the Strike Team personnel had arrived with implants, and Justice had offered installations to the rest. Weapons used during the thefts at the earlier stations raised the odds the pirates were ex-military although there’d been no other identifiers. Once they had the stations locked down, they transferred the contents of the storage tanks, and were gone—no images, no sounds, no DNA left behind. If the assumption of a military background was correct, a percentage of the pirates had to have implants, opening a way for the Strike Teams to eavesdrop or jack in and use the technology as a weapon.

This trip out, Alamber had been unable to locate a signal.

With Mictok held hostage, they were left with no option but to put boots on deck and do it the hard way.

Out of the docking arm, the corridors through the station were wide and well lit, the bulkheads covered in the art the Mictok were admired for throughout the Confederation. Considering that a high percentage of Confederate species were mammals and the Mictok most decidedly were not, that either made art a universal language or art critics as a subspecies listened to their hindbrains and refused to piss the Mictok off. Torin glanced over at the thick ridges of color and decided it was likely six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Excluding the tanks and the docking arms, the station was round; eight main corridors headed diagonally from the rim into a central space. Their path took them in, across the center, and out. Fast and easy. Except that the central space had been filled with webbing. Going around meant backtracking and making their way through side corridors that hadn’t been designed for the convenience of bipedal visitors.

“Fuk me,” Werst muttered.

As they approached, Torin studied the thick white cables laid out in an obvious path through the middle of the web and knew if she stopped on the edge, she might not get going again. Knew that if she kept running, so would her team.

“You know, without boots,” Ressk began just behind her left hip.

“No.” Krai feet were almost as flexible as their hands, and Ressk wasn’t wrong; without their boots they could cross the webbing as quickly as a Mictok, but no one skimmed out of an HE suit. If they’d had that kind of time, they could’ve gone around.

The web flexed as Torin landed on it, one boot on one cable, the other on an identical cable fifteen centimeters away. A continuation of the main corridor design for visiting bipeds, the cables had been connected by a thinner cable in a pattern woven too closely to slip through. Slipping off didn’t appear to have been considered. Mictok didn’t slip. The cables rose and fell under Torin’s boots, the undulations rhythmic enough she could keep her balance.

Until Ressk joined her. Just over a meter high, he was heavier than he looked, and his shorter stride on the cables set up a competing rhythm. When Binti joined them, the cable went up where a stride before it had gone down. Torin’s right leg sank knee-deep into the interior webbing before springing back up again with enough force her knee nearly smacked her in the chin. She’d have fallen had the gravity not been a third less than she was used to and had Ressk not grabbed the loop of strapping at her hip and thrown his weight against it.

The whole web rippled.

“Werst . . .” She swayed, but regained her balance. “. . . implant cadence. Double-time.”

From the back of the march—historically, pre-implant, the position most likely to be heard, codified over the centuries by the militaries of all three Younger Races—Werst began a mouth-closed hum, laying down a rhythm they’d all been trained to follow. A rhythm that let their feet move without any interference from their brains.

It’s too narrow.

It’s wobbling.

It’s a web!

Which was not to say Torin’s brain, at least, didn’t try.

“That was fun,” Binti forced out through clenched teeth as she reached the other side. “I vote we strip to our skivvies and travel through the cold, merciless vacuum of space on the way back.”

“Be a lot easier without boots,” Ressk agreed.

“Missing my point,” Binti told him. “It’s a spider thing.”

“Human spider thing,” Werst grunted, jumping up onto the deck beside his bonded.

*I saw that vid. I didn’t get how they could have missed the obvious thing to do with eight arms.*

“Alamber . . .” A di’Taykan could turn anything to innuendo. And, if given the chance, usually did. That said, he had a point about the eight arms.

*Still a clear run to the tanks, Boss.*

“Let’s go, people.”

The control room for the mining operation took up about a third of the arc facing the gas giant and overlooked the two docking positions on either side of the stacked tanks. The pirates, plus the Mictok hostages, were currently in the control room. It being unlikely they’d surrender without a fight, Torin wanted the pirates in one of the docking arms, an area designed to deal with explosive decompression.

close this panel
Valor's Trial
Excerpt

ONE

“GUNNERY SERGEANT KERR! Good to have you back!”

“Good to be back, Sergeant Hollice.” Torin thumbprinted the release that would send her gear straight to her quarters and fell into step beside the sergeant as they crossed the shuttle bay. “And congratulations on the promotion.” Adrian Hollice had been in her squad when she was a sergeant and then, when she made staff sergeant, her platoon. She’d fast-tracked him onto his SLC and had been pleased to see her decision justified when Command had given him his third hook. Not that she needed reassurance that she’d been right—these days, she needed reassurance that Command didn’t have its head so far up its collective ass it was cutting off all oxygen to its collective brain. “The squad have any trouble getting used to it?”

“Not after Ressk and Mashona knocked a couple of heads together. They said I’d been leading them around by thediran avirrk for months anyway, I might as well get paid for it.”

Torin grinned. The Corps tried to keep combat units together when it could. Familiar faces strengthened both stability and loyalty under adverse conditions, and Marines had their own ways of working through the disruptions promotions brought.

“The captain was a little afraid they were going to send you to Recar’ta HQ,” Hollice told her as they stepped onto the lower beltway.

“So was I.” After Crucible, after she’d been detanked with her jaw rebuilt, after she’d passed the physical and psych evaluations that followed any major reconstruction, Torin had asked to be returned to Sh’quo Company. They were short NCOs and, as she’d pointed out, she’d be wasted in a staff position. Although the Corps reserved the right to send her wherever the hell it pleased, both points were inarguable and she’d been sent home. It hadn’t hurt that the Commandant of the Corps had agreed with her—although wasted in a staff position had not been the phrase used.

“The last thing we need around here is someone else who thinks she’s always right,” had been the gist of the Commandant’s observations.

Given the hour, the lower beltway was nearly deserted.

“They’ve started sweeping our Division.” Hollice stood self-consciously erect as they rode toward the heart of the station. “Started at First Recar’ta, of course, so the war could bloody well be over before they get to us at Fourth. Scuttlebutt says they haven’t found anything yet.”

He tugged at his collar tabs, and Torin hid a smile at the telltale sign. In a poker game, he’d have been bluffing. In a conversation, he was trying to draw her out. This was why he’d come to meet her; she’d been with the recon team on Big Yellow—the alien spaceship that had turned out to be the actual alien, or aliens, the terminology remained uncertain—later, she’d initiated the investigation into why nobody remembered Big Yellow’s missing escape pod and had most recently spoken to a collective of the alien on Crucible. Granted, melting her jaw during a last-ditch attempt to override a reprogrammed OpSat had meant she’d been tanked during the initial There are aliens among us!hysteria, and she’d missed the development of the search protocols, but she was the closest thing to an authority in the Sector.

“You think they will, Gunny?” Hollice prodded. “Find anything, I mean?”

“Find bits of a polynumerous shape-shifting, organic plastic alien that boots through our security protocols like cheddar through a H’san?” Torin asked him blandly. “One that can separate into submicroscopic pieces to avoid detection and then recombine itself back to sentience when the danger has passed? I very much doubt it.” Search protocols and calming announcements from the Elder Races be damned. “Not unless it wants to be found.”

“Great.”

She had to admire the dryness of his delivery. He’d deserved that promotion. “Not really.”

“What does it want?”

“It told me it was collecting data.”

“Studying us?”

“So it seems.”

“Why?”

“No idea. We may never know.” Little pieces of plastic were ubiquitous throughout Confederation space. The alien could be a part of any of them. It could be any of them. It could mimic other materials, and while the parts they’d most recently been in contact with had been gray, Big Yellow proved rather conclusively that didn’t have to be the case. The handrail on the beltway could be recording data for the alien—as the alien—while she passed. Torin, by career choice and disposition more paranoid than most, had made a conscious decision not to think about that.

“It could make us all forget it was ever here,” Hollice pointed out, his voice fraying a bit around the edges.

“Not all of us, Hollice.”

He turned, stared at her for a moment, and smiled. “That’s right. It can’t mess with your head.”

“Took a look inside and was scared off. It wants to get to Sh’quo Company, it’ll have to get through me.” Which was both the truth and complete bullshit since she had no more way of stopping the alien, singly or collectively, than she had of convincing the Navy that a straight line was the shortest distance between two points. But it was bullshit Hollice needed to hear and bullshit he needed to repeat to his squad. Or maybe it was the part of the statement that was the truth he needed to repeat. Whatever worked.

Technically, it hadn’t messed with her head. Hadn’t adjusted her memories of the escape pod the way it had adjusted the memories of nearly everyone else who’d been involved in the exploration of Big Yellow.

Hadn’t and couldn’t were two totally different things.

* * *

The shortage of NCOs meant that Torin had only to put in a request to the station sysop to have her old quarters reassigned. The recon mission to Big Yellow had been a temporary posting, but the promotion before traveling to Ventris to brief Command on the Silsviss had destroyed the certainty of a round-trip ticket—integrating an aggressive reptilian species into the Corps would take decades, and she’d essentially been responsible for their willingness to join. That made her, if not an expert on the species, someone whose opinion Command intended to exploit. Fortunately, new information from the Marines stationed at the embassy on Silsviss had pushed her experience out toward the edge of the target. Some of those Marines were trained xenopsychologists rather than a noncom with good instincts and a willingness to kick ass when required, and, more importantly, none of them had been expected to kill a senior officer.

