Fall and Rising (Root Code, #2)
Adam Yuga is on the run. Three months ago, a miracle saved him from the deadly genetic illness that threatens the entire population of his former home, the Protectorate. Now he and his lover Lochlan are searching for a way to heal his people. When they receive a mysterious coded message promising hope, they make a desperate grab for it, and are imprisoned—by the very race they want to save.
On Lochlan’s distant homeship, a young pilot named Nkiruka faces an agonizing choice: stay with her lover Satya and live a life of happy obscurity, or become the spiritual leader—and the last and only hope—for the Bideshi. Nkiruka doesn’t want to lose Satya, but worse, she fears she lacks the strength to carry anyone through the coming storm, let alone her entire people.
Threads of chance and destiny draw the three together. With the fates of civilizations in their hands, they prepare for a final conflict that might be their only chance for survival—or that might destroy them all.
Fall and Rising is part of the Root Code series, but can be read as a standalone.
"Moraine skillfully weaves action, romance, and adventure into a page-turning drama." –Publishers Weekly
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Themes: angst, coming of age, commitment, disability / disfigurement, enemies to lovers, homophobia / transphobia, illness / injury, military, mysticism, politics / power struggle, romantic elements, self-discovery / self-reflection, slave / capture (actual), trust issues
(in medias res)
When Rachel saw they also had Becca and Dion, she began to scream.
It raked her throat, burned high in her chest. But the pain, the fear, the horror—they didn’t quite touch her. Deep down she was numb. Even resigned. Hadn’t there been whispers? About people who’d disappeared? People who hadn’t seemed quite right, who hadn’t seemed themselves. Sick? No, no one on Terra got sick. Long before birth, illness was rendered impossible, the potential for it engineered out of existence. That was where their great civilization had started: with sickness—with its erasure. It was the foundation of who her people were. The endless quest for physical perfection was a tree sprouted from this single seed: people who didn’t get sick.
But her hands had been shaking for weeks now, and she was so often tired. Part of her had known something was wrong, even as the rest of her denied it. Denied there was any truth to the rumors. Of course she wouldn’t vanish. They would never come for her.
She had been so wrong. And now they had her children.
She rose from her bench in the transport shuttle and tried to shove her way past the peacekeepers, ignoring their guns. Trampling everything to get to her children—following an instinct deeper and more profound than any genetic cultivation. Yet if she touched them, she would be sure they were here with her, and she had known the instant she saw them what that meant.
It meant that she and they might share this weakness. This sickness. Rachel might see them shake and fall, which would be worse than seeing her whole world do the same.
She was barely two feet from them when the peacekeepers knocked her to the floor with the butts of their guns. Their faces were covered by the white standard-issue helmets with their reflective blast shields, so she couldn’t see if they felt any pity. If they might show any mercy. Her little boy and girl were crying, clinging and crying, her little boy and her little girl, and clinging to each other as another peacekeeper herded them forward—more gently, and she felt the tiniest sliver of icy relief. They might hurt her, but surely they wouldn’t hurt children.
Rachel wanted to believe that.
She pushed herself up to her knees. “Not them. Please, not them. Look at them, they’re fine, they’re—”
One of the peacekeepers raised their gun as if they meant to strike her again. “Get back in there. Do it. Don’t make this a problem and none of you have to get hurt.”
None of you. It echoed in her mind, heavy and cold. So there was her answer.
They were willing to hurt children. Children. To maintain the carefully engineered, carefully perfected paradise that had birthed that next generation.
People didn’t get sick on Terra. No.
“Where are we going?” Her sweet girl, oh, there were no words for how cruel this was. She would have traded never seeing them again to avoid this. “Mama?”
They hadn’t even been allowed to pack anything, she realized. Somehow that was the worst part of this. They had their coats on but nothing else. None of their toys, no extra clothes, no pad for books or games. They had only each other, hand in hand. If they were going to be traveling, why wouldn’t they have . . .?
