Sword and Star (Root Code, #3)

Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-302-5
eBook release: 
May 23, 2016
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-303-2
Print release: 
May 23, 2016
Word count: 
109,000
Page count: 
408
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This title is #3 of the Root Code series.

This title is part of the Songs of Slipstream universe.

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Three months after a brutal battle at Peris, Adam Yuga, Lochlan D’Bideshi, and their rebel fleet are embroiled in a new conflict. But things aren’t going well. Even with Lock’s homeship, Ashwina, at the head of the fleet, the Protectorate forces are adapting to their tactics. Before long, two devastating blows send the ragtag rebels on the run. But the greatest threat may come from within.

Since the battle at Peris, Protectorate loyalist Isaac Sinder’s determination to eliminate the rebel fleet has only intensified—along with his ambition. The Protectorate is decaying, and it’s clear to Isaac that only he can save it, by any means necessary.

As the situation worsens for the rebels, the strain begins to tell on everyone. But more than exhaustion grows within Adam. Something alien has started to change him. Lochlan fights to hold on, but even he may not be able to follow Adam down the dark road ahead.

As Isaac’s obsession turns to insanity, it becomes evident that more sinister plans than his are at work. Bound together by threads of fate and chance, Adam and Lochlan turn their eyes toward a future that may tear them apart—if they’re lucky enough to survive it at all.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Accretion

Sometimes Adam went wandering.

Sometimes he was almost afraid. A great deal of the time he was certain Lochlan was.

But he had learned that there was only so much he could do about their threatening fear. Only so much of himself he could spare for that, for worry. Hadn’t they long ago passed the point of no return? If there was an event horizon, hadn’t they crossed it? Blown over it like a bullet, like the first shot fired in a storm of them.

Because it was that. It was exactly that. Bullets, shooting, and gone so far that there could never be any turning back.

He could only ever go forward now. The same was true for all of them.

So Adam went wandering through the night that went on forever.

He saw a great deal. Much of it made little sense to him. Much more made no sense at all. But he had grown comfortable with nonsense, as one grows comfortable with a change in gravity, in light, in temperature. You grow accustomed. You acclimate. You adapt.

From his conception Adam had been carefully engineered to be strong in body and in mind, impervious to illnesses both chronic and acute, physically attractive within a rigidly defined set of standards—and adaptable. On the Plain of Heaven, things had been changed inside him, other things stripped away, and now his reflexes weren’t what they once were, his strength was no longer so reliable, and he was more easily weakened than he had before. So many small alterations, so many tiny reorderings and reorganizations. So much movement.

Things had been taken from him. But other things had been given to him. And above all else he had retained the ability to adapt.

He knew how life forms evolved. He knew what time did to them, how it ravaged. How it could be cruel. He knew that the life that survived was the life that could adapt.

As he wandered through the dark and among the traveling stars, he meditated on these things. Somewhere distant, his body rested aboard Ashwina: massive Ashwina, gentle Ashwina, Ashwina the Bideshi homeship and Ashwina the cradle of his first rebirth, Ashwina his adopted home. If he had a home anymore.

Ashwina the machine of war.

He turned and looked back at it, hanging there in sub-slipstream, a little cloud of smaller ships drifting around it like a swarm of flies around some great beast, glittering in starlight. He beheld their fleet, such as it was—all scavenged, many of the ships stolen, some in poor repair, some half-built from the salvaged components of multiple others. He surveyed it with cool detachment, evaluating, briefly seeing it through the eyes of another, an outsider. No one would consider it impressive. No one would consider it a threat, not against any significant military force. No one would consider it formidable, not even with Ashwina’s enormous bulk at its center.

Like this, Adam was bodiless. He was consciousness alone. But as he thought these things, he smiled.

It was a tight smile, almost grim. He could take no joy in this conflict they were now part of. It was his doing—his among others—and he knew it, accepted it.

Regretted it. Not that it had happened. But that it had been necessary.

In three months, it was as if he had aged three decades.

He was alone here, but he could sense the beautiful chaos of minds on the small ships, on Ashwina—a strange chorus of life and everything life contained. But for the moment he had left them behind. Now he walked through the night, and as he gazed out into the countless stars and their eons of light, a face he knew coalesced from it and took shape in front of him, like a fantastically complex constellation. He felt no fear as he watched it happen, and he felt no surprise.

He felt no anger as he looked into the coldly aristocratic face of Melissa Cosaire.

She was not there, of course. She was dead, and if any part of her still existed, it was lost to him, and he had no desire to find it. But he gave her a nod, as if she were really with him. Now she was human-sized and human-shaped, and standing before him on nothing at all. Her arms were folded over her chest, her suit as immaculately tailored and pressed as ever, and she wore the same familiar expression of restrained impatience he had seen her adopt every time he’d met her.

Hello, Melissa.

You were my subordinate, she said stiffly. You shouldn’t call me that. Ms. Cosaire, if you please.

You’re dead, Adam pointed out gently. I don’t think it much matters what I call you now.

Dead or alive, you can mind your manners. I don’t imagine you’re rude to that Bideshi witch you drag around in your head.

Adam laughed. Without anger, without any desire for vengeance, and with the power this woman had once held over him now gone, talking to her ghost was oddly pleasant. Regardless of the fact that she was imaginary. Ixchel comes and goes as she pleases. I don’t drag her around anywhere. She would never stand for that.

Cosaire rolled her starry eyes. Whatever you say, you degenerate.

Nice to see you, too. Your head appears remarkably intact. What did Aarons call you? Before he blew a hole in it? ‘Missy’? There was no malice in his voice. If anything, he was teasing. The dead, Adam supposed, had to learn to thicken their skins.

