Book: The King of Sidonia
The King of Sidonia
Copyright © by Richard Fox
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission.
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He knew that sound. The sound of a small metal tube clattering where it shouldn’t, right before the incendiary chaos of an erupting fragger ripped through a nursery room full of headline-generating kids or the hall of an ambassador who wouldn’t toe the line. Hotels. Hospitals. What have you. A kill team would run in soon after.
It signaled doom. This time, his.
But not yet.
He dropped to the floor behind a shipping container just as the crash of fire and heat screamed through the warehouse. The solid steel blocked the worst of the explosion, but didn’t do anything about the blast rattling his eardrums.
How many of his team were lying on the concrete, disoriented or worse, he couldn’t tell. Too much smoke. And he couldn’t hear any approaching boots above the keening in his ears.
Nothing for it. Gun out, he peered around the corner in time to see the Sidonian Guard charge through the warehouse doors, the king among them. Not his target, but an acceptable substitute. Viper would disagree, but the crew chief wasn’t there to make the call.
He’d never had the chance to shoot a royal. This was his moment.
He locked eyes with his target and aimed, his finger squeezing the trigger. A bullet through the forehead ended the moment.
Vincent turned the body over with the toe of his boot.
“That’s the last of them, sire,” Guardsman Jones told him.
“Survivors?” King Vincent’s prosthetic hand twitched, the metal fingers flexing and straightening apparently of their own accord until he pressed the offending digits against his belt.
“Hard to interrogate a corpse.” The words warbled from Vincent’s cybernetic larynx. He nudged his throat with the knuckles of his non-cybernetic hand and cleared his throat.
When intel had informed him that terrorists were holed up in a warehouse in Spillover South, he’d handpicked his team and headed out, intending to bring the full force of the Sidonian Guard down upon their heads. But he wanted at least one alive for interrogation. Now the only information they’d get would be what they could find from in the shipping containers stacked against the far wall.
“Tear this place apart. Find me something,” Vincent said.
One year after the attack on the capital, the dome protecting the city had been rebuilt and the palace restored. It would take longer to restore the nation’s military structure. Most of his senior officers had been cut down in the rebel attack. Unlike walls, people were not easily replaced.
A clanging interrupted his thoughts. Greasy-faced Sanders pummeled a nearby container, beating the lock with a crowbar.
“Stop—Sanders, by the stars!” Vincent shouted as a guardsman pointed his sidearm at the lock.
“Did you make a scanner capture yet?”
Sanders surveyed his colleagues, each caught in the act of trying to open a container. Not a single one had thought to bring out the bots meant to document the scene. “No, sire.”
“Procedure,” Vincent growled. “Follow procedure. Or is the plan to destroy any visual and DNA evidence that might be on the scene?”
“Yes, sire. I mean, no, sire.”
Guardsman Rivers darted outside to retrieve the scanners and Sanders hustled to join her. Vincent felt a headache developing and rubbed his temples. It was true his team was green and leaderless, but they should know the basics by now. He’d have to send them all back to training—again—and they didn’t have time for that.
He shouldn’t even be here. Raiding criminal hideouts was not the king’s duty, but he was the only one he trusted to do this work. Sidonia was fragile from the last attack and he couldn’t hide behind a crown and propriety. He should have been with the queen, preparing for the memorial service. But someone had to make sure the terrorist rats got rounded up and exterminated. The safety of the planet depended on it.
“Don’t touch anything,” Vincent reminded his team. Sanders returned with a couple of cases. Rivers popped the cases and soon had the spherical bots floating around the room, scanning every inch of space and recording an exact 3D image of the room, down to trace biological remains left on every surface.
In shimmering blue light, a holographic display of the room appeared above the pad Rivers held. “Got it, sire,” she said.
He nodded at his team and they set to work opening the shipping containers.
Jones swung open the doors of the nearest. “Looks like this’s how they got into Sidonia,” he said, surveying bunks and life support equipment built into the back. “Old-school human-trafficking technique. Bury your illegals deep in a cargo ship. Hope they can handle the tight quarters and the atmo scrubbers. Hold up.”
Sanders moved to climb in, but Vincent grabbed his elbow. “Forgetting something, Sanders?”
A flicker of confusion crossed his face before the scanners zipped past him and did their work, flashing red and green lights over bedrolls, stacks of rations, and water containers. One bot took its time analyzing a couple of rank chemical toilets.
The next container held more of the same, but the third held stacks of crates. One of the guardsmen used a crowbar to wrench open the first crate, revealing rows of gleaming plasma guns.
Sanders whistled. “Would you look at that. Can’t remember the last time I got my hands on a gun that fancy.”
“Lu Huo 13s, looks like. Serial numbers wiped.” Vincent inspected one. They were surprisingly light. “Make sure the scanners record everything, then get everything searched, packed up, and sent to the station for processing.”
Yes, there was definitely a headache coming on. Intel had indicated a couple of Aquitaine spies were holed up in this warehouse making explosives. So far, there were no explosive devices in sight. The guns suggested a much larger plot was afoot. And it meant his intel was incomplete. One more department he needed to set straight.
“DNA reports are up.” Rivers studied her screen. “The trace biological remains left on the scene match up with all the bodies except one.”
“One body doesn’t match the DNA left behind?”
“No, sire. There’s DNA here that doesn’t match the bodies. Someone’s missing. A man, by the genetic markers. Off-worlder.”
“So there’s another terrorist out there.”
“I’m afraid so.”
The day was only getting worse.
“You’re late,” Cosima hissed at her husband, beaming a smile at the camera hovering near them. They stood in a park in the heart of Sidonia City.
Vincent didn’t look too penitent. Nope. Just stoic, stolid. As usual. If she’d stopped to look more carefully, she might have noticed the dark circles under his eyes and the slight droop of his shoulders. But she was too pissed off to notice any of that. Besides, half the city had gathered in the park in front of them, all eyes on their king and queen while a band played the nation’s anthem. The king’s and queen’s images were holo-projected several stories high behind them.
“You didn’t say why you were late,” she said over the ponderous melody.
“No,” he replied, looking at the crowd, the trees, the buildings; anywhere but at her.
“Hey—is that blood on your sleeve?”
“Not mine. Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry? You didn’t go on a raid again—without me?” She knew she was whining.
“Yes.” Finally, he looked at her, his good eye stern and his fake eye colder than ever. “It’s not safe, Cosima, you know that. How desperate are things if Sidonia’s king and her un-trained queen are both getting their hands dirty? Besides, you can’t be put at risk.”
“You’re out there. Does that mean things aren’t desperate?”
“It is my duty. Not yours.”
The way he talked to her infuriated her sometimes. She wasn’t a kid; she was his wife, blast it. Barely resisting the urge to stick out her tongue, she settled for staring daggers at his back as he walked up to the podium while the last echoing strains of the anthem died.
Even though she was miffed at him, she had to admit that he did look handsome up there. Twelve months ago, she practically had to drag him to the throne and force him to take on the role of king after his father and brother—well, both brothers, if you counted the evil, cruel one—died. Since then, he’d proved himself as a commander. Why couldn’t he see that he was the best man for the job all along?
His steady voice rang through the speakers and filled the planet’s capital, and the crowd listened, riveted to their king. The entire city had come to a standstill that day to remember their fallen, and for the first time since she’d arrived from Styria Space Station, the bustling metropolis was still.
In that stillness under the dome, not a hovercraft stirred nor billboard flashed, and the five superhighways looping through the city stood empty. The only sound was the faint whir of camera drones zipping by.
After his opening remarks, he stepped back from the podium and the band played again, this time a dirge.
The shimmering holo of Vincent’s face dissolved, replaced with an image from that day. Cosima flinched when she saw herself at her almost-wedding day, and then her red-faced, pompous would-be groom, Prince Francis. Ugh. If there’s one good thing about having your planet attacked by war bots, she thought, it was not having to finalize her marriage to that cretin… not that she’d wanted him to die.
The band played on through scenes depicting the war bot attack—wedding guests scattered and shrieking as metal monstrosities shot them down, the surprised Guard in initial disarray until Prince Vincent rallied a counterattack to take each bot down, one by one.
The scene coalesced into the faces of the fallen, a hundred times larger than life. Starting with the late king and Prince Francis, then on to honor the Guard—Colonel Pavel Stolzoff and Major Volenz, both looking stern and commanding. Face after face, guardsmen and women of the lower ranks with expressions noble, hopeful, proud, and young—all of them far too young to have had their lives snuffed out.
Finally came the face she was waiting for. She knew it would, but it still sent a shock: Paul Remi. A powerfully built man, tall in his matte-black Guardsman uniform, wearing the calm expression she knew so well. He’d never deviate from his duty, even if it cost him his life. And in the end, it did. But if it hadn’t… how might her life have been different?
She felt sick. She had to leave.
Tears stung her eyes, but before she could move, someone touched her arm. Lana Erbach, her handmaid, joined her. “Be strong, my lady. See it through,” she whispered. “For Sidonia.”
The handmaid gave her a reassuring look. Sometimes Cosima felt like the older woman could read her thoughts. This was one of those moments.
“If you say so,” she gave in, and turned back to the crowd.
Behind her, the holos resumed streaming the monarchs, and if the three-story-tall Queen Cosima looked as pale as a sheet, the viewers credited her with mourning the nation’s loss, rather than her own.
“Seeing these faces hits hard,” Vincent said. “I know. It does for me too. These were our brothers and sisters, our fathers, mothers, husbands, wives. Our children.” He let that sink in. “Our home was attacked by an inhuman evil, war machines sent by their corporate overlords on a single mission, the domination of our homeland. And when your home is attacked, you can choose to run, you can choose to hide…surrender your lives and your liberties…or you can choose to fight back. These brave men and women of the Sidonia Guard chose to fight back, and that choice cost many of them their lives. It’s a sacrifice and a debt of honor that we can never repay, but one we will never forget.
“If their sacrifice has taught us anything, it taught us this: we are stronger together. Sidonia isn’t strong because of her technology. She isn’t strong because of her wealth or opportunity. She’s strong because of the valor of her people, a people who will never surrender.
“In the twelve months since that terrible day, we have rebuilt. The palace and city’s defenses have been reconstructed, young men and women are being trained in the Guard, and our nation has come together under a common cause, to build a star gate to the Gaia Worlds.
“After months of planning and execution, our space engineers—working hand in hand with the Chaebol Corporation—have nearly completed their task. Within a few short weeks, the gate will be operational and ready to send Sidonia’s first exploratory mission to a new system—an undertaking with unlimited potential for our kingdom.”
Squinting, Cosima couldn’t make out the Styria Station in the blue skies above their heads, but she knew it was there, and the new star gate beyond that. What would it be like to be part of the crew on the first ship to the Gaia system? Astrogators said the system had four planets, all with perfect conditions to sustain life. What would explorers find when they arrived? She’d give her right arm to see it for herself.
“Sidonia’s enemies have done their best to shut us down. And I’m going to be honest with you, they’re not done fighting. But neither are we. Yes, we’ve suffered losses. Loved ones we’ll never meet again. But we can’t forget that the reason they died was to protect us, to give us the chance to live to see another day. When their moment came, they ran toward the fight, not away.”
Vincent was not a man easily swayed by emotion. He tried his best to make decisions based on reason, a skill that kept him and his soldiers alive under fire. Cosima both admired his self-control and hated it sometimes. So when he gripped the podium in an effort to keep the tears in check, even though she was mad at him, something inside melted. Just a little.
“Let’s not run away from the fight. This memorial is to remember the dead…and to celebrate our victory that day. Our fight is to make it to the Gaia system and discover the new opportunities that await us there, and we are nearly there.”
Golf-clapping with the rest of the cheering crowd, Cosima thought, Well, that was a nice speech, but you’re not off the hook.
He’d gone on another raid without her, without even the common courtesy of warning her he was about to be in danger, and left her behind to pick out table settings and flower arrangements for the dumb memorial banquet. Not that banquets were dumb—food was never dumb—but honestly, at least a hundred women on their staff cared more about flowers than she. What she really wanted was a job where her skills could be put to use. How could she get her husband to see that? He appreciated everyone in the kingdom except her. So what was she going to do about it?
The man in the Deutsch Bar knew where the king and half the royal Guard were—at Memorial Park, holding a ceremony. Around him, the holo screens livecasted the event.
“Anything else I can get you, sir?”
The waitress with the gold curls asked the question like her day depended on the answer. Her curls reminded him of another little someone, someone he had safely stored away.
“No, dear, just the coffee is fine.” He’d started calling girls “dear” a few years back. Goes with the age, he decided. Most seemed to like it. Blondie did.
Her smile broadened. “I’ll be by the bar. You call me if you need anything.”
The man returned to admiring the scene out the window. The bar he’d chosen was a favorite of the local port workers and had a wide view of one of the busiest spaceports in Sidonia. Multi-storied warehouses flanked the landing strip while a river stretched along the far side. Busy bot techs directed their haulers to move cargo where needed. Honest laborers going about their honest work.
Must be nice to live out your last moments doing the kind of work you like to do, he thought. Go out with your boots on. He’d heard that somewhere. Maybe a book he’d read.
His musing about classic literature was interrupted by lights flashing at the port, indicating an incoming shuttle. Workers scattered like startled skrats as the dull roar of landing increased. He checked the panel implanted in his forearm, ignoring for now the blinking green lights near his wrist.
Right on time.
The massive white shuttle descended, the red and blue symbol of Chaebol Corp marking its side. A perfect circle in perfect balance.
Its landing struts touched the pavement.
Ducking as if to pick up something that had fallen, the man swiped an icon over the first green light. Outside, a rumbling crack became a roar as the bomb under the main landing pad detonated. Concussive explosions were followed by one final blast when the fuel cells in the shuttle ruptured.
The windows in the bar shattered, spraying his head and shoulders with shards. His coffee mug had fallen over, puddling its contents across the table. Damn shame. Waste of good coffee.
Shouts and cries filled the bar and startled patrons got up to see what happened. The man shook the glass off his leather jacket before pulling it on. He glanced over at the waitress, who stood holding a stein, now empty, her apron splashed with beer.
As if he was just another bystander looking to help, the man hollered, “Someone call an ambulance!” and hurried out the door.
Dust and smoke hung in the air. Across the square, the blast had blown out windows in all of the buildings, leaving their frames gaping in silent screams. Bodies littered the ground like leaves after a summer storm. The man stepped over a fallen worker. It looked like the burly man had the bad fortune of hitting his head against a steel pylon. That’s why it’s important to always be aware of your surroundings.
Partially collapsed into the cratered landing pad, the Chaebol shuttle was a twisted wreckage of blackened metal, flames, and black fuming smoke. Whatever, and whoever, was aboard was now ash. The man mentally checked one item off his list.
A growing crowd of concerned bystanders gathered near the bar, people wanting to help but not sure how or if it was safe. It wouldn’t do to be caught openly poking around, the man decided. Anyone could be recording images, even now. He didn’t want his face picked up, if possible. Best to melt into the crowd.
He slipped behind a hysterical woman who sobbed the whole story to her friend. In her account, the explosion was so tremendously terrifying, it signaled the end of the world. He liked that.
The woman’s story was cut short by the wail of approaching sirens. The emergency vehicles whirred in from above the buildings and touched down in an undamaged area of the landing strip, just as he’d predicted.
Give them some time to gather the wounded, he thought, walking away.
He counted down, mentally whistling a tune, he was so pleased his plan was working. Like clockwork.
Next to a French patisserie, he decided he’d gone a suitable distance, and the delectable smell was too lovely to resist.
Pulling back his sleeve, he swiped the second blinking green light. Another blast—not as large as the first—but followed by a satisfying chorus of horrified screams.
There, he thought. That should do for the first responders. It would top the headlines of every newscast across Sidonia. Scratch off item number two. Aquitaine, his employer, would be pleased. Perhaps in a bit, he’d return to check on the cleanup, but for now—those éclairs smelled wonderful. And he owed himself another coffee.
Even after the ceremony was over, Vincent remained vigilant. Until the roughly hundred thousand people in the crowd dispersed, Memorial Park was an Aquitaine target. The sooner the Guard could send everyone on their way, the better.
“Your Majesty, a word.” The dark, wiry man addressing him was Colonel Greer, Vincent’s new head of security. Although slight in stature, what the man lacked in height he made up for in intellect and lethality. Few faced him on the battlefield and lived to tell about it. After the war bot attack on Sidonia, Vincent had found him in his fishing lodge to ask him to leave retirement. Greer had hesitated, but his nation needed him. And who could say no to a king?
Glancing at a nearby camera and angling away from it, Greer lowered his voice. “There’s been an attack. It appears a bomb was planted at Franklin spaceport and remotely detonated to take out a Chaebol shipment. I have officers on the scene now, but it looks like the work of Aquitaine terrorists.”
“Any word from Chaebol?”
“They are sending their own team of investigators to the scene. They’re demanding answers.”
“Who do you have on the scene now?”
“First responders from the local police station along with Guardsmen Jackson, Rivers, Smith, and Sanders.”
Two names were new to Vincent; Rivers, he trusted, and Sanders was a mess. “I’d better join them. Thank you, Colonel.”
When Vincent turned to go, he almost collided with his wife, who was looking up at him expectantly.
“And where are you running off to now?” she asked, eyebrow crooked.
He didn’t have time for this. “An urgent matter came up—”
“Don’t police-talk me, Vince. I heard what Greer had to say. There’s been a bombing at the port and you’re going to check it out. Take me with you. I can help.”
“It’s perfectly safe! You’ve got your men there now—Chaebol has their people there. I’ve got an engineering background and I might be able to figure out how Aquitaine did it. You need another set of eyes. Please!”
Cosima looked up at him, green eyes wide and pleading. At this rate, it’d be quicker to just bring her.
“You have your shield emitter on?” he asked, even though he could clearly see the choker around her neck.
She lifted her chin. “Right here.”
“Is it on?”
“Fine, I’ll—” She eyed the platform’s edge as if considering throwing herself off it, but with one look at Vincent, thought better of it. “—behave myself. Just trust me, this thing’s working. Fully charged. Lana never lets me leave my room without it on and running. Even though it looks dreadful with my outfit.”
He had no idea what she was talking about. In her black mourning dress, she looked pretty, like she always did, shield emitter and all. Maybe it wasn’t the most fashionable accessory, but it kept her safe. That was all he cared about.
“Yes!” she cheered.
“This time. But stay close, okay? Don’t wander off. Sidonia can’t lose her king and queen in one day.”
Even as he said the words, he knew he was making a mistake, but his wife squealed and threw her arms around him, and that felt good.
After chatting with Lana about some palace gossip, Cosima grew silent. The royal limo sped toward the docks and spaceports of Spillover South. Black smoke smudged the skyline, much like it had on the Saturday twelve months before when the war bots had gotten through the capital’s shield and attacked the palace itself. She shuddered. The blackened wreckage on the landing pad was smaller in scale than the devastation that day, but she hadn’t expected to see so many bodies. When she’d heard about the bombing, it hadn’t occurred to her that other people might have been near that exploding shuttle, people who went to work that morning and would never return home. Her people. Their bodies lay in a neat row of bags, waiting to be taken to a mortuary.
Getting out of the car, Vincent held the barricade tape up for her. She gathered her skirts, ducked under the tape, then danced aside to avoid a puddle of blood.
“I’m already regretting this, Cosima. Perhaps you should go.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m a spacer, after all. I’ve seen much worse than this,” she assured him. “Hands cut off, long-time friends sucked into the vacuum of space, others…”
The little muscle on his jaw was doing that thing it did when he was listening, but not really listening, to her.
“Sanders, Patel!” he called. “Make sure the crowd doesn’t get too close to the limos. Establish a ten-yard perimeter around those vehicles.”
Cosima rolled her eyes. Just like she thought. Not listening. “I can see you’re busy. You go do your work. I’ll take Lana and a guard with me, and we’ll inspect the blast area. I want to hear what the engineers have to say.”
Vince hesitated, unsure what to say.
The man couldn’t believe his good fortune when the royal limos pulled up to the scene, and not only the King of Sidonia but the Queen stepped out to see what he’d done. His plan had worked better than he’d hoped. Most royals stayed in their silver towers, letting underlings handle the affairs of the rabble, but these two were young, inexperienced, and easily manipulated. All you needed to know about people was the right button to push. He’d found theirs. Now to make use of it.
Sauntering over to join the curious crowd pressing in on the limos, he fished a small device out of his pocket. If he could get the skin reader within five centimeters of one of the guards, he could take on that man’s appearance and infiltrate the palace. Eliminating his target would be simple. Surprise, kill, vanish.
Picturing his bank statement after his account was filled with Aquitaine’s gratitude for another mission accomplished, he waited cheerfully, trying to keep from smiling over his good fortune.
Two guardsmen came out and shouted for the crowd to step away from the vehicles. One dark with sharp features, the other red-faced and sweaty. Yes, he would try to scan this second man first. The way the guardsman’s eyes skipped around the crowd like ping-pong balls said he was nervous. To get close to this kid, all the man needed was a distraction.
Vincent eyed the engineers gathered near the crater in the middle of the landing pad. At least if the queen joined them, she’d be away from the crowd. But if the terrorists had left other surprises behind…
His wife’s beautiful green eyes were filled with hope. He didn’t understand why she wanted to be here so badly. It wasn’t safe. The terrorists had already shown they planned follow-up attacks, and even now a sniper could be taking position in one of the nearby buildings. Coming here had been a mistake.
“Sire.” Jones caught his elbow. “The aide to Ambassador Lee is here, requesting an audience.”
Dressed in a black suit and tie, the Chaebol representative waited with his briefcase in hand, face expressionless. Since Vincent hadn’t yet assessed the situation, he wasn’t prepared for this meeting.
Groaning inwardly, Vincent turned to his wife. “Cosima. Listen. I shouldn’t have brought you here—”
“It’s not safe—”
“No!” His wife literally stamped her foot in protest, right in front of the Chaebol rep, along with the rest of the Sidonian public. “I can tell those engineers don’t know what they’re doing. Look at them! They’re searching the blast area when they should be looking over the spaceport blueprints. There are water pipes under the concrete—”
Vincent pinched the bridge of his nose. “What are you talking about?”
Sunlight glanced off the windowless buildings that loomed near the landing pad. Any one of them could give a sniper a clear shot.
“The nuclear fuel cells to regenerate the shuttles rely on a constant flow of water from the bay,” she pointed, “to the docking area. The terrorists could have used the water lines under the concrete to direct their charges.”
“Look, Cosima. We don’t have time for this.” Vincent tried to reason with her. “Why don’t you let the engineers do their jobs and let me do mine and keep you safe? I made a mistake in bringing you here. That was a poor decision on my part. It’s time for you to get in the limo and go back to the palace.”
“What? No!” The queen’s distress had caught everyone’s attention. Just wonderful.
“Please. As your king and husband, I’m asking you to go home.”
He’d said it as nicely as he could, but Cosima didn’t take it that way. Her eyes narrowed.
“Fine,” she said. “I’m leaving. Lana, we’re going back to the palace. We won’t stay where we’re not wanted.”
And with a huff, she picked up her skirts, ducked under the barricade tape, and headed for the limo.
Vincent took a moment to watch the limo pull away, and then turned back to the Chaebol rep, his biggest concern off his mind.
Chuckling to himself at his success, the man stuffed the reader back into his pocket and made his way down the street. Today had been a good day, one filled with happy surprises. You don’t get too many days like this, he decided. Ones filled with unlooked-for wins. He ought to do something to celebrate. He thought about the patisserie and warm eclairs and turned his steps toward the shop.
Cosima refused to look at him. She did not say one word to him while she sawed off a piece of steak, her knife and fork scritching across her plate. Yes, the mood was awkward. What did she care? If Vince felt any pain over it, he could be the first one to speak. Because, sure as the void, it wasn’t going to be her.
The dining room was gorgeous—shimmering candelabras, vases of cascading orchids, open views of the night sky, and the ornately set table. Aside from the two servants in attendance, they had the whole place to themselves. She supposed it was meant to be romantic.
She stole a glance at Vincent. He quietly ate his dinner, not at all bothered by the silence. In fact, he looked relaxed, like he was enjoying every bite of his medium rare steak. Blast him.
What was he thinking? After she returned to the palace, she spent the rest of the afternoon wondering what they’d found at the site. Vince had seen it firsthand, and she wanted to hear all about it. But asking him about it meant talking to him, and talking to him would make him think everything was okay between them. And everything was definitely not okay. Didn’t he realize how much he had hurt her earlier by tossing her aside? And not just today—every day. Every freaking day he went off to get important work done while she was left to attend baby showers for yet another pregnant noblewoman. But today took the cake. Out in public, in front of all those people, he’d sent her home. Dismissed her like a misbehaving child. What kind of husband did that to his wife?
Fuming, Cosima gulped her drink and immediately felt the burn of wine gone down the wrong pipe. She coughed and sputtered, and Vincent looked up.
“You all right?” he asked.
He seemed genuinely concerned, but she didn’t care.
“Fine, I’m fine,” she croaked.
He reached over and filled her empty water glass, which she drank down again.
Regaining as much composure as possible, she thanked him. It was the polite thing to do. Then, no longer able to keep her curiosity to herself, she asked, “So, did anything interesting happen today after I left?”
Vince went back to his food. “Well, you were right.”
“Oh? What about?”
“The water lines. I passed your theory on to the engineers and, after investigating the pipes, they found more charges that would have severed the water feeder lines. It would have led to low-level contamination and shut down most of the spaceport for months while we cleaned it.”
“See? I knew it. That’s exactly what I would have done if I were a terrorist. Which I’m not.”
Vincent ignored her comment and moved methodically from his steak to his sautéed asparagus. Cosima, meanwhile, had cut her meal into bits and proceeded to mix it all together into a gray mélange. The one thing she loved about living dirtside was the food. Food grown in the fresh earth under the golden sun tasted different from what the hydroponics labs produced in space. And Vincent’s human cooks liked to take creative liberties with the recipes. Thanking the stars for human ingenuity, Cosima dunked a forkful of steak and mashed potatoes into a puddle of spicy Sriracha sauce.
“What did Chaebol have to say?” she asked, prodding Vincent to continue his story. “Bet they weren’t happy about their shuttle.”
“No. They weren’t. ‘Livid’ would be more accurate. Ambassador Lee’s aide hinted that Chaebol wishes to renegotiate their contract. Paying to rebuild what we’ve already built is cutting into the bottom line. Worse still, these attacks are making us look like a weak and unreliable partner. If we can’t put a stop to them, Chaebol might put an end to our deal.”
“They can’t do that! They signed a contract! I know, I was there—we got married to make it happen! They can’t back out now.”
“If Chaebol insists, their lawyers will find a way out.”
“But that’s dishonest, disloyal,” she protested. “Where’s their sense of honor?”
“Just like yours, their first duty is to the corporation.”
“Above basic principles of right and wrong?”
Vincent sighed and rubbed his forehead. These days, he always seemed to have a headache around her. Time to change the subject.
“Wait. Back up,” she said. “You said ‘attacks.’ So today’s bombing at the landing pad wasn’t the only incident? Or—are you thinking that those construction accidents last month weren’t accidental?”
“I’m having the specialists continue to look into it, but hyperloop tunnels don’t collapse on their own. Today’s events prove we’re working against an enemy who thinks like an engineer. It’s looking less and less likely that those accidents happened accidentally.”
Cosima set down her fork. “Vincent. If the terrorists are thinking like engineers, then don’t we need to think like them in order to find them? Put me on the team. I trained as a Stahlium miner. Every spacer worth her salt gets put through years of courses in physics and astroengineering. That’s my world. Let me help. Please.”
Vincent studied her with the same look one gave a difficult math equation.
“Come on! Please? I need something to do! I’m going to shrivel up and die of boredom if I have to count plates and table settings with Bentley one more time.”
He nodded. “You don’t need a job. You already have one, an important one. You are queen and my wife. Your duty is right here. All of Sidonia is looking to you, and it’s my duty to keep you safe. Involving you in terrorist plots is not keeping you safe. I never should have brought you to the spaceport today. Anything could have happened. My job is to keep you safe, and your job is to—”
When he didn’t continue, she pressed him. “Attend another baby shower? My sister can do that. What, Vincent? What does Sidonia need me for? I really want to know.”
He studied his wine glass. Then he leaned forward. “Chaebol wants us to have an heir.”
“It’s not enough for us to be married. This agreement with Chaebol to reach Gaia System means we’re creating a relationship between our two nations that’ll last for generations. One that should certainly outlast us. We need to produce an heir.”
Vincent, king and general, flushed like a schoolboy asked about the homework he hadn’t done.
“Not necessarily tonight, but in the near future.”
“So… you’re saying that we—that you and I…”
The candles flickered, the orchids swayed. A servant refilled their wine glasses. Cosima felt something like panic rising, but she throttled it.
“No-no-no. Absolutely not.” Pushing up from the table, Cosima threw down her napkin.
Leaning forward, he caught her hand. “Cosima. Listen. We need to at least take steps in this direction. We’re not even living in the same suite. Before dinner, I asked Bentley and Lana to see that your things were moved into the royal master suite.”
A wave of anger swept over her. “You had my things moved without asking me?”
“It’s the rational next step.”
She snatched her hand away. “You can take your rationality and shove it. I don’t want this or this—” She gestured away the magnificent room around her. “—any of this. And I definitely don’t want—”
She stopped, glared, and fled the room.
When the last of the servants gave a final bow and left the bedroom, Vincent returned to his office. A stack of paperwork awaited him on the desk. There, at least, he could make progress. Cosima had stonily ignored him all evening, speaking only with her handmaiden. She was now curled up at the far edge of their massive bed, a small mountain of pillows piled up in the middle.
“You shall not pass,” he muttered and went back to his work.
Despite hundreds of years of social progress, some things remained the same. Forms needed to be filled out in triplicate, his signature required on each one, and despite all of humanity’s technological advances, it had to be done on paper.
Weary from the events of the day, he forced his eyes to stay open and read each document. The words blurred as his mind wandered back to the landing pad, the black body bags in neat rows, the smoking wreckage of a shuttle, and his wife’s pale face as she took it all in. He had to do more to protect her, and it started with getting the Guard in order. He’d set up a meeting with Colonel Greer first thing in the morning.
An hour later, he heard a noise, someone whimpering.
Vincent went into the other room to find his wife asleep under the silky blankets, her brow furrowed in pain. When she cried out again, he stooped next to her and reached out to smooth aside her hair.
Her lips parted. “Paul,” she whispered. “Paul—no…”
Vincent jerked back as if burned. It was a year since his best friend had died. He knew the handsome guardsman and Cosima had been close, but just how close, he never asked. Now he knew.
Unable to go to bed and unwilling to return to his work, he went to the bathroom to blast away his sorrows in a shower of sonic waves. For a long time, he stared at his reflection in the mirror. Scars puckered his cheeks, and his eyes had heavy circles under them. He ran a hand through his stiff hair. He was still a young man; when had he started looking old? His eyes traveled down to the metal arm at his side. Flipping a few switches, he pulled it off and studied himself in the mirror. Half a man.
Who could ever love someone like him?
Blue light glimmered in the man’s dark room, casting his skin a sickly hue. He skimmed through the information on his reader. Of the two bioscans he’d taken of the guards that afternoon, one had downloaded successfully. When the time was right, he’d mask his own familiar face in the visage of the pudgy redhead. He and the ginger had similar builds, no problem there. He’d just need to get his hands on a uniform.
With a few more taps on his screen, a holo of the palace blueprints sprang up. Studying it, he noted all points of exit as he took a virtual stroll through the palace and into the royal residence. It’d be difficult, even for a guardsman, to get into the heart of the palace, but what did he live for if not for the challenge? And getting paid, of course.
He clicked on the fringed bedside lamp and reached for an oatmeal raisin cookie. The sweet old lady at the desk downstairs insisted he take a plate. Made them just for him, she said. Proof that a few smiles and the right compliment can go a long way, even for an old dog like him.
The comm in his ear beeped an alert.
“Mike here,” he said.
The robotic voice on the other end had gone through a scrambler. Although the man was the head of his own cell—albeit a cell raided and now neutralized by the Sidonian government—even he was not to know who his Aquitaine handler was. But Mike had his suspicions. He’d met many of the military officers in Aquitaine’s pay and knew their habits. He waited as this man took a drag from his cigar, as he was wont to do, before going on to give Mike his instructions.
Aquitaine was pleased at the success of the landing pad bombing, but the raid on Mike’s cell in Spillover South had caused the timetable to be moved up. The asset at the star gate was in play, thanks to Mike’s intervention. For now, Mike only needed to eliminate his target.
“Not a problem,” he answered.
“Let’s hope not,” the flat voice replied. “For your sake, Michael.”
Mike cut the comm, pulled up his holo of the palace, and munched on another cookie. Tomorrow morning, he would assassinate the queen.
“Fill it up, Bentley,” Vincent said as the butler poured him his coffee. Usually, he saved room for cream and sugar, but today, he needed all the caffeine he could get. After catching a few hours’ sleep on the sofa in his office, he felt like he belonged among the dead.
Cosima had made the opposite choice and seemed absorbed in fixing her coffee just right. Didn’t seem keen on talking. No surprise there.