She couldn’t. She couldn’t bear that.
The children moved forward, whimpering, and she opened her arms. It was all she could do. Everything was blurry, but she felt them come to her, pulled them both against her, felt their heaving breaths as they tried not to sob. Young but old enough to grasp the concept of stoicism. She was so proud of them. Now perhaps more than ever. Proud of them for simply being alive.
“All right, let’s get in the air. They’re not gonna hang around in orbit for that much longer.”
Two of the peacekeepers slid onto the benches opposite each other. Their heads were bent together, and they were talking, tones low and casual, as if she and her children weren’t there at all. The hatch hissed closed, and the engines rumbled as they fired, the shuttle jolting softly as it began to rise. She raised her head and blinked away her tears, holding on to those two small, trembling bodies—and thinking terrible things.
“You don’t have to do this,” she whispered—knowing it was pointless. “They’re just kids, you don’t have to . . . They’re not even sick.”
She was sure they weren’t going to answer her, but one leaned forward, elbows on his knees.
“You know that doesn’t matter. They’re yours. They share your code, so they’re as broken as you are. They should never have happened at all. Even if they don’t seem sick now, they will. You’re not an idiot, don’t act like one.” He sat back and turned his head, appearing to shoot his companion a glance before he directed his attention to her once more. “Maybe you’re genetically degenerate, but you can at least have some dignity.”
Small portholes were set into the shuttle’s sides. As they ascended from the hangar, the light of a beautiful, crisp winter day flooded in, and sunlight gleamed off slender, graceful towers of crystal as they passed them. Left them behind. All those people, some aware of what was happening—and many more not. Many of them with no idea at all. No idea how many things were shaking—not just hands and not just bodies. Foundations.
They didn’t conceive of the idea of an ultimate fall.
It’ll tumble down. She lowered her head and squeezed her eyes closed as the blue sky began to darken. They were leaving all that beauty behind, that perfection, and now she understood—or was beginning to understand—that it was all a lie. A lie that, if there really were more like her, probably couldn’t be sustained forever. It’ll tumble down and never rise again.
And maybe, if this was what it did to children, to the foundation on which the future was built . . .
Maybe that was what had to be.
Part One: Descent
The Plain of Heaven was a carpet of bodies.
Adam twitched where he lay in the dust, spasmed—not in pain but in shock, in an ecstasy of terror. He could see them stretched out in all directions, splayed and torn and bloody, staring eyes and faces twisted in agony. Protectorate and Bideshi. Young men and women and elders and little children. All dead.
All because of him.
He shuddered but couldn’t turn away; they were everywhere he would turn.
There should have been screams, shots, metal on metal: the last echoes of the battle. And there should have been someone holding him—Lochlan’s arms warm and strong around him. The pillars of the stone circle rose over his head—the circle where he had been led, the circle that had the power to cure the sickness in him at last. He knew this place so well by now. He knew what had happened here, what must happen.
But Lochlan was not with him.
He pushed himself up on shaking hands and scanned his surroundings, at once seeing and not seeing the desolation. He didn’t want to see it, but he had to see it, because it was for him, all for him, a war which, if he hadn’t caused it, he had coaxed to a fevered, lethal pitch. Blood that he had spilled, even if he hadn’t taken up a weapon of his own in the end.
He wanted to cry the name, but he didn’t. He couldn’t. It was lodged in his throat, choking him. He scrambled onto his hands and knees—and then he did see. What he had known he would see, and from which he had been trying to hide, because some truths were death to face.
Lochlan’s body, lying broken and bloody at the edge of the circle, a gash in his throat nearly severing his head from his neck, his eyes wide and bulging and bloodshot. His dreadlocks were matted with congealed gore. He stared up at the sky, at nothing.
“Dead” was not a strong enough word. “Dead” didn’t capture the finality, the violent end of everything. “Dead” didn’t capture the agony, the void opening up inside him as he let the reality of Lochlan d’Bideshi’s corpse crash over him in a poisonous wave.
