Sword and Star (Root Code, #3)
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.
"In this triumphant conclusion to the Root Code trilogy, Moraine brings all the threads of their romantic space opera together." –Publishers Weekly
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Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:drug use, explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: angst, commitment, history, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, mental illness, mysticism, politics / power struggle, PTSD, romantic elements, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, the power of stories, trust issues
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.
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, 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. Each one. You have to deal with the idea when you go to war.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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