And indeed, Cosaire didn’t seem hurt. She rolled her eyes again and waved a hand. His manners were worse than yours.

Mm. Adam moved beside her, and together they watched the fleet. He misses you. He’d never admit it, but he does. He might not have liked you, Melissa, but he respected you. He paused. So did I, if it comes to that. Once I even cared a great deal about what you thought of me.

She gave him a sidelong look, and her expression was difficult to read. And now?

Now you’re dead. Adam returned her look with a smile.

If you feel some respect for the dead, you genetic mistake, you could show it.

Adam shook his head. If I was a mistake, so were you. The sickness was killing you, Melissa. Just like it was killing me. Just like it was killing all of them. He nodded at the fleet, at the stolen and scavenged and salvaged Protectorate ships full of once-defective defectors. Just like it’s killing the entire Protectorate. You know where the mistake was. You couldn’t admit it. That was what killed you in the end, not Bristol Aarons. Not his bullet. You know it. Admit it. You’re dead. You have nothing left to lose.

No, she said softly, and there was quiet regret in her voice. He wondered whether he was truly imagining her.

And then he didn’t stop wondering.

No?

No, I have nothing left to lose. There’s a freedom in that, boy. You’ll know it in time. You and your lover. You and your lover and the rest of them.

We’re all for death, he replied. 

So it’s really to be war, then?

Adam shrugged. Isn’t it already?

Cosaire huffed a laugh. A few raids on a few outposts and you’re calling it a war? That’s a slight overstatement, don’t you think?

It’s the beginning of one. We began it three months ago. On Peris.

That was a reconnaissance fleet. Poorly armed, poorly armored. There was no particular heat in her tone, no particular sharpness. They weren’t ready for you. You took the one advantage any inferior force ever has—you surprised them. You continue to surprise them, but you won’t forever. Sooner or later they’ll be ready for you. Then you’ll have to face them.

She regarded him, and her eyes were full of freezing night. Then, Adam, you’ll see what war is. And I promise you, every battle you’ve seen—Peris, the skirmish at the detention center, even the Battle of the Plain—will look like a sparring match in a dojo on Ashwina. You haven’t seen blood spilled. You haven’t seen horror. You haven’t seen death. She gave him a smile, thin but not cold. Sad. I’m dead. I would know.

Adam was silent. When one couldn’t think of what to say, he had learned—and this before he ever fell from the Protectorate’s grace, before he ever found an uneasy home with the Bideshi—that it was better to be silent. And what could he say, in any case?

She wasn’t wrong. He knew that much.

I don’t fear for you, Adam. Her voice was fading, and she was fading as well. Rejoining the stars, slipping back into the night.

I don’t fear for you. But you should fear for yourself. You should fear for all of them.

You should fear.

She was gone. Adam was alone.

He wasn’t afraid. Not yet.

But he might learn to be.

 

Chapter One

Ten minutes after the ships entered low orbit and issued their first volley of warning shots, the atmosphere exploded.

It didn’t literally explode. But looking on from Ashwina, staring with his mouth hanging slightly open, it appeared that way to Lochlan. A blaze of fire, of detonations, of explosions of flammable gas as holes burst open in the ships’ hulls. It was oddly lovely, like fireworks against the brown and blue continents and oceans of the planet, the long glittering snakes of rivers. To the right, a band of night was spinning toward them, and here and there in tiny, shimmering patches were the lights of settlements.

He stood there, helpless, and watched their people die.

A few feet away, Adisa whirled from the primary viewscreen to one of the coordinators who was sitting at her console, staring at her own smaller screen, her fingers poised above her touchpads. Her eyes were wide.

“Report.”

“I . . .” She shook her head, opened a window to the left of her screen, and began to pull up strings of text and figures.

Damage reports, automatically compiled. The casualty reports would not be automatic. But they would come.

Lochlan closed his eyes, his hands clenched into fists.

“Heavy surface-to-orbit artillery barrage,” called another coordinator. Her words trembled.

“They didn’t have any heavy artillery. They didn’t have any significant planetary defensive systems at all.” Rachel, her voice tight.

“They weren’t supposed to,” Lochlan said quietly. “Clearly we were wrong.”

“Kae doesn’t get things wrong. He hasn’t once—that fucking intuition of his. You’re saying it failed?” She was close to him—he could practically feel the way her presence shoved aside the air in front of him. In the camp where he and Aarons and Adam had found her, she had been impressive. Now she was frightening when she wanted to be. He opened his eyes. On the screen behind her, their raiding ships were dropping out of the sky.

“Don’t blame this on him.” Lochlan’s eyes narrowed. He felt sick, cold; he didn’t want a fight, not over this. Not with her. Not while people were dying.

“I’m not blaming him.” Rachel turned, tugging her shoulder-length braids away from her face—a nervous habit she had picked up recently. “It doesn’t matter. Get them all back here, now. And what about Kae? Any word?” This to Adisa, to the six coordinators at their screens—possibly also to the five other council members gathered at the edges of the room. The defensive command chamber was reasonably large, but with this many people packed into it, it was positively claustrophobic.

“No, he’s—” The coordinator touched a finger to the comm bud tucked into her ear. “He’s reporting in now. He says he’s lost three—no, four of his wing.”

Khara,” Adisa breathed, and Lochlan closed his eyes again. Kae alive, but others not, and they didn’t have many to spare. And they were people he knew.

He knew all of them.

“What about Bristol?” Rachel’s voice was level, but there was clear effort behind it. Aarons was supposedly hanging back on one of the larger cruisers. He would be mostly out of harm’s way if the shots were focused on their raiding ships. For the moment. But Rachel loved Aarons with a ferocity Lochlan had rarely seen, and though she would surely keep it in check, it would be boiling beneath her composure.