His knees and elbows buckled under him, and he fell back into the dust, screaming and screaming. His mouth was full of the dust of the Plain of Heaven, the dust of Takamagahara, and it tasted like ashes.
Hands shaking him, strong and firm and very familiar. Adam stirred, twisted—his legs were tangled in something, held down. He let out a moan and tried to free himself. His tongue tasted of dust, gritty between his teeth. He could still see . . .
Lochlan bending over him. A hand stroking through his hair. Adam dragged in a long breath and stilled.
“Chere, that was a dream and a half. Don’t scream like that; you’ll send me into an early grave.”
“Don’t say that.” Adam shoved himself up and buried his head in his hands, the sheets pooling around his waist. It was too much. Part of him felt relief so deep it was almost painful. And part of him was still only terrified. “Just . . . don’t.”
Lochlan was quiet for a moment, hand on Adam’s bare shoulder. Not caressing, not moving, but there, and Adam slowly pressed back against it, releasing himself into the touch. Behind his hands it was dark, and he could hear Volya humming around them, Lochlan’s beloved, alive in her own way, and the life behind Lochlan’s breathing. He was here. The Plain was far away now.
But it had been real. All that death.
“You were having that dream again, weren’t you.” It wasn’t a question, and Adam didn’t feel the need to confirm it. Lochlan wasn’t oblivious, and in the weeks since they had left Ashwina, their knowledge of each other had deepened in ways Adam’d never expected. He knew the rhythm of Lochlan’s heartbeat now, his breathing, the ways he moved as he slept, the ways he liked to be touched, what it took to make him smile.
And Adam was known in the same way. Sometimes it almost frightened him, because no one had ever known him like this. It had been too dangerous in his old world to share such intimacy with a man. That intimacy was dangerous even now in other ways. It gave him so much more to lose. Just the memory of Lochlan, broken and bloody in his dream . . . That wasn’t how it had gone. Lochlan hadn’t died in that battle. Lochlan was here. The sickness that had sent Adam to the Plain to be healed by power he couldn’t hope to understand, power that had changed him in ways he was still discovering . . . It was gone. They were both well.
But the dreams persisted. Because how things had ended didn’t erase how they had arrived there.
Lochlan sighed and leaned his cheek where his hand had been, pressing a kiss to the angle of Adam’s shoulder blade. “I wish you’d tell me about it.”
“I can’t,” Adam whispered. He had tried. But it had been like there was a block in his throat, like his body itself was keeping it all back, as if saying it aloud would invoke it in some way and make it true. The horror of the Plain, what had happened there . . . and the guilt that lay behind the dreams. Because if it weren’t for him, none of those people would have died. Or if he didn’t fully believe that—or didn’t believe it could be so simple—he couldn’t escape the idea. It lay on him, heavy.
“Dreams mean things. I don’t mean to make it into more than it is, but you could . . . Maybe I could help. What happened to you back there—I don’t completely understand it but that doesn’t mean I know nothing about it.” Adam felt Lochlan smile against his skin, though it seemed faint, and knew without looking that there would be a sardonic edge in it. “I know you Protectorate raya all think this star-reading and dream-seeing is obscene superstition and everything, but given that it did actually save your life . . .”
Adam shook his head, but he did find it in him to laugh. “Stop. I’m . . .” He took a breath. Even now, Lochlan teased—especially now, when he thought it might ease things. “It’s just that so many people died,” he murmured. “Your people. My people. Even Cosaire. ‘Missy,’ I think Aarons called her. Melissa, you know? I don’t know why that one sticks with me at all, but—”
“You didn’t put the bullet in her head,” Lochlan said quietly. “He did. And it was a mercy killing. She was sick. You know that too. And in case you’ve forgotten, she hunted you halfway across the galaxy and back. She would have killed you if she could.”
“Yeah. I do know it.” He swallowed. And she killed those people to get to me. Because I was everything she hated. Everything she feared.