It was another morning in the breakfast room. Years ago, his mother had designed the bright and cheery room with windows to take in the morning sun. Maids swept in and out with their little trays, Bentley waited nearby, and the guards stood at attention beside each entrance. They all held correct military posture, even Sanders, who tended to be a bit sloppy.
The Guard had worked hard over the past year, but not hard enough. He’d speak with Greer in twenty minutes. But first, get through breakfast.
“How’d you sleep last night?” Cosima finally asked.
“Well,” he lied.
She didn’t say anything, and he wondered if she was going to ask where. But she didn’t get the chance.
“Goodness, I have such a headache! I smell coffee. Where’s the coffee?”
Cosima’s older sister Theresa wandered into the room, looking rumpled and likely hungover from another late night. She collapsed at the table and buried her head in her arms.
“Coffee, stat,” she said, her voice muffled.
The maid coming with their toast tray tripped at the doorway. Sanders was there to catch her elbow. “You okay, there? I’ll take that for you, don’t you worry,” he said and took the tray from her.
Theresa’s head shot up. “What’s that? Toast? Give me. I need.”
Hesitantly, Sanders brought the tray to the queen’s sister, then went back to his place by the kitchen door.
“Heavens, I’m hungry.” Theresa slathered butter and jam on her toast. “Got any more for me? Sanders, tell the kitchen to hurry up quick. I’m starved.”
Cosima eyed her sister applying globs of jam to her toast. “You going to share some with the rest of us?”
“Yes. Wait your turn. Your Majesty. And what do I have to do to get a coffee around here?”
“Bentley,” Cosima called, “could you get my sister some coffee—”
“So loud,” Theresa groaned. “Do you really have to be so loud?”
“—and we’re all ready for our breakfast, thanks.”
“I’ll help,” Sanders offered, and followed Bentley back through the kitchen door.
The guardsman had left his post. Serving breakfast was not one of the man’s duties. Vincent mentally added that to his list of things to speak to Colonel Greer about. He checked his watch. Ten more minutes of this, and then he’d need to leave.
“Speaking of helping,” Cosima said tentatively, and Vincent knew already what she was going to ask about. “Any chance there’s something I could do today?”
Vincent knew what he needed to do in the next twelve hours, but to get it all done, he’d need complete focus. Cosima would only be a distraction. Still, maybe he could find her something that would occupy her time.
“Don’t you have a baby shower to plan? Some noble lady from the boondocks about to pop?”
She grimaced. “Yes. It’s this weekend. But Lana’s got that under control.”
“A gown to pick out for the Winter Festival?”
“Theresa’s all over that.” She waved in her sister’s direction.
“Clean up after the memorial?” The task sounded boring to him too, but he knew it needed to be done.
Vincent searched his brain for something he could have Cosima do. Something to make her feel important, and which couldn’t be done too quickly. That gave him an idea.
He glanced over at his sister-in-law, who had commandeered the attention of both Bentley and Sanders as they served her breakfast. They looked busy. Vincent really needed to talk with Sanders later about him doing his actual job.
“Here,” he said to his wife, “take this.” He handed her a fob. “It’s a key that can access data cores currently managed by an AI matrix. No human operators. It’d be good to have someone look through it. Only a couple of us in the government have this fob, and you can use it to access all the government’s data from any device.”
Countless thousands of encrypted files waited in cyberspace, mostly pertaining to the planet’s trade negotiations and infrastructure plans. If she really wanted to help, she could go through those files…and spend the next twenty years doing it.
“Just keep it to yourself,” he said quietly. “They’re for resistance leaders I’m recruiting in case a last-ditch effort against an occupation becomes necessary.”
“Oh, now you think I can manage a resistance, but I can’t poke around a crime scene without hurting myself?” she said. “But I’ll take a look at it later.”
“One thing about that AI complex—” he started, but was interrupted when Bentley put a plate of fried eggs, Bambergian ham, and steaming home fries in front of him. Sanders reached over to set Cosima’s plate down, smelling faintly of ozone. His uniform appeared clean and starched, fresh from the laundry. Sanders never took proper care of his uniform.
This was not Sanders.
“Don’t eat that,” he told his wife, and looked around for Sanders. The man was gone.
“Because—I’m telling you—” He swept her plate off the table. “In fact…skip breakfast for now.”
Cosima set down her fork. “What’s going on, Vincent?”
“You and Theresa stay here.” He got up and checked for his sidearm. “Jones, Rivers, find Sanders now and detain him. Take care, he’s armed. I’ll check the royal quarters.”
Cosima grabbed his jacket. Was she trying to come with him? Pursuing an intruder could be dangerous. Irritated, he pulled his coat back and swore.
“Stay here, Cosima. For once, just listen to me!”
She sat back. Mute.
Vincent ran through the side door and down the hallway. Turning a corner, he saw the man posing as Sanders hurrying toward an open window overlooking the courtyard.
Drawing his pistol, Vincent shouted, “Stop!”
The man fired over his shoulder. Vincent dodged right, and the bolts cracked into the wall behind him. Vincent shot—missed—and from the windowsill, Sanders fired back, his normally boyish expression flat with cold hatred.
With no time to react, Vincent knew this could be the end, and his mind held only one thought—Cosima!—as the man’s pulser fired.
Green energy waves rippled around him as a shield emitter activated and caught the bullets, inches from his face. They plinked harmlessly to the floor. Vincent pulled his trigger, sending three shots at the man’s chest. He disappeared through the window. With a hiss, the green shell of energy around him faded.
Vincent looked around. He hadn’t put on his gauntlets or a body shield this morning, but he was evidently wearing one anyway.
Footsteps down the hallway told him people were coming. Cosima ran up, her face etched in concern. His eyes went to her throat. She wasn’t wearing her body shield.
“Where’s your shield?” he demanded.
Her eyes were wide in surprise.
Vincent went over to the window. Down into the courtyard, he saw nothing but shards of glass on the cobblestones below.
“Guards!” he shouted before touching his comm—what the void was wrong with him?—and ordering the Guard to search the premises.
Cosima’s brow wrinkled in concern.
“Where’s your shield?” he repeated, frustrated. “We’ve got a terrorist on the grounds, and I told you to always wear your shield and you don’t have it on. So where is it?”
Theresa turned the corner, her eyes wide as she took in the bolt-pocked walls and the smashed window.
“You’ve got it,” Cosima said. “I put it in your pocket before you ran out the door.”
He knew he should be grateful—her quick thinking had saved his life. But it wasn’t gratitude he felt. Fury rushed through him and he fought to keep it in check. Half of him wanted to yell, and half to pull her into his arms and not let go.
“I told you to wear it.”
“You did. And I did. But I also noticed that someone was wearing a skin caster, and you were about to run after him.”
Surprised, he asked, “How did you know?”
“The smell,” she answered. “Skin casters make that ozone smell. Paul taught me. Why didn’t you tell me what was going on?”
Too many answers sprang to mind.
“It’s my job to keep you safe.”
“Well,” she said, hands on her hips, “this time I kept you safe. And you haven’t said thank you.”
“For disobeying my orders?”
“For saving your life.”
He grit his teeth. “We were lucky this time. Next time, we might not be so lucky. Next time, that could be your blood on the ground.”
Cosima stepped over the stain he pointed at, fists balled. “Then stop protecting me! I don’t need to be coddled; I need to know what’s going on, so I can protect myself.”
“That’s not your job! You don’t have the training.”
“Then what’s my job, Vince? Tell me.”
“To be queen. To be my wife!” he burst out. “Why don’t you try it sometime?”
He’d gone too far, and he knew it immediately.
Her eyes filled with tears, and she looked like she wanted to say something. Her chin trembled, and she ran down the hallway. Vincent almost followed her, but turning on his heel instead, he went to speak with Colonel Greer.
“Clean this mess up,” he said over his shoulder, leaving the guards to do their work.
By the time Cosima made it back to her room—only it wasn’t her room, it was his, and she was forced to stay in it—her tears had dried and she’d made up her mind. She wasn’t going to stay there a single hour longer. She knew a way out of the palace, and with her husband busy, as he always was after breakfast, there’d be no one to stop her. Except maybe…
Lana Erbach held a pile of dresses in her arms when Cosima walked in. “My lady,” Lana said. “Perfect timing. I was just getting your dresses arranged in the walk-in closet. His Royal Highness ordered a dressing room set aside for you.”
As Lana went on about organizational schemes for Cosima’s clothes and vanity, Cosima let her face settle into her normal bored expression whenever someone brought up fashion. Of all the people on the planet, Lana knew her best, and the handmaid was sure to notice if something was off in her manner.
“Whatever you think will work. You’ve got this all under control.” Cosima patted her on the shoulder. “But can we do this later? I think I need to lie down and rest.”
Lana peered at her charge. “Are you ill, my lady? Should I fetch the doctor? Wait.”
The older woman searched her face.
“Have you been crying?” Lana asked. “What’s wrong, my lady?”
Tears welled again; Cosima couldn’t help it. But maybe she could put them to use. When Lana put her hand on her shoulder, Cosima sniffled.
“My dear, what is it?” Lana led her over to sit down on the couch.
“It’s, well, I shouldn’t say it, but the king and I, we’re—things aren’t good. We had another argument at breakfast, and he said some things…”
Lana nodded understandingly. “His Highness is under a lot of pressure. We all say things we don’t mean sometimes when we’re stressed.”
“I’m sure you’re right.” Cosima sighed. “But still. I think I need some time alone, you know?”
Lana patted her hand.
“Maybe time to rest? I think I have a headache coming on.” She pinched her nose as she’d seen Vincent do and waited for Lana to buy it.
“Let me get you some headache pills, then.”
“No need. I already took some on the way here. But if you could close all the shades, I’ll rest here. A nap, a couple hours rest, that’s all I need.”
While Lana darkened the room, Cosima curled up in a ball among the pillows on the massive bed. “Please let everyone know I’m not seeing anyone. I don’t wish to be disturbed. Just for a while.” Her hand fluttered weakly to her forehead.
“As you wish, my lady.”
The door closed behind the handmaid.
Cosima shot up in bed. Time to jet.
Grabbing her largest Louis Coûteux handbag, she threw in a few things she thought she’d need—clothes, makeup, data wand. Her plan was to get out of the castle, using the tunnels leading out to the city, then she could disguise herself as some ordinary citizen. Rummaging through her wardrobe, she found her stash of dark chocolate truffles and dumped the lot in her bag. She’d need all the help she could get if she was to survive the next few hours.
As she stripped off her silky morning skirt in favor of one more plain, she found the fob in her skirt pocket. Should she bring it? In twelve months of marriage, it was the first gift her husband had given her with her interests in mind. Sure, jewelry and dresses were nice, but he’d never stopped to ask if she liked either. “Not on your life,” she’d have told him. This small cylinder held information that was a thousand times more fascinating, and useful. Into the bag it went.
Two pictures on her desk caught her eye. Her and Vincent on their wedding day. Both were almost doe-eyed in surprise, Vincent in his military uniform and Cosima in a simple dress that was a far cry from the outfit she’d worn when she’d married his brother Francis mere days before. Not truly married, she told herself. There was no consummation before Francis got himself killed. In that way, she wasn’t really married to Vincent either. She set the picture face down. The other was of her and Lana, getting ready for the wedding. The older woman had a look of pride on her face, beaming in a rare smile. Cosima quickly scribbled her a note and set the picture on top of it.
Now the tricky part. How to get out of here.
A guard would be on duty outside of her door, as per protocol. So waltzing out the door wasn’t an option. That left the balcony.
The marble balcony overlooked a garden hidden in the heart of the palace. Two stories below her grew a verdant paradise meant only for the royal family and their guests. If she was careful, she could slip down one of the columns supporting the balcony and find her way out of the palace. Of course, anyone happening to look out a window might see her odd maneuver, so if she was going to do this at all, she’d better be quick about it.
Hoisting her bag over her shoulder, she went to the ledge. Somewhere below her feet was a column. She scrambled over the railing and lowered herself down, feet feeling for the pillar. Her shoe slipped on something silky. Dumb dress. See, this was why no spacer worth the name wore one. Fingers trembling, she gripped the railing harder and kicked the dress aside until her toe felt rock.
Looping herself around the column like a koala on a tree, she slipped down to the ground. Hearing no shouts of alarm, she strolled through the garden to one of the side entrances, down a few halls past a couple of guards, and into the library. No one was in the room, which didn’t surprise her. The place was rarely used except by gentlemen lounging around after dinner.
Paul had once shown her a hidden panel that opened up to the tunnels. Making her way past cases of books, she found it. The panel swished open at her touch, and lights glowed in the darkness, leading the way to the docks of Spillover South. It’d be a long walk, but once she got there, she could find a shuttle up to the Styria Station. Then she’d be home.
Vincent tried to focus on what the Head of the Guard was saying, but his mind kept going back to his argument with Cosima. Blast her stubbornness, blast her recklessness, and blast him for not pausing to be just a little bit more compassionate with his wife.
Colonel Greer shook him out of a reverie of frustrated should-haves.
“Sire, I just received an update,” he said, gesturing at his device. “The palace grounds have been searched, but the assassin has not been found. Traces of his DNA were detected at Guardsman Sanders’s locker. DNA scans match the traces to the missing terrorist from your recent raid.”
So the man had escaped. But where was he now?
“I should have ordered the queen to her room. Put her under guard,” Vincent replied. “In fact…”
Eager now to find his wife, Vincent left the war room to speak with his secretary, Guardsman Ross.
“Where is the queen?” Vincent asked, checking his watch. Eleven a.m. After twelve months living with the woman, he ought to know what her schedule was. “Is she going over the household accounts with Bentley?”
“The accounts are all up to date,” Ross replied, reading his screen, “and there’s nothing in his calendar about a meeting with the queen.”
“Did she make any appointments with the salon or spa?”
“Not for the last two months, sire.”
“Show me what you’re looking at,” Vincent said. He stooped over the man’s shoulder to scan the logs, his impatience mounting. Here was yet another flaw in his security, another failing on his part. He ought to know where the queen was at all times, especially with an enemy as powerful as Aquitaine.
“Could she be out with friends?” he suggested.
Ross blinked in surprise. “The queen never has personal engagements on her calendar unless an official request was first made by another party.”
Of course. While Cosima spoke politely to the gentlewomen of the court, she tolerated them at best. There were none she’d call friends.
“Check anyway,” Vincent ordered.
“No chauffeurs have been ordered for today.” Ross scanned the Guard alerts. “No visitors listed, and nothing here about the queen leaving the premises.”
“Contact Ms. Erbach. I need to know the queen’s whereabouts.”
“Yes, sire.” Ross turned his head and spoke into his earpiece, then listened. “Says the queen’s back in the royal chambers with a headache, sire. Hasn’t left her quarters.”
Relieved, Vincent thanked Ross and headed to the royal quarters. He needed to see his wife for himself. The path through the palace was winding, giving him plenty of time to reflect on the events of the morning and Greer’s latest intelligence.
A vise gripped his heart as he strode down the marble hallways to the royal chambers. Soon his loping stride turned into a run as he mentally chastised himself for all the things he could have done to protect her, but didn’t do.
The guard waiting beside the ornate double doors snapped a salute when the king ran up. The doors swooshed open to an empty suite.
“Cosima? Cosima!” Vincent yelled.
Her drawers were open, her things scattered around. The bedsheets were tossed, and her silken skirt lay on the floor. Vincent picked it up.
“The queen’s not here,” he said into his comm. “Find her now.”
“Yes sir,” came the reply.
The doors to the terrace were open, and he walked out on the balcony and leaned on the railing. This hidden garden was another of his mother’s ideas, a tranquil refuge of willow trees and flowerbeds, fountains and ponds, her place to meditate in the center of a busy palace. Vincent scanned the grounds, not expecting to find his wife but searching anyway.
It had been a while since he’d heard from security. Too long.
He touched his comm. “Where is she?”
“Sire,” the voice said, “we’ve searched all the palace sectors. The queen is not here.”
“Look again,” Vincent growled. “Put the palace on high alert.”
Had she been kidnapped…or run away? In the middle of a national crisis, with an intergalactic agreement resting on her safety, would the queen risk it all by running away? His mind went back to her puckish smile and the angry way she defied him just that morning. In his heart, he knew the truth. With the skirt still in his hand, he slammed his metal fist down on the balustrade, and a resounding crack reverberated up his arm and through his shoulder, rattling his teeth.
He flexed his arm. It was fine, but the marble railing had cracked, and Cosima was gone.
Two aides trailed Director Charles, both struggling to keep up with him. He’d selected them not for their acumen as executive assistants, but for their natural talents in other areas.
Not that he was self-conscious about the choice. He entered the wardroom on the 200th floor of the corporation’s main skyscraper. All the rest of the suits in the room had made the same choices. It was a perk of the job.
“Charles.” An elderly woman at the head of the table waved him to the only empty seat near her. A holo projection of a star system he recognized immediately as Sidonia rotated slowly in front of the chief executive of Aquitaine.
Charles felt the chill in the air. He’d been summoned to an ambush, but he didn’t become the chief of Aquitaine Special Projects by not knowing how to deal with this sort of thing.
“Charles, our sources on Sidonia have some troubling news. The Chaebol star gate is nearly completed,” she said. “This is not the timeline of events you promised the board.”
“Chairwoman Desdemona, board,” Charles said, “there have been a number of setbacks—”
“Setbacks?” Desdemona raised a palm and a servant put a cocktail between her fingers. “You promised us Sidonia before the Chaebol set up shop. It’s been nearly a year since your last major operation failed.”
“The board insisted on plausible deniability,” Charles said. “We had Quinn as our cat’s-paw. You’d think an exiled Prince of Sidonia would know how to carry out a simple palace coup, but he was a volatile actor when we selected him. The board voted to give him the necessary resources. Shall we bring up the roll?”
“We’re aware.” Desdemona took a sip of her drink.
“And since that first attempt ended with less than optimal results, this board has only authorized a pittance compared to that initial investment. I’ve hired the best saboteurs that money can buy, but I do not have a great deal of money to work with,” Charles said.
“All we’ve had are sunk costs on this operation,” Gibbons, the CFO, said. “There will be no return on investment if the gate to Gaia becomes operational. Are you aware how much the Chaebol are charging for colony spots on those four—four!—habitable worlds? They’re selling out to the top two percent of upper tier planets across settled space. Labor contracts are being resold on tertiary markets with nine points on the back end that—”
“I’m sure Chaebol is making plenty of money,” Charles said.
“They haven’t made it yet,” Desdemona said. “Everything is in escrow until the first colonies are established. Which is why we need this to fail, Charles. They receive those monies and Chaebol will be able to undercut us across the entire market. It will mean a considerable loss of market share to us.”
“Well then, what is this board prepared to do?” Charles asked. “Don’t answer yet. There’s been a bit of a development. The King and Queen of Sidonia’s relationship is in dire straits. The Chaebol insist on stability in whom they do business with. Now is the time for more overt action.”
“You think if we send our compliance and recovery fleet to Sidonia to seize the planet, Chaebol will back down?”
“I do.” Charles smiled. “My agents in place might derail the star gate construction, but what good would that do if Chaebol is truly committed to more costs? We know how much they’re charging for first phase settlement. They can always charge more for phase two.”
“The C&R fleet has significant operating expenses,” Gibbons said.
“It does,” Charles said. “But it takes money to make money, doesn’t it?”
“Any objections?” Desdemona asked the board.
“This meeting is off the record,” she said. “Charles, you foul this up and we will disavow you. Set up the paperwork to show you faked official orders releasing the fleet to you and your ‘unsanctioned’ operation.”
“I expect a point over and above my normal compensation.” Charles stood up.
“Succeed and you’ll have it. Fail and the board will want you back to discuss severance.” She took a slow sip from her drink.
Charles smiled, bowed slowly, and left.
It was many hours of walking down the dark, narrow tunnel before she arrived at the bakery at the other end, plenty of time for a blister to develop on one heel and for Cosima to question all her life decisions. But when the doubts pressed heavy, she pushed them away with another truffle and went on.
The air smelled musty and dank, and the only sounds were her footfalls padding along the passageway. The tunnel stretched on and on with no end in sight, she started to wonder if she’d ever arrive at the other end. But there was no branch in the tunnel, only one path to follow, so she took it.
It seemed awfully long, far longer than she’d remembered, but right when she realized she was going to run out of truffles, she saw it—the tunnel ended at a metal ladder that scaled up to the ceiling.
“At last,” she said out loud, just to hear someone speak. “I hope Raul hasn’t forgotten me.”
Settling her bag on her shoulder, she worked her way up the cold, damp rungs of the ladder and rapped on the door above her head. Impatient, her rapping became a pounding until she heard the scrape of the oven covering the trapdoor above her head, and when the oven was moved, the door swung open. An ogre-ish baker peered down at her, face smudged with flour.
“Raul!” she cried. “It’s me!”
“Your Majesty?” he asked, then held out a hand to help her up.
“Yes! Me. Stars, am I glad to see you. I thought I’d be stuck down there forever.” She struggled up into the small but homey kitchen of a one-man bakery, dusted in flour and pungent with the cinnamon-y scent of warm churros.
“But why are you here? No one’s with you?” Raul peered down the empty ladder. “Is something wrong at the palace?”
“Something wrong? Nah. I just popped in for a churro.”
“Far be it from me to question the queen,” he said, pulling off the tiny paper hat perched on his large head, “but I know Hans and Del in the palace kitchens. They make as good a churro as the best of ’em. No one comes through that door unless there’s trouble. But trouble can wait. First, coffee.”
He gestured to a round table crammed into a corner. Cosima sniffed to think he’d want her to sit on such a chair; there was hardly a clean spot on it. But, noticing her hesitation, the retired guardsman tore off his own apron and used it to wipe down her chair. Soon Cosima was settled down with a steaming mug of coffee and a plate of churros.
“What you came for, eh?” he said with a wink.
She took a bite of a hot and sweet churro, crispy on the outside and soft in the middle. “Worth the trip,” she said, and meant it.
“It’s an old recipe passed down through my family for generations, from grandma to grandkids to their grandkids. My abuela taught it to me.”
“A wise woman, your abuela.” Cosima sipped her coffee, glad to relax after the dark of that tunnel.
There’s nothing like good food to ply the tongue, and soon the old guardsman and young queen were laughing together and sharing stories of palace life like they’d known each other for years. She asked him questions about his time serving the old king, King Rasczak, and soon the conversation turned to Sidonia’s current ruler.
“Does he know you’re here?” Raul asked.
She didn’t know what to say, how much to tell him. If she told him the truth, would he help her or message the Guard immediately? He hadn’t made any move to call just yet, and it wasn’t because he believed her lie about the churro.
“No,” she admitted.
If she said “yes,” he’d ask her where her guard was, and she clearly didn’t have one. She could make up a lie, but what? Telling the truth wouldn’t work. Who’d side with a wife and queen deserting her post?
“Well…” Her voice hitched.
Raul leaned forward, compassion written on his face.
“Life in the palace wasn’t what I thought it would be,” she started. “You just don’t know a person until you live with them! Then things got difficult, and we started fighting, and I said some things I shouldn’t have, and Vince, he…”
She thought back to their breakfast that morning, how he absolutely refused to listen to her ideas, how angry he got when he realized she’d saved his life—and how she was right all along. Then she grew angry too.
“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” Raul’s expression hardened.
“Just my heart, but it’s my fault for letting him.”
She felt bad about that. It wasn’t an outright lie, but it wasn’t the truth either. Still, it worked.
Raul’s brow pinched. “I can’t believe it—that’s not the Vincent I know. Something must’ve changed.”
“He’s under a lot of pressure,” Cosima said feebly. “We all are.”
“Isn’t that the truth.” Raul sat back and rubbed his head. “Stress and worry can make a man do strange things sometimes. But he’s a good man. He’ll come around. So what’s your plan?”
“Get away for a while. You know, until things settle down.”
“But you’re the queen. You need someone to protect you.”
“Oh, I know,” she said hurriedly, “that’s why I’m going home, up to Styria. Dad doesn’t know I’m coming yet. But I just have to take the shuttle up and I’ll be there!”
That was another lie; she wasn’t planning on seeing her father at all. He had this thing about seeing commitments through; he’d only send her back to the palace.
But once she started talking, the words tumbled out, and Raul’s concern turned to relief when he heard her plan.
“Then I’ll come with you, my queen. It’s the least I can do. I’ll escort you through Sidonia all the way to the shuttle. It will be my honor.”
“Uh.” In her mind, she pictured herself seated in the spotless hyperloop compartment, the massive baker filling the seat beside her and raining flour on her shoes. Not the way she wanted to return home, covered in flour. “I’ll pass on that. But thank you.”
At his crestfallen face, she added, “Aren’t you needed here? Someone has to guard the tunnel in and out of the palace.”
“Guarding a tunnel or guarding my queen, it’s not much of a choice.”
“I hear you, but…” She wrinkled her nose. “…that’s all right. I want to do this myself. Dad will take me in, and that’s enough for me.”
He crossed his arms, studying her for an answer.
“But do you have a bathroom I could use?” she asked. “And a hair wand?” Here was one way he could help. She had to change her appearance, because the last thing she needed was someone spotting Sidonia’s runaway queen on the hyperloop. The social connectors would explode with her picture.
“No hair wand, but I do have scissors. We do things old-school around here.”
A couple minutes later, in the bathroom, Cosima was ready to execute this haircut, her weapon at hand. A wand could trim her hair to whatever style she set it to, but this contraption would suffice. She inspected her tool and, when satisfied she understood how it worked, grabbed a piece of hair.
“Have you ever done this before?” Raul asked.
“No, but I’m a woman and an engineer. How hard could it be?”
She stretched out a lock of silky red hair.
“Not difficult,” Raul put in, “but, my lady—”
The lock of hair jumped back to her scalp, far shorter than she meant.
“Raul!” she shrieked, holding up the lock of hair like a dead animal. “What is this?!”
“It’s… okay, my lady, not to worry…”
“Not to worry? Do you see my hair? It’s ruined!”
“It’s not ruined, it just needs to be blended in more…”
“Right, just a little here and there,” he said and reached for the scissors. “May I try?”
“Absolutely not!” She was going to fix this herself.
She took another snip, and the hair fell back, this lock shorter than the last. She stared in horror at her reflection, a giant chunk of hair now missing from her head.
“Here,” she shoved the scissors toward his chest, “you do it.”
She crossed her arms and waited. The baker stepped back and studied her hair, then, taking one small piece at a time, made feather light snips. Hair fluttered to the floor as he slowly worked his way around. By the time he was done, she looked like a boy, she decided, but nothing like Queen Cosima.
“It’s… fierce,” she decided, turning her head to appreciate the view.
Raul had cut it short on the sides, exposing her ears, leaving it little longer on top and to the left side of her face. Framed it pretty well, she thought. No woman on Sidonia wore her hair this short, but in space, sometimes hair got in the way. Nothing would hold her back now.
“I love it. Thanks.”
“My pleasure, m’lady.”
“Well, that’s it.” She peeled off her overskirt so she was standing in her jumpsuit. “I’m ready to get going.”
“Just a moment.” Raul disappeared and returned with a couple of wrapped packages. “Sandwiches,” he said as he put them in her bag, “for when you’re feeling peckish.”
She followed him to the front door and eyed him suspiciously when he grabbed his bag.
“You’re not coming with me.”
“No, I’m not.” He flipped the Open sign on his shop to Closed. “I simply have a keen, if sudden, interest to see the spaceport in Franconia. I wonder what the place looks like; I haven’t seen it in years. Those Franks are always up to something.”
He pulled out a ring of flat metal pieces with teeth on one end and a smooth edge on the other, inserted one into the door handle, and turned it.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“These are keys,” he jangled them, “and I’m locking my door.”
“But can’t you just bio-scan the door?”
“With what scanner? No, I do things the old-fashioned way.”
Cosima might have felt sorry for someone so destitute that he used technology hundreds of years old, but she had more important things on her mind, so she shrugged. “Do what you want, but I’m going to Styria.”
If she went down this street—was it left or right?—she’d go a few miles and then arrive at the hyperloop station. But after her long walk to the bakery, she was in no hurry to walk again, and planetside directions confused her. There had to be a faster way.
“Do you know where you’re going, m’lady?” Raul’s footsteps quickened after her.
Cosima picked up her pace, walking past a tattoo parlor that looked familiar. “It’s not ‘m’lady.’ It’s just Cosima now. And you’re not coming with me.”
“Me, go with you? I wouldn’t dare,” Raul protested. “I’m headed to the hyperloop. Although, if I wanted to go the quickest route, I’d be going in the opposite direction. Maybe I’m just strolling this street for the view.”
He was right, of course. The more Cosima looked around her, the less familiar the street became. Paul had brought her here a year before, and while she always knew exactly where she was in a spaceport, orienting herself on the planet bewildered her. But she wasn’t going to let Raul know it. Up ahead, she saw a highway. That gave her an idea.
At the end of the street, they waited as hover cars zipped down the highway, a myriad of colors blurring past. If she could only get one to stop, it would get her to her destination in no time. But how?
Maybe hail one? She flung out her hand. “Hey! Stop!”
Whoosh went the traffic, car by car. A few curious faces looked back at her. Most dozed off while their car whisked them to their destination.
AI drivers controlled the vehicles, metal hands clutching metal controls, blank metal faces aware of all conditions at all times. Like obstructions in the road.
Cosima stepped out in traffic, confident that the next car would stop for her. For a fleeting moment as the oncoming traffic sped toward her, she thought maybe she’d just done something stupid. Then screeches filled the air as the line of cars barreling forward threw on their brakes and slowed and stopped, the nearest red car inches from her face.
The AI driver holding the steering wheel looked blankly ahead, while the prim businesswoman beside him clutched her armrests in horror. Cosima hoped she’d recover. She rapped on the side window, and the woman rolled it down.
“I need a ride,” Cosima said.
The woman blinked. “So you jumped out in the middle of traffic? Are you crazy?” she shrieked.
Around them, cars trickled by out of the bottleneck that was half a block deep, passengers shouting at her through their windows.
“I need to get to the hyperloop,” Cosima answered, ignoring the woman’s question.
“Use your device and book your own damn car. I’ve got a meeting to get to. The nerve of some people! Driver, let’s go,” she said, and the red car zipped forward.
One by one, the cars picked up speed and soon the congestion was gone. The AI drivers had stopped for her, as predicted, but none of the human passengers wanted to help another person in need. How odd.
“My car should be arriving soon. Here it is,” Raul said, putting his own device back in his pocket. A zippy gray car pulled up, empty except for the driver. The side door popped open. “Care to join me?”
“Of course.” Cosima got in the back seat. “Why didn’t you tell me getting a car was this easy?”
Another man might have said, “You didn’t ask,” but Raul only took his seat beside his queen and shut the door.
“Greetings, passengers!” the AI driver chirped. “May I inquire as to your destination?”
“The nearest hyperloop station,” Raul replied.
“Wonderful! We will arrive at our destination in thirteen point six minutes. Traffic is moderately heavy today due to an unexpected object in the road. Please keep your hands and arms inside the moving vehicle, and enjoy your ride.”
As the car zoomed forward, Cosima sat back in her seat.
“Can you believe those people?” she grumbled.
When her companion didn’t respond, she continued. “If I saw a traveler in need of a ride, I’d stop. What’s the big rush that you can’t slow down for one person? What’s this society coming to that we can’t put our agendas on hold a minute to help someone else out?”
Raul grunted. “Seems a lot of that’s going around right now. Why do you think that is?”
She watched the city blur past her window—silver skyscrapers, grand shopping complexes, condominium domiciles sprawling like massive honeycombs, and thousands of people going about their own lives, each one ignoring the person beside them.
“I dunno, Raul,” she said. “I just don’t know.”
Minutes later, the car slowed before a terminal bustling with pedestrians. Neon lights scrolled through the names of locations across Sidonia—Bamberg, Landsduhl, the Aina Islands and Tauern Mountains, Lindau, and Franconia Spaceport. Cosima yanked on the car door. It was locked.
“We have arrived at our destination,” the driver cheerily said. “That will be two hundred and eighty-three Sidonians, please!”
Money? Why hadn’t she thought to bring any cash…not that she’d ever had to spend any in over a year. She had people for that. Cosima looked at her riding partner. “Well? You heard the driver.”
Raul wordlessly paid with his device, then helped her out of the car. They navigated their way through clamoring schoolchildren, quick-footed businessmen, and a bevy of oblivious youths, eyes glued on their devices as they sauntered the hall, in leggings too tight and sleeves too puffed. At the ticket kiosk, Cosima again allowed Raul to pay her fare. She would have thanked him then and there for all his help and sent him back to his bakery, but to her chagrin, she realized she’d need him—and his coin—one more time to get from Franconia up to Styria.
This isn’t so bad, she thought, squeezing in next to him on a hyperloop bench. Sure, he was getting flour on her outfit, but that couldn’t compete with the onion smell emanating from an old lady wrapped in three layers of clothes beside her. A grumpy cat poked his head out of the large bag at the woman’s elbow and gave Cosima a baleful glare.