“He just sent us a report.” An older man, dark hair white at the temples, glanced up from his console. “No damage on his end. They’re too high.”

Adisa swiped a hand down his face. “For now. Pull him back. Pull them all back. Tell them to regroup out past the fourth moon. We’ll be the rendezvous point.” He had been old for a long time, but after the Battle of the Plain and Ixchel’s death, he had aged further. Now, three months into a grinding conflict, he appeared positively ancient.

“Yes, sir.” A chorus of voices, rapidly moving hands.

Lochlan saw three of the older council members bending their heads together and murmuring, their faces tense. It was unlikely they would say much; the council of Ashwina tended to concern itself with internal matters. They wouldn’t make trouble. All their potential troublemaking had been dispensed with when Ashwina separated from her sister ships Jakana and Suzaku and did what almost no other Bideshi homeship ever had. When she left her convoy.

Now there were more losses. And there would be still more. Lochlan shifted his attention back to the viewscreen; there was less flaming debris—fallen out of sight—and their remaining ships were limping away. Even the planet seemed to have halted its fire. In what felt like a matter of seconds, the fight had ended. Only a few seconds to deal them a blow that would be, if not lethal, massively damaging.

To the ships, to the people—and to the spirit.

“Wings are coming. Kae’s bringing his people in.”

“As soon as they’re docked, we go.” Adisa clasped his large hands in front of him, his head down. Briefly Lochlan thought about going to him, trying to offer comfort, but knew it would be ill-advised. Ixchel could have done it. She was the only one who ever could.

Though there might be another.

“Adisa,” Lochlan said quietly. “I’m going to the Halls. Do you have any message for Nkiruka?” He swallowed. “Or Adam?”

Adisa drew close but didn’t answer for a moment. He glanced over his shoulder to where Rachel stood, her arms crossed, her head tipped up to the viewscreen, and her face turned away from them. “No,” he said just as quietly, and after another second or two he laid a hand on Lochlan’s shoulder and squeezed. “No, son. I expect she already knows everything. Him as well.”

Lochlan nodded. Very likely, it was so. When he went to them, he would carry no surprises with him.

And he had to go to them. It was more than desire. Right now, it was the only place he could be.

*  *  *

The Arched Halls were always still and yet always alive with movement and sound—soft whispers, hisses, even music so far distant it was barely there at all, like someone’s memory loosed into the world and carried through the interwoven branches by a breeze. Lights danced and shadows shifted, and the paths and clearings were never the same from day to day. It was a place soaked in life, a center of life, a nucleus of the ship. Each one a fragment of a whole that bound all Bideshi together.

Through births and deaths, feasts and famines, gain and loss, joy and grief, they should remain a constant. Unchanging and yet always changed. But as Lochlan walked in under the spreading boughs of impossibly ancient trees, he sensed a difference.

He had since Ashwina left her sisters. Since they chose to wander alone. That much made sense. But this was something else.

For a moment he stood, feeling the change around him. Feeling it breathing and beating like an enormous body—which really it was. Then he began to walk again.

He didn’t know exactly where he would have to go, but he probably wouldn’t have to go far in. Once he would have been relieved at that; the Arched Halls were supposed to be a place of peace and refuge, but Lochlan had never been entirely comfortable there, and that had had only a limited amount to do with Ixchel and how she had seemed to love to pin him—bug-like—and make him squirm. It was just him, was all. His nature—restless, unsteady, unbalanced. Rather than restore his balance, the Halls had merely made him uneasy

But his nature had changed after the Battle of the Plain and Adam’s healing, and it had continued to change since his and Adam’s marriage. Kae had said that marriage would alter him in ways he could never possibly anticipate, and Kae—a matrimonial veteran of nearly a decade—would know. And he had been transformed. The unsteadiness had become steadier. The lack of balance had begun to right itself. He felt older, but more than anything else he felt more like himself, like the man who had been hiding under a boy’s cockiness and affected carelessness and volatile anger.

So he had come to find a peace in the Halls that had always eluded him. He might not be here for a happy purpose, but he knew that when it came time for him to leave, he would do so only reluctantly.

This place was more than peace. This place was a sanctuary.

But not for Nkiruka. Not for Adam. The Halls did not hold them within themselves. From beyond their bodies, beyond the ship, they would have seen everything. Felt everything.

He found them less than five minutes later—because they wanted to be found, most likely. If they hadn’t, they would probably have been able to arrange things so that the Halls hid them, maneuvered anyone else away from where they kept their meditation. They were sitting across from each other in a small clearing, and between them burned a fire. Their heads were up, but Adam’s eyes were closed, and Nkiruka’s . . .

Nkiruka would never see again. Not as Adam did, not as Lochlan did. Not with her birth-given eyes, which were white and sightless, the skin around them scarred. But no one who knew her—who knew any of the Aalim—was fooled. Her gifts allowed her to see far further and more deeply than a common human.

But when Lochlan approached, she closed her eyes and tipped her head downward. Mingled confusion and anger crossed her face. She wouldn’t be expecting him to blame her for what had happened, but she would blame herself.

“Old Mother.” Lochlan stopped by the fire and ducked his head. The form of address was customary only; Nkiruka was a young woman, still in her midtwenties, and the glow of the fire on her deep-brown skin somehow made her appear even younger—and extraordinarily lovely. But with an Aalim, age meant little. Her soul was old. It always had been, and then when she had formally been given her place, it had aged much more.

She turned toward him, held up a hand, and beckoned him to sit. As he did, Adam opened his eyes.

They were bloodshot, as if he had been crying. Though there was no other sign of it.

“Lochlan.” Nkiruka looked from him to Adam and back. “I assume you know you don’t need to tell us anything. We saw it all.”