“You survived. We survived. That’s what matters.”
Lochlan kissed him once more, moving up along the ridge of his shoulder, and Adam let his head drop back and exhaled. Lochlan’s hands could, at times, be a wonderful distraction, and his mouth doubly so. “You should try to sleep again, chusile.” Adam felt him smile again. “Maybe I can help you.”
He didn’t give Adam time to respond, and Adam wouldn’t have needed to anyway. Lochlan’s hand was already sliding down between Adam’s thighs, his other hand pulling him back onto the bed, and Adam’s sigh turned into a low moan as he gave over. This was real too. He could lose himself in this warm sweetness. He had permission. When Lochlan’s hot mouth closed around him, he clutched at the dreadlocks spread over his belly and hips and held on as he shuddered in slow waves of pleasure.
This much remained easy.
Lochlan was dozing once more, but Adam still couldn’t sleep. He lay on his back and stared up at the dimness of Volya’s ceiling, lips moving slightly as he ran through recent events. Like counting sheep, maybe it would tire him out.
Or maybe it would just keep him awake.
At last he carefully disentangled himself from Lochlan, rose to his feet, and crept to the small alcove that served as the cockpit. There, he sank into the pilot’s seat and activated the messaging system in the comm; he hadn’t heard the ping of anything incoming, anyone responding to the feelers they had put out on some of the primary message bands. They had been forced to keep their queries vague—better to not attract more attention than necessary—but Adam had been hopeful.
Nothing. He sighed and scrubbed his hands down his face.
He was tired, tired in the kind of aimless way that came from prolonged periods of inactivity. Since leaving Ashwina in hopes of curing the rest of Adam’s people, they had spent weeks skirting the edges of Protectorate space, looking for an unobtrusive way in. Making it into that space had been the objective from the start; Lochlan, usually the impulsive one, had counseled both care and at least some degree of planning—to the extent that planning was possible. There was so much they didn’t know, couldn’t anticipate.
And there were things they did know. As far as they could tell from trading rumors on outlying stations, little in the Terran Protectorate itself had changed: Its authority on its tributary planets was seemingly solid and its monopoly on trade and governance appeared stable.
If anything, it had circled its wagons, bulking up border patrols, sending reinforcements to its colonized worlds. The sickness that had nearly killed Adam remained invisible.
There was no real news about that sickness, nothing beyond vague rumors. Nothing about any of the Protectorate Peacekeepers who had been present on Takamagahara for the Battle of the Plain. Nothing about Commander Marcus Kerry, Kyle Waverly, or Eva Reyes—once an enemy, a best friend, and a low-ranking Protectorate officer, a total unknown. Nothing about Detective Bristol Aarons, though as an investigator for the Protectorate Military Police, he would be used to keeping his head down. They all seemed to have simply disappeared. Maybe dead, maybe imprisoned, maybe in hiding or on the run. If they had decided to return openly, Adam didn’t imagine it would have been taken well, given their questionable loyalties, but he had hoped. He still hoped, if he and Lochlan could get across the border, they might learn more. Might be able to make contact with one of them—with more than one. And there were other potential contacts, if the contacts could be made safely; Adam knew others, people from his old life, though how many of them he could trust . . .
He didn’t know.
They had to get into the center so they could find out what was really happening. What plagued Adam more than dark dreams was that he couldn’t escape the intuition, deep and profound, that something was horribly wrong. He had set out to do this on an instinct and continuing to follow such an instinct was questionable at best—but something was leading him. His orbit was swinging wide, away from where he had come, and he had to follow it. He had to wait.
But he and Lochlan were being hunted.
He pulled up a few of the general public-band newsfeeds. Not much there either. A fleet of garbage scows outbound from Inarihad had been seized and searched and an enormous shipment of the powerful narcotic snake had been discovered. Thanks to additional terrorist attacks on Koticki, their shipments of minerals and heavy metals were down.