Torin suspected a few people were concerned because they still weren’t sure if she’d have gone through with it had General Morris’ sacrifice actually been necessary. She supposed it didn’t help that when asked directly she’d said, “As it wasn’t necessary, I guess we’ll never know.”

Which was the absolute truth; it wasn’t something anyone could know until it happened—no matter what they believed themselves capable of.

Her willingness to hack Major Svensson’s arm off with an ax hadn’t reassured anyone.

When she dialed the door open, her quarters looked just as she remembered them, right down to the Silsviss skull hanging on the wall over her entertainment unit. Weird. When she’d left for Ventris, she’d put everything she wasn’t taking with her into station storage.

“Messages?” she asked as the door slid shut behind her.

She’d verbalized, so the station did the same. “One message to Gunnery Sergeant Kerr from Staff Sergeant Greg Reghubir. As follows: “Welcome back, Gunny. We figured the last thing you’d need to do was sort your crap out, so we did it for you. Lance Corporal Ressk says you need stronger encryptions on your storage unit.” Greg sounded matter-of-fact, but Torin would have bet hard currency that he’d changed his own unit’s setting immediately after he saw what Ressk could do with an eight-digit code. “Twenty-thirty tonight in the SRM; don’t be late, or we’ll start without you.”

Torin patted the skull fondly as she passed on her way to the shower. It was good to be home.

* * *

“There’s been a lot of action out on the edge of the sector. Long-range sensors have picked up Susumi portals here, here, and here.” Captain Rose touched three points on the star field currently mapped out on the briefing room’s HMU and frowned at the resulting red lights. “Navy swears they’re not responsible.”

Second Lieutenant Jarret’s lavender eyes darkened as light receptors opened to give him a better look at the map. “Civilians, sir?”

The captain sighed. “It’s always possible some dumbass corporation or university has decided to scout the perimeter—those types always think they’re invincible until they find out they aren’t and we have to pull their butts out of the fire—but I don’t honestly think so. We usually get some kind of a heads up just so we’re available to pull those butts out of the fire, and, so far, no one’s admitting they’ve gone visiting.”

“What about independents, sir?” Second Lieutenant Heerik was brand new, on her first posting with none of her enthusiasm blunted, and more than one of Sh’quo Company’s officers and NCOs bent over their slates and hid a smile at the intensity of the Krai lieutenant’s question.

“What kind of independents did you have in mind, Lieutenant?”

“Well, maybe civilian salvage operators.” Her nose ridges flared. “It was a CSO who found Big Yellow.”

And Torin felt the attention of the room shift to her.

“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr?”

Torin had served with the captain long enough to know he was amused her relationship—or whatever the hell it was she had with Craig Ryder—had made it into the briefing. Although his reaction was subtle enough, the odds were good no one else could see it. “CSO Craig Ryder found Big Yellow because of a small error in his Susumi calculations.” She waited out the murmur of reaction. Small errors in Susumi calculations were usually fatal errors. “Spaced as they are. . .” She nodded toward the lights on the map. “. . . these portals are clearly deliberate. Salvage operators follow rather than lead, and there’s nothing happening out there. No debris, no reason for them to be deliberately jumping that way.”

“Unless there’s something happening out there,” Lieutenant Jarret said thoughtfully.

“Unless,” Captain Rose agreed. “Which is why the Navy has sent the Hardyr out to have a look around. Captain Treis came out of Susumi space here. . .” Another touch on the star map illuminated a fourth portal, this one green. “. . . and is proceeding with due caution to this system, ST7/45T2. . .” One last touch. “. . . here.” The system was equidistant from all three red portals.

“How long is due caution expected to take, sir?” Lieutenant Joriyl wondered.

“You’ll likely be headed Coreward before it happens, Lieutenant.”

Her pale orange eyes darkened as she smiled. “And not a moment too soon, sir.”

Lieutenant di’Pin Joriyl was the senior platoon officer. With her heading into Ventris on course that meant. . .

Torin blinked as she realized that meant Second Lieutenant di’Ka Jarret would be senior. The voice of reason and experience for Second Lieutenant Heerik and an even greener second lieutenant to be named later. It hadn’t been quite a year since a very green Jarret had been tossed into a stew of giant lizards and diplomacy gone bugfuk, and suddenly Torin felt old. Life was moving just a little too fast of late.

“Captain Treis will keep Recar’ta Station informed, Recar’ta will keep Battalion informed, and—if we’re really lucky—Battalion will let us know what the hell is going on before they ship us out to deal with it. Platoons are nearly at full strength for the first time in a long time, so let’s make sure everyone’s geared up and ready to go.” The star field flicked off. Captain Rose swept his gaze around the room, then nodded once. “Details have been downloaded to your slates; get out there and get ready to save the galaxy’s ass yet again. Gunnery Sergeant Kerr, remain behind.”

“Yes, sir.” Torin stood as the officers and NCOs made their way out of the small briefing room, Jarret throwing her a distinct we’ll get together later before turning his attention back to Heerik, who continued talking about the best responses to possible foothold situations, unaware of expressions exchanged nearly a meter over her head. Torin had been Jarret’s staff sergeant for that snafu of a giant lizard diplomacy trip, and she’d been impressed by the way the young officer had handled himself—both independently and under her guidance. If he stayed beyond his first contract, he’d be a credit to the Corps, and she’d be happy to serve under him again.

When the room emptied, she followed Captain Rose and First Sergeant Siaosi Tutone through the door to the captain’s office.

“Opinion, Gunny?” he asked, dropping into the chair behind his desk. Captain Rose’s voice had always seemed about three sizes too big for his body, but here, in the relative privacy of his office, he sounded tired. No, weary. Tired of all the crap that came from being a fair distance down the military food chain.

Or maybe Torin was reading too much into it.

“I think three Susumi points definitely indicates the Others are interested in something in that end of the Sector,” she told him. “I think the lack of any significant attempt to hide their presence means they’re coming through in force. I think the Navy should have sent more ships because if the Others get that force on the ground we’re looking at Battalion moving the whole Ground Combat Team out in response. And I think that the music selection in the Senior Ranks’ Mess changed for the worse while I was gone.”

“That would be my selection,” the first sergeant pointed out. His voice was as deep as the captain’s although less incongruous, rumbling up as it did from the depth of an enormous barrel chest. Torin was tall, but Tutone topped her by a head and a half—taller even than most di’Taykan—and proportionately broad. His hands were enormous, and muscle strained against the confines of his Class Cs.

“Good choice, First. It’s past time I broadened my musical tastes,” Torin added, although she wasn’t sure whether she was aiming for more or for less sincerity.

Tutone grinned, teeth flashing white against the rich mahogany of his skin.

Captain Rose leaned back in his chair and smiled as well. “Welcome home, Gunny. It’s good to have you back.”

“Thank you, sir. It’s good to be back.”

“Recar’ta Station agrees with your analysis, by the way. When the orders come down, they’ll come down for the entire GCT. That’s why you’re here, specifically here with Sh’quo Company when we don’t generally rate a gunny. Aman’s short, and she’s not reupping. Unless we deploy in the next tenday, that’ll leave Jura’s platoon with a shiny new second lieutenant and Heerik, who’s almost as shiny, with a green staff sergeant. We’ll move the new staff sergeant in under Jarret, since he’s got a whole year of experience. . .” Pale eyes rolled, although for the most part he kept the sarcasm from his voice. “. . . but that’s going to leave the company scrambling for experience among the officers and senior NCOs. We need you to be a kind of utility player, coming in off the bench where needed both at the platoon level and keeping the company connected to Battalion.”

“Off the bench is a sports metaphor,” Tutone offered. “Baseball.”

His tone was dry enough that Torin couldn’t quite tell if he was being helpful or facetious, so she settled for a neutral, “Thank you, First Sergeant.” The league on Paradise had teams on all three major continents, and the year she left to join the Corps, New Alland—a minor continent or large island depending on who was speaking—had petitioned to have their teams recognized as well. According to the news download in the most recent packet from her younger brother, they still hadn’t managed it.

“Until we ship out,” Captain Rose continued, “you’ll base at a desk by First Sergeant Tutone’s, your primary duty to liaise with the rest of the GCT as we attempt to get ready for whatever’s coming down the fukking pike. Eventually, I expect you’ll be at the first sergeant’s desk.”

New gunnery sergeants were expected to indicate which way they intended their careers to go—to the combat position of first sergeant or to the staff position of master sergeant. After the incident on Crucible, where both the system and the officer in charge had been taken over by unknown alien forces and Torin had led the training platoon of one-twenty recruits while they fought both the system and the aliens to a standstill, Command had made it quite clear which choice they’d prefer Torin to make. Fortunately, it was the choice she wanted to make. Tutone’s desk had been her goal since she’d received her corporal’s hooks.

“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere, sir.”

For an instant, Torin thought the first sergeant had been reading her mind, and then she realized he’d been responding to the captain’s statement.

“Glad to hear that, First. I was just starting to get used to you. So, Gunny, is it true what Command says, that there’s nothing we can do about the microscopic bits of a big yellow alien scattered throughout known space?”