Lochlan nodded. “But I thought I should come.” He glanced at Adam again and pain stabbed at his heart—a complex pain, deeper than mere sorrow. Adam and Nkiruka had both been ready to be present with the minds and spirits of the raiding party, to give them focus and strength, but their powers were limited to that. They wouldn’t have been able to stop weapons.

“You did well in thinking so.” Nkiruka was silent a moment, and Adam said nothing. He simply gazed at Lochlan, a terrible kind of helplessness twisting at his features.

Lochlan wanted to go to him, but he shouldn’t. Not yet. Adam was still returning to himself. And he was returning wounded.

“We don’t yet have a full casualty report,” he started, but Nkiruka cut him off with a raised hand and a shake of her head.

“Twenty-seven dead. Kae lost four ships of his wing, which is two singles and two doubles. Six. I knew them. I knew them all, but those . . . Somehow it’s worse. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. The others were on . . .” She sighed deeply, but before she could continue, Adam spoke.

“Eight ships. In all.” His voice was low and flat, and his eyes were slightly unfocused. “We can give you their names. Someone should notify their people, someone should—”

“That’s not necessary, chusile,” Lochlan said gently. “I’m sure they already know the names by now.”

“But they—” A hard edge of desperation sliced into Adam’s voice, and for an instant the look in his eyes was both sharply focused and stricken. Then he shook his head and seemed to pull back into himself. “Yes. All right.”

“There’s little else we can tell you from this end,” Nkiruka said quietly, almost as if Adam hadn’t spoken. “Once we rendezvous with the others and the fleet can confer, I should be able to issue a word.”

Lochlan ducked his head again, close to a bow. “Thank you.” He paused. “Nkiru.”

He saw her start. He had swung abruptly from formal address to deeply informal—not only her true name but its abbreviated version—and he hadn’t known her well prior to her taking the place of Aalim. She had always been Kae and Leila’s friend. But now she was mother to the whole ship, and he cared for her.

He couldn’t not. They all had to care for each other these days.

That was all any of them had.

He thought she might be offended. But her face softened, and she reached for his hand. “I won’t tell you there’s nothing wrong, Lock,” she said softly—and in her words he heard the woman she had been before she had become so much more than herself. “But we’ll do what we must. This won’t kill us. Something else might, but it will not be this.”

He gazed down at her hand in his, and thought of how different she was from Ixchel—Ixchel, who had appeared to enjoy living up to Lochlan’s term for her. Mad old bat. Nkiruka carried a sadness about her that Ixchel had covered with the years she had been given. Nkiruka was young, and she kept it so close to her skin. Raw and painful.

Ixchel had lost Adisa long ago. But it had been barely three months since Nkiruka had given up her future with Satya. With the woman she had intended to make her wife.

“Thank you,” he said again, in a whisper.

She gave his hand a squeeze and released him, turning to Adam—whose attention seemed lost in the dancing fire. “Go with your love,” she murmured. “Walk away from death for a time. It’ll be waiting for you when you’re ready to return.”

Adam looked up at her and his brow furrowed. Then he got unsteadily to his feet. Lochlan rose and laid a hand on his shoulder—more like a comrade than a lover. There was no way to be sure what Adam would need. Lochlan could assume nothing.

Adam took a breath, and when he met Lochlan’s eyes, he was more there. He managed a smile—it was tiny and pained, but it was something.

“I’m all right,” he said. “Really.”

“Okay.” Lochlan grazed his fingers across Adam’s cheekbone—his one concession to his own need for physical contact—and turned to leave the clearing. He felt Adam close behind him.

He also felt Nkiruka’s blind gaze on them, gentle, like a warm hand on their backs.

*  *  *

They were nearly out of the halls when Adam collapsed.

Lochlan knew it was coming a split second before it happened—saw the wobble, the beginnings of a stumble—and was already moving to catch him, but Adam stopped his fall with a hand on a trunk and leaned there for a moment, sucking in huge breaths. Lochlan stared at him, briefly and horribly helpless, and saw that Adam was shaking, trembling all over, like a man in the grip of deep cold.

“Adam . . .” Lochlan went to him and touched him, laid a hand between his shoulder blades, and Adam stiffened, shuddered harder, as if to pull away. Then Adam twisted—a single violent movement—and fell against him, groping for him, and Lochlan realized the shaking was caused by sobs.

It was beyond second nature to curl his arms around his husband, to cup the back of his head and gently press Adam’s face to the hollow of his throat. Adam went loose in his arms, beginning to slide, and Lochlan took them both awkwardly to the ground, cradling Adam in his lap.

He had held Adam like this once before. On the Plain, with the battle raging all around them, with death like a storm and them the eye. Then, he had been certain they were both as good as dead, and when he held Adam close, he had believed they would die together.

This wasn’t like that.

This was somehow worse.

“I felt them,” Adam whispered. His voice was surprisingly steady, given how hard he was still trembling. “I felt them die. I was with them. Nkiruka was . . . She was deeper. But she’s stronger. I wasn’t ready. Lock, I wasn’t ready.”

“You can’t be ready for that, chusile.” Lochlan combed his fingers through Adam’s hair—which was damp with sweat. Adam was hot, burning like fever. Like a star. “There’s no way to ever be ready for that.”

“No, you don’t understand.” Adam pulled away and gazed up at him with wild eyes, brilliant, mismatched blue and green. “I have to be. I have to be ready. I don’t have the luxury of not being ready.”

“Adam . . .” But Lochlan was at a loss, and Adam gave him no chance to answer. He laid his head back down on Lochlan’s chest, though his eyes remained open. Open and staring at nothing.

Or at everything.