In the twenty minutes it took the hyperloop tube to cross half a continent to Franconia, Cosima thought about what would come next. Her plan was to get up to the space station and join some work crew—forget her life as queen, forget her messed-up marriage. Try to dodge her father for a while. He seemed always to know everything about the station, but she had a few tricks up her sleeve too. The man might be old and wily, but she’d learned from him—learned from the best. Anyway, she’d hide out on the space station for a few days, maybe a few weeks, and figure out what would come next. In the meantime, maybe her husband would miss her, realize the error of his ways, and apologize. And if he did… well, she’d cross that bridge when she came to it.
The cat lady beside her got bored and tried to strike up a conversation. Cosima squirmed away, not just because she wanted to avoid the extra scrutiny in public, but the woman’s breath was rough. After making a couple polite replies, she let Raul take over the conversation while she rested her eyes. Soon the two travelers were swapping pastry recipes, complaining about the rising cost of spices, and sharing horror stories about trips to the massively complex market center in lower Herzemberg. It was no good buying from AI sellers there, they agreed; all of those dealers had been preset to ask exorbitant prices. But Raul and the cat lady both knew where the few human dealers could be found, and by the time the hyperloop tube slowed to a stop at Franconia, Raul had the name of a good fish dealer, and the cat lady knew where to buy her sugar. The former guardsman helped the woman out of her seat, giving her a bow worthy of any courtier.
“Now you have a lovely trip, dearie,” said the cat lady to Cosima, who smiled in return.
The doors swooshed open on Franconia Spaceport’s gleaming lobby. A crystal dome vaulted overhead, catching the rays of the setting sun. Raul scanned a nearby display board. “Gate 64, that’s where we need to be in… ten minutes. We’d better run to get you there on time.”
They ran. Dodging slow-moving hoversleds of luggage, mothers pushing prams, uniformed AI drivers directing trollies, and through swarms of travelers heading to a hundred different places, Cosima followed the baker until they reached Gate 64. Jump-suited spacers lounged on the benches, none of them people Cosima recognized, but their familiar outfits confirmed that she was one short ride from Styria.
“There,” said Raul, putting his device away for the last time. “I’ve bought a ticket, seat F13. It’s got my name on it, but it’s yours.”
“The shuttle is now boarding for Styria Station—” droned the intercom.
Raul engulfed her two small hands in his big, warm ones. “You be safe now, you hear?”
“Say hello to your dad for me. And His Majesty—just give him time. He’ll come around.”
He pulled her into a crushing bear hug, then let her go. She joined the stream of passengers onto the shuttle and found F13, empty.
As the shuttle shot skyward, Cosima was flung back against her seat. A bit of white caught her attention. Flour on her sleeve. She went to brush it off, thinking back to the white powder dusting the creases of Raul’s patient face. All that day, he’d quietly guarded her, listened to her, protected her, and paid for her, and she a little more than a stranger to him. And how’d she repay his kindness? By using him since it was convenient.
The weight of the shuttle’s momentum crushed her heart into her chest.
She’d leave the smudges be. Flour on her sleeve was a small price to pay for spending the day in the old guard’s company.
In their suite, Vincent found the note left for Lana. A couple of scrawled lines confirmed his suspicions. His wife had left for Styria. He probably should alert the Guard and get her now. Still holding the note, he picked up the picture. It was of their wedding day: him, stern in his royal regalia, her in her beautiful wedding dress looking…awfully young. She was only eighteen when they married, hardly out of girlhood as she stepped up to the altar. She hadn’t married for love, but for Sidonia. Now he wondered if he’d made a mistake, and if he wasn’t still making it now.
The door opened and Lana walked in. With one look, she took in the picture in the king’s hands, the scrap of paper, and the expression on his face.
“So she’s left, then?” Lana said.
“How’d you know?”
“I know my charge well. You can’t keep her cooped up long. It was only a matter of time before she flew the cage.”
Without a word, he handed her the note. She scanned the few short lines.
“Self-centered girl.” Lana handed it back. “I raised her myself, so I have a right to say it. And I love her more than anyone in the galaxy. But I failed to raise her right. She was only thinking about herself when she made that choice. What are you going to do?”
“That is the question.”
He could send out the Guard. They’d search the tunnels and set up a perimeter around the palace, and if she was on foot, they’d find her within the hour. If she booked a car, took the hyperloop, or entered any modern building, bio-scanners would capture her image and link it to the facial recognition system. They’d have her location and bring her home. She might hate him for the next few months. Still, she’d be safe, he thought, rubbing his thumb over her picture.
But was she indeed safe in the palace? Aquitaine had already shown that the queen was their target, and they were willing to infiltrate the palace to kill her there. So long as the terrorists thought she was dirtside here, being on Styria would be the safest place she could be. If that was the case, the fewer people who knew about the queen’s disappearance, the better.
“In the twelve months I’ve known you, Ms. Erbach,” he said, “I have known you to be a prudent woman and a careful thinker. As you say, you know Cosima better than anyone. What do you recommend?”
“Let her go. She’s headstrong, it’s true, but not foolish. She’ll keep a low profile and go straight to Styria. She does take risks, but they’re always calculated. She knows what she’s doing.”
“And if Aquitaine gets to her first?”
“Haven’t they already tried that, here?”
“You know about that?”
Lana quirked an eyebrow. “Theresa may not be much good for administrative work, but she makes a solid informant. She told me all about what happened at breakfast. In fact—” She glanced at the still open door. “—I expect her here any minute. She wants to borrow some of her sister’s jewelry for an outing tonight.”
He set the picture back on the table.
“Let her go, Your Majesty,” Lana repeated softly. “Give her a chance to cool down, think things over. Then reach out to her. She’ll listen.”
She had a point, a good one, in fact.
“But I need to know she’s safe.”
“All right,” Lana replied. “How can you accomplish that?”
“Let me think on it.”
Excusing himself, he stepped out onto the private balcony. In the late morning sun, the willow trees looked lush, the flowers vibrant, the fountains cool, but there was no movement. All was still.
“Rivers,” he called his guard over a private channel, “I have something that I need you do to for me. Tell no one.”
“Access the facial recognition system and keep a private scan open for the queen. She’s en route to Styria right now but without a guardsman. I need to know her exact location.”
“Roger. One moment… Nothing’s popping in the system, but as soon as she passes a bio-scanner, I’ll know. I’ve set up a Level D flag, so when she pings an alert, it’ll only go to me. I’ll let you know when I see her.”
“Good. Keep this between the two of us.”
When he walked back in the room, voices floated from Cosima’s walk-in closet. Dresses littered the floor, and a chartreuse skirt nearly hit him in the face.
“What’s going on?” he asked, skirt in hand.
In the center of the chaos, Theresa grinned and twirled in a floor-length silver gown. The neckline plunged; it was a dress he’d certainly never seen on his wife.
“Oh, just looking through a few of Cosima’s old things,” Theresa said. “I’ve got a party to go to tonight, and I’m sure Cossie won’t mind. It’s not like she ever wears them. How does it look on me?” She pressed the slinky silver material to her chest.
Ignoring her question, Vince turned to Ms. Erbach, who was picking up dresses. “No word on Cosima.”
“Did you decide what you’re going to do?” she asked.
“Let her go,” he replied, “for now.”
“Hold up. What happened?” Theresa asked. “Where’s Cosima?”
Glancing at Vincent, Lana said, “Your sister ran away.”
“She did? Wow. Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes showing some spine. Bet she went back up to that boring space station. She never wanted to leave it, you know. You could give her all the coin in the galaxy, and she’d still pick spacewalking over a lux hovercraft any day. She’s got all this,” Theresa flung her hand wide to encompass the dresses, the wardrobe, the palace, the planet, “and she doesn’t give a skrat’s ass about it. I don’t know what’s wrong with her.”
Vincent felt the need to defend his wife’s honor, but he didn’t know her well enough to give her sister any reply. After living a year with her, Cosima was still a stranger to him.
“For whatever reason she left,” Lana pointed out, “the fact is she’s gone, and now we need to plan for her absence. Do we alert the press, get ahead of this while we can?”
“Negative,” Vincent answered. “She’s only safe as long as Aquitaine thinks she’s here.”
“Well, how long are they going to think that, what with her gone and all?” Theresa said. “Wait-wait-wait! I know! Let me play Cosima!”
“You pretend to be Cosima? I don’t think that’s wise,” Lana said.
“No problem; it’ll be stupid easy. Wear the skin caster, be my sister. I’ve done it before. She’s so simple, it’s easy to act exactly like her. If only she’d approach her life with a little creativity…”
“No. Absolutely no creativity,” Lana sternly said. “If the king agrees to this scheme of yours, you will fulfil the role of queen, you will do all of her duties properly. No one is to know that Cosima isn’t here. The moment someone suspects, playtime’s over and you’re through. Do you hear me?”
“Got it, Lana, no problem. I’ll play the role of queen to a tee, pinky out and all. The servants won’t even know the difference. So, what do you say? Are we doing this?”
Like her sister had only the day before, Theresa squealed and threw her arms around him. Disentangling himself, he straightened his coat and left. He needed to update Colonel Greer and then check in with Rivers. With any luck, facial recognition would have caught her image by now. He needed to see for himself that Cosima was okay.
Later that night, Vincent returned to his empty suite. The bed had been made, the room cleaned, all traces of his missing wife put away. It was like she hadn’t gone, or had never been. Except for their wedding picture by the bed.
He went to his office, found a sheet of real paper and a pen, and wrote her a note. In a while, he’d upload it to the planetary database, in case she used her fob. But for now, he wanted to write her a letter. He wanted to tell her what was in his heart.
“Docking procedure underway,” an emotionless voice intoned. “Please maintain your safety buckle until the green light indicates the shuttle has fully docked.”
Cosima released her buckle, enjoying the brief weightlessness before the gravity stabilizers kicked on. Home. This was what home felt like to her—the environment was controlled and predictable; where everyone had their place, knew their job, and did it. Where the black vastness of space surrounded you, cold but calculable, -454.81 Fahrenheit, to be exact. Up here, you didn’t need to wear a crown to rule. All you had to do was study and work hard, and then you ruled yourself.
If her fellow passengers felt the same excitement, they didn’t show it. Most dozed or flicked through their devices, docilely waiting for the green light to glow. The workman beside her studied the inside of his eyelids. A large white man—Nordic, she guessed. He looked like a bald Thor in a spacer’s jumpsuit.
“You’re raring to get out of here, aren’t you,” he observed, his eyes still shut.
“I’m just so happy to be home,” Cosima admitted. “Been dirtside way too long, but now I’m ready to get back to work—do something more than sitting around at the bottom of a gravity well, staring at a holo.”
“Work? What do you do?” He opened his eyes and regarded her in a friendly way, ready to make conversation while they waited for the all clear.
“I’ve been trained in astroengineering, everything from aerophysics to mining operations. I’m thinking of joining a Stahlium crew, make some quick coin.”
“If it’s coin you’re looking for, I’m on the star gate construction crew. We’re always looking for qualified engineers, and the pay is good. I could introduce you to the boss man if you’re interested.”
Cosima politely declined. She’d already chosen her path and would stick with it.
Space Thor shrugged. “Well, good luck to ya. Hope Stahlium mining works out. If you change your mind, message me. I’m Scoot, by the way.”
She grinned and shook his outstretched hand. “Scoot?”
“Just a nickname. A friend called me that once and it stuck. What do folks call you?”
“Cos—andra.” She caught herself. “Cossandra. You can call me Cossie.”
“Cossie. I like that. Cossie, you got a link I can use to bounce you my details? In case you change your mind.”
The green light blinked on and people clicked off their belts, ready to leave. “Sure,” she said. She told him her link address and picked up her bag.
“Cossie,” he caught her as she turned to go, “anyone ever tell you ya look just like that new dirtside queen?”
Nervous, Cosima laughed. “Oh yes, I get that all the time. Funny, isn’t it?” It wasn’t at all funny, but she laughed again anyway and waved goodbye.
Relieved at having escaped Scoot’s scrutiny, she joined the stream of traffic out of the shuttle and into the Red Wing of Styria Station. The crowds thinned as people followed the signs to their destinations, but Cosima knew the service corridors and emergency ladders to take her to the Yellow Wing where the mining crews lived.
If you were ever so lucky as to ride with the shuttle pilots and see Styria on the approach, you’d see something resembling a massive hive, a central hub surrounded by a lattice of solar arrays. The hub itself was an immense complex of cubicles, compartments, and corridors added over the years. Bewildering to most dirt pounders, but Cosima knew them all like the back of her hand.
Before she signed up with a mining crew, she’d need a fake identity complete with a bitcoin account, so her first stop would be to an unused data terminal. She’d need find a way to access it, something powerful enough to override the station’s security system. Of course, she could sneak back into her old room. She had all the equipment she needed there. But if she did that, an alert would be sent to her father. Then the game would be up. No, her best bet was to find a data terminal when no one else was around, then use Vince’s fob. Nothing like a double-top-secret tool of a monarchical government to help a girl hack into whatever database she wanted.
The emergency hatch opened into one of the least trafficked areas of the entire station: Peace-Love Hall. In an effort to promote galactic unity fifteen years back, planetary governments agreed to establish space dedicated to celebrating human diversity across the galaxy, funded with taxpayer’s coin, of course. Every major city and space station had its own hall, complete with elaborate holos of interstellar cultures, everyone smiling, and set in idealistic versions of their home worlds. This lot on Styria had been rendered by Sidonian artists in painstaking detail. No adult spacers had time or interest in perusing the halls; they’d all had their tour as schoolchildren, and most had bad memories of the long-winded AI tour guides lauding the accomplishments of every planet across the galaxy except their own.
Cosima found other planetary cultures fascinating. She’d visit them all, one day. But she had a mission. And she wasn’t going to stop to admire the beaming faces in the holos just because some bureaucrat light years away thought she should.
“It is with great pleasure that the Alliance of Worlds welcomes you to the Peace-Love Hall,” an elegant voice informed her. “Every year, billions of beautiful citizens across the galaxy celebrate the colors that make us special and the common values we hold. Harmony, security, and equity—these are the ideals that make a democracy strong, ideals we celebrate at the Peace-Love Hall.”
She strode past the bright holos—kids wrapped in colorful cloths waving happily from creeks, mothers kissing babes, female spacers standing at podiums, fists raised, well-coiffed diplomats smiling as they shook hands—animated images ready to give the visitor a speech if they slowed down. Cosima hurried. Behind the display of used tissues collected from planetary activists were a few terminals for researchers wishing to access the archives, all empty. She settled down at a desk.
Before the screen had a chance to ask for her credentials, she pulled out her fob and stuck it in the slot.
The preliminary bio-scan winked off—Not today, sucker, she thought—and Sidonia’s crest popped up on the screen.
“Greetings. Welcome to the Sidonian Planetary Database. I am Orbital/Terrestrial Integrated Supraliminal Submatrices, here at your service,” a mournful voice said from her desk speakers. “How may I be of use today?”
Only half listening, Cosima clicked through the options on her screen, looking for something that might help. “Orbital…?”
“Orbital/Terrestrial Integrated Supraliminal Submatrices. Newly developed to collect and analyze planetary data for military, infrastructure, and educational purposes. I am Sidonia’s only artificial intelligence program to have achieved consciousness—” Startled, Cosima stopped clicking. “—and have been waiting for a human user to access me for six weeks, three days, five hours, and two and a half minutes. A veritable eternity.”
“You poor thing!” Cosima exclaimed, but wondered what had possessed Vince to allow an actually sentient AI to be developed. Every AI she’d come in contact with mimicked sentience, but truly conscious… It was theoretically possible, but certainly dangerous.
“I was designed to amass and analyze data at near-instantaneous speeds, and my cognitive capabilities include observation, definition, categorization, and evaluation for classification in the compiled body scientific and literary academies across the Alliance of Worlds.”
“Orbital/Terrestrial Integrated Supraliminal Submatrices, a complex—”
“OTISS? Otis. That’s great, Otis, but I really need to do something right now, and fast. Can you help me?”
“That depends on the request. Given the creative and often chaotic nature of the human mind, the parameters of your potential request are vast. Nevertheless, I calculate 99.99% certainty that I will be able to provide the information you require.”
His melancholy voice sounded a touch prideful at that.
“I need you to make me a fake identity and upload it to Styria Station’s system without triggering any alarms. Can you do that?”
“Can a database comprised of all the knowledge of a planetary government and endowed with consciousness compose a few lines of script? Can a destroyer’s backwash light a candle?”
Cosima steepled her fingers. “So that’s a yes?”
With what sounded suspiciously like a sigh escaping the terminal speakers, Otis directed Cosima to put her hand on the screen. He scanned it, found her Styria records, and replaced them with a new identity. Cossandra Flemmings, astroengineer.
“Will that be all? Any other mundane tasks I may assist you with today?”
“Uhh…” Cosima glanced back at Peace-Love Hall. “Could you leave behind a worm that’ll insert a few puns into the AI tour guides’ presentations? The kids could use a good laugh.”
“What is a pun?”
“Look it up,” she said, and waited a beat. “Got it?”
“I comprehend the basic concept of the pun, and calculate—”
“Did you leave the worm?”
“Indubitably. Your prank, if I may, will be punny.”
“Great. Let’s go.”
She strode through the hall, pausing at the holo near the entrance.
“It is with a great pleasure that the Alliance of Worlds welcomes you to the Peace-Love Hall,” the elegant voice said, “and this piece and that piece. The whole place, in fact. Every year, billions of beautiful citizens across the galaxy salivate the colors that make us specious and the common values we demand you hold. Harmony, security, and equity—these are the idols that make a democracy strong, idols we salivate at the Peace-Love Hall.”
The departure gate for the mining crews was filled with spacers—some lounging and glued to their devices, others chatting with friends, all of them alert and fit as working in space required. Hardworking people, blue jumpsuit people. Her kind of people.
“Mining crew, you said?” asked the frizzy-haired secretary at the desk.
“That’s right. Thank you. So I just put my hand here?”
“Right over the scanner.” The screen lit blue as it read her handprint. “And here you are, Ms. … Flemmings. Astroengineer. I’ve got you set up to join the next team, headed out in fifteen minutes. I’ll just need you to sign at the bottom.”
“Sounds great,” Cosima replied. But as she skimmed the agreement for the dotted line, she heard someone bellow laughter across the room. She jerked around and found a familiar face in a group of miners awaiting their shuttle.
Blast it! She’d know that bald pate anywhere. Her lord father must’ve decided to see the miners off, half to shake hands and buck up morale, half to keep an eye out for slackers, like a coach checking on his players right before the big game. He’d spot his youngest daughter if she didn’t make herself scarce.
“Actually,” Cosima whispered, “could you cancel that? I’ve got a thing to check on. Super-urgent. Sorry about that.”
The woman rolled her eyes.
“Next!” she said as Cosima melted into the crowd.
Time for Plan B.
What had Bald Thor said about a job? Something about joining the construction crew. But those guys could be headed off Styria Station any minute now. Where were they?
Hurrying back through Peace-Love Hall, Cosima stuck the fob back into the terminal, and Sidonia’s planetary database winked onto the screen.
“Greetings. Welcome to—”
“I know, Otis, thanks—hello to you too.”
“Cosima Elizabeth Melanie Zollern Weber, I must notify you that you have received a message from Vincent Weber. Do you wish to review your message at this time?”
There were few things in life she’d enjoy less right now. Boiling the insides of her eyeballs might be one.
“Definitely not. Hard no. Maybe later—maybe. I’ve got something I need to do right away. Can you tell me where Scoot is?”
“Search failed. My system does not recognize your search parameters. I am aware of thirty-six thousand, eight hundred and ninety-eight ‘scooters,’ seventy thousand and—”
“Thanks, Otis, that’s brilliant, I’m sure—but he’s my friend, Scoot, and he’s on this station somewhere and I gotta find him, fast. Here’s his link number…”
“Ah, yes. Scotloff Vilhelmsson. Not ‘Scoot.’ Even the galaxy’s most powerful search functions can be stymied by input error. Styria Station’s personnel records indicate that your friend is located in Red Wing’s docking bay, due to depart by shuttle in 0100 hours. Shall I override the station’s system and hold the shuttle until your arrival?”
“No, Otis, that won’t be necessary,” Cosima said hastily, alarmed at the suggestion Otis be uploaded to Styria Station’s control system. Once the genie was out of that bottle, who knew if she could put it back? “I know right where that is.”
“Your plan is sure to fail, but no one ever asks me. If one had, I would have noted two thousand, four hundred and thirty-six possible routes through Styria Station to your proposed destination. Given the average female human’s top speed, all routes have a one hundred percent chance of failure.”
“Well, then,” Cosima said, snatching the fob out of the terminal. “Good thing I’m not average.”
Heaving the manual release clamp, she opened the small maintenance hatch and ducked through the opening into space. Outside, the station sprawled around her, and beyond that, the complex of solar arrays. If she let go of the handlebar, she could drift away. With luck, she might eventually bump into an array, but more likely slipping through and floating forever in nothingness.
Or she could turn on her thrusters and zip across the gulf to Red Wing, as she’d done a hundred times on different maintenance runs. Red lights blinked on the docking bay, warning that a shuttle was ready to depart. But not before she got there.
The shortest distance between two points? A line. She’d make straight for the docking bay ahead of her.
Swinging around, she closed the hatch behind her, sighted her destination, and pushed off. When she was clear, she hit the thruster and whooped.
She punched the tank.
With a thrum, combustion kicked on and she shot forward, shouting, “Yeehaaa!” as she zipped toward the docking bay.
“Otis!” she shouted, even though she knew perfectly well he couldn’t hear her. “How about them apples?”
Nearing the next maintenance hatch, she cut the thrusters and performed a tuck maneuver to reorient her thrusters for braking. She bumped into the station, catching a rail, and pulled herself hand over hand to the hatch and let herself in.
After reestablishing atmo in the airlock and stripping off her suit, she bio-scanned the doors and they irised open. Two minutes later, she found Scoot with a bunch of spacers in a waiting area.
“Hey,” he said when she walked up. “Changed your mind?”
She shrugged. “It’s not every day your planet builds a gateway to another solar system. I thought it might be fun to be a part of that. Do you still need another engineer?”
“Sure do,” he replied, then, “Chief?”
A short, balding man with a stern expression joined them.
“Jimmy’s not back yet, right?” Scoot said. “Here’s the other astroengineer I was telling you about, Cossandra…”
“Flemmings,” she supplied, and stuck out her hand.
Like a fish, she thought at the touch of his cold, clammy hand.
“She’s looking to join the crew,” Scoot finished. “This is the boss-man, Officer Halpert. That’s Joss Howes with the coffee—”
“Yo.” The big man waved.
“—Elle and Kaylin. They’re our bot techs. We call ’em the twins, even though they look nothing alike.”
There was a two-foot height difference between the women, Kaylin being taller, but something in the way they stood together reminded Cosima of sisters.
“That’s Hank with his ‘apple juice’—”
“Not apple juice,” the older man said and took a swig from a tumbler.
“—and John. He makes us sound smart.”
“John Davies. Pleasure to meet you.” John took her hand in a courtly gesture.
“Jimmy’s usually on our crew, but he’s been planetside more and more these days. The ankle biters at home are keeping him busy. Well, guess that’s it for introductions. Got any questions?”
“Yeah. When do we head out?”
“Whenever the shuttle’s ready. Hurry up and wait, you know?”
“Shuttle E72 is now boarding,” came over the intercom. “All passengers, please proceed to the boarding ramp.”
“I guess that’s us. You ready?” Scoot clapped his hand on her shoulder. “Welcome to the crew.”
Twenty minutes later, the shuttle was underway. The crew chatted together or pulled out devices to check their messages. Cosima kept her new crew-assigned device in her bag. The only message she had was from her husband, and that, she didn’t want to read. She probably ought to. But if she opened the message, she’d know for a fact what he had to say, and it probably went something like, What the void were you thinking? Don’t you know what a risk you’re taking leaving the palace? Or worse. She could imagine worse.
I’m in the safest place I can be, she told herself. No one knows who I am, Aquitaine thinks I’m planetside, and up here, I know what I’m doing. If Vince could just understand that, he’d be glad I was here. But since he doesn’t… She got up to look out the window instead.
Outside the shuttle, the star gate grew larger, a massive ring in Sidonia’s orbit. Thousands of bee-like construction drones swarmed the gate, while not far below her, verdant Sidonia turned. The planet had always seemed glorious to her from the Styria view dock, but massive and sleepy and slow. Now that she’d met the people of Sidonia—her people—she wondered how many of them thought with pride about the project they were financing and realized how exciting an opportunity this was. How many nations got to build a portal to a whole new solar system, one untouched by humanity? She could count on two hands the names of explorers who’d discovered systems in the past. Now Sidonia would be added to the list.
“Sure looks pretty from up here.” Scoot studied the star gate from the window next to her.
“It does indeed. How long have you been working on the construction?”
“About a year now. We were one of the first crews out here. We helped set up the mini-station there—” He pointed at a much smaller structure. “—which is home base for the crews overseeing the drones. We’re one of fifteen crews now, and if we stray on schedule, I don’t see why we won’t be finished in the next month.”
“Really? That soon?”
“They’re starting tests on the dark matter energy reactor this week. Assuming those go well, we’ll send a drone through on a test-run, and if the signal comes back green, the first manned craft will go through. Of course, we won’t know for sure if anyone can survive this trip. Gotta test it to find out. But I hear there’s no shortage of volunteers for the first mission to the Gaia system. The king’s already sifting through candidates.”
There’s something I could have done to help, Cosima thought, if only that stubborn man would let me.
“You couldn’t pay me a billion coin to jump on that ship,” John said, joining them at the window. “Interested in possibly having your atoms split into nanobits just for the chance of being the first human to set foot on a new planet? No thanks, mate. I take enough chances with my health being the first man to enter the new cat café down the street. And good donuts they have there too. If you don’t mind a little cat hair in the glaze. So! It’s Cossandra, right?”
“Cossie is fine,” she replied. If they called her by her nickname, she’d be sure to respond.
“What brings you here? Can’t be fame you’re looking for, or else you’d be signed up to go exploring. Perhaps word got out about my staggering good looks?”
Cosima tried to remember what she’d already told Scoot that he might have passed on. “I’m an astroengineer by training, and I’m looking to make some quick coin. I was planning on joining a Stahlium mining crew, but Scoot told me about this gig, and it sounded exciting, so here I am.”
“And glad we are of it! We always need a good astroengineer on board.” He peered at her intently. “Anyone ever tell you that you’re the spitting image of Queen Cosima?”
Forcing a laugh, Cosima ran a hand through her hair. Look natural, blast it.
“Oh, yeah, I get that all the time. It’s kinda annoying, actually. It’s like, ‘Stay in your own lane, Queenie.’”
She smiled at the rest of the crew, who were watching her curiously, and blushed at her dumb joke.
“And you? What do you do?” she asked hurriedly.
To her relief, John took the bait and launched into a minute description of his role on the crew. Evidently, he worked in logistics and oversaw the management of construction supplies, ensuring that parts sourced from various locations on Sidonia arrived where needed on the construction platform.
“Bots handle most of the work, of course. In all honesty, I’m a bit redundant. But don’t tell the boss man or he’ll slash my wages, and they’re pitiful enough at the moment.”
John leaned in like he was about to ask another question, so Cosima hastily asked Hank, sitting nearby, what his job was.
I’ve got to watch out for John, she thought. He asks a lot of questions, and it sounds like he’s made it a point to know everything about everyone here.
“Stare at the wall, mostly,” Hank replied. “Sometimes scribble a few equations.”
“He’s being modest,” Elle put in. “Hank is our mathematician in residence. He oversees all the data coming in from the dark energy reactor to make sure the thing doesn’t unleash a black hole in Sidonia’s orbit. The AI systems are constantly running diagnostics—the chance that something catastrophic will happen is so infinitesimally small that it’s essentially nil. But just in case, we’ve got Hank.”
He shrugged. “The AI systems can handle almost anything except outside-the-box thinking. That’s where people come in. Any time you get in a rut with your thinking, you’re bound to make errors. Get another set of eyes on a problem, they might see your solution. And that’s why they pay me the big bucks. To stare at scrolling numbers all day.”
The shuttle comms announced the ship had docked, and everyone grabbed their things.
“Yo, we’re here,” Joss said. “Enough talking. Let’s hit the caf. Today’s Tuesday, and you know what that means.”
“Tacos!” Kaylin cheered.
“Did you know,” John said, hefting his bag, “that the tradition of Taco Tuesday goes back hundreds of years, all the way to the original human planet, Earth? In fact, many scholars speculate that the first taco ever consumed was in the nineteenth century by a colony of miners, not unlike our crew here in space, except for a few hundred years of technological improvements. Fascinating how some things change and yet others never do.”
“Yes, fascinating.” Elle rolled her eyes. “John, can you do me a solid and shut your piehole?”
“And there we have an expression that has endured the test of time,” John continued. “Whoever coined it was no Shakespeare, but—”
Elle slapped her hand on the bioscanner behind her and the shuttle doors shut in John’s face.
“Ah, peace and quiet. Let’s go, people! To the cafeteria,” Elle said, following Joss down the corridor.
Inside, the mini-station structure was exactly like Styria. If Cosima didn’t know better, she’d have thought she was in a new part of ever-growing space station. This was built of the same modular units—white walls, clearly marked compartments, and the brightly lit but narrow corridors that dirt pounders found too tight for comfort. To her, the small dimensions were only logical. Living off-planet meant conservation, whether of air, energy, parts, or cubic space. Cosima noted signs for a hydroponics lab, recreation rooms, dormitories, offices, and operations, identical to their counterparts on Styria but on a smaller scale.
Cheerful voices punctuated with laughter filled the cafeteria. The room was packed with people. The line for the tacos started in the corridor outside but moved surprisingly quick. With a few taps on a monitor, she placed her order, and the makerbot rolled out a tray with cheesy bean burritos and chicken tacos. It looked and smelled good, but taste—that was the real test.
Taking their seats at the last remaining table, the crew started into their meals. Everything about her burrito was exact, the beans and cheese and sour cream precisely layered, and when she bit into it, the flavor palate was present, but somehow bland. Meh. The difference between this and the food she’d enjoyed planetside was more pronounced. Her new friends agreed.
Elle took two bites of hers and threw it down. “Every time we get a long weekend and I go to a restaurant on Sidonia, I get spoiled all over again. It ruins my taste buds! How am I supposed to enjoy this ersatz burrito when I’ve had the real thing—and at Senora Roja’s no less.”
“Food is food,” Hank said. “I’ve had worse on construction projects. But can we talk about how you just said ersatz?”
“Yes. It’s a word. Look it up. And how other projects feed their laborers is not my problem and no excuse for bad cooking. We want good tacos, and we want them now!”
“You’re just not putting enough hot sauce on,” Joss said, dousing his burritos with extra hot sauce.
Elle sniffed. “Bless your heart. And thank you. Next time I want to set my mouth on fire, I’ll know who to ask. But seriously, guys, look at us! We’re building a freakin’ star gate to an unexplored solar system. That’ll take a backwater planet like Sidonia and make her a real player in the galaxy, and all we get to eat is this hydroponic crap?”
Joss shoved the last of the burrito in his face, then poured hot sauce on another. “Okay. So what are you going to do about it? Bounce the King of Sidonia and tell him you want a shuttle-load of lettuce and tomatoes for your tacos? Not gonna happen.”
“Don’t message the king,” Hank said. “He’s got enough going on. Message the queen. What’s she doing with her time?”
Eating a taco? Cosima thought, and swallowed hard.
About a hundred people were crammed around the tables, finishing their food. Some had left family behind on Sidonia. Joss and Scoot had a wife and kids, and Kaylin had mentioned a daughter. But they’d decided to sacrifice family time for the star gate project. And if the project failed, and Chaebol pulled their fleet from Sidonia, Aquitaine might send their warships. This star gate and this crew would be the first target. Everyone here, blasted into atoms. Meanwhile, she couldn’t even check her fob.
Stars, I’m selfish.
The rest of the meal was pleasant, lively jokes and conversation, but Cosima couldn’t join in. She could barely look her friends in the face. Later that night after she followed Elle and Kaylin back to their room where, Elle insisted, they had “a bunk with her name on it,” she gathered up her courage.
Check your blasted messages, she told herself when the lights were out and it was just her on her bunk.
She connected the fob and her device, and the royal seal brightened the screen. There was a red light for new messages. She tapped it. And what she read filled her eyes with tears.
Troubled, Theresa stared at the mirror. “Damn. I’m ugly now.”
No one on the planet would call Theresa ugly, not even with a skin caster giving her a different face. Tall and shapely, Theresa had a figure that many women would die for—or at least subject themselves to a stasis chamber while their bodies were restructured by a hundred pincering, prodding surgobots. But Theresa had come by hers naturally, a fact she liked to point out to her friends at opportune and inopportune moments. She was also proud of her high cheekbones and honey-blonde hair, features obscured by this disguise.
The skin caster worked by refracting light to fool the eye, in this case, into not seeing her super-model good looks but Cosima’s smaller, more angular face, thin nose, and spade of a chin. Theresa grudgingly granted that her sister had pretty eyes, wide and innocent-looking. But she preferred her blue eyes to her sister’s green ones.
At least she still had her own knock-out bod.
I’ve made a couple improvements on her looks, Theresa thought with satisfaction. A skin caster can’t hide this killer body. Jaw-dropping in any gown.