And there, in the list of criminals wanted by the Protectorate, right under a pair of fugitives named Theseus and Taur, were his and Lochlan’s images. His drawn from his official dossier, Lochlan’s blurrier—a man in motion. It must have been taken from the surveillance cameras the day Adam had been caught stealing credits and Lochlan had scooped him out of Protectorate hands. Saved his life.
There was a high reward offered for delivery of them both alive. But more for Adam. Lochlan was clearly a bonus.
He sat back and exhaled heavily. Not news. But seeing it still made his skin crawl. The Protectorate’s pursuit of him hadn’t ended with the death of Melissa Cosaire. She hadn’t been the only one who felt he knew too much. That what he knew could break open their efforts to hide what had almost killed him. It could crack foundations. Pull everything down.
Strange, to have people regard him as so powerful. Powerful enough to break apart the system of faith that underpinned an entire empire.
Adam glanced down at his hands. Once they had shaken with the disease eating up his nervous system, but now they were steady. Strong. Yet he didn’t feel strong, didn’t feel as though there was any particular power in them. They were the hands of one man. In this moment, the idea that he could break anything so massive and ancient apart seemed ridiculous.
But there was something he could do. He and Lochlan could turn away from this whole horrible mess, head out to the farthest reaches of human-explored space, and make a life together that didn’t involve the Protectorate at all. Or they could rejoin Ashwina, and the rest of Lochlan’s Bideshi convoy, Suzaku and Jakana. Go back to a place that was, somehow and strangely, a home to him. Back to the friends he’d left behind—friends he had never expected. Kae, Lochlan’s best friend, first to welcome Adam to Ashwina and the first there to be kind to him. Leila, his wife, brave and generous. Ying the healer, gentle and wise. They had all cared for him. He thought about them now and his heart clenched.
Running would be easy. But every time he thought of it, he saw Ixchel’s face in his mind. Ashwina’s Aalim, her wise woman, who had left her blood on the Plain and her spirit among the wandering stars and the ancient trees of Ashwina’s Arched Halls.
She didn’t look pleased with him.
After everything? After so many people died? For this? For you? For what you might become, for what you might make possible? You’d turn your back on their sacrifice? Child, I expected so much more from you.
It was as though she were right there with him now, her voice so clear, her blind eyes staring into and through him in the way she had always been able to. The mind that lay behind them, sharp as a jambia’s blade. She had never let him get away with anything, had pushed him to the limits of what he thought he could do, and had given him massive, fierce shoves past the bounds of his comfort zones. Like her ancient trees, she had cultivated him, helped him to grow.
And in the end she had been among the dead. His dead.
Adam sighed, closed his eyes, and turned his attention out into the night. He had no idea which were his stars anymore, the ones that Ixchel had shown to him—had no idea if they were even visible. But he liked the sensation of them pulling at him, rooting him into the fabric of the universe.
He hadn’t reached for that connection in a while. Maybe now it would help.
He focused on the stars, his hands loose in his lap, and let himself begin to drift.
The stars were pulling at him, was the thing. Not only his birth stars but all of them, knowing him like a son and beckoning him out of Volya’s patchwork metal skin. The spaces between them, which more ignorant people—which he, once—assumed were made up of empty space. There were things dancing in those spaces, strings and lines that extended into him and everything else, their vibrations weaving the tapestry of reality. They made up the roots of the universe, and as he reached out unseen hands and combed his fingers through them, his own roots sung in harmony with them. A sine wave, rising and falling and rising again.
He wasn’t alone. He would never be.
Ixchel was waiting in that crowded darkness. Unreal, but more real than he knew how to put into words. A dream, and yet not a dream at all.
Child, she said, taking his hand, and her face was at once as old as he remembered it and young, shockingly beautiful. You’re waiting for it to come to you because you’re afraid to go to it. But this is not what I taught you. For anything worth having, you have to be brave enough to chase it, and ready to give up everything. Ask your sweetheart sleeping behind you there. He’ll tell you what he was willing to give for you, in the end.