“This is only the beginning.” His voice was calm again, but there was a terrible relentlessness in it, and it sent a finger of ice running down Lochlan’s spine. “Three months ago . . . Peris . . . She was right. That was nothing. This is nothing. It’s going to get so much worse before the end.”

It was difficult to tell if this was fear or prophecy. Before she died, Lakshmi had referred to Adam as a prophet, but it had been unclear whether she’d meant a guide or someone literally capable of foretelling the future. Lochlan didn’t think the latter was likely—Adam might be extraordinary, but he wasn’t an Aalim. This didn’t have the feeling of genuine foresight; there was no real certainty in Adam’s voice.

Merely terror.

In any case, it was a good guess. Lochlan didn’t honestly expect things to get better. Not for a while.

“If it does, we’ll stand together. We always have. You’ve seen that we can.”

Adam nodded. “But there’s— We should have had some idea. Nkiru and me.” He curled a hand into the front of Lochlan’s shirt and gripped until his knuckles were white.

Here it comes, Lochlan thought.

“We were there. We should have seen it coming. We should have seen it.”

“You’re not gods, chusile. Even Ixchel never saw everything clearly. She—”

“I know that.” Adam actually gave Lochlan a little shake. “But we were close. We should at least have known a few minutes ahead of time. Enough to warn everyone. We should have felt it coming, and we didn’t.”

Lochlan didn’t answer immediately. He simply held Adam close. He had always been gripped by a desire to repair what was broken. With Adam, he was beginning to learn that sometimes all he could do was simply be there—be there while the storm raged, and be there for the calm in its passing.

So for a time they were both silent, and the Halls whispered around them.

At last Adam stirred and pulled back, swiping at his face in an oddly childish gesture. He might still be in the grip of what had happened, and Lochlan was sure there would be nightmares, but he resembled himself again. Weary, grieving, but himself.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, and Lochlan shook his head.

“Cut that out.”

“No, I . . .” Adam took a hard breath. “I can’t lose control like that. Wrong place, wrong time . . . It would be dangerous.”

Lochlan arched a brow. This was new. “Dangerous how?”

“I’m not sure yet. Just . . . dangerous.” He looked away, off into the shadows, up into the branches, back the way they had come. “Something’s happening, Lock. I don’t know exactly what. Not yet. There’s a lot that isn’t clear. But something’s happening to me. Something that started on the Plain. Before, it wasn’t moving fast enough for me to notice, but now . . .”

Now. Lochlan had sensed it. He hadn’t wanted to, had hidden it from himself, but he had. “It’s moving faster.”

Adam nodded. “Faster every day. I don’t know where it’s going to end. I have no idea. And there’s more.” He swung his gaze back to Lochlan, and Lochlan almost shied away. Adam might look like himself, but there was something about his eyes.

Still that bright blue and green. But there was something even brighter behind them. Something burning like a young sun, and then he realized that was exactly it; there was a star inside Adam, many stars, so distant they were barely visible but approaching.

Approaching rapidly.

My God.

“What is it?” he breathed, and he was uncertain what he was asking about.

“It’s how we missed it,” Adam said. “How we didn’t see the attack coming until it came. Lock, I don’t think that was just a fuckup on our parts. I don’t think it was just us being human.”

He sat back in the packed dirt and moss, his hands clasped in his lap, and then he lifted his head and gazed up at the stars shining through the interwoven branches. “Something was blocking us,” he said softly—coldly. “Somehow. Someone pulled a curtain over our eyes, and they did it without us even noticing.”

He paused a moment, and Lochlan let it sink in, the idea of it and every implication that came with it. Yet more to fear. All unknowns, all speculation, and there wasn’t any reason to assume Adam was right . . .

But he was. Of course he was.

“Something didn’t want us to know.” Adam blinked, and just for an instant Lochlan would have sworn his eyes were literally glowing, burning with that awful internal starlight. “Someone. Someone found a way to stop us.”

Adam stared down at him. Yes, his eyes were glowing. God help him, they were.

“Which means that whoever they are, they have the power of an Aalim.”

 

Chapter Two

Isaac Sinder flung the pad on the desk—the report still scrolling by in a stream of text—and turned away toward the window and the streaked white of slipstream beyond. Everything had gone off without a hitch. He should be pleased.

He wasn’t.

The truth was that he wasn’t pleased very often these days, not in himself. Once he had taken pleasure in his every success, every job well done; it made sense to do so. If one couldn’t take pleasure in the proper execution of one’s responsibilities, what was there to take pleasure in at all? At least for him. But his feelings were inconsequential; the glorification of the Terran Protectorate was its own reward. Its ideals, its philosophies and truths—things that, more and more, he had elevated to something akin to holiness, which he knew made the people around him a little uneasy.

Well, if they didn’t share his feelings, that was their concern. In the meantime, he would do what he must. He had watched the people around him closely, and he was beginning to wonder whether any of them truly grasped what was at stake. What the Protectorate had already suffered.

Peris. The defeat at Peris. The indignity of Peris, the utter insult of it. The abomination. It hadn’t been as foolish or as costly as the massacre on the Bideshi planet, but in its way worse. The massacre had been a mistake on both sides: Melissa Cosaire and her hapless forces had attacked, the Bideshi had stood and defended, and the result had been like something from ancient Terran history, from the time when two armies would meet in a valley and simply hurl themselves together until one of them had outkilled the other and was declared the winner.

On Peris they had been outstrategized. The Bideshi—and their own defective people who refused to be dead—had taken them on in inferior numbers with inferior firepower, and had bested them.

It should not have happened.

And it could not be borne.