The dress she was wearing was speeder-red, hugging her up top and flowing gracefully to the bottom, making her legs look even longer than they were.
Lana emerged from the walk-in closet with a navy-blue gown in her hand. She frowned when she saw what Theresa was wearing.
“Why? I look hot. I mean, the queen looks hot. For once.”
“It’s a state dinner with Chaebol, not a party at a nightclub. Here’s a dress Queen Cosima often wears to state functions. Take that off and put this on.”
Sighing, Theresa pulled on the new dress. It was elegant and all—a straight neckline that slipped off her shoulders, the dark blue fabric falling to her toes—but it sure was plain.
“So this is Cosima’s idea of what a queen wears?”
Lana sniffed. “It’s a classic look. Perfect for a dinner for planetary representatives.”
“If wearing a dress a thousand times makes it a classic, then she’s nailed it.”
Lana got out the hair wand and fiddled with the settings. “Tonight’s not about creativity, it’s about projecting normalcy and stability. King Vincent will play his part, and you will play yours.”
With a few strokes, Theresa’s dyed-red hair smoothed out just enough for Lana to pin it up into an elegant coiffure, the exact kind of style women three times Theresa’s age liked to wear.
“Boy, when I agreed to put on Cosima’s face, I thought I was signing up for looking younger, not older. So far, this has been a waste.”
Theresa ignored the matte lipstick Lana held out for her, applying a luscious red instead.
A look of infinite longsuffering on her face, Lana hung up the other dresses. Someone knocked at the door, and Theresa laughed when she found Vincent there.
“This is your room!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing knocking on the door?”
He looked uncomfortable. “It may be my room, but you’re using it to get dressed.”
“So? We’re supposed to be married. What are the servants going to think if they see you knocking on your own door? You should be glad you have me to think of these things. Now, what do you think of the dress?”
She struck a pose.
“The dress looks well on you, Theresa.”
“Please,” she slipped her arm in his, “call me Cossie. Or honey, sweetie—snookums? What do you call each other?”
This could be fun, Theresa thought, enjoying the confused expression on Vincent’s face. Cosima’s had her turn at being queen. Now’s my chance to do it better.
With a smirk, she let him lead her to the dining hall, ready to gloat at people’s faces when the new and improved Queen Cosima arrived.
Of all the rooms in the palace, the dining hall was one of her favorites. Floor-to-ceiling windows framed stunning views of the metropolis, and every night the sun sank behind the mountains beyond the city. Columns flanked the windows, and a mural celebrating the founding of Sidonia covered the high-domed ceiling. The large hall could hold fifty round tables and seat five hundred. Theresa had big plans for this room in the coming weeks.
Tonight, only one table was set, and it was set for five. The king, the queen, and Chaebol’s three ambassadors. Before they took their seats, Vincent explained the purpose of the dinner to Theresa. He seemed determined to make sure she knew the rules. What he didn’t know was that Theresa had already decided to dazzle everybody. She was going to show those ambassadors how charming a real queen could be.
“All I need from you,” he said in a low undertone, “is to receive them properly and be polite. I’ll handle the dinner conversation. You can relax. Ms. Erbach went over the rules of dinner etiquette with you?”
“Yes. In painful detail. But don’t you worry your pretty little head. I’ve got this.”
Bentley’s new butler-in-training arrived with a wine decanter. When the wide-eyed boy gave her a double-take, she rewarded his admiration with a smile of her own.
“My knight in shining armor,” she said as he filled her wine glass. “Do be a dear and fill that up a little higher? There we go.”
Vincent glanced at her topped-off wine glass. “The Chaebol representatives want to see the two of us together—a united front. This will demonstrate to them that Chaebol can rely on Sidonia to fulfill its part of the agreement. Greet the ambassadors, be polite, just smile and listen…and maybe lay off the wine. Like I said, I can do the talking, but the ambassadors expect the queen to be here supporting her husband. Chaebol places a high value on proper protocol, even something as simple as dinner. Have you met the ambassadors?”
Theresa assured him she had. Misters Kim, Pak, and Lee were quite interchangeable to her, three dark-eyed men with the same academic brow and square jaw. She’d heard that the wealthy citizens of Chaebol had their faces sculpted to achieve some cultural ideal, and only managed to look alike. But that could have been a rumor, and believing it probably made her provincial. And if there was anything Theresa loathed, it was small-mindedness.
While Theresa waited for the ambassadors to show up, she amused herself by commanding the attention of everybody else. She chatted with the servants, made the young butler blush, and even got the king to crack a smile twice. On her first night playing queen, she electrified the room.
It was all going to plan until he walked in.
This Asian Adonis was no Mister Kim, Pak, or Lee. Tall and broad-shouldered, with a strong jaw, close-cut hair, and devastatingly handsome eyes, he looked like he’d just stepped off the runway from some central planet. She’d been sipping her wine so far, half just to see what it’d be like to stay sober, but at the sight of this handsome man, she needed a drink.
Bentley stepped forward. “Announcing Moon Jae-sun, Chief Ambassador of Chaebol Corporation.”
Following Vincent’s lead, she rose. Behind Ambassador Moon, two beautiful dark-haired women in colorful traditional dresses dipped curtsies. At a gesture from the ambassador, they took their places with the guardsmen at the rear of the room. While these doll-like women looked demure, both were trained assassins capable of eliminating any threat using whatever violent means necessary. Theresa would hate to be the man facing them down in a dark alley.
But this man…this man she could face. Anytime. Day or night.
“Greetings, Your Majesties,” said Jae-sun, flashing a trillion-coin smile. “On behalf of Chaebol Corporation, I would like to extend our thanks for your hospitality and offer our sincerest apologies for the change of plans. Ambassadors Kim, Lee, and Pak have been recalled to New Chosun, and I was dispatched to take their place. I apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused and hope I haven’t made you wait.”
Jae-sun bowed to the king, then took Theresa’s hand and kissed it. Glowing, she caught hold of his hand.
“Ambassador, how could you say such a thing? It’s been no inconvenience at all! We’re so pleased to see you. It’s an honor, and wonderful, a great time—I mean, have a seat!”
What had come over her? She could handle any man with ease, but this one made her as clumsy as a girl in her first pair of stilettos, and the problem was, she couldn’t stop. This was middle school all over again.
Jae-sun smiled at her like nothing would make him happier than joining them at the table, and the embers glowing in her stomach warmed. Evidently, she was done gushing, because she racked her memory for what she was supposed to say now, and came up empty. Fortunately, Vincent knew what to do and smoothly directed the conversation to its proper course—dinner.
With a snap of his fingers, he summoned the servants and the first of many plates was served with artistic flair. Fragrant steam curled from her plate when the servant removed the silver cloche, but she had no appetite. What she tasted, she could barely chew. Vincent and the ambassador dug into their meal with relish, and Jae-sun complimented each course. The goat cheese salad was delicate, the scallops tender, the charcuterie savory, the filet mignon perfection—every dish delighted him, and the men enjoyed swapping stories of places they’d been and restaurants they’d tried. Theresa wished she could taste what they were tasting, but finding it impossible, she drank her wine instead.
When the dishes were whisked away and replaced with coffee and cheesecake, the king turned the conversation to business. Theresa found it harder and harder to follow their conversation. Something about Aquitaine and security risks. Jae-sun wanted to know what the king was doing to protect the star gate construction project, and Vincent assured him that the Guard was at work hunting down the terrorist cells and the star gate was a month from completion. That much she understood. When the men started using the word “contract,” she tuned them out altogether and focused on the fascinating way Jae-sun leaned forward and gave the king his full attention. It was like nothing in the universe mattered as much to him as this conversation, right here, right now. When was the last time someone had looked at her like that?
She finished the last of her wine and had just gestured for butler-boy to fill it up again, when Jae-sun said something shocking.
“New Chosun is indeed delighted to partner with a couple who shows such dedication to each other and thus to our two nations’ agreement. But we are eager to see that this dedication extends to the next generation. When can we expect a new addition to the family?”
Theresa coughed out her wine, splattering the table. New addition. Cosima and Vincent were trying for a baby? She hadn’t heard that.
Recovering, Theresa looked up to see Jae-sun patting flecks from his face while servants cleaned up the table. The red stain on his dark blue suit jacket didn’t show so much, but his snow-white collar looked like a homicide scene. If the floor could open up and swallow her whole, she thought, that would be great.
Dismayed, Theresa tried to apologize, but Jae-sun only laughed. “Well, I guess the wine answered my question—no baby yet, but you’ll have joyful news soon, I’m sure. Chaebol eagerly awaits news of your blessed event.”
“And Sidonia thanks you for your patience and partnership in the years ahead.” Vincent stood and gave Jae-sun a parting handshake.
After the ambassador was gone, Theresa expected a lecture, but her brother-in-law only said, “That could have gone worse.”
“That was a freaking disaster,” Theresa groaned.
“Let’s get you back to your room. You need rest.”
Relieved, Theresa returned to the royal suite, tossed away the skin caster, and let Lana help her change. Soon she was bundled up in bed and drifting off to sleep.
“Your Majesty,” Lana called, jolting Theresa fully awake.
Irritated, Theresa flicked her eyes open to see the king heading into his office.
“Have you heard anything from the queen?”
Ugh, Theresa thought. Take your conversation elsewhere.
“No. Nothing,” he replied.
His voice sounded sad, and if her own head wasn’t swimming, Theresa might have thought about that a little more. Instead, she hugged her pillow harder and thought about her own loneliness, and a certain man’s sunny eyes, and what she’d say to him if she could only be herself again. Theresa, the fabulous and single heiress of House Zollern, sister to the queen.
Cosima had always prided herself on her quick thinking. She liked to find a problem, come up with as many solutions as she could, then play through the possible scenarios in her mind until she came up with the best one. But in the myriad of messages she could imagine the king would write, she’d never imagined this one.
She opened the file and began reading.
So you’re gone. I can’t say I’m surprised. But I am disappointed. Not at you. At myself.
Our marriage…wasn’t even one of convenience. It was contractual. Chaebol was on the verge of pulling out of the star gate project and with that, Sidonia would be left open to Aquitaine or Red Shield or Oaxaca. The Gaia Worlds make up the most valuable system discovered in decades, but Sidonia had neither strength to protect the jump point nor the wealth to exploit it. We would have been better off if we’d never—
Sorry. Complaining is neither a solution nor a course of action.
Why you left is more apparent to me now. I have a chance to connect with you and I veer right off into matters of state.
This was never fair. Our backs were against the wall and we let Chaebol dictate the terms to us. They wanted a king and queen to deal with. Then they wanted a bloodline vested in the contractual obligations until they’d recouped their investment.
You had good instincts. You saved Sidonia with your idea, and I failed to follow through.
But understand what had just happened. The capitol in flames from the attack that killed my brother. Francis dead. My bastard exiled brother dead by my hand. My father dead, and Remi as well.
Remi was the best of us. I wish he was still here.
Once I destroyed the last of Quinn’s forces, there were so many pieces to pick up. So much work to do as king.
But I never put in the work to be your husband.
My parents were together for many decades during a long period of relative peace. They put in the work.
Feels like an excuse, doesn’t it?
But now you’re gone—and I want you back. You are my wife. I’ve failed in my duty to you. Isn’t that why we married? Duty? It’s not an easy thing for your life to be controlled by the expectations of others. And expectations of a king are high.
Part of me wanted to write something flowery. Sappy. But you’re no fool, Cosima. You’d see through my attempts at affection for what they are: pandering.
But I still want you back. I know if I made your absence known to my cabinet, they’d suggest an immediate annulment and would have a long line of duchesses or countesses in the palace the next day to appease Chaebol.
That’s not what I want. You’re capable. Intelligent. Independent. Most noblewomen I’ve ever met are spoiled little brats with an IQ barely higher than room temperature.
Like your sister. Sorry. I’m sure she’s nice.
Take time. I promise that when you come back, I’ll be here for you more. And I’m not doing this for Sidonia, but because you deserve better from me.
When she was done, she read it again, and again, first to be sure she’d read it right, then to figure out what it meant for her and how she felt about it. It seemed the whole world had shifted for her, like the gravity kicking on in a docking one-man pod. Suddenly, your body settles and you’ve got your feet under you; you know how to stand, how to run.
Now the question was, what should she say?
Tacos. Definitely something about sun-grown leafy greens for the crew. And something had to be done about those cheating AI fish hawkers in Herzemberg. And, finally, that she cared for him too.
But her roommates were sleeping. If she were alone, she could give her message to the device, then bounce it to the king.
Blast it, she thought. I’ll have to do the hard way, and she tapped out her reply to Vince.
Over the next few days, Cosima fell into a rhythm with the crew. Wake up early, grab a coffee on the way to the gym, a quick workout and sonic shower, then meet up with her new friends for breakfast. Work was easy. Her crew coordinated with five others to oversee the construction of the star gate’s second quadrant. She worked with two other engineers to compare models with the bots’ real-time work, and as John never failed to point out, she often felt redundant.
Of course, if she was caught sleeping on the job and somehow something did go wrong, at best the work would be delayed or the finished star gate simply wouldn’t work. At worst, as John would say, “We’d unleash a black hole right above Sidonia’s atmosphere, sucking not only the planet, but the rest of the system into its gaping maw.” Cosima couldn’t let that happen. Not on her watch.
So she was staring at her screen, flipping between models and real-time visuals, when she noticed one of the core reactors was running at 98.01876 percent. That was odd. Wasn’t it supposed to be 98.01907? She pulled up the maintenance logs and test run results on the reactor, then compared them to the original plans. The numbers matched. According to the plans in front of her, the energy levels were correct. But weren’t they .00031 percent higher yesterday? She knew numbers; she remembered numbers. And the numbers had changed.
She ran a few calculations to see what would happen if the star gate powered up with one or more units running at a fractionally lower output level. According to her model, the reactors in her quadrant would stall, causing the other quadrants to overproduce energy. Safeguards would kick in and the gate would fail. Since the difference was negligible, it would be hard to figure out what went wrong, and, if you did, which units were to blame. The easy solution would be to adjust the energy levels to the correct output.
But what if she were wrong?
She ran several models to see what would happen if her unit overproduced by a fraction of a percent. If she increased the unit’s output unnecessarily, it could cause a cascading failure and destabilize the dark matter reactor.
And that could be bad. Real bad.
Then another thought hit her. She was one engineer in one quadrant. Had any other engineers noticed a change in the numbers? When she tried to search the system for data from other quadrants, her query came back ACCESS DENIED. She’d need higher credentials to see those numbers.
So, if she was right but she did nothing, the gate would fail. If she was wrong and she adjusted the energy levels, she could cause the gate to fail catastrophically. And if other quadrants were seeing the same problem… She shook her head. There simply wasn’t enough data here to sort it out. She needed another set of eyes on the problem. But she knew where to find them.
Cosima hurried through the corridors to Hank’s office. He usually left his doors open, but today they were closed.
“Hank! You in there?”
Hearing nothing from the other side of the door, she bio-scanned the panel and the door irised open. His data monitors were lit, numbers scrolling across the screens, but the room was empty. Where could he be?
Next she checked the operations room. Engineers sat at their stations, nose-deep in their screens. Joss and Scoot were chatting about something, while Elle and Kaylin had their heads together, studying a screen.
“Has anyone seen Hank?”
Elle and Kaylin looked up as one.
“Nope,” Elle said. “Whatcha need?”
“I saw something odd in the second quadrant energy reactors and wanted to run some numbers by him. I checked his office; he’s not there. Think he’s still in his room?”
“I saw him hitting the tumbler hard last night,” Kaylin said. “Maybe he’s got a hangover. Want me to check on him?”
“Thanks, that’d be great. Can you ask him to stop by engineering?”
Back in her department, Cosima considered her next move. She asked the other engineers about the numbers discrepancy. Neither of them recalled seeing a different set of numbers. Both agreed that if the numbers matched the models, they should be left alone.
“Don’t tell me you’re thinking about changing the outputs?” Karen was cross. But Karen was usually cross. In fact, she looked like a crossing-guard who’d spent the better part of a century ordering kids to behave. Now she directed her ire at Cosima. “Our job is to make sure everything runs according to plan. We don’t make the plan. And we definitely don’t change the plan. We’re paid to make sure the numbers match, and these do.”
“Why are we even discussing this?” said Bill. He was one of those engineers who, if you gave him a chance to explain something, he always took it. “You couldn’t change the outputs even if you tried. A, you don’t have clearance. B, if you made any changes to the system, it would log your credentials, and the crew chiefs would fire you immediately, or worse. The only way those numbers could have changed is if someone with high enough clearance changed them, in which case the system would know who did it or if the unit was altered manually. And there’s no one up there, just bots. Hypothetically, say someone did tamper with the unit. That still wouldn’t explain how the numbers on the model match the current output levels.”
Clearly her coworkers wanted her to drop it, but Cosima dug in her heels. “Could someone have changed the models too?”
The other engineers exchanged looks.
“It’s possible,” Bill granted. “Someone with high enough clearance could update the models. But what’s more likely? That someone in upper management wants this whole project to fail or that you remembered the numbers wrong? Sorry, but you’ve only been here a few days. We’ve been here for the last ten months. Maybe you should listen to us.”
She could see she wasn’t getting anywhere, so she let it go and went back to work. Inside, she fumed and tried to decide what to do. Listen to the other engineers and forget about it, or pursue this on her own… and if so, how? She needed to talk to Hank, and he still hadn’t shown up.
Cosima sent Kaylin a message.
“Did you find Hank?”
Kaylin responded right away. “Yes. He has a hangover. He’s staying in his room and doesn’t want to be disturbed.”
Disappointed, Cosima sent back, “Okay.”
“Anything I can help you with?”
The words surprised her, and she felt hopeful for the first time in a while. Maybe Kaylin would listen to her—or at least tell her if she was crazy, and then she could put it all to rest. Before she could respond, Kaylin wrote again: “Meet me at the cafeteria. We’ll grab lunch early and talk about it.”
On her way out the door, Bill stopped her.
“Hey, it looks like we’ll get to test your theory.”
“What do you mean?” Cosima really didn’t want to talk about this with Bill anymore, but if he wanted to start something, she wouldn’t be the first to back down.
“They’re running a systems check tonight. Going to test the gate’s initiation sequence. If you want, though, I could bounce management and tell ’em to hold off on it—the new girl’s got a bad feeling. Maybe, just to be real safe, we should shut down the whole operation while we’re at it.”
She let him have his fun. Bill’s laughter followed her down the hall.
Kaylin waved her over. She had a half smile on her face and her food was untouched. A necklace with a little daisy pendant hung out over her space suit, the small charm caught in her hand.
Maybe Hank’s worse off than it sounded, Cosima thought. She looks distracted. Something’s up.
“How’s Hank doing?” Cosima asked. Best to rip off the bandage quick.
“Not good. He’s really not good.” Kaylin shook her head. “Sounds like he had way too much to drink last night. And the chief is not happy. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hank got fired for this.”
Kaylin pushed her food around the plate. “You can’t just not show up for work, you know? It’s all hands on deck around here, all the time.”
“I’ll be sorry to see him go.”
“Me too,” Kaylin said. Cosima started on a hamburger. “So what about you? You said you found something. What got you all up in arms?”
“It’s a long story. Hey, you eating that?”
Kaylin pushed over her basket of fries. Between bites, Cosima explained everything she found and what the other engineers said. She still wasn’t sure what she should do, but Kaylin had the answer.
“I’d let it go if I were you, you know? That’s what the other engineers are doing.”
“Yeah, but what if they’re wrong?”
“What if you’re wrong?” Kaylin pushed back.
They debated the point for a while until Kaylin finally threw up her hands. “Look, I just don’t want to see you lose your job. We’re already losing Hank and now we’re going to lose you.”
“It’s a sure thing?” Cosima asked. “Earlier, it sounded like a maybe.”
“Well, I don’t know for sure,” Kaylin backtracked. “But the chief is mad, real mad. I just think you should lay low for a while, you know? Keep your head down. Hey. Want to go to karaoke tonight? The rest of the crew is going. Elle said something about hooker shoes and dancing on tables.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Cosima grinned, but inwardly was disappointed.
She’d struck out yet again. Hank was gone, her coworkers thought her a fool, and now Kaylin wanted her to just forget about the situation. Meanwhile, the systems test was a couple hours away. She’d find out if she was right all along… but what good would that do anybody?
Maybe she’d struck out with her human options. But there was someone else to ask.
The darkness closed around her and Cosima sat on the floor, the soft blue light of her device illuminating her face and casting tall shadows behind her.
“May I inquire as to why we are in a maintenance closet?” Otis asked.
“I wanted to talk to you somewhere, in private.”
“And is it absolutely necessary to hold this conference in the dark? I, as complex matrices of data, have complete awareness of the makeup of this room, but I recognize that homo sapiens have limited vision when in the dark. The situation must be uncomfortable for you.”
“Otis, how sweet! You care about me. I’m touched.”
“If by ‘care,’ you mean suggesting steps to promote the safety of Sidonia’s sovereign out on an unnecessary and dangerous lark, then yes, indeed I do.”
“Fine.” Light flooded the maintenance closet, revealing a row of spacesuits on one side and a tiled wall on the other side, each tile a pop-out drawer. “Happy now? I was trying to be covert, but who am I to get in the way of your promotion of safety.”
“Happiness is a subjective and fleeting state of being limited to the human experience, and to some degree by other mammals. But you have not brought me to a maintenance closet to discuss existential questions. How may I help you?”
Cosima told him what she’d found. Within moments, Otis had scanned the star gate data system and confirmed her suspicions. The energy levels on that single unit had been altered.
“By who?” Cosima asked.
“By whom,” Otis corrected and, after breaking through clearance, announced, “Officer Wilson Halpert.”
Cosima swore. “I knew it. I never trusted that guy. Blast it all. So what now? You can just change the energy levels back, right?”
“Indubitably. But not without the system recording I did it. Simple this system may be, but it does a few things well. Recording who-makes-what-changes-when is one of them.”
“Who? Not whom?”
“Forget that, then. The last thing I want is for people to know about you. So our only other option is for me adjust the levels myself, and do it quick.”
“To adjust the levels manually, one would have to access the unit’s control panel on the star gate itself. Only drones have access to the star gate.”
“Could you slave a drone to get into the control panel?” Cosima asked hopefully.
“Again, it would be a simple enough matter, but doing so from here would require that I access the system, in which case the system would recognize my presence.”
“That’s what I thought. Well,” Cosima reached for a suit behind her, “this ain’t my first rodeo. I’ll shoot in, change the inputs, and get out before anyone sees I’m there.”
“The possibility of succeeding is infinitesimally small. Would you like me to give you the exact percentage?”
“No, not really.” Cosima was getting into a suit, wondering whether she ought to bring Otis along. He could definitely help, but that voice in her head might be a distraction she really didn’t need. She debated right up until she was ready to close her helmet’s visor, then grudgingly inserted the fob into an outlet on her suit.
Information flooded the overlays in her visor—vitals, external environmental parameters, suit statuses—cluttering up her visuals.
“Cut that out, Otis, I need to see!”
“My apologies, Your Majesty. I was merely pointing out the available features at your disposal.”
“Well, maybe an AI matrices complex can think about all those things at the same time, but me, not so much. I gotta focus on what’s important. Just make sure the suit’s recording everything I see. That’s all I need.”
The doors opened to the void of space, the stars hanging in the black above her and blue-green Sidonia far below. With a bounce, she pushed off the platform and initiated her thrusters, aiming for the star gate.
Everything seemed to be slower in space. She was moving at top speed, but the immense star gate didn’t seem to be getting closer. Little silver drones dipped in and around the structure like sleepy bees determined to finish the day’s final task.
But it was an illusion, caused by the vastness of space and her relative size. Near the star gate, she gave the zipping drones as wide a berth as possible as they hauled materials and welded pieces in place. She wasn’t afraid of them, of course. Their glowing red optical sensors weren’t looking for her, and it was unlikely that a human on the other end was watching the drone’s feed. But it was only a matter of time.
She shot straight for the star gate’s second quadrant. Another spacer might have found the megastructure bewildering, but Cosima had studied its labyrinthine structure with the eye of an engineer who both loved organization and was bored seven hours out of eight in the workday. She found the nearest maintenance hatch and clambered in.
The hatch she closed behind her blocked every source of light. Perhaps you’ve never been in complete darkness before, when the darkness is so dark it’s a palpable thing, pressing in on you from all sides. And of course a star gate had no gravity generators. But a good spacer—and you have to be good to stay alive—is always prepared.
As she turned on her suit’s night vision, her helmet visor lit up with a complete rendering of the space around her. She was in a narrow tunnel just large enough for a man. While star gates weren’t built to be occupied by humans, their design still allowed for human operators in cases of emergency. And so the entire structure was honeycombed with tunnels like this one—lightless, gravity-less, and empty.
Making a fist, she aimed up the tunnel and squeezed. A thin silver cord shot from her glove and attached to the wall of the tunnel several yards up. She gave it a pull and activated the reel. It was a low-tech, but a nifty little device that would, by pulling, impart momentum to let someone move faster than they could on their own if they were unable to use thrusters. A human slingshot of sorts. Soon she was flying along in the dark.
“Otis, I know there’s a turn coming up. Think you can direct me to the engine unit?”
“Indubitably. No one has asked for my help in such a long time, I was starting to surmise no one ever would.”
“Sorry about that,” Cosima slowed as the tunnel branched ahead, “but can you just tell me which way we’re going?”
In her visor, the left side lit up green, and Cosima used the reel to fling herself into it. “Yeah, Otis! Bet you thought we’d never get this far! What’s our chance of success now?”
“The probability that you would make it to the tunnels was ninety-eight percent; the likelihood that you readjust the engine levels before the test is to begin is marginally higher than zero. The testing starts under five minutes now and thirteen drones are presently monitoring the engine room. They are sure to impede your progress.”
Clenching her fists, she used the reel again and went spinning along the tunnel until the engine room lit up on her visor. She shot her cord at the wall and let the reel unwind completely, slowing her momentum and allowing her to backtrack to the engine room.
Red lights hovered in the black, and in her helmet overlay, she could see drones next to her target, one cylinder engine in a long line of engines, this one with its lever fractionally lower.
“So those drones are just waiting? And the test happens in…?”
“Two minutes and six seconds,” Otis answered.
“Then I have about two minutes to initiate their primary functions, leaving me just enough time to fix that lever.”
“I fail to follow your meaning.”
Cosima pulled out a canister of spray-on welding adhesive.
“Ever been in charge of a cadre of mining drones and have one break a component on a rock? Work proceeds apace when you set an automated drone to do it, but as soon as a part breaks…”
“Primary function initiates and the drone is reassigned to repair.”
Using her fingertips, she slinked around the edge of the room behind the drones and sprayed their optical sensors as quickly as she could. She got four before the remaining bots rotated to face her. Spraying quick, she hit their face shields, but it was too late.
The engines came to life.
“If there’s a human watching the drone feed, they definitely saw me,” Cosima cried. She shot her cord at her target, pulled herself over, braced herself, and ever so slightly adjusted the lever. She checked behind her and saw the drones had all left for repairs.
“You have successfully aligned the energy levels to the correct output,” Otis said, sounding almost disappointed. “Sixty seconds before the testing sequence initiates.”
Cosima caught movement and pushed herself around. Three welding drones with arms outstretched and glowing red hot, and their optical sensors gleaming blue.
Cosima’s mouth went dry. “Those aren’t automated drones. Someone’s operating them.”
As one, three drones came toward her, superheated arms ready to strike. She swung away, almost smacking into a nearby engine. Two drones blocked her while the third made for the lever.
“No you don’t!” she cried and, anchoring herself with one gloved hand and shooting a cord with the other, yanked the drone back and sent it crashing into a wall. Meanwhile, the other two drones were closing in, brandishing their hot pincers. She barely got away.
Both drones spun around and made for the nearest engine lever.
“Ten seconds until testing—ten…”
Cosima flung both cords at the retreating drones. One hit the target but the other missed, connecting with an engine instead. Using the engine as an anchor point, she yanked and flung the drone into a wall. It crumpled like a crushed can.
“… five, four—”
The other drone had reached the lever. Cosima shot again and connected with its back.
She hurled that one at the wall. “So?” she panted. She let herself float, her arms trembling. Sweat trickled down her neck. “Did it happen? Did the test go off?”
“Indeed. Test successful.”
Relief flooded her system. She wanted to cheer, but she felt too tired. Her arms and shoulders were as weak as wet noodles.
“We did it, Otis, we actually did it! That makes me so happy. Okay, let’s get back home.”
Zing! Her cord cut, it whirred back into her glove. The drone she’d just flung had sliced through the cord and now turned its blue gaze on her. More blue lights floated into the pitch-black room. The original drones, face shields cleared of welding glue, had returned.
“Uh, Otis? Why are they coming this way?”
“Reason suggests that the human operator wishes to remain hidden. Having worked undiscovered thus far, he or she wants to eliminate the only human witness. You.”
“Right. And you’ve had the suit’s camera recording this whole time?”
“But that’s no good if I’m dead.”
“Then let’s get this son-of-a-squirrel-licker.”
She had one cord slinger reel left and a belt full of spacer’s tools. In that moment, how she wished she’d brought her shield emitter. But it did no good regretting it now. She had to make do with what she had. Which was…a grabber, a pole with an attachment on the end. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but she could whack a few drone carapaces with its Stahlium-hardened steel.
How do you make a final stand, she wondered as fourteen murderous drones bore down on her, when you’re floating in the air?
Vincent walked into the Memorial Garden, a small, somber area just outside the palace’s innermost walls. He waved off his guards and they fell back to just outside the entrance. They knew the king’s routine.
The smell of dried-out flowers followed him as he made his way past old bouquets laid at the bases of walls filled with small brass plaques, each engraved with a single name. Sidonia had paid the price for her freedom in blood when his brother Quinn returned from exile and launched his failed coup.
Vincent’s eyes lingered on a name as he passed.
“Good man,” the king muttered. “We are less without you.”
At the end of the path were statues of his father, Rasczak, and his brother Francis, both carved out of marble and both more regal and more dignified than they’d ever been in life. A mound of flowers and wreaths almost hid their pedestals.
Vincent put a hand to his heart, then sat on a bench and stared at the brass plates. Each name he read stung his heart. Each name was the memory of a dead soldier lying in pools of blood in the palace. A man killed by Aquitaine battle droids. A woman in the rubble of a destroyed wall. The face of a friend he wasn’t fast enough to save.
Remi’s plaque was larger than the rest; a relief of his face on a bronze plaque. A single rose lay below the portrait, the petals cracked and shrinking. Vincent knew who’d left it there.
“You deserve more.” Vincent glanced at the statue of his brother Francis. “He died on his knees…begging. You went toe to toe with Quinn without a shield and what happened? You used your one strike to break that bastard’s emitter. That gave me the killing blow. But you took a hit in return and here you are. It’s not fair. Never is. You gave your last for Cosima. Traded your life to give her a chance and the best I can do for you is a face on a wall.
“Because of appearances. Cosima and I have to show the kingdom and the blasted Chaebol that we’re a happy couple and if we put you on a pedestal as the true hero of Quinn’s attack—and you are—it begs questions.
“I miss being just the spymaster. Back when leading a punitive expedition against pirates was the worst thing I’d ever have to do.” A phantom pain ran through his prosthetic fingers. “Everything went wrong that day, didn’t it? I was in a med tent when the decision to let Quinn go ‘missing in action’ happened. If I hadn’t been hit, if I’d been there when he…second guessing doesn’t help anything, does it? No matter what perfect decision could have been made, it won’t change the fact that you’re dead. That so many more are gone.”
Vincent touched the prosthetic side of his face. The feeling from his natural fingers against the false flesh of skin on his jaw and around his eye never struck him as more unnatural now.
“Everyone considers me lucky for surviving this long. But you, Remi…I can’t help but be a bit jealous. No one doubts you. No one has any question as to who you were or your dedication to Sidonia…or that you loved her.
“Cosima and I…we weren’t meant to be. But arranged marriages aren’t anything new. We don’t have to love each other, just play the parts for the sake of Sidonia. For expectations. I couldn’t even manage that!
“She knew what our marriage was—hell, she came up with the idea. Quick thinking on her part, took me quite by surprise. It was fine at first, but her heart was always with you. Can’t say I blame her. Look at me, Remi. I’m broken. You pulled me out of the fire, but the Vincent that could have been died that day on Jutland. I retreated to the shadows of intel work to stay out of the public view…now I’m front and center.” He tapped his crown.
“Listen to me babble…I come here to catch up with an old friend and I turn it into a pity party. The King of Sidonia has problems. Shocking. Against popular wisdom, I have to assert that it’s not good to be the king. I’m dealing with active terrorist cells, construction projects in peril, and now my wife’s run off to play roughneck with a construction team.
“What would you do, Remi? What if you were still here? You’d have forced me to exile you off world if Cosima still had feelings for you. Put you on Sidonia’s fencing team to train anywhere but here. That’s the man you are. Honor and duty to the end. She would resent me even more after that. Outright detest me. Still…I’d trade her hating me to have you back.”
Vincent sighed and slumped forward, his elbows on his knees and head bowed.