“I don’t know if I can do it,” he whispered, unsure if he was speaking aloud or merely thinking the words. “I don’t know if I can save these people. I’m just one man.”
No. You’re two men. And you may be more than that. You may be only the beginning of something else which will grow far beyond you. The universe is vast and very, very strange. Things have been set in motion the ends of which you can’t possibly hope to see. We all of us are building something that we will never see to completion. Our children and our children’s children must take up the work for us, and even they will never see it done. When we took the first trees from Terra and brought them into our homeships, do you think any of us thought we would see what they would become? Even the Arched Halls began as sprouts and saplings.
He frowned. “I don’t understand.”
Have you ever? She laughed, soft and musical, and it seemed as though the stars themselves laughed with her. You don’t need to understand, my love. Simply be ready. There is power in your blood. Power to take the hands of two warring brothers, two halves of the same human family, and unite them in the end. It was a gift to you. Many died for it. Don’t waste it.
The vision faded, as though he was being pushed out of the trance rather than coming out of it on his own. He sat, blinking, and looked at the time readout on the console, only faintly surprised to see that over an hour had passed.
And what had he gotten from it? What had he learned?
He was so tired.
He rose, stretching stiff muscles, and made his way back to bed. Lochlan was on his belly now, his tattooed arms under his head and the dim light making his brown skin appear darker and warmer than usual. Adam lowered himself down beside him and slung an arm around his waist, tangling their legs once more. He kissed the edge of Lochlan’s jaw and smiled at the soft, sleepy rumble he got in response.
He didn’t need to understand. Not right now. For the moment he was warm and safe. He closed his eyes again, and at last sleep took him.
Isaac Sinder was trying hard to not be resentful. But he wasn’t even meant to be here. He stood on the bright, polished bridge of the Excelsior, the lead patrol ship in this particular extension of the Protectorate’s will, looked over the heads of the bridge crew and out at the star-speckled black, and brooded.
He had been third in command of operations on the planet Melann, an export center for refined plastics and as such it wasn’t especially out of the way, but it wasn’t by any means central either. He had done well there, but he’d been itching to leave, so when he had been offered a government liaison role on one of the larger warships, he’d jumped at it.
A week later, and he was starting to second-guess himself. They hadn’t told him the work would be routine patrols in relatively empty space, with little to oversee—no direct, planned searches but merely regular, monotonous sweeps.
At least what they were searching for was interesting. Little was generally known about what had happened out there in that tiny nebula within which the Bideshi believed hung a central locus of ancient power—the rogue planet Takamagahara, the Plain of Heaven. Little was known about what Melissa Cosaire had done after she lost her mind. But people with access to privileged information knew that the name of Adam Yuga was mixed up in all of it. Even though he never should have been there at all, stricken by a disease that should have killed him—one of the core aspects of the man was apparently a stubborn refusal to die.
Adam wasn’t just a fallen star, once rising—formerly a promising young engineer with a head for big-picture problems and a probable future in the halls of power. He was someone who sought to undermine the very foundation of the society that had been so kind to him.
He would make the career of anyone who was fortunate enough—or dedicated enough—to find him.
“Captain,” Sinder said, clasping his hands behind his back and keeping his stance high and erect. No one at the command consoles turned to look at him, but that didn’t matter—one had to maintain appearances. “Nothing on the scanners?”
Captain Amanda Alkor grunted and shifted in her chair. “Not since the last time you asked. Sir,” she added—a little grudgingly, Sinder thought, narrowing his eyes. He knew well how peacekeeper officers tended to resent civilian overseers intruding into their commands, and he had come prepared for it, was ready to tolerate it even, but he was monitoring the situation closely in case it veered into something unacceptable. “Pretty sure we’ve covered this sector well enough. About time to move on, do you think?”
Sinder shook his head. “One more pass. By the book, Captain. We need to be systematic about these things. Do them right. Otherwise we might as well not do them at all.”