Perhaps it would become necessary to wipe out the Bideshi in the end, whether or not in punishment for that insult. But in the meantime, the only true concern was Adam Yuga. The leader. The figurehead. The guiding star. Never mind the intelligence that indicated that the rebellion’s military leaders were Rachel Garroway and Bristol Aarons—a defective and a traitor, of all people, and the defective woman with no high status, no history of distinguished service to anyone or anything, nothing to indicate the command ability she had displayed. That she would possess that ability was nonsensical—so incredible, it turned his stomach. It was offensive. And then there were Kyle Waverly and Eva Reyes, defectives and traitors to both the Protectorate’s commercial and military arms. But the true leader would be the man who started everything. Adam would be the lifeblood. The heart.

There was a knock on the door. No chime—Sinder had disconnected it, finding its soft tone annoying. The truth was that he hadn’t been sleeping much—not that it was anyone’s business—and sudden sounds were more distracting than usual. Jarring.

Sometimes he couldn’t figure out what had made them.

“Come.”

The door slid silently open and in stepped a young ensign, features twisting with discomfort—a familiar sight since they had taken their new passenger aboard. Sinder hadn’t been on the battle cruiser Relentless for over a week, but its crew’s discomfort was obvious to him.

He couldn’t have cared any less.

“Sir?” The ensign shuffled her feet, and though the room was dim—there was essentially no illumination but for the white light through the window—Sinder could detect a flush in her brown face.

He was unimpressed. The propensity to be that intimidated should have been both bred and trained out of her. He hadn’t even said anything yet.

And he still didn’t. He merely nodded, indicating that she should continue.

She did, evidently finding her spine. “Sorry to disturb you, sir, but our . . . guest is asking for you.”

Sinder arched a brow, though he had been expecting this. Had in fact been waiting for it. This was the only report he truly cared about, the one that would decide a great deal, because it would give him a clearer picture than he yet had regarding what was possible.

“Very good. Tell him I’ll be down directly.”

“Sir.” The ensign hesitated for a few seconds, but when only silence greeted her, she turned and was gone without another word.

Sinder waited a while longer, staring at the point in space she no longer occupied. He wasn’t truly seeing it. He wasn’t truly seeing any of the room at all—the simple fixtures, the spare furnishings, the basics of an office without luxuries or hints of the personal. He was seeing the deal he had made and what it had perhaps cost him. Would still cost him. It was, he knew, a kind of blasphemy, but he was willing to do whatever was necessary to protect what made the Protectorate great. His faith was unshakable.

So what did this say about him?

What it said was just that. That he would fight. That he would do whatever was necessary.

That, when needs must, the devil himself would drive.

*  *  *

The cargo bay was also dim. Their guest preferred it that way.

Sinder stood in the doorway, waiting to be given leave to enter. He would have expected the same in his own quarters; again, this was about mutual respect. Regarding this man as his equal—very few people were. A decade ago, perhaps even less, he would have been shocked to see such behavior from himself. But things had changed.

“Mr. Sinder.” The voice that emerged from the low light was smooth, pleasant, and as Sinder’s eyes adjusted, he saw the man seated cross-legged on a wide, cushioned mat, though his face was still hidden in shadow. He held his body straight and appeared strong, his shoulders broad and his frame powerful—and that strength was no illusion. But this man was old beyond reckoning. Old, and he had doubtless forgotten more than anyone on this ship had ever known.

Including Sinder himself.

“Old Father,” Sinder said, inclining his head. Not quite a bow. As he stepped into the cargo bay and the seated man leaned forward, the hard, craggy lines of his face left the shadows and came into view. His short-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair. His unnaturally pale skin.

His white, sightless eyes.

“You should call me Julius, Sinder. I told you. I am no longer an Aalim, and the title no longer applies.”

It wasn’t a slip on Sinder’s part. He remembered what the man had said when they first met, when their first overtures were exchanged, when their first understandings were arrived at. That felt like a lifetime ago, though it was barely a month, and they had spent no significant time together until both of them had boarded the cruiser. Sinder had never once forgotten who he was dealing with—what this person had been, and what he no longer was.

Those would be foolish things to forget.

He didn’t want to allow Julius d’Bideshi to forget it either.

That surname would also have been abandoned. All ties to the Bideshi were cut when they cast one of their own out. The exiled were no longer one of the family; they no longer had any claim on anything that made them part of that family. But Sinder understood enough to keep him from truly believing that claim was gone, and if the Bideshi did, they were deceiving themselves.

You couldn’t change your blood.

“Julius,” he said, and the man lifted a hand and beckoned him closer.

He was clad simply in plain, loose-fitting pants and tunic of an off-white that, a little disturbingly, was close to the hue of his skin. He was otherwise unadorned except for his left wrist, where he wore a slender bracelet made from a leather thong and long, narrow beads of what appeared to be bone, carved with elaborate shapes and symbols. Anyone who looked at it would almost certainly assume that it was animal bone.

Sinder was prepared to make no such assumption.

“Things appear to have gone well,” he said, approaching Julius but stopping a few feet away. “Reports have come in. The damage was mostly confined to their raiding party; the other ships were out of range. But they took heavy losses.”

Julius nodded, sitting back and resting his hands on his knees. They were disconcertingly smooth, nearly unmarked—the hands of a much younger man. “I already know it. Though I appreciate you coming to deliver the news in person.”

“You asked for me.”

“I did. I also wish to deliver news in person.” Julius gestured to a cushion across from him. “Please. Sit.”

Smoothly, Sinder did so.

“You are aware, then, that I successfully concealed the presence of the extra firepower you ordered installed.”

Sinder nodded; in fact he was aware of nothing of the kind, but he was prepared to suppose it was very possible. Again, another in his situation would have reacted differently—they would have scoffed, declared such a thing impossible. Bideshi magic was all tricks, illusions, sleight of hand. Everyone knew that.

Except Sinder no longer trusted what anyone knew.