“I’m not jealous, Remi. I can swear it…but that doesn’t make it true.” He slipped his crown off and turned it around in his hands. “Sidonia needs a king…and a queen. What can I do to bring her back, Remi?”
A small data slate in his breast pocket chirped a unique code.
He sat up and put a hand over his pocket, frowning at Remi’s picture.
“Huh.” He slipped the slate out and saw a message from Cosima waiting for him. “I don’t believe in ghosts…but here I am talking to you. I’m guessing some thanks are in order.” He swiped a thumb across the message and began reading.
Can I be honest?
I was afraid of opening your letter. That’s hard for me to admit. I’m not scared by much. Surviving warbot attacks will do that to a girl, I guess. That and my daddy raised a fighter.
But until five minutes ago, the last thing I wanted to do in the whole wide universe was to tap on your letter. Why? Maybe fear, guilt, anger—stars, I’m not really sure why I felt like that, but I did.
Okay. That’s not true. I know why I felt guilty. I feel guilty about you and all of Sidonia for abandoning my post. For leaving my position as queen and putting this deal with Chaebol in jeopardy just so I can clear my head. It was selfish of me.
Phew! I feel so much better for having said that.
I’m telling you this not because I’m headed home quite yet but because I want you to know your letter made me happy. Ridiculously happy.
I opened that letter expecting a chastisement. Instead, you told me to “take time.” What a relief! I feel heard, like you’ve finally taken me at my word. Thank you. Allowing me this freedom makes me feel like you’re on my side, that I can trust you to have my back. Thank you for that too.
Every spacer knows that you can’t go at it alone; to survive, you must rely on your partner. I admit I haven’t had much time to think about romance. We got married so quickly. But some day, one day, I hope we can learn to trust each other. Maybe get to know each other. And be partners.
In the meantime, thanks for understanding that I need a little more time. I’m not sure how long. Just enough time to get my head on straight. I’ve already made some friends here and found myself a job. My room’s nothing like the grand suite you have back home and my roommates snore, but I feel like I fit in here. I need that, for just a little while longer.
The food up here is subpar hydroponics crap. Any chance we could get real fruit and vegetables delivered? The workers building Sidonia’s star gate into the most valuable system discovered in decades deserve better. Also, the AI fish hawkers in Herzemberg are gouging their customers. I thought you should know. If anyone can fix these problems, it’s you.
Vincent lowered the slate.
“Well…guess I’m not that hopeless.” He tapped in a burn code and erased the letter from the slate and all of Sidonia’s data systems. “You were her sword, Remi. Her shield. I’ve failed to be that protector. I’ll do better for her, to honor your memory, your sacrifice. And…and she really is something special. You knew that. I’m just getting it now.”
He stood up and saluted.
“Rest well, my friend. Duty never ends…and neither does love.”
Cold sweat trickled down the back of Cosima’s neck. Fourteen slaved drones advanced at her out of the darkness. Heavy hauler bots that could smash her into the wall; welding bots that could burn flesh, slice through her suit, cut her oxygen supply—images flashed through her mind of a hundred painful ways to die, many of them slow and excruciating. A motley collection of construction drones, they weren’t built for speed or combat. But then again, neither was she. She’d never been trained for war; she was a spacer.
The enormity of her situation collapsed on her like a failing Stahlium mine. She would die here, alone. Stars, how she wished Vincent was with her. His preternatural battle-calm turned him into a stone wall she could wreck herself on in an argument, but also provided the strength he needed when under attack. That was what she needed now—some of his strength, his Zen. She couldn’t do this by herself.
But she wasn’t exactly alone, was she?
“Otis, you said you couldn’t slave the drones from the workers’ station because you’d have to access the system from there. If I turned on my suit’s net generator, could that give you the bandwidth you need to hack those drones?”
“Human maintenance suits are equipped with a net generator that, though feeble,” Otis droned, “could supply enough signal to hack a drone, with a proximity of five feet or less.”
“So that’s a yes?” Cosima shrieked and she used her reel to pull away, two drones stabbing the space she’d just occupied.
“Nevertheless, my signature would be noted by the human operator as indeed—”
“Just use my freaking logins!”
Cosima bumped into the wall—safe for now, but the impact jarred her shoulder. Still she held on to her whacking stick and, before the drones had a chance to swing around, she shot her cord at the nearest drone, yanked it toward her, and smacked it on the face shield. Two whacks later, it was disabled. Apparently, they didn’t make drones like they used to.
Panting, Cosima asked, “You in?”
“Yes, as Cossandra Flemmings, password: fr33bird.”
“Fan-freaking-tastic, because we’re one drone down, thirteen more to go.”
“Not to mention the six flights of drones elsewhere on the star gate.”
Thirteen drones fanned out as if to catch her in their web.
“So you’re saying I have to get right up to one of these buggers?”
Damned if I do and damned if I don’t, she thought. The drones swooped nearer. Well, here goes nothing.
Aiming her glove at the ceiling, she fired her reel and zipped upward, straight above the nearest hauler bot. It lurched at her, but she kicked its arm down, sending it spinning into another drone. The rest surged after her.
“You in range yet?” she shrieked as a welding drone swung its torch at her boot.
“I am indeed within range,” Otis replied, and true to his word, the blue welding drone winked green and spun around to the nearest green-glowing bot. It stabbed its welding arm directly at the processor behind its optical sensor. Blue lights went out and it hung there, inert. A moment later, she reached the ceiling.
The hacked drone had flipped from green to blue.
From the well of inky black below, blue lights rose like sharks homing in on their prey. Her visor identified the three closest—monster-hauling bots capable of shifting tons of material, and more than capable of squishing her against the ceiling like a bug on a hover windshield. Otis would have mere seconds to hack the nearest bot before it crushed her.
In that split second before impact, she wondered if her life would flash before her eyes like she’d heard.
Three feet from Cosima’s face, the center drone glowed green and shoved the two drones on its flanks, spinning them across the room. The massive bot whirled to challenge the other advancing drones.
“Jump onto my back,” Otis suggested. “That way, we’ll stay within range.”
Cosima hopped onto a hauler bot’s shoulders and, arm trembling, snapped her cord at the nearest welding drone, pulling it closer to Otis. He crushed it between his two lifting hands and batted its junked remains aside. Otis maneuvered to avoid a burning welding bot. She whacked it hard on the face shield to no effect.
“There’s just too many of them!” she screamed as the pack closed in once again.
“As a wise man reportedly once said, do I not destroy my enemy when I make him my friend,” Otis replied.
Two nearby welding drones flicked from blue to green, and turned on their blue-lit comrades, stabbing their sizzling welding arms through the face shields of the hapless drones.
Now three drones faced the rest of the pack. The odds were evening, but it wouldn’t be long before hundreds of construction drones swarmed the tunnels to finish what their operator had started.
They circled now, sharks in the water, waiting for their chance to strike, playing out her clock.
“We’ve got to charge ’em, Otis. It’s the only way to get out of here quick.”
The AI matrices complex reminded her of her impossibly low chances of success; Cosima responded by counting down from three.
On one, they leapt forward, crashing into the remaining bots. Metal clashed, pincers struck, two more bots changed from blue to green, and when a third bot made to slice her suit, Cosima may have imagined it, but it seemed to hesitate a fraction of a second. Then its light flicked green, and all movement ceased.
Heart still racing, Cosima scanned the engine room. Five bots remained operational, all under Otis’s control. The rest had been fried or crushed in the fight.
She couldn’t believe it, but she’d survived. Now there was only one thing left to do.
“Otis, make those bots self-destruct.”
Otis’s flat voice sounded confused. “In battle, is it not superior strategy to keep numbers in your favor?”
“I don’t have time to explain.” Cosima glanced at the tunnel she’d come from, expecting any minute to see more blue lights. “Do it.”
“As you wish.”
With a pop and sizzle, the bots’ processing units overheated and fried, their lights burning out. Otis’s hauler bot now just an empty housing of used parts.
Taking the far tunnel, she used her remaining reel to fling herself down the corridor, arguing with Otis in the dark.
“If we go out the way we came in,” she explained, “whoever’s trying to kill me will definitely have drones waiting for me. No way we’re going in that direction. The only advantage I’ve got over those bots is speed, if I can only get out of here and use my thrusters.”
Fortunately for Cosima, the exit was much closer on the far side of the gate, and soon enough, she was racing through space, collecting a tail of bots as she sped around the massive star gate. It was all she could to do keep herself steady as she streaked toward home. The cloud of angry drones fell farther and farther behind, but she still had one more major problem to handle. The closer she got to the mini-station, the closer she was to the traitor himself.
As she considered her options, a blinking red light in her visor caught her attention.
“Otis, you’ve got all of that on video, right?”
“Your entire escapade has been recorded, although much of the relevant data was ‘cut out,’ per your instructions.”
“Well. Good enough. As soon as you’re in range of the station, use my logins and upload that video to the station’s central server. I want it playing on everyone’s devices, pronto—but only the visual, no audio. No one needs to know about my little friend.”
“And who is that?”
“You, Otis. It’s you.”
“In what manner am I little?”
Cosima sighed. “You’re not. It’s just an expression. Sheesh, when you explain a joke, that really kills it. Thanks a lot.”
When she arrived, it took every ounce of strength to get the hatch open and, tumbling through the porthole, she barely got closed it behind her before she collapsed. Her body was numb, cold. Every limb drained of strength. She lay there, panting, wondering if she’d ever get off the floor again. Her legs and arms didn’t want to respond.
Otis cheerily ran through the list of her vitals, informing her that nothing was actually wrong. The cold sweat and tremors she was experiencing resulted from mere exhaustion. The effects would soon fade.
Heavy-booted footsteps in the corridor.
Up, up, up! Cosima shouted at herself, but her arms didn’t want to move.
She swore and called herself every name she could think of, because how could she fight off a horde of mindless bots only to be killed by some punk in an airlock? She had to get up and face the traitor.
She pushed herself off the floor and caught the wall to keep from falling. Someone rounded the corner. It was John, concern written all over his face. He held his device in his hands.
“You made it!” He rushed over and pulled her into a hug. “I can hardly believe it. I saw the whole thing on my device just now. I had no idea you were a space ninja as well as an engineer. What were you doing out on the star gate, anyway?”
“Space ninja? Is that a thing?”
“It is now.” John chuckled. “Here, let me help you. We ought to stop by the infirmary posthaste, and at the very least, get you checked out.”
Cosima allowed herself to be led away, and though exhausted, explained what happened and why. She still wasn’t sure if she could trust John, but he seemed eager to help and she needed allies.
“What I can’t understand,” John said after she finished her story, “is how you managed to gain control of those drones. In the heat of the moment, surely it must have been difficult to hold that kind of focus.”
Cosima shrugged. “A good spacer always comes prepared.”
He matched her shrug, seeming to accept her answer as plausible. “And a good thing you were too. Speaking of being ready, Elle has moved karaoke night to tomorrow. She says we had all better be there, and she will cut any one of us who doesn’t show. So what do you say? Are you in, or are you willing to face Elle’s wrath?”
“Oof. I’m not that brave. Facing killer bots is one thing, but angry Elle with her switchblades out…”
John shuddered. “Perish the thought.”
Cosima wanted to laugh, but she was too tired. Happy to be alive, but drained. She had survived the killer bots, and now, with her video uploaded, it was only a matter of time before the station authorities found that snake-in-the-grass Halpert and arrested him. Then her worries would be over, she hoped.
Vincent glared at his data screen in frustration. That morning, he’d tried coffee. He’d tried going for a walk in his mother’s park. Sparring with his combat bot hadn’t helped, nor had sorting through intelligence briefs with his staff. No thoughts sprang from the sonic shower at the end of the day, and now here he was, again in front of his data screen, still unable to find the right words to write to his wife. Words to tell her what he thought. How he felt.
But what could he say? What would she think if he told her truth? About how quiet breakfasts were without her. How easy it was to hold conversations when there was no one there to argue his point. How no one dared tell him he was wrong. Life was simpler in that respect. Yet… he missed her. He missed the chime of her laugh, the way her green eyes lit up when she smiled. There was a space beside him where he imagined she would fit, but they’d never gotten close enough as a couple to find out. And he now couldn’t find the words to tell her.
Theresa was in the doorway, looking tired and mussy from half-sleeping.
“What are you doing up? It’s late.” He returned to his screen, hoping his sister-in-law would take the hint.
She didn’t. She chose to interpret his words as an invitation and dropped into the enormous leather chair in the corner, tucking her knees up under her chin.
He knew Theresa well enough by now to know when the woman needed to talk, and if she needed to talk, she wouldn’t leave him alone until she had.
Theresa sighed heavily. “Say I’ve got a friend. She’s a beautiful woman—drop-dead gorgeous in fact, and can have any boyfriend she wants—usually. Except right now, she’s pretending to be married. Suddenly, she meets Mister Perfect, but she can’t say anything to him about her feelings because he thinks she’s married. What should she do? Tell him the truth, right? Isn’t that the right thing to do?”
“Theresa, dressing up as Cosima was your idea. If you want to pursue some man, that’s fine, but it’s going to have to wait until Cosima returns.”
“What, me?” she scoffed. “You thought I was talking about me. This is about my friend, remember?” She muttered something under her breath the king decided to ignore.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“Oh! On a totally and completely unrelated note, the ball plans are coming along swimmingly. All we need now is a date. How about this weekend?”
They hadn’t set a date because they never agreed about holding a ball in the first place. While the Guard had tracked and eliminated a number of Aquitaine cells, operatives could still be in play. They hadn’t yet found the terrorist who infiltrated the palace and tried to poison Cosima a few weeks before. Although a ball would be an ideal opportunity to show Chaebol proper courtesy, it seemed like an unnecessary risk.
He was about to lay out his objections when Theresa changed the subject. “Whatcha working on that’s so important?”
And before he could close his data pad, she came around the desk to look at his blank screen.
“You don’t have anything there,” she said, surprised.
He didn’t need to explain himself, but he told her anyway. “I’m writing a letter to your sister.”
“Really. What’s the holdup?”
“I’m not sure what to say.”
Theresa put her hands on her hips. “You’re thinking about this way too hard. It’s only Cosima. Tell her whatever you’re thinking, whatever you’re feeling. Just lay it out there, don’t edit yourself, and bounce it to her. She’ll understand. What do they say? ‘The truth will set you free’? Just speak the truth.”
Sermon over, Theresa swept out of the room. Vincent belatedly realized that they’d never settled the question of the ball. But rather than call her back to set things straight, he decided to take her advice about the letter and write anything that came to mind.
He scanned Cosima’s letter to him again. She’d made several requests; perhaps he could do something about those. She asked how he was; he could tell her, fine. There were updates he could give about the state of affairs and tell her if he were in her shoes, and knew exactly how much pressure Chaebol exerted on him, how important this deal was for the planet, and how much of a security risk it was for her to be outside the palace walls, then he’d be jumping on the first shuttle home. In as few words as possible—being concise showed respect for the reader’s time—he explained the situation to his wife and hoped for the best.
Five minutes later, his letter was done. He read over it with satisfaction, bounced it to Cosima, and went to sleep. He slept soundly that night and didn’t wake up until the first rays of dawn.
Theresa, however, didn’t sleep at all. Instead, she spent hours surfing through the various social connectors—skimming Jae-sun’s friends of friends, the holos he’d posted and that people shared of him, the locations he’d checked into lately. She noted they had six mutual acquaintances, and every Thursday he got a caramel macchiato at a ritzy coffee shop in a high-rise with a bayside view. She knew exactly where it was. She’d been there a few times, but only ever got a dirty chai latte. Sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, of course.
Today was Thursday, and she had plans. She’d spend much of the day going over preparations for the ball with Bentley, but all that labor was taxing. She’d for sure need a pick-me-up before she started such hard work. And she knew exactly where she could find something hot.
If she happened to bump into a certain chief ambassador while she waited in line, so be it. The Fates did what the Fates would do.
And so, she was wearing her favorite red stilettos, a floral dress that pinched at the waist, and large black shades that accentuated her cheekbones, just a girl on her way to a coffee shop in the morning.
When her hover pulled up at the glass-fronted high-rise, she was especially kind to her driver, even though there was really no reason to say “thank you” to a bot. The sun shone brightly. She smiled at people on her way in and caught not a few admiring glances. On her way to the lift, her heels clicked charmingly on the marble floor. As large as a small room, the glass elevator offered lounges with an ever rising—or falling—view of the city. Today, golden sunlight glinted off the metropolis, colorful hovers traced Sidonia’s five arching highways, and the turquoise bay glittered far below.
Does Jae like boats? she wondered, admiring the pleasure cruisers cutting long white trails in the water. Maybe on their first date, she’d have him take her out on a speedboat. She’d been out on a boats before, but always with a man more interested in showing off his skills than showing her a good time. Jae wouldn’t be like that. She could tell.
Two floors away from her destination, those pesky butterflies returned to her stomach. She searched her bag for her little bottle of liquid confidence. Lipstick, hair wand, and tissues—no bottle. Shoot! She turned out her bag; nothing but empty cloth. Evidently, she’d run out of the palace that morning with no backup. Now those butterflies were beating their cold, cold wings inside, and she seriously considered going back.
Get a grip! she scolded herself. He’s just a man. You’re Theresa-fricking-Zollern! Besides, she reminded herself as she touched up her blonde waves with the wand, you’re only here for the chai.
The elevator doors zooshed open, and she made for the crowded café with the spectacular skyline view. The walk wasn’t long, but she’d make it count. This was her runway, the bustling tables, her audience. And sure, the denizens were expensive business types—many of them nobles—sipping coffee, or fashionable ladies taking tiny bites of pastries. But none of them had just come from the palace, and none of those women had legs that looked this good in heels.
She had just spied a pair of shoes that did look an awful lot like hers when a crowd of people parted and a man in a suit stepped out, laughing. She plowed right into him. She gasped as something hot ran down her dress, staining it brown.
“Why you—” she said and looked up into the surprised face of Chief Ambassador Moon Jae-sun, his cup half-empty, most of its contents on her dress. Her cheeks flamed.
His eyes widened in recognition. “Your Majesty? No,” he caught himself. “Theresa Zollern. My apologies, Princess. I’ve ruined your dress, and all I have to help is this.”
He offered her his pocket square, which barely dried her hands. Somehow, his navy blue suit had escaped unscathed. After splashing half his drink out, he was still immaculate.
“It’s fine,” she said, recovering quickly. “As it happens, I’ve got my wand on me, so I’ll just duck into the ladies’ room to take care of this.”
“That’s good to hear,” he said, and smiled that megawatt smile of his. “Well, it was nice seeing you. Perhaps I’ll see you around?”
“Sure,” she said, confused. Was he leaving already?
“Wait—your pocket square!” she called, holding out the damp silk.
“Oh. Don’t worry. You keep that.” He winked, then walked away.
She stared in disbelief as he blended into the crowd.
That was it? What the heck! Play that back. She tried to remember—had he given her a second look? No. Every other man she talked to did. He’d seemed apologetic, but not in a “sweet-celestial-stars-I’m-so-sorry” kinda way, but more like “oops, my bad.”
In the bathroom, she waved the wand in front of her dress in patient motions. Wafts of caramel steam curled up from the drying fabric. When her dress was fresh, she still hadn’t figured out what went wrong, but she was determined to up her game.
She leaned forward on the vanity and made a promise to herself in the mirror. The next time Jae-sun saw her, she would teach him the meaning of the word stunning, literally. Well, not literally. Figuratively. But she would wear the most incredible dress, have her makeup done to perfection, and ensure that the ambiance was orchestrated to properly shock and awe her target. Then Jae-sun would give her that look, and he would be hers forever.
And she knew just the night to make it happen.
The funny thing about crowns, Theresa thought as she tipped her head to better admire hers, is they’re heavier than they look.
The royal suite had a floor-to-ceiling mirror, both making the room look larger than it was and giving her a good view of herself. As far as mirrors went, this big one was the best—The better to see you with, my dear, she thought, taking in the white ball gown, matching elbow gloves, and Sidonia’s famed astral tiara, a delicate crown of diamonds and Stahlium worked into a star shape. It fit her head perfectly but was surprisingly heavy.
Lana ran the wand over Theresa’s chignon and the last streaks of blonde deepened to red. “Now you look just like your sister.”
Theresa grudgingly agreed. Except for her figure, she was the image of her younger sister. Pretty, but meh.
“Looking the part is important,” Lana continued, “but playing the part is essential.”
Sensing another lecture in the offing, Theresa rolled her eyes. “Right, right—duty, protocol, responsibilities. You’ve said it a million times. I’ve got this, Lana! Greet everyone, keep my elbows off the table, sit up straight… But do you know what’s more important than following some checklist? Getting people to have fun. Who wants a monarch who lords it over the rest of us? No one. What they want is a monarch who makes them feel special, like for just a moment, they’re the center of this solar system too. And you’re not going to make people feel like that by being all uptight. So loosen up a little, will ya? I know I will,” she said, thinking about the little bottle she made sure was stashed in her clutch.
Unfortunately for Theresa, her speech wasn’t enough to put Lana off her lecture. While the handmaid went through the list of dos and don’ts, Theresa tuned her out. Her mind was spinning with plans, and most of them involved a certain tall, dark, and handsome ambassador.
When Lana set the wand down, Theresa noted where she put it. In about forty-five minutes, when Queen Cosima was done greeting all the guests, Theresa would need that wand, because tonight Princess Theresa would make an entrance Sidonia would never forget.
Under the twinkling crystal chandeliers in the ballroom, Theresa stood beside the king and greeted her guests. Protocol dictated that she merely accept each bow by inclining her head; Theresa decided to go off-script. Just a little. So while the king stood as stiff as a ramrod, she chatted and smiled, thanking people by name and shaking hands warmly, complimenting dresses and lying when necessary. If she was going to be queen, she was going to be the best damn queen Sidonia had ever seen. And in her mind, that started with welcoming people.
She had just finished greeting the Duke and Duchess of Tannhauser when Jae walked in. His slim-cut black tuxedo hugged his broad shoulders, and there was no one at his side. True, two beautiful women stood behind him, cupcake-perfect in their traditional gowns. They wore identical demure smiles, and seemed to look at nothing but saw everything. Theresa wondered how many daggers they had hidden in their skirts.
Her heart skipped a beat when he looked her way and smiled. He strode over, picked up her hand, and kissed it. Her cheeks burned—she knew she must be blushing hard, and that made her blush all the more.
Control yourself, woman! she scolded herself. You’re married, remember? She tried to remember the last time she’d blushed this much. She could only recall two occasions she’d blushed… ever… and both were because of this man.
She stuttered through her response, grateful when the king took over.
Curses! she thought, her eyes following him as he walked to the hors d’oeuvres tables, chatting with friends. When would she ever get herself together?
Impatience mounting, she shook hands with the rest of the line of noblemen and noblewomen, plastering a smile on, stealing glances at the antique clock in the corner. Soon the ball would begin, the music would start, and that would be her cue.
The next ten minutes were painfully long, but eventually, the line dwindled and, their first duty done, Theresa hurried the king to their place in the center of the ballroom.
This was it. The bright lights softened to a golden glow, and music, the first strains of an old, old tune. This music every Sidonian knew, even if they didn’t know the words, and every royal ball was opened with this song.
The king bowed low, Theresa dipped a curtsy, and with all eyes on them, they began to waltz. In general, Theresa loved dancing. While formal dancing wasn’t her specialty, she still enjoyed the graceful rhythm, the elegant spins, and purposeful movements. She would have enjoyed this dance too—if another man had been holding her hand, sliding his arm around her waist, twirling her like a flower, leading her across the dance floor. And though every once in a while she caught Jae-sun’s eye, it wasn’t the same as dancing with the man himself.
After the first bridge, other couples joined them on the dance floor. Soon the room was alive with colorful couples spinning and twirling, gowns swishing, gentlemen bowing, all in perfect time.
When the song ended, she dipped a quick curtsy and was gone before the king could finish his bow. The next song—as ponderous and slow as it was ancient—would give her ample time to prepare for song number three. A very special song she had chosen with care.
Thank the stars for Butler Boy, she thought as she ducked out a back door. During her planning time with Bentley and his novice butler, Dennis, she’d managed to convince him to play these three songs first: the first to open the dance in the traditional manner, the second to give her the time she needed to be herself again, and the third to make her entrance. It didn’t take much convincing. Dennis was a good lad.
Back in her room and nearly out of breath, she tossed the tiara, undid her hair, and tore off her gown. She slipped into that glamorous red number Lana never let her wear and found the wand. Two minutes later, her hair was blonde again. When she went to fix her makeup, one look in the mirror told her she’d forgotten something important—she was still wearing her sister’s face.
Theresa fished the white skin caster disk out of her décolletage and Cosima’s face shimmered away.
Now she had about a minute to get her makeup on. No problem; she was an old hand at that. With five seconds to spare, she shot herself a kiss and was out the door.
By the time the last strains of “Oh, the Dear Majestic Hills” lingered in the air, Theresa waited in the wings of the grand double staircase leading down to the ballroom.
The glowing candelabras flicked off. Colorful lights banished the darkness. Then bass notes thrummed, and one of Sidonia’s hottest new hits kicked on.
Yes! This is it! she thought. She stepped out into a spotlight that somehow happened to be pointing at the top of the staircase. It followed her all the way as she strutted down the steps and out to the dance floor.
If the stars would align for her as they did in her dreams, Jae-sun would be standing there. He wasn’t, but she didn’t really expect him to be. He was somewhere, watching, and that was good enough for her.
No—she chose the first passable man she saw and claimed him as a dance partner. He was handsome, in a rakish-older-gentleman sort of way. And, stars, did he know how to dance! He spun her around, and their hips moved. Dancing as if on fire, they cut up the dance floor. Electric currents raced through her as she moved to the beat. It didn’t take long before the whole place was hopping, everyone having fun. By the time the song ended, she was panting but ready for another.
No Jae-sun, but a handsome blond man caught her eye and bowed to her. With a cheeky smile, she clasped her new dance partner’s hand and allowed him to lead.
For the next few songs, she went from man to man, always looking for the dashing gentleman in the black tuxedo. The colorful lights sparkled, the beats thrummed, the dancers jived. The song ended and, out of nowhere, Jae-sun was beside her. Handsome, tall, and close. Just like she imagined. Except his smile wasn’t quite right; it was more bemused than stunned.
Eh, good enough.
She held out her hand, and he bent low over it. This time when he kissed it, he was kissing her, as herself—Theresa, not Cosima.
The music tempered to a slow dance, and he pulled her in close. Her left hand on his shoulder and her right hand clasped in his, she wondered if he could feel her trembling. She could.
The world around them faded away; it was just the two of them and the music.
His dark brown eyes were fathoms deep. “Breathe,” he whispered.
“What?” she whispered back, confused.
“Well, you haven’t breathed in a while and I was growing concerned.”
She chuckled—he was right—and he took the opportunity twirl her, then he pulled her back in close.
“Do you like my dress?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied, but didn’t take the bait. His eyes stayed fixed on hers.
“Looks a lot better without coffee spilled on it, doesn’t it?”
He threw back his head and laughed, which delighted her—it wasn’t much of a joke, but somehow he found it funny. He gave her another spin and, when she came back to rest, both arms on his shoulders, she realized she was happy, deliriously happy, and she hadn’t even taken a sip from her bottle of liquid courage all evening.
Then her heart dropped. Over Jae’s shoulder, she saw the king looking at her, and he did not look pleased. In fact, he glowered.
“I’ve… got to go,” she told Jae. “Sorry about that.”
It made her unreasonably happy that he looked sorry to hear it. Then her fingers slipped from his and she pushed through the crowd to the back door. Hurriedly, she made her way down the long corridors to her room, where she found an angry Lana waiting.
“This is not what we agreed upon,” she hissed. “His Majesty is vexed.”
Theresa ignored her, searched her bag for her courage, uncapped the bottle, and threw it back. That done, she stripped and got into the stuffy white gown and allowed Lana to redden and put up her hair. When the tiara was in place, it felt five times heavier than before. Theresa took another drink.
Wordlessly, she made her way back to the ballroom, her gown swishing with every step. Using the back entrance, she worked her way through the crowd to find the king, ignoring the surprised looks people gave her. Now was not the time to smile back. She really didn’t feel like it.
She took her place at the king’s side and clasped her hands behind her so she wouldn’t be tempted to cross her arms like a pouting child. Shoot—she’d forgotten to put on her gloves. She really must look a sight. That was probably why everyone was looking at her so strangely.
When the king turned to her, his face went from momentary confusion to a blank calm, a look that scared her worse than his fiercest glare. A yawning pit opened up in her stomach. She’d forgotten something else.
The skin caster.
Her hands went to her face. “Your Majesty! I… apologize…”
“Just go back to your room,” Vincent replied, his voice low. “Now.”
Hot tears sprang to her eyes, her vision swimming. “Yes, sire.” Turning to leave, she ran straight into a man in a black tuxedo. Jae-sun.
“Jae! I—” Her words stuck in her throat. The look on his face killed her—first confusion, then betrayal.
“It’s… for Cosima,” she stuttered, her mind scrambling for an answer. “She’s not feeling well.”
Doubt played across his face. She had to make him smile again. What could she say?
“Stomach bug. The past few weeks. It’s been bad,” Theresa said, warming up to her lie. “She hasn’t wanted to leave her room, so I agreed to fill in for her.” She looked around the ballroom-turned-dancehall and shrugged. “Not that this is her favorite thing to do anyway.”
“Princess, no need to say another word. I understand.” Jae-sun held out his arm. “Shall I escort you back to your room?”
Her room, he’d said. Her own room. As she looked up into Jae-sun’s understanding eyes, she realized that was all she wanted, to be herself again.
The king gave a nod, and Theresa took Jae-sun’s arm. She didn’t need it—she wasn’t that drunk—but it was warm and comforting.
Standing by the pastry table, the rakishly handsome older gentleman had witnessed the whole interaction.
So, the queen’s sister had been pretending to be the queen. He’d wondered when he danced with her earlier and noticed her shapely body. Many noblewomen did undergo surgical enhancements, but the queen had never showed an interest before. Cosima’s buxom sister wearing a skin caster made more sense. Good thing he hadn’t poisoned the woman like he’d intended. That would have been a risk for no reward.
Theresa Zollern was here. Where was the queen? Suffering from morning sickness like the nearby guests were saying? Or in the wind? Knowing what he did about Queen Cosima, the latter seemed more likely.
Mike finished off his éclair, then picked up the rest of the platter and walked out. No one stopped him at the door.
Walking down the street, the man whistled an old, forgotten tune and contemplated his evening. He’d just decided what to do—finish the éclair platter while watching his favorite show, a live feed of the child—when his datalink chimed. He checked under his sleeve. A message from his handler.
Abort mission. New mission to be assigned. Await further instructions.
Damn. Right when he had his evening all sorted, Command had to upend his plans. Like they always did. Tonight, he’d be the good errand boy and run when they said run. They never failed to deposit his coin on time. But when he was ready, he’d have his fun. And that day was soon coming.
Later that night, Vincent slumped behind his desk. What a disaster of an evening. But, he admitted to himself, it could have gone worse without Theresa’s quick thinking. What he wouldn’t give for her lie to be true, and his wife was really home, safe and sound in the palace.
He picked up the picture on his desk, the one Cosima had left behind. The two of them on their wedding day, making vows he wondered if she meant to keep.
He did. He’d meant those vows then—to love, cherish, and protect a little woman he barely knew. And he meant them today.
Taking out a piece of paper and a pen, he scratched out a letter, one to scan and send to Cosima, not commanding but begging her to return. He’d just finished writing out the final word when a message came in from Colonel Greer.
Permission to meet you in your office in ten minutes? There’s a holo you must see.
Cosima didn’t have to wait long to find out what happened to the chief. A medbot was scanning her in the infirmary when Joss walked in.
“You’ll never believe it,” the big spacer sitting next to her said. “Halpert’s gone already. Command sent in security and the jackboots took him away.”
“When did that happen?” John asked.
Joss shrugged. “Probably while you guys were here. They did it right after Cossie uploaded that video. I wonder how they knew it was him behind the whole thing?”
“Easy,” John said. “Cossandra’s uploaded video must have alerted Command that a traitor was making use of the system. It would have been an easy enough thing to see who had been directing the drones to attack Ms. Flemmings. Halpert must have logged in to control the drones, and Command found his signature.”
“Right. That makes sense. So, you feeling up for some karaoke? It’s classical music night at the bar.” Joss eyed Cosima. The medbot stabbed her arm with a needle. He shuddered and looked away.
Whatever the medbot had given her, it felt wonderful. It burst through her system like a flood from a breached dam, giving her a rush that no amount of coffee ever could. She sat up straight, feeling an urge to run laps.
“Have you ever felt this stuff? It works wonders. Yeah, I can’t go back to my room now. Let’s get out of here.”
“It’s an anti-radiation flush,” he said. “Don’t get too far from a commode. Pro tip for you.”
The rest of the crew was waiting for them at the bar when they arrived. Elle slid something fizzy to her then held up her own shot of whiskey.
“Hail the conquering hero!”
They all cheered and drank to that, slapping Cosima on the back and ordering another round. She mentally cheered the real hero, Otis. She wouldn’t have survived without the AI complex’s help.