“That’s the gist of it, sir.”

“Since the search teams haven’t found anything, any chance they’ve buggered off back where they came from?”

“The bit I spoke to told me they didn’t have enough information, sir. I expect they’re still collecting data.”

“Why can’t the search teams find them, then?” Before she could answer, Tutone raised a massive hand. “Never mind. The answer is probably that they can’t find their anus with both hands and a map, so. . .” He waved off the end of the sentence.

“Any chance that when they spoke to you, they were messing with your head?” the captain wondered.

Given that some of them had just emerged from Major Svensson’s head, Torin sure as hell hoped not. “I don’t think so, sir.”

Captain Rose sat and stared up at the ceiling for a moment; specifically stared at the ring of gray plastic around the recessed light over his desk. Tutone followed the captain’s gaze, but Torin refused to look. “It’s like discovering the enemy is an inanimate object,” he muttered, dropping his gaze. “Any inanimate object.” Then he shook his head and double tapped his desk, blows ringing against the plastic. “All right. Let’s get going on a job we can do.”

Both NCOs recognized the dismissal, coming to attention and snapping out a “Sir!” in unison.

Rolling his eyes, the captain stroked one hand down the edge of the lower, right side screen. “I’m sending your first problem out to your desk, Gunny. And I know you’ve got things to deal with, First Sergeant, so let’s have a little less smartass spit and polish and a little more work out of both of you. Gunny?”

Torin paused at the door. “Sir?”

“Can we be expecting General Morris to drop by any time soon?”

General Morris had become Torin’s personal pain in the brass. He’d sent the platoon out to Silsviss, he’d sent her out to Big Yellow, and he’d been contaminated by the alien. Torin had a feeling he blamed her for the last. After all, if she hadn’t blown the whistle, he’d never have known. Or, specifically, no one would have ever known it about him. Given their history, the thought of him showing up once again at the Four Two made her feel a little chilled. Their time spent together never ended well.

“I sincerely hope not, sir.”

“Glad to hear it.”

In the outer office, Torin settled in behind her desk—easy enough to identify as it was the one the first sergeant hadn’t settled his bulk behind—and opened the file the captain had sent.

“New desk, new job, eh, Gunny?”

She looked up to find the first sergeant watching her. “Same old war, First. Same old war.”

He smiled and nodded, but she had a suspicion that he didn’t entirely agree with her. She had no problem with that. There were days when she didn’t entirely agree with it herself.

“Do you ever get the feeling that there are things the Elder Races aren’t telling us?”

“It is worth noting, Gunny, that none of the diplomatic missions sent to the Others have ever included a member of the species doing the actual fighting.”

Granted, it had turned out not to have been the Elder Races messing with the memories of those who knew about Big Yellow but Big Yellow itself, and while that was moderately less distressing than the alternative—always better to be screwed over by an unknown factor than an ally—that didn’t actually address either question. Were there things the Elder Races weren’t telling the Humans, di’Taykan, or Krai who fought their war? And why hadn’t one of the three Youngest ever been invited to join the missions sent out to try to end the war? Over a century of attempted diplomacy had resulted in a few thousand dead diplomats, so why hadn’t Parliament tried every possible option?

And, most importantly, had she been discussing the Elder Races with Major Svensson or with the alien living in his brain? If the former, was there discontent growing within the Corps? If the latter, did the aliens know something the Youngest didn’t?

Too many questions.

Torin wanted to go back to the days when the only question she ever asked was What do I have to do to get my people out of here alive? Unfortunately, once the round was out of the barrel, there was no stuffing it back in. Those days were long gone.

* * *

“The company will be at full complement when we deploy, Sergeant—three full platoons plus NCOs plus officers.” Torin leaned forward just far enough to tap the screen currently showing the potential packet layouts. That leaning forward also brought her well into the transport sergeant’s personal space was intentional. “We’re short here. And here.”

“I’ve got the whole GCT moving out, Gunny.” His nose ridges opened, closed, and opened again. “Not everyone’s going to get what they want.”

“That’s fair. But Sh’quo Company will get what we need.”

He started to answer, realized she hadn’t actually asked a question, and shut his mouth with a snap of his teeth. Krai teeth could chew through anything that held still long enough, and the sound was intended to be intimidating.

Torin smiled. Human teeth weren’t as strong—it was all in the display.

* * *

“No, sir. The download is correct and in order, but the count was wrong. Download says we received eight hundred twenty-eight, ninety standard-round mags for one hundred thirty-eight KC-7, five hundred fifty-two high impact mags, and thirty-six full packages for the heavies when, in point of fact, we received eight hundred twenty-six, ninety standard-round mags.”

The supply officer flashed her laser at one of the automated retrieval drones up near the roof of the armory, adjusting its approach to an upper storage unit, then turned to scowl in Torin’s general direction. “You’re making all this fuss for two magazines, Gunnery Sergeant?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fine. We’ll make them up in the next ship. Two magazines aren’t going to make a damned bit of difference.”

“Sorry, sir, but we could deploy at any moment; I need it corrected now.”

That focused the lieutenant’s attention. “You need it corrected now?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Because I have nothing better to do?”

Torin caught the lieutenant’s lilac gaze and held it. She’d been a lieutenant through Torin’s last three promotions and at this point would likely never see her captain’s bars. Torin didn’t care about that; there were plenty of reasons people were passed over for promotion. Some of them were even good reasons. What she did care about was that someone who’d be a long Susumi jump back of the shooting had no fukking idea just how much difference two magazines could make when it came down to it.

The lieutenant looked away when Torin allowed it. She flashed the laser at one of the smaller drones, and waited, scowling, until it buzzed up and hovered by her elbow. Picking the magazines out of the bin, she tossed them toward Torin who snatched them out of the air, checked their loads, and scanned the serial numbers into her slate to replace the two they didn’t receive.

“Happy, Gunnery Sergeant?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I don’t want to see you around here again.”

“And you won’t, sir.” She paused just long enough for it to be noticeable. “Not as long as the downloads and the counts match.”

* * *

“Nice grouping, Mashona.”

Lance Corporal Binti Mashona lowered her weapon and grinned. “Thank you, Gunnery Sergeant.”

The ten rounds hadn’t hit the target in a grouping so much as in a single large hole.

“Lance Corporal Mashona was using a standard KC-7, right off the rack.” Torin informed Second Lieutenant Heerik’s number three squad. “Now that she’s proven what can be done when properly motivated, why don’t you lot come up here again and, this time, try to hit the damned targets. If you’re still having trouble, pretend you all qualified on this weapon back in Basic!”

“Uh, Gunnery Sergeant. . .” The private’s ocher hair made tentative movements out at the ends of the strands. “. . . we did all qualify back in Basic.”

“I know that, Private Leraj.”

“I think you’re making them nervous, Gunny,” Mashona murmured as the squad rushed back into position.

Torin snorted. “I can’t see why.”

* * *

“I’m surprised, I am, truly surprised, that a big hero like you—got the Silsviss to join up all on your lonesome, discovered a new alien life-form, saved a whole platoon of children from a bit of bad programming—I’m surprised you’re still willing to drink with us working stiffs.”

“He’s drunk, Torin.”

Torin looked at Amanda’s hand on her arm then up at the di’Taykan technical sergeant looming over their table, his lime-green hair spread out in a brilliant aurora around his head. “You think?”

Di’Taykan hair wasn’t exactly hair as Humans understood it. It was more like fine cat whiskers, and this, this was a threat display. Used to thinking of the di’Taykan as lovers—where lovers meant the most enthusiastically nondiscriminating species in known space—a lot of people forgot why they were part of the military structure. When the Elder Races first contacted them, they’d achieved peace under the umbrella of half a dozen heavily armed Orbital Platforms and had defense satellites in place all the way out to the edge of their system. While it was true that usually, one on one, they fukked before they fought. . . they also fought.

And this technical sergeant, wearing Armored’s distinctive lightning bolt and wheel collar tabs, was looking for a fight.

Thing was, fights didn’t happen in the SRM regardless of the amount of alcohol consumed—someone with more than two operating brain cells usually put a stop to things. Tonight, no one was stepping forward. There was, instead, a sense of anticipation among the other NCOs in the mess. As more and more of them became aware of the drama playing out in the corner, that anticipation grew.

In each of those instances, Torin had just been doing her job, and everyone in the room knew that; but there hadbeen a lot of attention, and that wasn’t going to make everyone happy. Add to that the certain knowledge of a big fight brewing but with no clear idea of when, and it was no surprise tensions had risen to a flashpoint.

“I’m surprised the brass hasn’t handed you a commission on a plate,” the technical sergeant sneered.

“Let it go,” Torin suggested wearily. She didn’t feel like talking about it, but she had to at least make the attempt before she handed this moron his head on plate.

“Fuk you.”

Or. . .

“Sure.” She drained her beer, set the glass down on the table, and stood. “Your place or mine?”

He wanted a fight. But he was di’Taykan. Lime-green eyes darkened as light receptors opened and he took a closer look at her—not that physical appearance was ever part of di’Taykan criteria. His hair fell closer to his head and began to sweep slowly back and forth.

Torin raised a single brow, the effect well worth what she’d paid for the ability. “Well?”