Alkor grunted again, clearly annoyed, and finally turned, her neat gray eyebrows lowered, appearing even more severe for the tight bun that held her equally gray hair fast at the back of her head. “One might argue,” she said, “that we’re wasting time here.”
Sinder regarded her placidly. “One might. That doesn’t mean it would be a good argument.”
Alkor rose and gestured to the door that led into the offices off the bridge. “Sinder, I’d like a word, if I may.”
For a moment, Sinder considered refusing her. He knew how it would appear to the others on the bridge: a disrespectful child called into a private lecture session by a stern adult. That wasn’t an attractive idea, not when backed by days of cold warfare, each of them trying to erode the other’s authority. He was tired of it. It was counterproductive.
But refusing would look worse: petulant, weak. He nodded, gracious in the face of someone who probably didn’t rate it.
“Of course, Captain.”
The offices were small, more cubicles than anything else, and were arrayed around a central conference room where briefings and the other daily administrative business of the ship was conducted. Now it was empty, though brightly lit with the screens set into the glossy tabletop, as if a meeting was imminent. Alkor ushered Sinder inside and closed the door quietly after them. Sinder faced her, loose and relaxed.
Let her make the first mistake.
“Let’s get one thing straight, Sinder,” she growled, all veneer of politeness gone now. “This is my command. I’ve put up with you for days, sauntering in here with your orders and your credentials and making a nuisance of yourself. If HQ says you have to be here, then I guess you have to be here. But if you want this to run smoothly, you back off and let me make the decisions on my own fucking ship. Is that understood?”
Sinder arched an eyebrow. Silence descended between them, and he let it play out until it felt uncomfortable. Then he cleared his throat softly.
“I understand, Captain.” Sinder paused again, his head cocked. He might not yet have risen to any significant heights in the Protectorate’s hierarchy, but he wouldn’t have gotten this far without the ability to deal with things like this. “Now you should understand something. Try, at least.” He leaned forward, bringing them about nose to nose.
“You have authority over your people, and I won’t interfere with that. I don’t especially want authority over you. I want you to do your job. If you do that, I don’t have to report back that you’re unfit to be doing anything but captaining a long-haul freighter on the outer edges. I don’t want to do that. I want to complete this mission, and then I want to go home.” He extended a hand and laid it against Alkor’s upper arm, and it might have been a friendly gesture but for the ice in the room. “Let’s work together, Captain. Not butt heads like a couple of stupid rutting goatworms.”
Alkor looked at him for a long moment, and he noted how cold-blue her eyes were, like eyes that had stared at a star so long that all the color had been bleached out of them. At last she released a breath and stepped past Sinder to a cabinet against one wall, opening it and pulling out a crystal decanter and two glasses.
With pleasure, Sinder identified it—by the reddish tint to the gold of the liquid—as aged Albaran brandy. Fine stuff. A peace offering? Probably not, but he wouldn’t reject it.
“I never wanted this mission,” Alkor said as she filled the glasses, her back to Sinder and her head down. “I was supposed to retire a week from now. I had a little place all picked out on the west coast of the southern continent on Yefan.” She turned back to Sinder, glasses in hand, and held one of them out, which he accepted with a nod of thanks. “You ever been to Yefan, Sinder?”
Sinder shook his head. He knew of the place, of course. A moon circling a small gas giant in one of the more out-of-the-way systems, it was nevertheless significant in how it teemed with an incredible variety of life forms. Half of it was given to nature preserves, and the rest of it was private land, owned by people who tended to value simplicity and quiet and therefore confined themselves to modest houses and cottages set on vast amounts of acreage. Some hunted, some did a little agriculture, and some did nothing much at all.
So now he knew more about what kind of woman she was. Interesting.
“The beaches there are beautiful,” Alkor went on, lifting her glass to her lips and taking a slow sip, savoring the richness of the liquor. “Almost untouched. Just these long strands of dark sand with the forests behind them. There are plains too, and in the north th