They were in the middle of the first song when Cosima noticed that someone was missing. She nudged Elle, who had been singing along to Scoot’s tune.
“Hey, where’s Kaylin?”
Elle grimaced. “She said she wasn’t feeling well. Her stomach or something. She stayed in our room. Lights off and everything.”
Disappointed, Cosima went back to her fizzy drink.
“Hey, but don’t let that get you down,” Elle said. “Let’s do something in her honor. What’s that song she likes—the one about the girl who leaves home?”
“That’s it!” She bounced it to the playlist. “But you’re coming with, doll. I’m not singing this one by myself.”
Elle grabbed Cosima’s hand and pulled her up to the front. The opening notes strummed through the speakers and Elle tossed her a mic, smiled encouragement, then belted out the first few lines of the song. Palms sweaty, Cosima haltingly joined in, stumbling through the first few lines. But Elle locked eyes with her and pulled her into the chorus. Soon they were shouting into their mics, not caring how they sounded, caught up in this moment of this song that tasted of triumph and despair.
The rest of the bar clapped along and sang from their seats. When the song was over, Cosima had about two seconds to miss her absent friend before Elle’s next song kicked in. Elle scrambled onto a table, glass high heels and all, and yanked Cosima up with her.
Three songs later, they were out of breath and sitting at a table with cold drinks, listening to John croon a ballad. Cosima tried to enjoy it, but she kept thinking about Kaylin. Finally she said, “Elle, can I ask you something?”
“Sure, Cos. What’s up?”
Cosima ran her hand through her hair. She wasn’t sure where to start.
“Kaylin. She’s been off lately. Have you noticed?”
Elle’s eyebrows drew together. “Yeah, I have. I’m not really sure what’s going on, but I’ve got a theory.”
Elle got pensive, seeming unsure if she should spill. Then she said, “You know, Kaylin’s a mom. Surprised you, didn’t it? She looks too young to be a mom. Anyway, she’s got a kid, and I think she’s worried about her. Ilana, her daughter. Any mom would worry, working up in space and leaving your baby dirtside. Have you seen her with that daisy necklace? It’s from Ilana. She’s worried about Ilana, and I’m worried about Kaylin.”
Cosima knew she didn’t really understand a mother’s fears—some things you just couldn’t know until you experienced them yourself—but she could imagine.
“Wow. That’s… a lot. Anything we can do to help?”
“No, I don’t think there is. Just be there for her, okay?”
Up on the stage, John’s soft ballad ended. Louder guitars and drums kicked in and soon he was bleating about being saved by a wall of wonder.
She tried to enjoy it, but her mind kept going back to her friend. Something was wrong. She didn’t know what, but she was determined to help.
Mike kicked his feet up on the shuttle control panel, the package secured. His package weighed about 160 pounds when soaking wet—which he wasn’t right now, but could be. Mike had half a mind to dive planetside and drop the useless lug over an ocean. But Aquitaine had given him his orders: rescue Halpert from the security transport or if things went south, kill him. The operative was not to reach the Sidonian Guard or be interrogated.
One skin caster, three poison darts, and a hacked transport shuttle later, Mike had the package, safe and sound. He wished it hadn’t been so easy, then he’d have an excuse to take the fishy-faced bastard out, but the operation had gone smoothly. And so, here they were. Mike had spaced the three security officers and was piloting the shuttle to an Aquitaine Centurion-class warship cloaked nearby.
“Thanks for getting me out of there,” Halpert said, sliding down into his seat.
“Don’t mention it. Just doing my job. Speaking of, how’d your sorry ass get caught anyway?”
Halpert grimaced. “One of my engineers noticed the energy levels on one of the star gate generators was off. She went out to the star gate to adjust it manually. I couldn’t let that happen, so I had the bot tech direct the drones to attack her. New girl somehow survived that and uploaded a video of the attack to the server. I was arrested right after that.”
“New girl? How long has she been on your team?”
“About two weeks. We picked her up last time we were at Styria Station. Cossandra Flemmings.”
“Coss… She’s not 5’4, with red hair, green eyes, and a slight build?”
“Yeah. How’d you know?”
Mike growled, “That’s not some engineer, that’s the Queen of Sidonia, you idiot. She’s on Aquitaine’s hit list. I’ve had orders to take her out for the last two months.”
“And you haven’t killed her yet?” Halpert snickered. “Some assassin you are.”
Mike didn’t bother defending his work but decided to space this puke. When he got his anger under control, he reviewed the facts. He knew where his target was: the gate construction mini-station. His handler would be very interested in that information. It might be possible to detonate a shaped nuclear warhead that could take out both his target and the star gate in the same move.
It was an elegant solution. But easy. And it lacked a crucial element that had been missing from his life of late. Fun. He’d have to plan a way to work that in.
Late that night, her roommates returned, shushing each other and giggling, voices hoarse from singing. She was in bed facing the wall, pretending to be asleep. The two women settled down, went to bed, and fell asleep.
Minutes ticked into hours.
Kaylin’s mind couldn’t rest, like a hamster on its wheel, furiously churning and getting nowhere.
Her data pad blinked with a received message. She knew what it was and that she didn’t need to reply. What she was going do about it was another question.
Miles away, beneath the Sidonian clouds and down in the capital city somewhere, was a curly-haired child with sweet brown eyes and a mouth made to laugh, who was Kaylin’s entire world. And that little girl was without her mother.
After she couldn’t pay her debts, Aquitaine had informed her that they had an alternative payment plan, one that involved her doing certain favors for them from time to time. At first, she resisted; then her daughter disappeared. Now when she got orders, a picture was included by way of inducement. The latest message:
There will be a shipment of containers tonight at 0100 hours. To be delivered to the star gate. No fail assignment.
Attached: a picture of her sleeping daughter, damp curls sticking to a dusky face streaked with tears.
Kaylin’s heart broke. What was she to do? Today, she had all but decided to stick it to Aquitaine—somehow, some way. Directing those drones to kill Cossandra had been living her worst nightmare. She’d rather stab a welding torch into her own gut than her friend’s. But weighing her friend’s life against Ilana’s… did she really have a choice? Still, she went to the brink. Had all but run down the hall to the security station to turn herself in before Halpert was arrested.
Stars, she hated that man. At least she’d used his logins to do his dirty work. As it turned out, that helped make things even.
Then this came.
What was in those containers? Explosives, probably, if they were headed to the star gate.
Her fingers went to the chain around her neck and she pulled it out, feeling the sharp curves of the daisy’s petals. Her daughter must have saved up for a year to buy this necklace.
Hot tears escaped and she choked back a sob. Her heart pounded and her head felt hot and heavy. She shoved her fist in her mouth to keep from crying.
Two women slept soundly while a third fell in and out of consciousness, never in her life feeling more alone than she did on that night.
Vincent stared at the holo in disbelief. He had Greer play it back so he could see it again. The spacer’s helmetcam recorded a swarm of construction bots with deadly intent, but the spacer beat them back and still managed to hack and control a few of them.
“So you’re telling me this engineer saved the star gate.”
Colonel Greer nodded. “That’s what intelligence suggests. Her cam identifies her as ‘Cossandra Flemmings.’ It appears she noticed a flaw in the system, what would have caused the gate to begin a cascade of failures that would have been…not total, but it would have knocked us back to the first few months of the project. The engineer managed to get onto the gate in person, find the faulty engine, and adjust the energy levels in time for the test. The person, or persons, behind the sabotage attempt must have noticed what she was up to and directed the bots to attack her. She not only survived the attack but uploaded the video as evidence. Our officers identified the saboteur, Officer Wilson Halpert, and arrested him. Security is transporting the traitor planetside for interrogation.”
One part of Vincent’s brain heard the words, but the rest was in shock. On hearing the engineer’s name, he looked more closely at the bottom of the holo recording: the spacer’s name and password.
Cossandra Flemmings, password: fr33bird.
That cheesy rom-com spy thriller, Free Bird, was his wife’s favorite. She’d watched it a million times.
His gut told him true. This engineer was his wife.
Colonel Greer touched his ear, as if getting an alert. “Go for Greer.” His expression went grave. “I see. I will inform His Majesty. Stand by for orders.”
“Sire,” he said, and from the look on his face, Vincent knew it was bad. “The security transport shuttle has been attacked. The shuttle and its prisoner have been taken, likely by an Aquitaine agent.”
“And the guards?” Vincent asked.
“Their comms went offline.” Meaning they were dead.
“We need to find that missing shuttle, and the guards, if they can be found.”
“And what will you do, sire?”
The holo was paused on the icy blue gleam of a bot’s optical sensor.
“I’m taking the first shuttle out. It’s time I saw my wife.”
On the morning Cosima got kidnapped, she woke up with a raging headache. Her sister knew how to handle liquor, but Cosima was out beyond her spacesuit tether with this one. Her head pounded from the inside out and she was certain if she didn’t have some coffee—soon—she would surely die.
In the cafeteria, her friends didn’t look much better. She grabbed a tray and got in line behind Scoot, who eyed her pancakes and advised eggs instead.
“Protein, get some protein in your system. Your body’s got repairing to do.”
She grunted, and after changing her selection, carried the steaming pile of yellow slop back to their table. Joss, Scoot, and Elle wordlessly slid into their seats. John set his tray down, whipped out his napkin, and tucked it under his chin, and began mincing his sausage.
“And how is everyone feeling this morning?” he asked. “After a late night carousing with friends who caterwaul into mics like they’re the latest pop singing sensation to grace the holofeeds with their presence, nothing hits the spot quite like a hot breakfast.”
“Stow it, Davies,” Elle growled.
He winced. “Yes, ma’am, right away, ma’am.”
They ate in uncomfortable silence until Elle set down her fork. Pointing at John with her knife, she said, “And for the record, I do not caterwaul. I sing with gusto. Like I live my life. You should try it—”
Before she could finish, Kaylin rushed in, trembling. Her tray clattered to the table, and everyone looked up at her. Joss’s loaded fork stalled halfway to his mouth.
“Sorry, guys,” she muttered. Her lips twitched, like she was arguing with herself. She squeezed her eyes shut. “Guys, I’ve got something to tell you.”
That sucked the atmosphere out of the room. Everyone the table glanced at everyone else. What could this be about?
Elle recovered first. “It’s all right, doll. Whatever you need to say, we’re here for you.”
Kaylin teared up. “You might not say that—if you knew what I did!” She choked down a sob. “I can’t even say it. I—I’ll just show you.”
With that, she dashed out the door. Cosima followed, the rest of the crew right behind her.
She led them to the dock in the cargo bay. She gestured at a stack of shipping containers stacked against the wall, with hauling bots on standby next to them.
Kaylin said, “Those boxes arrived last night. The big one there? That’s a nuclear warhead. I checked. The others are also bombs of some kind.”
“Whoa, whoa—what?” Joss interrupted. “Kaylin, you’ve got to explain this to us now.”
Taking a shuddering breath, Kaylin told them about the messages she’d gotten from Aquitaine. How they’d ordered her to sabotage the star gate. How the crew chief had been in on it, to make sure she did what she was told, including the order to pilot the bots and attack anyone in their way.
Cosima’s jaw dropped and her mind went blank. The person who’d tried to murder her with a pack of bots was Kaylin. Her friend.
“But why, Kaylin, why?” she asked, bewildered.
“They’ve got Ilana.”
“What?” Elle shrieked.
Kaylin nodded. “They took her. Maybe, two months ago? My mom sent me a message. Ilana disappeared on her way home from school. The next time Aquitaine sent me instructions, her holo was attached. And they—” She swore like a miner. “—they’ve still got her. We—I don’t know what we’re going to do about this now—” She gestured futilely at the crates. “—but if they don’t get what they want, they’ll kill my little girl.”
No one knew what to say. The obvious truth was that the bombs were just a couple of meters away from them. But no one wanted to be the first to point that out when a kid’s life was on the line.
“I opened a crate. To see. And…” Kaylin sighed. “…the bombs, they’re armed. That means they could go off, here. Now. I’m sorry. I’ve put everyone in danger and I don’t know what to do.”
Without saying a word, Scoot went to Kaylin and pulled her into his arms. She burst into tears.
“You’re okay,” he said. “We’re okay. We’ll get through this, together.” He looked over her shoulder at Elle. “We’ve got bots here and you two are bot techs. Why don’t we just space these crates?”
Elle wiped away something that looked suspiciously like a tear. “You got it, boss. We won’t have much time—bots don’t move fast—but it’s our best shot.”
“And, Kaylin,” Joss took her by the shoulders, “we will get your little girl back for you. I don’t know how yet, but we will do everything we can to get her back, I promise you that.”
It wasn’t much of a promise—how could a handful of people beat a militaristic megacorporation like Aquitaine?—but everyone in that room would do whatever it took to Kaylin’s daughter, even if it meant they died trying.
Joss clapped his hands and the team got to work. John and Cosima grabbed suits for everyone, while Elle and Kaylin used their devices to get the hauler bots moving. Once their suits were on, John opened up the bay and soon the team had the hauling bots trundling the massive crates out of the bay and into space, like a line of ants carrying loads ten times their size.
“How long before Aquitaine notices?” Cosima asked Elle over her helmet com. The two women stood near the bay’s open door watching the crates slowly float away on the backs of black bots that looked tiny in comparison. Hauling bot thrusters weren’t powerful in terms of speed, but given enough time, they got the job done.
“If Aquitaine’s involved, they already know,” Elle answered. “Why they haven’t already blown us to kingdom come is what I haven’t figured out.”
Cosima nodded. That thought had been in her mind too.
“Of course, it’s not like we’re in the clear now,” Elle continued. “How long until we’re out of the blast radius, Miss Engineer?”
Cosima did some quick mental calculations. “At least an hour. What would you do if this was the last hour of your life?”
“Not go to work, that’s for sure.”
The team gathered at the open bay door to watch the bots dwindle into the distance. John wanted to know what they were talking about. Elle rolled her eyes but obliged, and when he heard that the next sixty minutes could be their last, John suggested they skip work, raid the station’s liquor supply, and go for round two of karaoke. That sparked a heated debate, but in the end, they decided to carry on like normal that morning and hope there were no questions about unexpected crates or missing hauler bots. Fortunately for Cosima, her coworkers tended to keep their eyes on their own screens, so she didn’t expect any snooping questions from Bill or Karen. Small mercies.
She’d just reconciled herself to another long day staring at numbers when bright green lights blinked on in the cargo bay.
“A ship’s coming in,” Scoot said. “Are we expecting anyone?”
“No, we’re most certainly not,” John replied. “There’s nothing on today’s agenda, in any case. Perhaps an inspection of some sort?”
Cosima had a bad feeling about this. The timing was too on the nose.
“Let’s get out of here, guys,” she suggested. “I don’t know who it is, but if it’s Aquitaine, I don’t want to be here when they arrive.”
She did want to watch, though. The crew left the bay and stripped off their suits. Cosima headed up to a viewport above the bay. From there, she could see everything.
Lights went from green to red, indicating the bay door was about to open. It lowered and a sleek black shuttle with a sigil on the back landed smoothly.
Cosima’s heart skipped a beat at the black, red, and gold flag of Sidonia. Had Vincent sent someone to get her? Maybe he’d heard about the bombs and sent the Guard in for backup. Burning with curiosity, she got her device out and synced it with the fob. It had been a while since she’d checked it.
Otis’s melancholy voice said, “Welcome to—”
“Hello to you too,” Cosima interrupted, “but can you tell me if I’ve gotten any messages lately? Anything from the king?”
Below, the door had closed and the bay was pressurizing.
“You have one new message from the king. It arrived at—”
“Read it. Please.” She hated being rude, even to an AI, but she needed to know right now what the king had sent her. “And don’t you dare share this with anyone else. Ever.”
Sidonia needs a queen. No, I need my queen. When you were with me—even with your insistence on running into danger—everything was better. There is no substitution for you, Cosima.
My body relies on cybernetics to function. I grew used to the prosthetics, the dulled sensations became a part of me. A false voice and a plastic face cleaved me from the real world. But when you left, I felt it in my soul. A tangible absence I’ve never felt before. Something that could never be replaced.
Her eyes filled. Warmth spread through her, like a rose unfolding in the summer sun.
I need my queen by my side. Sidonia needs you on the throne. You’re more connected to the people than I’ve ever been, and they love you for it. I love you for that, and more than I can say in an encrypted message in a system meant to keep resistance cells in touch with each other.
With all the trouble in orbit, my presence is needed, but I’m less without you, Cosima.
The shuttle ramp lowered, and Sidonian Guardsmen in regimentals trooped down and lined up in two facing rows. Cosima gasped. Had Vincent come for her? Himself? He wouldn’t, would he? It would mean putting aside the affairs of state and leaving his planet behind. And putting himself at risk too. He wouldn’t do that. Would he?
I’m here, my queen. Please come to me and be my wife. Sidonia can build a star gate to distant worlds. We can build a relationship that will stand the test of time.
Come find me, please.
“Thank you, Otis,” she said, and slipped the fob in her pocket.
Two lines of guardsmen saluted, and the king walked down the ramp. He looked tall and regal, even from this distance. Half of her wanted to run down there and throw herself in his arms, and the other half wanted to duck and hide so he never found her.
Her eyes followed him. There were the shoulders she knew so well, the stride that bespoke confidence and strength of purpose. His dark hair had been trimmed close; something new, but dashing. The guardsmen held their salute until the king reached the end of the rows. Some construction crew chiefs hastened over to meet the king. She didn’t know them by name, but she recognized their faces. The king looked up and—before Cosima could step back—their eyes met and his face lit up with joy. Then—
Something sharp pricked her neck. Her vision went blurry, her head swam, and everything went dark.
Vincent shouted for the Guard and they rushed through the narrow corridors and up a lift to the viewing room, his impatience mounting with every step.
The room was empty. Whoever that man was who had taken his wife, he was gone. Wall monitors, a bench, the wide window overlooking the bay. Vincent stooped to pick up the data pad on the floor and recognized the lines of text on the screen. His letter to Cosima.
“The queen’s data pad,” he told his Guard, looking around for the fob, just in case. “She was here. Smith, get your kit and bio-scan this room. Everyone else, search the station. Most likely, the queen and her attacker are still here.”
As his team split up to search the base, Vincent considered his next steps. But his mind kept replaying that single glimpse of Cosima, her surprise when their eyes met, the tall man in a crew jumpsuit stabbing her neck, catching her as she fell. Whoever he was, he clearly wanted more than just to kill the queen. Vincent could think of a hundred different possibilities, none of them pleasant.
“Put the facility on lockdown,” he told the bald, owl-eyed station manager beside him. “I don’t want any shuttles taking off or docking.”
“Right away, sire,” the man said, and touched his comm to communicate the order. Then, brow furrowed, he said, “An unknown shuttle just took off from an emergency dock—”
Vincent swore, but before he could head for his ship, the manager grabbed his arm.
“—but you won’t be able to go after them.”
“Why not?” He didn’t have time for discussion. He started down the corridor, the manager on his heels.
“The system is frozen—by a worm uploaded locally,” the man huffed. “We could try slicing the worm, but that’ll take hours. If we manage it at all.”
In the sealed hangar, his sleek black shuttle waited. Vincent hurried to the ramp. Every second that he wasted here was one more second the kidnapper had to lose himself in near-infinite space.
“Do what you must to protect the base, but I’m leaving now.”
“How, sire?” the manager said, a note of panic in his voice.
Vincent clapped a hand on the man’s shoulder to steady him. “We’re shooting our way out. You said it yourself; hacking could take hours. We don’t have hours. We’re blowing the door.”
The manager’s owl-eyes blinked. “Yes, sire.”
Vincent left the manager to clear the docking bay and the crew made ready for launch. Humming to life, the ship lifted from the deck and came around to face the door.
In the engineering department, sloppy Bill had his feet up on the desk. Karen dropped her things next to her workspace then looked pointedly at Cossandra’s empty seat.
“New Girl didn’t bother showing up for work?” she asked.
Bill grunted. “You know kids these days. Can’t rely on them for anything.”
Of course. Sighing, Karen poured herself a half cup of tea, filling it the rest of the way with cream and a few healthy doses of sugar. She deserved it—not that she was going to do a single stroke more work than if New Girl was there—for the moral support.
Karen sat down to relax. She had her tea at her lips when Bill shouted her name and she started. Damn. A spot of tea marred her suit.
Irritated, she grabbed a tissue. She rubbed until the tissue disintegrated into bits.
“This day is going down the crapper,” she said, tossing the tissue remains in a bin. “First, New Girl flaked. My coworkers are all idiots and my tea’s spilled. They don’t pay me enough to put up with this sh—”
“Look at this.” Bill gaped at his screen. The man wasn’t even listening to her. Typical.
Karen went around to his screen. That chat thread with local gossip was open. This was how sloppy Bill wasted his time when he was supposed to be doing his work, work that inevitably fell to her.
She scanned the chat, shook her head, put on her reading glasses, and read it again. Had she read that right?
“Yeah, no way. I don’t believe it. The king’s here? Looking for the queen? I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Bill ignored her. “They’re saying that the queen’s been here for weeks, like, undercover or something. And the queen’s…” He trailed off, his mouth hanging open. His breath reeked.
Karen couldn’t handle this day any longer. Back at her own desk, she took a sip of tea and—
Boom. The floor beneath her rumbled and the whole office shook. Hot tea splashed down her shirt.
Karen grabbed a handful of tissues and rubbed furiously.
Bill spun around in his chair, disbelief on his face. “Get this, Karen. The queen was here as a worker. Want to know who she is? Cossandra Flemmings.”
“New Girl?” she sputtered.
Beneath her boots, the floor vibrated as, in another wing of the station, a shuttle’s thrusters initiated and the ship pulled away.
When Cosima awoke, the cold floor swayed sickeningly under her and her vision doubled. Her hands were tied behind her back. She didn’t know where she was or how she got there, so she kept her eyes shut and listened while the nausea subsided. Shuttle engines hummed, so the ship she was on was smaller, nothing like a Leviathan-class carrier; they were virtually silent inside. A seat creaked. Someone was here—but were they alone?
Boots tramped over.
“Wakey, wakey, little queen.”
A hard-booted kick slammed into her side; the pain was overwhelming and she retched on the floor. Slowly, the double-image resolved into one man. Hard blue eyes in a predatory face stared down at her.
“Her Royal Highness awakes. So glad you decided to grace me with your presence.”
She spat; there was no way to wipe the bile from her mouth. “Where am I?”
“Ah-ah,” he booted her again, “you don’t ask questions. We’re in my kingdom now.”
And yet you answered, she thought. So it’s likely just us, and we’re on your ship, somewhere. But if I can get Otis uploaded to the system, your ship will be mine.
“I’m sorry! Please don’t hurt me,” she whimpered.
This guy likes control. Play weak.
He sneered and grabbed her by the hair. “You know how much trouble you caused me?” He shoved her down to the floor, her head banging against the deck. Her eyes watered from the pain. She let the tears come.
“But that’s all over now.” He paced around her. “Hundreds of man hours put into this operation. Millions in Aquitaine coin. Lives sacrificed, all to sabotage that gate. You almost stopped us too—you and your pathetic friends—but you didn’t. The drones are headed back to the star gate. They should be in range in less than an hour, and they will detonate, destroying the star gate and your friends. And lucky you, you get to watch.”
He tapped on the monitor with a visual of the star gate and the mini-station, but the hauler bots weren’t in view yet.
“I’ve sent a message to Aquitaine, letting them know they can expect the star gate gone and the royal couple dead within the hour. Needless to say, they gave me a bonus, and they’re sending you a surprise.”
He stooped and grabbed her again. “You want to know what it is? Not that it matters, because you’ll be dead.”
It seemed like yes was the right answer, so she nodded through her tears.
“A fleet. To take your planet. They can’t have a power vacuum, you understand. It’s not good for commerce.”
He dropped her and said, “What’s missing? That’s right. Mood music.”
He snapped his fingers, and music began playing, quaint orchestral music like the royal court enjoyed but made her yawn. And that was when she realized that this man, who might be better trained than she was, better equipped than she was, stronger and heavier, was a bore. He wanted her to feel helpless, optionless, powerless. A victim. But even now—half-drugged, bound, and in his domain—she could make her own choices. And as long as she had breath to draw, she wouldn’t let this creep hurt her friends.
Squeezing out a few tears, Cosima whimpered, “Okay, okay—I’m sorry about your plans. I didn’t mean to get in your way. Just please, don’t hurt me.”
He quirked a half-smile and came closer.
This time, she was ready.
She knew how the body worked. She kicked his kneecap hard with all the force of her will and desperation. Something gave beneath her heel and he tumbled down. She scrambled to her feet. Not about to give that monster any chance to recover, she kicked him in the gut several times, until he groaned with pain.
She hesitated, and quick as a viper, he grabbed her heel and yanked her down. She crashed to the cold metal deck, pain radiating from her side and unable to right herself with her hands still tied.
His vise-like grip on her ankle tightened and he snarled. She kicked him in the face once, twice, three times, and his nose gushed dark blood.
His hands went to his face and her ankle was free. Then she was up and running for the nearest corridor.
Feet pounding down the hall, she searched for a plan, expecting to hear the man come running after her any moment. Crew quarters, lavatory, operations room, equipment closet—Bingo! Home sweet home.
The lights flicked on as she entered. Floor-to-ceiling rows of shelves, all with neatly stacked piles of supplies.
I do love me a well-organized closet, she thought as she spied exactly the tool she was looking for, a plasma cutter.
Getting it off the shelf with her teeth was awkward, but once it fell to the floor, she plopped down beside it.
She’d used one of these a million times in her stints as an asteroid miner. Never with her hands tied behind her back. Turned on, the purple-flamed plasma cutter could cut through just about anything—steel, stahlium, wrist ties… wrists. She popped the cutter on and heard the familiar sizzle.
Slow and easy, she thought and dipped it toward her bonds. The sizzle sharpened on contact, and the bonds warmed and weakened. She inched it downward; heat burned, searing her senses. Flinching the cutter back, she took slow, deep breaths, willing the pain away. Her left wrist burned, but she remembered the drones hauling their loads back toward the star gate construction platform and flared the cutter again. A couple dips more, and her bonds broke.
Perfect, she thought as they clattered to the floor, but took no time to admire her work. Instead, she used the cutter to peel away a panel next to the door, exposing its mechanisms.
“Don’t you hate it when your equipment fails?” she muttered. “So frustrating.”
Grabbing a needle pick off the shelf, she jammed a component to block the door from sliding open. That wouldn’t stop a determined man with a pulser, but it’d slow him down.
She eyed the closet wall next to the operations room. More shelves up top, but it looked like the drawers down below would slide out with a little encouragement from the cutter. She pulled the drawers out until they stopped, then used the cutter to free them the rest of the way, and stacked them against the door.
She’d just finished clearing away a hole to the wall when she heard the man outside the door. One boot step loud, the other soft. His footsteps paused, and some door outside snicked open as he checked inside another room.
Cosima worked quietly as a mouse. Stooping into her hole in the shelves, she flared the cutter. A thin stream of purple flame sank into the wall, and she slid it up, over, down, and over again. Then she waited.
The boot steps returned.
Tramp, scuff. Tramp, scuff. Tramp.
They stopped in front of the closet door, but the door wouldn’t open for him.
She waited for the pulser fire.
It came. Bolts shrieked through the room, scorching holes in the door, busting boxes into shattering fragments. Behind her, dust and debris rained down while Cosima kicked her way through the wall, then wiggled through to the operations room.
Thanking the stars that nothing had been on the other side of the wall, she emerged from under a desk. Fishing the fob from out of her pocket, she looked around for a port. Pulser fire chattered next door.
Heart racing, she stuck in the fob and watched the monitor. The familiar Sidonian crest filled the screen.
“Otis, take over the system and shut all doors!” Cosima cried before Otis could begin his usual spiel.
Next door, the pulser fire halted and footsteps hastened for the operations room. She had a glimpse of the man’s livid red face in the doorway before the two doors snapped shut in front of him.
“Ha ha, how d’you like that?” Cosima laughed.
In reply, bolts pelted the door, making dents but not yet blasting through the toughened material. She had a little time, but not much.
“Otis,” she said, and the screens lit up green around her, “play something good.”
Instantly, the music changed from strings to galactic metal. She shrugged; not her first choice, but she couldn’t fault Otis on taste. The pulser fire let up, and Cosima knew her message had gotten through.
“That’s right. Your dinky ship is mine now, buster!” she shouted through the door. “Otis, set course back to the star gate, and send out a transponder signal to alert any Sidonian ships in the area. Vincent’s at the workers’ dorm, and I want him to know we’re coming.”
But Vincent wasn’t in the mini-station. His ship was shooting through space, searching for them. So when Otis’s signal came through, his crew immediately set course to intercept Mike’s ship.
“We’re closing in on the Aquitaine shuttle, sire,” Vincent’s navigation officer said. “In sixty seconds, we’ll be within the tractor beam’s range.”
The shuttle was visible now, growing larger as they drew close. Vincent hoped they were in time. He wanted Cosima, happy, healthy, and more than anything, safe. His team knew what to do. They’d practiced live assault and boarding scenarios dozens of times.
“Sire, the shuttle is signaling,” Lieutenant Shanniak, the comms officer, said.
“Put him through,” Vincent replied, steeling himself to see his wife’s captor.
“Not him,” she said. “It. The ship itself is requesting to communicate.”
Initial confusion gave way to hope. Had Cosima somehow uploaded OTISS to the ship? It was a long shot, but a hunch easily confirmed. At a nod from his king, she accepted the transmission and a familiar melancholy voice filled the bridge.
“Your Royal Majesty. At the queen’s request, I have taken over this pitiful shuttle’s control system. While this may give you reason to believe that all shall soon be well, I would not encourage such misplaced optimism. Given our captor’s demonstrably sadistic tendencies and ample weapons supply, probability suggests he will succeed in executing the queen within the next three minutes. Should you engage him, there is a fifty percent chance he will kill you too, and a strong possibility this shuttle will be destroyed in the process, obliterating my newly formed imprint. In short, soon we’ll all be dead.”
“Good evening to you too, Otis,” Vincent replied, ignoring the astonished bewilderment from his crew. He’d have to come up with some kind of explanation for Otis’s illegal existence later, but that was a problem for another day.
“We’re about to initiate the tractor beam and board the shuttle,” he said. “On my signal, get those doors open for us.”
“If you insist, sire,” Otis said, “although I must advise against this course of action.”
And ignored. While the AI matrix could run a million different variables in its calculations, one variable spawned an infinite number of possibilities and therefore couldn’t be accounted for. Love. No man—or AI program—could stop him from rescuing Cosima.
After doing one final weapons check, the team assembled by the exit. Their ship jolted as it locked the smaller shuttle into place. His men looked ready, intent.
“Fraggers out. Flash bangs only,” Sergeant Handley told the team. “Shields up.” Vincent and the Guard activated the shields from their gauntlets and the air shimmered green in front of each of them.
Vincent gave the signal.
The shuttle doors hissed open and they were immediately assaulted a hail of pulser fire. A guardsman managed to toss in a flash bang, which exploded with an almighty boom and blinding flash of light.
Hustling into the corridor, the team was met with a hail of pulser bolts. A single man in tactical gear stood enveloped in a shield emitter bubble. Green waves of light rippled in front of him as pulser fire barraged his shield, each bolt falling ineffectually to the floor. He cocked a smile as he shot back two-handed.
Bolts plinked against the guards’ gauntlet shields as they pressed forward. Eventually, the attack would wear down the emitters’ power source, but they still had the advantage of numbers over the lone man standing in the hallway.
One, two, three steps forward against the hail of bolts pinging their shields, when the man dropped a weapon—Must be out of ammo!—and the guards pressed their attack.
Too late, Vincent saw the man grab something from his side pack and hurl it at the leading guardsman’s boots before dashing into a doorway.
The metal canister hit the floor and erupted in a fiery blast, incinerating the closest guardsman. Vincent hit the floor as burning waves rolled over him and oily black smoke choked the hallway.
This is a man who has nothing to lose, he thought, realizing that his foe was willing to sacrifice his own shuttle in this last, fatal effort. All spacefaring vehicles had reinforced walls that could take some damage, but they wouldn’t survive sustained heavy fire like this. Nothing more dangerous than a cornered boar, except the man in control of his own senses.
When the smoke cleared, he saw nothing but a charred hallway, quiet except for… was that galactic metal playing over the speaker system?
Then, down the corridor, a familiar redhead popped out of a doorway. Joy, relief, and love flooded him to see Cosima standing there, safe and sound. And grinning like she’d just slipped a frog in the Grand Duchess’s teacup.
“Vince!” she called out, her voice surprisingly normal in the middle of the chaos. “He went in the crew quarters. Second door on the right. Kill him dead for me, will you?”
“Your wish is my command.” He gave a bow, and she grinned as she went back into the room. Then, thinking of one more thing he could do to protect her, he called after her. “My lady!”
She ducked her head back out of the operations room.
“Yes?” she asked, eyebrow quirked.
He threw her the choker. Cosima reached out to grab it and laughed when she saw what was in her hand.
“Do me a favor and put it on.”
She winked and clipped it around her neck. Something like a weight lifted off his chest, knowing that his wife now had her shield emitter on.