“There was no great difficulty. They went in under the assumption that nothing had changed since their scouting run. That was their arrogance. It required nothing on my part. The bad news is that they’re not fools. They wouldn’t be, surviving as long as they have. And with Adisa helming Ashwina, as I’m certain he is . . .”

Sinder nodded. “They won’t make that mistake again.”

“Indeed. The good news is that my supposition was correct. My powers can extend that far. Obviously you already know that, but what you don’t know is what’s possible under those circumstances. Which is . . .” Julius shrugged. He didn’t appear disappointed. Indeed, he looked distinctly self-satisfied. “Not a great deal. I can essentially do what I did—nudge a few sensor readings in the wrong direction, cloud a few minds for just a few seconds. It was enough. But at that distance you should expect no more, and possibly less. Depending.”

Sinder cocked his head. None of this was particularly surprising, but it was interesting. “And if you were closer?”

Julius smiled, wide with hints of teeth. “Aha. That’s the best news.”

Sinder returned the smile, albeit in less than a fraction of its width. “How good is ‘best’?”

“I can’t be sure without making a proper test. But given our . . . resources, I suspect my power might be quite effective indeed. Highly destructive. Highly persuasive. I believe I could potentially exert an extreme degree of control over . . . Well.” He laughed, short and soft. “Everything.”

Sinder made a quiet, thoughtful noise and folded his fingers in front of his mouth for a moment, closing his eyes. Julius could be exaggerating his own abilities—to himself as much as to Sinder. He would have reason to do so. Exile could generate anger, resentment, a thirst for revenge—and it could also mean shame. The man might have good cause to tell himself he was better than he was.

But Sinder didn’t think so.

“I want a test.”

Julius inclined his head as if he were a monarch bestowing a great favor. “Name the target.”

The defectives—Sinder refused to consider them rebels, a term that to him denoted a species of nobility—were long gone, and would now be in hiding. But there were any number of backwater planets, colonies, stations that could be utterly obliterated, with few people missing them. It would be an easy task. It wouldn’t even take them far out of their way, most likely.

But.

“There’s a planet which has been proving . . . troublesome,” Sinder said slowly. “Specifically a group of insurgents has been making themselves a nuisance. Radicals, calling for the purification of their world.” He spoke this last with sharp scorn; it was a perverse use of the term, but he wouldn’t expect anything else. “There aren’t many of them, but they’ve been doing a fair amount of damage at some mining facilities, and thus far they’ve eluded capture or destruction. It would be advantageous on a number of levels if we could eliminate them.”

“What is the planet?”

“Koticki,” Sinder said, and waited for Julius to respond.

He did, with a slight widening of the eyes. “That’s one of your more prominent holdings. Are you certain a direct strike there would be advisable? To be perfectly frank, I know I could command considerable power at close range, but what kind of control I would be able to maintain over it . . . Let’s just say we might be dealing with a sniper rifle or we might have a plasma cannon, and I won’t know for certain until the moment of truth.”

Sinder waved a dismissive hand. “Koticki is somewhat significant as a source of natural resources and minor manual labor. It has no value beyond that. Its inhabitants are primitive. We’ve been dangling the possibility of full Protectorate membership over their heads for a while now, but only to keep their government easy to handle. If it’s collateral damage you’re worried about . . .”

“And the potential harm to your standing if it should go badly wrong?”

Sinder smiled thinly. The man would think in political terms. Sinder wouldn’t want it any other way. “My standing is secure. I’ve done a great deal since Peris to make it so. With you as an asset, it would be unshakable. I just want to know exactly what manner of asset I have.” His smile grew a touch. “I’m sure you do as well.”

Julius was quiet a moment, his head lowered. Sinder could practically feel him thinking, a soft humming in the air. It might not even be his imagination. Things like that—sensations that seemed to drift to him from nowhere—were more and more vivid these days.

“Set a course,” Sinder said at last. “At your convenience. Let me know when you’re ready to brief me, and we can go into final consultations. In the meantime, I would like to remain undisturbed. I must meditate. What I did was not untaxing, and I have strength to recover.”

Sinder nodded and rose. “I thank you, Julius. Clearly this is a mutually beneficial arrangement, but it’s also— Honestly, it’s a pleasure to watch a skilled man at work.”

“You haven’t seen me at work,” Julius replied quietly. “Not yet. My friend, you will.”

“I have no doubt of it.” He turned to go, but as he reached the bay doors, Julius called his name, and he looked back.

“Yes?”

“Send down some food, if you would. Something simple. Oh, and.” Julius glanced over his shoulder at the far corner of the cargo bay. Sinder had been trying to avert his gaze from what was there; he wasn’t squeamish, not especially, but this was still distasteful.

Albeit fascinating.

“I’m finished with it,” Julius said. “Have it removed.”

 

Chapter Three

“It’s shit.”

Eva felt Kyle’s hands on her waist, but he didn’t try to turn her from where she leaned against the railing of the long gallery that circled the great central chamber of Ashwina. He didn’t try to pull her closer. He merely stood there, making his presence known, and she was grateful for that.

Grateful beneath the pain.

“We knew things like this were going to happen,” he said quietly. “They have happened. We saw them. Together.”

She hesitated a moment, her eyes closed, then gave him a weary nod. He was right. More than right. There was a way of striking at the truths that hurt badly, that cut. He was calling up memories that twisted at her, memories that sometimes sent her tumbling into thick, roaring nightmares. Bodies strewn across the gray, dusty ground. The injured crying out for help, for water. People missing limbs. People burned. People cradling slaughtered lovers, parents, children, comrades. Protectorate and Bideshi in equal measure. Seeing it and trying to face her part in it, however small. The blood in the dust had also been on her hands. None of the Protectorate present there had been blameless.