The technical sergeant spread his arms and grinned. “Now that’s an encounter you’re going to lose, Gunny.”

Returning the grin, Torin snorted. “You have an interesting definition of the word lose, Sergeant.”

* * *

Due caution ended up taking almost three full tendays. By the time the word came down that Captain Treis had recorded the Others with numbers approaching full battalion support on the fourth planet of the system—dubbed Estee by the Marines—Sh’quo Company was supplied, supported, refreshed, and ready to move out.

“Little more anticipation and I’d have started moving some of them out myself,” Torin muttered. “Right out the air lock without waiting for the Hardyr to match up.”

“You know what the new kids are like.” Amanda took her second duffel bag from Torin and tossed it down the chute to the shuttle bay. “Anxious to get out there and win the war.” She half snickered as she turned. “Like until they showed up, no one bothered to put any effort into it.”

“I’m not sure everyone is.”

The staff sergeant’s eyes narrowed. “You okay, Torin?”

Torin considered and discarded a number of answers. Amanda was on her way Coreward—two contracts fulfilled, one long and one short—and as soon as Ventris dealt with her data dump, this would no longer be her war. She’d been a good Marine, a good staff sergeant, and good friend; she’d survived everything the Others and the brass could throw at her, and Torin suggesting she question all that would only throw shadows over what should be a celebration. “I’ll be fine,” Torin told her, “as soon as they give me something to shoot.”

As a response, it had the added benefit of also being true.

Amanda snickered, as Torin intended. “At least Command delayed Lieutenant Joriyl’s course. The last thing you needed was two green twoies and Lieutenant Jarret as senior going into a knockdown fight. And, although I’m happy you’ll be taking care of my kids, it sucks you’re back in charge of a platoon.”

When Torin raised an eyebrow, she sighed. “Not what I meant. It’s a step back for you.”

“But they’re still paying me more. And, until I can be in charge of the whole company, it suits me better than running the captain’s errands.”

“Gotta do the shit before you can do the shine, Gunny.”

“Truth.” Torin watched Amanda take a last look down the corridor, saw her note a scuffed section of wall she could put a punishment detail to buffing out, and she smiled. “You’re going to miss it.”

“I am. And I need to go while I still will.” She frowned. “Still will miss it.”

“I got that.” Good-bye seemed depressingly final, so instead: “Stay safe.”

Amanda rolled her eyes. “Why wouldn’t I be? As long as you’re out there.”

* * *

“Isn’t this kind of fast?”

Torin paused, twenty meters of rope looped over one arm, and actually looked at the screen. “What do you mean fast?”

“I mean fast!” Craig Ryder sat back in his pilot’s chair and crossed his arms. That put his face farther from the pickup but allowed Torin to see more of his upper body, so she figured she came out ahead. Not that he didn’t have an attractive face—blue eyes, slightly crooked nose, and dimples bracketing a self-assured smile currently visible without the on-again, off-again coverage of a scruffy red-brown beard—but she had a special fondness for the heavily muscled arms and the set of shoulders so broad they threw things out of proportion, making him look shorter than he actually was. “I mean, sure, the bad guys are jumping in pretty much right up your lot’s arse, but don’t you need more time to get ready?”

“No.”

“Yeah, well you could definitely use a little more good oil on what you’ll be facing. I mean, fuk, they’re deploying the whole GCT out of Four Two and you’ve got almost no intell.”

She smiled then, mostly at his sudden switch into military jargon. “We’ve got almost no intell you’re aware of.” Civilian Salvage Operators worked the edges of battles. They knew where those battles were, or more precisely where they’d been, but they didn’t know much more.

“So you know more than: Oh, look, one fuk of a lot of Others in our space—let’s go kick butt!”

“I don’t actually need to know more than that.”

“No. . .” He sighed and reluctantly returned her smile. “. . . I guess you don’t. You know how long you’ll be gone?”

“Until we win.”

Neither of them mentioned the corollary.

“If it lasts long enough, then I expect I’ll rock up.”

If there was debris enough to make it worth his while. Debris meant dead pilots. Dead crew. Dead Marines. They didn’t talk about that. Safer to talk about the recent repairs to his ship. Torin stowed the rope in her pack while Craig went over the modifications he’d planned for Promise’s living quarters to accommodate the possibility of a second person. As her continued silence moved him from not quite ready to acknowledge possibilities into more general gossip, she moved to the desk and opened her med kit. The contents provided a little more than first aid and, odds were good, a little less than what she’d likely need.

“Hey! Are you even listening to me?”

“I am.” She liked hearing his voice in the background as she got things ready. It was—gods help her—comforting. It didn’t matter what he was actually talking about.

“So what do you think about it?”

Turned out she hadn’t been listening closely enough although she was fairly certain he’d been telling her about a military rumor now making the rounds of the general public. Which would make the safest response: “I doubt it’ll happen.”

Craig shrugged. Torin watched the movement appreciatively. “I don’t know, Presit seemed sure your R&D guys could reverse engineer her pilot’s trip behind the Berg to Big Yellow.”

Presit a Tur durValintrisy, reporter for Sector Central News, had wanted the story of the unidentified alien ship badly enough that she’d bullied her pilot into locking onto the tail end of the Berganitan’s Susumi signature, basing his own equations on information received from riding the sweet spot in the warship’s wake. It was amazing piloting, and Parliament had declared the stunt too dangerous to be repeated without further study. A lot of further study.

The reporter still had no time for Torin but considered Craig one of hers. One of her what Craig wasn’t willing to say, although the Katrien were a matriarchal species, so the chances of him being embarrassed by the details were high.

“If your lot can dummy a way to follow the Others home,” he continued, “then won’t you be able to take the fight to them?”

“We will.” Torin shoved her med kit into her pack. “And then there’ll be more fighting.”

“I thought that was what you did.”

It wasn’t a question, so she didn’t answer it. Wouldn’t have had an answer to it had it been a question.

“So. . .” The chair creaked as he shifted his weight. “. . . one of my salvage tags seems to have gone walkabout.”

“You probably stuffed it into the junk drawer.” No probably about it—she knew he’d stuffed the tag in the junk drawer because that was where she’d taken it from. It was currently tucked in between her breasts, hanging around her neck on a length of braided cord.

He shook his head and grinned. “The buggers are chipped, Torin.”

“I know.”

“I run the codes and I can find it.”

She looked up then. She’d taken it on impulse, wanting to carry something of his with her and ignoring the fact that she never did anything impulsively. On the shuttle ride to the station, turning it over and over, she’d found a weird sort of comfort in knowing that as long as she held on to it, he could find her. Provided he was close enough. Her military ID had a stronger signal, but he’d be more motivated.

She hoped he’d be more motivated.

She’d almost sent it back to him twice. Almost.

Finally she said, “I know.”

After a moment, Craig reached out and touched the edge of the screen. “This must be costing you big bikkies.”

“A few.” Full squirt with no discernible time delay was expensive, but they wouldn’t have another chance to talk until she got back to the station. No way of knowing when they’d be together physically, and the thought of that made her ache in ways she found just a little disconcerting. It wasn’t the sex—there was always plenty of that to go around—it was him.

“Why?”

That got him her full attention. It was the same tone he’d used during their we’re going to damned well discuss a future whether you like it or not conversation. She hadn’t liked it. And he hadn’t backed down. And damned if they weren’t likely to have a future together. Some day.

“Why what?”

“Why spend so much to say good-bye?”

“It isn’t. . .”

He snorted and she paused.

“Fine. You mean that much to me. Okay? Happy?”

“Yeah.”

His smile made her fumble a rolled pair of socks, and she called herself a sentimental ass as she bent to pick them up.

“Happy unless,” he continued as she straightened, “you’ve got a bad feeling about this fight and you think this may be it.”

She flicked an eyebrow in his general direction. “I’m going into combat. Of course this may be it.”

“Damn.” One corner of his mouth twisted, turning the smile into a parody of itself. “I wasn’t expecting you to agree with me.”

“Don’t worry.” She stopped herself before she could touch her fingertips to his on the screen, knowing that whatever the impetus for the cliché, no matter how much Craig would appreciate the gesture, she’d hate herself for it later. “I’m not that easy to kill.”

He snorted. “Everyone’s easy to kill, Torin.”

* * *

Moving a full GCT of fifty-four officers and 1,178 enlisted Marines from the station out through the lock tubes and into their packets on the Hardyr called for split-second timing and some inventive profanity. As all three GC companies, the recon platoon, and the engineers waited to board, the masses of black uniforms surging back and forth across the main loading bay looked, at best, like barely organized chaos. The chaos was unavoidable, but Torin had made damned sure that Sh’quo Company’s part in it at least was organized. Their armory had been loaded, their packets checked, their mess adjusted—Supply had its collective head up its ass if they thought Marines could survive a four-day Susumi jump and an indefinite time fighting on their idea of coffee rations.

Slate in hand, she watched as C’arden Company moved its first squad over the lip and into the tube and grinned as Sergeant Perry, a distinct enough of this shit tone to his voice snapped out, “Double time, people! I’ll be right pissed if we miss the rest of the war!”

First squad in set the pace, and double-timing half a kilometer with full gear should be no one’s idea of a rough time. They might even get all three companies loaded before the Marines on the shortlist claimed their contracts were up.