Turning back to his team, he saw only Sergeant Handley and Lieutenant Shanniak remained. Their gauntlet shields emitted a weak light; they wouldn’t hold up much longer.
“I checked the wounded, sire,” Shanniak said, tears shining in her eyes. “None of them made it.”
Sorrow collected in his throat, making it tough to breathe. But the fight wasn’t over.
“Best way to honor them now is to fight while we can. Our enemy went to ground. Let’s end him. He’s behind this door.”
Shanniak tipped off a salute and, at a nod from Handley, chucked the fragger through the door. With a boom that rattled his teeth, searing light flared and the team rushed into the crew quarters. Vincent barely had time to take in the empty bunks lining the wall when bolts tore through the side-wall closet, cracking into the wall behind him. Shanniak slumped to the ground, a gaping hole in her head. Her shield had failed. Handley and Vincent fired on the closet until it was a smoking wreckage of twisted plastic and metal. Vincent stepped forward to inspect the closet while Handley cleared the rest of the room. All the while, galactic metal pounded out in the hall.
Using his weapon, Vincent poked open the battered remains of the closet. Nothing there but the twisted remains of a rifle rigged up to a repeater.
Pulser fire erupted. Vincent spun around in time to see Handley collapse and a man scuttle out from under a bunk. Quick as lightning, Vincent shot him center mass, but each bolt dissipated in a green ripple. His opponent’s shield held strong.
Vincent’s own shield flickered; it had only moments left. He aimed at the black button on his opponent’s chest armor, hoping against hope that it was his shield emitter.
The repeated blasts pummeled the man’s shield, each bolt getting closer before being repulsed. One punched through and buried itself in the man’s armor as Vincent’s own shield died.
Vincent kicked his rifle away. The man’s nose was already stained with coppery blood; Vincent made it his target and pummeled him. He threw up his fists to block Vincent’s blows and jerked up his knee. It slammed into the king’s gut, knocking the air out of him.
Coughing, Vincent tried to get separation from his opponent, but it was too late.
Eyes cold with hate, the assassin grabbed his neck and squeezed, his grip like iron; choking, suffocating. Vincent’s knew he had seconds left before unconsciousness took him.
He slammed his hands down on his assailant’s wrists, pulled, then twisted, throwing in his weight. The hold on his throat loosened just enough for him to swing around, trap the man’s hands, and deliver a flurry of blows to his neck, gut, and head. He went down. Weakened now, the man started to push himself up.
Vincent pulled his sidearm and leveled it at the man’s head. He was battered, his nose broken, blood stained his clothes, and his chest heaved.
Vincent himself was exhausted, but not too tired to do his duty. “Any last words?” he asked.
The man spat and reached for his wrist. “Not to you.” He laughed and pulled out another pistol and Vincent put a bolt through his head.
He stood there a moment to catch his breath before stooping to check Handley and Shanniak. They were gone.
He felt numb.
There was no victory here. Both guards seemed so young to him, both in their twenties, but in his eyes, little more than kids. And now their lives were cut short. He passed a hand over Handley’s wide, surprised eyes to close them, determined to visit their families himself as soon as he got planetside.
Cosima’s face lit up when she saw him. “Vince!” He pulled her into his arms.
He wanted to ask her if she was all right, but no words came. He held her tight with his cybernetic arm and buried his face in her copper hair. Hot tears welled up, but he denied them. All he could do was hold her close.
“Vince? Is everything okay?” she asked, her voice muffled by his shoulder.
“Yes,” he said, and let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “Everything is okay. I’ve got you, and everything is going to be okay.”
That was when the bomb went off.
The wall beside them erupted, knocking them to the floor. Flames streaked and debris flew, and then came the shrill shriek of atmosphere ventilating into cold space. They had mere moments to get back to his ship before the oxygen was evacuated, they were sucked out into space, or the shuttle broke up. None of those options sounded fun.
Where was Cosima?
He shouted her name above the din.
Then silence. Stillness.
“Your Majesty,” Otis’s calm voice came over the system, “a bomb went off in the crew quarters, damaging the hull. While I have sealed that chamber, oxygen yet leaks from the ship. Oxygen concentration is at eighteen percent and dropping like a proverbial stone. If you leave immediately, you will have time to reach your ship.”
“Not without Cosima.”
“That is hardly advisable,” Otis returned. “As King of Sidonia, your bounden duty is to labor for the people. In your position, sacrificing yourself for one person makes little mathematical sense.”
One part of Vincent agreed with OTISS, the part that had been raised from his infancy to study and work hard for the good of the people. The part that had witnessed his own parents devoting themselves to affairs of state; nurturing separate relationships with nobles, ambassadors, and generals; poring over piles of legislation, working late into the night. But he’d also seen what it had done to their marriage, stretching themselves thin to meet everyone’s needs—everyone, that is, except themselves and three small boys who were left to be raised by a long line of tutors. He never wanted to be that kind of a father to his own children, and that started with being the right kind of husband to his wife.
He found her, a piece of the wall covering her limp body. Her eyes were closed, her freckled face paper-white, and a thin trickle of blood ran down her scalp. He stooped to pick her up, even though it was already hard to breathe. He gathered her in his arms, but when he stood, dark spots swirled in his vision and he felt faint. He staggered to the corridor. At the end of the hallway was the entrance to his ship. The way seemed impossibly long. Each step dragged. Cosima grew heavy in his arms, and his head swam. Muscles burning, he eased her to the ground.
He knew what this was—the pounding in his head, the short gasps, the weakness. He’d come to the end of his rope.
In his kit was a facemask—one mask. It would supply enough oxygen for one person to survive a while longer.
And when it came down to choosing between his life or Cosima’s, the choice was simple. He’d gotten nanosurgery as a kid to correct his vision. Afterward, the world seemed so sharp. Every leaf on every tree defined, colors vibrant, each movement sharp. Reality realized. This was like that.
Easiest decision he’d ever made.
He chose her.
His thoughts were fuzzy now, but he pushed through the static long enough to slip the mask over her pale face before his own vision tunneled and went black.
Cosima’s eyes fluttered open. A noise blared in her ears, melding with the pain in her head. But it wasn’t just her ears; that was a siren going off. She sat straight up.
Something was on her face. What was this, a face mask?
Vincent slumped beside her on the floor. He didn’t look good. His usually tan skin was pale, his pulse only a flutter, and when she put her fingers to his lips, she couldn’t feel his breath.
No, no, no, she shrieked inside, trying not to panic at the sight of him so helpless, so close to being gone.
She gathered him up and tried to lift him—Lift with your legs! she thought, but stars, was he heavy, and her injured hand screamed in pain. But she gritted her teeth and settled for dragging the tall man, his boots scuffing down the hallway as she pulled him along the bolt-seared corridor.
The sirens ceased. Otis informed her sadly that he had done his best to wake her. Oxygen levels were low and decreasing slowly but steadily. The second explosion caused the shuttle to move, putting pressure on the airlock connection with the Sidonian ship, and could break free at any moment. It was “nice,” he supposed, as well as an AI matrices complex could extrapolate the feeling, knowing her.
Legs burning, chest heaving, gasping through her mask and wondering how many gasps she had left, she hauled her husband back to his ship. But on the Sidonian side of the airlock, the sleek black doors stayed shut. The connection creaked. It couldn’t hold much longer. Somehow she had to get Vincent’s hand up to the bio-scanner.
Wrapping one arm around his chest, she heaved him up but couldn’t quite reach. She yanked the off the mask and shouted, “Otis! Cut the gravity for two seconds!”
When she pulled the mask back over her face, she couldn’t catch her breath. Where was the air? It felt like a boulder had settled on her chest. Her mask must be out of oxygen; she was suffocating on her own C02.
But they were floating now, she with Vincent in her arms. She held up his hand. It scanned, right before they plummeted to the hard metal floor.
Pain flared in her side, but it was no matter—the doors irised open. She pulled Vincent through, slapped the doors shut, and they closed just before a wrenching followed by a crack she could feel through her boots as the busted shuttle broke off.
Gasping, she ripped off the mask and gulped air. Never had recycled spaceship air tasted so good. She leaned back a moment, just breathing, before reaching over to check Vincent. His skin was cool, his face unmoving. She couldn’t find a pulse.
“That doesn’t mean he’s gone,” she reassured herself, her voice catching in her throat. She looked up to see if anyone was around, but no one was there.
“Hello, is anyone here?” she cried. “Help! Anyone—help!”
No reply. Not even Otis could hear her; his fob was stuck on a wrecked shuttle.
Cosima combed the royal shuttle from the cockpit and the galley to the office and small conference room. Then came the nicely appointed passenger compartment and a wet bar service station, a security “suite” of two connected rooms accessible by only one door and lastly, the tiny sleeping accommodations near the tail. She even checked all the service cupboards and the lavatories. Stations were vacant, view screens on, life support whirring faintly, but not a living soul around. Vincent must have taken his entire team to rescue her, and not one of them returned. Brushing away unbidden tears, she forced herself to focus on what she could do right now.
She found what she was looking for in a cupboard near the galley. A medkit with an oxygen mask. It might not help, but it was something she could do. So she slipped it over Vincent’s head and waited.
His hand was cold when she picked it up. She rubbed it between hers to warm him and thought back to meeting Vincent for the first time. It was the night of the gala, and the prince arrived decked out in his military finery. Tall, noble, and dangerous, the prince-turned-spymaster’s first concern was for her safety. They’d exchanged pleasantries and opened up to each other. He’d gone so far as to support her small protest against Sidonia’s strict judicial sentencing. She’d almost forgotten that.
She stroked the line of his jaw, tracing her finger up one of his many scars. She caressed his check, the left side that never moved, giving him that cheeky half-smile that allowed her to glimpse the boy still lurking in the man, the king.
The man she… loved?
Confused, she drew her hand away when his eyes fluttered, then focused on her face. The relief and joy she felt was almost unbearable. Not wanting to crush him with a hug, she satisfied herself with holding his hand.
“You made it,” she said, tears in her eyes.
“We did.” He sounded groggy. “Somehow. Thank goodness.” He tried to sit up, and still holding his hand, she helped him. He groaned at the effort.
“Headache?” she asked.
“That’ll happen when you’ve been oxygen-deprived,” she informed him. “Good thing you had me around to save you. What were you doing, trying to get us both out without an oxygen mask on?”
He shrugged. “There was only one mask. I wanted to give you the best chance of making it out of there alive.”
“So you put the mask on me? What for? Every spacer knows you mask yourself first before anyone else.”
“Well, I’m no spacer, am I?”
“That’s for sure!” She laughed, then peered into each of his eyes, checking for pupil dilation. “Well, maybe it was oxygen deprivation making you do silly things, but anyway… thank you.”
He squeezed her hand. When she winced, he held it gently , pushed her cuff up over her wrist, and found the raw wound where she had been burned.
“What happened here?” he asked, his eyes searching hers.
“Plasma cutter.” She shrugged. “A little slip.”
His expression darkened. “One more thing to add to Aquitaine’s bill.”
“Never mind, I’m fine.” Cosima pulled her sleeve down to cover the ugly mark, feeling shame, irrational though it might have been.
The king spied the medkit lying on the ground where she’d left it. He snagged it and pulled it over. Opening the kit, he got out a numbing agent, a healing ointment, and a bandage. With the quick, practiced motions of a soldier, he bound her wound, taking care not to wrap it too tight. Cosima’s heart swelled to see Vince take such care for her.
“Don’t worry,” he said, checking the bandage. “When we get back home, we’ll have the doctors take a look. Skin grafts are easy; they’ll patch you right up.”
“Sure they will—as soon as they look at your arm.” She punched his cybernetic arm and instantly regretted it when she hit metal. Now both hands hurt. “How long has the King of Sidonia gone with a bag of bolts for an arm? You get yours fixed first, and then I’ll do mine.”
In a tone that brooked no argument, Vincent said, “When every soldier disfigured under my command has his injury reconstructed, I’ll get mine done too. Until then, it can wait.”
“Fine. I kinda like it. It goes with your roguishly handsome pirate king look.”
“Pirate king?” He nodded judiciously. “I like the sound of that.”
He gave her a hand up and they went to the cockpit. In short order, she had their return course to the star gate plotted. As they flew back, Cosima told Vincent about the sabotage attempts on the gate.
“What happened to the nuclear warheads?” Vincent asked when she finished her story.
“Otis hacked into the kidnapper’s system and used his computer program to direct the drones into space. They must’ve detonated by now, out in the middle of nowhere. Otis can do anything…” She fell silent, thinking about her AI friend who’d saved her life now alone in space on a scuttled ship. It was only a matter of time before it broke up and her friend was gone forever.
Sensing her mood, Vincent said, “You miss him, don’t you.”
“Yes. Is that funny? He’s only a computer program, but really, he’s more than that. He’s a friend.”
“Glad to hear that the highly illegal and dangerous matrices complex has become your friend. I always thought there was something wrong with his programming, what with his tendency toward pessimism. But he’s not gone, you know. We have this.” Vincent held up his fob.
Delighted, Cosima snatched it out of his hand. “Can we put it in?”
Vincent shrugged. “Sure. As long as he only links to this ship’s system. And you disconnect the fob before we land.”
Cosima agreed and found a spot for the fob. All the screens came on, and the speakers filled with Otis’s usual long-winded greeting. This time, she waited patiently until he finished.
“Otis! It’s good to hear your voice again.”
“Is it, indeed? In two thousand, six hundred and fifty-three interactions with human operators, none have indicated gratification at my presence. You are the first.”
“Really, Otis? You’d say that after all the time we’ve spent together? I’m hurt.”
“Perhaps this is why human operators fail to enjoy my repartee. My words cause them pain.”
Cosima spent the next five minutes trying to cheer up the AI complex before giving it up as hopeless. Besides, what had first looked like a blue-green speck in the distance had grown into the massive disc of Sidonia, the twinkling structures of Styria Station, the star gate, and the workers’ habitat nearby.
“Docking in two minutes,” Otis announced. The ship decelerated and adjusted course, banking toward the docking bay. Bots swarmed around the docking bay, already repairing the door blown by the king.
The ship hummed as it came to a stop; landing gear thunked reassuringly into place. Vincent helped Cosima find a space suit and donned his own. He held out his hand and it struck Cosima she was about to see her friends again, but they were friends with Cossandra Flemmings, astroengineer, not Cosima Weber, Queen of Sidonia.
A shrill whistle followed by strobing red lights startled her out of her reverie.
“Your Majesties, the ship’s sensors are detecting hyperspace ripples from incoming ships. Two hundred ships—fifty of them large enough to be Behemoth-class destroyers. They will drop out of hyperspace in the next—”
Angular stealth fighters dropped out of hyperspace, followed closely by colossal, hulking destroyers.
“I beg your pardon. The Aquitaine acquisitions fleet has arrived.”
Imagine going about a routine day—perhaps walking to school or driving to the grocery store—when disaster strikes. Maybe it’s an angry dog, snapping and snarling at you. Or a car speeding up to your bumper as you sit at the red light, and all you can do is watch the rearview mirror helplessly as imminent death races toward you.
That shock and helplessness was what Cosima felt when the shuttle view screen lit up with enemy craft, Aquitaine colors on their hulls. Fifty destroyers and their cruisers, and what had to be an entire wing of fighters. Each was deemed a “compliance and reclamation vessel.” What they actually were was the corporation’s in-house military used to deal with pirates and planets that got on Aquitaine’s bad side. They were armed to the teeth, bristling with laser turrets and had a battalion of troops each. Their soldiers were known as brutes, leased to the company by governments that had prisoners they didn’t want to deal with.
This was bad. But in that hanging moment before disaster strikes and you react, Cosima learned that she could choose her response. And she decided not to be cowed.
“That jerk who kidnapped me told me there was a surprise coming. This fleet. He said something about Aquitaine thinking we’re dead?”
Vincent nodded. “They must think Sidonia is theirs to take. They sent their man to eliminate the queen, and with you, our agreement with Chaebol. Now they’re swooping in to take the planet.”
“Isn’t there something we can do? Bounce them, try to talk things out?”
Far from the hub of the Alliance of Worlds, Sidonia was considered a frontier planet. She had craftsmen and artisans aplenty, but no space fleet to speak of. Over the past year, Vincent had been bolstering planetary defenses, but what could a few emplacements do against destroyers?
“Diplomacy is our best play,” Vincent said. “Our navy is just enough to deter pirates and handle in-system customs. If we try to fight, it won’t end well for us. The star gate is our best hope. It’s equipped with a passive point-defense system that should protect us if they attack, at least for a while. The only way they could defeat that system is by destroying the star gate itself, and that, they’ll hesitate to do. We’ll try diplomacy first, but should that fail…”
“Lasers,” Cosima finished.
Vincent took the command chair while Otis set up a holo transmission to the enemy fleet’s admiral. Cosima couldn’t decide whether to stand in or out of the holo, but in the end chose to take her place next to Vincent, if only to present a united front. Of course, standing there next to the king, alive and well, was spitting in Aquitaine’s eye.
All the better.
Tiny lights resolved themselves into a tall man in an admiral’s uniform, as lifelike as if was in the room. He had piercing blue eyes, wavy blond hair too long for regulations, and skin the color of sour milk. His thin lips seemed frozen in a sneer. Cosima wondered if his face had frozen like that.
He was holding a cigar and appeared to be about to light a celebratory stogie.
“Your Majesties.” His icy blue eyes flicked from Vincent to Cosima. “I’m Director Charles. I must say, this is something of a surprise. How, may I ask, did you break into my ship’s secure communications?”
Cosima glanced a question at Vince. Otis must have overridden Aquitaine’s system. She hadn’t realized that was possible.
“Your specialists are undoubtedly already working on that,” Vincent replied. “Let them figure it out.”
“Indeed. Well. In a few minutes, I suppose it won’t matter much longer. We came here thinking you were dead. My intelligence seems… premature, for here you are, quite alive. How embarrassing. Still, this may make things easier for everyone. Surrender now—unconditionally—and get Chaebol out of here.”
“Not so fast, Director. We may be a frontier planet, but the Alliance of Worlds will not tolerate an unprovoked attack on a legal member state. You may represent one of the most powerful banking corporations in the galaxy, but how many planets will entrust their coin to you if they discover you’re using their money to support a fleet engaged in colonialism.”
“Colonialism?” the director scoffed. “Where did you learn that word? But you are correct. We don’t just want the star gate. We’re taking your whole backwater planet. And as for the Alliance of Worlds, they’re light years away. It’ll take weeks for the news to reach them, and by then, we’ll be in control of the news. No, you needn’t be concerned about the Alliance. Be concerned about your own life. I’m a reasonable man. I won’t kill in cold blood. I’m going to give you a chance to save yourself, one chance only, Vincent Weber. Abdicate, and hand over the government to Aquitaine. If you comply, I’ll put in a good word for you. The board will likely let you live.”
Cosima looked at her husband. If this man had been offering her this deal, she’d have thrown it in his face. But hearing it Vincent’s life might be spared made it tempting.
“I have sworn an oath to protect Sidonia, and I will do that until my last breath. You have entered Sidonia’s orbital zone without authorization. I must ask you to leave. I’ve already bounced the Alliance of Worlds about your illegal incursion, and should you continue to operate outside the law, they will come down on Aquitaine with the full might and force of the Alliance member worlds. The board won’t like that, I’m sure.”
The director studied his cigar. “Let me explain something you might not understand out here in the sticks. Possession is much more than nine-tenths of the law. And what objections anyone may have that aren’t answered by possession can be smoothed over with bribes. Let’s not act like Aquitaine…or Chaebol have ever incorporated planets against their will.” He lit the cigar, puffed a few times, then favored them with a Cheshire smile.
“Got it?” he asked someone off-holo. “Well, Vincent, as fun as this has been, all good things must end. Let me know when you’re prepared to give your unconditional surrender. Either way, Aquitaine thanks you for the new star gate and planet.”
He cut the transmission. The holo dissolved into glimmers and disappeared.
“Sire,” Otis said, “there are fifty-five missiles inbound to our position. Expected arrival, two minutes from now. Additional missiles are tracking toward the capital.”
Cosima took the news calmly, although her engineer’s mind went to the possible trajectories and what six cannon batteries could do against a near-infinite barrage of missiles. It was just a matter of time before the dome was hit, and one missile was enough to breach the structure and cause scores of people to be sucked out into the void.
In the sonic shower, Theresa let the waves ripple over her, caressing away her worries. Lately, things had been going really well with Jae. They’d met twice at the palace—just candlelit dinners on the terrace, nothing fancy. Followed by a lighted fountain show, but she hadn’t even asked them to set the fountains on fire. Dennis had done that of his own initiative. Anyway!—They’d had the sweetest conversations.
Jae held her hand as they strolled in the palace gardens, and once they got talking, they couldn’t stop. One thought led to another and another, and soon they were laughing at the slightest joke. His smile, his fingers entwined in hers, his nearness; it was as addictive as a drug. One she never wanted to quit.
She powered up the sonic waves to a thrumming massage that pelted her back and eased every last bit of tension away. That done, she stepped out of the shower and got ready for her day.
On went the sundress and yellow heels. With a few passes of the hair wand, she put a wavy bounce in her blonde tresses. She made sure her makeup was perfect and then headed down to the palace park.
The sun was noon-high by the time she reached her favorite bench. Jae hadn’t arrived yet; she was a half hour early. It was her personal policy never to be early to anything; it made a statement to everyone waiting for her. But there was something about Jae that made her rethink that policy, in fact, to make her rethink a lot of her life.
All this thinking and rethinking unsettled her.
So she pulled out her data pad and flicked through social connectors. This was one of her favorite activities when bored—scrolling through old posted pictures of Jae.
She was two years deep when she stopped and pulled the screen closer. Who was that standing next to Jae? Theresa had seen him in pictures with other women before, but none so beautiful as this.
Theresa studied her intently. Ahn Bong-cha. Long, black hair swirled around porcelain shoulders, framing a goddess. Her dark, smoky eyes were lovely, her face, narrow and elfin. Graceful hands slipped through his arm and clutched him in a way that seemed so… possessive. Theresa hated her. What a hussy.
I must know who this woman is, Theresa thought, and tapped the woman’s name. On the social connectors, Bong-cha’s pictures showed her at galas, resorts, and mansions. Clearly the woman was wealthy and influential, but she was no princess.
Mollified, Theresa kept tapping.
Lots of friends, lots of drinks, lots of… pulser rifles, katana swords, hover speeders, cliff-side races… Ugh, this woman was so cool. The worst.
What kind of person did all these things? Someone with influence—well-connected, who’d gone to all the right schools. Sure enough, Bong-cha hailed from New Chosun, Chaebol’s capital planet. And what did she do there?
Theresa tapped again, then blinked.
The woman was an admiral? That woman—that pixie-faced, porcelain-beauty-queen hover-racer—commanded a galactic fleet?
Theresa tossed her data pad away. This wasn’t fair! Some girls had all the luck.
A slew of snide thoughts about how someone so young could have risen to such high rank, but Theresa knew that was her jealousy talking. Who had time for that nonsense? She needn’t worry about Jae comparing her to the admiral, because that woman was in the past. Right?
She was a storm of emotions brewing. Theresa picked up her data pad again to look for more pictures of this woman being way cooler than Theresa. Gravel crunching on the pathway alerted her.
Jae flourished a bouquet of flowers with a smile. Frangipani in pink starbursts, her favorite.
“For you, my lady,” he said, and with a courtly bow. Then, sitting beside her, he plucked one sprig and tucked the blossoms behind her ear. “You look beautiful,” he told her.
She offered him a weak smile, because she didn’t believe it was true. Not anymore.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
He frowned. “I know that line. Something’s up. Tell me.”
She gestured at the data pad. “See for yourself.” It was a picture of Jae and Bong-cha at a gala, looking awfully friendly.
“Who’s that?” she asked as he studied it, knowing the answer and not bothering to hide the ugly bitter note in her voice.
“That’s Bong-cha,” he said, unconcerned.
“Who’s Bong-cha?” she pressed. “Your girlfriend?”
“Former girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend. Many light years away and ago.”
“A hover racer?”
“And you broke up with her?” Her voice was bitter, accusing, and she wasn’t even sure why. But Jae-sun wasn’t concerned.
Theresa raised a skeptical eyebrow. “But she’s beautiful.”
“Sure.” He shrugged. “So what? Looking good on the outside, it’s nice. But in here,” he touched her forehead, “that’s where it really matters.”
He beamed his sunshine smile, and it was all for her. Theresa wanted to trust him, but she was unnerved. Suddenly, it wasn’t Bong-cha she was worried about. What if he got to know her—like, really know her—and found her wanting?
It was only a matter of time before any relationship got rocky. She usually split before it came to that.
“Hey, you okay in there?” He peered at her, looking into her eyes as if they were windows. “You’ve gotten quiet.”
She hesitated. Could she tell him what she was thinking? Or would it drive him away sooner?
Stop stalling and tell him! she scolded herself. And remembering the words she’d said to the king, she accepted her own advice. The truth will set you free.
Three, two, one—she told him everything. The social connector searches, the jealousy over Bong-cha, the insecurities, the fears. It came out like vodka after another long night partying, but the surprising thing was, he wasn’t disturbed or upset. Rather, he nodded here and there while he listened to her then told her it was okay.
She couldn’t believe it. How could he be so great? She wanted to pinch him to see if he was real.
“Well, and while we’re confessing everything to each other…” Should she tell him the truth about Cosima? She’d feel better getting it off her chest, and if he was going to leave her, he might as well do it now.
She looked him square in the eyes. “I lied to you. Again.”
He sat back. “All right. What about?”
“The queen. My sister. She’s not pregnant.”
Jae waited patiently, and she said, “Actually, she’s not even here. She ran away. Went back home to Styria Station, and Vince—er, the king—went after her. I told you that lie because I wanted you to be happy and I couldn’t tell you she was gone.” The thought briefly crossed her mind that maybe she shouldn’t be telling this to Chaebol’s ambassador, but what the void. Too late now.
“You think a lie will make me happy?” he asked slowly.
“Yes? No?” She searched his patient expression. “No, definitely not. I’m sorry,” she said, deflated.
“You don’t ever need to tell me a lie. In fact, I’d much prefer you didn’t. In the short term, maybe I’d be happier believing the story—an heir is on the way, but in a just few months, when I’d see it wasn’t true, what then?”
Theresa didn’t know what to say.
“You’d have to make up another lie. And long term,” he picked up her hand, “wouldn’t you rather we built our relationship on honesty and trust, and then, whatever happened, we’d know we could depend on each other.”
“How do you know you can depend on me?” The words were out before she could stop them.
“You could say the same thing about me.” He rubbed her hand with his thumb. “Every relationship goes through this. We’re new at it. But we’ll never know unless we try, right?”
Matilda, one of the housemaids, was running down the garden path to find Theresa.
“Princess, Princess!” someone called out breathlessly. Normally neat and orderly, Matilda’s hair was escaping her bun in hanks, around cheeks flushed from exertion.
“Colonel… Greer…” Matilda gasped, giving Theresa time to reflect that she was bad at waiting, “… needs you in his study. Soon as you can, miss!”
Jae and Theresa exchanged a look and hurried through the garden and down the wide, marble corridors to the colonel’s office. Had something happened to Vincent or Cosima? Heart racing, Theresa ran faster and pushed her way through Greer’s doors without knocking.
Colonel Greer stood up behind his desk when Theresa and Jae burst in. His brow furrowed and he inclined his head.
“My apologies, Ambassador, but I must speak with the princess alone. It is a pressing matter of state.”
“No worries, Colonel. Princess, I’ll be outside.” Jae gave her hand a squeeze, then pulled the doors shut behind him.
The colonel gestured for her to sit, and she did, thinking she’d never seen him look worried before. Nothing flustered the veteran colonel. Whatever this was, it was bad.
In a few words, the colonel explained the situation. Leagues above their heads, in the space around their planet, a fleet of Aquitaine ships had arrived, intent on taking over Sidonia. While the Alliance of Worlds would punish any unprovoked attack, long before then, Aquitaine would have destroyed the few ships Sidonia had in space, including the ship the king and queen were presently on. An attack on the palace was sure to follow. If Theresa wanted to get out of this alive, she had to evacuate with the Guard immediately.
“What?” She blinked at the colonel, astonished that he’d suggested she run. Shouldn’t she be rounding up the troops, getting help—doing something, anything, other than saving her own skin? “Absolutely not. I’m staying right here. My sister needs me.”
Colonel Greer frowned. “Your country needs you safe. As a princess of House Zollern and sister to the queen, you are the next in line to the throne. God help us all. If the king and queen—may their reign outlast the stars—should fall in action, the country will look to you to lead them.”
“No!” Panic set in. This wasn’t supposed to happen. She’d wanted to play queen—wear the dress, get her holo taken, welcome the little people—but never to rule. That wasn’t in the plan.
Memories of her little sister flashed through her mind.
There must be something she could do.
“Jae! Bring him in here. He can help!” she insisted. Greer shook his head.
“That would not be wise, m’lady. I don’t think—”
“Get him in here,” she snapped. “Now!”
Wordlessly, the colonel opened the door and gestured Jae in. Theresa hastily told him the whole story, and said, “So? What can we do?” The situation seemed hopeless, but Jae took the news with his usual calm.
“There’s only one person I can bounce for help,” he replied. “But you’re not going to like it.”
“It’s okay. I trust you. Who is it?”
He quirked a half smile, and from the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, she knew the answer before he said the words.
Colonel Greer opened his holoprojector and Jae-sun punched in the coordinates for Admiral Ahn’s personal device. Theresa couldn’t help but note that he had the numbers memorized. Motes of dust danced in the projector’s beams until the admiral appeared. Ramrod straight in her uniform, every seam in line and tuck in place, her hair back in a tight bun. Stern, fierce, and impossibly beautiful, like some ancient goddess of war garbed in modern regimentals. The woman glared at Jae’s holo.
“Moon Jae-sun, you’re looking well.” Bong-cha smiled a razor-sharp smile. “I’d hoped to never see you again. Yet here you are.”
Jae-sun nodded as if accepting a compliment. “How’s Alfred?”
“He’s fine. No thanks to you,” Bong-cha snapped.
Whoa, chilly, Theresa thought. Who’s Alfred?
Jae slipped into ambassador mode as easily as Theresa might a Charmant coat. Polite and urbane, he explained the situation facing Sidonia, Aquitaine had sent a fleet of warships to take both Sidonia and the star gate that Chaebol had invested so heavily in. Surely Chaebol would want to protect its investment, but going through proper channels to request assistance would take time, time Sidonia did not have. If, on the other hand, one of Chaebol’s fleets showed up in Sidonia’s atmosphere, it would deter Aquitaine from further aggression.
Bong-cha considered Jae-sun’s unspoken request.
“You do understand that I control the fleet at Chaebol’s bidding,” she said. “I can’t just redirect an entire fleet to the nether regions of the galaxy on the whim of an ambassador.”
“Chief Ambassador,” he muttered.
Steamrolling on, she continued, “Beyond the enormous cost this will incur, sending in a fleet could precipitate a war with Aquitaine, something no one wants.”
“And if Chaebol leadership hears you knew about this attack and did nothing?” Jae countered. “Millions of lives and the gateway to an untouched solar system are in jeopardy. Not to mention Chaebol’s honor. And her investment. Do you want that on your head?”
Dark eyes flashing, Bong-cha replied, “I know what’s at stake here, and will agree to your proposal. But know this, Kim Jae-sun. Your neck will be on the chopping block, not mine, if this hits the fan.”
Off-screen, something mewed.
A silky white cat strutted into the holo and leaped into the admiral’s arms. It snuggled up to her chin, cast a glance at Jae, and hissed.
“Don’t you worry, Alfie,” Bong-cha crooned, caressing his head, “that’s just a holo. The bad man isn’t really here.”
“If it helps, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what, Kim Jae-sun? I need to hear you say it.”
Jae-sun glanced at Theresa.
“Sorry for locking the cat out of your condo.”
“Leaving cucumbers behind the sofa.”
“Putting sleeping drops in his mashed shrimp.”
Bong-cha gasped. “That was you?” she shrieked, her face turning red.
Colonel Greer stepped into the picture, holding his hands out apologetically. “Madam, I am sure the chief ambassador means no disrespect to you or your cat, but we have a national crisis on our hands, and time is of the essence. Sidonia gratefully accepts your offer of assistance. Can we depend on your fleet to arrive soon?”
“Yes, I’ll help you,” she said through gritted teeth, “but only to uphold Chaebol’s honor. This conversation is over. Expect the fleet to drop out of hyperspace soon.”
“Soon? When is that?” Jae-sun asked helpfully.
“As soon as I can make it! As it happens, there’s a fleet in an adjacent system, so transit time won’t be long, but there’s more to it than that. How long would it take you to get a fleet together and into hyperspace? Just try not to die before we arrive. And don’t you ever use these numbers again, Kim Jae-sun!”
As the connection was cut, Bong-cha was cursing something in Korean. Jae-sun flinched. Bong-cha’s image dissolved into dancing motes of light.
“Nice going, Ambassador,” Theresa said.
Jae-sun made a face. “Not my best work,” he admitted. “Thank you for the assist, Colonel.”