Ironic that such a slaughter had taken place on a planet named the Plain of Heaven. The Bideshi didn’t think that way; they knew it for what it had been to them, for what it still must be even after all the blood spilled into its dust. Sometimes she wondered how Kyle stood it. How Aarons did. But she didn’t know how to ask them.

“I thought.” Her hands tightened on the railing. “I thought maybe that wouldn’t have to happen again.”

“No, you didn’t. At least, not all of you did.” Kyle lifted his hands from her waist and smoothed them through her hair, pulling it away from her face. It was getting long. Leila had taken to braiding it for her, plaiting it into complex and lovely patterns, occasionally weaving beads into its strands. “You’re not a fool. You wouldn’t be here if you were.”

In spite of herself, Eva smiled. Maybe she should have been annoyed with him, and at another time maybe she would have been, but his voice was gentle and so were his hands, and in any case he was right. As right as she had been.

“I wanted to believe, then.”

“So did I.”

She hesitated before closing a hand around his wrist, tugging her to him. He folded his arms around her and pulled her close, then kissed the back of her neck. One hand slid down to her belly and rested over the slight swell. Barely noticeable, still. But there. She rested a hand over his and leaned back against him.

“I wanted to believe because of this,” she said softly. “And instead I walked into the middle of a war. How’s that for foolish?”

“You did what you thought you had to do.” He kissed the side of her neck. “I love you for that. It was one of the first things I loved about you.”

“And now I can’t pull out of it.”

“You could. We both could.” He held her a little tighter. “If you wanted. Are you thinking about it?”

“Maybe.” But she hadn’t been. Not until that moment. Even through the horror, the fear, the understanding that what they had seen the day before was probably the first taste of much more to come, she hadn’t considered leaving. “But I . . . How can we just pick up and run like that? What kind of message would that be sending?”

“That you’re sane? That you understand how sometimes priorities change? You think anyone would blame you for that?”

Eva shook her head. “There are children on this ship, Kyle.”

“And after we make the next rendezvous with the convoy, there won’t be.”

She fell silent again. Again, he was right. That was the end result of a long and excruciating ship-wide conversation, its timetable accelerated by what had happened to the raiding party. A Bideshi defensive ship always carried families, but the situation had changed, and if anyone had doubted it before, those doubts had been blown out of the sky.

So to speak.

Jakana and Suzaku were still flying, awkwardly absorbed into another convoy until a more permanent solution could be found. Bideshi families were often spread out among the three ships in any given convoy; there would be homes on both Suzaku and Jakana to receive every one of the children on Ashwina. Those who had no families on either ship would find families more than willing to take them in.

They would do what they must. All of them.

“Do you want us to leave?” She asked the question softly, though she knew he would hear her.

When they met with the convoy, she and he could go with the others. The children, the older men and women, those who—for one reason or another—had made the decision not to fight any longer. They could look for a life elsewhere.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “I’m sorry. I just don’t know.”

“Do you think they would understand? Adam and Lock? Rachel? Aarons? All of them? Would they blame us?”

“Of course not.” But he didn’t sound entirely convinced, and she didn’t feel any more certain. Her stomach twisted, and she sighed and was silent.

If she left, if they ran, it would feel like cowardice.

Even if it wasn’t.

“We stay.” She gave his hand a soft squeeze. She knew he wouldn’t argue. She also knew he wouldn’t simply go along with her. They were of one mind, and they had been since the beginning. At the Battle of the Plain, Kyle had gone to the surface of the planet to do what he could do. To help Adam. To help his friend. It had been the next thing to suicide, but he had gone and she had gone with him. It hadn’t been that difficult a decision.

It had been the right choice.

“I know.” He spread his palm across her belly, and she thought of the tiny life growing there, a warm little star getting brighter and hotter every second. “Because of this. Because . . .” He took a long breath. “A galaxy where this just happens and we don’t do whatever we can to stop it?”

“Isn’t one where I want our child to live.” She nodded. Someone else might think giving birth in the middle of this kind of fight was irresponsible. Even cruel.

That was their business.

“So what now?”

Eva made a confused little mm? and opened her eyes. “Now . . . I don’t know. We have a briefing in about eight hours, and I guess after that we’ll have to see what we—”

“I don’t mean that. Not the briefing, not after. What do we do now?”

“Oh.”

She tipped her head to one side and looked up at the enormous hall’s transparent ceiling. The sky was white streaks as Ashwina plunged through slipstream. Before all of this, she would never have thought she would be risking her own life to help Bideshi. Now she was making a home on one of their ships, and while she didn’t think she would ever feel like one of them—and she was almost certain the place would never truly feel like a home . . .

It was something. It was beautiful, in its way. If she was going to give birth, going to bring new life into the universe and try to help it grow, maybe she could do worse than Ashwina.

She turned in his arms and kissed his jaw. “I’m tired. We have some time. Let’s just . . . go to bed.”

He nodded and laid his hands on either side of her face and tilted her head up to his. His hands were large, strong, but there was also something elegant about them—long, graceful fingers. He could be so gentle. When she needed him to be.

“We’ll come through this,” he said, and pressed his lips against her brow. “We have before. All of us. Or . . .” He looked down at her again, and his mouth twisted into a sad smile. “Obviously not all of us. But we will. One way or the other.”

“One way or the other,” she echoed, and he took her hand and led her to the lift that would take them to the level where their quarters waited.

And then there was love, slow and just as gentle as his hands, and afterward he fell asleep against her, his hand between her breasts, close to her heart. But Eva lay awake for a long time, gazing up at the shadows on the ceiling, and wondering.

Could you ever know a choice was the right one?

from Publishers Weekly

[T]riumphant.