With Captain Rose and First Sergeant Tutone huddled up with their counterparts, Torin calmed Second Lieutenant Heerik, who was not handling the waiting well, broke up a shoving match between a pair of heavy gunners by threatening to link their exoskeletons to a dance biscuit, and joined Sergeant Hollice watching Corporal di’Merk Mysho repack her pack.

“She says fussing kills time,” Hollice said without being asked.

Torin shrugged as Mysho smacked Sam Austin’s hand away from a bag of high-calorie chews. “She’s right.”

“She also said fukking would kill time.”

“She’s right again.”

“Except that we’re in ranks and I wouldn’t excuse her.”

“Bastard.”

Hollice snorted. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure she expressed an opinion on my parentage, too.”

“You need to learn more di’Taykan, Sergeant.”

He snorted again. “Safer not to know, Gunny.”

“Is Private Padarkadale praying?” His eyes were closed and his lips were moving, and a circle pendant dangled from one pale hand.

“Probably,” Hollice allowed, rolling his eyes in the greenie’s general direction. “But we needed a religious one to complete the set.”

Mashona was asleep, head on her pack, KC-7 cradled against her chest like an infant, long, dark fingers gently cupping the sniper scope. Boots off, slate held in prehensile toes, Ressk worked the screen with both hands—nose ridges clamped shut, lips drawn back off his teeth. Whatever he was working on, he was finding it a challenge. Given that he’d broken through station security so cleanly they’d remained unaware of the breach for almost six tendays, Torin told Hollice to check him out and continued circulating.

Sh’quo would be the last of the three GC companies to load. Most of the Marines had their slates out playing a game biscuit or writing one last message home; a few, like Mysho, were going through their gear, fewer still were sleeping. There were a couple of quiet conversations, a couple of louder conversations, and another shoving match broken up by their teammates before Torin could get across the floor.

The engineers would load after Sh’quo and then Recon—last on, first off.

“Gunnery Sergeant Kerr!”

Torin knew that voice. She turned, slowly, figured what the hell, and smiled at the dark-haired young woman currently trying not to smile at her. “Private Kichar. I see you’ve gone into Recon.”

Dark eyes narrowed over a prominent nose. “How. . .”

“Collar tabs.”

Kichar flushed slightly but didn’t glance down at her tabs. Point for her, Torin acknowledged. “I just wanted to say it’s an honor to be serving with you again, Gunnery Sergeant.”

“I can’t say I’m unhappy about it either, Kichar.” And she meant it. The battle on Crucible had knocked the stick mostly out of Kichar’s ass—the creases pressed into her combats indicated she was still an annoying overachiever, but there’d be plenty of battles to knock that out of her, too.

“I didn’t ask to be posted to 4th Recar’ta 1st Battalion after training,” Kichar explained.

“She doesn’t want you to think she’s stalking you, Gunny.” The Krai corporal’s teeth were showing as he detached himself from the crowd and moved into their space. “Even if all she does is fukking talk about you.”

“You don’t think I’m worth talking about?”

He snorted. “I don’t know, Gunny. What’ve you done lately?”

Kichar’s eyes narrowed further, her weight shifted forward, and she was clearly about to do something she’d just as clearly regret about five seconds after doing it. Torin closed a steadying hand around her arm. “It’s okay, Kichar. Lance Corporal Werst was with me on Big Yellow—although he was a private then.”

“And I’d be one again if they let me give the fukking hook back,” Werst grunted.

Torin grinned. She’d bet serious credit on him ending up career Marine. “I’m sure you can figure out a way to lose it.”

Although she managed to keep from grabbing the much shorter Krai, Kichar’s hands kept opening and closing. “You never said you served with the gunny before.”

Werst shrugged, a Human gesture both the di’Taykan and Krai had adopted. “So? Dursinski’s here too, Gunny. Still bitching.”

That was a surprise. The lance corporal hadn’t seemed to be enjoying her time in the Corps. A bigger surprise that she’d remained in Recon given the attrition rate. “She reupped?”

Werst shrugged again. “Said it beat looking for a real job.”

“That’s not,” Kichar began, paused and frowned. “You were kidding?”

“Not me,” Werst told her, nose ridges pinching shut. “Dursinski might’ve been.”

“Gunny, I need to. . .”

“Ask the corporal what she meant?” Torin interjected into the pause. “Go ahead.”

“Fuk, she’s annoying.” Popping something in his mouth Torin was just as glad she couldn’t identify, given the Krai were as indiscriminate in their eating habits as the di’Taykan were about sex, Werst nodded toward an argument among the engineers. “You going to deal with that?”

The trio of specialists seemed to be disagreeing on who’d be carrying what equipment. Before Torin could work up enough interest to care, a Human technical sergeant broke it up, smoothly separating the combatants and bending quickly to catch something that looked like a metal spider before it hit the floor. As he straightened, he met Torin’s eye and nodded before handing the spider back to the Marine who’d dropped it.

“Looks like it’s under control,” she said. Across the loading bay, Captain Rose raised a hand. “And I’m needed. Be seeing you, Werst.”

“You can join us out in front any time, Gunny.”

Gunnery sergeants did not need the approval of lance coporals, but Torin was Human enough she appreciated the thought all the way back across the bay.

“It’s like supervising a kindergarten class,” the captain sighed as she joined him. “Tutone’s just gone to broker a deal with Captain Yun’s First concerning pudding cups.”

“Pudding cups, sir?”

“Yun thinks their mess got too many vanilla cups.” He scratched at a patch of old scar tissue on his jaw and sighed. “We don’t wait well, do we?”

“No, sir. But we’ll snap to once the fight starts.”

* * *

“Gunny!” Captain Rose leaned in so close she could feel his breath hot against her cheek. The only way to be heard over the Others’ artillery and their own answering it. “Any word from Heerik’s number three squad?”

“No, sir!”

“Should have sent a runner when the PCUs went.”

“Yes, sir!” A lot of “should haves” got missed with the company pinned down under small arms and artillery fire while attempting to take an entrenched position. Blasted communication units made the list even longer.

“I have to know. . .”

They ducked together as something impacted against the other side of their hastily thrown up earthworks and blew with a whomph that rattled Torin’s teeth.

Coughing and spitting out mouthfuls of finely pulverized dirt, the captain glared at her with bloodshot eyes. “You think they knew we were coming?” he bellowed as the dust settled.

“Seem to have baked a cake, sir.”

He spat again and rubbed dirt off the readout in his sleeve. The various items actually woven into their combats were pretty much the only wireless tech working; even their slates were down. “God fukking damnit, I’m not directing an air strike down on my own fukking Marines. Find that squad, Gunny! And when you find it, move it back!”

“Yes, sir.”

Balancing safety and speed and concluding she had no time for the former, Torin raced toward the squad’s last known position. They were out front, every one knew that, but no one knew how far out front and where they’d gone to ground. If they’d gone to ground. If they were still alive.

She jumped a body, got cursed out by the corpsman working on a slightly more intact body beside it, recognized the pale orange hair, and froze momentarily as another mortar hit. The Others were blowing nothing bigger than their own Em223s. Small stuff from the firing position, significantly bigger boom for those at the other end of the trajectory.

As soon as the earth stopped moving, she started running again.

“Gunny!” One of the new recruits. “What are we supposed to do?”

“Wait for air support,” she snapped without breaking stride.

And right on cue, three Marine 774s screamed by with two of the enemy’s planes in close pursuit.

Torin half heard the whistle, shouted, “Down!” with no hope of being heard, and hit the dirt as at least half a payload landed a little too close. The earthworks shuddered as the blast wave hit, then slowly toppled inward. Torin tried to scrabble clear and got tangled with a warm body. She managed to get her arms over her head to make an air pocket as the dirt rained down.

Fuk!

Rocks in the mix slammed against body parts not protected by her vest. She took a hard hit to the calf, then strong hands grabbed her ankle and began to haul her clear. Digging in elbows and knees, she gave what help she could.

“You okay, Gunny?”

“I’m fine, Anderson. Thanks,” she added as the heavy gunner set her on her feet. Fortunately, the exoskeletons had been unaffected by whatever pulse the Others had hit them with. Half turning, she saw another heavy drag Lieutenant Jarret out from under the collapsed barrier.

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this, Gunny. . .” He coughed and spat out a mouthful of mud. “. . . people’ll start to talk.”

Torin’s lips caught against the dirt on her teeth. “Let them talk, sir.”

He returned her grin. “What’s your heading?”

“Lieutenant Heerik’s three squad is up front.” New bruises were rising, but everything essential still worked. “We need to place them so the captain can call in coordinates for the air strike.”

The lieutenant glanced at the Marines working to rebuild the blown section, his lilac eyes dark. “Call in on what? Nothing’s working!”

“We’ve had word that Signals are running filament. Should be out our way eventually.”

“And until then?”

Gunnery sergeants did not ever admit they didn’t know. “Smoke signals, sir.”

He blinked, then he grinned again and nodded. “Stay on thirty-seven degrees. If she proved to have half a brain and stayed put, you’ll find Heerik.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Keep your head down, Gunny.”

“Count on it, sir.”