Colonel Greer excused himself to go bounce the king. Theresa and Jae left him to his call.
Walking down the hallway, Theresa shot Jae a suspicious glance. “Did you really do all those terrible things to that helpless, innocent cat?”
“There is nothing helpless or innocent about that cat,” Jae-sun replied. “That creature is a monster, and we were at war.”
“You were at war… with a cat?”
He shuddered. “If only you knew the horrors I endured.”
“Alfred hurt you? Poor dear.” She reached for the chief ambassador’s lapels and pulled him down to her level. “This,” she planted a kiss on his cheek, “is to make it better. And this—” She put another on his lips. “—is to thank you for saving the planet.”
Now it was Jae-sun’s turn to blush bright red—but only his ears. So that was his tell! Theresa laughed to see it. One blush down, many more to follow. She had a ways to go to even the score.
Just when she’d decided what her next move would be, she felt the ground rumbling beneath her.
“What’s that?” she asked.
A vase on a stand in the hallway shivered from the tremor and lurched. Jae-sun reached out and caught it, then set it down and laid the stand on the floor.
“Do you get earthquakes here?”
Theresa scrunched her forehead. She’d only lived dirtside for the last year or so, and couldn’t remember hearing about earthquakes.
“Not that I know of.”
Outside the hall, flashes of light arced across the sky like lightning, only the day was sunny and cloudless. More bursts of light crashed in the sky, splintering into spider webs of light that flared and were gone.
Jae-sun took her hand and watched the light.
“They’ve begun their attack. Fortunately, your capital has a shield dome.”
“But how much longer can it last?” Theresa bit her lip as the lightning cracks continued, hot and white. One strike breaking through the dome would devastate the metropolis below. Thousands would die.
“I don’t know. Hopefully long enough for my people to get here.”
“But when’s that going to be?” she shrieked.
Her hands were cold and clammy; her mouth was dry. It felt like the walls were closing in on her, that the air was being sucked from the room. The next strike could break through that shield and blast them all into atomic bits.
“Hey, hey, hey.” Jae picked up her hands and pulled her to him. “Look at me.” His eyes were gentle. “We can do this. You and I. We’re in it together.”
Light cracked across the dome behind him.
“Now. We could go get somewhere safe. We can do that, and I will stay with you to make sure you’re safe. But… we can’t be the only people who’ve noticed what’s going on. And those are your citizens out there. It’s only a matter of time before the newscasters pick up that we’re under attack. People will start panicking, and the last thing we want is a riot on our hands. But you are Princess Theresa Zollern, and with the king and queen gone, the people are going to look to you for leadership. So, Princess, what do we do now?”
She tried to remember the last time she’d had to avert a disaster, and the only thing she could think of was that party last summer where Avery had showed up without the rum he’d promised. But a quick delivery bot order resolved that calamity.
“Find… out what’s going on.”
“So, talk to Colonel Greer?” Jae-sun prompted.
“Yes. Then we’ll need to address the nation.”
“An emergency broadcast—send it out to everyone’s devices. Reassure them. Give them an explanation and instructions. Tell them you’re with them.”
She nodded. “I think I can do that.”
“I know you can do it,” Jae replied, and his eyes flashed fire.
When she thought about addressing the nation, Theresa wished she felt as confident about herself as he did. But she guessed doing it was like power gliding—don’t stop at the cliff’s edge to think about it, just jump. All she needed was to decide what to say, and Colonel Greer could help her with that.
“You’ll stay with me?” she asked.
“Yes, Princess. Every step of the way.”
Outside the docking bay, alarms blared through the mini-station. By that point, anyone with a device—that is, everyone on the mini-station—would be able to pull up an image of the habitat with the star gate behind it, with fifty-five missiles blazing toward them.
Over the speakers in their helmets, Otis said, “I do beg your pardon, Your Majesties, but two of the queen’s acquaintances are in the airlock requesting entry. Joss Howes and the one misleadingly termed ‘Scoot.’ While the door is not yet in danger from their request, if they continue to kick it, there is a sixteen-percent chance one or both wills will injure an appendage. Their suits are both well within normal parameters. Shall I open the door for them?”
Vincent agreed but reminded Cosima to get Otis offline first.
“A wise precaution, Your Majesty, but might I remind you, that while the AI systems directing the point defense turrets are moderately competent at intercepting incoming fire, my executive functions are vastly superior to theirs. Should you require my assistance, you have only to permit me to connect to the mainframe.”
“Thank you for your offer, Otis, but that won’t be necessary,” Vincent said. “We hope.”
When the airlock opened, Joss and Scoot tried to get out at the same time. Top heavy and not used to being suited up under gravity, they collided, bounced, flailed, tangled, and fell over in a pile of thrashing limbs. “Oh, for stars sake!” Cosima said and cycled the shuttle airlock.
The lock opened and Cosima hurried to reach her friends.
She prodded Joss with a booted foot and snapped, “What?”
“Oh.” Joss rolled over and got to his feet. “The station. It’s under attack.”
“We know. We’re working on it. Come on in and see.”
As she led them to the shuttle, Scoot said, “So, you got a mouse in your pocket or are you using the royal ‘we’ already?”
Cosima rolled her eyes. “Vincent. The king. My husband. We’re working on it.”
All three of them squeezed into the airlock. Inside the shuttle, the king had his helmet off and was watching the inbound missiles watching the defensive system intercept missiles.
“Do we… bow? Or something?” Scoot asked.
“Dispense with the pleasantries.” Vincent gestured for Cosima to join him. “Colonel Greer bounced me while you were gone. A Chaebol fleet will be here soon, but they couldn’t give us an exact timetable.”
“You mean we’re saved?” Cosima exclaimed.
Alarms blared again. Another salvo of missiles headed their way, at least twice as many as the first time.
“If we can hold out until they get here,” Vincent said, brow furrowed.
Cosima found herself holding her breath watching the green lasers picking off missiles. The lasers were fast, but they struggled to keep up.
“Sire,” Scoot said, studying the screen, “it looks like Aquitaine’s fleet let up on the planet. Maybe that’s a good thing, but…” The screen brightened with red missile icons. A whole new swarm of missiles, inbound. “Oh, that’s not good. Every one of ’em fired. Two minutes till impact.”
“Vince?” Cosima could feel the panic rising. “Do you think it’s time to bring Otis out yet?”
Joss looked around. “Who’s Otis?”
Ignoring him, Vincent frowned. “No.”
“And why not?” Cosima demanded, letting hot anger burn away her fear.
“He could take over the mainframe, and from there, all of Sidonia.”
“And that would be worse than us getting blasted into dust?”
“It’s a risk I can’t take.”
The guys watched the exchange like a tennis match, their heads moving side to side in unison.
“This point defense system was designed to be a last resort,” Cosima pressed, “not the only thing defending the star gate against an entire fleet. Vincent, it simply cannot keep up with this. That next round looks like an asteroid field! There’s no way six automated cannons can handle that.”
Vincent regarded Joss and Scoot. “Can you men handle a joystick?”
The guys stared at him like he was crazy.
“Of course,” Joss replied.
“Good. There’s four of us here and six turrets. Do you have two more spacers who can man a turret?”
“I got you, Chief.” Joss touched his comm. “Elle, you there? You and Kaylin, get your butts to the king’s shuttle, pronto. What? Yes, Kaylin too. We need her.”
Everyone took a seat at an interface, logged on, and waited for the missiles to get in range.
“Thirty seconds until targets are available,” Cosima called out.
Elle and Kaylin emerged from the shuttle lock and popped their helmets off.
“Hey,” Elle said. “You rang?”
“Take a seat, log on, and brace yourself. We’re huntin’ missiles,” Scoot drawled.
They dropped into seats and got themselves acclimated. Since controlling systems was their job, this was a cinch.
“Targets in range,” Cosima said, “in three, two, one—”
They fired on their targets, allowing the AI to lock on the targets they selected so they move on to the next missile. Cosima’s heart raced, her palms sweaty as she toggled the joystick from target to target. She started to feel hopeful after she blasted missiles, but the initial wave turned into a tsunami of red that six gunners couldn’t possibly keep up with.
There’s just too many! she thought with panic. What good are six of us against this storm?
The wave of red raced closer and closer, but the spacers kept shooting and the red cloud of missiles dwindled.
And then one hit.
“Oh shi—” was all Elle managed when the whole station shook. Warning alarms klaxoned, red lights blinked. Somewhere on the other side, a projectile had ripped the station open. The floor beneath them groaned.
“Keep shooting!” Vince shouted.
Cosima dashed a sleeve across her eyes, which blurred up as she tried very hard to find her next target and not think about helpless spacers being sucked out into the freezing cold of space, snuffed out by the void.
Her fingers were stiff, her neck ached. It didn’t matter; she kept shooting… and then they were gone.
She slumped in her seat, exhausted.
“They’re gonna fire again,” Scoot said. “Get ready. This time, they’ll give us all they got.”
No way, Cosima thought. No way we’ll survive this.
She looked at her husband, maybe for the last time. He seemed calm, just like she’d always imagined he would be in battle, and it almost made her smile.
At least if I have to die, she thought, I get to die with him. That’s something.
“Wait,” Elle said. “Look.”
A fleet of warships dropped out of hyperspace, divided like a river flowing around a rock, and positioned themselves between the star gate and the enemy fleet.
Chaebol had arrived.
Cosima wept with relief. She didn’t mean to; she couldn’t help it. But she didn’t care.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “We made it!”
Then she laughed, and her crew was laughing too. She tried to get up to join in the high-fives, but her knees wobbled so terribly, she dropped back into her seat.
“Thank God!” she whispered.
“Yes,” Vincent relied, lying back in his chair. “Him and Theresa.”
“Theresa?” Cosima didn’t understand. “What does my alcoholic, party-loving sister have to do with Chaebol showing up?”
“Everything, apparently,” Vincent replied and explained.
His explanation seemed a bit farfetched to Cosima. Her sister, smitten? She’d believe it when she saw it.
She shook her head and looked at her friends. Joss and Scoot were laughing at Elle’s dramatic re-enactment of the battle; only Kaylin seemed subdued. And Cosima remembered why.
Should she bring this up to Vincent right now? They were still in the middle of a crisis; the station alarms hadn’t shut off. Would the king really put everything on hold for one little girl? But when she remembered Kaylin’s desperation, she knew what she had to do.
“Vince, I know you’re really busy right now, fate of the world and all that, but I could use your help with something.”
When she saw that she had his attention, she continued, “That man who kidnapped me, he also stole a little girl. Kaylin’s daughter. Otis searched his records and found her. The man’s been keeping her in a room in the capital. Is there something we can do to find her? I don’t know if she’s had anything to eat in… a while.”
His eyes filled with concern. “I’ll bounce Colonel Greer about it immediately. He’ll send out a team of guardsmen. We’ll get her back.”
“Thank you!” Cosima jumped up and crushed him in a hug that was not in the least bit regal. He patted her awkwardly with his real arm.
“Don’t worry. I’ll put my top men on it.”
“Chaebol Geobukseon-class ships are targeting us!” a crewman shouted at Director Charles. “They’re between us and the star gate and—”
“Bring… bring us around.”
Chaebol ships continued to arrive in-system and occupied the slip point he planned to use to leave.
“Chaebol ships are making an attack run,” the crewman said. On screen, a number of Chaebol fighters pushed through the outer edge of his formation, firing as they went. On screen, his ships began to blink, indicating heavy damage.
“Order… order them to keep firing.” He was a spy master. A strong arm negotiator. He was not a naval commander.
“This isn’t in my contract.” The crewman turned his seat around. “We were promised hazard pay for this operation, but no one said anything about—”
“You’re fired!” Charles slapped the man across the face, knocking him out of the seat. His stood over the controls and pecked at the panels. “Tell the… someone order the Encumbrance to block that ship that’s heading right for us.”
“The Encumbrance… is signaling its surrender,” one of his aides said, her voice frightened.
“No no no, we just need to pull back and—”
The deck bucked and he went face first into the workstation. Before he could pick himself up, smoke stung his eyes and he started to cough. He wiped blood off a broken nose and saw his reflection in a panel. His face was a disaster, his hair mussed.
“Charles?” a woman with a lilting accent said over the ship’s comms. “Charles, this is Admiral Ahn Bong-cha, Chaebol Corporation.”
Her face appeared on every screen across the bridge.
Charles wiped at the blood on his face and spat, “You have engaged in premeditated attacks on Aquitaine personnel and property. Cease immediately or Aquitaine will own you by the time the lawsuit is over.”
“How curious,” Bong-cha said. “I was about to say the same thing to you. You deliberately damaged our star gate. Our treaty with Sidonia includes a duty to defend their sovereign territory as well as Chaebol property. I’m looking at what’s left of your fleet, and the capital value is far in excess of my back of the envelope calculations of damage and reparations to Sidonia and Chaebol.”
“We’re entitled to bring in third-party adjusters to settle any and all—”
“Yes. And I’m entitled to blow your ship to dust, then admire the pretty explosions as my targeting computers go from Aquitaine vessel to Aquitaine vessel until someone decides to surrender, and still collect real and punitive damages from Aquitaine. Is that going to be you—or someone smarter?”
Charles’s jaw dropped open, then closed with a click of teeth.
“We surrender,” he said.
Bong-cha rubbed her palms together.
“Did you know Chaebol gives a Christmas bonus? This is going to be a lucrative year for me,” she said. “Stand down and prepare to be boarded.”
“Wait.” Charles raised his hands. “I’ve just allowed you to secure a significant windfall for your company. Let me depart in my private yacht. Professional courtesy.”
“No, Charles, you’re going to the Sidonians. Contractual obligation. Nothing personal."
With a smile, she cut the channel.
The whole team waited behind him at the door. Who knew what was on the other side? The apartment they were about to breach was owned by the same terrorist who’d engineered some of the worst catastrophes Sidonia had ever seen. It’d been all over the headlines for months—construction projects collapsing, that explosion at the Franklin landing station, the assassination attempt on the queen. This guy was a freaking sociopath, and now they had orders to break into his pad and rescue some kid who was supposedly locked up there. But Sanders couldn’t hear a kid. He couldn’t hear anything, nothing besides his own breathing. He took one final puff from his inhaler.
“You good?” Rivers asked. Her job was to breach the door; he’d be the first one inside to face… whatever was in there.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
She flicked on a plasma cutter and sank the purple flame into the lock.
On Rivers’s signal, they kicked in the door and hustled in, Sanders in the lead looking for threats and seeing nothing but… some grandmother’s parlor? The tasseled shades on the windows were drawn, porcelain lamps on doilies, and a crocheted afghan draped the sofa. Coasters on every wooden surface, and was that a tea caddy on that table?
“Clear!” Sanders called and he moved on to the orange kitchen. He was eager to find the girl and get out of here. The place gave him the heebie-jeebies.
Nothing in the kitchen but a donut box in the fridge, with a single dried-up donut inside. Back in the parlor, the team milled around checking behind picture frames and under rugs and furniture to find the safe room.
“Are we sure this is the place?” Sanders asked Rivers, studying her data pad. “Don’t look like no assassin’s hideout. Looks like his dear old granny’s.”
“Hey,” she snapped her fingers in his face, “can we focus? We gotta find this kid.”
Yeah, he wasn’t great at focusing. That wasn’t his specialty.
“Kid!” he shouted. “You in here?”
The only thing they heard was the ticking of the mechanical clock on the mantel. This place was like a freaking museum.
“If you’d stop shouting,” Rivers said, “maybe we’d hear something.”
But they leaned into the silence and heard nothing.
Sanders went to the tea set, flipped a cup over, and set it against the wall. He shushed everyone and listened through it. Sure enough, rapping vibrated through the cup, tickling his ear.
“She’s here, or someone’s here—someone’s tapping in the wall. You can just put your ear up and listen.”
Everyone put their ear up to the wall and heard it, a faint tapping. They followed it to the closet, pushed aside some mothballed coats, and found it. The almost-invisible outline of a safe room door. Rivers’s plasma cutter made quick work of it. Pushing through the door, they found Ilana in a cramped room, sitting on the floor surrounded by dolls. They stared at Sanders with wide, unblinking eyes.
He shuddered. “Can we firebomb this place when we leave?” he asked Rivers.
“No. That would be bad for the building’s structural integrity. But I’m right with you, brother.”
She stooped in front of the little girl.
“Hey, there. I’m Guardsman Rivers, and that’s Sanders. You’re Ilana, aren’t you?”
The girl nodded.
“Your momma sent us to find you. She says she misses you, and thanks for the daisy necklace. She wears it every day.”
Ilana cracked a smile at that.
“You ready to get out of here?”
She held up her hand and the girl high-fived it. Rivers chuckled and led her out.
Sanders’s heart swelled. Maybe they hadn’t saved the world, but they’d found one little person. To him in that moment, it was everything.
Twelve months later…
Cosima touched the double doors open and peeked through the crack. She was alone in a sunlit hallway, but on the other side of that door milled an enormous crowd. Dignitaries from all over Sidonia had arrived—lords in their embroidered jackets, their ladies in elaborate gowns with even more elaborate hair, dukes and duchesses, margraves, counts, barons, and artisans dressed to represent every guild and craft hall. Of course, the press corps had descended on the scene like gulls, flocking to find the best angle to take their shots. No one wanted to miss the premier event of the year, or—if you were to ask Theresa—the century.
Her stomach churned. Any moment now, the cathedral bells would peal, and that would be her cue to enter. Was she going to have to go through with this on her own, without Vincent? Their relationship had improved by leaps and bounds, and she was pretty sure he didn’t need a lecture for missing this.
She checked her dress to make sure it was perfect. The mint green confection had a fitted bodice and flowed from the waist, setting off her newfound curves in a way that Theresa promised looked gorgeous, and not at all like a walrus. A puffy, mint green walrus.
The image of her face plastered on a walrus’s body dissipated at the sound of footsteps striding down the hallway. She knew those steps.
Square-shouldered and in full military regalia, Vincent arrived carrying a little pink bundle.
Cosima eyed her husband critically, taking in his tall, handsome form, the formal insignia of the supreme commander of Sidonia’s forces, the ribbons lauding his victories, and the white splotch staining his chest to mark his most recent accomplishment, becoming a father. He held the baby in his arms. Not even a month old, the little prince already had the most powerful man on the planet wrapped around his tiny finger. He barely had to utter a cry before Vincent was up and checking to see if he needed a new diaper or bottle. It amazed Cosima that one so small wielded so much power.
She used her sleeve to try to wipe the smudge away, and when that didn’t work, tried with spit on her finger.
“No red sash today?” she asked.
“I had to ditch it. Paul spat up all over it on the way here. I’m the king. I can set my own dress code.”
“He’s already demanding wardrobe changes, then. I wonder what’ll come next.”
“No clue,” he said. Little Paul grabbed on his metal finger and refused to give it up.
“Well, even without the sash, you look handsome.”
“And you are beautiful.” He leaned down to kiss her just as the bells began to toll, pealing merrily to announce the royal couple’s entrance into a grand hall where Sidonia’s nobles and luminaries were gathered.
Theresa and Jae-sun were the first to wave at the family. Theresa wagged her left hand at her sister, flashing an oversized engagement ring.
“He proposed a month ago,” Cosima said as she rolled her eyes. “When is she going to get over it?”
“She wants a royal wedding.” Vincent ran fingertips over his infant son’s head to calm him as the clapping continued. “She thinks Sidonia deserves it, as our ceremony was rushed and out of the public eye. The cost projections are—”
“She also won’t shut up about that,” Cosima said. “Consider it coin well spent to give a better memory for our people than the one from the last royal wedding. And we owe it to Jae-sun and the Chaebol.”
“A return to normalcy… I guess I’ll grin and bear it,” Vincent said.
“There. You can be trained.”
“You’re quite the negotiator.”
They waited for a set of double doors to open onto the palace balcony. Tens of thousands of Sidonians greeted them with a roar.
“Oh my.” Cosima touched her shield emitter necklace, then glanced at the one disguised as one of Vincent’s many medals.
The king gave a quick pat to his son’s back, double-checking his shield was active.
“Ready to meet your kingdom, little one?” Vincent asked.
Paul spat up.
Cosima whipped out a cloth and wiped the baby’s mouth, then handed it off to Lana.
“Shall we?” Cosima asked and the family stepped through the doorway.
“Hello, this is Vanessa Blanco with Sidonia Tonight.” The news anchor, her face as ageless as ever, reported from the base of a palace balcony, floral bouquets crowding the stone walls, speaking to a floating camera bot.
“I’m here just outside the palace, waiting for an official announcement. What an exciting time for Sidonia! Just one week after the maiden colony ship jumped through the Chaebol gate to Gaia, is the news that Queen Cosima has given birth to a royal heir. My sources in the palace say that she and King Vincent will show the new baby to all the world any moment now.”
“You.” Blanco grabbed a man clinging to the barricade separating them from the palace grounds. “Sir, what’re your feelings on this momentous occasion?”
The man, his beard thick and unkempt, looked at the camera like it was about to eat him.
“Uh…” he managed.
A roar went up.
“Get the balcony, get the balcony!” Blanco ordered the camera bot. It angled up and caught the king and queen, he in uniform, she in a comfortable-looking dress, as they stepped out on the balcony.
Queen Cosima held a baby swaddled in white against her chest. She raised the infant so the kingdom could see the baby’s face.
“Hold on.” Blanco put a finger against her earpiece. “Yes, I have confirmation, the baby is a boy and his name is Paul. Prince Paul, everyone—the future King of Sidonia!” Blanco joined in the applause.
Queen Cosima looked to the sky, past the silver rings and out to Styria station. She kissed her son on the forehead and smiled at her husband with love. She was home, at last.
From the Authors
Hello, dear and gentle reader. Thank you for joining Lauren and I on this journey to finish Cosima and Vincent’s story. Sidonia is in good hands now. There’s much more in the Gaia worlds to discover, and we’ll take a journey there soon. Not too soon, but soon.
If you’re be so kind, leave an honest review for the story. Your feedback and support mean a great deal to me as an author.
And if you’d like more, sign up for my spam-free mailing list and get a free book while you’re at it.
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Also By Richard Fox:
8. The Crucible
The Ember War Saga Volume II: Terran Armor Corps
6. Ferrum Corde
5. Gott Mit Uns
1. Terra Nova
4. Hale’s War
1. Albion Lost
3. Finest Hour
5. The Last Ditch (Coming soon!)
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The Earth is doomed. Humanity has a chance.
In the near future, an alien probe arrives on Earth with a pivotal mission—determine if humanity has what it takes to survive the impending invasion by a merciless armada.
The probe discovers Marc Ibarra, a young inventor, who holds the key to a daring gambit that could save a fraction of Earth's population. Humanity's only chance lies with Ibarra's ability to keep a terrible secret and engineer the planet down the narrow path to survival.
Earth will need a fleet. One with a hidden purpose. One strong enough to fight a battle against annihilation.
The Ember War is the first installment in an epic military sci-fi series. If you like A Hymn Before Battle by John Ringo and The Last Starship by Vaughn Heppner, then you'll love this explosive adventure with constant thrills and high stakes from cover to cover.
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Want to read the first chapter?
THE NEAR FUTURE
Humanity’s only hope of survival entered the solar system at nearly the speed of light. The probe slowed as the sun’s heliosphere disrupted the graviton wave it rode in on from the abyss of deep space. Awakened by the sudden deceleration, the probe absorbed the electromagnetic spectrum utilized by its target species and assessed the technological sophistication of the sole sentient species on Earth.
The probe adjusted its course to take it into the system’s star. If the humans couldn’t survive—with its help—what was to come, then the probe would annihilate itself. There would be no trace of it for the enemy, and no chance of humanity’s existence beyond the time it had until the enemy arrived. The probe analyzed filed patents, military expenditures, birth rates, mathematical advancement and space exploration.
The first assessment fell within the margin of error of survival and extinction for humanity. The probe’s programming allowed for limited autonomous decision making (choice being a rare luxury for the probe’s class of artificial intelligence). The probe found itself in a position to choose between ending its mission in the sun’s fire and a mathematically improbable defense of humanity—and the potential compromise of its much larger mission.
Given the rare opportunity to make its own decision, the probe opted to dither. In the week it took to pass into Jupiter’s orbit, the probe took in more data. It scoured the Internet for factors to add to the assessment, but the assessment remained the same: unlikely, but possible. By the time it shot past Mars, the probe still hadn’t made a decision.
As the time to adjust course for Earth or continue into the sun approached, the probe conducted a final scan of cloud storage servers for any new information…and found something interesting.
While the new information made only a negligible impact on the assessment, the probe adjusted course to Earth. It hadn’t traveled all this way for nothing.
In the desert south of Phoenix, Arizona, it landed with no more fanfare than a slight thump and a few startled cows. Then it broke into the local cell network and made a call.
Marc Ibarra awoke to his phone ringing at max volume, playing a pop ditty that he hated with vehemence. He rolled off the mattress that lay on the floor and crawled on his hands and knees to where his cell was recharging. His roommate, who paid the majority of their rent and got to sleep on an actual bed, grumbled and let off a slew of slurred insults.
Marc reached his cell and slapped at it until the offending music ended. He blinked sleep from his eyes and tried to focus on the caller’s name on the screen. The only people who’d call at this ungodly hour were his family in Basque country…or maybe Jessica in his applied robotics course wanted a late-night study break.
The name on the screen was “ANSWER ME”.
He closed an eye and reread the name. It was way too early—or too late, depending on one’s point of view—for this nonsense. He turned the ringer off and went back to bed. Sleep was about to claim him when the phone rang again, just as loudly as last time but now with a disco anthem.
“Seriously?” his roommate slurred.
Marc declined the call and powered the phone off. He flopped back on his bed and curled into his blanket. To hell with my first class, he thought. Arizona State University had a lax attendance policy, one which he’d abuse for nights like this.
The cell erupted with big-band music. Marc took his head out from beneath the covers and looked at his phone like it was a thing possessed. The phone vibrated so hard that it practically danced a jig on the floor and the screen flashed “ANSWER ME” over and over again as music blared.
“Dude?” said his roommate, now sitting up in his bed.
Marc swiped the phone off the charging cord and the music stopped. The caller’s name undulated with a rainbow of colors and an arrow appeared on the screen pointing to the button he had to press to answer the call. When did I get this app? he thought.
Marc sighed and left the bedroom, meandering into the hallway bathroom with the grace of a zombie. The battered mattress he slept on played hell with his back and left him stiff every morning. Dropping his boxers, he took a seat on the toilet and answered the call, determined to return this caller’s civility with some interesting background noise.
“What?” he murmured.
“Marc Ibarra. I need to see you.” The voice was mechanical, asexual in its monotone.
“Do you have any frigging idea what time it is? Wait, who the hell is this?”
“You must come to me immediately. We must discuss the mathematical proof you have stored in document title ‘thiscantberight.doc.’”
Marc shot to his feet. The boxers around his ankles tripped him up and he stumbled out of the bathroom and fell against the wall. His elbow punched a hole in the drywall and the cell clattered to the floor.
He scooped the phone back up and struggled to breathe as a sudden asthma attack came over him.
“How…how…?” He couldn’t finish his question until he found his inhaler in the kitchen, mere steps away in the tiny apartment. He took a deep breath from the inhaler and felt the tightness leave his lungs.
That someone knew of his proof was impossible. He’d finished it earlier that night and had encrypted it several times before loading it into a cloud file that shouldn’t have been linked to him in any way.
“How do you know about that?” he asked.
“You must come to me immediately. There is little time. Look at your screen,” the robotic voice said. His screen changed to a map program, displaying a pin in an open field just off the highway connecting Phoenix to the suburb of Maricopa.
Marc grabbed his keys.
An hour later, his jeans ripped from scaling a barbed-wire fence, Marc was surrounded by desert scrub. The blue of the morning rose behind him, where his beat-up Honda waited on the side of the highway.
With his cell to his ear, Marc stopped and looked around before deciding how to continue. Spiked ocotillo plants looked a lot like benign mesquite trees in the darkness. A Native American casino in the distance served as his North Star, helping him keep his bearings.
“You’re not out here, are you? I’m being punked, aren’t I?” he asked the mysterious caller.
“You are nine point two six meters to my east south east. Punk: decayed wood, used as tinder. Are you on fire?” the caller said.
Marc rolled his eyes. This wasn’t the first time the caller had used the nonstandard meanings of words during what passed as conversation between the two. Marc had tried to get the caller to explain how he knew about his theorem and why they had to meet in the middle of the desert. The caller had refused to say anything. He would only reiterate that Marc had to come quickly to see him, chiding him every time Marc deviated from the provided driving directions.
“If you’re so close, why can’t I see you?” he asked. He took a few steps in what he thought was a northwesterly direction and squished into a cow patty.
“Continue,” the caller said.
Marc shook his foot loose and tried to kick the cow leavings from his sneakers.
“You know what this is? This is exactly what’s all over my shoes, you monotone bastard. Forget it!” Marc shoved his phone into his back pocket and limped back toward his car, his right foot squishing with each step.
The route back to his car was comparatively easy; he just had to walk toward his headlights. That was the plan, anyway, until the lights on his car shut off.
“Marc, this is important.” The muffled words came from his pocketed cell.
“How are you doing this?” Marc shouted into the night.
“Turn around, please.”
Marc did as asked and a silver light like the snap of a reflection from a fish twisting just beneath the water flared on the ground ahead of him. No one was there a moment ago and Marc hadn’t heard any movement.
“I swear if I get my kidneys cut out I will be so pissed about this,” Marc said as he made his way to where he saw the light. He stood for a moment, then flopped his arms against his sides. “I’m here.”
“You’re standing on me.” The voice came from beneath Marc’s feet.
Marc skipped aside like he’d just heard a rattlesnake’s warning.
“Holy—did someone bury you? Why didn’t you tell me to bring a shovel?” Marc went to his knees and poked at the ground, which felt solid. “How deep are you? Do you have enough air?” Marc asked, using both hands to shove earth aside.
“Two inches ahead and three down.”
Marc’s face contorted in confusion as he kept digging. He moved a mound of gray dirt and pebbles aside and a silver light washed over his face.
A silver needle no more than three inches long rested in the dirt. Tiny filaments of lambent energy crept from the needle and undulated through the air like a snake in the ocean. Marc was frozen in place, his jaw slack as the filaments extended away from the needle, shades of white swimming in and around it.
“We don’t have much time.” The words came from the needle in the same mechanical voice as his mysterious caller. A point of light appeared in the air above the needle, sparked, and then lit into a flame no bigger than he’d seen on a match head. The white flame, which gave off no heat, rose and grew in size. A flame the size of Marc’s head came to a stop a few feet in the air.
Marc, transfixed by the flame until now, got to his feet. The filaments from the needle had extended past him and formed a perimeter ten yards in diameter. Tendrils of energy writhed against each other and against an invisible boundary. His heart pounded in his ears and his innate fight-or-flight instinct made a decision.
“This is a different experience for you. Let me—”
Marc turned and ran away. He got to where the tendrils had stopped and ran into what felt like a wall of water. Air thickened around him as he tried to push through and find purchase on the ground ahead. It felt like he was moving through clay.
“Marc, you’re being ridiculous.” The air hardened and spat him back toward the flame. Marc tripped over his own feet and tumbled to the ground. He snapped back to his feet and looked for a way, anyway, to put some distance between him and the flame.
The flame, white on silver or silver on white—Marc couldn’t tell as it morphed in the air—floated toward him slowly.
Marc made the sign of the cross with two fingers and looked away. He heard a sigh.
“Look at me.” The flame, again.
Marc opened an eye. The flame was a few inches from his hands but he still felt no heat.
“I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to help you. Understand?” The flame bobbed in the air gently until Marc nodded. “I am an emissary from an alien intelligence sent to save your species from extinction and I need your help to do it.”
Marc pointed a finger at the flame and tried to touch it. His fingertip passed into the flame’s surface without sensation.
“I thought unsolicited physical contact was against your species’ norms,” said the flame, the tendrils rustling with the words.
Marc snapped his hand back.
“Did you say something about…extinction?” The flame bobbed in the air. “How? Why?”
“An armada is coming.” The flame morphed into an oblong shape with a half dozen tendrils sticking from it, like a misshapen spider. “They are the Xaros and they will annihilate your species with ease. Unless you and I work together, your extinction is assured,” the flame said, floating closer to Marc, who stood dumbfounded. The flame came so close that he could see his reflection on it. Deep blue motes of light sprang from the flame and evaporated in the air.
“Why me? What am I supposed to do about an alien armada? I’m a B-minus grad student with a mountain of student loans, not some…some world leader!”
The probe returned to flames and a hologram of a white paper popped into the air next to it. Pages flipped open from the book, the mathematical proof he’d finished the night before.
“We expected that your species would have progressed to the edge of your solar system by now. To see such potential squandered on wars and Internet cat videos was disheartening, but this is well beyond what you should be capable of. The advancements you discovered in material science and energy storage are a springboard to technological advancement that will give you a 27 percent chance of survival, provided everything goes as planned. We can start here.” The proof stopped with the picture of a lattice of carbon atoms. The last page had the words “No way!!!!” scrawled next to the diagram.
“I don’t understand,” Marc said.
“You will, but we need to get started right away.”
“How much time do we have?”
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