She didn’t find Heerik, but she found her other two squads. “God damn it, Doctorow, don’t tell me you’ve lost your lieutenant already!”

The staff sergeant rolled his eyes. “She went up to find three squad.

“She went herself with this lot sitting on their fine Marine asses getting fat?”

The Marines close enough to hear suddenly found something to look at over the barricade.

“Said it was her job. Wouldn’t listen to me. Slipped away when I was dealing with. . .”

Screaming.

“. . . that. Damn it, Huran,” he whirled and glared at the corpsman. “Knock him out if you can’t shut him up.”

“We’ve been through this, Staff. His religion says he can only lose consciousness naturally.”

Padarkadale. Or most of him.

Torin held up her right arm. “See all these hooks? They say my religion trumps his. Dope him!”

“Gunny, I. . .”

“Do it!”

“That was intolerant of Padarkadale’s beliefs,” Doctorow muttered as Huran bent back over his patient.

“Yes, it was,” Torin told him as the private stopped screaming. “His god can talk to me about it later. Which way did Heerik go?”

“That way—one hundred and eleven degrees from Marine zero.”

Torin lined up on the way he was pointing and checked her sleeve. “How far?”

“Shouldn’t be more than a klik and a half.” He snorted. “Could be anywhere in hell’s half acre.”

Another set of 774s roared by. Higher this time.

“They’ll start dropping by eye any minute now,” Doctorow noted, glaring up into the sky.

“They’ve started.”

“Oh, fukking joy.”

One hundred and eleven degrees took Torin over the barricade. . .

“. . . through the woods and to grandmother’s house we go,” she muttered, slapping a filter over her mouth and nose. That took care of breathing, but with all the dust in the air, she could hardly see. Running bent almost double, KC-7 in her right hand, left arm out in front to maintain her bearing, she concentrated on keeping the readout in the green.

From the sound of it, things were getting interesting in the lower atmosphere.

Interesting was seldom good for the Marines on the ground.

At a klik and a half, during a miraculous pause in both artillery and the air show, she thought she heard voices. Two hundred and fifty meters more, another pause, and she was sure of it.

“Lieutenant Heerik!”

“Gunnery Sergeant?”

No mistaking the Krai lieutenant’s voice. There just weren’t that many female Krai in the infantry.

Five meters more and Torin slid down into a crater, riding a ridge of dirt to Sergeant Hollice’s side. A quick count gave her all twelve members of the squad and Second Lieutenant Heerik. Mashona lifted a hand in a remarkably sarcastic wave, but Ressk kept his gaze locked on the lieutenant.

“Captain would like your three squad back behind the barricade, sir.”

“I came out to bring them back in, Gunnery Sergeant. . .”

More planes screamed by. Theirs. Others. Torin frowned as something broke the sound barrier. Navy?

“. . . we were just about to leave.” She had her boots off and scrambled up the crater wall a lot faster than anyone but Ressk was likely to manage.

No, not Navy.

“Sir! Get down! Now!”

Torin had no idea which side had dropped it, or what it was, but on impact it distinctly went BOOM.

BOOM was never good.

The lieutenant turned, lips drawn back off her teeth, and looked startled as the top half of her body blew across the crater, spraying blood onto the uplifted faces below. Her legs swayed for a moment, then slowly crumpled. As they slid back down the slope, each individual mote of dust in the air picked up a gleaming white halo.

The halos joined.

The ground rose.

Torin’s knees slammed into her chest, and she tasted blood.

The whole world went white.

Then black.

TWO

“NO.”

“I are being sorry, Craig, but Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr are. . .”

“No.” Hands flat against the control panel, Craig leaned in closer to the screen. “She isn’t dead.”

Presit pulled off her dark glasses and arranged her features in what she probably thought was a sincere expression—something furbearing species sucked at, Craig sneered silently. “I are knowing you are not wanting to believe, but. . .”

“You said there’s no body.”

“The blast are having melted her position. I are having seen the raw news feed, there are being no hope of bodies. There are barely being hope of DNA resolution.”

“The news. . .” He didn’t bother hiding his disdain. “. . . has been wrong before.”

Dark lips drew back off very white, very pointed teeth and, within the black mask of fur, Presit’s eyes narrowed. But all she said was, “True.”

“And the military doesn’t know shite half the time.”

“That are being also true.”

“They haven’t told me. . .” He stopped then, unsure if they would tell him. He didn’t know, had no way of knowing, if Torin had added him to her notification list. If she hadn’t, if Presit hadn’t spotted Torin’s name in the data stream coming into Sector Central News for rebroadcast, he would never have known. He’d have just kept waiting and wondering until finally there’d be no question and then. . .

His fingers curled against the warmed plastic. “She isn’t dead.”

Presit shook her head, the motion sending a visible ripple through her silver-tipped dark fur, the highlights too artfully natural to be real. “Saying it are not making it true. No one are surviving that attack.”

His laugh sounded off, even to his own ears. “It wouldn’t be the first time Torin’s beaten the odds.”

“A direct hit by a missile fired from orbit that are melting the landscape to slag are being large odds, even for Gunnery Sergeant Kerr.” The reporter sighed, her acerbic tone softening. “She are not being invincible.”

Yes, she is.

“No.” Craig had no idea whether Presit took his soft denial as agreement or disagreement—mostly because he wasn’t sure himself—but she clearly accepted it as the end of the conversation.

“I are not liking her much,” Presit admitted, muzzle wrinkling, “but I are being sorry for your sake that she are being gone. If you are wanting company?”

It took him a moment to realize what she was offering. The last thing he needed was Presit a Tur durValintrisy in his face while he was griev. . .

While he was. . .

While. . .

“No. Thanks. I’m fine.”

Presit’s snort spoke volumes as the signal faded.

He got no signal off the salvage tag, but ST7/45T2 was damned near to the edge of known space. Too far to read. Too far to go himself with no certainty of salvage on the other end although he ran the Susumi calculations just because.

Then he returned to the job, working the edges of the debris field left behind when the Others slid a pair of battle cruisers into a system already claimed, scooping up the wrecked pieces of Navy Jades because, well, he had to breathe and oxygen wasn’t free although he had been thinking that if things went well, he might invest in a converter since Promise’s arms would do just as well capturing chunks of the small ice asteroids littering known space and with two people in the cabin. . .

Sweat trickled down his sides as he stepped out of the air lock, faceplate polarizing in the unfiltered solar radiation.

Torin hadn’t been ready to leave the Corps and he hadn’t been ready to push, but they’d both known where they were heading, sooner or later, and it wasn’t like he couldn’t do the job on his own because he’d been on his own since he started, but it’d be fukking pleasant to have some backup when the only thing separating his bare ass from hard vacuum was a twelve-year-old Corps surplus HE suit and a bit of luck. A second pair of eyes would. . .

Craig locked the last piece of twisted metal and plastic in place, DNA residue flagged. DNA turned up in the strangest places. Once he’d found Human residue on wreckage from an enemy fighter. Navy had found the body months earlier and no one had any idea how those few cells had wandered. Once, he’d found a pilot, or most of one, in the crushed remains of her Jade. The Others had fried every system on her ship, and the commander had been nothing more than meat in space. The Navy couldn’t find her without a signal. He’d only found her because finding the small debris, too small for the military to waste time and money recovering, was how he lived, and he worked on instinct as much as equipment.

“And what would I be doing while you’re using these well-honed instincts of yours?” Torin had asked as she pulled on her tunic.

“Same thing you’re doing now,” Craig had said, tossing her a boot. “Keeping your people alive. Fewer people,” he’d added grinning, “but better job perks.”

She’d matched his grin as she’d snagged her first then her second boot out of the air. “You think?”

“You haven’t complained.”

“Too polite.”

“Bullshit.”

He checked the pod configuration before he headed back into the air lock, loading the dimensions into his slate. The data went automatically into Promise’s memory, but having survived one Susumi miscalculation, he had no intention of pushing his luck. Careless pilots were dead. . .

Were dead.

As the door cycled closed behind him, he clawed at the shoulder catches and dragged his helmet off the moment the telltales showed green, suddenly unable to breathe within the confines of the suit. Hands braced on his thighs, he sucked in deep lungfuls of air and forced his heartbeat to slow.

Fukking irony that the panic attacks he used to have at the thought of sharing limited space and resources were now being caused by the realization that. . .

No.

If there was one thing Torin excelled at, it was staying alive.

She wasn’t dead.

He opened the inner door, stripped out of his suit, and hung it precisely in its locker, tank snapped up against the remix valve. Next time he needed it, Promise would see that it was ready.

A quick visit to the head; he never hooked up the plumbing in the suit if he didn’t absolutely have to. A visit to the coffeepot to start the whole cycle up again.

And then there was no way of avoiding the message light blinking on the control panel.

Turned out he was on Torin’s notification list after all.

* * *

The Confederation Marine Corps had two levels of notification. Level one included a trip into the Core and Ventris Station where the details would be explained and counselors both military and civilian would be on hand to deal with the emotional maelstrom that came with the loss of a loved one. Figuring that any maelstrom was his own damned business, Craig hadn’t planned on taking them up on it until he found himself working out the Susumi equations.

Hands above the controls, he paused. He didn’t need some counselor telling him how he felt.

He did, however, need to sell his salvage, and Ventris was as good a place as any. Particularly since the notification had come with a code that granted him a free berth and hook-in. No reason not to do what he could to broaden his limited profit margin.

And while he was there, as long as the Corps was paying for the privilege of his company, it wouldn’t hurt to find out what the fuk they thought had happened because the whole thing sounded damned shonky to him.

“Civilian salvage vessel Promise, this is Ventris perimeter. State your reason for approach.”

“Salvage license tango, sierra, tango, five, seven, seven, nine, tango. I have cargo.” Craig sent the details of his load and then stared out at the bulk of Ventris Station, covering a quarter of his screen even at perimeter distance, and ignored the way his hand was resting beside the pressure pad that would transmit the notification code.

“Roger, Promise. Delta yard has docking available. Stand by for. . .”

“Wait.” One finger moved to the pressure pad. “And I have this.”

“Roger, Promise.” The dispassionate tone hadn’t changed although he knew there was a person of some species on the other end of the link. “Salvage must be unloaded and cleared before you can proceed to the station. Stand by for coordinate download. Docking master will take control in three, two, one. . . mark. Docking master now in control.”

He sat back as the program ran and his ship surged forward. He’d been expecting. . . more.

A reaction.

Condolences?

Someone he could tell to fuk off, that Torin wasn’t dead.

Apparently, enough Marines died; it was business as usual.

“Well, fuk you, too,” he muttered at no one in particular.

* * *

“No, you don’t understand. . .”

One foot raised to step over the hatch; Craig put it down again and eased back into the corridor. The voice filling the room he’d been about to enter was male, the tone frustration heading toward anger. He was, himself, just here for information, he didn’t want to intrude on another man’s grief.

“. . . I have all the information you lot are willing to give me and I’m not here to talk to a counselor; I’m here to talk to talk to someone who doesn’t have their head up their ass about this. . .”

Obviously, the man hadn’t spent much time dealing with the military. In Craig’s experience, head up the ass was the default posture.

“. . . my daughter isn’t dead!”

A thousand daughters in uniform.

More. So many more.

And more than a thousand fathers who’d refuse to believe.

There was no reason, absolutely no reason that this overheard conversation had anything to do with Torin. Except that Craig’s code had directed him here, to this anteroom off the docking bay, an area barely inside the station, awkward civilian interactions kept at the edge of things military. Three dozen doors along this corridor—he’d counted them while wondering what the hell he was doing there, pacing past other men and women who seemed to have a lot fewer questions. Three dozen doors and the notification code brought him to this one.

He stepped into the room.

The Krai corporal behind the desk looked up, his nose ridges flaring. Or maybe her nose ridges—secondary sexual characteristics were subtle and Craig never had been able to tell the Krai apart. Since it had never been an issue, he didn’t worry about it much. “I’m sorry, sir, I’ll just be a moment.”

Ignoring her—or him—Craig crossed to the man standing by the desk. He was big—not just in contrast to the meter-tall Marine behind the desk—and the patchy red-brown of his tan said he spent most of his time outside in actual atmosphere. Before the Marine could speak again, Craig held out his hand. “Craig Ryder.”

Deep-set eyes narrowed, creases pleating at the outside corners. Recognition dawned, and he nodded, once. Craig always figured Torin had picked up the gesture in the military. Maybe not.

“John Kerr.” Torin’s father had one hell of a grip, his hand hard and callused.

“Drink?”

“You know how to find a bar in this tin can?”

“Mate, I can find a bar in Susumi space.”

“Yeah? Well, I don’t have the faintest idea what that means. . .” He scratched along the edge of his jaw, nails rasping against rough skin where the depilatory had begun to wear off. “. . . but if you can find a bar, I’ll buy.”

“Sir. Sirs,” the corporal amended as they turned together. “The Corps will deal with your needs while on Ventris.”

“The Corps can,” John Kerr began. Stopped. Drew in a deep breath. And pointed one large, scarred finger across the desk. “I’ll be back.”

* * *

“Torin liked this bar.”

“Yeah.” Their notification codes hadn’t got them onto Concourse Two; that had been Craig’s not entirely legal schematic of the nonsensitive parts of the station, a little bullshit to an actual live Marine at a checkpoint, and the taking of the Commandant of the Corps’ name in vain when asked for his authorization by the station sysop at the last hatch. There were plenty of bars on Concourse One, the area reserved for those just passing through. Craig knew and liked a number of them, knew and avoided a couple more, and didn’t want to see the inside of any of them. Not now.

Torin had liked Sutton’s.

Half a dozen second lieutenants had pushed two of the small tables together over in the corner, a couple of Krai NCOs sat at the bar watching cricket on the vid screen and occasionally commenting in their own language, but other than that the bar was empty. The Corps ran on a 28-hour clock, but 1530 seemed to be an off hour.

John took a long swallow and set his glass back on the table. “The beer’s good.”

Craig raised his own glass in acknowledgment and drank. They hadn’t done a lot of talking on the way and now. . . “You don’t think she’s carked it.” At John’s blank expression, he shook his head. “Sorry. Died. You don’t think she’s died.”

“I don’t. They hear it all the time, you know: My kid’s not dead.” His hand tightened around the base of the glass. “There’s no body. They haven’t found anything that resembles her fukking DNA. Give me a body. Give me something.” His eyes were a darker brown than Torin’s, but the intensity was the same. “I’ll believe when I have proof but not until.”

“The force of the blast melted rock.” Presit had been right. Nothing could have survived it. “The whole area was slagged.”

“I saw the vids.”

The vids had come in a packet with the notification code. Craig had always suspected these sorts of things were sterilized for public consumption—the last thing the Corps needed to do was expose the grieving to the ugly reality of war. In this case, there’d been nothing to sterilize because the enemy blast had done the job too well. Over thirty square kilometers of battlefield had been turned to a rippled sheet of gray green. Shining. Lifeless. A helpful X marked Torin’s last known position.

“She was too far from the edge to have been thrown clear.” Far enough from the edge that being thrown clear would have killed her.

One dark brow rose. “My daughter tells us you’re a bit of a gambler. Guess you have to be,” he continued without waiting for a response. “Doing what you do. You want to bet on a sure thing, you bet on my daughter having survived.”

“I don’t. . .” Craig drank a little more beer if only because it forced him to unclench his teeth. “I didn’t believe it when I first heard, but. . .” Then the notification. Then the vids. Then Ventris. Then sitting down in a bar on a military station with Torin’s father. That last, he realized—feeling as though the station had just vented into space, feeling steel bands tighten around his chest, feeling his lungs fight for air—that was when the verb changed.

Torin was dead. And only a galah would, could believe different.

He might have said it out loud. He wasn’t sure.

A large hand closed around his wrist, and Torin’s father said, “No.”

“No what? No one could have survived that.” How the fuk did he get here. . . here trying to convince a man he’d just met that his daughter was dead?

John’s grip returned to his glass. “Saying it doesn’t make it true.”

Craig frowned. Hadn’t Presit said that to him? Hadn’t she been arguing the other side?

“Mr. Ryder.”

He recognized the voice. When he looked up at the Commandant of the Corps, he also recognized the pissed-off expression on the face of the colonel standing behind her. “High Tekamal Louden.” Then, because he didn’t know what else to say and she was obviously waiting for something, he nodded toward the other man. “John Kerr.”

“Yes, of course,” she said as he stood and held out his hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr. Kerr, and wish it had been under better circumstances.”

“High Tekamal? That’s. . .”

“High Tekamal Louden is the Commandant of the Corps,” the colonel pointed out.

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Wizard of the Grove
Excerpt

Genesis

In the Beginning there was Darkness and out of the Darkness came the Mother. From her flesh She formed the Earth. With her tears She filled the seas and lakes and rivers. She walked upon her creation and where She passed grew grasses, trees, and flowers. Her breath became the winds. With her right hand She created all animals that run and swim and fly. With her left hand She created all animals that slither and sting. Her laughter became the song of birds.

When She had walked all the Earth, She sat to rest in a circle of silver birch. As She was lonely, She gave form to the spirit of one of the trees that it might keep her company. And the form was that of a beautiful woman. Her name was Milthra and she was the Eldest of the Elder Races.

When the Mother left the Grove, She gave form also to the other birches that Milthra would never be lonely as She had been. It is said there is form in all trees if the Power is there to call the spirit out.

And as the Mother walked the Earth, She bled four times. From her blood came the other Elder Races, the Centaurs, the Giants, the Dwarves, and the Merfolk. And so She could see what She created, each time She bled She hung a silver light in the night sky.

Then another came out of the Darkness. His name was Chaos and He lay with the Mother and She bore him a son. And the name of the Mother’s son was Death. He was very terrible and very beautiful.

As the Elder races were of the Mother’s body and blood, they could see Death’s beauty but not his terror. Though they could be killed, they did not die; and so they had no fear of him.

Death went to the Mother and begged her to create a people he could rule. 

Because She loved him, She did.

But because She loved her newest creations as well, She gave them a gift so they could keep Death in his place. She gave them the power to create. And She gave them a promise that once Death had come to them, they would return to her once more. She called them Humans, but Death called them Mortals which means “to die.”

Humans used the Mother’s gift to create Gods. They worshiped and made sacrifices in the hope that their Gods could keep Death away. But the powers of the Gods, being Human given, were of no use against the Mother’s true son. Soon Humankind abandoned the Gods and learned to face Death. Some even came to see his beauty.

But a God once created cannot be uncreated and so, no longer worshiped, the Gods grew bored. Those given the aspect of men by their creators took to walking the Earth in human form. Eventually, they all lay with mortal women and from those unions the race of Wizards was born.

The Wizards used the powers of the Gods to pervert the Mother’s gift and their first act was to turn on their fathers and destroy them. There would be no new Wizards. They formed a great council and for many centuries ruled the creatures of the Earth. Even the Elder Races feared them, for it appeared the Wizards had conquered Death.

Over the years, as their powers grew, so did their corruption. By forcing the breeding of man and animal, they created the Werfolk in a mockery of the Mother’s work.

And then the Wizards dared to create something using the very Earth itself. They formed mighty Dragons, giant beasts with command of fire and frost, rulers of the air or seas. But the Earth was the Body of the Mother and the Wizards could not control it. They had created their own destruction.

The Dragons turned on the Wizards and in a battle that changed the shape of the land, slew and devoured their would-be masters. The Dragons that survived returned to the Earth from which they were made.

It is said that, at the end of the Age of Wizards, Death smiled.

One

“Mother?”

There was no answer, so the tall young man reached out a slender hand and placed it gently on the bark of the silver birch before him.

“Mother?” he said again.

The tree stirred under his hand, as if, newly awakened, it sighed and stretched. He stepped back and waited. Slowly, very slowly, his mother drew herself out of her tree.

She was tall, with ivory skin, silver hair, and eyes the green of new spring leaves. Her name was Milthra and she was the eldest of the Sisters of the Sacred Grove. She looked barely older than her son.

She opened her arms and he came into them, then she held him at arm’s length and smiled.

“You have grown, Rael. You look more like your father every time I see you.” He looked so much like his father that her heart ached with the memories. Not for many years had Raen, King of Ardhan, come to the Sacred Grove, and Milthra had to be content with seeing the man she loved in the face of their son. Raen would not come to her for reasons of his own. She could not go to him for a hamadryad dies away from her tree.

She hid a sigh from her too perceptive child and brushed a lock of blue-black hair off his face. “Are you well? Are you happy?”

“I’m both well and happy, Mother.” Rael returned her smile, his eyes lit from within by green fires. Immortal eyes in the face of mortal man.

Rael could no longer be content spending whole summers with only his mother, her sisters, and the forest for company—the king’s court held more attractions for a young man of seventeen—but when he had time to spare, he spent it at the Grove. It was peaceful there and, unlike his father, his mother had time to listen. No courtiers or supplicants made demands on her, for no one found the circle of birches without her help.

Until Rael’s birth the Grove had been legend only. But when the King of Ardhan showed his son to the people in the Great Square outside the palace gates, he named Milthra as the child’s mother and placed the Grove firmly in the real world. It was fortunate the king was popular and well-liked, for many disbelieved and not a few muttered of insanity. It was also fortunate that the king was no fool and would not allow the acceptance of his son to rest on his own popularity. He called the six dukes and their households together and had them meet the infant’s eyes.

Milthra had walked with the Mother-creator as She rested after birthing the world. A fraction of that glory she passed on to her child. 

It was enough.

“My aunts still won’t wake to greet me?” Rael asked, sprawled on the velvet grass at the foot of his mother’s tree. He dug into his pack for the food he’d cadged from a sympathetic kitchen maid.

Milthra shook her head and accepted a piece of honey cake. She had no need to eat—she drew nourishment from her tree—but did it to please her son as once she had done it to please his father. “It has been a long time since the Mother walked in the forest and we wakened. My sisters are tired and want only to sleep.”

Rael looked around at the trees he knew as beautiful women, women who had coddled him, fussed over him, and been as much a part of his childhood as his mother and father. He hadn’t seen them since . . . his forehead creased as he tried to remember. Had it really been three years? He stretched out a long arm and tugged on a low-hanging branch from a neighboring tree. Leaves rustled but no hamadryad appeared.

“You’re the oldest, can’t you wake them.”

“Perhaps. But I will not try.”

“Why not? Aren’t you lonely?” As much as Rael loved the Grove, he’d hate to be the only creature awake in its circle.

“No, for when you are not here I also sleep. My sisters have no ties to the world of men to wake them, that is the only difference between us.” If she ever regretted the ties that bound her, or acknowledged that they had brought her more sorrow than joy, it could not be heard in the music of her voice.

Rael scooped up his mother’s hands and kissed them. “The only difference?” he teased. “I refuse to listen to such foolishness. What of your beauty? Your grace? Your wisdom? I could continue for hours . . .”

Milthra laughed and Rael laughed with her. He’d always felt his mother laughed too seldom. In later years, Rael would recall that afternoon and her laughter when his spirit needed soothing and the shadows needed lifting from his life. He lay with his head in her lap and told her of the things he’d done since he’d been with her last—well most of the things; she was, after all, his mother—and he even told her of his feelings for the Duke of Belkar’s blue-eyed daughter, something he had confided to no one else . . . particularly not the Duke of Belkar’s blue-eyed daughter.

But he did not speak of why he had come to the Grove.

All too soon the thick, golden sunlight bathing the Grove began to pale. The shadows grew longer and the breezes grew chill. Rael rose lithely to his feet and extended a hand to the hamadryad. When she stood beside him, he kept her hand clasped tightly in his and stared at the ground, unsure of how to begin.

“I . . . I won’t be back for some time.”

“There is to be war.”

He looked up and saw she gazed sadly at him.

“How did you know?”

“The breezes tell me. Even in sleep I hear them; they say men gather on the western border clutching steel in angry hands.”

Rael spread his own hands helplessly. “The King of Melac has a new and powerful counselor and the man plays the king’s weaknesses and desires like, like a shepherd plays his pipes. He’s driving the king to create an empire. Father says they begin with us because Melac hates my father for something that happened when they were young.”

“And my son will go to see they conquer no empire.”

“I have to do what I can.” He tried to keep the anticipation out of his voice and wasn’t entirely successful. This war would be his chance to prove himself. His skill with weapons was his father’s heritage, but he moved with a strength and grace no man born of mere mortal could match. In his mind’s eye he saw himself a hero, returning from battle not only accepted but adulated by the people he was destined to rule. In his heart, he only hoped he would not disgrace his training.

“And your father?”

His voice was gentle. “The king must ride at the head of his armies.”

“Yes.” War had brought the young king to her so many years before. He had staggered, lost and wounded, into the Grove, stinking of steel and violence, Lord Death close by his side. Against the advice of her sisters, for the Elder Races did not involve themselves with mortals, she had saved him. Saved him and loved him, and Rael had come of it.

Full dusk was upon them now.

“I must go, Mother.”

“Yes.” War took her son from her, replaced her loving child with this stern young man, so ready to do violence. If he survived he would be further changed, and who knew if he would return to the Grove where nothing changed at all. She held him. Held him tightly. And then she let him go because it was all she could do. 

“Rael?”

He turned; half in, half out of the Grove.

“Tell your father, I am always here.”

“He knows, Mother.” He waited but she said nothing more. “Mother?”

She shook her head, the brilliant immortal color of her eyes dimmed by a very mortal sorrow. She was the Eldest. She could not beg for the return of her love.

Accustomed to thinking of the hamadryad as his mother, and mothers as always strong, Rael had never noticed before how young Milthra looked, or how frail. He suddenly wanted to protect her, to take her in his arms and tell her everything would be all right, but as he watched she faded and dissolved back into her tree. Only the breezes remained and he had never learned to hear what they said.

* * * * *

Although dark had fallen over Melac, the building of the counselor’s tower continued. In the flickering light of torches, long lines of naked and sweating men struggled with block and tackle to lift massive slabs of marble into position. As each slab reached its zenith, a slave was removed from the coffle staked at the work site and placed beneath it. Some screamed, some sobbed, some lay limp and resigned, pushed beyond terror. The slab dropped, then the whole process was repeated for the next. The tower was to be the tallest in the city. 

If the men who built it felt anything at all, it was, for the most part, relief that they were not beneath the stones themselves.

This night, as most nights, the king’s counselor watched the construction from the wooden dais that gave him an unobstructed view of the work. This night, the king stood beside him, leaning into each death, his tongue protruding slightly, his breathing ragged and quick.

A new slave was unchained; a young man, well formed, who, in spite of lash marks striping his back from neck to knees, fought so viciously that four men were needed to escort him to the stone. He screamed, not in terror but in defiance.

The king started at the sound and actually saw the slave. His eyes widened and he clutched at the blue velvet of his counselor’s sleeve. 

“That looks to be Lord Elan’s son.”

“It is.”

“But you can’t . . .”

“He spoke against me, Majesty, and so spoke against you. To speak against the lawful king is treason. The penalty for treason is death.” The golden-haired man smiled and removed the king’s hand from his arm. “At least this way his death serves a purpose. Life makes the strongest mortar.”

On the stone, Lord Elan’s son strained against invisible bonds, muscles standing out in sharp relief. He threw back his head and howled as the slab above him fell.

On the dais, the king swayed and he moaned deep in his throat.

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